A door opened somewhere far away. Ordinarily this would have alarmed Moria, though servants came and went for their own reasons. This sounded deeper and heavier than inside doors.
But just at that moment Tasfalen did something which quite took her senses inside out; and in the danger in which they both pursued this moment she cursed herself for butterflies and turned her mind to doing something which she had learned off a hawkmask lover-easy to pick a man's brain when he was feeling that good. Then Tasfalen gave as good back, and better- Shalpa and Shipri, she had never known a man with his ways, never bedded with a man who knew what he knew, not even Haught, never Haught-
"Oh," she said, "oh," and "O gods!"-when she brought her head up from the pillows and saw the dark figure standing in the doorway.
Ischade said not a thing. The air became charged and heavy, copper-edged. Tasfalen turned on an elbow. "Damn-" he said, and that was all, as if more than that had strangled somewhere in his chest.
Moria caught at her bodice, caught her clothing together against a chill in the air that breathed through from the hall. A scent of incense had come in, heavy and foreign, recalling the riverhouse so acutely that the present walls seemed darkened and she seemed to be in that room, strewn with its gaudy silks and hangings and the spoils of dead lovers....
"Moria," Ischade said, in a voice that hardly whispered and yet filled all the room. "You may go. Now."
It was life and not instant extinction. It was an order that sent her wriggling amongst the sheets and her rumpled petticoats as if there were hot irons behind her. Tasfalen caught at her arm, and his fingers fell away as she reached the edge of the bed and her bare feet hit the floor.
Ischade moved out of the doorway, and extended a dark-sleeved arm toward her freedom and the hall.
Moria fled in a cloud of her undone clothing, barefoot down the stairs, not for the downstairs hall but for the door, for anywhere, o gods, anywhere in all the world but this house, Her servants. Her law-
It was not where Ischade would have chosen to be-here, standing in a doorway, in a ludicrous Situation in her own house: because the uptown house was hers, and Moria one of her more expensive servants who had considerably exceeded her authority.
This man who sat half-naked and staring at her-this lord of Sanctuary and Ranke, who lived his delicate life on the backs and the sweat of the downtown and the harbor and the ministerings of Ilsigi servants, this perfect, golden lord-she felt him straining at the spell of silence she wove, saw him try to shift his eyes away. But he was at once too arrogant to clutch the covers to him like a frightened stableboy and far too arrogant to be caught in the situation he was in. She let the spell go.
"It's supposed to be an outraged husband," he said, from his disadvantage.
She smiled. For a moment the black edges cleared back from her mind. /'// walk out, she thought. There's more to him than I thought. I could even like this man. But the power strained at her fingers, at her temples, the soles of her feet and ran in red tides in her gut. She felt Strat's attention, somewhere, felt the essence of him trying to get at her, to tear at her and wound like something gnawing its own flesh to get at the iron that ringed it; Strat would find her, he would kill himself finding her and that, for her, was her wound. She could walk out and find another victim, find anyone else, anywhere, stave off the hunger an hour, a day, another few days....
Tasfalen patted the sheets beside him. "We might discuss the matter," he said with his own arrogant humor. And tipped the balance and sealed his fate.
She walked in, and smiled in a different, darker way. Tas-falen stared at her, the humor dying from his face, eyes quite fixed on hers in a mesmeric fascination. His lust became evident.
Hers was uncontrollable.
Pavings tore Moria's bare feet, a dozen passersby stared in shock, and Moria burst past a gaggle of old housekeepers on their way up from market. Apples and potatoes tumbled and bounced after her on the pavement, old women yelled after her, but Moria dived into an alley down a track she knew, ran dirty-puddled cobbles and squelched through mud and cut herself on glass and rubbish, mud spattering up on her satin skirts and silk petticoats, blood as well, while the breath ripped in and out of her unlaced chest.
The old warehouse was there. She prayed Haught was. She flung herself against that door, bleeding on the step, pounded with both her fists. "Haught! Haught, o be here, please be here-"
The door opened inward. She gaped at the dead man's eye-patched face and screamed a tiny strangled sound.
"Moria," Stilcho said, and grabbed her by the arms, dragged her across the threshold and into the dark where Haught waited, in this only refuge they knew, the place Haught had told her to come if ever there was a time she had to escape. He was here.
And the change in him was so grim and so profound that she found herself clinging to Stilcho's dead arm and pressing herself against him for dread of that stare Haught gave her.
"She," Moria said, and pointed up the hill, toward the house, "She-"
Only then in her terror did it sink in that she was half-naked from another lover's bed, and that it was rage which turned Haught's face pale and terrible.
"What happened?" Haught asked in a still, steely voice.
She had to tell him. Ischade's anger was worth her life. It was all their lives. "Tasfalen," she said. "He-forced his way in. She-"
A dizziness came over her. No, she heard Haught saying, though he was not saying a thing. She saw Tasfalen leaning over her in the bed, saw Ischade as a shadow in the doorway, felt all her terror again, but this time Haught was there, in her skull, looking out her eyes and running his fingers over Tas-falen's skin Haught's anger swelled and swelled and she felt her temples like to burst. "Gods!" she cried, and: "Stop it!" Stilcho was shouting, his dead arms around her, holding her up while the blood loss from her wounded foot sent a chill up that leg and into her knees. She was falling, and Stilcho was shouting: "Gods, she's bleeding, she's all over blood, for the gods' sake, Haught-"
"Fool," Haught said, and took her arm, gripping her wrist so hard the feeling left her hand. The pain in her foot grew acute, became heat, became agony so great that she threw back her head and screamed.
The bay horse clattered up the street and sent fragments of apple and potato flying, sent a clutch of slavewomen screaming and cursing out of its path, and Straton did not so much as turn his head. The ring had no need to be on his finger. He felt. He felt all of it, lust running in tides through his blood and blinding his vision so that he had only the dimmest realization what street he was on or what house he had come to. He slid down from the saddle as the bay came right up on the walk and the jolt when his feet hit the ground was physical agony, much beyond any pleasure, as if sex would never again be pleasure to him, as if it had always been pain masquerading as enjoyment and now he was on the other side of that line. He came up the steps, grabbed the latch with all his strength, expecting a locked door.
It gave way and let him in. A fat woman stood in the hall, mouth agape. He never focused on her, only lifted his eyes toward the stairs and the next floor and went that way, knowing where he was going because there was at the moment only one focus in all creation. He grabbed the bannister and started up, blind in the shaft of sunlight that flooded in there through a high small window, and feeling the pounding of his blood as if he breathed awareness in with every breath, like the dust that danced in the light.
"Ischade!" he cried. It was a wounded sound. "Ischade!"
The woods were held in a terrible stillness. Janni stopped, having worked himself to the edge again, that margin where the sunlight and the meadow began. But the sun was surely sinking. It was sinking rapidly, and the breeze had stopped.
He looked down at the stream which always guided him and it was still. The water had stopped running at all, and stood invisible except for the sky-reflection and the light-reflection on its surface, which showed the maze of interlocked and breathless branches overhead.
A leaf fell and another and another, disturbing that surface, breaking up the mirror in which he and the sky were true. It began to be a shower of leaves, falling everywhere in the forest.
"Niko!" he cried. He abandoned hope of attack. He tried to wake the sleeper, back deep in the safe shadow, in the dark. "Niko, wake up, wake up, for the gods' sake. Niko-"
A breeze stirred from off the meadow, loosening more leaves, which turned yellow and tumbled and lay like a carpet, covering the stream.
Then the water began to move, reversed its former course and flowed out of the meadow into the forest, moving sluggishly at first, sweeping the leaves on in a golden sheet. Then the current gathered force and swept all the leaves away as he hastened into the dark.
A red thread had begun to run through the water, a curling wisp of blood that ran the clear depths and grew to an arm-thick skein.
Janni ran and ran, breaking branches and stumbling over falling branches and the slickness of the dying leaves.
Strat ran the stairs and nearly took the fragile bannister post down as he spun round it on his way to the bedroom. He hit the doorframe with his arm as he fetched up in it and stopped still at the sight of the figures in the tumbled bed, the dark and the light entangled.
He stood with his mouth open, with the words choking him. And then waded forward in a blind rage and grabbed the man by the shoulders with both his hands, hurled him over and confronted a face he had seen before in this house.
"Strat!" Ischade shouted at him. It had the grotesquerie of comedy, himself, the shocked uptown lord, the woman's shout in his ears. He had never looked to be made a fool of, dealt with the way she and Haught had dealt with him, made a partner to her rutting with another man-who for one moment hung shocked in his grasp and in the next flung up both arms to break his grip. "Damn you," Tasfalen yelled at him, "damn you and damn this lunatic house to hell!"
And the man tumbled against him, collapsing in a way that nothing alive ever felt. Straton caught him in first reflex, recoiled on the second with the dead man tumbling down off the bed and onto his feet. Movement drew his eye and his reflexes: he seized Ischade's wrist in an access of disgust and horror as she got to her knees; he jerked her off the bed and to her feet in her disarray and the entanglement of the sheets and the lord lying on his face on the floor against his feet.
"Damn!" he cried, and shook her by both arms till her black hair flew and her slitted eyes rolled white in her head. "Damn you, bitch, what do you think you're doing, what have you done?"
Her eyes opened wider, still showing whites, blinked again with the dark where it belonged, a widening dark, a dark that filled all their centers and turned those eyes into the pit of hell. "Get out of here." It was not the voice he knew. It was a feral snarl. "Out! Get out, get out, get out-"
The blood pounded in his veins. He shoved at her, flinging her onto the bed in a flood of grief and rage and outright hate. She scrambled to get to the other side, and he dived after her to stop her, hurling his weight on her, felt her under him and himself in control for a moment, himself in a position to teach her once for all that he was not hers to tell to come and go and do her errands and do it all her way, when she wanted it, if she wanted it....
"Get off me!" she yelled at him, and hit him like any woman, with her fist. His own hand cracked open across her face and blood spattered from her mouth, red flecks on the pale satin pillow, her black hair flung in webs across her face with the recoil. He jerked with one hand at his own clothing, pinned her with his weight and his forearm, and elbowed her hard when she twisted like a cat and tried to bite his arm. In that distraction she came within a little of getting her knee into him, but he got his where it counted instead, and got both her hands pinned.
"Fool!" she screamed into his face. 'Wo/"
He looked into her eyes. And knew suddenly that it was a terrible mistake.
"Let me go," Niko whispered to Randal, while Jihan was off doing something, while Jihan flitted somewhere about the countless things that somehow diverted the Froth Daughter in wild gyrations of attention. It might be Tempus, who still courted unwilling sleep, and who was, in his present state, a magnet for Stonnbringer's daughter. It might be some other difficulty. She was likely where trouble was. And Niko, so wan and wasted, so miserable his voice sounded childlike soft, wrung at Randal's heart.
"I can't, you know," Randal said. "I'm sorry, Niko."
"Please." Niko strained at the ropes. His unbandaged eye was open, bleary and glistening with Jihan's godsawful unguents. His skin was white and glistened with sweat. "I'm all right, Randal. I hurt. In the gods' mercy give me some relief. I've got to-"
"I'll get a pot, it's all right."
"Let me up. Randal. My back hurts, you know what it's like to lie like this? Just let me shift my arms a little. Just a moment or two. I'm fine now. I'll lie back down, I'll let you put the ropes back again, oh, for the gods' own sake, Randal, it's not your joints that feel like they've got knives in them. Have a little pity, man. Just let me sit up a moment. Do for myself. All right?"
"I'll have to put you back again."
"That's all right. I know that. I know you have to." Niko made a face and shifted his shoulders. "O gods. My back."
Randal bit his lip and put out a little magical effort on the strain-tightened knots. They loosened, one after the other. He got the two closest, which tied Niko's feet to the bedframe. And got up off the end of the bed and carefully undid the one on the left wrist, carefully, around the thick padding they had put there to protect the skin. Niko sighed and flexed his legs and dragged his arm down to his chest while Randal went around the bed to get the other one. "Thanks," Niko said, a ghost of a voice. "Ah. That's better. That's a relief."
"Ought to give you a rubdown, that's what." Randal unwound the last rope, and held onto Niko's hand to work a little life into the arm.
Then something hit him in the side of the head and he went down blind and numb and dazed from the impact of his skull on a marble floor.
"Niko," he cried, trying to focus his eyes or his talent or to organize his defenses, but the dark and the daze swirled around him in clouds and gray and shooting flashes of red. He heard bare feet, going away at speed. "Ischade!" He shouted the name aloud, silently, threw all he had of talent into that scream. "Ischade! Help!"
Two men lay motionless in the bedchamber. Tasfalen was one, already chilling, his eyes half-open, his body curled up like a child where he had fallen, wrapped half in the bedspread and the sheets. The other lay sprawled in a twist where she had pushed him when he lost consciousness. He was still breathing. His face ticced in what might be dream, in such dreams as she gave him, tilled his nights with, confused the truth with.
And Ischade was trembling all over, shuddering and shaking from sheer fright and aborted rage and the rush of power that, given time, would have done more than wrenched the life away from the uptown libertine, would have wrenched his soul out and shredded it beyond any power of demons or fiends to locate it.
As it was something got to it, something that wanted that kind of rage as it had known when it died. That something wanted through, wanted the essence of a god, wanted to be a god, or something like. It wanted a witch's soul at second best, and got Tasfalen's, which was far from enough to pay what Roxane had raised. It scented Straton's soul unguarded, loosened from its ordinary resistance, and Ischade flung power about him, a shrug as she caught her cloak up from under his legs and jerked it free in a series of violent, angry pulls.
The appeal hit her like a scream at her back. She physically turned and looked in the direction from which it had come. It was Randal's voice. It was blue light. It was...
She ran to the window, flung open the shutters, flung wide the window and launched herself from the floor of the bedroom to the incoming wind that swept the curtains, never questioning whether she had the control or knew where she was going: Randal's outpouring was a shriek of utter panic, shuddering and wavering in and out of focus in a wild undulation across the whole of the town.
"She's gone," Haught whispered, gathering himself to his feet. "Her attention's elsewhere. It all is-"
"What are you doing?" Moria gathered herself up off the dust of the warehouse floor and the mouldering sacking which was the seating Stilcho had provided her. Her foot still hurt, though the bleeding had stopped. She staggered, blinked at the ex-slave turned magician, her Haught, who had stood straight up and looked off toward a blank wall of the rotting building as if his eyes saw through walls. Stilcho caught her arm when she wobbled on her feet, his hand cool but not cold, certainly not the deathly cold she always expected to feel. He held her there; she held onto him a moment; then Haught just stopped being there.
There was a thunderclap that rocked the building, a wind jerked roughly and once at her clothing and her hair toward the spot where Haught had been, and her skull all but split with Haught's voice thundering in it and into her soul and her bones and her gut.
Go home. She's not there now. I'll find you at the house.
There was threat implicit in that order. There was rage and jealousy and all promise what that power that racketed about her skull could do.
That and disgust for her soiling. Haught was always fastidious.
Dead man and damned drab. Wait for me.
She sobbed. It was different than a voice. It got into her soul and she had never felt so dirty and so small and so worthless to the world.
Stilcho hugged her head against his chest, hard. She heard his heart beating, which, through all her pain and her confusion, confounded her further; she had not thought it beat at all.
The door to Molin's office slammed wide, hit the wall and started a cascade of books and papers about the feet of the apparition which staggered into the room half-naked and wild and going straight for him, his desk, his life. And the pottery globe which was/was not there. Molin flung himself in a dive which intercepted Niko in mid-lunge as they both skidded over the desktop and off it. The sick man rolled and twisted and it was Molin who hit the ground on the bottom, Molin who had the wind half knocked from him and his skull cracked on the rebound of his neck as he tried to curl and save himself. Sparks exploded across his vision; Niko was trying to rip free, sweating, naked skin offering precious little purchase as he surged to his feet.
Molin grabbed Niko's leg with both arms, rolled and brought the Stepson down in another scrape and clatter of furniture. The chair this time. As shouting closed in on the room and he had hope of help if he could only hang on to the madman who was trying to scrabble and twist round to get at him. He bent the leg and grabbed the ankle and got his own foot around to slam into Niko's face.
"Get him," someone yelled from the doorway.
"Niko!" That shout was Tempus.
And something exploded through the window in a shower of glass, something that existed a moment in midair and then toppled in a tumble of black cloak, black hair and dusky skin that landed with a thump in front of Molin's dazed eyes.
Ischade lay on the floor like a dead thing, eyes open, lips apart, a strand of her black hair lying across her open eyes without a reaction at all, her bare arm outflung, fingers curled in the light of the broken window. Blood welled up in cuts on that arm-did not spurt, but only leaked, slowly, to pool under the arm, amid the fragments of glass. All this he had time to see: Niko had suddenly gone limp as Molin sprawled atop him. Ischade lay not breathing at all and he was desperately afraid that Niko was not breathing either.
He pushed himself up on his arms, had help as a strong hand grabbed him and pulled, and Tempus waded in, shoved the oak desk aside to get room and grabbed Niko up in his arms.
"He collapsed," Molin said, "he-just-"
Reason tottered. He felt himself pulled up and set aside like a child, and the Froth Daughter let him go and sank down to grab Tempus's arm as he held onto Niko.
"I can't get through," Tempus shouted in desperation. "Dammit, Stormbringer-let me get to him!"
"You can't go in there," Jihan yelled. Her fingers closed on his arm and dented the muscle. "She's there, Riddler, she's in there, and you want it too much-Stay here!"
It was wreckage, everywhere wreckage. Ischade cast about her in the woods, with the wind blowing everything to wrack and the trees creaking and groaning in the gusts. A stream ran there, and it was clear water around its edges, but its center was blood; and in the center of the blood was a thread of black, like corruption.
She knew where the attack came from. She clutched her cloak about her to shield herself from it as best she could and ran with her back to the wind, trying to find the lost soul whose refuge this was. A little bit of hell had crept in and settled in the meadow. A great deal of it was not that far away, and there was in a place this numinous a great deal of what it could use, if her enemy was an utter fool and let it in.
A tree gave way at the roots and crashed down, taking others with it, showering her with its ruin. She had no magic in this place. She had nothing but her mind, and that was unfocused, chaotic as this place was chaotic: she was the worst of helps for it, a raw Power without a center of her own, an existence without a reason. It was the worst of places for her to come.
The ground quaked. Thunder rolled and a voice pursued her without words, a shrieking shout that impelled the winds and stung with mortal cold.
She stumbled upon a tumble of rocks, a little rise, a place where a guardian waited, faceless, selfless, a pale shape that shone with inner light and its hands glowing more terribly than its face as it lifted them to bar her way, light against her black, certainty against her doubt. It had had a name once, and she suddenly knew it: once she knew that name, it took on shape and became Janni, a torn and failing ghost that blew in tatters in the wind.
"I need his help," she said. "Janni, I need yours."
She had raised only his Seeming out of hell; the part of Janni that stood there flaring with light came on loan from elsewhere, an elsewhere with which she had as little to do as possible, wanting its expensive bargains no more than hell's.
But he had come for this. To stand here. For hell's reason: revenge; and a reason out of that other place: raw devotion. It shone out of him like a candle through paper, and made his face unbearable: she flinched and avoided the sight of it. He blinded. He burned the eyes and left his imprint when she looked aside, so that a shadow-Janni drifted in front of her eyes when a shining hand at the edge of her vision indicated the sleeper by the streamside.
"Niko," she said, and exerted all the power she had stored, one vast push against the wind and the accumulated ruin of this place. "Niko. Nikodemos. Stealth, it's not your time. Do you hear me?"
Mine, a voice said on the wind. Damn you. Damn you, Ischade.
It was, delivered out of a witch's power, a curse that wrenched at the locks on hell.
"Fool!" Ischade whirled in the echoing gust and shoved back with all that was in her, keeping that Gate shut. It strained. It manifested, over across the stream, a barred door in the stone cliff beside the stream, a door bent and creaking under the blows of what might be a shoulder, an arm, a fragment of night itself reaching for Niko's soul-
"Niko!" she shouted. And: "Roxane, you utter fool!"
Niko's back arched. It was Jihan and Tempus who held him. Molin attempted to get his jaws open and to stop him choking while an occasional flutter of white betokened a priest dithering this way and that in the doorway, between help and hindrance. "Get her!" Molin snarled at the priest, applying all his strength to Niko's spasmed jaws, and nodding with a toss of his head toward the crumpled black-cloaked form on the floor. "Keep her warm, I don't care if she isn't breathing, tie up those wounds, shut her eyes, she'll go blind, for godssakes-" Niko spasmed again and Tempus swore and yelled his name as another staggering form appeared in the doorway.
Randal came reeling in, with blood all down his chin and down the front of him.
"Nooo!" Randal cried, his eyes lighting suddenly as if they had spied something, and he made a wild lunge toward the desk, but the priest got in his way, staggered him and knocked him reeling into a chair against the wall as something which was not-there burst with light.
Fire came back, blue and scorching as Randal recoiled out of the chair and threw power at it. White light blazed out, for a moment illumining a figure that clutched a Globe in its hands. The Globe spun without moving. It lit the whole room.
And when it and the holder vanished the contents of bookshelves came pouring out in a thunderclap.
"He put himself into it," Randal yelled, his hands clenched, his hair standing up in blood-matted spikes. "Into the cabinet! He put himself in and he moved it!"
"I'll get it," Jihan cried, and: "Danunit, no!" Tempus shouted at her, for Niko flung out the arm she let go: she grabbed it again, grabbed all of him and held onto him with bonecrushing strength, her unnatural skin aglow and her eyes full of violence for whoever had done this thing.
It was still going on, in whatever Place that racked body contained or was linked to: Molin could not describe it. He had only the conviction it existed, and it was coming apart under their hands: Roxane was tearing it apart from inside, he understood that much, while Niko's joints and muscles cracked and strained. Niko would shatter his own bones, rip tendons from their moorings, break his own spine in the extremity of the convulsions: it was a preternatural strength. It destroyed the body it lodged in; and the mind-
A wind was blowing through the room, the air was cold where it met bare skin, and Straton came up from his abyss with a gasp after air and a wild motion of his arm that sought after Ischade.
It met chill, empty sheets.
"Damn!" he cried and rolled off the bed, staggering on the rumpled rug and the sheets and the forgotten obstacle of Tas-falen's body lying there stark and cooling with the chill.
It was true. It was all true, what they said about Ischade, she had left him with her dead and gone off somewhere to sleep it off. He felt of his throat and felt of his chest with a chilled hand and staggered about with a throbbing headache and no concept of direction while he got his clothes to rights.
Damn her. Damn, damn, and damn her to bloody hell.
Am I alive? Am I like that poor sod Stilcho, alive-dead, killed and brought back out of hell, o gods-
A door opened downstairs; wind sucked in a chill gust from the window.
"Ischade," he yelled, and flung himself past Tasfalen's corpse, out the door, toward the stairs. He caught himself at the top, looking down on Moria in a torn and muddy gown, on Stilcho standing there ghastly as the truth in that bedroom.
He came down the stairs, broke through between them and headed out the door where the bay horse stood curiously nosing the remnants of an apple core on the walk. He ran for it, took the reins in his hand with no idea in heaven or hell where he was going.
To Crit, maybe, to that place where Crit was waiting for him.
He got his foot in the stirrup and heard a sound he had heard on a score of battlefields and a hundred ambushes. An arrow hit the wall and shattered. He dropped from the stirrup, whacked the bay to get it out of fire, already knowing it was stupid; he should have the horse for cover, the damned, foolish horse which was the only thing in all the world which had never betrayed him.
It snorted and shied up and stayed. That was what made him hesitate in his dive for cover, one half-heartbeat of disbelief...
... that persisted when the arrow smashed high into his chest and he staggered back and fell on the pavings. There was a smell of apples. The pavings were cold. The sky showed a clear, strange glow, going lavenders and white, and the upper stories of the buildings went all dim. It did not particularly hurt. They said those were the really bad ones.