Omar Bakhoum, a wandering scholar and deadly swordsman, wants to live forever. So he leaves his vast and mysterious empire behind to join a dangerous airship expedition to the glaciers of Europa where he hopes to find a mythical island. There he can continue his studies of the aether mist that reveals the souls of the dead and unlock the secrets of immortality. But howling storms, rampaging beasts, and deadly samurai warriors stand between him and his goal.
Armed only with an aetherium blade, Omar has more than a weapon, he has an army. Locked within the sword are the souls of countless warriors and scholars, each of whom lend Omar their knowledge or skills when asked... or when forced. But when Omar is accused of murder over the north sea, his quest for answers may end in a watery grave.
I first had the pleasure of working with Joseph Lewis when he wrote a short story for an anthology of tales set in my world of Feyland. His writing is a delight, whether he's writing epic elves or steampunk adventures. Legend of the Skyfire Stone blends the derring-do of Indiana Jones with a wonderfully re-imagined alternate history Europe.– Anthea Sharp
"A perfect blend of fantasy, history, mystery, mythology and heroines I would love for my daughter to look up to!"– Gary H.
"The promise of this story WILL make you want to read more!"– Amazon reader
Omar Bakhoum stepped down off the train before it stopped rolling and he surveyed the crowded platform beneath an evening sky stained the color of iron and rust.
One small step closer to Ysland and to unlocking all the mysteries of life, death, and the universe. At last!
The city air stung his nostrils with the mingled scents of sea salt, rotting fish, burnt oil, and dung. The train squealed to a halt behind him, and he heard a chorus of voices rise from his fellow travelers, the men and women from Carthage who spoke more dialects of Mazigh and Eranian than even he could recognize.
As he emerged from the Tingis train station, Omar noted the sun riding low in the western sky beyond a veil of gray clouds and a smoky haze that clung to the city like a filthy spider's web. The street teemed with bodies in motion. Women in fashionable business suits marched in pairs sharing newspapers. Men in sweat-stained rags staggered beneath crates and barrels on their backs. Striped zebras trotted along with small carts in tow, and mighty spotted sivatheras promenaded proudly with their elaborate carriages rolling smartly behind them. Long brass trolley cars trundled down their tracks with bells clanging and wires sparking. And through the surging tide of people and vehicles, tiny children darted laughing through the streets, dodging wildly in and out of traffic.
Omar paused to look up the hill behind him. Above the train station was another, larger facility where three massive hangars stood wall-to-wall beside a wide grassy field ringed in tall white poles.
Mooring masts. So that's a Mazigh airfield. But it's a bit late in the day for introductions, I think. Tomorrow, then.
He looked back down the busy boulevard in front of him as a pair of children collided with his leg. His left hand darted to his sword to pin the weapon in place while his right hand snatched the collar of the closest child and held the boy at arm's length. Omar smiled into the boy's terrified eyes. "You should learn to be faster and quieter if you want to prosper as a thief, little one."
The boy swallowed and nodded.
"You need practice. Are there any stray cats in this place?"
The boy nodded again.
"Good. You should practice sneaking up on the cats. When you can catch a cat, you can catch a purse. All right?" He grinned and let the boy go. The boy stood there a moment, then darted away into the street again.
Omar set out. His thin sandals let him feel every bump in the cobblestones, but his heavy green robes kept out the wintry sea breeze. At the next intersection he paused to run his thumb down the black and gray stubble along his jaw, and then he turned left away from the Tingis harbor.
He soon found himself on another busy street lined with houses of lodging and places to eat, but these were not the rude inns and taverns of his home in Alexandria. Before him stood the gleaming brass and glass facades of Mazigh hotels and Mazigh restaurants, all staffed by smiling young Mazigh men and women in matching uniforms, all bearing food on trays and rolling suitcases on well-oiled trolleys. Omar stepped up to the window of the first restaurant on his left and peered inside at the carefully arranged tables and the overdressed patrons eating with a baffling array of utensils and speaking in such low voices that he couldn't imagine that any of them could follow what the other was saying. His gaze fell on the menu posted in the window just in front of him, and as he did not recognize any of the dishes listed, he turned away to select a hotel instead.
His command of the Mazigh tongue was out of practice, but with a bit of effort he was able to ask several ladies in the street for a recommendation, and they pointed him in the direction of a tall brick building called The Imperial. Smirking to himself at the presumption of the name, Omar stepped inside and found the interior far brighter than the evening street outside. Electric lights glowed in regular intervals along the walls and countless mirrored panels reflected the lights over and over again across the foyer.
The uniformed woman at the desk winced at the sight of his sword and his sandaled feet, and she stared down at them longer than Omar thought polite. But she took his money and gave him the key for room number seven, and a minute later he was sitting on the third softest bed he had ever encountered in his very long life. Smiling, he lay down on the thick blankets. His stomach growled.
He went downstairs and followed the sounds of plates and glasses to a small bar at the back of the hotel, and there he successfully negotiated the bartender into finding him a plate of roasted chicken, chickpeas, and dates. After supper he slipped out the back door into a wide alley blissfully empty and nearly silent. Only the soft rumble of the evening's traffic echoed from the street in front of the hotel. Sitting on a sturdy crate, he slipped his pipe from a pocket inside his left sleeve, tapped down a few leaves in its bowl, and set them alight with a Puntish match.
As Omar inhaled the sweet scent of the herbs, he heard a footstep echo from the end of the alley. The stranger walked slowly and confidently with the weight of a grown man, and he made the sharp clacking of an easterner wearing wooden sandals.
The clacking stopped.
Omar exhaled slowly, watching the smoke curl up through the air. "You're a long way from home, little brother." He turned to look at the stranger. "A very long way."
The stranger was short and lean, his spare body hidden within his long brown and white robes. Below his flowing trousers, the man's bare feet rested on a pair of wooden geta sandals that lifted him several inches above the cobblestones. His hands were hidden inside his voluminous sleeves, which swayed softly around the two swords belted at his waist. He wore no beard, and dark brown eyes stared out from an expressionless face. A straight white scar ran from his left cheek down to his lip, but it failed to twist his mouth into an unpleasant shape. And his dark brown hair was tied back in a single tail that hung to his shoulders.
Omar squinted at him. "I suppose you know who I am."
"You are Bakhoum-dono of the Temple of Osiris," the man said, bowing his head. "I am Ito Daisuke, samurai of the Temple of Amaterasu."
Omar nodded wearily.
A Tiger from our brothers in Nippon. I'd hoped to never see one again. So much for hope.
"What can I do for you, little brother?"
"I have come to challenge the great Master of Alexandria."
Omar took another long draught from his little pipe, and then set it aside on the crate as he stood up and stepped into the center of the alley. "I'm not sure that it would prove much if you were to beat an old man like me. And I really don't want to fight you. Are you quite sure about this?"
Omar coughed and cleared his throat, and then rested his right hand on the hilt of his sword. As he touched the pommel, a soft tide of voices filled his mind and a sea of dim faces appeared before him, floating in midair all around the alleyway stretching out in every direction. Some of the ghosts looked angry or frightened, and some of them were shouting at him, demanding his attention, but Omar ignored them all as he locked eyes with the shade of a grim young man dressed in Old Persian blue silks with a slender scimitar on his hip.
The shadowy youth nodded at him and with a weary voice he said, I am ready to serve as always, Master Bakhoum.
Omar nodded back, but for once he was not entirely certain that the ghost of the young gladiator would be equal to the task at hand. After all, young Merik's skills were over one thousand years out of date. Still, Omar focused on the living samurai and squared his shoulders. "All right then, little brother. Whenever you're ready."
The Tiger of Amaterasu turned his body, set his feet, and rested his right hand on the hilt of the shorter of his two swords. Omar watched his opponent's eyes, knowing he would see no doubt, no fear, nothing at all. And he didn't.
This is going to hurt.
Daisuke drew his sword and struck in a single fluid motion faster than Omar's eye could follow. His blade shone like molten gold in the shadows of the alley, painting the walls in splashes of amber light. The dead gladiator Merik guided Omar's hand, and Omar drew his own sword straight up to block the samurai's blow. The tip of the golden sword shattered off as the two blades connected.
Instantly the samurai's blade fell dim and dull, the steel fading to cold gray as a pale aetheric fume billowed up from the broken tip. But Omar's sword, identical in shape and size, blazed with a perfect white light that bleached all color from the two men and the stone walls around them. Omar reached out to slowly swipe his blade through the smoke rising from his opponent's weapon, and the vapors swirled into his gleaming white sword, which brightened slightly as it inhaled the fumes and those souls caught in the aether riptide.
Daisuke dropped his broken sword as a thin hint of anger rippled over his scarred lip. His eyes narrowed as he reached for his second, longer sword.
"It's done," Omar said. "I hope you found whatever it was you were looking for."
But the man in brown drew back into his stance once more, his hand resting on his undrawn weapon.
"Don't be foolish, little brother." Omar lowered his shining sword to his side. The bright blade hissed and sparked with tiny electric arcs, and the air around it boiled in a rippling cloud that would have steamed were the air not so dry. "Your swordsmanship is excellent. If we had fought with plain steel, you would have killed me easily. But you cannot break my seireiken. Look at it."
The samurai's eyes remained fixed on Omar's face.
"Look at it!"
Daisuke's eyes flickered down for a brief moment and then back up again. "Yes. I can see now that I never had any chance of winning in a contest of seireiken. Mine contained a mere five hundred souls. Yours must contain several thousand."
Omar nodded. "Yes, it does. Plus most of your five hundred, now."
"Then why is your hand on your other sword, little brother?"
"Because I did not travel halfway around the world merely to fight one of the Sons of Osiris for power or honor. I came here because I have been told you possess that which we all seek. The ultimate truth, the ultimate mastery. The secret of eternal life."
Omar smiled sadly and glanced up at the darkening sky. "So you came to kill me for it?"
"I came to claim your soul, and with it, the knowledge you possess."
"That will be difficult now, without your seireiken."
"Quite." The samurai slowly drew out his plain steel katana and presented it in an unorthodox one-handed grip. "So now I shall slay you, claim your seireiken, and capture your soul with it."
Omar shook his head. "You're making a mistake, little brother. Don't do it. Walk away. If you don't leave now, you're just throwing your life away."
"Perhaps. We will know in a moment." Ito Daisuke rotated his foot slightly, his geta sandal grinding on the cobblestones. And then he struck.
His katana flashed in a lightning stroke and Omar barely stumbled back in time to avoid it. With the ghost Merik's guidance, he raised his blazing white seireiken to hold his opponent at bay, but Daisuke ignored it entirely, checking and turning each slash to avoid touching the burning sword. The silvery katana slashed again and again, each cut perfectly executed at the eyes, at the knees, down the arm, up the leg, and all the while the Tiger of Amaterasu stared at him without a trace of emotion, without a shred of passion.
Omar reeled back, trying over and over to block the attacks, but each time the katana would slip around the seireiken, never making contact with the scorching hot sun-steel roiling with the heat of thousands of stolen souls. And without any contact, the battle proceeded in near silence, broken only by the grunts of the men and the shuffling of their feet.
Daisuke's assault was relentless, and if anything it was growing faster. No longer just retreating, Omar began jogging backward as he ducked and reeled, his deadly sword all but useless in his tired hand. He scanned the sea of ghostly faces around him, wondering if any of them could help him now, but they were mostly dead scholars and priests and physicians, not warriors. Merik was the best he had, and today Merik was not good enough.
Not nearly good enough.
It only took the samurai a few moments to slip past the older man's faltering defense. The first cut sliced just above Omar's left knee, setting his skin on fire and dashing a bit of his blood against the alley wall to his left. He stumbled.
The second cut flew up his right arm, racing around his bright seireiken and gashing him from elbow to shoulder. Omar gasped and clutched the wound with his left hand. And for a moment, he looked down at the blood staining his sleeve and streaming down his arm.
In that moment of distraction, the katana's long steel blade slammed through his chest. Omar gasped, his eyes bulging, his scream stillborn on his dry lips as he struggled to breathe, but he had no breath left. The pain stole the wind from his lungs, stole the strength from his legs, and stole the sight from his eyes, leaving him in a white haze as he toppled over backwards onto the hard stones at the end of the alley.
That was almost as bad as being trampled by a horse. Almost. But a horse has more than one hoof.
A moment later his eyes recovered enough to see the sheer walls of the buildings to his right and left rising up to meet the evening sky where angry clouds burned with shades of violet and crimson. He saw the dark figure of Ito Daisuke walk up beside him and stare down at him through cold, expressionless eyes as he pulled his sword from Omar's chest.
The samurai inclined his head. "And now we know, Bakhoum-dono."
With painful deliberation, Omar bared his teeth in a smile and whispered, "There was never any doubt, little brother." And with a flick of his wrist, he swung up his seireiken to cut the Tiger in the ankle.
The samurai's eyes widened the barest fraction, so little that Omar might have imagined it. But then the man's eyes dimmed, his jaw went slack, and his body toppled over to the ground.
Omar inhaled slowly, feeling his lungs expanding whole and strong once again. He sat up and looked through the gash in his right sleeve to see his bloody skin already knitting back together just as the wound in his chest closed itself. The cut across his knee was already gone without leaving the slightest scar to mark its passing.
"Well, I may have the secret of eternal life, little brother, but it's not pretty," Omar muttered. He fished the little golden pendant from inside his clothes, inspected its wrinkled and veined surface, and then tucked it away again. "Cheating death hurts more than you'd think. But it's still worth killing for, I suppose."
No blood stained the samurai's leg where the seireiken had cut him. Daisuke's flesh had been seared at the moment it touched the blistering sun-steel, but the brief contact had been enough for the seireiken to draw out the aether in the man's blood, and his soul along with it. A few pale yellow flames danced on the dead man's trousers and Omar reached over to smother them with his own sleeve. Sighing, he leaned back again.
"Are you in there, little brother?" Omar gripped his sword tightly, summoning the vast sea of ghostly faces again. He sifted through the voices of the sages and priests, past the thieves and murderers, and through the strange group of newcomers from Daisuke's sword, until finally he found Daisuke himself. The samurai's soul felt like a cold void in the dead congregation, but then the shade with the scarred lip whispered:
I understand now, Bakhoum-dono.
"You beat my gladiator, and he was the strongest warrior I had." Omar smiled briefly and sadly. "So I'll be wanting your swordsmanship, little brother, sooner or later. I hope you'll offer your skills freely. The alternative will be… unpleasant. For you."