XV

Trayn Aldarfro’s fingernails cut deep, bleeding wounds in the palms of his fisted hands. Sweat covered his face in a thick, solid sheet; breath hissed between his clenched teeth in jagged, explosive spits of air; and every muscle quivered, shuddering with the waves of agony rolling through him.

He could have escaped the torment anytime he chose, which made it even worse in many ways, yet in truth, he couldn’t choose to. He was a mage, pledged to fight the Dark at whatever cost. And even if he hadn’t been bound by his mage’s oath, he’d made another promise. A promise to a girl-woman he’d never even seen.

His spine arched, until only his heels and the back of his head touched the stone floor, and an animal pain sound ripped from his throat. He’d never imagined such agony, yet he knew that despite all he could do, what he was experiencing at this moment was only a fraction of what that girl he’d never seen was suffering.

He was with her as she writhed, twisting and jerking against her chains on the gore-encrusted altar. He was with her as the chanting ghouls who worshiped Sharn? leaned over her with their knives, their pincers, all the unspeakable instruments of torture consecrated to their Dark God. There was no secret of pain, no possible torture, which they did not know. All the agony which could be inflicted upon the human body was theirs to command, and their victim shrieked as they visited it upon her with a cold, methodical calculation worse than any frenzied explosion of homicidal madness.

Trayn would have given his very soul to save that girl from the atrocity being visited upon her, and he couldn’t. He couldn’t. His helplessness was a torment deeper than any pain of the flesh, yet he refused to allow it to distract him from the one thing he could do. And so he was with her, sharing her pain, diverting all of it that he could-little though that might have been against such an avalanche of agony. She was scarcely even aware of his presence, now. There was room for so little within the horror which had engulfed her, but still a tiny fragment of her knew he was there. Knew she was not totally alone, even here, even now. And as Trayn bared his teeth in a snarl of agony, still he held the shield he had thrown about her innermost being.

He felt the glowing knot of her life, her soul, like the fluttering of terrified wings against the palm of his hand. Death-and worse than death-was coming for it, and it knew it, yet even as extinction loomed, it blazed ever brighter and more brilliant, focused by the agony inflicted upon her body, consuming itself in her torment. It was that brightness, the final brightness of despair and anguish, that all of this was designed to create. To offer up to the waiting demon until it reached the crucial point and the demon reached out to it. Reached out and took it-consumed its bleeding shreds and sucked the last dim, glowing marrow from its bones as the monstrous evil extinguished not simply the life, but the very soul of its prey.

Trayn twisted, his own sounds those of a tormented animal, but still he held the shield. Still, he muted that brilliant glow. He felt the demon’s waiting malevolence, its avid awareness of the feast promised to it, but he refused to yield. He would hold that shield as long as he lived, and until he died, the girl’s soul would live, whatever happened to her body.

* * *

Cherdahn stepped back from the altar for a moment.

His victim’s blood had soaked his vestments in a freshly consecrating flood, and his nostrils quivered with the delicious smell of spilt life and agony. He licked the thin blade of his flaying knife, and the taste was sweet, sweet. But even as its dark power flowed into him, he knew something was wrong.

The sacrifice had been perfect. A virgin, strong-minded enough to have retained her sanity even when her entire family had been butchered, yet old enough-and, perhaps even more importantly, imaginative enough-to appreciate her own fate, and young and strong enough to last even on Sharn?’s altar. There could not have been a more delectable offering to one of the Scorpion’s Greater Servants, and no one in Sharn?’s service was more skilled than Cherdahn in rendering those offerings.

And yet, he couldn’t feel the Servant reaching out to the tender delicacy shrieking upon the altar. He knew the agony had been sufficient, the despair deep enough, but still the Servant stood aloof, without so much as touching the sacrifice’s soul. That had never happened to Cherdahn before, and uncertainty tried to chip holes in the dark priest’s confidence. Was it possible that somehow, in some unknown fashion, Bahzell and Walsharno were responsible? They were champions of Toman?k. Could they be managing, even from outside the sacred precincts of the sacrificial chamber, to interfere with the ritual? The very idea was preposterous, yet what else could it be?

He didn’t know the answer to those questions, but in the back of his brain a dark worm of fear had begun to grow. In order to bind the Servant, he’d been forced to weaken the bonds Sharn?’s will had fastened upon it when it was entrusted to Cherdahn’s keeping. He’d locked additional restraints into place, tied into the life of the sacrifice, holding it until the instant of her death. That was an essential part of any binding, for a Servant had no loyalty. It hated-and desired-all mortal life, and its most fiery hatred was reserved for those who bound it to their service in the first place. It must be held by the constraints of the Scorpion’s ritual until the moment in which it consumed the sacrifice’s soul and, in that instant, locked the new binding upon it even as the sacrifice’s death dissolved all earlier constraints.

There had been instances in which the ritual had been faulty. In which the sacrifice had died before its soul was consumed. When that happened, the consequences could well prove fatal for the Servant’s summoner.

But that had never happened to him, Cherdahn reminded himself, and it would not happen here, either. He refused to let it happen, and his jaw tightened as he stepped back to the altar and bent to his task once more.

* * *

Rethak of Kontovar no longer looked quite so dapper. Sweat and the stink of fear tended to have that effect.

He pressed his back to the smooth stone of a passageway and cursed the architect who’d designed this complex warren of tunnels and corridors. The temple was at least twice the size it needed to have been, he thought viciously. Its size was no more than an exercise in egoism on Cherdahn’s part, and any priest with half a brain would have kept it as small and inconspicuous as he could have, however good its concealment. But, no, not Cherdahn! He had to flaunt the power of his deity. Had to prove what a magnificent temple he could provide even here, in a land where the worship of Sharn? was punishable by death for all concerned.

And even when its sheer size offered any invader too many possible avenues of advance. Rethak and Tremala were wizards-they’d been able to absorb the temple’s twisting, twining design from a quick glance at its plan. Which meant they’d instantly recognized that there were at least six possible paths by which Bahzell, Wencit, and their allies might approach the sacrificial chamber. There was no way Bahzell and Wencit could know the temple’s actual layout, but Bahzell was a champion of Toman?k. He needed no diagrams. He could feel the concentration of evil he sought, could pick out a path to it with his eyes closed.

Still, even though there were at least half a dozen possibilities, they converged so that each of them passed through one of two narrow bottlenecks before they spread out once more. And because they did, he and Tremala had to defend both bottlenecks if they were to have any hope at all of stopping the invaders.

Which meant that one of them was going to find himself-or herself-face-to-face withWencit of R?m with no arcane allies in sight.

So far, no dark wizard in history had survived a meeting like that.

“Rethak!”

The wizard twitched as Garsalt’s voice spoke to him out of the darkness. A quick flare of bitter resentment flashed through Rethak at the sound. Much as he despised Garsalt, he envied him in that moment, because Garsalt’s specialty meant he was safely in the rear, just outside the sacrificial chamber itself, where he could monitor the enemy’s approach. Rethak’s specialty, on the other hand, lay in the creation of glamours. He was actually marginally better at it than Tremala was, although the sorceress’ other strengths outclassed him hugely. And because he was, he was stuck out here, waiting for Wencit and hoping the shield of invisibility he was holding over the armsmen with him would prove strong enough to deflect even the wild wizard’s uncanny eyes.

“Rethak!” Garsalt’s voice repeated, and this time it was louder. He must have increased the volume of the projection from his end, Rethak thought, because he could hear the throat-ripping shrieks of the sacrifice in the background, despite the thick walls and massive door between Garsalt and the chamber.

What?” Rethak snapped back in a harsh whisper.

“They’re coming your way, after all,” Garsalt’s voice said rapidly. “They’ll be there in less than five minutes.”

“Fiendark fly away with their souls!” Rethak muttered.

“What? I couldn’t hear you.”

“Never mind,” Rethak grated. “Tell Tremala. And tell that worthless piece of Scorpion shit we need his frigging demon now!”

* * *

Bahzell Bahnakson led the way down the twisting, turning passage.

Houghton wasn’t especially happy about that. Having someone armed with what was effectively a hand-to-hand weapon between the place any fresh enemy might appear and the members of the combat team equipped with firearms wasn’t normally a formula for tactical success. In this case, however, he’d been forced to admit that sometimes there were exceptions to the rule.

There were no longer advancing through darkness, yet Bahzell appeared to possess something which was almost as big an advantage over his foes as the nightvision gear had been. Houghton didn’t pretend to understand how it worked, but the huge hradani seemed to be able to literally smell the other side. Without him, the others would have walked straight into ambushes at least three or four times already, and if Bahzell didn’t have a ranged weapon, the tortuous layout of this rat’s nest of tunnels didn’t exactly give very long lines of sight, anyway. There was blood splashed across Bahzell’s green surcoat now, joining the burned spots the demons’ ichor had produced, and Houghton had to admit that no opponent who found himself within reach of the hradani’s huge sword was likely to be a problem to anyone else ever again.

Still, it offended his sense of the way things were supposed to be.

And crawling around in tunnels fighting demons and wizards doesn’t offend them, Ken? he thought sardonically. It’s not as if

Bahzell stopped abruptly, and Houghton eased up to the hradani’s right rear. The current tunnel was no more than ten feet across, a circular, polished bore of stone which looked almost as if it had been melted out of the hillside, rather than excavated. There was room for Houghton to take up a position which would allow him to engage past Bahzell, and he and the hradani had agreed that his field of fire would be to Bahzell’s right if the opportunity arose.

Houghton had expended another thirteen grenades on the way in, and he’d decided, regretfully, to abandon the MM-1. He hoped Santander would forgive him, but with only three grenades left, and given the close confines of these tunnels, he’d decided that his M-16 gave him much better options. The M443 grenade needed to travel a minimum of fourteen meters before the fuse armed, and they hadn’t seen very many tunnel stretches that long in the last twenty minutes or so, so the rifle simply made much more sense. The M-16A4 to which the Marines had switched was shorter than the older M-16A2, and more reliable-and accurate-than the slightly shorter M4 carbine version. With the M203 single-shot grenade launcher under the barrel, he could still make use of the remaining three grenades if the opportunity arose, and he had an entire magazine of 5.56-millimeter on tap if it was needed.

Mashita, on the other hand, was bringing up the rear, watching the backdoor as they advanced with the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon Corporal Johnson’s recon section had left aboard Tough Mama when the LAV decided to go universe-hopping. The light machine gun fired the same round as the M-16, but Mashita had a plastic box with two hundred rounds clipped under the SAW’s receiver, and four hundred more rounds clipped to his harness, while Wencit carried another four hundred. The weapon was notoriously inaccurate if someone tried to “John Wayne” it, firing freehand, but fired from its bipod in a prone position, it could lay down a devastating curtain of fire. Given the body armor their opponents were wearing-not to mention the toughness of creatures like the demons they’d already faced-Houghton was happy that both Mashita’s weapon and his own were loaded with the black-tipped M995 armor piercing round. Despite its diminutive size, the tungsten-cored round was capable of penetrating even light armored vehicles, and it had become the round of choice for “reconnaissance by fire,” given its ability to penetrate concealing structures, as well, not to mention its enhanced effectiveness against modern body armor.

Of course, the people who specified its performance weren’t exactly thinking in terms of chain mail and breastplates, Houghton reflected as he ghosted to a stop behind Bahzell.

“We’ve an intersection up ahead,” the hradani said quietly.

“What sort of intersection?” Wencit asked from behind them.

“It’s a four-way,” Houghton replied, looking past Bahzell. “We’ve got another passage crossing at right angles.”

“Aye, that we do,” Bahzell agreed. “And there’s a stink to it. I’ve no notion exactly what it is, but it’s there.”

“I hate it when you say things like that,” Houghton muttered, and heard Bahzell’s snort of harsh amusement. The Marine studied the intersection. Unlike Bahzell, he sensed absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about it, but that didn’t prove anything. Particularly given the fact that he’d had ample evidence of the acuity of Bahzell’s senses.

“I’m thinking we’re needing Jack up here with his little toy,” Bahzell said softly, and Houghton nodded.

“Unless I’m much mistaken,” the hradani continued, “this tunnel-” a twitch of his head indicated the passage in which they currently stood “-is after turning sharp after it crosses. I’m thinking the other two are likely to run straighter than that. So, it’s in my mind that I go straight across while you’re taking the passage to our right, and Jack turns to the left.”

“And if there’s something waiting to shoot you from the side as you go past?” Houghton inquired mildly.

“Well, in that case, I’d probably best be moving sharpish.”

“Somehow that doesn’t strike me as the most thought out battle plan I’ve ever heard of.”

“I’ve heard it said hradani are after being simple, direct folk,” Bahzell replied, and looked down as Mashita arrived.

“I believe it,” Houghton said feelingly, never taking his eyes from the deserted intersection in front of them and wishing that he’d happened to have a flash grenade or two available. They’d proven their usefulness time and time again in urban combat situations; unfortunately, he hadn’t anticipated anything remotely like this when he’d prepped for the mission Tough Mama’s crew had expected. He continued to study the way ahead carefully as he brought Mashita up to speed on Bahzell’s plan . . . such as it was, and what there was of it. Mashita didn’t seem any more overjoyed with it than Houghton was, but-like Houghton-he couldn’t think of a better alternative, either.

“You’re right about there being something up ahead, Bahzell,” Wencit said quietly just as Houghton finished. “I can’t get a firm grip on it, but there’s a glamour of some sort up there.”

“And where there’s after being a glamour, there’s after being someone with a mind to hide something,” Bahzell observed grimly.

“Exactly.”

“Well, worrying changes naught, and time’s still passing,” Bahzell said philosophically.

“I know,” Houghton said. “But I’ve just had a thought.”

* * *

Rethak smothered a vicious curse. He was sweating harder than ever, and every dragging second he had to wait twisted his nerves tighter with Sharn?’s own pincers.

“Are they still just standing there?” he hissed at the thin air, ignoring the anxious glances the armsmen assembled in front of him were throwing over their shoulders in his direction.

“As far as I can tell,” Garsalt’s voice replied. “Bahzell and the other two have moved to the front, with Wencit in the back, and-“

Whatever the balding wizard had been about to say became abruptly superfluous.

* * *

“Improvise, adapt, and overcome,” Gunnery Sergeant Houghton muttered to himself as he felt Wencit behind him. It was a motto which had always served the Marine Corps in general-and Ken Houghton in particular-well.

And if I didn’t think to bring along a flash grenade, he thought with intense satisfaction, at least I did think to bring along a wizard!

“Now!” Wencit said sharply, and Houghton, Bahzell, and Mashita screwed their eyes tightly shut and bent their heads . . . an instant before the intersection in front of them exploded in a silent burst of light like the heart of a sun.

There was no sensation of heat, no stunning concussion such as the flash-bangs Houghton had worked with before would have produced. But from the way the blackness behind his closed eyelids turned abruptly bright red, he rather suspected that the flash itself was even brighter, and the stunning effect of pure light had to be experienced to be believed.

Now!” a deeper, more powerful voice rumbled, and the two Marines opened their eyes and charged forward at Bahzell Bahnakson’s heels.

* * *

Rethak staggered backward, his hands rising to his eyes. The armsmen between him and that abrupt explosion of brilliance had protected him from the worst of it, yet even the relatively small amount which had gotten past them was enough to savage his eyes and fill them not simply with blindness, but with pain, as well.

He was still moving backward when he heard a ghastly, wet, crunching sound and the first screams began.

* * *

Bahzell charged through the intersection, and as he crossed over its threshold, he burst through Rethak’s glamour and found himself confronting a passage abruptly packed with armsmen. He couldn’t tell exactly how many of them there were, but there were enough to block his way. Unfortunately for them, they were pawing frantically at their stunned, anguished eyes when he suddenly appeared amongst them. The tunnel was too cramped for him to use his sword the way he might have in the open, but there was room enough, and his lunging blade punched through the breastplate of the nearest armsman like an awl through rotten wood. Then he recovered, and his still-blind victim slid backward off the tempered steel, screaming as he clutched at the blood-spouting hole in his cuirass.

Toman?k!” Bahzell bellowed, and heard the sudden, deafening thunder of his allies’ weapons behind him as they spun to the left and right.

Mashita wasn’t really concerned about “accuracy” at a moment like this. The range to his farthest target was no more than sixty feet, and his opponents were packed into a tunnel no more than ten feet across. The armor-piercing ammunition punched through the front ranks, exploding out their backs in spray patterns of blood, then slammed into the men behind them.

Houghton had fewer rounds, and his weapon was incapable of sustained automatic fire, which meant he had to be more selective. He had the selector lever set on three-shot burst, and unlike the men in front of him, he could still see just fine. The glowing dot projected by his day-and-night sight settled on the head of a man less than fifteen feet from him, and his finger stroked. The target went down, and he tracked instantly to his left. Another squeeze, and another helmeted head exploded and another body fell.

* * *

Rethak backed away, still rubbing his stunned, watering eyes, as his ears told him what was happening to his carefully hidden ambush. The ear-shattering roar of the strangers’ impossible weapons made it impossible for him to pick any details out of the general cacophony, but that was scarcely necessary.

Panic roared through him, urging him to turn and run, but he retained just enough control to know how stupid that would have been. There was a steep, winding flight of stairs back there. He couldn’t possibly get down them without killing himself when he couldn’t even see. Not that standing here, waiting while Bahzell Bahnakson carved his way towards him seemed like a much better option. Some of the armsmen felt the same way, and he staggered as two or three of them shouldered past him. They ran frantically, bouncing off the wall for guidance, forgetful (or uncaring) of the stairs in their panic, and an instant later he heard fresh screams from behind him-screams which were cut off with bone-snapping suddenness-as they went headlong down the steep stair.

He blinked again, and his heart spasmed with sudden hope. The barrier of armsmen in front of him had shielded his eyes from the direct impact of that intolerable flash, and his vision was recovering much more rapidly than theirs had. He could actually make out blurry ghosts of images, and he rubbed more furiously, willing his sight to clear.

It did . . . just as an enormous shape, glittering with a nimbus of blue light, loomed up before him.

Rethak squealed and turned to dash after the fleeing armsmen, but it was too late. He was still turning when an avalanche of gory steel sheared effortlessly through his neck.

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