The final adventure in the epic fantasy trilogy that began with Battlemage: expect fireball-filled battles, otherworldy enemies and heroically powerful mages.
By the time Zannah had climbed the twenty-seven steps to her post, the dead man was waiting for her in the street below.
“Come down, Zannah!”
It was two hours before midnight and the pitch-black sky seemed to bear down on her with an oppressive weight. Far away in the east a scattering of stars offered little relief from the otherwise featureless void above.
Voechenka, once a city renowned for its music, art and beauty, had been reduced to a desolate landscape. It stretched out before her in all directions, wrapped in grim silence. The bleakness of the shattered buildings and broken streets was mostly hidden from view, but a few tallow candles burned here and there in empty windows. Thick shadows, clinging to the skeletal frames of once- grand structures, hid a multitude of sins.
Torches burned at several points around the city, their flames dancing in a faint breeze coming in from across the lake. They did little to chase away the terrors that lurked in the city at night, but it was all they had. Two similar torches were set in the rampart below Zannah, one on either side of the lopsided gate. A stout wagon loaded with heavy rocks blocked the entrance to their shelter. It was another illusion, designed to give the idea of safety and keep the fear at bay. After seeing some of their friends torn apart, Zannah wondered if any of the children still believed they were safe.
She didn’t stare at the torches for long. Keeping her eyes away from the light protected her night vision. As a Morrin she could see in the dark almost as well as in daylight. Before coming to Shael, before coming to this city and the terrors that were hidden from most, Zannah had considered her sight a blessing. Now, being able to see the horrors was part of her penance. Another weight to bear stoically and never complain. She would never tell anyone about everything that she saw at her post during the long hours of the night. The ghosts, the Forsaken, and the tall woman who always stood in the shadows.
Zannah just choked it all down like another meal in this cursed city. While food served to nourish her body, the nightmares kept her alert and on edge. They served a purpose. They also reminded Zannah of her role in bringing the people of Shael to the brink of destruction.
“Come down, Zannah!” shouted Roake in a harsh rasp.
“Is he there again?” said Alyssa, wearily plodding up the stairs. She leaned against the battlements and peered down into the street. “Doesn’t he ever get tired?”
As Alyssa stared out over the city of her birth Zannah studied her profile. Tufts of yellow hair stuck out from a skull crisscrossed with fading bruises and old purple scars. Once, her blonde hair had been long and the envy of many, but not for years. Her golden skin had lost much of its lustre and, despite her being as thin as a broom, the hollow cheeks didn’t distract from a beautiful face and striking green eyes.
“You’re staring again.”
“Sorry,” said Zannah, turning away. “Were you a poet?”
Alyssa’s rich laugh was at odds with her skeletal frame. “No, but your guess is closer than the others.”
It was a game they played every night. Alyssa allowed Zannah one guess about what she had done before the war. Four years ago her life had been very different. One lived in comfort where she’d wanted for nothing. Then an army of Vorga and Morrin had marched into Shael and the widespread slaughter of her people began. Alyssa had spent the duration of the war in a torture camp being starved, beaten and abused, while all around her men, women and children were butchered. When the war finally ended she, and many others in Shael, were left to fend for themselves. The Queen was dead. The country was in ruins, but some of the enemy hadn’t gone anywhere. Those survivors with any strength fought to reclaim their homeland. The last invaders were eventually driven out by an alliance between the Queens of Seveldrom and Yerskania. Finally, the slow process of rebuilding the country began.
Aid came to Shael, but being so far from the capital, Voechenka was always among the last on the list. Two years ago the situation had changed from desperate into something much worse.
At first no one noticed that some thing had taken root in the shadows. During the first year after the war the people in Voechenka were focused on rebuilding their homes and planting crops to get them through the winter. In the spring when a few faces were missing people put it down to the severe weather and not enough food. But once the ice had melted they found the bodies. The terror etched into their faces had nothing to do with hunger.
“Here,” said Alyssa, offering Zannah a small cloth bag. Her sensitive nose picked up a mix of sour bread, salted fish and wild garlic.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Liar. I can hear your stomach growling from here.”
Zannah took the bag with a grateful smile and pulled out the slightly burned trencher. It was the size of her fist and the hollow was stuffed with fish, tangy root vegetables and wild garlic.
Zannah frowned at the fish. “You shouldn’t have risked the lake. It’s too dangerous.”
“I didn’t. Someone else went out on the water.”
“And he just gave it to you?”
Zannah wanted to ask what she had given the fisherman in trade but knew that Alyssa wouldn’t answer. Instead Zannah took a bite and turned her gaze back to the empty streets. Roake wandered up and down, calling out to her periodically, and she did her best to ignore him. Part of her wanted to feather his body with arrows, but she’d tried that before and it hadn’t worked. He’d just come back the next night. Arrows were a rare commodity and she couldn’t waste them on Roake. Even so, she was tempted to put one in his throat, just to stop him shouting for the rest of the night.
“Did you get much sleep?” asked Alyssa.
“Did anyone speak to you?”
“No, but they didn’t try to kill me in my sleep last night, so it’s progress,” said Zannah. Alyssa grimaced and flushed with embarrassment. “It’s all right.”
“No, it’s not,” insisted Alyssa, gritting her teeth.
A strained silence fell on them, broken sporadically by Roake. Zannah couldn’t blame the others in their shelter for how they treated her. After all it was her people, the Morrin, who had invaded Shael with the Vorga. It was her people who had slaughtered them, burned down their cities and herded them into camps to be starved, beaten and experimented upon. It was her people who made them fight each other for food, and sometimes, just for sport. It was her people who had abandoned them to die at the end of the war, leaving them to the mercy of the savage Vorga.
If the weight of their hatred rested only with her people, Zannah could forgive herself, but during the war she had been among the invaders.
She had followed her orders like a good soldier and killed prisoners, never hesitating or worrying about her actions or the cost. The people in Shael weren’t Morrin, so why did it matter how many of them died?
Towards the end of the war, when the cities had been razed and the mass graves were so big as to be mistaken for hills, something changed inside her. Even here in distant Voechenka, word reached them about a rift in the Council that was threatening to tear Morrinow apart. Her country, her whole world, was in danger. Not from another army, but from an enemy within.
The order came through and Morrin warriors started to return home. Zannah’s unit was among the last to leave. On the final day she was ordered to command squad leaders to kill all remaining prisoners and burn Voechenka to the ground. After that they would sail north to deal with the troubles at home.
Zannah could still clearly see the look of surprise in the eyes of her Commander as he died with her sword buried in his throat. He tried to choke out accusations, or perhaps another order, but only managed a faint gurgling sound. She burned the document, gave the order to free all prisoners and told her people to sail home. Most went willingly with the fleet but a few refused, abandoning their posts or feigning illness to stay behind. They had grown used to indulging and were not willing to return to the orderly life of a soldier.
Once the fleet had left port, Zannah searched the city and surrounding countryside for her people. Then she stalked and hunted them down, one by one. They cursed her as they died, each and every one, telling her she was forsaken by the Blessed Mother. Zannah didn’t need to hear it from them. She already knew she was damned. Only one of the rogue soldiers had evaded her and now it was too late to deal with him.
Hated by her own people for betraying them. Loathed by the people of Shael for her crimes during the war. She could never go home and, until yesterday, those she sought to protect had tried to kill her on a daily basis. For some reason, Alyssa didn’t hate her. Zannah had no idea why.
A disturbance in the street drew Zannah’s attention.
“I’ll be back,” promised Roake before scuttling off, disappearing down a side street. He could certainly move quickly for a dead man when he needed to.
“Here they come,” said Zannah. “Get the others.”
Alyssa ran down the stairs and started shouting for help. Almost immediately people poured out of the main building in the courtyard. They collected their weapons in a hurry before joining Zannah on the wall. The defenders carried a mix of edged weapons, swords, axes, pole- arms and even a few spears. Each weapon had been honed to razor sharpness. The invaders hadn’t left much behind but there was no shortage of steel.
Alyssa flexed her longbow with ease and strung it in one practised move. There was a deep core strength in her body that belied her slender frame.
Looking into the street Zannah saw only a dozen bodies tonight. Normally they came in much larger groups than this. She didn’t recognise most of the people in the street, but unfortunately Jannek was among them. Yesterday he’d been screaming in terror as they pulled him off the wall, begging for death rather than being taken alive. Tonight he looked healthier and happy. His once sallow and dull skin shone like burnished gold and the hollows in his cheeks had been filled. It was amazing. It was a miracle. He had to be destroyed.
Seeing the dead come back to life, like Roake, was one thing. This was something else. They’d taken to calling them Forsaken, although in this city that applied to everyone.
Further along the wall Liselle, Jannek’s sister, sobbed then raised her bow with steely determination.
“Hold,” warned Zannah, knowing that the Forsaken were still out of range. This would only be the first wave. It had to be. But why only a dozen? It wasn’t enough to overpower their defences.
Alyssa was watching them keenly, waiting until they came closer before raising her bow. Ignoring Zannah the others took their lead from her and readied to fire. “Now,” she whispered.
“Fire at will,” said Alyssa and six bows hummed in unison.
Moving with extraordinary grace, Alyssa carefully fitted an arrow to the string then fired at another of the Forsaken. Perhaps she’d been a dancer. If they lived through the night it was a good guess for tomorrow.
Alyssa’s arrow hit one of the Forsaken in the right eye. It punched the woman off her feet and she appeared to be dead. For now at least.
Most of the other Forsaken had arrows sticking out of them. None of the wounds stopped them, only slowed them down.
Jannek and the other Forsaken scrambled up two rudimentary ladders and tried to claw their way onto the top of the wall. The defenders dropped their bows and switched to swords, spears and axes, driving the Forsaken back by sheer numbers rather than skill. The defenders were all malnourished and until last year few of them had ever held a weapon before. It wasn’t a good combination, even in a fight for their lives.
As a man climbed over the wall Zannah stabbed him in the back with her short sword, severing his spine. Wasting no time she yanked it free and kicked him over the wall. He struck two more Forsaken on his way down. She stormed along the wall, severing limbs, and beheading people where she could, if only to save time later. With a short sword in either hand the Morrin cut a bloody path through the Forsaken. Others followed in her wake, prodding and stabbing, fighting with less energy and ferocity, but gradually getting the job done. Most Forsaken were knocked off the wall, falling into the street below, and only a few made it to the top of the ladders.
At the far end of the wall a knot of four was clustered together, forcing Zannah’s momentum to slow down.
She dodged a crude swing, took off the offending arm above the elbow and kicked the injured man over the wall. Two more Forsaken died before she finally made it to Jannek. Liselle was squashed against the wall, curled up in a tight ball, screaming in terror. Her axe lay within reach but all thoughts of it were forgotten. Jannek was beseeching her to come with him. He put down his sword to show his goodwill and reached out with an empty hand towards his sister. It would almost have been better received had there been a blade in his hand. Liselle’s terrified wail increased in volume, making Zannah wince.
Jannek was starting to turn around when Zannah stabbed him through the neck. No more words. No more lies. No more promises of freedom and something better. They’d heard it all before.
Jannek’s blood splashed over his sister’s face and her cry became one of anguish. In his last few seconds he stared at his sister, trying to depart a final message. Finally he slumped forward off Zannah’s sword and fell into Liselle’s lap. She hugged the corpse of her brother and began to sob.
The wall was clear. They were safe for now and none of the Forsaken had escaped to carry someone away. Working methodically Zannah tipped the bodies over the wall, throwing stray limbs as well, although she was less worried about those. The other defenders withdrew to the courtyard. They didn’t want to see what happened next and liked to pretend it didn’t happen.
“Bring the rope,” said Zannah, and Alyssa nodded. She went down into the courtyard and came back with a long knotted rope that was attached to the laden cart. Alyssa threw it over the wall then returned to keep watch as Zannah approached Liselle.
“Stay away from him,” screamed Liselle, pulling the bloody corpse to her chest. “Haven’t you done enough? Haven’t you killed enough of my people?”
Zannah said nothing. There was nothing she could say. Jannek was already dead and had been for some time, long before she’d stabbed him in the neck. Whenever someone was taken by the Forsaken they always came back different. They walked and talked the same. They had the same face and voice, but they were changed. Something had been cut away, or scooped out.
Monella, a stout woman with one rheumy eye, came up the stairs. She pointedly didn’t look at Zannah and went straight to Liselle, who fell into her arms. After a few minutes Monella was able to pull the younger woman to her feet and guide her away down the stairs. Zannah waited until they were out of sight before throwing Jannek’s body over the wall.
Working hand over hand on the rope, she went down into the street. The long shadows hid from view most of what she was doing, but not the sounds. The others pretended not to hear those too.
Zannah beheaded every corpse, including Jannek’s, before making sure the bodies rested a good distance away from the heads. It was the only way to make sure they didn’t come back, again and again.
Next was actually the most difficult part of the evening. Zannah grabbed the rope and started the slow climb back to the top of the wall. One night she would be climbing up and the rope would snap. Someone inside would have disarmed or distracted Alyssa and cut the rope.
A fall from the top wouldn’t kill her, but it might break an arm or leg. Then she’d be trapped on the street for the rest of the night with the Forsaken. The others desperately wanted to see her torn apart and butchered. Maybe some wanted to see her carried away only to return the following night. Some nights Zannah wanted it too. Not because she believed she’d earned anything beyond her current situation. She just wanted to know where people were taken and how they were being changed.
Zannah reached the top of the wall and heaved herself over, landing amid the blood. She sat for a minute, catching her breath, staring at the endless dark above.
“You should have more faith,” said Alyssa, offering a hand and pulling Zannah to her feet. She chose not to comment, not wanting to cause offence.
They stood in silence for a time, watching the street.
“Do you think they’ll come again tonight?”
“At least one more time.”
“How long do you think we can keep doing this?” asked Alyssa.
It was a question Zannah had asked herself many times. Any defence in the city was gradually being eroded and the Forsaken were growing in number. Once, dozens of torches had burned in the night, driving back the darkness. Now there were maybe six shelters left.
Zannah didn’t answer Alyssa as they both knew the truth. They were running out of time.