He had not known pain until now; that sensation had been the preserve of mortal flesh and he had not thought to experience it. Nor had he anticipated a second defeat, yet that had come and with it such exquisite pain his preternatural senses exploded in disorder. Vision was gone; taste, smell, hearing lost; touch became an abstract, consumed beneath the raw wash of agony. His universe, his very being, was suffering, the pain overriding all save the one remaining sensation: fear. Fear was a permanent thing for all who served Ashar; more so for him, who was created of and by the god, who was so wholly Ashar's creature.
And fear possessed him now. He felt it in the deepest channels of his unnatural being, gripping him with a strength that slowly overcame the pain, relegating that anguish to a secondary status in his returning awareness.
He had failed his master again.
The once at the Lozin Gate, where the might of the Horde he had raised to bring Ashar's will to the Three Kingdoms broke against the determination of a single manling, and now again when that same weak creation of flesh and blood had stood against him, aided by no more than a weaker woman.
And the talisman, said a voice that was not a voice but a crescendo of agony within him.
He opened his eyes and saw only fire. Ashar's fire, that had sustained him and now seared him. He screamed, knowing the fury of his master, and the fire abated a fraction, enough that he could assess his situation, order his memories, sense the emptiness inside him.
"The talisman?" he asked in a voice that quavered, no longer confident.
Kyrie's talisman! The god spat the words as if even mention of the Lady's name was distasteful.
"She gave them power?" He saw a fragment of hope, a faint glimmer of optimism that glinted dimly through the threatening flames.
Estrevan gave them the stones; the two halves of the talisman. With those they defeated you.
He shuddered afresh. Had his eyes been capable of producing tears he would have wept, but they could not and instead he said, "Kedryn was blind."
Kedryn regained his sight, the god responded, he entered the netherworld with the woman and found the one you used to take his eyes. Borsus gave him back his sight.
"Borsus?" Disbelief was in his reply. "Borsus was my man. How might he aid Kedryn Caitin?"
Did I create so feeble a creature? The utter contempt stung him with a fiery lash. Do you know that all is a balance? That for each move of mine there is a countermove she–again the single word was spat out–may take? It is decreed so by a power greater even than mine, and that allowed the one they call the Chosen to gain back his lost sight. I had thought to outmaneuver her; thought that your suborning of the one called Hattim Sethiyan must win me the game, but it did not. You failed me, Taws.
He felt resentment then, and the god's knowledge of it brought pain afresh to the embodiment of his creation. He screamed, knowing the ululation was as music to his master and might thus placate the god. After what was either a little while or an eternity the anguish eased and he spoke again, fearfully, knowing that he pleaded for his very existence.
"I did not know he penetrated the netherworld. I did not know he had regained his sight. I did not know he possessed the half of the talisman, the woman the other."
And I could not warn you, said the god. She is strong in the Kingdoms–stronger now for your defeat–and I could only trust in you to do my will there.
"As I did," Taws moaned, cringing as the flames that surrounded him burned brighter. "Had I but known of the talismans I could have taken measures against their power."
You had knowledge of the ones whose souls you drank, countered Ashar. You had Kedryn Caitin and the woman called Wynett within your grasp.
Taws groaned, remembering the blue light, the quintessence of all he opposed, that had struck against him and quelled his own hellish fire. "I could not fight against the joined strength of the two halves," he gasped.
No, Ashar agreed, you could not. That power was too great, but it has shown me two things.
There was a pause that the cringing form of the mage took as hopeful until the god spoke again.
While that talisman exists I cannot hope to vanquish either Caitin or the Kingdoms. He holds the one part, his woman the other. Their love binds them as one, uniting the stone. While they, together, possess the cursed thing the balance is weighted in the Lady's favor. I must wrest both parts from them.
"The woman," Taws said quickly, "she will be his weakness; he hers. Separate them, let the one be bait for the other, the talisman the ransom for the captive's life."
It had occurred to me, responded Ashar with massive contempt. Indeed, I have begun my move. And this time I shall not be thwarted.
Taws smiled then, his fleshless lips stretching despite the pain of Ashar's fires. He asked, "What part do I play, Master?"
You have no part, answered the god, you have outlived your usefulness and I have no further need of you. What I do now, I do alone. Now Kedryn Caitin shall face me.
The smile upon Taws's mantis features became a rictus of inexpressible agony as the flames burned higher, brighter, becoming all that he knew, the core of his being until that gift of Ashar was taken back.
Within the farthest reaches of the Beltrevan, Caroc hunters trembled as flame lit the night sky, its brilliance dimming the light of the spring stars, midnight becoming as noonday in high summer. It seemed a rift was opened in the very skin of the world to give access to Ashar's fire, the roiling column stretching to the heavens, its outwash rendering the mightiest trees to pale ash that blew on the hellish wind, that awful gusting felling timber in a great corona about the central pyre. Birds roasted in the branches and small animals upon the ground, burrowing creatures died in their holes while others fled in stark terror from the conflagration, forest bulls running alongside the great cats, wolves pacing them, companions in fear with the deer that bounded, wide-eyed and oblivious of the predators, all unified in their desire to escape that ghastly holocaust.
No men were seriously harmed, for none ventured near that place where first, so legend had it, Ashar had brought the Messenger into the world. It was a place both sacred and cursed, for the Messenger had promised much and led the tribes of the Beltrevan down into defeat. Now, with peace agreed and the world turned on its head with a Kingdomer hef-Alador by swordright, it was deemed best to steer well clear. Consequently only a few suffered hurt, a handful struck by storm-tossed branches, some by charging bulls, a scattering burned by the more natural fire that followed the initial eruption. Most hurried to the more hospitable regions of the forest, wishing only to get themselves well clear of the raging flames, not wishing to know whether Ashar expressed his anger or lamented his defeat. That was something for the shamans to debate, and they would not come together until the time of the summer Gathering; honest warriors, having tasted the ashes of vanquishment, preferred now to go about their human business and leave the arguments of the gods to the deities.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Way Beneath: Kingdoms, Book 3 by Angus Wells. Copyright © 1990 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.