Fire. Wind. Pestilence. Earthquake. Drought. Lightning.
These are the six Decimates, wielded by sorcerers for both good and evil.
But a seventh Decimate exists—the most devastating one of all...
For centuries, the realms of Belleger and Amika have been at war, with sorcerers from both sides harnessing the Decimates to rain blood and pain upon their enemy. But somehow, in some way, the Amikans have discovered and invoked a seventh Decimate, one that strips all lesser sorcery of its power. And now the Bellegerins stand defenseless.
Prince Bifalt, eldest son of the Bellegerin King, would like to see the world wiped free of sorcerers. But it is he who is charged with finding the repository of all of their knowledge, to locate the book of the seventh Decimate—and reverse the fate of his land.
All hope rests with Prince Bifalt. But the legendary library, which may or may not exist, lies beyond an unforgiving desert and treacherous mountains—and beyond the borders of his own experience. Wracked by hunger and fatigue, sacrificing loyal men along the way, Prince Bifalt will discover that there is a game being played by those far more powerful than he could ever imagine. And that he is nothing but a pawn...
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Nearly two years after the day he had felt himself killed by lightning, and then-impossibly-had lived, the day when Bellegerin rifles had changed the world, Prince Bifalt and his company departed Belleger's Fist without announcement or display. Why risk raising hopes, he had asked his father, when success is hardly imaginable? And King Abbator had agreed. For that reason, there were no trumpets or banners. The company did not pass outward along an aisle of courtiers. The high balconies of the Fist were empty, apart from the King himself, his most trusted counselors, and his lead commanders. None of them waved or shouted encouragement. Some of them were probably swearing to themselves.
But someone had started a rumor. Stolle, an incurable gossip, may have said something to his new wife, who shared his taste for whispered secrets. He had surely felt compelled to give her some explanation to account for an absence that might not end. Or Captain Swalish's family might have overheard a low remark intended for someone else. In any case, the Open Hand was tinder for rumors. They spread like wildfires.
When Prince Bifalt left the Fist mounted on his favorite destrier, with his ten guardsmen, two supply-wains, and one former Magister, his road through the Hand was lined with crowds. Belleger's people-most of them failing merchants and tradesmen, destitute serving-folk and farmers, starving beggars and maimed veterans-knew nothing about the Prince's quest. They only knew he would not leave his place at his father's side, or in the army, for any trivial purpose. So they gathered to watch him go. If they guessed he went in search of some nameless power that might save them from Amika, they did not show it. They only watched in silence while he rode between them.
For his part, Prince Bifalt presented a countenance of resolute confidence. He could not offer hope, but he had no intention of encouraging despair. Shining in his bronze helm and breastplate, both marked with the beleaguered eagle of his homeland, he was the perfect emblem of a soldier who would redeem his people or die. His only concession to a long journey was the silk rather than boiled leather he wore under his armor to avoid chafing. And he had at his back as much support as King Abbator could spare. His ten guardsmen were all veterans, all armed with rifles as well as their more traditional weapons. The wains with their paired oxen carried stores and necessities enough for a season in unfamiliar lands. The oxen were managed by four teamsters chosen for strength and stamina as well as for devotion to their beasts. And the Magister with the company was an older man who had once been mighty, but who still knew a trick or three that might defend the quest from Amikan theurgy.
In addition, the Prince himself was far from helpless. His training, experience, and weapons were augmented by a chiseled visage, a piercing gaze, an unyielding nature, and the knowledge that his quest was desperate. Also, he loved his people as he loved his father. His homeland was dear to him. There was no man in Belleger better suited to his task than he.
Nevertheless, his air of confidence was a sham. Behind his faade, uncertainties gnawed at him. He had no map to his destination. Indeed, he had no assurance his destination existed. If he found it, it might not have what he needed. And if what he needed were there, he might not be allowed to use it.
Furthermore, he knew his limitations. Although he was as resolute as he appeared, he was not clever. He was not a man who outwitted his foes. His skills were hard-learned, the result of long repetition: they were not the product of quick thinking or inspiration.
But he had deeper problems as well. The catastrophe that had befallen Belleger had shaken him to the marrow of his bones. It had shattered every conceivable future for his people. And now he was responsible for answering it. That burden filled him with dread. More than ever before in his life, he feared to fail.
The signs of that catastrophe were everywhere around him as he rode. He saw them in the lines of privation that marred every face; in the disrepair of the homes, the merchantries, the streets, the very walls; in the thinness of even the most prosperous shopkeepers. Elsewhere, he knew, grapes rotted on the vines because the vineyards could not be adequately tended, while fields of wheat and barley were useless because there were too few able women and uncrippled men to plant and harvest them. Cattle were becoming as scarce as fresh horses. The panic of the first days, the confusion, clamor, and outrage, were gone, burned out by exhaustion and deprivation during the seasons that followed. What remained was hopelessness. Prince Bifalt saw it in scores of faces. His people were afraid to dream of survival.
If he failed them, they would all die.
The catastrophe had swept over Belleger almost a year after Captain Swalish and his squad had first used rifles in battle, and the Prince had killed two Amikan Magisters. Between one day's sunset and the next's dawn, all sorcery had vanished from the realm. All sorcery. While they slept, or caroused, or worked, or whatever they did at night, every Magister was rendered impotent. Fire and wind no longer answered the summons of their former masters. Quakes, lightning, and pestilence no longer came when they were called. In one night, all power was extinguished in the land.
The effects were devastating. Bellegerins did not know how to live without sorcery. It was essential to their understanding of their world; their understanding of existence. Even Prince Bifalt, who despised theurgy, was appalled. For him, however, as for King Abbator, and for everyone who had experienced Amika's enmity, the loss of sorcery was only the start of the catastrophe. There was worse to come.
It was this: Amika's eventual victory was now assured. That foe could direct its own savagery and power against Belleger whenever it chose, whenever it felt ready, now that its victim was helpless. Every Bellegerin knew that the headsman's axe could fall at any moment. While men and women still lived, they felt that waiting for death was more cruel than death itself.
Of course, King Abbator's counselors and lead commanders reasoned, Amika still had sorcery. Its Magisters could still wield ruin. There was no other explanation. Belleger's old enemy was its only enemy; the only other people in their world. How could the realm have been bereft of its only defense, except by theurgy? And who apart from Amika could have caused-or desired-the catastrophe?
The wonder, then, was not that Amika had committed such an atrocity. Its people were capable of anything. The wonder was that Belleger's enemy had not yet acted on its advantage. Prince Bifalt's homeland was ripe for the taking. Why had it not been simply overrun?
This was the subject of endless debate-and intolerable delay-in the King's council chamber: why?
Some advisers believed that Amika was biding its time until it had readied strength enough to overwhelm Belleger in a single assault. Most of the army's lead commanders-and the Prince himself-disagreed. They argued that the Amikans held back because they feared Belleger's ability to make guns. After all, only some men were capable of sorcery. Fewer still had the knowledge and training to develop their gifts. Also, their powers were singular. A Magister who could fling fire could not also raise winds or crack the earth. In contrast, any man able to stand up and point could kill his foes at improbable distances. A host of men with rifles could wreak appalling havoc. An unprecedented massing of sorcerers would be required to overcome them. Naturally, Amika feared a premature attack.
In truth, of course, Belleger had no host. When the catastrophe struck, the whole realm possessed no more than a few hundred rifles. And the alchemists, iron-wrights, and jewel-smiths could not produce more without sorcery; without the Decimate of fire. Their forges were not hot enough.
Considering this cruel contradiction often made Prince Bifalt so angry he wanted to froth at the mouth. At times, he bit the inside of his cheek until it bled. He did not know another way to grieve, except with rage. But in his present straits, he could not afford to dwell on his frustration. Eventually, some Amikan spy would discover Belleger's hidden weakness. Then the last battle would begin. Against any onslaught, a few hundred rifles might suffice to defend the King's city, but not his lands. To preserve the entire realm, Belleger required theurgy.
Hence the Prince's quest.
Yet even his own doubts and the threat to his people were not the sum of his burdens. He had a more personal fear, a private reason to distrust success as much as he feared failure. In the instant of his death-the instant when he should have died-a voice had spoken to him. Are you ready? It could only have been a sorcerer's voice. And it gave him cause to think that he had been singled out by an inconceivable power for an incomprehensible purpose: a purpose which might be fatal to Belleger. He had felt his own death. He had seen it take him. He did not know why he was still alive.
On that topic, however, he kept silent. Whom could he tell? Anyone who had not heard that voice would dismiss it as the confusion of a mind unhinged by the Decimate of lightning.
After the catastrophe, the debates in the King's chambers had seemed endless despite their urgency. They had chewed on Prince Bifalt until he felt eaten alive. He needed to fight-and yet the council had entirely failed to determine a course of action. What could Belleger do? It could not overcome its foe. It could not shield itself. And it had no allies. It knew of no lands or peoples with whom it could have allied itself. If there were ships on the sea to the west, they did not come to Belleger's impossible coast. If there were passes through the southern mountains, the Realm's Edge, passes leading to inhabited regions, they had not been explored. The war with Amika had left neither time nor resources for exploration. A ruinous desert filled the east, and Amika held the north. There was nowhere Belleger could turn for help.
Early in the debates, a minor counselor had suggested timidly that perhaps Amika had also been bereft of sorcery. But this notion had been dismissed with derision. Who else could have caused Belleger's catastrophe? Who else hated Belleger so much? There was no one else.
Of course, spies had been sent into Amika. In fact, they had been sent for generations, one after another in a bewildering variety of guises. But very few of them had ever returned, except those who had nothing useful to report. And none returned at all now. That harsh fact supported the conviction that Amika's Magisters still had power. How else had Amika detected and stopped or killed all of Belleger's spies?
King Abbator and his advisers believed that their realm was too weak to prevent certain doom. They had good reason.
But then an old man came forward. He had once been a powerful Magister, and a strong voice among the King's advisers. Since the loss of sorcery, however, he had fallen into senility, and had preferred the isolation of his scattered wits to the company of his fellow Magisters and advisers. Yet now he presented himself.
Forced by decrepitude to support himself on a gnarled staff, and clad in a tattered grey robe much soiled by various mishaps, he was the personification of lost efficacy. Most of the council turned away as he advanced, embarrassed as much by his uselessness as by his apparel and frailty. Nevertheless, he had served King Abbator faithfully for some decades. Respect for the old man's past stature commanded the King's attention, although it did not command the Prince's.
"Magister Altimar, welcome," said the King in a tone of patience already somewhat stretched. "You wish to speak? You have some counsel that may free us from our impasse?"
"Free you, Majesty?" replied the impotent sorcerer. "No." The strained wheeze with which he spoke made Prince Bifalt feel that his own breathing was constricted. "You decide nothing. You can decide nothing. You do not know your peril. While you debate and debate, you are lost."
King Abbator stroked his beard to soothe his frustration. "So much we understand, Magister. What we do not know-"
"Consider, Majesty," interrupted Altimar, wheezing. "Such power. The power to deprive an entire realm of sorcery. Who wields such theurgy? Who knows such things are possible?" For a moment, he appeared to drift. Then he coughed to clear his lungs. "None here can answer," he said with an old man's quavering sullenness. "None can name that power. None knows where the answer may be found. You doubt an answer exists."
Exasperated on his father's behalf, Prince Bifalt saw no reason for politeness. "What is your point, old man?" he demanded. He did not like any sorcerer. "We are familiar with our ignorance. We acknowledged it long ago. Now we have left it behind. We must choose our course in spite of it."
"Old man?" The theurgist's head jerked. Angers long burned to ash found embers in his eyes. His lips glistened with phlegm. "You call me old man? I hear your scorn. Yes, I am old. I was old while you were a mewling babe. But I was wise long before your birth. I have wielded powers beyond your foolish imagining. I am Magister Altimar, boy. I have no use now, but I remember. At last, I have remembered. I speak because no other will. No other can."
The King gestured his son to silence. "Then speak, Magister. We have heard counsel from jesters and mountebanks, having none worthy of repetition ourselves. We will surely heed you. Speak of what you can. Relieve our ignorance."
"Old man?" repeated the sorcerer. Petulance had knocked his wits awry. "I did not drag myself up from the depths of memory to be met with disdain. You, boy, deserve your ignorance. You will never escape it."
Again King Abbator commanded Prince Bifalt's silence. Wiser than his son, Belleger's ruler controlled his own vexation. Carefully mild, he replied, "You have not been met with disdain from me, Magister. You will not. Only speak. Tell me what you have remembered."
The frail figure shook himself. After more coughing, he cleared his throat. "Of course, Majesty. Why else have I come?"
Clinging to his staff, he began in a hectoring tone better suited to a hall of apprentices.
"Of Decimates, six are known. Fire, certainly. Wind. The plague of boils. The cracking of the earth. Also a drought that can suck the water from a man, or a company of men, leaving only corpses. And a lightning terrible to contemplate. It shatters stone as easily as wood, and the stone burns. Ask any who were once Magisters. They will tell you that the Decimates of sorcery are six."