THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 27

Chapter 6

It seemed to Cashel that the moon was bigger than it ought to be, but this way it threw plenty of light on the sandy hills even though it was just in the first quarter. Liane's shadow stretched back toward him, and ahead of her Rasile's did also.

The moon phase bothered him more than its size did, because back home it was only two days past the full. He knew that was silly: he was in a completely different world from where he'd been last night. But a shepherd takes the moon and stars as certain when nothing else, not even the seasons, ever is.

Something croaked from line of horsetails in the low ground to the right. It might've been a frog, though Cashel didn't suppose it was. To see wild animals, all you really have to do is sit in one spot and not do anything at all. If you were moving, though, even somebody as sharp-eyed as Cashel was would be lucky to catch sight of more than a squirrel on a high branch or maybe a rabbit. Rabbits didn't have any more sense than sheep did.

Rasile's slender legs scissored along quicker than a human's, which made it seem like she was really striding out in the lead. She took short steps, though, so really they weren't moving any faster than Cashel would when he was following a flock of sheep.

Liane suited her pace to the wizard's. Cashel looked at the thick woolen socks she was wearing and tried again to understand why. He guessed it wasn't just being nosy since they were going to be together in any kind of condition, so he said, "Liane, are your legs cold here?"

She glanced over her shoulder and smiled. "No," she said, "but my feet aren't used to the kind of walking I thought we might be doing."

She smiled even wider. "Walking like this, in fact. I wore the socks so that the sandal straps wouldn't chafe my feet, especially in loose sand."

"Thank you," Cashel said. "I should've guessed that."

Though thinking about it, he wasn't sure that was true. There weren't a lot of people like Liane. She usually rode horses or even in a carriage, but she was willing to hike across a wasteland if she thought that might help other folks.

Cashel didn't doubt having Liane along was going to help.

He saw movement. At first he thought he'd seen a reflection from the surface of a bog a couple furlongs to the east, but the gleam shook itself together and paced along parallel with them.

"Rasile, we've got company on the left," he said, just loud enough to be sure the wizard heard him. He wasn't nervous. This wasn't a new situation to Cashel, and it might not even turn out to be a bad one.

Because it wasn't new to him or any shepherd, he turned and scanned the hills to the right instead of focusing on the thing that'd let him see it. Sure enough, another gleam was there behind a reverse slope. Just the top of it showed now and again as it followed along beside Cashel and his companions.

"And the other side too," he said. He began spinning his staff in slow circles. Blue sparkles spiraled off the iron butt-caps, bright enough that they raised purple reflections from the sand.

"Wait," said Rasile quietly, pausing on a dune that something the size of a rabbit had crossed recently. Tracks like little hands marked the wind-scallops. To the thing moving on the east she called, "Come join us or take yourselves away. If you choose to follow us, we'll treat you as enemies."

The creature laughed and walked toward them. "We're not your enemies, wizard," it called. "We know our strength; we do not challenge such as you."

She called, Cashel thought. The voice was female and perhaps even human.

"And the other," said one of the figures who'd come out of concealment on the right. There were two of them, much closer than the first. They looked like women wrapped in shining gray silk, but they moved too smoothly to be walking on human feet.

"Yes . . . ," said her companion. "He's magnificent. Can you imagine . . .?"

They both burst into laughter as shrill as the cries of screech owls.

"Stay where we can see you," Rasile said harshly. She resumed walking southward with quick, steady steps. Liane followed, tilting her head toward the figure who'd spoken to them first. Cashel kept his staff spinning and watched all directions as he brought up the rear. Every few circuits he fed in a figure-8 just to keep his wrists supple and show whatever the figures were how quick he could make the heavy hickory change direction.

"What are you doing in this place, wizard?" asked the figure on the left. "Are you hunting? There's little to hunt here."

"So very little," said one of her fellows.

"We're hungry," said the other. "We starve, we always starve, and there's nothing here to hunt."

"They're empusae!" Liane said. Then, to the creature on the left, "You're an empusa."

"What do names matter, little one?" the empusa said. She'd come close enough to touch with the quarterstaff and was moving parallel with Rasile. Her passage didn't mark the sand.

"She would be our prey if she were alone," said one of her sisters.

"Easy prey . . . ," the third creature whispered.

"Not easy," Liane said. She flicked a hand toward the speaker, the point of her knife glittering like a jewel. "I have a charm against your like."

The empusae fell into shrieking laughter. Cashel noticed that they backed away, though.

"What do you hunt, wizard?" said the figure on the left. The empusae's voices were cool but sweet, like they were speaking through silver tubes – except when they laughed.

"We have business in another place," Rasile said. "And our business is none of yours."

The wizard didn't turn her head to either side when she spoke to the creatures, but Cashel didn't doubt she knew exactly where each of them was. If she wanted to, she'd finish the things. Just as Cashel would, though they'd use different ways to do it.

The empusae laughed, but they drifted outward by a half pace or so.

Rasile's course took her companions along the edge of standing water as broad as a millpond. The empusa on their left slid through the horsetails without making their stems waver or touching the surface.

When the moon shone on the creatures, they looked like human statues polished out of blocks of lead. In reflection from the water –

"Duzi!" Cashel said, turning to send the staff through where the empusa had been an instant before. There was a blaze of blue wizardlight but the creature swirled to the other side of the pool without evident motion, more like a puff of breeze than anything physical.

The reflection he'd seen was tall, twice as tall as Cashel and taller than anybody could be. It was dead, too: strips of skin were hanging down like bark from a sycamore tree, and some places he could see through gaps in its rib cage.

But it wasn't human anyway. The limbs had too many joints, the skull slanted up a high forehead to a point at the back, and the long fangs in the upper and lower jaws crossed like a crocodile's.

"You are not our prey, splendid one," called one of the pair of empusae in her clear, liquid voice. They'd dropped back only a pace when Cashel swiped at their fellow.

"We bow before you," echoed her companion. "You are our lovely master . . . ."

Cashel grimaced. "I'm not your master," he muttered. "But I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."

He'd swished his staff out without thinking, because what he'd seen was ugly beyond his mind's ability to grasp. He didn't think he was wrong, exactly, because he didn't have the least doubt that the empusae were evil; but Rasile didn't think they were worth the effort of killing, and he knew he'd struck because he was startled, not because of any better reason. That wasn't something people ought to do.

"Did the Gods of Palomir send you, wizard?" asked the creature that Cashel had swung at. It'd moved closer again now that they were past the pond, but it was drifting along with Rasile instead of staying beside Cashel at the end of the line. "They have returned, you know."

"They are great and powerful," another empusa said.

"The old Gods are dead," chorused the third. "They banished us to this hungry waste, but They are gone."

"The Lady is no more!" the empusae sang together in triumph. Their voices were beautiful. "Franca and His Siblings rule the waking world, and we will return to feast on men!"

Rasile looked at the pair of empusae, then toward the single creature drifting along to their left. Her tongue lolled out in the Corl equivalent of laughter.

"Not yet, I think," she said. "Not quite yet."

Turning back to Liane and Cashel, she said, "This is where we will return to the waking world. I'll step forward, and you follow me."

Liane nodded. Her face was fixed like an ivory carving, and the little knife was steady in her hand.

"Yes, ma'am," Cashel said. He didn't see anything different about this place – a ridge of sand with a low outcrop a furlong to the right and a pool and dark vegetation about the same distance to the left. He didn't worry, though: Rasile knew what she was doing.

The wizard paced forward, blurred, and disappeared. Liane followed just as steady as could be – and blurred, and disappeared.

Cashel kept the staff spinning and his head swiveling from one side to the other. He didn't trust the empusae, not even a little bit, and if they tried to come close –

He stepped into fog. He couldn't feel the hickory in his hands for an instant. He was back with Liane and Rasile, and the stone walls of a city loomed before them.

The shrieking laughter of the empusae still rang in Cashel's ears.