John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

But over all the country from Deldale to Herman’s Wynd, and back again from Contrescarp to the Ten Leagues’ Stone, at Poultry Rock and Brown Hamlet and Legge, at Yammerdale and Gallowtree and Chade, at Swansbroom and Swingthrimble and Slowge, it was dark until what should have been high noon.

And when the light eventually came, it was the wrong sort of light. It was the sickly grew glow of chaos, that bleached all color into the dullness of ash.

Now the mountains showed deformed, like mutant fungi; now the trees, vaguely visible, stood rigid as parodies in a picture, and the random disposition of their branches seemed to summate the entire gestural vocabulary of obscene signs such as might be made with a man’s upraised fingers. Watching the changing sky in high delight from the vantage of the tower’s solar, Roiga and Scail and Runch shouted in succession for the best wine, the richest mead, the finest delicacies that the stores could offer, by way of pre-celebrating their anticipated triumph. The blackness of night and morning had retreated to the fringes of the Cleftor domain, and now it was as though a tunnel had been opened, vertically to the frontiers of the sky, for the beings from beyond to make a grand re-entry to their former state.

But the servant-maids gawped and gaped and rubbed their ears as they came and went, for there was a dullness to their hearing that occasionally approached an ache, and there was a stale taste in all mouths which twice made Runch accuse a waiting-wench of giving him vinegar, not wine, and a dragging heaviness oppressed all bodies. Yet for the most part those three frenetic counselors-if no one else-were able to ignore it, and drank toast after toast to the wonderful skills of Garch their thegn.

It was not until they were three parts drunken that they realized there was another in the solar apart from the servants they had bidden to attend them.

“Who’s that?” cried Scail, and slopped wine down her dress in turning to look over her shoulder.

“Oh-oh!” Roiga moaned, and would have shrunk into hiding.

“Declare yourself!” shouted Runch, rising and drawing the sword he always wore.

“Here I am,” the intruder said, black cloak swishing as he strode forward to the tap-tap measure of his staff. “Put up that blade, for it’s no protection against the doom that’s coming to you.”

Runch hesitated, and the sword-point he had presented to the traveler’s chest wavered back and forth. He said, “Who…?”

“One who has many names but a single nature.”

They were thunderstruck on the instant. Dropping her mug of wine, Scail whimpered, “But I thought-”

“Did you?” the traveler sighed. “Yes, I can believe that you must have regarded my existence as superstition, and your brother likewise. Else you’d have buckled to like sensible folk, and taken what was to hand and made the most of it. Instead of which… Do you know who awaits admission to this place?”

Uncertain, but feigning bravado out of shame at her spasm of cowardice, Roiga said bluffly, “Why of course. Have we not agreed to call on Tuprid?”

“Tuprid who takes pleasure only in destruction, whom I saw snuff a star as men would snuff a candle, that he might witness the dying agony of the creatures on its planets as they froze into everlasting ice. And who else?”

“Why, Caschalanva, of course!” Runch exclaimed.

“He who prefers the fire to Tuprid’s cold. They’re ancient rivals. Each struggles to outdo the other in causing pain. And with them?”

“Quorril!” said Scail, and began to sound a fraction nervous, which though well justified was a belated sign.

“Whose diet is souls,” said the traveler. “And Lry?” They all three nodded.

“To whom,” he concluded, love is hate-who breeds discord and warfare like the plague. And you believe these to be the only ones your brother has invoked?”

There was a second of silence. “It was all we agreed he should invoke,” Scail said at length. “It’s with them that we struck our bargain.”

“Bargain!” The traveler gave a sad laugh.

“Why, certainly! Do they not owe us toll, for opening the road back to where they once ruled?” She was on her feet, facing him defiantly. “Should they not be grateful?”

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