The immortal renshai, p.1
The Immortal Renshai, page 1
DAW Books Presents the Finest in Fantasy by MICKEY ZUCKER REICHERT
SPIRIT FOX (with Jennifer Wingert)
The Books of Barakhai:
THE BEASTS OF BARAKHAI (Book 1)
THE LOST DRAGONS OF BARAKHAI (Book 2)
The Renshai Trilogy:
THE LAST OF THE RENSHAI (Book 1)
THE WESTERN WIZARD (Book 2)
CHILD OF THUNDER (Book 3)
The Renshai Chronicles:
BEYOND RAGNAROK (Book 1)
PRINCE OF DEMONS (Book 2)
THE CHILDREN OF WRATH (Book 3)
The Renshai Saga:
FLIGHT OF THE RENSHAI (Book 1)
FIELDS OF WRATH (Book 2)
THE IMMORTAL RENSHAI (Book 3)
The Nightfall Duology:
THE LEGEND OF NIGHTFALL (Book 1)
THE RETURN OF NIGHTFALL (Book 2)
The Bifrost Guardians Omnibus Editions:
BY CHAOS CURSED
Copyright © 2018 by Miriam S. Zucker.
All Rights Reserved.
Jacket art by Jody A. Lee.
Jacket design by G-Force Design.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1787.
Published by DAW Books, Inc.
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All characters in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
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To Carly Moore,
Our last great hope.
Luckily, she is up to the task.
Also by Mickey Zucker Reichert
Sheila Gilbert, editor extraordinaire, and Jody Lee of the unmatched cover art.
Also Caesar Moore without whom my life would be far less golden.
The larger the enemy, the larger the victory.
THE SOMBERNESS OF BÉARN’S STRATEGY ROOM seemed to pervade Saviar Ra-khirsson’s bones to their marrow. Men representing every corner of the continent sat around the massive table, the only article of furniture in the room other than the multitude of chairs on which they sat. The walls, usually filled with maps, now held lists of names grouped by homeland and arranged in alphabetical order. The north wall bore those of the confirmed dead, the other three the more than a thousand missing in the magical blast that had ended the war.
Saviar looked around the table, recognizing most of the others from previous meetings which had taken place between the two wars that had rocked the continent in less than a year. The high king of the Westlands, Griff, took his usual place at the head of the table, massive and bearlike, with black curly hair and eyes nearly as dark. The first of his three wives, Queen Matrinka, sat at his left hand and his bard and bodyguard, Darris, at his right. The captain of his palace guards, Seiryn, hovered behind him.
A single man represented all nine of the Northern tribes, the only one they could possibly have agreed upon, the hero Valr Magnus. Pale, with white-blond hair, a muscular torso, and legs like tree trunks, he sat attentively, his handsome features radiating charm. Saviar appreciated that the North had agreed on a single representative, particularly one of the few Northmen who did not despise all Renshai inherently and beyond all reason.
Two men representing the Eastlands had remained in Béarn, though only one was in attendance. Despite the irritation currently coloring Saviar’s every utterance and action, he could not help smiling at the sight of Weile Kahn, the most complicated man at the meeting. He had a strange ability to organize the most deadly and dangerous criminals on the continent, and they granted him a loyalty of which most would not believe them capable. Though he lived a quiet and titleless life, mostly in hiding, Weile was quite probably the most powerful man in existence. The other Easterner in Béarn, King Tae Kahn, was his only child.
As usual, the oldest of the elves represented his kind, a tall, slender, auburn-haired creature with canted amber eyes called Captain.
The Westlands had a larger host of representatives. Sir Harritin of the Knights of Erythane took the place of Knight-Captain Kedrin, Saviar’s paternal grandfather, while he recovered from injuries sustained in the war. Though resplendent in his uniform and meticulous in every detail, Harritin’s eyes displayed a hint of nervous discomfort. He was not used to taking such a high-level leadership role. Thialnir was the official leader of the Renshai, though he relied heavily on Saviar, whom he had chosen as his successor. The West also had General Sutton, a master strategist from the eastern portion of the Westlands and General Markanyin, who hailed from the West’s largest city, Pudar.
Young pages flitted through the background, adding or subtracting names from the lists at the whispered requests of the representatives and prepared to chronicle every word of the meeting in the Sage’s library.
King Griff had provided baths and his most comfortable rooms for all the representatives, and a single night of sleep, before insisting on this meeting. Despite the common exhaustion and the solemn occasion, Sir Harritin had no choice but to preside over all the ancient rites and rituals attendant upon such an important meeting. Saviar felt certain nearly everyone would have preferred to forgo them, but the Knights of Erythane were sticklers for formality.
However, the moment the introductions, flourishes, and announcements had concluded, King Griff rose and went right to the heart of the matter. “I know you’re all understandably tired and saddened by the events of the last couple of months and, particularly, of the last few days. I will try to keep things as brief as possible and still answer all your concerns and questions. Please feel free to approach me at any time with any issues needing my a
Aware Griff had added the word “reasonable” after a visiting Northman had demanded one of the maids spend the night with him, Saviar bit his lower lip to quash a cynical grunt. Béarn had never abided slavery, and though well-paid, the servants were under no obligation to fulfill any perverse requests or commands.
Griff continued, “First, I want to thank each and every one of you, and all of the peoples you represent, for any and all contributions to the wars. I plan to refer to the first as the Pirate War and the second as the World’s War.”
Murmurs swept the room, but no one argued. Saviar supposed wars needed some kind of name for historical reference, and the “Great War” was already taken for a battle some three centuries earlier that had pitted the Eastlands against the Westlands. Saviar might have considered calling this one the second Great War, but he could see why Griff had avoided it. Doing so might offend the people of the Eastlands, allies in the current conquest.
“I know the sacrifices you have all made in time and travel mean disruptions in planting and harvest, in the production of goods, in the mining and distribution of luxuries and necessities. I have no authority over the North or the East, but over the next year, there will be no taxes demanded from Béarn. My ministers assure me I will have to gradually phase them back in over the following few years, but we will do so gently and with consideration. My artisans are working on the plans for a memorial at the site of the World’s War, and we will provide as much assistance as possible to the twin cities, which will need to be entirely rebuilt.”
Heads bowed at the oblique mention of Corpa Schaull and Frist, leveled by their enemy, the Kjempemagiska, magical giants from an island in the seas far west of the continent beyond their maps.
“At the moment,” Griff continued, “our most pressing issue is the brave soldiers carried away by the magic that ended the war.”
Memories descended upon Saviar of the vicious, unnatural storms that had wracked the armies when the horrors of the combined magic of the Kjempemagiska had smashed into the joint defenses woven by the elves. The backlash had slaughtered the giants en masse, victims of their own offense, but the raw chaos into which the elves’ defensive magic had degenerated did not kill instantly. Instead, it developed into a tempest of unimaginable proportions, threatening to tear the elves apart from the inside outward, to buffet every living thing on the continent with unsurvivable force. Deadly winds slammed people into breaking trees, flung living bodies like leaves until the elves managed to open multiple, random gates to other planes of existence. Released into these openings, the chaos dispersed, carrying the destructive force—and many of the warriors—onto unexplored worlds.
“As I understand it,” the high king said, “the elves had no way of knowing to which worlds these gates might lead. They had no choice but to throw the ways open blindly in order to spare as many lives as possible.” Saviar saw the king’s gaze shift toward Captain. Clearly, he wanted the elf to take over the explanation, but he also knew elves did not like human attention.
Unfortunately, most of the gazes in the room focused on the elf, even without the king’s gesture.
Captain handled it remarkably well. Rumored to be several millennia old, he had lived on Midgard, the world of humans, for most of his life, unlike the others of his ilk who had only arrived in the last two decades. “King Griff is correct. It is extremely difficult to open gates to other worlds under the best of circumstances. It requires controlling and shaping a large amount of power. In this case, we had more raw chaos than we could handle, but working with it . . .” He paused to consider. “Rather like trying to carve a statue from a block of marble while you’re being attacked from every side by a phalanx of enemies. It might be barely possible, but only if you know your life and others’ hangs on finishing that statue. And it’s not likely to be your most exquisite piece.”
Saviar saw nods and winces all around the table. Most of these men identified with a half-decent fighting analogy, and the Béarnides’ pride and joy were the statues crafted by their master sculptors. They had carved the castle itself from a mountain.
Captain explained further. “Aimed gates can only be created with someone or something familiar on the other side to hold our focus. We were basically punching arbitrary holes in the fabric between universes, with no way to know what was on the other side. Had we not vented the winds this way, everything living on Midgard would have died.” He added emphatically, “Everything.”
If possible, the solemnity of the room increased. Several representatives dropped their weary heads to the tabletop. General Sutton, always thinking strategy, asked the pertinent question first. “The soldiers sucked onto these other worlds . . . Captain, is there a way to get them back?”
Captain squirmed a bit. He tented his long fingers in front of his angular face. “Some of them, yes. And believe me, General, we are as eager as you to do so. As a percentage, more elves were whisked away than humans.” He did not add it was a greater catastrophe for the elves as well. It was a poorly kept secret that elfin births were limited to the recycled souls of elves who died of old age. Every elf who perished unnaturally meant one less elf for all eternity. Saviar did not know whether an elf who succumbed to age on another world could still become reincarnated as an infant on this one, and he doubted Captain would tell him if he asked.
“Some of them?” Thialnir pressed. Unlike elves, Renshai could procreate at will, but they numbered barely over three hundred prior to the war. Every member of the tribe was a warrior, including the women and children. That, in and of itself, resulted in low fertility and high mortality. To make matters worse, their fearsome reputation, not wholly undeserved, caused many other peoples of the world to hate them, particularly Northmen who would be only too happy to see the entire Renshai tribe exterminated.
“Some of them,” Captain repeated. “The Outworlds are . . . different. Many cannot support life of any kind, and others can’t support life as we know it. Some are . . . dangerous, inhospitable. We believe an infinite number of worlds exist, and each one is unique in some way.”
General Markanyin shifted his bulk in his chair. “Are you trying to say we may not get anyone back alive?”
Captain swallowed hard, a remarkably human gesture for an elf. “I’m trying not to say it. Mostly because I don’t think it’s true. I believe the majority of the Outworlds are capable of supporting human and elfin life. Some may even be more comfortable than Midgard. Some may be virtually indistinguishable.”
General Sutton spoke again, still strategically. “Can you give us some statistics? Percentages perhaps?”
Captain worried his lower lip with his teeth. “If you’re asking how many Outworlds I’ve personally visited, the answer is very few and all of those were part of the nine main ones studied by religious scholars. Alfheim, the world of elves, used to be an Outworld before it got destroyed during the Ragnarok. I’ve also been to Asgard, the abode of the gods. Once. I’ve heard secondhand stories about Hel, still one of the nine, and Chaos World, which isn’t. I can give you rough percentages based on information I’ve overheard, read, and extrapolated, but it would only be a guess.”
“Guess,” Sutton encouraged.
“I’d say about ten percent would be instantly fatal to elves or humans. Another ten percent might be survivable by elves but not humans due to certain immunities and the ability to tame raw chaos. Of the remaining eighty percent, about three-quarters would have some sort of potential life-threatening hazard or danger.”
“Such as?” Sutton asked.
Captain shrugged. “As you know, the last group who had to negotiate Outworlds ran into, among other things, spirit spiders, shape-changing magical creatures who feed on souls. Some worlds have giants, gods, monsters, oddities, or even hostile human or humanlike societies. Ot
The room erupted into conversation. Thialnir tried to engage his successor, but he found Saviar lost deeply in thought. His twin brother was among the missing, and his thoughts about Subikahn, at the moment, consumed him, fiercely negative. The brothers had parted on the worst possible terms.
Sir Harritin made a broad gesture to claim the floor, waiting until Griff acknowledged him before speaking. “What is rescuing our brethren likely to entail?”
Saviar knew six of the twenty-four Knights of Erythane had died in the war or its aftermath, but none had gotten sucked to the Outworlds. When Harritin spoke of “brethren,” he meant the soldiers of every army representing the continent.
Captain lowered his head with a suddenness that implied weariness, at least when a human did it. “I don’t know, exactly,” he admitted. “We’ve discussed it on the trip here, of course, but . . . other issues . . .”
Saviar knew elves were capricious and difficult to direct at the best of times. He also realized Captain was avoiding saying that, not wishing to paint his people in a deleterious light or to denigrate the significance of the lives driven to the Outworlds.
When the silence remained after several moments, Captain finally felt compelled to fill it. “We had the same issues as every one of you to distract us, too.”
Several leaders nodded. The focus for the human groups had been separating the dead from the missing, preparing the lists that now covered the Strategy Room walls and tending to the injured and exhausted.
Griff reassured the elf. “We all certainly understand that, Captain. All of your people are welcome anywhere they wish to go inside or on the grounds of Béarn Castle. If they require anything, they need only ask any of the staff.”
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