XVII

Garsalt stumbled backward, flinging himself away from the images in his gramerhain. Not even his mastery of scrying spells had allowed him to hear what had passed between Tremala and Wencit after Wencit’s shields had enveloped them both. But he’d been able to see just fine, and terror had bubbled up inside him like winter quicksand as the sorceress’ body had sifted to the stony floor like no more than another drift of rock dust.

They were both gone-Tremala, Rethak. And inside, Garsalt had always known both of them were more powerful than he. Tremala, especially, had been an acknowledged mistress of combat magics. More than a dozen challengers for her position on the Council of Carnadosa, most with extensive records of victory of their own, had faced her in arcane duels. None had survived, yet Wencit had destroyed her easily, almost casually.

Garsalt whimpered. The stone wall Wencit had erected across the tunnel guarded by Tremala’s armsmen had sealed that escape route. There was only one other way out . . . and Wencit and Bahzell were already moving towards it.

The balding wizard’s hands scrubbed together in front of him, washing each other compulsively while he shuddered in terror. If Wencit could annihilate Tremala that effortlessly, then-

His hands clenched into a white-knuckled knot, and his jaw tightened. This was all Cherdahn’s fault! He was the one who must have given away the location of his temple somehow. It was the only explanation! And he was also the one who’d promised his precious demon would save them all!

The wizard turned his back on the glowing crystal.

* * *

Cherdahn’s head snapped up as the sacrificial chamber’s door flew open.

His eyes flashed crimson fire, and his lips drew back, baring his pointed teeth, as his face twisted in a snarl of rage at the totally unprecedented intrusion. In that moment, soaked with the blood of his handiwork and filled with fury, the remaining human portion of his being was scarcely even perceptible.

How dare you-?!” he started in hissing, sibilant rage, but Garsalt had found the courage of trapped panic.

“They’re coming!” he snarled back. “Tremala’s dead, and Bahzell-and Wencit, Krahana damn your eyes!-will be here in another ten minutes!”

Cherdahn froze, and the worm of fear which had grown larger and larger within him even as he denied its existence to himself, was suddenly a crushing python.

He stared at the rumpled-looking wizard, trying to force his brain to work, but it was hard. His entire being had been focused on the ceremony of binding-on the sacrifice’s agony and the way it had fed his own inner hunger even as he offered it to the Servant. On the ritual, and the propitiation. The fear he’d so resolutely suppressed, the sense of something wrong, had only intensified that focus. Now, for the first time in all his years in Sharn?’s service, the ritual of sacrifice had been interrupted. And not even by another of the Scorpion’s worshipers, but by a wizard. The shock of that blasphemy was so great it almost displaced his fear.

Almost.

“Get him out of here!” he grated, and one of his acolytes thrust the intruder out of the chamber. He wasn’t particularly gentle about it, flinging Garsalt back through the door, then slamming it behind him, and Cherdahn tried to regain his focus.

He couldn’t. His thoughts seemed to race in every direction at once, colliding, caroming off one another in showers of sparks, sliding like feet on water-slick ice, but one of them pulsed and beat above all the others, even through his intoxication with the sacrifice’s torment.

Bahzell was coming . . . and he was almost there.

He glared at the door which had closed behind Garsalt for one more quivering second, then wheeled back to the altar.

* * *

Trayn was almost gone.

His breathing had become so faint, so shallow, that only the most skilled healer could have detected it, and the pulse which had raced madly as he contorted around their shared agony had slowed to a dying flutter. He’d poured too much of himself into the sacrifice. He was down to his final reserves, his own soul dipping closer and closer to extinction, yet still he held the link.

He wasn’t thinking about it any longer. Indeed, he was no longer capable of thought. Yet neither was he capable of letting go. Some final store of determination, dredged not from training, or strength of will, but from who and what he was and the promise he’d made a terrified young woman, held him still. The shield he’d thrown about her soul frayed, thinner and more tattered with every shallow, fluttering breath, and beyond that barrier, the demon stirred. A forked, slimy tongue caressed the mage’s failing defenses. It slithered across them, savoring the treat waiting on their other side, yet not quite able to pierce them. Not yet. But soon, the demon knew. Soon.

* * *

Cherdahn glared down at the quivering, whimpering wreckage on his altar, and terror-fueled rage boiled behind his glittering eyes. Anger was no proper part of the ritual. Anger destroyed focus, diluted the distilled purity of cruelty, the perfect technique of agony, the Scorpion’s service required. Cherdahn knew that, yet the knowledge meant little beside his own fear and his fury at the sacrifice who had somehow managed to defy him and all his years of skill and training for almost an hour.

He snarled and reached for his knife once more.

* * *

Trayn’s body twitched. A white-hot bolt ripped back over the link to him, exploding deep within him, and then he exhaled explosively and slumped back against the stone floor. He was no longer truly conscious, but some elemental part of him felt the unspeakable gratitude of a young woman’s soul in the moment it found blessed relief in death. In that moment, she recognized exactly what he had done for her, and she held the link between them open just an instant longer, sharing with him the joyous vista opening infinitely before her, giving him at least a glimpse of what he had won for both of them.

Then she was gone, and Trayn Aldarfro inhaled his first deep, lung-filling breath in over an hour.

* * *

Cherdahn froze, staring down at the altar in disbelief and sudden, choking terror.

He felt his acolytes staggering back around him, felt them turning to run, but his own muscles were frozen. There was no point fleeing.

His eyes slipped to the knife in his hand. The knife which had never failed him . . . until today.

He was still staring at it when the bonds holding the demon disappeared with the last scrap of the sacrifice’s life energy.

* * *

Garsalt picked himself up from his knees, looking down at the bloody handprints Cherdahn’s acolytes had left on his tunic. He started to reach for them, then stopped. He was no stranger to blood-no wizard attained the rank and authority he enjoyed in Carnadosa’s hierarchy without learning the ways of blood magic-yet there was something different about this blood. He could feel the power in it, like acid, and his hand jerked away as if it had been stung.

And that was when the sounds from the other side of the chamber’s door suddenly changed.

For just an instant, he couldn’t quite identify the change. Then he realized-it was silence. There was no more chanting, there were no more shrieks, there was only silence, and a tremendous weight rolled off him as he realized Cherdahn had completed the ritual after all.

He was still turning back towards the chamber door with an enormous smile of relief when it exploded in a blizzard of splintered wood and a vast, scaled talon came slashing through the wreckage.

* * *

Hold!

The deep-voiced word of command froze Houghton and Jack Mashita in instant obedience. Their heads swiveled towards Bahzell, but the hradani wasn’t looking at them. His eyes were closed, his ears flat, and muscles lumped along his jaw.

Bahzell was only faintly aware of his companions as he felt the demon exploding into freedom. The creature was completely unbound, free to make its own decisions, choose its own victims, and Bahzell could taste the rising storm of its exultant hunger.

*Walsharno!* his thought cried out.

*I feel it, Brother!* the reply came back, and they dropped back into one fused entity, despite the distance between them.

Bahzell watched through the courser’s eyes as the entire top of the hill blasted into the rain-drenched darkness. The demon heaved up out of the vast crater, towering against the lightning lashed clouds in a corona of poisonous green radiance. It was twice the size of the ones they had already faced, and grisly bits and pieces of the temple’s last armsmen showered from its working jaws and night-black mandibles. It loomed into the heavens, bellowing its triumph and its hunger, and the terror of its coming went before it like some black hurricane.

But then it paused. The vast, misshapen head turned, cocking to one side, and it glared down at the single bright, blue star blazing on the grasslands at the base of the shattered hill.

It bellowed again, and a defiant whistle of equine challenge answered it, slashing through the rain like Toman?k’s own trumpet. Walsharno, son of Mathygan and Yorthandro, stared up at his enormous foe, and a needle-sharp lance of blue power ripped out across the darkness. It smashed into the demon’s sickly green nimbus, and the creature shrieked again-this time in as much hurt as fury-as the cleansing azure brilliance of Toman?k exploded against it.

A whirlwind stormfront roared outward, and blinding light flashed, reflecting from the storm clouds’ belly, etching the wind-driven wildness of the grasslands in its actinic glare. The demon howled, pouring itself up out of the violated earth into the pounding rain, flowing down the hill towards the courser, and Walsharno stood his ground.

He was not alone. Bahzell was with him, joined mind-to-mind and soul-to-soul, buttressing the stallion’s wild, fierce strength with every ounce of his own elemental stubbornness, his own Rage. And Toman?k was with them both, reaching out, opening to them, offering them all that any mortal-even his champions-could touch and survive. They poured their strength, their adamantine refusal to yield, into that glittering lance of light, and the unique alloy of mortal courage and outrage blended with their deity’s power to forge and shape that battering ram of raw energy pouring out of Walsharno.

The demon screamed, writhing in torment yet continuing to advance, and Bahzell clenched his fists, leaning his forehead against the tunnel’s stone wall while he reached deeper, and deeper still. He dredged up all that lay within him, and felt the titanic conflict wavering, seesawing back and forth.

And then he felt something else, another presence, and reached out towards it. For an instant, he had no idea what it was. It glittered with its own refusal to yield, its own fierce defiance, almost like another champion of Toman?k, and yet not quite. And as it reached back towards him, he suddenly knew it.

A third mortal presence joined itself to the struggle. It lacked Bahzell’s Rage, lacked Walsharno’s fierce wildness, but it had its own unquenchable strength. Its steely core of determination and duty, its rejection of darkness and the power of a will which could die, but never be broken. And as it joined with Bahzell and Walsharno, it opened a third channel to Toman?k. A fresh tide of power rippled into them, and the titanic cable of power raging out from Walsharno pulsed with a new strength, a new fury.

The demon paused. Its head and wings lashed, mandibles scissored furiously, and talons ripped huge furrows out of what was left of the hillside. It shrieked in defiance . . . but it also stopped. The green corona about it glared brighter, hotter, wavering like sheet lightning, as the torrent of Toman?k’s rejection battered its way through it inch by inch. The terrific concussion of that conflict seemed to shake the earth. The raw brilliance fountaining upward from it could be seen from fifty miles away. The thunderheads above the hill peeled back, burned away, opening a hole to the stars, and still the intolerable balance held.

It held, and held, and held. And then, without warning, it suddenly tipped.

There was one, final blinding flash of light. A ring of fire rolled down the shattered hillside, sweeping out in all directions like a tidal wave of blue glory, and the demon was gone.

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