Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

Timozel’s eyes, open wide, were sightless with agony. His arms curled at his side, his hands crimped uselessly.

The Dark Man watched impassively. This had to be done, but he hoped that Gorgrael would be able to wield the enchantments so that Timozel would remember nothing of it afterwards. Damn it, Gorgrael is enjoying this. Pity poor Faraday when Gorgrael finally has the chance to get his talons into her.

His claws scraping through bone and flesh, whimpering with pleasure, Gorgrael finally let a bolt of power flood through Timozel’s body. If Timozel was to lead Gorgrael’s army against Axis, then the man needed a well of power like those Gorgrael had given the SkraeBolds. It would contain only the minutest fraction of the power that Gorgrael himself commanded, but it would be more, far more than the SkraeBolds enjoyed. Timozel needed to be able to control the SkraeBolds as well.

“Feel it!” Gorgrael hissed ecstatically, wriggling and pulling Timozel more firmly against his own body. “Feel it!”

Somewhere in a dark corner of his mind that wasn’t totally consumed by pain Timozel faintly heard Gorgrael’s words, and, even more faintly, could feel something warm and dark writhing in his belly. Feel it.

This darkness suddenly, unbelievably, flared into such firebarbed agony that Timozel finally found the breath to cry out. He arched his body, flung back his head and shrieked, and shrieked, and then shrieked once more.

“Yes!” Gorgrael groaned, then retracted his claws and let Timozel fall to the floor, dark blood streaming from the dreadful wounds in his chest.

Timozel drifted out of the blackness that had claimed him. He felt incredibly relaxed, and a feeling of such well-being flooded him that he tried to hold on to the blackness. He smiled, savouring the sensations. Not even Yr at her best had caused him to feel this satisfied, this replete.

The Dark Man caught Gorgrael’s eye and nodded. You have done better than I expected, my friend. You have excelled yourself. The man will do anything for you now. Anything.

Gorgrael reflectively rubbed one of his tusks with a claw. Good.

Timozel stretched his body, turned his head, smiled, and opened his eyes.

Friend and Gorgrael were seated in grotesquely malcarved chairs before a roaring fire. Both held crystal glasses of wine. Both were gazing benignly at him.

Timozel smiled at them. “What happened?”

“I have accepted you into my service,” Gorgrael said. “See?” He tapped his chest.

Timozel frowned, then realised that Gorgrael wanted him to look at his own chest. He raised himself onto his elbows, noting in some surprise that he only wore his breeches and boots.

On his chest was branded the outline of a clawed hand.

“My mark,” Gorgrael said.

“Then I am proud to wear it, Great Lord,” Timozel said boldly, and he rose to his feet. He had no memory of the assault that had put the mark there.

He felt incredibly well and powerful, and both Gorgrael and the Dark Man smiled at the expression of wonderment on Timozel’s face.

“Already you feel the benefit of my power, Timozel,” Gorgrael said, rising from his chair and moving to what Timozel, even in his sublime state, considered the ugliest sideboard he had ever seen. “Wine?”

Gorgrael held the decanter and shook it slightly in Timozel’s direction.

“Yes,” Timozel said. “Wine would be welcome.” He wondered why he had ever feared this noble creature now standing before him. This was where he was meant to be. This was vision. This was destiny.

Gorgrael handed Timozel a glass of wine and waved him over to a table. “We must plan, Timozel, to bring Axis’ evil house crashing about him and to restore Faraday to the light.”

“With pleasure, Lord,” Timozel said, taking a sip of the wine.

The Dark Man stood and the three toasted their future success.

Gorgrael was prepared to admit that the Dark Man had been right. He had over-reached himself by launching his attack on Gorkenfort two years ago. It had been precipitate and foolish. His SkraeBolds had badly mismanaged the attack on the Earth Tree Grove, as well as the battle above Gorkenfort where so many Skraelings had been destroyed by the emerald fire. But now Gorgrael felt that all the elements he needed to defeat Axis were firmly in his grasp. The last piece had been Timozel, and now Timozel stood here, so tightly bonded to Gorgrael’s service that he would sell his soul … no! Gorgrael almost laughed out loud, Timozel would now gladly sell Faraday’s soul to ensure his master’s victory!

“Enough,” he said, startling the other two. “We must plan. Timozel, let me tell you about the army you will command.”

For the next hour Gorgrael spoke, and Timozel’s excitement rose. What a force the Great Lord was handing him! Over the past year Gorgrael had been transforming his hordes. The Skraelings were no longer the misty wraiths Timozel had originally seen at Gorkenfort, vulnerable through their eyes. Now they were fully fleshed creatures, so totally encased in bony armour they would be near-impossible to kill.

The IceWorms had been bred larger, more numerous and more mobile.

“The weather is mine,” Gorgrael said finally. “I now wield virtually total control over the ice and the wind.”

The Dark Man nodded to himself. That was Gorgrael’s Avar blood coming out in him; with that and his ability to wield the Dark Music, Gorgrael would be able to unleash a frozen hell over most of the northern half of Achar … Tencendor now. The Dark Man was pleased with Gorgrael’s work in this area. Two years ago Gorgrael’s control over the winter had been a haphazard and fragile affair. Now it was almost total.

“Then you would do well to send some of your ice south as soon as you can,” Timozel said.

Gorgrael frowned. “Now?” He had thought Timozel would need at least a week or two to establish his control over the Skraeling force.

“Axis will be sending many of his army north soon, Great Lord. We are lucky that he has not already done so. If you send your ice south now – as far as the Western and Bracken Ranges if you can – then you will freeze those rivers that have caused you such trouble. And if the Nordra freezes, Axis will not be able to move his troops north faster than a crawl.”

“Yes. Yes,” Gorgrael said. “You make a good point.”

Timozel watched his master. He vaguely remembered that once he had thought Gorgrael a creature so frightfully malformed, so disgusting, that his very appearance seemed the personification of evil. Now Gorgrael seemed noble, and his strange appearance only made him appear powerful, not ugly or frightful.

“And your ice spears, Master, why have you not used them again? You tried to murder Axis with them once outside the Barrows of the Enchanter-Talons, and you could perhaps have employed them to your advantage at Gorkenfort. If you use them again, I am confident they will create mayhem among Axis’ force – and think how they could impale the Icarii Strike Force!”

Gorgrael looked embarrassed. “Ahem. Yes, well, I must admit, Timozel, that I badly over-extended myself at the Ancient Barrows. I was not as powerful then as I am now. But I am afraid that I will not be able to use the ice spears again in any case, although they were such a pretty creation.”

“But why, Great Lord, if your power is so much greater now?”

Gorgrael grinned to himself, and the Dark Man smiled too, knowing what Gorgrael was thinking of.

“Because I have one more secret to show you, Timozel. The weapon that will surely destroy Axis and his army.”

He clicked his claws, and Timozel heard a movement in one of the darker corners of the room.

“I will give you an air-borne force, Timozel, that will make the Icarii Strike Force seem pitiful indeed.”

“The Gryphon!” Timozel suddenly remembered the dreadful winged creatures that had flown over Jervois Landing.

“Yes,” Gorgrael said. “The Gryphon. Behold, my pet.”

The Gryphon that now crawled on its belly towards them was much larger, her lion’s body more powerfully built, than the original Gryphon Gorgrael and the Dark Man had created between them. As she approached Timozel she dipped her eagle’s head in subservience.

The Dark Man managed to stop himself swearing in surprise. This was not the Gryphon that he and Gorgrael had made!

Gorgrael peered at the Dark Man slyly. “I lost another of the SkraeBolds in the WildDog Plains, Dear Man. With its decomposing flesh I made another Gryphon. Only larger, more powerfully built. More intelligent.”

“And it breeds?” the Dark Man asked, his voice harsh.

“As do its pups,” Gorgrael said, more than pleased at the Dark Man’s surprise. “As do its pups.”