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BLACKTHORN: SPIRES OF MARS
The online serial novel
by I.A. Watson


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


5.     PITS OF THE DAMNED

     Tybald fell into icy water. The zombies that had fallen with him kept their grip on him, dragging him down. They did not need to breathe like their living victim did. The noble’s son kicked and struggled, trying to shake the dead from him before his breath failed and he became one of them.

     He still held his vibra-blade in his right hand. The dull glow of the charged sword was the only light in this foetid well. He cleaved through the pulp-soft skull of the nearest animated corpse. When the weapon’s edge reached the spinal cord it sparked and the zombie ceased to struggle.

     Desperate and drowning, the lordling struck again, severing the spine. Whatever foul magic or technology dragged these bodies from their graves was centred in the spiral column.

     A raking hand jabbed him in the gut. Tybald gasped, losing the last of his air. He flailed blindly with his vibra-blade, slowed by the water in which he was immersed. The charged edge hit something and suddenly he was free. He lashed out for the surface. His sight dimmed.

     At least half a dozen zombies and skeletons had tumbled with him when Incantrus Veil had opened a shadow-door right beneath him. They still sought him out, guided by whatever dire sense for living flesh served their mindless life-force hunger. A claw gripped his ankle.

     Tybald kicked free. He splashed to the surface and got half a lungful of air before he was pulled under again. The cadavers trying to drown him seemed stronger in death than they could possibly have been in life. An absurd part of the young lordling wondered what replaced their absent sinews and tendons to make a naked skeleton assemble and fight.

     Sinking, he pulled himself into a squat, compact enough to slash his sword through the wrist of the creature that was dragging him down. Combat became a strange vertical struggle. Minor victory was rewarded with another gulp of oxygen. Failure was the stifling, tearing, scratching mass of undead dragging him to a watery grave.

     If I die here then Ysilde is doomed. It was not the first time that memory of his kidnapped sister had spurred Tybald tan Throg on. He thought too of Princess Aria, left standing at bay in the tomb of Incantrus Veil after her Mock-Man guardian had toppled into the pit and General Blackthorn had been swept away through another of the shadow-doors that the master-undead commanded.

     He broke surface again, thinking fast. If the shadow-door was still open above him he might yet be able to get back to help the princess. He had one thing his enemies seemed to lack – weapons. They tore at him with teeth and claws. He had a powerful vibra-blade and a good steel dagger to jam into the well’s slime-rimed walls. If he climbed then the zombies could not reach him.

     He stabbed his dagger into the gap between the old stones and hauled himself upwards.

***

     “I presume there’s some reason I’m still alive,” Princess Aria asked Incantrus Veil. “Please tell me it’s not to hear you gloat.”

     The gaunt grey-robed spirit of knotted arcane knowledge regarded his captive. The woman held tight between the zombies he commanded was much more angry than frightened, incensed as only a true ruler could be by the inconvenience of being manhandled by undead. “Who are you?” Veil pondered. “What am I missing here?”

     “Manners, common sense, and shortly your head,” the princess shot back. “You’ve been locked in a cellar for an awfully long time, Incantrus. The world has changed.”

     The undead’s cowl shifted, as if he were sniffing the air. “Not that much, I think, little sorceress. The undead still seethe in the Sorcerer of Night’s forever pits. The shadow grows. Four First Men yet divide and devour this world between them. I can feel it.”

     “Then feel again. There’s change coming. While you’ve been locked away counting wine bottles there have been signs and portents.”

     “What signs? What portents?” Veil almost sounded hurt that he had not been included.

     “I’m not here to bring you up to date on current affairs. If you want my aid and advice you need to ask with considerably less zombies holding me down. And you need to bring my friends back from wherever you sent them.”

     “Or I could simply snuff out your life, bind your spirit to your broken corpse, and command the truth from you when you rise as my undead slave.”

     “Not a wise thing to try, Incantrus. You’d never be able to turn your back. I would be a very, very dangerous undead.”

     Veil examined Aria more closely. The dull red gleam inside his cowl intensified. “You have traversed a shadow-door before,” he sensed. “You have been to the Hall of Reflection of Lost Daedalia! Where? How? It was closed near a millennium since, when the Black Sorcerer destroyed the City of Joy!”

     “I refer you to my previous answer,” Aria noted. “Bring back the others and we’ll talk. Maybe even cut a deal.”

     The Incantrus shook its head in perplexity. “That was one of the oldest shadow-doors, placed by the Ancients in legendary days. It served the House Arcantrix, the line of Mars’ royalty that died when Daedal fell. No other could open it, even find it, not even I. But you…!”

     “Yes?” Aria prompted.

     “If you passed that way, you are of Mars. You are an heiress of the Harmony Spires! You are…”

     “I am Aria Arcantrix, daughter of Queen Rhapsody, of the Ancient line. I am the rightful ruler of this red planet. I am the Princess of Mars! Bow down and serve me, Incantrus Veil… or be destroyed!”

***

     Blackthorn was dragged into deep water too, down into the abysmal depths of a long-sunken temple. A pair of kraken-kin were already clamped to him. More slithered in, their octopoid foreparts propelled by long sinuous tails.

     Unlike Lord Throg’s son, the soldier was equipped with a top-of-the-range military combat suit, the best that the Black Sorcerer could provide for his intended war-leader. The monsters’ stingers could not penetrate the black leathery material. Blackthorn reached into one of the belt-pouches and pulled out a rebreather unit to stuff in his mouth. It gave him fourteen minutes of air.

     Next order of business was the tangling kraken-kin that were trying to tear his limbs off by main force. The Sword of Light projected a variable energy blade; it could variously provide a short dirk, a full-sized longsword, a pulsed laser missile, or a projected energy ball, in addition to serving as a source of pure light that had an unpleasant effect on undead. It passed through the water freely with no drag. Blackthorn seared away the predators already latched on to him then began to pick off the approaching pack with ranged shots.

     The sword’s flashes briefly lit the greened sunken architecture of the lost temple. Another time Blackthorn would have speculated about its origins and purpose; to which of the numinous Martian gods or Ancients it had been dedicated; how it had come to be submerged in deep water, home to yet more of the murderous life-forms that multiplied during the wars of the First Men. Now his more urgent concern was the pulsating mass of flesh that formed a carpet across the whole bottom of the sea-bed.

     It was one creature. It was the kraken!

     Or it had been; like its remote hunter-pods, the great monster was dead. And like the kraken-kin, it too had been animated again to mindless life-hunger.

     Cable-thick tentacles whipped up towards the General. The monster’s motion kicked up thick obscuring silt and slime, making it hard to see where to fend off the rotting arms. Blackthorn took a heavy slash across his back that tore right through his protective uniform.

     More flailing dead tendrils quested up for him. There was blood in the water now, Blackthorn’s blood, attracting more and more of the kraken-kin. The decayed mess of weed and corpse-flesh that was the base of the temple stirred more. Cold piscine eyes blinked open. A thirty-foot gash split in the carpet of decay; a mouth! More grey tentacles spewed up from that widening maw.

     Blackthorn had been cautious of his Sword’s energy reserves. The Hallows blade absorbed ambient energy as well as any directed force, but in the dark cold depths where no sun shone it would not renew its store quickly. Now he thumbed the red square on his weapon’s hilt to activate the most profligate of its functions: the plasma bolt!

     He aimed the radiance right into the mouth to which he was being dragged. The crimson globe flew straight into the yawning orifice. It exploded on contact with whatever was in there. The water boiled, sending hot huge bubbles of steam upwards to the cathedral-vaulted ceiling. The kraken flailed and shuddered as the blast seared a seventy foot hole in its decaying mass.

     It wasn’t enough. More eyes flicked open in other parts of the creature. Other maws formed to continue the attack.

     Blackthorn used the opportunity to dive down to the charred crater he’d made in the massive undead. He switched the Sword of Light back to its sword configuration – the yellow button – and rammed it deep into the monster’s flesh.

     The Hallows weapon seemed to know what was required. It pulsed, flaring its blade to eye-searing brightness as it discharged the energies needed to purge the undead it pierced. Kraken and kraken-kin alike writhed and lashed in true-death throes. Flailing tentacles demolished thick support columns, bringing twenty-foot chunks of the ceiling down.

     And the creature fell silent.

     Blackthorn shifted the Sword to its white-light mode. By the intense radiance he could see some of the extent of the destroyed monster. The kraken went on through the archways into other chambers and off into the silted distance. Inert shrivelled kraken-kin floated everywhere.

     The roof above cracked. More masonry toppled. Blackthorn had to move quickly or he would be buried.

     The rebreather vibrated a warning. Its reserves were running low.

     Blackthorn spotted the unreflective rectangle of the shadow-door that had dumped him there and literally swam for his life.

***

     “You are impressive,” Incantrus Veil told the princess. “for one still alive. But I think you are bluffing with an empty hand.”

     Eye-watering purple energies swirled round Aria’s fists. “I am a sorceress born and trained. My hand is never empty.”

     “Your arcane wetware net is technology of the Black Sorcerer’s. I have never sensed one of that sophistication other than those of the First Men.”

     “Now you have. If you don’t want to see what I can do with it, do as I say.”

     The laugh of an Incantrus was a chilling thing. “If you attack me I will simply cease to maintain the shadow-doors through which I projected your servants, Princess of Mars. Or would you prefer that than to have their animated corpses crawl back to us so you can see what they have become?”

     As usual, Aria masked her nervousness with arrogance. “You still insist on a modern history lesson, do you? Very well. I said the world has changed during the time you mouldered in Lord Ruin’s trap. The people of Mars have grown tired of the First Men’s bloody wars and cruel entertainments. A champion has arisen, called from old Earth-that-was to oppose and destroy the sorcerers. He wields one of the legendary Hallows of the Ancients, the Sword of Light that harnesses all energy. He has raised his banner against all the dark things that have preyed upon this planet for so long. Your time is passed. The future belongs to…”

     “John Blackthorn?” suggested Incantrus Veil. “The warrior who fell into the kraken pit?” Aria must have failed to control her expression because the undead read the dismay on her face. “Yes, I could see and hear through the minions I left for you to encounter. That was part of my purpose in setting them on you. I wanted to know my enemies.”

     “Then you know that Blackthorn will kill you.”

     “I know that he will make a powerful servant for the Lord of Night when he rises as a revenant, one that will restore me to Lord Erebus’s favour for long enough to… That will restore me to his favour and to his side. And I know that he will not be returning to save you.” The Incantrus gestured. The black portal to the kraken’s lair vanished. “Who will save you now, princess?”

     “I do not require saving,” Aria hissed. “However, I imagine your next unpleasant experience will be at the hands of the Mock-Man you toppled down your pit. Or did you not know how well those creatures can climb?”

     Oglok snarled right behind Veil and swing out with his massive claws. The sharp talons shredded through the Incantrus’ robe and the arcane matter within. Veil staggered back, appalled to have been taken by surprise in his own sanctum.

     Oglok followed through with a pulse-knife through the cowl, aimed right at whatever that lurid red spot might be, then slashed again to tear out more of the black miasmic Incantrus plasm.

     Veil slammed him away with a warding spell. “Idiot beast! You might be able to break a fall to the shadow-depths and climb back, but your mistress cannot! Hurl her in, my servants!”

     Aria struggled futilely against the zombies that clutched her tight and pressed her towards the pit edge. Oglok abandoned his assault on the Incantrus to leap to her aid – and jumped straight through another shadow-door that Veil conjured in his path. The black hole closed immediately after the Mock-Man.

     Aria pushed back in vain as she was forced towards the abyss. Cold dead hands seized her from the ground and lifted her towards the chasm.

     Then the revenant holding her left arm twitched and toppled, its spine severed by Tybald’s vibra-knife. The lord’s son slashed again, dropping the zombie to her right. Aria fell at the pit’s lip and looked to see why she was still alive.

     Tybald tan Throg was soaked, bloody, torn and exhausted, but he rounded on the other shambling dead to defend the princess with his last breath.

     “Hold them for a moment!” Aria called to the young lordling sharply. She raised her hands, which had never entirely stopped glowing since she had first summoned her power to demonstrate it to the Incantrus. To Veil she said, “You might be able to do all kinds of sophisticated things with shadow-doors, undead. All I need to know is how to keep them open a fraction to restore them at need!”

     She gestured and the two closed portals expanded again. Oglok tumbled out onto the narrow bridge wrestling some shambling giant; it might once have been a minotaur when it had flesh. Blackthorn vaulted from the other and went straight for Incantrus Veil.

     “You can’t fault that Earthman’s timing on occasions like this,” the princess had to admit to herself.

     Blackthorn lunged his Sword of Power right at Veil’s heart.

     A six-inch square shadow-door engulfed the blade so the thrust jabbed into space that was elsewhere. The Incantrus was unharmed.

     Blackthorn shifted the Sword’s setting to pure light again. After all, he reasoned, that wouldn’t be good for a shadow portal.

     The bright light shattered the gate. The Incantrus shrieked and fell back, trailing the black miasma that Oglok had ruptured, boiling in the Hallows’ light. He toppled from his pedestal and tumbled into the chasm below.

     The other undead cringed back from the Sword’s brilliance. Tybald finished the zombies and skeletons while Oglok snapped the minotaur’s back over his knee and hurled it down after Veil.

     Then there were only four battered adventurers left, and one cringing mind-wrecked raider curled in a soiled huddled bundle where the Incantrus has been.

     “Next?” growled John Blackthorn.

***

CONTINUED in Chapter 6: Gold Coins for the Virgin
in which our heroes follow the trail of Ysilde nim Loret across Deadfields and desert to a wicked slaver city - and go for a drink!.

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Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright © 2012 reserved by Ian Watson. Key characters and concepts from the Blackthorn works of Van Allen Plexico copyright © 2012 by him. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.

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