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The dragons were out in force tonight.
Ramiro tried to keep to shadows as he moved, but the narrow stone corridor didn’t offer a lot of cover, and the flickering light from torches set high on the walls kept shadows constantly moving. Which meant that the evasive maneuvers they’d used to avoid the Citadel’s reptilian guards aboveground wouldn’t work here. If any dragons crossed their path while they were down in the labyrinth, the two of them were done for.
“Should be coming up soon,” Van whispered nervously. He glanced down at the crumpled parchment map in his hand. “Any minute now.”
You’ve been saying that for an hour, Ramiro thought.
The labyrinth was ancient, a maze of tunnels whose masonry had been degraded by centuries of rainwater seeping from above; the floor was littered with fragments of fallen brick, making walking treacherous. As they picked their way carefully over the rubble, Ramiro was acutely aware of the tons of earth poised overhead, held at bay by nothing more than rotting mortar and a prayer. How does the gaming program do that? he wondered. The virt software that was controlling his sensory input could add anything to the environment that a person could touch, taste, hear, or see, but what physical experience conjured such a sense of claustrophobia? What tangible sensations translated into dread?
(Advice from the Green Man:)
“The Shadowlords are insane. Never forget that. Their Gift is handed down from person to person, and it carries with it all the memories of those who possessed it in the past. All their prejudices and obsessions, their hatreds and fears and uncertainties, melded to the brain of one who was born and bred for such a process, and who has been told from childhood that he must submit to it…think what that would do to a man!” He looked up toward the mansion high above us. “I’ve been told that some become lost in the process and that they wander places like this in a haze, unable to fix on a single identity, or even a single time frame. Others appear to be more rational. But even with the latter, there’s still madness at the core of them. Dozens of ancestral voices clamoring inside their heads every waking moment, each one derived from a Shadow who was himself insane. Madness layered upon madness, all of it trapped within a soul that must walk the borderline between life and death, committed to neither…
“Never forget what they are,” he warned us. “Never forget that no matter how human they may appear to be, they ceased to be that long ago.”
There was a pteradactyl sitting on my chest.
Not a big one. Parrot-sized. It had its head turned to one side so that its little black eye could stare at me, and there was no mistaking the profile.
“Ah. You’re awake.” A man’s voice filtered into my awareness. I tried to turn my head toward him, but the motion hurt. Everything hurt.
“Here”, he said, to someone other than me. “I saved one for you.”
A small fish came flying in my direction. The pteradactyl reached up and snapped it out of the air. One gulp later it was gone.
“Harvested from a world where the great asteroid never hit. They were popular pets among the elite for a while. Then the aristos tired of them, like they tire of everything else. Here.” He knelt down by my side. “This will help.”
My chest burned like fire as he helped me to a sitting position. The pteradactyl squawked as it was dislodged, and fluttered off to take up a post on a nearby chair. My left leg, I saw, was swathed in bandages. It smelled of herbs. Every inch of my body was sore.
He lifted a bowl to my lips.
“What is it?” I asked hoarsely.
“Chicken soup. A thousand worlds have failed to come up with anything better. Drink.”
The skinny man walked through the halls of the Shadows’ citadel with catlike tread: toe-balanced, silent. His features were lean and angular and his eyes were focused straight ahead with predatory intensity, unblinking. The scents of the forest clung to his skin and trailed in his wake down the hallway: pine trees, musk, and decay. They seemed to be natural scents, rather than something acquired.
A person who crossed his path at that moment might have jumped back in fright, sensing the animal essence in him before the human essence was apparent. Such a reaction would not be wholly inappropriate, or unwise.
By the man’s side walked a wolf. It was taller by half than the normal specimen of its species, and as long-legged and lean as he was. I didn’t look at all pleased to be in such an enclosed space, and now and then it would growl softly in the back of its throat, but when that happened the man would reached out his hand and stroke its hackles, causing it to subside into a sullen but wary silence. read more…
SOUTHERN TIER EXPRESSWAY, NEW YORK
Standing by the side of the road, the deer was all but invisible. A sharp outcropping of rock shielded it from the view of the cars heading north, and the ones heading south were too busy concentrating on driving to be looking for wildlife. This close to the river driving could be treacherous, and one wrong move coming around the sharp turn on the mountainside could send a car hurtling down to the river.Had anyone stopped to look at the deer they might have wondered at its presence there. Sandwiched between a steady stream of cars and the jagged cliff face it barely had room to stand. Further north the slope was gentler, and led to sheltering woods, the kind of place that deer normally preferred. Here there was only danger.The deer did not look afraid.
It watched as the cars sped by, glancing briefly to the side as each one passed, as if to keep the reflection from its eyes from revealing its presence. Some of the vehicles whizzed by so close that the wind from their passage bristled its fur, but it did not shy away. read more…
He opened his mouth to answer the High King’s question — to tell him that this place was a mystery to him as well — when suddenly he felt it. A sound just beyond the threshold of hearing, that resonated silently in his flesh. A tremor in the fabric of the universe, that set reality to vibrating like a plucked harp string. Looking over at Ramirus, he could see from the expression on the other Magister’s face that he had felt it, to.. None of the other seemed to. Not even the witches.
Which could mean only one thing.
“She’s coming,” he whispered.
Favias turned and nodded sharply to his people. No more explanation was needed. Dismounting, the Guardians took up their bows and nocked blue-tipped arrows in readiness. The other members of the party followed their lead and dismounted also, looking about nervously for cover as they did so. The Guardians did not bother with that. They understood that physical barriers were meaningless at this point. Either they could draw the Souleater down to them, within range of their weapons, or they were all dead men. read more…
Imnea knew when she awoke that Death was waiting for her.
She had been seeing the signs of his presence for some time now. A chill breeze in the corners of the house that wouldn’t go away. Shadows that seeped in through the windows, that didn’t move with the light. The icy touch of a Presence upon her skin when she healed the Hardings’ little girl, that left her shuddering for hours afterwards.
The mirror revealed little. Of course. It wasn’t the way of witching folk to age and die like normal people. The fuel within them was consumed too quickly, like a stove in which all the winter’s wood had been placed at once. What a blaze it made! Yet quickly gone, all of it, until it smothered in its own ash.
How long ago had the dying begun? Did it start in her youth, when she first discovered she could do odd things…tiny little miracles, hardly worth noting…or not until later? Did Death first notice her when she made tiny points of fire dance on the windowsill, with a child’s unconscious delight (and how her mother had punished her for that!), or not until she reached deep within herself with conscious intent to draw strength from her very soul — from that central font of spiritual power which mystics called the athra — and to bend it to her purpose? When and where was the contract with Death sealed, and what act marked its closing? The healing of Atkin’s boy? The calling of rain after the Great Drought of ’92? The day she had cleansed Dirum’s leg of its gangrene, so that they wouldn’t have to cut it off? read more…