“Who chases power, pursues death.”
—Ro Fannin, First Warrior
Naked Power craves, then creates, bloodshed.”
—Gardai War Manual
The Island nation of Athlan, once ruled by the legendary Council of Four, the Priest, the Warrior, the Poet and the Scientor, each marked with symbols etched into their skin by forces unknown, continues to self-destruct on a physical plane, as well as a moral one. Of the Four, only the Warrior, Kon-r Sighur, has survived and Athlanean society is tearing itself apart, as certain death stalks all of them.
The stellar Angeals, Cath and Dorchada, power brokers of the competing Celestial Travelers, have unleashed their players, willing and unwilling, on the dangerous gameboard called Athlan, under the blood-red skies of the tortured planet. The fight for control of the earth is heating up. Implacable foes advance across the burning face of the doomed Island, and all converge, by design or by chance, on the last bastion of hope-The Ban Castlean—The White Castle of the Gardai.
A second Warrior, an impossibility according to Athlanean belief, has accepted his role in the coming war. Cean Mak-Scaire—a fisherman’s son—has appeared unlooked for, bearing the sacred and indelible marks of the Warrior. His appearance has signaled a new epic in the Earth’s embattled history: he has refused to offer blind obedience to the celestial forces fighting for control of the earth and humanity. In the end, even though he will fight, he fights for himself and his people-not for the Cath Angeal and the unimaginable force and unknowable reality she represents.
As Athlan continues to self-destruct, new, unlooked-for powers take the field and the once well-defined war between the dark and light now includes powerful combatants that are bewildering shades of indeterminate grey. The mayhem expands, and more and more ignorant Athlaneans are lead to the slaughter.
For the final confrontation, the Cath Angeal, the Angeal of Light, summons twelve of the long dead Warriors of Athlan, once Council members marked by the Palm and Fist, who shed their blood and lost their lives fighting to defend the Island Nation in the past, while The Bas Croi, infused with new power by the Angeal Dorchada, Angeal of the Dark, summons his twelve Raver Captains, who have existed on earth as the tools of evil from the earliest of times, living in many bodies over time, to lead the voracious, mindless armies of the night.
And while the Angeals push their pieces across the board, Mother Earth and her newly created daughter, Celine, have spawned a small cadre of volunteer killers, The Little Mothers, who are dedicated to the preservation of the earth as it is, not as the Travelers and Angeals would have it.
The results of the inevitable conflict are unknowable. War is chaos. The good die as easily as the evil and the best plans go amiss. The deadly game plays on, as it has for millennia across the universe.
The vanishing sun sank behind the Westron mountains, and the Ban Colm sailed in a light breeze just over the horizon. Rigging creaked and white water surged along the ship’s sides, as bare feet slapped on white deck planking worn smooth. The crew was excited. When night fell, the Ban Colm would turn inshore and sail toward the port city of Cala. Captain Torvyn Lok, leaning on the starboard rail, watched the sun go down and figured he could get within a mile of the port without being seen. He would raise sail soon and take the Ban Colm toward the harbor under its unique propulsion system. Instead of sneaking into the harbor itself, there was a small fishing village just south of the Luath River called Bailiag. The port of Cala surrounded the mouth of the river, but the village was less than a mile south of that. He would lower a boat from the Ban Colm, take Rok Tan and six men, then make land just north of Bailiag. He’d leave two men with the boat, then walk across the Cala-Bailiag Bridge into Cala, and begin searching for Vespex Kee. The former Gardai, famous seller of information, lived on the northern side of the river, where he had his supply business. Once across the bridge, things could become dicey. Lok would take one man and find Kee’s business or house, while Tan would take the rest and search the taverns along the waterfront for news of the one-armed trader. They would meet at the north end of the bridge in three hours with or without Vespex.
Lok couldn’t think of a better plan. Much would be left to chance once they crossed the bridge. If they didn’t find Kee, Lok would learn what he could about Athlan and then decide. He wanted to empty his holds of goods and refit the ship, but if it was too dangerous, what then? The sun was almost gone, and he wasn’t sure. What a mess. He had told KT, his adopted daughter, to go to Arcasaid, the seaport that supplied the Ban Castlean, home of the Gardai, if he didn’t get out of Cala. She must find Kon-r Sighur, the Warrior of Athlan. Maybe that’s what he should do, too. If things were bad, he’d probably lose his cargo, and maybe his ship, but it was either that or turn away from Athlan and find a new home elsewhere. Through trade and war, he had learned of plenty of acceptable destinations with good weather and better people.
Lok knew he wasn’t thinking straight. He should just turn the Ban Colm and sail away, period. Something held him back. He had to know what was happening to his country. He promised himself that the people on the Ban Colm would make it; he wouldn’t endanger them, but, if that was the case, why was he even thinking about Cala, and Arcasaid, the Ban Castlean, and the men who manned the walls? He felt a deep sadness. After all these years, after all he had seen and done, he was still one of them, still Gardai in his heart. Even so, he needed to do what was right for his crew, which meant he had to do everything he could to off-load his cargo, re-fit the ship, pay his people, and take them to safety.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rok Tan, battle master, walk toward him along the rail. He was an amazing young man, and Lok had always hoped Rok Tan and KT would have a life together. Tan bounced up the stairs quickly and began talking. “The men are ready, sir, and the boat is loaded. Just give the word.”
Lok asked, “What about Lanterns?”
“White in the fore, green at mid-ships, red aft,” answered Rok Tan. The lights would allow them to find Seoult and KT before dawn.
“Steady and smart, Tor. Tough enough if we have to fight.”
“Let’s hope we don’t, Tan. This isn’t an invasion. If we must fight, something has gone very wrong. However, make sure every man is armed,”
Lok asked, “Have you ever been to Cala, Tan?”
“Yes, sir, once. We marched from the Castlean to Cala on a training exercise when I was new to the Gardai. We were given a night’s leave. I can’t say I remember much of the layout, sir, although I do seem to remember there were a number of drinking establishments along the waterfront.”
Rok Tan was no angel, but neither was Lok. “I seem to remember the same thing. But this trip will be different. Cala may be dangerous if things have continued to deteriorate on Athlan. We have a ship and food, and we’ll be outsiders. Watch your back. Speak as little as possible, and in the name of all the gods large and small, don’t let the men drink.”
Tan said, “I’ll do my best, sir.”
Lok knew he would. “Alright, Tan, we’ll continue for another hour or so, then lower the boat. Make sure the men eat something. We may have an exciting night ahead.”
Lok turned toward the wheel. Seoult stood with massive hands on the spokes, head tilted up, studying the sky. Just behind him to the right was KT. It was clear she had been watching Lok and Tan speak. It was also clear she was not happy about being excluded from the conversation. Lok walked across the softly rolling deck and stood behind KT’s left shoulder, so both she and Seoult could hear him. “We’ll be leaving the ship in an hour or so. Mr. Seoult, start making your way toward the beach north of Bailiag. Keep her about a mile offshore. Look for us near dawn off the same beach. If we aren’t there, sail over the horizon and come in again the next night. If we aren’t there, then you know what to do. Both of you: understood?”
Seoult’s “Aye” was the only answer Lok heard. KT didn’t say a word; she just glared at him.
He had to say something. “KT, I know you want to come, and I know you would handle yourself as well as anyone in the boat, but I need you here. If I don’t return, this ship is yours. The papers are in my cabin, in my sea chest. You two will make a good team, and the men will follow you.” KT remained silent. “We’ve talked about this before and agreed it’s the best way. I don’t want to leave…” He stopped as KT walked away from him. Lok watched as she ran up the rat lines and into the darkness atop the mainmast, where she sat with her back against the masthead, looking out over the empty sea. Lok stood in shock, his mouth open.
Seoult, the wise, said, “Better close your mouth, lad, before some nasty creature flies in to make a nest. Ah, don’t worry. She ran because she didn’t want to cry in front of everyone, not because of you, sir. You know that; besides, you’ll see her in a few hours, and when you do, she’ll treat you like a small child, give you a terrible tongue-lashin’, and the matter will be forgotten in a few days. Go do your job, Captain, and we’ll do ours.”
Lok went down to his cabin. He made sure the ship’s papers were in his trunk, and then thought about the coming mission ashore. He changed into a dull black outfit. What should he take? They had to get in and out quickly. Dagger, killing sword, and…. He reached into his sea chest and pulled out a lightweight, leather harness that he wore over his shoulders. The harness had four small sheaths on the front. He reached in again and took out an oiled rag. He opened the cloth to four six-inch throwing knives. The knives had two razor cutting edges and each came to an extremely fine point. They had been made for him by the head armorer in the Castlean when he had been a young Gardai officer. They had saved his life more than once. Their real value became clear when someone had to be killed quietly. He put each knife into its sheath and hoped he didn’t have to use them. He thought about putting on his fine chainmail vest, which would turn the sharpest knife or spear point, but nighttime, small-boat operations were not the best time to weigh oneself down with armor. He put on pair of soft, lambskin gloves, dyed black and cut away to clear his fingers. Lok also put an all-purpose dagger in his boot, because you never knew. He grabbed a black cloth and wrapped it around his head, tying a knot in the back. Lok remembered doing this the first time many years ago; he was young and excited and a little scared. A lifetime later, he was just scared.
Lok took a deep breath and went topside. Seoult was still at the wheel, two seamen standing behind him, waiting to take their turn. They’d have a long wait,” he thought. Seoult wouldn’t consider handing control of the ship to someone else at this crucial moment, and Lok was glad he wouldn’t. He saw Tan and his men gathered around their boat. He knew what they were feeling, what they were doing. He went down onto the main deck and joined them.
“Sir, the boat is loaded and the men are ready to go,” said Tan. As he said this, Tan gave a small jar to Lok, along with a smaller smile. Tan and his men had blackened their faces, and Lok’s stood out like a big, bright moon. Tor dipped his fingers and smeared lamp black over his face.
He gave the jar back to Tan, smiled, and addressed to the crew. “Thank you for volunteering, men. Our mission tonight is simple. Find a man named Vespex Kee. We’ll land on the beach south of Cala, walk north over a bridge into the city. We’ll split up. Tan will take three of you and I’ll take one. Two will wait with the boat. Tan, who will go with you?” Three men raised their hands. “Okay. Who waits with the boat?” Two men raised their hands. Tan had done a good job. One man was left. His name was Sandine. “Sandy, you’re with me. We’ll go to his home and, if he’s not there, we’ll search his business and warehouses. Tan, comb the waterfront inns and alehouses for him, or word of him. We’ll meet back at the northern end of the bridge over the Ruath. If you find him, bring him with you, whatever it takes. We’ll do the same. We aren’t here to fight. We want to get in, get what we need, and get out. After we meet at the bridge, we’ll return to the boat. Any questions?” There were none, and the men, civilian sailors, still snapped to attention.
Tor got the same feelings he always did when good men stepped up to do dangerous work: pride and humility. “Right,” he said. “Tan, lower the boat, and let’s get moving.” He turned aft and shouted, “Shut down the drive, Seoult.” Seoult echoed the command and the crew acted. The Ban Colm slowed and began to wallow in the soft sea. Lok, Tan, and the rest climbed in, while other crew members got ready to lower the boat. Lok shouted “Away!” and the boat went down into the sea. Six men put oars into the water and began to row toward shore. Lok sat in the bow, while Tan sat aft with his hand on a small tiller. No one spoke, but everyone turned back and watched as the Colm slipped into darkness. The men had the same thought. We’ll see you soon, Colm, if we’re lucky. The surf was light as they approached the beach. They were making good time; the men put their backs into it. Lok watched the sea because none of them really knew this stretch of coastline well. Water could shoal quickly. Lok saw a sparse twinkling of lights to the south. That would be Bailiag, he thought. To his right, he saw a dim red glow in the sky, and that was Cala. Why red? Fire was the only answer that came to mind and that wasn’t good. He could hear waves breaking on the shore, which meant they were getting closer. This was the tricky part: pulling through the surf in the dark. One mistake, one missed stroke, one rogue wave, or… There was a loud crack, and Lok pitched over the bow into the sea. His last thought before hitting the water was Rock, and that rock had ripped the bow out of the boat.
Lok was a strong swimmer and clawed his way to the surface. The moon was hidden, and he couldn’t see anyone around. He got his bearings and swam toward the shore, wondering where the rest were. The noise got louder and he soon found himself battling through the surf, trying to keep his head above water, trying to breathe as he stroked madly toward the beach. Lok lowered his feet and touched bottom, although the force of the waves wouldn’t allow him to walk in. He found himself on his hands and knees crawling out of the surf and onto the sand like a giant crab. He was exhausted and flopped onto his back. Breath came in great, ragged gasps. After a few minutes, he propped himself up on his elbows and looked up and down the beach. He saw one man standing a hundred or so yards toward Cala, but that was all. Lok checked his knives- chest and boot- and realized his boot knife missing, as was his sword. He still had his throwing knives. Not happy, he stood and began walking toward the figure on the beach. After a few steps, he recognized Tan, and when the moon came out, he saw six men and the shattered remains of their boat lying on the sand.
Both Tan and Lok began checking their men. After a few moments, four of the remaining six were on their feet, a little worse for wear and thankful to be alive. Two men didn’t move. The surf had brought dead men up onto the beach. The Colmers gathered around to say goodbye to their shipmates. A quiet prayer was said quickly for Lans and Targ, and the men got busy again. No one reached the beach with the weapons they left the ship with, although everyone was armed in some fashion. Tan had his long sword and nothing else. It could be worse, Lok thought. They could pick up weapons in the city. Getting a boat to return to the ship, however, could be difficult.
“Alright, let’s go. Tan, put two men out front. We’ll find the road that runs along the beach to Cala and follow it to the bridge. If anyone comes along, get off the road and let them pass. Understand?” Everyone nodded. Tan picked two men and sent them towards the road. Lok and Tan waited a few minutes for the scouts to get ahead and then lead the others off the beach along the same track. They had lost considerable time already, so both scouts and Lok’s group double-timed as quietly as they could. Luck was on their side. No one came from Cala or Bailiag and the moon hid behind clouds again. Silently, they ran- shadows more than men. A night bird whistled and the small troop dropped to the ground. After a few moments the bird whistled again, and Tan stood tall, as if waiting for something in the dark. In a few seconds, one of the scouts materialized before him and whispered something.
Tan pointed back up the track, and the scout ran back the way he’d come. Tan said to Lok, “The bridge is just ahead around this bend. There is a two-man guard at this end and the area is well lit with lanterns. The guards don’t seem to be expecting trouble, but they aren’t sleeping and they can see anything coming towards them. Not good, sir.”