The Worlds of the Sheaf

     The Rossem Project is close to success, and will allow a hand picked expedition to explore other worlds, searching for the threat that faces the planet Tharia, but as they begin their mission they discover that there are many other threats out there, and that the one they originally feared may be the very least of them...

Extract from The Worlds of the Sheaf.

 

     The gem steed screeched as it banked around for a landing, the man sitting in the saddle pulling on the reins to guide it towards the roof of the palace and the landing platform that had been built there. In the streets below, crowds were gathering as people stared up at the fabulous creature filling the sky above them, its leathery, batlike wings stretched wide on either side of its long, serpentine body, its huge, horned head turning one way, then the other as it searched for familiar landmarks. Its scales were a glossy brick red, gleaming in the light of the two suns, and its wings were a darker red, but the skin was stretched so thin between the long supporting digits that when it passed in front of the yellow sun the brilliant globe was visible through it, illuminating a tracery of tendons and blood vessels. Its ivory coloured horns were polished and tipped with silver, and bright pennants trailed from the dragon leather saddle, fluttering in the creature's wake.

     The gem steeds were becoming a familiar sight across the city and the surrounding countryside. The sight of them was a reminder that, after long centuries of tyranny under the cruel thumb of Khalkedon, the rak King, the city of Domandropolis was now free, the citizens free to live their lives however they wished, within the law, their freedoms protected by the Gem Lords, the seven wizards who now ruled them and guarded them against their enemies. In neighbouring cities and their surrounding territories, however, the sight of a gem steed brought only fear, being a reminder of the power of the Gem Lords and of the treaties their rulers had signed with the city of the seven wizards. The Gods alone help them, they knew, if the creators of those fabulous flying creatures found evidence of the plotting and scheming that went on between the enemies of Domandropolis, cities that had once fought each other as viciously as they'd once fought Khalkedon but which were now holding an uneasy truce as they warily regarded their powerful new neighbour.

     The gem steed screeched again as its rider steered it away from the palace, deciding at the last minute to take it straight to its stables himself rather than entrusting the task to the waiting groom. It would delay his arrival at the palace, but the bond that had grown between himself and his mount left him extremely reluctant to allow anyone else in its saddle, even for the couple of minutes the flight would take. He would take the steed home himself, see it personally to its stall, and only when he'd seen for himself that it was being well looked after, properly fed and watered, would he summon a carriage to take him back to the palace, to the business that had brought him back to the city.

     The steed came in for a landing in the central courtyard of the massive new building that had been built to house it and its brethren, the stables that occupied what had recently been the city's worst slum district, cleared by order of the Gem Lords, its occupants rehoused and given well paid work on the new construction. Now working as stablehands, they backed away as the huge creature flapped its wings madly, lowering its massive, legless body gently onto the sawdust covered floor, and Lord Ruby waited only long enough for the dust to settle before jumping down out of the saddle and walking around to the huge head. He patted it fondly just behind the curve of the jaw, speaking words of praise and companionship, and the creature's eyes closed to slits as it luxuriated in the praise, hissing with pleasure. "Make sure you take good care of him," he said to the servant who came forward to take the serpentine creature's reins.

     "As always, master," the man assured him, and Lord Ruby eyed him carefully for a moment, to make sure he meant it, before nodding and striding away towards the carriage that always stood there, waiting for whichever of the city's ruling wizards might need it. Behind him, the servant led the slithering steed to one of the huge stables, each of which was the size of an aircraft hanger. Beside it, other stables contained similar creatures, each with a slightly different colouration to its scales and wings. One was tinged a light sky blue, another had the greyish green hue of its natural ancestor, while a third, the largest of them, was a glossy, satanic black, with horns that curved back behind its head and down on either side of its sturdy neck. Lord Sapphire hadn't meant for this one to be stronger and fiercer than the others, but vitamorphosis was inherently unpredictable in nature and that was just the way it had turned out.

     The carriage arrived at the palace ten minutes later, not even having to slow down as the golden gates opened wide at its approach, and gaily liveried guards saluted as it clattered past into the grounds contained within the walls. Housemen came out to greet him as it stopped in front of the west entrance, the largest and most magnificent of the building's many entrances, but the Gem Lord ignored them as he swept past, into the building, along corridors and up stairs until he reached his own quarters. It took him two hours to clean himself up, assisted by his manservants, refresh himself from his journey and change clothes, and then he set off again, for the chamber in which the other Gem Lords would be waiting for him. He was dressed entirely in shades of red, from his richly embroidered tunic to his tight breeches that showed off every curve and muscle of his legs. On his left wrist he wore a large red jewel that glowed and pulsed with its own internal light, but probably the first thing anyone would have noticed about him were his eyes. They glowed red like fiery coals, as if the fires of a furnace blazed inside his head. One almost expected to see smoke issuing from his eye sockets! When he was angry, or in the grip of battle fury, those eyes would blaze like windows into Hell, and few men could stand to face them without quaking in their boots, but for the moment he was in a lighter mood and humming a tune as he strolled along oak paneled and richly tapestried corridors towards the conference room, the room where the rulers of the city made all their most important decisions.

     The other wizards had been informed of the red wizard's arrival and were already there, waiting for him. The conference room was a large, airy chamber that looked out over the winter garden, two floors below. Enna Mael, a strikingly beautiful blonde woman dressed all in white, was looking out through one of the high windows at the formal hedgerows and tree lined avenues, watching a group of gardeners chasing the last of the autumn leaves, but she turned when she heard the door open and crossed the room to stand by the table with the others. "Well?" she demanded. "How was our proposition received?"

     Barl Hobson, the red wizard, also known as Lord Ruby, ignored her for the time being and turned instead to a man dressed all in blue, whose wrist was adorned by a large blue sapphire that glowed as brightly as Barl's ruby. They all wore gemstones on their wrists, each a different colour. Emerald, diamond, jet, ruby, opal, pearl and sapphire. Each contained powerful magics that linked them inseparably to that wizard's soul, spells that had been cast by Khalkedon the rak King, their former master and former ruler of the city. It had been his way of controlling his thralls, giving him the power to destroy any of them who dared to oppose him, but they'd risen up against him nevertheless and found a way to destroy him, taking possession of their gems to safeguard them and, thereby, their own lives. Two of the Gem Lords had been killed during that battle, but the gem stones had absorbed their souls, saving them from death until clerics could repair their bodies and bring them back to life, and the seven lords had been wondering ever since whether they were immortal. It was an exciting thought, but a little scary as well, as Lord Sapphire, the blue wizard, was beginning to realise.