The Empire of Ashes – Sample Chapter

Chapter 3 – Sirus

Slaves we may be. Monsters we may be. But if we can be merciful, can we not love too?

Katrya’s words drifted through his head like the whisper of a morning breeze, kept deliberately faint by the fear he used to cloud the image of her death whenever it arose. But still it was hard not to dwell on the sight of her scaled, despoiled features, so vibrant at the end, glowing with triumph during that last instant before his bullet tore through her head. We can be merciful. . .

The words felt like the distant echo of a bad joke as he surveyed the city below, the view being preferable to the spectacle unfolding behind him on the roof-top.He could see neat columns of Spoiled moving through the streets towards their billets in the dock-side warehouse. Smaller parties were engaged in a methodical search of every house, workshop, shed and sewer for any Feros citizens who had survived the assault and so far escaped capture. Many of those doing the searching had been citizens themselves only days before and Sirus wondered how many sons or daughters had been dragged from their hiding-places to find themselves staring into the distorted visages of their parents. 

He stood atop the imposing fortress-like tower that had been, until very recently, the headquarters of the entire Ironship Syndicate. The White had chosen to nest on the building’s broad flat roof, along with its clutch of adolescent kin. Also present was the Blood-blessed Mandinorian woman who had inexplicably arrived on a passenger liner the day after their seizure of Feros. So far, she was the only one of her kind not to face near- immediate slaughter upon entering the White’s company. Instead, she had received instant elevation to the pinnacle of this monstrous army, something that Sirus found piqued his pride in no small measure, much to his self-disgust. Morradin had been quick with his taunts, sensing Sirus’s resentment with grating ease. General no longer, eh? Victory, it seems, brings no reward in the Legion of Flame. For such a self-interested soul the former Grand Marshal had a remarkable facility for divining the feelings of others. 

Sirus’s mind churned with questions regarding this woman. Who is she? Why does the White dote on her as if she were one of its own? Why didn’t it kill her like the others? But the biggest mystery of all was the fact that the woman’s mind remained her own, unshared and impenetrable. However, this didn’t prevent her from invading the minds of other Spoiled.

What are you looking at?

He turned to find her standing at his side, head angled in faint curiosity. The torn and scorched dress that had barely covered her when she first arrived in Feros had since been exchanged for a formal attire of dark blue, the kind usually worn by women of the corporate managerial class. Adorning the otherwise plain jacket were four silver shareholder pins, each one taken from the corpse of an Ironship Board member. With one more to come, Sirus thought, resisting the impulse to look over his shoulder as another scream sounded.

“The search is proceeding well,” he said aloud in Mandinorian, choosing to maintain his custom of speaking rather than thinking. He was curious to see if she objected to spoken communication. Besides, with this one there was no obvious indication she had absorbed any thought he might share. He sent a subtle probe her way as she followed his gaze, hoping to detect some faint leakage of emotion. But as usual there was nothing. Trying to touch her mind was like jabbing at a wall fashioned from cold unyielding iron. He wondered if his inability to reach her thoughts was somehow related to the fact that she was only partially Spoiled. Instead of the spines and discoloured scales of his fellow slaves, her brief exposure to the Blue crystal’s light had left her with a mostly human appearance. A cluster of scales had appeared around her eyes and a series of barely perceptible bumps marred the otherwise smooth perfection of her forehead. The eyes themselves showed the most change and were another unique and mysterious facet of her story. Instead of the yellow eyes with which they had all been afflicted, hers were like two red coals set into black orbs.

“He let me choose,” she said, surprising him by speaking aloud. “I always liked the combination of red and black. It used to drive my dressmaker to distraction.”

He blinked as her unnatural gaze lingered on him, his surprise heightened by the fact that she had spoken in Eutherian. “Such a lovely tongue,” she went on. “So much more elegant than Mandinorian, don’t you find?”

Her tone and flawless accent put him in mind of the casual and meaningless chatter of the Corvantine noble class. This was the kind of exchange he used to stammer his way through whenever his father had forced him to attend a social gathering. Somehow he knew that this woman would have felt entirely comfortable in such company.

“In some ways,” he replied, also in Eutherian. “Though it remains overly archaic in many instances, and the strictness of its grammar resists adaptation to the modern world.”

“Spoken like a true technocrat.” She inclined her head, revealing slightly elongated eye-teeth with a smile. “And it’s Catheline, by the way,” she added, with a shallow curtsy. “Since you were wondering. Catheline Dewsmine of the Sonarah Dewsmines. At your service, sir.”

“Sirus Akiv Kapazin, miss,” he replied with a bow. “Former Curator of Native Artifacts at the Morsvale Imperial Museum of Antiquities.”

“Once a curator, now a general.” She pursed her lips in apparent admiration. “You’ve risen high for one so young.”

“I thought you were the general now.”

She surprised him again by laughing. She had a rich laugh he knew other men had assuredly once described as delightful. “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of stealing your honours, good sir. Not when you’ve done such sterling work in our wondrous cause. Your stratagems are so much more elegant and effective than that Corvantine brute. Where is he, by the way?”

“Mopping‑up operations,” Sirus said. “Some survivors are lingering amongst the inland hill- country, most of them refugees from Carvenport.”

“Carvenport, eh? Will we find our elusive quarry amongst them, do you think?” There was a sardonic twist to her lips that told him she already knew the answer.

“I very much doubt it, miss.”

“Catheline, please.” She stepped closer, looping an arm through his and steering him away from the edge of the roof. “And I will call you General, since you seem so attached to the term.”

“Sirus will suffice. . .”

“Nonsense.” She tweaked his nose with a finger. “I think we should accommodate some customs from the old world, don’t you?” She turned her focus on the ghastly tableau before them, smile broadening. “Since so much of it is about to vanish forever.”

The spread-eagled body of Madame Gloryna Dolspeake, Chairperson of the Ironship Board of Directors, was suspended in mid air by virtue of each of her limbs being clutched firmly in the jaws of an adolescent White. Her silver- grey head lolled as she voiced an exhausted scream that was more of a high- pitched gasp. A surprisingly small amount of blood leaked from the jaws of the Whites, the youthful beasts having been careful not to inflict fatal damage, as yet. It would have been a simple matter to convert the woman and pluck the secrets from her head, but it seemed Catheline had a preference for complication, at least insofar as the Ironship Board were concerned.

“Pardon the interruption, madame,” Catheline apologised, switching smoothly to Mandinorian. “Please do go on. You were telling us all about the fascinating Miss Lethridge and her recent mission to the Corvantine Empire. A perilous endeavour to be sure, and all to decipher the workings of an old music- box.”

Madame Dolspeake gave no immediate response, continuing to sag in apparent exhaustion until the juvenile Whites tugged in unison, the woman’s slight form convulsing and a fresh yelp erupting from her lips. “Yes!” she grated through clenched teeth. “The box . . . the Artisan’s box.”

A low, inquisitive rumble sounded above and Sirus raised his gaze to see the White lowering its massive head. Prior to this the beast had regarded the interrogation with apparent indifference, but mention of the Artisan seemed to have piqued its interest.

“Quite so,” Catheline said. “And what exactly is in this box, pray tell?”

“Answers. . .” Madame Dolspeake whimpered, her body seeming to thrum with pain. “A key to . . .” Her gaze took on a sudden animation, eyes flashing at the huge drake looming above her, “defeating this . . . monstrosity!” She shouted the final word, pain-wracked features moulded into a mask of defiant hate. Sirus couldn’t suppress a pang of admiration at this, something which drew a sharp glance from Catheline.

“You find something noble in this wretch, General?” she enquired, her arm tensing against his. Although she was not fully Spoiled, he could feel the strength in her, and added to that was the worrisome awareness that she was also a Blood-blessed.

“Allow me to assure you this woman is not worthy of your regard,” Catheline went on, fixing her gaze on the unfortunate Ironship luminary. Sirus could see the naked hatred shining in Catheline’s red-black eyes, her lips taking on a wet sheen as she continued, “This woman and her kind have enslaved those like me for generations. But for my family’s influence they would have had me labour in their service like some slum-

born slattern. Once my family would have been great and powerful, standing high in the court of the Mandinorian Empire. Now, for all their wealth they are beggars, grubbing for crumbs from the corporate table like every other slave in this world of greed, a world they created. It is they who are the true monsters. They who have raped an entire continent in their avarice and would have raped the whole world.”

She unhooked her arm from Sirus and moved to crouch at Madame Dolspeake’s side, leaning close to murmur in her ear. “Tell me, madame. What were you going to do when all the product ran out? When you had wrung the last drop of blood from the last withered drake? What were you going to do then?”

Madame Dolspeake met Catheline’s gaze, matching the enmity she saw in full measure. “I . . . remember you,” she said in a thin whisper. “A spoilt little bitch. . . born to a family of wastrels. You’d spread your legs. . . for the merest chance at a gossip-column headline.” Somehow the woman managed to laugh, though it emerged from her throat as more of a choking sob. “At least. . . now your looks match your character.”

Catheline’s lips drew back in a snarl, nails extending into claws as she clamped a hand to Madame Dolspeake’s throat. A short grunt came from the White and Catheline froze, the snarl fading as she jerked her hand away as if it had been burned Watching her retreat a few steps and take a calming breath, Sirus was compelled to wonder at the viciousness of a woman who had to be restrained by one such as the White. After a moment Catheline straightened, smoothing her hands over her skirt before staring down at the older woman with cold determination. “The Artisan’s box,” she said. “Where is it?”

For a moment Madame Dolspeake said nothing, but soon began speaking in a rapid babble as the juvenile Whites tightened their grip. “Reported lost at Carvenport, though Bloskin was certain Lethridge had placed it in her father’s hands. He chose to leave it there in the hope the man could unlock it, then seize it when he had.” 

“Ah yes, Taddeus Bloskin,” Catheline said. “The esteemed Director of Exceptional Initiatives who had the good sense to blow his brains out when the city fell.” She paused for a moment, frowning in recollection. “Lethridge’s father. Presumably that would be the famous Professor Graysen Lethridge, genius inventor and denizen of this very port.” She turned a questioning glance in Sirus’s direction.

“He’s not amongst the captives or the new recruits,” he reported promptly, hoping a steady current of fear would mask the memories provoked by the name Lethridge. Tekela slaughtering the Greens with that infernal repeating gun, the balloon taking her away. As ever, the daughter of the late Burgrave Artonin retained an effortless capacity to haunt his thoughts. His disastrous wooing in Morsvale. The sight of her adorned with the ancient sapphire necklace, twirling in delight in the museum vaults, probably the only time he had managed to make her laugh. Then the moment only three nights ago when he stood naked in her sights. Out of bullets, she had said with a shrug. “I’ll have his home searched,” Sirus added, flooding his mind with all the horrors he could muster before turninghis attention to the collective memory of the Spoiled. 

He was careful to scour the collective minds of the recent captives for the address before issuing a thought-

command to a troop of Spoiled. It wouldn’t do for Catheline to question why he already knew of the location. The search-party shared their findings as they tore through the domicile of Professor Lethridge, finding no sign of the man or the elusive musical box. Also, no sign of Katrya’s body, which Sirus had buried in the port’s largest park. He put her close to the flower-beds, thinking she might have liked that.

Gather every scrap of paper and machinery, Catheline ordered. Examine them yourself, General. I think this is a task for our keenest mind. She paused as one of the searchers cast their gaze at the workshop’s ceiling, finding it mostly absent. No fire damage, she observed. Why would the professor remove his own ceiling, I wonder?

Sirus was aware of her close scrutiny as he sorted through the mélange of images captured by the collective mind of the army the night of Feros’s fall. He had hoped the escape of Tekela and her companions might have been missed altogether. Unfortunately, it transpired several sets of eyes had glimpsed the balloon craft as it soared over the roof-tops towards the northern shore of the island. All of those who had seen it had died in the fighting, but not before their memories had been shared with others. The vision was dull and misty, as was often the case with memories formed during combat, but clear enough to make out the dimensions of the novel conveyance and its three occupants.

“A dirigible aerostat,” Sirus said, speaking aloud once more. “I’ve read of experiments with such craft in northern Mandinor, but all were said to be at a very early stage.”

“Then the professor must be a man of even greater talent than his reputation allows,” Catheline replied. She looked up at the White who gave a throaty rumble before turning its massive head in the direction of a neighbouring building. A dozen Reds immediately rose from their perch atop the building’s roof, Sirus recognising Katarias amongst them. The huge Red took the lead as they adopted a northern course, wings sweeping in rapid arcs.

“Ingenious as it is,” Catheline said, “it didn’t strike me as the fastest of vehicles. We’ll have them soon enough. Now then,” she added briskly, clasping her hands together and returning her attention to Madame Dolspeake, “let us discuss the strength of the Protectorate Northern Fleet.”

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