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Chapter 9

The monster was dragged away from its feeding by a shrill of command from its master. The master's servant, rather, through which Chernobog usually spoke and gave commands.


Emerging from the darkness of its feed—snarling, reluctant—the monster's world began to take on a semblance of color. Insofar, at least, as various shades of gray could be called "color." After a time, red streaks began to appear in the mist. Those were not real, however—simply reflections of the monster's own rage.


The sight of those scarlet flashes brought courage. Again the monster snarled, and this time with bellowing fury rather than frustration. The clump of gray that was the form of the master's servant seemed to waver, as if she were cowering in terror.


The monster's moment of pleasure was fleeting. In an instant, the master himself billowed through the mist, an eddy of gray so dark it was almost ebon.


Silence, beast! Do not challenge me.


Again, red streaks came into the mist. But these were like blazing bolts of lightning, overwhelming the monster's own fury as easily as a flooding river flushes aside a child's pond. For just a fleeting instant, the monster thought to catch sight of Chernobog behind the shadows and the mist. The master was terrifying—huge, and tusked, and horned, and taloned. Scaled like a dragon, bestriding a broken earth like a behemoth.


One of the scarlet flashes curled through the mist like a snake, and struck the monster's flank. Agony speared through it. The monster whimpered. Broken words pleading forgiveness tried to issue from lips that had once, long ago, had the semblance of human ones.


But that semblance was too ancient, now, too far gone. The words would not come any longer. Not over lips that were no more than a gash; not shaped by an ox-thick tongue writhing in a mouth that was more like an eel's gullet than a man's palate and throat.


Again, the spearing agony. The monster wailed. Wailing, it could manage—as could any beast.


Some part of the monster retained enough intelligence to think, if not speak, a protest. I was a god once!


"Only the shadow of one," came the sneering voice of Chernobog's servant—as if she were anything but a shadow herself. "And he isn't much of a god anyway, which is why he crouches at Great Chernobog's side. Wearing his master's leash."


The servant drifted forward, now fearless. For a moment, the monster sensed a vaguely female form coalescing, stooping. It felt another flash of rage—but a quickly suppressed one. She dared to inspect its feed!


"Not much left," she purred, jeering. "But then, I imagine the old monk's soul was mostly gristle anyway."


The form straightened and moved back into the mist. The gray of the shadow servant merged at the edges into the gray mist that surrounded the monster everywhere. Only a vague fluttering was left to indicate her shape.


The monster recognized the pattern. Chernobog would now speak himself, using the servant's voice.


"You have done well, beast."


The monster's momentary relief was immediately shredded by another scarlet lash coming through the mist, ripping into its flank like an axe. Gray-black blood spurted from a wound that was insubstantial—healing almost in the instant it was formed—but agonizing for all that. The monster wailed again, and again, crouching in terror.


"Which is why I punish you so lightly for your insolence."


The servant's vague form was replaced by another of those horrifying forward surges in the surrounding mist. The ebony billow that was Chernobog himself, threatening to take full and visible shape.


Do not forget your place, beast. I allow you to be powerful, at my convenience. I could as easily make you a worm, for my dining pleasure.


For a moment, the monster caught another glimpse of Chernobog on that broken landscape. Hunching, this time, over a mound of squirming souls. Much like worms, they looked; especially as they disappeared into the maw that devoured them, a few spilling out of the gigantic jaws onto the charred-black soil.


Another image flashed through the monster's mind. Itself—himself, then—held down by Chernobog's enormous limbs while the master tore out his manhood with that same maw and left the monster a bleeding, neutered ruin. Less than a eunuch, who had once been a god.


The monster was now completely cowed. Its heavy brow was lowered, the muzzle that had once been like a man's pressed into its chest. Oddly enough, perhaps, the chest itself was still hairless—quite unlike the shaggy limbs and the heavy spine that protruded like a ridge, covered with a long and stringy mane of hair.


At another time, the memory of what that hairless chest had once signified might have brought anguish. Now, the monster had no thoughts beyond submission.


"Good." The monster felt relief at hearing the servant's voice instead of Chernobog's own. As much as the monster hated and resented taking orders from one who was even less than it was . . .


Nothing was a terrifying as Chernobog, unshadowed.


"Good," its master repeated. "Your recent task also. It was well done, beast. The priest burned very nicely. Though I believe you wavered once, before this shadow restored your courage."


The monster whined. The master was unfair! A holy symbol held by such as that one—encased in steel—was a thing of great power. The master knew that. Such a fearsome one should never have been allowed—!


Silence.


The monster's thoughts fled. After a moment, the master spoke again. Thankfully, through his shadow voice.


"No matter. As elsewhere, this servant has her uses. And now the way is cleared for the creature Sachs."


The gray mist swirled and billowed. From experience, the monster knew that Chernobog was retreating into his own counsel. It managed to restrain any overt sign of relief. The master would know its thoughts, of course, since Chernobog had taken its soul. But . . . so long as the monster maintained all visible signs of docility, it would not be punished.


Not much, at least.


* * *

How long it was before the master spoke again, the monster knew not. In that mist-shrouded place where it was kept—caged, for all intents and purposes—time had little meaning.


The servant's voice rippled with the master's own amusement. It was an odd sound—as if a torrent in a cavern were being heard through an echoing chamber far distant. Raw and unrestrained male power, channeled through the pleasant modulations of a female throat.


"And now I will reward you, beast. Tonight I will allow you to hunt."


In an instant, the monster's fear and submissiveness vanished, replaced by ravening eagerness.


Hungry!


The servant's voice echoed, faintly, the master's own humor. Not glee so much as simple satisfaction. There was very little left, in the monster, of what had once been a god's mind. But it understood, vaguely, that Chernobog's pleasure was more that of a game master than the monster's own much cruder urges. At another time, had its lust not been so overwhelming, the monster might have felt some grief. It had played games once itself, it remembered, and played them extremely well. Even giants—even gods!—had trembled with fear at that gamesmanship.


"Indeed," chuckled the servant's voice. "And a better soul than the one you just fed upon, I imagine. Younger, at the very least."


The image of a man came to the monster's mind, put there by the master. The man, and his raiment, and the fine house where he lived; and all the byways of the city by which he could be reached. Late at night, in the darkness.


The servant gave him a garment. Something once worn by the victim-to-be. It was full of man-scent, full of tiny fragments of skin. The monster snuffled and mouthed it. He had the scent, the taste of the intended victim. "I constrain you. On this occasion you will abjure from feeding on any other. Or you will face the master's wrath."


Hungry! Hungry!


"Do not feed too quickly," commanded the servant's voice. "The thing must be done in blood and ruin—not quickly."


The monster would have sneered if it still had lips that could do so. As if it would hurry such a feast!


* * *

The time that came after seemed endless, though the monster had no way of gauging it. But eventually, it came.


"Go now," commanded the servant's voice, and the monster sensed the grayness vanishing.


* * *

Soon enough, the gray mist was gone altogether. Replaced by the dark—but sharp—shadows of Venice's narrow alleys and streets.


The monster scorned the streets, however. The great tail it had acquired, as if to substitute for its lost manhood, drove it through the waters of the city's canals as quickly and silently as a crocodile. Though no crocodile had such a blunt snout, or had a ridged spine protruding from the water, or a spine that trailed such long and scraggly hair.


It was spotted only once, along the way, by a street urchin searching the canal late at night for useful refuse. But the monster had no difficulty disposing of that nuisance, beyond the fierce struggle to restrain itself from consuming the child's soul. Once they had sacrificed children to him. Their souls had a distinctive taste.


A quick turn in the water, a powerful thrust of the tail; the boy was seized before he could flee and dragged into the dark waters. The rest, once the monster overcame the urge to feed, was quick. By the time sunrise came, the blood would have vanished and the fish would see to all but the largest pieces. And those, once spotted, would be useless to any investigator.


The monster was not concerned with investigation, in any event. In what was left of a once-divine brain, it understood enough to know that its master would be pleased by the deed. The small murder, added to the greater one still to come this night, would increase the city's fear. Among the canalers, at least, even if Venice's mighty never learned of an urchin's disappearance.


The only thing the master cared about was that the monster itself not be seen by any survivor. And so, as the monster drove quietly through the canals, the one eye that remained to it never ceased scanning the banks. Still blue, that eye, and still as piercing as ever—even if the mind behind it was only a remnant of what it had once been. But none of the few people walking alongside the canals ever spotted it.


* * *

The shaman trailed behind, staying as far back as he could without losing sight of the monster completely. Which—in the murky waters of the Venetian canals—meant following much closer than he liked. He had to force down, time and again, the urge to follow using scent alone. The struggle was fierce, because the temptation was so great. In his fishform, in the water, the shaman's sense of smell—taste, really—was much better than the monster's, for anything except the scent the monster was tracking.


But . . . in the end, the shaman was more terrified of his master than he was of the monster. His master had made clear that he wanted a full report, and had demonstrated the depth of his desire by feeding the shaman the cooked skin of a retainer who had failed to satisfy him. Spiced with substances which had almost gagged the shaman at the time, and still made him shudder.


So, the shaman stayed within eyesight of the monster, however terrified it was of the creature. If the monster spotted him . . . it would interpret its master's command to "leave no trace" in the most rigorous manner. The shaman might be able to evade the monster—here in the water, he in his fishform and the monster in the shape it possessed. But he had no doubt at all that if the monster caught him, he would be destroyed—just as easily and quickly as the monster had destroyed the street urchin. A creature it might be today, but . . . the monster had once been a god, after all.


No longer, however. That once-god had been broken by a greater one. So, however reluctantly, the shaman stayed within eyesight.


Just barely.


* * *

The final destination loomed into sight, just as the master had planted the image in the monster's brain. One of Venice's great houses, its walls rising sheer from the Grand Canal.


Once it entered the Grand Canal, the monster submerged completely and continued swimming several feet below the surface—much too deep in those murky waters, even in daylight, to be spotted by anyone in a boat. The Grand Canal, at any hour of the day or night, bore a certain amount of traffic. The monster could hold its breath long enough to swim through the great waterway and enter the side canal that flanked the house.


It did so, emerging slowly and carefully to the surface. Unlike a crocodile, the monster could not simply lift its eye above the water. Half the misshapen head had to surface before it could see enough.


Then, for several minutes, it did nothing but study the situation; maintaining its position by slow sweeps of the tail and breathing as silently as it could.


It dismissed the side door without a thought. There was no way to enter through that portal without alerting the house, and the monster was not certain it could slaughter all the inhabitants before someone fled beyond its reach. Not in such a great house, which would be full of servants as well as family members. The one imperative was that it not be seen by anyone who could tell the tale afterward.


Carefully, it studied the wall itself. Then, satisfied, it sculled to the side and, with a great heave, hoisted itself onto the wall. The ugly octopuslike suckers on what had once been a deity's well-formed hands and feet had no difficulty adhering to the rough surface. Moving up the wall like some great half-lizard/half-ape, it worked its way quickly to the balcony three floors above.


* * *

Had the shaman still been in human form, he would have heaved a great sigh of relief when he saw the shape of the monster lift out of the canal. His task was done, for the moment. In his fishform, he could not follow the monster except in the waters. Not even his master expected that much.


The relief was short-lived, however. The greatest danger would come when the monster re-entered the canal. No longer preoccupied with its prey, the monster would be more alert. And in the meantime . . . 


Hidden in the shadows of the pilings across the canal, the shaman studied his surroundings warily. Then, began to relax. There would be no danger from undines here, he realized. Not now, at any rate; not after the monster's passage. Undines were not very intelligent, true. But they were quite intelligent enough to understand they were no match for the monster, even if they didn't understand what it was. If there had been any undines in any of the canals through which the monster had passed, they were long gone by now.


* * *

Just before reaching the balcony, the monster paused and scanned the surrounding area. There was no one watching. Another great heave, and it slithered its still-wet bulk onto the balcony.


Again, it paused. Still, no one had spotted it—except a cat, hissing in a corner of the balcony. The monster could move with astonishing speed for such a large and clumsy-looking creature. The hiss was cut short by a yowl, and the yowl cut short even quicker.


The monster had no difficulty restraining itself from devouring the cat. It did not like cats; never had.


Then, it spent five minutes studying the large double-door that opened onto the balcony from the room inside. It was not studying the door itself, so much as it was pondering a problem. The monster could remember—vaguely—a time when it had been superb at pondering problems, and felt a slight anguish at the memory. Today—


It was not good at problems. But, eventually, it decided the risk was too great to simply break through the door and sweep inside with a murderous rush. The master had not told it whether the intended victim rested in whatever room lay immediately beyond. A mere servant might be sleeping there. Granted, the murder of a servant would satisfy the master—in part. Not enough, however, to forestall a certain measure of punishment.


No matter. The monster's ugly and bizarre-looking hands were capable of delicate work as well as other, more congenial tasks. It was the work of less than two minutes, using one of its claws, to open the impressive-looking but crude lock.


One half of the double-door was pulled open; quietly, slowly. The room beyond was a short hallway. Empty, and unlit except for a single taper at the far end. There were two doors at that end of the hallway, one on each side. From their well-made construction and ornate decoration, they were clearly not the doors leading to servants' quarters. The monster was certain that in the rooms beyond the master of the house and his wife were sleeping.


But which one, behind which door?


There was no way to know without looking. Moving slowly, as silently as it could, the monster slouched down the hallway until it reached the end. Then, for no reason other than whimsy, it reached up and tested the latch on the door to its right.


The latch came up easily and silently. The door was unlocked. Slowly, gently, the monster eased open the door and peered through it.


Darkness. The faint sound of breathing. The sounds of sleep. The monster pushed the door open far enough to allow itself to enter—which meant pushing it almost completely aside. It remained on all fours as it crept toward the side of the bed. Then, slowly, raised its head to study the bed's inhabitant. It sniffed softly.


It was the wife.


For a moment, a furious rush of lust almost overcame the monster, driving it to feed. It was an odd sort of lust, with nothing of the sensuality the monster could vaguely remember from its former existence. But if concupiscence had been replaced by something uglier, the lust was—if anything—more powerful still. It could barely restrain itself. Even now, after all that had passed, the monster still preferred female victims.


But—


The master had made his wishes clear. Remembering the nature of Chernobog's discipline . . . the monster shrank back, almost whimpering.


It turned and slouched away, back to the door. Then, once in the hallway, closed the door behind it. Softly, gently.


Almost, now. The monster could feel the craving rise, and no longer made any attempt to control it. When it opened this door, it made no attempt to remain silent. Just quiet enough not to awaken the woman in the other room. The monster cared not in the least whether the sound of its entrance roused the man in the room from his sleep.


It strode across the room in great steps, almost as erect as it had been in a former life. By the time it reached the side of the bed, the man in it had barely begun to open his eyes.


One great smashing thrust of the monster's left hand closed those eyes forever. Two talons pierced the eyes; the clawed thumb, hooking beneath, kept the jaw from opening; the suckers smothered the face. There was no sound beyond the blow itself and the sudden thrashing of limbs tangled in bed-sheets.


The man's strength was pitiful. Any man's strength would have been, much less that of a middle-aged and corpulent one. The only real difficulty the monster had, in what followed, was keeping its gurgling delight from turning into a howl of triumph.


The thrashing ended quickly. The monster began by breaking and dislocating the major joints. Its huge right hand moved from knees to ankles to elbows, wrenching and tearing and crushing. That done, pausing just an instant to savor the moment, it drove its talons into the man's abdomen and began disemboweling him.


By the time it was done, the man had long since gone into shock. The monster cared not at all. The soul could not hide from it behind the veil of unconsciousness. As much pleasure as the monster took from the physical torment it inflicted on its prey, that was nothing compared to the ecstasy of destroying a soul.


Much like a cat might knead a dying mouse, the monster began slowly shredding its victim's body while it turned its real attention elsewhere. It paid little attention to the work of its hand; just enough to make sure it did not kill the man too quickly.


Mist, again, began to surround the monster, blurring its vision. Not the gray mist of its master's cage, but the savage and exciting colors of its spiritual hunting ground. Dark colors; purplish-reds so thick they shaded quickly into black, as the monster plunged deeper into the hunt. It followed the fleeing soul through that mist, tracking it as surely as a hound tracks a hare. Then, cornering its prey in a place which could not be described outside of a nightmare, it proceeded to feed and feed; until there was nothing left but scraps of pinkish violet, fading away into the billows.


Under other circumstances, the monster would have saved a small portion of the prey's soul, to gnaw on afterward as a dog gnaws a bone. But carrying even a scrap of soul back to its cage ran the risk of alerting some cleric who might by chance be encountered during its return. If that cleric possessed magic ability . . .


The master wanted no complications. Not yet, at least. So, reluctant but obedient, the monster devoured the soul entire.


Its vision began returning. Under its hands, it could feel the lifelessness of the corpse even before its eye could once again see its surroundings.


The surroundings returned, eventually. The same dark room; darker, now that the bedding was no longer remotely white. The monster had no idea how much time had elapsed, exactly. Not much. Surprisingly little, in fact. What the monster thought of as "feeding time" always seemed much longer than it really was to the world at large.


It straightened and stepped back slowly from the carnage on the bed, all of its senses alert once again.


Nothing. Not a sight, not a sound. Just the quiet and darkness of a great house in sleep.


The monster was not surprised. For all the havoc it wreaked while feeding, the process was actually almost silent. Had it still been capable of the pride that had once been a cherished vice, it would have felt pride at its skill.


But that ancient god was gone. Only animal satisfaction remained.


Before leaving the room, the monster took the time to lick itself carefully and thoroughly. Not because of any fastidiousness, but simply because the master's instructions had been clear. Leave no trace of your passage.


The thick purple tongue removed the blood and gore quickly and expertly. Then, like an animal moving away to sleep after feeding, the monster returned to all fours and slouched its way out of the bedroom; down the hallway and out onto the balcony; taking care to close the doors behind. Leave no trace.


On the balcony, it paused long enough to lick away any large puddles of canal water left by its entry. What remained would evaporate with the sunrise. A lurch and a slither and it was creeping back down the wall, scanning carefully to make sure there was no one to see.


It slid into the water with hardly a sound. The tail began to move again, and the monster glided through the canals.


The master would be pleased. Remembering Chernobog's discipline, the monster felt relief sliding alongside satiation.


Although, somewhere inside the mind that had once been divine, a small rage burned and burned. There had been a time . . . when the monster had disciplined others; and smiled coldly, seeing relief on the faces of those he spared.


It might have wailed then, with despair. But the master's instructions had been clear. Leave no trace. Make no sound.


* * *

During the return, the shaman barely managed to obey his master's instructions—and then, only by the sketchiest interpretation. Several times he lost sight of the monster swimming ahead of him through the canals.


But . . . he had no trouble following the creature. The monster might have cleaned itself well enough to fool human investigators, with their dim and dull senses. But the shaman—even in his human form, much less this one—was not fooled for an instant. The monster left a trail of havoc and horror that reeked worse than anything the shaman had ever encountered.


Except . . . in the presence of his master.


 


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