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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Hambly Barbara

«01 THE TIME OF THE DARK», Barbara Hambly

-Darwath 1

Barbara Hambly



Gil knew that it was only a dream. There was no reason for her to feel fear-she knew that the danger, the chaos, the blind, sickening nightmare terror that filled the screaming night were not real; this city with its dark, unfamiliar architecture, these fleeing crowds of panic-stricken men and women who shoved her aside, unseeing, were only the vivid dregs of an overloaded subconscious, wraiths that would melt with daylight.

She knew all this; nevertheless, she was afraid.

She seemed to be standing at the foot of a flight of green marble stairs, facing into a square courtyard surrounded by tall peak-roofed buildings. Fleeing people were shoving past her, jostling her back against the gigantic pedestal of a malachite statue, without seeming to be aware of her presence at all; gasping, wild-eyed people, terrified faces bleached to corpses by the brilliance of the cold quarter moon. They were pouring out of the gabled houses, the men clutching chests or bags of money, the women jewels, lap-dogs, or children crying in uncomprehending terror. Their hair was wild from sleep, for it was deep night; some of them were dressed but many were naked, or tripping over bedclothes hastily snatched, and Gil could smell the rank terror-sweat of their bodies as they brushed against her. None of them saw her, none of them stopped; they stumbled frantically up those vast steps of moonlit marble, through the dark arch of the gates at the top, and out into the clamoring streets of the stricken city beyond.

What city? Gil wondered confusedly. And why am I afraid? This is only a dream.

But she knew. In her heart she knew, as things are known in dreams, that this scene of frenzied escape was even now being repeated, like the hundredfold reflections in a doubled mirror, everywhere in the city around her. The knowledge and the horror created a chill that crept along her skin, crawled wormlike through her guts.

They all felt it, too. For not a man would stop to lean on the pillar behind her, nor a woman stumble on the steps at her feet. They looked back with the blank, wide eyes of madness, their frenzied gaze drawn as if against their will to the cyclopean doors of ancient time-greened bronze that dominated the wall opposite. It was from these that they fled. It was behind this monstrous trapezoidal gateway that the horror was building, as water builds behind a weakening dam a soft, shifting, bodiless evil, an unspeakable eruption into the land of the living from out of black abysses of space and time.

There was motion, and voices, in the cavern of the arched gateway behind her, muffled footfalls and the thin, ringing whine of a sword as it was drawn. Gil turned, her thick hair tangling in her eyes. The wild, jumping dance of wind-bent torches silhouetted crowding forms, flickering across a face, a blade-edge, the dull pebbled gleam of chain mail. Against the thinning tide of desperate civilians, the Guards stepped into the cool pewter monochrome of the moonlight-black-uniformed, lightly mailed, booted, men and women both, the honed blades of their weapons shining thinly against the play of the shadows. Gil could catch a glimpse of a nervous rabble of hastily armed civilians massing up behind them, whispering in dread and fumbling with unpracticed hands at the hilts of borrowed armament, grim fear fighting terrified bewilderment in their half-seen faces. And striding down ahead of them all was an old man in a brown robe, an old wizard, hawk-eyed and bearded and bearing a sword of flame.

It was he who stopped on the top step, scanning the court before him like a hunting eagle while the last of the fleeing, half-naked populace streamed raggedly up the stairs past Gil, brushing against her, unseeing, past the wizard, past the Guards, bare feet slapping hollowly in the black passage of the gates. She saw him fix his gaze on the doors, knowing the nature of that eldritch unseen horror, knowing from whence it would come. The battered, nondescript face was serene behind the tangled chaparral of beard. Then his gaze shifted, judging his battleground, and his eyes met hers.

He could see her. She knew it instantly, even before his eyes widened in startled surprise. The Guards and volunteers, hesitating behind the old man, unwilling to go where he was not ahead of them, were looking around and through and past her, dubiously seeking the wizard's vision in the suddenly still moonlight of the empty court. But he could see her, and she wondered confusedly why.

Across the court, from the cracks and hinges of those tuneless doors, a thin, directionless wind had begun to blow, stirring and whispering over the silver-washed circles of the pavement, tugging at Gil's coarse black hair. It carried on it the dank, cold scent of evil, of acid and stone and things that should never see light, of blood and darkness. But the wizard sheathed the gleaming blade he held and came cautiously down the steps toward her, as if he feared to frighten her.

But that, Gil thought, would not be possible-and anyway she was only dreaming. He looked like a gentle old man, she thought. His eyes, blue and bright and very fierce, held in them neither pride nor cruelty, and if he were afraid of the shifting, sightless thing welling in darkness behind the doors, he did not show it. He advanced to within a few feet of where she stood shivering in the green shadows of the monstrous statue, those blue eyes puzzled and wary, as if trying to understand what he saw. Then he held out his hand and made as if to speak.

Abruptly, Gil woke up-but not in her bed.

For a moment she didn't know where she was. She threw out her hand awkwardly, startled and disoriented, as those suddenly wakened are, and the cold fluted marble of the pedestal's edge bit savagely into her palm. The night's damp cold knifed her bare legs, froze her naked feet on the pavement. The cries of fear from the night-gripped city came to her suddenly clearer on the wind, and with them the elusive scent of water. For an instant, the shrieking horror of what lay behind the doors was like a gripping hand at her throat, and then it sank, whirled away like leaves in the face of shock and confusion and even greater horror.

She had waked up.

She was no longer dreaming.

She was still there.

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