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The Walls of Air
By Barbara Hambly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
The setting was the Shamrock Bar in San Bernardino on a rainy Saturday night. Rain drummed softly on the plate glass window, and the tawdry gleam of lights shone on the wet pavement outside. Two bearded bikers and a sleazy blonde were playing pool in the back. Rudy Solis swigged off his second beer of the evening and watched the room. There was something he had lost, something that had been taken from him, but he no longer remembered what it had been. Only a numb ache was left.
He was out of money and not nearly drunk enough yet. Behind the bar, Billie May moved back and forth along the shelf of empty glasses and bottles of beer, her reflection trailing her in the flyspecked mirror, showing her black eye make-up and the red lace of her bra at the low neck of her sweater. The mirror revealed all the usual Saturday night crowd, people Rudy had known since high school—since childhood, some of them: Peach McClain, the fattest Hell's Angel in the world, with his old lady; Crazy Red, the karate instructor; Big Bull; and the gang from the steel mill. But it was as if they were strangers. He made a gesture with one hand, and a beer bottle levitated from the shelf before the mirror and drifted across the intervening space to his hand. No one noticed. He poured the beer and drank, hardly tasting it. From the jukebox, the tinny whine of steel guitars backed a syrupy nasal voice hymning adultery. The hurt of the loss within him was unbearable.
He let go of the bottle in midair a foot above the surface of the bar and made it stay there. Still no one noticed, or no one cared, anyway. Rudy stared past it at his own reflection in the mirror—the sharp bone structure and backswept eyebrows in their frame of long, reddish-black hair. His fingers were stained with car paint and grease, and his name was tattooed across a flaming torch on his wrist. Behind him, the plate glass window had grown suddenly dark, as if all light had died outside.
He turned, chilled with a horror he could not define. No streetlights were visible outside, no sheen of neon, only darkness that seemed to press against the window, soft and living—darkness that stirred with a restless movement, as if creatures impossibly sinuous haunted its livid depths. He tried to cry out, and his voice was only a kind of feeble rattle in his throat. He tried to point, but the people in the bar ignored him, as if he were not there. A bolt of energy or power from outside struck the wall of the bar like a monster fist, caving it in amid an explosion of shattering bricks. Through the torn wall, darkness rolled like a wave.
"Rudy!" Cold hands caught his flailing wrist. "Rudy, wake up! What is it?"
He woke gasping, sweat icing him to the bone. In the darkness of the room, his wizard's sight showed him Minalde, Queen of Darwath and mother of the heir, sitting up in bed beside him, the starred silk of the counterpane gleaming around her shoulders and the fear in her wide iris-dark eyes making her seem younger than her nineteen years. The warm, still blackness of the room smelled of beeswax and of the perfume of her tumbled hair. "What was it?" she asked him again, her voice very low. "Was it a dream?"
"Yeah." Rudy lay back beside her, shivering, as if deathly cold. "Only a dream."
In the lightless barracks of the Guards on the first level, Gil Patterson woke, her dreams of quiet scholarship in another universe called California broken by an unshakable sense of impending horror. She lay on her narrow bunk for a time, listening open-eyed to the small sounds of the fortress Keep of Dare, and to the hammering of her own heart. The Keep was safe, she told herself. The one place in the world where the Dark Ones could not break in. But the terror of the dreams grew rather than diminished in her heart.
At last she rose, soundless as a cat. The dim yellowish glow from the banked hearth in the main guardroom threw a feeble reflection into the cell shared by the women of the day watch. It touched anonymous shoulders, shut eyes, tangled hair, the black cloaks with the simple white quatrefoil emblem of the Guards, and the hard gleam of steel. By that faint suggestion of light, she pulled on a shirt and breeches, wrapped herself in her cloak, and slipped from the room. The floor was icy to her bare feet as she made her way between the bunks in the guardroom beyond. She guessed it to be midway through the deep-night watch, the watch between midnight and morning, but time was different in the windowless Keep.
She pushed aside the curtain at the far end of that room.
Ingold the wizard was not in his so-called quarters. Actually, the wizard slept in a sort of cubbyhole that the Guards used to store part of the food supplies they'd scrounged, salvaged, and defended against all comers in the wreck of the Realm. The feeble gleam of the light from the hearth showed Gil a hollow in the sacks of grain piled in the back of the closet, a couple of moth-eaten buffalo robes, and a very grubby patchwork quilt, but no wizard. His staff was gone, too.
She moved quickly back through the guardroom, through the outer chamber used for storing weapons and casks of Blue Ruin and bathtub gin, and out into the cavernous depths of the Aisle. The great central hall of the Keep stretched nearly a thousand feet from the double gates at the west end to the dark, turreted wall of the administrative headquarters at the east. She might almost have been outside, for the featureless black walls that bounded the Aisle on either side stretched up out of sight, supporting a ceiling whose shadows had never been dispelled. Across the broad floor murmured the deep, black water channels, spanned by their tiny bridges; around her the stillness was like the great silence of the snowbound mountains outside. But instead of moon or stars, the darkness was lighted by torches that flickered on either side of the dark steel of the gates. The dim orange flame defined a small double circle on the smooth blackness of the polished floor and touched fiery echoes in bolt, brace, and locking ring.
Where the two halos of red flame merged, a man stood, his rough white hair fringed by the fire in a line of burning gold.
She called out softly, "Ingold!"
He turned and lifted an inquiring eyebrow. Gil pulled her cloak more tightly around her shoulders and pattered up the broad steps to the gate. Since she had crossed the Void in his company, to come unwillingly to this other universe, she couldn't remember a time when she had been warm.
"Yes, my dear?" he asked, in a voice like raw whiskey and velvet. The face revealed by the restless light had never been more than nondescript, but sixty- odd years of existence had given it an extremely lived-in look, seamed and wrinkled and mostly hidden behind a close-clipped, rather scrubby white beard. When she stood beside him, her eyes were level with his.
"What is it?" she asked him quietly.
He only said, "I think you know."
She glanced nervously over her shoulder at the dark steel of the gates. Here the horror was stronger, a sense of brooding malevolence in the night. Here she felt the strange, chill terror, the irrational sensation of being watched from across unknowable gulfs of time by a malign and incomprehensible intelligence. "They've come," she whispered, "haven't they?"
Ingold rested a hand gently on her shoulder. "I think you had better go arm."
Her eyes dark in the wan bluish witchlight, Minalde watched Rudy dress. "What's wrong?" she whispered.
"I don't know." His voice was low, so as not to wake the royal infant who slept in his gilded cradle in the shadows on the opposite wall. "But I think I'd better be getting back." After a month in this world, the alien clothing was more or less familiar to him, and he no longer felt self-conscious in the homespun breeches and full-sleeved shirt, tunic, knee-length boots, and gaily embroidered surcoat he'd scrounged off a dead nobleman after the great massacre by the Dark Ones at Karst. But he still mourned the simplicity of jeans and a T-shirt. He buckled on his sword and leaned across the tumble of variegated silks to kiss the girl who watched him so silently. "Will you be at the gate in the morning to see us off?"
His hands framed her face. She caught his wrists, as if to hold him to her for a few minutes longer. "No," she said quietly. "I can't, Rudy. It's a long way to Quo and a dangerous road. Who knows if you'll even find the Hidden City or the Archmage, once you reach the end?" Her blue eyes shimmered suddenly in the pale phosphorescence of the witchlight. "I never could stand good-bys."
"Hey!" Rudy leaned over her again, his hands gripping her neck and shoulders, the dark hair spilling heavily down over his fingers as he drew her mouth to his. "Hey, Ingold's gonna be with me. We'll be okay. I can't imagine anyone or anything crazy enough to take on that old geezer. It won't be good-by."
She smiled crookedly up at him. "Then there's no point in making much of it, is there?' Their lips met again, gently this time, the loose strands of her hair tickling his face. "Go with God, Rudy, though the Bishop would die in her tracks if she heard me say that to a wizard."
Through their next kiss Rudy mumbled something about the Bishop. "Which probably wouldn't do her any harm," he added as their mouths parted. He reached up tenderly and brushed the tear from her cheek. In all his twenty-five years, he couldn't remember anyone, man or woman, who had ever been concerned about what he was going to do. Why did it have to be a girl in another universe? he wondered. Why did it have to be a Queen? Another tear stole down her cheek, so he whispered, "Hey, you look after Pugsley while I'm gone." His way of referring to Prince Tir, the last heir of the House of Dare, made her laugh in spite of herself.
"All right." She smiled shakily.
"We'll find the Archmage and his Council," Rudy whispered encouragingly. "See if we don't." He kissed her once more quickly and turned and fled, the bluish feather of light dying behind him.
In darkness he hurried through the mazes of the Royal Sector, misery in his heart.
She was afraid for him, and more than that, he was all she had—he and her baby son. In the past month she had lost the husband she had worshipped, the Realm she had ruled, and the world she had grown up in. Yet she had never said, "Don't go."
And what's more, you selfish bastard, he cursed himself, it never crossed your mind not to go.
She had never questioned that his need to be a wizard took precedence over his love for her. Wretched as the truth made him, he understood it for what it was; he was first and foremost a wizard. Given a choice of what to do with the limited time remaining to him in this universe, he would rather seek the sources of his own power and the teachings that Ingold and the other wizards could give him than remain with the woman he sincerely loved.
Why did I have to find them both at the same time? he wondered miserably. Why did I have to choose?
Even her understanding of his choice was like gall in the raw wound of his guilt.
Yet there had been no possibility of another choice.
He stopped at the head of the main east stairway, leading down to the first level.
The sensation of wrongness, of unnamed horror lurking in the black mazes of the Keep, was stronger now, teasing at him like a half-heard sound. He shivered like a dog before the thunder, the hair at the nape of his neck prickling. All around him silence seemed to move through the branching corridors. Glancing nervously behind him, he started down the stairs.
Somewhere below him, a door must have been opened. Faint as a drift of incense, he caught the sound of chanting, the sweet murmurous richness of monks' voices singing the offices of the deep-night. Rudy paused on the stairs, remembering that the Church headquarters lay directly below the Royal Sector and that, to the fanatic Bishop of Gae, wizards were anathema.
As far as he knew, his love for Alde was unknown to any, except perhaps his fellow exile Gil. He doubted anything serious could happen to Alde because of it—she was, after all, Queen of what was left of Darwath, and the King had perished in the holocaust of the burning Palace at Gae. But he knew too little of the mores and taboos of this place to want to risk discovery. And hell, he thought, maybe there's some kind of noninterference directive in force, since I'm from another universe and really shouldn't be here at all.
But if there was, he did not want to know.
At the moment it wasn't critical—there were plenty of other stairways down. Some of them had been part of the original design of the Keep, built like the walls of black, massive, obsidian-hard stone. Others had evidently been rigged millennia ago by ancient inhabitants who had simply knocked holes in the floors of the corridors where it suited them and let down jerry-built steps of wood. The same process had clearly been in force with the walls and cells of the Keep, for in places the black walls marched into darkness in rigid rectilinear order, while in others makeshift chaos prevailed. Passages had been blocked to build cells across the right of way, access routes had subdivided other cells, and partitions of brick, stone, and wood had chopped the original plan into literally thousands of self-contained units whose forms had shifted with their functions, with a result, over three thousand years, that would have challenged the most worldly rat in all of B. F. Skinner's laboratories.
Optimistically, Rudy set off into the maze.
"I feel nothing," Janus of Weg said quietly. The big Commander of the Guards of Gae sat on the edge of a bunk near the guardroom hearth, his face grave in the loose frame of coppery-red hair that surrounded it. He glanced across the hearth at Ingold. "But I trust you. If you say the Dark are outside, I would believe you, even if the sun were high in the sky."
There was a stirring among the other captains and a murmur of assent. The Icefalcon, like a foreigner among the Guards with his long white viking braids, said softly, "The very smell of the night is evil." Melantrys, a diminutive girl with the eyes of a ninja, glanced nervously over her shoulder.
"Smell, hell," rumbled Tomec Tirkenson, landchief of Gettlesand, a big craggy plainsman whose domains lay on the other side of the mountains. "It's like the nights when the cattle stampede for no reason."
The Icefalcon glanced coolly across at Ingold. "Can they break in?" he asked, as if it were a matter of no more moment than the outcome of a race on which he had bet only a small sum.
"I don't know." Ingold shifted his weight on his perch by the hearth and folded sword-scarred hands on his knee. "But we can be certain that they will try. Janus, Tomec—I suggest that the corridors be patrolled, on all levels, to every corner of the Keep. That way ..."
"But we haven't the men for it!" Melantrys protested.
"We've enough for a patrol of sorts," Janus admitted. "But if the Dark effect an entrance, it's sure we've not enough to fight at any one place, spread so thin."
The Icefalcon cocked a pale eyebrow at the wizard. "Are we going to fight?"
"If we can," Ingold said. "Your patrols can be eked out with volunteers, Janus. Get the Keep orphans as your scouts. They're always into everything anyway; they might as well be put to use. We need to patrol the corridors, simply to know if and where the Dark break in. It isn't likely that they can," he went on gravely, "for the walls of the Keep have the most powerful spells of the ancient world woven into their fabric. But whether the spells have weakened, or whether the Dark have grown stronger in the intervening years, I do not know." Despite the calm in that deep, scratchy voice, Gil thought he looked grim and driven in the uncertain flicker of the hearth-light. "But I do know that if the Dark Ones enter the Keep, we shall have to abandon it entirely, and then we will surely be lost."
"Abandon the Keep!" Janus cried.
"It stands to reason," the Icefalcon agreed, leaning back against the wall behind him. He had a light and rather breathless voice that sounded disinterested even when discussing the loss of the last sanctuary left to humankind. "All those little stairways, miles of empty corridors ... We could never drive them out." The captains looked at one another, knowing the truth of his words.
It's not only that," Gil put in quietly. Their eyes turned to her, a quick glitter in the room's shifting shadows. "What about the ventilating system?" she went on. "The air in here has to travel somehow. The whole Keep must be honeycombed with shafts too small for a man to fit through. But the Dark can change their size as well as their shape. They could fit through a hole no bigger than a rat's, and, God knows, we have rats in the Keep. All it would need would be for one of them to get into the ventilation—the thing could attack at will, and we would never be able to find it."
Excerpted from The Walls of Air by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 1983 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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