Tybald’s heart lurched. The Sorcerer of Night, one of the four First Men who had tyrannised Mars for as long as modern history recorded, the being worshipped in this Cathedral of the Silent Sisters as a living god, was aware of the young man’s intrusion; or at least he was aware of the displaced Earthman who had accompanied the lordling in this mad quest to save Tybald’s kidnapped sister. Across the whole red planet there was no being more powerful or deadly than the Sorcerer of Night.
Another realisation: Lord Erebus knew John Blackthorn! The master of the East recognised the rebel who had infiltrated his temple. Maybe he had even expected him.
And more: If the Sorcerer of Night were not enough to destroy and damn any who opposed him, he stood beside three of his undead Brides, each imbued with all the powers of the nosferatu. Behind him stood Incantrus Veil, unliving sentience of knotted arcane knowledge, whose specialist understanding of space-warping shadow-doors was greater than any other’s. Blackthorn and his companions had scarcely survived their previous encounter with Lord Erebus’s puissant retainer. The Sisters of Silence and guard-vergers that filled the chapel seemed massively superfluous overkill.
Amidst so many terrors, Ysilde seemed tiny and frail, a trembling pale child of sixteen surrounded by monsters. Whatever reasons she had thought were important to spur her to run back to this ceremony, now she stood before the Sorcerer of Night himself she was frozen with fear. Her tear-filled eyes widened in abject dismay as she spotted her brother up on the high gallery.
Blackthorn broke the spell of horror by speaking. “Sorcerer of Night. I thought it was time I took a look at what I’ve got to take down to free Mars from its oppressors.”
The pale tyrant regarded Blackthorn as he might do an insect that had crawled across his book. He might slam the pages shut at any moment and crush it. “So you are what had Noir so worked up?” he mused, referring to the Black Sorcerer who had been convinced by Blackthorn’s actions to a short-lived alliance with the Lord of the East. “I wonder why?”
“Give me the girl and you won’t have to find out.”
The Sorcerer of Night’s gaze shifted to the sorceress beside the Earthman. “And little Aria. My, how you’ve grown!”
“Oh please!” scorned the princess of Mars.
“I’ve been looking round your kingdom, Night,” Blackthorn called down. “I’m not impressed. A whole empire kept scared of the dark just because you like to play Dracula? Where do all the blood-taxes go? What’s the big fascination with dead things anyway?”
“Insolent,” the Sorcerer said, almost to himself. “Disrespectful. He must know fear.” He opened his hand and granted Blackthorn, Aria, and Tybald that experience.
Tybald was hurled to the floor by the mortar blast. He crawled by instinct for cover as the ground churned around him.
Dying men were everywhere, blown apart by the shells that rained down on them from the mountain passes above. Wheeled vehicles burned. An armoured machine with caterpillar tracks exploded. The detonations punctuated the screams of the wounded and the dying.
Smoke filled the battlefield. Tybald crouched under an overturned half-track trying to work out where he was and what was happening. How had he come here?
There was a lull in the bombardment. Black fumes coiled along the valley, making it hard to see, but Tybald thought that a whole armoured column had been ambushed. The steep cliffs on both sides made this an ideal killing zone.
He examined the wrecked machinery. It wasn’t any technology he recognised. It lacked the bulky ugliness of Lord Ruin’s heavy metal and the gaudy plastics of Fatal Laughter’s creations. The Black Sorcerer’s machines usually had a more gothic feel to them. The Sorcerer of Night rarely used such things.
These destroyed vehicles were of moulded steel painted khaki and mustard in camouflage splodges. What remained of their logo was unfamiliar to him: horizontal red and white stripes and a blue corner-box with stars.
The whistle of more incoming artillery forced the lord’s son to curtail his examination. He hunkered back into shelter, then saw a lone figure staggering though the smoke. Her white gown was completely out of place amidst the mud and the gore.
“Princess Aria!” Tybald called. She ignored him. She seemed dazed by the carnage.
The lordling raced out of cover and grabbed her. She didn’t resist as he hauled her under the vehicle. The first explosions shook the ground mere seconds after.
“I have seen all of this before,” the princess said, biting her lip. “It was in black and white then.”
That made no sense to Tybald tan Throg. He covered the lady as the detonations threw up shards of rocks. He hoped no shrapnel was big enough to rip right through the armour of the broken tank above him. “Where are we?” he shouted over the noise of the bombs. “What’s happening? Another shadow-door?”
“Worse than that, I think,” Aria supplied. “Look at the soil beneath us. Smell the air. See the brightness of the huge sun! We are not on Mars, Tybald. This is Earth-that-was!”
“That’s not possible. Earth is dead. It died nine minutes after the Ancients went to war.”
“This is before that. This is the time that Blackthorn was drawn from, the very place that he died!” The princess winced as another mortar dropped too near for comfort. “He was betrayed. His second-in-command, a man called Colonel Morningstar, sold his plans to the enemy. Morningstar was ambitious. He hoped that the information would lead to Blackthorn failing and being discredited. He hadn’t expected it would inform a direct attack on the command element where he and Blackthorn were riding.”
“I don’t understand!”
“The Black Sorcerer had technologies that could pull a man’s mind through time and rehouse it in new flesh on Mars. He transferred Blackthorn, Morningstar, and a Major called Yuen to his Bastion at the moment of their death – death in this battle, here, now!”
Hot sparks sprayed across the half-track. Aria instinctively tried to deflect them with her magics. Nothing happened. No Harmony Spire projected an arcane field here to power her sorceries.
“How can we be here, though?” Tybald shouted over the barrage. “And why?”
“We can not,” the princess judged. “But this place, this moment, when he failed his men and was betrayed by those he trusted, the hour he died, this is the moment of Blackthorn’s greatest fear.”
The bombing stopped.
“We must move, princess,” Tybald advised. “When Lord Ruin attacks like this, he first bombards his foes to destroy their capacity to resist then sends in his warriors to finish the task on foot. General Blackthorn’s enemies will surely come now to end any who have survived their first assault.”
Aria nodded. She let herself be guided past the burning convoy, picking her way past the gristly remains of slaughtered soldiers. She had once watched this scene on a flickering time-monitor in the Bastion of the Black Sorcerer. That had been a very different experience from walking through this charnel slaughter. Even the terrible battle of Anx when Blackthorn had finally made his stand against the Black Sorcerer had not involved carnage like this.
The princess found herself unprepared. The stench of the dying and the acrid smoke threatened to overwhelm her.
“John…” she said suddenly. “Blackthorn was here. He was the target of all this! We have to find him!”
Tybald spotted silhouettes moving forward through the fumes. They wore headscarves over gas masks and carried semi-automatic percussion weapons. The lord’s son instinctively reached for his vibra-blade, but it was not there. The conventional rapier he’d hung at his hip to use in Night’s tech-inhibited cathedral would be no match for automatic guns.
Aria rushed through the devastated column, peering at every pile of dead men, examining every burning vehicle. Tybald tried to keep her moving; the conquerors were closing in.
The princess rounded another heap of wrecked machinery and stopped short. Tybald heard the click of a small-missile weapon chambering and a voice said “Don’t move.”
“John,” Aria said. “It’s me.”
“I said don’t move.” The General’s voice was rough and raw. Tybald peered round the corner carefully. Blackthorn knelt cradling a thick-set soldier in a dark green uniform. The man bled from a belly-wound. Nothing could save him.
“Listen, you have to get word…” the dying officer croaked to Blackthorn. “It was a trap… ambush… our position was betrayed. They knew our route.”
“Hold still, Yuen,” the General told him. “Just hold on!”
“Only three of us knew…” Yuen gasped. “Blackthorn, me… Morningstar… He’s always been… competitive…”
“I know. I’ll deal with him. Just lie still. Let me try another field dressing.”
“John…” Aria ventured, but the General ignored her. He was weeping.
“You have to tell them…” Yuen breathed. Blood seeped from his lips as he spoke. “They killed Blackthorn…”
Those were his last words.
Blackthorn called Yuen’s name and held him close. “No! No!”
“John, this happened a very long time ago. You did die, and Yuen. Even Morningstar. Then you were reborn on Mars.” Aria tried to coax the soldier out of his grief and despair. “Look over there, John. To your right. Look!”
Blackthorn kept the machine pistol pointed at the princess but glanced where she pointed. Another officer lay dead. Part of his body was mere mince.
“Turn him over,” Aria instructed.
It was an old man in a three-star general’s uniform.
Aria took a step forward. “That is Lieutenant General John Blackthorn of the United States Army, holder of the Defence Distinguished Service Medal with three oak clusters, Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit with oak cluster, Army Commendation Medal, two Purple Hearts, two Presidential Medals of Freedom, National Defence Service medal with bronze star, Vietnam Service Medal with silver star, and all the rest. He was a great soldier in service to his nation. He was a hero and he died a hero’s death.”
“But…” objected Blackthorn, looking stricken at the broken body of his former self.
Aria knelt right beside him, regardless of his gun. She held out a hand to his chest, over his heart. “This is General John Blackthorn, champion of Mars, hope of all its people, the only warrior to defy the First Men and live. His is a great soldier in service to all in need of freedom and safety. He is a hero and the finest man I know.”
Tybald heard steps behind him. He swung round then ducked low. The victors had come to check on their kills.
He sprang forward, counting on speed to defeat reflex trigger pulling. He slashed down the first killer then backhand-sliced another.
The third and fourth would have taken him down but for pinpoint-accurate double-tap shots from Blackthorn.
The General rose, laying Yuen aside with regret. “Who are you people?” he demanded. “Who are you with?”
“We’re with you, John,” Aria promised.
Blackthorn believed her at once, though he wouldn’t have been able to say why. “Those shots have announced we’re still in the game. We need to move. Sword-guy, take point. Get us off the path towards the mountainside. Look for a cleft, a gulley, anywhere that gives us some cover. Lady, stay next to me and if I say duck then hit the ground fast.”
“You have just summed up our relationship,” Aria assured him.
They ghosted through the thinning smoke. Blackthorn took down three more scouts silently and permanently. Tybald accounted for a fourth.
“This is no good,” the General decided, frowning. “We’re trapped on all sides. This was well planned, hitting us in the one place we had no way out of. Escape’s going to be tough.”
Machine gun fire announced they had been spotted. They retreated off the road and found shallow shelter in one of the runoff gulleys that broke up the steep embankments on both sides of the road. But there was no way out.
“We’re pinned,” Blackthorn spat.
“Can we climb?” wondered Tybald.
“They’d frag us before we got twenty feet.” Blackthorn shook his head. “How many guys have I gotten killed already today? Kids that trusted me to see ‘em safe home? Fine officers I’ve commanded for twenty years? Why do I get a second chance when they don’t?”
“Because I picked you,” answered Aria honestly. “John, defeat is not the same as failure. You’ve never failed me. Don’t start now.”
Her words pulled the distressed soldier from the brink of his despair. “I don’t know how to get you out, miss. There’s no way out. The best I can offer if you want it is a quick end before the enemy gets you.”
“There is a way out,” Aria assured him. “You just need the right weapon.”
Blackthorn looked at the M240 in his hands. “A grenade launcher would be good. A tank would be better. A Huey would be excellent.”
“You could do better than that,” the princess promised him. “Be aspirational.”
“Those raiders are closing on us,” Tybald warned. “They’re creeping round on our flanks, too.”
“I don’t know what’s better than an assault helicopter in these canyons,” Blackthorn told Aria. “Except…”
The soldier’s brow furrowed. “A sword? A sword made of… light?”
“That would be a good choice,” Aria agreed. She pointed behind the General.
There, embedded in the stone of the cliff, was a glowing energy blade with a silver hilt.
“Pulling it out is traditional,” the princess prompted Blackthorn.
“Incoming!” warned Tybald.
Blackthorn grabbed the Sword of Light. It flared in his grasp. He swung it at the first of the unfriendlies that swarmed over the rock…
The Sword of Light scored across the Sorcerer of Night’s arcane barriers, burning away hundreds of layers of abjuration and protection, shattering countless counter-hexes and spirit-shields. The bound demons forming Lord Erebus’s defence screen howled as they were seared to oblivion.
The Sorcerer of Night was hurled back. He tumbled, no longer levitating by the sister-chapel gallery so much as crashing down onto the mosaic floor below. His black mantle hissed and frothed where the Hallows light had penetrated.
Tybald realised he was no longer in some vision of the legendary past but back in the very real and equally disturbing present. “What… was that?” he gasped.
“Blackthorn’s worst fear,” Aria replied. “The Sorcerer of Night forgets that great fear can prompt great courage, and that darkness is dispelled by light.”
Lord Erebus rose, seething with rage. His aura seemed to fill the whole room. Even Incantrus Veil took an involuntary step aside.
Blackthorn launched himself off the gallery straight at the First Man. He had not enjoyed his replay of his dying moments.
Night released terrors from his hands. The black columns of horrors spiralled out, twisting into a deadly helix that oriented on the hero.
Blackthorn peeled off a fireball then followed with a flash of pure brilliance. The Brides of Night fell back, screaming, clawing at their eyes. Their flesh blistered. The Sisters of Silence could not shriek, but fell away, blinking and dazed. Incantrus Veil hissed and stepped back towards his shadow-door – except it had evaporated.
Blackthorn landed feet-first on the Sorcerer’s chest, tumbling him to the ground. He clutched the Sword of Light in both hands and jabbed down at the First Man’s head.
The Sorcerer of Night caught the Hallows blade. He gripped its glowing tip in his hands and snarled.
The blade burned brighter, pumping energy to clear away the darkness that surrounded it. Lord Erebus concentrated more, striving to overwhelm the weapon’s store of power.
Aria attached a drop-wire to the balcony rail. “Come on,” she called to Tybald. “Fast!”
The lord’s son followed her lead and rappelled down to the chapel floor. He wasn’t sure when his sister had fallen unconscious or who had laid her upon the sacrifice altarstone. He scooped Ysilde in his arms and hefted her away.
Incantrus Veil moved to stop him.
Aria unshipped the spell she’d been saving for the sorcerer-spectre’s inevitable return. She’d been brewing it ever since she’d examined the psychic detritus the Incantrus had cast off into that bandit’s mind. The main thing Veil had eschewed was an obedience geas placed upon him by the Lord of Night. Now Aria recast that spell to settle back upon the gestalt undead.
Naturally she substituted herself instead of Lord Erebus as the object of the Incantrus’ subjugation.
Veil did not respond well. He fought to shrug off the mind-tangling magic, vulnerable to it because it was so close to the occult bonds that had pinioned him since his creation, defiant because the princess could not back her magics with the unfathomable arcane resource of a First Man.
He staggered and made a multi-voiced growling sound.
Tybald dodged around the creature and made for the door.
The Cathedral defenders least affected by the blazing fury of the Sword of Light were the vergers. The temple guards drew wicked blades to block the lordling’s path.
The explosives that Oglok had planted finally went off with excellent timing. The whole structure shook. Flakes of plaster fell from the ceiling. Candelabras toppled. Some of the stained glass shattered.
Aria tossed spells at the guards that marked them as the intruders. The killer gargoyles that arrived to attend the alarum fell upon the vergers without mercy.
And amidst it all, Blackthorn pressed down with his Sword of Light and the Sorcerer of Night leached away the weapon’s energy. Erebus sweated, his pale face becoming cadaverous as he exhausted his reserves. The Sword of Light dimmed, its dazzling radiance diminishing to a mere torch-glow.
And then the Hallows-blade fizzled out.
The Sorcerer of Night hissed in triumph.
Blackthorn kicked him between the legs. Defensive barriers snapped and the combat boot struck home.
Without the brilliance of the Sword’s light the Sisters were rising again. The Brides of Night recovered.
“John!” warned Aria, beckoning him towards the exit. Now, in the chaos, while the Sorcerer of Night was distracted, was the only chance for escape.
“I’ll be back for you!” Blackthorn promised Lord Erebus. He vaulted over the still-writhing Incantrus Veil and pelted after Aria and Tybald.
The Sorcerer of Night, curled into a ball of pain, had no immediate answer.