XVI

“Rethak is dead, Tremala!”

The sorceress’ head twitched as Garsalt’s voice spoke in her ear.

“What happened?” she demanded. “Was it Wencit?”

“No,” Garsalt sounded as if he were about to wet himself, she thought. “It was Bahzell. He and those other two. They mowed down Rethak’s armsmen, and then Bahzell took his head off before he could run.”

Despite the fear quivering under the surface of their own thoughts, Tremala’s eyebrows arched.

“Why in the Lady’s name did the idiot let Bahzell Bahnakson into sword’s reach of him?”

“I think he was blind until it was too late.” She could hear Garsalt’s heavy breathing, almost taste his panic. “Wencit cast some kind of light spell. It was so bright none of them could even see while Bahzell and the others cut them down. Phrobus! It was bright enough it almost blinded me through the gramerhain! I think Rethak’s vision was just starting to clear when-“

Garsalt stopped. Not, Tremala reflected, that there was any real need for him to finish the sentence. A light spell! Who would have expected that? And yet, it was as brilliantly effective as it was simple. Wencit’s precious Strictures prohibited him from using his sorcery to harm any non-wizard except in direct self-defense, but there was no prohibition against temporarily blinding them.

Even if it did leave them totally helpless against someone else.

“What are they doing now?” she half-snarled.

“They’re still headed straight towards the chamber.”

“Garsalt, there’s no way anyone could go ‘straight’ anywhere in this miserable place, and he has at least four options now that he’s finished off Rethak! I need better than that, idiot!”

Garsalt didn’t reply immediately-not in words, at any rate. An instant later, however, a diagram of the temple’s tunnels, looking for all the world like an intertwined ball of snakes, appeared before her. It floated at eye level, and she saw one of the twisting strands glowing red. It connected Rethak’s last position to the sacrificial chamber, but it wasn’t the shortest of the possible pathways, and she wondered for a moment why Bahzell had chosen it. Then she realized. No, it wasn’t the shortest path, once its sinuous twists and turns were allowed for, but it had started out leading in the direction of the shortest straight-line distance between Rethak’s position and the hradani’s objective.

“All right,” she said, “I see it. And I think I can cut them off here-” a flick of her finger turned an intersection in the highlighted tunnel a pulsating green, instead of red “- and at least slow them down. But I’m not sure there’s any point, if Cherdahn doesn’t get his damned demon under control quickly.”

“Everyone’s insisting the sacrifice is going according to plan,” Garsalt told her. Then his voice dropped, as if he were leaning closer to her to whisper in her ear. “Everyone’s saying that, but I think they’re lying. I think there’s something wrong. Maybe badly wrong.”

An icicle seemed to go through Tremala’s heart. She told herself Garsalt was a coward, whose fears were almost certainly influencing his interpretation of events. She reminded herself that Cherdahn was one of Sharn?’s most senior priests, hardly the sort to get things wrong at a moment like this. Yet even as she told herself that, she remembered Cherdahn’s original time estimate. A time estimate which had expired at least twenty minutes ago.

The unaccustomed panic flickering within her told her it was time to go, time to cut her losses and flee while she was still alive. And with Bahzell and Wencit following the route through Rethak’s position, she could actually get past them and make a run for it. Unfortunately, Bahzell’s never-to-be-sufficiently-damned courser was outside the temple somewhere. And, even more unfortunately, Carnadosa Herself had decreed this mission. If Tremala failed Her, the consequences would be almost as terrible as what Cherdahn and his acolytes were doing to their sacrifice this very moment. As she’d told Garsalt and Rethak earlier, Wencit’s magic would only kill them, and that was infinitely preferable to other possible fates.

Besides, she told herself, Cherdahn really may still have things under control, after all, and if he can ever get that demon of his out here . . . .

“Stop being an old woman, Garsalt!” she snapped, venting some of her own fear in the angry contempt crackling in her voice. “We can still win this thing, and if we lose, how do you think She’s going to react?” Garsalt made no reply, and she snorted harshly. “That’s what I thought, too. Send the rest of the armsmen to meet me there, and keep telling me where Wencit is. And see if you can get anyone to tell you the truth about the sacrifice.”

* * *

Garsalt glared at his glowing gramerhain with all the terrified fury he’d dared not throw at Tremala. She had to be insane, he thought. Surely she must recognize that nothing was going to stop Bahzell and his fiendishly effective allies short of the sacrificial chamber itself! And he didn’t need to ask anyone for the truth about the sacrifice. The girl’s shrieks had passed beyond madness long since. Now they were beginning to weaken steadily. Not even the Church of Sharn? could keep someone alive forever under its . . . ministrations, and they were losing the sacrifice before the demon ever responded to it.

Garsalt wasn’t at all sure what would happen if the girl died before the demon yielded to Cherdahn’s control, but he was certain that it wouldn’t be good. Yet there was nothing he could do about it. Bahzell-and Wencit-were directly between him and any escape from the temple, trapping him between the sacrificial chamber and their own inexorable advance. Unless Tremala could, indeed, stop them-or unless Cherdahn could still somehow take control of the demon-Garsalt was going to find himself face-to-face with Wencit of R?m or Bahzell Bloody Hand, and it was impossible to say which of those two would kill him more quickly.

* * *

Trayn Aldarfro lay almost motionless on the floor of his cell. He no longer twitched or jerked in torment, for the fire of his own life had burned too low for that. He was almost completely detached from his fleshy shell, and not because he’d deliberately placed himself in mage trance. If he’d been capable of considering it any longer, he would never have believed that anyone, even the supremely skilled torturers who served Sharn?, could have kept that flayed, broken, shrieking wreck which had once been a vital young woman alive this long. It simply wasn’t possible. Yet they’d done it, and Trayn’s strength was almost gone. It was sinking in time with the sacrifice’s life. Unless she escaped her torturers into death very soon now, the mage would die before she did and the demon would take her soul after all.

* * *

Tremala and the score of panicky armsmen with her reached the point she’d chosen. Moments later, the captain of Cherdahn’s armsmen and the thirty surviving men of his command joined her. She’d more than half-expected Bahzell and Wencit to beat her to it, but she’d beaten them after all. Probably because they had to advance with at least a modicum of caution, whereas she and her armsmen knew exactly where their enemies were.

“There!” she told the senior armsman, jabbing an imperious finger down the passage leading towards the sacrificial chamber. “Position your men to cover that intersection, but for Phrobus’ sake, stay on the far side of it, do you understand me?”

The armsman nodded jerkily, and Tremala turned her attention to the tunnel roof.

* * *

“Wait!”

Bahzell, Houghton, and Mashita stopped instantly at Wencit’s barked command.

The wizard pushed his way up directly behind Bahzell, frowning, wildfire eyes slitted, and Bahzell cocked his ears inquiringly.

“I think we’re about to meet up with another one of their wizards,” Wencit said quietly after a moment. “As nearly as I can tell, there are only two left after your little encounter with the watery-eyed fellow, Bahzell. One of them is still well ahead of us somewhere, nearer to our objective, I think. But the stronger one is much closer, waiting for us.”

“And might you be telling us just what deviltry he’s after planning for us?” Bahzell asked.

“Unless I’m mistaken, it’s not a ‘he’ at all,” Wencit replied. “And as far as what she’s up to is concerned, I’m afraid I really can’t tell you. From the ‘feel’ of it, though, it’s not a direct arcane attack. It’s a pity she’s not stupid enough to try just that.”

“Why would that make her stupid?” Houghton asked, frowning in perplexity.

“Because under the Strictures, I can’t strike her directly with sorcery unless she uses it first against someone else.”

“Wait a minute! Are you telling us that after all of this, these Strictures of yours won’t even let you fight her?”

“Not exactly.” Wencit’s tone sounded almost absent, and his frown of concentration deepened. “A wizard can’t use sorcery directly against a non-wizard except in direct self-defense. Nor can he use it against another sorcerer, except in direct self-defense or in a formal arcane duel. That’s really about the best she could hope for in a direct confrontation. There are rules that apply to both sides in any duel, and one of them is that the weaker opponent-that’s her, by the way-gets the first blow. The chance of her survival would still be remote, but at least it would exist. If, however, she were foolish enough to launch a direct arcane attack on you or Bahzell in my presence, then I would no longer be bound by the Strictures where she was concerned. I could attack her immediately, in any way I chose and with no restrictions on who gets the first strike. She wouldn’t like that,” he finished almost mildly.

Houghton started to ask another question, then closed his mouth with a click as the wizard’s frown turned abruptly into something else.

“Ah!” he said with what sounded unreasonably like satisfaction. “So that’s what she’s up to. Quite clever, really.”

What’s clever?” Houghton demanded.

“She’s found a way to use the art without striking at any of us directly.” He nodded to himself. “Very well, gentlemen. If you’ll follow me?”

Houghton’s jaw dropped as Wencit pushed past Bahzell and marched directly down the center of the passageway. The Marine looked up at the towering hradani, and Bahzell shrugged.

“I’ve no notion at all, at all, what maggots he’s gotten into his brain this time,” he said. “Still and all, I think you’d best remember just how long he’s been after taking black wizards’ heads.”

“And this is supposed to make me feel better?” Houghton demanded. “Experience is a wonderful thing, Bahzell. But-correct me if I’m wrong here-isn’t this the sort of thing you only get to screw up at once?”

“Ah, but I’m thinking that’s what makes life so interesting,” Bahzell replied, and followed the wizard down the tunnel.

Houghton glanced at Mashita, and the youthful corporal shrugged. Then the two of them followed their companions.

* * *

“Look out, Tremala! He’s coming straight at-“

Tremala didn’t need Garsalt’s warning. Or, rather, it came much too late to do her any good. She looked up from her place on the far side of the intersection just in time to see a tall, flame-eyed old man step calmly out into it.

For just an instant, she felt a sudden, incredulous surge of hope. She couldn’t believe that after all these centuries, Wencit of R?m would step into such an absurdly simple trap. Yet there he was, and as he took one more step, the spell she’d buried in the stone ceiling above the intersection triggered.

It was uncomplicated, that spell. True, it had required a sorceress of remarkable skill to create it, especially on such short notice, but that was only because of the sheer power levels involved. As far as complexity went, it was about as subtle as a meat axe. When Wencit stepped fully into the intersection, the stone above him simply shattered. They were deep inside the hill, under well over two hundred feet of solid rock and earth, and Tremala’s spell split that massive overburden like a sledgehammer splitting slate. It collapsed, countless tons of stone and dirt crashing down in a precisely shaped and controlled avalanche, and Wencit of R?m stood at its very focus.

Tremala’s lips drew back in a predatory snarl of triumph. Visions of Carnadosa’s reaction, the power and rewards awaiting the person who finally killed Kontovar’s most ancient and dangerous foe, flashed through her mind. But Wencit never even glanced up. His wildfire eyes never looked away from her, and the soaring exultation of her triumph became something else entirely as he showed her the difference between even the most powerful wand sorceress and a wild wizard.

The hundreds of tons hammering down upon him suddenly stopped. A sphere of light, blazing with the same rippling colors as his eyes, erupted from the very air about him. It wrapped itself around him, then roared up with volcanic power. It caught Tremala’s avalanche, stopped it in midair, and then-effortlessly-exploded upward in an eruption of wild magic that dwarfed anything Tremala had ever imagined. The rock and soil she’d turned into her weapon vomited heavenward. He didn’t simply stop the avalanche, didn’t merely turn it aside. Tremala’s spell had worked with the natural force of gravity; Wencit’s spell made gravity irrelevant, and rock dust sifted down as he blasted a two-hundred-foot deep pit out of the shuddering hillside above them.

Tremala’s jaw dropped as she abruptly found herself standing under the open sky at the bottom of a vast, cone-shaped shaft open to the stormy skies above. Whips of lightning scourged the heavens, solid sheets of rain pounded down, and thunder rumbled like the wrath of Toman?k himself. The shaft walls were smooth as glass, fused and polished by the searing breath of the wild magic, and cold rain steamed gently as it sluiced down them. It was forty feet across at the base, and at least three times that at its top, and the sorceress’ skin tingled and crackled with the echoes of Wencit’s spell.

No, not his “spell,” she realized numbly. That wasn’t a spell at all. It was just raw, focused power, ripped straight from the magic field itself.

No wand wizard could have done it. Power levels like that required exquisitely careful manipulation, with every possible safeguard in place. But Wencit had used none of them. He’d simply reached out to the energy from which the entire universe had been woven, and channeled it through the power of his will. She’d always known that that ability to seize the magic field by the throat was what truly made a wild wizard, but she’d never actually seen it, and the knowledge which had always been theoretical had not prepared her for the actuality.

A few pebbles pattered to the tunnel floor, and the last drift of rock dust settled, sifting over Tremala’s riding habit like flour and drifting about her ankles like sharp, dusty-smelling fog. Raindrops came tumbling down, splashing the dust on her riding habit with large, dark circles, and Wencit looked at her.

“That was a formidable spell, My Lady,” he said quietly. Fresh thunder crashed overhead, but the sound was distant somehow, perfecting the intense, ringing silence rather than breaking it. “Not many wand wizards could have cast it that quickly and that well.”

“Apparently,” she heard her own voice say, “it wasn’t cast quite quickly and well enough.”

“Apparently,” he agreed. She glanced over her shoulder at the tunnel where she’d left her armsmen, but the tunnel wasn’t there anymore. She saw only a smooth surface of stone, as solid as if the tunnel had never existed, and she looked back at Wencit.

“Doesn’t that constitute a rather severe breach of your precious Strictures?” she asked.

“By no means.” Wencit smiled. “I could have allowed just enough of your avalanche to rebound up the tunnel to crush them all to death. After all, I wasn’t the one who created it, was I? But I didn’t. They’re all just fine on the other side of that wall. Of course,” his smiled turned colder, “that also means they’re on the same side of it as your friend Garsalt and Cherdahn.”

Tremala stiffened, her expression shocked, as he spoke those names.

“How-?” she began, but Wencit only shook his head.

“I’m afraid time is short, My Lady. Your curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied, I fear.”

He raised his hand, and a spray of wildfire erupted upward from it. It reached up, then flowed outward to form an arching dome. The sides of that dome spilled back downward, falling like curtains woven of rainbows until they touched the stone floor, and Tremala of Kontovar found herself enclosed within a glorious canopy of light . . . with Wencit of R?m.

“A formal duel?” She heard the slight quaver of fear she couldn’t quite keep out of her voice, and it humiliated her. But Wencit didn’t seem to notice. He merely bowed gravely to her, and she swallowed hard.

In its way, the offer of an arcane duel was both a compliment and a mercy, although she had to admit that it was a bit hard to see it that way just at the moment.

At least the wild magic is quick, she told herself, and, gathering all her courage, stepped out into the center of Wencit’s canopy of light to face him.

He waited for her with a sort of merciless courtesy, and she reached into the sleeve of her riding habit and extracted her wand. Wencit only stood there, hands empty, waiting, and she frowned. There was something about him, something that grew stronger as she stepped closer.

No, she realized. It wasn’t growing stronger because she was closer; it was growing stronger because he’d allowed it to. Or, rather, because he’d allowed the glamour no Carnadosan had ever even suspected existed to weaken briefly, let her see what lay locked away within it.

Her eyes narrowed, then dropped to the sword at his side and widened in sudden, shocked understanding. No wonder he knew so much, had managed to predict so many attacks so accurately!

“My compliments, Wencit,” she heard herself say. “I’ve always wondered how even a wild wizard could see the future as accurately as you’ve always managed. Thank you for satisfying my curiosity after all.”

He bowed slightly, then straightened.

“My name,” he said in flawless ancient Kontovaran, “is Wencit of R?m, and by my paramount authority as Lord of the Council of Ottovar, I judge thee guilty of offense against the Strictures. Wouldst thou defend thyself, or must I slay thee where thou standest?”

Tremala didn’t reply to the formal indictment and challenge. Not in words, at any rate. The tradition that the first blow in any arcane duel belonged to the weaker of the opponents, unless he chose not to take it, was more ancient even than the Strictures themselves. Tremala had come to realize in the last few moments just how hopeless her plight truly was, but whatever her other sins, cowardice was not among them. A sorceress she had lived; a sorceress she would die, and her wand swept up spitting livid green lightnings.

They ripped through the air towards Wencit like living serpents, and he raised his hand. It was a simple gesture, but Tremala cried out as her lightnings shattered against his raised palm and the back blast blew her wand into a hundred smoking fragments.

She stood there, clutching her wrist in her other hand, bent over the sudden pain where the exploding wand had stung her hand. She cradled it against her breasts, then made her spine straighten and looked levelly at Wencit.

“So be it.” His voice was quiet, almost gentle, but there was no mercy in it, and he pointed a finger at her. “As thou hast chosen, so shalt thou answer.”

The last thing Tremala of Kontovar ever saw was the sudden flash of wildfire from that finger.

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