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


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


6.     GOLD COINS FOR THE VIRGIN

     “Talk!” ordered Tybald tan Throg. He shook the mind-addled bandit who was the last survivor of the raiders that had carried off Ysilde nim Loret. “Where is my sister?”

     “It’s no use shouting, Tybald,” Blackthorn advised the agitated young lordling. “There’s no-one in there. That Incantrus Veil said he’d pushed arcane knowledge into this guy’s head, used it like a storage trunk, and that drove the bandit crazy.”

     “Let me try,” Princess Aria suggested to Tybald. “At the very least I might be able to see what the Incantrus jammed in there.”

     They still stood in the chamber where they’d fought the undead before. Oglok looked down into the pit where Veil had fallen and snarled that he wasn’t happy that he couldn’t see his enemy’s body. At least he probably said ‘see’ the body; the Mock-Man noise for ‘defecate on’ was quite similar.

     Aria cupped her hands on the twitching raider’s temples and prepared her magics. Blackthorn took a more pragmatic approach and checked his pockets and scrip.

     “Look at this,” he said to Tybald and Oglok. He opened a heavy pouch of gold pieces. “There’s sixty coins here.”

     “Those are Tyrhennan drachmas,” Tybald recognised. “A great many Tyrhennan drachmas.”

     Blackthorn called upon the geographical knowledge that had been implanted into his mind when he’d been transferred to his current body after his death on Earth millennia before. “Tyrhenna’s a desert land flanking the Hesperia Deadfields on the northwest. Bulk of the population’s along a vast winding river that leads into Mars’ Arabian Sea. It’s mostly in the Lord of Night’s domain.”

     “The desert forms a natural frontier to keep the revenants at bay,” Tybald supplied. “These raiders mostly wear Tyrhennan garb. That is probably where they were based. Perhaps there were more of them and they split off to take my sister there?”

     Oglok pawed the contents of the travel-scrip. Along with the necessary items for a journey – shaving kit, water-flask, sewing gear, pocket-knife – was a folded parchment sheet. He passed it to Blackthorn, growling that it might be important.

     “Thanks, pal,” the General said. He unfolded the document and frowned at it.

     Tybald read over his shoulder. “Operating instructions?”

     “Sure. For that scrambler device that took out the etheric barrier generator. Somebody’s written out an idiot’s guide to attaching the sabotage gadget and setting it off.”

     “So these raiders came to the manor deliberately with the intention of freeing that Incantrus thing?”

     Blackthorn wasn’t so sure. “They came to take down the barrier, that seems clear. In fact… Tybald, don’t take this the wrong way, but how much is your sister worth? I mean if she was sold to a slave trader or something? Sixty drachmas?”

     The lord’s son scowled. “More than that. Ysilde is a high-born lady of a noble house, a virgin of sixteen. Cultured, educated, beautiful, she would fetch at least twice that amount.” He slammed his fist to the floor. “We have to find her!”

     “Working on it,” Blackthorn promised. “Oglok, roughly how much would one of Fatal Laughter’s scrambler things cost to buy? In drachmas, please.”

     The Mock-Man considered it. He snarled back that such technology was quite expensive because it had to be purged of the random surprise subroutines that the mad First Man liked to hide in his devices. A reliable one might take between sixty and eighty of the gold coins to acquire.”

     Blackthorn nodded. “So, say these raiders make a big score. They capture Ysilde tan Throg…”

     “Ysilde nim Loret,” Tybald corrected. “Throg is our father. Ysilde takes her ancestor name from our mother. Ysilde nim Loret nim Nimis nim Alena nim Cora nim…”

     “Right, yes. But they capture a high-born lady who’s got a serious resale value in the right marketplace. They make a run for it across the Deadfields, which are directly between your homeland of Promethei and their destination back in Tyrehnnia. They’ve bought all the right wards and they hope that’ll keep them alive as they cross terrain that deters pursuit.”

     “Nothing would stop me from recovering my sister, Blackthorn. Nothing.”

     “They’re got a good start. They meet up with somebody – their merchant, maybe even their employer if Ysilde was kidnapped to order – and they get paid. But they don’t just take the gold. They get paid partly in barter. They buy a scrambler unit, the one whose remains we found at the ruined manor.”

     Tybald began to follow Blackthorn’s reasoning. “They’d discovered the energy screen around the cellar there. They’d decided there was something valuable concealed within, a great treasure of some kind. So now they could afford the equipment to break in they headed back with it to take down the etheric barrier generator!”

     “That’d be my best guess. What they didn’t expect was Incantrus Veil and a new career as his undead minions.” The General looked thoughtful. “Y’know, selling them an expensive bit of kit that would get them killed is exactly the sort of thing that the Lord of Fatal Laughter would enjoy. I wonder if he or one of his servants knew about the Incantrus being trapped in there? Maybe even tipped the raiders off?”

     Tybald ran his fingers through his hair and sighed in dismay. “That’s a useful reconstruction of what got us into this mess, trapped in an underground burial vault after nearly dying against one of the Lord of Night’s deadliest undead. It doesn’t tell us where Ysilde is now. Or how to even get out of here.”

     Oglok groaned that the escape routes were obvious. Aria had kept open two of the shadow gates that had been used against them. Either led to other places.

     “A mine full of undead minotaurs or a sunken temple?” Tybald cringed. “Oh good.”

     Aria jerked her fingers away from the insane bandit’s temples and wiped them on her handkerchief. “That wasn’t pleasant,” she complained.

     “Are you okay?” asked Blackthorn.

     “I am brilliant,” the sorceress answered without modesty. “There’s not much left of whoever this was before his mind was overwritten but I did manage to work out what Veil rammed in there to overwrite it.”

     “What did you get?”

     Aria frowned. “Veil was locked away for a long time. Centuries. But he wasn’t dormant. He was trapped and conscious. Hungry. Bored. And he was the arcane personification of shadow-door magics in an energy field that prevented shadow-doors.”

     “Tough luck.”

     “So what does he do? He’s still got all that knowledge, all the learning that could be carved out of the wizards used to assemble him. He gets to studying. He works things out. He develops his understanding of his specialist subject. All theory, of course, but theory worked further than anyone’s ever taken it before.”

     Tybald scowled. “That doesn’t sound good.”

     “It’s not. For one thing he worked out how to do a conceptual shadow-door to shift things from his mind into a human victim’s. This kidnapper is exhibit A. As soon as the etheric barrier went down Veil was free to try it out. As for what he shifted, that’s even more disturbing.”

     Oglok growled that Aria never ever had good news.

     “You know how the Black Sorcerer has technology that compels obedience in his greatest servants?” Aria reminded Blackthorn. “He was going to imprint an obedience pack on you until you elected to be somewhere else. The Sorcerer of Fatal Laughter has something similar, although I think it uses bio-parasites. And fish eggs. Well it seems that the Lord of Night binds his highest undead servants with spells of loyalty too, some kind of necromancy.”

     “Makes sense. The First Men are a paranoid bunch,” considered Blackthorn. “That’s how they’ve survived so long.”

     “Indeed. Well Incantrus Veil just worked out how to shadow-door that obedience spell that was on him into this bandit’s brain; which means it’s no longer compelling him to be loyal to the Lord of Night.”

     Tybald stirred. “But the creature is dead. It fell.”

     The other three exchanged cynical glances. “We really prefer a confirmed kill,” Blackthorn admitted. “We’ve had bad experiences. So Veil got busted out, Ysilde got sold on, the bandits who stole her got recycled as cannon-fodder. I don’t like this.”

     Tybald didn’t like it either. “Are you saying that Ysilde was carried off for some specific purpose? Some Tyrhennan house which was required to render up a daughter as a Bride of Night and thought to substitute my sister as a sacrifice to Lord Erebus?”

     “Maybe.” Blackthorn examined the money-pouch again. “You know these coins are pretty new. Straight off the presses, probably. Where would they be minted?”

     “The markings on the milling indicate it was New Trinachria on the Great Arabian River,” the lord’s son answered. “There is also a busy slave market there - and many rich and noble houses who must pay tithe of their daughters to the Lord of Night when the lot falls upon them.”

     “The river brings traders across the Arabian Sea, too,” Aria pointed out. “From the Domain of Fatal Laughter.”

     Blackthorn stood up. “Unless anybody’s got a better idea, sounds like we have a lead that takes us to Tyrhenna. We promised your father we’d get Ysilde back to him, Tybald. This is probably our best plan to do that.”

     “It is a slim chance,” the lordling mourned, “but no more slender than our survival hopes today.”

     “And here we are. But not for long. Aria, have you any clever escape exit or do we pick the sunken temple or the zombie mine?”

     The princess sighed.

     They took the zombie mine.

***

     Travel out of the Deadfields took another three days of hard slog. The undead-filled tin mine turned out to be a crumbling collection of bell-pits near another lifeless village thirty miles west of the ruined manor house where Veil had been imprisoned. Once the slave-minotaurs and skeletal miners had been purged the travellers had a long detour to reclaim their rides. Oglok’s chimera had already broken loose and met him half-way. It had only eaten one of the four horses.

     The perimeter of Hesperia was sharply defined. Dead dusty soil butted in a straight line to scrubby savannah grass. The travellers were left to wonder again about the nature of the undead curse that hung upon the old battlefield.

     Another half day took Blackthorn and his companions into proper desert. Dunes of red sand shifted in an unremitting hot breeze. It was the Martian fifth season, windtide, the long months between fall and winter where the planet’s natural geology interacted with whatever alterations the Ancients had made to render the world habitable and generated fierce gales in most climes. In the Tyrhennan desert the air movement was a rare blessing.

     The same ambient energies that maintained Mars’ atmosphere and gravity and that created the arcanosphere from which Aria drew her magics scrambled any magnetic field, rendering compasses useless. Navigation was by sun, chronometer, and sextant by day and by Polaris at night.

     The desert was not devoid of predators. Aria was able to divert the giant crawlers, hundred-foot-long land-dwelling relatives of the waterworms of her childhood Daedalia, but the tiny gem scorpions swarmed in the thousands and required Oglok’s grenades and Blackthorn’s Sword of Power to deter them.

     One night the party was plagued by desert haunters, disembodied spirits that called from the darkness and promised unearthly pleasures. Oglok growled back long and graphic descriptions of what they could do with their earthly pleasures and into which orifices they could insert each one; after a time the voices faded away.

     A week to the day after Tybald had first met Blackthorn the desert gave way to canal-watered terraces. The white adobe city of New Trinachria appeared on the horizon. The brown smudge beside it was the mile-wide Great Arabian River that ran nine hundred miles down to the monster-troubled Arabian Sea.

     By late afternoon they passed under the city’s gate-arch, paid the tax gatherers one of the coins they’d taken off the last bandit after they’d given him final mercy, and entered the crowded stuffy metropolis.

     “We must ask at the slave marts after a fair-skinned fair-haired maiden who fetched a high price!” Tybald insisted.

     “You do that,” Blackthorn agreed, although he suspected that young abducted women were perhaps not that unique in this swarming trading-port. “Aria, can you see about getting us some rooms? Nothing too ostentatious please. We’ll meet back by this fountain at sundown.”

     “Where will you go?” Tybald tan Throg wondered.

     The General grinned. “To start a bar fight.”

***

     “I said you’re a big dumb ugly foul-breathed gut-bellied bully and you’re standing in my spot,” Blackthorn repeated to the biggest man in the souq tavern. “Also, that’s no way to speak to a bar-girl or to anyone. Apologise to the lady now while you still have teeth.”

     Oglok took his pint and found a corner table where he could watch the show.

     “You insult me?” the giant realised. “You insult Big Haan?”

     “Now you’re getting the idea. I insult Big Haan. Big Haan is a mummy’s boy who wets his bed at night.”

     “No-one insults me!”

     “Everyone here must be very polite then. There’s such a lot to insult.”

     Big Haan slammed one meaty fist straight at Blackthorn’s head.

     Blackthorn caught the giant’s arm and used his momentum to toss him across the room. He aimed at a table full of shifty-looking men comparing their knives. Big Haan crushed their table and toppled the lot of them onto the floor.

     The room quickly divided into three groups. The first rushed for the exits to avoid what was coming. The second seized up bottles or drew weapons and rushed to the melee. The rest followed Oglok’s example and spectated, calling advice and insults at the combatants.

     Blackthorn took a moment to draw a seemingly-random squiggle on a lintel-post then decked the man behind him trying to break a stool on his head.

     The fight escalated. Several of the onlookers were drawn in to the brawl by being jostled or through making too broad a jibe at the brawlers’ expense. A particularly drunk bravo made for Oglok, realised that his potential opponent was a Mock Man, and prudently fled.

     Blackthorn used no weapon and restricted himself to non-lethal unarmed combat techniques. Where possible he avoided breaking limbs. He weaved amongst the feuding patrons culling them here and there with clinical calculation. Seven minutes later there were two fighters left standing. Blackthorn folded the last brawler up like a collapsible chair and stood triumphant.

     He went over to the bar trestle and helped himself to a drink, although he left a coin to pay for it.

     A thin weaselly man in a heavy burnoose sidled up to him. “Nobody likes a spavined horse,” he said, apropos of nothing.

     “Everybody wants a winner,” Blackthorn philosophised. “Can we talk here?”

     “Not for long. Who are you? What do you want?”

     “You’re a Runner? Or you know one?” The Runners were the couriers that linked the various rebels and resistances across Mars. Blackthorn had worked with them before.

     “You made the mark and got my attention. You know who I work for.”

     “Then get word to Edar Reith that I’m here. Ask him to find out about a creature called Incantrus Veil. Get the local network to locate a kidnapped girl called Ysilde nim Loret, a sixteen year old Promethian noble. She’ll have arrived here in the last week.”

     The weasel nodded. “I’ll be here tomorrow at noon. Bring money. There’ll be expenses.”

     “Find me the girl. Bring bandages. There’ll be casualties.”

***

CONTINUED in Chapter 7: The House of Abu Massur
in which Princess Aria is greeted with sherbert, Blackthorn is greeted with missile fire, and Oglok is greeted with horrified screams. Extra points for readers who work out where the chapter title comes from.

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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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