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Beyond The Sunset (Akurite Empire, #3)

Beyond The Sunset (Akurite Empire, #3)

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Beyond The Sunset (Akurite Empire, #3)

Longueur:
256 pages
4 heures
Sortie:
Aug 10, 2015
ISBN:
9781513082592
Format:
Livre

Description

The evil Empress is defeated, but her inhuman allies remain.

Far across the world, the city of Karak Nam Psarrion stands beside a lake of fire. There the Automaton serve the demonic Process, plotting the conquest of the world.

With six of her knights, Sabra sets out for distant Psarrion to bring war to the enemy.

Sortie:
Aug 10, 2015
ISBN:
9781513082592
Format:
Livre

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Beyond The Sunset (Akurite Empire, #3) - Samuel Z Jones

Jones

Sabra Daishen

Beyond The Sunset

by

Samuel Z Jones

Copyright Samuel Z Jones 2011

PoD 2nd Edition 2015

CHAPTER ONE

A SHATTERED WORLD

"North of the Psarrions, it was said to lie;

The nation of our enemy, 'gainst whom so many died;

Seven wyverns flying, bearing seven swords so bold;

The courage of the Daishen a golden cloak against the cold..."

Cura's voice carried above the wind as they flew across the mountains that none had ever climbed. It had lightened Sabra's heart at first to hear Cura's vast repertoire, from folk-tunes to sea shanties and military marching songs, but by now Cura had turned to ad-libbing songs about their mission to the tunes of older songs. The rhyme-schemes were imperfect and Cura occasionally had to hum bars of the melody until inspiration struck her again. Sabra knew there was no stopping Cura from singing and harboured no desire to try, but she could not help wishing that a subject other than herself be chosen so she might enjoy her companion's talent.

Sing us an old one, she called, when Cura's latest muse had left her.

Dor Adathen Pass, Dor Adathen Pass... Cura sang, surprising Sabra with an entirely new tune and lyrics she had not heard before. "...place that the courage of ages does hold..."

"...Dor Adathen Pass, Dor Adathen Pass,

vale where the graves of our heroes are stowed;

There lies our captain, crowned like a queen; there lies Naylansis in glorious esteem.

"Dor Adathen Pass, Dor Adathen Pass,

siege where the medals of honour were forged;

Dor Adathen Pass, Dor Adathen Pass;

to the names of the fallen great valour accord;

But one deed of Virtu I daily recall, that I stood with my captain at her final hour."

"Dor Adathen Pass, Dor Adathen Pass;

lay me beside her when my Quest expires.

Dor Adathen Pass, Dor Adathen Pass,

bear back my body where buried she lies;

In such ground to sleep, by Naylansis to lie, no honour or glory but this I aspire."

Dor Adathen Pass, Dor Adathen Pass,

anvil of armies 'neath hammer of war,

Dor Adathen Pass, Dor Adathen Pass,

where lies my captain, my sister, my friend,

Lay me beside her as once I did stand,

most glorious of heroes save Sabra Daishen..."

Cura trailed off into humming, though whether because there were no more words or because she could not continue, they did not discover, for she never sang the song again. But Sabra and the rest remembered the oddly jaunty threnody and eventually made up new words for those they could not recall and a great many new verses besides, until it became an epic about Cura herself and in latter years the foremost song by which the Battle of Dor Adathen Pass and the death of Sax Naylansis were remembered.

Sax's death had been a terrible blow; the implacable Captain of the Women's Regiment, struck down in battle and buried on the ground where she fell. Sabra was glad to have Cura here, Sax's successor and adopted daughter, but she would forever mourn the dry smile and martial showmanship of her fallen ally.

With Sabra now were the knights Sir Tolan of the Morningstar, Cura of the Joyous Fortitude and old Sir Guillemot, the Darian knights Sir Malakim of the Virtu and Sir Ofanim of the Vision, and finally the beastman knight Menalowen of the Black Arrows, Master of the Hunt and Bravest of the Brave, Sabra's self-appointed champion dear to her as a brother.

When they landed at last on the sheltered slope of a mountain that had no name in any human tongue, Sabra's companions were exhausted after three days without rest, their wyverns even more tired than they. Sabra alone did not sleep; she felt no weariness at all. It had not puzzled her until now, used as she was to days without rest, but it was a week since she had said goodbye to her sister and she had not slept since the defeat of the Empress now over ten days ago. Nevertheless, she was wide awake and felt none of the symptoms she had come to associate with sleep-deprivation. It was not that three days had been her physical limit until now; a body deprived of sleep enters a strange state where rest is anathema except at sudden moments of overwhelming tiredness that, if defied, are replaced by a surge of hyperactivity. Sabra had experimented with driving herself beyond three days in the past, and learned that sleep could be denied but dreams could not, and by the fourth day dreams would intrude upon reality in bizarre hallucinations. Sabra had attempted it once deliberately, only to be assailed by visions of tiny horsemen no bigger than mice galloping about her head by their hundreds, silent and strange. The only other occasion had been perforce, an unexpected and protracted running battle with Imperial forces at the end of a three-day stint in the saddle. That day had recurred to her for months in nightmares, and she recalled it only as delirium, sights and sounds of the forest mingled randomly with an open battlefield. Other symptoms were stiffness, irritability, dryness of the eyes, poor judgement, loss of co-ordination and eventually balance, when the moment of collapse finally came.

She felt none of these things now, but instead a vibrancy of body, mind and spirit she had never known before. She had no thoughts; her mind was clear and strangely lonely without the voices of doubt, hope, fear, or any others besides. Her armour weighed nothing on her shoulders and was so natural to her now that she thought of it as her own skin. The mountaintop was icy cold and the Fire-Bird cloak blazed without heat except in battle, but she felt no discomfort in the chill even though her breath was mist on the air and the ground thick with snow. She was not even stiff from riding; she had long become inured to horseback, but the scaly wyverns demanded far less of the legs and far more of the  hips and abdomen, and she had only recently mastered the technique. Yet it was as if she had been born to the saddle of the winged lizard, and three days riding wyvern or horse were the same. These sensations went barely noticed against the bright singing in her heart, like a white fire that fountained up from within. The Psarrion mountains were black, cold and grim, the length of the journey unknown and the enemy that awaited a monster and maker of monsters, but she felt no fear. She did not even regret leaving her homeland or her loved ones; only the Quest mattered, the onward riding forever in search of what she had come to realise was inherent in herself but could only be actualized by absolute dedication. This had been her state of consciousness for quite some time, but it had gone unrecognized until now. For a few seconds, she consciously felt as if every negative impulse or emotion had been utterly excised. Then a shadow moved above her, something dark and evil lurking on the cliff above. She barely glimpsed it, but the mere presence of the thing raised abhorrence that guttered the white fire of her spirit and clenched her heart first with rage and then utter hatred. She did not pause to wake her comrades or mount her steed, but assaulted the low cliff alone and within a few minutes had scrambled over the lip of it and into the blast of the wind. The rocky outcrop was like a rough-hewn pillar standing above the mountain slopes; the view stretched in every direction almost as far as from the back of a wyvern. The complete panorama was mountainous, nothing save the black crags of the Psarrion range and the night sky overhead, sprinkled with stars.

The sudden assault upon her serenity by the presence of the evil thing had shaken her; by the time she gained the cliff-top, she was breathless and far from the saintly rapture of a few minutes ago.

The dark spirit awaited her, a patch of shadow shaped like a man. Red eyes glowed in the darkness as the wraith turned to face her. Sabra had recognized the mere proximity of Rathelon by the crawling of her skin and the aura of malice so palpable it was like a noxious stench.

I have the weapons to fight with you, she told him.

In this fight, no weapons can aid you. The voice was in the wind itself; the liche had no lips or lungs to speak. Only if I seize one of your companions or your steeds could we do mortal battle, and then only to the deaths of all your comrades until we again stood here alone.

You would not find them easy to overcome.

One by one they are no match for me. But that is not why I am here.

Then why?

The liche chuckled. We have each come to the threshold of apotheosis, though the width of the cosmos stands between us as a chasm. From these great heights where few others stand, we may behold the full glory of both the light and the dark. Did you not once say that to embrace damnation is high nobility?

Not as you mean it.

And what do I mean? He was a shapeless mass of nothingness defined only by the dark forces binding his soul, but he retained still the leering mockery of voice and swaggering posture of life; the liche drew itself up and leant back like a man setting hands on hips in scorn.

You mean that the light and the dark are one and the same. They are not; the Virtu of light is that it struggles to persist even in the blackest soul, while evil's nobility is only the last gleam of that Virtu still defiant.

If you could but see as I can see... How do I appear to you?

Darkness and evil without the disguise of flesh.

I am not so in my own eyes. Like you, I am numinous. If you cannot see it, then you are not so far along the Quest as we both had thought. Your destination is still far away.

There is no destination; the goal lies within.

Rathelon laughed in her face, then extended a shadowy limb towards her. Take my hand.

No.

You must see us both as we truly are. To me you are a shining silver fire, while I am grown so dark that it burns within me brighter than the sun.

The eyes of the Naril hold no vision for me.

Take my hand. Great wisdom and knowledge I possess, and that cannot be called evil. The mastery of all sorcery I could impart to you, to do works great and good...

If I look once upon the world with your eyes, no more of my deeds will be good.

You cannot know that. Behold the horizons before us; ahead lies only darkness and war, but behind you is an empire to rebuild and a throne to raise for a glorious queen. I will lead you back to the lands you have known, to the people who love you and the great rewards you have earned. Take my hand.

No. With the third denial, the inner certainty that had lain dormant as a celestial coal sprang forth again in white fire. Sabra felt it overcome her, a buoyant tide of invisible light and unheard heavenly music. To Rathelon, the fire of her spirit was an inferno; he fell back from her, but she advanced until he retreated to the very lip of the cliff where the abyss gaped behind him.

What you offer me is dust, as well you know.

The red eyes blazed with malice that knew no bounds, but the expression of them was like the uncomprehending outrage of a demonic child. Frustrated, he flew at her with ethereal claws that had rent the spirit of every creature to feel them before. But he could neither tear nor enter her; it was as if he had become mortal flesh and she a fire. Rathelon howled, then roared, screamed, shrieked, wailed lamentation and finally erupted into gibbering laughter.

He had abandoned even words and concepts now, assailing her in sequence with every emotion he possessed. But he was a withered and shriven spirit, bereft of any true feeling save for the horror of damnation. Speech, thought, intellect, motive, emotion and all the rest were the same as mortal flesh to him; costumes to be adopted or tools to be used. But none of these availed him now and soon even the insane burble of his cackling became a strange moan, like that of a dying animal and yet horribly akin to the laboured breathing of lust.

The liche collapsed from Sabra and became a seething ball of shadows at her feet, still oscillating through every extreme of passion at his command. His burbling went on until she drew Estarriol and ran the liche through. It could not be killed, but in defeat and madness it could not withstand the sword that mirrored Sabra's spirit, supranaturally sharp and pure. With a final burbling shriek, the liche was gone, dissolved back into the shadows that had manifested its presence.

The last assault, accompanied by its shrieking of pandemonium, had awoken her companions. Swifter than the rest, Sir Malakim's wyvern leapt from its perch on the rocks below and alighted at a beat of its wings on the high point where Sabra stood. Ofanim and Menalowen arrived a moment later. They were all three a split-second too late to witness the battle, but Ofanim pointed with his sword at something he alone could see.

A shadow, flying very fast to the north; something evil goes ahead of us into the dark.

Better than it should fly back on our route, Menalowen replied. For now we may hunt it.

It is a thing to be fled or permitted to flee, Sabra told them, mounting up behind Menalowen for the short return hop down the cliff to where their companions and her own steed waited. Not fled for fear, but because like perverse vice there is nothing good to be had in any contact whatsoever. If it flees, it is only to lure us into deeper darkness. It is not even Rathelon anymore; it has consumed first his flesh, then his mind and soul. If there is a name for what he has become, I do not know it.

This conversation had to be repeated to their other companions when they had dismounted, although it was Malakim and Menalowen who told it, each relating the parts that fired their spirits the most. Malakim spoke of a great contest between Virtu and Damnation, while Menalowen mourned that the enemy was not an order of life that could be hunted and slain.

It is not life, Ofanim said. You asked for its name, Sabra; it is Ankou, simply Undeath. Not even a husk that once harboured life or a raging spirit that once knew flesh; it is the antithesis of life. Even death itself, if it could be incarnate as a god, would abhor such a creature.

CHAPTER TWO

THE CHASM

For ten days they flew across the mountains, seeing only one range beyond the next, resting every two days. The mountains grew in stature as the journey wore on; soon they could not fly over the cloudy peaks but soared between them, risking dangerous side-gusts of wind and sometimes passing close enough to the crags to beware of rockfalls and avalanche.

Deep valleys and unknown passes they soared over, seeing no sign of life or civilisation. It was as if they flew above a barren world. Gradually the days changed, until there was neither morning nor dusk, only a few brilliant hours of noon when the sky turned blue as topaz before plunging again into deepest night. The temperature plummeted and soon even Sabra's golden Fire-Bird cloak could not quite defy the cold; by the time they reached the northern edge of the mountains, they were unable to maintain even a full day's flight and rested often. They had no wood to build a fire, but the Cloak of the Fire-Bird blazed up on command and Sabra's companions would sit around her for a few hours before the time came to ride on.

The last day in the mountains was strange; the sun rose, but there was no day. The darkness of night persisted in the heavens, though the stars dimmed, and the sun rose argent in a pitch-black sky.

They rode on beneath it and came, suddenly and abruptly, to the edge of the world.

The mountains simply stopped; the last peaks overhung a bottomless chasm in the depths of which could be seen stars and constellations. Sabra and her companions flew over it, circled back, and perched at last on a promontory of rock overhanging the chasm.

So where is the country of the Psarrion? She asked of her comrades, their steeds, the mountains and the void.

It is not here, Menalowen replied, stating the obvious. Perhaps...

Perhaps nothing! Guillemot barked in sudden rage. It is impossible; the world is round, it has no edge. This is a chasm with a farther side; only the width of it and some trick of perspective make it seem otherwise.

Not even he, however, suggested that they should fly blindly on into the dark.

East or west? Sabra asked. The only obvious fact was that they could not stay where they were.

East, Guillemot said, bitterly. If the world has an edge, by jingo, then I should like to see the bally spot where the sun comes up over it.

Menalowen and Ofanim seconded the notion, and for a while they flew east along the edge of the world. As they went, Cura composed a song about the journey and the strange things they had seen, the vastness of the mountains and the impossible sky, the edge of the world and the quest for the place where the sun arose. They did not find it, but the sunrise of the following day was spectacular enough. It began far down in the chasm, at the easternmost corner, and spread brilliant light first along the walls and the edges of the cliffs before the sun itself appeared. The side of the chasm lip up like a cosmic chandelier, the walls decked in a forest of crystal spires only revealed when they caught the light. Sunrise spread along the lowest reaches of the chasm, so that it seemed as if they flew above the horizon itself and the sun arose not merely from behind but beneath it.

It lasted only an hour, then the bright sun rolled in the black heavens again and passed overhead before the renewed onset of night.

On a promontory of rock beneath mountain peaks that overlooked the very lip of the world, Sabra spied a campfire. There beside the fire sat an old woman, wrapped in a heavy furred cloak and smoking a long pipe as she studied her fire. Ancient eyes looked up as the knights on their wyverns swooped overhead, but by the time they had circled around to land, the lone watcher's attention had returned to the campfire. She did not look up when Sabra and her six knights approached the camp, leaving their wyverns some way back.

To those that could sense it, Sabra emanated power like a beacon for many miles all around her; to Red Shakasha, immortal Blood-Witch and terror of a thousand generations, Sabra appeared as a being of light and fire.

For this meeting, Red Shakasha had ample time to assume her customary guise of being a doddering old hag one false step from the grave. Sabra took one look at the ancient crone sitting by her little fire with only a kettle on the boil and a small satchel at her side, and was not fooled for a moment.

Who are you? She demanded, in a less than friendly tone.

Nothing but an old woman lost in the mountains... Shakasha began.

Rubbish, Sabra cut in. Do I look like an idiot, that I might believe a harmless old coot would accidentally find themselves a thousand leagues into the mountains on the edge of the world?

The edge of the world? Shakasha's red eyes gleamed in the firelight. You had me worried for a few moments there, young lady. I thought I might be in real trouble... the edge of the world is it? Hold on one moment, I shall be back.

She stood up, took out the enchanted hairpin that preserved her disguise, and walked to the

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