Richard Lee Byers

Prophet of the Dead


Of course you can’t,” said a deep, silky voice; Jhesrhi Coldcreek cast around in vain to find the source. “How can Amaunator shed his light on secrets in a place where the Yellow Sun never shines?”

Cera Eurthos’s conjured glow faded, and darkness shrouded the chilly crypt with its mad jumble of funerary carvings. The stag men turned this way and that, the bells in their antlers chiming.

Jhesrhi called for fire. It leaped forth from the core of her, flowed down the inside of her arm, and sprang forth from the head of her brazen staff. She felt satisfaction that the thing that had spoken, whatever it was, couldn’t smother her power.

But then it came out of the dark, and dread pierced her like a knife. She flinched back a step, and so did her companions. Her gilded mace clutched in her hand and blond curls sticking out from under the rim of her helmet, Cera let out a gasp.

The newcomer was seven feet tall, with bone-white skin and clothing so dark that Jhesrhi could only half make out the intricate folds and embroidery. Once, he might have been handsome in the way of a corpse embalmed and displayed with consummate art and care, but since then, something had ripped his left eye from its socket and scarred the skin around it. The same calamity, presumably, had shriveled and twisted his left arm into a useless stick he held pressed to his chest.

The pale being stood and surveyed the two women and the half-dozen stag men with a kind of insouciant poise. His disfigurements notwithstanding, he might even have seemed elegant if not for the corona of shadow that surrounded him like a tattered, billowing cloak. The tendrils of darkness reached and coiled constantly, like starving creatures groping and snatching for morsels of food.

Jhesrhi’s heartbeat throbbed in her neck, and she gritted her teeth to hold in a whimper. She told herself that, although apparently a powerful fiend or undead, this one-eyed filth was surely no more formidable than Tchazzar or other foes she’d faced. But that rational thought didn’t help.

Because the dread she felt wasn’t natural. It was the result of some supernatural influence the creature was exerting. She rattled off a charm of warding, but it failed to clear her head.

“Fall down and wait.' it said. “Otherwise, I’ll devour you, body and soul, and the scraps of you I leave on my plate will rise up to serve me in pain and shame forever.”

He ambled forward, still with the casual self-assurance of a dandy strolling in a garden. But the tatters of shadow stretched and lashed in a frenzy, like twenty blades cutting and stabbing at once.

The stag men didn’t grovel; most likely, because the pale creature hadn’t spoken in Elvish, they didn’t even understand what he’d demanded. But they couldn’t bear to stand and fight him either. They bolted for one of the several arches connecting the vault to other portions of the maze.

Meanwhile, Cera stayed put, but not, Jhesrhi suspected, because she was bravely holding her ground. It was because fear had petrified her.

Jhesrhi was in essentially the same condition, but instinct suddenly told that she didn’t have to be. She could burn the terror out of herself.

She drew more flame from deep inside and sent it pulsing through her veins and licking along her nerves. The fear melted away.

His writhing, whipping shadow tentacles almost within snatching distance, the pale man halted and studied her. He nodded with what looked like patronizing approval.

Jhesrhi felt an urge to burn the superior smile off his face without another moment of delay, but the stag men had nearly reached the exits. She couldn’t let them lose themselves in the labyrinth.

She thumped her staff on the floor, and fires leaped up to block the arches. Cloven hooves clattering on the limestone floor, the fey warriors floundered to a stop just short of incineration.

“Get back here!” she shouted in her halting Elvish. “We can kill the wretch if we stand together!”

Their initial panic startled out of them, the stag men obeyed. Jhesrhi still didn’t understand why she-out of all the humans they’d met of late-was the one who seemed special to the stag men, but here was another reason to be glad of it.

The one-eyed creature’s smile widened. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“Yes,” Jhesrhi said. She pointed her staff, chanted words of power, and hurled fire from the head. The flare spread out as it traveled to engulf the pale man from head to foot.

It rocked him back a step, and for a moment, he stood swaying in the midst of the roaring blaze. Then the shadow tentacles shot out from inside the flame. Some had caught fire and burned away to nothing. But others coiled around to pick at the jet of flame like craftsmen removing cracked or faded stones from a mosaic.

The blast winked out of existence. Worse, the disruption of the magic spiked pain through the center of Jhesrhi’s forehead. She cried out and felt wetness spill from her nostrils onto her upper lip.

The stag warriors scrambled to interpose themselves between her and the pale man then hesitated, reluctant to brave the cloud of jagged, snatching darkness to strike at the target in the middle. One fey cast his spear, and lengths of shadow caught it and snapped it in two. Plainly hoping the tendrils couldn’t strike where the creature couldn’t see, another stag man circled behind him and charged. Blackness caught the fey, tore his belly open, and dropped him in a pile of his own guts. Then the pale man resumed his advance.

Jhesrhi forced herself to focus despite the lingering pain. She spoke to the stone in the floor, and it resisted her will like every element but fire resisted her in this dead and hateful place. So she snarled her command and reinforced it with a clanking blow of her staff.

The stone under the pale man cracked open, swallowing his forward foot, then slammed shut on his ankle. He shouted and lurched off balance, the joint bending in a way it shouldn’t.

Jhesrhi scrambled toward a spot from which she could throw lightning without hitting any of the stag men. Just before she reached that location, the white-faced creature spoke a word that stabbed inside her head and reverberated there, swelling louder with each instant. Her body turned cold and stiff and then soft and slimy as rot corrupted it. Insects crawled and bored to get at the putrescence.

She prayed the semblance of death was only an illusion, but even if it was, it was unbearable. She screamed for fire to envelop her and burn the curse away.

It did, lingering and cloaking her just as her foe’s mantle of writhing shadow covered him. But the purging took too long. By the time she regained control of herself, the pale man had extracted his foot from the crack and advanced on her. She was down on one knee with murky tentacles threatening her from every side.

She doubted her adversary would allow her time for even the simplest of spells, but she had to try. She sucked in a breath, and then bright, warm light leaped across the chamber.

Hobbling, the pale man recoiled and, in so doing, pulled the dark tendrils away from Jhesrhi. Chanting a battle hymn, her round, normally merry face as grim as Jhesrhi had ever seen it, Cera stalked after the creature with the glowing head of her mace held high. She hadn’t really been paralyzed with terror after all, or if she had been, it hadn’t lasted. She’d used the past several moments to draw more power from her god despite the impediment of being trapped in this perpetually benighted world of the deathways.

The pale man stopped retreating. “Enough,” he said.

But the sunlady plainly didn’t think so because her light shone even brighter, and quivering with rage and loathing, Jhesrhi agreed. She drew flame from the void for the hottest, most explosive blast yet, one that would reduce her enemy to wisps of drifting ash if she were to succeed. The power so filled her that it suddenly became difficult even to think of anything else, her anger, fear, and other concerns melting together into a joyful, ferocious urge to burn.

Sudden and fast as a pouncing cat despite the broken ankle, the pale creature rushed the nearest stag man. Jagged shadow clutched the fey, immobilized his sword arm, and hoisted him off his feet.

“Stop fighting,” the enemy said. “Otherwise, your warrior dies. Either I rip him apart or your flame hits the

Вы читаете Prophet of the Dead
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату