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


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


25.     THE LADY OF THE LAND

    The Lizard-Men learned that Blackthorn was there when Oglok the Mock-man dropped from the snow-covered firs right amongst them. He held an industrial rivet-sprayer in each arm with no more difficulty than a normal soldier might carry a bolt-pistol, and sprayed them round on rapid-fire, cutting huge gory swathes in the military column. When the ammunition belts were empty he discarded the guns in favour of a Crysanian vibra-axe and fell on the survivors.

    The hover-tank at the rear of the patrol worked out what was going on. It tried to orient its big guns on the Mock-man but was distracted when Blackthorn fell on it and carved it open with his Sword of Light. Reinforced titanium and force-fielded reflect-mesh yielded like butter before the Hallows blade.

    The strange Siamese-twin sorcerer at the column’s head powered up his mage-stave. It exploded in his hands, sending him screaming down into the snowdrifts, clawing at burning fragments that had shrapnelled into his flesh.

    In under a minute an entire patrol of the Black Sorcerer’s 8th Field Battalion was down, with no chance to send warning. Edar Reith emerged from the treeline checking his watch.

    “I guess practice makes perfect,” he noted to his assistant as Blackthorn, Aria, and Oglok reassembled from the ambush zone.

    “I… yes,” gulped young Judan of Solis. His eyes ranged over the gory mess that had been a formidable guard column. “Yes.”

    Oglok rumbled that as usual the Runner chief had got there just in time to avoid the fight.

    “There’s a reason they call our resistance movement the Runners,” Reith pointed out. He lit up a cigarette and pointed to the wrecked hover-tank. “See, normal people can’t chop up heavy infantry patrols that’re backed by ordinance and war-mages. We survive to resist another day by running. Then we point suicidal heroes at the bad guys and watch the show.”

    Judan ran a scanner over the fallen, checking for life-signs and salvageable tech.

    Blackthorn looked up at the cliff-ridge to the west, the promontory where the local citadel perched. Almost beside it, dwarfing the domes and towers of the fortress, was the shining magnificence of the Harmony Spire. As the noon sun shone on the elegant spike the rays refracted into rainbow prisms, spilling colours over the snowfields below.

    “So that’s a Harmony Spire,” he breathed. “I can see why you like them, Aria.”

    “That’s just sight,” replied the princess. “I’m a sorceress. I can feel it! I can hear it singing. Look!” He held her hand up towards the graceful column. Her fingers sparked. Purple light that danced across her skin like witchfire.

    Oglok usually didn’t like magic. His people had suffered from it since the moment it had been used to twist and fuse his species as one of the Lord of Fatal Laughter’s slave races. In the rainbow shade of the Harmony Spire he seemed strangely at peace with it.

    “It’s a beauty all right,” Reith admitted. “You want to tell me though why we decided to meet up at the wrong one?

    This was not the Spire at Uranius Tholos in the thick forests north of Nix Olympus. Blackthorn had come to Scamander in winter-locked Tempe, nine hundred miles northeast of where War Chief Yuen had secured the site of the Interface Sacrifice.

    Aria remembered her former maid Nepenthe, born in that Sub-Pasha’s palace up on the cliff, who had once described the glories of the Harmony Spire that overlooked her homeland, and who had died as a Bride of the Sorcerer of Night. The princess had never had time to visit Nepenthe’s birthplace to light a candle there for her friend.

     I’ll light you a candle worthy of you, Nepenthe of Scamander, Aria promised.

    Blackthorn addressed Reith’s question. “You’ve got the intel on Uranius Tholos?”

    The Runner chief beckoned Judan over and gestured for the satchel the youngster carried. “The Sorcerer of Night sent troops in there three days ago,” he reported. He handed over sketch maps and troop force estimates to the General. “War Chief Yuen’s in charge, supported by no less than three of the Black Sorcerer’s heralds and General Nash’Tak of the Second Lizard Man Division, plus more robots, ticktockmen, ratkin and ground-pounders than we can estimate. That’s not counting the combined Third and Fourth Black Airship fleets overhead.”

    “They’ve established a quarantine perimeter ten miles out from the Spire,” Judan cut in, eager to help. “Any settlement inside the ring has been evacuated and destroyed. Now they’re deforesting the area from the inside out, killing any of the sentient sub-races that try to defend the site.”

    Blackthorn sighed. “Yuen’s always thorough. If he’s isolating the Spire he’ll do it by the book and do it right. If he’s really the Black Sorcerer’s creature now he won’t be checking the butcher’s bill.”

    “That’s our rangers’ assessment too,” Reith admitted. “He’s the First Man’s Kan now. That’s a sort of right-hand-man to one of the Sorcerers, able to access their master’s power directly.”

    “It’s a Mayan term for the bacabs, the old men riding dragons at the four corners of the world, set in authority on behalf of the gods,” Aria noted impatiently. “The First Men love their myths, as you might tell by the number of creatures of legend that try to kill us. Brief while you walk, gentlemen. I need to be at that Spire.” She set off with a determined stride.

    “Nobody can get to the Harmony Spire, highness!” Judan warned. “Everybody in Scamander knows not to try it. The Spires are guarded!”

    “Then those guards can deal with me,” the princess of Mars declared. “Follow.”

    Reith, Blackthorn, and Oglok trailed after the determined lady. The Runner chief returned to showing the scribbled site layouts. “This information is two days old now, but at that time Yuen had a compound going up here. Amongst the huts and domes were four higher quality structures being given priority. One was Yuen’s C&C. Camp rumour was that the rest were guest quarters for emissaries of the other First Men.”

    Blackthorn scowled. “Does that kind of envoy happen often?”

    “Very very rarely. Sometimes a couple of the First Men’s senior people meet for one-to-one negotiations about temporary alliances or prisoner exchanges or something. All four? Not outside the Crystal Dome! At least not that we’ve heard of. Then again, it’s news to us how the First Men get their power by trashing Harmony Spires. Could be standard practice when one of those things is due for demolition.”

    Oglok snarled that taking on four emissaries as well as the Black Sorcerer’s whole army and Colonel Morningstar would make for a busy night.

    “What’s your assessment of the chances of getting through to disrupt a ceremony at the Uranius Tholos Spire?” Blackthorn asked Reith.

    Judan jumped in. “Impossible,” he warned. “Our people had to fall right back three days ago because of the detection sweeps the opposition was putting out. They’ve got Sensorines, hunter/killer drones, sniffer cats, full airship-based scanner teams, a good score of war-mages, plus whatever we haven’t seen. Nothing moves inside that perimeter but they know about it. And then they’ve got the muscle to squash it!” The young man caught Reith’s glare. “Um… I guess.”

    “It’s a tough nut,” Reith agreed. “And you’re telling me that there’s a specific time window as well. You’ve got to get in there tonight. Which returns me to my previous question, General Blackthorn. Why are we trudging through snowdrifts towards the wrong tower?”

    Blackthorn pointed to the princess who led them up the bank towards the gleaming spike. “I trust her.”

***

    Unicorns protected the Scamandan Harmony Spire. Aria commandeered them and rode one to the base of the tower. By the time Blackthorn and the others caught up with her she was leaning against the base of the crystal column, her cheek up against the smooth surface.

    “Is this safe?” Judan asked nervously. “Those creatures look like they want to rip us to pieces.”

    “We’re not pure,” Reith told him. “I’ve worked on not being pure for a long time. They’re tolerating us because she told ‘em to.”

    Oglok growled that his chimera could eat them for breakfast – and probably would.

    Blackthorn approached Aria. The rainbow ripples played across her face and made his heart leap. “Princess?” he ventured, almost whispering. Here, in this place, the title had never seemed more real. Her eyes reflected the crystals’ glory.

    “John.” She blinked back tears. “Oh John, all of Mars is singing!”

    Oglok fell silent and cocked his head, trying to hear. At sunset every Mock-Man joined in the Song of Mourning, where they remembered lost kin and reached out to feel them. He wondered if the Spires of Mars were doing the same thing?

    “We’re here, Aria,” Blackthorn said gently. “Question is, did we make the right call in coming?”

    The sorceress reluctantly turned her face away from the crystal column and forced her mind back to business. “Right, I’ll try to explain. I was nine when I first saw a Harmony Spire. That was a long time ago in years. The Black Sorcerer kept me in suspended animation in his Chamber of Rainbow Waters for centuries at a time while he grew the arcane wetware within me that allows me to use magic. My mother… she showed me the Harmony Spire at Albus. It’s gone now, shattered and dead. The First Men broke it to steal its power.”

    Blackthorn remembered the eerie ruin where they’d first met the mysterious Father De’bias. It had felt like a desecrated cathedral.

    “We know now what Morningstar figured out,” Aria went on. “He put together research from collectors like Zonohabi of Daedalia, calculations from the Eternal Light of Secunda Prevura, things he got out of a kidnapped Silent Sister novice, who knows what else, and he realised what the mysterious Interlock Incantation was supposed to do. It prepares a suitable candidate to interface with one of the Spires of Mars. I guess the original procedure was put there by the Ancients as a control and maintenance function. The First Men have used it to… to hack the Spires’ security.”

    Reith was about to ask a question. Blackthorn raised a hand to pause him. Aria was groping to a breakthrough.

    “The Interface Sacrifice kind of unlocks the vault door, I suppose,” the princess considered. “Then the First Men can use their spells to suck the energies out through the prepared girl. And all of Mars is weakened and suffers. There are too few Harmony Spires left.”

    Oglok growled that the First Men were parasites bleeding the life out of the planet, growing fat on the blood of their prey.

    “I don’t know how Morningstar intends to subvert the process exactly, but I’d bet that he intends this set of Harmony Spire energies to go to him instead of the First Men,” Blackthorn predicted.

    Aria blinked. “Oh, that bit’s easy. That’s why he freed Incantrus Veil. The Incantrus can use his shadow-door mastery to shift spells from one person to another and so on. All he has to do is transfer the interface between Ysilde and the First Men over to Morningstar. Then, as you barbarians say in your colourful way, it’s game over.”

    “It is!” admitted Reith. “Damn, that boy’s smart!”

    “Which brings me back to my question, Aria,” said Blackthorn. “Were we right to come here? Because everybody from Yuei to Morningstar and all the First Men will be waiting for us to try and muscle in to stop their Interface Sacrifice. Any attempt in through that perimeter we’d be burned. So can we get there directly through another Harmony Spire?

    Reith’s face twisted into a little smile. “Damn. That’s even smarter!”

    Aria touched the crystal again. “I’ve examined the spell on Ysilde. I’ve studied the texts in the Hall of Tatters. I’ve heard the Song of the Spires. I can’t replicate the Interlock Incantation because I don’t have the decades and resources to do it, but…”

    “But?” prompted the Earthman.

    “But what about the original way in, the one that the Incantation was crafted to replicate? Instead of trying to copy the lockpick what if we use the key?”

    “That’s the question,” agreed Blackthorn. “Aria, you said most sorcerers have some of the DNA of the Ancient royal house.”

    “Oh, my DNA is not in question, John Blackthorn,” promised the Princess of Mars. “Nor my skill or willpower. Yours is.”

    “Mine? I’m not even from Mars. This body’s a construct of the Black Sorcerer’s, cloned and genetically modified to make it as good as…”

    “Nobody has ever been able to open a Harmony Spire properly,” Aria told him. “Because nobody has a key. I think we do. It comes in two parts and both require courage and determination – and purity. One part is the presence and permission of an inheritor of the Ancients, of the line Arcantrix.”

    “You,” Judan concluded. “The… the princess of Mars!”

    “As you say. The other element is a tool that was first used to forge these Spires.”

    Blackthorn’s hand fell upon the cylinder at his belt. “The four Hallows – Sword, Chalice, Spear, Stone. I have the Sword of Light!”

    “And you wanted to know what it could do,” the princess replied. “Let’s find out!”

    Oglok pushed his fingers into his ears and closed his eyes.

    Blackthorn took the silver canister into his hand. It seemed to vibrate in his palm, humming in tune with the waiting Harmony Spire. It was warm to the touch, like a living thing.

    He thumbed the button for the energy sword configuration. The blade burst into light, crackling and dancing, brighter than before.

    “It sure seems excited about something,” Reith admitted.

    Aria traced her fingers round the base of the Spire. She touched her thumbs and forefingers together to make a triangle on the crystal surface. “Here,” she told Blackthorn. “Press it in here. Gently.” She winked at the Earthman. “It’s my first time.”

    Blackthorn stood behind Aria, so close that he could feel her heat. He lifted the sword round to touch the spot she indicated. “You sure about this?”

    “It’s my Harmony Spire. Do it.”

    The Hallows blade passed smoothly into the crystal. The rainbows rippled round it, up the hilt, across Blackthorn and Aria.

    “I can hear the song,” said Blackthorn.

    Then the Spire erupted in a spray of chromatic radiance that rippled across the whole of Mars.

***

CONTINUED in Chapter 26: Doom of the Harmony Spires
in which Tybald tan Throg must play hero against the Sorcerer of Night himself, and Ysilde nim Loret refuses to play victim any more.

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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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