The Mapkeeper was blind. He only carried a torch so that Blackthorn and his companions could thread their way down the winding banisterless stairway into the Hall of Tatters.
“Mind your step,” the ancient warned. “If you fall you might stain the documents when you burst open.”
Oglok the Mock Man growled low in his throat. He didn’t like the musty smell from the deep cavern, nor the cold ice-mists that rose from the deep fissures below. He padded after Blackthorn and Princess Aria, alert for danger.
Aria took Blackthorn’s hand and led him forward eagerly. “This is it,” she told the warrior. “This is why we came so far across the wasteland.”
John Blackthorn allowed himself to be dragged. He’d rarely seen the princess so excited to show him something. It was the first time in the five days since Ysilde and Tybald had been taken that she’d stopped fretting and brooding. She almost skipped after the Mapkeeper as he approached the rear wall of the Hall of Tatters.
“Did these monks or whatever they are tell you why they sent for you, princess?” Blackthorn asked. “Or even how?”
“They’ll get round to it, John. These people work at a different pace. We measure every minute in our battle with the First Man. They operate over ages, hoarding the last remnants of Ancient knowledge, generation after generation.”
“Yeah, but Morningstar’s got Tybald and Ysilde, and he seems to think whatever the Silent Sisters did to Lord Throg’s daughter will be the key to him getting everything he wants. I don’t have generation after generation. Even five minutes wasted might be the difference between saving our friends or dooming Mars.”
Aria caught the Earthman’s arm. “John, listen. There are some things about this world that you still don’t know, can’t know. Sometimes you have to trust me. This is one of them. You needed to come here. I needed to bring you. So go with it. Please?”
Oglok grumbled and asked if this place was so important why hadn’t they come before?
Aria shook her head. “It took me a long time to admit that General Blackthorn needed to come here, to this sacred secret place. Longer still before I trusted him enough to bring him here. And even for me this Hall is by invitation only. If you’re not called you won’t find it.”
Blackthorn thought of the long trek over the bleak ice-rimed mountains. Wherever this legendary repository was it had remained hidden from the First Men for all the years of their rule.
Oglok rumbled unhappily. He didn’t like the idea of leaving Tybald and Ysilde captured. He’d almost gone with Reith to try and discover where the Prometheans might have been taken.
“We’re here now,” Blackthorn pointed out. “Let’s see what they want to show us.”
The Mapkeeper made his way onto the flagstoned platform where the tall racks of parchment were scrolled. The library rested on a natural shelf protruding out over the deep clefts into the ice field. Oglok stayed near the twisting steps that were his only exit.
“The scrolls here are copies of documents that were written by the Ancients themselves,” Aria whispered to Blackthorn. “Things that have been expurgated or lost everywhere else. Information that even the First Men believe is gone forever. The brothers devote their lives to maintaining these materials, by ancient charge.”
“Charge from who?”
“From the royal family of Mars from before the chaos times,” answered the princess, but said no more.
The Mapkeeper raised his torch. The flickering flames illuminated a long dusty tapestry, fully sixty feet wide and twenty high. Blackthorn’s eyes widened.
“A map,” he recognised. “A map of Mars!”
“That’s what you said you needed, wasn’t it?” Aria reminded him. “The First Men guard their territories jealously, protect knowledge of their domains from their adversaries. The same techno-magics which grant Mars its gravity and atmosphere prevent long-range electromagnetic communications and scanning. I know of no other comprehensive world-map outside the Sorcerers’ personal vaults than this one.”
Blackthorn stepped forward to look at the marvel. When he touched the tapestry he found the weave strange and plastic. He wondered just how long this remarkable image had hung in this freezing cave.
The Mapkeeper seemed to read his mind. “This was made in the First Days, when the First Men made their pacts to prevent such terrible war between them as would shatter the planet. It shows the world as it had become then and defined the locus of each Sorcerer’s territory.”
All Mars was torn by the disputes of the four First Man, undying beings who had mastered the lost technology of the Ancients to raise themselves to power; power that had been unquestioned until Blackthorn had challenged the way things had been for as long as history recorded it.
Blackthorn’s fingers traced the high contour of Nix Olympus, the largest volcano in the Solar System, where the Black Sorcerer had woken him in new flesh. “This is where I started,” he recognised. The Sorcerer had expected an obedient servant to general his armies of conquest. He had found an implacable adversary who strove to overturn the tyrants that had defined this strange new world. “This is where I met you, Aria. You and Oglok.”
The princess nodded. “All of this territory between Xanthe and the Amazonis Sea is the Domain of the Black Sorcerer. Beyond that the Foundries of Cryse mark the machine-realms of the Lord of Fatal Laughter, where robotic predators stalk and whole cities march. More easterly still, across the Arabian Sea, lies the deep forests and bleak mountains under the rule of the Sorcerer of Night. There the dead walk.”
Blackthorn saw Aria shudder. “It’s helpful to see it all laid out like this.” He pointed to the southern pole, where the Domain of Lord Ruin touched upon the territories of each of his rivals. “So all of the First Men have a border with each of the others.”
“The territory each controls shifts with time,” the princess qualified, “but yes, that is how the world is carved between them.”
Blackthorn looked at some of the more unusual features. He’d passed across many of them. “The Warfields,” he read. “The Hesperia Deadfields.” He also recognised the Valles Marineris, the deepest chasm on Mars, but other names remained mere dry accumulations of encyclopaedia data downloaded into his mind by the Black Sorcerer’s reincarnation machines. “The Helias Blood Sea?”
Aria shuddered. “We will not speak of that.”
Blackthorn turned his attention to the detail of the map. The two great seas of Mars were dotted with islands. Did Captain Korzan even now foment rebellion on those Windward Isles? Did others manage to evade the gaze of the First Men? What of the distant north, beyond Phoenix Landing where probes from Lost Earth first came to the red planet? What about the remote mountains beyond the easy reach of any of Mars’ overlords? Were there men and resources there that could be assembled to fight back against the tyrants?
Or did victory lie in provoking the Sorcerers to committing more and more of their resources against each other? Could the pact that limited their warfare be broken? Should it? Would destroying the First Men mean destroying all life on Mars with them?
“This is useful, Aria,” Blackthorn admitted, “but I don’t see how this helps with our urgent priorities.”
“You are looking in the wrong place,” said the Mapkeeper.
Blackthorn had almost forgotten about the blind old man holding the torch. He had no idea how the keeper of the Hall of Tatters might know where he was looking. “What do you mean?” the warrior asked.
The Mapkeeper gestured to a place on the map. “There,” he suggested. “That place.”
Blackthorn squinted at the indicated spot. “Uranius Tholos?” The site was somewhere in the northern territories of the Black Sorcerer, in the thick forests east of the Lycos Plains and south of docile Alba Patera. “I’ve never heard of it.” He glanced over at Aria.
The princess mentally reviewed all the data downloaded into her own brain by the Black Sorcerer’s education technology. “I’m unfamiliar with it too. That is, I’ve never had anything implanted about it. But the name sounds… familiar.”
“That is why Father De’bias directed you to us,” the Mapkeeper explained.
Blackthorn jerked his gaze away from the chart. “De’bias? That spooky old scholar who wrote a commentary on your Martian holy books? The guy who disappeared off to be a nomad on the island of Albus, which turned out to be a ruined, psychically twisted wreck of a Harmony Spire?”
“The man who seemed to know far too much about us and our future,” Aria added with a shudder. Father De’bias’ questions had been far too perceptive for the princess’ liking. “We’ve been trying to track him down again. Is he here?”
“Not at present,” the Mapkeeper replied. “Although the holy man is always welcomed in this Hall of Tatters. However, he requested that you be directed to Uranius Tholos to continue your quest, and that certain information be imparted to enable you to elect your course of action.”
Blackthorn hissed. He wasn’t a big fan of enigmatic whitebeards pushing his buttons from a distance.
“What do you have to tell us, Mapkeeper?” Aria asked more politely.
The Mapkeeper bowed very low. “Highness, the Interlock Incantation is the penultimate part of a suite of magics mutually researched by the First Men.”
“Mutually?” objected Blackthorn. “As in together?” The General couldn’t think of any reason why those four ravening egomaniacs would ever collaborate on anything.
“They did act in concert sometimes, at the start,” Aria recalled. “They jointly empowered the Crystal City, for example. A very long time ago.”
The Mapkeeper shuffled over to a table where he’d got a massive iron-bound tome already opened at a complicated diagram. Blackthorn was able to translate the old-Martian runes as thaumaturgic calculations and descriptions of processes, but little more. It was like looking at an engineering diagram for a magic spell, covered in jargon and cross-sections and specific measurements.
Aria sucked in her breath. “This is a remarkable piece of casting,” she recognised. Her eager hands were still careful in turning the dried leaves of the old book. She paused at an engraving of a double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid. A translucent overlay mapped a similar anti-parallel twisted base-pair ladder of arcane codings. “Do you know what this is, John?”
“One’s DNA,” Blackthorn recognised. “The other…?”
“This DNA is the genetic code of the House Arcantrix, the hereditary rulers of Mars,” Aria supplied.
“Ysilde’s genetic forebears.”
And mine, the princess did not add. “The other is the arcane aura spiracles – call it the magical equivalent of DNA that exists alongside the genetic codings in all life on Mars. The right combination grants sorcerous propensities. This base pattern is the blueprint for a Queen of Mars.”
Blackthorn frowned. “The Incantation requires royalty to work? It’ll only be effective using Ancient royal blood?”
“Effectively, yes.” Aria flicked backwards through the volume. “There are massively complicated set-ups, dozens of rites of preparation taking decades to do. Then it all focuses on a suitable subject who is primed for… something.”
“Which is what happened to Lady Ysilde. The Sorcerer of Night is planning some massive necromantic event…”
“No. No, he’s using necromancies because that’s what he knows and likes. The techniques aren’t important. Like if a cooking recipe called for a pint of boiling water it wouldn’t care whether you’d heated it in a kettle, used a microwave, or raided a scalding spring. If the Black Sorcerer cast this spell he’d use his arcane energy machineries. Lord Ruin would probably split fundamental particles to shape it. I don’t want to think how Fatal Laughter might do it. But they’d all end up with the same end effect on their subject: a pure maiden who would then be this Interface Sacrifice and could trigger the final act of this rite.”
“So any of the First Man could do this if they grabbed a girl of royal descent,” Blackthorn frowned.
“Only one with the right gene-code and matching arcane aura, but yes.”
“Then the others might be trying this as well, even now, racing to some end that Morningstar knows about but we don’t.”
“No,” contributed the Mapkeeper. “They are not.”
“Why not?” demanded Aria. “Speak.”
“It is not their turn,” the blind curator answered simply.
Blackthorn shook his head. “Since when do the First Men wait their turns?” he demanded explosively.
“When their future existence depends upon it,” answered the Mapkeeper.
Blackthorn cast a desperate glance at the princess. “Aria…!” he appealed.
The sorceress flicked forward through the tome. “Hold on… Whole set of supplementary divinations on the Interface Sacrifice to find out some affinity… Some link the process has formed between here and some geographical location…”
“Uranius Tholos!” Blackthorn guessed. The Mapkeeper bowed.
“And then… some massively complex power transfer calculations in the… that’s not possible. This transfer is in yottathaums!”
“A thaum is a unit of magical work, like a joule is of mundane energy,” Aria snapped impatiently. “A yottathaum is 10 to the power of 24 thaums. That’s a one with 24 zeros after it, a quadrillion if you prefer. This energy transfer shifts about three hundred yottathaums, only slightly less than the total energy output of the sun. But where from and where to?”
She flicked to the end of the book. The final pages were blank.
“The spell is completed once the Transition Sacrifice is primed,” the Mapkeeper noted. “When the location is discovered and the lunar juxtapositions are right the trigger need only be set in place and activated.”
“You mean Ysilde,” Blackthorn concluded. “And when are the moons in position for, er, yottathaum relocation?”
Aria checked the volume and scuttled back to the map. “Night after tomorrow,” she calculated. “3.17 am Crystalia Mean Time, 11.17pm at Nix Olympus local.
Silence returned to the shadowed Hall of Tatters as the princess thought. The giant ice crystals on the high stalactites sparkled in the torchlight like artificial stars. White mists shifted slowly in the abyss below the library ledge. Brown-robed scholar-monks occasionally appeared from the scriptorium galleries to return or take some document for study or copying.
Blackthorn regarded the remarkable world map and planned his campaign again.
Aria’s vile oath drew his attention back to the princess. She stood bolt upright, her fists clenched, his face flushed with rage. Blackthorn had seen the passionate sorceress angry many times, but never so furious as this. “Aria?” he ventured.
“I know, now,” she replied through gritted teeth. “I know why De’bias sent me here. I know why the Sorcerer of Night wanted Ysilde. I know – or suspect – what Morningstar hopes to do to set himself to rule Mars instead of the First Men. I know what the Interlock Incantation does and what an Interface Sacrifice is for. I can guess why Incantrus Veil was released. And at last – at long last – I know exactly how the four Sorcerers got their power and how they are going to destroy us all!”
“Go on,” breathed Blackthorn.
Aria tapped the grimoire. “This spell will empower the First Men – or Morningstar – for another hundred years or more. It will fill them with the immortal energies that place them as sorcerer-gods above all others. It is the secret of their power, the one thing they cannot afford not to collaborate on. Ysilde isn’t the sacrifice to get this power, though. She is become the interface. This ritual will sacrifice one of the Harmony Spires of Mars – and steal its magics for the First Men’s pleasure!”
Blackthorn turned to the Mapkeeper. “That’s what’s at Uranius Tholos, isn’t it? One of the Harmony Spires that sustains life on Mars?”
“Yes,” replied the old man quietly.
“And the First Men are going to kill it,” declared Princess Aria.