Douglas Niles: The Last Thane

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Douglas Niles The Last Thane
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    The Last Thane
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    Английский
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Douglas Niles


The Last Thane

Prologue

A melon swelled at the end of a twisted vine. The moist orb grew rapidly, as emerald darkened to shadowed purple. The sphere distended, bulging oblong, finally bursting into a soft pile of stinking viscera. The fetid stuff was momentarily black on the colorless soil, but the stain faded quickly.

The garden was in bloom, a checkerboard of colored swaths mounding the ghost-white terrain. But this was not the white of purity, of clean linen and bleached paper. Instead this terrain was like colorless death, maggots crawling in vile ordure or blind eyeballs milked by disease. It was a shade lacking in beauty, vibrancy, or any kind of vitality.

Even so, to the lone observer the garden was a place of sublime beauty and marvelous, chaotic perfection. Zarak Thuul's eyes were red, the hot crimson of deep-seated coals fanned by a breath of air, and they now flared brightly as the cycle of corrupt life was enacted again, as hideous fruit once more swelled and writhed upon the land.

Now the garden was also claimed by twisted, flailing trees. Leafless and bleak, the trunks curled through grotesque gyrations until limbs drooped, laden with obscene fruit. Dropping like overripe plums, the growths splatted onto ground that was soon covered in a layer of soft muck. Then the trees turned against each other, reaching with tortured, lashing limbs, branches landing vicious blows. One trunk shrieked as it was splintered by the pull of two neighboring trees. Another, roots breaking free of the yielding turf, toppled into the rot and trembled as the effluent seared the bark and hissed with caustic fury into the fleshy timber.

Zarak Thuul was pleased, for rarely did his garden produce two gratifying harvests in such rapid succession. For moments such as this did he endure the rest of his bleak existence, surviving until his life could once again have meaning. For this he would tolerate the nothingness of the Abyss, the enforced idleness that had already spanned millennia. No matter how great the interval, he reminded himself, his was a confinement that one day must end.

And then fire blazed through the dark sky, and the daemon warrior threw back his head, laughing in pure exultation. The meteoric blaze curled in a wide arc, trailing sparks, embers, and a churning maelstrom of overheated air, spiraling downward in a graceful path, gliding closer and closer to the red-eyed watcher. As the aerial flames descended, broad wings became visible, gossamer foils outlined in shimmers of heat, widespread and uptilted to catch the draft raised by their own infernal presence. The roaring swelled, like a furnace cast open to admit the sudden force of the bellows, and now Zarak Thuul felt the fire on his face, on the perfect black skin of his chest and belly and sexless groin. He raised his hands in greeting, but only as the blaze halted before him did he fully discern the creature within that cloud of fire.

A crocodilian head, with skull and skin outlined in living flame, rose on a serpentine neck. Liquid skin flowed, a surface of oily fire. Vast wings were folded against monstrous flanks as a tail of crackling blaze curled-inward, casting sparks onto the daemon's naked feet. Zarak Thuul felt the heat as the kiss of a hungry lover.

"Ah, Primus, my pet. I fear you are too late to enjoy a splendid blooming."

The fire dragon snorted, smoke and embers bursting over the mouldering landscape. "Gardens are too. tame for me. Can we not take to the air and cast fire through the Abyss?" The statement began contemptuously but closed on a note of pleading.

Zarak Thuul laid a coal-black hand upon the silky neck. Tendrils of flame curled through his fingers, caressing his wrist and forearm as he allowed his touch to soothe the creature. Yet as he contemplated his answer, his thoughts were far from content.

"You know I must remain… that I am bidden," he whispered, the sound a harsh growl.

"Bah! The queen has other things to concern her. She knows not whether you stay in your cage or depart to relish the breadth of our dark domain. Come-come with me, now!" The fire dragon lowered the broad wedge of his head, staring at the daemon warrior's face from the haunted, lightless sockets of its eyes.

"We are a curious pair, you and I," demurred the daemon, his own eyes firing into hot yellow as he met the beseeching gaze. "You, all fire and light, except for those eyes."

"And you the black of lightless death," the fire dragon responded ironically, "except for those eyes."

Their gaze held for timeless moments, and in that interval the daemon warrior knew a power of emotion that, surprisingly, was even more gratifying than a rush of pure hatred or the thrill that inevitably followed the spilling of hot, fresh blood. Companions for as many eras as Krynn had ever known, the pair spoke to each other with expressions of fire and shadow, and for a long time they had no need for words.

"But the queen does not forget," Zarak Thuul said finally, knowing that the dragon already understood the anguish in his words. "She remains the mistress of the Abyss, and so long as I am here, to her rule I must submit."

Primus snorted again, his mighty wings partially unfurling with a swath of dry, baking heat. The mulch on the ground steamed, and where it lay beneath the span of those wings it bubbled and burned into a sooty black. Quickly that darkness faded, ashes whisked away by an otherwise unnoticed breeze, until the ground underneath the great serpent was again washed in dead white, slightly rosy here and there from the reflection of seething flame.

"They say the queen has other matters, forces that draw her attention away from the Abyss. They say she makes another campaign upon Krynn, this time with a legion of knights who fight in her name-"

"And they say this time she will win." Zarak Thuul completed the statement with stark bitterness. "Her enemies are reeling before her. Even here in my exile I know that Palanthas has fallen to her armies. And they have taken as well that tower the Solamnics thought they could hold forever."

Zarak Thuul spit, his acidic drool landing with a hiss upon the mouldering rot. Though he felt no affection for the enemies of Takhisis, Queen of Darkness, he knew her ultimate triumph would inevitably leave her bored again. And when she was bored, she took an overly intrusive view into the lives of her minions-and of those, such as the daemon warrior, who were not her minions, but who had the misfortune to exist in the Abyss, the place where above all others the queen's will held sway.

"It may be that she will not be the victor in this war," suggested Primus, with a shadowy squint of his fire-rimmed eyes. "For there is word that the Father of Us All has awakened and will take a role."

The daemon stiffened, forcing his fingers into the hot flesh of the fire dragon's neck. With a grunt of annoyance Primus tried to twist away, but Zarak Thuul pulled the great head downward to stare commandingly into the serpent's eyes.

"It may be that you have heard something, some news you would do well to impart."

Primus snorted softly, taking pleasure in his advantage. Zarak Thuul tightened his grip, and the fire dragon's exhalation sharpened, tinged by annoyance.

"I am not a dog to be hauled about by a master's hand." The serpent's voice was a low growl, like a bonfire roaring in the distance.

His black face expressionless, the daemon warrior released his grip and took a step backward. "Nor am I a pawn to be toyed with, like some court fool. If you have knowledge, speak it to me. Now!"

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