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They come, Master.

The being who had once been a man named Jerghar Sholdan opened his eyes and sat up at the sound of the servile voice. He hadnt really been asleep, of coursehe hadnt needed sleep in a long, long timebut it took him a moment to brush aside the memory of the dark, windy void where he had drifted amid tongues of invisible black flame on the wings of a roaring tempest. There was a Presence somewhere beyond those walls of icy fire, a Name lost in the bellow of the battering wind. He knew both of them, and worshiped them, yet the very thought of them simultaneously filled him with hatred and fear.

But that, too, had been true for a very long time, he reminded himself, the tip of his tongue teasing gently at the razor-sharp canines which were the outward indication of what he had become. And hatred and fear, like the knowledge of his own enslavement, were paltry prices to pay for immortality and the power that sustained it.

Although, he admitted to himself, very quietly, in the most deeply hidden recesses of his mind, there were times .

Where? he demanded harshly.

Still south, the creature which had roused him said obsequiously. Far south, but coming!

It rubbed its misshapen paws together, bobbing its head and fawning before him, silhouetted against the sunlight outside the cave. Jerghar regarded it with contempt, yet there was more than a trace of fear under the contempt. Not of the creature, but of the similarity, the parallel, between them which all his denial could not erase.

The shardohns long, slick tongue flicked out like a wet, black serpent to lick its piglike tusks, and it crouched still lower as it felt his eyes upon it.

Please, Master, it whined, and he reached down and cuffed it viciously as his edge of fear spawned anger. That blow would have shattered human bone, but the shardohn only squealedin fear, more than in painand fell onto its side, raising its wings to cover its head. Jerghar drew back his hand to strike it again, then let his arm fall to his side.

Get up, he snarled, and the shardohn scrambled to its feet and stood hunched into a crouch before him, staring down and refusing to meet his eyes.

Where south are they? he growled, and the creature seemed to fold in on itself. It whimpered, and Jerghar forced himself not to cuff it yet again. It was hard, but he reminded himself of its limitations. Night and darkness were the province of Krahana and her creatures. Jerghar himself could tolerate the light, although direct sunlight was painful and remained mildly disorienting, despite the charm Varnaythus had provided to protect him against that weakness and prevent others from noticing his oddly elongated teeth. But the shardohns were far more strongly affected than he, and even when they were shielded from the sun itself, daylight made them clumsy and slow and stupid.

Tell me the place at which they are located now, he said, speaking very slowly and distinctly, and the shardohn visibly perked up, as if the question had finally been rendered down into words it could understand.

Perhaps one league south of where we feasted on horses, Master, it said eagerly, reaching out one taloned paw as if to touch his knee. It thought better of the familiarity and jerked its hand back, and Jerghar grunted in grudging approval.

Very well, he said after a moment. Rejoin your pack. Ill summon you when I require you.

Yes, Masteryes! the shardohn babbled, bobbing and bowing, and then scurried off, scuttling deeper into the shadows of the cave. Jerghar watched it go, then settled down on an outthrust of rock to think.

If the shardohns report was accuratewhich it probably wasthen he still had at least three or four hours before Bahzell could arrive. Long enough for the sun to set.

His lip curled at that thought, yet even so, he wished he had better tools with which to work. In their own element, under the cover of darkness, shardohns were far less stupid than the one which had just reported to him might suggest. They were also fearsome opponents for any mortal creature, armed with envenomed claws and tusks, and able to shift into the forms of wolves. They could not be killed by most mortal means, and it was extraordinarily difficult even to destroy their physical bodies. Worst of all, from the perspective of living foes, they partook of the essence of their mistress, Krahana. They were virtual extensions of Herseparate and infinitely weaker, true, yet a portion of whatever they fed upon also fed Her. Those they pulled down they devoured, and they did not settle for feasting upon flesh, bone, and blood alone.

Yet for all that, they were paltry creatures, individually, compared to the greater demons Sharna controlled. Indeed, Jerghar often thought that their greatest value was as food themselves. The essence which filled them was far less sweet and satisfying than the uncorrupted life force of mortals, but it could sustain one like Jerghar. And like all of Krahanas creatures, the lesser existed to be feasted upon by the greater at need or even upon a whim.

He considered summoning the messenger back to him, pictured the moment his fangs sank into the creatures noisome flesh and the essence of its being flowed into him like the very elixir of life. But then he put the thought firmly aside. He would need all the shardohns he had, and he suspected he would wish he had more of them, before this night was done. Besides, the temptation reminded him that should he fail in this mission, there were those higher than he in Krahanas hierarchy and that his life would taste far sweeter to them than a mere shardohn would to him.

No, it was time to concentrate upon what his Lady demanded of him.

He closed his eyes again, longing to return to the comforting darkness of the void until the sun blazing outside the cave disappeared. Much as he might despise shardohns, he was forced to admit that his thoughts, too, were slower, less acute, during the hours of daylight than in darkness. Varnaythus had scarcely bothered to conceal his own contempt for Jerghar in Balthar, and the wizard-priests scorn had grated on him. But Varnaythus had never encountered Jerghar in the blackness of night, when he was at the height of his powers. There were times Jerghar hungered to welcome Varnaythus into his embrace then, show him the price of contempt. It would not happen, not so long as Varnaythus was valuable to Carnadosa, for Krahana had decreed that Her sisters chosen Servants were not to be touched. Yet if the wizard-priest should fall from favor, if Carnadosa should withdraw Her protection

He put that thought aside, too, with a mental curse for the way it proved how his mind wandered under the influence of the accursed sun even here, under fifty feet of solid earth and stone.

He knew what he had to do, and he knew what powerful weapons the Queen of the Damned had gifted him with. But despite that, and despite the fact that his enemies were coming to him on ground of his choosing and preparation, he felt what a mortal man would have called a shiver of fear as he contemplated his mission.

It would have been so much better if hed dared to attack Warm Springs, to swoop down upon the manor with the shardohns and slaughter every living thing in it. But his mistress plans had forbidden the shardohns to carry through against the manor after the initial attack on the courser herd. Warm Springs, as much as the attack on the coursers who wintered there, had been the bait in the trap which would close upon Baron Tellian. In the end, Lord Edinghas entire holding would be taken and devoured slowly, lovingly. But not until after Tellian had been drawn in so that he might be included in the feast.

Only Tellian hadnt come. Hed been sucked away to Kalatha, instead, lured away from Krahana and into the Spiders web. Jerghar wasnt supposed to know the details of what Dahlaha and her mistress intended to happen, but he knew many things he wasnt supposed to. If Varnaythus was too confident of Jerghars stupidity to realize his attempts to prevent that had failed miserably before one who commanded his ladys resources, so much the worse for him.

Yet the substitution of Bahzell Bahnakson for Baron Tellian threatened to disorder even Her plans, and it was Jerghars responsibility to make certain it did not. Hed been gravely tempted to proceed with the attack on Warm Springs which had always been part of the original plan, but the speed with which Bahzell and his companions had reached Lord Edinghas from Balthar had taken him by surprise. Bahzell had already arrived and healed the coursers of the shardohns lingering venomsomething Jerghar hadnt believed would be possible, even for a champion of Tomanakalmost a full day before Jerghar had anticipated his arrival. By the time Jerghar himself had assumed direct command of the shardohns and the additional Servants awaiting him and gotten his forces properly organized, Bahzell had done far more than simply heal the coursers. Hed also been given one full priceless day of sunlight in which to recover from that ordeal, and hed used his respite well.

Jerghar had required only the gentlest probe by one of his fellow Servants to know that the accursed hradani had erected a defensive perimeter impossible to cross. In fact, the sheer strength of the barrier Bahzell had managed to throw up was more than merely frightening. The Horse Stealer had been a champion for less than one year, yet the seamless, impenetrable power of that barrierblazing incandescently with the terrifying blue light of Tomanak for those with the eyes to see itsurpassed anything Jerghar had ever encountered. Thank the Lady he couldnt bring that fixed, focused rampart with him! It must have cost him hours of concentration to erect it in the first place, and he had to have anchored it in the very soil of the Warm Springs home manor.

But it appeared that the hradani was confident enough to come out from behind its protection at last. Which was either a very good thing or the very worst thing that could possibly have happened. And if the shardohns report was correct, Jerghar should discover which it was this very night.


* * * | Wind Rider's Oath | Chapter Forty