It is the whole aim and purpose of the Hellspawn to find in the world of the living a servant who will be theirs, the encyclopedist Gantering Pellus had said centuries ago. Who will open for them a gateway through which they can pass out of Hell. They amuse themselves with human terror and human pain, drinking them as beasts and men drink water. They seek power and destruction to protect themselves and to wage war against others of their kind, but this is always true: that they will do anything they can to enslave human souls to their will. Never forget this.
Gar, come and get me out of this!
John knew by then that he would not.
But Jenny Waynest, even had she known he was imprisoned, had lost her power in the summer. Her magic had been stripped away in the battle with the demon Folcalor, who had possessed Caradoc the mage. Wise and clever, Jenny had been in Bel only days ago. Gareth had said as much, but none knew where she was now.
This slim, tall semblance of a woman, beautiful as moon-fire and corpselight, was his only hope. As he, John Aversin, was Gareth’s only hope. I’m the only one who truly knows, who has seen demons take the bodies of the newly dead. The only one that can warn him.
This thing that looked like a woman …
And he had only to speak.
Don’t let me die. Don’t let me burn.
He had tricked her once, putting his soul in pawn to her in order to defeat the demon Folcalor and then redeeming it with Jenny’s help and that of the dragon Morkeleb.
He had served the Demon Queen once, fetching for her from the Hell of the Shining Things the water that would show her where the Otherworld scientist Corvin NinetyfiveFifty was hiding. He had gone to fetch this Corvin—who had once betrayed her, she said—in an enchanted box of silver and dragonbone. Maybe this would have been enough to bargain with her for his freedom, but the box had been stolen from him by Amayon, his demon guide.
So he had nothing to bargain with now, nothing to trade. Except himself.
She stayed in the corner of the cell, like the reflection of light on the stones, until the stamp and scuffle of guards’ boots in the corridor above marked the end of the midnight watch, the coming of dawn. Then, still smiling, slowly, like a dream, she faded away.
A guard lowered water to him, down through the grille on the end of a rope. It was the first water John had had in three days, but he poured it onto the floor, guessing it would be drugged. He was the slayer of at least one dragon, trained all his life as a warrior, however unwillingly. Even at the end of three days’ starvation and thirst, the guards were ready for trouble. Because demons could sometimes enter into the bodies of those who were drunken or drugged, he guessed that whatever was in the water wouldn’t cloud his mind, but there were herbs aplenty that could be counted on to double a man up with cramp or wring him out with purging or dry heaves so that he’d offer no resistance as he was stripped and shaved and dragged to the stake.
He was aware of the man watching him down through the grille, and knew he’d carry word of it back to the guards.
Bugger, thought John, lying back on the verminous straw tick and closing his eyes. If they want to do this the hard way, let’s do this the hard way. Under other circumstances Ector of Sindestray, Councilor and Treasurer of Prince Gareth’s Council, might simply have bricked over the grille and let it go at that. But so long as Gareth was alive, this wasn’t possible. And the command to burn those who trafficked with demons had been instituted precisely to be sure that the physical body was destroyed beyond the demons’ use just as—and no later than—the departure of life and consciousness.
Would the Demon Queen still come, he wondered, if he now called on her name?
He was afraid she would.
That was the problem with demons. The wizard Caradoc had fallen into the trap of it, and started this whole deadly game. Once you called on them, you never knew what they would demand. Caradoc had probably only wanted a little more power. There were any number of ward-spells to hold demons at bay. True, all the grimoires ever written warned against calling on demons, ward-spells or no ward-spells, but Caradoc was vain of his abilities.
Caradoc’s ward-spells hadn’t worked. John still didn’t know why—at a guess, Caradoc didn’t, either. The demons had somehow reacquired power they hadn’t had for a thousand years, and nothing had stopped them so far, except the spells John had bought from other demons …
Always a bad idea.
John didn’t put up a fight when the Councilor’s guards came for him. From his days of friendship with Gareth he knew the layout of the prison tower: it was the ancient core of Bel’s original palace. He knew there was no way to flee. He would only be hurt, probably badly enough to prevent a break later, between the old gate on the Queen’s Lane and the square before the city’s market hall where public burnings were customarily conducted. It wasn’t hard to act as if he were too exhausted and debilitated to be any threat when the guards cut off his hair and dressed him in the thin white shift of the condemned. A squad of six soldiers in the red cloaks and trousers of the House Uwanë came to do this: “You’re joking,” said John as they all came down the ladder into the cramped cell. “Somebody thinks I could take on five?”
His hands were manacled behind him. Just as well he hadn’t put up a fight in the cell, he thought—always supposing there was room for one—as he was manhandled up to the corridor above, and led along to the watchroom. Whoever built the place probably had him in mind. There wasn’t an inch of cover. The walk, over flagstones worn uneven by two centuries of military boots, seemed two or three times longer than it had when they’d brought him in; he was dizzy when they reached the round stone room at its end. Hunger and dehydration made all things unreal, and he felt unable to picture anything clearly beyond each separate moment. The details of his capture and imprisonment blurred and segued into the battle that had preceded it: a battle against garishly painted men possessed by demons and wielding the horrible weapons of the bizarre, waterlogged city in another world where he’d gone to find Corvin NinetyfiveFifty.
In the aftermath of the carnage from which he’d rescued the little scientist, he’d opened the dragonbone box and dropped into it the demon’s golden beads. Corvin had screamed once, and whirled into the tiny container like smoke. Later, John had stepped through a door in the flooded subway tunnels—a door marked with a demon rune—and had been in the King’s city of Bel again.
And in the hands of those who knew only that he’d worked at the behest of the Demon Queen.
Only the hunter’s instinct that had kept him alive for thirty-nine years in the Winterlands let him focus his mind on details now: how close together the guards walked, how many doors were on each side of the stone-flagged passageway, and whether the men holding the wrist-chains did so attentively or not. His dizziness lent a dreamlike quality to the walk, and for an awful moment, as the leader of the squad opened the door into the watchroom, John expected the Demon Queen to be waiting for him there, smiling …
She wasn’t. Instead, the demon Amayon sat there in the watch captain’s big chair, and beside him stood Lord Ector of Sindestray.
How John knew this was Amayon he wasn’t entirely sure, especially without his spectacles. But he knew. The demon had been his guide through the doors of three Hells, and he’d seen him in several different guises. Most of the time there he’d worn the shape of a beautiful girl—he’d never given up his efforts to seduce John. But on occasion he’d occupied the body of the beast John had ridden through the red and black horror of the Hell of the Shining Things.
At the moment, Amayon was wearing the body of the dead Lady Trey.
It was the closest John came to being sick with sheer shock.
The blue eyes met his, unmistakably the demon’s eyes. The red lips of the thoughtful, rather shy girl John had known curled in a lazy smile, daring him to speak.
“I’m told you refused to drink the water that was given to you this morning,” said the King’s Treasurer, folding his chubby arms. Ector of Sindestray was built along the lines of a tree stump, clothed in the blue and white velvet of his House and made more square yet by an enormous set of Court mantlings that draped around him like an embroidered curtain. His gray curls were worn long, after the fashion of the oldest Houses in the Realm, and dressed as if for a State occasion. He smelled of scorched hair and pomade.
“I wasn’t sleepy,” said John. There was no point now in husbanding his strength or reckoning chances for an escape in the light of the terrifying enlightenment about just which demon had taken over the body of the dead Lady Trey. He guessed what was coming, and despaired
Ector glanced across at Amayon, who was stroking the round belly of her pregnancy. When she had died, Trey had been carrying Gareth’s second child. When the demon guide had betrayed John to Ector, he had worn the form of a slim, curly-haired boy of fifteen or sixteen—Ector had seemed at the time to believe the boy was his nephew, an illusion John guessed the demon had planted in the older man’s dreams. Amayon caught John’s eye and winked at him, then turned back to Ector and nodded. Ector gestured to the squad captain, and though John knew perfectly well that the outer door of the watchroom was barred, he hooked his bare foot around the booted one of the man behind him, tripped him, elbowed the next man holding the chains that bound him, and made a run for the door, all while the other members of the squad were picking up the clubs that lay on the watchroom table. There was nowhere to run and pretty much no hope of getting out of it at this point, but he couldn’t go without a fight.
As the blows hammered him and his consciousness fractured away, he heard Amayon laugh.
The Demon Queen waited for him in that clouded gray borderland on the other side of the pain: Don’t be a fool, she said.
I’m doin’ me damndest not to be, he replied, and her pale mouth tightened. He had a dim awareness of being roped to something—a ladder?—and carried shoulder high, but it was all hazy now, and all he saw was her face.
You’ll let others die, because of your stubbornness?
Lapsing entirely into dream he found himself momentarily in Gareth’s room, windows opening onto the terrace of the Long Garden to admit the smoke of plague-pyres still burning beyond the palace walls. Gareth slept, a heavy and unnatural sleep, his graying, thinning hair scattered on the linen of the pillows and his face furrowed with concern even in sleep. Trey sat beside him, the demon-Trey, Amayon-Trey, robed in royal red and white with her small jeweled hands resting on her swollen belly. Another man was in the room, and John felt again that cold, sick jolt of shock, for he recognized Gareth’s father, the old King Uriens. The King’s mind and consciousness had been eroded, stripped away, reduced to childhood five years ago by the spells of the witch Zyerne, but now he moved briskly. The blue eyes that had seemed so puzzled during last summer’s rebellion were bright, sparkling with demon fire. His lips curved under the fleecy amber curls of his beard. “Do you think he’ll be surprised?” The King nodded down at his sleeping son. Trey’s evil grin echoed his own.
“Why should he be? If old Bliaud the Wizard can wake a girl from the dead—not to speak of her sweet little son”—she patted her belly complacently—“why shouldn’t he be able to wake old Grandpa from mere imbecility?” And she reached up to tweak the King’s gold beard. “The people will be delighted. I’m sure after the rebellion of his cousin, and plague, and his precious Dragonsbane turning out to be in league with demons, Gareth will leap at the chance to step down from the throne and out of the council-chamber, and go back to collecting ballads.”
They both laughed, the ribald gloating mirth of demons, and John tried to cry out, as if under the muffling weight of sleep.
“They are my enemies, too, my love,” whispered the Demon Queen. She stretched out beside him on the ladder that the guards bore through the barred and guarded gate of the Old Palace, down the cobbled slope of the Queen’s Lane, where the crowds trampled last week’s snow to thin mush. The air was bitter on his flesh under the thin linen of the shift, and through it he could feel the heat of her flesh. “Folcalor and the one he feigns to serve, the Hell-Lord Adromelech, imprisoned me and mine in the Hell behind the Mirror a thousand years ago. What makes you think I would not do all in my power to avenge myself on them for that defeat? What makes you think I would not help you against them, if you will help me?”
Her fingers stroked his cheek, touched the silvery runes she’d written on his flesh when first he’d sought her help behind the Burning Mirror. The vision changed, and he saw his sons.
They stood on the wall of Alyn Hold in the Winterlands of the North, the place that was his fortress and his home. His heart leaped at the sight of Ian, whom he had last seen fragile and wasted, battered by the aftermath of demonic possession as Jenny had been battered. Ian was on his feet, and though thin and too serious for a thirteen-year-old, he looked well. Adric stood beside him, sword in hand—a boy’s sword, but though only nine he handled it like a man—and they were looking down over the battlement. Behind them the roof of the kitchens had been burned, and marks of fire scored the stone walls. Men moved about outside the walls, bandits, besieging the Hold as it had been besieged many times since the power of the Kings had waned in the North. But there was something else in the smoke that wreathed the burning village of Alyn, something fearful that scuttled like a huge rat among the smoldering houses. Something that defied all John’s efforts to watch.
“Can you see it?” Ian whispered, and his young brother shook his head.
“It spoke to me last night, though,” breathed Adric. “Spoke in a dream. Said I should kill you, and run down and open the gates. I told it to go bugger itself. It did.” The boy looked queasy. He was John’s son, in his red-brown coloring, and even more the grandson of old Lord Aver, stocky and barrel-chested already, though like the black-haired and blue-eyed Ian, he had John’s thin-bridged curve of nose. “But it still kept looking at me, and laughing; waiting for me to get my sword and kill you. Only I knew even then that you wouldn’t really die.”
“No,” said Ian quietly. “No. And that’s what it’s waiting for.”
One of the guards bearing the ladder stumbled; John felt the cold again, and heard the crowd shouting, their voices bouncing off the walls of the tall houses around the market square. Looking up, he saw the cold gray of the birdless winter sky.
Then the sky turned to darkness, the darkness beneath the earth. Something in the smell of the wet stone, coal smoke, and cooking thick with grease spoke to him of the Deeps of the Gnomes. Ylferdun, he thought. The Deep beneath Nast Wall. Its gates lay a half-day’s walk from the King’s palace in Bel, one of the great strongholds of the Gnomes in the West of the World.
The place he had gone to five years ago, to fight the dragon Morkeleb, with such curious results.