Shadow of the Otherverse (The Last Whisper of the Gods Saga Book 3), страница 1
Shadow of the Otherverse
Volume 3 of The Last Whisper of the Gods series
By James Berardinelli
© 2016 James Berardinelli
Cover art by Jacob Atienza
Map by Jack O. Gibson
Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: THE OTHERVERSE
CHAPTER ONE: THE KING OF VANTOK
CHAPTER TWO: THE EXILES
CHAPTER THREE: THE EMISSARY
CHAPTER FOUR: ALICIA’S SACRIFICE
CHAPTER FIVE: THE CUP OF WOE
CHAPTER SIX: THE OTHER CONTINENT
CHAPTER SEVEN: THE DARKEST PLACE IN BASINGHAM
CHAPTER EIGHT: DIRT IN THE FLASK
CHAPTER NINE: SIBLING RIVALRY
CHAPTER TEN: THE SERPENT’S VENOM
CHAPTER ELEVEN: A QUESTION OF ALLIES
CHAPTER TWELVE: THE EMPIRE EXPANDS
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: THE VOID
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: THE PULL OF THE NORTH
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: A DELICATE TREASON
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: THE GHOSTS OF IBITSAL
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: THE CITY ON THE PROMONTORY
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: SCHOLARLY PURSUITS
CHAPTER NINETEEN: THE CANDIDATES
CHAPTER TWENTY: THE NARROW GAP
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: THE NEXT KING OF OBIS
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: THE DECLARATION
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: THE TRAP
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: THE MANIPULATORS
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: THE PATH TO THE THRONE
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: THE WRATH OF MEN
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: THE WILL OF THE GODS
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: NOT DEAD YET
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE: THE CALM BEFORE
CHAPTER THIRTY: THE STORM
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE: ON THE WALLS
CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO: IMMOLATION
CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE: THE PERIL OF OBIS
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: THE FUTURE LORDS AND LADIES
CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE: WIZARDS’ PASS
CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX: SIFTING THROUGH THE ASHES
CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN: THE BALANCE OF ALL THINGS
CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT: THE LIFE THAT WAS
CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE: SEEKING THE OTHERVERSE
CHAPTER FORTY: BYPASSING GRIEF
CHAPTER FORTY-ONE: CONTENTION
EPILOGUE: THE EMPIRE RISES
PROLOGUE: THE OTHERVERSE
As all ages begin, so must all ages end. The Age of Wonders, as men had come to call it, opened when the gods turned their attention from other matters to the world of Ayberia, where their creatures were spreading across the globe and fashioning crude tools from the materials at hand. The Age of Wonders closed with the death of the gods. Nothing lasted forever and the gods, weary of the unending sameness of eternity, characterized by repetition and inactivity, simply decided to be no longer. For entities that had lasted since the dawn of time, the choice might have seemed precipitous, but they selected it with equanimity. Oblivion was an enviable state. Today, they were. Tomorrow, they would not be - not that the concept of time had meaning for them. Tomorrow, todays, and yesterdays were much the same - an endless, unbroken cycle that would continue with or without them. They had set it in motion; they were not needed to keep it going.
When the gods departed, they would leave behind the universe much as it had been in the beginning. They would also leave behind the Otherverse, the realm which provided the raw energy to create, destroy, and rearrange. The will to create was indigenous to the gods; the ability to create emerged from the Otherverse. Before there were gods, there was an Otherverse. After there were gods, the Otherverse would continue. It lay outside the affectation of time created by the gods. Unlike them, who could cease to be, the Otherverse always would be and could be nothing else.
To fulfill their myriad acts of creation, the gods had plundered the Otherverse. It was a realm of complete balance, with chaos and order in a constant, unending state of conflict, each keeping the other perfectly in check. As long as the Otherverse was a closed, contained system, no force could perturb its perfect equilibrium: chaos and order, life and death, light and darkness, cold and heat. Men attributed simplistic names to opposing forces like “good” and “evil,” but the associated value judgments were meaningless in the Otherverse.
Ultimately, the Otherverse provided the source of all magic. The gods had pierced the Otherverse and capped that opening with a filter of their own devising. It transformed the primal essence of chaos and order into a refined form capable of being extracted and manipulated by those few who possessed the talent. The undiluted power remained beyond the control of men existing outside the Otherverse, but the surrogate energies could be employed by wizards to master earth, fire, water, and air. The gods had forbidden direct access to the Otherverse to their creations, jealously hoarding the raw power of the realm for their own purposes. Yet by creating even the smallest rent in the Otherverse, they had unwittingly compromised its integrity. No seal, no matter how seemingly perfect, could be impervious and there was an exploitable flaw, unknown perhaps even to the gods, in the design of the filter. A process existed, arcane though it might seem, by which incursions could be made into the Otherverse.
Although the gods frequently siphoned energy from the Otherverse, they did so with infinite care, making sure never to create an imbalance that could lead to the complete collapse of everything. Too much order and all time and space would become frozen and rigid. Too much chaos and everything would enter a cataclysmic death spiral. Eternal life in an unending stasis or absolute, final death. The universe was a fragile place when faced with the forces churning in the Otherverse. The gods never dared to physically enter that other realm less out of a concern for what it might do to them and more out of a concern for what their presence might do to it.
Their greatest trepidation in giving the gift of magic to men was the conduit of access it provided to the Otherverse. Yet, in their infinite wisdom, the gods deemed the likelihood of an incursion to be so slim that it would never happen so, when it did, they were blind to it. When establishing the parameters necessary to maintain balance throughout the universe after their departure, they did not consider the Otherverse. Their faith in the integrity of the filter was absolute. That faith was misplaced.
When it came time for the gods to depart, they knew they must once again bestow upon mankind the gift of magic. Only by doing so was there a hope for balance throughout all of the created universe, and in Ayberia in particular. Caretakers were needed; there was only so much that could be accomplished - the hope of a future, but no more than that. The gods were powerful and time had little meaning for them, but they were not omnipresent. So, with their last whisper, the gods gave a gift to Ayberia then winked out of existence, leaving the whole of the universe to fend for itself. And, beyond the universe, the Otherverse loomed, not nearly as stable and impervious as the gods had believed it to be. The danger to eternal balance came not only from a new incursion but from the seeds planted by the earlier one whose nature and occurrence had been hidden from the gods. For, although the gods had feared entering the Otherverse, no similar prohibition had restricted their creations. With the gods gone, the Otherverse was vulnerable.
Such was the way of things when The Age of Wonders gave way to what would become known as The Age of Contention.
CHAPTER ONE: THE KING OF VANTOK
Justin, The Lord of Fire, sat on the throne of Vantok - a throne he had claimed through blood and death. It wasn’t the most comfortable seat he had ever enjoyed but it was
For a man who bore two grand titles - The Lord of Fire and the King of Vantok - Justin had a less than imposing physical presence. He was a small and fragile man with a gaunt frame and abnormally long limbs. The translucent skin of his face stretched tightly over his skull, lending the ghoulish appearance sometimes associated with extreme old age. His crown was bald but a few long strands of silver hair sprouted from his chin and upper lip. No one gazing at him would guess he was a mere 40 years of age; nothing aged a person more rapidly than the frequent application of magic. Justin’s most arresting features were his eyes: deep brown, they flickered with a subtle orange/red glow.
His army’s recent and decisive triumph in the Battle of Vantok had established a pattern he intended to apply going forward. The corps of eleven djinn had performed admirably. The dragon, a “gift” from the djinn king mere days before the battle, had made the confrontation that much easier. Justin had lost about three thousand men, but the seven thousand survivors represented more than enough to continue the campaign after an appropriate period of rest. From his misspent youth as a lesser son of an important noble in Basingham, he possessed intimate knowledge of King Durth’s military strength, and it wouldn’t pose a threat. In fact, if the city didn’t surrender, Justin might consider allowing the djinn and the dragon to take it on their own. No need to waste manpower where it wasn’t required.
A great and vexing variable remained, however. The djinn king - the efreet - was dead, killed by either Sorial, Alicia, or both of them in concert. Justin had examined the body several days after the battle during an excursion to the place of its death. There, he had scented echoes of both The Lord of Earth and The Lady of Water, although their trail had gone cold. He assumed they were both alive, although their health, especially Sorial’s, might be compromised. One didn’t duel an efreet and emerge unscathed. He knew that from personal experience. His own wounds had not yet fully healed. Still, until Justin could kill both his enemies and replace them with wizards loyal to him, he wouldn’t feel completely secure. He didn’t believe the humans possessed the ability to bring down a djinn without the aid of a trebuchet or other large engine of warfare, although the dragon might be vulnerable to a well-aimed arrow or ball from a revolver. But, as Sorial had proven, these creatures of fire could be killed by magic, and none of the surviving djinn were as strong as their king. Knowing the secret to defeating them made Sorial an especially dangerous adversary.
Ariel, the Lady of Air and his second-in-command, remained alive and in the custody of his enemies. Upon taking Vantok, he had scoured the city for her, but she had been spirited away. It was a disappointment, to be sure, but an expected one. It would have been a gross oversight on his enemies’ part to leave her behind and Justin’s opinion of the late king Azarak was that he hadn’t been in the habit of overlooking details. There was every reason to believe Ariel had been taken to a place where she wouldn’t be easy to find, although hiding her “in plain sight” was an option. If he waited long enough, she would either awaken or die. Even if his arch-nemesis and one-time mentor, Prelate Ferguson, was prepared to replace her immediately, the new Lord of Air would be as easy to kill as a newborn in its crib. And, although Justin lacked viable replacements for water and earth, he had numerous candidates for air and fire.
In the wake of the victory, he had given his troops free reign to rape and pillage within Vantok. By his decree, any human found within the city boundaries was fair game for whatever purposes his men might desire. But he had put an end to the burning of sturdy buildings. Originally, he had thought to raze Vantok but, at some point between planning and executing the campaign, he had experienced a change of heart. Why waste one of the great seats of human habitation? Those who followed him deserved an established place in which to live. Now, it was his eventual intention to repopulate the city and he wanted to limit the amount of rebuilding necessary. So, although most of the peasants’ wood-and-thatch dwellings had been reduced to ashes, the majority of the city’s larger structures stood. Of the people, those who hadn’t fled were mostly dead. Men, women, and children had been subject to rape and torture.
Only a handful of Vantok’s soldiers had broken faith and swore fealty to Justin. It was a start; he expected to swell his forces during the coming weeks. Press gangs sent to the many small villages dotting the nearby countryside - Vantok’s “satellite communities” - would add to his numbers as would volunteers who realized life would be better for their families if they joined him. The ragtag remnants of Vantok’s army were widely scattered and not worth pursuing, even for sport. Many would die of festering wounds. Others would go into hiding. Whatever portion of her forces Queen Myselene managed to rally would prove insufficient to provide more than a sizeable honor guard.
Two irritants for Justin were the emptiness of Vantok’s treasure vaults and the absence of the crown. Obviously, the queen had taken the most valuable items with her. Justin had been hoping to find gold here to provide overdue payments to his most reliable mercenaries and, while there was some, it wasn’t of the magnitude he had expected. The missing crown stung his vanity. He was yearning to place the circlet on his head - validation to some that he was the king and not a pretender.
Azarak’s ashes had been taken to the crypt beneath the palace and accorded a proper, if unmarked, interment. Justin didn’t know much about the man but, by all accounts, he had been a decent king, although better schooled in the arts of diplomacy than warfare. He had died bravely, not screaming as the fire kissed away his flesh. Justin hoped that, if his gambit failed and death came for him, he would perish with equal dignity. But such grim thoughts and considerations were for another day. Now, it was time for his men to celebrate their victory and The Lord of Fire to begin planning the next phase of his campaign.
* * *
Less than a week later, Justin was ready to re-ignite the fires of war. While a certain amount of rest and recreation had been useful for his troops, he didn’t want them to become lax. He had commanded his generals to begin drilling this morning with the expectation that the march north would begin in two weeks. One way or another, he intended to be in possession of all three of the southern cities - Vantok, Basingham, and Earlford - before the end of Summer. Then it would be on to the North. It appeared unlikely he would be able to avoid a Winter campaign up there. That concerned him since the majority of his army had been bred in the heat of The Forbidden Lands. But there was no help for it. He couldn’t afford to wait a half-year in Earlford for next Planting to begin. His body was showing the early signs of collapse. He felt certain he could survive another year but perhaps not much more than that. Time was short. He needed to establish his goals or the final step in his great plan might never be achieved.
The Otherverse beckoned. The “incursion,” as it was referred to in ancient tomes and scrolls, wasn’t as impossible as the gods had claimed. Official dogma stated that no human could pass through the gateway to the Otherverse but Justin believed he had uncovered the formula for achieving it. He didn’t know what would happen to him if he physically entered the forbidden realm. Such an action might well trigger an apocalypse - the end of all things created by the gods. If that happened, so be it. His life was nearly over at any rate. Nevertheless, he suspected there was a precedent to argue against such a thing happening. The recipe, however, was precise and Justin had only begun to mix the ingredients. Worse, he wasn’t yet in possession of all of them, and that was worrisome.
Much as it galled him to ma
“General Gerthak,” said Justin, his booming voice echoing in the vastness of the empty throne room. This was one chamber he had ensured went untouched by the ravaging of his army. The palace was his now; no part of it had been despoiled. His chief military officer was somewhere nearby; The Lord of Fire had established a link between all the torches and lanterns in the palace so his voice could be broadcast when desired. Although usually referred to in books as a trick to amuse those easily awed, it had practical uses. It took less than two minutes for Gerthak to push open the huge main doors to the throne room and march toward the throne.
Every time Justin saw Gerthak, he was amazed at the man’s bulk. He knew little of his head commander’s past, only that he was the most capable officer in the army, but he was sure the general could fill evening after evening with interesting stories. Gerthak was nearly eight feet tall from toe to crown with an equally impressive girth. He was the biggest brute Justin had ever encountered, not to mention the ugliest. He had a bald pate but made up for the lack of hair on top with a full black beard and a mat of coarse fur on his chest. His arms and the backs of his hands were also thick with it. His nose had been broken numerous times and he had lost his left eye and both ears at some point, yet those scars improved his appearance. Rumor whispered that Gerthak might be descended from the giants and, in this case, Justin was inclined to acknowledge that Rumor might be telling the truth.
Gerthak stopped a respectful six feet from the throne and bowed deeply. As always, his mark of obeisance was sincere. Here was a man who accepted Justin’s right to rule without question, much as had been the case long ago when wizards were acknowledged as leaders by all. Justin had promised him the right to claim a city of his choice when the war was over but he suspected Gerthak lived for battle and would be bored with something as mundane as lording it over people. He liked to be given orders not to give them. He was strong and fearsome but not imaginative or intelligent.