At first Aria thought she was back in the Hall of Tatters, looking at that vast amazing map that showed all of Mars arrayed on its antique tapestry. There was Nix Olympus, the biggest volcano in the solar system, where the Black Sorcerer’s iron bastion tapped the lava flows below. And there, south and west, the Marinaris Canyons that carved a huge track across a quarter of the planet. The Amazonis and Arabian oceans glinted on opposite sides of the globe. To the south boiled the Helias Blood Sea, angry and terrible.
Then the princess realised that this was no map. She was looking down on the red planet, watching it roll beneath her. Perhaps she stood on fast-tumbling Phobos or plodding Deimos as they orbited their parent in gravity-modified orbits set by the Ancient engineers of Mars?
More details caught Aria’s eye. The Forges of Cryse lay silent now, charred craters where there had once been slave-run industrial caverns. Southward the mechanised cities of the Lord of Fatal Laughter sprawled out amidst polluted radioactive wastes. Across the monster-haunted Arabian Sea the gothic forested expanses of the Sorcerer of Night’s domains seemed cobwebbed like a gigantic spider’s nest.
The planet turned. Its night-side was dark and sullen. A few orange lights denoted the flame-spouting southern strongholds of Lord Ruin, their twenty-four hour war efforts continuing without ceasing. Strange luminescence skittered across the devastated Warfields. But there was something else…
Aria forced her eyes to focus differently. There, in the darkness, were pinpricks of colour. They flared all over Mars, ten, twenty, fifty of them, linked by curving strands that pulsed to some secret heartbeart.
They are the Harmony Spires, the princess realised. Nobody now knew by what god-like technology the Ancient settlers on the red planet had tamed and shaped their world to a paradise. Their science or magic had not only terraformed their new planet but had altered gravity, atmosphere, lunar orbits and countless other things that made a frozen lifeless rock into a vibrant sustained ecosystem, Everyone knew that those machines, like the half-mile high crystal towers called Harmony Spires, were what maintained Mars still.
And now Aria understood that the four First Men, the sorcerers who had risen to turbulent domination of the troubled fallen world, had discovered ways of cracking the Spires open and stealing their vast energies. The First Men reigned by the might they had leached from the future of Mars. Every century’s ritual weakened the system that sustained life here. Every Spire that was lost brought Mars that much closer to extinction.
So few left! Aria saw. Each Spire now did the work of three. Another ten lost, or five, or even one, might be enough to tip the balance between viability and planetary death!
I entered a Harmony Spire, Aria remembered. As a direct descendant of whoever had first set those technologies in place she had the right. John Blackthorn, the warrior from old long-dead Earth-that-was, wielded one of the four legendary Hallows that were keys to the towers of wonder.
Where is John? the princess asked herself; rather, she yearned to know.
Thought was almost enough here inside the world-web. Need was the rest. Her vision of Mars blurred away. After one last glimpse of the planet’s complicated swathing arcanosphere coiling and seething around it – and of the frayed holes that were beginning to form in its delicate pattern – the red planet vanished from view; or rather focussed down to one place, one scene on that diverse-landscaped mass.
Aria knew where she was. The Red River Canyon that snaked through Old Tempe was below her, lit purple by the night-glow of passing Deimos. She stood atop a stone ledge overlooking the spectacular waterfall that fed the river. Behind her were hidden caves that the rebels of Mars sometimes used as a hideout and staging post.
This is where I first kissed John Blackthorn. The thought was almost guilty. He’d been brooding, worried, hurt. She had wanted to heal him. She hadn’t expected her own reaction and his to be so… hungry.
“So you got here, princess,” Blackthorn said to her. He was stood where he’d been before, overlooking the vista, admiring the wheeling star canopy in the wide skies. “I thought you’d probably take this long. You get easily distracted by magical things.”
“Whereas you are all about the mission.” It was easy to fall into familiar bickering patterns with the Earth general. “Do you know where you are?”
“I know I’m not where I seem to be. Although this is a very nice backdrop. We broke into a Harmony Spire, didn’t we?”
“No. We entered a Harmony Spire by right. The First Men’s Interface Incantation is a burglary tool. The Hallows and I are the proper key.”
“Are you now?” Blackthorn eyed the princess speculatively. “So now we’re ‘inside’, what can we do? There’s another Harmony Spire nearly a thousand miles from the one we entered that’s about to be carved up for the First Men’s empowerment - or worse, for Colonel Morningstar’s deification. We hoped if we got to… wherever the hell this is, we could maybe travel there past all the First Men’s security and stop it.”
Aria remembered that now. It seemed as though Blackthorn was better at keeping his mission objectives in mind. “I think we have to stop them, John,” the princess confessed. “Did you see how thin the Spires’ capacity to sustain our world has become? How little it would take for them to fail? Can you feel it?”
“I think so. It’s weird to say this, here on this platform looking out on that wild alien vista of endless water and weather-carved rocks, but this place feels like a fortress under siege. And the siege is winning.”
“Under siege! Yes, that’s it. And all that’s good about Mars has been crammed inside to protect it! Grabbed up to be preserved and… oh!”
Their setting changed. Now Aria and Blackthorn stood on a high balcony of delicately-tinted glass, overlooking an elegant towered city of graceful interlocking towers and cultivated waterways. The dawning sun played off the translucent structures, casting multi-hued shadows in ever more complex patterns over the silent metropolis.
“The City of Joy!” Aria gasped. She clutched to Blackthorn without even realising it. “The capital of Ancient Daedalia! The capital of Mars! It was shattered, John, burned by the Black Sorcerer nearly a millennium ago. It’s beauty was taken from Mars – but the Harmony Spires remember! They… they kept it!”
Blackthorn’s arms came up naturally to wrap the weeping princess to him. The pastel shadows played across her face, making her more beautiful than ever. “So the Harmony Spires are more than environmental support machines. They’re also… recording devices?”
Aria reached out and grasped the solid reality of a fluted-glass balustrade on the Jewelled Citadel. “This is more than a photograph or holo-record. I can feel the city just like it was. Down there is the shadow-door to the Hall of Reflections. Over there the Gallery of Wonders. This is… the Spires have kept Daedal alive! How much more have they preserved that we thought lost forever?”
“But where are all the people?” Blackthorn wondered. “For that matter, didn’t we have a large hairy plus-one with us when we walked in here?”
“Oglok?” Aria turned round, pushing away from the Earthman who held her. “Yes, he’s here. Just… this way.”
Three steps took them a thousand miles and years from Daedal, to a quiet glade beyond the beehive-shaped dwellings of a Mock-man village. Oglok sat in a ring with five more of the huge beastlings, adorned with flowers. Almost a hundred more of the creatures knelt or sat around them.
“Buddy?” called Blackthorn. “Hey, Oglok. Snap out of it. Or at least introduce us to your friends.”
The Mock-man’s hairy face snapped up. For a moment Aria and Blackthorn thought he was going to tear them apart. Then the huge creature reluctantly rose. He growled something reluctantly to Blackthorn that was too complex in meaning for the princess to understand.
“These are Eska, Vika, and Teska,” the General translated for Aria. “They are Oglok’s… well, I guess we’d say wives.”
“Oh. Well, pleased to meet…”
“And that’s Agrin and Eklok. They’re the ladies’ other husbands.”
“Mock-men family groups are complicated,” Blackthorn reminded her. “We don’t even have the words in Common Martian to translate what their relationships actually are. But near as matters, this is Oglok on his wedding day.”
The Mock-man howled something so heart-rending that Aria wanted to hug him too; a definite first. Oglok’s whole family had been torn from him by raider slavers who had sold them to death in the mines under Cryse. And yet here they were, remembered in the Harmony Spire.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Blackthorn answered him. “And isn’t that important to know?” In response to the princess’ urgent curious poke the General explained to her. “Mock-men are genetically spliced creations of the Lord of Fatal Laughter. Another of his cruel jokes. It’s right there in their name: Mock men. They live and love and bleed and die like humans but they’re forever second-class because they were created to be. Or so they’re told.”
Aria caught her breath. “But if they are remembered here, in the Harmony Spire, in the very soul of Mars, then they have become more than they were designed to be,” she understood. “They have transcended their origins, earned themselves… a place in our world. Mars has welcomed them. Adopted them. Brought them home.”
Oglok keened that the Mock-men always believed that their lost kin awaited them to be whole once more. The sunset Song of Mourning was their eternal affirmation of their faith. The Harmony Spire had shown him it was true.
“You know you can’t stay with them here, though, old friend?” Blackthorn checked. “It’s not your time.”
Oglok nodded. He fell to his knees, back to his family circle; a farewell.
Aria couldn’t watch. She turned away. And encountered the unicorn.
The bright single-horned horses that protected the Scamandan Harmony Spire were impressive and magical. This one was larger and more royal. Purple magics sheened across his white coat. His eyes glowed with rainbow fire.
The twisted horn on the equine’s forehead was crystal like a miniature Harmony Spire.
“You are a guardian,” Aria sensed. “A keeper of wishes and secrets.”
Blackthorn watched with trepidation as the princess petted the huge creature. He didn’t feel he wanted to get too close to the powerful protector. “Careful, Aria. I don’t know where my Sword of Light is but it’s not here with me.”
“It is,” Aria contradicted him. “It’s just not disguising itself as a piece of technology any more. If you need it then it will come.” She turned back to the unicorn. “What must we do?”
The great horse stooped so the princess could grasp his mane and haul herself onto his back.
“Is Timmy trapped down the well?” Blackthorn muttered as the beast thundered away across what was now the grassfields of Lycos. “We can’t keep up with a galloping unicorn!”
Oglok thundered past after the princess, riding his wild chimera-thing.
“Right,” hissed the General. “Let’s play, then.” He concentrated and turned to mount his own transport. He popped a wheelie on the red-painted 1966 Electro-Glide Harley Davison and gunned off after the unicorn and the chimera.
Like a dream, time and place shifted again. Out across a moons-lit plain, washed by the red light of Phobos and Deimos’ purple shades, stood a ring of stones - except each dolmen was striated with circuitry, an electronic henge.
Blackthorn thought he recognised the old man who sat cross-legged beside one of them tinkering at some dangling fibreoptics with a force decoupler. “Father De’bias!” He and Aria had encountered the old scholar-cleric before on a haunted island stump that had once been a Harmony Spire. It hadn’t been clear whether the white-beard was a ghost, a wizard, or something else. Aria had noted that dwelling for forty cycles amidst those ruins would change anybody.
The old man looked up as if surprised to be disturbed. Then he looked over his shoulder for Father De’bias. “Oh – you mean me! Easy mistake.”
Aria, Oglok and Blackthorn dismounted and entered the ring of stones. This close up the dolmens had the same crystal hue as the depths of a Spire. They glinted in the moonlight, heavy with secrets.
“You’re not Father De’bias?” Aria asked. “You look like him. You have the same baffling aura.”
“Why thank you. I suppose your mentor might have become me if he pottered round a broken Spire for long enough. Or a reflection of me. Hello, Aria. You’ve grown.”
Oglok dared to touch one of the stones. It rippled under his fingers.
“If you’re not De’bias then who are you?” Blackthorn asked the old man.
The scholar carefully connected a pair of organic circuits and scratched his head. “Let’s go with De’bias for now, to keep things simple.”
“But you just said you weren’t him!” the princess objected.
“De’bias, Hallows-maker, Lord Founder, Myreddin, Father Christmas, does it really matter? The Spires of Mars are the flashiest of the mysteries of this red planet but they’re hardly the greatest or the oldest. Let’s not get too deep that you get lost, shall we?”
“Too late,” muttered Blackthorn.
Aria moved forward. “You said I’d grown. When did you see me before?”
Not-De’bias counted on his fingers. “When you were born. When you were taken into the Crystal Dome. When you visited the Harmony Spire at Albus. When you met the Priesthood of Maya. When you entered the Hall of Reflections. When you went to Phob… no, wait, that’s not yet, and you were bigger then.”
The old man snickered back. “Everyone likes chocolate, Oglok, but that’s not what I mean.”
“You said Hallows-maker,” Blackthorn noted to De’bias.
“Well that was just showing off. Nobody makes Hallows. The best one can hope is to give them a shape for a while. But you don’t have time for long origin stories right now, do you?”
Blackthorn remembered the reason for this bizarre journey through… whatever. “I guess not. Listen, we’re trying to pass through from one Spire to another, to stop a ceremony that’ll pop it open to be gutted and to save a kidnapped girl. If you happen to have a road map or instruction manual handy that would be… more help than I expect you to be.”
“The Harmony Spires aren’t meant for transport,” De’bias warned. “Fortunately, one of them is calling for help right now, so you could probably follow the screaming. That way. Just head through the Halls of Archetypes and turn left by the D’Arbee.”
Aria hung back. “There are hardly any Spires left now,” she told the old man. “How can they be repaired or replaced? Mars will die without them.”
“And what’s left are getting full and won’t be able to preserve much more,” the scholar added. “No matter how much redundancy you think you put into a system it’s never enough, is it?”
“So can they be fixed? Please?”
The old man shook his head. “Not by a Princess of Mars, no.”
“Then… we’re doomed.”
The old man winked. “A Princess of Mars can’t restore this world. Now a Queen of Mars… that’s another story. For later.”
“What’s the difference?” Aria asked. “My mother is… gone. That technically makes me…”
“You were never crowned, never ordained. It’s not your time, Aria. You’re still missing something.”
“What? What am I missing?”
De’bias pattered her on the cheek. “You’ll figure it out when you need to. For now, you’d better get your champion where he needs to go. I don’t think you’ll be able to salvage Nemenquil, by the way, but as you can see I’m making some adjustments to try and spread the strain between the remaining nodes.”
It was the name of the Harmony Spire, of course, Oglok groaned. Wasn’t anybody else paying attention?
“If you’re so smart, buddy, then who’s he?” Blackthorn demanded.
The Mock-man answered with dignity that he was clearly the operating system.
“So which way do we point our… unicorns, chimera and Harleys?” the Earthman checked.
De’bias tapped his finger towards a storm on the horizon. “Past the City of Joy. Beyond the Valley of Memory. Left at the Archetypes. Head for the smell of egos. Do heroic things.”
“And Reith and Judan? Can I get a message to them back at Scamander?”
“I’ll tell Andisquil to pass it on, if you like.”
Another of those dislocations of scene; this time Blackthorn had an impression of fluted glass buildings in lush tints, then of Bards singing tunes that he’d never heard yet still seemed familiar, things his mother had sung him in his crib. And then the Halls of the Archetypes.
“The Spires do preserve things!” Aria cried. “Look, John! There, the Knights of Daedal! And there, a Phoenix Swarm! And the Wild Hunt! And the Yurt-women! So many lost things…”
Blackthorn looked around the museum of concepts, of parts of Mars’ golden age now wiped from the red planet. There was space there for four Hallows too, a Sword of Light and a Chalice of Time, a Spear of Death and a Stone of Transformation; but they were absent.
Blackthorn clenched his fist and the Sword appeared in it. He’d carried it with him all along. It flared to Light.
He decided it was time to see what a Hallow-blade could really do.
There was a raucous screech. The air before the General shattered like glass.
Ysilde nim Loret fell through the tear and tumbled into his arms.