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Waylander moved warily across the killing ground, examining the hoofprints left by riders who had come upon the scene later. Twenty,
maybe thirty riders had entered the wood and left in the same direction.
All around the site were the bodies of scores of birds. He found a dead fox in the bushes to the north of the wagons. There were no marks on it.
Venturing deeper into the woods, he followed the trail of dead birds and ice-scorched grass, coming at last to what he believed to be the point of origin. It was a perfect circle some thirty feet in diameter.
Waylander walked around it, picturing as best he could what must have happened there. An icy mist had formed in the spot, then had rolled toward the west as if driven by a fierce breeze. Everything in its path had died, including the wagoners and their families.
But where, then, were the remains of the bodies, the discarded bones,
the shredded clothing?
Backtracking toward the wagons, he stopped and examined an area where bushes had been crushed or torn from the ground. Blood had seeped into the earth. This was where one of the dead horses had been dragged.
Waylander found more deep imprints of taloned feet close by. One creature had killed the horse and torn it from its traces, pulling it deeper into the woods. The blood trail stopped suddenly. Waylander squatted down, his fingers tracing the indented earth. The horse had been dragged to this point and then had lost all body weight. Yet it had not been devoured here. Even if the demon had been ten feet tall, it could not have consumed an entire horse. And there were no signs that others of the creatures had gathered around to share a feast. There were no split and discarded bones, no guts or offal.
Waylander rose and reexamined the surrounding area. The tracks of taloned feet just beyond this point were all heading in one direction,
toward the lake. The demons, having slaughtered the wagoners and their horses, had returned to where he now stood and had vanished. As incredible as it seemed, there was no other explanation. They had returned to wherever they had come, taking the bodies with them.
The light was beginning to fail. Waylander returned to the steeldust and stepped into the saddle.
What had caused the demons to materialize in the first place? Surely it could not be chance that they had happened upon a convoy. As far as he knew, there had been two attacks: one on Matze Chai and his men and the second on these unfortunate wagoners. Both parties had contained large numbers of men and horses.
Or, looked at from another viewpoint, a great deal of food.
Waylander headed the steeldust away from the woods and began the long ride around the lake. In the years he had dwelt in Kydor there had been no such attacks. Why now?
The sun was setting behind the mountains as he skirted the lake. A
feeling of unease grew within him as he headed toward the distant ruins.
Lifting his crossbow, he slid two bolts into place.
When the sword had begun to shine, Yu Yu Liang had been frightened. Now,
an hour later, he would have given anything he possessed to be merely frightened. Clouds had obscured the moon and stars, and the only light came from the blade in his hands. From beyond the ruined walls and all around him he could hear stealthy sounds. Sweat dripped into Yu Yu's eyes as he strained to see beyond the jagged stonework. Twice he had tried to wake Kysumu, the second time shaking him roughly. It was like trying to rouse the dead.
Yu Yu's mouth was dry. He heard a scratching on the stony ground to his left and swung toward it, raising his sword high. As the light shone, he saw a dark shadow disappear behind the rocks. A low growl came from somewhere close by, the sound echoing in the night air. Yu Yu was petrified now. His hands began to tremble, and he was gripping the sword hilt so powerfully that he could hardly feel his fingers.
They are just wild dogs, he told himself. Scavenging for scraps. Nothing to fear.
Wild dogs that could make the Rajnee blade shine?
With a trembling hand he wiped sweat from his eyes and glanced back toward the horses. They were tethered within the ruin. The gray mare was shivering with terror, her eyes wide, her ears flat back against her skull. Kysumu's bay gelding was pawing the ground nervously. From there
Yu Yu could just make out the line of hills and the slope he had ridden down only a few hours before. If he ran to the mare and clambered into the saddle, he could make that ride again and be clear of the ruins within moments.
The thought was like cool water to a man dying of thirst.
He flicked a glance to the seated Kysumu. His face, as ever, was calm.
Yu Yu swore loudly, feeling his anger rise.
"Only an idiot goes seeking demons," he said, his voice sounding shrill.
High above him the clouds parted briefly, and moonlight bathed the ghostly city of Kuan Hador. In that sudden light Yu Yu saw several dark shapes scatter to hide among the rocks. As he tried to focus on them,
the clouds gathered once more. Yu Yu licked his lips and backed across the ruin to stand alongside Kysumu.
"Wake up!" he shouted, nudging the man with his foot.
The moon shone once more. Again the dark shapes scattered. But they were closer now. Yu Yu rubbed his sweating palms on the sides of his leggings and took up his sword once more, swinging it left and right to loosen the muscles of his shoulders. "I am Yu Yu Liang!" he shouted. "I am a great swordsman, and I fear nothing!"
"I can taste your fear," came a sibilant voice.
Yu Yu leapt backward, catching his leg on the low wall and falling over it. He scrambled to his feet.
At that moment a huge black form came hurtling toward him, its great jaws open, long fangs snapping for his face. Yu Yu swung the sword. It slashed into the beast's neck, slicing through flesh and bone and exiting in a bloody spray. The creature's dead body cannoned into him,
hurling him from his feet. Yu Yu hit the ground hard, rolled to his knees, then surged to his feet. Smoke began to ooze from the carcass alongside him, and a terrible stench filled the air.
Five more of the beasts came padding toward the ruin, clambering over the broken stones and forming a circle around him. Yu Yu saw that they were hounds, but of a kind he had never seen before. Their shoulders were bunched with muscle, their heads huge. Their eyes were on him, and he sensed a feral intelligence in their baleful gaze.
To his left the gray mare suddenly reared, dragged her reins loose of the rock, and leapt over the wall. The bay gelding followed her lead,
and the two horses galloped away toward the hills. The huge hounds ignored the horses.
The voice came again, and he realized it was somehow speaking inside his head. "Your order has fallen a long way since the Great Battle. My brothers will be pleased to hear of your decline. The mighty Riaj-nor,
who once were lions, are now frightened monkeys with bright swords."
"You show yourself," said Yu Yu, "and this monkey will cut your poxy head from your poxy shoulders."
"You cannot see me? Better and better."
"No, but I can see you, creature of darkness," came the voice of Kysumu.
The little Rajnee stepped up alongside Yu Yu. "Cloaked in shadow, you stand just out of harm's way."
Yu Yu glanced at Kysumu and saw that he was staring toward the eastern wall. Yu Yu squinted, trying to make out a figure there, but he could see nothing.
The demon hounds began to move. Kysumu had still not drawn his sword.
"I see there are still lions in this world. But lions can also die."
The hounds rushed in. Kysumu's blade flashed left and right. Two of the beasts fell, writhing on the stones. A third struck Yu Yu, fangs closing on his shoulder. With a cry of pain Yu Yu rammed his sword deep into the beast's belly. In its agony the hound opened its jaws, letting out a ferocious howl. Yu Yu tore the blade clear and brought it down on the hound's skull. The sword tore through bone and wedged itself there.
Desperately Yu Yu tried to haul it clear. The last two beasts rushed at him. Kysumu's sword sliced through the neck of the first, but the second leapt for Yu Yu's throat.
In that instant a black bolt materialized in the creature's skull, a second lancing through its neck. The hound fell at Yu Yu's feet. Freeing his sword, Yu Yu swung around to see the Gray Man upon his steeldust gelding, a small crossbow in his hand.
"Time to go," the Gray Man said softly, pointing toward the east.
A thick mist was moving across the ancient city, a wall of fog slowly rolling toward them. The Gray Man swung the gelding and galloped away.
Yu Yu and Kysumu followed him. The pain in Yu Yu's shoulder was intense now, and he could feel blood flowing down his left arm. Even so he ran swiftly.
Far ahead he saw the Gray Man still riding away. "A pox on you,
bastard!" he shouted.
Glancing back, he saw that the wall of mist was closer, moving faster than he could run. Kysumu also glanced back. Yu Yu staggered and almost fell. Kysumu dropped back to take his arm. "Just a little farther," said
"We ... can't ... outrun it."
Kysumu said nothing, and the two men moved on in the darkness. Yu Yu heard hoofbeats and looked up to see the Gray Man riding back toward them, leading the gray mare and the bay gelding. Kysumu helped Yu Yu into the saddle, then ran to his own mount.
The mist was very close now, and Yu Yu could hear bestial sounds emanating from it.
The gray mare needed no urging and took off at speed, Yu Yu clinging to the saddle pommel. She was panting heavily by the time they reached the slope, but panic gave her greater strength and she fought her way up the steep incline.
A little ahead, the Gray Man swung the steeldust, gazing back down toward the plain.
The mist was swirling at the foot of the slope but not advancing. Yu Yu swayed in the saddle. He felt Kysumu's hand upon his arm and then passed into darkness.