THE STOLEN SACRIFICE
Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
The man moved silently through the shadows, keeping always to the darkest places. He moved as an animal might, his body poised for instant action, a big hand on the hilt of the long-sword by his side. His eyes darted from a doorway to the far corner, where the wind blew a length of scarlet silk hanging from the wall. Caution was in his great body, for he knew that should he be seen this night, death would be his reward.
Niall of the Far Travels was not afraid, though he knew that he would be killed, and in no pleasant way, should anyone discover him, or guess where he went — and why.
For fair Amyrilla of the golden hair had been condemned to die by order of Thyra, queen in Urgrik where Lurlyr Manakor was king. Amyrilla was the favorite concubine of Lurlyr Manakor, and Thyra was jealous of her barbaric beauty. And so Thyra had prevailed upon Lurlyr Manakor to offer her up to the grim god Korvassor in his splendid temple in Urgrik.
Amyrilla was not yet dead. Her death would come in hours, when the priests of Korvassor gathered in the temple to summon up their god. There would be no eyes to see that death, other than those of the priests of Korvassor. Amyrilla would be dragged screaming into the maw of the grim god, to be devoured, and only Lurlyr Manakor would grieve for her.
Well, that was not quite true. Niall would grieve as well, for in the weeks that he had been here in Urgrik, serving under Lurlyr Manakor, Niall had come to know pretty Amyrilla, and had loved her for her gentle ways. Yet now she was to die, abandoned by all save Niall himself.
His huge hand tightened on his sword-hilt Ahead of him, he could see the temple. Its tall towers rose upward almost to the low-hanging clouds, and where the moon shone with silver. The great oaken doors of the temple were locked and bolted; it would be no easy task to win through those doors, to release Amyrilla from the golden clasps that held her and then take her out of the temple, and even out of Urgrik.
Sweat touched the brow of the giant youth. It was not a warm night, the breezes sweeping the streets carried in their touch the hint of coming winter. Yet the sweat stood out on his forehead, for he knew the price he must pay were he to be discovered.
His fur-edged war-boots made no sound as he ran from one dark shadow to the next, nor did the chains that held his scabbard jingle. Nearer he came to the temple, ever nearer, and from time to time he paused to stand motionless listening.
No man save himself walked these deserted streets, due to the edict which Lurlyr Manakor had issued. This night of sacrifice must be a silent one. All Urgrik must weep as Lurlyr Manakor wept for the loss of Amyrilla. No man must venture forth upon the streets; only the guards which patrolled them, to make sure the edict was obeyed.
So far, Niall had seen no sign of the guards.
Yet they were here — somewhere.
He paused now at the wall which ran around the vast temple. One leap at that wall and he would be over it, into the temple grounds themselves. From the ground to the temple would be a quick run. Ah, but could he escape discovery in that brief time? Did eyes watch the temple grounds for any rescue attempt?
He did not know. He cared only because he must avoid discovery.
Niall drew breath. It was now or not at all. He must make the attempt, he must rush that wall and go over it, and if he were seen, why then — he would have to fight. And a fight meant he would never rescue that girl with the long golden hair.
He ran. His hands went up to the coping of the wall and next moment he was outlined against the sky. Then he was over and dropping down into a bed of gorgeous pimalotus blooms. He dropped to his knees and waited, heart hammering.
These was no outcry, no rush of soldiers, of guards. He heard no weapons drawn. Slowly he rose and moved forward, and now he went with more confidence, to the nearest temple doorway. His hand touched the great iron handle, and he turned it. The door swung outward and he slipped inside.
There was ebon darkness in here. Only up there by the altar was there any light. Pallid candle-flames glowed there, surrounding an almost naked girl who hung in golden chains between two ivory posts. Long yellow hair covered her features, for her head hung low, as though she slept.
This was Amyrilla.
Niall sighed. Then he moved forward, his war-boots making no sound on the paving-stones. As he walked through the darkness, his hand fumbled in the leather pouch at his side, in which he had put the pick-lock that he had made earlier this day against the moment of need.
In the last bit of darkness he paused, studying the temple. It was not yet time for the priests to come with their prayers and exhortations to Korvassor, to entice him out of the worlds wherein he dwelt, but that time was soon. He would have to act swiftly, without thought to consequences.
Niall sprang forward. In a bound he was before the girl, was fumbling with the golden manacles about her wrists. His touch roused her, she lifted her head and stared at him through the golden strands of her long hair. Her blue eyes were wide with terror. Yet that terror faded at sight of him.
“Niall,” she breathed.
“Be quiet, girl,” he growled.
He worked swiftly, thrusting in his pick-lock, turning it until he heard the metallic click that told him the manacle was opening. With his left hand around Amyrilla, he held her even as he probed at the other manacle with his right hand.
In moments, she was free.
Yet as she slumped against him, to be lifted against his chest, he heard the faint chanting of the priests. They were coming now, with their incense burners and their acolytes, to summon up Korvassor.
Niall muttered under his breath as he lifted the girl and tossed her over a shoulder. His eyes went to left and right of the great altar where stood the gigantic statue of dread Korvassor. For an instant, he seemed as though turned to stone.
I cannot carry her out the way I came! We would be seen, and herself recaptured when the guards came to slay me. His thoughts ran in a circle, like mice chasing their tails.
Behind the altar, Niall! And — quickly!
The voice sprang to life inside his head, but — he knew that voice. It was the sweet tones of, Lylthia, that girl he had met in Angalore! But Lylthia was not human. No! She was the flesh and blood manifestation of Emelkartha the Evil. Emelkartha, who had taken a fancy to the big barbarian who had aided him in the ruins that had been Kor Magnon, months before!
He leaped. Like a wild animal he leaped, and he ran as runs the wild tiger, gracefully and with easy strength. Straight for the altar he went and then he dodged around behind it.
Amyrilla groaned. Niall grinned, for he knew what a jouncing she was taking, perched on his shoulder like a sack of meal. Well, he couldn’t help that. She had to ride where she was, if they were to get out of this alive.
Yet when they were in the darkness behind the high, altar, almost under the splayed feet of the statue of Korvassor, he let her slide down his body so that she stood before him.
“If you want to live, girl, you’ll be silent.”
He felt her nod, even as she shuddered.
The floor, my love. The floor!
He dropped and felt the paving-stones with gentle fingers. Ah, here. His fingertips went over the faint crack, then searched about until he discovered the sunken handle. He plucked at it, felt it rise up. Gripping the handle, he yanked upward and a section of the floor rose.
Niall reached downward, felt a step. Then he caught at Amyrilla, shoved her into that dark opening. Sobbing to herself, she went down the stairs. Instantly, Niall was after her, turning to bring the trapdoor down behind him so that it fitted level to the temple floor.
As he did, he heard a faint shuffling, far below.
Amyrilla shrank back against him, whimpering.
Niall growled low in his throat as he pushed past her, lifting his blade from its scabbard. Whatever was down here in these underground lairs was something not quite human. Oh, he had heard tales while he drank with the other guards in the city taverns; there had been whispers of the strange beasts which the priests of Korvassor kept, to be fed with sacrifices, with slaves who had displeased them in some way.
He had no idea what these beasts might be like. He chuckled, thinking that it might be best if Amyrilla could not see them. If they were as hideous as was rumored, she might well scream and so alert the priests as to their whereabouts.
He went down stone steps, half dragging the girl behind him. Always, his sword was out in front, ready to be used against whatever might hurl itself against them. Now that there was an enemy to face, Niall was calm, ready.
He heard nails scrape stone and then something flung itself at him. He could not see it, but neither could it see him. If it had been kept in this darkness for very long, its eyes might be weak. Ah, but its hearing would be fantastic.
Something struck the wall a foot away from him. Niall was aware of an awful stench, and then he was thrusting with his steel. Straight forward he ran his blade, felt it drive into flesh.
Something spurted out and splashed up on him.
He drew back his blade, slashed with it, felt its keen edge going into meat. He had no idea of what this beast was shaped like, yet it lived, it breathed. And it could die.
Twice more he drove in with his sword, and each time he struck home. Now he heard a faint dragging sound, a hushed and labored breathing, and then the sound as of a body falling. Niall reached behind j him, caught at the soft hand that lay against his shoulder, and moved down the stairs.
They came to the bottom of the stairs and moved along a stone floor in that utter darkness. To a far wall they went, and grouping along it, Niall discovered a closed door. Fumbling, he found the latch and lifted it.
Brightness came in at them, from wall torches hung here and there along a corridor. Niall urged the girl through the door and closed it behind him.
“Now where?” she whispered. “Where can we go where there is any safety for such as us?”
“Na, na. Don’t despair. We’ll find a way.”
Her eyes were big in her pale face. “How? The queen hates me. She wants me dead. Do you know what they will do to you for trying to rescue me?’
He grinned, showing his white teeth. “We aren’t dead yet, girl. I just wish I knew a way out of these catacombs.”
Then he shrugged. “We might as well go this way as any.” His hand indicated a stretch of lighted corridor before him. “Come along, now.”
They went swiftly, with Amyrilla half running to stay even with him. Along one walkway and then another they went until even Niall, with his barbaric sense of direction, confessed himself lost. He had not the slightest idea of where they were, except only that they must be somewhere within the temple grounds.
Yet something told him that they had come too far for that. Surely, they must have passed from under the garden walls that surrounded the temple. And if they had done that, if they could discover an exit, they might find themselves in the city itself.
In time, they came to a tiny staircase that led upwards. Niall mounted it with Amyrilla at his heels. To a door they came, and here Niall paused, debating within himself whether to open it.
What lay beyond this oaken barrier? More danger? Would there be an attack from the city guards? Or would the priests themselves be waiting for them?
Shrugging, Niall caught the handle, moved it. He stepped out into the night air. High above, the broken remnants of what had once been a moon shone down, the clouds since fled westward. The wind was cool on their faces, with a faint remnant of salt in it.
The river lay not far away, then. And on that river would be boats.
Niall paused to scratch his head. His eyes slid sideways at the girl. He had come far these past few months; from distant Styrethia to Angalore, and then on to Urgrik by way of the river Thalamar. Now he could scarcely stay in Urgrik any longer, certainly not with Amyrilla.
Therefore, he would risk the river.
“Stay close beside me,” he muttered. “It’s death for anyone to be caught out of doors this night.”
She nodded understandingly and half-ran beside him as he angled his long stride toward the riverfront. The smell of salt grew stronger the closer they came to the docks, and now they began to hear the gurgle of waves against the pilings.
At his side, Amyrilla turned to stare back the way they had come. And she gasped, her fingers tightening on Niall’s arm. A whimper grew in her throat.
“What’s amiss?” he asked, swinging about.
Two red eyes gleamed in the night sky, above the temple to Korvassor. Unblinkingly they stared, and it seemed to Niall that they looked right down inside him, those eyes, studying this man who had dared to snatch away the sacrifice that belonged to the god of Urgrik.
There was no body to those red eyes, just the eyes themselves, and bile rose up in Niall at the sight. The priests did not know where their sacrifice had gone, and so they had enlisted the aid of their god. To good effect, too. Those red eyes had seen him, had glimpsed the girl also. Soon now, the priests would learn where they went.
Niall wasted no time on curses. Their only hope now was the river and a fast boat to sail on it. He swung Amyrilla up in a brawny arm and began to run. He went swiftly, as though he might outrun the stare of those unblinking eyes.
As he ran, his eyes slid across the boats anchored in the river, observing their shape, the set of their masts. He wanted a small ship, a fast one, and he found it with his stare, after a time. He angled his run toward an old pier, half rotted, and carried the girl with him out onto those boards.
An instant he paused, to ask, “Can you swim?”
“Like a darson,” she panted. “But it’s no use! We—”
He left the pier, plunging downward into the water. As he did, he released Amyrilla. They went deep, and when they came to the surface, they struck out toward the little ship Niall had marked for their own. Behind them, the city was silent. Too silent, Niall found himself thinking. Surely, the priests knew where they were, now. Korvassor would have told them.
Why then, was there no pursuit? No alarm?
He clambered up onto the ship, reached downward to help the girl, dragging her up onto the deck. For an instant they stood together, dripping water on the deck-planks, staring at those red eyes that watched them.
Niall ran for the sail, curled about the spar. He shook it free of its ropes, then caught at the ropes to raise it. A wind sprang up behind them, filling out the sail.
‘The anchor,” he growled, and the girl ran forward to catch hold of the chain and lift it upward.
The boat began to move, slowly at first, then more rapidly as the sail filled out and her keel slid through the water. With a hand on the tiller, Niall stared off toward the temple.
The red eyes stared, unblinking.
The priests would be moving now. They would come for their prey. There would be no escaping them.
The wind blew even more strongly, and now the little craft skimmed across the water, heading northward. Niall stood by the steering-post, his back buffeted by that wind which was intensifying almost to the proportions of a gale. On the deck at his feet, Amyrilla crouched, quivering and moaning. Above and before them, the sail was being strained almost to the ripping point by that monstrous gust, while beneath them the ship fled like a terrified thing.
They headed into darkness, where even the keen eyes of Niall of the Far Travels were almost blind, for without the pale light of the ring of matter that once had been a moon, high above his world, the night was an ebon blackness all about them. Yet the ship sailed on, rushing through the water, as though demon-borne.
Yonder, Niall! There where the light gleams soft and pale!
Aye, that was Emelkartha again, whispering in his mind. He stared through the darkness and saw at last a tiny flicker of light, high up on what seemed to be cliffs. For all his far travels, Niall had never been in this corner of his world before, he knew nothing of its shape. Yet those were cliffs, he felt certain, and he swung the rudder-pole.
Now that wind abated, grew to a mere breeze, and within seconds his keel was grating on tiny stones. Above him and at a distance, he saw that pale fight beckoning. His hand went downward, caught hold of the girl, raised her to her feet.
“Up there,” he growled. “There we can find safety.”
Her head swung about so she could see where he was looking, and the breath caught in her throat. She shrank away from him, lips quivering.
“Not there — no!” she whispered.
Her fear made him glance down at her. “And why not, girl?”
“There are ruins there — old, old ruins. Men tell tales of those ruins, and always they speak in whispers.”
“Tales to frighten little children. I tell you, we’re safe enough. It comes to me that our only means of escape from Korvassor is to go there, to hide.”
She fought him, trying to escape the hand that held her wrist. Fright looked out at him from her eyes, a deadly terror that made him pause even as he tugged her toward the gunwale. Her face was contorted, her lips drawn back, her nostrils flaring outward.
“They say — they say that Death waits for anyone who enters that temple. Hideous death!”
Niall shrugged and nodded back the way they had come. “Look behind you, Amyrilla. Look!”
She turned her head, saw the distant red eyes hanging above the temple. Far away they were, yet they watched. The girl shuddered. And now she could hear sounds behind her, the rasp and grate of oars in their locks, the swish and swirl of water rushing past the prows of ships.
“Men come for us,” growled Niall. “Would you be taken back to Korvassor, to be — eaten — by him?”
She whimpered, but she no longer fought the tug of his hand. She ran beside him to the gunwale, was lifted and tossed over-side onto the pebbled beach. In a moment Niall was beside her, catching her hand and leading her across the beach and toward the cliff.
He could make out a vague path carved out of the rock itself, leading upward to the top of the cliff. He went up it slowly, his sword Blood-drinker in his hand, and with a prayer to Emelkartha on his lips. Behind him, Amyrilla came, reaching out to touch him with soft fingertips, to make certain that she did not lose him.
Now as they went higher and yet higher, he could feel a difference in the air about him. It was colder, and seemed filled with tiny motes of fight, like fireflies almost, that seemed to whisper about them as they climbed. The girl began to whimper aloud now, and came even closer to his big body.
‘The realm of the evil spirits that dwell in the ruined temple,” she breathed.
Niall scowled. He could not contradict her, for all he knew, she might be right. Yet Emelkartha had bid him come here, and to that place where the pale fight glowed he was going. It seemed to him that he was moving more swiftly, now that he was in among the tiny lights. They flared and surged, they seemed to — beckon — to urge him on in the very faintest of whispers.
He could not understand those whispers, yet he sensed their friendliness. Once he looked back toward the river, and saw three warships filled with soldiers, moving toward his beached vessel. Three warships! Whoever captained them was complimenting his fighting abilities. Not even with his sword Blood-drinker could he hope to withstand so many warriors.
But perhaps he would not have to fight them. It might be that in that ruin up above, he could successfully hide from them. What was it Amyrilla had said? That Death waited for anyone who went into what was left of the temple up there? Well, death waited for them below, too. They couldn’t escape it, apparently. Still, Emelkartha had brought them here, and he trusted that goddess.
They came to the top of the cliff, and in the darkness which was lighted by the tiny little glowings, he made out a stretch of crumbled rock, of tiny stones. A dead place, surely! Yet ahead were white columns and broken bits of wall which once had been — long ages ago! — the fane of some god.
He walked toward it, sword out and the girl half-running beside him. Behind him, the warriors of Lurlyr Manakor and his queen were coming ashore, their weapons out to capture them. And always the tiny, elfin voices of those faint fights urged him onward, bidding him hurry, hurry!
Then he was at the rim of what had been a temple, long ago.
The brightness he had seen from the river shone eerily, here. Wisps and bits of those tiny fights in the air outside seemed almost to have coalesced inside the temple, forming a brilliant nimbus of cold fight. It hung a few feet above the tessellated floor, shimmering, incandescent, and it appeared to whisper as the tiny fights had whispered.
“What is this place?” Amyrilla whispered.
“I thought you knew,” he growled.
“I know only what the rumors say. That ages ago it was a temple to some god or goddess, that it had been abandoned. Yet — yet here Death waits for any who enter, who dare to — profane it.”
“And that fight?”
The girl shook her head. “I never heard of that.”
Niall stared more closely at that strange, glowing globe. There seemed to be a fife to it — inside it — as sentient as he himself. He grew aware of a vast intelligence, it appeared almost to whisper out at him, urging, commanding. There was an imperiousness to it that reached outward toward him.
It wanted him to do something.
Yes, he knew that, suddenly. But — what?
He heard faery laughter.
Foolish one. Do you think he can understand you, after so many eons in which you have lain sleeping? Na, na, Devolian!
There was an utter silence. Yet outside that silence there was — danger! Something in Niall stirred to it, and a corner of his mind whispered to him that while he stood here before this eerie fight, armed men were climbing cliffs for him.
Unless Emelkartha aided him, he was doomed. Alone, he would never be able to drive away those warriors who were even now coming for him and Amyrilla.
“What?” he growled. “Gods! What do you want me to do?”
Reach inside the light, Niall! Reach and — grasp!
Niall was dubious. The light surged and waxed even blighter. It was not hot, but it was cold, numbing. He could feel that cold, it made him shiver.
But if Emelkartha wanted it—
He shifted his sword to his left hand and reached out into that brilliance with his right. He touched nothing, he felt only a paralyzing coldness, an arctic chill that ran up his arm and into his very heart. He swayed, eyes half closed, knowing that in a moment, he was going to collapse. No human flesh was ever meant to stand such cold.
His fingers tightened on something hard.
Draw it forth, Niall of the Far Travels. Draw it forth!
He yanked his arm free of that brightness. Clutched in his big hand was a piece of what seemed to be crystal. It was shapeless, and yet—
Niall scowled. There was shape to this thing. Inside himself, he knew it. Yet it had been fashioned in a world which was not of his. As his fingers went over it, as his eyes studied it, and he found himself remembering that in his early youth, just when he had taken up his profession of sell-sword, he had seen something akin to this thing that he held in his fingers.
It had been in Styria, when he had ridden with the Red Guards of Falfarran. They had made a long ride across a corner of the Lomarrian Desert, which was reputed to be what was left of a fertile land that had existed a hundred thousand years before. There had been a ruined temple in that desert, a thing of broken columns and shattered walls.
In a part of that ruined fane, he had come upon a shattered statue. Now if that statue had been whole and unbroken, it might look like this crystal thing. Very much like it.
“Devolian,” he whispered.
And in answer, or so it seemed, that crystal thing grew warmer and comforting. It grew brighter, radiant, and from within it, he heard the faint music of a million bells thinly chiming…
He dragged his eyes from the crystal statue to stare at Amyrilla. She was looking behind him, at the cliffs edge, and there was utter terror in her blue eyes.
Niall swung about.
Moving toward him were several lines of swordsmen, their blades naked in their hands, their faces dimly seen beneath their helmets. On their armor he could make out the basilisk insignia of the kingdom of Urgrik. They came slowly but steadily, for their prey was here in the temple of the forgotten god, Devolian. There was nowhere for them to run, no place to hide. All that was needed to do now was attack and subdue them.
Niall grinned. Cold was his grin, and unpleasant. A few of the men in that front line who saw his grimace, shuddered and knew fear in their hearts. Aye! They knew the way of Niall of the Far Travels with his sword Blood-drinker. And they were not eager to be the first ones to test his sword-arm
Yet they came on, urged by their officers and by the weight of the men who came behind them. Sweaty hands worked on sword-hilts, getting a firmer grip. Soon enough they would stand before Niall and that sword of his. Soon enough.
Niall awaited their coming, his own sword ready. Slightly behind him was the girl. She was breathing harshly, yet she was no longer whimpering.
Niall chuckled. “A cleaner death, girl, than being taken by Korvassor. A couple of slices from those blades, and we’ll stand together before Father Thimugor, waiting for his judgment on our lives.”
“They won’t kill us,” she whispered. “They want us — alive!”
He thrust the crystal into his belt-pouch, closed the hasp. Then he moved forward to the edge of the broken pavement, sword in his hand. Behind him came Amyrilla.
They came then, in a coordinated rush, pale light glimmering on their sword-blades These were veterans of the wars of Lurlyr Manakor, who had fought the savages of the eastern frontiers, who had battled against the troops of Queen Thalmyra, who had stood off the hordes of Omar Khan.
Niall went to meet them, sword swinging. Two men went down before that first sweep of the blade, then another, and now he stood surrounded, the ringing clash of steel on steel drowning out the gasps of and curses of the fighting men. Niall was everywhere, leaping, dodging, ducking a blow and thrusting.
He fought carefully, without seeming plan. Yet always he maneuvered his path toward a great pillar, crumbling away under the weight of the eons, until at last he put his spine to it so that no man could come at him from behind, and now he fought as does the wounded bear, snarling beneath his breath and thinking only of killing as many of his adversaries as was possible.
His great, rolling muscles shifted under his tanned hide as he moved his sword one way and then another, catching a man rushing in boldly or driving out to draw blood from another as that man was seeking to outflank him. He felt a tug at his belt and knew that Amyrilla was lifting out his dagger, using it to stab those who came within reach of that sharp Orravian steel.
The battle was hopeless, of course. Yet perhaps because of its very hopelessness, Niall fought as he may never have fought before. No beginner, he, to the clang and clash of weapons. All his life he had fought, it was a way of life for him. He took rash chances, sometimes leaping from the broken pillar to transfix two men before any could guess his intent, then leaping back to rest his giant frame against the crumbled rock obelisk.
Yet he did not die. Swords cut into his flesh, but these were minor wounds. Blood ran down his shoulder and sides, and his legs bled too, where sharp steel had sliced him. Yet he stood tall and firm, and his sword-arm seemed untiring. But there was a growing weariness inside him, in his blood, in his muscles. Not much longer could he stand here against a small army.
There were no arrows shot at him, no spears appeared, they wanted him alive, to offer him up to Korvassor. He and the girl, these were to be the sacrifices.
Dawn was in the air, a brightness to the east, when they rushed him. Half a dozen lines of rested veterans came forward at the run, shields up. The men he had been fighting drew back to give them room. Niall saw them coming, saw the tilted shields locked together. There would be no escape.
He smiled bitterly. “It ends, Emelkartha,” he whispered.
His sword came up and he struck with it, but he hit only those shields, knowing as he did so that these veterans were using not swords but ropes against him — nets that would cling to him, that would hamper his sword-arm He felt their touch, he tried to evade them, but could not.
They fell about him, faster and faster, as those veterans flung them. Entangled in those strands, his sword-arm useless, nevertheless he battled on as best he could until the haft of a dagger struck him between the eyes.
Niall dropped and lay motionless…
He opened his eyes to the movement of a boat through water. Amyrilla knelt beside him, his head on her thigh, her head bent and her tears dropping slowly on his face. There were many men around them, armed men. When they saw his eyes staring up at them, they grinned and moved closer.
“Man, you’re a fool,” one said.
“To risk your life for a dancing girl!”
“But — gods! How you can fight!”
There was no enmity in them, only a mild envy. And a grim sympathy. They knew how he would die, chained to those ivory posts, when Korvassor came to claim him. It would not be a nice death, absorbed into the god-being.
“More than a score of men dead, two score with wounds,” one man was muttering, shaking his head. “I thought no one man could ever cause such havoc against such fighters as we have in the Borstyrian Guard.”
“It’s a waste of a good man,” another murmured.
“You’ve angered Lurlyr Manakor,” a captain nodded. “Bad enough to offend the queen, which you did when you stole the girl. But the king — ah, that was a true mistake.”
Niall growled, “What difference does it make? I’ll die. A man can die only once.”
“But you won’t die. That is, not actually die. Whoever is absorbed into Korvassor becomes a part of him and — lives on.”
He hung from golden chains between two ivory posts. Beside him, so that he could see her by turning his head, he could make out the naked body of Amyrilla, slumped down so that she would have fallen but for the manacles clasped to her wrists.
From the girl, his eyes went around the temple. It was dark here, except for the few tapers that were lighted here and there on the altar. They were the only ones in the temple. They were the sacrifices, those who were to be offered up to Korvassor.
Soon now would come the priests. And after them, Lurlyr Manakor and his queen, Thyra of the Midnight Hair. The king and queen would come here to see them taken by the god-being. They would want to know that their vengeance was complete.
Niall rattled the golden chains that held him prisoner. The sound of their clashings was loud in the stillness of the temple. Sweat came out on his forehead but it was not the sweat of fear but rather that of fierce fury. He had never been so helpless. Never!
For a moment he thought of biting his wrists, of letting his blood run out of his body, so as to kill himself and cheat Lurlyr Manakor of his vengeance and Korvassor of his flesh. Yet the will to live pounded strongly within Niall of the Far Travels, he was not a man to yield himself so shamelessly.
But he did not want to die!
Nor shall you, Niall. Not with myself beside you.
The words were in his mind even as he saw a faint shimmering, as though faery lights were gathering before him. And then, shrined in that pale brilliance, he saw — Emelkartha No, not Emelkartha but — Lylthia!
Aye! The goddess stood before him in her human guise, as once she had appeared in Angalore to the south, clad only in that bit of rag she had worn there, when he had rescued her and then, slept as she fled away to die — apparently — on the death-stone of the wicked mage, Maylok
She stepped toward him, smiling. Her arms came up to go about his neck and her red lips were pressed against his own. For an instant, he knew utter bliss. His senses leaped and quivered to the delight of her caress.
And then, smiling up at him teasingly, she stepped back, lifting a hand and shaking a finger at him in mock anger.
Do you think I would let Korvassor take you? Do you, Niall? Na, na. Emelkartha is no wanton, to toss her lover to the gods. There is a plan, Niall. And you must play a part in it.”
“Nay, now. This I cannot tell — lest you betray to Korvassor what I have in mind. Just be easy. Act as though you knew me not. Is this agreed between us?”
Niall scowled. “Agreed,” he muttered.
The ways of a goddess were strange to mortal men. He wondered what was in her mind. Yet he did not wonder long, for she came forward, pressing herself against him and kissing him again, and once more Niall knew that strange ecstasy which only Lylthia — or —Emelkartha — could bring to him.
He heard a distant sound.
At once, Lylthia drew away, laughed softly, and began to fade. But just before she disappeared, she raised pink fingers to her mouth and blew him a kiss.
The sound grew louder and now Niall knew it for the strum of sistrums, the tinkle of bells, the musical clangor of cymbals. Voices too, he heard, raised in song.
That chant grew louder and now he could make out, at the far end of the temple, the procession of priests who came toward them, served by acolytes. Candles swayed, lighting their way. Their chant grew more solemn, raised in worship of the god.
Niall stood firmly on his war-booted feet. He would meet these priests as he met warriors: head up, with no fear in his heart. His eyes slid sideways, toward Amyrilla. The girl was conscious now, rising to her full height. Yet her lips quivered, and he saw tears gathering in her eyes.
“I’ll save you,” he muttered. “So stop worrying.”
She gasped, turning to eye him in stunned amazement. “Save me? But how? You’re chained just as I am.”
He could not tell her of Lylthia, nor of her promise. And so he muttered, ‘There will be a way. Just trust me.”
Amyrilla sighed, but the color came back into her cheeks, and she stood more bravely than before. Indeed, as Niall thought, they both seemed far more defiant than the occasion warranted. The priests of Korvassor sensed this defiance, and on their pale faces smiles sprang into being. Only the high priest, an old man with long white hair and a beard, gazed at them dubiously, as though he sensed that their defiance was based on something other than mere human courage.
The priests took up their places before the altar. In low voices they chanted on, but still they waited. Now the great doors at the far end of the temple opened, and down the broad aisle came armed men, fanning out as they approached the altar. Behind them, in gilded palanquins, came King Lurlyr Manakor and his queen, Thyra the Dark one. They were here to witness the fit punishment of those who had transgressed against them.
Lurlyr Manakor stepped from his palanquin when it came to a halt, and walked forward toward the altar. He was a big man lately run to fat, but the huge body and the iron will, which had made him a conqueror of nations, could still awe the onlookers.
Toward Niall he walked, though his eyes swung sideways toward the naked body of Amyrilla. In happier days, she had been his favorite. But since he had wedded Thyra of the Midnight Hair, he had been forced to put Amyrilla aside. Even to offer her up to Korvassor as a sacrifice.
The king sighed once, then twice, and then he looked at Niall. There was no hate in his eyes, only pity. In a low voice so that neither the priests nor the acolytes might hear him, he spoke to the Sell-sword
“I am sorry you failed. If it were up to me, neither of you would die. I would, set you free and pay you good gold to see you on your way.” He shook his head. “But I no longer reign in Urgrik. The priests of Korvassor rule this city.”
Niall said nothing, yet felt pity for this man in his heart. He was a conqueror, a fighting man, yet in his crown city, he was subject to the priests and to his wife, the Queen Thyra. Lurlyr Manakor eyed him a moment, then turned away.
Now the curtains of the second palanquin moved, fluttering. And out stepped Thyra, clad all in ebon robes, with her long black hair bound with diamonds and pearls. She was a beautiful woman, everyone acknowledged that — yet Niall thought to read cruelty in her hard eyes, in her pale face. She stood a moment as slave-girls lifted off the jet robe in which she was swathed. Now she was revealed in a thin garment of purest black silk in which threads of gold were cunningly woven. Golden sandals were on her small feet.
Thyra moved across the flaggings, smiling almost to herself. Toward Amyrilla she walked, and at her every step her cruelty became more manifest. Her lips were drawn back, her eyes became slitted.
She came to a halt. Her hand darted out, clapping hard against the face of the girl in the golden manacles. Loud and sharp were the sounds of those slaps, and Amyrilla’s head was knocked sideways by their force.
Then Thyra turned toward Niall and now he could see the hard eyes, the distorted lips. She came toward him, and for a moment their eyes locked. Hers were haughty, proud, and still cruel.
“You dared?” she breathed. “You dared to try and rescue her for whom I had decreed death. Well, you shall pay the penalty along with her. Remember Thyra wherever it is that Korvassor takes you.”
She turned and moved away, and now the sistrums and the flutes began to wail again, very softly. In was an eerie tune they played on their instruments, and a cold chill went down Niall’s spine.
They were summoning Korvassor. He had learned enough about Urgrik and its ways since he had arrived here to take service with Lurlyr Manakor to know that much. In hushed whispers over goblets filled with Kallarian wine, men had spoken of the temple and that which came into it when the music played and the priests chanted.
Now the priests were chanting in some long-forgotten language. The sound of those words made Niall even colder. What they did here was obscene, frightful. They were summoning up dread Korvassor, were offering to him the bodies of a man and a woman.
Niall rattled his chains as he stretched his big body. Fury grew inside him, a raw heat that seemed almost to lift him upward. It was not a human anger, but rather a rage that seeped into him from outside.
“I defy Korvassor!” he bellowed. “Let him come. I shall destroy this god you worship.”
There was a silence after his outburst. Even the sistrums and the flutes had stilled. The priests looked at one another, then at the high priest who stood motionless, eyes hollowed in his head. Those eyes burned at Niall, filled with fury and with — what? Foreknowledge of some awesome doom? Fear?
Queen Thyra moved from where she had stationed herself beside Lurlyr Manakor. Her right hand came up, imperiously. “The man is half-dead with fright. Why do you hesitate? Continue the ritual.”
The sistrums woke to life, and with them the cymbals. Loudly they sounded, as though they might drown out the words of this giant who hung in the golden manacles. Niall moved his eyes from the musicians to the priests, to that high priest who regarded him so dubiously.
There was doubt in his eyes, and worry.
Lurlyr Manakor too, looked uncomfortable. Yet his queen stood regally proud, her head held high, her eyes burning with the hate she had for Amyrilla and this barbarian who hung in the golden chains.
Heat gathered on the altar. Niall felt it as he might a hot fog, creeping over the tiles, seeping upward about his legs and hips. To one side, Amyrilla moaned, as she too felt that awful heat. Soon now, Korvassor would emerge from whatever worlds he inhabited and — take them.
Words whispered in his mind, and in answer to them, Niall stiffened his body, stood upright and shook the golden chains that held him.
“I defy Korvassor,” he bellowed. “I defy the wicked one — in the name of Devolian himself!”
The high priest gasped.
And the heat fled back, away from Niall. It retreated, almost as though fearful of him. The sistrums strummed and the cymbals clanged, even louder. The priests chanted with harsh voices.
Slowly the hot mists crept back. Slowly, slowly. They surged about his feet, ran up his legs to his hips and higher. It grew hard to breathe, for those mists were strangling him, almost suffocating him. Niall shook himself, rattling the chains.
Now he saw that those before him — the musicians, the acolytes, the priests themselves — were drawing backward, away from the high altar. There was fear in their, eyes as they stared at something behind Niall. Fear and awe and something of — horror. Only the high priest stood firm.
Niall swung about, stared.
Something was forming behind the altar, in the curved niche that reared high above the statue of Korvassor. Shapeless and formless it was, black and evil. Menacing! In the middle of that amorphous bulk, two red eyes shone forth, unblinkingly.
A coldness settled in Niall.
This was Korvassor, summoned from his hells, eager to devour that which was being offered to him. This was the wicked god of Urgrik, he who came from beyond Time and Space. He-who-devours.
Fear not, Niall! I am with you!
Ah, that was Emelkartha, whispering again in his mind. Ha! Easy for her to say, not to be afraid. But by all the Gods! This thing was something out of nightmare, something which should never have been born.
What defense could anyone have against it?
The hot mists were all over him now, stifling him. Yet it seemed to Niall that those mists did not sting him as fiercely as they had done. It was almost as though he had become immune to them, or that he was — protected.
Korvassor bulked huge now, filling the space behind the altar. He was beginning to flow forward, emerging onto the altar tiles themselves. Shapeless he was, and of no certain outlines, yet the menace that emanated from that gross bulk was as palpable as the flagstones on which Niall stood.
Ah, now Korvassor was completely out of that far-distant world he inhabited. His bulk was moving, sliding — oozing — across the tiles, straight for his victims. The red eyes studied them hungrily. Almost, the hulk seemed to drool.
Faster it flowed. Faster!
A tentacle touched Niall, paralyzing him. Agony stabbed inward from his skin, around which that black tentacle was clasped. Yet Niall did not cry out. Rather, he stood firm, almost defying this god-being who had come for him.
Korvassor felt that defiance and was puzzled.
The red eyes grew angry.
More and more of that black bulk flowed forward. It hovered high above Niall, and paused, waiting. In another moment, it would dart downward to surround him, absorb him.
Something stirred, close to Niall. Stirred and — waited.
Korvassor swooped downward. His tentacles fashioned arms that stretched out to gather him in. Swiftly he moved, blotting out all sight from the waiting Sell-sword Then those dark arms closed on him.
Niall felt the pain, the agony. He opened his mouth to scream. No mere man could endure such pain! His heart pounded, the sweat ran out of his pores. And yet — and yet — he still stood. And now — that agony was receding.
Something was flowing out of Niall, something that ran with the swiftness of water rippling over brook-stones It went to meet Korvassor, went eagerly, almost singing as it flowed. Niall shuddered, knowing suddenly that this was Devolian — Devolian, whom he had brought here from that abandoned temple, in that crystal shape.
I am here, black one! You of the red eyes, I am come at last!
There was agony in that scream, and despair. Niall felt those emotions as a distant part of himself, and he knew that just as Korvassor was experiencing them, so he was himself, since he was a part of that god-being.
Then, abruptly, Korvassor spewed him forth.
Niall crumpled on the tiles, staring. No longer were the golden manacles on his wrists, they lay beside him on the floor.
High above, the blackness which was Korvassor wrestled with the thing that was Devolian. Fiercely they fought. Fiercely! Korvassor sought to retire into that curving space out of which he had come, yet always Devolian was there before him, to prevent it. And now, slowly, Korvassor was weakening. Less furious were the rushes he made, not so brilliant were his red eyes. And always, that which was Devolian closed in about him, surrounding him.
Niall glanced back at the priests.
They stood as though under a spell, only their eyes being alive. The high priest was very pale, very frightened. The fear in him was like a living thing. And to one side, Amyrilla lay unconscious in her golden manacles.
Now Korvassor merely writhed in the watery tentacles that gripped him, squeezing him. The red eyes were dimmed, almost to extinction. In another moment, they would disappear.
And then — suddenly — only Devolian stood upon the tiles.
Transparent he was, a shimmering curtain of brilliant lights. Niall heard those lights whispering joyously, radiant with delight, with power. Forward moved that curtain, quivering, sentient! It poised a moment above Niall, almost as though contemplating him.
Downward stretched an arm of those lights, touched him.
My thanks, man of this world. But for you, I should never have been able to trap Korvassor, to destroy him!
Niall had never felt so energetic. The power of Devolian swam through his flesh, his veins. He straightened, all the agony and its memory gone from him. He put a hand on his sword half-lifted it from the scabbard.
“I have enemies too, Devolian. Let me—”
Nay, now. These are my enemies as well.
Forward swept that living curtain, toward the priests and the acolytes of Korvassor, and when it touched them, they became shimmering motes of brightness that faded into nothingness. The high priest screamed and whirled to flee but Devolian swept forward, rushed over him — and the high priest no longer existed.
The curtain poised, moved forward.
Thyra the Dark screamed once, a high shrilling that reverberated from wall to wall of the temple. She turned as had the high priest, but the curtain of lights surged forward, touched and enveloped her.
Niall heard a faint, distant keening. Then — silence.
Slowly now, the curtain faded, and where it had stood was emptiness.
Niall growled and moved toward Amyrilla. But he was too slow. Lurlyr Manakor raced forward, his hand getting a key out of his pouch. It was his hand that inserted the key, his arms that caught the girl as she stirred and looked up at him.
“Can you forgive me? It was not I but Thyra and the high priest who condemned you. They worshiped Korvassor, it was they who insisted on restoring the old worship, the giving of sacrifices.”
Amyrilla smiled faintly. “There is nothing to forgive, Lurlyr. Yet there is thanks to be said — to Niall.”
Lurlyr Manakor flushed and glanced sideways. “There is that, of course. And you know how deeply I am indebted to you, Niall. Ask what you will of me. Except Amyrilla. Her I mean to marry, to make my queen.”
Niall shrugged, remembering that he had acted because of Emelkartha “No thanks are needed. I did what — I had to.”
“You shall be given half my kingdom.”
Niall only shook his head. “I’m no ruler. I’m only a warrior.”
“Then you shall be made general of my armies. I shall build you a fine castle, I shall fill your chests with gold and jewels. Come now, walk with us out of this temple which is no longer a temple. Come, Niall.”
“In a moment.”
He watched them move down the aisle, arm in arm. Aye, they were going to be married, to rule together in Urgrik. But he? He who had helped bring this all about? What was there for him that he wanted?
It was a whisper in the air, no more. Yet every part of his body quivered to the sound of that voice. “Where are you?” he asked hoarsely.
“Soon I shall come to you, Niall. Soon, now. Be patient.”
She came out of the shadows, almost naked, still wearing those bits of rag which she had worn in An-galore. She was smiling, she was holding out her arms. And Niall stepped into them.
He held her for a long time, kissing her. Oh, he knew she would never stay here with him in this world where he lived. But to have her like this, sweet and warm and scented, her soft mouth under his, was reward enough for him who was a sell-sword
Even when she went away from him, blowing him those kisses, he did not despair. Someday she would come to him again. For that he lived, for that he would wait in patience.