Wind Rider's Oath David Weber

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Chapter Forty-One


"The Mistress was right—they are fools!"

Treharm Haltharu, who looked as human as Jerghar Sholdan—and was—exposed razor-sharp teeth in a vicious smile. Stars twinkled overhead, their jewellike beauty uncaring, and the crescent new-moon hung low on the eastern horizon. He stood beside Jerghar atop the low hill over the cave in which they had spent the daylight hours, and his eyes glittered with the deadly green light of his true nature.

"Of course the Mistress was right," Jerghar replied harshly, "but She never called them fools."

"Of course She did!" Treharm snarled. "Are you as big a fool as they? Are your mind and memory failing like a shardohn's? Or do you call me a liar?"

He glared at Jerghar, fingers flexing, and raw fury hovered between them. Then Jerghar's right hand came up and across in a terrible, crashing blow. The sound of the impact was like a tree shattering in an icy forest, and Treharm's head snapped to the side as its savage force flung him bodily from his feet. He flew backward for almost ten feet before he hit the grassy hilltop and skidded, and his high-pitched shriek of rage tore the night like the very dagger of the damned.

He bounded back up with the impossible speed and agility of what he had become, but even that unnatural quickness was too little and too late. Jerghar had already moved, and the fingers of his right hand tangled in Treharm's hair. He fell to one knee and heaved brutally, yanking the other Servant's spine into a straining bow across the bridge of his other thigh, and Treharm's scream of rage turned into something more frantic, dark with fear, as Jerghar's left arm pinned his own flailing arms. And then even that whimpered into silence as Jerghar's fangs flashed scant inches from his arched and straining throat.

"You said something, pig?" The words were malformed, chopped into lisping pieces by the teeth which had suddenly elongated into deadly white scimitars, and the green glare flowed out of Treharm's eyes like water. The unnatural strength of a Servant of Krahana went with the emerald light, and Jerghar held his grip for another ten seconds, grinding that surrender deep into Treharm's mind and soul. Then, slowly, he released the other Servant, and allowed him to crouch on the grass at his feet. Had Treharm been a dog, he would have rolled to expose his belly in submission, and Jerghar's mouth curled in a snarl of dominance.

"Defy me, or anger me, once more, and I will take you." The words hissed and eddied past his fangs, and his eyes glared with a brighter, stronger green than Treharm's ever had.

"Yes, Master," Treharm whimpered, and Jerghar spat into grass that hissed and smoked as his emerald spittle struck it.

"Better," he said, then straightened. Had he still been a living man, he would have drawn a deep breath. But he wasn't, and so he simply forced his spine to unbend and his hands to unclench, then jerked his head impatiently at his trembling second in command.

"Get up," he said coldly, and Treharm pushed himself shrinkingly to his feet once more. Jerghar watched him, tasting his own anger, his own contempt, then closed his glittering eyes and forced the last of his rage to yield to self-control.

It took several seconds, but when he finally opened his eyes once again, his expression was calm. Or as close to it as any Servant ever came when he put off his cloak of seeming mortality. The simmering rage spawned by the insatiable hunger and need to feed which was always near the surface of any Servant in the hours of darkness could be useful when he hunted by himself. But, he reminded himself once again, it could be something very different when two or more Servants were forced to work together.

"Now," he said to Treharm, his ice-cold voice more nearly normal as his fangs dwindled once again, his dominance reasserted, "it may be that they're fools, and it may be that they aren't. What the Lady said was that their patron was arrogant, and that they partook of his arrogance. But that isn't the same as being fools, Treharm. It may lead them into acts which appear foolish, but to assume that they'll act in that fashion is to give them a dangerous advantage. And this is a champion of the accursed sword. Only an axe of Isvaria could be more dangerous to such as us. Do not forget it."

"No, Master," Treharm promised abjectly, still in full submission mode. Jerghar gave him a menacing glare to see to it that his subordinate stayed that way, although he cherished no illusions that it would last longer than this very night. But that was as long as it truly had to.

"However," he continued after a moment, allowing some of the ice to flow out of his tone, "there are times when arrogance and stupidity become indistinguishable, and it's possible—possible, I say—that this may be one of those times."

Treharm's submissively bowed head rose slightly, a tiny rim of green glittering once again around the edges of his eyes, and Jerghar nodded.

"It is, at the very least . . . audacious for him to challenge us in the hours of Her darkness. I'd looked for wiser tactics from the champion who so easily defeated Sharnā not once, but twice. To confront us now, when our strength is greatest, is to give us an advantage I never dared to plan upon. And since he's been so obliging as to come to us at the place and time of our choosing, we will meet him and crush him."

The green fire in Treharm's eyes flickered and grew brighter, and he dared to smile at his superior. Treharm had never really liked Jerghar's original plan to harry their enemies' flanks, picking off the weakest first and weakening the strong steadily with the despair of their comrades' destruction, until the time came to take them all. He'd argued that such an attack would take too long, spend too many precious hours of night. In the end, it might allow Bahzell and Brandark, the two enemies who, among all others, must perish, to escape.

Jerghar had been prepared to risk that, despite the penalty he knew his mistress would inflict upon him if he failed, because he had never anticipated that Bahzell would be so rash as to come directly to him in his own prepared place of power. It was no carefully concealed temple, hidden away, depending for its security upon secrecy, as Sharnā's Navahkan temple had. The life force the shardohns had ripped from the slaughtered coursers had provided Jerghar with all the power he needed to raise a fortress around this hill against any champion of the Light. It was a heady, exhilarating power, a tide of stolen strength such as no Servant of Krahana had tasted in centuries, if ever. Jerghar had never suspected the true nature of the coursers, never guessed that draining them would produce such a prodigious well of strength. It had been necessary to reclaim them from the shardohns—-temporarily, at least—so that he might use them as burning glasses, reaching through them into their unsuspected link with the energy of the entire world about them.

The shardohns had hated it. Two of them had actually tried to resist Jerghar, and been destroyed and devoured themselves for their impudence. That had been enough, and the others had disgorged their prey, yielding up the taken souls of the courser herd to Jerghar as they would ultimately have yielded them to the Lady Herself.

Oh, but that had been a moment of ecstasy and deadly temptation. As all those souls, all that power, had flowed through him to lie in his hand, ready for his use, he had touched the very edge of godhood himself. As Treharm had been foolish enough to challenge his own authority, he had felt his own momentary power seducing him into thoughts of how he might have used it for himself, kept it for himself, and not as his mistress had commanded.

In the end, it had been only temptation, for he'd known too well what vengeance Krahana would have taken upon him. All of that life force, all of that additional power, was his only to borrow for use against Her enemies. In the end, it was Her prize, not his. She would have it, harvest it from her shardohns, and woe betide any who dared to stand between Her and it.

And so, instead of claiming it for himself, he'd used it, and the result hovered in the darkness about him. He felt the coursers' souls, reclaimed—however briefly—from the creatures who had slain them, screaming silently. They had tasted what awaited them, and the horror of that taste swirled through them like a cyclone of terror. And that was good, for their fear, their effort to escape the hideous dissolution awaiting them, only made it easier for him to manipulate their essences. They were his focuses, the anchors of the glittering web he'd woven, and his smile was ugly in the darkness. It would make their despair complete, and the taste of their broken life energy so much sweeter, when they realized that it had been they—their souls, and the power stolen from them—which had trapped and destroyed one of Tomanāk's hated champions.

"Go to Haliku and Layantha," he told Treharm now. "Tell them both that our enemies will be here within the hour. And tell Layantha to join me here . . . and that when the time is right, she will have what she requires.

* * *

"We're after being close now."

Bahzell's voice was low as his companions—hradani, human, and courser alike—gathered about him and Walsharno. He sensed their tension, their dread of what awaited them. But he also tasted their grim determination and their hatred for the evil they'd come to find.

"How can you tell?" It was Battlehorn. Even now he sounded sullen, resentful, yet the question was genuine, not a challenge or statement of skepticism.

"It's a sense himself is after giving his champions," Bahzell replied levelly, answering the question with the honesty it deserved. "It's not something as I can be putting neatly into words, but I'm after sensing the presence of the Dark much as you'd see a cloud against the sun. And what it is that's waiting up ahead there is after being the very stormfront of Krahana herself."

Muscles tightened, and jaws clenched, but no one looked away.

"What is it you want us to do?" Kelthys asked simply.

"It's little I know of exactly what we'll be facing," Bahzell said grimly, "but this much I do know. There's after being two battles waiting for us—one as will attack physically, with claw and fang or blade, and one as won't be using weapons most of you will be so much as seeing. I've a nasty enough sense of what's ahead to know as there won't be anything of the mortal, natural world about it, physical or not. But anything as is solid enough to be after hurting you is solid enough that you can be hurting it. I'll not say as how you can be killing it, but at the least, you can be after holding it in check."

He paused for a moment, surveying his allies, then flicked his ears.

"I'll not be lying to you. It's in my heart and soul to wish as how you'd none of you come, beyond us of the Order, but you'd have none of it, and I knew it. And, truth to tell, I can't but be admiring the guts as brings each and every one of you to this. You've made us sword brothers all, by your courage. Yet men—and coursers—are after dying in battle, brothers, and it's in my mind as how some of us will be doing that this night."

Dozens of eyes looked back at him, levelly, despite the tension ratcheting higher and tighter behind them.

"There's a part of this battle as will be mine to fight," he continued. "It's not one as any of the rest of you can be after joining. But what you can be doing is to keep the rest of whatever it is we're facing off of me while I've the fighting of it. Will you be watching my back for me, brothers?"

"Aye." It was Luthyr Battlehorn, his voice cold and hard with promise despite the dislike still showing in his eyes. "Aye, Milord Champion, we will."

* * *

"Now, Layantha."

Jerghar's command was a sibilant hiss as he crouched atop his hill, and the once-woman beside him smiled a terrible smile. Layantha Peliath was something vanishingly rare among the Servants of Krahana—a mage who'd actually sought the service of the Queen of the Damned. And not just any mage, for she'd been an empath. Not a receptive empath. Most of those went into healing, either of the mind or the body, and the very nature of their talent was enough to make any fate like Layantha's unthinkable. Had she been a receptive empath, her talent would have carried the predatory cruelty of Krahana and her Servants too clearly to her for her to have voluntarily yielded. She might have been taken by a Servant, or a shardohn, or even Krahana herself, but she would not have yielded, and so could not have become what she now was.

But Layantha had been a projective empath, able to project her own emotions, but unable to sense those of others. It was one of the mage talents of extremely limited utility, and perhaps that had been a factor in the choice she'd made. Layantha had never had the sort of personality which was prepared to accept that she was not the center of everyone's universe as she was of her own.

She hadn't realized in time that to accept Krahana was to become no more than one more satellite of the voracious void which she had made her mistress. The fact that she remained anything but the center of the universe was bitter poison on her tongue, but that only fanned her hatred of all still-living beings even higher. And the mage talent which had survived her surrender to Krahana was no longer a thing of limited utility.

Now, as her enemies crested the last undulating swell of the Wind Plain before their hill, she reached out to that portion of the reservoir of focused power Jerghar was prepared to make available to her, and her smile was a hideous thing to see.

* * *

A wave of sheer terror curled across the night-struck grassland like a tsunami.

Terror was no stranger to Bahzell Bahnakson. He'd faced wizards, cursed swords, and demons, and no man, however great his courage, was immune to fear. But he had never tasted a deeper terror, one with a darker core of horror . . . or one which had no apparent source at all.

Layantha's tidal bore of darkness crashed over him, and he heard stricken cries and high-pitched, equine squeals as it fountained over his companions, as well. It smashed down on them, vast and noisome and more crippling than any physical wound. He sensed them behind him, and knew that the only reason they hadn't fled was that the terror which had invaded them was so totally overwhelming that they were paralyzed. Frozen helplessly, like mesmerized rabbits waiting to be taken by a gamekeeper.

Bahzell was trapped with them, but the black river of ice which had sucked them under could not—quite—reach his core. That indomitable core of elemental hradani stubbornness, buttressed by his link to Tomanāk . . . and to Walsharno.

He and the courser stood motionless, as frozen as any of their companions, as the night took on a hideous unlife of its own. He could see the darkness coming alive with the pustulant green sores of hundreds of glittering eyes. They came towards him, and he recognized them. Not because he'd ever seen them with his own eyes, but because Gayrfressa had seen them. Had felt the fangs and poison, and the terrible, lustful hatred which lived behind them. He had experienced Gayrfressa's experiences as his own, and beyond that, he was a champion. The true nature of the shardohns could not hide itself from him, and so, even more than Gayrfressa, he understood what he faced and the true horror of what awaited any who fell to them.

The creatures closed in slowly, made cautious by their dread of Tomanāk and his power despite the quicksand of projected terror which had frozen their enemies. And that caution was a mistake.

They should have flung themselves upon Bahzell. They should have ripped the life and soul out of him and Walsharno instantly, brutally, while Layantha held them paralyzed. But instead, they hesitated, and in that moment of hesitation, Bahzell reached deep.

He didn't think—he simply acted. Despite the vicious wave of emotion sweeping over him he reached both deep within himself and without. It was as if he stretched out both of his hands, one to Tomanāk and one to Walsharno, and answering hands closed upon his in clasps of living steel. He was an acrobat, arcing through empty air in the unwavering knowledge that hands he could trust even more deeply than he trusted his own would be waiting to catch him, and the electric shock when they did rocked through his soul like cleansing sunlight.

And even as his god and his courser brother caught him in that three-part fusion, Bahzell summoned the Rage. Summoned the wild whirlwind of berserker bloodlust which had been the curse of his people for twelve centuries, until time and healing had transformed it into something else—into elemental determination and deadly, ice-cold concentration.

The mighty cables of hopeless horror Layantha had cast about him snapped like cobweb, shredded by the rushing wind of Walsharno's fierce strength and shriveled by the blazing presence of Tomanāk. And at the heart of that focus of Dark-rejecting Light stood Bahzell Bahnakson in the dreadful exaltation of the Rage, like the rock on which the tide of terror broke and recoiled in baffled foam and rushing confusion.

"Tomanāk!"

The deep, bull-throated bellow of his war cry split the darkness, and Walsharno's wild, fierce scream of rage came with it. Bahzell's sword leapt into his right hand, summoned by a thought, glaring so bright a blue that even mortal eyes were dazzled by its brilliance, and the shardohns froze, squealing with a terror even deeper than the one Layantha had conjured to paralyze their foes.

* * *

Layantha screamed. Her hands rose to her head, balled into fists, pounding her temples, and she staggered back. She writhed, shrieking as the terror she'd projected recoiled upon her. In all her mortal life she had never received the emotions of another. She'd been as blind to them, despite her empathy, as any non-mage. But now, at last, her mind was opened, its barriers and defenses ripped wide by a talon of azure power, and all the hatred and black despair she had leveled against her intended prey lashed through her.

She shrieked again, fighting frantically to stop the pain. But she wasn't permitted to. She couldn't stop projecting, with all of the stolen energy Jerghar had funneled to her. And not just because Tomanāk and his champions would not allow it. The slaughtered victims of the Warm Springs courser herd had been dragged back to face the desecration of being made to serve their destroyers. But those tormented souls were the souls of coursers, and as Lord Edinghas had told Bahzell, coursers would not yield to demon, devil, or god. They refused to take back their power. They writhed, shrieking in torment as terrible as Layantha's own as Jerghar flailed them with the power of his own will, beating at them with whips of fire as he commanded them to stop pouring their stolen life energy through her mage talent. They writhed . . . but they did not relent.

Layantha screamed again and again, jerking, her green eyes blazing like fiery suns, and then Jerghar leapt back from her, stumbling and clumsy in the haste of sudden fear, as she began to burn.

It was only smoke, at first, rising from her. But then, in the flicker of an instant, smoke became flame. A terrible flame that mingled the blue glory of Tomanāk and the green pollution of Krahana into a towering furnace. A column of fire roared into the night, and Jerghar cowered away from the shrieking presence trapped at its heart. There was no heat, yet Layantha shriveled, consumed and blazing in a holocaust which did not even dry the dew from the grass on which she stood.

She screamed once more—a terrible, quavering sound that trailed away into infinite time and distance—and then she was gone, leaving not so much as a trace of ash to mark her destruction.

* * *

The paralysis which had held Bahzell's companions vanished as abruptly as the light of a snuffed candle. He heard and sensed them as they fought to shake off the lingering effects, but there was no time for him to explain what had happened. Jerghar had sent Treharm and two other Servants to command the shardohns, and even as he shrank away from the vortex of destruction consuming Layantha, his mind screamed orders at them, whipping them into the attack.

"Now, sword brothers!" Bahzell shouted, and the night came alive with the snarling howl of unnatural wolves.

The shardohns hurled themselves forward, howling with a fury that blazed hotter and hungrier than ever because of their own terror. The blazing blue radiance spilling from Bahzell's sword filled them with panic as paralyzing as anything Layantha could have produced. But the deeper, darker terror of their mistress and her Servants goaded them, lashed them and drove them forward in a madness to rend and tear.

Swords and sabers and Hurthang's daggered axe glittered in the light pouring from Bahzell's blade, and the battle screams of coursers answered the voracious howl of wolves. Walsharno sprang forward, going to meet the rolling wave of attackers, and he and Bahzell were the tip of a wedge, driving into the heart of their enemies.

Horror collided with edged steel and war-hammer hooves. Shrieks of fury, howls of hunger, screams of pain, and the crunch of steel cleaving undead flesh and shattering undead bone filled the night. Scores of more than mortal demon-shapes flung themselves forward in near mindless hunger, and there were too many of them. One of the Bear River stallions screamed as he was dragged down, a ton and a half of fighting fury submerged under a wolf pack that ripped and tore and shredded.

Another courser stumbled and went down, spilling his rider. The courser lurched back to his feet, shrieking with fury and hate as three shardohns descended upon his rider. The wind rider's saber flashed desperately, and one of the shardohns screamed as the blade severed its spine. It fell, writhing in its agony, but the other two got through. The wind rider died without a sound as fangs ripped away his throat, and his courser brother screamed like a demon himself. He reared, crushing the killers, and then screamed again as a tidal wave of wolves rolled over him.

Hurthang's axe came down like a thunderbolt, glaring with an echo of the blue flame spilling from Bahzell's sword. A shardohn squealed in agony as that blazing steel clove through it and it discovered—fleetingly—that it could be killed. Gharnal's sword flickered with the same light as he disemboweled another unnatural wolf, and Brandark's warhorse screamed with terror as yet another shardohn lunged at it. The Bloody Sword wrenched its head to one side, spinning it away from the attack, and lashed out with his sword. His blade didn't share the blue flame of Tomanāk's presence, but his target was flung aside, headless and kicking. It wasn't "dead," but, then, it hadn't really been "alive," either, and it lurched back to its feet, staggering in a questing parody of life as the tide of battle surged past it.

"Tomanāk! Tomanāk!"

The deep-throated thunder of Bahzell's war cry rose through the hideous tumult, beating down all other sounds, echoing through the night like the war horn of the god he served. He and Walsharno fought like one being, so tightly fused that neither could have said where the thoughts of one ended and the other's began.

Bahzell's huge sword, five feet and more of blue-blazing blade, was a two-handed weapon for any lesser mortal, but he wielded it one-handed, as if it weighed no more than a fencing foil, and any shardohn which came within its sweep was doomed. That same light blazed about Walsharno, and each forehoof was the heart of an azure explosion as he brought it crashing down. There was no sign of Bahzell's normal clumsiness in the saddle—not now. He was a part of Walsharno, not simply a rider, and the two of them forged unwaveringly towards the hilltop on which Layantha's pyre had blazed.

* * *

Jerghar shoved himself back upright and tore his eyes away from the unmarked grass where Layantha had perished, and fear as dark as anything the undead mage might ever have projected pounded through him. Nothing had ever suggested to him that what had just happened to her was even possible. And if Bahzell could do that . . .

No! Jerghar shook himself viciously. It had been the coursers, seeking vengeance on their killers, as much as anything Bahzell had done! And now that he knew what had happened, he could allow for it. He was the master of those damned souls, and he scourged them with a white-hot strength forged from all of his fury and panic. There was no time to savor their silent screams of agony properly, but he battered their power back under his control. Even then, he felt them fighting him, defeated but not subjugated, yet they could not resist him as he drew deep upon his reserves of corrupt energy.

He looked up from that brief, titanic struggle, and his green-lit eyes widened in disbelief. His enemies had cut deep into his outer perimeter, battering their way through the surging sea of shardohns. It wasn't possible. Bahzell might be a champion of Tomanāk, but the others were mere mortals. They should have been chaff in the furnace, easy prey, yet they were not.

He could trace every yard of their progress by their blood and bodies. Coursers and humans and hradani were dying, but they were not dying alone . . . or easily. Almost a third of his shardohns had been crippled or destroyed outright, and still those madmen and coursers hammered their way deeper and deeper into a battle which could end only in their own deaths. And at their head, wrapped in that deadly blue glare of power, was the biggest courser of all and the fiery sword of Bahzell Bahnakson.

* * *

"Bahzell!"

Gharnal's frantic shout of warning cut through the tumult and chaos, and Bahzell's head snapped around as something arced through the air towards him. It looked like a human, but no human ever born could move like that, with such speed and unnatural agility. It had come out of the grass, out of the tangle of snarling, heaving wolves on Bahzell's left side, and he twisted in the saddle, trying to meet the attack even as Walsharno tried to wheel to face it.

But there was no time. The attacker hit the ground and bounced impossibly, flinging itself at Bahzell's unguarded side, but then an arm flashed out.

Gharnal Uthmâgson caught Treharm's ankle with his left hand, and Krahana's Servant howled in shocked fury. No mortal he'd ever faced had been quick enough to do that, and certainly none of them had been strong enough. But Treharm had never before faced a hradani who had summoned the Rage, and Gharnal jerked him away from Bahzell with a strength which very nearly equaled his own.

Treharm wrenched around, lashing out with taloned fingers, and chain mail shredded as they ripped through it. Gharnal grunted as they ripped flesh, as well, but his blade came hissing back with all the flashing speed of his Rage, and Treharm howled again as that blue-lit steel sheared through his right arm like an axe.

Panic erupted through the Servant, worse than any physical agony, as his severed arm flew away. That wound would have been mortal—or at least disabling—to any mortal being. But Treharm wasn't mortal. The lost limb would regrow in time, and the shock which would have paralyzed a living man had virtually no effect on him at all.

No physical effect. Yet there were other forms of shock, and the wound was a terrifying warning that perhaps he was mortal still, after all. He squealed, twisting and slashing with his remaining arm, striking out at Gharnal in a desperate frenzy, and Bahzell's foster brother's spine arched as a supernaturally powerful hand punched straight through his breastplate and drove deep into his chest. Ribs splintered and their fragments stabbed jagged ends into his lungs and heart.

Gharnal was a dead man in that moment, but he was also a sword of Tomanāk, and a hradani exalted by the power of the Rage. He didn't fall, and Treharm had a final, flashing instant to gawk in disbelief, his left fist closed upon the beating heart of his foe, before Gharnal's blade came slashing up in one last, perfect stroke and Treharm's head went flying away into the night.

* * *

"No!"

Jerghar screamed in denial. Not because he cared about Treharm's fate, but because Treharm's death meant he'd lost two-thirds of his fellow Servants, and with them, their power. And because if Layantha and Treharm could be killed, then so could he.

A dreadful premonition of doom echoed through him, and panic urged him to flee. But the greater terror of Krahana overruled his panic. Tomanāk and his champion might destroy Jerghar, but if he fled Krahana would do far worse than that. And so he stayed nailed to his hilltop, watching the swirling confusion of combat crunch towards him.

* * *

Brandark's warhorse screamed again, this time in agony, as a shardohn exploded up under the Bloody Sword's guard and ripped out his mount's throat. The stallion went down, collapsing in blood-spouting ruin, and Brandark kicked frantically clear of the stirrups. He hit hard, but he managed somehow to hang onto his sword, and he rolled upright almost instantly.

Yet fast as he was, he wasn't quite fast enough. The same shardohn which had killed his horse sprang at his own throat, and two more came at him from the sides.

The first met a deadly thrust that drove a foot of steel through its belly. It shrieked in agony, folding up around the blade, snapping at it with its wolfish fangs, and he wrenched the sword free in a spattering fan of blood and whirled to face the shardohn flashing in from his right. The blood and venom-streaked steel came down with all the elegance of a cleaver, driven by the desperate strength of an arm almost as mighty as Bahzell's own . . . and the ferocious precision of the Rage. It crunched through the shardohn's spine, just behind the shoulders, and the shardohn collapsed with a scream. It was back up in a moment, scrabbling forward on its forelegs, yet its crippled hindquarters dragged uselessly behind, and it was too slow to reach him.

But if it could not, the third demon could. It flung itself on Brandark's shoulders, ripping and tearing at the backplate of the Bloody Sword's cuirass. Steellike fangs snarled and savaged their way across the armor, gouging viciously at it, and he twisted his shoulders frantically, trying to hurl the creature off even as he wrenched around to face it.

For a moment, he almost succeeded, but then the shardohn lunged again, and Brandark grunted in anguish as envenomed jaws punched spikelike teeth through the left arm of his haubergeon. The shardohn's fangs pierced the tough, dwarf-forged rings effortlessly, mangling muscle and crushing bone, and its dreadful, baying howl of triumph vibrated agonizingly into his flesh. It tasted his life force, sucking at it even as its poison flooded into him, and it knew he was his.

But he was a hradani, tougher than any other prey the creature had ever taken. And he was empowered by the Rage, with all the terrible, driving energy of his people's ancient curse. And he was Brandark Brandarkson. No champion of Tomanāk he, no servant of the War God's order. Only a man who had longed to be a bard . . . only a poet who had faced greater demons at Bahzell's side and spat defiance in the face of Hell.

He snarled through the icy fury of the Rage, feeling his strength flooding into the shardohn, and twisted his shoulders. He bared his teeth at the soaring spike of agony as broken bone and torn muscle shifted in the creature's maw, and the shardohn's howl of triumph wavered as it felt itself being dragged around. It tried to release its grip, but it was caught, its fangs trapped in shredded chain mail and its victim's very flesh. It couldn't escape as Brandark shortened his right arm, raised his left arm from the shoulder, suspending the shardohn's full, heavy weight from his shattered upper arm, and drove his blade home. It rammed into the "wolf's" belly, and he twisted his wrist, disemboweling the creature.

The shardohn squealed, fighting and bucking with the agony of its wound, heaving until—finally!—its fangs ripped free of its victim. It landed on all fours, flinging its head up in torment . . . and Brandark's sword came down on the back of its neck like an axe.

The shardohn fell, and Brandark thudded to his knees, left arm hanging limp, as pain and blood loss, poison and the icy suction of his soul pulled him down at last. His sword sagged and his head drooped, and yet another shardohn sprang for his throat. He tried to get his blade up, eyes glaring with the defiant fire of his Rage even from the lip of the grave, but his ripped and bleeding body had given all that even a hradani's could. He couldn't raise the weapon in time, and he watched the shardohn's fangs glisten with emerald corruption as they came for him.

And then a daggered battleaxe, its blade shrouded in cleansing blue flame, came smashing down like a thunderbolt.

"Tomanāk! Tomanāk!"

Hurthang was there, his axe blazing like a beacon, and Brandark collapsed at last.

* * *

Bahzell's heart twisted as he saw Gharnal collapse over the body of his killer, saw Hurthang standing astride Brandark's body while the howling pack converged upon him. But there was no time for grief, no room for fear. Gharnal and Brandark were not the only brothers he had lost this night, and the dying was far from over. And yet . . .

His head snapped up, and his eyes narrowed. The tide of combat had carried him and Walsharno steadily forward. There was so much Dark power abroad in the darkness that even his champion's senses had been unable to cut through it and find its heart. But he was close enough now. His dying sword brothers had brought him close enough at last to sense the focus of the enormous, deadly tornado of twisted energy howling invisibly above the hilltop before him. He felt Walsharno beside him, and tasted the courser's raging grief as Walsharno felt the agony and terror of the damned coursers trapped in Krahana's power. And as they both recognized the heart and core of the vortex waiting to engulf them and all their companions, they knew what they had to do.

Bahzell took Walsharno's fury at the fate of the Warm Springs coursers and melded it with his own grief for Gharnal and Brandark and everyone else who had perished this hideous night. He combined them, wrapped them about his Rage, and gave them back to himself and to Walsharno as determination harder than steel, not despair, and his great voice rose above the tumult.

"Tomanāk!" he bellowed, and Walsharno charged.

* * *

Jerghar heard that world-shaking shout even from the top of his hill, and the terror he'd felt when Treharm was destroyed swept through him like a black, choking sea. Yet he fought it down—not with courage, but with desperation—and tightened his grip upon the power he had stolen.

* * *

Another Servant of Krahana, the once-man called Haliku, surged to his feet, bursting up from the thinning ocean of shardohn wolf-shapes like a hare bounding out of a thicket, as Walsharno erupted in a volcano of blue light. Yelping shardohns, who seemed to have forgotten that they were not in fact the wolves whose shapes they'd taken upon themselves, exploded away from the courser's charge. They flew in all directions, like mud spattered from a noisome puddle by the azure thunderclaps of his enormous hooves. One of them was too slow, and a stupendous hoof came down like the Mace of Tomanāk itself. It caught the squealing shardohn squarely in the center of its spine and its unnatural body vanished in a blinding flash of Tomanāk's light.

The steadily accelerating courser thundered across the night-dark grasslands like a moving holocaust of brilliant blue. That crackling corona clung to him, blew behind him like streamers of lightning on the wind of his passage, and no shardohn could withstand him. They fled into the night, howling, their terror of Tomanāk overpowering, however briefly, their older terror of their mistress.

Haliku looked back over his shoulder, green eyes glaring in the dark, and the shardohns' terror was etched into his own distorted expression. He swerved, trying to break away from the direct line of Walsharno's charge, and Bahzell leaned from the saddle. His left hand gripped the saddle horn, the sword in his right hand swept in a blinding arc, like sheet lightning, and the Servant had an instant to shriek in horrified denial before that deadly blade crunched entirely through his body.

A column of blue flame erupted from the grass, consuming what had been a Servant of Krahana, and then Walsharno was through the final fringes of the shardohn pack. His head went forward, his mighty muscles tightening and exploding as he thundered onward in a gallop only another courser could possibly have matched.

A meteor of green fire, glittering and loathsome with the all-consuming hunger of Krahana, arced up from the hilltop before him. It came screaming out of the night, but Bahzell raised his sword, holding it horizontally above his head, one hand on the hilt and the other wrapped around the blue-blazing blade.

"Tomanāk!" he cried, and an actinic flash flared outward from him and Walsharno. The expanding ring of light swept across the grass like a high wind, pounding the stalks flat, and the night rocked to a thunderous concussion as Jerghar's bolt of flame struck Tomanāk's shield . . . and vanished.

* * *

Jerghar went to his knees, shuddering, as the backlash of his parried attack ripped through him. His control of the coursers' souls wavered under the agony, but he hadn't been chosen for this task because he was weak. He hammered them back, reforging his control, and raised his head.

His eyes burned like green fire, and desperation blazed deep within him. The shardohns and his subordinate Servants had killed at least a third of Bahzell's companions, but now all of the other Servants had been destroyed and the shardohns were a broken force, fleeing and scattered in Bahzell's wake. There was nothing between Tomanāk's champion and Jerghar—nothing except his final, inner line of defense. The wall of focused energy powerful enough to stop any champion who had ever lived. That much Jerghar was sure of . . . yet even as he told himself that, deep inside he remembered all the other things he had been sure of before he'd had to face the reality of Bahzell Bahnakson's assault.

* * *

Bahzell reeled in the saddle under the soul-shaking impact of Jerghar's attack. But unlike Jerghar, Bahzell was not alone. He was supported by Tomanāk, linked to Walsharno, and sustained by his own iron determination and his Rage.

He straightened, and his ears flattened and his lips drew back in a snarl as he sensed the final barrier, rising like a wall of invisible steel in the darkness before him.

"Now, Brother!" he called to Walsharno, and a voice answered deep within his own mind.

<Take what you need, Brother!>

And Bahzell did. He reached deep, deep—deeper than he had dreamed even now that he could reach. He touched his own link to Tomanāk, and to Walsharno, and Walsharno's link to him and Tomanāk alike, and then, in the fusion of hradani, courser, and deity, he touched a vast, seething sea of wildfire energy he had never before perceived. A sea, he knew instantly, which Wencit of Rūm had tried to describe to him and Brandark on a snowy winter night long before.

He had no idea how to manipulate that energy. He was no wizard, and never would be. But he was a champion, and he reached out fearlessly to the lethal, crackling beauty. He laid his hand upon it, and was not consumed, and for just an instant Bahzell Bahnakson's eyes blazed with the same eldritch, wild wizard's fire that had replaced Wencit's eyes so many endless centuries before.

He raised his empty hand, and crackling prominences of writhing fire—not simply the blue of Tomanāk, but blue and silver and every color ever made, all intermingled—blazed about his fist as he clenched it.

"Tomanāk!"

* * *

Jerghar's eyes widened in stunned recognition as the wild magic burned above the hradani's fist amid the consuming fury of Tomanāk's wrath. Impossible. It couldn't happen! No one but a wizard—and a wild wizard, at that—could do what Bahzell had just done!

But his enemies were close enough now. His sense of the unseen was less acute, less keen, than Bahzell's had become, but it was keen enough to scream belated warning as Bahzell and Walsharno charged suicidally towards his unbreachable wall of power.

Impossible, his brain repeated again. Impossible!

Not one champion, but two—two so deeply linked and fused that they were one!

* * *

Bahzell's fist stabbed forward, thrusting at the barrier before him, and lightning crackled. A solid, forked cable of power erupted, reaching out before him and Walsharno like a lance of flame. It struck Jerghar's wall and mushroomed out in a coruscating tornado of clashing energies. There was heat, this time, and the green, damp grass of spring flashed into fire, red tongues of flame and white spires of smoke rising in a billowing curtain.

There was an instant of titanic conflict, of powers far beyond the fringes of the mortal world locked in combat. And then a final, cataclysmic concussion jarred the universe as Bahzell's lightning bolt crashed through Jerghar's last line of defense.

* * *

Jerghar screamed in anguish as the fringes of that explosion ripped over him and flung him from his feet as if he were a toy. He skidded across the ground, bouncing through the tough grass of the Wind Plain like a stone thrown from the hand of a spiteful child, and fire enveloped him. The blue fire of Tomanāk, consuming, consuming . . .

He shrieked again and again, tearing at his own undead flesh as the agony of Tomanāk's touch gnawed inward. But there was no escape, no evading that torture. It ate inward, slowly—so slowly! —destroying him one agonizing fraction of an inch at a time.

Hooves the size of dinner platters came slowly, remorselessly across the grass to him, and he stared up through the agony of his merciless blue shroud as Walsharno, son of Mathygan and Yorthandro, stopped before him, towering into the night against a backdrop of lurid flame and choking smoke.

"Please!" he managed through his agony. "Please!"

"We'll have those coursers free of you and your bitch goddess, first," a deep, rumbling voice, colder than Vonderland ice told him.

"Yes—yes!" he shrieked, and released his hold. The coursers' souls exploded out of his opened grasp, fleeing the taint of Krahana, and the eyes of the courser standing above him flashed with the blue glory of Tomanāk.

"Please," Jerghar whimpered, twisting in the dirt, gripped by an agony greater than he had ever imagined. "Oh, please!"

"You'd best be giving me a reason," that infinitely icy voice told him, and he sobbed.

"Your friend," he gasped out. "That bitch champion!" He locked his teeth against another scream and shook his head fiercely.

"What of her?" Bahzell grated.

"Promise," Jerghar got out somehow. "Promise . . . you'll kill me. Promise!"

"Aye, you've my word," Bahzell rumbled.

"South," Jerghar sobbed. "A trap—not just Kalatha. They arranged it. Don't know more—I swear!"

"You've set a trap for Kerry?" Bahzell's voice sharpened.

"Not me—others," Jerghar gasped. "Don't know all of them. They want you and her . . . and Tellian. But that's all I know! I swear, I swear!"

Bahzell glared down at him, his face etched with hatred, and Jerghar sobbed.

"You promised," he whimpered. "Promised!"

For one more endless, seething moment of agony, nothing happened. And then—

"Aye, I did," Bahzell agreed harshly. "Sword Brother?"

In his torment, Jerghar didn't understand. But then he did, and a terrible gratitude transfigured his face as Walsharno raised one massive, blue-flickering hoof. His eyes clung to it with desperate hunger as it reached its apogee directly above his head.

Then it fell.




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