Shoel's Story

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Izrask

Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight


The following three days were better than the previous week in one way only: Shoel wasn't worried about Hemlock's dislike or mistrust. In just about every other way, it was worse. The forest, though humid and with the presence of wraiths tickling the edges of her awareness, had at least been pretty and full of the sounds of life, no matter how silent she and her traveling companion were. In the desert, everything was dead-- not Dead, but lifeless and silent: it seemed to go forever, not a single tree or even a bush in sight, just sand, sand, the occasional carrion bird or lizard, and more sand. They didn't even have much to eat but their dried supplies, and that, in itself, was dreary. At least Shoel had memorized the maps well enough to find them oases when they needed them.

At least there wasn't any strife coming from within the group. Hemlock had been quiet, still or again, but Shoel thought the silences might have shifted into something more comfortable. Or, they would have been more comfortable if the surroundings hadn't been so dreary and uncomfortable, in themselves. The necromancer wasn't quite a depressing presence, but when combined with the heat and dull sameness of the desert, it didn't exactly help Shoel retain her own cheer, what little of it she had to begin with.

It was almost a relief, though a mixed one, when the monotony of the desert and its lifelessness was intruded upon now and then by the faint sense of something following them. It didn't seem to be Dead, exactly, but it was similar, almost reminding her of the metallic tang of Free Magic. No matter what it was, Shoel kept up the nightly ritual of setting up a diamond of protection, just in case it decided to come closer.

It was the third night sleeping in the desert-- not a time when Shoel slept well to begin with, since it was so cold in the desert at night-- when Shoel was rudely awakened by the thing she had vaguely sensed but couldn't quite place. Its presence was different than that of any Dead, making her head throb slightly with its magic-- not quite the nausea of Free Magic, but close enough for the association to be made. The thing itself smelled strongly of sulfur and burning flesh, a glowing, flaming shape of shadow just outside the diamond, just far enough and concealed enough that she couldn't make out much of its shape, except that it was four-footed. It whispered to itself, snarling and hissing with sulfuric breath passing through its shadowy fangs: "A girl, is it, a human girl? Perhaps those wraiths aren't worthless after all. What is a human girl doing on Pre'Mian?"

Frowning, Shoel lay still, staring past her own magic at the thing. What was it? Maybe Hemlock would know; he was still sleeping, mostly curled up inside his bedroll but with one arm out-flung with some dream or another. She snaked a hand out of her bedroll to catch his wrist, hoping to wake him quietly and not catch the attention of the creature outside her shield. He jerked at the touch, coming awake instantly and opening his mouth as it to say something, but then closed immediately, eyes darting around. He probably sensed the thing, too, though he was facing the wrong way to see it; he could probably smell the thing, actually, whether his sense of the Dead and magic worked the same way as hers, or not.

Shoel jerked her head just slightly in the direction the thing was, hissing as softly as she could, "It's been following us since we started into the desert. Four-footed, flaming, fanged-- any idea what it is?"

"Hellhound," Hemlock answered in a hoarse whisper, tense, and not just because she still had his wrist. The hellhound had fallen silent now and was watching them with orange eyes, a bright red tongue hanging out from between its jaws in a ridiculously doglike manner for something so alien and threatening.

"Can it get past my diamond?" she whispered back.

"Has it already?" there was some hopefulness in Hemlock's voice, but there was an out of character expression of fear on his face, though she could tell he was trying hard to control it. Hellhounds were, apparently, bad news.

"No. I think it knows we're awake, though. It was talking, before." So, if it couldn't get past her diamond, she might as well sit up and get a better look at it, especially since their ruse was up. Shoel slid slowly into a sitting position, staring out into the darkness past Hemlock and frowning with thought. If even Hemlock was afraid of one, could she even do anything about it, besides stare?

The creature stared back, head lowered threateningly and orange eyes glowing in the darkness, cunning rather than dull like the eyes of the wraiths. It was definitely a hound, canine in shape and stance, though gaunt like the desert racing dogs on Atu. It glared at the diamond briefly, before looking back at Shoel and meeting her eyes. A searing heat burned through her mind, and her hands flew to her temples with a hiss of pain. What was it doing-- some new kind of attack?

Then it withdrew, and the hellhound made a sound, a bark that sounded like a short laugh. Then she heard, ::A necromancer that banishes the dead? How odd, and a human no less!:: The voice was smug, and most definitely masculine-- and the same as what she'd heard muttering, if with a more mental feel, like the telepathy of a dragon. "It" was male, and he had apparently just read her thoughts. Powerful or not, magical or not, that was enough to start making her angry. No one had that right.

"Something wrong with my being human, mutt?" she growled back, feeling behind her for her bandolier. She'd feel safer with it on, or at least within easy reach.

"Are you alright?" Hemlock asked, still looking at Shoel.

"I'm fine. The Charter-forsaken thing reads thoughts."

Though she didn't look at the necromancer, not willing to look away from the Hellhound in case it tried something, she could at least see that he had sat up, not quite as carefully as she had, pulling himself into sitting cross-legged with his back still to the Hound. He cringed briefly, as she had, and she guessed that he'd just gotten a taste of the same fire. Instead of responding, he just blinked in confusion a moment then shook his head with a growl: "Damn demons...."

::Most humans stay far away from this plane, and with good reason,:: the hellhound continued, now sitting doglike on the edge of the diamond. ::It's not every century I see one so bold, and yet so stupid.::

"Oh, we established my stupidity already, a while ago," she answered coldly, hands on her bandolier as she rose, taking the familiar leather and wooden handles with her. "Is there a reason you've been following us, or are we just the only excitement you've had in a few years?"

::Hm, well I suppose you could say that,:: the hellhound said bitterly, drawing his lips back from his fangs in a snarl. ::Though I dare say the two of you would be easier pickings than the last one.::

"If we're such easy pickings, why are you still outside my diamond?" she retorted, not quite a taunt. "Are you that lonely, that you have to engage every passerby in conversation before you do away with them?"

::Well, if you would be so kind as to drop the diamond....:: Another part of the consciousness of the beast oozed into Shoel's mind, wrapping around her thoughts like water rather than fire, distracting and suggesting. What if she did drop the diamond? She could face it on fair terms, at least. She frowned at the Hound as she slipped her bandolier over her head to settle it on her hip. The familiar weight made her shake her head suddenly, hand falling on Belgaer's handle; the feel of the smooth wood cleared her mind just a little, just enough to recognize the strains of compulsion-- a signature of Free Magic. The recognition killed its power, for it was oddly weak, and only fueled her anger.

"Drop dead," she suggested right back, low, and she pulled the Thinker free of its wrapping, flipped it over to catch the handle, and started ringing, all in one smooth motion. That creature would not reach into her thoughts, or Hemlock's, again; if Belgaer's steady tone did its work, he might not have that ability ever again-- if he had a mind left to look into another's thoughts with.

For a moment all was silent, but for the echoes of Belgaer as she stilled its clapper-- but then the tension snapped, as did the power of the bell. The creature's barking laughter rolled into Shoel's head again, scorching her thoughts and filling her mind with a burning ache, and she nearly dropped the bell in shock and pain, her free hand coming to her head and eyes squeezed shut as if to ward off the onslaught. ::I am not one of the dead for you to command, child!::

Shoel could hardly think past the purely mental sensation of heat. There had to be something she could do-- some way to at least protect herself-- some way, at least, of clearing her own mind! Belgaer rang again, as if of its own accord, in her hand, this time a clearer tone, bouncing around inside the diamond of protection, the very essence of cool, sharp, cleansing clarity. "Stay. Out. Of. My. Head!" she bellowed over the sound of the bell.

The mental presence retreated at the clearing sound of the bell with a howl of pain, but not even Belgaer's clarity could keep it back for long: after only a moment of blessed freedom, the fire rushed back like a wave, enveloping Shoel's thoughts again with flame. It was a weaker wave, some of the edge gone out of it, but it still hurt, and after two such onslaughts, it was almost too much. She only barely managed to drop her bell into its pouch before sinking to her knees and cradling her head with a wordless whine. The Charter was gone, her bells useless, her head throbbing... was there nothing she could do but lie down and take it? Let the Hound win?

::Ah, yes. That bell.::

No... she didn't have to let him win. There was always the one option that no Abhorsen, no necromancer at all, would ever want to take-- and no necromancer that she had ever heard of had, though more than one Abhosren had, for the sake of the people she or he would save. Astarael, the Weeper, sending all who heard it into Death. Surely, in Death, this creature wouldn't have as much power-- all that fire could never resist the pull of the River. And there was a slim chance she could return. Very slim, but would it be worth it to sacrifice herself, to rid the world of something like this?

Someone was shaking her. "Shoel," Hemlock was saying loudly. He had her by the arms, shaking her. "Shoel, snap out of it."

Staring back at him, Shoel realized suddenly that she couldn't use Astarael. Hemlock was here, he would hear it, and he would follow her and the Hound into Death. He had no experience at all with Death, the River and its Precincts; even if he was a necromancer, he would be helpless. He would die, forever-- or, worse, he would be trapped in the deepest levels of Death, warped into something truly evil, or ensnared by some other necromancer or Greater Dead for their own uses. What she had coldly considered, tried to do on more than one occasion not three weeks ago, now was no longer acceptable.

The compulsion broke, suddenly, and for one heavenly moment, her thoughts were clear. Pulling hastily back from Hemlock, trying to take advantage of the moment of clarity, she snatched out Saraneth and Kibeth together. If Belgaer had no effect, neither would Ranna; Mosrael and Dyrim were useless; Astarael out of the question. The Binder and the Walker, rung together, were her last hope. She flipped them expertly to catch their handles, swinging Saraneth low and Kibeth high: powerful, heavy tolling mixing with lively, multi-voiced jig. She felt the Hound's mind again, hot and seething, but from the outside, just long enough for her to feel that she might, actually, hold him. Saraneth boomed his name to her: he was Izrask, and he was angry.

That moment of stability did not last. Izask's fire beat at her again like a firestorm, like the sun at noon in the desert, but she grit her teeth and kept ringing. Kibeth tried to move her feet towards the danger, in her distraction and her focus on trying to keep control of another, and she couldn't stop herself. "Hemlock," she managed through her teeth as she involuntarily took another step, "hold me still. Please." She needed all her concentration, and she couldn't concentrate if she was about to walk through the safety of her diamond. Hemlock was quick to act on her words, though not quite gentle: he pulled her down from behind, catching her with her back against his chest, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist and trapping her legs with one of his. She wasn't going anywhere, and her diamond was still whole.

Free from that fear, Shoel focused fiercely on Izrask, keeping Saraneth and Kibeth as steady as she could. It hurt, fighting him, feeling his hate and rage like fire, but she was angry again, now, too-- how dare he try to tempt her to betraying everything she stood for! She would never, could never, betray an innocent. She used that anger against him now, fighting fire with fire and forming hers into words against the wordless fury of his mind. "Go, Izrask! You are not for this world any longer! Go into Death and never come out again!"

The hound howled in fury, will breaking just enough for a few cantering steps before he managed to brace all four paws in the sand again. ::You may banish me this time!:: he blazed at her, his words searing into her mind like a hot iron, one more burn on top of many. ::But you have not exiled me from this plane forever!:: He threw his fire against her once more, but it was weaker still, and she took heart: she was winning.

"Then I will hunt you again if you return!" she called to him. "Go, Izrask, through the Gates to the end of Death. I banish you to the Ninth Precinct!"

The hound's barking laugh rolled through Shoel's mind again, even as the hound relented his will just enough to go where she bid him. All that was left was a whisper, like smoking embers: "Do not let your guard down too much, I will return for you."


Chapter Thirty



Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.

Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.