作者：残烟一缕 提交日期：2008-7-6 16:36:00 | 分类: | 访问量：2382
The Hill Fire
HE AWAKENED in a long, dark room, surrounded by still, sleeping figures. It had all been a dream, of course. He was back in his bed among the other slumbering scullions, the only light a thin film of moonglow sliding in through a crack in the door. He shook his aching head.
Why am I sleeping on the floor? These stones are so cold...
And why did the others lie so unmovingly, their shadowy shapes fantastic with helmets and shields, laid out on their beds in neat rows, like... like the dead awaiting judgment...? It had all been a dream... hadn't it...?'
With a gasp of terror Simon crawled away from the black mouth of the tunnel toward the blue-white chink in the doorway. The images of the dead, fixed in immobile stone atop their ancient tombs, did not stay his passing. He shouldered open the heavy door of the crypt and fell forward into the long, damp grass of the lich-yard.
After what had seemed countless years in the black places below, the round ivory moon that ranged high in the darkness above looked like yet another hole, this one leading to a cool, lamplit place beyond the sky, a country of shining rivers and forgetfulness. He lowered his cheek to the ground and felt the wet strands bend beneath his face. Fingers of time-worn rock thrust up on either side through the prisoning grass, or stretched headlong in broken segments, etched by the moon in bone-white light, nameless and uncaring as the ancient dead whose graves they marked.
In Simon's mind the dark span of hours from the last fiery moments in the doctor's chambers to the night-damp grass of the present was as unreachable as the nearly invisible clouds threading the sky. The shouting and the cruel flames, Morgenes* burning face, Pryrates' eyes like punch-holes into ultimate darkness—these were as genuine as the breath he had just taken. The tunnel was only dwindling, half-remembered pain, a fog of voices and empty madness. He knew there had been rough walls, and cobwebs, and endlessly forking tunnels. It seemed there had also been vivid dreams of sadness and the death of beautiful things. Altogether he felt drained dry like an autumn leaf, fragile and without strength. He thought he had crawled at the end—his knees and arms were certainly sore enough, and his clothing was torn—but his memory seemed cloaked in darkness. None of it was quite real. Not like the lich-ground where he now lay, the moon's quiet commons yard.
Sleep was pushing at the back of his neck with soft, heavy hands. He fought it, rising to his knees with a slow shake of the head. It would not do to doze off here: there had been, as far as he knew, no pursuit through the blocked doorway of the doctor's chamber, but that didn't mean a great deal. His enemies had soldiers, and horses, and the king's authority.
Drowsiness was pushed aside by fear, and not a little anger. They had stolen all else from him; his friends, his home—they would not take his life and freedom, too. He climbed carefully to his feet and looked around, steadying himself on the leaning stones of the tomb as he wiped away tears of exhaustion and fear.
The town wall of Erchester loomed some half a league away, a moonlit belt of stone separating the sleeping citizens from the lich-yard and the world beyond. Before the outer gates sprawled the pale band of the Wealdhelm Road; on Simon's right it meandered gradually north to the hills; on his left it companioned the river Ymstrecca through the farmlands below Swertclif, past Falshire on the far bank, and ultimately to the grasslands of the East.
It seemed likely that these towns along the great road would be the first place that the Erkynguard would search for a fugitive. Also, much of the road's length wandered through the valley farms of Hasu Vale, where he would be hard-pressed to find a hiding place if forced off the path.
Turning his back on Erchester, and the only home he had yet known, Simon hobbled out across the lich-yard toward the far downs. His first steps set off a flair of pain at the base of his skull, but he knew it would be best to ignore the aches of body and spirit for a while longer, fleeing as far away from the castle as possible while it was still dark; he could worry about the future when he had found a safe place to lie up.
As the moon scudded across the warm sky toward midnight, Simon's steps grew heavier and heavier The lich-yard seemed to have no ending—indeed, the ground had begun to rise and fall over the gentle humps of the outer downs while he still walked among the weathered stone teeth, some solitary and upright, others leaning together like old men in senile colloquy He wove in and out among the buried pillars, stumbling across the uneven, tussocky ground Every step became a struggle, as though he waded in high waters
Staggering with weariness, he tripped over yet one more concealed stone and fell heavily to the ground He tried to rise, but his limbs felt like sacks of wet sand. After crawling forward a short distance he curled up on the sloping shoulder of a grassy mound. Something dug into his back and he rolled clumsily to one side, this made him almost equally uncomfortable, since he was now lying on Morgenes' folded manuscript, tucked under his belt. Staring, eyes half-shut with exhaustion, he reached out to find the original source of irritation It was a piece of metal, thick with corrosion and perforated like worm-gnawed wood. He tried to pull it free, but it was stuck fast in the earth. Perhaps the rest of it, whatever it might be, lay deep in the soil of the moon-frosted mound, anchored by dirt—a spear point? A belt buckle or greave from some costume whose owner had long since gone to feed the grass on which he lay. Simon thought for a bleary moment of all the bodies lying deep beneath the earth, the flesh that had once been quick with life but now moldered in silence and darkness.
As sleep captured him at last, it seemed that he was again on the roof of the chapel. Below him sprawled the castle… but this castle was made of damp, crumbling soil and blind white roots. The people in the castle slept on and on, tossing uneasily as in their dreams they heard Simon walking on the rooftop above their beds.
He walked now—or dreamed he did—along a black river that splashed noisily but reflected no light, like fluid shadow. He was surrounded by mist, and could discern nothing of the land he walked on but a certain dimness. He heard many voices in the obscurity behind him, their murmurs intermixed with the slurring voice of the black water, coming closer, rushing like wind through the leaves.
No mist or fog shrouded the far side of the river. The grass on the nether bank stretched out before his gaze, and beyond it a somber grove of alder trees sloped up to the skirts of the hills. All the country beyond the river was dark and moist, as though it stood at dawn or twilight; after a moment it seemed clear that it must be evening, for the close-leaning hills echoed with the distant, solitary song of a nightingale. Everything seemed fixed and unchanging.
He peered across the burbling water and saw a figure standing by the river's edge on the far shore, a woman dressed all in gray, long straight hair shadowing the sides of her face; in her arms she held something close-cradled. When she turned her eyes up to him he saw that she was weeping. It seemed that he knew her
"Who are you?" he cried His voice died out as the words left his mouth, swallowed up by the damp hiss of the river. The woman stared at him as if to memorize every feature with her wide dark eyes. At last she spoke.
"Seoman." Her words came as down a long corridor, faint and hollow. "Why have you not come to me, my son? The wind is drear and chill, and I have been such a long tune waiting."
"Mother?" Simon felt a terrible coldness. The soft rush of the water seemed everywhere She spoke again.
"We have not met for so long, my beautiful child. Why do you not come to me? Why do you not come and dry a mother's tears? The wind is cold, but the nver is warm and gentle. Come…. will you not cross over to me?" She held her arms outstretched, her mouth below her black eyes opened in a smile. Simon moved toward her, his lost mother who called to mm, walking down the soft riverbank toward the laughing black river. Her arms were open for him for her son.
And then Simon saw that what she had cradled, that which now dangled from an outflung hand, was a doll… a doll made from reeds and leaves and twining stems of grass. But the doll was blackened, the shriveled leaves curling back from their stems, and Simon knew suddenly that nothing alive crossed that river into the twilight country. He stopped at the water's edge and looked down.
Down in the inky water there was a faint gleam of light; as he watched, it rose toward the surface, becoming three slender, shining shapes. The sound of the river changed, became a kind of prickling, unearthly music. The water leaped and boiled, obscuring the objects' true forms, but it seemed that if he desired to, he could reach down and touch them....
"Seoman...!" his mother called again. He looked up to see her farther away, receding swiftly, as though her gray land were a torrent rushing away from him. Her arms were held wide, and her voice was a thing of vibrant loneliness, of the cold's lust for the warm, and the darkness' hopeless desire for the light.
"Simon... Simon...!" It was a wail of despair.
He sat stock-upright on the grass, in the lap of the ancient cairn. The moon still hung high, but the night had gone cold. Tendrils of mist caressed the broken stones around him as he sat, heart working madly.
"... Simon..." The cry came whispering up from the blackness beyond. It was a gray figure, surely, and a woman's voice calling faintly to him from the misty lich-yard he had crossed—only a tiny, wiggling gray shape, a faraway flicker in the ground-clutching fog that wound through the barrows, but seeing it Simon felt his heart would burst in his chest. He began to run across the downs, running as though the very Devil chased him with grasping hands. The dark bulk of Thisterborg rose on the shrouded horizon, and the downs were all around him, and Simon ran and ran, and ran....
A thousand speeding heartbeats later he slowed at last to a ragged walk. He could not have run farther even if he had been the arch-demon's quarry: he was exhausted, limping, and hungry beyond belief. His fear and confusion hung on him like a mantle of chains; the dream had frightened him so that he felt even weaker than before his sleep.
Plodding forward, always with the castle at his back, he felt the memories of better times raveling away, leaving him with nothing but the thinnest of strands still tied to the world of sunlight and order and safety.
What did it feel like when I used to lie in the hayloft, in the quiet? There's nothing in my head now, only words. Did I like to be there in the castle? Did I sleep there, run there, eat and talk and...?
I don't think so. I think I have always walked these downs beneath the moon—that white face—walked and walked like the pitiful, lonely ghost of a mooncalf, walked and walked...
A sudden shiver of flame on the hilltop halted his gloomy imaginings. For some time the ground had been sloping steadily upward, and he had nearly reached the base of shadowy Thisterborg; its mantle of tall trees was a solid, impenetrable darkness against the obscurity of the hill itself. Now a fire bloomed along the hill's crest, a sign of life amidst the downs and damp and centuries of death. He broke into a slow trot, the most he could manage in his present condition. Perhaps it was a shepherd's campfire, a merry blaze to keep the night at bay.
Perhaps they have food! A shank of mutton... a knob of bread.
He had to lean forward. His innards twitched and cramped at the thought of eating. How long had it been? Only supper last...? It was astonishing to consider.
Even if they have no food. how wonderful it will be just to hear voices, to warm myself before a fire... a fire...
A memory of hungry flames leaped before his mind's eye, bringing a different kind of hollowness.
He climbed upward through the trees and tangled brush. The base of Thisterborg was ringed all around by mist, as if the hill was an island upthrust from a cobweb-gray sea. As he approached the summit he saw the blunt shapes of the Anger Stones crowning the final rise, etched in red relief against the sky.
More stones. Stones and more stones. What did Morgenes say this was, this night—if it was still the same moon, the same darkness cradling the same dim stars—what did he call it?
Stoning Night. As though the very stones celebrated. As if while Erchester lay sleeping behind shuttered window and latched door the stones made holiday. In his weary thoughts Simon could see them ponderously a-step, the merrymaking stones bowing and wheeling... slowly turning....
Stupid! he thought. Your mind is wandering—and no surprise. You need food and sleep: otherwise, you'll go truly mad—whatever going mad meant... angry all the time? Frightened of nothing? He had seen a mad woman in Battle Square, but she had merely clutched a bundle of rags and rocked herself to and fro, keening like a gull.
Mad beneath the moon. A mad mooncalf.
He had reached the last stand of trees that surrounded the hill-crown. The air was still, as though expectant; Simon felt his hairs go all a-prickle. It suddenly seemed a good idea to walk quietly, to have a cautious look at these night-shepherds instead of crashing suddenly from the underbrush like an angry boar. He worked his way closer to the light, ducking beneath the twisted limbs of a wind-wracked oak. Just above him jutted the Anger Stones, concentric rings of tall, storm-sculpted pillars.
Now he saw a cluster of man-shapes huddled about the leaping fire at the center of the stone rings, cloaks hunched up at their shoulders.
Something about them seemed stiff and uneasy, as though they waited on something expected but not necessarily desired. To the northeast, past the stones, the cap of Thisterborg narrowed. The windswept grass and heather there clung closely to the downsloping ground, which stretched away from the stones to sink at last out of the firelight at the hill's northern edge.
Staring at the statue-still figures around the fire, Simon again felt the weight of his fear drag at him. Why did they stand so unmoving? Were they living men at all, or some eerie carvings of hill-demons?
One of the shapes moved to the fire and poked it with a stick. As the flames jumped, Simon saw that this one at least was a mortal man. He crawled stealthily forward, stopping just beyond the outer circle of stones. The firelight caught and reddened a momentary glimpse of metal beneath the cloak of the nearest figure—this shepherd wore a mail shin.
The vast night sky seemed to shrink down, a prisoning blanket. All the half-a-score of shrouded men were armored: it was the Erkynguard—he was sure of it. He cursed himself bitterly: he had come straight to their fire, like a moth flinging itself into the candleflame.
Why am I always such a damnable, damnable fool?!
A thin night-wind sprang up, setting the high flames whipping like a burning pennant. The cloaked and hooded guardsmen turned their heads in unison, slowly and almost reluctantly, gazing out into the darkness at the hill's northern rim.
Then Simon heard it, too. Above the hissing wind that rimed the grass and gently shook the trees there came a faint sound, growing ever so gradually louder: the aching creak of wooden cart wheels. A bulky shape was climbing upward out of the obscurity of the north edge. The guardsmen moved away from the approach, circling the fire to cluster together on the side nearest Simon; no word had yet been uttered by any of them.
Dim, pale shapes that slowly became horses appeared at the fringe of the fireglow; following behind, growing distinct from the night, was a great black wagon. Black-hooded figures walked on either side, four in all, matching the wagon's stately, funeral pace. The flickering light revealed a fifth atop the wagon, hunched over the team of ice-white stallions. This last figure was somehow larger than the others, and darker, as if it wore some cloak of obscurity; its very stillness seemed to speak of a hidden, brooding power.
The guards still did not move, but stood rigidly watching. Only the thin mewing of the wagon wheels punctured the silence. Simon, transfixed, felt cold pressure in his head, a gnawing clutch in his vitals.
A dream, a bad dream... Why can't I move?!
The black cart and its attendants drew to a halt just within the circle of firelight. One of the four standing figures raised an arm, the black sleeve falling away to reveal a wrist and hand as thin and white as bone.
It spoke, voice silvery-cold, toneless as ice cracking.
"We are here to fulfill the covenant."
There was a stir among those who had been waiting. One of them stepped forward.
"As are we."
Watching helplessly as this mad fancy progressed, Simon was not at all surprised to recognize the voice of Pryrates. The priest pulled back his hood; firelight traced the high arc of his forehead and emphasized the skeletal depths of his eyes. "We are here... as agreed," he continued. Was there a faint quaver in his voice? "Have you brought that which was promised?"
The bone-white arm swept back, gesturing to the looming wagon. "We have. Have you?"
Pryrates nodded his head. Two of the guardsmen bent and wrestled some burden up from the grass where it lay, dragging it forward to be dropped ungently at the alchemist's booted feet. "It lies here," he said. "Bring forth your master's gift."
Two of the robed figures moved to the wagon, carefully lifting down a long, dark object. As they brought it forward, one holding either end, a biting wind sprang up and whistled over the hilltop. The black robes billowed, and the hood on the nearest blew back, spilling a flurry of gleaming white hair. The face revealed in the brief moment was delicate as a mask of the thinnest, most exquisite ivory. An instant later the hood napped back.
Who are these creatures? Witches? Ghosts? Behind the shielding rocks Simon brought a trembling hand up to make the sign of the Tree.
The white foxes... Morgenes said "white foxes"...
Pryrates, these demons—or whatever they might be—it was all too much. He must still be dreaming in the graveyard. He prayed it was so, and closed his eyes to block out the unholy imaginings... but the ground beneath him was pungent with the unmistakable smell of wet earth, and the fire crackled in his ears. Opening his eyes he found the nightmare unchanged.
What is happening?
The two shadowy figures reached the edge of the fire-circle; as the soldiers edged even farther away they set their burden down and stepped back. It was a coffin, or at least coffin-shaped, but only three hands high. A ghastly bluish light smoldered along its edge.
"Bring forth that which you have promised," said the first dark-robed creature. Pryrates gestured and the bundle at his feet was dragged forward. When the soldiers stepped back, the alchemist pushed the object over with the toe of his boot. It was a man, gagged and bound at the wrists. Simon only slowly recognized the round, pale face of Count Breyugar, the Lord Constable.
The robed figure regarded Breyugar's bruised features for a long interval. Its expression was hidden in the hood's shadowed folds, but when it spoke there was a twist of anger in the clear, unearthly tones.
"This does not seem to be what was promised."
Pryrates tilted his body a little to the side, as if narrowing his exposure to the hooded thing. "This one allowed the promised one to escape," he said, seeming to betray some apprehension. "He will take the promised one's place."
Another figure shouldered its way out from between a pair of guardsmen, moving forward to loom at Pryrates' side.
"Promised? What is this 'promised'? Who was promised?"
The priest raised his hands placatingly, but his expression was stem. "Please, my king, I think you know. Please."
Elias snapped his head around to stare at his counselor. "Do I know, priest? What did you promise on my behalf?"
Pryrates leaned toward his master; his harsh voice slipped into a wounded tone. "Lord, you bade me do what I must for this meeting and I did it... or would have, had not this—cenit," he dug a toe into the bound Breyugar, "failed in his duty to his sovereign." The alchemii looked over to the dark-robed figure, whose impassivity carried nonetheless a hint of impatience. Pryrates frowned. "Please, my king, the one we speak of is gone; the point is moot. Please." He laid a light hand on Elias' cloaked shoulder. The king shook it off, staring out of the shadows of his hood at the priest, but saying nothing. Pryrates turned to the black-robed figure once more.
"This one we offer you... his blood, too, is noble. His lineage is high."
"Of high lineage?" the dark thing asked, and then its shoulders shook as though it laughed. "Oh, yes, that is very important. Does its family go back many generations of men?" The dark hood turned and met the shrouded gaze of its fellows.
"Certainly," said Pryrates, seemingly disconcerted. "Hundreds of years."
"Well, our master will certainly be pleased." And then it did laugh, a blade-edged trill of merriment that made Pryrates take a step backward. "Proceed."
The priest looked to Elias, who pulled back his hood. Simon felt the looming sky crouch still closer. The king's face, pale even in the ruddy firelight, seemed to float in midair. The night swirled, and the king's impassive gaze drew light like a mirror in a torchlit hallway. Finally, Elias nodded.
Pryrates stepped forward and grasped Breyugar by the collar, dragging him to the coffin-box where he let him slump to the earth. The priest then unclasped his cloak, revealing a dull flare of red robe, and reached into the inner folds to withdraw a long, curved blade like a sickle. He raised it before his eyes as he faced the northernmost point of the rings of stones, then began to chant, his voice rising in volume and authority:
"To the Dark One, who is master of this world:
Who bestrides the Northern Sky:
Vasir Sombris, feata concordin!
To the Black Huntsman,
Possessor of the icy Hand:
Vasir Sombris, feata concordin 1
To the Storm King, the Outreaching
The Dweller in the Stony Mountain,
The Frozen and Burning,
The Sleeping but Awakened:
Vasir Sombris, feata concordin!
The black-robed figures swayed—all but the one atop the wagon, who sat as still as the Anger Stones—and a hiss went up from their midst, mingling with the new-risen wind.
"Hear now Your supplicant!" Pryrates cried,
"The beetle beneath Your black heel;
The fly between Your cold fingers;
The whispering dust in Your endless shadow—
Oveiz meil Hear me!
Timior cuelos exaltat meif
Shadow-Father—let the bargain be struck!"
The alchemist's hand snaked down and grasped Breyugar's head. The count, who had been lying limp at his feet, suddenly lurched forward and away, leaving the startled Pryrates holding nothing but a hank of bloodied hair.
Simon watched helplessly as the pop-eyed Lord Constable stumbled directly toward his hiding place; he dimly heard Pryrates' angry shouting. The close-leaning night tightened around him, choking his breath and blackening his vision as a pair of guards leaped after Breyugar.
The count was only a few paces away, running awkwardly because of his tied hands, when he tripped and fell. His legs kicked, and his breath sawed noisily behind the gag as the guardsmen bore down on him. Simon had risen to a half-crouch behind the concealing stone, and his weary heart was hammering as though it in rupture. He tried desperately to still his trembling legs. The guard close enough to touch, yanked Breyugar to his feet with few curses. One of them raised a sword and struck the count with flat of his blade. Simon could see Pryrates staring out from the cu of light, and the king's ashen, fascinated face beside him. Even Breyugar's limp form was wrestled back toward the fire, Pryrates continued to squint at the place where the count had fallen.
Who is there?
The voice seemed to fly on the back of the wind straight into Simon's head. Pryrates was staring right at him! He must see him!
Come out. whoever you are. I command you to come forward.
The black-robed figures began a strange, ominous humming, and Simon struggled against the alchemist's will. He remembered what had almost happened to him in the storeroom, and braced himself against the compelling force, but he was weakened, wrung dry like a piece of cloth.
Come out, the voice repeated, and a questing something reached out to touch his mind. He fought, trying to hold shut the doors to his soul, but the probing thing was stronger than he by far. It had only to find him, to grasp him....
"If the covenant no longer suits you," a thin voice said, "then let it be broken off" now. It is dangerous to leave the ritual half-spoken—very dangerous."
It was the hooded figure speaking, and Simon could feel the red priest's questing thoughts shaken.
"Wh... What?" Pryrates spoke like a man new-wakened.
"Perhaps you do not understand what you are doing here," the black shape hissed. "Perhaps you do not comprehend who and what is involved."
"No... yes, I do..." the priest stammered; Simon could somehow sense his nervousness, as if it were an odor. "Quickly," he turned to the guardsmen, "bring that sack of offal here before me." The guards dragged their burden back to lie again at his feet.
"Pryrates..." the king began.
"Please, your majesty, please. It is only a moment now."
Horribly, a part of Pryrates' thought had not left Simon's mind, some clinging tag-end that the priest had not pulled back: he could almost taste the alchemist's quivering expectancy as Pryrates pulled up Breyugar's head, could sense the priest responding to the low murmuring of the hooded ones. And now he felt something deeper, too, a chill wedge of horror driving into his raw and sensitive mind. Some inexplicable other was there in the night—a terrible something' else. It hovered over the hilltop like a choking cloud, and burned inside the seated figure on the wagon like a hidden black flame; it dwelt also in the bodies of the standing stones, infusing them with its greedy attention.
The sickle rose. For a moment the flashing crimson curve of the blade was a second moon against the sky, an old, red crescent moon. Pryrates cried out in a high-pitched language Simon could not understand.
"Ai Samu 'sitech 'at—At Nakkiga!"
The sickle descended and Breyugar sagged forward. Purplish blood pumped from his throat, spattering down onto the coffin. For a moment the Lord Constable twitched violently beneath the priest's hand, then went limp as an eel; the dark flow continued to drizzle on the black lid. Enmeshed in the bizarre intermixture of thought, Simon helplessly experienced Pryrates' panicky exhilaration. Behind that he felt the something-else—a cold, dark, horribly vast thing. Its ancient thoughts sang with obscene joy.
One of the soldiers was throwing up; but for the flabby numbness that unmanned and silenced him, Simon would have done the same.
Pryrates pushed the count's body aside; Breyugar tumbled in a disordered heap, oyster-pale fingers curled toward the sky. The blood smoked on the dark box, and the blue light flickered more brightly. The line it described around the edge became more pronounced. Slowly, dreadfully, the lid began to open, as if forced up from within.
Holy Usires Who loves me. Holy Usires Who loves me—Simon's thoughts were a rush, a panicked tangle—help me, help me help it's the Devil in that box, he's coming out help save me oh help...
We have done it.. we have done it!—other thoughts, foreign, not his —Too late to turn back. Too late.
The first step—the coldest, most terrible thoughts of all—How they will pay and pay and pay...
As the lid tilted up the light within burst forth, throbbing indigo touched with smoky gray and sullen purple, a terrible bruised light that pulsed and glared. The lid fell open, and the wind tightened its pitch as if frightened, as if sickened by the radiance of the long black box. At last what was inside could be seen. Jingizu, a voice whispered in Simon's head. Jingizu...
It was a sword. It lay inside the box, deadly as an adder; it might have been black, but a floating sheen mottled the blackness, a crawling gray like oil on dark water. The wind shrieked.
It beats like a heart—the heart of all sorrow...
Calling, it sang inside Simon's head, a voice both horrible and beautiful, seductive as claws gently scraping his skin.
"Take it. Highness!" Pryrates urged through the hiss of the wind. Enthralled, helpless, Simon suddenly wished he had the strength to take it himself. Could he not? Power was singing to him, singing of the thrones of the mighty, the rapture of desire fulfilled.
Elias took a dragging step forward. One by one the soldiers around him stumbled back, turning to run sobbing or praying down the hill, lurching into the darkness of the girdling trees. Within moments only Elias, Pryrates, and hidden Simon-remained on the hilltop with the hooded ones and their sword. Elias took another step; now he stood over the box. His eyes were wide with fear; he seemed stricken by wrenching doubt, his lips working soundlessly. The unseen fingers of the wind plucked at his cloak, and the hill grasses twined about his ankles.
"You must take it!" Pryrates said again, and Elias stared at him as though seeing the alchemist for the first time. "Take it!" Pryrates' words danced frantically through Simon's head like rats in a burning house.
The king bent, reaching out his hand. Simon's lust turned to sudden horror at the wild, empty nothingness of the sword's dark song.
It's wrong! Can't he feel it?! Wrong!
As Elias' hand neared the sword, the wail of the wind subsided. The four hooded figures stood motionless before the wagon; the fifth seemed to sink into deeper shadow. Silence fell on the hilltop like a palpable thing.
Elias grasped the hilt, lifting the blade out of the coffin in one smooth movement. As he held it before him the fear was suddenly wiped from his face, and his lips parted in a helpless, idiot smile. He lifted the sword high; a blue shimmer played along the edge, marking it out from the blackness of the sky. Elias' voice was almost a whimper of pleasure.
"I... will take the master's gift. I will... honor our pact." Slowly, the blade held before him, he sank to one knee. "Hail to Ineluki Storm King!"
The wind sprang up anew, shrieking. Simon reeled back from the flapping, whirling hill-fire as the four robed figures lifted their white arms, chanting: "Ineluki, ai! Ineluki, ai!"
No! Simon's thoughts flurried, the king... all is lost! Run, Josua!
Sorrow... Sorrow on all the land...
The fifth hooded shape began to writhe atop the wagon. The black robe fell away, and a shape of fire-crimson light was revealed, flapping like a burning sail. A ghastly, heart-gnawing fear beat outward from the thing as it began to grow before Simon's terror-fixed eyes—bodiless and billowing, larger and larger until the empty, wind-snapping bulk of it loomed over all, a creature of howling air and glowing redness.
The Devil is here! Sorrow, his name is sorrow...! The king has brought the Devil! Morgenes, Holy Usires, save me save me save me!
He ran mindlessly down through black night, away from the red thing and the exulting somethmg-else. The sound of his flight was lost in the screaming wind. Branches tore at his arms and hair and face like claws....
The icy claw of the North... the ruins ofAsu'a.
And when he fell at last, tumbling, and his spirit fled from such horror, fled away into deeper darkness, it seemed that in the final instant he could hear the very stones of the earth moaning in their beds beneath him.