Chapter Twenty-Four

Summer swam up out of unconsciousness. The spider-horse had stopped. The inside of her head still seemed to be moving.

The rider slung her down off the spider-horse. Her knees buckled and she dangled from his hand like a kitten in the mouth of a dog.

They were in some kind of little camp. There were a few tents, and a few tarps held up by poles to cast shade. The canyon wall rose sandy and unclimbable behind them.

Grub came up. Even through her pounding headache, Summer could smell a strange wet odor coming off him. His skin was so white in the desert sun that it was almost translucent in places, with strange blue-green shadows. She could see something moving at the base of his throat.

There were a half-dozen men behind him. She recognized the rider of the spider-horse among them.

“Search her,” said Grub.

One of the riders moved forward, hands outstretched. Summer gulped.

“Back with your great groping hands,” said a dry, amused voice, and someone stepped into Summer’s field of view.

The woman was only little taller than Summer, but she had massive curved horns and an equally massive neck to hold them. Her ankles and wrists were as thin and fragile-looking as blades of grass. She wore no clothing, only dark brown fur over a body that was almost human.

She put her hand under Summer’s chin and Summer felt thick, blunt nails and slick-furred hide.

Is she an antelope? thought Summer. The word seemed important somehow, but she couldn’t seem to remember why.

The woman slid her hooved hands over Summer, patting her impersonally. One hand dipped into the pocket with the lock and the acorn and the turquoise stone, and Summer cringed, waiting for them to be pulled out.

Not the acorn! The lock—I don’t know why I’ve still got the lock—but the acorn—

The antelope woman’s eyes met hers. They were huge and dark brown, with red glints at the bottom. Her muzzle had long white stripes down it, angled over the eyes, giving her a permanently fierce expression.

She took her hand out of Summer’s pocket and turned and said “She’s got nothing. Tie her wrists and her ankles together and she’ll be as helpless as a newborn fawn.”

Grub nodded. One of the guards came with rope and the antelope woman took it. She bound Summer’s hands in front of her, then her ankles with a short length between them.

“Tie it tighter,” Grub ordered.

“And have her fingers turn black and fall off? No one’s complained of my knots yet.”

Grub muttered something, but did not argue. Whoever the antelope woman was, she had some kind of authority that Summer couldn’t begin to guess at.

She watched the antelope woman walk away. Her hips swayed. She had a long, rope-like tail that moved like a pendulum behind her.

Why didn’t she tell them about the acorn? Is she helping me?

Grub’s hand closed on her shoulder. His fingers were so soft and swollen that they seemed to have no bones.

“Come on,” he said. “Zultan wants to see the girl that’s given him so much trouble.”

Zultan had a tent as large as the living room of Summer’s house. It was large and hung with tapestries, as if it had once been a riot of color, but the wind and rain had beat down on it and now it was shades of tattered blue and gray.

Grub swept the flap open and said, “Here she is, sir.”

There were metal lamps on chains lighting the room. The air was hot and stifling. Zultan himself was lying on his side in a nest of blankets, with books piled up around him. The great metal mask, muzzle frozen in an eternal snarl, gazed at her sideways.

Summer had expected…oh, something else. A throne perhaps, or at least a desk, something that the Houndbreaker could glare at her over. She didn’t expect to find him curled up like a sleeping child.

The stacks of books reminded her of her own bedroom. She found that this did not make her any less afraid.

“Kneel,” said Grub, and shoved her down. Summer didn’t mind. If she was kneeling, her trembling legs didn’t bother her so much.

Zultan sat up slowly. He was very thin without the layers of cloaks over him. The mask was the largest thing about him.

“A human child,” said Zultan. His voice was deep and hollow and unaccountably weary. “With the stink of crone-magic upon you, for all you’ve tried to mask it with wolf. Why are you here?”

“Because Grub shoved me in a sack!” said Summer angrily. “Why else?”

Grub sputtered and his hand on her shoulder squeezed tighter, like a fleshy mitten.

Zultan made a coughing noise. It took a moment for her to realize that was laughter, echoing through the steel mask.

“Why have you come to Orcus, human child?”

Summer licked her lips.

Crone magic. He must know. I don’t want to make him angry.

“I don’t know,” she said finally.

Zultan tilted his head. The eyesockets of the steel mask stared at her, and even though the face snarled, the eyes seemed deep and sad.

“You are not lying,” he said, “but you are also not telling the truth, are you?”

“But I don’t know!” cried Summer. “Nobody tells me anything! I was supposed to find my heart’s desire—” (was that safe to tell him? Surely it must be. He couldn’t know just by looking at her what her heart’s desire would be) “—but I don’t know what it is or where to find it and then Grub was chasing me and I don’t know why!”

Grub made a wet, sticky noise behind her, as if he were coughing up phlegm. Zultan laughed again.

“We could torture her,” said Grub hopefully. “Give me ten minutes, lord—”

“Peace, Grub. That was truth.” He tilted his mask back the other way, thoughtfully. “Was it Baba Yaga, then?”

Summer said nothing and tried very hard to keep her face still. If he can smell a lie, how do I change my smell, what do I do?

“It was,” he said, satisfied, sitting back. “She who litters shadows, and nurses them at her dugs.”

Summer suspected that this was not a terribly complimentary thing to say about someone, but said nothing.

He drummed his gloved fingers on his knee. His legs were very long, but so were his wrists.

Then: “Leave us, Grub.”

“But sir!”

Zultan sighed. “She is very small, Grub, and I am very old, but not quite dead yet. I do not think she will tear out my throat.”

“The crone sent her,” said Grub.

“And I may yet send her back. Now go.”

Summer didn’t dare look at Grub, because that would mean looking away from Zultan. She felt the pale man shifting from foot to foot behind her, and then he turned and the tent flap rose and fell, and she was alone with Zultan Houndbreaker.

“Can you read?” he asked.

Summer blinked. Of all the questions she was expecting, this wasn’t one.

“Yes, of course,” she said.

The mask could not smile, but there was a hint of a smile in Zultan’s voice. “There is no ‘of course’ with reading in Orcus. Books are rare here. Perhaps yours is a happier land, or at least a more literate one.”

Summer did not know how to answer this. At the moment, home seemed a great deal happier than kneeling in the tent of a madman who burned down people’s homes on a whim.

“I read a lot at home,” she said finally.

“Ah,” said Zultan. “I, too. I keep many books at my home.” He gestured to the books in the tent. “These are only a few. Those I think I might need on this trip, and those I have yet to read and might want, and those old friends that I cannot bear to leave behind.”

Summer recognized a great deal of her own love of books in that, and bit her lower lip. She did not want to recognize anything of herself in Zultan.

“What sort of books do you like?” he asked.

“Oh…err…” Summer wondered if it was exhaustion from the ride on the Sleipneirian that was making this all seem extremely surreal. It was so hot in the tent and she was disoriented and a man who had chased her across the world wanted to talk about books.

“Fantasy, mostly. Fairy tales.”

“Fairy tales,” said Zultan. “Yes. Fairy tales hold wisdom and foolishness in equal measure. Then you may understand how someone in a tale, when he tries to defend himself from his doom, often brings it closer. If you build a wall to keep out the enemy, you will find yourself walled inside with him instead, will you not?”

Summer nodded.

“So it is with you,” said the Houndbreaker. “Some, smelling a crone upon you, would kill you at once. Grub would do it gleefully if I told him, but Grub is driven by a master crueler than I am, and it will devour him before long.” He folded his legs neatly, crossing them at the ankles. “But Baba Yaga is subtle and older than I am by far. And if I sent a child alone into my enemy’s jaws, I would make sure that she carried poison with her.”

It was very hot. Summer lifted her bound hands and wiped the sweat out of her eyes.

“If I bite down, will I regret it?” asked Zultan.

Summer shook her head, baffled. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

“No,” said Zultan. “You wouldn’t, I suppose. And perhaps I am like the fool in a tale, trying to defend myself from my doom and embracing it instead. But I think I will not bite down just yet.”

Summer sighed. It seemed pointless to argue, pointless to talk, but—“I didn’t know anything about you until you came after me,” she said. “I don’t want to do anything to you. I just want you to leave me alone.”

She was amazed at how clear and calm that sounded, when her thoughts were running in such useless little circles. Does he know does he know about the wasps does he know about the Queen does he know I’m trying to stop the wasps…

“Ahhh…and so perhaps I have already brought my doom a little closer by pursuing you.”

The mask shook from side to side. “Perhaps if I had ignored you, you would have seen a few sights and then gone back to your world again with a head full of stories and ended your days in a madhouse.” He laughed. “Perhaps you still might, eh?”

This was far too close to Summer’s secret fears. Her stomach turned over and she blurted out, “At least I won’t end my days in a stupid dog mask!”

Immediately she regretted it. She thought she might throw up again.

“Ah…” said Zultan again. “You do not like my mask?”

He reached up and touched clasps at the bottom and the sides, then lifted the mask.

Most of his skull seemed to come with it. Summer had a brief, horrible thought that he was simply going to pick his entire head off his neck and sit there like the Headless Horseman in that story with Ichabod Crane.

But he did not. Instead the mask came up and the metallic braids with it. They seemed to belong to the mask rather than Zultan himself. And then Summer looked at last on the face of the one who had brought down the Tower of Dogs.

He was very old. The bones of his muzzle were long and fine and the skin over them looked like parchment. Where the mask had rubbed, his skin was raw and pink, and in places it had peeled away entirely and there was only bloodless bone.

One of his ears was gone. The other was only half there, crumpled at the tip. His fur, where he had fur, was white with age.

“I don’t understand,” whispered Summer. “You brought down the Tower of Dogs. Everyone says so. But…you look like…”

“I am the last of the dogs of Orcus,” said Zultan. “You are quite privileged, my young doom. Very few people have ever seen my face. I am not so handsome as I was.”

His lips curled up in a smile. He still had fangs, she could see, but there were gaps in the line of his teeth and they were blunted and yellow.

When he turned his head for a moment, shadows fell across his face and hid the sores, and Summer could see why so many people had loved the dogs. If you saw only the long bones and the white fur, he looked like an ancient herding dog, old and wise and dutiful.

They were good, people said.

This one was not good. Something had gone hard and twisted inside him.

“You destroyed your own people,” said Summer.

“Oh, yes.” His eyes, now that she could see them clearly, were filmed with white, but he seemed perfectly able to see.

“It is very tiring to belong to a people of such relentless virtue,” said Zultan. “I would not expect a human to understand, but then again, you read many books, so perhaps you can. I could not bear to be so noxiously valiant.” He waved one long hand—paw? Suddenly the odd shape of his fingers seemed to make more sense.

“So you killed all of them?” Summer couldn’t quite wrap her mind around it.

“And it was no easy task, let me tell you. I hunted stragglers for nearly forty years. One of the ones who fled was heavy with pups. Her granddaughter was the second-to-last dog in Orcus.”

“But why?”

“Because they would have forgiven me,” said Zultan. “Unbearable thought, isn’t it?”
He lifted the mask back onto his shoulders and blinked out at her through the eyesockets.

“But if they’re all dead now, why are you still going around burning people?” asked Summer.

“One gets in the habit,” said Zultan. “And I still have far too many books to read to allow myself to die. Grub! Please come and take my doom away. I don’t think I will kill her yet. I want to think a little longer.”

 

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