Authors: Tim Lebbon
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Fantasy Fiction, #General
WITH EVERY KROTE
now riding a new machine, Conbarma was in ruins. Much of the harbor had been torn up, buildings were leveled, traces of hawk flesh lay across the ground and the sky itself seemed to be burning from the fires erupting around the town. The Krotes were reveling in this new experience, and the Mages seemed content with that.
Lenora maneuvered her machine in front of a tall, striding thing and questioned the Krote sitting high above her. “Have you seen the Mages?”
Lenora frowned and looked around. The fires lit the sky and deepened shadows. Every Krote was now mounted on his or her machine, and there was no sign of anyone walking.
“Mistress…I never knew it would be like this.”
Lenora looked up at the Krote. He was young, tall and dark-skinned, only slightly scarred by battle. “What
you think it would be like?”
He shook his head. “I had no idea. I’d heard all the stories, read the histories, but this is such
” He lowered his voice and leaned closer, as if that would hide his next comment. “How can the Mages give all this to us?”
“They’ve given us nothing,” Lenora said. “Only a taste of what they have. We control the machines, not the magic that made them. Never forget that.”
“But I can
forget that!” Lenora said again, harsher than she had intended.
The young Krote’s eyes flickered down, then he looked at her again and nodded. “Mistress.”
“Now go on your way. I’ll be issuing a call to meet soon enough. Practice with your mount. Get its feel, discover its movement and limitations, if it has any.” She examined the machine, trying to make out details in the flickering light. “It’s tall, so it should be a good runner. And those legs are barbed and sharp. You’ll be able to cut down our enemies like fields of corn.”
“I’ve never seen corn,” he said.
She saw the Mages then, emerging from between two squat stone buildings farther along the harbor. They watched the Krotes, and though they were illuminated by various dancing fires, still there was a darkness between them, darker than twilight and immune to the fires shining from a dozen different angles. Even from this far away, Lenora could see the twinkle of Angel’s eyes, but the shadow hanging at her side gave away nothing.
Lenora steered her machine their way, walking slowly to match their pace. S’Hivez stared up at her, his expression unchanging, and it took only heartbeats for her to avert her gaze.
“It’s quite an army we’re building here,” Angel said.
“Unbeatable,” Lenora said.
“Of course.” Angel nodded and stared at her lieutenant. Her face was young, the skin barely marked by time, and she seemed to glow with some inner truth only just discovered.
What the fuck is
Lenora thought. The air between the Mages seemed to belong somewhere else. It was dark and calm, untouched by fire or moonlight, but flowing with its own particular threads of illumination.
“A soul unborn,” S’Hivez said. “Aborted by nature and cast aside.”
“It’s a shade,” Lenora whispered. The thing held no real shape, though occasionally it seemed to find form for a few heartbeats. Each form was familiar but unrecognizable, as though Lenora was viewing dreams long forgotten.
“It’s part of a shade that we’ve brought into the world,” Angel said. The shadow slipped around her shoulder and down her front, pooling at her feet. “We’re leaving this with you, Lenora. Soon S’Hivez and I must go, but there’s a lot more work to be done for our main army’s arrival. There are plans to be made, and machines to be built, and—”
“Why are you going?” Lenora said.
“Don’t question our actions,” Angel said, her voice low and even.
Lenora looked down at her hands. The machine settled slightly below her, as if it too was cowed by the Mage’s words. “Mistress.”
“We have our reasons, just as we have reasons for leaving this shade. It has a touch of our magic. Just a touch, but enough to draw up machines and carry on our work.”
“I could do it,” Lenora said. The Mages were silent, so she continued. “I could give life to the machines, make our army. With magic.” Her words terrified her, but to have even a
of what they had, an
I could help my child,
she thought. Her daughter’s shade, floating out there somewhere, abandoned and never alive.
What I could do with that!
“We’re here to fight a war with Noreela,” Angel said. If she knew what Lenora had been thinking, she gave no sign. “If we hand magic to any living thing, that thing becomes our enemy.”
“I would never—”
“You wouldn’t be able to help yourself.” Angel and S’Hivez started to walk away, leaving the shade flexing its shadows across the ground.
“Is that it?” Lenora said.
Angel glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “Almost. Watch.”
The Mages parted and paused at the entrance to a road leading into the heart of Conbarma. The Krotes had seen their approach and quietly moved away, giving the Mages room to work. There was a sense of anxiety in the air, a promise of change.
Angel and S’Hivez knelt and pressed their hands into the ground. The rock there quickly began to glow, radiating burnt orange spears of light which arced across Conbarma and sizzled out in the darkness. They crawled backward on their knees, increasing the distance between them and enlarging the spread of boiling rock. The surface broke into liquid, and a bubble rose to the surface and burst, sending molten stone pattering down around S’Hivez. He seemed unconcerned, and if any of the lava touched him, it caused no wound.
Farther back, farther, and when the Mages eventually stood and brought their hands from the ground, they left a pit of fire fifty steps across. Angel glanced back at Lenora and smiled. “From here, the shade will raise machines,” she said.
She and S’Hivez left the lava pit and approached an area of open ground where the mole was rooted into the mainland. It was here that Angel had first touched Noreelan soil after three hundred years in exile, only two days before but seemingly an age ago.
How slowly time passes,
without day or night to mark it.
The Mages touched the ground again, but this time they hauled rocks up and out without melting them, piling them around the perimeter of the excavation, deepening the hole with every touch. It took only a dozen heartbeats and then they moved back again, S’Hivez’s shoulders sagging as if the effort had tired him.
Angel came back to where Lenora still sat astride her machine. “And that,” she said, “is the flesh pit. It needs filling, Lenora, before the shade can get to work. It has a touch of magic, but still it needs raw materials.”
“Will that thing listen to me?” Lenora asked.
“Shades take no orders from anything alive. But we’ve ensured that it knows its purpose.”
Lenora looked at the shadow low to the ground, like a wound on reality. “You control it?” she asked.
Is that what my daughter is now?
“We gave it a promise,” Angel said. “There are many like that one, and they will work for us across Noreela. We’ll give them what they crave, in time.”
Angel grinned, and her smile was one that Lenora wished never to see again. “Is there an element of personal interest in this conversation?”
“My interest is to serve you, Mistress.”
“Then build me my army, Lenora, and do to Noreela what it did to us so long ago.” Then Angel and S’Hivez departed, melting away into shadows cast by looming buildings.
Lenora steered her mount between two burning houses. She found a curved alley, emerging into a shadowed courtyard lit only by the sickly light of the death moon. The place seemed undisturbed since their landing here a couple of days before. There was a long table that had been set for a meal, though the food had never been served, and birds or other creatures had tumbled the bottles of rotwine that had been opened and left to breathe. Yet even here there was evidence that Noreela had moved on. It was apparent in the way the moonlight struck the plates, shadows stalked from beneath the table and plants drooping from wall baskets seemed to be shedding their tiny leaves. A few floated to the ground as Lenora watched, fluttering at the air like dying beetles. Noreela belonged to the Mages now, and the dusk they had brought down across the land was their first brand of ownership.
Lenora stepped from her machine and walked to a chair that had been tipped over. She righted it, sat and began to shake. Her skin was warm, her head clear, and yet she could not prevent the shivers passing through her from toes to scalp, left hand to right. She sat on her hands and bent low, as if presenting less of a target would fool the shivers into leaving. She mumbled a plea to the twilight, trying to ignore the smells of heated flesh and fresh magic that wafted in from the harbor. Such stenches flashed old memories in her mind: the beaches of The Spine, Noreelan war machines cutting down Krotes left and right, the wounds she had received and the gouge to her shoulder delivered by a machine walking on legs of fire. Her flesh burning…the magic, ripe and rich in the Noreelan that sought to kill her, its sickly sweet smell…
“Oh by the Mages, what’s wrong with me?” she whispered, and her tears startled her. She shook her head and watched them speckling the ground.
Not long to wait,
a voice said.
Angel knew of her lost child; perhaps she had known forever. Did she suspect that Lenora would betray their cause for her own petty revenge? Was that why the Mages had given her their army, as bribery to stay?
Was she really that important to them?
avenge you,” she said. Though her voice was quiet, it was firm. “But not yet. I have duties.”
It’s cold, I hurt, I can never have you back,
the voice said, and there was the truth, that muttered phrase from a thing that had never had the chance to live.
“I can never have you back, either,” Lenora said. “Not even if I go to Robenna and kill everyone there, all the descendants of those bastards who whipped me from the village, poisoned me and slaughtered you in my womb before you’d even drawn a breath or given me a smile. I can never have you back.”
But I can feel better,
the voice whispered.
Lenora nodded. “And so can I.” Her memories of Robenna were so vague as to be little more than faded dreams, but there was one image that presented itself to her again and again: a house on stilts, a stream running beneath it and a tall man in a white robe standing on its balcony, watching her being whipped with poison-tipped sticks as the villagers drove her out. Pregnant out of wedlock: that had been her crime. The man watched, and perhaps it was only her fervent dreams of revenge that put pity in his eyes. He had been the village chieftain, and the father of her child.
“I need no fucking pity,” she said to this silent courtyard, over three hundred years and four hundred miles away. And she closed her eyes, imagining the man’s robe turning red as he was hacked to shreds.
A NOISE FROM
the harbor shocked her from her daydream. Lenora stood and looked around, glancing at shadows as they seemed to dart away. Dreams, fading into the Mages’ dusk.
Another roar sounded, so deep that it vibrated the ground at her feet. Her machine did not move, but two of its eyes glittered as it watched her. She ignored them—there could surely be no expression there—mounted and urged it upright. The shakes were gone now, and her eyes were dry. Perhaps dreaming of revenge could melt away the tears.
She steered the machine from the courtyard, through the alley and out between the two burning buildings, and then she saw what had made the sound.
Both Mages stood on the mole that stretched out across the mouth of the harbor. They were constructing another machine, but this was larger than anything they had made yet. Twice the size of the largest hawk Lenora had ever seen, it seemed to float above the choppy waters, held upright on thick columns of steam. Angel and S’Hivez worked their hands into and around the rock, twisting and molding it to their needs, pumping fresh magic into this miraculous creation. The rock dipped and a roar of steam sent ripples across the harbor. It rose again, the Mages went back to work, then the surface of the water began to bubble and burst as dozens of sea creatures were sucked from beneath. Fish, octopus, a foxlion, shelled creatures and something five times the size of a Krote with more teeth than skin—they all flapped through the air and landed on the red-hot machine, melting into it as the Mages manipulated their flesh and scales, bones and teeth, adding to their creation every second.
Wings sprouted from its sides, one pointing inland at Noreela, the other stretching above the wilder waters beyond the mole. Eventually, with the machine complete, Angel and S’Hivez cast it down into the waters to cool into its final shape.