Monday, February 14, 2011
Flaming Sword Excerpt
Haven't been posting as much lately...I was working on the third draft of the first volume of my latest book, Flaming Sword. While it might not be immediately obvious, it's a Zorachus novel...here's an excerpt.
“When Job challenges God to explain Himself, God answers him with monsters.”
—The Gospel According to Harryhausen
Chapter 1: Scorpion Peak
They styled themselves, variously, The Rectifiers, The Perfectors, The Brotherhood of Benefaction, The Openers of The Authentic Way, The Heralds of The Future, the Unfasteners of the Future’s Muzzle (or more simply, the Unfasteners), and The Friends of Magic.
Most everyone else called them The Devils, or The Possessed, and if Sayif Bin Sufyan had known that the bastard who’d flashed the bullion was their cat’s paw, he would’ve told him to go to Hell, or maybe even sent him there himself. But Sayif hadn’t had a clue that twenty blazing-eyed fanatics would waiting for him at the oasis of Wasta, and here he was now, guiding them through the most hellish desert known to man, towards the place where his father and brothers had been eaten alive.
It was late afternoon and the shadows of the deeply pitted lava rocks were lengthening over the orange sand, but he didn’t feel the heat had broken, and he wouldn’t have pushed on so soon, not that he’d have pushed on at all if he’d had a choice. The camels (who hated the Rectifiers, in Sayif’s opinion) were croaking complaints, just plodding along, and caning them more trouble than it was worth, although the Devils kept at it, and Sayif had to as well, since they wanted him out front. But the camels would’ve gone faster, and more than made up for lost time, if the lunatics could’ve waited till things cooled off.
But the Devils, always furiously impatient, could barely restrain themselves; even when the sun stood flaming at noon, they were desperate to be out from under the shade of their propped-up cloaks. Sayif was lucky if he got a couple hours of sleep between sunset and moonrise, and wasn’t sure if he’d slept at all last night...his eyes were dry and swollen. Everything was shimmering…looming ever higher in the southeast, blood red against a dark purplish sky, the Howling Crags wavered and quivered. Scorpion Peak was the tallest spire in the second ridge; Sayif could barely make out the fortress that the ancient Saathranim had built close to the top---the stronghold was made of rock quarried from the crags, and its walls and towers, in their present ruinous state, were nearly indistinguishable from the Peak itself---
Sayif noticed movement, off on his right.
Black and shiny, as large as a middle-sized dog, a scorpion had crawled up onto a rock. He’d been seeing ones about as big for three days now, and even though the creatures were keeping their distance, he cringed inwardly whenever he spotted one, reminded of their much bigger brothers, the real monsters, who didn’t need to keep their distance…
And here you are, he thought, heading for the Peak again, and in vastly worse company… Even if the scorpions don’t do you in, the Devils will…
He felt a shock between the shoulderblades, heard a sharp snapping noise; his hood flipped back, his robes fluttered, and a voice snarled “Stay awake!” as though he’d been nodding, which he hadn’t—at most, he’d eased off on the caning, because his arm was getting tired. His first impulse was to turn and glare, but he thought better of it. His tormentor, Hafez the Dogkiller, whose camel Sayif’s was tethered to, would’ve only have shocked him again, with his “Staff of Correction.” Every Devil carried one, a smaller “Rod of Correction” too. Sayif worked his neck and his shoulderblades; he had an aching spot that would probably last until he got his next jolt, in the same place, doubtless.
But he’d gotten off light so far. Using rods instead of canes, his captors had corrected several of their camels to death before big Abu Jundab, the closest thing to a sane man among them, had pointed out that they’d all be afoot in short order; earlier on, at Wasta, the bastard who’d lured Sayif to the oasis had gotten the full treatment once they decided they didn’t need him anymore. It had looked to Sayif as though every mote of dust had lifted from the wretch’s billowing clothes before the garments burst into flames, and the man had dropped down dead, his hair burning too, even his beard and moustache...
Sun beating on the back of his head, Sayif realized his hood was down and was just about to raise it again when....
Someone came up on his left.
It was the fanatic-in-chief, Archidamnus Adamantes...he always came up on the left. Rocking on his camel, he caned the animal every few seconds, all the while staring at Sayif, his dark-rimmed eyes burning in a long sunken-cheeked face beneath a dark hood...somehow, despite all these weeks in the desert, his skin remained colorless. His bony left hand was clenched on the reins, trembling; despite their bulk, his heavy robes didn’t conceal the steady quivering of the body within. Adamantes was always shaking, palsied with perpetual vehemence…sometimes Sayif half-expected him to start buzzing, like a wasp.
Moreover, Adamantes stank.
All the Rectifiers did, even out here where the air was so dry and everything was as open as it could be...it had to be hard on the camels, since they had such good noses. But the Devils themselves were, if anything, proud of the odor, calling it “The Scent of Magic.” Even though they usually showed nothing more than their faces and hands, they’d stripped off several times to “Perfume the Wrappings,” moisten inscription-covered bandages on their chests and arms with a noxious green fluid...Sayif had the impression that the cloths fuse with their flesh over time and were absorbed, leaving the inscriptions on the skin like faint tattoos. Whenever the bandages were freshly treated, the odor was very evil, dyeing-pit or tannery bad. Sayif was thankful that the bottles containing the fluid were carried by camels well back in the line...and that Adamantes’ bandages had been drying for a while. Even so, with the madman so close, and upwind, Sayif wanted to pinch his own nostrils shut, but—
“Still can’t make out the fortress,” the Devil said, his Kadjafi good enough, enough, although he had a pronounced Achaean accent.
Sayif replied: “Same rock as the crags, My Lord, so---”
Adamantes broke in: “Do you really think you can fool me?”
Sayif had no idea what he was talking about. “Fool you—?”
“What would be the point?”
“There’s always malice,” said Adamantes. “And despair.”
Sayif began: “I’m a practical man---”
Adamantes broke in: “Practicality is the first refuge of a coward.”
Sayif didn’t know why he’d say this, even though Adamantes clearly meant it...surely it was more in Adamantes’s interest to foster Sayif’s cowardly tendencies. But it was terribly, terribly hard to come up with answers that didn’t aggravate the madman.
“Be that as it may,” Sayif said. “I hope—with all my heart---to earn all that bullion, guide you to the ruins, and survive.”
For several aching moments (Sayif held his breath) Adamantes weighed this, then said: “A man must have faith in the future.”
He came out with this pronouncement five or six times a day, often quite beside the point...sometimes it undermined his arguments, but he didn’t seem to notice, or care. Hearing it yet again, Sayif couldn’t decide if it meant Adamantes had liked his answer, or not...
They went on awhile in silence...Adamantes kept staring at Sayif, who tried to fix his gaze on the desert before him, but Admantes began caning his camel even harder, thap! thap! thap! and managed to beat enough speed from her to pull ahead of Sayif. Twisting, he looked back, his white countenance floating in the blackness of his hood...after weeks in the desert, his face hadn’t acquired the least trace of a tan.
“You hate the very sight of me, don’t you?” he asked.
Sayif was desperate to own up to it, declare it, crow it in fact, and add that he hated his smell just as much, but merely said: “No, My Lord.”
“Liar,” Adamantes replied, glancing past him, and Sayif realized that he’d wasted his restraint.
The Dogkiller jolted Sayif gave him another shock; as Sayif reeled, barely staying on the camel, Adamantes said:
“You hate the very sight of me, yes?”
“Yes, My Lord,” Sayif gasped.
“If you truly had faith in the future,” said Adamantes. “You wouldn’t have to lie.”
Barely able to breathe, the muscles of his ribcage cramping, Sayif fully expected a third shock.
It never came. He’d had enough correction for the time being, apparently…but off to the left, Adamantes stayed beside him, thap-thap-thap-thap, staring and staring...
The light got redder and the heat finally moderated...Sayif’s shadow, swaying atop his camel’s, stretched a good hundred feet before him. The beast picked up the pace, even though Sayif was hardly caning her...he wasn’t at all anxious to reach the crags. He kept seeing more scorpions---they got a lot more active as it got cooler. Knowing that the night would be very bad indeed, he felt driven to dispense some advice...after all, holding his tongue was hardly much worse than speaking his mind.
“We should stop now,” he said.
“Would that be the practical thing to do?” Adamantes sneered.
“We should camp through the night.”
“The moon will still be full,” Adamantes said. “Sufficient to my purpose.”
“In my dream, everything was awash in moonlight.”
“Were there scorpions?” Sayif asked.
Adamantes didn’t answer.
Sayif went on: “Huge ones? The real giants, the ones that won’t hang back, live up in the crags. I watched them eat my father and---“
“You didn’t have any Rectifiers with you,” Adamantes said.
“With all due respect---”
Hearing that phrase, Adamantes eyed him venemously, but Sayif steeled himself, asking:
“Just how powerful do you think you are?”
“We haven’t shocked you enough?”
“You have, My Lord. But the men who bred those monsters...”
“--- were vastly stronger than you.”
Although this was indisputable, there was no reason to think that Adamantes would concede...but Sayif had touched some hidden sadness. Adamantes sighed: “There’s no one like them today.”
Emboldened, Sayif continued: “They were wiped out by those things, the whole order, in a single night. At least, let’s wait till mid-day tomorrow, when the scorpions will be asleep.”
They rode on. Sayif began to think that Adamantes wasn’t going to to reply. But finally the Devil answered:
“I spit on patience.”
That’s a fact, Sayif thought.
Adamantes said: “Ever since the Fall, patience has made eunuchs of men…we’ve wallowed in impotence when we could’ve snatched back our birthright, and mounted the throne of Heaven.”
Sayif wasn’t following this.
Adamantes said: “But, in this instance…”
“My Lord?” Sayif asked after a time.
“I think we should make camp.”
Sayif lifted his eyes, wordlessly thanking the darkening heavens.
The company halted.
A Devil put Sayif’s leg-iron on him, hammered an iron staple into a boulder and fastened Sayif’s chain to it with a padlock. Some of the other Devils gathered some dead white wood---it poked out of the sand between the rocks here and there—and made a fire while the rest drank their fill from the bags carried by the water-camel. Even for men in the desert, the Devils seemed uncommonly thirsty, and sucked down a great deal of water; when Sayif had asked one about it, the Rectifier claimed it kept him from bursting into flames, and while Sayif had thought he was probably joking, he hadn’t been sure.
But if their guzzling struck him as profligate, they had a way to replenish their store...mounted on the water-camel’s back was a thicket of small metal tubes and vanes, which somehow drew water from the air, and channelled it down into two leather bags, with taps, that hung on either side of the camel’s body. It was some time before the Devils had their fill, drinking from iron cups. Once they were done, Sayif went over to the camel (his chain was fairly long) and took a deep pull directly from the tap. Then he was given bread and dried meat; even though he was famished, he tried to eat slowly.
The sun went down in an orange blaze; once the orb dropped from sight, the west went red, then green, then blue. Outlining the horizon, the blue lingered for quite some while, and against it, Sayif could see scorpions moving, some farther, some nearer, the blue glow reflected on their backs. He could hear them too, their leg-tips clittering on the rocks...he nursed a not unreasonable hope that the Scent of Magic might hold them at bay until one got pretty close to the camp...Abu Jundab shot it with his fuselock.
He was the only Devil with a gun. A few had crossbows, but Adamantes was very much of the opinion that they should do their killing with magic whenever possible, use the rods and staffs close in, and force-bolts and conjured demons for stand-off work. Characteristically, Abu was more, well, practical...tasked with providing fresh meat, he’d persuaded Adamantes that he’d bag more antelope with a gun, and had equipped himself with the latest thing in fuselocks, a turnbolt back-loader. Sayif had never seen one before Abu shoved it into his face back at Wasta, and he’d never seen him fire it till now.
It was long-barrelled and big-bored, and Sayif was rather surprised it hadn’t killed the scorpion outright, but the creature was pretty big itself. Unsteady on its legs, it was keeping its distance...Abu reloaded immediately with a brass cartridge from one of the bandoliers across his massive chest. As far as Sayif had been able to deduce, the gun’s barrel was bored straight through from one end to the other, and the cartridge, already containing powder and ball, went into it from the back, the shell acting as part of the chamber....sticking out from the cartridge was a small handle, which Abu pulled along a groove in the barrel...there was a right-angle turn at the end, and he slapped the handle down into it, then stuck a pin into a small hole just above the flash-pan...Sayif guessed he was perforating some sort of lining in the cartridge, which must have a hole lining up with the touch-pan’s. The serpentine arm was already cocked, and Abu shot the scorpion again, this time putting it down. Unlocking the spent cartridge, he pulled it out by the handle, blew on it, and pushed it up into the bandolier-loop he’d plucked it from, no doubt with the intention of reloading it.
He got another cartridge into the gun very quickly and shot a second scorpion farther out, reloaded once more and took aim again—the backloader was capable of a much faster rate of fire than a regular fuselock, plainly. But before he could fire, Adamantes said:.
“Friends of Magic, remember?”
Towering over him, Abu said nothing but lowered the gun, and his target wandered off to live out some more of its strange scorpion life, prompting Sayif to wonder if he had as much time left....
A few bright stars had become visible as soon as the sun vanished; now a great cloudy band of them described an arch that ran from southeast to northwest. The blue limning the horizon was blotted out by a haze of silver starlight. Sayif could see quite clearly for some distance, and there were scores of scorpions now, their raised stingers silhouetted clearly…the camels were croaking nervously, all of them on their feet, heads going this way and that. At any given time, a couple of the scorpions were fighting, locked together at the claws, jabbing with their tails. Swinging round and round each other, Devils leaping to get out of their way, a pair got well into the firelight before one of Adamantes’s fellow Achaeans, a man named Gyllippus, put a quarrel into one, then shocked them both repeatedly with his staff. Loosing each other, they went their separate ways out of the camp, one giving Sayif a good fright as it raced right by him.
But that wasn’t enough to keep him from drifting toward sleep; even if he was chained to a rock in a monster-infested desert, it seemed to him that the most important thing was to let his hot, heavy eyelids close, and…
He woke some time later. It was the smell...the Devils were freshening their bandages. He knew at once that Adamantes had decided to throw caution to the wind.
There was more light now----the moon had risen beyond the Howling Crags, the spires serrate black against its glow, which had banished the stars. Yawning, Sayif lifted one of his hands. He could plainly make out the hairs on the back of it, silvered by the moon. In all his years in the desert, he’d never seen such moonlight. It was so bright that he even noticed a slight red tinge, albeit a dark one, to the sand between the lava rocks…he grew aware of Adamantes standing nearby, his eyes gleaming fiercely in their dark sockets.
“More than enough light,” the Devil declared, adjusting his robes as though he’d just put them back on.
“Are you speaking to me, My Lord?” Sayif asked.
Adamantes ignored the question. “My confidence is renewed.”
“Pushing on. In my dream, as I said, there is copious moonlight.”
“Don’t you believe in dreams?” Adamantes asked.
“I thought I should believe in the future.”
“The future is a dream.” Adamantes’ eyes flamed. “My dream.”
Sayif said: “What about the scor---“
Adamantes silenced him with a chopping gesture. “The Future strains at its leash.”
“Be that as it may, My Lord---“
“Zeal is everything.”
“Lacked zeal, plainly, whatever their power.” Adamantes turned to his men...their robes rustled as they donned them again. He cried: “Who will slice the Future’s Leash?”
“The Rectifiers,” they replied.
“Who will unfasten its muzzle?”
“Sharpen its teeth?”
“Gorge it with red and dripping meat?”
“The Friends of Magic!”
“How I love thee,” said Archidamnus Adamantes, and signaled the man who’d chained Sayif to the rock...off came the leg-iron...the man detached the padlock from the staple and slung the chain over his shoulder, padlock hanging...links clinked as strode off.
Men gathered up gear and strapped it on, saddled their camels and mounted up. But when the beasts demonstrated they were in no mood to advance, Adamantes told his men to try their rods again. The animals bawled, but started forward. Since Sayif didn’t have a staff of his own, the Dogkiller shocked his camel for him. Ahead, the scorpions gave ground, shuttling from the company’s path, even though the landscape alive was with rattlings and clickings and the creaking of joints, and the snippings of cannibal claws.
Presently, though, there got to be so many of the vermin that the camels balked and would go no further, shocks or no shocks. But all at once strange bleatings started up to the north, sounds such as Sayif had never heard, made by God knew what, and the scorpions, in a vast herd, all cleared out in that direction, as though they were drawn by the prospect of easy prey, and lots of it.The scissoring, stinging horde soon reached the bleaters, whatever they were, the pathetic sounds swelling enormously in volume, and bits of sheared-off stuff, black against the moonsilvered night, began flying up into view....Sayif had always assumed that the scorpions must be eating something besides each other, although that left the question of how the bleaters sustained themselves...
The path was relatively clear now, all the way to the foothills of the crags, and even though bigger scorpions were coming down from the heights, they were heading north, towards the slaughter. Soon, exactly where Sayif had expected—he had the uncanny knack of memorizing ever landscape he ever laid eyes on--- the company struck a road with good pavement, partially covered in spots by blown sand, that led due east. Sayif looked away southward. Lightning was flashing in the distance, intermittently illuminating a dark haze that was still low, yet rising...
Sandstorm, he thought.
Ahead, the moon was still silhouetting the crags, but the firmament was so permeated with light that the western faces, shadowed as they were, reflected the sky, all the details of the cliffs revealed to Sayif’s eyes, crevices, ledges, slots, steeply falling canyons, and weathered buttresses. Running along the foot of the towering fence, studded in places with outcroppings and boulders, was a long dune...the road ran right up to it and disappeared beneath. The company went up and over, found the road again, and followed it into a cleft in the palisade.
The canyon turned to the south, its floor rising in a series of shelves, the road switchbacking up the righthand wall. Farther up, two piers extended from the cliffs, projecting towards each other, remnants of the great bridge which had once spanned the gorge. Gatehouses stood at either end. Ten years before, climbing up the lefthand wall below the eastern arch, Sayif and his brother Numan had rigged lines---shot by crossbow from the far side---across the breach, gatehouse to gatehouse, and so the rest of their party had crossed over. The ropes had been fixed to staples, and he guessed those were still there, but...the lines were long gone, undoubtedly.
He’d have to climb up again.
He shook his head...
Then realized it might not be so bad. Once the moon cleared the lefthand wall, there’d be enough light, and this time, it would be cool enough.
He hadn’t been seeing too many scorpions, and that was a relief, but presently he heard crunchings and snippings... and as the troop rounded the corner of a switchback, they came upon a scorpion the size of a camel at work on a specimen, not much smaller, which was lying on its back, legs in the air, the opener of its belly fishing around in it with its claws.
Since the victor was the largest scorpion they’d seen so far, Sayif was sure Adamantes would let Abu Jundab use his gun, but the Devil-in-Chief turned to Gyllippus, who took the lead, staff presented like a spear. The scorpion that was doing the eating seemed uninterested in his approach, and let him go right up and shock it...briefly illuminated by the yellow flash, the thing froze, its claws still buried in its victim.
Gyllippus jumped back to watch it. The scorpion remained motionless for a few moments more, then shuddered as though it were waking itself up, and swung its hindquarters towards the wall on the right, which it began to back straight up, snatching the dead scorpion’s stinger in a pincer as it climbed, yanking the corpse up along the cliff, dislodging a shower of dust and stones. Sayif was afraid the monster was simply going to stop on another switchback farther above, so they’d have to deal with it again, but the scorpion suddenly backed from sight into a horizontal fissure in the face, and yanked its meal in after it. The party waited until the falling rocks slacked off, then continued the ascent.
The switchbacks swung farther south than north; at last the company came up alongside the shelf which lay under the broken bridge. There Sayif dismounted, along with Abu Jundab and Gyllippus, whom Adamantes had assigned to accompany Sayif up the inner wall. Even though Abu and the Achaean both knew the desert, Sayif wondered how much climbing they’d done...those monkish robes would certainly have to go.
But once they downed some water (Sayif drank too, but more sparingly) they stripped down to their trousers. Abu Jundab was certainly a muscular brute, and didn’t have too many bandages...Gyllippus was bony, like most of his comrades, and had more wrappings, but they seemed mostly absorbed into his white skin and didn’t look as though they’d slip. Both Devils tucked rods into their belts, and Abu put his bandoliers back on and strapped his fuselock across his back. He tossed Sayif a coil of rope, and once Sayif had it slung from right shoulder to left side, Abu said:
Even as Sayif led them across the shelf to the base of the cliff, the moon began to creep out above, over the spires, its downward-raking light picking out every little feature of the route Sayif had taken before. To someone with no eye, the cliff might’ve looked unscalable; but even if Sayif hadn’t already climbed it, he still would’ve known just the way to go. Evidently Abu Jundab had the eye too; without asking a word of advice from Sayif, he got round him and took the lead.
Even though the bridge was five hundred feet up, the climbing was easy; the stone was so fractured, and scored with gouges and ledges, that there was always a handhold, and the scorpions didn’t interfere...at least until one decided to get hold of Gyllippus.
He was one ledge down from Sayif....hearing the scream, Sayif looked back over the edge.
Palms pressed flat against the stone, straining and gasping, Gyllippus was off to the left, nearly-hip-deep in a crack Sayif had just stepped over a few moments before. Even though the Devil looked at Sayif as though he expected Sayif to help him, indeed, thought he was obligated, Sayif thought otherwise and was contemplating not helping at all...but before he quite made his mind up (he wasn’t sure what he could do in any case, because trying to pull Gyllippus from the scorpion’s claws might only rip him open), there was a great tug on Gyllippus from below, and both his arms buckled, and down he went, arms flying up over his head, his white hands flapping, before they disappeared just like the rest of him. There was a series of loud clacking sounds and screams, the latter being shortly cut off.
All this happened before Abu Jundab could scramble back down. Halting beside Sayif, he leaned forward, out over that lower step. Just then Gyllippus, with a loud rasping noise, came back up out of the crack, his arms down now...the first thing that showed was his wooly hair...his head was tipped to one side. At first Sayif wondered if he could possibly be alive, somehow getting some purchase with his feet, but it was quickly apparent that the life had gone out of the Achaean’s eyes, and his head just jiggled as another shove pushed him farther up.
Abu Jundab jumped down and seized the Achaean under the shoulders, pulling him out of the crack…Gyllippus was completely limp, and sheared completely through from the crotch to the bottom of the ribcage...one of his arms was also severed below the elbow, and the claw that did it had bitten into his side as well...there were other marks that looked as though he’d been chewed. But the creature must’ve decided that it didn’t like him...even if scorpions had no sense of smell, taste was another matter.
Abu Jundab gave Gyllippus a nudge with his boot-tip.
“Come the Rectification, comrade,” he said, “no more scorpions.” Then he looked at Sayif. “Why didn’t you help him?”
“I didn’t know what to do,” Sayif replied. “If I pulled him, I thought I might...”
Abu cut him short. “You stay out in front from now on, but keep close, where I can see you.”
Even if Sayif tried to escape, he didn’t think Abu would shoot him....they still needed him, and Abu didn’t even have his fuse lit. But he was a fearfully quick climber, and he could use the rod. Sayif thought he might black out and fall if he were shocked, but didn’t know what sort of chance Abu was willing to take....
They resumed the climb.
Thunder rumbled northwards up the chasm…the wind was rising, smelling like some other place entirely, hundred of miles away maybe...fine invisible dust was running ahead of the sand. Sayif remembered that scent. There had been a sandstorm ten years ago, too, ripping through the crags, making them howl indeed…if he was caught on the cliff-face when the storm hit, he knew he’d be scoured right off.
“Faster,” said Abu Jundab, as if Sayif needed to be told….as the thunder grew steadily louder, Sayif pushed himself as hard as he could, and they made swift progress, reaching the eastern gatehouse, crawling in through a crack in the wall and going to the gate, which looked out across the broken span.
Just as Sayif expected, the staples he’d hammered into the lefthand wall were still there, one at the base of the wall, the other about chest high, protruding from the dark cut lava blocks. Most of the rope was gone, although the knots were still fastened to the staples…Abu Jundab sliced the remnants away with a curved dagger; then he and Sayif went out toward the gap in the bridge.
The rest of the company was waiting on the other side.
“We heard screams,” Adamantes cried. “Where’s Gyllippus? ”
“Scorpion got him,” Abu Jundab replied.
“Did it eat him?”
“Tried to. But we don’t taste good, apparently.”
“A badge of honor,” Adamantes answered, and signalled a man with a crossbow...two shots carried light ropes, tied to heavier ones, across the gap. Sayif and Abu Jundab drew the thicker ropes over, and attached them to the staples. Across the breach, the lines were already made fast; walking on the lower rope, gripping the chest-high one, Adamantes led fourteen of his men across, leaving the rest with the camels.
“So where are the big scorpions?” Adamantes asked Sayif. “The giants that won’t back down?”
“Staying in their lairs, maybe,” Sayif replied. “There is a storm headed this way.”
“Best we make haste, then.”
They went through the gate, along a passage strewn with collapsed masonry, and out an arch that opened on the road; it was more switchbacks after that, some of which traversed great crevices in the mountainside, over arches so eroded that they were barely passable. Presently the company rounded a cape outthrust from the cliff, and sighted another headland, farther south.
Atop that loomed Khaur Al-Athtar.
“There it is,” Sayif said. High as the moon was, it was still off to the south, and against its light, from the north, the fortress, massive and square, looked much less like a natural feature than it had from the desert below; Sayif knew that the southern and western faces, which bore the brunt of the sandstorms, were vastly more ruinous. Off on the left, a great crag towered high above the ancient stronghold, bleached in moonlight and slashed with black fissures.
Climbing as it skirted the yawning bay which separated the two capes, the road crawled up the second to the fortress’s entrance, which faced west. The gatehouse had crumbled...beyond the debris stretched a huge courtyard. The south wall was breached in many places, and pits gaped in the pavement, as though mighty chambers had caved in. If not for the pits, Sayif guessed the yard would’ve been much thicker in sand; as it was, the holes were nearly filled, and the pave was almost covered with sand-crescents, some lower, some higher; big drifts had collected against the northern wall, sloping upwards against the masonry. Undulating over crescents, and down into the pits, deep shadow ran along the foot of the southern wall, broken by moonlight shining through the gaps.
At the eastern end of the courtyard, a wall, pierced by slit-casements higher up, rose sheer; an arch yawned beneath a ruined barbican.
“There’s a stair,” Sayif said. “Leads to the upper courtyard.”
“And the Iron Keep’s up there?” Adamantes asked.
“Yes, My Lord,” Sayif answered. “Against the wall of the crag. You can’t see it from here---it’s not very tall.” He tilted his face back, scanning the silverwashed cliff above the wall.
“What are you looking for?” Abu Jundab asked.
“What do you think?” Sayif replied. “We first spotted them up there---the ones that ripped us to pieces. There were ten. It was hard to tell just how big they were, at that distance…they might’ve been three feet long or thirty. Looked like they were in some sort of formation, and they didn’t move for a while….then…”
“Nothing up there now,” said Abu Jundab.
A few yards ahead, Adamantes beckoned, then started across one of those little dunes from the side...he led the way through the barbican, and up the steep stairs. There was no roof overhead; framed by black masonry, a gleaming strip of crag showed at the top, its reflected light tumbling some way down the steps, the spire so tall that it seemed to lean forward. Sayif had to arch well back, almost falling over, before he saw the sky and not moonlit stone.
As below, the pave on the upper courtyard had collapsed in places...there were three walls, north, west, and south, some of which still showed traces of crenelation. At the back of the courtyard rose the crag. Built upon a natural spur that came up through the roof, the Iron Keep was set in a recess in the cliff, dome overhung by beetling stone…a stair led up to the door.
Sayif leaned back yet again, eyeing the heights, and this time---
The scoprions were arranged in a kind of diamond, ten of them, completely motionless. Just as before, they were so far up that they looked tiny...but he knew better. Having nursed a mad hope that they might not come, might indeed be afraid of the storm, he felt his heart plunge.
“There they are,” he told Adamantes, coming up short behind him when the wizard halted and looked.
“Ten,” Adamantes said. “Just like the last time, eh?” Then he turned to his adherents, pointing back over his shoulder at the scorpions, and cried:
“Faith in the Future!” Adamantes cried.
“In the Future, Faith!” his men answered, as one---Sayif seemed to think that their eyes were blazing even more than usual.
“Down Heaven!” Adamantes screamed.
Despite the Scorpions and the Devils, up man almost had Sayif laughing through his nostrils...
Then Adamantes grinned at him like a skull, and Sayif could barely think for a few moments.
“Infected by our enthusiasm?” Adamantes asked.
“Didn’t you say there were no scorpions in your dream, My Lord?”
“I said nothing of the sort,” said Adamantes.
And so, skirting the places where the roof had caved, they pressed on to the foot of the deeply weathered and pitted steps and made their way up to the broad stairhead. A squat drum tower, the Keep was just tall enough to prevent Sayif from scanning the cliff above to see if the scorpions had moved. True to its name, it was made all of iron, which, by some miracle of magic, showed only a few spots of rust, dark violet in the moonlight. The door was perhaps ten feet high, and round.
“Perfectly circular,” Adamantes breathed...for some reason, he set great store by circularity. Directly in the middle of the door was its lock, a series of concentric wheels etched with many markings, figures of animals, numbers, strange symbols which Sayif had been taught to recognize, even though he had no idea what they represented…there were seven wheels, each with a little knob for turning them. Working from fragmentary ancient texts, Sayif’s father had pieced together the combinations for the first six rings...
And five possibilities for the seventh.
But you couldn’t work your way through them at leisure…one mistake, and iron spines erupted from the surface of the door, as though the very metal rearranged itself to form them. Having gotten all the way to the innermost wheel, Sayif’s brother Kinana had made an educated guess---he knew numbers and locks like no one else alive---and had been run through in thirty places. When the spikes clacked back in, they’d drawn him up flat against the surface of the door---he’d still been peeling away from the iron surface when the giants from the cliff had descended at last. The innermost wheel was just as Kinana had left it, except for his blood, which had flaked off over the years.
“Four possibilities left, yes?” Adamantes asked Sayif.
“Yes, My Lord,” Sayif answered.
“And the wheels will still turn?”
“The lock is exceptionally well-made, to say the least.”
Admantes looked at his men. “So then...who wants a go at it?”
To Sayif, they all looked willing enough; a man named Ukaydir was the first to step forward. But Abu Jundab asked:
“Where’s the harm in trying a few spells?”
Adamantes said: “We’ve been through this. The door is heavily proofed against binding-magic. We’d just be wasting time.”
“Would dissipate upon touching it.”
Abu pointed to Sayif. “Make him do it.”
Adamantes shook his head. “And what if he dies straight off? What then?”
“Make him tell the other combinations, before he tries.”
Sayif asked: “And why would I tell, if you’re just going to kill me anyway?”
“We might need him, to find our way back,” Adamantes said.
“I can get us back to Wasta,” said Abu Jundab.
Adamantes regarded him, considered this boast. “His reputation exceeds yours, dear friend.”
“What’s the first combination, Sayif?” Adamantes asked.
“Jackal with rabbit.” Sayif replied.
“Did you hear that, Ukaydir?”
“Jackal with rabbit,” said the volunteer.
“But wait till we all step back.”
“Five paces,” Sayif said.
They all retreated save Ukaydir, who went right up to the door as though he didn’t have a care in the world, and promptly lined up the symbols. At least, that was what Sayif assumed he did, because, even though he couldn’t see through Ukaydir, he saw the results. As if to prove that contempt for death was no substitute for the right combination, the spines erupted, and Ukaydir, impaled out towards the ends of the infernal things, jerked a good twelve feet out from the door, then snapped back in, flattening against the surface just as Sayif’s brother had, but sliding down rather than peeling back---he landed on his knees, leaning against the blood-smear on the door.
Adamantes said dryly: “The Future requires another hero.”
Having just seen what they’d seen, the men seemed rather more reluctant this time...but a man named Suhayl finally presented himself.
“Triangle with Two,” Sayif said.
Suhayl went to the the door, stood athwart Ukaydir’s lower legs, waited a moment, and---
Ended himself with a twist of the wrist.
The spikes pushed Ukaydir into him, but since Ukaydir was dragging this time, he stopped, the spikes passing through him much farther, Suhayl out at the end. Yanked forward when they went back, Suhayl slid languidly down over Ukaydir, wound up slumped against his back.
After that, the men were even more reluctant, but Adamantes said: “Barira!”
and the unfortunate bearer of that name shook himself and cried, in a voice that cracked just a bit, “In the Future, faith!” and stepped out. Sayif could see him trembling.
“Snake with Toad,” Sayif said.
Barira shook himself once more and went to get it over with. Since Ukaydir and Suhayl were piled just under the lock, he planted himself off to the left; when the spikes came through him, he jerked back with his arm still out to the right, his hand dangling limply.
Thunder cracked, much closer now. The wind was sharpening. Sayif craned his head back, looking at the top of the Keep, wishing desperately that he could see beyond it, hoping the scorpions hadn’t moved.
Here you are, he thought, ten years later, and the only way things have changed is for the worse---
He caught himself. That wasn’t exactly true.
At least, no matter what happens this time, you won’t have to see your father and brothers die…
As though he was giving Sayif a great opportunity, Adamantes said: “Up to you now.”
Sayif ran his hand over his mouth, which was absolutely devoid of spittle. He had no way of knowing if the last combination---a mystery symbol with another, equally mysterious---would do anything but slaughter him. Pressed by Kinana, his father had admitted that he wasn’t quite sure than any of the possibilities was the one.
“Might I have a drink?” Sayif asked.
“After,” said Adamantes.
Sayif felt an urge to sink his teeth into him, maybe even bite his nose off, then remembered Gyllippus and that scorpion, and decided he really didn’t need to discover for himself how Devils tasted...
“Do it,” said Adamantes.
Since Barira had died off to Ukaydir and Suhayl’s left, Sayif went to the right, took hold of the knob on the next-to-innermost wheel, and, heart in his throat, lined up enigma with enigma…
With a click, the knobs retracted into the door, all of them at once. The door started to roll, rumbling into the wall on the left. Air rushed past Sayif, into the widening gap. The metal of the keep rang like a sullen bell...expecting gold and jewels to pour forth like water from an opened sluicegate, he backed away.
But he saw quickly that there was nothing to retreat from.
Even the gigantic scorpions he saw inside were clearly dead, flattened, bellies flush against the floor, tails sagging down onto backs...some of the great jointed limbs had fallen off, and those still attached leaned at peculiar angles.
He started forward again, past the dead Devils, and it wasn’t until he was well inside that he was struck by how much light there was. He thought it must be moonlight, but the domed ceiling seemed to be intact, and was in fact covered with a strange decoration which seemed to be giving off the glow...
Yet that didn’t puzzle him as much as the complete lack of treasure. His father had been utterly convinced the keep was crammed. All the dry deadly miles from Thangura, he’d kept everyone going, indeed fired up, with his vivid rapturous descriptions.
But...instead of a huge vault, the chamber seemed to be some sort of council-room. Along with a lot of smashed chairs, there was the wreckage of what might’ve been a huge ring-shaped table...human remains were strewn about too, limb-bones and skulls, and torsos in scale-armor, as though the scorpions had had trouble with the scale-mail, and had settled for eating the extremities.
But in spite of the fact that the fragments had to be a good fifteen hundred years old, they looked much fresher than Sayif would ever have guessed, with rags of flesh still clinging to them. Sayif had heard of such things, bodies preserved in hermetically sealed tombs…
They locked the scorpions in with them, he thought. And the scorpions breathed up all the air after they finished them…
“This is no treasury,” he said, as Adamantes and Abu Jundab came up on either side of him.
“Not so,” Adamantes answered, threading his way through corpses and wreckage. “There’s treasure indeed.”
In the center of the chamber, in the midst of the ruined ring-table, he stood beneath the dome’s peak...Sayif followed, and Adamantes directed his gaze upwards with a bony finger.
That decoration on the ceiling was actually some kind of luminous map...a great lover of maps, he’d committed hundreds to memory, although this one was quite beyond his experience. Evenin the palaces of mighty nobles who had all the money in the world, there was nothing to compare to it. It showed a river that snaked back and forth in a basin, scores of smaller rivers feeding into it before it emptied into a lake...mountains hemmed the basin on all four sides. No matter where he looked, the detail seemed unlimited, although everything also seemed quite convincingly distant...there was a strange reality to the whole thing, of a sort he’d never seen in another human representation of, well, anything…it was almost as though he were looking straight down on the scene, from a point far above a brightly moonlit surface.
Then he noticed silvery shapes that appeared to be clouds, drifting…there was also a yellowish pinprick of light that appeared to be moving as well, across the surface of the lake...
The hairs on the nape of his neck rose.
“What exactly are we looking at, My Lord?” he asked Adamantes.
“What do you mean?”
“What sort of image is that? Those clouds are moving.”
“Yes,” said Adamantes. “I’ll have to wait until they crawl aside, I think.”
Adamantes ignored him, producing a stubby cylindrical object, apparently of brass, out of his robes. There was a lens on one end; the device was folded in sections, and Adamantes twisted something, and lengthened the cylinder out. Then, after positioning himself very carefully, as though he wanted to make absolutely sure he was directly beneath the peak of the dome, he held the tube up vertically, clicked something. The tube whirred.
“Shouldn’t you take another, for good measure?” asked Abu Jundab, backloader resting across his shoulders.
Adamantes clicked the tube again.
“What river is that?” Sayif asked.
“The Khudah Darya,” Adamantes said.
Sayif felt a chill. “The River of God?”
“Not for much longer.”
Without thinking, Sayif laughed: “You’re going to take God’s river away from---“
Seeing Adamantes’ reaction, he broke off before adding the Him.
“He took my beloved Mysia away from me,” said Adamantes...he’d mentioned the name before. “My heart was rent...so I will have His river. And everything else.”
Sayif answered this declaration with silence, but something of the skepticism in which he held must’ve registered in his eyes...as though Adamantes had had enough, he looked at Abu Jundab and asked:
“Are you sure you can get us back to Wasta?”
“Oh yes,” Abu Jundab said, lowering his gun and producing a little crystal alcohol lighter to ignite the fuse.
“Don’t shoot him,” said Adamantes.
Abu glanced at him.
“Use your rod,” Adamantes said. “Till he burns.”
Abu smiled. However much he enjoyed using his gun, he seemed to think the idea had merit...
Adamantes told Sayif: “You have mocked the Future for the last time.”
But just then, back by the door, men started shouting.
“What is it?” Adamantes cried.
“They’re on the steps!” they answered.
Reprieved, Sayif remained where he was as Adamantes and Abu raced away.
The other Devils had lined up by the threshold, and were thrusting with their staffs, which sizzled and flashed; the moonlight was dimmer than the light in the chamber. Sayif couldn’t see too clearly into the night outside.
But there was massive complex movement out there. Abu let off a shot.
Adamantes cried: “Close the door!”
“How?” voices cried.
Rooted in place, Sayif assumed there must be a lever or something, but wherever it was, it couldn’t have been obvious—Abu fire several more times, there was a good deal more sizzling from the staffs, and the door stayed open for what seemed an eternity before someone did whatever was needful, and the wheel began to roll, Devils jumping back to get out of its way.
As the crescent between door and jamb narrowed, a gigantic black pincer lunged through the opening, but the wheel was barely impeded, crunching it off at a joint…the claw dropped to the floor and clacked shut.
As the Devils stood panting, Sayif began to notice a terrible stink that was rapidly thickening, very different from the rectifier-smell and blotting it out…exposed to air, the dead Saathranim and the scorpions who’d killed them had begun to rot, and were, by the smell of it, plainly making up for a great deal of lost time.
Can’t stay in here, he thought.
Once the Devils got some of their wind back, they bunched up, and while there was much gesturing and yelling, there didn’t seem to be any remaining enthusiasm...Sayif guessed he was quite forgotten. Spotting small knives tucked into the belts of a couple of Saathranim who hadn’t needed them for quite a while, Sayif appropriated them, slipping one into his boot, the other into his robe.
The smell grew ever more vile…he stood fanning his face with his hand. Pools of fluid leaked out of the torsos…things inside the dead scorpions creaked and cracked, and jointed legs began to lean at even odder angles than they’d leaned at before.
The Devils were still trying to make up their minds, coughing as they yammered...Adamantes and Abu were off on the left side of the crowd...the former came out with some orders, and a man took up position beside the door, laying his hand on something. The other Rectifiers arrayed themselves along the threshold, and Adamantes raised his arm, said, “One, two---”
Then seemed to remember something and paused, turning.
“Abu,” he said, and nodded toward Sayif.
Abu cocked his backloader; Adamantes raised no objection now; there was no time for a proper job.
But Devil-in-Chief wasn’t about to miss Sayif’s demise; arm still in the air, he held off on three, keeping that man next to the door waiting frantically.
Abu was still a few seconds from firing though. He had a cartridge chambered—a handle was sticking out of the side of the gun---but the tip of his white fuse didn’t show through the serpentine arm, which was cocked upright; there wasn’t any smoke either, and it looked as though the fuse had been stubbed out against the firing-pan, the tip inside the arm now. This was confirmed as Abu started trying to force more of the fuse through the hole one-handed; when the tip came out, he perforated the cartridge, then brought out his lighter once more.
He managed all this very quickly, but it was still too long for Adamantes, who didn’t seem to have any idea what the trouble was.
“Shoot him!” he coughed.
As for Sayif, he was already running headlong at Abu, pulling out the knife he’d hidden in his robes. Despairing, evidently, of Abu getting a shot off on time, Adamantes assumed one of those stances that wizards got into before they discharged a magic-bolt.
But then Abu struck the lighter...
And vanished behind a wall of flame.
Sayif flinched, shut his eyes...there was a tremendous heavy whumpf! and a hot heavy gust struck him, knocking most of the air from his lungs, lifting his feet, swinging him back in midair and slamming him to the floor, that impact knocking the rest of his breath out. He slid and stopped, tried to inhale once he stopped...the air seemed to have departed the chamber.
He opened his eyes…the chamber was misty with smoke. His face felt like he had a terrible sunburn, and he smelled burnt hair, but the stink of decay was gone, almost as if it had been consumed by the flames.
Working his jaw, ears popping, he felt a cool wind, and looked towards the door, which was opening...he could breathe now. He sat up. Abu was prying himself up. Most of the other men, blown well off to the right, were flat on the floor, but some were sitting or kneeling, shaking their heads...the one who’d been stationed at the switch was half-crouched against the wall, hand still on the mechanism he’d apparently tripped....as the door rolled back out of sight, Sayif couldn’t see any scorpions.
Must’ve gone down the steps, partway at least...Maybe they just left when the door closed…
But he wasn’t about to assume this; and that was just as well.
Legtips clattered on stone. Devils got to their feet, looking round for their fallen staffs and picking them up. Abu’s gun seemed to have discharged when the vapor went up; he pulled the shell from the chamber, slid another in, cocked the weapon, and perforated the cartridge, all the while eyeing the door.
Outside, things huge and black heaved against a flash of lightning…even as the thunder rolled, a many-legged giant came right up to the threshold and stopped, swaying, just a bit.
Hood back, bald skull revealed, Hafez the Dogkiller cried “Come on!”to the others and stumbled towards the door, none of them following his example. Halting, he thrust his stave out and cried, “Ha!” at the scorpion, this persuading some of his comrades to take a few tentative steps his way.
But those fellows stopped dead when something dark and blurred shot through the opening...the sting drove right into the middle of his hairless crown as though that were a target, squashing him straight downward...Sayif heard his bones snapping. Looking as though it couldn’t possibly be as heavy as it clearly had to be, the armored monster clattered forward, snatched the Dogkiller in both pincers, and backed out into the night.
Just before it vanished down the steps, another rushed up over it, and two more came over the sides of the stair; all three jammed into the door at once, creating a clicking, clacking, squeaking blockage with the biggest scorpion wedged on top. Limbs interlaced, claws waving, they strained and struggled, and something gave; the scorpion-jam suddenly unlocked, and they exploded into the chamber, leaving a lot of legs behind, two of the monsters heading off to the right, the big one making for Abu and Adamantes...Abu fired...the creature paused. Adamantes struck it with several yellow magic-bolts in quick succession, then conjured a smallish winged something while Abu was reloading. The little demon didn’t seem to make any difference to the motionless scorpion one way or the other.
A man came staggering round the scorpion, his face so covered in blood that Sayif couldn’t recognize him. Abu cried, “Out of the way!” and the wounded man wiped his eyes with both hands...seeing Abu trying to aim at something behind him, he turned and swore, whereupon the scorpion seized him by the neck with a pincer and yanked him off the floor, Abu putting his next bullet into the man’s back. As the man went slack, the pincer closed, snipping his neck all the way through; as soon as the body dropped to the floor, the scorpion buried its mouth in his abdomen, mouthparts working furiously.
Suddenly, though, the gory bladed maw lifted; the scorpion backed away venting an odd sneezelike noise and swiping at its mouthparts with a claw, even as more of its fellows shuttled into the chamber; one Devil after another was stung and sheared and chewed...even if the mastication stopped after a few moments, that was far too late for the mangled human meals...none were succored by their horrible taste.
A scorpion raced around on Sayif’s right, got in back of him…again he found himself running towards Abu Jundab. Abu levelled his gun, but Sayif didd’t know if he was aiming at him or the scorpion...Sayif threw himself forward, Abu’s bullet sucking through his hair...landing on his belly, Sayif skidded up against Abu’s legs. The gun’s butt descended, but Sayif took the blow between the shoulderblades, scrambled up onto all fours, and got round Abu, rising to his feet...red light burst over him, and he was knocked sideways, thinking Adamantes must’ve blasted him...suddenly Sayif was standing in front of the door.
Swaying on its leg-tips, blood sluicing from its mouth, the biggest scorpion Sayif had ever seen was blocking the threshold.
Dead man, he thought.
Hind legs lifting, the thing cocked its tail forward.
Under! he thought, and got beneath the creature while the word was still loud in his mind. The creature danced about as though it didn’t quite realize where he’d gone, its legs hammering on either side of Sayif, who kept running along inside that horrible animate arcade...but before he could get clear, a smaller scorpion came in below the bigger one’s tail. Sayif backed right up, out from under, the smaller scorpion snipping at him, claw-tips plucking at his shirt.
Then the bigger one’s tail snapped forward, and Sayif thought it was shooting at him, but no, it wound up in the littler creature, smashing it flat against the floor.
“Shoot him!” came Adamantes’s voice from somewhere. Abu’s gun went off once more...Sayif didn’t know where the bullet went, or what it was aimed at, but he found himself jumping up onto the scorpion that had been stung, and from there onto head of the collossus who’d stung it. Racing along the armored back, too close to the tail to be jabbed, he leaped past the appendage, landing on the stairhead outside.
Another scorpion was rushing up towards him...he thought of leaping over the side, but thought he was still too high. Charging partway down, he jumped at the last moment. The drop was about five yards, and he thought he’d probably break his leg, twist his ankle at least…the jolt at the bottom was bad, and he fell over, sure he’d done himself some harm, but he got right up anyway and was running in moments, across the roof, towards the stairs that led down to the lower courtyard.
Lightning turned night to day for an instant...a scorpion rushed at him from the left, but the roof gave beneath it, and the thing dropped from sight. When Sayif reached the steps, he paused, panting. They were dark between the walls, but there was moonlit sand at the bottom, and if there’d been anything on the stairs, (or the walls for that matter) he would’ve seen I, silhouetted against that.
Lightning flashed again; wind whipped his robes.
But along with the rush of the gale and the rumbling thunder, he heard another sound, like wolves baying…to the south, not far off, with the sandstorm blasting between their stony blades, the Howling Crags had found their voice.
He hammered down the steps and across the sand-crescents in the lower courtyard…there were a few scorpions, but they paid him no heed, climbing over the walls, as if they were heading somewhere to escape the storm…he raced through the gate and down the road, round to the north side of the cape.
Then the sand-clouds came billowing over and around the fortress and the promontory…the lamentation of the crags intensified. Still in the lee, he had just enough time to find a narrow slot in the wall on the right; into that he lipped, and hunkered down, hands over his ears to muffle the keening of the cliffs. His left ankle began to hurt, getting steadily worse…had he twisted it after all?
Dreading the thought of meeting Adamantes again (he refused to assume the man was dead), he wanted to get moving the instant the weather allowed, and decided he’d better stay awake...even so, despite all that fury outside the slot, he dozen off twice, waking both times when his hands slipped down from his ears, and the howling hit him unmuted.
The storm raged for what seemed hours, finally slackening just before dawn; with the sky lightening over the spires in the east, he slipped out of his refuge and went limping down the road as quick as he could. He half-expected some of the Devils to overtake him, and was constantly looking back, but if any of the lunatics were still alive, there was no evidence of it yet...the thought of scorpions worried him much less, at least for now.
Finally he made it down to the eastern gatehouse, and went out to the gap in the bridge…by then there was much more light, and he could see through the gate opposite, some distance into the other building, where some of the camels were on their knees, others up and moving about...none had been unloaded....Sayif guessed Adamantes had anticipated a hasty retreat. Metal vanes on its back, the water-camel came out of the gate and looked across, chewing her cud. Sayif didn’t see any Devils. As for the ropes across the gap, one was down, and the other was frayed in the middle, strands hanging...the storm had done quite a job.
“Ho!” Sayif called. “Anyone over there?”
An Achaean named Cleomedes rose up rubbing his eyes and came out from behind a kneeling beast.
“Is there anyone else?” Sayif asked.
“I’m the only one left.”
“We managed to keep ‘em away from the camels, but…where’s Lord Adamantes?”
“Wounded, up in the fortress. Abu Jundab’s with him. They sent me down to get help.”
Cleomedes was skeptical. “And you were happy to co-operate, is that it?”
“I figure I should stick with you fellows…If it wasn’t for your Master, I’d be dead ow. Come on, shoot some new lines over.”
It wasn’t as though the Devil had much choice. Sayif rigged the lines, the Devil stuffed a sack, slung a waterbag over one shoulder, and lashed his staff to his back. While he was paying no attention whatsoever to Sayif, Sayif remembered that he had a knife-handle poking up out of his boot, and reached down and palmed it, holding it blade up inside his sleeve. Coming across, Cleomedes asked:
“Just how badly is My Lord wounded?”
“He can’t walk,” Sayif replied.
“Come on,” Cleomedes said, going past...Sayif let the knife drop and reversed his grip, but he didn’t want to simply murder the fellow, even if he was a Devil. He thought of crippling him perhaps, lifting the hem of his robe and hamstringing him.
But no, he thought. He’d only be crippled and he could still do some mischief anyway, like untying the rope when you’re halfway across…
He was still considering what to do with his blade when Cleomedes stopped, looked back, and snarled:
“I said come on---“
All at once he saw Sayif’s knife, and his eyes bulged.
Without thinking, Sayif stepped forward and sliced his throat.
The Devil gripped the wound with both hands, blood streaming out between his fingers; then he stumbled a few paces away and dropped on his face.
Trying not to think about what had just happened, Sayif went to the lines and started across, looking back every few moments to see if Adamantes was coming.
Sayif was halfway over when three figures appeared on the switchback above the eastern gatehouse, and unless Sayif missed his guess, Adamantes was in the lead...already moving with reckless speed on the swaying lines, Sayif wanted desperately to go faster, but found he couldn’t manage it, not if he wanted to hold on.
Even as he neared the western side, he looked back to see that the Devils had vanished behind the gatehouse…just before he reached the cliff, something tugged at one of his sleeves heheard the gunshot and the sound of the bullet striking some rocks about the same time.
Then came a red flash, and a hard impact shoved him farther along...the magic-bolt was slower than a bullet, and he heard it just when it struck him...he lost his grip on the upper rope, but was falling sideways, and was close enough to the cliff to hook his left elbow over the lip, the rim coming up hard into his armpit. He caught the lower rope with his right hand, his legs swung down, and his left foot came up alongside the rock-face and landed on a little step, the inside points of his ankles knocking together. He twisted, slid his right hand along the rope so fast he skinned his palm, got his chest up against the cliff, and swung his elbow round, got the toes of both boots onto the step, his heels still hanging well out over the void. A magic bolt struck him between the shoulderblades; breath exploded from his lungs; but he didn’t let go of the rope. Two more bolts landed on either side of him, spattering him with grit. Grunting, swearing, he dragged and kicked himself up over the edge.
On hands and knees, he spun, looking across at the Devils.
They were all in stances, even Abu; Sayif thought he must be out of ammunition. Beams tossed Sayif’s hair and robes, struck the stone between his hands...little bits flew up under his chin. Rising, he spun again and ran towards the gate, unsheathing his knife. Bolts struck him, nearly knocked him off his feet, but served mainly to impel him forward; as the distance widened, the force decreased, until finally the buffets weren’t much of anything. Getting inside the gate, he went to the spikes where the ropes were fastened, and cut the lines.
One of the Devils had ventured out a few yards; down he went.
Sayif saw Adamantes fling both arms up, heard him scream…going farther into the gatehouse, Sayif strung all the camels together, mounted his beast---she seemed very glad to see him---and led the lot past a tangle of dead scorpions and Devils, going through the archway that opened on the road.
Adamantes was still screaming, voice reverberating between the cliffs.