When Eric Albright, a luckless London slacker, and his pal Stuart Casey went through a battered red door under a railway bridge, the last thing they expected to find was another world. There lay the strange, dark realm of Levaal, whose tyrant lord Vous has ascended to godhood. The great wall which has divided the land has been brought down, setting loose a horde of demonic Tormentors. In their sky prisons, the dragons are stirring, set to defy their slumbering creator and steal humanity’s world.
1: THE CHANGE
In the doorway of Vous’s throne room the Arch Mage leaned upon the forked point of his staff. The odd flash of lightning from outside sent his shadow madly dancing on the floor behind him. His thick curled horns dragged his head down.
Vous was a long way from the young aristocrat of centuries past, lusting madly and without understanding for the very power enveloping him now. A long way even from the tyrant who, with his own hands, throttled out lives rather than share that power. Losing Aziel may have been what burned out the last old shreds of himself; but he had no thought for his daughter now, no memory of both the grief and pleasure with which her sad song had filled him, as it drifted faintly up through his high window each day.
Still the Vous-things scuttled over the lawns far beneath, blood-smeared and mindless. Vous had no thought for these creations either; nor any for the drake in the sky ahead battling the winds with Aziel and the Pilgrim on its back. When she and Eric fell into the sky, when they were drawn by his power through the air towards his balcony … even then, Vous did not see them. The human part of his mind was gone, subsumed by something larger.
Vous’s body split into several aspects. Some ran through the castle to the lower floors. Only one remained out on the balcony with its hands splayed to the sky. The Vous before the Arch Mage seemed to float just above the carpet, its thin electric form turning slowly, like a dancer making letters with his curved arms and hands. How thin and fragile the translucent body appeared. As if his skin were thin glass which one flung stone could shatter. A swishing windy sound filled the air, in conversation with itself.
‘Friend and Lord?’ the Arch Mage whispered through dry lips. Vous did not seem to hear, but the Arch did not dare speak louder.
The split canisters of foreign airs lay like popped-open seed pods on the ground. He’d thrown them into the chamber in a fit of emotion and did not understand why nothing had happened when they’d burst apart. He did not understand much of anything, any more. The foreign airs should have poisoned the hidden dimension where spells were made manifest, should have changed the entire world and all of history.
A part of him locked away and hidden from sight knew it had been his last desperate play in the game called power. A still deeper part of him knew that the dragons had used him from afar all along. All along, he’d had masters he never even knew he served.
As the Arch Mage watched Vous, four Strategists watched the Arch Mage. Four men ancient in years, hunched and broken by the magic their bodies had abused. They were as dead-looking as statues of burned wood and bone bent into mean shapes; each was dressed in finery but was now only distantly human. It was as though the wars they’d made and the terrible pleasures they’d indulged in had slowly twisted their very bones. Now and then their hunching shoulders twitched, or their shaking hands would convulsively strangle the staffs they held. Their wheezing breaths filled the silence like whispering snakes.
Vashun – the tallest and thinnest of the Strategists – had stowed the real canisters of foreign airs for transport to his hiding place in Yinfel City, where he had a very good use for them. Those the Arch had flung into Vous’s chamber had in fact been filled with ordinary air. The Arch had thought in his arrogance he would rip holes in the past, changing all of reality like a child spilling a bowl of his most hated meal across the table. Now Vashun understood why Blain had left the castle while the rest of them were caught in furious squabbles with each other. Clever old Blain!
There are no friends close to a throne. Like the other Strategists, Vashun knew that today was his last within the castle. They all now knew that the Arch Mage had been the one who’d brought down the Wall at World’s End. Despite this, Vashun’s mood was light. And he sensed humour in the others too, as they watched Vous dance gaily beyond the Arch Mage’s outline in the doorway. For power is a game, however seriously played.
So intently was Vashun watching the Arch, enjoying his confusion and suffering (with a skeletal leer uglier than death, bathed in the blooming lustful red of Vashun’s Strategist robe), that he hadn’t noticed the other Strategists make their discreet exit. It would soon be quite unsafe to stand this close to a god being born. Already the airs were performing in ways he’d never seen, the wild plumes seeming like life forms unto themselves, curls of misty colour flung from wall to wall. ‘Arch,’ Vashun said gently, placing a long thin hand on the Arch Mage’s shoulder. ‘It would seem the Hall of Windows has things to show you.’
The Arch Mage slowly turned to him. On his face – one half like melted wax which had cooled again – was the look of someone lost in strange country. Ah! Vashun sipped of his pain and found it exquisite. There was more to come, much more. ‘Come, Arch. There have been … developments. In the war. I suspect you will find events, shall we say, surprising.’
Like a servant given instruction, the Arch Mage hobbled along behind him. Vashun filled the silence with chatter of the books and accounts, and other everyday matters of the castle’s running. Each word of it was a careful needle in the Arch’s flesh, for it was all over and both of them knew it.
They paused before a non-magical window overlooking the Road-side lawns. Down there a large pile of bodies was heaped, the slain Vous-things which had run rampant through the crowd during the wilder moments of Vous’s change. The rogue First Captain stood in their midst, small with distance but recognisable, his sword drawn. Anfen raised his head as if he somehow knew which window they had come to – and perhaps he did. Both wizards fancied he saw them there. A glint of piercing light shone up from his armour to spear into their eyes. ‘Who do you suppose he is here to see, O Arch?’
‘All of us.’
‘Ah. I wonder, who will he visit first? O, to know the grim man’s mind.’ Vashun could not contain it – he wheezed with helpless laughter for a minute or more. ‘But ah, your pardon. Maybe he can be stopped. There are … how many war mages in the new batch?’
‘Many hundreds. Many hundreds more roost in the lower holds.’
‘How many do you suppose we’ll need? For one errant First Captain? He is rather, shall we say, formidable? Brazen too, mm. A little power to that sword, that armour, I’ll venture. How many war mages, Arch, to kill a lone man?’
The Arch Mage shrugged and leaned more heavily upon his staff.
‘Well, why don’t I send them all? Just to be sure. Besides, the new ones are overdue for their first flight.’ He got no argument. Vashun whistled for a servant (who was a long time coming, since most had quite wisely fled), and gave him the instructions. Vashun would not allow that First Captain to end the Arch Mage’s torment swiftly and mercifully with a sword. The very idea was heinous.
He and the Arch Mage walked on to the Hall of Windows, Vashun’s long spidery strides making no sound, the Arch’s clattering hobble echoing more than usual in the empty corridors. Vashun knew what they would see in the Windows, and he believed the sights bore no deception this time.
Sure enough, across the screens were the ruined bodies of men from the force they’d sent south, sent to conquer the last few Rebel Cities. The ground was wet with blood over many miles. Supply carts and war machines of all types were ruined. Tormentors stood like peculiar tombstones over these fields of death, their dark spiked bodies bright with blood. Now and then, one or two would sway or move their arms with peculiar grace, body language the handlers had never managed to interpret or understand. ‘I had no idea you created so many of these, Arch,’ said Vashun mildly. ‘My memory fools me, these days. I recall a strange dream, where we spoke of “controlled release at strategic points”. And only to slay the returning forces. After their fighting was done. Yet, behold! Thousands. Loose about the realm, with not all cities yet subdued. Nearly every Window boasts of the creatures. Thousands of them. Enough to wipe out an army. As it were. You are a master of discretion, Avridis.’
‘These ones aren’t ours,’ said the Arch Mage dismissively. As if this meant the creatures hardly existed at all.
Vashun came closer, making his customary sniffing noise, which neither of them noticed any more. He had learned to discern the scent of many kinds of fear and suffering, and longed now for this new untried flavour: Avridis Sinking in Defeat. He said, ‘How do you tell, O Arch? Are “ours” given collars? Brands? Saddles, castle colours to wear? It would appear these beasts have rescued the southernmost Rebel Cities.’
‘The Windows lie. Vous said so. The Windows lie.’
Vashun reflected upon this. He did find it curious that the Windows revealed these sights at this time, as though they shared his own delight in the Arch Mage’s failure, and wished to rub his nose in it. There did indeed seem some consciousness at work in them, a thing he’d never considered before.
‘So, the Windows lie. A relief to know it, O Arch. For if they were showing the truth … well! It would mean we have nothing left, nothing against the arms of three or four Rebel Cities. Do you suppose our position may have weakened a fraction? Or am I missing something, O Arch?’
‘Here!’ Avridis spun, a triumphant red gleam in his eye socket’s gem. He stood before a Window which showed Tanton under siege.
‘You have found an honest Window?’ Vashun enquired, moving closer to look.
‘As planned. The city is besieged. The war is ours, you paranoid fool.’
Vashun examined the Window’s scene, shown from high above. A good number of the castle’s forces surrounded Tanton’s high walls, but no siege towers or trebuchets had arrived.
‘Just the vanguard. Where are the rest?’
‘The vanguard will be enough, even if they are all we have. Vous is ascending. Don’t you feel it? We have created a god! Vous will not forget his enemies when he steps forth from the castle. He will clear the realm of those Tormentors, whoever made them. He will bring Aziel back to me, and she shall be next to ascend.’
‘An historic day, then.’
‘You don’t believe it?’
‘I think the Windows here invite us to leave the castle, O Arch. We must find a place to hide. Just as the schools of magic were made to hide, long ago.’
‘I shall not leave. Never! You truly feel we have lost?’
Vashun let a silence draw out, which answered the question perfectly well. The gem in the Arch Mage’s eye socket gleamed red and twisted around. A tear fell from his other eye. Vashun watched it slide down the wrinkled skin with utter astonishment. It’s Aziel, he marvelled. She did nothing to him, yet she has broken his mind.
Distantly there began a shrieking chorus as the war mages were roused and given their task.
‘Easy, Case old man.’
Loup tried to wrench the drake’s head but Case kept straining into the wind towards the castle. So much wind! So much chaos and magic and colour in the air he could barely see Eric and Aziel. They’d been pulled from Case’s back towards Vous’s balcony, but something else had grabbed them and now drew them skywards, to the dragons’ sky caverns. They seemed to float slowly and serenely amidst all the turbulence, as if whatever pulled them up wished to do it with the utmost care. Their feet vanished, sucked up into a fat mass of high cloud. They were gone. Loup was too busy trying to control the drake to be sad about it yet, but he knew it was probably the last time he’d see Eric in this lifetime. (And Aziel too most likely, but he’d shed no tears for that …)
The drake moaned in protest and spat a gout of orange fire with a sound more like a belch than a roar. ‘I said, easy!’ Loup yelled above the wind’s howl. ‘Whatever’s taken them up there in the sky, it don’t want us. You know as well’s I what took em. Dragons! Go on, keep trying. Feel that air push back at you? You ain’t invited, silly old man. Don’t go whining and burping fire at me. Away! Off south; I know a place to keep us a time. She who lives there, she loves critters with wings.’ Loup was uneasy at the thought … Faul the half-giant also loved holding a grudge.
Still the drake strained to follow Eric. ‘Listen here!’ Loup yelled, clutching one of its ears tight in his fist. It was stiff as boot leather. ‘Let em go, you fool sky pony. There’s mighty great dragons up there! You might not be fraid of me when I’m mad but what about them? Turn us around right now, old man, or I’ll rip this ear off.’
Case wheeled about, but Loup did not think it was because of what he’d said. More likely it was due to the sight which took his own breath away as much as it evidently frightened the drake. The skies grew dark with moving shapes. From hundreds of the castle’s windows, war mages poured, and an orchestra of deathly shrieks rose over the winds. The sound was a nightmare Loup would not forget. Case may have been aided by the wind, but Loup had never seen him fly so fast.
‘See that?’ Loup murmured to himself, looking back over his shoulder. ‘Was like kicking a stump full of flying bugs.’ He realised he was still clutching the poor drake’s ear. He let it go, patted Case’s leathery neck. ‘Stay calm, old man, don’t tire yourself. They’re not following. We don’t matter much, not you and me. Be glad of that. Nothing wrong with that.’
Anfen and Sharfy saw the same thing.
Far above where they stood on the castle lawns, Vous had become like a statue with arms splayed. He was naked and his body brightly glowed. His scream no longer carried above the tumult. He no longer conducted the lightning and clouds with sweeps of his thin arms – now they were open as if waiting for an embrace from something in the sky.
Beings fled around them. Some were people, the last few of those from the castle’s lower floors to avoid the Vous-things’ massacre. Most of the Vous-things too had fled, although now and then they came close in groups of two and three, blood and filth smeared on their clothes and faces. Their eyes burned with light.
It was up to Sharfy to brandish a weapon at them and frighten them away. Anfen, it seemed, was done with fighting. Anfen’s strange blade right now appeared no more than a length of normal steel, bloodied with more deaths than Sharfy had been able to count. The sword had not a single notch down its edge. Its tip gouged the dirt by Anfen’s spattered boots. Sharfy gazed with powerful longing at the sword which could cut foes from afar. How he thirsted to wield it! He’d be a king. He’d march up through the castle gates, slay the Arch, slay Vous, make the world better.
Here came two Vous-things now, threading through the corpses, their Friend and Lord’s face hungry, sneering, atop a feeble old woman’s body. Sharfy waved his sword at them, but only one fled. The other ran with thrashing arms right at Anfen, who didn’t bother to even look at it. Sharfy stepped towards it, blade raised, and let the horrid thing skewer itself. Only as his hand made contact with its ribcage, the blade poking clear through the back of a plain dress, did the creature seem to notice him, its baleful eyes peering into his, breathing a warm breath of rot into his face. The moment drew itself out for a long time.
Those eyes were two long tunnels of light, with a small writhing thrashing shape at their very ends. The tiny shape was Vous, he saw: Vous’s body convulsing in a small bare room. It took effort for Sharfy to look away.
The Vous-thing fell from his blade and slumped to the ground. He wiped blood from his hand. Some kills in battle one kept in mind like the favoured page of a story, to retell many times. This was not one of them. The Vous-thing stared up at him, hotly, hatefully, as its last two breaths shuddered out. The light of its eyes extinguished slowly.
Serve him well, echoed the god Valour’s words in Sharfy’s mind. Serve him well. ‘Just did,’ he muttered to himself. ‘How many times now? Saved his life. Kept him fed. All pointless.’ He wiped his new sword on the grass. He’d taken it from a fallen Elite guardsman: a fine blade, well balanced, though he’d shave a fraction of the weight off if he could. He said, ‘Anfen. What’s Valour want us to do now?’
Sharfy wanted to weep at the vagueness of it, but the single-word response was more than he usually got to his questions. He sat down on the soft lawn and gazed up high at the balcony where Vous stood with arms extended to the storming sky. Mad, he is. Everyone in this world. Me too? Must be. Look how I lived. Could’ve had a little farm. Tended a field, kept a herd, married. Pa wanted a fighter. Grandpa too. They got one. ‘Will you kill the Arch?’
Anfen dropped his sword to the ground as though by answer.
‘S’that mean you won’t? Come on, bastard. Talk. They’ll kill us. Right on the grass here. It’s where I’ll die. I can take it. You can talk to me at least. Not expecting any thanks.’
Sharfy’s hands tensed on his sword as two Vous-things came near.
‘Is Shadow here?’ said one, then the other.
‘Off south,’ Sharfy answered. One of them snarled; both scurried away.
Sharfy was surprised to feel Anfen’s palm on his shoulder. ‘The Arch doesn’t matter,’ said his captain, voice hoarse from the battle cries that had torn from his throat. ‘I understand now. Why speak of him? He was used. He never mattered. The spells only ever cast him, Sharfy. That’s how it really works.’
‘Not true. And you know it. We fought im. He knew what he was doing. All on purpose, all planned, everything he did. He knew what war is. Knew how to kill, make men slaves.’
Anfen sat down on the grass beside his fallen sword. ‘He did not use his power, the power used him. From where did the power come? That stuff mages see in the air, what is its purpose? Does it have no life or intention of its own?’ Anfen began to say more but a coughing fit cut off his words. At the end of it he spat blood.
Mad, mad, mad. Everyone. ‘We can’t sleep here for the night. Unless we’re going in there.’ He nodded at the castle steps nearest to them. ‘But I know this. I might find a bed and some drink in there. Put my legs up, relax. Then some old commander will come. Make me march to World’s End, probably. Without pay. He’ll polish some bones. All cos a god told him to.’
At that moment the wind died down. A cry issued from Vous that was like the long note of a beautiful eerie song. All Vous-things in sight went instantly still with their heads raised.
Overhead a red drake flew, its wings labouring into the powerful wind. Two of the drake’s riders fell free, but somehow didn’t fall. Instead they floated on the air, just as debris floats on a river, their bodies drawn towards Vous. ‘Looks like Eric,’ Sharfy remarked. Then it occurred to him that it might actually be Eric, and his heart beat fast. Who the woman was, he had no idea. But when the drake’s body angled forwards, he saw clearly that Loup was on its back. ‘Loup!’ he yelled, loud as he could. ‘Down here!’
But his voice was drowned out by the high deathly shrieks of a thousand war mages. They poured from scores of the castle’s windows, blackening the skies like great streaks of shadow.
‘They come for us,’ said Anfen mildly. ‘Farewell, Sharfy. My redeemer has willed it.’
‘What? No! Get us in the quiet. They can’t see us there.’
‘Let it end. I am tired.’
‘Give me that armour then. Quick, before they come.’
Anfen made no move to do so. Above them Eric and the woman had got nearly halfway to the castle when they changed direction. Steadily they floated skywards, away from Vous. Two Invia flew wide circles about them as they were carried higher and higher, until lost from view in thick clouds.
The war mages were soon close enough that the yellow gleam of their slitted eyes could be seen through faces of twisted ropy beard. As one, the mass of them shifted direction and flew up, in pursuit of Eric and Aziel. From a distance it looked as though the flocking mass of them assumed a formation of an arm and fist rising from the castle to strike skywards. Vous’s beautiful sung note grew mournful, as if he were sad that Eric and Aziel were no longer coming towards him.
Sharfy knew he’d live, for the moment at least. He also knew he owed Anfen no thanks for it. ‘If that was really Eric,’ he said, ‘that’s the last of him. Never seen that many war mages. We have to get under cover. They’ll come back. Fuck you and your redeemer. Stay here and die.’ He left him sitting there without a moment’s pause, nor the faintest hint of guilt or regret.
Anfen stared up at a high castle window, and did not appear to have heard or noticed.
Copyright © 2011 by Will Elliott