VI

Walsharno topped out on the crest of the rolling hill and halted. He raised his head, nostrils flaring, and Bahzell’s face tightened bleakly as the two of them gazed out across the still-smoldering ruins. They’d been catching hints of smoke and slaughter for the last twenty or thirty minutes despite the fact that the night breeze was blowing almost directly from behind them. Now they knew why.

“So, it is after being Demonspawn,” the hradani rumbled in a voice like hammered iron.

*So it would appear,* Walsharno agreed. *Still, I wonder why they waited this long to let it feed.*

The roan stallion’s mental voice would have sounded calm, almost dispassionate, if anyone else had been able to hear it. It didn’t sound that way to Bahzell.

“Now that’s a thing I couldn’t be telling you,” he said. “Unless, of course,” he let his eyes sweep across the wreckage of the village, then looked up at the stars spangling the night sky’s immensity, “they were thinking as how they’d just as soon have the two of us out here all alone before they were after letting us in on their little secret.”

*I suppose that could be it. But somehow, I’ve the feeling there’s more to it.*

This time, Bahzell only grunted. Walsharno was just as much a champion of Toman?k as he was, and every champion’s abilities differed from every other champion’s, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes more fundamentally. They perceived things in different ways, as well, and Bahzell had had plenty of proof that Walsharno’s “hunches” tended to be dismayingly accurate.

“I’m thinking we’d best go take a closer look,” the hradani said after several moments, and Walsharno moved slowly and cautiously down the slope towards the wreckage.

It couldn’t be all that many hours old, Bahzell reflected. None of the houses had been particularly substantial. They wouldn’t have taken very long to burn, yet embers still glowed in the darkness. They streaked the night with a faint glow, the color of blood, but Bahzell was hradani. Neither he nor Walsharno needed that fitful radiance to see what had happened here.

*Some of them at least tried to fight,* Walsharno said, and Bahzell nodded grimly.

“Aye, that they did,” he agreed, gazing at the torn and mutilated bodies. It was clear none of the village’s defenders had had time to don armor-assuming any of them had possessed it-but it obviously wouldn’t have mattered very much if they had. The claw marks and half-devoured state of the bodies were all the proof Bahzell or Walsharno would ever need about what had happened here, even without the familiar stench of evil and horror which no champion of Toman?k could possibly misinterpret.

Then Walsharno halted. They’d passed the bodies of several men and women, all of them brutally mutilated and torn, but they’d been scattered about the village’s muddy streets. Clearly, they’d been pulled down by ones and twos, but that had changed abruptly.

The ruined foundations of a much more substantial building smoldered before them, and the bodies of at least thirty men and women lay obscenely heaped about it. It was hard to be certain of the number, for not a single body Bahzell could see was intact. Most were so hideously torn, their bits and pieces so scattered, that it was difficult even to tell which had been male and which female. A pathetic handful of swords lay strewn in the blood-soaked mud amidst the carnage, but most of these people had been armed, if that was the word, with nothing more sophisticated than woodsman’s axes, pitchforks, or other crude agricultural tools.

*So this was where they made their stand,* Walsharno said heavily.

“Aye.” A cold fire glowed in Bahzell Bahnakson’s brown eyes. “Their town hall, I’m thinking.”

*And are you thinking the same thing I am about why they did it?* “That I am.” Bahzell’s voice was harsh. “I’ve not seen a single child. Not one,” he said, and felt Walsharno’s cold, bleak agreement deep in his own mind.

The hradani looked down at where the village’s adults had died to the last man or woman, facing their impossible foes in what they must have known was the hopeless defense of their children, and his face might have been hammered out of old iron.

*Why did they want children, do you think?* Walsharno asked.

“I can be thinking of two or three reasons,” Bahzell replied. “Old Demon Breath’s fond enough of children’s souls, after all. But I’ve the feeling it’s not so simple as that this time.” He gazed at the mangled bodies once more, and shook his head. “Whoever it is we’re chasing wasn’t after letting their cursed pet feed, Walsharno. Not really. There’d not be so many bodies, or bits of bodies, lying about if they had.”

*You think they know we’re on their heels?*

“Either that, or else they’ve some other pressing need to be someplace else. Someplace they’re after looking to meet up with friends of theirs, I’m thinking.”

*And they’re taking the children to those “friends.”* Walsharno considered the thought for a moment, then tossed his head. *I suppose the real question is whether they’re going to “meet up” with other worshipers of Sharn? or someone else entirely.*

“As to that, we’ve no way of knowing. Still and all, it’s happier I’d be in my own mind to know as how we were dealing with Demon Breath and no one else.”

Walsharno tossed his head in agreement once more, and Bahzell drew a deep breath. Child sacrifices were always acceptable to any of the Dark Gods, but Sharn?’s church usually preferred older ones. Victims with just enough experience to fully appreciate the horrific, lingering deaths Sharn?’s worshipers dealt out, especially to summon or control their foul patron’s demons. It was unlikely that those who served the Scorpion would have bothered to attack the village just to steal away its children.

But other Dark churches had different preferences. Carnadosa, for example. The lady of black sorcery did not delight in cruelty for cruelty’s sake the way Sharn? and some of the others did. But in many ways, her total amorality, her total indifference to cruelty or atrocity so long as its outcome served her needs, was almost worse. And all of her senior priests were also wizards, and children were prized when it came to the rites of blood magic.

*Sharn? and Carnadosa don’t like one another very much,* Walsharno pointed out, following his bonded rider’s thoughts with the ease of long familiarity. *For that matter, none of the Dark Gods like one another all that much.*

“Aye, so I’ve heard,” Bahzell said. “Still and all, for all folk keep telling me such as that, it’s in my mind that you and I have been seeing them working hand in hand more often than not.”

*Perhaps we’re just lucky.*

The irony in Walsharno’s mental tone was only a frail mask for the icy fury burning at the courser’s heart. Had he not bonded with Bahzell and become a champion of Toman?k himself, Walsharno would almost certainly have eventually become a herd stallion, and the coursers didn’t really think the way the Races of Man did. Each courser was an individual, true, but they saw themselves also collectively, as members of the herd. And, as members of the herd, each was responsible for the protection of all. Especially the herd stallions, who led and governed their herds . . . and who died to defend them.

Bahzell understood that, better even than another wind rider might have, for unlike most wind riders, he shared the coursers’ herd sense. Even if he hadn’t, any champion of Toman?k would have shared the cold, bleak hatred burning like ice in Walsharno’s heart.

“Well,” the hradani said quietly, “I’ve no notion as to how lucky or unlucky you and I may be after being, Walsharno. But I’m thinking as how the scum as did this-” his mobile ears flattened as he swept one hand in an arc indicating the devastated village “- are after deserving a wee bit of ill luck all their very own.”

*Indeed they do,* Walsharno agreed.

“Then let’s you and I be bringing it to them,” Bahzell said. “But first . . . “

The hradani held out his right hand.

“Come,” he said softly, and five feet of gleaming steel materialized in his fist as he summoned the sword which normally rode sheathed across his back.

He gripped it just below the quillons, holding it up hilt-first as the symbol of the god he served, and felt Walsharno joining with him, heart, mind, and soul.

“I’m thinking as how these folk fell in the service of Light,” he said, speaking to the night and to their deity for both of them. “Any man or woman who dies defending children is one as I’m proud to call brother or sister. And I’ll not leave my brothers or sisters to wolves and carrion-eaters.”

*Are you certain about this, Bahzell?* an earthquake-deep voice asked in the back of his brain. *Only their bodies remain with you.*

“Aye, it’s certain I am-we are,” Bahzell replied, knowing he spoke for Walsharno, and not at all surprised to hear Toman?k’s voice.

*Their souls already sit at Isvaria’s table,* Toman?k’s deep voice said. *As you say, there’s a special place reservedfor those who die defending children, and my sister and I know our own.*

“I’ve no doubt of that,” Bahzell said. “And it’s happy I’ll be to meet them someday. But until that day comes, Walsharno and I will be doing what we must, and we’ll not leave them.”

“You realize that if you do this, the ones you’re pursuingwill know where you are, how close you are.”

“Aye,” Bahzell said simply.

*Aren’t you going to ask me just who you are following?*

Bahzell heard the faint undertone of amusement in Toman?k’s voice, despite the grim horror of the scene about them.

“As to that, if I thought it was like to do me a single solitary bit of good, aye, I’d be asking. As it’s not-“

He shrugged, and felt a huge, immaterial hand rest lightly on his shoulder for a moment.

*You are my true Swords, you and Walsharno,* the deep, rumbling voice said. *But I will tell you this much. Brothers come in many forms, and from many places. You’re right that this is Sharn?’s work. And I’m afraid your suspicion that it isn’t Sharn? alone you face is also correct. Yet the two of you will not face the Dark alone, either. Not even I know how it will all end, but this I do know-you’ll find yourself in the best of company before it does.*

“In which case, I’m thinking we’d best be getting on with it, if it’s all the same to you, and all,” Bahzell said, and this time Toman?k actually chuckled.

*Very well. I suppose I should be accustomed to hradani-and courser . . . directness by now. Not to mention stubbornness. If the two of you are determined to do this thing, then let’s do it right, you and I.*

Bahzell didn’t respond in words. Instead, he simply held his sword higher and felt Walsharno’s will joining with his. He and the courser fused into a single whole, greater than either of them could ever be alone, and that fusion reached out to the blue-burning glory of their deity’s presence.

Toman?k reached back to them. The bonds which joined the three of them, normally almost imperceptible, yet always present, blazed with sudden, resurgent strength as Bahzell and Walsharno opened the channel between Toman?k and the world of mortals wide. A pinnacle of brilliant blue light shot upwards, an azure needle stabbing into the starry heavens from the hradani’s raised sword. Then a ring of blue fire exploded outward, sweeping through the gutted village, bathing that scene of horror in Toman?k’s cleansing light. The ring flashed across the mangled bodies, the blood, the grim residue of agony, despair, and courage, and when it passed, there were no more bodies, no more blood. There was only the night, the still-smoking ruins of an empty village, and a profound and abiding sense of peace.

Bahzell lowered his sword slowly, filled with a deep surge of satisfaction and content, and felt Toman?k’s hand upon his shoulder once again. Not in comfort, but in the approving clasp of a war leader for his most trusted sword companions. And as he and Walsharno shared that feeling, they also felt Toman?k behind them, staring out into the night where any with eyes to see must recognize the explosion of power which had cleansed the village.

*Done!* Toman?k’s voice rang out, inaudible to mortal ears, yet deep and powerful enough to shake a universe, raised in a clarion challenge of his own. *Done, O Darkness! Know my Swords are upon you, and tremble!*

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