By Edmund Shirlan

(Copyright 1983 by the author; reprinted with permission.)

Illustrated by JULIA MORGAN-SCOTT

ne moment the room was dark. The next – Simon Grisaille took one step forward. In the yellow light from the fireplace, he saw Ashton.

Michael Ashton was no longer human. Not quite. Nor were the creatures next to him exactly dogs. Big and dark, in shape and outline they were hounds – but hounds with differences. The eyes, for one. They appeared like solid yellow lights, baleful models or reflections of the fireplace. Both hounds wore collars of brass. They strained again invisible restraints, their muzzles creased, lips pulled back from sharp fangs that dripped saliva. Low snarls issued from their throats.

Ashton’s eyes were like the dogs’. The same yellow fire was impossibly banked behind them. Ashton wore no collar, but the amulet that hung around his neck was brass and worked with a figure that was repeated in the collars of the hounds. The flesh was coarsened on his hands; hair grew there as thick as the hair on a wolf’s pelt. When he saw Grisaille, Ashton’s head pulled back and his mouth opened. But a moment later he regained his composure.

“So, Grisaille – So.”

“Surely you have more than that to say,” Grisaille answered. “After all this time.”

He carefully took one step toward the yellow light of the fireplace. But no more than that just now.

Simon, oh Simon!came the voices in his mind. Save us, Simon!

“There’s nothing you can do,” Ashton said, closing his eyes.

“Perhaps not,” said Grisaille.

The two hounds pulled at their invisible leads. Ashton’s hands moved in the air, almost as if they, too, were leashed.

“You don’t have the strength,” he said. “I have the strength now.”

“And where did this strength come from?” Grisaille asked. He was judging the wisdom of taking another step.

Ashton opened his eyes again. His face wore a look of pain and something else that might have been remorse. Might have been.

Perhaps that was only what Grisaille wanted to see.

“I can’t call this thing off, not now,” Ashton said. “Not now. Look how much I’ve paid for it. More than you'd be willing, I think –.”

Grisaille said, “It’s nothing I’d want, however cheap the price.”

“It’s easy to say that when you’ve never had the opportunity. But now I’ve made payment, I intend to get what I paid for. That’s only right, and I won’t let you stop me. Not even you, Simon.”

Grisaille, weighing his chances, did not reply.

He was tall and well-built, His crisp, gray hair was combed straight back from a tall forehead above a gaunt, calm face, the face of a man singularly attuned to himself and his environment. He seemed to be in his thirties, though there were those who said he was much older than that. His clear gray eyes watched Ashton and the hounds intently. There was something in those eyes that might have been sadness. Sadness for Ashton.

“Listen to me,” Ashton said, speaking in rapid tones. “Listen. It isn’t inevitable that we battle. You know that. We were friends once, weren’t we? Close friends. We worked together so many times, so many times, utilizing our powers in concert. Why can’t we do that again? All it would require is for you to turn and leave. Just go back the way you came.”

The hounds pawed the air in front of them. They growled hatefully.

“It would be easy, Simon, it would be right. After all, I’ve never done any harm to you, not even when I realized it was you tracking me. But I won’t have any choice if you come any closer. One more step and you’ll face my powers, see the things I can do.”

“I’ve already seen your work.”

“You just think you have.”

Grisaille pointed toward the fireplace. “Is that where they are, Ashton? Is that their prison?”

And he made a motion.

Nothing could be seen, but there was much that could be felt in that motion. It could be felt gathering in Grisaille’s hand and spreading out into the air and across the room to gather at the fireplace; it could be felt as forces and vibrations that altered and coalesced in the room and then –

Then something could be seen.

The yellow light faded. It did not vanish, but it paled until it was almost white. Gray figures moved behind the flames, crowded forward as if to a window through which to peer into the room. The figures seemed physical parodies of human beings, their movement a parody of human movement. They were grotesque and pathetic, neither quite dead nor quite alive, quite real or quite imagined.

Sounds of a dozen voices echoed in Grisaille’s mind, pleading and begging.

Ashton did not even look at the fireplace.

Grisaille waved his hand again and the image faded. The hounds growled more deeply but no longer strained as avidly as they had, to get at him.

“That’s why I can’t ignore you,” he said.

“Those dregs?” Ashton cried out. “What a fool you are, Simon Grisaille. They’re only dregs, all of them. They’ve been put to the only use any of them are good for.”

“I don’t agree,” Grisaille said without raising his voice.

And the light was gone.

Grisaille jumped aside and dropped to the floor. In the pitch blackness something brushed by, something small and winged and deadly. He pushed himself to his feet. He heard a wild, unearthly chittering, a familiar sound from long ago. It was a sound he had never heard on the sane and normal earth.

He clapped his hands together in a way he’d learned years before. Light flashed. He saw the thing, the size of a hawk, wheeling in the air, searching. The light caught it directly in the eyes. It recoiled and made an agonized noise, then recovered and came straight at him.

It was almost human-shaped – and almost not. Grisaille caught it by the throat just as the light faded.

It clawed and struck at him. Leathery wings beat against his arms. Grisaille spoke a rune quickly.

The thing screamed shrilly and Grisaille let go of it as it heated. The heat gave no light but was momentarily intense. In the darkness he could not see the creature, but he smelled the acrid odor and breathed the fumes and smoke that marked its sudden demise.

Then the room was perfectly quiet and Grisaille stood perfectly still.

He was powerful in his sorcerer’s strengths but he was also an intruder in another wizard’s territory, unfamiliar with its traps and hiding places. He peered into the darkness for any hint of yellow light that might betray the eyes of either Ashton or his hounds. He listened intently for the slightest sound. He saw only darkness, heard only silence save for the pulsing of his own blood.

And then –

—Grisaille? Came a thought into his mind. Ashton’s thought.

A dozen other minds urged him to pay no heed to Ashton’s thought. He’ll trick you, they said. He’ll cage you with fire and it will eat you and burn you alive; you’ll die and be like us, his prisoner, his slave.

—Answer me, Grisaille.

—I hear you, Ashton.

—You can still go back the way you came.

—I can’t see to find my way back.

—I’ll give you light.

—I wasn’t talking about the darkness.

—You’re making a mistake, Simon. I’ll give you light. You’ll see that you’re in an empty house. You can leave by the front door or the back, it doesn’t matter. Just walk out and it will all be over. We’ll be rid of one another. You’ll never hear about me again, even know I exist.

And the other voices: Please, please, please, please, please.

—I know too many of your victims, Grisaille thought.

—You can’t change them back to what they were. No, Grisaille thought to himself. I can’t put them back as they were. He was suddenly very, very tired.

To Ashton he thought –But I can put a stop to this.

—No, replied Ashton. –That’s where you’re wrong.

Then the thoughts were gone and Grisaille was alone again in darkness.

Now the floor was dank stone. Before it had been wood. There was a cold draft. Cautiously, Grisaille reached out and felt cold stone on both sides.

Even the darkness was different. His eyes were adjusting to this darkness. A simple, muttered rune and he could see very well.

A passageway stretched before him, curving slightly away in the distance. There was a musty, earthy smell, as of a place under the ground. Grisaille was not sure what the passage was, but he knew it was not intended for his enjoyment.

It was the nature of his power and Ashton’s. Both men were sorcerers – or both had been. That was changed now because Ashton was no longer entirely human. He had sold his humanness in return for promises of power. The price for that was always great. The lives and souls of a dozen people were forfeit as part of that price. They were the captives in the flames and they were being used in ways that even Grisaille could barely imagine. Horrible, unearthly ways.

As for the change that affected Ashton, it was moot whether that was a price paid or a gift received. He was slowly being transformed into something demonic, the better to exercise certain powers in certain places and in certain ways.

Therefore, he no longer enjoyed the perfect protection of a wizard’s rune, which was why Grisaille could enter his house with his full capabilities. But in other ways, Ashton’s powers had increased. They were now far stronger than they had been for Ashton the human sorcerer. Possibly they were greater than Grisaille’s.

Certainly there were areas where they were greater.

Grisaille was not without some protection, however, and he took a thin sort of comfort from the fact that he had stymied Ashton to a point, frustrating his effort at a direct attack and forcing him to resort to summonings and transformations. But if Grisaille weren’t very careful, it would be just a matter of time before Ashton found a chink in his armor.

—Listen, Grisaille. And look. You can see me. And the hounds.

Indeed. They were up ahead of him, seemingly just waiting.

—My hounds are begging to be let loose. They want your blood. They want to tear your flesh. Why not go back and avoid you death, Simon? Forget this, forget all about this. Escape. You know I don’t want to kill you. But if I have to, I’ll turn them loose on you. I will. I promise I will.

Grisaille moved forward.

There was a sound behind him.

It was a sound like the sloshing and dripping of water. Grisaille turned and looked back.

It had human shape but it was water held to that shape by a spell. It moved toward him.

Something moved and writhed inside the thing of water. An eel, dark and long, coiling like a snake.

The creature was close now. It stopped, standing there a moment.

Then the eel leaped from the creature’s chest, breaking the watery flesh and jabbing into the air. The watery thing collapsed and splashed upon the stones. The eel opened a viper’s mouth and hissed a viper’s hiss.

Grisaille leaped aside.

He spoke a rune. Fire burst in the air, a ball of it balanced at the tips of the fingers of his left hand. He heard furious hissing as the fireball was drenched. The eel-thing coiled in the creature’s chest, preparing to strike again.

Grisaille produced a second fireball with his right hand and thrust it straight into the water creature’s chest.

There was more steam; the beast writhed and collapsed. The eel fell to the floor in a coiled heap. It thrashed and twisted, still deadly. Grisaille summoned another fireball, sent it downward toward the thing.

It whipped and hissed and there was a frying sound. Grisaille moved clear of it as it thrashed its death throes.

He heard a sound behind him.

He turned.

He saw two flaming yellow eyes coming toward him, heard a low throaty growl. The hound sprang.

Grisaille dropped to the floor and rolled.

The hound leaped over him. He slammed his feet hard into the hound’s taut belly. It yelped with surprise and pain and struck the wall head first, slid dazed to the floor. As Grisaille scrambled to his feet he spoke a rune to take care of the beast.

He had no time to speak a rune against the second hound. It sprang before he saw it. They went down together. Deadly fangs snapped at his face and he saved himself by grabbing the brass-studded collar and forcing the hound’s head back. Slather dribbled from the beast’s muzzle and it raked dull claws across Grisaille, tearing his clothing, scraping his skin.

He pushed it further back and it took all his strength to do that and struggle to his feet.

He held the hound by the collar, his arms and muscles aching as he held the creature’s feet off the floor. It struggled and twisted and snarled unearthly growls as it did so. Grisaille was forced to hold the thing as far away as he could to prevent it from gutting him.

It was more by will power than strength that Grisaille twisted the creature around so that it faced away from him. He hooked on forearm across the hound’s throat and managed to bring the other forearm down across the back of the neck. The thing fought like the demon it was. Grisaille crashed it to the floor, forcing its legs out from under it; he heard at least one bone break. He moved his arms in a rolling motion and immediately heard more bones break and then the thing went limp.

He held on for a few more seconds before letting go. Again Grisaille got to his feet but the hound stayed where it lay.

Grisaille leaned against the wall. His clothing was torn and ragged, and he bled from a dozen scrapes. He willed himself to breathe normally so he could listen. There were no sounds to warn him of danger.

He moved down the passage encountering nothing. At last he turned a corner and found himself back in the room where he had first confronted Ashton.

Ashton stood by the fireplace as if he were waiting for him.

Ashton gestured to the fireplace where gray shapes moved strangely. “You can never put them back as they were,” he said.

“Can you?”

“Can I? Even if I could, Simon, think of the cost of that to me. That’s a price I would never pay.”

“You can at least let them go; let them know an honest death.”

“And will an honest death be better for them than what they have?”

“For some of them, probably not.” Grisaille gave a sigh. “But it won’t be any worse.”

Ashton took one step away from the flames. “Get out of here while you can, Simon. I tell you –”

“If you tell me anything,” said Grisaille, “tell me this. I’ve been in your realm all this time, more or less at your mercy. Yet you’ve not attacked me directly. Why not?”

“I’d rather not, Simon. We used to be friends –”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Grisaille said calmly. “You were perfectly willing to let other things kill me. Yet you haven’t directly attacked me. What sort of price is there for that, Ashton?

“None at all if I win.”

Abruptly, Ashton seemed to grow tired. He gave a wave of his hand and the flames paled, revealing the grotesque figures in them.

Grisaille glanced at them involuntarily and the moment that happened, Ashton moved.

He rose into the air and flew toward Grisaille. The ends of his hands became talons, long, hooked, deadly-looking. Ashton gave an inhuman cry.

Grisaille lifted his own arms, blocking Ashton’s taloned ones, shoving them aside. Ashton’s cry became a yelp as he twisted in midair and lost his balance, toppling to the floor.

Grisaille was on top of him at once. His hand closed around the amulet Ashton wore.

“My God, Simon, no!”

Grisaille yanked and the chain broke. The amulet came free. Ashton screamed, a scream not of fear but of fury. Suddenly Grisaille was holding the amulet but there was no sign of Ashton. Grisaille threw the amulet away and it disintegrated in midair with a sharp pop, casting a comet’s tail of bright corruption.

Then, Grisaille heard Ashton scream again, a scream of fear this time; but Grisaille heard it only in his mind.

He heard other things there as well. A dozen voices, free and at long last happy, heading willingly and gratefully into whatever unknown fate awaited them.

Only Ashton’s cries were not happy.

Grisaille stood up. For a long, horrified moment, he stared into the fireplace. Then he went to the door and left the house.

Behind an impenetrable wall of flame, Ashton, captive and grotesque, begged and pleaded, knowing there was nothing now that any human agency could do for him.