Chapters 1-16 are here
Maralt waited for a moment at the street corner before he continued back for the Port. He stopped again just around the corner and looked back, waiting a space of breaths. The servants had been warned, he thought, which meant that the Gurrells had been warned, too, and whisked away to safety. Or so they thought. He had only to discover where they’d been taken, and he thought he could do that. There was a transport pilot waiting for him who would have the codes he needed. Maralt frowned at that thought. If the Gurrells and even their servants had been warned to watch for him, then surely the Port Captain would have been notified too. Maralt hadn’t seen the Captain when he landed, hadn’t checked in with him, but with a transport sitting idle in Port, the man would have learned by now that a Palace Messenger had landed.
Maralt smiled a little at that particular obstacle. The Lord Chancellor would never learn that entrusting others with such knowledge would only lead to their deaths. Or maybe he had learned and didn’t care anymore. If that were the case, Maralt would be sure to provide Marc Talryn with plenty of dead bodies to bury. He planned to do that anyway. There were lessons to impart after all. Apparently, the Lord Chancellor needed the reminder.
He heard a door open and close behind him, the sound carrying from the street the Gurrells lived on. Maralt slipped off the walk, moving between a wall and a large bush. A young man walked by, probably not quite seventeen, but big for his age. He looked all around himself in a manner that left little doubt who he sought. Maralt eased out of hiding, and looking back, saw another young man, this one older than the first. Their resemblance made them brothers. That one didn’t turn the corner, but kept on down the same street. Both of them were heading toward the Landing Port.
Maralt smiled at the thought of children being sent against him, and followed the younger of the two. The boy didn’t hear him approach until he was right there. “Looking for me?”
He thrust the dagger he held straight into him, but the boy was quick, dodged aside at the last moment and so only got a shoulder wound. He fell anyway, screaming in pain. Maralt reached down, set his hand on the boy’s chest while he squirmed and tried to escape.
“They should have warned you,” Maralt said, reaching inside to extract his soul. He showed him who he was at the same time and the boy’s eyes widened. “But then, the people you serve can be like that. They don’t care about you, little boy. Neither do I.”
Maralt heard footsteps racing up behind him, let go of the boy before he could take him, and had his sword out to meet the attack. The boy’s brother threw himself forward, momentum carrying him beyond the deadly flash of Maralt’s blade. This one recovered quickly, and met the next attack with more skill than Maralt had anticipated. He pulled in a breath at the waste of time, and meant to enter their minds to kill them both, when he heard the shouts of men approaching, horse hooves clopping down the street. Quickly, Maralt used the hilt of his sword, smashing it into the jaw of the elder boy and dropped him to the ground. Doors opened. More people came out to see what the commotion was about, some of them armed men.
Maralt turned on the approaching Constable and his two deputies, advancing toward them without hesitating. That alone made them stop. The next instant the Constable felt a stabbing pain explode in his mind and couldn’t remain seated. While his deputies looked on in fear, the Constable clutched his head, and fell from the saddle. Before his body hit the stone street, he was dead. Others came out of their homes. Foolish men. Maralt took three souls and turned for a fourth and a fifth. The sixth man had the wisdom to turn and run. No one else came near him as he walked away, but when he looked back the street was filled with people, some of them weeping over the dead. Maralt looked for the two boys and saw only one, tended by some woman. His eyes narrowed, wondering what the other thought he could do. He shrugged and turned for Port.
He took the time to go the long way, and found a garrison of city guards lined up at the street they thought he would come down, tree-lined and bereft of leaves. Spring might never come and certainly wouldn’t for these defenseless fools. The entrances to Port were all guarded. Maralt found the one with the fewest men. Their deaths happened in silence, though one of them did manage a few steps inside to give warning, but his voice failed him as he died. Five more souls taken. Strength washed through him.
Six men guarded the transport. They died too without their even drawing their weapons. Maralt entered their minds and sucked the life out of them. Logue begged to take a few hearts, something Maralt indulged him with. There was more of a mess, but he didn’t have to worry about that. He boarded the transport, and was surprised to find the pilot still on board.
“Well that was foolish of them,” he said. “To leave you here like this. Were you watching?”
The pilot stared at him, shaking where he stood. The man recognized him. All the better. “Yes.”
“I’ll have your codes. All of them.” The pilot nodded without speaking and turned for his controls. Maralt watched over his shoulder. There were only three codes, and only one that he really wanted, that would get him into flight logs, and tracking. “Now power the engines. When you’re finished, you may get up and come back into the hold. Oh and don’t think to attempt communicating with anyone.” He reached inside the man, closing his fist around his heart. “Because I can kill you as quickly as you think it. Remember that.”
The pilot, his name was Meyer Orrell, choked on his answer, but he was nodding enough that Maralt let him go. Meyer, he learned, frequently flew the First Governor and his family when they traveled, and he’d met Prince Dynan that very first night he’d returned to Cobalt. He’d helped arrange the response of the Transport Guild during those tenuous days. Maralt smiled at the coincidence and how that chance meeting guaranteed that Guildsman Orrell wouldn’t survive the day.
Maralt moved back to the hold and stood by the ramp, watching the bay. A guard peered around the corner. Maralt killed him. The next man, the one who leaned down to pull back his fallen compatriot, ended up landing on him instead. The third man died at their feet and then there weren’t anymore. None that came into the bay. He heard them easily enough, shouting to the Captain. Thought to thought, Maralt traveled through them to the Captain’s office, killing as he went.
The Captain stood at his desk, entering an access code that gave him a direct line to the Palace. Maralt waited until he heard Marc’s voice responding. All the Lord Chancellor heard was a gasp from the Captain, and then a cry of pain.
“Come and get me, Marc.” Maralt forced the Captain to look at him, so that he could see who was going to kill him, and then what was going to take him after that, and the man screamed.
Maralt shifted back to Logue in the transport. Meyer was just coming back into the hold. “The engines are powered,” he whispered, blinking as he watched Logue transform.
“Good. I think I’ll keep you around for now. You may take us up. A nice, leisurely flight path over town, Meyer. Low and slow, please.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Maralt nodded. “Good man.”
Ralion walked into the Lord Chancellor’s office a minute or so after Dain Ardin and Dynan lifted off in the XR-30, heading this time for Altair and the second Approachment. Reports from the Errien Region Guild Hall already had the number of petitioners at ten thousand and climbing. The XR-9 was called in to assist Central Control. They were having problems tracking all the ships coming in. Port was overwhelmed. They started landing ships in a nearby field outside of town. Dynan would arrive in three hours, at dawn Errien time. At that point, all transports would be diverted to the third Approachment, also on Altair. Dynan’s first appearance had opened a floodgate, and the people of Cobalt caught the next transport in droves.
Marc held up his hand, and stopped Ralion from speaking. “Master Ardaman, it won’t do much good to put those people on the fastest ship to Errien. They won’t be able to see him. There are too many to see him as it is. Send them to Niles, or Buchanan even.”
Dain looked up from his breakfast when Ralion started pacing, watching him a moment. “Maralt?” he asked. Ralion only glanced at him and nodded before he went back to pacing. “Put Ardaman on hold, Marc.”
“Dynan won’t be speaking outside the Hall. No, sir. Wait. Master Ardaman, yes, I need you to hold. I’ll get back to you in a moment. Yes. I want you to stay on. Thanks. What is it?”
“Maralt,” Dain said the same time Ralion did.
Ralion answered this time. “Distalt. I’ve got the Port Captain on.”
Marc rapped the top of his desk with his knuckles, increasing the force of each blow. He nodded to himself, then turned for the companel. “Master Ardaman, I’d like to consult with Commander Morlin about increasing security at the Hall. If you want Prince Dynan out in the open, sir, you’ll have to put up with a military presence. We wanted to avoid that, but I won’t risk the Crown Prince out of doors without his men to ensure that he stays alive. I’ll have Morlin contact you. Keep me informed.”
He cut the line, and reached for another control key to activate the call from Distalt. “Yes, Captain, go ahead.”
Dain started when a piercing scream burst through the room. The Captain was being murdered while they listened, and they all knew it. Maralt spoke through the dying man and Marc stood, bending down as he concentrated. Dain thought for a minute that he would vanish right then. Ralion reached to stop him, but Marc straightened the next instant, and his fist slammed down on the desktop. The Captain’s scream broke off, but the channel remained open. The sound of his body thudding to the floor followed and then it was silent. It was utterly still.
Marc straightened, still listening for any background noise that might filter through. He hesitated for a moment. “Dain, I need you to go to Beren. I’m going to Distalt.”
He hesitated for longer this time. Another decision to make, this one harder by the look of him. He didn’t like this, and Dain wasn’t so sure he wanted to hear it. When Marc made sure all the doors were closed, he knew he didn’t want to hear it.
“I’m not telling Dynan about this, and I have to ask the same of you both and Kyle Bairing. As far as Dynan is concerned, Juleta is in my quarters. I’ve got a guard stationed at a door under orders to act like he’s keeping a prisoner. No one else will be allowed access. Dynan can’t find out that Dain is going after Maralt. Everything the public gets is what Dynan hears.”
“Why?” Dain asked when he felt he should put a stop to it instead.
“You know what you’re asking us to do?” Ralion said and started shaking his head.
“I’m asking you to commit treason.”
“Why?” Dain asked again.
“He doesn’t want you to go after Maralt and won’t allow it.” Dain groaned, wishing for an excuse with less truth to it. “We’d be faced with ignoring his command if we ask about this. If he gets mad enough, he’ll interfere more than I can counter without removing him as an influence completely. I don’t want to do that. I don’t like it any more than you, but it has to happen this way. I don’t have a choice.”
“Remove him as an influence? In other words, we go along with you or you make us?” Dain said and stood to face him.
“I could do it that way, Dain, that’s true. I’d rather that you understand that it’s necessary to accomplish what I need to. When this is over, and I have Maralt, then I’ll tell him.” Marc held up his hand when Ralion started to protest. “There’s more to it. I want you to confirm with me any orders he gives you. I may have to ask that you fail to carry them out, which will likely involve lying to him. You know how little time we have to debate the ethics of what I’m asking, but you should both already know it’s my sole intention to see Dynan crowned and Loren by his side.”
He leaned over the companel then, listening when they all heard a man calling out to the Port Captain. Marc hit the companel controls, sending a signal to Distalt that would hopefully get the man’s attention.
“Have you taken into account,” Dain said while they waited, “what will happen if Dynan finds out what you’re doing before you decide to tell him?”
“Yes. He’ll never trust any of us again, but especially not me. That’s not such a problem, since I won’t be here. If we can pull this off, it won’t matter what he thinks of me. You don’t have that luxury.”
Dain nodded when he didn’t want to. “He’s been mad at me before.” He shrugged. “I’m used to it. I’m taking Avry.”
“You can’t tell anyone else, Dain. Not even Bronwyn.”
From the companel, the man’s voice cut off suddenly and they listened again. “Hello? Yes, who’s there?” a voice filled with fear came through the companel.
“This is Marc Talryn. Who is this?”
“I’m…my Lord. It was Maralt Adaeryn. He was here. They’re all dead. All of them.”
“I know it was Maralt. What is your name?”
“The entire City Guard. They’re…they’re all dead.”
Marc closed his eyes, concentrating again. “I understand. Is he gone?”
“No,” he answered in a harsh whisper. “He’s flying over the town, and, and he’s killing them all. He’s…”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m…my name is Tyson Ven, my Lord.”
Dain stared when the room seemed to split in two and they could see Tyson, standing by the desk looking around himself at all the dead men. They could see, looking through his eyes, the line of bodies leading to the Captain. Then Tyson turned to them, blinking as he became aware that he wasn’t alone anymore. Marc stood next to him, but turned back for an instant. “Don’t let him get in your head, Dain.”
“No kidding. I’ll bring him back for you.”
Marc looked down at the crystal ball that still hung around his neck that Dynan had given to him, juxtaposed to the orb. He pulled the smaller chain off and handed it over across the divide. “Take this with you,” he said, and was gone.
“I guess I don’t like this job so much after all,” Ralion said as Dain turned to go, pulling the chain with the crystal over his head. “Be careful.”
It was Ralion talking to him again. His guard, his equal and his friend. Dain smiled. “I’ll be all right. I always am.”
Marc caught Tyson as he swayed. “I won’t hurt you,” he said quickly, seeing the terror in his face and eyes. It took a moment, but Tyson’s breath slowed and he nodded. “Tell me what happened,” Marc said and pulled him toward the door. He stopped outside the Port entrance, staring at the number of dead guards littering the street. Tyson spoke in a broken voice while Marc looked over the number of people exterminated, not all of them guards. Farther down the road, a woman lay still, slumped against a lamppost. He heard the hum of a transport. Tyson instinctively shrank back inside and pulled Marc in with him.
Marc shook his head, shrugging off the hands that reached for him and stepped back outside. He looked at Tyson once, and smiled a little. “Stay here.”
Marc turned at the sound of footsteps running, and the next instant a young man staggered around the near street corner. He used the lamppost as a means to hurl himself around. His shoulder was bleeding.
“Gibson. God, Gibson.”
A transport rose above the trees, and turned in pursuit.
“Gibson,” Marc said, traveling to stand in front of him the next instant.
A beam of energy sliced down and struck his upraised hand. It blazed around them, encompassing the shield in blinding light before it dissipated. It wasn’t a laser beam, but a thing generated by malice. Beside him, Gibson gasped for breath, trembling while Marc held him up by his good arm. He concentrated and a light formed in his hand, arcing to the transport where it struck.
Maralt was already changing course, pulling the transport into a sharp turn and climb, but instead of retreating, the ship swung about so that the hatch showed. It hissed open a second later and Maralt stood, holding the pilot while the craft hovered, a hostage to ensure escape.
“When I say go,” Marc said to Gibson, “run for cover. Don’t look back. Go!”
At the same time, Marc reached for the pilot, transporting himself on board through his mind. Maralt yanked the man back, using him as a shield to protect himself from being taken. Marc saw Logue, piloting the craft, able to separate from Maralt and function. The transport rose straight up. A hole opened behind Maralt, the dark gateway that sought to pull Marc in. A devil’s spawn stood before it, grinning.
“One more for the pit,” he said, “but I don’t suspect you care what happens to this man. Meyer, you should know that the Lord Chancellor will do nothing to save you from the Gates. You see, he knows that once you’re out of the way, he can reach me.”
Meyer screamed, but Maralt held him still, showing the pilot where he was going. Marc took an involuntary step toward them, and Maralt whipped back around. The pilot screamed again, from pain this time.
“So eager to see him die, My Lord Chancellor? You want me that badly? Poor Meyer. It’s time to meet your maker.”
Maralt shoved the pilot into the vortex. While Marc watched in horror, unable to help him, Meyer was dragged down, screaming for help until his voice was swallowed by a cacophony of wails. Marc turned on Maralt. He took a step toward him. A blurred shadow caught on the periphery of vision barreled from the maw straight at him. Maralt smiled and stepped back.
From the dark, a head emerged, snake-like but more angular and horned. It was dirty brown, had arms and powerful legs, and wings. That’s all Marc saw before the thing hit him and they were falling. The air opened up around him, and the transport streaked away.
He knew if he looked down, he wouldn’t be able to transform, and with the snake-thing in his face, snapping its teeth at him, it was pretty hard to concentrate. He blasted it with a fireball from his fingertips, wrenching out of its grasp at the same time. Twisting as he fell, Marc looked down when he meant to look up. He choked on a curse and started thinking. He closed his eyes and tried to stop thinking about how fast that glimpse of the ground rushing up had been. He asked for wings first and got them, instantly followed by the body of the dragon. He had time to get his wings unfolded, but not a chance of slowing down before he would hit that barn, or the woods next to it. Instead of trying to slow, he spread his wings, filling them with air and threw his head back. The arc of descent widened just enough so that he raked the treetops instead of crashing into them. The moment he started up, he beat the air with all his strength.
Through the flow of air he suddenly heard the erupting crack of an electrical charge, looked up and it hit him. The trees he’d just managed to miss caught him, but at the wrong angle. Limbs and whole trunks snapped under the weight of his passage. A mammoth tree stopped him, the force of hitting it all but knocking him unconscious. He hit the ground next, amidst the falling branches. His body shrank in on itself until he was himself again, sprawled at an odd angle over a large and knotted tree limb.
Marc groaned as pain swept through him. He blinked as his vision cleared, and he heard the transport. He saw the nose of the craft rising above the line of trees. Maralt looked down at him from the pilot’s chair, back inside Logue’s body. Marc knew what was coming, looking around for cover, but there wasn’t any that would stop what amounted to a bomb. Maralt smiled, his hand raised, the charge forming outside the ship.
“Ralion,” Marc whispered. He could hardly move his arm to reach for him. The crackling started and he knew he didn’t have much time. He saw Ralion looking at him in momentary confusion until he realized Marc was in trouble. A burning light barreled down. Ralion grabbed his hand and yanked.