Fiction Excerpt: “Soldiers of a Dying God”
By Harry James Connolly
Illustrated by Storn Cook
from Black Gate 10, copyright © 2007 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
If I had known that bowl of groats would be my last meal in the palace, I would have savored it instead of feeling sorry for myself.
I believed I was the worst Royal Engineer since Jun the Trembler.
I had been up working half the night. I told myself I could have found an answer if I had more time and a larger staff, and if I didn’t spend half of every day making lures, but in my heart I didn’t believe it. I had failed to defend my half-dead city, failed my office, failed my most faithful master, dead these six years, and failed Her Majesty, the depraved witch to whom I had sworn myself.
I prayed — in secret, of course — for the strength to fulfill my oaths.
While I was stirring my groats, Mendelhom entered with a pot of tea. He was halfway across the room when a silverwing burst through the heavily-draped window and pierced his heart.
Mendelhom collapsed. The pot shattered on the stone floor. I leapt from my chair and ran to him. I struck at the silverwing with the only weapon at hand — my tin spoon coated with groats.
The little spoon tinged uselessly against the creature’s metal flesh. That wasn’t going to work. I tore open my robe and pulled the ward from around my neck. I pressed the tiny disk against the silverwing’s back. The creature screeched and leapt awkwardly away.
I stepped between the creature and my servant. It was damned stupid of me to remove the ward this way — another wing could have zipped through the window at me while I was unprotected, but I have never been quick or clever in the face of danger.
The silverwing hopped awkwardly away from me, its feet clanging against the stone floor. Despite myself, I paused to study it. I had not been this close to a live one in nearly a year.
This creature was slightly different from that last one — its proboscis was longer and more slender. Its eyes were larger, but not mounted on stalks. It looked like a cross between a mosquito and a bay gull. The Digger People had been honing their magic.
I put my ward back on. The silverwing turned toward the window and prepared to spring.
I said a special word, putting a bit of my soul behind it. It was a simple spell, but I could feel my soul leeching away as I cast it. The silverwing began to smoke and sputter. It leapt for the window but fell short. It struck the wall and clattered to the floor. Dead.
As was my servant.
I knelt beside him. I had seen the silverwing stab at his heart, but of course there was no wound. The creature’s metal proboscis never pierced the flesh. It reached into the veiled realm and drank away the soul. Mendelhom had been a kitchen boy in my father’s house when I was born. He had lived a life of service and care; his soul must have been huge and powerful indeed.
Although we had never been close, I had known him my whole life. Like my parents, like my wife and my daughters, he was gone. Soon I would have nothing left.
I summoned help. After the initial fuss, I sent my cook to take a message to my workshop.
I couldn’t finish breakfast. I stood at the window and stared out at the dry red stones of Tindehall, the last human city in the world.
The spires of the temples stood at the heart of the city. Each resembled a spear point bursting out of the ground. Each was a tribute to Ormaleth, the Deathless, Dying God.
Four hundred years ago, Coralon the Blasphemer had stripped the gold from the sides of the smaller temples to pay for his war against the Naddonites. Ormaleth’s Soldiers had marched into the city and squashed Coralon like a bug. Then they continued north to Murky Bay and smashed the Naddonite navy.
But Her Majesty had stripped the temples of their gold thirty years ago. All the Temples. Why hadn’t Ormaleth’s Soldiers come? Was her Majesty correct? Had the Dying God finally, truly died?
A tiny, gleaming speck streaked above the low stone buildings, then I saw another, farther away. They came at us from the east. Always from the east. The silverwings were more numerous every year, while the city now had fewer than seven thousand residents.
We were probably the last humans left in the world.
And I was the Royal Engineer. It was my job to devise a defense more comprehensive and permanent than these flimsy wards. Once again, I offered a silent, forbidden prayer to Ormaleth, my Dying God, to give me inspiration. So far, I had only been blessed with frustration and failure.
My apprentices arrived with an iron cage on a litter. Shinak and Peskalun hoisted the dead silverwing into the cage and locked it in. The creature was as heavy and still as a statue — certainly dead — but special precautions had proved necessary in the past.
Shinak lifted the back of the litter with his powerful arms. I helped Peskalun carry the other end.
“Sir,” Peskalun said as we descended the stairs, “I have an idea. May I present it?”
I struggled to fit the heavy litter around a tight corner. “Please do.”
“What if we were to build a pair of Naddonite carts — ”
“I would be happy to pull those carts, sir,” Shinak interrupted. The big apprentice rarely said anything except to volunteer for work. A good man, but his wits were even slower than mine.
I nodded. Building a Naddonite cart — building anything, in fact — would replace the piece of my soul I had sacrificed to destroy the silverwing.
“We would use them to construct a berm along the eastern wall of the city — ”
” — A berm?” I wondered where he was going with this.
“Yes, sir. I think a sixty percent grade would do it. Then we could seal it with a permanent shadow.”
Ah. Peskalun had always wanted to cast a permanent shadow. It was a powerful spell — very advanced. Even in these deadly times, apprentices overreached themselves.
But of course it would never work. An earthen berm is not stable enough to support a permanent shadow. Once the earth eroded, the spell would destroy half the city at the very least. It would be a disaster.
“According to my calculations,” Peskalun said, “the berm could be built in — ”
“Thank you, Peskalun,” I said.
The young man fell silent, knowing his idea had been rejected. If he was angry or resentful, I didn’t notice. I should have paid more attention.
When we arrived at my workshop, the doors were padlocked. A pair of guards approached us. “Her Majesty would see you now,” the sergeant said.
“Certainly,” I said. “Let me go inside and get a lure for Her Majesty — ”
The sergeant stepped closer to me. “Put the cage down and come with us. Now.”
On the way, I worried about the time I was wasting on this errand. I wanted to get into my workshop and go back to work.
As I said: neither quick nor clever.
We arrived at the Temple of the Dying God, though of course that name had been forbidden for thirty years. Several of Her Majesty’s retainers were pulling on ropes, dragging a lure into position by the vacant upper windows. A young man was already chained into place up there, his hands and feet trailing silk ribbons.
I wondered how they had gotten a lure? Had Her Majesty ordered my safe opened? If she had wanted it first thing in the morning, I would have brought it myself. I may have hated her with a passion, but I would still have served her faithfully.
Perhaps someone else had made it. As far as I knew, no one else even knew how to make them. Although the lure was constructed out of the same material components as the ward I wore around my neck, I had never shared the secret of making them with anyone, not even my apprentices. In part, it was because I believed a student should learn to protect and create before they learned to destroy. In part, I knew I was not favored by Her Majesty.
The idea that she had found a second source made me nauseous with fear.
Her Majesty, poised and icy in an elaborate gown, glided onto the platform. My most faithful master had built it, along with the ropes and pulleys that held the young man in place. I didn’t have the training to create such a monstrosity, but for six years I had provided Her Majesty with lures. It wasn’t the type of work that increased the size of one’s soul.
The process didn’t take long. The lure drew the attention of a silverwing. The silverwing struck the chained man. While the man died, his life-force flowed downward through the ribbons into Her Majesty, instead of into the creature.
The young man screamed. He should have been tending a farm or fishing the river to feed our faltering city. Instead he was chained here, dying. Weren’t the Diggers and the silverwings enemy enough? Did we have to help them destroy us?
I turned away. I had sworn to serve the throne, no matter who sat upon it, but I didn’t have to watch.
When she was finished, Her Majesty approached me. Although she was nearly eighty years old, her skin was as smooth as ceramic, her body straight and fluid, and her eyes utterly devoid of soul.
I bowed. “Your Majesty, how may I serve you?”
“My Royal Engineer,” she said. “Do you love me?”
Her voice was as cool and serene as a frozen pond, as though nothing important rested on my answer. Like a fool, I did not lie. “Your Majesty,” I said, bowing lower. “I am your lowly servant.”
She did not seem to react. “I have a task for you, Lowly Servant. It is difficult, but perhaps you are capable.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” I did my best not to sound irritated. Most of my day was already taken up with making lures and wards, and researching the defense of the city. I didn’t have time for another task. “I am pleased to serve.”
“What do you know of the Soldiers?” she asked.
That was not the question I expected. I hesitated. “Not much, Your Majesty. The usual folklore and childhood tales. I’ve never studied them.”
Again she had no reaction. “Now that the Dying God has finally died,” she said, “I want you to go out to the edge of the Eastern Reaches. The Soldiers on the cliffs there are an abomination. I want them… removed. Do you understand?”
I held my bow low. I didn’t move. I didn’t respond. She apparently did not expect a response, because she turned and glided out into the daylight.
I had just been sentenced to death. Destroy the Soldiers? Whether Ormaleth was dead or alive, it was a suicide mission.
Peskalun stepped toward me. He hand was deep in his pocket and he would not look me in the eye. I didn’t know it then, but his fingers were wrapped around the badge of the Royal Engineer. To his credit, he didn’t have the stomach to let me see it. I wish he had taken it out and gloated. It would have made hating him so much easier. I have never figured out how he learned to make lures.
“You have a long journey ahead of you.” His voice was thin and nervous. “Let me help you pack.”
I was allowed to take very little with me, of course: just a couple jars of water and some dried fish. I was also given a flare tube, which I was supposed to use to destroy the Soldiers. In truth, while the tube could set fire to a pretty tapestry, it was hardly useful against granite. Peskalun gave me a wide-brimmed hat, to protect me from the sun.
I was resolved to at least see the Soldiers. I would have preferred to flee into the wilderness, abandoning this blasphemous quest altogether, but there was no place left to go. The mountains were full of the Digger’s unliving creations, and I was not a man who could live on nuts and berries. I was an engineer. I needed my library.
Most importantly, I had sworn an oath to serve the throne. Oath breakers would not conquer paradise with Ormaleth.
Peskalun and six guards led me to the gate. A donkey hitched to a little cart waited for me. I loaded the flare tube and my provisions into the back, then draped a second ward around the donkey’s neck.
As I was feeding a water apple to the donkey, I noticed that all of the guards but one carried pikes. Why had that sixth brought a maul?
I climbed into the cart and took up the reins. The sixth guard swung the maul, smashing my right shin.