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The Scrolls of the Ancients

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The Scrolls of the Ancients

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Author: Robert Newcomb
Publisher: Bantam UK, 2004
Del Rey / Ballantine, 2004
Series: Chronicles of Blood and Stone: Book 3

1. The Fifth Sorceress
2. The Gates of Dawn
3. The Scrolls of the Ancients

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Tristan and Shailiha are the Chosen Ones, prophesied to unite the opposing magics of the dark Vagaries and the benevolent Vigors. With the destruction of the Gates of Dawn, it seems that the wounded kingdom of Eutracia will at last have the chance to heal--and the Chosen Ones, under the tutelage of wizards Wigg and Faegan, can fulfill their rightful destiny.

Alas, such is not to be. For there is another who unknowingly possesses magic in his blood--great magic that, in the wrong hands, could unleash unspeakable evil. To find this unsuspecting soul, the Chosen Ones and their allies embark on a dangerous quest that will lead from the mysterious Chambers of Penitence to the sacred Isle of Sanctuary. A quest that will change everything Tristan and Shailiha think they know about themselves and their purpose.

But they are not the only ones searching. Krassus, a devoted servant of the Vagaries, has dispatched ships of demonic slavers to scour the coasts of Eutracia, capturing men and women and bringing them in chains across the monster-filled Sea of Whispers to the impregnable island fortress of the Citadel, where evil dreams take the form of living nightmares.

Aided by Tyranny, a pirate as fierce as she is beautiful, Tristan and Shailiha struggle to destroy the wicked demonslaver fleet. Meanwhile, the ill-fated pawn of magic is being held by Krassus at the Citadel. It is there that Krassus seeks to awaken the magic in his blood, imbuing him with dark enchantments from the mystic Scrolls of the Ancients--and transforming him into a weapon of evil such as the world has never known... and will not long survive.


Chapter One

And a great calamity shall befall the nation after the second earthly death of the Chosen male's seed, for the endowed and the unendowed alike of the already beleaguered land shall find themselves in chains, with little hope of return.

--page 553, Chapter One of the Prophecies of the Tome

Whump!... whump!... whump!... The two massive sledges came down on the large, simple block of wood in perfect unison, one after the other, monotonously marking out the beat. Its cadence rarely varied. A sledge in each hand, the awful, barely human creature continued to bang out the mind-numbing rhythm as the filthy slaves seated in rows before him toiled endlessly.

Whump!... whump!... whump!...

Built for war, maneuverability, and speed, the ship was unusually large. Christened the Defiant, she carried four full masts and a hundred oars. The cramped oaring stations lay one deck down, and smelled of sweat, urine, and slow death.

Fifty such rows stretched down the dark interior of the hull, a single, wide walkway separating them into two equal halves. Six male slaves toiled in each of the divided rows, making six hundred of them on this deck alone. They had few breaks. They were forced to row whenever the wind was directly behind them, or the ship was in the doldrums, or simply, it seemed, when impatience overcame their new taskmasters. And even when they were allowed a few moments of rest, they remained chained in place, unable to stretch their muscles to rest their weary backs.

The slaves wore nothing but soiled loincloths. Their callused, bleeding hands were chained together and their feet were in shackles, communally chained to the deck. Escape was impossible. Even if one or more of them somehow freed themselves of their bonds, there would be nowhere to go except overboard, to drown in the icy waters of the Sea of Whispers.

They had been at sea for fifteen days. Legend had it that no ship had ever sailed farther than that--ships that tried never returned home.

One of the slaves looked down at the number carved into his oar handle. Number Twenty-Nine. That was his name now--a number, assigned by his captors. It was meant to be dehumanizing, he was sure, but he had seized on it as a symbol, a reminder that his life was not his own, that the slave manning this oar was not his true self. Twenty-Nine. He would use that as his name as long as he remained captive. But someday, somehow, he would be freed, and then he would take up his family name once again with pride.

He glanced out the small oar slot near his station. More ships like this one were out there. Occasionally he could see them, their sails full and their oars slicing through the restless, froth-tipped waves--an inexplicable armada of shame.

His muscles on fire, Twenty-Nine pulled relentlessly on the accursed oar. His hands cramped sharply. Once they had been those of an accomplished artisan. But he knew they would no longer be capable of such specialized work. He could barely straighten his fingers anymore, on those rare occasions when they happened to be removed from the handle.

Seething with hatred, Twenty-Nine looked up at his taskmasters, the monsters who had captured him, chained him, and forced him to labor on their ship.

They were horrific. Once they may have been human--but no more. They were tall and muscular, and their skin was pure white, alabaster, almost translucent. Even when there was a deficit of light, their pale, flawless flesh seemed to shine, as if their bodies carried no blood whatsoever. Twenty-Nine had often wondered if they would bleed, if cut.

The four fingers and thumb of their hands ended in long, pointed talons, rather than fingernails. Their powerful chests bare, each of them wore an odd, black leather skirt, floor length, and divided down the front for walking. The toes of their black leather boots protruded from beneath the hems. A spiked, black leather collar encircled each one's neck.

Each creature carried a short sword in a scabbard hung low behind his back in an ingenious arrangement that allowed the hand to reach naturally down along the outer leg to draw the blade. Twenty-Nine had already seen several of them do so, and their speed had been staggering. Somehow they managed never to catch the swords in the bright red capes that were attached to their spiked leather collars.

Their faces were grotesque. The heads were long, angular, oversized. A shiny metal skullcap covered the top of their white, hairless craniums, ran down between the eyes, then split down either side over the bridge of the nose. Each half extended down the sides of the cheeks to the jawbones, running back to encircle each ear before joining again with the top, leaving the creatures' eyes, mouths, and ears exposed. The ears that protruded from the gaps in the masks were exceptionally high, pointed, and seemed to hear everything. A variety of earrings dangled from them. The wide, wrinkled mouths held black tongues and dark, pointed teeth. For eyes, they had long, narrow slits hiding orbs that were solid white, without irises or pupils, and quite vacant. Still, they missed nothing.

Setting the cadence, the beatmaster among them continued to pummel his twin sledges down on the solitary block of wood as the slaves pulled relentlessly on their oars. Pacing between the rows, others of the blanched monsters moved up and down the shifting, pitching deck. Carrying knotted nine-tails or long-handled tridents, they would without hesitation lash or stab any slave they felt to be shirking his labors. The slaves called these guards "bleeders." The deck of the ship was stained with the blood of those who did not keep up the pace.

"Water," number Twenty-Eight suddenly begged, falling over onto the deck. Twenty-Nine tried, despite his short wrist chains, to help him back onto the bench before any of the bleeders saw what had happened, but he knew he had to continue rowing or be beaten himself.

He looked up to see one of the creatures approaching. It was then that he felt the warmth, smelled the stench. Closing his eyes briefly, he tried to blot out what was happening, but could not. Twenty-Eight was vomiting bile on his feet.

Twenty-Eight retched again, curling his trembling body around one of Twenty-Nine's vomit-soaked feet. "Help us... ," he sobbed. "Why won't anyone help us..."

The bleeder was standing over them. Without hesitation he shoved the three prongs of the trident into Twenty-Eight's left calf. The blood gushed forth, flowing down the slave's leg in bright rivulets. For a long moment, Twenty-Nine thought he might be sick.

Giving the trident a vicious twist, the bleeder yanked it from Twenty-Eight's leg.

"Back onto the bench--now!" the bleeder shouted. His voice was low, guttural, and commanding. He was standing so close that Twenty-Nine could smell his putrid breath. Somehow Twenty-Eight did as he was told. Seated on the bench once more, he bent over and retched again. His empty stomach had nothing left to expel.

"If this happens again, the prongs will go directly into your worthless eyes," the bleeder hissed. "Do you understand?" He pointed his trident at the strange brand on Twenty-Eight's shoulder. "You are not of endowed blood, Talis. Therefore, you are quite expendable. You live only to serve this ship."

With a sneer, the creature continued down the bloodstained aisle to abuse another man who had fallen behind. Functioning on fear alone, Twenty-Eight somehow resumed rowing.

Twenty-Nine looked over to the left shoulder of his friend, at the word that had been branded into his skin. Talis. He had no idea what it meant, but he believed it to be from a long-lost language his father had told him of, something he had called "Old Eutracian." His father and his father's father had all handed down tales of a mysterious, beautiful language, now long since abandoned.

The same word had been branded into the left shoulder of almost every oarsman just before they were forced to board the vessel at the coastal city of Farpoint. The rest were marked with a slightly different word: R'talis. He had no idea what either word meant.

Pulling on his oar, he glanced down at the aisle dividing the rows of slaves. Latticed gates lay flush in the floor, held fast with huge iron padlocks. They led to the lower decks, where still more slaves--men as well as women--were held.

At the docks, the women and the men had been herded together. Twenty-Nine had been puzzled to see that they were all about the same age: somewhere between thirty and thirty-five Seasons of New Life. Then, after a small quantity of their blood had been taken, they had been branded. Those given the designation R'talis had been carefully boarded first and were treated marginally better. For example, he had never seen an R'talis forced to toil at the oars.

Lost in thought, he let his mind drift just a bit too long. Before he realized that his pull on the oar had slackened slightly, the knotted nine-tails came whistling out of nowhere.

Snapping loudly, its leather straps seared their way into the naked skin of Twenty-Nine's back, making him scream. Trying to regain his focus, he screamed again, perhaps more loudly than was truly warranted.

It was good enough for the bleeder with the whip. Apparently satisfied, the creature turned his white, opaque eyes to someone else, weapon arm raised.

Suddenly a latticed doorway in the deck above opened and a stairway descended with a crash. Sunlight and sea air streamed in as a figure slowly climbed down. Twenty-Nine narrowed his eyes. He had seen this being only one other time since boarding the slave ship, and knew him only by the private name he had silently bestowed on him: the Harlequin.

Even though the slaves continued ro...

Copyright © 2004 by Robert Newcomb


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