The Blackgod-2#(5)
Author:J.Gregory Keyes

    XXVI Demons

    SLICKED in sweat, Ghe clutched at his damp bedsheets, feeling as if a hundred wasps had entered his lungs, his mouth, his very organs. He gazed at Qwen Shen beside him, knew a momentary pleasure at the faint, satisfied curve of her thick, sensuous lips. But his brain was afire, sputtering and popping like hot grease. He sat up, clutching his skull, but that was no help. Except that he suddenly understood what was wrong.

    The agony emanated in stinging threads from the scar on his neck. His heart pulsed sluggishly, haltingly, and the pulling of his lungs became more difficult with each breath. But those pains were spatters of blood near a torn jugular; the source of his illness was hunger.

    “Qwen Shen,” he gasped. “Get out. Leave, now!”

    “What? Why? Bone Eel will be busy for some time.” The urgency in his voice seemed to have jolted her from languor but not frightened her yet. He wished she were frightened.

    “No!” He struggled to form more words, an explanation, but even if his thick, clay tongue could frame it there was no time—not if she was going to survive. Within her, he could see life working, hear it, smell it.

    “Quickly, go, and send someone to my cabin. Someone unimportant.”

    “But—”

    “Now!” His voice was actually shaking, and Qwen Shen no longer questioned his urgency. She quickly dressed and left his cabin.

    He tried to stand but fell from the bed and lay clawing at the floor. What had happened? He hadn't felt hunger in…

    He knew what was wrong, but he couldn't form the thoughts. His body kept asking why why why without giving his brain time for a reasonable answer. He tried to ignore the enticing fragrance of life from down the hall—Ghan—but after a short time, he simply could not. He could taste him anyway, and then do what Qwen Shen had been urging him to, capture his ghost for the information it held. He had resisted that, but now, for the life of him, he couldn't understand why.

    He was crawling toward the door when there came a knock at it.

    “Come in,” he gasped. The door opened and the soldier who stood thus framed in it had time only to widen his eyes before Ghe was upon him.

    When it was over, moments later, Ghe gazed dully about the room, the arabesque pattern of blood and brains on the floor and bed.

    I never did that before, he thought. Why did I do that? It had seemed as if just taking the life he needed wasn't enough. The beast in him had become a brute with no reason at all, not understanding that it could eat without eating. Revolted now, Ghe spat out the taste of iron that remained in his mouth, approaching nausea but never quite arriving there.

    “And I will have to clean this up myself,” he muttered, irate, blinking owlishly at the mess. After another pause, he went about the task of doing just that, before the blood had time to saturate and stain any more than it already had. His linens were certainly ruined.

    AFTER a bit of careful consideration, Ghan decided that the best place to be was abovedeck—though his hope was that no place would be particularly safe. He went to the afterdeck, where his chances of being alone were maximized, taking with him the journal he kept and brush and ink to add to it. Once settled, he contemplated the landscape that surrounded him and tried not to shake—tried not to think about the possibility that these could be his last moments in life.

    They had traveled perhaps two leagues up the tributary, and the vegetation had thickened a bit, at least near the watercourse. The majority of trees were familiar—cotton wood and juniper—the former leafless, of course, for the climate was cooler here than it was in Nhol. Thick, tenacious trees he suspected of being stone oak shouldered amongst their more elegant cousins. The banks of the stream rose steeply from the water and went on uphill to the plains; there were no low, wet lands. That was all for the better, Ghan speculated. It meant that the water here was not of the River, was not him backed up into a swampy tributary. This stream flowed swift and sure down from the mountain valleys of the west.

    Now and then the barge hesitated against a snag, and each time Ghan closed his eyes, clenched tight the muscles of his belly. After the first few such incidents he made a deliberate effort to compose himself by readying his pen and mixing the powdered ink with its mate, water. It was, for him, an old ritual and usually calming to his mind.

    Predictably, Ghe joined him before he had a chance to write anything of note. Next to Qwen Shen, he seemed to be the only member of the expedition Ghe cared to talk to, and Ghan certainly could not discourage that. The more Ghe told him, the more clues he had to work with. He might still need such clues, if his current suppositions were wrong. Another worry struck him as he glanced at Ghe's handsome but pallid face. How would being away from the waters of the River affect a ghoul?

    Probably not in any positive way.

    Ghe settled near Ghan on crossed legs, reminding Ghe again of a large spider curling about a meal. As usual, Ghe began their conversation with a question.

    “What do you know of gods and ghosts beyond the River?” the ghoul asked him. Odd, Ghan thought, how they had settled into a sort of pupil-teacher dialogue—with Ghe at least pretending to be the pupil. Was this some tactic of his to make Ghan feel at ease, afford him some illusory measure of control?

    “Beyond the River? What do you mean?”

    “I mean outside of the River's influence,” Ghe snapped. “Where he is powerless. You have mentioned them before, as did the governor at Wun. Remember? He spoke of the 'gods of the Mang.' As if there are gods, other than the River.”

    “Ah. Well, some, I suppose, though what I have to go on is mostly superstitions gathered from the people who live out here, like the Mang.”

    “What about that barbarian, Perkar? Did he tell you nothing about his gods?”

    Ghan shook his head. “He and I had scant time for pleasantries.”

    “You told me once that his folk live near the headwaters of the River.”

    “Yes.”

    “But they do not worship him?”

    “Not from what I have read.” Ghan furrowed his brow. He had to make this interesting, stay on this tangent of thought, on the oddities of foreign gods. “Actually, as I understand it, they do not 'worship' gods at all. They treat with them, strike deals with them, even develop friendships and mate with them. But they don't worship them, build temples dedicated to them, and so forth.”

    “Neither do we in Nhol,” Ghe muttered. “Our temples are not to worship him but to chain him.”

    “Ah,” Ghan remarked, “but that was not originally true. And despite what you say, most people in Nhol do worship the River, make offerings to him. It is only—if I am to understand what you have told me—the priesthood that doesn't worship him. The temple, whatever its true function, is a symbol of that worship.”

    “Agreed,” Ghe conceded, obviously restless on the topic. “True enough. But we've strayed from the subject. Out here, beyond his reach—”

    “Do we know that we are beyond his reach?” Ghan interrupted.

    Ghe nodded slightly but intensely. “I assure you,” he whispered, “I can tell.”

    “I suppose you can,” Ghan responded, wishing to pursue how Ghe knew that but aware that he shouldn't. “Please go on with what you were saying.”

    “You say that here in the hinterlands there are many gods, but they are not worshipped. They sound like petty, powerless creatures.”

    “Compared to the River, I'm certain they are.”

    “More like ghosts,” Ghe speculated. “Or myself.”

    Ghan took a controlled breath. This was not where he wished for the conversation to go.

    “I suppose,” Ghan allowed, hoping that a half truth would not ring in Ghe's dead senses as a lie. “I suppose,” he went on, “that they are something like that, save that they did not start out as people.”

    “Where did they come from, then?”

    “I don't know,” Ghan replied. “Where did anything come from?”

    Ghe stared at him in surprise. “What a strange thing for you to say. You, who always seek to know the cause of everything.”

    “Only when there is some evidence to support speculation,” Ghan answered. “On this topic there is naught but frail imaginings and millennia-old rumors.”

    “Well, then,” Ghe accused, “your assertion that they do not begin as Human is without foundation, as well. Why couldn 't they be ghosts? Without the River nearby to absorb them when they died, might not they continue to exist and finally claim god-hood, when all who knew them in life had passed on?”

    “That's possible,” Ghan admitted, but what he thought was How can you not see? See that ghosts, like you, are created by the River? Like… No, shove that thought away.

    “Why all of this concern about gods that you do not believe are gods?”

    Ghe shrugged. “Partly curiosity. That was the wonderful thing about Hezhi; she wanted to know everything, just to know it. I think I apprehended a bit of that from her. But more practically, though I may not believe them gods, I admit that there may be powerful and outlandish creatures in these cursed lands beyond the waters of the god. I wish to know the nature of my enemy. I think I may have met one of them already, perhaps two.”

    “Really? Do you care to elaborate?”

    “I think your Perkar was a demon or some such. Even you must have heard about his fight at the docks. I myself, with my living hands, impaled his heart with a poisoned blade. He merely laughed at me—much as I laugh at those who stab me now.”

    Ghan's memory stirred. He did know of Perkar's fight; the strange outlander had claimed that his sword held a god, but perhaps Ghe was correct, and that was a lie. What sort of creature might he have sent Hezhi off with?

    But she had dreamed him.

    “And the other?” Ghan asked.

    Ghe ticked his finger against his palm. “The guardian of the Water Temple.”

    “Why him?”

    “The priests don't have power as such; they are like darknesses resistant to light. But he was filled with life and flame, and it was not the life and flame of the River.”

    “You don't know that,” Ghan interpolated. ”He may have some way of siphoning the River's strength through the temple. Perhaps ?hat is why he remains there.”

    Ghe regarded Ghan with what appeared to be respect. “I see you have been thinking about that, too.”

    “Indeed,” Ghan said. “It's an intriguing mystery.”

    “A crime” Ghe corrected.

    “If you will, then,” Ghan agreed. “A crime, but one committed a thousand years ago, when Nhol was young. When a person the old texts name the Ebon Priest came to our city.”

    “Yes, I read the record of it, in the book you showed me.”

    “But that account is a he, of course,” Ghan continued, pausing just an instant for emphasis. “Because it says that the River sent the Ebon Priest, and clearly the River would not send someone to bind him.”

    “No, wait,” Ghe corrected. 'The Codex Obsidian stated only that the Ebon Priest claimed to have been sent by the River.”

    Ghan wagged his finger. “You should have become a scholar rather than a Jik. You have sense for detail, and that's important.”

    “Important for a Jik, too,” Ghe observed.

    “I suppose so,” Ghan conceded. “As a Jik then, someone familiar with crime—”

    “I did not know I was committing crimes,” Ghe snapped. “I believed I was working for the empire.”

    “Very well,” Ghan soothed. “I meant no insult, nor did I mean that. But the Jik and the Ahw'en also solve crimes, punish criminals. The people you executed, for the most part, were criminals against the state.” Or helpless children, committing no greater crime than continuing to breathe, intruded bitterly.

    “That makes you angry,” Ghe said.

    “I'm sorry,” Ghan lied and, continuing to lie, explained. “My own clan was declared outlaw, you must understand. Exiled. I had to disavow them.”

    “I knew the first, of course. But disavow them? Why?”

    “To remain in the library,” Ghan answered. The library from which you have taken me at last, despite everything. But let him feel the anger of that; Ghe would confuse it with the fury at injustices done his clan.

    “Ah,” Ghe said, perhaps sympathetically. “Now I understand why the emperor told me to threaten you with sealing the library. You could have joined your family in exile.”

    Ghan waved that aside, tried to wave his outrage aside with it. “No matter. The point is only this: when someone commits a crime, how do you discover who committed it?”

    “I was a Jik, not an Ahw'en.”

    “Yes, but you have enough intelligence to know where to begin an investigation.”

    “With motive, I suppose,” Ghe suggested after a moment. “If you know why the crime was committed, you might make some guess as to who did it.”

    “Exactly,” Ghan said. “Yet in this case, we know the criminal—the so-called Ebon Priest—but we have no idea what his motive was.”

    “I see,” Ghe said thoughtfully. “And you have no possible motive in mind? It seems to me—”

    At that moment, the barge bumped into another snag, and Ghan's heart skipped a beat. Ghe glanced at him sharply, opened his mouth to ask what was wrong—

    And the barge leapt straight up from the water at least the height of a man, lifted and dropped. Weight left Ghan's body, replaced by a peculiar fluttery sensation in his gut—and then stunning pain as the deck slapped against him. Timbers protested, and from somewhere came a shrieking. Ghan bounced on the hardwood like a stone rattling in a jar, and he wished, belatedly, that he had remained in his cabin, on the bed. Then something kicked again from below, and Ghan fetched against the brass rails as the nose of the barge tilted up to point straight at the noonday sun. It poised thus, the entire mass of the barge above him, Ghan wondering dully why his end hadn't been pushed under by the weight, whether the craft would choose to fall back the way it had come or continue over, to bury him and all of his enemies against the muddy bottom of the stream.

    Good-bye, Hezhi, he thought. I would have liked to have seen you again.

    GHE scooped up Ghan and leapt as far out into the stream as he could. If the barge flipped over on them…

    The water felt dead around him, as if he were bathing in a corpse. Rather than giving him stamina, the frigid water actually seemed to leach it away. He stroked furiously with his free arm, keeping Ghan's head out of the water. Fortunately the old man did not struggle; he was either unconscious or too smart to fight—probably the latter.

    A roar and trembling shook the very water as the barge struck it again, mixed with the sound of splintering wood and the piteous shrieks of men and panicked horses. The great vessel had not capsized but had landed seam down and split up the middle.

    Through the wreckage, dragons arose.

    They were as Ghe remembered them, quickened water and spirit, slick and scintillating skins like oil lying on water, eel bodies and the heads of flat and whiskered catfish. When Bone Eel had summoned—or created—them, they had seemed powerful but tame, awesome without being terrifying. Now the twin serpents lashed heavenward, their toothless maws gaping trumpets of insentient fury and agony. The life in them shuddered, boiling out of them in such blinding rage and heat that Ghe could sort nothing, understand nothing, but that what died in the dragons was the River's seed in them, his dream that they existed. And even in that moment of understanding, something cracked, and live steam writhed skyward, clouds in search of their place while godstuff shrieked south, thinning and vanishing. The dragons with their color and august dread were gone, leaving no bones but flotsam and no sound save the stillness of a hurricane's heart.

    Ghe reached the bank and dragged himself and Ghan onto it. Already small fragments of the wreckage drifted by, seeking downstream toward the River, messengers of failure and destruction. The first lifeless corpse of many washed past, eyes staring sightlessly at the bottom of the stream.

    Ghe shook his head, uncomprehending. What had happened?

    He was not given time to contemplate or theorize. The water before him erupted, a spray of foam that almost instantly thickened. It became a demon, while all he could do was gape like a speared fish.

    Her skin was the color of sun-bleached bone, her alien eyes winking fiery gold. Her hair hung dark and lank as that of a drowned corpse. She was naked, magnificent, and terrifying. Leveling an accusing finger at him, the demon strode imperiously across the surface of the water, cracked out words to him as if her tongue were a whip lashing silver chimes.

    “How many years have I waited for you to make a blunder of this sort?” she demanded. “Oh, how many ages? I never dreamed you would be so stupid as to give me something to hurt, to pay you back in even the smallest way.”

    She was less than an arm's reach from him now, hating him with those impossible eyes. He could see the power gathered about her, how it reached away, up- and downstream, for as far as vision reached; how her white flesh trembled to contain her puissance and her fury. Ghe shook, as well, shivered as mad fear pranced along his bones. This was the second demon he had known, and the first had killed him. He caught the vaguest glimpse of Ghan nearby, raising himself to a sitting position. Behind her lithe form, more wreckage drifted past.

    “It is your arrogance,” she hissed, sibilant and venomous, “always your arrogance. You think you may go anywhere with impunity. You think because you devour me day by day, you can violate me upstream, as well.” Her eyes constricted to bare slits, and her orbs darted beneath the lids, as if searching there for a lost dream. Then she leaned close, like a sated lover, and sighed into his ear, ”But here, Devourer, I am goddess. I fed your silly snakes to lure you farther in, to see how far your haughtiness would bring you. And it brought you too far.”

    Ghe opened his mouth to reply—perhaps to ask her what she meant—but her hand struck for his throat, faster than even he could move. He gasped as the windpipe crumpled in and she knotted ivory fingers into his hair, lifted and swung him like a ragdoll through the air. He plunged into the water, felt again the shock of its sterility. But now he understood that it was not empty of power—it had that in plenty—it was simply power that he had not the slightest claim on. Thrashing, his feet seeking purchase on the bottom, he desperately fought to ready himself for her next attack, to chain his overwhelming panic because she was like the one Ghan named Perkar, his killer. Because nothing could be as powerful as this except the River.

    She caught him by the hair again; she seemed to have doubled in size.

    “Swallow me, old man,” she snarled. “Swallow!” And he gagged and bit as she forced her hand relentlessly through his mouth, pushing it down his throat into his gut. The flesh at the edges of his mouth tore like the skin of an overripe fruit, but she was doing far worse things inside of him. “Eat me up.” She laughed, and then, abruptly, he was beneath the surface of the water, shoved there by monstrously powerful hands.

    How can she hate me so? his mind screamed. He tried to draw in a breath and then realized that his ability to survive without air existed only in the waters of the River. Darkness crept over everything, and he knew that he was fading. It was over; Hezhi was lost to him.

    As the sights and sensations of the outer world faded, he became more aware of his “guests,” the boy and the ancient lord. They both seemed to be shouting at him, but their words made little sense. Perhaps they, too, were remonstrating with him for sins he did not understand or remember committing.

    “Reach up,” one of them was saying. “Can't you feel it?”

    He puzzled at that, but even the voices were fading.

    “Reach it for me,” he muttered. “I don't know what you're talking about.”

    “Know you nothing of power? Give me your leave.”

    “You have it,” Ghe said, chuckling at the absurdity of this conversation of ghosts.

    That was when flame shrieked through him like a destroying wind. At first, he believed that it was simply the end; Death had returned to claim him, to force him to pay with pain for eluding her the first time. But the flame raced into his heart, and rather than consuming him, it filled him, expanded him, sent his arms and feet and fingers racing up and down the stream. He shuddered and burst from beneath the water, lungs heaving, slapping his demon opponent in the chest with sudden potence. She staggered back from him, arm glistening with gore, her gaze puzzling at him.

    “What…” she gasped, and then stretched out to wrap him up again.

    At first Ghe wished that the lightning channeling into him would quit, for the pain was nigh-on unbearable, but whatever the ancient lord had done would not stop. He could see it now. One of his strands was fused to the core of her, as if one of his veins had been grafted to an artery, and her lifeblood was all pumping into him now.

    She struck out again, but he deflected her blows, confidence growing even as the pain did, his own nameless fury soaring to match her own. He did not speak at all, but took her lovely throat in his grip and squeezed until her flesh dissolved away into water. Even then he did not, could not stop, as the vastness of her body shrank, distilled, burned brighter and fiercer until he found a place, a strongbox in his heart and locked her there. Then he staggered to the bank and, after three lurching steps, sank to his knees. Ghan moved to help him, but he did not remain kneeling, for suddenly his body seemed as light as air and he had the unaccountable urge to laugh aloud. And so he did, for not even on the River himself had he felt so powerful, so filled with flame and purpose. The demon was in him now, but he had caught her; she was his, in the same way as the blind boy and the lord. Now he was four, but the emperor was still himself, still Ghe.

    He swept his gaze around, at the debris, the nearby plains, and at Ghan's openmouthed gaze.

    “What happened?” The old man gaped. “Where did she go? What happened?”

    “I believe,” Ghe said, grinning at the peals of triumph ringing in his own words, “that I have just eaten a goddess.”

    GHAN was too numbed by the torrent of events to feel either triumph or despair, though he had good reason to feel both. His unspoken suspicion that the dragons were mere distillations of the River and not “real” had been borne out spectacularly, and all of his subtle and overt urging that the barge be taken up the tributary had, as he intended, crippled the expedition. Of the soldiers, only twenty-five were well enough to travel. The majority of the provisions were ruined or missing, as were all of his own books and maps. Most devastating of all, the horses were all dead. Without them for mounts and pack animals, the future effectiveness of the expedition would be severely limited. And incredibly, he had not spent his own life in achieving this. Yet.

    But Ghe was still alive, and neither Qwen Shen nor Bone Eel numbered among the dead. Ghe was more powerful than ever, and his will to find Hezhi was fundamental. Ghan had hoped that as they departed the influence of the River, the ghoul would lose some of his sense of purpose, but the River had built him well, selecting only those parts of him that remembered and liked Hezhi, leaving other parts of him out. He wondered if Ghe understood that, the nature of his poor memory.

    They passed the night in crude shelters, cold and damp. Some blankets and tarps had been salvaged but they were soaked through.

    They ate horsemeat that night and the next day. Qwen Shen pointed out that the meat would spoil sooner than the retrieved rations. Some of the surviving soldiers argued for burying the dead, but Ghe, Qwen Shen, and Bone Eel dismissed that as a waste of effort. Instead, they moved upstream, away from the stench that would soon pollute the air.

    After the move, as the men were working upon new shelters, Ghe came to speak to him for the first time since the catastrophe.

    “Well, old man,” he began, squatting next to where Ghan slouched against a tree. “Shall I make the coming journey easier by carrying you inside of me?”

    “Do what you will,” Ghan told him dully. “I care not.”

    “Maybe you don't,” Ghe replied. “But I do. And I think I would rather see you walk on those frail old legs.”

    Ghan shrugged indifferently.

    “Because you knew” Ghe went on. “You knew that would happen.”

    “No,” Ghan corrected. “I only hoped it would.”

    “Well, you got your wish. But nothing can stop me, old man. I've eaten one of these 'gods' and I'll eat more. I'll send them out to serve me and bring them back in. If I tire of one, I will feast on him entirely.”

    Ghan set his jaw stubbornly, about to retort, when a shout went up from the soldier watching the plains. Both men turned at the cry.

    The horizon was dark with riders, savagely dressed and bristling with spears, swords, and bows.

    “Well,” Ghan remarked. “I told you I would bring you to the Mang. Here they are.”

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