THE GODS RETURN – snippet 10:



            Cashel pursed his lips. He had trouble at first figuring how big the creature was; it was out of scale with everything. Its gray body was banded the way an earthworm is, but the mouth was nothing like. It didn't squirm like a snake. The front of the body stretched forward, stopped, and then the back hitched up to join it.

            The creature loomed higher in the air than Cashel could've reached with his staff from where he stood on top of the gatehouse. He couldn't guess how long it was; the second time it hunched forward brought its head to spitting distance of the wall, but the body still trailed back to the window in the air beside where the pirate chief was standing.

            Cashel stepped in front of the wizard by reflex: there was danger, so he put himself between it and who he was looking out for. Normally he'd have started his quarterstaff spinning but there was too many people around, he didn't have space. He said, "Rasile, ought we to–"

            Rasile squalled something, a word rather than a full incantation. It was enough to shift her and Cashel up to the height of a tall tree in a dazzle of scarlet wizardlight. Most of the civilians were scattering from the walls and the gatehouse in front of the creature, but the soldiers didn't run and the city elders didn't either.

            The fellow in the too-small breastplate drew a sword from which rust had recently been polished. He screamed, "Shoot it! Shoot it!" to the soldiers. That wasn't very useful, Cashel guessed, but neither would anything else have been.

            The archers were already shooting as fast as they could. The arrows were too small to do real harm to something the size of the Worm, and they sparkled off the sides anyway. The creature might've been a gray granite tower sliding toward Ombis on its side.

            Was it really alive? It moved, but so would a flow of lava.

            The Worm's mouth opened in a circle rimmed with teeth all around. The man in the undersized breastplate slashed toward it, though the tip of his sword passed through empty air. Cashel wondered if the fellow had his eyes closed.

            Black smoke belched from the Worm's throat, coating men and stones alike. The elder's flesh shriveled and he dropped his sword. The silvered quillons had turned black and the blade glowed cherry red.

            The Worm extended a long, ivory tusk and shoved forward the way water fills a millrace. The gatehouse burst inward. The jaws folded closed, swallowing masonry and the doors of iron-bound oak alike. Powdered rock puffed skyward.

            The citizens of Ombis ran in shrieking terror, all but a few who stood transfixed on the battlements. The Worm hunched again, but this time its foreparts lifted high enough that Cashel brought his staff into a posture of defense again. The creature twisted and slammed down, flattening a section of the wall.

            The Worm writhed sideways, grinding a swath of buildings into dust and splinters. Cashel thought he heard screams, but his mind might've been inventing them. People had run into those doorways when the Worm lurched toward the walls, some of them women clutching infants, but he doubted he could really hear their despair over the crashing ruin of the houses where they'd tried to shelter.

            The Worm gathered itself to drive deeper into the city. Ombis had no citadel; it had trusted to the strength of its outer walls. Because the city was built up to three and four stories rather than sprawling, the circuit was modest in comparison with the population available to defend it. All order and discipline had vanished when the Worm engulfed the gateway, and with them was gone any hope of defense.

            The pirate chief lowered the object in his hand; he shouted something also. Cashel couldn't hear sound, let alone the word itself, over the ripping destruction.

            The creature's massive curves froze. Purple radiance gathered over its body, covering it the way fungus might cocoon a dead caterpillar. The Worm twitched once more and, twitching, vanished.

            Only rubble remained of half a furlong of the walls, and not much of that. The creature's weight and iron-hard hide had crushed to powder ashlars which would've resisted battering rams for a week.

            Shrieking in savage triumph, the pirates swept toward the breach in the walls. The Worm's progress had plowed a trench in the soil. Looking down, Cashel saw that the city walls had extended some distance beneath the surface, but the massive foundation courses had gone down the creature's maw as surely as the lighter masonry of the visible portion.

            A soldier lay in the street where the Worm's impact had flung him. He'd been killed by the black smoke; his clothes were rotting and his upturned face had been eaten away to the bone.

            Female pirates were entering with the men. A bare-breasted redhead knelt to lift the hand of a citizen whose lower legs had been trapped by the collapse of a building. For a moment Cashel thought she was helping the fellow; then light flashed on her knife as she cut off his fingers to get the rings.

            Instead of rushing into the city immediately, the pirate chief stood with his head bowed, then put his talisman away in a silk neck pouch. Finally he drew his swords and went through the breach. Even now he was sauntering instead of running.

            Cashel looked at Rasile. He didn't say anything. The wizard yowled a phrase and swept her right hand like she was wiping something out of the air. She and Cashel were back in brilliant sunlight on top of the watchtower in Pandah.

            The yarrow stalks were scattered where Rasile's gesture had flung them. The catwoman sprawled on the flagstones. She'd been keenly alert while they stood where she'd transported them, but now her body demanded to be paid for that effort.

            Cashel didn't have a pillow or a rolled cloak to put down, so he cradled her head with his left hand. She shuddered, then opened her eyes and looked at him. She didn't try to get up yet.

            "I've seen that sort of thing happen to cities before," Cashel said. "I'll watch it again if I have to, but only if I have to. And I figured we'd pretty much seen all we needed to see this time."

            "Yes, we've seen enough," Rasile said, rubbing her ear against Cashel's palm. "We've seen things I never imagined to see, though he seems to have the Worm under control. He's not a wizard, you know, but he has a wizard aiding him. A wizard or worse."

            "Master Cashel?" called an unfamiliar voice from the stairwell. Cashel hadn't barred the trap door giving onto the parapet, but the person speaking from the stairs didn't presume to lift the panel. "Prince Garric sends you his compliments and hopes you and Lady Rasile can join him for a council meeting at your earliest convenience."

            Rasile gathered her limbs under her with a smooth motion, but she didn't try to stand. Cashel glanced at her, then shifted to open the door with the left hand which the wizard no longer needed. The quarterstaff was in his right, and he wasn't in any mood to put it down after the scene he'd just watched.

            "We'll come as quick as we can," he said to the messenger.

            "Cashel, I will not be able to walk for a time, I'm afraid," Rasile said; she gave a little growl of frustration deep in her throat. She still hadn't tried to get up.

            "Shall I call for a carriage, master?" the messenger said. He was one of the fellows Liane kept around her, not exactly palace staff.

            "It wouldn't do any good, but thanks," Cashel said. "Horses don't, ah, like the smell of catmen. I'll carry her myself when she's ready to go."

            Rasile started to rise. Cashel had been squatting. He set his left arm under her thighs and scooped her up instead of simply helping her.

            "Can you do that, master?" the messenger said. "It's a mile to the palace, you know."

            "It's no trouble," said Cashel, grinning in a mixture of confidence and quiet pride.

            It wouldn't be hard at all. The Coerli were lighter built than people, and Rasile was frail even of her own kind.

            Besides, it made him feel good. Cashel or-Kenset didn't have any proper place in the council of smart, educated people, but he could look out for things. Since there weren't any sheep around, he'd look out for a Corl wizard.