May 10 2013 4:00pm
The Garden of Stones (Excerpt)
Take a look at Mark T. Barnes' The Garden of Stones, out on May 21 from 47 North:
An uneasy peace has existed since the fall of the Awakened Empire centuries ago. Now the hybrid Avan share the land with the people they once conquered: the star-born humans; the spectral, undead Nomads; and what remains of the Elemental Masters.
With the Empress-in-Shadows an estranged ghost, it is the ancient dynasties of the Great Houses and the Hundred Families that rule. But now civil war threatens to draw all of Shrian into a vicious struggle sparked by one man’s lust for power, and his drive to cheat death.
Visions have foretold that Corajidin, dying ruler of House Erebus, will not only survive, but rise to rule his people. The wily nobleman seeks to make his destiny certain—by plundering the ruins of his civilization’s past for the arcane science needed to ensure his survival, and by mercilessly eliminating his rivals. But mercenary warrior-mage Indris, scion of the rival House Näsarat, stands most powerfully in the usurper’s bloody path. For it is Indris who reluctantly accepts the task of finding a missing man, the only one able to steer the teetering nation towards peace.
“Why do we invent the monster as a metaphor? Surely all we need do is witness our own cruelty to each other to see the real face of evil.” —from The Darkness Without by Sedefke, inventor, explorer, and philosopher, 751st Year of the Awakened Empire
Late summer, day 309 of the 495th Year of the Shrīanese Federation
“We going to die today?” Shar asked. The war-chanter looked out across the battlefield with hawklike intensity, her sharp features stern.
“I’ve got other plans,” Indris murmured. The jetsam of violence littered the golden grass of Amber Lake, where warriors, sunlight rippling on their armor, unleashed havoc. Above, the sky was dotted with the raggedy shadows of carrion birds, tiny beside the wind-frigates’ hulls, which flickered with pearlescent light. “Maybe tomorrow?”
“One more night of revelry then? Nice. I could use a drink and a man to play with. Today hasn’t been one of our better ones.”
“Sorry if this little war’s inconvenienced you in any way,” Indris drawled. “I’ll try to schedule the next one with you in mind.”
“Would you? Really? That’s nice, dear.” She scraped dried blood from her scaled-glass armor. “Shame Hayden and Omen aren’t here.”
“Hopefully they’re long gone by now.”
Indris had known waiting too long in Amnon was a mistake, yet the man Indris had sworn to protect had refused to leave his ancestral seat. The truth will be known, Far-ad-din, one of the six rahns of the Great Houses of Shrīan, had said. Only the innocent could muster such self-deception. This battle was the veneer over a coup, and Far-ad-din knew it, yet he played his part in the drama in the hope the truth would see him freed. Accused of treason, of trafficking in the forbidden relics he was supposed to protect, and of sedition, Far-ad-din had gambled much by staying. It appeared he might well lose everything. The least Indris could do was try to ensure the man kept his life. It was why he had withdrawn from the battle rather being in the mix. Far-ad-din had wanted Indris close, just in case. If the man had not been his father-in-law, Indris doubted all the guilt in the world would have made him bear witness to Far-ad-din’s demise.
Indris turned to look at Shar where she leaned on her long serill blade, the sword made of drake-fired glass, harder and lighter than steel. Like Far-ad-din, she was one of the Seethe—the declining race known as the Wind Masters. Shar cast a shrewd glance across the battlefield, large whiteless eyes citrine bright in the sun. She absently tugged at the feathers braided in the supple quills that passed for her hair—fine as strands of silk in all the colors of dawn. Swearing under her breath at the tide of battle, she sensed his scrutiny and turned to him.
“Nothing,” he replied, keeping the worry from his voice. Indris had lost many friends in many fights, yet the thought of losing Shar after all they had been through was too much. “We can still walk away from this, if we can get Far-ad-din and his heir out of here.”
“Good luck with that,” Shar muttered.
Indris surveyed the many-colored banners of the six Great Houses and the Hundred Families arrayed against them, hanging limp and listless in the thick air. The long summer grasses of Amber Lake wavered like golden water in the haze. To the east across the Anqorat River, the wetlands of the Rōmarq shone like a blue mirror, smeared green-gray with reeds and the patchwork reflection of clouds.
The armies assembled by the Great Houses and those loyal to them lined the hills east of the wind-rippled grasses of Amber Lake. They were the Avān. His own people. Like Humans, yet not. Made by the Seethe millennia ago to be their servants. Not their usurpers. In their ornate armor of bronze-shod steel plates, with their long curved swords and crescent-moon axes, they were terrifying.
The day had not turned out as expected. The Arbiter of the Change, the government’s chosen representative to manage the conflict, had planned for the battle to be fought between two champions, the winner deciding the outcome. Indris had volunteered to fight for Far-ad-din, confident he could defeat, without killing, whatever champion was sent against him. But there were those among the Great Houses unwilling to risk all on a single combat, and instead horns had pealed, splitting the air, as the first wave of the Avān army had thundered across the field. Iphyri, giant men with the heads, legs, and tails of horses, had surged forward, leather groaning. They had smashed into the front lines of Far-ad-din and his Seethe, laying waste to those about them.
There had been no restoring order. No turning back, once the smell of blood was in the air. Mayhem now claimed the day.
Bright sunlight flashed from weapons. It seared the eye where it blazed from polished shields and breastplates, helms with their long plumes of dyed horsehair and feathers, and metal crests polished bright. Warriors flowed in complex formations like colored inks swirled in turbulent water. Arrows buzzed like gnats. The melee had one mighty voice: a rumble like the basso of thunder, which echoed, rolled, boomed without ever dying, in counterpoint to the shrieks of metal, the screams of pain, the war songs. Indris inhaled the acrid perfume of heated metal. Of sweat. The sweetness of crushed grass. The ammonia smell of urine. The copper-tang of blood.
Outnumbered as they were, the Seethe Indris commanded defied the might of their enemy. He knew it would not last. No doubt the Seethe knew it also, yet pride was ever the enemy of common sense. Their jewel-toned eyes and porcelain skin shone with the radiance of their fury. Beautiful, ageless, and all but deathless, they wore drake-glass armor that shone with bright gem colors; their weapons and shields chimed. Seethe war-troupers—artists, dancers, musicians, acrobats, and actors as much as they were killers—wove their way in formations only they seemed to understand. They vanished from sight only to appear improbably far away, to kill, to vanish again. A Seethe trouper leaped, almost as if she could fly, to land amid enemy soldiers, whom she cut down with a dark laugh. The Seethe’s drake-glass helms shifted form from leering skulls to maniacal laughing faces to the sorrowful visages of beautiful maids, cheeks bright with diamond tears. Wyvern-riders swooped to strafe combatants with arrow fire. The rainbow-hued reptiles snatched warriors from the ground and carried them into the sky, only to hurl them to the ground below. When a wyvern was shot from the air, it plowed great furrows through the ranks of soldiers as it died, poison stinger flailing.
Seeing their chance for glory, the warrior-poets from both armies sought each other out. Challenges to single combat rang clear, for such was the old way of the militant elite. Small circles or squares opened in the greater battle as the flamboyant warrior-poets met. Fought. Died. Songs would recount the glory of their lives by moonrise even as the flesh was boiled from their skulls, the bone to be plated in gold as a trophy.
The enemy had not gathered from across the breadth of Shrīan to lose. The Avān fought with ferocious tenacity, a machine of bronze and steel, resolute in their purpose. The Iphyri strode Amber Lake like blood-drenched juggernauts, eyes rolling, teeth bared in their horse heads.
Three knights of the Sēq Order of Scholars strode the sky, crow-black in their centuries-old finery. His former colleagues. Indris heard the crooning of their canto as they wove disentropy, the very force of creation, in complex formulae. It was the power of disentropy that made lanterns of their flesh. They unleashed geometries of power: spheres, arcs, and lines that scoured the Seethe ranks. Gone were the days of glory for the Sēq, yet those who remained were grievous enough. As Indris watched, one of the Sēq Knights convulsed. Her body shook, no doubt with the strain of channeling too much energy. Indris could have sworn the black-armored scholar vomited as she plummeted from the sky to disappear in the frenetic mass below.
Indris turned from the battle, Shar at his side. They sprinted to where Far-ad-din and his son, Ran-jar-din, stood with their royal guard. The guards turned their beaked helms in Indris’s direction as he approached, their feathered cloaks drooping in the hot, sodden breeze.
“You’re done,” Indris said to Far-ad-din without preamble. Shar’s eyes widened at his perfunctory tone. “You and Ran need to get away from here.”
“Is this how the legendary Indris makes war?” Ran-jar-din swept a bowl of dried emerald lotus petals from the small camp table. His sapphire eyes and clouded skin flickered with his wrath. “Why did we trust you? I’d already lost a sister because of—”
“That’s not fair and you know it!” Indris snapped. He felt the blow of the accusation in his chest. “Vashne may be the Asrahn, but even the Asrahn is answerable to the Teshri. It was they who brought this to you. You could’ve run, but pride made you stay. I’m hoping self-preservation will yet see you go. Neither of you is any use if you’re dead. Leave. Now. Fight another day.”
Ran-jar-din drew a handspan of his long glass sword. “I should—”
“Indris is right.” Far-ad-din’s amethyst eyes were sad, the light almost gone from them. “This drama is lost to us. Indris, Shar—will you and your warriors come with us?”
“It’s too late for that,” Indris murmured. He looked sideways at Shar, who nodded her assent. “This position will be overrun in an hour or so. You go. We’ll cover your retreat. Follow the plan, and we’ll meet up with you as soon as we can.”
“I’m not leaving,” Ran-jar-din spat. He took his spear from where it rested on the table, its long slender blade like a sliver of glowing topaz. Expression fixed and angry, the young heir gestured to his own guard, whose glass helms clouded, then displayed leering skulls with burning eyes. Ran-jar-din bent his knee to his father, then stood. “I’ll redeem our Great House, either by my blood or my victory. We will be remembered, Father.”
“You will do no such thing!” Far-ad-din thundered. His skin and eyes flared and then faded. “Indris…your sister’s mate…will do what needs to be done. Muster your guard. We are retreating into the Rōmarq as planned.”
“I think not.” Ran-jar-din curled his lip at his father. He gave Indris a withering glance. Without a further word, Ran-jar-din and his company of war-troupers flickered into translucency as they sprinted into the fray.
Indris did not allow Far-ad-din the luxury of delay. Within moments the Seethe rahn and his personal guard were crossing the sullen, black-silted waters of the Anqorat River. Once his father-in-law had made good his retreat, Indris gathered a phalanx of Seethe on the east bank of the Anqorat. Soon after, the army of the Great Houses was upon them. Indris’s spear flickered. He used his edged shield as much as a weapon as for defense. His eyes burned with the disentropy he channeled. His voice boomed above the din. Shrieked. Crooned. Words of power laid his enemies low. A swarm of yellow-white butterflies, spun from light, cascaded around him. Where they touched, they set off explosions that left his enemies reeling. Beside him Shar, focused and lethal, used her war-chanter’s song to bolster the hearts of their comrades, while causing their enemies to cower and turn from the sudden fear that deluged them.
All Indris needed to do was buy time. To make himself as appealing a target as he could while Far-ad-din fled westward across the Rōmarq.
Indris’s mind cascaded with numbers as he calculated the force required to raise Abstraction Wards. Layers of rotating mystic defenses, like the tumblers in a lock, formed around him and those nearby. The light yellowed inside the layered field. Sound dulled. Soon enough, the air smelled of lightning storms. Indris looked out through the sepia haze. The Abstraction Wards refracted the world beyond, much like peering through running water, though not enough for him to misinterpret the danger of the predicament they were in. Concussions from the enemy, both arcane and mundane, hammered against the geometric puzzles of his defenses. They struck with arrows, swords, axes, and disentropy, causing the wards to ripple, like a pond into which stones had been thrown. The wards would not last long against such a bombardment. But they did not need to.
After almost half an hour, the exterior wards began to crack, then puff away in motes of dirty light. The next layer followed within fifteen minutes. Facing the inevitable, Indris nodded to the Seethe to raise the unmarked blue pennon that was their signal for surrender.
Rather than anger their enemies further, Indris deconstructed his remaining wards with a thought. Unfiltered light streamed down once more. Enemy soldiers jostled about, weapons quivering in an agitated, blood-smeared thicket.
Officers in the red-and-black armor of the Great House of Erebus, riding sweat-and-gore-streaked harts, forced their way through the throng.
“I’m daimahjin-Indris,” the warrior-mage said as he stepped forward, hands extended to either side in a display of peace. Daimahjin.Warrior and mage. Scholar. Of the highest caste in Avān society. Indris wanted them to think twice about harming him or those with him. “I offer my surrender to Rahn-Näsarat fa Ariskander, Arbiter of the Change, as per the Teshri’s code and measure of sanctioned war. We’ll come with you peacefully. There’s no need for further violence.”
The officers divided the captives wordlessly. Shar frowned at Indris as she was disarmed and led away. A mounted Erebus officer with a handful of Iphyri at his side came close to loom over Indris, florid with barely suppressed loathing.
“The code and measure won’t save you, traitor!” The officer spat at Indris’s feet.
Indris stared up at him. “The Arbiter of the Change may have a few things to say about that.”
One of the Iphyri’s calloused fists smashed into Indris’s head before he had the chance to say anything else.
The Garden of Stones © Mark T. Barnes 2013