“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 more than 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 Sharna 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 Sharna ’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.
It 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 Tomanak’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.