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


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


22.     TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES

    John Blackthorn dodged through the cluttered passages of Phoenix Landing past confused citizens who weren’t sure what was going on. Word was starting to circulate about a consortium war. Some were saying that Boss Kemp had rubbed out Boss Wennister, the biggest capo of them all!

    Ysilde tried to keep up as best she could. She wasn’t sure whether to gasp for the General to wait for her or to let him run on ahead and save who he could. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t just lay down and die as she deserved.

    She’d been such a fool! David Morningstar hadn’t encountered her by accident. He’d hunted down and courted the sixteen-year-old because her genetic inheritance made her especially suited to be the focus at the culmination of the Silent Sisters’ years-long Interlock Incantation. She had seen David as a bold romantic hero with a vision that could save Mars if only she would match his courage and become the Interface Sacrifice. He had seen her as a silly naďve girl whom he could manipulate into volunteering for the pain and horror that would propel him to godhood.

     He has made me a traitor and accessory to murder, Ysilde berated herself. I hope I die before Tybald finds out.

    Tybald! Ysilde had left her brother stunned to unconsciousness in that seedy hotel room, helpless to escape the unstoppable tide of necro-worms that was welling out of shadow-doors set as traps by Incantrus Veil.

    “Keep up!” Blackthorn roared at the maiden. Ysilde winced at the contempt she thought she heard in the General’s voice.

    The Eastside dome’s interior security barriers were closed. Blackthorn carved through them and kept on going. When he got to the Wennister compound he found a dozen or more armed Kemp thugs milling around the access passageways unsure what to do. All these entrances were blocked by unreflective black barriers – shadow-doors!

    Blackthorn’s thumb moved to the white button on his weapon’s hilt-cylinder. Then he paused. Morningstar knew what the Sword of Light could do. He’d steered Incantrus Veil towards the necro-worms because they were specifically suited to counter the Hallow blade’s abilities. The Colonel would anticipate his former C.O. using the pure light function of the weapon to burn away the shadow barrier as he had before.

    And behind that barrier, if there were billions of teeming undead energy-absorbing maggots, piled high, under pressure, waiting to spill out and devour everyone in Phoenix Landing? Morningstar had been honestly aggrieved that his escape route had been thwarted. The Colonel had genuinely expected everyone here to die.

    Blackthorn turned his blazing blade on one of the gunsels instead. “Your radio,” he demanded at sword-point.

    “It’s no good,” the thug replied tossing over the headset. “No-one inside’s answering. I think maybe they’re all dead.”

    “You’re not using the right frequency,” the General growled. He hoped he was right. He rotated the tuner thumb-wheel to the wavelength he’d set aside with Oglok for emergencies. “You still there, big fellah? Oglok?”

    There was no reply.

    Ysilde ventured up to Blackthorn timidly. “What’s happening in there? What has David done?”

    “He knew we were going after Olssen to find out about your kidnapping. His spooky buddy Incantrus Veil specialises in shadow-door magics, linking two spots together through necromantic teleport fields.” Blackthorn pointed to the sheer black barrier that kept him from whatever was going on in the compound. “Them. Olssen was booby-trapped so when he said too much these doors opened up everywhere round the stronghold, trapping all who were in the dome. The other end of the gate opened on some nest of fast-replicating hungry undead maggots that’ll consume everything they touch and spawn more of themselves.”

    Some of the milling goons overheard the General’s words. They looked even more nervously at the shadow-door and backed further off. One pointed a trembling finger at the hard plastic rim of the actual door the necromancy was blocking. “L-look!”

    The first maggots had dissolved their way through the side of the portal and dropped out to the ground. They began to spawn.

    “Everyone’s going to die!” Ysilde realised. “That’s what David said – and he meant it! I’ve helped him kill everyone at Phoenix Landing! Tybald, Aria, Oglok… even you.” She crammed her knuckles into her mouth and tried not to weep.

    Blackthorn considered his options. These swarming creatures could use the energies of the Sword of Light to replicate. Morningstar had picked them for the trap because they’d actually be attracted by the Hallows blade’s output. The first squirming burrowing column that had broken out of Wennister’s containing dome had shown that; they’d come out right where Blackthorn stood!

    The gangsters saw the maggots eating through the wall. A couple tried weapons fire but it was clear that they couldn’t stop the swarm. Most fled.

    Blackthorn turned to Ysilde. “Okay, you need to be somewhere else,” he warned the maiden. “Get back to where you left Tybald. Check that he’s okay. Wake him up if you can. And stay with him! I’ll be back to you when I can – if I can.”

    Ysilde nim Loret nodded understanding and acquiescence. She hurried away, trying to hold in her panic, trying to deal with how her life had just been casually torn apart by David Morningstar.

    Blackthorn caught one of the fleeing thugs. “Is that a Crysian personal force field projector harness you’re wearing?” he demanded.

    “So what if it is?”

    Blackthorn raised his Sword of Power. “Give it to me. This is a stick-up.”

    The thug saw the General’s face. He fumbled off the heavy straps holding the backpack in place, dropped the assembly, and pelted away.

    Blackthorn hauled the device on. The implanted knowledge of Mars’ weaponry told him what he was strapping himself to. The force field generator projected a solid bubble, proof from laser and physical attacks and some arcane energies – for around fifteen seconds. After that its power supply was exhausted and its wearer was toast. It’s military application was mostly for last-gasp do-or-die over-the-top charges.

    “He we go then, old man,” Blackthorn told himself. He looped the recharge coil round his Sword of Light, powered up the field generator and hurled himself through the black rippling rear surface of the shadow-door.

***

    He’d been right to assume that the doorways were unidirectional. The sides facing into the Wennister compound spewed out the countless seething piles of hungry necro-worms. Their transverses dropped travellers right into the heart of the deep measureless caves where the creatures spawned.

    The force field bubble around Blackthorn fizzed and sparked as it was covered with coiling masses of the slithering creatures. The General was in a short-lived energy sphere engulfed in the vast tide of seething, slithering, hunger-frenzied giant maggots.

    The field generator screeched as it stressed. Blackthorn pumped replacement energy into its short-lived batteries from his Hallows blade, renewing his protection for as long as the components of the harness didn’t burn out. The force bubble crackled as its power was leached off as quickly as the sword could renew it.

     Light, Blackthorn determined. These creatures were attracted to it. The Hallows light was the brightest of all. It would bring on a feeding madness.

    He could only flicker the blade to its luminescent mode briefly because he needed its energy dagger format to keep supplying his life-preserving harness. The momentary flash served its purpose though. Every necro-worm surrounding him spawned even as they were seared, three or four replacing every one destroyed. The sheer pressure of the maggots began to pulp them.

     Again, the soldier decided. Draw them back here. Make this place irresistible. Gourmet Dining. Draw them back here, away from Aria and Oglok and Phoenix Landing. This is the place to be, boys. Dinner’s up!

    An acrid smell filled his besieged bubble. Components of the harness overheated. Blackthorn continued to use the Sword of Light to attract the creatures and maintain the barrier. The crackling translucent sphere now looked out on mere maggot-pulp all around him as more and more of the horrors were attracted to him to be squashed by their own rapid replication.

    Fifteen minutes into Blackthorn’s strategy the bubble began to lose coherence. The personal force field projector had operated far above its original tolerances. Now it was giving up.

     You knew when you got into this that it was a one-way ticket. One last light-burst will sear away the shadow-doors and close these things off from Phoenix Landing. If I managed to draw enough of them back then the few that are left might be contained until their life-cycle ends in a couple of hours time. I might have saved Aria, Oglok, and Reith. They can carry on with saving Mars. I hope they remember me.

    I wish…

    Wishing now was pointless. The force field sputtered.

    Blackthorn switched the Sword of Light to its most fundamental setting and discharged it fully in one searing white flash.

***

    Ysilde hurried back to the same seedy room that she’d fled less than an hour earlier – but so much had changed! She’d stunned her brother and slipped away to meet her true love and save Mars. She returned a shamed fool who had betrayed everything she cared about.

    She returned knowing she had to confess what she’d done to the one person in the world she most feared hearing about it.

    She keyed in the access code and stumbled into the confined quarters blindly, lost in her own miserable guilts. Every conversation with Tybald that she played through in her head didn’t end well. And since David had doomed Phoenix Landing it was most likely a final conversation too.     

    She looked to where she’d laid her brother after she’d shot him to unconsciousness. He wasn’t there.

    “And what sort of time do you call this, honey?” Colonel Morningstar asked the maiden. “Dinner’s ruined.”

    Ysilde’s mouth fell open. She staggered back, unable to believe what she was seeing. “You died!”

    “Nope. I used a get-out-of-jail-free card.” Morningstar pointed to the shadow-door that hung in mid-air in the corner of the room. “One of them. I like to have an extra escape route handy when Blackthorn’s around.”

    “Where’s Tybald?”

    The Colonel grinned. “Your bold brother, whom you stunned and left here?” He pointed to the shadow-door again. “Through there. That leads to the sister-house at the Cathedral in Hyblaos. He’s with the Silent Sisters now.”

    “ No! ” Ysilde hadn’t thought her heart could be hurt worse.

    “Yep. If you want to save him now you’d better go and talk to them. Not that you’ll get a lot of witty banter from the Sisterhood. But chatty or not, they certainly understand that while they hold Tybald tan Throg you’ll be a good little girl for them. Won’t you?”

    The maiden knew she’d been beaten. She’d never had a chance. She closed her eyes in despair. “Yes.”

    Morningstar sniggered. “Cheer up, darling. Once the moment for the Interface Sacrifice comes round you’ll look back on these as the good times. And if by any chance you happen to survive the process we can still have that date we talked about.”

    Ysilde swallowed hard. “Why?” she asked the man she’d loved. “Why did you do it this way? Why did you make me a fool and break my heart?”

    “Why not? I like to make my own fun.” The Earthman swaggered over to her. “So, Ysilde nim Loret, your big brother was willing to brave the Deadfields and face the Sorcerer of Night himself to save you. What are you willing to do to save him?”

    Ysilde knuckled away the tears in her eyes. She shot Morningstar a venomous look, pulled herself straight, and stepped through the shadow-door back to captivity.

    Morningstar armed a proximity detonator mine to kill the next person entering the room then followed after her.

***

    Oglok the Mock-man roared as he strained to haul the plasteel cord back through the shadow-door. Princess Aria knelt behind him, blood trickling from her nose and ears.

    “Faster, please!” she begged. “I can’t keep that thing open much longer. It’s not… supposed to be… powered by living sorceresses…!”

    The Mock-man renewed his efforts, dragging the cable in hand over hand as quickly as he could.

    At last the end appeared. Edar Reith was attached to it, wearing one of the full-body environment suits that the locals kept for venturing outside during the North polar winters. He clutched Blackthorn in his arms. Blackthorn clutched the inert Sword of Light.

    Oglok had been effectively fishing through the shadow portal that Aria had forced to remain there when the rest had been seared by the Hallows flash. Reith had been the hook dangled down into stygian chasms where the final discharge of the Sword of Light’s energies had reduced the spawning necro-worms to mere disgusting goo. The Runner had used a portable sensor to half-swim half crawl his way to where Blackthorn hung amidst the disgusting inert remains.

    Aria dismissed the portal with a cry and dropped to the floor.

    Reith pulled off his helmet and vomited.

    Oglok picked up Blackthorn and shook him, roaring.

    “Ouch,” said the General, spitting out his rebreather unit and cramming his haz-mat balaclava back into its belt-pouch. “That is not on my do-again list!”

    “He’s telling jokes…” the princess hissed, still too dizzy to stand. “He survived that stupid stunt that saved us but now I am going to kill him!”

    The Arctic winters swirled in through the demolished frame, covering the half-consumed remains of so many warring thugs. Oglok gestured round to the devastated dome, now a mere worm-melted shell. He pointed out that Blackthorn, Aria, and Reith had all come out of this better than the gangsters who had clashed here and a good deal better than the fixer Nord Olssen. And also that he, Oglok the Mock-man, was awesome.

    Aria, whose arcane shields had kept the necro-worms at bay but had also cut off all communication with Blackthorn, was glad she couldn’t understand too much of the beastling’s fierce growling. “Is it me, or are these missions getting harder? Can we go back to exploring lethal ruins and facing down mad local sorcerers who want to dissect us?”

    Reith wiped his mouth. “Do you guys have committee meetings to work out ways to get me killed, or is this a spontaneous talent?” he grimaced.

    “Please tell me you got what you needed from Olssen,” Blackthorn gasped.

    “Some leads,” Aria admitted. “You and Morningstar?”

    “Blew him up. Didn’t have time to confirm the kill.” The General sat up urgently. “Oh crap! We need to get to Ysilde and Tybald right now!

***

    

    Oglok defused the proximity detonator mine. Lord Throg’s son and daughter were long gone.

    Morningstar had won.

***

CONTINUED in Chapter 23: The Hall of Tatters
in which Princess Aria visits her birthright, Blackthorn sees Mars, and the First Mens' greatest secret is revealed.

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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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