Read Dagger Online

Authors: David Drake

Tags: #Fantasy - General, #Fantasy, #Fiction - Fantasy, #General, #Science fiction, #Fiction

Dagger (12 page)

A few bore symbols which were not writing at all. One of them was a small block of peridotite, polished smooth before a single diagonal was cut across its coarse crystals. The block had marked the victim's place in a temple of Dyareela. Samlor could not imagine anyone removing it from its original location—

or being willing to have it close to him thereafter.

The Napatan was brushing his left palm across the face of a slab of gray

.granite, cleaning it of dust that had settled there after the spell of release. The stele was about three feet high and half that across. Figures—

presumably

gods—

filled the upper portion, and there were about twenty vertical lines of script beneath them.

"To the blessings of Harsaphes," Khamwas said, his index finger pausing midway down one of the later columns. "Harsaphes, not Somptu as I'd always assumed, and the ruins of the temple of Har—

"

"Khamwas, listen to me!" Samlor shouted. He gripped the scholar with his left hand, though that meant dropping his cloak while there was still dust in the air. "You say something happened to magic a little bit ago. Would that have broken the crystal that held Setios' demon?"

"The townsman," said the manikin who was not in the least affected by the chokng atmosphere, "is not the one who is eaten by the crocodile." And men who leave magic alone, translated Samlor as he

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whirled toward glimpsed motion, aren't destroyed by its creatures. A hand was emerging from a slab of limestone on the far wall. It was tenuous enough that the settling dust coexisted with the limb, which was so thin that it would have been skeletal were it not for the gleam of a scaly integument. The three fingers each bore a claw an inch long and sharp as shattered glass.

"Get up the ladder!" Samlor shouted as he leaped for the apparition behind the watered steel blade of his dagger. The hilt was adequate for his big hand when he slashed with it, though it was shaped wrong and would have been uncomfortably short had he chosen to thrust—

Which would have done as much good; as much, and no more.

The clawed hand twisted to grip the blade while an arm as wire-thin as the hand continued to extend from the wall. Steel parted the limb like smoke, and the claw slipped through the whisking dagger as if it in turn had no substance. Another hand was reaching through the stone beside the first. The blur above and between them was growing into a narrow reptilian face.

"Get out\" the caravan master shouted again when a glance toward the ladder showed him that Khamwas stood where he had. He had crossed the top of his staff with his left forearm.

"No, run!" Khamwas replied. He had been chanting under his breath, and his face spasmed with the effort of breaking back into normal speech. "I released it again, but I can hold it for long enough."

The demon's head and torso had emerged from the wall. One leg was striding forward in slow motion. The creature was half again as tall as Samlor, and it was thinner than anything could be and live.

One hand shot out and snatched the sea urchin which shattered beneath the claws into a cascade of mauve sparks. As the demon's arm withdrew, the sparks formed again into their original shape. The creature of light continued to pick its way through the air.

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Samlor was quite sure that if the claws closed on his niece, their effect would be permanent.

"Run Star!" he shouted, afraid to turn from the demon. It continued to pull itself from the stone.

Khamwas hadn't moved, though his mouth resumed its unheard chanting. Maybe Samlor could jump for the ladder himself since the fool Napatan refused to do so. Slam the lid back over this hellish room—

if the lid would close without a

search for another mechanism. Run out the front door with Star in his arms, praying that he could work the bolts swiftly enough . . . praying that the doorkeeper would ignore them as they left, the way Khamwas had said it would. .

. .

Samlor stepped forward and swung at the demon again. He wasn't going to abandon Khamwas to the creature unless there were no other choice. He chopped for a wrist. Instead of slipping through like light in mist, the caravan master's steel clanged as numbing-ly as if he had slashed an anvil. The demon seized the blade and began to chitter in high-pitched laughter. All of the demon but its right leg had pulled free of the wall. That leg was still smokily insubstantial, but the claws of the left foot cut triple furrows in the concrete as they strained to drag the creature wholly out of the stone. The left hand—

forepaw—

was reaching for Samlor's face while the right gripped his knife.

Samlor's mouth had dropped open as he breathed through it, oblivious of the dust that would have made him cough another time. He jerked straight down on the dagger hilt, ducking from the swipe that started slowly as a boulder rolling, but completed its arc at blinding speed.

The blade screeched clear. If a man held it, his fingers would have been on the floor or dangling from twists of skin.

The demon's paw was uninjured, and its claws had streaked the flat of the blade against which they were set.

Samlor caught the throatclasp of his cloak. He could throw the garment like a net over the creature and—

—

and watch the claws shred it as the demon, steel strong and more than iron hard, leaped free to dispose of the men

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before it. The creature's eyes had no pupils and glowed orange, a color which owned nothing to the urchin which still tumbled innocently around the room.

"Khamwas!" the caravan master shouted, because the demon was already in the air and perhaps Khamwas could get up the ladder while the Cirdonian occupied the creature with the process of being slaughtered. . . .

The demon halted in midair, its left foot above the concrete and its right leg, spindly and terrible as that of a giant spider, lifting to deliver a kick that would disembowel Samlor. Dust settled and the urchin of light rolled jerkily forward, one spine at a time. The demon hung frozen like an idol of ravening destruction.

Its eyes were as bright as tunnels to Hell.

Samlor started another cut at the demon. Light reflecting from the triple scratch on his blade reminded him how useless that would be, so he turned instead to Khamwas.

Who had not moved since last Samlor had leisure to glance at him. Khamwas hunched slightly forward, his left forearm crossing the top of his staff and his eyes fixed on the demon ~with a reptile's intensity. Tjainufi still perched on his shoulder.

The Napatan's lips had been moving soundlessly, but now he said in a cracked whisper, "Go on . . . quickly."

The demon was not quite frozen. The movements the creature began before Khamwas'

spell took effect were still going on. The leg that stretched toward Samlor at a glacial pace quickened noticeably when the Napatan spoke, and the demon's mouth gaped slowly to display interlocked arrays of teeth like needles in the upper and lower jaws.

"But how can you," the caravan master began as he slipped a step back, beyond the present arc of the claws. The demon bent at its girl-slim waist as it leaped, because otherwise its flat skull would have banged the ten-foot ceiling.

"Samlor," said the Napatan scholar, "get out\ I brought you here!" The demon had trembled back to near stasis for a moment. Now it lurched far enough forward in its unsupDAGGER

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ported motion that it was clear one hand was reaching for Khamwas' head even as the kick extended toward the Cirdonian.

"There is none who abandons his travelling companion whom the gods do not call to account for it," said Tjainufi.

"Fuck your gods," said Samior, who was already sliding the knife back under his belt to free his hands. He encircled the Napatan's waist, underneath the cape for a firmer grip, with his left arm.

"No" said Khamwas desperately.

"Do your jobT Samlor snarled back as he lifted the smaller man. The air swirled with the demon's renewed movement, but the claws now behind the caravan master did not rend him as he stepped with regal determination to the ladder. Focusing on the creature from the stone was for Khamwas. Samlor hil Samt had the responsibility of getting them both back up the ladder while his companion did that job, eyes, arm and staff locked into their duty.

Khamwas' body was muscular, but weight wasn't the problem. Carrying him upright while Samlor's right hand needed to grip the ladder for balance was brutal punishment, and it reminded him of how badly he had strained himself getting into this damned house.

One foot above the other, each step a deliberate one because a jolt at the wrong time might break Khamwas' concentration irrevocably. No way to tell what was happening behind him, and nothing to do about it if things weren't well. One foot and then the other.

A gust of wind shocked Samlor as his head lifted above the floor of the reception hall. Fabric, a curtain or a counterpane, had been snatched from a room on the upper floor and was flapping from the railing. Star was calm as molten glass as she watched her uncle struggle up the ladder with the other man clamped to his side. At his first wild glance, Samlor thought the whorl of white on the child's temple was one of the creatures of light which pulsed through the reception hall. It was so bright. . . . He couldn't bend over to balance with his palm on the

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floor as he neared the top of the ladder, so the caravan master mounted the last three rungs at a quickened pace. Toppling backwards would mean the floor killed them if the demon didn't, but if Samlor sprawled on his face the result would be no better. He'd seen the creature start to move; it would be on them in an instant if Khamwas were flung out of his concentration.

Samlor stepped from the top rung to the marble floor, sucking in his lips as he strove to move as smoothly as a duck gliding on water. He set the Napatan down, conscious of the man's weight only after he was free of it, and with same motion strode for the wall and the latch mechanism.

Khamwas' voice was audible again, breaking with strain as he chanted over and over again a dozen or so words. Sweat from the Napatan's face had splashed Samlor's left forearm as he climbed.

The caravan master's boot skidded when he tried to slide back the piece of marble which was half withdrawn beneath the molding. Instead of trying again with his hobnails, Samlor knelt and scrabbled at the black stone with both sweaty palms. It moved into position with the same greasy certainty with which it had opened.

The pond of mirror-smooth water slipped down to cover the demon soundlessly. Samlor skidded as he ran from the sidewall to the front door. Hobnails weren't the footgear for these polished stones . . . and this house wasn't a place for humans. Not now, and probably not before Setios' pet got loose. There was no inside door latch.

"You didn't let them out, Master Khamwas," said Star, patting the hand of the scholar who had knelt and was sobbing with exhaustion. "They're playing with us."

"Come on," Samlor shouted. There was certainly a way to open the inner and outer doors from here, but he didn't have time to fool with it. "We're leaving the way we came!"

"There's six of them, Uncle Samlor," said Star. "They're playing with us." Something emerged from the pilaster beside the stairs to the second floor. It was a clawed hand like that of the demon

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below. Instead of streaming like smoke from the stone, it broke free as a chick emerges from an egg. Rock shattered away from the groping limb, and a section of the wall started to lift.

Khamwas rose to his feet. His face was blank and his body swayed with fatigue. He crossed his arm over the staff again and began a whispered chant. The wall from which the demon crashed, already formed, was load-bearing. Tortured roofbeams squealed as plaster in chunks of up to a hundred pounds broke away. A big piece hit the center of the pond and blasted water out across the reception hall.

Samlor caught his niece with one arm and Khamwas with the other. He flung them, all three together, to the floor against the nearer sidewall. A block of stone, notched for the butt of a crossbeam, tumbled from the roof to the rail of the second-floor walkway. It caromed to the floor in a shower of dust and chips.

"We'll get out through the back!" said the caravan master who doubted that they would. The wall beside where they hunched under cover of the walkway was crumbling as gray claws harder than the stone emerged from it. Across the reception room, the other sidewall was disintegrating into bits and blocks. They hid but did not disguise the cause of the destruction. One of the demons was clasping a dismembered human leg. Samlor figured he knew where Setios and his servants had gone.

Six of 'em, Star'd said. Likely five more than they'd need, but you didn't quit just because you couldn't win. . . .

The three humans rose and scuttled for the room's back wall and the door there. They were bent over because the walkway's partial roof was no protection against blocks bouncing from the floor at crazy angles.

The front half of the house staggered forward into the street with a roar that was not loud until Samlor realized that he could not shout with enough volume to be heard by the two companions he had dragged with him into the temporary safety of the door alcove.

Skeletal, inhumanly tall figures minced toward the trio,

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shrugging off the tons of rubble that had thundered down on them. There were four, and the mound of stone and timber covering what had been the floor of the reception room heaved as the creature in the room beneath rejoined its fellows. Sheets of pain flapped across Samlor's body from a center where his right hip had blocked a ricocheting chunk of stone that weighed as much as he did. The crosswall dividing the house was built as solidly as the exterior. It remained essentially undisturbed when the emerging demons had shattered the front of the house. That portion of the building had demolished itself as brittle stone shifted in a vain attempt to find new foundations.

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