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Authors: Clayton Emery

Sword Play (31 page)

BOOK: Sword Play
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… death.

“Noooooo!”

Blind with rage and horror and sorrow, Sunbright came to all fours. Harvester dragged on stone, and in fury he ripped the sword from his belt, prepared to throw it down into the burning chasm and himself after it. If he hadn’t worn his heavy sword, perhaps she needn’t have pushed him. If he’d thrown it first… If she’d only told him, he could have hurled her first.

If only, the death of dreams.

Frantic, he scrambled to the very edge, leaning out and craning his neck to see. But roaring heat seared his eyeballs and curled his sweat-damp hair. If only she’d landed on some outcropping. If only …

Something tugged at his boot, and he spun in place. Blind rage was creeping up on him, an urge to kill and smash and destroy. It was a curse of his people, he knew, the berserker’s rage that made a man or woman charge into battle and kill and kill until he or she was cut down and hacked to ribbons.

And the one who’d tugged his boot was Sysquemalyn, the source of all this trouble.

Howling like a banshee, the barbarian locked both hands on the mage’s throat, raised her in the air, and shook her so savagely her teeth rattled and her neck almost snapped. He screamed, “You! You did this! You killed her! Your scheming and plotting and desire for power…”

Hoisted as high as a chicken at slaughter, Sysquemalyn struggled, kicked, raked the back of his hands with chipped red nails. Only her personal shield kept her alive, for the barbarian’s strength was awe-inspiring. This man could snap her neck like a straw.

Hammering and drumming on his arms and chest, she still tried reason. “Yes, it’s my fault! But don’t kill me, or you’ll never get out of here alive! You still need magic—”

“I don’t care if I die!” Spittle flew from Sunbright’s lips. His face was a gargoyle’s leer, his mouth dragged down and distorted, his eyes flaming red. For the first time, Sysquemalyn was truly frightened of him. This “mud man” was suddenly the most dangerous being in this corner of hell. “I’ll see you dead first!”

“Greenwillow … wouldn’t… want that!” the mage gasped. Despite her shield, her throat was constricted, and she gagged on a snarl. “Don’t waste her sacrifice, fool. She kept you alive to live and fight. Help is on the way. Now fight! For her!”

The command to attack penetrated Sunbright’s grief-stricken mind and he snatched up his sword. Running across the cracked floor, the first thing he encountered was one of the blind giants, presently mauling an imp with both fists. The human roared and attacked both. Flinging Harvester behind him with no attempt to parry or shield, he swung so hard he cut clean through the imp’s horned head and deep into the thigh of the giant. When it turned, as dead-white as a rotten fish, as strong as an oak tree, he slung the sword directly overhead. The bending giant felt the sword strike it square between its eyes, smack in the forehead, and the awesome blow stunned even this insensate thing. It collapsed full out, but by then Sunbright had attacked elsewhere.

Right, left, whirling behind him, the berserker lashed out at everything that moved, as mindless and hostile as the blind giants themselves. He saw nothing but a red haze and moving shapes, and he struck, again and again. From far off he heard voices: the pit fiend’s howl, Candlemas calling his name, Sysquemalyn screaming spells. But nothing penetrated, except the fact that Greenwillow was dead and had died to save his worthless hide. So on and on he fought, intent on killing until he was killed.

But gradually, the red haze gave way to white. Bright whiteness, brighter than that of the bone creatures, brighter than sun on snow or the biggest star. The white light pulsed and flared, flooding the dark chamber with brightness never seen in these depths before. Even Sunbright, berserk and raging, couldn’t face the white light, and he had to turn away, looking for more enemies.

But there were none to be found. They’d retreated, hundreds of them. Gibbering in dismay, whole rivers of fiends jumped gaps and chasms in the floor to race for fissures and caves and other exits. Leaning from the white light high above the lava pool, the pit fiend roared at them, even kicked and crushed its followers to stop them. But it couldn’t stem the retreating tide any more than it could extinguish that blinding light.

Finally, bathed in fearsome light, Sunbright let Harvester’s bloodied nose fall. Candlemas and Sysquemalyn waited, all the embattled humans squinting, unable to stare at the light.

But the two mages wore expressions of dead weariness blended with relief. Candlemas breathed, “Thank all the gods we know and those we don’t. It worked.”

Then the white light spoke.

Chapter 17

The blazing white light slowly spiraled inward, waning, until there stood in the air above the chamber a woman Sunbright had never seen before. Her hair was glossy white, though she was young, her skin pale and smooth, her gown a simple long black robe chased in silver down the front and around the hem and sleeves.

Mostly it was her manner that stunned the barbarian: she was as cool as a glacier, confident in her immense power. There was nothing in this room she couldn’t grind under with one step, her calm air suggested. And Sunbright, his mind cloudy with grief and hatred, wondered if she were indeed a rescuer, or a worse threat than these monsters.

“Lady Polaris!” sneered the tusked-faced pit fiend. Beside the glorious white-haired woman, the creature looked like some grub turned from under a rotten log. “You bitch! What do you mean invading my kingdom?”

Even the woman’s voice was cool. “I shan’t keep you long, Prinquis. I’ve come only to retrieve some of my possessions. I don’t care to lose my most promising apprentices. Not even to their own folly.”

Turning in midair, she located the filthy and bedraggled Candlemas and Sysquemalyn. A white-painted nail pointed. “There they are. I’ll just fetch them along home.”

“Not so!” The pit fiend roared in hatred. “You’ve overstepped yourself this time! Hordes, destroy her!”

That, thought Sunbright, would be difficult, considering she was suspended in the air. But the hounds of hell, commanded to fight and die and rise again and fight and die again, for all eternity, surged forward, pushed by the wave of hate flooding from the pit fiend. Imps bounded like crabbed grasshoppers, bouncing higher each time to grapple for the white-haired woman. Blind giants blundered forward, crushing lemures between their toes. And the few surviving erinyes, naked and dusty, plucked up their stalactite-daggers and flapped clumsily toward the shining woman.

None got closer than a dozen feet. Without even raising her hands, the archmage hurled a pulse of white light like an errant star. Sunbright grunted and wished he’d had a warning, for the brightness seared his eyeballs and left a purple dot centered in his vision that half blinded him.

When he could see again, he realized the blast had been more than light. Feathers and hide and horns littered the ground for scores of feet around Lady Polaris. But there weren’t enough scraps to account for the attackers, and Sunbright had to reconstruct what had occurred from the burnt stench in the air. The first circle of erinyes and imps must have been simply obliterated, evaporated to not even dust. The second wave had been crisped as if by lightning, leaving only feathers and toenails and horns. Farther out, fiends were seared and scarred beyond belief. Some had lost faces, the skin burned down to skulls, yet they feebly clung to life and moaned and gibbered. Others had lost arms, skin, eyes, lips, and these poor wretches crawled backward to live and suffer or to die and find relief. And all the others, mostly unharmed, had learned their lesson, and cowered low and whimpered.

Most amazingly, Sunbright and Sysquemalyn and Candlemas had stood at the same distance as the third rank, and so should have been killed. But the destruction had circumvented them, while even the lemures behind them had been reduced to puddles. The barbarian marveled at this woman’s power, so mighty yet so contained. If she represented just one of the archmages of the Netherese Empire, it must surely endure a thousand years or more.

The high mage waited, doing nothing but shaking back her frosty hair. Sunbright wondered that she could stay so cool in a such an inferno. It occurred to him then that she might not be here, that what he saw was some projection of her, like a candle-show mimed behind a sheet. Who could know anything of how these archmages worked? Sunbright could no more understand them than a beetle could comprehend a king.

Prinquis, the pit fiend, surveyed the casual destruction of its kingdom, and its fury mounted beyond reckoning. Rearing on its great splayed feet, pounding its chest with horny hands, it threw back its head and roared a battle challenge that made the walls ring and Sunbright cover both ears with his hands. Then the fiend spread its leather wings and launched itself at Lady Polaris, like a red mountain taking off.

It fared no better than its slaves, though this time the archmage did raise her hands, mildly, as if chiding a child. Sunbright saw her power more clearly now, for only a single cometlike pulse flared from her hands. It struck Prinquis square in the face and almost snapped the creature’s neck. Slammed as if by a giant sledgehammer, the fiend was bowled head over heels to slam into the far wall. A wing crunched like kindling; then the beast crashed upon the bluff where it had previously stood, a red, charred heap.

A moment of silence hung breathless over the pit. Imps and lemures and skeletal men hunkered and scuttled like cockroaches exposed to the blinding flare of Lady Polaris and her power.

Then, a stir on the bluff. Shaken and battered, Prinquis rose anew.

Its broken wing trailed and dripped gore; its face was red-black and stippled with blood that spattered its tusks. With scabby hands it scrubbed its face, making a coarse rasping noise. Reaching behind it, the fiend straightened the broken wing, snapping it back into place with a shudder. Then, most amazing to Sunbright, the creature grinned around its tusks.

“First round to you, Polaris. But you won’t get away from here. You don’t have what it takes to best me, not in the long run. Your pulse couldn’t kill me, so nothing can.”

Strong again, the fiend touched the wall of the cavern behind it. Sunbright knew the barrier was solid rock, yet the creature inserted its hand into the cleft and made the granite crumble like cheese. Looking up at the white-haired mage, Prinquis called, “Shall I ply my strength now? How about I tear down these walls around us? Collapse this cavern so even a snake couldn’t wriggle through? Then you and I— near-immortals that we are—can lie crushed in darkness, trapped but alive, feeling yet unable to move, smelling the dead around us rot to nothing. Think of all we could discuss in a thousand years, Polaris. Think what it would be like to miss the sunlight for a millennium. In such time, could you conjure a spell that could truly harm me, here in my own abode?”

Sunbright reeled at the notion of being trapped in blackness for generations. Yet Lady Polaris, on high like a god, never even winked. Her voice continued coolly, “I didn’t think I could harm you, Prinquis. That’s why I arranged a portal between here and the only place you fear: the Abyss.”

A wail rose from the assembled horde, and there began a new scampering to get clear, to escape. The pit fiend roared in rage and horror as Lady Polaris flicked a finger at it, or rather behind it.

On the far wall of the chamber, a glowing line appeared, like the mark of a glowworm. The light was white, the work of the archmage, and thickened and spread. Then, as if it were a blanket being torn, the wall split and peeled back. Rocks were smashed to dust or spit out to bounce on the bluff and off the pit fiend’s thick hide. The whole wall was crushed aside, leaving an opening big enough to admit Prinquis, with wings spread.

But what erupted through the rent to the Abyss were fiends larger and even more savage than Prinquis. Towering, bull-headed, bewinged, and horned, the horde of balor rushed into the great chamber in a vast, earth-shaking stampede. In their fearsome claws were morning stars, flails, many-tailed whips, and other instruments of cruelty. Flames wreathed the monsters so they were difficult to see, but clear enough were their cries of savage ecstasy.

Sunbright couldn’t begin to guess how long this feud had been raging. He’d heard Sysquemalyn talk of Prinquis’s never-ending war with bitter rivals, the tanar’ri of the Abyss. He supposed these creatures could wage feuds just as tribes of men and women did in the tundra and highlands and elsewhere. And he had to admire Lady Polaris, who coolly set one gang of fiends upon another so she could hover above and watch the senseless slaughter she’d engendered.

And as long as he lived, Sunbright would never forget the horror of the display. Balor killed for sheer joy. They grabbed imps by the arms and ripped them apart, even splitting the hollow leather bodies down the legs and torsos. With broad hooves, they stamped and stamped on skeletal fiends until only white dust remained, and they stamped yet on that. With great sweeps of their flails, they spattered lemures to gobbets, then punched down on the squirming mass to ignite it, so the lemures burned even as they reformed. The barbarian was sickened by the sight and wanted to cover his eyes to shut it out. This was ferocity on an unheard-of scale, and he knew it had raged for centuries and would continue for all time. From the glee these balor exhibited, he knew they would kill their rivals, crush them to flinders, burn them to ashes, and then resurrect them to do it all again.

Then he didn’t have to see any more, for a cool voice cut through the chaos. “Children, come.” Magically he was lifted off his feet, levitated along with Candlemas and Sysquemalyn to hover at the feet of Lady Polaris. With a single finger she’d lifted them, and now raised another digit to take them elsewhere.

The three of them, Sunbright thought. Not four.

Not Greenwillow, who was gone forever.

For a second, he wanted to stay and be killed, to see if he could find her in some afterlife.

Then a blinding white flare from a frosty fingernail engulfed him, and he could see and feel nothing.

BOOK: Sword Play
5.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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