The Blackgod-2#(6)
Author:J.Gregory Keyes

    XXVII Stormherd

    As Harka struck the bird, violent numbness raced up Perkar's arm, an agonizing tingling that chattered his teeth and jerked his heart weirdly in his breast. He caught a sharp whiff of decay and something burnt as the demon bird shrilled and clacked its cruel beak; Harka had severed one of its immortal strands. It climbed into the air and circled once; Perkar braced to meet the dive, only dimly cognizant of the blood oozing from his scalp.

    It did not dive. Instead, it lifted a wing as if to salute the east and flew off toward the approaching storm.

    Something in the storm, too, Harka told him. Perkar ignored the sword, scrambling for T'esh. Moss and his captive were already dwindling figures. Raincaster was down, Yuu'han at his side, and Brother Horse was still watching everything with mouth wide open. Ngangata had stayed to shoot at the demon bird, but as Perkar bounded onto T'esh, the halfling was already dug into his saddle, his mount at full gallop.

    What did Moss think he was doing? Weighed down like that—fighting Hezhi—he could see her kicking and squirming furiously, even at this distance—how could he hope to outdistance them for long?

    Perkar realized that was the least important question. A much more pertinent one was how Moss had managed to free his bonds without anyone noticing. Even more pressing was the matter of the demon bird and its origins. Had it been sent to aid Moss, or had he merely noticed it about to attack and snatched his opportunity? If Moss had one supernatural ally, did he have more?

    It was obvious that Moss hoped to reach the approaching cloud of obscuring dust, use it to confuse them, and thus escape; but Ngangata was closing the gap at such a rate that it was clear Moss would be caught before entering his hoped-for refuge, though only by moments.

    But Harka was buzzing in his ear, frantically trying to tell him something.

    “What?” he snarled, over the rush of wind on his face.

    “Look. Just look, will you? ”

    And then he saw, and wished he had not. Behind the dust storm indeed followed rain, boiling black clouds torn by lightning skating over the rims of the mountains. But while it might be the windy edge of the tempest that was swirling the black dust about in the air, it was hooves kicking it up. The wonder was that he only now felt the earth tremoring up through T'esh, thunder burrowing underground.

    Ahead, Ngangata waved his hand and pointed; he, too, had seen. It was a wall, not of air and dust, but of wild cattle, charging almost shoulder to shoulder. They ran in bleak, eerie silence. Though the ground trembled, there was no bellowing, no chill cries of calves going down, overrun. Perkar redoubled his speed; surely Moss did not intend to fly into the face of that monstrous herd? If so, his hope must be to kill Hezhi, even if it meant his own life. The shape of the lead bull emerged as Perkar raced toward the herd, and he suddenly beheld the spectacle with a new, razor-edged lucidity. In his chest, comprehension rapidly gave birth to a nest of stinging worms that immediately attacked his heart.

    The gargantuan shoulders of the bull bunched and pulled a tall man's height from his hooves. He was black, blacker than charcoal, but for his eyes, which were hollows of yellow fire. His black horns were bent earthward, and if the bull were to stumble, the twin furrows he dug would be more than a horse length apart. There was no flesh on his skull.

    “Harka, what is that? What is it?“ T'esh fought to turn aside, and though his mount did not outright refuse to continue forward, Perkar knew that soon even this Mang-bred stallion would balk at racing into the horns of that.

    “A god. It is certainly a god. ”

    “Do you know him, recognize him?”

    “Something familiar' not one of the Mountain Gods, like Karak …”

    “What can we do?”

    “Ride the other way. Quickly. ”

    “Moss is trying to kill her. He's riding straight into them.” He realized that they might catch Moss in time, but never with enough leisure to escape the hooved death bearing down upon them. All four of them were going to die.

    The squirming panic had gnawed deeply into his heart by now; how could Moss do this? And then T'esh suddenly took his own nose, turned sidewise to the beasts. Perkar realized that he had slackened his control without even thinking, as if hoping his horse would balk. Grimly he cinched up on the reins. Ngangata hadn't slowed in the least.

    His resolve wasn't firm enough, and T'esh knew it. The stallion made a frantic attempt to wheel about at full gallop as Perkar hauled with all of his might on the reins. The result was a sickening lurch as the steed lost his footing, and then both of them slammed to earth. T'esh rolled over him, and Perkar felt his leg twist oddly. The horse was heavy.

    Somehow he kept hold of the reins and, though his blood hammered so violently in his temples that he feared his skull would burst, he struggled to remount while T'esh reared, his eyes rolling with madness. Across the plain, tiny figures were limned against the unearthly stampede, and though he knew he should be fighting T'esh back into control, he watched them helplessly instead. Ngangata stood in his saddle, bow in hand. Moss was crouched low in his, avoiding the halfling's shafts. Hezhi—where was Hezhi?

    He saw her then, a tiny, colorful creature in her red-and-black skirt and yellow blouse. Her black hair streamed with the wind running before the lead bull as she stood to face him. Grimly Perkar doubled his fists into T'esh's reins and yanked down on them.

    “Hey!” he shrieked. “Stop it. Stop it!” The stallion quit rearing, but his eyes were still frantic. Perkar took the horse's head into the crook of his arm. “Come on, boy,” he whispered. “Never forget that you are Mang! Don't forget that. Your ancestors are watching.”

    T'esh was still trembling when Perkar remounted. “Come on,” he said, and then shouted, the closest approximation of a Mang war cry he could produce. The stallion spurted forward then, and when Perkar shrieked again, he put his heart into the charge, though it took him to the horns of the bull. A Mang horse, Perkar knew in his heart, would never balk if its rider was brave.

    He still was not brave, but his old fatalism had seized him; his path was set, and to his knowledge there was only one way to go. Without Hezhi, all of his trails came to an end. Without Ngangata…

    But it was far, far too late. Cowardice had already betrayed hope. His only ambition now was to reach them in time to die with them.

    HEZHI looked up dully at the approaching mass of beasts. Her sight already told her that they were not what they seemed; stripped of the god who animated them, they were nothing more than bones. That meant nothing to her; bones could crush her as easily as real flesh and blood. She was still stunned from her fall. Moss had never had a secure hold on her, and despite his superior strength, he had also had to concentrate to keep his balking horse pointed into the stampede. The two goals had proven incompatible when Hezhi managed to swing her legs around and kick him in the face. Now she realized that she had been fortunate not to break her neck or shatter her skull in the fall.

    Moss wheeled, a look of terrible distress on his face, but two arrow shafts whizzed by him, and he grimly turned instead into the skeletal cattle.

    What could she do? Running was pointless. Ngangata would reach her too late, and Perkar was farther back still. If she crouched, might they run around her?

    It was amazing how calm she felt. It was as if the coolness of the otherworld, the lake, had come over her. But she did not have her drum, and so that was impossible.

    She frowned. Perhaps when the otherworld was manifest, already in front of her, she did not need a drum. She had a few instants to find out. Searching herself, she found no fear, but there was certainly waking anger, and there was her mare.

    Help me, she said, and then she clapped her hands, once, twice, thrice. The lead bull was so close she could make out the cracked nostrils of his skull, the architecture of his skeleton beneath manifested flesh. She could see him, inside, a furnace burning gold and black. A web flowed out from him, and she knew in that instant that there were not thousands of beasts bearing down on her but only one, this one, whose horns lifted toward her.

    Vaguely she saw Moss ride into the herd, uttering a shrill, ululating cry. She expected him to fall instantly, but he did not, miraculously dodging the first few beasts. Then she lost sight of him, and her universe became only one thing: the god before her. The world seemed mired in torpor, captive to inertia. Ngangata had arrived, was leaning from his saddle to scoop her up in one long arm. The bull churned toward them, black dirt spraying up from his hooves, yellow flames waxing in hollow sockets. Hezhi slapped her hands together again, and the air shattered; when she spread them apart, the lake opened between them, and the mare charged through, galloping on the surge of force from her throbbing arm. The Horse God struck the bull in the heart once and he broke stride, stumbled. Twice, and he suddenly fell. At the same instant, Hezhi reached through and tore at the strands supporting the other cattle. They shredded easily. Hezhi shouted, triumphant, as Ngangata swung her up into his lap. He pivoted his mount, and then the wall of bones struck them. Mare and riders fell, but Hezhi was laughing as they hit the earth, darkly delighted.

    PERKAR saw through Harka's eyes and through his own, and he understood neither set of senses. He beheld Hezhi, standing directly before the bull, solemnly clapping her hands, as if playing some child's game. He saw the bull, bones articulated by heartstrands of black and gold, a net of such strands cast out from him to the other revenant cattle. Then something erupting from Hezhi's chest like a bolt of lightning, an erratic brilliance that struck into the bull. Ngangata reached her, lifted her up—and the herd came apart. Skulls separated from vertebrae that themselves spun out into falling streams of disks. Legs un-jointed, and ribs flew apart like rotten cages. But the bones lost none of their momentum, and so as they collapsed, still they hurtled forward, a crashing wave of black bone and dust. The wave smacked into his two friends, and they went down beneath the leading edge of it. Shouting hoarsely, Perkar bore down on T'esh, urged him ever faster toward the bizarre scene.

    In the lake of bones that remained, only one set remained standing: the bull himself, stock-still.

    By the time Perkar reached them, it was obvious that Hezhi and Ngangata had survived the impact. They were both on their feet, as was Ngangata's mount. Perkar dismounted, Harka drawn, and with two bounds placed himself between his companions and the Bull God.

    Only then did he realize that Hezhi was chuckling. Ngangata looked dazed.

    “How are you two?” Perkar asked frantically. “Are either of you hurt?”

    “No,” Ngangata clipped out.

    “I'm fine,” Hezhi answered, laughter subsiding. “Leave the bull to me.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “It's mine now,” she replied. She walked around him toward the thing. It stood shorn of the illusion of flesh, a beast of black bones and fire.

    “Hezhi, don't,” Perkar commanded, moving to keep himself between the girl and the monster.

    “She knows what she's doing, ” Harka said. “Though I would never have believed this. ”

    “Believed what?”

    Hezhi walked confidently up to the thing. She tapped it in the center of its skull, the horns reaching around her like the gathering arms of some handless giant. The skeleton collapsed, and the air shivered with flame which was quickly gone.

    “What happened?” he asked Harka softly.

    “She swallowed him, ” the blade answered. “Took him in. She has two gods in her damakuta now. ”

    Hezhi turned to them, an insuppressible grin of triumph on her face. Behind her, the river of bones stretched off, empty of life.

    Ngangata was the first to break that strange and uncomfortable moment with words.

    “Where is Moss?” he asked.

    RAINCASTER was dead, an artery in his neck severed by the wicked curve of the demon bird's beak. They left him on a natural table of stone for the predators to find, as was the Mang way.

    Of Moss they never found any trace.

    “He got away,” Perkar finally admitted. “How?”

    Hezhi crinkled her forehead in thought. “I saw him ride into them and not fall.”

    “It's clear enough,” Brother Horse said. “The bird, that herd—they must have been sent by the gaan, the one who dreams for the Changeling. Probably he sent Moss a dream last night, telling him what to do.” He shook his head. ”This is a powerful man, with powerful spirits at his beck.”

    “One of them is now at mine” Hezhi reminded him. Brother Horse could not cloak the wonder from his eyes. He plainly believed her. A worry awoke in Perkar. He remembered her, back in Nhol, filled with power. She had laughed then, too. It had sounded much like her laugh earlier today, when she stopped the god and his ghost herd. Wasn't her power supposed to be diminished, away from the River? Was it diminished, or merely no longer under the Changeling's command? He would have to watch her even more closely than before.

    But after that moment of sardonic glee, she seemed to return to being Hezhi.

    “I don't see any point in tracking him,” Ngangata said, apparently in response to a suggestion by Yuu'han that Perkar had missed. “He'll be returning to the gaan, probably, and probably with more aid of the sort we just saw.”

    Perkar nodded. “Right. We have to go on.”

    “He knows where we're going,” Hezhi said. “He heard our talk about the mountain. He may not know why, but he knows that is our destination.”

    “Is it?” Tsem asked. “I heard of this only recently, Princess.”

    Hezhi shrugged. “Perkar and the Blackgod both insist we should go. I'm not afraid to now.”

    Brother Horse cocked his head at that. “Princess,” he said, “what we have just seen is astonishing. You stopped and tamed a powerful god. But as powerful as he is, he is still nothing compared to the gods of the mountain, less still to the Changeling. The Changeling could swallow both of your guardians like small morsels and still have plenty of hunger for us.”

    “Nevertheless, I won't spend the rest of my life being chased and hounded by the likes of Moss. Perkar is right; whether we like this or not, he and I must see this through to the end.”

    “Raincaster won't be seeing it through to the end,” Tsem observed.

    Perkar felt a familiar lump rise in his throat, and Hezhi's face twisted in anguish. In an odd way, that was comforting, to see this girl who had just defeated a god mourn a Human Being. To know that, at least to that extent, she was what she appeared to be—a thirteen-year-old girl. Perkar cleared his throat into the silence following Tsem's remark. “You all see what faces us now,” he said. “The skein of this destiny was wound from Hezhi and myself. The rest of you may have entered the tapestry knowingly or unknowingly. Either way, none of you needs face another god, another gaan, or another battle. Raincaster died for us, and others have done the same. I wouldn't blame any of you or think you lacking in Piraku if you were to leave us now. In fact, I even ask that of you.” He glanced at Hezhi, and she nodded in agreement, her little mouth set and certain. In that instant, he wanted to place his arm about her, stand with her as if they were a single tree. But he did not—or could not.

    The others watched them blankly for a moment, all but Tsem, who looked as if he would erupt at any time. It was Brother Horse who answered Perkar, however. Except that he spoke not to Perkar but to Ngangata. “How long do you think these two would last on their own, halfling?” He cleared some dust from his throat and spat it out on the dry earth.

    Ngangata seemed to consider that. “Well, let's see,” he considered heavily. “Between them they have a gods word, a shaman's drum, and two guardian godlets—have I left anything out?”

    “Three Mang horses, including Sharp Tiger,” Brother Horse added.

    “Yes, I should have mentioned them. I don't know; they might make it seven or eight days with all of that.”

    Brother Horse shook his head in disagreement. “No. I think they would either be so busy arguing or avoiding each other or just prancing along in self-satisfaction that they would ride right off a cliff without noticing—in the first day or so.”

    Ngangata nodded thoughtfully. “Yes. I withdraw my estimate.”

    After that, both men sat their horses and just smiled thinly at Hezhi and him.

    Perkar glanced over at the girl. “This ought to make us mad,” he said.

    “It does make me mad,” she snapped. ”But I suppose they've made their point?“ She bailed her fists on her hips and stared up at the others expectantly.

    Tsem finally sighed hollowly. “If we're going, shouldn't we go? Before Moss can go tell every other monster or god or whatever where we are?”

    “I have to sing a dirge for Raincaster,” Yuu'han insisted softly. “Then we can go.”

    “Yuu'han …” Brother Horse began, but his nephew flashed dagger-eyes at him.

    “We can go,” Yuu'han repeated, and then walked over to the corpse of his cousin. Presently they heard singing, and Hezhi began to weep. Perkar felt salt sting his own eyes.

    Soon after that, they started out across the high plains.

Most Read
Top Books