Authors: Sam Bowring
In Losara’s mouth the ball was quite large. As it rested at the back of his throat, he coughed.
‘Something wrong?’ said Battu.
Losara patted his chest. ‘Just a little something caught in my throat.’ He reached shadowy fingers into his mouth and drew out the poison. ‘What a strange thing to find in my food,’ he said, and set it on his plate where it half-crumbled to powder again. As Battu saw what it was, his expression hardened.
Smoothly Losara stood, and Battu also came abruptly to his feet, knocking his chair backwards. Tyrellan slipped quietly under the table, reappeared, and moved through a doorway.
‘There’s no need for this,’ said Losara, his voice calm.
‘What did you expect?’ said Battu. ‘That I would simply stand aside, hand over my throne tied up with a bow?’
‘I have the blessing of the gods, Battu,’ said Losara. ‘I am the one who must lead
if we’re to best the light. Are we not united in that purpose?’
‘Curse the gods,’ said Battu. ‘Curse them for how they stifled me. I could have been great, but instead they made me
,’ he spat the word, ‘and never a chance to etch my mark on the pages of history. Yet I did their bidding –’
‘That’s arguable,’ said Losara.
‘– and still they seek to punish me with nightmares! I owe the gods nothing.’
‘You owe them your soul,’ said Losara quietly.
‘And you,’ continued Battu, ‘this is how you repay me? I took you in, saw to your education . . .’
‘You stole me from my rightful home, imprisoned me and sought to use me as your tool. You gave orders that resulted in my separation from my very self. And yet I harbour no resentment, for you did as you were told. As a result, I am here, where I was always meant to be. If you want repayment, I will offer it gladly. There will be a need for powerful mages in the days to come. There could still be a place for you in the new order.’
‘How magnanimous of you,’ said Battu. Then his features relaxed, and the laugh that followed sounded almost good-natured. ‘Ah, it is refreshing to speak so openly. I have held myself in check for too long. My dear boy, you speak as if the deed is already done. Are you really arrogant enough to believe that the Shadowdreamer in his own castle will offer no true resistance?’
Battu was right, Losara realised. The fact that he did not respect the dark lord did not mean Battu wasn’t dangerous.
‘Some thought occurring to you?’ said Battu. Lazily, he stretched out a hand and unstopped his power. Blue energy streamed across the table, knocking candelabra and sending ice flying. Losara melted to shadowform and fled to the edge of the room. Battu’s torrent of energy followed, and he was forced to zigzag across the walls and up to the ceiling.
‘Going to be like that, is it?’ said Battu. ‘Very well.’ He crossed his hands on his chest and sent out twin streams in either direction. Where they hit stone they broke like waves, spreading across the walls to encompass the entire room. As energy crashed towards Losara, he tried to back up even further, out of the room, but came up against an impenetrable barrier in the dark.
‘The shadows of Skygrip are
mine to command
,’ said Battu. ‘And the room is sealed,
Energy crackled across every surface, spattering and burning food. As it hit Losara and coursed through him, for the first time he felt pain as his ethereal self. He gasped and fell from the shadows into physicality, to his knees on the floor. Managing to lift a smoking hand, he sent a tendril of shadow at Battu, hitting him in the arm with a thunderous crack. The dark lord stumbled backwards, his energy output faltering.
‘That’s more like it,’ said Battu, rubbing his arm. ‘You’re no mouse to skulk in corners. Let’s remove some of them, shall we?’
He made a grasping motion at the wall behind Losara, and chunks of rock cascaded loose. Losara twisted and caught them in his power, using their momentum to fling them over his head towards Battu. Battu swiped a hand through the air, shattering the rocks to dust. As he did so, Losara reached out invisibly to seize Battu’s hand. The fingers splayed wide, and there was the snap of bones breaking. Battu roared, coiled his own power around Losara’s unseen grip, and wrenched free. He then reached out with his mangled hand, grimaced as he grasped a piece of quivering fish from the table in limp fingers, and pushed it defiantly into his mouth.
‘That the best you’ve got?’ he asked, chewing fiercely.
‘Still hungry?’ replied Losara, and made a slight gesture. Pieces of poisoned sea anemone flew through the air at Battu’s mouth, pushing the fish aside as they plunged inside. Battu spluttered as he regurgitated them, spitting slimy shreds.
‘Enough of this!’ screamed Battu, and energy exploded outwards from him, filling the room with sizzling blue threads. He was summoning the enormity of Skygrip to his aid, all the power that ran though the walls, from the deep underground lake right up to the roof. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Losara was impressed. Pain rippled through him, and he fell to the floor in a heap. This was why shadow mages did not often fight – there was no natural defence, for shadow did not counter shadow. He tried to form a physical barrier at least, commanding debris to encircle him, but it lasted only moments before Battu tore it apart. Energy found him again, contracting his muscles tightly, destroying his flesh as it danced through. He convulsed, letting out a moan.
He had not expected the dark lord to be so strong.
Tyrellan waited on the other side of the door, his back to the wall, listening to the battle inside. He hadn’t believed it when Losara had offered Battu a chance to join him – join
and was glad indeed that the dark lord had not taken him up on the offer.
The wall shook, and down the corridor rocks imploded into the dining hall. He left the wall – stupid to think mere stone would protect him – and moved towards the opening. From inside came a fierce crackling, and he heard Losara give a pained moan. Chancy as it was, he ducked his head around to see what was going on.
Smoking food was smeared across every surface. The table lay smashed against the far wall, ringed by pieces of candelabra. Losara lay on the floor, writhing in agony as blue strands played over him. Energy filled the entire room, a thrumming field that sprang from Battu. The dark lord himself looked ecstatic, grinning so hard it was a wonder his teeth did not break.
‘Ah, First Slave,’ he said. ‘Help me finish this squirming gnat!’
Tyrellan drew a dagger from his belt and held it up.
Battu nodded. ‘Just the thing to kiss him on into the next life. All he needs.’
Tyrellan stared hard at Losara as he raised the dagger, drew back his arm and, with all his might, hurled it at Battu. It began on a perfect course to the dark lord’s neck, but snagged on a pulse of energy and instead went flashing into his arm, sinking into flesh all the way to the hilt. Battu stumbled backwards, the energy field faltering.
Tyrellan knew he should flee
immediately . . .
yet so often he did what he knew was right, never allowing himself any small gratification. This was too much, even for him, to resist. For the first time in a long while, he allowed himself a moment of pleasure. He waited, past the point when he knew he should be away, watching for the dark lord’s realisation that it was
who had betrayed him,
who had found him unworthy. Battu’s eyes met his and, for one glorious moment, Tyrellan basked in the undisguised horror he found there. All those years of loyalty, all amounting to nothing. How quickly a single act could change everything.
‘Not you,’ whispered Battu. ‘There are enough against me without you.’
Perhaps there was one further way Tyrellan could help Losara?
‘Battu’s connection to Skygrip is tethered to Refectu,’ he announced, then darted out of view. He heard Battu’s spells come crashing after, ripping the hole where he’d stood seconds before even wider, but he was already away.
Feverishly, Battu spun back to Losara and found the boy gone. It seemed that in his shock at Tyrellan’s betrayal, he had let his barrier of shadows collapse, and Losara had slipped from the room.
‘Coward!’ he howled, though whether at Losara or Tyrellan, he wasn’t sure.
He grasped the dagger hilt and wrenched it free. Dropping it to the floor, he stalked from the room, setting healing spells over his wounds as he went. As multiple agonies began to dull, he came across a cleaning crew of Greys.
‘And you as well?’ he boomed at them. ‘If Tyrellan stands against me, anyone would!’
The Greys fell to their knees, clasping their claws in supplication. Battu spread his fingers and engulfed them with energy, so that they frothed and died together.
He strode on, taking the time to heal himself well. There was no rush – aside from the clamour in his heart urging him to destroy, to rip, to rend – for he knew where Losara had gone.
As he walked the passage to the throne room, Battu passed the busts of previous Shadowdreamers.
‘Won’t be joining you today,’ he muttered, forcing his gaze past the empty alcove that he had picked out for his own legacy spell.
The Purging of Skygrip
The Purging of Skygrip
The Purging of Skygrip
The throne room guards lay slumped in their alcoves, sleeping deeply. Losara knew it would have been prudent to kill them, but they were unsuspecting servants of the shadow, and he had not been able to bring himself to. If he’d had the authority he would have sent them away, but they would never have obeyed, for they were sworn to protect the Dreamer.
Battu will just wake them up when he arrives
, he thought.
Order them against me, I’ll have to kill them anyway. But not a choice of my making
. Forcing himself to concentrate on the matter at hand, he stood before the throne Refectu, feeling it out with his mind. There were many fine, shadowy strands connected to it, one for each of the carved creatures that moved slowly about its surface, echoing a life lived somewhere out under the Cloud. These strands ran into a larger flow behind the throne, while another channel coursed along the floor between his legs. This one led to Battu, whom he could sense entering the room behind him. As much as he probed and sent blanketing wraps of his own power over this connective flow, he could do nothing to disrupt it. He tensed, waiting for Battu’s attack.
‘You don’t know how to sever the connection,’ the dark lord said, ‘do you?’
Losara turned. Battu stood waiting, fully healed, but still with those tired circles under his eyes. They slid to the sleeping guards.
‘No,’ said Losara. ‘I can’t seem to affect it at all.’
‘Look at the paltry job you’ve done on the guards,’ said Battu. ‘Do you not expect me to rouse them?’
‘I had hoped to leave them out of it, they cannot sway things either way.’
‘Maybe,’ said Battu, rubbing his arm. ‘Things were just swayed by another subject whom I long considered loyal. And if I cannot trust him . . .’ He gestured at the guards, and they convulsed in their sleep as internal organs burst.
How pointlessly destructive
, thought Losara.
‘Tyrellan did not know enough when he sent you on this fool’s errand,’ said Battu. ‘He understood the throne is the source of my connection to the castle, but beyond that, he’s as ignorant as you are. Again, your arrogance works against you. You think this should be easy.’
‘No,’ said Losara. ‘I simply seek to discover a way of doing what must be done.’
He could see his choice of words irked Battu. Why did the man hold onto his power so selfishly? It wasn’t as if ruling Fenvarrow came without enormous responsibility. If Losara had any choice in the matter, he would not have sought the role. Yet Battu wanted it – and for reasons with which Losara could not empathise.
‘It is simple enough,’ said Battu. ‘You have the same task here as you did below. Proximity to the throne means nothing. It is
you must defeat.’
Battu beckoned at the long window, and a great wind surged through. Losara was blasted from his feet and flung towards a wall, though he fell to shadow before impact, like a dandelion torn apart by the breeze. Battu stalked past him up to the dais, where he rammed himself down on the throne.
Losara re-formed, finally annoyed.
Is that the best you can muster?
he chastised himself.
He had only been half-committed to fighting Battu, he realised, for a part of him clung to the hope that he might be able to make his old master see reason.
Bel would never suffer such ambivalence in a fight
, he thought.
He would commit, and with commitment comes focus and purpose.
The time for mildness, Losara decided, had been over for some while.
Tapping deeply into the reserves of his power, he sent forth an intensely crackling stream, strong enough to turn flesh to mulch in seconds. Battu slammed his hands down on the throne, and from it a coating of black stone flowed up his arms, covering his body like a second skin. The energy slammed against him and Battu laughed like a living obsidian statue. Losara added a second stream around the first with his other hand, a pulsing double helix that concentrated into a blue vortex over the dark lord’s heart.
‘Burn away all the power you like,’ said Battu. He removed a hand from Refectu’s armrest, revealing the carved face of a Graka. Mist swirled out of it to take on the form of the creature, which howled soundlessly and swooped towards Losara. Losara sent his own blast of wind, catching the creature’s wings, too late to stop it slashing a rent in his arm. The shadow in his veins did not fall as blood would, but retreated into his arm, leaving the sliced flesh pale and exposed, quivering. It still hurt, and Losara gritted his teeth as he increased the strength of his wind. He waved his wounded arm into shadow and back again, re-forming it without sign of injury, though it ached within. The Graka whirled away, through the long window, out over Fenvarrow.
‘Next!’ said Battu, and his stony finger tapped on a twisted little tendril. Mud poured from it onto the floor, where it bubbled and spread.
‘Remember your lessons, boy,’ he said. ‘A conjured creature will take on the attributes and behaviour of the thing on which it is based. Hence a Graka will be vulnerable to wind. As for a Mireform . . .’ The puddle rose. ‘It will be resistant to magical attack.’
The Mireform gurgled, and a tendril-tongue sloughed out of its mouth.
‘That may be true,’ said Losara, ‘but from what I understand, swords still work.’ He waved his fingers, and from the throne guards six swords sprang up and flew across the room. The Mireform swung at them with bandy limbs and seeking tendrils, but for each it batted away, the rest flew back in. The blades whirred to a flurry and the creature collapsed beneath them, spattering Battu with chunks of mud.
‘What else?’ asked Losara. He had the distinct impression Battu was toying with him. Maybe it would buy him enough time to find a way to defeat the dark lord.
‘Look down,’ said Battu.
Water rose out of the floor. It frothed like the sea, creeping quickly up Losara’s legs. For a moment he enjoyed the pleasantly chill sensation, forgetful of his circumstances . . . but then he snapped back to where he was, angry with himself.
Battu touched a beady eye staring out of Refectu. Losara wasn’t certain what creature it belonged to, but thought he could guess. The water rose past his chest, past his face, filling the room. He could just make out Battu sitting on the throne, blurry through the dark water. A sleek shape appeared over Battu’s shoulder – the silhouette of a shark. It cruised towards him with a gaping maw. He fell to shadow and caught the swirling current, which carried him off around the room.
I saw you conjure a tornado once
, came Battu’s voice in his head.
Let’s see how you fare with a whirlpool.
Several more shark-shapes stole into the room, one snapping right out of the wall as Losara passed. It caught something of him, and he felt a wrenching as part of him was torn away, lost, like the corner of a piece of parchment.
Sharks are at home in the shadows
, said Battu.
You can’t hide by making yourself one. They can smell you, boy.
Two long bodies charged at him from either side and he fled upwards, ducking and weaving from place to place, making himself as small and fast as he could. More shark-shapes filled the room, until they would have been jostling for space had they not been shadows able to move through one another. Losara felt like a fly buzzing in a stew of gnashing teeth. He needed something to break Battu’s advantage.
Slow down, my boy
, came Battu’s voice, and Losara felt the shadows around him thicken. Battu was able to control them in this room just as he had done in the dining hall – except that in water, shadow was everywhere. Losara felt barriers closing in, impeding his progress. He was a fly caught in toffee, and in a moment he would be swallowed. A dead throne guard floated past, seeming to accuse with empty eyes. Then the body jerked away, dragging limply in dark jaws.
Desperation brought a desperate idea, and he dropped into physicality once more. As mouths came towards him and jaws began to close, he sent out a shockwave of energy all around, electrifying the water. Shark-shapes rolled, jerking and churning. His own body convulsed as the power shot through it, for he was not immune. He raced to heal himself with one hand even as the other did the damage, staying one step ahead of burning himself away. The pain, as his flesh melted and re-healed, was excruciating. It was all he could do to stay focused on his task.
Sharks began to sink, their bodies thrashing all the way to stillness as the water itself burbled and boiled. For some reason Losara’s ears began to hurt a great deal, and he opened his mouth to let out a cry. Instead of water rushing in, his lungs found air, as the water around him exploded to mist.
Losara dropped to the floor, dripping and breathing hard. Healing himself at a rate faster than he could destroy himself had used up a great deal of strength, and his body felt like a shell of agony. As he stared at his hand resting on his knee, he realised he was missing a finger. It seemed the shark that had bitten him in shadowform had effected a lasting loss.
Chirruk won’t be pleased
, he thought, remembering the lobster-god who had crafted his shadow hands.
The suspended moisture began to clear, revealing Battu with energy gathering at his fingers.
‘And on and on,’ Losara croaked.
‘And on and on,’ agreed Battu.
Yet I cannot harm him while he’s on the throne
, thought Losara. Then it occurred to him –
not his body, anyway.
He launched a sudden mental assault, forcing his way into the Shadowdreamer’s mind. The stone skin did not stop him – Battu had not thought of that when he’d opened a mental connection to speak to Losara – and Battu’s head snapped back.
A contest of pure will might even things up
, Losara sent him.
No fancy trimmings, no colour and conjurings. Can you match me here, Battu?
Battu strained against Losara, the energy fading from his hands as he redirected his efforts. Locked in a mental struggle, he could spend no power on attacking with spells lest the boy rush in and obliterate his mind.
for finding this chink in his armour, which Battu had been stupid enough to reveal! But he’d been so sure, he’d come so close to winning, if it hadn’t been for Tyrellan . . . curse Tyrellan, curse everyone . . .
, he sent to Losara.
I will dig up your mother and rape her corpse. I will make your father watch so it’s the last thing he sees before I gouge out his eyes and crush them under my heel.
My old teacher
, replied Losara,
should remember that I never did very well in his lessons about intimidation – whether it was giving or receiving.
Battu felt sick – the boy denied him even his hatred.
Everything he had went into pushing back, yet still he could feel the steady, inevitable approach. How deep did the boy’s reserves go? Deeper than those Battu could draw from the castle? Skygrip was a bottomless well of power, but as its conduit, Battu could only channel so much at a time lest it rip him apart . . . and despite the swathes of power coursing through him, the boy was winning.
He felt shreds of his mind flapping in the storm, old memories . . . for a moment he saw himself as a boy, in the filthy little village of Laz where he had grown up. There were the older boys, Gynt, Horon and Wattle, coming for him along the muck-streaked road. His bruises from the last encounter had not healed, but he did not run, for there was no point – they would get him in the end. They did not know that in a year or two Battu would discover his aptitude for magic, and would make them beg for their lives . . . and eventually their deaths.
Why did they hate you so much?
Losara’s words blew the memory away, tearing it to pieces.
Did you never have a true friend?
roared Battu. He channelled more power from the castle than was safe, and felt his sinuses fizzing and his teeth rattling in his skull.
Let me introduce you to my true friends.
Sharks spewed forth, memories of sharks rising out of the depths towards Losara, snapping at prey long gone. Battu sensed the boy withdraw slightly in alarm. He pushed forward in that moment, breaching Losara’s mind, delving inside, looking for a way to do damage.
A stray memory flashed past and he snatched it: a bearded man stared down at him, poking his belly and chortling. Battu recognised Corlas, and knew he was seeing some early moment from when Losara was just hours old.
, he said,
know what it’s like to be whole, even if you don’t think you do. Deep down, your soul remembers that it’s injured, broken, a fact echoed in everything you do. Even if you go on for a thousand years, you will only ever lead half a life.
He sensed Losara considering the words – and understood with certainty that he could not confuse or terrify his Apprentice. No, the most he could hope to do was make him
. What was worse, it was not even the words Losara really
– to him they had been like saying that the sky was grey or the grass blue. The boy already knew that he was lacking, and he wasn’t perturbed by being told something he already knew, whatever the tone in which it was said. What he considered, then, was why Battu felt the need to taunt him,
and what it said about Battu
Stop turning things around
, he said.
You, boy, are too stupid to even recognise an insult.
Silently, resolutely, Losara forced him back. With dread, Battu knew it was too easily, too swiftly, that he was being pushed away. Losara was channelling too much power to control; it was like trying to grab hold of flowing water. Shadows spilled from Battu, billowing out randomly into the room, like the ink from an octopus. To his dismay, he saw that during his other exertions, he had failed to maintain his armour of viscous stone, which was now trickling back into the throne.