Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Night of Falling Stars
    by Steven Savile
Night of Falling Stars
Artwork by Brian Hailes

Crowscrest was made up of six peaks that fell away sharply, diving five hundred feet down into the green-blue of the placid sea. Atop one of its cliffs sat Jayant Ash, cross-legged, watching the waves roll in. Gulls banked and circled overhead, scanning the water for scraps thrown up by the current. The sea's salty tang bit in Ash's throat, and day gradually ceded the sky to night, the red sky bleeding to death for another day.

Ash always came to the white cliffs to lose himself -- and Nell always laughed at him for doing so. A soldier with the soul of a poet, she called him. She didn't understand that it came with the blood. To her life was simple: the things that had to be done were done, no fuss, no bother. Nell didn't walk with death day after day -- though she frequently reminded Ash that the uncertainty and the endless waiting within death's shadow were no better. Both marked the spirit.

Ash loved her as best he could; they both knew that. But there were times like today when he wished he could be one with the water, a small wave rolling toward the shore, breaking on the rocks and being absorbed again into the anonymity of the sea, only do it again, over and over. Not for the first time, he found himself watching the white caps and wondering about the metaphysical importance of what he was watching: the endless cycle of death and rebirth being played out by even the simplest wave. Did it mirror the cycle of the soul? Were soldiers born again to serve and die and serve and die and serve?

Ash watched the waves and the moonlight's rippling shadow on them. Something was different about this night. The sea was agitated. Restless.

The gulls sensed the tremors first; their squalling grew more urgent, their circling flight more and more erratic as they struggled to ride the rising wind. Ash followed the patterns made by their wings without understanding what he was seeing or what it meant.

A moment later he felt the earth answer the gulls' cries, a violent shiver that seemed to cause the dirt and stone to ripple beneath his feet. It was the most peculiar sensation, a betrayal of the senses that transformed the solidity of the ground into a continuation of the rippling, crashing waves.

Ash scrambled away from the cliff's edge for fear it might buckle so much that it slipped away from the headland and fell beneath the waves. His fear was heightened by the sudden tortured shriek that emerged from the belly of the earth itself. He had heard nothing like it in his life. It was, Jayant Ash thought sickly, as though he was listening to the death rattle of the ground beneath his feet.

Above him the first star fell, trailing a tail of silver in the night sky. Another and another followed, and then more, streaking the sky like the moon's tears of grief for a dying earth. The sight stole his breath away. So bright were the falling stars they transformed dusk to dawn, spreading molten silver from horizon to horizon. It was as though the gods had cut their purses' strings and emptied them out across the heavens.

He staggered back further from the edge, his gaze torn between the roiling sea and the bleeding, star-streaked sky. Whatever was happening in the sky was having an effect on the sea. The waters churned violently, bubbling and frothing as the tidal pull drew it lower and lower.

Another lurch of the earth had Ash on his knees. Disbelieving his eyes, Ash followed the waves; instead of crashing into the shore, they retreated. It was a giant wave rearing up, every bit a match for the shadow of Crowscrest. Ash stared in mute horror as it continued to swell and swell, only to come crashing back to shore, hammering the high cliffs.

Then, with another tortured scream from the earth, something tore free.

The horizon buckled, throwing the sea into turmoil. The water boiled, steam hissing into white wraiths that coiled up to meet the streams of silver as the first seaweed and slime-crusted spire of stone pierced the blue-green waters.

Ash watched in wonder as seven fingers of stone clawed their way out of the depths. Both land and sea trembled as a drowned city was born again beneath the pall of Crowscrest. The spires were twisted, their majesty corroded by the sea. Foam and sea-scum lapped at the cracked and broken stones. Ash remained on his knees, watching the sea part to reveal a causeway of neatly laid octagonal stones wide enough for three men to ride abreast. The causeway ran from the base of Crowscrest to a huge portal with rotten ironwood doors pitted with barnacles.

He didn't dare stand until every spire and every wall had risen. Only then could he see that it was a citadel rather than a city; not that the difference made its return any less miraculous or terrifying. Beneath the spires the seabed rock and the citadel's white stone fused as though the emergent edifice were nothing more than another species of barnacle clinging limpet-like to the jagged rocks.

Several of the spires were twisted around on themselves; sections of others were precariously balanced. Pustules of oil-filled seaweed and clam-like shells pitted the stony facade. The water churned at its base, licking up over the causeway and around the green-slick foundations of the crumbling tower.

Then one by one peculiar blue lights glimmered into existence along the strand of sand and smooth-sided pebbles. Ash watched, but the lights did not move.

Ash was torn between competing impulses; to run toward the thing that had just burst forth from the sea or to run away from it, toward help and people that needed to know what he had witnessed. He had a duty toward them. But he had no blade and no armor. To charge in blindly, ill-equipped to defend himself, was neither wise nor heroic, it was suicide.

However, there was a darkness about the place -- a wrongness -- that put a chill deep in Jayant Ash's heart.

That chill convinced him. A soldier lived and died by his instincts. And those instincts had him making his way slowly down to the beach and toward the strange blue lights. He picked his way carefully down the cliff, skidding and sliding despite his caution, until he reached the bottom.

Closer, the lights were more like nimbus than flame. Hundreds of them lined the sand, each facing the newly-risen citadel. They stood between him and the ruin. He had to walk between them if he hoped to enter. Ash moved up beside the nearest of the lights. Shaped vaguely like a man, of like height and form, it bore no features, nor anything resembling them. He reached out tentatively, touching it with his fingers. A thrill of energy, vibrant and full of life, chased up his arm. He maintained the contact, feeling the warmth emanating from the light's core.

Ash moved from light to light. They were all the same, almost. The energies he felt coming off them varied, but each shared the same warmth and vitality. Though he half expected them to, none moved to stop him as he walked the causeway up to the ironwood gates of the citadel.

The main gates hung drunkenly on corroded hinges. He reached out, placing his palm flat against the wooden door. It felt like stone to the touch, yet the slightest pressure was enough to disturb its balance. The huge door seemed to shiver for a moment, then fell backwards, agonizingly slowly. It crashed to the courtyard's stone floor, raising a cacophony even as the flotsam settled. Cracks splintered through the wood as it came apart at the grain, echoes reverberating up and down the walls of the huge stone gate. For one sickening moment he thought the entire arch was going to collapse, burying him. Without thinking, he braced the base of the arch with his back. But the keystone held.

Ash closed his eyes and offered hurried thanks to Mashan the Maker.

As he came away from the stone arch, a voice rang out with sudden and shocking clarity: Release me! And for the moment between breaths the imperative burned within him, release me. Then the contact with the crumbling stone was broken and it was gone.

The bluish lights edged closer to Ash, like a snare tightening around the citadel, drawn in by the voice still ringing in his ears.

Release me!

Jayant Ash turned tail and ran back toward Kalatha and the Rector's palace, his head spinning with dire thoughts and remarkable visions.

Kalatha, the second of the four port cities, was a monument to the efficacy of need and desire. Merchants plying the Pearl Route were pandered to with bath houses. Fine silks and coarser fabrics adorned the back room's of tailors willing to cut cloth to the purse as well as the figure.

The buildings within the protective city wall, however, could not be considered lavish. Indeed street after street, even in the more affluent areas, saw the same white stone and green weathered shutters battling the noon sun. The facades were sterile and functional, more akin to fortifications than abodes. Only here and there could one find flourishes of personality -- botanical gardens cultivating rare and precious blossoms fighting a losing battle against the fierce heat. Stubborn vines and climbers picked away at the white stones, their occasional bursts of color adding both practical shade and a flamboyant touch.

Only the Avenue of Princesses, where flesh and companionship were available for the right coin, was remarkable for its blossoms. There and only there, flowers of every color remained in bloom throughout the year, sustained by expensive botanical alchemy. The heady fragrances of so many flowers masked the musk of coupling.

Smoking rooms, offices of weight and measure, and actuaries lined the narrow streets leading up to summits where the money liked to play. Commoners went down to the dockside for their amusements.

The hovels around the docks were not only the poorest quarter of the city, they were also the most pungent. Ramshackle shanties cluttered the jetties where the workers needed them, their own seedy industries developing around the floating fish market dockside hussies, alehouses, and smokeries all nestle side by side with the old trades. Leather-skinned fish wives darned the nets, getting one more trawl out of them. Cockles and muscles, flat fish and fragrant fillets lay on the cobbles beside the gathered nets.

There was a convenience to this arrangement, keeping unpleasant aromas away from the more respectable parts of the city -- like the Rector's palace and the temples. It was the best part of a league from Crowscrest to the Rector's palace on Judicar's Hill. Ash ran all the way.

And when he told his story of blue ghosts standing sentinel on the beach, guarding a citadel risen from the waves on a spur of rock, and voices demanding freedom, his swordbrothers laughed at him.

"Too much of Malister's Malt," mocked Levant Galen. Ash and Levant were both Rector's Men, answerable only to Gerant, the Rector's right hand. There were seven Rector's Men serving under Gerant, though the idea of them being the Rector's Men was misleading; in truth they were bonded to his lady.

Levant had his blade, the Kinslayer, across his knee, and was honing it with a whetstone and an oily rag. His mawkish face split into a short-lived grin. "A citadel rose out of the sea? Voices in your head demanding freedom? Do you seriously expect us to swallow that? Pashan's balls, I know you too well to fall for your tall tales, Ash." Levant smoothed the excess oil off the blade's open face. "The more outrageous the lie, the more willingly people will swallow it; isn't that the gospel you preach?"

Levant's words were harsh but fair. Ash had said that, and more than once. But this time -- the irony of the protestation had him bark a sharp laugh -- this time he needed the Rector's Men to believe him.

Levant turned the sword on his knee, working the other side of the blade. Ash had no liking for the Kinslayer, and not merely because of its name. There was something about the blade that set his flesh creeping the only time he had laid a hand upon it.

Few blades were named, but those that were had earned their titles, none more so than the Kinslayer. It was a traitorous blade. If Levant was to be believed, the Kinslayer had claimed the blood of three uncles and no less than seven of their swordbrothers -- and caused who knew how many chapters of grief before that -- before falling into his father's hand. The old man had refused to lift it again after that day: that was his response to the supposed curse. It was said that the owner and the blade were fated, intertwined once the blade bonded to his soul. The stories also said that if a man wielded the sword even once, he would one day use the Kinslayer to kill those closest to him, then fall victim to the blade himself.

Levant's father choose to interpret that to mean that if he never used the blade, he would never die. So he treated the blade reverently, worshipfully, as though by some enchantment it truly could offer the boon of immortality. Instead of wearing it at his hip he had it mounted above the fire pit in the family home.

On the eve of his coming of age, Levant had taken it down from where it rested, claiming it as his birthright. "I will prove the curse a lie once and for all," he told his mother. "I shall wear it in battle and make father proud. He must know, surely, that I would never harm him. That he is safe because there is no curse."

His mother had begged him not to take the sword. There had been no tears, no admonishments, just a heartfelt plea, as though she knew the curse had already wormed its way into her boy, and with him as its instrument it would claim more souls.

With the arrogance of youth, he ignored her.

However, upon discovering the Kinslayer gone from its mount, Levant's father had flown at him in a rage, all reason gone from his brittle frame. He threw himself at his youngest son, tooth and claw. Levant merely tried to defend himself, instinctively raising his hands. His deranged father fell upon the blade -- all the way to the hilt -- and was dead before their lips kissed, so close was he when the life left him.

His father's death had marked Levant, and rather than disproving the curse, it cemented his fear of it. He sincerely believed the Kinslayer earned its name over and over for each wielder, and that one day he would strike down his own swordbrothers, driven mad by the blade that would then be turned on him - just as it had been with his father, his uncles, their swordbrothers, and all those who had ever dared to wield the accursed blade.

Yet he refused to relinquish it, ensnared in the duality of his father's interpretation of the curse. So long as he wielded the blade he believed himself invulnerable, immortal, knowing that until it tasted kins' blood, the blade would protect him. If he never fed it the blood of kin, it would never turn on him.

"But Levant . . ." Ash began. But he didn't know what to say. If he couldn't convince his best friend, how could he hope to sway Gerant?

Release me!

Ash flinched against the sheer forcefulness of the words inside his head.

"Something isn't right, Levant. It's getting stronger. I can't resist it forever."

"Then go find Naru and beg him to unravel your mind. It isn't as though we'd be losing much."

Where Gerant was the Rector's right, Ashrak Naru -- the raveller -- was his left. More sinister by far, practicing hidden arts, Ash had never felt comfortable in the raveller's company.

But Ash did not need to feel comfortable, he needed to be believed, and though Levant was being factitious, Naru was exactly who he needed to talk to.

"Just make sure that damned blade of yours is sharp if you're the one standing next to me when Gerant sends us there," Ash said.

"Stop spouting rubbish," Levant replied, twisting the oily rag into a knot. With a flick of the wrist he snapped it at Ash's legs, snorting, "Giant castles rising up out of the sea . . . Do yourself a favor and don't go trying this one out on Efrem or Raz, they'll have a field day with it."

Ash had no interest in the fish market or the abundant hawkers along the quayside. Women of all shade, shape, and size offered pleasures they swore no man could imagine. Ash walked by, untempted.

Shortly he found the raveller dragging his iron chain through the crowded markets by the floating docks. A big man seemed to be pleading with the raveller or whatever ghosts the Ashrak Naru had flensed from his damaged soul.

Despite the rags binding his blind eyes, Naru turned to face Ash as he ran into the market. Smells assailed from every side, the fragrances of humanity: sweat, cloying perfumes, and bodily fluids. Naru stood in the center of it, head thrown back, drinking it in. The rusted chain that hung from his left wrist jerked and twisted lightly, blue sparks flowing from the thick vein at his wrist. A Rowan staff bore most of his weight.

Does it please you to stare at my deformity? The raveller's voice rasped inside Ash's skull. You do it well. Are you really that simple?

"Come with me, raveller."

I do not answer to your whims, swordsman. Perhaps I am not finished here.

"The dead you so love have left this place, Naru. Your chain no longer dances with their energy."

Perhaps you are no fool after all. Yes, the restless dead have left this place, and he, Naru crooked his head toward the man who appeared to be clutching at closed doors, is alone with the one ghost he would never willingly part with. So, I will come. Lead me where you will; this once I will follow. But know that I am not the only one who follows. Violent shades of death walk in your wake.

Ash never for a moment doubted that the raveller was truly blind, but just as he needed no words to be heard, Ash was certain he needed no eyes to see. Ashrak Naru possessed gifts beyond the limitations of flesh. Ash thought of it as magic, but it was more than that: Naru's touch could pare away the very threads that bound the world together, reshaping it to his whim. He walked betwixt and between two worlds, living and dead, and both took their toll. Ash felt no sympathy for the man; his magic revolted the swordsman almost as much as his physical stench.

In Ash's world of steel and blood the truth lay in cold reality. There was no such assurance around Naru. Ash was sure the man could as easily unravel the ties that bound flesh to spirit as he could those that bonded the stuff of stone and steel.

The raveller smiled, baring cracked and yellowed teeth.

Jayant Ash turned his back on the man. Not once did he look back to see if the raveller followed. He had no need; the man's stench dogged him all the way to the heights of Crowscrest.

Release me!

The command rose unbidden in Ash's mind. He staggered, trying desperately to fight back the urge to plunge down the slope to the sandy beach.

Ash stared at the blue ghost-lights ringing the citadel. The moonlight appeared to shift around them, giving the distinct impression that, as one, the luminous figures turned to look up at him. Ash shuddered with revulsion.

The raveller eased up beside him, drinking in with all of his senses the impossibility of the risen tower and its salt-eroded spires. Sweeping his blind, rag-bound eyes from the tall, four-step box spire to the broken gateway, the raveller focused on the figures surrounding the citadel.

The warm air blew in off the sea, bringing with it the sent of carrion. Ash hadn't noticed the dead fish gathered at the base of the cliffs before. There were thousands upon thousands of them rotting there, more species than he could name. The stench rose up the heights of Crowscrest, sickening him. It was more real than the imagined ghosts and voices and it brought home the tragedy of the sea.

Ashrak Naru crouched, then lowered himself gently until his ear pressed to the ground. Naru's lips twitched as barely spoken words fell from them. He said only: "Such pain." Ash did not need to hear more to guess the truth, the raveller was listening to the trace memories of the land's upheaval, tapping into the stone itself.

As though in response to the raveller;s whispers, a beacon fire burst to life on the pinnacle of Crowscrest, tongues of fire licking at the sky. A moment later a second orange and red beacon fire sprang to life, and then all along the coast warning lights flared, carrying their message: Danger at Crowscrest.

These mystical beacon fires had lain lifeless for the last decade, ever since the Rector brought peace to the seas. Had Naru's presence rekindled the magic that controlled them? Seeing them burning now sent a shiver down the ladder of Ash's spine.

The raveller's disbelief sounded in his head. It cannot be.

"What?"

This place. You know it as Mergolies, the home of Blazeus. This citadel was drowned when the world was young, long before you or I or even our ancestors walked these shores.

Ash shook his head, but the image of the citadel rising refused to be dislodged. The idea that they stood before the gates of the Citadel of Blazeus was ludicrous; it was a cautionary fairy tale, there never had been a city so wretched with sin that the gods themselves sank it.

"You are toying with me, raveller."

Naru said nothing, he merely stood at the cliff top, his iron chain dancing, drawn toward the ghost-lights on the beach.

The sea was the embodiment of chaos; there was not one wave but hundreds upon thousands of tiny ripples, each moving to its own current in subtle variations. With the moon full, her light shimmered across each tiny undulation, a majestic suitor looking to claim the last dance of the night. At the center of it the citadel stood, unmoved, utterly real and impossible.

As though reading his mind, Naru whispered inside his head: How can it be impossible if it has already happened. Do not waste your life thinking things impossible. Deal with the truth of what you see, warrior. You see and accept my Mortal Chain, he raised his manacled hand. The links crackled and sparked with energy, reacting to the nearness of death. The iron anchors my soul to this realm, this you believe, yet you doubt the veracity of your eyes when it comes to this citadel? Where is the line between impossible and merely improbable? Find the truth and listen to it; in every story hides truths long forgotten.

"Blazeus is a story, Naru, meant to frighten little children." But Jayant Ash couldn't even convince himself.

RELEASE ME!

He is here. Are you so insensitive you cannot feel the truth of it? No, wait . . . you can feel him, can't you? That is why you sought me out. You can feel him. Let me . . . oh yes, yes, yes. He is growing inside you even now, like a canker. You burn with him, don't you? You've heard his voice, his command. What did he bid you do? Are you his creature already?

"I am no one's creature, raveller. The voice would have its freedom, but not from my hand it won't."

RELEASE ME!

Foolish man. Let me tell you what is inside you. There is only one way to quench the fire, and it lies within that terrible place, doesn't it? That's what fills your mind, the certainty that you must enter the citadel of the beast, that you must face the thing you fear.

Do not do it. Do not enter the heart of Blazeus or you will be lost. I can hear it -- the siren song calls to you even now, begging you to satisfy the need in your soul. What did you do? How did it get inside you?

"It is not inside me!" Ash shouted.

RELEASE ME!

Ash staggered against the will of the voice, but refused to buckle. "What are these lights?" he asked, though he already knew.

The wretched dead of Blazeus, bound even now.

"But you can lay them to rest, can't you? You can unravel whatever enchantment binds them to their pain."

I can. And I shall.

Naru picked a path down the steep cliff with unerring surety of step, never once slipping or losing his balance, until he walked among the ghost-lights. Ash did not follow. He simply watched as, one by one, the ghost-lights were snuffed out by the raveller's mortal chain, their energy absorbed into the dancing, twisting metal links. The chain writhed in the salt air as Naru moved among them, his back curved like a weighty, creeping vine.

Naru's sobs carried up to Ash.

So much pain, Ash thought.

A moment later a savage joy that wasn't his own fired in his belly.

The watchers have fallen! Release me! Release me!

Ash heard the sounds of hoof on stone -- and knew that the rest of the Rector's Men had responded to the beacons. How could his swordbrothers not? Had he been in Kalatha with them he would have been the first to the horses, armored and ready to ride out.

But Levant lead the group of six riders; immediately behind him, Efrem Kerr and Samman Raz. Marten Gaunt to his right. Blaine and Tomas Mornar following. Good men all. Ash felt no relief at their arrival.

He just stood there, swordless, looking down at the twisted spires of Mergolies. So precarious were the towers that rose from the citadel that it looked as though the weight from an errant moonbeam would be sufficient to topple them. Who knew what kind of damage centuries beneath the sea had done to the citadel's fortifications. But it had survived resurfacing, it would survive a while longer.

Release me, Ash. Bring me back into this world. Release me!

Ash looked back at the approaching riders. Even from a distance Levant was immediately recognizable because he wore no helmet, his hair pulled back in a top-knot that lent his narrow features an air of barely contained savagery. Unlike the others, the strange young man never wore a helmet, even into battle. He believed it hampered rather than helped, reducing his field of vision and sweating his brains out. Sweat in the eyes, claimed Levant, had undone more men than stray arrows or lucky blows combined. Ash had tried to reason with him, but the swordsman would have none of it. "Let them rattle my brains," he said, "so long as I have Kinslayer in my grasp I pity them."

Levant now rode with an extra blade across his knee. Guiding his destrier alongside the raveller, he swung down easily and tossed Ash his sword.

"Thought you might need this," Levant said. "Hellish lengths to go to for a practical joke." His eyes went from the cliffs to the causeway to the twisted spires and back again, and again. Whatever else he was going to say stuck in his craw as he studied the spires of Mergolies out in the darkness.

"Holy mother of Mashan," Marten Gaunt said, joining them at the cliff's edge. The older man made the symbol of The White Rose, moving his fingers in a tight spiral. "It's . . . beautiful."

It wasn't the word Ash would have chosen, but it wasn't wrong. There was a terrible beauty to the City of Blazeus.

The others dismounted and joined them.

None spoke, though whether that was because of awe or fear Ash had no way of knowing.

"Gerant would have us investigate so that he might make a full report to the Rector," Levant said. "It seems word of this wonder is spreading almost as quickly as the flames of the warning beacons." He laid a hand on Ash's shoulder. He nodded down to the weeping blind man on the causeway. "What is the raveller doing?"

"Laying the dead to rest," Ash said.

"That's a lot of effort to go to for a few fish," Levant grinned at him.

RELEASE ME! the voice demanded.

Ash reeled.

Down on the sand, the blind man turned to look up at him, his mortal chain hanging lifelessly at his side. Had Naru heard the voice?

The way to the citadel was so treacherous that the riders were forced to dismount and tether their horses before descending to the causeway, which was just as well: rather than the neatly laid octagonal columns Ash had thought he saw from above, the causeway linking Mergolies to the mainland proved to be erratic and uneven. The octagonal stones mimicked the violent waves of the sea -- there was no gentle ripple to these stones - and was made doubly treacherous by the coating of algae and slime that clung to it.

The seven warriors walked side by side, Levant at the center, Ash to his left, Marten Gaunt to his right. Levant moved half a pace faster than the others, turning the line into an arrow with himself at the tip. Efrem Kerr and Samman Raz walked beside Ash, while Tomas Mornar and Blaine completed the line on Gaunt's side. Each man was cut from the same physical cloth, powerful of form, narrow of face, dark of eye. Intense. Levant held up a hand and they stopped as one.

"Did you see? Up at the window?" he asked.

"See what?" Samman Raz said. "Seaweed?"

Levant's top-knot whipped the air as he turned, his long arm snaking out to grab Raz by the collar. "Look at the windows of the upper spires and tell me what you see."

Raz pulled away from Levant's grip. He did look up at the spire though. For all their bravado, the citadel's atmosphere already had the swordbrothers on edge.

Ash followed the direction of Raz's gaze. He saw them easily enough -- shadow shapes flitting across the black eyes of the spire. As far as Ash could make out there was no substance to them, but the height, the angle, and the distance did not help.

"Shadows," he said.

"And what casts moving shadows?" Levant said, as though talking to a simpleton.

"Fish men?" Raz said, but his bravado was sounding more and more hollow.

"Something we can kill," Efrem Kerr said evenly. He wasn't looking up at the windows. His gaze was fixed firmly on the one ironwood door still hanging drunkenly on its broken hinge.

"Something that can kill us," Mornar replied, voicing the thought all of them shared.

"Then we'd best be careful," Levant said, drawing the Kinslayer with a fluid motion. The steel blade sang as it slipped free of its sheath. "This is the stuff stories are made of, seven brave souls entering a fabled relic where only death has lived for centuries. Let's go and write ourselves into legend!"

Ash looked up at the spires, the crumbling bulwark and the rotten fortifications, immune to Levant's bluster. Instinctively he knew there was no glory to be found within this place.

The gods did not sink this place, Ash thought. Men did. Men like us. But there was no conviction to it.

Naru's voice sounded in his mind. It is always men like you, Jayant Ash. Always. Do not do this. Do not go in there. You are not strong enough.

"Are you with us, Ash?" Levant's voice brought him back sharply. The others were a dozen steps ahead of him. He had stopped, staring up at the blank windows of the spire.

Ash nodded and together the seven men stepped across the crumbling portico, entering the immortal remains of the City of Blazeus.

It was dark within, velvet night. Somehow the moon's light did not touch the interior. It wasn't until he was a dozen paces into the darkness that Ash realized what was wrong -- he could not hear the others, there was no shuffling of feet, no curses, no breathing turned ragged by his swordbrothers' excitement or exertion. It wasn't silent either, though; far from it. He heard a body's worth of sounds, all internalized: the rhythmic beat of his heart against his chest, the susserent whisper of the blood through his veins, the haunting echo of the in and out of his own breathing. But nothing else, nothing external.

Release me!

The urge to flee rose within him. Every instinct screamed that he should listen to it and run, run, run, far away, but he took another step and then another, deeper into the darkness.

"Levant? Mornar? Gaunt?" he called. None of them answered. Inside his head he tried again, Naru? Are you with me? But he was alone. He knew it, even before he sent the thought out with his mind.

Ash reached out, fumbling in the darkness for his swordbrothers. Any kind of contact would have been a relief. The logical part of his brain insisted that they had to be there, that flesh and blood did not simply cease to be because they had crossed the transom. But his fingers found only darkness.

"Enchantment!" he rasped, hoping his certainty would somehow touch the others.

A wisp of scarlet light flickered and faded before his eyes, no more than twenty feet away. It sprang to life again ten feet further on, and elevated slightly, as though the light bearer had taken two steps up a stairway.

Ash hesitated before following, Naru's warning echoing in the silence of his mind. Was he strong enough? The darkness of the Citadel was cloying, pressing in on all sides. Still there were no sounds beyond his own flesh. He moved through the muffled darkness, testing the shadows with questing fingers. They met nothing but more darkness.

He followed the flickering scarlet wisp. It stayed tantalizingly just a few steps out of reach, leading him deeper into the City of Blazeus, not merely blind, but robbed completely of his senses.

"Levant?" Ash called again. This time he thought he heard a whisper damped by the darkness, a voice.

"Levant?" he called again, but there was no reply.

Were the others making their own way, following similar wisps of light into the heart of the darkness?

Then Ash saw it -- blacker than black -- a diseased, twisted bramble of a soul; a creature formed of the dark itself. It had no flesh, no substance, yet it was more than mere shadow, it was a total absence of the stuff of light. It possessed shape and form, molded from the dark, its shape changing, shifting as he tried to focus on it. It moved silently, with canine grace. It turned to face him, only like the ghost-lights it had no discernible features, no nose, no mouth, no plane of cheekbones, no ridge of brow, no eyes or ears. It was smoke and shadow and yet Ash knew without doubt that the thing was looking at him.

He couldn't say how he knew; he just knew.

Instinct.

It always came back to that, a soldier's instinct for survival.

The shadow beckoned, moving away again.

Ash followed. He didn't call out this time, sure that Levant and the others were chasing their own shadows. That was the nature of evil, after all, it was divisive, seeking to separate the good and find the weaknesses that together were muted and held in check.

Ash barely raised his blade in time as the shadow-shape lunged out of the darkness, the silence brutally shattered by its scream of rage. Ash's sword slipped along the inside of his attacker's, slicing into the softness of the shadow's inner arm and across the curve of ribs, glancing away as it met resistance. The scream came again, fueled this time by fear, not rage, as a second savage blow cut the darkness inches from Ash's face. A fraction of a second too late he realized it was Marten Gaunt's signature blow. But Ash had already dropped to one knee and lunged.

His blade came up between the joins in Gaunt's mail, biting deep through hard armor and the soft flesh. The shadow crumpled soundlessly and the black mist evaporated, leaving Jayant Ash standing over the body of his friend. The blood appeared black and leaked out onto the stone floor of the citadel.

Ash was no stranger to death, but this deception cut deep. Gaunt had been hunting Ash, believing he was striking at the evil of Mergolies, not his own swordbrother. He had died ignorant of his own treachery. There was small mercy in that.

The muffled spell of the silence was broken now. Ash could hear his friends, hunting each other; the clash of steel and the screams of the dead and dying. They were revolting sounds, the voices at once so familiar and yet at the same time so utterly alien.

Could they hear each other? Did they know? Or was the madness of death driving them?

Ash opened his mouth and screamed, roaring and raging against the blackness of the night, against the murder of his friends, and though he screamed himself hoarse he knew the others must still be wrapped in their deceptive silence, hunting each other through the black, oblivious to the true nature of their foes. There were simple spells of obfuscation, dark and silence damping out light and sound -- but the shadow, that was different. That took more than merely blurring the senses. That took power.

Ash sheathed his sword. He refused to be party to any more killing. He knelt beside Gaunt. Closing his eyes he pressed a coin into the dead man's palm and sheathed his blade. "May you find beauty, my friend," Ash said.

Then he heard Levant's wretched scream of: "No!"

Ash ran into the dark, shouting his friend's name again and again.

Levant's answering shouts never sounded any closer.

"Gaunt is dead!" Ash threw the truth at the darkness.

"Kinslayer claimed Efrem," Levant shouted back. His voice sounded wrong, shorn of certainty. "It tasted a true brother's blood."

And so seven were five, and their enemy had yet to show his hand. That, more than anything, terrified Ash.

Blaine's voice called: "Raz is dead, damn him to a thousand hells, he came at me out of the dark! There was nothing I could -- no, no . . . Mornar, it's me!" The words were cut-off by a blood-curdling scream followed by the anguished sobs of understanding as Tomas Mornar stood over the corpse of Blaine, the five survivors reduced to three with cruel efficiency.

"Where are you, Mornar?" Ash called. "What do you see?"

"I . . . I didn't know. How could I have known?"

"Where are you. Talk to me, Mornar."

"I don't know . . . I followed a light. I can hear the sea. I couldn't hear it before. I couldn't hear anything."

"The enchantment is broken," Ash said. "Naru was right, there is evil in this place. You can feel it in the air, even with the darkness banished. Evil strong enough to turn friend against friend as simply as this." Ash shook his head even though the others could not see the gesture. "We have to root it out. End it. We owe it to Blaine, Gaunt, Raz and Efrem We have to walk out of here alive to see that their lives are written into the legends; that they don't end four dead men among thousands simply because we failed."

"Quite a stirring speech, Ash," Levant said, his voice thick with bitterness. Give the man an enemy he could see and strike down with his sword and Levant was deadly. Surround him with ghosts and night whispers and he became vulnerable. His natural superstitiousness began with the curse on his blade, but they did not end there. "We can't bring our comrades back, but we can find this thing and kill it. And after it is dead we walk out of this gods-forsaken place and tell their story. Now, walk toward my voice."

Of all things Levant began to sing.

His voice was coarse, but it suited the mournful ballad he chose. The melody was a soldier's farewell to his comrades. Ash followed the anguish of Levant's song until he emerged onto a balcony overlooking a small courtyard. Levant sat on the side of a fountain, its basin filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the sea. He saw Mornar stepping out of the shadows beneath a similar balcony on the far side of the courtyard. His friend looked like the very embodiment of Death itself with Blaine's blood staining his face. The blood was thick around his mouth, as though -- and Ash winced at the thought -- he had torn his swordbrother's throat out with his bare teeth.

Levant looked up to where Ash stood on the balcony, his sword resting across his knee just as it had a few hours earlier when Ash sought him out in the city. The only difference he could see, even down to the warrior's expression, was the coating of blood on the silver blade. Levant turned the blade over and over again as he sang. Efrem Kerr was sprawled at his feet. Efrem's wounds were terrible; six deep cuts that exploited every weakness in his amour and combined to open him up like a cuttlefish prized out of its shell. A single red smear, like a tear, stained Levant's cheek. He fell silent and stood, tossing the Kinslayer up to the balcony where Ash stood. It landed near Ash's feet.

"I won't touch the damn blade again," Levant said, staring at it. "Take it, it's yours."

"What are you talking about?"

"I didn't choose the sword, it chose me, just as it has chosen you. In time it will turn on me, just as it did my father. I will not hide from my fate. Pick it up, and let us find this thing and be done with it."

Ash knelt, grasping the Kinslayer's hilt. He felt none of the repugnant thrill he had felt the first time he handled the blade. Indeed, it felt right in his hand. It thrilled at the taste of blood. Without thinking, he handed his own, inferior blade, to Levant.

"There is no curse, you know that, don't you, Levant?"

"Throw your pot-sticker down to me unless you want me to walk unarmed into the belly of the beast. I grow weary of the stench of the sea and all that damned salt."

"I would never raise a hand against you."

"Because I would slice it off, I know." Levant smiled the smile of a man who knew he was going to die.

There was nothing majestic about the citadel. The stonework was so pitted and worn it held together only because of the sea salt that had calcified in the wounded stone-like mortar. In places it wept the black oil of ruptured seaweed, in other places it was limned green by algae or speckled white by limpet shells. Ash clung to the iron balcony rail which had flaked and burned a deep red now. Traces of what once must have been a fabulous mosaic lingered on the tiles of the courtyard, but the images had faded, the colors bleeding together where they hadn't washed out completely. A hermit crab scuttled sideways across the ruined face of one of yesterday's heroes.

It took Ash a few minutes to find a way down from the balcony to the courtyard. As he wandered the wretched corridors of one of the lower spires he tried again to reach the mind of the raveller, or that part of his own mind where he heard the raveller's voice.

This thing turned us on ourselves, Naru. Levant cut down Kerr, Mornar did Blaine, who had already killed Raz. My blade felled Gaunt. Seven cut down to three in minutes through cheap tricks. And now I wield the Kinslayer. This is a black day.

If he heard, Ashrak Naru had no answer. Ash was alone. Alone with the dead, alone with the survivors, alone with the damned hermit crab scuttling across the floor without a care in the world. Frustration and anger welled up inside him.

Then the voice came, and the worst of it was that it knew him: Come to me, Jayant Ash. I hunger to taste the air of freedom, to stand once more under the dawn sky. Come to me. Know me like I know you.

An image flared in Ash's mind's eye: a casket fashioned of bone in a dank chamber. The marrow had completely eroded through in places so that the brittle casing crumbled to reveal the mummified remains of the corpse within.

Ash looked down at the sword he clutched too tightly in his hand.

"Is that you?" Ash said, his voice echoing dully in his ears. He waited, but there was no answer. Walking down a narrow flight of stairs he dragged his fingers across the wall, then touched them to his lips without thinking. He tasted the thick layer of salt that had accumulated on them. Was it poison? Was it possible that something he had come into contact with, like the salt liming the walls, was responsible for these hallucinations? The doubt growing within him was insidious, undermining every thought he had.

Ash reached out for the wall, needing its steadying influence. The image of the bone casket flashed across his mind's eye again as he did. He pulled away from the wall as though stung. Breaking contact with the stone was enough to banish the unwanted vision.

Tentatively he reached out again. Braced for the vision this time, he tried to glean what he could from it. Fragmentary details. Walls bearing the subtle remains of a bas-relief, its frieze too decayed to decipher. Shadows clinging to it, appearing to move beneath his scrutiny. Only they weren't shadows, he realized. A thick oleaginous shape oozed over the lid of the bone casket. The impression of pressure he felt, the weight bearing down on him, made him think the bone casket was down, still below the surface of the sea, not up amid the gods.

Release me.

"Get out of my head," Jayant Ash shook his head violently, breaking contact with the stone and its trace memories. He staggered down the rest of the worn-down stairs and along the short passage into the courtyard.

Levant looked at the bloody sword in Ash's hand, a peculiar, almost predatory expression in his dull eyes. His lips curled into the parody of a smile as he raised his hand in greeting.

"It's here! Whatever it is, it's in the very fabric of the citadel itself! Get up off that fountain, Levant!"

"Release me, Ash," the strange young man said, and toppled sideways.

"We cannot make any direct physical contact with the stones. Nothing," Ash told Mornar as the pair of them helped a distressed Levant stand. The young swordsman was unsteady on his feet, all color blanched from his fine-boned face. He tried to reach down for his sword, but almost pitched forward onto his face. "The evil of this place lives on in the stones."

"A raveller?"

"Or his essence, perhaps, sealed away in death into the structure, awaiting release. Naru told me they called it the City of Blazeus, but now I am not so sure Blazeus was a man. More like something so far removed from humanity that his enemies not only slew him, they sank his entire citadel in the hopes that his grave would never be found."

Mornar licked is lips and looked from Ash to Levant and back again. "And he's been waiting all these years for fools like us to come release him?" He shook his head. "Why now? You saw the heavens raining silver fire, you felt the earth buck and writhe. Are we puppets in some universal game? Is that it? I'll never forget how easily we turned on one and other."

Mornar wiped his fingers across his mouth. It was a subconscious gesture; the implications of their enemy's nature obviously unmanned him. He stared at the puddles spotting the courtyard's ruined mosaic, his eyes darting from one to the next as though something might slither out of them. Another hermit crab scuttled across the ground, disinterested in the three men.

"I have no liking for this, Ash. Even the elements around us, the stone, the earth, and the stagnant water, cannot be trusted. We ought to leave right now. Let Gerant raze this place. Let him rain naphtha and fire down from the sky. See how this Blazeus deals with a second death."

"Spoken like a true warrior," Levant said sarcastically.

Ash turned to look at him, unsure whether the words had been Levant's or a mocking taunt from the thing they sought to kill.

"What do you suggest?" Mornar said, bitterness creeping into his tone. He kicked out at the hermit crab in frustration, sending the creature tumbling across the uneven stones. It came to rest on its back, pincers scrambling in the air as it struggled to right itself.

"That we do what we came here to do, of course," Levant said. His legs buckled under his own weight as he tried to stand. Ash reached out to steady him, then wondered if it were safe to touch him and pulled back. Levant turned to him, pity in his eyes. "How do you live with such fear, Ash?" He shook his head. "There is nothing in me save anger at our brothers' deaths."

Ash had no answer. He offered his shoulder for Levant to lean on, but his swordbrother shook him off.

"What do you remember from when the thing was inside your head?" Ash asked a moment later.

"Nothing," Levant said, a little too forcefully for Ash's liking.

"Did it speak to you?"

"I said there was nothing. Now let's go find this bone casket and slay the beast once and for all."

And Ash understood: Levant was scared. Ash had never seen his friend scared before, not so long as he bore the Kinslayer to guarantee his immortality. He could only imagine what was going on in Levant's head now that the first aspect of the blade's curse had come true.

Ash was also worried. He hadn't mentioned the casket or anything else he experienced during his vision, yet Levant had known about it, right down to the material of the coffin. Which could mean only one thing: Levant had shared his vision. The voice had spoken to him just as it had spoken to Ash.

Had Levant succumbed? Was he, even now, a shell urging them on to their deaths to fulfill the base desires of his new master?

Or was he simply chasing his own death?

A movement in the shadows caught Ash's eye. He turned, trying to see what wasn't there.

"Fear has you jumping at nothing," Levant mocked, slamming his new blade into the Kinslayer's empty sheath. He turned slowly in a full circle, arms out wide and yelled "Time to die!" into the congregation of shadows that clung to the courtyard. The sheer power of his words carried up and down every passageway and into every chamber of the crumbling citadel. Listening to them, Ash did not know whether they were a promise, a threat, or a prediction.

The crimson light of dawn greeted the three men as they stepped out from beneath the cover of the broken roof. It was an anomaly of the collapse. Their search for the casket had taken them down four defensive stairwells, deep into the belly of the citadel, below the line of the water -- and yet the walls held back the sea and what should have been the roof opened up to the sky.

The light lay like blood on the floor's shattered mosaic. So much of the citadel was damaged, and not just by the tidal forces of the sea. It was easy to picture righteous marauders plundering the place, breaking anything of even remote beauty for the sheer joy of destruction.

"So much hate," Ash said. He could feel it in the air. The acrid tang of burning still seemed to linger. But could something as basic as fire ever cleanse these tainted walls? The Kinslayer thrilled to it; he could feel the intense need of the steel. It thirsted for blood.

"Let's get this done," Levant said again. Levant had grown stronger the deeper they had ventured. Ash also noticed the surety with which he walked, as though the way were all too familiar to him. Levant offered a wry grin, and for a moment he was undeniably his old self. But it was a fleeting moment. A thin veil of shadow ghosted across his face, and any trace of levity was gone. His gaze strayed to the hilt of the Kinslayer, lingering.

"Can you feel it?" Mornar asked, as they left the fragile safety of the light.

Ash didn't need to ask what he meant; he could feel it, too. The air had thickened around them, growing denser and more difficult to breath. Levant didn't seem hindered in the least as he pushed on, deeper into the subterranean chambers. "He's close," Levant said, turning back to face them. "I can feel him. Can't you?"

"Yes," Mornar said. His hand had strayed unconsciously to the hilt of his sword. Mornar reached out with his left hand, letting his fingers trail lovingly down the wall.

"Be careful," Ash said, unnecessarily.

Can you hear me, raveller? He sent the thought out desperately, willing Naru to respond. My friends are dead. I know they are. The City of Blazeus has taken them all. They may look like themselves, but they are gone. And now they are leading me down to his tomb. If I am like them when I come out . . . if . . . He wanted to beg for death, to have the raveller's promise to slay him, but Naru couldn't hear him. Ash was alone.

They pushed open an unornamented and unadorned doorway.

Ash looked from Mornar to Levant, searching for even the merest hint that his friends remained. He could not see into them; shadows obscured their eyes. The voice whispered over and over in his head, release me, and Kinslayer's hunger thrilled through his veins.

Ash walked through the door. Not once did he suspect that the darkness might have crept into him, that his reasoning might have betrayed him.

It was a bare room, dominated by a rot-riddled sarcophagus that had collapsed into a wretched pile of bones. It was impossible to tell the desiccated bones of the casket from the bones of the interred.

His first thought upon seeing the ruination was: They all died for this?

He could not imagine how the soul of the raveller could live on while his bones crumbled. How could he have been absorbed into the stuff of the citadel, living on for millennia in the trace memories of the stone. How could someone become so afraid of death that he would choose to live an eternity in a stone prison rather than give up his grip on life?

Well, Ash vowed, death will come to you now.

He closed his eyes, drawing on an inner well of strength to see him through.

Release me. The two words reverberated through his skull, so filled with hate they made his flesh creep.

He licked his lips nervously and opened his eyes. Nothing in the room had changed. The casket lay split open by entropy, his swordbrothers standing sentinel over it.

Release me.

"Are you in there, Mornar?" Ash asked, but his friend's eyes were empty black orbs. "Answer me true, my friend."

"What's wrong with you, Ash? You look --"

Ash turned slightly to one side so that he wouldn't have to look into Mornar's eyes as he eased the Kinslayer up between Tomas Mornar's ribs and into his heart, twisting the hilt to finish the job. As he pulled the sword free, Mornar's eyes flared wide in shock. He tried to talk, but his mouth hung slack, denied words by the pain of the sword thrust.

Ash stepped back, expecting Mornar's legs to buckle as the life left his body, but the warrior didn't fall. He clung tenaciously to life, his hands clutching at the wound in his gut as though he couldn't understand why blood was leaking between his fingers. "Why?" the creature said with Mornar's voice, but it wasn't Mornar.

"You are not him, you are not him!" Ash screamed over and over, desperate to believe that the thing before him was nothing more than a ghost in the man's shell. Ash couldn't allow even the tiniest doubt to creep in and steal away his resolve. He swordbrother was gone. Ash swung the Kinslayer again, and again, matching his screams as it cleaved flesh and bone. Mornar threw his hands up to protect his face. His stomach wound opened wider, spilling his guts down his legs, and Ash cut away his hands and then cleaved open his skull. It was a shocking display of naked savagery, over before it had truly begun.

Grunting and gasping from the sudden exertion, Ash turned to see Levant coming up behind him. The man's mawkish face burned with what Ash could only interpret as hatred.

"And then there were two," Levant said, looking at the bloody blade in Ash's hand.

Yes, yes, release me, release me!

Ash blocked blow after blow, but Levant pressed him into the wall. He fought with wild, uncontrolled anger, like a man who already knew he was doomed. Again and again his blade snaked out, catching Ash, each small cut weakening him a little more.

"I will not die," Ash said, gritting his teeth as another blow came in faster than he could parry.

"We shall see."

Levant was the better swordsman, faster, with superior reflexes and a natural instinct for killing. He cut Ash across the thigh and opened a gash in his bicep even as he tried to fend off the first blow. They traded blows, Ash on the back foot, looking for an opening, Lavent coming on relentlessly. There was an arrogance to the strange young man's fighting style; Ash recognized it for what it was, immortality. Levant truly believed himself so skilled that no sword could open his veins. That hubris was Ash's only hope.

Ash blocked a thrust, deliberately over-extending from the parry. His follow-up strike left him slightly unbalanced. Instead of adjusting, he made a point of overcompensating, opening himself up for a lightning-quick counter that he barely evaded. For the next cycle of cut, thrust and parry he played a dangerous game of feints, pretending weakness he knew Levant would ruthlessly exploit.

"I expected more from you, Ash, but you are nothing," Levant spat, moving in for the kill. Ash stepped into the blow, knowing even as he did that he was opening himself up for agony as his opponent's blade pierced his belly. Instead of recoiling, he lunged forward, bringing the Kinslayer around, clutched like a dagger, to bite deep into the side of Levant's unprotected throat. Blood bubbled up around Ash's blade as Levant shuddered, his entire body rigid from the shock of penetration.

"You killed me?" It was such a ludicrous thing to say, those last three words of one of Kalatha's heroes, killed by the sword that ended his father's life and so many others. He bowed his head, the top-knot hanging limp. When he looked up again the light of life flickered and finally failed. He fell, all of his weight coming down on the borrowed sword, driving the blade deeper into Ash's stomach and through to the bone of his spine. The pain was excruciating. The dead man's weight drove the blade deeper still, grating against the edges of the vertebrae and into the soft discs between, rupturing them.

The world swam and Ash fell.

I knew you would come. Release me.

The command repeated itself over and over again within the darkness.

Ash could not feel his legs.

He lay in blood, his own and his friends. It smelled cloyingly sweet in his nostrils, ferrous.

Release me.

He was weak. Light-headed. Drained.

He tried to open his eyes, but he didn't need to. The image of the room swelled behind them, the casket of bone, the fallen swords, the blood and the bodies. They were dead. The Rector's Men undone at their own hands.

Release me.

The voice was insistent. Demanding. But he could not move. Levant's blow had severed something inside him; his legs would not respond when he tried to move them.

Release me.

The words impelled him. Ash reached out, scratching his nails into the cracked stones, and clawed his way across the floor inch by desperate inch, the words of Blazeus filling his mind completely. He was dying. He knew it. Cold crept into his flesh, filling him.

Release me.

"I would rather die," he gasped, barely a whisper in the stillness. It was a lie, the fingers of his right hand clenched around Kinslayer's hilt.

And yet despite his words, his hand moved of its own volition, clawing at the bones of the casket. All he could do was watch sickly as it crumbled beneath his touch. The last dregs of Ash's strength abandoned him. He lay in his own blood, his hand in the ruined casket, amid the powder of bones, willing death to come and find him in this dark place.

Give me my freedom . . . this time it sounded less like a command, more like a plea. Perversely, that pleased the dying man.

But death did not come quickly enough.

The walls wept black tears for him, or Blazeus, or both of them -- at least that was how it looked to Ash as he slipped in and out of consciousness.

Death did not feel so dreadful now that it was close. He thought of Levant and the others, the Rector's Men, fallen in this wretched place. Who would protect his lady now? Would Gerant raze this damned citadel with fire and naphtha, or would some other fool wander down into the dark crypt, seduced by the voice of a bitter ghost? Surely Naru would not allow Gerant to send down men to recover their bodies. Let the Rector's Men lie in peace. Better that than the truth of their slaughter becoming known to all.

All this and more swirled through Ash's mind while he stared listlessly at the black tears. They came slowly, leaking down the stone to gather in the corners where they coalesced like oleaginous black slugs.

Ash could feel his grip on life slipping.

He was alone inside his own head. The sword could not keep him alive; it had no such magic. That, at least, brought a smile to his bloodless lips. The curse of the Kinslayer denied at the last. He had used the blade to kill two of his swordbrothers, but he had not fallen to it himself. He could find peace in that. He closed his eyes.

He did not see the greasy trails the black tears -- in actuality slug-like creatures -- left as they slithered through his blood, though he felt the blazing blush of heat as they came up against his skin. He assumed it was death -- though he had always imaged death's kiss would be cold, not so fiercely warm.

Ash felt nothing but warmth as the creatures slithered through his spilled blood and up onto his face, gathering around his mouth and nose. His breath hitched, one final death rattle as they sank into him, through the soft stuff of his eyes, clogging his nostrils and swelling as they slid down his throat, choking the final stubborn sniff of life out of him.

Jayant Ash was dead as they pervaded his flesh, seeping down into the roots of his brain and into his blood, their malfeasance carried throughout his flesh even as the host leached into his brain.

When he opened his eyes again, no hint of Jayant Ash remained.

Blazeus worked his mouth soundlessly, moving his jaw just as he moved his fingers. A slow, predatory smile spread across his new face.

"Free at last." The first words from his mouth tasted so good after so long. He tried to stand but could not. The bones in his spine were severed. He was crippled. The irony was bitter, his new flesh was ruined, another sort of prison to escape from.

But Blazeus was patient, capable of playing the longest of games to get what he wanted.

He lay on his back simply reveling in the existence of flesh. It felt so good to be whole. He did not need legs. This body was good enough for now. He was free with centuries of hate to unleash. The blackness within him delighted Blazeus. Like the stone walls of his hell, Ash's brain still retained the traces of living memory. He had been respected, feared even. That was good. That would serve him. But there was madness inside Blazeus as well, pent up from centuries trapped in the stones of the citadel. He was not the man he had been. That, too, would serve him well. He clutched the Kinslayer to his chest for a moment, feeling the thrill of the blood and the metal before he sheathed the blade. It was a fine sword. Blazeus felt an enchantment stirring within its metal and smiled. And enchanted blade? Even better; it was a blade truly worthy of him.

Blazeus dragged himself onto his stomach and began to crawl through the filth of death, slowly rising out of his prison to feel the air on his face for the first time in eons. His fingers were bloody, his fingernails torn away by time, he emerged from the darkness. Behind him, the stones of the citadel groaned. Whatever will had held them together was gone now, and the ravages of time were undermining every stone. The towers shifted slowly, buckling. The first stone fell as Blazeus crawled out onto the causeway. It powdered on the octagonal stones.

He sensed the raveller's power before he saw him.

What happened in there, Ash? Naru's voice sounded in his head. A wall rose against me, a force I could not surmount. I lost you. I did not abandon you. Something far stronger than I kept me out.

Blazeus looked up, bitterness burning in his eyes. Get out of my head, he rasped, closing his mind to the raveller, just as he had closed the fortress to his prying. The link broken, Naru staggered visibly.

"It is done. Blazeus is slain. They all are. That is all you need to know."

Blazeus felt Naru trying to enter his mind. He kept him out.

"Look at you . . . What happened to you in there?" This time Naru spoke with his mortal voice, a weak and dusty thing. His eyes drifted to the sword at his hip, then lifted, bright with fear and a glimmer of understanding.

It felt good to be feared after so long. His patience had earned him that and so much more.

He felt no such compunction against entering the raveller's thoughts, displaying his own might: You shouldn't have released them, raveller. The ghosts were the final defense meant to keep him trapped. They gave themselves willingly, to be sure his like could never walk this world again . . . and you undid their sacrifice. You cost the Rector's Men their lives. I was whole when I went in to Mergolies. Now look at me, a broken man. You did this to me. But I am lucky, I came out of it with my life. The others did not. Now get me to a chirugen before this vile place collapses and Blazeus claims us all.

As though to emphasize his point more stones fell as the tower crumbled, twisted and finally collapsed, reclaimed by the sea. Without the power of Blazeus' will to bind it like mortar, the ravages of time and the elements reduced it to what it was, a ruin.

"You wield the Kinslayer?" Naru said, commenting on the blade at his side.

"Levant would have wanted it so."

"I am sure he would," the raveller said, giving no hint of the true meaning underlying his simple statement. "There is justice to it finding your hand."

"I shall wield it in his honor," Blazeus said.

"Rest now, my friend, that is a heavy burden you have lifted."

"I am strong."

"As was Levant, and his father before him," Naru said softly. Blazeus assumed it was some secret held between the raveller and his host, so he chuckled mirthlessly as though appreciating the black humor.

Blazeus had traded one prison for another, but that was enough.

For now.

Naru carried him back to Kalatha while the last traces of red bled out of the sky.

Tomorrow would bring a new dawn, and he would be a new man. Who could blame any changes they saw in Jayant Ash? Any bitterness that crept into him? He was a cripple, he had every right to hate the world.

Tomorrow he would tell Gerant he wanted to rebuild the Rector's Men, to make them his own. Gerant would cede the responsibility to him precisely because he was a cripple. Guilt would make him.

And when the time came, Blazeus would find new flesh, though for now he would enjoy being Jayant Ash, protector of the Rector's lady, wielder of an enchanted blade.

He was so close to the descendants of those who had brought him down. And tomorrow he would sow the seeds that would see them all die.

Tomorrow.

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=issue&vol=i6&article=_001

  Copyright © 2022 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com