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Authors: Chris O'Mara

Healer's Ruin

BOOK: Healer's Ruin
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These lands swarm with dangerous things.

Reader, I hope you have wings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Healer's Ruin

 

 

 

by Chris O'Mara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © the author 2015

 

Cover art by Klaus Wittman

Typography by Rob Matheny

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You'd think we'd have learned by now

how every empire falls, even the grandest,

and that our mighty kingdoms,

so alike in scope and hate,

are not immune to the ruthless

scythes of time.

 

You'd think we'd have learned

that all this murder isn't really worth it.

 

Doesn't history prove this to us,

in the relics we find,

the dead cities, the ancient tomes,

the countless billions of bones

that crunch under our feet,

everywhere we go?

 

You'd think one of us

might have worked this out,

but maybe we're just not that smart...

 

 

 

 

Or maybe the inevitable ruin

is the real prize we're seeking.

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 

The Hero

 

 

It rose above the field, a billowing mass of rough sand and screaming wind that battered the warriors to their knees. In the swarm of grit were five writhing serpents that coiled around one another in portentous dance. Muttering prayers against the power arrayed against them, the Gilt Plates remained rooted to the spot, six hundred ferocious brutes reduced to hapless bystanders by a single spell.

Gods beyond, but this slinger of theirs thinks himself a wild one,
thought Tankanis, squinting against the flung sand as he strode through the transfixed army.
But the Riln have only illusion as their aid, a play with no force behind it.
The warriors around him were clearly cowed by such obvious trickery, but Tankanis was a Flint Wizard. As he watched the illusion twist above him, a grin slowly appeared on his long, grey face.

Northern fool, you have underestimated me.

He was on the edge of the maelstrom now and the serpents were twisting about a boulder-like shape that was coalescing at the centre of the cloud. With a wry smile Tankanis realised that he was gazing up at a giant hand perhaps a hundred metres across. Were this an Ektan spell, he would have been terrified. But this was Riln magic. A mirage. Empty of any real threat.

Sighing, he planted his staff in the earth and closed his eyes. Suddenly immersed in sorcery he found his soul slung against a shimmering background woven from strands of energy that fizzed and crackled. An otherworldly song began to pluck at his sanity.
The risk we all take in dipping our minds in the world of magic. This is no safe place to visit; one day, whatever god rules the realm of sorcery will obliterate trespassers like me on sight. But for now, it is just the madness I must steel myself against. I must remember the real world.
Opening his eyes he looked again upon the huge hand. It had curled itself into a fist carved from sand. The clouds of dust had all but vanished, leaving the giant, disembodied appendage floating in air.

'Hear me, Riln slinger,' Tankanis called. 'I am a Steelstaff of
the Mottled Wing, the ancient coven of Almenath. That makes me a Flint Wizard, one of the last great magicians of the South. Your little tantrum is over. Surrender now, and face mere servitude. Persist in your illusions, and you will face death.'

He had expected the opposing mage to do what Riln slingers always did when challenged – howl in fury before sending their warriors forward under a visually impressive but completely impotent light show. But instead his words were met only by the whistle of the wind and the murmuring of his anxious allies. The Gilt Plates were looking up at the massive fist of sand, their inscrutable, beady eyes blinking in the gritty breeze.

'Fear not, men,' Tankanis called out with a sweep of one long, thin limb. 'It is but an illusion.'

As if in response to his confident words the fist twisted to one side, clenching tighter with a groan of compacted particles. Then it drove downward. A moan of dread rose from the flinching Gilt Plates but Tankanis simply shook his white-maned head.

Can these fools not see through the trick?

The sound of the fist hitting the earth shattered any certainties he had been holding. The impact cracked the land with a deafening roar, creating a terrifying abysmal rift. Though the strike had caused the fist itself to disintegrate into its constituent waves of sand, the damage had been done. Focusing a sliver of energy, Tankanis pushed his mind through the blinding sand that now sailed on the wind in choking sheets. Immediately, he wished he had not.

The Gilt Plates were fleeing. The central mass of the force – some four hundred armoured men – were now little more than pulverised steel and blood.

A quiver ran through the Flint Wizard, breaking his focus. His grip on the world of magic loosened and with it, his power.

Fear. The last distraction. Am I ended?

He turned away from the routed Gilt Plates to see movement on the plain ahead.

He expected an army, the Riln dashing forward to spring on their broken foe. But no, it was no army. Instead, a single figure walked forward, clad in powder blue robes over black leather armour, a tri-cornered hat throwing the face into shadow. A silver cutlass hung on the man's hip.

No. Not a man. A boy.

Tankanis gripped his staff, his face twisting into a sneer.
A boy! They send a boy against me!
Fury at this impertinence drove all fear from his mind. Buoyed by indignation his mind found the tether to the world of magic, energy pouring out with fevered immediacy into the corporeal realm. As it emerged he sent it surging forward in a livid blaze of geysering flame.

In seconds, the scene ahead of him was a charnel wasteland. Even trees a mile distant withered to blackened stumps and birds dropped from the air, choked on toxic fumes. Tormented insects burst from the ground only to writhe for a moment before splitting apart. Water, deep in the earth, thickened and ran pus-yellow, clogging the arteries of the land. This was destruction, utter and wanton – the true power of a Flint Wizard. Tankanis grinned.

The blow knocked the smile off his face and took three teeth with it. He was sent reeling, staff tumbling from his grey, long-fingered hands. With a groan he steadied himself but only for a second blow to upend him. He landed face-down, coughing in the dust.

Behind him he could hear boots drumming as the remains of the Gilt Plates fled the field. Ahead, he heard footsteps steadily approaching, crunching on the fine layer of grit that now covered the plain.

'Who are you that can strike a Flint Wizard at a hundred paces?' Tankanis asked.

The boy was no more than sixteen winters, narrow shouldered and skinny. He cocked his head to one side. All the wizard could see of his pale, narrow face was a sly smile.

'Well?' the wizard pressed. 'Are you dumb, boy?'

'No, not dumb,' the Riln slinger said at last, his voice soft, the tone casual. 'Just in no hurry to break such a restful silence after all that sorcery.' His smile broadened. 'So, lackey of the Ten Plains King, are you regretting your master's incursion into the north yet?'

'Riln scum!' Tankanis seethed, trying to stand only to discover that his right leg was broken. 'You will in grim surety pay dearly this day for your arrogance!'

The boy reached down and adjusted the scabbard of his silver cutlass, turning it slightly as if ready to draw.

'You old guys have no idea how ridiculous you talk,' the slinger kid said. 'I do have one question to ask you, though.'

'Ask and be damned!' spat the wizard.

'Are you the best he has?'

Tankanis narrowed his eyes. The boy's arrogance would be his undoing, for the Flint Wizard had been given time to gather her reserves which he now unleashed, turning his body into a missile charged with annihilating energies. But before he left the ground the cutlass flew from the boy's belt, dancing in the air as if on strings. The blade sang a cold, hard song. Tankanis fell in a jumbled heap of severed head and limbs. The sword shot back into its sheath.

'Hmm,' said the boy. 'Do you think that was a yes?'

He watched the Gilt Plates continue their flight back towards the Dallian Woodland. They moved fast for giants in full armour, he mused. Fighting fit, but broken now, perhaps for good. The next time they arrayed themselves against the Riln they would carry the terrifying memory of this day in their hearts and it would rob them of their strength and zeal.

'Don't get cocky, Taray,' said a dreamily ethereal voice that only he could hear.

The boy frowned and his attention flicked down to the silver cutlass.

'I just beat six hundred fighting men of the Ten Plains King single-handedly,' he said.

'Six hundred and one,' the sword corrected him. 'But you've shown your hand. Until now, they thought your people lacked any magic beyond illusion and trickery. Now, they will be prepared.'

The boy shrugged.

'You think that will make a difference against me?'

The sword did not reply immediately but when it did, its voice was lower, more veiled, almost not there at all.

'No, Taray. I do not.'

They walked back towards the Ruin in silence, through the carnage wrought by the Flint Wizard's devastating salvoes. A mild rain was building in the clouds and would soon be drumming softly on the northern lands from Tchiqua to Aphazail, a downpour to refresh even the Ruin's lifeless streets. It was a good omen, by all accounts.

Nevertheless, the lone figure on the plain ground his teeth as he walked, a sour taste in his mouth.

It troubled him that the sword was afraid of its wielder.

 

One

 

 

A Slinger's Lot

 

 

Chalos Garuma-Latharn, Assigned Slinger of the Black Talon and a Healer in the army of the Ten Plains King, had risen early. By the time the sinewy, purple forms of the Krune were dragging themselves from their tents into the cold dawn light, he was on the crest of Hulker's Crag, dark cloak whipping around his slender limbs. He pushed a lock of black hair out of his eyes with a pale hand.

Beneath him was the Doyu Basin, an expansive trough of unyielding dry earth. Beyond that, an immense emerald forest. Either side of the basin towered awesome mountains that had been formed when the world was young.

He knew somewhat the lore of this land. It was said that the mountains held the frozen hearts of ancient guardians, monsters that had defended the world when it was young. Passing his gaze over the vast edifices of rock, he wondered at how those beings had been rewarded for their courage. Once they had strode with the arrogance of unparalleled power. Now, they were sealed in an eternal prison, mindless and silent.

Chalos regarded the rock with solemn respect. Would the guardians ever awaken? Even if the ancient spell that held them failed, did enough of their essence remain for them to break free of their cells?

He laughed at his own pretension. Those mountains had existed for countless thousands of years and would last for thousands more. There was little chance of any living being holding the power to break the curse that held them in place, even less chance of that being walking amongst the Riln, a people who lacked any talent for powerful magic.

And besides, there were more pressing issues at hand than worrying about long-eclipsed gods.

Like the War, for instance.

Oh, petrified knights... what would you think if you could see us now, divided against ourselves, south against north?

A sudden chill wind made him pull his cloak tight around his body, forcing his sharp chin down towards his narrow chest. He shivered and closed his eyes, clutching for that elusive, gleaming thread that led to the world of magic. The circuit complete, he used a small burst of energy to call for his Accomplice.

Mysa! Come to me!

The signal brought the winged witch swooping from somewhere impossibly high. Now settled into the shape of a crow, she perched on his shoulder. Her extravagantly long, hooked beak was as much a caricature of nature as her inky black eyes.

'Greetings, forlorn master,' said Mysa Tundra-shadow, her voice sounding somewhere behind the mage's eyes, a place where no other voice ever reached.

'Hello, Mysa.'

'Was there something in particular you wanted?' the bird asked, casting a blank stare over the basin and the enormous wall-like mountain ranges that ran either side of it to the horizon.

'I was lonely,' Chalos shrugged. 'I wanted someone to talk to.'

The bird grunted.

'Any news from the north?'

'Bodies and broken men,' his Accomplice replied. 'Fierce devilry too, and the promise of rain on ancient pillars. Besides that, nothing much.'

Chalos smiled.

'I've missed your sense of humour, Mysa Tundra-shadow.'

'Poor boy.'

'Who were these broken men? Swords of the Riln?'

The bird ruffled its feathers in a show of perturbation.

'Alas no, child. They were Gilt Plates. What remains of their host lick their wounds in the Dallian Woodlands, talking of a giant hand that swatted them like gnats.'

'Sounds like a Riln illusion to me.'

'Exactly what I thought. But I was curious. I flew north and saw the red smear that was once four hundred or so loyal Dauwarks of the Ten Plains King. Pulverised warriors weeping slow red tears into a terrific chasm beneath a swarm of flies.'

Chalos sighed.

'Well, the northerners were due a victory sooner or later. We've been hammering them since Gollinor Bay. We can afford to get beaten once.' He turned his head slightly to regard the bird. 'You can lose a battle without losing the war.'

Mysa cocked her head and blinked.

'Fair enough,' she said.

Gollinor Bay had been a conflagration. The long, narrow coastal fortress had run the width of the land, from ocean to mountain, serving as a vast bulwark against invasion. Despite its defences, it had been no match for the magery and martial prowess of the attackers and had fallen unceremoniously. The Ten Plains King, majestic ruler of the southern Empire, had wasted no time in moving his throne and his councillors there, so that he could be close to the campaign. It was now fed daily by boats from across the ocean, enormous vessels laden with soldiers and supplies.

Chalos had arrived on one of these ships, a sleek Royal skuna, just another Rovann recruit yet to see combat. He had been stationed with the Black Talon and sent deep into enemy territory, on the heel of Captain Dolga and his Gilt Plates, mopping up enemy detachments in the wake of that lethal vanguard. They had fallen into a steady rhythm, the Gilt Plates smashing the enemy into disarray and the Black Talon consolidating the victory. In their wake followed more soldiers, attendant Sherdlings and herds of cattle.

For three months they had pressed northward through the kingdom of the Riln, rarely breaking stride. The army of the Ten Plains King had powerful wizards, each with an array of offensive magery, whereas the Riln possessed the equivalent of carnival tricksters whose power was all light and no substance. It had not taken long for the southerners to recognise the severe limitations of the enemy sorcery. The hordes of monsters on the horizon, the shadows of sea serpents and dragons had been nothing but illusions. So the mages of the Ten Plains King had enjoyed free reign on the battlefield, slamming fire, ice and kinetic force into the Riln, forcing them to fall back again and again.

Three months. So many easy victories. But they still had not taken the kingdom of the Riln. And yet all southerners felt that ultimate victory was inevitable. Vast though the northern kingdom was, there was no-one to stand against the might of the army of the Ten Plains King.

No one had ever stood against him and lived. Not for centuries.

'You should be resting,' Mysa said. 'They'll need your hands tomorrow, when they clear out the Youja Caverns.'

My hands. My power. The torrent of energy channelled into healing. Replacing arms and legs, eyes, noses, tying veins and starting hearts. Pulling the half-slain back up onto their feet for one more push.

The thought of once again wending his way through the wounded, laying his palms upon their ruined flesh, holding his breath against the reek of piss and shit revolted him. He wiped a hand across his face.

'Sometimes I hate being a slinger,' he said.

'The burden of holding an army together, either from the front as a Dread Spear, or the rear as a Bearer of the Vital Gourd, is the slinger's lot,' said Mysa. Her words rang true.

Spellslingers, the soldiers call us. Slingers for short. They fear us because we're always dancing on the edge of madness, teetering on the rim of the corporeal world. They can't trust us because we're so different. But they have no choice but to rely on us.

But that doesn't mean they respect us.

'What can we expect in these caverns?' he asked.

'A hundred wounded Riln, desperate to make a nuisance of themselves. Bombs, traps, assassinations. Dirty fighting. It will be dark, labyrinthine and damp. Be glad you are staying outside.'

Chalos looked down at the army that was organising itself, drawing into rank and file, preparing for onslaught.

'I don't think I can explain it,' he said, 'but I think I'd rather be the first one in,' he said. 'Healing be damned.'

 

 

 

It was like a thunderclap but it came from within the mountain, reverberating through miles of rock. A gout of fire and dust blasted from the cavern mouth. Rocks skittered down onto the ground and a cheer went up amongst the fearsome men of the Black Talon.

'She got 'em!' one of Krune warriors cried. 'The Dread Spear got 'em!'

A young woman came out of the cave, black and red robes caked with chalky dust. Her long auburn hair was wrapped about her head and she was hunched over, coughing. The crimson bull glyphs on her robes were already dimming as she relinquished her link to the world of magic.

Not far away, Chalos was kneeling over a wounded soldier. He looked up and somehow, as she straightened, the young woman's hazel eyes found his. She managed a smile, winced, coughed again, gathered her wits and then threw him a huge, beaming grin. Then she punched the air to more cheers from the Krune.

Samine.

He smiled weakly back. For three hours he had been treating a steady stream of wounded fighters who had been carried, dragged or had themselves staggered from the caves, some sliced by swords and others burned. The enemy fighters hidden within the maze-like interior of the rock had used dangerous chemical mixtures that burned fiercely on contact with flesh, and this had almost forced the Black Talon to withdraw entirely. But the Krune were proud warriors and with magic on their side had proved unstoppable. 

The ring of clashing weapons and the horrible hiss of the chemical bombs had reached those outside the mountain, conjuring images of foul substances and bubbling wounds. Chalos had managed to ignore the noise for the most part by concentrating on putting the wounded back together and by the time the Dread Spear had emerged from the caves, the healer's hands were numb with channelling and his eyes were glazed.

Some hours later, with evening a red threat on the horizon, Chalos  started to make his way back to his tent, having finally run out of wounded to treat. His robes were plastered in gore and his boots squelched with blood and urine. He was hungry but had no appetite, having seen enough meat on the slab for one day.

The Riln chemical weapon had been truly horrible. The word around camp was that it had begun as a substance used in engineering. The enemy had weaponised it in desperation after realising how outclassed they were by the southern invaders.
Mark my words, slinger,
one of the wounded had whispered to Chalos.
Expect more surprises.
Images of ravaged bodies flashed up in the healer's mind as he trudged back to his tent, his face glum.

He had just pulled the front of his tent open and was about to step into the comforting darkness when a familiar weight fell onto his shoulder. He paused, his heart sinking.

'Let me guess,' he said, 'someone fell and broke a leg? Someone toppled on his own sword? A Curalk went rogue and trampled a phalanx?'

'I've missed your sense of humour, Chalos,' said Mysa sardonically, mimicking the healer's earlier remark. 'No, nothing like that. You've mended enough men for one afternoon.' She ruffled her feathers. 'The Duke is looking for you.'

'How do you know that?'

It was a stupid question. Accomplices had their ways of gathering information. Some of them could sneak unseen, others drift across the ground like smoke. Mysa simply hung in the air, or perched on a branch, and listened. Few things got passed her.

'A messenger will be here soon,' the bird said, ignoring the question. 'So don't get too relaxed.'

There was little chance of Chalos feeling relaxed after hearing such news. He had no desire to meet the general of the Black Talon. The Duke was considered brutal even by Krune standards and like most of his kind had little time for scrawny Rovann recruits like Chalos. A deep sigh escaped the healer.

'Wonderful.'

'I'll stick around, if you don't mind. Out of curiosity.'

'I'd shrug,' Chalos said to the bird on his shoulder, 'but I don't want to make you travel-sick.'

The healer looked at the cot in his tent and felt his limbs ache for rest. The constant channelling of energy had made his body feel brittle. It irked him to move.

He had cast his first spell at the age of twelve. After he had shown some talent for scholarship, his family had enrolled him in a college of magic, love of lore and natural introspection making him the perfect student. First in his class to open a channel into the world of magic, he could still remember the thrill of reaching out with his mind to complete the circuit for the first time, and how the connection had sweetly clicked somewhere in his soul.
Finding the thread,
his tutors had called it. Within the first year he had been able to achieve focus without the aid of meditation. Now, it was second nature to him. He could close his eyes and slip almost immediately into the magical realm, carefully channelling its wanton energy into the real world through his healing hands.

It had not been hard for him to choose to specialise in healing magic instead of the other paths that had been open to him. He was not a fighter. Nor was he a trickster or a thief. He had never wanted to be invisible, burn villages or propel his mind's eye hundreds of miles ahead of his own body. Healing had always seemed noble by comparison to the other magical arts. It felt...
natural.

Even though there was nothing natural about magic.

But talented as he was, it still exhausted him. And the more he sought that magical thread the more he could feel himself drawn towards an invisible edge, a cliff beyond which lay a maelstrom of chaos. It was the risk all magicians took. The real cost of stealing energy from the realm of magic was the chance of the thread tightening, pulling, and binding the soul forever in madness as the body rotted mindlessly in the real world.

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