The Hall of the Bards had fallen over eight hundred years ago. Now it was a stark ruin, its massive auditorium open to the bleak Martian skies, its fallen pedementia buried beneath centuries of dust and tangled chokeweek.
Aria looked around the wreckage sadly. She remembered when she was first brought here, to meet the lively, larger-than-life keepers of Mars’ living heritage. She’d been so young, holding her mother’s hand as the Queen of Mars had shown her to the Isidian Bards and they had bowed to their future lady.
So much had changed during the prolonged times that she’d been suspended in the Black Sorcerer’s Pool of Crystal Waters while the arcane web had grown along her nervous system transforming latent talent to mystic power. Aria Arcantrix was twenty-two years old and had been born nearly a millennium ago.
However much that made her an anachronism it was nothing to the uncounted centuries since her champion had trodden on old Earth-that-was, before his mind had been lifted to contemporary Mars. Aria took an odd comfort in that.
Tybald tan Throg came into the shattered ruin to join her. He tended to find reasons to be somewhere else when Oglok fed his chimera-stallion-thing. “I never thought to see this place,” the lordling admitted. “I have heard about the Fall of the Bards all my life.”
“You’d expect a few good ballads about the extermination of the storytellers,” Aria pointed out. The Isidian Bards had been another casualty of the endless power-struggles of the four sorcerous First Men who claimed Mars. After the last of the ancient kingdoms, old Daedal, had fallen, it was the bards who had spoken out most against the tyrants’ reigns.
“I suppose I’d have expected this place to be… more,” Tybald admitted. “To contain some echo of the high words and rich romances of the classics. Not ghosts, but… memories.”
The sad ruin leaned sharply now. In another century the last walls would fall. “The Bards are not remembered in these stones,” the princess declared, “but in the words of freedom whispered in every cot and village across Mars. That is their legacy and it will never pass away.”
“Don’t underestimate stones,” suggested John Blackthorn. The Earthman was climbing over the ruins from the other side. Evidently he’d been scouting. “Like Tybald says this place still holds a grip on people’s imagination. If you called folks together here they would be hard pressed to say no.”
“Your planned grand alliance against the First Men?” Tybald asked. He tried not to sound too scornful of the idea to the people who were his last desperate hope of rescuing his sister. “The sorcerers will crush you as soon as you assemble.”
“Oh, we’re not ready to assemble yet,” Blackthorn assured the young man.
“When will you be?”
The General grinned. “When we can’t be crushed when we do it.”
Tybald looked around the shattered hall. “These people thought to resist. They were stronger than you, with a tradition going back to the Ancients themselves. Look what happened to them.”
“They’re still remembered hundreds of years later and their legacy lives on?”
Aria clung to Blackthorn’s arm in a rare show of affection. “John’s from an innocent time on another world, where freedom and justice and compassion were things to be fought for. He thinks he can right every wrong on Mars, and we lo – like him for it.”
“You really think my father will sign up for a suicide pact?” Tybald challenged. “Lord Throg won’t do anything that brings the attention of the First Men down on Promethei.”
“Lord Throg will keep his word, that if I get you and Lady Ysilde safe home then he’ll secretly support the rebels,” Blackthorn declared.
“And if you somehow win, against all hope, against all odds? If you overthrow the four most powerful men in recorded history and bring their empires burning to the ground, then what?”
“Reconstruction. Education. Security. No more slavery. Just laws. Recovery.” Blackthorn was a strategist. He liked to have an end-game. “That’s why we need the nobles on board. That experience of leadership will be vital as we transition from dictatorships to democracy without anarchy.”
“You’re serious! You actually plan to try this?”
Aria held up hands that sparked with arcane power. “Mars is dying,” she revealed. “The magics and technologies that make life possible here, the enhanced gravity that holds our air down and keeps our moons in place, the shield that wards away lethal solar radiations, the arcane field that drives our technologies and so much more all depend on great works that the Ancients put in place when they first came here from Earth-that-was. The First Men are powerful only because they use the scraps salvaged from the technologies of the Ancients who fell to civil war thousands of years ago.”
Tybald was educated. “You’re talking about the Harmony Spires,” he recognised, “Giant mysterious needles all over Mars that seem to generate that arcanosphere you talked about. And every hundred years or so another one goes dark and crumbles away.”
The princess nodded. “How many can we lose before the Ancients’ blessings fail? A hundred more? Ten? One?”
“Aria wants to fix them,” Blackthorn revealed. “Maybe grow a few new ones. Nobody knows what they are or how they work or how they were made, but as you’ve probably guessed by now this group likes a few challenges.”
Tybald scratched his head. “So, overthrow the First Men, rebuild all of Mars into a living paradise, then repair the Harmony Spires. Then what?”
“Tinoro leaf tea,” replied Princess Aria. “With a splash of honey.”
“And maybe a biscuit,” laughed Blackthorn. “I guess we…” His expression changed as an instrument on his belt bleeped warning. “Incoming flyers,” he called. “The alarm I set up to warn me if our perimeter alarms were jammed has just gone off!”
Tybald had no time to respond to such remarkable precautions. A half-dozen one-man grav-fliers topped the walls of the ruined bard-hall and their riders shot off tangle-nets to capture the travellers.
Aria swiped the incoming threads away with an arcane gesture. Blackthorn hurled a handful of remote detonation flashbangs into the air to confuse the riders.
Oglok the Mock-Man appeared over the rubble of the broken auditorium mounted on his screeching chimera, then spurred the beast thirty feet into the air to crash into the lead grav-skimmer.
“What in Acheron is that thing?” Tybald breathed as he rolled for cover from the incoming pellet-fire.
“A dangerous, uncontrollable, untrainable brute,” answered the princess, scrambling down beside him. “Gods alone know what he’s riding.”
Oglok hauled the pilot from his saddle and tossed him overarm sixty feet across the ruins.
Blackthorn fired off a trio of short orange laser-bursts at the riders. Each of them seared into the hover modules on the underside of the sky-bikes. The grav engines sputtered then failed.
Oglok grabbed the riderless vehicle he’d liberated and flung it at the next flyer. The two vehicles went down in a scarlet plume of flame.
Tybald had no long-range weapon. He decided he’d need to do something about that.
Aria simply picked up a shard of the old bardic building, held it between glowing fingers, and said, “Go”. The chunk of rock flew from her palm in a tight trajectory and slammed through the windshield of the nearest grav-flyer and into the forehead of the rider behind.
Forty-five seconds after the six vehicles had skimmed over the hall they were all down.
“Those are short-range machines,” Blackthorn warned. “There’ll be a bigger ship somewhere near.”
Tybald pointed to a gunmetal grey shape fast-dropping from the clouds. “There!”
Blackthorn peeled off a pair of plasma balls. They seared straight up, crippling the underside cannons that could otherwise clear a battlefield. Aria’s gremlin hex skittered after the fireballs, slipping past the now-slagged anti-magic grids and corrupting the vehicle’s flight systems.
The whole saucer deviated from its combat-dive, flipped over, and ploughed a deep ridge in the turf beyond the auditorium.
Oglok charged the downed craft. His chimera had already kicked in the main hatch before Blackthorn, Aria, and Tybald were anywhere near. The Mock-Man hurled a concussion grenade then dived inside, snarling threats.
By the time the others came to assist, there were no conscious combatants left to oppose the beastling. The only problem was sliding round Oglok’s excited steed to get in to him.
“Who are these?” Tybald wondered as four battered captives were dumped on the pile with the three surviving grav-flyer pilots. “They don’t have uniforms.”
“Mercenaries,” Blackthorn said. He flicked through a document pouch he’d extracted from the ship. A thick wad of wanted posters and a Lycosian data-pad contained dozens of fugitive descriptions. “Bounty hunters.”
“Ooh! How much for us now?” Aria asked eagerly.
“We’re not in here. These guys knew their league. But I think this computer simulation’s meant to be Reith.”
“That’s the Runner man you were expecting to meet up with here?” Tybald checked. “The one who might have information about Ysilde and the Silent Sisters?”
“That’s the guy,” said Reith. The laconic black man was leaning on a crooked column behind them and smoking a cigarette.
Blackthorn lowered the Sword of Light he’s instinctively oriented on the unexpected voice. “How the hell do you manage to creep up on me like that?” he demanded.
“Hey, I don’t ask how you blow up First Man strongholds. Let me keep a few trade secrets,” the Runner spy shrugged.
“You led these bounty hunters here!” Aria accused. “It was you they were following, not us. You were supposed to sneak here with information about that Incantrus Veil creature we fought and with a way for us to get into Elysium.”
“Yeah. I found out about the undead, and for transport…” The Runner held a hand out to the downed saucer. “Ta-dah.”
Blackthorn chuckled. “Okay, you win this round, Reith. Nicely done. So what can you tell us?”
“Have you located my sister?” Tybald asked urgently. “Is she still alive?”
“This would be Lord Throg’s kid, right?” the Runner checked. “Studied the foil and the epée under Master Neskal, won a prize in the Callisto Derby a turn back, takes three sugars on his breakfast spiceroot.”
“What? How did…”
“He’s just showing off,” Blackthorn warned the lord’s son. “Runners are glorified postmen. They go everywhere and talk to everyone. Then they talk to other runners, who talk to yet more runners. Eventually all of them talk to him.”
“It’s a living,” shrugged Reith. “Anyhow, to business. The girl was kidnapped to order by those raiders you ended. Molossa was the intermediary, like you figured. The original money came from a trader out of Phoenix Landing, name of Olssen. We’re chasing up on him. Lady Ysilde was sold, as you guessed, to a noble house of Isidia – we think the Teledrenes but we can’t prove that yet. They never even saw her. She was bartered to the Sisterhood of Silence in place of one of the Teledrene daughters and collected straight from the House of Abu Massur via rare and expensive shadow-door. That suggests a time limit we don’t know about.”
“Where is she now?” Tybald demanded. “What are they doing to her?”
“She’s at the main Sister-House in Elysium, at Hyblaos. That’s the major port on the Amazonis Sea. It’s very well defended, less than sixty miles from the Palace of Whispers. Not a good place to be John Blackthorn or Princess Aria. As for why she’s there… well the assumption is Bride of Night.”
Tybald cradled his head. “This just gets harder and harder. If she’d been at a minor foundation we might have raided, I suppose. This…”
“I’ve heard bad things about those Silent Sisters,” noted Blackthorn. “I say we pay them a visit.”
Oglok went off to kick the downed bounty hunters some more.