- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
- All the Possibilities
- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
CHAPTER 2 St.-Mere-Abelle
His wrinkles seemed even deeper now, shadowed by the torch-light. Deep grooves in that old and weathered face, the visage of a man who had seen too much. By Master Jojonah's estimation, Dalebert Markwart, the Father Abbot of St.-Mere-Abelle, the highest-ranking person in the Abellican Order, had aged tremen-dously over the last couple of years. The portly Jojonah, no young man himself, studied Markwart carefully as the pair stood atop the seaward wall of the great abbey, staring out into All Saints Bay. He tried to compare this image of the Father Abbot, unshaven, with eyes sunken deep into sockets, against the memory of the man just a few years previous, in God's Year 821 when they had all waited eagerly for the return of theWindrunner, the ship that had delivered four of St.- Mere-Abelle's brothers to the equatorial island of Pimani-nicuit, that they might collect the sacred stones.
Things had changed much since those days of hope and wonderment.
The mission had been successful, with a tremendous haul of gemstones taken and properly prepared. And three of the brothers, with the exception of poor Thagraine who was stricken in the me-teor shower, had returned alive, though Brother Pellimar had died a short time later.
"A pity that it had not been Avelyn who was hit in the head by a falling stone," Father Abbot Markwart had often said in the years hence, for Avelyn, after achieving the greatest success in the his-tory of the Church as a Preparer of the sacred gems, had returned a changed man, and in Markwart's eyes had committed the highest heresy possible in the Order. Avelyn had taken some of the gemstones and run off, and in that flight, Master Siherton, a peer of Jojonah's and a friend of Markwart's, had been killed.
The Father Abbot had not let the theft pass. Indeed, he had guided the training of the remaining brother from the party of four, a stocky and brutish man named Quintall. Under Markwart's strict-est orders, Quintall had become Brother Justice and gone after Avelyn, with orders to bring back the man or his broken body.
Word had come back to the library only the month before that Quintall had failed and was dead.
Still, Markwart had no intention of letting Avelyn run free. He had set De'Unnero, the finest fighter at the abbey - and, by Jojonah's estimation, the most vicious human being alive - to training not one, but two Brothers Justice as replacement for Quintall. Jojonah didn't like De'Unnero at all, considered the man's temperament unbefitting a brother of the Abellican Church, and so he had not been pleased when the still-young man had been named to the rank of master as a replacement for Master Siherton. And the choice of hunters, too, had bothered Jojonah, for he suspected that the two young monks, Brothers Youseff and Dandelion, had only been admitted to St.-Mere-Abelle for this purpose. Surely nei-ther of them qualified above others who had been refused their appointment.
But both could fight
So even that choice of admission to the Order, the greatest re-sponsibility of abbots and masters, had fallen victim to Markwart's desire to clear his own reputation. The Father Abbot wanted those stones back.
Desperately, Master Jojonah thought as he looked upon the old Father Abbot's haggard visage. Dalebert Markwart was a man pos-sessed now, a snarling, vicious thing. If at first Markwart had wanted Avelyn captured and tried, he merely wanted the man dead now - and painfully killed, tortured, rended, his heart torn out and put on a stake before the front gate of St.-Mere-Abelle. Markwart hardly talked of dead Siherton these days; his focus was purely the stones, the precious stones, and he meant to get them back.
All of that had been put aside for the moment, though, out of ne-cessity even greater than Markwart's obsession, for the war had at last come to St.-Mere-Abelle.
"There they are," Father Abbot Markwart remarked, pointing out across the bay.
Jojonah leaned on the low wall, squinting into the darkness, and there, rounding a bend along the northern spur of the rocky seacoast, came the lights of a vessel, obviously sitting very low in the water.
"Powrie barrelboat," Markwart said distastefully as more and more lights came into view. "A thousand of them out there!"
And so confident that they approach in full view with lights burning, Jojonah silently added. And that wasn't even the extent of their problems, though the master saw no need to remark on the po-tentially greater troubles facing the abbey.
"And how many by land?" the Father Abbot demanded, as though he had read Jojonah's mind. "Twenty thousand? Fifty? The whole powrie nation is upon us, as if all the Weathered Isles had been dumped at our gate!"
Again the portly Jojonah had no practical response. According to the reports of trusted sources, a vast army of the four-foot-tall dwarves, the cruel powries, had landed less than ten miles down the coast from St.-Mere-Abelle. The brutal creatures had wasted no time in laying waste to the nearby villages, slaughtering any hu-mans who could not escape. The image of that brought a shiver along Jojonah's spine. Powries were also called "bloody caps" for their practice of dipping their specially treated berets - caps made of human skin - into the blood of their slain enemies. The more blood one of those berets soaked, the brighter its crimson stain, a sign of rank among the barrel-bodied, spindly limbed dwarves.
"We have the stones," Jojonah offered.
Markwart snorted derisively. "And we'll tire our magics long before we diminish the ranks of the wretched powries - and of the goblin army that's said to be moving south of here."
"There is the report of the explosion far to the north," Jojonah offered hopefully, trying in any way possible to improve Mark-wart's surly mood.
The Father Abbot didn't disagree; whispers from reliable sources spoke of a tremendous eruption in the northern land known as the Barbacan, reputedly the land of the demon dactyl who had gath-ered this invading army. But while those rumors offered some dis-tant hope that war had been brought to the dactyl's doorstep, they offered little in the face of the force now moving against St.-Mere-Abelle, something Markwart emphasized with his next derisive snort.
"Our walls are thick, our brothers well-trained in the fighting arts, and our catapult crews second to none in all Corona," Jojonah went on, gaining momentum with every word. "And St.-Mere-Abelle is better suited to withstand a siege than any structure in Honce-the-Bear," he added, preempting Markwart's next glum statement.
"Better suited with not so many mouths to feed," Markwart snapped at him, and Jojonah winced as if slapped. "I wish that the powries had been quicker!"
Master Jojonah sighed and moved a few steps to the side then, unable to tolerate his superior's grating pessimism and that last re-mark; obviously aimed at the multitude of pitiful refugees who had recently come swarming into St.-Mere-Abelle, it had, in Jojonah's estimation, been on the very edge of blasphemy. They were the Church, after all, supposedly the salvation of the common man, and yet here was their Father Abbot, their spiritual leader, com-plaining about giving shelter to people who had lost almost every-thing. The Father Abbot's first response to the influx of refugees had been to order everything valuable, books, gold leaf, even inkwells, locked away.
"Avelyn started all of this," Markwart rambled. "The thief weakened us, in heart and soul, and gave hope to our enemies!"
Jojonah tuned out the Father Abbot's ranting. He had heard it all before - indeed, it had by now been disseminated to all the abbeys of Corona that Avelyn Desbris was responsible for awakening the demon dactyl, and thus setting into motion all the subsequent tragedies that had befallen the land.
Master Jojonah, who had been Avelyn's mentor and chief sup-porter through the man's years at St.-Mere-Abelle, couldn't, in his heart, believe a word of it. Jojonah had studied at the abbey for four decades, and had never in all that time met a man as singularly holy as Avelyn Desbris. While he had not yet come to terms with Avelyn's last actions at the abbey - the theft of the stones and the murder, if it was a murder, of Master Siherton - Jojonah suspected there was more to the story than the Father Abbot's version would indicate. More than anything, Master Jojonah wanted to speak at length with his former student, to discover the man's motivations, to find out why he had run and why he had taken the gemstones.
More lights appeared in the dark harbor, a reminder to Jojonah to stay focused on the grim situation at hand. Avelyn was an issue for another day; the morning light would bring the full fury of war to St.-Mere- Abelle.
The two monks retired then, seeking to gather all of their strength.
"Sleep well in God's bosom," Master Jojonah said to Markwart, the proper and traditional nighttime parting.
Markwart waved a hand absently over his shoulder and walked away, grumbling something about the wretch Avelyn under his breath.
Master Jojonah recognized a growing problem here, an obses-sion that could only bring ill to St.-Mere-Abelle and all the Order. But there was little he could do about it, he reminded himself, and he went to his private room. He added many lines about Avelyn Desbris, words of hope for the man's soul, and of forgiveness, to his evening prayers, then rolled onto his bed, knowing he would not sleep well.
Father Abbot Markwart, too, was speaking words about Avelyn when he entered his lavish quarters, four rooms sectioned off near the middle of the massive abbey's ground-level floor. The old man, consumed with anger, muttered curse after curse, spat Avelyn's name in succession with the names of the greatest traitors and heretics in the history of the Church, and vowed again to see the man tortured to death before he, himself, went to view the face of God.
His reign at St.-Mere-Abelle had been unblemished, and having been fortunate enough to preside over the Order in the generation of the stone showers, the tremendous haul of stones - the greatest ever taken from Pimaninicuit - seemed to solidify his place among the most revered Father Abbots of history. But then the wretch Avelyn changed that, brought a black mark to his reputation: as the first father abbot to ever suffer the absolute indignity of losing some of the sacred stones.
It was with these dark thoughts, and none for the invasion fleet that had entered All Saints Bay, that Father Abbot Markwart at last drifted off to sleep.
His dreams were as razor-edged as his anger, showing stark, clear images of a faraway land that he did not know. He saw Avelyn, thick and fat and haggard, snarling orders to goblins and powries. He saw the man fell a giant with a streak of searing light-ning, not out of any hatred for the evil race, but because this one had not obeyed him without question.
In the background an angelic figure appeared, a winged man, large and terrible. The personification of the wrath of God.
Then Markwart understood.
A demon dactyl had been the source of the war? No, this disaster had been caused by something greater even than that dark power. The true guiding force of evil was Avelyn, the heretic!
The Father Abbot sat bolt upright in bed, sweating and trem-bling. It was only a dream, he reminded himself.
But had there not been some shred of truth buried within those visions? It came as a great epiphany to the tired old man, an awak-ening call as clear as the loudest bell ever chimed. For years he had been proclaiming Avelyn as the root source of all the problems, but much of that had been merely a self-defense technique aimed at de-flecting his own errors. He had always known that hidden truth... until now.
Now Markwart realized that it had indeed been Avelyn, beyond any doubt. He knew that the man had unraveled all that was holy, perverted the stones to his own wicked use, worked against the Church and all of Mankind.
Markwart knew, without doubt, and in that profound knowledge he was at last able to dismiss all of his own guilt.
The old man pulled himself from his bed and ambled over to his desk, lighting a lamp. He fell into his chair, exhausted, over-come, and absently took a key from a secret compartment in one drawer and used it to open the lock on a secret compartment in yet another, revealing his private cache of stones: ruby, graphite, mala-chite, serpentine, a tiger's paw, a lodestone, and his most precious of all, the strongest hematite, the soul stone, at St.-Mere-Abelle. With this heavy gray stone Markwart could send his spirit across the miles, could even contact associates though they were sepa-rated by half a continent. He had used this stone to make contact with Brother Justice - no easy task since Quintall was not profi-cient in use of the stones, and since his single- minded training had given him a level of mental discipline that was hard to penetrate.
Markwart had used this stone to contact a friend in Amvoy, across the Masur Delaval from Palmaris, and that friend had dis-covered the truth of Brother Justice's failed quest.
How precious these sacred stones were - to the monks of St.-Mere-Abelle, there was no greater treasure - and it was more than Markwart could stand to know that he had let some get away.
He looked at the handful of stones now as if they were his chil-dren, then sat up straighter, blinking quizzically. For he saw them now more clearly than ever before, as if a great truth had been re-vealed to him. He saw the powers buried within each stone, and knew he could reach them with a mere thought, hardly an effort at all. And some of them seemed almost to blend together, as the old man recognized new and more powerful combinations for various stones.
The Father Abbot fell back and even cried out, tears of joy drip-ping from his eyes. He was free of Avelyn's dark grip, he suddenly believed, for now he understood, beyond doubt. And with his reve-lations had come a greater knowledge, a deeper understanding. It was always a sharp thorn in Markwart's side that Avelyn, this sup-posed heretic, had been the most powerful stone user in the history of the Church. If the stones came from God, it followed that their power was a blessing, yet how could that be so if Avelyn Desbris, the thief, was so proficient with them?
The demon dactyl had given Avelyn the power! The demon dactyl had perverted the stones in Avelyn's hands, allowing him the insight to use them.
Markwart clutched his stones tightly and moved back to his bed, thinking that God had answered the dactyl by showing him equal - no, greater -??insights. This time he would find no sleep, too consumed with anticipation for the morning's fight.
Dalebert Markwart, the Father Abbot, the highest-ranking mem-ber of the Abellican Church, had it all exactly backward, a thought that pleased the spirit of the demon dactyl immensely. How easily Bestesbulzibar had linked with this craven old man, how easily it had perverted Markwart's assumed truths!
Nearly all of St.-Mere-Abelle's more than seven hundred monks turned out on the seawall before the dawn, preparing for the ap-proach of the powrie fleet. With two notable exceptions, Master Jo-jonah realized, for Brothers Youseff and Dandelion were nowhere to be found. Markwart had put them safely away for what he con-sidered their more important task.
Most of the monks manned the abbey's long parapets, but others moved to their strategic positions in rooms below the level of the wall top. Two dozen catapults were readied as the vast powrie fleet made its way in toward the rocky cliff. Even more deadly, the older and more powerful monks, the masters and immaculates, monks who had studied for ten years and more, prepared their respective stones, and among them was the Father Abbot, with his new in-sights and heightened power.
Markwart kept most of the monks in position on the seaward side of the structure, though he had to place more than a score of brothers on the opposite wall, watching the many approaches for the expected land attack. Then all of St.-Mere-Abelle hushed and waited as score after score of powrie vessels rounded the rocky spur and moved in line with the great abbey, most resembling a nearly submerged barrel, but others with flat, open decks set with catapults.
A catapult let fly from one of the rooms just below the Father Abbot's position, its pitch ball sailing high and far, but well short of the nearest vessel.
"Hold!" Markwart yelled down angrily. "Would you show them our range, then?"
Master Jojonah put a hand on the Father Abbot's shoulder. "They are nervous," he offered as an excuse for the premature firing.
"They are foolish!" the Father Abbot snapped back at him, pulling from his gentle grasp. "Find the one who fired that catapult and replace him on the line - and bring him up to me."
Jojonah started to protest, but quickly realized that to be a fool's course. If he angered the Father Abbot any more - and he saw no way he could even speak with the man without doing that - then Markwart's punishment of the young monk would only be more severe. With one of his customary sighs, a helpless expression that he thought he seemed to be making far too often these days, the portly master moved off to find the errant artillerist, taking with him a second-year student to replace the man.
More and more powrie ships came into view, but those closest did not move into catapult range, or stone magic range.
"They await the ground assault," remarked Brother Francis Del-lacourt, a ninth-year monk known for his sharp tongue and severe discipline of the younger students, attributes that had made him a favorite with Markwart.
"What news from the western walls?" Markwart asked.
Francis immediately motioned for two younger monks to run off for information. "They will hit us harder from the ground at first," Francis then offered to Markwart.
"The reasoning that led you to such a conclusion?"
"The sea cliff is a hundred feet, at least, and that at its shortest juncture," Francis reasoned. "Those powries in the boats will have little chance of gaining our walls unless we are sorely taxed in the west. They will hit us hard by ground, and then, with our numbers thinned on this wall, their fleet will strike."
"What do you know of powrie tactics?" Markwart said loudly, drawing all of those nearby, including the returning Master Jojonah and the errant artillerist, into the conversation. Markwart knew what Francis would say, for he, like all of the older monks, had studied the records of previous powrie assaults, but he thought that a dissertation by the efficient Francis would be a prudent reminder.
"We have few examples of a powrie dual strike," Francis ad-mitted. "They usually attack primarily from the sea, with incredible speed and ferocity. But I suspect that St.-Mere-Abelle is too formi-dable for that, and they know it. They will thin our line by attacking from the west, by ground, and then their catapults will put their strong lines up over our wall."
"How high will any climb with us standing defense at the top of those ropes?" one monk asked impertinently. "We'll cut them down, or shoot arrows or magics at the climbing powries."
Master Jojonah started to respond, but Markwart, preferring to hear from Francis on this matter, stopped him with an upraised hand, then motioned for the ninth-year monk to proceed.
"Do not underestimate them!" Francis fumed, and Jojonah noted that Markwart cracked his first smile in many weeks. "Only months ago the powries struck at Pireth Tulme, a fortress on a cliff no less high than our own. In this manner they gained the courtyard before the majority of the garrison had even arrived at the walls to offer defense. And as for those who were in place along Pireth Tulme's seemingly defensible walls..."
Francis let the thought hang. It was common knowledge that no survivors had been found among Pireth Tulme's elite Coastpoint Guards, and also that those remains found had been hor-ribly mutilated.
"Do not underestimate them!" Francis yelled again, turning as he spoke to ensure that every monk in the area was paying attention.
Master Jojonah watched Francis closely. He didn't like the man, not at all. Brother Francis' ambition was obviously large, as was his ability to take every word muttered by Father Abbot Markwart as though it had come straight from God. Jojonah did not believe that piety was the guiding force behind Brother Francis' devotion to Markwart, though, but rather, pragmatic ambition. Watching the man reveling in the attention now only reinforced that belief.
The two monks returned from the western wall, trotting, but with no apparent sense of urgency. "Nothing," each reported. "No signs of any gathering army."
"Several villagers came in just minutes ago," one of them added, "reporting that a large force of powries was spotted moving west of St.- Mere-Abelle village, heading west."
Jojonah and Markwart exchanged curious looks.
"A ruse," Brother Francis warned. "Moving west, away from us, that we might not be prepared for the sudden assault over land."
"Your reasoning is sound," Master Jojonah offered. "But I wonder if we might not turn their ruse, if that is what it is, back against them."
"Explain," said an intrigued Markwart.
"The fleet might indeed be waiting for the ground assault," Jojo-nah said. "And that assault might indeed be delayed so that we might lower our guard. But our powrie friends in the harbor cannot see St.-Mere- Abelle's western walls, nor the grounds beyond them."
"They will hear the sounds of battle," another monk reasoned.
"Or they will hear what they believe to be the sounds of battle," Master Jojonah replied slyly.
"I will see to it!" cried Brother Francis, running off even before the Father Abbot gave his consent
Markwart ordered every second man off the wall and out of sight.
Moments later the commotion began, with cries of "Attack! Attack!" and the swooshing sound of ballistae firing. Then a trem-endous explosion shook the ground and a fireball rose into the air, the magical blast of a ruby.
"Authentic," Master Jojonah said dryly. "But our exuberant Francis should conserve his magical energy."
"He has powries to convince," Markwart retorted sharply.
"Here they come," came a call before Jojonah could reply, and sure enough the powrie craft began gliding across the bay, right on schedule. The tumult continued in the west, the cries, the ballistae firing, even another fireball from excited Francis. The powries, spurred on by the sight and sound, came in hard, their barrelboats bobbing.
Markwart passed the word to let them in close, though more than one catapult let fly its payload prematurely. But the ships came on fast and were soon in range, and with the Father Abbot's eager blessing, the monastery's two dozen seaward catapults began their barrage, throwing stones and pitch. One powrie cata-pult barge went up in flames; a barrelboat got hit on its rounded side, the force of the boulder rolling the craft right over in the water. Another barrelboat took a hit squarely on its prow, the heavy stone driving the front of the craft under the water, its stern reaching sky-ward, its pedal-driven propeller spinning uselessly in the empty air. Soon many of the evil dwarves were in the water, screaming, thrashing.
But the cheering on the abbey's wall did not hold, for soon enough the lead powrie ships were right below the Father Abbot's position, right at the base of the seawall, and now their catapults went into action, launching dozens of weighted, knotted ropes tipped with cunning, many- pronged grapnels. The hooked instru-ments came down on targeted areas as thick as hail, sending the monks scrambling. Several monks were caught by a hooked tip, then pulled in screaming to the wall, the grapnel digging right through an arm or shoulder.
A group of seven immaculates stood in a circle to Jojonah's right, chanting in unison, joining their power, six with their hands locked, the seventh in their center, holding forth a piece of graphite. A sheet of blue electricity crackled over the bay, sparking off the metallic cranks of powrie catapults, laying low the dozens of ex-posed powries on the barge decks.
But the burst lasted only a split second, and dozens more powries rushed to take the places of the fallen. Up the ropes they came, hanging under, climbing hand over hand with tremendous speed.
Monks attacked with conventional bows and with gemstones, loosing lightning bolts, springing fire from their fingertips to burn the ropes, while others went at the grapnels with heavy hammers or at the ropes with swords. Dozens of ropes went down, sending powries diving into the bay, but scores more came flying up as more craft crowded into the base of the cliff.
With still no sign of any approaching ground force, all of the monks came to the seawall, all of St.-Mere-Abelle's power fo-cused on the thousand powrie vessels that had swarmed into All Saints Bay. The air came alive with the tingling of magical energy, with the stench of burning pitch, with the screams of freezing, drowning powries. And with the screams of dying monks, for as soon as all the ropes were up, the powrie catapult barges began hurling huge baskets of pinballs, wooden balls an inch in diameter set with a multitude of metal, often poison- tipped needles.
Despite all the talk of Pireth Tulme, all the warnings of the older, more studied monks, the defenders of St.-Mere-Abelle were in-deed taken aback at the sheer ferocity and boldness of the assault. And of the skill, for the powries were as efficient and disciplined a fighting army as any in all the world. Not a monk, not even stub-born Brother Francis, doubted for a moment that ifthe enemy ground force had made its appearance then, St.-Mere-Abelle, the most ancient and defensible bastion in all of Honce-the-Bear, would have fallen.
Even without that ground force, Father Abbot Markwart appre-ciated the danger of the situation.
"You!" he called to the monk who had fired the first catapult shot. "Now is the chance to redeem yourself!"
The young brother, eager to regain the Father Abbot's favor, rushed to Markwart's side and was presented with three stones: a malachite, a ruby, and a serpentine.
"Do not use the malachite until you descend near to the ship," the Father Abbot explained hastily.
The young monk's eyes went wide as he discerned the intent. The Father Abbot wanted him to leap from the cliff, plummet to one particularly large tangle of powrie ships, enact the levitational malachite and the fire-shield serpentine, and then loose a fireball across the vessels.
"He'll not get close," Jojonah started to protest, but Markwart turned on him with such ferocity that the portly master abruptly backed away. Markwart was wrong in sending this young monk, Jojonah maintained privately, for the three-stone usage was more suited to an older and more experienced monk, an immaculate at least, or even a master. Even ifthe young man managed the diffi-cult feat, the explosion would not be extreme, a puff of flame, per-haps, and nothing to deter the powries.
"We have no options," Markwart said to the young monk. "That group of ships must be dealt with, and immediately, or our walls will be lost!"
Even as he spoke, a pair of powries came over the wall to the side. The immaculates fell over them at once, beating them down before they could get in defensive posture and then cutting free the ropes in the area. But still, Markwart's point had been clearly reinforced.
"They'll not notice you coming, except to think you were thrown over by one of their own," he explained. "By the time they realize the truth, they will be burning and you will be ascending."
The monk nodded, clutched the stones tightly and leaped up to the top of the wall. With a look back, he jumped far and high, plum-meting down the cliff face. Markwart, Jojonah, and several others rushed to the wall to watch his descent, and the Father Abbot cursed loudly when the malachite turned that plummet into the gentle fall of a feather in a stiff breeze -??with the monk still many yards above the deck level.
"Fool!" Markwart roared as the powries focused on the man, throwing spears and hammers, raising their small crossbows. To the young monk's credit - or perhaps because of his sudden terror, or perhaps because he simply did not possess the magical knowl-edge and strength - he did not reverse direction and begin floating back up the cliff, but continued down, down.
A crossbow bolt dove into his arm; a stone tumbled from his hand.
"The serpentine!" Jojonah cried.
The young monk, clutching his arm, twitching and turning in a futile effort to dodge the growing barrage, was obviously trying to float back up.
"No!" Markwart yelled at him.
"He has no shield against the fireball!" Jojonah yelled at the Father Abbot.
The young monk jerked spasmodically, hit by a crossbow bolt, then another, men a third, in rapid succession. His magical energy left him along with his life force, and his limp body dropped the rest of the way, bouncing off a powrie barge and into the dark wa-ters of All Saints Bay.
"Fetch me one of our peasant guests!" Markwart yelled at Brother Francis.
"He was not strong enough," Jojonah said to the Father Abbot. "That was no task for a mere novice. An immaculate might not complete such a feat!"
"I would send you, and be glad to be rid of you," Markwart screamed in his face, stunning him into silence. "But you are needed."
Brother Francis returned with a young villager, a man of about twenty, looking sheepish. "I can use a bow," the man said, trying to appear brave. "I have hunted deer - "
"Take this instead," Father Abbot Markwart instructed, handing him a ruby.
The man's eyes widened at the sight and smooth feel of the sa-cred stone. "I cannot..." he stammered, not understanding.
"But I can," snarled Markwart, and he held forth another stone, his mighty hematite, the soul stone.
The man looked at him blankly; Brother Francis, understanding enough to know that he should distract the peasant, smacked him hard across the face, knocking him to the ground.
Master Jojonah looked away.
Francis closed on the man, meaning to strike him again.
"It is done," the man announced, and Francis held back the blow and reverently helped him to his feet.
"Possession," Jojonah spat distastefully. He could hardly believe that Markwart had done this wicked thing, which was normally con-sidered the absolute darkest side of the hematite. By all edicts, pos-sessing another's body was an act to be avoided - indeed, an act that monks spirit- walking with hematite often guarded against by preparing other protective stones. And when he thought about what he had just seen, Jojonah could hardly believe that the possession, perhaps the most difficult of any known task for the gemstones, had been completed so easily!
The Father Abbot in the peasant's body walked calmly to the wall, glanced out over the edge to locate the greatest tangle of powrie vessels, then, without a moment's hesitation, calmly leaped over the side. No malachite this time, no screaming, no fear. The Father Abbot focused on the ruby as he plunged the hundred feet, bringing the stone's energy to a peak and loosing a tremendous, concussive fireball just before he slammed the deck. His spirit de-serted the peasant body immediately, flying through the flames, away from the agony and back to his own waiting form atop the seawall.
He blinked his tired old eyes open, acclimating to his own body and fighting past that instant of sheer terror when he had neared the powrie decks, when he consumed his own borrowed form in magical fires. All the monks around him, with the notable excep-tion of Master Jojonah, were cheering wildly, many looking over the wall at the burning mass of powrie vessels, uttering praises of disbelief that anyone could ignite so tremendous a fireball.
"It had to be done," Markwart said curtly to Jojonah.
The master didn't blink.
"To sacrifice one for the sake of others is the highest precept of our Order," Markwart reminded.
"To sacrifice oneself," Master Jojonah corrected.
"Go from this place, to the catapult crews," a disgusted Mark-wart ordered dismissively.
Though Jojonah realized that his stone skills were still needed up on the roof, he was glad to comply. He glanced back at Mark-wart many times as he departed, for while others were purely awestruck by the magical display, Jojonah, who had known Mark-wart for more than forty years, was simply confused, and more than a little suspicious.
There was one entrance to St.-Mere-Abelle from the wharf area at the level of All Saints Bay, but so great were the doors down there - oak wood, two feet thick and reinforced with metal banding, backed by a portcullis with pegs as thick as a man's thigh, and that backed by another falling wall, as thick and strong as the outer doors - that no powries, not even the huge fomorian giants, could have broken through them if they had spent a week at it.
That was assuming, however, that the doors were closed.
If they could have seen over the cliff well enough to spot the doors, neither Father Abbot Markwart nor Master Jojonah would have been surprised to see those great portals swing open in invita-tion to the groups of powries that had managed to escape the blast and drag themselves onto the rocky shore. In fact, both men had expected this very thing when Master De'Unnero had volunteered, indeed insisted, that he be the one heading the contingent of twelve at the low station guard post. That group had two ballistae, one on either side of the great doors, but their firing range was severely limited by the narrow scope of their shooting slits, and Markwart had known full well that De'Unnero would never be satisfied with launching a few, usually ineffective bolts.
So the young and fiery master had opened the doors, and now he stood exposed in the corridor just inside, laughing hysterically, daring the powries to enter.
A group of nearly a score of the bloody caps, battered already but never afraid, did come roaring in, brandishing hammers and axes and cruel short swords.
As the last of them passed under the portcullis, it fell with a re-sounding crash, its vibrations reaching all through the abbey, all the way up to the seawall.
Startled but not stopped, the bloody caps yelled all the louder and charged on. A dozen crossbow bolts whipped out into their ranks, taking down a few but hardly slowing the charge.
There stood De'Unnero, alone, laughing, his honed muscles straining so tightly against his skin that it seemed they might tear right through. Other monks, principally Master Jojonah, had often voiced their belief that De'Unnero's heart would simply explode, for the young master was too intense for the wrappings of any human coil. He seemed to fit that image now, verily trembling with inner energy. He held no weapon that the powries could see, only a single stone, a tiger's paw, smooth brown and with black streaks.
Now he brought forth the magic of that stone, and as the first powrie neared, De'Unnero's arms were transformed, taking the shape of the mighty forelegs of a tiger.
"Yach!"the lead powrie cried, lifting its weapon defensively.
De'Unnero was too quick for that, springing ahead like a hunting cat, slashing his right arm down across the powrie's face, tearing away its features.
The master seemed to go into a frenzy then, but in truth, he was in perfect control, springing from side to side to prevent any powries from getting past him, though a dozen other monks stood in the corridor to meet their charge. The stone had stayed with his transformed paw, melding to the skin, and De'Unnero fell deeper into its grasp now, and though his outward appearance changed no more, his inner muscles became those of the cat.
A swipe of his tiger arm sent one of the powries flying; with a flick of his leg muscles, he darted to the side, avoiding a smash from a hammer. Then a second muscular twitch brought him back in front of the attacking powrie before the startled dwarf had even lifted its hammer.
The claws raked viciously, and that powrie's face disappeared, too.
Those powries behind were giving ground now, but De'Un-nero's battle lust was far from sated. His legs twitched, launching him fully twenty- five feet ahead, landing in the midst of the dwarves. He became a whirlwind of flailing claws and kicking feet. Powries were no minor enemy, but though they outnumbered this creature nine to one, they wanted nothing to do with him. They scrambled and rushed. Two went back for the portcullis, crying to their comrades who were still outside, while several others stag-gered past the fighting De'Unnero, stumbling down the corridor, where they were met by a second volley of crossbow quarrels.
All but one of the monks dropped their crossbows and drew weapons for close melee, though a handful rushed forward to finish the dwarves with only their bare hands.
Farther down the corridor, De'Unnero held the last powrie standing before him by the head, between his great paws. His claws had dug right through the powrie's skull, and he whipped the creature back and forth now as easily as if it was a down-filled child's doll. Then he threw it aside and started an advance on the two at the portcullis.
Beyond them, a powrie leveled a blowgun and let fly, scoring a hit on De'Unnero's belly, just below his rib cage.
The monk roared, a tiger's roar, and tore the dart free, along with a considerable amount of flesh, continuing his determined ad-vance. The powrie gunner popped another dart into place; the two dwarves at the portcullis screamed and tried to squeeze through.
Then the inner sliding door fell, snapping the blowgun and squashing the two powries flat.
De'Unnero skidded to a stop as a spray of blood washed over him. He turned about and roared again, a battle cry that became a call of frustration as he realized that his soldiers had efficiently dealt with the remaining dwarves. The fight was over.
The fierce master came back fully to his human form, exhausted by the effort both physical and magical. He felt the profound sting in his belly then, a burning, washing sensation, and realized he had been poisoned. Most of that poison, a paralyzing and painful con-coction, had been defeated by the sheer energy of the magical transformations, but enough remained to bring such a fit of trem-bling to the monk that he was soon down on one knee.
His soldiers crowded around him, concerned.
"Man the ballistae!" he growled at them, and though De'Un-nero was fully human once more, his voice was as ferocious as the roar of the hunting tiger. The younger monks obeyed, and by sheer determination Master De'Unnero soon joined them, directing their shots.
With the main tangle of powrie vessels burning and out of the fight, the watching monks dispersed from that area, running to bol-ster the wall defenses wherever necessary. Many powries gained the wall through that long and vicious morning, but none found a lasting hold, and by midday, with still no sign of any approaching ground force, the outcome was no longer in doubt. The powries fought on, as powries always will, and more than fifty monks were slain, and several times that number injured, but the powrie losses were staggering, with more than half the thousand vessel fleet going to the bottom of All Saints Bay, and the hundreds that es-caped slipping out into deeper waters, manned by only skeleton crews.
By mid-afternoon Master Jojonah had joined with the other older monks proficient in stone use in tending the many wounded, while younger brothers had already organized burial detail for those beyond the help of the soul stones. The battle had slipped into its last stage, the cleanup, as the chaos of fighting died away. Soon the discipline of the brothers put the duties into order, pragmatic and efficient. One thing did strike Master Jojonah as curious, though. The Father Abbot, who had in his possession, Jojonah knew, the most powerful soul stone in all St.-Mere- Abelle, walked among the wounded and offered hopeful words, but seemed to be tending none. The concussive fireball, and a couple of other light-ning blasts that Markwart had screeched along the wall top, were hours old now, and so Markwart's remarks that he had no magical energy left made little sense.
The portly master could only shrug helplessly and shake his head, then, when Master De'Unnero arrived at the wall, his side torn open wide, though the fierce man was hardly limping or showing any sign that he felt any pain at all. Still, Markwart moved near and promptly sealed the wound with the soul stone. Jojonah had known that the bond between these two was tight, as tight as the one between the Father Abbot and Brother Francis.
He went about his work quietly, digesting it all, filing it away until he could find enough private time to properly reason it through.
"You insist upon thrusting yourself in danger's way," Markwart scolded De'Unnero as the gaping wound sealed under the influ-ence of the hematite.
"A man must find his enjoyment," the master replied with a mischievous grin. "Enjoyment you continue to deny me."
Markwart stepped back and looked harshly at him, under-standing the complaint all too well. "How goes the training?" he asked sharply.
"Youseff shows promise," De'Unnero admitted. "He is cunning and will use any weapon and any tactic to find victory."
"And Brother Dandelion?"
"A mighty bear, strong of arm but weak of mind," said De'Un-nero. "He will serve our purposes well, as long as Youseff guides his actions."
The Father Abbot nodded, seeming pleased.
"I could defeat them both together," De'Unnero asserted, steal-ing his superior's smug look. "They will hold the title of Brothers Justice, yet I could crush them both, and easily. And I could go and retrieve Avelyn and the gemstones."
Markwart had no practical argument against the claim. "You are a master, and have other duties," he said.
"More important than the hunt for Avelyn?"
"Equally important," Markwart said with a tone of finality. "Youseff and Dandelion will serve this purpose, if Master Marcalo De'Unnero properly trains them."
De'Unnero's face crinkled severely, his eyes narrowing, throwing imaginary daggers at the Father Abbot. He did not like to be questioned, not at all.
Markwart recognized the look, for he had seen it often. He knew, though, that De'Unnero would not cross him, and given that, such intensity could be put to good use.
"Let me go hunting," De'Unnero said plainly.
"You train the hunters," Markwart shot back. "Trust me, you will find rewards for your efforts." With that, the Father Abbot walked away.
"We were valiant this day," Master De'Unnero proudly offered to Markwart and the other masters at their summary meeting after vespers.
"But also fortunate," Master Jojonah reminded them all. "For neither the powrie ground force nor the goblin army that has been oft sighted in the region made its appearance."
"More than luck, I would reason," Francis piped in, though it was not the man's place to speak at such a meeting. Francis wasn't even an immaculate yet, after all, and was only at the meeting as an attendant of the Father Abbot. Still, Markwart made no move to silence him, and the other masters afforded him the floor. "This is uncharacteristic of our enemy," Francis went on. "Every tale from the battle lines north of Palmaris indicate that our mon-strous foes fight with cohesion and guidance, and it is obvious from the success of our ruse that those powrie ships were indeed waiting for the ground army to engage."
"Where, then, were - are - the enemy, ground armies?" Markwart asked impatiently. "Will we awake on the morrow to find that we are besieged once again?"
"The fleet will not return," another master responded immedi-ately. "And if the monsters come at us from the ground, they will find our fortifications even more formidable than those that pro-tected us by sea."
Master Jojonah happened to be looking at De'Unnero when these words were spoken, and was disgusted to see the man's al-most feral smile, a grin truly unbefitting a master of the Abellican Order.
"Triple the guard along the walls this night, land and sea," the Father Abbot decided.
"Many are weary from the fighting," said Master Engress, a gentle man and a friend of Jojonah's.
"Then use the peasants," Markwart snapped at him abruptly. "They have come in to eat our food and hide behind the shelter of abbey walls and brother flesh. Let them earn their keep at watch, this night and every night."
Engress looked at Jojonah and at several other masters, but none dared question Markwart's tone. "It will be done, Father Abbot," Master Engress said humbly.
The Father Abbot pushed his chair back forcefully, the legs screeching on the wooden floor. He rose and waved his hand dis-missively, then walked out of the room, the meeting at its end.
By Markwart's reasoning, all important business had been con-cluded. The man wanted to be alone with his thoughts, and with his emotions, some of which were troubling indeed. He had sent a man flying to his death this day, an act that still required a bit of rationalization, and he was also conscious of the fact that he had not been greatly involved in the healing process after the fight. There had remained magical energy within him - he had known that even as he spoke falsely to excuse himself - but he simply hadn'tfeltlike helping out. He had gone to one injured monk, a man sitting against the seawall, his arm badly torn from a sliding powrie grapnel, but when he moved to heal the man with the hematite, an action that required an intimate connection, he re-coiled, feeling... what?
Markwart had no practical answers, but he trusted in his in-stincts completely. There was a perversion, a weakness, growing within the Order, he realized. Avelyn - always it was that foul Avelyn! - had begun the rot, and now, it seemed, it was a more general thing than even he had believed.
Yes, that was it, the Father Abbot understood. They were growing weak and so full of compassion that they could no longer recognize and properly deal with true evil. Like Jojonah and his foolish sympathy for the peasant whose sacrifice had saved so many lives.
But not De'Unnero, Markwart thought, and he managed a smile. The man was strong, and brilliant. Perhaps he should con-cede to the man's wishes and let him be the one to hunt down Avelyn and the gemstones; with Marcalo De'Unnero set to the task, success would almost be assured.
The Father Abbot shook his head, reminding himself that he had other plans for the master. De'Unnero would be moved high in line as his successor, the Father Abbot silently vowed. As soon as he had seen De'Unnero's wounds, Markwart had desired to heal them, as though the sacred soul stone had called to him to act, had shown him the truth.
It was all sorting out neatly for Father Abbot Markwart. He made a mental note to properly eulogize the fireballing peasant, perhaps even to erect a statue in the man's honor, and then he went to bed.
He slept soundly.
Scouts went out from St.-Mere-Abelle the next day, scouring the countryside and then returning to report that no sign of mon-sters was to be found anywhere near the abbey. Within a week the situation was made clear: the powrie invasion force had gone back to their ships and departed - for where, no one knew. The goblin army, and indeed there was a huge force in the region, had frac-tured, with rogue bands running haphazard, sacking towns.
The Kingsmen, Honce-the-Bear's army, were tracking down the rogue bands one at a time and destroying them.
At St.-Mere-Abelle, the implications of this seemingly good news went far deeper.
"We must look to the source of our enemy's disarray," Father Abbot Markwart told his senior monks. "To the Barbacan and this rumored explosion."
"You believe that the demon dactyl has been destroyed," Master Jojonah reasoned.
"I believe that our enemy has been decapitated," Markwart replied. "But we must know the truth of it."
"An expedition," Master Engress stated plainly.
Brother Francis was the first out of the room, eager to put to-gether the plans for a trip to the Barbacan, eager, as always, to please the Father Abbot.
- The Loners
- The Saints
- Tome of the Undergates
- Black Halo
- The Skybound Sea
- If You Stay
- If You Leave
- Until We Burn
- Before We Fall
- Every Last Kiss
- Suspiciously Obedient
- Random Acts of Crazy
- Random Acts of Trust
- Her First Billionaire
- Her Second Billionaire
- Her Two Billionaires
- Her Two Billionaires and a Baby
- His Majesty's Dragon
- Throne of Jade
- Black Powder War
- Victory of Eagles
- Tongues of Serpents
- Empire of Ivory
- Crucible of Gold