The black prism, p.52
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       The Black Prism, p.52

           Brent Weeks
 

  The Blackguards pulled Gavin to the edge of the wall. The cowl on the wall meant there were only a few places open on either the front or the back. They found one where the cranes pulled in goods. A Blackguard bichrome drafted a blue-green slide all the way to the ground.

  “What are you doing?” Gavin managed.

  “We’re taking you to safety, sir.” Then the man jumped onto the slide.

  Gavin was looking through the bright hallway formed by the bonnet to one of the culverin teams. They had fired a ball and were looking downfield—the sign of an inexperienced crew. Only one man needed to watch so they could adjust their aim. The rest should be reloading already. But after a moment, they cheered. “Got it!” Gavin couldn’t see what they’d hit, but as they turned back to their task, he saw a flash of movement.

  “It’s safe!” the Blackguard called up from the ground at the base of Brightwater Wall.

  Green claws latched onto the wall just in front of the artillery team. What? Gavin had known green wights to infuse their legs with the springiness of green luxin, but he’d never seen one jump even half the height of this wall. He cried out, pointing, but not before the beast flung itself upon the artillerymen. Its hands, grown into huge claws, tore through four men before they even knew it was there. Blood was flung in broad arcs, splattering against the walls. The last three men saw the beast, but froze. Only one even made an attempt to grab a musket from the wall.

  The green wight clove the man’s head in three, two broad claws descending halfway through his head.

  The Blackguards hesitated for only half a second. None of them had ever seen a color wight either. Four Blackguards stepped forward, almost simultaneously. The two in front went to one knee, clearing firing lanes over their heads. Their hands dipped in unison, one hand coming up to draft, the other coming up with a pistol.

  Triggers clicked, and flints struck, but in the two seconds it took to fire a pistol, luxin was already streaking out from every drafter. A ball of blue luxin like a fist hammered the green wight toward a wall. A glob of red luxin splattered across its side and back and made it stick to the wall. Slick orange smeared the floor in case it pulled away. But that wasn’t necessary. The green wight’s claws were still stuck in the unfortunate gunner’s head, and it had no time to react before the last Blackguard’s flames hit the red luxin and set it alight.

  The next moment, three guns roared. All three hit the green wight’s chest. Green luxin and all too human red blood burst from the wounds. The wight would have collapsed, but the red luxin held it to the wall, even as it burned.

  “Black out!” One of the Blackguards yelled. She stepped forward, already pouring more powder in her flashpan. Apparently hers had been the gun that misfired. She cocked the gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger. A second later, it blew the still-burning green wight’s head apart.

  The Blackguards were already reloading their pistols. For most of them, Gavin knew, it was their very first battle. First blood. Yet each reloaded his or her pistol without looking. It was something they were taught to do only when there was extreme and pressing danger—visually inspecting a pistol was usually a good idea to prevent misfires and double-charging—but it was worth it to not have to take your eyes off the battlefield sometimes, and all of them had the presence of mind to do it correctly.

  “Tell General Danavis to withdraw the cowl,” Gavin said. The cowl was keeping the green wights from getting in anywhere except at the artillery stations, but it left those men totally vulnerable. And while the Blackguards had all hit their target—now slumped on the floor, bleeding out and barely smoking—the other defenders wouldn’t be so accurate. The cowl transformed the top of the wall into a yellow luxin tunnel. That meant ricochets. Ricochets meant anyone who missed a shot at an attacker would probably kill a defender. It wasn’t worth the tradeoffs, especially because King Garadul’s culverins and howitzers had stopped firing so they wouldn’t kill the color wights.

  General Danavis must have realized the same thing, though, because before the Blackguards could argue that they couldn’t send even one of their own away from Gavin, the cowl slid back. The sudden motion knocked several defenders off the wall, the fall guaranteeing maiming or death. But it had to be done.

  It also snapped the slide that the Blackguards had made for Gavin. But in moments they remade it and threw him unceremoniously down. He couldn’t even catch himself. The sheer amount of luxin he’d drafted today had left him with nothing.

  The Blackguards at the bottom of the slide caught him and lifted him to his feet. He was able to stand.

  “Take me to the gate,” Gavin ordered.

  The Blackguards looked at each other.

  “Damn you! Lose the gate, lose the wall. We lose the wall, we lose the city.”

  “This city isn’t our concern. Your safety is,” a voice shouted. Tremblefist. He’d appeared from nowhere. “You can stand, can you run?” he asked Gavin.

  “I’m not running!”

  “We can’t hold the gate!” Tremblefist shouted. “My Guards are getting slaughtered, and for what? We’re not your personal army. We protect your life, not your whims. You’re making our job impossible!”

  Gavin’s failure spun out before him. This was his own fault. It wasn’t his drafting that had failed, it was his leadership. He’d never told these men and women why they fought. He’d demanded obedience unto death without even telling them why it was important. He’d been divided in his own mind and now he was surprised that they didn’t want to die for that? A lie would have been better.

  All he could see through the press of the soldiers between himself and the gate was flashes of fire, and smoke, and blood splashed high against the arch. The Blackguards were doubtless still in the front line—only the Blackguard could have stood for so long against the number of color wights Gavin had seen coming. The crackle of musket fire was constant but slow. The soldiers between Gavin and the fight had no idea about establishing fire lanes, so men farther back didn’t shoot for fear of striking those in front of them. But so far, no one was turning back.

  Of course, that would change when they saw their best fighters retreat, abandon them. The Blackguards were the linchpin.

  With a roar of frustration, Gavin grabbed a nearby soldier’s musket and ran toward the gate. He could hear Tremblefist’s curse, and had no doubt the big man would be hot on his heels. He pushed and weaved through the crowd, his size slowing him, but not as much as Tremblefist’s even bigger size.

  Gavin was cursing, screaming at men and women to move out of his way, when he heard a crunch of impact. A moment later, there was a surge from the gate, pushing everyone back a good five paces. Gavin cut across a line of soldiers to the wall. He grappled across a section where the image of a huge warrior stood, stoic, unmoving except for breathing, little puffs of steam escaping from his mouth. He touched a few sections—damn it, he should have done something to demarcate the appropriate place—until he found the one he was looking for. He touched it—anyone could touch it, it activated from the heat in a man’s hand—and a little window of the wall went transparent.

  He was right. The crunch had been the impact of the regular soldiers arriving. There were tens of thousands of them pressed against the wall right now, already hefting scaling ladders and ropes. He couldn’t wait for them to find his little surprise—but none of that mattered if they couldn’t hold the gate.

  Looking to the sun, Gavin saw it was touching the horizon. Not long now. If they could make it until the sun had fully set, the drafters’ power would be more than halved. They could still draft from diffracted light, but not nearly as strongly. He started running again, pushing through men and women directly against the wall. He heard the whistle of an incoming mortar.

  The pitch was familiar, horribly familiar. A sound that replayed in his nightmares. You could hear death coming, but other than cowering on the ground, there wasn’t anything you could do to avoid it. The thump and boom of the shell landing and exp
loding going Thboom, shattering eardrums and blasting men off their feet. This one was getting really really loud—

  Gavin dropped to the ground and covered his head with his arms. Something heavy crushed him farther into the ground, and the world outside went blue.

  Thump!

  Tremblefist rolled off Gavin and dissolved the blue shield he’d drafted over them both. Gavin stared at the cannon shell, embedded in the earth not ten paces away. It hadn’t exploded. It hadn’t even crushed anyone. It had landed right between two lines of soldiers. One man was dancing around, shaking his hand. His crushed musket lay beneath the mortar itself, knocked out of his hand by the shell. It was right about where Gavin had been before he cut toward the wall.

  “Orholam’s hand is on you indeed, you damn fool Prism,” Tremblefist said.

  Gavin was already up and pushing toward the heaving, bulging lines in front of him. The men here had already fired their muskets and there was no way to reload. Some had fixed bayonets, the knife handles set inside the open barrels. Others had drawn swords. Others were using muskets as clubs.

  Over their heads, musket fire rang out from the murder holes and stones the size of a man’s head were thrown through the machicolations in the arch. But no luxin poured down. Either the drafters above had exhausted themselves long ago, or they’d been killed, or they had never made it to their positions.

  One more day, Orholam. One more day, and this wall would have been impregnable. One more hour.

  Gavin pushed into the melee at last. The area around the gate was a charnel house. The stench of magic and gore mingled. Blood covered the ground thickly enough that the combatants splashed it up around their legs as they fought. The bodies of men and monsters mingled, tripped up attackers and defenders. A pile of bodies filled the area directly beneath the gate, and as King Garadul’s men climbed up and over them, that made them targets for the soldiers farther back in Gavin’s army who otherwise couldn’t shoot for fear of hitting their own men. Gavin saw a Blackguard fall, her leg ripped open by a glasslike jagged foot claw of an exhausted blue wight.

  His musket roared and the wight’s head exploded in red mist. Gavin flung the musket at a burning red wight that was moving to embrace a wounded soldier who was backed up against the wall, weaponless. He didn’t see what happened. He grabbed the wounded Blackguard and tried to haul her to her feet.

  She was far heavier than she should have been. Gavin blinked, his exhaustion coming back to him in a rush. No, he was just weak. Someone grabbed the wounded woman from him and hauled her off, and the sounds of the battle took on an eerie, tinny quality. He could hear incoming mortars—too distant to matter, but several of them. He could hear men screaming, the wordless roars of those running to what they knew was likely death. He heard the whimpers of the wounded, saw a woman in that great pile of bodies at the gate trying to crawl away, wounded but not dead. Next to her a man was clawing at the air, blind because he was missing half of his face. Luxin fires burned on a dozen corpses, and luxin dust was everywhere. Gavin caught a glimpse of the faces of his Blackguards. He could see their delight, their sudden purpose—where were the rest of them? They were rushing over to him.

  He pulled his pistols from his sash. The red wight, body covered in pyre jelly, his entire form burning, ran toward him. If Gavin hadn’t arrived so late to the battle, it would have drafted instead and incinerated him. He pulled the trigger. His dagger-pistol, being Ilytian make, fired instantly. The ball punched into the red wight’s chest but didn’t stop its momentum. Gavin stepped to the side and slashed the blade of the dagger across the wight’s throat as it fell. He stumbled, almost went down.

  He was more aware of than actually saw the two Blackguards streak past him. By the time he recovered and was standing once more, one Blackguard had been impaled on a great blue luxin sword that a blue wight had drafted in the place of its right arm. Even dying, the Blackguard had latched on with both hands to keep the wight from throwing him clear. The other Blackguard—Gavin thought his name was Amestan—had circled the creature and hacked a sword at its neck. Once, twice—blue luxin shards exploding at each great impact. The creature struggled to free itself but couldn’t. On the third cut, Amestan’s sword broke through the blue luxin and went into its neck. That wight’s will was broken, and Amestan’s fourth cut severed its head.

  One of King Garadul’s Mirrormen—what the hell were they doing here?—came over the top of the bodies piled chest deep, scrabbling, using his hands, his drawn sword awkward. He saw Amestan’s back to him and charged.

  Instinctively, Gavin tried to lash out with luxin, but even the touch of magic made him want to vomit. It was like offering drink to a man with a hangover. He weaved, almost lost consciousness, leveled the pistol, fired.

  At the last moment, Amestan spun to face his attacker—and moved directly into the line of fire. Gavin’s shot blew off the back of his head. A second later, the Mirrorman ran Amestan through, but he was already dead.

  “No!” Gavin yelled. An entire line of Mirrormen appeared over the pile of bodies. King Garadul had realized the same thing Gavin had. The gate had to be taken tonight, or the wall would never be taken at all. So the king had sent his own personal guard to get it done. There were only maybe thirty Blackguards left, and the appearance of the dazzling Mirrormen would easily be enough to make the defenders break. Especially without the Blackguards.

  It wasn’t right that so much valor should result in failure. So much death. Gavin wasn’t thinking clearly. He knew that. He didn’t care.

  As the sun’s last rays kissed the earth, Gavin drafted. It was like drinking vomit. It was like diving headfirst into sewage. It was too much for his body. He didn’t care. He threw everything he had into this. This wasn’t for Gavin Guile. To hell with Gavin Guile. This was for everyone who’d fought and died for him. They’d stood for him. He couldn’t fail them, not even if it meant his life.

  The magic was like a second sun being born within the gate arch. In moments, it was born, stood, and leapt forward. The Mirrormen became radiant, their mirror armor reflecting light a thousand directions. But mirror armor was to magic like normal armor was to weapons: good for deflecting glancing blows, but nowhere close to invincible. A rushing wind filled Gavin’s ears an instant before a cone of pure magic swept through him and blasted forth, exploding to the width of the entire gate. The gate became like the barrel of a vast cannon. The Mirrormen went incandescent, standing for a moment longer than seemed possible, their armor glowing, then glowing red-hot, then glowing white-hot, then ripping apart like everything else.

  A concussion rocked the earth at the power of the blast, and only Gavin didn’t fall. He rode the earth, magic bursting forth like he was nothing more than the tip of a volcano, the barrel of a musket.

  Then, not five seconds after it started, it was gone.

  The gate area was scoured clean. The bodies were gone, and a wide area around the gate on King Garadul’s side was scorched and blackened.

  There was stunned silence—either that, or Gavin had gone deaf. He stood, looking out, and a figure stumbled into his view. A big man, dressed in rich clothes, now blackened. King Garadul. Evidently the man hadn’t just sent his personal guards to attack the gate; he’d come with them.

  Gavin and Garadul stood, facing each other, forty paces away. Gavin could read the awe and uncertainty in the big man’s very stance.

  Then Gavin’s body gave out. He collapsed. There was something white in the dirt near his face, or he was going blind. Spots swam in every color before his eyes.

  Men were lifting him, carrying him away, and he heard the distant sounds of renewed battle. As the Blackguards lifted him, surrounding him with their bodies and withdrawing from the field, he saw King Garadul through the open gate, charging the gate—alone. Whatever else Gavin had done, he’d destroyed the barricade and every other impediment in that area. A few men joined their king. The dirt around Rask was exploding in little puffs as snipers tried to kill h
im, but none hit. It was like the man was charmed, blessed, protected by some old god mightier than Orholam.

  Then Gavin saw Tremblefist’s bloodied, gunpowder-streaked face. “Forgive me, Lord Prism,” the Blackguard was saying. “You did everything you could. More. Now—” Then Gavin lost consciousness.

  Chapter 74

  As night fell, the plain didn’t darken. At first, Liv had no idea why. She had been walking all day, stuck behind the wagon, wearing an old petasos with the brim low so her drafter’s eyes would be less conspicuous. She’d heard the rumble of guns earlier, but assumed it was posturing. There was no way the army was at Garriston yet. Along with what appeared to be half of the entire camp, she went forward to see what was so bright.

  There were so many people covering the plain that Liv almost missed the signs of the battle that had concluded mere hours before, obvious as they were. Trenches where cannonballs had landed simply became ditches for the wagons to avoid. Slippery, muddy, bloody areas next to those cannon scars, with fragments of armor littered about, were just places to watch your footing in the near-darkness. The pungent aroma of gunpowder was already dissipating.

  The last of the great lines of soldiers were marching through the gate even now, forcing all the camp followers to wait until after they’d gone inside and set up camp. Liv heard wild rumors of huge magical conflagrations, an epic battle, but she was skeptical. King Garadul’s army had taken the wall in an afternoon. It couldn’t have been much of a fight. Her father was a great general. He’d only lost one battle in his life, and that barely. He must have decided that they wouldn’t finish the wall in time and had withdrawn to the city walls. He’d probably just had some cannoneers stay to inflict some easy damage on King Garadul’s men and then withdraw.

 
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