Once upon a time, very long ago and very far away, by the shore of a great lake, there was a city of crystal and stone.
Oh, it was a wonderful city, beautiful as the moon and the stars, and the buildings were like sculpted flowers, reaching up to the sky in delicate patterns of stone and sparkling, translucent crystal. Fountains played in the squares, and trees lined the avenues, so that even the stranger passing through might find shade in which to rest his weary limbs.
The people were as beautiful as their city: tall, muscular men with noble faces, whose dark eyes were keen and filled with wisdom and compassion; and long-limbed, lovely women who moved gracefully as the moon through the sky, and whose voices were like silver music. They were born, lived and loved grew old and died like people anywhere else, but for one thing: a shadow of sorrow seemed to lie heavy on them, for nobody had ever seen any of them smile.
In the very heart of the city was a great pyramidal temple of stone, smooth and black, inlaid with intricate designs made in pearl and silver, a temple so beautiful that it might break the heart of any poet who might try to describe it. Priests and priestesses clad in the richest of purple and gold vestments passed in and out of its four great doors, burned incense in its many passages, and prayed day and night at outside a great chamber. They prayed by turns, incessantly, and the prayer never stopped.
This chamber was sealed by a portal of bronze, which was never opened, except once a month, on the night of the new moon. It was then that the priests entered within, to do what they had to in there, and once it was done, they left and did not enter again until the moon was new.
It was a lovely city, this city of crystal and stone, and it was a dreadful city, filled with fear of the thing that was inside the chamber with the door of bronze; and the tall, handsome men, and the lithe-limbed, lovely women, bore the terror inside their breasts, and never, ever, smiled.
And so the years passed.
Storm clouds lay heavy on the lake on the day Krov the mercenary came to the city.
Krov was a warrior whose name was already known throughout the nations. Legion were those who trembled at the thought of his night-black armour and his sword sharp as the march of time; and many, too, were those who looked to hire him in their service, for to have him on one’s side meant that victory was assured. Krov had earned his living by hiring his sword out, up and down the Seven Cities and the lands in between, and fought and won more battles than he could count. But he had never been to the stone city, or even heard of it before the day when he arrived at the lake’s cloud-roofed shores.
Krov had not come to the city to fight. He was, in fact, a fugitive, and pursuers were hard on his trail, bent on revenge, for he had dealt great destruction upon them. But he was sorely wounded, and desperately needed a place where he might lie up and recover. He was so exhausted he could barely go on, and when he finally reached the lake, he sank down on its banks to slake his thirst in its waters. And there it was that people from the city found him, unconscious and not far from death. They did not know who he was, but they could see the marks of violence on him, and these, with his armour and great sword, showed clearly what kind of profession he had.
But they were gentle folk, the people of the stone city; and they bore him back to their town, and put him down in the house of the greatest mage and healer they had. The healer, whose name was Groz, realised from certain signs that this was a man whose advent had been written in prophecy, and was much disturbed. But his duty was clear, and it was to heal the wounded and the ill, no matter who they were and what they might do. So he washed and dressed the warrior’s wounds, and set about restoring him to health.
Now Groz had a daughter, who was beautiful, intelligent, gentle and charming, even by the standards of the people of that city. Her name was Krasa, and the mage gave the wounded man over to her care, so that she was the one who nursed him, gently spooned medicine between his lips, and changed the bandages that covered his wounds. And when at last he regained consciousness, it was her lovely face that he saw bent over him, her eyes dark with concern.
“Am I dead?” he whispered. “Are you an angel from paradise?”
“Of course you aren’t dead,” she said. “You are in the house of the mage and healer Groz, and I am his daughter, and your nurse.”
“I must get away at once, then,” he said, struggling to sit up. “There are enemies on my trail, and if they find that you are sheltering me, they will slaughter you, without pity.”
“Lie back and recover your strength,” she said, gently pushing him back on the bed. “Your enemies will never dare to enter the city, for there is a curse upon it, and everybody who is not of this place dreads this curse and does not set foot inside these walls.”
“What curse is that?” Krov asked.
“There is time enough for you to learn of that,” Krasa said. “For now, all you have to do is lie down and let me clean and wash your wounds, so that you get your health back again.”
Was it surprising that they fell in love, the warrior who had never before known the tenderness of a woman, and the girl who had never met someone from the outside world, someone who knew how to laugh? Was it a surprise, when she was with him every waking hour, and talked and sang to him when not caring for his needs? Was it, perhaps, what the mage Groz had intended, for he had delved into his books of prophecy, and grown more disturbed each time he turned their ancient and tattered pages? Did he hope that his daughter’s love would deflect the thing that he saw was to come?
Twice a day he came into the sick-room to check on the wounded man, and his brows would knit with concentration as he looked at the wounds, judged how fast they were healing, and what new medicines would be appropriate. The warrior healed quickly, though, so at the end of fortnight he was hobbling around the house, leaning on the willing shoulder of his nurse and new found love. And every once in a while, they would pause in their walk to kiss, and then walk on again.
“I’ll take you away from here,” he told her once, when he was well enough to walk with her in the streets of the town. “I’ll take you from this city where nobody smiles, and I’ll teach you to laugh, and your laughter will be like sunlight after rain.”
But she put her finger on his lips to shush him. “Not now, love. Wait until you’re fully healed. We can talk about it then.”
Then, one day, Krov woke, and for the first time he did not find his lovely nurse sitting beside him, to touch his face with the tips of her fingers to let him know she was there and would be there for him. And though he was by now well enough to get up and move around on his own, and dress himself, he felt it keenly that she was not there.
He was just about to leave the room and go to look for her when the mage Groz entered, and from the look in his eyes Krov knew something had happened. The healer, though, examined his wounds as usual, and nodded. “You are almost completely healed,” he said. “It is most fortunate that you recovered in so short a time. Now, warrior, we have things to speak of.”
“Yes,” Krov answered. “I would like to thank you for all you have done. But I would like to know where your daughter is, for I must tell you that I love her, and I miss her acutely.”
A shadow, like night, passed over the mage’s face at his words. “I had, indeed, hoped you would love her and take her away from this accursed city. But now that will never be.”
“Why do you call this beautiful city accursed?” Krov asked. “Krasa too said there was a curse on it. And where is she?”
“She will never come again,” Groz told him with a sigh. “For tonight is the new moon, and she has been chosen. I was hoping that you would take her away, but that will now never be.”
“Chosen for what?”
“Let me tell you a story,” the mage said then. “Once, many years ago, there was a city where everyone smiled and laughed, like people elsewhere, a city filled with joy and laughter and happiness. It seemed to be a blessed city, rich and free.
“One day, there came to the ears of the ruler that word of those riches and happiness had come to the ears of a cruel people to the north, and a rapacious army was on the way to pillage and destroy the city. And there was no way the people could defend their city, for they did not know anything of the art of soldiering, and if they tried to fight, they would be entirely overwhelmed.
“Then he called his mages together, and asked them to find a remedy, for otherwise they would all be lost. The army of the enemy was but a scarce day’s march away, its scouts might even at that moment be observing the city from among the hills to the north.
“And the mages debated and discussed together, but none of them could suggest a remedy. None, that is, but for one who sat apart from the others, and who took no part in their debates. Finally, when they had all confessed themselves helpless, he stood up and bowed deep and low.
“ ‘There is a way,’ he said, ‘that we could defeat the barbarian hordes that come to destroy us. But it comes with a steep price, and I would hesitate to suggest a course that would cost us so dearly.’
“ ‘What is this course?’ everyone asked.
“ ‘From the arcane lore of years gone by,’ the magician said, ‘I have learnt how to summon demons from the outer dark. Among them is one who exults in destruction, and whom we could unleash on the enemy. No army on earth could stand against him.
“ ‘That is excellent then,’ everyone said, relieved. ‘Summon the demon.’
“ ‘It is easy to summon him,’ the magician replied. ‘But after he is summoned, there is no mention of how it might be possible to dismiss him again.’
“But the ruler was adamant. ‘Since the alternative is utter ruin and destruction,’ he said, ‘I command you to summon the demon, and afterwards, we will do as best as we can.’
“The magician bowed and withdrew, and all night, the townspeople saw green and purple lights flash in the windows of his rooms, and strange noises rumbled and groaned in the streets. And they knew fearsome things were being done.
“Then the morning came, and from the walls of the city, watchers saw the first rays of the sun strike the serried ranks of spears of the enemy army, which was already advancing in battle array. In only moments more, their vanguard would be storming the streets.
“But just then the sky grew dark, as though night had fallen again, and with a noise as of the tramping of colossal feet, something came. Those that saw what happened could never agree precisely what it was that they had seen; some said that a monstrous giant had walked through the streets, carrying a mace in one hand and a scimitar in the other, and others said it was a tower of night-black wind, in which red eyes shone. But, whatever it was, it passed through the city and fell on the enemy army. Then the darkness lay on the land, and terrible screams and frantic sounds of battle came from outside the wall. And when the screams and sound of battle finally ended and the darkness disappeared again, it was late afternoon, and of the enemy army, apart from shattered weapons and twisted, destroyed armour, there was not a sign. Not a single one of the thousands who had advanced on the city that morning had lived to see the end of the day.
“And the people of the city rejoiced at their deliverance, but their joy was tinged with sorrow, for they were a gentle people and mourned even the enemy warriors who had meant to do them harm. But in one room in the city, a mage did not rejoice, for he knew that what had been unleashed would now, having no other source to sate its bloodlust, turn on the city itself. And he sat over his books, searching them for some way to dispel the new danger that threatened the town.
“Then, as night fell, the people of the city heard, once again, the sound of titanic feet trampling in the city streets. And long before dawn broke, those streets rang again with the sound of screaming.
“So it was that the ruler called the mages together again, as the sun rose, and a good part of the town was covered with the same darkness as had enveloped the enemy army the previous day. And when they had come – those of them who were left, for a great many had either perished or quietly left the city during the night – he demanded of them some way of saving the city from the new peril.
“It was only the magician who had called the demon forth who dared reply. ‘I had warned you of this danger,’ he said. ‘There is no way to send the demon back whence it came; of that the books are very clear. Once it has been summoned from the outer dark, it will never return there, as long as the sun and moon endure.’
“ ‘Then what is to be done?’ the ruler queried. ‘Must we all resign ourselves to death? For at this rate the demon will destroy the town before the sun rises once more.’
“ ‘There is only one way that we could avert that,’ the magician replied. ‘In one of the books I found an arcane ritual, by means of which we might lock the demon in a pillar of a material that might be summoned from the outer dark. No other thing, not stone, nor metal, can hope to confine it, but this thing from the darkness beyond time and space. But unless the demon’s bloodlust is slaked regularly, it will burst forth from the pillar once more.’
“ ‘Do it then,’ the ruler sighed, and the other magicians murmured assent, for even as they talked, the screams of the people could be heard through the closed windows of the chamber. ‘Do it, for there is no alternative.’
“And so that mage repaired to his dwelling, where he had already prepared the rites; and, even as the sun reached the zenith of the sky, a pillar appeared in the very centre of the city. In appearance it resembled rough, pitted iron, but was icy cold to the touch, and the very air around it seemed to curdle and smoke. As the townspeople watched in wonder, the pillar sucked in the darkness that enveloped half the city; and something gigantic, struggling frantically, was drawn into it and the sun shone down on all of the town once more.
“Then it was that the city’s ruler bade the temple constructed, which you have seen in your walks through the town with my daughter – the temple in whose heart, in a sealed room, the pillar still stands. And each month, on the night of the new moon, two of the people – a man and a woman – are chosen randomly by lot, taken into the chamber, and sacrificed by the priests; and their blood is poured on to the pillar, which sucks every drop of it away. And that is the only way that the demon’s thirst is slaked, and it is kept from bursting forth once more.”
“And,” Krov whispered, “Krasa?”
“She has been chosen by lot to be one of the two who are to be sacrificed tonight,” the magician Groz said. “There is nothing to be done. They came for her this dawn, and she is now in the temple, preparing herself for death, clad in the black hood and robes of those intended for sacrifice. It only leaves for us to send you on your way, since there is nothing left to keep you here.”
“Nothing left to keep me here?” Krov replied. “On the contrary, there is more than ever to keep me here now. Not until I rescue Krasa will I leave this place.”
“You don’t understand,” Groz replied. “She was chosen by lot, like everyone else who has gone before her – and if she is not sacrificed, the demon’s blood-hunger will be awakened and it will rise up once more.”
“You did far too good a job when you decided that your daughter and I should fall in love, Venerable Father. There is nothing else I can do but try to set her free, no matter what the price to pay. Are you going to stop me?”
“I cannot stop you,” Groz sighed, “and, truth be told, I have no wish to try – for my daughter is precious to me, and if her life could be saved, that would be worth anything – anything, that is, but the release of the demon. Not even my daughter’s life is worth the lives of the people of the city.”
“Are you certain the old tale is even true?”
“What does it matter if it is true, if everyone believes it true and acts as though it is true? And consider if it is true, and the demon is released. Once the demon is done consuming the city, what then? What keeps it from going on until it has destroyed the world?”
“Then, of course, it merely becomes essential that I find a way to destroy or banish the demon,” Krov said.
“I was afraid of this,” Groz replied. “When you came, I remembered an ancient prophecy that said that one day a warrior’s arrival would change the life of the city totally and forever.”
“Destroying the demon would change the life of the city totally and forever, wouldn’t it?” Krov pointed out. “In any case, I am determined to try, and if I fail, still die trying. Tell me, then, how I should do it.”
“The only way that you might achieve your purpose,” the mage then said, “is to break the pillar in the temple, but that’s impossible. No weapon or tool made by man is capable of breaking that pillar.”
“In that case, there may be weapons or tools elsewhere that may break it,” Krov argued. “Not made by man, nor fashioned of metals known to us. Look in your books, Venerable Father, and tell me where such may be found, for the time we have grows short.”
Nodding wearily, the mage Groz led the way to the room at the top of the house which he used for his studies into the arcane lore of magic. It was lined from floor to ceiling with shelves laden with his books, and what space remained was filled with charts and instruments whose meaning Krov was wholly unable to guess. Bidding the warrior wait, the magician began to look through scrolls so ancient they threatened to come apart in his hands. Finally, when the sunlight pouring through the high windows had reached the middle of the floor, he looked up.
“If you are really committed to doing this,” he said, “then I can send you to a place beyond this time and space, where you must meet the Old Woman of the Sea. She will tell you what you must do.”
“The Old Woman of the Sea?” the warrior repeated. “Who is...?”
“I know nothing more,” Groz told him. “All that I do, I’ve told you. Will you go now? But I must again urge you not to do this, for none of us knows where it will lead.”
“Let me get my armour and sword,” Krov replied, “and I will go. And I must go, for the alternative is not just the death of your daughter and my love, but that the people of this city will never learn to smile again.”
So, for the first time since he had been found near to death on the shore of the lake, Krov put on his black armour, and picked up his great sword. For some reason, he no longer felt comfortable with either of them, and for the first time ever he wondered if it might be better if someday he might never have to touch them again.
When he went back up to Groz’ room, he found that the mage had cleared the middle of the floor and drawn a circle there in blue, green and white powders. The older man asked him to stand in the middle of the circle, and once he had done so, handed him a small bone which had been carved in the shape of a whistle.
“When you want to return,” he said, “blow on this, and you will instantly be brought back here. But be careful that you only do so when you have achieved your object, for it can be used only the one time.”
“Thank you,” Krov began, but without a further word Groz bent to the ring of coloured powders and set a match to it. The powders instantly burst into flame, which rose in a high white wall of fire around him, yet a fire which gave out almost no heat, but was so bright that it was blinding to the eyes. When it flickered and burned down, only moments later, the magician’s room, with its books and instruments and charts, had vanished.
Krov stood on a rocky beach, under a strange, strange sky. At his feet the waveless waters of a black sea stretched away to a distant horizon, where a green light leaked up to merge with the sky above. The silence was so total he felt he could hear his own heart beating, and the loneliness was so total it was as though he was the only being that had ever existed, or ever would.
But, no, he was not altogether alone. Looking around, he saw something higher up on the beach and to his right. It was like a hut made of stones from the beach piled on one another in arrangements that somehow held together even though they looked like they shouldn’t. As he made his way up towards it, he saw that greenish smoke was leaking out through chinks between the stones and rising to merge with the green stain in the strange sky.
He had not reached the hut when a voice called from within it. “Wait where you are,” it said. “It’s not safe for such as you to enter. I will come out to you in a moment.”
Krov had not even been able to see a door, but an instant later, part of one of the stone walls shifted aside and a woman came out. She was a young and very beautiful woman, clad from her shoulders to her feet in a dress of something that shimmered and shifted so constantly it was impossible to tell what it was actually like.
Despite her great beauty, Krov fought down a pang of disappointment. “I am sorry,” he said. “I was looking for the Old Woman of the Sea.”
The girl nodded. “I am she. Don’t look so surprised at what I look like to you. We are outside your reality, and all this...” she waved at the beach and the sea. “All this is merely the way your mind has tried to make sense of what you really see, Krov the warrior. Oh yes, I know perfectly well who you are, mercenary, killer, lover. I know who you are.”
“Then you might know what I want. It is to...”
“Sh. Do not verbalise your wishes here. Yes. I know what you want, soldier of fortune. I can tell you where to find it. But I must first warn you that you should not do this.”
“It makes no difference what anyone tells me. The magician warned me too, but he did not try to stop me. Will you?”
“Stop you?” The Old Woman of the Sea raised a beautifully shaped eyebrow. “Why should I? Your destiny affects nobody outside your own world. I am outside it – I only observe, and understand. I warned you for your own good, and that of your world – but if you want to proceed, that is of no concern to me. And threatening me with that sword of yours will do you no good at all.”
Krov felt his cheeks going warm. “I just want to get what I need, and go back.”
“You will find the thing you want in the Cave of Shadows.”
“The Cave of Shadows?”
“You’ll find it along this beach, where the cliffs are.” The Old Woman of the Sea pointed. “Keep walking along the beach until you reach the cave. Go inside, and keep going until you find it. Do not, under any circumstances, pick up anything except the thing you want, for you can only take one thing from the Cave of Shadows.”
“What is the thing I need to find?”
“You will know it when you see it, and you will know how to use it when you have it.” The Old Woman of the Sea looked Krov up and down. “Remember two other things, Krov the warrior.”
“Do not retrace your steps in the Cave of Shadows. Once you enter, you may not come out the same way again. You must find another way out for yourself.” The Old Woman of the Sea turned away and began walking back towards her stone hut.
“And the other thing?” Krov prompted.
The Old Woman of the Sea looked at him over her shoulder, and her eyes were voids of emptiness in her lovely face. “Do not come back here, mercenary. Once you have walked down the beach, never come here again. Whatever the consequences of your actions in your own world, you must deal with them on your own. Do not seek my help then. Next time, you will not find me so hospitable, and nothing will protect you.”
Without a further word, she disappeared into her hut, and the stone wall slid shut again. The green smoke started leaking into the air once more.
The Cave of Shadows was a gash in the rock face of the cliff, a gash so narrow that if Krov had not been looking for it he would have walked right past without knowing it was there. Even when he found it, he had to squeeze in sideways, feeling the rock scrape on his chest and back,
Inside it was not dark like the caves he’d been in before; the same greenish glow as stained the strange sky ran in threads and ripples on the rock, casting shadows that merged and separated and ran like rivers along the floor and the walls, so that it was hard to see anything for longer than a moment. It was a long, narrow cave, like a passage that wound its way through the rock, and twisted and turned so many times that he soon lost all sense of direction. But the threads of greenish light continued without dimming, no matter how far he went, and the shadows leapt and danced.
Then he saw something stuck in a cleft in the rocks. It was an axe with a hooked blade, the edge glittering green in the shifting light, and when he leaned close to it he saw his own face reflected on the metal. His hand went out to reach for it, to pluck it out of its cleft, but then he remembered the Old Woman of the Sea’s words. It was a wonderful thing, but not what he needed. Snatching back his fingers before they made contact with the weapon, he went on.
The next thing he found was a hammer. It was a gigantic hammer, with a spike on one side of the head sharp enough to drive it through any armour the warrior had ever seen, and the shifting light on it seemed to signal to him, begging him to take it. For a long moment he almost succumbed. But he knew even then that it wasn’t what he wanted, so he turned away and walked on.
By the time he finally found the thing he had gone so far he had almost convinced himself that it had been one of the many weapons he had seen and rejected on the way, or, even worse, that he had simply failed to see it in the shadows. It was only the Old Woman of the Sea’s admonishment not to retrace his steps that kept him from going back and starting over again, but, even so, he had almost decided to ignore her warning and turn back when he saw it.
It wasn’t anything like he’d expected – just a small metal ball, the size of his fist, studded with a few blunt spikes, and attached to a chain long enough to wrap round his wrist. When he picked it up, it sent a shiver all the way up his arm, so that he couldn’t repress a shudder. It felt as though it was hot inside, almost as if the centre of it was molten. It was a peculiar and unpleasant sensation – but it was what he needed, for all that.
Then he reached for the bone whistle that Groz had given him, and which he’d put in a pouch at his waist, and blew it to take him back.
“How are you going to get to the pillar?” Groz asked. “The only people allowed into the chamber are the priests – and the sacrifices, of course.”
Krov had been surprised to discover that almost no time had passed since he had left. He’d imagined that the time he’d spent in the Cave of Shadows must have consumed most of the day, but the sun’s dusty rays still shone on the same spot on the floor, and the magician was standing exactly where he had been when he’d bent to set light to the circle of powders. He might almost have thought he’d imagined it all, but for the hot unpleasant sensation of the spiked ball in his hand.
“Could I fight my way in?” he asked.
“No. Not only are there guards, but the chamber is sealed by doors you could not break through. My magic cannot break through them either.”
“Then there is only one option,” Krov replied. “You told me two people are sacrificed every new moon, a man and a woman. Krasa is one of them. I will be the other.”
“But,” Groz frowned, “Someone else has already been chosen for the sacrifice. So it’s not as though you can do that either and...”
“This other man,” Krov interrupted. “Whoever it is that has been chosen. He doesn’t want to be sacrificed, does he?”
“Well, of course not, but –”
“So he shouldn’t refuse to change places with me?”
“It’s unprecedented that anyone would volunteer to be sacrificed. There’s no glory or honour in being chosen, whatsoever. The priests would suspect something at once.”
“Not if they didn’t know who it was. You said Krasa is dressed in a black hood and robe for sacrifice? The man should be dressed the same way.”
“Yes...” Groz nodded slowly. “I may not be able to get you into the temple by magic, but I do know of a side entrance by which you can reach the room in which the sacrifices are held.”
“There will be guards, won’t there?”
“Not for that room. They aren’t necessary.”
“Why not? The sacrifices could escape.”
“Why should they? They know that they will be caught and brought back, and even if they escape, someone else will be sacrificed in their place.” He hesitated. “You do realise you won’t be able to take your sword and armour into the temple if you are planning to impersonate a sacrificial victim?”
“It does not matter. I have what I need.”
“All right. We will go as soon as it is dark, for then the priests will be busy preparing for the sacrifice. Until then, you had better rest as much as possible. And, Krov?”
“Are you sure you want to do this? It is just my daughter’s life, you know.”
“Venerable Father,” Krov replied, “since I was little more than a boy, I have only taken life. It is time to give something back.” He began to turn away, and paused. “The Old Woman of the Sea called me a killer, and she was right. But I don’t want to be one anymore.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I don’t,” Krov admitted. “But what else is there for me to do?”
In the fresh darkness of the night, the pyramidal black shape of the temple looked slick with oil, the lights of lamps gliding off its polished surface. Krov, dressed in a black robe and hood provided by Groz, followed the mage along a side street, around the base of the building. The hood was so long that it fell to his chin when pulled down, but Krov had pushed it back so he could see to walk.
“They’re supposed to sit in darkness and silence,” Groz had explained. “It’s supposed to prepare them for the darkness and silence of the end.”
“Who knows? I have no idea. Do you?”
Keeping to the deepest of the shadows, they moved as quickly and silently as they could, until the older man darted across the alley and pushed against the stone of the base of the building. An oblong of even deeper black appeared as a panel slid aside.
“This is the way they take in the sacrifices and bring out the bodies afterwards,” Groz murmured. “The main entrances are never used for that.”
Krov followed him into a passage so dark that he was completely blinded. But the mage knew the way well enough, and led him by a hand on the sleeve of his robe until the glimmer of a lamp shone round a corner.
“There is the room where they wait,” Groz said. “They will not be expecting anyone to come, not until the priests arrive to take them for sacrifice.”
“Thank you for the help you’ve given me,” Krov told him formally. “I can ask no more of you now. From here on, I go alone.”
Groz nodded and touched his arm. “The time grows short, warrior; the priests will soon be coming.”
The man who was awaiting sacrifice was called Ebo.
“You must leave at once,” Krov told him firmly. “I will be taking your place.”
“No,” Krasa broke in, her voice filled with anguish. “I can’t let you do this, Krov.”
“She’s right,” Ebo tried to argue. “I was chosen by lot, so it’s my turn. Why should you go in my place?”
“Krov,” Krasa said, “please don’t.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” the warrior said. “Ebo, don’t you have anyone who is waiting for you outside, filled with sorrow at the thought of your death?”
Ebo was silent a moment, and then his voice shook. “My wife...and she’s pregnant.”
“There you are then. Go to her, and fill her with joy at your return.” Krov watched as the young man scrambled away down the dark corridor. “Now, Krasa –”
“How dare you,” the girl hissed. “After all the work I put into healing you, how dare you throw away your life like this!”
“I’m not throwing away my life,” Krov began. “I’m here to...”
“Sh.” The girl hunkered on the floor, pulling down her hood, motioning to Krov to do likewise. Just in time, the mercenary saw the glow of lights approaching down the passage as the priests came for them.
There was no ceremony. Someone’s voice intoned, “It’s time,” and Krov felt hands grasp his arms as they, quite gently, pulled him to his feet.
There was a clang as of great doors opening, and a rush of cold air. Krov remembered what he’d been told about the pillar and the cold that surrounded it.
There was no point in waiting any longer.
The hands holding the mercenary’s arms were there merely to guide him – as Groz had said, nobody expected the sacrifices to struggle or attempt to escape. And his strength – despite his newly healed wounds – was still much greater than those holding him could resist. With one wrench he tore himself free, ripped the hood away, and pulled the spiked metal ball from under the robe, where it had bumped his thigh at every step.
In front of him was the pillar, reaching up towards the roof. He ignored the shocked priests and priestesses; he ignored the basin rimmed with dried blood, and the knife resting on its edge; he even ignored Krasa, her arms held by two gaping priestesses. He leaped for the pillar, his arm raised, and brought the spiked ball down with all his strength against it.
Light. The light that exploded out of the pillar was so bright, so blinding that he felt as though it had flooded right through him, as though he was made of glass. Then a wave of energy that rushed past so quickly that it was impossible to tell if it was heat or cold or something else altogether. And something else, something that was dark and smoky and twisting and frantic, that writhed and hissed and struggled desperately for release.
And then it was gone.
The pillar had disappeared. A faint eddy of something that might have been dust hung in the air a moment, and then it had gone, too.
Nobody moved for an endless moment, and then the priests and priestesses made a concerted rush for the door.
Only Krov and Krasa were left in the chamber, and when he took her by the hand, she went with him as though her legs moved by his will, not hers.
“You’re telling me the demon has been destroyed?” Krasa asked.
They had shed the black hooded robes and were cautiously making their way down the passages, most of which were dark, and all totally deserted. Neither Krov nor Krasa knew the way out, and had already gone so far that they were certain they’d taken several wrong turnings. But for the moment, to Krov at least, it did not matter. He had not let go of Krasa’s hand for a single moment.
“Destroyed, or driven back to whence it came,” Krov said. “I had to destroy the pillar, and that’s what –”
Something flashed past them, so quickly they barely caught a glimpse of it; something long and twisting that left glowing blue-white images after it was gone.
“What was that?” Krasa asked.
Before Krov could answer, something else went scuttling past them on a huge number of enormously long legs. They had a glimpse of a raised tail, which cracked through the air above their heads, and then the thing was gone.
And there were more coming. The passages behind them were suddenly filled with the rustle and click of their movements, and the very air seemed to vibrate and shake as they came.
“What’s happening, Krov?” Krasa asked, clutching at him. “What’s going on? Should we hide?”
Krov did not answer. There was nowhere to go, no place to run, and it wouldn’t do any good anyway. All he could think of was something the Old Woman of the Sea had said. The words bounced back and forth in his brain: “Whatever the consequences of your actions in your own world, you must deal with them on your own.”
Whatever the consequences, he thought bitterly. How could I have known that it would come to this?
It did not matter, of course, whether he had known. He didn’t know if he would have acted differently if he had known.
At least we’re together, he thought. At least I have that.
Turning to Krasa, he held her to him, hugging her tight, as all the hordes of the demons of the outer dark flooded towards them from the rift he’d opened into their world.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015