Authors: William R. Forstchen
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Science Fiction
William R. Forstchen
The battlefield was deathly still. Overhead, the twin moons of Haven cast an eerie glow over the shattered remains of thousands who had struggled beneath the walls of Landra. The city was still ablaze, casting a flickering glow through the fog that seemed to rise ghostlike across the blood-soaked fields. The low cries of the wounded still echoed in the night air, whispering for help, water, or an end to their agonies. Like apparitions, numbed survivors searched the fields, looking for comrades, loved ones, hoping against hope.
The mist swirled and eddied, cloaking the fields before Landra where but hours before the armies of Sarnak had gone down to their ruin. Gradually it deepened, as if the earth wished to hide the brutal inhumanity of what had been accomplished, all for the vain-gloried dreams of a demigod who was now a hunted fugitive, his armies dead or scattered. In the drifting shroud of darkness, two forms clad in the livery of Allic, Prince and defender of Landra, appeared hovering in the air, looking furtively about, then floated on searching. More than one, still clinging to life, looked up to see the two sorcerers drift by. Yet the cries for help were futile, for the two were not searching for lost friends.
"There's one of Sarnak's sorcerers over there," Giorgini whispered.
"You check him out and I'll check out this one over here," commanded Younger.
Giorgini flew low, drifting in the mist to avoid detection. A cold shiver was running through him. Hours ago he had felt at least that he was part of a team, fighting alongside his old comrades. Granted, he felt his commander, Mark Phillips, was a fool for trusting the Japanese, but he had always despised officers who were always ordering him around--and Mark, who led by example, was nothing like that. Already Giorgini was wishing he had not sided with Younger in the argument over command. If only he had kept his damn mouth shut he'd be back in the city now, a warm meal inside him and with a place to sleep. Instead he was skulking about like a thief, hoping to find and loot a set of crystals.
The damn crystals--he had never thought of that when he had quit Allic's service. He had not stopped to realize that he would be stripped of his offensive and defensive crystal weapons. Without them he was next to naked on this world.
Still not adapted to flying without the focusing of a crystal's power, he overshot the torn body of the sorcerer and fell to his knees. Cursing under his breath, Giorgini walked back to the corpse.
Jackpot! The woman had not been stripped of her weapons. Sitting down by her side, he quickly undid the bracelets around her arms and snapped them on to his own wrists, not looking at the horrible searing wound that had nearly torn her in half. He paused for a moment to look at her drawn, gray features which, strangely, had been untouched by the blast that had killed her. In life she must have been beautiful, Giorgini thought sadly. Her hair was barely scorched, her features quiet, as if death had taken her by surprise, not giving her time to feel pain. Who knows, he thought, perhaps he had even killed her in the mad confusion of battle. He could remember two kills of enemy sorcerers for sure, both of them pounces from above and behind. One of them had been a woman. He paused for a moment, lost in lonely contemplation. Yet he was alive and she was dead, that was the simple fact of it, he tried to tell himself, but the sickness of everything that had happened this day was impossible to shake.
A distant cry of pain echoed across the field, setting his hair on edge.
A wounded demon.
A moment later there was a muffled flash of light and the demon scream was cut off. As if by instinct, he snapped his defensive shield up.
"You stupid ass.
Turn off that shield, someone might pick it up and come over here," snarled Younger from out of the shadows.
Giorgini clenched his teeth, biting back a sharp return, and turned the shield down to its lowest power. He glared back at Younger for a moment and then returned his attention to the body at his feet.
Why in the name of god
did I leave
the captain to desert with this jerk,
he thought savagely. In frustration he ripped the crystals from the belt around the woman's body and began to examine them.
Younger landed beside him just as he was fitting the crystals into the empty slots on his belt.
"How did you make out, Sergeant?"
Giorgini kept his face impassive while he struggled for control. What an asshole, he thought. The two of us haven't a friend in this whole world and he wants to play lieutenant.
"Looks like I got a complete set except for a communications crystal," Giorgini replied coldly.
Giorgini was glancing around the body to see if the comm crystal had fallen nearby and failed to notice Younger stiffen slightly--
"Let's get one thing straight, Sergeant. Now that I'm in command you will address me as 'sir,'
Giorgini struggled to control himself. An hour ago, Younger had been calling him "buddy," and now this old military crap again. Inwardly Giorgini knew the bastard was better than him in a one-on-one fight, at least with crystals. From the corner of his eye he saw that Younger had found a powerful looking offensive crystal, but his left wrist was still empty of a defensive shield. The tension coiled through him, but he forced it down.
So that's the game,
Giorgini thought, feeling stupid for not having guessed this would be how Younger acted once he had weapons again.
Apparently feeling that he had reestablished proper discipline, Lieutenant Younger continued:
"All right, Sergeant, the body I found had its defensive crystal destroyed, so give me the one you found until we locate another body. Then we can get the hell out of here."
Giorgini was so angry that he actually stammered as the first words came out of his mouth and had to stop and try again. His words were low but venomous, and there was no mistaking their meaning.
"Kiss my ass."
Younger made the mistake of trying to reestablish his authority.
"Come to attention this instant, Sergeant."
Giorgini drawled the "sir" out as insultingly as possible, and continued, "You're a deserter yourself, Younger. Don't even try and pull that bullshit officer crap on me. In fact..." he paused as the decision he had been half mulling over crystallized in his mind, then went on, "I was an idiot to even come with you. Mark is not only a better leader, but a better man. I'm going back."
Younger's first reaction was to raise his offensive crystal. Instantly Giorgini's shield snapped on to full power and his offensive crystal was pointed at Younger's stomach.
would be pretty stupid. How long do you expect to last without a shield?" Giorgini's voice conveyed vast amusement.
Younger carefully lowered his arm. "Come on," he whispered smoothly. "You can't go back. They'll send you to the mines as a deserter. Stick with me, buddy, it's safer."
"I'm not your goddamn buddy," Giorgini hissed. "You almost had me roped in. I let my hatred of the Japs blind me to what a bastard you are. But I'll take the Japs to you any day. You thought I'd be your little army and follow you around shouting yes sir, no
let me kiss your ass sir. I was an idiot to desert with you. I'm goin' back and take my chances."
Younger's anger overwhelmed him and he started to raise his crystal again... only to freeze as he stared at a sparkling offensive crystal pointed directly between his eyes from a distance of only five feet.
"Imagine what this could do at this range.
Now why don't you crawl off to whatever cesspool you were going to in the first
Younger's face contorted. "I'll get you," he snarled. "You're as bad as the Japs, you little guinea. I'll get you some day."
"Come on Lieutenant," Giorgini laughed, "here and now."
Younger stood frozen for a moment, his features darkened with rage. Turning, he lifted into the air and disappeared into the fog.
He was almost across the field when he heard Giorgini's booming laugh. "Hey Lieutenant--while you're at it, why don't you take them gold bars of yours and stuff 'em up your ass!"
Giorgini stood on the crest of the hill smiling and chortling to
. Ever since he had entered the Air Corps he had wanted to tell some chickenshit officer what he could do to himself. Extending his far-seeing skills, he tracked Younger as he disappeared eastward, toward where the shattered remnants of Sarnak's army had disappeared. Finally he was lost from view.
Turning back, Giorgini continued his train of thought. Hell, Mark would stick up for him if he handled it right. Christ, with all they had been through, a man could be excused a little battle fatigue. He'd be in the doghouse for a couple of months, but come the next fight they'd have to let him back in and he could prove himself in battle again. Even that Jap officer, Ikawa, had said he was a good fighter in a pinch. They'd
to let him back.
The only hairy part would be in surrendering. Without
communications crystal he couldn't call in and forewarn them. The best thing he could do was to wait until daylight and start walking. If he tried to go in now, they might pop him off, thinking he was a survivor of Sarnak's trying to escape, no questions asked. As long as he was wearing Allic's colors no one would shoot him on sight in the morning light, and once he got to another sorcerer with a way to connect him with Mark he was home free.
Giorgini was so deep in thought that he failed to notice the change in his surroundings.
The grass beneath his feet began to turn brown and brittle as if a sudden frost had overcome it. Not only the temperature, but the very feel of the air turned cold and crisp.
Giorgini suddenly shivered and, still deep in thought, half wondered at the change.
"Christ, feels like I'm standing in an icebox," he muttered to himself.
All at once he came to his senses and realized that this cold was not natural. That it had to be caused.
And now he could feel someone, a presence, behind him.
Knowing he was a dead man, he instantly powered up his shield and turned to fight.
To be blasted off his feet the moment he moved.
Giorgini laid there, barely conscious, and felt the presence come closer. The cold had become almost overwhelming, and he began to shiver uncontrollably.
A voice that was chilling, and almost inhuman in its lack of emotion, came to him through his pain:
"I came too late for other prey, so you will have to do."
Captain Mark Phillips, formerly of the United States Army Air Corps and now one of the most highly regarded sorcerers of Prince Allic's realm, flew lazily through the morning air. The magical talents he had developed in this world were still a wonder to him, but the ability to fly had to be his favorite.
The land beneath him was as beautiful as ever, with small villages, well run farms, vineyards, and orchards. He could not recall ever being happier. Having powers that would have seemed godlike back on Earth, and being part of the ruling clique of gods and demigods, made his life far more rewarding than it had been flying B-29s with an average twenty mission life expectancy.
Extending his arms, Mark Phillips soared heavenward, up through the crystalline clouds that floated lazily with the morning breeze. Onward he climbed, the cool fresh air rippling past him. With a slight dip of his right arm he went into a roll, spinning through turn after turn as he punched through the opaque firmament of billowing clouds.
Reaching the top of the cloud, he skimmed along the surface until the edge suddenly dropped straight away to the ground more than a mile below. Laughing, Mark created a mental image and swept his hands slowly in front of him, drawing on the Essence and his still rough talent of creativity.
The cloud swirled up in response to his command to form a towering throne, complete to ornately carved lions' heads on the uprights. Gently, he lowered himself into his creation and, stretching
he looked over the edge to survey the world beneath him.
The cloud marched onward with the breeze, its shadow rolling across the eastern marches of Landra. How different this all was. Less than a year before he had been flying across the flak-torn skies of
drenched in fear-soaked sweat, listening to the pounding roar of the engines that kept his B-29 aloft. Always waiting, always fearing that inevitable slash of hot steel sent up to tear him and his comrades out of the sky.
And now he could fly like a god on the world of Haven. Flying as he had always dreamed to fly, by merely extending his arms and rising effortlessly into the heavens. There had been fighting as well, and death had still hovered by his shoulder. But for now the war on Haven was over, and there was the joy of soaring like an eagle without fear of attack.
And Allic had awarded them all small fiefdoms in return for their all-too-crucial services in the war with Sarnak. Only the day before, Mark had been enjoying a long promised rest at his manor, Homefree. As leaders of the outlanders, Mark and Captain Ikawa of the Japanese Army had received exceptionally beautiful estates of several hundred square miles along the river, in a region noted for its towering stands of eldar and derusa trees, and rocky cliffs that overlooked the river.
For two weeks Mark had known nothing but contented bliss. His lover Storm, Allic's sister, had flown in to spend the time with him. Eventually it had become a working vacation, as they tried to get the estate back in order after the recent conflict. They had visited all the villages in Mark's shire, and he had declared a feast day at his own expense for each visit. Not surprisingly, he had done very well in maintaining the good relationship that the people of Landra had traditionally had with their leaders. Ikawa and Allic's other sister, the demigod Leti, had exchanged regular visits with Mark and Storm, and the four companions had grown ever closer in their friendship.
Then the call to service had come from Allic. Ruefully, Mark turned back to his elaborate creation of cloud. Though he loved flying like this, at this moment he'd much rather be alone with Storm, watching the sleek ships sailing down the river on their way to the sea, or walking through a grove of red-hued trees in his garden.
"Aren't we getting a little godlike with the throne?"
Mark looked over his shoulder and smiled.
Allic, his liege lord, Prince of the
, hovered behind him.
"Have a seat, my lord," Mark said expansively, and with a wave of his hand he expanded the throne to accompany his ruler and friend.
Allic settled in alongside of Mark. Reaching into his tunic he pulled out a flask of brandy, took a long swallow, and then offered it to Mark.
After draining off a shot, Mark returned the gem-encrusted flask. Allic smiled and with a wink took another drink, then leaned back as if settling into the diaporous chair. Mark could see that Allic's scars of battle were almost healed, the healthy new skin gradually working its way out, replacing the darkened burns that had covered half of Allic's face. He still wore an eye patch to cover the left socket where the new eye was forming.
Of all the wonders of Haven--the flying by mere thought, the thousand year life span he now had, the magic which was a daily fact of life--this miracle of regeneration still awed him. Across three years of war back on Earth he had seen countless young bodies broken, torn apart, never to be healed. Yet here those who survived combat could again be made whole, at least in body, by the art of the sorcerer-healers.
Smiling, Allic winked at Mark and then leaned over the edge of the throne to look down. Mark still found it hard to understand this man, if he could be called such a thing. Allic was the son of god, imbued with powers that on Earth would seem divine. But then again, Mark realized, what would his own ability to fly like a bird, and fight with the power of magic crystals, seem like to his old comrades in the Air Corps?
Allic could at times come forth with a regal bearing and terrifying power; and yet at other times, he was like an old comrade, ready for a drink, a coarse joke, and a jovial smile.
There were hundreds of sorcerers, those mortals who could wield magic on this world, in Allic's service, but Mark noticed that it was the offworlders, the Japanese and American soldiers who had arrived here on Haven through the dimensional portal, whose company and friendship Allic preferred.
"Ah, here comes Ikawa," Allic announced, shaking his head and smiling as he pointed straight down.
Coming under the base of the cloud, Ikawa arched upward, his climb slow but steady, lacking the smooth precision of Mark, or the blinding swiftness of Allic. But then again, Allic was a demigod, the son of Jartan the Creator, and Mark had been a combat pilot, while Ikawa Yoshio had been an infantry officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, who still looked at flying with a bit of a jaundiced eye. Watching his friend fly up, Mark smiled over how strange this all was. A year ago he would have killed Ikawa without the slightest hesitation. Now he would lay down his life to protect the man he considered to be the closest friend he had ever had.
Ikawa pulled up before the two and shook his head with mock disdain.
"You and your damn games of darting all over the sky," Ikawa snapped.
"And this throne on top of a cloud.
Looks like your work, Mark: western European in style, and far too plain."
Ikawa waved his hands and the throne shifted in form, expanding outward with a wild assortment of swirls topped by a fanlike canopy. On both sides the clouds grew upward and turned into two giant samurailike guards who stood poised in watchful observance with blades drawn.
"Now I'm ready to sit," Ikawa announced with mock gravity, and swinging over, he settled down by Allic's side. Scooping up the proffered flask, Ikawa took a long drink and sighed.
The three friends sat in quiet contemplation of the beauty around them. To the east Mark could see the brooding heights of the Sarnastu, the
that guarded the approach to what had once been the realm of Sarnak the Accursed. Their destination was just on the other side of those mountains. Though the war was over and Sarnak had fled in defeat, still there was a sense of foreboding to the place.
As he looked eastward at the Sarnastu he could not help but feel uneasy.
"My lord, would you mind sharing with us what this is all about?" Ikawa asked.
Allic looked at the two and smiled.
"I'd have told you earlier, but felt it best to wait till we were out here alone."
The two nodded. Ever since the war there had been some concern about a possible security leak in Allic's ranks. It wasn't so much that there was direct evidence, but rather just an uneasy feeling on Allic's part, backed up by Pina and Valdez, his two most trusted lieutenants, that somehow word was sifting out of the city regarding Allic's activities.
"Word came in yesterday that we've found Sarnak's secret office and command center."
"We've been tearing that palace apart for three months," Ikawa interjected. "I thought we'd never find his command center."
"One of his sorcerers had enough of hard labor and felt that his old master had sold them all out, so he decided to talk in return for a reduced sentence."
"Maybe now we can find out where that bastard Sarnak is hiding and finish off the job," Mark said grimly.
"My intentions exactly, and the sooner we get there the sooner we'll find out."
Leaping forward, Allic dived down the face of the cloud and rolled out eastward.
"Let's get going." Laughing, Mark gave Ikawa a friendly shove. His friend tumbled off the throne and with a curse plummeted down the side of the cloud. Mark focused his attention and did a magnificent spring upward, like a diver going off a board. He hovered for a moment above the throne and then jackknifed straight down. Snapping his shielding up to ease the buffeting of the wind on his face, he raced down the face of the cloud.
Ikawa had regained some semblance of stability, and as Mark raced past, the Japanese officer swung in alongside his comrade.
Below the base of the cloud the two leveled out and, riding the currents of air, swung in behind their lord, forming a protective cover to his rear. Though there was no war, they were still flying into a conquered territory and a moment of inattention could still result in tragedy.
The ground below was dotted with farmsteads and villages, but as the
Eastern Marches drew closer the settled region finally gave way to wild tracks of forest. For three thousand years this had been the frontier between two rival powers, subject to raid and counterstrike, and only the border wardens and lords of the marches had stayed in this region, their settlements fortified positions set atop high peaked hills.
As the mountains rose below them, the three started to curve back skyward, passing again through the clouds which were billowing upward to form the first thunderheads of an afternoon storm.
sight of the clouds made Mark think
again of his lover. She was a demigod in her own right, the daughter of Jartan. Storm had in her powers the ability to create her own thunderstorms, the darkened sky her plaything for amusement or, as he had once witnessed, a terrifying power of war. It was, after all, in a storm cloud that he had first met her, and he smiled at the memory.
As they punched through the clouds, the towering peaks of the Samastu loomed ahead. Allic led the way through a narrow past, the sheer rock walls of the mountains rising several thousand feet above them on either side. The air was cold and crisp, the sun illuminating the peaks with a golden light that rendered them in stark contrast against the mountain clouds.
Turning and weaving, the party continued on up into the mountain fastness.
"This is Red Leader to Gold Leader control," Mark announced through his communications crystal.
"Gold Leader to Red,
"Party of three approaching through sector five."
There was a pause on the other end.
"We have you in sight. Identification code please."
"Green, green, white," Mark announced.
One of the things Allic's people had picked up from Mark was the method of air control and identification codes he had learned in the Army Air Corps. He had designed the air approach systems into Allic's realm and Sarnak's territory, and if a flyer did not follow certain corridors, and have the right codes, it would trigger an instant scramble.
"You are cleared for approach through air corridor five," the controller responded, and the crystal fell silent.
Mark was pleased with the crispness of the operation, and Allic looked back at him approvingly. It had been difficult to convince Allic that he should never announce his presence or even speak via crystals when in the air, lest he tip some unwanted listener off. But since his injury in battle he had, at least for now, seemed a little more cautious.
Coming down out of the high pass, the ground dropped away to a broad plateau, broken occasionally by hills and river valleys. For a nation that had been at war there was little sign here that a conflict had ever been fought. But then, Mark reflected, there wouldn't be: Almost all the combat had taken place in Allic's realm.
The towns and cities were well ordered, in an almost military precision of squared fields and arrow-straight roads. If anything was lacking, it was the green lushness of Allic's kingdom, and that vague indefinable spirit that could instantly tell someone that the people were truly happy and contented with their life.
Swinging low for a closer look, Allic soared over his new territories.
Mark felt slightly nervous about this. In Allic's own realm the sight of their lord passing overhead would have been cause for jovial shouts and comments. Here his passage was met by stony silence. Mark kept a watchful eye for the slightest threatening sign.