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       Portents of Doom ( Kormak Book Ten) (The Kormak Saga 10), p.1

           William King
 
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Portents of Doom ( Kormak Book Ten) (The Kormak Saga 10)


  Portents of Doom

  Book Ten of the Kormak Saga

  William King

  Typhon Press

  Chapter One

  From the buckboard of the wagon, Kormak surveyed the marines from The Pride of Siderea as they waited for the order to march. At the west gate of Maial, thirty squat, dark-haired men checked their blades and crossbows, and strapped their shields over their backs.

  Sergeant Terves, garbed in the same leather armour as the marines, wiped sweat from his brow with one knotty fist. He caught Kormak’s gaze upon him. The grizzled old sergeant nodded as if to say they were almost ready to go.

  Their commander, Admiral Zamara, tall and muscular, his blonde hair recently cropped against the heat, trotted backwards and forward on his horse. Kormak envied his ease in the saddle. He had never been better than an average horseman himself.

  Porters loaded half a dozen wagons with supplies. There was water and wine, and arrows, dried meat and fruit in barrels. There were sausages and salt and vegetables too. A lot of hot peppers for the stews. Governor Aurin had grumbled about the cost but he had not had much choice but to pay up. Kormak bore a warrant from King-Emperor Aemon himself ordering any royal servant to do all in their power to aid him.

  Alongside the marines milled a company of about sixty men drawn from the local watch. They did not look any too pleased at being pressed into service. Kormak guessed they were more used to bullying the local beggars than marching through the jungle and into the wastelands.

  The watchmen looked almost comfortable in the heat. Even though the hour was early, it was warmer than the hottest summer day back in Kormak’s mountainous homeland, Aquilea. Sweat ran down his spine and soaked the back of his shirt, making it sticky against the wooden seat back. When he licked his lips, they tasted salty from perspiration.

  Wagons rumbled towards the city, bringing in produce from the farms to the local markets. A herd of skinny looking cattle was being driven along as well. The smell hit Kormak’s nostrils as they passed through.

  The city walls loomed twice his height overhead. Curious watchmen studied their preparations from the guard towers. A bunch of locals with nothing better to do had come to the battlements to watch the expedition set out.

  Perhaps a few were spies but who would they be spying for here, and who would they report to? Count Balthazar, the Shadow-worshipping sorcerer who had so nearly unleashed doom on the city during the Masque of Death?

  Possibly there were agents of the Courts of the Moon, who opposed the King-Emperor of Siderea in all things. Kormak had just unmasked one of their changelings. Perhaps there were more.

  Most likely they were just curious onlookers with nothing better to do.

  He raised his eyes to catch a view of the Ziggurat of Xothak. The giant structure, half-demolished by colonists seeking stone for their buildings, still dominated the skyline, even if a good chunk of it was missing.

  The sight made Kormak uneasy. The Lord of Skulls had been sworn to the Shadow. Most Old Ones were dedicated only to their own interests, but Xothak had been corrupted to serve evil. It had made war on its kin and then vanished a long age of the world ago. Hidden cults still worshipped its memory. Kormak’s recent experience attested to that.

  According to Sunlander scripture, Xothak had been banished by the Angels of the Sun. There were other legends that he had passed through a gate into the Outer Dark and waited there still. So it had been written in the grimoires Kormak had taken from Count Balthazar’s secret library.

  There were hints of other things too—of summonings where Xothak’s spirit manifested itself in selected avatars or granted its worshippers forbidden power and knowledge.

  When reading such books, it was hard to separate fact from fiction, wishful thinking from knowledge. But Balthazar had been a powerful mage, and he had brought something through from the Outer Dark on the last night of the Masque of Death. It had almost cost Kormak his life to banish it.

  He regretted that the urgency of his mission did not leave time to pursue the vanished sorcerer. He needed to get on the trail of Vorkhul’s sarcophagus. That Old One who had emerged from it had almost killed the King-Emperor, and Kormak needed to find out if there were more like it.

  “You are looking thoughtful,” said Rhiana, smiling at him from the back of the wagon. She lay on a straw-stuffed mattress on top of boxes of supplies, reading a book she had borrowed from the Governor’s library, some tome about first expeditions into the interior in search of gold, written by the conquerers of the new lands.

  He smiled back. It was easy to do. She was an exotically lovely woman, almost as tall as he, with cropped ash blonde hair, and eyes green as emeralds. The webs between her fingers were not evident unless you looked closely and the gills in her neck were covered by her high-collared tunic. “I was thinking about Xothak and Balthazar and the Old Ones.”

  “Always business with you, isn’t it?”

  “I can’t help but feel I am missing something. There’s something going on I don’t understand.”

  “Not even your exotic education on Mount Aethelas can cover everything,” she said. “This part of the world was nothing but a legend to the Sunlanders until the Sidereans conquered it. There’s a lot going on here that no one back in the Old Kingdoms could possibly know about.”

  She raised the book in her hand. “According to this, the interior and the jungles are full of lost cities filled with gold and Solari and eldrim treasures.”

  “I wondered what you found so fascinating in it.” During her time as a captain in the pirate city of Port Blood, Rhiana had been a treasure hunter, spending her time diving amid the sunken cities of the World Ocean looking for just such ancient riches.

  “Strange that in almost seventy years since the Conquest of Terra Nova so few of them have been found.”

  “As I understand it most of them were discovered in the first twenty years or so. Probably they were stripped bare by adventurers. People have been hoping for new finds ever since.”

  “Our friend Anders certainly found something,” Rhiana said. She gestured over to where the tall mercenary stood, eating a skewer of meat bought from a passing vendor. He was slightly stooped, with thinning blond hair. He looked worried, as well he might. Only a few days ago he had been the prisoner of lunar spies and Shadow cultists. He had lost the fortune that the governor had paid him for finding Vorkhul’s sarcophagus.

  “I don’t think he is happy he did,” Kormak said.

  “He was cheated by the Governor and then he lost even that when Balthazar and company kidnapped him.”

  “You think he was cheated?”

  “I talked to him about how much he got for the sarcophagus. Professional interest. He would have got ten times that if he had sold it to the artefact vendors in Port Blood.”

  “He probably didn’t know that. And to be fair, the Governor probably didn’t either. They both just looked at it and thought it was worth gold.”

  “They were both right.”

  “Much good it has done them,” Kormak said. “Anders is broke, and the Governor is under suspicion of treason.”

  “And we’re going to the mountains to clear up their mess.”

  “Only one of us has to do that,” he said. He waited for her response, although he knew what she was likely to say.

  “I started this with you, and I’m going to see it through. Besides, if there are more of those coffins, I’ll take them to Port Blood myself.”

  “Not if they have the same sort of occupants as the last one.”

  “Oh, I’ll wait for you to kill them first.”

&n
bsp; “It’s good you have such confidence in me.”

  “It’s your sword I have confidence in. You’re just the man who swings it.”

  He shrugged and looked away. She had to turn these discussions into a joke. He had to do the same. He was a Guardian of the Dawn, a champion of the Holy Sun. She was a child of the Old Ones. They should have been sworn enemies. Instead, they were lovers. He could see no good ending to that.

  Kormak glanced out at the cleared fields surrounding the city. Overseers with short swords and whips stood watching the native serfs work in them. Copper-skinned and dark-haired, a few bore intricate tattoos. Sometimes owners branded serfs with particular skills or histories.

  On a nearby hill, a large villa loomed. It had many huge windows, positioned no doubt so the owner could look down on his property at work. Its walls were thick, and it had watchtowers on the corners. It looked as much like a fortress as a home.

  A messenger emerged from the gates and raced up to Kormak with a rolled up scroll. It bore the seal of the Governor. This was what he had been waiting for.

  He cracked the wax with his thumb and unrolled the parchment. He scanned the words. They told him pretty much what he expected.

  “Any news?” Rhiana asked.

  “Riders have been seen heading up the road past Westerby. One of them was Count Balthazar. He had a few armed men with him. Told the Prefect that he was heading out into the woods to gather material for his next monograph on the tribes. The Governor told the Prefect to hold Balthazar if he comes back that way.”

  “Those carrier pigeons carry a lot of material in their ankle rings.”

  “Siderean administrators use code.”

  “So Balthazar is heading out into the woods. You going to chase him?”

  “I wish I had time.”

  “I have a feeling we’ll see him again.”

  “I fear you are right. I also fear his sojourn among the tribes won’t do us any good. He knows what we’re looking for. He’s planning on getting it himself, judging from what he said to Anders. If we’re lucky, we’ll run into him again.”

  “Only you would call running into a powerful demon summoner lucky.” Her tone was somewhere between affection and exasperation.

  “He was planning a rebellion. Maybe he’s going to collect some more troops among the jungle people.”

  “You think we may run into trouble on the road?”

  “Worried? We have an escort.”

  “You think it’s strong enough?”

  “I guess we will find out.”

  Admiral Zamara rode up. “You find out what you need? Aurin’s messengers come through?”

  “Our friend Balthazar is on the road ahead of us.”

  “No surprises there then. We’d best get going.” Zamara turned to see the last of the wagons was fully loaded. The Governor’s cadaverous-looking secretary Ezra was paying the porters and merchants off.

  “Indeed,” said Kormak. “Let us be away.”

  Anders clambered into the back of the same wagon as Kormak and Rhiana. He made sure he was under the canopy and out of the sun. The heat of the Holy Sun was rising. Soon it would be near unbearably hot.

  This wagon was at the front, the most comfortable place in the column. The troops marching behind would be eating the dust they raised.

  Zamara raised his hand. Terves bellowed the order to march. The marines moved off, followed by a company of the Governor’s men, who looked considerably more nervous than the seafarers. They were more of a city watch than a company of hard-bitten fighting men, and they did not at all like leaving the comforts of Maial for the uncertainty and hardship of the colony’s interior.

  Anders could not blame them for that. He was not looking forward to this journey himself. He liked Maial and the life he could have there when he had gold, but, now, of course, he needed more. He had Count Balthazar to thank for that.

  A crowd of onlookers waited by the open gate of the city. Most of them were friends and family of the departing watchmen, waving, wiping back tears, shouting encouragement, jokes, and abuse. Children cried. Women darted out of the crowd for a last kiss. For a moment, Anders felt a surge of nostalgia and envy.

  Nostalgia for the memory of every hurried departure he had ever made. Envy for the lives that some of these men were leaving behind. There was no one here to see him off. He longed for a familiar face.

  Gregor was gone. Sarge was gone, and Kipper and Donal and Spud. All of his old comrades were dead, and he was heading back to the place that had killed them. He fought down a shudder. Perhaps his death awaited him there. Perhaps he had simply fought his way back to Maial for one last long party before stumbling back to his grave.

  Oh well. If it had been his last party, it had been a good one. We showed them all what a good time was, didn’t we, Gregor?

  He glanced around at the soldiers. The Governor’s guards ignored him. They were not sure of his status. He might be a prisoner. He might be a guide. Some of them probably knew his face from the days when he and the lads had drunk and brawled their way through the red light districts of Maial.

  The marines simply did not care. They were a group unto themselves, sharing links forged in battles across oceans and continents. They looked at their sergeant and Admiral with the respect due to men who had led them through countless battles and brought them home safe. They made him miss his old company.

  His eyes travelled to the Guardian. He was still not sure about the man, perhaps a legacy of the time the changeling had impersonated Kormak. The Aquilean had the look of a survivor and yet he showed an astounding lack of concern for his own safety. Such people had a way of getting others killed.

  Then there was the merwoman. What was her place in all this? She and the Guardian obviously knew each other and fought beside each other. There was something else there. A tension that spoke of their being lovers and not entirely happy with the fact. Anders shrugged. It was not his problem. That was going to be staying alive.

  Why had he agreed to come? He could have said it was for a share of the treasure or to strike a blow against the Shadow-worshipping bastards who had murdered Gregor, but looking around now he knew it was something else.

  He was lonely, and he wanted to be part of something again. He had spent his entire adult life a soldier, as part of a unit. His friends had also been his comrades. His life had been regulated by discipline and marches and the sprees that happened between them when he had cash. Without all that he did not know himself, felt only partially alive. This was his chance to march again, to be a soldier, to serve a cause.

  As the company marched from the gates of the city, he felt almost as if he was heading home. The cultivated fields sprawled way around them. Soon he knew they would enter the jungle and that would be a different and far more dangerous world.

  Chapter Two

  “I am surprised you are not on horseback,” Admiral Zamara said, riding up alongside the wagon. He smiled cheerfully but the lines on his forehead and the way his eyes were narrowed told Kormak that he was worried.

  They clopped along at the head of the column. Behind them marched the vanguard and then the supply wagons with the bulk of the infantry bringing up the rear. Ahead of them great folds in the earth rose to meet the horizon, forming the razor-edged hills so common in this part of Terra Nova.

  “I like to get my rest when I can,” said Kormak. He indicated the driver, who was doing his best to ignore the conversation. “I’ll let somebody else do the driving. And I’ll leave the riding to you.”

  “These boots weren’t meant for marching,” Zamara said. He raised a leg in the stirrups so Kormak could inspect his fine boots. They were polished to a high sheen. “They were meant for striding a deck.”

  The road twisted up the hillside, giving them a clear view of the open fields around Maial, the huge stone pyramid and the great bay of Montanea, the old harbour. The sea looked a distant, refreshing blue and, possibly for the first time in his life, Kormak found himse
lf wishing he was on it.

  “I am surprised that’s not where they are,” Kormak said. “You are the Captain General of next year’s treasure fleet. I thought you’d remain in port preparing for that.”

  Zamara fanned himself with his tricorne hat as he gazed off into the sweltering mass of bushes flanking the road. Since about noon, they had left the cleared lands behind and begun the long climb into the hills. “You jest, of course. This mission is important. The King himself entrusted it to you, and if there’s glory to be had, I want part of it. Not to mention any of the treasure. My family may be old and respectable and distant cousins to royalty, but they are not rich. I intend to rectify that.”

  Kormak sensed something evasive in the Admiral’s manner, but he decided not to push it. Maybe it was just the heat. The Admiral’s face was flushed, and his forehead glistened with sweat. Dark circles of moisture stained his heavy gold-braided tunic under the armpits.

  “Are you sure this road is safe?” Zamara asked. They looked at the intricate stonework which had somehow survived all the years of neglect between the fall of Xothak and the coming of the Sidereans. Kormak understood his unease. There were lunar glyphs woven into the stonework and horrifying-looking pillars marked every league.

  “As far as I can tell these runes are only intended to bind the paving stones and protect them from weather and erosion.”

  Zamara indicated one of the league markers. It stood taller than a man and was carved with demonic skull faces. “I keep thinking those things are watching me.”

  “Maybe once they did. Certain of the Old Ones used such pillars to channel magic. They are not active now. If they were, my amulets would tell me.”

  “And if they did not, I would be able to sense them,” said Rhiana, poking her head out from beneath the canopy. “There’s no spell active here.”

  “I am reassured and yet . . . I cannot help but feel that we should have uprooted those markers.”

 
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