To celebrate the recent release of the author’s cut of Janet Morris’s Beyond Wizardwall she has kindly provided an excerpt.
(c) Janet Morris – shared with permission from the author.
Fragile flesh, so hard to mend when so much of it is damaged.
And yet before this ravaged boy, who needs the god’s blessing to send him safe to heaven, Tempus cannot even find the words.
He simply kneels there. Right now he’d gladly die himself, if only he could, trade soul for soul to the hungry gods, accept heaven or even hell in Niko’s stead.
He calls Enlil. Gets no answer. He waits, and calls again. And listens again. And hears nothing again… No sound; no mercy from the storm god of the armies, his new ally. So be it.
Then Niko groaned, the softest sound, and flinched.
Tempus put his hand on Niko’s sweating forehead and the boy tossed his head. His mouth worked; he seemed to smile.
Niko whispered something: “Riddler? Is that you?” in a voice so faint that Tempus had to bend his head to hear it.
“Rest, Niko. I’m here.”
Then: “Don’t… worry. I didn’t tell them. This time… I didn’t tell them.”
And then Tempus’ eyes filled with tears and he roared to heaven: “No! I won’t accept this, greedy god! If You have any power, any right to be; if You give Your faithful anything worth having, then take away these wounds, ease this pain, give me this one soul back! I’ve never asked for such a thing before and, by my own word, if You deny me, I’ll never again lift my arm in Your service –”
Then he broke off, bit his lips, and tears blurred his sight – a blessing, considering what lay before him in the ravaged person of a boy he’d thought to love, and train, and save.
Years ago, when Abarsis had come to Tempus and sought death in his service, the Riddler had sent him off to heaven, built the pyre and said the rites. And in that smoky farewell on a Sanctuary hillside, his eyes had smarted from the smoke and pain. But Abarsis had needed only death; Stealth, called Nikodemos, still loved life.
And that cut deep into the Riddler’s heart, so that he rejected what he saw. Even when he looked up and saw the shade of dead Abarsis, wizard-haired and wise and full of grief, as elegant as a ghost can be, reaching out his arms….
“You’ll not take him… not from me. This is my boy – the closest I’ve ever come to one – and I swear by all the muck in heaven, I’ll do hell’s service if he dies unknowing, half awake.”
Then Abarsis coalesced, his satin skin and smooth cheeks as real as life. In gleaming armor, with a silken smile, he knelt down on Niko’s far side.
And the ghost said gently: “Riddler, don’t give up. You who were my inspiration in life, don’t threaten or defame the gods. We love you. Your place awaits in heaven. Someday you will claim it.” The ghost of the Slaughter Priest smiled tenderly and put a gentle, almost opaque hand on Niko’s brow. “Sleep,” whispered the ghost. “Sleep, sweet fighter, your time’s not come if your will is strong. Live, Stealth called Nikodemos. Live to fight again.”
And then the shade of Abarsis, who’d formed the Stepsons and still brought them glory and a special place in heaven, looked again at Tempus soulfully: “Riddler, give Niko water. Give him solace. Give him time.”
In Abarsis’ ethereal hand, a flask of crystal flickered into being. Reaching for it, Tempus touched the ghost’s hand with both his own. And they clasped hands there: a ghost who had loved a man who saved him when he was but a boy, and a man who could not die.
“Give me your death, Slaughter Priest,” Tempus whispered. “Take me up to heaven in his stead. Death is sweet to me, and theft to him, who’s just begun to live. I can’t bear this soul’s weight upon my heart if he’s maimed, or if he dies with witches hunting him and dream lords thirsting for his spirit.”
“Listen, Riddler…. I’ll say it once again and I must go: have faith and we can heal him, you and I, who fell out of love with life. If he loves it still, he’ll mend.”
Tempus felt the vial in his hand grow heavy. As it did, the shade who was once called Stepson began to fade.
Tempus tried to clutch that hand again, stay the ghost, but it was too late.
When Abarsis was gone, the sun was wholly set. Tempus sat upon the ground before a youth struggling for each breath he took as the night’s chill came, and darkness whispered that perhaps the ghost was right.
So Tempus opened the vial and, with his hand under Niko’s head, helped him to drink.
He didn’t know what else to do: Abarsis had come and not taken Niko’s soul; said some words and left, leaving Tempus shaken, unsure of anything, distressed.
Somehow, he had to get Niko out of here, somewhere better for healing or dying. But moving that tortured body would bring great pain.
The Aškelonian stallion butted him, as if to say, “I’ll gladly bear him anywhere,” but Niko’s wounds were worst just where a man sat a horse.
In the end, he carried Niko in his arms, the horse following behind him, through Ranke’s streets. And everywhere he went, he laid curses upon Abakithis and the Rankan empire, wishing death and destruction upon it all. When he came to the mercenaries’ hostel, where he and the boy were lodging, there was a chariot outside, its car worked with ancient skill, borne by horses whom his own steed greeted like brothers.
Inside, sitting sorrowfully in the anteroom, grit and trail dust on clothes and face, was the mageling Randal, supremely out of place among a score of hard-bitten fighters who jumped up when they saw Tempus and his burden.
As the mercenaries crowded around him, inflamed by the sight of Niko, the slight mage demanded, “Let me through! Let me pass! He’s my friend!”
Here are book links in chronological order, beginning with Beyond Sanctuary, the Author’s Cut, first book in the Sacred Band of Stepsons Beyond Trilogy. Beyond Sanctuary will be free March 7, 8, 9, 2014):
Here are Kindle Single links (shorter Sacred Band of Stepsons fiction):
Here are the Audio book links: