Authors: James Barclay
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
Garan grunted and began to roll, having worked one arm beneath his body. He was a featherweight but his muscle was so withered that moving himself when he was prone was a true physical trial. His features contorted, hiding his already screwed shut eyes completely. Small whimpers escaped his lips and his body moved with agonising slowness. His right arm juddered and shook as he forced it straight. Drool ran from the corner of his mouth and Takaar heard tendons crack.
No, no. Don’t close your eyes. You swore you wouldn’t do that
‘I have to help him.’
You could end his pain but he won’t let you, and you are so crucified by your respect for a human that you acquiesce to that. Or is it that your hatred for him is so intense that you drink the pain of your enemy like the sweetest of honeys?
Garan fell onto his back, an exhalation of relief ending in a violent coughing fit that sprayed a fine mist of blood into the air and left him clutching at his stomach. There was a thud on the door. Takaar froze. He saw the handle move ever so slightly downwards.
‘Garan, do you need assistance?’
Garan’s response was another fusillade of coughs.
The handle moved further and the door opened a crack. Takaar readied to flee.
‘I’m fine,’ croaked Garan. ‘Never felt better. Now bugger off and let me sleep in peace.’
The door closed on a muttered insult. Takaar smiled.
‘So what happens now? Will your lungs sink through your back and into the mattress?’
Garan choked back a laugh. His voice dropped back to a whisper.
‘Listen to me, Takaar. We don’t have long before someone comes in to check I haven’t suffocated myself with my blanket.’ Garan’s eyes bored into Takaar’s face, searching for his features in the darkness. ‘Change at home will bring changes here. Unless we are fortunate indeed, there is going to be a hideous struggle for magical dominance, so bad that those stationed here will be glad they are.
‘There are more styles of magic than you have seen. Four schools dominate and the ethics controlling them mix poorly. Ystormun and his ilk represent a school of magic that deals in things best left untouched. You and your kind deal in a far purer magic which Ystormun has been under pressure to repress ever since it flared all those years ago. Now he is tasked with destroying it.
‘And you’re playing into his hands.’
Takaar felt slapped. ‘How?’
‘Because those you assume are the natural practitioners of elvish magic are not.’
‘The Ynissul are the natural masters of the elves and the only thread to demonstrate any feeling for the Il-Aryn.’
Garan closed his eyes and brought trembling hands to his face.
‘And you call yourself the father of the harmony? Your prejudice is entrenched as firmly as Sildaan’s. Did it never occur to you to wonder why Ystormun wanted to exterminate the Ixii and the Gyalans? The
? Didn’t that give you the smallest clue?’
Takaar opened his mouth to reply but closed it sharply against a rising nausea.
Oh for shame. A hundred and fifty years passed and so much of it wasted on the wrong elves. How does it feel to know you have failed again, through your own blindness? I’d be running for the forest to hide again if I were you
‘You’ve known this all the time?’
‘Don’t be naive, Takaar. We’re friends. Friends of the most curious kind, to be sure, but friends nonetheless. But when have you or I ever passed each other useful information, eh? Never forget that I believe in our occupation. Or I did.’
The last was almost inaudible.
‘This occupation is no longer to the benefit of Triverne. It is merely a resource base that will tip the balance in the magical struggle to come. Ystormun and his dark magic must be driven out before he becomes unstoppable. The future of both Calaius and Balaia depend on it. You understand what I’m saying?’
Takaar nodded, mumbled his assent.
‘There’s something else,’ said Garan.
The bedroom door slapped open, lantern light flooded in. Takaar leapt straight upwards, his fingers snagging on the timber roof supports high above the bed. He swung his legs up and his body swivelled, planting him astride a central beam. He flattened his body along it, one eye peering down through the dust he had dislodged, which spiralled towards the ground.
Ystormun swept into the room flanked by four of his cabal of mages and two guards. Garan watched him come and, though any other man might quail, he rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically.
‘He’s been here. I can smell the mana on him. Give him to me.’
‘Naturally,’ said Garan. ‘He’s hiding under my blanket.’
One of the mages moved to pull the blanket back. Ystormun stopped him with a hiss.
‘Idiot,’ he snapped. ‘Don’t waste my time, Garan. Where is he?’
Garan, lying prone, shrugged extravagantly. ‘There are so many places to hide in this room.’
Ystormun glared at Garan. He snapped his fingers and gestured towards the door to the washroom. A mage scurried off to check.
‘You are testing my patience,’ said the mage lord.
‘It is the only pleasure remaining to me,’ said Garan.
Takaar was calm. Seven enemies in all. He could kill six before they touched him, three of those before they even knew he was there. But Ystormun was an unknown factor. There was an aura of invulnerability about him mixed up with the reek of magical power that enveloped him. And something else too: something seething and malevolent that ran through his veins and every cell of his being.
Takaar waited and watched. He needed Ystormun to move directly beneath him. Dropping on him like a constrictor from a tree was his best and only chance. But as if he could sense Takaar’s intent, Garan stared upwards for a heartbeat and gave an almost imperceptible shake of the head.
‘Last chance,’ said Ystormun.
‘Or what?’ rasped Garan. ‘You’ll torture me for the truth? Have me executed? There is nothing you can do to me that I do not crave, nothing you have not already done that I fear. Even a demon-addled skeleton like you should realise he left through the window some time ago. Now get lost, Ystormun, and let me sleep. I’m an old man in case you hadn’t noticed.’
Takaar felt the air chill and saw the mages shrivel in anticipation of Ystormun’s response. But the mage lord merely nodded. Takaar’s heart began to thrash in his chest. Ystormun was going to leave. Alive.
You don’t have the guts. You never did
Takaar dropped head first from the rafters, arms outstretched. A guard stood below him. Takaar caught the man’s head in his hands, twisting his neck while his body slammed into the victim’s back. The guard crumpled. Takaar turned a forward roll and was on his feet, twin blades in his hands.
Takaar slashed the first through a mage’s midriff and the second through the neck of a guard still trying to draw his sword from its scabbard. Takaar ran forward, turned a roll over Garan’s bed, thumped to the floor the other side and cracked a roundhouse kick into the second mage’s temple.
Takaar kept his momentum into the turn, ducked a flailing fist and sliced up through the guard’s face. The final mage was casting. Takaar dropped his left-hand blade, reached into the jaqrui pouch at his waist and threw the crescent blade. The keen edge buried itself above the mage’s nose.
Takaar stretched out his right arm, the blade he held touched Ystormun’s neck.
Takaar pushed hard. The blade would not penetrate Ystormun’s flesh. He pulled back and hacked at it. The blade bounced, not even unbalancing the mage lord, whose fleshless face modelled a parody of a smile.
‘Very impressive, Takaar of the TaiGethen, but as you can see I am made of sterner stuff.’ Ystormun pushed Takaar’s blade aside. ‘Now, what to do with you, I wonder. I’m disappointed in you, Garan. Didn’t you warn him about me?’
‘I tried to.’
Ystormun was deceptively quick of hand. He loomed over Takaar and grabbed him by the throat, pulling him close. Takaar gagged. There was a reek to the man that was unlike any other he had experienced. The odour of power clad in the darkest of nights. It was as if his soul was a channel for an extraordinary malevolence.
Takaar reached up to try and dislodge Ystormun’s fingers but instead the grip on his neck tightened, the mage lord’s nails drawing blood. Ystormun studied him as though he could see right through his flesh to the mind and soul that lay within.
‘In many ways it would be a pity to kill you. Such conflicts within a creature so primitive would be a pleasure to examine at length, after all. But you are dangerous alive. You have . . . ability. The question is whether your martyrdom would make you more dangerous still?’
Ystormun glanced down at Garan.
‘I know what your answer would be, but I know better than to trust anything you say.’
‘I’m hurt,’ said Garan. ‘But I urge you to keep Takaar alive. Yes, he is my friend, and friendship is a rare beast between our races, but your idea of his influence and popularity is exaggerated. Dead, his memory will gain power. Alive, he does himself more damage every day.’
He really knows you well, doesn’t he?
Takaar swallowed as hard as he could. Ystormun’s grip had not slackened. He weighed up what to say and concluded that silence was his best choice. Ystormun’s eyes bored into him once more.
‘I see. I am aware my men all died in the attack, but what of your . . . adepts, Takaar?’
‘Your magic was stronger than ours but not every adept was at the temple,’ said Takaar in the clipped human tongue Garan had taught him. ‘You may consider your action a victory but the full price for it is yet to be exacted.’
Any hint of humour or humanity disappeared from Ystormun’s face.
‘Any reprisals on behalf of your warrior force, such as still exists, will be met with vengeance you can only shudder to consider,’ he said.
Takaar tried to shake his head but Ystormun’s grip made it an impossible gesture.
‘You don’t understand. You attacked Aryndeneth. The temple at the heart of our faith. Now the ClawBound are cleansing the forest. No human may step beneath the canopy again and hope to live.’
Ystormun hissed a fetid breath over Takaar’s face and dragged him from his feet. Takaar began to choke, his hands scrabbling uselessly at Ystormun’s fingers.
‘They will cease or you will all perish. We have only let you live so long as you do not harm us. Do not think we fear you. Not now, not after so long. Especially not now we are so strong.’
Abruptly, Takaar was released. He dropped to a crouch, massaging his throat and gulping in a painful breath. He caught Garan’s eye and the human could do nothing but shake his head in resignation.
‘So the decision is made. You will live for now and you will carry a message to your ClawBound, whoever they are. Their reprisals will end immediately. If they do not, I will fire the forest and everything in it. You have three days to bring me their response.
‘Remember who rules this accursed continent, Takaar. I will suffer no further loss at the hands of elves.’
Takaar stood slowly and faced Ystormun.
‘Guarantee that Garan will be free from harm and I will deliver your message,’ he said.
Spoken like a true coward
Ystormun laughed. It was a hollow sound, quite without soul.
‘Oh I am happy to guarantee that. In fact, my temporary loss of interest in Garan the experiment has been quite reversed and he can look forward to a long, long life to come.’ Ystormun leaned forward. ‘Go.’
I once told Auum that we’d got it all wrong. There is so much in the rainforest to kill an ignorant human, I said, that we should welcome them in and just let the forest do its work. Let Beeth and Tual carry out sentence. He didn’t smile. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because for a heartbeat he actually took me seriously
A Charting of Decline
, by Pelyn, Arch of the Al-Arynaar, Governor of Katura
Koel signalled the elf at the helm to move the barge into the deep water midstream. He breathed in the purity of the River Ix and the rainforest. He relished their fleeting freedom. To the north, the dark sky was further smudged by the smoke of Ysundeneth’s industry. In a day they would be behind the fences once more.
Koel had found himself praying for much of the time. His meeting with Auum had touched him deeply, bringing him comfort, strength and despair in equal measure. The temptation of freedom was so strong, but not one of them was prepared to desert their loved ones still trapped in the city. Though they aided the plans of man, Koel was intensely proud of his people. And pride, for an elf, was in short supply.
Koel tore his eyes from the smoke billowing up into the sky. Liun was standing forward towards the bow, and had been taking soundings. She was a strong stubborn Beethan – weren’t they all – but he had grown to respect her obduracy and he trusted her to be his second on the logging team more than he did one of his own Apposan thread.