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Authors: Chris Bunch

The Empire Stone

BOOK: The Empire Stone
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THE

EMPIRE

STONE

Chris Bunch

a division of F+W Media, Inc.

Thanks to Jerry Keenan, Mr Diamond, Astoria, Oregon, and Tim and Jim Gannaway, Gannaway Brothers Jewellers, Warrenton, Oregon.

For
Margaret Macrae
and
Cunégonde and Doctor Pangloss

P
ROLOGUE

“They called it the Empire Stone. Big it was … is, if it still exists, wherever it’s been stolen to. Double the size of both m’ fists,” the boy’s father said. “M’ grandsire’s grandsire’s grandsire saw it once, when he was in Thyone, and th’ king passed through, all so’jers an’ tootlin’ bands an’ gold.”

The man laughed harshly, drank from the battered pewter jack no one else in the family was allowed to use. A chill wind whistled through the cracks in the rickety moor-house, and the boy smelled snow on the way. His brother and sisters were curled asleep around their mother like so many kits. His father was not drunk. Not sober, but not seething with that unknown rage that’d smash out at anyone.

“Long time ago, that,” he went on. “When there was a king in our land, an’ Thyone was a city, not a shamble a’ stones.”

“How did the king carry the Stone?” the boy who’d later name himself Petrol asked, waiting to duck away from a blow. “In his crown?”

“Haw. Bust his fool neck if he tried. Carried it ‘top a two-handed scepter.”

“What did your granda say it looked like?”

“Some say it’s a clear stone that catches and reflects colors, many colors, not just the six we know, but colors that aren’t like any others on this earth,” he said. “It’s luminous, they say, like foxfire.

“It’s round, cut perfect. They say it’s got a thousand facets, but that’s hoobly-shit, for if a diamond’s cut with more than the perfect fifty-eight, it throws light away, doesn’t reflect it back.”

The man wasn’t speaking in his usual tinman’s crude rumble, and the boy wanted him to keep talking like this forever.

“Who cut the Stone? Does anyone know?”

“Gods … or maybe demons,” his father went on, then laughed dryly. “More likely, a real nervous man, some lord behind him with a bare sword, waiting for him to make one mistake.”

“Where’d it come from?”

“Nobody knows.”

“When the sea-rovers sacked Thyone, they stole it?”

“Aye. And with the Empire Stone gone with the men of the black ships, those who tried to rebuild Thyone were doomed to be defeated by every barbarian looking for a little loot, a few slaves.”

“Did the Empire Stone have powers?”

“Course it did,” the man said, returning to his usual accent. “Any rock like that’s got to have powers, or legends don’t get made. Th’ Empire Stone brings riches, brings power—power for evil, for what man without the law would do good if he doesn’t have to?”

“Is it gone forever?” the boy asked.

“Who knows. There’s tales of brave heroes who journey out in search of th’ Stone, but they never return.

“Which is a damned fine lesson for anybody with sense t’ work his set till it’s naught but waste.”

The man drained the jack, shook the small wooden barrel beside it, listening to emptiness.

“Shit,” he said once more. “We’ll sleep now.”

He blew out both guttering candles, and sprawled down by the boy’s mother.

The boy sat, listening to the wind.

“Brave heroes, who journey out …”

1
O
F
D
EAD
G
ODS AND
S
ERPENTS

Twelve wolves sat in the center of a great courtyard, shattered columns on either side reaching toward the winter moon’s wane.

Peirol of the Moorlands huddled behind one toppled column and sourly considered how few blessings the Year of the Mouse had given him.

First he’d fallen in with Koosh Begee and his gang of tricksters, merely because the thief-lord’s wife, Lorn, had once — only once! — invited him upstairs when Begee was out of the city of Sennen on some nefarious errand. The night had been exhausting, ecstatic, and lasted for a thousand years, he admitted grudgingly. But Peirol should never have hung on, waiting for a second chance at Lorn’s delights, pretending to be interested in gaming. Pretense grew into fascination. The yellow felt circle became a snare worse than any woman, and he’d spent hours, days, in its spell, losing, always losing.

Quite suddenly he realized the whole thing, from Lorn’s conveniently offered charms to Begee’s pretended friendship, had been a trap. First he’d lost his tiny shop, then a chance to travel east with some traders to the legendary diamond mines of Osh. A trap — and this was the night it’d been sprung, with the help of Peirol’s own so-clever tongue, sending him into these supposedly monster-haunted ruins of Thyone after a god’s sapphire.

A wolf yipped sharply, and its fellows trotted to him, backs to Peirol. The slight breeze, smelling of some unknown, overly sweet flower, was blowing toward him, so the beasts shouldn’t scent him. Peirol slipped through the shadows toward his goal.

The moon casts strange and lying images, but Peirol’s shadow was true. Above the waist young Peirol of the Moorlands was nearly perfect — long, carefully tended blond hair, with the noble forehead and clear gaze of a young statesman, gleaming teeth revealed by his frequent smile through sensual lips, a dimpled chin.

His chest was a warrior’s, heavy, sharply defined muscles tapering to a slender waist.

Then the gods’ jest began. His legs were short, misshapen, bowed, although very strong. He stood almost a handspan below five feet, and the moon’s shadow mocked his hitching, rolling gait.

A wolf turned its head, and Peirol ducked behind rubble and became one with the dead stones. The wolves, if they were sensible, normal creatures, should have abandoned this absurd vigil and gone about their hunting. But they still hung about this ruined temple. Peirol refused to admit they could be waiting for … for anything.

He thought of calling them — years ago he’d learned, from a witch of the moors who might or might not have been his blood kin, how to mimic the yaps and even baying of the wolves of the moor, enough to call or even, once or twice, frighten them away from a scent. But that was a long time, nearly fifteen years ago, and the penalty for inept mimicry would be awful. He settled back to wait … and remember.

Koosh Begee had cast his net with skill, asking Peirol if he feared demons, after a long, wine-filled dinner companied with half a dozen of Begee’s henchmen, their doxies, and Begee’s entrancing wife.

“I’ve never seen one,” he’d answered honestly, “and it’s stupid to worry about the unknown. Mostly it’s nothing but the imaginings of fools and beldames.”

“And the gods,” Begee pressed. “You fear them, of course.”

Peirol had smiled, twistedly. “After what they did to me at birth, of course I fear them. Fear and hate them. They’re malignant thugs, I believe, and so should be treated with contempt, as any back-stabbing worm must.”

The table hushed, and one of Begee’s men glanced upward, as if expecting a thunderbolt through the tavern’s roof. Even Begee licked his lips a bit nervously.

“There is a tale,” Begee said, clearly changing the subject, “of a great gem, a huge blue star sapphire, somewhere in the ruins of Thyone, a sapphire — ”

“I’ve heard the story,” Peirol interrupted, the wine speaking for him. “Supposedly, when the black ships came and destroyed the city, the priests of whatever god the sapphire belonged to cried for salvation. The god took mercy, and the earth opened, and the temple sank below-ground. The god then sent demons to hide the temple, and in an hour, perhaps two, a single slab of stone roofed the pit where the building was.

“The invaders never found the hidden entrance to the buried temple or the sapphire, but slew all the priests, as they slew throughout the city, taking any loot that presented itself.”

Like the Empire Stone, his mind whispered suddenly, resurrecting that tale of his father’s, years gone by. Peirol shrugged the memory away.

“The jewel was left in darkness, the temple guarded by whatever devils the tale-tellers had enough brandy to people it with.”

“My sister told me the story,” Lorn said. “The god was named Slask, and he was — is — the Lord of the Underworlds.

“And there
were
guardians set. Big old serpents, as long as this building, double-fanged with a poison that killed if it ever touched your skin, or the snakes could just crush you in their coils. Be careful, Peirol,” she warned. “Slandering our creators is foolish.”

Peirol ran a hand through his long-brushed, soft blond hair and turned slightly, so Lorn could admire and hopefully once more want the pressure of his oiled and scented chest muscles.

“Then I’m a fool indeed,” he said. “For I don’t think the gods, if they even exist, listen, not to our prayers, not to our laments. And by the way, every gem I’ve ever heard of bigger than my thumbnail always has some sort of evil tale attached.

“I’ve bought them, I’ve sold them, and look at me? Do I look cursed? Doomed? Demon-haunted?”

There was laughter.

“There needs only be one such for you to meet a horrible doom,” Lorn said stubbornly.

“So where is this one stone?” Peirol said. “Somewhere beneath Thyone? And why have you told me about it, Koosh? Do you think I’m a miner, like my father? Would you have me drilling around the ruins like a star-mole?”

“You owe me,” Begee growled.

“I owe you greatly,” Peirol admitted.

Begee picked up a parchment scroll from his seat, and Peirol felt his stomach knot. Too easy, too quick, too handy, his mind whispered.

“Someone
else
in my debt paid it with this map,” he said, handing the scroll to Peirol.

“Tsk,” Peirol said, untying its ribbon. “Any good treasure map’s supposed to be ancient, tattered, and hopefully stained with many men’s blood. You’re not holding true to fable, Koosh.”

Koosh Begee’s smile, always as temporary as his good humor, vanished. “It was drawn less than a year ago,” he said. “First there was a dream that my ‘friend’ had, then, after he had the courage to visit Thyone by day half a dozen times, he hired a sorcerer to draw this plan.

“It shows clearly the route to be taken through the ruins to the entrance to that underground temple, down to the great room where Slask’s image waits, the sapphire in his extended hands.”

Peirol examined the parchment. “The route seems clear,” he said. “Obviously you wish me to go into Thyone and acquire this stone for you.”

“I do,” Begee said. “That will discharge the great debt you owe me, plus a bag of gold the size of my head as well.”

“If there’s no sapphire?” Peirol said. “I’ll have chanced my life for naught.”

“That is another gamble,” Begee said, smiling again, but not in amusement.

Peirol tossed the parchment back to Begee. “No bargain,” he said. “I’m not a fool.”

“Then I must call in your debt,” Begee said. “To be paid within a week, or else I’ll visit the elders and have you seized and declared my slave, to serve until the debt is paid in full, which will be long years indeed.”

Peirol’s face remained calm. “I thought you were intelligent, Koosh. Obviously I overrated you. What service could I do as your slave? Make pretty baubles for your wife’s ankles and wrists? Hardly a harsh duty, but I don’t think you’d have the best bargain.”

Lorn’s eyes flickered.

“That’d not be what I’d order you to do,” the thief-lord said. “I’d just send you back to Thyone — and this time you’d have no profit when you brought the gem back.”

“Do you really believe I’d do that,” Peirol said, “and not keep right on going?”

“There’d be hunters after you if you did. I can command a thousand.”

“By the time they chanced Thyone, I’d be far, far gone,” Peirol said. “Now, let me make another offer. I’ll go to Thyone, in search of this gem. I’ll go tonight, in fact,” he said, emboldened by the wine. “But here is our bargain. I’m to be free, whether or not I find the gem.”

“Up a demon’s arse! I’d be a fool to accept that,” Begee sneered. “If you did find it, you could hide it, claim you found nothing, then return for it later.”

“And how would we know,” a thief said, smirking, “you’d even go all the way to this courtyard? A task like that’d take real courage. Maybe you’d just wait for a bit inside Thyone’s walls, then come out and say you found nothing.”

“Are you saying I lack courage, Reim?” Peirol said, right hand touching the grip of the sword sheathed down his back.

Reim shook his head hastily. He, like the others, had seen Peirol in anger, and knew the dwarf had not only the slender blade and the ornately jeweled dagger at his waist but other lethal surprises about his person.

“I meant nothing but a jest,” he mumbled.

“Your purse-slitter has a point,” Peirol said. “So to make sure there’s proper trust among ‘friends,’ we’ll go to Thyone with half a dozen men — I hope you’d include my brave friend Reim here — and they can wait for me. I’ll descend into the temple, assuming the tunnel or whatever it is exists, and see what is to be seen. I’ll return either with the stone, or with some dust gathered below-ground.

“I wager the sorcerer who drew this parchment could test the dust and determine that I actually went where I vowed.”

“That sorcerer’s dead,” Begee said. “Something he cast disagreed with him. But there’s no reason other mages couldn’t do what you suggest. Perhaps Old Abbas, who’s the best man I know in that wavering profession?”

Peirol kept a smile hidden. He’d once made a charm bracelet for Old Abbas’s granddaughter, and the wizard had sworn to one day do him a service in repayment. “Excellent choice,” he agreed. “Abbas is an honest man.”

“Very well,” Begee said. “We’ll take ten men. You’ll be one, Reim.”

The thief whined, and there was more laughter. “And I’ll be one of the party as well,” Begee said. “We leave within the hour.”

• • •

Without a signal, the wolves rose and trotted across the great courtyard down a rubble-strewn street.

Peirol went fast, in his hobbling gait, down the courtyard to where the parchment had said the temple’s entrance lay.

He noted the smoothness of the stones he crossed, remembered what Lorn had said about the temple being hidden “under a single slab of stone,” decided there were excellent masons in the old days, and concentrated on the pile of stones ahead. It had been an altar, raised after Thyone was sacked, the scroll said, but storms roaring up the cliffs from the sea below had smashed it over the centuries. Peirol crouched in its shelter, considered the scroll’s instructions. Look for a six-sided stone. Under that would be the way down, a narrow staircase.

Boulders, pebbles, rock-chunks, he thought. Some carved, some rough, some polished as if they were ocean-turned. Nothing, of course, and another legend dies — and then he saw the large stone, or rather pair of stones, that’d split apart. Put together as one, they were definitely six-sided, each side showing chisel-marks.
Certainly though
, he thought as he crept to it,
there’d be nothing under or near….

There was a crevice behind the broken stone, no more than a forearm’s length wide. Peirol peered down, saw no stairway. He drew his sword, reached far into the crack, felt nothing. He took off his small pack, took out flint, steel, tinder, pulled off a bit of tinder, and struck fire. He dropped the flaming tinder into the crack. The small flame fell and fell, then bounced and was extinguished.

Peirol uncoiled a rope ensorcelled to have greater strength than it looked that was knotted at intervals of an arm span. He tied it off around the broken boulder, tugged. The stone didn’t move. Peirol tied his sword sheath, belt, and pack to the rope’s bitter end and let it slither down into blackness. He heard a distant thud.

Wiping suddenly moist palms on his tunic, Peirol lowered himself into the crevice. He slid down until his ribs were level with the courtyard stone, then stuck. He fought back panic, thinking what might happen if he couldn’t free himself before the wolves returned, then pushed hard and slipped entirely into the crevice, into absolute blackness. His legs flailed and found nothing; then one arm caught the rope and he had it firm and went quickly down, hand over hand. A foot touched down; he reached with his other foot, felt nothing, almost slipped, then had a precarious stand on …

… On what, he didn’t know. He swung his free leg about, felt something solid, and cautiously let his weight down. He knelt, very carefully slid out of his pack straps, opened it, and took out a short wand of petrified wood. There was a dimple in one end that had been rubbed with oil and touched with steel and stone.

Koosh Begee said the spell would work every time, for anyone. Which means, Peirol thought, every time except this one, for everyone except me. He began muttering:

“Remember, wood

Once you lived

Grew strong

Grew old

Died

And still are dying.

Remember life/not life

Sparks

Strike fire

Sparks

Strike fire

Burn now

Burn always

Remember fire, wood.”

Nothing. He started to growl, calmed, repeated the incantation again and a third time, then thought of just how he’d go back up that rope and push through the narrow crack to report failure.

Peirol blinked. His eyes were tricking him. But there was a glow from the end of the tiny wand, a glow and then a strong, flickering light, as if he held a tarred torch, and the wand writhed and grew in his grasp.

BOOK: The Empire Stone
5.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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