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Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off: The Shadow Cycles by Philip Emery

 

The Shadow Cycles by Philip Emery

This is an excerpt provided by the author for the Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off Competition

 

All of the Phoenix Prey, Gemmored, Zantalliz, Harnak, and Gel all stand on different dragonremes.

Gemmored, the swordsman, of the ice-wastes of the realm called Darkling, fights by the side of the Sword-Mariners of his ship. A supple cuirassed bear-pelted jokul. He arcs and thrusts and angles his huge warsword, sometimes two-handed, sometimes one, moving to the great weapon’s weight, guiding it. The Corsairs besiege him but fall back time and again in splashes of shrieks and blood.

He swirls and stabs and slices open torsos and sweeps away heads from necks. Sometimes he fulcrums his swordstrokes against his wrist with the unfaceted ruby pommelling the bone hilt. The dark core to the gemstone flickers.

And as it flickers the grim pride in Gemmored’s eyes, eyes the grey of frosted steel, dims. Twists.

And as it flickers the blade becomes lighter in his hands and heavier inside him.

Zantalliz of Voyage still holds his book.

All around him the Sword-Mariners fight. Protect him from the blades of the Corsairs who strive to reach him. But the sharp, stretched rasp of swordmetal against swordmetal is a distant sound in his thoughts where waves purr on faraway coral.

He has opened the scallop and the pages turn over without touch, one after the next. He stares down at them, strange eyes hardly blinking, even as a Corsair blade almost cleaves his head.

Every book in the caverns of his people’s isle held every moment of their history, beliefs, arts - the grammar of their being. The properly fashioned wish would lay open the appropriate page. The correctly spoken bidding would shape the words and grammalogues into knowledge or fluent rituals of shape and symbol.

But now.

Each page slowly curls, one after the next, each a pale, blank leaf...

Gel eases thoughtfully through the melee on his galley.

Now and again his labrys flashes out, a shrug of skim or sweep, and a Corsair or Corsairs die, and he snorts.

Harnak stands on the deck of another dragonreme, still in the feathered rags and the old-man shape in which the Phoenix took him. The rags have lost some of their stench in the fire or the journey. Harnak does not like this.

The battle is different on this galley. Harnak’s form is smaller than Gemmored’s, not such a beacon for the Corsairs. The fighting is wider-spread, as with Zantalliz’ ship. But Harnak is not dream-stranded as Zantalliz who stands oblivious and ringed by defenders. He has taken a sword and has quickly decided ally from enemy.

This realm is different from Aftermath, his own. Both the Sword-Mariners and the Corsairs are different in clothing and face than any he’s known before. Their words are different, though he can understand them. This night is different and covers the sea as well as the sky. And somewhere wolves are howling. But at least...

He parries a Corsair’s attack and skilfully slips his own sword through the man’s throat.

But at least there is blood.

Soon the force of the Corsair boardings fade and slowly the Sword-Mariners begin forcing them back toward their own ships. A few of them turn their blades to the oarsmen and women. But these are dragonreme crew, not chained slaves. They have their own blades which they pull from beneath their benches.

Back the Corsairs go, curse by curse, backstep by backstep across the dragonreme decks and edging along the boarding planks. But as they go they start to flick glances skyward and their shouts become taunts.

The dragonremers follow the glances and they too see the movement below the stars. The first warning shout comes from a Sword-Mariner.

“Pitspoor!”

They come down onto the dragonremes like taloned rain, their pads thudding onto the decks, eyes lambent with malevolence.

Again the Sword-Mariners set to. More blood splashes the decks. A bitter smell wafts. Shouts. Cries. Hissing. Gnars. Shrieks.

One Sword-Mariner slips, his blade sailing from his hand and spinning into the sea. The Mariner yells in horror, jumps to his feet and charges for the galley’s rail. Ignoring the Pitspoor he’s been facing, ignoring the gouge it rips from his arm as he runs, he dives overboard.

The sword has vanished into the Shadow. The Sword-Mariner plunges into the blackness at almost exactly the same place. A few other Mariners and oarcrew glance after him, but are too engaged in the battle to watch.

Shouts. Cries. Hissing. Gnars.

The Sword-Mariner slides to the surface again, his morion gone, his mouth open and spouting blackness. His otherworldly mail gives a kind of strange buoyancy but he struggles to keep afloat. One arm, the wounded arm, is aloft, and it holds the blade.

No one throws a rope. No one has the moment.

The Mariner struggles a moment longer, gasping, fiercely scanning his dragonreme for hope. Finding none he swings the blade around his head. His mouth drops into the Shadow again, comes up sputtering dark. He scans the dragonreme again.

Shouts. Cries. Hissing. Gnars. Shouts.

He swings the blade with a yell of defiance and despair, sends it spinning and clattering onto the dragonreme’s deck as he slips down into the Shadow.

The Sword-Mariners’ mail, which has armoured them well against the Corsair’s steel, gives little protection against the Pitspoor.

The deck of every dragonreme is slick with blood. Whatever comes from the Pitspoor’s veins joins it after spattering and jumping along the Mariners’ blades. But mostly, there is blood. The Pitspoor are overwhelming the dragonremers, clustering mostly on the ships carrying the Phoenix Prey.

Then the wolves are loosed.

They’re brought up on decks by a new kind of dragonreme crew. They wear neither the vestments of Sword-Mariners nor oarcrew. They wear simple breeks and jerkin, a leather gorget around the throat, a gauntlet on the hand that holds a wolf’s leash. Their eyes hold something of their wolf’s eyes - something not lost but missing, something more, an indifferent intensity, a glimmer of ice.

Gemmored recognizes the glimmer.

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