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Authors: James Axler

Palaces of Light

BOOK: Palaces of Light
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Lost vistas

Remnants of America’s past are littered across the postapocalyptic landscape, but little remains of the predark ideals of law and order. Survival is a blood quest, and lethal force the means to power. Still, a handful retains their humanity among thecoldhearts, and in a world where nothing lasts forever, hope is a commodity as precious as jack.

Divide and conquer

Steeped in beauty and mysticism, the canyons of Mesa Verde, Colorado, survived the blast that altered the American west. Hired to track a group of missing children, Ryan Cawdor and his band follow the trail to a legendary city carved in stone, older and stronger than the nukecaust. The inhabitants of the palaces of light are more than warriors and survivors; they are masters of mind games that prey on illusion. And true believers in a metaphysical end game poised to push the companions over the edge of reality…into certain death.

Jak stared into the abyss

The abyss stared back. With a lurching fear, an emotion foreign to him, Jak felt the desire to throw himself off the edge and into the welcoming arms of…what?

Breathing hard, he hurriedly stepped away and looked up at the sky. It was cold and distant, yet reassuring compared to what he had just seen.

The land beneath the lip of rock had seemed to disappear beneath a blanket of darkness that had nothing to do with the absence of light. The darkness was almost a presence that seemed to have a life of its own, acting as a cover for what lay beneath it, and fiercely protective of its charge….

Other titles in the Deathlands
saga:

Vengeance Trail
Ritual
Chill
Atlantis Reprise
Labyrinth
Strontium Swamp
Shatter
Zone
Perdition Valley
Cannibal Moon
Sky Raider
Remember
Tomorrow
Sunspot
Desert Kings
Apocalypse Unborn
Thunder
Road
Plague Lords: (Empire of Xibalba Book I)
Dark Resurrection:
(Empire of Xibalba Book II)
Eden’s Twilight
Desolation
Crossing
Alpha Wave
Time Castaways
Prophecy
Blood
Harvest
Arcadian’s Asylum
Baptism of Rage
Doom
Helix
Moonfeast
Downrigger Drift
Playfair’s
Axiom
Tainted Cascade
Perception Fault
Prodigal’s
Return
Lost Gates
Haven’s Blight
Hell Road
Warriors
Skydark
Demons of Eden
The
Mars Arena
Watersleep
Nightmare Passage
Freedom Lost
Way
of the Wolf
Dark Emblem
Crucible of
Time
Starfall
Encounter: Collector’s Edition
Gemini
Rising
Gaia’s Demise
Dark Reckoning
Shadow
World
Pandora’s Redoubt
Rat King
Zero City
Savage
Armada
Judas Strike
Shadow
Fortress
Sunchild
Breakthrough
Salvation Road
Amazon
Gate
Destiny’s Truth
Skydark Spawn
Damnation Road
Show
Devil
Riders
Bloodfire
Hellbenders
Separation
Death
Hunt
Shaking Earth
Black Harvest

James Axler

Palaces of Light

With equal or even inferior power…he will win who has the resolution to advance.
—Ardant du Picq,
1821-1870

THE DEATHLANDS SAGA

This world is their legacy, a world born in the violent nuclear spasm of 2001 that was the bitter outcome of a struggle for global dominance.

There is no real escape from this shockscape where life always hangs in the balance, vulnerable to newly demonic nature, barbarism, lawlessness.

But they are the warrior survivalists, and they endure—in the way of the lion, the hawk and the tiger, true to nature’s heart despite its ruination.

Ryan Cawdor: The privileged son of an East Coast baron. Acquainted with betrayal from a tender age, he is a master of the hard realities.

Krysty Wroth: Harmony ville’s own Titian-haired beauty, a woman with the strength of tempered steel. Her premonitions and Gaia powers have been fostered by her Mother Sonja.

J. B. Dix, the Armorer: Weapons master and Ryan’s close ally, he, too, honed his skills traversing the Deathlands with the legendary Trader.

Doctor Theophilus Tanner: Torn from his family and a gentler life in 1896, Doc has been thrown into a future he couldn’t have imagined.

Dr. Mildred Wyeth: Her father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, but her fate is not much lighter. Restored from predark cryogenic suspension, she brings twentieth-century healing skills to a nightmare.

Jak Lauren: A true child of the wastelands, reared on adversity, loss and danger, the albino teenager is a fierce fighter and loyal friend.

Dean Cawdor: Ryan’s young son by Sharona accepts the only world he knows, and yet he is the seedling bearing the promise of tomorrow.

In a world where all was lost, they are humanity’s last hope....

Prologue

“Time…time is a funny thing, my friend. Time is something that is the master of all of us. Even the greatest of barons who have ever walked across the soil that gives us what we laughingly call life is at the mercy of the ticking of the chron. Eventually we become part of that dust that we stomp beneath the heels of our boots. We’re nothing when it comes down to it. We fuck and fight and think that we’re really important, but it doesn’t matter jackshit. Everything comes from the dust, and returns there sooner or later. What comes in between seems kinda important at the time, but all it really amounts to is our own sense of our self-importance. I guess some of us think we’re more important than others. That’s why some of us try to become better than others. Why some of us become barons, and waste our time trying to get somewhere, when at the end of the blacktop there ain’t nothing but the same darkness that greets everyone.”

Baron K frowned. In the darkness of the hut, it was hard to see if the grossly fat man seated in front of him was smiling. His tone betrayed nothing of the sort, but even in measured tones the weight of his words carried a reproach that the baron found irritating. Would the old man in front of him dare to be so dismissive of the efforts that had brought K to this point? Would he risk the wrath of the baron, and the violence that it could wreak?

“Careful what you say, Morgan. You have a great wisdom, but even so—”

“I could go too far, eh?” Morgan spit through the tangled skein of his gray beard onto the dirt of the floor. It was just the clearing of phlegm, but such was the aura of the old man that it seemed to carry greater import.

“I have seen men chilled for less,” K replied, keeping his tone even.

Morgan fixed him with a gimlet eye that glittered bright, despite his age. He raised the paring knife that had been carving charred meat from the bone of an unrecognizable animal, and used it to gesture at the baron.

“Mebbe you have, at that. But I’m too close to the end of the blacktop for it to matter to me. So you chill me slow by your standards. Is that any worse than the certain knowledge that I have of the slow chilling we all endure? No—” he shook his head, his heavy frame heaving as he wheezed a chuckle “—let’s face it, K. There’s nothing you can do to bother me. And if you want to know what you’ve come here for, then you’d better get off that high horse you’ve ridden in on and start to listen. You want to know about the palaces of light. You think that’s where they’re taking them.”

K tried to answer, but his throat was tight and his mouth dry. Constriction forbade him from breathing, let alone form speech. It was all he could do to nod dumbly. His own flesh and blood… He had to find where they were going and why. That was why he had to put up with the old man and his tongue, which by rights should be cut out and roasted like the meat he slobbered on.

Morgan sighed, tossing the bone over his shoulder and wiping the blade of the knife on his vest, which was unlikely to get any greasier than it was already. He chewed ruminatively on his bottom lip, his eyes glazing over as he stared into the distance. It was as though he was recalling something told to him a lifetime ago, and it needed immense concentration to plunge memory back through the years and pluck out the memory fully formed.

K thought about his daughter and felt the tightness in his chest as the pain of anticipation almost burst his heart. Even a man who could trample hundreds of lives beneath him in the quest for power had the weakness of tender emotion somewhere within him, and for someone.

When Morgan spoke finally, it was as though he were channeling something from the distant past, no more than a conduit for a dead and forgotten time. Which, in a sense, perhaps he was.

“All things come to pass. From sand to sand, they say. None proved that more fully than those who had the greatest tech of all human history, and did little with it other than create a blizzard of fire, ice and wind that lasted for more than three generations. Men who wanted to be gods, and created a tech that should have ensured their immortality, yet did little except wipe out the records and traces of memory that they wished to be commemorated by. Iron, or something, that was what they said about it. Doesn’t matter. Point is, it shows that nothing lasts forever. But some things last longer than others. Last longer than memory.

“That’s how it is with the palaces of light…the mysterious palaces of light as they used to call them back in the day. They were there for so long that people forgot just how they got to be there in the first place. But there were some old legends that survived. Whether they were the truth or lies, I couldn’t say. I only repeat what I was told. One thing for sure, though,” he said, slipping back into the faraway tone of a man who was reciting much of his text from memory. “It’s always been a place where it pays to be fearful.”

K felt his guts churn. He hadn’t come from this part of the Deathlands, having spent his early years struggling out of a pesthole ville to ride with some coldhearts who preyed on convoys. It had been a hard and brutal training in the lessons of life, and he had acquired skills and a cynical, ruthless streak that had served him well when he ended up in a ville where the incumbent baron had grown fat, old and careless. Taking over had been a breeze, and he had used the superstition and fear of the people as a tool with which to maneuver his way to power. But the one thing he had never bargained on was that the superstition and fear was rooted in a sense of history. The words that Morgan now intoned brought that home to him, and clutched at his heart.

“There are those who say that the Mancos Canyon was gouged out of the rock by the thumbs of the gods. They needed somewhere to hide the demons that they had banished from the skies, and that was where they chose to leave them. Figures, when you look at how fucked the Mesa Verde is all around. Even before the shitstorms that the nukes brought with them it was still one hell of a place.
Hell
being the word. They say that the world was once a green and verdant vale—that’s another one of those phrases that means something good, although I couldn’t tell you exactly what it means.” Morgan sniffed and shrugged. “Anyways, the Mesa has always been a place that the gods skirted around with no notion of ever visiting ever again. Man wasn’t meant to tread there, but we did. Always have been some cursed souls who ended up there for want of anything better to do.

“Thing is, those who have wandered across the Mesa and not tumbled to their chilling when they reached the lip of the canyon have always seen the same thing. The mysterious palaces of light. Mysterious because they’ve been there since the dawn of time. Since before man, which kinda begs the question as to who the hell built them. Beautiful as they are, hewn out of the rock and shaped into buildings that have a light shining from them, they’ve been sheltered from everything that’s ever happened in this world. Think about it, K,” Morgan said softly, leaning forward so that his eye fixed on the baron, the paring knife emphasizing every word. “Even the nukecaust never touched these babies. That nightmare of howling winds and driving acid rains, the fire and the ice… It never touched them.”

He leaned back and sniffed back a gob of phlegm, growling in his throat.

“’Course, there are those who say that there are no such things as demons. They say that there were men who lived long before the Indians who everyone took to be the real natives that came across from where the seas now run. These were men like those who lived on the old southern lands, the ones who used to worship the sun and ripped out each other’s hearts to offer up. The kind of people you must like, K. But I tell you this—there are those who say that they built the palaces, yet they take no account of the fact that none of the temples and cities these men built looked anything like the palaces.

“Same way as others used to say that it was the Norsemen who built them. The ones who were supposed to sail on rafts across the raging seas centuries before the one called Columbo came and claimed the old lands, naming them Amerigo.” He frowned. “Something like that.” He shook his head as if to dismiss the confusion. “Thing about them is that, like the ones from the south, they couldn’t have done it because they had nothing like it in their own lands. Besides which, they were coming from the far coast, and how the fuck were they going to get across the plains when all they could do was build rafts of wood that must have got them here more by luck than any kind of skill?”

K interrupted. He felt almost as if it was wrong to do so; his mouth, too, was dry with fear of what Morgan was leaving between the words. “If not them, then who? The demons of who you spoke?” he asked.

A smile, almost mocking, wreathed the old man’s face. “You really believe that there are such things as gods and demons? It’s all a story, K. Just a story. Evil comes from men, but perhaps—just perhaps—it’s the case that the evil in men can somehow become instilled in a place, where it becomes magnified and acts as a draw to those who would think and feel the same way. Then again, mebbe I’m just plain wrong, and the story about there being gods who gouged the earth to throw down devils is right, and those devils built the palaces of light. One thing of which I’m certain, because it’s the only thing that runs through every story I was ever told, is that the men who built those palaces weren’t the Indians, nor the blond North men who were said to come before. These were men who came from a time before that, and had skills that could hew things of beauty out of ugly, harsh rock. That speaks of some power, some knowledge. And that’s still in there, K. It ain’t good, and it’s always done nothing else but attract its like.

“The dark ones—be they a kind of power or gods and demons—have always protected the canyon. Through the days of skydark and right till now. And whoever lives there is evil. If not to start with, then it’ll soon infect them.

“And that’s where they’re going, K. Into the heart of darkness and into the palaces of light. Remember, my baron, that not all light is good. The light that came with the nukes wasn’t good. Mebbe this is that kind of light.”

K was frustrated. He turned away from the old man, not wishing him to see the confusion that was written on his face. This talk of gods and demons was shit. But evil, real tangible evil that could infect a man, running from man to man like a disease. That was something he understood only too well. The palaces were places of legend. The legends were swathed in shadow, like the physical stones that hung over the canyon edge, protecting the palaces from the elements, just as they always had.

Hiding them from prying eyes—all but those of the most questing.

All but those, he hoped, of the ones he had sent to discover the truth.

BOOK: Palaces of Light
2.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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