It felt good to be traveling again. For the first time since I left home, I felt like I was doing what I really wanted.
Alongside me was my partner Kitaro. He had to trot to keep up with my longer stride, and his long black queue bobbed behind him. I don't think he ever traveled slowly over long distances. When I first met him, he'd been jogging along much faster than this. Our pace was more likely to bore him than wear him out.
The days were noticeably shorter than they'd been a few weeks ago, but we were making good time and expected to reach Great Market in about a month. For now we were heading across country as close to due east as we could, figuring to turn south once we reached the North Road, which should get us to Great Market a week and a half later. It would be autumn by then, but there were caravans beginning the trek down the Spice Road almost every day. Once we found a place with one, it would take us far enough south to leave the cold of winter behind.
We had just begun the ascent into the Erganine Hills. Farther south they became mighty mountains that split the lower part of the continent in two, and to the north they mounted ever higher and more steep until they joined the Northern Range near Kit's homeland, but here they were gentle, grassy, and pleasant. We hadn't been looking for a road, but we'd struck one a couple of days ago and since it was going our way we kept to it.
The road was in poor condition now, but at one time it must have been heavily traveled. It ran along the northern edge of a wood. Opposite the wood were broad fields separated by unkempt hedgerows. This was one of those no-man's lands the Regellan Empire left behind in the wake of its retreat, but years ago it must have been a prosperous region. No doubt the farmers who used to work these fields fled to the cities a generation or two ago. An unfortified farm wouldn't last long these days.
Whatever raiders or armies had passed this way and driven out the people were long gone, and the place was as quiet as it was deserted. We'd met no one in days, not even so much as a highwayman. Neither Kit nor I minded all that much. The solitude allowed us to be affectionate with each other whenever we felt like it. Not that having people around stopped us, but it often provoked hostility in the smaller villages along our way.
Ahead of us, an arm of the wood jutted out from the greater mass of trees, and the road curved sharply to the left to avoid it while skirting it closely. The growth there was rather dense, so it wasn't until we followed the road past the end of the trees where it turned again to the east that we saw the dozen or so armed men blocking the road. When we drew near, the one wearing a cuirass instead of a jerkin barked out, "Halt! In the name of the Duke!"
Kit blinked and gave a half smile. "What duke is that?"
"No lip out of you boy, unless you want a beating. Your names and your business."
Kit shrugged. "Kitaro of Lipak."
"Tamarick of the Tripolis. We're freelances, but right now we're just passing through."
His looked first at me, then at Kit. A snicker broke out, and then a full-blown laugh. The other men joined in. "Tamarick, is it? If you were by yourself I'd believe you. But if that boy's a freelance," he cocked a thumb at Kit, "then I'm the Emperor. You two will have to come with us."
"So it's a crime around here to not look the part?" said Kit.
"I've got my orders. Armed travelers who can't give me a good account of themselves have to tell it to the Duke. Come along now."
I leaned over and whispered to Kit. "What do you think?"
"We can take them."
"Yeah, but should we?"
"They don't seem worth killing, do they?"
"Nah. And it might make trouble later on."
"I'm curious about this 'duke' too. I wonder what his title was last week."
I laughed, and we went along with being arrested. The men closed in around us and we turned off the road, following a beaten track over the fields and up a long, gentle slope. I was expecting them to try and disarm us, but they demanded neither my short sword and bow nor Kit's long, slender blade from the Silk Islands, and we walked among them freely. They must have been very confident about themselves.
Either that or they didn't think much of us. In that case the feeling was mutual. They were the most slovenly soldiers I'd ever seen. Most of their equipment was in some state of neglect, and even their leader's cuirass had rust spots. They looked like they shaved no more than once a month, and smelled like they bathed even less often.
When we got to the top of the rise, my eyes grew wide and Kit gave a low whistle. In the valley below sat the ducal fortress, and it was the last thing either of us expected: an enormous concentric castle. Fifteen mighty round towers ringed the inner and outer walls, and the tall keep dominated its silhouette. Even the gatehouse towers looked imposing. Kit and I exchanged a look. If this went bad we'd have an interesting time getting out.
They brought us through the outer gatehouse, around the outer bailey, and then through the inner gatehouse. The place looked empty. Maybe there were lots of men stationed in the towers, but there was no activity anywhere. The silence was broken only by the sound of our footsteps echoing off the walls. We saw no one else at all until we got to the keep. The doors were manned by soldiers who didn't look any more impressive than our escort, who they greeted rather than challenged before we passed through the doors and entered the great hall.
The man sitting in the high seat looked more like the leader of a gang of bandits than a duke. He was broad-shouldered and big-bellied with a dark, scraggly beard. The long velvet gown he wore was the color of goldenrod, and neither the style nor the color suited him. Fifty or sixty men lounged around the hall. Dice games rattled to a halt when they noticed us.
The duke spoke first in a gravelly voice. "What do you have there, Moler?"
Our patrol leader offered his lord a casual salute. "We had to arrest these two, m'lord. They have a funny story to tell."
The duke leaned forward in his chair. "So what are you lads up to, eh?"
Kit answered. "We're freelances on our way to Great Market to hire ourselves out as caravan guards."
He slapped his knee and roared with laughter. "Come on now boy, you can do better than that! I'll take your word for your big friend, but you need a better story for yourself!"
"Then would you believe I'm his catamite?"
This time the entire room erupted in laughter. The duke was practically beside himself. My own cheeks were burning and I looked at Kit in disbelief. "That's real subtle of you."
He looked back with a mischievous grin. "What? It's true."
"Kind of, I guess, but..."
When the laughter died down, the duke spoke up again. "Boy, I haven't laughed so hard in months! That's worth a night under my roof at least. What are your names?" After we told him he went on, "You'll be free to go your way in the morning, but for this night you will enjoy the hospitality of Duke Gorlin!" He ordered our things to be taken up to one of the guest chambers, and then departed through a door behind his seat.
Two younger men in livery appeared and took our packs. They were clean and well-groomed, which made them stand out in this crowd. After that we were left to ourselves. None of Gorlin's men approached us. I didn't get the feeling it had anything to do with what Kit had said because there were none of the usual disapproving glances and mutters. We were simply ignored as they fell back to drink and dice. I doubt we'd have welcomed their company anyway.
It was only about an hour before the gaming broke up and the men set up trestle tables. Gorlin returned after this was done, and when it was time for the meal to be served he sat us at the high table to his immediate right. Young men in the same livery as those who'd taken our packs brought out the meat, which for the high table was a whole roast suckling pig, along with root vegetables and bread. There was lots of wine put on the tables. Gorlin grabbed a flagon in front of us and filled our cups himself. Kit took a big swallow of his right away. I reached for my cup too, but he nudged me with his foot and I let it be. When Gorlin was distracted for a moment by the man on his left―it was Moler―Kit leaned over to me.
"Careful," he whispered. "There's something in the wine."
"A drug. Something like opium. I'll be all right, but don't drink any yourself."
It would have been a whole lot easier if I hadn't been sitting right next to Gorlin, or could do whatever it was Kit did that let him ignore drugs and poisons. I had a hell of a time pouring out my wine while pretending to drink it, but I think I managed. Shortly after I emptied my cup I stretched and let out a huge yawn. Kit wore a very convincing sleepy look.
"Sorry your grace," I said, "We've been rising and sleeping by the sun, so this is real late for us."
"Ah, but of course!" Gorlin was in an expansive, genial mood. "We shouldn't keep you up any longer. Page, show our guests to their chamber!"
He bid us a good night, and we followed one of the liveried men out one of the large side doors. It was a long walk with a flight of stairs to climb. Kit leaned on me as we went, stumbling once or twice as if he could barely keep his eyes open and needed me to support him. When we finally we reached the room the page showed us in, bowed, and departed in silence, closing the door behind him.
"Weren't you laying it on kind of thick?" I said.
Kit grinned. "Yeah. But it gave me an excuse to snuggle with you on the way, didn't it?"
I laughed and kissed him on the nose, then we took a look around the room. It was large, with walls done over in dark paneling. The furniture was sparse, but heavy and well-made. Luxurious linens covered the enormous canopied bed. Our packs and my bow and quiver had been laid at its foot. We added our swords to the pile, then checked out the chests and wardrobes. They were all empty, and all could be moved away from their places with nothing to show behind or below. Tapping at the walls yielded no hollow sounds.
Kit scratched his head. "Hm. I'd have thought our host was up to no good, but I don't see anything wrong here."
"You're not saying you trust him!"
"No farther than I can throw him." He paused a moment. "Forget that. No, I don't. Does that door lock?"
Not only did it lock, but it wouldn't open at all. Kit could punch through a stone wall if he had to, so we could get out whenever we wanted, but someone entering as we slept was another matter. We dragged one of the wardrobes in front of it. That wouldn't stop anyone determined to enter, but an attempt couldn't fail to wake us. Just to be thorough, we checked the shutters. They wouldn't open either.
"What a strange place," I said.
"Yeah. A castle this size should be like a miniature city. So where are the women and children? And those pages..."
"They do seem kind of blank, don't they? It's like they're drugged or something."
"Well, Gorlin certainly knows his drugs. Maybe that was his trade before he set up here. I wonder if this is really his castle."
"You think he's fronting for someone?"
Kit shrugged. "I don't know. Could be."
"Then his boss must be richer than the Emperor, leaving a castle like this to a front man."
"Lots of people are richer than the Emperor."
I bopped him on the head. "You know what I mean."
"Yeah. All right, then maybe he really is on his own and just found the place empty."
"What, he happened to come across a vacant castle and moved in?"
"It happens these days."
"Oh, come on. Who'd abandon a castle like this? It's in perfect condition. I'd swear it's practically new. There isn't even any lichen on the walls."
We were silent for a few beats as we thought it over.
"I wonder why Gorlin wanted us out of the way," I said. "It's weird considering he's set up to bring people in."
"Maybe he has a drunken orgy planned for this evening."
"With no women?"
Kit wagged his eyebrows. "Could be."
I thought of all the unwashed bodies and shuddered. "Just as well we're not invited."
Kit laughed at that, then got a twinkle in his eye. "Nothing to stop us from having our own private orgy now, is there?"
He pounced. I found myself supporting him with his arms around my shoulders and his legs wrapped around my waist. This put us at eye level and he kissed me hard. I took a few steps back and fell onto the bed. It was soft and comfortable. Kit landed straddling my chest. He reached forward with both hands and combed his fingers through my hair.
"A bed like this doesn't come along every day. "
I ran my hands up and down his arms enjoying the feel of his muscles. "Nope. It would be a waste if we didn't get all the use out if it we could."
Kit laid down on top of me. As we kissed he undid my belt with one hand. I arched my back to let him slide it out from under me with my knife and pouch hanging from it. He tossed it to the floor. We broke apart so he could pull my tunic off. He ran his hands all over my bare chest before I put a hand behind his head and pulled him down to kiss him again. With my other hand I flipped up the skirt of his tunic and grabbed his bare butt. When I reached under his loincloth he drew his breath in through his teeth and reared up. I fingered him and he writhed, biting his lower lip. When he couldn't take it anymore he rocked back on his heels, threw off his tunic, and pushed his loincloth down. I untied mine while he was at it. Kit leaned back down and joined his lips to mine briefly, then planted small kisses on my neck and down to my chest. He teased a nipple with his teeth before working his way down with his tongue on my skin. When he brought his mouth to my cock, I moaned and dug my fingers into his hair. He bathed it in spit until I could feel it running down my balls.
I was getting close when he pulled off and stood up on his knees, straddling my hips. He grabbed my cock and positioned himself over it, and then all of a sudden he dropped. I gasped. My hips bucked; I couldn't help it. I gave in to the reflex, thrusting up again and again. Kit rode me like he was breaking a new horse. When I felt that tingling in my toes I started thrusting even more wildly, and I'd have thrown him off if he hadn't been holding on with his knees. Just as I tensed up he did something with the muscles inside him that felt so good I cried out loud as I climaxed.
When I could focus again, I saw Kit was still in need, breathing hard with eyes barely open, his chest and face all flushed. I propped myself up on an elbow and grabbed his cock, skinned it back, and took it into my mouth. He lifted himself up to make it easier for me then grabbed my head, his fingers twining in my hair. I could tell when he was getting close from his breathing, and when it caught in the back of his throat I reached under him and jammed three fingers into him as deep as I could. He gasped and pulled hard on my hair, and came. When it ended I fell back onto the pillow. Kit collapsed on top of me, panting and nuzzling my neck. I wrapped my arms around him, and that's how we fell asleep.
A dream troubled my sleep, all of fire, smoke, and monotonous chanting in some strange, ugly sounding language. The chanting grew louder and louder, the words more guttural, until with a final obscene shout it all dissolved in a flash of green light. My eyes snapped open.
I lay flat on my back. Kit was curled up next to me, and we were under the covers. He must have pulled them up when he rolled off me. I made to turn towards him and take him into my arms.
I couldn't move.
Was I still dreaming? The candles had either burned out or been extinguished, and in the near-total darkness I could see nothing that would tell me either way. I felt awake. Kit's body was warm next to me. I could hear the soft rasping of the sheets as they moved along with his breathing, and feel their slight movement over my skin.
I concentrated, straining my will to force movement into my limbs, but I couldn't move so much as my little finger. I tried calling out to Kit. If he knew about anything it was movement, so I was sure he'd be able to say what was going on with me. But I could make no sound and my mouth wouldn't work. Panic rose up in me.
A grinding sound came from behind me and to my left, and light flooded into the room. I found I could still move my eyes, and rolled them in that direction as far as I could. A section of paneling next to the bed was pivoting outward like a door. When it was open as wide as it could go, a hand clutching a lantern thrust in. Behind it came the strangest creature I ever saw.
The form of its body was like that of an ape. It was hunched over, with arms so long and legs so stubby that the knuckles of its free hand dragged on the ground. The face was almost feline, with a short muzzle, a flat-ended, leathery nose, and pointed ears atop its head. Its red eyes were slitted horizontally like a goat's. The body was completely hairless, and in the light of the lantern it looked to be a dark red color, almost maroon. It muttered to itself continually in a high-pitched, scratchy voice.
"The trap is sprung, the great one says, yes he does, and go and fetch the cony he says. But two conies we sees, we does. Which should we brings to the great one? Blood he needs, blood he must have for his work, the more blood the better, is that it? We'll take the big one then, yes we will, and leave the small cony for later."
It trailed off into incoherence and began humming to itself as it set down the lantern. I felt it grip my arm and leg, then with incredible ease it lifted me across its shoulders. It carried me through the opening in the wall and the panel shut behind us.
My panic receded before indignation and a rising hot anger. I could feel the white fire that brought my battle madness seething in my core, but even that was held in check by whatever had paralyzed me.
A short, torchlit passage brought us to a spiral stair leading downward. We descended a very long way, much longer than we'd climbed to get from the great hall to the bedroom. The walls grew damp and slime-covered, and the air became more and more chilly the further we went. Naked as I was, only the heat of my anger kept me warm.
At the bottom of the stair was another short passage that led to a large and well-lit but cluttered chamber. I couldn't turn my head to see more of it, but I had the impression of a large open space in the center surrounded by benches covered with strange metal and glass instruments. The creature's humming took on a satisfied note as it deposited me onto a chilly stone slab about the same height as the benches and arranged me so that I was lying flat with my legs straight and my hands at my sides. Gooseflesh rose on my skin.
"It is done, O great one!"
The voice that replied was deep, but tremulous and phlegmy. "Very good, Kulk. There was another in the trap, was there not?"
"Yes, great one. He yet remains there."
"Bring him now. I will be prepared for him by the time you return."
"We goes, great one." The humming resumed as the shuffling gait receded.
"Now, let me have a look at you." Steadier footsteps approached, and a figure leaned over into my field of view.
He was very tall, about as tall as me, but skeletally thin to judge from the way his dirty gray robes hung on him. The long, stringy beard would have been white if it hadn't been tinged with yellow. His face was wrinkled and pockmarked, and his nose was hooked. His eyes looked as if they were completely black. His body smelled like brimstone, and his breath was like rotten cabbage. When he spoke, his teeth showed as dingy stumps.
Bony fingers poked at my torso and my skin shrank from their touch. "Yes. Oh, and what have we here? Anger! Yes, you are very angry. This is good. Strong emotions yield ever so much more power. Usually there is fear or panic, and that suffices but is rather monotonous. You will make for refreshing variety. A large young man with much hot blood in him, yes, excellent... But what is this?" His hand paused over my heart, and his smile made me nauseous. "How fortunate for me. You have a battle-madness, do you not?" He took on an almost conversational tone. "There are several different kinds of it, you know. The famous berserkers of the Northern Pale make a fetish of theirs. Of course, what they do is mere animal ferocity. Anyone who can induce himself to cast aside his humanity for a time can achieve it. Yours is more... how shall I put it? Spiritual? There is a tremendous pool of energy here that would burst out even now were it not restrained. So rare, so valuable. I shall have to make special preparations for you and your little lover. I had hoped to settle accounts with my associates in the abyss this night. They can be very insistent when recompense is due. I hadn't dreamed there might be so much left over for me. How very, very fortunate."
I was trapped by a sorcerer! Their foul workings were only whispered of in tales, of the corrupt and bloody rites by which they drained the lives of their victims to empower their magics, and fed their victims' souls to the demons of the dozen hells in exchange for their services. If I wasn't so angry the thought of it might have been frightening. Instead, it made me even angrier and I struggled harder than ever to move my arms so I could snap his scrawny neck. I could do nothing more than break a sweat.
He laughed quietly and patted my stomach like a man might pat a dog. "Yes, do work yourself into a lather. It will be ever so much more delicious." He strode off, and the rattle of metal utensils sounded from his direction. I kept straining to move while he was busy, but it was futile.
He was occupied there for a while before he said, "It has been far too long since my dear beneficiary Gorlin sent me anyone. I was beginning to fear that he had forgotten his duties under our compact. It might have been necessary to remind him, and that would have been troublesome for us both. But now he sends me one such as you. And with a companion, no less. I wonder what surprises your friend will have for me, hmm?"
"If he only knew."
I was so glad to hear that whisper that I forgot how angry I was. Kit was crouched on the other side of the slab. He raised his head just high enough that he could peer over my body.
"Good, he's busy. Let's get you moving again so we can get out of here. This is going to sting. I'm sorry, but there's no time to do it slowly." He jabbed two fingers into my ribs and laid one on my wrist, then exhaled.
His touch burned. A vibrating heat spread up my arm, spiraled up to my head and down my legs and throughout my gut, circled my eyes, and wound around the crown of my skull. I fought to keep myself from crying out in pain. Just as I realized I could cry out, Kit removed his fingers and the pain subsided.
"Ouch," I whispered, then turned my head to look at him. The first thing about him I noticed was his apologetic expression. The second was that except for the gem in his ear he was as naked as me.
"I was in a hurry and didn't stop to dress, all right?"
"Whatever you say, nature boy."
He rolled his eyes, but smiled. "Let's go."
Kit scooped up his sword from the floor and I rolled off the slab. I was just a little stiff, but no more than I sometimes got from sleeping on the ground. We crept over to the shadows near the wall before we stood up again.
Now I could see that the space in the center of the room was inscribed with a large circle, embellished with some kind of writing I didn't recognize, astrological symbols, and other markings that were somehow painful to the eye the same way an hautboy is painful to the ear when it gives out a sour note. The slab on which I'd been laid was adjacent to the circle. It was of marble and stained with dried blood. There were more tables and benches than I'd seen earlier, and they were placed haphazardly around the circle leaving most of the room empty. Light was provided by many thick candles set in heavy brass candlesticks each about four feet tall.
The passage to the stairs was on the opposite side from us, and we kept to the shadows as we silently crept towards it with me in front and Kit following. Along the way we encountered a number of smaller circles inscribed in the floor. We stepped around them.
At last we came to the passage. I was just about to set my foot across the threshold when a loud rattle sounded almost directly over my head. I jumped back, bumping into Kit. An iron grille like a small portcullis fell to with a clang, blocking the exit. We spun around to see the sorcerer removing his hand from a lever set in the wall, his black eyes fixed on us.
"Gentlemen. I have no idea how you overcame the paralysis spell. However it was managed, the proceedings will now be far less pleasant than they might otherwise have been."
"Come on," I said. "We can still get out of here." I reached for the grille to try and lift it.
"No, don't!" cried Kit. Too late. As soon as my fingers touched the metal it gave me a jolt that threw me back at least ten feet. I landed hard and my whole body tingled with pain like when you hit your funny bone. It didn't subside until Kit took my hand to help me up.
"What in the dozen hells was that!"
"Same stuff as lightning. That was instructive. I've never seen it hit someone before."
"Instructive. No wonder it hurt so much."
By then the sorcerer had stepped into his circle. Without a word to each other, Kit and I charged him. Before we reached him he raised his hands. At the boundary of the circle we were stopped cold as if we'd slammed into a wall. While Kit rubbed his nose, I threw myself against it, but whatever was blocking us might as well have been stone. The sorcerer bared the stumps of his teeth.
"You waste effort that you will soon rather employ elsewhere. This circle is complete and perfect, far more so than any hastily scrawled diagram. You will not penetrate it. And now you will suffer." He drew an evil-looking dagger from beneath his robes and began making passes with it.
"Can you get through this, Kit?"
He examined it with his thousand-mile stare. "Wow, that's interesting. Yeah, I think I might be able to figure something out..." He put his hand to the barrier and shifted it a little as if feeling his way. There came a loud pop and a flash, and he snatched his hand back like he'd been stung. "...in a few hours."
"Well, he's stuck there as long as it's up. Let's just go." I went over to the lever and pulled it to the opposite position. The grille didn't budge, and I could see no mechanism the lever might have operated. "Dammit!"
"Tam? I think we'll have a new problem very soon."
I turned. The sorcerer had assumed a dramatic pose near one of the symbols inscribed on the floor. In his left hand he held the dagger; his right he held straight out from himself, palm up. He cried out loud in some guttural, foul-sounding language and then with a swift cut from the dagger opened up a wound in his palm. When a handful of blood accumulated, he turned his hand over and poured it onto the symbol.
With a noise like a blast furnace, a spout of flame erupted from one of the smaller circles in the shadows near the wall. It rose to the vaulted ceiling, then curled over and flowed into itself, crashing back to its center and becoming intolerably bright. But at the heart of the brightness was a murky dark that grew until all the fire was smothered by it, and that darkness took shape and became solid.
It stood about nine feet tall. From the misshapen, fanged head to the feet, which looked almost like those of a human but with claws, it was covered in glossy gray skin. At its elbows, knees, and other joints sharp, curved horns protruded. From neck to groin it was armored by a segmented carapace. The eyes were red and featureless. Smoke wreathed about it, and the smell of burning hair filled the chamber.
"Behold!" cried the sorcerer. "A demon lord of the Eleventh Hell!"
If I'd ever thought about it, I'd have imagined that on first seeing a demon I'd have been terrified at the very sight, but instead I felt nothing. It looked like it couldn't possibly be real; almost artificial. Standing motionless it inspired no more feeling than a block of wood. But then it spoke, and the sound of it raised my hackles and made my heart hammer in my chest.
"Sorcerer." The voice rattled out of the demon like bubbles rising from a cesspool. "Why hast thou conjured me in such a feeble shape?"
"I was in haste, lord, and had no means to empower a better," the sorcerer wheezed. "These two were to be slain according to the rites, and would have more than repaid what I owe. I now offer them to you whole, naked and helpless."
"They are as helpless as thou art wise. Thou wast careless, and now conjurest me to amend thine error in a form insufficient to the task. I require the infernal portal be reopened."
The sorcerer blanched. "But lord, I have no―"
"Spare me thy whining. By thy conjure thou mayest compel me as thou wilt, but know that any humiliation inflicted upon my person thou shalt repay sevenfold. Open the portal lest death be the least of thine agonies."
Once again the sorcerer brandished the dagger, but this time he plunged it entirely through his hand. With visible effort he stifled a cry as he pulled it out, and then bent down to the symbol he'd used to summon the demon. With the blood that ran from his palm to his fingertip he traced over the symbol's lines, muttering to himself. Then he rose, holding his hand over it so that blood dripped onto it continually.
Fire burst out around the demon. It appeared to swell and the red glow within its eyes brightened. It put a foot forward and stepped out of the circle. Within the circle, the fire remained.
Kit drew his sword and tossed the sheath toward the wall. As he raised his blade he looked apprehensive, but not as much as I felt. "This is going to be highly instructive. Stay behind me, Tam."
"Trust me. You don't want to be the target here."
The demon raised a claw and pointed it directly at us. A dull red ball of light grew around it until it was about the size of a man's head. It shot toward us. Kit met it with his sword at the vertical, his off-hand supporting the blade from the back. The ball struck its edge and split. The two halves hit the wall behind us and exploded. Each left a crater in the rock almost three feet deep.
"Care to try again?" said Kit.
"Durst thou mock me?" The demon raised a claw again and clenched it. Kit gasped, then fell to his knees. Choking noises sounded from his throat.
"Kit!" I knelt down at his side. He waved me off, but I stayed where I was even though I had no idea how to help him.
His face grew red. He dropped his sword and fell forward onto his hands, but the demon's claw now shook as if it was giving out a massive effort. Still Kit didn't move, and he was starting to turn a little purple. I tensed, ready to jump between them, but he grabbed my wrist and held me back. Just when I thought he was about to pass out, the air burst out of him with a shout. The demon withdrew its claw so fast it looked like it had been thrown back. Kit snatched up his blade and sprang to his feet, breathing hard. His color soon returned to normal.
The demon growled softly and was still for a moment. Then with a roar it charged.
Kit dashed to meet it. Before the demon could make a grab for him, he made a swift cut to its arm. I almost couldn't see it, but the demon blocked it with a claw. This exposed its torso, and Kit struck leaping with a forward kick. It hit the demon in the carapace with the sound of a thunderclap, deafening in this enclosed space. It was like his Whirlwind punch that shattered stone, but delivered with his foot. The demon was blown backwards and slammed into the far wall of the chamber.
I had no illusions that it would go down with one blow. It may have been hopeless to attack it, but that didn't mean I'd go down easily. "I need a weapon, is all," I muttered.
Kit went into a crouch with his sword in a low line and back, his off hand extended in front, palm forward. He had his thousand-mile stare on, and was looking back and forth between the demon, the circle of fire, and the sorcerer with his thousand-mile stare. "The sorcerer is feeding that thing. We've got to do something about him, or it'll be unbeatable."
From the wreckage against the far wall, the demon rose. As it strode forward out of the shadows, the candlelight showed its carapace to be intact. It paused a moment and spread out its arms. The fire within the circle burned lower for a moment, then flared up even more violent than before. As it did, the demon swelled to even more monstrous proportions, and its eyes glowed more fiery than ever with hellfire.
With another roar it charged. Kit was gone from my side before I was even aware he'd moved. In the middle of the floor, blade and claw met with the ring of steel.
I ran to the circle. If I had no idea about how to deal with demonic magic, I had even less about how to get through a barrier that Kit thought would take him a couple of hours. But I had no choice but to try.
The sorcerer was still dripping blood onto the symbol. At first I thought the problem would solve itself. He'd had to slit one of his wrists to keep the blood flowing and was starting to look drawn. Maybe he'd keel over on his own before too much longer. I looked back toward the fight just in time to see the demon connect with a claw. Kit blocked the sharp points with his sword, but the impact sent him flying back. He hit the wall hard and slumped to the floor. In an instant the demon was on him and drove its claws toward his belly. Kit recovered at the last moment and rolled aside. The claws dug trenches in the stone. Kit struck upward with a fist. Another thunderclap sounded. The demon was thrown back, landed on his feet and charged back toward Kit. Kit flipped up to his feet too, and once more claw and steel clashed.
That was too close. We had to end this soon. How to get through? My mind raced. What was it the sorcerer had said? Complete and perfect? Then suppose...
A nearby bench held a collection of powders in glass jars. I grabbed them as fast as I could and threw them with all my strength at the barrier. They shattered at the impact and the powder flew everywhere. I was hoping some of it would drift into the inscribed circle, but it looked as if the barrier occupied the outside of the inscription and none of it penetrated.
The sound of another one of Kit's Whirlwind punches drew my attention back to the fight. The demon was blown backward again, but there was still not a mark on it except for the places not covered by the carapace where Kit's blade had struck. In those places there were small gouges, like you get when you hit a tree trunk with an axe, and nothing flowed from them. But Kit bled from several wounds on his shoulder and belly.
What hellish stuff was that shell made of when a blow that turned the hardest stone into gravel couldn't even scratch it?
Breaking stone? Inspiration struck. I looked wildly about for a heavy object. One of the candlesticks was nearby. I threw the candle away and hefted it; it must have weighed at least twenty pounds. I grabbed it by the top and swung it like a sledgehammer, the heavy base the hammer head, slamming it into the floor next to the circle. A tiny flake chipped off the floor. I swung again, and again. More flakes came away, but if I was getting anywhere I was taking very long to do it.
Worse, I'd attracted the sorcerer's attention. He snarled when he saw what I was doing. Turning away from the demon's symbol to face me, he put his palms together and drew them slowly apart. A ball of green flame grew between them. I almost panicked. If it was even a fraction as powerful as what the demon threw at us, it would kill me and there wasn't a thing I could do about it.
Except for one. I reached down inside myself and pulled up the white fire.
That strange detachment came over me, and the color washed out of the world. I no longer felt the weight of the candlestick, and I swung it as if it was no heavier than a willow wand. The first blow knocked a big chip out of the floor; with the next cracks spread from it. The more I pounded, the longer and wider the cracks grew, until with one final blow a tendril of a crack crossed the inscribed circle.
The barrier dropped with a snap. I ran forward and brought the candlestick down on the sorcerer's head. It split open like a melon. The green ball burst in a fiery explosion that threw me backward to the ground, and I knew nothing more for a while.
When I came to, my white fire had receded. I lifted my head and looked around. Next to me were the remains of the sorcerer, looking like a bundle of dry sticks wrapped in burlap. No fire burned in the circle from which the demon had emerged. The fight was still going on, but the demon was noticeably weaker. Its eyes were dimmer, it had shrunk to its original size, and several of its horns had been broken off.
Kit wasn't doing so well either. He was breathing hard and bleeding from a dozen more wounds than when I last saw him. When he attacked he was still very fast by any ordinary measure, but for him he was shockingly slow.
The demon had slowed too, but with Kit so weary its physical size was more of an advantage. I was still trying to clear my head when it rushed him. Kit dodged the main force of its attack, but it caught him with a forearm. The blow knocked him down. I struggled to stand, anxious to help him, but it was no good. The room spun around me when I tried.
Kit landed well, rolled with it, and came to his feet almost immediately. He paused for a moment and then with a shout attacked. At that moment he drew on some reserve of strength and showed a flash of his usual speed in a blaze of whirling steel. He struck the demon a dozen times, slicing deep into gray hide that was no longer smooth. With a final two-handed thrust he drove his blade into the demon's chest. It pierced the carapace and penetrated almost far enough to come out the back. The demon toppled backward, wrenching the sword out of Kit's hand, and lay still.
Kit bent over with his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. I had finally managed to stagger to my feet and step out of the circle when a voice like a gurgling cesspool made me freeze where I stood.
The demon was laughing.
It sat up, not bothering to remove the blade still protruding from its chest, and then stood. The wound that would have slain any earthly creature was to it nothing but an inconvenience.
Kit's jaw dropped. "Oh shit."
Before he could set himself, the demon pounced. With both claws it seized him by the neck and lifted him off the ground. Kit got his hands around its wrists and struggled, but it was futile. The techniques that would cause intolerable pain to a man in the same position didn't affect the demon at all, and it was too strong for him to overpower.
Something red boiled up inside me that cleared my head in an instant. The candlestick I'd used to break up the floor was close at hand, dented and bent but still in one piece. I picked it up and charged. With all my might I swung it at the back of the demon's knees. They buckled, and down it fell. It dropped Kit so it could break its fall. He crumpled onto the floor completely limp and lay still.
It wasn't my white fire. It was pure rage. I had no thought in me but to mash the demon to a pulp. I pounded the it with the candlestick, beating it into the ground, connecting with its head once, then again, and a third time.
When I drove the candlestick down for a fourth blow, a claw came up and caught it in mid-swing, twisted it out of my hands, and tossed it away. I backed off as the demon got to its feet, my rage overshadowed by alarm. It sprang forward. I turned and ran.
I weaved back and forth among the benches, hoping its greater size would make the turns hard to follow. Maybe they would have, but instead it simply threw the benches aside and made straight for me. That slowed it down some, if not as much as I hoped. The next time I got a bench between us, I lifted it up and threw it. The demon knocked it aside. Another bench nearby was covered with flasks full of liquids. I flung them at the demon's face one after another, hoping at least one of them was an acid that would burn its eyes. None of them had any effect.
By now I had worked my way back around toward the circle. On the other side of it was the open area where Kit and the demon had fought. Kit was still on the floor. Beyond him was the doorway blocked by the lightning-charged grille. I ran toward it it as fast as I could. When I reached it I turned and set myself in front of it. The demon was making for me in a rush. At the last possible instant I leaped aside, and it slammed full-tilt into the grille.
The metal gave way at the impact. A fountain of sparks shot out with loud crackling noise like a thousand miniature Whirlwinds. At the very least, I hoped the lightning would cause the demon as much pain as it had caused me.
My hope was false. As the sparks subsided it pushed itself back out of the doorway and spun around with a roar. I took off back toward the circle looking around frantically for something, anything, I could use against it.
It was only after I passed him that I realized Kit had gotten onto all fours. I stopped and turned to help him up, but the demon had already drawn abreast of him. I'd just thrown away my lead.
Without warning Kit leaped to his feet. His hand darted out and grabbed the hilt of his sword. As soon as he touched it he gave a shout so loud it shook the dust from the ceiling.
The demon stopped dead in its tracks and its eyes went wide. For just a moment they flickered a bright red. Cracks opened up in its skin. Light shone out of them, red at first but turning a moment later to white. There was an enormous billow of greasy black smoke, obscuring both it and Kit. A small whirlwind rose on the spot and the smoke dispersed. Kit stood alone, his sword drooping at his side. He swayed, then collapsed.
"Kit!" I hurried to his side. He was lying face down, his sword underneath him. I knelt and rolled him over, and cradled his head on my lap. He hadn't landed on his sword's edge as I feared. I stroked his hairline, and his eyes fluttered open.
"I'll be all right, Tam." His speech was slurred, as if he just woken up from a deep sleep. "Jus' overdid it a little. Need some rest an' good air, that's all." He closed his eyes again.
He had a point about the air. It was pretty foul when I got here, and with the addition of demon fumes it was almost intolerable. I had to get him out of there.
I retrieved Kit's sheath and put his sword away. With Kit on my back like a child getting a piggyback ride and his sword in one hand, I clambered over the wreckage of the grille, then headed down the passage and back up the stairs.
Kit might be small, but what's there is all bone and muscle so he's nowhere near as light as you'd think. I was panting from the exertion by the time I finished climbing all those stairs. Lying in the short passage to the room was that creature that had brought me down to the sorcerer's lair, Kulk. There was a wound on the side of its head dark with blood. Kit must have had to kill it to get past it. I stepped over the body.
I'd only gone a few steps when I heard a rustle behind me and with a sudden jerk, something tore Kit off my back. I whirled. Kulk wasn't dead. It had the unconscious Kit in its grip and was holding him off the ground against the wall. Its fangs were bared and it was going for his throat.
Before I could think what to do, the world turned white.
I came back to myself crouched on the floor of the passageway with Kit clutched in my arms, kissing him hard on the lips. I drew back, wondering at what I was doing. Then it registered that his legs were thrown over my shoulders, and that I was hard and about to thrust into him.
Kit's eyes were open. "Thank you, Tam."
I looked around. The mangled corpse of the creature lay in a spreading pool of dark blood. My arms were covered in the same stuff up to my elbows, and I'd gotten it all over Kit. I fell back onto my haunches, staring at my hands. They began to shake.
"Kit... I... I'm sorry..."
"For what? Saving my life?"
I shook my head. I had no words.
Kit sighed. "Look, this isn't the most comfortable place. Can we go into the room and talk? Help me up, I'm not too steady yet."
I couldn't even bring myself to look at him, let alone touch him.
I glanced up. He was holding out his hand, and his bright blue eyes pleaded with me. I took his hand and got him to his feet. He leaned heavily on me as we went the last few feet back to the bedroom.
We passed through the remains of the hidden door. From the fragments that remained in place it looked to have been a slab of stone on a pivot with one side paneled to match the rest of the wall. Gravel and wood splinters littered the floor both in the passage and in the room itself. The shutters were also smashed open. The first hint of dawn was on the horizon, casting just enough light into the room to see.
We reached the bed and I helped Kit into it. The blood on my hands and the blood I'd smeared on him stained the linens. Kit lay back, drew in a deep breath of the cool, fresh air, and let it out. I went over to the window and stared out at the empty courtyard.
"Tam? Come be with me."
I'd been hard ever since I came out of the madness. I was still hard, so hard it ached. For a change I didn't want Kit to see it. "I'd rather not."
"I need you."
Those words pulled at my heart. I couldn't refuse him, but I still couldn't look at him either. I went over to the bed and sat down on it with my back to him.
"Why are you hiding from me?"
"I... I can't believe what I almost did to you. I'm sorry..."
"Stop apologizing. You weren't going to hurt me."
"You don't know that!"
"Yes I do."
I held my head in my hands, ignoring the blood. "I thought it wasn't going to happen anymore."
"It forced itself out because you still won't grasp it."
"I reach for it just like you said I should."
"Only when you're desperate. The rest of the time you're still trying to hold it down. You can't do that and have it behave like you want."
"How can I trust it? Look at what I was about to do!"
"You were about to give me the ride of my life. Maybe in your normal state of mind you'd have kissed me instead, but you'd have meant exactly the same thing by it."
How could he be so sure? How could he trust me? I couldn't even trust myself.
"Turn around, Tam." I didn't move. "I want you to see me right now. It's important."
I turned. Kit was lying on top of the linens. As the light grew he didn't look any better. His wounds had darkened as the blood clotted, and there was scarcely a part of him that wasn't marked with purple-yellow bruises. The worst were around his neck where the demon had lifted him.
For all that he was as hard as I'd ever seen him.
He made no attempt to raise himself, but rolled his head to look at me with half-lidded eyes. "When I came to and saw what you were doing... Well, I'd have chosen a different place for it. But I wanted it. I still do."
That didn't make it any better. "This time maybe you did. But suppose―"
"Never mind that. I'm yours. Whenever you want me, take me. I mean it. We could be in the middle of the street at high noon for all I care."
"I didn't know what I was doing! I could have hurt you!"
Kit laughed quietly. "Tam, even at your best I don't think you hit as hard as a demon. But even if you could, you wouldn't. Haven't you noticed? When I'm in trouble, you react just like you do when your own life is in danger, and you do it without even thinking. That... that makes me feel very safe."
He grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to him. As weary and beaten up as he was, his grip was anything but weak. "Please. I have to have you like that."
Underneath his bruises he was flushed with desire. I wanted him right then every bit as much as he wanted me, but the shock over my own behavior still paralyzed me.
He put a hand behind my neck, pulled me down, and put his lips to mine. His tongue forced my mouth open, and he thrust it in. When he reached down with his other hand and grabbed my cock, I couldn't help but react. A moan sounded in my throat.
Kit broke off the kiss and leaned close to my ear. "Do it, Tam. Bring up your fire. Fuck me."
I was no longer strong enough to deny him, or myself. The white fire was still churning. Reaching for it was was as effortless as breathing.
All was lines and angles in a colorless world. All except for Kit. The contours of his face, the corded muscle, the curve of his buttocks, the rigid pole between his legs were the only things of color for me. The fire burned away the wall of separation between thought and emotion, and the yearning for him, my love and my admiration and my desire, coursed through every nerve and fiber. Just as when I pulled up the white fire while fighting, I could tell my body what to do but not how to do it, and now I had only one thought in my mind: Take him.
I seized him by the waist and flipped him over, and without any preparation I lifted his butt to me and plunged into him. The sensation hit me like a shock. Just as when I touched the lightning with my hand and my whole body was struck by the force of it, now my swirling fire brought the sensation of being inside him to every part of me. Rational thought deserted me, and restraint of any kind was impossible. I invaded him, ravaged him. My other senses were dim by comparison, and I was only faintly aware of Kit muffling his cries into the bedding, pounding the mattress with a fist, rearing up and reaching for the headboard, gripping it so hard as he came that he crushed the wood in his hands. When my own climax hit it was like my seed carried my all my fire with it into him, and the color returned to the world before I fell to the bed with Kit beneath me and was overtaken by sleep.
Rosy sunlight was streaming in through the window when I opened my eyes again. Kit, still unclothed, was in the middle of the room doing his morning exercise. It took him much longer than usual, the motions somehow bringing to mind the refreshing showers that tempered the hot, muggy afternoons of high summer. His bruises were nothing more than faint yellow blotches, his wounds reduced to red marks on his flesh. As his exercise progressed they faded even as I watched. When he reached the end he stood perfectly still for a moment before he went over to the window ledge, sat down on it, and unbraided his hair.
I got up and crossed over to the window. When he raised the comb to his head I took it from his hand and ran it through his hair myself. When all the tangles were out I combed down the entire length a few times just for the pleasure of handling it. Kit enjoyed it so much he was almost purring. As I started to braid it, Kit broke the silence.
"I'm sorry, Tam."
"For what? Making me stop being afraid of myself?"
"For almost getting us both killed. I don't know what in the dozen hells I was thinking, jumping you like that when there was so much wrong that we didn't understand. I should have been more cautious."
"It's not all your fault. I wasn't exactly a difficult lay."
"That would have been even weirder than the castle."
We both laughed at that. When I finished the braid, I hugged him around his chest and rested my chin on his head. Together, we gazed out at the dawn. When we heaved a sigh at the same time, we laughed again and kissed.
"I feel very much myself again," said Kit. "Shall we have a few words with Gorlin?"
"More than just words. Let's go."
We dressed, armed, took up our packs, and headed back down to the great hall. The corridors were completely deserted. We didn't even see any of the liveried pages.
In the great hall there was no sign of the orgy we'd joked about, but we got the drunken part right. Men were sprawled everywhere among the remains of the feast, some of them still clutching a bottle. A few were more or less awake, but from their groans they weren't too happy about it.
We found Gorlin passed out on the floor next to the high seat. When the point of Kit's sword touched his jaw, he opened his eyes. Red as they were, they went wide with shock when he recognized us. He scurried backwards as fast as he could until his back was to the wall. Kit kept his blade on him.
"Gorlin," said Kit. "We have dealt with your sorcerer and his demons. You have one chance to convince me not to kill you where you sit. Make it good."
Gorlin mouth worked. "P-please! No! I had to! I... I―"
I had no patience for this. I stepped past Kit, seized Gorlin by the front of his gown, lifted him up off the ground, and slammed him against the wall.
"My partner here is ready to slice you into bite-sized pieces if he doesn't get a good answer. I'm not so pleasant. If I don't get a good answer, I'm going to rip your belly open with my bare hands and strangle you with your own guts! Now talk!"
This pushed him into even more of a panic and he started to sob. Then Kit spoke.
"Moler, pull that sword out another inch and you're a dead man."
I turned my head. Moler was behind Kit with his sword halfway out of its sheath, his face twisted into a nasty snarl. At Kit's warning he froze for a moment, but then made a quick motion and drew.
Kit whirled, his blade moving too fast to be seen. It sliced clean through Moler's body at the waist. He stepped away from the gout of blood that erupted from the two halves as they fell.
A yellow stream trickled onto the floor from between Gorlin's legs. Words tumbled out of his mouth in a rush.
"Please! Please! I had no choice! He trapped us in a bad deal, Imbarian did. Imbarian, that's the sorcerer. He set us up in this castle―conjured it all in one night! We had to get him one or two people every month. But there weren't any travelers, and soon I'd have to send him one of us. Then you came along―"
"That's why the feast."
"Yes. I'm sorry, so sorry. But don't you see? We owe you. We're free now! We didn't think anyone could get to Imbarian. But you did, and we're not his slaves anymore. If there's any way we can show you―"
"What about Moler there?"
"He was an idiot. He did that on his own. Please believe me!"
I felt Kit's hand on my shoulder. "Let's go, Tam. There's nothing more to be done here."
I thought about it for a moment, then nodded and released Gorlin. He landed hard in the puddle of his own piss.
In the hills overlooking the castle we found a spring-filled pool and made camp near it. For the whole day we rested there, and spent as much time as we could stand in the cold water washing away the residue of the night.
That evening we watched the sunset together. I sat upon the grassy slope and Kit stretched himself out on the ground with his head on my lap. As the the sun departed and the day that saw the death of Imbarian came to its end, so did his works. The fall of the mighty castle shook the ground.
We continued on our way east the next morning.