Authors: C.S. Friedman
Copyright © 2011 by C. S. Friedman
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover by Linda Gilbert and Casey Gordon
This story is dedicated to
Linda Gilbert, Tom Deitz, Vicki Sharp, Bob Green, Mike Stevens, and Sara Strickland
They know why.
EEP WITHIN THE BOWELS
of his makeshift bedchamber, Gerald Tarrant could feel the sun setting.
For a moment he lay still in darkness, savoring the moment. The dark fae lapped at his body softly, like waves on a moonless beach. The power was weak in this place—little more than random echoes of spiritual malevolence that had been drawn to him while he slept—but it was refreshing nonetheless.
Outside his temporary haven he could sense the hunger of creatures that crouched in the shadows, waiting for night to fall. Soon the sun would set and the balance of power in the world would shift once more. Soon all those night-born monsters that were held at bay by its lethal brilliance would venture forth once again, ready to feed upon blood or terror or despair, or whatever else suited their natures.
I must go to the Forest
, he thought suddenly.
The words rose unbidden from the depths of his soul, displacing all other thoughts. That didn’t surprise him. For some days now he had been experiencing strange impulses, almost as if some outside power was placing thoughts in his head.
Cross the Serpent Straits,
a sourceless voice would whisper.
A lesser man might perhaps have believed that such thoughts were his own, and responded without question. But he, who was more than a man, knew better.
The Forest was calling to him.
Opening his eyes, he sat up on his makeshift bed. Though the storage room surrounding him was dark to human eyes, it was anything but lightless to him. Earth-fae stirred in the corners of the chamber, its icy blue glow visible to his adept’s sight. It took little effort for him to call up a wisp of the power and bind it to his purpose, using it to cleanse his person of the dust that had gathered on him during his sleeping hours, neutralizing the faint scent of mildew that clung to him. The fact that he had taken shelter in a dirt-floored cellar didn’t mean he had to smell like the place.
The familiar act of Working helped him focus his mind, and for a moment the voice of the Forest was silent. But the respite would not last long, he knew. Less than a dozen miles from where he had slept the leading edge of a vast metaphysical whirlpool swept across the land, and the currents of power that roiled in its wake would not be held at bay by a simple sorcerer’s trick. A living man might ignore their influence for as long as he kept his own darker urges in check, but a creature who fed upon darkness itself had no such defense. Currents of black power tugged at Gerald Tarrant’s flesh like an inexorable riptide, trying to force him to move towards the center of the whirlpool. A lesser man would have given in long ago, without ever understanding what was driving him toward that hungry darkness. Only a man who knew the darkness by name understood it well enough to resist.
Come to me
, the Forest whispered inside his brain.
Upstairs he could hear his hosts pacing back and forth, anxiously awaiting his emergence. While it was unlikely that they remembered the exact details of his arrival the night before, or the sorcerous commands that had made them cover over their windows and doors for his protection, they could sense his awakening with the same kind of animal instinct that allowed a mouse to sense the approach of a hungry cat. If he had not Bound them before he retired, knotting his power about each soul like a choke-leash, they would have fled the place long ago.
He climbed the cellar stairs and pushed open the door that led into the interior of the small house. The couple that owned the place cowered in the corner, a young boy by their side; several feet away stood their daughter, a girl just on the edge of womanhood. They had managed to light a single lamp to fend off the shadows of evening, but it was not enough to banish the wisps of dark fae that swirled about Tarrant’s feet, or the fear-wraiths that manifested briefly in his wake. But though the dark fae was volatile in this place, it had little staying power; no sooner did the wraiths come into existence then they headed off to the east, drawn toward the whirlpool of malevolence in the distance.
It is power,
an inner voice whispered to him.
Raw power, without equal. Go east and claim it.
Slowly, deliberately—defying the Forest’s call—he entered the small kitchen. For a moment he felt a pang of regret, remembering the grand estate he had once called home, the magnificent neo-gothic castle he had designed himself. If there was one facet of his current existence that he despised, it was his itinerancy. He had become a wanderer without a home, mesmerizing host after host as necessity demanded, forcing each one to protect him for a day—or a handful of days—until it was time to move on. What other mode of existence was possible? If he stayed too long in any one place he was sure to draw notice. And he was too vulnerable during the daylight hours to risk that. The Church was sending out teams of hunters these days, to track down and destroy all faeborn monsters. They would not care that he had once been human, or that he had authored half their sacred texts back in his living days. He was a creature of darkness now, and thus beyond the pale of their mercy.
As it should be
, he thought. Perversely pleased by the thought that the Church he had created would attempt to kill him. At least they understood his teachings.
Quietly he whispered the key to a Compelling. The young girl began to move about the room in response to his will, gathering the items that he would need for his evening meal. A long knife from the nearby sideboard. A wooden tankard from one of the shelves. Her parents watched in horror as she approached Tarrant and placed the tankard on the table before him, but they were frozen by the sorcerer’s power and could voice no more than a whimper of protest. As the girl bared her forearm, Tarrant could see her struggling to reclaim control of her flesh. But his Compelling was too strong for that. For a few seconds he indulged her resistance, much as a fisherman might allow his catch to struggle on the hook before pulling it out of the water at last. But at last her fragile will gave way. She slashed downward toward her left arm with the knife—fiercely, awkwardly—cutting deeply into her own flesh. Red blood gushed out of the wound and splashed down into the tankard. A small moan escaped the mother’s lips, and Tarrant could see the father tremble as he fought to break free of his Binding, but from the girl herself there was no sound… only a delicious admixture of resignation and terror, as refreshing to him as the blood itself.
Such theatrics were not necessary, of course. He could have simply torn open her throat to get at her blood directly, with transformed teeth or claws, and drunk the hot, heady stuff straight from her veins. He had done that kind of thing in the early years of his damnation, when his control over his transformed flesh had still been weak. But such violent feeding was crude and messy, and it strengthened the dark side of his soul. He was experienced enough now to understand that if he wished to preserve his human identity and not devolve into some brainless, ravenous monster, he must hold his inner beast in check.
Do it the old way
, temptation whispered.
You know you want to.
Ignoring the urge, Tarrant shut his eyes, lifted the tankard to his lips, and drank deeply of the precious fluid. He could taste the girl’s youth in her blood, along with her innocence, her femininity… and of course her fear. A priceless cocktail of vital energies coursed through his veins like fire. If only he could absorb them directly, without need for such a crude vehicle to aid in the digestion! That would be sweet sustenance indeed, if he could ever manage it.
The girl’s emotional emanations were growing weak now as the last of her life poured out of her, but that was to be expected. The first drink was always the sweetest. As for her parents… Tarrant whispered the key to another Working, and saw their expressions go blank as his power began to reweave their memories. By the time he was out of sight they would no longer remember that he had ever been in their house. Someone else had rearranged the cellar during the night. Someone else had covered over all their windows during the day. Their daughter had taken her own life, without telling them why, and they had not found her body until it was too late.
Eventually the Church’s hunters might figure out that something evil had visited this place, but they would have no way to determine its nature. Or to know how it must be hunted.
This monster left no trail
Outside the house the night sky was dark, nearly bereft of stars. A single crescent moon hung low on the eastern horizon, and beneath it, shivering with sparks of earth-fae, was the place that mortal men called the Forbidden Forest. The greatest focal point of natural power on this continent… perhaps in all the world.
A man must be willing to risk his life to explore such a place, Tarrant thought. And a creature of the night, uniquely vulnerable to the dark forces of the world, might have to risk more than his life. Was it worth it?
He knew that the Forest was affecting his mind. Every thought in his head was suspect now. Every instinct in his soul would urge him to go eastward, even if certain destruction lay along that path.
Which is why he had made his decision before coming within range of its influence.
Drawing upon the earth-fae that swirled arount his feet—how powerful it was here!—he worked a Summoning to call the nearest available mount to him. When an unhorse came galloping down the road a few minutes later, he used sorcery to remove its rider from its back as casually as one would swat a fly. Normally animals could sense his predatory nature and were loathe to let him approach them. But a minor Soothing ameliorated the situation, allowing him to mount the animal and ride.
Layering such Workings upon the animal that its spirit would be steady to the gates of Hell themselves if need be, he kneed it into motion and let the siren song of the Forbidden Forest guide him eastward.
* * *
When Faith awakened, she didn’t know at first where she was, or how she had gotten there. She didn’t know very much at all, in fact, save that at some point she had set off with a dozen of her fellow knights to hunt down a particularly troublesome faeborn demon that had been plaguing communities along the border of the Forest, and… and…
Now she was here.
Her head throbbed painfully as she sat up; reaching up, she discovered that dried blood was crusted in her hair. Not a good sign. She started to run her hands all over herself, feeling her flesh for wounds, her armor for damage. There were no open wounds that she could find, but every muscle was sore, and judging from the stabbing pain she felt every time she took a breath, one or more ribs might be broken. Her armor had taken quite a beating, several of the steel scales ripped loose from their moorings and the leather beneath badly scorched. A faint smell of sulfur clung to it, making her wonder just what sort of fire she had faced.
What had happened to her?
Overhead was a canopy of trees so dense that only a trickle of sunlight could seep through it, leaving the ground beneath in shadow. She cursed the poor visibility as she struggled to get to her feet. Her sword banged against her left leg, reassuring in its weight, but she had the uncomfortable feeling that other things weren’t where they should be. A quick inventory of her weapons confirmed that fear. Everything else that she might have used to hunt the faeborn—or defend her own life—was gone. Even the smaller weapons that she’d worn close to her body, where a mere fall couldn’t possibly have dislodged them, were missing now. But she still had her sword, though the blood of the demon had dried while it was in the scabbard, making it stick to its leather encasement. Whoever had taken all the other things had left her that.
Memories were starting to seep back into her brain now, slowly, like the gray-green sunlight that was oozing through the branches overhead. She remembered the faces of her fellow hunters, grim with determination. She could hear the prayers of the One God’s faithful as if they were offered in preparation for battle, girding the holy warriors with sacred energy. She remembered the sound of well-oiled steel being drawn from its sheath—
Niklaus lies on the ground, badly wounded. They can’t stop to tend to him now. Their quarry has finally begun to weaken, which means they must redouble their efforts, pressing home their advantage before the demonic creature they are fighting can draw enough power from the fae to heal its wounds and recover its full strength. Unlike most faeborn creatures this one seems to be intimately bound to its flesh, which means that simple blows can dispatch it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have a thousand nasty tricks up its sleeve. The less time they give it to try one of them, the better.
Righteousness sings in Faith’s blood, and sparks of sacred fury dance along the edge of her sword as she takes up position directly in front of the unholy thing, blocking its access to her fallen comrade—
“Faith! Look behind you!”
She whirls about in response to the warning. Too late, too late! While she and her fellow knights were concentrating on the demon a human mob had snuck up behind them. Rank upon rank of maddened men with primitive weapons now fall upon the hunters like a pack of ravenous beasts. The same knight who had called out a warning to Faith cries out once more as he is crushed beneath their feet. She cannot reach him in time to save him. She cannot reach any of her companions in time. The knights are spread out in a circle around their demonic quarry, which means that they are scattered, divided. One by one they will be engulfed by this tide of angry flesh and steel, forced to choose between turning their backs on their faeborn enemy or this rabid mob of demon-worshippers.