the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 18

California , Rudy thought numbly. All the world that gave me birth. That was their target all along .

He did not know why he had not seen it earlier. They had all known that Ingold was the sole guardian of the secrets of the Void. The Dark Ones must have known it as well. It was to prevent just this thing from happening that he and Gil had voluntarily submitted to exile all those long and frozen months.

And for nothing , he thought. For nothing .

Though there was no possible way Gil could have stopped the wizard or closed the blazing wound in the fabric of the Cosmos, she flung herself up the hill at him, the glaring light of the Void bursting like nova fire from the edge of her drawn sword. Ingold swung around, a black, swirling shape framed in that blinding aura, and raised his hand; Gil fell to her knees in the muddy snow. He towered on the hillside over her, blazing with an Archmage's terrible power. Still near the foot of the hill, Gil bowed her head to her hands, and her single, hoarse cry of bitter despair splintered the spinning darkness of the night. Then she was silent.

Above her, the Dark ones poured around Ingold, through the gap in the Void, and to the world beyond.

They seemed to have no fear of the weird brilliance that streamed from the Void. Indeed, Rudy was aware that, while it had the appearance of light, it was not truly light as it was known in this world. Its cold brightness stabbed through those sleek and dripping bodies and showed that the Dark Ones were not dark at all, but as transparent as spring water, beings of crystal protoplasm threaded with clear ruby veins. From the millrace of shadows, a single creature detached itself, shrinking in size as it drifted down, to alight like some grotesquely beautiful glass insect upon Ingold's shoulder. Others followed it, pulsing, glittering, and sinking vicious, delicate claws into the folds of his mantle and his sleeve, their long, whiplike tails hanging like sparkling ropes down his back. The chill nonlight threw into stark prominence every line graven into his ravaged face, every protruding muscle and bone, and the tortured exhaustion of his haunted eyes.

It had been known from the beginning that Ingold was the strongest and the cleverest of them all, Rudy thought, his tired mind stumbling over the realization of what he witnessed. Gil's love for the wizard was his ideal cover. Dead, damned, or enslaved by the Dark, he knew she would never have harmed him. Loyal, brave, and single-minded, she had not truly conceived in her heart of hearts that he would ever be defeated.

And the knowledge that she could have killed him and saved our world from the destruction that has encompassed this one is the price she has to pay for that blind trust.

Like a shimmering at the edges of his mind, Rudy heard a kind of singing, a music made without sound by creatures without ears The spell of it drew at him and cast over him a confused and frightened longing. He looked quickly away from the blinding brightness of the gate to which he had felt a sudden, irrational urge to run. As he turned his head, he saw movement in the darkness near Gae, a shuffling, sluggish stream of almost-humanity, following the music with wide, unblinking eyes toward the Void.

They passed within a few feet of him, close enough for him to see the round faces, the chinless, slobbering mouths, and the white arms that clutched heavy burdens of moss. Of course , he thought. The Dark would take what was left of their herds, to pasture on the ruins of their new world, in the windowless high- rises of New York and in the sewers of Paris . There were thousands of them, far more than Rudy would have imagined could have survived in the cold under the cellars of Gae. The fetid, flabby smell of them filled his nostrils as they ambled by, their squeaking chatter grating on his nerves. They moved around Gil, jostling and shouldering one another, the light glaring out over them, unbearably bright.

Standing among his glittering masters, Ingold gazed at them expressionlessly as they were swallowed in the cold glory of the light.

Through the endless horror of that freezing night, Rudy watched the setting forth of the invasion of the Dark. Their limitless numbers and the vast size of the herds lost all meaning in his mind; he had not thought that there could be so many of them on the face of this earth.

He had learned too much about politics, power plays, and the confusion of crisis to believe that his own world would be able to take the necessary kind of concerted action against them quickly enough to stem the first tide of destruction. If there was some kind of general crisis in the U.S., he thought, its enemies would take the opportunity to bomb the daylights out of it first and ask questions later .

I never intended to go back – but I never believed that it would be destroyed behind me .

In numbed grief, Rudy let his eyes return to the tattered, silent form of the gatekeeper of the Cosmos, standing alone at the conjunction of worlds, rimmed in searing light.

The clouds overhead broke shortly before dawn. The dazzling radiance of the Void narrowed to a slit as the fabric of the torn universe was allowed to heal itself, and the slit shortened to a single flame and vanished like the paling stars in the blue darkness.

The Dark and their herds were gone; the road by which they had traveled had vanished, too. At the end of the trampled track of churned slush, there was no mark; the huge spoor ended abruptly, as if it had been chopped short with a pair of scissors. Beyond it, pale and untouched, frost gleamed on the bare ground.

Ingold stood like a marking stone on that vanished road, his head bowed, alone beneath the vast, cold darkness of the empty sky.

The Dark had left him, Rudy thought, to account for what he had done.

Faint wind stirred through the dawn stillness, and the old man raised his head. Shining thinly in the predawn light, a sword stood, stabbed upright in the earth, just beyond where the gate had been. Ingold walked toward it, the hem of his robe sweeping damply across the glittering ground, and pulled it free. Rudy saw that it was the wizard's own sword, the one that had fallen from his hands on the dark stair beneath the Palace. The Dark had returned it to him.

The silence that filled the earth seemed to stretch unbroken to the fading hems of the sky. Ingold turned the blade in his hands, looking unearthly in the underwater blueness of dawn, as if he had absorbed some of the Void's blinding light. As Gil and Rudy came slowly up the hill toward him, he turned. The sword glinted as he sheathed it in the empty scabbard he wore at his belt.

He faced them empty-handed.

"If it would do any good." Rudy said quietly, "I would kill you for what you have done."

The old man regarded him in silence for a time, swaying slightly on his feet with weariness. In their bruised and darkened hollows, his eyes were heavy with fatigue, yet still serene. Rudy had not seen such peace in them since he and Ingold had set forth to seek the Archmage at Quo.

"And just what is it, Rudy, that you believe I have done?"

Rudy blinked at him, his face blank with surprise.

The wizard faltered unsteadily on his feet. Gil, who had stood in taut silence, stepped quickly to catch his arm. Their eyes met, and Rudy thought he saw a lightening, like a smile far back in the drugged blue depths, answering Gil's look of tormented doubt. Then Ingold sighed and turned to Rudy.

"You were very fond of your world, Rudy. But, given the infinite number of parallel universes, the Dark would hardly choose a place so-relatively-chilly and so extravagantly over-illuminated." His hand tightened suddenly on Gil's supporting shoulder.

"Come," he said quietly. "I am dying of cold and, at the moment, I doubt I have the strength even to call fire."

In the hollow below Trad's Hill, Rudy removed the spells of ward from their hidden camp and kindled a fire there. Gil brought out the walking staff that she had used on the journey from Renweth and returned it to Ingold as he sat beside the blaze.

"I saved it, along with your other things," she explained.

He smiled up at her as he took it. "You couldn't have known you would have the opportunity to return it to me," he said.

"No," she told him matter-of-factly. "I planned to bury you with it, after I killed you."

An impish lightness flickered for a moment in his eyes, and, rather to Rudy's surprise, he took her hand and lightly kissed her fingers. "That's my Gil."

Then Rudy realized what had been wrong. In all the battle and pursuit through the slimy, fogbound ruins of Gae, he had never seen in Ingold's eyes the inhuman emptiness that had characterized Lohiro's. Throughout that day and through the eerie horrors of the night, the wizard had been frightening, but he had never been other than Ingold.

"That's why they wanted you, wasn't it?" Rudy asked softly.

"Yes," the old man murmured and held out unsteady hands to the warmth of the blaze. "They-wanted to talk to me. I think they would have come and fetched me eventually, wherever I was."

Above the trampled crest of Trad's Hill and the broken skeleton of Gae, the sky was now stained with lavender, a soft dove color that infused the earth from horizon to horizon and lent an ashy pallor to the old man's white face.

"Did they take over your mind?" Rudy asked.

Ingold kept his eyes steadily on the fire. "In a manner of speaking," he replied. "They are not exactly one being, but they speak from mind to mind in a fashion that we would find-rather horrible. It was only when Lohiro, in an act of foolhardy desperation, gave his mind to the Dark that they realized communication with us was possible in any fashion at all." The lacerated flesh around his eyes puckered suddenly as he closed them, as if to shut out some hideous vision. "I fought them endlessly," he went on. "I don't know how long." A shiver racked his body, and he bowed his head, his forehead resting on suddenly clenched knuckles. "Of course it was stupid," he whispered. "They knew they had only to wait until I tired."

Gil's hand gently touched his bent shoulder, and gradually the shivering ceased.

At length he raised his head again. "The Dark were in desperate straits, you see. They are a farsighted race, with understanding of things whose mere existence we ourselves have barely guessed. You were only partially right, Gil, when you spoke of a-a weather cycle. The deep cold spell of three thousand years ago was only a small fluctuation in a much longer, deeper cycle. This one-the one that began this autumn, after what I suppose could only be called a warning flutter twenty years ago-will last uncountable years of time. The Dark Ones said that the ice in the north will spread until it covers much of the world. It may be possible for humankind to survive the cold, they said-but the herds of the Dark would not last another two years. The famine in the Nest had already reached proportions far more severe than ever in the past, and there was no hope of salvaging the herds in the deepest caverns and waiting for the cold to pass. In a very short time the Dark Ones would have cracked the last citadels of humankind, devoured its final representatives-and themselves perished."

"Could they have?" Rudy asked doubtfully. "They tried to break the Keep at the beginning of winter…"

"They could," Ingold said somberly. "Believe me, Rudy, they could. I know the Dark-now.

"They saw no alternative to the annihilation of both races until this autumn, when I crossed the Void to speak to you, Gil. Then they became aware of the Void. When I rescued Tir from the destruction of the Palace at Gae, one of them crossed it… And they have hunted for me ever since."

He folded his hands and sat gazing into the fire. Around them, the wet, slushy plain was emerging from obscurity, gray sheets of ice lying in all directions, pricked with black friezes of branches and sedge. The mournful cry of rooks grated faintly into the dawn air.

"They wanted me to find them a new world," the wizard went on softly, as if scarcely aware now of either his surroundings or his listeners. "A world such as this one was eons ago, when the Dark first built their eldritch cities in swamps whose very memory is no more than stratum of pebbles in the bed of a desert stream. A warm world, dark and marshy, where they could tend their herds, build new cities, and dream."

Against the paling sky, the broken walls of Gae were clearly visible, a black crenelation against the gray of filthy waters. It was a city wholly empty now, except for the rats that fed on jewel-circled bones. As if in a vision, Rudy saw again the mists rolling back from the ruins of Quo and heard the dim boom of the breakers at the foot of Forn's shattered Tower. Dull anger burned in his heart for the greedy callousness that had crushed and wasted this world and then passed on, unscathed and unavenged.

"So they made you their slave," Rudy said quietly, "and left the rest of us to pick up the pieces."

Ingold glanced sideways at him. Life seemed to be stirring back into the wizard. The sunken, corpselike weariness was passing from his face. "Oh, I was never their slave," he murmured. "Merely their-collaborator."

Rudy looked up sharply.

"The Dark Ones never took over my mind," Ingold explained gently. "They couldn't do that-not if they wanted me to retain the knowledge of how the Void operates. If I were their slave, do you think I would have tried to get you out of town before you were caught up in the spells of the Dark and drawn along with the herds through the Void?"

In a dull voice, Rudy said, "Then after all they did- destroyed your world and murdered your friends-you helped them willingly."

Annoyance sparkled deep in the azure eyes. "Hardly willingly."

When Rudy still sat in smoldering silence at the unfairness of it, Ingold asked, "If you are in a fight and your opponent knocks you down and then walks away, do you call him back to hit you again, in the hope of defeating him?"

"Well- " Rudy said grudgingly. "Some people do."

"And that, Rudy, is how some people get noses like yours," the wizard retorted. "As for the rest-it is finished."

"You know they rose in the Alketch?" Gil said, after a moment's silence.

"I was informed when it happened."

"Did you know Eldor is dead?"

The wizard sighed, and it seemed that his broad shoulders sagged a little, as if at bad news long expected. He shook his head wearily. "But it hardly surprises me. He did not want to live very badly. As you yourselves have no doubt found, the world into which we have all been thrust is a poor trade for the security and comfort of civilized life." He looked up from the fire, the cool pallor of dawn now clearly visible about them. "And that, my children," he said, "brings us all to the time that I have come to dread. We are where we should have been many months ago, had not politics and the chances of fortune intervened."

He took Gil's hand and rose haltingly to his feet. Behind him, the first warmth of the sun infused the neutral landscape with color, tinting the rocks that protruded through the dirty snow with the richness of rust and indigo, edging the broken ice in burnished gold. Looking down suddenly, Gil could see in the protected hollows of the rocks that surrounded their camp the first green threads of grass and the hardy green weeds of the coming spring.

Deep and scratchy, Ingold's voice came to her ears. "You are free now to return to your homes," he was saying, "wherever those homes may be."

The hush that filled the morning world was so profound that Gil could hear the far-off whistle of a chickadee in the willows that fringed the river. She became conscious that she was hungry and cold, as she had always been since coming to this world.

Rudy was the first to speak. "I thought you didn't believe in the chances of fortune, Ingold," he said quietly. "You know I could never go back. It almost seems I always knew that, even on the first day we were in Karst, before I'd met Aide, or understood about magic, or-or anything."

Ingold smiled. "And that is why I do not believe in the chances of fortune. My dear…"

Gil looked up, to see grief and gentle regret in the old man's eyes.

"I know there were times that you hated me for robbing you of what you had and what you sought in your own world. There is little scope here for your scholarship. In the years to come, humankind will be reduced to fighting for its bare survival. And due to my carelessness, you have been kept here against your will, and in your absence that other life that is waiting for you has become badly disrupted. Forgive me, Gil. I think you shall find, when you return, that nothing is irreparable."

"I'm not so sure about that," Gil said shakily. "I don't think I'll ever patch up the break in the wall that I'd built around myself there. And maybe other things besides."

The glacier wind from the mountains burned her scarred cheek. Through her mind floated a host of trivialities- movies, the stereo, coffee, hot showers, her parents, and the peace of a soft bed. She realized how badly she ached with lack of sleep and how icy were her hands in that light, sword-scarred grip.

She raised her head again and held his gaze with hers. She asked, "Do you want me to stay?"

She saw his eyes widen, all the serenity in them put to flight by sudden, springing hope that was resolutely crushed before they turned away from hers altogether. His low, grainy voice was carefully neutral, but she could feel his fingers tighten over hers.

"Gil," Ingold said quietly, "I told you once that I am a dangerous person to love. I have tried very hard not to love you-without success, I might add-and if you stayed, I would not want to be parted from you. And that, my dear, would bring you nothing but disaster."

"You don't think that, after all that's passed, I can't cope with disaster?"

He looked back at her, taut misery on his face. "You don't understand," he said. "From the time I was your age, my power, my damned curiosity, and my infernal meddling have brought danger and horrible deaths to those I have loved and to those who have loved me. I have never loved a woman as I love you-God only knows why, for I've never met such a stubborn and hardhearted woman as yourself. I have never before loved a woman so much that I would rather lose her than see her come to harm."

"If it comes to that," Gil replied mildly, "I've never met any man-any person- whom I'd risk my neck to stay with-until you."

"I cannot allow it…".

"That wasn't my question."

Something very close to anger darkened his face. "I can't let you do this to yourself," he told her roughly. "Aside from being pointed at as an old man's folly -"

"Old?" Her brows shot up. " You ?"

Under the scrubby beard and long, unkempt mane of hair, his scarred cheeks colored. "Gil, you have no idea what you are asking," he pleaded.

She put her hands on his shoulders, and the coarse folds of his mantle were damp and cold under her fingers. "I know what I'm asking," she said in a low voice. "Now forget your responsibility to everyone else for once in your life and give me a straight answer. Do you want me to stay?"

She saw the struggle on his face, his love and protectiveness toward her fighting against a wholly selfish desire to keep her at his side as his woman and his friend. She thought that he would lie, as he had often lied, to keep her from harm, retreat behind a smoke screen of words, send her away from him, and meet his own doom in his own way.

But after a moment he reached up and took her wrists, a half-amused, half-regretful wryness in his eyes.

"I want you," he said softly. "You know perfectly well that I have always wanted you, my love."

Rudy looked consideringly at the two cloaked forms, locked in a sudden and crushing embrace in the pale, heat-less sunlight. He shook his head. "And I thought I was involved in a relationship I didn't understand," he remarked.

"The only thing in that relationship I never understood," Gil commented judiciously, when she and Ingold broke apart at last and she pushed the tangled hair back from her face, "is Aide's taste in men."

"You're coming real close to spending the rest of your life as a frog, spook," Rudy warned her.

"A rash threat," Ingold said, "considering that her true love is on the spot and yours is a week's journey away at the Keep of Dare."

Rudy sighed, realizing that he was outnumbered. But then, he thought, eyeing that curious couple, Gil and Ingold together were capable of outnumbering almost anything.

"Why do I put up with this?" he demanded rhetorically.

"It's very simple," Ingold replied, draping one arm around the frayed shoulders of the awesome and intellectual warrior at his side. "Since nothing is fortuitous, you yourself chose this world over the one that you were born in. Perhaps, since we do not know the reasons for all things happening as they do, you chose it long before you ever came here. Even a cursory comparison of the two worlds proves that you are out of your senses."

"Thanks." Rudy sighed. "I wondered about that."

"It explains why you're always surrounded by lunatics," Gil offered hopefully.

"No," Rudy objected. "Even a plea of insanity wouldn't explain that."

Ingold laughed. "Come," he said. "Your lady at the Keep will be growing anxious. It is time we were bound for home."

Pale sunlight glimmered on the ice in the flooded valleys before them, turning the trampled mud of the plain into a flashing carpet of diamonds. Though cold winds blew the scent of barren rock and glacier ice down upon them from the mountains to the north, it could already be seen that the pools were edged with the vivid green rushes of a late and chilly spring. The shadows of the wanderers rippled hard and blue about their feet as the three moved off down the hill to take the southward road.