War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 01

War Maid’s Choice

By David Weber


Cables of blue-white lightning, tangled with knots of livid green, streaked down the ebon heavens, crashing to earth in a coruscating circle around the stupendous, many-turreted structure. The shortest of those turrets towered hundreds of feet above the endless, smooth pavement stretching away in every direction as far as any mortal eye might have seen, and the glare of lightning danced and glittered from the mirror smooth obsidian of which the enormous palace had been built. Or formed, perhaps. There were no tool marks, no lines between blocks of masonry, on that titanic façade, and the light — such as it was — that glowed from its narrow window slits was a pestilential green, less brilliant than the corruption of that lightning yet more sullen, more…poisonous.

Fresh lightning hammered down, replenishing the glaring circle, feeding it, keeping it alive while thunder echoed and rolled and bellowed. Each braided strand lit the purple-bellied clouds from within, momentarily etching their swirling depths upon the eye, and strange, unclean shapes flew in those briefly illuminated deeps. One of those shapes plummeted from the clouds, sweeping lower, riding through the chinks of darkness between the lightning’s pickets. Larger it grew, and larger, insectlike head armed with brutal pincers, enormous bat wings and mighty talons throwing back the glare of lightning until it seemed gilded in the eye-tearing fury of the seething heavens.

At the very last moment it flared its wings and settled upon the balcony of the very highest turret, a thousand feet and more above the lightning-crowned pavement. The size of that obsidian palace dwarfed even its stature, and a rider stepped from its back to the balcony and disappeared within.

More lightning sizzled and howled out of the darkness, smashing into the earth with redoubled ferocity, bolt following bolt, driving that circle of fury higher and brighter as if that flying shape’s arrival had been a signal, and perhaps it had.

* * *

The throne room was impossibly vast.

It couldn’t possibly have been as large as it seemed, and yet it was. In some way no mortal could have described, it was vaster than whole worlds and yet small enough the purple-cloaked figure which swept into it could cross it in no more than a dozen strides, and a strange perfume — sweet and seductive, yet undergird by the scent of something long dead — drifted on its air. The newcomer ignored the six others who had been gathered there, awaiting his arrival. He stalked past them, ascending the high throne against the huge chamber’s rear wall and seated himself, and the wan, green radiance which had filled the room flared abruptly higher and brighter as he sat. A nimbus of deadly green fire hissed above his hooded head, and balls of the same lurid radiance crackled into existence high overhead, dancing and swirling beneath the soaring, vaulted ceiling like lost galaxies trapped in the throne room’s miasma of incense.

Like the palace itself, the throne was a single, seamlessly extruded outcropping of obsidian, but this obsidian was veined with gold, and its surface glittered with diamonds, emeralds, and precious gems. The arms ended in carven demon’s faces, each encrusted with more gold, more gems, and each held a mangled, dismembered body in its fangs. Rubies dripped from their jaws in glittering, lovingly detailed streams of blood, and a huge, haughty face looked down from the wall above the throne, etched across the stone in bas-relief and glittering with still more gold. As the figure seated upon the throne threw back the hood of his cloak, the face which was revealed matched that upon the wall.

Phrobus Orfro, once the seventh son of Orr All-Father and Kontifrio, gazed down upon his chosen mate and their children, and his expression was not a happy one.

“I wonder, sometimes, which of you is the least competent,” he said abruptly. “The competition is so fierce I can’t make up my mind between you.”

His voice was deep, beautifully modulated, yet something seemed to scream somewhere inside those resonant, perfectly articulated tones, and only one of the six beings gathered before him returned his glare levelly. Krashnark Phrofro stood with square shoulders, arms crossed, refusing to cringe, and Phrobus’ eyes glittered. Yet he let the defiance — if such it was — pass. Krashnark was the strongest of his children, the only one who might have openly challenged his own position, but there was scant fear of that. Not from Krashnark. There was no lack of ambition or surfeit of mercy in his second son, and he was the most powerful of all of Phrobus children. Yet that strength was hobbled by his perverse, inner code of honor. He neither gave nor asked quarter, but his oath was unbreakable, which was why Phrobus felt no fear of Krashnark’s rebellion, for he had sworn fealty to his father. It was unthinkable that he might raise his hand against Phrobus after swearing that oath…and none of the others, not even — or perhaps especially — ShÄ«gÅ« would ever have dared.

“All of you know the stakes for which we play,” he continued, “yet none of you seems capable of accomplishing even the simplest task.”

“In fairness, Father,” one of his other children said, raising her head and using one hand to draw glorious red hair back from her face to reveal pupil-less eyes as black as his throne’s obsidian, “that isn’t precisely correct. Things have gone…poorly in several universes. That’s unfortunately true, but we’ve succeeded in others.”

Her voice was calm, respectful, yet pointed, and Phrobus gritted his teeth. Carnadosa was his youngest child, and although she’d been careful not to say it, many of those other successes had been her doing — a point she obviously wasn’t above making by not making it. Yet not even a god or a goddess could deal with all the possible alternative realities of every potential universe. There had to be some division of labor, and in all too many of those realities which Carnadosa — and Krashnark — had not overseen, Phrobus’ plans had failed catastrophically. He could feel his other children’s, and his wife’s, hatred seething like the lightning outside his palace as they glared at Carnadosa for underlining their failures, yet they dared not speak.

“Yes,” he said after a moment. “We have succeeded in some, but we’ve failed in far too many others. We can afford no more losses, especially in those where victory had seemed within our grasp. Too much hangs on what happens there, which is the reason your accursed uncle is striving hard to snatch them back from us, yet none of you seem capable of stopping him. I’ve looked into the future, Carnadosa. If we fail to stop this slide of events in the Light’s favor, if Tomanāk’s successes continue, our power — the power of all of us — may suffer catastrophic damage.”

He paused, letting the implications sink into all of his listeners. It wasn’t as if they shouldn’t have been able to figure out for themselves just how dire their situation might become, but sometimes they needed to be shaken by the scruff of their collective necks before they could step back from their plotting and mutual betrayals long enough to really think about the nature of their struggle with the Gods of Light.