DRAGONLANCE TALES II

 

Volume Three

 

THE WAR

OF THE LANCE

TSR, Inc.

All Rights Reserved.

OCR'ed by Alligator

croc@aha.ru

 

Introduction

 

The queen of Darkness SEEKS TO REENTER the

world. Her minions of evil once more grow strong and

powerful. Dragons return to Krynn as war sweeps

across the land. Every person is called upon to face the

evil. Some rise to the challenge. Some fall. But each is, in

his or her own way, a hero.

Michael Williams delves into the soul of the tortured

king of Silvanesti in the epic poem, "Lorac."

"Raistlin and the Knight of Solamnia" by Margaret

Weis and Tracy Hickman tells how the young mage

helped a stern knight learn a hard lesson. (Originally

published in DRAGON(R) Magazine, Issue 154, February

1990.)

Roger Moore writes about the vengeful quest of a

revenant in "Dead on Target."

Mara, Queen of Thieves, sneaks into Mountain

Nevermind in search of "War Machines" by Nick

O'Donohoe.

Dan Parkinson continues the misadventures of the

Bulp clan, as those intrepid gully dwarves search for

"The Promised Place."

Jeff Grubb relates (be warned!) a gnome story in

"Clockwork Hero."

"The Night Wolf" by Nancy Varian Berberick is a tale

of three friends who share a dark and deadly secret.

Mark Anthony's "The Potion Sellers" have a bitter pill

of their own to swallow when the wrong people come to

believe in their fake cure-alls.

Richard Knaak writes the story of an evil priest of

Chemosh, trying to recover dread magical artifacts from

beneath the Blood Sea, in "The Hand That Feeds."

Foryth Teal, valiant scribe of Astinus, returns to pro-

vide us with an exciting account of "The Vingaard Campaign"

by Douglas Niles.

And finally, Tasslehoff Burrfoot tells "The Story That

Tasslehoff Promised He Would Never, Ever, Ever Tell" to

the kender's good friends, Margaret Weis and Tracy

Hickman.

We hope you are enjoying our return to Krynn as

much as we are. Thanks to all of you for your support.

You are the ones who have made this return journey pos-

sible. We look forward to traveling with you again in the

future.

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

Lorac

Michael Williams

 

The country of thought

is a pathless forest,

is an intricate night

of redoubling green,

where the best and the worst

entangle and scatter

like distant light

on the face of an emerald

like a spark on the breast

of the fallen seas.

And yes, it is always like this,

for that country is haunted

with old supposition,

and no matter your stories,

no matter the rumors

of legend and magic

that illumine you through

the curtain of years,

you come to believe

in the web of yourself

that history twines

in the veins of your fingers,

that it knits all purpose,

all pardon and injury,

recovers the lapsed

and plausible blood,

until finally, in the midst of believing,

you contrive the story

out of the rumors,

the old convolution

of breath and forgetting,

and then you will say,

beyond truth and belief,

THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS,

FOR ONCE AND AT LAST

WHAT IT ALWAYS MEANT,

NO MORE THAN I KNEW

FROM THE WORLD'S BEGINNING

IS ALL THAT IT MEANS FOREVER.

Perhaps it was love

in the towers of thought,

in the haunts of High Sorcery,

in the towering doctrine

of moon and spell and convergence:

where the dragons dispersed

and the Kingpriest hovered

in the blind riots

of dogma and piety.

Perhaps it was love

in the breathing radius,

in the forest of crystal

where thought tunneled into

five vanishing countries,

forging the five stones

at Istar, at Wayreth,

in lofted Palanthas.

Perhaps it was love

but more likely thought

in the two vanished towers,

as the rioting stones

dwindled to four, then three,

three like the moons

in a fracturing orbit,

and the towers at Istar

and gabled Palanthas

echoed and shuddered

in the forgotten language,

hollow and cold

with ancient departures,

as high on their turrets

the spiders walked,

and the moth and the rust

corrupted the dream of days.

 

II

 

But before the towers

fell to abandonment,

before the fire,

the incense of destruction,

when the Tower at Istar

blossomed in magic

and durable light,

the parapets shone

in the lonely notions

of Lorac Caladon,

Speaker of Stars.

Restless in Silvanost,

drawn by cold light,

by the intricate forest of magic,

to the North he came,

to glittering Istar

where the tests of High Sorcery

awaited his judgment,

his ordained mathematics,

and the first test past,

and the second surmounted,

he stood as if satisfied

high on the parapets

in doubtful, striated light,

the vaunt of his intellect

over the globe of the city,

where the green luminescence

of the dangered orb

called to him out of the Tower's heart.

In the pathless forest

at the end of all centuries,

he would hear the song

as it tumbled from thought

into faceted memory,

singing, perpetually singing,

AFTER THE SECOND

THERE IS NO OTHER.

O THE TESTS ARE BEHIND YOU

SPEAKER OF SUNS

AND THE SONG OF THE ORB

IS THE SONG OF YOUR MIND

IN THIS ANCIENT TOWER

HOLLOW AND LOVELESS

WITH LONG DEPARTURES.

O THE TESTS ARE BEHIND YOU

SPEAKER OF SUNS

BUT I SHALL LIE HERE

the orb said, shimmering

AS HISTORY FOLDS

IN THESE FLOURISHING WALLS

AS THE TOWER CRUMBLES

AND WITH IT THE MIND

THE FIRST HIGH BATTLEMENTS

THE HOUSE OF THE GODS

BUT I SHALL LIE HERE

AS THE FOREST WITHERS

AS THE PLAINS DESCEND

INTO WINTER AND NOTHING

UNLESS THE SONG OF YOUR THOUGHTS

WHICH IS EVERYTHING, IS THE WORLD,

CONTROLS AND SUBDUES

AND INFORMS THE MYSTERY.

TAKE ME TO SILVANOST

SPEAKER OF SUNS,

TAKE ME TO FREEDOM

TO THE COUNTRY OF GREEN ON GREEN.

Perhaps it was love

in the crystal heart,

in the refraction of light

and beguiling light,

love meeting love in his long belief,

in dire mathematics,

in the mapped parabola

of the trining moons,

but there in the Tower

six reasons converged

the hand of the prophet

the nesting heart of his will

the hurdling thought

the summoning crystal

and always the ruinous moment,

all of them settling

in grim alignment,

the orb the sixth

like a heart in his hand,

like a fluttering light

a firebrand he carried

to ignited Silvanost

in the numbered days.

I AM BRINGING THEM FIRE,

he said to himself,

I AM BRINGING THEM LIGHT

IN THE OLD GODS' STORY.

I AM THE FIRST

I WILL SAVE THEM

IN THE RISING EARTH

I WILL SAVE THEM

AND THE OLD WORLD PIVOTS

AWAY FROM MY GUIDING HAND.

So he said to himself,

and the shapeless horizon

shaded to green

and redoubling green

as out of his last dreams

arose Silvanesti,

tangible, fractured in light.

 

III

 

And outside the forest

the world collapsed,

a mountain of fire

crashed like a comet

through jewelled Istar,

through the endless city,

and the Tower, unmanned and unhouseled,

split like a dry stalk

in the midst of the ruinous flames,

and out of the valleys

the mountains erupted,

the seas poured forever

into the graves of mountains,

the long deserts sighed

on abandoned floors of the seas,

and the highways of Krynn descended

into the paths of the dead.

As hail and fire

in a downpour of blood

tumbled to earth,

igniting the trees and the grass,

as the mountains were burning,

as the sea became blood

as above and below us

the heavens were scattered,

as locusts and scorpions

wandered the face of the planet,

Silvanost floated on islands of thought,

immaculate memory

gabled in cloud and dreaming,

untouched by the fire,

by the shocks of the Rending,

and from tower to tower

from the Tower of Sorcery

down to the Tower of Stars,

drowsy in thinking, Lorac imagined

an impossible dream of salvation,

a country bartered in magic,

renewed in his mind

to a paradise won

in a ranging study.

And so it appeared in the orb,

in the waking hours,

in the suddenly secret

lodging of light

as the globe lay buried,

masked and unfabled

in the Tower of Stars,

the ancestral tower

of Speakers, of Silvanost,

buried for centuries.

While the continent burned

and the people of Qualinost

wandered through ash

and the outer darkness,

Silvanost floated

at the edge of their sight,

absent and glorious,

down to the edge of their dreams.

Lorac watched from the Tower of Stars,

from the heart of the crystal,

his eye on the face

of the damaged world

like a rumor of history

he was forgetting

lost in the fathomless

maze of the orb.

But often at night

when the senses faltered

and the polished country

altered and coiled,

the shape of the dream

was the Speaker's reflection:

The estranging trees

were nests of daggers,

the streams black and clotted

under a silent moon

that mourned for the day

and the fierce definition

of sunlight and knowledge

where the trees and towns

were named and numbered

and always, implacably

intended and purposed,

far from the tangle

of nightmare, the shadow

and weave of the forest

that wrangled to light

in the dreams of Lorac,

invading the day

with the glitter of flint,

subverting the pale

and anonymous sun.

 

IV

 

Then to the North

an evil arose

in the cloud-wracked skies,

for the Dragon Highlords

sent sword and messenger,

firebrand and word

to the Tower of Stars,

to rapt Silvanesti,

to the dwindling porches

of the elf king's ear,

promising peace

and the forest's asylum

in the discord of armies,

promising Silvanost free

in exchange for the promise

of silence, inaction,

for a nodding head

on the Green Throne.

And Lorac agreed,

his eye on the hooded orb,

where miraculous silence

promised a blessing of spears,

an end to all promise,

the dragons by summer.

And so Silvanesti

was emptied of silver,

emptied of lives

and the long dreaming blood

of its last inhabitants

as they took to the boats,

to the skiffs, to the coracles,

aimless on water

as cloudy as oracles

and the Wildrunners fought

in the wake of the water,

where their last breath billowed

in the spreading sails.

Alhana Starbreeze, the Speaker's daughter,

stood at the helm

in the silver passage

as they sailed to the South

on the Paths of Astralas,

on the bard's memory,

on history's spindrift,

and Lorac behind them

ordered his soldiers

to leave the unraveling land

in the last of the ships,

for there in the dark

called the forest, called Silvanost,

the elm and aeterna

choiring like nightingales,

singing this song

to his turning ear,

AFTER THE LAST TEST

THERE IS NO OTHER.

O THE TESTS ARE BEHIND YOU

SPEAKER OF SUNS

AND THE SONG OF THE ORB

IS THE SONG OF YOUR MIND

IN THIS ANCIENT TOWER

HOLLOW AND LOVELESS

WITH LONG DEPARTURES.

O THE TESTS ARE BEHIND YOU

SPEAKER OF SUNS

BUT I SHALL LIE HERE

AS HISTORY FOLDS

IN THESE FLOURISHING WALLS

AS THE TOWER CRUMBLES

AND WITH IT THE MIND

THE FIRST HIGH BATTLEMENTS

THE HOUSE OF THE GODS

BUT I SHALL LIE HERE

AS THE FOREST WITHERS

AS THE PLAINS DESCEND

INTO WINTER AND NOTHING

UNLESS THE SONG OF YOUR THOUGHTS

WHICH IS EVERYTHING, IS THE WORLD,

CONTROLS AND SUBDUES

AND INFORMS THE MYSTERY.

KEEP ME IN SILVANOST

SPEAKER OF SUNS,

KEEP ME IN FREEDOM

IN THE COUNTRY OF GREEN ON GREEN.

 

It lay in the chambers

secret in stars,

above it the Tower

and a labyrinth of legends,

and the freedom it promised

at its crystalline heart

was green ice beckoning,

flame of the distant voice.

And drawn by its music,

by the unearthly chiming

of crystal and shifting thought

the Speaker of Suns descended alone

to the heart of the Tower

where time and the forest

and a shaft of moonlight

collapsed on the orb,

and he reached for the crystal

as a thousand voices

rose from its brimming fire,

all of them singing

the lure of the possible,

all of them singing

the song he imagined,

and his thoughts were a fortress,

phantasmal ramparts

of maple and ash and belief,

in his daylit dreams

the armies were breaking,

the edge of the forest

bristled with leaf and invention,

and summoned, he reached

for the crystal

as the globe and the world

dissolved in his terrible grasp.

 

He knew when the bones

of his fingers ignited,

when green fire danced

on the back of his hands,

in the damage of arteries,

and he knew at once

that the fire was the heart of his error,

that neither the strength

nor the words nor the mind

could govern the magic.

But the shadows of Silvanost

faded from green into red,

into brown and untenable gold,

the orb was a prison

and above Thon-Thalas

the long wingbeat

of the dragon approached,

and the trees bent and bowed

in a sinister wind

as Lorac beheld this

all through the light of the orb,

and the dragon, the Bloodbane,

came with its whispers,

and under its words

the old stones tilted,

and the Tower of Stars,

as white as a sepulchre,

twisted and torted

as the trees rained blood

and the animals shrieked

their cries like torn metal

in a charmed and perpetual midnight.

 

V

 

So it was as the centuries

gathered and telescoped

into the passage

of a dozen years,

as the bristling heart

of Silvanesti

festered and doubled

and hardened like crystal.

And always the promise

of Cyan Bloodbane,

of the dragon coiled

on the crystal globe,

always the promise

was nothing and nothing

and the forest the map

of a strangled country,

land of stillbirth, of fever,

of warped and gangrenous age

and of long unendurable dying,

until from the North

came another invasion

of hard light and lances

as the Heroes, the Fellowship,

the fashioned alliance

of elf and dwarf,

of human and gnome and kender

came to the forest

through the nest of nightmare,

through the growing entanglement,

through bone, through crystal,

through all the forgotten

banes and allures

of the damaged heart,

to Silvanost and the disfigured Tower,

to Lorac, to the imprisoning Orb,

and they freed the Speaker

the Tower and town,

the forest, the people,

the bright orb they freed

and like a survivor

tumbled the globe through the years

through the centuries lodged

in the pale hands of others

and its old polished carapace

bright and reflecting

the hourglassed eyes

of its ultimate wielder.

But the sands were draining

over the Speaker of Suns,

and the knowledge of Lorac,

vaulted and various,

numbered and faceted,

descended and simplified

into a knowledge of evil,

as the forest unfolded,

stripped of the long light,

bare of bedazzlement

and at last Silvanesti

was free of his mind,

torn from the labyrinth

bearing forever the scars of belief

to the last syllable of eventual time,

and Lorac died in his daughter's arms,

his thoughts in the Tower

entombed and surrendered,

his last wish a burial

underneath Silvanost,

driving the green

from the body's decay,

resolving to forest,

resolving to Silvanost

forever and ever, his enabling ghost

to ascribe and deliver

the land that he dreamt of,

as thought was translated to dream.

And yes, it is always like this,

for the country is haunted

with old supposition,

and no matter the stories,

no matter the rumors

of legend and magic

that illumine you through

the curtain of years,

you come to believe

in the web of yourself

that history twines

in the veins of your fingers,

that it knits all purpose,

all pardon and injury,

recovers the lapsed

and plausible blood,

until finally, in the midst of believing,

you contrive among rumors

the story, the old convolution

of breath and forgetting,

in which you will say,

beyond truth and belief,

THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS,

FOR ONCE AND AT LAST

WHAT IT ALWAYS MEANT,

NO MORE THAN I KNEW

FROM THE WORLD'S BEGINNING

IS ALL THAT IT MEANS FOREVER.

 

Raistlin and the Knight of Solamnia

 

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

It was a chill night for spring, undoubtedly

the reason there were so many people in the inn. The inn

wasn't accustomed to such crowds. In fact, it wasn't

accustomed to any crowds, for the inn was new, so new

that it still smelled of fresh-hewn wood and paint instead

of stale ale and yesterday's stew. Called "Three Sheets,"

after a popular drinking song of the time, the inn was

located in - . But where it was located doesn't matter. The

inn was destroyed five years later in the Dragon Wars and

never rebuilt. Small wonder, for it was on a road little

traveled then and less traveled after the dragons leveled

the town.

It would be some time yet before the Queen of

Darkness plunged the world into what she hoped would be

eternal night, but already, in these years just prior to the

war, her evil shadow was spreading. Goblins had always

been a problem in this realm, but suddenly what had been

small bands of raiders who struck isolated farms had

grown into armies attacking villages.

"What's His Lordship offering?" queried a mage clad

in red robes who occupied a booth - the one nearest the

fire and the most comfortable in the crowded inn - with

just one companion. No one thought of joining them.

Though the mage was sickly in appearance, with a

hacking cough that nearly bent him double, those who had

served with him in previous campaigns whispered that he

was quick to anger and quicker with his spells.

"Standard rate - two pieces of steel a week and a

bounty on goblin ears. I signed us up." The man

responding was a large, burly warrior who sat down

opposite his questioner. Shedding his plain, undecorated

cloak in the heat of the room, the warrior revealed hard-

muscled arms the size of tree trunks and a chest like a

bull's. He unbuckled from around his waist a sword belt,

laying on the table near at hand a sword with every

appearance of having been well and skillfully used.

"When do we get our pay?"

"After we drive out the goblins. He'll make us earn

it."

"Of course," said the mage, "and he won't be out any

cash to those who die. What took you so long?"

"The town is packed! Every mercenary this side of

Ansalon is here, not to mention horse traders, camp

followers, swordmakers, and every kender not currently

behind bars. We'll be lucky to find a place in a field to

spread our blankets this night."

"Hullo, Caramon!" called out a leather-armor-clad

man, coming over to the table and clapping the warrior on

the back. "Mind if I share your booth?" he asked, starting

to sit down. "It's standing room only in this place. This

your twin I've heard so much about? Introduce us."

The mage lifted his head, fixed his gaze upon the

stranger.

Golden eyes with pupils the shape of an hourglass

glittered in the shadows of the red hood. The light in the

inn glinted off golden skin. Near at hand stood a wooden

staff - obviously and ominously magical - topped by a

multifaceted crystal clutched in a dragon's claw. Gulping,

the man rose quickly to his feet and, with a hasty farewell

to Caramon, took his ale to a distant comer of the room.

"He looked at me as if he saw me on my deathbed!"

muttered the man to more congenial companions.

"It's going to be a cold night tonight, Raist," said the

warrior to his brother in a low voice when the two were

again alone. "It smells like snow in the air. You shouldn't

sleep outside."

"And where would you have me sleep, Caramon?" asked

the mage in a soft, sneering voice. "In a hole in the

ground, like a rabbit, for that is all we can aff - ." He broke

off in a fit of coughing that left him breathless.

His twin gazed at him anxiously. Pulling a coin from

a shabby purse he wore at his belt, Caramon held it up.

"We have this, Raist. You could sleep here tonight and the

next night."

"And what would we do for food in the interim, my

brother? We won't get paid for a fortnight, at least."

Caramon lowered his voice and, leaning across the

table, grasped hold of his brother's arm to draw him near.

"I could snare us something, if need be."

"You'd be the one to end up in a snare, you fool!" The

mage jerked away from his brother's touch. "The lord's

men are all over the woods, hunting for poachers with

only slightly less enthusiasm than they're hunting for

goblins. No, we'll return to camp tonight. Don't fuss over

me. You know how I hate it. I'll be fine. I've slept in worse

places."

Raistlin began to cough again, the spasms shaking his

frail body until it seemed he must split apart. Pulling out a

cloth, he pressed it over his mouth. Those who glanced at

him in concern saw that, when the mage withdrew the

cloth, it was covered with blood.

"Fix me my drink!" he ordered Caramon, his lips

forming the words for he had momentarily lost the power

of speech. Collapsing in a comer, he closed his eyes and

concentrated on drawing breath. Those near could hear the

air whistle in his lungs.

Caramon peered through the crowd, attempting to find

the barmaid, and shouted for boiling hot water. Raistlin

slid a pouch across the table toward his brother, who

picked it up and carefully measured out some of its

contents into a mug. The inn's proprietor himself came

bustling over with the hot water in a steaming kettle. He

was just about to pour when a sudden shouting rose up

around the door.

"Hey, there! Get out you little vermin! No kender

allowed!" cried several of the guests.

"Kender!" Kettle in hand, the proprietor ran off in

panic.

"Hey!" shouted Caramon after the flurried innkeeper

in exasperation, "you forgot our water!"

"But I tell you I have friends here!" A shrill voice rose

up from the doorway. "Where? Why," - there was a

moment's pause - "there! Hi, Caramon! Remember me?"

"Name of the Abyss!" muttered Caramon, hunching

up his big shoulders and ducking his head.

A short figure, about the stature of a twelve-year old

human, with the face of a man of twenty and the wide-

eyed innocent expression of a babe of three, was pointing

gleefully at the booth of the warrior and his brother. The

figure was clad in a bright green tunic and orange striped

hose. A long tassel of hair was twisted round his head and

hung down his back. Numerous pouches containing the

possessions of everyone who had been unfortunate enough

to cross his path hung from his belt.

"You're answerable for him, then," said the proprietor

grimly, marching the kender across the room, one hand

gripping the slight shoulders firmly. There was a wild

scramble as men stuffed their purses inside their shirts,

down their pants, or wherever else they thought their

valuables might be safe from a kender's light and nimble

fingers.

"Hey! Our water!" Caramon made a grab for the

innkeeper but got a handful of kender instead.

"Earwig Lockpicker," said the kender, holding out his

hand politely. "Friend of Tasslehoff Burrfoot's. We met at

the Inn of the Last Home. I couldn't stay long. There was

that misunderstanding over the horse. I told them I didn't

steal it. I can't think how it came to follow me."

"Maybe because you were holding firmly onto the

reins?" suggested Caramon.

"Do you think so? Because I - Ouch!"

"Drop it!" said Raistlin, his thin hand closing tightly

over the kender's wrist.

"Oh," said Earwig meekly, releasing the pouch that

had been lying on the table and was now making its way

into the kender's pocket. "Is that yours?"

The mage cast a piercing, infuriated glare at his

brother, who flushed and shrugged uncomfortably. "I'll get

that water for you, Raist. Right now. Uh, Innkeeper!"

"Well, look over there!" said the kender, squirming

around in his seat to face the front door as it dosed behind

a small group of travelers. "I followed those people into

town. You can't imagine," he said in an indignant whisper

that carried clearly across the room, "how rude that man

is! He should have thanked me for finding his dagger,

instead of - "

"Greetings, sir. Greetings, my lady." The proprietor

bobbed and bowed officiously. The heavily cloaked man

and woman were, to all appearances, well dressed. "You'll

be wanting a room, no doubt, and then dinner. There's hay

in the stable for your horses."

"We'll be wanting nothing," said the man in a harsh

voice. He was carrying a young boy in his arms and, as he

spoke, he eased the child to the floor, then flexed his arms

as though they ached. "Nothing except a seat by your fire.

We wouldn't have come in except that my lady-wife is not

feeling well."

"Not well?" The innkeeper, backing up, held out a

dish cloth in front of him as a sort of shield and eyed them

askance. "Not the plague?"

"No, no!" said the woman in a low, cultivated voice.

"I am not ill. I am just tired and chilled to the bone, that is

all." Reaching out her hand, she drew her son near. "We

have walked a great distance."

"Walked!" muttered the innkeeper, not liking the

sound of that. He looked more closely at the family's

dress.

Several of the men standing around the fire moved to

one side. Others hurried to draw up a bench, and the

overworked barmaid, ignoring her waiting customers, put

her arm around the woman and helped her to a seat. The

woman sank down limply.

"You're white as a ghost, milady," said the barmaid.

"Let me bring you a posset of honey and brandywine."

"No," said the man, moving to stand by his wife, the

child clinging to his father. "We have no money to pay for

it."

"Tut, tut. Talk of money later," said the barmaid

briskly. "Call it my treat."

"We'll not take charity!" The man's voice rose to a

angry shout.

The boy shrank close to his mother, who glanced at

her husband, then lowered her eyes. "Thank you for your

kind offer," she said to the barmaid, "but I need nothing.

I'm feeling much better already."

The proprietor, stalking his guests, noted that by

firelight their clothes were not nearly so fine as they had

first seemed. The man's cloak was frayed at the hem and

travel worn and stained with mud. The woman's dress was

clean and neat but many times mended. The boy, who

appeared to be about five or six, was clad in shirt and

trousers that had probably once been his father's, cut down

to fit the boy's small, thin frame. The proprietor was about

to hint broadly that only those who spent money in his inn

had a right to his fire when he was distracted by a scream

from inside the kitchen.

"Where's that kender?" the innkeeper cried out in

alarm.

"Right here!" shouted Earwig eagerly, raising his

hand and waving. "Do you want me?"

The proprietor cast him a baleful glance, then fled.

"Humpf," said Caramon in an undertone, his eyes on

the woman. She had shoved the hood of her cloak back

with a weary hand, revealing a pale, thin face once

beautiful, now anxious and worn with care and fatigue.

Her arm stole around her son, who was gazing up at her in

concern, and she hugged the boy close. "I wonder when

the last time was those two had anything to eat," Caramon

muttered.

"I can ask them," offered Earwig helpfully. "Hey,

lady, when - Ulp!"

Caramon clamped his hand over the kender's mouth.

"It's no concern of yours, my brother," snapped

Raistlin irritably. "Get that imbecile innkeeper back here

with the hot water!" He began to cough again.

Caramon released the wriggling kender (who had

actually been silent for as long as three minutes on

account of having no breath left with which to talk) and

heaved his great bulk to his feet, peering over the heads of

the crowd for the proprietor. Smoke was rolling out from

under the kitchen door.

"I think he's going to be a while, Raist," said Caramon

solemnly. "I'll get the barmaid."

He tried to catch the barmaid's eye, but she was

hovering over the woman.

"I'll go and fix you a nice cup of tarbean tea, milady. No,

no. It's all right. There's no charge for tarbean tea in this

inn. Is there?" she said, flashing a threatening look at the

other customers.

"No, no. No charge. None," chorused the men in

response.

The cloaked and booted man frowned, but swallowed

whatever words he might have wanted to say.

"Hey, over here!" Caramon shouted, but the barmaid

was still standing in front of the woman, twisting her

apron in her hands.

"Milady," she began hesitantly, in a low voice, "I've

been speaking to cook. We're that busy tonight we're

short-handed. It would be a gift of charity, milady, if you

could help us out. It'd be worth a night's lodging and a

meal."

The woman cast a swift and pleading glance up at her

husband.

His face was livid. "No wife of a Knight of Solamnia

will work in an inn! We'll all three starve and go to our

graves first!"

"Uh, oh," muttered Caramon and eased himself back

into his seat.

Talking and bantering and laughter ceased, the silence

falling gradually as word circulated. All eyes went to the

man. Hot blood flooded his cheeks. He had obviously not

meant to reveal such a thing about himself. His hand went

to his smooth-shaven upper lip, and it seemed to those

watching that they could almost see the long, flowing

mustaches that marked a Knight of Solamnia. It was not

unusual that he had shaved it off. For long centuries the

Order had stood for justice and law on Krynn. Now the

knights were hated and reviled, blamed for bringing down

the wrath of the gods. What calamity had forced this

knight and his family to flee their homeland without

money and barely the clothes on their backs? The crowd

didn't know and most of them didn't care. The proprietor

now wasn't the only one who wanted the knight and his

family gone.

"Come along, Aileen," said the knight gruffly. He put

his hand on his wife's shoulder. "We'll not stay in this

place. Not when they cater to the likes of that!" His

narrowed eyes went to Raistlin, to the red robes that

proclaimed him a wizard and the magical staff that stood

by his side. The knight turned stiffly to the barmaid. "I

understand the lord of this realm seeks men to fight the

goblins. If you could tell me where to find him - "

"He's seeking fighters," sang out a man in a far comer

of the common room. "Not pretty boys dressed up in

fancy iron suits."

"Ho, you're wrong, Nathan," called out another. "I

hear His Lordship's lookin' for someone to lead a

regiment - a regiment of gully dwarves!"

There was appreciative laughter. The knight choked

with fury, his hand went to the hilt of his sword. His wife

laid a gentle hand restrainingly on his arm. "No, Gawain,"

she murmured, starting to rise to her feet. "We will go.

Come."

"Stay put, milady. And as for you . . ." The barmaid

glared at the boisterous crowd. "Shut your mouths or

that'll be the last cold beer I draw for anyone in this inn

tonight."

Quelled by this awful threat, the men quieted. Putting

her arm around the woman, the barmaid looked up at the

knight. "You'll find His Lordship in the sheriff's hall,

about a mile down the street. Go tend to your business,

Sir Knight, and let your lady-wife and the boy rest.

There's a lot of rough men down there," she added, seeing

the knight about to refuse. "It's no fit place for your

child."

The proprietor came hurrying up. He would have

liked dearly to throw all three out of his inn, but he could

see the crowd was siding with his barmaid in favor of the

woman. Having just put out a grease fire in the kitchen,

the last thing he needed was a riot.

"Go, Sir Knight, will you, please?" pleaded the

innkeeper in a low voice. "We'll take good care of your

lady."

The knight seemingly had no choice. Gnawing his lip,

he gave an ungracious assent. "Galeth, watch over your

mother. And speak no word to anyone." Glancing

meaningfully at the mage, the knight drew his cloak

around his shoulders, cast his hood over his face, and

stalked out of the inn.

"His Lordship'll have nothing to do with a Knight of

Solamnia," prophesied Caramon. "Half the army would

quit if he hired him. What did he look at you like that for,

Raist? You didn't say anything."

"The knights have no love for magic. It's something

they can neither control nor understand. And now, my

brother, the hot water! Or are you going to watch me die

here in this wretched inn?"

"Oh, uh, sure, Raist." Caramon stood up and began

searching the crowd for the barmaid.

"I'll go!" Earwig leaped to his feet and skipped out of

reach to disappear into the crowd.

Talk and laughter resumed. The proprietor was

arguing over the tab with a couple of his patrons. The

barmaid had disappeared back into the kitchen. The

knight's wife, overcome by weariness, lay down upon the

bench. The boy stood protectively near her, his hand on

her arm. But his gaze strayed to the red-robed magic-user.

Raistlin cast a swift glance at his brother. Seeing

Caramon preoccupied in attempting to capture the

barmaid's attention, the mage made a slight, beckoning

gesture with his hand.

Nothing appears as sweet as fruit we are forbidden to

eat. The boy's eyes widened. He looked around to see if

the mage meant someone else, then looked back at

Raistlin, who repeated the gesture. The boy tugged gently

at his mother's sleeve.

"Here, now. Let your ma sleep," scolded the barmaid,

hustling past, a tray of mugs in her hands. "Be good for a

few moments, and when I come back I'll bring you a

treat." She vanished into the crowd.

"Hey, there! Barmaid!" Caramon was waving his arms

and bellowing like a bull.

Raistlin cast him an irritated glance, then turned back

to the boy.

Slowly, drawn by irresistible curiosity and fascination,

the child left his mother's side and crept over to stand near

the mage.

"Can you really do magic?" he asked, round-eyed with

wonder.

"Here, there!" Caramon, seeing the kid apparently

bothering his brother, tried to shoo him away. "Go on back

to your ma."

"Caramon, shut up," said Raistlin softly. He turned his

golden-eyed gaze on the boy. "Is your name Galeth?"

"Yes, sir. I was named after my grandfather. He was a

knight. I'm going to be a knight, too."

Caramon grinned at his brother. "Reminds you of

Sturm, doesn't he? These knights, they're all daft," he

added, making the mistake that most adults make in

thinking that children - because they are small - have no

feelings.

The boy flared up like dry tinder cast in the fire. "My

father's not daft I He's a great man!" Galeth flushed,

realizing perhaps that his father hadn't seemed all that

great. "It's just that he's worried about my mother. He and

I can do without food, we're men. But my mother ..." His

lower lip began to tremble, his eyes filled with tears.

"Galeth," said Raistlin, casting Caramon a glance that

sent the big man back to shouting for the barmaid, "would

you like to see some magic?"

The boy, too awed to speak, nodded.

"Then bring me your mother's purse."

"Her purse is empty, sir," said the boy. Even though

young, he was old enough to understand that this was a

shameful thing, and his cheeks flushed.

"Bring it to me," said Raistlin in his soft, whispering

voice.

Galeth stood a moment, undecided, torn between what

he knew he should be doing and what he longed to do.

Temptation proved too strong for his six years. Turning,

he ran back to his mother and gently, without disturbing

her rest, slipped her purse from the pocket of her gown.

He brought it back and handed it to Raistlin, who took it

in his long-fingered, delicate hands and studied it

carefully. It was a small leather bag embroidered with

golden thread, such as fine ladies use to carry their jewels.

If this one had ever had jewels in it, they had long since

been sold to buy food and clothing.

The mage turned the purse inside out and shook it. It

was lined with silk and was, as the boy said, pitifully

empty. Then, shrugging, Raistlin handed it back to the

boy. Galeth accepted it hesitantly. Where was the magic?

He began to droop a little in disappointment.

"And so you are going to be a knight like your father,"

said Raistlin.

"Yes!" The boy blinked back his tears. "Since when,

then, does a future knight tell a lie?" "I didn't lie, sir!"

Galeth flushed. "That's a wicked thing!" "But you said the

purse was empty. Look inside." Startled, the boy opened

the leather bag. Whistling in astonishment, he pulled out a

coin, then gazed at Raistlin in delight.

"Go put the purse back, quietly now," said the mage.

"And not a word to anyone about where the coin came

from, or the spell will be broken!"

"Yes, sir!" said Galeth solemnly. Scurrying back, he

slipped his mother's purse into her pocket with the stealthy

skill of a kender. Squatting down next to her on the floor,

he began to chew on a piece of candied ginger the barmaid

tossed to him, pausing every now and then to share a

conspiratorial grin with the mage.

"That's all well and good," grunted Caramon, leaning

his elbows on the table, "but what do WE do now for food

for the next week?"

"Something will turn up," said Raistlin calmly.

Raising his frail hand, he made a weak gesture and the

barmaid hurried to his side.

 

****

 

The soft glow of twilight darkened to night. The inn

became even more crowded, hot, and noisy. The knight's

wife slept through the turmoil, her exhaustion so apparent

that many looked upon her with pitying eyes and muttered

that she deserved a better fate. The boy fell asleep, too,

curled up on the floor at his mother's feet. He never stirred

when Caramon lifted him in his strong arms and tucked

him near his mother. Earwig returned and sat down next to

Caramon. Flushed and happy, he emptied out his bulging

pouches onto the table and began to sort their contents,

keeping up a nonstop, one-sided conversation at the same

time.

After two hours, Sir Gawain returned. Each man in the

inn who saw him enter nudged a neighbor into silence so

that all were quiet and watching him attentively as he

stepped into the common room.

"Where's my son?" he demanded, staring around

darkly.

"Right here, safe and warm and sound asleep,"

answered the barmaid, pointing out the slumbering child.

"We haven't made off with him, if that's what you're

thinking."

The knight had grace enough to look ashamed. "I'm

sorry," Gawain said gruffly. "I thank you for your

kindness."

"Knight or barmaid, death takes us all alike. At least

we can help one another through life. I'll wake your lady."

"No," said Gawain and put out his hand to stop her.

"Let her sleep. I want to ask you" - he turned to the

proprietor - "if she and my son can stay the night. I will

have money to pay you in the morning," he added stiffly.

"You will?" The proprietor stared at him suspiciously.

"His Lordship hired you?"

"No," answered the knight. "It seems he has all the

fighters he needs to handle the goblins."

An audible sigh whispered through the room. "Told

you so," said Caramon to his brother.

"Shut up, you fool!" Raistlin returned sharply. "I'm

interested to know where he's planning to find money this

night."

"His Lordship says that there is a woodland not far

from here, and in that woodland is a fortress that is of no

use to him or to anyone because there is a curse laid upon

it. Only - "

"A cursed fortress? Where? What kind of curse?"

demanded an excited Earwig, scrambling up onto the

table to get a better view.

"The Maiden's Curse," called out several in answer.

"The fortress is called Death's Keep. No one who has

entered it has ever returned."

"Death's Keep!" breathed the kender, misty-eyed with

rapture. "What a wonderful-sounding place!"

"A true Knight of Solamnia may enter and return.

According to His Lordship, it takes a true knight to lift the

curse. I plan to go there and, with the help of Paladine,

perform this deed."

"I'll come wi - " Earwig was offering magnanimously,

when Caramon yanked the kender's feet out from

underneath him, sending the green-clad figure sprawling

face-first on the floor.

"His Lordship has promised to reward me well,"

concluded Gawain, ignoring the crash and the kender's

protest.

"Uh, huh," sneered the proprietor, "And who's going

to pay your family's bill if you don't return, Sir True

Knight? You're not the first of your kind to go up there,

and I've never seen a one come back!"

Nods and low voices in the crowd affirmed this.

"His Lordship has promised to provide for them if I

fall," answered Gawain in a calm and steady voice.

"His Lordship? Oh, that's quite all right then," said the

proprietor, happy once more. "And my best wishes to you,

Sir Knight. I'll personally escort the lady and your boy - a

fine child, if I may say so - to their room."

"Wait just a minute," said the barmaid, ducking

beneath the proprietor's elbow and coming to stand in

front of the knight. "Where's the mage who'll be going

with you to Death's Keep?"

"No mage accompanies me," answered Gawain,

frowning. "Now, if there is nothing further you want of

me, I must leave." He looked down at his sleeping wife

and, with a gentle hand, started to reach out to touch her

hair. Fearing it would waken her, however, he drew back.

"Good-bye, Aileen. I hope you can understand." Turning

swiftly, he started to leave, but the proprietor grabbed his

elbow.

"No mage! But didn't His Lordship tell you? It takes a

knight AND a mage to lift the Maiden's Curse! For it was

because of a knight and a mage that the curse was placed

on the keep."

"And a kender!" Earwig shouted, scrambling to his

feet. "I'm positive I heard that it takes a knight and a mage

and a kender!

"His Lordship mentioned some legend about a knight

and a mage," said Gawain scornfully. "But a true knight

with faith in his god needs the help of no other being on

Krynn."

Freeing himself of the proprietor's plucking hand, the

knight started toward the door.

"Are you truly so eager to throw away your life, Sir

Knight?" The sibilant whisper cut through the hubbub in

the inn, bringing with it a deathlike silence. "Do you truly

believe that your wife and son will be better off when you

are dead?"

The knight stopped. His shoulders stiffened, his body

trembled. He did not turn, but glanced back at the mage

over his shoulder. "His Lordship promised. They will have

food and a roof over their heads. I can buy them that, at

least."

"And so, with a cry of 'My Honor is My Life' you

rush off to certain defeat when, by bending that proud

neck and allowing me to accompany you, you have a

chance to achieve victory. How typical of you all," said

Raistlin with an unpleasant smile. "No wonder your Order

has fallen into ruin."

Gawain's face flushed in anger at this insult. His hand

went to his sword. Caramon, growling, reached for his

own sword.

"Put away your weapons," snapped Raistlin. "You are

a young man, Sir Knight. Fortune has not been kind to

you. It is obvious that you value your life, but, being

desperate, you know no other way to escape your

misfortune with honor." His lip twisted as he said the last

word. "I have offered to help. Will you kill me for that?"

Gawain's hand tightened around the sword's hilt.

"Is it true that a knight and a mage are needed to lift

the curse?" he asked of those in the inn. ("And a kender!"

piped up a shrill voice indignantly.)

"Oh, yes. Truly," averred everyone around him.

"Have there been any who have tried it?"

At this the men in the inn glanced at each other and

then looked at the ceiling or the floor or the walls or stared

into their mugs.

"A few," said someone.

"How few?" asked Caramon, seeing that his brother

was in earnest about accompanying the knight.

"Twenty, thirty maybe."

"Twenty or thirty! And none of them ever came back?

Did you hear that, Raist? Twenty or thirty and none of

them ever came back!" Caramon said emphatically.

"I heard." Using his staff to support him, Raistlin rose

from the booth.

"So did I!" said Earwig, dancing with excitement.

"And we're still going, aren't we," Caramon said

gloomily, buckling his sword belt around his waist. "Some

of us, that is. Not you, Nosepicker."

"Nosepicker!" Hearing this foul corruption of a name

long honored among kender, Earwig was momentarily

paralyzed with shock and forgot to dodge Caramon's large

hand. Catching hold of the kender by the long ponytail,

the big warrior skillfully tied him by the hair to one of the

inn's support posts. "The name's Lockpicker!" he shrieked

indignantly.

"Why is it you're doing this, mage?" asked Gawain

suspiciously as Raistlin walked slowly across the room.

"Yeah, Raist, why is it we're doing this?" Caramon

shot out of the comer of his mouth.

"For the money, of course," said Raistlin coolly.

"What other reason would there be?"

The crowd in the inn was on its feet, clamoring in

excitement, calling out directions and advice and laying

wagers on whether or not the adventurers would return.

Earwig, tied fast, screamed and pleaded and begged and

nearly yanked his hair out by the roots trying to free

himself.

It was only the barmaid who saw Raistlin's frail hand

very gently ruffle the sleeping child's hair in passing.

 

****

 

Half the patrons of the inn accompanied them down an

old, disused path to the fringes of a thick forest. Here,

beneath ancient trees that seemed ill-disposed to have their

rest disturbed, the crowd bid them good fortune.

"Do you need torches?" one of the men shouted.

"No," answered Raistlin. "SHIRAK," he said softly,

and the crystal ball on top of his staff burst into bright,

beaming light.

The crowd gasped in appreciative awe. The knight

glanced at the glowing staff askance.

"I will take a torch. I will not walk in any light that

has darkness as its source."

The crowd bid them farewell, then turned back to the

inn to await the outcome. Odds were running high in favor

of Death's Keep living up to its name. The wager seemed

such a sure thing, in fact, that Raistlin had some difficulty

in persuading Caramon not to bet against themselves.

Torch in hand, the knight started down the path.

Raistlin and his brother walked some paces behind, for the

young knight walked so swiftly, the frail mage could not

keep up.

"So much," said Raistlin, leaning on his staff, "for the

courtesy of the knights."

Gawain instantly halted and waited, stony-faced, for

them to catch up.

"Not only courtesy but just plain good sense to keep

together in a forest as dark and gloomy as this one," stated

Caramon. "Did you hear something?"

The three listened, holding their breaths. Tree leaves

rustled, a twig snapped. Knight and warrior put hand to

weapon. Raistlin slid his hand inside his pouch, grasping a

handful of sand and calling to mind words of a sleep spell.

"Here I am!" said a shrill voice cheerfully. A small,

green and orange figure burst into the light. "Sorry I'm

late," said Earwig. "My hair got caught in the booth." He

exhibited half of what had once been a long tassel. "I had

to cut myself loose!"

"With MY dagger!" said Caramon, snatching it away.

"Is that one yours? Isn't that odd? I could have sworn

I had one just like it!"

Sir Gawain came to a halt, scowling. "It is bad

enough I must travel in the company of a magic-user - "

"I know," said Earwig, nodding sympathetically.

"We'll just have to make the best of it, won't we?"

"Ah, let the little fellow come along," said Caramon,

feeling remorseful when he looked at what had once been

the kender's jaunty top-knot. "He might come in handy if

we're attacked."

Gawain hesitated, but it was obvious that the only way

to get rid of the kender would be to slice him in two, and

though the Oath and the Measure didn't specifically ban a

knight from murdering kender, it didn't exactly encourage

it, either.

"Attack!" he snorted. The knight resumed his pace,

Earwig skipping along beside him. "We are in no danger

until we reach the keep. At least so His Lordship told me."

"And what else did His Lordship tell you?" Raistlin

asked, coughing.

Gawain glared at him dourly, obviously wondering of

what use this sickly mage would be to him.

"He told me the tale of the Maiden's Curse. A long

time ago, before the Cataclysm, a wizard of the red robes -

such as yourself - stole away a young woman from her

father's castle and carried her to this keep. A knight, the

young woman's betrothed, discovered the abduction and

followed after to rescue her. He caught up with the mage

and his victim in the keep in this forest.

"The wizard, furious at having his evil plans thwarted,

called upon the Queen of Darkness to destroy the knight.

The knight, in his turn, called for Paladine to come to his

aid. The forces unleashed in the ensuing battle were so

powerful that they not only destroyed the wizard and the

knight, but they have, even after death, continued to drag

others into their conflict."

"And you wouldn't let me make that bet!" said

Caramon reproachfully to his brother.

Raistlin did not appear to hear him. He was,

seemingly, lost in thought.

"Well," said Gawain abruptly, "and what do you think

of that tale?"

"I think that, like most legends, it has outgrown the

truth," answered Raistlin. "A wizard of the red robes, for

example, would not call upon the Queen of Darkness for

aid. That is something only wizards of the black robes do."

"It seems to me," said Gawain grimly, "that your kind

dabbles in darkness no matter what color robes they wear -

the fox cloaking himself in sheep's wool, so the saying

goes."

"Yeah," retorted Caramon angrily. "And I've heard a

few sayings myself about YOUR kind, Sir Kettle-head.

One goes - "

"That will do, my brother," remonstrated Raistlin, his

thin fingers closing firmly over Caramon's arm. "Save

your breath for what lies ahead."

The group continued on in a silence that was tense

and smoldering.

"What happened to the maiden?" Earwig asked

suddenly. All three started, having forgotten, in their

preoccupation, the kender's presence.

"What?" growled Gawain.

"The maiden. What happened to her? After all, it's

called the Maiden's Curse."

"Yes, it is," said Raistlin. "An interesting point."

"Is it?" Earwig jumped up and down gleefully,

scattering the contents of his pouches across the path and

nearly tripping Caramon. "I came up with an interesting

point!"

"I don't see why it's called the Maiden's Curse, except

that she was the innocent victim," answered the knight as

an afterthought.

"Ah," said Earwig with a gusty sigh. "An innocent

victim. I know what THAT feels like!"

 

****

 

The three continued on their way. The walking was

easy, the path through the forest was smooth and straight.

Too smooth and too straight, according to Caramon, who

maintained that it seemed bound and determined to

deliver them to their doom as swiftly as possible. Several

hours after midnight, they arrived at the fortress known as

Death's Keep.

Dark and empty, its stone facade glimmered grayish

white in the lambent light of the stars and a pale, thin

silver moon. Massive and stalwart, the keep had been

designed for function, not beauty. It was square, with a

tower at each comer for the lookouts. A wall connecting

the towers surrounded a structure whose main purpose

had probably been to house troops. Large wooden doors,

banded with steel, permitted entrance and egress.

But no soldiers had come here in a long, long time. The

battlements were crumbling and in some places had

completely fallen down. The walls were split by gigantic

cracks, perhaps caused by the Cataclysm, perhaps by the

supposedly magical battle that had been fought within.

One of the towers had collapsed in upon itself, as had the

roof of the central building, for they could see the skeletal

outline of broken beams show up black against the myriad

glistening stars.

"The keep is deserted," said Caramon, staring at it in

disgust. "There's no one here, magical or otherwise. I'm

surprised those jokers back at the inn didn't send us out

here with a bag and tell us to stand in the middle of the

path yelling, 'here, snipe!'"

"That will be the task I set for you, my bumbling

brother!" Raistlin began to cough, but stifled the sound in

his sleeve. "Death's Keep is NOT deserted! I hear voices

plainly - or I could if you would silence yours!"

"I, too, hear someone calling out," said Gawain, awed.

"A knight of my order is trapped in there, and he shouts

for help!" The knight, sword in hand, bolted forward. "I'm

coming!" he shouted.

"Me, too!" cried Earwig, leaping in a circle around

Raistlin. "I hear voices! I'm positive I hear voices! What

are they saying to you? Do you want to know what they're

saying to me? 'Another round of ale!' That's what I hear

them calling out."

"Wait!" Raistlin reached to grasp the knight, but

Gawain was running swiftly toward huge double wooden

doors. Once this gate would have been closed, locked fast

against any foe. Now it stood ominously open. "He's an

imbecile! Go after him, Caramon! Don't let him do

anything until I get there!"

"Another round of ale?" Caramon gazed blankly at his

brother.

"You blithering dunderhead!" Raistlin hissed through

clenched teeth. He pointed a trembling finger at the keep.

"I hear a voice calling to ME, and I recognize it as coming

from one of my own kind! It is the voice of a mage! I

think I am beginning to understand what is going on. Go

after him, Caramon! Knock him down, sit on him if that is

all you can do to hold him, but you must prevent Gawain

from offering his sword to the knight!"

"Knight? What? Oh, all right, Raist! I'm going. No

need to look at me like that. C'mon, Nosepicker."

Earwig's topknot bobbed indignantly. "That's Lock - .

Oh, never mind! Hey, wait up!"

Caramon, followed by the jubilant kender, dashed off

after the knight, but he was late in starting and Gawain

had already rushed headlong into the keep. Reaching the

wooden doors, Caramon hesitated before entering and

cast an uneasy glance back at his brother.

Raistlin, leaning on his staff, was walking as fast as he

could, coughing with nearly every step until it seemed he

must drop. Still, he kept going, and he even managed to

lift his staff and angrily gesture with it to Caramon,

commanding him to enter the keep without delay.

Earwig had already darted inside. Discovering he was

alone, he turned around and dashed back. "Aren't you

coming? It's wonderfully dark and spooky in here. And

you know what?" The kender sighed in ecstasy. "I really

am beginning to hear voices. They want me to come and

help them fight! Just think of that. Can I borrow your

dagger?"

"No!" Caramon snarled. He, too, could hear the voices

now. Ghostly voices.

"My cause is just! All know wizards are foul

creatures, spawned of darkness. For the pride and honor

of our Order of the Sword, join with me!"

"My cause is just! All know the knights hide behind

their armor, using their might to bully and threaten those

weaker than themselves. For the pride and honor of our

Order of the Red Robes, join with me!"

Caramon was beginning to get the uncomfortable

feeling that the keep wasn't as deserted as he'd first

thought. Reluctantly, wishing his brother were at his side,

he entered the keep. The big warrior wasn't afraid of

anything in this world that was made of flesh and blood.

These eerie voices had a cold, hollow sound that unnerved

him. It was as if they were shouting to him from the

bottom of a grave.

He and the kender stood in a long passage leading from

the outer wall to the inner hall. The corridor was adorned

with various defensive mechanisms for dealing with an

invading enemy. He could see starlight through arrow slits

lining the cracked stone walls. Bereft of his brother's

lighted staff and the knight's torch, Caramon was forced to

grope his way through the darkness, following the

flickering flame shining ahead of him, and he nearly

bashed his head on an iron portcullis that had been

partially lowered from the ceiling.

"Which side do you want to be on?" Earwig asked

eagerly, tugging at Caramon's hand to drag him forward.

"I think I'd like to be a knight, but then I've wanted to be a

mage, too. I don't suppose your brother would let me

borrow his staff - "

"Hush!" ordered Caramon harshly, his voice cracking

in his dry throat.

The corridor was coming to an end, opened into a

great, wide hall. Sir Gawain was standing right in front of

him, holding the torch high and shouting out words in a

language the big warrior didn't understand but guessed to

be Solamnic.

The clamoring of the voices was louder. Caramon felt

them tugging him in both directions. But another voice, a

voice within him, was stronger. This voice was his

brother's, a voice he loved and trusted, and he

remembered what it had said.

YOU MUST PREVENT GAWAIN FROM OFFERING

HIS SWORD TO THE KNIGHT!

"Stay here," he told Earwig firmly, placing his hand

on the kender's shoulder. "You promise?"

"I promise," said Earwig, impressed by Caramon's

pale and solemn face.

"Good." Turning, Caramon continued down the

corridor and came up in back of the knight.

"What's happening?" Earwig writhed with frustration.

"I can't see a thing from here. But I promised. I know! He

didn't mean me to say HERE, in this one spot. He just

meant me to stay here - in the keep!" Happily, the kender

crept forward, Caramon's dagger (which he had

appropriated) in his hand.

"Oh, my!" breathed Earwig. "Caramon, can you see

what I see?"

Caramon could. On one side of the hall, their bodies

encased in shining armor, their hands grasping swords,

stood a troop of knights. On the other side stood an army

of wizards, their robes fluttering around them as if stirred

by a hot wind. The knights and the wizards had turned

their faces toward the strangers who had entered, and

Caramon saw in horror that each one of them was a rotting

corpse.

A knight materialized in front of his troops. This

knight, too, was dead. The marks of his numerous wounds

could be seen plainly on his body. Fear swept over

Caramon, and he shrank back against the wall, but the

knight paid no attention either to him or the transfixed

kender standing by his side. The fixed and staring eyes of

the corpse looked straight at Gawain.

"Fellow knight, I call upon you, by the Oath and the

Measure, to come to my aid against my enemy."

The dead knight gestured and there appeared, standing

some distance from him, a wizard clad in red robes that

were torn and stained black with blood. The wizard, too,

was dead and had, it seemed from his wounds, died most

horribly.

Earwig started forward. "I'll fight on your side if

you'll teach me how to cast spells!"

Caramon, catching hold of the kender by the scruff of

his neck, lifted him off his feet and tossed him backward.

Slamming into the wall, the kender slid down to the floor

where he spent an entertaining few moments attempting to

breathe. Caramon reached out a shaking hand.

"Gawain, let's get out of - "

The knight thrust Caramon's hand aside and, kneeling

on one knee, started to lay his sword at the knight's feet. "I

will come to your aid, Sir Knight!"

"Caramon, stop him!" The hissing whisper slid over

stone and through shadow. "Stop him or we ourselves are

doomed!"

"No!" said the dead knight, his fiery eyes seeming to

see Caramon for the first time. "Join my fight! Or are you

a coward?"

"Coward!" Caramon glowered. "No man dares call me

- "

"Listen to me, my brother!" Raistlin commanded.

"For my sake, if for no other or I will be lost, too!"

Caramon cast a fearful look at the dead wizard, saw

the mage's empty eyes fixed on Raistlin. The dead knight

was leaning down to lift Gawain's sword. Lurching

forward on stiff legs, Caramon kicked the weapon with

his foot and sent it spinning across the stone floor.

The dead knight howled in rage. Gawain jumped up

and ran to retrieve his weapon. Caramon, with a desperate

lunge, managed to grab hold of the knight by the

shoulders. Gawain whirled around and struck at him with

his bare hands. The legion of dead knights clattered their

swords against their shields, the wizards raised their

hollow voices in a cheer that grew louder when Raistlin

entered the room.

"What an interesting experience," said Earwig, feeling

to see if any ribs were cracked. Finding himself in one

piece, he rose to his feet and looked to see what was

going on. "My goodness, someone's lost a sword. I'll just

go pick it up."

"Wizard of the Red Robes!" The dead were shouting

at Raistlin. "Join us in our fight!"

Caramon caught a glimpse of his brother's face from

the comer of his eye. Tense and excited, Raistlin was

staring at the wizards, a fierce, eager light in his golden

eyes.

"Raist! No!" Caramon lost his hold on Gawain.

The knight clouted him on the jaw, sending the big

warrior to the floor, and bounded after the sword, only to

find Earwig clutching it tightly, a look of radiant joy on

his face that began to fade as the knight approached.

"Oh, no," said the kender firmly, clutching the sword

to his bosom. "Finders keepers. You obviously didn't

want this anymore."

"Raist! Don't listen to them!" Caramon staggered to

his feet. TOO LATE, he thought. His brother was walking

toward the dead wizard, who was extending a bony hand

for the glowing staff.

The chill fingers were nearly touching it when Raistlin

suddenly turned the staff horizontally and held it out

before him. The crystal's light flared, the dead wizard

sprang back from the frail barrier as though it had scalded

him.

"I will not join your fight, for it is an eternal fight!"

Raistlin raised his voice above the clamoring. "A fight that

can never be won."

At this, the dead ceased their calling. A brooding

silence descended in the hall. Gawain ceased to threaten

the kender and turned around. Earwig, suddenly losing

interest in the sword, let it fall to the floor and hopped

forward to see what was going on. Caramon rubbed his

aching jaw and watched warily, ready to leap to his

brother's defense.

Leaning on his staff, whose crystal seemed to shine

more brightly in the chill darkness, Raistlin walked

forward until he stood in the center of the hall. He looked

first at the knight - the rotting, decaying face beneath a

battered helm, a bony hand clutching a rusting sword. The

young mage turned his golden-eyed gaze to the wizard -

red robes, torn and slashed by sword thrusts, covering a

body that had for centuries been denied the peace of

death.

Then Raistlin, lifting his head, stared up into the

darkness. "I would talk with the maiden," he called.

The figure of a young woman materialized out of the

night and came to stand before the mage. She was fair-

haired and pretty, with an oval face, rich brown hair, and

blue eyes that were bright and spirited. So lovely was she,

and so warm and seemingly alive, that it took some

moments before Caramon realized she was long-since

dead.

"YOU are the one who called down the curse, are you

not?" asked Raistlin.

"Yes," the maiden answered in a voice cold as the

end of the world. "Which side do you choose, mage? Here

stands pride" - she gestured toward the knight - "and here

stands pride" - she gestured toward the mage. "Which will

you choose? Not that it much matters."

"I fight for neither," said Raistlin. "I do not choose

pride. I choose," he paused, then said gently, "I choose

love."

Darkness crashed down upon them with the weight

and force of an avalanche, quenching even the magical

light of the staff.

"Wow!" came the awed voice of the kender.

Caramon blinked and peered around, trying to see

through the blackness, which was thick and impenetrable

as solid stone. The ghostly armies were gone.

"Raistlin?" he called, panicked.

"I am here, my brother. Hush. Keep silent."

Feeling a hand grasp his shoulder, Caramon reached

out and touched a warm human arm.

"Gawain?" he whispered.

"Yes," said the knight in strained tones. "What is

happening? I don't trust that mage! He'll get us killed."

"So far it seems to me he's done a good job of

keeping us alive," said Caramon grimly. "Look!"

"SHIRAK," said Raistlin and the crystal's light

beamed brightly. Standing in front of Raistlin, illuminated

by his staff, was the young woman.

"You have broken the curse, young mage," said the

spirit. "Is there anything you would ask of me before I go

to my long-awaited rest?"

"Tell us your story," said Raistlin. "According to the

legend, the mage carried you off by force."

"Of course, that is what they have said, who never

bothered to seek the truth!" said the spirit scornfully.

"And their words were fuel to the fire of my curse. The

truth is that the mage and I loved each other. My father, a

Knight of Solamnia, forbade me to marry a wizard. He

betrothed me to another knight, one whom I did not love.

The mage and I ran off together. I left of my own free will

to be with the man I loved. The knight followed us and

we fled to this place, knowing that it had long been

abandoned. The mage and I could have escaped, but he

said that, for his honor, he must turn and fight. For his

honor," she repeated bitterly. Her blue eyes stared into the

shadows of the hall as though she could still see what had

transpired there so long before. "Within these walls, he

challenged the knight to battle and they fought - one with

his sword, the other with his magic. They fought, for their

honor!

"And I came to realize as I watched, helpless to

prevent their quarrel, that neither loved me nearly so

much as each loved his own misbegotten pride.

"When they were dead, I stood over their bodies and

prayed to the gods that all men bound up in their own

pride should come here and be held enthralled. Then I left

this place and went forth into the world. I found a man

who loved me truly enough to live for me, not die for me.

I was blessed with a rich, full life, surrounded by love.

After my death, my spirit returned to this place and has

been here since, waiting for one who loved enough to

ignore the voices" - her gaze went to Caramon - "and for

one wise enough to break the spell.

"And now, young mage, you have freed them and you

have freed me. I will go to my rest at the side of my

husband who has waited patiently for me throughout the

years. But first I would ask one thing of you. How was it

that you saw and understood the truth?"

"I could say that I had a shining example of false pride

before my eyes," said Raistlin, with a sidelong glance at

the knight. Sir Gawain flushed and bowed his head. The

mage, smiling slightly, added, "But it would be more

truthful to say that it was mostly due to the curiosity of a

kender."

"Me!" gasped Earwig, struck by this revelation.

"That's me he's talking about! I did it! I lifted the curse! I

TOLD you it had to be a knight, a mage, AND a kender!"

The young woman's image began to fade. "Farewell," said

Raistlin. "May your rest be undisturbed." "Fare you well,

young mage. I leave you with a warning. Very nearly you

succumbed. Your wits and your will saved you. But unless

you change, I foresee a time when this doom you have

now avoided will drag you down at last." The blue eyes

closed, and were seen no more. "Don't go!" wailed

Earwig, rushing around and grabbing at the empty air with

his hands. "I've got so many questions! Have you been to

the Abyss? What's it like being dead? Oh, please . . ."

Caramon came forward cautiously, his eyes on the

place where the spirit had been, fearful that she might

suddenly burst back to life. His big hand rested on his

brother's shoulder.

"Raist," he said worriedly, "what did she mean by that?"

"How should I know?" Raistlin snapped, pulling himself

free of his brother's touch. He began to cough violently.

"Go find wood to build a fire! Can't you see I'm freezing

to death!"

"Sure, Raist," said Caramon gently. "C'mon, Earmite."

"Earwig," said the kender automatically, trudging after

the big warrior. "Wait until Cousin Tas hears about this!

Not even Uncle Trapspringer - the most famous kender of

all time - ever ended a curse!"

Gawain remained standing in silence until Caramon

and the kender had left the keep. Then, slowly, sword in

hand, he approached the mage.

"I owe you my life," he said grudgingly, awkwardly.

"By the Oath and the Measure, I owe you my allegiance."

He held the sword - hilt first - out to the mage. "What

would you have me do?"

Raistlin drew a shuddering breath. He glanced at the

sword and his thin lip twisted. "What would I have you

do? Break your Oath. Burn your Measure. As the maiden

said, live for those you love. A time of darkness is coming

to the world, Sir Knight, and love could well be the only

thing that will save us."

The knight's lips tightened, his face flushed. Raistlin

stared at him, unmoving, and the expression on Gawain's

face altered from anger to one of thoughtful consideration.

Abruptly, he slid his sword back into its sheath.

"Oh, and Sir Knight," said Raistlin coolly, "don't

forget to give us our share of the reward."

Gawain unbuckled his sword belt and removed it from

around his waist. "Take it all," he said, tossing sword and

belt at the mage's feet. "I've found something of far greater

value." Bowing stiffly, he turned and walked from the

keep.

The red moon rose in the sky. Its eerie glow filtered

through the crumbling walls of the ancient fortress,

lighting the path. The mage remained standing in the

empty hall. He could still feel, soft and silky beneath his

fingers, the child's hair.

"Yes, Sir Knight, you have," said Raistlin. He stood a

moment, thinking of the spirit's words. Then, shrugging,

he tightened his grip on the magical staff. "DULAK", he

said, and the light went out, leaving him to stand in

darkness lit only by the rays of the red moon.

 

Dead on Target

 

Roger E. Moore

 

"There'd goes!" called a hobgoblin drunkenly in

the last red light of evening. "There'd goes! S'goin' away!"

No cloud remained in the darkening sky. The wind

picked up around me, the low roar almost drowning out

the laughter of the hobgoblin sentries forty feet up the

steep hillside at my back. From the sound of things, the

two of them had long ago broken into one of the wine

casks they'd taken from a farm near the outskirts of

Twisting Creek, basking in the natural satisfaction

hobgoblins get from killing unarmed farmers - like my

cousins, Garayn and Klart.

I licked my lips and felt for the leather waterskin on

my belt, preparing to untie it, but found the water was

already low. I released it and leaned back against the rock

face, keeping my arm close to my side so that the

hobgoblins above wouldn't notice the movement in the

dim light. My fingers closed over my sword hilt but stayed

relaxed. The glow above the plain to the west was almost

gone; Lunitari was a low, red crescent on the horizon, the

only moon visible. Far overhead, the pantheon of gods

was played out in the brightening stars. It was beautiful,

but I could tell there'd be rain by tomorrow night. Scouts

know these things.

"S'all gone!" called the hobgoblin again. "N'more

sun!"

Several distant shouts came back, all curses in the coarse

hobgoblins' tongue. "You basdards wanned me d'be a

lookoud, and I'm looking oud!" the hobgoblin roared back

hotly, then laughed again. He sounded as if he had a

broken nose. "Bedder look oud for th' sdars! They're

coming da ged ya!"

I'd gotten here only an hour ago but had already heard

enough. About a dozen hobgoblins were camped out on

this hilltop, near Solanthus's eastern border. Twisting

Creek was two days to the southwest. On the other side of

the low hills to the east, beyond the Garetmar River, was

unclaimed territory populated by bandits, deserters, and

hobgoblin garbage.

A hobgoblin snickered, then drunkenly mumbled a

phrase that the wind carried away. Soon, both sentries

would be dead to the world. They had nothing to fear that

they knew of. They had been clever enough to raid light

and avoid attracting too much unfavorable attention from

Twisting Creek's militia. Hit fast, grab loot, and run - the

same old formula. The hobgoblins had burned a few barns,

killed some horses, and stolen some odds and ends before

scurrying off. They didn't want a fight. They just wanted

to rub it in that they were around.

I was Evredd Kaan: dark hair, dark eyes, good

physique, ex-scout. I'd been out of the army since Neraka

fell and my unit was disbanded. After that, I'd gone home

to the city of Solanthus to find it mostly in ruins. I worked

for a year on labor crews, shoveling ashes, rubble, and

bones, sometimes taking night shift as a militiaman in a

city overrun with beggars who stole to survive. Finally, I

just quit and headed east for Twisting Creek, where my

parents had lived years ago before fever took them. I

worked on my uncle's farm and maintained the wagons for

his trading business, which suffered more than a bit with

the obnoxious hobgoblins around.

Three nights ago, the hobgoblins killed their first

humans. Laughing Garayn and brooding Klart had been

walking back from an evening in town when they were

shot dead with crossbows. A hobgoblin dagger was found

in one of the bodies. I watched as my neighbors wrapped

my cousins for burial, then I went to my uncle and said I

would be leaving for a few days.

"Family business," I said.

"Don't do anything foolish, my boy," my uncle urged.

He was a big man with a pouchy face, hook nose, and

receding hairline. Twisting Creek had been lucky enough

not to be sacked and burned during the War of the Lance,

ended just two years ago, and my uncle's business had

survived. But now his two sons had been taken away from

him, his life permanently scarred by the bad elements still

roaming the land. "You're all I got left, Evredd."

"What I do," I said tersely, "won't be foolish." His eyes

glazed over. His hands moved around the valuables on

his desk, touching them reassuringly. Tears squeezed

from his eyes.

"There's been killing enough," my uncle pleaded.

"Let it go."

Needless to say, I didn't listen to him. My uncle had

been absorbed in his business lately, locking himself in

his study with his ledgers and cursing the hobgoblins'

effect on trade, and now this. He seemed like a destroyed

man.

I left town at dawn, taking food, my sword, and little

else. I knew where part of the hobgoblins' old trails

usually went, so I followed that course until a regular path

appeared, six miles outside of town. The tracks stood out

as if they had been laid down by a small army instead of a

few raiders loaded down with loot. Two days later, I was

here.

One of the hobgoblins above me belched like a giant

frog croaking, then dropped a metallic cup and cursed.

"S'my damn drink!" he moaned. "S'all spilled!"

The other sentry cleared his throat and spat. "There's

yer drink," he said, sniggering. "Put it in yer cup."

"I'll give ya somethin' for YER cup," muttered the

first, and a rock sailed off the top of the hill, over my head

and about sixty feet past me. I kept quiet in case one went

to look off the cliff. Hobgoblins are a fun-loving race

when it comes to humans. They would have lots of fun

with me, good hobgoblin fun, with whips, knives, hot

irons - the works.

Another rock flew overhead, landing in the grass

beyond.

"Throw one more, and ol' Garith'll set yer dumb ass on

fire," said a hobgoblin testily.

"Ya godda find 'im, firs'," retorted the other. "S'nod

comin' back. Gonna live like a huuu-man now. Thinks 'e's

so good."

"He's comin' back," snapped the first. "Didn't I tell

him we wouldn't wait long 'fore we began to tear things

up? He knows we'll cause trouble. Little toad-belly knows

we want action. We got to keep movin', not sittin' on ass-

bruises. And you put that rock down or I'll give you a face

that would scare a blind dwarf."

After several more minutes of arguing, the hobgoblins

settled down in wine-sodden silence. I decided to move

out again in a bit when the sentries were either dozing or

too groggy from drink and lack of sleep to notice. Then

I'd take them, one by one, the way I'd learned to during

the war. Only the crickets could be heard in the darkness.

I sighed, waiting, fingers on my sword hilt.

Something punched my chest. Pain shot through my

left lung, hurting far worse than anything that had ever

happened to me at Neraka. I looked down, my hands

involuntarily going for the source of the pain, and saw a

short, feathered shaft sticking out of my leather surcoat,

next to my heart. I could tell the arrow had gone right

through me. I was never more surprised to see anything in

my life.

Son of a bitch, I thought, desperately trying not to

breathe or scream. They'd found me; the hobgoblins had

found me. But how in the Abyss did they do that? I never

heard them coming. I stood there like an idiot, looking

down at the arrow shaft and wondering why the

hobgoblins weren't now calling out in alarm. The shock

and pain of being hit was too much to take. I couldn't

think.

Something prickly and cold spread through my

bloodstream from the wound. The pain ceased and

became a cloud of nothingness, as if my chest had

disappeared. My will broke then and I tried to scream, but

I couldn't inhale. It seemed like a huge weight pressed

against my rib cage, keeping out the air. I slumped back

against the rock face, my vision swimming, my hands

clutching the wound.

It came to me then that I was going to die. There was

nothing I could do. I didn't want to die, not then, not ever.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to breathe. I wanted to live.

For a moment I thought of Garayn and Klart. I could al

most see their faces before me.

The numbness reached my head. Everything became

very light and airy. I felt a rushing sensation, as if I were

falling.

This wasn't right, came a mad thought. The

hobgoblins killed me. They'd killed my cousins, and now

they'd killed me. It wasn't right, and I wanted them to pay

for it in the worst way.

That was my last mortal thought.

 

*****

 

I was having the worst of all nightmares, worse than

the red dreams I'd once had of Neraka. I dreamed I was

dead and buried. Ice-cold rain fell without end on me,

trickling down on lifeless flesh. My body was dead-numb,

my limbs chained down. I was hollow, a shell of nothing

in the earth. I fought to wake up or even move a muscle. I

begged the great gods of Krynn to let me wake up.

No one heard me.

I begged them for mercy. I pleaded for justice.

No voice spoke in the darkness.

Then I cursed them, I cursed the gods, and I cried for

revenge.

I became aware of a colorless light. Without thinking,

I opened my eyes, my lips still moving.

Gray clouds rolled swiftly above me, ragged-edged.

Cold droplets slapped my face and fell into my unblinking

eyes. I couldn't move my limbs. I felt nothing, nothing at

all but the cold, and I listened to the drumming of the rain

against and around me.

The gray clouds rolled on for ages. The rain fell. Then

a weight seemed to fall away, and I knew I could sit up.

Very slowly, I rolled onto my side and pushed myself

upright. Every movement was unbalanced, and I swayed

dizzily until I braced myself with my arms. The tilting

scenery settled in my vision, and I looked around.

The landscape appeared odd in the rain-washed light,

but I was still at the foot of the rocky cliff. It was late in

the evening now. I didn't know the day. The long grass of

the plain had been beaten down by rain some time ago. A

light wind blew across the field, rippling the bent and

broken stalks.

I sat there stupidly for a long time, then looked down

at myself.

The butt of an arrow was projecting from my chest.

After a few moments, I remembered how it got there, and

thought I was lucky that it hadn't killed me.

Then, of course, I knew the truth.

I stared at the arrow for a long time. The rain

eventually slowed. All was quiet except for the cawing of

distant crows. I wasn't afraid, only dully surprised. No

heartbeat sounded within me, no blood ran from my

wound. I felt surprised, but nothing more.

I hated looking at the arrow in me. It wasn't right. It

ought to come out. Carefully, I reached up and touched it,

then tapped it hard. There was no pain, only a sense of its

presence. I reached up and carefully tugged on the shaft. It

didn't budge. Then I took it in both hands and broke off

the arrow at the point where it entered my chest, having it

in mind not to open the wound any further. I felt a need to

keep my body looking as good as possible. Self-respect,

maybe.

That done, I reached behind me with one hand to find

that the arrow point stuck out of my back by an inch or

two, between two ribs. After some difficulty in getting a

proper grip, I slowly pulled the arrow out, then held both

pieces of it before me.

The arrow was shorter than I'd expected; the

arrowhead was small and grooved. It was actually a

crossbow bolt, not a longbow arrow - a well-made bolt,

too; dwarven-make. Doubtless the hobgoblins had been

picking up good weaponry on their raids.

I rolled to my knees, then staggered to my feet and

looked myself over. I was filthy with mud. My sword

scabbard was empty, my boots were gone, my food pouch

was untied, and my waterskin had been cut loose. I knew

that my pouch had been tied before I had been killed. My

murderer must have checked me for loot. I had done it

myself at Neraka, searching dead hobgoblins after the

battles. I hadn't brought anything with me but a few odds

and ends. I opened the pouch flap and found it was empty

now. I looked down at my feet and saw my food in the

mud and water. None of the food had been eaten; all was

ruined. The boots and waterskin lay further away, slashed

open. The sword was nowhere around, but the killer had

undoubtedly taken it, probably discarded it later. It was

cheaply made. My murderer was thorough.

I tossed the pieces of the bolt to the ground. I looked

at my arms as I did so and realized that, for a dead person,

I didn't look half bad. My skin was very pale, almost dull

white. My hands and arms looked thinner than I'd

remembered, more bony and less puffy and full. My

trousers, boots, and surcoat were muddy and soaking wet,

and my surcoat was also badly stained with what had to be

blood. I must not have been dead for very long, maybe

only a day or two.

I couldn't see my own face, of course. For that small

blessing I felt curiously grateful. I touched my short beard

and mustache, wiped them as free of dirt as I could, then

adjusted my leather surcoat and brushed at the small hole

in the front as if I had just spilled food there. My long, thin

fingers were like icicles, but the cold was almost

comfortable.

A stick snapped, the sound coming from somewhere

beyond the edge of the cliff above me. I looked up, saw no

faces, only clouds and rain.

Damn hobgoblins had probably forgotten about me,

left me here for animals to feed on. Maybe they were still

drunk.

Maybe I should find out.

I examined the cliff face. It was weathered and old,

full of cracks and plant roots. It was worth a try. Wedging

my bone-thin fingers into a vertical split in the rock, I

found a foothold and began the ascent.

It took time to go up the cliff, but I didn't mind the

climb. I felt no pain at all. I wondered what the hobgoblins

would do when they saw me. I couldn't wait to find out. I

had no sword, but I had my bare hands, and I was already

dead.

Just below the top, I hesitated listening. Someone was

moving around up there; metal clinked, maybe chain

armor. I had no fear of their weapons now, but I wanted

surprise. I rocked slightly, then pulled myself up swiftly

and quietly over the ledge.

At my feet in the tall wet grass lay a heavy-bodied

figure, his misshapen head buried face-down in mud and

brown water. A thick wolf pelt covered his shoulders and

back. One gray-green hand was thrust forward, fingers

digging into the wet ground. The hobgoblin looked as if

he'd tripped over something while walking toward the

cliff but had never gotten up. He wasn't going to get up,

either. The crossbow bolt projecting from the back of his

thick neck tipped me off. So did the hungry aura of black

flies whirling around him.

He certainly hadn't been the one who snapped that

stick I'd heard. Then, I saw who did. About twenty-five

feet from me was a dwarf in an oilskin cloak. His back

was to me. He bent over another fallen hobgoblin, his

chain mail links clinked under the cloak. The dwarf

straightened. He carried a bright, spike-backed war axe

clutched in a leather-gloved fist. Then, looking around

warily, he turned in my direction, revealing a wet and

tangled brown beard, thick dark eyebrows, and small

black eyes that widened violently when he saw me.

"Reorx!" the dwarf gasped. He swung the spike-

backed axe in his right hand, his left arm coming up to

block me if I rushed him. He took a half-crouch, feet set

in a stance that could shift him in any direction. Another

veteran of the war.

I raised my hands - palms out, fingers spread - and

shook my head slowly. The dwarf didn't take the hint, still

readied for an attack. The sight of him clutching that

polished axe struck me as amusing, but I didn't smile.

I moved sideways to get away from the ledge, having

none of the unsteadiness I'd felt earlier. The dwarf rotated

to keep facing me.

I moved my lips to say something to him, but nothing

came out. It took a moment to figure out why; then I drew

a breath to fill my lungs. Part of my rib cage expanded,

but there was an unpleasant sucking sound from my

sternum and the sensation that the left side of my chest

was not filling. I quickly reached up and placed my right

hand inside the neckline of my surcoat to cover the bolt

wound. I tried again.

"Don't worry," I said - and was startled to hear my

own voice. It was burned hoarse, as if I had swallowed

acid. I forced another breath in. "I won't hurt you," I

finished with a gasp.

The dwarf gulped, never taking his eyes off me. A

muscle twitched in his left cheek. "'Preciate the thought,"

he muttered. "I'll keep it in mind."

I was curious about the dead hobgoblins. I gave the

dwarf an unconcerned shrug before kneeling to examine

one of the fly-covered bodies. As I'd suspected, the bolt

head projecting from the hobgoblin's neck was exactly the

same type as the one that had hit me. I let my right hand

drop from inside my shirt and reached out to examine the

dirtied tip.

I quickly pulled my hand back. A strand of black tar

clung to the bolt head, worked into some of the grooves. I

had seen that stuff before, at Neraka. Black wax, my

commander had called it. Deadly poison. A handful of the

Nerakan humans had used it on their weapons, their idea

of a special welcome for us. The gods only knew where

they had gotten it; the Nerakans themselves hadn't known

how to handle it. We would regularly find their bodies,

snuggled into ambush points, with little spots of black wax

on their careless lips or fingers.

I remembered the sensation of nothingness spreading

inside me as I died, the bolt through my chest. I'd been the

first that night to feel the poison's kiss. I figured my

cousins must have felt it earlier still. Too bad I hadn't

thought to examine their bodies.

I leaned over to continue checking the hobgoblin, who

had probably outweighed me by a hundred pounds in life.

He was a thick-necked brute; his clothes and armor were

as dirty as his skin. Knife slashes had opened up his belt

pouch, now empty, and the sides of his armor and boots.

He was also missing his left ear. It appeared to have been

cut cleanly away, below his helmet line.

I looked up at the dwarf, who hadn't moved,

remembering to put my hand inside my shirt before I

spoke. "What about him?" I asked hoarsely, pointing a

clawlike finger at the dead hobgoblin behind him. I

sounded like an animal learning to talk.

The dwarf eased up, but only by a hair. He stepped

away from the body behind him, clearing my view. This

hobgoblin lay face up, an arm flopped down beside an

empty wine cask in the grass beside him. He'd been

stabbed through the darkened leather armor over his

abdomen. A second stab wound, blue-black now, was

visible in his throat. His left ear was missing, too, cleanly

cut away. He had not even gotten up; he had died sitting,

then had fallen back.

I reached up and felt my own ears. Both were still

intact.

"Maybe you could tell me a bit about what you want."

The dwarf's voice was steady and low, his axe arm still

raised for a strike or a throw.

I looked beyond the dwarf at the half-forested hilltop.

No one else was around. "Looking for someone," I said

finally.

This didn't answer everything, but the dwarf let it go

for now. "Got a name?" he asked.

"Evredd," I said, the word sounding like a mumble. I

covered the wound and said it again, more clearly.

The dwarf's flint-black gaze went to my chest. "You a

dead boy, ain't you?" he said.

I found it hard to answer that. It wasn't something I

wanted to face.

"You a rev'nant, I bet," the dwarf went on, knowingly.

"Been dead a bit, I can tell. I seen dead boys before, but

not walkin' ones like you. You a rev'nant, come back to

get your killer man. That right?"

He was talkative for a dwarf. "Who did this?" I asked

him, indicating the bodies.

The dwarf looked at me a while longer, then glanced

around, one eye still on me. The sky was darkening with

the coming sunset, but the rain had stopped. Behind the

dwarf by a couple hundred feet, in a tree line, was an

irregular outcropping of rock, overgrown with vines. A

wide gully or eroded road ran out of the woods and

undergrowth, then off along the top of the cliff toward the

south.

"Can't say," said the dwarf, looking back at me, then

down at the bodies. "Just got here myself." Rainwater

dripped from the axe blade.

I stood up. The dwarf fell back, his face tight, and

raised his axe arm.

"No," I said, but it came out as a gasp. I put my hand

inside my shirt. "No," I repeated. "How long . . . What

day is this?"

"Sixteenth," he said, his eyes narrowing again.

I'd been dead for a day, then. The hobgoblins had hit

on the twelfth, and I'd left on the next day. "Are more . . .

people with you?" It was hard to get the words out in one

breath. I'd need lots of practice at this.

The dwarf hesitated. "Just me," he said. The dwarf

grinned nervously and adjusted the grip on his axe. "I

didn't make you a dead boy, and if you a rev'nant, you

ain't gonna attack me, I reckon. You save that for your

killer."

I had no urge to bother the dwarf if he didn't bother

me, so I guess he had a point. I scanned the ground for

any clues to the identity of my murderer. The dwarf

stayed back, but soon got up the nerve to examine the

stabbed hobgoblin again, checking for valuables with one

eye locked tight on me.

The heavy rain had destroyed virtually all the clues

there were - tracks, crushed grass, everything. For all that,

I could still put together a few things about my killer. He

had used a crossbow, probably a dwarven one. He knew

about weapon poison. He could probably climb cliffs; he

must have gone right up this one after killing me, then hit

the hobgoblins. They'd been drunk and tired, but the lack

of other bodies indicated that he'd moved with

considerable speed, killing them before they could shout

warnings, even to each other.

But if he'd killed hobgoblins, why had he also killed me?

He must have known I was after them, myself. And if he

could see well enough to shoot me this accurately, he

couldn't have mistaken me for hobgoblin scum. I pondered

for a minute, then looked off the cliff. I could still see a

man-shaped impression in the muddy ground below,

where I had fallen. I scanned the field out to the horizon.

About fifty feet to the west, away from the cliff base

where I'd been shot, was a small dead tree with a briar

bush cloaking the base of its trunk. I'd had my back to the

cliff, facing west. The killer could well have been hiding

out there somewhere in the darkness when he caught sight

of me.

Yes, my killer was a damn good shot.

Maybe he could see in the dark, too.

"You know," said the dwarf casually, "hobs don't go

in twos. Must be more dead 'uns somewhere here.

Otherwise, we'd be covered in arrow stings 'bout now.

Maybe we better look around."

The dwarf got to his feet. I'd almost forgotten he was

there. Dwarves, I remembered, could see heat sources in

the dark. So could elves and maybe wizards. Wizards

couldn't use crossbows, though, and the elves I'd known in

the war had universally despised them. Dwarves liked

them.

"Hey," said the dwarf, waving his free hand, the other

clenching the thick axe handle. "You deaf as well as

dead?"

I shook my head, not wanting to talk much. "More of

them?" I asked with one breath, indicating the nearest

body.

The dwarf glanced back at the tree line. "Fort's back

there," he said. "Old one. Bet we find 'em there."

I nodded, seeing now that the "outcropping" was

really a half-collapsed wall. The distant shouts I'd heard

the other hobgoblins give last night must have come from

there.

The dwarf gave me a final look over. "Name's Orun,"

he said. He didn't put out his hand to clench my arm, as

was the custom of most dwarves I'd known from these

parts.

I nodded in return, then pointed in the direction of the

fort. We left the bodies and started off. Orun made sure to

keep a good two dozen feet between us. He was cautious,

but he seemed to take to my presence. Either he had

nothing against a walking corpse or else he was crazy.

But then I was dead, so I was no one to talk.

 

*****

 

The fort in the trees was probably a relic from the times

of the Cataclysm. Rough stone walls, the wooden double

gate, a short stone-based tower to the left - all fallen into

rot and ruin.

This place came with a third hobgoblin, lying

facedown in the open gateway. The butt and fletching of

yet another crossbow bolt was visible just under his

leather armor; he'd fallen on it and broken the shaft after it

had struck him. Humming flies circled over him, many

feeding where his left ear had been. His arms were caught

under him. He'd grabbed at the shaft, just as I had done.

His sword was still nestled in its scabbard at his side.

Another surprised customer.

Through the open gateway, we could see the fort's

overgrown main yard, small when it was new but more so

now with the bushes and trees thick in it. On the other side

of the roughly square yard was the barracks building, its

stone walls and part of its roof still standing. To the right,

against a wall, was a low building that had probably been

the stables. The tower to the left was mostly rubble. All

was quiet except for the flies.

Orun glanced at me, then carefully leaned over the

fallen hobgoblin and took hold of its rigid face with his

free hand. Thick fingers poked at a gray cheek, then

tugged down an eyelid to reveal a white eyeball.

"Dead 'bout a day," he muttered. He squinted up at

me, then glanced around the fort's yard. "Think we're

alone here," he added, matter-of-factly.

I nodded and went on through the gateway, the dwarf

coming behind me.

The yard was largely covered with tall grass and thorn

bushes. Trees stretched skyward by the stone walls.

Someone, probably the hobgoblins, had partially covered

the damaged barracks roof with animal hides. Pathways

had been recently beaten through the tall grass, linking the

barracks with the main gate. The stables to the right had

their original roof and appeared more habitable than the

other structures. The hobgoblins could stay safe and dry

within the stables, firing through arrow slits at all

intruders.

Intruders like us.

A squirrel ran lightly over the stable roof, stopped when

it saw us, and watched with curiosity. It fled when I stared

at it for too long.

"Bet you a steel," Orun said, pointing his axe at the

barracks, "the rest of 'em's in there. Maybe your killer

whatever's in there, too. Better go look."

We moved closer, Orun generously letting me lead.

Dark shapes lay on the floor beyond the open barracks

doorway. The dwarf stopped about thirty feet back from

the single stone step, axe ready, watching both me and the

doorway. He was no fool.

I hesitated only a moment before I mounted the step

and went inside. The buzzing of insects filled my ears in

the darkness. Weak light filtered in from the doorway and

through holes in the makeshift roof. Water dripped

constantly from above, splashing across the room.

As I looked around, I was glad to be dead. Not that the

sight of bloated bodies affected me any longer as it once

had on the bloody plains of Neraka. It was mere scenery

now, shadows that held no terror. No one screamed, no

one cried, nothing hurt. Everywhere I looked inside were

bodies, and everywhere were black flies and crawling

things at a morbid feast, carpeting the discolored, twisted

bodies of the hobgoblin dead.

I counted eight bodies. Five clutched at their throats or

faces. The rest gaped at the ceiling with bulging eyes and

open, soundless mouths, their rigid arms grabbing at their

chests or locked open in grasping gestures. It was hard to

tell what they had been doing, but not one had made a

move for his weapon. All swords were sheathed or leaning

against the walls.

I looked around the room. There was a door to the

right, apparently leading to the stables. The wood was

gray with age and appeared ready to fall apart. It opened

with ease.

Beyond the doorway it was very dark. I walked

carefully to avoid stumbling over bodies that might be in

the way. I didn't find any until I got into the stables

themselves.

The hobgoblins had apparently cleaned up the stables

and made them into a tidy home. Gray light leaked in from

small holes in the ceiling and outer walls. The interior

walls had long ago rotted away, but the hobgoblins had

shoveled the debris with great efficiency. An ash-filled

circle of stones served as a seat by a fire pit. A large mass

of rotting cloth, half covering a pile of dry leaves,

appeared to make up a bed. It was sufficient, if not cozy.

The body near the fire pit was the room's only

occupant. I knelt down by it and took a long look. In life,

it would have been the biggest hobgoblin I could have

ever imagined - a head and a half taller than me. Even in

the near darkness, I could still see a massive burned spot

across the front of his hide armor. I'd seen its like only

once before, when storm lightning had killed one of my

uncle's horses in its pasture.

I looked up. The stables' roof was solid.

On impulse, I got up and walked over to the bed,

searching the rags until I found a suitably long strip of

cloth. This I wrapped around my chest with a bunched-up

rag covering the bolt wound, then tied it off. I tried a few

words and discovered that I could speak almost normally

now, though I still sounded as if I had rocks in my throat

instead of vocal cords.

"Thought I heard you talkin' to yourself," Orun

muttered when I came outside. He'd moved closer to the

barracks doorway, but the stench was obviously getting to

him. He held his nose until he was away from it. "Any

ideas what happened to our hob buddies?" He indicated

the doorway with the axe.

I shook my head. The dwarf frowned and looked

around. "What did for 'em?" he asked absently, then

turned back to me. "There anyone else in there 'sides

hobs?"

I shook my head no.

"No sign o' another dwarf, maybe? Kinda white-

lookin' one, real ugly?"

Again, I shook my head, but more slowly. "Why?"

Orun looked away at the fort and mumbled something

that I didn't catch.

"Sewer?" I repeated.

"No," he said in disgust, setting his axe down to rub

his hands together. "Damn that runt. Theiwar."

The name was familiar. It had to do with a race of

dwarves, I recalled. "Theiwar?"

"Jackals," he said thickly. "All of 'em are. Call 'emselves

true dwarves, but no relation I ever heard of. Some of 'em

throw spells, the tougher ones do. Never let a Theiwar get

behind you 'less he's already dead, and then you'd still

better think about it. Born for evil, all of 'em."

A dwarf that threw spells? I'd never heard of such a

thing, but I was beyond the point of disbelieving almost

anything now that I was dead. "What kind of spells?" I

asked.

"Oh," he said, "all sorts. Some of 'em's killer-type

spells. Poison-gas spell's one of 'em. Could be what did for

our hob buddies in there." He indicated the barracks.

"Don't know what all they can do."

"You're hunting a Theiwar?"

Orun grinned self-consciously. "Funny you ask. Am

at that." He looked up at me. "Bounty hunter. Come from

Kaolyn. You know Kaolyn? Nice place."

Kaolyn was a respectable dwarven mountain

kingdom, about eighty miles southwest of Twisting Creek.

"Why hunt a Theiwar?"

He stroked his damp beard. "Traitor to Kaolyn.

Supposed to've been spyin' on the draconians and hobs for

us, chiselin' out a few when he could. Some Theiwar'll

help you for the love of steel in their hands; some'll help

you for the love of killin'. We put 'em to use." He sighed.

"Gotta be done. War is war."

"What happened?"

Orun snorted. "Loved the killin' part too much, that

one. Wanted more for 'imself. Sold out to the Blue

Dragonarmy, east of here, and got to spyin' on us instead.

We caught on and went after 'im. Got away with a band of

hobs, and I bet these are them. Same armor, same tribal

markin's." He reached up and rubbed his eyes with his

broad fingers. "Don't know if he was the one who did for

his own band, or why. Been the Dark Queen's own spawn

to catch, that's for sure. Got real good with them 'lusions,

changing his looks and all." He glanced down at his spike-

backed axe, lying against his leg, then picked it up and

hefted it, feeling its weight. "Sure was lookin' forward to

meetin' 'im."

"What was his name?"

"The Theiwar? Garith. No last name."

My curiosity was aflame. Could it have been the same

Garith I'd heard the hobgoblins talking about? I was on the

verge of asking more when everything inside my head

changed.

The sun had just set. The darkness had diminished

perceptibly within the last few moments, but I knew on an

even deeper level that the sun had gone. Something inside

me woke up. It was like seeing and hearing after being

born without eyes or ears. It was as if I knew everything

now, everything that really mattered.

"Evredd?" Orun called as I left the fort. "Evredd!" I

heard him swear loudly, then hurry after me with a hard-

thumping gait.

I went to the edge of the cliff overlooking the place

where I had been killed. There, past the bodies of the two

hobgoblins, I stopped and gazed out to the southwest.

Strength gathered in my limbs. My hands began to itch,

and my fingers curled and uncurled uncontrollably.

All of a sudden I knew: I needed to head southwest as

quickly as I could.

"Damn, you move fast for a dead boy," huffed Orun

as he stopped behind me about twenty feet back. "You on

to somethin', ain't you? I hear if you a rev'nant, you can

smell your killer in the dark. You smell your boy out

there?"

I turned and looked back at the dwarf. Another hand

or two might be useful for what was coming.

"Follow me," I said, and started for the trail. I kept my

stride slow so that Orun could keep up, but even then he

had to jog. He followed and peppered me with questions

that I ignored, then swore outrageously in frustration.

Ahead of me, miles away in the falling darkness, I

sensed a presence moving. It wasn't really smell, and my

night-awakened senses couldn't tell me who my killer was,

but I knew WHERE he was, exactly where.

If I hurried, maybe he and I could chat.

 

*****

 

We walked for the entire night over lightly forested

plains and across shallow streams. Orun kept up the pace

beside me until he puffed like a horse, his chain-mail

armor jingling rapidly as he moved. "Tired yet?" he asked

once, but I never responded. The killer was ahead of us by

a long distance.

"Doing okay myself," Orun said, sometime later. "Did

this durin' the war. Marched two days once and never

stopped." His words were almost lost as his breath gave

out for a moment. "Fought an army o' hobs with my

brothers right after that. Whipped 'em in one hour. Ran

'em right off into a canyon. Good day, you bet."

I said nothing. I was straining to see what else I could

detect about my killer. I let my mind be open to

everything.

"Like I said, I'm from Kaolyn," Orun went on,

between his panting. "You know Kaolyn - up in the

Garnets, nice place. I tell you that? Came out to see the

world and fight in the war, been here and there ever since.

You been to Kaolyn? Gotta see it sometime." I heard Orun

pull free of a briar that caught his cloak. His armor clinked

like a background song. "Real pretty in the spring."

The dwarf was silent before he asked, in a different

tone, "Smell your killer man?"

I said nothing.

"Too damn nosy, that's me," he said with a sigh as he

trotted along. "That's what they always said back at

Kaolyn. Too damn nosy. I - "

"Yes," I told him, watching the dark fields ahead.

"Oh," Orun said, now haughty. "Well, now, I'm hardly

as nosy as some people."

"Yes," I repeated, louder and more distinctly, "I can

SEE my killer."

"Oh," Orun grunted, then said, "was told you smelled

'im." We traveled in silence for hours after that.

As the horizon in the east grew brighter, something

began to slip out of my head. The clarity of mind I'd felt

before ebbed away, and my sense of my killer's

whereabouts grew elusive, foggy.

"Gettin' tired?" Orun asked, shortly before dawn. The

sky was still overcast, and no rain had fallen.

"Tired?" Orun repeated a little later. I turned and saw

rivers of sweat dripping from his face and beard.

"No," I said, not stopping. I could continue at this

pace forever, but I'd noticed that my prey was slowing

down. Was he tired already? He'd soon regret every pause

for breath. "You?" I asked, wondering if Orun would

make it.

"Haven't died yet," he said, then coughed and grew

quiet for several minutes in embarrassment. He had eased

the distance between us down to six feet during the night;

he didn't increase it again. He seemed to be getting quite

used to me.

The killer I was tracking continued to slow down as

the cloud-hidden dawn approached. When the sun arose

behind the thick morning clouds, my inner sense of the

killer's location faded within moments. Some of my

supernatural energy seemed to dissipate as well, but I was

able to keep moving at a steady walking pace. Maybe the

energy loss at dawn was part of being a revenant. Maybe I

drew some of my sustenance from darkness. Since this

was my first mom-ing as a dead man, perhaps my

ignorance could be forgiven.

By now I knew where the killer was headed. I knew

the way to Twisting Creek blindfolded, having hunted

across these plains only months before. It was nearly noon

when we crossed an abandoned cart road and entered a

small forest, beyond which lay the ruins of a pre-

Cataclysm farmhouse. Only the stone foundation remained

of the structure, and young trees lifted their branches

where ground-floor rooms had once been. A brook ran

through the trees nearby.

"Whoa," Orun huffed. "Hold there. Stop for a bit." He

slowed down, dropping behind me. "Lemme rest."

I stopped, though I felt a powerful urge to continue on

and catch up with my killer. I raised a thin hand and

waved at the forest and ruins. "Rest," I croaked.

Orun grunted his thanks and wandered down to some

trees for privacy, then went to the stream bank and placed

his polished axe with care on a fallen log. Dust covered

his face and clothing, and he was streaked and splattered

with his own sweat. He set his helmet aside as he knelt at

the stream, then bent over and splashed water on his head.

After taking a long drink and rinsing off, he settled back

on the bank, rubbing his knees.

Only the brook spoke for a long time. I thought about

the dead hobgoblins, my cousins, and myself. I wondered

who had killed us all, and why.

I studied Orun then. He had leaned back against the

fallen log on which his precious axe rested, his stumpy

legs stretched out. His dark wet beard was as tangled and

chaotic as a mop.

"Tell me about Theiwar," I said.

Orun glanced over in surprise. "Like what?"

"Everything," I said.

Orun shrugged. "Know anything at all 'bout 'em?"

"No."

"Mmm," he said. He looked down, chewing his lips.

"Theiwar. They're sorta like dwarves, but not normal. Not

at all like true dwarves. They're uglier, o' course. You

heard me say they throw spells, and they do that. But

they're weaker. Sunlight makes 'em puke; can't stand it at

all. Have to hide in the day or else wrap 'emselves up in

black. Inbreedin' does it."

He paused for thought. "Not ugly only on the outside,

either. They're cowards, thieves, murderers. Those're their

good points." He smiled only briefly. "They're like a bad

relative. You got a distant cousin you hate. He cheats, lies,

steals, thinks he owns the world. He's still family, 'long as

he obeys the rules o' the house. Follow me so far?"

I nodded and thought about the hobgoblins. "They

collect trophies?"

"Sure do. Ears they like - easier to cut off than fingers.

Save 'em up, show 'em to their friends. Use 'em to prove

their kills. Eat 'em later, maybe. Don't know, don't want to

know." He stroked his shaggy beard.

"Theiwar use crossbows?" It was a long-overdue

question.

"Sure," he said. He got to his feet, dusting off his

trousers and cloak. "Got all sorts o' funny weapons, but

they do like them crossbows."

It made sense that a Theiwar might have been my

murderer. I knew a dwarf could see enough well in

darkness. The Theiwar could have gone right up the cliff

after killing me to do in the hobgoblin lookouts, then the

rest of them. But why would a Theiwar kill me? Did he or

the hobgoblins kill my cousins? Why would he kill his

own allies? It made no sense.

Orun stomped his feet, then looked at the forest and

ruins. He glanced back at his axe, still on the log, then

shrugged and spat.

"Never thought I'd see a rev'nant, or talk to one," he

stated, adjusting his cloak. "One of my old kin, great

uncle, he was one. Lemishite killed 'im out in a field, took

his steel. Broan came back, blood still on 'im, and called

for aid. Two of my kin went with 'im. Found the Lemishite

halfway back to his home. My kin came back, but not

Broan. Kin never spoke of it much. Hundred, hundred ten

years ago."

He rubbed at his throat. "Seen others who came back,

but not like you. Walkin' dead, mindless. Black Robe

wizards like 'em. Had one pass through Kaolyn once.

Didn't let 'im stop. Had a bunch of dead helpers." Orun's

face twisted with disgust at the memory. "Wizards," he

sighed.

"Did you know this Garith?" I asked.

A muscle twitched in Orun's left cheek, pulling on the

side of his mouth. He looked toward the road,

remembering. "Was his contact with Kaolyn, kind o' to

keep an eye on 'im. Supposed to have known what he was

doing when he was killin' our people off, but he got by

me." The dwarf grunted, pulling the cloak tightly around

his shoulders. "Almost did for me, too, but I was lucky.

Damn lucky."

I eyed him for a few moments. "You want him."

Orun was silent for a moment more, then slowly

turned around and grinned at me in a dark way, almost

shyly. "Sure do," he said, eyes like arrow slits in a fortress.

"Want 'im bad. He killed some good friends o' mine. My

fault, really. I know how y'feel. You want to get your

claws 'round his scrawny neck and squeeze his life out,

make 'im feel what you felt. That right?"

I said nothing.

He grinned more broadly. "Well, you miss 'im, and I'll

finish it for you. Lookin' forward to it. Our boy's been a

busy little runt, killin' everything he can find. Got it in for

everyone, like the rest o' 'is folk. Thinks he's a bad boy.

But he won't like seein' you and me together."

"Why aren't you afraid of me?" I asked.

The dwarf looked me over in silence, then snorted as if

he'd heard a bad joke. "You want me to be afraid there,

dead boy? I'll tell you somethin'. In the war, my

commander got 'imself killed by a draconian, sivak type.

They're the big silver ones what change their shapes when

they kill someone, so they look like what they just killed.

You heard 'bout 'em?"

I remembered sivaks very well from the war. "Yes."

"I saw the killin', but I wasn't in a way to do anythin'

'bout it right then and there. Had to travel with 'im for two

days, pretendin' he was my friend, all the time knowin' he

was gonna turn on me and my buddies and kill us off or

take us to an ambush. Got some help in time, though, and

we cut that reptile boy down to gully dwarf meat. You

may be a dead boy, but after that sivak, nothin' much ever

gets to me."

The dwarf clapped his hands together, then went to get

his axe. "'Sides, like I said, you probably leadin' me right

to Garith. Gonna be like a family reunion." He lifted the

axe to gaze down the blade. "I been dyin' to see the boy.

Like as not, he'll be dyin' too - after he sees me."

 

*****

 

Evening came at last. We stopped once more for Orun

to rest, then moved on as the sun went down. I told Orun

about my "cousins, my uncle, my life, and my death. He

walked silently as he listened, asking few questions. I

talked until I knew of nothing more to say.

At dusk, my awareness of my murderer's location

arose in my consciousness as comfortably as if it had

never left. He was still heading for Twisting Creek, but

we were much closer to him now. He'd make it to town

before morning, but we'd not be far behind him. His speed

picked up as the evening deepened, and so did mine - and

I was faster, even with Orun.

By noon the next day, we were just two hours outside of

Twisting Creek. There we stopped at an abandoned

farmhouse, one I knew had belonged to a couple who had

moved away during the war. The log-and-stone home was

overgrown with vines and had been boarded up, but it still

appeared to be in good shape. It took only moments to

break inside. There Orun slept until early evening. I knew

we could afford the break. I wanted Orun in good shape

when we found the Theiwar. Orun awoke "ready to do

business."

"Wish I knew what spells he's been collectin'," Orun

said for the third time later that evening. The whetstone in

his hand made a soft grinding sound as he touched up the

blade of his axe. "Garith could turn invisible, hypnotize

folks with colors, and make light shine. And make poison

gas, which he probably used on them hobs. But he knew

lots more than that." He held up his axe and examined it in

the dim light coming through the cracks in the shuttered

windows. "Damn, I'm lookin' forward to seein' him."

Orun ransacked the house while I waited for my

supernatural senses to focus. He found a moth-eaten gray

cloak and dropped it on my lap, as well as a stained pair of

trousers and a shirt. I needed something besides my old

clothes to wear in town. It wouldn't do to have everyone

know who I was - including the Theiwar, right at first. By

the way his big nose wrinkled up, I knew the clothes had

to stink of mold and mildew. I probably stank worse, but I

couldn't tell, since I never breathed.

It grew darker outside. Energy poured into me like a

cold river. When I faced in the direction of town, I could

tell that my murderer was just a short walk away.

"I see him," I said.

Orun nodded, wrapping up his feet with a dry cloth

strip. "Like I said," he replied, tugging on his boots next,

"Theiwar hate sunlight. Probably stayed at an inn or in a

cellar, hidin' from that sun and heavin' 'is guts out, waitin'

for the night. Reorx Almighty, they hate that sun."

We left at nightfall. Orun had wrapped an extra layer of

moldy cloth under his armor to add a little protection from

the daggers he said Garith was fond of using. He knew it

wouldn't stop a crossbow bolt, though, and I'd earlier told

him about the poison I'd seen. Black wax was difficult to

use, so it wasn't likely that Garith would have his bolts

already poisoned. Still, we couldn't count on anything.

He'd slain a dozen hobgoblins in one evening, probably

without breaking into a sweat.

It was a clear night. The stars were out early. A warm

wind rolled through town ahead of us. I remembered the

last night I had known like that, how peaceful it had been,

how everything had gone along fine right up to the end.

"Gonna miss you in a way," said Orun. His axe was

tied to his belt. He walked with a broad, quick stride,

matching my pace.

The comment caught me off guard. "How is that?"

"Well, you know all you are here for is for findin'

your killer man. When it's over, you go, too."

I had suspected as much, but it didn't bother me.

Dying a second time seemed like such a small trade for

seeing my killer go first.

"Just lemme know when you see 'im," Orun added.

I wanted to laugh, but it wasn't in me. "You'll know."

As we entered the broad dirt streets of Twisting

Creek, several people walked by us, giving me looks of

disgust at the condition of my clothing and probably my

smell. None of them even glanced at Orun. Dwarven

merchants came here all the time from Kaolyn.

We passed rows of families sitting on the sides of the

road, children chasing each other or fighting. Almost as

many people in town had no home as those who did,

thanks to the war. I recognized many of them, but none of

them seemed to know me in the darkness.

"You followin' your man?" Orun asked quietly.

"He's not far."

Orun sniffed and smiled.

My senses led me on through town toward the other

side. I had a strange feeling of dread when I realized I was

walking in the direction of my uncle's farm.

We rounded the blacksmith's shop and stable. I looked

up and saw a small manor house on a low hill, only a few

hundred yards away. It was lit by yellow globes of glass

set along the sides of the house and up the front walkway.

The long rail fence I remembered repairing in life

surrounded it and the farm buildings behind.

There," I said, stopping. "He's in there."

Orun stopped, too, and squinted. "Nice place."

I nodded slowly as I started off again. "My uncle's."

Orun glanced at me, face hard. "He's in there with

your kin?"

I said nothing. My uncle was a good man. He had his

flaws, but if he was hurt, it would be one more thing I

would owe the Theiwar when we met.

We turned at the half-circle wagon path that led up to

the doors of the manor. Balls of yellow crystal set on posts

lit the way. My uncle had imported them from the city of

Solanthus - glass spheres with magical light in them that

never went out. Always the best, he liked to say. Always

get the best.

No one was outdoors as we approached. The place

hadn't changed a bit since I was here last.

Orun pushed back his oilskin cloak and undid the strap

on his axe.

I needed nothing but my hands.

We mounted the steps, slowing down, and reached the

door. I hesitated, sensing my prey so strongly I felt I could

touch him.

He was inside on the right. That would be my uncle's

private study, to the side of the entry hall. Maybe he was

holding everyone hostage, or he'd broken in and was

borrowing a few things for his own use.

I wondered if, when I met him, I'd ask him why he'd

killed me before I killed him.

I raised my hand and knocked hard, three times, and

listened to the echo. Then we waited.

The lock clicked. The front door heaved, then pulled

open. It was our elderly manservant, Roggis. His face

went white when he saw me, his eyes growing big and

round.

"Evredd!" he gasped. "Blessed gods, what happened?"

"I'm home," I said softly as I pushed past the old man

and went in, Orun at my heels. The entry hall was brightly

lit. The great curved stairs to the second-floor bedrooms

ascended from either side of the room.

Something inside me tore free. I wanted to see my

killer's face, NOW. The study door was closed, but I was

there in a moment, with the door handle in my hand,

pulling it open.

The cabinet- and bookshelf-lined study was before me. Yellow light

fell from the globes hanging from the ceiling. Only one person was in

the room, sitting at the center table's far end with a pile of ledgers in

front of him. He was big, fleshy-faced, with a hooked nose and a

receding hairline. He looked up with irritation as the door swung open.

My MURDERER, sang the cold in my blood.

My uncle, said my eyes.

"Can't you - " he began, before he actually saw me. He leaped back

from his chair, knocking it over. His face went slack with terror. He

grabbed for something on a stool beside him.

"Uncle," I said. I couldn't believe it, but I knew it. HE had killed

me. "What - "

My uncle swung around. He held a heavy wooden device in his

hands. He pulled the trigger. A dwarven-made crossbow. The bowstring

snapped.

The crossbow bolt slammed into my chest with the force of a mule's

kick, tearing through my right lung and breaking a rib. The impact

knocked me back several steps, almost into Orun, before I caught

myself.

The bolt didn't hurt a bit.

I ran and lunged across the table for my uncle, my fingers out like

claws.

He flung the crossbow at me, missing, and dodged back. My fingers

locked on his clothes, ripping them. I tried to get to his throat.

There was faint popping noise in the air, a flash of light. My uncle

was gone.

In his place stood a waist-high dwarf, clad in filthy black clothing. I

held his torn shirt in my hands. His mushroom-white face showed only a

dirty blond beard, watery blue eyes that bulged out like goose eggs, and

a black-toothed mouth that was open like a wound. He was the ugliest

dwarf I'd ever seen, and he gave out a shriek that would have sent me to

my grave if I hadn't already been there. My uncle ... a destroyed man . . .

The Theiwar had used an illusion spell to disguise himself. I knew then

what must have happened to my uncle, and why he had seemed to have

changed lately. And who had really killed my cousins. Likely, they'd

begun to suspect something.

GARITH'S GONNA LIVE LIKE A HUUU-MAN NOW, the hobgoblin had said.

"Garith!" shouted Orun from the door. The dwarf shut it behind

him, cutting off Roggis's cries in the hall outside.

Panicked, the Theiwar ran under the table to escape me. I shoved

myself off the table and snatched at a heavy wooden chair, swinging it up

and over and down into the tabletop. The chair shattered; the table split in

half and collapsed. Books and papers poured across the floor - and a bag

full of rotting gray ears spilled with them. Some of the ears were gnawed.

I stepped back. The Theiwar had vanished.

"Garith!" roared Orun, his axe high. "You a dead boy, too, now!

You a dead little white rat, you hear me!"

I caught something from the comer of my eye. The Theiwar had

reappeared in a comer of the room, far from Orun and me. His hands

leaped out of hidden pockets in his black clothing.

"ORKISKA SHAKATAN SEKIS!" he called out in a hoarse, high

voice, holding something like a cloth and a glass rod and rubbing them

together. He was aiming them at me.

"Reorx damn us!" shouted Orun, as I leaped for the Theiwar.

"Evredd, he's - "

There was more light then than I'd ever seen in my life or

afterwards. My body was suspended in the air, buoyed up by a writhing

white ribbon of power that poured from the Theiwar's hands. For the first

time since I'd died, I felt true pain. It was unearthly, burning into every

muscle, every nerve, every inch of skin, and I couldn't even scream.

Then it was gone. I crashed to the floor. Smoke billowed from the

smoldering rags I wore. My soot-stained limbs jerked madly as if I were

the marionette of a bad puppeteer.

I flopped over on my stomach. The Theiwar was climbing a free-

standing wall cabinet like a spider. Orun threw his axe. The weapon

struck something in the air just before it reached the Theiwar and

bounced away with a clanging noise, falling next to my head.

"Damn you, Garith!" Orun cried, snatching his axe up. "Damn you

and your magic! You a DEAD boy!"

My limbs began to move the way I wanted them to

go, and I staggered to my feet. The Theiwar was on top of

the cabinet. He pointed a short white finger down at us.

"N'ZKOOL AKREK GRAFKUN - MIWARSH!" he shrieked, in triumph.

Greenish yellow fog blasted from his finger. A

windstorm filled the room. The overhead lights were

dimmed by the thick mist.

Orun started to shout, but his voice ended abruptly

with a shocked gasp, then a loud, hacking cough. I could

barely see him through the green fog. He clutched at his

throat with both hands, the axe thumping into the floor.

He gave a strangled cry, teeth clenched shut, his lungs

filling with poisoned air.

I went for the cabinet. My hands gripped a shelf at the

height of my head, and I pulled back hard. The dish-filled

cabinet rocked; plates clattered flat. The Theiwar cursed

and dropped to his knees, fingers grabbing for purchase

on the top. I heaved against the shelf again and saw the

cabinet lean toward me, then continue coming. I shoved it

aside. It slammed into the floor away from the choking

dwarf.

As suddenly as it had appeared, the greenish fog blew

away as if caught by a high wind. Orun's hacking cough

and hoarse cries echoed in the now silent room.

The Theiwar fell to the floor across the room. Rolling,

he came up on his feet. He saw me coming around the

fallen cabinet, and he tried to flee for the closed door. He

jerked a long crystal vial from his belt. His bulging eyes

were as big as moons when I tackled him.

My dead hands locked around his little body. You

could hear him for miles, screaming like a spitted rodent

with a giant's lung power. He punched and kicked in

hysteria. I jabbed one hand through the hail of blows and

got my long, cold fingers into the flesh at his throat,

sinking in the grip. Gasping, he stabbed at my arm with

the vial, shattering it with the first blow and opening up

bloodless gashes that went down to the dull white bone.

Abruptly, he stiffened. I grabbed his arm with my free

one and held it steady for an instant. I had seen it coming.

A red stream, mixed with strands of oozing black, was

running down his arm. His huge, watery eyes focused on

his hand with an expression of complete terror such as I

had never seen on a living face before. His eyes rolled up

then, and his body shuddered and went still.

Garith had just learned what the Nerakans had learned

about black wax, with the same results.

I released his body and fell to the floor. I tried to keep

myself up on my hands and knees, but my strength poured

out of me now like water through a collapsed dam. In the

background, I could hear Roggis wailing and Orun

coughing. The door to the study burst open, and everyone

in the manor surged in to shout and point. But they all kept

away from me. They knew.

"The boys warned me that he wasn't the same!"

Roggis was saying, in tears. "I didn't believe them. When

they were killed, he acted as if he didn't care a whit. I

thought he was mad, but I didn't dare speak to him about

it. I was afraid he'd become violent. He hardly seemed

himself!"

The racket was fading away, far away. I struggled to

get up. It was no use. I'd done what I'd come back to do. I

was more tired than I'd ever been before in my life.

"Evredd," wheezed a hoarse voice near my ear. "You

still there?"

I managed to nod, but that was all.

"Good work for a dead boy," Orun said. "Right on

target."

High praise. I wondered if I'd see Garayn and Klart

soon, and my uncle, and what they would say about it.

Family business.

I fell forward into the darkness. Everything was right

again, and there would be no coming back.

 

War Machines

 

Nick O'Donohoe

 

There was a great blast of steam in the passage

through the mountain. Gnomes came sliding down the

rock sides, a few dropping from above and caught, heart-

stoppingly, by nets; two popped out of compressed-air

tubes in the ground and tumbled in the air before

plummeting toward a landing-pad near the steam source.

One landed on the pad, the other in a bush. The assembled

gnomes pulled levers, rang bells, turned cranks, and

shouted directions at each other without listening to the

directions shouted back.

Mara dashed from rock to rock like a child playing

hide-and-seek, each sprint taking her closer to her

objective. In her whole life in Arnisson she had never

heard this much whistling, clanking, and general noise.

She resisted putting both hands over her ears and edged

quietly and quickly through the assembled gnomes until

she arrived at a narrow ledge at the point where the

passageway met the inner crater wall of the mountain. She

slid onto it, staring down in fascination at the array of

gantries and cranes and at the almost continual rain of

equipment and gnomes. Far below, she could see a trap

door.

A loose cable drifted toward her.

Mara leapt nimbly out of the shadows, catching a

hanging cable with her cloth-wrapped hand. She slid

down, touching the mountainside lightly with her feet,

then sailing back into open air. She vanished into a pit in

the ground.

She saw above her, in a brief flash, layer on layer of

gnome houses and workshops, cranes, nets, and the

occasional flying (or falling) gnome. She congratulated

herself on passing unseen and unheard, but part of her

grudgingly admitted that any gnome who saw her would

have assumed she was just testing a new invention, unless

the gnome was also close enough to notice that she was

human. And no one could have heard her over the

clanking, whirring, grinding, and intermittent steam

whistles.

The cable swung against the edge of the pit, which

was now a skylight, above her. She climbed up with the

rope, pumped with her legs to accelerate its swinging,

tucked, sprang, rolled over in midair and landed

noiselessly on the stone floor next to a gnomeflinger.

"Perfect, of course," she said with satisfaction. Mara

unwrapped her hand from the rope, took three swaggering

steps forward, and accidentally knocked down a gnome

who was looking the other way. Mara sprawled backward,

legs in the air and arms flailing.

The gnome scrambled up and offered her a hand.

"Awfully sorry; it was my fault, after all I was busy

thinking, there must be a defect in the - "

"It was my fault really," she began. "I'm sorry - "

Then she realized that he hadn't stopped talking.

" - a little borrowed hydraulic gear would make it

more efficient yet, if it didn't make it top-heavy - and a

spring with a trigger-catch might store the energy - "

"Stop."

He did.

"Now," Mara said, "what are you talking about?"

"I was just telling you," the gnome said impatiently,

"about the idea I had when I watched you trying to sneak

down here - "

"You saw me coming?" She sagged slightly.

" - and I thought, if people are going to jump through the

air, which I hadn't considered - until I saw you; you were

obvious - we need precautions because of the

gnomeflingers." His eyes, a light violet, all but glowed.

"We all need bumpers. Yes. Being-bumpers, employing

my sensors. Large, high-tension fenders suspended from

our shoulders to absorb the shock. They'd have metal

frames, cloth padding on the outside - "

"They sound awfully heavy," Mara objected. She was

quite young, and slightly built, compared to the gnome.

"Then we'd add wheels to it," he continued without

pausing, "And a spring-loaded axle for each wheel, and a

governor to keep the axles balanced - "

"Who could move with all that on?"

" - and a motor to move the whole thing," the gnome

finished firmly. "How do you expect to walk anywhere, if

you don't use a motor? Youngsters these days." He rolled

his eyes, but smiled at her. "Excuse me." Pulling a bulky

pen from a loop on his belt, he tucked his chin and began

drawing frantic, jagged lines across his shirt - a shirt that

was already covered with sketches of wooden frames,

toothed and worm gears, and interlocking systems of

pulleys. One design started on his belly and moved

through conduits and guy ropes all down his left sleeve.

The gnome looked up and saw Mara staring at him.

"Well, I can't always find a sheet of paper when a thought

strikes," he said with some asperity.

"Is each shirt a different project?"

"Of course not. In fact, some designs are on five or six

different shirts. I keep hoping," he said wistfully, "that

some day I'll be able to cross-index them, but every time I

even get close, I need to do laundry. And here you are."

He peered at her. "Speaking of you, are you someone I

should know?"

"Everyone should," Mara said proudly, standing very

straight.

"Everyone doesn't," the gnome said thoughtfully,

"because I don't. Who are you?"

"I am known," she said with a bow and flourish, "as

Mara the Wild." She did a standing flip. "Also Mara the

Clever." She tapped the gnome's pockets significantly.

"Also," she said in a loud whisper, "Mara the Queen of

Thieves."

The gnome blinked. "Goodness," he said

disapprovingly, "have you stolen much?"

"Not - much," the Queen of Thieves admitted. She

scuffed her toe on the tunnel floor. "Not anything, in fact."

This was why, after announcing her current planned heist

to her family, she was also known as Mara the

Dangerously Stupid.

She looked defiantly at the gnome. "But I'm sure that

I could steal something if it was really important. I am

also," she said demurely, "a woman of dazzling beauty,

whom all men worship and crave." She coyly brushed at

her short-cropped dark hair.

The gnome only looked at her.

"Okay," Mara said grudgingly, "so I won't be a

woman of dazzling beauty for a couple of years. It's going

to happen, I promise."

"I hope," he said seriously, "that you can accept all

that worship and craving without becoming overly vain."

Mara smiled and, in the absence of a mirror, admired

her slender shadow against the rock wall. "I'm sure I'll

manage perfectly. Anyway, what's your name?"

The gnome immediately went on at some length,

pausing for breath in what were clearly accustomed

places.

"I only asked your name," Mara broke in finally.

The gnome looked disconcerted. "I'm not even

halfway through it."

"Maybe I asked the wrong question. What does your

name mean to humans?"

He nodded. "It's very descriptive, even for my people,

and surprisingly apropos. I'm known among humans as

He Who Will Not Stand Upon Accepted Science, But

Will Research Back Into Dangerous and Even

Unworkable Ideas, Nor Will He Stand on Conventional

Testing, But Will Fall Back on Hazardous and Injurious

Techniques, and Will Stand up for Belief in Technology,

Which, Back Before the Great Cataclysm - "

"What," Mara said desperately, "do humans call you

for short?"

The gnome said simply, "Standback."

Mara leaped back.

"No, no," said the gnome. "That's my name.

Standback."

"Are you an inventor? Where's your workshop? Do

you do all your work down here? You're not going to tell

anyone you've seen me, are you?"

Poor Standback had no idea how to answer four

questions thoroughly without taking a month off. "Would

it upset you terribly if I answered in brief?" he said

diffidently.

Mara, realizing with a shudder how narrowly she had

avoided dying of old age during a participial phrase, put a

hand on the gnome's arm. "Please, take as little of your

research time as possible."

Standback was flattered and grateful. He

concentrated. "Yes, I'm an inventor. These tunnels are my

work area; I know they don't look like much, but they're

roomy. I do all my work here. And no, I won't tell anyone

I've seen you," he finished with slight melancholy,

"because there's no one else to tell. I'm the only one -

down here. It's nice to talk to somebody. Where are you

from?"

Mara assumed an heroic stance, arms folded across

her thin chest. "I am from Arnisson, a village under siege,

desperate to keep itself free from the cruel talons of the

draconian army. We are under the command of a lone

Knight of Solamnia, a former townsman named Kalend.

He's a friend of my older brother's," she sighed and her

voice softened. "Kalend's nice, and he thinks I'M

wonderful, but that's really not that surprising, because I'm

ravishingly beautiful." She sighed again, this time in

dejection. "Though I do wish he'd stop calling me 'little

girl' all the time. Anyway, when I met him on the rampart

walls a few nights ago, I asked him if we were likely to

survive, and he said not really, but if the draconians

attacked too early or while they thought we were

unprepared, we still might win. And he said that if he had

even one working gnome weapon, we'd stand a chance.

And I think he meant it," she added sincerely.

She went on and on - some about the draconians,

some about how dire the situation was, but mostly about

Kalend, who grew taller and better looking as her story

progressed. Standback nodded frequently.

"And so," she said, resuming the heroic stance, "I left

Arnisson that very night. I left unseen," she added,

pausing and staring at Standback earnestly.

"Unseen," he echoed dutifully.

"Exactly." She stared into space. "Stealthily creeping out

under the cover of darkness, I, alone, crawling through the

enemy camp . . .

She went on again for quite some time, not bothering

much about the truth, which was actually pretty boring

and she was sure no one wanted to hear anyway.

Standback listened patiently, feeling only a little put

out that she had been going on like that after making him

be brief. When she finished, he said, "But why did you

come?"

"What?" Mara brought herself back to being Queen of

Thieves. "I came here," she began boldly, then faltered as

she realized how it would sound, "to - borrow, or - get, or

somehow - take - okay, STEAL some gnome weaponry for

the war with the draconians." She was blushing.

Standback decided that he liked her, but he wasn't

sure how sensible she was.

"Gnome technology is famous throughout Krynn,"

Mara added wheedlingly, with some truth. FAMOUS and

INFAMOUS were fairly close. "There are legends of past

great weapons. The Knights of Solamnia still speak of

your poison gas - "

"Yes, well," Standback said uncomfortably, "it was

supposed to make us invisible, you know. Still, not a total

loss;

it does wonders for pest control down here. Mostly." He

glanced from side to side.

"Mostly?" Mara jumped as a loud chittering sound

flew by her ear. She whirled, but saw nothing.

"We ran out of the original batch lately, so we made a

new one. It doesn't seem to kill them any more."

Standback ducked as a flapping sound passed near his

head. "Lately it just makes them invisible."

Mara looked around nervously. The tunnel, at the

bottom of the crater that formed Mount Nevermind, was

rough-hewn rock scored by some huge excavating blade

and riddled with drill holes and iron bolts. Ropes and

cables hung every which way, with pulleys, blocks and

tackles, and crane tracks running the length of the ceiling.

Though there were no torches, the tunnel was quite

bright. Mara gingerly felt the walls; they were warm to the

touch, but nowhere near hot enough to give off light.

"How are these tunnels lit?"

Standback pointed to the glowing fungi on the wall. "We

cultivated them for food. Fortunately, the ones we

cultivated for light are quite tasty." He mused, "You know,

we'd like to do more with biological engineering. It's the

technology of the future."

"Or the end of the world," Mara muttered. She was

beginning to worry, marginally, about the wisdom of

stealing gnome inventions. However, if the wise and

wonderful Kalend. Knight of Solamnia, believed in gnome

technology... "Could you show me some of your

weapons?"

"I would love to," Standback said unhesitatingly and

formally. "This way, please."

They moved down the junk-strewn tunnel. "You seem

awfully at ease with women, even startlingly beautiful

ones," Mara told him.

Standback was silent - a rare condition for a gnome.

Finally he said, "Perhaps that is because I love someone."

"Really?" Mara was fascinated. "What's she like?"

Standback Went on at length about the exquisite curve

of her left little finger.

"Okay, we'll take it that she's pretty. What's her name?

Her human name," Mara added hastily.

"It's very beautiful." Standback stared upward

dreamily. "She's called Watch As Her Machines Move In

and Out, Like a Night Watchman Blowing Out A Candle

to Light a Lamp of Such Incredible - "

"The short form."

"Watchout." He sighed.

Mara nodded. "Standback and Watchout. You were

made for each other."

"I think so," he said sadly, "and she thinks so. But

unless things change, it can never be."

"Why?" Mara asked sympathetically.

Standback glowered and said suddenly, gnome-to-

gnome, "Thatisabsolutelytheworstpart - "

"What?"

He took a shuddering breath and said in slower human

fashion, "That is absolutely the worst part of this whole

business. I have not as yet received approval for my Life

Quest."

"Your what?"

"My Life Quest. My one achievement, my one goal. It

is to be the sensors that go into the burglar alarms. I've

already designed them and put them in place throughout

Mount Nevermind."

Mara, remembering how she had slipped in without

setting any off, murmured, "Still in the development

stage, I guess."

"Oh, no; they're highly functional. By the way, how

did you pass them?"

"I made an elaborate and clever plan to drop from the

top of the crater by rope on a winch . . ." Mara hesitated.

Standback shook his head. "Impossible. I have every

passage, every window, every cranny and cut of the outer

mountain covered by a sensor. How did your plan work?"

-

Mara fidgeted. "I didn't use it," she said finally. "I was

standing at the steel entrance doors, trying to figure out

how to climb up the mountain, while the doors were

sliding shut. But the triple-lock fell off and jammed them

open so I was able to slip through - "

"The doors." Standback slapped his forehead, leaving

a pen mark. "Of course. I knew I'd forgotten something.

Sensors on the doors. Still," he said quickly, "it was very

clever, making a plan with a lot of rope and a winch.

You're almost thinking like a gnome."

Mara chose to take that as a compliment. "Have you

shown the committee the evidence of your research?"

"I can't." Standback looked uncomfortable. "I was

cleaning them - with a perfectly fine solvent invented by a

friend of mine - when they dissolved. Also, the table under

them. Wonderful stain remover, though." Standback's

shaggy eyebrows dropped low as he brooded. "I can't re-

apply until I've proven that I have a semi-working

prototype." He added sadly, "If only you had been caught

or killed."

Mara sighed in her turn. "If only YOU were the

master of the Weapons Guild."

Standback shook his head. "If I were, Watchout and I

would be married by now. And I would be far above." He

looked upward wistfully, as though he could see through

the ceiling. "Up where there is honor, glory, and matching

funding. Where draftsmen constantly draft bigger drafting

boards for bigger projects with larger cost overruns . . ."

Mara, disheartened, listened as he described the

Schedule Rescheduling Department, the Management

Oversight Overseers, and the apparently all-powerful

Expanding Contractors. "Tell me," she broke in finally,

"have any of these projects ever been finished?"

Standback, shocked to the depth of his stubby little

being, stared at her. "Young woman, any project worthy of

state funding should be perfected, never finished."

"Well, if you're not the master of the Weapons Guild,

then what ARE you?" she asked.

He lowered his eyes. "I'm a lower-level inventor

whose future life work must be scrounged from the debris

left by the failures of others - "

"Have you invented ANYTHING?"

"I've done more varied work than most gnomes you

have met."

Since Mara had met no other gnomes, she simply

nodded.

"My Life Quest - " Standback stopped, looked pained,

and said with careful stress, "my primary work just now is

still sensor-related, since that was my Life Quest. I invent

security and safety equipment for home or fort, for the

detection and prevention of unwanted forcible spies,

intruders, or weapons - "

"Paladine's panties," Mara said irreverently. "You

make burglar alarms and traps."

Standback said happily, "That's why I was so happy

when you appeared. What luck, really - a burglar, coming

straight through the burglar alarms and lockouts. It will be

a boon to my data."

"Not luck." Mara was having trouble understanding.

"I mean, Kalend ordered that I take this dangerous

mission."

Standback looked dubious. "No offense and don't take

this the wrong way, but you ARE rather young and did he

really order you?"

Mara nodded emphatically. "It was when I was walking

with him on the ramparts, which I try to do a lot - not that

he minds or anything, even though I'm younger than he is,

since I'm remarkably mature, responsible, and

exceptionally good-looking for my age - and we were

talking about the war. He said, 'If only there were one

working gnome weapon, and we had it. . .'" Mara stopped

and chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Or maybe he said, 'If

there was only one gnome weapon that worked and we

had it. . .'

"Anyway," Mara went on, "I remember thinking that

he'd better not talk like that where the draconians could

hear him, or they'd go get a weapon first, and then I

thought about how happy he'd be if I went first instead and

found him a weapon and saved the village, and - well, I

left." She folded her arms over her chest. "Under cover of

darkness, like I said. Through the draconian camps - "

The gnome raised a bushy eyebrow. He was coming

to know Mara. "THROUGH their camps?"

"Well, around. Under their very scaly noses."

"So you saw them?"

"Not actually saw them," she admitted, but added

quickly, "BUT I knew they were there, and was too clever

to be caught by them. Alone and courageous, I came - "

'To find weapons." Standback frowned, thinking. "To

fight these draconians, whom you haven't really seen.

Um."

He reached a conclusion and rubbed his stained and

callused hands together. "Well, as long as you're here, I

don't see why we shouldn't strike a deal. Do you still want

some gnome weapons?"

"What?" It took Mara, caught up in dreams of her own

heroism, a moment to remember what she was doing here.

Her thin young mouth set firmly. "More than ever."

"I'll let you take one," he said. "Any one you want. If

you'll test my security device."

She swallowed. Anti-burglar devices? "Do I have a

choice?"

Standback was ecstatic. "And right afterward," Stand-

back burbled happily, "I'll write up my test results and

submit them to the Committee. And then if they approve

my work - and I have no doubt they will - I'll marry

Watchout."

They strode down the tunnel together, their footsteps

setting off an uneasy rustling and flapping in the invisible

colony clinging to the walls and roof above them.

"They're only bats," Standback said reassuringly. "I

hope," he added, less so.

They walked past a number of side tunnels, their

entrances half hidden by debris and hanging ropes and

cables. Mara, like a good thief, took note of the turns and

the fork back to the exit. "Where does the money come

from for weapons research?"

"I use only junk, spare parts. The main projects were

started on a grant from the Knights of Solamnia."

"The knights?" Mara looked serious. "I hope you're

not counting on them for support. They aren't as rich as

they used to be, you know - "

"This was a while back. They aren't as frequent

visitors as they used to be, either," Standback pointed out.

He screwed up his forehead. "In fact," he said

thoughtfully, "I haven't seen them since the last In-House

Weapons Test, several years ago. No, make that several

decades ago."

"And you kept the project going?"

"It never lapsed, even before I took it over. A project,"

Standback said stiffly, "is a commitment. It's as important

as a vow."

"They paid in advance, didn't they?" Mara asked

dryly.

"Well, yes. Quite a lot, in fact. Here we are."

He pulled an elaborate key (four notches and a

combination lock) from a ring at his waist. He inserted the

key with some difficulty in a lock attached to a thick beam

door in the tunnel wall. After three tries, it opened easily.

"After you," he said. "This room has my first anti-spy

device."

Mara stepped in cautiously. "Shouldn't your alarms

have sensed me?"

"It's a proximity alarm," the gnome said. "Once

testing is complete, I'll put hundreds of them in any place

that needs monitoring. You can't have too much

redundancy, you know." He was scribbling another note

on his shirt. "Would you mind standing on that large black

X on the floor?" The X had a small bump at the cross-

point.

A gnome-size test dummy on wheels stood next to the

X. Mara rolled it almost onto the X and stood well off to

one side. "Let's try it this way first."

"I've done this many times," Standback objected, "with

that very dummy."

Mara said firmly, "Well, I haven't seen it work yet."

She noted that the dummy hadn't a mark on it, though the

walls and floor of the room were dented and scraped.

Standback complained, with some justification, "You

promised. Is there no honor among thieves?"

"There was once," Mara said. "Someone stole it."

Then she sighed and moved the dummy off the X. "I warn

you, I'm leaving at the first sign of danger. What is it

we're testing?"

"It's called the Room Security Spybanger," Standback

said impatiently. "Now will you step on the X?"

Mara tapped the X with her toe, leapt, tucked, and

rolled easily away, preparing to watch from a safe

distance.

She heard a TWANG. A stone mallet - its head the size

of her own - whistled above her close enough to ruffle her

hair. Mara ducked, heard a second TWANG and felt a

sudden sharp sting on her cheek as an elastic cord

attached to the mallet handle snapped taut against her

skin.

The mallet struck the far wall. A trap door popped

open beside it. The mallet whizzed back. Mara's back flip

carried her just out of range. She dropped flat as a second

mallet spun out of the trap door and careened past her,

setting off a third mallet.

Soon six stone hammers were ricocheting and

thudding around the room. Mara rolled, leapt, ducked,

twisted, and at one point slid down a thrumming elastic

cord to keep out of the way.

Eventually, in desperation, she crawled back to a

section of floor that every last mallet had failed to pass

over. She glanced in all directions, poised to spring, until

the mallets gradually lost momentum and dangled limply

from the tangled elastics.

In the far comer, Standback applauded. "A perfect

test." He wrote furiously on his stomach. "Absolutely

perfect, with the exception of a few trajectory defects."

Mara looked down. She was crouched over the X.

"You tried to kill me."

Standback shook his head violently. "Never. The

Spybanger is designed only for self-protection; killing is

purely accidental. Can you help me rig these back up?"

From a comer cabinet, Standback produced a large

wooden crank. He inserted the crank into a spring and

ratchet arrangement in the first trap and turned it until the

mechanism was tight enough to leave room for the

hammer in front of it. He lifted the mallet laboriously,

then stood back, panting.

"And so amazingly easy to reload," he said, struggling

to shut the trap before the hammer flew out.

Mara helped crank and lift the other five. "What else

have you been working on?"

In answer, he led her through a second door - which

led through a short tunnel to another room.

"This isn't for spies, and it's not an offensive weapon.

It's a shock-lessening device, a preventive measure for

high-impact disasters. A pneumatically seismosensitive

counter-measure for offsetting combat-related upheavals."

"What does it do?"

"I just told you," Standback snapped. "When we get

there, would you stand in the center of the room, right on

the X?"

Mara started to agree readily, then stopped. "Is it

supposed to be the safest place?"

Standback nodded.

"In that case," Mara said politely, "why don't YOU

stand on it, and I'll observe?"

The gnome's shaggy eyebrows shot up. "That's kind of

you." He stepped onto the X. "You don't mind taking the

extra risk?"

"Never." Mara folded her arms. "Danger and I are

well acquainted."

"All right. Watch, then. The Thudbagger is designed

to protect against impact." He paused. "You've seen the

gnomeflingers in use, above?"

Mara shuddered. She. had flitted down from level to

level in the shadows, watching as gnomes sailed from

level to level (and, usually, down again) from the bulky

catapults that were equipped with everything except

accuracy and control.

"Well," Standback continued, "this may surprise you,

but several visiting knights thought that the gnomeflingers

might also be dangerous."

"No!"

"Truly. They thought - now, to my mind, it takes a

twisted mind to think this in the first place - that someone

could use the gnomeflingers to throw dead weight

projectiles instead of passengers. Well, we performed

some experiments, but we never got reliable enough

results to suggest that this would work."

"Why not?" Mara asked.

Standback sighed. "Mostly because the note-takers

kept getting crushed by thrown rocks. At any rate, the

knights asked us to come up with a defense to protect

getting hurt by flying rocks. They talked about shields,

and barriers, but our Hazard Analysis Committee

interviewed the gnomeflinger Impact Test Survivors and

concluded that the problem went beyond shields and

walls. I brought their results down here with me." He led

her into the next room.

The furniture, Mara noted with relief, did not look

banged up at all. How dangerous could this room be?

A closer look revealed the furniture to be brand new.

The comers of the room contained large piles of splinters.

"Are you sure you want ME to stand on the X?"

Stand-back asked. "After all, I guarantee it to be the safest

place in the room."

Mara bowed to him. "All the more reason to give it to

you."

He was flattered. "How kind you are, and how

brave."

"I am also called Mara the Courageous," she said.

Standback was not surprised.

He stepped onto the X and folded his arms

confidently. "This room has a broad-band sensor." He

pointed to a small round bump in the floor. "Stamp

anywhere. You don't need to do it very hard."

The floor looked to be some kind of parquet, broken

at regular intervals with circular lids each the size of a

melon.

Mara eyed Standback narrowly and slammed her foot

against the bare floor. Nothing happened. She stamped

again, harder. Still nothing. She took a running start and

stamped with both feet, hard enough to hurt her ankles.

Nothing. She gave up and leaned on the wall.

Huge leather balloons popped out of the floor. Filling

instantly with compressed air, the balloons smashed the

new furniture to kindling.

Mara sidled around the edge of the room, squeezing

between the wall and the balloons. "That's pretty

impressive, Standback - hello?" She squeaked a balloon

with her thumb. "Standback?"

Mara heard an answering squeak. She leapt onto one

of the balloons, poised there like a cat, and saw a hand

struggling upward in the crack where all the balloons met.

Mara rolled down to the hand and planted her feet

against balloon, her right shoulder against another.

Gradually, the two moved apart. She heard a gasping

inhale below her, then a thump as something hit the floor.

"Thank you so very much," Standback said feebly.

"The Thudbaggers are nearly perfect - I don't have a bruise

on me - but I couldn't really breathe in there."

"You could make a snorkel," Mara said sarcastically.

She had grown up near the sea, " - a short breathing tube."

There was a hiss, then another. The balloons were

deflating. Standback appeared among them, stuffing them

back below floor level. He said dubiously, "That's an

awfully simplistic answer. You should leave design

questions to the specialists. On the other hand," he added

thoughtfully, "if it had reserve tanks - and an air pump -

and free-swinging gimbals to keep it upright. . ." He

sketched it all out on the only clear portion of his shirt.

Mara, who needed a rest, sat beside him, her chin in

her hand. "I see why you're having problems getting

promoted. Do you have to get these all working to win

approval?"

"Oh, my goodness, no." Standback caught himself and

added, almost defensively, "Besides, they all work

wonderfully!" He stared out at the smashed furniture

wistfully. "No, it's simply a matter of getting the

Committee's stamp of approval. Unfortunately, I can't

even get their attention. They completely ignore me."

"Do you do everything by committee?"

"Some humans think we invented the committee."

"And until you get their approval, poor Watchout can't

be betrothed to you?"

"Nor should she be," Standback said glumly. "After

all, would you agree to marry a gnome with no

credentials?"

Mara didn't think she would marry a gnome at all, but

decided it wouldn't be polite to point that out. "You're very

nice just for yourself, credentials or no. And now," she

said firmly, "what about the weapons?"

"A bargain's a bargain." Standback, making a final

note on his shirt, opened the rear door of the Thudbagger

room, and Mara found herself in a branch of the main

tunnel again. They walked back toward the place where

the tunnel split in two. Mara looked interestedly at the

piles of debris and the bulky inventions half hidden under

canvas or in shadow. Several of them were labeled, but

life's too short to spend reading gnome labels.

"Wait." Mara had noticed a device carelessly tossed to

one side on the tunnel floor.

It had a shiny black hand-grip butt and stock that

supported a shining tube-and-yoke arrangement of blue

steel and black wire, which was topped by a small sighting

tube and a tiny ring with crossed hairs in it. The whole

effect was remarkably menacing.

"What is it?" she asked, staring at it in awe.

"What? Oh, that." Standback nudged it with his foot

disdainfully. "A co-worker made it."

"You disapprove of him?" Mara hazarded.

Standback nodded, his beard whipping up and down

rapidly. "It was to be his Life Quest, and he abandoned it.

Can you imagine, abandoning your Life Quest? He's

always sworn that he'd fix it some day, but I doubt if he

can; it has too few parts, it's far too small, and it can't even

carry itself." He finished indignantly, "It doesn't even have

a place for the operator to sit!"

Mara bent over it. "It fits in your hand."

"You see what I mean?"

She didn't, but only asked, "What's it for?"

The gnome snorted. "It's supposed to dowse for water,

but it's hopeless. I can tolerate a few false starts, or a near

miss, or the occasional explosion or dismemberment, but

this - "

"It doesn't find any water, then?"

Standback said disgustedly, "Just diamonds, emeralds,

rubies, other rocks . . ." He shoved it aside with a kick.

Mara looked back at it longingly, but kept walking.

Leaning alongside a hanging drop cloth on the tunnel

wall was a human-size mannequin with some sort of

backpack on it.

"This," Standback said as impressively as a gnome

can be, in brief, "is the Mighty Thunderpack."

Mara examined the three nozzles connected to two

tanks and what looked like a fire-starting flint. Near the

top of the unit was also the now-familiar bulge of one of

Standback's sensors. She gingerly touched the directional

fin, like a fish's, on the Thunderpack. "How do you aim

it?"

Standback laughed tolerantly. "It's not a weapon; it's

personal troop transport."

Mara put it on her shoulders. For metal work,

particularly for gnome metalwork, it was surprisingly

light. "Very impressive," she said. She pictured an army

(led by herself, naturally) swooping through squadrons of

draconians and cutting them into small, non-combative

strips. "How does it start up?"

"From the mere touch of an iron weapon," Standback

said proudly. "I used a special kind of rock in it. Do you

have a dagger?"

Mara hesitated.

"Come, come," the gnome said impatiently. "All

thieves have daggers."

Embarrassed, Mara handed him the paring knife she

had brought with her from her mother's kitchen.

Standback took it and said, "When I wave this near the

sensor, the Mighty Thunderpack will burst into action."

He tensed his arms and said in a melancholy voice, "Well,

good-bye."

Mara, seeing the knife wave and noticing belatedly

Standback's emphasis on "burst," lurched forward out of

the way as Standback's arm moved near. To her relief, the

Thunderpack did not activate. "What do you mean,

'goodbye?' Has this thing been tested before?" she

demanded.

"Of course, extensively. Just look in the side room." The

gnome gestured to the left, behind the drop cloth that Mara

had assumed was hanging against the tunnel wall.

Mara lifted the cloth. Stacked floor to ceiling were the

charred arms and legs of test dummies. Not one torso

remained. "Has it ever been tested by a living person?"

"Of course not; why do you think - Oh, you mean, 'by

someone living at the time he tested it.' Yes, once." Stand-

back looked solemn. "Poor fellow. And so young."

Mara took off the Thunderpack, and, to her credit, she

was barely shaking. "What else do you have?"

"I have other transport devices." He escorted her to

what he called, "a variation on the gnomeflinger. I named

it the Portapult."

IT looked more like THEM. The Portapult consisted

of two gnomeflingers, ingeniously and intricately linked

by cable, chain, and several pieces of fine wire, for which

Mara could imagine no purpose.

Each gnomeflinger rested on six wheels on three

axles. The front axle had a built-in pivot and the pivot

axle of each gnomeflinger was connected to the other by

chain.

Standback followed Mara's confused glance. "Oh,

they're inseparable," he said proudly. "Linked in frame,

function, and trigger. The Portapult breaks apart for

transport" - it looked as though it might break apart as he

spoke - "but it re-assembles for synchronized action. The

Portapult can deliver six soldiers simultaneously, send

them hundreds of feet through the air. . . .

"Isn't it wonderful?" he finished huskily, and patted

one of the delivery platforms affectionately. The platform

shot upward and the Portapult spun sideways. An

identical platform on the second gnomeflinger shot

upward and that unit turned sideways as well - sideways

toward the first - and the two platforms met with a

SMACK that blew Standback's hair straight behind him

and made Mara's ears pop.

"I should check that trigger again," he said

thoughtfully. "Also, perhaps, the targeting ratchets."

He sat in a narrow seat beyond one of the platforms and

pedaled strenuously. A chain on a toothed gear cranked

down one platform; the other inched down in time with it.

Mara heard the faintest of clicks as the minuscule triggers

hooked over the platforms to hold the bent, straining

beams and cablework in place.

She helped the gnome as, very gently, he put the two

units side by side again. "They look dangerous," she said.

Standback misunderstood. "Oh, yes," he said happily.

"Someday they'll have great strategic importance."

"But not yet." Mara sighed. "Is there anything useful

down here?"

The gnome considered. "There is," he said slowly for

a gnome, "a powerful defensive weapon, designed to

break through any surrounding force. I'm not sure that I

should let you see it - "

"Please." Mara had little faith left in gnome

technology, but she wanted very badly to leave with

something.

"Very well." Standback walked her down several

bends in the corridor to a side tunnel. In the middle of it

was a tarpaulin covering something the size of a crouching

man.

"Why isn't this one in a room?" Mara asked.

Standback shuddered. "In a room, with this? That

would be far too dangerous." He pointed to the long

horizontal gashes in the tunnel walls, and parallel marks

on the floor, chiseled into the rock. Some of them were

bright and new.

Mara perked up. "Is it really so dangerous as all that?"

"Absolutely," the gnome replied. "You can parry a

sword. You can beat back a spear." Standback paused for

effect, not an easy thing for a gnome. "But there is no way

for your adversary to fight off the astonishing Floating

Deathaxe."

He pulled a cloth off the axe.

In spite of her disappointment, Mara felt like laughing

at the sight of a pendulum-shaped axe, swinging from a

framework of three strange oar-shaped wooden fans. The

fans were attached to a gear arrangement of spools of

thongs and elastics.

"Good design," she said finally. "If it's deadly, it hides

its function well."

"You think so?" Standback peered at it. "It looks like

any other weapon's design to me."

"How does it work? No offense, but it looks as though

it is designed to mix bread in some demented kitchen.

What do these little oars do?"

The gnome reached a stubby finger out and spun them

fondly. "They're called propellers. When they're in

balance, they propel it."

Mara stared confusedly at the propellers, which

weren't attached to any wheels or rollers. "How?"

"In a straight line, if it's properly adjusted."

"No, I mean, how can they move it?"

"It flies."

Now Mara did laugh. "And what makes it fly?" She

saw a pull-cord hanging from one of the spindles. "This?"

"Yes, but only after it's properly adjusted. If you - "

"Oh, leave it alone," Mara said tiredly.

Standback looked crushed.

"I'm sorry." Mara sighed. "I didn't mean that. It's just -

I was going to bring back such wonderful things, and save

my people and make Kalend notice me - " She choked

back her tears. Queens of Thieves don't cry.

Standback patted her sympathetically and they walked

together in silence, two people with little in common but

the fact that life was not going well for either of them.

They returned to the skylight where Mara had first

entered. She stood in the smoke and steam-filtered

daylight of the square hole above them and slumped

against the rock wall, looking at the hall of useless

inventions.

From somewhere far overhead came a muffled

BOOM. The entire tunnel shook, dropping dust and

cobwebs. A huge bell carillon somewhere far above them

clanged frantically, followed by some kind of trumpet,

several clappers, a siren, and numerous whistles.

Invisible creatures shook themselves free of the

ceiling and flapped to and fro in panic. Mara clapped her

hands over her ears. Standback shouted in delight, "It

works!"

"What?" Mara could read his lips, though that was

hard because of the gnome's beard.

"The perimeter alarm. I set it up around the top of the

mountain." Standback was actually dancing. "It notifies

bystanders - "

"I'll say."

" - locates the point of entry, and even seals off rooms

and levels." He pointed to the stone trap door sliding

slowly over the skylight to the crater floor.

Then he looked concerned. "They'll need me up there

to shut it off. They're probably completely deaf right

now."

"WHAAAT?"

"NOTHING." Standback dashed over to the

Gnomeflinger, leapt on the payload pad several times and

(amazingly enough) sailed easily through the half-shut

skylight. "Illbebacktheleverletsyouout - "

The trap door slid shut and fell in place with a thud.

The bells, whistles, clappers and sirens above grew

muffled.

Mara stared upward, her mouth hanging open. A

gnome device had actually worked as it was supposed to.

But now how was she going to get out?

She examined the lever on the wall and tried to trace

its relationship to the trap door. She could see a slack rope

that disappeared into a hole in the tunnel ceiling, and she

noted a rod leading from the lever up to a cantilever, but

she couldn't understand how it would work.

The alarm noises stopped abruptly. Standback or

someone else had found a way to shut them off or, more

likely, had accidentally silenced them. Mara had seen

enough of the gnomes to hope that there were no

casualties.

Her ears adjusted to the sudden near-silence; she heard

the soft hum (and drip) of ventilation devices somewhere,

and the restless motion of invisible flying pests, and

something else: a rustling, back in the side tunnels.

Feet moving - a scraping sound, not quite boots and

not quite barefoot. The clink of metal on metal. It sounded

definitely ungnomelike. At that point, it occurred to Mara

that SOMETHING had set off Standback's alarms. A

REAL thief . . . Mara hid in a niche in the wall.

A shadowy figure came into view, wearing a helmet

with a dragon crest.

"These must be the weapons the knights spoke of.

Quick!" he hissed, "While the gnome is gone. Take what

looks useful and leave."

It was a draconian! Two draconians! "What about the

girl we followed here?" The other draconian asked.

Mara's heart sank. She heard again in her mind Kalend

saying, THEY'LL CAMP AROUND US AND WAIT FOR

SOMETHING TO BREAK - REINFORCEMENTS, OR

BETTER WEAPONS . . .

The captain shrugged. "She's served her purpose. If

you see her, kill her, and don't waste time."

Mara pressed against the tunnel wall, hidden by the

shadows of cable and hanging hardware.

Four other draconians marched out of the narrow side

tunnel into the hall. They were all carrying huge, cruel

weapons. Their wings filled the tunnel. They had clawed

hands and horrid sharp fangs. One of them started right for

her. Mara the Brave couldn't help herself. She whimpered.

The draconians heard her. One lashed forward with a

spear. Panicked, Mara dropped flat. The spear nearly

parted her hair. Another draconian hissed and slashed

sideways with his sword. She leapt up, dodged the sword,

backing farther away. A mace raked her shoulder.

She began running, heading for escape out the

skylight. I should stop them! she thought frantically, but a

cold voice in her mind said, "Face it. You're not a warrior,

not even a thief. You're only a very stupid little girl."

She bounced from wall to wall randomly to dodge

more thrown weapons, stumbling over a pile of canisters.

She paused. The top one had a label; in the middle of the

polysyllables, Mara recognized the common word for

PEST. She picked the canister up and tucked it under her

arm. If it was the new batch of pesticide, she could dump

it over herself and it would make her invisible. She began

opening it, then stopped.

If it was the old batch, it might kill her.

But then, she could throw it back at the approaching

draconians and kill them. She tugged at the top again.

Or she might make them invisible. She had a brief

vision of herself surrounded by invisible draconians. She

tossed the canister aside and kept running.

The draconians were close behind her when she

reached the skylight. She leapt for the opening lever,

pulling it down with her full weight. It groaned as it

moved ... and lowered a cantilevered weight, which

tugged a guy rope, which spun a flywheel, which rotated

an axis, which turned a worm gear, which wound up the

pull rope . . .

Which broke. The whole system coasted to a stop, the

end of the rope flapping uselessly.

"It would be nice," Mara muttered between clenched

teeth, "if just once, a gnome invention worked reliably."

And that gave Mara the idea.

She grabbed the dangling rope, swung up on it,

pumping her legs vigorously. Kicking off the ceiling, she

spun around and swung back over the heads of the

astonished draconians. One of them raised a spear, but not

quickly enough; it barely scratched her.

Mara let go of the rope, landing well behind the

confused draconians, and dashed back the way she had

come. But she had to make certain they followed her. At

the bend in the tunnel, she scooped up a handful of

decaying spare parts from old mechanisms and skimmed

them off the tunnel walls and ceiling into the draconians.

A rusted bolt caught the captain on his reptilian snout.

The captain howled. "After her! Kill her!"

"Quickly, or slowly?" A subordinate asked.

"Quickly," he hissed. A hex nut clanged off his

helmet. "But not too quickly."

They dashed after her again, weapons ready, their

terrible jaws open. Mara fled, but made sure that they saw

which way she turned. They chased her confidently; after

all, what did they have to fear from a single unarmed

human child?

The draconians came on her suddenly, around a

comer. She was apparently helpless with fear.

The draconian captain leered at her and barked

unnecessarily, "Now you die."

"If you must!" she said more coolly than she felt. "But

be quick."

The draconian eyed her with resentment, tinged with

admiration. "Don't we frighten you?"

"You? Never." Mara pointed to the floor. "That thing

frightens me. I can bear anything," she said earnestly, "but

the Flying Deathaxe."

At a gesture from his captain, the lead draconian

picked it up. "This thing?" he said, laughing,

incredulously.

Mara shrank away. "Don't pull that cord. Please. Put it

down - "

The captain smiled at her, revealing an amazing

quantity of pointed teeth. "Of course, I'll put it down." He

set it on the ground in front of her with a low bow. As he

straightened up, with one swift motion he pulled the

starting cord, setting the propellers in motion. He watched,

chuckling evilly.

The propellers spun and, unbelievably, the Deathaxe

rose into the air. As it cleared the floor, the razor-sharp

axe blade swung back and forth with a loud shearing

noise. It hovered, hesitated, then began slowly spinning in

a circle. Mara watched, open-mouthed, as the axe blade

sliced through a boom extending from the tunnel wall.

Now the axe was moving faster, and the circle was

widening as well. Mara took a nervous step backward.

The Deathaxe hit the roof and bounced off. The blade

sliced through the helmet and head of a draconian soldier

without slowing down. The soldier turned to stone and

toppled.

The captain uttered a command, succinct even for

draconian field orders: "Run!"

Mara obeyed. So did the other draconians. The axe

gashed the wall where she had been standing a moment

before, spun back on itself, and cut one of the draconian

soldiers in the chest before careening upward to strike the

ceiling and spin back down.

The wounded draconian, shouting in panic, crashed

head-on into one of his companions. Both sank to the

tunnel floor, unconscious but not dead. The remaining two

sprinted after Mara, just ahead of the whining, humming

Deathaxe.

Mara wouldn't have thought that the heavy draconians

could run that fast, but then she surprised herself with her

own speed. Once, in a crazy rebound off a hanging pulley,

the Deathaxe spun into the floor in front of her and shot

straight up at her. She fell backward, rolled between the

legs of the startled draconian soldier behind her, and leapt

to one side. The Deathaxe cut off his head. Turning to

stone, it thudded to the floor where she had been. The

draconian captain behind her screeched with frustration.

The Deathaxe, now behind him, spun back toward both of

them, and they were off again.

Perversely, the axe continued after them, instead of

backtracking or taking wrong tunnels. Mara wondered if

that was a side-function of Standback's sensors. She also

wondered how long she and the draconian captain could

keep up their pace; she was naturally faster, but he had

more endurance. If she should tire or fall. . . She grit her

teeth and kept dodging and running.

After what seemed like days, Mara thought that the

axe might be slowing down. A minute more and she was

positive; it was losing forward momentum and spinning

more slowly. Finally, with a creak from its handle and a

flutter of propellers, the Deathaxe crashed to the tunnel

floor. Mara and the draconian, wheezing, collapsed - a

spear's length apart - just beyond it.

The draconian recovered first. He rose unsteadily and

searched for the sword. He had dropped it when he fell.

The weapon was now lying within Mara's reach.

Mara staggered to her feet, picked up the heavy sword

and nearly overbalanced. The draconian laughed at her

and moved forward to recover it and kill her.

Mara heard an uneasy rustling on the tunnel ceiling

above her, though she could see nothing. She swung the

sword against the tunnel wall and banged it, shouting.

The air was suddenly filled with a terrible chittering

and the sound of hundreds of wings. The draconian,

disconcerted, waved his arms in the air. Mara steadied the

sword, gathering her strength.

The draconian opened his mouth and snapped at the

noises in the empty air; there was a tiny shriek, which cut

off abruptly. Mara, feeling sick, took a deep breath and

lunged with the sword.

It was far too heavy for her, but she managed to catch

the draconian captain just below the kneecap. He roared,

driving away all the flyers. Mara let go of the sword and

backed off.

Grimacing, he looked down at his leg. Green blood

oozed from the wound. He opened his mouth to shout at

her; nothing but snarling and flecks of foam came out.

Mara dashed away, thinking to herself, "I'll need a new

name. Mara the Warlike . . . Mara, Queen of Battle ..." A

thrown dagger flashed between her arm and her side.

Mara, Queen of Battle, legged it like Mara the Rabbit

down the left fork of the tunnel. The draconian lumbered

after her, limping painfully.

Mara dashed into a room. The draconian found her,

crouched against the far wall. She stood holding the leg of

a splintered chair as a weapon. As the captain came

forward, she dropped it and shrank against the wall, her

face a mask of terror.

"I have you," he said slowly, with satisfaction. He

limped into the center of the room, smiling -

Mara tapped the wall lightly with one finger.

The Thudbaggers activated. The draconian lost his

footing. Both his arms were pinned in place by the bags;

he couldn't reach the sword he had dropped when the first

bag inflated in his face. He poked his head up out of the

balloons, and glared helplessly at Mara, who had

clambered onto the bags. "You!" he said bitterly, beside

himself with rage. "You - "

"Shut up," said Mara and, pulling off his helmet,

knocked him cold.

She heard the sound of running feet, and then

Standback appeared in the door.

"Are you all right?" He was panting.

Mara slid off the balloon. "Mara the Bold is always all

right."

"That's good. When I arrived at the top level, I

thought that it was a false alarm, and I came back down,

and then I saw the dead and knocked-out draconians - "

He paused. "You're bleeding."

She looked at her shoulder in surprise. "Not too

badly." She grinned. "I gave better than I got."

Standback looked at the unconscious captain. "I see

that," he said, impressed. "Were they after my weapons?"

Mara nodded. Standback, looking again at the pinned

and unconscious captain, said thoughtfully, "Mount

Nevermind isn't at war with draconians. We don't dare kill

them, and they're too dangerous to take prisoner. What are

we going to do with them?"

"I've thought about that." Mara paused for effect. "Let

them escape."

Standback goggled at her. "But if they escape, they'll

take our weapons or plans for our weapons away with

them - "

"You want them to," she said simply.

Standback was now a complete rarity in Mount

Nevermind or anywhere else: a speechless gnome.

"Think about it," she went on. "The draconians want

the weapons. You need the weapons tested. They're

soldiers. Who could better test them?"

As he still hesitated, she added, "And isn't the theft by

real warriors a kind of validation that your weapons are

worth testing? You'll be able to tell that to the committee

and then ask for the hand of Watchout."

Standback blinked. "But you're not afraid to let them

use these . . . terrible weapons against your people?"

Mara thought about draconian troops setting off the

Portapults in the field. "They are indeed terrible weapons,"

she said, "but letting the draconians have them will only

make it a more even battle. It's a matter of honor -

something the knights are big on."

Standback took her hand, pumping it up and down.

"Never have I met a warrior of so much integrity - "

"Oh, I wouldn't say that."

" - and modest too." He looked back at the

unconscious draconian captain. "I'll let them escape with

the Portapult, the Flying Deathaxe - "

"Um, I don't know that they'll want the Deathaxe.

Why don't you let them have the Thunderpack, instead?"

Standback protested. "This is too much. Won't you

take anything for yourself?"

"Sometimes," Mara said nobly, "there's a greater joy

in giving." She had a sudden thought. "If you don't mind,

I'll just take the little failed dowser." She picked it up.

"The one that can't even find water? You want it?"

"Just as a souvenir."

Standback, tears in his eyes, said, "You're amazing.

Nothing but a trinket for yourself, while you give full-

scale gnome weapons to your worst enemies."

Mara, pocketing the jewel-finder, beamed. "Well,"

she said modestly, "I'm like that."

 

The Promised Place

 

Dan Parkinson

 

Once, very recently, this had been a city. Only

days before, there had been a tiered castle on the highest

point of the hill. Studded battlements overlooked the lands

for miles around. In a walled courtyard, throngs gathered.

Below the battlements, spreading down toward the

fields, had been a raucous, bustling city - inns and

dwellings, shops and markets, public houses, smithies,

barns and lofts, weavers' stalls and tanneries, music and

noise and life.

Chaldis had been a city. But the dragonarmies of the

Dark Queen had come and the city was a city no more.

Where battlements had stood was smashed and blackened

rubble, and all beneath was scorched, twisted ruin. Of

Chaldis, nothing was left. Only the road it had defended

was yet intact, and its surface showed the tracks and treads

of armies just passed. The people who had been here were

gone now - some fleeing, some dead, some led off as

slaves. Where there had been herds now were only

scorched pastures, and where crops had grown now were

ruined fields.

Stillness lived here now. A somber stillness - shadows

and silence, broken only by the weeping of the wind.

Yet in the stillness, something lurked. And in the

shadows, small shadows moved.

Muffled voices, among the rubble: "What kind place

this? Ever'thing a real mess." 'Talls been here. Somebody

clobber 'em, I guess." "This all fresh scorch." "Forget

scorch! Look for somethin' to eat."

And another sound, from somewhere in the lead,

"Sh!" A thump and a clatter.

"Sh!" "Somebody fall down."

"SH!"

"Somebody say, 'Sh.' Better hush up."

Another thump and several clatters.

"Wha' happen?"

"Somebody bump into somebody else. All fall down."

"SSSH!!"

"What?"

"SHUT UP AN' KEEP QUIET!"

"Oh. Okay."

Abruptly hushed, the shadows moved on, small

figures in a ragged line, wending among fallen stone and

burned timbers, making their cautious way through the

rubble that once had been a city. For several minutes, they

proceeded in silence, then the whispers and muted chatter

began again as the effect of exercised authority wore off.

"Wanna stop an' dig? Might be nice stuff under these

gravels."

"Forget dig. Need food first. Look for somethin' make

stew."

"Like what?"

"Who knows. Mos' anything make stew."

"Hey! Here somethin'. . . nope, never mind. Just a

dead Tall."

"Rats."

"What?"

"Oughtta be rats here. Rats okay for stew."

"Keep lookin'."

"Ow! Get off a my foot!"

Thump. Clatter.

"Sh!"

"Somebody fall down again."

"SH!

They were travelers. They had been travelers since long

before any of them could remember, which was not very

long unless the thing to remember was truly worth

remembering: traveling generally was not. It was just

something they did, something they had always done,

something their parents and their ancestors had done. Few

of them had any idea why they traveled, or why their

travels - more often than not - tended to be westward.

For the few among them who might occasionally

wonder about such things, the answer was simple and

extremely vague. They traveled because they were in

search of the Promised Place.

Where was the Promised Place? Nobody had the

slightest idea.

Why did they seek the Promised Place? No one really

knew that, either. Someone, a long time ago - some

Highbulp, probably, since it was usually the Highbulp

who initiated unfathomable ventures - had gotten the

notion that there was a Promised Place, to the west, and it

was their destiny to find it. That had been generations

back - an unthinkable time to people who usually

recognized only two days other than today: yesterday and

tomorrow. But once the pilgrimage was begun, it just kept

going.

That was the nature of the Aghar - the people most

others called gully dwarves. One of their strongest driving

forces was simple inertia.

The size and shape of the group changed constantly as

they made their way through the ruins of the city, tending

upward toward its center. Here and there, now and then,

by ones and threes and fives, various among them lost

interest in following along and took off on side

expeditions, searching and gawking, usually rejoining the

main group somewhere farther along.

There was no way to know whether all of them came

back. None among them had any real idea of how many of

them there were, except that there were more than two - a

lot more than two. Maybe fifty times two, though such

concepts were beyond even the wisest of them. Numbers

greater than two were seldom considered worth worrying

about.

Gradually, the stragglers converged upon the higher

levels of the ruined city. Here the fallen building stones

were more massive - huge, smoke-darkened blocks that

lay aslant against one another, creating tunnels and gullies

roofed by shattered rubble. Here they found more dead

things - humans and animals, corpses mutilated, stripped

and burned, the brutal residue of battle. They crept around

these at a distance, their eyes wide with dread. Something

fearful had happened here, and the pall of it hung in the

silent air of the place like a tangible fear.

At a place where a flanking wall had fallen, some of

them paused to stare at a tumble of great, iron-bound

timbers that might once have been some piece of giant

furniture but now was a shattered ruin. The thing lay as

though it had fallen from high above, its members and

parts in disarray. Having not the faintest idea of what it

might be, most of them crept past and went on. One,

though, remained, walking around the huge thing,

frowning in thought.

His name was Tagg, and an odd bit of memory

tugged at him as his eyes traced the dimensions of the

fallen thing. He had seen something like it before . . .

somewhere. Tugging at his lip, Tagg circled entirely

around the thing. A few others were with him now. They

had seen his curiosity and returned, curious themselves.

"Got a arm," he muttered, squatting to reason out the

placement of a great timber jutting outward from the

device. Within the twisted structure itself, the timber was

bound to a sort of big, wooden drum, with heavy rope

wrapped around it and a set of massive gears at its hub.

"Fling-thing," he said, beginning to remember. It was

like something he had seen from a distance, atop some

human structure his people had skirted long ago in their

travels. He remembered it because he had seen the Talls

operate it, and had been impressed. It was a wooden tower

atop a tower, and a lot of the humans - the Talls - had

gathered around it and slowly cranked the extended arm

around and back, then abruptly had released it. It had

made a noise like distant thunder, and the thing that flew

from it had been very large and had knocked down a tree.

"That it," he decided. "One a' them. Fling-thing."

Several other gully dwarves were gathered around

him now. One asked, "What Tagg talkin' 'bout?"

"This thing," Tagg pointed. "This a fling-thing. Throws

stuff."

"Why?" another wanted to know.

"Dunno. Does, though. Throws big thing, knock a tree

down."

"I know. Cat'pult."

"Nope. That some other kind. This called a . . . uh . . .

dis . . . disca . . . somethin'."

"Okay." Losing interest, some of them wandered away

again, though Tagg and two others lingered, creeping

through the wreckage in wonder. One was a white-bearded

ancient named Gandy, who was given to occasional bursts

of lucid thought and served as Grand Notioner to the

combined clans of Bulp. The other was a young female

named Minna.

Tagg was vaguely glad that Minna was interested in

the same thing that interested him. He found her presence

pleasant. His eyes lighting on a glistening bauble among

the rubble, he picked it up and held it out to her. "Here,"

he said, shyly. "Pretty thing for Minna."

Climbing among the twisted members of the fallen

discobel, Tagg helped Minna across a shattered timber,

then turned and stumbled over old Gandy. The Grand

Notioner was on his knees, staring at something, and Tagg

tripped over him and thudded facedown in the sooty dust.

Barely noticing him, Gandy brushed his hand over a

vague shape on the floor and said, "Here somethin'. What

this?"

Tagg crawled over to look, and Minna peered over his

shoulder. The object was a big, iron disk with sharpened

serrations all around its edge, except for one area where it

had been blunted and bent.

"That disk," Tagg said. "It what th' fling-thing fling.

Knock down trees with these."

"Knock down somethin'," Gandy decided, looking at

the blunted edge. The disk had hit something very solid,

very hard. He rubbed it again and looked at the dark stains

on its surface. There were other stains on the cracked floor

nearby, as though blood had congealed there. He scraped

the stain with his finger, then tasted his finger. He frowned

and spat. It was not any kind of blood he knew about.

It reminded him, though, of the primary goal of the

moment. He stood, tapping the ground with the battered

old mop handle he always carried. "'Nough look at stuff,"

he proclaimed. "Look for food first. Come 'long."

Obediently, they followed him out of the wreckage of

the war engine, then paused and looked around.

"Where ever'body go?" Tagg wondered.

Gandy shrugged. "Aroun' someplace. Can't get far,

followin' Highbulp. Glitch don' move that fast."

From where they were, a dozen tunnels and breaks in

the rubble led away. Choosing one at random, old Gandy

led off, with Tagg and Minna following. "Now watch

good," he ordered.

"Watch what?"

"What?"

"You gonna do trick or somethin'?"

"No! Watch for food. Need to find stuff for make

stew."

The tunnel they were in was a long, winding way

created by the spaces between building stones that had

fallen on one another. After a few minutes, Tagg asked,

"What kind food Grand Notioner expect find here?"

"He didn' say," Minna said.

Just ahead of them, Gandy turned, frowning in the

shadows. "Any kind food," he snapped. "Keep lookin'. If it

moves, it prob'ly good for stew."

"Okay." Moving on, Tagg stepped into the lead.

They had gone only a few steps when Tagg, his alert

young eyes scanning everywhere, saw something move.

It was something that protruded, curving downward,

from a crack between fallen stones. It was a tapered thing,

about as long as his arm. Dark and greenish, it was almost

invisible against the muted, mottled colors of the rubble

around it. But as his eyes passed over it, it twitched.

Tagg stopped, and the others bumped into him from

behind. Old Gandy tottered for a moment, then regained

his balance. Minna clung to Tagg, her pressure against

him totally distracting him. He decided at that moment

that any time Minna wanted to bump into him, it was all

right as far as he was concerned.

"Why Tagg stop?" Gandy snapped. "I nearly fall

down."

"Okay," Tagg murmured, paying no attention at all to

the elder. "That fine."

"Not fine!" Gandy pointed out. "S'posed to be lookin'

for food, not foolin' aroun'. You!" He nudged Minna with

his mop handle. "Leggo Tagg. Stop th' foolishness!"

"Oh." Minna backed away, shrugging. "Okay."

With a sigh, Tagg turned to go on, then saw the thing

he had seen before. The thing that twitched. He pointed at

it. "What that? Maybe food?"

They gathered close, and Gandy bent for a better look.

The thing was sticking out of a small crevice in the rubble.

It was hard to tell in the subdued light, but it seemed to be

round and tapered, with a sort of sharp ridge running along

the top of it. Its color was dark green. And as they stared

at it, it twitched again.

They stumbled back, wary.

"What it is?" Tagg asked.

Gandy peered again. "Dunno. Maybe half a snake?"

"Might be." Tagg approached it carefully, thrust out

his arm and prodded the thing with his finger, then jerked

away. When he touched it, it writhed with a motion that

was more than a twitch. Like the tail of a huge rat, it

swayed this way and that. But it seemed otherwise

harmless. Whatever might be at the other end of it, this

end had no teeth or claws.

"This food?" Tagg asked the Grand Notioner.

"Might be," Gandy decided. "Snake okay for stew

sometimes, if not bitter. Check it out."

"What?"

"TASTE it. See if it bitter."

Reluctantly, Tagg approached the thing again,

grasping it with both hands. It writhed and struggled in his

grip. Whatever it was, it was very strong. But he held on,

and when it seemed a bit subdued, he lowered his head,

opened his mouth and bit it as hard as he could.

Abruptly, the thing flicked and surged, flipping Tagg

across the jagged tunnel into the far wall. And all around

them, seeming to come from the stone itself, a huge roar

of outrage rang through the air.

Tagg got his feet under him just as the Grand Notioner

surged toward him, running for his life, with Minna right

behind. Both of them collided with Tagg, and all three

went down, rolling along the cracked floor, a tumble of

arms, legs and muffled curses.

They had barely come to a halt when others - a lot of

others - piled into them, over them, and onto them. The

main party, led by the Highbulp Glitch I himself, had

been emerging from a connecting way when they heard

the roar and panicked. In an instant, there were gully

dwarves tumbling all along the tunnel, and a great pile of

gully dwarves at the convergence where Glitch I - and

everyone behind him - had stumbled over the flailing trio.

It took several minutes to get everyone untangled

from everyone else, and Tagg - at the bottom of the heap -

was thoroughly enjoying being tangled up with Minna

again until he looked up and gazed into the thunderous

face of his lord and leader, Glitch I, Highbulp by

Persuasion and Lord Protector of This Place and

Anyplace Else He Could Think Of.

Glitch glared at the three just getting to their feet.

"Gandy! What goin' on here?"

"Dunno," Gandy grumbled. "Ever'body pile up on

me. How I know what goin' on? Couldn' see a thing."

"Heard big noise," the Highbulp pressed. "You do

that?"

"Not me," Gandy shook his head. He pointed an

accusing mop handle at Tagg. "His fault. He do it."

"Do what?"

"Snakebite."

Feeling that he should explain, Tagg pointed up the

corridor. "Somethin' stickin' out over there. Like half a

snake. Tasted it to see if it bitter."

The Highbulp squinted at the twitching thing. "Is it?"

The earlier roar had faded into echoes, leaving an

angry, hissing sound that seemed to come from nowhere

in particular.

"Is now, sounds like." Tagg nodded.

Cautiously, the clans of Bulp gathered around the

green thing protruding from the rubble. Glitch scrutinized

it carefully, first from one side, then from the other, then

beckoned. "Clout, come here. Bring bashin' tool."

A squat, broad-shouldered gully dwarf stepped

forward uncertainly. On his shoulder he carried a heavy

stick about three feet long.

Glitch pointed at the twitching thing. "Clout, bash

snake."

Clout looked doubtful, but he did as he was told.

Raising his stick over his head, he brought it down against

the twitching thing with all his might. This time the roar

that erupted, somewhere beyond the rockfall, was a shriek

of sheer indignation. Stones trembled and grated, dust

spewed from crevices, and the entire wall of fallen rock

began to shift. The twitching green thing disappeared,

withdrawn into the rubble, and massive movements

beyond sent fragments flying from the rocks there. All

around, the debris shifted and settled, closing crevices and

escape tunnels.

As gully dwarves scampered back, falling and

sprawling over one another, the entire wall of rubble

parted, and in the settling dust a huge, scaled face glared

out. Slitted green eyes as bright as emeralds shone with

anger, and a mouth the size of a salt mine opened to reveal

rows of dripping, glistening fangs. The scale crest atop the

head flared forward, and the head was raised to strike.

Then the emerald eyes widened slightly and the mouth

closed to a grimace.

"Gully dwarves," Verden Leafglow hissed, her voice

laced with pain and contempt. "Nothing but gully

dwarves."

 

*****

 

For a time, she simply ignored them. Their pleas for

mercy, the smell of their fear, the cowering huddles of

them here and there in the shadows, were dimly pleasant

to her, an undertone like music, soothing in its way.

A gaggle of gully dwarves. They could do her - a

powerful green dragon - no harm. They could not get

away - all the exits they might reach were sealed by

rockfall - and at the moment, she decided, they were not

worth the effort it would take to crush them. So she

ignored them, concentrating instead on her wounds. The

indignities of a bitten and thumped tail rankled her, but

she could deal with the perpetrators later, when she was

stronger. They were trapped here in the rubble with her.

They had nowhere to go.

The saw-edged disk had ripped into her body,

bringing her down in the rubble. In the darkness of the

fallen castle, almost buried by debris, she had lain

bleeding as the armies of the Dragon Queen passed by -

passing, she thought bitterly, and leaving her behind. For

that, she would not forgive Flame Searclaw. The huge,

arrogant red dragon with his preoccupied human rider, had

known she was there. In her mind, clearly, had been his

dragon-voice, chiding and taunting her.

Her left wing hung useless beside her, her left

foreclaw was terribly maimed and it had been all she

could do - through spells and sheer concentration - to

close the gaping slash at the base of her neck. That wound

alone could have killed her, had her powers been less.

Still, the healing was slow, painful, and incomplete. In

ripping through the armored scales at her breast, the disk

had cut her potion flask - hidden beneath the scales - and

carried away the precious self-stone concealed there. It

was gone, somewhere among the rubble, and without it the

powerful green dragon lacked the magic to reshape her

maimed parts. The ultimate healing power was beyond

her, without her self-stone.

Focusing all of her concentration upon the damaged

parts of her, she drew what strength she had and applied it

to healing. And when the effort tired her, she slept.

 

*****

 

When their initial blind panic began to fade, replaced

by simple dread and awe, the subjects of Glitch I -

Highbulp by Persuasion and Lord Protector of This Place,

Etc. - turned to their leader for advice. They had to find

him first, though. At first sight of the apparition that had

appeared in the shifting rubble, Glitch had darted through

the first several ranks of his subjects, crawled over, around

and under several more layers of panicked personnel, and

finally wedged himself into a crack behind all of them.

Getting him out was a task made more difficult by the fact

that he did not want to come out.

Finally, though, he stood among them, gawking at the

huge, green, sleeping head of the thing in the hole only a

few feet away. "Wha . . ." He choked, coughed and tried

again. "Wha . . . what that thing?"

Most of them looked at him blankly. Some shrugged

and some shook their heads.

"That not snake," Tagg informed his leader. "Not stew

stuff, either."

Emboldened by the Highbulp's restored presence, old

Gandy, the Grand Notioner, crept a step or two closer to

the sleeping thing and raised his mop handle as though to

prod it. He changed his mind, lowered his stick and leaned

on it, squinting. "Dragon?" he wondered. "Might be.

Anybody here ever see dragons?"

No one recalled ever seeing a dragon, and most were

sure that they would remember, if they had.

Then Tagg had a bright idea. "Dragons got wings," he

said, adding, doubtfully, "don't they?"

"Right," Gandy agreed. "Dragons got wings. This

thing got wings?"

Some of them crept about, trying to see around the

huge head in the hole, to see what was beyond it. But the

dim light filtering in from above did not reach into the

hole. There was only darkness there. They couldn't see

whether the creature had wings or not.

"Somebody bring candle," Glitch I ordered. "Highbulp

find out."

With glances of surprise and admiration at such

unexpected courage, several of them produced stubby and

broken candles, and someone managed to light one. He

handed it to Glitch. The Highbulp held it high, stood on

tiptoes and peered into the darkness of the hole. Then he

shook his head and handed the candle to Tagg, who

happened to be nearby. "Can't see," he said. "Tagg go

look."

Taken by surprise, Tagg looked from the candle thrust

into his hand to the fierce, sleeping features of the thing in

the hole. He turned pale, gulped and started to shake his

head, then saw Minna in the crowd. She was gazing at him

with something in her eyes that might have been more

than the candle's reflection.

Tagg gulped a shuddering breath, steeling himself.

"Rats," he said. "Okay."

The huge, green head almost filled the hole in the wall

of rubble. As Tagg eased alongside it, his back to the

stones at one side, he could have reached out and touched

the nearest nostril, the exposed dagger-points of the great

fangs, the glistening eyelid. The spiked fan of the

creature's graceful crest stood above him as he crept

deeper, edging alongside a long, tapered neck that was

nearly as wide as he was tall and seemed to go on and on,

into the darkness.

"Tagg pretty brave," Minna whispered as they

watched him go. Instinctively, her hand went into her belt

pouch and clutched the pretty bauble Tagg had found for

her. Her fingers caressed it, and the great, sleeping

creature stirred slightly, then relaxed again in sleep.

"Not brave," Gandy corrected. "Just dumb. Highbulp

gonna get Tagg killed, sure."

Tagg crept through sundered rubble, just inches away

from the big green neck that almost filled the tunnel. Then

he was past the rubble, and raised the candle. The place

where he found himself was some kind of cavern, beneath

a rise in the sundered hill above. It was dim and smelled

musty, and was nearly filled by the huge body of the

green creature.

Where the thing's neck joined an enormous, rising

body, Tagg spotted ugly, gaping wounds in the scales. He

stared at them in awe, then beyond them, and his eyes

widened even more. The green thing was huge. Arms like

scaly pillars rested below massive shoulders, and ended in

taloned "hands" as big as he was - or bigger. The nearest

shoulder had another ugly wound, and the hand below it

was mangled as though it had been sliced apart.

He raised his eyes, squinting in the dim candlelight.

Above the thing, on its far side, stood a great, folded

wing. Nearer, a second wing sprawled back at an angle,

exposing yet another gaping wound.

"This thing in bad shape," Tagg whispered to himself.

"Pretty beat up."

The huge body towered over him and its crest was lost

in shadows above. Farther along, the body widened

abruptly, and he realized that what he was seeing was a

leg - a huge leg, folded in rest. Beneath it was a toed foot

with claws as long as his arms. Beyond, curled around

from behind, was the tip of a long tail. He recognized that

appendage now. It was what he had bitten, when he

thought it might be half a snake. The recollection set his

knees aquiver and he almost fell down.

Tagg's nerves had taken all they could stand. He had

seen enough. He headed back.

Just as he was edging past it, the nearest eye opened an

inch, and its slitted pupil looked at him. With a howl,

Tagg erupted from the hole, bowling over a half-dozen

curious gully dwarves in the process. Behind him, the

great eyelid flickered contemptuously, and closed again.

As Tagg got to his feet, Glitch stepped forward.

"Well?"

"Well, what?"

"Well . . ." Glitch hesitated in confusion, trying to

recall what he had sent Tagg to do.

"That thing got wings?" Gandy rasped.

"It got wings, all right. Got claws an' tail an' gashes,

too." Recovering his candle, Tagg handed it back to

Glitch. "Highbulp want any more look, Highbulp go look.

I"ve seen enough."

"Gashes?" Gandy blinked. "What kind gashes?"

"That dragon all sliced up," Tagg told him.

"Somebody hurt it pretty bad."

Minna eased up beside him, gazing with sympathy at

the hideous face of the green dragon asleep a few feet

away. "Poor thing," she said.

As she spoke, the dragon's eyes opened to slits, then

closed again. It shifted slightly, sighed, and seemed to

relax, as though the pain of its wounds had somehow

eased a bit.

For an hour, then, they searched for a way out of the

rubble trap. They found nothing - at least, nothing they

could reach without going past the dragon. The shifting of

the beast in its lair had resettled the fallen stone, blocking

every exit. One after another, the searchers gave up,

shrugging and gathering into a tight little group as far

from the dragon as they could get.

When it was obvious that they were truly trapped, Clout

asked - of no one in particular - "So, now what?"

Gandy scratched his head and leaned on his mop

handle. "Dunno," he said. "Better ask what's-'is- name."

"Who?"

"WHAT'S-'is-name. Th' Highbulp " He turned.

"Highbulp, what we do now?" He peered around in the

dimness. "Highbulp? Where th' Highbulp?"

It took a few minutes to find him. With nothing better

to do. Glitch I had curled up beside a rock. He was sound

asleep.

 

*****

 

They were all asleep when Verden Leafglow

awakened - gully dwarves everywhere, scattered in

clumps and clusters about the dim recess, most of them

snoring. At a glance, she counted more than sixty of the

little creatures in plain sight, and knew there were more of

them behind rocks, in the shadows, and beneath or

beyond the sleeping heaps. One of them, she knew, had

even crept past her into her lair, thinking that in sleep she

might not notice. But it had only looked around and

returned to the others.

Her first inclination was to simply exterminate them.

But she had a better idea. They might be useful to her, if

she kept them alive for a time - and if she could make

them serve her.

Gully dwarves. Her contempt for them was even

greater than the contempt most other races felt for the

Aghar. As a dragon, she loathed ALL other races, and

these were certainly the most contemptible of the

contemptible. Even compared to the intelligence of

humans, full dwarves, and others of the kind, the

mentality of gully dwarves was so incredibly simple that

it bordered on imbecility. And compared to dragon

intelligence, it was nothing at all.

Still, the pathetic creatures had certain instincts that

might be useful. They were excellent foragers, adept at

getting into and searching out places that others might not

even know existed. And they were good at finding things,

provided they managed to concentrate their attention on

the effort for any length of time.

Somewhere here, among the rubble of the destroyed

city of Chaldis, was her self-stone. In her sleep she had

sensed its presence. With her self-stone, she could heal

herself completely. Properly motivated, the gully dwarves

might find and deliver the self-stone.

Closing her eyes, she thought a spell, and her dragon-

senses heard the beginnings of tiny movements among the

rubble beyond the rock-fall cavern where the gully

dwarves were trapped. Tiny, scurrying sounds, hints of

movement carried more by vibration in the stones than by

any real noise. She concentrated on the spell, and the hints

of movement increased in number and volume. She added

a dimension of difference to the spell, and other

movements could be sensed; slithering, scuffing

movements seeming to come from the soil above her lair.

The vibrations became true sound, and things scuttled

in the deepest shadows within the chamber. From cracks

and crevices everywhere, small things emerged, coming

toward her. Rats and mice, here and there a squirrel, a

rabbit or a hare - they emerged by the dozens, answering

the call of her spell.

For a moment it seemed the place was filled with

rodents, darting around and over the tumbles of sleeping

gully dwarves, then they were all directly in front of her.

Moving carefully, ignoring the pain of her injuries, she

thrust out her right paw, and its talons sliced downward,

slaughtering great numbers of the rodents. Using her tail,

she scraped the ceiling of her lair, and brought forth the

herbs and roots that hung there, drawn downward from

above by her magic. These she pushed from tail to foot to

forepaw, and deposited them in front of her hole, beside

the dead rodents there. A final twist to the spell, and rocks

moved, somewhere above. Seconds later, water began to

drip from the roof of rubble, a small spring diverted to

flow through the chamber. And a small, crackling fire

appeared in mid-chamber.

"Wake up, you detestable creatures," Verden Leafglow

rumbled. "Wake up and make stew. You are no good to

me if you starve."

 

*****

 

"Sure. We find thing for you. No problem. What thing

is?" Glitch I stifled a belch and grinned a reassuring grin at

the monstrous face looking at him from its hole.

After the first shock of sharing a closed cave of

rubble with a dragon had worn off, and when it became

obvious that the dragon didn't intend to kill them and eat

them - at least not right away - the Clans of Bulp had

gotten down to business. First things first. They were

hungry, and there was food.

Within minutes, savory stew was bubbling in their

best pot over what - to some of the ladies especially - was

the most remarkable cooking fire they had ever

encountered. The fire seemed to have no fuel, nor to need

any, and none of them had ever seen stew become stew so

quickly.

Then, when their bellies were full, the dragon

explained to them what she needed. She seemed, despite

her great size and horrendous appearance, to be a pleasant

enough dragon. Her voice was low and comforting, her

words simple enough for most of them to understand and

she even managed to seem to smile now and then. Quite a

few of them discovered - without ever considering that

there might be a touch of magic involved here - that they

were really quite fond of the unfortunate Verden Leaf

glow.

"The thing I need is a small thing," she told the

Highbulp. "It is a sort of stone, about this big. ..." A huge,

three-fingered "hand" with needle-sharp talons a foot long

appeared beside the green face, two talons indicating a

size. About an inch and a half.

"Lotta stones 'round here," Glitch said dubiously,

looking around the cavern. "Whole lot more outside,

though. Oughtta look outside of here."

"By all means," Verden agreed. "Outside, of course.

And I am sure that, once you are outside, you wouldn't for

a minute consider just going off and leaving me, would

you?"

"Nope," Glitch shook his head, speaking just a bit too

loudly. "Nope, wouldn' do that. Sure wouldn'."

"Of course you wouldn't," Verden said softly.

"Because that would be very unwise."

"Sure would," Glitch agreed emphatically. Then his

face twisted in confusion. "How come not wise?"

"Because only a few of you will go out to search," the

dragon hissed. Suddenly, as subtly as the narrowing of her

eyes, all hints of the "friendly" dragon were gone and the

gully dwarves saw Verden Leaf glow as she really was.

"All the rest will remain here," she said, "with me."

As they cowered away from her, she pointed with a

huge talon. "You," she said, pointing at old Gandy. "You

will search. And you." This time she pointed at Tagg.

"You two, and three more. The rest stay. The way out is

here" - a talon turned, pointing - "just behind my head."

Some of them crept closer to look. Just behind the

"hole," on her right side, was a crevice in the rubble. Tagg

grabbed Minna's hand and headed for the opening.

Abruptly, the dragon moved her head, blocking the way.

"Not the female," Verden hissed. "She stays."

Verden knew her choices were right. The old gully

dwarf with the mop handle staff was, within the limits of

Aghar intelligence, the smartest of them all. He would

search well, and he was the least likely to wander off. The

young male was the same one who had slid past her to

look into her lair. For his kind, he had a certain courage

and a degree of curiosity. And it was unlikely that he

would flee, as long as the dragon had the female he

favored.

She would also keep the one they called Highbulp.

The rest had a certain dim loyalty to him, she sensed -

probably more than he had to any of them.

She moved her head again. "Go. Now! Find the disk

that cut me. The stone should be nearby."

Tagg and Gandy darted past the dragon's jaws and

through the opening, Tagg glancing back at Minna with

frightened eyes. As soon as they were out, others hurried

to follow them. Verden let three others pass, then blocked

the way again.

Verden relaxed. There was a chance the gully dwarves

would find the self-stone. It was somewhere nearby. She

could sense its presence, dimly. There was a chance they

would recover it for her. If not . . . well, then she would

just have to kill them and try to find it, herself.

As her eyes closed, the hostages began to chatter

among themselves. She ignored them, then opened one

eye in mild curiosity. "Promised place?" she murmured.

"What promised place?"

From his refuge behind a rank of his subjects, Glitch

peeked out at her. "P . . . Promised Place," he said. "Where

we s'posed to go. Our de . . . density."

"Density? You mean, destiny?"

"Right. Dest'ny."

"And where is the Promised Place?"

"Dunno," Glitch admitted. "Nobody know."

She closed her eye again, bored with the "density" of

gully dwarves. Within seconds she was asleep.

 

*****

 

With Clout and two others - Gogy and Plit -

following them, Gandy and Tagg made their way back to

where they had found the dented disk. The dragon had

said to look there, and they were in no mood to argue with

a dragon.

More than a day had passed. Maybe two or three

days, for all they knew. The smoke that had lingered

above the ruined city was gone now, blown away, and

only bleak rubble remained. But otherwise, things were as

they had been . . . almost. Rounding a turn in a ravine

among rubble, the five heard voices ahead. Clinging to

shadow, they crept forward to see who was there. Tagg

was the first to see, and he almost bowled the others over,

backpedaling. Talls," he whispered. "Sh!"

From the shadowed mouth of a "tunnel" where great

stones had fallen across the gaps between other stones,

they peered out.

The humans ahead of them were ragged and scarred.

There were two of them, and they were working

frantically at the great, tumbled skeleton of the fallen

discobel, turning its huge crank inch by inch as the long

throwing arm rose above them. Lying on its side, the

sidearm thing became a slanted pole, its outward end

creeping toward the sky above the sheer walls of rubble

around them.

"No business . . . comin' this way ... in the first place,"

one of them grunted, heaving at the windlass of the crank.

"Nothin' here . . . just ruins."

"Shut up!" the other hissed. "Your fault we ... fell in

this - canyon . . . now pull. . . harder . . . only way to ... get

out of here."

In the shadows. Clout whispered, "What Talls doin'?"

"Dunno," Gandy shrugged. "Tall stuff don' make

sense. Hush."

Slowly, out in the little clear area (which was, indeed,

like a deep canyon among sheer walls, if one looked at it

as a human would, not seeing the many avenues of exit

that were like highways to gully dwarves), the two men

labored at the discobel's windlass and the sling arm rose

inch by inch. Several times they had to stop and rest, but

finally the arm stood straight up, its tip only a few feet

from the nearest wall of stone.

The men looked up. "That'll do," one of them panted.

"Let's tie it off. I'd hate to have that thing trigger itself

while we're climbing up there."

The other paled at the thought, and trembled. "Gods,"

he muttered. "Splat!"

"Shut up and tie this thing off with something. Here,

what's this? The set-pin?" He picked up a sturdy cylinder

of worked hardwood, about three feet long, and glanced

from it to the barrel of the discobel. "Yeah, there's its slot.

Hold that windlass 'til I get this in place."

With the other bracing the windlass, he set the pin in

its slot and tapped it with a rock to firm it. The other eased

off on the crank, eased a bit more, then stood back,

sighing in relief. The pin held. The machine remained

motionless.

"Let's get out of here," one of them said. Gingerly, he

stepped to the base of the cranked-up arm and grasped it.

Using its guy-bars as hand- and foot-holds, he began to

climb. The other followed. From below, they looked like a

pair of squirrels climbing a huge tree trunk, except that

instead of branches, the trunk had triangles of cable

bracings, held outward by heavy wooden guy-bars. They

climbed higher and higher. At the top they hesitated, then

swung from the tip of the arm to the top of the jagged

wall, and disappeared from sight. Their voices faded, and

were gone.

"Wonder what that all about," Tagg muttered. He

scratched his head and looked around, puzzled. There was

something he was supposed to do, but he had become so

engrossed in watching the Talls that he had forgotten

what it was. The others had, too, but after a moment old

Gandy snapped his fingers. "Find stone for dragon," he

reminded them. "Stone 'bout this big."

They stepped out from the "tunnel" and peered

around. "Lotta stones 'bout that big, all over," Tagg

pointed out. "Which one?"

"Dunno," Gandy admitted. "Better take 'em all."

They set to work gathering small stones - all except

Clout, who had lost his bashing tool somewhere and felt

uncomfortable without it. He set about finding a new

bashing tool.

With Gandy selecting rocks, and Tagg, Plit, and

Gogy collecting them, they had a nice pile of stones going

by the time Clout found what he was looking for. It was a

sturdy cylinder of polished hardwood, resting among the

inexplicable vagaries of the great wooden device lying in

the rubble.

It was exactly what he wanted, but it seemed to be

stuck. He pulled at it, heaved at it, and it budged slightly

but would not come free. Frowning with determination,

he clambered out of the maze of timbers, found a good,

heavy stone, and went back in.

Clout had a philosophy of life - only one, but it had

always served him well. His philosophy was: if a thing

won't move when you want it to move, bash it.

From outside, they heard him hammering in there -

among the maze of timbers - and looked up. "What Clout

doin'?" Plit asked.

"Dunno," Gandy shrugged, frowning. "Not gettin'

stones, though."

The hammering went on, and then its ringing took on

a new sound. After each thud, something creaked, and far

above - though those below didn't notice it - the great

braced arm began to tremble.

"Almos' got it," Clout's voice came from the timbers.

He banged again, and again, and abruptly the whole

world went crazy. The entire maze of timbers groaned,

crackled and heaved upward, seeming to dance. And the

tall, heavy arm above shot downward, with such force that

the air sang around it. It arched toward the ground,

impelled by the released windlass, and smashed into the

soil only yards from where the other gully dwarves were

stacking their rocks.

The impact was enormous. Gully dwarves, rocks and

surrounding rubble flew upward. Partial walls that still

stood among the rubble teetered and fell, and a cloud of

dust rose to blank out everything from sight. Below the

dancing rubble, a deep, cavernous rumble sounded, and in

its echoes came a muted roar of surprise and outrage. The

very ground seemed to fall, resettling several feet lower

than it had been.

For a time there was silence, then the dust blanketing

the ground shifted and a small head came up. "Wha'

happen?" Tagg asked.

Around him, others arose from the dust, wide-eyed

and shaken. Plit and Gogy appeared first, then old Gandy,

coughing and spitting dust.

"Wha' happen?" someone echoed Tagg's question.

Gandy looked around, bewildered. Then he looked up

and blinked. "Fling-thing fall down," he said.

Not far away, the maze of timbers that had been a

discobel was now an entirely different maze. It had rolled

over, its timbers realigning in the process. At first the

gully dwarves could see no movement there, then there

were scuffing sounds and Clout appeared, crawling from a

gap between broken spars. He got out, dusted himself off

and blinked at the rest of them.

"Where Clout been?" Gandy demanded.

Clout held up a sturdy cylinder of polished wood. "Got

new bashin' tool," he explained. "Wha' happen out here?"

The carefully-collected pile of rocks was gone -

scattered all over the clearing. Gandy sighed and began

again to pick up stones. The others watched for a moment,

then joined him. And as other gully dwarves appeared,

chattering, Gandy silenced them with a glare. "No talk,"

he snapped. "Get rocks."

Soon there were dozens of them there, all busily

picking up stones. And then more, and then still more.

Suddenly, Tagg glanced around and saw Minna

beside him, gathering rocks. He blinked, frowned and

remembered. "What Minna doin' out here?" he asked.

"Gettin' little rocks," she explained. "Somebody say

to."

"Where dragon? Let everybody go?"

"Hole fall down," she said. "Dragon can't move. Foun'

new gully, though, for come out."

"Oh." He looked around. There were gully dwarves

everywhere, all collecting stones. But to Tagg, that didn't

seem quite as important as it had before. He went and

found Gandy, and explained the situation to him. "Dragon

don' got everybody anymore." he said. "Look."

It took a lot longer for Gandy to get everyone to stop

collecting rocks than it had taken to get them to start.

Inertia is a powerful force among gully dwarves. But

finally they were all gathered around Gandy and someone

asked, "What we do now?"

"Dunno," he said. "Ask Highbulp." He turned full

circle, searching. "Where what's-'is-name?"

"Who?"

"Th' Highbulp! Ol' Glitch. Where th' Highbulp?"

None of them knew, so they went looking for Glitch I.

They found him, eventually, right where they had left

him.

Glitch had slept through the "earthquake," only to

wake up and find everyone gone. He sat up, rubbed his

eyes and noticed that the stones had shifted and a new

tunnel had opened. So he headed that way, grumbling. It

was just like his subjects to wander off and leave their

leader to catch up when he got around to it.

He was just ducking to step through the opening when

a voice behind him said, "Oh, all right! Let's make a

deal!"

At first he couldn't see who had spoken. Sometime

during his nap, a whole new rockfall seemed to have

filled about half of the cavern. Huge slabs of stone had

crashed down from above, and torrents of gravel with

them. He peered here and there, then found the speaker: a

big, angry green eye stared back at him from the depths of

a crevice among the stone.

"Who that?" Glitch asked, backing hastily away.

"Verden Leafglow, you little imbecile!" The crackling

voice subsided into a rasp of resignation. "I'm ready to

make a deal."

"What kin' deal?" He hugged the cavern wall, ready to

flee at an instant.

"I'm trapped here," the dragon voice admitted. "The

hill fell in on me, and I can't move." The statement wasn't

entirely true. She knew she could fight free if she had to,

but the effort it would take to get loose - in her condition -

might kill her. "I need help," she said.

The Highbulp relaxed slightly. "What kin' help?"

"The same thing I needed before!" the answer was

almost a roar of aggravation. Then the dragon sighed and

lowered her voice. "My self-stone. I told you about my

self-stone. Remember?"

It took a bit of head-scratching, but then the Highbulp

remembered. "Little stone? 'Bout this big? Special stone?"

"That's the one. I need it, and I need you and your . . .

your people to find it for me."

The Highbulp scowled in deep thought, scuffing the

ground with his toe. Then his eyes lighted with a shrewd

look. "What in it for me?" he asked.

The deep growl that seeped through the fallen stone

mixed irritation and controlled rage, but Verden held

herself in check. She was trapped, but not helpless. It

would be the work of a moment to free a claw and rend

the arrogant little nuisance to shreds. But that wouldn't

solve her problem. "What do you want?" she asked.

 

*****

 

When the rest of his tribe found him - right where they

had left him - Glitch I, Highbulp Etc., was sitting on a

rock in the rockfall cavern, his chin resting on his

knuckles. At first, he seemed to be deep in thought; then

the other dwarves noticed that he was asleep.

They gathered around him, curious. Old Gandy

walked around him, then prodded him with his mop

handle staff to get his attention. "What Highbulp doin'?"

he asked.

Glitch blinked, raised his head and looked around.

"What?"

"Why Highbulp sittin' here?"

"Thinkin'," Glitch said, irritated at being awakened.

"Highbulp doin' big think."

"Soun' 'sleep, thinkin'? Think 'bout what?"

Glitch scratched his head, trying to remember what he

had been thinking about. From the shadowed rockfall

beyond, a voice thin with exasperation said, "He's trying

to decide what he wants from me."

The voice so startled the gully dwarves that several of

them tripped over others, and for a moment the place was

a tumble of confusion. Then Gandy stooped to look under

the rocks. "Dragon? That still you?"

"It's still me," Verden Leaf glow assured him. "I can't

believe that little oaf went to sleep. I thought he was

thinking."

"Highbulp always go to sleep, when try to think,"

Gandy explained. "Think about what?"

"I am prepared to offer you stinking little . . . you

people . . . something that you want, in return for delivery

of my self-stone. SO WHAT IN THE NAME OF THE

GODS IS IT THAT YOU WANT?"

Gully dwarves tumbled about again, some diving for

cover, some running for the exit. With a hiss, Verden

exhaled a jet of noxious vapor - just a small stream, but

aimed directly at the exit tunnel. Gully dwarves darting

into the mist recoiled, gasping and coughing, tumbling

backward as the green fumes assailed them. "No running

away!" Verden commanded. "We are going to settle this,

here and now! Tell me what you idiots want."

The Grand Notioner looked around him, puzzled.

"Want? Dunno. Anybody know what we want?"

"Stew," several offered. "Out," a few others said.

"Rats?" someone wondered.

"Make up your minds," the dragon hissed.

"We find self-stone, give to you, you give us

somethin'?" Gandy pressed, trying to get it clear.

"Yes."

"What you give us?"

"I DON'T KNOW! I'M TRYING TO GET YOU TO . . .

!"

Gully dwarves were diving, tumbling and rolling

everywhere. The Highbulp tried to hide behind the stew

pot, then sniffed at its aroma and realized that he was

hungry.

With an effort, Verden lowered her voice again,

speaking very slowly.

"I... am . . . trying ... to ... find . . . out . . . what . . .

you . . . want," she said.

Gandy peeped out from behind a rock. "Oh," he said.

"Okay. Highbulp, what we want?"

Glitch didn't respond. He was busy eating stew.

Something akin to inspiration tugged at Tagg's mind,

possibly stirred up by realizing that Minna was beside

him, holding his hand. "Maybe what we always lookin'

for is what we want," he suggested.

Gandy glanced around. "What that?"

"Promised Place. Seem like we always lookin' for

Promised Place."

"Mebbe so," Gandy nodded. To the dragon, he said,

"We get you stone, you lead us to Promised Place?"

"Yes," she agreed, sighing. "Where is it?"

"Dunno," he said. "Hopin' you'd know."

"Rats," the dragon muttered.

"Rats, too," Gandy pressed. "Throw in some rats."

"All right! It's a deal."

Gandy crept nearer to the rockfall and leaned down to

peer into the depths. A big, green eye looked back at him.

"You say true?" Gandy asked.

The dragon glared at him, then sighed. "I say true.

Have I ever lied to you?"

"Okay," Gandy decided. "When Highbulp finish

eatin', somebody tell him he decided what we want. We

get little rock for this dragon, we go to Promised Place."

Within moments, there were gully dwarves filing

through the exit, all telling one another, "Find little rock,

'bout this big."

Tagg started to follow them, but Minna pulled him

back. Still holding his hand, she crept toward the rockfall

and looked beneath. "How come dragon make deal with

us?" she asked.

"My lair collapsed," Verden said.

"Oh," Minna breathed. Again she looked into the

depths of the fallen rock, at the great, green eye looking

back at her. "Oh. Poor thing." Sympathetic and truly

concerned, she reached into her belt pouch and brought

out her finest treasure, the little bauble given to her by

Tagg. "Poor dragon," she said. "Here. Here a pretty thing

for you."

She reached the bauble toward the hole, and the green

eye brightened. The dragon voice hissed, "That's it! It's

mine!" A talon shot upward, spraying rock fragments into

the cavern.

Tagg tumbled back, pulling Minna with him. She lost

her hold on the self-stone, and it arced upward, then down.

There was a splash, and Glitch snapped, "Watch it!

Highbulp eatin'!" Glaring, he swigged another mouthful of

stew, gulped it down and grumped, "How come stew got

rocks in it?"

"My self-stone!" Verden Leafglow shrieked. "You . . .

you SWALLOWED my self-stone!" Rocks erupted again,

and a gigantic clawed arm emerged. For a second, huge

talons flexed above the horrified Highbulp, then Verden

hissed with frustration and pulled back her claws. The

little nuisance might be nothing but a gully dwarf, but he

was a living thing. And her self-stone was inside him. The

self-stone, with its affinity for life.

If he died with the self-stone inside him, the crystal

would be destroyed.

 

*****

 

Under smoky skies, across a war-ravaged land, the

combined clans of Bulp made their way out from Chaldis

and into the vast reaches of the Kharolis Mountains, ever

onward and ever upward, led by a thirty-six-foot-long

green dragon who carried a Highbulp at her breast.

Verden Leafglow was not happy about the situation. As

a guide for the puny creatures she so despised, she felt

humiliated and degraded. She longed to simply splash

their blood all over the nearest mountainside. She dreamed

of doing that, but she did not do it. She was stuck with

them. By holding Glitch I - and the self-stone within him -

close to her breast, she had managed a temporary healing

of her wounds. But it was only temporary, until she had

her self-stone back, intact and uningested.

She needed the detestable little imbecile, and he knew

it. At first, the sheer terror of being gripped in dragon

claws and pressed against a dragon's breast had almost

killed him. A more complex individual probably would

have died from compounded fright and shock. Glitch had

only screamed and passed out.

Since then, though, he had decided that he enjoyed

being carried around by a dragon, and seemed to be doing

everything in his power to maintain the status quo.

Whether by his own doing or by simple luck, Glitch had

kept Verden's self-stone lodged somewhere inside him for

nearly a week. Through sheer stubborn perversity, it

seemed, Glitch I had become constipated, and seemed

determined to remain that way until Verden delivered him

and his subjects to their Promised Place. She couldn't kill

him, she couldn't dispose of him - each time she let go of

him for more than an hour, her wounds began to open

again - and she couldn't separate him from the rest without

chancing that he would somehow disgorge the stone and

lose it.

The self-stone in his belly was the Highbulp's

guarantee, and the arrogant little pest knew it. Somehow,

through all the days and all the stews, the self-stone

remained inside Glitch as though it were glued there.

Their Promised Place. They didn't know where it was,

or even what it was, but Glitch I was basking in his new-

found glory as a dragon owner, and would settle for

nothing less than the perfect spot. He had become

downright obnoxious about it. Into the region of Itzan Nul

she led them, and there - as the Aghar slept under bright

moons - a familiar dragon-voice came again to Verden,

speaking within her mind. "You have survived," it said. "I

wondered if you would."

"No thanks to you, Flame Searclaw," she responded

in kind, hatred riding on the thoughts. "You left me back

there. You knew I was there, and you left me to die."

"You were injured and useless." The red dragon's mind-

voice seemed almost to yawn with disinterest. "There are

uses for you, now, though. The armies are . . ."

"Don't speak to me of uses," Verden shot, hot rage

edging the thoughts. "You and I have much to settle ... as

soon as I am free to come for you."

"You have a duty.. .." Searclaw's thoughts were

scathing.

"Begone!" Verden thought, blanking out the mind-

talk.

She would not forget her "duty." But first she must

retrieve her self-stone. She must deliver these useless

gully dwarves to their Promised Place. Visions of

slaughter danced in her mind as she thought of the

moment when her precious talisman was safe once more.

The Highbulp and all the rest . . . how she would make

them suffer when they were no longer needed. But first . .

.

Where might it be - the place they would accept as

their Promised Place? There were many places -

abandoned places, devastated places, places where no one

now lived or might ever want to live again. Such, logic

said, was a fair definition of a Promised Place for gully

dwarves. So Verden led them, on and on, as the days

passed. Past the fortress realm of Thorbardin, through

wilderness and uncharted lands, beyond Pax Tharkas they

journeyed, skirting the beleaguered realms of elf and man.

As she scouted aloft, carrying Glitch I at her breast,

the voice of Flame Searclaw again sought her out. Cruel

and impatient, its tones as fiery as the ruby scales that

flashed when he flew, the red dragon penetrated her mind

with his distant voice. "What are you doing?" he

demanded. "You were told to come, but you are not here.

Report!"

"You should be glad I have not come to you, Flame

Sear-claw," she shot back, fiercely. "We have a score to

settle, you and I."

"Any time you like, green snake," his voice was

contemptuous. "But first, you have a duty. Why are you

not here?"

"I can't come," she admitted. "Not just yet. There are

these . . . these creatures. They have a hold on me, and

insist that I lead them . . . somewhere."

"Creatures?"

In her mind she felt the red dragon's presence, sensing

beyond what she had said. Then it recoiled in disbelief.

"GULLY DWARVES? You, the great Verden Leafglow, a

hostage to ... to gully dwarves?" Cruel laughter echoed in

the mind-talk. "What is it they want of you?"

"To take them to their Promised Place. But they don't

know where that is!"

"Gully dwarves." Again the cruel, shadowy laughter.

"Hurry and deal with your . . . with your new masters,

Verden Leafglow. Your presence here is commanded."

The mind-voice faded and Verden trembled with rage.

"Ouch!"

She glanced down at the struggling Highbulp. "What?"

"You squishin' me! Don' squeeze so hard!"

You little twit, she thought. I could squeeze the very

life out of you with no effort at all. Still, she sensed the

self-stone lodged inside the little creature, responding to

his discomfort. HER self-stone. It must be protected.

Reluctantly, she eased her grip.

Everywhere, the dragonarmies were on the move, and

Verden Leafglow ached to join them - to join in the death

and destruction they brought. She itched for the sport of it.

A dozen times, holding the smelly, irritating little

Highbulp to her breast, she led them to dismal, deserted,

unwanted places - splendid places for gully dwarves. But

each time, Glitch I, the Highbulp, took a slow, arrogant

look around and said, "Nope, this not it. Try again."

Verden thought longingly of how pleasant it would be

to slice the strutting little twit into a thousand bloody

chunks and scatter him all over Ansalon. But for the self-

stone lodged within him . . .

"Not Promised Place," he insisted, time and again.

"Nope, this place okay for This Place, but not Promised

Place. Dragon promise Promised Place. Try again."

Beyond the Kharolis', while her unwanted charges

slept beneath the visible moons, a thoroughly exasperated

Verden Leafglow took Glitch and went scouting. On great

wings, fully healed if only temporarily, she soared high in

the night sky. All her senses at full pitch, she searched,

and where ancient scars creased the shattered land, the

mind-talk came again.

Like a taunting, contemptuous message, hanging in the

air, waiting for her to hear it, it was there. Flame

Searclaw's voice, from far away. A chuckle of evil mirth,

and words.

"So they still possess you," it said. "The least among

the least, they search for their heritage. And Verden

Leafglow is their slave. How marvelous. There is an

answer to your riddle, though."

"Continue." Verden Leafglow sneered mentally. "You

have my attention."

"Destiny," the non-voice snickered. "A Highbulp of

destiny. And one such as you to guide him. How

exquisite."

Verden growled in fury, but listened.

"Xak Tsaroth," the dragon voice said. "Xak Tsaroth is

a suitable Promised Place. Xak Tsaroth. The Pitt. They

belong there. Let the Pitt be their destiny. And delivering

them to such a place, at such a time, is your reward."

With a final chuckle of deep, taunting amusement, the

voice of Flame Searclaw repeated, "Xak Tsaroth . . . the

Pitt . . ." and faded.

Xak Tsaroth. Soaring on wide wings, Verden looked

down at the Highbulp Glitch I, pressed to her breast. The

little twit had, of course, heard none of it. He was sound

asleep. Xak Tsaroth. Despite her hatred of Flame Searclaw

and the murderous rage she felt toward him, an evil

delight grew in Verden. Her reward, indeed. She knew

what was in Xak Tsaroth. There could be no finer revenge

on the gully dwarves than to deliver them there. Others of

their kind were there . . . enslaved, abused and at the

mercy of draconians. These should join them.

The idea was very sweet to her.

Verden Leafglow had returned to the combined clans

by the time they awakened. Like a great, serpentine pillar

of brilliant emerald, she towered above them. Her vast

wings were radiant in the morning sun and her formidable

fangs alight in her dragon mouth. Little Highbulp seemed

a ragged doll clenched at her breast. Huge and malevolent,

Verden Leafglow loomed over the puny creatures - and

shuddered with revulsion when one of them tripped

sleepily over her toe.

Without ceremony, she rousted them out and told

them, "I have found your Promised Place. Get a move on,

and I'll take you there."

"No hurry," Glitch squirmed in her grasp. "This place

not bad This Place. Maybe stay here a while, then go."

"We go now," she hissed.

Gandy squinted up at her. "Where is Promised Place?"

"Xak Tsaroth."

"Bless dragon," Minna said.

"What?"

"Dragon sneeze."

"I did not sneeze! I never sneeze. I said, 'Xak

Tsaroth'."

"Bless dragon," Minna repeated. "Where Promised

Place?"

Verden shook her head as though insects were

tormenting her. "The Pitt," she said.

All around her, gully dwarves glanced at one another

with real interest. "That sound pretty good," several

decided.

"Sound all right," Glitch conceded. "Maybe think 'bout

that, day or so, then . . ."

"SHUT UP!" Verden roared. "WE GO NOW!"

Never before - as far as anyone who might have cared

knew - had gully dwarves traveled as fast or as

purposefully as the combined clans of Bulp traveled

during the following two days. It was a nearly exhausted

band that gathered by evening's light to gaze on Xak

Tsaroth. They stood at the top of a high, sheared slope

above shadowed depths, and looked out at distant crags

beyond which were the waters of Newsea.

"The Promised Place," Verden Leafglow told them. "I

have brought you here, as I promised. I have kept my

word."

"Promised Place?" The Highbulp squinted around.

"Where?"

"Down there," Verden pointed downward with a

deadly, eloquent talon. "The Pitt." Not gently, she set

Glitch down and said, "This is it. Now cough up my

stone."

Tagg crept to the edge and looked down. It was a slope

of sheer rock, a vertiginous incline that dropped away into

shadows far below. "Wow," he said.

The Highbulp only glanced into the depths, then turned

away, an arrogant, scheming grin on his face. "Prob'ly not

it," he decided. "Nope, prob'ly not Promised Place. Better

try again." With a casual wave of his hand, he added,

"Dragon dis - dismiss for now. Highbulp send for you

when need you."

It was just too much for Verden Leaf glow. She had

taken more than she could stand. "Dismissed? You

imbecilic little twit, you dismiss we? Rats!"

Gully dwarves backpedaled all around her, tumbling

over one another. Some went over the edge, sliding and

rolling away toward the shadowed depths. Others turned

to watch them go. "They really movin'," someone said.

"That steep." "Smooth, though," another noted. "Good

slide."

"RATS!" Verden roared again, exasperated beyond

reason and reverting to the vernacular of her charges.

"RATS!" Annoyed beyond control, she aimed a swat at

Glitch. The Highbulp dodged aside, ducked . . . and

belched. Something shot from his mouth, to bounce to a

stop at Verden's foot. She scooped it up. It was her self-

stone. She had it back, intact.

"Rats," Gandy said, realizing that the good times were

over.

"That right," the Highbulp remembered, snapping his

fingers. "Rats, too. Dragon promise us rats."

"You . . . want. . . RATS?" The huge, dragon face

lowered itself, nose to nose with the little Highbulp. "You

want rats? Very well. You shall have rats."

Closing her eyes, she murmured a spell, and her

dragon-senses heard the scurrying of tiny things in the

distance - sounds below sound that grew in volume as

they came closer.

The gully dwarves heard it then, too, and stared about

in wonder. The sounds grew, seeming to come from

everywhere. Then there were little, dark shadows arrowing

toward them, emerging from crevices, coming over rises

and up gullies - dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of

small, scurrying things, homing in on them. Rats. A

leaping, bounding, flowing tide of rats.

"Wow," Tagg murmured.

"Lotta rats," Minna concurred. "Gonna make lotta stew,

for sure."

Clout, never one to be concerned with details,

brandished his bashing tool and prepared to deal with

dinner.

Gandy, though, took a different view of the matter,

"Too much rats," he started. "Way too much rats for . . ."

The tidal wave of rats swept around them, under

them, over them - and carried them with it. A second later,

Verden Leafglow stood alone on the ledge, looking down

at a slope awash with rats and gully dwarves, all gathering

momentum on their way to Xak Tsaroth, buried city

within the Pitt.

As they disappeared into shadows, her dragon eyes

picked out details: Tagg and Minna hand in hand, their

hair blowing around them; old Gandy flailing his mop

handle as he tried to maintain his balance at great speed;

Clout busily swatting rats and gathering up their corpses;

and the Highbulp - Glitch I was rolling, tumbling

downward, a flailing tangle of arms, legs and whipping

beard, and his panicked voice rose above the others.

"Make way!" he shouted. "Get outta way! Highbulp

on a roll!"

Somehow, even disappearing into the depths and the

shadows - and the unsuspected horrors - of the ancient,

lost city that was his destination and his destiny, Glitch I,

Highbulp by Persuasion and Lord Protector of Lots of

Places - including, now, the Promised Place - still

managed to sound arrogant.

 

Clockwork Hero

 

Jeff Grubb

 

This is a Gnome Story. Such stories turn up now and

again, around hearths and over cups of mulled wine. The

talespinner of a proper Gnome Story should always state

at the outset that his is a story of the gnomish type, so that

the listeners are not surprised by that which follows. The

Lower Planes hold no fury compared to that of an intent

and dutiful audience that suddenly discovers they are

trapped in a Gnome Story, with no escape other than the

bodily expulsion of the talespinner. Heads have been

broken, families split asunder, empires uprooted, and all

because of an unannounced Gnome Story.

This is a Gnome Story then, and that in itself is

considered fair and proper warning. And it is a Gnome

Story because it deals with, to a great degree, gnomes.

Gnomes, you see, have the boundless curiosity of men,

but lack the limitation of sense, the directness of thought,

or the wisdom to control this curiosity. This disposition

makes gnomes a vital part of talespinning, as much as the

country fool who proves to be the wisest person of the

party, or the holy man who arrives at the last minute to

resolve all the characters' problems. In a similar fashion,

gnomes - with their insatiable curiosity, their gleeful

cleverness, and their perseverance through frequent (and

dramatic) failure - serve as a guiding light, a beacon for

other races. In holding up their failings, their ramshackle

inventions and plots, we see more than a little of

ourselves, and consider ourselves cautioned against their

excesses. So gnomes have an important place in the

universe (at least fictionally), such that if gnomes did not

exist, they would demand to be invented, and nothing

short of another gnome could invent such a concept.

Fortunately for all, they do exist.

This, then, is a Gnome Story, with all of its vantages,

AD and DIS. It is an odd tale, in that it tells the story of a

gnome who succeeds, a gnome who creates a most

wondrous thing. But that is getting ahead of the tale.

Gnome Stories usually begin with the talespinner

speaking of some outsider stumbling onto the hidden land

of the gnomes. The idea of a hidden land of the gnomes is

usually an artistic "cheat," a stretching of the imagination,

since there are very few places more noisy, smoky,

smelly, and downright noticeable than a gnome

community. Incontinent volcanos or a week-long reunion

of gully dwarves would run a close second or third, and,

like a cluster of volcanoes or gaggle of gully dwarves, a

gnome community is generally well-noted by its neighbors

and left alone. It is, therefore, remote from the rest of

civilization, but at civilization's behest.

This particular gnome community - this talespinner

must assure you - was an extremely noisy place,

resounding with the clang of hammers, the hiss of

escaping steam, and the occasional explosion. The louder

the gnomes, the more remote their home, and this was a

most remote location indeed. So remote that the events of

the outside world - the return of dragons, the coming of

the Highlords and heroes, the war and all manner of

destruction - passed this place by. In short, it was the

perfect place to be an outsider, since there was much more

outside than inside.

The outsider in question was not the standard singular

found in most Gnome Stories, but rather two, a doubleton

of strangers, a windfall in terms of Gnome Stories. These

strangers had two things in common: they were from

outside this village of gnomes - yes, that's true - but more

important, they were first found sprawled in awkward but

comfortable-looking positions on the ground, next to a

large, formerly leather-winged form. Said form had earlier

been a dragon, but was now little more than an open buffet

for the local scavengers.

The outsiders were both alive, however. One was a

warrior wrapped head to toe in dark armor, while the other

was softer, plumper, unarmored, dressed in tattered finery

and bound firmly at the wrists and ankles. The warrior was

a woman, though this was not immediately apparent from

her armor; the one in ragged finery was a man. For

gnomes, gender is as unimportant as eye color or taste in

music, but since these are HUMAN outsiders, it will

become important. More on that later, because the gnome

had finally arrived on the scene to survey the damage. And

this is a Gnome Story.

It was a gnome named Kalifirkinshibirin who

discovered the comfortably sprawled outsiders outside (of

course) his village. Kalifirkinshibirin (or Kali, shortening

further a name already truncated due to space) was a

smallish gnome, whose hobbies included spoon-collecting

and putting dried flowers under glass. He also had what

passed for healing skill, being versed in some natural

poultices and potions that had the unique advantage

(among gnomes) of not killing his patients outright.

Kali was gathering ingredients for said potions and

poultices in that particular field on that particular morning,

and so, it fell to him to discover those particular remains

of that particular dragon, and the outsiders resting

comfortably nearby. He was definitely not in the field

because he was looking for new discoveries to be made,

new revelations to be revealed, or new objects to muck

about with. Kali was, to put it delicately, different from his

fellows.

No, better to strip away the kindness of language and

face this straight out. Kali was a queer duck among his

people. Most gnomes live to invent. They have fives, even

tens of projects in the works at the same time, one often

spilling into another at random. Gnomes see the world as

inherently wrong (not an unpopular sentiment), but

gnomes differ from the rest of the universe in that they

believe it is their job to set matters right. That's why they

invent - continually, relentlessly, and explosively - all

manner of gimcracks and snapperdoodles and

thingamabobs. It's the thing that gnomes just naturally do,

like breathing or taking tea.

But Kali didn't have that same sort of drive as his

fellows. He was pretty content in doing what he was doing

with potions and plants and poultices to relieve the

occasional outbreak of flu or bad colds. He had his

spoons/of course;

inscribed with wildflowers, legendary heroes, and

mythical animals (which was how he recognized the

dragon, by the by), but none of them were mechanical in

the least. He kept plans for a solar-powered lighthouse

about his parlor - for appearances - but he hadn't added to

them in years.

In short, Kali was an underachiever. (This was not a

criminal offense to Kali's fellow gnomes - they tended to

be understanding about it. Indeed, the fact that Kali's

healing methods would not vary from week to week did

something for his reputation as a healer).

In any event, it was Kali who found the outsiders. He

determined they were within the bounds of "still

breathing," and dragged the armored and unarmored forms

back to his house in the village. (This is important, for it

would make these outsiders - by custom - Kali's salvage

and Kali's responsibility.) By the time he brought the

second one (the unarmored, plumper, male one) back, a

small crowd of his fellow gnomes had gathered about his

front porch. They were armed with all manner of fearful-

looking devices, and a sharp gleam shone in each and

every eye.

To an outsider (particularly a human outsider), these

gnomes would appear to be a horde of evil torturers

prepared to initiate a cruel inquisition, but Kali recognized

that these were merely his fellow inventors. The devices

were hastily-assembled inventions that would straighten a

leg, lance an infection, or immobilize a thrashing patient

(the last invention was a necessity for experimental

surgery). The gleam that seemed so evil was only the

heartfelt and honest lust that every gnome feels when one

of his inventions might prove useful.

To an outsider, though, the gleam would look

undoubtedly and understandably malicious, and the size

and number of sharp edges on the devices would tend to

intensify said doubt. Were the two outsiders healthy, they

would not walk into this apparently dangerous realm

without at least a dozen more of their kind, and with a

healthy reward promised on the other side.

Kali was dragging the large, plumper figure onto his

porch when he found his way blocked. The first outsider,

the armored one, had awakened and now stood tottering in

the doorway. She looked dangerous and tall, and while the

last word could be attributed to all humans by all gnomes,

this one looked taller still, swaying in her blood-colored

leather boots like an improperly planted pine in the first

windstorm of spring. The impressive nature of this

outsider was further enhanced by the mass of her armor,

and the great horns that rose from her helm like the

misplaced pincers of some irate beetle.

The gathered gnomes set up a sigh of disappointment.

Apparently, her injuries were not serious.

The woman unlatched the toggles on her helmet and

removed it, revealing a sharp, angry face cradled in a scarf

of blood-red hair. Swaying as though the ground were on

unsteady terms with her, she scowled, then bellowed in a

wavering voice, "You are all to surrender or - "

She did not provide another option, for the weight of

her words unbalanced her and she crumbled neatly in the

doorway. It was obvious to all that she had suffered

greater damage than initially thought. She needed help.

The gathered gnomes were ecstatic.

The pair of humans - armored and unarmored, female

and male, soldier and well . . . the male was dressed like a

merchant, mage, or alchemist - rested in Kali's house for

five feverish days. Neither was strong enough to wake,

take food, or make demands. The man-merchant slept the

dreamless sleep of the dead, while the woman-warrior

shuddered with fits that brought her half-waking into the

pain of this world. During this time, Kali was forced to

convince more than one of his gnomish compatriots that a

newly invented device - such as the one to bore a small

hole in the forehead to witness their dreams - was

unnecessary, and proceeded to work his own craft upon

them. Kali's craft was healing, and he was quite good at

it... as gnomes go.

On the morning of the sixth day, Kali awoke to find

the tip of a sword at his throat. This was a surprise

because he normally kept such things as swords in a large

glass case marked "SWORDS" in the other room. Not

surprisingly, given the location of the sword, the woman-

warrior was at the opposite end. Kali had restrained the

pair in their sleep, so they would not hurt themselves in a

violent dream, but he had made their shackles of loose

cloth.

Too loose.

"Surrender or die," she hissed.

Kali gave careful (and rapid) thought to his options,

and asked her what she wanted for breakfast.

The news of Kali's surrender to the awakened outsider

moved through the village like the fiery results of a failed

chemical experiment.

(In Gnome Stories the outsider always declares [him-

or] herself master of the land, and the gnomes always

agree. Some uncharitable souls say this is because the

gnomes are stalling while they gleefully plan their

revenge. In reality, gnome tribes are truly interested in

learning as much as possible from newcomers, and will

try to make them happy. If surrendering is what the

outsider wants, it is a small price to pay as long as the

outsider remains. So it was in this case.)

Soon, a horde of short but passionate individuals

queued up outside Kali's house, each seeking to surrender

to the awakened woman-warrior, who was breakfasting

within on blueberry muffins and sausage. Some gnomes

wrote long poems, others recited longer declarations of

allegiance, while still others attempted to surrender by

mime, juggling sparklers so they would not be ignored in

favor of those declaring and rhyming. Some few brought

swords to beat into plowshares, though these arrived last,

since they had to beat the plowshares into swords in the

first place (and indeed, many of the swords had a distinct

plowsharish look to them).

Rather than being pleased, the woman-warrior (the

gnomes were already calling her Outsider A and her

companion Outsider B in their journals) seemed

threatened by this outpouring of mass poetry, oratory, and

mime. Indeed, a huge collection of small people shouting

and waving, with others coming up behind bearing large

plowsharish-looking swords would unnerve any stern

general unschooled in gnomecraft. Unfortunately the

woman-warrior reacted like a typical human, and charged

into a disaster of her own making.

She strode out onto the porch to order the gnomes to

scatter. The sight of her was enough to inspire a mass

shout from the crowd. She, in turn - thinking that an attack

was imminent - brandished her sword. The gnomes surged

forward, each intent on surrendering first. The startled

outsider backed into the doorway, feinted at the crowd

with her sword, then rapidly backed up again . . .

. . . And toppled backward over a cast iron boot-holder

Kali kept by the door (for cast iron boots). Woman and

sword went boots over boots with a resounding crash. She

was soon resting comfortably on the floor again, with a

small bruise on the top of her head.

Kali shooed his friends, family, and fellow inventors

out of the entranceway and, with a sigh, returned to his

healing craft (which he was quite good at ... as gnomes

go). Her weapons and armor he hid in a back room, since

twice now the warrior had become most unwell after using

them.

The warrior-woman would awake two days later, but

in the meantime the other outsider, Outsider B, awoke,

though with less spectacular effects. He merely wondered

what was for breakfast, and, though it was noon, Kali set

his clock back six hours in order to be accommodating.

Outsider B, who astounded the surrendering gnomes

by informing them his name was Oster, seemed a bit

befuddled, but less violent, when the herd of half-sized

humans humbugged and mimed their absolute fealty to

him. Then the assembled gnomes ran home to cross out

"Outsider B" and write "Oster" in their journals. Oster

went inside to have breakfast and dined pleasantly as the

sound of erasers ripping through thin paper resounded

through the village.

After breakfast, Kali shooed away the last few neighbors

who had stopped by to surrender (and to see if any blue-

berry muffins were left). He returned to ask Oster about

his travels and how he and the woman came to this place,

but found his ambulatory charge missing from the main

room. A sudden panic gripped Kali. He feared that this

stranger had wandered off and, knowing humans, gotten

himself into trouble.

A quick search revealed Oster in the second spare

guest room, at the foot of the bed where the warrior-

woman was resting. The human had an odd look on his

face, that look that gnomes get when they realize an

invention requires no more modification. Rapture would

be a good word for it. So would golly-woggled-knocked-

off-the-pins-in-love, but rapture is shorter and as such will

be used henceforth.

Kali moved quietly into the room and stood there for

several heartbeats, shifting his weight from foot to foot

and not knowing if he should leave.

Finally the man sighed. A deep, room-filling sigh that

would have driven the atmospheric pressure indicator in

the bedroom up a few notches, had Kali thought well

enough to install such a device. It was a human, rapture-

filled sigh.

"She is beautiful," he said. "Healer, who is she?"

Kali was thunderstruck. He had assumed the two

outsiders knew each other, since they were found near the

same wreckage. Kali wondered if the man's mind had been

damaged by the fall, as the woman's apparently had.

"She, ah . . ." began the gnome, "she was not with

you?"

Oster snorted like he had inhaled a fish. "With me?

Nay, Healer. I am a simple merchant, too bull-headed to

live quietly under tyranny, but too old and fat to fight it

well. My wagons were confiscated and I joined a small

party that raided and ambushed the invaders, burning their

supplies and freeing their slaves. For that crime we were

hunted through hills and valleys by a greater force than we

could have imagined. My comrades were soon dead and

scattered, and I was left to face the fury of the Dragon

Highlord on my own."

The human shook his head, but his eyes never left the

slumbering form of the woman. "Damned fool that I was, I

did not run, nor beg for mercy, nor even think to draw my

weapon. By the time I had even conceived of such things,

the hell-spawn commander of that force - the Dragon

Highlord himself - was upon me, and knocked me out.

Why the Highlord did not kill me there I do not know,

Morgion rot his bones. Instead he trussed me and slung me

dragonback like a sack of flour. When I awakened to my

fate, we were in the air. Then a massive blow struck the

beast in its flight, and we crashed. I awoke to find myself

in your parlor, with all these odd, pleasant little people,

and with this" - he leaned toward the woman - "vision of

loveliness."

The woman-warrior was lean and stringy, her battle-

hardened muscles honed by war. But she was fair of face

and, with her auburn hair spread out on the down pillows,

looked almost angelic. It was easy for a human to think of

her as beautiful when she was unconscious.

Kali, being a gnome, was thinking along other lines.

"This Highlord," he asked, "did you know him?"

"No," answered Oster, staring rapturously at the

woman. "I never saw him without his mask."

It was then apparent to Kali that the "foul hell-spawn"

and the radiant creature with whom the man was smitten

(for even gnomes can recognize someone who is smitten)

were one and the same. But more important at the time

was the news that a massive blow hit the dragon they

were riding and forced it to crash. Weapons that could

deliver massive blows out of the sky and force dragons to

crash sounded suspiciously gnomish to the gnome.

Of course, the outsider Oster would be disappointed

to find out that his vision of loveliness and his Morgion-

cursed captor were one and the same. Were Kali a less

honorable and more honest individual, he would have

burst Oster's bubble at once. But Kali was a gentlegnome,

and there were some things you just don't do in polite

society: disappointing someone to whom you have

surrendered was one of them.

Oster broke in on the gnome's reverie with another

room-filling sigh. "Does she have a name?"

"Er . . . ummm," stuttered the gnome, thinking on his

feet. "Did she give me a name when ... ah ... she brought

you in? Something about fighting a dragon. Yes, that's it,

something about a fight with a dragon. She hit it with

some great magic, that must have ... ah ... been the

massive blow you felt. And you fell off of it and ... ah ..."

He scanned the room for inspiration, his eyes settling on

his collection of ornamental spoons painted with

wildflowers. He tried to think of a flower name. "She

brought you here, but was . . . drained by the battle, and

took ill herself soon after . . . something about the battle

that wore her out. Columbine. Yes, THAT was the name.

Columbine."

"Columbine," said Oster, sighing again, a deep sigh

that made Kali think of a bellows in need of repair. "I owe

my life to her. I feared that I would be held prisoner or

slain by the Highlord, but now I have made good an

escape to a magical land. Rescued by a beautiful and

magical woman."

He turned to the gnome, transfixing Kali in an intense

gaze. "I must help her recover, little healer. What can I do

to help?"

Kali stammered and stuttered, but at last instructed the

man Oster in some simple methods of healing, little more

than the applying of cold compresses and the like. Then he

left his two charges alone and fled the house. He needed to

think about what had just transpired and, more

importantly, to confirm his immediate fears concerning

the dragon's demise.

Kali went from house to house, a long, tedious

business that took most of the rest of the day. This is not

because the gnomish community was large - it was not -

but at every house, a visiting gnome must make pleasant

conversation, have tea, report on any recent findings, have

some more tea, look at the host's latest researches, make

more pleasant conversations, and so forth, before pressing

on. Kali hoped he was not offending others by refusing a

third helping of tea, but after the sixth house he was

beginning to slosh as he walked.

At the seventh house, the one belonging to

Archimedorastimor the Lesser, son of Archimedorastimor

the Greater (and the Later), Kali found the answer he

feared. The Archimedorastimors (father and son) had both

been involved with astronomy and had long been

wondering what to do with their time when it was overcast

or daylight. While most gnomes in the field simply

attempted to build large towers to get above the clouds

and beyond the sun, the Archimedorastimors (Archies for

short) instead came up with the novel idea of firing their

telescopes from large catapults to get above the clouds and

the sun. Other gnomes scoffed at the foolishness of the

theory and went back to building towers. But Archie

father and son went on experimenting until the time, three

years ago, when Archie father built an explosive catapult

and launched his entire laboratory into the air, from

whence it never came down. Archie, son of Archie, had

since continued his father's research, but (save for creating

a combination parachute and pillow) had added little to the

science. Occasionally, however, he managed to launch a

large rock that would fall down on a building or three.

In any event, it was at the seventh house that Kali

found the answer he was dreading. Yes, five days back

Archie had been out in the field experimenting with a new

astronomical catapult, and from that testing he had just

returned. The experiment had been a failure because

something large and lumbering had gotten in the way at

the last moment. The large and lumbering something

sounded to Kali suspiciously dragonlike. When he

proposed this theory, Archie did admit that the lumbering

something was more than a little reptilian in appearance.

Further, it made a sudden and steep dive after it flew into

his rock. Kali took tea and made small conversation for

the rest of the afternoon, adjuring Archie not to mention

the details of this experiment to the new outsiders - Oster

and the warrior-woman. Archie promised and also said he

would be by later to surrender when he had finished his

journal.

Kali, having resolved the first problem, now turned to

the second. The warrior-woman was a Dragon Highlord

(whatever that was), and had taken Oster as a prisoner - in

a mean fashion at that. The Highlord's armor, which Kali

had hidden in a back room, apparently had concealed the

fact that she was a woman. Oster was now smitten (as

only humans can be smitten) with her in her true

appearance. When the woman awakened again, Kali

figured, she would probably be mean to Oster again.

Oster would be hurt that this radiant creature was not only

not named Columbine, but was also the individual that

was so mean to him before.

That would make TWO people that the gnomes had

surrendered to unhappy.

That would not do at all.

When Kali returned to his house, he found that the

man Oster had gathered some wildflowers and placed

them in a vase by the woman's sickbed. Kali decided the

man had not been addled by the fall after all. From the

Human Stories he'd heard beside hearths and over cups of

mulled wine, Kali knew such behavior was typical.

Humans were always engaging in activity that seemed

fruitless, pointless, and overly emotional, making use of

grand gestures and mighty oaths.

The first step, thought Kali, is to make sure the man

Oster is not around when the warrior-woman comes to.

Her last two outings among the living had proved to be

less than peaceful, and based on that sort of previous

behavior, the next occasion boded no better. At least he

should get the man away and talk to the woman, explain

the situation, and calm her down. If she were half as

reasonable as Oster, all would work out for the best.

Perhaps she had imprisoned him because she liked his

appearance as well as he liked hers, Kali reasoned. Human

Stories made much of the fact that humans were very poor

at expressing themselves, particularly to those they liked.

When Kali walked into the room, he noticed Oster

holding the woman's wrist, as though that would indicate

anything more than that the body in question had a pulse.

Steeling himself for deception, the gnome walked up to

the foot of the bed and grabbed the woman's exposed big

toe. Scowling as he imagined wise humans would scowl,

Kali gave a grumbling sigh.

Oster looked up at the gnome at the foot of the bed.

"Not good," said Kali.

"Not good?" said Oster.

"Complications," said Kali. "Straining of the

impervious maximus. Omar's syndrome. Liberal

contusions. It may be a while."

Oster rose to his full height and stamped his foot.

"Then I shall remain and help!"

Kali was prepared for the human to issue a mighty oath

on the matter, but when none was forthcoming, he

scowled deeper and thought quickly. "I'm ... ah ... going to

need some supplies. You may help best - if you are up to it

- by going to fetch them."

"Anything to aid, little healer."

Kali went to his desk and drew out a parchment and

pen. He listed five things at random: hen's teeth, black

roses, rubbing alcohol, toad eyes, and feldspar chips. He

gave the list to Oster. "These will aid," said the gnome.

"You can gather some gear from the storage area and set

off. You may need several days to gather the items, but

take your time."

"Can I have a guide to help?"

Kali thought of Archie. "I can arrange something.

Now come. The woman . . . er, Columbine . . . needs

peace and quiet as well as those items."

The man went back to rummage in the storage area

and Kali wrote a note to Archie, explaining the situation

and the need to take the man on the longest possible

course to get these items. He was going to post it

normally, but checked himself, noting that the gnomish

postal service would just as likely deliver it to Oster or

back to himself, since their names were mentioned. He

ended up delivering it himself.

Archie and Oster left the next morning, and the

woman-warrior awoke that evening, feverish and angry.

Kali was entertaining another colleague, Etonamemdosari

(Eton), a weaponsmith, who was working on a sword that

could be used directly as a plowshare, when the woman

stumbled into the room. The pair of gnomes looked up

from their mulled wine. (They were trading Human

Stories).

Awake, the woman was less lovely than asleep, for her

waking thoughts and memories pinched her face into a

tightly-muscled scowl that would scare the cat, had Kali

had any cats. (He did not, for they made him sneeze, but

HAD he a cat, said cat would be considering changing his

lodgings after looking at the woman).

"My weapons," she said in a voice that would frighten

a watchdog. (See the above note on cats, for they apply in

this case to dogs as well).

"Er . . . Have some wine?" asked Kali.

"Roast the wine!" bellowed the woman, crossing the

room in a single stride and thumping the table with both

fists. "Where are my weapons? Where is my armor?

Where is my dragon?"

"Dragon?" said Kali, hoping to sound much more

innocent than he felt.

The woman made a noise like a machine caught

between gears and pitched the table over, mulled wine and

all. Kali could see this was not going to work out as well

as he had hoped.

"Try again," she said, an evil glint in her eye, "or I'll

twist your head off."

"Ahem . . . Well. Ah.. ." Kali's mind raced for a

moment, trying to remember how much of the tale he told

Oster applied here. "We, ah, I, ah ... that is ... You were

brought here by a hero who slew the beast you were

riding. He thought it a wild creature, but, when he found

you and realized it was yours, he... ah ... brought you here

to recover and, ah ... left to gather some healing herbs to

aid you. He says he's terribly sorry."

Kali's words struck the angry woman like a blow. She

visibly sagged for a moment, her shoulders drooping. Kali

could see that the deceased dragon meant as much to her

as a cat or dog would to him, except it would probably not

make her sneeze. She slumped into a chair, and after

taking a few breaths to steady herself, said in a wavering

voice. "The prisoner?"

"He, ammm" - Kali's mind jumped its track for a

moment - "didn't make it, I'm afraid." Perhaps she would

show sympathy, and that would let him comfort her by

revealing that Oster was alive and well. Or maybe even

returned to life by a passing holy man.

"And his body?" she continued. Something in her tone,

her tight smile, the way her fingers dug into the wood of

the table told Kali that sympathy was riot a current priority

for the woman.

"Well," Kali said, "We ah, tend to burn such things.

Had we known you wanted it, we would have kept it for

you. I didn't know he meant that much to you."

The woman laughed - a throaty, deep-seated laugh that

started in orbit around her stony heart and, by the time it

escaped her lips, held the cruelty of a creature who would

throttle birds before breakfast. (See above notes on cats

and dogs. Kali's case: no birds were endangered by the

laugh.)

"Meant much? I wanted to take him apart in pieces,

cracking each bone, and hang him by his living entrails on

a hook in the village to show how I deal with traitors and

rebels. His kind cost me a treasure train, and now he has

cost me my dragon as well. May Morgion rot his body and

Chemosh stir his bones!"

Kali was struck by the coldness of her oaths, which

carried none of the nobility and passion of Oster's oaths,

though they invoked the same beings. This human did not

seem to have much difficulty in expressing herself at all. It

now dawned on him that if he brought her together with

Oster, she would be irate - not only at Oster, but at Kali as

well. Best to backtrack, he thought, and try to make the

situation turn out right.

"Well, he seemed a nice sort before he, ah ... well. . ."

Kali looked at Eton for support in the conversation. His

fellow gnome had backed up next to the hearth and was

trying to blend in with the fireplace furnishings.

"Did he suffer?" asked the woman. "Were his bones

snapped?

Kali said yes and answered in the affirmative to a long

list of horrible things that she described, just about filling

the dance card with all the things that can happen to an

individual who has fallen from a high place to a low one.

Snapped bones, shattered skull, inner workings scattered

over sharp rocks, just enough breath left in the crushed

body to plead for mercy and deliver a parting rattle. Kali

wondered if this passed for polite conversation where the

woman came from. His answers seemed to get the woman

more agitated and excited, until he would swear her eyes

became like twin pilot lights, glowing and sparking in a

malevolent fashion.

Having exhausted that interesting subject, the woman

demanded, "My weapons? My helm? My armor?"

"The hero, ah, the one who brought you in ... ah ... hid

them," said the gnome.

"Hid them?" she shrieked, rising from the table.

"Ah, yes. To keep away burglars, you know. He said he

would return them when he got back . . ."

Kali intended to say that the hero would not return for

more than a few days and why didn't the woman rest, but

things started to happen very quickly then. Making that

gear-grinding noise again, the warrior pushed both hands

up under the gnome's beard and, taking a firm hold of his

neck, lifted him off the ground. Kali found that the grip

closed off his breathing pipes. Small sparks danced

between the woman's face and his. She enlivened this by

screaming at him that he and his rat-faced friends would

find her weapons if they had to eat their way through the

mountains with their teeth, punctuating her remarks by

banging Kali's head and shoulders against the back wall.

The impact with the wall caused Kali to miss some of her

words, but he caught the gist.

How long this fit went on Kali did not know. He was

aware, finally, that he could breathe again, and save for a

sore neck and a ringing headache, was still alive. He saw

before him the form of the warrior-woman, resting less

than comfortably in a heap of broken furniture, facedown.

Across from him, Eton was holding a wide-mouthed

shovel used to clean the hearth.

Kali gave a breathy, hoarse thanks, but he could see

how Eton was already trying to figure out how to turn the

hearth shovel into a combination sword/plowshare.

Kali put the woman back to bed and arranged for the

delivery of new furniture by the time Oster and Archie

returned with the material the next day. In that time, Kali

had a long time to rub his sore head and think things

through.

Now, despite a lot of stories, gnomes are not by nature

violent. Nor, despite similar stories, are they stupid. Kali

could see that this warrior was going to become enraged

every time she awoke, and that telling her the truth would

result in a rampage that would end up destroying a goodly

amount of gnomish property and perhaps gnomish bodies.

This would not be a good occurrence, given the fact that

gnomes had surrendered to the woman and everything.

Further, she would likely harm Oster if she knew he was

alive. In the brief time Kali had known Oster, the gnome

had decided that the man was one of the good humans,

even given his terrible choice in creatures to fall smitten

with. It would crush his heart if he found out she so cruel

and mean. It would also likely crush his windpipe if the

two were left in the same room together.

The problem was, Kali decided, that he was trying to

work in an area he was unfamiliar with. He knew humans

only from stories and wild tales, and his current personal

encounters indicated something was lacking from his store

of knowledge. Human emotions were even farther

removed. Like most gnomes, Kali was most familiar with

things he could touch, grip, twist, break, and repair. If only

this situation had such "a simple, physical solution.

Looking at the blanket-covered woman, peaceful as

the dead and lovely as the morning, Kali realized that

perhaps there WAS a simple, physical solution.

By the time Oster and Archie had returned, Kali had

not only laid out a plan, but he had made a list of

materials: a closed wagon with oxen, two hundred pounds

of plaster, a similar amount of wax, a stone mausoleum

with an iron fence around it, seven tins of pastels and

other shades of paint, the aid of Organathoran the painter,

and sufficient medication to keep a horse in slumberland

for a week.

He was just drawing up the last of it and was about to

check on the woman (to make sure she had not woken up

again), when Oster and Archie returned. A crowd of other

gnomes clustered around them as Archie described

something in glowing detail, making swing-of-a-sword

gestures with his hands.

Kali met the pair at the door and Oster presented the

gnome with a small package containing the herbs and

other items they had gathered from the wild. At his side he

had another, larger bundle. The human gave Kali a small,

almost embarrassed smile, but all eyes were on Archie,

who was gesticulating wildly.

"It was wonderful," cried Archie, noticing Kali for the

first time. "The lad, er, the human Oster was magnificent 1

We were in the Smoking Vale two miles from here when

suddenly we startled a wyrm of some type. A true

monster, straight from the pits, with the legs of a pill-bug

and the hunger of a bear and fangs twice as long as my

arm."

"It was a behir," Oster said softly, his ears tinged with

red, "and a small one at that."

Archie hurtled on without stopping to note the

interruption. "I would have been dinner on a plate, but

Oster - Oster the Brave - mind you, threw me out of the

way of certain death."

"I, ah, knocked him over when I turned to run," Oster

corrected, the glow spreading to his cheeks and increasing

in intensity with each moment.

"Then brave Oster, armed with only with a sharpened

rock, caught the beast's attention. It lunged at him" And

here Archie did his best imitation of a serpent lunging

forward, such that some of the gathered gnomes backed up

a few paces. "And he pulled the side of the mountain

down on the beast, killing it!"

"I tried to scramble up the cliff out of its path, and

brought down an avalanche. Nearly buried us all." Oster's

voice had grown quiet now as he saw that most of the

gnomes liked Archie's recollection of events better than

his.

Archie rolled on like a perpetual motion machine.

"The beast was mortally wounded, and tried to turn on us.

Oster took a mighty boulder and smashed it until it was no

more."

"Well, I... It wasn't that big of a ... well ... I guess ..."

Oster shrugged his shoulders. Had he known that in

gnomish discussions silence meant agreement, he would

probably have protested his innocence of heroism a while

longer. But he did not know, so he did not protest - which

was as good as admitting it.

Archie motioned for the sack. "And we found all

manner of gems and magic in the creature's lair."

The gnomes naturally demanded to see the treasure,

and so Oster pulled from the larger bag one item after

another. Fistfuls of gems, long strings of pearls, and a set

of plate mail of a golden hue, topped by a wondrous helm

of similar color, ringed with gems. Finally he drew forth a

scabbard and a copper-colored blade from the bag.

News of Oster's prowess (and his treasure) spread about

the community quickly, and a number of gnomes came to

surrender all over again to Oster (or rather, the Hero Oster,

as he was now known). Archie had to tell his tale a second

and a third time, and the hero's mighty attacks became

mightier with every telling. Oster soon gave up trying to

correct all the minor differences between Archie's version

and his, and seemed to enjoy the attention.

Oster gave the bulk of the jewels to Archie, and the

gem-stones to Kali. The mail, copper sword, and helm he

kept for himself, as they were all man-size, and Oster was

the only being currently awake in the community who

matched the description.

At the insistence of the gnomes, he put on the armor,

though he had to let out the chains on the side plates to

their maximum length. With the helm down over his face,

he looked like a clockwork figure or automaton, and the

name Oster the Clockwork Hero went down in many

journals that night.

It was only when Oster had finished displaying and

giving away his booty and Archie had finished describing

(for the fifth time) the masterful strokes that the

Clockwork Hero has delivered against the hordes of

serpent creatures that the trio went back into the house.

Oster let out a gasp of shock when he saw the drawing

room in shambles.

"What happened?" he demanded, looking at the

broken table, the shattered chairs, and the crushed

crockery.

"Well, that is . . ." Kali stammered, thinking that he

had best use this time to tell Oster the truth - that his lady

fair had woken and destroyed the room, all the while

gleefully describing the tortures she would heap upon

him, Oster.

"It looks like a fiend hit this place," continued Oster.

"Ah ... yes. A fiend." Kali shoved the truth to the

back of his mind. Oster had been a hero only moments

before, and the truth would only hurt him.

Kali had no fiends illustrated on his spoon collection

and wondered what one truly looked like, but taking a

deep breath he plunged on. "Ah ... A fiend was here. Tall

he was, so that his horns scraped the ceiling, and with

plates of red, hardened chitin jutting from his shoulders,

and a weave of black wires where his mouth was."

"Was he large? Did he carry a sword in a mailed

glove? And armor?" asked Oster, his brow furrowed.

"Yes, yes, he was, and armored all over." Suddenly Kali

clamped a hand over his own mouth. In seeking to

describe the "fiend" who had leveled the place, he had

described the Highlord's dragonarmor.

"So," said Oster sternly, drawing himself up to his full

height. "He lived through the death of his dragon. Why

would he come here . . . unless . . . the Lady Columbine?

Is she safe?"

"She ... ah ... rests comfortably in her room. The fiend

made no attempt to get to her." Kali hoped that when

Oster checked on her condition, he was not knowledgeable

enough to spot an additional bump where Eton had

clobbered her with a shovel.

"He was looking for me, wasn't he?" asked Oster

grimly.

"No. I mean yes. I mean . . ." Kali said, trying to avoid

tripping over his own tongue. Other gnomes, such as

Archie, could spin tall tales until morning, but Kali always

feared that one word would fall against another and leave

him revealed as a liar. "He was here, and looking for you,

and was most angry when I told him you were dead. He

wanted your body, but I said we had burned it. I didn't

mean to lie, but it seemed to be a good idea at the time."

And I mean that in all possible ways, he added to himself.

"You did well, little healer," said Oster. "But you

risked much to deceive one such as that. He will probably

be back. When he does return, we must be ready for him.

Tell me, what is the condition of the lady?"

"She . . . rests," said Kali, still choosing his words

carefully. "I have given much thought to her injuries, and

fear she might not recover." He was going to add that it

would be in everyone's best interest if she NOT recover,

but he made the error of looking into Oster's face, and saw

the pain in his eyes. The human had stopped being a hero

and became once more a middle-aged merchant. So Kali

said instead, "I have a list of further medications that may

cure her illness. But it will take time."

Oster immediately volunteered to go fetch them, and

Archie chimed in his aid as well. Only Eton and Kali

would know that the lady was no lady, and the ingredients

the Clockwork Hero gathered were mixed to form a

smoky concoction, the fumes of which would keep the

woman in her blissful sleep until Kali could work his own

solution.

The next few weeks - the time through high summer -

passed with as few incidents as could be expected for a

community of gnomes. Oster the Clockwork Hero's

prestige in the community increased as he slew a few of

the creatures that had plagued the area, including a large

hydra that ruled the Steaming Stream and a beholder that

had set up shop in an ancient dwarven mine.

The fact that in the former case he was accompanied

by a party of gnomes armed with Eton's automatic lasso-

projectors and in the latter the sword he found had been

forged specifically to slay beholders did nothing to

diminish his prestige. Oster was well-loved by the

gnomes, never more so than when he rescued the

Kastonopolintar sisters when their alchemy shop decided

to blow up on Solstice Eve.

Yet most of the time when he was not out adventuring

or attending this dinner or that test in his honor, Oster sat

by the bedside of the lady, now known in the community

as Oster's Lady, waiting for her to recover, watching her

passive, quiet face in the moonlight as her coverlets rose

and fell with each breath. The gnomes respected Oster,

and in turn respected his sleeping lady, so none of them

mentioned her erratic behavior when she had first arrived,

or that Kali seemed less effective than normal in working

a cure. They did not want to worry the human needlessly.

Kali was miserable, of course. He knew the truth,

more than any of his comrades, and it hurt him to see that

he himself was responsible for Oster's heartache. It was

clear that the human had built up an imagined image for

his lady, a lady who, once awake, would undoubtedly

shred Oster limb from limb. On more than one occasion,

Kali screwed up his courage to the point where he decided

to confront Oster with the truth. The gnome mentally

rehearsed his lines and thought of every reason or

argument why he should tell the human the truth. And

each time he attempted the truth, the following would

happen:

Kali would say, "Oster, we must talk."

Oster would sigh, clutching the hand of his beloved, and

say, "Yes, I know I spend all my time here when I am not

elsewhere. You think it unhealthy."

Kali would say, "Well yes, but ..."

And Oster would break in with, "I just worry that

some time when I am not here, the thrice-damned

Highlord will return and hurt you and my friends and my

lady." And here would be another room-filling sigh as he

would add, "Is she not beautiful?"

At this point, Kali, hating himself every step of the

way, would always remember a project that was half

finished and leave the sighing Oster with his lady. The

plate mail of the Clockwork Hero fit better as he got more

exercise, and old skills he thought long-forgotten returned

to him. He gathered many weapons and strange items in

his travels around the valley, keeping for himself a clutch

of silver daggers worn at the belt and a magical cape, but

giving the rest to friends. Kali sent the hero out on none-

such missions for unneeded materials, while he and

Organathoran the painter - whom Kali had bonded to

silence - set about their craft.

Each day, when Oster was gone, they would mix

plaster and make a mold of some part of the lady - her

hand or her arm or foot. The molds would then be filled

with hot wax. It took several weeks of work to finally get

adequate casts of the hands, and longer for the legs, torso,

and face. The poor castings were melted in the hearth, as

were a few good molds that had to be jettisoned when

Oster returned in triumph too early.

Once, when taking the mold of the woman's head,

Kali thought for a moment of covering her fully with

plaster, of letting her perish. It would solve the problem,

and make everything so much easier. Even if it did break

Oster's heart.

But as the thoughts crossed his mind, Kali's hands

began to shake, and he had to step outside to compose

himself. They were unworthy thoughts, for both a healer

and a gnome. Humans may take the easy route, but a little

complexity never stopped a gnome. He would proceed as

he had planned.

When the model was finished, Kali stored it in a hidden

back room next to the Highlord armor. Using the hair of a

long-haired fox, Kali fashioned a suitable wig, and Or

ganathoran worked on duplicating the looks of a sick but

living human being.

As the work completed, Kali placed an order with his

fellow gnomes for a stonework mausoleum and a

sepulchre. In true gnome fashion, the work took several

tries, and resulted in a building whose design would drive

mad the best human architects, complete with a long span

of glossy black stone leading up to its foot-thick doors.

The sepulchre itself was carved of crystal.

Kali's final plan was simple (for a gnome). The

mannequin would be placed beneath the crystal in the

tomb. Oster would be told that the crystal sepulchre would

keep his lady alive in sleep for the rest of her days, for

there was no way even Kali could cure her. Oster would

be hurt, but it would be a hurt with hope for the future, a

lesser hurt than losing one you love (at least, this was

Kali's reasoning). The hell-spawn who wanted to throttle

him would, at the same time, be placed in the ox-cart,

unconscious, and set out without a driver on the road. By

the time she awoke, she would be miles from the gnomes'

remote home, with a few months missing from her life,

and Kali would not be a murderer.

That was the plan, at least, and the leaves were just

being to rum their fall colors when all was ready. Kali and

Eton lugged the finished mannequin from its secret hiding

place one day when Oster had been sent on some quest for

Archie. They laid the figure to rest in the tomb and closed

the fasteners. Beneath its glass now lay a beautiful

princess suitable for use in a Human Story. Her lips were

cold and red, and her eyes coated with bluish-tinged blush,

never to open.

The entire task took them about two hours. When they

returned, they were shocked to discover Oster there

waiting for them.

Oster the Clockwork Hero was still in his plate armor,

helmet tucked under his arm, pacing in the drawing room.

He warmly welcomed Kali and Eton with a broad grin.

Kali coughed and launched into what he hoped was to be

his last lie. "Oster, I must tell you terrible news. The

condition of Lady Columbine has not remained constant

while you were gone. Rather, it has worsened, such that

we found it necessary to place her in a magical bier in a

stone building on the hill. I'm sorry, but I'd . . ." His voice

trailed off as he looked into Oster's puzzled eyes.

"What are you talking about?" asked Oster. "She is

still resting within." He motioned toward the bedroom

door and Kali, for the first time, realized they left the

secret closet open in that room. "I have glorious news.

While traveling through the hill looking for ingredients, I

chanced to rescue a priest - a true priest - one with the

skills to heal the sick and cure the diseased. I brought him

here to cure Lady Columbine. No slur on your abilities,

Kali, my dear friend, but all your potions have been for

nought. He's been in there for half an hour, ever since - "

Oster's words were cut short. The door to the bedroom

snapped off its gnome-built, reinforced hinges. Through it

came hurtling the broken body of the priest. The Dragon

Highlord, dressed in full armor, strode into the room. Even

with her features masked, Kali could sense that she was

smiling. A dog-frightening, bird-throttling, cat-killing

smile.

Kali's heart sank. The figurative jig was up, and Kali

realized for the first time that he had built his invention of

fiction without tightening the smallest bolt, building one

lie upon another until he created an edifice of falsehoods,

a structure that now swayed in the harsh wind of truth. He

thought of the old Human Stories, and wished fervently

for an easy fix - a wise old holy man to wander onto the

scene and provide the solution to all problems.

And with another start, he realized that this was

precisely what HAD almost happened. The holy man lay

in a pool of his own blood, paying the price for wandering

into the wrong tale.

But, while Kali's mind was stopping and starting,

rushing from one revelation to another like a frightened

child in an old house, the humans thundered on in the

manner that all humans do. The Highlord laughed and

leapt forward, lunging with a straight sword blow toward

Oster's chest. The Clockwork Hero brought his own blade

up quickly and parried the lunge, tossing his helmet at the

Highlord. She dodged, but the bronze helm grazed her

head, disorienting her for a moment. Oster used the

moment to draw back into the room, waving to Kali and

Eton to move away.

Kali and Eton scurried to the fireplace, which was

graced by a number of Eton's new plow-share-shovels.

These fireplace tools had a graceful sweep of metal

welded to the base, making them useless for scooping

ashes, but excellent for small gardening tasks and fair for

bashing. The pair edged around the perimeter of the battle.

Kali had heard that kender could merge into the stone

itself and move without leaving a shadow. He desperately

wished for that ability now.

Oster's attention was riveted on the dark-armored

form before him. Kali expected the Highlord to taunt,

laugh, snarl, and behave in the way of all good bad people

when confronted with virtue, but the Highlord kept her

input to a few growls of the mid-gear type. She lunged

forward in a flurry of blows, lunges, and backswings.

Oster parried them easily, and drove her back with a swing

to the mid-section, a swipe to the head. What he lacked in

form, he made up in force, and the Highlord was staggered

when one of Oster's strong lunges caught her in the left

arm.

They fought for a minute, two minutes, an eternity of

three. The Highlord never lost track of the two gnomes

(learning from her experience), and avoided all their

attempts to get behind her. The two main combatants

made quick work of most of Kali's living room furniture -

every breakable was introduced to the dangers of being

inadvertently close to clashing steel. The Highlord would

charge, locking steel with Oster. The pair would stagger

against each other in a few deadly dance steps, then one or

the other would be flung backward, usually just far

enough to reduce some other furnishing to its component

parts. Lunge, the clash of locked blades, the stagger, the

destruction of a chair. Lunge, lock, stagger, writing desk.

Lunge, lock, stagger, spoon collection.

Sweat was now running down Oster's face in rivulets,

but his eyes burned with fury. The battle had run long

now, and Kali knew that all their deaths were long

overdue. A bud of insight blossomed within his skull, and

he suddenly understood why the Highlord had not made

quick work of all of them. While Oster had been in

training as the local hero of the gnomes, the Highlord had

been under an enforced and extended rest for six months.

While the Highlord was sufficiently powerful to make

short work of a pair of gnomes, or a surprised cleric

expecting a demure young lady, she was having more

trouble with someone trained for combat.

The length of the battle was telling on the Highlord.

Blood leaked between the epaulets of her wounded upper

arm, forming a deadly calligraphy on her armor. Even Kali

could see she was favoring that arm, and Oster pressed his

advantage, driving her back, step by step, to the bedroom

door.

Kali's eyes took in the battle, but his mind whirled

with options, all of them bad. At first it seemed to him that

Oster would surely perish under the attack, which was

good in that at least he would die without finding out his

ladylove was his murderer, but bad considering that said

murderer would probably avenge herself on the rest of the

community. Now it looked like Oster would be victorious,

which would be equally disastrous, for once he discovered

the Highlord was his Columbine, he would perish just as

surely of a broken heart, if not busted ribs.

Kali chewed on his beard, fidgeted, raised his

weapon, fidgeted again. Eton was a statue next to him,

working out his own thoughts, or perhaps preparing

himself for the afterlife. The pair were enraptured by the

deadly ballet played out before them.

Oster was now beating the Highlord's attacks easily,

reducing her to weak parries and dodges. The two locked

blades again (Kali made a mental check to see if there was

any surviving furniture). This time, when they broke, the

Highlord's sword separated from its owner, burying its

point in the china cabinet (shattering the last of the

unbroken teapots). Oster brought his sword around in a

mighty blow, aimed at his opponents' throat, as smooth

and as level as carpenter's beam.

Kali stepped forward and, in a loud voice, shouted,

"Oster, don't do it! It's your Columbine!" Or rather, he

fully intended to. A great, soft explosion blossomed at the

base of his own skull and he toppled forward. The room

pitched and the floor rose up to meet the gnome. He was

dimly aware of two other forms striking the floor before

he reached it, one the shape of a full human helmet, the

other resembling a human sans both helmet and head. A

part of Kali's mind paused to calculate how long it would

take a plummeting gnome, a falling severed head, and a

crumbled body to all hit the ground at the same time. Then

the void closed up over him.

Kali awoke to find himself in his own bed, looking up

at a grim Oster and a worried-looking Eton. The

expression on his fellow gnome's face told the story - that

shamed-dog look of gnomish responsibility when an

invention goes slightly awry, combined with a mild sense

of pride that the idea proved feasible. He still had his

combination plowshare-shovel in his hands.

Oster's face was human and therefore unreadable.

Gray. It looked like that of a gnome who has realized his

invention is unworkable, and nothing could change that

fact. A look of defeat, tinged with worry.

"She's dead," Kali croaked. Not a question, but a

notation, a footnote.

"They both are," said Oster, putting a hand on the

reclining gnome's shoulder. "And the priest, too, I'm

afraid."

"Both?" Kali's brow clouded.

"The Highlord, and . . . and . . ." Oster shook his head.

"Eton showed me the tomb you made for her. It is very

sweet. Almost as if she were alive. When I pointed the

priest toward the bedroom, the Highlord was waiting. If

you hadn't come home, he would have caught us both."

Kali looked hard at Eton, hoping to elicit from his

fellow gnome an explanation that would at least bring him

up to date.

Eton avoided his eyes, and instead grabbed Kali's big

toe and looked at his wrist. "Hmmm, confused from a

lateral conclusion. He'll need his rest. If you don't mind,

Oster?"

The human nodded and saw himself out. The

bedroom door had been replaced with a roughly-hung

carpet, and Kali could hear the human busying himself

outside.

Eton leaned over to check the dressing wrapped at the

base of Kali's skull. The small healer grabbed his

caretaker's beard and pulled him close, hissing so Oster

could not hear.

"How did you keep him from finding out?"

"Quick presence of mind," whispered Eton. "Before

he could examine the body, I told him that if the Highlord

was near, other enemies may be around as well. Oster

scouted. I gathered up the pieces. By the time he had

returned, I had placed the body, still in its armor, on the

pyre."

"And Columbine?"

"Still in her crypt. The Clockwork Hero made up his

own story, and did a better job than we did. He's broken

up about it, but he'll get over it. I think. Humans are so

difficult-to figure out."

"Why the . . .?" Kali glowered at the destructive

weapon Eton held.

The other gnome sighed and said, "Because you

created something that worked, and I did not want you to

throw it away."

Kali's head hurt, perhaps just from the shovel blow,

but he wasn't sure. He frowned, but remained silent. And

silence for gnomes means agreement.

"You created a hero, Kali," Eton said quietly, gently.

"Oster arrived as a prisoner, a failure as a merchant and a

rebel. But because of all the lies you spun - the tale of

Columbine, the errands to fetch useless items - he found a

purpose in life. I knew you had decided to tell him the

truth, and I had to stop you. If you had told him, he might

have pulled his blow, and she would have killed us all."

"But he believes a lie!" groaned Kali, still keeping his

voice down.

Eton shrugged. "From what I know of humans, that is

a standard state of affairs. They excel at self-deception.

Sometimes the lie is the unity of a nation, or the

perfection of a cause. Or the love of a good woman - "

" - who doesn't really exist," muttered Kali.

"Exactly." Eton nodded. "It might even be preferred

that way. Less fuss and bother. I might create one for

myself. . ."

Kali hrumphed weakly and drifted off to sleep. After a

few days he came around to seeing things as Eton did.

And Oster did heal over time and come to conquer the

wound in his heart made by Columbine's death at the

hands of the Highlord. And after a time it became less and

less important for Kali to tell Oster the truth of the matter.

Even so, he himself pledged to tell no more lies. No more

dangerous ones, at least.

And so it has been from that day to this. There still is a

gnome village so remote that other gnomes refer to it

when talking about remote villages, a noisy place of

clanging hammers and the occasional explosion. And it

has as its protector a champion in bronze armor, a human

in clock-work attire. And its healer is a gnome who has an

air of satisfaction because he made something that works,

though, even if pressed, he won't reveal the nature of his

discovery.

Now, if you ever encounter this Clockwork Hero, you

can ask him the tale, and he will tell, as best he is able

with his human tongue and direct manner, of the story of

his reluctant heroism, of finding himself entrusted to

protect a group of small, foolish gnomes. He will speak of

encountering a beauty wrapped in slumber, a fair maiden

who never spoke to him, yet captured his heart. And he

will tell of the fell creature who killed her and threatened

his newfound people, such that they called upon him for

salvation. And he will speak of sacrifices made and

mighty oaths sworn and horrible battles fought and how

justice and valor prevailed at the end, though at terrible

cost.

But that, of course, is a Human Story, and as such we

shall not worry about it.

 

THE NIGHT WOLF

 

Nancy Varian Berberick

 

The village of Dimmin lay snugly in a fold of the

Kharolis Mountains, tucked between the elves' Qualinesti

and Thorbardin of the dwarves. On the outskirts of that

little village, beyond the bend of the brook where willows

overhung the water on both sides, stood a small stone

house. It was the mage's house, and Thorne had lived there

for twenty years. To the eye, he was a man just come into

his prime, but he'd been looking like that for all these

twenty years past, never a hair turned gray, and so folk

reckoned that he had an elf lurking in his ancestry

somewhere.

Mages enjoyed no good reputation in those days just

after the Cataclysm, but the villagers liked Thorne. From

the headman to the lowliest dairy maid, they knew him as

"our mage." Even Guarinn Hammerfell - the dwarf who

did the blacksmithing - couldn't hide a grudging fondness

for Thorne, and that was saying something. Until the

mage's arrival, Guarinn could name only one friend - Tam

the potter. But for Tam the potter, Guarinn had always

kept to himself, a grim fellow, without much warmth of

feeling. Yet, when Thorne arrived, Guarinn made room in

his lean heart for another friend. Long-lived dwarf and

long-lived mage . . . the villagers joked that Guarinn must

have reckoned Thorne would be around for a while, so he

might as well get used to him.

The people in Dimmin didn't know the half of what was

to be known about Guarinn and Tam and Thorne, though

they did consider it natural that Roulant Potter, grown to

manhood tagging at the heels of Tam and his friends,

stepped into his father's place after the potter's death - and

became just as friendly with Guarinn and Thorne.

Likely, they predicted, when young Roulant married

Una the miller's girl they'd get themselves a son who'd

inherit his grand-da's friends. No one thought it would be

a bad inheritance, mage and all. People had gotten used to

Guarinn the blacksmith. And Thorne was helpful in the

way mages can be, for he was able to charm a fretful child

to sleep or bring water springing up from a dry well -

always willing to turn his mysterious skills to good use.

No one blamed Thorne that he was never able to do

anything about the Night of the Wolf.

Anyone with eyes in Dimmin could see that it was a

great source of frustration and sorrow to their mage that

he could offer them no protection against the wolf that

terrorized the countryside one night each year. For thirty

years it had avoided traps and hunters, and that was

enough to make people understand that this was no

ordinary wolf. What natural beast could live so long?

Yet Thorne could offer no better wisdom than that

everyone keep within-doors; for life's sake, never venture

out into the dark when the two moons rose full on the first

night of autumn. And so, on this one day each year, all

around Dimmin, small children were shooed early into

cottages, cached behind bolted doors. And if a child's bed

should be near a window, this night the little one would

sleep in the loft with his parents.

Most often a stray sheep or roaming dog, sometimes a

luckless traveler benighted in the forest, satisfied the

hunger of the great beast. But only three years ago on the

Night of the Wolf, a farmer who lived but a morning's

walk from Dimmin had wakened at moonset to hear one

of his children wailing. Fast as he ran to the youngster's

bed, he'd found only an empty pallet, and the broad, deep

tracks of a large wolf outside the window. No one

questioned Thorne's advice to keep close to home on the

Night.

It must be a curse, they muttered as they bolted their

doors. What else could it be?

It was exactly that. Thorne had always known how to

end the curse, and no one wanted that ending more than

he.

 

*****

 

On the first day of autumn, Thorne sat before a banked

hearth-fire. Outside the stone house, cold wind hissed

around the eaves, but he didn't hear it. Eyes wide, he

dreamed as though he were deep asleep. In his dreams the

two moons, the red and the silver, filled up the sky,

showered their light upon the jagged back teeth of a ruin's

broken walls while cold, hungry howling ran down the

sky. In his dreams Thorne cried out for mercy, and got

none.

He sat so all morning, sat unmoving all afternoon.

When the light deepened toward the day's end, he heard

his name urgently whispered, and he came away from his

dreaming slowly, like a man swimming up from dark,

deep waters. Guarinn Hammerfell stood at his shoulder,

waiting. The dwarf's face was white, drawn in haggard

lines; his dark, blue-flecked eyes were sunk into deep

hollows carved by weariness. Thorne hadn't stirred even

once during the long day, but he knew that Guarinn had

kept watch beside him and never took a step away.

"It's time, my friend," Thorne said.

Guarinn nodded, wordlessly agreeing that it was. He

said nothing as he and the mage dressed warmly in thick

woolen cloaks and stout climbing boots, spoke no word as

he slung a coil of heavy rope over his shoulder and thrust

a short-hafted throwing axe into his belt.

They crossed the brook by the old footbridge and

entered the darkening forest. At the top of the first low

hill, Thorne stopped to look down upon Dimmin as lights

sprang up in the windows of the cottages, little gleams of

gold to console in the coming night. He watched the last

cottage, the one that stood alone at the far end of the

village where the street became a narrow footpath winding

down toward the potter's kiln at the edge of the brook.

When that light sighed to life he knew that Roulant Potter

was taking up his bow and quiver, making ready to leave.

"And so the Night comes," Thorne whispered. "And

we'll try again to kill the wolf, to end the curse."

His words fell heavily into silence. Guarinn turned his

back on the lights of Dimmin and began the climb to the

tall hill in the forest, the bald place where the ruin lay.

Thorne followed, and didn't trespass into the dwarf's

silence.

Their friendship was older than people in Dimmin

realized. Guarinn knew that the mage was once called

Thorne Shape-shifter. And he knew that Thorne Shape-

shifter was the wolf. With Tam Potter, Guarinn had been

present twenty years ago when Thorne had bared his

wrists and taken up a keen-edged dagger, blindly seeking

to end the curse by killing himself.

"There IS no hope but this blade," Thorne had cried

that day, sickened by the taste of what the wolf had killed.

"I will change every year, unless one of you kills the wolf.

Neither of you has been able to do that."

He'd meant no reproof, for he knew why his friends

had failed each year. That, too, was part of the curse. Still,

they reproached themselves, and he knew that, as well.

He found no hope anywhere, not even among the wise

at the Tower of Wayreth. He'd fled there, after the curse

had been spoken, but he'd been driven from that haven by

the dark magic of the curse itself, compelled to return to

the broken ruin in the mountains at the rising of the full

autumn moons. Ten years he'd hidden there. The efforts of

the most skillful mages at Wayreth had not been able to

blunt that compulsion. The wisest had sadly counselled

Thorne that he must accept that there was only one way to

end the curse. The wolf must die, and only Guarinn or

Tam Potter could kill it. So said the curse. But they had

failed him.

It was twenty years ago that Thorne decided there

might be another way to end the curse. And so, with

careful precision, he'd set a dagger's glinting edge against

the blue veins in his wrist. In the end, whether by some

agency of the curse itself, or an innate will to survive that

was stronger than he'd guessed, he'd not been able to draw

the steel across his wrist.

Guarinn had wept for both joy and rue over his friend's

inability to end his life. And Tam Potter, taking the dagger

gently from the mage's hand, said: "Thorne, come back

and live in Dimmin with Guarinn and me. We'll find a

way to kill the wolf. We'll keep trying."

In the summer when Tam died, Roulant Potter

learned that he'd inherited his father's part in a curse that

was older than he. Thorne had told Roulant just what he

knew his father had believed - what Guarinn yet believed:

when the wolf was dead, the curse would end. "What will

happen to you?" young Roulant had asked. "I will not be

hurt," Thorne had replied. "I will be free."

Some of that was true, and some of it wasn't. Thorne

never told his friends all he'd learned during the time at

Wayreth.

 

*****

 

Shrouded in shadow, hidden beneath a stone

outcropping at the forest's edge, Una wrapped her arms

around her drawn-up knees, hugged herself to muffle the

drumming of her heart. She was outside after sunset on

the Night of the Wolf. Una had not lived in Dimmin but

five years, come to stay with her cousin, the miller's wife,

after her parents died. She'd been thirteen then, and it

hadn't taken her very long to learn that no one in the

village ventured outdoors on the first night of autumn.

No one, that is, except - lately - Roulant Potter. He

would stealthily enter the forest here soon. Una had seen

him do this each year on the Night for two years, and

there had never been a question in her mind that she'd

keep Roulant's secret faithfully. She'd loved him as long

as she'd known him, and he'd never been shy about letting

her know that he felt the same way. They would marry

soon. Maybe.

And maybe not. Una's faithful silence on the subject of Roulant's

Night-walk extended to Roulant himself, for she didn't know how to ask

the question that would sound like an accusation: WHAT DO YOU KNOW

ABOUT THE NIGHT OF THE WOLF THAT EVEN OUR MAGE DOESN'T?

And so the secret cast a shadow between them. Day by

day, a little at a time, the shadow was changing them, as if

by a malicious magic, into uneasy strangers.

As darkness gathered beneath the forest's thin eaves,

old dead leaves ran scrabbling before the wind. In the

luminous sky, one early, eager star shone out. A dark

shape stood atop the hill, a young man with a great

breadth of shoulder and a long, loping stride. Roulant

stopped at the crest and stood silhouetted against the sky,

the last light shining on his brown-gold hair. Still as stone,

he hung there, between the village and the wildwood -

stood a long time before he at last vanished into the

twilight beneath the trees.

The wind moaned round the rocks, and Una shivered

as she checked the draw of the dagger at her belt. She was

afraid: of the Night, and of what she might discover, and

of what she might lose. But she hugged her courage close.

She would follow Roulant tonight, and she wouldn't turn

back. She had to know what part he played in this yearly

night of dread.

 

*****

 

Soft on the cold air, Roulant heard a whisper, the dry

rattling of brush behind him. He turned quickly, saw a

flash of red in the tangled thickets on the slope below:

some padding fox or vixen on the trail of prey. Roulant

went on climbing. He must reach the ruin before

moonrise.

The tumbled stone walls atop the bald hill in the

forest had been his destination each Night for the past

two, as it had been his father's every year since Roulant

could remember. When he was a boy, after his mother's

death, Roulant used to think he knew why his father went

out into the forest on the Night of the Wolf. He believed

that Tam was a brave champion upon a secret quest to

help save the people of Dimmin. Roulant'd never told

anyone what he believed, nor did he mention it to his

father. A secret is a secret, and Tam need not carry the

burden of knowing his had been discovered.

The year the wolf had killed the farmer's child was

the last Tam went up to the ruin. The summer after, he

died. Roulant was seventeen then, and that was when he

learned that Thorne was the wolf.

It was a hard thing to learn. Roulant had known

Thorne since childhood, had felt for him the magical awe

and affection that is hero-worship. Even knowing that the

mage became the wolf, once every annum, could not

break their bond. From that year to this, enmeshed in the

web of an old curse, Roulant had been drawn out into the

forest on the Night to stand with Guarinn Hammerfell and

promise Thorne they would kill the wolf, swear they

would free their friend from the curse.

This, on the face of it, was a difficult promise to keep,

for wolves are hard to hunt and kill. But Roulant, in

youthful zeal, had never truly thought it would be

impossible. He was a good hunter. His father had taught

him to be a faultless shot with bow and arrow. Guarinn

had taught him to track, and made the lessons easy,

companionable rambles in the forest. As he'd stood

faithfully with Tam, Guarinn was always with Roulant.

Yet, just as Tam had failed his own promise, Roulant had,

too - so far.

There were reasons for that, the kind Roulant dared

not think about here and alone in the dark forest.

Wind soughed low, herding fallen leaves. All around,

the night drew in close, dark and sighing. Roulant stopped

for breath before he began to climb the last stony path, the

barely seen trace that would lead him to the ruin.

Watching his breath plume in the frosty air, he thought

that the pale mist was just like the promises he'd made to

Thorne - easily blown away.

And Roulant knew that if he failed again tonight, he'd

be forced to break a different promise, one that had

nothing to do with wolves and curses. If he didn't kill the

wolf tonight, in the morning he would go to Una and tell

her that he couldn't marry her. He would do that, though

both their hearts would break.

A dear and pretty girl, his Una, with her earnest green

eyes and her red-gold hair. He was no poet, but late at

night Roulant liked to watch the fire in the hearth and

think that the rosy flames, so lovely and generous with

their warmth, reminded him of Una. Whatever joy would

come on their wedding day would be swiftly

overshadowed by his terrible obligation to go up to the

ruin year after year, trying, as his father had tried, to bring

an end to the Night of the Wolf. How could Roulant come

back to Una every year, with blood on his hands as surely

as it was on Thorne's?

And yet ... how could he bear to look down the long

years of a life without her?

Roulant put his back into the last climb and soon left

the dark fastness of the forest to see Thorne and Guarinn

waiting in the paler light of the clearing. The moons were

rising, mere suggestions of light above the mountain. Soon

they would spill red and silver light on the bald hill

crowned by frost-whitened, shattered walls. Roulant left

the forest, trying to shut out the grim sense that the events

of this Night were fated.

From the obscuring dark at the forest's edge, Una

watched him join his friends. Once Roulant and Thorne

and Guarinn climbed the hill to the ruin, Una went

noiselessly around the base, up the slope as silently as a

shadow, and entered at the opposite side to hide in the

small shelter of blackened beams and piled stone that once

had shaped a bridal chamber.

 

*****

 

Thorne stood in the center of the ruin, surrounded by

the broken stone, his back to the rising moons. He lifted

his head, sniffed the air. Guarinn tied a slipknot around

one end of the rope he'd carried. Roulant strung his bow

and placed three arrows in easy reach on the flat of a

broken stone.

"Time, my friend," the dwarf said, his forge-scarred

hands shaking a little, though he gripped the rope hard.

They'd tried to hold Thorne with rope before, five years

ago. It was Tam who had stood readying bow and bolt

then, not Roulant. Guarinn thought it might be different

this time with a younger eye, a steadier hand to take a

well-timed shot at the instant of changing. Thorne closed

his eyes, shut out the sight of the rope that would hold

him, of Roulant readying a long, steel-headed shaft for

flight, and nodded to Guarinn.

"Do it, and hurry."

When the noose passed over his head and settled on

his neck, Thorne heard himself panting hoarsely, like an

anxious beast mindlessly straining for release. The rope

stank of hemp and tar and the dark scent of smoke, fire's

ghost. In moments, like the return of an unhealed malady,

he'd feel the bonds of humanity fall away from him:

compassion replaced by hunger, an imperative that knew

no mercy. Reason and skill changed by fast, fevered

degrees to instinct, which existed only to serve the needs

of survival. Even now, his senses filled with the complex

richness of scent only an animal knows. Even now the

scents aroused hunger.

The man knew the fear he smelled on Guarinn as well-

justified, not to be scorned. The wolf would only smell the

fear and know instinctively that this was a victim to feed

hunger. Thorne wished that Guarinn would hurry, for very

soon Thorne Shape-shifter, once known for his mastery of

this most difficult of the magic arts, would not be able to

hold back the changing.

 

*****

 

Crouched in her cold dark shelter, Una stared in

amazed alarm to see Guarinn place the noose round

Thorne's neck. Like most people in Dimmin, she felt like

an intruder in Guarinn's company, his glum silences made

her a stranger to be kept at arm's length, mistrusted. But

she knew that Roulant loved Guarinn as truly as he loved

Thorne and had loved his own father. Though she'd heard

Thorne invite the binding, saw Roulant standing by in

silence, Una watched the dwarf with narrowed eyes.

Each knot he tied was strong, and as he worked,

Guarinn's face was like a stark, bleak landscape, scoured

by sorrow, forsaken of all but the thinnest hope. Yet he did

the rough work carefully and, were it anyone else, Una

would have said tenderly. He took great care to cause no

hurt, and watching, unable to find any reason for what she

was seeing, Una swallowed hard against an ache of tears.

Tears for Thorne, bound; for Roulant, who stood as still as

the mage, watching. And for Guarinn Hammerfell who, of

them all, looked as if he alone hated what was being done.

And she wondered, what WAS being done? And

why? From the forest Una heard the clap of an owl's

wings; hard on that, the faint, dying scream of a small

creature caught in dagger-sharp talons. The wind stirred,

cold from behind her as a long, low moaning slid across

the night. An uncanny sound, a grievous pleading.

Trembling, with cold fear, she saw Roulant pick up an

arrow, nock it to the bowstring, his stance the broad one of

a man preparing to put an arrow right through a straw-butt

at the bull's-eye. Guarinn moved to the side, moonlight

running on the bitter edge of the throwing axe in his hand.

The mage, alone, wearing the light of the moons like a

shimmering cloak of red and silver, sank to his knees.

Guarinn took two more quick paces to the side, careful not

to get between the mage and the wall. Roulant stood

where he was, and, after he'd marked Guarinn's position,

he never looked away from Thorne.

The night began to shimmer around Thorne, waver

like the air above a banked fire. Una, who'd been still as

stock, made a sound then, a whisper of boot-heel against

stone as she crept closer to the opening of her small shelter

to see.

Faint though the sound had been, it was heard.

Thorne jerked his head up, looked directly at her.

Cold fear skittered along Una's skin, cramped her belly

painfully. She wanted to reach for her dagger, but she

could only sit motionless, caught and stilled by Thorne's

eyes - the eyes of an animal lurking beyond the campfire's

pale. And the shape of him, she thought, the shape of him

is somehow WRONG. Something about his face, the

length of his arms. But surely that was a trick of

moonlight and shimmering air? And crouching there, he

didn't hold himself like a man, on his knees. He had hands

and feet flat to the ground, as an animal would.

Una pressed her hands hard to her mouth, trying to

muffle her cry of horror and pity when she saw Thorne

look away, turn all his attention to a feverish gnawing at

the rope that bound him.

The rope wasn't doing a good job of holding him now,

for his shape was changing rapidly, and in some places the

coil was slipping away from what had once been a man's

wrist or ankle . . . and were now the smaller joints of an

animal, a broad-chested wolf, its gray pelt silver in the

light of two moons, its dripping fangs glistening.

Guarinn cried "Now, Roulant! DO IT!" and

instinctively Una shoved herself far back against the

broken wall behind her, flinching as rubble slithered down

the hill, the clatter of stone loud in the night.

The sound did not distract Guarinn, his axe hit the

wolf in the shoulder, biting hard, though not lodging in

either muscle or bone. But Roulant hesitated, if only the

space of a heart's beat, and so when the wolf leaped at

him, it was well beneath the arrow's flight. Roaring, the

wolf hit him hard, sent him crashing to the stony ground,

pinned him there with its weight.

And then Una bolted out of her shelter, ran across the

moon-lighted ruin, her own dagger in hand, before she

knew exactly what she meant to do.

 

*****

 

They were upon him, the smaller male and the young

female, with daggers that would bite deeper than his fangs

could. The wolf, who knew nothing about rage or

vengeance or any purpose other than survival, heaved up

from the one sprawled helpless beneath him, abandoned

the enticing scent of blood and meat for immediate

survival.

On the wings of pain, like wings of fire, the wolf won

its freedom at the price of another agonizing bound over

the broken wall. It left blood on the stones of the hillside,

all along the path into the forest, and it carried away with

it the noose still clinging round its neck.

 

*****

 

Guarinn had made a bright, high campfire in the center

of the ruin, but Roulant didn't think it was doing much to

warm or comfort Una. Nor did it seem to help Una that

Roulant held her tightly in his arms - he wondered if she

would ever stop weeping. Somewhere to the north the

wolf howled, a long and lonely cry. Una shuddered, and

Roulant held her closer.

"Una," he said, turning away from the reminder of

failure. "Why did you follow me here?"

She sat straighter, her fists clenched on her knees, her

eyes still wet but no longer pouring tears. "I've known for

two years that you went out into the forest on the Night.

And I've known . . ."

She looked at Guarinn sitting hunched over the fire.

The dwarf turned a little away, seemingly disinterested in

whatever they discussed. Roulant, who knew him,

understood that he was offering privacy.

"You've known what?" he asked, gently.

"That something's come between us. Something - a

secret. Roulant, I've been afraid, and I had to know why

you went into the forest on the Night, when no one else -

"

"Someone else," Guarinn amended. "Thorne and me.

And now that you're here, I suppose you think you should

know the secret you've spied out?"

Una bristled, and Roulant shook his head. "Guarinn,

she's here and that gives her a right to know what she

saw."

"Not as far as I'm concerned."

"Maybe not," Roulant said. "But she has rights where

I'm concerned. I should have honored them before now."

Guarinn eyed them both, quietly judging. "All right,

then. Listen well, Una, and I'll give you the answer you've

come looking for.

"This ruin you see around us used to be Thorne's

house," he said. "A quiet place and peaceful. No more

though. It's only a pile of stone now, a cairn to mark the

place where three dooms were doled out this night thirty

years ago. Three dooms, twined one round the other to

make a single fate."

The wind blew, tangling the smoke and flame of the

small campfire. Roulant wrapped his arms around Una

again and held her close for warmth.

"Girl," the dwarf said. "Your hiding place tonight was

once a bridal chamber. It never saw the joy it was fitted

out for . . ."

 

*****

 

"Thorne asked but two guests to come witness and

celebrate his marriage. One of them was me, and I was

glad to stand with him as he pledged his wedding vows.

The other was Tam Potter, and his was a double joy that

night, for he was Thorne's friend and the bride's cousin.

She was from away south, and I don't think her closest kin

liked the idea of her wedding a mage. But Tam was fair

pleased, and so he was the kinsman who bestowed her

hand.

"Mariel, the girl's name; and she was pretty enough,

but no rare beauty. Yet that night she glowed brightly, put

the stars to shame; for so girls will do when they are soon

to have what they want and need. She needed Thorne

Shape-shifter and had flouted most of her kin to have him.

No less did Thorne need her.

"The first night of autumn, it was, and the bright stars

shone down on us as we stood outside the cottage. Old

legends have it that wedding vows taken in the twined

light of the red moon and the silver will make a marriage

strong in love and faith. Perhaps those legends would have

been proven that night. Perhaps. We did never learn that,

for another guest came to the wedding - uninvited,

unwelcome, and the first we knew of his coming was

when he stood in our midst, dark and cold as death.

"A mage, that uninvited guest, black-robed and with a

heart like hoar-frost - and you must remember that this is

no tale of rival suitors, one come in the very nick of time

to rapt away the maiden he loves. This is a tale of two

young men, one so poisonously jealous of the other that he

must - for hate - spoil whatever his rival in power had.

"The name of the Spoiler? I will not speak it. Let it

never be remembered. This is how dwarves reward

murderers, and I know no other way as good.

"He laid hands on the girl, that dark mage, in a way no

man should touch another's wife; magicked her from sight

before any one of us could move to prevent. Aye, but he

didn't take her far, in hatred and arrogance took her only

within the cottage. In the very instant we knew her gone,

we heard her voice raised in terror and rage. Close as she

was, the evil mage's wizard ways kept us from coming to

her aid until it was too late. The spell lifted. Thorne found

her quickly in the bridal chamber. And he saw the mage

defile her . . . and worse.

"Mariel lay cold and still on the ground, like a fragile

pretty doll flung aside and broken, Thorne's dear love

stricken for spite by the Spoiler.

"Seeing her dead, Thorne Shape-shifter showed the

Spoiler how he'd earned his name.

"You have seen the wolf, and so you know what the

Spoiler saw in the moments before his death. But you have

never heard such screaming as I heard that night: never

heard such piteous pleading, nor heard anyone wail for

mercy as the Spoiler did, him torn by the fangs of the great

gray wolf.

"Tam Potter and I could have tried to stop Thorne, but

we did not. We stood by, watched the wolf at his ravening

work. We should have granted mercy."

 

*****

 

Despite the hot, high fire, Una sat shivering, her hand

a small fist in Roulant's.

"Tam died wishing we'd granted that mercy," Guarinn

said softly. "And I sit here now wishing no less, for the

Spoiler died with a curse on his lips. It was a hard one, as

the curses of dying mages tend to be, and it marked us all

with the fate of hunter and hunted."

Stiff and cold from sitting, Una got to her feet; she did

not answer when Roulant called to her. She needed a place

to be private with what she'd learned. The night was crisp

and bright, as lovely as it must have been this time thirty

years ago. As she walked, Una discovered the shape of the

ruin, saw that it was very like the little stone house near

the bend of the brook in Dimmin. It lacked only one room

to be exactly the same. In the Dimmin house, Thorne kept

only a stark sleeping loft under the eaves.

Una stood for a long time before the dark mouth of

the little cave of fire-blacked beam and broken stone that

had sheltered her tonight; all that was left of a fouled

bridal chamber.

She returned to stand by the fire. "Tell me," she said.

"Thorne must surrender his very self one night each

year and hope that Roulant or I will end the curse by

killing the wolf. This," Guarinn said, "is an inherited

obligation."

Una stood quietly, her eyes on the fire, the flames and

the embers. "If you kill the wolf, what will happen to

Thorne?"

It was Roulant - silent till then - who answered.

"The curse will be over. He'll begin to age, grow old

again, like the rest of us. Thorne hasn't got any elven

blood, Una, though everyone thinks so. It's the curse that's

held him in time."

"Guarinn," she said softly. "Why haven't you killed the

wolf in all these thirty years?"

"You'd think it would be easy, aye? Take the first shot

as he was changing and end the matter. It isn't so easy.

Once before, binding him slowed the change, and we tried

that again tonight. But sometimes ..." The dwarf

shuddered. "Sometimes he's changed between one breath

and the next. Sometimes faster than that, and the wolf is

gone before either one of us can pick up a weapon. He

doesn't just LOOK like a wolf. He IS one! He'll tear at you,

running, and he's too canny to stay around fighting losing

battles.

"So," she said. "You have to go out and hunt the

wolf?"

Neither answered. A glance passed between them and

Roulant got to his feet. He took her hand, his own very

cold as he led her into the shadow of a low broken wall.

"Una," he said. "We can kill the wolf if we can find it -

"

"That won't be hard tonight. You could track him by

the blood."

"We could. Except ..." His face shone white in the

moonlight, his eyes dark with dread. "Except that we dare

not set foot out there!"

She frowned, leaned on the wall to look out. All she

saw was night and stars and the moons hanging over the

clearing. She heard night noise, owls wondering and hares

scampering, a stream laughing over stones.

"I know," Roulant said. "I see everything that you see,

just as you see it. When I'm standing here." He turned his

back on the forest. "When I set foot outside the ruin - even

hold my hand out beyond the wall . . . It's terrible out

there. The Spoiler laid a curse on us too, one we've never

found a way past. In here, we're safe. Out there . . . they'll kill us."

Una heard this, but she was staring out at the forest and the night,

thinking about what he'd said about things being very different beyond

the wall. She looked down and saw her loosely clasped hands just

beyond the wall. Unlike the others, she neither saw nor felt any curse in

the forest or the night.

Una turned away from the wall and walked past Roulant and

Guarinn without a word. She picked up Roulant's bow and quiver on the

way. She'd not gotten but a few yards when she heard Roulant shout

something, heard Guarinn scrambling to his feet, echoing the warning

cry. Una ran, heeding no warning. She vaulted the wall where the wolf

had fled.

As she bounded down the hill, Una hoped that whatever kept

Roulant and Guarinn helpless in the ruin would not affect her. It was

frightening enough to go hunting a wounded wolf in the night, and her

only a middling shot with a bow. Still, the beast was wounded, and if she

could once get a good aim, she'd be able to kill it.

 

*****

 

Roulant jumped the wall, chased heedlessly after Una. And he

thought: Idiot girl! Guarinn was a long reach behind. He prayed that

Roulant would be able to snatch her back to safety in time, that he

wouldn't have to follow.

Una was too fast. She vanished into the shadows at the foot of the

hill. Roulant stood where he'd landed.

Guarinn eyed the darkness, and Roulant standing outside the wall,

straining like a leashed hound. The night would spring alive at any

moment, suddenly boiling with horror. The wall would be on them.

Guarinn nervously fingered the haft of his axe. "Roulant, what do

you think?"

"I'm going to fetch Una back, that's what I think!"

Guarinn heard Roulant's answer only faintly, for the young man was

already at the foot of the hill. Alone in the ruin, Guarinn shifted from foot

to foot, indecisively. "This is insane," he muttered. "I KNOW what's

going to happen to me if I leave here ..."

He took a breath, fueling courage and a suddenly rising hope.

Maybe nothing would happen.

Roulant can chase after his girl if that's what he wants to do,

Guarinn thought. But I still have my axe and good strong arm, and I'm

going for the wolf.

Guarinn hopped the wall. But when his feet hit the ground he found

himself on the wrong side of the border between reason and nightmare,

caught in the trap the Spoiler had laid for any wolfhunter who ventured

out of the ruin.

 

*****

 

The wall walked. And the dead with him.

They crawled, and shambled, and dragged themselves staggering

through a foul and freezing fog, each trying desperately to reach

Guarinn as the damned would grasp at one last hope. He could not move,

stood rooted like an oak in the ice-toothed mist, helpless as decaying

hands plucked at him, clung to him, shoulder and wrist and arm. And

this was no silent place, this nightmare-realm. It was filled up with

the mad shrieking and frenzied grieving of people he'd known in life,

and some he'd never seen until they were dead.

A hunter who'd died to feed the wolf's hunger.

An old peddler night-caught in the forest, hardly recognizable as

human when he'd been found.

A child, a little boy screaming now as it had when, three years ago,

the wolf had torn him from his bed. Or was that Guarinn's own voice

screaming, his own throat torn with the violence of terror as the child's

had been by the wolf's fangs?

Then came a howling, a long, aching sound of abandonment. The

wolf. Or a friend forsaken. Or an innocent dying.

GUARINN, YOU'VE FAILED ME, FAILED THEM ALL! Hands clawed at his

face, dug and tore at his throat, leaving bits of their own flesh and

grave-mold behind to foul his beard and hair.

FAITHLESS FRIEND! YOU STINK OF THEIR BLOOD, GUARINN HAMMERFELL!

Guarinn cried out in terror, couldn't tell his own voice

from theirs, no longer knew who accused - they or him.

The ice-mist filled up his lungs, stopped his breath,

suffocating him.

MURDERER! GUARINN CHILD-KILLER! GUARINN -

 

*****

 

"Guarinn! Breathe! Come on, breathe!"

Roulant shook his friend till his teeth rattled, shook

him harder still, but to no effect. Roulant'd heard but one

choking gasp of terror, just as he was entering the forest,

and he'd known that whatever chance-found charm was

keeping him safe and sane outside the ruin wasn't working

for Guarinn. The dwarf was trapped, unable to move, even

to breathe, while mind and soul were adrift in the cold

country of nightmare.

"Guarinn," Roulant shouted, fearful. Perhaps Una was

safe because the Spoiler's trap was meant to harm no one

but those who bound by the curse. Perhaps Roulant was

safe because he left the ruin to find Una, not to end the

curse. But Guarinn must have left the ruin with plans to

kill the wolf. That's what sprung the Spoiler's trap,

Roulant thought.

"Guarinn!" he cried again, gathering his friend close,

holding him. "We've got to find Una! I need you to help

me. Please, Guarinn! Come back and help me . . ."

A breath, just a small one.

"Guarinn - help me find Una. We must find Una!"

The dwarf drew another breath, no steadier, but

deeper. Roulant held him hard, forced him to look

nowhere but into his eyes. "Listen - LISTEN! Don't think

about anything else but this: We have to find Una. Don't

even think about why. We're here for no reason but to find

Una. Do you understand?"

Guarinn swallowed hard.

"DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"

"Yes," Guarinn said hoarsely. "What next?"

Roulant thought as he helped his friend to his feet.

 

*****

 

The wolf woke to pain and hunger. He was not

frightened by the pain, knowing he could transcend it. He

was afraid of hunger. Wolves worship only one god, and

the god's name is Hunger.

He'd found shelter quickly after he'd fled his attackers,

a soft nest of old leaves beneath a rock outcropping.

There, downwind of his enemies so he could smell them if

they pursued, he'd licked clean the shallow cuts on his

belly and legs, the deeper one on his shoulder. He'd

gnawed off the trailing end of the rope, for that frightened

him nearly as much as hunger. It had more than once

snagged in bushes to choke him as he'd fled. He'd gotten

most of it, wearing only the noose now, a foul-smelling

collar. Free and safe, he'd curled tight against the cold -

sleeping lightly, dreaming of thirst and hunger as a thin

veil of clouds came from the east to hide the stars.

Now the shadows had softer edges and the darkness

was deeper. The wind told him that water was no great

distance away - clean and cold by the smell; by the sound,

no more than a streamlet. It would be enough to provide

thirst's ease. And there was another scent, not close yet,

only faintly woven into night, but the wolf knew it -

human-scent, burnt meat and smoke and old skins; sweat

and the light, sweet odor of flesh; running beneath that,

the warm smell of blood; over it all, the tang of fear, sharp

and enticing on the cold night air. He'd seen this young

female not long ago, and he had the mark of her steel fang

on him. Hers was the least of his wounds, for she'd been

distracted by fear and not very strong.

With his lean god for company, the wolf rose stiffly

from his warm nest.

 

*****

 

Una knelt to examine the dark blot marking the faded

earth of the deer trail, and by the thin light of the moons

saw that it was no more than shadow. Cold wind blew

steadily from the east, carried the smell of a morning

snow. Una shivered and got to her feet. She'd not seen a

blood-mark or the imprints of the wolf's limping passage

for some time now, but the last real sign had been along

this game-trail, a path no more than a faint, wandering line

to show where deer passed between high-reaching trees in

their foraging. Lacking a better choice, Una continued

along the path.

The wolf had not proven as easy to track as she'd

thought, and now she wondered whether she'd ever find

him. She wondered, too, whether it would turn out that the

beast found her, or was even now stalking behind. She

tried not to think about that. All she needed was a clear

shot. She'd put plenty of arrows through the straw-butt,

she could put an arrow through a wolf. She could free

Thorne. She could free them all. But she had little

confidence ruling her thoughts, and so, her attention was

focused behind her rather than in front when the deer trail

ended abruptly at the muddy verge of a shallow stream.

Una and the wolf saw each other at the same moment,

and she knew - as prey knows in its bones - that she might

have time to nock an arrow to string, but she wasn't going

to have time to let the bolt fly.

 

*****

 

Guarinn tried to maintain a narrow focus, to shut

down all thinking and track like an animal, using only

sight and scent and hearing. He measured his success by

the nearness of dead voices. At best, the haunting dead

were never wholly gone, only banished to a distance he

could endure. The protection Roulant had shown him was

working, but only just. How fast would the Spoiler's trap

catch them if they came upon the wolf?

Soft - a whisper shivering across the night - Guarinn

heard the rattle of brush. He stopped, keeping his hands

fisted and well away from the axe in his belt while he

waited to hear the sound again.

"The wind," Roulant said, low.

Guarinn didn't think so. That one soft rattle had been a

discordant note. When the sound came again, Guarinn

knew it wasn't wind-crafted. Nor was it soft now.

Something was running through the brush.

"It's Una!" Roulant cried and bolted past Guarinn.

She wasn't alone. Like a dark echo, something else

came crashing through the brush behind her.

Fleet, eyes huge as a hunted doe's, Una burst through

the brush, frantically trying to nock arrow to bow as she

ran. She was having little luck, and even at a distance

Guarinn saw her hands shaking, fumbling uselessly at

shaft and string.

"Una," Roulant shouted. "Here!"

Seeing them for the first time, she redoubled her

speed. Relief and joy and - last - panic marked her face

when her foot turned on a stone and she fell hard to the

ground, the breath blasted from her, and the bow flung

from her hand.

Guarinn saw the wolf first. The sight of it - eyes redly

blazing, fangs gleaming - triggered instinct. In the very

moment the wolf leaped, the dwarf snatched his throwing

axe from his belt - and tumbled over the edge of

nightmare.

 

*****

 

The wolf smelled fear and loved it - the scent of easy

prey. He sensed no threat in the smaller male, standing

motionless; nor was the young female - struggling for

breath, fighting to rise from the ground - any danger.

These he could ignore for now. But the third, the bigger

male . . . from him came the fiery scent of a pack-

defender. He was the danger and the threat.

 

*****

 

The wolf hurtled past Una. Choking on the sudden,

cold rush of air, she heard the impact of bodies - the wolf

snarling and Roulant's grunt of shock and pain.

And she saw Guarinn standing still as stone, his

throwing axe gripped in a nerveless hand.

"Guarinn!" she cried, clawing at the ground in desperate

search of the bow. "Help him!"

Guarinn never moved . . . and she found the bow,

string-broken, useless. Roulant screamed, a raging curse

turned to pain as the wolf's fangs tore at his shoulder. The

cry of pain became a chant - her name, gasped over and

over in the staggering rhythm of his ragged breathing as

he struggled with the beast.

Una gained her feet, running. She flung herself at the

wolf's back, dagger in hand. Clinging to the writhing

beast's neck, choking on the smell of blood, she struck

wildly. Poorly. Hurting, but not killing.

The wolf heaved up.

"Guarinn! Help me! The wolf is killing him!"

The beast twisted sharply, and threw her off. Its fangs

dripped frothy red, and behind it, Roulant lurched to his

feet, gasping his terrible chant. The wolf turned, leaped at

him. Una didn't know which of them screamed, man or

wolf. The sound of it tore through the night, a wild

howling.

 

*****

 

Guarinn Hammerfell stood at the center of a

maelstrom of wild moaning and screaming. GUARINN!

HELP HIM! Hands clawed at him, shreds of livid flesh

falling away to expose bones as white and brittle as ice.

THE WOLF IS KILLING HIM! Hollow voices accused

him, and the foul names - child-killer! murderer! faithless

friend! - turned the ice-mist filling his lungs to poison.

A wind rose to pound at him, tear at him, with such

violence that even the dead hands, shedding tattered flesh,

rattling bones, fell away before it. Howling, screaming,

deafening wind.

ROULANT! Familiar with everyone who haunted this

nightmare realm, Guarinn knew that name had no

business being spoken here. He snatched at it, clutched it

tight for a lifeline. He was choking, fighting for air,

falling . . . and staggering on the deer trail, his axe

clenched tight in his fist.

The wolf lunged again at Roulant, leaping for his throat.

In the only instant of sanity he might get before the dead

snatched him back into the Spoiler's trap, Guarinn sighted,

threw, and didn't miss.

The wolf fell to the ground, its spine severed. Hard

and dark, the beast's eyes held Guarinn for a long moment.

Then they softened, and the night filled up with silence.

The dying wolf became man. A moment, the man had,

and he used it to speak. Only whispered words, barely

heard.

"Roulant... are you hurt?"

Roulant ignored the question. "Thorne! You're . ..

dying! No, Thorne. This isn't how it's supposed to be!

You said..."

Thorne smiled, shifting his gaze to Guarinn.

"You," Thorne said. "Old friend, you knew I wouldn't

survive, didn't you?"

Guarinn heard grieving, Una and Roulant, one

sobbing softly in shock and the aftermath of terror, the

other offering comfort in the face of his own astonished

grief.

"And you killed the wolf. Knowing." Thorne closed

his eyes. "Thank you."

Guarinn lifted his friend's hand and held it, very

gently, close against his heart until he felt the last pulse,

and some time longer after that.

 

*****

 

Limping, leaning on Una for support, Roulant knelt

beside his friends, the living and the dead.

He and Guarinn and Una knelt together as snow began

to fall, listened to dawn-wind singing. It held no echo of

wolfish howling. The Night of the Wolf was over, and

Roulant saw the peace of it in Guarinn's smile.

 

The Potion Sellers

 

Mark ANTONY

 

It was just after MIDSUMMER'S, ON a fine, golden

morning, when the seller of potions came to the town of

Faxfail.

Perched precariously upon the high bench of a

peculiar-looking wagon, he drove through the borough's

narrow, twisting streets. The wagon, pulled by a pair of

perfectly matched dappled ponies, was a tall, boxlike craft

all varnished in black and richly decorated with carved

scrollwork of gilded wood. On the wagon's side panel,

painted in a fantastically brilliant hue of purple, was the

picture of a bottle above which was scribed, in flowing

letters of serpentine green, three strange words:

MOSSWINE'S MIRACULOUS ELIXIRS. It was a

mysterious message indeed, and startled the townsfolk

who looked up from their morning tasks and chores in

curiosity as the wagon rattled by.

The seller of potions himself was a young-looking

man, with hair the color of new straw and eyes as blue as

the summer sky. He was clad in finery fit for a noble -

albeit in hues a bit brighter than most nobles would choose

- and his dark, crimson-lined cape billowed out behind

him in the morning breeze. He waved to the townsfolk as

he passed by, his broad grin rivalling the sun for sheer

brilliance.

On the hard wooden bench next to the seller of potions

bounced a short, swarthy-looking fellow. His look was not

nearly so cheerful as his companion's, but then this was

only typical. He was a dwarf, and it has often been said

that dwarvenkind is every bit as hard and unyielding as the

metals dwarves are so fond of forging deep in their dim

mountain smithies. This particular dwarf wore a dour

expression, his heavy eyebrows drawn down over his iron-

gray eyes in a scowl. His coarse black beard was so long

he wore it tucked into his broad leather belt, and his

shaggy hair was bound with a leather thong into a braid

behind his neck.

"You know, you're going to scare the townsfolk out of

what little wits they have with that sour look you're

wearing," the seller of potions said quietly to the dwarf

through clenched teeth, all the while grinning and waving.

"It won't do us a great deal of good if they all take one

look at you and go scurrying inside to bolt their doors. At

least, not until after we have their money. I don't suppose

you could smile for a change, could you?"

"I am smiling," the dwarf answered in a gruff voice.

His craggy visage was not quite as warm and friendly as a

chunk of wind-hewn granite, but almost.

The seller of potions eyed the dwarf critically. "Maybe

you shouldn't try so hard," he suggested lightly, but the

joke was completely lost on the dour-faced dwarf. The

seller of potions sighed and shook his head. His name was

Jastom, and he had traveled with this particular dwarf long

enough to know when argument and teasing were

pointless. The dwarf's name was Algrimmbeldebar, but

over the years Jastom had taken to simply calling him

Grimm. Not only did the name slip more readily from the

tongue, it also suited the dwarf's disposition far better.

Rumors sped faster than sparrows through the towns

narrow streets, and by the time the wagon rolled into Fax-

fail's central square, a sizeable crowd of curious townsfolk

had gathered expectantly. It wouldn't be the largest

audience Jastom had ever hawked potions to, but it

wouldn't be the smallest either. Faxfail was a town deep in

the Garnet mountains of southern Solamnia. The nearest

city of consequence - that would be Kaolyn - was a good

three day's journey to the north and west. These were

country folk. And country folk tended to be far more

trusting than city folk. Or gullible, depending upon one's

choice of words.

"I suppose this means I'll have to mix more elixirs,"

Grimm grumbled, eyeing the growing throng. The dwarf

opened a small panel behind the bench and nimbly

disappeared inside the wagon.

Concocting potions was Grimm's task; selling them

was Jastom's. It was an arrangement that had proven quite

profitable on their journeys from one end of Ansalon to

the other. The two had first met some years before, in the

markets of Kalaman. At the time, neither had been making

a terribly good living for himself. Even Jastom's brilliant

smile and ingenuous visage had not been enough to

interest folk in the crude baubles he was attempting to

foist off as good luck charms. And as for the dwarf, his

gloomy, glowering looks tended to keep potential

customers well away from the booth where he was trying

to sell his elixirs. One night, the two had found themselves

sharing a table in a tavern, each lamenting his particular

misfortune over a mug of ale. Both had realized that each

had what the other lacked, and so their unlikely but

lucrative partnership was born.

The wagon rolled to a halt in the center of the town's

square, and Jastom leapt acrobatically to the cobbles. He

bowed deeply, flourishing his heavy cape as grandly as a

court magician, and then spread his arms wide.

"Gather 'round, good folk of Faxfail, gather 'round!"

he called out. His voice was clear as a trumpet, honed by

years of hawking wares until it was as precise as the finest

musical instrument. "Wonders await you this day, so

gather 'round and behold!"

From out of nowhere (or, in fact, from out of his

sleeve) a small purple bottle appeared in Jastom's upturned

palm. A gasp of amazement passed through the crowd as

folk young and old alike leaned forward to peer at the odd

little bottle. The morning sunlight sparkled through the

purple glass, illuminating a thick, mysterious-looking

liquid within.

"Wonders indeed," Jastom went on, lowering his voice

to a theatrical whisper that was nonetheless audible to

even the most distant onlookers. "After just one sip of this

precious potion, all your aches and ailments, all your

malingering maladies and ponderous pains, will vanish as

though they had never been. For a mere ten coins of steel"

- a dismissing gesture of his hand made this particular

detail seem of the barest significance - "this bottle of

Mosswine's Miraculous Elixir will heal all!"

This last, of course, was not precisely true, and

Jastom knew it. He and Grimm were charlatans. Fakes.

Swindlers. The potion in the purple bottle couldn't so

much as heal a rabbit of the sniffles let alone any of the

dire ills he was claiming. Mosswine wasn't even Jastom's

real name. It was Jastom Mosswallow. However, by the

time folk in any one place realized the truth of things,

Jastom and Grimm would always be long gone, headed

for the next town or city to ply their trade.

It wasn't at all a bad business as Jastom reckoned

things. He and Grimm got a purse full of coins for their

efforts, and in return the folk they duped got something to

believe in, at least for a little while. And these days even a

brief hope was a rare thing of worth.

It was just six short months ago, in the dead of

winter, that all of Krynn had suffered under the cold, hard

claws of the dragonarmies. The War of the Lance had

ended with the coming of spring, but the scars it had left

upon the land - and the people - had not faded so easily

as the winter snows. The folk of Ansalon were desperate

for anything that might help them believe they could

leave the dark days of the war behind, that they could heal

themselves and make their lives whole once again. That

was exactly what Jastom and Grimm gave them.

Of course, there were true clerics in the land now,

since the War. Some were disciples of the goddess

Mishakal - called Light Bringer - and they could heal

with the touch of a hand. Or at least so Jastom had heard,

for true clerics were still a rarity. However, he and Grimm

did their best to avoid towns and cities where there were

rumored to be clerics. Folk wouldn't be so willing to buy

false healing potions when there was one among them

with the power of true healing.

Abruptly, there was a loud, surprising clunk! as the

wagon's side panel flipped downward, revealing a

polished wooden counter and, behind it, a row of shelves

lined with glimmering purple bottles. Grimm's glowering

eyes barely managed to peer over the countertop, but the

crowd hardly noticed the taciturn dwarf. All were gazing

at the display of sparkling elixirs.

Jastom gestured expansively to the wagon. "Indeed,

my good gentlefolk, just one of these elixirs, and all that

troubles you will be cured. And all it costs is a mere ten

coins of steel. A small price to pay for a miracle, wouldn't

you say?"

There was a single moment of silence, and then as one

the crowd gave a cry of excitement as they rushed

forward, jingling purses in hand.

 

*****

 

All morning and all afternoon the townsfolk crowded

about the black varnished wagon, listening to Jastom extol

the wondrous properties of the potions and then setting

down their cold steel on the counter in trade for the small

purple bottles.

There was only one minor crisis, this around midday,

when the supply of potions ran out. Grimm was busily

scurrying about inside the cramped wagon, measuring this

and pouring that as he hurriedly tried to mix a new batch

of elixirs. However, a few burly, red-necked farmers grew

impatient and began shaking the wagon. Jars and bottles

and pots went flying wildly inside, spilling their contents

and covering Grimm with a sticky, medicinal-smelling

mess. Luckily, the dwarf had managed to finish a handful

of potions by then, and Jastom used these to placate the

belligerent farmers, selling them the bottles for half price.

Losing steel was not something Jastom much cared for,

but losing the wagon - and Grimm - would have been

disastrous.

After that interruption, Grimm was able to finish

filling empty bottles with the thick, pungent elixir, and

business proceeded more smoothly. However, the dwarf's

eyes were still smoldering like hot iron.

"Fine way to make a living," he grumbled to himself as

he tried to pick sticky clumps of herbs from his thick black

beard. "I suppose we'll swindle ourselves right out of our

own necks one of these days."

"What did that glum-looking little fellow say?" a

blacksmith demanded, hesitating as he started to lay down

his ten coins of steel on the wooden counter. "Something

about swindle?"

Jastom shot a murderous look at Grimm and then

turned his most radiant smile to the smith. "You'll have to

forgive my friend's mumblings," he said in a conspiratorial

whisper. "He hasn't been quite the same ever since one of

the ponies kicked him in the head."

The blacksmith nodded in sympathetic understanding.

He left the wagon, small purple bottle in hand. Jastom's

bulging purse was ten coins heavier. And Grimm kept his

mouth shut.

 

*****

 

It was midafternoon when Jastom sold the last of the

potions. The corpulent merchant who bought it gripped

the purple bottle tightly in his chubby fingers and scurried

off through the streets, a gleam in his eye. The fellow

hadn't seemed to want to discuss the exact nature of his

malady, but Jastom suspected it had something to do with

the equally corpulent young maiden who was waiting for

him in the door of a nearby inn, smiling and batting her

eyelids in a dreadful imitation of demureness. Jastom

shook his head, chuckling.

Abruptly there was a loud WHOOP! Jastom turned to

see an old woman throw down her crooked cane and

begin dancing a spry jig to a piper's merry tune. Other

folk quickly joined the dance, heedless of the aches and

cares that had burdened them only a short while ago. One

shabbily-dressed fellow, finding himself without a

partner, settled for a spotted pig that had the misfortune to

be wandering through the town square. The pig squealed

in surprise as the man whirled it about, and Jastom

couldn't help but laugh aloud at the spectacle.

This was the work of the elixirs, of course. Jastom

wasn't altogether certain what Grimm put in the small

purple bottles, but he knew the important ingredient was

something called dwarf spirits. And while dwarf spirits

were not known to possess any curative powers, they did

have certain potent and intoxicating effects.

Jastom had no idea how the dwarves brewed the stuff.

From what little he had managed to get out of Grimm, it

was all terribly secret, the recipe passed down from

generation to generation with ancient ceremony and

solemn oaths to guard the formula. But whatever was in it,

it certainly worked. Laborers threw down their shovels,

goodwives their brooms, and all joined what was rapidly

becoming an impromptu festival. Respected city elders

turned cartwheels about the square, and parents leapt into

piles of straw hand-in-hand with their laughing children.

For now, all thoughts of the war, of worry and of sickness,

were altogether missing from the town of Faxfail.

But it couldn't last.

"They won't feel so terribly well tomorrow, once the

dwarf spirits wear off," Grimm observed dourly.

"But today they do, and by tomorrow we'll be

somewhere else," Jastom said, patting the nearly-bursting

purse at his belt.

He slammed shut the wagon's side panel and leapt up

onto the high bench. Grimm clambered up after him. At a

flick of the reins, the ponies started forward, and the

wagon rattled slowly out of the rollicking town square.

Jastom did not notice as three men - one with a sword

at his hip and the other two clad in heavy black robes

despite the day's warmth - stepped from a dim alleyway

and began to thread their way through the spontaneous

celebration, following in the wagon's wake.

 

*****

 

Jastom whistled a cheerful, tuneless melody as the

wagon jounced down the red dirt road, leaving the town of

Faxfail far behind.

The road wound its way across a broad vale. To the

north and south hulked two slate-gray peaks that looked

like ancient fortresses built by long-vanished giants. The

sky above was clear as a sapphire, and a fair wind, clean

with the hint of mountain heights, hissed through the

rippling fields of green-gold grass. Sunflowers nodded like old good-

wives to each other, and larks darted by upon the air, trilling their glad

melodies.

"You seem to be in an awfully fine mood, considering," Grimm

noted in his rumbling voice.

"Considering what, Grimm?" Jastom asked gaily, resuming his

whistling.

"Considering that cloud of dust that's following on the road behind

us," the dwarf replied.

Jastom's whistling died.

"What?"

He cast a hurried look over his shoulder. Sure enough, a thick plume

of ruddy dust was rising from the road perhaps a half mile back. Even as

Jastom watched, he saw the shapes of three dark horsemen appear amidst

the blood-colored cloud. No . . . one horseman and two figures running

along on either side. The sound of pounding hoofbeats rumbled faintly on

the air like the sound of a distant storm.

Jastom swore loudly. "This is impossible," he said incredulously.

"The townsfolk couldn't have sobered up this soon. They can't have

figured out that we've swindled them. Not yet."

"Is that so?" Grimm grunted. "Well, they're riding mighty fast and

hard for drunken men."

"Maybe they're not after us," Jastom snapped. But an uncomfortable

image of a noose slipping over his neck went through his mind. Swearing

again, he slapped the reins, urging the ponies into a canter. The box-

shaped wagon was heavy, and they had just begun to ascend a low hill.

The ponies couldn't go much faster. Jastom glanced wildly over his

shoulder again. The horseman had closed the gap to half of what it had

been only a few moments before. He saw now that two of them - the ones

running - wore heavy black robes. Sunlight glinted dully from the sword

that the third rider had drawn.

Jastom considered jumping from the wagon but promptly discarded the

idea. If the fall didn't kill them, the strangers would simply cut him and

the dwarf down like a mismatched pair of weeds. Besides, everything

Jastom and Grimm owned was in the wagon. Their entire livelihood de

pended upon it. Jastom couldn't abandon it, no matter the consequences.

He flicked the reins harder. The ponies strained valiantly against their

harnesses, their nostrils flaring with effort.

It wasn't enough.

With a sound like a breaking storm, the horseman rode up alongside

the wagon. One of the dark-robed men dashed up close to the ponies.

With incredible strength, he grabbed the bridle of the nearest and then

pulled back hard, his feet digging into the gravel of the road. The

dapples reared, whinnying in fear as the wagon shuddered to a sudden

stop.

"Away with you, dogs!" Grimm growled fiercely, reaching under

the seat for the heavy axe he kept there. The dwarf never managed to get

a hand on the weapon. With almost comic ease, the second dark-robed

man grabbed the dwarf by the collar of his tunic and lifted him from the

bench. The dwarf kicked his feet and waved his arms futilely, suspended

in midair, his face red with rage and lack of air.

Jastom could pay scant attention to the spluttering dwarf. He had

worries of his own. A glittering steel sword was leveled directly at his

heart.

Whoever these three were, Jastom was quite certain that they

weren't townsfolk from Faxfail, but this did little to comfort him. The

man before him looked to be a soldier of some sort. He was clad in black

leather armor sewn with plates of bronze, and a cloak of lightning blue

was thrown back over his stiff, square shoulders.

Suddenly, Jastom was painfully aware of the fat leather purse at his

belt. He cursed himself inwardly. He should have known better than to

go riding off, boldly flaunting his newly-gained wealth. The roads were

thick with bandits and brigands these days, now that the war was over.

Most likely these men were deserters from the Solamnic army, desperate

and looking for foolish travelers like himself to waylay.

Jastom forced his best grin across his face. "Good day, friend," he

said to the man who held the sword at his chest.

The man was tall and stern-faced, his blond, close-cropped hair and

hawklike nose enhancing the granite severity of his visage. Most

disturbing about him, however, were his eyes. They were

pale and colorless, like his hair, but as hard as stones.

They were eyes that had watched men die and not cared a

whit one way or another.

The man inclined his head politely, as though he

wasn't also holding a sword in his hand. "I am Lieutenant

Durm, of the Blue Dragonarmy," he said in a voice that

was steel-made - polished and smooth, yet cold and so

very hard. "My master, the Lord Commander Shaahzak, is

in need of one with healing skills." He gestured with the

sword to the picture of the bottle painted on the side of the

wagon. "I see that you are a healer." The sword point

swung once again in Jastom's direction. "You will

accompany me to attend my commander."

THE BLUE DRAGONARMY? Jastom thought in

disbelief. But the war was over! The dragonarmies had

been defeated by the Whitestone forces. At least, that was

what the stories said. Jastom shot a quick look at Grimm,

but the dwarf was still dangling in midair from the dark-

robed man's fist, cursing in a tight, squeaky voice. Jastom

turned his attention back to the man who called himself

Durm.

"I fear that I have an appointment elsewhere," Jastom

said pleasantly, his grin growing broader yet. He reached

for his heavy leather purse. "I am certain, lieutenant, that

you can easily find another who is not so pressed for - " -

time, Jastom was going to finish, but before he could,

Durm reached out in a fluid, almost casual gesture and

struck him.

Jastom's head erupted into a burst of white-hot fire.

He tumbled from the wagon's bench to the hard ground, a

rushing noise filling his ears. For a dizzying moment he

thought he was going to be sick. After a few seconds the

flashing pain subsided to a low throbbing. He blinked his

eyes and looked up. Durm had dismounted and stood over

him now, his visage as emotionless as before.

"I recommend that you not speak falsehood to me

again," Durm said in a polite, chilling voice, his tone that

of a host admonishing a guest for spilling wine on an

expensive carpet. "Do you understand, healer?"

Jastom nodded jerkily. THIS MAN COULD KILL ME

WITH HIS BARE HANDS AND NOT EVEN BLINK,

Jastom thought with a shudder.

"Excellent," Durm said. He reached down and helped

Jastom to his feet - the same hand that had struck him a

moment before. Durm gestured sharply, and the dark-

robed man who had been holding Grimm let the dwarf fall

heavily back to the wagon's bench, gasping for air.

"If you lie to me again, healer," Durm went on

smoothly, "I will instruct my servants to deal with you.

And I fear you will not find them so lenient as myself."

Durm's dark-robed followers pushed back the heavy

cowls of their robes.

They were not human.

The two looked more akin to lizards than men, but

they were not truly either. The two of them gazed at

Jastom and Grimm with unblinking yellow eyes. Dull,

green-black scales - not skin or fur - covered the monsters'

faces. They had doglike snouts. Short, jagged spikes

sprouted from their low, flat brows, and where each

should have had ears there were only small indentations in

their scaly hides. The monster nearest Jastom grinned

evilly, revealing row upon row of jagged, yellow teeth, as

if it enjoyed the idea of having Jastom to do with as it

wished. A thin forked tongue flickered in and out of the

thing's mouth.

Draconian. Jastom had never seen such a beast in his

life, but he had heard enough tales of the War of the Lance

to put a name to it. The draconians were the servants of

the Dragon Highlords, and they had marched across the

land to lay scourge to the face of Krynn even as the evil

dragons themselves had descended from the skies.

"You might as well save everyone the trouble and let

the lizards have us now," Grimm shouted hotly. "We're

only - "

Jastom elbowed the dwarf hard in the ribs.

"Apprentice healers. New at this. Very new." Grimm

mumbled, saying something about "necks," but fortunately

only Jastom heard him.

Jastom drew upon all his theatrical skills to pull his

facade back together. "Very well, my good lieutenant, we

shall journey with you," he said, tipping his cap. As if we

had a choice in the matter, he added inwardly.

"That is well," Durm said simply.

The lieutenant mounted and spurred his horse viciously

into a canter. Jastom realized there was nothing to do but

follow. He climbed back onto the wagon and flicked the

ponies' reins. The craft lurched into motion. The two

draconians ran along either side, hands on the hilts of their

wicked-looking sabres. Jastom cast a quick look at

Grimm. The dwarf eyed his friend, then shook his head

gloomily.

For the first time he could ever remember, Jastom

found himself wishing his elixirs could truly work the

wonders he claimed.

 

*****

 

Dawn was blossoming on the horizon, like a pale rose

unfurling its petals, when the wagon rattled into the

dragonarmy encampment.

They had traveled all through the night, making their

way down treacherous mountain roads guided only by the

dim light of the crimson moon, Lunitari. More than once

Jastom had thought that wagon, ponies, and all were

going to plummet off the side of a precipice into the deep

shadows far below. Yet he had not dared to slow the

wagon's hurtling pace as they careened down the twisting

passes. Jastom feared tumbling over a cliff a good bit less

than he did facing Durm's displeasure.

Now, in the pale silvery light of dawn, they had left

the mountains behind them somewhere in the gloom of

night. The dragonarmy encampment sat in a hollow at the

edge of the rolling foothills. Stretching into the distance

eastward was a vast gray-green plain, its flowing lines

broken only here and there by the silhouette of a

cottonwood tree, sinking its roots deep for water.

The encampment was not large - perhaps fifty tents in

all, clustered on the banks of a small river. But Jastom

had not realized that there were still any dragonanny

forces at all so close to Solamnia, or anywhere for that

matter. From the stories, he thought they had all been

driven clean off the face of Krynn. Obviously that was not

so.

Most of the soldiers in the encampment were human,

with deep-set eyes and cruel mouths. There were a number

of draconians as well, dressed in leather armor similar to

that of the human soldiers. Short, stubby wings sprouted

from the draconians' backs, as leathery as a bat's, but they

seemed to flutter uselessly as the draconians stalked across

the ground on clawed, unbooted feet.

"This doesn't look like one of the friendlier audiences

you've ever had to hawk potions to," Grimm noted as the

wagon rolled into the center of the encampment.

Jastom had played to dangerous audiences before,

unruly crowds of ruffians who were more interested in

breaking bones than in buying magical potions. But he had

won even these over in the end.

A gleam touched Jastom's blue eyes. "No, but they

ARE an audience all the same, aren't they?" he said softly,

glad for the dwarf's reminder. "Let's not forget that,

Grimm. They think we're healers. And as long as they

keep thinking that, we'll keep our heads attached to our

necks." There was only one rule to remember when

hawking to a nasty crowd:

never show fear.

Jastom shook the wrinkles out of his cape and cocked

his feathered cap at an outrageous angle. "You there," he

called out to a man in the crowd, donning a charming

smile as easily as another man might don a hat. "Might I

ask you a question? How did - "

The lieutenant whirled his jet black mount sharply and

rode beside the wagon. "If you have questions, healer,

address them to me." Durm's voice was a sword's edge

draped with a silken cloth.

"You - You have so many soldiers in this camp,"

Jastom gulped, doing his best to sound as if he were

simply making casual conversation. "How did they come

to be here?"

A faint smile touched Durm's lips, but it was not an

expression of mirth. Jastom fought the urge to shiver.

"What tales do the knights tell in Solamnia?" Durm asked.

"That they swept the dragonarmies from the face of

Krynn? Well, as you can see, they have not. I will grant

the Whitestone armies this - they have won an important

battle. But if the Knights of Solamnia believe this war is

truly over, then they are as foolish as the tales tell them to

be." Durm gestured to the camp about them as he rode. A

line of soldiers, holding their swords at ready, marched by

in formation, saluting Durm as they passed.

"In truth, this is but a small outpost," Durm went on.

"Far more of our forces lie to the east. All the lands

between this place and the Khalkist Mountains belong to

the Highlord of the Blue Dragonarmy. And the other

dragonarmies hold still more lands, to the north and east.

Already the Dark Lady - my Highlord and master - draws

her plans for a counterstrike against the knights. It will be

a glorious battle." For the first time Jastom thought he saw

a flash of color in Durm's pale eyes.

"So do not despair, Jastom Mosswine, that the Dragon

Highlord now owns you," Durm went on in his polite,

chilling tone. "Soon she will own all of Ansalon."

Jastom started to ask another question, but Durm held

up a hand, silencing him. They came to halt before a tent

so large it might more properly be called a pavilion. A

banner flew from its highest pole, a blue dragon rampant

across a field of black. Two soldiers stood at the tent's

entrance, hands on the hilts of their swords.

An ancient-looking cottonwood tree spread its heavy,

gnarled limbs above the tent. A half-dozen queer-looking

objects dangled from several of the branches. Some

seemed to be no more than large, tattered backpacks, but a

few of them had a shape that seemed vaguely familiar to

Jastom. Suddenly a faint breeze ruffled through the tree's

green leaves, and the dangling bundles began to spin on

their ropes. Several pale, bloated circles came into view.

Faces.

Jastom quickly averted his eyes, slapping a hand to

his mouth to keep from spilling his guts. Those weren't

bundles hanging in the tree. They were people. Each

seemed to stare mockingly down at Jastom with dark

sockets left empty by the crows.

"Reorx!" muttered Grimm. "What've you gotten us

into?"

"Those are the healers that have been here before

you," the lieutenant said flatly. "The first among them was

our cleric, Umbreck. It seemed his faith in the Dark Queen

was not great enough. She closed her ears to his prayers.

All of them failed to heal Commander Skaahzak."

Jastom swallowed hard, the sour taste of fear in his

throat. But he forced his lips into a smile. "Fear not,

lieutenant," he said boldly. "We will not fail. Remember,

Mosswine's Miraculous Elixirs heal all."

Grimm choked at that but, thankfully, said nothing.

Jastom and the dwarf climbed down from the wagon's

bench, and Durm led them into the dimness of the tent. A

rotten, sickly-sweet odor hung thickly upon the air, almost

making Jastom gag. Herbs burning on a sputtering bronze

brazier did little to counter the foul reek.

The tent was sparsely furnished. There was a table

scattered with maps and scrolls of parchment and a rack

bearing weapons of various kinds - sabres, maces, spears -

all dark and cruel-looking. A narrow cot stood in one

comer of the tent, and upon it lay - not a man - but a

draconian. Commander Skaahzak.

Jastom did not need to be a true healer to see that the

commander was dying. His scaly flesh was gray and

withered, clinging tightly to the bones of his skull. His

yellow eyes flickered with a hazy, feverish light, and his

clawed hands clutched feebly at the twisted bed covers.

His left shoulder had been bound with a thick bandage, but

the cloth was soaked with a black, oozing ichor.

"Commander Skaahzak was wounded a fortnight ago,

in a skirmish with a roving patrol of Solamnic Knights,"

Durm explained. "At first the wound did not seem dire,

but it has festered. You will work your craft upon him,

healer. Or you will join the rest outside."

"We ... uh ... we have to prepare an elixir," Jastom

said, doing his best to keep his voice from trembling.

Durm nodded stiffly. "Very well. If you require

anything in your task, you have only to request it." With

another faint smile, devoid of warmth, the lieutenant left

them to their task.

 

*****

 

When Jastom and Grimm were alone in the cluttered

space inside their wagon, the dwarf shook his head.

"Have you gone completely mad, then, Jastom?" he

whispered. "You know very well we sold our last potion in Fax-fail, and

yet you go offering one up like we can conjure them out of thin air."

"Well, I couldn't think of anything else to say," Jastom returned

defensively. After Faxfail, they had planned to head for Kaolyn to buy

ingredients so Grimm could brew another batch of dwarf spirits.

"Besides," Jastom went on, "there must be something we can do. If

we don't come out of here with an elixir, and soon, Durm's going to feed

the crows with us." He began rummaging around the boxes, pots, and jars

strewn about the inside of the wagon. "Wait a minute," he said excitedly,

"there's still something left in the bottom of this cask." He tipped the cask

over an empty purple bottle. A thick, brown, gritty-looking fluid oozed

out.

"You can't give the commander that!" Grimm cried hoarsely, trying

to snatch the purple bottle away.

"Why not?" Jastom asked, holding the bottle up out of the dwarf's

reach.

Grimm glowered, stubby hands on his hips. "That's pure mash -

goblin's gruel, my grandpappy always called it. The dregs left over after

distilling the dwarf spirits. That stuff makes the rest of the batch seem

like water. Oh, it'll make him happy - might say QUITE happy for a

while - but in the end . . ." Grimm shook his head.

"A WHILE! That's all the time we need to get away," Jastom said

desperately, stoppering the bottle.

Grimm shook his head dubiously. "We're going to make a fine feast

for the crows."

 

*****

 

The draconian Commander Skaahzak moaned as he thrashed in his

fevered sleep. Jastom held the small bottle filled with the goblin's gruel.

Grimm stood beside him. Durm watched the two from across the

commander's bed, his expression stony. With a flourish of his cape,

Jastom lifted the purple bottle and unstoppered it. No sense in sparing

the dramatics.

Jastom nodded to Grimm. The dwarf grabbed the draconian's twisting

head and held it steady, forcing the monster's jaws open with strong

fingers. Jastom tipped the bottle and poured the thick contents past the

draconian's lolling forked tongue and down his gullet. Grimm let

Skaahzak's jaws snap back shut. Jastom waved his hand, and the empty

bottle seemed to vanish into thin air. Durm never even blinked an eye.

Jastom took a deep breath, searching for something suitably

dramatic to say. But before he could, the fetid air of the tent was

shattered by a blood-curdling shriek.

Skaahzak.

The draconian shrieked again, writhing upon the bed. Jastom and

Grimm gaped at the creature. In a flash, Durm drew his sword and

levelled it at Jastom's heart.

"It seems you have failed," Durm spoke softly, almost as a father

might chide an erring son, except that his voice was so deathly cold.

Abruptly, the draconian commander leapt from the bed and knocked

Durm's sword aside. The goblin's gruel was coursing through the

creature's blood, lighting him aflame. The gray tinge had left Skaahzak's

flesh, and if his wound was causing him any pain he did not show it. His

yellow eyes glowed brightly now.

"Stop this foolishness, Durm," Skaahzak hissed. "I will have your

head if you dare strike either of these most skillful healers."

Jastom's head was spinning. But he was not about to let this

opportunity go to waste. He doffed his cap and bowed deeply. "It

gladdens my heart to see milord in such excellent health," he proclaimed

in a deeply-felt tone. He surreptitiously kicked Grimm's knee, and the

dwarf toppled forward in clumsy imitation of Jastom's graceful bow.

"You have done me a great service, healer," Skaahzak said in his

dry, reptilian voice, donning a crimson robe that an attendant soldier

offered him.

"I am overjoyed that I could restore such a brilliant commander to

health," Jastom said. Grimm muttered something inaudible under his

beard.

"That you have," Skaahzak hissed. Suddenly he spun about wildly, a

ferocious, toothy grin on his face. "I've never felt better in my

life!" He lurched dizzily and would have fallen but for

Durm's strong hands steadying him.

There was no doubt about it. The draconian was rip-

roaring drunk.

"Take your filthy paws from me!" Skaahzak spat,

shrugging off the lieutenant's grip. "You, who have

brought me healer after healer, cleric after cleric, all who

poked, prodded, and prayed to their foul gods over me,

and all who failed. I should have you flailed for letting me

suffer so long." Skaahzak's expression flickered between

intoxicated ecstasy and livid rage. Little seemed to

separate the two emotions in this creature.

Durm watched silently, impassively.

"However, you DID bring these most excellent

healers to me," Skaahzak said, his voice crooning now.

"Thus I will be merciful. I will even grant you a reward to

show you the depths of my kindness." He held out his left

hand. "You may kiss the ring of your master, Lieutenant

Durm."

On the draconian's clawed middle finger was a ring

set with a ruby as big as a thumbnail. Jastom guessed that

Skaahzak hadn't removed the ring in years. In fact, he

doubted the draconian would be able to take it off at all.

The monster's scaly flesh was puffy and swollen to either

side of the ring. Durm did not hesitate. He knelt before

Skaahzak's proffered hand.

Leaning forward, he pressed his lips to the

glimmering ruby. As he did so, Skaahzak struck the

lieutenant. Durm did not even flinch. Slowly, he rose to

his feet. The ruby had cut his cheek, and a thin trickle of

blood, as crimson as the gem, ran down his jaw. The

draconian grinned.

"There, lieutenant," Skaahzak said, his reptilian voice

slurred and indistinct. "Your reward is complete."

Durm bowed stiffly, giving Jastom a brief,

indecipherable glance.

Jastom tried to swallow his heart, but it kept clawing

its way up into his throat. He cast a meaningful look at

Grimm. It was time to get out of this place. The dwarf

nodded emphatic agreement.

"Well, I am delighted to see that all things appear to

have been set aright," Jastom said pleasantly, placing his

cap back on his head. "Thus I believe that we will be - "

Skaahzak interrupted him.

"I have a proclamation to make!" the draconian

shouted. He sloshed some wine into a silver goblet -

spilling the better portion of it on his robe - and began to

weave drunkenly about the tent, stumbling over chests and

pieces of furniture. One of his attendants followed behind

him with a quill and parchment, taking down each word.

"Be it known that, for their most excellent service, these

two healers shall hereby become my personal physicians,

from now until the end of all days!" He spread his arms

wide in a gesture of triumph. The silver goblet he clutched

struck the head of his attendant with a loud CLUNK! The

soldier dropped to the floor like a stone, the parchment

and quill slipping from his fingers. Skaahzak did not

notice.

Jastom and Grimm exchanged glances of alarm. "Er,

begging your pardon, milord," Jastom said hesitantly, "but

what exactly do you mean by that?"

Skaahzak whirled about to face Jastom, his eyes

burning with the consuming fire of the goblin's gruel. "I

mean that Lieutenant Durm here will show you to your

new quarters," the draconian said, displaying his countless

jagged teeth in a terrible smile. "You will be remaining

here in this camp with me. Permanently. You are my

healers, now."

Jastom could only nod dumbly, feeling suddenly ill.

Impossible as it seemed, it looked as if this time his elixir

had worked too well for his own good.

 

*****

 

"How many soldiers are standing guard out there?"

Jastom whispered.

"Two," Grimm whispered back, peering through a

narrow opening beside the canvas flap that covered the

tent's entrance. "Both are draconians."

Jastom tugged at his hair as he paced the length of the

cramped, stuffy tent. The air was musty with the smell of

the sour, rotten hay strewn across the floor. The only light

came from a wan, golden beam of sun spilling through a

small hole in the tent's canvas roof.

"There must be a way to get past them," Jastom said in agitation,

clenching his hands into fists.

"Too bad we can't get them drunk," Grimm noted dryly.

Jastom shot the dwarf an exasperated look. "There's always a way

out, Grimm. We've been in enough dungeons before to know that. All

we need is time to come up with the answer."

Grimm shook his head, his shaggy eyebrows drawn down in a

scowl. "Even now, the goblin's gruel will be burning Skaahzak from the

inside out, as sure as if it was liquid fire he'd drunk. He'll be dead by

morning." The dwarf paused ominously. "And I suppose we will be, too,

for that matter."

Jastom groaned, barely resisting the urge to throttle the glum-faced

dwarf. His energy would be better directed toward finding a way to

escape, he reminded himself. Once they were free, THEN he would have

all the time he wanted to throttle the dwarf.

With a sigh of frustration, Jastom sat down hard on the musty straw,

resting his chin in his hands. Grimm's doom-and-gloom was catching.

The tent's entrance flap was thrown back. The two draconian guards

stood against the brilliant square of afternoon sunlight, their forked

tongues flickering through their jagged yellow teeth.

"It's mealtime," one of the draconians hissed, glaring at Jastom with

its disturbing yellow eyes.

For a startled moment Jastom didn't know whose mealtime the

draconian meant: Jastom's or its own. With a rush of relief, he saw the

bowls that the creature carried in its clawed hands. The draconian set the

two clay bowls down, their foul-smelling contents slopping over the

sides. The other draconian threw a greasy-looking wineskin down with

them.

"The commander ordered that you be given the finest fare in the

camp," the other draconian croaked, a note of envy in its voice.

"Skaahzak must hold you in high esteem, indeed. Consider yourselves

fortunate."

After the two draconians left them alone, Jastom eyed the bowls of

food warily. The lumpy, colorless liquid in one of them began to stir. A

big black beetle crawled out of the gray ooze and over the rim of the

bowl. Jastom let out a strangled yelp. The insect scuttled away through

the straw.

"Paugh!" Grimm spat, tossing down the rancid-smelling wineskin.

"What do these beasts brew their wine out of? Stale onions?"

Jastom felt his gorge rising in his throat and barely managed to

choke it back down. "If this is the finest fare the camp has to offer, I

really don't want to think about what the common soldiers are eating." He

began to push the clay bowls carefully away with the toe of his boot, but

then he paused. A thought had suddenly struck him.

Quickly he rummaged about his cape until he found the secret

pocket where he had slipped the empty potion bottle after pouring its

contents down Skaahzak's gullet. He pulled out the cork and then knelt

beside the bowl. Carefully, so as not to spill any of the putrid substance

on himself, he tipped the bowl and filled the bottle partway with the slop.

Then he took the wineskin and added a good measure of the acrid-

smelling wine to the bottle. On an afterthought he scraped up a handful

of dirt from the tent's floor and added that as well. He stoppered the

bottle tightly and then shook it vigorously to mix the strange concoction

within.

"What in the name of Reorx do you think you're doing, Jastom?"

Grimm demanded, his gray eyes flashing. "Have you gone utterly mad? I

suppose I should have known the strain of all this would be too much for

you."

"No, Grimm, I haven't gone mad," Jastom said annoyediy, and then

he grinned despite himself, tossing the bottle and deftly snatching it again

from the air. "Get 'em drunk, you said."

"But you never listen to me," Grimm protested. "And I don't think

now is a good time to start!"

"Just go along," said Jastom.

 

*****

 

It was sunset when the two draconians threw back the tent's flap

again and stepped inside to retrieve the dishes.

"Thank you, friends," Jastom said cheerily as the

draconians picked up the empty bowls and wineskin. "It

was truly a remarkable repast." In truth, he and Grimm

had buried the revolting food in a shallow hole in the

comer of the tent, but the draconians need not know that.

The two creatures glared at Jastom, the envy glowing

wickedly in their reptilian eyes.

"You're right, Jastom," the dwarf said thoughtfully,

gazing at the two draconians. "They DO look a little

gray."

The first draconian's eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"What does the nasty little dwarf mean?"

Jastom nodded, a serious look crossing his honest

face. "I see it, too, Grimm," he said gravely. "There's only

one thing it can be. Scale rot."

" 'Scale rot?'" The second draconian spat. "What is

this foolishness you babble about?"

Jastom sighed, as if he were reluctant to speak. "I've

seen it before," he said, shaking his head sadly. "It's a

scourge that's wiped out whole legions of draconians to

the far south, in Abanasinia. I didn't think it had traveled

across the Newsea, but it seems I was wrong."

"Aye, I saw a draconian who had the scale rot once,"

Grimm said gloomily. "All we buried was a pile of black,

spongy mold. He didn't die until the very end. I didn't

think a creature could scream as loud as that."

"I've never heard of this!" the first draconian hissed.

Jastom donned his most utterly believable face. The

gods themselves wouldn't know he was lying. "You don't

have to believe me," he said with a shrug. "Judge for

yourself. The first symptoms are so small you'd hardly

notice them if you didn't know what to look for: a pouchy

grayness around the eyes, a faint ache in the teeth and

claws, and then . . " Jastom let his last words fade into an

unintelligible mumble.

"What did you say?" the second draconian barked.

"I said, 'and then the hearing begins to fade in and

out,'" Jastom said blithely. The draconians' eyes widened.

They exchanged fearful glances.

"What can we do?" the first demanded.

"You are a healer, you must help us!" the second

rasped.

Jastom smiled reassuringly. "Of course, of course. Fear

not, friends. I have a potion right here." He waved a hand,

and the small purple bottle filled with the noxious

concoction appeared in his hand. The draconians stared at

it greedily. "Mosswine's Miraculous Elixir cures all. Even

scale rot." "Aren't you forgetting something?" Grimm

grumbled. Jastom's face fell. "Oh, dear," he said

worriedly. "What is it?" The first draconian positively

shrieked, clenching its talon-tipped fingers and beating its

leathery wings in agitation.

"I'm afraid this is our very last potion," Jastom said,

the picture of despair. "There isn't enough for both of

you." He set the potion down on the floor, backing away.

He spread his hands wide in a gesture of deep regret. "I'm

terribly sorry, but you'll have to decide which of you gets

it."

The two draconians glared at each other, tongues

hissing and yellow eyes flashing.

They lunged for the bottle.

 

*****

 

"Well, they seemed to have hit upon the only really

fair solution to their dilemma," Jastom observed dryly.

The two draconians lay upon the floor of the tent,

frozen in a fatal embrace. The remnants of the purple

bottle lay next to them, crushed into tiny shards. The fight

had been swift and violent. The two draconians had

grappled over the elixir and in the process each had driven

a cruelly barbed dagger into the other's heart. Instantly the

pair of them had turned a dull gray and toppled heavily to

the floor. Such was the magical nature of the creatures

that, once dead, they changed to stone.

"Reorx's Beard, will you look at that!" Grimm

whispered. Even as the two watched, the bodies of the

draconians began to crumble. In moments nothing

remained but their armor, the daggers, and a pile of dust.

Jastom reached down and brushed the gray powder

from one of the barbed daggers. He grinned nervously. "I

think we've just found our way out of here, Grimm."

Moments later, Jastom crawled through a slit in the back

wall of the tent and peered into the deepening purple

shadows of twilight. He motioned for Grimm to follow.

The dwarf stumbled clumsily through the opening, falling

on his face with a curse. Jastom hauled the dwarf to his

feet by the belt and shot him a warning look to be quiet.

The two made their way through the darkened camp.

Jastom froze each time he heard the approach of booted

feet, but they faded before a soldier came within sight. A

silvery glow was beginning to touch the eastern horizon.

The moon Solinari would be rising soon, casting its bright,

gauzy light over the land. They had to hurry. They

couldn't hope to avoid the eyes of the soldiers once the

moon lifted into the sky.

They rounded the comer of a long tent and then

quickly ducked back behind cover. Carefully, Jastom

peered around the comer. Beyond was a wide circle lit by

the ruddy light of a dozen flickering torches thrust into the

ground. Jastom's eyes widened at the spectacle he saw

before him.

"I can fly! I can fly!" a slurred, rasping voice shrieked

excitedly. It was Commander Skaahzak.

He careened wildly through midair, suspended from a

tree branch by a rope looped under his arms. Two

draconians grunted as they pulled on the rope, heaving the

commander higher yet. Skaahzak whooped with glee, his

small, useless wings flapping feebly. His eyes burned

hotly with the fire of madness.

"It's the goblin's gruel," Grimm muttered softly. "It's

addled his brains. But he'll stop laughing soon, when it

catches his blood on fire."

A score of soldiers watched Skaahzak spin wildly on

the end of the rope, none of them daring to laugh at the

peculiar sight. Suddenly Jastom saw Lieutenant Durm

standing at the edge of the torchlight, apart from the

others, his eyes glittering like hard, colorless gems. Once

again, his lips wore a faint, mirthless smile, but what

exactly it portended was beyond Jastom's ken.

Quickly Jastom ducked behind the tent. "Durm is

there," he whispered hoarsely. "I don't think he saw me."

"Then let's not give him another chance," Grimm

growled. Jastom nodded in hearty agreement. The two

slipped off in the other direction, deep into the night.

 

*****

 

The tall wagon clattered along the narrow mountain

road in the morning sunlight. Groves of graceful aspens

and soaring fir slipped by to either side as the dappled

ponies trotted briskly on.

Jastom and Grimm had ridden hard all night, making

their way up the treacherous passes deep into the Garnet

Mountains, guided only by the pale, gossamer light of

Solinari. But now dawn had broken over the distant, mist-

green peaks, and Jastom slowed the ponies to a walk. The

dragonarmy camp lay a good ten leagues behind them.

"Ah, it's good to be alive and free, Grimm," Jastom

said, taking a deep breath of the clean mountain air.

"Well, I wouldn't get too used to it," the dwarf said

with a scowl. "Look behind us."

Jastom did as the dwarf instructed, and then his heart

nearly leapt from his chest. A cloud of dust rose from the

dirt road less than a mile behind them.

"Lieutenant Durm," he murmured, his mouth dry. "I

KNEW this was too easy!"

Grimm nodded. Jastom let out a sharp whistle and

slapped the reins fiercely. The ponies leapt into a canter.

The narrow, rocky road began to wind its way down a

steep descent. The wind whipped Jastom's cape wildly out

behind him. Grimm hung on for dear life. Jastom barely

managed to steer around a sharp turn in the road. They

were going too fast. He leaned hard on the wagon's brake.

Sparks flew. Suddenly there was a sharp cracking sound -

the brake lever came off in Jastom's hand.

"The wagon's out of control!" Jastom shouted.

"I can see that for myself," Grimm shouted back.

The wagon hit a deep rut and lurched wildly. The

ponies shouted in terror and lunged forward. With a

rending sound, their harnesses tore free, and the horses

scrambled wildly up the mountain slope to one side. The

wagon careened in the other direction, directly for the

edge of the precipice.

All Jastom had time to do was scream, "Jump!"

He and the dwarf dived wildly from the wagon as it

sailed over the edge. Jastom hit the dirt hard. He

scrambled to his feet just in time to see the wagon

disappear over the edge. After a long moment of pure and

perfect silence came a thunderous crashing sound, and

then silence again. The wagon - and everything Jastom

and Grimm owned - was gone. In despair, he turned away

from the cliff . . .

. . . and saw Durm, mounted on horseback, before

him. A half-dozen soldiers sat astride their mounts behind

the lieutenant, the sunlight glittering off the hilts of their

swords. Jastom shook his head in disbelief. He was too

stunned to do anything but stand there, motionless in

defeat. Grimm, unhurt, came to stand beside him.

"Commander Skaahzak is dead," Durm said in his

chilling voice. "This morning there was nothing left of

him save a heap of ashes." A strange light flickered in the

lieutenant's pale eyes. "Unfortunately you, his personal

healers, were not by his side to give him any comfort in

his final moments. I had to ride hard in order to catch up

with you. I couldn't let you go without giving you your

due for this failure, Mosswine."

Jastom fell to his knees. When all else failed, he knew

there was but one option: grovel. He jerked the dwarf

down beside him. "Please, milord, have mercy on us,"

Jastom said pleadingly, making his expression as pitiful as

possible. Given their circumstances, this wasn't a difficult

task. "There wasn't anything we could have done. Please, I

beg you. Spare us. You see, milord, we aren't heal - "

"Shut up!" Durm ordered sharply. Jastom's babbling

trailed off feebly. His heart froze in his chest. Durm's

visage was as impassive as the mountain granite he stood

upon.

"The punishment for failure to heal Skaahzak is death,"

Durm continued. He paused for what seemed an

interminable moment. "But then, it is the commander's

right to choose what punishments will be dealt out." Durm

held out his hand, conspicuously displaying the ring -

Shaahzak's ring - he now wore on his left hand. The ring's

thumbnail-sized ruby glimmered in the sunlight like

blood. "Because of you and your elixir, Mosswine, I am

commander now." Absently Durm brushed a finger across

the cheek where Skaahzak had struck him. "I will be the

one, then, who will choose your punishment."

Durm's black-gloved hand drifted down to his belt,

toward the hilt of his sword. Jastom made a small choking

sound, but for the first - and last - time in his life, he found

himself utterly at a loss for words.

Durm pulled something from his belt and tossed it

toward Jastom. Jastom flinched as it struck him in the

chest. But it was simply a leather purse.

"I believe ten coins of steel is what you charge for one

of your elixirs," Durm said.

Jastom stared at the lieutenant in shock. For once

Jastom thought he recognized the odd note in Durm's

voice. Could it possibly be amusement?

"Job well done, HEALER," Durm said, that barely

perceptible smile touching his lips once again. Then,

without another word, the new commander whirled his

dark mount about and galloped down the road, his soldiers

following close behind. In moments all of them

disappeared around a bend. Jastom and Grimm were

alone.

"He knew all along," Jastom said in wonderment. "He

knew we were charlatans."

"And that's why he wanted us," Grimm said, his beard

wagging in amazement. "Letting his commander die

outright would have been traitorous. But this way it looks

like he did everything he could to save Skaahzak. No one

could fault him for his actions."

"And I thought WE were such skillful swindlers,"

Jastom said wryly. He looked wistfully over the edge of

the cliff where the wagon had disappeared.

"Well, at least we have this," Grimm said gruffly,

picking up the leather purse.

Jastom stared at the dwarf for a long moment, and then

slowly a grin spread across his face. He took the purse

from Grimm and hefted it thoughtfully in his hands.

"Grimm, how much dwarf spirits do you suppose you

could brew with ten pieces of steel?"

A wicked gleam touched the dwarf's iron-gray eyes.

"Oh, ten steel will buy enough," Grimm said as the two

started down the twisting mountain road, back toward

inhabited lands. "Enough to get us started, that is . . ."

 

The Hand That Feeds

 

Richard A. Knaak

 

Vandor Grizt used to think that the worst smell in

the world was wet dog. Now, however, he knew that there

was a worse one.

Wet, DEAD dog.

Helplessly bound to the ship's mast, Vandor could

only stare into the baleful, pupil-less eyes of the undead

monstrosity that guarded him. The combination of rot and

damp mist made the pale, hairless beast so offensive to

smell that even the two draconians did their best to stay

upwind of the creature. Vandor, however, had no such

choice.

Vandor was forced to admit that he probably didn't

smell much better. Bound head and foot, he'd been

dragged over rough roads for four days to the shores of the

Blood Sea, then taken aboard ship. He was not his usual,

immaculate self. He hoped none of his customers had seen

him; the degrading spectacle would be bad for business . . .

providing he survived to DO business.

Tall and lean, Vandor Grizt was usually either quick

enough or slippery enough to evade capture - be it by local

authorities or the occasional, unsatisfied customer. When

speed failed him, his patrician, almost regal features,

coupled with his silver tongue, enabled him to talk his way

out. Vandor never truly got rich selling his "used" wares,

but neither did he ever go hungry. No, he'd never regretted

the course his life had taken.

Not until now.

Vandor shifted. The undead wolf-thing bared its rotted

fangs - a warning.

"Nice puppy," Vandor snarled back. "Go bury a bone,

preferably one of your own."

"Be silent, human," hissed one of the two draconians,

a sivak. The draconians appeared to be a pair of scaly,

near-identical twins, but Vandor had learned from painful

experience that they were quite different. The sivak had a

special talent - having killed a person, the sivak could

alter its features and shape to resemble those of its

victims. In the guise of one of Vandor's trustworthy

friends, the sivak draconian had led Vandor into an alley.

There, he had been ambushed. He realized his mistake

when he watched the sivak change back to its scaly self . . .

and inform him that his friend was dead.

Given a chance, Vandor Grizt would cut the lizard's

throat. He had few enough friends to let them get

murdered. Why the draconians had gone to the trouble,

Vandor still did not know. Perhaps, the black-robed cleric

who led the party would tell him. It would at least be nice

to know why he was going to die.

"We give thanks to you, Zeboim, mistress of the seal"

intoned the cleric.

Vandor - self-styled procurer of "lost" artifacts and

"mislaid" merchandise - could not identify what god or

goddess the cleric worshipped on a regular basis, but

doubted that it was the tempestuous sea siren who called

Takhisis, Queen of Darkness, her mother. Zeboim did not

seem the type who would favor the hideous, white, skull

mask that covered the front half of the cleric's face. Some

other deity fancied skulls and dead things, but the name

escaped Vandor. Gods were not his forte. He himself gave

some slight service to Shinare, who watched over

merchants, including (he liked to think) enterprising ones

such as himself. Since Shinare was one of the neutral

gods, Vandor had always concluded she did not mind that

he prayed only when in dire need. Now, however, he

wondered if this were his reward for taking her for

granted. Gods were peculiar about that sometimes.

The ship rocked as another wild wave struck it. The

Blood Sea was a terror to sail at the best of times, but

sailing it in the dark of night, during a storm, was suicidal

folly as far as Grizt was concerned.

His opinion had been ignored by both crew and

passengers.

Skullface turned around and summoned his two

draconian companions. Magical torches, which never went

out despite the constant spray, gave the cleric's mask a

ghoulish look. Only the mouth and a thin, pointed chin

were visible beneath the mask.

"You two draconians - set up the altar for the

summoning!" the cleric commanded.

Vandor shivered, guessing that the summoning could

only mean dire things for him.

A kapak draconian looked at its master questioningly.

"So soon, Prefect Stel?" Saliva dripped as the creature

talked. The minotaur crew was not enamored of the

venomous kapak. Every time it spoke, it burned holes in

the deck.

Prefect Stel pulled sleek, black gloves over his bony

hands. He dresses very well, Vandor Grizt thought. Not

my style of clothes, of course, but beautiful fabric. Under

other circumstances, Stel would have been a client of

potential. Vandor heaved a sigh.

Stel was talking. "I want the altar to be ready to be put

to use the moment we are over the site." The dark cleric

pulled out a tiny skull on a chain from around his neck.

Vandor studied the jewel closely, first for possible value

and then because he realized it was glowing.

"What about this human, prefect?" the sivak asked.

"The dreadwolf will guard him. He does not appear to

be a stupid man." The cleric turned to Vandor. "Are you?"

"I would have to say I am still debating that issue, my

good master," the independent merchandiser responded.

"My current prospects do not bode well for hopes of

profit."

Stel was amused. "I can see that." He leaned closer

and, for the first time, his prisoner caught a glimpse of the

dark pits that were his eyes. Vandor wondered if Stel

EVER removed the mask. In the days since falling into the

trap, Vandor had yet to see the face hidden behind.

"If I were a priest of greasy Hiddukel rather than of

my lord Chemosh, I would be tempted to offer you a place

at my side," said Stel. "You are truly dedicated to the fine

art of enriching yourself at the cost of others, aren't you?"

"NEVER at the expense of my good customers,

Master Stel!" Vandor protested, insulted. But the protest

was halfhearted.

Chemosh - lord of the undead. The mask should have

been sufficient evidence, and the undead dog the ultimate

proof, but the confused and frightened Vandor had not

made the connection. Vandor was in the hands of a

necromancer, a priest who raised the dead for vile

purposes, vile purposes that usually required a

SACRIFICE. But why specifically Vandor Grizt? The

shape-shifting sivak had come for him and no one else.

The sailing ship rocked again in the turbulent waters.

A wave splashed over the rail, soaking everything but the

magical torches and - oddly enough - the cleric. Stel's tiny

skull gleamed brighter now. His clothes were perfectly

dry.

Thunder crashed. A series of heavy thuds continued

on after; the noise caused Vandor to look up to the

heavens to see what could create such a phenomenon. A

massive form came up beside him and Vandor

immediately realized that what he had taken for part of the

storm had actually been footfalls.

"Prefect," the newcomer rumbled, his voice louder

than the thunder.

"Yes, Captain Kruug?"

Kruug appeared ill-at-ease before the cleric. Odd,

since the minotaur was over seven feet tall and likely

weighed three times more than Prefect Stel. Vandor had

no idea how long the beastman lived, but Captain Kruug

looked to have been sailing the seas for all of Vandor's

thirty years and more. Such experience made Vandor's

chances of surviving the rough waters and threatening

storm much better, but that didn't hearten the captive. It

only meant that he would live long enough to confront

whatever fate the cleric of Chemosh had in mind for him.

"Prefect," Kruug repeated. The minotaur's very stance

expressed his dislike for the necromancer. "My ship is

here only because you and your Highlord ordered my

cooperation."

Vandor's hopes rose. Perhaps the minotaurs would

refuse to sail on, destroy whatever dread plan the

necromancer had in mind.

"My crew is growing anxious, cleric," the captain

said. Minotaurs did not like to admit anxiety. To them, it

was a sign of weakness. "The storm is bad enough and

sailing through it at night is only that much worse. Those

two things, though, I could handle at any other time,

PREFECT." Kruug hesitated, unable to stare directly at

the mask for more than a few moments.

"And so?" Stel prompted irritably.

"It's time you tell us why we are sailing to this

location in the middle of the deepest part of the Blood Sea.

There are rumors circulating among the crew and as each

rumor grows, they, in turn, become more uneasy." Kruug

snorted, wiping sea spray from his massive jaw. "We find

it most interesting that a priest of Chemosh has spent so

much time paying homage to the Sea Queen that it seems

he has forgotten his own god!"

The dreadwolf snarled, its pupil-less eyes narrowed.

Stel petted it.

"You are being paid well, captain. Too well for you to

ask questions. And I would think that you would approve

of my efforts to appease the Sea Queen. Is she not

deserving of respect, especially now? We are in her

domain. I give her tribute as she deserves."

Vandor Grizt's heart sank. MY LUCK HAS BECOME

LIKE A POUCH FILLED WITH COIN . . . ALL LEAD!

Kruug apparently did not trust Stel's smooth words.

He snorted his disdain, but glanced around uneasily. A

creature of the sea, the captain had to be more careful than

most in maintaining a respectful relationship with the

tempestuous Sea Queen.

The storm worsened. The sea mist that drenched all

save the cleric was accompanied by a light sprinkle, a

harbinger of the torrential downpour to come. Lightning

and thunder broke overhead.

"You had better pray that Zeboim has listened to you,

prefect," the minotaur retorted. "Else I shall appease her

by throwing you and your stinking mutt over the side. My

ship and my crew come first." He grumbled at no one in

particular. "It's easy for the Highlord to agree to mad plots

when he's safe in his chambers back on shore! He isn't the

one who'll suffer, just the one who'll reap the benefits!"

Stel smiled unpleasantly. "You were given a choice,

Kruug. Sail with me or surrender the TAURON to a

BRAVER captain who would."

Kruug growled, but he backed down.

For one of Kruug's race, the choice was no choice at

all. No minotaur dared let himself be thought a coward.

Stel looked past the captain, who turned to see what

had the cleric's attention. Vandor - tied to one of the masts

- was unable to turn around, but he knew from the

clanking sounds that the draconians must be returning

from their excursion below deck. The two draconians

dragged forward a peculiar metal bowl on three legs.

Captain Kruug glared at the kapak.

"And I'll throw those lizards over, too, especially the

one who can't keep his mouth shut!" Kruug added. "If he

burns one more hole through the deck . . ." But the

minotaur was being ignored. Seeking a target on which to

vent his frustration, Kruug glanced down at Vandor, who

suddenly sought a way to shrink into the mast. The

minotaur's smile vied with that of the dreadwolf for

number of huge, sharp teeth. "And maybe I'll throw this

piece of offal over right now!"

"Touch him, my homed friend, and your first mate

finds himself promoted." Stel was deadly, coldly serious.

Kruug was taken aback. "What's so special about this

thieving little fox?"

"Him?" Stel glanced at Vandor. "By himself, he is

worthless."

Despite his predicament, Vandor was offended.

"It is his blood I find invaluable," Stel continued.

Vandor was no longer offended ... he was too busy

trying to recall the proper prayers for Shinare. If he'd had

any doubt before as to his fate, that doubt was gone now.

"I do not understand," replied the captain.

Stel looked down at the skull on the chain. "In a few

minutes, Captain Kruug, you AND Vandor Grizt will

understand. We are nearing our destination. Please have

your crew prepare to stop this vessel."

"In this deep water, our anchor won't hold!" Kruug

protested.

"We do not need to be completely still. Just make

certain we stay within the region. I think you can manage

that, captain. I was TOLD that you are an expert at your

craft."

Kruug bridled. "I've been sailing these waters - "

A crackle of thunder drowned out whatever the

minotaur said after that, but the fury on his face and the

speed with which he departed the vicinity of Prefect Stel

spoke plainly. Vandor Grizt was sorry to see the captain

leave. Of all Vandor's unsavory companions, the minotaur

captain was the only one who seemed to share his fear.

Kruug was merely carrying out orders and with a lack of

enthusiasm that Vandor dismally appreciated.

The draconians set up the altar quickly despite the

constant rocking of the ship. They lashed the legs of the

metal monstrosity to various areas of the deck, assuring

that the huge bowl would remain in place regardless of

how rough the sea. When the draconians were finished,

the two stumbled back to Stel, who seemed to have no

trouble moving about, unlike everyone else.

"The sea grows no calmer, prefect!" hissed the sivak.

"Despite your prayers to the Sea Queen, the ropes may not

hold!"

"She will listen!" Stel declared. "I have sought her

good will for three days now. We dare not attempt this

without the Sea Queen's favor. We dare not steal from her

domain!" Stel paused, considering. He glanced at Vandor

Grizt, then again at the draconians. "I will have to give an

offering of greater value than I had supposed. Something

that will prove to Zeboim my respect for her majesty!

Something that will acknowledge her precedence over all

else in this endeavor! It will have to be now!"

"Now?" snarled the kapak, surprised. "But now is the

time for your evening devotions to Chemosh, prefect!"

"Chemosh will understand." Stel turned again to

Vandor and pointed. "Unbind him!"

As the draconians undid his bonds, Vandor tried to

slip free of them. For a brief moment, he escaped, but then

the dreadwolf was in front of him, ready to spring.

Vandor's terrified moment of hesitation was sufficient

time to permit the draconians to reestablish their hold on

him.

"Bring him to the altar!" Stel commanded.

The draconians dragged Vandor Grizt across the wet

deck to the odd-looking bowl that Stel had identified as an

altar.

"Master Stel, surely I am not a proper sacrifice!"

Vandor protested. "Have you considered that I am hardly a

worthwhile present to be given to one so illustrious as

beautiful, wondrous Zeboim!"

"Silence the buffoon," the cleric muttered in a voice

much less commanding than normal. Stel's dark eyes

turned on the dreadwolf that had been guarding Vandor.

At the silent command, the undead animal joined its

master. Prefect Stel returned his attention to the prisoner.

"Hold out his arm. The left one."

Vandor struggled, but his strength was nothing

compared to that of the draconians.

The servant of Chemosh removed a twisted,

bejewelled dagger from within his robe. Vandor Grizt

recognized it - a sacrificial knife. He had even sold a few.

None had ever been so intricate in detail ... or looked so

deadly in purpose.

Stel brought the dagger down lightly on Grizt's

outstretched arm. The tip of the blade pricked his skin and

drew blood. Muttering under his breath, Stel cut a tiny slit

in his captive's forearm. It was painful, to be sure, but

Vandor had suffered far more pain at the hands of city

guards. A tiny trail of blood dripped slowly down the side

of his arm and into the round interior of the altar bowl.

The blood struck the bottom and sizzled away with a hiss.

The metal began to radiate heat. Vandor swallowed,

fearing what would happen if his flesh touched the hot

metal.

Removing the blood-covered blade, Stel looked down

at the dreadwolf, which stared back with sightless, dead

eyes.

The cleric turned to face the sea. "Zeboim, you who are

also known as the Sea Queen, hear me! I give you some

thing of great value, something that will prove my humble

respect for your power! I give you a part of me!" The

black cleric drove the dagger into the skull of his pet, not

ceasing until the hilt was touching the bone.

The wolf howled in fierce pain and anger. Several of

the minotaur crewmen looked their way. Vandor Grizt

pulled his arm back from the hot metal. The two

draconians had loosened their hold on him in their shock

over the cleric's act.

The servant of Chemosh removed the dagger from

the head of his dreadwolf. The monstrosity collapsed the

moment the blade was no longer touching it. The dead

creature crumbled, becoming ash in the space of a few

breaths. Vandor Grizt, looking up at his captor, saw the

cleric's hands shake. Prefect Stel gave all the appearances

of a man who has just cut off his own hand.

A muttering rose among the minotaurs. The stomping

of heavy feet warned Vandor and his captors that Captain

Kruug was returning.

"Prefect Stel! What in the name of Sargonnas have

you done now? I will not risk my ship in this venture any

more, threats or no - "

Stel raised his free hand and silenced the captain. He

looked out at the sea in expectation.

For a short time, Vandor Grizt, like the rest, saw

nothing out of the ordinary. The sea was calm and the

storm clouds near motionless. The Blood Sea was as calm

as a sleeping child.

Then it struck Vandor that THIS was out of ordinary.

The sea had calmed, the storm had ceased . . . with a

suddenness that could only be called DIVINE in nature.

"Shinare . . ." Vandor whispered, once more wishing

he had been just a little more consistent with his praying.

Moving a bit unsteadily, Prefect Stel turned on the sea

captain. "You were about to say, Kruug?"

It is not often that a minotaur can be taken aback by

events, but Kruug was. The beastman swallowed hard and

stared at the cleric with awe and not a little fear.

"I thought as much." Stel said, evilly smiling. "We are

almost over the exact location, captain. I suggest you and

your crew bring us to as dead a stop as you can."

"Aye," Kruug replied, nodding all the while. He

whirled about and started shouting at the other minotaurs,

taking out his fear and shame on his crew.

Stel turned to Vandor. The cleric smiled. "It is as I

hoped. Your blood is the key. She has heard us. She has

given us her favor."

"My blood? Key?" Vandor babbled.

"Oh, YES, Vandor Grizt, petty thief and purveyor of

purloined properties, your blood! Can't you hear the

voices?" The deep, black eyes behind the mask widened in

anticipation. "Can't you hear them calling you?"

"Who?" Vandor gasped.

"Your ancestors," Stel said, looking at the sea.

"Prefect 1" The kapak was spluttering with fear. A

tiny bit of acidic saliva splattered Vandor on the cheek. He

flinched in pain, but there was nothing he could do with

his arms pinned. "Prefect, you sacrificed the

DREADWOLF!"

"It was necessary. Chemosh will understand. Zeboim

has to be placated. This venture is too important."

"But the dreadwolf ... it was bound to you by your

lord!"

Stel's destruction of his ungodly pet had evidently

taken much out of him and the kapak's reminder was only

stirring the pain. If what the draconian said was true, then

the prefect had wantonly destroyed a gift from his god in

order to gain the favor of the Sea Queen.

A COSTLY VENTURE THIS, Vandor thought

fearfully.

The skull mask made its wearer look like the

embodiment of death itself. Stel's voice was so steady, so

toneless, that both Vandor and the draconians shrank back

in alarm.

"We are in the Sea Queen's domain. Even my lord

Chemosh must be respectful of that. It is by his power that

this task will be done, but it is by HER sufferance that we

survive it!"

The skull necklace flared brighter, so bright that the

two draconians and Vandor were forced to look away.

Stel shouted, "Captain Kruug! This is the position! No

farther!"

The minotaur dropped anchor; the vessel slowed, but

continued to drift, giving Vandor a brief hope. But, the

minotaurs turned the vessel about and slowly brought it

back.

"Still a short time left," Stel whispered. In a louder,

more confident voice, he asked, "Do you hear them,

Vandor Grizt? Do you hear your ancestors calling you?"

Vandor, who could not trace his ancestors past his

barely-remembered parents, heard nothing except

bellowing minotaurs and the lightest breeze in the

rigging. He refrained from responding however. The

answer might mean life ... or death. He needed to know a

bit more to make the correct choice.

"You don't, do you?" Stel frowned. "But you will.

Your blood is the true blood, child of KINGPRIESTS."

"KINGPRIESTS? Me?" Vandor stared blankly at his

captor.

"Yes, Kingpriests." Stel toyed with the dagger and

stared off at the becalmed sea. "It took me quite some time

to find you, thanks to your nomadic lifestyle. I knew that I

would not fail at what I undertook. I was the one who

found the ancient temple, who understood what OTHERS

of my order did not."

"You have me completely at a loss, Master Stel,"

Vandor quavered. "You say I am a descendent of the

Kingpriests?" As he asked, Vandor shivered

uncontrollably. He remembered suddenly what legend said

lay at the bottom of the Blood Sea.

Istar . . . the holy city brought down by the conceit of

its lord, the Kingpriest. In the blackest depths of the Blood

Sea lay the ruins of the holy city . . . and the rest of the

ancient country for that matter.

"Of direct descent." Stel touched the blazing skull.

"This charm marks you as such, as it marks where the

great temples . . . and storehouses ... of Istar sank. The

spells I cast upon it make it drawn to all things - including

people - that possess a strong affinity with Istar. The

charm was carved out of a stone from the very temple

where I found the records, duplicates preserved by the

magic of the zealous acolytes of the Kingpriest. Preserved

but forgotten, for those who had stored them there either

perished with the city or abandoned the place after their

homeland was no more."

"Please, Master Stel." Vandor hoped for more

information, though he had no idea what good it could do

him. "What great wonder did these records hold that

would make you search for one as unworthy as myself?"

Stel chuckled - a raspy, grating sound. "During the

last days of Istar, the Kingpriest persecuted and murdered

many such as myself. The clerics of good stole many

objects of evil from the bodies of clerics of Takhisis,

Sargonnas, Morgion, Chemosh. The fools who followed

the Kingpriest either could not destroy these powerful

artifacts ... or found them too tempting to destroy, just in

case they could find uses for them."

Vandor Grizt almost laughed aloud. It was too absurd.

He knew how easily such rumors got started. He'd created

a few himself in order to sell his wares. The Knights of

Solamnia were rumored to have once stored such evil

clerical items, but no one had ever actually SEEN one. A

REAL one, that is. Still, the cleric did not seem a man who

would be chasing after . . . ghosts.

A thought occurred to Vandor Grizt. "I am certain,

Master Stel, that you must have been pleased to find

records of your stolen property. But if that property is at

the bottom of the sea ..."

The cleric looked knowingly at Vandor. "Of course, I

knew that the treasures I sought - the talismans of my

predecessors - were out of my reach. Even a necromancer

such as myself could not summon the ancients of Istar.

Their tomb lies buried deep beneath the sea; they do not

dwell in my lord's domain. But, if I use the blood of kin -

however many generations distant - I might be able to

summon these dead."

Vandor Grizt was skeptical. "If I am related to the . . .

um . . . Kingpriests, how did you find me?"

"I told you I will permit NOTHING to remain beyond

my grasp. I followed the pull of the skull talisman,

traveling through land after land until it led me to you in

Takar. You are as great a charlatan - in your own way - as

your ancestors. It was simple to trap you."

The sivak draconian laughed.

"Now," Stel continued, "we are almost at the end of my

quest. There is one item in particular - relic of Chemosh -

that I have sought ever since I discovered its existence. A

pendant on a chain, it may be the most powerful talisman

ever created, an artifact that can raise a legion of the

undying to serve the wearer!"

The image of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of undead

warriors marching over the countryside was enough to

sink even Vandor's jaded heart.

Stel grimaced. "Do not think that I will neglect the

other treasures, though. I will be able to pick and choose!

I will wield power like no other!"

The familiar stomping that marked Captain Kruug's

coming sent a shiver through Vandor.

"We're as steady as we can be, Prefect Stel! If you're

going to do anything, do it now!"

Stel looked up into the eerie night sky. "Yes, the time

is close enough, I think." To the draconians, he barked,

"Stretch the fool's arm over the altar!"

SHINARE! Vandor tried praying again, but he kept

forgetting the proper words and losing his place in the

ritual.

"Blood calls blood, Vandor Grizt," murmured Stel.

"Surely, my blood is so tainted by lesser lines that it

would hardly be worth anything to you!" Vandor

squirmed desperately.

The draconians seemed to find this statement

amusing. Stel shook his masked head, touched the

glowing skull.

"Your blood has already proven itself. For you, that

means a reward. When the time comes, I will kill you in as

swift and painless a fashion as I can."

Vandor did not thank him for his kindness.

Stel raised his dagger high and intoned, "Great Sea

Queen, you who guide us now, without whom this deed

could not be done, I humbly ask in the name of my lord

Chemosh for this boon . . ."

Vandor Grizt heard nothing else. His eyes could not

leave the dagger.

The blade came down.

Vandor flinched and cried out in pain, but in what

seemed a reenactment of the first ritual, the cleric of

Chemosh pricked the skin of Vandor's arm and reopened

the long wound. Vandor gasped in relief.

Blood dripped into the altar. Stel muttered something.

At first, Vandor neither felt nor heard anything out of

the ordinary. Then, slowly, every hair on his head came to

life. A deep, inexplicable sense of horror gripped him.

Someone was speaking his name from beyond the

minotaur ship!

"Come!" Stel hissed. "Blood calls!"

Vandor trembled. The draconians dug their claws into

his arms. The minotaurs, who generally grumbled at

everything, paused at what they were doing and watched

and waited silently.

The waters around the TAURON stirred. Something

was rising to the surface.

SHINARE? Vandor Grizt prayed frantically.

"Answer them!" Prefect Stel hissed again, beckoning.

"You cannot resist the blood!"

To Vandor's dismay, he saw a ghostly, helmed head

rising above the rail. "B-blessed Shinare! I implore you! I

will honor you twice ... no! ... four times a day!"

"Stop babbling, human!" snarled the nervous sivak.

Then, it, too, saw the monstrosity trying to climb aboard.

"Prefect Stel! Look to your right!"

Turning, Stel sighted the walking corpse. "Aaah! At

last! At last!"

Much of the visage was hidden by the rusting helm,

but two empty eye sockets glared out. The armor that it

wore was loose and clanked together. The undead being

floated onto the deck. From the waist down, its legs were

obscured by a chill mist.

Stel eyed the breastplate. "The insignia of the house

guard of the Kingpriest!" He looked up into the ungodly

countenance. "A royal cousin, perhaps?"

Vandor Grizt's ANCESTOR did not respond.

"Prefect Stel!" hissed the draconian again.

Another form, clad in what had probably been a

shroud, rose almost next to Vandor Grizt. He thought he

saw a crown beneath the shroud, but he could not be

certain. He had no desire to take a closer look.

"Better and better . . ."

A third spectral figure joined the other two. The cleric

fairly rubbed his hands in glee. "I had hoped for one,

perhaps TWO after so long, but thr - four!"

Four it was - for the space of a single breath. Then,

two more rose from the water. They seemed less

substantial than the others; Vandor wondered if that meant

they had been dead longer.

Stel glanced heavenward, then at his captive. "There

is the answer to your protests, Vandor Grizt. Your blood

runs truer than you - than I - thought."

The dark cleric looked at the night sky. The clouds

were thickening and the winds were rising. "Time is

limited! We must not try the Sea Queen's admirable

patience!"

Holding the dagger before him, Stel summoned forth

the undead that had been first to appear. With his other

hand, the cleric removed the tiny skull on the chain and

handed it to Vandor's ancestor. "You are mine. You know

what I desire, do you not?"

The helm rattled as the ghost slowly nodded.

Vandor Grizt found himself sympathetic to his

ancestors. It was not right that they be used as menial

servants. Perhaps, he thought desperately, if blood truly

called to blood, he could send them back to their rest.

"Don't listen to him!" Vandor shouted. "Go! Go

back." His cries were cut off as one draconian put a scaly

hand over his mouth and the other twisted his arm

painfully.

It all proved to be for nothing. His shambling

ancestors paid no attention to him, but listened obediently

to the masked cleric who had summoned them.

"Make haste, then," Stel continued, ignoring his

prisoner's outburst. "The talisman will guide you. Bring

what you can, but most important, bring the Pendant of

Chemosh! Its image is burned into the device I gave you.

You cannot help but be drawn to it, no matter how deep it

be buried!"

The six spectral figures floated from the ship ... and

sank into the murky depths.

I'M FINISHED! Vandor thought. There was nothing he

could do but wait until Prefect Stel sacrificed him. He

morbidly wondered which god was going to get him,

Chemosh or the Sea Queen. Chemosh, surely, for Stel had

already given up a great deal to the Sea Queen.

"Great Chemosh, magnificent Zeboim," Vandor

muttered, "do either of you really want someone as

insignificant and unworthy as I? Surely a nice draconian

would do better!"

Captain Kruug had finally regained enough nerve to

rejoin the priest. The minotaur even dared peer over the

rail after the undead. "By the Mistress's Eyes! I've never

seen such before!"

Stel smiled. "Yes, the spell worked quite well."

"As you say. How long will . . . will it be before they

return?" The minotaur was clearly unnerved.

"YOU mean how long will it be until we can depart?"

Kruug glared at him, but finally nodded. "Yes . . . how

long? The skies grow darker. The clouds are gathering

and the sea is beginning to stir. It never pays to overtax

the good nature of the Sea Queen. She's known to change

her mind, prefect."

"It will not be long, captain. My servants do not face

the barriers that stop the living. No matter how deeply

sunken are the artifacts I seek, the undead will find them

in short order. The talisman I gave them will further

shorten their search. I, too, am trying to expedite things,

you see."

"Good." Kruug straightened to his full height. "I never

thought I'd be saying it, but I look forward to dry land this

night." He thrust a thumb at Vandor Grizt. "And what

about that one?"

Stel's hand stroked the dagger. "He is the last order of

business. When we are about to depart, I will sacrifice

him to Zeboim as a final gift."

The draconians looked at each other and muttered.

Vandor took his cue from them. He did some fast

calculating. The nearest Temple of Chemosh had to be at

least twenty days' journey from here . . .

"You give me to Zeboim, Master Stel? Not Chemosh?

You should really give this some lengthy consideration 1

If I were the wondrous Chemosh, I would be offended at

such shabby treatment!"

"Chemosh will understand. Chemosh is wise. Now cease

your prattle; I know what I do." But Stel looked uncertain.

"We invade her domain. We must make restitution." Was

he trying to convince himself?

The minotaur growled. "It would not be good to retract

a promise to the Sea Queen. She would be offended."

"I had no intention of doing so," Stel snapped. He

pointed into the dark waters. "There! You see?"

The draconians, curious, dragged their captive to the

side with them, enabling Vandor to see much more than he

wanted.

First one helmed head, then another appeared from the

murky water. Slowly, as if constrained to obey the one

who wielded power over them against their wishes, the

ragged shapes rose. Each carried within its skeletal arms

encrusted artifacts. Stel's reluctant servants bowed before

the cleric of Chemosh and piled the various jewels, scroll

cases, staves, and weapons on the deck at his feet.

Everyone else backed away from the ghastly minions,

but Stel stepped forward eagerly to inspect his treasure.

He picked up first one object, then another. His excitement

swiftly changed to frustration.

"These are useless! They are dead! There is little or no

magic in most of them! Nothing!" The cleric froze. "The

Pendant of Chemosh is not here!"

Vandor noticed then that there were only five undead.

The last of his unfortunate ancestors had not returned; the

one, in fact, who held the skull talisman. Had he somehow

broken free?

Clouds were beginning to gather. The wind blew

stronger. The TAURON rocked. Prefect Stel glared at his

prisoner. "I see that I shall need more than a little blood. I

think it is time for you to join your ancestors in my quest,

thief!"

"I assure you that I would make a useless corpse,

Master Stel!" Vandor blurted, struggling. The draconians

dragged him to stand before the cleric. Vandor glanced

briefly at his sea-soaked forebears, who remained

steadfastly oblivious to all around them. He wondered

what it would be like to exist so, figured he didn't have

long before he found out.

"Your blood will strengthen my hold, Vandor Grizt, and

you shall be my messenger to the Sea Queen. You should

consider yourself honored; this will probably be the only

thing of significance you've ever done in your paltry life!"

"Hurry! The storm is strengthening," Captain Kruug

warned.

The draconians held Vandor over the altar. Recalling

how his blood had sizzled upon touching the hot metal, he

twisted and turned, trying desperately to avoid it. One of

the guards finally used its claw to shove him down.

Vandor yelped, then realized that he was not being

scalded. His relief was momentary, though; a fate worse

than being scalded awaited him.

One of the draconians leaned close and hissed, "If you

say one more word, thief, I'll bite off your tongue and eat

it! I'm sick of your chatter!"

Vandor clamped his mouth tight. Trapped, he

searched frantically for some way out. His gaze lighted

upon the eyeless visage of an armored ghost, rising above

the rail.

In its brown, skeletal hands it held two chains. One

was the skull talisman Stel had given it for the search. The

other, much heavier, chain held a black crystal encased in

an ivory clasp.

"Master Stel, look!" Vandor cried. "You don't need

me. He has returned!"

Thanks to Shinare! Grizt added silently.

The cleric beckoned the ghost to him. His ungodly

servant raised the pendants high. Stel snatched his

talisman back, but seemed hesitant to touch the darkly

glimmering creation in the undead's other hand.

"Magnificent! Perfection!" Stel danced back and

forth. Then, recalling where he was and who was

watching, the prefect quieted and carefully reached for his

prize. All sound silenced, save for the wind and the waves

beating against the sides of the minotaur ship.

Vandor Grizt's ancestor did not at first seem inclined

to relinquish the prize, but a muttered word of power from

the cleric forced it to release its hold. Skull mask eyed

skull face for a breath or two, then Prefect Stel forgot the

impudence of his unliving slave as he looked down at the

pendant.

"The power has leeched away from most of the other

prizes, but this still glows with life! It is all I hoped for

and more! At last it shall serve its purpose! At last I will

take my own rightful place as the greatest of my Lord

Chemosh's loyal servants!"

Stel raised the thick chain over his head and lowered

the pendant onto his chest. No crack of thunder or blare of

horns marked the cleric's triumph, but a horrible,

breathless stillness momentarily passed over the region.

Captain Kruug was the first who dared interrupt the

cleric's worship. "Is that all, then? Are we soon to leave

this place?"

"Leave?" Stel was surprised by the suggestion. "We

can't leave now! If this artifact still survives, there MUST

be others! I will send them down again! And, with this

pendant, I can summon hundreds of blindly obedient

searchers!"

"You push our luck, human! There are limits - "

"There are no limits! I will show you!" Raising his

hands high, Prefect Stel cried strange words. The black

crystal began to shine with an eerie, grayish light.

Now, thunder rolled and lightning crashed. An

enormous swell of water shook the TAURON. Rain and

hail poured down.

"Come to me!" roared the ghastly priest.

The water began to froth around them, as if the entire

sea were coming to life. Captain Kruug was either

swearing or praying beneath his breath. He began

bellowing orders. The two draconians, absurdly obedient,

fought to keep Vandor over the altar.

A huge wave broke over the deck, drenching Vandor

and his guards. It became clear to Vandor that he might

DROWN before he could be sacrificed.

Stel ignored the tempest, ignored the maddened sea.

He stared at the water in expectation.

Up and down the TAURON rocked, tossed about like

a toy in a rushing stream. Another wave knocked both

Vandor and the draconians away from the altar. His two

guards maintained their hold on him and saved him from

being washed overboard. One of the draconians grabbed

ahold of the rail and pulled Vandor and the other

draconian closer. All three held on for their lives.

And then ...

"Shinare!" Vandor gasped, spitting sea water from his

mouth. "Has he raised ISTAR?"

It seemed so, at first. In the darkness, all Vandor

could see was an enormous, irregular landmass rising

from the depths. The only feature he could make out for

certain was a peculiar ridge of high hills lined up neatly

by twos and running the length of the land. Then, as the

mass rose still higher, two eyes gleamed bright in the

darkness.

This was not an island.

"Shinare!" Vandor Grizt whispered. Beside him, the

sivak hissed in fear.

"It's going to crush us!" a minotaur roared.

But as the head - a head resembling that of an

enormous turtle - cleared the water, the leviathan paused.

It might have been some huge stone colossus carved by

the ancients of Istar, so still was it.

Stel shouted triumphantly. He was facing the

monster, the pendant of Chemosh held tight in one hand.

Stel's ancient pendant might not have summoned up

the legions of undead that the cleric had sought, but it had

summoned up something far more impressive. The

draconians left the rail, dragging Vandor back to the altar.

"Surely this is no longer necessary!" he protested.

"Master Stel has no time for this now! We should not

bother such a busy man!"

In response, the draconians threw Vandor over the

blood-spattered bowl and waited for orders.

"See what I have done!" Stel cried. "I have the power

to raise monsters from the depths!"

"DEAD ONES, YES . . ." muttered Vandor.

"Yet, this is not what I expected," Stel quieted, then

gazed down at his prize. "I meant to summon the dead of

Istar, not this . . . this beast. This is not how the spell is

supposed to work. Time has wreaked havoc with the

pendant. I shall have to do something about that."

Stel removed his gloves and began probing at the

crystal. There was a SNAP and a tiny burst of light. Stel

cried out in pain. The crystal fell from the ivory casing.

With a wordless cry, Stel tried to catch the magical gem

in midair, but he missed. Vandor shut his eyes - prayed

that the explosion of sorcery unleashed by the shattering

crystal would make his end swift.

The ebony gem struck the deck with a disappointing

clatter. It rolled a moment, then slid toward Vandor Grizt.

He reacted without thinking, seeing only a valuable

jewel heading toward the sea. Vandor put his foot out,

caught the crystal between the sole of his boot and the

deck. Grizt, the draconians, and Prefect Stel exhaled in

relief. Only then did Stel realize what Vandor was doing.

"Stop him, you fools!"

Vandor Grizt stomped his foot down as hard as he

could, trying desperately to crush the damnable artifact.

Something gave way and at first Vandor believed he had

succeeded. But try as he might, he could not reduce the

thing to powder.

One of the draconians hit Vandor, dragging him back,

away from the pendant.

Quickly Stel bent over and snatched up his prize. He

inspected it for damage, then, satisfied, tried to replace it

in the clasp. The crystal would not stay. Stel studied the

clasp closer and cursed.

"Broken!"

Vandor smiled ruefully, though he could not help but

sigh over the precious loss. The pendant had survived the

sinking of Istar and centuries of burial in the depths of the

Blood Sea, only to come to such an ignominious end.

Stel shook his fist at Vandor.

"You did this! You could not crush the jewel, but you

cracked the framework around it." He thrust the gem

close, so that Vandor could see the tiny, intricate workings

that wrapped around the ebony jewel, like skeletal fingers

clutching a prized possession. One of them had clearly

broken off.

Whatever his fate now - and it certainly could get no

worse - Vandor Grizt could die in peace, knowing the

monstrous pendant was destroyed.

"I see your look!" Stel hissed. "But I will build the

pendant anew, thief! The framework is nothing! It can

readily be replaced! As long as I have the jewel I will... I

will. . ."

He stared at it. The jewel - Grizt realized - had ceased

to glow.

The two draconians exchanged worried glances.

"Prefect," asked the sivak, "is there something amiss?"

Stel did not answer. The dark cleric shook the gem,

muttered some words under his breath, and touched the

crystal with his index finger.

Grizt dared a fleeting, hopeful smile.

One of the draconians, glancing at him, snarled,

"What do YOU find so funny, human?"

He did not get the opportunity to reply.

"It's . . . it's dead . . ." Stel gasped. He shook the jewel

again for good measure. "I do not understand! It worked

perfectly until it fell out of the clasp, but the lack of a

frame should only make the power a little less focused,

unless . . . of course!" He fumbled with the casing. "This is

bone ivory! Part of the spell's matrix! The pendant must be

whole to function or it loses all power!"

Stel tried pressing the gem back into the casing, but it

would not hold.

A massive wave shook the TAURON. Stel almost lost

his footing. Captain Kruug shouted a warning, but his

words were overwhelmed by the violent surging of the

Blood Sea and a crash of thunder.

"NOW what?" Stel snapped.

"Prefect! The monster!" shouted the draconians.

Stel turned around and stared at the leviathan the

pendant had helped him summon.

It was moving . . . and the TAURON lay directly in its

path.

"Sargonnas take you, priest!" Kruug roared. "Listen to

me! Send that thing away or it will kill us all!"

"Preposterous! It will do no such thing! I am the one

who summoned it!"

The minotaur snorted.

Vandor Grizt, who was measuring the direction and

speed of the undead leviathan, turned to his draconian

guards. "Listen to him! The captain is right! Do

something!"

"Be silent or I'll tear you in half!" the sivak hissed.

Undaunted, Vandor screamed at them. "Just look!

Your master no longer controls it! It comes for us!"

Tentacles as thick as a man's body rose above the

water, reaching for the ship as the creature neared.

"First rank! Axes!" Kruug roared. Several massive

minotaurs abandoned what they were doing and rushed

toward the steps leading into the vessel's interior.

Through all of this, Stel had remained standing still

staring at the oncoming behemoth. He shook his head.

"With the pendant, I could easily regain total control . . .

but the pendant... is broken and I don't ..." He eyed

Vandor, who now regretted his attempts to pulverize the

jewel. Death appeared to be his fate no matter WHAT

happened. "But I might be able to use it to enhance my

OWN power ... if I have a sufficient blood sacrifice to

Chemosh to feed the spell."

SHINARE! WHY DOES EVERYTHING INVOLVE MY

BLOOD? "But I am promised to the Sea Queen!" Grizt

protested. "If you use me for this, she might grow angry . .

. angrier!"

"There will be enough blood to keep you alive . . .

barely. She will understand."

Stel, it seemed, believed in very understanding gods.

Vandor Grizt thought that if he were either Chemosh or

the Sea Queen, he would be insulted by all of these shabby

half-measures and broken vows.

The TAURON had begun to list. The minotaurs had

apparently lost control of the ship. Of all those on board,

only Vandor's ancestors - still in thrall to Stel - remained

unaffected by the terror. They stared blindly in the

direction of Stel and, it seemed, at their descendant who

would soon be joining them in death.

Dagger in one hand and gem in the other, the cleric of

Chemosh faced the undead leviathan surging toward them.

Stel appeared to have confidence in himself, if no one else

did. Raising the gem high, the black-robed cleric began to

shout words of power. The hand with the dagger rose over

the chest of Vandor Grizt.

It was then that the world turned about. Vandor Grizt

was not certain of the order of events, but suddenly the

storm burst into full fury, sending the ship keeling over in

the opposite direction. At least one minotaur was washed

overboard by a massive wave. A bolt of lightning struck

one of the masts, cracking it in two. The burning wreckage

crashed down on the hapless crew.

More than a dozen tentacles wrapped around the

TAURON and began to drag it under.

Stel stood frozen, disbelief registered in every bone

of his body. He dropped the dagger, much to the captive's

relief, and clawed at the tiny skull pendant. As he pulled it

free, it CRUMBLED.

The TAURON was beginning to break up, as the

tentacles threatened to crunch it. Captain Kruug and

several minotaurs rushed forward, attacking the creature

with heavy axes. The rotting skin of the behemoth gave

way. It took the minotaurs only a few blows to sever the

one tentacle and only a couple more to cut a second in

two.

Unfortunately, as Kruug and his men finished the

second, a dozen more ensnared their ship.

"All hands to battle!" roared the captain. Minotaurs

all over the TAURON abandoned their stations and joined

the fight against the beast.

Another wave washed over the front of the ship. Van-

dor's left arm was nearly torn from its socket and

something like an army of blades tore at his flesh. He was

being flayed. In desperation, he lifted one foot and kicked.

His boot struck something solid. He kicked again.

The blades pulled free of his flesh. Only when the

first shock subsided did he realize that the sivak draconian

- the cursed shapechanger - was no longer holding him.

He looked around but saw no sign of the foul reptile. The

draconian had been washed overboard. At least he had

succeeded in avenging himself on the creature that had

killed his friend and captured him.

A brief satisfaction was all he was allowed. Then, it

was a matter of struggling for his own life. Another wave

washed over the ship. The other draconian released

Vandor and fled, slipping and sliding, for the TAURON'S

interior, choosing self-survival over the orders of the

cleric.

Stel had moved to one side and was holding onto the

rail, eyes wild. He was shouting something at the

leviathan but his words were having no effect. Desperate,

the gaunt priest whirled on the silent figures of the

merchant's ancestors and made a sign.

The undead shuffled forward, forming a half-circle

around the cleric.

Struggling to maintain his own hold on the rail,

Vandor Grizt sought some sort of escape. To stay aboard

the ship was folly in his opinion, but the Blood Sea

offered the only other option.

"Shinare," he whispered, "is there ANYTHING I can

offer you?"

Kruug, axe covered in a brown, thick muck, was trying

to get his crew's attention.

"Prepare to abandon ship!" Kruug glanced around and

spotted Vandor. Grimacing, the minotaur called, "I'll not

leave even you to this, manling! Get over to the - "

A tentacle struck the captain. Kruug flew over the

other side of the ship and, as Vandor watched helplessly,

the beastman dropped into the water and vanished

beneath.

The TAURON began to shudder and crack.

THIS IS THE END FOR ALL OF US! Vandor thought.

His undead ancestors had formed a tighter ring around

the cleric. No longer were they the blindly obedient slaves

that Stel had summoned. They had the prefect pinned

against the rail and were closing the circle around him.

CHEMOSH WILL UNDERSTAND. . . Stel had said

that over and over. Chemosh - Lord of the Undead - had

not been as understanding as his servant imagined.

One of the wraiths, the skeleton in armor, reached out

and tore the mask from the cleric's face. The skeletal hand

closed over Stel's throat. Stel screamed horribly. The other

undead closed around him.

A gigantic wave swamped the TAURON.

Vandor Grizt lost his hold, falling overboard. The sea

took him. He could no longer see the TAURON and for all

he knew it had been pulled under after the last wave.

Water was all there was in the world. It surrounded him; it

filled him.

Then he saw a woman, a beautiful but fiery creature of

the depths. She was reaching for him, but something ... no

SOMEONE - another woman . . . was pulling him away

from her.

Vandor Grizt smiled vaguely at the first woman,

regretting that their liaison was not possible.

Then, he was no more.

 

*****

 

Vandor Grizt discovered he did not like the taste of

sand.

Raising his head, an act that strained to the limit what

few resources he had left, he spat out a grainy mouthful.

Vandor kept his eyes closed. He was not at all certain

he wanted to know where he was. After all, if he were

dead, he might be in the domain of Zeboim ... or worse.

Curiosity got the better of him.

All he saw was a beach. Daytime. Brilliant light

nearly blinded him. Closing his eyes, he restarted the

process, allowing himself only a narrow gap of vision at

first.

He allowed that gap to widen when he saw the feet in

front of him. They were not human feet.

"So you survived," rumbled a horribly familiar voice.

"Some god truly watches over you, human . . ."

Vandor Grizt rolled over, the best he could do at the

moment, and stared at the looming bestial countenance of

Captain Kruug. After a moment, Vandor became aware of

the presence of three other minotaurs, one of whom leaned

heavily on another.

Vandor tried to speak, coughed and spit up sea water.

Kruug snorted. He looked tired. Very tired. "Save

your words, human. I've no interest in you. Anyone who

survived that folly . . . and I'm amazed there are any of us

... deserves some peace." The minotaurs started to turn

away, but the captain held back long enough to add, "If

you'll take my advice, you'll go inland. DEEP inland. If I

see your ugly face again, I might remember how I lost my

ship because of you."

Although he had a somewhat different perspective on

the recent events, Grizt did not think it wise to argue. He

watched in silence as the battered foursome stumbled off.

"You're lucky, Vandor Grizt," he said as he lay there

trying to regain enough strength to move on. "The bull-

man must be right: some god does smile on me!" The

thought comforted him. If that was true - and it certainly

seemed so - then it might be a wise time to begin a new

life.

Grizt started to rise, but felt something under his left

hand. He dug the object out of the sand and stared long at

it.

It was the upper portion of Stel's skull mask - an

eyehole and part of the cheek. Vandor smiled. His

ancestor had bequeathed him a present.

Vandor dropped the battered mask and, finding new

strength, rose to his feet. He looked around and saw that

the minotaurs were still within sight, their pace slowed by

the injured member.

Vandor Grizt ran after them, calling out in order to get

their attention. Kruug turned around, his fists balled tight.

When he saw who it was, his anger was replaced by

annoyance.

"What do you want? I thought I told you - "

"Please!" Vandor Grizt put up both hands in placation.

"Just a question of directions. That is all I ask. You know

this region much better than I."

"All right. Where is it you want to go?"

Trying not to sound too anxious, Vandor asked,

"Would you happen to know the way to the nearest temple

of Shinare?"

 

The Vingaard Campaign

 

Douglas Niles

 

FROM the Research of Foryth Teel, Senior Scribe

in the service of Astinus, Master Lorekeeper of Krynn.

Most Gracious Historian, you do me too much honor!

To think of this task - the study of the greatest military

campaign in the post-Cataclysm history of Krynn - and to

realize that you have selected ME to prepare the

documents! I am honored, humbled. But, as always, I shall

endeavor to do my best, so that the truth can be recorded

and saved.

Thank you too, Excellency, for your concern about my

health following my previous mission. My nerves have

settled and the tremors have almost disappeared from my

hands. Also, I am able to sleep for several hours at a time

without suffering the recurrence of nightmares.

As always, a return to my work seems to promise the

most complete cure - and in this assignment, Your Grace,

you could not have provided a more perfect medicine. The

tale of the Vingaard Campaign! The very phrase strikes a

martial note in my soul! I hear the clash of steel, the

thunder of hooves and the strident call of the battle

trumpet! I imagine the wings of dragons, good and evil,

blotting out the sky. I picture the blasts of powerful

magicks, the gallant charge of the knights!

But forgive me. I have not forgotten that the historian is

a dispassionate reporter of the truth. Such flights of fancy

are for poets, not scholars such as I. I shall try to control

my emotions. Nevertheless, as I relate the exciting story of

a young elven princess who changed the face of Krynn in

a few short weeks - the sharp, dangerous attacks that

baffled her foes, the fast marches across the plains placing

her miles from her supposed location, and of course, her

epic victory at Margaard Ford - I trust that Your

Excellency will forgive an occasional exclamatory aside.

In studies, I will examine the topic primarily from

the viewpoint of the Army of Solamnia. The records of the

dragonarmies were relatively well kept, and have been

researched by many scribes. The campaigns from the

Golden General's side, on the other hand, have only been

discussed in the histories of the Knights of Solamnia. To

read them, one might think that the contributions of the

good dragons to these battles was merely to fan the

battlefield with their wings, cooling the sweat from the

brows of the hard-riding knights to whom the laurels

really belonged! In my own reports, I shall strive for a

greater degree of objectivity - as befits a proper historian.

I now commence my task in the musty library of the

High Clerist's Tower at Westgate Pass. Extensive records

from a variety of sources have yielded themselves to my

diligence. Gunthar Uth Wistan's account, formulated on

the distant island of Ergoth from reports received by that

venerable captain from his knights in the field, proves

surprisingly complete - and accurate. (He does a

remarkable job, Excellency, of separating the wheat from

the chaff as regards the reports received from his

enthusiastic warriors!) The records of the interviews

conducted with the captured dragonarmy general Bakaris

also shed a good light on the campaign. Also, I have been

afforded the aid of a hitherto unknown source: a young

human female named Mellison (no surname, apparently),

self-appointed servant of the general. I have found the

tattered remnants of a diary she kept during the short

period of the campaign (it is amazing in the extreme to

think that this sweeping series of battles lasted a mere

twenty days!).

Mellison had been born and raised in a small village

on the Plains of Solamnia. When the dragons came, her

community was scorched, and her parents slain (or,

perhaps, taken as slaves). Mellison, alone from the

village, managed to escape to the shelter of the High

Clerist's Tower and, eventually, Palanthas.

I do not know how she met the elf woman who would

become the Golden General - those pages, at the start of

Mellison's diary, have been destroyed. However, by the

time Laurana had been appointed by Gunthar Uth Wistan,

Grand Master of Solamnia, to command the knights and

the army of Palanthas, the human girl had attached herself

to the elf woman.

Mellison proved very useful to the general, preparing

Laurana's tent for those nights when the general was able

to steal a few hours' sleep; and Mellison always fanned a

blaze into light for her mistress's predawn awakenings.

Though the young woman participated in none of the

battles, her observations of Laurana's campfire councils

have provided us with key insights into the development

of the campaign.

The first of these discussions occurred on the field

below this very tower, and it is here that Mellison gives us

a picture of Laurana's council of war. Present were the elf

woman, the two Knights of the Crown - Sirs Patrick and

Markham - who served as her chief lieutenants, and two

unnamed knights of the other orders. Mellison refers to

them, in her childlike hand, as "Lord Sword" and "Sir

Rose." Gilthanas - Laurana's brother and proud prince of

the Qualinesti elves - also attended.

(Incidentally, Your Grace, the letters sent by Gilthanas

to his brother Porthios provide us an additional primary

source on this campaign, especially as it was seen from an

elven point of view.)

Of course, the context of the meeting is well known:

the dragonarmy known as the Blue Wing had been blunted

(but not destroyed) in the Battle of the High Clerist's

Tower. These troops, under the command of the Dark

Lady - the Highlord Kitiara - and her general, Bakaris, had

fallen back upon Dargaard Keep, where they represented a

significant threat. The good dragons had arrived here

following that battle, on the day preceding Laurana's

council of war. These mighty serpents, of gold and silver,

brass, copper and bronze, had at last ended their exile

from the war. Brought to Palanthas by Gilthanas and the

great silver dragon called Silvara, they were anxious to

exact vengeance against their evil cousins.

Though the numbers of dragons and troops in

Laurana's force equaled a mere fraction of the total evil

forces, she had the advantage of concentration - all of her

forces were here, in the pass, while those of the enemy -

the Red Wing, portions of the Green and White Wings,

and the remnants of the Blue Wing - were scattered over

Solamnia from Vingaard and Caergoth to Kalaman and

Neraka. Also, a huge reserve army under the command of

Emperor Ariakus himself had spent the winter encamped

in Sanction. Recent rumors placed the dragonarmy on the

march, however, though Laurana and her captains had no

idea of its location or destination.

The time was night, a council fire flared high. Mellison

reports that its light was reflected in gold and silver

gleams from the massive dragons crouched just beyond

the human commanders.

"We can hold them here forever!" stated Sir Rose,

opening the council. "With the dragons and the men of

Palanthas to back us up, the knights will form an

unbreakable wall!"

"Hold them, indeed," agreed Sir Patrick. "If they dare

to attack again, we'll butcher them to the last scale-faced

draconian! Don't you agree, general?" Grudgingly he

turned to Laurana for confirmation. Of the Crown

Knights, he had been most reluctant to accept her

leadership - yet the orders of Gunthar Uth Wistan had thus

far proven sufficient to steel him to his duty.

"I have no intention of holding them here, or

anywhere!" declared Laurana, with that shake of her head

that set her golden hair flowing about her shoulders.

"What is your plan?" inquired Markham, with his

easy grin that somewhat lightened the tension.

"We attack." Laurana spoke the two words, and then

paused to fix her eyes on each of her listeners. She seemed

to grow in stature as the firelight flared across her fair

skin, her almond-shaped eyes. "The Army of Solamnia

will advance under the wings of the good dragons, seek

out the dragonarmies, and destroy them!"

"Leave the pass unguarded?" sputtered Sir Rose.

"After this great victory, you risk throwing everything ...

the lives, the - "

Laurana's reply was sharp and bitter. "I know very

well the cost in lives!" she snapped with enough force to

shut the mouth of the grizzled veteran. For a moment she

closed her eyes. Mellison saw the sharp pain of memory

etched across Laurana's face. Gilthanas placed a

comforting hand on his sister's arm, but she shrugged it

away. She took a breath and continued.

"Nothing could be more wasteful of those lives than

for us to cower here, behind these walls, and give the

dragonarmies time to concentrate their scattered forces.

No, my captains, we won't wait for them to act. It is time

this war came back against those who began it!"

"Where do we go, then?" inquired Sir Rose. "Do we

advance south, toward Solanthus? Or eastward, to threaten

the occupation forces at Vingaard? Both of these courses

allow us this fortress as a base. Too, they keep the

Vingaard River as a strong barrier between us and the bulk

of the enemy - the option to fall back in the event of . . ."

He did not complete his speculation; something in the

general's eyes silenced him.

"Vingaard," Laurana announced. "But not as a threat -

1 mean to liberate it. As to the river, I want this entire

army across it within a week."

"BEYOND the Vingaard?" Patrick was shocked, but

his eyes measured the elf woman with surprise and new

appraisal. "Into the heart of the dragonrealms?"

"The dragonarmies will meet us there, in force,"

Markham said cautiously. "Do you intend to draw them

into a battle? Destroy them on the field?"

"That will be an historic moment!" Lord Sword

declared, his face flushing and his long mustaches bobbing

at the prospect. A fierce light entered his eyes. "To drive

our lances into the faces of those beasts, for once - instead

of merely standing our ground!"

Laurana smiled, too, but it was a grim expression to

Mellison. She thought it made the elf woman look much

older. "Yes - I will draw them into battle. The first of

many. Once we've crossed the river, I don't intend to rest

until we reach the gates of Kalaman!"

"Kalaman!" Sir Rose sputtered so much that his

mustaches floated out from his mouth. They all knew that

the distant city was in desperate straits, following a long

winter of isolation and siege. Still, hundreds of miles of

enemy territory lay between themselves and Kalaman.

"You're mad!" barked Patrick.

Laurana allowed the insult to pass, but this time her

brother stepped forward. "The good dragons give us a

striking force that you knights can't begin to imagine!"

countered the tall elf. "We cannot waste them!"

"What about Dargaard?" asked Markham, turning to

Laurana. "That's a powerful bastion across your path - the

Dark Lady is there in force, together with the dragons of

her Blue Wing. The ogres of Throtl are supported by green

dragons, and they're certain to mass against your south

flank."

"I intend to ignore Dargaard, for the time being. The

ogres we'll meet, and defeat."

"They'll have the Green Wing to support them. And

Emperor Ariakus has sent the Red Wing from Neraka as a

reinforcement. Too, we don't have any idea where the

reserve army has gone," argued Sir Rose.

"We have dragonlances," cried Gilthanas. "We can

meet these serpents in the skies, finally, and defeat them!"

"The weapon, so far, has only proven itself in the

closed confines of the tower!" Patrick growled back.

"That is true," Laurana agreed. "But I don't intend to

fight all the dragons at once. That's why it's so important

that we MOVE!"

"But a major river crossing!" objected Patrick. "You

can't imagine the difficulties! And if we're caught with the

army divided - "

"Our dragons will screen the crossing. And I intend to

reach the Vingaard too quickly for anything but a token

force to stand in our way."

"But there's the fortress itself - Vingaard Keep has a

massive garrison!" persisted Patrick. "Anywhere we cross

puts us in easy reach of a counterattack!"

"That brings me to the next part of the plan," Laurana

announced, pausing to make sure she had the attention of

all the men. "Vingaard will be liberated - TOMORROW."

The knights, to a man, stared at the general in

amazement. All knew that Vingaard Keep was three days'

ride by horse.

At this point, the Council's voices grew hushed and

confidential, so the rest of the conversation is lost to

Mellison's diary - and to history. The results of this

historic and clandestine conversation are known.

The following dawn, the skies over the High Clerist's

Tower were filled with dragons - their metallic colors

dappling the ground with moving reflections of the

brilliant sunrise. Laurana, astride the huge gold dragon

Quallathon, led the way. A wing of griffon cavalry,

mounted with elven bowmen and lancers - lately arrived

from Southern Ergoth - flew beside the great serpents.

Altogether, two hundred of the half-hawk, half-lion beasts

accompanied an equal number of dragons soaring

southeast toward Vingaard - eighty miles away across the

flat plain. Their bodies blackened the sky.

At the same time, the army moved out. Led by the

knights on horseback, accompanied by the blue-garbed

troops of Palanthas and a large and growing force of

irregulars recruited from Solamnia and Ergoth, the

soldiers of Laurana's command marched to the northeast.

The diverging paths were obvious to all. The flying army

was on its own, the battle would be won or lost long

before the troops on the ground could arrive.

Gilthanas, in an extensive letter to Porthios, gives us a

vivid picture of this assault - the first time the good

dragons took the offensive in the war.

"Within four hours our dragons drew within sight of

mighty Vingaard Keep, standing on the near bank of the

river that bears the same name.

"For more than a year, the dragonarmies had held the

fortress, and their presence formed a bleak shroud around

the once-grand castle. Layers of soot clouded the walls,

and rubble-strewn fields surrounded the high towers,

where once thrived lush crops of grain.

"I never knew such exhilaration and excitement.

Silvara tucked in her wings and plunged toward the city.

Wind lashed my hair and stung my face. The ground

approached with dizzying speed, and I felt a fierce joy.

"At last the dragonarmies would get a taste of the

terror they had spread so wantonly across Ansalon.

Silvara's challenging bellow thundered through the air,

echoed by scores of silver and golden throats.

"The draconians lining the walls quivered and shook