Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2003.
The mud was made from earth and blood, organs and entrails, for the battle had raged back and forth until the dead carpeted the ground. It was the most ghastly sight Irisis Stirm had ever seen, and after a day and a night she was still stuck in the middle of it. The flower of humanity’s youth was being slaughtered outside the walls of Snizort, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Dropping her broken sword in the mire, she took up a sound one. There were plenty to choose from. ‘What are we going to do, Scrutator?’ she said as they climbed a little knoll, boots skidding in the wet. A storm in the night had turned the churned soil to calf-deep mud and they were both covered in it. The rising sun picked out red eyes in their dirty faces.
‘Die,’ Xervish Flydd grimaced. ‘This marks the end of civilisation; of everything I’ve fought for all my life.
‘I won’t give up.’
‘Very noble of you, Irisis.’
‘There’s got to be a way, surr.’
‘There isn’t. There’s too many of them and they’re killing us twice as fast as we’re killing them.’
Irisis looked around. ‘Let’s try and get to the command post. It’s not far now.’ It stood on a flat-topped hill away to their right, and the Council flag still fluttered there. ‘At least we’ll be able to see what’s going on.’
‘Where’s Ullii?’ said Flydd, very belatedly.
‘Hiding, I expect.’
‘Then she’s got more sense than the rest of us. What about Pilot Hila?’
‘She was killed in the first attack yesterday morning, not long after the air-floater crashed. You stood over her, holding the enemy off, until she died.’
Flydd shook his grizzled head. ‘I don’t remember. I can hardly remember anything about the past day.’
‘I remember every minute,’ said Irisis. ‘And I wish I didn’t. Come on.’
A lyrinx staggered out of the wallow to their left. The creature stood head and shoulders over Irisis, who was a tall woman, and its great mouth could have bitten her leg off. One leathery wing dragged in the bloody muck; a mighty arm had been severed at the elbow. It slashed feebly at the scrutator, who swayed backwards then lunged, plunging his sword between the armoured skin plates and into its heart.
The creature fell into the red mud, splattering sticky muck all over them. Flydd did not even look down.
‘Where did you learn such swordsmanship, Xervish?’ said Irisis. The scrutator was a small, scrawny man, past middle age. She had seen him fight before, but never with such deadly efficiency as in the past day.
‘The scrutators have the best of everything, so I was taught by an expert. Even so, that move wouldn’t have worked on an uninjured lyrinx.’
They passed between two clankers – eight-legged mechanical monsters big enough to carry ten soldiers and all their supplies. The one on the left looked intact, though a headless man lay on the shooter’s platform up top, slumped over his javelard, a spear-throwing device like a giant crossbow. Another body lay sprawled on the catapult cranks. Once the node had been destroyed, and its field vanished, the clankers became useless, immobile metal.
A lone shooter stood behind the loaded javelard of the right-hand machine, training his weapon back and forth across the battlefield. He fired, and the heavy spear was gone too quickly to see, taking a distant lyrinx full in the chest.
‘Nice shooting,’ said the scrutator, squelching by.
The soldier shook his head. ‘Not good enough to save us, surr.’ He jumped down. ‘It was my last spear.’
‘Where’s your operator?’
‘What are you like on the ground?’
The soldier turned out the inside of his jerkin. Irisis caught a flash of silver.
The scrutator stopped dead. ‘You earned that with a sword?’
‘And a long knife, surr. At the battle for Plimes, two years ago.’
‘I need a good man with a blade. Find yourself a weapon and come with us.’
Irisis was astounded. The scrutator was known for decisiveness, but to select a stranger so quickly was unprecedented. ‘I hope you’re a good judge of character,’ she said out of the corner of her mouth as they slogged through the bloody mire.
‘I chose you, didn’t I?’
‘That’s what I mean.’ She grinned. Irisis, with her yellow hair and that long, ripe figure, was a beautiful woman, even covered in mud and gore.
‘You didn’t see, did you?’
‘The badge? No.’
‘That was no badge. It was the Star of Valour, and it falls to few living men to wear their own.’
They angled across the field towards the command post hill, skirting a wallow in which lay the head of a soldier, like a single flower in a brown bowl. The eyes stared right at them. Irisis looked the other way. They’d seen a thousand such sights in the past day but still it made her stomach roil.
‘Your name would be Flangers, would it not?’ said the scrutator.
‘That’s right, surr,’ said the soldier. ‘How did you know?’
‘It’s my business to know the names of heroes. Do you know who I am?’
‘Of course. You’re the Peoples’ Scrutator.’
‘Where did that name come from?’ Flydd exclaimed.
‘I can’t say, surr,’ said Flangers. ‘The soldiers have always called you that.’
Irisis chuckled. Flydd liked to be control and to know everything. It was a rare sight to see him surprised. ‘I’m Irisis.’ She offered Flangers her hand. He shook it.
‘Disrespectful louts,’ growled Flydd. ‘I’ll have a detachment or two whipped, and then we’ll see if they dare such cheek.’ There was a twinkle in his eye, though, and the soldier saw it.
‘You’re not from these parts, Flangers?’ the scrutator went on as they began to climb the hill.
Flangers shook his head. He was grey eyed and fair haired, with neat, sunburned features set off by a jutting jaw. Though not overly tall or muscular, he was lean and strong. ‘I’m a Thurkad man,’ he said, staring blankly at a pair of bodies that lay side by side, without a mark on them. With sunrise, the swarming flies were already doing their work.
‘Refugee?’ asked Flydd. Thurkad, the greatest and oldest city in the west, had fallen two years ago, ending the resistance on the great island of Meldorin.
‘No. I joined up when I turned fifteen. Six years ago.’
‘Did you see much fighting before Plimes?’
Flangers named half a dozen battlefields. ‘More than I care to remember.’
‘You must be a fine shooter,’ said Irisis, ‘to have survived all those.’
‘Or a lucky one,’ said Flydd, slipping in the mud. ‘I could use a bit of that now.’
Flangers helped him up. ‘It ran out today. I’ve not lost an operator before.’ He was not bitter about it, though many a man might have been. ‘We’re done, surr. It’s over.’
‘You’re a hero, Flangers. You can’t talk like that.’
‘I’ve seen whole nations wiped out, surr. The ancient wonders of my homeland are no more, the millions who dwelt there dead or scattered across the globe. Even Thurkad, the greatest city the world has ever seen, lies empty and in ruins. There’s no hope left. The enemy will eat us all.’ He gave a little shudder of horror. ‘Even our little children.’
‘You know the penalty for despairing talk, soldier?’
‘For many of the common folk, death at the hands of the scrutators is preferable to being torn apart and eaten.’
‘Yet despite your despair you fight on.’
‘Duty is everything to me, surr,’ said Flangers.
‘Then may you take comfort from doing your duty. Give me a hand up here, would you?’
Taking the scrutator by the elbow, Flangers helped him through the steep pinch to the top of the hill. There, Flydd took Irisis’s arm and moved away. ‘Tell me, Irisis, do you despair as well?’
‘I know you’ll find a way to save us.’
‘Be careful where you put your faith. I’m just a man, Irisis. I can fail, or be brought down, as easily as any other.’
‘But you won’t. I know you’ll see us through, surr.’
He did not reply. ‘Surr, what is it?’
‘Flangers has shaken me, Irisis. The people now see death as their only escape. Despair will bring us down more quickly than a horde of the enemy and how can I counter that?’
‘With a bold strike; a miraculous victory.’
‘It would take a mighty miracle to save us now.’
‘Then you’d better think of a way,’ she retorted, ‘We’re counting on you, surr, and you can’t let us down.’
The hill was an oval of cleared land, almost as flat as a tabletop, containing a large command tent in the centre and clusters of smaller ones to either side. A wall of guards lowered their spears to let them through. Inside, a line of crossbowmen held weapons at the ready. The lyrinx always attacked the command post first, if they could get to it.
Flydd nodded to the captain of the guard, then turned to look over the battlefield. A shadow passed over his face; he made for the command tent.
General Tham, a bouncing ball of muscle topped by a shiny bald head, met him at the flap. ‘Scrutator Flydd! We’d given up hope of seeing you –’
‘Where’s General Grism?’ Flydd interrupted. ‘He’s not dead?’
‘He’s over the far side. Shall I call him?’
‘You’ll do. What’s our situation?’
Tham plucked at an ear the shape and colour of a dried peach. ‘We’ve lost fourteen thousand men, dead, and another six thousand will never fight again. The Aachim have lost six thousand and, even with their grudging aid, we’re failing fast.’
‘Grudging aid?’ Flydd said sharply.
‘I – I’d hesitate to call our allies cowards, surr, but …’
‘Spit it out, General.’
‘Even before the field went down, the Aachim never gave what we asked of them. They always hung back. And since then, I’ve seen only defence of their own lines. When we counterattack, they never come with us …’
‘It’s a long time since they’ve fought to the bitter end,’ Flydd mused, ‘knowing that, if they lost, all would be lost. Their noble exterior, it seems, conceals a rotten core. More than once they’ve failed in the uttermost hour, when the difference between victory and defeat was simply the courage to fight on, no matter what the odds. Even so, the Histories tell us that the Aachim have more often fallen through treachery than military might. Well, General, if that’s the kind of allies we have, we must fight all the harder.’
‘And die all the sooner. I beg you, Scrutator, allow me to sound the retreat or by dawn there won’t be a man left.’
‘Sound it,’ said Flydd, ‘though if the enemy truly want to destroy us, that will give them the chance to do the job by nightfall.’
‘You doubt that they do?’
‘It’s doesn’t seem to be their main objective,’ said Flydd.
‘Then what are they really here for?’ Tham exclaimed.
‘That’s what we’d all like to know.’
Tham gave orders to his signaller, who ran to the edge of the hill. Horns began to sound. Irisis watched the scrutator from the corner of her eye as he paced back and forth, looking sick. Nothing had gone right since they’d come to Snizort. The Council of Scrutators had ordered him to destroy the lyrinx node-drainer, for similar devices at other vital nodes had immobilised clankers and led to the destruction of the armies they escorted.
Flydd and Irisis, aided by the seeker, Ullii, had stolen into the underground maze of Snizort. Ullii had led them through the tar-saturated tunnels to the uncanny chamber of the node-drainer, and Flydd had succeeded in destroying it. Unfortunately that had caused the destruction of the node itself, in a catastrophic explosion. All the fields, weak as well as strong, had vanished, rendering clankers and constructs useless, and leaving the army of sixty thousand men, plus twenty thousand Aachim, unprotected.
Such a force should have been a match for twenty-five thousand lyrinx on an open battlefield, but Snizort was surrounded by a maze of tar bogs, mine pits, windrows made from cleared woodland, traps and ancient tar runs that the enemy had set alight. And when the lyrinx emerged from their underground labyrinth they were far more numerous than expected – near to thirty-five thousand. The soldiers, lacking the armour of the clankers, had been slaughtered.
Flangers stood guard outside the command tent as Flydd and Tham went in. Irisis stalked the rim of the hill, looking down at the battlefields but seeing nothing. After all their work, and all their agony down in the tar pits, the result was worse than if they had done nothing.
Yet she’d had a personal triumph in Snizort. Under extreme duress, and with Ullii’s help, Irisis had recovered the talent that had been hidden, or suppressed, since her fourth birthday. Her ability to draw power from the field was back. Irisis was no longer a fraud, but a true crafter at last.
All her life she’d obsessed about getting her talent back but, now she had it, it gave her no joy. Why was that? Was she incapable of taking pleasure in her own achievements? Or was it that nothing would ever come of it?
A shiver passed up her spine. Her life’s dream, after the war was over, was to be a jeweller. Irisis had a rare talent for that craft and had been making jewellery in her spare time since she was a child. Once the war ended, and controller artisans were no longer required, she planned to follow her dream. However, from the moment they’d escaped the tar pits, Irisis had been troubled by intimations of mortality. She felt doomed.
Despite her earlier talk, today or tomorrow must see the end of them. Not even the scrutator, wily dog that he undoubtedly was, could get them out of this fiasco. There was no hope of escape in the air-floater, for it had been damaged in the explosion of the node and would take days to repair, assuming it had survived the battle at all.
Discovering that she had returned to her starting point, Irisis slipped through the ring of guards and sat down on the edge of the hill, to the rear of the tents, trying to get a picture of what was going on. Everywhere she looked, desperate men fought and died. A lyrinx could take on two human soldiers at once and win, and often, three or four.
There were few enemy in the air, though that was not surprising. Many lyrinx could fly, though on this heavy world they had to supplement their wings by using the Secret Art, if they had a talent for it. Even then, flight took so much out of them that they could do little else at the same time. But to fly here, they would have to draw on a distant node, and only the most powerful mancers of all could do that.
Irisis saw a pair directly above, riding the noon-day thermals, conserving their strength. They were watching the formations on the battlefield and relaying simple messages to their brethren on the ground.
Scanning the sky, Irisis caught sight of an oddly-shaped speck just above the eastern horizon. It did not look like a lyrinx. Another speck appeared to the left of the first, and a third to the right. The air was hazy; she could not quite make them out. Squinting until her eyes watered, she saw that the specks were slightly elongated, with a smaller mark beneath each.
More specks appeared. Now there were a dozen. Irisis ran to the command tent. ‘Scrutator! Scrutator!’
He looked up from the map table where he and Tham were moving pointers, planning the retreat. Scribes were taking down the orders, relaying them to a stream of messengers outside.
‘Go away, Crafter,’ he snapped. ‘This can’t wait for anything.’
‘Come outside, quickly! You won’t believe it.’
Flydd peered at her from beneath an eyebrow that snaked from one side of his forehead to the other. At the look on her face he dropped his marker and hurried, in that crab-lurch of his, to the entrance.
She drew him around the back of the tent. ‘Look!’ Irisis threw out her arm.
The shapes were unmistakable now. ‘Air-floaters!’ said Flydd. ‘Twelve of them, and coming fast. So that’s what the Council was up to.’
‘Any reinforcement is welcome,’ said Tham, pushing between them, ‘though a dozen air-floaters can do precious little to help us now.’
‘Let’s wait and see,’ said Flydd. ‘Can you rouse out some breakfast, Irisis?’
In twenty minutes the air-floaters were overhead, flying in perfect formation, four wide and three high. They made a circle over the top of the battlefield and the fighting broke off as humans, Aachim and lyrinx stood by to see what their intentions were. Being so light, air-floaters could be driven by a distant field.
‘They seem to be working to a plan,’ said Irisis, wolfing down a gritty hunk of black bread. It was tasteless army fare, but she was too hungry to care.
The machines had maintained formation all the way around the circuit. ‘It’s almost … It’s as if they’re all controlled by one mind.’ Flydd carved slivers off a distinctly green cheese and popped them into his mouth, two at a time. ‘Though I know that’s not possible.’
Flangers came up beside them, one hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword. ‘They’d better look out!’
The two lyrinx sentries were now converging on the ranked air-floaters. One corkscrewed down to the left side, the other plummeted directly toward the right top machine. The attack looked random but was coordinated so they would reach their targets at the same time. And air-floaters were vulnerable. One slash of a lyrinx’s claws could tear the gasbag right open. Moreover, an attack from directly above was difficult to defend against.
The air-floaters shifted slightly out of line. Just before the higher lyrinx reached its target there came a flash that lit up the creature. Its wings folded up and it fell out of the air. Rotating slowly, it disappeared behind a boulder-topped hill.
‘What was that?’ said Irisis.
‘I don’t know,’ the scrutator replied.
The corkscrewing lyrinx beat its great wings, coming out of the dive right beside the gasbag of the air-floater. It gave a measured slash but, before its claws could part the fabric, it too was hit by a flash of light. The lyrinx’s wings churned, it somersaulted backwards and fell, upside down. Halfway to the ground it seemed to recover, flapped several times and almost broke its fall, but lost it and plunged into the bloody mud of the battlefield at a speed that must have pulverised every bone in its great body.
‘I don’t sense the Art,’ said Flydd, puzzled. ‘What are the scrutators up to?’
The battle had not resumed. The air-floaters pulled back into that perfect formation, now hanging motionless above the battlefield, their rotors turning just enough to counteract the gentle motion of the air.
‘I wonder …?’ said Flydd. ‘Who on the Council has the boldness for this kind of venture, and the foresight to know that it would be needed?’
Irisis had a fair idea, but she would just wait and see. From the topmost middle air-floater, rods extended to either side, all the way to the neighbouring machines, which latched on. A roll of shimmering fabric fell, was caught as it passed in front of the middle row of machines, and again at the bottom.
‘What on earth are they doing?’ said Tham.
No one answered. The air-floaters moved ever so slightly this way and that, bending the rods and pulling the fabric into a gentle concavity. It took a long time, for the slightest change in the breeze tended to drift the machines apart, and much manoeuvring was required to get them aligned again.
‘It’s a mirror,’ said Irisis. ‘But what is it for?’
‘They’re not using the Art at all,’ Flydd replied. ‘They simply hit the flying lyrinx with a dazzling beam. Lyrinx have poorer eyesight than we do, and their eyes are sensitive to bright light. That’s why they only fight in the middle of the day when they have to. The beam disrupted the Art they were using to keep aloft, and they were too close to the ground to recover.’
‘They’re moving,’ said Flangers.
The twelve air-floaters wheeled in perfect formation. The sun flashed off the mirror, the beam lighting up a strip of ground some twenty spans long.
The beam crept across the battlefield, to play on a group of lyrinx attacking a line of soldiers. Irisis focussed on the scene with a spyglass. The lyrinx threw up their arms, trying to shield themselves from the boiling glare, then broke and ran, staggering from side to side. One bold soldier attacked from behind, felling his quarry with a sword thrust between the back plates, but the others escaped.
The beam stepped to another group of lyrinx, who broke like the first. As it tracked across the ground, the mud began to steam gently. The next detachment, some fifty lyrinx, resisted longer than the others, but within a minute they too had fled.
‘With a lens, anyone can focus the sun’s rays as to set paper or cloth alight,’ said Irisis, ‘though I don’t think that’s their aim here.’
‘The beam isn’t tightly focussed,’ said Flydd, putting down his spyglass, ‘but it’s enough to dazzle and confuse. And blind too, should you look directly at it.’
The general had a calculating look in his eye. ‘Shall I order the counterattack, surr?’
‘Wait,’ said Flydd. ‘If the mirror tears in the wind, or the lyrinx make a determined attack on it, we’ll be more exposed than we are now.’
The enemy now attacked desperately, but the beam stopped each onslaught. Within an hour the lyrinx began to fall back enmasse, whereupon the beam moved towards the ranks of enemy surrounding the walled perimeter of Snizort.
Suddenly half a dozen lyrinx took to the air, well apart, rising into the path of the air-floaters. ‘This’ll be interesting,’ said Tham. ‘They’ll never move the mirror quickly enough.’
The air-floaters did not attempt to. The first lyrinx to approach took many crossbow bolts to the head and chest. It tumbled, wings cracking in the wind, over and over before slamming into the ground down the slope behind the command tent. The second suffered a similar fate, for the air-floaters were packed with archers. The other lyrinx flapped away. In the air they were too vulnerable. The mirror beam continued its inexorable progress.
‘Something’s happening,’ said Irisis in the early afternoon. She was watching enemy movements inside the southern wall of Snizort. Lyrinx were running backwards and forwards through the drifting smoke. ‘Looks like they’re sending out reinforcements.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said the scrutator. ‘Where’s my spyglass?’
Flangers said quietly, ‘They’re carrying boxes and bags.’
‘You left it by the tent,’ said Irisis, passing Flydd her glass. He focussed it and said, ‘You’ve got good eyes, soldier.’
‘That’s why I was chosen as shooter.’
‘What are they doing?’ asked Irisis and Tham together.
‘A group of … perhaps one hundred have formed up behind the southern wall,’ said Flydd. ‘They’ve all got big packs on, which is unusual, and they’re carrying what appear to be boxes, or cases. Or coffins!’
‘The same thing happened yesterday morning,’ said a sentry standing nearby. ‘Even before the node exploded their fliers were heading south-west, carrying huge packages.’
‘Is that so?’ said Flydd. ‘How odd.’
‘The tar’s burning underground,’ said Irisis, ‘and it would be the very devil to put out. They’d have to abandon Snizort, whatever the result of the battle.’
‘I wonder if those cases contain flesh-formed creatures?’ Flydd gave Irisis a keen glance. ‘If we could only …’
‘I hope I’m wrong about what you’re thinking,’ said Irisis.
‘Regretfully,’ said Flydd, ‘you’re not. They’re weapons we don’t know how to deal with, but if we had one or two little ones to study, we might be able to find a defence against them.’
The mirror beam now carved across the eastern wall, towards the enemy ranks on the other side. It was not causing as much confusion as before, but the lyrinx were still retreating from it.
Fighting broke out near the northern wall. A band of some twenty lyrinx had advanced in a rush that took them right through a line of human soldiers. The beam did not move to counter this new threat, but kept moving back and forth across the ranks of the enemy, on the far side of Snizort.
‘That was just a diversion,’ cried Irisis. ‘They’re retreating.’
The group of lyrinx carrying the baggage rose into the air together then spread apart, moving low to the ground until they crossed the southern wall, where there was little fighting. There they climbed rapidly, disappearing into the smoky haze that hung over the fortress.
‘They’re mighty mancers,’ said Flydd, ‘to fly under these conditions. Whatever they’re carrying, it’s more important than winning the battle.’
There was no way to bring them down; the lyrinx were out of range of the catapults and javelards, and the fleet of air-floaters did not appear to have noticed. The flying lyrinx appeared out of the haze, flew into a pall drifting from the molten remains of the node, and vanished.
The scrutator shook his head. ‘I think we’re going to regret that.’
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