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Barbara Hambly

Nor I. Nor yet footfall of guard or scout. Let us see what we can carry away, of these seven hundred dead slaves you feel such pity for.

By the notches she had carved on her stick Jenny was able to find the place again, familiarity aiding her in seeing the shape of the rock walls. She found herself able to identify the little landmarks of ceiling dips and bends in the passageway, barely to be seen by the glow of her thick-wrapped hothwais as once she’d identified sprigs of blossom or saplings beside some Winterlands trail. But the little chamber was empty when they reached it. Not one gem remained on the slimy uneven floor.

Can you scry them? she asked, in distress. Scent them, find them? And she took the two or three crystals she carried in her skirt pocket and held them out to him, for him to feel and sense what they were. He breathed on the stones, his breath velvet on her hand. Then he fell silent for a time, reaching with his mind. She called upon the disciplines he had taught her, and those Mab had spoken of, the powers within her changed flesh and mind, and reached out likewise. She heard, far behind them, the scrape of boots on rock, and a gnome’s voice say something about straw matting. Her heart beat hard, knowing her hiding-place had been discovered.

Morkeleb said nothing. But when he moved off it was northward, not back to her shelter, and she followed. The ways they took, up steep stairways and narrow twisting shafts, told her that he, too, had failed to find any trace of the prison-crystals, for they were going upward through the mountain to the old watchtowers on its flanks. Breathless with her long recuperation, Jenny stumbled, and the dragon’s clawed grip bore her up—she still could not tell whether he wore a dragon’s shape or a man’s. At last they came to a chimney through the heart of the stone, whose hot rising air lifted Jenny’s ragged clothing around her and breathed on her face like some great beast. Morkeleb stepped out into the darkness before her and she saw him hanging there in the utter blackness, dark within dark, with his diamond eyes glittering and his wings spread out like sable silk and all the glowing bobs of his antennae swinging and flickering like fireflies.

In his clawed hands he grasped her, holding her against him as they rose through the abyss, up and up with the rock tube narrowing around them. At last they came out into true night, and freezing air, stars burning hard above Nast Wall’s jagged rim of basalt and ice. This was the world as dragons saw it, clean and untouched, uncomplicated and magical; the world Morkeleb had once asked her to enter, through a door that she was not sure, now, that she would be able to re-pass.

To the east above the horns of the mountain she saw the glowing streak of the comet, the Dragonstar John had watched for these three years now. An unknowable thing, she thought, different in nature from the stars, from the moon, from any thing on the earth. But John, being John, had spent a good deal of time trying to understand it, when it had nothing to do with the duties he had been bequeathed by his father, nor with the affairs of Kings, nor the struggle to survive in the Winterlands.

Morkeleb said nothing, letting her speak first, waiting for her thought.

Jenny said, “Let us go to Ernine.”

FIVE (#ulink_53398070-a048-52ed-a0cb-2b7a716099f9)

JOHN AVERSIN WAS in Prokep for seven days before the demons came.

Having been told by Corvin NinetyfiveFifty that it was impossible for him to get anywhere close to the Henge, the first thing he did when the dragon flew away to hunt was to wrap himself in his velvet cloak and walk down to where he calculated the Henge had been last night by moonlight and in that morning’s vision. There were places in the Winterlands that were said only to exist under the light of certain phases of the moon, or things that were visible only when the sun and the moon were together in the sky or on certain days of the year—a standing stone on Moonfairy Hill was one of them, two days’ ride north of the Hold. He’d spent the best part of two years visiting the place, again and again, whenever his other duties gave him time, until he’d seen it, in a dell he’d visited a dozen times before.

His recent journeys through Hell had certainly taught him how to look for gates into places that sometimes existed and sometimes did not.

Being so shortsighted that he could barely see his hand in front of his face didn’t help the situation, of course. He considered marking where he thought the Henge should lie with something large enough for even himself to see at a distance, but aside from the fact that the only thing he had was his cloak, which he needed to keep from freezing to death, he couldn’t be sure when Corvin would be back.

It was just as well the dragon not know what he was up to.

So he took careful sightings on all the stationary landmarks he could, on the shape of distant hills and the exact lines of sight of the corners of that huge stone foundation—it would take an earthquake to shift it—and then began to work his way around the perimeter of where he thought the Circle should be.

Looking for the places where the dust-devils appeared to come from.

According to Gantering Pellus’s Encyclopedia—and his own observations—the gates of Hell are seldom completely tight, and the temperature of the air there is generally either warmer or cooler than that of the real world.

John crept, either on his hands and knees or squatting and stooping in a way that made his knees and back feel as if someone were driving red-hot nails into the bones, back and forth across the huge grayish-dun expanses of what had been the center of the city of Prokep. It was the slow way to do it, but with a clear field of vision that ended less than a foot from the tip of his nose he couldn’t devise a better one. And, for that matter, he reflected, what else did he have to do with his day?

He found the first gate by the flowers.

There were dozens of them, wilted to shreds of brown string on the ash-colored sand. Just a tangly little patch of vegetation that had no business being where it was. Like the Henge, he thought, this gate into the Maze is only in existence—or only visible—at certain times or under certain conditions: I’ll have to watch, and see when the wind sets from this direction. The dessicated wisps of grass, the parched fingerlets of fern, grew in a rough semicircle, as if someone had laid a military cloak on the sand. The gate opens, seeds drift through. They root, they claim a little moisture from the air the next time the gate’s open, but a few suns kill ’em.

He crept back and forth along the flatter edge of the semicircle until he found the place where the small ghostly tracks of what looked like worms or slugs came from and went to, mysterious weavings around the sand that ended as sharply as if smoothed away with a trowel.

The threshold of the gate, he thought, uneasily passing his hand through the air over the spot—of course nothing happened to his hand whatsoever. He drew in the sand the sigil of the gate, which he’d seen Amayon draw, often enough, in their journeys together through Hell. Still no result.

Wrong time of day.

Or of year.

No, he reflected, crawling back to find the most recent of the dead flower stalks. This hasn’t been dead but a few days. A little green lingered at its base. He sat back on his heels, back aching, and squinted at those few stones, pillars, and hills large enough to register in his vision. It opens often, at the time of day when the wind sets from between those two notches in the hills.

Whenever that is.

In addition to three more rabbits and a mountain sheep—which John hung in what had been a ruined guard-chamber beside the foundation’s great stair—Corvin brought him clothing that evening, striped breeches woven in a pattern with which John was unfamiliar, a shirt and sheepskin boots that were all too big for him, and a coat of black and white goatskins. The coat had blood on it. John didn’t ask from whence it had come. Corvin also brought more wood, and when John cooked the meat he rendered what little fat he could out of it, to pour on the ends of sticks to make torches.

The second day he found the treasury, deep in the crypts where Corvin would lie up most of the night on a bed of gold. Sacks of coin long rotted away, so that the bright metal lay in drifts, palanquins and statues and chairs and mirrors of gold or electrum or bronze scattered about and rising through it like the ruin of the city in miniature, gems flashing somberly in the orange glare of the torch. John knew better than to cross the threshold or touch so much as a toothpick. Corvin’s soul would know, and pursue gold anywhere—it had been no coincidence that Aohila, who knew the dragon best, had triggered the spells of his True Name with beads of gold.

In another room he found swords, knives, and arrowheads, though the shafts and bows had all perished. He felt better, once he had weapons, though he knew they’d be little use to him if demons showed up.

And they would show up, he knew. Corvin said they feared Prokep, which had a way, he said, of trapping demons. But John knew better than to believe that Folcalor would give up his dream of ruling both Hell and earth. It would only be a matter of when he would strike.

Better than the weapons, John found spectacle lenses, some of ground yellow crystal and others of brownish glass. Some were set in frames of horn or bronze, mounted on sticks like carnival masks, others lay loose in boxes. He braided a strap from the rags of his discarded execution shift, and mounted the best of them in a bronze frame, but he took care to wear this contraption only after Corvin was gone for the day.

After that, it was easier to seek for the gates to the Maze.

In the end he found several, mostly by sitting on the edge of the palace foundation and observing the dust-devils. The second day he made sure to be poking around in the ruins south of the foundation—on the side away from the Maze—when Corvin flew away in the morning, so that the dragon would think nothing of it if he did not see him before he departed: and where, John thought, would the dragon expect him to flee, anyway? Even the ridge of hills that surrounded the city in a vast basin lay unendurably far off. Flight would be madness, like a child running away from home with two bannocks and an apple wrapped in a handkerchief.

Cautiously, John began to probe at the Maze.

He located three other gates before he entered the one through the Garden of Dawn by observing the dust-devils, but it was the Garden of Dawn he entered through, near the withered flowers, on the fourth morning of watching. The garden was of the same nature as the Hells, a place outside the world of sun and stars. When he wrote the sigil of the door at the moment of sunrise, and smelled the dew and the flowers, he experienced a qualm of apprehension—What if it’s like a lobster pot, that I can walk into but can’t escape?

But given the length of time it had taken a dragon to fly from Bel to Prokep—from mid-morning till sunset without stopping—the city in the desert was something of a lobster pot itself. John stepped across the sigil, and found himself in the Garden of Dawn.

Amayon—and every book he’d read on the subject as well—had repeatedly warned against eating or drinking anything in Hell. Whether this applied to an unworld enclave like the garden John wasn’t sure, but he guessed he’d better not chance it. Fountains bubbled among hillocks of mossy stone, and in places trees bent under the weight of peaches so ripe, he could smell them from the winding pebbled path. It seemed to be midsummer, strange vines and familiar ones bearing gaudy flowers, and the moist air stroked his dusty skin. When a yellow butterfly danced across his path in the soft dawn light he nearly bolted, for he remembered all too clearly the deadly butterflies of Paradise. He listened, but could hear no sound; only the faint stirring of willow leaves in the wind.

The gate was clearly visible behind him. He could see the desert—and a corner of the palace foundation—through it, washed with the first pink flush of the new sun’s light, and the gibbous moon just setting above the hills. The wall around the garden was black basalt, laid without mortar, and disappeared among thickets of ivy and poplars. John followed it around as well as he could, and ascertained that the garden itself was some half-mile in diameter, roughly circular, and contained five gates.

Three were in the wall. One was in a stone pavilion on an island in the garden’s miniature lake. The fifth was in a clearing: he located it, as he had the entrance to the garden itself, by the withering of the moss beside it. When he drew the sigil, and passed through, the enclave on the other side was dark and bitterly cold.

The gate behind him disappeared the moment he stepped through it, and he thought, Torches, next time. If there is a next time. Winds savaged him, cold slicing through his jacket and clothing as if he were again clothed only in the thin shift of the condemned. He dropped at once to his hands and knees, felt the contours of the ground behind him—unpaved, rough, rock or dirt—and drew the sigil of the door immediately in the place over which he guessed he had just passed.

Nothing happened.

Damn it, he thought, shivering desperately, don’t do this to me …

The wind must have knocked him a step or two as he’d come through. He patiently crawled upwind and tried again, and then again. The Old God—who knows everything—only knew what was in the darkness with him, or how far this Hell or enclave extended. If there was a stricture against eating anything you found in Hell there was probably not one against something you found in Hell eating you. After what felt like an hour, John located the gate again and crawled through.

It was still dawn in the garden, delicious with the twittering of birds. And, to judge by the leaf-mold beneath the trees, the relative clarity of the paths among the shrubberies, it was still the year of the last appearance of the Dragonstar, ten centuries ago.

Any gate that’d have a pavilion built over it, he thought, contemplating the spot in the strange little multiroofed structure where the slightly sulfurous stench lingered, can’t be the one the chaps in the yellow robes didn’t want me to walk through. Let’s take a miss on this one. The three in the walls were all neatly kept: none looked more neglected than the others, or more used. In the tangles of white-flowering shrubs that grew to either side of the central of the three gates—they were about a dozen yards apart, all on what appeared to be the north wall of the garden—he found two insects, or what looked like insects. Dead, fortunately, since they were the length of the knuckle of his thumb and equipped with the most comprehensive sets of chewing, stabbing, and gripping mandibles he’d ever seen in his life. He’d encountered such creatures nowhere else in the garden, but a search of the area around the central gate yielded five more dead ones and a live one that struck him, wings roaring, from a tree, dug its claws into the side of his face—it had gone for his eyes, but fortunately he was wearing his spectacles—and began to chew.

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