Prologue

The Walkers of Legend

 

He worked his head between the cogs and pulleys, pressing his ear against the surface of the egg-shaped pod. It was large enough to hold a single person and he could just hear their muffled screams. The mechanism stopped and the screaming died away. There was the brief sound of a pump on the back of the casing, a tube stiffened and bright red liquid spiralled away into a container. He sighed. It was all very efficient, necessary to maintain the increasing demands for Yan. It just wasn’t the same as watching a skilled Officer of Correction getting his instruments ‘dirty’ first hand. After all, if you couldn’t see the knife being turned and the smell of fresh blood as it spilled out across the blade to the cries of the receiver, where was the satisfaction in that?

He sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose. The place smelled now of metal and oil.

‘Excuse me, Master.’

He untangled his head from the device, irritated that even this minor enjoyment was interrupted.

‘Well?’

‘I must adjust this ACU, Master.’

Lathashal looked down upon the individual. Covered in the various tools of his trade, strapped to jacket and belt, it was almost impossible to tell his shape. They were ordinary citizens, rising rapidly in status at the Emperor’s command after inventing their machines. Engineers they were. They gave their creations long obscure names, then to be shortened to three letters: ‘ACU’ stood for Automated Correction Unit. Idiots. Magic was how the Empire had been ruled for centuries and grown powerful. Now these Masters of Metal had begun replacing the need for a magii’s magic.

He thought about blasting the life from the wretch. Got a machine to do that yet? But they were protected by imperial decree, for not enough of them existed to build and maintain the increasing demand for new chambers.

He lifted his gaze and looked over the rows of identical devices fading into the gloom. The other three dungeons in the city’s palace were identical to this one. There were hundreds of palaces across the Empire. More chambers were being added and all would be occupied. The process continued day and night.

He remembered that it was time to check on the day’s main event and he turned and headed for the two stairways reserved for special visitors. The left went to the highest of the royal Elite levels, twenty-six floors above the dungeons. The right-hand stairway was a direct route to the middle of the Emperor’s suites, spanning the twenty floors above the Elite. Unless you were the Emperor or in his entourage, using the right-hand stairway was punishable by torture and death.

He was neither. Today he entered the right-hand stairway.

The usual tingling danced across his hand as he gripped the thrinium plates of his staff. With the merest exertion of will he began to glide over the engraved stairs, passing the intricate decorations and carvings on the walls and ceiling. He picked up speed until the images blurred into a mess of colour. With centuries of experience he timed his deceleration perfectly to land gently on the final step and walk to the opening.

There were no doors to prevent access to the shortcut. There didn’t need to be, discipline within the Empire was absolute. The ever-increasing need for dungeon occupants saw to that.

He entered the main hallway and joined the bustling errand-fillers doing the work of the Empire in the Emperor’s name. Doors opened and closed on both sides as if part of a ballet, absorbing and ejecting occupants to and from the main stream. Almost all of them wore the same plain white linen uniform of the servant class, moving with the same monolithic precision; eyes downcast, expressions blank. Alcoves at regular intervals held more. In contrast to their job-laden cousins, they were still, like figurines.

One of the non-servants snapped his fingers making one of them come to life. No words were spoken as servants were not permitted to speak or listen. The non-servant moved his hands in an intricate sign-language, his arms kept low as servants were not allowed to raise their eyes. When completed, the servant silently moved off.

He swept along the wide corridor which led to the main banquet hall. The diamonds on his gold and thrinium-trimmed night-black cloak looked like stars against a moonless sky. The breadth and extended high collar gave his modest frame both width and height over everyone. It flapped gently as if in a breeze, taking only the smallest concentration to offset the weight of the garment and create the visually impressive effect. He stood out like a god amongst insects.

The corridor turned many times before he reached his destination. The main banquet hall doors stood ahead of him like monuments of art. Solid gold and etched with deep carvings, they depicted the Emperor overseeing the wonders of the Empire. Almost four times the height of an ordinary person, each was beyond conventional mechanics to move.

As he approached, six journeymen magiis began to focus, three on each door. The doors resisted for a moment before cracking open. He picked up his pace a little to test them. If he was forced to pause because the doors were not open far enough, the magiis would be subjected to correction. Their stances changed as they realised their duty needed to be completed sooner than expected. The weight of the doors briefly resisted the increased magical influence before widening more rapidly.

He reached the threshold to see veins standing out on the necks and foreheads of the journeymen. He walked through, narrowly missing the doors on either side.

He slowed his pace to allow them ample time to close them. He needed privacy for what was about to happen.

The semi-circular room represented half of the floor level. Finished in white marble, it boasted a hundred servant alcoves spaced around the edges, separated by tall windows. The Emperor’s floors were higher than any other building in the capital, providing tantalising views of the city when the long white drapes parted in the breeze.

He stopped at the head table opposite the figure on the other side. It was the Grand Regent Estatoulie, next in line to the ultimate power in the land. Lathashal considered the man’s clothing as bright and garish as his own robe was dark and imposing.

‘My dear Lathashal,’ said the Regent. ‘There seems to have been a problem with your gift to the Emperor.’ He then peered down upon the smouldering remains of the Emperor, and smiled. ‘Hail me,’ he said, raising the finest of Ashnorian crystal to toast his success. He then picked up the priceless decanter and poured the two-hundred year-old wine over the bones to extinguish the fading embers. ‘There, you see?’ he said to the hissing skeleton, ‘I’m not completely heartless.'

Lathashal chuckled. Not that he found the Regent amusing, but a measure of sucking up was prudent in the presence of the next Emperor. He watched as the Regent looked to the irreplaceable decanter for a moment, shrug, and drop it onto his victim’s spine.

Both shattered.

Lathashal raised a hand and the lid from one of the food platters drifted over and covered the remains of the box that contained his magical firetrap.

‘You’re sure it was a painful death?’ Estatoulie asked.

Lathashal knew this to be rhetorical. Even though the screams of the Emperor were contained within a bubble of silence as part of the trap, his movements and expressions would have removed any doubt as to his excruciating final seconds. Even so the magii knew the Regent well enough to know that he needed to be indulged in his triumph.

‘Utterly, Grand Regent.’

‘And you are sure that he cannot be recovered?’

Again the question bordered on the ridiculous; so little remained.

‘Not even I could revive him, Regent.’

‘There are more powerful magiis than you in the realm.’

Lathashal bowed his head at the retort to his conceit. ‘A few perhaps, but I am certain that not even they could recover his eminence this time.’

The Regent nodded with satisfaction. ‘Fine workmanship too,’ he conceded. ‘I particularly enjoyed the moment when he pulled his hand away from the trap and it remained attached to the handle. He looked to the stump of his arm with such fascinated revulsion. Was that part of the design?’

‘Merely a fortunate side effect, Grand Regent. Such violent energies can never be fully predictable where mere flesh is concerned.’ He watched Estatoulie nod as if understanding. He knew the man had as much chance of comprehending magic as a hawk knowing why it can fly.

‘Call the guard on your way out,’ said Estatoulie absently, still studying the corpse.

‘Grand Regent,’ replied the magii, bowing just enough to meet the demands of etiquette.

He turned and walked back to the main doors. The internal servant gave warning to the six magiis on the other side. The doors began to open well in advance of Lathashal’s arrival.

As he exited, he beckoned to the Guard Captain whose job it was to protect the occupants whilst within the hall.

‘The Grand Regent asks for you.’

The Captain froze.

Lathashal was not surprised at the reaction. His duty was, in any practical sense, ceremonial. The banquet hall resided in the centre of the Emperor’s palace, which itself was in the centre of the greatest city. Nothing requiring the presence of a guard should ever happen here. Security was assured.

‘If you keep the Regent waiting another heartbeat, I shall rip the organ from your body and keep you alive to watch it pump its final beats.’

The Captain snapped out of his inactivity. ‘Yes, Master Lathashal!’ He set off, adjusting his red, white and gold uniform. A pointless exercise for it would be immaculate. The penalty for having anything less than perfect presentation was gradia five correction.

Lathashal moved without hurry into a nearby room that he arranged to be empty. He concentrated and pictured the inside of the Banquet Hall around the Regent. The vision came alive in his mind.

 Estatoulie was pointing to the small throne beside him. Two servants left their recesses and began energetically cleaning the blackened markings made by the previous occupant. As he sat, the chair was pushed under him with exact precision. He pointed to some nearby grapes. These were passed to him. He sat back, picking at each one of the perfectly selected fruits, popping them into his mouth.

‘Regent Estatoulie, you summoned me?’

The voice came from out of the vision’s view and Lathashal slewed the angle to encompass the guard Captain too.

Estatoulie replied after a measured delay and without looking up.

‘The Emperor has been assassinated, Captain. I want a thorough investigation. No stone shall remain unturned. Do you understand?’

‘Yes Regent,’ said the soldier, his face draining of colour. The most heinous and unthinkable of all crimes had been committed on his watch.

‘And Captain …’

‘Yes, Regent?’ stammered the doomed man.

‘All evidence shall point to your superior officer, who I shall ensure is executed for his treason, and you shall replace. Understood?’

‘Yes, Regent!’

‘Choose one of your men to replace your current position. Oh, and have two of the others executed as conspirators,’ Estatoulie added with a casual wave of his hand. ‘Congratulations on your promotion. Dismissed.’

‘Yes, yes, thank you, Regent,’ said the soldier as he backed away, bowing several times more than was demanded.

 

Lathashal broke the magical connection. So the Regent had kept his word and not implicated him in the killing. Obviously the new Emperor considered him more use alive.

He was pleased. In exchange for his magical services in dealing with the Emperor, Estatoulie had agreed that the magiis of the major northern city of Straslin would come under Lathashal’s command. Then he was to assist the Attack-General Zanthak and cross the Hammerhead Mountains and conquer Mlendria, the last of the free lands. The increasing need for Yan was again creating a restless population who were being subjected to greater torture for lesser and lesser crimes. A fresh influx of imperial subjects was required. The invasion would be from Straslin, beginning in nine months.

He relished the thought of attacking the mages of other races, as they were puny in comparison to their Ashnorian counterparts. The reason for that imbalance was still the most closely guarded secret in the Empire.

He briefly looked up at the mirrored silver-golden surface of the sphere atop his staff. With the briefest concentration, wisps of blue energy formed on its surface to disappear into tiny holes like water spiralling down a drain.

His thin lips pulled into a self-satisfied smile.