THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 28

"There's something out there, lad," said Carus. The ghost's hand caressed the memory of his sword hilt. "I can feel it."

We know they're out there, Garric thought. But we've got pickets out and a palisade. If the rats attack tonight, we'll be in better shape than any time in the past three days.

"I don't like it," Carus said, then laughed and added, "But maybe it's just that when I'm on campaign like this, I miss the flesh more than other times."

"I wonder what kind of tree this is," Garric said aloud to Tenoctris, looking up in the moonlight as he kneaded the backs of his thighs with hard fingers. The grove of tall trees on this slope had branches that came out straight from the trunk, though some turned upward at a right angle; they were covered with needles for their whole length.

"There were a few in the garden of Duke Tedry," Tenoctris said. The moon silhouetted the strange branches, making them look hairy. "They weren't native to Yole, though; an ancestor had planted them. I heard a gardener call them monkey-puzzles, but I don't know if he'd heard the name or made it up."

Lights shone below, hundreds of yellow-orange campfires sprinkled across the darkness like dandelions in a meadow. The army was camped on what before the Change had been a nameless rocky islet in the Inner Sea. Now it was a forested limestone ridge rising from rolling plains. The ground was better drained than that near Pandah a few days previous, so the marching was vastly easier.

The soldiers slept in their cloaks, but none of them would've objected if Prince Garric had travelled with not only a tent but a full entourage of servants. They knew Garric led from the front. If he lived as well as a man could on campaign, that was what a general ought to do.

"Servants are a Sister-cursed bother," Carus muttered in Garric's mind. "And a tent doesn't help a bloody bit unless you're going to skulk in it all day, in which case you may as well have stayed home!"

Garric grinned and seated himself carefully. His back was to the low limestone cliff that ran down the spine of the former island. Blood Eagles were on guard ten feet above him on top of the ridge, and there was another detachment on the slope below with lanterns on poles. Nonetheless, the solid rock behind Garric provided a slight illusion of privacy.

Aloud he said, "I've been thinking about how nice it would be to be home in Barca's Hamlet. I'd probably be worrying about whether I need to drain the cesspool this fall or if it can wait till spring. And thinking what a terrible job it'll be."

He, Tenoctris, and the ghost of his ancestor all laughed.

Garric ached in muscles which two years before he hadn't known existed. Carus' reflexive skill made his descendent as good a horseman as an experienced Ornifal noble, but Garric's muscles hadn't been hardened by a lifetime of daily exercise. Sure, he was strong – but the particular stresses of horsemanship were different from those of walking, digging, or any of the other things that a peasant did.

His mind slipped away from the simple physical problems that he'd been unconsciously trying to keep it to. "Tenoctris?" he said. "We've – the kingdom has, but you and I have too . . . we've survived a lot of things."

"Yes, Garric?" Tenoctris said. The lanterns were twenty feet away, sufficient to see by but without the detail of bright sun. In the soft yellow glow, Garric could imagine that Tenoctris was the aged wizard she'd been when she washed up on the shore of Barca's Hamlet. Her new youth and vibrancy were positive advantages in all ways, and it was that rather than vanity which had impelled her to regain that youth. But –

Garric had grown used to the old woman. The additional change, even though it was for the better, was disturbing at a level well below his consciousness.

The thought was so foolish that he grinned. It was good to do that, but it didn't lead his mind away from the question.

"Every time we survive, something new comes at us," he said. "Eventually, we won't survive. You and I won't, and the kingdom won't. Isn't that so?"

Tenoctris laughed. She'd laughed often throughout the time Garric had known her, but this full-throated, youthful chortling was new. And a little embarrassing, truth to tell, because Garric had the strong impression that he was more the subject of her good humor than the person she was sharing it with. The guards didn't face around to watch, but he could see their heads turn slightly in hopes of learning why the pretty young woman was laughing so hard.

"I think, now that you've suggested it . . . ," Tenoctris said. She'd choked off a giggle and seemed contrite at her behavior. "I think that perhaps I could become immortal. That's certainly one of the things the wizard whose powers I've borrowed intended to do. But I don't believe I could remain human, or that anyone human would want what immortality entails if they understood it as well as I do."

She pressed three fingers of her left hand into the palm of her right while she considered how to proceed, then looked up with an affectionate smile. "The kingdom will be replaced, yes," she said. "Not necessarily fall, but no human creation lasts forever. Nor does anything else last forever, of course. Even cliffs -"

She patted the face of rock. Light reflected from the pale limestone softened her silhouette, thrown onto it by the moon.

"- will wear down to dust, then be squeezed up again in a different shape and place. Yes you'll die, Garric, though I hope it will be 'full of years and wisdom.' Certainly that's the result I'm striving for, for mankind's sake. But death's a natural part of life, not the triumph of evil."

"But that's what I mean," Garric said with more heat than he'd intended. "Chaos, evil, will eventually win, won't it? We have to win every time, but if chaos wins even once, the fight's over. Forever."

"Ah," said Tenoctris, nodding with a look of understanding. "Garric, these past few years have seen a great deal of disruption – a unique amount, even for the thousand year cycle, because this time it brought us to the Change. But the preferred state of the cosmos isn't chaos, it's stasis: things remaining more or less as they are. I think -"

She paused, apparently looking down past the scattering of strange trees to the encamped army. Garric doubted she was really focusing on her immediate surroundings, though. A trumpet blew, announcing a change in the guard detachments.

"- I hope, Garric," she said, "that when the Gods of Palomir have been returned to their rest, this world will rest also. Now, I don't mean there'll be perfect peace!"

Garric laughed. "Not unless people vanish too," he said. "Which I wouldn't regard as a good thing, though I suppose one could."

"Yes," Tenoctris said. "But if -"

She waved a hand in the air.

"- the priest-kings of Seres raise an army and conquer the Land, it doesn't matter in a cosmic sense. The Serians are human, and they'd be fighting for human reasons – the same kind of reasons that cause dogs to fight or boys when they're let out of school."

"The Serians!" Carus snorted. "Not in this world or any world I'm in!"

Which is missing the point, Garric thought, or perhaps illustrating it perfectly. Aloud he said, "I'll fight ratmen or lichs or demons, I suppose. I've fought them, and other men have fought them and won. But I hope if there're Gods to be fought, you'll handle the business, Tenoctris. I don't . . . ."

He rubbed his cheekbones to give himself a moment to put into words the thought he was struggling with.

"Tenoctris," Garric said, "when I think about fighting with Gods, I feel like there's a wall of crystal stretching up to the sky. There's nothing I can grip, nothing I can even see."

"I'd like to say I know exactly how to deal with that problem," Tenoctris said with a wry smile, "but I don't think that lying to you would be helpful. I do hope that we can continue to gain information which will give me a better idea of what to do."

She chuckled, though this time Garric thought the cheeriness was a bit forced. "And I also hope we survive the process of getting the information."

"Yes," said Garric. "I -"

His face was turned toward Tenoctris. The shadow of her head in profile lay softly on the limestone behind her. Rippling over the pale stone was another shadow. It was faint as undulations in still water, but it was there.

"Hoy!" Garric shouted, leaping to his feet. He'd shifted his swordbelt to the front of his body so that he could sit comfortably on the ground, but his ancestor's reflexes had the blade clear in a singing arc before he was fully upright. "Tenoctris, watch out!"

But there's nothing to see!

The slope down twenty feet to where the guards stood was bare. Something might've been hiding against the trunk of the monkey-puzzle tree, but the moon would surely have shown anything approaching close enough to throw its shadow on the wall.

It's clear!

Tenoctris had snapped a twig off a shrub growing at the base of the outcrop, ignoring the spines. Using it for a wand, she was murmuring words of power. A spiral of dust lifted from the gritty soil.

Garric slashed the air in front of him. His long sword cut higher than it would've done against a human enemy, judging from the moon's angle to where the extra shadow had hirpled on the stone. To his utter amazement, the blade met a faint resistance as though he'd cut a jellyfish floating in clear water.

Half the guard detachment ran toward Garric with weapons ready for use; the remainder of the platoon was faced out as before, though with their spears raised. Blood Eagles above on top of the ridge were standing to, their boots and equipment clashing.

"Your highness!" said the commander. He must have thought the swipe of Garric's sword was directed at him and his men. "Friend! Friend!"

An overpowering stench flooded the night, thrusting Garric and the captain back in opposite directions. The next trooper got a long stride ahead his commander before he drew in a breath. He stopped, wobbled to his knees, and threw up on the inside of his shield.

"Neber saudry rish!" Tenoctris shouted. The tip of her makeshift wand flashed brilliantly red, turning the air a lingering rose color for a dozen double-paces around. In its pale warmth, a bloody splotch dissipated into rags where Garric had cut at nothing.

Two dirty-looking creatures of serpentine horror swam through the air toward him; each was over ten feet long. Instead of fangs, their mouths were circular pits. In the wizardlight, the rows of teeth within gleamed like rusty iron.

"Duzi!" Garric cried, jumping sideways more in disgust than fear. He held his sword between him and the nearer creature.

A Blood Eagle stepped forward and hurled his javelin. The head was a four-sided pyramid, slender enough to punch through a bronze cuirass and the ribs it covered; it slid through one of the floating hagfish without slowing, then chipped rock from the cliff face twenty feet beyond. The creature began to deflate around the exit wound, spilling a brighter color out in tendrils.

"Sister!" Carus said. "I've smelled mules that'd burst after a week in the sun and they weren't as bad!"

The stink was something you could touch, worse than a tanyard at the height of summer. Even the worst smells quickly dull the ability of people to sense them, though. Garric had his equilibrium back.

The haze of wizardlight was fading, and the third creature was blurring back into the air through which it wriggled. Garric could still see it undulating toward him. He lunged to meet it with his sword point. The captain and two of his troopers struck at the same time.

The creature parted like gossamer at the touch of multiple weapons. It drifted away in pieces that dissolved as they sagged toward the ground. As they did so, the rosy glow vanished and with it Garric's ability to see the floating monsters. Only the smell remained, and even that was disappearing.

Garric sank down on one knee. The physical effort hadn't been excessive, but his blood was seething from the attack. Now that there was nothing left to fight, he was afraid he was going to throw up.

"What were they, Tenoctris?" he asked, his eyes on the ground. He was taking deep breaths, trying to cool down. All his muscles were trembling. Men had come running, Lords Waldron and Attaper among them, but Garric wasn't ready to talk to them yet. "They were invisible!"

"They weren't invisible," said the wizard, "but they were the same color as air, at least in this light. How did you see them?"

Garric's body was beginning to settle again. There were soldiers all around them. "A rag!" he said. "Somebody find me a rag to wipe my sword blade!"

"Here, your highness!" someone said, handing Garric a cloth. It was the sleeve of his tunic; Garric could've torn his own sleeve off, but he hadn't thought of that because he was still reacting to what had happened.

"I saw the shadow on the wall beside you," he said. "Please, give us some room. Everybody! Back away if you please."

A moment before he must've sounded like the worst sort of nobleman ordering his servants about. He'd apologize later – not that anybody else would care that the Prince had barked out orders.

"Carus knew something was wrong, though," he said, looking up to meet Tenoctris' quiet gaze. The ghost of his ancestor beamed from his mind. "I don't know how. Experience, I suppose."

"Your highness!" Lord Attaper said forcefully. "Captain Willer says there were snakes in the air. Do we need to get you out of this place? Lady Tenoctris, do we?"

Garric raised an eyebrow toward the wizard. "No," she said. "There were only three and they're dead, thanks to his highness. It must've taken weeks to prepare this attack and it would take even longer to prepare another one."

Her expression became unusually serious. "Garric, this wasn't precisely wizardry, because the creatures are natural. But they're not natural in this world and time, and there certainly was wizardry behind their presence here. I should have been ready. I'll not fail you in this fashion again."

"I don't think anybody failed," Garric said. "Except the wizard or whatever in Palomir who was behind this."

He got up. Lurched up, really, but he felt better with each movement.

He sheathed his sword and held up the borrowed sleeve. "Thank you, whoever gave this to me," he said. "But I think it'd better be burned immediately. I couldn't see what I was wiping with it, maybe nothing, but I'd burn it just in case."

"At once, your highness!" a Blood Eagle murmured, snatching the rag from him. He'd say the same thing if I ordered him to jump off a cliff!

"Just as you'd jump off a cliff if the kingdom required it," Carus said with a hard grin. "Duty is duty."

Garric grimaced, but he knew that was true. Well, he'd work not to be the sort of leader who ordered men to jump off cliffs.

"We'll be meeting the first contingent of militia from Haft tomorrow, your highness," Lord Waldron said, putting up his sword also. "Before they arrive, I'd like to discuss with you my plan for how we'll use them, if you would."

"Yes, we'll do it now," Garric said, seating himself against the rock face again.

And how many boys from Haft would he have to order over cliffs? Because the kingdom required it . . . .