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Chapter Twenty-Five

It was a strange fog.

It hung like a heavy, motionless curtain over the shallow valley between two isolated hills, frozen in place, yet with an odd, internal swirling movement. Although the spring night was cool, the fog was chill as ice and thick as death, and it ignored the stiff breeze that whispered across the endless miles of grass, as if no mere wind could touch it.

There was no moon, and jewellike stars glittered and gleamed in a velvet sky clearer than crystal. Yet for all their beauty, their light seemed to sink into the fog, absorbed and deadened devoured.

The night sounds of the Wind Plainthe sighing song of wind, the counterpointing songs and hums of insects, the distant noise of a small stream chuckling to itself in the dark, the shrill squeaks of bats, and the occasional cry of some nocturnal birdflowed over the grasslands. But all stopped short at the edge of the fog. None penetrated it, or crossed the unnatural barrier it erected.

Then new sounds added themselves. Not loud ones. Hoofs thudding into the soft earth made little more noise than the creak of saddle leather, or the jingle of a bridle. A single rider came cantering out of the night, straight towards the eerie wall of fog. But the horseman slowed as he neared it. Not because he chose to, but because his mount balked. The horse slowed, tossing its head, then turned sideways. It fought the reins, ears flat, shaking its head and sunfishing while it whistled its protest.

The rider swore and wrenched his mounts head back around, trying to force it onward, but the horse planted its hooves, and when he drove in his spurs, it bucked wildly.

The rider was no Sothoii. That much was obvious when he parted company with his saddle and went flying over the horses head. Yet however clumsy he might have been on horseback, he displayed an unnatural agility as he flew through the air. He tucked and rolled somehow in midair, twisting his body about, and landed on his booted feet with an impossible lightness. He didnt even stumble, and his right hand flashed up and caught the bridle cheek strap before the startled horse could flinch away from him. There was a dreadful strength in that hand, and the horse whistled in panic, fighting vainly to wrench away from it. But the other hand came up, reaching not for the bridle, but for the horses throat. It closed, squeezing with that same hideous strength, and the horses whistle became a strangled sound of terror as it was pulled remorselessly to its knees.

A sound came from the dismounted rider thena snarling, hungry sound, as animallike as any noise the horse had made, but uglier, more predatoryand his eyes blazed with green fire. The horses struggles began to weaken, and the riders snarl took on a vicious note of triumph.

Cease.

The single word came from the fog bank behind the rider. It was not really very loud, yet it echoed and reechoed with irresistible power, and the other sounds of the night seemed to stop instantly, as if terrified into silence by that infinitely cold, infinitely cruel voice.

The rider straightened, snatching his strangling left hand away from the semiconscious horses throat, and whirled to face the fog.

Fool, the voice said, and it was filled with bottomless contempt. It is ten miles and more to the nearest habitation. If you wish to walk that far, then finish what you were doing.

The rider seemed to hover on the brink of saying something in reply, but then he thought better of it.

Wiser, far wiser, so, the voice said. Now come. I will see to it that your beast remains where it is.

The rider obeyed without so much as a backward glance at the horse which was feebly attempting to climb back to its feet behind him.

He walked into the opaque, blinding fog with the confident stride of one who could see perfectly and as if the charnel stench which infused it did not bother him at all. The stench grew steadily stronger as he moved deeper into it, and then he stepped out of the fog, crossing a dividing line between vapor and clear air as sharp as the line he had crossed to enter it.

If he had believed for an instant that the fog was natural, he would have known better as he stepped out into the wide space it surrounded with its protective barrier. The protected area was at least two hundred yards across, perfectly circular, its air still and calm, and free of any trace of the enveloping mist. The pinprick stars shone down upon it without distortion or obscuration, but for all the clarity of the air, the dreadful stench was stronger and more choking than ever.

A womanor something shaped like onestood at the exact center of the circle. She towered above the rider, at least eight feet in height, and clustered about her, like a sea of fur, fangs, and poison-green eyes, lay scores of wolves. They seemed to shift and flow strangelysometimes wolves, and sometimes crouching, misshapen forms, almost humanoid, but with snouted, piglike heads and batlike wings folded tight to their spines. Their eyes blazed the same malevolent green the riders had, regardless of their forms, and that same glare clung to the woman who stood surrounded by them. She wore it as if it were a second skin, and it hung about her like a nimbus of airy ice.

That cloak of dim brilliance illuminated her, despite the moonless night. She stood wrapped in an aura of deadly power and debased beauty. Despite the perfection of her features, despite the long, intricately braided black hair and the exquisite diadem upon her head, there was something about her fit to repulse and terrify any living creature. Something that whispered of violated crypts and the power of corruption. When she turned her head to look at the new arrival, he could see the brilliant green flare of her eyes, like slickly polished ice, and the floating black skulls which were her pupils. They studied him with a cold, dead indifference, and his own head rose. His eyes glowed with a dimmer light than hers, and his nostrils flared hungrily to the scent of deathof long dead flesh rising from an opened graveas it flowed over him from her like some corrupt perfume.

She and the wolves and not-wolves were not alone. Four other humans (or as human as the rider, at any rate) stood dotted about among the wolves, and behind her loomed a herd of shapes. They were indistinct and wavering, those shapes. Impossible for even the riders unnaturally acute vision to see clearly. But they might almost have been horseshuge horsesstanding with hanging heads and ragged manes like an army of slaves.

So, you arrive at last, Jerghar, she said, and he inclined his head to her in obeisance. His eye-glow dimmed further, banking itself in submission to her greater power.

I came as rapidly as I could, Milady, he said, his voice fawning.

So I already knew and because I did, and because you have arrived in time, however barely, despite your tardiness, you will continue to survive and serve Me.

Jerghar bowed more deeply still, saying nothing, but he knew she sensed what would have been the quicker, harder throbbing of a living mans pulse.

I exist only to obey, Milady, he said.

Yes, you do, she agreed. Only to obey and to feed or to be fed upon. Now come, join your brothers and sister.

Once again, Jerghar obeyed, walking through the ranks of her shardohns like a man wading through a waist-deepswamp. They parted to make way, without a sound, gazing at him with those lambent eyes filled with hate, fear, and hunger, and he passed among them to join the other once-human servants standing about his mistress.

The trap has sprung, she said, speaking to all of them, yet it has closed not upon Tellian, but upon the accursed hradani Bahzell and his companion.

Something went through her listeners. In another time and another place, it might have been called a stir of uneasiness. But only a fool would dare to display uneasiness in the presence of that mistress.

It was not what We wished for, but it will serve Our purposes well, she told them. Brandarks death is worth more even than Tellians, and Bahzells is worth more than the destruction of the entire Sothoii Kingdom.

Jerghar stiffened. Hed known his mistress and her allies were determined to destroy Bahzell, Brandark, and Tellian, but he still didnt know why. Nor could he understand how the death of a single hradani, even one who was the son of Prince Bahnak of Hurgrum and a champion of Tomanak, could be that vital to the triumph of the Dark.

I know that the prospect of facing a champion of My never sufficiently damned uncle is a frightening one, she continued, and this time Jerghar was astonished, for it was not her way to concern herself with anything so insignificant as her servants hopes or fears. So it should be, for of all Our enemies, he is the most powerful, after Orr himself, and by far the most relentless. But his arrogance will be the downfall of his champions, just as it will one day be his own. He sends them out by ones and twos, bragging to himself about their strength, and their courage. And he restricts himself, as his precious Compact requires, limiting his own power only to that which he may channel through them. It may well make each of them more powerful, more dangerous, but they are only a handful, and you are manyjust as he is one, and We are many. And where his strength is limited only to them, and by the amount of his power each can touch and survive, My strength fills you all, just as your service and the souls upon which you feed strengthen My grip upon this mortal world. He will come to you, this Bahzell, and he will bring with him his friend, and his kinsmen, and youall of you her blazing green eyes swept over the wolves, as well as her once-human servants will fall upon them. You will feed, as you have never fed before, upon the blood and the soul of one of his champions, and it will be sweet, and rich beyond your dreams.

The seductive power of that cold, hungry voice reached out to them all, entwining them in her power, binding them to her will, and behind her, a wave of hopeless desolation and horror swelled up from the torn and tattered shades which had been coursers.

You will serve Me, and in the serving you will find such power as even you have never before dreamed might be yours, Krahana Phrofressa, Lady of the Damned, promised her Servants, and she smiled.


* * * | Wind Rider's Oath | * * *