the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 13

The armies of humankind entered Gae at first light.

Though the icy mists thinned away before them, revealing broken walls and flooded pavements, the ruined town still lay in the grip of that brooding desolation; there was not a man or woman of the ranks who would dare to speak above a whisper. The echoes of voices rang too hollowly in those dripping streets. Those who had known Gae in its prime or those who had spoken loudest of reoccupying the town, once the Dark had been driven forth, spoke not at all.

Among them Rudy trudged, sick with apprehension and terror, close enough to

Eldor's nervous white mare to see the thin, unpleasant smile that curved the King's harsh lips as he looked around him at what had been the most beautiful city in the West of the World.

Rudy found himself thinking how easy it would be simply to throw a cloaking-spell over himself, find a comfortable seat on one of the ruined benches in the stinking swamp of the Palace courtyard, and sit this one out. But he saw Ingold break ranks and go to speak to a thin, gawky Guard; and though the dissolving mists still hung about the great courtyard of the Palace, he saw her shrug and shake her head.

Coward and quitter , she had called him once.

It didn't do any good to tell himself that he knew for a fact their cause was lost. He suspected that Gil knew it, too.

Ingold certainly did.

How the hell come I always end up associating with maniacs ? he demanded despairingly, watching as the forces separated in the vast, half-frozen morass of the court. The sappers moved up to lead position with their cleated ladders; directly behind them, Eldor took his place on foot among a squad of Guards. The other prong of the strike force drew aside, a glittering serpent of Alketch forces, with Vair like a deadly, jeweled idol at their head. Rudy recognized Maia and his Penambrans among those ranks, along with Kara, Kta, a dozen or more of the other wizards, and half the firesquad.

Ingold joined the ranks at the head of the line near Eldor. For a moment his eyes met the King's; then Eldor's lips twisted in a sneer, and he turned away and gave the signal to descend.

The creeping horror of that descent was like the prelude to an evil dream. Through the vine-choked upper vaults, through the forest of pillars whose straight, inky shadows reeled and turned to the movement of the white magelight, Rudy could feel the watchfulness of the Dark Ones growing upon him. Like the warning prickle of hot breath on the nape of his neck, like a soft footfall in a room that should be empty, he could sense the touch of counterspells on the magic of the light he had summoned. In the narrow confines of the ancient stairway itself, it was a thousand times worse. He was aware of the Dark as he had never been aware of them before-the probing of that monstrous intelligence at the edges of his magic, the greedy nibbling at its weak points.

The stairway seemed to descend forever. The witchlight around him etched the faces of the Guards in harsh chiaroscuro and glittered on the weapons of the firesquad. Far below him, Rudy could see that Ingold's drawn sword had begun to burn with a chill, white light of its own.

Though there was no sign of the Dark, he could feel the pressure of their minds, their power, and the haunting evil of their presence. He scanned the gnawed rock of the walls, smooth as glass below eye level, where millions of jostling bodies had polished it over uncounted years, rough and sparkling with stray glints of quartz above. It was unbroken by crack or fissure. They would not be attacked from above.

Would the Dark lie in wait for them, he wondered, in the huge cavern below the drop-off of the stair? Or would the Dark give way before them, luring them on, to circle around behind them in the uncharted mazes of the passages?

The grip of his flame thrower felt clammy in his hand, and he found himself wishing he'd spent the backbreaking hours that Gil had spent in learning to use a sword. Unless he planned to cut off the army's retreat by prematurely starting tires in the moss, he couldn't even use the damn thing until they were deep in the Nest. He cursed his stupidity. And still they descended.

Wind licked his cheek, startling him almost to death. A murmur went through the crowding ranks that hemmed him in. Sweat ran from the faces that looked suddenly gray in the hard, pitiless glare, and he heard the faint whispering rattle of weapons gripped in tightening hands. But of the Dark themselves there was no sign.

The tunnel walls widened before them. The stair abruptly ended. From the cavern below, a faint breeze soughed, thick with the harsh stink of the Nest. As the white light streamed forth, revealing the world that had been hidden since the founding of the Nests, Rudy heard the whisper of awe that wound back and back through the ranks on the stair behind. Pillars and chasms and hanging teeth of stone glistened wetly with acid and nacre; dark pools in the carpets of brown, rolling moss caught the light in hard onyx surfaces. The putrid air seemed to press into Rudy's skull, weighted with the malice of unseen watchers. But in all that shadowy vastness, nothing moved.

The sappers flung down their ladders, and the hollow booming rang like a cannon shot, the echoes dying slowly amid the mazes of stone. The vanguard hesitated, looking about into that horrible, alien realm. On the brink of the ladder, Ingold paused, the vagrant winds stirring at the heavy folds of his mantle, his sword glinting like lightning in his hand. Then Eldor strode forward, and his footfalls sounded, each as distinct as the tap of an iron bell, upon the separate rungs. The cynical amusement in his eyes as he gazed about him filled Rudy with chill terror.

Yet Rudy followed, as they all followed, stumbling in the crumbly mosses of the cavern floor. Against the darkness that seemed to crowd so thickly around them, Ingold's sword gleamed as he pointed the way toward the tunnels he and Rudy had taken in their earlier exploration of the Nest. The smell there was intolerable, fetid and sweet. Powder from the decaying mosses clogged Rudy's nostrils. In the open cavern, the magelight did not penetrate the darkness of the ceiling, but it threw horrible leaping shadows of the warriors among the knobbled pillars and across the inky pits of the floor.

In the descending tunnel, Rudy felt the awareness of the Dark, stronger and stronger, like a thin sound sawing its way through his skull. In the cavern beyond, it was worse. Blind, squeaking things fled before the light, their chittering echoing down the tunnels. In spite of the coolness of the air, Rudy's face was wet with sweat; he could see more sweat gleaming on the faces of the Guards packed so closely around him. As he stumbled over the soft wetness of the floor, he could feel and taste the malice of the Dark, pressing on him like the millions of tons of earth and rock above his head.

Ingold stopped in the black mouth of the next tunnel, swinging around as if startled by some noise or movement. At first Rudy thought that the old man's foxfire sword had begun to burn brighter. Then he realized that the soft, white magelight around them was dimming.

Alwir looked up into the shadows of the cavern ceiling. "Can we use the flame throwers?"

"Not unless we wish to risk cutting ourselves off from the lower Nests," the wizard whispered. In the fading glare, Rudy noted how pale he looked and how the sweat glittered on his face. "We have some three miles of tunnel to cover from here."

All about him, Rudy could hear the fearful murmuring of the Guards. Swords flashed in the graying light as the column moved into defense formation. He put out his strength into the light-spell but felt it sapped, drawn by what he knew to be magic, yet was incapable of comprehending enough to fight. As the light waned, he could see that some of the mosses were palely phosphorescent- more of Gil's nitrogen compounds , he thought-and moreover, there was a kind of a smell in the air, bitter and metallic, that he had never smelled before, overpowering in the enclosed spaces of the caves.

Eldor barked a hoarse command. The column moved on again, down a half mile or so of tunnel where the air seemed clearer, though the light continued to weaken. By the glow of Ingold's sword, the King's face looked harsh and terrible, a thin little smile playing about his lips.

He knows what's coming , Rudy thought, shivering with the effort of maintaining even a feeble glow. He knows …

Then blackness slammed down over them all like the fall of night. Screaming burst along the tunnel, the echoes drumming into Rudy's ears. All his strength was put into the light, yet darkness covered him; he heard the sudden, roaring buzz that the Dark Ones made when they flew underground and he felt the hissing slash of a sword that just missed his ear. He flung himself against the rock wall, the acid in the moss stinging his bare hands, and spread a cloaking-spell over himself.

Winds howled by him; something hot and wet splattered his face. Then up ahead, white light burst into being again around Ingold and the Guards; the colors of tunic and mail, of human skin and stripped, bloody bones, were shocking in the refulgent glare. But he himself was still in darkness. Dimly, he could see struggling forms, swords, faces, and the sinewy, drifting glide of dark shapes. He tried to call light and found he hadn't the strength for both spells.

He bent and pulled the gory sword from the handbones of a corpse at his feet. Then, in a single instant of time, he slashed at the Dark One nearest him, dropped the cloaking-spell, and threw everything he had into a burst of searing, white light that exploded with radiance into the blackness.

All around him there was shrieking, buzzing, clawing wind. The light that encircled Rudy grew and flickered, the Dark Ones vanishing before it, leaving the tunnel a shambles of bodies and bones half-sunk in trampled, unspeakable filth. Then darkness surged down on them again, and he struck at the things that came for him in it, the thin, black slime from their slashed bodies splattering his hands. The effort of fighting the counterspells against the magelight exhausted him; it was all he could do to defend himself. If he had not had his back to the wall and been ringed by the Guards, he knew he could never have stood a chance.

Eldor's harsh voice cut the chaos of noise like acid; the column moved forward, struggling against that inky tide. From the darkness, a spined cable as big around as his wrist caught Rudy's sword arm and dragged him upward toward the darkness that hid the roof of the tunnel with a force that all but dislocated his arm. He felt his feet leave the floor and glimpsed a slobbering black maw in the midst of swirling illusion…

He must have screamed, for his throat hurt from it as the Icefalcon pulled him to his feet from the trampled muck of the tunnel floor where he'd fallen. The whiplike tail was already disintegrating away from his arm, its cut end still pulsing faintly where the Raider's sword had sheared it. He felt weak with shock, sickened at the hideous strength of the thing that had seized him.

The Icefalcon dragged him along with the moving column until he could find his feet. As the Raider let go, he said, "Don't let that happen again. You're the only light source this part of the column has."

Even as the Icefalcon spoke, Rudy could feel the counter-spells slacking and the light growing stronger. As the Dark swirled away in clouds of illusion, he could see that an immense cave stretched before them, the slimy mosses of its walls and floor glittering faintly in the reflected witchlight and in the wan phosphorescence that seemed, in places, to emanate from the mosses themselves. The light grew as Eldor, Ingold, and the advance guard sprang down the slippery slope to the cavern floor, leading the straggling column that was like a long and tortuous snake. The darkness above them seemed to be alive with the chittering buzz of the Dark, dripping with their stench, yet Rudy felt their spells growing more and more distant. He hastened his steps, trying to catch up with the wizard and the King.

He had almost done so when a faint, hollow booming noise echoed through the cave, like a distant explosion, muffled by the twisting of the tunnels. The ground jarred beneath his feet, and all around him rose an outcry of doubt and terror. Men stopped, looking about into the inky vastness, as if to see the source of the sound, though Rudy could tell it was some distance off; others cried out that they must turn back and were cursed by those who said that the only hope lay forward. Ahead of them, Rudy could see the faint glimmer that was Ingold's sword as the old man scrambled up a rockfall to the mouth of the next tunnel. He heard Eldor's commands rapped out to those around him. And there was something wrong…

That smell , Rudy thought. Stronger now. much stronger … He looked around him, seeking a source, but he saw nothing-only the emptiness of the high-ceilinged cavern, the magelight stretching to its farthest ends. Where the hell are the Dark ?

The ground shook again, farther off, and Rudy decided that whatever the hell the smell was, he didn't like it. There was movement in the air, not the directionless swirling of the Dark Ones, but a kind of steady draft, although, now that he looked, he could see no other entrances into the cavern except the one that was still disgorging troops and the black hole where the Guards stood grouped around their commanders. On the cavern floor, confusion was spreading- Rudy could see already how badly the column was straying. Most of 'em must still be back in the tunnel , he thought as he ran for the knot of Guards. Hell of a place to get off .

He stumbled on the slope up to the farther tunnel. He was gasping, his head feeling strangely light. The air was clearer here, blown by the faint drafts from below…

Gas , he thought. Of course – the Dark Ones can use gas in an enclosed cavern . Looking back, he could see the isolated, straggling knots of warriors, the dull gleam of swords, and the flash of glass barrels and gold among the dozen or so firesquad members still down there. Those who scrambled up beside him toward the tunnel mouth seemed to sense it, too; he saw the Icefalcon stagger and half-fall through the dark hole beyond. He remembered Gil's words about nitrogen compounds. Was nerve gas some kind of nitric… nitrous …

Or was the gas for something else?

He stumbled through the tunnel entrance, his hands slipping in the black, squishy moss as he fell. He heard Ingold's voice, farther back in the darkness. Then, out in the cavern, he heard someone scream.

Past the entrance he saw it-a wall of darkness falling on the column. He blinked, watching the faint lights left in the cavern die before it… wondered what was wrong…

There were no Dark Ones in the cavern!

Rudy knew it, felt it. The massive storm of blackness that rushed like the sea over the straggling line of defenders was purely illusion. Yet those Guards still standing around Eldor at the top of the slope cried out in terror or warning; two or three of them crowded back into the safety of the tunnel mouth. Deep in the ground, another reverberating earthquake shook the Nest, and Rudy lost his footing. He fell face down in a pocket of squishy moss, just as he glimpsed the red-gold glint of the flame throwers from the darkness of the cavern.

The air in the cavern exploded.

An impact-wave of heat slammed Rudy into the softness of the moss, the force of it rolling over him like a thunderclap of death. For a moment, wrapped in wet blackness, he wondered if he had been deafened as well. Then, in the tunnel around him, cries and curses began; far off, across the distance of that suddenly silent cavern, he heard distant wailing and the clash of fighting. But from the vast snake of charred and twisted bodies that littered the seared moss of the cavern floor there came no sound at all-only the sudden, hurricane rush of the winds of the Dark.

Rudy stared out into the utter blackness, fascinated, watching as the Dark poured down through the fissures in the cavern's roof in a kind of slow motion. They were truly the Dark Ones, not merely the illusion that had drawn someone's panic fire in the gas trap. A welling wave of them built into a falling wall that he watched with a kind of drained detachment, too numbed with horror at the carnage below to feel terror or surprise.

Someone shoved him aside and threw himself from the shelter of the tunnel to where Eldor's body lay crumpled in the protection of the broken rocks. Rudy saw that it was Ingold, blue rags of witchlight fluttering around his head as he bent down, oblivious to the storm of darkness descending upon him like a giant black wing. Rudy saw the wizard's scarred hands press the sticky ruin of the King's face and the bony breast that heaved suddenly with the gasp of returning life.

Gil and the Icefalcon reached Ingold instants before the Dark Ones did. The old man never looked up at them; his whole strength was bent to holding and tying the life of his friend to the burned body. Other Guards crowded out of the tunnel's refuge; belatedly, Rudy gathered a handful of his strength and made a feeble attempt to call light.

The earth shook again, nearer this time. Melantrys caught her balance and raised her flame thrower to fire into the darkness. Rudy screamed, " Don't use it.'" in a voice that hardly sounded like his own. With his calling of the light, he had laid himself open to the counterspells of the Dark; he could feel them drawing on him like leeches.

Dimly, he could hear Alwir yelling, "Come back, you fools!" He knew that panic had set in among those who had made it to the tunnel before the explosion. They were breaking and fleeing foolishly into the darkness. Other voices cried that the tunnel was blocked and that the Dark had exploded the ceiling on them.

Alwir grabbed Rudy by the arm. "Is there a way around?" He looked ghastly with strain and shock; the jewels that he wore even in battle glinted like blood through the slime that covered his armor. "We can use the flame throwers to fight our way to the bottom…"

"No!" Rudy yelled desperately over the rising din of the battle in the tunnel mouth. "If we use the flame throwers, we'll have another explosion! The Dark Ones are using explosive gas!"

"Gas?" the Chancellor shouted furiously. "What is this gas ? Talk sense, boy!"

For the first time in his life, Rudy wished he had some understanding of Aristotelian physics. Gil seldom had problems coming up with flat-earth answers. "Uh-it's a vapor. Fiery vapor." He had to shout the words over the clashing of swords, the screams, the curses, and the harsh, echoing buzzing of the Dark. "It explodes in the air-it's invisible!"

Seeing the mulish set to Alwir's jaw, he cried, "For God's sake, you don't think just the flame throwers exploding could have wiped out everyone in the cavern!"

Another earthquake shook the ground, jarring them almost off their feet; the noise of it seemed to vibrate in the bones of Rudy's skull. A choking cloud of dust rolled from some passage nearby, and he heard the dull clatter of falling pebbles…

He felt the hold of the counterspells slacken, and light blossomed more strongly in the tunnel and around the defenders at its mouth. The cries and curses turned to cheers, and over all he heard the bass roar of Tomec Tirkenson's voice. White light surrounded then). Men dragged Eldor's gasping body back into the shelter of the tunnel. Ingold was still gripping the twisted remains of one of the King's hands. Behind them, others poured up the slope, and the landchief of Gettlesand clutched Alwir's hand in sticky greeting, heedless of their earlier enmity.

"We've got to get the hell out of here," he rasped. "They're blowing down the roofs of tunnels behind us. We've been cut off in two places already. If we stay, we'll be trapped like pigs in a slaughtering pen."

"Ingold?" Alwir said.

The wizard lifted fatigue-blackened eyes.

"Could you get us to the center of the Nest from here?"

The old man wiped at the blood that trickled into his beard, his sleeve leaving a smear of charred slime on his cheek. "I could," he said quietly. "But not out again. The tunnels get fewer as they descend. I can take us out of here-I think- from where we are now. Deeper in, it would take very little to trap the entire army."

Alwir appeared to be considering.

Rudy added. "And it wouldn't do any good, anyway, I tell you! The Dark Ones can make the air explode!"

"Don't be stupid," Alwir snapped irritably.

"He ain't being stupid," Tirkenson put in unexpectedly. "That's just what it looked like happened. The flame throwers went off, and it looked as if all the air in the cavern caught fire. I lost my eyebrows; if I'd been two steps closer, I'd have lost my life."

The Chancellor's mouth hardened. Before he could speak, however, another explosion shook the ground, a hollow roaring followed by the rending crack of stone and a ground wave that jerked Rudy's feet from under him and threw him, staggering, into the Gettlesand troops in the cavern below. Wet dust and fumes rolled from the tunnel's darkness, and from the warriors in the cavern came another cry as the Dark Ones streamed down upon them again.

The retreat from the Nest was a nightmare. Dazzled by the blinding alternation of light and darkness, his smarting sword arm aching and weak where it had been wrenched, Rudy clung to the little knot of Guards that surrounded the fallen King's makeshift litter as it crawled through that chattering storm of malice, acid, and death. He recalled what Ingold had said once back at the Keep-that he had no hope of defeating the Dark, but would go and hazard his own life once again within the Nest in order that as many survivors as possible might be saved. It was only now that Rudy understood fully what this meant.

It was Ingold who held the blazing barriers of light against the pressing darkness, Ingold who, when the light was swamped, stood foremost in the line of defenders, his sword a chill splinter of brightness in the smothering murk. He left them twice, taking squads of men back into the deeper tunnels to reunite pockets of warriors who had been cut off from the main column, and it seemed to Rudy that their forward progress slowed to a crawl until he returned.

In the tunnels, the going was worse, and the ground was choked with the bodies of the slain. The battle had spread, as rockslides and explosions had cut the column; out of winding, crossing shafts in the blackness, Rudy could hear the din of voices and see the white magelight flaring, reflected in the unspeakable muck of the floors and against the dripping walls. In some places the way was blocked by fires, as pockets of the brown moss burned with a searing, yellow glare; in other places Rudy could see the evidence of the gas traps-shattered, twisted corpses and weapons melted in the heat. Once Ingold vanished, to come back up the tunnel at the head of a column of black-skinned warriors from the deepest jungles of Alketch, their eyes glaring whitely through the charred blood that covered their faces.

And always there were the Dark, tearing at the edges of the column when it passed through open spaces or streaming down from the fissures in the roof to swamp the light of the wizards in the close-pressed confines of the tunnels. Rudy wondered dully why he didn't simply hide himself in a cloaking-spell. The mere effort to maintain even a grayish light exhausted him and slowed his reflexes, so that he could barely lift the sword. Yet somehow he never gave in to the temptation.

He saw Gil go down when the Dark Ones blew the roof of the tunnel almost over their heads and saw the other Guards pick her up, with blood streaming from her snarled black hair. In another seared-out gas trap, he recognized the body of the Raider shaman Shadow of the Moon, but only by the bones tangled in the crisped remains of her braids. He wondered how many other mages had perished.

Exhaustion blinded him and confused him; how Ingold kept his sense of direction in the black mazes of the tunnels, Rudy could not imagine. Rockslides and cave-ins turned them aside. They scrambled over broken boulders still hot from the shattering violence of the explosion, through the streaming mud and filthy water of half-flooded tunnels, and through screaming hells of the dead and dying. The counter-spells of the Dark Ones tugged at Rudy's mind and seemed almost to weight his limbs, dragging him farther and farther back.

Then somehow they were on the stairs. The King and the wounded were carried up; the wretched remnant of the army streamed past Rudy, staggering and gray-faced with shock. The Dark Ones harried them in the steep and twisting seam, and men and women who had fought their way to the limit of the human penetration of the Nest and back again died on the road to the earth's surface, their crumpled bodies or half-melted bones tripping the feet of their erstwhile comrades. Rudy hung back, staying close to Ingold, for he sensed that the wizard was near the end of his strength. As they battled to get out, step by step up that endless flight, he could see how wan the magelight that surrounded the old man had grown, how again and again the Dark killed the light altogether, and how the intervals of fighting in blackness grew longer before the light flickered into existence once more.

Rudy found himself among the rear guard, a mixed rabble of rangers, Church troops, and a handful of the Alketch halberdier corps, fighting in darkness on stairs clogged with the fallen. The Dark Ones were everywhere. Light had failed utterly, and his wizard's sight showed him slashed, dirty faces, eyes staring with fatigue, and the blades of swords striking almost at random in the moving storm of darkness and air. Above him, he could see only the straggling line of the column, fighting as it retreated up the choked steps; below was only the blackness of the shaft, the single flashing sliver of white light that was Ingold's sword, and a glimmer on the squamous backs of the things that surrounded him.

They turned a corner. Something from the darkness tore at Rudy's cheek; he heard the whine of a badly aimed sword from the steps above and behind and ducked as a flailing blade struck him on the back of the head. Heavy arms caught him as he staggered and dragged him up and backward over the broken stairs, the bodies, the treacherous, sliding footing, and the dropped weapons of the slain. There were more stairs-endless stairs. The Gettlesand rangers who half-dragged, half-carried him quickened their pace as the fighting around them slacked. Faintly, far up the inky shaft of the stairs, he heard someone cheer.

Then, up ahead of him, he saw Alwir, filthy with the mess of battle. The dim reflection of distant daylight glittered in the jewels he wore. Rudy gasped, struggling through the press of men and women, all of them fighting toward that dim promise like drowning men striving toward the air. It was still dark all around him, but the Dark Ones were falling back…

Then swirling wind struck his face. Behind and above him, he glimpsed the Dark, pouring down like smoke from a ceiling shaft. The warriors who hemmed him in redoubled their efforts toward the light; the Dark were behind them. and, after what the defenders had been through, there were few who would turn back to risk re-entering Hell.

Rudy twisted around, pulled backward by the mob. He yelled, " Ingold !" But he doubted that the wizard heard him. The Dark Ones had cut off the rear guard. Only forty feet or so of stairway separated them, but the little knot of Alketch troops around the wizard was barely visible through the shifting turmoil of darkness. The Dark were all around them. Rudy saw the wizard get his back to the wall as, one by one, the men around him fell. The white flame of his sword flashed in the smothering blackness. Still the Dark Ones streamed down from above. Rudy fought against the tide of flight that bore him along with it, his head buzzing and his hands empty of weapons, determined that the old man should not fight alone.

At the turn of the stairway, Alwir still watched, unmoving, looking down into the pit of the deeper shaft at the trapped figure against the wall. Then he glanced back at the guard of his own red-clad troopers who stood around him and said, "There are too many. Pull back."

Sobbing, Rudy fought against the tide. Hands gripped his elbows. Someone said something to him about being off his head with shock; he was dragged back by an iron grip. Through a momentary gap in the ranks, he could see the light of Ingold's blade like a misty white fire; by its reflected brilliance, he glimpsed the wizard's face, cool and filled with determination to sell the flesh off his bones at the highest possible price.

Rudy saw before Ingold did the sinuous whip of tentacle that lashed from the shadows, wrapping the wizard's two wrists where he held the sword. Ingold made a desperate attempt to pull free; another whiplike tail snagged his ankle and pulled him off his feet and away from the wall. The gleaming sword rang on the stairs as it fell, and the light of it died.

The picture was retreating, dreamlike, as Rudy was pulled back up the stairs and the darkness below him thickened. He saw Ingold twist in another futile effort to break free of the things that caught at him now from all sides. Like a half-heard, strangled cry, he felt the wizard's last, desperate attempt to call light.

A spark flickered in the darkness and died. In the daylight at the top of the stairs, Alwir, in his dark velvet cloak, looked down and watched as Ingold was dragged out of sight into the darkness.