Table of Contents
“AZRAEL. IT IS TIME . . .”
“Who are you?”
Nate yelled into the darkness at the voice. The sound seemed to die as it left his mouth, to vanish without an echo.
Something had changed in the darkness around him. It wasn’t void any longer, there was a thick sense of presence around him, as if he might reach out a hand and feel slick skin and undulating flesh. He felt as if any moment something heavy and damp might wrap around his throat, strangling him.
The words were heavy, cloying, and came from organs that were not meant for human speech.
The darkness resolved into something. Two some-things. Behind him, he could dimly see a corridor in the classroom building. In front of him was what might have been a hill or a lawn, backed with blue sky. Both views seemed incredibly distant. At the same time they felt intense enough that he need only reach out to one or the other to touch it.
The sense of alien presence was overwhelming, on all sides, as if cascades of rippling flesh were about to engulf him.
DAW Novels from S. ANDREW SWANN
THE DRAGONS OF THE CUYAHOGA
THE MOREAU NOVELS:
FORESTS OF THE NIGHT (#1)
EMPERORS OF THE TWILIGHT (#2)
SPECTERS OF THE DAWN (#3)
FEARFUL SYMMETRIES (#4)
Copyright © 2004 by Steven Swiniarski.
All Rights Reserved.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1293.
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Long after the great and terrible battles, long after the world had been broken by the forces Ghad himself had created, Ghad walked between the world and the shadow of the world to see what there was to be seen. At length he came across a man-child crying in the wilderness. Ghad took on the form of an old woman and approached the man-child.
“Why do you cry such bitter tears?” asked Ghad.
“I cannot work the fields, and the College will not take me. My parents abandoned me here.”
Ghad frowned. “Listen, child, and I will teach you what the College will not.” And, because it pleased Ghad to do so, he taught the man-child words of power beyond the knowledge of the most learned of men.
The man-child returned to his village and spoke such words that the houses of his parents, his uncles, and his grandfathers were consumed with fire.
And, because Ghad hated man, Ghad was pleased.
The Book of Ghad and Man,
Volume II, Chapter 105
RMSMASTER Ehrid Kharyn was the highest civil authority in the city of Manhome. His offices reflected that authority. They occupied an entire floor on top of the tallest tower in the city outside the College itself.
Either side of the Armsmaster’s office opened onto a balcony circumnavigating the tower. The great balcony overlooked the mainland on one side, the ocean on the other. From this spot, Ehrid Kharyn had almost complete autonomy to act in the Monarch’s name, deploying forces, guarding the borders, enforcing the laws of man in an area that stretched beyond either visible horizon.
Standing in front of Ehrid was an elderly man, masked and robed, who was busy demonstrating the limits of the Armsmaster’s power.
“Need I remind you that you are pledged to aid the College of Man in all things?” The old man’s voice was flat and lacked emotion. It was a tone that the scholars of the College tended to affect. The masters more so than the acolytes. And this old man wore the elaborate inlaid mask of a master.
Ehrid knew the mask, if not the person behind it. The jeering demon face fixed a crimson scowl at him, inlaid with gold and ivory. It was the unique mask of the Venerable Master of the Manhome College—by extension, the entire College of Man.
“I understand the prerogative of the College in matters of theology. But your request goes beyond that prerogative.” Ehrid was a bear of a man, nearly six feet tall and, dressed as he was in the full crimson and black regalia of his office, at least two thirds as wide. Diplomacy did not come easily to him, and if he had faced anyone else, the hard edge of his words would cause opposition to shrivel, and his adversary to make an abrupt obsequious retreat.
Unfortunately, to the College of Man, a chosen representative of the Monarch was only slightly better than a ghadi servant.
Worse, the ghadi have no pride to swallow.
“There is no call for emotional displays, Master Ehrid.”
There were no appeals, even to the Monarch himself. Something both of them were quite aware of. Ehrid knew that he was lucky that they allowed him even the illusion of power. The Venerable Master Scholar could, literally with a single word, remove Ehrid from his position as Armsmaster of Manhome, if not from existence itself.
But it wasn’t in Ehrid’s nature to simply acquiesce.
“This isn’t emotion. It is good sense. I cannot have my men searching for demons under every ghadi rock. Who will man the gates, keep the watch, maintain the peace when I have half my force scattered from here to Zorion?”
“You will manage normal operations.”
Much as Ehrid might pretend differently, he knew that even the Monarch himself would not directly oppose the College in anything. Still, Ehrid tried to influence his visitor. “You expect a stranger, but you cannot describe him. With the powers you have, I would think you could find this stranger yourself.”
“Think what you may. We need your men.”
Ehrid bit back his words. He wasn’t a diplomat, but he did know where the limits were. No one could achieve any secular rank, especially in Manhome, without knowing exactly how far the College could be pushed.
He had reached that point. “Of course, my guard is fully at your disposal. I just wished you to be aware of the consequences of reassigning so many guardsmen.” The words were conciliatory, but it was beyond Ehrid to sound pleased with the outcome.
“We are aware. The College will finance the hire of additional men if they are needed. However, the men on patrol outside the city must be experienced, competent, and know well the law.”
“Of course.” Ehrid gritted his teeth. “Is there anything else the College desires?”
“No.” The Venerable Master turned and strode from Ehrid’s chambers, descending the stairs without once looking back. Not even offering a token gesture recognizing Ehrid’s authority or the authority of the Monarch.
Please, may Ghad avert his gaze.
When the Venerable Master was gone, another figure appeared, walking in from the balcony. He wore the robes of an acolyte, and a featureless mask that normally indicated someone of the lowest caste of the College of Man—though, even if Ehrid did not know the man, he would have known better just from the acolyte’s confident bearing.