P.C. Hodgell

God Stalk

Tatters of Dusk

Chapter 1
Out of the Haunted Lands

THE HILLS ROLLED up to the moon on slopes of wind-bent grass, crested, swept down into tangled brier shadows.  Then up again and down, over and over until only aching muscles distinguished between rise and descent, climb and fall.  A night bird flitted overhead.  Jame paused to watch it, thinking enviously of wings.  For a moment it showed clearly against the moon-silvered clouds, and then the wall of mountains to the west swallowed it.  How near the Ebonbane seemed now that night had fallen.  The range loomed over her, an immense presence filling half the sky, blotting out the stars.  Two weeks of walking had at last brought her out of the Haunted Lands into these foothills, but that in itself was no help.  Clean earth or not, this was still a wilderness.  What she needed now was civilization —even a goatherd's hut—but something, and soon.

Thin, high voices called to each other behind her.  Jame caught her breath, listening, counting.  Seven.  The haunts had found her trail again.

She tensed to run, then forced her weary muscles to relax.  Flight would only weaken her.  Besides, they seemed to be keeping their distance, an odd thing after so many days of close pursuit.  Should she finally turn on them?  They were well spread out, tempting targets for their wounded prey . . . ah, but what good would it do to kill something already dead?  She would make one last bid for life, then, Jame thought as she started up the next slope.  If only she could reach shelter before her strength gave out and they overtook her.

Then, suddenly, there was the city.

Jame stared down at it from the hilltop, hardly trusting her eyes.  It lay well below her, cradled in the curve of the foothills as they turned to the southeast.  Even from this distance, it looked immense.  The outer circle of its double curtain wall was miles from edge to edge; the inner seemed to strain under the pressure of the buildings it contained.  Gray and silent it stood between mountain and plain, a stone city that appeared in the cold moonlight to be more the work of nature than of man.

"Tai-tastigon!" Jame said softly.

Behind her, the wailing began again, then faded away.  In the silence that followed, a cricket chirped tentatively, then another and another.  The haunts had withdrawn.  Not surprising with the city so near, Jame thought, rubbing her bandaged forearm.  They had followed her far beyond their own territory as it was, drawn on by the blood-scent.  She shivered, remembering that first encounter in the Haunted Lands before the burning keep.  Dazed by fire and smoke, she had turned to find a dark figure standing behind her.  For a joyful moment, she had thought it was Tori.  Then she was down with the foul thing on top of her, its fetid breath in her face.

Jame looked at her hands, at the long, slim fingers and at the gloves hanging in shreds from them.  Each ivory white nail lay flush with the skin now, its sharp point curving halfway over the fingertip.  They looked almost normal, she thought bitterly.  Trinity knew what the haunt had thought when those same nails, fully extended, had ripped the rotting flesh from its face.

Not that that would stop such a creature for long.  Even if she had killed it, nothing stayed dead forever in the Haunted Lands, just as no one could live there unprotected without changing as the haunts, once ordinary men, had changed.  That was the curse that the Kencyrath, Jame's own people, had let fall on the region when their main host had withdrawn from it long ago.  No longer maintained by their will, the Barrier between Rathillien and the shadows beyond had weakened.  Perimal Darkling, ancient of enemies, now gnawed at the edges of yet another world, poisoning the land, sucking health from the air.  Still, it would have been much worse if a handful of Kencyr defenders had not remained, Jame thought; it was worse now that they were all dead.  She, the youngest and last was getting out none too soon.

Or perhaps not quite soon enough.  Though the Haunted Lands lay behind her, she could feel their evil growing in her bandaged arm even now.

It had taken her some time to realize that the wound was infected.  Injuries rarely took such a turn among her people, for as a rule Kencyrs either died outright or healed themselves quickly and well in the deep helplessness of dwar sleep.  Jame had hardly slept at all in the past fortnight.  Such endurance was another trait of her kind, but it also had its limits.  She was perilously close to them now.  There was some time left, however, enough, with luck, to find help in the city below . . . if the city could provide it.  There it lay, Tai-tastigon the Great, just as the Scrollsman Anar, her old tutor, had once described it.  Only one thing was different: nowhere below was there a trace of light—not a watch fire on the walls, not a street torch, not even the dim star of a candle in some indistinct window.  All was dark, all was . . . dead?

Memory shook her.  Two weeks ago she had climbed another hill, had found another mass of buildings spread out lightless, lifeless below her.  The keep.  Home.  But not anymore.  He had called her tainted, a thing without honor, and they had driven her out.  But . . . but that had been years ago, she thought in confusion, one hand pressed against her forehead, against the ache of thwarted memory.  Where had she been since then?  What had happened to her?  She couldn't remember.  It was as if the frightened, outcast child she had been had run over the hills into the mist and walked out again half-grown to find . . . what?  The dead.

But not all of them.

Abruptly, Jame swung down her pack and began to burrow through it, throwing its contents right and left until only three objects remained inside: a book wrapped in old linen, the shards of a sword with the hilt emblem defaced, and the small package that contained her father's ring, still on his finger.  Tori, her twin brother, had not been among the slain.  If he had escaped, as she desperately hoped, let him call her honorless when she put sword and ring in his hands for she would accept such a judgment from no one else.  "No, my lord father, not even from you," she said in sudden defiance, looking back the way she had come.

Far to the north, green sheet lightning played across the face of the Barrier.  A wind was rising there that would topple the keep's burnt-out towers and whirl their ashes southward —after her.  Jame paled at the thought.  Hastily, she shouldered the pack and set off down the hill toward the city, trying to fix her mind on the hope that Tori had come this way before her, but all the time tasting ashes on the wind.

* * *

A LONG, GENTLE SLOPE stretched from the edge of the hills to the first out-work, an earthen bulwark of alarming size but overgrown with feather weed and breached with many deep fissures.  On the other side, the land ran down at an increased angle to the foot of the outer curtain.  To the right, a ramp made of rubble work ascended to a gate set high in the wall.  This structure and the half-ruined bulwark suggested a city once heavily fortified but now secure enough to neglect its own outer defenses.  Perhaps this confidence had been misplaced, Jame thought as she trudged up the ramp.  Perhaps those proud towers seen first from the hill and now so close at hand were nothing but shells, gutted and empty, the home of rats and moldering bones.  Anar had not said so, but then neither had he mentioned the unnerving lightlessness of the city.  The gateway rose dark and vacant before her.  Nothing moved there but the weeds between the paving stones as they nodded in the wind.

Inside, the land again dropped sharply away, this time into a broad, dry moat.  A bridge spanned it.  Jame crossed and found the city gates on the far side gaping open without a guard in sight.  She entered the city.

At first the way seemed clear enough.  The avenue was broad and straight, lined with high walls set with many iron-barred gates.  These opened into private courtyards and gardens, all dark and deserted.  For several blocks Jame walked along this open way, and then the road disappeared under the remains of a gatehouse set in an ancient wall.  On the other side lay the great labyrinth of Tai-tastigon.

Within six turnings, Jame was utterly lost.  The streets here were laid out like an architect's nightmare, swerving drunkenly back and forth, intersecting at odd angles, diving through tunnels under buildings and sometimes ending abruptly at the foot of a blank wall.  Nor were the buildings more reassuring.  Tall, narrow, pinched in aspect, they presented face after withdrawn face to the street, each one locked and sealed into itself, all indifferent to anything that passed before them.

Jame prowled on, more and more ill at ease.  The wind whimpered about her, rattling grit in the gutter, setting a wooden sign to creaking fitfully overhead.  There was still no trace of light, no sign of life; and yet the more she saw, the more convinced she became that this was no citadel of the dead.  There were indications of age all around her, but little of decay.  Occasionally she even saw a flowerpot on a high window ledge and once a banner restless in the wind, showing golden patterns to the moon.  Clearly, if the people had left, it had been very recently; but if they were still here, they were deliberately keeping very quiet.

Or then again, perhaps not.  As she rounded certain corners, the wind bore, or seemed to bear, not only dust and scraps of paper to dance about her feet, but snatches of sound.  Several times she stopped short, straining to catch a thread of song or chant distorted by distance; and once far, far away, a voice laughed or cried, impossible to tell which, before it too dissolved into the rush of the wind.  Was anyone really there?  Something like the patter of small, running feet made her start more than once, and a dozen other lesser sounds niggled at her attention, but not one ever quite emerged from the harping of the wind.  Nerves, Jame told herself at last, and went on.

Her thoughts kept returning to the city gate, now far behind, standing open to the Haunted Lands, to the coming storm.  If only she had barred the way, but how—and against what?  Her arm throbbed.  Strength was leaving it, would soon leave her.  It was foolish, of course, to think that a closed gate could shut out the wind; and as for the haunts, surely they had withdrawn.  There was nothing else out there to follow her, she told herself firmly.  Nothing.  It was only because the pursuit had been so long, so bitter, that she felt even now that she was not free of it.

Then the sound of falling water reached her, and she went forward eagerly into a small square where a fountain played merrily by itself.  This was the first clear running water Jame had seen in weeks.  She welcomed its coolness as she scooped it up with one hand to drink, then splashed more on her heated face.  Her arm also felt hot.  Gingerly, she unwound the makeshift bandage, hissing with pain as skin came away with the cloth.  Beneath, the teeth marks still showed clearly, white-rimmed against a darkness that had spread out from them like some kind of subcutaneous growth.  Her fingers twitched briefly.  There was still life in them, but it was no longer entirely her own.  Jame swallowed, tasting panic.  She had suddenly realized that if the healing process was delayed much longer, she might have to choose between her arm and the living death of a haunt.  Oh for the chance to sleep, but not here, not out in the open.  She must find shelter, must find . . . light?

Yes!  Jame sprang up, staring.  On the other side of the square, under a shuttered first story window, was a bright line.  She crossed over to it and scratched on the window-frame.  The light at once went out.  All the other cracks, she now saw, were stuffed with rags from the inside.  In fact, every nearby door and window was similarly secured.  If this was true throughout the city, then the people were indeed here after all, but they were in hiding, barricaded inside their homes.  Therefore, whatever it was that they feared, that all of Tai-tastigon feared, was out here in the streets—with her.

Jame stood very still for a moment, then cursed herself with soft vehemence.  Fool, to have let her attention wander.  For the first time since entering the city, she opened all six senses fully to it, and what they told her chilled the fever heat in her veins: she was being followed—no, stalked—and it had nothing to do with the Haunted Lands or the keep, whatever she had done there.  No, this threat was new, and its source already far too close for comfort.

Then the pattering sound began again.  Before, confused with distance, it had woven in and out of her hearing; now it was rapidly growing not so much louder as more distinct, like the approach of rain over hard ground.  Jame couldn't tell from which street it came.  When the noise seemed almost on top of her, out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed something white running close to the ground.  She spun to face it, but already it had gone to earth.  In the sudden silence, a pair of yellow, unblinking eyes stared at her from the deepest shadows of the street that led eastward.

A cat, Jame thought with relief.

She had actually taken a step toward the thing when she saw the cracks.  They were coming toward her down the moonlit side of the roadway past the yellow eyes, shoving some cobbles apart, uprooting others.  At first their progress was slow, almost tentative; but as they entered the square, the multitude of small cracks abruptly combined into five major fissures, which lunged forward, splitting everything in their path.

Jame backed up rapidly.  She neither knew what would happen if one of those cracks opened under her feet nor particularly wanted to find out.  Turning, she fled westward.

The quick footsteps followed her, and after them came the crack of cloven stone.

She took refuge in a doorway.  There were the eyes staring at her from across the street, and the lintel over her head split in two.  She fled again.  The labyrinth should have been her ally, but turn and twist as she would, she could not lose her pursuer.

Then, suddenly, the eyes were ahead of her.

Jame darted down a side street and skidded to a stop.  Before her, in the shadow of an ornate gateway, lay a broad, inky pool of water that stretched from wall to wall.  She was about to splash across it when something huge surfaced with an oily gurgle.  For a second, moonlight glistened on a broad, leathery back, and then it was gone again.

From behind came the sound of splitting rock.  It had almost overtaken her.  Swallowing hard, Jame stepped back and waited.  A moment later, as the water again broke open, she sprang forward, one foot coming down on the sleek back, the other on the far shore.  The fissures, however, plunged straight into the pool.  For a heartbeat nothing happened, and then the waters went mad.  Spray lashed the walls, soaked Jame as she shrank back into the archway.  For an instant, she thought she saw a huge, blind head rearing up, gape-jawed against the moon, and then it was gone.  The water gurgled down into the cracks.  The pool, it seemed, had been all of an inch deep.

Across the wet cobbles, Jame once again met the yellow stare.  For a moment their eyes locked, then the thing turned and rapidly pattered away.  It ran not on paws but on small fat hands like an infant's, and no shadow kept pace with it on the moon-washed pavement.