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Authors: C. S. Friedman

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BOOK: Crown of Shadows
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“Shit,” Damien muttered. “Can’t send that.” He read the paragraph over again, then balled it up in his fist and threw it aside. It landed in a pile of similar dis cardings, now littering the floor of his cabin. He lowered his head to his hands and tried to think.
Most Holy Father,
These are the details of my voyage to the eastlands, which I undertook in God’s Name and for His eternal glory.
It took five midmonths for the
Golden Glory
to cross Novatlantis, a journey which God permitted us to make without injury to any of our people. We knew that in the past five expeditions had preceded us along that route, but we knew nothing of their fate. To our surprise and delight we found a nation thriving on that distant shore, which was wholly dedicated to the One God and His Prophet’s teachings. Upon learning that we, too, traveled in God’s name, these people welcomed us and showed us a land that seemed nothing short of paradise. Even the fae had been tamed there, in accordance with the Prophet’s writings, and I was filled with joy and new hope as I saw with my own eyes what miracles a unified faith might reap.
Alas, the godly image of this land was but a facade. Even as we began to suspect that a darker truth lay at the heart of this seeming paradise, we were forced to flee into wilder places, long since abandoned to the fae and its creatures. We traveled as a company of three: myself, the rakh-woman Hesseth, and the sorcerer Gerald Tarrant. I would be lying if I said that I ever fully trusted the Hunter, or that my relationship with the rakh-woman was entirely comfortable, but we discovered in our quest a common cause which overbore our natural tensions. I think it safe to say that not one of us would have survived the journey without the other two. And indeed, at several points even our concerted efforts were barely enough to save us.
Our journey brought us through many horrors, of which I will spare you description; suffice it to say that the poisoning of this land had begun long ago, and was orchestrated by a master hand. Gerald Tarrant determined that a demonic force allied to human sorcery was responsible, and I saw no reason to doubt him. In order to learn more of its nature (and perhaps discover a weakness in our enemy) we traveled farther south, to a land that was beyond the reach of the One God’s faith. There humans and rakh toiled side by side in rare unity, devoting themselves to the destruction of God’s nation and the very faith which sustained it. It was a land well fortified against invasion, and we were nearly overcome by its gruesome defenses. In that place Hesseth died, and I will mourn forever that I could give her no proper grave, nor better resting place than a blood-spattered chasm in a vile and hostile land. In that land also Gerald Tarrant was approached by the enemy, who offered such a price for the betrayal of our cause that even his cold heart must have been moved
“Hell.” He stared at the last sentence for a long minute, then scratched it out with a sigh. “Can’t tell him that, can I?”
He sat back, trying not to think of those days. The fear. The suspicion. If he had known then what he knew now—that Tarrant had sold them out in order to get them closer to the enemy, close enough to strike—would it have made a difference? The enemy had offered Gerald Tarrant true immortality. Could Damien have ever felt confident that the Hunter would refuse it?
Probably not,
he reflected. Who could have foreseen that in the end the Hunter’s vanity would prove more powerful than his lust for immortality? That the thought of seeing his proudest creation destroyed was as abhorrent to him as seeing his family line extinguished? Both were his children, were they not? The last remains of his life-blood on Erna. Was it any wonder that he loved the Church as much as he hated it, and had crafted a false treachery to entrap the man who stood poised to destroy it?
Life as a god, unthreatened by any fear of divine retribution. Damien could never look at the Hunter again without remembering that choice. He could never again pretend that he understood Gerald Tarrant, or the balance of forces which moved him. Not after that.
With a sigh he took up his pen again, and started to write.
We determined that the Prince of this land was our enemy, allied according to sorcerous custom with a demon who served his will. Alas, I wish the truth were that simple. Such an alliance might have provided a more finite enemy, concrete enough to destroy—or at least weaken—in a single battle. What we discovered instead was that the man who called himself the Undying Prince was no more than one pawn in a vast demonic enterprise, whose stakes are the very souls of mankind. And though we freed that land and its sister to the north of the demon’s immediate influence, I fear it was only the opening move in a vast and terrible game.
These are the things we now know about our true enemy, a demon of such strength and subtlety that he may well prove to be the single greatest threat facing man on Erna: He calls himself Calesta in this time and place, but there are men who call him by other names, and some who worship him as a god. He is a true demon in power and bearing, meaning that he can interact with humans as subtly and complexly as though he were human himself. He is capable of forming illusions so convincing that not all of the Hunter’s power can see through them, and of maintaining such illusions over long periods of time. He is from the demon family called
and like all Iezu he is immune to the normal vehicles of demonic control; as of yet we know of no certain means by which to contain him. Lastly, he feeds (as all the Iezu do) upon the emotional energies of mankind, preferring the sharp repast of human sadism to the gentler emotions which some of his brethren relish.
It has been said that demons live for the moment, that they lack any ability to pursue—or even grasp the concept of—long-term goals. That is certainly not true in this case. Calesta means to remake our world, and from what I have seen in the eastlands I can only say, with a shudder, that he is clearly capable of doing so. We were witness to his effectiveness in the east, where his machinations plunged a land of devout and hopeful people into a nightmare holocaust whose horrors defy description. I can only pray that the steps we took to counteract his efforts remain successful. So many souls, to be sacrificed to the hunger of one demon! Never was there better illustration of why our Church is needed on this world, and why the sword and the springbolt and the gun and the shield are no more than shadows of the only true weapon on Erna, which is faith.
Thus it is that I return to you, my heart heavy with its burden of knowledge. Be assured that in this war I shall be your most vigilant soldier, until such day as we find a way to destroy this demon, or banish him forever from the realms of man.
Your most humble and obedient
“Another report-in-absence?”
It was Tarrant, standing in the doorway of his cabin. Damien glared at him, a look meant to communicate that he needed no reminder about his last letter to the Patriarch, or the trouble it might get him into. He had sent it as a substitute for a personal audience, and when the Holy Father finally got hold of him, there was going to be hell to pay for that.
“Not this time,” he said shortly. He finished the letter, signed it quickly, and put it aside. There was no denying that he deserved the Patriarch’s wrath. The only question was how long it would last, and what form it would take. And whether or not the Holy Father would understand that their entire world was at risk now, and personal venom must take second place to martial expediency if the Church was to triumph.
“You’re delivering it yourself, then?”
“No real alternative, is there?” There was an edge to his voice that he couldn’t disguise. “I have to go back. You know that.”
Go home,
the demon Karril had urged.
Go home as soon as you can. If you stay away, if you give Calesta time to work ... then the world you return to may not be the same as the one you left.
That was over a year ago. What if it was too late already?
“You’re afraid,” the Hunter mused.
Anger welled up inside him suddenly, a rage that was ten months in the making. “Damn right!” he spat. “And there you are right on schedule to revel in it.” The pent-up fury of a whole voyage was pouring out of him, and he had no way to stop it. “What makes you better than this Iezu we’re fighting? What makes you more worthy of life than he is? I can’t seem to remember just now.”
If his challenge angered the Hunter—or awakened any other emotion within him—the man damn well didn’t show it. “Random invective doesn’t suit you, Vryce.” His tone was cool, maddeningly controlled. “If the girl’s death bothers you that much, then say so.”
He drew in a sharp breath. “You
“I offered her a bargain which she chose to accept. It was her own choice, from start to finish. You seem to forget that. I never interfered with her freedom of will, or made any attempt to coerce her into service. You know that. She knew what my needs were and she agreed to meet them. If she had survived this trip, she would have been well rewarded for her efforts. The fact that she chose to end our contract—”
“To kill herself! To take her own life! Those are the words,” he choked out, “—not some vapid euphemism. You killed that girl as surely as if you cut her throat with your own hands.
“She knew what I was,” he said quietly. “As do you. And I suggest you come to terms with that knowledge before we reach port, Reverend Vryce. Our enemy is dangerous enough as it is; if we allow ourselves to be divided, what chance do we have to defeat him?”
He started to respond—and then forced the anger back, forced it out of his mind. Along with the hatred. Along with the disgust. Because Tarrant was right, damn him. They couldn’t afford to be divided. Not now.
“All right,” he muttered. “So what chance
we have? Tell me that.”
His only answer was silence. The silver eyes were mirrors that reflected Damien’s own misgivings back at him.
So little chance,
they seemed to say.
Why measure it in words?
At last the priest turned away, and he cursed softly under his breath.
“I have never lied to you,” the Hunter said.
“No.” He drew in a deep breath, and tried to relax his hands; they had curled into fists of their own volition. “No, you never have.” After a small eternity he managed to add, “Will you be all right?”
It took Tarrant a minute to realize what he was asking. “You mean without the girl.”
He nodded stiffly.
“Ah.” A pause. “I had hoped she’d last longer—”
“Just answer the question,” he snapped.
“Will I live to see port? Yes. Will I be in prime condition to rejoin battle with the enemy when we get there? Not if I go hungry for a month, Reverend Vryce.” He paused. “But you knew that when you asked, didn’t you?”
He shut his eyes and exhaled noisily. “Yeah. I knew.”
“Shall I take that as an offer?”
He remembered their voyage to the east, and the nightmares that Tarrant had placed in his mind so that he might harvest Damien’s fear for nourishment. It was not an experience the priest was anxious to repeat, but what was the alternative? Let Tarrant become so weakened by hunger that when they arrived in Faraday he was all but useless? Encourage him to feed on the rest of the crew?
With a heavy sigh Damien nodded, wincing. “Yeah,” he muttered. “It’s an offer. Whatever you need—”
“And no more than that,” the Neocount finished smoothly. “I understand.”
God. Those dreams. A month of them and a man could go mad. Could the Hunter perhaps drink his blood instead? There was enough of the vampire still in the man that sometimes that was possible. Was temporary physical weakness preferable to mental torture?
He looked up at the Hunter again and tried to gauge the hunger in those pale, cold eyes. It amazed him sometimes how human the man could appear, when the hunger inside him was anything but.
“No dreams of the Patriarch,” he told him. “Nor of the Church. Not in any form or manner. Agreed?”
A faint smile tightened the corners of Tarrant’s lips; the pale eyes sparkled. “No dreams of the Patriarch,” he agreed. “Not of my devising, anyway.”
“Yeah.” He turned away, refusing to look at Tarrant. Or at the letter. “I can manage those nightmares on my own, can’t I?”
Faraday: jewel of the east, heart of all commerce, haven par excellence for all the merchant ships that plied the eastern waters. Unlike the other great ports of Erna this city had not relied upon Nature for its security, but had crafted its own safety with walls and locks and measures and men, creating a complex alarm system which rendered the great harbor as safe as any coastal region could ever be.
Faraday: devastated.
They saw it from a distance at first, then assessed it in greater detail as they approached. The great sea wall which towered thirty feet above the water’s surface, protecting the harbor beyond, was now ragged along its top. There were broken spars that jutted out from its surface, wooden shards driven deep between the rocks as a memorial to whatever ship the sea had caught up and heaved against its unyielding surface. Mast-bits floated in a muddy sea, rail-bits, scraps of sail. Something that might have been a chunk of flesh was caught up in their wake, but the scavenger fish had so worried it that there was too little left to identify.
BOOK: Crown of Shadows
12.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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