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Authors: C. S. Friedman

Crown of Shadows (2 page)

BOOK: Crown of Shadows
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Why was I left alive?
he despaired. It wasn’t the first time he had asked that question. Samiel could have carried on. Samiel would have mourned and raged... and then he would have picked up the pieces of his life and carried on, somehow. Building new memories. Learning to forget. They’d had such strength in them, all of his family... all except Andrys. The playboy. The gambler. The black sheep of the family. Why had he alone been spared? Why was it that on that terrible night when his family had been slaughtered, he alone had been allowed to survive?
You know why,
an inner voice chided.
You don’t want to understand it, but you do.
He forced his mind away from that question as he fumbled with the latch. Too painful. The only way he could get through the empty days was to try to forget, to fight the memories back in whatever way he could. Even if that meant alcohol. Even if that meant blackout. Even if that meant other drugs, illegal drugs, that might calm the terror in his soul for a moment and grant him a simulacrum of peace. Anything that worked.
He was dying.
He considered that thought as he walked through the great hall of the castle, staring up at the portraits that flanked him on both sides. A man could die slowly, if conditions were right. The life could seep out of him gradually, a little bit each day, until at last there was nothing left of him but a shell of flesh, cold and colorless as a corpse. He looked up at the portraits of the other Survivors—seven of them, whose names and dates he had learned like a catechism in his youth—and shivered. Seven men who had survived the death of their families, and lived to renew the family line. How had they done it?
had they done it? How could a man put such a thing behind him, and take a wife and sire children and start all over again, as if nothing had happened? He laughed shortly, mirthlessly. Whatever magical strength they’d had, he sure as hell lacked it. He lacked even an understanding of its nature.
You picked the weakest one this time,
he thought. As if the family’s destroyer could hear him.
The least deserving.
Maybe he could hear, at that. Maybe he was aware of all their thoughts, and had chosen Andrys to survive because somewhere, deep inside him, he saw—
Don’t kid yourself,
he thought bitterly.
There’s nothing of value in you, and he knows it.
He looked up at the portraits of the other seven, one after another, and saw all too clearly what quality he shared with them. If only he didn’t see! If only he didn’t understand....
With a moan he staggered to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a drink, from the nearest full bottle at hand. Sweet cordial, his late brother’s vice. He threw it back quickly, wincing as the syrupy stuff slid down his tongue, trying not to taste it. Alcohol was his elixir now, his solace, and its flavor was irrelevant. If he could figure out how to pour it straight into his bloodstream, he’d do that and save himself the glasses.
A shadow seemed to move suddenly in the comer of the room. Startled, he dropped his glass. It shattered on the numarble floor, spraying the sticky cordial on his feet; the sugary smell of norange liqueur filled the room. A small accident, but it was suddenly more than he could handle. He felt the tears start to flow free, and with them memories from earlier in the day. Her voice. Her body. Her scorn. God in Heaven! How much more merciful it would have been if he had been utterly emasculated, instead of this half-life in which the memory of slaughter might or might not unman him at a crucial moment. In which he could perform just often enough to get his hopes up, just well enough for him to convince himself that maybe, just maybe, the healing had finally begun ... and then suddenly the room he was in would be splattered with blood, and the body he caressed so desperately would seem like that of a corpse, bodily parts disassociated from one another and from their owner.... He wrapped his arms around himself, shivering. It had to end. God, it had to end. One way or another. How long could a man go on like this?
Until you end it,
an inner voice whispered.
There’s no other way. And how much would it hurt? You’re already dead, aren’t you? Like the rest of your family. He killed them fast and he killed you slow, but he killed you all the same.
“Oh, God,” he whispered. “Help me. Please”
The memories were coming now, like they always did at night. Seeping into his brain like some dank poison, corrupting his senses. Was that real blood, there on the carpet? Was that the smell of death in the air? He whimpered softly and tried to fight it, but he lacked the strength.
Blood. Splattered everywhere. Drops of crimson glistening in the lamplight like a thousand cabochon garnets, scattered across the rug and the floor and the clawed feet of the great table. Blood that dripped from—
Dripped from—
“No !” he whispered. “Please. Not that.”
Blood that pooled at the feet of the great chair, blood that coursed down in thin rivulets over the fine novebony carvings, blood that dripped from his brother’s head where it had been thrust upon the sharp strut of the chair, impaled as if on some warrior’s spear....
His eyes squeezed shut, his body spasmed into a foetal knot of terror. The memories hurt. God, they hurt! Wasn’t there any way to stop them? “Anything,” he whispered, shivering violently. “Not again. I’ll do anything. Stop them!”
The room was a study in carnage, disjointed fragments too horrible to absorb: Imelia’s body, laid out across the great table. Gutted. Betrise’s long hair strung out like silk in a pool of blood, yards from her body. Dianna. Mark. Abechar. All the Tarrants, every single one of them except him

everybrother and sister and cousin that had ever laid claim to the name, down to the last helpless infant in its own crimson puddl
andwatching over all of it,
if from some grisly throne, his brother Samiel. Samiel, elder and heir. Samiel, self-proclaimed Neocount of Merentha. His eyes were rolled back in their sockets now, as if what they had gazed upon were too terrible for human sight; the blood smeared on his face made his contorted expression doubly unreal, a parody of human terror.
For a moment Andrys was too stunned to react. Then sickness welled up in him, sickness and terror and raw, unadulterated horror. Doubling over, he vomited. Again and again until there was nothing left in him to bring up, and even then his body continued to spasm. As if somehow the effort might squeeze him dry of fear, as well.
Only then did he become aware that there was someone else in the chamber: a tall figure, dark and silent, who stood halfway across the room. Malevolence was so thick about the figure that it was almost visible, and the cold that emanated from it chilled the tears on Andrys’ face. Though the shadows of the room obscured its expression, its purpose was clear. Man or demonling, it was his family’s murderer. And it was watching him. Waiting.
Panicked, he fell back as far as the wall behind him would permit. Knocking over a chair as he did so, which skittered across the blood-slicked floor and at last fell across his sister’s outstretched form. “Who are you?” he cried. His voice was strained and broken, like his nerves. “What do you want?”
For a moment the figure was still; in the chill silence of the room Andrys could hear his own heart pounding wildly. Then the dark form stirred, and in a voice as smooth and as refined as silk pronounced, “I am the first—and only—Neocount of Merentha. ”
Fear made Andrys’ bones turn to jelly; he would have fallen, had not the wall held him upright. “The first Neocount is dead, ” he gasped. “Dead!” Nine hundred years in the grave, he wanted to say. To shout. But the words wouldn’t come out.
“Hardly, ” the figure responded. “But that was the story your father preferred, and so it passed for truth in your schooling. The illustrious Reginal Tarrant! He thought that if he kept you ignorant he might somehow make you safe. ” The shadowed head turned to the side briefly as it gazed upon Samiel’s ruined head, then back again. “It didn’t work, of course. It never does. ”
The figure took a step toward him. Terror caused Andrys’ bladder to spasm suddenly, and hot urine trickled down his leg. He wished he could die right here and now, and not wait to be killed like ... like that. Like Samiel, and Imelia, and Mark. Dear God, not like that, please oh please....
But the figure stopped, as if knowing that another step would be one too many for Andrys’ frayed nerves. “He knew the truth. ” The figure indicated Samiel. “The firstborn has always known the truth. That was one of the conditions I set for this family, when I first decided to let the line continue. And when he placed the coronet of this county on his head, when he laid claim to the title that wasn’t his to take, he knew what the price of that would be. ”
It took him a minute to understand. To believe. “Is that it?” he choked out at last. “All this ... because of that? Just for a title?”
He could sense anger stirring within that dark, faceless form: not hot, like human rage, but as chill and as biting as an arctic wind. “I gave this family life, ” the figure pronounced acidly. “And I dictated the conditions under which it would be permitted to endure. I spared your ancestor when it would have been just as easy to kill him, not out of human compassion but because I was curious to see what the descendants of my blood might accomplish. And so I left you my lands, my keep, my wealth, my library—whose true value is beyond your imagining—all these things and more, a treasury beyond measurement. Only two things were forbidden to you ... and one of those you insist on claiming. Eight times now. ” A sweep of one black-cloaked arm encompassed the carnage. “Consider this a reminder.” “
“You killed them all for that?” he whispered feebly. “Because of Samiel’s mistake? All of them?”
For a moment the dark figure regarded him in silence. Andrys was acutely aware of the filth that soiled his shirt front, the urine that had plastered one pants leg to his flesh. Shame flushed his cheeks, hot blood suffusing death-white flesh.
“His mistake was defiance, ” the figure said coldly, “which I will not endure. As for my methods ... I find that the harder the lesson is driven home, the longer it is likely to last. Remember that, when you raise your own heirs. ”
Heirs? For a moment he couldn’t remember what the word meant, or how it might apply to him. His heirs? He had no children yet. And never would, if this creature killed him—
Then it sank in. All of it.
Images of the Survivors rose up before him. Haunted figures whose biographies were shrouded in mystery, who had survived to continue the family when all others died of sickness, or in war, or (the records were unclear) in some terrible accident.
Or were slaughtered.
Like this?
Oh, my God, Andrys thought desperately. Let this be some drunken dream. Let me wake up in the back room of some tavern to discover that I passed out and had a nightmare, just a nightmare, please, God, just that....
“I see you understand, ” the figure observed. “I trust you will not be so foolish as to repeat your brother’s mistake. ”
He turned away from Andrys then, meaning to leave him alone with the carnage. To make his peace with his fate, if he could. But as he turned, a shaft of moonlight fell across his features, illuminating them. Illuminating a face—
“No,” he whimpered. “No!”
Illuminating a face so like his own that he screamed, he screamed, he started screaming and he couldn’t stop, because suddenly he understood—he under
he knew what kind of dark vanity might drive a man to murder his entire family except the one child who was most like him, knew it without being able to put a name to it, knew it even though his soul burned from the understanding of it. And he knew that every time he looked in the mirror from now on he would see that face, not his own, that those eyes would stare out at him from his own reflection, terrible empty silver eyes so like and unlike his own, eyes that had looked out upon the vast expanse of Hell and found its terrors wanting—
Moaning. Weeping. Balled up in a tight little knot, tears streaming down his face. Crying uncontrollably, as he had done for so many nights now. Would it never end? Would there never come a point when the memories would fade, in intensity if not in detail? When he could gaze upon the face of the first Neocount of Merentha—the
Neocount of Merentha—and not relive the gut-wrenching shock of that horrible revelation?
an inner voice whispered.
Not until you put an end to it.
“Oh, God,” he whispered. “Please. I can’t take it any more.”
It was then that the voice came: a whispering thing no louder than his tears, but it made his spine shiver as though ragged fingernails were playing across his flesh. A demonic voice, without question; no fleshborn creature could make such a sound.
“Andrys Tarrant,
” it murmured, in tones that made his flesh crawl.
“Is that what you really want? Oblivion? Or would you rather exult in life again?”
He raised himself up on one elbow, and with his other arm wiped the wetness from his face. Opposite him stood a figure that was somewhat human in shape, though anything but human in substance. Its surface was a tapestry of sharp edges and ragged darkness, and thin tendrils of fog curled about it like questing serpents. Its eyes took in the lamplight and broke it up into jagged bits, reflecting it back in a thousand burning sparks.
For a moment he stared in awe at the thing his fear had conjured. Never in his life had he manifested something so concrete, so dangerously fascinating. Considering how much he’d had to drink, he was amazed that the creature was coherent.
Then he realized how much danger he was in. And from somewhere he dredged up a prayer of protection, that he muttered under his breath as he retrieved his glass and launched it at the demon thing, as hard as he could. Willing the creature to respond to him, in the way that the faeborn so often responded to members of his family. Filled with a sudden fury that the thing would pick this moment to accost him.
BOOK: Crown of Shadows
5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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