The starry night had wrapped itself in a thickening shroud of cloud, and the hradani smelled rapidly approaching rain on a strengthening wind out of the east. The disappearance of the stars and the orange sliver of moon which had floated among them had turned the night pitchy black, but Walsharno was a courser and Bahzell was a hradani, and both of them could see with remarkable clarity.
Not that either of them was very happy about
“I’ve no doubt at all, at all, as how old Demon Breath would never dream of upsetting you if you’d only be telling him that,” Bahzell responded to Walsharno’s disgusted observation.
“I’m not so very sure we’re going to be doing any riding down it,” Bahzell said rather more seriously.
“And are you after telling me that agreeing to be one of himself’s champions and all
“Aye, that there may be. Still and all, Walsharno, I’m thinking it’s not so very likely as there’d be fighting room for you.”
The hradani turned to look at his companion. At just over seven feet, nine inches, no one-not even another Horse Stealer-would ever consider Bahzell a small man, but Walsharno stood twenty-four and a half hands. Bahzell’s head didn’t quite top the huge stallion’s shoulder.
“That’s as may be, but I’m better suited to be fighting in twisty little corners underground than
Few creatures in all of Norfressa could match a Soth?ii courser stallion for lethality, but a “horse” Walsharno’s size needed fighting space. Needed to be able to rear and kick, needed the ability to dodge.
“Aye. But who’s to say it stays that way? I’m thinking that if
“I’m not saying as how you should ‘let’ me be doing anything of the sort. It’s not as if we were having any real choice, is it now?”
Walsharno snaked his head around and lowered it to look Bahzell in the eye. Silence lingered for several seconds until, manifestly against his will, the stallion tossed his head in grudging agreement.
“Because we’re the good fellows, and they’re the bad fellows,” Bahzell said lightly. “Still and all,” he reached up, unhooked a case of oiled leather from his saddle, and extracted the deadly horsebow of a windrider, “I’m thinking as how it’s not so very likely we’ll be creeping into
He strung the bow smoothly and easily. It had taken his fellow wind riders a long time to convince him to give up his steel-bowed arbalest, and he still wasn’t as good an archer as most of them were. They, after all, had literally grown up in the saddle, bows in hand. Bahzell had been doing other things-like raiding the Soth?ii himself-at a comparable point in his own life. Still, the horsebow’s rate of fire was far higher than even a Horse Stealer crossbowman could manage, and if Bahzell was a bit less accurate, he could pull a bow far heavier than any mere human. In the final analysis, the sheer, incredible power of his weapon made up for quite a lot.
“And aren’t you just the funniest thing on four feet?” Bahzell replied, attaching his quiver to the right side of his belt.
“Remind me to be thanking him the next time I see him.”
Bahzell snorted, then turned to study the hillside above them.
Most people would never have realized there was anything there, but Bahzell and Walsharno weren’t most people. Both of them could sense the dark miasma hiding in the heart of the hill, and the cloaking power of Sharn? which should have hidden the tunnel opening was useless against the eyes of any champion of Toman?k.
Bahzell bared his teeth as he saw the loathsome image of Sharn?’s scorpion, carved into the keystone of the outer arch, and he remembered the first time he’d seen that same image. What he
“I’m thinking as how they must know we’re out here,” he said.
“Then wouldn’t you think it’s just a mite overconfident they’re being with no one posted to be keeping an eye out for us?”
Walsharno nodded, and Bahzell’s frown deepened. Although Sharn? couldn’t hide the entrance from him or Walsharno by arcane means, things could still be physically concealed, and there was an uncomfortable crawling sensation between Bahzell’s shoulder blades.
“Well,” he sighed, “I’m thinking there’s only one way to be finding out what it is they’ve got in mind.”
* * *
It was remarkable how quiet something the size of a Soth?ii courser could be when it put its mind to it. Walsharno’s ability to move almost soundlessly, even through underbrush, had always impressed Bahzell. He himself had spent years honing his ability to do the same thing, and he was far smaller than the stallion, with only two feet, to boot. Despite that, Walsharno made little more noise than
Thunder mutter-grumbled, and lightning flickered blue-white against the clouds far to the east. It was coming closer, and there was something almost soothing about the natural power of the oncoming storm.
No windrider would have dreamed of using reins, and no courser would have tolerated such an impertinence if he had. Nor was anything so crude required. Walsharno was linked with Bahzell, their thoughts flickering back and forth almost as if they were a single being. There was no need for Bahzell to tell Walsharno where to go, or for Walsharno to tell Bahzell where they
Which, Bahzell reflected as he nocked an arrow, also left both of his hands free for other purposes.
Walsharno emerged from the last few feet of the undergrowth fringing the streambed and started up the slope just as quietly and cautiously. The sense of the evil flowing out of the tunnel opening spilled down the hillside like a viscous tide, black as tar and just as clinging. The stallion breasted its flow, forging upward against it, and Bahzell felt the two of them settling into even deeper fusion.
“Not quite,” Bahzell murmured back. “Let’s be getting as close as we can before-“
The night suddenly shattered as something even darker and blacker than it was, and almost as enormous, exploded from the tunnel mouth. Bahzell’s mind insisted that it couldn’t possibly have squeezed itself into an opening that small as huge, segmented spiderlike legs-blacker than black, yet glaring with sick green light for eyes that could see-and ribbed, bat-like wings unfolded themselves. A head that belonged on something from night-black depths where sunlight never shone opened its mouth to bare curving fangs half as long as Bahzell, and the demon shrieked its fury as it launched itself down the hillside towards them with all the impossible quickness of its hell-born kind.
His bow sang with a musical, chirping snap. A steel-headed war arrow howled from the string, and the azure power of Toman?k touched it. It flashed across the night like a blue meteor, and the demon shrieked again-this time in as much pain as fury-as the meteor slammed into its long, sinuous neck. It struck just below the head, and blinding light exploded from the point of impact.
The hideous creature flailed its head in obvious anguish, but its charge barely hesitated, and Walsharno wheeled on his haunches, then sprang into a full gallop with a speed only another courser could possibly have matched.
The days when Bahzell had sat the saddle like an abandoned sack of meal were long past. He and his courser were one being, and his right hand flashed down to the quiver at his belt. Another arrow fitted itself flawlessly, perfectly, to the string, and he sighted, drew, and released in one flowing motion.
Another blue-flaming arrow shrieked across the night, but this time the demon wasn’t taken by surprise. Mere arrows had never posed a threat to it in the past. They’d rattled uselessly, harmlessly, off its hard scales and thick carapace, but
The demon staggered, howling in fresh pain and fury, but it didn’t go down. Instead, it gathered its feet under it once again, wings beating for balance, and lunged. The wind from those flailing wings buffeted Bahzell and Walsharno like some foul-smelling hurricane, and there wasn’t time for another shot. Bahzell dropped his bow and raised his hands, summoning his blade, and five feet of burnished steel glared with the blue furnace-fury of the war god.
Walsharno charged to meet the demon, screaming the wordless whistle of his own war cry, and the glittering sword hissed as it descended in a two-handed blow like Toman?k’s own mace.
The demon twisted its head out of the way at the very last instant, and Bahzell’s sword slammed into one of its wings, instead. A fountain of blue light exploded upward, the demon shrieked, and Walsharno pivoted with lithe, impossible grace. He swerved to one side, and both rear hoofs lashed out, ablaze with the same blue glare as Bahzell’s sword. They caught the demon in the side with a gruesome, ear-shattering “
Not even a greater demon could shake off that impact. The creature lurched sideways, stumbling, almost falling, with a fresh shriek of pain. Walsharno snapped back around to face it, and it was slower as it gathered itself this time. It hesitated, crouching down, hissing and bubbling in mingled fury and anguish. Walsharno started towards it, and it actually backed away, sidling sideways, head cocked, watching its enemies.
Bahzell and Walsharno were too deeply fused for the hradani to be positive which of them that thought came from, yet he knew it was accurate. He’d fought Sharn?’s demons before, and none of them had ever reacted the way this one was. He could literally feel its hatred, its need to attack, despite the agonizing wounds he and Walsharno had already inflicted, but still it continued to back away, instead. It shouldn’t have done that. Painful as its injuries might be, they were far from incapacitating and their torment only fueled the demon’s blazing rage and hatred. So why-?
And then reality
This time there was no doubt; the screamed mental warning came from Walsharno, not Bahzell, as the carefully prepared spell opened behind them. For all their experience, neither champion had been watching for Carnadosa and her worshipers. Their attention had been focused entirely on