Prince Chalghaz, heir apparent to the throne of Navahk, tried to hide the crawling terror which simmered somewhere deep down inside his pulsing excitement. Until last autumn, he had never so much as suspected this buried sanctuary existed-and if he had known, he would have been as eager as anyone else to see it rooted out and destroyed. But not now. Now his fate had become inextricably bound up with its survival, and he still didn't understand exactly how that had happened.
It was Yarthag's doing. He was certain of that much, and he wondered if Yarthag had… done something to him to bring it about. It was certainly possible, and neither Yarthag nor Tharnatus, the human priest who presided over this enclave, would have hesitated a moment to use any tool at their disposal. Yet in his moments of self-honesty (of which he subjected himself to as few as possible), Chalghaz knew it wouldn't have taken much, for Sharna's support offered him so many things he desperately craved.
The sensual pleasures of the Demon Lord's unspeakable worship appealed strongly to the debauched part of him, of course. Where was the point in possessing power if it did not permit a man to do as he wished? That was a lesson his father had taught him well, although the things Chalghaz enjoyed were best kept hidden-especially among hradani-however much power he held. But a man had to have companions (which was ever so much nicer a word than "procurers") in the pursuit of passion, and it was that need which had given Yarthag's influence its first toehold with Chalghaz, especially after the endless months he'd spent at Bahnak's disgustingly respectable court. He'd plunged deep into the enjoyment of the flesh as soon as he was released from that bondage, and Yarthag had always seemed to be there, guiding him and constantly introducing him to new and different drugs or more… sophisticated delights. In a sense, he supposed, it had been only a small step from those pleasures to these.
Yet heady as they were, and deeply as the dark and twisted parts of him rejoiced in the blood-sweet rites of Sharna, it was the Scorpion's power he valued most. As Sharna had supported Harnak, now He supported Chalghaz, and for the same reasons. Chalghaz knew Tharnatus saw him only as one of Sharna's pincers, sunk deep into the heart of Navahk and thus into all Bloody Swords, and that bothered him no more than it had bothered his brother. Whatever Sharna desired of him in return for the throne and power, Chalghaz would give willingly, for his secret deity would protect and shield him against all enemies, even that bastard Bahnak and his cursed armies.
Of course, there were moments when he remembered how Sharna had not protected Harnak against Bahnak's son, but Tharnatus had explained that. Harnak had displeased the Scorpion by trying to keep Farmah for himself rather than bringing her here so that the whole body of His worshipers might have partaken of her. That was the reason He had permitted Bahzell to interrupt Harnak before he could kill the slut. But He'd also given Harnak the opportunity to avenge himself and regain His favor, and it was the ineffectualness of Harnak's weak efforts to slay Bahzell even with the mighty weapon Sharna had put into his hand which explained his final downfall.
And besides, as Tharnatus had said reasonably, if Harnak had not fallen, then how could Chalghaz, who was such a better choice, have supplanted him as Navahk's heir?
Unlike his brother Chalak, Chalghaz was wise enough to see the sophistry hidden in that argument… and the warning. For if Harnak had been discarded as unsuitable, then Chalghaz could be thrown aside in turn if he became unsuitable. But he had no fear of that. The approaching war with Bahnak had pushed Tharnatus and his deity into moving more rapidly than they'd planned. It was painfully obvious that Churnazh, whose armies had been smashed so easily three years past and whose alliances had already been shaken by what had passed between Harnak and Bahzell, could never defeat Bahnak and his Horse Stealers. The desertion of Arvahl of Sondur had been a serious blow, but even without it, Hurgrum had already proven what she could do to the best Navahk could field against her. No, Churnazh couldn't match Bahnak in the field. Nor, for that matter, could Chalghaz have matched him… under normal circumstances.
But circumstances weren't going to be normal, for Tharnatus had devised a plan to shatter the Horse Stealer alliance, instead of the Bloody Swords'. Best of all, it would require Churnazh's death, which would put Chalghaz on the throne at exactly the right time to take credit for the Bloody Swords' inevitable victory. Just six months ago, Chalghaz had been resigned to spending his life in the shadow of his older brother; now, within weeks, he would rule Navahk, and within months, all of the northern hradani.
And all it had required was the sacrifice of one nobly born maiden to summon one of Sharna's demons to do their bidding. Well, that and a second sacrifice when the time came to actually launch the creature against Churnazh's palace to rend and destroy every living thing in its path until it reached the prince himself.
Chalghaz smiled dreamily, watching the sweet smoke curl up from Tharnatus' censer as the priest circled the gore-encrusted altar stone at the heart of the sanctuary. He had attended the first sacrifice, as he would also be required to attend the second, for it was necessary for the demon to know him as one of its summoners so that he might emerge unscathed from the impending carnage, but he'd found that duty no hardship. Indeed, he looked forward eagerly to the second ritual, and his soul shuddered in ecstasy every time he recalled the night of summoning. In a way, the terror he felt whenever he thought of the demon and recalled the raw power of hate and destruction they had bound to their will-remembered the dark rage which had burned against them, as well, as the monster recognized who had enslaved it-only made the razor edges of that pleasure still sweeter. But even more than the memory or anticipation of the rites still to come, it was contemplation of Tharnatus' elegantly simple plan which made him smile. He knew as well as the priest that even his closest followers would turn upon him in the blink of an eye if they ever suspected he'd given his allegiance to the Scorpion, but Tharnatus had turned that source of apprehension into the key to success.
The demon would be unleashed against Churnazh, and Churnazh was Bahnak of Hurgrum's foe. It would be sent forth within weeks of the start of the campaign season, which would be the most propitious time-from Bahnak's viewpoint-for Churnazh to die and the Bloody Swords' alliances to be thrown into confusion. And when the new prince of Navahk, weeping as he knelt in the blood of his slaughtered father and brothers, cried out in grief-filled rage to accuse Bahnak of sending that creature of darkness to smite his foes, who would question it? And so Bahnak would be labeled a secret worshiper of Sharna, and the very people-Horse Stealer, as well as Bloody Sword-who would have turned upon Chalghaz would turn upon Bahnak, instead.
And yet… There was something else at work here. Chalghaz didn't know what, yet he was oddly certain that Tharnatus and Yarthag had another reason to send the demon forth. It was almost as if they faced some time pressure about which they had told him nothing, as if there were some reason they had to unleash the demon and brand Bahnak with responsibility for it now. He couldn't object to moving quickly, since it would only put his own backside on the throne sooner, but the uncomfortable sense of not knowing everything his allies intended gnawed at the back of his brain like rats at a sack of grain while he watched Tharnatus kneel to press his forehead against the altar.
Then the priest rose, spreading his arms in benediction as he looked out over his congregation. Most of the eighty-odd people in the chapel never left the sanctuary, for its hidden secrecy was its true defense, and the comings and goings of so many might well have been remarked. That was true at all times, but especially now, when tracks showed so damnably clearly in the snow that covered everything. It was also the reason Chalghaz, Yarthag, and Thulghar Salahkson, the head of Yarthag's personal guard and the only man he truly trusted, were the only outsiders present. But as he had for the actual summoning of the demon who waited, hissing and snarling in the warded chamber beyond the chapel, Chalghaz had to be here today, for this was the service which would actually loose the demon to do its work of slaughter.
"My brothers," Tharnatus intoned, his voice deep and resonant for a human's, "the Scorpion welcomes you, for this day we take a momentous step and set one of His own upon the throne of Navahk! And from Navahk, our brother Chalghaz shall reach out to rule all the Bloody Sword clans, and the Horse Stealers, as well, and he shall forge of them a weapon which will sweep beyond his present borders with fire and the sword. Not in twelve hundred years has this world seen the power of the massed clans of the hradani, and no one will stand against them when our brother strikes, for the Scorpion shall ride with him, and his enemies will be as straw in the furnace before him!"
A rumble of dark agreement went up from the gathered worshipers, almost all of them hradani. They had not forgotten the dark and terrible things their enslaved people had done in the Fall of Kontovar, but unlike the vast majority of their folk, they didn't care. No, that was wrong. They did care… but only because they hungered to do the same dark, terrible things themselves, and the fact that doing them would confirm all the hatred the other Races of Man felt for their people meant less than nothing to them.
"Very well," Tharnatus said, and nodded to the four burly hradani who waited by the side door. They bowed to him, opened the door, and slipped through it, and Chalghaz felt his nerves tighten with hungry anticipation as he heard the hopeless, sobbing pleas of the sacrificial victim echoing through the doorway. Metal rang as the cell door beyond it was unlocked and thrown wide, and the pleas became louder and more frantic as the sacrifice was dragged down the short passageway. And then-
Chalghaz jerked as if an arbalest bolt had struck him squarely in the back as the sudden, basso rumble of that hated name beat in on him. No voice, not even a hradani's, could thunder so! It wasn't a voice; it was an earthquake, an avalanche crunching over everything in its path, and he wheeled towards the sanctuary's entrance in shock.
"Tomanak ! Tomanak !" Other voices screamed the same terrifying war cry, and Chalghaz heard Tharnatus curse vilely while other members of the congregation cried out in confusion as great as the prince's own.
Bahzell Bahnakson leapt across the threshold of Sharna's hidden fortress just as the first startled warrior spilled out of the guardroom inside the arch. He had no idea why no one had spotted his Horse Stealers as they crept soundlessly up on the entrance. His people were masters at such things, yet there was precious little cover out there, and he'd expected to be seen at any moment. But they hadn't been. It was almost as if the men who should have been watching for him had been distracted, concentrating on something else instead of their duty. Not that he intended to complain.
His clansmen had looked at him with wondering eyes as they neared the hillside. The hidden entrance and its guardian scorpion had become clearer and clearer to him as he drew near, yet still none of them saw a thing. He'd felt the noisome, clinging stench of Sharna's power reaching out to blind and baffle them, and he'd stepped directly in front of the arch, his sword in his hands, and concentrated all his mind and will upon his god.
And then he had called upon Tomanak . Called upon him as his champions should, when the moment for battle came and they summoned him as their captain. And as his bullthroated bellow echoed from the valley walls, the power which had baffled his men went out like a tempest-snuffed candle, and he heard their exclamations as they, too, saw what he had seen from the start.
That had been enough. Kaeritha and Vaijon had echoed his war cry even as he drove forward, and behind them three-score Horse Stealer hradani had taken up the cry. The deep, deadly music of their voices had thundered into the hillside like hurricane-driven surf, and the newest chapter of the Order of Tomanak had charged into battle on its leaders' heels.
That first, gawking guard barely had time to get his sword up-not that it did him any good. Bahzell's blade crashed down in a two-hand stroke that sheared clear through his own right at the quillons and carried on to split his helm and the skull within it, and bright blue fire flashed as the champion's blade bit home. More of the same fire washed about Bahzell, gilding his massive frame in swirling flame, and the other guards rushing to meet him cried out in terror of the light the Dark hated and feared above all others.
Nor did that light cling to Bahzell alone, for Kaeritha charged at his right hand and Vaijon charged at his left, a compact, deadly wedge leading the attack, and all of them glittered like bright blue stars in the maw of darkness. Some of the guards fled deeper into the hillside, wailing in terror. Others tried to stand and fight, but they stood no chance against two champions of Tomanak and a warrior of Vaijon's caliber. Steel crunched and bit, bone shattered, screams died in wet, horrible gurgles, and then Bahzell and his companions were through the antechamber and charging onward to find their foes.
"-dozens of 'em! Scores!" the guardsman blurted as he flung himself at Tharnatus' feet. "They came through the arch like the shield wasn't even there! They-!"
"Silence!" Tharnatus' hand cracked viciously across his face, but the priest's own fear was evident to Chalghaz, and the crown prince understood it only too well.
The shouting and clash of steel cascaded towards the chapel, growing louder and more deadly sounding with every second. The Church had mustered a force of trained warriors to guard the sanctuary. Some were human, and even a handful of dwarves had been smuggled in, but most were locally recruited Bloody Swords. Yet there were less than a hundred of them, for the sanctuary could house only so many men and much of its space had been taken up by other functions. The crash and fury of combat told Chalghaz that more and more of them were joining the fray, but it was also clear they were merely slowing the attackers, not stopping them. Fortunately, whoever was assaulting the sanctuary was too unfamiliar with its serpentine architecture to pick the shortest path to the chapel… not that they didn't seem to be doing just fine with the longer way around. On the other hand, their unfamiliarity might offer him a chance to escape with his life. If he could fade away, slip past them down the side passages-
"Get your arms, Brothers!" Tharnatus cried to the rest of the congregation. "The Scorpion is with us yet, but I must have time! Buy me only a few moments, and we shall drink our enemies' blood still!"
Chalghaz stared at the priest, then stabbed a glance at Yarthag. The Navahkan lord was pale, his ears plastered tight to his skull, but understanding flashed in his eyes as they met Tharnatus', as if he, at least, knew what the priest was talking about. More importantly, as if he believed Tharnatus spoke the truth.
That was the deciding factor, and Chalghaz abandoned his plan to creep away and drew his own sword.
"You heard, Tharnatus!" he bellowed. "So come on, you whoresons!"
The warren of tunnels and side passages hampered Bahzell's advance badly. Not because it was confining-it had been built for Bloody Sword hradani, which meant the tunnels had almost enough headroom even for Horse Stealers-but because he had no idea of its layout. He knew the direction he must go to reach the core of corruption which lurked at the heart of this lair, but none of the tunnels led straight towards it.
And there were other problems-like far more guards than he had expected to meet. Not all were Bloody Swords, either, and human and dwarvish blood, as well as that of other hradani, steamed on his blade as he cut his way forward. At least the tunnels limited the number of foes who could face him at any one time, but the side passages gave opportunities for enemies to slip around his peoples' flanks and hit them from the sides. He heard the crash of steel behind him, but he also heard the thunder of his warriors' war cries as they bellowed Tomanak's name and hewed their foes into ruin. He knew too much of battle to think only the enemy were falling in this brutal, close-quarters fight, but his people had two enormous advantages. They served the God of War, whose strength supported them… and they knew the truth about the Rage.
Every one of the Horse Stealers-and Brandark-had given himself to the Rage, summoning its exaltation and strength and deadly concentration. Most hradani feared the Rage, and many fought desperately to keep it from taking control in battle. Bahzell's Horse Stealers did not, and unlike the handful of Bloody Swords who they met after the Rage had taken them, the Horse Stealers were completely in control of themselves. They used the Rage-they rode the Rage-and it carried them forward in a storm of gory steel.
And at the very head of them, the spear point thrusting into the sanctuary's vitals, was Bahzell Bahnakson, with Vaijon of Almerhas, Kaeritha Seldansdaughter, and Brandark Brandarkson advancing at his side and covering his flanks.
Kaeritha was unable to tap the power of the Rage, and she seemed little more than a schoolgirl against her towering enemies, but she glittered like blue ice in the light of Tomanak , and her twin swords were scythes. She was splashed with other peoples' blood to the elbows, and a cut on her cheek bled freely, yet she spun through her foes like a tornado edged in tempered steel.
Vaijon was taller, bigger, stronger-only a human, perhaps, but nearly a match for a Bloody Sword in size and strength. His longsword was the same gem-encrusted weapon he had carried for his disastrous trial at arms against Bahzell, and its steel no longer gleamed, for it was coated in blood. He moved like a hunting panther, weaving back and forth, using his shield as yet another weapon as he covered Bahzell's left flank and hacked down any enemy unfortunate enough to cross his path.
Brandark came behind his friends. He was no coward, but neither was he a fool, and he knew what that glittering blue corona was. He had no doubt that it afforded the others at least some protection against whatever deviltry Sharna might have prepared to defend his sanctuary, but none of it had decided to cling to him. That being so, he was prepared to let them take the lead while he watched their backs… and in this interlocking web of tunnels, their backs needed watching. He followed directly behind Bahzell, closing the open side of their wedge and turning it almost into a diamond, with Hurthang and his section battling hard to keep up as the champions and knight-probationer carved their way deeper and deeper into the bowels of the hill.
"Here they come, Sharna take them!" someone shouted, and Chalghaz Churnazhson spat a curse of his own. A straggling knot of guards staggered backwards, trying to fight even as they gave ground, and Chalghaz spat another curse as he realized who the giant at the attackers' head must be. First Harnak, and now me, he thought, and waved the reinforcements from the chapel forward.
Bahzell staggered as a fresh surge of bodies hurled itself at him. Someone got through with a stroke that rang on his helmet like an anvil, and someone else got a gash in behind the greave on his right calf, but the shock of the blow and the pain of the wound were distant things. They couldn't pierce the armor of his Rage, and he bellowed Tomanak's name as he threw himself forward once more and the deadly sweeps of his blade harvested limbs and heads in gory profusion.
To his right, Kaeritha cried out as a mace smashed through her guard. It came down like a sledgehammer, impossible to block or deflect, and crashed into the side of her helmet. It struck obliquely, at just enough of an angle to rebound without shattering her skull or snapping her neck, but she went down bonelessly, instantly unconscious.
Her enemy bellowed in triumph and raised his mace to finish her, but his bellow died in a wet, rasping gurgle as Brandark leapt forward, eyes blazing with the Rage's icy flame, and drove two feet of steel through his throat. Another attacker came at Brandark, and his blade hissed down. It bit into the outside of his foe's exposed knee, and the wounded hradani screamed. His own stroke went wide as he flailed for balance, trying to remain upright, and Brandark's blade came up in a deadly, economical backhand that split his jaw and rammed through the roof of his mouth into his brain.
Someone shouted his name, and he darted a glance back just in time to see Gharnal cut down the guardsman who had crept up behind him. Bahzell's foster brother grinned wildly and threw up his blood-soaked sword in salute, all trace of distrust vanished.
"Go on with you, man!" the Horse Stealer shouted. "I'll watch over Kerry!"
Brandark nodded back curtly and moved forward once more, hurrying to catch up with Bahzell and Vaijon.
The tunnel was wider here. The guards had fallen back farther and faster than Chalghaz had hoped they would, and his rush from the chapel hadn't gotten here in time to dam the enemy up further back. Now more of the attackers shouldered forward, at least half of them armed with the dreadful axes Hurgrum's warriors continued to favor, as the melee spread out. At least there were only two of the glittering blue figures left. He had no idea what had happened to the third the panicked guards had reported. He spared a brief moment to hope whatever it was had been fatal, but a moment was all he had, for he had somehow found himself in the front ranks of the defenders. He hadn't planned on that, and he felt his belly tighten in fear. Yet he was no coward, and if he wasn't the warrior his half-brother Arsham was, he was no slouch with a blade, either.
"Sharna!" he shouted, and crossed blades with his first enemy.
The Horse Stealer came in ferociously, and he was both stronger and had a longer reach. But he was also badly wounded, with blood pumping down his side from a brutal rent in his scale armor. He moved almost like someone in the grip of the Rage, except that his eyes were clear, without the berserker haze the Rage produced, but his injury slowed him. Even so, he almost did for the crown prince with his first attack. Chalghaz managed-barely-to parry the blow and riposted savagely. Their blades flashed and rang, crashing together again and again, and then Chalghaz twisted his wrist and lunged with all his strength, and the Horse Stealer went down as the Bloody Sword's longsword drove through the base of his throat in a shower of blood.
Chalghaz whirled to face the next Horse Stealer, but the man didn't attack instantly. Instead, a gore-smeared blade flipped up in mocking salute, and a voice that never came from a Horse Stealer cut cold and taunting through the clangor of the fight.
"How nice to see you again, Your Highness," Brandark Brandarkson said, and unleashed his first lightning stroke.
High Priest Tharnatus knelt beside an iron door sealed with the Scorpion of Sharna. The evening's intended sacrifice lay beside him on the stone floor, eyes glazing in death, and the thick, red flood of her blood pooled about his knees and soaked into his ceremonial robes. His hands were slimed in blood as well, tracing signs on the door as he muttered prayers and exhortations. It was never safe to move this quickly, but he had no choice. The roar and tumult had been faint when he began his task; now he heard them all too clearly, and he knew how little time he had before the enemy was upon him.
He finished the last prayer and wiped sweat from his forehead, smearing his victim's blood across it. It had been a pity to use her up so quickly, a corner of his brain thought, but there would be many more where she came from if his followers could just defeat this attack and he could recast his plans. And for that to happen-
He drew a deep breath, unlocked the iron door, and pulled it open.
Bahzell cut down yet another guard. From the corner of his eye, he saw Brandark dueling viciously with an elegantly clad Bloody Sword, and even the fraction of his attention he could spare to think about such things recognized the cold, cruel efficiency with which his friend fought. There was something special about that confrontation, but Bahzell had no time to worry about what it was, for more guardsmen were coming at him with the frenzy of despair.
He met their attack in a clangor of steel. There were three of them, but it didn't matter. He took the one in the middle with his first blow, using his reach advantage to kill the man before any of the three were in range to strike at him, then cut to his left and brought a looping backhand whistling back to his right. The three bodies hit the floor in the same heartbeat, and he whirled to meet whoever was coming behind them.
But what came behind them wasn't more guards, and he heard cries of fear, coming from his Horse Stealers this time, as they saw what it was.
He didn't blame them. It didn't look much like the only other demon he'd ever seen. That one had been a hideous blend of insect, spider, and lizard; this one came forward on a hundred segmented, flickering legs, mandibles and fangs clashing. At least its body was no more than four or five feet in diameter, unlike the other demon he'd fought, but it made up for it by being much, much longer. He couldn't even see the full length of its body as it came slithering down the tunnel, and its claw-footed legs carried it forward like some unstoppable juggernaut. A blind, bulbous head armored in bony plates quested this way and that, seeking its prey, and one of Sharna's own guards bellowed in terror as his movement attracted it. The head lashed forward, belying its blindness, and the mandibles shot out. They fastened on their hapless victim, jerking him in close, and the fangs parted to show a vile-smelling maw studded with cruel, barbed hooks to draw its prey inward. The guard screamed and fought, lashing out with his sword, but his scream became a high, endless shriek as he was thrust living into that barbed maw.
The other Horse Stealers wavered, despite the Rage which had carried them so far, but Bahzell heard Hurthang's booming voice quelling their panic. And at least he and Kaeritha had warned them it was coming. They knew a demon was champion's work-that there was no shame in leaving it to him and Kaeritha-and they concentrated on keeping the rest of the guards out of the fight.
Not that the sanctuary's denizens had any desire to force their way into that battle. Bahzell sensed them streaming aside, literally crawling over one another in their desperation to stay clear of the demon, but he paid them no heed, for they were utterly unimportant now. All that mattered was the demon.
He took a step to the side, eyes fixed on his opponent, and opened his mouth as he flicked a glance at the blue-lit figure beside him. But the words he'd meant to say stayed unspoken as he realized the warrior beside him wasn't Kaeritha.
It was Vaijon, and the young knight-probationer's face was pale as the raw, stinking power of the demon assaulted him. It was like a sword, an invisible blade that drove deep into the heart and mind of whoever faced it, and Bahzell knew it well. He had felt it before, on the night he swore himself to Tomanak's service, and he'd never meant for Vaijon to face its like. He'd planned to fight the creature with Kaeritha by his side, for Vaijon was too young for this, too untried. But even as he started to order the knight back, he knew it would be useless. Vaijon looked frightened and physically ill with the corruption beating at him, yet there was no retreat in his eyes.
Bahzell ripped his attention back to the demon, seeking some vulnerable spot-any vulnerable spot!-while it finished devouring its first victim. Well, that was one vulnerability. It was stupid enough to waste time dealing with tidbits one at a time instead of charging forward to crush and rend its opponents. Not that slothfulness looked like all that terrible a weakness. The thing truly was like some enormous, slime-streaked centipede, and its body was covered in hard, horn-like armor.
"The belly, Bahzell." Vaijon's almost conversational voice carried through the hideous cacophony of battle with unnatural clarity. "We've got to get at its belly."
"Belly, is it?" the Horse Stealer muttered. Vaijon might well be right, but just how did a man go about getting at a centipede's belly in a tunnel without being swallowed on his way past?
There didn't seem to be a good answer to that, and he was still looking for one when the thing became aware of him. Its first victim had disappeared down its maw, and its head swiveled, pointing at Bahzell. Mandibles clashed, clacking together like snapping tree trunks, and spittle drooled from its fangs. And then it heaved itself forward, with a deceptive speed which looked far slower than it truly was.
Its front end reared up, brushing the roof of the passage. The movement exposed its thorax, but only briefly, and then it lashed down like an earthquake.
Bahzell darted aside, grateful that he and his men had at least reached a wider spot which gave him room to dodge. The blunt head slammed the floor with an ear shattering clash, and stone shards flew as the mandibles drove into it, but Bahzell spun on his toes like a dancer, sword whining, and the demon lurched with a high-pitched, grunting squeal as he sheared away two of its legs. It flinched back, twisting with pain, but however much it might have hurt, the wound was minor, the damage only superficial. It had scores of legs, and it coiled around, trying to reach him once more.
The head darted at him again, and this time he had less room to dodge, for the bulk of the demon itself filled much of the tunnel. Legs clawed and writhed, reaching for him even as the head struck, and he heard Vaijon screaming Tomanak's name as he hacked and slashed at the creature from the far side. But the demon ignored the young knight. It had been commanded to deal with any champions of Tomanak first, and it flowed after Bahzell like some dark, unstoppable tide.
The Horse Stealer backed further, then grunted as his spine rammed into the wall. The head loomed above him once more, and this time there was no room at all to dodge.
"Tomanak !" He bellowed the war cry and lunged forward desperately, his sword at full extension. The steel was edged in blue flame, and the demon shrieked as Bahzell drove home against the side of its head. Bony armor hissed like ice in a furnace as that dread blade struck, and Bahzell sank it to the hilt with one mighty thrust.
But his thrust was off-center, and it missed the brain, driving lengthwise down the armored, massively muscled barrel of the demon's body. The monster shrieked again as it whipped away from him… and his blade went with it. One of the virtues of that sword was that he would never drop it or lose his hold upon it in battle, yet that meant little here. The demon couldn't wrench it out of his hands, but neither could he draw it back out of the monster's body-not without better leverage than he had. And so the whipping head took him with it, clinging to his hilt. It flailed about, shaking him like a rat, and he had no choice but to release the weapon intentionally before the creature battered him to death against the passage walls without even realizing what it was doing.
He landed on his knees, directly in front of it once more, and he heard Brandark and Hurthang and Gharnal shouting his name in horror as the demon heaved up before him yet again. He was weaponless, but he didn't even reach for the dagger at his belt. It would have been useless against such a foe, but that wasn't why he left it alone.
"The belly, is it?" he bellowed up at the demon, and his lips drew back to bare his teeth in a snarl. "Come on, then, you bastard! Let's be having you!"
He remained on his knees, but he pounded his breastplate with his fists, mocking the creature, daring it to attack him.
"Come on!" he screamed again… and it did.
The head struck, mandibles gaping wide, and this time Bahzell didn't try to dodge. He reached out instead, his hands striking with the speed and power and deadly precision of the Rage. They closed on the saw-toothed mandibles like steel clamps, one on each side, and Bahzell threw all four hundred-odd pounds of his brawny, heavy-boned body to his right. His left leg straightened, thrusting at the floor while he pivoted on his right knee, giving still more power to his desperate heave, and the demon squealed in shock as he literally twisted the front of its huge body to one side.
"Now, Vaijon!" he bellowed, every muscle locked as he held it there.
It was impossible. No one could possibly have pinned that multi-ton carcass even for a second. But Bahzell Bahnakson did it, with the strength of his own Rage and the power of his god as it snapped and crackled within him. Not even he could hold it for more than an instant, but an instant was all he needed, for in that brief flicker of time, Vaijon of Almerhas struck like the very Sword of the War God. The full length of his blade drove through the demon's thinner, weaker ventral armor, and it shrieked like a soul in hell. For one more fraction of a second it froze, and then its head snapped up with a bone-breaking violence not even a god-touched Horse Stealer hradani could resist.
Bahzell and Vaijon flew away like discarded toys, bouncing in opposite directions, and the howling fury of the demon's agony hammered a dozen more warriors to their knees. It screamed again and again, battering its head back and forth, shattering the stone of the passage's walls and roof even as it splintered its own armor against them. Ichor splashed and steamed, and Bahzell shook his head groggily and heaved himself back to his knees as the monster's own death struggle completed what Vaijon had begun.
It took over five minutes for the thing to die, and Bahzell left it to it and crawled over to Vaijon. The young knight lay unconscious, and unless Bahzell was badly mistaken, his right arm was broken again-this time in at least three places. But he was alive, and Bahzell gathered his head into his lap and leaned back against the tunnel wall, feeling every aching, battered muscle of his own body complain, to watch the demon sag slowly down in death. Even then unnatural vitality sent quivers and twitches through its enormous body, but they were only the last flickers of a life which was already fled.
By the time it stopped thrashing madly, the last of Sharna's guardsmen had been killed or battered into surrender. Gharnal's bloody left arm hung limp at his side, and Hurthang had lost the little finger off his right hand, but the two of them were still going concerns, and, together with Brandark, they saw to it that none of Sharna's worshipers who were still breathing got their throats cut. Not because any of them had given oath to Tomanak , but because live witnesses would be far more useful than a few more lopped-off heads which couldn't confirm what had happened here.
At least eight Horse Stealers lay scattered among the dead. Others were wounded, and Bahzell knew there must be still more of them-dead and wounded alike-strewn along the tunnels down which they'd fought. But they'd accomplished what they'd come for, he thought, and looked up as young Chav^ak, the warrior who'd seen no reason to "replace" Sharna with Tomanak , came striding up a side passage. Two more Horse Stealers trotted along behind him, and all three of them bore minor wounds to go with their bloody weapons. But Chav^ak bore something else, as well; an unconscious body in richly embroidered, blood sodden robes.
"I was thinking as how you might be wanting this one alive," he grunted, and dumped his burden at Bahzell's feet.
Bahzell stretched out his right leg without rising or disturbing Vaijon's head in his lap, and dug a toe under the body's shoulder. He jerked his foot up, flipping it over onto its back, and a cold, hungry light flickered in his eyes as he recognized the amulet of a high priest of Sharna on the chain about its neck.
"Aye," he said softly, one hand resting on Vaijon's forehead, and looked up at his young kinsman. "Oh, aye, Chav^ak, I do that."