Tranis followed Robert Marshweed back to the street and down it a short distance to another alley. At the end of that alley they found a trap door opening on stairs dropping under the pavement. Robert pulled the door open and descended the stairs, waving to Tranis to follow. Tranis did and Robert closed the trap door behind them. The stairway was dark and damp and had a closed-in, unpleasant smell.
“Where do these stairs lead?” he asked as Robert lit a lantern that had been hanging on a hook just below the door. The light showed Robert’s apologetic smile.
“To the sewers, I’m afraid. It’s the easiest way to reach the Lady’s house.”
“Who is this Lady? And why does she live in the sewers?” Tranis wrinkled his nose. Now he recognized the smell, and expected it to get worse.
“Oh, she doesn’t live in the sewers, Lord Tranis. She lives in a house a few miles outside the city walls. But there’s a tunnel to it that intersects the sewers so that’s where we’re going. We could go overland but it would take longer. Also, she doesn’t like people knowing where her house is. A very private person in some ways is our Lady.”
“I can manage, I suppose.”
“As for who she is, she’s the leader and founder of the People of the Shadow. She established the movement ten years ago, and has been our leader since then. You’ll see why when you meet her.”
“I admit to being curious. Lead on.”
The sewer smell did indeed become stronger as they descended, but at least when they emerged from the bottom of the stairs into the sewer itself, it was onto a wooden walkway so that they were not slopping through the mucky water. Tranis pulled a cloth from his pocket and held it over his face. Robert seemed inured to the smell. They had not followed the walkway long before they came to a door. Robert opened it with a key and the two of them passed through it out of the sewer and into a tunnel, quickly leaving the smell behind them.
“I apologize for that necessity, Lord Tranis, but it does keep the Lady’s home well concealed. Few come down here, and when they do it’s only for routine maintenance purposes, or to hide from the law. The remainder of the journey should be more pleasant. I trust you are not inconvenienced by being underground.”
In fact, Tranis found that he was mildly discomforted, which surprised him. He had been born and grown up in the underground city of D’Kushith, but had lived the last twenty years in D’Anrith. Occupying the abandoned city of the Foe with its airy towers, white marble buildings and sunny vistas, he had lost his taste for life in the tunnels. To be sure, this tunnel was crude, narrow, and poorly lit compared to those in the city of his birth. That didn’t help matters.
“I’m fine. By the way, you don’t need to call me ‘Lord Tranis.’ Just Tranis will do, or if you must give me a title, General Tranis.”
“As you wish, sir. We’ll be at the Lady’s home soon.”
The remainder of the journey passed in silence. Before long the tunnel widened and then ended in a pair of iron doors. To Tranis’s surprise, the doors had been carved in imitation of those that opened from the Upper City of D’Kushith, which was built on a shelf aboveground, onto the main thoroughfare of the Deeps. These doors were much smaller, but the image of the Lord of Shadow had been reproduced faithfully. Robert made a formal bow before the image. He swung a small felt hammer into a gong that rested beside the doors, producing a rich tone. A small panel in one of the doors slid open, revealing light from the interior and a pair of eyes. Apparently satisfied, the person on the other side of the door slid back its bolt and swung it wide.
To Tranis’s astonishment, the hallway on which the door opened was lit by magic. Crystal lanterns hung upon the walls exactly like those that might be expected in D’Kushith.
“Interesting,” he said. “May I ask where you acquired these magic lamps?”
“The Lady brought some of them with her. I think she probably manufactured more.”
“Brought them with her?”
“The Lady comes from the other world as you do, General Tranis.”
“Well, now, isn’t that interesting.”
The hall led to a room about twelve feet square, and that room was furnished in the fashion of D’Kushith as well, with cushions on the floor in lieu of chairs and sculpture displayed on low tables in a style that had been popular among the Faithful roughly a decade ago. It might still be as far as Tranis knew, although it had fallen out of use among the Brightlings. The servant who had opened the door was no Darkling, though; he had the paler complexion and early signs of aging that marked him clearly as one of the slavers. His brown hair was streaked with gray, two creases marred his face on either side of his nose, and his belly bulged out in a noticeable paunch. His clothing was immaculate and expensive-looking. He was unarmed.
“Who is your guest, Robert?” the man asked.
“This is General Tranis, Michael, one of the dark faeries come to join us. As a general, he is surely favored of the Lord of Shadow.”
Michael nodded. “Wait here, please, and I will inform the Lady of your coming. I’m sure she will want to greet the general herself. Can I bring you any refreshment in the meantime?”
“Not for me, thank you,” Tranis said.
“Nor for me,” said Robert. Michael nodded and left the room. A short time later he returned followed by a woman. “Thank you, Michael, Robert,” she said in a deep voice from the shadows where Tranis couldn’t yet see her clearly, but he could hear her Darkling accent. “You may leave us now. This guest is no danger to me. Robert, you’ll be back for the general gathering day after tomorrow, of course.”
“Of course,” Robert said.
The two men bowed and left, Michael to another part of the house, Robert down the hall to the tunnel.
As the woman walked into the light, smiling, her steps decisive, Tranis stood frozen in astonishment. She was without a doubt – not counting Illowan, whose divine nature perhaps constituted cheating – the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Her dark, shining hair fell behind her to the middle of her back except for two long strands that draped forward and framed splendid breasts under her white tunic. No gray touched it yet, so she must be some years younger than Tranis. The bones of her face had almost too much strength for beauty, but fell just short of that threshold so that they gave her a sculptured look with high cheekbones and a dimpled chin. Her eyes smiled along with her mouth. They were big, widely-spaced pools of glory in which his attention swam languid strokes above a long, sharp nose and a sensuous mouth that seemed to demand kissing. The finely-toned muscles of her body defined strong limbs, shapely hips and a narrow waist. Her skin was dusky perfection, gleaming in the light without a single visible blemish. Her fingers were long and looked capable; an artist’s hands.
Who was this woman? Why was she here?
The answer lay in a silver medallion that hung between her breasts: an eight-pointed star with a black stone in the middle, clasped by a silver eye. That was the emblem of the Priesthood of the Shadow. But most of the priests wore pendants with white, blue, or red stones. Only the highest and most accomplished of them were allowed to wear the pendant with the black stone, sorcerers of great power, enjoying the confidence and frequent company of Malatant himself.
“General Tranis,” she said in her deep voice that hummed through his blood like music, speaking in the language of the People now that the slavers were gone, “I am greatly honored by your visit. My name is Gilusa.” She bowed and held out her hand.
Tranis took it and kissed it. Gilusa’s smile widened.
“I have heard of you, of course,” she went on. “The first man to recognize the Lady of Fire, who brought her back from the city of the Foe to D’Kushith. You honor me far beyond my merit.”
“Permit me to doubt that, Priestess Gilusa. Anyone who has achieved the Black Eye rank at so young an age must be truly formidable. Am I right in assuming that you are here at the behest of the Lord of Shadow himself?”
“Of course.” She grinned. “You, however, are no doubt here at the bidding of our folk’s other deity. I wonder whether you are a servant of the Shadow or of the Light.”
“I wasn’t aware there was any conflict between the two.”
“There isn’t – yet.”
“Then I am – for the present – a servant of both.”
Gilusa laughed. “Well said, General. I must hope that you will make the right choice when the time comes that a choice must be made. I am, as you observed, a holder of the Black Eye, privileged to receive instruction from the god himself. I have also borne his child.” She shrugged. “That of course is not a privilege of any particular rank, though it is a great honor, the more so as I was only seventeen, and now my son is a grown man and rising in the Priesthood himself. And I know as well that you have fathered a child upon the Lady of Fire, for she bore your daughter a few years before I climbed the Tower. In this the gods continue to transform the People, but now it seems that the gods of the Foe have a plan to transform the world of the slavers itself.”
“And you have come to stop this plan?”
“Of course not. How could I stop it? Even Malatant himself could not stop it; he is one god and they are ten. But he will have his part in the great change, and I’m here to help him do so. And you, General Tranis?” She stepped closer and looked into his eyes. He felt her power tugging on his heart. “Tell me true. What has the goddess sent you to do?”
“I tell you truly, Gilusa, I don’t know. She said I have much to do in this world, that I should learn and grow, take part in great deeds, meet her daughter, and fall in love. That’s all.”
“Really – are you to fall in love with Sonia Sandburr, then?”
“I asked Illowan that and she wouldn’t answer.”
“Ah, well, that’s a relief. I would much prefer you to fall in love with me, you see.”
He laughed. “That is altogether likely, beautiful one. But it would be very dangerous, I think.”
“To fall in love always is, but you have a reputation as a brave man, Tranis Troll’s Bane. Have you met Sonia yet?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Falling in love with her might be even more dangerous. I am only Malatant’s Priestess, not his daughter or the Lady of Fire’s. But we will see.” She closed the distance between them and took his face gently in her right hand. She looked once more deep into his eyes, frowning. “There is great strength in you, General Tranis. Also a great destiny, and you are the pivot on which many events hinge.” She stroked the line of his jaw. “Such a handsome man, too. There is danger here for both of us, I think.” She released him. She stepped back and frowned in thought. “I’ll be honest with you as you were with me, Tranis. To admit you into our movement would be a risk, for you serve the Lady of Fire, not the Lord of Shadow. While the conflict between the two isn’t open yet, it’s coming. You know that as well as I do, so don’t deny it. And yet to refuse you and send you back to the city would also be dangerous now. The safest thing to do would be to kill you.” Her eyes followed Tranis’s alert stance and the way his hand rested on the hilt of his sword. “If I can kill you. I’m not certain of that. I am a great sorceress, but there’s a magic in the art of war, too, and you are its adept. In any case, the safest course is not necessarily the best. There’s weakness in constant prudence, in never taking risks.” She smiled. “I shall not kill you. What a waste of beauty and strength that would be! Instead, I shall endeavor to win your trust, your help, and your loyalty. And the first step in that is to offer you my trust. Would you know more of who we are, we People of the Shadow?”
Tranis allowed himself to relax – a little. “That would be well.”
Gilusa sat on the cushions. “Will you take some wine with me, General? I swear by the Great Fire and the dark god’s name that you will suffer no harm from it.”
Tranis sat on other cushions facing Gilusa. “I will trust you. Wine would be nice.”
She nodded and clapped her hands. Michael appeared. “Yes, Lady?”
“Some of the white wine, please, Michael. And also, bring the book that’s sitting on the corner of my bed.”
“As you wish.”
They waited in silence for the minute or two that Michael required to bring the wine and the book. Tranis half expected Gilusa to have a stock of wine from the other world, but no, this was clearly a slaver vintage, although a very good one. The book, which she handed to him for his examination, proved to be thick and heavy, but also mostly blank. In the first pages were written names and addresses of people. Tranis raised his eyebrows in query.
“A roster of our membership, no more. I show it to you as a gesture of trust. With that information you could if you chose hunt down our members and destroy them, forcing me to start over again, or give their names to the authorities, with possibly even worse results. Of course, if you were hostile enough to do either of those things, you could just try to kill me right now.”
“I dislike all this talk of killing, Gilusa. We are not enemies, or I hope not. My only reason to consider killing you is because you mentioned doing the same to me.”
She smiled. “Very well, Tranis. I believe you and we will speak no more of that.”
“This gives me a list of names and addresses but doesn’t answer any of the questions I have.”
“No. Well, to put it simply, Malatant sent me here twelve years ago. Since the gods of the Foe fooled him so well at the Worm’s turning, he has pulled his eyes away from the old prophecies, now fulfilled although not in the way he had hoped, and found new visions. He sees the transformation of the slaver world, the rise of magic among these people while the Foe adopts many of the clever crafts they use. He sees the coming war between the slaver nations and the People of the Sea, which is what the Foe have taken to calling themselves. He sees the danger of a rift between the Faithful and the Brightlings in the other world. It’s not as certain as the old vision was, but that certainty deceived. And he sees as well that this nation, this Kingdom of Grandlock where the Singer was born, is the key to many of the coming struggles. He sent me to manage our interests in this land.”
Tranis glanced through the book and made a quick count. “You have over a hundred members. How do you find them?”
“I don’t. I call them.”
“The way Malatant calls his chosen from the Foe? Or used to, I should say.”
“Of course. It’s only magic. One need not be the Lord of Shadow to call out to the Shadow in the soul. His initiates can do it almost as well.”
“And the winnowing?”
“That I’m afraid has gone lacking. We badly need the manpower, and some of the People of the Shadow are – well, I fear they would not pass the winnowing in D’Kushith. That’s as it must be until we are stronger.”
Tranis closed the book. “I believe I must disagree, with respect. Without the winnowing, the call is only a summoning of evil. To summon the wicked, to empower the best of them to rise above their wickedness, to chain those who cannot rise, to kill those who cannot be chained – that is Malatant’s way. You know this.”
Gilusa frowned and bit her lip. “I do know it. What would you suggest? That we attempt recreation of the whole process without the god on hand to make it work? The god can work through me, but imperfectly.”
“Why is he not on hand to make it work? He sent you here to organize this. He should be prepared to oversee the outcome. Or was creating the People of the Shadow your idea?”
Gilusa flushed. “It was my idea. But the god sent me with a broad mandate to do whatever seemed likely to advance his goals. I noticed something obvious, that over the years after the Foe returned to this world and the gods began to assert their presence, temples to all of them started springing up all over Grandlock. All but one.”
“I doubt there are any temples to Illowan.”
She nodded. “You’re right. Two. Only the Foe’s gods are represented here. Both of ours are missing.”
“So you set about creating a – secret temple, I suppose, dedicated to Malatant.”
“Yes. It had to be secret. Both the Church and the government look on the return of the Old Gods with suspicion, but fear to offend them. Illowara’s lesson in that regard has been taken to heart. But they would shut it down if they could or dared, and Malatant’s worship is from their point of view even more dubious. Better to keep it in the shadows. That is appropriate in any case as he is the Lord of Shadow.”
“Have you informed him of all this?”
“He surely knows.”
“Yes, he surely knows.” Tranis frowned. “And that means that he chooses not to aid your work directly. Why not, I wonder?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, if you wish me to take part in this movement, perhaps the best next step would be for me to meet these hundred souls or more, so that I can get a sense for how many of them would fail the winnowing as you say, and how badly.”
Her eyes flashed. “Do you seek to take command of the movement and usurp my place?”
He smiled. “By no means, and why would you think I could? But it was a surprise to find any of the old gods worshiped here, and to discover a secret cult dedicated to Malatant is a bigger surprise still. Of course, in a sense all of those temples up there to the Good God are dedicated to the Lord of Shadow.”
“In a sense, although the worshipers don’t know that and would be horrified if they did.”
“Yes. So I am interested. You’re right that my first allegiance is now to Illowan, but I haven’t turned against Malatant. I see the necessity of what he does, and that the list of divine powers is incomplete without him. Illowan herself sees this.”
“I don’t believe she is going to turn against him, Gilusa.”
“The prophecy says –”
“If we are to learn anything from how the old prophecies came true, shouldn’t it be that prophecy can be misinterpreted? She’s a goddess. He’s a god. If there was a basis for true conflict between them they would both know it.”
“I remember when she came to D’Kushith, how frightened she was of him. She struggled wildly against her fate. But after she became a goddess, all that was gone. There is love between them. I don’t really understand it, considering how different they are, but I can see that it’s so. If there is to be conflict between the two groups of our people in the other world, it will be because of us, not because of our Lord and Lady.”
“Well, you have known both of them, and I have never met the Lady of Fire, so I will have to take your word for it.”
“Here’s another thing to consider, Gilusa. You spoke of Illowan sending me to this world as if I were the agent of a foreign power, come to undermine what you do here on the dark god’s behalf. But I don’t believe that she could – or would want to – do this without his knowledge. She sent me here, it’s true, but if Malatant had opposed my coming he would surely have let me know. Yet he did not, nor has he applied the winnowing to your people as he does at home. He has reason for that forbearance, even though it’s not obvious what the reason is. Whether you trust me or not, I believe you should trust my goddess. And I think that Malatant would agree.”
Gilusa took a deep breath and closed her eyes. They fluttered and vibrated under their long lashes in a manner Tranis had seen before among the priests and mages, showing that she entered the waking dream of a deep meditative state, in which she might commune with Malatant or with the depths of her own soul. After about a minute of this her eyes opened and he saw to his great surprise that they had tears in them. If her distress was not genuine, it was a magnificent job of acting.
“You’re right, Tranis. I – I’m in the wrong here.” She stood up and turned her back to him. She leaned her head against the wall. “I was furious and disappointed when the Foe tricked us, returning to this world and leaving our victory empty. After believing for so long that the coming of the Lady of Fire would mean what it did not – I blamed her. I saw her as a traitor. I’ve been angry with her since then. But I think I had not let myself see it until now. The god will still hear no word against her.” She turned back to face him and knelt before him, smiling widely. The tears had stopped, though they streaked her face and her eyes were reddened. “It’s hard to accept something like that, you know. For me, anyway; my pride is my downfall.” She took his hands in hers. “I needed to see this. I’m so glad you came. Will you forgive me?”
“For thinking of you as an enemy. For thinking of killing you. For being unworthy of the trust I’ve been given by the dark god, and just generally for being an ass.”
Tranis laughed. And then, knowing that she could still be manipulating him, indeed suspecting it strongly but unable to stop himself, he took her in his arms. She flung her own arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder. Her smell compounded of herself and a subtle spicy perfume filled him to the point of dizziness.
A voice of caution whispered in his ear that there was something false in this, something wrong, a hint of sorcery misused and blinded wits. He tried to muster the will to push Gilusa away, to put some distance between them and think. He opened his mouth to say that he meant her no harm but that she owed him nothing and forgiveness was not an issue. He began to tell her that as lovely as she was, he was not ready for anything intimate with her at this point.
“Yes, I forgive you,” he said. Nothing more.
Her head turned. Her lids half-shaded her magnificent eyes. Her lips parted and her hand went to the back of his head. His mouth met hers and, manipulated or not, he didn’t care. He was lost.
Late at night, Gilusa awoke and sat up abruptly. She almost screamed, not with fright but with rage. A man lay in bed with her. She could smell him. She could feel the warmth of his body. For a moment, befuddled with sleepiness, she wanted to take the dagger hidden in the bed stand and plunge it into his throat.
She shook her head. No: that was a dream only, and this man was General Tranis, not one of the impossible-to-number men who had used her like a thing in the hideous years from her puberty to the blessed day when Malatant himself had taken her to his bed. The god had seen her potential and after giving her a night of ecstasy that for the first time in her life made her actually like sex, he had inducted her into the priesthood and started her on her path to power.
Oh, but before that happened –
Gilusa’s hands shook with the memories and the aftermath of her nightmare. Only one nightmare was worse, and that one never touched her in this world. If only these memories and this nightmare would also disappear!
Would her sordid past never leave her, no matter how much power she gained, no matter that today she was the one who used men as her toys and tools? No, those memories were her curse, the stain of her early life, a burden until she died or entered the Long Sleep deep in Elderhood. Born into slavery, still her childhood hadn’t been too terrible until she had her first period and became by law the sexual plaything of any man or woman who wanted her. And all the men wanted her. Even at eleven years old she had been beautiful and the fame of her beauty quickly spread, so that men would call for her purely to see the lovely, delicate child-woman, and in seeing to desire, and in desiring to take. Being a slave, she had no right to refuse any of them. As she grew older and changed from a precious waif to a gorgeous young woman, it only became worse.
How many hundreds of cocks had taken possession of her vagina or forced their way into her backside or spurted their vile juice in her mouth? How many dozens of times had that same mouth been forced to pleasure another woman – something she had no interest in at all and that disgusted her even more than the men? Too many to count, and not one of them an act she desired or enjoyed, even when the men took control of her body and made her have an orgasm, as some liked to do. Even then, though her body tingled with pleasure, her caged spirit loathed it.
She took a deep breath. Those days had ended forever when she was sixteen and the god had taken her, filling her with his child. Only five years, but each day of it had been worth a year of degradation and shame.
Well, the past was the past, and now Gilusa was in control. Men still desired her, but now that gave her power over them. That made all the difference. The same actions that had disgusted her in her slavery she often found enjoyable as long as the power was in her hands, and she was certainly good at them thanks to all the practice. But the memories remained and burned.
She looked at Tranis sleeping in her bed. Such a handsome man he was, and clever and strong and even, in his way, kind and honorable. But still a man, and so someone to use, a way to advance her power in this world.
While he slept, she worked her spells deeper into his mind. There was murder to be done. He was a great warrior. She had use for such a man.
She was glad she hadn’t killed him.
Or continue to Chapter Three.