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The Scarlet Tides

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The Scarlet Tides

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Author: David Hair
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books, 2013
Series: Moontide Quartet: Book 2

1. Mage's Blood
2. The Scarlet Tides
3. Unholy War
4. Ascendant's Rite

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Historical Fantasy
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The Moontide has come, and a scarlet tide of Rondian legions is flooding into the East, slaughtering and pillaging in the name of Emperor Constant. But the Scytale of Corineus, the source of ultimate magical power, has slipped through the emperor's fingers. His ruthless Inquisitors are desperately seeking the artefact, before it falls into the hands of those who would bring down the Empire. But there are some who have pledged to end the cycle of war and restore peace to Urte. They are the unlikeliest of heroes: a failed mage, a gypsy and a lowly market-girl. As East and West clash more violently than ever before, Urte will discover that love, loyalty and truth can be forged into weapons as deadly as swords and magic.


Noros, on the continent of Yuros
Julsep 928
1st month of the Moontide

Jeris Muhren, Watch Captain of Norostein, descended the clockwise-curving stairs. The darkened stairwell was narrow, damp, and treacherous. A dank, stale smell rose from below, along with the clank and clatter of stone and steel. It was early morning on a summer's day outside, but winter's cold still lurked in the dungeons of Norostein's Governor's Palace. There were no guards down here, unusually. Their absence made him wary, and he loosened his sword as he strode on.

He pushed open the door at the bottom of the stair and entered a small chamber, where he was surprised to find another before him: a youngish-looking man with a weak chin partially hidden by a wispy blond beard. His thin body was draped in heavy velvet robes and a gold band encircled his worry-creased brow.

Muhren hastily dropped to his knee. "Your Majesty," he murmured. What's he doing here?

"Captain Muhren," King Phyllios III of Noros responded formally. "Please, stand."

Muhren rose, puzzled. Phyllios III was a puppet ruler, with the governor's hand firmly up his ass--at least, that was the word on the street. The failed Revolt had broken the Noros monarchy, leaving the king a powerless sideshow in a decrepit palace. The Governor ruled Noros now, in the name of the emperor--but right now that same Governor was a prisoner in his own dungeons.

"My King, you should not be here."

Phyllios shrugged lightly. "The guards were ordered away an hour ago, Captain, and no one saw me arrive. I am not so confined to my palace as you might think."

Muhren blinked. Last day on the job and I'm still learning.

"How is our prisoner, Captain?" the king asked. His voice was tentative, but there was a certain vengeful cunning Muhren had not heard before. Phyllios had been a young man during the Revolt, when he had seen his people crushed. The Rondians made an example of him, forcing him to become a parade attraction: he had been flogged naked before his people before being forced to crawl before the emperor and beg forgiveness. That had broken whatever manner of man he might have become and turned him into a powerless cringer-- at least, so Muhren had once thought. Appointing the watch captain was one of the very few prerogatives left to the king and Muhren had been Phyllios's choice. That pact had revealed a stronger man than most knew, but he was still very cautious, even timid.

"He is deeply unhappy, my liege. Cold, uncomfortable, and very much afraid."

"Of whom? Surely not you or me." Phyllios's tone was self mocking, but not self-pitying.

"Of the Inquisition, my liege."

"Inquisitors are coming here?" Phyllios's calm wavered.

"Inevitably, my liege. He's an Imperial Governor, arrested for treason. They will most certainly be here in days, and they will take him away and break him in the process of deciding whether he is guilty of anything. The emperor cannot afford to permit any governor to appear to be acting beyond his authority."

Phyllios nodded gravely. "What will they learn from him, Captain?"

Ah, now that is the question. I don't care about anything else they might learn, but they will inevitably find out about Alaron, Cym, and the Scytale, and my own role in those events. And then all Hel will burst free.

But for your own safety, I can't tell you this, my King. Muhren had ransacked the governor's offi ces, to give himself a legitimate reason to arrest and imprison Vult in the aftermath of the struggle to reach the Scytale. Now he lied to his king. "There was nothing altogether startling in what we found, my liege, just evidence of the usual corrupt games men like Vult play. Cronyism. Backhanders. Illegal interests. Nothing that will rebound against the throne."

"How many people know he is here, Captain?" the king asked.

"Too many, my liege." Vult's arrest had been carried out with the help of a squad of soldiers on the outskirts of the city; that had been unavoidable. Muhren wasn't naïve enough to believe they would stay silent on the matter, especially as they had brought back two more bodies, Vult's accomplices, and buried Jarius Langstrit in a secret grave.

"Do you wish him to be questioned, Captain? By the Inquisitors, that is." Phyllios's eyes narrowed with a shrewdness he seldom displayed in public. "Is there aught he might say that would imperil you?"

Muhren hesitated. That's the thing, isn't it? "A trained Inquisitor can learn anything there is to learn, my liege. From anyone. If they decided there was something to be learned, they would question anyone connected." He met his king's eyes.

Phyllios nodded slowly, hinting at an astuteness few would have credited him. "I will miss you, Muhren. You've served Norostein well. I'll not find another like you."

Muhren bowed his head, suddenly feeling emotional. He'd put his heart and soul into the Norostein Watch, but the king was right: he had to be gone before the Inquisitors arrived. "I will ensure no trail leads back to you, my liege. And I will be gone by sunset."

"Farewell, Captain." Phyllios reached out and patted Muhren's arm, the closest to an affectionate gesture that Muhren had ever seen from the withdrawn, lonely man.

"Farewell sire. May you live forever."

Phyllios shook his head slightly. "No one cheats death, my friend. It is only a question of what we achieve in life, and of how we meet our end. These are the things that matter." He sighed heavily. "I will pray for you, and for the soul of our prisoner." Then he was gone.

It's how we meet our end...

Muhren composed himself for a few moments, then he turned to the opposite door and descended further into the dungeon. The king was right: the guards were gone. His boots echoed down the silent corridor.

Belonius Vult did not turn immediately when Muhren unlocked the door to his cell and entered. He shut the door behind him before appraising the governor coldly.

Vult was a pure-blood mage, twice Muhren's blood- rank and roughly four times as powerful. That was how things worked with the gnosis. We are literally a different breed to other men--and to each other. Some magi bore that difference with humility, placing their skills at the service of the whole, but most were like Vult: arrogant beyond belief. The deserving Blessed, unchallengeable, and utterly self-serving.

Vult turned at last, and his eyes blazed with fury as he recognized his visitor. His shoulders hunched as he drew in a deep breath and his hands unfurled in whatever gesture would accompany the devastating spell he ached to unleash. But he was imprisoned in a dungeon and bound by a Chain-rune, rendering him impotent. A Chain- rune usually only constrained one weaker than oneself, and Vult was far stronger than Muhren in gnostic abilities-- but it also prevented gnostic energies from replenishing, and Vult had been utterly exhausted when he had been captured. For perhaps the first time in his adult life, Belonius Vult was helpless.

Despite his plight, he retained a certain majesty. His robes might be soiled, his face dirty, and his hair and beard tangled, but his bearing was more regal than the king's. If he was afraid, it didn't show; Muhren could see only anger and vengefulness. He was obviously plotting exactly how he would visit retribution when someone inevitably intervened on his behalf.

"So, do you have the Scytale? Not that you would have the wit to understand it," Vult asked spitefully. "You sword- swinging oaf: do you not realize that the Inquisition is coming? They'll take it from you and pluck out your eyes for merely looking at it."

"Yours too, Vult."

"Langstrit died groveling," Vult jeered. "Eighteen years spent as an imbecile and he regained sanity just long enough to die at my hands. I wonder if he thought it worth it?"

"To keep the Scytale from you? I'm sure he did."

Vult scowled, and belatedly changed tactics. "Muhren, it's not too late for you. I've read treatises on the Scytale. I can unravel it and together we could use it. We're both men of Noros-- veterans of the same war. Together, we could use the Scytale to make Noros great-- the equal of Pallas."

Muhren had been expecting the offer, but he would not have trusted Belonius Vult with a single fiber of his being, not if he were the last man alive. "We don't need your help, Vult."

Vult's eyes flashed. "We? We, is it? Think what you're saying, man! Alaron Mercer is a green-bud--a failed mage. And that Rimoni bitch has barely a trickle of gnostic- blood. The little quim has no value at all. It's hardly a cabal to inspire fear in your enemies, is it? Let alone to make Mater-Imperia tremble. You need me, Muhren, if you're going to survive, let alone Ascend. You should be begging for my aid."

Muhren looked at him levelly. Vult might be considered devious and cunning, but he was entirely predictable in his lust for gain and glory, dangling dreams as bait, and always with himself at the center of the universe. "Where is Darius Fyrell?" he asked, the only question he had come to ask. In the battle for the Scytale, only Fyrell had escaped. He couldn't afford loose ends.

Vult sneered. "Fyrell? Out there, planning my rescue, of course. Seeking the opportunity to strike back."

"What did he know?"

"Everything," Vult told him, gloating.

Muhren considered that. Darius Fyrell had been Vult's man for a long time, so it was highly probable that he had known exactly what they hunted. He may even have been among those who had questioned General Jarius Langstrit during his secret incarceration.

Fyrell was a formidable mage--a necromancer, primarily--and a total blackguard. His loyalty to Vult was not blind, but it was strong. Tesla Anborn had burned him badly, but necromancers were deathmages: they could survive dreadful injuries. He did not doubt that Fyrell was out there somewhere, and quite capable of launching a one- man assault on these dungeons.

"Where was your rendezvous point?"

"There was none," Vult replied with a satisfied smile. "We were in constant communication-- arranging a meeting point was needless." He looked down his nose at Muhren, taking in the bandages, the dented armor, and bruised face. "He's probably in better shape than you are."

"Who else knew?"

Vult considered the question like a lord contemplating the request of a vassal. "Besko. He's dead now; Langstrit burned his face off . Koll... I know not, nor care. The little shit had his uses, but his role was-- well, shall we say temporary."

"No others?"

Vult rubbed his chin. "None."

Muhren exhaled heavily. "Good." He drew his dagger.

Vult's face changed utterly as the realization struck him that he was not immortal aft er all. His cheeks went ashen and his eyes bulged in their sockets. Beads of sweat erupted like boils on his brow. "No--Muhren, think--! The riches--"

He tried to dodge away, but he was no warrior, and without the gnosis he was no stronger than any other man. Muhren grabbed his collar and pinned him to the wall with his left hand. His right brought the dagger to Vult's left breast.

"Jeris-- no! Please-- " Vult's legs gave way and the front of his robes darkened as his bladder emptied. His panicked eyes locked on Muhren's, pleading desperately.

He drove the wide blade in, punching through cloth and flesh until it skewered the madly pumping muscle beneath. Scarlet soaked the robes around the wound. With his gnosis powers exhausted, the governor was unable to call on whatever powers he would normally have invoked. His eyes emptied slowly, and Muhren let the dead weight slide down the wall. The smell of feces filled the room as the dying mage voided his bowels. His last breath bubbled out, and a trickle of blood spilled from the corner of his mouth as his legs quivered and kicked once, then he lay there, lifeless to the naked eye.

Using his gnosis, Muhren saw a faint mist forming at the man's lips and nostrils. He focused his will and spoke a single word: "Dissipate." Nothing dramatic happened, nothing more than an unseen wind, a breeze, that blew the mist away before it could form an entity that might linger. This spell could only be cast at the point of death, and it meant no ghost would haunt the body of the governor; there would be nothing for an Inquisitor to summon back and question. Vult was utterly dead. Not even his necromancer friend Fyrell could restore him now.

Muhren pulled the dagger out and wiped it clean on Vult's sleeve. He'd killed before, many times, with blade and gnosis: he'd been a soldier in the Revolt, and there'd been the odd criminal resisting arrest since. But he'd never been involved in anything so coldblooded as this. He felt soiled, as if Vult's blood were staining his soul.

He sheathed the dagger and walked away. He left his badge of office in the upper chamber, to be returned to the king. His house was already emptied of anything that held meaning to him. A pair of packs were strapped to the horse waiting in the courtyard above. There was a funeral to attend, and then the road awaited.


Alaron Mercer stood and watched his mother burn.

It was customary to burn the bodies of magi before they were interred. No mage wanted to be bound after death to serve some necromancer or wizard as a slave- familiar; burning the body helped dissipate the soul, allowing it to move on rather than leaving it vulnerable to summoning and control. But watching his mother's cremation, knowing that she'd loved him in her harsh way, was horrible. He could feel tears etching his cheeks.

Alaron was a young man of middling height and light build, though he was gradually filling out. Thick reddish hair framed a face that was slowly losing its boyish uncertainty, a firm jaw and cheekbones emerging from beneath the puppy-fat. He was clad in traveling gear, with a sword at his side. He had been failed as a mage, banned from practicing the gnosis, but an amber periapt was tucked inside his shirt nevertheless. He hadn't failed through incompetence but because of corruption, and this would no longer deter him. He would be what he was meant to be; let the authorities stop him if they could.

To his left stood Pars Logan, a veteran of the Revolt; he'd organized the funeral. His shoulders were stooped now, and his spine curved, and the wind lift ed what was left of his fine gray hair, but he stood as straight as he could. He'd known Tesla Anborn since the First Crusade, when she'd lost her eyes and a little of her sanity, but loyalty was everything to men like him.

On Alaron's right was Ramon Sensini. His small, thin frame was planted solidly, his lean, dark features and stoic expression older than his eighteen years. Ramon was Silacian, his mage- blood the result of his tavern- girl mother's rape. Despite his ignoble birth he was richly dressed. Aft er graduating from the Arcanum, he had returned to his home village, and as the only mage there, he had prospered. His graduation had been conditional on his serving in the Crusade and now he was dressed in the scarlet and black of a Rondian battlemage. He was off to join his legion that very day.

The only other man present was a Kore priest, a non-mage cleric barely older than Alaron. He looked bored as he ran through the rites, but he was watching every movement hawkishly. No doubt he had someone to report to; the death of a mage was always noteworthy news to someone. The burning grounds of Lower Town were on the shores of Lake Tucerle, where most of the poor spread their ashes, but Tesla's would be interred in the Anborn family vault, behind the family manor out in the countryside. Alaron could not stay, but Pars had promised to lay her to rest there himself.

As the sun came up, the pyre collapsed in on itself and the skeleton that was emerging from the raging flames fell into the midst of the blaze, sending heat rolling off in waves.

As Alaron choked back a sob, his shoulders shaking, Ramon put a hand on his shoulder. "Amici, my windship leaves in an hour. I need to be on it," he said in a gentle voice, devoid of the lively wit that normally colored his words.

Alaron nodded. He felt hollowed out, but at the same time, he felt readier than he ever had to face whatever life threw at him next. His mother was dead and his father was hundreds of miles away. The girl he'd loved had broken his heart, then stolen the greatest treasure in the world. His best friend was about to go to war, and the Inquisition was on its way-- and yet, despite all this, he felt oddly prepared. "I understand. I just need a moment longer." He faced Ramon and hugged him to him. "Thank you," he whispered as tears continued to roll from his eyes.

"Take care of yourself, amici. And give Cym a good spanking when you catch up with her," Ramon added with a twitch of his mouth. "Who knows, she might enjoy it."

"I wish you were coming with me."

"Me too, amici, but I'll be dead if I don't go to the legion." Not only was Ramon's adopted paterfamilias the head of a dreaded Silacian familioso; he also had Ramon's mother in his hands. He had insisted Ramon go on Crusade, and Ramon had no choice but to obey.

They hugged a final time, made promises about contacting each other, and then the Silacian hurried away, leaving Alaron to stare glassily into the cremation fire as the wind rolled across the lake, flattening the waves.

The glow was dying down and the sun rising above the mountains surrounding the wide sloping valley when Jeris Muhren joined him. The Watch Captain cut a heroic figure, even dressed for the road. His stallion snorted impatiently as he dismounted and strode to Alaron's side and the other horse tethered to the rails sidled nervously. Alaron's horse was smaller, thinner and far less impressive; they were a mirror of their masters.

Muhren made a Kore-genuflection to the pyre, his face solemn. "She was a good woman," he observed. "A true- hearted daughter of Noros."

"Da mostly brought me up on his own," Alaron replied. "Ma was just this... scary thing." He wiped at his eyes. "She found it hard to love." His throat caught. "So did I," he admitted.

"What she endured would have marred anyone. That she retained her dignity and morality is a tribute to her, and to Vann. Few men would have given her the love and support he did, for so little in return." Muhren put a hand on his shoulder. "They both had my utmost respect. I thought of Vann as a brother. He was immense during the Revolt, despite worrying constantly for you and Tesla at home." He gave a rueful smile. "Indeed, I hoped to be his brother in truth by marrying Tesla's sister, your Aunt Elena. However, my feelings were not returned."

Alaron wanted to ask more, but for now it could wait. "We should go," he said. "If you've done all you have to?" They both knew what he meant.

Muhren nodded grimly. "It's done. The alarm won't be raised until we've left the city, provided we leave within the hour."

Belonius Vult is dead. Alaron thought about that. The Traitor of Lukhazan, finally given what he deserved. He couldn't help a hard smile forming at the thought. Let the bells ring out.

After one final silent farewell he turned his back on the pyre, hugged the old soldier and then went to his horse. The stallion was nipping at it belligerently, but Muhren curbed its aggression with a word. They swung easily into the saddles and the warm westerly wind tousled their hair as they turned to face it.

"We'll leave by Hurring Gate," Muhren said, fixing his cloak-clasp.

Alaron nodded, but his mind was already questing ahead, returning to the question that had been plaguing him for the last three days. Where are you, Cym?

They were well into the countryside, trotting through woodland fringing the golden wheat fields that sprawled beneath the foothills of the Alps, when behind them arose a distant clamor: the bells of the city greeting the death of its most hated son.

Copyright © 2013 by David Hair


The Scarlet Tides



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