The savage roaring of the Breakers' weirdling beasts echoed like frustrated thunder off the hills surrounding the Meeting Ground. Through that chorus, and rising higher-pitched above it, the dread riders sang their own blighted hymn, an ululation of thwarted bloodlust. From the trees surrounding the great expanse of meadow, birds frightened by the horrid threnody took flight, adding their own alarm-songs to the cacophony, and in the farther hills wolves howled, and coyotes. The night filled up with noise, rang in horrid lamentation, as the Breakers vented their disappointment on the bodies of the slain, mutilating the corpses of fallen warriors, or gifting them to their mounts like playthings to huge and vicious kittens.
It seemed, in that time the Breakers came down onto the grass of the Meeting Ground and found the People gone, that in all Ket-Ta-Witko only the Maker's holy mountain and the full moon of the Tuming Year stood serene, allied in their defiance of the invaders. The moon silvered the grass--where it was not stained dark with blood--and the holy mountain towered white and dispassionate over all. Where the great arch of light had stood, the Maker-given gateway through which the last of the People had escaped, there was now only trampled ground. Of the People, and their horses and their dogs and their lodges, of the Grannach and all their possessions, nothing remained: they had gone away to another place, another time. Morrhyn's promise was fulfilled.
And the Breakers shrieked in dismay and frustration, their own promise of conquest and destruction denied them, their lust beaten like floodwater washed against immutable stone. Some, maddened by defeat, struck at one another; some turned their blades on themselves, drawing the blood they craved from their own bodies. They were not accustomed to defeat, these reivers of worlds: their habit was annihilation unthinking, massacre, and the overturning of everything stable; anything that was not them.
Then a clarion sounded, cutting like a knife through the tumult, and even before the echoes came back from the hills, silence fell. Riders fought their strange mounts to stillness; blades were sheathed, and the self-mutilators wiped at their wounds and sat their beasts and waited.
From the northern perimeter, where the Commacht had held the cliffs and the fighting had been fiercest, a figure armored magnificently in gold rode down. Curved spikes thrust like defiant talons from the armor, the gauntlets ended in vicious claws, and sharp-edged wings extended batlike from the helmet that concealed the rider's face. A great sword hung on chains from the waist, its blood red scabbard rattling against the skulls that decorated the saddle, which in turn sat upon a mount no human creature had ever ridden. It was unlike the other Breakers' beasts, for it wore the delineaments of a horse, only larger, and with a hide of midnight blue. Horns sprouted from its red-eyed skull and about its flaring nostrils, and its snarling mouth exposed fangs no mortal horse had ever owned. Its muscular form was somewhat disguised by the plates--gold, like its rider's armor--that decorated the chest and neck and cruppers, and as its clawed hooves pranced across the grass, they seemed to leave imprints of flame that matched the exhalations of its breath. It was not so large as the lion-mounts, but as it drew near they pawed the ravaged ground and bowed their heads and mewled acknowledgment of this beast's superiority.
Nor less their riders of the golden-armored figure. They parted silently, shaping a pathway down which the two came as if in bitter triumph to where the arch of light had stood. None spoke as the rider halted the obscene, horned horse and the helmeted head bowed in slow contemplation of the ground, all tracked and trampled on the one side and on the other nothing, save where Breakers had been.
The helmet rose, turning in the direction of the Maker's Mountain. The same moon that lit the great peak bathed the armor in its bright light, but the golden plates appeared to absorb that radiance and dull it and change it, so that the armor, instead of shining, seemed to throb with a fiery life, as if its wearer stood before a blaze, or the metal ran with blood beneath its surface. It was as if the figure defied all natural laws, defied even the Maker.
Slowly, the wickedly clawed gauntlets lifted to the helmet's latchings and raised the pot. The rider shook his head, flinging loose a great spill of long, darkly golden hair. It seemed to glow redly, as if fire danced about the handsome face. And was it fire, then it was matched and met by the glow of his eyes, which burned bright and savage as his steed's, as if blasphemous furnaces burned inside his skull, fueled by the blood of all his slaughtered victims. He cradled the helm against his armored thigh and tugged the horned horse's reins so that the creature danced and snorted.
"They have denied us our prize."
His voice was deep, a musical bass that carried over the Meeting Ground almost as if he sang the words. In the hills, the wolves ceased their howling; the coyotes ended their calling; all the birds fell still. It was if his voice imposed some dreadful and obscene order.
Into that silence he said, "They have escaped us."
He spun his mount around, clawed hooves scratching up great sprays of dirt, the beast snarling.
"None have escaped us before. None!"
He slowed his mount's circling, lowered his head a moment, then raised it up to fix the waiting horde with a smoldering gaze that only a few dared meet.
"This is not the way. We are the Breakers, we are the unmakers of worlds. We are the dark side of light, the shadows that haunt men's dreams when they think of betrayal and dishonor. We are created to punish sin: we destroy. But..." He shook his head and it seemed that tears the color of blood escaped his eyes. "We have failed our duty here. These cringing things escaped us. How could that be?"
Armor rattled, paws scraped; all nervously: no answer came.
"Will none answer me?"
He turned his awful horse around its slowly prancing circle again, red eyes like torches on the horde.
And one replied: "They owned magic, Akratil. Great magic."
"Ah!" He halted the horned horse, facing the speaker, wide mouth parting in a smile. "Bemnida alone has the courage to say it. Come forward, Bemnida."
The speaker hesitated and Akratil nodded encouragingly, beckoning, still smiling. A lionbeast pushed from the throng. Its rider wore armor the color of a summer sky, her hair the pale gold of the summer sun. Her lovely face was delicately beautiful, marred only by the cuts she had carved across her cheeks and nose. Blood still oozed from those, and her pale gray eyes were stormy with frustration. She halted her mount before Akratil and urged the beast to kneel, her own head bowed.
Akratil said, "Rise up, Bemnida. It seems that only you of all my followers have the courage to speak the truth."
Bemnida raised her head and obeyed, urging her mount on until it stood alongside his.
"So, Bemnida," he said gently, "tell me of this magic."
Bemnida looked a moment confused. Akratil smiled at her, and motioned that she speak.
She licked a thread of blood from her lips and said, "It was as if they knew of our coming and rallied against us." Then paused, nervous under that red-eyed contemplation. "As if they owned such magic as warned them. And showed them how to escape." She gestured at where the gate had stood.
"Some did know of us. Those who'd hear us and take our way, whose ambition chooses the dark path." Akratil's smile was feral, like a wolverine savoring a kill. "Some I...spoke with."
"Yes." Bemnida ducked her head in agreement. "But the others, those we fought here...They knew.
Why else did they gather here?"
"Perhaps those little dwarfish folk warned them."
"How?" she asked. "What few we left alive were surely trapped in their tunnels, in the hills. How could they have brought word? They used no riding animals and this is a wide world--how could they have traveled so far in time?"
Akratil nodded. "Indeed. So, how did the others know? Save they do own some scrying."
Bemnida, encouraged, said, "And more. Such magic as enabled them to fashion that gate and flee our wrath."
"And that," Akratil said. "Which was surely great magic."
"Great as mine?" asked Akratil.
"No!" Bemnida shook her head vigorously, soft golden hair flying in a cloud about her bloodied face.
Akratil spoke as if she had voiced no denial. "Great as that Power we serve?"
Again Bemnida shook her head, her denial louder now. "How could that be? Is the day mightier than night? I say, no--that the darkness conquers light, and that we are the darkness of all the worlds' light, and the Power we serve is surely the greatest of all."
Excerpted from Exile's Challenge by Angus Wells. Copyright © 1996 by Angus Wells. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.