Authors: Clayton Emery
And too, Wrathburn had told Sunbright to stay put so they might both return to the cave, where the barbarian would be lifelong bard to sing the praises of Wrathburn the All-High.
But as if in answer, Ruellana called out and pointed up. Through smoke and haze, they saw a slender shape beat stubby wings as Wrathburn thrashed homeward. “He’s had enough,” Sunbright breathed. “And he must have forgotten all about me. The raven said he wasn’t too bright.”
Half a mile down the road, away from the smoke and noise, having slaked their thirst and mopped off soot and sweat at a creek, the three studied the sky and debated how long to walk before sunset, which was not far off. Sunbright reflected to himself how just this morning he’d walked into a dragon’s cave. It felt good to be haggling over a camping spot and thinking about shaving a bow and fletching arrows, so he might shoot game on the trek to Dalekeva. And they’d have to watch for orcish patrols, lest the creatures hadn’t heard their master was deador if they had, and reverted to their old habits of loot and rape.
Man and elf walked ahead on the narrow road, Ruellana trailing behind them. She sang gaily, a lengthy epic of love and sorrow and loss and more love, a tune designed to entertain a court on long winter nights. Sunbright walked beside Greenwillow, studying her surreptitiously.
What now? he wondered. He had his comrade-in-arms and his sometime-lover both on his hands. Greenwillow, he hoped, cared for him deeply. But her heart had been wounded when he’d run off to pursue the phantom Ruellana. Yet how much love could there be between human and elf?
And whowhatwas Ruellana? Definitely not a simple country girl, not quite a succubus either, but definitely a bloodthirsty bitch when aroused. Little chance of long-term romance there. For all her exotic, cool facade, Greenwillow was the more uncomplicated of the two, while Ruellana, who pretended innocence, was some complex creation he couldn’t begin to comprehend. But she smoldered sexually and loved as hard as she laughed and fought, which counted for a lot when his groin and his heart warred. Still, Greenwillow’s lithe form would fit well under his hands….
A scream”Sunbright!”jerked both fighters around.
There in the road shimmered a gilt-edged portal like a ring around the sun. Swooping from the middle came a huge yellow glob only vaguely man-shaped, with arms and head. The jellyfish arms had enfolded Ruellana and were dragging her toward the shimmering portal. She fought valiantly, but striking the blob only resulted in her hands and arms sinking into it, entrapping her.
“Sunbright!” she screamed. “Stay away! Save yourself” Yellow fingers clamped down over her mouth. Headfirst, she was yanked into the shrinking portal.
Unsheathing Harvester as he ran, Sunbright dove and grabbed and latched on to Ruellana’s boot with his free hand. He might as well have grabbed the reins of a double team of plow horses. Smothered in yellow ectoplasm, the woman was hauled steadily into the glittering portal.
Hanging on doggedly to Ruellana’s slippery boot, Sunbright stabbed along the length of the woman’s struggling body, frantic not to jab her accidentally. But Harvester’s fine point slid into the mass without striking anything, and the blade came out clean.
Greenwillow ran to the barbarian’s side, grabbed his arm, and tugged. Most of Ruellana, kicking and writhing, had slid inside the blob, so only her legs below the knees remained.
“Let go!” the elf shrilled. “You can’t help her!”
“I can go with her!”
“No! Don’t! We’ll find another way to rescue her!” There was fear in Greenwillow’s voice.
“I can’t… desert her now!” Sunbright grunted. “I didn’t desert… you!”
“But she’s not what she seems!” the elf wailed. “Please, don’t”
“Get to Dalekeva!” Sunbright roared. “I’ll meet you!”
Then, hanging on to only a foot, he lunged headfirst at the portal, now no bigger than his hips.
With a twinkle of golden light on his hobnailed boots, he was gone.
And Greenwillow was shrieking his name to empty air.
With the rough cloth of his sleeve, Candlemas polished the palantir again and again. “Unbelievable! How could she? It’s unbelievable!”
High in his tower workshop, he pressed his nose against the black glass, but there was nothing to see except Greenwillow circling one spot, crying Sunbright’s name, alone on the road near a city shedding smoke.
Moments earlier, the mage had chuckled in triumph, for he’d finally won. As the final bet, he’d wagered Sunbright could stand up to the One King, who was known to be as crazy as a bedbug and as unpredictable, and come away unscathed. Sunbright had not only faced down the king, but also destroyed him, or at least helped.
And inadvertently, Candlemas had penetrated the blank spot on his map. It turned out that the One King had set up wards to prevent scrying, so no one might learn he was undead. Clever, but more clever was Candlemas who, through his agent the barbarian, had made the One King bobble his wards. A red dragon dropping in tended to distract a body, alive or otherwise.
So Candlemas had killed two birds with one stone: he’d finally beaten Sysquemalyn and increased his knowledge. And knowledge, every mage knew, was the only lasting power.
But suddenly, out of nowhere, a shimmering portal had snatched away Sysquemalyn and his barbarian. “Unbelievable!”
“Like my little surprise?” came a laughing query.
The mage whirled to see Sysquemalyn, still dressed in her faux-pirate’s garb, stride jauntily into his workshop with a thick book cradled in her arms. The woman raked back her red hair, which complemented her flushed cheeks, and wiggled her hips as she walked, making her sword harness jingle.
“I’m brilliant, am I not? And a fine actress! And even though your meaty barbarian is still alive, I’ve gotten the book the Big White Boar sought. So I win this round”
“Shut up! Shut up! Stop jabbering! How did you get away?”
“Get away?” The woman blinked at his rudeness and confusion. “From what? Oh, the blob? I commanded it to yank me through the portal so what’s-his-name would follow me! I made the fiend, silly. It’s my servant.”
“Made it? Your servant?”
“Don’t mock me, Candlemas.” Green eyes flashed beneath red brows. “I’ll concede you won the second test, or whichever number this is, but now we’re even again, so we’ll defer our crude gratifications. Neither of us wants to be flayed alive, after all. So I’ve initiated another test, and the game continues”
“Game?” Candlemas jammed his finger against the palantir. “You’d play a game there? I’ve never seen a portal like that, but I’ve read of them! It looks as if you opened a doorway into the Nine Hells! Is that true?”
The redheaded wizard replied with a tsk and a wave of the hand. “You’re being petulant and picky. I think you’re jealous!”
“So it’s true.” breathed the mage. “I can’t believe even you could be that mad!”
“And I can’t believe you’re that boring. I’m leaving.” She minced for the door, sword swinging in time to her red-striped hips. But she stopped and leveled a red-nailed finger at him. “Ken this, hedgehopper! I know perfectly well what I’m doing. I’m in complete control. And with what I’m learning, I’ll soon be way beyond you, running an empire with the Dead White Fish emptying my chamber pots while you’re still here dosing sick cows or whatever youWhat?”
Seeing the horror on his face, she peered behind her.
A shimmering portal had opened in the workshop. From it flowed a giant that resembled a jaundiced genie. Its head was anvil-shaped, its mouth a gaping gash lined with jagged teeth, its eyes black holes like tears in a blanket. It was bright yellow.
One, two, then nine hooked arms rippled and wrapped around the quailing Sysquemalyn. In seconds, she was being dragged into the portal.
Face twisted in terror, she fought by both rattling off protection spells and grabbing at furniture, then by clawing for a hold in the cracks in the floor when she fell and struck her chin. The nine hooked hands mauled her, shredding leather and clothes and skin until blood spurted and hair tore.
Candlemas wanted to dive in to save her, or to utter a spell, or hurl a magical weapon. But he stood frozen by some unseen, unknown force and couldn’t even blink.
Then the bleeding, sobbing Sysquemalyn was dragged through the portal, her red hair disappearing last. Her screams were cut off as the portal winked out.
Candlemas could move again, and the first thing he did was grab the table’s edge to support his shaking legs. But even that comfort soured, for something flickered on its surface: the palantir.
Bidden to scry out sources of magic, the black glass globe now revealed a rocky field wherein another portal flickered open. Candlemas guessed the area was somewhere north of Tinnainen. But what magic was working there?
He bit his lip as the portal widened, disgorging a rolling ball of fire that splayed open like flaming oil. But this flame ran uphill, swarming over rocks and up a scrawny tree, igniting it like a torch. The flame continued onward, slithering around rocks and, upon touching a pool of water, evaporated it.
Hellfire, he thought. The real thing. But how… ?
The globe flickered, revealing another magic source. Here was a field of rye, and above it, another portal. This one widened by hundreds of feet, then disgorged thousands of writhing maggots and grubs that spilled onto the field.
Another flicker, and a ghoulish arm poked from a portal, only to be sheared off as the spasming orifice winked shut. Another flicker, and the sea boiled to steam as more hellfire appeared underwater. Then another, and another, and another.
Never had Candlemas seen so much magic occur in so many different places at once. Torilthe whole worldhad sprung hundreds of leaks.
Leaks from the Nine Hells.
Then a face materialized, a female mage whom Candlemas had met in the past, but whose name he’d forgotten. She shrilled, “If anyone can hear, in the name of the gods, send help! My caverns are overrun with trolls by the thousands! They’re” Her face disappeared. Moments later, a lesser mage flickered in, yelled Candlemas’s name, and begged him to contact Lady Polaris and inform her that purple slime ran in rivers inside his manor, originating in his workshop.
There were more reports crackling over the ether, more fiendish invasions, more eruptions in the fabric of magic. Some deaths, many losses, boundless destruction.
“May the gods help us all,” Candlemas breathed. “Sysquemalyn’s cracked the wall to the Nine Hells. The fool, in her blind trifling she’s endangered Netheril itself!”
A shriek interrupted his dread thoughts. Running to the door of his workshop, he shouted down a corridor, then froze. A gigantic black bat pursued a screaming maid. More spun up the stairwells, forcing him to slam the door shut. Dashing to the window, he saw thousands more fluttering around Delia, attacking anything that moved for its blood.
The horror had come home.
Candlemas beat his forehead in terror and frustration. Only the greatest archmages of Netheril had ever dared to challenge the Nine Hells, and most of them had never returned. Sysquemalyn had been sucked into its maw, and her and Candlemas’s home, indeed their entire world, was under attack. The high mages of the Netherese would come soon to investigate, and they would trace the trail to here.
Their punishment for Sysquemalyn, and himself for not stopping her, was too awful to think about.
He had only one choice.
Standing still, he raised both hands over his head, first and fourth fingers extended.
And raised a high, wailing keen.
In growing dimness, Greenwillow sat on a stone wall and stared at the space where Sunbright had disappeared. Perhaps, wherever he’d gone, he’d find a way to escape and come back to her. She doubted it, but didn’t know what else to do.
A cool evening wind swirled from the mountains and kissed her cheek, whispering in her ear seductively. Elves weren’t supposed to fall in love with humans, the message seemed to remind her. The two races stood apart for good reasons. And all along on this benighted quest, her doomed mission to deliver condemnation from a haughty elven council to an undead king, she’d fought to stay aloof, reserved, cool. She’d battled against love harder than any mortal enemy she’d ever fought. In vain. She Who Shapes All had laid the path before Greenwillow’s feet, and the half-elf could but walk it.
Until now, when the one she loved had catapulted after a temptress, a trollop, a …
Without any tickle to her keen elven senses, a man stood by her side.
Instinctively she shot up, laid a hand to her sword’s pommel, and slid the weapon from its sheath a hair. Certainly there was magic about the human, for he hadn’t walked to this spot. That she knew. But too, he looked vaguely familiar, was podgy, bald, and bearded, dressed in a plain linen smock. Then she recalled.
“You … talked to Sunbright that day just before he joined our party of merchants. In the village of Augerbend, it was.”
“Did I? Oh, yes, yes.” Candlemas was distracted. A lot had happened since then. He stepped across the road to where the portal had materialized.
“But who are you?” demanded the elf. “Sunbright said you were steward of the castle, but that was untrue.”
“Hmmm?” The mage studied the wreckage of Tinnainen, the gaps pounded in the walls, the trickles of smoke in a dozen places, the collapsed roofs and gutted palace. He shook his head in wonder at what he and Sysquemalyn had stirred upall for a silly wager, or was it something more? Now the air reeked with the residue of mighty magics, of dragons and liches and others, power only a Neth could master. But at least that battle was over, the fires out, Wrathburn departed. Within days, Tinnainen would be a backwater againunless the Nine Hells erupted nearby.
He frowned at the sky. Was his eyesight fading? No, he’d just come so far east the sun had already set here. He felt old, was all. Constant intrigue and tension ground a body down.
“I asked,” Greenwillow said, jerking her sword from its scabbard with a steel whisper, “who are you?”
He turned to look at her. Despite smudges and nicks, she was more lovely in real life than when seen through a palantir. Always swayed by feminine beauty, the mage spoke formally. “I’m sorry, my dear. I am a steward, but of another castle, uh, higher up. I’m a friend.”