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11



ILLUMINATION IN THE DARKNESS: A TORCH SEVERAL YARDS ahead of Gore lit itself a moment after he entered. Then another one just beyond, and another. A cold draft swept angrily at the torches but failed to extinguish them.

And thenanother mirage?he felt a burst of warmth for just an instant from the direction the torches would lead him.

At the conclusion of the dim processional was the larger, warmer light of a crackling fireplace. Silhouetted by the hearth was a bed, crudely fashioned but large enough to accommodate Gores well-proportioned frame. The room was chilly except by the fire; there Gore was toasted into drowsiness, though when he stepped back a few paces the biting cold returned.

The next thing he knew he was laying on the bed, aware of the crunching down feathers filling the mattress, vaguely aware of his own hand pulling a woolen blanket over him. Silencealmost an imposed silenceclaimed lordship over his mind. But when he dreamed, he dreamed of laughter.

Mocking laughter. Children in school who thought he was weird for spending all his time building robots. Later, bullies who taught him the hard way how to fight. His parents, while they were living, when he talked about going to college.

Every laugh laid a brick of stubborn and angry resolve.

Senator OSmith, the laughter of a man drunk both with wine and his small power. Maybe the villagers laughter was good natured when his horse escaped with him still in the saddle, but it stung regardless.

More laughter, unfamiliar, cackling. It still echoed through the castle when Gore shot out of bed.

Hed thought someone was in the room with himbut the figure was gone.

He lay back down but he seemed to have lost his eyelids. The draft came and went like slow laughter approaching invisibly from the hallways. The fires shadows played along the stone walls, but were those other shadows melting out of the firelight?

Something electric touched his shoulder and Gore whirled around reaching for his sword in time to see a shadow disappearing into the wall. But for an instant Gore shook his head, wondering if he had been drugged somehow or was going mad. It seemed as if the shadow had turned back and glowered at Gore before fleeing into the stone.

He jumped at the crash behind him, then cursed himself when he realized it was just a log falling in the hearth. The warmth crept around him again, found his eyelids, pulled them closed.

Gore awoke a second time to utter silence. Room-filling fog muffled even his own quickening breathing. He breathed it in as he might inhale water. He rose again, groggy as if hed not slept for days, and rubbed his eyes. Other eyes watched him from the foot of the bed.

This time he did grab his sword and swing it at themthrough them. It passed right through the center of three figures whose laughter echoed off the arcing blade. They floated around the bed to flank him but nothing Gore did to stop them was effective. His flesh passed through their ethereal substance.

Gore did not believe in ghosts. What remained of his rational mind insisted upon it. At best he allowed there might be quantum phenomena in the universe that would pass for a soul. Reverberations of the no-longer living existing in some other dimension.

He reminded himself of this as the center figure stared at Gore inches from his face.

Flesh-and-bone hand swiped through empty air and the ghost showed teeth. He touched Gores forehead and an electric shock jarred Gores skull and sent him reeling backwards.

He shouted and jumped out of bed uselessly swinging his sword while the specters sang a song composed more of cat howls than words. Ridiculously he jumped out of the way of one as it flew past him, and tripped over something that was not there when Gore looked down.

One ghost flung itself out a door while another disappeared into the wall. But before the third could escape Gore leaped for the ground toward it, swinging his sword just inches off the floor. It clanged against metal.

A small conical shape wobbled backward and the ghosts image flickered. If not for his sword Gore never would have seen it: a bullet-shaped robot with a smoky mirrored coating to reflect the stone around it. Mounted at its peak was a small swiveling concave dish which, Gore realized, projected a hologram of the now static-filled specter. One that could occasionally fire an electrical shock.

The Haunted Castle did its best to keep Gore awake long after its secret had been pried into the light. Wind rattled and howled desperately as if imprisoned by chains. Now and again a woman screamed from the floor. The fire repeatedly died and was reborn.

Gore laid his sword beneath his bed, crossed his arms, and doggedly closed his eyes.

But his sleep was light and troubled, filled with his personal ghosts of bullies and parents and state senators all swirling around him as if he was the center of a freakish blender of flesh. He was aware of three more white outlines surrounding him but refused to pay them heed.

Until one drove a sword into his right leg.

That got Gores attentionand yanked a scream out of himbut nearly too late. The next blow was meant for his sword arm but raked his back instead as Gore tried rolling off the mattress. Another blade sliced into the back of his left leg and he did himself no favors by yanking tender flesh away from the metal.

But now he had retrieved his own sword.

Gore let every aggressive feeling he ever had, ever ounce of self-defense, boil to the surface. Pain channeled into his blood to form the red haze dripping over his eyes. Gore knew it had to be so or he would be finishedhe might be finished now anyway.

Dead or not, he refused to let his attackers live to brag their tale.

The first chest level thrust drove hard into bone. The ghost dropped like a stone, apparently crushing its holographic emitter to reveal a man beneath the manipulated photons.

Somehow Gore remained on his feet, fed by the waves of fear he could sense in the men through their spectral images. They floated quickly away, not through the walls but the doors, formless limbs trying to pull down the torches to mask their escape. Some torches fell but stayed lit.

His legs throbbed and each throb spurted out more precious blood. Still he ran. Even though he was growing aware, as the world darkened, that they were gaining too much distance for him to catch them.

Then two of Gores robot-created tormentors of earlier that night happened to pass the hallway and noticed the wailing fakers. They swept forward with arms outstretched and heads bobbing back and forth, though passing right through the attackers

Who had stopped in surprise just long enough for Gore to close the gap. The first looked down in surprise to see Gores sword coming out from his heart. The second put up some resistance but Gore had not come this far only to fail. That one tried to flee with his throat opened but tumbled forward after a few steps.

Gore, at last, collapsed. The floor was slick with his blood. He tried to rise but his damaged legs refused his command. The frigid stone felt warmer and softer than any bed ever had.

And still, his sleep was unsettled. When his eyes opened once more the sun was weaving up and down in the sky as if undecided which way it wanted to go. Now it was bright, now the gray of dusk, now raining, never night. Sometimes Gore could see the moon, and Venus, the Morning Star. Once the cyclopean red eye of Mars watched him with more than passing interest.

There was a dull constant pain in his chest. After what seemed to be a few years he realized it was the pressure of a small but sturdy shoulder. One he was thrown over. The one who carried him had red hair tied into a single braid that covered her neck, and pale skin on the way to burning from the outdoors.

The fingers holding him in place were delicate but clenched him securely; they smelled of earth and loam, and there was dirt under the fingernails.

Then he was laying on a blanket on a packed-earth floor beside another bed more roughly-wrought than the one in the Haunted Castle. An old woman lay in it with a steel in her eyes that belied the rattling in her breathing. She didnt so much rise out of bed as float, as if invisible ghosts were pulling her up by her arms.

The Witch of Agravaine greets thee, wayfarer, she hissed, then cackled. Oh, he will be fine, child. He be the one Ive waited for.

Another figure stepped into Gores vision: the redhead who carried him. A young woman with pale blue, deep, skeptical eyes. Her simple shift and light dressboth greenwere smudged with dirt and dark bloodstains. She brushed her hands together and put her hands on her hips.

I can heal him, should he let me, she said. Her voice was as deep as her eyes, as rich as the best soil in Scadia, and as clear as a mountain-born stream. To Gore she said, I can take the Evil Eye from thee as well, but that will cost thee a favor wheneer I ask.

Fine, Gore muttered. Who are you?

Igraine. This is my aunt, the Witch of Agravaine, exiled to the Perilous Woods by Camelot. And thou somehow, even with thy injuries, managed to kill thee three of the Wicked Dukes henchmen who lay in ambush within the Haunted Castle.

Gores mind twinkled with understanding. The henchmen must have stayed behind in Camelot to tail anyone sent after Marrok. What better way to lull their prey into a false sense of security than make him think no threat in the castle was real?

The witch cackled again. Thou art a boil on the butt of yon king, stranger. And twofold, it is thy destiny to face down the Wicked Duke. Camelot and Dolorous only once eer agreed on anything, and it was to cast out old Margri to this wretched place. Naught I can do to avenge myself in my feeblehoodbut thou, O angry one, thou will take my vengeance for me. If thou lives!

Gore looked at Igraine and said without words, Do what you must to make me survive.

She pulled open the drawstrings of a leather bag. Then she was holding a vial to his nose that smelled of lavender, lilac, and carnations. First he felt as if his body were floating, then as if his soulwhatever that might befloated above his body, watching Igraine tend his wounds.

He did not float alone. Surrounding him were all the faces from his recent nightmares and he swung an ethereal sword at them as they laughed. Now and again Igraine would grab one and hold it for him long enough for him to slash it open, at which point it would disappear.

When every torturing face was gone, Gore watched the rest of Igraines stitching with detached fascination. He realized their exchange was not quite one way: for every memory she pulled, Gore felt bits and pieces of bitterness or great joy of her own. Now Gore knew that she loved her aunt but hated the Perilous Woods and would leave this ramshackle cottage once she no longer had to care for the old woman. Now he knew that she had the ambitionsand the skillsto be a knight as well as a doctor. Now he knew that she loved watching the stars at night, tracing their courses, staring at them endlessly with a telescope. Now he knew that she felt frustrated by the belief that she would never rise above the peasantry in Scadia because the Witch of Agravaine shared her blood.

Igraine did not just tie stitches; she tied their memories together, lightly but indelibly in a way he did not pretend to understand. But a whisper in his ear told him this was no artificial binding. They were meant to meet again, and this would ensure that they did.

Lastly she grabbed Gores floating self and pulled him back down into his body. Pain returned. But not nearly so much as he expected.

She looked him up and down once with her pale eyes, rubbed her thumb against her chin, then declared him fit enough to survive to fight another day. Then she said she would be about in the woods gathering more herbs and roots for a poultice, and vanished from Gores sight as if the air had swallowed her.

The old womans grin was wicked as she lay back down in what he was sure would soon be her deathbed.

I see thy days ahead as clearly as thou smell my foul breath, stranger, she told him. A bent finger pointed at him. A terrible burden lies on thy road ahead. I see thee covered in red, and I see thou silenced. But this, unlike most men, be a destiny thou will forge thyself, in fire, in blood, in muscle, in treachery.

Gore said nothing. He believed in prophecy no more than he believed in ghosts, but the implications refused to leave him alone. Covered in red blood. And what else could the silence be but death?

She handed him a necklace, a silver chain ending in a black gemstone holding a thousand silver sparkles within. Put it on, wayfarer, she told him, and he did. When thou find Prester John, old king and progenitor of this placeand thou will meet him, mark methe gem wields magic built inside to protect thee from the dangers thou will face in his castle. He didnt remember falling asleep, and the cottage was empty when he awoke. There was a hearty fire in the hearth, though, below a bubbling cauldron of beef stew. A clean bowl and spoon awaited him nearby on a crooked table. No one burst in to protest when he filled the bowl and ate, then again, and washed both down with a cup of mead.

His horse was tethered to a tree outside but neither Igraine nor the Witch of Agravaine were anywhere in sight. Nor were any clouds; the sun had reconquered its domain and lit a broad road toward the Castle Dolorous.

He felt scars stinging his legs and back, and the hand cut by the Wicked Duke, along with tight bandages on all those places. But it only now occurred to him that he was walking without trouble. His brain dangled the idea of magic in front of him but he shook off that foolish notion along with any other similar physical or metaphysical implications.

He might try to find an explanation later. For the nonce, he thanked the young and tough maiden fair and her tougher aunt out loud in case they were in earshot. Then Gore mounted his steed and accepted Natures invitation to resume his quest.



10 | The City Beyond Play | 12