BLACKTHORN: SPIRES OF MARS
The online serial novel
by I.A. Watson
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29. THE LAST SHADOW-DOOR
Dark, deep things crawled and spawned and ate deep under the mantle of Mars. They bred and grew fat on the decaying planet, unchecked in the turgid backwash of the First Men’s energies and the detritus of millennia of war. Now Incantrus Veil opened ten thousand shadow-doors to loose them on the remaining combatants around the sundered Harmony Spire of Uranius Tholos.
Mottled pigmentless tentacles sprayed out from lightless rectangular portals to scoop up troopers, robots, and lizard-men armies. Black Airships exploded in the skies. Sensorines screamed and ran mad.
“What now?” demanded David Morningstar. He knocked away Oglok the Mock-man, wiped the blood from his lip, and looked for Blackthorn, ready to match his new-forged Sword of Darkness against the hero’s Sword of Light. “It’s one thing after another tonight!”
The voice of Incantrus Veil emanated from every shadow-door. “You released me, Morningstar, and set your precautions against my using the shadow-doors against you. But I am the combined knowledge and ambition of twelve puissant mages, the unliving personification of shadow magics. I am far more intelligent than you. I aided you in your ambition because it was so small.”
“Small? I just ripped off the energies the First Men were going to use to empower another century of their rule! Or I would have, if it weren’t for these doggone meddling kids!”
“And I, who could never receive power that way, chose instead to use the rift you made into the Harmony Spire to trace its energies back to the source that empowers them all, to the very engines that support life on Mars. I do not need to channel magic through a mortal’s feeble frame when I hold the very instruments of command over all power. Can you imagine the kind of resource that is available to me now? And how much more I shall possess when I close down those pointless life-sustaining engines and divert the power to enabling my shadow-doors to cover galactic distances?”
John Blackthorn crouched beside the broken form of Princess Aria, who had taken one of Morningstar’s power blasts to the chest and now lay lifeless next to Ysilde nim Loret and her debilitated brother Tybald. He ignored the dialogue between the two would-be world conquerors and addressed the girl who’d been kidnapped and prepared as the Interface Sacrifice that could open a Harmony Spire.
“Ysilde, listen. Aria got rid of the shadow-door inside you, and the Lord of Fatal Laughter’s nasty robo-parasite. But did she close off the link between you and the Harmony Spire?”
The tall crystal tower was dark now, its energies nearly exhausted. Ysilde looked up from the gory body of Princess Aria, past her shivering brother who had resisted the lure of being the Sorcerer of Night’s emissary. Her own frame still screamed out from channelling the power of the Spire; most girls who were used for the purpose went mad.
“Ysilde? Are you still linked?”
“I… I think so.”
Oglok the Mock-man, past frenzy into mad fury, tore apart a tentacle that reached for the girl from the nearest shadow-door.
“Then I need you,” Blackthorn told the lord’s daughter. “Tybald needs you and Aria needs you. All of Mars needs you now. You wanted to save the red planet? This is it!”
“I don’t understand,” the girl confessed. “What must I do?”
Blackthorn pointed to the near-inert Harmony Spire. “Get me back in there.”
“Aria seemed to think it was all about willpower and sovereignty. Put your hands against the crystal wall like this. Make a triangle with your fingers and thumbs. That’s it. Now remember what’s really important to you. Remember what you want. What you need. Remember Mars.”
Ysilde blinked back tears. “I’ll try.”
Tybald stirred from his chills. “Don’t try, sis. Do it!”
Morningstar realised that he was carrying the brunt of the dialogue with Incantrus Veil himself. “Hey, what are you doing, Blackthorn?”
“You wanted to be king of the world,” the General replied. “So defend it. Good luck, your majesty.”
Ysilde screamed as the way into the spire reluctantly opened. Blackthorn ignored Morningstar’s outraged cries that the General was supposed to be the one that stayed and fought - and pressed inside.
“A guide,” said Blackthorn out loud. The interior of the Spire was dark now, as cold as Mars had been before the Ancients had tamed it to human use. If the Earthman was to find Incantrus Veil before his life sapped from him he needed a navigator.
He knew who he wanted the Spires to remember.
“Good choice,” approved Princess Aria Arcantrix, heiress of Mars. “Although you might have also remembered that I usually wear clothing?”
“Great to see you, Aria,” Blackthorn grinned. “Are you up to speed in here or do I need to do the summary?”
“You want to find wherever it is that Veil shadow-doored into and kick his all-powerful undead butt before he pulls the plug on the planet,” the princess replied. “Count me in.”
“You know where to go?”
“In here? Right now?” Aria nodded fervently. “This is my world,” promised the Princess of Mars.
The circular shaft resembled the chamber where Incantrus Veil had been built. Veil stood in a place that conformed to what he wanted it to be. A central plinth was lit by a pale blue light-column, and there the undead magus-work stood. An array of crystal controls before him were the only difference from his actual lair.
“Excuse me,” said an entity that resembled Father De’bias, “Do you realise you are trespassing?”
The undead gestalt mage looked up from syphoning the energies of Mars. “Another guardian? I am beyond stopping any more.”
“I’ll take that as a yes, then.”
“No reflection of the Spires can now prevent my will.”
“Hmm,” said De’bias. “That’s true, as far as it goes. Of course, the Spires could prevent your will then.”
“Don’t prattle. Launch your attack or begone!”
The scholar folded his arms. “I already have. The Spires are too smart for you, little Incantrus. You know shadow-doors? They know power and time and matter and mortality. I don’t need to do anything today. For a thousand generations a princess of prophesy has been shaped. Millennia back the Hallows were placed where they needed to be. Centuries ago the Black Sorcerer was allowed access to relevant equipment. A year since he was pointed to the right bit of history. The rest is just cause and effect.”
“You mean the Earthmen? You claim them to be a conspiracy of the Spires?”
The old cleric winked at the undead. “Oh, sneaky things, those Spires! I should know. Look at how much trouble they’ve gone to just to gain access to your shadow-doors for later.”
Veil looked up sharply. The red light deep in his grey hood pulsed. “What do you mean, illusion?”
“I mean that your shadow-doors will be very useful when the time comes. That’s why you were allowed in here. You didn’t imagine that Morningstar, Fatal Laughter, Erebus, and you were the only plotters, did you? Amateurs, the lot of you.”
Incantrus Veil gestured to the conceptual machines he now controlled. “With these I can change all of Mars. It shall be a kingdom of the dead, and from here I shall pour forth my minions across the whole of creation.”
“Well, that does sound like you’ve given it quite a bit of thought,” De’bias admitted. “Of course, the kingdom of life might have something to say about it. Having never been alive yourself it’s easy to see how you might overlook that.” He held up a cautionary hand. “You were about to say that nothing could stop you now. Don’t. It’s a terrible cliché and wrong in any case. You forgot the Lady Ysilde nim Loret.”
“The Interface Sacrifice?”
“The person. The clever, brave, caring young woman who’s just learning what she can become. She started out as a dupe and a pawn - but pawns can become queens. And you completely underestimated Aria Arcantrix, but then everyone will. What fun. And then you forgot all about John Blackthorn.”
“I can destroy him now. His Hallows-light cannot harm me any more.”
“Because you’re here in the heart of the Spires, where will and power are one? But these are Aria’s Spires, Incantrus, or they will be one day if everything happens as it should. As I believe I mentioned, you are trespassing. And Aria has a champion.”
Ysilde’s scream of pain echoed around the vault.
“I told you the attack had begun,” De’bias reminded Veil. “Thank you for the shadow-doors.”
He flickered out.
Blackthorn tore through from the outer world and landed on the stone bridge before the Incantrus.
“Let’s go,” challenged the Champion of Mars.
Bloodmistress Sovereign hauled herself out of the crater where she’d landed. She winced at her aches and pains and limped over to look back at the blackened Harmony Spire. An unpleasant negative effect was welling around it. Even from this distance she could feel it sucking back in whatever it was that the Spires usually radiated out.
“That… does not look good,” Lord Ruin’s emissary admitted to herself.
She turned away and began to run.
The Motley Loon rolled over, clutching his chest where the tangled spells that Aria had released dragged at him. The Lord of Fatal Laughter’s closest aid was no stranger to agony. It was an old, familiar companion.
The Black Sorcerer’s new Kan lay beside him, similarly debilitated. War-Chief Yuen was struggling, seeking to get up despite the pain and the sapping effects of corrupted Harmony Spire. “He is young. He will learn,” the Loon predicted.
The tentacles of the dead squirmed across the battlefield, each emanating from one of the thousands of shadow-doors that Incantrus Veil could now simultaneously command. They actually seemed empowered by the anti-life of the reversed Spire, wreaking havoc wherever they thrashed.
The rag-wrapped Loon embraced the destruction and ejected his consciousness into one of the survivors of the battlefield; he briefly considered the Mock-man but decided on an easier target. He possessed a fleeing Ratkind and hastened away to return to his master. His abandoned body crumbled.
The Sensorine Anastimia screamed once, just before her forehead exploded, spraying her brains across the churned, dead ground.
Tybald tan Throg crawled to his sister. He folded Ysilde in his arms, too weak to carry her. “You did it, sis,” he promised her. “You opened the Spire again. Blackthorn went through. He’s in. You can stop now.”
Ysilde nim Loret shuddered. She clung to the lord’s son as if he could anchor her ebbing life from being sucked away. “Have I doomed Mars, Ty?”
“No, Ysilde. You’ve given Mars a chance. Honestly. You’ve given Mars its last chance.”
Oglok staggered over to the fallen Aria. He dropped to his knees beside the energy-blasted princess and roared in rage and grief; but it was not the sound of mourning. It was a howl of challenge.
The ripple of anti-life emanating from the Spire now controlled by Incantrus Veil whispered outwards, past the ten-mile secured perimeter, past the hasty fortifications of the Black Sorcerer’s legions. Robots crashed down bereft of power. Men and mutates tumbled trembling, too weak to stir. Magic waned and rotted.
A single tripod warcrawler defied the effect. It raced across the distance towards the blackened tower, its complicated energy screens sizzling as they resisted the Spire’s deadly leaching. Yuen rolled to his knees and forced himself to a half-crouch as it approached.
Near to the tower the tripod began to rot. Great chunks of it rusted away. Its defensive shield surrendered and vanished. The war machine staggered but kept going, even after one of its three prehensile metal limbs failed and collapsed. The tall vehicle did not actually topple until it was within mere yards of the Spire itself.
The tinted bubble-dome shattered. A single robed figure strode from the wreckage.
“Let all who oppose me beware,” he declaimed, raising a serpent-headed stave that pulsed with arcane malice. “The Black Sorcerer has arrived to resolve this matter.”
“You idiot,” Incantrus Veil told John Blackthorn. “How little you comprehend of what is happening, of what I have accomplished. I, a mere arcane construct born in a necromancer’s laboratory, have done what no First Man ever achieved. I now command the very controls that the Ancients set over the life-machines, of Mars! I and I alone…”
Blackthorn hit him with the Sword of Light. The Hallow-blade flared against the Incantrus’ grey robes, tearing little wisps of substance free, pushing the undead back.
“You dare…?” the undead snarled. He loosed a dozen shadow-traps between himself and the General. Each would scoop a portion if anyone that tried to pass them and gate it far across Mars – and so rip any man to shreds.
Blackthorn seared them into oblivion with the Sword of Light. He said nothing. The time for banter had ended when Aria had been shot by David Morningstar. Now all his passion, all that deadly competence was focussed on one final objective - and Incantrus Veil was in the way!
Another dozen shadow-doors unleashed more of the deep undead with their blind white tentacles; but though he had shaped it to resemble his dark tabernacle this was not Veil’s stronghold. As the creatures squirmed into this place they ran mad, shivering themselves to oblivion.
“No!” Veil ordered the Spire. “I stand now in your command and control place. You will obey me!”
Blackthorn slashed at him again. The Hallow-blade hurt the Incantrus; and the Incantrus had not believed he could ever be hurt.
“You believe you can defy me, mortal? In this place power is defined by insight and will. I am the Incantrus Veil, and I…”
Another stab. Veil hissed as his conjured defences were shattered anew. He directed all the malefic forces of the captured Spire against Blackthorn. Why did the Earthman not fall?
“Because I’m in the C&C too, dumbass,” Blackthorn told him at last. “I might not have that much insight but you’d better believe I’ve got the will!”
Veil wrapped the General in shadow, a hundred thousand shaped lethal shadow-portals designed to tear him apart. Blackthorn grunted in pain as the slightest movement tore at his flesh.
But he didn’t need to move. He only needed to will.
Without the distraction of physical combat he turned to his other talents. He planned. He cared. And he took command.
Every shadow door around the chamber winked out. The very semblance of Veil’s tomb was smeared away as a child might press his thumb across an unsatisfactory blackboard drawing.
Veil looked at Blackthorn in disbelief and rising horror.
“Aria?” called the Earthman. “You there now?”
“If I imagine you can fix all this, can you?”
“I imagine I can. I am good.”
“Anything else you need?”
“One less Incantrus would be nice.”
“On it now.”
The princess – or Blackthorn’s idea of her, or the Spire’s memory, or Aria’s soul – moved over to the crystal controls. Her fingers instinctively found the right places, the correct combinations. Her lips curled into a little smile.
Blackthorn lunged in at Incantrus Veil, Sword of Light pulsing along with his fury. The undead mage loosed a devastating barrage of necromancies to shred the General to pulp. The Sword of Light seared through them – and through the dark space under the Incantrus’ hood covered some shadowed void where a man’s face might be!
Blackthorn could visualise the tight deadly knots of magic that combined the components of the Incantrus. He willed the Sword of Light’s brilliance at each of them, burning through the tangles and searing them to oblivion.
Whatever protest Veil might have attempted was burned away with him as the Sword of Light flashed. In the brilliance no shadow could remain.
The Incantrus was gone. Blackthorn fell back, exhausted now that the combat was over.
“Please tell me what I need to do with the Spire can be done, Aria,” he called to the princess. “I’m really due for some good news around now.”
“She’s very damaged,” the nude sorceress at Nemenquil’s controls admitted, “but she’s being brave. I think I should be able to…”
The black sword erupted from her chest. Morningstar had plunged it in between her shoulder-blades. The spirit of Aria tumbled bleeding over the Spire’s controls.
“What?” demanded the treacherous meddling Morningstar, “You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?”
CONCLUDED in Chapter 30: The Death of Mars
Updates Monday and Thursday!
in which Morningstar, the Black Sorcerer, and Blackthorn vie for absolute power, Ysilde understands at last, Tybald makes a life-decision, and the Harmony Spire falls.
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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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