Authors: Ari Marmell
To my father, Howard, without whom I wouldn't
have known Jack
about sci-fi and fantasy
across the eastern horizon, seeping into the skies above the ancient city of Denathere, the Jewel of Imphallion. And the ancient city, in its turn, would break beneath the newborn dawn.
Plumes of smoke undulated upwardâhypnotic, grey-hued serpents taking great bites from the heavens. Thick and oily, they blackened the air. The clouds themselves grew dark, contaminated, sickly. And the sun did not shine upon Denathere, thwarted by the unending night.
Nor could the sullen and defeated dawn dispel the nightmares of the city's terrified citizens, for on this morning their nightmares were real.
Fires raged unchecked through district after district, devouring homes, possessions, lives. Corpsesâbloodied and brokenâlined the streets. Crows swarmed thick as flies. Dogs, driven feral by the inescapable scent of blood, snapped and snarled, killing over pieces of meat that might once have fed them dinner rather than been a part of it.
From Denathere's wallsâcracked, shattered, and breached, but still intimidatingâwatched the city's new masters. Most were mercenaries, their faces bereft of pity as they glared over the suffering they left in their wake, fingers idly clenching blood-sated blades. They, at least, were human. Over soldier and citizen alike watched the cyclopean
gaze of the one-eyed ogres; from around their feet came the high-pitched giggling of the wild, sadistic gnomesâmisshapen creatures delighting in the bloody work they performed.
Across Denathere's surrounding fields stretched a sea of humanity. Tent peaks formed islands in the rough tides of the assembled horde. Here and there fluttered a brightly colored banner, the standard of a lord or Guild whose soldiers contributed to the gathered army.
The fields swelled with the dull drone of thousands of voices, drowning out any other possible sound. Animals for miles around fled in terror, diving deep into burrows or taking to the skies, squawking loudly as they flew. Even in the heart of the occupied city, the battered populace heard the steady clamor. “Salvation!” they whispered breathlessly to one another. But if salvation it was, it came too late for the thousands who lay dead or dying in the carnage-strewn streets.
On a hillock in the surrounding fields, beyond the reach of even the greatest siege engine, stood the largest tent in the assembled multitudes. An enormous pennant, longer than a tall man, flapped dutifully in the breeze, displaying a great bearâstanding rampant beneath a broken crownâembroidered upon a field of royal purple.
A man stood now atop that hill, a spyglass pressed to his right eye. His face was rough, weather-beaten, and his rich brown hair was just lightening at the temples. The tabard he wore over his heavy armor displayed the ensign of a red eagle upon a navy field; the same could be found upon the shield lying at his feet. Slowly, he lowered the glass, shaking his head as though to dislodge the image of the shattered city.
“Does it get easier, Nathan?”
Nathaniel Espa, Knight of Imphallion, bowed perfunctorily. “Good morning, Your Grace.” He turned his head and nodded to the young regent's companion, a soft-featured, dark-haired woman clad in a leather vest over a rose-red tunic. “Good morning, Rheah.”
Lorum, Duke of Taberness and Regent Proper of Imphallion, smiled faintly. In his midtwenties, Lorum knew just enough of tactics and war to recognize that he couldn't lead so vast an army. He might give the orders, but every man on the field knew it was Sir Nathaniel who planned the campaign. Self-conscious in polished armor never
marred by the sting of an enemy's blade, the regent brushed light blond hair from a youthful, clean-shaven face. “How you can manage courtesy this early, Nathan, is beyond me. I feel as though I've been sleeping on rocks for a week.”
Rheah laughed softly. “You
been sleeping on rocks, Your Grace. That's the joy of war: the chance to visit places no sane person would wish to go, to meet a great many people who would like nothing better than to kill you in all sorts of revolting and painful ways, and to sleep on rocks sharp enough to hobble an elephant. You should have been told this before you got here.”
“Wonderful,” Lorum muttered.
Nathaniel, however, had seen too much to smile this morning. He merely glared at Rheah, who seemed oblivious to her friend's foul mood.
When it became clear she wasn't about to acknowledge his irritation, he spoke instead to the young regent. “I believe you were asking me something, Your Grace?”
The young regent gestured toward the columns of smoke dancing in the air above the city they'd come, gods willing, to save. “I was just wondering about all this. Does seeing this sort of thing ever get any easier?”
Nathaniel turned back toward the city and shook his head. “Gods, I hope not,” he muttered softly. Abruptly he punched his right fist into his left palm, nearly breaking the delicate spyglass. “What's that bastard up to?”
Rheah nodded slowly, ignoring for a moment the puzzled look on Lorum's face. “You think there's more to this than just conquering more territory?” she asked, her voice low, suddenly solemn.
“Absolutely,” Nathan answered. “He's not this stupid.”
“I don't understand,” the regent admitted, a hand half raised to get their attention. “How do we know he's not just trying to take Denathere like he did the others?”
“He's moved the bulk of his armies into the city,” Nathan explained, attention fixed on the distant walls. “Far more than necessary to overrun the defenders.”
The knight sighed. “Your Grace, have you been paying attention to my lessons?”
“Of course,” Lorum insisted, sounding injured.
“All right then. Look around. Tell me about the area.”
“There's the city, of course. The defensive walls. And, well, just open fields. Farmland, basically. A few hills.”
Nathan nodded. “Good. What does that mean?”
The young regent's eyes glowed with sudden understanding. “Denathere's not a particularly defensible city!”
“Very good.” Nathan smiled. “All Denathere has is those walls. Big and imposing, certainly, but breach them and there's nothing left to stand in your way. If you were taking this city, would you hole up inside?”
“Not a chance!” Lorum insisted. “I'd be vulnerable to counterattack. Like â¦”
“Like the one we're about to launch,” the older man confirmed. “Exactly.”
“It's one hell of a mistake,” the regent muttered.
This time Nathan and Rheah shook their heads in unison. “No,” Rheah told him. “Corvis Rebaine is not a man who makes that sort of mistake.”
“Damn it! I just wish there was some way to learn what he was doing in there!” Nathaniel growled again, waving his spyglass helplessly toward the city.
“Actually,” Rheah said, her expression thoughtful, “there is.”
IN THE CENTER
of Denathere, coated in ash, blackened with soot, stood a large stone hall. The banners that once fluttered gaily from the great columns and wide arches were gone, burned to cinders or yanked down by inhuman hands. But even without the pennants of the lords and the Guilds, the looming structure radiated importance.
Soldiers, human and otherwise, milled about in the streets surrounding the Hall of Meeting, mired in that frustrating pause between
engagements. The surrounding buildings once represented the finest design and architecture the city had ever produced. Elegant sweeps, intricate murals, lofty peaks: all reduced to smoldering heaps of burned wood and uneven piles of jagged stone. The Hall alone remained largely undamaged.
The noble edifice stood mostly empty. The central chamber, home of constant and convoluted negotiations between Guilds and noble houses, was a wreck. Shattered crystal and wooden splinters littered the floor, the oaken table that had served for two hundred years pounded to kindling by overeager soldiers. The private rooms were in no better shape. From the ground floor to the roof, furniture lay smashed, mirrors and crystalware shattered, anything remotely valuable long since plundered.
Only the basement emitted any signs of life. A chamber normally used for storage now produced the oddest combination of sounds: the undertone of frightened whimpers and desperate conversation, but also a series of oddly rhythmic thumps.
Within the walls of the chamber, well illuminated by a surplus of oil lamps, waited the city's elite. Wives, children, and the aged of noble families huddled against the wall, features pale, many sobbing. Mothers clutched protectively at their children. Sprawled beside them were the eldest of the Council of Guilds, too old for the use to which their younger compatriots had been put. Several of the occupying soldiers milled about, paying only marginal attention to the prisoners.
In the room's center, the stone floor gaped open as though Daltheos the Maker had taken his great hammer to the earth. It was from this yawning pit that the strange thumping issued.
One suspicious eye trained upon the nearest guard, a fellow of middle years pushed himself from the wall and sidled over toward another man, white-haired and older still. The elder of the pair, his face covered in sweat, scowled at the newcomer. “What do you want, Bennek?”
Bennek, Earl of Prace, scowled right back at him. “I want, Jeddeg, to know how you could let this happen.”
“I beg your pardon?” The old man's expression changed not a whit, but his eyes grew cold. He rose, swiftly if unsteadily, to meet his accuser's gaze. Several guards allowed their hands to hover near their
weapons, but they made no move to interfere. “How, precisely, is this my fault?”
Bennek shoved a finger at the other's face. “All of you! The entire council! We knew he was coming. We all knew! We asked the Guildsâwe
youâfor the funds to increase our own armies. You refused us!”
“The Guilds did what we could,” Jeddeg insisted, his tone that of a man who'd repeated the same argument a dozen times over already. “How could we know we'd have so many of them to deal with? Besides, I didn't exactly see the noble families riding at the forefront of the defense, did I?”
“You bastard, I'llâ”
“Would the two of you
Tyannon, eldest child of the Baron of Braetlyn, blinked in bewilderment, as startled by her outburst as they were. At fifteen years of age, the cusp of adulthood in Imphallion, Tyannon was accustomed to being treated as a childâand normally to keeping her place, as a good child should. Her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth at the realization that she had just raised her voice to two of the most important men in Denathere.
“You've something to say, girl?” Jeddeg asked.
One hand nervously twisted the hem of her dirt-encrusted tunic. “That isâIâ”
Her little brother, Jassion, tentatively stepped forward and gripped her other hand tightly in his tiny fist. “Tyannon angry?” he asked, his quiet voice even smaller than usual.
She took a deep breath, squeezing his hand once. “Yes, Jass. Yes, I'm angry. But not with you, sweetheart.” She glanced up, a sudden fire in her eyes. “At them!”
Bennek frowned darkly. “Now, see here, Tyannonâ”
“I am! And I can't believe what I'm seeing! I can't believe the two of you are still fighting! People are dying, and you just can't leave each other alone!”
“Tyannon,” Jeddeg said, “we're trying to work out a wayâ”
“You're doing nothing of the sort!” she screamed, actually stamping
her foot in emphasis. “This isn't about solving anything! This isn't even about them!” She pointed at the guards, who were now grinning openly at the entertainment. “This is about the price of grain, or trade routes, or whatever damn thing you were discussing the day before last! If you'd put my father in charge, we'd not have lost so quickly.”
Two pairs of eyes went cold, and Tyannon realized she had, perhaps, gone a bit farther than was entirely appropriate.
Before she could stammer out an apologyâor the earl or the Guildmaster could let loose with some scathing retort or anotherâa new voice sounded from behind her. “Do we have a problem here, gentlemen?”
Tyannon heard her brother shriek and felt his grip tighten in hers; she saw Bennek go pale and his lip begin to tremble; saw Jeddeg fall back against the wall, eyes wide. She knew she ought to turn around, to move, to do
, but she found herself frozen stiff. She showed no sign of life at all, save for her accelerated breathing.
To her left, one of the guards reluctantly moved forward. “Weâah, that is, we were just about to step in, my lord,” he hedged.
“Of course you were. How fortunate that I've saved you the trouble.”
The guard smirked at the trembling girl, watched her eyes grow wider still.
The fight's over!
they all but screamed, even as her voice remained paralyzed.
Why won't you go away?