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Voyage of the Shadowmoon

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Voyage of the Shadowmoon

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Author: Sean McMullen
Publisher: Tor, 2002
Series: The Moonworlds Saga: Book 1

1. Voyage of the Shadowmoon
2. Glass Dragons
3. Voidfarer
4. The Time Engine

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Sean McMullen, one of Australia's leading genre writers, took America by storm with his sweeping Greatwinter Trilogy, a post-apocalyptic science fiction tour de force that won over critics and readers alike.

Now McMullen delivers Voyage of the Shadowmoon, a fantasy epic of daunting skill and scope. The Shadowmoon is a small, unobtrusive wooden schooner whose passengers and crew are much more than they seem: Ferran, the Shadowmoon's lusty captain who dreams of power; Roval, the warrior-sorcerer; Velander and Terikel, priestesses of a nearly extinct sect; and the chivalrous vampire Laron, who has been trapped in a fourteen-year-old body for seven hundred years.

They sail the coast, gathering useful information, passing as simple traders. But when they witness the awful power of Silverdeath, an uncontrollable doomsday weapon of awesome destructiveness, they realize they must act. But every single king, emperor, and despot covets Silverdeath's power. It will take all of their wits and more than a little luck if they hope to prevent one of these power-hungry fools from destroying the world. Their only advantage? The Shadowmoon.

While it seems to be little more that a small trading vessel--too small for battle, too fat for speed--it is actually one of the most sophisticated vessels in the world, one that allows them to travel to places where no others would dare. They can only hope it will be enough to save them all before Silverdeath rains destruction across their entire world.


Voyage of the Shadowmoon

The walls of Larmentel had withstood the invading army of Emperor Warsovran for five months. Stone gargoyles poked tongues and bared buttocks at the besiegers beyond the outer walls, as its nobles sipped wine from glazed pottery goblets shaped in the likeness of the severed head of the invading emperor. Their confidence was justified. Larmentel had stood unconquered for the entire six hundred years since its foundation.

The city lay at the center of the continent of Torea. It was both beautiful and massive, with a high, crenellated outer wall circling the cisterns, market gardens, and storehouses that supplied its citizens. The citadel wall protected the inner city, where temples, palaces, and mansions built of white stone blocks rose in terraces to look out over the surrounding plain to distant mountains in the northeast. Larmentel was rich as well as powerful, and had been built to be pleasing to behold as well as strong. The warehouses were mighty domed cathedrals to honor prosperity, all built of white stone. They were clustered in the center of the city, as if they were palaces in themselves.

Einsel and Cypher watched the progress of the siege engines in the predawn light. They were standing just outside the range of a good crossbow in competent hands. Having lost a lot of men to direct assault, and several unwisely rude diplomats to direct negotiation, Warsovran's commanderwas resorting to machinery to take the walls. The three siege engines were towers of wooden beams, armored on three sides and crowned by a hinged bridge that would let the cream of Warsovran's storm climbers charge across and establish a bridgehead on the walls. The three towers were rolled forward together, approaching the wall like ponderous, powerful titans.

"When I see engines such as these, I sometimes doubt the power of our leaders' brains," admitted Einsel, who was Emperor Warsovran's court sorcerer.

"When I see engines such as these, I always doubt the power of our leaders' brains," Cypher replied.

Both men were dressed in drab armor, with only the colored plumes fixed to the back of their helmets to distinguish them as nobility. After all, there was no sense in calling attention to oneself on a battlefield, where officers and nobles were prime targets for marksmen. Einsel's armor was illfitting, as he was somewhat shorter and thinner than most warriors. Indeed, he reminded many of a child dressed up in his father's war gear, but nobody said it aloud. This was actually his first time on a battlefield, which was a sign of how desperate the situation had become. On the other hand, Cypher was as concerned about his identity as his safety. Beneath his helmet his face was veiled with maroon cloth, leaving only his eyes visible.The towers were almost close enough to drop their bridges onto Larmentel's walls when the thing appeared, a delicate-looking structure of beams and ropes, rather like the head and neck of a gigantic wading bird. It hoisted a huge beam of wood with stylized eagle talons on one end, and lowered it between the middle tower and the wall. Moments later two similar cranes stopped the two other towers in exactly the same way.

"The problem would seem to be that the honorable profession of applied engineering was invented in Larmentel's university," Cypher said.

"Ah, the University of Larmentel, I did my degree in etheric shaping there," sighed Einsel, whose mind had drifted away from the battle. "A truly lovely place."Larmentel contained one of the five universities in Torea, but rather than being all dingy halls and overgrown, rambling colleges, the University of Larmentel was a cluster of slender, graceful towers joined at several levels by suspension walkways."I can see its towers from here," said Cypher. "Who would think that they are more deadly than all the spears of an army?"

"Did you know that the towers were meant to symbolically put learningabove everyday life?" asked Einsel. "Some of the finest scholars in Torea's history were taught within them. The university shares the citadel with the royal palace--it's that great pile of domes, balconies, and towering archways. Part of the palace is set aside for citizens of Larmentel to visit, so anyone can walk the balconies of royal splendor and fancy themselves to be kings and queens for a few moments as they look out over the city to the plains beyond."

"Beautiful towers, but deadly," said Cypher.

"True. Even though they hide no weapons, and they are not even fortified."

"Indeed. The engineers trained therein are better than ours."

As if to confirm his words, an immense dragon's head on a long green neck appeared, dangling from another spindly crane. The mouth trailed smoke as it was swung over the wall, to reach out past the middle tower. The head swiveled, and a stream of smoky fire poured out of the dragon's mouth and into the open and undefended back of the tower. The two hundred storm climbers and archers within were set ablaze within seconds by the cascade of lamp oil, pitch, and sulfur. The tower was blazing and beyond recovery as the dragon head turned toward the next tower. The engineers controlling it need not have bothered, for those inside were already flinging their weapons away and leaping for their lives.

A torrent of flame poured into the back of the next tower, while those who had been pushing the third tower forward were now straining to pull it back away from the wall. Grapples had already been flung out over the wall, however, and the tower was immobilized. The dragon head slowly moved back toward the tower, which by now had been completely abandoned. Moments later it had become a pyre of bright flames, like its two companions.

"Only those storm climbers and archers who began fleeing when the first tower was burned have survived," Einsel pointed out."Cowards," sneered Cypher. "War is for heroes."

"War is the way that gods breed cowards," said Einsel."How so?"

"Cowards are less likely to die, so they survive to breed."

"They go home conquered."

"The cowards of both sides go home alive, which is what I hope to do. There they breed. Only the victorious heroes do that."

As they stood watching the rout of their own forces, a despatch rider came up at a canter and reined in."Most Learned Rax Einsel, your presence is required by Commander Ralzak," he called. "And sir, are you the one known as Cypher?"

"That is my name."

"Commander Ralzak requires your presence as well."The young officer continued on as Einsel and Cypher returned to their horses."Ralzak must be growing desperate," said Einsel. "He despises his sorcerers even more than his engineers."

Agarif Ralzak was Warsovran's commander-in-chief. He had watched his siege engines and storm climbers thrown back from Larmentel's beautiful but solid outer walls in every attack so far, and those defeats had cost him dearly. The kingdoms of the southwest had been biding their time to see whether Larmentel would fall to the invaders' onslaught, but now they were beginning to lose their fear of Warsovran's forces, and to rally. Sitting on the thick Vidarian rug in his tent, Ralzak read the reports of his diplomats and spies while Silverdeath stood beside the open flap, gleaming with the sheen of quicksilver and somehow seeing through blank, reflective eyes. The walls, terraces, domes, towers, and spires of Larmentel were plainly visible in the distance, blushing red with the sunrise.

Ralzak looked from the city to Silverdeath. Silverdeath had the shape of a man, and was wearing Warsovran's band-plate armor and battle-ax over a black tunic. In the five months since he had become Silverdeath's master and assumed command over Warsovran's forces, Ralzak had been afraid to use his strange new warrior. For three years Warsovran had devoted fifty thousand slaves and ten thousand men-at-arms to digging it out from under a rockslide in the Seawall Mountains. Thus whatever it was, it had value and probably immense power, but Ralzak was just as unhappy fighting alongside the unfamiliar as against it.

When discovered, Silverdeath had had the form of a strange metal tunic of circles, hooks, and mirror facets, but when Ralzak had helped Warsovran to put it on, the fabric had melted and flowed to become a skin of flexible metal that covered the emperor completely. What remained of the emperor was his shape alone. A hollow, ringing voice had declared that its name was Silverdeath, and that it was ready to do Ralzak's bidding.

Ralzak was totally unprepared for this magical warrior. He hurriedlyannounced that Warsovran was wearing a new type of armor, and everyone but Ralzak thought Warsovran to be alive and still in charge within his fantastic skin of living metal. His famed judgment and acumen were gone, however, and the alliances that had been formed by the brilliant and charismatic emperor were rapidly weakening. Warsovran was now only a figurehead, and he gave no commands. For the past five months Ralzak had been discovering that he, too, was not Warsovran's equal.

"I never asked to become the supreme commander," Ralzak confided to Silverdeath. "I'm just a soldier. I know my place and my place is not here."

"Agreed," replied Silverdeath in a flat, metallic voice.

Is it mocking me? Ralzak wondered helplessly. "Defeating a few of the homeland's neighbors, expanding our borders to advantage, that was my forte. Conquer a continent? I know neither why nor how. What would you do?"

"I cannot advise. I am only to be used."

Ralzak had heard those words before. He considered carefully, looking back to Larmentel. The city had to fall, but he did not need its people or wealth. Nor did he want the luxury of its mansions and towers for his own dwellings. In his own way he was a simple man, fond of life in the field with his troops, and politically unambitious.

"Can you destroy my enemies?" asked Ralzak, gazing over at Larmentel again.His voice was muted, as if he were just muttering his thoughts aloud. Silverdeath regarded him with the blank, metallic sheen of its face.

"The feat is at the limit of my powers," Silverdeath explained in its flat yet ominous voice."So, you can do it," replied Ralzak.


Ralzak stood up and glared out through the tent flap at the distant walled city. "Larmentel is the strongest city in all Torea. With Larmentel gone, my other enemies are mere chaff to be swept up and burned. How quickly could you break Larmentel?"

"In minutes."Ralzak turned and blinked, his lips parted slightly. Silverdeath remained impassive. The metallic sheen that enclosed the head of what once had been Ralzak's master had the outline of human form, and Ralzak wondered if the man beneath was still aware of what was happening."So when can you, ah, strike?" Ralzak asked tentatively, when the silence began to lengthen.

"Now," replied Silverdeath, taking a step toward the tent flap.

"No, no," Ralzak said, with a hurried wave of his hands. "I want my troops positioned, ready to take whatever advantage you can give them."

"Not necessary," Silverdeath assured him.

"I still want to be prepared in my own way before you strike," Ralzak insisted.

"I am yours to command," replied Silverdeath.

Ralzak considered the incredible offer as he began pacing before the flap of his tent, favoring Larmentel with a scowl at every pass. What was there to lose? Silverdeath had said that conquering the city was at the limit of its abilities, so it would be exhausted and harmless when done, regardless of whether or not Larmentel had fallen. At last he beckoned to Silverdeath and they went outside together. Cypher was there, still wearing nondescript robes and armor, with his face obscured. Einsel stood beside him, looking fearful.

"Learned Einsel, I am about to give Silverdeath its first real test," Ralzak announced. "Do you have any advice?"

"Ah yes, esteemed lordship," replied Einsel, bowing and rubbing his hands together.

"And that is?"


"You have been giving that advice ever since Silverdeath was found. Can you not say anything new?"

"Ah, take it to the mountains, leave it at the bottom of a very deep ravine, and bury it with a very large rockslide."

"That is what the previous master of Silverdeath did."

"Very sensible of him," said the little sorcerer, bowing yet again to emphasize that his reply was not sarcasm--even though it was.

"Einsel, I want to hear you say something other than 'Don't'!" snapped the commander.

"Well, then, what about, 'Do not use it, esteemed lordship'?"

"I am rapidly losing patience! What operational advice do you have regarding Silverdeath?"

"Stand well back," said the sorcerer with a shrug."Cypher, do you have any suggestions?" Ralzak asked, turning away from the nervous and miserable little man."No, esteemed lordship," the masked man replied with studied deference."But you located it for us."

"I'm learning, too. From your mistakes."

Ralzak scowled. Cypher's expression was not visible beneath his mask and hood.

"Experience is an expensive school, yet fools are always clamoring to get in," Einsel cautioned."Are you mocking me?" demanded the commander, rounding on him.

"No, esteemed lordship, but I am trying to warn you," responded Einsel, staring the noble in the face this time.

Ralzak blinked. It was the first time he had known Einsel to stare anyone in the face for the entire fifteen years he had known him. "I cannot understand why you are so frightened," he said, folding his arms behind his back and turning away to scowl at Larmentel again.

"Commander, we barely understand the most basic features of this thing," cautioned Einsel. "All the ancient authorities do agree that it is immensely powerful, however."

"Rax, we don't understand why fire burns wood but not rock," said Ralzak dismissively, "yet we still use fire to cook, light our way at night, warm ourselves, and burn the towns of our enemies. The test will go ahead. Is there anything you would like to do?"

"I would greatly desire to stand well back."

"I meant, in the way of magical tests?"

"I should like to stand well back behind a very large rock, to test its ability to keep me safe."

Ralzak's preparations took two hours. Men on active, relief, and sleep shifts were all ordered to strap on armor and stand ready. The infantry were deployed at five strategic points to prevent the escape of anyone from the city, while elite lancers were stationed to ride for any breaches the enemy might make. Storm climbers with ladders and water-shields stood in closest of all. It was the eighth hour of morning before Ralzak was ready. Wearing his full skirmishing armor and standing with his battle-ax drawn, he faced Silverdeath before a small group of senior officers and nobles.

"Do your worst, destroy my enemies," he commanded, pointing with his battle-ax to the undefeated walls of Larmentel. "Today I will walk into the royal palace of Larmentel and spit at the feet of its king as the allconquering victor.

"Those close enough to hear began to cheer his words mechanically. Silverdeath's skin began to shimmer, then crawl, as if tiny silver ants were swarming over it. Its head slowly expanded, transforming into a shimmering silver globe. Those nearby began backing away, and Ralzak noticed that its hands had become white. Even as he watched, white skin was alsoexposed at the neck. Warsovran's jaw became visible, and by now the globe had expanded into a sphere the size of a small tent. Commander Ralzak stood his ground, watching as the mouth, nose, and eyes of Warsovran, the mighty emperor himself, were exposed. As Silverdeath detached itself from its host, Warsovran's body toppled to the ground and lay still.

Silverdeath floated free, a globe that shimmered and trembled like a soap bubble, and when it was the size of a house it began to drift upward and over toward the besieged city. Ralzak thought it was growing translucent, and soon it was so high and insubstantial that it was no longer visible at all. The sky was blue over Larmentel, and all seemed serene and calm. Ralzak began to wonder if Silverdeath might be playing some humiliating hoax on him. A half hour passed, then another quarter hour. All through the besieging army, the rank and file began to mutter.

"Can't wait to loot it," drawled Colcos as he stood ready with his spear, gazing wistfully at the distant towers.

"Its women are famed throughout Torea," added Manakar, licking his lips."They say its cellars hold enough wine to float a deepwater trader," sighed Lurquor."Their windows have glass in 'em," said Colcos. "You ever broken a glass window?"

"Can't say I have," conceded Manakar."Grand sound, so satisfying."

"You never broke one."

"Yes I did! I spent two years as a slave in a salt quarry to pay back its value."

"They say it could be today," interjected Lurquor.

"What could be today?" asked Colcos."The big attack, the big one that cracks 'em."

"It's already happened," Manakar pointed out. "Their armored engines burned our towers down to the wheels."

"Burned the wheels, too," said Colcos.

"Any city that can afford to pour boiling wine on us as we climb the siege ladders is a long way from being cracked," Manakar concluded with a sneer."They say Warsovran and Ralzak have a new weapon," Lurquor protested. "The thing that floated up from the command tent and over to the city."

"'They,' 'they,' 'they'--who are 'they'?" demanded Manakar."Folk who knows."

"Well, if it's that small, then it's not going to be any use against--" Colcos began.With the abrupt, shocking swiftness of a bolt of lightning, a huge, circular rent burst open in the sky above Larmentel, spilling a curtain of brilliance that swept outward from a point above the palace. Abruptly it winked out. In its place was a towering column of yellow-and-crimson flames as a firestorm burst through roofs and poured through windows and archways. A blazing-hot wind flung heavy tiles about like leaves and turned great wooden beams to ash within the moments it took for the shattering thunderclap to reach Ralzak's army and shake each warrior like a blow from a mace. Most men flung themselves down in reflexive alarm, others stood petrified with fear. Breakers of flame cascaded outward, sweeping along the streets and out to the citadel walls where they burst like waves on the shore, then rose high into the sky. To the amazement of the besieging army, the circular wall of fire then curled back upon itself to focus above the very center of Larmentel. All that was left was smoke, which boiled up into the sky above the city like a mighty, malignant tree. The heat had been so intense that it scalded the faces of the nearest besiegers. Larmentel's heart was burned out. The circle of fire had spilled across a third of a mile at the center, its edges rolling upward, then backward. It was as if the flood of burning had been on a spring that had reached its limit.The thunder's echoes took many moments to die away across the plain, then for a short time there was complete silence."Shit," said Colcos."Shit me," said Lurquor."Shit me senseless," said Manakar.Someone nearby gave a strangled squawk that may have been a gasp for breath, but which those around him took to be a cheer. Their cheers quickly spread in both directions around the army encircling Larmentel as the troops realized this thing of hellfire was not to be feared, but was on a leash held by their commander. They cheered their invincibility under the command of Ralzak and Warsovran, they cheered the fall of Larmentel, and they cheered the end of a siege that would waste not one more of their lives."Brilliant!" shouted Ralzak. "The greatest of strongholds in all of Torea, annihilated!"Riders were immediately despatched with a demand for surrender, but all gates were already open and the surviving defenders streaming out of thecity. Larmentel had been stabbed through the heart, and its citizens were bleeding out through its walls.Suddenly Ralzak realized that Warsovran was standing beside him, pale and thin yet somehow looking very healthy--even youthful. Ralzak dropped to his knees."You did well," the monarch who had brought down a dozen kings said hoarsely."Emperor Warsovran!" exclaimed Ralzak, now standing again to support his unsteady and swaying leader. "Sire! Are you all right? At'rik! Here, bring a medicar, now!"

"No medicar," whispered Warsovran, waving the man back. "Silverdeath was medicar enough. It is good to its host bodies, Ralzak."

"Your Majesty, how can I ever apologize enough for commanding you for all these months past?" moaned Ralzak, genuinely mortified."You commanded the machine, not me," replied Warsovran as he glanced across to the writhing nightmare of smoke and dust that was rising above Larmentel. "And no harm was done."

"Oh, indeed, Emperor, and many of your men have been saved by Silverdeath's magic. You can now enter Larmentel in triumph."

"No, I must return to my capital," said Warsovran as he beckoned for a horse. "You will remain here."

"But... But Larmentel has fallen. Sire, the triumph--"

"Is yours, Commander Ralzak. Stay here, do what you will with the city. Make an example of it for all others to know and fear. You are Silverdeath's commander, after all."Ralzak glanced about for a figure with his face veiled with maroon cloth, but Cypher was nowhere to be seen."When Silverdeath first made you its host, Cypher was shouting at you to obey him," Ralzak confided to his commander."Was he indeed? And what did you do?"

"I had him thrown out of the tent for insolence."

"And Silverdeath accepted you as master? Curious. What did you do that Cypher did not? No spells, chants, castings, incantations... Curious, very curious."For all his feigned puzzlement, Warsovran did know Silverdeath's secret. One did not wear Silverdeath to become its master, one provided it with a host, then commanded it. Ralzak had helped Warsovran to put on Silverdeath. The person who puts it on the host becomes the weapon'smaster. Warsovran said nothing. There was a great deal Ralzak did not need to know."Is Cypher nearby?" Warsovran asked."Yes," replied Einsel. "I was speaking with him only minutes ago."

"Have him killed, Ralzak. He knows enough to be dangerous."

"Consider it done, sire," declared Ralzak.Cypher was in fact quite close, but hidden from view by those crowding around. Upon hearing his death sentence he slipped away, reversing his trail cloak to display military blue as he walked, and removing his helmet and masking of cloth. He had not concealed his face to hide his identity, but to be able to flee unknown when he removed the mask. He secured a new plume for his helmet and a fresh warhorse at the cost of two lives. Within a minute of hearing his death ordered, Cypher had become just another despatch rider. Many such officers were riding about with messages and orders, so nobody thought it odd that one more was riding away west. By this time Warsovran was pointing above the city."Silverdeath is still up there," he said to Ralzak."I do not understand, sire."

"I shall write out a series of incantations for you to make just before the eighth hour of morning on certain days over the months to come. They will invoke Silverdeath in ever more powerful and frequent fire-circles. You must invoke it again and again until its energies are exhausted, and then it will fall from the sky above the city in its original form. When that happens, find it and bring it to me. Einsel, you will ride with me now."

"But, Your Majesty, how do you know all this?" asked Ralzak.

"I wore Silverdeath for five months, Commander, and in that time I shared some of its thoughts."The ink was still wet on his scroll of instructions as Warsovran set off with Einsel, accompanied by a strong escort from Ralzak's personal guard. Ralzak rode in triumph through the main gates of the city's outer wall at the head of a squad of heavy lancers. Larmentel now reminded him of a powerful and exquisitely beautiful queen in the grip of a deadly wasting disease. Except for the inner citadel, the place was intact and brimming with wealth and potential slaves, yet its spirit had been burned away. Welldressed families hurried along with whatever they could carry down the straight, clean streets and across pretty, ivy-smothered plazas, all prey for the long-frustrated and unsympathetic troops of Warsovran. There were occasional piercing screams and cries of pain mingling with cheers andhearty laughter, and fires burned that were nothing to do with Silverdeath's stunning feat of martial magic.Closer to the center, Ralzak looked toward the ruins of the citadel walls... the long, straight avenue was lined with the burning stumps of trees. The mighty ironbound gates of oak had been blown out and burned to ash, and beyond was a glowing ruin. The stubs of the university towers looked like burned-out candles, while the palace domes might have been a nest of huge, smashed eggs. Ralzak rode as close as he could urge his horse, noticing that the buildings touched by Silverdeath's fire were not just smashed, but partly melted as well, and heat radiated out from them as if from a baker's oven. Nearby houses had been set ablaze by the radiant heat, and the roadway was littered with the charred corpses of those who had been too close.

Finally Warsovran's commander dismounted and, wrapping his cloak about his head, strode toward the citadel's gates while a retinue of guards and aides begged him to come back. The hot air was barely breathable, yet oddly free of fumes. The soles of his warboots smoked as he trod the hot stones of Larmentel's devastated heart. Ralzak finally stopped just within the palace gates, spat, and turned back."I vowed I would spit in the royal palace as victor, and I have kept my vow!" he declared to the officers, guards, and aides around him as he swung back into the saddle. Parts of his clothing were singed where they had brushed hot stones, and the soles of his boots were charred and crumbling, yet standing in the palace and spitting on the royal sanctum was all the reward the dour, steady commander had wanted.Upon leaving the city, Ralzak declared his eyes closed for three days, then gave his men the freedom of what was left of Larmentel.

Nearly two months later, at the western port city of Gironal, Roval Gravalios stood waiting in the shadows of a dockside street, his tricorner hat pulled low over his face and the black lace collar of his cloak turned up. The air in the port was chilly, but there was something else nearby that was making him shiver. He was by now no stranger to the feeling. Miral was rising in the east, and its huge, ringed disk cast green light and inky shadows all along the street.From one of the terrace cottages in the distance came screams and curses.Roval strained to hear the words as he waited. The gist of it involved hidden money, drinking, feeding the children, and someone wanting to go back to the tavern. Somewhere nearby a crier rang two hours before midnight and added that all was well.The argument became screams and thumps, then the screams faded to silence. Presently a burly docker about a head taller than Roval came swaggering down the street, and he tipped the brim of his cap deferentially as he passed the ship's officer. Roval caught the scent of ale as the docker walked on.Suddenly a dark shape detached itself from a balcony and dropped onto the big man. The attacker had planned the ambush well, as the place was within deep shadows, and further obscured by a row of parked wagons. The fight was a flurry of darkness against darkness, and curiously quiet. As Roval hurried over, he saw the docker pinned to the cobblestones and a dark shape bent over him. Traceries of etheric energy gleamed and writhed amid the shadows as the blood and vitality was drained from the big man. He struggled, grunted, wheezed, then lay still, but lights and sparkles still danced about his neck, and the face of his attacker, who was dressed the same as Roval."For pity's sake, Laron, what if somebody comes?" pleaded Roval.The dark shape ignored him. After what seemed like an eternity Laron sat up, carefully wiped his lips, then fumbled for his victim's purse."Dammit, Laron, if you just wanted a couple of silver crowns you could have asked me for a loan!" snapped Roval as he knelt beside them. "That was the most disgusting thing I've seen since I walked in on my grandfather while he was treating his piles with leeches."

"Well then, next time do not watch," replied Laron softly.

"Our ship sails within the hour and--This man is dead!"

"I drank all his blood, that usually does the trick."

"But, but, but--"

"We are to be at sea for some time. Would you rather I fed on the crew?"Laron stood up and moved out of the shadows. In Miral's light he began taking patches of hair from his face, licking their resincloth base and reapplying them to his cheeks."How does my beard look?" he asked as he finished."Ridiculous. Now, can we go to the ship?"

"Not yet," said Laron as he began walking away.

"What do you mean?" Roval demanded as he hurried after him. "The tide waits for neither live man nor dead."Laron stopped before the door of a neat but shabby terrace cottage, then knocked smartly. Presently, a woman with a build not much different from that of the late docker, opened the door a fraction and warily peered out."I told ye, I don't 'ave any more in--"She stopped when she saw the two cloaked officers, then opened the door to admit them. The bruises on her face were fresh and ugly in the light of the candle she held."Ma 'yie Hulmork?" asked Laron."Aye, but me 'usband's not 'ere."Laron held up the dead man's purse. "Your husband has just had a seizure of both hearts," he said solemnly."He's seized what?"

"He never knew what hit him," said Roval, somewhat more accurately.

"People's always 'itting 'im. Then 'e comes 'ome and 'its me."

"Please accept our condolences on his death," added Laron.Suddenly catching on, the widow Hulmork swooned. Laron caught her and carried her to where a small fire of offcuts was burning in a stone grate. Five children in patched nightshirts sidled into the room as Laron held a vial of something sharp-scented beneath Ma 'yie's nose. She revived with a jolt, then began rocking back and forth while moaning her dead husband's name over and over. Roval donated his kerchief to her."Your father is dead," Laron announced to the children when it became clear that Torea's most recent widow was not going to say anything coherent for now."Ooh... promise?" a boy of about five responded. A girl no more than fourteen smiled darkly for a moment, then put a hand to her face. "Can I 'ave 'is dinner?" asked a spindly child of about eleven. At that suggestion all five children turned and scrambled for the kitchen door."This is for the funeral of your much-lamented husband," Laron said as he dropped half a dozen silver crowns beside the purse on the table. After a sidelong glare Roval added two more. "And now we really must be going."

"Ye're true gentlemen," sniffled the widow. "Ye're too, too kind."They swept off their tricorner hats, bowed, then left the household to cope with its loss.

"What was all that about?" demanded Roval as they hurried along.

"Hulmork drank his wages," Laron explained. "His wife's washing paid the rent and put food on the table. The family will eat better now, and live in peace."

"Obviously, but--"

"I always try to spread a little happiness when I select my prey."

"A chivalrous vampyre?"

"I was raised in the way of chivalry. In a sense, it is all I have left."

"Can't you prey on dogs, or maybe sheep?"

"The vitality of animals can sustain me, but the taste is foul. Imagine having to drink a jar of vinegar when a goblet of chilled Angelhair 3138 chardonnay is at hand."The analogy struck a chord with Roval, who was five thousand miles from home and unimpressed by the local wine."I thought you can't have the food or drink of mortals."

"On the voyage from Scalticar there was a wine fancier aboard who could talk of nothing but wines, grapes, and famous vintages," Laron explained. "An intensely annoying man, but I learned a lot from him before I yielded to temptation. After I had drained him and flung his body to the sharks, I became unsteady on my feet, and the next day my head hurt. Something strange was in his blood and vitality."

"Can't you just drain off a little vitality?" asked Roval, who was not looking forward to traveling on the same ship as Laron. "Must you kill your victims?"

"Once I bite I am no longer in control. It is a type of frenzy."Roval shivered, remembering the look on his face as he glanced up from Hulmork's neck. Do not disturb while feeding, he noted mentally."Now then, our bags have been put aboard the Shadowmoon, upon which you are to act as medicar and navigator," Roval said as they walked out along the breakwater."The Shadowmoon?" exclaimed the vampyre."Is that a problem?"

"The Shadowmoon is a tubby little schooner with a crew of six and the speed of a constipated jellyfish."

"Nevertheless, it is the most advanced vessel in Torean waters, and probably the world."

"And one of the smallest. What about my needs? I must have somewhere private and secure to sleep when Miral is below the horizon."He gestured to the huge, ringed planet that loomed pale green in the eastern sky."A cabin has been added beneath the quarterdeck, although it is little bigger than a coffin," explained Roval."How appropriate. Are we liable to be at sea for more than a week? Longer than that, and my self-control begins to slip."The word "slip" was like a dagger's blade being drawn clear of its scabbard. Roval shivered."After what I just saw, no way! I'll tell the boatmaster that you have special needs, like sleeping while Miral is down and going ashore weekly for fresh food."

"Weekly," sighed Laron. "I shall get ever so hungry."

As they walked Roval noticed that Laron cast no shadow in Miral's light, although in torchlight the vampyre's shadow was no different to his. The Shadowmoon was ready to cast off as they reached its berth. The schooner was short, broad, and squat, with two lateen-rigged masts, and a cargo gigboat clamped upside down to the maindeck. Instead of a steering oar there was a hinged pole projecting through the quarterdeck."That is the most advanced weapon the cold sciences can produce to counter Silverdeath?" asked Laron as they paused at the gangway."Yes."

"You are doomed."

"Then why are you here?"

"I was told to help."Down on the middeck a couple was embracing in Miral's light while the crew made ready with the sweep oars and rigging."That is boatmaster Feran," explained Roval. "He has something of a way with the wenches."

"Given my circumstances, I shall not be competition."

"What do you mean?"

"I am liable to bite anyone that I come close enough to kiss, and being cold-blooded and dead is something of a social liability. I also have the body of a pimply, fourteen-year-old, pigeon-chested wanker, and after seven centuries I am getting mightily sick of it."Roval noted the annoyance in Laron's tone. By now Feran was escorting his most recent lover up the gangplank. Laron and Roval swept their hats off and bowed to the girl, who giggled before embracing Feran one last time. They stood watching as she went mincing off along the breakwater.

"Is the special cargo aboard?" asked Roval.

"Carried on in a sack this afternoon," replied Feran. "Is this our new officer?"

"Boatmaster Feran Woodbar, may I introduce Laron Alisialar, accredited deepwater navigator with the Scalticar Marine Traders, and certified medicar with the Sargol Academy of Healers."Feran looked him up and down. "Impressive credentials, but a little young to have been long at sea," he concluded in spite of Laron's carefully applied beard. "And I have been told that you are also sickly and have special needs. Do you have the strength to pitch in and be a useful member of my crew?"

The crew of the Shadowmoon paused to watch and listen. Laron removed his glove and extended his hand. Feran grasped it firmly and squeezed hard. Almost immediately he gasped at the icy chill of Laron's skin. Laron squeezed back. Feran tried to pull away, then cried out and fell to his knees. Laron's lips began to curl back and his eyes bulged as Roval picked up an oar and struck at Laron's wrist. At the third blow Feran rolled free."Laron has the strength of five extremely strong men, and tends to become a little excited when challenged to such crude contests," Roval explained. "I trust you will take pains to spare him from any initiation roughhousing or... well, I cannot answer for the consequences."Not a single man aboard the Shadowmoon required further convincing.

"Is--is there anything else?" asked Feran."Never stay at sea for more than a week, and never, never disturb Laron while he is asleep," said Roval.

The lateen-rigged schooner crept past the sleek, moored galleys of Warsovran's navy under full sail, keeping between the torch buoys. Feran stood at the steering pole, enduring jeers from idle marines and sailors aboard the galleys while his crew prepared to trim the sails once they passed the breakwater and reached clear winds. Feran was short, clean shaven, had curly brown hair, and looked younger than his age even though he was brawny. Some of the insults were about cabin-boy boatmasters. Most were far worse.It was only when they were well out to sea that a passenger emerged from below and walked haltingly over the rolling deck to where Feran stood with Laron and Roval."You're safe for now," said Feran to his charge. "This is Roval, from the Special Warrior Service of Scalticar. He is here to protect you. Laron, here, is acting as the Shadowmoon's medicar and navigator."Laron's eyes gleamed green in Miral's light. The passenger scrambled backward and stepped behind Feran."He is also here to protect you from your enemies," Feran concluded."I never thought I'd feel sorry for my enemies," said the Shadowmoon's only passenger, regarding the hawkish youth with suspicion and unease."Don't worry, he doesn't bite," said Feran."Much," added Roval."A Scalticaran name," the man said slowly."It is something to do with being Scalticaran," replied Laron, with good grammar but an old-fashioned accent."Part of his beard is peeling off."

"He can be trusted," Feran said dismissively. "How do you want to be known to my crew?"

"Lenticar is my real name," he replied as he gazed at the receding port's lights with relief. "I have had so many assumed names that I sometimes wonder who I might really be. Yes, let me be Lenticar for a while."Lenticar was lean, tanned, and stooped from years of hard work in the open air and sun. He also had the fearful, furtive gaze of one who had been the slave of brutal masters for too long, and he wrung his hands and bowed involuntarily each time he spoke."How long before we reach Zantrias?" he asked, snatching at the wooden rail as a large wave rocked them."Fifty days would be a fair estimate," said Laron, examining his beard with his fingertips.Feran nodded in agreement."Fifty days!" Lenticar exclaimed. "I could swim there faster."

"Then I suggest you dive overboard," said Laron. "We need to collect and discharge cargo to maintain the guise of a coastal trader."Laron removed a strip of beard and licked the backing. Lenticar saw two long, gleaming fangs. The officer stuck the patch of beard back."But fifty days may be too late."

"Fifty days is all we can offer," agreed Feran."Is it about that fire-circle weapon Warsovran used to break Larmentel?" asked Laron."It may be."

"Did you know he used it again?"Lenticar's eyes widened. "No. Which city was burned?"

"It was only a test over Larmentel's ruins, and apparently no lives were lost. It may have been to impress a prince from Zarlon who was in the area, but that's just rumor. In a circle of over a half mile across, there was not a scrap of wood, cloth, flesh, or food left."

"So it was bigger than the first time?"

"Oh yes, everything improves with practice," said Laron.While they were speaking, Roval had breathed a tangle of etheric energies into his cupped hands, then spoken directive and formative words into it. Now Laron went to a wicker cage and took out a seagull. Roval spread the etheric energies over the bird like a tight-fitting net, and it ceased struggling. Laron put it on the warrior-sorcerer's arm."Messenger auton, listen carefully," said Roval. "'Cargo loaded, sailed with the tide. Arriving in fifty from twenty-fifth of second.' Speak this to Elder, Metrologans, at Zantrias. Now go."The englamored seagull took off at once, climbed into the darkening sky, then turned east under the messenger auton's control. It was soon lost to view. A steady wind filled the sails and drove them through the waves. The Sbadowmoon was too small to be a warship, and sufficiently like a fishing trawler to move freely between the ports of all alliances. With so many of Warsovran's warships on the waters around Torea, the Shadowmoon's company had little to fear from privateers. In a sense it was the emperor himself who gave them safe passage to Zantrias.

At that very moment Warsovran was in the port of Narmari, on the other side of the continent. The port was the base of his fleet, and contained the largest shipyards in the world. Admiral Forteron was a very junior member of Warsovran's Council of Advisors, but was a particularly brave and capable leader. He was from an old but respectable seafaring family; in fact, his ancestors had founded the port of Fontarian six hundred years ago. These qualities are precisely what are needed just now, Warsovran thought as they walked along a pier where a squadron of battle galleys was tied up. Behind them were the three sorcerers and three marines of the emperor's personal guard."I have been giving orders in the shipyards," the monarch said. "No new ships are to be commenced, and all hands are to work on ships currently under construction. Provisions for a campaign of four months are to be assembled, and fifty thousand elite marines are to be equipped and kept ready."

Forteron did not comment. Warsovran was the emperor, after all. They reached the flagship of the Damarian fleet, the Thunderbolt, and the deck crew stood to attention as they came aboard. The ship was an oceangoing battle galley, and could carry six hundred rowers, sailors, and marines. Warsovran did a tour of inspection, then climbed the stubby commandtower at the rear of the big ship. For a moment the emperor gazed out over the vessels moored or at anchor on the placid waters of the bay, then he looked west to the horizon.

"Admiral, I want you to blockade Helion," he ordered.

"Helion?" Forteron exclaimed in surprise.

"Yes. The weather is mild at this time of year. The sailing should be easy."

"Emperor, do I have permission to speak my mind?"

"I would treasure true words, no matter what they be," replied Warsovran "One hears so few of them."

"With respect, Emperor, Helion is no prize. It is just a pair of volcanos, two miles long and a mile across."

"It is under the rule of my enemies."

"Emperor, half of the continent is under the rule of your enemies."

"Maybe so, but Helion is well placed between Acrema, Lamaria, and Torea. Whoever rules Helion will dominate trade in the Placidian Ocean."That is certainly true, thought Forteron. But why the sudden interest in controlling the ocean? Is he losing control of the Torean continent?

"Your orders are mine to obey, Your Majesty," replied Forteron. "I shall take a squadron and secure the island. Do you want the prisoners brought here or sold as slaves in Lamaria?"

"Not a squadron. My entire fleet."

"The whole fleet?" Forteron exclaimed before he could stop himself. "Emperor Warsovran, it is scattered right around the Torean coast. It would take over two months to gather all ships together."

"You have one. Have the despatch vessels sailing within the hour."

"But, but... Helion? You could take the place with twenty ships and a thousand marines."

"Admiral, I said blockade Helion. Under no circumstances are you to attack the place. Any approaching deepwater traders are to be turned away. Any trying to leave are to be seized, but not one single sailor or marine is to set foot upon the island."

"Emperor, I do not understand," Forteron admitted.

"Splendid, that means that my enemies are unlikely to understand, either. I have already sent riders and carrier autons ordering some of my warships around Torea to assemble here, so it may not take even two months. On the twenty-fifth day of next month, and not one single day later, the fleet is to leave for Helion with every marine, sailor, weapon, sack of biscuit, and barrel of water that can be crammed aboard. Blockade the island as soon as you arrive. After another two weeks you shall receive further orders."

Warsovran paced the deck in silence for a time. Forteron paced respectfully beside him, but he was frowning. Not the face of a man just granted a massive advantage over his peers, thought Warsovran, with a glance to his admiral.

"You look troubled, Admiral Forteron," he observed.

"I am only ninth in rank among your admirals, Your Majesty. This appointment will breed ill will."

"Let me take care of that. Just get the fleet to Helion and have it battleready."

Forteron considered both his orders and position carefully. Warsovran liked his commanders to think as he did, and to act as he would if they ever found themselves cut off from the line of command.

"Would I be correct in assuming that Helion is not the real objective, Your Majesty?" he asked.

"If you were, I would not tell you."

That told Forteron all he needed to know. He bowed and set off to carry out his orders.Within the hour the first swift, high-masted despatch clippers and dash galleys were sailing out of the harbor with Warsovran's orders. By then the Thunderbolt was being prepared to be beached, careened, and tarred, and Admiral Forteron was in his villa at the edge of the port, studying charts of the Placidian Ocean. Diomeda, he decided. Diomeda was a large port on the Acreman coast, and eight days due west of Helion. Diomeda was an important trade center; in fact, it was the hub of all commerce up and down the Acreman coast, but why Diomeda? There was still half of Torea's coast to conquer. Larmentel had fallen, monarchs everywhere were falling over themselves to negotiate treaties with the empire. Still, a promotion is a promotion, Forteron thought as he unrolled a scroll of common Diomedan phrases. Tomorrow he would visit the slave market, and the girl he selected as his companion for the voyage ahead would just happen to speak Diomedan, the common trade language of the Acreman east coast.

Warsovran did not go to his palace until the gathering of his fleet had been ordered and set in motion. He was met at the inner gates by his son Darric, who had just turned fourteen. Unlike a certain seven-hundred-year-old teenager aboard a schooner on the other side of the continent, the prince was already tall, handsome, and well proportioned.

"Father?" Darric exclaimed, looking puzzled as he stood between the guards.

The squad captain nodded to Darric, and his shoulders gave the trace of a shrug."Yes, it really is me," Warsovran laughed, holding his arms out to embrace his son.

"But, Father, you are so, er, young."

"Hah, just the result of clean living, staying out of the sun, and beancurd cheese."

"And some etheric sorceries."

"Oh yes, but only natural etheric sorceries."They finally embraced."I'm sorry, I was away hunting when you returned to Narmari," said the prince. "Mother did not tell me; she tells me nothing."

"Then you must be growing up," replied Warsovran, looking the prince up and down. "Well, now, here's a laugh. I am nearly a youth, and you are nearly a man."Darric laughed. He knew when it was expected of him."There have been reports coming back from the army," he said, again staring at his father's face. "You were said to be englamored, and could slay a dozen warriors with your bare hands."

"Oh, I can do that without being englamored," laughed Warsovran, who was in a very good mood by now.

"They said you can call lightning from the skies."

"Anyone can do that. Just carry a spear in a thunderstorm."

"They say you destroyed Larmentel."

"Walk with me," Warsovran said, gesturing down the corridor. He put an arm over his son's shoulders. "I made use of a device, Silverdeath, a machine of immense power. It destroyed the citadel area of Larmentel. By its nature Silverdeath is difficult to control, yet it did what I needed. It saved my army as many as a hundred thousand casualties. Larmentel would not have fallen easily."

"The reports said that it was an awesome sight."

"Oh yes. More awesome than your mother being served dinner on an unclean plate."

"I wish that I could have seen it."

"At the rate kingdoms are swearing fealty to me, I may never have to use it in anger again."

"Yet I hear that you did use it again."

"Oh yes, but just as a test, over Larmentel's ruins. As I said, the use of Silverdeath needs to be refined before it is turned toward any other city. It might just as easily have destroyed my own army, but this time luck was with me. Now, then, I have a new campaign planned, but this time you are going with me."

"Me?" Darric exclaimed. "I cannot believe it."

"You question your emperor's word?" chuckled Warsovran. "Arrest yourself for treason!"Darric laughed, then drew his ax and swiped the air with it. Tiny whistles in the ornamented blade piped out chords in fourths and fifths.

"All these years I have pleaded for a chance to fight, yet you have kept me here, penned up and protected from everything but the lapdogs," Darric said with undisguised annoyance.

"'All these years' began on your tenth birthday, and even now you are only fourteen. Consider yourself lucky."

"So am I really going to fight?"

Copyright © 2002 by Sean McMullen


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