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


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


9.     THE CLOISTERS OF SILENCE

    Ysilde nim Loret followed the Silent Sisters along the clerestory walk, keeping in proper step with the white-mantled nuns. The novice’s gown they had given her billowed behind her. The flickering flames of the long tapers the Sisters bore sent shadows leaping over the demon-faced carvings of the sanction chapel.

    The baptistery before the altar of Lord Erebus was a stepped pool of clear water. The mosaics continued right down into it, leading the postulant down into the cold liquid. Ysilde paused at the lip while the Sisters unlaced her cross-tied bodice and stripped her flimsy robe away. She continued nude into the sacred liquid.

    There was no sound. The precincts of the Silent Sisters seemed to baffle it, to absorb it. Ysilde could no longer hear even the nervous thudding of her heart.

    I shall be rescued, she promised herself. I am loved. I will not be forgotten.

    A pair of Silent Sisters guided her to the centre of the water, where the shadow of the Sorcerer of Night’s image fell upon the runes of dedication. Gentle pressure prompted her to kneel; the waters reached her chin.

    He’ll rescue me, Ysilde repeated in her mind. He would never abandon me.

    Help seemed a long way away.

    The Sisters smoothed the postulant’s hair gently. Their touches were almost loving. One of them dipped her hand into the cool water and drew the runes upon Ysilde’s forehead.

    Until then, the noble’s daughter hadn’t really known how much she believed in the ritual. As the first rune soaked into her she felt Mars turning beneath her.

    She gasped, but her voice made no sound. The red planet whirled through space at 54,000 miles per hour, strung by gravity and Newtonian physics to a distant yellow star. Deep beneath its surface eternal engines churned out the vast power required to re-heat a long-solidified core, to modulate the mantle’s density, to transmute materials to the elements required for life. Matter, energy, even time were harnessed and harvested to make a naturally dead world into a refuge for the survivor colonists of old long-extinct Earth-that-was.

    A second rune: Ysilde became Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ miniature moons, held in such close orbit now as to be scant miles above the planet’s surface. They too played their role; moons were always magical. The battered irregular asteroids stirred their host-world’s arcane fields, twisting up sorcerous currents that could be directed by those with the gift, working on much subtler levels of narrative and belief. The satellites were powerful and deadly – fear and loathing.

    The third rune seared her the worst. No sound was permitted in the chapel of the Silent Sisters but Ysilde could feel the throbbing of the Harmony Spires, those half-mile high crystal tines that regulated everything. The Spires of Mars were the key to it all!

    Ysilde fell back into the waters as if she had been struck. She might have blacked out. The Sisters bore her up, lifted her from their sacred pool. She was dressed again, guided back along the rune mosaic, taken again to the practical sanctuary of the sister house.

    Only then was the nobles’ daughter able to speak, able to gasp. “What – what was that? What did I see? What did I feel?”

    The Silent Sisters never replied, but an old matron who tended to Ysilde’s needs was on hand to supply at least part of an answer. “They tested you, child. They found you worthy.”

    Ysilde nodded. The visions had terrified her – and called her.

    Remember the plan, she told herself. Once the ceremony is complete you can escape. We’ll get away and we’ll save Mars. You have to be brave, for you, for him, for the whole world!

    “I think I need rest,” Ysilde told the matron. “May I go to my cell?”

    Granted permission, the noble’s daughter groped her way to the little room set aside for her this last week as she had been consecrated for the rituals. She slipped inside and closed the door with a sigh of relief.

    “Hello there, beautiful!” said a voice in her ear.

    She whirled round. Shock then joy washed across her face. “Oh! You came! You came to save me!” She hugged her rescuer and tried not to cry.

    “Hey, I said I’d come, didn’t I? And here I am. But you know it’s not time yet for us to leave? They haven’t placed the Interlock Incantation upon you yet, have they?”

    Ysilde shook her head. “Three more days. Then the moons will be right.” The girl shuddered. “I’m frightened of it.”

    “Brave heart, kiddo. Remember what we’re playing for here. Remember why you agreed to all of this.”

    Ysilde nodded. “Sorry, yes. I’m being a silly little girl. We’re out to save Mars and stop the First Men. Nothing else matters as much as that.”

    “Damn straight it doesn’t, beautiful. You think I’d let my best girl take the risks she had done if we weren’t playing for all the marbles?”

    “No, of course not. But… it’s already gone so wrong. Those horrible mercenaries who came to fetch me went wild. They killed Jechin and Newsam and who knows else. Just cut them down as they tried to protect me! They were supposed to steal me away using non-lethal means. And then that slave-place in Tyhrrennia. That was horrible! I was terrified every moment I had to stay there.”

    Her rescuer stroked her hair to soothe her. “It’s only natural to be frightened. Nobody’s ever done what we’re trying here. Nobody else would dare. But we do, don’t we?”

    “Yes,” Ysilde tried to sound brave. “Yes we do.”

    “Why?”

    “Because we will change Mars. And then we can be together at last, can’t we? We won’t have to wait any more?”

    “I’m counting the hours, honey,” promised David Morningstar. “Now I’ve got to go set up the other end. Keep your chin up. Three more days, one ritual, and then we own the world.”

***

    The patched-up hover-saucer took Tybald and those helping him to find his kidnapped sister over the rocky passes out of Isidia, over the difficult Laocoontian foothills, then over the haunted margins of Utopia. At the edges of more occupied Elysian lands, Blackthorn decided to ditch the battered machine and travel on another way.

    “The vril charge is almost exhausted and we can’t refuel. We’ll soon be over lands where Aria’s masking spell might be penetrated. And we need to get the feel for the place. I get that every delay matters, Ty, but we won’t do your Ysilde any favours by getting caught or killed on the way to save her.”

    “I know,” the lord’s son admitted. “It’s just… it’s two weeks now since she was snatched on her way home. She’s only sixteen. She’s been carried off by raiders, smuggled through the Deadfields, sold at a slave house, dragged through a shadow-door by the Sisters of Silence. She’s probably being prepared to become one of the Lord of Night’s brides – which isn’t just a death sentence, it’s an undeath sentence! She must be so scared. She must think everybody’s abandoned her to her doom!”

    “You and your sister are close,” Aria guessed. The princess was most certainly an only child.

    “Not really,” Tybald tan Throg confessed. “There’s nearly five years between us. By the time she was learning her court manners I was already in fencing academy. But that doesn’t mean I’ll abandon her.”

    Oglok the Mock-Man roared that the youngster had got it right. Nothing was more important than family.

    Blackthorn found a hidden hollow to dump the Cimmerian combat saucer. The coming Martian winter would bury it under twenty feet of snow. “Reith said there were pilgrim roads all across Elysium,” he reminded his companions. “Maintained trackways with way-stations every seven leagues all the way to the coast. We can hire a carriage and be at Hyblaos in three days.”

    The travellers had left their horses and the captives bounty hunters they’d encountered with Edar Reith, the leader of the Runners spy organisation. Oglok’s mutant chimera had been let free; Aria had gloomily predicted it would find its way back to the Mock-Man within two months. It had before.

    They found the pilgrim-way with little difficulty. Guttering oil lamps lit its route every thirty paces. Some pilgrims supposed that might protect them from the creatures that awoke by night in the Domain of the Black Sorcerer. The way station wasn’t much further along. A small coin purchased four meditation cubicles for the night. Even Oglok didn’t attract too many long looks; many strange people travelled the sacred paths to the sacred places.

    Even Aria couldn’t identify the being with the tall antlers growing from his forehead who ate alone at the corner table.

    The food was plain and bland. Rice was served with every meal. Some said it was because vampires would have to stop and count every grain before attacking. Aria suspected it was to save costs and to keep the population docile. Oglok claimed it was a confirmation that the Lord of Night was a scheming evil bastard who needed to be crucified.

    Tybald bartered a carriage ride all the way to the coast. When asked his reasons for travel he honestly explained that he was praying for the safe return of his sister from a journey. The coachman, a wizened gnomish fellow with a crumpled face and a strawberry birthmark across one cheek, accepted this and the proffered silver and enquired no more.

    The whip cracked and the carriage started out on the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of the Silent Sisters.

***

    The Black Sorcerer had brought three minds through time and space from old Earth to modern Mars. Each had been a soldier, intended to serve as the commanders of the First Man’s legions. All had escaped their intended fate and gone rogue.

    Major Anton Yuei had been recovered. Imprinted with obedience sorceries he was now the First Man’s Kan, his right hand and most powerful servitor. General John Blackthorn had taken up the banner of the rebellion to cast the First Men down. He was beginning to prove troublesome.

    Colonel David Morningstar had taken a middle course. Devious, clever, ruthless and opportunistic, Mars had given him a rich new canvas on which to work. He too wanted to see the end of the First Men – and the rise of Emperor Morningstar.

    All it required was a little work.

    When he’d calmed the little Promethean girl, Morningstar headed up into the sister house for his next appointment. “Mornin’ ladies!” he called out cheerily at the Silent Sisters as he passed.

    A short cloister passage led him to the mage-house, a separate block that contained the alchemy and biomagics laboratories which supported the work of the Silent Sisters. He found the relevant conjuring chamber and let himself in. “Hello, squire,” he greeted the occupant.

    Incantrus Veil shifted round in his summoning circle to regard his irreverent visitor.

    “Yep, I’m here at last,” Morningstar announced. “I’ve already checked up on little Ysilde. Got to say that if the Interlock Incantation didn’t require such nauseating purity I’d have had that little piece six ways backwards before she could even squeak.”

    The undead repository of shadow-door magics did not seem impressed with the Earthman. “Have you anything relevant to tell me?” he asked.

    “Just touching base. Given that Ysilde’s not a pale white corpse-bride by now I’m guessing the Silent Sisters spotted her added potential in time to save her from being the Sorcerer of Night’s necrophilic poster girl of the month. Since she’s still on the fast track for being centrepiece in the next Interlock Incantation I conclude that the So-Not-Singing Nuns haven’t spotted the shadow-door you placed into her back in Tyrrhenna. Fair to say?”

    “Yes,” answered the Incantrus briefly.

    “Still sore about your encounter with St John Blackthorn?” Morningstar guessed. “I’ve really got to get me one of those Hallows sometime. They’re a great equaliser. How’s the old ectoplasm rebuilding?”

    “Blackthorn will die. I will take great pleasure in it.”

    The Earthman shrugged. “He does have a massive talent for rolling in at the wrong place at the wrong time. If he and his travelling circus hadn’t turned up at Lord Throg’s court like that I could have extracted little Ysilde with no fuss at all. Nobody would ever have known where she went. When the bold General rode into town I had to get fast and dirty to have the bimbo out of there before she blabbed our wonderful secret plans to him. And before Aria spotted her, of course.”

    “The sorceress is powerful.”

    “And sexy, don’t forget that. I’m still hoping that one of these days she’ll get smart and see which bed she should be lying in. She would make a very nice arm-adornment at my coronation.”

    “Sorceresses are difficult to control with obedience wetware.”

    “Aw, where’s the fun in that?” scorned Morningstar. “The whole point of Princess Aria is that she keeps you on your toes.” He eyed the undead speculatively. “Anyway, you know that obedience conditioning can be bypassed if you’re smart enough, right?”

    “My master does not realise that he no longer commands me,” Veil confirmed. “I am returned to his high regard. Bringing the bride candidate to the sisters and then helping them discover her greater use has wiped away the shame of my defeat in Hesperia. Lord Erebus has forgiven me. I have not forgiven him.”

    “Sounds like we could be in for some spooky soap opera drama pretty soon. Anyway, everything’s on track. Ysilde’s still deliriously in love, with me and the idea of being the saviour of Mars. The Silent Sisters are happy that they’ve got the honour of anointing the next Transition Sacrifice. You’re able to plot all sorts of horrible revenges on all sorts of people, and a few weeks from now I’ll be the ruler of Mars.”

    “Yes.”

    Morningstar held up a cautionary finger. “One thing. General Blackthorn will turn up here. He will throw a spanner in the works. He will try to ruin it all, probably with some big explosions and maybe a tedious speech including the words justice and freedom. This is a given. So when he turns up, please be ready for him.”

***

    Ysilde slept fitfully, disturbed by what she’d seen earlier, excited by David’s visit. The heroic Earthman was different from anybody she’d ever known!

    She turned over on her hard thin pallet and tried not to think of the ordeal to come. It would all be worth it in the end. Maybe then she could forget the look in Jechin’s eyes when the bolt had gone through him?

    She thought about home. A part of her yearned for the childhood simplicity of it, of the daily routine of Lord Throg’s court, of Lady Loret brushing her hair. She even missed brash, preening Tybald! She hoped that one day they would be proud of her for what she’d dared and what she’d done.

    She thought about what she’d seen at the anointing. She wondered how much of it was revelation, how much imagination, and how much mere gleanings from things the matron or David had told her.

    She wondered how much the Interlock Transition would hurt. She wondered if it would drive her mad or kill her, as it had most of those who had endured it before.

    Ysilde rolled over and willed herself to sleep.

    Somewhere in the darkness of her body a dormant shadow-door waited Incantrus Veil’s activation.

    Inside her chest cavity the little metallic thing with the Lord of Fatal Laughter’s face on it nestled near her heart and waited dormant until the time was right.

***

CONTINUED in Chapter 10: Domain of Night
in which Blackthorn enters the lands of Lord Erebus to dare the Cathedral of the Sisters of Silence and Tybald's rescue plan lacks a vital element.

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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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