In those days the Black Company did not exist. This I know because there were laws and decrees that told me so. But I did not feel entirely insubstantial.
The Company standard, its Captain and Lieutenant, its Standardbearer and all the men who had made the Company so terrible, had passed on, having been buried alive at the heart of a vast desert of stone. "Glittering stone," they whispered in the streets and alleys of Taglios, and "Gone to Khatovar," they proclaimed from on high, the mighty making what they had been so determined to prevent for so long over into a great triumph once the Radisha or Protector or somebody decided that people ought to believe that the Company had fulfilled its destiny.
Anyone old enough to remember the Company knew better. Only fifty people had ventured out onto that plain of glittering stone. Half of those people had not been Company. Only two of those fifty had returned to lie about what had happened. And a third who had come back to retail the truth had been killed in the Kiaulune wars, far away from the capital. But the deceits of Soulcatcher and Willow Swan fooled no one, then or now. People simply pretended to believe them because that was safer.
They might have asked why Mogaba needed five years to conquer a Company that had passed on, squandering thousands of young lives to bring the Kiaulune domains under the Radisha’s rule and into the realm of the Protector’s twisted truths. They might have mentioned that people claiming to be Black Company had held out in the fortress Overlook for years after that, until the Protector, Soulcatcher, finally became so impatient with their intransigence that she invested her own best sorceries in a two- year project that reduced that huge fortress to white powder, white rubble and white bones. They might have raised these points. But they remained silent instead. They were afraid. With cause, they were afraid.
The Taglian empire under the Protectorate is an empire of fear.
During the years of defiance, one unknown hero won Soulcatcher’s eternal hatred by sabotaging the Shadowgate, the sole gateway to the glittering plain. Soulcatcher was the most powerful sorcerer alive. She might have become a Shadowmaster to eclipse those monsters the Company had pulled down during its earlier wars on Taglios’ behalf. But with the Shadowgate sealed she could not conjure killer shadows more powerful than the few score she had controlled when she worked her treachery on the Company.
Oh, she could open the Shadowgate. One time. She did not know how to close it again, though. Meaning everything inside would be free to wriggle out and begin tormenting the world.
Meaning that for Soulcatcher, party to so few of the secrets, the choice must be all or very little. The end of the world or making do.
For the moment she is making do. And pursuing continuous researches. She is the Protector. Fear of her steeps the empire. There are no challenges to her terror. But even she knows this age of dark concord cannot endure.
In their homes, in the shadowed alleyways, in the city’s ten thousand temples, nervous whispers never cease. The Year of the Skulls. The Year of the Skulls. It is an age when no gods die and those that sleep keep stirring restlessly.
In their homes, in the shadowed alleyways or fields of grain or in the sodden paddies, in the pastures and forests and tributary cities, should a comet be seen in the sky or should an unseasonable storm strew devastation or, particularly, if the earth should shake, they murmur, "Water sleeps." And they are afraid.
Excerpted from The Many Deaths of the Black Company by Glen Cook.
Copyright 2009 by Glen Cook.
Published in January 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates.
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