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


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


19.     WELCOME TO PHOENIX LANDING

    The geology of the north-most part of Mars was quite different from the thick tangled weed-forests of Promethei. Neither Tybald tan Throg nor his sister Ysilde nim Loret had seen anything like it. Beyond the freezing dustbowl desert of Northern Arcadia the land became ridged and cratered. Man-high hexagonal columns of natural rock rose from a cracked and frozen ground. Each morning brought thick ground-mists that obscured the travellers from the waist down and concealed the tunnel snakes that thrived in the environment. Later there was snow, and sometimes great dust-and-ice twisters scoured along the valley floors.

    The slog took four days. The only member of the group happy about it was Oglok the Mock-man. His chimera turned up on the third morning and dropped half a dead polar beat at the beastling’s feet. Oglok made a big fuss of his steed.

    Each morning, Aria delayed breaking camp by half an hour while she reinforced the counter-detection spells she’d woven round Ysilde. “I know it’s tedious, but we can’t have the Sorcerer of Night knowing where you are again. Next time Blackthorn might not be able to make me crawl through kraken-slime to save us. Just keep this talisman round your neck and it should damp down whatever magics the Silent Sisters worked on you that lets them trace you.”

    “They won’t ever stop chasing me,” the maiden predicted. “Those ceremonies I was at, they’ve been working towards something for years. Decades, maybe. I was slotted in as the final subject when they found me, when they decided they could use me as something other than Lord Erebus’…” Ysilde shuddered. Those enthralling, powerful, dead eyes still haunted her. “I don’t think they have time to start again with another girl. They need me.”

    “Well, when we get to Phoenix Landing and talk to this Olssen person we might have a clearer idea of what you were needed for. Frankly I think we’re clutching at straws and proper arcane research is the answer, but Blackthorn wants to see what Reith’s turned up so…”

    Ysilde flushed a little. “General Blackthorn… You think a lot of him, don’t you?”

    The princess frowned a little. “What do you mean? He’s a key part in our campaign for Mars and a usually-competent strategist. Rash and idealistic sometimes, but overall…”

    “I mean you think a lot about him,” the Lord Throg’s daughter clarified. “You go around with him because he’s… You like him.”

    “Don’t be silly,” Aria chided.

    “I’m not being. I know what it’s like, to admire someone so much you’d do anything for him. Someone noble and good, who wants to save the world…” Ysilde broke off and clamped her mouth shut.

    The princess looked carefully at the sixteen year old. “Who makes you feel like that?” she checked. “Please don’t say Oglok.”

    But Ysilde would say no more.

    She waited until they got to Phoenix Landing before she discretely slipped off Aria’s warding talisman.

***

    

    “This isn’t a city,” Tybald objected as they passed through one of the lock-gates into the shambling sprawl of the free merchant city. “This is a midden heap of leftovers!”

    Where Tortugos had been constructed from the debris of the sea, Phoenix Landing had been riveted together from the first temporary accommodations of the first colonists to land on the red planet. Those early Martian dwellings, on a world not yet terraformed with breathable air or usable soil, not even having altered gravity of 9.6 metres per second squared, had been solid, plastic, rugged, and unattractive.

    The enclosed city interior was sheltered from the dust-devils and sudden blizzards outside at the cost of being crowded, stuffy, claustrophobic, and dim. Lighting came from gaudy neon strips that painted the booth-lined thoroughfares with lurid colours and left the narrow connecting alleys in dark shadow. The constant throb of the deep mining machines producing the ore that bought Phoenix Landing’s independence reverberated through every wall and floor.

    Oglok rubbed his head and complained that the whole place had been designed by dwarves.

    Ysilde kept close to her brother. “This is where all the traders come from, isn’t it?” she remembered. “All those fast-talking vendors who come to court to sell weapons or warbots.” Even on the other side of the world in sub-topical Promethei the hardy merchant companies of Phoenix Landing bartered and bought.

    Aria remembered her own socio-political briefings on the free town. “This place isn’t really a nation as we’d understand it, or even a city as such. It’s a collection of urban settlements salvaged from older dwellings, each ruled by one or more somewhat shady trading organisations. They collectively offer tithe and varying degrees of bribe to the First Men to be left alone to their own internal wranglings. As long as the ores keep coming and the traders facilitate sales deals that the Sorcerers would never allow to happen directly between Domains they are more or less tolerated.”

    “Sort of like Tortugos but with a licence?” suggested Blackthorn.

    “Sort of like Cryse in the private sector,” Aria warned. “Everything has a monetary value here. Property, rights, human life. You buy everything, even the right to exist. Or so I’ve been instructed.”

    “Somewhere you’ve never been?” Blackthorn teased the princess.

    “There are quite a few bleak holes you’ve dragged me to for the first time, John Blackthorn.”

    Oglok noted that standing around debating like tourists was a good way to get noticed and killed. It would be better to find the rendezvous point and meet with Reith.

    Tybald felt a bump on his leg as a small child carelessly barrelled into him. “Hey!” he objected. Then a moment later, “My coin-pouch!”

    The infant pelted away and rolled into a drain-duct too small for an adult to squirm after.

    “Welcome to Phoenix Landing,” said Aria grimly.

    The lord’s son frowned. “That boy took the better part of fifteen strips. But… I think he put something in my pocket too!” He pulled out a grubby scrap of paper and read it: “Beware. You are in a trap. Surrounded.

    Blackthorn and Oglok both scanned the crowded walkway without seeming to. “Two layabouts lounging by the grubrat stall. Whore with suspiciously short-trimmed nails. People at those upper storey air-vents at nine and eleven o’clock,” the General breathed under his breath.

    The Mock-man snarled that there were two men in long coats that smelled of energy-pack ozone, meaning concealed power weapons. The spice cart behind them had a sinister buzz. The old man hobbling past walked with the wrong weight distribution unless he was carrying something heavy.

    “Two shrieker emitters fixed on the lighting girders,” Aria contributed, extending her arcane senses to pick up unusual aura signatures. “Fellow pretending to buy a news disc has some kind of sorcery amplification tech, I think a bolt-on thaumic harvester grid. Kiddie-stuff. Big oaf in ill-fitting sweat-vest is packing three neural grenades that I’ve just remotely neutralised.”

    “We’re expected then,” Blackthorn noted. “Everyone ready? Tybald, your job is to…”

    “I can protect myself,” Ysilde argued testily. “I’ve been trained too.”

    The General turned to the Mock-man that loomed beside him. “Oglok, go.”

    The beastling swung round without warning, grabbed the humming spice cart, and hurled it at the men with the power weapons.

    “Flash!” called Blackthorn, and his people knew by then to shield their eyes as he emitted a blinding and sensor-overloading brightness from the Sword of Light.

    Aria contemptuously unleashed a shaped arcane charge that curved into the tech-wizard and discharged his stored arcane energies into the local power grids. The shrieker-pods overloaded and exploded in showers of sparks. For good measure she swung her arm and physically levitated the unfortunate sorcerer into the ambushers by the grubrat stand.

    Tybald caught the big thug on his vibra-blade and turned to find that Ysilde had cut down another with her dagger and was looking at her blade in shocked surprise; it was her first combat.

    The old man pulled an antique disruptor cannon from under his long-coat. Blackthorn sliced off the end of it and planted an elbow in its wielder’s face. He flipped his Hallows blade to laser mode to send the ambitious gunsels by the tattoo parlour fleeing for shelter, then cleared the area with a fireball when he was certain that civilians had scattered and the enemy were hunkered down in cover.

    The lights and power in the whole sector went out. It surprised both sides alike.

    Oglok continued to tear apart the enemy. His other senses were keen enough that even absolute darkness did not deter him. His bestial sounds set most of the remaining attackers fleeing blindly from the confused lightless melee.

    Blackthorn could still see by his Sword of Light. He cut down a dangerous assailant who actually knew how to use a kinetic axe and cast around for an exit.

    A trapdoor in the ceiling hinged open. Edar Reith hung down and beckoned.

    “That way,” Blackthorn called to the others. Oglok and the General kept up the scare on the would-be ambushers while Tybald passed first Ysilde then Aria into the service tunnel above. Oglok practically hurled the lordling after them, leaped up himself with minimal effort, then swing Blackthorn in behind him.

    Reith dropped a handful of automated stunner drones into the thoroughfare below and sealed the hatch on their muffled screeches. “You got my note then,” the head of the secret Runners resistance movement observed. “Sorry I couldn’t get you out without distracting those hirelings first.”

    He headed off into a maze of technician’s tunnels. The others scrambled after him.

    “Why in particular were they after us today?” Aria demanded. “How did they even know we were coming?” She frowned worriedly at Ysilde.

    Reith kicked open another panel that let them down into an all-night bakery. “My guess would be that the guy who was behind Ysilde’s kidnapping knows you pretty well and set up a welcome,” he warned the adventurers. “Turns out that was Colonel David Morningstar.”

     David! Ysilde’s heart leaped. They’d found out that much?

    “David!” exclaimed Princess Aria. “Of course. That makes much more sense.”

     David? Ysilde noted. She calls him David? A prick of jealousy spurred the Promethan girl, tinged with a twinge of despair. How could she compete for her glorious hero against the princess?

    Blackthorn’s face twisted into an angry scowl. “Morningstar set up the kidnapping, then betrayed the raiders when he had ‘em free Incantrus Veil. He used that slaver-woman then left her with that lethal Fatal Laughter bio-weapon. He probably warned the Sorcerer of Night that we’d be heading for the Cathedral. Lots of sneaky manipulative backstabbing. This stinks of him!”

     David said they wouldn’t understand, Ysilde remembered. They don’t know what he’s really like.

    “Yeah, I’ve been wading knee-deep in Morningstar crap since I got here,” Reith admitted. “It’s pretty clear he expected the Olssen trail to get followed up. Might even have left it open so’s that you’d get pulled here if you took too much interest in his scheme. Set me up to walk into a trap at a dive called Mama Shore-Leave’s. Hired local talent called Still-Eyes Stegis to see that I didn’t get out again.”

    “But you didn’t go,” Tybald surmised.

    “Oh, I went,” Reith answered tersely. He didn’t mention the atmospheric control malfunction that had preceded his arrival, venting arsenic gas into the secure levels of that insalubrious establishment, nor the computer virus that had transformed the security systems into a chain of lethal self-destruct mechanisms. By the time the Runner had arrived there had been little in the way of resistance to his questions about Nord Olssen’s location. And Still-Eyed Stegis, who had ordered the death of Mel’s courier, would henceforth be known as Blind Stegis.

    Edar Reith didn’t have the benefits of a Sword of Light or an Earth morality. He had to rely on terror and work every advantage he could.

    From the bakery it was a short walk along back alleys to Reith’s rented room – just long enough to wolf down the crystallised cherry buns they’d liberated. Blackthorn and his companions crowded into the cramped hire-by-the-hour cubicle that the Runner had chosen because it worked on automated credit tokens rather than a human concierge.

    Once settled he quickly brought the General up to date on what he’d learned. “So Morningstar knew that the Silent Sisters would spot that Ysilde was something special beyond the usual virgin bride-fodder and promote her to the starring role in their big-ass ritual,” the Runner concluded. “Dunno yet what the hell they intend for her in that…”

    “Interlock Incantation,” Aria supplied.

    “Yeah. But a smart bard kid who knows how to ask the right questions has a real interesting theory about why they picked her.”

    Ysilde nim Loret looked up. “Why?” she asked. Morningstar had never told her.

    Reith pointed a finger at Lord Throg’s daughter. “Cause you have an Ancient bloodline, darling,” he told her. “We ran the DNA on your hairbrush from back home. Go back enough generations and you are related to the Royal House of Mars, the imperial Arcantrixes themselves.”

    “What?” Aria snapped.

    “She can trace her lineage right back to the ancestors of Lost Queen Rhapsody.”

    Ysilde brightened. “Really? Grand-mama always claimed we had Ancient blood in us, but there was never proof.”

    Aria, secretly the daughter of the Lost Queen of Mars, scowled. “There are thousands of people alive today who have some scrap of Arcantrix DNA somewhere. Damn near every magus, hedge-wizard, bone-witch, technopath and spirit-caller for starters. The ones with the best gene matches tend to get drafted by the First Men as test subjects. Or brood-mares.” Ever since Queen Rhapsody had become the only woman to bring a First Man’s child to term and have it survive its first few weeks after birth, the rulers of Mars had been convinced that the Arcantrix lineage was a key to overcoming the sterility that was the price of their immense powers.

    “Ysilde turns out to be a pretty strong match in her dominant genes,” Reith admitted. “I’m only aware of one other person alive who’s a closer fit.”

    “Who’s that?” Ysilde wondered.

    “Doesn’t matter,” Aria insisted emphatically. “So the Sorcerer of Night should have snapped you up as one of his brides, really. Yet he decided to use you for something else? Something even more important to him?”

    “We came all this way hoping that this Olssen guy might know what that something was,” Blackthorn reminded everyone. “Have you found him, Reith, or is he another loose end come to a messy finish as part of Morningstar’s clean-up campaign?”

    “I found where he is.” Reith was pretty sure Stegis was telling him the truth about it by the end. “What do you know about this place?”

    “Phoenix Landing was included in the fact-packs shoved into my head when I was reborn on Mars. I think Aria’s got the same module in her head, judging by the facts she’s been spouting.”

    “I do not spout, John Blackthorn. I enlighten,” the princess insisted.

    Reith gestured at the seedy base. “Yeah, well if your brain-dumps didn’t tell you that the whole town’s run by a bunch of competing mobs it missed the point. Criminals cartels rule this place. Each has its own turf, each has its own rackets, each has its own private army. One of the biggest and nastiest is Boss Wennister. Used to run tech and slaves for Lord Ruin. I guess this is his retirement cottage. Controls the drugs, prostitution, gaming and organ harvesting on the east side.”

    Oglok groaned that this was leading up to Wennister having Olssen, wasn’t it? They were going to have to storm a well-defended gangster’s stronghold, fight their way through dozens of gunsels, and take down the bad guy in his own lair. Then he snarled that on consideration that wasn’t actually a bad way to spend an afternoon.

    “If your hairy friend just guessed that Olssen went to Wennister for protection then he’s right,” Reith warned. “It’s another trap, of course.”

    “Morningstar loves to play tricky,” Blackthorn growled.

    “And you love to beat him,” Aria pointed out.

    “Well… maybe a little.”

***

    “He’ll be along, soon, Boss Wennister,” Colonel Morningstar cautioned the east-side crimelord. “He’s resourceful and clever and he’ll come at you in ways you don’t expect. Be prepared. Watch out for the tricks I warned you about.”

    “We’re ready,” Wennister assured the Colonel. “You sure he’s coming?”

    “That was why I set up an ambush for him in the street. Blackthorn can’t resist a loud fight. He might as well have handed out business cards.”

    “He’s coming here for Olssen? Here?”

    “It’s a sickness with him, breaking into strongholds and casting down villains. He’ll come.”

    “Then he is a fool.”

    “Yep, but a very competent one. I promised you a chance to collect a massive reward from any of the First Men, didn’t I? If you can hand them Blackthorn, Aria, and Oglok then you can name your price. So be ready – but prepare for war.”

***

CONTINUED in Chapter 20: The Trojan Goat
in which General Blackthorn demonstrates how to take down a criminal organisation with a particularly pungent kind of cheese. Really.

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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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