A Triumph of Souls (Journeys of the Catechist Series #3)by Alan Dean Foster
Arriving in the land of Ehl-Larimar, he and his loyal friends face their greatest battle: thwarting Themaryl's powerful captor, Hymneth the Possessed. For the first time, the friends are wondering whether the price of victory may be too dear.See more details below
Arriving in the land of Ehl-Larimar, he and his loyal friends face their greatest battle: thwarting Themaryl's powerful captor, Hymneth the Possessed. For the first time, the friends are wondering whether the price of victory may be too dear.
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"He is coming. And he is not alone."
So spake the Worm.
It had started out to be a better day. Waking after a passable night's rest in a less discontented mood than usual, Hymneth the Possessed had chosen to dress in armor and accoutrements that were celebratory instead of intimidating. Gold-trimmed leggings tucked tightly into high boots of dark-crimson embossed leather. Scarlet armor covered him from head to thigh, and rubies so red they were almost black studded the gloves that encased his bare hands. Instead of horns, the high-ridged crimson helmet with its rearward-sweeping feathered crest gave him the appearance of some great and noble raptor diving to Earth.
Eyeing the result in the narrow floor-to-ceiling mirror at the far end of his dressing chamber, he found that he was well pleased with the effect. Today he would inspire only awe among his servitors and subjects, and leave terror in the closet.
At his high-pitched, intricate call, the twin eromakadi ceased their hunting of small bright things beneath the massive bed and came to heel. Intricately filigreed satin cape swirling behind him, he exited the sleeping chamber in a flurry of gold and crimson and made his way downstairs.
As usual, he ate alone, attended only by silent servants desperate to be free of his company but unable to show their true feelings. Their frozen smiles and polite inquiries after his health fooled him for not a minute. Their fear was as plain to hear in their voices as if they had been bound and bleeding in his presence. The slight tremolo at the end of every sentence, the swiftdarting of eyes whenever they thought he was not looking, the infinitesimal quiver of lower lips: Their emotions were as blatantly obvious to him as bulging eyes and hacking sobs.
He ignored it all, pretending to be taken in by the pitiful subterfuges as they served him. These were the best of the best, the few who could survive in his service without going mad or begging for dismissal. It made no sense. Was he not a kind and even generous master? Other nobles of wealth and power regularly beat their staff. Still others paid only a pittance for services rendered. In contrast to this, he was tolerant of oversights and paid well. And, in addition, there was the prestige that went with working in the house of the master of Ehl-Larimar. He could not understand why his people were not content.
Yes, it was necessary occasionally to discipline a menial for a job overlooked or poorly done. Yes, his methods for doing so were undeniably-well, different. As in everything, he prized efficiency above all. Why it should matter to people if a miscreant was crippled or given the face of a bat or frog instead of simply being broken on the rack or blinded in the traditional manner he could not understand. Was it not better to have the teeth of a rat than none at all? Sometimes he felt he would never understand the reasoning of the common man.
Of the gustatory delights that burdened the dining table he normally would consume only a small amount. The remainder of the pancakes, eggs, meats, breads, jams, butters, fruits, cereals, juices, and cold drinks would be divided among his kitchen staff. He grunted to himself as he ate, passing food and liquid through the lower opening in the crimson helmet. They might tremble too badly to eat in his presence, but he knew that once he was done the food would vanish rapidly into hungry mouths. Which was well enough. Let them serve him. Love he would find elsewhere.
Love he sought, actually, in only one place.
Lifting his gaze to the stairway that entered the dining chamber from the left, he tried to imagine her descending to join him. Did his best to envision the fluid succession of perfect curves and contours concealed by clinging ripples of satin and silk, the hair like ribbons of night draped across bare shoulders that put the finest ivory to shame, and the eyes that were like sapphires. Eyes that he would have given half a world to have focused on him.
He imagined her approaching, not walking but flowing like mercury across the floor, weight shifting sensuously with each step, lips of blood-red brighter than his armor parting slightly as she raised one delicate hand to place it on his shoulder and whisper in the voice that turned men's legs to jelly and set their groins ablaze, "Good morning, My Lord."
Little enough, he agonized inside, to want. Little enough. Yet even now, after all this time, the best he could hope for was that she would not curse him aloud in his presence. She would eat later, he knew. In her room, or after members of the entourage he had assigned to her had assured her he had left to attend to matters of state. He possessed no more of her presence than he did of her passion.
Suddenly the morning no longer seemed so propitious. The food curdled in his mouth. Angrily, he pushed his plate away, and the two servitors attending him twitched visibly. Neither man ran, however. They knew all too well the fate of those who had fled the presence of the Possessed without first being properly dismissed.
Leaning back in the high, sculpted chair of carmine cobal, he rested his armored chin against one massive fist and brooded. After several minutes, the two servants exchanged a glance. The one who had lost the wordless debate took a step forward. His voice was deferential and suffered from only a slight quavering.
"Lord, if you are finished, should we clear away the dishes?"
He waved an indifferent hand. "Yes, yes, take it away. Take it all away!"
Bowing obsequiously and repeatedly, the man and his companion began to remove the masses of food and flatware. Hymneth sulked in his chair, contemplating aspects of life and death to which most living creatures were not privy, until a loud crash penetrated his pondering and brought his head around.
The second servant, a well-built and comely youth of some twenty and four years, was kneeling over the fragments of a shattered enameled tray. Muffins and sweet rolls, breads and breakfast cakes were still rolling away in several directions. From his crouch, he looked up to see the helmeted head staring down at him. The look on his face was one of sheer paralyzed terror.
"L-lord, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I-I will pay for it." Hastily, he began sweeping the larger fragments into a pile, not caring if he cut himself on the fractured ceramic.
"Pay for it? It would take six months of your wages, lackey. I wouldn't think of taking that from you. It would be cruel. In the absence of your salary I am sure you have loved ones who would go hungry. Besides, it's only a plate. In this castle there are hundreds of plates."
"Yes-yes, Lord." Some of the terror drained from the man's face. He swept faster, trying to gather up every last shard and white splinter.
"However," Hymneth continued, "while I could care less about a plate, you broke something else. Something much more valuable."
"Something else, Lord?" The attendant looked around helplessly, seeing nothing but broken crockery and spilled baked goods. Next to him, the other servant was already backing away, straining desperately to make himself invisible, discorporeal, nonexistent.
"Yes." The Possessed sat up straighter in his grand chair. "My train of thought. And that I cannot abide." One huge, powerful arm rose slowly.
"No, Lord, please!"
The other attendant turned away and wrapped his arms around his head so he would not be able to see what was coming. A twitch of sickly green leaped from Hymneth's armored hand, writhing and coiling like a giant heartworm.
It struck the kneeling servant on the back of his neck. Instantly his entire body arched rearward as if struck by a heavy hammer. With a muffled scream he snapped forward to lie prone on the floor, arms outstretched to both sides, unconscious.
Wearied by this constant need to discipline his staff, Hymneth slumped back into his chair and waved diffidently. "Take him out of here. Then come back and clean up the rest of this mess."
Shaking violently, the other servant slowly removed his hands from around his head and straightened. When he saw the figure of his friend lying on the floor, he screamed. It caught halfway in his throat, broken by the realization that the noise might offend the looming figure seated at the head of the table. "Well?" the Possessed admonished him tersely. "Get on with it."
"Yes-yes, my Lord." Fighting to control his trembling, the other man reached down and grasped the unconscious servant by his wrists. Slowly, he began to drag the limp body from the room.
"Throw some water on him," Hymneth ordered. "He'll be all right. And maybe from now on he won't drop dishes when I'm thinking."
The other attendant did not reply. The Possessed's meaning was clear. Indeed, it would be much harder for the young servant to drop dishes or anything else. Because he now had four limbs to carry them with: his two arms, and the pair of slick, green, sucker-laden tentacles that had sprouted noisomely from his shoulders.
"And when he comes around, tell him that he's still on full pay!" Hymneth remembered to shout to the rapidly retreating menial.
Am I not the soul of tolerance and understanding? he thought. As always, it was a puzzlement to him why his people did not love him openly, instead of from within the pit of fear.
Dispensing such magnanimity always made him feel better. He had started to rise when Tergamet entered. One of his many advisers, he was subordinate to Peregriff, who was no doubt even now reviewing his Lord's schedule for the day. Tergamet was wise, and the master of a magnificent long beard, but he had a regrettable tendency to tell Hymneth what he thought the Possessed wanted to hear, instead of the truth. Perhaps this was understandable, in light of the warlock's occasional tendency to set ablaze specific portions of the anatomy of the attendants in his vicinity whenever a piece of particularly disagreeable news was conveyed to him. In that respect, he supposed Tergamet was braver than most.
"Yes, what is it?"
"And how is my Lord this morning?" The elderly adviser bowed as low as his aging back would allow.
"Impatient, as always. So don't bother inquiring after my condition. I know that you, as much as everyone else in this benighted pile of stone, would rejoice at the sight of me dead."
Tergamet fluttered a protesting hand. "Oh no, Lord! How can you think to say such a thing to me, one of your most trusted and loyal retainers!"
"I don't trust anyone, old man, and loyalty is a commodity to be bought, like expensive wine and cheap women." His irritation was growing. "What news? Not the harbor pilots again, with this nonsense about Krakens interfering with their work. I've told them how to fight back, and what poisons to use."
"No, Lord. It is not the harbor pilots." Eyes that still saw sharply rose to nearly meet his. "It is the Worm, Lord. It wishes to speak with you."
Hymneth considered, then nodded slowly. At this news, the two small eromakadi that attended his ankles danced excitedly around his legs.
Termaget was careful to keep them in view. Simple contact with either one could suck the life out of a man. The Possessed they merely bounced off like agitated spaniels.
"The Worm, you say. What about?"
The senior adviser bowed again and spread his arms wide. "I do not know, my Lord. It will speak only to you."
"And quite properly so. Very good, Termaget. You may go."
"Thank you, Lord." Bowing and scraping, the old man retreated toward the main doorway. As he turned to depart, Hymneth considered whether to let the eromakadi take a playful nip at his heels. Nothing serious; just a week or so out of his remaining years. Days someone like Termaget would probably waste anyway. Hymneth decided against it, knowing that the old fellow probably would not see the humor in the situation.
His cape flowing behind him like blood running down the outside of a chalice, he exited the dining room. Instead of striding toward the audience chamber as he normally did this time of morning, he turned instead to his right in the middle of the main hall. The door there was bolted with a hex and locked with a spell, both of which yielded to the keys of his voice. He did not bother to seal it behind him. It would take a braver man or woman than dwelled in the castle to try the steps that began to descend immediately behind the door. Hex and spell were designed not to keep them out, but to seal something securely within.
Torches flared to life at his approach, the flames bowing briefly in his direction. As Hymneth descended the corkscrewing stairway, one of the eromakadi darted swiftly upward behind him to suck the life out of one torch. The flame screamed, a high-pitched conflagratory shriek, as it died.
When Hymneth turned to reproach the black gust of horror, it hid behind its twin like a censured child.
Down the Lord of Ehl-Larimar went, below the sewers that carried water and waste away from the castle, below the dungeons where men and women and children wailed and whimpered in forgotten misery, below even the unshakable foundations of the massive fortress itself. Down until there was nothing left but the raw Earth-and the Pit that had been gouged from its heart.
At this depth nothing could live that basked in the light of the sun. In the perpetual darkness, things that rarely saw the surface burrowed and crept, mewling and cheeping softly to others of their own kind, hoping to avoid the mephitic, malodorous monstrosities armed with teeth and claw that would prey readily on anything that moved. An eerie glow came from the phosphorescent fungi that thrust bulbous, deformed stalks and heads above the surface of the Pit, giving it the appearance of some ghastly, unwholesome garden. In this place even the air seemed dead. All movement took place below the surface, out of sight, out of light.
Until Hymneth arrived, with eromakadi in tow.
Pausing on the last step, the final piece of clean, hewn stone that bordered the Pit, he gazed speculatively down into its depths. His boots, he knew, would require days of scrubbing to make them clean again. As he slowly lifted both arms up and out, his steady, sturdy voice shattered the diseased stillness.
"Alegemakh! Borun val malcuso. Show thyself, and speak!"
For a long moment there was nothing. No sound, no movement except the breathy stirring of the eromakadi. Then soil began to tremble, and shift, disturbed by some movement from below. Clumps of moist loam shuddered and individual particles of dirt bounced and quivered until at last they were thrust aside by something monstrous.
The Worm arose.
It burst forth from the earth, shedding dirt and uprooted fungi from its flanks. Pellucid mucus glistened along the length of its body. A length that no man, not even Hymneth the Possessed, had ever measured. The Worm might be ten feet long, or twenty, or a hundred. Or it might curl and coil all the way through to the other side of the Earth. No one knew. No one would ever know, because attempting the knowing meant death. Of all men, only Hymneth had power enough to meet the Worm in this place, chiseled out of the solid rock halfway between air and earth, and survive.
It lifted above him, shimmering and immense, its great tubular body arching forward like that of a questing serpent. Its upper girth, if not its length, was measurable. From where it emerged from the ground to its head it was as thick around as a good-sized tree. The last eight feet of it tapered to an almost comically small mouth, no bigger around than a barrel.
From this darted and fluttered, like the tongue of a snake, a long, wet, flexible organ tipped with four tapering, sharp fangs that pointed forward.
It was not a tongue, but a device for piercing the body of prey and sucking out their soft insides. The Worm's diet was varied-it would eat dirt as readily as blood.
Darting away from their master's side, the twin eromakadi began to feast on the light emitted by the bioluminescent fungi. Completely enveloping a helpless mushroom or toadstool, they would hover thus until its light had been consumed before moving on to another, leaving behind a shriveled and dying lump where before there had been life, however humble.
The Worm too pulsed with its own pale, necrotic glow, but they kept clear of that massive, hovering body. Not because they were afraid of it, but because they knew it was there to meet their master. And of all the things in the world, the eromakadi feared only Hymneth the Possessed.
Vestigial eyes no larger than small coins focused on the tall, armored figure waiting on the lowermost of the stone steps. Black as the eternal night in which they dwelled, they had neither pupils nor eyelids. But they recognized the tall figure. Long ago, Worm and man had struck an accord.
Hymneth provided the Worm with-food. The Worm, in turn, kept a kind of watch over the realm of the Possessed. It had the ability to sense disturbances in That Which Had Not Yet Happened. The great majority of these it ignored.
But out on the fringes of the future it had detected something. Something active, and advancing, and imbued with might. In keeping with the covenant it had made with the man, it duly remarked upon this commotion.
"He comes. And he is not alone."
Hymneth had lowered his arms. As the eromakadi spread small deaths throughout the chamber, he concentrated on the tapering head of the Worm swaying high above his own. "Who comes, eater of dirt?"
The Worm's voice was a high hollowness. "A master of the necromantic arts.
A questioner of all that is unanswered. One who seeks justice wherever he treads. He comes this way from across the Semordria."
"That is not possible. The eastern ocean is not a lake, to be crossed at will by casual travelers. They would have to travel far to the south, pass through the Straits of Duenclask, and then sail north against the current through the waters of the Aurreal."
"A strong boat guided by a bold Captain brings him, and the three who journey by his side."
"Only three?" Hymneth relaxed. This descent to the depths had been unnecessary after all. "That is a small army indeed."
"I render no judgment. I speak only of what I sense."
The Possessed chuckled softly, the crimson helmet reverberating with his laughter. "I will alert the navy to keep watch for any odd vessels entering the harbor. As always, I thank you for your attention, Worm. But in this matter your insight seems to be sorely lacking."
"Sense," the Worm whispered. "Not judgment." It was silent for several moments, its upper length weaving slowly back and forth above the churned surface of the Pit. "They come for the woman."
That piqued Hymneth's interest. "So the young Beckwith was not the last. I thought with putting paid to him and his crew I had seen the last of these misguided aristocrats. They worry me like fleas." He sighed. "Well, in the unlikely event that any of them should reach Ehl-Larimar I will tell
Peregriff to alert the castle guards. But I have more confidence in the ocean. Even if they reach these shores my gunboats will stop them before they can cross the outer reefs." He shook his head sadly.
"You would think they would recognize who they were dealing with, and stop shipping their sons off to be slaughtered. The error of false pride. As if running this kingdom didn't make demands enough upon my time."
"Feed me." The immense, looming mass of the Worm swayed hypnotically back and forth, the flickering light of the stairway torches gleaming off its terrible piercing teeth. "I tire of soil. I have done my share. Feed me."
"Yes, yes," Hymneth replied irritably. He had already virtually forgotten all that the Worm had told him. As if a mere four possible invaders were anything to worry about, even if one happened to be a so-called master of the necromantic arts. There was only one dominating master of matters sorcerous and alchemical, and that was Hymneth the Possessed.
As he started back up the stairs he almost hoped these predicted intruders did manage to survive the impossible journey across the ocean. It had been a long time since he had fought a duel, and it would be good to have someone worthy to exercise his powers against. Though he doubted any of these potential assailants would qualify. To the best of his knowledge, there were no worthy masters living on the other side of the Semordria in the Thinking Kingdoms. For all the threat it posed to him, the Worm might as well have kept the information to itself and not disturbed him. He departed disappointed.
"Feed me!" The reverberant moan rose insistently behind him.
Where the stairs began to disappear upward, Hymneth paused to lean over and peer downward. The head of the Worm vacillated below him now. "For information like that you deserve nothing. But I am mindful of the covenant between us. I'm sure Peregriff can find a few condemned, or condemnable, to bring to you. The axman will gain a rest."
"I await." With a wet, sucking sound the Worm began to withdraw into the damp earth. It would lie there, Hymneth knew, with only its head above the surface, until the promised unfortunates were brought. Cast into the Pit, they would be pierced by the creature's mouth parts, their internal organs and muscles and flesh liquefied, and the consequent putrid, gelatinous mush sucked out. No one could complain, Hymneth mused virtuously, that his dungeons suffered from overcrowding.
As he climbed upward, the two eromakadi reluctantly left the last of the surviving fungi to accompany him, impenetrable black clouds that hovered at his heels. Occasionally they would show very small, slanted red eyes, but most of the time they kept themselves as black as pitch. Visitors who knew what they represented were as terrified by their silence as by their shapes.
Hymneth had mounted nearly to the top of the corkscrewing stairwell when a voice, pure and melodious as the golden bells of a benign spirit, called down to him accusingly.
"So this is where you spend your time. In the depths of the Earth, consorting with demons!"
Taken aback by the unexpected intrusion, he tilted his head to peer upward.
High above him, a portrait of beauty unsurpassed gazed down. Not even the look of utter disgust on her face could mar the perfection of her countenance.
"My beloved Themaryl, this is business of state! Nothing more. I converse in the depths. I do not consort."
Her face furrowed with loathing. "You smell of things diseased and rotting.
I thought-I thought we might talk, so I sought you out. I'm glad that I did, for it gave me the chance to see yet again your true self!" With that she whirled and fled upward, back to her rooms, back to the tower that she had made a prison for herself.
Bad timing, Hymneth thought in an agony of frustration. Of all the mornings and moments to parley with the Worm, of all the hours available to all the days, he had chosen the one time she had relented enough to descend from her steeple. Falling to his knees, he let out a cry of utter despair, knowing even as he did so that it would have no effect on her. Delighting in his anguish, the eromakadi clustered closer, inhaling of the darkness that had suddenly suffused his soul.
Slowly, his clenched fists fell away from the eye slits of his helmet.
Someone had told her where he was. Someone had shown her where he was.
Admittedly, he had decreed that she be given the run of the castle. But whatever fool had believed that included access to the Pit had, while displaying adherence to the letter of his command, shown excruciatingly bad judgment.
He rose to his feet. With all of Ehl-Larimar to administer and govern, he could not afford to tolerate those who exhibited bad judgment. Especially not those who did so in his own home, his sanctuary. When she had inquired as to his whereabouts, someone had taken her by the hand and guided her to the door that led to the Pit. It was a given. Mere directions would not have allowed her to find the unprepossessing door by herself, much less to enter.
Talk. She had thought they might talk. It had been months since she had said a word to him other than to demand that he return her to her home and people, and today, this morning, she had been ready to talk. A major breakthrough in their relationship shattered like cheap glass. Another setback when he might have hoped, just a little, for progress. And all because of someone's bad judgment.
That night the villagers who lived below the castle, on the slopes of the mountains, put cotton in the ears of their children and laid extra blankets across their beds. They slept in the same rooms with them, sharing their beds or lying on linens spread out on the floor. They made sure all animals were secured tightly in their barns and corrals, paddocks and pens. They did this because of the screaming that drifted down from the castle like black snow.
Up above, the unfortunate were being punished for a lack of good judgment.
It went on all through the night. As dawn neared it grew so bad that even the bats fled the vicinity. The children slept, but their parents were not so lucky. One family lost two horses, dead from heart attacks, and another a brace of goats that, maddened by the sounds, broke free of their pens and fled into the forest, never to be seen again.
All told, the slope-dwelling citizens of Ehl-Larimar counted themselves lucky when the sun finally appeared over the mountaintops and the last of the shrieking died in a sudden, violent choking. They proceeded to go about their morning chores and business as if nothing had happened, as if the previous night had been only a bad dream, to be quickly forgotten like any bad dream. The women of the villages, however, found themselves with extra washing. Having spent the night oozing fearful sweat in great profusion, they and their husbands had stained many a nightdress beyond immediate reuse.
High above, government officials and administrators came and went, unaware of the frightfulness that had subsumed the fortress the night before. If they noticed anything out of the ordinary, it was that the castle's retainers moved a little faster than usual, and that they were less inclined to meet the eyes of visitors.
Far below, in the depths of the mountain, where earth met rock and where normal folk did not go, the Worm slept, its midsection swollen and bloated.
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