The Sword of Midras

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The world died during the Fall. Abandoned by the mighty Avatars and their Virtues, the people who remained were left defenseless in an untamed land. That is, until the Obsidians came. Through dark sorcery and overwhelming force the Obsidian Empire brought order to chaos, no matter the cost.

Aren Bennis is a Captain in the Obsidian Army who has seen enough of what a world without Virtue looks like and is willing to do whatever it takes to establish a lasting peace. But after finding a magical sword that only he can wield, a sword his trusted scout, Syenna, claims is a blade once used by the legendary Avatars, Aren is thrown into a far more unfamiliar battle. One fought with whispered words and betrayal instead of swords and arrows.

Running out of allies, Aren’s only hope for survival is to discover the true nature of the ancient weapon he wears at his side. In order to do that, Aren will have to turn to the empire’s enemies and, in doing so, he will discover what order at the hands of the Obsidians really means.

From authors Tracy Hickman and Richard Garriott comes The Sword of Midras, the first installment in a thrilling new prequel series to Shroud of the Avatar—available June 21st from Tor Books!

 

 

Chapter One
Midras

Aren Bennis, captain of the Westreach Army of the Obsidian Empire, looked out for the heads of his archer ranks toward the remains of the city of Midras.

“Why does bringing order demand such a mess?” he mused as he scanned the splintering stockade wall for the remaining defenders behind it. “Such a beautiful, glorious mess.”

The city—or what passed for a city in these times, Aren corrected himself ruefully—lay under the pall of a large column of smoke billowing from the still burning barracks on the far side of the city. The smoke rose to mar the otherwise clear sky overhead. Aren could see the forward lines of battle against the stockade wall that stood between him and the interior of the city beyond. This was the third breach in the defenses he had commanded that day. Parts of the city were already being looted because of his two previous successes. Now, once more at his orders, the satyrs had regrouped into a concentrated force and were tearing down another section of the defensive wall. The fauns were grouped here as well in support of the satyrs, their special song loosening the mortar between the timbers. They had been the key to the fall of Midras, penetrating the timbers that stood against them in a number of places. It allowed the main force of human warriors to sweep through the breach and collapse the city defenses. Now the city had fallen to them as the captain knew it would.

The captain knew nothing of the city’s history nor did he particularly care. He could see there were walls and columns that predated the Fall in various places about the city. One area of these on the eastern side looked as though the ruling warlord of the city was trying to restore it to some semblance of its original form. Now the building was a ruin again following their assault. The warlord had been dislodged. Blood soaked the ground, and the city was being pillaged. Securing the city from vengeful pockets of warriors, under the mistaken belief that they could still win a victory through resistance, would be difficult and long—Aren had seen that time enough before—but the rule of order and law under the Obsidians had once more reclaimed part of the world from ignorance and the petty squabbles with its equally petty neighbors.

Aren smiled.

It was a beautiful day.

“Captain!”

The call came from behind him, barely carrying over the clash of steel, the death cries, and the battle shouts that filled the air. Aren turned only slightly in response, not wanting to miss the battle raging before him. “What is it, Halik? I’m a little engaged at the moment.”

Nik Halik saluted after the manner of the Obsidians, slamming his fist against the center of his breastplate. “General Karpasic sends his compliments—”

“Nik, General Karpasic never sends a compliment,” the captain observed, his eyes still on the battle. “At least not without demanding payment for it.”

“Of course,” Nik replied with a shrug of his steel pauldrons at both shoulders. Halik had dark, close-shorn hair and preferred to keep his face shaved bare. His dusky complexion only made his smile brighter. “Did you think our glorious commander would send me out here just to tell you how pretty you are?”

“So you’ve come to tell me the general thinks I’m comely?” Aren snorted. “Now we both know how much that’s worth!”

“So you’ll be asking me for a receipt?” Nik flashed an easy smile as he patted down the breastplate. “Oh, must have lost my parchment and quill during the battle. You’ll just have to take my word for it then.… The general sends his compliments, and you’ll owe him for it on account.”

Lieutenant Halik was wearing his full battle armor as he approached. Aren looked him over once with approval. The lieutenant wore the armor of a Westreach warlord that looked nearly identical to Aren’s own: blackened plates trimmed in bright silver, with bloodred accents.

Aren smiled at the memory of the original design, when he had first seen the sketches made over a year ago by General Karpasic. The helmet looked like it had more horns and spikes sticking out of it than a thistle. The shoulder pauldrons and gardbraces were similarly sculpted into spikes and points and, it seemed, at every other available point. It looked impressive and fear-inspiring, but it was completely impractical in battle. A warrior would not be able to exit his own tent in such a ridiculous contrivance, let alone engage in combat. True, an enemy’s weapon could easily get caught up in the pointy bits, and he might even do himself harm should he be so foolish as to impale himself on his opponent. More likely, however, the enemy weapon would simply do more damage by directing the blow into the armor rather than away from it. Aren managed to work with the armorers and, in the end, convinced Karpasic that a design with fewer spikes and more deflecting curves would be more effective. The one concession was a single large and spikey gardbrace attached to the pauldron of the right shoulder, which became a symbol of rank among the warlords based on the shape and design. Aren made certain that the gardbrace could be detached during combat. Warriors could then at least shed this spiked contrivance when necessary. Only General Karpasic’s armor was ornamented with six such ornate gardbraces, with three at each shoulder. Aren knew they were showy and practically useless—not unlike the general himself.

Aren smiled with satisfaction as he saw that Halik’s armor was stained, and a number of blade strikes marred the finish. Aren had no use for army staff who kept their armor bright.

Which explained why his own armor was so badly damaged.

“I’d rather not owe the general anything for his compliments, on account or otherwise. You don’t suppose the general would consider our ledger balanced now that I’ve taken the city for him?” Aren mused as he turned toward a message runner who was rapidly approaching from his left.

“No more than he credited you with the previous two cities, or any of the engagements in between,” Halik rejoined. “His ledger is a bit one-sided.”

“Elf of Blood-Cleaver Legion reports that the tower ruin on the left flank has been occupied by enemy archers, sire!” the runner reported slightly out of breath. “The elf requests the captain order the support of the west-flank archer units for his assault to retake the tower!”

“Tell the elf to pull his forces back westward along the battle line until they are out of range of the tower,” Aren said pointedly to the runner. “He is to support the breaching force until we’re through the stockade wall.”

“But, sire,” the runner replied, his eyes blinking nervously as he spoke, “the elf said he has orders from the general to take the tower and eliminate the threat.”

Halik rolled his eyes.

“What the elf has not appreciated is that we don’t need to take the tower,” Aren replied, his voice attaining a dangerous, calm quality as he spoke. “If we isolate the tower by breaching the wall first, then we completely take them out of the battle and make them irrelevant to our victory. Tell the elf, further, that he will take the tower as instructed by the general—but only after the wall is breached and the city is secure. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sire!” the runner replied.

“Then get back to the elf with my orders before he charges the tower without permission and gets a lot of my forces killed without reason.”

“Yes, sire!” the runner said again with more conviction, before turning and running westward back into the conflict.

Halik cleared his throat loudly. “The general sends his compliments and requests that you—”

“Nik, my time is occupied at the moment with keeping this army together and seizing the city,” Aren said as he rubbed his tired brow with his fingers. “What does the general want?”

“Simple”—Halik sighed—“he asks that you accompany me to the command tent.”

“The command tent?” The captain could barely accept the possibility. “When?”

“Now.”

“I’m conducting the battle right now!”

“And your fine work is appreciated so much”—Halik nodded—“that he wants you to stop doing it and report in person on how well it is going.”

Aren closed his eyes, trying to keep his temper in check. “He means it, doesn’t he?”

“Oh yes.” Nik nodded. “And, uh, we’re already late.”

“Captain Hart!” Aren yelled.

Hart was Aren’s second in command of the assault. Aren believed that what Hart lacked in creativity, he made up for in determination. Though they were of equal rank, Hart always deferred to Bennis’s judgment on the field of battle.

“Yes, sire!” Hart reported.

“You are in command,” Aren said as though the words tasted of bitterness in his mouth. “Continue to concentrate on breaching the wall, then have the force move into the city in pursuit of the defenders once the breach is complete.”

“Yes, sire!”

Aren turned to Lieutenant Halik. “Let’s go. Hopefully, this won’t take long.”

“You never know with the general,” Nik observed.

“Yes, you never know.” Aren sighed as he turned away from the battle and stalked off toward the north.

* * *

The column of smoke from the city was far behind them to the south as Captain Bennis and his companion approached the Westreach Army encampment. The sentinel guards recognized them both at once and let them pass the sentry line unchallenged. They both moved quickly between the warrior tents, mess kitchens, and weaponsmiths, toward the oversize tent near the center of the camp.

“How are the second-version elves in combat?” Halik asked as they walked toward the general’s tent.

“Somewhat better than the first versions,” Aren observed. It was good to talk about anything except the general and the meeting that was coming nearer with every step. “But they are still a problem.”

“I thought the improved eyesight and reflexes would be an advantage,” Halik said. “And their tactical savvy should be something you above anyone would appreciate.”

“I do like the idea of their being able to demonstrate independent action as commanders of small units, but they’re still too aggressive,” Aren said, shaking his head. “That, and they’re completely unstable. I’m getting reports daily of elves abandoning their commands, forming independent cells, and then attacking both their enemy and their own troops.”

“How many elves do you have?” Halik asked.

“Eight,” the captain replied. “It’s all the Obsidians would send us, and I’m just as glad. I try to keep them separated in different groups as much as possible. It seems to help. I am more impressed with the satyrs and the fauns. At least they follow orders. The satyrs have limited use and have to be caged once the battle is over. The fauns are easier to manage, although you have to goad them into the fight. At least they have a calming influence on the satyrs. We were fortunate to figure that out.”

“It’s a mixed bag,” Halik agreed. “Do you think these ‘crafted warriors’ are ever going to make a difference?”

“Is that what they’re being called now?” Aren smiled. He could already see the guards standing to either side of the command tent’s entrance. “I thought monsters was the accepted term among the rest of the army. The Obsidians may have a talent for crafting life into more useful shapes, but I’m not certain their efforts to create new forms of life are paying off on the battlefield.”

“You mean like the undead?” Halik almost laughed.

“Now there’s an example of misguided thinking,” Aren replied, grimacing. “Sure, one could easily think that an army of warriors who were already dead would be invincible. The Obsidians let loose their great magic, and now the dead spring up where we wish to serve our cause. No one considered that the dead hate all the living and would attack both sides when the magic called them back to life. We only recently gained any semblance of control over them, only to discover that the dead are as stupid as posts when it comes to anything outside their own life experience. You can’t command them or direct them to where you need them to go. As a weapon, they’re nearly useless.”

“The Obsidians have promised that the next incarnations of their wizardry would be functionally better,” Halik said, though his tone belied his doubt.

“As they always do,” Aren said, chuckling. “They love to shape new creatures first and then promise to fix the monsters later.”

“Don’t you have a friend among the Cabal of the Obsidians?” Halik asked. They were approaching the enormous tent of the army command. Pennants were flapping from the tent poles, clearly demonstrating that General Karpasic was holding court within. “Perhaps you could ask him when we might get a version of these creatures they like to summon that is actually useful in battle.”

“Assuming I have a friend among the Obsidians,” Aren replied as he stopped just short of the tent entrance, “would you really think it wise to ask a mutation sorcerer why the magic of his cabal is so flawed?”

“Don’t want to be transformed, eh?” Halik laughed.

“I’d hardly be able to serve the empire as a frog, would I?” Aren said. He cast a cynical eye on the tent flap of the entrance. “Are you coming in with me?”

“In there? I’d rather hit my own head repeatedly with a large rock,” Halik said. raising an eyebrow. “You wouldn’t make that an order, would you, Captain?”

“No.” Aren sighed with resignation. “But that large rock is sounding very attractive right about now.”

Aren stepped inside the tent. He was momentarily blinded as the brightness of the day gave way to the dim confines of the command tent. His eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness inside.

General Milos Karpasic sat on his ornate chair opposite the entry flap. It was like Milos in a way, Aren thought: so large that its usefulness was literally outweighed by its inconvenience. The general had the porters for the army carry the monstrosity everywhere the army went and insisted on it being set up on its matching carpet almost before the tent pegs had stopped ringing from being driven into the unforgiving ground. The army did not eat until the general’s “throne” was settled. The chair itself was designed to fit on a large wooden dais that elevated the eye level of the general above anyone who stood before him. Milos claimed that the presence of the chair struck awe into the hearts of those who came under the rule of the Obsidians, and that it was a symbol of inspiration to the troops under his command. Aren thought it simply demonstrated the arrogance of a man who preferred image over substance and truly believed there was no difference between the two.

The vision he presented now confirmed every opinion Aren had of the general. He sat wearing his “battle armor.” The gardbraces mounted over the pauldrons on either shoulder were oversize and completely impractical, their sweeping points threatening to poke out the general’s eye if he moved his head too quickly to either side. The ornate filigree on the breastplate, with the fanciful image of the head of a one-eyed dragon, shined even in the dim light within the tent. Every inch of the armor gleamed, and not a single scratch could be seen anywhere on its surface. His helmet, also forged to look like the head of the same one-eyed beast, sat on a stand to his right, which he had designed especially for the purpose. The black armor was framed by a luxurious crimson cape attached at his shoulders and flowing over the frame of the throne.

As for General Karpasic himself, he had a square face and, at first glance, no neck. He looked as though he were trying to pull his head back down between the shoulder gardbraces of his armor. His black hair he coifed back from the low slope of his extensive brow, and his dark beard and mustache were trimmed into a very controlled Vandyck-style. With small dark eyes and a playful smile he looked back at Aren, though Aren knew fully well how quickly that placid facade could be turned into tempestuous rage.

“Captain Bennis!” the general’s voice boomed so everyone else in the tent could take notice that Aren had come at Karpasic’s whim. “A triumph for the Obsidians once more! Have you brought us all news of our victory?”

Aren turned slightly, noticing that most of the command staff were standing near the sand table set up on the left side of the tent. Aren sighed inwardly. Schnell, Odman, Gerald, Gorn… each of them should have been at their commands at the front, maintaining control over their forces still assaulting the city. But instead they had all been summoned, just as he had been, to the general’s tent.

At least Aren was pleased to see that Syenna was there as well. The Midmaer woman was tall and sharp featured, with almond-shaped eyes that seemed to take in the world at a glance. Her skin was deeply tanned. She wore leather breeches— much to the disapproval of the general—and dressed more like a man than the custom of the Midmaer region usually dictated. She had long, honey-colored hair, bleached nearly white by the sun, and it reached her waist in a tightly woven braid down her back. Syenna had been the scout for the army of the Westreach since they rescued her from the trade caravan in the western Grunvald. Much to Aren’s delight, the woman proved to be not only familiar with the land but remarkably knowledgeable of the region’s stories and people. She also was the one person in the entire force who would argue with him when she thought Aren was wrong.

And, thought the captain with a rueful smile, Syenna always thought Aren was wrong. Their arguments were the one pleasure with which Aren indulged himself. The captain nodded his acknowledgment to Syenna and accepted the slight dip of her chin in return.

“My lord general,” Aren said, turning toward the throne and the occupant who demanded everyone’s attention. “The legion under my command is engaged against the guardians of the city. We were breaking through the stockade battlement when the general summoned me here.”

“Then our victory is complete!” the general insisted with a wave of his thick hand.

“No, sire, our victory is assured,” the captain said, sighing. Aren played politics well, but it was not a game he enjoyed. “It is not yet complete. I must beg your leave to return to my command and oversee the general’s full victory.”

“Nonsense, Captain!” Karpasic chuckled as he waved a dismissive hand. “The priestess of Midras is dead, and the guardians of her order are all dead with her. The wall has fallen, and the deed is done. Now it is time we revel in the spoils of our triumph!”

“Sire, there are still significant pockets of resistance in the city.” Aren knew it was probably a hopeless argument, but he had to try. “There are any number of places among both the newer buildings and the far more extensive ruins where smaller, independent pockets of Midras guardians could remain hidden.”

“Insignificant rabble.” Karpasic wrinkled his wide nose in disdain.

“The Guardians of Midras are a well trained and disciplined cadre of warriors devoted to their priestess and their city,” Aren pressed on. “They are far more cunning and skilled than the general defenders of the city and will continue to be a source of danger to our occupation until we deal with them.”

“They are defeated and dispirited rabble,” the general said, and sniffed. “They are of no concern.”

“Nevertheless, sire,” Aren continued, “I would recommend that you permit me to organize a number of smaller units to methodically sweep through the city—”

“What are you doing, Bennis?” The general’s demeanor had changed in an instant. He cast a baleful eye on the captain.

“Sire, I am trying to help you to victory in occupying the city of Midras.…”

“Are you deliberately trying to make me look bad?” Karpasic frowned.

“No, sire!”

“This isn’t all about you, Captain!” the general spoke in low, pointed tones. His small eyes seemed almost feverish as they stared back at Aren. “Do you think the Obsidian Army of the Westreach has the luxury of waiting for you to ‘sweep through’ the city? There are objectives to be met! Schedules to maintain! The Masters of the Obsidian have expectations of us all, Captain, and they will not be disappointed!”

Aren held his silence. He knew better than anyone the expectations and objectives laid out by the Obsidians for General Karpasic and his army. This tantrum had less to do with Aren and far more to do with the general himself. It was a tempest he had weathered before.

“Our victory is complete, Captain Bennis, because I declare it so!” The general was in full rage now. “These people are under the benevolent rule of the Obsidians as of this moment, and no one, not these barbarian guardians you are so afraid of, nor even my own quivering command staff will make it otherwise!”

“Yes, sire,” Aren replied with all the self-control he could muster. “My apologies, sire. I should not have doubted you.”

“Quite right, Bennis,” the general replied. “Let that be a lesson to you all!”

Aren had to find a way out of the tent before his bile rose in his throat. “You summoned me, sire? To what purpose do you require my service?”

“Yes, well…” The general fumbled his words for a moment as he settled back into his throne. It came to him at last, and the thought of it made him smile. “As our victory is complete, I believe it would be in the best interest of our warriors for us to hold a March of Triumph!”

“A… parade, sire?”

“No, Bennis, not a ‘parade,’ ” the general repeated. “A March of Triumph. We will march our triumphant army in formation down the widest street of Midras so its inhabitants can fully understand the might and glory of those who have liberated them from their oppressive priestess and her false teachings. It will also lift the spirits of our warriors to hear the accolades of freed citizenry. What do you think of that, Bennis?”

“As thoughtful and brilliant a plan as you have ever made, sire,” Aren forced himself to say with a straight face.

“I’m glad you see it my way.” The general smiled again. “You are to go out at once and find a suitable street for this celebration within Midras, and then report back here to me so we can plan the elements that will make up the celebration of my victory.”

“But my command is still engaged in breaching the northern wall of the city,” Bennis said. “Perhaps Captain Schnell is more suited at this moment to—”

“Am I not clear, Captain?” Karpasic glowered. “I mean for this to happen now, and I mean for you to do it. Your little monsters and men will manage without you.”

Aren drew in another breath to respond but decided against it. Instead he asked, “May I have the assistance of Syenna? She may be helpful in discovering the most advantageous place for the general’s processional.”

“Syenna again, eh?” The general cast a leering gaze toward the tall woman. “You seem to require her skills more often of late, but I could hardly deny you the use of her. Just don’t get lost for too long among the ruins, Captain. I’ll want your report back here within the next two hours.… A most detailed report, understand?”

“Yes, sire.” Aren glanced at Syenna. “Then, as time is pressing, may we have your leave to go now, sire?”

“Yes,” Karpasic replied with a casual, dismissive wave. “Find a proper setting for our triumphant march, Captain. Our warriors deserve it.”

Aren turned, hoping Syenna was at his heels.

He could not leave the tent quickly enough.

 

Chapter 2
Ruin

“A beautiful day for a walk, isn’t it?” Aren said in a casual, if hushed, tone. He crouched slightly as he moved.

Syenna spared only a short, humorless laugh at the captain’s joke. “If death’s specter is to your liking, then yes, this could qualify as a beautiful day.”

The two of them moved with measured steps down the remains of the city’s main thoroughfare. Behind them, one side of the main gate was all that remained standing. Every other part of the city wall that once supported it was now thrown down. The smoke from the smoldering remains of a row of buildings on their right drifted across their path, making it difficult to see much farther in front of them. The abandoned shells of buildings looked silently down on them from either side of the road. At their feet, shattered stone and splintered wood were mixed with broken limbs. Stilled bodies occasionally stared back at them through sightless eyes. The main assault force had broken through here, and the extent of their brutality had been unchecked. The warriors had surged into the city like a tide, sweeping away anything in their path. Now the western part of the city was an abandoned landscape, its buildings empty of the living, and its rubble-strewn streets and alleys still.

Disquietingly still, Aren thought as he picked his way down the wide avenue. Keep talking, and you won’t have to think.

“Have you ever noticed how our enemies bleed the same color as our allies?” Syenna said as they passed another in a seemingly endless succession of crimson that stained the white cobblestones on the ground beneath their feet. The towering column of smoke from the barracks fire to the south still cast a shadow over the city’s remains.

“All the more reason they should be part of the Obsidian Light,” Aren said. “That’s what we bring to these squabbling, selfish, and disorganized tyrants in their petty little city-states: an efficiency, unity, and purpose they could never attain on their own. The price is paid in the lives taken on both sides— but how many more lives do we save, and how much more suffering do we relieve once these people are brought under Imperial Law? We silence the shouting chaos of dissent with order. That’s a proper peace.”

“I would agree that you have brought silence.” Syenna paused and looked around at the deathly stillness of the abandoned and smashed buildings around her. “I doubt the dead would be grateful to the Obsidians for quieting so completely their voices.”

“The dead no longer care. Believe me, I’ve tried talking to them,” the captain said as he stopped and then dropped down to one knee. At Aren’s feet before him were a pair of dead combatants, one clothed in the dark robes of the Midras Guardians, and the other in the armor of an Obsidian warrior. Each had died still locked in grip of their struggle against each other. Aren gestured at the two of them with the tip of his drawn sword. “Both of these men fought for something they believed in. Whether it was for or against some cause is not what impresses me.”

“What does impress you?” Syenna asked as her eyes searched the deep shadows beyond the shattered windows.

“That they valued their lives less than their duty to that cause for which they fought,” Aren replied. “That is something I can honor. That their cause happened to be in conflict with each other does not lessen the value of their lives, or the sacrifice they made for it. It was the price of their honor that both of them paid. And, on balance, it always ends up that one side pays more than the other in war. Our cause has paid less and won more. What I believe is that both of these men paid that highest price of all so the world might be a better place for them having been here.”

“You presume to speak for them, then?” Syenna asked.

“I presume to live for what makes sense of their deaths.” The captain stood up and stepped over the bodies with a long, careful stride. “Not that it matters to them any longer.”

They followed the road toward the center of Midras. The newer structures gave way to the more ancient ruins near the center of the city. They came to where the avenue ended in a circular plaza in the center of the town. Here it was evident by the carnage that the fighting had been the most intense. On the east side of the plaza, an enormous tree rose up out of the ground. It had once been part of a small garden in front of the doors entering the ancient temple. Now the gates into the ruins were missing, and the tree had overgrown the garden. Its thick roots had broken up the paving stones and cracked an ancient wall behind it. Broken scaffolding was strewn about where the recent attempts at restoring the walls and towers had fallen once more to the ground.

Syenna followed Aren into the shadow beneath the widespreading branches of the tree.

“The road is ruined,” Syenna commented as they quietly surveyed the streets leading to the north and south.

“But with an organized effort, that western avenue may be suitable enough for the general’s parade,” Aren observed as he sat down at the base of the tree. The silence was getting to him as well. “How long ago were these cobblestones put down, do you suppose?”

“They predate the Fall,” Syenna said with solemnity. “Avatars may have walked these paths.”

Aren chuckled.

“Do you doubt it?” Syenna glared at him.

“That there were Avatars or that they walked this road?”

“You choose.”

“Then both, actually.” Aren’s smile was all indulgence. “Myths to frighten small children into obedience… and to make sense of the Fall to equally bewildered adults.”

“The Avatars brought us purpose and a better way!” Syenna stated with unquestioning belief. “They brought us the Virtues!”

“For all the good it did them… or us.” Aren chuckled, shaking his head. “These legendary Virtues didn’t prevent the Fall and, for all we know, they may have caused it. And what are these great, vaunted ‘Virtues’ anyway? Everyone likes to talk about them, but no one seems to remember exactly what these Virtues were supposed to be.”

“They were lost to us in the Fall,” Syenna said with conviction.

“A rather convenient loss,” Aren said. Something down the western street caught his eye, a flash of light on polished metal. “And why is it that those who do remember them only remember Virtues that profit them? If they don’t know a Virtue off which they can make money, then they seem perfectly willing to make up a suitable one that can. Our hope doesn’t lie in the failed past, Syenna.… It lies in the future of one voice, one truth, one thought, one purpose, and one destiny: that is us. Our destiny is the only one that counts.”

“Because you bring order to the world?” Syenna asked.

“Because we bring order to the world.” Aren nodded.

“This city brought order to the Midmaer Plain. It brought your straight lines, order, and purpose,” Syenna observed with a toss of her head toward the ruins. Then she put her hand on the trunk of the tree. “Yet this tree still stands here, Captain, after all the battles raged around it. Its roots break up the stones. Its branches push over the walls. This tree and the trees from its seeds will be here long after the stones have been crushed into sand and the walls erased beneath the enduring force of its nature. This wild and natural thing will always defeat the order of these walls, Captain, given enough time.”

“And yet our Obsidian sorcerers command nature itself,” Aren countered. He was enjoying the challenge Syenna so often provided him. “They shape it to our will.”

“Like the elves?” Syenna cast a cool, dark eye in the captain’s direction. The lift of her brow indicated to him that she was fully engaged in their fencing words.

Aren scowled as he picked up a fragment of broken stone and tossed it casually across the plaza. “What about the elves?”

“Your Obsidian sorcerers used their powers to shape them from enslaved humans,” Syenna said as she leaned down toward him in the shade of the tree. “They did the same to create the satyrs and the fauns. They have even unleashed magic to raise the dead from their graves. Who knows what they might try next? All of it done that they might more fully serve the cause of the Obsidian Light.”

“What’s your point?” Aren fixed his vision on the bright flashes of light he could see down the ruined roadway they had just passed over. It was getting closer.

“My question is whether they have souls,” Syenna said.

“Souls?” Aren looked up in surprise.

“Yes, souls,” Syenna reiterated.

“You’re joking!”

“Is there something remaining in them that rebels against your control and your order,” Syenna pressed on. “Do they have a will of nature that makes them want to be rather than simply exist? These monsters your empire is shaping with their magic may become something more than just animals in a harness to do your bidding. If they can think, then what happens when they start thinking for themselves? They might think they don’t want to follow your straight lines. They might determine a ‘greater good’ of their own. Have you ever considered that—”

“Wait,” Aren said, holding his palm up. He stood slowly, his eyes fixed down the road.

A lone warrior was approaching. He was clothed in the dark robe of a Midras Guardian. His hood was pushed back, revealing his shaved head. Aren knew from previous encounters that the tattooed sigils that began at the center of his forehead ran continuously to the back of his neck. They were supposed to delineate the miraculous capabilities granted to the individual Guardians by their priestess. The magic appeared to have failed this particular Guardian, as he was bleeding from a long gash at the side of his head, yet his ice-blue eyes remained fixed on Aren with a fanatic single-mindedness as he approached. His short sword bore similar markings to the tattoos down the blade. It flashed in the sunlight. The tip of it swung listlessly before the Guardian as he staggered toward the captain and his guide.

“What does he want?” Aren asked. “He’s alone.”

“Guardians are never alone,” Syenna said under her breath. She reached a hand slowly across her body to wrap her long fingers around the hilt of her sword. “And they never come at you from the front.”

Aren glanced around from where he stood by the tree.

He was startled to see a figure through the sundered temple gates.

There was a beauty about her despite the dark smudges on her skin and the haggard look to her face. She wore the tattered remains of a robe that showed her to have been a priestess of the lower ranks. Her dark hair was disheveled and in a hopeless tangle, but she carried herself with a clear, confident poise that beamed through her countenance despite her physical appearance. And there was a deep sadness about her too, which startled Aren. Her large, watery eyes looked back at Aren with a fixed, pleading gaze.

Aren watched as the woman shifted that gaze upward past where Aren stood. The strange priestess gave a start and then disappeared into the darkness of the ruins beyond the temple entrance.

Aren turned to follow the woman’s gaze to the rooftops on the far side of the plaza. A crooked smile came to his lips. “I think we should be more concerned with what’s at our rear. We might consider a hasty offering in their temple.”

Syenna drew in a breath, her grip tightening on her sword. “Must you always offend local customs everywhere you go?”

“Only the ones I don’t know about,” Aren said. “Ready?”

“Yes.”

Now!

Aren and Syenna turned as one, dashing past the tree toward the broken doors of the temple beyond. Aren had taken only three steps before he heard the whistling behind him. He dug in his booted heels and turned his shoulder into Syenna’s body, halting her flight.

A dozen arrows stabbed the ground in front of them, forming a curved pattern before the temple doors.

“Go! Go now!” Aren propelled Syenna ahead of him. The shafts of the arrows splintered under their boots as they rushed through the missing doors. Aren had already drawn his sword as he passed into the ruins of the temple.

The hooting calls of the Guardians followed them as they plunged into the shadows of the hallway. Aren had once heard a pack of wolves on the Midmaer Plain as they pursued their prey. The sound of the Guardians was entirely too similar.

The ceiling overhead had collapsed in places, allowing sparse sunlight, filtered through the ruins above them, to fall into the hallway. The hall ended in an empty alcove with branching hallways to either side. Syenna slid to a halt at the alcove, Aren nearly running into her from behind.

“Which way?” Syenna demanded.

The priestess glanced back at Aren from the end of the left hall, vanishing from view as she fled.

“She’s gone this way!” Aren called to Syenna.

“Who?” Syenna called back.

Aren was already running down the hall toward where he had just seen the priestess. She would know her way around these ruins, he thought. She knows the way out.

Aren could feel Syenna at his heels as he burst into the large open space. He could only guess at its function. It was several stories high, and its roof was missing entirely. Two galleries ran around the secondand third-floor spaces circling the room, each choked with vines that wound around the pillars of the colonnade.

The dark robed forms of several Guardians ran along both galleries overhead, searching for a way down to their prey. One of them stopped, pulling a bow from off his shoulder.

Aren glimpsed a flash of priestess robe in the dark archway to his right.

“That way!” he yelled, shoving Syenna toward the arch.

Again he plunged into the darkness after her. Syenna cried out. Aren heard the cacophony of her armor and weapons crashing ahead of him, and in moments he nearly fell himself as the hall suddenly ended in a steep, downward stair. He descended in quick steps.

“Are you all right?” he called, his eyes quickly becoming accustomed to the reduced light. There were fewer breaks in the ceiling here, making the available light sparse.

“Yes,” Syenna called back to him from below. “But I think I’ve broken my pride.”

“Well, at least it’s something easily repaired,” Aren replied. The calls of the Guardians sounded closer and louder in his ears. “Keep moving!”

Syenna was running in front of him. “There’s more light ahead.”

They passed into a small circular chamber. The room was nearly thirty feet high, with a domed ceiling. Part of the dome had collapsed, allowing light filtered through leaves of vines and trees to spill into the room.

“The Guardians!” Syenna said in hushed tones.

“I know,” Aren whispered into the sudden silence. “Their calls have stopped.”

A second archway opened on the far side of the circular room. Syenna stepped through it, Aren right behind her.

He reacted instinctively to the motion to his left.

Aren’s blade rose, parrying the blow from the Guardian lurking at the side of the arch. Aren stepped back and then quickly thrust in riposte. He felt the blade slide along the Guardian’s armor and under his robes, but he followed up with his armored left glove to the Guardian’s face.

A quick glance revealed Syenna in a similarly desperate battle with a second Guardian. She had managed to draw both her sword and main gauche dagger. The dagger had trapped the Guardian’s blade as she slashed at him with her sword.

The Guardian before Aren staggered back against the ancient wall. The unstable structure shifted behind him, a number of remaining tiles tumbling down from the groaning ceiling overhead.

The Guardian tried to push away from the wall, but Aren kicked him hard in the chest, sending the man once again to stagger backward, shifting the wall stones even farther.

Syenna’s main gauche was still locked with the second Guardian’s blade. She twisted him around, her own back now to the opposite wall.

Aren could hear shouts of more Guardians approaching from the plaza beyond the entrance. He reached for the Guardian wrestling with Syenna and, gripping him with both hands, pulled him backward and away from his guide. Aren then threw him with all his strength across the narrow hallway and into the body of the first Guardian still struggling to regain his balance.

Aren reached out, gripping Syenna’s wrist as he plunged farther into the hall.

The weight of the two Guardians fell a third time against the wall. It gave way, the stones bowing out and then collapsing completely. The ceiling overhead cascaded downward, crushing and choking the entrance.

Aren continued to run down the corridor, Syenna’s wrist firmly in his grip. Faint light shone in shafts from the breaks in the ruins above them, bleeding into the hall where they were now being choked with dust.

The rumble of the collapsing ruin walls continued to be heard down the corridor from which they had just come.

“Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Aren laughed.

“It wasn’t so good either, Captain.” Syenna coughed. “I don’t think they were out to kill us.… I think they wanted to take you prisoner.”

“Well, I’d rather they didn’t. Who would find a route for the general’s parade if they did?” Aren smiled. The rumbling down the hall increased. “All we have to do now is circle around through these ruins and…”

The hall suddenly shook.

The stones beneath their feet gave way.

They were falling into darkness.

Excerpted from The Sword of Midras © Tracy Hickman and Richard Garriott, 2016

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