the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 4

The most beautiful city in the West of the World-that was how Minalde had spoken of Gae.

A garden, the Icefalcon had called it.

But the Icefalcon was said to be dead, murdered by the representative of the Empire of Alketch, Alwir's prospective ally. Minalde… Rudy did not want to think of Aide, though he had done little else for seven wretched days. And Gae sprawled, like the maggot-riddled corpse of a beautiful woman, with the bones starting to work up through discolored and falling flesh.

The wizards had entered the city at dawn, shadows in the dark mists that rose from the ice-scummed marshes. The swollen loops of the Great Brown River had engulfed the lower town, and even the upper, landward quarters bore foul evidence of the winter's floods. Fungi and mosses slimed the fallen walls; the square below the shadows of the crumbling turrets of the gate was a steaming, knee-deep slough, stretching as far as Rudy's eyes could penetrate the chill, pearlescent fog. In all that filthy, shrouded world, the only sounds seemed to be the distant drip of water and the cries of unseen rooks, quarreling over horrid prey.

Aide loved this town , he thought, surveying the leprous desolation before him. She was raised here; it was part of the life she loved, before the Dark… and before me .

Rudy hoped she would never have to see it as it was now.

He shifted his staff to his other hand-the six-foot, crescent-pronged staff that had once belonged to the Archmage Lohiro-and checked the weapon that hung holstered at his side. It was the only one of its kind, like a glass and gold Flash Gordon zap-gun-a hand flame thrower that could spit a thirty-foot column of fire. If he must enter the realm of the Dark, Rudy had resolved to enter it prepared.

The silence that hung over the town was frightening. Fog covered it like pewter darkness, masking the broken walls and fallen columns in opal veils of mystery. But it was not a dead silence that prickled Rudy's hair and made him strain his eyes to pierce the mists. It was a silence that lived and watched.

Like a thickening of smoke, Ingold faded into being at his side. "This way," he murmured, his voice scarcely louder than the skittering of rats' feet on the broken stones before them. "Kara tells me the main path to the Palace is blocked. We can go by way of the Street of Oleanders."

Other forms materialized-Kara of Ippit and the withered little hermit Kta, who had included himself, over Ingold's protests, in the expedition at the last minute. Kara whispered, "I didn't like the look of that street. It looked almost as if-as if a wall had been built across it out of rubble."

Ingold nodded. "It could be that it had." The wraith of his breath drifted for a moment like smoke about his head, then dissipated into the cloudy whiteness that surrounded the group. Within the shadows of his hood, his eyes had an over-bright, fagged look to them, the look of a man living on his nerve endings. Then he turned away, and chill, smoky darkness once more enveloped the wizards.

As they moved through the ruined town, Rudy came to understand the old man's insistence that the party be accompanied by one who knew Gae. No map could have gotten them through the back-doubling alleys that avoided the open ground of the fog-locked marketplace or could have guided them through the leaden darkness to the weed-hung colonnades and shopping arcades whose denser shadows lent the wizards cover from seeking eyes. Ingold led them easily through ruined courtyards where tangled mats of vines ran riot over the charred commingling of stones and human bones, down half-flooded alleys whose walls were thick with pullulant green-black moss, and through the frost-furred muck of empty mews that skirted the wealthier parts of the town. Twice, as the milky vapors around them lightened toward dawn, Rudy glimpsed little bands of dooic, slipping through the vine-tangled side streets, half-obscured by fog. And once, as they passed the hoared bowl of a frozen fountain in what had been a fashionable square, he heard a baby cry somewhere close by, a fitful, helpless wailing that filled him with horror.

He reached to touch the wizard's mantle. "Do you hear that?"

The sound had been quenched as suddenly as it had begun.

Kara glanced behind her nervously, her big hands tightening over the long-bladed halberd that she carried instead of the customary staff; Kta's bright little bird-black eyes were sharp with interest. In the cold pewter light, Ingold's face was impassive, but Rudy thought he looked rather white around the lips.

"Did you think that Gae was deserted, Rudy?" he asked softly. The steam curling from the fetid pool of ice-crusted brown water in the court blew between them, blurring him momentarily to a flat gray shape, featureless but for the glitter of his eyes.

Rudy whispered, "Dooic babies don't cry like that. I've heard them, out in the plains." When Ingold did not reply, he asked, "Do you know who it is? I thought there was nobody alive in Gae."

"Nobody?" The wizard's voice was soft; behind it, Rudy detected other sounds, distorted by the fog-squishing footfalls and the wet drag of something heavy over stone. He sensed the sudden change in the air and felt the fog condense around them, drawn by Ingold to shield them from hostile eyes. The pinprickle sensation of a cloaking-spell tingled on his skin. "Nobody whom we would recognize as human, perhaps."

"You mean-the ones whose minds the Dark have eaten?" Rudy's hand felt clammy on his staff; he groped for the flame thrower at his belt. "But I thought they became zombies and died-of exposure or starvation…"

"They do." Ingold's voice was a flicker of breath, blurring into the scritch of the vines on the wall at their backs. "Less innocent than that, I'm afraid. These, Rudy, will be ghouls."

They came into sight out of the mists near the broken fountain bowl-slumped, repulsive, stinking. It was more than the putrid stench of corruption that clung to their gaudy, tattered clothes; the reek of what they were poured about them like a fog of filth. There were five of them, two men and three women. One of the women was swollen-bellied with child; another was hardly more than a girl. Their hair was matted with scum and old blood; their clothes- brocades and velvets, stitched with gold and tipped with ermine-were filthy and wrinkled, as if they had been slept in, eaten in, fornicated in, and worn to slaughter some small and violently struggling animal. The ghouls moved at a furtive trot, glancing constantly over their shoulders; two of them were armed with cleavers, and the leader carried a jewel-encrusted sword.

They passed within a few feet of the wizards, murmuring among themselves, their glances flitting here, there, and everywhere but toward the spot where the wizards stood. Rudy heard the leader whisper, "That mothereating scout said the downriver people had moved up into this neighborhood someplace." The pregnant woman enlarged on the subject of the scout in terms that would have brought blushes to the cheeks of some Hell's Angels Rudy had known. Close to them, holding his breath against their reek, he could see that none of them looked very healthy. The youngest girl's face was blotched all over with savage scars-like huge vaccination marks, he thought stupidly, then realized that they must be from smallpox. The smaller of the two men sniffled and blew his nose on his already dripping sleeve; the other cursed him and told him to shut up if he didn't want to end up in the pot himself.

As the white vapors swallowed them once again, Rudy grasped who these must be.

They were the citizens of Gae who had not followed Alwir's convoy to the south -who had remained in Gae to loot the empty houses and live in wealth among the ruins. They'd taken the weapons from the charred hands of corpses buried under the wreck of the Palace-weapons that, as in the case of King Eldor, had proved the only means of identifying the burned bodies-and robbed the clothes from the backs of those dead in the cellars and streets. They'd clung to the city rather than trade it for the hardships of the road, making rats' burrows of homes in the majestic remains of the villas of the rich and fighting the former dooic slaves and one another for the dwindling supplies of food that were left.

It occurred to Rudy, as the mists swirled suddenly around Ingold's abrupt departure, that, if the old man had known the town in its heyday, he might just have recognized one of the ghouls as someone he had once known.

Rudy moved off after him, torn between revulsion and pity.

They crossed another court and turned down an alley that was so choked with the vines that seemed to have overtaken whole districts of the city that it was only with difficulty they could move through the persistently tangling mat at all. Elsewhere they had to cut through a veritable wall of them, and Rudy found himself wondering, as he struggled with the clinging, knotty stems, what this place would be like when darkness fell, with these ubiquitous snares slowing their flight. Then Ingold halted at the mouth of a narrow street beyond which could be seen only a wall of opal mist. In the growing light, his face was a harsh medley of planes and shadows; as in a certain type of art, the only spark of color lay in his eyes. He touched Rudy's sleeve, pointed across the court before them, and whispered, "There."

Rudy blinked, frowning into the mists. After a moment he realized that what he had taken for a darkening in the fog was the opaque bulk of some vast building, a suggestion of broken roof lines and sagging towers, of charred rafters, and of decay. Winds stirred at the billowing veils, smelling of water, corruption, and wet earth. The fogs were infused with the sudden, weak light of the sun; watery colors became slowly visible through the shimmering gauze. Edges seemed to step forth from obscurity. Piece by piece, pillar and pavement and pierced frieze of stone, the Palace of Gae manifested itself to them, like the many-colored corpse of a dead dragon, its bare ribs arching high into the milky air.

So this, Rudy thought, was where Eldor had left his bones in the flaming ruins. Where the Dark Ones had dragged Alde away, captive, and the Guards of Gae had rescued her on the edge of the chasm. Where Ingold had deserted the last battle, to carry Eldor and Minalde's infant son Tir across the cosmic Void and into the temporary safety of the mild and sunny realm of California.

This was where it all started.

And this, he realized with a foreboding chill, was where, somehow, now or later, it was destined to end.

The court lay bare and empty before them, a mud-smeared expanse of broken green and scarlet inlays, half-sheeted with ice and already infected by the long, searching runners of the vines. Ingold shifted the weight of the coiled rope he carried over his shoulder and whispered, "We'll cross one at a time. Kara, keep an eye on Kta." He gripped the staff in his hand and stepped into the open ground of the court.

A movement caught Rudy's attention, along the wall to his left. He whirled, his hand going to his flame thrower, but all he saw was a huge rat, sliding insolently among the matted compost of dirt and vines and bones. When he looked back to the court, Ingold was gone.

There was no sign of him in all that bleached expanse. Not even a footprint marked the frost-fuzzed moss of the broken pavement.

Then he saw the wizard in the dense shade of the arch at the far side of the courtyard, barely visible in the dappling shadows of filigreed marble and dead vines. Ingold moved a hand, signaling Rudy to follow.

He obeyed, with a hopeless sense of nakedness in the open ground. But though he half-expected Ingold to greet him with a mild query about whether he intended to send out a crier to announce his presence as well, the wizard said nothing. It was borne upon Rudy that the time for his education in wizardry was past. He was what he was, and it was up to him to keep himself out of trouble.

Kara followed. Rudy had a quick impression of the gray ripple of a homespun cloak and the touch of a skirt hem on frozen vines. Once, where the tessellated pavements were cracked, he saw the brief shadow of a tall woman and the glint of wan daylight on the blade of a halberd. Then Kara was beside him, her face pale under her hood.

Ingold had moved off, scouting the porch. The mists held thicker here, stirring faintly about his feet like pallid ground fog; sometimes it was only that vague shifting movement that allowed him to be seen at all. His brown cloak seemed to blend with the gloom, melting indistinguishably into the thicker shadows of the broken archways. Rudy glanced back across the moss-splotched court, seeing its smeared and dirty pavements with their brave colors all but hidden beneath the soupy scum of mud and ash and leaves.

"Where did Kta go?"

Kara, who was likewise looking out across the court, shook her head. "He was going to follow me," she whispered.

Rudy cursed his own stupidity. "One of us should have gone after him," he whispered back. "He may be tough as an old sagebrush root, but I don't think he was mageborn. If he was, I've certainly never seen him work anything resembling a spell." Which was true; as far as anyone could tell, the withered little mummy was totally illiterate and untaught, though he took a childlike joy in the spells of the younger mages. Most of the other wizards in the Corps tended to regard him as a curiosity, rather than an asset to the Corps. But Rudy had tried to keep up with the little fossil's untiring footsteps for seven days' hard slogging through the foul, flooded river valleys that lay between Gae and Renweth, and had come to the conclusion that not only did Kta neither eat nor sleep, but that he only sat down to rest at night out of consideration for the frailty of his companions.

Kara murmured, "Should one of us go back for him? Ingold would never forgive us if we lost…"

Her voice trailed off. Ingold and Kta materialized from the shadows behind them, Ingold whispering in an exasperated voice, "… and since you insisted upon including yourself in this expedition to begin with, the least you can do is accept my judgment as its leader."

"Ah?" the little hermit said, not at all concerned. He was hopping along at

Ingold's side with a birdlike gait, tiny and incredibly fragile-looking, like some worn macram6 made of rags.

"You have to admit you're too old for active fieldwork. I've permitted you to come this far, but you will not go down with us into the Nest."

The older man straightened his back as much as was possible and peered up at Ingold with bright little black eyes. "I will be unseen," he replied in his piping voice.

"I'm only concerned for your safety, Kta," Ingold insisted. "You know-"

The tiny creature rounded upon him, almost tripping him with the quickness of his movement, and jabbed a skinny pink forefinger up at him. "Always this concern for others' safety," he accused shrilly, "whether they wish to hold safe or not."

"You know you couldn't fight your way out of a trap," Ingold told him gently.

"Neither could you, for all your skill with that fearsome meatchopper you carry."

Ingold looked miffed, and Kta turned and hobbled ahead, toward the vast, broken doorway that opened into the darkness of the vaults. As he clambered up the weed-choked rubble of stone and shattered bronze, he half-turned and flung smugly over his shoulder, "And it is not me whom the Dark Ones pursue from one end of the world to the other."

Ingold opened his mouth to retort, but Kta was gone, hopping calmly into the terrible shadows below. Rudy and Kara fell into step beside Ingold as he hurried to catch up with Kta, where he waited in that anteroom of Hell. Rudy said softly as they passed into the clustered shadows of the vault doors, "He's got you there." It was the first time he'd ever seen Ingold lose an argument with anyone.

The wizard glanced over at him sharply. "Nonsense," he snapped. "He's too old to undertake the exploration of the Nest with us and too stubborn to admit it."

And you love him too much , Rudy thought, to want to see him killed trying . But he wisely refrained from tackling the issue of stubbornness with Ingold and walked after him in silence through the wan, dappled gray ness of the broken upper levels.

Here the ruin was greater, as if this semisubterrene antechamber to the vaults had been transformed into a kind of borderland of darkness. The vines here grew thicker, festooning the burned rafters in impenetrable curtains, insolently forcing apart the very stones of the walls. Darkness seemed to lurk in every corner; the walls and floor had a slimy glitter, and the fetid stink of netherworld vegetation clogged in the nostrils and collected like a film on the tongue. Rudy found himself prey to a growing uneasiness, a feeling of being snared; the vines and the paving-stones they had tilted seemed to snag at his feet deliberately. He wondered how quickly a man could run from this place.

"There," Ingold said quietly. Half-hidden by the mats of vegetation, another doorway gaped, black and terrible, over a bone-littered threshold. "That leads down to the lower vaults, where we will find the stairway to the Darkness itself. You all know the spell that will cloak you against the awareness of the Dark-" He vouchsafed not a glance at Kta. "-but remember also that you must use a double spell and avoid likewise the notice of their herds. Also," he went on, glancing sharply from Rudy's face to Kara's, "we must not let ourselves be seen by any human prisoners. The Dark have been taking prisoners from the beginning of their rising. It is not our business to free them, no matter how much compassion we may feel. To do so would jeopardize not only our mission but also our lives. There is just so much that a cloaking-spell will cover; if we do anything to bring ourselves to the attention of the Dark, we are lost."

Easy for you to tell us that , Rudy thought as he followed the dark, cloaked form down the red porphyry stairs that led to the vault. None of us knew Gae. You're the only one likely to see anyone you know .

Afterward, he read the wax tablets he had sketched with the maps of the Nest, registering the various tunnels and caverns he had wandered through, and what he saw surprised him, for he did not remember most of them singly. The greater part of his memories of the Nest he forced down below the levels of consciousness, only to have them surface, like bloated corpses from black waters, in his dreams. The hours he spent below the ground had a surreal quality; in that unending night, time became meaningless. Terror, shock, and disgust further clouded his sense of the passage of hours. He lost even his own sense of self, for he walked hidden in his wreaths of illusion, invisible to all around him.

After they parted in the topmost cavern with an agreement and a common spell to mark the limits of their time, he walked alone, like a ghost haunting a world as alien and incomprehensible as it was revolting and horrifying. It was a world of darkness, of slimy moisture and ever-present, hideous danger, a world whose existence he had never even imagined possible and which would never, he feared, be wholly eradicated from his mind.

The Dark Ones were everywhere. They crowded the walls and ceilings of measureless caverns of darkness, the clicking of their claws on the slick-polished limestone a constant chattering background to his sickness and dread. His wizard's sight showed him the wet gleam of their massed backs and the glitter of the foul fluid that dripped continually from those gelid surfaces. The stink of them, sharp and somehow metallic, clogged his nostrils, and he felt a mounting horror of being discovered and buried alive under those squirming, slithering beings.

That first enormous cavern, where he parted from the other wizards at the foot of the drop-off and the spelled rope, was the worst, for the Dark Ones crawled not only over ceiling and walls but across the floor as well, scurrying like monster roaches through the dry and crumbling brown moss, their long whiplike tails hissing through the withered vegetation and leaving trails of sticky wetness behind. Elsewhere they seemed to travel mostly on the ceilings of the tunnels, crawling among the stalactites and folded veils of stone as cavern succeeded cavern, the drip of their noisome slime tapping viscously on the mossy floors. Never having been subject to the terror and loathing of spiders and snakes, Rudy had not understood that morbid dread of simply being touched by something abominable. He understood it now.

He had thought that custom would acclimate him to their presence in time, so that he could have confidence in the spells that guarded him and walk more easily. But it never did. Nor did it dull the smothering horror of the darkness itself or the unreasonable sensation of the weight of all those miles of earth and stone pressing down upon him. Only those who had never been trapped in the darkness below the ground could compare the mazes of the lightless Keep of Dare with the realms of the Dark. For all its pressing darkness, its weight of enchanted steel and stone, the Keep was finite. But the darkness here was infinite. The weight was the weight of the earth. The crawling horrors populating this place were likewise infinite, as inescapable as this darkness that had never seen light.

Only now did he understand Ingold's warnings and conviction that an invasion of the Nests could never succeed. The tunnels were endless, twisting down and back into the black bowels of the earth, incomprehensible mazes that could swallow a dozen armies. Nauseated despair took him, as he wandered farther and farther in that sightless realm, along with a sense of black hopelessness. He wondered how any army, even with the technology such as Dare of Renweth had had at his disposal, could have made so much as a dent against the numbers and power of the Dark.

But he had been sent to observe. Through the panic, the loathing, and the numbing despair, certain details stood out absurdly clear. Rudy noticed that the Nests were warm, and a flow of warmer air marked the downward-leading tunnels, even where the Dark Ones did not come crawling forth like round-headed, filthy beetles from holes in the putrefying moss. He 'saw that different kinds of moss grew in different places. Heavy carpets of velvet green-black in many places-whole caverns, sometimes-were crumbling to brown and withered dust. In other places, clubbed, knobby growths infested the floors like stumpy, unspeakable forests. Whitish mosses hung like curtains of slimy seaweed down the dripping walls. The herds of the Dark fed greedily upon them all.

The herds of the Dark affected Rudy strangely. He found his loathing of those bandy-legged, bulge-eyed humanoids almost as intense as his horror of the Dark Ones themselves. He had known they were close to human, but had expected creatures like the dooic of the plains-hairy and apelike, trapped Neanderthals. But the creatures that shuffled through the withering beds of moss or squatted to lap at the bottomless pools of onyx waters were smaller, more delicate, and larger of skull; their chittering squeals as they fled, blinking, from any movement in the air sounded horribly analogous to speech.

They were not the only ones chewing bits of moss in their soft little teeth and staring about in the darkness with huge, terror-stricken eyes. In a cavern so vast that his eyes could not reach its end, Rudy found herds of men and women in torn and soiled rags, stumbling about and feeding on moss, muttering endlessly in the dark. They did not move like those miserable zombies whose brains the Dark had devoured, but Rudy wondered how many of them could be called sane. This single chamber seemed to house a dozen good-sized bands, whose members had formerly owned shops, raised families, and promenaded the arcaded streets of the broken town above. Maybe they still had relatives up there, Rudy thought in a puzzled confusion of nausea and loathing; maybe they had husbands, or wives, or children in the Keep of Dare.

He drew back to avoid touching a woman who crawled past him on her hands and knees, seeking the edge of the pool by which he stood. She had long blond hair and had probably once been very beautiful, Rudy thought, looking with numbed dispassion at her emaciated face and bloated, sagging belly. She groped for the water in the darkness and mumbled, "Water fifty-five steps from the wall, water fifty-five steps from the wall," in a dulled, mechanical recitation.

It could have been Aide , Rudy thought, and the idea brought nausea burning up into his throat. Maybe it was a friend of hers. Hadn't Janus said that the Dark carried off large numbers of the defenders from that last battle in the Palace? Rudy shut his eyes, his head swimming suddenly; it could just as easily have been any one of them at the Keep.

But, as Ingold had said, it was not to pity or to rescue that they had come. It was to map, and map Rudy did, marking the immense caverns and the endless bowels of black tunnels crawling with filthy life as he followed the windings of the Nest deeper and deeper into the pressing earth. He found caverns flooded with black, oily water, through which stalactites rose like pillars from a floor of glass. He found cavern after cavern filled with bones-ages old and crumbling to dust or fresh and slithering with hideous rodent and insect life. He found the nurseries, the breeding grounds of the Dark, and the sight brought him as close as he had ever come to fainting in his adult life.

If I have to come back myself with a book of matches , he promised himself, hefting the gleaming weight of his flame thrower in his hand, I will see that place burned out .

He rested at last in a rock crevice, his sweating face cooled by the rising drift of air. He had marked the wall, tracing upon it with his fingertip a silvery rune that only he could see. The thought of going forward, further into that endless domain of darkness and smothering horror, was almost more than he could bear. He was weary, but he felt no hunger. After the nurseries, he doubted he would ever be hungry again.

Time had no meaning in the realms of the Dark, so it was with a sense of surprise that he glanced at the back of his hand and saw that the red rune Hlal, which Ingold had drawn there before they parted, had darkened almost to black.

Time sure goes fast when you're having fun , he told himself cynically and got to his feet. Decaying moss crumbled to brittle dust where he put his hand against the wall, filtering into the air to choke him. He holstered his flame thrower, wiped his filthy hand on the skirts of his filthy coat, and prepared himself for the long, ugly journey to the surface.

Wind struck him, chill and sudden. It poured down over him from the tunnel above-the swirling, directionless breath of the Dark. Deep in the cavern he had just left, he heard the thud-thud-thud of running feet and a man's hoarse, labored gasp. Making for here , Rudy thought, glancing up from the narrow rock slit where he was hidden toward the tunnel, then back at the cavern again. Winds were flowing from that direction, too, pursuing the man who ran toward him in the darkness.

Fantastic , Rudy thought, and debated which way to flee, for he had no intention of being trapped between the Dark and their prey. But before he could move, the winds rushed over him like a torrent of water, rasping in the dry moss all around him. The running man blundered with arms outstretched through the entrance of the crevice and fell, stumbling almost into Rudy's arms.

The Dark were instants behind. They poured down the top end of the tunnel as the runner and Rudy fell in a blundering tangle of arms and legs. Rudy was cursing, and the fugitive was gasping in surprise and despair. Rudy twisted himself free as the swarming plasmoid bodies descended on them both, soft coils of tentacles unfurling like dripping snakes.

Wyatt Earp himself couldn't have cleared leather faster.

The flame thrower belched light and fire, streamers of chrome-yellow flame pouring from its thick barrel, unbearably brilliant in the eternity of the underground dark. The fire flowed up over those slick backs in a licking torrent of searing gold.

By the first blast of the light, Rudy had a confused glimpse of the fugitive's face, an emaciated skull between hanks of grayed, dirty hair. Then the man screamed, covering his eyes that had not seen light since the fall of Gae, and the Dark were on them again.

But the fire was spreading among them; they blundered into one another like a flock of Hindenburgs in the confined space of the tunnel. Conflicting winds swept up from below, and Rudy whirled, bracing his feet on the slippery floor and firing downward, the noise of the flame a smothering roar. At the same instant, the spiny cable of a lashing tail grabbed at him from above, and he fired as he turned, the leaping column of silken heat brushing the withered moss of the cavern mouth beyond.

It went up like torched paper. Rudy blinked and flinched away in shock as the fires spread, rushing back into the empty cave below with a velocity that was horrifying. Stalactites, columns, twisting alabaster veils, and clumped masses of crystals leaped into ruddy visibility, their colors dazzling-bronze, rose, and cream-all smeared with the ruddy dye of the flame. He had a confused vision of Dark Ones falling in writhing clouds from the unseen ceiling, twisting about in agony at the brightness, splattering acid as they fell and were consumed by the greedy roar of the flame.

Then he fled, all hope of concealment shattered, and felt the winds of the Dark swirling on his back.

He was plunged again into darkness as he hit the wider tunnel beyond, staggering in the noisome muck of the steep floor. His traced, invisible runes beckoned; he turned, and the flame thrower spewed fire at the Dark Ones in his wake. The massed blackness erupted into flames, twisting and thrashing as they blazed, sparks sizzling in the wet, black mosses of the floor. Channeled by the tunnel walls, the winds raged around him, and he ran blindly from mark to mark, turning every now and then to fire at his pursuers or to clear the path before him. Where the sparks fell on the patches of brown and withered moss that blotched the walls like mildew, they exploded into violent flame.

Blind, white semihumans fled shrieking through the fire, covering huge, rudimentary eyes against the light. Men and women in rags ran past him, screaming in terror and confusion. Walls and ceiling were bursting into flame all around him, and he remembered with sudden horror that the last cavern before the one that contained stair and rope was covered in the brown, dried moss. The knowledge was like an electrified spur. It would take only a single spark to set the whole thing off, and if he were halfway across it at the time…

The upper caverns were a choked confusion of smoke, darkness, and half-lights. He stumbled where the ground was slippery and fought against the screaming humans and almost-humans who blundered against him, grabbing at his arm, shrieking unintelligible words. Columns of smoke burned his eyes, thrashed by the winds of the Dark. Rats streamed around his feet, fleeing the inferno below.

In the last cavern, there was nothing but a wild storming of darkness. Rudy could feel the power of the Dark Ones already reaching out, damping the flames as they damped light. He felt the immense might and will that throbbed in the swirling air. Brown moss and old bones crunched under his feet. The light of the fire streamed up from the tunnels behind him, touched the limestone lace with sulfurous glory, and outlined the billows of the smoke. Black, shining bodies poured through the passage that led upward, a torrent of dripping slime and gaping mouths. They streamed like a river toward the fire in the passageway, putting out their power to quench it, to damp it. Rudy flung himself up the rockslide toward the next tunnel just as one of the hapless herd-creatures, burning and shrieking as it ran, fled blindly into the cavern, stumbled, and fell into the crumbling moss.

It seemed to Rudy, shielding his smoke-filled eyes, that the monstrous cavern, which could have swallowed the entire Keep and still had room to spare, was engulfed not so much by spreading flame as by a single explosion, so rapidly did the moss go up. He gasped at the sudden vacuum of oxygen, his head turning light and giddy. For a moment he feared he would pass out and fall backward down the rocks into the roaring hell of the fire. As he ran on, staggering, he felt the flesh of his right cheek blistered and the backs of his hands scorched by the tremendous heat. It seemed to him as if all the Dark Ones in the Nest were streaming past him over his head, putting out their magic to kill the flames, while he fled beneath them, seeking the magic rope, with the weight of his flame thrower dragging at his blistered hand.

Then he was falling, and consciousness left him.

He came to slowly, and in the dark.

He tasted rock and water and smelled slime and stone. Both his hands were empty.

With a cry of despair he sat up, and a strong hand pushed him down again.

Something wet and shockingly cold smeared his burned cheek.

"Sit still," Ingold's voice said, not unkindly. "I believe you've caused quite enough trouble for one evening."

Slowly, his dark-sight came into focus.

They were in a small stone room like a vault. Its single entrance looked out onto a tiny garden close where half a dozen apricot trees huddled like crones in a train station, heads down against the bitter cold. Above the stink of acid and the gritty taste of dust and powdered moss in his nostrils, Rudy could smell old snow mixed with dirt and the chill scent of bad weather to come. Just visible, outlined in darkness against the door, Kara of Ippit was making additional notes on one of her tablets, her halberd leaning against the wall at her side. The unscarred profile of her face was turned toward him, and Rudy decided that, if a man were in love with her, and didn't mind cheekbones that made him think of an outcrop of granite on a desert hillside, she'd be almost pretty to him. Rudy's pronged staff, which he had somehow kept hold of during the chaos in the Nest, was propped up nearby, its points glinting dully in what wan light managed to leak from the overcast darkness of the night sky. In a corner of the little chamber, Kta was curled up asleep, like the rag-bound mummy of an Inca child.

Rudy sighed and relaxed into the not uncomfortable bed of old leaves on which he lay. They made a tired mushing sound under the single blanket spread over them and sent up a moldery, melancholy smell. "Christ," he whispered. "I'd hoped to hell you were all three out of the Nest before the fires got out of hand."

Ingold smiled and went back to mixing herbed grease between his hands. In the dim, filtered light from outside, Rudy could make out a broken pot or bowl on the floor beside the wizard, half-filled with ice-cold well water that glittered faintly as it leaked down onto the rough stone floor. "If I hadn't stopped to fight a rearguard action against the Dark," the old man replied mildly, "I would have been in that last cavern when it exploded into flame. You didn't see me?"

Rudy's eyes widened with horror and guilt. "Jesus, no. I'm sorry, man…"

"I suppose I should be galvanized with delight that the cloaking-spell works so effectively… Hold still, I'm not going to brand you. It's only burn medicine and it's good for you. Fortunately, there was a fairly straightforward tunnel that detoured around the cavern, and I did make it out- though I had to leave the rope at the stairs."

"How come?"

"Because I was carrying you." He sat back, wiping his hands on the corner of Rudy's blanket. His rough brown mantle reeked of smoke and of all the foulness of the Nest. In the shadows of his cowl, his eyes were amused and kind. "I trust your experiment with the flame thrower proved satisfactory?"

Rudy laughed shakily, and Ingold joined in-the first time, now that Rudy thought of it, that he had heard the wizard laugh in quite some time. The driven tension had faded from his eyes, leaving only an elusive, slightly haunted expression, like an echo of what he had seen in the Nest of the Dark. Rudy was later to know that look in the eyes of those who had been a part of the reconnaissance.

The memory of that putrid darkness returned to him, and he sobered. Quietly, he said, "It's going to be rough."

Ingold flashed him a quick, sideways glance. "You believe it can be done at all?"

Rudy frowned. "Of course. We'll need a heavy covering force to get the flame thrower squad to the bottom of the Nest, but once we're there, we can burn our way backward. If we can knock out the nurseries and damage as little as fifty percent of the Nest, we can make Gae safe for human habitation again."

"And you believe that a human force can damage as much as half the Nest?"

"That moss burns like paper, man." Rudy moved a little and winced. His muscles were already stiffening. "You don't think so?"

The old man was silent a moment, staring down at his own cut, blistered hands. Then he glanced toward the doorway. "Kara? Are you taking the first watch?"

"If it's all right," she said in her queer, deep voice.

Rudy struggled to a sitting position, surprised at how sore he was. His hands and face smarted under the sticky paste of Ingold's medicines. "I'll arm-wrestle you for it." he offered. "Or let's have the three of us draw straws. Short straw has to go to sleep. God knows how Kta manages it," he added feelingly.

"Kta's a hundred years old," Ingold reasoned mildly. "If there is anything he hasn't seen, I don't know what it could be."

Kara's smile was brief and hesitant, an expression that flickered out of existence almost before Rudy realized she'd been amused; it was as if at some time in her childhood she had been punished for laughing. She sat forward from the wall and put away the tablets she'd been working on, wrapping them in her old satchel. Like Gil, Rudy saw, she took her note on the wax with a sharpened hairpin, which she now carefully stuck through the lapel of her cloak, its tiny lily of diamonds twinkling like a star against the coarse gray fabric. Even the most precious jewels and trinkets were common coin among those who had survived the massacres of Gae and Karst. "Why couldn't we just pack up and leave the city now?" she asked quietly. "I don't think any of us is in any shape to sleep."

Ingold lay down in the shadows next to Kta and pulled his blanket over his mantle. "No," he decided softly. "We shouldn't be moving about Gae at night. There are other things besides the Dark abroad. And we are all exhausted. It would be fatally easy to make mistakes. It isn't many hours until dawn." He turned his face to the shadows of the wall, but Rudy wasn't going to take any bets on whether he would sleep or not.

Rudy got stiffly to his feet and drank what was left of the water in the leaky pot. It was cold and tasted of stone and of Ingold's herbs, but he felt parched with thirst. Then he limped to the door and settled himself opposite Kara in the broken doorframe. The thought of the dreams that sleep would bring made him wonder if he were in for a lifetime of insomnia. "Scoot over," he said. "You and me can tell each other ghost stories all night for jollies."

Again that fugitive smile appeared, going no farther than her eyes. Wind rattled in the branches of the court trees, a thin clattering, like the dangling bones of hanged men. Little spits of rain scampered over the wet ground and stung Rudy's burned cheek. Over the broken turrets of the city, he thought he heard a child crying again-or perhaps it was only the moaning challenge of a tomcat.

"Rudy?" Kara asked softly. "What did you see in the nurseries?"

"You didn't see them?"

She shook her head, "I explored sideways rather than down. I never reached them."

"Count your blessings." Rudy pulled his old coat a little tighter about him as a tongue of wind licked at his flesh. The curly wool of the collar felt stiff against his jaw.

"Were they so horrible?"

He was silent, staring out into the darkness of the frozen court. Kara blew on her knuckles and rubbed them, her dark eyes never leaving his face. Finally he said, "You grew up in the desert."

She nodded, "Yes."

"You know what a tarantula-wasp is?"

"Of course," Kara said, a little surprised at this non sequitur.

"Then don't ask me about what I saw in the nurseries."

He waited for a moment while she thought that one through. She made a dreadful, stifled noise in her throat and relapsed into sickened silence.