The Battle of Meridan
The Eight Orders of Mages
Preview of Darkstorm
Prologue of Darkstorm
Also by ML Spencer
The Battle of Meridan
A Rhenwars Story
The Battle of Meridan
Meridan, The Rhen
THE AIR WAS FULL OF SALT and bitter decay, just the same as yesterday. Tonight the stench seemed even more oppressive. Perhaps it was the reek of the bodies they’d stacked up in the tower on the west side of the gate. Or perhaps it was the miasma that bloomed from the Enemy encampment surrounding the walls. Whichever; it made no difference.
Stink was stink.
Neria Terrant gazed out from the ramparts of Meridan’s fortified outer wall, her stare distant. Her dark hair whipped against her face, tossed by the wind. She scowled, swiping it back behind her ear.
“We’re running out of arrows,” grumbled the hard-bitten captain standing next to her. “And we’re running out of Sentinels.”
The first problem was easier to solve than the second. Twelve mages had been lost during the first hour of the siege. Since then, it had been a slow process of attrition. Only three Sentinels remained, Neria included.
“The arrows, we can solve,” she said without looking at the captain. “The Enemy spawns in darkness. They see better than we can. But without the moon, they won’t be able to distinguish the living from the dead. Send your men to haul up as many corpses as they can carry. Perhaps the dead can serve us still.”
Garret Proctor frowned. Then an incredulous smirk jolted his lips. He shook his head, the smirk broadening into a thin rictus of appreciation.
“You want to use our own dead to collect arrows? That’s cold.”
Neria shrugged. “It’s efficient use of resources.”
The dark-haired captain grinned. “Genius is the fruit of desperation. Let me be the first to say: you have a beautiful mind when you’re desperate.”
“You can say it, but don’t dare think you’d be the first.”
Captain Proctor managed a rigid bow. He turned on heel and stalked back down the stairs in the direction of the courtyard.
Neria strolled back along the wall walk, her black cloak fluttering behind her in the wind. It was a mage’s cloak, a trophy prized by the Enemy far above any other. Out of range of their arrows, Neria let the cloak wave in the air like a taunt.
She walked over to where Gerald Lauchlin stood leaning against the protective stonework of the battlements. He was scowling down at something in his hand. A long, thin dagger with an ebony hilt.
“Careful,” Neria smiled, “your wife probably wouldn’t approve of the way you’re stroking that weapon.”
Gerald glanced up at the sound of her voice. He offered Neria a fleeting, dispirited grin. “Emelda hasn’t approved of most things I’ve done lately.”
“Neither have I,” Neria reminded him.
She never tired of flaunting her authority in his face. If not for Neria, Gerald Lauchlin would be Warden of Sentinels. But Neria overshadowed him both in power and promise. Something which had to gall him every waking moment of his life.
She turned at the sound of approaching footsteps. Scores of Proctor’s men lugged stiffened corpses up the stairs. Neria stepped over beside Gerald to give the men room to work.
They tied long lengths of rope about the legs of the deceased, looping the other ends around the merlons of the palisade.
“What am I looking at?” Gerald muttered, disgust etched into his face. His shoulder-length brown hair whipped in the wind.
“Watch and be inspired.” Neria allowed a proud smile to slip to her lips.
The soldiers heaved the corpses over the parapet, feeding the rope slowly, lowering the bodies gradually down the outside of the wall. She kept her gaze trained on Gerald’s face, watching the play of emotions evolving in his eyes.
There was a shivering whisper on the wind—the breathless flight of arrows hissing through the night.
The soldiers tugged on their ropes, raising the corpses back up and over the wall. The bodies spilled onto the walkway, pincushioned with hundreds of dark shafts. The men immediately dropped to their knees to claim their prize, twisting and prying the arrows from the flesh of the fallen.
Neria grinned at the look of disgust on Gerald Lauchlin’s face. Clapping the Sentinel on the arm, she laughed and strode away.
♦ ♦ ♦
“They’ve breached the east tower!”
Neria’s mouth dropped open. “How?”
Already moving toward the stairs, Proctor threw a glance like a dagger in her direction. “Miners.” To his soldiers, he bellowed, “Ward the breach! The rest of you, fall back to the citadel! MOVE!”
“I’ll take the breach!” Neria shouted, already sprinting ahead.
But Proctor thrust out a hand, catching her by the shoulder of her cloak. “Let Ezras or Lauchlin take the breach. Come with me. You can tend to the wounded in the citadel.”
Neria glanced sideways at the captain, her stare narrowing. She shook her head. Not for the first time, she suspected Garret Proctor had taken an interest in her that had little to do with tactics or resource allocation. And now that interest was leading him to make decisions that ran contrary to logic. Her place was defending the walls, not tending to the wounded.
Her stomach tightened as she realized what the man was trying to do. Keep her safe, keep her close. While throwing Gerald Lauchlin to the wolves. It was a cruel and efficient plan.
Proctor was learning.
Neria turned fully toward him, straightening her back and lifting her chin. “I’m the Warden of Sentinels, not a medic. Get a Querer on it.”
She turned away, still glaring at him over her shoulder. Then she sprinted for the tower.
As she crossed the courtyard, the sounds of combat accosted her ears. Below, Proctor’s men had engaged the Enemy, struggling to defend the tower breach. By the look of things, the fight was not going in their favor.
Seeing Gerald, Neria angled toward him. She nodded in the direction of the tower. “What’s the problem?”
She ducked as a spear streaked past her ear.
“They have a Battlemage,” Gerald said.
“Truly?” Neria was stunned. Never before had they encountered an Enemy mage. That explained a great deal.
Beneath her, the entire structure of the wall started to vibrate.
Black-armored bodies spilled through the breach as Proctor’s men were forced to retreat. Fighting erupted right below them in the courtyard as reinforcements arrived. Soon, clots of soldiers covered the length of the yard. Men were screaming, flailing, dying, stumbling over the remains of the fallen.
A wall shuddered and gave way, raining stone and mortar into the breach.
Neria gasped, whirling to confront Gerald. “You did that! What are you thinking! You could have killed those men!”
The Sentinel shrugged, looking at her with calm defiance in his eyes. “So, what if I did?”
Neria gazed at him blinking, mouth open. “Did you speak with your wife?”
“And…what did she say?”
Gerald Lauchlin lowered his gaze. “She refused me. I guess her precious Oath means more to our Prime Warden than the life of her own husband. The Sentinels are to remain Bound.”
Neria narrowed her eyes, her ire swelling. She agreed with Emelda’s decision, even though she despised the woman.
Turning to Gerald, she kissed him full on the lips.
“Then we remain Bound,” Neria acknowledged, pulling back. “Start acting like it.”
“Always to heal and never to harm,” he whispered softly, quoting the Mage’s Oath under his breath.
Neria started to turn away. On second thought, she kissed him again. Never in her life had the constraints of the Oath chaffed so badly.
Below, the Enemy had taken control of the courtyard.
Ezras Nordric was struggling desperately to ward the gate alongside a small contingent of Proctor’s men. Ezras’s body glowed in the dim evening light, ribboned with blue energies. He had saturated himself with the magic field, filling his body to capacity. He was using that vast well of power to stabilize Meridan’s town gate. From her vantage, Neria could see that Ezra’s best wouldn’t be enough. Already, the wood of the portcullis was splitting.
She started toward him, but Gerald held her back. Looking up, she saw that Enemy soldiers were splitting off from the main host, circling back around at the sight of them.
“There’s too many!” he cried. He raised his arm, throwing up a shield between them and their pursuers.
From the other side of the wall came the rolling thunder of hundreds of kettle drums.
Gerald’s hand caught her shoulder, shoving Neria fiercely back behind the cover of a merlon. At the same time, a hurling stone ruptured with violence against the battlements, showering fragments of rock all around them with explosive force.
Neria threw up a shield of her own and cringed against the fortifications as a rain of arrows hailed down from the sky. Men fell all around her, slumping backward and dropping from the wall.
Then another wave of arrows came, turning the skies black with whistling terror.
Still, the siege engines of the Enemy continued their bombardment, answered by the city’s own catapults. Stones exploded against the ramparts with terrible force, chips of rock flying in all directions. A shard grazed the side of Neria’s face, and she threw herself backward with a cry.
As she did, a massive stone smashed into the wall in the place where she had just been standing. A section of the battlements sheered off and fell away, exposing her position. Enemy archers seized upon the opportunity, launching a deadly hail of arrows up into the gap.
Neria took cover beneath piles of fallen blocks and shattered bodies as she closed her eyes. Her ears filled with the screams of dying men and the savage blasts of pulverizing stone. Gaping around, she struggled to find Gerald. He was nowhere; she had no idea if her lover even lived.
All she knew was that she couldn’t stay there if she wanted to survive.
She forced herself to move, edging forward on her stomach. The going was cruelly slow. She was forced to shimmy around chunks of stone, dragging her body over large blocks and shards of debris littered with fallen arrows. Fragments of rock cut her hands, and twice she felt the painful spear of an arrow deflect off the chain of her mail coat.
More arrows peppered down all around her. Neria almost lost the resolve to keep moving, the paralyzing fear she felt making her want to do nothing more than just cringe back between the rocks and pray she wouldn’t die. But she knew that her only chance was to keep going. She had to gain the cover of unbroken wall. It was somewhere there ahead of her, even though she didn’t dare glance up to see how far. So she bit her lip and kept crawling, worming her way forward inch by desperate inch.
A hand reached out and caught the collar of her cloak, dragging her roughly forward over the last few feet of debris.
“I thought you were dead,” Proctor growled, then hugged her hard. Letting go, he raised his shield over both their heads to deflect a fresh volley of arrows. “At least you have the sense to duck.” The captain waited until there was a break in the torrent, then jerked Neria against the wall.
She leaned back against the stone’s hard surface, closing her eyes as she tried to stop her body from shaking. She felt something pressed into her fingers and, peering down, saw she gripped a flask of water. She lifted the flask with trembling hands, swallowing some of the liquid and spilling the rest down the front of her ruined shirt.
When she was done, Proctor jerked the flask away with a scowl. Then he picked up a spear from a pile lying at his feet and, barely pausing to sight the shaft, flung it downward into the face of the Enemy.
“Are you going to shield us or just stand there?” The captain hefted another spear as shards of broken stone rained down all around them. “I didn’t take you for a coward.” Before the shaft left his hand, it was notched and scored with arrows. He quickly reached for another.
Neria gazed up at him, hurt and ashamed. Red-faced, she forced herself to stand on legs that refused to stop shaking.
I’m not a coward. She moved forward into a break between merlons. She fixed her gaze on the advancing soldiers below, trying not to think of the precious seconds she stood there with her body fully exposed. I’m not.
She forced her mind out on tides of air, weaving a shimmering shield above the beleaguered men.
♦ ♦ ♦
The bombardment continued throughout the morning, the Enemy hammering the walls with stones and timber baulks as their arrows seemed to choke the light of day from the sky. They had an almost endless supply of reinforcements, so when the men at the fore grew weary they simply retreated back, more moving up from behind to take their place.
Their strategy was simple and deathly efficient. Using their siege artillery to provide cover, their soldiers moved forward with screens and engineers who set at once to work filling in the moat and digging beneath the walls. The defenders countered as best they could, flinging down spears and rocks and anything they could get their hands on at the screaming fanatics below.
Neria labored alongside Proctor’s soldiers throughout the whole of the morning. By afternoon, she was amazed but utterly grateful to still be alive. The stones and arrows of the Enemy were indiscriminate; knights and sergeants, nobles and infantry fell alike under the ceaseless assault.
And just when she thought it could not possibly get any worse, the Enemy unleashed a new and terrible weapon.
Proctor’s pile of spears had long since run out, been replaced, and run out again several times. While they waited for fresh supplies, the captain and his men had resorted to lobbing pieces of broken wall down on the heads of the miners working below. He stooped to lift a helm-size chunk with both hands, heaved it up over the battlements, then bent to pick up another.
As he did, an explosion of fire burst through the crenulations in the wall not twenty feet away.
Neria threw a shield up in front of them, flinging herself back from the intensity of the heat. She heard the sound of ghastly screams, and when she could open her eyes, saw several men writhing on the stones below, their bodies enveloped in flames.
Without thinking, she jumped down, using the power of her mind to extinguish the flames from the first man she reached. She knelt beside a soldier’s charred body, watching the convulsive spasms of the man’s dying anguish.
She tried to heal him but was a second too late.
By the time she reached him, the screams had stopped.
But the stench of charred meat lingered in the air, mixed with another, thoroughly grotesque odor. Gagging, Neria turned away from the site of the immolated men. Her stomach wrenched and twisted, spewing a stream of bile onto the stone at her feet. Still gagging, she staggered away, putting her hand out as she reeled against the far wall.
“Sit down,” Proctor ordered.
When she didn’t comply, the captain moved forward and firmly pressed her down against the stones. Neria looked up at him blearily, shaking her head in horrified confusion.
“What was that?” she gasped, not able to believe the Enemy could have contrived such a terrible weapon.
Whirling, she turned to find Gerald Lauchlin standing right behind her.
She spilled into his arms, hugging him fiercely. When she pulled back, she saw that his face was pale, as grim as she’d ever seen it.
“They can launch it in casks from their Black Bulls or drench their arrows with it to make fire darts. It clings to anything it hits. Don’t ever do that again,” he admonished. “You’re lucky you didn’t go up like a torch. There’s no helping a man laced with Hell’s fire; the best you can do is stand back and watch him burn. And try not to listen to the screams.”
As he finished the sentence another explosion of fire enveloped four more soldiers by the tower, one knocked backward in flames over the wall. Neria closed her eyes and tried not to listen to the shrieks of the others who were not so fortunate.
She knew she couldn’t reach them.
They took a much longer time to die.
She raised her head and saw Gerald staring at her. “I don’t want to be Bound,” he whispered. “I don’t want to watch you die.”
Neria nodded, understanding. She gazed down at the blackened face of the nearest soldier that all of her vast amount of power had been unable to save.
Gerald Lauchlin took a step toward her.
Another explosion of fire erupted through the battlements. Neria was flung backwards against the crumbling wall. This time, it was Gerald’s scream she heard.
“No!” she cried out, reaching toward him.
But it was too late; he’d fallen from wall.
“No…” Neria sobbed.
The fall wouldn’t be enough to kill him. The Enemy fires would accomplish that. Because that’s what the Enemy did.
She turned, gazing up into Garret Proctor’s face through the tears in her eyes. The expression on his face was grim. He offered out his hand.
“Go to the citadel, Neria. Trust me. You don’t want to be around for this.”
Neria glared her hatred at him even as she rose, staggering, to her feet.
“They’ll burn him,” she sobbed.
Proctor nodded. “Better him than you.”
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The Eight Orders of Mages
Order of Arcanists: order of mages chartered with the study and creation of artifacts and heirlooms of power.
Order of Architects: order of mages chartered with the construction of magical infrastructure.
Order of Chancellors: order of mages chartered with the governance of the Assembly.
Order of Empiricists: order of mages chartered with the theoretical study of the magic field, its laws and principles.
Order of Harbingers: order of mages chartered with maintaining watch over Athera’s Crescent.
Order of Naturalists: order of mages chartered with the study of Natural Law.
Order of Querers: order of mages chartered with practical applications of the magic field.
Order of Sentinels: order of mages chartered with watching over and protecting the Rhen in a manner consistent with the Oath of Harmony.
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Book One of
The Rhenwars Saga
Bryn Calazar, Caladorn
He didn’t look up at the sound of his own name being spoken from the doorway. Instead, he swallowed, squeezing his eyes shut as he ran his tongue across his parched lips. The sound of his own breath was a turbulent noise in his ears. He forced himself to concentrate on that sound, focusing his mind on every sharp hiss of air he sucked into his chest.
The sound of approaching footsteps made him flinch. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop his hands from trembling.
“On your feet.”
Braden ignored the command, knowing there would be a penalty for his defiance. He squeezed his hands into fists in anticipation of the pain. For heartbeats, he waited. When nothing happened, he allowed himself to relax a bit.
The pain hit with force.
Molten-silver lightning raged like a firestorm through his mind. He threw his head back, clenching his teeth. Slumping to the floor, Braden convulsed as liquid energies seared through his body. Bile rose in his throat, choking him as he writhed on the floor.
The pain lessened only gradually, taking a long time to completely go away. He lay on his back on the cold stone floor, staring upward, spent and gasping.
A different voice, soft and repulsively familiar, addressed him from the doorway. “Think very carefully, Ambassador Reis. There are many kinds of deaths, some much worse than others.”
He shuddered at the sound of that voice. It was despicably seductive, stroking like soft velvet down the length of his nerves. Braden kept his eyes squeezed closed, so loath was he to gaze upon that face.
He could feel her moving toward him across the cell. Her hands brushed his skin, a silken caress as she slid her arms around his torso. With gentle pressure she compelled him to his feet. He stood, swaying, naked from the waist up, arms chained behind his back. His breath still came in gasps.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she whispered gently in his ear as her soft fingertips stroked the skin of his back. “You can still choose to make a difference. Think of the lives you could save. It’s the right thing to do.”
His eyes shot open, glaring his contempt at her.
“Don’t lecture me on morals, woman,” he grated. “You have no idea what they are.”
The smile that bloomed on her lovely face was only a dim reflection of the delight that filled her eyes. His response had pleased her. It sickened him, knowing that he had given her exactly what she’d wanted.
“I want you to die knowing that they chose me to inherit your legacy,” she informed him with a grin. “One way or another, your gift will be put to the service of Xerys. With your power inside me, I will be the one destined for greatness. And you?” She looked at him sadly and scoffed with a shrug. “You’ll just be dead.”
Hearing her words, Braden Reis closed his eyes and bowed his head in acceptance of defeat. Never before in his life had he felt so utterly powerless.
The sound of her slippered footsteps moved away from him across the floor. Then hands were upon him, wrenching him forward. Braden allowed his guards to escort him out of the cell.
The despair that gripped him dulled his senses. It was as though he moved through a dim and murky haze, the world around him distant and strangely muted. They ushered him up many flights of stairs toward the floor of the Lyceum. The dance of magelight that churned at their feet only served to confound his senses all the more.
Braden gazed ahead with bleary eyes at the woman who strode before him. She glided in a sway of blue silks, platinum curls spiraling to her waist. She moved with an easy grace, every motion poised, every step a deliberate, calculated seduction. Arden Hannah was just as alluring as she was vile. It was a powerful and frightening dichotomy. She gazed back at him and smiled, her wide eyes glistening in the magelight.
He dropped his stare back to the floor.
They reached the level of the Assembly. There, his guards wrenched back on Braden’s arms, forcing him to a halt. The sound of a staff rapping thrice upon wood resounded throughout the hall. There was a pause. Then the knocks were answered in kind, echoing from the other side of the barred doorway.
The bars were thrown from the inside, the enormous double doors cast open, shuddering on their hinges with a throaty groan. Braden avoided Arden’s eyes as his guards forced him forward. He could see very little, only shadowy silhouettes of people gathered above in the galleries. Within, the room was completely dark save for a single sphere of brilliant light in the center of the hall. It was toward that orb of light that he was made to walk.
Braden forced himself to hold his head up despite the chill fingers of dread that caressed his bare skin. Nervous sweat trickled down his brow. He couldn’t help trembling as he stepped within that sphere of light. There he paused, hands bound behind him, completely blinded by the dazzling brilliance. That was the purpose of the light: to protect the anonymity of those gathered above in the galleries.
The doors slammed closed, sealing the chamber with a resounding thud. An awful, gaping silence struck the room. The silence lingered, long moments stretching on and on. Braden continued to stand, blinking against the glare, eyes groping desperately for the sight of just one face he could recognize. But he could make out nothing; the thick wall of light was dense and unyielding.
A deep and resonant voice addressed him:
“Braden Reis, you have been convicted, attainted, and condemned of high treason committed against the state of Caladorn and the Lyceum of Bryn Calazar. A sentence of death has been pronounced against you. May the gods have mercy on your soul.”
Braden bowed his head under the sheer weight of the words. A paralyzing numbness overcame him. He stood there shaking, withered by the miserable knowledge that he had failed so utterly in his purpose.
Slithering ropes of energy twined around him, restraining him completely as they forced him roughly to his knees in the circle of light. He fought to draw breath, but succeeded only in producing a strangled wheeze.
The prime warden himself stepped forward into the wash of light to carry out his sentence. Panic seized Braden at the sight of the object displayed in Zavier Renquist’s hands: a stone of many facets, lifeless, dull and black. It hung from the bands of a silver collar that shone like satin in the light.
The sight of the Soulstone was ghastly, terrifying.
Braden’s eyes shot up, groping at Renquist’s face. But in the gaze of his executioner, he found no trace of mercy.
Also by M.L. Spencer
Darkmage, Book Two of the Rhenwars Saga
Darien Lauchlin has already lost everything. Now the only thing he has left to lose is his soul. When his brother sacrifices the woman he loves to unseal the Well of Tears, Darien is left with an impossible decision: either remain steadfast to his vows and watch everything he loves fall around him—or abandon his principles and become the most destructive force his world has ever known. Accompanied by a priestess of Death, Darien embarks on a journey toward utter self-destruction.
Darklands, Book Three of the Rhenwars Saga
Compelled to obey the dark god he pledged his soul to, Darien finds himself tasked with delivering the people of the Black Lands from under the curse of darkness which shrouds the skies. With the enemy mage Azár, Darien sets out across a barren darkscape to assume his place as the leader of a people who despise him. As he journeys deeper into the shadowed waste, Darien is confronted with difficult truths that force him to question every loyalty he has ever held. For there, in the brutal proving grounds of the north, Darien will be inexorably forged into the most dangerous adversary the Rhen has ever faced.
THE RHENWARS SAGA
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Copyright © 2017 by M.L. Spencer
All rights reserved.
A siege. A love triangle. And brutal choices that have echoing consequences. The Battle of Meridan is a thrilling foray into the moral quagmire that is The Rhenwars Saga. Set twenty years before Darkmage, this furious battle is a turning point in the war that will have dramatic repercussions on things to come. For current Rhenwars fans hungering for background and casual readers alike, this short story is an action-packed introduction to this award-winning grimdark fantasy series!