Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Published: 2 August 2016
We reviewed this gem of a novel a couple of months ago, and now thanks to Tor.com you can whet your appetite with this exclusive excerpt. Caution: here be spiders, and sweariness. Enjoy…
The words that twanged and thrummed their way to Nth said, New food coming, and he stirred, resettling his legs to take the measure of the message: how far, what direction, who originated it. Mother’s Brood was large. Some of her children were more reliable than others.
New food. Different food. That had everyone’s interest. Across the span of the web, that was strung in mist-like sheets from tree to tree across their forest, he felt the others rousing, rising from their torpor. There was always food, even for so many bodies as Mother’s Brood ran to, but variety was welcome.
In the dark wood, the deer ran in their many herds, feeding in the clearings under the shadow of the webs, and being fed upon in turn. Mother saw to it that there were always clearings, where the great trees had been poisoned and weakened. There would always be deer aplenty.
In the trees there were monkeys, and they were clever and often escaped the hunt or the web, but this, too, was Mother’s plan. The monkeys were just clever enough that there would always be enough monkeys. They were aware enough to realize their fate, when they were caught, and that gave their juices an extra savour.
There were no wolves, no stalking cats. It was not that the flesh of these things was unpalatable, but they were wasteful. They consumed too many deer and monkeys for their presence to be tolerated.
New food, though. Nth waited for the words of the web to tell him that this prize was taken, so that he could beg Mother for a taste.
More speech came from the hunters, a constant commentary as they shadowed the intruders into the dark wood, hurrying above them whilst their siblings wove traps and barriers to channel them and funnel them.
New food. Man.
Men sometimes strayed into the wood. Nth had an understanding that there were places beyond the wood that were Man places. Those of the Brood that strayed beyond the wood frequently did not return, and this was placed at the door of Man. Those Men who strayed in the wood were served similarly. As now.
Nth felt the trap primed, a score of the best hunters of Mother’s Brood hiding amongst the branches, ready for the ambush. The weavers were already retreating, broadcasting that they had done their work well.
Then the web was ringing, dancing, and he could not find words in it, just a roaring of undifferentiated noise coming to him through his belly and his feet, so that he scuttling from roost to roost, trying to rid himself of the cacophony, trying to understand.
Fire! came a word that stopped him. Fire was friend to Man, no friend to Mother’s Brood. Then another sibling had found a secure post to speak from and the message jumped and bounced to Nth: We die! They come to prey on us! Protect Mother!
Instantly Nth was moving, by web and branch, surefooted and swift, scurrying towards the source of the disturbance. His very tread told those nearest him, I am coming, and the same words came from all around. Mother’s Brood was mobilizing to crush these intruders, these Men.
As he ran he felt the quick, fierce words rattle beneath him:
They have severed the web. They have destroyed the trees.
Few. But they have much Fire, and a light that burns worse than the sun. They can strike from afar.
Destroy them! Protect Mother!
And a dawning horror even as Nth crept and reached from tree to tree, stop-start, stop-start, because the Men were pressing deeper into the forest; because they were slaying many of the Brood. Because they were headed straight for Mother.
Ahead of him another swathe of web crackled and parted, shrivelling to nothing in a sudden burst of heat. His clustered eyes caught the glare of it, little more, but he changed course. The Men were travelling faster than word could keep up, leaving the Brood constantly off-balance. Every time their fire flared they were striking Nth’s siblings dumb by destroying the lines and nets that they spoke through.
Then he was close to them, seeing only the pattern of their movement, the knot of Men like a single many-limbed entity to his weak eyes. At the fore it had metal claws, and those of the Brood that attacked them, mad with their fear for Mother, were pierced and cut, limbs hacked from their bodies, innards spilled and strewn and trampled as the Man-creature moved on.
There was a tremble in the ground that spoke to Nth, and a wave of his siblings caught up, a tide of grey-haired, bulbous bodies and arching legs, fangs gaping, furious at the deaths of their kin, at the damage to their home, at the sheer temerity of these trespassers. Fire roared from the Men – not one of their small fires that guarded them as they slept, nor the smaller ones they held by hand, but a great deluge of it that seared across the Brood, boiling them in their skins, setting them briefly ablaze before they broke open from the heat, writhing and twitching in momentary agony that the ground took straight to Nth and all the others.
Together! one of his siblings drummed, and they were all rushing – more of the Brood in once place than Nth had ever known, drawn from all over the wood. He braced himself for the fire, telling himself, It cannot kill us all, and that if he died for Mother it would be worth it.
He had forgotten the light they had spoken of. From the centre of the Men there issued a golden radiance – not heat, not force, but pure light, so bright that his poor eyes were blind instantly, but more than that. There was a mind behind that light, and it despised him. It punished him. He felt its vast and potent displeasure crush him to the ground, sweep him away, so that he was running, they were all running, and the Men pushed on, horrible, unstoppable, unbearable in their desecration of his home.
The Brood rallied, and now he was amongst that wave running after the Men, catching up – and there was another gout of flame that crisped the hair on his legs, and another half-dozen of his siblings died screaming.
The Men had broken into her lair, a clearing in the heart of the wood that was so hung with centuries of webs that it was like a cave, and there they faced her, and the Brood had come from all around, thronging the trees, blackening the ground behind them, to either side, climbing the webs overhead, ready to descend and sacrifice everything to have some hope of saving she who had given them life.
She had raised herself on her limbs, a giant ten times the size of the largest of her Brood, her largest eyes bigger than the head of a Man, her fangs as long as their metal claws.
But the Men had fire and light, and so many of the Brood were dead to prove it. They could kill Mother. They could end it all. Nestled amidst his siblings, Nth trembled, hearing the messages of fear and confusion and anger from all around him.
Then Mother spoke to them, even as she took a few careful, stalking steps forward. Be still, my children. Hold your fangs. They speak.
“Steady!” Dion called. The disc of Armes in her upraised hand bathed them in radiant light, that brought confusion to the great host of spiders all around them. She could see its purity burning the monsters’ eyes, driving back their dark nature. In her white tabard over the bronzed scales of her mail, she positively glowed with reflected light: a figure from legend, indomitable. But there were so many of them.
There were five, who had braved the forest. Dion led them, infused with the radiant power of her faith. Each of them had sworn to her cause to bring down the blight on the world that was the man-god Darvezian but they were a disparate lot who followed for their own reasons. Cunning Lief thought there would be profit in it. Vengeful Harathes the shieldman loathed all creatures of the dark with a passion, whilst the archer Cyrene served to expiate some long-hidden guilt, some action or inaction of hers that had driven her to this bloody and dangerous atonement. Of Penthos, the fifth member of their desperate band, whose hands even now crackled and roared with ethereal fire, Dion had no idea why he had come. Right now she was only glad he had.
“We’ve been in worse places than this!” she reminded her fellows.
“Penthos, what’s a word for something that’s all over covered with spiders?” Lief asked, crouching virtually at her feet. He held his spear close to him as though loath to get it filthier with spider ichor. His dark leathers were crusted with the blackish residue, his bare arms coated to the elbows with it where he had been forced to resort to his daggers.
“Arachnidous, probably.” Parts of Penthos’ robe were smouldering from his own flames, but he plainly cared not at all. No doubt his magic would mend everything, when this was done. His small, steely eyes were constantly roving about the great host that surrounded them. He had that mad little grin on, which always meant trouble. At least this time it was trouble they had all sought out.
“Well then we’ve not been in more arachnidous places than this,” Lief said hotly. “Look at the bastards! There must be thousands of them.”
“Hundreds, possibly,” Dion considered, but that was still a great many giant spiders. And they were never still, none of them, constantly crawling over one another, heaping up, running up and down the trees and skittering over the vast sheets of webbing there as if they weighed nothing. And before them…
Before them was the reason they had risked all this.
The other two participants in this suicidal venture had their swords outstretched. Red-haired Cyrene gripped her long, narrow-bladed weapon in both hands, almost rigid with tension. Her bow was holstered at her back, her quiver empty. On the far side of Dion, big-framed Harathes crouched a little behind his shield, obviously working himself up to charging the colossal monstrosity before them.
Yet that great host of spiders was holding back, and Dion knew that Penthos’ fire was not achieving that, nor was the sacred symbol of Armes she bore. If the things descended now then many of them would die, but sheer numbers would overwhelm Dion’s little band. But their matriarch, that great, bloated monster, she would surely die as well.
“Come on,” Harathes spat. “Now’s our chance. We’re looking straight at what we’ve come here for.”
“We’re here for more than that. Hold fast,” Dion ordered. This was a dark, terrible place, a mass grave of all the luckless fools who had trod this path before them and whose bones now cracked underfoot, but there was nowhere that the light of Armes could not penetrate.
“Sod me, to think I offered to come here alone and just steal the fucking things. I didn’t think the prophecy was so literal,” Lief complained.
“Quiet now,” Dion told him, laying a hand on his shoulder. “It speaks.”
“What do you mean, it speaks?” Harathes demanded. “They can’t speak. They’re animals.”
“Anything that grows old and large enough must approach wisdom,” Penthos intoned. “And approach evil too, often enough, but time suffices to bring wit even to such creatures as this, and Madam Spinner here is many centuries old.”
“Then killing it will do the world a great service,” Harathes snapped, but he held back at Dion’s order, grinding his teeth in frustration.
And she heard it in her mind, opened by Armes’ wisdom.
What do you want? A resonant, female voice, but that was just her imagination gifting humanity and character where there was none.
“We are here because we are sworn to destroy a man – a magician who has styled himself a god, and done much evil,” Dion declared, staring down her companions until they understood that she had not just been speaking rhetoric for them. She guessed that their cause would mean nothing to this creature, though. She doubted that ‘evil’ meant much to a spider. The spinners of webs kept no mirrors, after all.
“Darvezian, he calls himself, a wielder of dark power, a man given over entirely to that darkness,” the same darkness that this spider matriarch was born of, but everyone knew that the things of the dark fought amongst themselves. “Darvezian, who has inherited the works of those dark lords who came before him, to become a terror to the world.”
I know of him. A cautious answer, but of course this creature knew Darvezian. The tales told of their meeting, two products of the same ancient evils. There had been a time, decades before, when the man-god had amused himself by sending his enemies into these woods as offerings to the matriarch and her host, but he was a thing of whims, and had moved on to other punishments.
“Then you will have heard of the prophecy,” Dion forged on. “Many have sought to bring Darvezian low. All have failed. But there is a prophecy, conditions and requirements to pass his wards and protections, and to slay him. Particularly to slay him.” None knew from where those precious words had come, but with each dark lord who gathered the powers of the dark to himself, somehow there was always a prophecy to bring about his ruin. Dion took it as a sign of Armes moving subtly to bring light to the world.
The great old matriarch of the spiders was silent, shifting its footing. Around them, the boiling, scuttling host continued to seethe. They held back for fear that their queen would be harmed, and Dion’s friends held back because to strike a blow here would see all of them dead. An impasse.
“A tooth of the great mother, the prophecy says,” Dion said carefully. “And those who would come to Darvezian must do so by the spider’s path. So we are here, because Darvezian swallows souls and corrupts minds and twists the very land, and we must brave any chance to bring him down. A fang, and a map. Do you understand me?”
Those fangs flexed as Dion watched, sword-long, curved and filled with venom. This monster was older even than Darvezian, as was its poison. Even the man-god was not proof against its foulness. It was hardly the path of Armes, but other, holier methods had failed to even break the man’s skin.
What will you do?
“I will have one of your two fangs, and your bound word that we shall leave unmolested, and for this, we shall let you live, and continue to fill this place with your brood.”
You have slain my children.
“I cannot bring myself to be sorry,” Dion stated flatly. “Armes guards his mercy for those that deserve it. But we shall depart without harming more if you let us take what we need. Or otherwise, we shall content ourselves with ridding the world of you, even if some other must fulfil the prophecy. Once you are slain, your teeth shall lie here until another comes to claim them.”
The great spider shuffled again, agitated, lifting and lowering those deadly fangs, and Dion tensed, wondering how much this beast truly understood what she said, whether it was close enough to human, in its mind, to even grasp what was being offered.
But then it was quite still, clearly the moment that would mean life or death for a great many, and the voice came. Take it.
“Your bound word first,” Dion reminded the creature. “And Armes’ light shall consume you if you break it. Your word that, once we have what we wish, we shall depart untouched by you or your host.”
You have it. Take what you have come for and go! At last something relatably human: frustration and anger seething in the words.
“Lief, go take a fang,” Dion said.
“Sod off,” came his quick reply.
Swearing under his breath, the man moved forwards, laying down his spear and drawing one of his big knives. He crept almost on all fours, constantly flinching back from the matriarch’s slightest movement. The colossal spider reared up, front four limbs outstretched, fangs displayed, and Lief fell back with a yell.
All the spiders shuddered at it, and for a moment Dion thought that they would attack despite it all, but although they redoubled their agitated, bustling movement they held back.
“Lief, go!” she instructed.
The thief stared up at the matriarch, the great spread fan of her crooked legs. “I can’t…” he whispered, edging backwards. “I’m sorry. I really can’t.”
“Oh you fool.” Cyrene spat. The warrior-woman strode forwards, sword in hand, kicking at Lief to drive him back to Dion’s feet. The matriarch remained motionless, although her offspring were working themselves up into a frenzy.
“If this hits the latrine, it will be when she strikes,” Penthos observed with detached amusement. “I’ll set everything on fire. Doesn’t that sound like a fine plan?”
“It sounds like the plan you usually try for,” Lief got out raggedly.
Cyrene took a wide-legged stance and lined up her blade, swallowing. The eyes of every living thing there were fixed upon her.
She struck, and the great spider recoiled, staggering and weaving on its eight legs. Dion winced, hand to her head, trying to fight away the sound of its scream, which could almost have been human.
One fang was severed from that monstrous visage, and Lief, newly bold, lunged forwards and grabbed for the raw and ragged end, holding it high and keeping the hollow tip as far from himself as possible.
The matriarch was limping sideways and backwards, waves of its pain washing over Dion.
You have what you wanted. Now go.
“We have part of what we sought,” Dion stated. “We have the fang to strike the blow. But we need the path, the spider’s path by which to approach Darvezian. We need the map so that we can reach him without having to fight our way through his armies, his fortresses and his traps.”
“It says there’s no map,” the priestess declared.
“It lies. The prophecy’s clear,” Harathes returned. The cretin. Dion was one thing, but how Penthos loathed having to deal with his inferiors, the merely prosaic and human. Except Lief had a sense of humour, so he would be worth keeping perhaps… And there I go drifting off topic again.
“There’s no such thing as a clear prophecy,” Penthos decided to point out. “And it’s not as if spiders are natural cartographers.” There was an interesting thought. Perhaps they were, at that. Had anyone ever looked into it? Perhaps if I fed one of these beasts purely on maps and map-makers for a year…? Distraction, once more, but this stand-off was boring him. Raising this much power and then just standing around with it always resulted in headaches and sometimes vomiting later. I need to do something with all this. In truth he had expected a bigger fight, and probably for some of the others to die. It had been a bit of an anti-climax, honestly. Not that he bore Cyrene, Harathes and Lief any ill-will, but stumbling out of the forest carrying Dion in his arms, barely victorious and mourning their comrades… well that was proper legend material wasn’t it?
And there I go again, always letting my thoughts run away with me…
“So what’s the spider’s path?” Cyrene was asking – at least quicker on the pertinent questions than her male counterparts. “Is it a place? A pass? A tavern?”
“A drug, maybe,” Lief suggested. “Maybe you have to be stoned out of your mind to go fight him. Makes sense to me.”
“Quiet, Lief,” Dion told him. “The spider says… it says it knows things, paths, ways. It can hardly write them down for us, though.”
“Can we take its brain or something?” Cyrene suggested. Thankfully it was only Dion’s words that the matriarch could understand, or that might have snapped the stalemate.
“Just have her come with us?” Penthos suggested. The expected laughter didn’t come, reminding him that his elevated sense of humour was not shared by most others. And it was true, he did tend to catch them off guard with some of his more innovative solutions.
“Shut up, Penthos,” Harathes snapped at him, which would earn the man another week of impotence once they got back to civilization, not that he’d ever suspect who was behind his intermittent problem. Oh it’s good to be a magus.
“It says…” Dion wrinkled her nose, and Penthos sighed for her silently. How was it that such a gifted and beautiful young woman ever ended up in the service of such a dull religion? “It says it will send one of its brood. She will impart her knowledge to it. Penthos, is that even possible?”
“Easily – her link to her offspring should be very strong. Good idea, actually.”
“Whoa, whoa, do you remember just how much ground we need to cover from here to Dervazian?” Lief complained. “How many, you know, towns, and people, we have to go by. How do you think they’re going to react if we’ve got a sodding giant spider with us? It’s not as if we could put a leash on it and disguise it as a dog!”
“Of course not, it wouldn’t have a neck,” Penthos said. Again, not a chortle. Some people just would not see the funny side of a situation. Everyone was so tense and angsty all of a sudden.
“If we need this knowledge, then I can’t see that we have a choice,” Dion told them. “We will have to rely on my assurance that the creature is performing the will of Armes.”
Lief’s thoughts on that: “That doesn’t even work for Penthos, let alone one of these buggers.”
Now that was funny, and the magus barked out a rich laugh at it, only to find from the ensuing silence that apparently it hadn’t been meant as humour at all.
He could see that nobody was going anywhere with this, and his earlier words about a spider not having a neck were rattling around in his head demanding his attention, and he thought, Could I…? Abruptly the challenge had hold of him, because whilst he had heard of similar tricks being pulled before, none of them would be as interesting and audacious as this.
“Let’s give it a neck. Then we can put a leash on it,” he declared.
“’The hell are you talking about?” Harathes demanded.
“I don’t think a leash is going to…” Cyrene’s voice tailed off. “No, he’s right. What are you talking about?”
“Penthos?” Dion prompted.
“Let’s take one of the little vermin with us,” the magus declared grandly. “I’ll disguise it.”
“As fucking what?” Lief eyed the crawling host of hairy, round-bodied monsters. “A novelty candelabra?”
“As our new best friend. I’ll transform it into the very semblance of a man. I can even splinter off a little of my mind for it, so it can speak to us and know enough to go behind the bushes to shit. I see no downside to this plan.”
“You… that will work?” Dion sounded pleasantly impressed. Or horrified.Always hard to distinguish, those.
“By my reckoning it will be a better human than Harathes by the time I’m done,” Penthos declared. Lief snorted, which was annoying as this time he hadn’t meant it as a joke. What is it about this ‘humour’ business I keep getting wrong?
Dion held up her free hand for his attention. “No, seriously Penthos, will this work? Because a great deal is resting on this. This isn’t just an opportunity for you to play little gods with the world.”
“You wound me.” He tried to make his genuine hurt sound in his voice, but he suspected that it was just his usual sardonic drawl. “I can do it. It will be my pleasure, Dion. Not here, though: some place of crossed power -” He almost suggested her temple but thought better of it, for all that those leaden monstrosities hogged magical nexii wherever the priests of Armes were permitted to build them. “There is a set of the old stones not a mile beyond the wood. We can do it there.”
The face she made did not betoken confidence, but she shrugged. “Well, I see no other option, and my arm’s getting tired.” Her next words were for the matriarch of the spiders alone.
Nth crouched amidst his brethren. He understood that the Men were talking with Mother somehow. He could feel the faint tremors through his belly as they made their sounds, but it was beyond him how such vague sensations could possibly convey anything. Still, Mother was wise.
When they had taken her fang he had been about to launch himself at them, and so had all his siblings, every one. Only a great shout from Mother had stopped them. It was a humiliation, a bitter shame to bear, but she wished to spare her poor children more harm, and a new barb would grow back in time. Hold, she had said, and despite their frantic, fevered rushing back and forth, they had held.
More muted buzzings from the Men now, and he had the sense that they were speaking to each other, but they were such a homogenous group that he could barely tell even how many of them there were, clustered close like that.
Then Mother spoke to him.
Nth, what would you do for me?
For you, Mother, anything. Let me fight these Men. I would die if it would serve you. The answer was automatic, needing no thought.
I have a task that will be harder than dying, Mother said. I will give you some of my wisdom and understanding, and then you must leave me. You must leave the wood for the wide world, and go with the Men where they bid. This is their price, that no others must be harmed by their fire and light and claws. Will you do this for me?
Nth crouched low, knowing only that the Brood who left the forest were as good as dead. This was their place. They had made it their own. The world beyond was the domain of Men and worse things.
I moved in the world once. There are other colonies of my children where I have dwelt. Once I dealt with magi and demon-callers and forgotten, dark gods. And each word brought with it a knowledge, a merest hint of meaning to enlighten him. I do not ask this lightly of you, Nth, but one must go, if these Men are to leave without more cost.
And he saw that part of the cost, if the Men could not be induced to go, would be a risk of harm to Mother herself, and he danced with fear and dread and beat out, Of course I will go. I know I will never return, but I will go, for you.
Then step forwards from the Brood. Show yourself to the Men, and I shall give you what understanding I can.
He crept cautiously from amongst his siblings, seeing the knot of Men edge back a little. He braced his legs against their fire, expecting the worst. There was more of that maddeningly meaningless sound to wash over him, and he waited, and waited.
Then came Mother’s gift, a great, clogging mass of images and thoughts and memories, her former haunts, her careful travels at the edges of the world of Men: battles, meals, curious bargains. He could not take it in. It sat within him, an indigestible lump, and only over time would it dissolve to piece out its secrets to him. It was enough, though. He was committed. He waited for the Men to go, knowing that he would have to follow in their wake.
I am sorry, came Mother’s comforting voice. You will suffer, but there is no better choice.
Then the blot of Men was retreating, and the Brood cleared a path for it, and Nth followed, reluctantly, fearfully, the caustic clot of Mother’s knowledge burning a hole in his innards.
The dark promised power, Dion knew. When Armes had returned from the divine realms he had the message that mankind was meant for the light, saved from oblivion to claim the world for the forces of good. There would always be those who would cast away that priceless gift, though. There would be those who would wilfully seek their own corruption and reach out for what the dark could offer. Worse than spiders or ghoul-men or any of the things that sprang native from the darkness were those who were born to inherit the light, and betrayed their own kind.
Such a man was Darvezian.
In an ideal world Dion would simply have gathered together some heroes of the church, tracked down Darvezian and destroyed him for the abominable traitor he was, all using the tools of righteousness. There was a simple reason, though, that she was forced to countenance such tools and methods as the prophecy spoke of. The dark kept its promises. Darvezian had power enough to make good his claim to be halfway to godhood.
Since he came to power, the armies of his creatures, the slaves of the dark, had spread and conquered, corrupted and suborned. Some kingdoms had fallen to his hordes, their gallant armies smashed. Others had bowed the knee, their rulers bought or tempted or threatened, or replaced by evil doppelgangers. The world that Dion had once known was fast being overturned, the lights extinguished, the temples of Armes sacked and despoiled.
She would never have chosen this path: not the spiders, not the deal with their matriarch, that shameful accommodation with darkness. Others before her had tried and failed to bring down Darvezian, though. It pained her to admit it, even to herself, but the light of Armes did not seem to be enough.
The old stones that Penthos had mentioned were almost all fallen, just mounds of mossy earth atop a hill, save for two that leant drunkenly together as though for mutual support. The hill was a lone hunched heap of higher ground, some barrow raised by ancients to wicked powers long before the coming of Armes and the message of the Light. Those ancients had known power, though. Their time-lost feet had tracked the lines of the world’s magic, and they had raised hills and forts and monuments wherever they had crossed one another.
Beyond the hill, the country was uneven and broken moor, boggy in the low places, rocky where the earth’s weathered bones had torn through the matting of grass and scrub. The dark forest of the spiders was a shadow at their back.
“This is grand magic,” Penthos announced. “This is high magic.” He was doing his pompous face, Dion noted, as he usually did when he had wrestled for the centre of attention. She worried about Penthos. Mostly it was the unleashed power and the setting things on fire, but at the moment it was more that his desire to show off could compromise their quest. There was no denying that he was a notably powerful magus, and given that breed’s notorious disinterest in the affairs of men she was lucky to get him, but he had the attention span of a five year old. Worse, she had a strong suspicion that he wasn’t particular committed to their task, which raised the question of why he was here at all. The possibility that he was a pawn of Darvezian plagued her thoughts, and though she sought relief in prayer the worries always returned.
“If someone would prod our experimental subject into the middle?” Penthos asked, adjusting the sleeves of his shimmering robe with great ceremony. Lief directed his spear at the spider, which had followed them from the forest with a sullen, forced obedience. Looking on the loathsome thing, Dion was struck again by doubts about the whole enterprise.
“Penthos…” she murmured.
“My dear?” His troublemaking grin was out in force.
“This plan… I am not convinced that it is the proper course. This is a thing of darkness. I fear we will taint ourselves, our venture, in making use of it.”
Penthos tutted. “Magic knows not light or darkness. It is the power elemental, that predates any such concerns,” he told her archly, somewhat sabotaged by the smug smirk that always crept onto his face when he was pontificating. “Besides, what need we fear the dark, when we have you to show us the way to the light?” For a moment he was trying on a new expression as he looked on her, that was something almost as grotesque as his experimental subject, and that she could not in any way read.
“Well…” She was ashamed of her doubts. A priestess of Armes should just know the right path. Look for the brightest light, her teachers used to say to her. Well it was night, now, and the forest had been dark, and this battered old clutter of stones was dark, and the spider was very dark indeed, but… but the prophecy was sufficiently unambiguous to show that these horrible creatures were the key to Darvezian’s defeat. And she believed in the prophecy, didn’t she? Or what had it all been for?
“Now, my own focus will be most entirely upon the vast works of magic that I shall enact,” Penthos explained airily. “Moreover, this magic shall not go unnoticed across the world. For miles around those who are sensitive to the powers elemental shall know some great work is afoot. Hedge wizards and wise women shall wake with splitting headaches. Necromancers shall dream ill dreams. Sages and sorcerers shall look anxiously at the stars, or whatever it is those amateurs do when they know they’re outmatched. Moreover, the things of the enemy will take note, and I think it rather likely we shall be disturbed. To you, my companions, I give the task of ensuring that nothing disturbs my all-important concentration.
Lief, Harastes and Cyrene looked less than enthusiastic about this, but Dion nodded. “Fear not,” she told the magus. “We will defend you, just do your work.”
By now the increasingly agitated spider had been corralled and herded until it crouched in centre of the jumble of stones, and Penthos turned to it. “This is going to hurt,” he told the creature, although Dion suspected it could not understand him. “However you’ll be paralyzed almost immediately, so… that’s… something.” Penthos, rhetoric stumbling, scowled a little. “Let’s just get to it, shall we?”
“If you would,” Dion confirmed, and then winced and staggered, because the magus had taken hold of the native power around them and just yanked on it, gathering swathes of it into his hands, tearing it from the earth. She was used to the exercise of his power – coarse, unsubtle but staggeringly strong – but this was Penthos giving his all. Some small part of her was awed that all that almost brutal might was actually on her side. A rather larger part of her simply marked up one more reason to fear his betrayal. Magi had never seen eye to eye with the church of Armes. Oh certainly, the world was full of men and women of ambition, but magi sought to place themselves on a level beyond human – a level, therefore, that approached that of the divine Armes himself. Neither Armes nor powerful magi much liked the competition. History was full of men like Penthos who had been brought down by the justice of Armes before they could become something like Darvezian.
And yet the dark lords keep rising up. We always miss a few. Perhaps Penthos will be next to take that mantle and cast his lot entirely in with the Dark.
She turned away as the magic began snapping and sizzling about the magus’s hands. Seconds later it must have begun its work on the spider, because she heard a thin shrieking from it, a hissing and a rattling of its chitinous body, all too reminiscent of those hectic minutes within the forest.
She wondered if spiders actually felt pain, or anything that a human might conceive as pain, or any finer feeling. It seemed unlikely. What, then would they get from this ritual? Some puppet or echo of Penthos with the spider’s vital knowledge seemed the best they could hope for.
The others had their weapons to hand, all facing away from the searing flashes of greenish light and gouts of flame that accompanied almost all of Penthos’s major works. When Dion considered the world, her chief question was, Is this of Light or Dark? Penthos’s main interest was usually, Is this flammable?
She wished she’d asked how long this was going to take. For all she knew it could be days. Men like Penthos tended to lack a human frame of reference for things like time.
Clutching the disc of Armes to her for comfort, she lowered herself to her knees and prepared herself for a long vigil.
The night was well advanced when Cyrene of the keen eyes called out an alarm. As Penthos had warned, works like this attracted attention, and one would hardly need to be magically sensitive to spot the visible display of power that the magus was lighting up the hilltop with.
“What have we got?” Harastes demanded.
“I think it’s Ghantishmen. A warband, raiders maybe.” Still out of arrows, Cyrene readied her sword. “Dion, light please.”
“My pleasure.” Dion opened herself to the power of Armes, holding the disc high to spread a golden radiance over the stones and beyond. By that time, the Ghantishmen had reached the foot of the hill.
They were much like men in many respects. The colour of their skin was unnaturally greyish and pale, and she knew they could see in the dark like a cat. They wore hauberks of yellow-white scales, bone treated somehow to become metal-hard, and they had axes and maces each made from a single piece of the same material. Their faces were man-like, though. They could and had disguised themselves to seem human, but Dion would never be fooled. Man, after all and despite so many faults, was a race of the Light, blessed by Armes and destined for great works. The Ghantishmen, as with so many other things that had a man’s shape without a man’s soul, were of the Dark. If they were not minions of Darvezian then they did his evil work anyway, beasts in human form.
When the light reached them they eddied back a little, shielding their sensitive eyes and baring long teeth. There were a dozen of them come to see what the lights were, and one at the back held a long bone staff and must be one of their dark priest-magicians.
For a moment it seemed that they might not come and brave the light of Armes, caught in indecision. Harastes took matters into his own hands, then, seizing the initiative before the Ghantishmen could rally. Shield to the fore, he was charging down the hill with his keening battlecry, Cyrene was after him, sword raised to the shoulder preceding her into the fray.
Dion advanced, seeing the lead three Ghantishmen go down before the assault, caught off guard. Their mage-priest raised his staff, and she felt the dark power gather there. He was not her equal, though, and she hurled the light of Armes at him. As with the spiders, the Ghants’ fellows in darkness, the searing purity of her power tore through them. There was a brief moment when their magician held her, staff directed outwards, fighting to contain her strength, but then she had broken him, blasted him down with sheer righteousness.
The two warriors were holding their ground now, the momentum of their charge spent. Lief would be skulking at the edges, looking for somewhere tender to insert a spear or a dagger. Dion advanced, the light springing from her fingers, seeking out the dark wherever it could be found, demoralizing and blinding the enemy, making openings for her companions’ steel.
Half the Ghants were down before the rest fled gibbering into the darkness. In the aftermath of the fight, Dion realized that all was quiet on the hill above them.
“Penthos?” she asked. For a terrible moment she thought that one of the Ghants might have crept past them to put a knife in the magus’s back.
But no: there he was, standing between those two leaning stones, arms outstretched as though inviting applause.
“Penthos?” she asked again.
“It is done,” he crowed. “Am I not the most magnificent of all magicians?” He kept trying to catch her eye, and she swore he waggled his eyebrows at her. Surely he was sometimes one of the most disturbing of all magicians.
“With what result?” Dion demanded.
“Only come and see.” Penthos made a flowing gesture with his hands, the sleeves of his robe trailing after. “Witness what my power has made,” and then, because that was apparently insufficiently magnificent, “Wrought, rather.”
The four of them trailed up the hill, Dion letting the light of Armes subside until it was only a soft glow.
Something was crouched atop the hill, something that seemed like a man. It lifted its head.
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)