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By Mark A. Garland
Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-87610-4
Chapter OneBrittle shrieks broke the silence, filling the still night air from the high rock walls to the moonlit mountain slopes beyond. Voices echoed down the pass in a cold and grating chorus, building, burrowing into the brain until the mind could no longer endure the agony: the cry of the banshee was the sound of death.
Frost looked to his three Subartan warriors. In the deep shadows of the cliffs even the moon did not light their faces, but there was no doubt they understood. He watched their vague silhouettes move about him, forming a defensive triangle, leaving Frost at its center. This was the only arrangement possible; a big man by any measure, padded with far too much extra body fat and busy with his spells, he would make an easy target. Satisfied, he closed his eyes and drew on the strength of his body and his mind.
With that, the death wails seemed to grow more distant and less numerous. The light from the moon seemed to find its way a little farther into the depths of the rocky pass.
"Banshees can take no physical form," Rosivok, the oldest, largest Subartan said. "But they can use others. It is said they can control any creature at hand."
"Only those whose lives they have already stolen," Sharryl said, adjusting her stance just a bit, though she did not turn around. "Unless...."
"The wolves," Jaffic, the youngest Subartan said for her. "I saw some yesterday, trailing us."
"It is true," Rosivok told Frost. "We all saw them. And they might make fine allies for a nest of banshees."
"Then beware wolves!" Frost told them. "I have the banshees to manage, and they are much stronger than I imagined. And many, I think. Not ten or twenty, as we were led to believe, but perhaps a hundred, and already they do not like the force of my will upon them." He paused, eyes closed, and spoke under his breath. Then he opened his eyes again and glanced up to the sky. Good, he thought, nodding to himself. "I have them subdued for the moment, but they may be holding back, plotting an answer. They have not survived death so long for lack of resource."
The banshee's faint wailing suddenly stopped altogether. Silence grew thick in the pass, though Frost took little comfort in it.
"What are they about?" Jaffic asked in a whisper.
"Let the master worry about that," Rosivok told the young warrior, a strict tone in his voice. Jaffic was not a true Subartan as Rosivok and Sharryl were-born and bred by the ancient desert tribes to be the most proficient fighters their land had ever known. But the other two had taught an eager Jaffic well in the use of the subarta blades, and the transformation of mind and body that was more important than mere weapons. He had been eager to learn, much more eager than he was to talk about his past, which remained a mystery; such mysteries, however, mattered little to Frost as long as the man performed his duties.
"It is all right," Frost told them. "In truth, I don't know what comes next. I have had very little experience with these particular creatures. Still, they have done their howling, and we have not given up our souls as yet."
"Are you so sure you have one?" Sharryl said, turning toward Frost, tossing her hair aside just enough to let her eyes find his in the faint light. The smile was implied; daylight would have shown nothing more.
"I do," Frost said. "I keep it well hidden. But I know where to find it if the gods or I should have need of it."
"I do not plan to need mine this day," Sharryl remarked.
"Nor I," Jaffic added.
"Enough," Rosivok snapped, and the others abruptly quieted. He held no rank or privilege over the other two, only experience and size and a proven talent for survival. Frost wasn't sure how Rosivok and Sharryl had met, though it was an alliance that had kept them both alive through travels that had taken years and covered half the continent. There was no lover's bond between them-between any two Subartans, so far as Frost knew-but another bond existed, which was to them much more important.
"Now, I only have one need," Frost said to them after a moment. Sharryl and Jaffic nodded only once, then focussed all their attention on the matter at hand, the darkness beyond them.
No breeze touched them, no creatures made their summer noises or rustled through the shadows. Frost heard Rosivok sniff at the cool air; he breathed in, as well, and his nose found the faint tinge of long- decayed animal flesh nearby.
"Something approaches," Rosivok said calmly, his voice low. "It does not smell of wolf."
"From this way as well," Sharryl agreed, poised in a low stance, her subarta ready, her keen senses straining, like those of her warrior companions.
"Not the banshees," Frost remarked, "but they are still here, I assure you."
"What will you do with them?" Jaffic asked. A little out of line again, Frost thought, but he let it pass.
"I will ask them to leave, of course," Frost replied curtly, answer enough for now.
The moon had finally moved far enough over the high walls of the pass to cast some of its gaunt white light down into the narrows below. The wolves were clearly visible then, approaching slowly from both directions. Just ahead, in the wider section of the pass, the dried bones and carcasses of men and pack animals lay strewn about.
Abruptly the cries of the banshee colony rose anew, and kept rising to many times their former level. Frost tried to focus a part of himself on the two wolf packs even as he sought to turn back the songs of death that surrounded him, starting to violate his mind and body.
"These animals are not among the living," he said in a strained voice. This was what his Subartans needed to know: the dead were much harder to kill. The nearest wolf chose that instant to leap.
Sharryl lashed out with her subarta, the slicing blade flashed, then she turned and kicked. The first wolf's head tumbled left, while its body fell to the right. No fluids drained from the carcass; there was no sound, no twitching. Another animal took its place.
Sharryl dipped down, moving more quickly than eyes could follow. She gutted the beast as it lunged. This second butchered corpse fell inside the triangle, just short of Frost-who paid it little mind.
He was aware of the battle, or as aware as he dared to be, but he had more than enough to do just at the moment. The banshees were rallying, pressing on him with increasing force, pulling at him with a longing that seemed to have no hope of satisfaction other than the grave.
He saw Jaffic at Sharryl's side now, flaying another wolf as it tried to circle around. Ahead, Rosivok was busy carving more of the creatures into bloodless chunks. But on the rocky ground around them, the severed bodies of the fallen wolves stirred, anxious to rejoin the battle.
"Let the dead speak to the dead," Frost shouted, holding out both hands, summoning all his strength. In the ancient tongue he chanted the words that would bind the listening spell, then added further embellishments, a part of a deflection spell, and part of a spell usually used to bind a man to secrecy. Finally, he used a musical spell, a quaint incantation useful in helping singers reach their highest notes.
As he completed his work, the sounds of the banshees grew faint again, though they were rising in pitch this time, higher and higher, until human ears could no longer make them out. But as the sounds disappeared, the attacking wolves began to twitch and howl in terrible agony. Their dead eyes rolled back into their bony skulls, then a few turned and ran out of the pass. Soon the others followed, until the only things still moving were the twitching skulls of the beheaded.
A beginning, Frost thought, relaxing, easing the flow of energy into the spell. The immediate threat had ended. He and his Subartans could continue now, immune to the torturous screams of the banshees. But that was not what he had been paid to do. Highthorn Pass was the only way trade and travelers could pass through the Spartooth Mountains, the only path to the sea.
Shortages north of the mountains had become many, until they had lately begun to annoy even the richest lords, and Frost as well. His commission had been worthy, and the omens had all been good. He had every intention of completing his task in a proper fashion.
"You sing only to your own kind now," Frost shouted to the cliffs above. "But I can do more. You will sing only to yourselves if you do not leave this place."
He stepped forward, slightly unsteady at first, weakened by his efforts but growing stronger rapidly. As he moved with his Subartans into the open Frost could sense the spirits of the banshees all around them, closer now, gathering perhaps, he thought, to listen.
Frost had never heard of a colony of banshees as large as this, though there were legends from the time of the demons, centuries ago. He could not help but wonder why such a thing should occur now, though one could not ask questions of creatures that did not speak. In any case, why they were here mattered little-they had to leave.
"Go elsewhere!" he commanded. "Trouble another region. I have promised many safe passage though these mountains, and safe they will be."
He could sense their question, a tingle at the back of his mind: Go where?
"Go anywhere," he told them. "These mountains are filled with ravines and gorges seldom used by men. You will always find some, the unlucky and creatures that die from many natural causes, creatures whose spirits you can call to yourselves before they are gone. Enough, I think, to serve your needs."
He waited, letting his mind hear the faint reply.
"Hmmm, unfortunate," Frost said after a time.
"What?" Rosivok asked, speaking for the others.
Frost let slip a sigh. "They like it here." He turned to his Subartans. "Build a fire," he said.
They quickly gathered what twigs and brush they could from the sparse, stunted crop of bushes and trees that grew in the pass. In a moment, the smell and warmth of a small fire filled the air, and the bright light of its flames lit the darkness. Frost concentrated again. He drew on his inner reserves, burning energy more quickly than the fastest runner, the strongest oarsman. He focused the spell and spoke to the fires.
The flames wavered, then left the pile of twigs and weeds and raced up through the pass, climbing the walls, leaping crevasses, crisscrossing the rocks until the entire chasm seemed to be engulfed. Even the corpses of banshee victims were consumed by the now too- bright, incredibly hot fires that changed colors as they burned in a rainbow spectrum. Inescapable, even for banshees. Yet nothing living was so much as singed.
After a moment Frost eased, and he began to smile. He stopped feeding energy to the flames and let them die away, until only the small circle of the original fire still flickered at his feet. He staggered and put one hand out to Rosivok, who quickly moved to steady the wizard.
"They did not like that at all," Frost said, a faint chuckle in his voice. "Especially the ones that perished."
The ones, he thought, that doubted he could threaten their existence. They had wagered far too much-everything-on that assumption. Such fools, he insisted, were a breed that fate was seldom kind to.
"We will make camp here," he added, straightening his stance. He moved slowly away and sat on a nearby rock, then took the very large drawstring pouch from his shoulders and began rummaging in it for food and a bladder of water. Thirst and hunger drove him now, an emptiness as deep as the mountain pass. He drank the water, then stuffed his mouth full of dried fish.
"Tomorrow, we go to Ikaydin," he said, adding nothing, content simply to fill his mouth again, though the thought of the journey made him smile. He had not been to that land in decades. Far too long. And he had every reason to believe that opportunity waited for him there, and just beyond.
"Ikaydin," Sharryl and Rosivok repeated, though Jaffic kept silent. An uneasy look seemed to cross his features, like the look of a man before a battle, but it faded before Frost could wonder at it long. The three Subartans gathered beside the firelight to open their own pouches. In the nearby hills, crickets began to chirp. Frost let his sight drift upward.
High above stars gathered around the moon, though there was a slight haze, Frost noticed, now that he looked more closely. Which was an omen not to be ignored, if memory served him now. An omen of stormy weather ahead....
Excerpted from Demon Blade by Mark A. Garland Excerpted by permission.
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