Darwath 2 - The Walls Of The Air

BOOK: Darwath 2 - The Walls Of The Air
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Prologue

Gil Patterson thought her vision of the strange city was all a dream—until the wizard Ingold Inglorion appeared one night in her kitchen, seeking a place to bring the infant Prince of Dare from the ancient horror that was attacking the city of Gae.

Rudy Solis didn't believe in wizards and magic—even when he saw Ingold emerge, with an infant in his arms, beside the place where Rudy had stopped to fix his car.

But when one of the monstrous, evil Dark crossed the Void in Ingold's wake, their only escape was back with the wizard to the embattled world from which he had fled.

It was a world where magic worked within a logic of its own. And it was a world where the loathsome Dark were again ravening, after they had lain almost forgotten in underground lairs for three thousands years. Gae had fallen, and the city of Karst was jammed with refugees. The King was dead, and proud, ambitious Alwir was now Regent for the infant Prince Tir, as brother to the young Queen Minalde—or Alde , as most called her.

Then the Dark struck in massive numbers at Karst. In the fighting, Gil discovered that even a graduate student of history could become a warrior. And Rudy found himself aiding the young Queen to save her child again from the Dark.

At Ingold's urging, those who were left began the long, agonizing march toward the Keep of Renweth through trails choked with snow and buffeted by mountain winds. During that flight, dissension among the leaders was as much a danger as the trailing Dark and the White Raiders, who were coming from the plains to loot. Alwir and the fanatic lady Govannin, Bishop of the Church, were engaged in a struggle for power. And both feared Ingold— the Bishop because all wizardry was evil in her Faith.

To Gil and Rudy, unused to the hardships of freezing cold and day-after-day marching, the trip was hard. But Gil found herself accepted as one of the Guards, the elite fighting force of Gae. And Rudy found that Alde returned his love. His joy in this was equaled only by his discovery that he could call up fire—and by Ingold's promise to teach him to be a wizard.

In the end, through the efforts of Ingold, some eight thousand people reached the monstrous, black Keep, built three thousand years before by wizardry as a defense against the previous scourge of the Dark. There, in its vast chaos of deserted aisles and chambers, they could make themselves a refuge for a time, though the perils before them were many and terrible.

Yet somehow Gil and Rudy discovered that they no longer had any desire to return across the Void to their own world.

Chapter One

The setting was the Shamrock Bar in San Bernardino on a rainy Saturday night. Rain drummed softly on the plate glass window, and the tawdry gleam of lights shone on the wet pavement outside. Two bearded bikers and a sleazy blonde were playing pool in the back. Rudy Solis swigged off his second beer of the evening and watched the room. There was something he had lost, something that had been taken from him, but he no longer remembered what it had been. Only a numb ache was left.

He was out of money and not nearly drunk enough yet. Behind the bar, Billie May moved back and forth along the shelf of empty glasses and bottles of beer, her reflection trailing her in the flyspecked mirror, showing her black eye make-up and the red lace of her bra at the low neck of her sweater. The mirror revealed all the usual Saturday night crowd, people Rudy had known since high school—since childhood, some of them: Peach McClain, the fattest Hell's Angel in the world, with his old lady; Crazy Red, the karate instructor; Big Bull; and the gang from the steel mill. But it was as if they were strangers. He made a gesture with one hand, and a beer bottle levitated from the shelf before the mirror and drifted across the intervening space to his hand. No one noticed. He poured the beer and drank, hardly tasting it. From the jukebox, the tinny whine of steel guitars backed a syrupy nasal voice hymning adultery. The hurt of the loss within him was unbearable.

He let go of the bottle in midair a foot above the surface of the bar and made it stay there. Still no one noticed, or no one cared, anyway. Rudy stared past it at his own reflection in the mirror—the sharp bone structure and backswept eyebrows in their frame of long, reddish-black hair. His fingers were stained with car paint and grease, and his name was tattooed across a flaming torch on his wrist. Behind him, the plate glass window had grown suddenly dark, as if all light had died outside.

He turned, chilled with a horror he could not define. No streetlights were visible outside, no sheen of neon, only darkness that seemed to press against the window, soft and living—darkness that stirred with a restless movement, as if creatures impossibly sinuous haunted its livid depths. He tried to cry out, and his voice was only a kind of feeble rattle in his throat. He tried to point, but the people in the bar ignored him, as if he were not there. A bolt of energy or power from outside struck the wall of the bar like a monster fist, caving it in amid an explosion of shattering bricks. Through the torn wall, darkness rolled like a wave.

“Rudy!” Cold hands caught his flailing wrist. “Rudy, wake up! What is it?”

He woke gasping, sweat icing him to the bone. In the darkness of the room, his wizard's sight showed him Minalde, Queen of Darwath and mother of the heir, sitting up in bed beside him, the starred silk of the counterpane gleaming around her shoulders and the fear in her wide iris-dark eyes making her seem younger than her nineteen years. The warm, still blackness of the room smelled of beeswax and of the perfume of her tumbled hair. “What was it?” she asked him again, her voice very low. “Was it a dream?”

“Yeah.” Rudy lay back beside her, shivering, as if deathly cold. “Only a dream.”

In the lightless barracks of the Guards on the first level, Gil Patterson woke, her dreams of quiet scholarship in another universe called California broken by an unshakable sense of impending horror. She lay on her narrow bunk for a time, listening open-eyed to the small sounds of the fortress Keep of Dare, and to the hammering of her own heart. The Keep was safe, she told herself. The one place in the world where the Dark Ones could not break in. But the terror of the dreams grew rather than diminished in her heart

At last she rose, soundless as a cat. The dim yellowish glow from the banked hearth in the main guardroom threw a feeble reflection into the cell shared by the women of the day watch. It touched anonymous shoulders, shut eyes, tangled hair, the black cloaks with the simple white quatrefoil emblem of the Guards, and the hard gleam of steel. By that faint suggestion of light, she pulled on a shirt and breeches, wrapped herself in her cloak, and slipped from the room. The floor was icy to her bare feet as she made her way between the bunks in the guardroom beyond. She guessed it to be midway through the deep-night watch, the watch between midnight and morning, but time was different in the windowless Keep.

She pushed aside the curtain at the far end of that room.

Ingold the wizard was not in his so-called quarters. Actually, the wizard slept in a sort of cubbyhole that the Guards used to store part of the food supplies they'd scrounged, salvaged, and defended against all comers in the wreck of the Realm. The feeble gleam of the light from the hearth showed Gil a hollow in the sacks of grain piled in the back of the closet, a couple of moth-eaten buffalo robes, and a very grubby patchwork quilt, but no wizard. His staff was gone, too.

She moved quickly back through the guardroom, through the outer chamber used for storing weapons and casks of Blue Ruin and bathtub gin, and out into the cavernous depths of the Aisle. The great central hall of the Keep stretched nearly a thousand feet from the double gates at the west end to the dark, turreted wall of the administrative headquarters at the east. She might almost have been outside, for the featureless black walls that bounded the Aisle on either side stretched up out of sight, supporting a ceiling whose shadows had never been dispelled. Across the broad floor murmured the deep, black water channels, spanned by their tiny bridges; around her the stillness was like the great silence of the snowbound mountains outside. But instead of moon or stars, the darkness was lighted by torches that flickered on either side of the dark steel of the gates. The dim orange flame defined a small double circle on the smooth blackness of the polished floor and touched fiery echoes in bolt, brace, and locking ring.

Where the two halos of red flame merged, a man stood, his rough white hair fringed by the fire in a line of burning gold.

She called out softly, “Ingold!”

He turned and lifted an inquiring eyebrow. Gil pulled her cloak more tightly around her shoulders and pattered up the broad steps to the gate. Since she had crossed the Void in his company, to come unwillingly to this other universe, she couldn't remember a time when she had been warm.

“Yes, my dear?” he asked, in a voice like raw whiskey and velvet. The face revealed by the restless light had never been more than nondescript, but sixty-odd years of existence had given it an extremely lived-in look, seamed and wrinkled and mostly hidden behind a close-clipped, rather scrubby white beard. When she stood beside him, her eyes were level with his.

“What is it?” she asked him quietly.

He only said, “I think you know.”

She glanced nervously over her shoulder at the dark steel of the gates. Here the horror was stronger, a sense of brooding malevolence in the night. Here she felt the strange, chill terror, the irrational sensation of being watched from across unknowable gulfs of time by a malign and incomprehensible intelligence. “They've come,” she whispered, “haven't they?”

Ingold rested a hand gently on her shoulder. “I think you had better go arm.”

Her eyes dark in the wan bluish witchlight, Minalde watched Rudy dress. “What's wrong?” she whispered.

“I don't know.” His voice was low, so as not to wake the royal infant who slept in his gilded cradle in the shadows on the opposite wall. “But I think I'd better be getting back.” After a month in this world, the alien clothing was more or less familiar to him, and he no longer felt self-conscious in the homespun breeches and full-sleeved shirt, tunic, knee-length boots, and gaily embroidered surcoat he'd scrounged off a dead nobleman after the great massacre by the Dark Ones at Karst. But he still mourned the simplicity of jeans and a T-shirt. He buckled on his sword and leaned across the tumble of variegated silks to kiss the girl who watched him so silently. “Will you be at the gate in the morning to see us off?”

His hands framed her face. She caught his wrists, as if to hold him to her for a few minutes longer. “No,” she said quietly. “I can't, Rudy. It's a long way to Quo and a dangerous road. Who knows if you'll even find the Hidden
City or the Archmage, once you reach the end?” Her blue eyes shimmered suddenly in the pale phosphorescence of the witchlight. “I never could stand good-bys.”

“Hey!” Rudy leaned over her again, his hands gripping her neck and shoulders, the dark hair spilling heavily down over his fingers as he drew her mouth to his. “Hey, Ingold's gonna be with me. We'll be okay. I can't imagine anyone or anything crazy enough to take on that old geezer. It won't be goodby.”

She smiled crookedly up at him. “Then there's no point in making much of it, is there?” Their lips met again, gently this time, the loose strands of her hair tickling his face. “Go with God, Rudy, though the Bishop would die in her tracks if she heard me say that to a wizard.”

Through their next kiss Rudy mumbled something about the Bishop. “Which probably wouldn't do her any harm,” he added as their mouths parted. He reached up tenderly and brushed the tear from her cheek. In all his twenty-five years, he couldn't remember anyone, man or woman, who had ever been concerned about what he was going to do. Why did it have to be a girl in another universe? he wondered. Why did it have to be a Queen? Another tear stole down her cheek, so he whispered, “Hey, you look after Pugsley while I'm gone.” His way of referring to Prince Tir, the last heir of the House of Dare, made her laugh in spite of herself.

“All right.” She smiled shakily.

“We'll find the Archmage and his Council,” Rudy whispered encouragingly. “See if we don't.” He kissed her once more quickly and turned and fled, the bluish feather of light dying behind him.

In darkness he hurried through the mazes of the Royal Sector, misery in his heart.

She was afraid for him, and more than that, he was all she had—he and her baby son. In the past month she had lost the husband she had worshipped, the Realm she had ruled, and the world she had grown up in. Yet she had never said, “Don't go.”

And what's more, you selfish bastard, he cursed himself, it never crossed your mind not to go.

She had never questioned that his need to be a wizard took precedence over his love for her. Wretched as the truth made him, he understood it for what it was; he was first and foremost a wizard. Given a choice of what to do with the limited time remaining to him in this universe, he would rather seek the sources of his own power and the teachings that Ingold and the other wizards could give him than remain with the woman he sincerely loved.

Why did I have to find them both at the same time? he wondered miserably. Why did I have to choose?

Even her understanding of his choice was like gall in the raw wound of his guilt.

Yet there had been no possibility of another choice.

He stopped at the head of the main east stairway, leading down to the first level.

The sensation of wrongness, of unnamed horror lurking in the black mazes of the Keep, was stronger now, teasing at him like a half-heard sound. He shivered like a dog before the thunder, the hair at the nape of his neck prickling. All around him silence seemed to move through the branching corridors. Glancing nervously behind him, he started down the stairs.

Somewhere below him, a door must have been opened. Faint as a drift of incense, he caught the sound of chanting, the sweet murmurous richness of monks' voices singing the offices of the deep-night. Rudy paused on the stairs, remembering that the Church headquarters lay directly below the Royal Sector and that, to the fanatic Bishop of Gae, wizards were anathema.

BOOK: Darwath 2 - The Walls Of The Air
7.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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