Copyright © Ian Irvine 2015
- The Evil Man Saw Me
‘No!’ the little girl sobbed. ‘Look out! Run, run!’
Karan threw herself out of her bed, a high box of black-stained timber that occupied half the bedroom. She landed awkwardly and pain splintered through the left leg she had broken ten years ago. She clung to the side of the bed, trying not to cry out, then dragged a cloak around herself and careered through the dark to her daughter’s room at the other end of the oval keep. Fear was an iron spike through her heart. What was the matter? Had someone broken in? What were they doing to her?
The wedge-shaped room, lit by a rectangle of moonlight coming through the narrow window, was empty apart from Sulien, who lay with her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them, rocking from side to side.
Her eyes were tightly closed as if she could not bear to look and she was moaning, ‘No, no, no!’
Karan touched Sulien on the shoulder and her eyes sprang open. She threw her arms around Karan’s waist, clinging desperately.
‘Mummy, the evil man saw me. He saw me!’
Karan let out her breath. Just a nightmare, though a bad one. She put her hands around Sulien’s head and, with a psychic wrench that she would pay for later, lifted the nightmare from her. But Sulien was safe; that was all that mattered. Karan’s knees shook and she slumped on the bed. It’s all right!
Sulien gave a little sigh and wriggled around under the covers. ‘Thanks, Mummy.’
Karan kissed her on the forehead. ‘Go to sleep now.’
‘I can’t; my mind’s gone all squirmy. Can you tell me a story?’
‘Why don’t you tell me one, for a change?’
‘All right.’ Sulien thought for a moment. ‘I’ll tell you my favourite – the story of Karan and Llian, and the Mirror of Aachan.’
‘I hope it has a happy ending,’ said Karan, going along with her.
‘You’ll have to wait and see,’ Sulien said mock-sternly. ‘This is how it begins.’ She began reciting: ‘Once there were three worlds, Aachan, Tallallame and Santhenar, each with its own human species: Aachim, Faellem and us, old humans. Then, fleeing out of the terrible void between the worlds came a fourth people, the Charon, led by the mightiest hero in all the Histories, Rulke. The Charon were just a handful, desperate and on the edge of extinction, but Rulke saw a weakness in the Aachim and took Aachan from them . . . and forever changed the balance between the Three Worlds.’
‘I’m sure I’ve heard that before, somewhere,’ said Karan, smiling at the memories it raised.
‘Of course you have, silly. All the Great Tales begin that way.’ Sulien continued: ‘In ancient times the genius goldsmith Shuthdar, a very wicked man, was paid by Rulke to make a gate-opening device in the form of a golden flute. Then Shuthdar stole the flute, opened a gate and fled to Santhenar . . . but he broke open the Way Between the Worlds, exposing the Three Worlds to the deadly void.
‘This shocked Aachan, a strange world of sulphur-coloured snow, oily bogs and black, luminous flowers, to its core. Rulke raced after Shuthdar, taking with him a host of Aachim servants, including the mighty Tensor.
‘The rain-drenched world of Tallallame was also threatened by the opening. The Faellem, a small forest-dwelling people who were masters of illusion, sent a troop led by Faelamor to close the way again. But they failed too.
‘They all hunted Shuthdar across Santhenar as he fled through gate after gate, but finally he was driven into a trap. Unable to give the flute up, he destroyed it – and brought down the Forbidding that sealed the Three Worlds off from each other . . . and trapped all his hunters here on Santhenar.’
‘Until ten years ago,’ said Karan.
‘When you and Daddy helped to reopen the Way Between the Worlds . . .’ Sulien frowned. ‘How come Rulke was still alive after all that time?’
‘The Aachim, Faellem and Charon aren’t like us. They can live for thousands of years.’
Sulien gave another little shiver, her eyelids fluttered, and she slept.
Karan pulled the covers up and stroked her daughter’s hair, which was as wild as her own, though a lighter shade of red. On the table next to the bed, moonbeams touched a vase of yellow and brown bumblebee blossoms and the half-done wall hanging of Sulien’s floppy-eared puppy, Piffle.
Karan stroked Sulien’s cheek and shed a tear, and sat there for a minute or two, gazing at her nine-year-old daughter, her small miracle, the only child she could ever have and the most perfect thing in her life.
She was limping back to bed when the import of Sulien’s words struck her. Mummy, the evil man saw me! What a disturbing thing to say. Should she wake Llian? No, he had enough to worry about.
Karan’s leg was really painful now. She went down the steep stairs of the old keep in the dark, holding on to the rail and wincing, but the pain grew with every step and so did her need for the one thing that could take it away – hrux.
She fought it. Hrux was for emergencies, for those times when the pain was utterly unbearable. In the round chamber she called her thinking room, lit only by five winking embers in the fireplace, she sat in a worn-out armchair, pulled a cloak tightly around herself and closed her eyes.
What had Sulien meant by the evil man saw me? And what had she seen?
Karan’s gift for mancery, the Secret Art, had been blocked when she was a girl but, being a sensitive, she still had some mind powers. She knew how to replay the nightmare, though she was reluctant to try; using her gift always came at a cost, the headaches and nausea of aftersickness. But she had to know what Sulien had seen. Very carefully she lifted the lid on the beginning of the nightmare . . .
A pair of moons, one small and yellow spattered with black, the other huge and jade green, lit a barren landscape. The green moon stood above a remarkable city, unlike any place Karan had ever seen – a crisp white metropolis where the buildings were shaped like dishes, arches, globes and tall spikes, and enclosed within a silvery dome. Where could it be? None of the Three Worlds had a green moon; the city must be on some little planet in the void.
In the darkness outside the dome, silhouetted against it, a great army had gathered. Goose pimples crept down her arms. A lean, angular man wearing spiked armour ran up a mound, raised his right fist and shook it at the city.
‘Now!’ he cried.
Crimson flames burst from the lower side of the dome and there came a cracking, a crashing and a shrieking whistle. A long ragged hole, the shape of a spiny caterpillar, had been blasted through the wall.
‘Are . . . you . . . ready?’ he roared.
‘Yes,’ yelled his captains.
It was too dark for Karan to see any faces, but there was a troubling familiarity about the way the soldiers stood and moved and spoke. What was it?
‘Avenge our ancestors’ betrayal!’ bellowed the man in the spiked armour. ‘Put every man, woman, child, dog and cat to the sword. Go!’
Karan’s stomach churned. This seemed far too real to be a nightmare.
The troops stormed towards the hole in the dome, all except a cohort of eleven led by a round-faced woman whose yellow plaits were knotted into a loop above her head.
‘Lord Gergrig?’ she said timidly. ‘I thought this attack was a dress rehearsal.’
‘You need practice in killing,’ he said chillingly.
‘But the people of Cinnabar have done nothing to us.’
‘Our betrayal was a stain on all humanity.’ Gergrig’s voice vibrated with pain and torment. ‘All humanity must pay until the stain is gone.’
‘Soon we will face the greatest battle of all time, against the greatest foe – that’s why we’ve practised war for the past ten millennia.’
‘Then why do we—’
‘To stay in practice, you fool! If fifteen thousand Merdrun can’t clean out this small city, how can we hope to escape the awful void?’ His voice ached with longing. ‘How can we capture the jewel of worlds that is Santhenar?’
Karan clutched at her chest. This was no nightmare; it had to be a true seeing, but why had it come to Sulien? She was a gifted child, though Karan had never understood what Sulien’s gift was. And who were the Merdrun? She had never heard the name before.
Abruptly Gergrig swung round, staring. The left edge of his face, a series of hard angles, was outlined by light from a blazing tower. Like an echo, Karan heard Sulien’s cry, ‘Mummy, the evil man saw me. He saw me!’
Momentarily, Gergrig seemed afraid. He picked up a small green glass box and lights began to flicker inside it. His jaw hardened. ‘Uzzey,’ he said to the blonde warrior, ‘we’ve been seen.’
He bent his shaven head for a few seconds, peering into the glass box, then made a swirling movement with his left hand. ‘A little red-haired girl. On Santhenar!’
Karan slid off the chair onto her knees, struggling to breathe. This was real; this bloodthirsty brute, whose troops need practice in killing, had seen her beautiful daughter. Ice crystallised all around her; there was no warmth left in the world. Her breath rushed in, in, in. She was going to scream. She fought to hold it back. Don’t make a sound; don’t do anything that could alert him.
‘How can this be?’ said Uzzey.
‘I don’t know,’ said Gergrig. ‘Where’s the magiz?’
‘Setting another blasting charge.’
‘Fetch her. She’s got to locate this girl, urgently.’
‘What harm can a child do?’
‘She can betray the invasion; she can reveal our plans and our numbers.’
Pain speared up Karan’s left leg and it was getting worse. Black fog swirled in her head. She rocked forwards and back, her teeth chattering.
‘Who would listen to a kid?’ said Uzzey.
‘I can’t take the risk,’ said Gergrig. ‘Run!’
Uzzey raced off, bounding high with each stride.
Karan’s heart was thundering but her blood did not seem to be circulating; she felt faint, freezing and so breathless that she was suffocating. She wanted to scoop Sulien up in her arms and run, but where could she go? How could Sulien see people on barren little Cinnabar, somewhere in the void, anyway? And how could Gergrig have seen her? Karan would not have thought it possible.
Shortly the magiz, who was tall and thin with sparse white hair and colourless eyes bulging out of soot-black sockets, loped up. ‘What’s this about a girl seeing us?’
Gergrig explained, then said, ‘I’m bringing the invasion forward. I’ll have to wake the summon stone right away.’
Karan choked. What invasion? Her head spun and she began to tremble violently.
‘So soon?’ said the magiz. ‘The cost in power will be . . . extreme.’
‘We’ll have to pay it. The stone must be ready by syzygy – the night the triple moons line up – or we’ll never be able to open the gate.’
The magiz licked her grey lips. ‘To get more power, I’ll need more deaths.’
‘Then see to it!’
‘Ah, to drink a life,’ sighed the magiz. ‘Especially the powerful lives of the gifted. This child’s ending will be nectar.’
Gergrig took a step backwards. He looked repulsed.
Karan doubled over, gasping. In an flash of foreboding she saw three bloody bodies – Sulien, Llian and herself – flung like rubbish into a corner of her burning manor.
‘What do you want me to do first?’ said the magiz.
‘Find the red-haired brat and put her down. And everyone in her household.’
A murderous fury overwhelmed Karan. No one threatened her daughter! Whatever it took, she would do it to protect her own.
The magiz, evidently untroubled by Gergrig’s order, nodded. ‘I’ll look for the kid.’
Gergrig turned to Uzzey and her cohort, who were all staring at him. ‘What are you waiting for? Get to the killing field!’
Ah, to drink a life! It was the end of Sulien’s nightmare, and the beginning of Karan’s.
2. Under the Influence
The darkness was a choking blanket, the hiding place of a killer.
Karan fought the shakes and the terror; she had to think things through, calmly and logically. She stirred the fire until it cast dancing shadows through the room, then held her cold feet and hands out to the blaze. It did not warm them.
How could she protect Sulien when she did not know who the Merdrun were, how they would attack, or where, or when? Could the magiz attack from the void, or would she have to come to Santhenar first? And how could Karan, whose gift for the Secret Art had been blocked as a child before it could fully develop, protect Sulien against an alien sorcerer?
Her right thigh throbbed, then the left. After being hurled against the metal side of Rulke’s construct ten years ago, on the desperate day that had changed the Three Worlds for ever, Karan had broken so many bones that no one had thought she would ever walk again. Had it not been for the healing hands of Idlis the Whelm, once her enemy, she would be confined to a wheeled chair – or dead.
The pain kept intruding. She rose and paced, wincing with every step. The signs were clear now – it would get worse until it was unendurable; she would soon have to resort to hrux. But not yet; through force of will she suppressed the pain. She had to be stronger than she had ever been.
She had taught herself to put up with it a little longer each time. To do otherwise, to give in too easily, was to risk hrux claiming her. And hrux addiction was worse than any physical pain.
She took a small key from a drawer, grabbed a lamp and went out. Her hands were shaking so badly that she kept dropping the flint striker; it took twenty clicks to light the wick. In the larder she climbed the stepladder and, standing on tiptoe, reached for the little metal box at the back of the top shelf, out of sight. Karan unlocked it, the key rattling around the keyhole, then opened the lid – and threw her head backwards. Yuk!
The lump of hrux oozed yellow-green muck and the stench, like rotten prawn heads mixed with sour milk, was nauseating. She hesitated; there was barely enough left for two doses and she had no way of getting more. Panic stirred but she fought it down. Dare she try a half-dose? She cut off a pea-sized lump and impaled it on the point of her knife. The longing was desperate now, but not yet . . . not yet . . .
The pain howled, it shrieked, it battered at her like a mad thing. She could not bear it another second . . . and another . . . and anoth—
No! Hrux aided seeings and she was going to need it; she must not waste it on relieving pain. Karan rubbed the lump across her lips, licked them, shuddering at the stench, lied to herself that the pain would fade and dropped the hrux into her cloak pocket.
She returned to her thinking room and sat in the dimness. Pain sneaked up her thigh, though it was dull pain now; the placebo was working. She needed answers. Why did the Merdrun seem so familiar? What was the summon stone and why did it have to be woken right away, at such cost? How long was it until syzygy, the night of the triple moons – months, weeks or only days? And how, how was she to save her daughter?
There might be a way to answer the first question. Dare she peer through the ghostly webs and treacherous mazes of the void, using the nightmare to try to find Gergrig? Perhaps, under the influence of hrux, she could. It would be dangerous, though not as dangerous as doing nothing. But what if she unwittingly revealed where Sulien lived? The thought was paralysing; how could she take such a risk?
She could not sit here like a helpless victim, waiting for the bruise-eyed magiz to strike Sulien dead. Ah, to drink a life! Karan had to act.
She focused on the end of Sulien’s nightmare, when Gergrig had been speaking to the magiz in the light of Cinnabar’s jade-green moon, and slipped the lump of hrux into her mouth. It was covered in fluff from her pocket. She gagged, choked, swallowed. Her head swirled and tingles ran up and down her legs. She shut the door; she might shout or scream and that would wake the household.
Karan closed her eyes and saw fog, though it cleared suddenly to a true seeing of a place she had seen ten years ago and never wanted to see again – the limitless void between the worlds. It swarmed with savage creatures; she could sense them all around, and perhaps they could sense her too, even in her bodiless state.
She had to be careful, and she had to be quick. Existence in the void was desperate, brutal and fleeting. Even the fittest creatures survived only by remaking themselves constantly, and every being there was consumed by a single urge – to escape.
There were blurred shapes everywhere – some creeping, some scuttling, some waiting with the patience of twelve-legged spiders in steel webs. Karan’s seeing shot past them, zoomed in through shadow into fierce light, focused, then let out a yelp. All she could see was a pair of deep-set blazing eyes and a jagged black tattoo – a glyph she did not recognise – centred on a man’s forehead.
She retreated until his whole face was in view. It was the first time she had seen Gergrig clearly. A completely bald, domed skull, a heavy beard cropped to a black shadow over an angular jaw, full lips set in a cruel curve, a thin nose and, ugh, a hook-shaped spray of blood on his right cheek. It had clotted in his beard.
Karan shrank back in her chair. Could he see her? What would he do if he did? But his eyes did not move; he was looking down at an object dangling from his neck, a red cube on a fine steel chain. He touched the cube and a faint drumming sounded in her head.
A burst of light from the cube illuminated his eyes, which were an alarming colour, indigo blue with flecks of carmine. Shivers ran across Karan’s shoulders, for the eyes alone were enough to tell her what Gergrig, and presumably the other Merdrun, were.
They were Charon. And that was impossible.
Gergrig rose abruptly. He had to be a foot and a half taller than her, and hard and lean. He reached out as if testing an invisible barrier and momentarily the scene went out of focus, then he dropped his hand and looked over his shoulder.
His troops were gathered behind him. They were heavily armed, bandaged and battered and bruised, and many were red-handed as if they had come straight from the battlefield. All looked jubilant, and all had the jagged glyph on their foreheads. There were many thousands of them, a mighty force armed for war.
An army that could not possibly exist.
Karan cut off the seeing and scrambled to her feet, her heart thundering. How could this be? There were no Charon any more. After Rulke’s death, Yalkara and the few dozen survivors, all age-old, had been the last of their kind. She had said they were returning to the void to face their extinction with dignity.
Had that been a lie?