Authors: Eric Van Lustbader
The two became friends and the reason did not matter at all, at least to either of them. That did not mean that it did not go unnoticed in some quarters of the Freehold, noted, written down, filed away for future use.
We accepted each other, Ronin thought as the ship rocked beneath him. And now you have joined so many others who have known me and because of it have died.
Outside, the wind was rising, plucking at the rigging in mournful melody.
“You do not know?” echoed Ronin without emotion. “What have you done to me?”
Borros put the scroll back into its hiding place in the hilt of Ronin’s sword. He rubbed his eyes.
“Sit,” he said, and put his hand on Ronin’s shoulder. “Sit and I will tell you all that I
In ancient times, when the world spun faster upon its axis and the sun burned with energy in the sky, when multitudes of people roamed the surface of all the planet and, beneath their feet, the land turned from dirt and high grass plains as they walked, to fields of rowed food plants green and golden in the sunshine, to arid deserts smeared with low-growing flowers of many hues, to steep windswept steppes and mountain ranges blue with haze, when high-prowed ships from many nations plied the seas in search of trade with new lands, then Ronin, then we were known by another name. We were scientists and then our work was highly empirical, our theorems coming almost exclusively from the forebrain. Are you familiar with the word ‘empirical’? Ah, good. Methodology was our watchword, this strict Catholicism a firm and supportive base for our work.
But times changed radically and the world of the ancients was disappearing. In that interim period, the world was seized by a progression of natural cataclysms. The continents broke apart and fell away to be replaced by others, rising steamily from beneath the boiling seas. As you may well imagine, many people died but, perhaps more importantly, at the same time the laws that had heretofore governed the world of the ancients were overthrown and destroyed. Others came into being.
The inconceivable had occurred; by what means it is impossible to say, nor is it entirely germane to this account. Still, whatever formal records of that time ever existed are lost now—what remains are but fragments pertaining to the world as it was before.
Naturally, among the living were numerous scientists, yet so tied were they to the bedrock of their empiricism that, though it was clear to many others that the world had irrevocably changed so that the old methodology now worked only sporadically, the scientists refused to listen.
Certain members of these others, born to the new order of things, were able to make, because they had not been trained in the traditional ways of man, the great leap forward in thinking. These then became great mages, as they explored new methods, discovering alchemical, then sorcerous pathways, shining like beacons in the night. So they grew in power, at length banishing the scientists whom they scorned and ridiculed as they threw them down. Then they took upon themselves the mantle of overlords and in so doing lost sight of the original goals of their creation. Irresponsibly, they began to vie with each other for territory and power.
The inevitable holocaust of their quarreling spread throughout the world. The destruction was ghastly; its extent blossoming to unthinkable heights. Many people went underground. The City of Ten Thousand Paths came into being in this way. It was an attempt to form a peaceful society composed of members of all the surviving nations.
But among the populace of the City of Ten Thousand Paths were both mages and scientists, and they were ever at war. It is said that of all the mages only dor-Sefrith of Ama-no-mori remained unmoved and uninvolved though both sides desperately sought his considerable power.
From the time of the holocaust onward, there was of course an attrition of knowledge and each succeeding generation learned less and, eventually, when even dor-Sefrith’s long neutrality ceased to maintain the uneasy peace, factions broke away, tunneling upward through the mineral-rich rock to form our eventual home, the Freehold, only residues of each side’s knowledge remained.
We became the Magic Men, not-scientists, not-mages, struggling with but scraps of the methodology of both, learning languages long dead, convoluted equations which we neither understood nor would likely work under our present laws. And even if we grasped the tatters of the ancient concepts, even it we were somehow able to piece together the scattered information to make a coherent whole, we lacked the resources—our Neers so ill-trained that they could not even repair the essential machinery of the Freehold, let alone building for us the machines we would require—to accomplish anything.
Most of the Magic Men languished until enterprising Saardin began to see that we had a limited usefulness in the Freehold’s power struggle. Then, one by one, the Saardin sought us out for affiliation. It was the end for us. From noble beginnings, we had been reduced to the lowest level, devising projects for the Saardin to increase their power.
I turned my back on them and for many signs would not even step onto their Levels. I spent my time with the remnants of the scholars, on the twenty-seventh Level, studying as best I could the lore of the ancient world, so that I might regain for myself some semblance of my heritage.
But the more I read, the more convinced I became that we were a dying race, strangling in our own mingled blood, indolent, inbred, incestuous.
“G’fand felt the same way,” Borros concluded.
“You knew G’fand?” Ronin asked.
“Oh, yes. He helped me quite a bit in deciphering many of the ancient codices. There were revelations each cycle, but everything was in fragments and too often we were only tantalized by the pieces we had managed to decode, discovering afterwards that they were isolated passages, their beginnings and endings lost.”
“I remember,” said Ronin, “that when we arrived in the City he would stop at every corner to read the glyphs carved into the buildings.”
The Magic Man nodded. “Yes. I can imagine his excitement. Such a storehouse of knowledge.” He reached into a cupboard under his berth and pulled out food concentrates. He offered some to Ronin, who shook his head, then sat and munched thoughtfully for a time.
“One day,” he said—his voice had a thin far-off quality now—“we came across a rent manuscript. It was frightfully old and so desiccated that it took us more than three cycles to carefully clean it enough so that we could begin to read the glyphs and restore the missing characters. Then G’fand set about deciphering it and I lost interest as I was involved in a project of my own at the time. Several cycles later he came to me saying that he could make no headway at all; the glyphs were totally alien to him; they bore no resemblance to any language he had studied.
“I laughed. ‘Well, what can I do?’ I said. ‘You are a far better translator than I.’ ‘I do not know,’ he said, ‘but come take a look in any case.’
“The glyphs which were so baffling to him jumped out at me with such vividness that I had to conceal my surprise, and for once I was grateful for my peculiar training. For this codex was written in one of the forgotten—and I had supposed useless—languages which I had learned as a child.
“The codex foretold of a drastic shift in the presumably immutable laws of our world. ‘When the foundations of our science are thrown down, then will man tremble before the true power. Conceit is his undoing and he will not heed the coming of his doom until it crushes him. The Dolman, a sorcerous creature of terrifying power beyond man’s ken, will come against mankind. The shifting of the laws presages his invasion. Indeed it is his invitation. First his legions, then the Makkon, then The Dolman himself will come to claim the world. With that, annihilation.’”
The wind outside had picked up in intensity, buffeting the ship as it sped across the ice sea. Yet the sound seemed remote to them, unreal, frozen in sticky time. Neither one said anything for a while. Then Borros roused himself and, listening for a moment, made a motion upward.
If they had left it up any longer it would likely have been torn to shreds. As it was, they managed to reef it just in time. The wind, blowing frantically out of the northwest quarter, tore at their faces, forcing them to gasp for breath and turn their heads from its might. They were blind in the pit of night and only by guesswork did they surmise their direction.
Below, they blew into their cupped hands and shoved them near the fire, trying to warm their faces. Ronin prepared food for himself and before he had eaten his fill Borros was already asleep on his berth. He stretched out and stared at the swinging lamp, thinking long about The Dolman.
He must have dozed, for when he next looked about the cabin the ports were illuminated by a thin milky glow.
“Dawn,” breathed Borros, and sat up. “The sun rises. Soon we can unfurl the sail.”
On deck they got their first real glimpse of the ice sea since setting sail. Ronin saw now why Borros had not been concerned about keeping watch at night. In all directions the ice flew away from them flat and seamless and dark. No high ridges, no steep protrusions marred its surface. And there was a limitless horizon which in all directions held no sight of land.
In the east, the gray clouds had taken on a pale saffron color as the sun began its quotidian trek across the heavens. The wind came in gusts and Borros was obligated to go aft to reset their course.
Ronin stared southward, watching the shredded clouds pile and tumble, blown across the sky by the high winds aloft. Are there really people out there? he asked himself. Would they look like Bonneduce the Last? He shrugged and busied himself with the rigging, tightening knots which had loosened during the night.
The air became heavier still, leaden despite the strength of the wind, and there was a slight pressure in his ears. He took special care, moving along the rocking deck, remembering his slip the first night and, peering into the wind, he spied the purple and black thunderheads massed just above the horizon on the northwest quadrant that heralded the coming storm.
A shout twisted his head aft, but he could see nothing amiss. He made his way toward Borros, who was already pointing northward.
“What is it?” Ronin asked, coming up to him.
“A ship.” Borros clutched at the wheel. “Following us.”
Ronin peered aft but could still discern nothing on the expanse of the ice sea.
“Obscured now by the mist.”
“Borros, are you certain—”
“This ship’s sister,” the Magic Man hissed. “Yes, Chill take it! I did see it.”
Ronin turned away, twisted Borros with him. He stared hard into the old man’s face and tried to ignore the terror squirming like a serpent there.
“Forget it,” he said reasonably. “You are still fatigued. You saw what your imagination wished for you to see. You have been through so much but it is over now. Freidal cannot threaten you now. You are free.”
Borros glanced briefly sternward, into the building mist.
“Let us pray so.”
All the day the wind strengthened, a gale now whose great gusts shifted from one quarter to another, hurling them southward at ever increasing speed. It seemed to Ronin, as he worked the rigging, that their runners barely touched the ice, so swiftly did they fly across the frozen wastes. From time to time he caught Borros gazing aft, but he said nothing, keeping his thoughts to himself.
He marveled at the workmanship of the craft. He watched the small storm sail which they had unfurled when they came on deck at first light. Buffeted by the strong winds, stretched to its limit, it yet would not tear. It was constructed of a different fabric than the woven canvas of the main, lighter, more supple.
For much of the time the pair did not speak. It was essential that the wheel and the sail be manned at all times now because of the sudden unpredictability of the winds. Ronin worked the sail because that took more strength. He spent most of the time hauling on the rigging and staring ahead, one arm about the wooden mast, feeling it tremble, listening to the rhythmic creaking of the fittings, the soughing of the runners against the ice, the desolate call of the wind.
He thought then of nothing; the future would be as it would be. But a peculiar warmth stole over him in those solitary moments against the varnished wood, counterbalancing the pull of the ropes, and he absorbed the transmission of their quivering strength, their pliancy the key to survival upon the ice sea. A bond was slowly forming of which he was not yet perhaps fully aware, as it had inevitably with many men, throughout many ages, on seas too numerous to count. It was an instinct rooted perhaps in some ancestral memories, if such things indeed existed on that world and in that time. It was what allowed him to feel the changing of the wind on his face and pull or slacken the rope immediately so that they continually maintained their course. It was what caused him to pick up a thousand different subtleties of sailing in so short a time.
Just past midday the winds ceased their gusting and steadied enough for the pair to decide to lash wheel and storm sail long enough to go below for food and rest.
While they ate, he told Borros the details of the events which had transpired in the City of Ten Thousand Paths. When he recounted the creature’s attack, the Magic Man exclaimed, the sound exploding through his lips. He coughed and swallowed convulsively. Then he had Ronin describe the creature again as best he could.
“The Makkon,” he said then, his face drained of color and looking more than ever like a skull. “The creatures that are not animal, the four Reavers of The Dolman.” He quivered involuntarily. “If that is truly what you encountered, then The Dolman is closer than I suspected.” His eyes closed. “Is there still time? Oh, Chill, there must be!
There must be!”
He looked up. “Ronin, we must make all haste southward. Nothing must stop us, nothing, do you understand?”
“Calm yourself, Borros,” Ronin said gently. “Nothing shall stop us.”
Late in the afternoon the day darkened prematurely and the violent storm which they had been attempting to outrun began to overtake them with an inexorable fury.