Morningstar laughed as he transformed into a god.
Blackthorn hit him.
Time seemed suspended around the damaged Harmony Spire of Uranius Tholos, that half-mile high crystal spike that was part of Mars’ vital life-support systems. The choking fumes from the burning forests hung mid-coil around the armies of the Black Sorcerer. Tripod warcrawlers, lizard-men guard packs, Sensorine watchwomen, cyborg Ticktockmen were all too slow to react.
Ysilde nim Loret, kidnapped, prepared as her generation’s Interlock Sacrifice to crack open one of the remaining Spires, fell unheeded to the floor. The searing link of light that flowed from the tower and through her burned strong and steady. The necromantic shadow-door created inside her by the master undead Incantrus Veil channelled that power through to David Morningstar.
Her brother, Tybald tan Throg, charged in past the other emissaries of the First Men. General Yuen bawled demands about what was going on. Bloodmistress Sovereign tried to understand the readings her combat vambrace was receiving about the sudden change in plans to plunder the crystal tower. The Motley Loon reached for a sachet of devices tucked beneath his rags. Tybald, wearing the Sorcerer of Night’s Kan token, able to draw upon the Sorcerer’s reservoirs of power, shattered the barriers placed around Ysilde by Incantrus Veil and raced to her side.
Blackthorn, Oglok the Mock-man, and Princess Aria stepped out of the Harmony Spire to thwart Morningstar and First Men’s agents alike.
Morningstar rolled on the ground. Even he had been surprised by Blackthorn’s entrance this time. “Oh, you’re good,” he admitted, “but way out of your weight class now.” He released an arcane spray of pure energy to prove it, aimed right at the General’s chest. The force was enough to shatter a mountain.
Aria gestured. Her fingers shifted into long-practiced combinations that helped her mind channel the arcane forces of Mars. Morningstar’s untutored raw blast twisted as she controlled it. She channelled it round at Veil, Yuen, the Motley Loon, and Sovereign.
“What?” Morningstar gasped. It hadn’t occurred to him that the forces he was wielding were the same ones that Aria had spent a lifetime drawing upon. He had access to the source of the magics, but she was versed in directing them.
His power-blast slammed into the emissaries. General Yuen’s personal shields were supported by his own Kan amulet. The metallic device burned cherry red in his chest as it deflected Morningstar’s attack. The Motley Fool twisted sideways in timespace, avoiding destruction by cunning and skill rather than matching force for force. Sovereign, neither Kan nor as experienced as the other two emissaries, managed to withstand the first blast but was still hammered three miles through the forest to sprawl unconscious, embedded in a hillside.
Tybald reached Ysilde, calling her name. The pain-wracked girl recognised her brother. Her eyes widened in horror as she saw the elaborate gothic amulet around his neck. “Ty! What have you done?”
“Devil’s bargain,” the young lordling admitted. “Lord Erebus knows about Veil’s betrayal now. I’m here to stop him.”
Incantrus Veil was nowhere to be seen.
War Chief Yuen touched his wrist communicator. “All forces execute Plan Sigma now!” he ordered. “Converge on the Harmony Spire. Destroy all unfriendlies. The pact is broken. Repeat. The truce is broken!”
“Where’s Veil?” Blackthorn shouted to Oglok and Aria. He didn’t like losing track of a principal enemy, especially one that commanded distance-folding shadow-doors.
Aria concentrated for a moment. “My best guess would be inside the Harmony Spire! I think that’s what he’s been waiting for all along!” Her jaw set. “He is not welcome inside my Harmony Spire!”
Oglok howled warning that there was an entire army closing in on her Harmony Spire.
Morningstar rolled to his feet. “Full marks for getting here, General. Minus a million points for being dumb enough to appear in the middle of the biggest Blackthorn-catching operation in the history of Mars. I think the odds are a little steep on this one even for you!”
Blackthorn snarled at the traitor. “That’s why I changed the odds and didn’t come alone.” He raised his Sword of Light for the first time that battle and depressed a combination of the five coloured buttons together. The weapon’s radiance flashed across the sudden battlefield, casting whatever the opposite of shadows might be, more than mere patches of illumination, brighter and deeper than spotlights.
In the Hallows-light something moved.
The Knights of Old Daedal rode out to engage the armies of the Black Sorcerer. On white chargers and sleek customised grav-sleds they burst from the brightness on land and air to fall upon the combat robots and lizard-men that charged in.
Blackthorn raised his Hallow-blade to the skies. The Phoenix Swarm, extinct for two thousand years, burned again into existence and swept into the Black Armada of incoming airships.
Another sweep of the Sword brought the Wild Hunt, sketchy midnight shapes that smeared across the landscape bringing down the Ticktockmen and battle machines with malicious joy. Behind them came the terrible old women on their chicken-legged huts to engage combat tripods with shrieking pleasure.
Blackthorn had raided the Halls of the Archetypes to borrow some reinforcements. The Sword of Light, empowered by its sojourn in the Harmony Spire, seemed delighted to project them.
Oglok led the charge of the lost Mock-men.
Ysilde was oblivious to the suddenly-equal battle raging around her. “It hurts, Ty!” she whimpered, clutching her brother’s arms as the energies coursed through her. “I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay, sis. It’s going to be. The Sorcerer of Night empowered me to get rid of that shadow-door inside you. Hold still while I…” A terrible doubt assailed the lord’s son. Could he trust the First Man to deal straight with him on this? What other effect might the spell he carried have on his pain-wracked sister?
The Kan amulet around his neck grew cold and heavy, compelling him.
“Aria!” Tybald cried out. “I think I need help here. Please!”
The princess glanced at Blackthorn. “I can’t control David’s stolen energies and go to Tybald,” she warned. “What do I do?”
“Help Ty,” the General decided. “Leave Morningstar to me.”
Heavy explosions shook the ground. The Black Armada had deployed their black matter arsenal. The Yurt-women absorbed much of the blast, feeding on the negative energies, swelling and growing. The Phoenix Swarm, destroyed in the detonation, flared back to existence and renewed their attack.
The Mock-men rampaged through the Lizard-men and Ratkind, leaving a gory swathe of corpses. The usually-peaceful eight-foot beastlings only stirred to lethal fury when their family or home was threatened. These memories of Mock-men were Oglok’s kin and dwelled within the Harmony Spire.
Aria crawled over to where Ysilde twitched in her brother’s arms by the rift in the side of the crystal tower. “I have a spell from Lord Erebus that could break the shadow-door,” Tybald told the sorceress princess. “Should I use it?”
Aria shook her head. “Pass it here.” She held out her hand, glowing with purple radiance. This close up, the Spire reflected her light and seemed to magnify it. Sparks flickered between princess and tower.
The amulet around Tybald’s neck forbade him to give up the spell. The lord’s son gritted his teeth, held his sister, and remembered everything he’d learned since his first venture into the Deadfields. Which side did he really want to be on? Who was Tybald tan Throg to be?
He could be great in the service of the Sorcerer of Night.
He could be true to himself.
He crumpled the Kan amulet in his fist and willed Lord Erebus’ shadow-enchantment over to Princess Aria.
“Very good,” she approved. “Now I need to concentrate.”
War Chief Yuen thundered in to seize Ysilde. Without the Kan talisman Tybald could no longer contain the deadly energies of the Sorcerer of Night so he passed them on to the Black Sorcerer’s emissary. The necromantic wash left the lordling weak and shivering. Yuen disappeared inside a roiling cloud of seething curse-stuff.
Morningstar circled round Blackthorn. “No princess to hide behind?” the traitor asked his former General. “What do you call a General without an army?” He loosed an experimental blast at Blackthorn, enough to crack a mountain, but a mere testing foray against his former commander.
The soldier deflected the bolt away with his Sword of Light, searing a passing war-crawler to melted slag. “You call him ‘Sir’,” Blackthorn answered.
The General came in fast and low, dodging the inexpert blasts from the newly-empowered Morningstar. The traitor took a direct strike from the burning sword with little worse than a flinch and knocked Blackthorn away.
“I can see we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way,” David Morningstar decided. He held out his right hand and formed a dark hilt similar to the silver one that hosted the Hallows-sword. An ebony blade emerged from it, glittering with an eye-watering negative effect. “How do you like my Sword of Darkness?”
Blackthorn came back in. The two weapons clashed with searing snarls of energy, each exerting immense force in support of its master. Discharges crackled away into the ground nearby or into random combatants in the confused melee beyond.
Morningstar twisted the Sword of Light aside but was unprepared for Blackthorn’s boot in his gut. He staggered back a pace and replied with an off-hand energy bolt that the General barely deflected. “Don’t you realise just how powerful I am now?” Morningstar chuckled. “I could destroy you with a thought if I didn’t want the pleasure of watching you squirm.”
“Thinking of anything but yourself isn’t your strong suit, Colonel. You sure haven’t thought your current gambit through.”
The two Earthmen circled each other, looking for weaknesses, assessing strategies.
“My gambit seems to be doing pretty well right now, General,” Morningstar pointed out. “Because of, y’know, the absolute power and stuff. Every moment makes me stronger.”
“And say you win today, what then? You’re stuck where the First Men are, sacrificing Harmony Spires until you kill Mars and die with it. No solutions, no future, no point.”
The blades crashed together again. Blackthorn was pushed back more.
“The point is I get to rule the world, General. Okay, so maybe only for a thousand years. Better than nothing. I can have a really good time in a thousand years. Maybe even make Aria my queen. Girls really go for that absolute power thing, you know.”
“Not when it comes with the stink of traitor. Besides, you tend to get so carried away with your own plots and desires that you forget that other people can lay plans too. That’ll always trip you up, Morningstar.”
The Motley Loon loomed up between them. “How every true,” he told them in his cracking voice. “When the Colonel appealed to my master for the device to break the Incantrus free, for example, he failed to spot the Lord of Fatal Laughter’s little jest.”
“What do you mean?” Morningstar demanded.
Ysilde began to shudder and scream. The energy stream into Morningstar thinned and dimmed.
“While the little girl was at the House of Abu Massur she was implanted with a device of my master’s design,” the Fool revealed. “She remembered nothing, of course, and it was specially designed to mask itself from Veil and the Sorcerer of Night. It’s purpose was, well, as you see.”
The shadow-link to Morningstar ebbed to nothing. The power was now shifting elsewhere.
“The Lord of Fatal Laughter enjoyed your little joke on the First Men, David Morningstar,” the Motley Loon declared. “I trust you enjoy his on you. He thanks you for elevating him above his rivals and granting him absolute power.”
“No. Wait…!” Morningstar objected. “That can’t be…”
“It can,” Aria told him. “A techno-organic parasite is now active inside Ysilde, diverting the shadow door again. And if Ty had used the Sorcerer of Night’s spell it would have been diverted yet another time.”
“It’s killing her!” Tybald shouted. He gripped his knife as if he could fight the micro-machine that was deep inside his sister’s frame.
Aria nodded. “Time to re-purpose Lord Erebus’ spell, I think.” She glanced over to where War-Chief Yuen was struggling free from the necromancies that Tybald had dumped on him. “The Black Sorcerer will help us.”
“The Black Sorcerer…?” Tybald was baffled.
“Oh, he is paranoid and very diligent when it comes to preparing defences against the spells and technologies of the other First Men. So if I can just filter this enchantment that Lord Erebus gave you through Major Yuen’s Kan-strong defensive barriers…” The princess released the magics at the staggering War-Chief. His Kan amulet sparked again as it deflected the arcane signature that Aria hurled at it.
The Princess caught the magics again and slammed them into Ysilde.
The Motley Loon winced as if a nail had been hammered into his skull.
Aria’s smile was fey. “Shadow-door to Fatal Laughter via his Loon. Sorcerer of Night’s shadow-door hi-jack spell. Fatal Laughter’s techno-parasite shadow-door hi-jack field. Black Sorcerer’s anti-First Men abjurations. One really clever sorceress borrowing that stolen power that David Morningstar’s been sloshing about, who knows how to bolt them all together to do terrible things to each other. Cancel Ysilde from the equation, send the shadow-door through the Kan links and suchlike, and just let the First Men argue it out between them.”
Yuen and the Motley Fool both crumpled over, clutching their chests.
“Okay,” Morningstar admitted. “That was clever.”
He shot Aria.
Blackthorn brought the Sword of Light round at the Colonel in a killing arc. Morningstar caught it on the Sword of Darkness. “I’m still pretty juiced, General,” he pointed out. “More than enough to take you down and still have enough left to re-establish a syphon through little Ysilde and, you know, win.”
Oglok blindsided the traitor, grabbed him by the head, and repeatedly slammed his face into the side of the Harmony Spire.
Blackthorn raced over to the princess. The power blast had burned a deep hole into her chest. She was not breathing.
“Aria?” Ysilde gasped, blinking out of her nightmare of pain to another kind of horror. “Aria!”
The glow of the Harmony Spire faltered and went out. The night became bitter and black. Blackthorn’s Archetype reinforcements rippled away, leaving only the devastation they had wrought
Shadow-doors slid into being all around the battlefield. A dry voice spoke from all of them.
“Whilst you all bickered I entered the interior of this remarkable construct and located the source of the Harmony Spires’ power,” said Incantrus Veil. “I wish to announce that I am now the new ruler of Mars.”
Then every shadow-door spilled out horrors.