Croaker spoke to assembled Company:
“In olden times the outfit consisted entirely of black soldiers. Thus the name. Its slow drift northward has seen not only its diminution but a shift in its makeup. One-Eye is the black man with us today.”
“We are the last of the Twelve True Companies. We have out-endured the others by more than a century, but I fear we’re into our twilight days. I fear this may be the Company’s final commission. A page of history is about to turn. Once it does, the great warrior brotherhoods will be gone and forgotten.”
But Croaker was wrong...
The first volume of THE BLACK COMPANY series
The children had been sent to watch the road. Rumor said the Lady meant to break the Rebel movement in Tally province. And here her soldiers came. Closer now. Grim, hard-looking men. Veterans.
“It’s them!” the boy gasped. Fear and awe filled his voice. Grudging admiration edged it. “That’s the Black Company.” He touched the girl’s wrist. “Let’s go.” They scurried through the weeds.
A shadow lay upon their path. They looked and went pale. Three horsemen stared down at them. The boy gaped. Nobody could have slipped up unheard. “Goblin!”
The small, frog-faced man in the middle grinned. “At your service, laddy-boy.”
The boy was terrified. He shouted, “Run!” If his sister could escape... Goblin made a circular gesture. Pale pink fire tangled his fingers. He made a throwing motion. The boy fell, fighting invisible bonds like a fly caught in a spider’s web. His sister whimpered.
“Pick them up,” Goblin told his companions. “They should tell an interesting tale.”
The second volume of THE BLACK COMPANY trilogy.
There was an instant of utter stillness when the boundary reached me. Then a roar out of hell. The winds inside were ferocious. I thought of nothing but getting down and hanging on. Around me gear was flying about, changing shape as it flew. Then I spied Goblin. And nearly threw up.
Goblin indeed. His head had swelled ten times normal size. The rest of him looked inside out. Around him swarmed a horde of the parasites that live on a windwhale’s back, some as big as pigeons.
Tracker and Toadkiller Dog were worse. The mutt had become something half as big as an elephant, fanged, possessed of the most evil eyes I’ve ever seen. He looked at me with a starved lust that chilled my soul. And Tracker had become something demonic, vaguely apelike yet certainly much more. Both looked like creatures from an artist’s or sorcerer’s nightmares.
“Gentleman, the silver spike is loose in the world. It’s not the Dominator. He’s dead. But the undying black essence that drove him remains. And that could be used by an adept to summon, coerce, and shape powers even I cannot begin to fathom. That spike could become a conduit to the very heart of darkness, an opener of the way that would confer upon its possessor powers perhaps exceeding even those the Dominator possessed.”
“Our mission, our holy mission, given the White Rose by Old Father Tree himself, is to recover the silver spike and deliver it for safekeeping, at whatever cost to ourselves, before someone of power seizes upon it and shapes it to his own dark purposes and is, in his turn, shaped-perhaps into a shadow so deep there would be no chance ever for the world to win free.”
Half of winning a battle is showmanship.
The pink point grew up fast and shed light on the river. There must have been forty boats sneaking towards us. They had extended their croc hide protection in hopes of shedding fire bombs.
I was glowing and breathing fire. Bet I made a hell of a sight from over there.
The nearest boats were ten feet away. I saw the ladder boxes and grinned behind my croc teeth. I had guessed right.
I threw my hands up, then down. A single bomb arced out to shatter the nearest boat.
The trap was almost too good. Fire sucked most of the air away and heated what was left till it was almost unbearable. The survivors had no stomach left for combat. That was the first wave, a distant rattle announced the second wave. I was laying for these guys, too.
There were only five candidates now. The idol had moved. Its raised foot had fallen, crushing one of the heads. Its other foot had risen. The body of the man who had been two to my left lay beneath it. His head, held by the hair, dangled from one of the idol’s hands. Before the lights had gone out that hand had clutched a bunch of bones. Another hand that had clutched a sword still did so, but now that blade glistened. There was blood on the idol’s lips and chin and fangs. Its eyes gleamed.
How had they managed it? Was there some mechanical engine inside the idol? Had the priest and his assistant done the murder? They would have had to move fast.
The priests seemed startled, too.
“Let me tell you who I am, on the chance that these scribblings do survive...
I am Murgen, standardbearer of the Black Company, though I bear the shame of having lost that standard in battle. I am keeping these annals because Croaker is dead, One-Eye won’t, and hardly anyone else can read or write. I will be your guide for however long it takes the Shadowlanders to force our present predicament to its inevitable end...
I expect these writings to blow away on a dark wind, never to be touched by another eye. Or they might become the tinder Shadowspinner uses to light the pyre under the last man he murders after taking Dejagore...”
The wind whines and howls with bitter breath. Lightning snarls and barks. Rage is an animate force upon the plain of glittering stone. Even shadows are afraid.
At the heart of the plain stands a vast grey stronghold, unknown, older than any written memory. One ancient tower has collapsed across the fissure in the plain. From the fastness comes a great, deep, slow beat like that of a slumbering world-heart, cracking the olden silence.
Death is eternity. Eternity is stone. Stone is silence.
Stone cannot speak but stone remembers.
Something like a flaming tiger burst out of nowhere. It leaped at Goblin. A shadow drifted in from the side. It flicked something long and thin that looped around the little wizard’s neck.
One-Eye’s cane came down on Narayan’s wrist hard enough to crack bone. The living saint of the Strangler lost his rumel, which flew across the cellar.
One-Eye’s off hand tossed something over Goblin’s head, toward the source of the tiger. A ghostly light floated up like a wisp of luminescent swamp gas. It moved suddenly, enveloping a young woman. She began to slap at herself, trying to wipe it off.
Goblin did something quick, while she was distracted. She collapsed. “Goddamn! Goddamn! It worked. I’m a genius. Admit it. I’m a fucking genius.”
“Who’s a genius? Who came up with the plan?”
“Plan? What plan? Success is in the details, runt. Who came up with the details? Any damned fool could’ve said let’s go catch them two.”
Both men tied limbs as they nattered.
“Don’t hit him so hard. You want him to walk out of here under his own power.”
“You talking to me? What the hell you doing with... get your hand out of there, you old pervert.”
“I’m putting a control amulet over her heart, you dried-up old turd. So she won’t embarrass us before we get her home.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure you are. But why don’t I look on the bright side? At least you’re interested in girls again. She built as nice as her mother?”
“Watch your mouth.”
As Soldiers Live opens, no Black Company member has died in battle for four years. Croaker figures it can't last. He's right.
For, of course, many of the Company's old adversaries are still around. Narayan Singh and his adopted daughter — actually the offspring of Croaker and Lady — hope to bring about the apocalyptic Year of the Skulls. Other old enemies like Longshadow and Howler are also ready to do the Company harm. And much of the Company is still recovering from the fifteen years many of them spent in a stasis field.
Then a report arrives of an old enemy newly active again. It attacks them at a shadowgate — setting off a chain of events that will bring the Company to the edge of apocalypse and, as usual, several steps beyond.