Authors: Kevin J. Anderson
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #epic
The Slave halted a moment as its pitiful eyes met the bald veteran’s. But the moment was shattered as the Serpent savagely sank fangs into the Slave’s neck, making it howl in pain and rage.
Tarne leaped in, moving with a smooth grace that belied his age. The chains on his armor reflected starlight and the greenish aurora. He surprised the demon with his attack, feinting, shifting the Slave’s guard, and slashing at its belly. The notched edge of the old blade sliced through the monster’s tough chest plate, but the Slave looked more angry than injured.
It swung a clawed fist at Tarne, but the fighter hacked into the massive paw. The beast roared and swung backward with his other arm, catching the fighter with a glancing blow. Tarne spun, but recovered his balance as the Slave struck again.
The sword from the old Sorcerers flashed up as the Slave tried to maul him but instead impaled its own forearm on the tip of the blade. The monster howled, jerking its injured arm away from the sword, then swatted at the blade with its other paw.
Tarne saw his chance and thrust in at the chest plate, but the Slave’s thick hide protected it from serious harm. It lashed again with a wounded arm, but the monster moved slowly. Tarne dodged and came back in, hacking with two-handed strokes.
He looked up and his eyes met the Serpent’s.
The huge snake began weaving back and forth, swaying and hissing like a rhythmic fire with green wood. The Serpent kept the fighter’s eyes locked to its own. From her hiding place, Tareah could see the veteran becoming entranced by the hypnotic movement, dropping his guard.
Tareah stood up. They didn’t see her. She had to do something, use one of her spells.…She couldn’t run and get the Water Stone, and she felt small and defenseless. She could attack with a minor fireball, perhaps, or a bolt of energy—but her aim might not be good enough, since the two opponents stood so close. The bald fighter stared at the swaying Serpent, dazed.
“Tarne!” she finally shouted.
The Slave swung with its deadly claws, using all of its massive muscle power to rake across Tarne’s chest. The fighter sprawled on the ground with part of his armor hanging in tatters and broken chains. The snapped links gleamed bright in contrast to the tarnished older metal.
The armor had protected Tarne, though. He climbed to his feet, gasping and trying to suck air back into his lungs. He blinked, but he looked stunned. He turned to stare in amazement at Tareah. The Slave came at him again.
The fighter met the charge head on, whirling the old sword in a random pattern of cuts and slashes. Tufts of fur and drops of thick yellow blood flew from the demon. With a burst of energy, Tarne drove in so forcefully that the weakened Slave stepped back.
Blood oozed from slashes in its thick skin, running to the ground and leaving viscous, yellow pools. The monster wheezed and panted, making weak attempts to defend itself.
Tarne stopped and took a step back, holding the dripping sword in front of him. The Slave appeared dazed and began to topple backward. The veteran watched with an astonished grin on his face. He flashed a glance back at Tareah.
Abruptly, unexpectedly, the huge Serpent flashed downward, stretching its body longer than seemed possible. Fangs glistened with drops of diamond-like venom. The fighter looked up, and the snake struck. The hollow fangs punctured his armor and sank into his chest, gushing a mouthful of venom into his bloodstream.
By the weapons storehouse, Tareah gasped and watched the veteran collapse writhing on the ground. Ready to scream, she stood seething and helpless. She was untrained in using her magic for combat. If her spells failed.…
The hairy Servant howled something like anguish into the growing light. But the Serpent was blood-maddened, pushing the massive beast back toward the stricken fighter.
That aroused Tareah’s anger enough that she screamed back at it. “Get away from here!”
The demon turned to face her. The Serpent opened its mouth to hiss. More venom dripped smoking onto the ground. The Slave took a step toward her.
Then Tareah remembered the firepowder.
She ducked inside the storehouse and snatched one of the clay casks. The back of her mind nagged at her, that she shouldn’t be using
weapons, that her simple fire-starting spell was far too trivial to be used in any battle that anyone would remember.
The Serpent coiled around the Slave’s neck. The hairy beast spread out its giant arms, splaying its claws and dripping glob of yellow blood down its fur. It roared into the approaching dawn, then strode toward Tareah.
She decided not to worry about fighting tactics. She closed her eyes and summoned up the fire-starting spell. It was a trivial spell, something anyone with a trace of Sorcerer blood could do easily—and Tareah succeeded the first time.
The fuse hissed and sizzled as the spark ate its way down.
The Slave charged at her.
She tossed the cask at the demon. “Catch!”
The firepowder exploded in a brilliant flash of fire and light, spraying the Slave of the Serpent with burning streamers and chunks of clay.
Tareah fell backward against the wall of the storehouse, rubbing her blinded eyes and gasping. Stinging chips of pottery fragments slashed her face.
She saw the smoking demon charge howling around the training yard. It charged into the upright logs of the double wall, sending a shower of the packed dirt trickling down. The monster beat at flames burning on its shoulder, its chest.
On the ground, Tarne still cried out in spasms. Spittle ran down his cheek back to his ear.
The Serpent reared back and glared at her. “Delrael is dead. No more quests! Scartaris will come back for Fire Stone!”
The rip in the air opened up again with a snap, and the howling beast plunged back into it. The Slave of the Serpent was swallowed up by nothing, disappearing.
Panting, Tareah ran to where the veteran lay trembling on the ground. Two blue flames burned from the puncture wounds on his chest, blackening the leather of his armor as the venom coursed through his bloodstream. He grimaced and shuddered, gripping the ancient sword.
He crawled forward, but Tareah stopped him. His eyes were glassy and unseeing. She stroked his cheek, muttering nonsense to him. Her magic could do nothing to stop the burning poison, to bring him back from death’s stranglehold.
Tarne said nothing intelligible, which also confused her: all the legends had led her to expect dying characters to make a final dramatic speech before death.
The veteran stared at the glow of sunlight in the eastern sky rising up toward dawn, as the aurora overhead dimmed. His gray eyes did not close. The fires inside him burned out in a burst of dark energy, and he crumpled to ashes within his ancient and damaged vest of armor.
“Let the Game go on forever, and may your score always increase,” Tareah whispered for him, the accepted farewell for a trusted companion.
Tareah stood up, blinking her eyes. Old Siya hung by the doorway of the main building, then moved mechanically toward the fallen fighter. An expression of complete horror hung on her face. Tareah wondered how long she had been standing there, attracted by the noise of the fight.
Tareah remembered the tears on the fighter’s face, the fear in his eyes; she remembered how he had arrived in armor, waiting. Tarne had
ahead of time. He had deceived the demon into thinking it had slain Delrael. He had known this battle would kill him! And yet he had come anyway.
Tareah realized that she was now completely alone. She had no one to help her fight against whatever else Scartaris would send against them.
The dead fighter’s ashes left a black stain on the ground.
“Rule #3: Questing characters may join with any other characters they encounter. Note, though, that the alignment of such newfound companions might not be clear. All characters have their own quests, their own preferred outcome to an adventure.”
The Book of Rules
Journeyman clapped his clay hands together and stretched his face in a grin. “Well, are we off to see the Wizard?”
Bryl looked at the perplexed expressions on the faces of Vailret and Delrael, relieved to see their skepticism. It was a nice switch, since they usually trusted everything without a thought of caution. Bryl shook his head and scratched at his thinning gray beard. After seeing some of the things Delrael did on impulse, Bryl was surprised the fighter had lived as long as he had.
“Wizard?” Delrael said, “We’re going to find Scartaris, not just some magic user.”
“Merely a figure of speech.” Journeyman strode off into the forest terrain ahead of Delrael and Vailret. Bryl wrung some water out of his blue cloak, sighed, and followed them. The forest grew denser, but the quest-path marking their way shone plain on the ground. The sounds of the Barrier River faded, leaving them in the forest by themselves.
“Why do you always say such strange things, Journeyman?” Vailret asked.
“I don’t know nothin’. I just work here.” the golem said.
“Yeah, like that.”
“Well, I was created by the Rulewoman Melanie, so I have some … connection with the Outside. I can see some of the things she sees, know some of the phrases she knows.”
Bryl scowled in exasperation at Vailret and Delrael. They acted as if they believed what the golem said, just on the basis of his own word. When Scartaris was out to destroy the world, how could they trust
? How could great questers be so naive? If the Outsiders wanted to eliminate their own world, who could trust any other character? Bryl huffed and came up close behind them, looking sidelong at the golem but speaking to Delrael.
“How do we know he’s from the Rulewoman? The Outsider David might have sent him to kill us while we sleep.”
Delrael frowned as if the thought had never occurred to him. Vailret scratched his blond hair and nodded. “He’s got a point, Del.”
Bryl sighed, relieved that they had conceded that much.
Journeyman spread out his hands and splayed his fingers even wider. “Cross my heart and hope to die?” When that didn’t appear to be good enough, the golem drew himself up, swelling his chest and stretching the pliable clay to make his shoulders broader.
“The Rulewoman Melanie commanded me to destroy Scartaris. That is my quest and that must take priority. I would rather join forces, offer my services, and accompany you—but if you don’t trust me, I’ll go alone.”
He tilted his head forward on a rubbery neck. “Delrael, I know your father Drodanis. And I’ve seen Lellyn, Bryl’s apprentice. They both reached the Rulewoman and her Pool.”
Delrael snapped his head up, blinking. Bryl saw a haunted look in the fighter’s brown eyes.
Journeyman nodded. “Your father is well, though he is in a daze most of the time. Drodanis wants to forget. He wants to be without pain, without memories. He wants to stop playing. And on Gamearth when a character wishes to give up the Game, there is nothing left of him.”
Delrael reached out to snap a twig from a branch. His knuckles were white, but he made no comment. Vailret put a hand on the shoulder of his cousin’s armor.
“What about Lellyn?” Bryl asked. The boy had been rather likeable, although an affront to his teacher. A pureblooded human who somehow, through the Rules of Probability, was able to work more magic than Bryl himself could. The boy worked spells intuitively, wielded greater power than his teacher, but Bryl had still taught the boy what little he could, before Drodanis took him along on his quest.
“Lellyn is a rulebreaker in many ways,: Journeyman continued. “He was nearly destroyed by his own doubts. The Rulewoman froze him in a block of forever-ice, sink to the bottom of her Pool, for his own protection.”
“Why would she do that?” Bryl said.
Journeyman tilted his head up again and moved a branch out of the way as they began to walk again. The branch gouged tracks into the soft clay of his arm. Absently, he smoothed his skin back into place.
“None of us is
. We are made-up characters created for the Outsiders’ amusement. You know that. We all know that. But the Rulewoman herself is a manifestation of one of the Outsiders. She is so beautiful, with her long brown hair and her big eyes filled with all the colors of mother-of-pearl. She moves with such grace and power.…” Journeyman paused, as if daydreaming.
“And when Lellyn saw her, maybe he saw more than he should. Somehow in his mind he knew that she was
and he was not. That doubt grew and grew until, when he completely disbelieved in his own existence, he would have vanished, winked out, annihilated.
is a powerful thing, too much for anything on this world to handle.
“In the last instant the Rulewoman froze him to save him from his own doubts. He is still here, but he is not here.”
As Journeyman spoke, Bryl remembered the ruined ship that had carried the Outsiders David and Tyrone into the Spectre Mountains near Sitnalta. That was how the Outsiders had brought Scartaris into the world. He also remembered the Scavenger, Paenar, who had come to the deserted fortress looking for treasure, and found instead the Outsiders. He had taken a brief glimpse of the Outsiders in their
forms, and the sight had blasted his eyes from their sockets. Yes,
was a powerful thing.
Grudgingly, Bryl decided not to push the argument. They trudged on, crossing a hex-line into another section of forest terrain by mid-afternoon. Journeyman snapped his fingers and sang something about being “king of the road.”
Vailret’s eyes gleamed wide with delight. “Journeyman, tell us something about the Outside, since you can see parts of it. What’s it like?”
The golem grinned his huge smile again, puckering flexible lips. “More wonders than you can imagine! Good to the last drop and squeezably soft! Refrigerators that make their own ice cubes, fabric softener that goes into the dryer, microwave ovens, trash bags with handle-ties built right in!”
Most of the words made no sense to Bryl—which was to be expected, since the Outside was such an alien place.
they have! No wonder they’ve grown bored of Gamearth. They have interactive computer games, role-playing simulators, and video games that hook up to your own television set. And Trivial Pursuit—did you know that
was Adolph Hitler’s favorite movie?” The golem lowered his voice to an awed whisper. “And they have a great Sorcerer named Rubik, who created a colorful enchanted cube that can either enlighten Players or drive them insane!”
Vailret frowned. “You lost me on most of what you just said. That song you were singing a while ago, was that an Outside song?”
Journeyman clapped his hands again with a wet, soft
“I’ll bet you I can name that tune in … three notes!”
Then he sang a long ballad about a man named Brady with three sons, who met a lovely lady with three daughters, and how they overcame their difficulties and became a single family unit. Journeyman then sang a sea adventure of how five passengers had set sail for a three-hour tour, but a storm shipwrecked them on a deserted shore. Over time they had formed the kingdom of Gilligan’s Island.
Vailret grinned. “When we get back to the Stronghold, please make sure I write those down.”
“What you mean ‘we,’ paleface?” The golem became serious. “I don’t expect to return. My quest doesn’t leave much room for that.”
Before Journeyman could say anything else, a high-pitched whine grew in the air. Delrael stopped and put his hand on his silver belt. His face appeared puzzled, then frightened. The piercing sound drifted louder and stronger until it hurt Bryl’s ears. It seemed to be coming from the silver itself, where the Earthspirits had hidden themselves.
Delrael grabbed at the catch of the belt and yanked it from his waist. The belt vibrated and bucked in his hands like an angry snake, still sending out its shrieking noise. Blue and white sparks skittered along the surfaces of the gems. Delrael dropped the belt to the forest floor. The noise suddenly ceased, and the rush of silence struck them like a whip cracking. The silver belt lay still among the twigs and curling leaves, shining in the forest shadows.
Delrael gawked at his belt in utter shock. Sweat stood out on his forehead. Vailret squinted down, but he offered no explanations.
Journeyman seemed unduly confused, astonished. “What was that? Which way did he go?” The clay eyelids in front of his hollow eyes blinked and blinked.
Delrael flicked his gaze at Vailret, then at Bryl. They couldn’t even talk about it. They couldn’t say anything about the Earthspirits, especially not in front of Journeyman. Delrael could not try to communicate with the Spirits either. The Rulewoman could be watching, and so would the other Outsiders. They had to maintain absolute secrecy about their quest.
But what if something had gone wrong? Was it a signal of some kind, a calling—or did they just hear the death scream of the Earthspirits? Perhaps Scartaris had somehow destroyed the Spirits, and when the companions got to the end of their quest, they might find themselves helpless after all. Bryl tried not to think of such things, but terrible possibilities floated in the back of his mind.
Delrael swallowed and picked up the belt, fastening it with trembling fingers. “Hmmm.” He shrugged, feigning a casual attitude. “Well, it’s stopped—we shouldn’t waste any more time here. We’ve got lots of hexes to travel.”
The day passed, and as darkness fell they reached the edge of their third hexagon for the day. The Rules forbade them to go farther, so they camped beside the black line. Another hexagon of forest terrain waited for them on the other side.
Vailret and Delrael talked with Journeyman. Bryl wondered and worried, trying not to think of what lay ahead or about the implications of the Earthspirits’ scream from the belt.
Journeyman scratched lines on the dirt and taught Delrael and Vailret an Outside game called Tic-Tac-Toe. Bryl always felt left out. Sometimes it made him angry; other times it just depressed him.
He recalled his parents—his father Qonnar, a full-blooded Sorcerer, and his mother Tristane, a half-breed. They had used their magic to try to save Delrael’s ailing great-great grandfather—but he had died anyway of a wasting disease. His widow, Galleri, then married a rough and close-minded human fighter named Brudane. Brudane started rumors that perhaps Bryl’s parents had actually poisoned the old man and not tried to help him.
Qonnar and Tristane grieved deeply for the old man’s death. They felt they had not done enough to save him, and they did little to fight the accusations, which made the rumors grow. Finally, in their guilt and despair, Bryl’s parents underwent the half-Transition on their own, annihilating themselves in sorcerous fire and liberating their spirits to wander the map.
Bryl had been a mere boy then, but he watched in horror. His mother and father did not even say good-bye; they gave him no advice, they ignored him. In the last instant before the blinding light consumed her, Tristane met her son’s eyes—but Bryl saw no recognition there. He was not even part of their lives. Their misery was all-important to them. They didn’t bother to consider what it would be like for Bryl to grow up alone under the shadow of their implied guilt.
At any time it might have been better for Bryl if he had wandered, gone to a different village where they did not know his past or his confused conscience. But he was afraid to leave. Some of the young villagers around the Stronghold taunted him. All characters around him were human—no one was qualified to train him how to use his Sorcerer abilities, and Galleri and Brudane certainly did not concern themselves with the problem. He knew only a few simple spells his parents had taught him in his early years, and a few others he had learned on his own.
In his mind, Bryl knew that he had grown up with his abilities stunted. Had he been properly trained at the right time, he could have been a powerful magic user. Three-fourths of his blood was from the Sorcerer race that ruled Gamearth so many turns ago. But nearly all the Sorcerers had vanished in the Transition, combining themselves into the Earthspirits and the Deathspirits. Few characters on Gamearth could claim to have Sorcerer blood anymore.
Then the human boy Lellyn had come along, flaunting his abilities, his enthusiasm, and his impossible Sorcerer powers that he should never have had. Bryl wanted all those incredible spells, the power that took years and years of effort and struggle and training. But he didn’t have years and years, and he didn’t have the patience.
Tareah had the skills, but Bryl didn’t seek to learn any forgotten spells. The desire to better himself, the challenge, had backfired on him many years before.
That was why he attached so much importance to the Stones: Air, Water, Fire, and Earth. He had used the Water Stone and linked with the
of the forest to save the panther people in Ledaygen. He had used the Air Stone to trick Gairoth the ogre into leaving the Stronghold. The Stones gave him his power immediately. That was the best way.
“Tic-tac-toe, I win!” Journeyman said. Delrael grumbled and smoothed the dirt with the flat of his hand before drawing a new grid for another game. “Tomorrow we’re playing with dice instead.”
* * *
They next morning they set off into the forest terrain. Journeyman looked around and smiled. Bryl hated the way he grinned all the time.
“In this hexagon there’s supposed to be a village of ylvan, the forest people. Maybe we’ll come across it.”
Delrael trudged on. He looked flustered from losing so many games to Journeyman at the campsite. “How do you know that? I don’t recall anything marked on our master map at the Stronghold.”
Vailret looked around in the forest. “An ylvan village is hidden in the trees—you wouldn’t know it was there until you were right under it.” His eyes gleamed. “They’re said to be master woodsmen, like chameleons in the forest.”