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


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


24.     DISRUPTED HARMONY

    War Chief Anton Yuei dropped the dead väki at his feet and kicked it aside. “Bring up the flamethrower mechanoids,” he ordered as calmly as if he had not just beaten to death a stag-horned forest guardian with his bare hands. “I want everything round this tower cleared for a mile perimeter. 63rd Airborne start blanket-bombing sectors nine through sixteen. 3rd Chemical Infantry push in from the south. Press the enemy towards the Chain Troopers and Lizard-Men. Ticktockmen begin sorting through the slain opposition for anything we can use.”

    The Black Sorcerer’s general looked down at the creature he’d just killed. It had been seven feet tall even without the antler rack, bronzed-brown like a copper beech tree, humanoid enough to wield weapons carrying thaumic charge. It had packed quite a punch when it had leaped from cover to try and assassinate him.

    “Any idea what the hell this thing was, Anastimia?” he asked the mirror-eyed Sensorine scanner woman beside him.

    The albino turned her technology-enhanced senses on the creature. “It is a metsän väki, one of an indigenous race of forest-dwelling sentients previously logged in this area. They are recorded as being naturally adept at arcane manipulation, tool-using, territorial, and aggressive. They are capable of communication.”

    “This one tried to communicate his spear to my gut,” Yuei noted. “How did he get past the screen?”

    “I am picking up traces of a localised dimension-stitch. I believe he was capable of short-range teleportation.”

    Yuei turned to his Chief Robot-Caller. “Isolate the jump frequency this freak used and set up a jamming field from all the heavy metal. Let’s assume he wasn’t alone. Send in half a dozen walkers pumping out high end sonics to flush out any more ambushers.”

    Behind him the legions of the Black Sorcerer began to clear the primal forest at the base of the Harmony Spire.

    “We will experience difficulties with our arcane and electronic command and control systems,” Anastimia predicted. “The tower is pumping out significant chaff signals that can overwhelm our baffling.”

    “Is that usual for a Harmony Spire?”

    Anastimia looked up at the half-mile high twisted column of crystal that rose into a troubled cloudy sky. “There is no such thing as usual regarding Harmony Spires,” the Sensorine admitted. “However, it would seem that this particular structure is emitting a distress signal.”

    “All the more reason to clear this area of anything that might respond. Black matter bombing is authorised. Get ground troops out of sectors one through five for starters and turn everything there into a steaming crater. We don’t have time to be pretty, so let’s at least be thorough.”

    Anastimia crooked her head as new data poured through her advanced sensory systems. “A carriage of the Sorcerer of Night bearing diplomatic thaumaturgies has just entered zone eighteen,” she reported.

    Yuei spat. “Trust Morningstar to turn up at the least convenient time. Don’t trust him for anything else. Who else is aboard?”

    “No-one save for the coachman, but there is an active shadow-door harnessed to the interior. I am unable to scan beyond its surface.”

    “Yeah, that’d be about right. Okay, put the word out, best behaviour. But if he gives you the excuse and we can call it a treaty breach I want that sucker fragged.”

    Yuei turned back to regard the Harmony Spire. The sheer magnitude of the structure disturbed him. Its translucent crystal reflected light oddly, in rainbow arcs. Sometimes the tower felt like it was watching him.

    The War Chief’s hand drifted to his Kan amulet. The metal plate was welded into his chest now, a permanent link to his master the Black Sorcerer and the First Man’s. It made Yuei the Black Sorcerer’s most powerful emissary.

    This close to the Spire the amulet was actually warm.

    The black and silver liveried coach arrived soundlessly in the cleared command zone. It travelled slightly out of phase with its surroundings, shifting through some twilight sub-dimension to ease its passage. Yuen was sure that the horses pulling it were no more horses than the wheeled vehicle they drew was an old travelling coach, but the Sorcerer of Night liked the trappings of antiquity.

    The carriage halted and David Morningstar jumped out. “Anton! Looking good, buddy. Being an obedience-slaved minion of the Black Sorcerer suits you!”

    Yuei sneered. “You weren’t funny back on Earth when we served in the U.S. Army. You’re not funny now. No-one here is impressed with you but yourself, Morningstar.”

    “Is that what the Black Sorcerer thinks?” the smirking opportunist teased, “Or are there still some Yuei prejudices rattling around in there as well?”

    “Where’s the Transition Sacrifice, Morningstar? Where’s the Sorcerer of Night’s emissary?”

    “The girl’s beyond the shadow-door your lovely companion Sensorine has no doubt detected.” Morningstar turned to Anastimia. “Hello, my dear. I had the pleasure of meeting what was left of one of your kind in the Lord of Fatal Laughter’s Toyshop of Delights. And of course I once used your boss Malathea as a hostage. Let’s do lunch sometime.”

    “You need to produce the girl,” Yuei insisted. “We’ve got to validate the Interlock Incantation, according to the First Compact of the Crystal Dome, and…”

    “Yeah, I read it. Tedious stuff. Reads like it was written by committee. But little Ysilde’s staying where she is for now until the other reps get here. That way you can all run your scans at once and minimise my boredom.”

    The War Chief examined Morningstar with suspicion. “What’s your angle here, traitor? And when you located this girl, why run with her to the Sorcerer of Night? Any of the First Men would have rewarded you for her. Why him?”

    “Because he has such a lovely line in velvet décor? Because I hadn’t had a deal gone bad with him yet? Because of his warm and sparkling personality? Who knows?”

    “I am watching you, Morningstar. Give me an excuse and I’ll end you.”

    “Wow. It must really burn you up, having decided you wanted no part in the First Men’s wars, to have been grabbed and obedience branded into service of the Black Sorcerer anyway. How does it feel to be his third choice for commander in chief of his armies?”

    Anastimia interrupted. “War Chief, the other emissaries have entered my scanner range. The Motley Loon and Bloodmistress Sovereign have arrived.”

    “Well then,” responded Morningstar, “better break out the canapés, sweetheart.”

***

    “He’s planning what?” Tybald tan Throg shouted at his distraught sister.

    “Please, Ty… I don’t know what to say any more. I’m sorry, so sorry I ever started this!”

    “So you said, plenty. Tell it to Newsam’s kids. But first explain to me how-in-Acheron the Sorcerer of Night intends to suck the life out of a Harmony Spire of Mars!”

    The mysterious Harmony Spires dotted the planet’s surface. Nobody knew how many there were; even the huge map in the Hall of Tatters did not mark them all. They were wonders shrouded in rumour: They had survived whatever apocalypse had destroyed the civilisation of the men who had first come to Mars and tamed it for human habitation. They were the source of the magic that sustained arcane machines both cunning and bizarre and which wizards could draw upon at will. They were the means by which the engines the Ancients had buried in the planet’s core maintained the conditions of life.

    And every hundred years or so, another of them died, falling in shattered shards.

    “You’re saying that the First Men break them up to… to mine them for magic?” Tybald demanded.

    “Yes,” Ysilde nim Loret confessed. “How do you think the First Men rose to power? What distinguished them from the thousands of warlords and petty tyrants that reigned during the long decline and the chaos years? But when they discovered how to syphon the power of a Harmony Spire they became as gods.”

    “And you know this how? From this David Morningstar you eloped with?”

    “I didn’t elope! I just wanted to help him to divert that power, to trick the First Men and steal that energy so it could be used for good, to free Mars from the Sorcerers’ grip forever.”

    “By giving it to Colonel Morningstar so he could become supreme ruler instead? Emperor Morningstar and Empress Ysilde?”

    The girl winced. “I didn’t know what he was like. I thought I… no, I did love him. Then he took that love and turned it into a weapon to stab the people and things I care about the most.”

    That paused Tybald in his tirade for a moment. “So what’s his plan?” the noble’s son demanded.

    Ysilde swallowed and tried to clean up her face where she’d been sobbing. “I was sent to the Silent Sisters, supposedly to be considered as a Bride of Night, one of Lord Erebus’ undead consorts. But because of my lineage – my DNA, David called it - I’d be identified as a suitable candidate for this generation’s Transition Sacrifice. I’d be saved from the Sorcerer of Night and prepared with the long-wrought Interlock Incantation that tuned me to a Harmony Spire.”

    “That’s why you ran back to the Sisters when we came to save you,” Tybald understood. “You wanted them to finish the spell. And while Blackthorn, Aria and I were wrestling with nightmare the Sorcerer of Night completed it on you.”

    “Yes. Then they’d discern exactly which Harmony Spire I’d attuned to, and when the lunar juxtapositions were right I’d be taken there to open up the Spire so the First Men could leach its power. They have an ancient pact about that, dividing the energies between them to sustain them for another century or so.”

    “They suck the life out of Mars, destroying the very technology we need to survive as a species, to maintain their empires!” Tybald scorned.

    “Yes. Did you think them benevolent?”

    “Of course not. But this…!”

    “The difference this time was that Morningstar had discovered Incantrus Veil, trapped for so long in that cellar in the Deadfields, bitter and powerful and with the ability to shadow-door spells laid upon a person to someone else.”

    “Like he did with the obedience magics that once forced him to follow the Sorcerer of Night. I take it Erebus doesn’t know about that yet?”

    “I guess not. So Veil can shift those magics that the ritual laid on me, which are meant to channel the Spire’s power to the first men. Instead he’ll shadow-door the links into Morningstar so that David gets the energies instead. All of them. He’ll be instantly as powerful as the four First Men together. And then…”

    “And then he’ll be able to do whatever he likes,” spat Tybald.

    “Yes.” Ysilde cradled her head in her arms. “I’ve been such a fool. I wanted to save Mars. Now I’ve made it worse.”

    “Pretty much.” The young man tugged his sister’s hair. “On the bright side, it turns out I’m not the screw-up of the family.”

    Ysilde ignored the attempt at a joke. “Ty, you have to kill me. I mean it. Right now. Break my neck, strangle me, something. If I’m dead I can’t be the Interface Sacrifice!”

    “Can’t and won’t, sis. And you’re forgetting that spirit-geas thing that the Sisters laid on you. Even if you die you go to the Sorcerer of Night. Do you want to bet he hasn’t got some horrible contingency to get you to the Spire anyhow to do the job? Why put that necromancy on you if not for that?”

    Ysilde’s indrawn breath betrayed that she had forgotten that terrible insurance. “How… how did it go this wrong, Ty? I never meant… I didn’t want to get General Blackthorn and the others killed at Phoenix Landing. I waited to signal my position until we were somewhere they could escape. I didn’t expect David to be willing to kill the whole colony just to get them.”

    “Yeah, well, turns out ‘David’ isn’t quite the shining knight you thought he was. And now ‘David’ is going to plug you in to the life-force of Mars and make you into a faucet that gives him absolute power. And much as I want to punch his teeth in there’s nothing we can do to…”

    The young lordling fell silent. Without warning the Incantrus Veil was in the room with them. “It is time,” the dark creature announced.

***

    “Hello, sweetheart,” Morningstar smiled at Bloodmistress Sovereign. “Can I say what a huge improvement you are over all those spiky-armoured Bloodmasters that Lord Ruin keeps fielding. I’ve always been a big fan of chainmail bikinis on curvy warrior-woman. How do you feel on the subject of jello?”

    “David Morningstar,” the metal-strip-clad emissary of the Lord of the South noted. “They told me you were slick with the ladies. What a shame they were wrong.”

    “I like her,” Yuei approved. He turned to the gaunt mascara-eyed freak in the faded coloured rags. “And you’re the Motley Loon, I guess.”     

    “Yes.”

    “You’ve not got something funny to say, then? ‘Cause the other players here are turning out to be laugh riots.”

    “No.”

    “Oh, you won’t get much fun out of old Motley,” Sovereign warned. “He’s seen too many of his master’s jokes.”

    “We’re all here,” Yuei told Morningstar. “Time for you to whistle up Night’s emissary and the Sacrifice and we can get this stuff over with. I don’t know about you guys but that Harmony Spire’s giving me a headache.”

    “She is screaming,” warned the Motley Loon.

    Sovereign looked up at the crystal tower. “It does seem a shame to bring that down,” she admitted. “Then again, I didn’t even know what an Interlock Incantation was until I got called to Lord Ruin yesterday.”

    “He must really trust you,” Morningstar said.

    “No. He knows how easy he can kill me,” the Bloodmistress replied. “And I know too. Keeps our relationship… honest.”

    Morningstar clapped his hands together. “Well, lovely as it is standing here with the forest burning behind us and a Harmony Spire screaming on the metaphysical planes and all, but let’s get on. We have a lot of mutual verification stuff to get through before Blackthorn shows up to try and stop the ceremony.”

    “Blackthorn died a week back in Phoenix Landing,” Sovereign argued. “Didn’t he?”

    Morningstar looked to Yuen. “What do you think, third-choice-for-War Chief?” he asked. “Are you feeling completely relaxed that the red planet’s now absolutely Blackthorn-free?”

    “Double the perimeter,” Yuen ordered. “I wouldn’t want to take any chances where the General’s concerned.”

    Incantrus Veil shadow-doored in, although he had some difficulty forming a portal this close to a distressed Harmony Spire. He led Ysilde nim Loret to her fate. Her brother Tybald remained captive in the shadow room, hostage for her co-operation.

    “May I introduce the lovely Lady Ysilde of Promethei?” Morningstar asked. “She’ll be our duped bimbo victim for the evening.”

    Ysilde wanted to warn the emissaries of Morningstar’s plans to usurp the ceremony, but Veil held Tybald. She closed her eyes and said nothing.

    David Morningstar gestured to the Harmony Spire. “Shall we begin?”

***

CONTINUED in Chapter 25: The Lady of the Land
in which Princess Aria claims a Harmony Spire and is claimed by Mars.

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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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