the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 17


They were not able to leave the Keep until some forty-odd hours had passed.

Eldor's body was burned at sunset the following day, on the great meadowland where the dancing had been held for the Winter Feast and where he had first seen Alde in Rudy's arms. Supplies in the Keep did not permit much extravagance in the way of grave-goods-the embroidered coverlet that had been drawn over his body for his lying in state was removed before Thoth called the flames to life within the pyre. Burned at his feet upon the same pyre was Alwir's body, still crumpled together as Gil had left him. With the cold, the rigor had stayed in the corpse. As the flames rushed over both bodies, it was almost as if the Chancellor had prostrated himself to the ground at the feet of the man he had murdered.

Standing in the crowd between Thoth and Brother Wend, Rudy glanced up at the makeshift dais that had been built for the flame thrower demonstration and saw how composed Aide's features were in the scarlet light. Her son was weeping softly in her arms, more from cold or fear of the fire or from the solemnity of the occasion than from any real understanding of what took place. Watching her, Rudy saw something that he had observed with his many sisters: there was a moment when a girl's face changed, took on the indefinable quality of a woman's, and was a girl's no more.

The woman with whom Eldor had barely become acquainted turned from the ashes of his pyre and walked back to the Keep in the deepening gloom. Bishop Maia walked at her side-he had traded his grubby conglomerate of salvaged brocades for the blood-crimson of the official Church and looked for the first time like a Bishop of the Straight Faith instead of a refugee from the Haight-Ashbury. Between them her son toddled, an unrecognizable bundle of furs, and her people walked in solemn silence behind.

Govannin Narmenlion had gone. She had slipped out, some said, at sunrise and made off with a few retainers after the troops of Alketch. Bektis was gone, too, and Rudy suspected that the Bishop had coerced the mage with visions of a double trial for conspiracy and black magic and had gotten him to throw a cloaking-spell over them both.

Politics makes strange bedfellows, and conspiracy even stranger ones . He wondered what the Bishop and the Court Mage would find to talk about on the long road south.

That evening he went to bid Alde goodby.

She was in her cell, sitting at the table which she'd cleared as a kind of work space, surrounded by wax tablets, glow-stones, rolls of scribbled palimpsests, and an abacus. She'd tied her hair back in a thick bun at the nape of her neck, and wore the gaudy ski vest he'd made for her over the worn white gown that she'd first had on when he'd met her in Karst and mistaken her for her son's babysitter. He paused in the doorway, watching how the lamplight flickered on the jeweled stylus, on the splinter of silver that gleamed in her hair, and on the little worry wrinkle between her brows that, like Gil's scar, would forever mark her face. He did not know quite how to speak to her, for there was no mistaking her for anything but a Queen now.

Then she looked up and saw him, and happiness kindled in her eyes like the coming of spring. She held out her hands to him, hesitantly, as if she, too, were uncertain of where and how they stood.

"I wasn't sure I'd recognize you," he said.

She smiled. "I'm not sure that I recognize myself."

Gently he drew her to her feet and kissed her lips. It was the kiss of a friend, but she held him from parting from her and returned the kiss of longtime lovers whose love had gone deeper than passion or change or grief. There was tightness and magic in it, like coming home to warm firelight after a sleet-ridden night journey. The sheer joy of being with her again mingled with and magnified the knowledge that whatever happened, he would always have a loyal partner in this odd, quiet woman who ruled the Keep of Dare.

"I've come to tell you I'll be leaving in the morning."

Her hands tightened where they locked behind his back, but she only nodded, accepting, as women who loved wizards must do.

"We should be gone three weeks, maybe a little more."

"We?"

"There's something that Gil and I have to take care of in Gae."

She nodded, her brows deepening slightly over eyes that had grown suddenly grave. "You would not be going all that way," she said softly, "if the cause were not urgent. Is there anything you'll need?"

"Only supplies for the journey. I don't think we'll need a pack animal. With the wolves in the river valleys, it would be more of a hindrance than a help."

"All right."

Looking down into her eyes, he could see there her weariness and confusion, the tangled emotions of mourning men who had long ago died in her heart. He kissed her again, and this time she clung to his warmth, her face pressed to the woolly collar of his vest For a long time the scented silence of the room enfolded them, broken only by the faint sounds of the embers on the hearth.

"Will you be all right?" he asked at last.

She nodded, standing still in the circle of his arms. "The work is good for me," she said. "Gil says that a tough project is the best drug the soul can take-and I think she's right. Thank God, Alwir's chief clerk kept the books decently."

He chuckled a little in spite of himself at this matter-of-fact epitaph for the Chancellor. He saw that Alde had her own work now, her unschooled hands picking up the reins of responsibility and power. He could no more understand it, no more have done it, than he could understand or have emulated Gil's cold and rational violence; but he saw that, like Gil, Alde was going to be very good at what she did.

He wondered, very briefly, what would happen to her-to Tir, to all of them-if he and Gil were slain. He pushed the thought from his mind. Time enough for that later , he told himself. If there is a later .

"Rudy?"

Her doubtful voice called him back with a start.

"You aren't-you will be back, won't you?"

He felt an impulse to wipe the troubled fear from her upturned face with a heartening assurance, to protect her from unhappiness as he had often, not very successfully, tried to protect her from harm. But he owed their love more than that; and he could not drive from his mind the memory of the rain-slashed ruins of Quo and the knowledge of what he was going to Gae to meet.

So he bent to touch her lips again and whispered miserably, "Babe, I don't know."

The journey to Gae was wet and bitterly cold. Rudy and Gil followed the track the armies had left, through slushy bottom lands, iron-gray in the frozen grip of winter, or over the stumpy summits of submerged hills. On the fringes of the vast, pewter-colored meres, they found evidence of bands of White Raiders; and once, in a hollow between three rocky hills, Gil found signs of some other large band of what she thought might be dooic, over a thousand strong. One night wolves attacked their spell-cloaked camp, and Gil killed three of them before they drew off.

"Pity about the skins," she said regretfully. "I always did want a wolfskin rug in my study. It would impress the hell out of my Ph.D. advisor."

It was one of the few times she referred to the life before her exile, and it already seemed incredible to Rudy that Gil had attended UCLA; or indeed, that she had ever been anything but a Guard. When they were on the road, she didn't speak much at all.

When the nights closed over the gray, crow-haunted land, Rudy spelled the camp against the Dark Ones, against wolves, and against bandits, while Gil built a hidden little fire to cook their meager rations of pan-bread and salt meat. Afterward Rudy played the harp, or they talked-of their journey, of the small doings of the people they knew at the Keep, of the possibility of Aide's restarting the hydroponics gardens, or of Maia's changes in Church policy. They plotted scenarios for Raider attacks, or what they would do in the event of another major assault by the Dark. They seldom referred to California, and then only in passing, as of a mutual childhood, half-forgotten.

"You'll be staying at the Keep now?" Gil asked one night as Rudy sat softly weaving the glimmering strains of a haunting, half-familiar melody that Dakis had sung.

He nodded. Neither spoke the same thought-that a week from now they might both be dead, the Keep shattered, and Tir's and Aide's bones mixed with the bloody snow that blew in through its broken walls. "I'm going to get in touch with the Gettlesand wizards and see if maybe some of them could come back to help out Thoth and Wend."

Gil made a noise of assent, not looking up from the dagger she was whetting. She did not ask what good all the wizards in the world would do if Ingold returned to the Keep.

Rudy was silent in thought. Now and then he touched stray notes from the harp strings that dropped like silver coins into the dark well of the night. Across the shallow lakes of the valley, the wolves howled, and winds stirred the mists that curled from the waters' dirty surfaces.

"How long have we been here?" he asked at last.

"Six months, or a little longer," Gil replied, turning her dagger edge to catch the light. "It's round about the middle of March, though you wouldn't guess it from the weather." It had snowed last night, a thin, icy scum on the ground.

Rudy sighed. "As soon as the weather breaks, I'm taking the road."

She looked up, startled.

He went on. "I'm going back to Quo." He put his hand to stop the quavering of the harp strings and looked across them at Gil. "Ingold always said that he was the only person alive who understood how the Void works and how to create the gates from one universe to the next. But he had to have learned that from somewhere. I'm going to have a look at the library of Quo and see if I can find something about how to bridge the Void and get you home."

The knife whined once more against the whetstone, then stilled. Gil did not look up. "Don't knock yourself out over it, Rudy," she said. "We wouldn't have had any more luck returning than Eldor had."

"Eldor?" Rudy frowned. "But Eldor was nuts when he came back. It wouldn't be the same if you went back to your own world…"

Gil sighed and looked up at him. "Punk, there was nothing wrong with Eldor that a couple of years with a good therapist wouldn't have taken care of. But as for going back…" She shrugged. "They ever teach you about the old Greek myths in school?"

"Some," he assented doubtfully.

"You remember the one about the Goddess of Spring, who was carried off by the King of the Dead? She wouldn't eat or drink anything while she was in Hell, but just before she got bailed out, he tricked her into tasting a pomegranate. And because she'd eaten something in his domain, she had to stay there, at least part of the time.

"We're the same way, Rudy. We've eaten the pomegranate. Even if Ingold had lived, neither of us could have gone back."

He folded his hands over the curve of the harp "I knew from the start that I never could," he told her. "I didn't know you felt the same."

She wiped the dagger and slid it back into its sheath with a vicious little snick. "I was afraid when we couldn't go back right away," she said softly. "And after that… It does something to you when you kill someone, Rudy. And you improve with practice. I knew I was going to kill Alwir, weeks before it happened. I just didn't know how or when. But I'm not the same person I was." She looked across the fire at him, the shadows dancing over the half-healed sword cut on her face.

She picked up a stick and began to rearrange the fire, the light reddening to blood the white emblem of the Guards on her surcoat. Rudy's hands returned to their music, shaping hesitantly, like a long and flashing chain of diamonds, the air of a dance. After a time he asked her, "Why did you decide to kill Alwir?"

The reflection of the flame sparkled in the tears that flooded her eyes as she raised her head. After two false starts, she said, "I loved Ingold, Rudy. I loved him with all my heart, from the moment I first saw him."

"Yeah," Rudy said softly. "I knew that."

Her breath came raggedly as she fought to calm her trembling voice. "I told myself it was stupid, but it didn't do any good, you know. I told myself I had my own life, my own plans, and they sure as hell didn't include falling in love with a man who was forty years older than me and a wizard in another universe to boot. I told myself he'd never look twice at a skinny, ugly, crazy weirdo like me…"

"You were wrong about that one," Rudy said quietly.

Gil sighed. "I told myself all kinds of stuff. It didn't matter. I loved him. I still do," she added brokenly. "I still do."

"Were you lovers?"

She shook her head. "I think we would have been from the start, you know, if he hadn't been afraid of-of doing just what happened, of tying a part of me to this world. And then, he knew that his love would make me a target of the Dark, too." Tears were still streaming down her face, a torrent of all the wretched grief that had been pent behind her cool, ironic facade.

Her sorrow hurt him as sharply as his own, for he recalled how it had felt to know that he must lose both love and magic forever. But she would not tolerate his touch, so he only said, "I'm sorry."

She shook her head. "It's all right," she said in a calmer voice from which all that flat, cool, conversational tone had vanished. "I know why you asked me to come. If the Dark have taken his mind, we can't let him live. It sounds crazy, but I'd rather it was me who did it. And you don't have to worry about my bursting into tears and refusing to hurt him or anything. I'd hate you if you killed him."

"Lady," Rudy said softly, "there's damn little chance that I could even touch the guy."

Her fingers shook as she pushed the straggling hair away from her face. In the aftermath of the storm, her features were more relaxed than he had ever seen them, the odd beauty of that thin, overly sensitive face emerging from behind the glacial reserve. "I don't hold a lot of hope that I'll be able to," she admitted, brushing the tears from her long lashes. "You may have seen him fight-but I've fought him. He's stainless-steel lightning, Rudy."

She lay down and drew her cloak and worn blanket over her. In a few minutes, Rudy heard her breathing even out into the dreamless rhythm of deep sleep. He himself sat awake far into the night, a prey to unwilling memories, playing bits and pieces of music on the harp.

The quick touch of Gil's hand brought him out of sleep into the black pit of predawn darkness. He tapped her arm soundlessly, signaling his wakeful ness, then sat up in his blankets and looked out toward the beaten paleness of the road. Mist had risen from the nearby lake, swathing the world in damp, intense darkness that even his wizard's sight was hard put to penetrate, but he could hear a kind of slipping, snuffling tread as someone or something hurried furtively south. After a moment's concentration, he made them out-twelve or more men and women, pale, unhealthy, and stinking, their faded silk rags glittering with jeweled embroidery.

In a subvocal whisper, he breathed, "Ghouls."

Gil was kneeling beside him; he felt her hair brush his arm us she nodded. Even to one not mageborn, there could be little question when a shifting of the air brought their fetid carrion stench up to the camp. "But why are they leaving Gae?"

As softly as she had whispered, one of the ghouls halted, raising his head, weasel eyes glinting in the gloom. Their utter filth and the greed in those slobbery faces angered Rudy suddenly, and he drew to him a breath of illusion, a suggestion of directionless wind in the fog and the metallic, acid stink of the Dark Ones.

At this, the ghouls flinched and fled down the road, squeaking like spooked rabbits in the darkness. It seemed for a time that their reek lingered in the vaporous air.

"I don't know why they left Gae," Rudy whispered, settling down into his blankets again. "But I can guess."

In the two days that followed, his guess grew to certainty as every step brought them nearer to the haunted city of Gae. The louring consciousness of the Dark Ones was everywhere, like a sickness of the air that had spread from the city to engulf the gray desolation of the country around. Rudy sensed their presence, far off but in unthinkable numbers, and the dread of them seemed to stalk the sodden road at his elbow, even in what passed for daylight under the thick boil of wet, low-hanging clouds.

When they reached Trad's Hill before the gates of Gae in the vile darkness of early evening, Rudy looked down from its bare crown to the city. Horror congealed in his heart, not at anything he saw, but at things felt and half-seen. The presence of the Dark was like a marsh mist that hung over the whole town, and the shifting ripple of their illusion made the broken towers and groping, matted trees quiver in his wizard's sight, like a heat dance. Evil, violence, terror, and the lust to suck dry the squeaking rind of the human body rose to his senses like a reek from that dark cloud that seemed to hang above the slimy streets. Peering through the darkness, he sensed the maggotlike movement that teemed in the city's cellars, even before he noticed the flickering white shapes that wandered in the murk, picking vainly for forage among the frozen weeds-the herds, of course. He and Gil had found their stripped bones or frozen bodies everywhere in the surrounding countryside. But he barely noticed them. Over all the city seemed to lie a hideous doom, a waiting darkness, a terrible vortex of unspeakable malice and power.

At the center of that vortex, he knew, was the man whom he and Gil must kill.

Even the next morning's daylight could not dispel the murky horror that filled and covered Gae like a sour, dismal swamp. The sunlight strove weakly against the whitish overcast, brighter than it had been in days. But in Gae it was filtered, as if through a mist, into a dozen hideous perversions of unknown color. By that ghastly light, the city seemed foully unreal, its walls and towers sinking to the earth under the weight of unnaturally riotous vines, as if the stone itself were softened or had the life sapped from it by those obscene roots. The snow that lay in the streets appeared to have melted, though it was piled thick outside the limits of the city, and it was pulped by the churning of thousands of crooked little feet.

The bones of the dead herds were everywhere, fresh or in varying stages of depredation by the petty carnivores of the deserted town-wild dogs, cats, and bold, red-eyed rats. The cold killed the smell of them, but Rudy felt queasy with a nausea compounded from stench and revulsion.

Almost as bad as the dead and the hideous feeling of being watched was Gil's remote calm. She waded through the putrid muck of Gae's overgrown streets with scarcely a batted eyelash, and the queer, leaden light of the vaporous sky lent a terrible expression to her frost-hard features.

After her single outburst of tears on the road, she had not mentioned Ingold or the upcoming battle to Rudy again. As he watched her in the Palace courtyard, methodically stripping off her cloak and surcoat and hanging them on the limbs of a burned tree, it came to him why this was.

Grief or pity would have blinded her, weakened her. She had made up her mind what she must do, Rudy realized; she had sealed whatever chinks in her defenses she could. There would be time enough to think after Ingold was finally dead.

The two remaining palace buttresses, stabbing like skeleton fingers into the white air, cast watery shadows over Gil's face as she removed her scabbard from her sword belt and turned to Rudy with the sheathed weapon in her hand. Wind flattened her shirt sleeves over thin, hard-muscled arms. "You ready?"

Rudy nodded and tightened his grip on his staff. He'd used it to help himself over the rough ground, all the way from Renweth, but its pronged, razor-edged crescent could serve as a weapon as well. Ironically, it was the very weapon Lohiro had used against Ingold at Quo.

Which didn't do him a helluva lot of good , Rudy thought dryly as he followed Gil over the blackened, sunken remains of the steps and down into the vaults.

The explosions that had torn the roofs from the underground tunnels and trapped the invaders had shaken the Palace above. Through riven roofs and crumbling beams, wan sunlight lay in bars and streaks of fallow gold. The upper level of the vaults was a smeared ocean of ash and muck, cracked stone and fallen groinings wallowing up through the mess like half-sunk hulks. The lower level, though foul with the stink of the herds, was empty, except for places where the clinging, ubiquitous vines had taken root in some fallen heap of stone and dirt overhead.

Through the gaping vaults, wan light checkered the floor, showing the crisscrossed tracks of the herds, like a spattering of clay on the black smoothness of the unbroken pavement. In spite of the miasmal light that slatted across Gil's figure from above and in spite of the cloaking-spell that lay around them both, Rudy found himself looking uneasily over his shoulders, waiting for the Dark Ones to attack.

Walking ahead of him, Gil seemed to fear nothing, feel nothing. Rudy could see that the hand that gripped the worn leather of the scabbard she carried was relaxed; when he glanced sideways at her, her face, surrounded by the ragged wisps that escaped from the thick braid of her hair, was calm. The shiny places in the hilt of her dagger winked in the occasional glints of sunlight. She never looked back at him, never hesitated, but wove her way through the broken forest of the limitless pillars and arches as if her feet had known that route from the beginning of time.

They emerged into a sort of clearing in the vaults, and Rudy recognized the red porphyry stair before them, down which the army had descended to the black stair of the Dark. Mud, dead leaves, ashes, and bones lay all about the place now. From a broken ceiling two levels above, a great aisle of straw-colored sunlight streamed, like an imperial carpet, to within ten feet of the utter blackness of the gaping pit.

Between darkness and light, crumpled on the pavement at the very lip of the abyss, was the body of a man, face down. The hooded brown mantle that covered him was streaked and bleached with the slime of the Dark, frayed by battle, and stained with smoke and blood. One reaching hand lay in the bar of light-a scarred, blunt-fingered warrior's hand.

He was unconscious and unarmed.

Gil sighed. "Stay here," she ordered and pulled her dagger from her belt.

There was something horrifying in her businesslike calm as she crossed that bright bar of light. It's better this way , Rudy thought hopelessly. If he had a chance to fight us, it would be all over, not only for us but for everyone in the Keep. It's our only hope of taking out the most powerful mage in the West of the World, whose mind is the mind of the Dark .

But tears blurred his eyes and ran, stinging, down his face.

Gil knelt beside the body, drew her sword, and set it aside, the hilt ready to her hand just in case. She shifted her grip on the hilt of the dagger, reached out to touch Ingold's shoulder, and carefully turned him over. Rudy saw the old man's face outlined against the light as the hood fell back from it, scored and shadowed with the tracks of sixty-odd very rough years. The light glinted in the rough, dirty silk of the white hair. He looked at peace, sleeping as Rudy could scarcely remember having ever seen him sleep-the profound sleep of exhaustion.

Do it , Rudy thought, fixing his gaze on the shining blade of the dagger. If he is what Lohiro was, a prisoner in his own body, let him go before he wakes to become what he fought so hard to escape !

But Gil made no move. She studied the sleeping wizard's features for an endless time, and Rudy saw the bright glitter of tears on her inhumanly still face. Light skated along the edge of the knife with the sudden trembling of her hand.

Do it , he cried silently, and for God's sake, have done !

At that moment the old man's eyes opened and looked up into Gil's.

The razor edge that lay against his throat did not move. He looked worse than he had in the desert, the horrible pallor of his face blotched and discolored with bruises and the small, vicious wounds of the Dark Ones' claws beneath a layer of bloody grime. He made no move; he only sighed, closed his eyes again, and said something softly to Gil, something that Rudy did not hear.

A stray beam of sunlight sprang from the blade as Gil's body was suddenly shaken with a convulsive shudder. With an abrupt movement, she hurled the dagger against the red stone of the steps that led up toward the light, her shoulders bowing as sob after sob racked her body. To Rudy's utter horror, he saw Ingold half-rise and reach out to her and Gil crumple forward into the wizard's arms.

With an inarticulate cry he sprang forward, the pronged gold of his staff flashing in the wan sunlight as he drove its points toward Ingold's unprotected back. Gil cried out a warning, and the old man twisted away from the blow, thrusting her out of danger as he staggered to his feet and raised his arm to shield his eyes from the unaccustomed glare of the light. Gritting his teeth, his own eyes half-blind with tears, Rudy drove the razor edge of the crescent on the end of his staff toward Ingold's throat.

Rudy had not reckoned on Gil. A pair of bony knees scissored his legs viciously from under him and he fell, the staff clattering on the stone floor. He groped for it, and Gil kicked it out of his hands. He looked up in time to see her scramble to her feet, snatch up her drawn sword from the floor, and fling it, glittering, into Ingold's waiting hands.

Sobbing, Rudy grabbed for the staff again, and this time Gil stepped back, tears pouring uncontrollably down her face. With a cry of frustrated fury, he took a step toward her, his own mind unclear as to what he intended.

Ingold rasped, "Touch her, and I swear you will never leave this city alive."

Rudy stopped, blinking, wondering for a dizzied second whether Ingold had placed some kind of spell of gnodyrr upon Gil with those few words he had murmured to her when he lay with her dagger at his throat. The old man's ragged breath was the only sound to pierce the uncanny stillness of the cellar. His blue eyes, pale and bright within the rings of cut and blackened flesh, went warily from one to the other.

Then in a strained voice, Ingold said, "Neither of you should be in this city. Get out of here. Get as far away as you can."

"I won't leave you," Gil said quietly.

He rounded on her, his eyes widening with sudden and blazing fear. "You'll do as I say! Get out! Get out now!"

"The hell we will!" Rudy yelled, and Ingold swung back toward him, his borrowed sword flashing in the pale light. "You've been a prisoner of the Dark…"

The wizard moved back a step into the bar of sunlight, his long, matted hair glistening like seaweed. The light around him dimmed. Looking up, Rudy could see, through the crazy tangle of broken timbers and charred stone, the soft coils of white fog beginning to blur the day.

"And what?" Ingold asked softly.

Rudy cried out, "Why did they want you?"

"You'll learn that in time." The wizard retreated another step, the blade poised before him, orienting himself, his red-rimmed eyes growing used to daylight again. Rudy took a hopeless step toward him, and Ingold shifted a little, readying himself for an attack, his body moving with the old, deadly lightness.

Then Gil cried, " Rudy !" Her voice was sharp with terror. He whipped around and saw her blink in surprise, like someone just waked from a trance…

… and turning back, he saw that Ingold was gone.

Cursing, he plunged up the red stone steps toward the waning daylight. Gil hurried at his heels, stammering, "I'm-I'm sorry. I don't know why I yelled…"

"You yelled because he wanted you to!" Rudy stormed at her, his voice rough with anger that was three parts fear. He stopped and caught her arms, facing her in the mottled shadows of a broken doorway among leaf drifts and rotted bones. "Christ, Gil, why did you stop me?" he whispered. "I understand how you couldn't do it, but-"

"No," she interrupted quietly. Her eyes were swollen but perfectly calm. "If he had been possessed by the mind of the Dark, I would have cut his throat. But he wasn't."

"Fantastic!" Rudy sighed in disgust. "That's all I need to-"

"I don't know what's going on," she continued, unruffled, "but his mind is his own. I know it."

"How the hell would you know it?" Rudy yelled passionately. "He's had you wrapped around his finger from day bloody one! The Dark have had him. He's been their prisoner. There's no way they would have let him go-not after they hunted him from one end of the continent to the other!"

"I know it because I know him!" she lashed back at Rudy, jerking her arms free of his grip and striding on ahead of him up the stairs. Above their heads, the broken vaults of the Palace showed the sky a chill and smoky white, and Rudy could see that Gil was shivering with the cold seeping through her frayed homespun shirt.

He stormed after her. "And just where the hell do you think you're going?"

"I'm going to find him, you jackass!" she flung back over her shoulder. She slipped through a half-fallen arch, her boots slurring thickly in the knotted mats of half-burned creepers that swamped the halls. "He wants us out of town because he's in some kind of danger himself."

"He wants us out of town so we won't stop him from heading back to the Keep and opening the gates some dark night!" Rudy's foot snagged on a coil of vine, and he fell sprawling. Cursing, he scrambled to his feet again. "It's up to us-"

Gil whirled so suddenly he all but impaled himself on the dagger that appeared like a splinter of ice in her hand. "You harm a hair of his head, punk…"

Cold stirrings of wind blew a thin mist over them and muttered in the blackened tangles of half-dead vegetation. The air felt suddenly weighted with the presence of the Dark. Even in the daylight, both of them looked around, as if expecting to see blackness stealing from the murky shadows of the fallen Palace. It occurred to Rudy how very alone they were.

Through dry lips, he managed to say, "We can't split up, Gil. We've got to stay together."

Slowly, she lowered the knife. "All right," she said.

It was on his lips to say, "If we meet him, don't kill me from behind," but something in those gray, cool eyes forbade it. He remembered that she had given

Ingold her sword.

Though it was almost noon, the light was graying. Fog was rising from the scummed marshes of the drowned lower town, spreading clammy, ubiquitous tendrils throughout the dripping streets. Gil and Rudy moved cautiously through the broken, silent Palace, past empty chambers teeming with eruptions of mosses or slithering with vines, and over crazy, tilting pavements where the rotting tapestries whispered with a horrible suggestion of rodent life. Skulls grinned at them from under chairs, veiled in the white stirring of ground fog. Through the broken barrel vaults of one chamber, gray mists leaked like some kind of heavy gas, to flow like water around their feet.

Rudy paused, feeling the touch of a counterspell on his mind. Heart hammering, he looked around the empty hall and out past crumbling archways to the buckled and subsided pavements of a courtyard flooded with brown, filthy pools.

"Gil," he whispered. "Gil, listen to me, please. You know what's happened to him."

She stopped for a fraction of a second, then turned her face away and moved on.

"Dammit, Gil, if you can't help me, at least-at least stay out of it," he pleaded. "I need your help, for God's sake! I'm not a warrior and I'm not a hero! I can't do it."

"Can't," Ingold's soft voice chided from the smoky deeps of the mist. "If you say can't enough, you will end up convincing yourself of it, Rudy."

Rudy whirled, his throat seeming to tie itself into knots. It took him a long moment to realize that Ingold was standing beside the arch that led into the court, his hoary rags stirred by the faint winds that moved the mist.

For an instant they faced each other, and Rudy felt as if he were trapped between love and death. His feeling for the old man struggled against his terror of the wizard's power, his memories of another battle in a ruined city against another Archmage, and his knowledge of what would happen to Tir and Alde if Ingold lived. With a wrench of almost physical pain, he broke the hold that seemed to be closing over his mind and hauled his flame thrower clear of its holster and fired.

The column of flames roared glaringly bright into the dull grays of that monochrome world. Ingold made no move to avoid the blast; the fire splattered against the wall a few feet to his left. Steam hissed and curled from the damp stone. Cursing his aim, Rudy fired again and heard Gil's frantic footsteps running toward them. He missed again, the lichens searing from the ruined pillar of the arch beside which Ingold stood. Just before Gil's hands tore at his wrist, he fired a third time and realized what was happening.

Never fight when you can pass unseen , Ingold had said to him out in the windy plains. He wouldn't put it past the old man to fox his aim. In fact, there wasn't much he'd put past the old man at all. As Gil hung panting on his unresisting arm, his eyes met the wizard's. Under the weedy tangle of beard, Ingold's smile broadened. He lifted Gil's sword in salute and walked out into the mist-enshrouded court without another word.

With a strength born of desperation, Rudy shook Gil off him and slammed the useless flame thrower back into its holster. With his staff held before him like a spear, he plunged into the milky vapors of the court. He stopped, panting, scanning the wall of mist before him, his hair hanging wetly in his eyes. Some sign-some clue…

Steel whined, and he barely parried as the sword whipped down from behind. Ingold had merely stepped to one side of the arch, letting Rudy pelt out past him into the open. The blade snarled thinly against the metal of the staff's sharpened crescent, brushing it aside. Rudy moved back, staggering in the icy water and narrowly avoiding the loss of his staff. He attacked the sword, trying to catch it between the crescent's points and wrench it from his opponent's hands, as he had seen Lohiro do. But he had neither the former Archmage's tuning nor his precision of eye. The sword nicked away. Rudy sprang clear of its slash and sank to his knees in something under the surface of the waters that shifted and bubbled horribly.

Parrying frantically, he backed to higher ground. Ingold had a far better sense of footing than he and drove him relentlessly, exhausting him in a defensive battle that left him no opportunity for riposte. Slimy things clung to his ankles as he scrambled to a ridge of dry pavement. The wizard cut at him out of the darkness of the fog. He felt the staff parried, the prongs knocked aside, and heard the sheering whisper of the descending blade. In desperation he caught the sword on the iron-hard shaft, up close to the hilt. For a split second of locked strength, he stood almost breast to breast with the vagabond specter he fought and found himself looking into those blue, brilliant, disconcerting eyes.

There's something wrong , he thought suddenly. Lohiro… Lohiro …

Then Ingold smiled, though his face was white with strain. An instant later, he reached out one heel to hook Rudy's braced foot from beneath him. Rudy toppled backward with a sickening plouf ! into the squishy waters of the slough, and Ingold was gone, flitting like a wraith into the smoky darkness.

Gil emerged from the fog a second later and helped him to his feet, dripping and shivering and utterly filthy. She picked up his fallen staff and handed it to him. "There," she whispered, pointing into the murk. "Can you see him?"

Something moved in the opaque mists that filled a broken gateway. The mists stirred, as if brushed by the torn hem of a mantle.

Rudy picked a rotting weed stem from the matted fur of his coat collar, streaming dirty liquid at every move. "Let's go," he muttered.

At times in that horrible pursuit, Rudy remembered bitterly that Ingold had originally led the reconnaissance to Gae because of his knowledge of the alleys and byways of the ruined town. He hunted the old man through broken and abandoned mansions, filled with the rotting loot of the city and stinking of ghouls and foxes, and along streets and courtyards where the thickening veils of fog wreathed impassable tangles of rope-tough vines. Sometimes Rudy found the mark of the wizard's boot in the smeared mud by a cracked marble cistern or printed in the frost that furred the broken cobbles. He traced his quarry in the stirring of water, in the slurred track of Ingold's cloak over the dew that beaded the greenish mats of filthy mosses like silver carpets of diamonds, and in the matted, overgrown bushes broken by the passage of his body. And always Rudy thought, There's something wrong here. I'm missing something important. Lohiro …

A rustling sound caught his attention, the slip of feet over stone. He stopped, his eyes struggling to pierce the cloudy miasma that seemed thicker there than it had appeared elsewhere in the ruined city. He thought he saw a dark doorway in a wall, set between molded pillars leprous with moss and festooned with the brown, knotted cables of clutching vines.

Beside him, Gil paused, her boots scrunching softly in the twisted mats of half-dead vegetation. She caught his sleeve as he stepped toward the door and whispered, "Can't you feel it?"

All around them, the nearness of the Dark Ones was like a buzzing heaviness in the air. The day was far spent. In the dense, gray mist that shrouded the city, it was impossible to guess the hour, but Rudy knew that the light would soon fade. In darkness, Ingold would be utterly beyond his power.

Cautiously, he advanced toward the door. The crescent end of his staff began to burn with a pale, smoky light, blurred by fog. By it, he could see the peering gargoyle faces carved in the pillars and the darkness of a broken stairwell beyond them, its walls bulging under the thrust of young tree roots. A drift of warmer air touched his face and stirred the fog around him.

A footfall rustled; a heavy boot crunched in the dried snarls of the ubiquitous vines. Rudy whirled, and the white glow of his staff, barely penetrating the slaty darkness that engulfed them, showed him Ingold standing a few feet away.

Rudy's nerve snapped. White light streamed from the tip of his staff as he lunged at the wizard. The old man parried the thrusts, casually sidestepping the whining steel that missed his eyes by inches. The cold phosphorescence of the staff illuminated the honed steel, but Ingold himself was all but invisible in fog and darkness. Rudy pressed his attack, sobbing, exhausted, his chilled muscles cramping, and the wizard faded before him. Somewhere in the boil of vapors behind him, he could sense Gil moving, keeping on the fringes of the fight.

Vines seemed to knot themselves around his ankles, and he tripped, barely keeping hold of his staff as he fell. He heard Ingold retreating through the tangles of foliage and scrambled hastily to his feet, wading after the wizard through the oddly persistent creepers. Darkness hid Ingold from him, but he heard the old man pause.

A paving- stone tilted under Rudy's feet, pitching him into the rubble that choked an abandoned gateway. Hands lacerated, heedless of anything but his frantic need to finish his quarry before darkness permitted Ingold to take on the form of the Dark Ones, Rudy plunged after the wizard, down a long tunnel of black fog and shadows.

In the open ground outside the city walls, the darkness seemed less pressing. The leaden mists cleared a bit, showing Rudy the wizard moving off downhill, his stain-mottled mantle blending into the colors of the fog. Rudy threw all of his strength into a clearing-spell, a wind to scatter the mists, and felt on his mind the cold grip of counterspells that strangled his power into silence. The mists wrapped tighter around him, a dun burial shroud, and he broke into a run, feverish with terror at what should happen if he met Ingold and what should happen if he did not.

He found himself stumbling blindly through a gray, steaming world, his way blocked at every turn. The stunted corpses of dead trees loomed before him in the darkness. Roots snagged at his feet, pitching him headlong into slimy patches of mud and scum. The skirts of his sodden coat slapped wetly at his thighs, his streaming boots felt weighted down with mud and water, and his body was chilled and aching to the bone. Lost, half-frozen, and gummed to the eyebrows with mud, he stumbled on alone through a nightmare of darkness and fog.

Then, wholly unexpectedly, he burst into a clearing in the mists. He staggered to a halt, the flickering light of his staff casting a wan illumination over the scene before him.

He saw Ingold and Gil standing, facing each other, close enough that the magelight mingled their two shadows into a single pool of indigo blue on the rock-hard ground. The sword Ingold held gleamed in his hand as he turned it and offered its hilt to Gil.

She took it and tested its familiar weight. Her long hair was half-unraveled around her face, and her eyes were gentler than he had ever seen them; for the first time since Rudy had known her, he could understand how a man could find this scholarly, violent, and entirely contradictory woman fascinating.

Ingold stood before her for a long moment, his hands empty at his sides. Framed by the long, dirty mane of white hair, his face was haggard, the bones seeming to stand out through colorless flesh, but for an instant Rudy found it impossible to believe that this man was anything other than the charming old wizard that he and Gil loved in their separate ways.

He wondered suddenly if that was why the Dark Ones had wanted Ingold-for his charm, which made it impossible for anyone to close the gates against him for long.

Numbly, Rudy made a move toward them. Ingold raised his head, and for an instant his eyes met Rudy's-exhausted, driven, and yet curiously serene. Mists blew between them, momentarily obscuring Rudy's vision; when they cleared, only Gil stood on the barren hillslope, her sword in her hand. Not so much as a track marked the rocky ground.

She sheathed the blade as Rudy stumbled toward her. In their search of the Palace, Gil had long ago recovered her cloak and surcoat, but they were damp from the mists, and she shivered.

Quietly Rudy asked her, "Why, Gil?"

"He might have needed it."

Rudy wiped his numbed, stiffening fingers on his soggy coat. "You're crazy, do you know that?"

"Probably," she agreed.

He looked around him at the shifting wraiths of fog that hemmed them in. "So what do we do now?"

Gil shrugged. "Wait. If he survives whatever danger he's going to meet tonight, I think he'll be back for us."

"Oh, come on!" Rudy exploded, the calmness of her voice putting the finishing touches on the day's cold, terror, and exhaustion. "You don't still think he's out to have his final confrontation with the Dark tonight, do you? More likely he's hotfooting it back to the Keep…"

She folded her arms, huddling the cloak tighter about her thin shoulders. "If that's so, why didn't he kill me?"

Exasperated, he retorted, "Probably because you were more use to him alive!"

"Then why didn't he kill you?" she pointed out hotly. "And don't tell me he couldn't have carved you into hors d'oeuvres half a dozen times in the course of the day. Why did he let us track him-"

"That's it!" Rudy said suddenly. "Why did he let us track him, Gil? Ordinarily, nobody could track Ingold across a black floor sprinkled with flour. But if he was trying to lead us out of the city, why didn't he lead us the shortest way from the Palace, to the land gate opposite Trad's Hill? Why did he take all day and work us out to wherever we are now?"

Gil frowned. "Did he want to keep us away from that end of town?"

"Or from Trad's Hill? It's the biggest landmark outside the city."

She looked quickly around her. Rudy had begun to sense it, too-an uneasiness in the air, an electric dread, as if earth and fog had begun to stir with the power and malice of the Dark. For no reason, he looked behind him, half-expecting to see a shadow forming there, and felt his heartbeat quicken.

Gil whispered, "You think Trad's Hill is where he's going to meet the Dark?"

"Yeah," Rudy murmured. "But the question is: Why?"

It was full night when they reached Trad's Hill, black and icy, thunderous with the overwhelming sense of the presence of the Dark. Rudy had quenched the light that came from the end of his staff and, in the black overcast, he led Gil by the hand, picking his way cautiously over the rough ground of the plain. In spite of the cloaking-spell that covered them both, he felt smothered by the dread of the Dark. They were too close to Gae, he thought-they had followed its broken walls, barely visible in the fog-too close to the horrors that he sensed were welling from every cellar, every vault, and every passage of the endless, twisting mazes of the half-burned Nest. He felt almost stifled with fear and was shivering in the deep cold of the night.

Sudden and chill, wind whipped them, chasing the last wet rags of fog from the landscape. It flung his long, damp hair around his face and stung his abraded hands. He felt Gil's fingers tighten over his arm. The smoky veils cleared, revealing the long, irregular darkness of the walls of Gae and the paler shape of the land beneath the eerie glow of the stars.

Then he heard Gil gasp. Looking back at Gae, he saw the Dark. They rose above the broken roofline like the funnel of a monster tornado, a swirling column that spread to blacken the air. Their faint, chittering hum buzzed in his brain. The illusion they spread engulfed the cloud-splotched sky, drowning the world in stygian, all-encompassing darkness; the wind from them rushed like a hurricane over the sightless earth.

In the darkness, light flared at the top of Trad's Hill, white and strange, its reflection picking out the lines of Gil's temple and jaw, giving Rudy a brief, terrible impression of a skull within the whirling mane of her ragged hair. The mounting clouds of darkness loomed higher, blotting the invisible towers of Gae; the little spark of whiteness burst again, and this time Rudy could see, outlined in its thin glow, the black form of a man at the top of the hill, with the billowing rags of his torn mantle falling back to bare the sword-scarred, muscular arms.

Light sprang from Ingold's upraised hands, its reflection flickering in the blowing halo of weedy white hair and on the claw-cut, upturned face. The white spark broadened in the heavy air and lengthened to a twisting thread of fire that jerked and wavered in the sudden winds that swept down over the hill in a bitter, stinging wave of the smell of acid and stone. As the Dark poured down toward him, the light expanded to stretch from the hilltop to the louring blackness of the overcast sky.

Then Gil screamed, " No !" Turning, Rudy saw in those shock-stricken gray eyes a blinding understanding, horror, realization, grief-and the knowledge that she had, after all, been betrayed.

Torrents of cold brightness rained over them as the streak of light opened into a fluttering gap. It was as if earth and sky had been painted upon a curtain, and that curtain was pulled aside, drawing everything with it. Beyond lay only the misty whiteness, the colorless fires, and the vivid darkness of the Void.

Toward that enormous gap, all the assembled Dark Ones of the world swarmed in a howling river of doom.