Blinded by Power

Blinded by Power

Jim Melvin

May 2014 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-072

Book 5 of The Death Wizard Chronicles

The final battle--and the stakes have never been higher.

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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Jim Melvin is the author of the six-book epic fantasy The Death Wizard Chronicles. He was an award-winning journalist at the St. Petersburg Times for twenty-five years. As a reporter, he specialized in science, nature, health and fitness, and he wrote about everything from childhood drowning to erupting volcanoes. Jim is a student of Eastern philosophy and mindfulness meditation, both of which he weaves extensively into his work. Jim lives in Upstate South Carolina in the foothills of the mountains. He’s married and has five daughters.

Visit him at:www.jim-melvin.com and www.facebook.com/TheDeathWizardChronicles.


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Excerpt

 

Prologue

VEDANA COULDN’T believe that Rathburt was sobbing again. It was as if the pathetic Death-Knower had a split personality, either crying like a baby or yelling so loudly he frightened her. Both disgusted the demon.

But Vedana still was in need of the slump-shouldered wizard, so she was forced to tolerate his erratic behavior. Rathburt was at the crux of her plan to defeat Invictus. Without him, failure was assured.

It had been Peta, of course, who had foreseen Rathburt’s role. Unlike the demon, the ghost-child seemed to enjoy Rathburt’s company. Ah, well. Both were goody-goodies, and those types tended to stick together.

Three days had passed since she had left Tathagata standing alone on the border of Anna. Since then, Vedana had been too busy to pay any attention to what had occurred in the Tent City after her departure. Part of her duties had included entering the Realm of the Undead to deal with a potential uprising among her children. Destroying Uraga had had the desired effect, frightening them all back into timidity, but it had left Vedana feeling uneasy. In the old days, the mere hint of her presence would have sent them scurrying to the darkest corners—so to speak—of her realm; yet now she was forced to resort to extreme measures to get their attention. This was further proof that her plan to unseat her grandson must not fail.

Once she gained full control over a new Sun God, she would rule all. And she would spend the early days of her reign taking revenge on everyone and everything that had ever offended her. Which meant that just about all of them would get their comeuppance. Afterward she would create new subjects in her own image—and do a much better job of it than Invictus had done with his pitiful golden soldiers.

Speaking of pitiful... the once-mighty Bhayatupa fit that description even better than the two-faced newborns. Vedana knew from the start that the arrogant dragon would never willingly accept the erasure of his precious memories, and she also had known that Invictus would not be deceived so easily.

All right, so Peta had told her this in advance. So what? Vedana would have figured it out on her own. Why else had she chosen to tell the dragon such a distorted version of her plan? That way, if Bhayatupa were to succumb and tell Invictus everything he thought he knew, it mattered little. In the meantime, the "Mightiest of All” was serving as a sort of glorified chauffeur. Talk about Adho Satta! A lady had to love it—though a part of her, she hated to admit, felt a bit sorry for the grumpy old lizard.

On the other hand, Vedana didn’t feel the least bit sorry for the druid queen. Since the defeat of her precious army, Kattham Bhunjakahad quivered in her dark hiding place, terrified that she would be the next to fall. Fewer than ten thousand druids remained in Dhutanga to protect her, and they too were frightened, knowing they now were no match for the white horsemen, especially since the dragon jewel no longer existed to strengthen them. And it got even better. The despicable vampire—who had joined sides early with Invictus and never given Vedana the respect she deserved—had perished in a spectacularly painful fashion.

How sweet! Bye-bye, Urbana.

But back to Rathburt’s sobbing. When Vedana incarnated a portion of her essence into the Realm of Life in the form of an elderly grandmother, she discovered Peta stroking the wizard’s shoulder and murmuring comforting words. Not spoken words... the blind girl was singingto him. Uggggh! And in a voice that was quite accomplished, dammit! What next? Would she make him a gourmet dinner?

"What’s wrong now?” Vedana said, doing her best to disguise her disgust.

If Peta was startled she didn’t show it, but at least the interruption stopped the irritating singing. "If you think hard enough, even you’ll be able to guess.”

"Aren’t you funny? So... he has a few worries. Don’t we all? Tell him to join the club.”

"A few worries? Is that how you describe it?”

"As Mala likes to say... whatever.”

"Why doesn’t it surprise me that you’d find it amusing to emulate Mala?”

"Emulate... quite a vocabulary for such a little girl.”

By now, Rathburt had roused himself and was sitting up, wiping his eyes. When he looked at Vedana, the demon took a step back. But this time, at least, the Death-Knower seemed to have no desire to throttle her.

"How much longer?” he said to them both.

"Huh?” Vedana said.

"How... much... longer... before it happens?”

"Oh,” Vedana said. Then she turned to Peta. "You tell him. He doesn’t take this kind of news well from me.”

Peta sighed. "I don’t know the exact day.”

"That’s a lie,” Vedana thought.

"Give me your best guess,” Rathburt said.

"A week... maybe two.”

"I still might refuse.”

Vedana’s eyes blazed. "You’d better not, you yellow-bellied—”

"Mother!” Peta interrupted. "For your own sake... shut up!”

Vedana snarled. Then took a long breath and managed to smile with sickening sweetness, even if her incarnated teeth were gnarled and discolored. "What I meant to say was, please don’t refuse, dear sir. So much depends on your spectacular courage.”

Rathburt spat. "Peta’s right. Shut up.”

"Hmmph! I’ve never met two more ungrateful snots.” Then Vedana glared at the ghost-child. "I’m going to Nissaya now to have a look-see. Are you coming or not? The brave and mighty Rathburt can take care of himself while we’re gone.”

Fall of the Fortress

1

THE DAY AFTER Invictus had bested him again, Bhayatupa was forced to lie motionless on the rooftop of Uccheda, the midafternoon heat as intense as a forest fire. Now his only choice was to behave. The slightest transgression would doom him to unimaginable pain. Truly the great dragon was the sorcerer’s slave.

As dusk approached, Invictus appeared from a hidden portal, looking uncharacteristically distraught. Even his shoulder-length blond hair, usually perfectly combed, was disheveled.

"Come, dragon! We must fly to Nissaya—immediately.”

"As you order, my liege,” Bhayatupa said. "But didn’t you say that you would not intervene?”

Bhayatupa feared the sorcerer might lash out at him for even posing the question, but Invictus appeared too preoccupied to react with anger.

"I’ve seen something that disturbs me. Something... unexpectedly powerful.”

"Your word is my command,” Bhayatupa said, lowering his long, massive neck and inviting Invictus to mount.

"Yes, it is.”

The great dragon soared to the upper heights, where the prevailing winds were blowing conveniently to the southwest, in the direction of the fortress. Even so, it would be close to midnight before they reached Nissaya. Now the quarter moon, ablaze in the starlit firmament, dominated the western sky.

Bhayatupa ventured another question, tossing his words into the wind. "If I may ask without offending you, what is it that you have seen?”

For a disturbingly long time Invictus did not answer. Bhayatupa braced himself, expecting the sorcerer to press his thighs against the chain around his neck, adding a terrible jolt of agony to the steady pain he already endured.

But rather than become angry, Invictus finally responded in a bemused tone. "The king of Nissaya is not quite as pathetic—or stupid—as I had deemed him. Henepola was able to conceal something from me... a weapon, of sorts.”

Now it was Bhayatupa’s turn to be bemused. "Surely no weapon exists that could harm you, my liege.”

Invictus chuckled. But his skittish mirth contained a hint of fear. "Maybe ‘weapon’ isn’t the right word.”

"And the king plans to use this thing against Mala in some fashion?”

"The king?” Invictus said. "No, no. If it were just Henepola bearing this thing, I would have remained in Uccheda and watched the proceedings with amusement. Nay, it is not the king... but rather a snow giant. Did you not see him when we flew over the fortress?”

"My mind was on other things,” Bhayatupa said, cringing as he recalled the pain Invictus had forced upon him—and remembering also the sight of the despicable Chain Man, which always made the dragon angry.

The sorcerer shook his head and seemed to regain the better part of his confidence. "It’s not a problem that can’t be solved. But just to be cautious, I want to be there—out of sight, of course. When we arrive, you will circle the fortress from high above, where even the Tugars can’t see you.”

"Bhavissaama anuvattatum (Thy will shall be done),” Bhayatupa said.

"Indeed.”

They flew for more than a bell without further discussion, but as the quarter moon plunged beneath the western horizon and the fortress grew near, it was Invictus who broke the silence. "Do you believe that fate plays a role in our lives?”

Bhayatupa puzzled over this before saying, "Until I met you, it never seemed so. I had always been able to direct my own destiny, in whatever manner I chose. But now I’m not as certain. Why do you ask, my liege?”

Invictus sighed and pointed toward the stars. "Sometimes, it feels as if there are beings out there that are—how should I put it?—scheming behind my back. Perhaps when our task here is finished and we return to Uccheda, I will have you tell me what you know of Vedana’s plan, after all. If you do so, without resistance, I will reward you.”

"Reward me first, and then we shall see.”

"Ha!” Then, "Maybe... but only if you behave until then.”

"I’ll be as obedient as a whipped dog.”

"Yes, you will.”

WHEN THEY FINALLY arrived at Nissaya, Invictus watched the proceedings unfold far below. It wasn’t so much what he saw as what he felt that disturbed him. Just as Torg had a psychic connection with the Tugars, Invictus had one with Mala—and he could sense that his pet was faltering.

Of all the rage Invictus had ever experienced, none compared to what he felt now. If the Maōi wielded by this new snow giant had the power to defeat Mala, might it not also threaten even him? Barely realizing it, Invictus’s body began to glow so brightly that the entire sky became filled with yellow light.

Bhayatupa howled and reared, but not before Invictus unleashed a beam of magical energy as torrential as the vomit of a star. The great dragon, no match for such a godlike expenditure of power, was pummeled backward; and the two of them tumbled across the sky and then fell for a long, long way before smiting the base of a mountain many miles north of the fortress. Afterward, both lay still.

2

HEEDLESS OF THE quicklime dust that poisoned the air, a company of monsters tore through the portcullises, boulders, and debris that clogged the entrance of Hakam, the largest of the three bulwarks that guarded the fortress named Nissaya. But it was taking longer than Mala expected. Some of the stones were too heavy even for the Kojins and trolls to lift. And the iron gratings in the interior of the gate were crafted in such a way that not even the three-headed giant could break them. Again and again, Mala was forced to blast the most difficult obstacles with golden beams from the tines of his magical trident.

The thick iron gratings, never before assailed, put up an admirable fight. But eventually they grew red hot, liquefied, and sank into the ground. The most troublesome boulders also succumbed, splattering like clods of dirt. Even then it took from midafternoon until well into the evening to clear a sizable opening through the gate’s long tunnel. When only about twenty cubits of debris stood between Mala and his enemies, Mala impatiently unleashed a continuous stream of power that seemed to shake the very bedrock of the fortress. Finally, the rubble could no longer tolerate the abuse, and it blew apart.

With the ruthlessness of a conqueror, Mala entered Nissaya. Behind him came the snarling newborns, angry and oh, so hungry.

At first the smoke and dust obscured Mala’s view, but soon it became evident that a sizable force of Nissayans had been strategically arranged in a courtyard that lay beyond the gate of Hakam. Thousands of torches were raised in challenge. Polished blades glimmered in the moonlight. Much to his dismay, Mala sensed little fear.

The defenders immediately loosed a locust-swarm of arrows, dozens of which struck him. Even without his magic to protect him, the arrows would have done Mala little harm, but the essence of the ring Invictus had named Carūūl formed a magical sheath over Mala’s flesh that was impregnable to ordinary weapons. The newborns also remained unharmed, their metallic flesh far tougher than the finest armor.

The arrows signaled the beginning of a ferocious battle. Mala stomped forward, prepared to crush anything in his path. In no way would he be a passive commander, cowering behind his troops while they did the dirty work. What pleasure would there be in that? Murder and mayhem were Mala’s favorite pastimes, and he would take on any and all challengers, including the Death-Knower, if he dared to show his annoying face. With the addition of the trident and the ring, Mala had grown beyond all but Invictus. None among this pathetic rabble could stand against him.

Unexpectedly, a milky illumination formed before his eyes, so bright it was blinding. Then a proud voice rose above the rising tumult.

"Yama-Deva! To slay the others, you must destroy me first.”

Once again the unease he had experienced when he had first heard the sounding of the horn reared its ugly head. How dare this fool attempt to thwart the glory of his coming?

"Who are you?” Mala screamed.

"I am the end of all things... and the beginning.”

Then the mysterious snow giant approached him, arms spread wide.

AS UTU STRODE toward his brother, the chaos that surrounded him came to an abrupt halt. All eyes focused on him and the Chain Man. Even the maddened newborns, driven by Mala’s will, temporarily lost their desire to rend and devour. Until Utu’s encounter with Deva was over—whether in victory or defeat—it appeared there might be no other fighting.

Commander Palak, among others, had been concerned that Mala might flee, but Utu knew this would not be the case. Whatever else he had become, the Chain Man was no craven. He would fight at the front of his army, not tremble at its rear. And indeed, Mala more than held his ground, mocking Utu as he approached.

"I am the end of all things... and the beginning,” the Chain Man said in a high-pitched voice. "Oooooooh! You’re so... deep!” Then he gestured toward Torg and Kusala, who flanked the snow giant. "Do you think these fools can protect you from me?”

Utu came even nearer, finally stopping a single stride from his ruined brother. The pair stood eye to eye, and for the first time since they had last spoken in Okkanti, decades ago, Mala got a close-up view of Utu’s face. Momentarily, the mocking tone was replaced by puzzlement. "Wait, I know you...”

"You know me as Yama-Utu. And you are Yama-Deva, whom I love more dearly than any other save Bhari, my wife.”

As always, Mala became enraged by the mention of his former name. The Chain Man’s grip tightened on the shaft of the trident, and Vikubbati’s tines responded to their master, glowing so hot that smoke slithered off their tips. The ring on the middle finger of his left hand also glimmered, casting multicolored light, and the chain around his torso caused his tortured flesh to sizzle.

Utu absorbed this with the keen sight of hyper-awareness: all senses blended into one. He could see blood coursing through the veins that riddled Mala’s eyeballs, hear his tortured breath rushing in and out of wide nostrils, smell his gray hide sizzling beneath the molten metal. The beating of his brother’s heart—always so much faster than his own—was as audible as spoken words.

"How many times do I have to tell you pathetic morons not to call me by that name?” Mala shouted. "How many skulls do I have to bash before you finally learn your lesson?”

Utu’s response proved disconcerting. "Brother, may I take you in my arms? It would be well for you to receive me without resistance.”

Mala took a step back, an extreme rarity for one with such a monumental ego. Then debauchery got the best of him. "I’m not that type, old fool! But I’m sure the Death-Knower would be interested.”

A Kojin who stood nearby let out a squeal that resembled a cackle, but Utu was not dismayed. "I desire to hold you, as one brother holds another.”

"I’m nobody’s brother, old fool.”

"You once were... and can be again. Deva, listen to me! A part of you still exists. I can see you behind the mask. Do not fear. Cast aside your chain and come forward, into the light. For your own sake, allow me to take you in my arms—and heal you.”

AT THESE WORDS, Mala began to feel woozy. The chain that had tormented him for so many years seemed to cool, and a disturbingly pleasant dizziness entered his awareness. He staggered, not from pain but from lack of it.

"Utu?” he said, but the voice was not his own. Rather, it came from a shadowy corner of his mind. "Is that you?”

Now there was no doubt: the chain had cooled considerably, and it didn’t feel quite so tightly wrapped around his torso and thighs.

"Yes, Deva... it’s me. Come forward. Allow me to take you in my arms. If you do, everything will be as it once was, I promise you.”

"Utu? Utu? I should never have left the mountaintops. Where am I now? What have I done? Tell them... tell them I’m sorry.”

"For what you were made to do, you mean? Tell them yourself.”

Harīti, sensing that her master was weakening, let out an angry shriek and pounded toward Utu, her six arms outstretched. A black blur, wielding an icy blade, struck her down. This tore the other monsters and newborns from their reverie, and they rushed forward. But more black-clad warriors encircled Utu, forming a formidable barrier. The snow giant wrapped his arms around Mala and pressed his bare torso against the cooling chain. Where his right hand touched the chain there was a flare of light, and then the links went cold. Again the hidden presence seized control of Mala’s mouth.

"Utu,” it shouted. "Save me, before it’s too late. I begyou... save me!”

UTU RECOGNIZED Yama-Deva’s voice, though he had never before heard his brother plead. Much to Utu’s pleasure, he no longer doubted that Deva could be healed. The chain already was defeated, and the ring and trident seemed not to recognize the pure Maōi as a threat. If Torg and the Tugars could buy him more time... if Utu could hold his brother for a while longer... then the blessed purity of the ring would absorb the evil like a limitless sponge.

"I will save you, Deva,” Utu crooned. "Cling to me, and all will be well.”

"Utu... where am I? Tell them I’m sorry. Tell Bhari... tell Gambhira... tell Sampakk... tell them all!”

"There is no need for me to tell them, Deva. Youwill tell them. When this is over, we will return to Okkanti together.”

When Mala sagged in his arms, Utu’s confidence grew. Though a wild and terrible battle had begun to rage all around him, Utu had never felt more at peace.

The trident fell from his brother’s right hand, rattling on the black stone at their feet. The ring on Deva’s left middle finger went dim. Utu could sense—no, feel—the horrific magic of Invictus being drained from his brother’s tortured body. It was going to work. Yama-Deva would be healed.

But then the night sky suddenly became like day, and from the firmament leapt a dense beam of golden power as thick as the trunk of an ancient tree. With supernatural intensity, it struck Utu on the top of his head, causing him to cry out.

Deva fell back. All others were cast violently aside.

WHEN THE BEAM of magic blasted upon the fortress, Mala fell onto his back, his thick skull thudding on the stone floor. He lay there confused, while the strange voice continued to come out of his mouth: "Help me! Save me!” But a portion of the golden energy that fell from the sky surged into his chain and superheated its links to levels of agony beyond any that had come before. The madness returned. And when Mala regained his feet, Yama-Deva had been chased back into hiding. Mala knelt and grasped Vikubbati in his right hand. Carūūl glowed on his left. Once again, he was complete.

The disturbing creature who had claimed to be his brother lay crumpled in the base of a deep depression blown into the stone by the power of the magical discharge. Eerie wisps of smoke oozed from Utu’s scorched hide, and he shivered and moaned. But his sounds and movements were barely perceptible. The ring that had clung to Utu’s right middle finger had been cast off his hand—and it now rested a few cubits away, still glowing and thrumming like a thing alive.

Mala understood he had been given a second chance to retain his identity. Invictus had reached down from above and rescued him from peril. His survival depended entirely on what he did next. Nothing within the fortress—save the ring at his feet—could stand against him.

If he could destroy it, Nissaya would fall.

Invictus would be so proud.

Mala strode over to Utu’s ring, aimed the trident just to its left, and willed a beam of golden energy to burst from each tine, striking and then punching into the solid bedrock. The repercussion shook Mala’s huge arms, but he held firm. Carūūl joined its strength to the trident, increasing the intensity of the trio of bolts. Deep they bore into the bedrock, a dozen cubits, then a hundred, before Mala finally released the flow of power.

"Hmmm... which hole should I bury it in?” he mused, as the battle raged around him.

A Tugar charged and was swatted aside.

An arrow bounced off Mala’s forehead, denting its iron head and shattering its shaft.

Mala heard a familiar voice, The Torgon’s, screaming, "No. No!” And Utu saying, "Deva... I’m dying. Goodbye.”

"How many times do I have to say it?” Mala said. "My name is not Deva.” Then he used the tail of the trident to nudge the Maōi into the middle of the three holes.

The maw was just wide enough to swallow the ring.

Which fell and fell.

Beyond mortal reach.

"I’m not Deva,” Mala repeated. "I’m not Deva!”

3

THOUGH MONSTERS attacked from all angles, Torg and the Asēkhas were thus far holding them back. Torg already had slain the largest Kojin he had ever seen, as well as a cave troll and half a dozen newborns. Despite this frenzy of activity, Torg sensed the pure Maōi draining Mala’s power, as if the infernal heat of a star was being absorbed by the blessed emptiness of eternity.

When the night sky turned bright as day, hope was again extinguished. An impossibly powerful blast knocked Torg off his feet. Only his warrior instincts enabled him to retain his grip on Obhasa and the Silver Sword. Fending off dizziness, Torg managed to stand and lean on his ivory staff for support. Meanwhile, the fighting continued all around him, Tugars and black knights against snarling newborns and a myriad of monsters.

From the tumult of clashing bodies, a dark shape emerged, small but formidable. Torg attempted to step past it, desperate to reach Utu. But the figure blocked his way.

BUNJAKO THE Stone-Eater had worried that Mala might fail. Whatever the other snow giant was doing seemed to be sucking the life out of the Chain Man—and perhaps with it, the will of his army. Like most of the others, Bunjako was a transfixed spectator.

The bolt from above changed everything. Bunjako was far enough away from the impact to keep his feet, but he saw the snow giant collapse beneath the force of the blast—and more importantly, the damnable Death-Knower cast brutally aside. Sensing an opportunity that might never come again, Bunjako fought through the tumult until he came face to face with the wizard.

"Do you know me, Torgon... ?” Bunjako said, still holding a glowing chunk of the magically imbued obsidian. Then he swallowed the black stone, arched his back, and prepared to destroy the enemy he had grown to hate so much, the one who had murdered both his father, Gulah, and grandfather, Slag. The golden belt around his waist expanded, and his head sprang forward. But just before the obsidian vomited from his mouth, something long and sharp punched cruelly into his side, misdirecting his aim.

KUSALA RUSHED TO protect Torg. More by luck than design, the Asēkha chieftain stumbled into the Stone-Eater. Without hesitation, he punched the point of his uttara between the creature’s foul ribs and twisted the blade before wrenching it out. The obsidian burst from the monster’s mouth, launched into the sky, and soared toward the interior of the city. Whatever damage it caused was beyond Kusala’s range of vision, but the Stone-Eater, at least, would cause no further harm to anyone. He was already dead at Kusala’s feet, his carcass smoking.

"To Utu! To Utu!” Kusala heard Torg shouting, not just to him but to any Tugar within range. Then his king fought past him and disappeared into the slashing madness of the vicious battle.

KUSALA HAD REMOVED the threat of the Stone-Eater, and for this Torg was thankful, but now the courtyard was flooded with all manner of creatures from both armies—and Torg had barely room to move. The newborns fought with a ferocity born of hatred, pain, and starvation. If not for the Tugars, it would have quickly deteriorated into a rout. Using his sword and staff, Torg bashed, stabbed, and shoved his way through the throngs. Suddenly he burst into a clearing where even the monsters dared not enter. There he saw Mala just as he was nudging Utu’s ring into a hole in the stone.

With a rage he hadn’t felt since destroying the great spider Dukkhatu, Torg unleashed a flare of power from the head of Obhasa that surpassed all others he had ever conjured, striking Mala in the face.

The Chain Man collapsed.

But before Torg could approach any nearer to finish Mala off, a pair of Kojins came to their master’s aid, screeching in their peculiar fashion. Protectively, they huddled over him and were joined by more than a dozen cave trolls. Torg started forward, intent on killing them all, if possible, but a female Asēkha suddenly leapt in front of him.

"My lord, King Henepola is in danger!” Churikā screamed. "Only you can save him.”

Torg hesitated, torn between his desire to kill one being and his desire to save another, but then he left Mala behind and followed Churikā even deeper into the chaos of battle.

4

WHEN THE SKY lit up, Henepola’s first thought was that God had chosen that moment to arise from his sleep and vanquish the forces of evil. But when he saw Utu collapse, the king of Nissaya realized that a god other than his own had intervened. Then the newborns came in droves, and Henepola was driven away from the broken gate of Hakam.

The king waved his staff of Maōi back and forth, showering the attackers with milky globs of energy. Even the newborns could not withstand him. But his black knights were no match for the golden creatures, and they were being slaughtered by the hundreds, then stripped of their armor and cruelly devoured.

"Father, they are too strong and too many,” he heard Madiraa shout. "And they desecrate our people.”

"Stay near me!” was all he could think to say.

"I am with you, as well,” Indajaala said. "As are most of the conjurers and several Asēkhas, but Utu has fallen, and Torg has been swept away.”

Slowly they were forced backward toward the main causeway that led from the courtyard into the front portion of the congested city. Henepola witnessed a black knight slay a vampire and then realized it was Palak who had performed the deed. One of his conjurers struck down a ghoul before a troll trampled him. A horrific creature with the body of a spider but the head of a man leapt at one of the Asēkhas but was vanquished with a blur of strokes and left wiggling on its back without the use of its eight gnarled legs—though its head continued to emit a sickeningly humanlike wail.

Then Henepola noticed that several hundred Tugars were backing toward him, engaged in battle with an enormous shape that emerged from the darkness like a walking mountain. There was just enough starlight and torchlight to reveal the remaining three-headed giant stomping toward him, casting aside all in its path with titanic sweeps of its hammer. Even the desert warriors were no match for its ferocity.

Henepola sighed. "You are right, my daughter,” he thought, "they are too strong and too many.” Nonetheless, the conjurer king strode forward to meet the monster, his long white hair flowing beneath his black helm.

"Father... no!” he heard Madiraa shout. But Henepola paid her no heed, watching as the giant swung the hammer downward. Henepola leapt aside just in time to avoid the crushing blow. The great iron head smashed the stone near his feet, casting shards of granite. Now on his knees, Henepola aimed his staff and unleashed a terrific blast of milky fire, striking the creature in the chest with enough force to stagger it.

While Henepola was preoccupied, a dracool swept down from the sky and tried to ambush him, but an unseen bead from a Tugar sling dropped the baby dragon a few paces from where Henepola knelt. The dracool, far heavier than a man, rolled when it fell and knocked Henepola onto his side. From this position, Henepola unleashed a second blast to the giant’s chest, but it had less effect than the first. The titan swung the hammer again, splattering the stone less than a pace from where he lay. Then it raised the tree-sized weapon above its head in preparation for a third blow.

However, before the giant could attack again, its middle head tilted oddly and then tumbled off its shoulders to the ground. The outside heads wailed in agony before meeting similar fates, one after the other. The giant’s enormous knees gave way, and the body followed, sagging with surreal gentleness before collapsing onto its chest. From amid the ruin of the gigantic carcass came The Torgon, flicking blood off the blade of the Silver Sword.

Henepola stood and heard cheering all around.

FENDING OFF NEWBORNS and other monsters, Kusala fought his way back to Henepola just in time to see Torg scramble up the giant’s back and wreak havoc with the Silver Sword. Kusala cheered along with the rest, but then his eyes opened wide, and he shouted words of warning to Henepola that the cacophony of battle drowned out. Unseen by all but a few, a Kojin charged from the darkness and grabbed the king from behind, squeezing with crushing force. The Maōi staff tumbled from Henepola’s grasp and clattered onto the stone floor, casting angry sparks from its head. From his chest to his knees, the king’s armor crinkled like tin.

Madiraa cried out, "Father!”

Shrieking in triumph, the Kojin released Henepola from her grasp. The king landed on his sollerets, sagged to his knees, and collapsed onto his chest in the same almost gentle manner as the giant had so recently fallen.

Kusala reached the Kojin first, lashing at the ogress’s heavily muscled thigh. The magical sheath withstood the blow, but his assault bought the time needed for Torg to close the gap. The wizard leapt in the air, spun, and took off the Kojin’s head. Purple flames spewed in all directions.

Torg’s heroics came too late. Henepola was mortally wounded, blood oozing from his mouth, nostrils, and ears. But his eyes continued to glow defiantly. For a few moments the nearby fighting halted, as it had when Utu and Mala had come together. Sobbing, Madiraa knelt and took her father’s head in her arms, but the king seemed more intent on Kusala, gesturing for him to come closer. Kusala dropped to his hands and knees and pressed his ear against the king’s bloodied mouth.

"Take her... to the keep,” Henepola said. "Don’t let her die... like this.”

Though Indajaala stood nearby, Madiraa was the only other close enough to hear. "Father... I won’t run. Not now.”

Henepola continued to focus on Kusala. "Take her to the keep. Please... I love her so much.” Finally he turned to Madiraa. "I love you so much.”

Then the glow left the king’s eyes, and life passed from his body. Madiraa continued to sob, cradling her father much as she had on the balcony of the great keep named Nagara. The snow giant Utu had healed Henepola then, but now there was no hope of a miracle cure. The king of Nissaya was no longer.

Torg leaned down. "There is nothing to be done for him. Even if Utu were here, healing would not be possible. You must honor his final request and retreat to the keep.”

"I will not!” the princess said.

"Madiraa, you must honor his request,” Kusala agreed. "Besides, the keep is far from this place. There’ll be plenty of fighting to be done between here and Nagara.”

This made Madiraa smile, but her expression was filled with madness. Then she stood and raised her sword high above her head. "Squires of the king, heed my call! Bear my father’s body and his staff to Nagara and burn them with honor upon the pyre prepared for this occasion. Thus will King Henepola X avoid desecration.”

Even as she spoke, the fighting grew heavy all around them, and the air became filled with snarls, screams, and the clanging sounds of longswords careening off the newborns’ magical armor. An escort of black knights and Tugars bore Henepola away. Kusala looked to Torg for orders, but once again the wizard stunned him with his commands.

"Henepola knew the truth,” Torg said. "The fortress is lost. Not even the Tugars can prevent a slaughter. Call my warriors to your side and lead them and the princess to the keep. Escape through the catacombs and then march as quickly as you can to Jivita. I will meet you there.”

"Lord, will you not fight alongside us?”

"I must go to Utu,” Torg said. "He might still live—and if not, I will see to it that his body is not desecrated. If possible, I will return to you. But do not wait for me. Once you are inside Nagara, seal its doors and flee. Before all is said and done, you and I will meet again.”

The wizard sprinted toward the entrance of Hakam. For a moment, Kusala stood motionless, watching his king disappear into a throng of hideous monsters. But then Churikā was yanking on the sleeve of his jacket.

"Chieftain, our position is difficult to defend. We must make for the keep. It’s now or never!”

Kusala nodded. But before he started forward, he looked toward the sky and let out a high-pitched shriek that was audible only to his own people. The chieftain had called the Tugars, and they would come without question, though anything that blocked their path along the way would be fair game.

Their company started toward the keep, which loomed in the heart of Nissaya like a symbol of escape. It was a long and winding march from where they stood, and the streets were flooded with thousands of the enemy. Kusala shuddered to think what horrors already were occurring inside the city. But, as Torg had said, there was little he or the Tugars could do about it now. When Utu failed to destroy Mala, their hopes of avoiding a slaughter had ended.

Kusala, Madiraa, and Indajaala led the way. Two dozen conjurers, seventeen Asēkhas, several thousand Tugars, and at least fifty score black knights joined them. Overall, the monsters were far greater in strength and number, but the concentrated force surrounding Kusala and the princess was too dense to penetrate. They flew into the city like a spear, gliding through the streets and casting aside anything that stood in their path.

The monsters were vicious and ravenous, but also disorganized, especially with Mala nowhere to be seen. To anyone not familiar with its layout, Nissaya appeared to be a titanic labyrinth of narrow streets, courtyards, and blind alleys. Though the newborns and other monsters numbered more than five thousand score, there remained a lot of territory to be covered and countless places to hide. In terms of nooks and crannies, Nissaya resembled the world’s largest termite mound.

Kusala felt as if he were in the feverish throes of a nightmare. The darkness swarmed with myriad sounds, which all told were as loud as an army of humming druids. Though he stayed within a pace of Madiraa, he could barely hear anything she said, even when she shouted orders. Flashes of magic filled the smoky air, lighting the sky like fireworks. The conjurers of Nissaya fought bravely alongside the black knights and Tugars, unleashing gouts of milky flame from their staffs of Maōi. But beings of superior magic pursued them, including the Warlish witches, Stone-Eaters, and remaining Kojins.

To make matters worse, Kusala sensed rather than saw an even greater menace closing in from behind. Mala had joined the chase. Kusala urged Madiraa to quicken their pace. If the Chain Man overcame them before they reached Nagara, they would be doomed.

A cave troll that stood at least seven cubits tall thundered within an arm’s length of Madiraa and punched at her with a boulder-sized fist. But the blow never met its mark. Instead, the hand separated from the wrist and thumped onto the pebbled causeway. The troll’s resultant howl halted abruptly when its head leapt into the air. Kusala saw Podhana flick kohl-colored blood off his blade before plunging back into the horde.

Suddenly, the causeway narrowed, creating a funneling effect that slowed their retreat. They were sandwiched by tall black buildings, some hollowed from natural stone spires but most made of stone blocks sheathed with ashlars. Nissayan archers leaned from many of the windows, and Kusala marveled at their courage. Rather than flee to the deepest recesses of the fortress, they chose to fight. Kusala saluted them.

They moved so quickly and in such a restricted area, the slowest and weakest began to stumble and fall, and those who did were trampled. It grew even worse when refugees joined the evacuation. More than once, Kusala heard things squish and crunch beneath his boots, yet he could not have stopped had he tried with all his strength. He felt as if he were trapped in the currents of an angry river, the buildings resembling towering cliffs and the streets channels and sluices.

Though he knew Nissaya well, Kusala began to feel disoriented. Nothing looked as he remembered, and he realized that he was lost, trusting whoever led them. Suddenly, a shower of golden fire swept over their heads, and from it fell tiny gold beads, each as deadly as a spoonful of molten stone. The beads seared through helm and skull alike. One landed on top of Kusala’s head, and though it did no serious harm to his Tugarian flesh, it was quite painful. This was Mala’s work.

How close was the Chain Man? Kusala shuddered at the thought.

Vampires and ghouls crawled along the walls above them, their sticky hands and feet clinging to the ashlars with dreadful surety. Even though the Tugars were in full flight, they were able to kill some of the monsters with their slings, and any who dared pounce onto a potential victim were quickly dispatched. But their eerie presence added to the hysteria of the retreat.

Madiraa ran beside him, her closed helm obscuring the expression on her face. More than once she veered aside to hack at a pursuer, screaming as she attacked. A variety of blood types dripped off her blade, staining her hilt and gauntlet. But she never faltered.

"How far?” Kusala said to her, as loud as he could manage.

"We were forced to go the long way,” she shouted back, "but it is not far now. Once around this bend, Nagara will loom before us.”

"And what of Henepola?”

"Those who bear Father have somehow outdistanced us. At least that is my hope. If his body is not at the keep when we arrive, I will hunt for it.”

"Mala is on our heels,” Kusala said. "Once we enter the keep—and if your father is there—we will have to slam shut its doors, no matter who else remains outside.”

"I will give the order—if Father is inside.”

"Agreed.”

As Madiraa predicted, once they rounded the bend, Nagara was easily visible. In this area there was an abundance of torchlight, and Kusala could see that the courtyards surrounding the keep were filled with swarms of bodies, though whether friend or foe he could not easily discern. Another shower of golden lava fell upon them, and hundreds more collapsed. Madiraa’s helm was struck, but Kusala yanked it off her head and heaved it away before the bead could burn into her skull. Now her waist-length hair hung freely, and her beautiful face was exposed.

"I think I saw him,” she shouted.

"Princess?”

"I think I saw Father’s body being carried into the keep.”

"Let’s hurry, then. Any who attempt to thwart our coming will do so at their peril.”

"What of the Tugars who are left behind?” Madiraa screamed.

"Before the doors are closed, I will give the command for them to flee by whatever means possible. I fear far less for them than for the remainder of your people and the innocents they protect.”

"Ghosts will haunt this place for time immemorial,” she said, her eyes desperate. "Will Father still be their king?”

5

MAYNARD TEW could tell that things weren’t going well. When the fireball fell into the city not far from where he had been trussed up, the captured pirate knew that the fortress was in trouble. Not even a Stone-Eater could shoot one of those nasty things that far, which meant that Mala and his monsters were past the walls and inside the city. Now all hell would break loose. Having only recently been on Mala’s side, Tew realized that he should be all gay and happy about it, but he wasn’t. In a very short time, he had grown to respect his captors.

"If you untie me, I will help you fight them,” Tew said to the woman who had been assigned to guard him. Though she bore an ugly cut above her right ear, she was a real beauty, one of those rich Senasanan countesses with the kind of breeding that produced soft skin and firm breasts. And Tew could tell she had taken a liking to him. After all, he was a good-looker himself.

"And explain to me again why should I believe you?” she said, waving a Nissayan dagger.

"Because I really am a nice guy?” he said in a hopeful tone.

To his surprise, she spat in his face. Up until then, she had been kind of cozy with him, but now it was obvious she was getting scared. And so was he, if forced to be honest. It’s not like the monsters would pat him on the back. It was far more likely they’d gobble him up as fast as any of the so-called enemy.

Because his hands had been tied, he couldn’t wipe the spit from his face, but he didn’t care. Instead, he licked some of it with his tongue, and it tasted damn good. Despite the fact that he probably was going to die real soon, he couldn’t help but think how nice it would be to slide his tongue between her sweet lips and taste some more of it.

Even as he was thinking these things, one of the scary knights came running up, his black armor clanking.

"Hakam is breached,” the knight said to the countess in a panic. "Your protection is no longer guaranteed. You must fight for your lives... or hide wherever you can.”

Shouts and screams followed, and suddenly the courtyard became as empty as a bar that had run out of ale. Only the Senasanan woman remained, and she stared hard into his eyes.

"I’m not asking you to fight for us,” she said. "But if I let you go, will you promise not to harm any of us?”

"I will fight for you,” he said, meaning it.

"Why?”

" ’Cause you guys are nice...”

With the dagger, she cut the ropes.

"Pretty lady, you won’t regret this,” Tew said, meaning it again.

"Call me Dhītar.”

Then the two of them raced into the densest part of the city in search of a place of safety. Instead, they barreled into a swarm of newborns pouring toward them like a river overflowing its banks. In one of the few acts of selfless bravery in his sordid life, Tew stepped in front of Dhītar to shield her from the monsters. To his surprise, the newborns swept around him. Somehow they still recognized him as a member of Mala’s army, which was fine with him.

For a moment, the two of them were again alone on the street, though more monsters were coming toward them from afar.

"This way!” she screamed in a voice that sounded as surprised as he felt. "We have to get to the keep. I’ve heard the black knights say that there are tunnels beneath Nagara that lead to the mountains. It’s our only chance.”

"Any hope is better than none,” he shouted back. "Lead the way.”

When they got to the courtyards that surrounded Nagara, the newborns and other monsters were everywhere. To their left, Tugars and black knights were fighting their way toward the keep, but it was an uphill battle. Tew and the countess joined them, but now it was Dhītar who was protecting Tew from getting killed and not the other way around. They ran and stumbled to the point of exhaustion, and then they were staggering through a wide entrance into a magnificent hall. To his amazement, Tew was the last one to make it inside before a great wooden door was slammed shut, followed by a portcullis and then a boulder rolled and chained into place.

The banquet hall was filled with all kinds of nasty-looking Tugars and black knights, each of them gasping frantically and looking mad as wet hornets. Tew wasn’t sure what scared him more: these guys or Mala.

"Will you protect me if they think I’m still a bad guy and try to kill me?” Tew said in a trembling voice.

"Only if you continue to behave,” Dhītar responded.

"There’s no worries about that, pretty lady,” Tew promised. And again he meant it. He really did.

6

NOT EVEN TORG’S magic was a match for Mala now. The trident and ring bloated the Chain Man with too much power. Still, the wizard’s attack had knocked Mala down, and he needed a little help from the Kojins to stand back up. Though his face was stinging and he felt a little dizzy, Mala took back control of his senses with surprising ease.

After regaining his feet, he prepared himself for another assault from the Death-Knower. But then he noticed that the cowardly Death-Knower had vanished, so Mala paid both him and the fallen Utu no more heed. Instead, he stomped toward the interior of the city, his trident and ring aglow. The remaining Kojins and a contingent of trolls followed. Newborns by the thousands—as well as witches, ghouls, vampires, Mogols, and wolves—flanked his sides. They rushed onto the main causeway, striking the black knights and Tugars from behind. The chase was on.

Mala guessed where the enemy was headed—to the catacombs beneath Nissaya. The only other ways to escape were the inner stairways of Hakam, and as a precaution, Mala already had ordered a sizable force of Mogols and wolves to remain outside the fortress, patrolling the plains for any evacuees who might somehow slip through the broken gates or climb down the walls on rope ladders.

When Nagara finally came into view, Mala saw that many of the bastards already were escaping inside.

"Cut them off, you flea-ridden dogs,” he screamed. "I’ll skewer anyone who lets them reach the keep.”

But Mala could see that despite his best efforts, a few of the enemy would make it inside the great spire. In some regards this enraged him, but in other ways he didn’t really care. He could fight them here or at Jivita. Either way, he would win. Whoever survived the slaughter at Nissaya would flee to Jivita and there face doom on the Green Plains.

The doors at the base of Nagara slammed shut. The newborns huddled hungrily outside, some of them pounding against the ancient wood with their metallic fists. Mala came forward and stood before the nearest opening. He raised his trident and aimed the tines at one of the doors. The monsters around him grew quiet in anticipation of another enormous display of power, and Mala took pleasure in the spotlight. But then he sensed something that caused him to grunt and step back.

Far, far back.

"Huh?” he finally said.

Unexpectedly, the exterior of the keep began to glow, and for a moment it eerily resembled Uccheda. Then the black granite cracked and crackled and moaned before bursting asunder.

Nagara fell upon itself.

7

AFTER KILLING THE three-headed giant and the Kojin, Torg struggled back toward the broken gate of Hakam, where he found himself alone in a sea of monsters. All other defenders of the fortress had been driven from the courtyard into the city. Had the enemy made a concentrated effort to slay him, Torg would have fallen. But most of them seemed more concerned with the prey that fled before them, which allowed Torg to slip by without too much confrontation. Still, he had not advanced this far without considerable fighting. In a short distance he had slain several dozen newborns, a Warlish witch and her hags, a Stone-Eater, a demon incarnated as a constricting snake, and a nasty pair of wild men who had fought with surprising ferocity despite their small stature.

Like a tidal wave rolling over an island, the monsters swept past Torg and left him behind. Now he was alone just a stone’s throw from the gate of Hakam, except for a dozen or so newborns that surrounded Utu, waiting like vultures for him to die. In a frenetic rage Torg dispatched the ones that didn’t flee. A contingent of Mogols and wolves left to guard the broken gate witnessed his wrath and scattered; they were not his match and knew it.

Soon after, Torg found the snow giant lying within the deep depression. Setting Obhasa aside and sliding the Silver Sword into the scabbard on his back, Torg knelt next to Utu and lifted his huge head in his lap. The top of Utu’s skull was cracked open, revealing an inflamed portion of brain tissue. Blood oozed from his mouth, nose, ears, and even the corners of his closed eyes. Both of his enormous fangs had been blown apart, and his gray hide was charred and shriveled.

"Utu, can you hear me?”

The snow giant did not respond, but Torg could sense that he still lived. Then the large eyelids slowly opened, revealing a pale glow visible in the shadows beside the towering bulwark. "Is Mala destroyed?” Utu whispered.

Torg’s eyes filled with tears. "You were so close.”

"What... happened?”

"Invictus somehow intervened.”

"Aaaah... and the ring?”

The three holes that Mala’s trident had bored into the bedrock were barely visible from where Torg sat. From the middle one came a milky smoke, subtle but apparent.

"It is lost to us. I’m sorry.”

Utu’s face sagged. He closed his eyes and coughed up more blood. When he opened his eyes again, the glow was almost gone. "What... can be done?” the snow giant murmured. "Even if you defeat Mala, the sorcerer is too strong... for you or anyone.”

"All we can do is fight.”

Utu coughed again. Torg knew the snow giant had little time left. But Utu managed a few more words, and strangely his voice was steadier than before. "If you ever see Bhari again, will you tell her that I love her? More than Yama-Deva. More than anyone. Or anything.”

"If I ever see her again, I will tell her.”

The snow giant smiled, revealing teeth that Invictus’s power had shattered. "I’m worried for you, Torgon. My time is past... but great suffering awaits you.”

"Is that not so for all living beings?”

Utu smiled again. Then he enveloped one of Torg’s biceps with a massive hand and squeezed. "Torgon... I have seen the truth, and it is neither comforting nor frightening. It is simply... the truth.”

Then the glow left his eyes and he was no longer, his great karma already hurtling toward its next existence. Silently, Torg sat alone with Utu’s body for a few moments. Not far away, a slaughter of epic proportions was taking place. Obhasa glowed and thrummed, as if anxious to rejoin the fight, but the Silver Sword was cold as ice on his back.

Torg sensed Jord’s approach before seeing her. The white-haired woman stared at him with sad eyes.

"What can be done?” Torg said to her, mimicking Utu.

"As you say, you must continue to fight.”

"But why? Invictus cannot be defeated.”

"The sorcerer will fall,” Jord said. "But not here, not now.”

Torg gestured toward the city. "Hundreds of thousands must perish so that one can be defeated?”

"Life cannot exist without death.”

"You sound like Sister Tathagata. Since you seem to know so much, tell me how she fares?”

"The High Nun is no longer, but before her death she achieved Abhisambodhi (high enlightenment). She will never again be reborn. Jaati pariyaadinnaa (Birth is exhausted). She suffered terribly before she died; I cannot deny it. But in the end, her suffering paved the way. You should rejoice for your friend.”

"Rejoice? I don’t even believe you. And why do you say she suffered so?”

"Now is not the time to explain.”

"Peta told you this? About the enlightenment?”

"Yes.”

Torg turned away from her and gently laid Utu’s head on the stone and stood. "His body must not be desecrated.”

"His karma cares naught.”

"Still...” Torg used Obhasa to incinerate Utu’s remains. Without the intensity of life energy flowing through its sinews, the massive carcass burned like fatwood. Torg bowed his head and said a quick chant. "Tumhe marittha bahuumaanena ca vikkamena. N’atthi uttara pasamsaa. (You died with honor and bravery. There is no higher praise.)”

"N’atthi uttara pasamsaa,” Jord repeated.

Torg turned and started back toward the city.

"Where are you going?” the Faerie said.

Torg’s voice sounded harsh, even to himself. "To snap at the heels of my enemy.”

"There is nothing left here for you to accomplish,” said a female voice, but it did not belong to Jord. Peta had joined them, and her eyes—though blind—also looked sad.

Torg was not surprised to see her. "I should flee... like a coward?”

"Your words are foolish,” the ghost-child said. "If remaining within Nissaya and continuing to fight would save those who are trapped within, I would not speak against it. But it will not. Besides, Kusala and Madiraa have reached Nagara, and soon its great doors will be closed. Even if Sakuna carried you to the base of the keep, you would not arrive in time to enter.”

"And what of the rest of the Tugars? I should abandon my own people?”

As if in response, Torg heard Kusala’s shriek, its order clear: flee the fortress by whatever means possible.

Torg pounded the tail of Obhasa against the bedrock. "I could challenge Mala now. His death would mean much.”

Peta sighed. "Trust me, Father... please. For now, Mala is beyond you. He has too much power and protection. The time will come when the Chain Man will fall, but it will not be at Nissaya. As foreseen, Mala has won the fortress.” Then she approached and took his hand. "Father, go with Jord and rejoin Laylah. For Invictus to be defeated, this must occur.”

"What else must occur?” Torg said. "Tell me now... or to hell with your schemes.”

"Trust me, Father... please,” the ghost-child repeated. And then she faded into the darkness.

But Jord remained.

"Should I trust her?” Torg said to the Faerie. "Should I trust you?”

"A way has been found to defeat Invictus,” Jord said. "If you trust us, it can be done. If not, you must find your own way.”

Torg groaned. "Can you tell me, at least, what role I will play? And what will become of Laylah?”

But Jord was no longer there. Sakuna, the mountain eagle, stood in her place. Torg mounted her, and they departed the fortress. From high above, Torg could see the true scope of the disaster. Nissaya had become a slaughterhouse. Even Tugars were dying.

As Sakuna carried Torg away from the fortress, he felt like a deserter. Far below, he could see the newborns swarming through the streets like molten gold poured into a stone mold, and he knew what this meant to those trapped inside the concentric bulwarks. The enormity of the massacre was beyond his comprehension. Thousands of scores would be slain this night, and the majority of those would not be soldiers. Countless children and elderly would be among the victims. It was all Torg could do not to lose his mind.

But Peta had pointed out the obvious: if he had remained within Nissaya’s walls, it would have accomplished little. He might have postponed a few deaths, but in the end he would have been slain, along with the rest. This time, self-sacrifice would have been a meaningless gesture. Nonetheless, he could not stop from sobbing.

8

WHINER THE NEWBORN was a whiner no longer. Now he was a killing machine, as full of pain, anger, and hunger as a ruined Daasa. Already he had eaten far more than his own weight, filling his burning belly with juicy flesh and crunchy bones. Killing and devouring consumed his primal mind, serving the purpose of temporarily distracting his awareness from the pain that enveloped his body like fire. Anything that gave him relief was preferable to the incessant agony, even if these acts guaranteed damnation.

Prey was everywhere, skittering about in a cacophony of screaming, sobbing, and moaning. Some fought hard, others ran hard. But Whiner and his brothers were relentless in their pursuit, smashing down doors, charging up stairs, finding prey in the cleverest of hiding places. No amount of begging made any difference. When the prey was cornered, they butchered and ate it. There were no thoughts of mercy. Mala had denied the newborns for too long for them to be denied any longer. It was time to feast until their bellies were bloated beyond what could be considered possible.

The newborns maniacally worked their way through the inner sanctums of Nissaya. They were too many for the Tugars and too strong for the black knights, which meant that the inhabitants and refugees were doomed. The fortress had changed from haven to holocaust.

Whiner didn’t care. He knew only two things: pain and hunger.

Mercy?

The concept was as foreign as salvation.

 

9

THE EXPLOSIVE collapse of Nagara killed more than a thousand newborns that had gathered near its base, crushing the golden monsters beneath its tumbling bulk. A sharp-edged shard of black granite as large as a longhouse bounced angrily toward Mala, causing him to grunt and then step aside.

When the dust finally settled, Mala stomped forward to investigate the residue of the catastrophe. In the dim light of early morning, it was difficult to get a clear view, but it was obvious to Mala that the escape route beneath the keep had been buried beneath titanic chunks of debris, eliminating any chance of quick pursuit. The clogged entrance of Hakam was child’s play compared to this. Even with two Kojins and dozens of Stone-Eaters at his disposal, it would take several days to clear a path. By then, whoever had made it into the catacombs would be far beyond their reach.

Mala found this annoying, but only for a short while. When the rising sun introduced yet another broiling morning, his spirits were lifted to new heights. Highlighted by the fall of Nagara, the destruction of the fortress was an extraordinary sight. At first Mala believed that body parts were strewn everywhere, but then he realized with a mischievous grin that what he had mistaken for body parts were in reality pieces of armor cast here and there. The flesh and bone that the armor had once contained were gone, dissolving in pools of acid and goo in the bloated stomachs of his newborn soldiers. The entire scene filled Mala with such glee he could barely contain himself.

With the Kojins, Stone-Eaters, and witches at his side, Mala began a street-by-street and building-by-building scouring of the city. The newborns charged furiously to and fro, searching for the few remaining survivors who somehow had hidden cleverly enough to avoid being discovered. Occasionally, someone would be dragged screaming into the streets to be stripped and devoured, prompting Mala to laugh and clap and the Kojins to squeal in approval.

But not all news was good. According to reports from his scouts, The Torgon’s body was nowhere to be found, and it was believed that fewer than ten score Tugars had perished, with the rest having escaped either underground or via rope ladders over the walls. Several thousand black knights were also believed to have fled with them. Most of the Mogols and wolves that had been assigned to patrol the plains outside the walls had been found dead. Upon hearing this, Mala experienced another surge of rage. The desert rats were proving to be extremely difficult to squash, which would make the conquest of Jivita less simple than he had hoped. Then again, the harder they fought, the sweeter would be his victory.

By noon, it was hot enough to grill goat meat on the black granite, yet the foul odors of putrefaction were far less intense than they should have been. The newborns’ hunger had been so magically insatiable, even the fallen monsters had been eaten. However, the Tugar corpses had not been devoured, their flesh too tough even for the metallic teeth of the newborns. Mala considered incinerating the dead Tugars with his trident, but that seemed too honorable an ending, so he ordered their corpses piled in an open courtyard and left to slowly rot.

By midafternoon, Mala and his entourage had explored less than a third of the massive city, but Mala already was comfortable that there were few survivors. Even if a small number of Nissayans still cowered in dark corners, what did it matter? The fortress was defeated. Mala chose to leave five score wild men to defend Nissaya, but now it was time to gather his troops outside the walls and assess his own losses.

Mala gave the surviving trolls another important job, ordering them to gather outside the entrance of Hakam with their golden hammers and batter apart the magical portico that had protected Mala and his minions from assault from above. Afterward, the trolls cast the horrid pieces of flesh and metal away from the foot of the gate, clearing even more room for the departing army. Meanwhile, wild men and Mogols had been hard at work reconstructing the drawbridge that spanned the moat between Ott and Balak. Appearance-wise, their work was crude, but at least the bridge now could bear considerable weight.

The thirty Duccaritans who had survived the battle turned out to be very good at counting. While Mala’s army funneled through the cleared entrance of Hakam, the pirates lined up a variety of different-sized pebbles to keep an accurate assessment. All told, only sixty thousand of the original one hundred and sixty thousand newborns still lived, as well as thirty thousand of the original forty thousand monsters, though the druids that remained with Mala were next to useless, wandering around with glazed expressions like dumb-asses.

Overall, Mala had not expected his losses to be so large, but considering that a sizable portion of the newborns had perished before the battle began, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. He still commanded a force that was three times as numerous, and many times as powerful, as the one he expected to encounter at Jivita, especially if the reports from the White City he’d received were anywhere near accurate.

By the time his host again gathered on the plains, it was past midnight. To passersby, it might have seemed wasteful that Mala’s army wasn’t availing itself of the luxuries of the fortress it had so recently conquered. But as far as Mala was concerned, there would be comfort aplenty in Jivita. If his soldiers wanted beds, they could find them in the White City, after it had fallen.

The newborns bunched together like a swarm of glowing bees, eerily illuminating the plains for a league in all directions. The other monsters lingered off to the side, watching them almost distrustfully. They too had witnessed the newborns’ fury and had been intimidated by it.

But Mala was not afraid. He reveled in his might, raising the trident in his right hand while thrusting the dragon ring on his left hand toward the sky. Then he howled, the sound resembling the otherworldly cry of a snow giant on the peaks of Okkanti. The monsters snarled and barked in response.

When the cacophony lessened, Mala spoke in a voice as brutal as thunder. "We came to the black fortress to fight for the glory of King Invictus, and we depart as conquerors!”

The monsters roared again, the cumulative sound almost deafening. But Mala was louder still. "This is just the beginning! Jivita is next... and after that, the rest of the world.”

The hysteria grew to a fever pitch, so much so that a few of the lesser among them—including several pirates, ghouls, and vampires—were trampled. But the newborns remained bunched together, as if reluctant to join the madness.

Mala had one more task to perform before it was time for a well-earned sleep. From the tines of Vikubbati, golden energy spewed skyward, massing in the firmament like a storm cloud made of fire. The newborns gazed upward, the metallic helms that had melted upon their faces masking their expressions. Then they began to shiver, as if chilled. Indeed, the night had grown frosty, at least when compared to the heat of the day, causing steam to ooze off their broad backs. But the glowing cloud was anything but cold. Slowly it descended upon the swarm, sparkling and crackling.

Mala laughed insanely, and as if in response to his mean-spirited mirth, the newborns began to shrink... slowly at first, but then with surprising rapidity. They howled—not in triumph but in agony.

What remained on the Gray Plains was no longer a force of cannibalistic monsters. Instead, the golden soldiers lay in the trodden grass, their bloated stomachs pressing painfully against the inside of their armor. Moaning and sobbing replaced howling and snarling. Some begged for mercy that would never come. Others vomited up obscene chunks of meat before passing into unconsciousness. Most writhed pathetically, their minds vaguely aware—but aware, nonetheless—of the atrocities they had so recently committed.

This made Mala laugh all the louder.

 


 


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