The Blackgod-2#(9)
Author:J.Gregory Keyes

    XXIX Forward-Falling Ghost

    THE first day, Ghan was sure that he would die. By the second, he wished he would. No torturer of the Ahw'en could have developed a more fiendish device for torment than the hard Mang saddle and the horse beneath it. Trotting rubbed his thighs and calves raw; the middle pace shook pain into his entire frame. It was only the extremes—walking and full gallop—that did not immediately pain him, but in the next day he realized that the death grip he kept on the beast when it ran had to be paid for with cramping muscles and febrile pain along his bones. Thrice the meat and tendons of his leg knotting into a bunch near his ankle had sent him sliding to the ground, cursing and shedding tears of pain.

    They did not stop for sleep, and as he had never been on a horse before, Ghan was entirely unable to doze in the saddle as did the rough barbarians around him. When he did drift off, it was only to awake, heartbeats later, in terror of falling. By the end of the second day he was haggard and speechless.

    He did not understand the Mang language, though it contained vague echoes of the ancient tongue of Nhol, and many words were similar. But Ghe could speak with them somehow, perhaps through the same agency by which Perkar had “learned” the speech of Nhol.

    Ghan gathered, before he became unable to take in new information, that the troop of horsemen had been searching for them, apparently at the behest of the man Ghe dreamed about, who was some sort of chief.

    The only other thing that Ghan knew was that they were riding to meet this dream man. And, of course, that he would never live to do so.

    To distract himself, he made an attempt to observe the men around him—if such creatures deserved to be called men. It did not help much. They all looked much the same, with their red-plumed helms, lacquered armor, and long black or brown coats. They all smelled much the same: like horses. They all jabbered tersely in an ugly language, and they all laughed at him, an old man who couldn't even sit a horse without considerable aid. His only comfort came from one of the surviving Nholish soldiers, a young fellow named Kanzhu, who stayed near him, caught him when he was near falling, and gave him water. Kanzhu was a cavalryman himself and knew well how to ride.

    Ghe did not speak to him at all, but rode ahead with Qwen Shen and Bone Eel, both of whom seemed to have at least some facility with horses.

    On the third day, he awoke to find himself lying in short grass. Someone was spattering water in his face, and a large locust sat on his chest.

    “Master Ghan? Can you move?” It was Kanzhu. Ghan sipped gratefully at the water.

    “I guess I fell asleep,” he conceded.

    “Come on. You will ride with me for a while.”

    “They won't allow that.”

    “They'll have to, or leave you, and then they'll have to leave me. I won't abandon a subject of the emperor alone in these lands.”

    A few of the Mang jabbered something at Kanzhu when he got Ghan up behind him in his saddle, but they eventually relented. The main body of riders was far ahead anyway, and they did not want to be left behind arguing.

    “Don't they ever sleep?” Ghan growled weakly into the boy's back. The hard young muscles felt firm, secure, as if his arms were wrapped around a tree trunk. Had he ever been thus?

    Probably not.

    “This is some kind of forced march,” Kanzhu explained. “Lord Bone Eel, Lady Qwen Shen, and Master Yen seem to have struck a bargain with the leader of these barbarians, though no word has come back to us about where we are going—but I've heard a few of these men mention someplace named Tseba. If that's where we're going, they mean to get thereof. Even the Mang would never push their horses like this unless there was some dire need.”

    “How do you know Tseba is a place, and not a person or a thing? Do you speak any of their language?” Ghan asked.

    The boy nodded uncertainly. “Not much. I was stationed at Getshan, on their border, for a few months. I learned how to say 'hello' and a few other things. That's about all. But a lot of their places start with 'tse.' I think it means 'rock,' like in Nholish.”

    “Can you ask how many more days to this place?”

    “I can try,” Kanzhu answered. He thought for a moment and then hollered at the nearest Mang, “Duhan zhben Tseba? ”

    The barbarian screwed up his face in puzzlement. Kanzhu rephrased the question in slightly different syllables. After a moment, comprehension dawned on the man's face, and he grimly held up three fingers.

    “Three more days?” Ghan groaned. But then he gritted his teeth. He wouldn't complain anymore; barbarians and soldiers hated the weak, and while he could do nothing about the infirmity of his body, he could certainly stop whining.

    “Three days then,” he restated, trying to sound positive.

    MIRACULOUSLY, the next day was not quite as bad. Ghan speculated that most of his body had resigned itself to death and so no longer troubled him with pain.

    Kanzhu trotted up that morning. He looked worried. “Something happened to Wat last night.”

    “Who?”

    “One of the soldiers, a friend of mine.”

    “What happened to him?”

    “He died,” Kanzhu stated simply.

    Ghan nodded dumbly. Of course. What else but death would rate notice here, now?

    After a few moments, Kanzhu cut his eyes back toward Ghan furtively.

    “He wasn't stabbed or anything; I saw his corpse. He was just dead”

    “Oh.” Ghan lifted his brows but offered nothing. What good would it do Kanzhu to know? It would only put him in danger. Two more soldiers vanished that night. Kanzhu said their bodies weren't found and confided to Ghan that he hoped they had deserted, though it was clear that he didn't believe they had. Ghan offered his sympathy, but his own worries were growing. This was a bad sign; Ghe was losing control. Though he had consistently avoided Ghan since the Mang had found them, he had ridden near lately, his face a frozen mask, his eyes like hard, black iron. It was as if the humanity in him were sleeping, or strained beyond reason.

    Ghan tried to think it through, to understand what was happening to the ghoul. Though terrible pain still housed itself in his shoulders, his thighs—and weirdly enough, the muscles of his abdomen—it was no longer agony, and he had managed to drop into sleep during periods of walking, which were signaled, like the other paces, by a horn trumpet. This meant it was actually possible for him to think again.

    Ghe was a dead man animated by the River. His body had the signs of life, it was alive in most ways—save one. The spirit, the ghost inside his skin was not that of a man, was not held together by the same stuff of life that held a man together. It was not self-contained. Neither was a living person self-contained; it needed food and water, and in time, despite it all, the essence of a person's life came unmoored from its flesh. But whatever Ghe was, his life came always from outside. Near the River, where the flow of vital energy was constant, what left through his eyes and mouth and every action was merely replaced. Out here—life had to be found elsewhere. And he had more mouths to feed than his own, if Ghan understood his nature correctly. One of them was a goddess.

    The old texts had called creatures like Ghe Life-Eaters, but in the ancient tongue they had also been named “forward-falling ghosts.” That name made sense to Ghan now; Ghe must be like a man trying to run down a hill when his head is moving more quickly than his feet. He cannot stop, for he would fall. He can only run faster and in the end fall faster.

    This was the creature who hungered for Hezhi. He had to be stopped, but Ghan was out of ideas. He was tired, and he wanted real sleep.

    He cast a hopeful look at Kanzhu. Maybe something more could be done. Maybe he could convince Kanzhu to help him flee.

    But that night Kanzhu vanished, and Ghan never saw him again.

    THE next day brought a wonder that cut briefly through all of Ghan's pain and trepidation. The horn to trot had just sounded, and the horses stepped down from running. Ghan was disappointed; now that he was able to stay on the back of his mount without straining every muscle, running was the gait he most preferred—next to walking, of course—because it was the smoothest. Kanzhu had taught him how to survive trotting, as well, but it involved bouncing in the stirrups, using his frail, worn-out legs to absorb the constant jolts. It was more work.

    After only a moment of trotting, however, the signal came to slow to a walk, which was unusual; the shifts in speed were not usually done in such brief intervals. Soon, however, the reason for slowing became obvious. Mountains walked on the horizon.

    The Mang named them nunetuk, but that word seemed somehow too short—or too long—to capture them in sound. Four legs built like the pillars of a hall supported their impossibly massive frames. From their heads snakelike appendages protruded, and to either side of that, sabers of bone—no, it must be ivory—curved up menacingly. They were shaggy, hair ranging from reddish brown to black. Fifteen or so stood in a clump, near a distant line of spruce, grazing in the tall grass. At first there were only the trees to give them scale; but with a sudden chorus of shrieks, a detachment of seven Mang tore off across the prairie toward the monsters and put them in firmer perspective: even mounted, the men scarcely reached to the bellies of the monsters.

    “What are they doing?” Ghan asked incredulously. But none of the Mang answered him—and Kanzhu was gone.

    Still shrieking, the warriors raced up to the now-wary beasts. Some of the larger nunetuk had formed a defensive ring about the smaller ones and the very small ones—only about the size of a horse—which Ghan took to be calves. The men had drawn swords and brandished them in the faces of the beasts; they appeared to be attempting to get close enough to cut them.

    Wouldn't lances be better? he thought, but then he understood that the Mang were not trying to kill the huge animals; they were merely trying to touch them.

    Though that seemed insane, the longer Ghan watched, the more apparent it became that it was true. Deftly avoiding the lunges of the beasts, the massive white tusks that slashed at them and their mounts, the Mang were leaning in to spank the gigantic creatures. The Mang who were still in ranks cheered and shrieked, and for the first time in several days the whole troop clopped to a halt for something other than water or to graze the horses.

    It was a short break; apparently satisfied, the seven men came hurtling back through the grass, waving their weapons. Another group detached and seemed ready to go, but someone ahead barked a string of orders, and, after some brief argument, the seven fell back into line, grumbling. Ghan was watching them, rather than the returning riders, when the yelling and screaming of the Mang redoubled and took on another, more frantic pitch.

    Ghan jerked his face back around toward the approaching horsemen, wondering what had happened. Six of them were wheeling about in confusion and one could not be seen, apparently down in the chest-high growth. His horse's head bobbed up, however, shrilling a sound that Ghan was unaware horses could make, a chilling scream that grated along the bones of his back. The horse disappeared again, hidden by the grass.

    Two of the six riders had lost control of their mounts; one, a handsome beast that was nearly solid black, pawed wildly at the air. Something rose from the grass swiftly, implacably. It disemboweled the horse with a single blow of its huge, blood-soaked paw and lunged for the next rider.

    From the corner of his eye, Ghan saw someone converging on the bloody scene. It was Ghe.

    GHE sensed the beast in the grass before the riders were attacked by it, and with a snarl he urged his mount forward. The mare was used to a more practiced rider, but it responded to his inexpert touch promptly, and he left Qwen Shen and the Mang headman, Chuk, behind him, with only a bemused chuckle from the headman, probably at his poor riding form.

    Ghe cared not for the men who were about to die, but he was hungry, and it was inconvenient to take soldiers during the day. Since noon, he had been able to think about little but feeding, and to be surrounded by the Mang and their horses was like sitting starving in a banquet hall. A smaller part of him also knew that it could not hurt to earn the respect of these wild men. Riding over to the huge nunetuk would have only seemed silly, and it would have been suspicious beyond belief if one of the giant beasts folded up with death as he approached. The Nholish soldiers would certainly guess what had become of their dead comrades then.

    But this thing in the grass, he could pretend to kill.

    By the time he reached it, three men and two horses were already dead or dying. He snatched what he could of their essences, but it wasn't much. The demon he had swallowed gave him great power, but it took much energy to control her, as well. Since taking her, he was always hungry.

    His horse panicked, reared, and threw him, but it seemed to happen incredibly slowly, his senses racing far ahead of motion, and so he easily turned in the air, landed cat-deft on the prairie, and like a cat, he leapt low and fast. Knife in hand, Ghe met the thing in its element, beneath the waving tufts of the grass.

    In that surreal quickening of his senses, he had leisure to inspect the creature in detail. It seemed low and thick, but that was an illusion of its proportions; it would actually stand well clear of the grass if it were not crouching. More than anything else, it resembled a mastiff, a savage dog with an almost square skull and very little snout. Its gore-covered paws, however, were short and thicker than his leg, supporting at least as much mass as a horse, if not more. It was tawny with coffee-brown stripes. Muscles bunched in an ugly hump behind its head.

    Its open maw could easily receive Ghe's head, and that was clearly the intention to be read in the monster's beady black eyes. Were it not for his own power, the thing would be blindingly swift, much faster than a horse, at least in short spurts.

    Ghe hardened himself, sank roots of power into the prairie, pulled density and substance to himself the way the demon had from her river.

    Beast and ghoul cracked together. Despite all of his strength, the impact was staggering, but the monster was more surprised than he. Having just batted a horse from its path like a flea, it had not expected this slight man-creature to withstand. Still, he toppled beneath the claws, at the same time thrusting his knife up through the beast's lower jaw. With the maw open before his face, Ghe saw his bloody steel erupt through the tongue, pass into the upper skull, and emerge in the center of the head. That didn't kill it, he knew; if he were an ordinary warrior, the dog-thing would certainly have enough life and anger to finish him before succumbing to a cloven brain; but in the same instant Ghe took its ghost, drank it down in great, satisfying gulps. For good measure he kept the remnants of its spirit, as well, joined it to the others in his heart.

    So now I am five, he thought as the stinking body collapsed upon him. He let it, smiling at the impacts that shook the great body thereafter as the warriors, belatedly, attacked its corpse.

    He let them pull him from beneath the thing, drenched in its blood, and the cheer that went up then was more than gratifying. He waved his bloody knife in the air, and the cheer redoubled. Walking back to the column of horses, he let one of the warriors chase down his mount, knowing he would appear more dignified on foot than in the saddle.

    The headman rode out and dismounted, which Ghe knew to be an honor, and clapped his bloody hand savagely.

    “I have never seen such a feat,” he said, clearly trying to restrain his admiration a bit and failing. ”The gaan was right about you. He said you would be a lion, and only a lion could have hoped to match a shezhnes.”

    “Shezhnes?” Ghe repeated, inquiring.

    “A grass bear. He must have been stalking the nunetuk when our warriors had the bad fortune to ride upon him.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Is that a godblade?” he asked, indicating his poignard.

    Ghe frowned in puzzlement. “A what?”

    The Mang slapped him on the back. “That answers my question, I think.”

    “But it doesn't answer mine,” Ghe said. “What is a godbladel”

    The headman looked bemused. “A weapon with a god in it. I've heard of them but know little enough about them. I'll be happy to tell you what I do know, though.”

    “I would appreciate that,” he said. In his mind he traced the bitter image of Perkar's sword arcing toward his, how his own River-blessed blade had shivered and nearly shattered when the strange green metal met it. Godblade.

    “The gaan can tell you more.”

    “When will I meet him?” Ghe asked a bit distractedly, waving to the still-shouting crowd.

    “He meets us tomorrow, at White Rock,” the headman said. Ghe nodded, turned to wink at Qwen Shen, whose own eyes held an interesting mixture of fear and relief. He felt renewed affection for her; she was an amazing woman and had given him much. When he was at last rejoined with Hezhi, his true love, he would be as gentle as possible in ending her life.

    TSEBA, Ghan discovered, meant “White Rock,” and the place seemed aptly named, a low-walled canyon of chalky stone that led more or less north into a range of high country. In the last day of the journey, they had been joined by more and more riders; over a hundred sets of hooves clattered into Tseba.

    A single rider awaited them there.

    Ghan wasn't sure what he expected of a Mang chief, but he certainly thought the man would have at least a few retainers, perhaps musicians to herald his coming. The rider was some distance away, but from what Ghan could make out, he wore no regalia—indeed, he seemed worn and bedraggled, as if he had ridden harder and longer than they. He would have doubted this man's identity, save that every Mang present dismounted before him, as did he and most of the Nholish soldiers when they realized what was going on.

    Ghe, Qwen Shen, and Bone Eel were led before the chief by the headman, and the group of them began speaking. Voices carried far in the canyon, but so did the whickering of horses and the stamping of restless hooves, and even though Ghan could hear them speaking, he could make out none of what they said.

    But after a moment, Ghe left and strode back into the army of men and horses. He came like a titan, men moving deferentially from his path, and it was clear he came for Ghan. Ghan gathered his strength and awaited him.

    “Hello, Ghan,” Ghe said when he arrived. “I see that you fared well enough on our journey.”

    “Well enough.”

    “Would you come with me?”

    Ghan quirked a faint half smile. “Do I have a choice?”

    “No.”

    “Why, then, I will be more than happy to come.” He dusted the horse hair from his legs, and when he took his first steps they nearly wobbled from under him.

    “Let me help you, there,” Ghe said, and took a firm—even painful—grip beneath his arm and began escorting him toward the fore of the party.

    “I must admit, Ghan, I've been angry with you,” Ghe confided as they walked along. “Though that isn't precisely why I have avoided you these past days.”

    “Oh? Have you avoided me?”

    Ghe tsked. “You betrayed me, Ghan, and betrayed Hezhi, too, though I'm sure you pigheadedly thought you were helping her. I have avoided you to save your life, however. Every time I look at you, I desire to empty your withered shell of its spirit. And yet I thought some use might still exist for you. And, as it proves out, there ?s.”

    They were almost to the other leaders now, and Ghe slowed a bit—perhaps so that he would not appear to be dragging him. Ghan opened his mouth to ask Ghe what use he might have, but then they were there, the Mang chieftain watching him with bright eyes.

    He was weary-looking, clad in the same manner as any of the Mang around him: long black coat, breeks. The only marked difference was that he wore no helmet. The most astonishing thing was his age; he couldn't be more than sixteen.

    “You are the one named Ghan,” he said in heavily accented but comprehensible Nholish.

    “That is what I am called.”

    “You and I have much to talk about, along with these others,” he said, indicating Ghe and the rest. “You may be happy to know that Hezhi is still alive and well.”

    Ghan blinked as the words sorted into sense, and with comprehension came a flood of sudden emotion, cracking the levees which had so long held it in place.

    “How do you know?” Ghan asked.

    The chieftain tapped his chest. “I see her, in here. Not long ago I rode with her.” He placed his hand on Ghan's shoulder. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am shaman and war prophet of the Four Spruces Clan, and also by the will of the River and heaven, the chieftain of the three northwestern bands.” He swept his hands to encompass all of the men and horses who stood dismounted in the valley, awaiting his command.

    “But you, my friend, may call me Moss.”

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