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Authors: C. S. Friedman

Crown of Shadows (7 page)

BOOK: Crown of Shadows
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And the girl.
Trembling, he hurried back to the hotel.
For a long, long time after Andrys Tarrant left, Narilka stared at the door in silence. Her heart had been pounding all the time he had been there; only now, with him safely gone, did it resume its normal beat. Only now could she begin to breathe normally, as if nothing whatsoever were wrong.
That face. So familiar. Those eyes... she could picture them cast in a paler hue (silver, cracked silver, the color of ice and sunlight) and that was enough to transform them, because in all other ways—in shape, in expression—they were the same as his. Just as this man’s hair was the same (golden brown, fine as silk), only Andrys Tarrant had trimmed his in a stylish cut, indisputably modem, while the other had let his grow to the shoulder. And so it was with so many other features: token differences, superficial, which only served to highlight the uncanny, unnerving resemblance between the two men.
The Hunter.
She remembered him from the Forest, that terrible, fear-filled night. Remembered his eyes burning black with hunger, his power so chill and fierce that it froze the very air in her lungs as she drew in a breath to scream. Not a man but a demon—a cold, cruel god—whose eyes were doorways into another world, a world of such terrible alien beauty that even as he threatened to devour her, even as the fire of her life flickered weakly before him, about to be extinguished, she longed to be drawn into his private night forever. Mystical, magical, secretive night. Violet light and unearthly music and tides of fae so subtle that the roar of a single breath would drown them out....
And now there was Andrys Tarrant. Here. In her world. Alive in a way the Hunter was not, solid and real in a way he could never be. Capable of living and loving with a human heat—
She shut her eyes and tried to focus on something else. Anything else.
That’s not a healthy reason to want a man and you know it.
She had enough trouble with men already without asking for more, didn’t she? The type of man who was attracted to her was usually looking for a victim, not a lover, and she had fended off enough of that kind to last her a lifetime. The last thing she needed now was another bad relationship.
But his haunted eyes (green, not gray, and so alive!) stayed with her for hours, and the memory of his presence was still warm in her flesh when she finally closed up the shop for the night.
The Hunter flew
west along the Raksha Valley, following the course of the river Lethe. Westward over Sattin, where they had once booked passage across the Canopy: he and the priest, Senzei Reese, and the lady Ciani. It seemed a century ago. His goals had been so finite then, his self-definition so simple, so clear ... when had it all gotten so muddied?
He could feel the weight of his compact on his back as the strong feathered wings drew him closer and closer to home. In Mercia, in one thoughtless act, he had saved a civilization from ruin. The powers which sustained his unnatural life would surely condemn him for that, and take action to teach their wayward servant a lesson. The only question in his mind was when, and what form the “lesson” would take. They hadn’t done anything yet. And though after a year of being unmolested he had begun to hope that they would continue to honor the compact which kept him alive, he had no illusion that he would go unpunished forever. The Unnamed was not known for compassion.
Soon the Raksha Valley broadened out into the Plain of Sheva, on the very doorstep of the Forest. He came to the ground there and reclaimed his human form, the better to study the currents in that place and see if there were any sign of Calesta’s interference. But malignant power was sucked into the Forest here with such force that no trace remained outside its borders. In his months outside the Forest, he had forgotten just how strong it was. He could feel its pull on his own soul as he stood there, as if that whirlpool of malevolence would devour him whole. It had tried, once. He had tamed it. And it took little effort now to resist its call, and to rise up on broad white wings once more, to review his domain.
Dare he hope that Calesta had focused his vengeance elsewhere and left the Forest alone? If so, it was a temporary respite, and the Hunter knew it.
This place is my source, my nourishment. If he means to hurt me, then he will strike here.
Even the fact that he could see no mark of Calesta’s interference here didn’t guarantee that the demon had been absent. A Iezu demon could easily conjure an illusion to cover his tracks, so that even an adept’s Sight would be hard-pressed to make them out. Was there a limit to that skill? How many perfect illusions could a Iezu sustain at once? On that question, Gerald Tarrant suspected, their very lives might depend. If only he had more knowledge of the Iezu. Damn the code of behavior which bound them from interfering in each others’ battles, which kept others of that kind from helping him!
There were trees beneath him now, and a tangled canopy of vines and branches so thick that even his special Sight couldn’t see through to the ground beneath. The earth-fae which coursed below it sparkled through the canopy like stars, hinting at a power so vast that surely no single demon, Iezu or otherwise, could stand against it. He could feel the force of the Forest’s fae coursing through his veins like blood, even from this height, invigorating him body and soul. Let Calesta test him now, with all his power at hand, and that Iezu would see how quickly and how ruthlessly the Hunter dealt with his enemies.
It was nearly dawn when he came to the observatory tower of his keep, jutting up from the tangled canopy like a sleek black spear. The sigils engraved upon its narrow roof reflected the moonlight like fire. He took care to avoid the circle they inscribed, a spot he had painstakingly scrubbed clean of all fae for the sake of Earth-like experimentation. That, too, seemed a lifetime ago. Had it really been less than three years ago that he had lived this isolated life, surrounded by nothing but his trees and his servants and his precious experiments? Would that he could simply reclaim that life, and let the darkness of the Forest heal him of all the wounds the living world had inflicted! But that dream, though seductive, was not feasible at the moment. As long as Calesta lived and hated and plotted his Iezu vengeance, not even the Forest would be safe from his demonic predations.
he promised himself.
When all this is over, when Calesta is neutralized and my compact defended and Vryce has gone off to make a separate fate from mine ... then I will have the time and the leisure to find myself again. To define myself anew, on such terms that living men may never again compromise my spirit.
Amoril was waiting for him atop the tower. The taste of the albino’s subservience, carried to him on the chill Forest breeze, was reassuringly familiar. Despite his hunger to resume his accustomed role in the Forest hierarchy, he remained circling for long minutes overhead, searching for some sign in the terrain below to warn him that Calesta had been active here. He was painfully aware of the futility of the act, given the nature of his enemy, yet he dared not sacrifice any possible advantage in this deadly war that the Iezu had declared. But he saw nothing to excite his suspicions, save a fleeting shadow that tasted of the Unnamed’s special malevolence. That his patron-demon had been here was hardly a surprise. It had probably set out a Watcher to alert it to its servant’s arrival, and was even now preparing its own special welcome for him. He shivered as the cold winds bore him in yet another circle, and tried not to think about what that welcome might be.
I served you faithfully for nine hundred years,
he thought to it. As if it could hear him. As if it cared what he thought.
And but for one moment of carelessness, I have never failed you.
But he knew even that wasn’t true, that in his travels with Vryce he had more than once pushed the envelope of the Unnamed’s tolerance. God willing, when this all was over he would have a chance to establish himself anew and cleanse the taint of Vryce’s human spirit from his soul.
Finally he dropped to the tower and regained his human form, coldfire licking at his flesh as he transformed. The Prince of Jahanna, come home to claim his own.
As soon as he had human eyes with which to see, Amoril bowed deeply to him. “My lord.” He evinced no surprise at Tarrant’s return, which was as it should be. The man who had been assigned to watch over the Forest had damned well better Divine well enough and often enough to foresee that his Master was coming home.
“Is all well?” he asked shortly.
The albino nodded. “There was some trouble out by Mordreth last month—some of the prospectors decided that if they cleared a bit of the Forest their work would be easier—but we settled all that.”
“You made a warning of them, I hope.”
“I left them impaled on tree limbs, in such a posture that implied the trees might have more volition than Mordreth gives them credit for.” His eyes sparkled redly. “They’ll think twice before fetching their axes again.”
“Excellent,” he approved. And it was. A taste of normalcy, after so many months of tension.
The albino bowed again. “I had an excellent teacher.”
Together they descended into the lightless depths of the keep itself, where even the moonlight was not allowed to intrude. Though the Forest outside was thriving, the building’s interior had not done quite so well. There was dust in the numarble halls, he noticed, irritated. He thought in addition that there was a faint ammoniac smell, like that of stale urine, wafting toward them from a distant corridor. Had the albino’s wolf charges been given free run of the keep? Perhaps Amoril himself had seen fit to mark the building in the manner of his pets; Tarrant wouldn’t put it past him. He felt rage rise up inside him like a tidal wave, but then drew in a deep breath and forced himself to let it go, unvoiced. For all he knew the smell wasn’t even real, but a sensory illusion meant to foster discord between him and his servants. He wouldn’t let it distract him now. Once Calesta was safely out of the picture there’d be time enough to teach Amoril the fine points of a Cleansing, and to see that he received sufficient practice in its use.
“What about the Forest?” he asked, forcing his thoughts onto other paths. “My latest Workings?”
“There was a problem with that disease you introduced into the scuttler population just before you left.” It seemed to him that the albino was slightly on edge; was he anticipating retribution for his housekeeping failures, or was something more significant at the root of it? “It mutated spontaneously and was beginning to threaten other species. I isolated and destroyed the infected animals, which will hold the disease at bay for a while, but in the long run a more permanent solution will have to be found.”
The Hunter nodded, his eyes never leaving his apprentice. “I’ll design a counterphage for the new mutation. You have samples of the infected flesh?”
There was a door at the end of the corridor they were traversing; the albino pulled it open for him. “Of course, my lord.”
“Such concern over minute biological detail is commendable, Amoril. I’m pleased by your development.”
“One learns a lot when one is left alone, my lord.”
Black halls, dark curtains, a lightless and soothing domain: he drew confidence from it step by step, and from the chill power flowing about his feet. This place was his strength, he thought. His soul. As long as he had the Forest, no man could stand against him.
And no demon either,
he thought darkly.
Not even a Iezu.
Down through the keep they went, Amoril following his lead in silence, until they reached his library. There, on shelves stacked ten feet high, were accumulated all his notes from the last five hundred years.
Would that I had begun this work earlier!
He withdrew a volume of demonological data and handed it to Amoril.
Would that I had understood, in the arrogance of my youth, just how much memory can be lost after nine hundred years.
BOOK: Crown of Shadows
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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