XIII

“Jack! Jack!

“I’m okay, Boss!” Mashita’s voice was shaken, but Houghton had never heard a more welcome sound in his life.

“Good.” Houghton realized he was still clutching the gunner’s joystick in a death grip and made his hand relax. He reengaged the electric safeties on both cannon and machine gun, then took his hand off the joystick and drew a deep breath.

“How bad is it?” he asked.

“That’s kinda hard to say with a couple hundred tons of dead whatever-the-fuck-those-things-were stacked all over the deck,” Mashita replied. “I know the front right suspension’s screwed, but I don’t know about any of the other axles. And I can’t see jack-you should pardon the expression-with this thing lying across my vision slots. Not to mention my hatch; I’m gonna have to crawl back through the tunnel to get out.”

“Somehow, I’m not surprised.” Houghton heard a flicker of genuine humor in his own voice and gave himself a shake.

“I take it you’re still okay, too, Wencit?”

“Indeed I am, Gunnery Sergeant,” Wencit said. “And perhaps you’re beginning to understand why I wanted the most powerful ally I could summon,” he added dryly.

“From what I could see, your boy Bahzell’s pretty bad damned news all by himself,” Houghton said.

“Champions of Toman?k tend to be that way. Speaking of which . . . “

The wizard, Houghton realized abruptly, never had closed the commander’s hatch. He’d stayed right where he was, sticking up out of it, even as no less than three demons-and Houghton was certainly prepared to concede the applicability of the term after what had just happened-came charging straight at him. Which meant either that he was an even bigger lunatic than Houghton had thought, or else that he was an even more powerful wizard than he’d suggested. Or, more probably, both.

Now Wencit clambered up to perch on top of the turret, resting one heel nonchalantly on the outstretched forelimb of the final demon.

“So, Bahzell,” Houghton heard over his helmet headphones, “fancy meeting you here!”

* * *

Bahzell’s ears twitched straight up in astonishment at the familiar voice coming to him from the outlandish looking vehicle half buried in dead demons.

*You know, he can be really irritating when he turns up this way, can’t he?* Walsharno observed.

“Aye, that he can. Still and all, I’m not so very tempted to be complaining about it this evening,” Bahzell replied judiciously.

*There were only five of them, you know,* Walsharno grumbled.

“Which would have been only about four too many, I’m thinking.”

*All right, be that way.*

“And could you be so very kind, Wencit,” Bahzell said, raising his voice but speaking with exquisite courtesy, “as to be explaining to us how it is you’ve happened along at just this very moment this time?”

Walsharno trotted towards the vehicle, just as a second hatch opened in its roof and a stranger in a uniform which looked just as outlandish as the vehicle itself poked his head and shoulders up out of it.

“As to that,” Wencit said, “the person you want to be thanking is Gunnery Sergeant Houghton here. He and Corporal Mashita were kind enough to give me a ride.”

“And just how was it you . . . inveigled them into anything as daft as that? Did you ride up to them out of a snow flurry in a swamp?”

“I’ve only used that particular technique once, I’ll have you know,” Wencit said in dignified tones. “In this case, I simply mentioned to them that I had a friend-two friends, actually-who were about to get themselves into trouble all over again. Once I’d explained, they decided they didn’t have anything better to do tonight.”

“Did they now?” Walsharno reached the vehicle and halted. Sitting in the saddle, Bahzell was taller than the ungainly-looking thing, and he reached his right hand towards Houghton.

“I’m thinking as how no one in his right mind would be after volunteering for something like this,” he said. “Still and all, it’s grateful I am. And impressed.”

* * *

Bahzell’s voice was the deepest one Kenneth Houghton had ever heard. It seemed to roll up from his toenails and then rumble around inside that vast chest of his until it reached critical mass and came spilling out with the power of James Earl Jones on steroids.

That was Houghton’s first thought. Then he noticed Bahzell’s tufted, foxlike ears, thrusting up through the special openings in his helmet.

Nope, still not in Kansas, Toto, he told himself wryly.

“I probably wouldn’t have volunteered if I’d really realized what we were getting into,” he heard himself saying aloud as he reached out to take the proffered had. “And I imagine I’m even more impressed with you than you are with me.” He shook his head. “You may think I’m out of my mind, but I know you are! At least I had an LAV and not just a sword!”

“Ah, well, as to that, I’d a bit more than ‘just a sword’ working for me.” Bahzell’s grin showed white, strong teeth.

“That’s true enough,” Wencit said. “On the other hand, if you two can tear yourselves away from your mutual admiration society, there are still some rather unpleasant people in the neighborhood.”

“Aye, so there are.” Bahzell nodded. “In fact, I’ve the oddest notion, given what’s just been happening here, as how those unpleasant folk have been putting themselves to quite an effort so as to invite Walsharno and me to their little get-together. You wouldn’t be knowing anything about that, would you, Wencit?”

“I believe I told you-once, at least-that I’m a wizard and wizards are supposed to know things.”

* * *

“So much for your demons!” Garsalt snarled.

My demons?” Cherdahn glared back at the balding wizard.

The priest and his three wizard “allies” sat in luxuriously comfortable chairs around a long, glassy-smooth table of stone. The stone walls were covered with tapestries-less horrifying, thankfully, than the mosaics of the main tunnel, although still gruesome enough to affect most people’s appetites-and wall sconces less brilliant than the tunnel’s overhead spheres spread gentle illumination through the sumptuously furnished chamber. The dinner dishes had been removed before Bahzell arrived, and they’d been sipping wine with celebratory anticipation as they watched the images Garsalt’s scrying spells had projected into the head-sized gramerhain crystal hovering in midair above the table. But those images hadn’t shown them what they’d hoped for, and now their wine glasses sat ignored on the table while he and Cherdahn locked fiery eyes with one another.

“The Scorpion’s servants did exactly what they were supposed to do,” Sharn?’s priest half-spat. “And, forgive me if I seem a little confused, but I was under the impression that you knew where Wencit was. Apparently, I was mistaken, wasn’t I? And did you simply forget to mention that . . . that . . . whatever that thing out there is?”

“Of course not! But if you’d done what-“

Enough, Garsalt!” Tremala snapped, and both men (assuming the term “man” was still applicable to Cherdahn) turned to glare at her, instead of each other.

“No,” she continued, once she was certain she had their attention, “the demons didn’t succeed. That certainly wasn’t Cherdahn’s fault, however, Garsalt. Nor was it ours. We opened the portal exactly as planned, and without Wencit’s arrival, the Bloody Hand and his horse would both be dead now and the demons who’d survived their encounter with him would be waiting for Wencit, when he came blundering in too late to save the Bloody Hand. So yes, Cherdahn, we should have told you where he was. Unfortunately, we did. The last time Garsalt and I checked, Wencit was still at least ten leagues from here.”

“Then you should have checked more recently,” Cherdahn said icily.

“We last checked less than twenty minutes before Bahzell arrived outside your door,” Tremala said sweetly.

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Yes, it is, isn’t it? Unless, of course, he knew exactly what was going on-exactly what we had planned-and built a glamour within a glamour expressly to deceive us.”

“That’s impossible, Tremala,” Rethak objected. She looked at the dark, dapper wizard, whose specialty was the creation of sophisticated glamours, and he shook his head. “He may be Wencit of R?m, but even so, he couldn’t possibly have known. Certainly not long enough ago to set something like that up!”

“What’s he talking about?” Cherdahn demanded suspiciously.

“The only way Wencit could have deceived us that way would have been to build two glamours,” Tremala said. “One of which-the one we knew about-was designed to keep us from locating him at all, or so we thought. And the second of which was intended to deceive us into thinking he was farther away than he really was just in case we did manage to relocate him. And, just coincidentally, allowed us to ‘know’ where he was without letting us actually see him or his surroundings, which meant we didn’t know anything about that . . . vehicle he brought with him.”

She paused for a moment, one eyebrow arched, until Cherdahn nodded impatiently for her to go on.

“Unfortunately, there are two problems with that possibility. First, we-or, rather, certain . . . colleagues of ours-have been monitoring him for weeks. We knew, or thought we did, exactly when he became aware of our plans, because that was when his glamour of concealment went up in the first place. At which point, exactly as we expected, we lost track of him for quite a while. But not even Wencit of R?m could have built two nested glamours without the ones watching him realizing what he was doing, and nested glamours have to be put together very carefully. The inner glamour has to be erected first, Cherdahn, and there’s no question at all but that the glamour we finally managed to pierce is the original, outer one we saw go up in the first place.”

“Then, obviously, you’re mistaken about what he did.”

“Do I tell you how to summon the Scorpion’s Servants?” Tremala demanded, her lip curling scornfully. “I’m not mistaken about what he did, but it’s just become abundantly clear that we’ve all been mistaken about when he did it. That’s the second problem I mentioned. It’s the order in which the spells are cast, not the order in which they actually activate, which really matters. What Wencit must have done is cast the inner glamour before those colleagues of ours started monitoring him, constructed in such a way that it didn’t activate-didn’t manifest-until after the outer glamour did.”

“So you’re saying your ‘colleagues’ were clumsy enough that he realized what they were doing that far ahead of time?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying. The fact that they didn’t see him doing it means he must have prepared the inner glamour literally weeks, even months ago. And the problem, you see, Cherdahn, is that for him to confuse us as to where he is in relationship to where we’re standing right this minute, he had to include this specific location in his spell construct. In other words, he had to know at least approximately where your temple was before he could cast the spell. Which means any warning he got must have come from your side.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Of course it is. But it’s also what must have happened. Without his knowing this location so that he could anchor the second glamour to it, every time we checked his location through the chink he ‘accidentally’ left in his outer glamour, we’d have gotten a different distance reading-a fixed distance from the observer. The same fixed distance, whether it was one of us, right here, or one of our colleagues elsewhere. And the fact that we could have compared our distance readings would inevitably have shown us what was happening, since he couldn’t actually be the same distance from both of us. The only way to avoid that problem for a moving glamour is to anchor it to a specific, previously known and located physical location. In other words, he needed to index the spell here to be certain that the distances we got were consistent.”

“But there’s no way he could have done that,” Cherdahn insisted. “He may be a wild wizard, but my Master is a god. No wizard could penetrate His concealment. Not, at least, without our knowing he’d done it. No, Tremala, the only way he could have come to this location was following you, exactly the way he was supposed to. Although,” Cherdahn showed his sharp teeth, “he wasn’t supposed to be here just yet, was he?”

“No, but-“

“Excuse me,” Rethak broke in, his voice sharp. Both of them looked at him, and he grimaced. “Does it really matter how he and that thing out there managed to get here without our realizing how close he was? He’s here now, he’s managed to rescue the Bloody Hand, and the two of them are about to decide what to do about us. Don’t you think we might do better to be worrying about that than arguing over whose security measures were at fault?”

Tremala and Cherdahn glowered at him for perhaps three heartbeats. Then the sorceress inhaled sharply.

“He’s right, you know,” she told Cherdahn. “Don’t forget, this is Wencit of R?m we’re dealing with. The gods only know what he’s capable of, or how he may have done what he’s done. But what matters right now is that he and the Bloody Hand are here, and your Servants are all destroyed.”

“No, they aren’t,” Cherdahn said grimly. “As a matter of fact, the most powerful of the Master’s Greater Servants is still within.”

“It is?” Tremala’s eyes brightened, but Cherdahn barked a harsh laugh.

“Indeed it is. Unfortunately, it’s a true Greater Servant. It’s far more powerful than the ones which have been destroyed, but it can be bound only once, and only for a limited time. To send it after Bahzell will take some time. The sacrifice must be performed properly, without dangerous haste, or the Servant will turn on us, instead of the Bloody Hand and Wencit.”

“If it’s more powerful, why wasn’t it used in the first place?”

Cherdahn turned towards Garsalt quickly, but relaxed-at least a little-when he realized the wizard’s question was a genuine one, and not simply a thinly veiled criticism.

“As I said, it can be bound only for a limited time. For now, the Scorpion’s will holds it pent, but once that will is relaxed to allow us to command it, the period in which any mortal could hope to control it will be brief. We dared not bind it to our service until we knew when Bahzell would arrive. And by the time we knew that, we also ‘knew,’ thanks to the reports from your scrying spells, that Wencit was far behind him. The five Servants we already possessed, employed as we’d already planned, would have been more than sufficient to deal with the Bloody Hand-had Wencit and that other thing not intervened-and we would still have retained the Greater Servant had it proved necessary to use it to deal with Wencit.”

“Fair enough,” Tremala said. “But the question now is how long the sacrifice will take?”

“No less than half an hour, and possibly longer,” Cherdahn said. “We dare not rush the death, or the binding may not take. And each Greater Servant is different. It may take somewhat longer to generate sufficient pain to satisfy this one’s need.”

“So we need to keep Wencit and the Bloody Hand busy for at least half an hour.”

“You say that like you think it will be easy, Tremala,” Rethak objected. “That’s Wencit of R?m out there.”

“Yes, it is. And I know exactly what his record is, Rethak. But do you have a better suggestion?”

“But-“

I’m not going back to Kontovar to tell Her I decided to run away rather than face him,” the sorceress said flatly. “Wencit’s combat magic can only kill us, you know.”

Rethak’s jaw worked for a moment. Then he jerked a nod.

“In that case,” Tremala said, “let’s go make our visitors welcome.”

* * *

Trayn Aldarfro’s eyes opened in the Stygian darkness of his tiny cell.

It didn’t make any difference, of course, so he closed them again, wishing he could close all of his other senses as readily. His cramped kennel lay deep in the bowels of the hillside violated by Sharn?’s temple, and he could sense the mental auras of dozens of other captives all about him. Most were obviously children; all were starkly terrified.

Someone was sobbing in despair and horror. Someone else-someone whose ordeal had pushed him over the edge of sanity-was talking to himself, or perhaps calling to a son or daughter he knew he would never see again. His long, rambling sentences were interspersed with bouts of screaming laughter, or howls of rage, and someone else was pleading with him to be quiet, to stop, even though the person behind that voice had to know her pleas were futile. And layered throughout those sounds, counterpointing all of them, were the moans and whimpers of children trapped in a waking nightmare and the handful of adults seeking uselessly to comfort them.

The despair and hopelessness crushing down upon Trayn in that darkness had driven him to the point of mindlessness. Driven him to the very brink of a mage’s final retreat into the mental shutdown which would lead inevitably to the body’s death, as well. Yet even there, in that black pit of horror, the training which made him what he was-and some inner spark, whatever it was that made him who he was-had refused to allow him to escape. Had demanded that he stay, do what he could if even the tiniest opportunity should present itself. He’d come to accept that escape was as impossible as Tremala had suggested, but even as he’d accepted that, a grim, focused determination to strike back at least once before the end had filled the innermost recesses of his soul.

Now, though, he sensed something even worse. Sensed the stirring of an even greater malevolence, an even greater evil. He sat up, the chains on his ankles clanking, and his face went bleak and hard in the blackness as he heard something else-heard the voice of a young woman, sobbing, pleading, fighting as she was dragged from her tiny cell. She couldn’t possibly have sensed what he had, yet she seemed to know anyway.

Trayn could hear her, feel her, as she was dragged down the corridor outside the closed door of his own cell, and he knew where she was bound. He knew what sort of death awaited a sacrifice to Sharn?, knew what the unspeakable appetite behind the malevolence he’d sensed wanted from her. And he knew no one could possibly save her from it.

His eyes burned with that knowledge. Then his jaw clenched, and he bent forward, pressing his hands to his temples, summoning all the power within him and focusing it through the training he had already received. He reached out, reached through that darkness and stone, until his questing mental fingers touched the surface of the doomed young woman’s mind.

She was even younger than he’d thought, not yet eighteen, he judged. And in that moment when their minds touched, he knew she had already seen the deaths of her parents, her brothers, a sister. Knew she understood precisely what was about to happen to her, as well, and felt her hopeless terror beating like the wings of a dying bird against the iron bars of the inescapable cage about her.

She sensed him, too, though not as clearly as he sensed her, and he held out his mental hand to her. He took her hand in his, clasping it, offering the only comfort he could, and felt her grip close with desperate strength and gratitude upon his. There were no words between them. Trayn’s major talent was not telepathy, and she had no mage talent at all. Yet if there were no words, there was a promise, and Trayn went with her as she was dragged down that passageway of dark stone towards the agonizing death awaiting her.

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