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Authors: C. S. Friedman

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BOOK: Crown of Shadows
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The demon didn’t move. The glass passed through its flesh and hit the far wall, where it shattered. Sweet cordial dripped from the wainscoting.
“You didn’t create me,” the creature informed him, “and you don’t have the skill to banish me.” Its voice was like cracked glass, jagged and brittle. “I came to talk to you. Of course, if you feel a need to destroy more glassware first....” It nodded toward the bar. “I’ll wait.”
The demon’s tone—cultured, sardonic—utterly disarmed him. “What do you want?” he stammered.
“I came to help you. To save you.”
“No!” He knew the ways of demonkind enough to grasp that it was looking for an opening, some way to get to him. Even in his drunken state he knew the danger of that. “Get away from me!”
“You’re empty, Andrys Tarrant.” The gleaming eyes fixed on him. “So very empty. You try to fill the hole inside you with alcohol, with drugs, you try to bury it beneath a thousand and one couplings, but it won’t go away, will it?”
“Leave me alone,” he whispered hoarsely. “I know what you want. I won’t cooperate. I won‘t—”
“Even though I can heal you?” the demon demanded. “Even though I can fill that emptiness inside you, and give you life again? Do you really want me to leave?”
He shut his eyes, and his shaking hands curled into fists. Lies. They had to be. Lies and deceptions, custom-tailored to his needs. He couldn’t afford to listen to this creature, or to hope. The cost was too high. The minute he agreed to let this thing minister to his needs he would find himself sucked dry of blood or brains or dreams or some other vital substance ... because that was how demons worked, wasn’t it? Once you gave them an opening, you were as good as dead.
But what did he have to lose?
From a distance—as if from another man—the words came to his lips. “Go on,” he whispered. “Tell me.”
“You have an enemy. I’m going to destroy him. For that I need an ally. A
ally. In short, I need you. And I’m prepared to barter for your service, by giving you a way to earn your peace.”
“My family was murdered. You can’t change that. Whatever you’re offering—”
“How about revenge?”
The words stopped him cold. “He would kill me,” he breathed. Aware of a spark of hope that had suddenly been kindled with that word. Afraid to feed the flame. Unwilling to smother it. “I wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“He’ll never kill you. Human life is cheap to him, but killing you would mean destroying his family line—forever—and he would never do that to one of his own creations. No, Andrys Tarrant, you’re the one man on this planet that he won’t ever kill. That’s why I need you.”
“Then he’d torture me—”
“Worse than he has already?”
Andrys lowered his head. And trembled.
“He’s powerful,” the demon said. “Perhaps the most powerful fleshborn creature that this planet has ever produced. And evil, without question. But he’s also proud, and infinitely vain—and that will be his undoing.” The brittle voice altered, becoming smooth. Seductive. Liquid tones, that lapped at his brain like a drug. “You know what I want. Now let me show you what I have to offer in return.”
Fear wrapped a cold hand about Andrys’ heart. A hundred generations of Tarrants clamored for him to flee.
What did he have to lose?
“Go ahead,” he whispered.
—And it occurred to him that maybe with demonic help he
get the bastard who’d slaughtered his family, could make him pay ... but not with a quick death, oh no. Nor with simple pain. With something equivalent to what he had done to Andrys—some slow, living death that would rot away his soul until there was nothing left but a core of despair, stripped of all its pride and its vanity and its strength and its power and all its hope.... He pictured the proud Neocount of Merentha made helpless by
actions, assigned to a living hell by the force of
hatred, and felt something stir inside him that had been dead for too long. Purpose. Direction.
His blood ran hot with it, and he trembled as unaccustomed vitality poured into his brain. As his body flushed with the thrill of his intentions.
And then it was gone. As suddenly as it had begun. The hope, the certainty, the sense of power—all dissolved into the night, as if they had never been. All that remained was a spark of heat in his groin, as if he had just withdrawn from a woman. And an emptiness so vast it seemed ready to swallow him whole.
“Well?” the demon demanded. “Do you want to live again? Or shall I leave you to crawl your drunken way into an early grave, and exchange this hell for the one that follows? Which is it?”
His hands shook as he tried to think. Bargaining with demons was suicidal, he knew that. No one ever won that game. And he was hardly in shape to make life-altering decisions.
He wanted the feeling of purpose back. He wanted it back so badly he could taste it. He would have traded his soul to have it again ... and the demon wasn’t asking for that, was he? Only for his assistance in ridding the world of a murderer. In cleansing the Tarrant name once and for all.
“I can call it off,” he said at last. “Whenever I want. When I say it’s over, you go and leave me alone. Agreed?”
The cracked face twisted. The faceted eyes glittered. It was more than a smile, less than a grin—and it made the air vibrate with hatred, until Andrys’ soul was filled with it.
“As you command,” it whispered.
Demon’s wake
She walks
in the moonlight, her footfall on the weathered planks as soft and as silent as a ghost’s. All about her the sailors are busy cleaning up the detritus of the storm: mending sails, untangling lines, freeing those items which were, for safety’s sake, bound to the deck. Intent upon their tasks, they do not notice her. The wind is crisp and clean and she imagines that she can catch the scent of land in it. So close, so very close.... For a moment she trembles, and almost turns back. One more month, the priest said. Maybe less. But then she remembers what that month would be like—what all other months have been like on this ship—and she stiffens with new-foundresolve. No more, she tells herself. No more.
The sea is quiet now, having spent all its anger in the three days before; in the moonlight she can see no white upon the water’s surface, only black glass waves and an occasional sparkle of starlight. Quiet, so quiet. Death must be like that: black and still and utterly silent, a smooth realm that ripples ever so softly as each soul passes into it. Free of turbulence. Free of pain. Free of fear and its attendant demon, whose silver eyes must even now be searching her cabin, wondering where she has gone.
The thought of him makes her breath catch in her throat, and her whole body shivers in dread. No, she whispers. Never again. She steps up onto the railing, her dark toes gripping the rounded wood. The sea is beneath her

“Mes!” A sailor’s voice, behind her. For an instant she imagines she knows which one it belongs to—the blue-eyed Faraday boy, suntanned and lean and oh so innocent—and then she leans forward ever so slightly, into the night, and lets go. “Mes! No!” Footsteps approach her even as her toes lose hold, the long fall into darkness beginning just as he reaches the place where she stood—andthen more footsteps, more cries, as the others come running. A world away, they seem to her. A distant dream. She is aloft, a creature of the air, aflight above the waves. Falling. Beneath her the water seems to gather in anticipation—not glass now but velvet, cool and welcoming—and then the moment is past and she breaches the surface, the cold waves give way to her body and she is beneath them, struggling in the icy depths, shocked out of her dream state by the frigid reality of the sea.
Panicking suddenly, choking on seawater, she fights to get back to the surface. There is no thought of suicide now, only the blind, unthinking terror of a suffocating animal. Water pours down her face as she finally lifts her mouth above the surface of the waves and gasps for air, and not until she has drawn in two or three deep breaths does the sense of panic release her. Shaking, she coughs up some water she has swallowed, and her frozen body treads water without thought, grateful for the respite.
Above her the sailors are moving quickly. One has shed his heavy woolen jacket while another has grabbed up a life ring. Will they come down here, after her? Rescue her, and force her to live again? That is a concept even more terrifying than death, and she begins to swim away from them, her heart pounding wildly in her chest. Which does she fear more?
And then she sees him, standing among them. So dark. So still. He is like the sea itself—like death itself—and despite the distance between them she can feel the chill invasion of his thoughts in her head: seeking, analyzing, weighing. Hungering. She watches as he puts a hand on the naked shoulder of her would-be savior, and despite the distance between them she can hear his words as clearly as if she stood on the deck beside him.
“She has chosen, ” the Hunter tells them, and there
is power in his voice; they cannot disobey. “Let her
The silver eyes are fixed on her: watching, waiting. He can sense the presence of Death about her, and it
fascinates him. Frightens him. For
his power, for
all his centuries of wordly experience, this moment is beyond him. For all the choices which his power makes available, this one option is forever closed to him.
She finds new strength in that, and ceases paddling. The waves are gentle, and caress her face as she sinks a few inches. She can taste salt on her lip, and a spot of blood where she bit herself in her panic. Can he smell that? Does it awaken enough hunger in him that he regrets the promise he made so many months ago, that if she chose to die rather than serve him he would honor her choice and let her go? The complex interplay of cruelty and honor in him is something beyond her understanding. What kind of demon clings to a simple promise when his only source of nourishment is sinking beneath the waves?
Suddenly resolved, she dives below the surface. The sea closes over her head, dark and insulating. Deep down she swims, as far as she can manage, until her lungs are bursting with their need for air. And then she breathes in deeply, welcoming the cool darkness into her body. Saltwater fills her lungs, and maybe in another time, another place, there might have been pain. Not now. The spasms of her lungs are a glorious song of freedom, and even as the darkness closes in about her, she thrills in the sensation of dying.
No fear this time. So sorry, Hunter. No fear to feed you this time, only the bittersweet embrace of death. Hardly an appetizer, for one like you. So sorry....
Most Holy Father,
I write to you from the deck of
God’s Mercy,
which sails westward with its companion ship toward the port of Faraday. In our struggles to return home to you we have now been at sea ten months as Prima measures time, and not a week of that has been easy sailing. The Eastern Gate proved impassable, its eastbound currents too swift and its guardian volcanos too active to permit us passage. Despite his many misgivings, Captain Rozca led us south, into truly unknown waters, where even his limited experience was of little value to us. He hoped to win us passage west between the Fire Islands, which would bring us into the tropical currents and ease our passage home. Alas, Novatlantis was unobliging. Barely had we begun on that course when there was an eruption of such magnitude that it deafened us from miles away, and the sailors struggled in choking fumes to save their sails from the molten hail that fell on us. There were many injuries that day, and there would have been more had not Gerald Tarrant braved the unnatural darkness of the ash-blackened sky to work his cold craft in our favor. From .its hiding place within his Worked sword coldfire flared with the force and brilliance of lightning—
BOOK: Crown of Shadows
5.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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