Authors: Sam Bowring
In response, Losara raised a hand, energy collecting at his fingertips. Battu knew he could not fend off destructive spells on top of the mental assault. Hate was all he had left, but he could not win simply by hating. There was something, however, that hate did allow, and that might also give him time to escape.
Fields of grass crossed his eyes, and the shining sun.
What is this?
came Losara’s voice.
What are you seeing here?
The boy was right on the cusp of Battu’s mind. He would be able to sense Battu’s despair, and also what Battu intended to do as his last punishing and vengeful act. The recoil this caused gave Battu the moment he needed. Slamming his hands down on the throne, he unleashed his final command as Shadowdreamer.
‘I order that
Skygrip Castle be purged
!’ he said, his voice echoing like an avalanche.
Down in Skygrip’s entrance cavern, under the archway that had once encased Grimra’s pendant, two Black Goblin captains spoke to each other while their squads waited uneasily beneath the watchful gaze of towering statues. Rumour had reached them that the Shadowdreamer was fighting his Apprentice, and the response needed was not clear.
‘It isn’t our place to interfere,’ muttered Denrum. ‘Everyone knows a magical fight is for mages. If we trespass upon it, we’ll be cooked in our skins, contributing nothing but a stink in the air.’
Enrig, the older of the captains, glowered at the cowardice he saw on display. ‘Need I remind you,’ he said, ‘that we are sworn to protect the Shadowdreamer? We should utilise a porthole door immediately, get up there and help our master.’
‘Yes,’ hissed Denrum. ‘Sworn to protect the Shadowdreamer – but who that is may change in the next few moments, and our deaths will not alter the outcome. Besides, would it not be sacrilege to attack the blue-haired man?’
‘Perhaps,’ conceded Enrig, but he was still uneasy. He knew with certainty what his duty was, and without duty a soldier was nothing.
Shadow erupted from the floor. A thick curl lashed at Denrum, who cried out in pain. In the main chamber, soldiers screamed as a black tide rose to consume them.
‘Back!’ Enrig shouted, stumbling towards the entrance. He felt something grip him in the enveloping dark, felt the sickening pull of his life draining out of him. He gritted his fangs and tore free, managing to fall just outside the archway and into the dull light of day. Behind him the shadows rose to the roof, blotting all visibility into the chamber.
‘Sir!’ came the voice of a guard outside. ‘Are you all right?’
Enrig lay gasping, and felt bile rising. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing, yet in his heart he knew what it was. The screaming in the chamber did not last; it was soon replaced by the sound of bodies hitting the floor. Cries started in the levels above, as the death-bringing shadows continued to rise.
?’ said the guard, staring into the rippling darkness.
‘Skygrip is being purged,’ Enrig managed, then let his head fall back on hard stone. He wasn’t sure that he would live.
Losara froze, sensing something was very wrong.
Battu rose from Refectu, the last few hardened patches of stone falling from his skin. ‘If you want to stop this,’ he said, ‘I suggest you take the throne.’
‘What have you done?’
‘Activated a failsafe,’ said Battu, ‘created in case Skygrip is ever breached by attackers. From the top of Skygrip the Shadowdreamer can, as a last defence, unleash a wave of power to snuff out all life inside the castle. Supposed to wait, of course, until there’s no other option, and hopefully until a good number of the enemy has entered the castle . . . but I have not used it the way Skygrip’s designers intended.’ He bared his teeth. ‘You have already sensed that I concede,
If you wish to save your precious friends, I suggest you sit down
Or perhaps you’d like to waste more time fighting, as your precious pixie writhes her last moments on the floor?’
Battu edged towards the long window. Losara could see he intended to escape, but there was no time to stop him
He dissolved to shadow and reappeared on the throne. As his flesh became real against the stone, he gasped.
‘May your rule be short and painful,’ said Battu, and leaped through the window.
Losara did not hear. He had always felt connected to the castle, and in fact blamed its immersive nature for a youth spent half-asleep. Now, as hidden forces aligned themselves with him, he was no longer connected to the castle – the castle was connected to
Suddenly and at once, he could feel the extent of the shadow’s influence, the vastness of the Cloud above, the sweeping lands upon which it fell. It was not detailed, more an impression, as if he lay at the centre of a colossal heart, listening to it beat. He felt something like ecstasy, diagnosing it too calmly to really experience it. It did not last. Death rose through the levels beneath him, drowning souls in a rising dark. He felt queasy, as if one of his limbs was poisoned and rotting away. Battu was malicious indeed to have engineered this spiteful revenge. The people of Skygrip had done him no wrong, and now they fell in droves.
‘Master,’ cried Tyrellan, sprinting into the throne room. ‘Something is –’
‘Quiet,’ said Losara, his voice resonant. He took firm hold of the throne and closed his eyes. The air around him grew dark as he collected power, then cleared as he released an almighty command silently into the walls. It hurtled downwards, where it clashed with Battu’s order and smashed the purging dark to fading motes.
Losara opened his eyes. ‘I shall return,’ he said, and fell to shadow.
Battu plummeted, slowed only by his flapping cloak. He felt disoriented – his connection to the castle, to his lands, the entrenched and deep awareness of all his domain, had been abruptly ripped away. For the first time in a long time, he was contained completely within himself. He felt like a spider that had fallen off its web. But there was no time to wallow, not with the ground getting closer at speed.
He could float, but that would make progress too slow for escape. Instead he saw what he needed almost immediately and reached out with his power. From the Graka patrol that wheeled below, one member cried out in surprise as it was ripped from formation. Battu crashed onto its back, the Graka dropping sharply under his bulk.
‘Fly,’ shouted Battu, grabbing the hapless creature by the shoulders.
The Graka struggled to find purchase in the air, its wings spreading to do little more than angle the trajectory of their fall. Battu gave them a nudge of power, snapping them out further and making the Graka shriek – but they caught the air and began to glide, though still towards the ground.
‘Please,’ whimpered the Graka. ‘Who is that?’
‘It’s lord Battu, you creaking pile of rubble.’
‘Master, you’re breaking my wings!’
‘Better than my neck.’
Underneath, Mankow flashed by, growing steadily closer, but they cleared it several hundred paces up and then were out over the Ragga Plains. Half a league past the capital, the ground finally came rushing up to meet them, and Battu tensed, waiting for the right moment. Seconds before they hit the ground, he leaped from the Graka, the force of his feet jolting the creature down the last short distance to smash and scatter to stony segments. Battu floated the last few paces and skidded to a halt on the slippery blue grass of the plains.
He dared not tarry. Losara would be coming for him, no doubt about that . . . and unlike Losara, Battu could not travel wholly in shadowform without leaving his body behind. He had to move quickly, body and all, and if there was one thing all his years of scrying and spying had taught him, it was how best to avoid detection.
On magically aided heels, Battu fled north.
, Losara thought as he descended.
I am worried. Other folk, if faced with the potential death of their lover, might be panicked, frenetic, unreasonable. Yet all I am is worried.
, he supposed,
at least that’s something.
He arrived at his quarters and worry disappeared. Lalenda was sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to concentrate on a book but clearly failing to do so. She kept twitching and glancing at the door.
‘Grimra be sure Losara all right,’ said the ghost.
‘What if they’re fighting?’ said Lalenda.
‘Then we be of no help to him, flutterbug.’
‘He’d better at least remember the details to tell me,’ she said angrily. ‘You know how vague he can be. I will want to know the exact expression on Battu’s face as he dies!’
As Losara formed into flesh, Lalenda gave an exclamation of joy and ran to him, throwing her arms about his waist and burying her head against his chest. ‘Fierce creature,’ he said, smiling as he stroked her hair.
‘Are you all right, my lord?’
‘Yes,’ said Losara. ‘It was you I worried for. Battu has done a terrible thing. I cannot stay, but wished to make sure you were both alive. For my peace of mind, you understand.’
Not the right words?
‘Is Battu dead?’ she asked eagerly.
‘No,’ said Losara, ‘but he’s defeated. Now I must see what damage has been done, and catch Battu if I can.’
She stumbled as he disappeared from her embrace.
‘I hate it when he does that,’ she muttered, and Grimra chuckled.
Losara continued downwards. The purging had travelled about halfway up the castle, come very close to his quarters, in fact. In a laundry on the level directly below, he found several Greys slumped face down in vats of water, an occasional bubble breaking the surface. In the corridor outside, an entire patrol of Blacks were sprawled in a heap. Further on, two Arabodedas lay crumpled against a wall, one’s neck broken by the fall, probably after he was already dead.
How many more?
Losara wondered sadly. Hundreds, at least.
, came an insistent thought.
He sped from the castle and circled its base, glad to discover those who’d been outside were unharmed, but sensing no trace of his former master. He widened the circle, spiralling outwards, covering leagues in seconds. He knew that he was travelling too fast to be thorough, that Battu could hide from him far too easily. Several minutes later, he conceded there must be better ways to catch a criminal dark lord than shooting about randomly. Tyrellan would no doubt have a few ideas, and at the very least could send out word to all. If Battu stayed in Fenvarrow, he would be found. And with that thought, Losara remembered what he’d seen in Battu’s mind, moments before the purging – grassy fields, and the shining sun.
Surely Battu did not mean to escape him that way?
He returned to the throne room to find Tyrellan waiting. When he appeared, the goblin’s eyes glinted. ‘Is it done, my lord?’ he asked. ‘Are you Shadowdreamer?’
‘Yes,’ said Losara. ‘Assemble the council. Whatever is left of them.’
The earliest morning light stole through the faded green curtains of the room, softly finding the edges of objects – a satchel, a water jug, discarded leather armour, and their naked skin as they lay wrapped around each other in the bed. The rest of the inn was quiet, and from outside came only the faintest stirrings of a waking city. As Jaya dozed on his shoulder, Bel stroked her long red hair, lost in thought.
The day ahead seemed more perilous than it should have. Naphur’s funeral was a few hours away, and Bel would be relieved when it was over. Although he was sorry (wasn’t he?) that Naphur was dead, their last days together had not been easy. First had come the Throne’s imprisonment of his father, for an old crime that had not really been Corlas’s fault – he had slain a peacekeeper, true, but Bel believed him when he said it had been self-defence. As a result Corlas had been banished, leading to the terrible circumstance of him killing Naphur’s only son, Baygis. For this the Throne held Corlas responsible, despite the fact that Corlas was acting under magically binding orders from the weaver bird Iassia. If Naphur had never banished Corlas in the first place, and set him outside the protection of the Open Halls, where he was vulnerable to the bird, the tragedy would have never occurred – and although Bel had never said so, he felt Naphur shared plenty of the blame for what had transpired.
Maybe the Throne had realised that, because he’d eventually called off the soldiers sent to hunt Corlas. Bel had only discovered this after Naphur’s murder, and while it had softened his anger towards the man, it did not change the fact that there had been a lot of harm heaped upon harm. Corlas was gone, Arkus knew where, and although word had been sent out that he was pardoned, he had not reappeared. Small wonder, for although officially Corlas was cleared of blame, rumours and half-truths circulated wildly about Kainordas. The people were angry over the death of the widely liked Baygis, and Corlas’s name would forever be tainted. Any hope of convincing the people that the whole tragedy had not been his fault had been blown away by the killing of Naphur shortly thereafter, by Losara.
Bel’s encounter with his
still troubled him. Face to face they had stood in Naphur’s chambers, Losara’s blue hair obvious for all to see. Bel’s blood tingled with the same excitement he had experienced fighting huggers in Drel. He barely noticed or thought about Naphur, or Fahren – all his focus was on his enemy, standing right there. If he made the right moves, perhaps he could finish Losara for good, and then there’d be only one blue-haired man, and no one to stop him winning the war! As had happened in Drel, he began to sense patterns, like overlaid iterations of the steps he could take. With the huggers leaping at him from all sides there had been many potential paths for his sword to travel . . . but now that he faced a single opponent, the pattern was small and simple. And, as he understood what he was seeing, the fire in his blood turned to ice.
The way to defeat Losara was to stab
in the heart.
They were connected, it seemed, different parts of the same person, and their souls would live and die as one. It was troubling to realise that a part of himself, over which he had no control, was so exposed. In some ways he was glad that his
was so powerful, for what kept one alive kept both alive.
Until we are rejoined
, he thought, which strengthened his resolve to follow Arkus’s orders – to find the Stone of Evenings Mild and swallow Losara back into himself. Any thoughts he may have once entertained about finding a way to attack his
more directly had to be cast aside.
But how to find the Stone? He hadn’t the faintest idea where to start.
, he thought.
Out and flying.
Jaya stirred. ‘You’re awake?’ she murmured sleepily.
‘Thinking deep thoughts?’
‘Feel free to share,’ she said. ‘I might need help getting back to sleep.’
Bel felt a moment of annoyance at her faint teasing. Nothing was trivial about his situation. He did not let it sound in his voice, however.
‘I think it’s time to stop hiding the colour of my hair,’ he said.
She went still against him, and he knew that now she was truly awake.
does not hide it,’ he went on. ‘His people know that their champion walks amongst them. Yet what hope do Kainordans have? They know a blue-haired man lives in Fenvarrow, unashamedly, not like some cur in hiding . . . but they do not know they have a hero of their own.’ He wondered if he was vain to call himself that, but discovered he did not care. If he was going to be a hero, there was no place for self-doubt and second-guessing.
‘You should have seen the guards,’ he shook his head, ‘when they burst into the Throne’s chambers, in the seconds before Losara fled. They were awed by him. Terrified, probably, of who he was. They did not know that I, standing right there next to them . . .’ he trailed off.
‘Well, I think you’re right,’ said Jaya forcefully.
Bel remembered how, when he’d first told her who he really was, once she had overcome her disbelief, she had laughed and been proud.
And doesn’t a proud warrior need a proud woman?
Certainly he was proud of having
, despite the fact that she had been a thief. Had been, or still was? They hadn’t really spoken about it, but if they ever did, would he want her to change her ways? Maybe not . . . maybe it was her fierce independence, even from the laws of the land, that made up part of the attraction. Of course the fact that Jaya, like Bel, had a touch of Sprite blood about her left them both without much choice in the matter – their souls had bonded before they’d even known it was happening.
‘Do you think that if you reveal yourself, they’ll ask you to take the Throneship?’ she said.
‘I don’t know,’ replied Bel. ‘I don’t think so. I have other things to do. I can hardly go searching for the Stone
be the Throne.’
‘But the prophecy showed you leading the army.’
‘I don’t have to be the Throne to do that,’ he said.
‘Oh.’ She sounded faintly disappointed.
‘Is that really what you’d want?’ he asked, pulling away slightly so he could see her face. ‘To end up stuck in a frock, in a palace full of jewels that are already yours and therefore present absolutely no challenge in the taking of?’
She stared at him for a moment, then broke into a smile. ‘Maybe one day,’ she said. ‘In about two or three hundred years.’
They left The Wayward Dog and walked together through the streets, heading towards the carts that trundled up to the Halls. Although Naphur’s funeral wasn’t public, it was well known that he was being buried today, and the mood in the streets was sombre, devoid of the usual merry bustle. Two children throwing a cloth bundle to each other appeared out of place, though no one stopped them. Then one of them scraped his knee and started crying, which seemed to suit the atmosphere better.
A man in rags with a long beard was walking down the middle of the road, his eyes bloodshot. ‘We are lost,’ he called to anyone who would listen. ‘The Shadowdreamer comes to take us all! Fenvarrow marches, and we have none to stand against them.’
People shied away from him or sent dark glares his way, though by the looks on their faces many seemed to share his trepidation.
‘So,’ said Jaya quietly, ‘when does the mighty warrior plan to unveil himself?’
Bel stopped to read a shop sign. It said ‘Tomeo Fellet, Mercantile Mage’
He glanced for a moment after the old doomsayer, shuffling on up the road.
‘Now,’ he answered. ‘Here.’ And he rapped loudly on the shop door.
‘You aren’t going to speak to the High Mage first?’
Bel stared hard at the doorknob. ‘No,’ he said. Although Fahren had been like a grandfather to him, he felt this was a decision for him to make alone.
‘Fahren likes to talk everything through from a dozen different directions. He has a talent for muddying certainty. I know I want this done, and I don’t mean to give him the opportunity to talk me out of it.’
‘Right,’ said Jaya. ‘To blazes with the old coot.’
‘I didn’t quite mean
,’ said Bel, smiling despite himself.
The door opened. Standing inside was a sleepy-looking man of middle years, wearing a green robe and with a head of mussed brown hair that suggested he was not far from his bed.
‘Hello,’ he said, blinking at Bel. ‘You’re quite the strapping lad, aren’t you? Tomeo Fellet at your service, but . . . I’m not quite open for business yet. Could you come back in, oh . . . a couple of hours?’
‘A couple of
?’ said Bel. ‘The sun is high the sky, my good man!’ He jangled his money pouch. ‘Certainly high enough to glint off a gold piece or three!’
The mage looked from the pouch to the indignant young man before him and sighed. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Come in.’
He led them down a short corridor into a study full of potted plants, naturally lit by a large window in the back wall. ‘Please have a seat,’ he said, gesturing at a table, then turned to a pitcher of water. He put in his hand, made the water bubble, and vapour rose. He then sent little clouds flying about the room, seeking out thirsty plants to ‘rain’ on. The sight made a crazy idea dance through Bel’s head, but he shook it away. He already had his purpose – he was going to find the Stone.
‘So,’ said Tomeo, ‘what can I do for you?’ He cocked an eye at Jaya’s belly. ‘Need an unwanted bump removed?’
‘You might get yourself an unwanted bump if you’re not careful,’ she said. She loosened her belt a bit, however, and glanced at Bel. ‘Might be I’ve had a few ales of late,’ she conceded.
‘And cheese,’ said Bel. ‘Don’t forget about all the cheese.’
‘You have to admit, it tastes better stolen.’
Bel nodded. ‘Yes, and it takes my mind off the fact that, although I tried to rescue a girl from that jail, I apparently came back with a mouse.’
Tomeo cleared his throat.
‘There’s an enchantment on my hair,’ said Bel. ‘To mask its true colour. I wish it removed.’
Tomeo’s eyebrows went up. ‘An alteration of appearance?’ he said, and squinted hard at Bel’s hair. ‘Funny, I didn’t sense anything of that sort when you came in, and that is in fact my area of expertise. May I?’
Bel nodded and the mage reached across the table to set a hand on his head.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘No one would sense this, unless they were touching you and knew exactly what they were looking for. This is no common vanity spell, Mr . . . ?’
‘Well Bel, this tiny pearl of an enchantment is the most expertly crafted of its type that I have ever seen. Do you mind if I ask how you came by it?’
‘The Grand High Mage put it there,’ said Bel. Tomeo gave a little intake of breath and withdrew his hand. ‘Can you undo it?’
‘Yes,’ said Tomeo. ‘But I don’t know that I should go tinkering with the High Mage’s work. Perhaps he had a very good reason to . . . um . . .’
Bel upturned his pouch and coins spilled across the table. ‘I can think of several very good reasons why it should be undone.’
Tomeo stared at the gold, which did indeed glint in the sun that spilled through the window behind him.
‘All right then,’ he said. ‘I guess I don’t see what harm it could do for a fellow to have his real hair colour.’ Again he reached forward, but this time set both hands on Bel’s head. He muttered something under his breath, and from out of Bel’s brow appeared a tiny mote of light. Tomeo brought it towards him, still chanting. The mote quaked and broke apart in a tiny pinprick of an explosion.
‘Shame to destroy such a finely made spell,’ he sighed, and then his jaw fell open.
Jaya reached up to run her hand through Bel’s curly blue hair.
‘Well, there we are,’ she said. ‘And my – what vibrant eyebrows you now possess. And eyelashes too!’ She laughed as she glanced towards his trousers. ‘Wonder what else has changed.’
Bel gave the wide-eyed Tomeo a grin and pushed some coins across the table.
‘Thanks,’ he said, rising. ‘Come on, Jaya.’
As they walked out, Tomeo came to his senses. ‘Wait . . .’ he tried, running to the hallway in time to see the front door shut. ‘Oh dear,’ he muttered. ‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. What harm indeed? I knew it was a dangerous thing to get up so early in the morning.’
Bel realised he should have thought more carefully about the effect of walking down the street with a head of bright blue hair. Folk gathered to stare, as if an impromptu parade was being staged, but many seemed uncertain, some downright afraid, edging away or openly fleeing. He was puzzled by the reaction. What was the problem?
Ahead a group of men sitting outside a tavern, the kind who started their drinking in the morning, began to whisper and point, and he wasn’t sure he liked the tone of their voices. One, who seemed to be the leader, stood to move into the thoroughfare, and others quickly gathered behind him.
‘You think us so meek,’ said the man, ‘that you dare walk our streets in plain view?’
Bel pulled up, Jaya close behind, as the issue began to dawn on him.
The man drew his sword, glancing around to make sure he was flanked by his fellows.
‘Think you can come and go as you please, shadow?’ he went on. ‘Waltz in on a whim and murder whoever you like? Mock us with your presence on this day of mourning? Well, Gerring here,’ he thumped his chest, ‘will not stand for it.’
‘They think I’m Losara,’ muttered Bel. How could he have been so stupid? As far as the people of Kainordas were concerned, there was only one blue-haired man, and he had recently murdered the Throne.
Bel raised his voice loud enough for all to hear. ‘My good man,’ he said. ‘I’m not who you think I am. There is a blue-haired man on the shadow’s side, true enough, but he is not the only one! Did you really think Arkus would forsake you, that there would be no deliverance from evil?’
Gerring looked uncertain, and his companions mumbled amongst themselves. All around a crowd gathered to listen, some from the street, some from windows or balconies above.