Keith R.A. Decandido
Under the Crimson Sun
When you’re immortal, you literally have all the time in the world to craft and implement plans. If one plan fails, it matters little, for there is plenty of time to try another.
But when there is no way to bring the plans to fruition, it becomes the worst prison an immortal could endure.
No doubt when two gods, Pelor and Ioun, imprisoned a third, Tharizdun, in a desolate void, they had thought it to be doubly devastating. The Chained God had eternity to plot and plan, and eternity to sit in frustration.
And indeed, Tharizdun had come up with dozens, thousands, millions of plans to make his escape. Each was brilliant in its own way, clever and sublime.
And each was wholly unworkable, because there was nothing else in that endless deserted wasteland. The Chained God had investigated the universe quite thoroughly, used all the means at his disposal to find something amidst the endless wastes.
He found nothing.
He knew it was fruitless to keep searching, but while he had nothing to work with, he also had nothing better to do.
So he sought something, anything besides himself.
It was impossible to tell how long he had been there. Even when he had been among the revered gods, Tharizdun had rarely concerned himself with the passage of time. That was a concern of the mortal coil. What did he care about the march of history when he was unaffected by it? He did not age, did not change, but was constant regardless.
Yet even the markers that mortals used were denied him there. There were no suns or moons to rise and fall, no celestial bodies to orbit one another in measurable sequence.
Were he mortal, he would have long since gone mad and died.
But Tharizdun was a god, so such luxuries were denied him.
Ioun and Pelor had probably thought that particular universe to be a fitting prison. After all, Tharizdun had opened the Living Gate and later unleashed the Abyss on the universe. He had hoped to wreak death and destruction-the very same that was inflicted upon the universe to which he’d been exiled.
But, as usual, his fellow gods missed the point. They always did.
To Tharizdun, the destruction rendered to this universe was meaningless. It wasn’t the end result that was of interest to Tharizdun, it was the process. Eventually, his home universe might be like this desolate place, but to get there, billions of years would have to pass, a near infinite number of agonies would be written on the souls of the living, chaos would overtake order in a beautiful conflagration.
The gods that put him in his prison would see their creation rent asunder. It would be a slow, laborious, magnificent journey. An unraveling of all that had been done. And from that destruction, something new would arise in its place, something that Tharizdun had done.
Because he had no concept of spans of time within this dead place, Tharizdun had no idea when, exactly, it was that he found the red crystalline liquid. But it was, at last, a break in the monotony of imagining what would be.
He recognized the liquid crystal for what it was.
Tharizdun had once used the shard of an ancient, powerful crystal to unleash the Abyss on his own universe.
Though liquefied, this red substance he found himself standing before now derived from the same great crystal.
It was the Progenitor of Chaos. He could feel it.
More than that-he could hear it. The same whispery importuning to be unleashed that had come from the crystal in his own world spoke to Tharizdun now.
Set me free, it said. Let me loose.
“I cannot even free myself,” Tharizdun said with frustration. “Besides, your work here is done.”
The ignominy hit him like a spell. Here he had unfettered access to the Progenitor, to the liquid crystal that embodied all the spectacular chaos that Tharizdun had tried to unleash on his own universe-and he could do nothing with it. It had done its work here and lay useless.
As useless as Tharizdun himself was. But perhaps there was a way …
So Tharizdun began to concentrate, to focus and project his will into the void and beyond. With enough clarity of purpose, he would be able to contact those in the world of the gods that needed him most. The disenfranchised, the downtrodden, those whose existence was most tenuous. They would hear his call and do their part. While the conscious minds of his followers were denied him, the murky veil of the dreamscape proved accessible.
It was an imperfect method of communication. Through the dreams of his worshipers, he was able to reassure them that he did live, in an exile much like their own, and that his return would mean destruction of the structures that denied. Tharizdun could give his followers little beyond dreams, but the promises they held were powerful. And he could give them the impetus for that revolution.
Tharizdun knew that there was a ritual that could make use of a fragment of the Living Gate to open a portal between the worlds. Tharizdun-in the company of his fellow gods-had found the Living Gate in the depths of the Astral Sea, and Tharizdun had opened it, unleashing the horrors of the Far Realm upon his home universe.
Fragments of the Gate existed, and if Tharizdun’s worshipers performed the ritual in his abandoned dominion of Pandemonium, a tiny tear could be opened between realities.
Tharizdun had never explored that option because the portal needed to be opened on both sides in order to break free of Pelor and Ioun’s chains.
But he had found a tool by which to bridge the gap between universes.
And so Tharizdun formed a hand of darkness and reached out to the red liquid. “Both of us are trapped, but together we can be free. Together, we will unleash our might upon the people of the world. And they will drown in blood.”
The Progenitor undulated and flowed at the Chained God’s touch, encircling the darkness and bone of his form.
It too had been alone for immeasurable time. It too hungered for purpose.
Alone, both Tharizdun and the Progenitor were helpless. Together, they might be able to free themselves from this void.
The Chained God combined two existing plans into a third that might, at last, bring both him and the Progenitor out of that forsaken emptiness.
The next step was to once again pierce the gulf and speak to his worshipers through their nightmares. Or, rather, speak to one particular worshiper.
It was always a tricky thing. From a god’s perspective, the ideal worshiper was one who did so unthinkingly. There was no devotion quite like mindless devotion, uncluttered as it was by reason.
But Tharizdun needed a task to be performed, one that would require dedication and ingenuity and an ability to lead other devout followers in that task.
Luckily, he did have one such follower who miraculously hadn’t been killed, nor had he-like so many others-lost their minds completely to his whispering dreams.
And so the exiled god reached out to Albric, his most loyal follower, to tell him to travel to the ruins of Bael Turath and find a rod containing a fragment of the Living Gate.
The imprecision of time continued to frustrate Tharizdun, but with a viable plan, a purpose, it seemed to slow to an agonizing crawl. Painfully aware of every moment that he sat, staring into the red abyss of the Voidharrow, Tharizdun waited for Albric to complete his task.
Through his link with the human, Tharizdun could sense pieces of Albric’s progress through the murk of the gap between universes, mostly by the mortal’s emotions. The god could feel Albric’s elation at finding and seizing the rod in Bael Turath; his eagerness as he used the powers that his devotion to Tharizdun provided to travel to Pandemonium via the City of Doors; his triumph as he gathered seven more to his side.
With each new follower Albric was able to bring to his cause, Tharizdun felt the link grow stronger, as the power of their devotion enabled him to more aggressively pierce the veil between universes, and he was able to speak directly to Albric through one of his more weak-minded devotees rather than through the vague imagery of dreams.
The moment was coming. All of Tharizdun’s planning, all his patience, all his frustration-it was finally coming to a head. Dozens of plans and one, at last, was starting to bear fruit.
When he felt Albric’s devotion at its greatest height, he knew it was time. A shudder passed through all of reality as Albric’s spell unleashed the power of the Gate fragment to poke through the barriers that separated universes, to force a crack.
Reaching out with his godly might, Tharizdun sent the liquid crystal through that crack, watching as the roiling chaos seeped through the chink in the armor that imprisoned a god, seeking out ways to sow the seeds of madness.
Then disaster. Champions of Ioun and Pelor, along with a wizard and two fighters, interrupted the ritual even as Albric and the other seven devotees were transformed by the Voidharrow into strange creatures of madness. Tharizdun had known nothing of this, and he screamed in rage at the Progenitor. “You betrayed me.”
But the Progenitor denied the accusation. Now we spread, your will and my substance. We are the Voidharrow.
The Chained God saw the creatures that his eight worshipers had changed into. “Like a plague. Your substance and my will.”
While the Voidharrow had pierced the veil on Tharizdun’s end, the thrice-damned heroes had closed it on the other side, leaving Tharizdun and the Progenitor trapped once again.
But the veil had been pierced. With the Voidharrow loose, he had a foothold.
And that was not all. The ritual Albric had led enabled the Chained God to reach out to many worlds. He could not send himself through the veil to any of those worlds-the gods had imprisoned him too well-but the Voidharrow … It could seep through the chinks in the armor that Albric’s ritual had exposed.
If the Voidharrow spread far enough and took root in enough other worlds, it would provide the foundation of a latticework of chaos, a linkage of Abyssal force that would smash through the barriers that kept Tharizdun trapped there, allowing him to return to his own universe.
For the first time since Ioun and Pelor trapped him in that wretched place, Tharizdun threw his head back and laughed.
Vas Belrik’s wife always yelled at him when he rode a family crodlu to the marketplace.
Of course, one could also end that thought with “him” and it would remain accurate. Tova Belrik always found something to scream at him about. He married her in order to solidify a merger between his family and the Hakran family. The Belriks had always bred the finest crodlus in Raam, and the Hakrans ran the best stables. It seemed a natural match-at least to Vas’s father and Tova’s parents.
Vas, being a teenager at the time, didn’t really have any say in the matter. Marrying who you chose to marry was a privilege of the lower born. As a scion of one of the wealthier families in Raam, Vas did as he was told.
As a result, Vas had more wealth than he knew what to do with, and could pretty much do as he pleased, so he could hardly complain … much.
Tova had commensurate wealth. Their parents’ plan was a good one, and the newly merged Belrik-Hakran stable had grown to the point where they had no real competition anymore, and their monopoly on Raam’s crodlu trade allowed the Belriks to live a life of luxury.
In that, they were a rarity in Raam these days. As Vas rode through the thoroughfares, he looked past the bodyguards walking alongside him on all sides (the streets weren’t safe, after all) and saw houses that had been burned out, once elegant and beautiful structures that had been badly damaged by civil unrest, businesses that had closed their doors permanently. Once mines had provided alabaster and gemstones enough to keep the higher castes wealthy and the lower castes employed, but the mines had dried up, as had the land.
The Belrik and Hakran families remained wealthy because people always needed crodlus. Of course, many of them needed those crodlus to get away from the depressed nightmare that Raam had become …
Still, the Belriks had staff and slaves to run things-some of the best crodlu handlers in all of Athas worked for them-so they had very few responsibilities of their own.
Which meant that Vas could indulge himself and head to the marketplace. It was one of the few places in Raam that was still worth going to.
Once he got through Tova’s screed on the subject of riding out on a family crodlu, anyway. “That’s merchandise!” she’d scream. “What if it gets hurt?” she’d bellow. “That could cost us dearly!” she’d yell.
Not that it was an issue. They had enough coin to choke a crodlu, after all.
There were times when he wondered why she even spoke to him. It wasn’t as if he sought out her company. Their marriage’s sole purpose was to facilitate a business deal. At some point, they’d have to have children, which would require them to actually sleep in the same bed for once, but they were young and had plenty of time. Vas kept himself busy with an assortment of concubines who were well compensated for the privilege, and he knew that Tova had a few men of her own that she used for the same purpose.
What Vas really needed was a distraction-an adventure of some sort. Something to get him out of the wretchedness that Raam had become.
Not permanently, of course. Abalach-Re, the sorcerer-queen, may well have retreated from the public eye, her templars may have stayed hidden in their towers, the population of the city-state may well have halved in the past decade, but Raam was still Vas’s home. He would never leave forever.
But a vacation would truly make his heart sing.
The red sun beat down on Vas’s scarved head as the crodlu sauntered down the road, its clawed limbs easily gaining purchase in the cobblestones. The beast of burden’s head was lowered, its beak grazing the stone as it ambled along.
Every three months, there were traveling merchants who set up shop at the bazaar on Aggas Way just outside the city-state’s walls. Once, when Vas was a youth, the bazaar was held monthly inside the city, but the merchants no longer felt safe, and came only once a season-many only made the journey once a year. Changed times had transformed the walls of Raam from a defense from the world outside to a prison for those inside. Traveling merchants did not trust the mansabdars, those cutpurses who served as Raam’s police, to protect them inside the walls-and given the rampant corruption amongst Raam’s alleged protectors, Vas could not blame them. Most merchants preferred to sell their wares from a location that allowed them an easy escape from potential trouble.
Behind Vas and his bodyguards, several of his slaves came along on kanks with his coins and some food and water. On one of the kanks rode Cristophe, who had been Vas’s tutor growing up.
It was usually an all-day trip, and when he wanted to take a lunch break, he preferred to do it near Aggas Way so he could spend as much time as possible at the bazaar. So he brought enough food for him, Cristophe, and all the slaves and bodyguards to eat.
The first few hours proved frustrating.
First there was the jeweler with a series of pieces all made with orange and red stones.
As soon as Vas brought the crodlu to a halt, the merchant started in: “Lovely necklaces, sir. Or perhaps a brooch? These are fire gems, sir, they truly are, straight from the caves of Under-Tyr. Make your wife look prettier than ever, they will.”
Cristophe peered at the merchant from over his long, aquiline nose with his rheumy blue eyes. “The caves of Under-Tyr produce gems that are green and black. These look more like stones from the Estuary of the Forked Tongue, from which red and orange rocks are fairly commonplace.”
Vas’s smile increased in inverse proportion to the frown that grew on that of the merchant. Most people hereabouts knew little of the southern lands, but Cristophe was well traveled in his youth.
“Sorry,” Vas said, “but even if they were from the caves of Under-Tyr, I’m afraid that nothing could make my wife look even remotely pretty.”
Next was the spice merchant. Generally, spice merchants were hard on the nose, as they often carried a variety of spices that did not necessarily go well together-but the variety was crucial to a merchant’s success. This one, though, seemed to go out of his way to put the most incompatible spices next to each other, and Vas was unable to keep his nose from wrinkling.
“Finest spices from Balic. Can’t get these anywhere else.”
As they went by, Cristophe named five different places where he could get spices from Balic. “And none of them would make my eyes water.”
Then there was the stonemaker.
“I’ve got the finest pestles you’ll ever see. Never crack, never wear out. Specially treated with my own formula to keep it looking shiny.”
Vas just looked at him. “Do I look like I use a pestle?”
The merchant smiled. “Fair enough, sir, fair enough. Perhaps a jewelry box for the wife or daughter? Or a candle holder? Specially treated with my own formula to keep it looking shiny-never wear down or get scorch marks. Or how about a cutting surface for your cook? Specially treated with my own formula to keep it from wearing down.”
Vas considered. “The notion of stonework that wears down more slowly is appealing.”
“Not more slowly, sir, but never at all.”
Letting the hyperbole go, Vas continued: “But the design of your work is so-so-I’m sorry, I can’t quite put my finger on the proper word.”
Cristophe scowled. “I believe the word you’re grasping for is ‘dull.’ ”
Grinning, Vas snapped his fingers in mock joy and said, “Yes! Dull. I’m sorry, but I’ve seen plain rocks in the wastes that have more aesthetic value than your wares.”
The morning continued in that disappointing regard, as Vas’s entourage made a slow circuit of the northern end of the bazaar.
He was pleased to see that the damned textile merchant who tried to pass off burlap as raw silk last season wasn’t around. Vas had seen to that woman’s ruination in very short order. Nobody cheated him, and certainly not twice. He would have been less than amused if that woman-Lyd was her name, he remembered-found a way to get back in good graces with the bazaar’s administrators.
He took a break for lunch, hoping that the south side of the bazaar would prove more intriguing than the north. He and Cristophe dined in companionable silence. In truth, Vas had little to say to the man once he was no longer Vas’s tutor. He only kept the dried-up old fool because he kept the merchants honest.
Once the slaves cleaned up after lunch, Vas mounted the crodlu, nudged the carapace with his sandaled foot, and started to saunter forward. The mount didn’t have a name; the crodlus they bred were always sold to people who paid quite a bit in order to retain the privilege of naming the creature for themselves.
It was rare for crodlus to respond to their names-they generally only acted when physically prompted by a kick to the side or a yank of the reins-so Vas was more than willing to provide that extra service for his customers.
It was also rare for people to bring their mounts into the main passages of the bazaar. Said passages were scarcely wider than the crodlu was, and his presence on a mount disrupted the foot traffic.
Not that he cared all that much. He was one of the Vizier caste, the highest born in Raam, and one of the few among that number who made his own trips to the bazaar. Partly it was out of boredom, partly it was due to not trusting the slaves to find the best merchandise at the most reasonable price, but mostly because he enjoyed himself.
What was the good of being one of the higher castes if he couldn’t enjoy himself?
Besides, even if he went on foot, he needed Cristophe and the slaves to remain on the kanks-which fit more efficiently in the passageways, admittedly-in order to carry what he bought. Most of the merchants would deliver, of course, but Vas didn’t even trust his own people to get things right, and he’d bought them himself. He for damn sure wasn’t trusting some stranger hired by a merchant to deliver the goods with any efficiency. Since most of the merchants spent the bulk of their energy trying make Vas spend more than he wished, Vas especially didn’t trust them to even deliver the right item. And often the delivery would be made after the bazaar ended by locals hired for the purpose, the merchants themselves long gone, so Vas had no recourse if mistakes were made.
One of his favorite things was to watch the changing expressions on the faces of people when his bodyguards encouraged them to move out of the way of his sauntering crodlu. They often went from outrage at being harassed to fear at the sheer size of his bodyguards-Vas had no idea what their names were, but they’d been part of the Belrik family’s security detail since Vas was a teenager-to reluctant respect when they saw the quality of the bridle on the crodlu, not to mention the finery Vas himself was wearing. Like all those of his caste, he wore silk robes to denote his station, and whenever he went out in public, he made sure to wear the brightest of those robes. If he was traveling farther into the harsh lands outside Raam’s borders, he would naturally sacrifice finery for practicality, but while in the bazaar, he wanted to display himself.
The ones who weren’t intimidated by the bodyguards were generally cowed by Vas’s obvious wealth and status. The power wielded by the bodyguards was direct, but the power implicit in Vas’s wealth was far more devastating.
Besides, on Athas you were used to physical hardships. It came with being alive. But to be able to destroy someone with a gesture or a command? That was what truly brought fear to the hearts of Athasians.
Vas loved it.
He was not loving the bazaar, however. The south side proved no better than the north, with either the poor quality of merchandise or lies from the vendors that were easily torn through by Cristophe.
Until he reached the end of the southern passage.
It was the biggest of the tents that had been set up. Fully three tables of merchandise were spread out in front of it, arranged with each perpendicular to the other, but allowing the vendors-of which there were only two visible at that moment-access to all three from behind.
All the other merchants had, at best, one table, and many had only the back of their carriage. That group, however, had an entire setup, and quite a diverse selection of material to sell.
On one table was a collection of spices, another had textiles, and the third had an assortment of decorative items.
Vas dismounted the crodlu and peered at the carriage behind the tables. It was an impressive vehicle, a two-crodlu puller that could hold all the items on the tables, as well as space for at least three or four bunks-maybe more, if they used hammocks.
“Impressive setup,” he said to the older man, a stoop-shouldered elf. Next to him, an elderly human woman was talking to some dwarf peasant or other about a set of containers.
“Oh, thank you very much.” He smiled, showing the usual perfect teeth of an elf. “I could say the same to you. It is a rare thing indeed to see a man of your standing grace the bazaar with his presence.”
Vas frowned. “Do not attempt to flatter me.”
The elf shrugged. “I’m not-I merely describe you. I assume that you do not trust underlings to purchase your wares for you, and furthermore that you will be taking anything you purchase back with you on those kanks that you have cluttering up the thoroughfare.”
“And this concerns you?” Vas’s tone was more than a little arch.
Holding up both hands, the elf said, “Oh, it’s none of my concern. I merely hope that your stopping at my humble stand means you might possibly wish to make a purchase. If you do not, then I will bid you adieu.” He took a small bow at that.
“I like you,” Vas said. “You’re as insincere as every other miscreant in this bazaar, but I prefer your approach. More style.”
The elf took another bow. “Thank you. I am Torthal Serthlara, and this is the Serthlara Traveling Emporium. My wife Shira, our family, and I travel about Athas in search of goods we may bring to other parts of Athas. For example, these spices are from several different regions.” He picked up a small bell jar that was labeled in a script Vas didn’t recognize. “This is a sleeping draft from one of the eastern elf tribes. The winds will howl that far out, you see-can keep you up all the night long. This spice-they call it feresh-will dissolve in any liquid, and can be very handy if you need some rest.”
Vas was unimpressed. “My apothecary has many sleeping drafts already.”
“Yes, but these are designed for elves. Forgive me, but your people have less of a constitution than mine.” He indicated the human woman, Shira, who was still talking with the dwarf. “My marriage has taught me that.”
Just as Vas was about to tell Serthlara to back off and stop trying to push the sleeping draft, the elf did so unprompted. “If you have any questions about any of the merchandise, please don’t hesitate to ask.” He grinned. “If I don’t know the answer, I promise to make something up that will sound quite convincing.”
Vas barked out an involuntary laugh. “Very well.”
Before too long, it became clear that the spices were nothing special-most were, like the feresh, of elf origin, and Vas had never been impressed with their goods-but the textiles caught his eye. He saw several bolts of Tyr silk and some linens from Balic. Cristophe verified that they were genuine-not fakes like that Lyd woman tried to peddle to him the previous season.
Looking up, Vas wanted to ask Serthlara about the textiles, but the merchant had joined his wife to continue talking to the dwarf.
However, just then a very attractive woman walked toward him from the other side of the table. She had slight tapers to her ears, and the high cheekbones one would expect from an elf, but her eyes were too small, her shoulders too broad. Her eyes, though, were the same sea green as Serthlara’s. She wore two layers of linen that wrapped around her trim figure, but made sure to display her cleavage. Her arms, bronzed from the crimson sun, were decorated with a row of gold-colored bracelets-at least a dozen on each arm-but which did not clatter like the soft metal. Not that it could’ve been gold. If the people owned enough gold to decorate two arms, they wouldn’t need to live like that. Her thick brown hair was tied back and intertwined with silken strips that created an attractive latticework that also no doubt kept it out of her face.
Speaking in a lilting, lovely voice that reminded Vas at once of his favorite concubine and of the gentle flowing of the water in the templar castle’s fountain, she asked, “May I help you, sir?”
Her words brought Vas up short. He hadn’t realized it until the woman used the word, but Serthlara had never once used the honorific “sir.” Yet his tone had been far more respectful, closer to sincere than any of the other merchants, who dropped a “sir” in between every phrase.
“I’m guessing,” he said, “that you’re the daughter of Serthlara and Shira?”
She smiled. She had not inherited her father’s teeth, sadly, and the smile fell quickly in any case. “Yes-I’m Karalith.”
Offering her hand in the same manner as the women of the Nawab and Vizier castes, Vas accepted it on instinct and kissed it at the middle knuckle, just the way Cristophe taught him. That also impressed-usually you didn’t see merchants who were even aware of the traditions of the nobility, much less practiced them. “I’m Vas Belrik.”
Karalith slowly and gently pulled her hand back. It was, Vas had noticed, far more callused and rough than the hands he usually kissed, with uneven fingernails and scars of varying ages. “Welcome to the Serthlara Traveling Emporium, Vizier Belrik. You have a question about the merchandise?”
“How much is the Balic linen?” he asked, surprised once again at her knowledge of Raam customs. The merchants in the bazaar could generally tell that he was from a higher caste, but usually only those who lived there knew to use the honorific-never mind knowing which one to use.
Nodding her head, Karalith said, “Impressive. I think you’re the first Raami to recognize Balic merchandise on sight. Most of the peoples of your city-state are less-well, refined.”
Vas was pleased that he could impress her as she did him, and for that reason, he was willing to forgive her use of “Raami,” a term used only by outsiders, and considered an insult by the locals.
But before he could express that, Cristophe interjected: “So’s he. But I lived in Balic, so I trained him. Lived lotsa places, in fact. Why-”
Interrupting Cristophe before he started going on at length about his travels-the second-most boring subject in the world to Vas, coming up only behind whatever Tova might be yelling about at a given moment-Vas added, “I was also cheated by a textile merchant last season, so I’ve made it my business to know the real thing when I see it. I don’t like being cheated, and I’m never cheated twice.” Softening his tone, he asked, “So how much?”
“Two coppers a foot.”
“How-wait, what?” He had been expecting an unreasonably high price and then expected to haggle-that was how things worked at the bazaar-but two coppers a foot was actually reasonable.
Then Karalith added, “For the linen. But that Tyr silk you keep fondling is a silver a foot.”
Vas smiled. “A Raam silver or a Tyr silver?” While ceramic coins had become commonplace, each city-state minted its own coins, and often there was a markup if one traded back and forth among different locales’ currencies.
Karalith let out a light chuckle. “It matters not. We’re in Raam, so we expect Raam currency, but we’ll accept the coin of any city in Athas. The price, however, remains the same. We find our customers prefer the simplicity of keeping prices constant, and we’ve found that it evens out in the end.”
“Very enlightened,” Vas said, not expecting that level of consideration to the customer from any merchant, though he was appreciating more and more how the Serthlara Emporium wasn’t just any merchant …
She shook her head. “Don’t know why we call it a silver anyway. It’s just a ceramic coin with a mark on it that says it’s silver.”
“Used to be lotsa silver,” Cristophe said. “Long time ago. The ceramic coins, they were just supposed to be a stopgap until they found more veins of the real thing. That never happened, of course. People are stupid-why I remember-”
Again, Vas interrupted his former tutor. “Regardless of how one pays for it, I have no interest in purchasing any more silk. I have more than I know what to do with. Lovely to the touch, but horrendous to wear out of doors.”
She leaned forward and ran a finger along one of the bolts. “I would think a man of your station would have plenty to do indoors.”
He leaned forward as well. “Yes-and plenty of silk to wear on those occasions, believe me. The linens, however, can make for more practical wear.”
“I can’t imagine that anyone of your status would have much use for anything practical.”
The words were a bit harsh, but in that voice, they were teasing.
“The problem with status is that it doesn’t actually give you much to do. It’s why I come to this place.” He stood upright. “I wish to do something. Travel, have adventures, or at least see more of our world.” And also get away from Tova, but he decided not to even mention to Karalith that he was married. “And that, my dear Karalith, requires linens.”
“I’m sure it does,” Karalith said, and that time she held the smile longer, though she did not show her teeth. It made the smile all the more seductive. “What manner of adventures were you thinking of-”
The half-elf’s face fell into a frown, annoying Vas to no end. He was actually enjoying himself. Turning around, he saw a thri-kreen skittering hurriedly toward the table. A female member of the insectlike race, she was clutching a rolled-up piece of parchment between her upper left pincers, while gesturing madly with her middle pincers. She had a pack with straps wrapped around her thorax.
“Oh, for pity’s sake, Tricht’tha, not again.”
The thri-kreen was standing upright on her rear two pincers, which thri-kreens generally did when they were among bipedal races. Among their own kind-or out in the open where there was more freedom of movement than in a crowded bazaar-they would often move on all six limbs, their bodies parallel to the ground. When he was a boy, Vas had thought thri-kreens to be other animals, but Cristophe had taught him otherwise in very short order. It was the old tutor’s opinion that they mainly walked upright when dealing with other races precisely because so many of those others made the same mistake Vas did in thinking them not to be intelligent.
Her voice clicked three or four times-a sign of the Chachik tongue that thri-kreens spoke, and one sufficiently unlike other forms of speech that it added to misconceptions like Vas had as a youth-before she said in Common: “You do not even know what I am going to discuss.”
Karalith put her hands on her hips. “Tricht’tha, you’re holding the map right there.”
Tricht’tha lowered herself to stand on her middle and back pincers. After a few clicks of Chachik, she said, “Very well, I am, in fact, here to discuss the map. It-”
Holding up a hand, Karalith said, “There’s no point, Tricht’tha. We’re not going to buy it. Even if I had a momentary lapse and decided to go ahead and take it from you, Mother and Father would have my hide for wasting their coin.”
“You cannot make decisions for yourself? You are of age, are you not?”
Vas looked at Karalith, hoping that the answer was affirmative, otherwise the flirting he’d been doing was going to get uncomfortable. That was the problem with half-breeds, you could never determine their ages …
To his relief, she said, “Of course I am, but it’s not a question of being able to make decisions, it’s being able to explain the stupid ones. And buying your map would be stupid.”
Again, the thri-kreen straightened. “Do you doubt my word, Karalith?”
“No.” Karalith was starting to sound frustrated, a feeling with which Vas could sympathize. This Tricht’tha woman was getting in the way of his purchase. “Look,” Karalith said after taking a breath, “I don’t doubt that the map is genuine. You’ve never steered us wrong before. In fact, that set of icons you found us made us all considerable profit.”
More Chachik for a bit, then: “Yet you do not trust me now?”
“It has nothing to do with trust.” Karalith gestured behind her, bracelets sliding against skin. “Look at us, Tricht’tha. There are six of us crammed into this carriage, trying to sell things to people. How’re we supposed to make use of a map like that?”
“Excuse me,” Cristophe said, and only then did Vas notice that he was staring at the parchment the thri-kreen was clutching.
Tricht’tha clicked in Chachik, to which Cristophe, unsurprisingly, responded in kind.
Then the thri-kreen handed the parchment to Cristophe.
“What is it?” Vas asked, moving to stand behind his former tutor.
“It is a map that leads to the treasury of Sebowkan the Elder.” Tricht’tha spoke almost reverently.
As Cristophe unrolled the parchment, Vas scratched his forehead. “Who the Elder?”
“He ruled a kingdom near the Ringing Mountains during the Green Age,” Cristophe said distractedly. “Massive treasure, he collected, as part of his bounty-but nobody ever found it.”
Vas looked down at Cristophe. “You know of this Sebowkan?”
Cristophe nodded. “I read one of his commentaries. It was in a private collection in Makla-belonged to an eccentric who liked to collect every piece of parchment he could get his hands on, never mind that he couldn’t read half of them. In fact, he paid me to recite some to him back in the day.”
Waving off yet another tiresome reminiscence, Vas asked, “And you say this Sebowkan collected treasure?” He yanked the map out of Cristophe’s hand. It showed the Ringing Mountains and the Great Alluvial Sand Wastes to the east of them, and led to a particular spot that wasn’t far from where Kled was now. “You’re saying this is a map to that treasure?”
“Of course it is.” Tricht’tha had been sounding outraged throughout the conversation, but for those four words, she kicked it up a bit, as if the very notion that they were discussing anything other than a treasure map was absurd.
“Which is why we can’t do anything with it,” Karalith said with a sigh. “Believe me, we’d love the treasure-and I’d love to go and dig for it, it sounds like tremendous fun-but we’d need digging equipment, shelters, receptacles for the sand, and people who actually know what they’re doing.”
Without even thinking, Vas asked, “Can’t you just hire people?”
This time, Karalith’s smile was more sardonic. “You make it sound so simple, Vizier Belrik. We make enough coin to survive in this world, to feed ourselves and our mounts, and to maintain our carriage-but just that. Even if we had the spare savings to mount an expedition to find this treasure, we could not spare the time. We’d lose our spaces in bazaars like this, not to mention-”
Vas held up a hand. “I understand, believe me.” He smiled. “Of course, I have no such impediments.”
Tricht’tha gazed upon Vas with her large red eyes as if seeing him for the first time. “Are you saying, sir, that you might be interested in purchasing this map?”
“I might,” Vas said quickly. He was hardly about to commit to anything, though the notion of hunting for treasure was a very appealing one. In fact, in his mind, he was already starting to plan the expedition. He knew some colleagues of Tova’s father who had done some digging, and he knew where he could get a good deal on the equipment. He’d have to borrow some of Torthal’s bodyguards, but that wouldn’t be a problem. Mentally thinking over his roster of slaves, he wasn’t sure how much use they’d be for something like this. Maybe he could hire some mercenaries?
Best of all, he could get away from Tova for months.
Realizing he was getting ahead of himself, he turned to the thri-kreen. “The first question I must ask, however, is why you’re selling the map? Why not take the treasure for yourself?”
Making several desultory clicking noises, Tricht’tha said, “For similar reasons to that of Karalith. I do not have the means to avail myself of the map’s bounty. And-” she hesitated, and clicked a few more times, “leave us say that it would not be healthy for me to be seen anywhere near Kled in this lifetime.”
Nodding, Vas regarded the map again. “I can give you ten gold for this.”
The thri-kreen let out a burst of clicks, with some spitting thrown in for good measure. Vas wouldn’t need Cristophe to translate that. “Sebowkan the Elder’s treasure,” she finally said in Common, “is reputed to be six thousand gold. That’s real gold, not ceramic that claims to be gold. At the very least, I deserve twenty percent of that.”
Vas had been afraid she’d ask for the full six thousand, at first. Or even more, since six thousand in metal gold was actually worth more than the equivalent in ceramic coins. “Twelve hundred gold? For a piece of parchment that I don’t even know is real?”
“Oh, it is real,” Cristophe said in as excited a voice as Vas had ever heard him use. “Or, rather, at the very least, it’s from the time period in question. You see, during the Green Age, most of the parchments that were created in the region near the Ringing Mountains had an impurity. If you look closely, you can see it.”
Cristophe was pointing a bony finger at the upper portion of the map. Peering at it, Vas saw that there was an odd marking in it that didn’t match up with the rest of the map. Holding the map up toward the sunlight, he saw that it was in the parchment itself.
Handing the map back to Cristophe, he said, “So that dates it to the right period?”
“Absolutely. And that treasure was never found. If nothing else, this is a valuable piece of history.”
Vas snorted. “Of what use is history, old man? It’s the treasure that interests me.” Looking at the thri-kreen, he said, “I’ll give you five hundred for it.”
“Eleven hundred is a very fair price, given the reward.” Now Tricht’tha had folded her upper and middle pincers together in a defiant gesture.
Karalith was staring at the thri-kreen in something like amazement. “Are you brain-baked, Tricht’tha? You’ve never even seen five hundred gold in your life. Take it and have done with it.”
Tricht’tha seemed to bridle at that. “I think that at the very least I should get a thousand gold.”
Vas had been hoping she’d go for something closer to seven-fifty. Raising any more than that would widen eyes all across Belrik Hakran stables. But even if he paid the thousand, and then another couple of hundred for everything he’d need, he’d come out ahead once the six-thousand-gold treasure was located.
In truth, just being able to get away from the chaos-both the larger chaos of Raam and the at-home lunacy of Tova-for several months was probably worth paying upwards of fifteen hundred gold.
“All right,” he finally said, “a thousand. Let’s arrange to meet back here at sunrise tomorrow.”
Again, the thri-kreen bristled. “Why the delay?”
Vas laughed, but it was Karalith who responded. “Honestly, Tricht’tha, do you think that a fine gentleman such as Vizier Belrik would carry around that much coin with him?”
“With all respect to the fine wares of the Serthlara Emporium,” Vas said with a quick bow toward Karalith, “there isn’t anything here, generally, that is worth a thousand gold.”
“Generally.” Tricht’tha emphasized the word heavily. She also all but yanked the map out of Cristophe’s surprised hands. “I will, of course, hold onto this until we meet tomorrow.”
“Of course.” Vas turned to Karalith. “And I’ll also take thirty feet of the linen.”
“Excellent.” Karalith favored him with her brightest smile-though again, no teeth.
“Also,” Vas added, “an invitation to dine with me after I purchase the map tomorrow morning.”
Karalith lowered her gaze slightly. “I have obligations, Vizier Belrik. While I am flattered, I doubt that my parents would be overjoyed at my shirking my responsibility to the emporium to indulge myself with you.”
Somehow, Vas managed not to comment on how much indulgence he wanted. In truth, he was hoping that she would agree to come with him on his treasure hunt. She had said that it might be great fun, so maybe-just maybe-he could convince her to take a leave of absence from her family business to aid him in his hunt. He might even give her a small percentage of the treasure, which she could give to Serthlara. A finder’s fee.
But that was for tomorrow. For tonight, he needed to convince the accountants that he needed a thousand gold ceramic coins.
It would be difficult, and a massive risk.
That was secondary, though, to the fact that it would be an adventure-exactly what he’d been hoping for.
He’d just have to endure a great deal of Tova’s yelling tonight.
The jerky tasted like ashes in Fehrd Anspah’s mouth. Gamely, he chewed on it anyway. He had little choice. The salt and protein were necessary for when they started walking again. The midday sun was beating down on their white canvas tent. It would be at least another hour before the sun came away from its zenith and the Great Alluvial Sand Wastes would be passable again. Only a fool traveled the Alluvial at midday, and Fehrd and his friends never considered themselves to be fools.
Of course, plenty of other people had different opinions.
“Hurry up,” Gan Storvis said. “I want to get moving.” He was fidgeting, constantly adjusting the silk patch that covered the hole where his left eye used to be. Had the tent more space, Fehrd suspected that Gan would have been pacing, but there was barely room for the three of them to sit in the thing, especially with the layers of wrapped linen that protected them from the elements bulking them all up.
Fehrd blinked. “Are you out of your mind? We can’t go out there for at least-”
“It’s not that bad.”
Throwing up his hands, Fehrd said, “Fine, go ahead, burn to a crisp. I’m gonna stay here in the tent.”
Gan started gesticulating wildly with his jerky, to the point that Fehrd was sure that he’d throw it against the tent flap-which would be a waste of perfectly mediocre jerky, in Fehrd’s opinion. “We’ve already lost a day because of that sandstorm yesterday. At this rate, we’ll never make it to Raam in time to meet up with Feena and the others.”
With a sardonic smile, Fehrd said, “Well, if we had mounts, we might make better time.”
Pointing an accusatory finger, Gan said, “That was not my fault.”
“Really?” Fehrd chewed on the last of his jerky and then folded his arms over his barrel chest. “How is losing our crodlus in a card game not your fault, exactly?”
“I was cheated!”
Fehrd rolled his eyes. “Here we go again.” He looked over at the third member of their party. “Rol, you want to chime in on this?”
Rol Mandred looked up from his canteen and stared as if he’d never seen Fehrd or Gan before. “Hmm? I agree with both of you.”
“We don’t agree!” Gan cried.
Shrugging, Rol said, “Fine, then I don’t agree with either of you.”
Gan leaned forward. “Do you think we should head out now?”
“Are you out of your mind? It’s hot out there.”
Unable to help himself, Fehrd burst out laughing.
“Look,” Gan said, pointedly ignoring Fehrd’s outburst, “we’re only about two hours’ hike from the Great Road. I just want to get on that. The sand will be easier to walk through there, and we might come across some other travelers.”
Fehrd sighed. Gan’s points were well taken. They had been moving generally northward through the wastes, but not on any major thoroughfare. Today, though, was the day they would reach the Great Road. It would lead them to Dragon’s Bowl Road, which would take them northeast to Raam. The Great Road itself continued northward to Urik.
“I don’t want to risk missing Feena.”
That prompted another sigh from Fehrd. “Look, I know you miss your sister, but she’ll wait for us, won’t she?”
“Maybe. I don’t know for sure. And even if she does, I don’t want to hold her up because we moved too slowly.”
“Well, we would move a lot faster if we had crodlus.”
Gan threw up his hands. “I’m telling you, I was cheated. That wasn’t my fault.”
“Some facts, Gan.” Fehrd leaned forward and started enumerating points on his fingers. “Fact: you played a game of frolik in a gaming house that has a reputation for dishonesty. Fact: your opponent in the game was Hamno Sennit, who has a reputation for hustling frolik. Fact: you, bluntly, are dreadful at frolik. Fact: you chose to bet our crodlus when you had a hand that, in your words, ‘could not possibly lose’ which then proceeded to, well, lose. With these facts in play, tell me-how is this not your fault?”
“He couldn’t have had that priest card. He just couldn’t.”
Fehrd put his head in his hands. “Tell you what,” he finally said, “I’m willing to head out early if you’re willing to carry the pack.”
Now Gan did throw his jerky against the tent flap. “It’s your turn to carry the pack.”
“Yes,” Fehrd said slowly, “and I’m willing to give in to your desire to leave early if you’re willing to give in to my desire to not carry the pack.”
Since their crodlus were gone-including the pack mount-they had to carry their own supplies. Rol had contrived a way to pack up the rolled-up tent and supplies into a single backpack, which they took turns carrying. Fehrd was up next, and he had been dreading the notion.
Gan closed his eyes for several seconds. “Fine-but this was not my fault.”
“Yes it was.” Rol rose to his feet as he spoke. “Fehrd just explained to you why it’s your fault. Now, it’s fine, really, because honestly? I wanted to leave Altaruk. It’s a hellhole. A blot that would that would not be missed if it were wiped off the surface of Athas. And I think we were pretty much at the point where nobody was going to hire us anymore.”
“And that is your fault.” Gan pointed an accusatory finger at Rol.
Rol shrugged. “If the girl had simply said she was our employer’s daughter, there wouldn’t have been a problem.”
“Our employer told you that she was his daughter, and you went ahead and-”
“I thought he was talking about the other one.”
“Whom you also slept with.”
“Yes, but he didn’t know that. And besides-”
“Enough!” Fehrd got to his feet. “Can we please just pack up and get moving already?”
The three of them had been traveling for the better part of a month, so the procedure for folding up the tent and packing all their supplies into the pack that Gan would be carrying was fairly well streamlined.
So it was only fifteen minutes later that they were once again trudging through the desert. They walked at a steady pace, adjusting quickly to the shifting ground of the sand beneath them-which, mercifully, wasn’t all that shifting, as it wasn’t windy today-and drank water when needed.
They also didn’t talk, as a way of preserving their own water and ability to breathe, which came to Fehrd as something of a relief. Fehrd understood that Gan just wanted to see his sister, but his anxiousness had been growing ever more annoying over the past few days.
Besides, the arguments between Gan and Rol had gotten more shrill as time went on. Fehrd honestly wasn’t sure if Gan was angry at Rol for costing them bodyguard work or because the women were inevitably more interested in Rol than Gan. Gan even had an eye patch that women often swooned over, but the bloom usually came off the rose the minute he started talking.
Either way, their reputation for being effective as bodyguards but poor at interpersonal relationships had indeed spread throughout most of Altaruk. Such things rarely took too long, and they risked drawing the wrong kind of attention to themselves.
Ironically, Gan’s frolik game was supposed to facilitate getting supplies for the trip. Instead, they had to dip into the emergency fund, which was only enough to pay for food and water, that being a greater priority than new crodlus.
And not even good food. Just a great deal of jerky. The only other food they had was the crodlu chow that Rol had purchased before the frolik game. It was the good stuff too-near-poison to humans and elves, and it made dwarves nauseous, but crodlus couldn’t get enough of the gourmet vittles. It was intended to be a reward for mounts who were going to be riding hard through the desert.
Instead, they were being ridden by rich kids in Altaruk, and the three of them were stuck with bags full of crodlu chow, which Rol had insisted on not selling for whatever reason.
After so much jerky, the crodlu chow was actually starting to sound very appealing to Fehrd.
They walked a bit slower than usual, as the sun was particularly brutal. Rol took the lead, as he often did-he had the keenest eyes of the three of them. Since Gan was carrying the pack, he took up the rear, as his burden slowed him down. His lack of a left eye generally kept him from taking point in any case.
Sweat dripped into Fehrd’s eyes. He had to adjust his headwrap several times, and also had to constantly shift the staff scabbard on his back.
“You’re adjusting the scabbard again.” Gan’s voice was laced with amusement.
Fehrd didn’t even turn around to look at him. “I’m sweating. This is what happens when we walk outside too close to midday as you insisted. The sweat shifts the scabbard.”
“No, the fact that the scabbard was designed for a man half your size is why the scabbard shifts. I know you loved your father and all, Fehrd, but the man was tiny.”
“Yes,” Fehrd said through clenched teeth, “I’m aware of how small he was, having been raised by him and all. He left me the staff and scabbard when he died. The staff is from the leg of the first-”
“-the first anakore he killed,” Gan finished in a singsong voice. “We know. It’s a great staff, Fehrd, really, it is, but you need a better scabbard for it.”
Finally Fehrd turned around. “Well, Gan, you know, I would really love to get a new scabbard. I’ll be happy to do that with all the coin you won at frolik.”
From the front, Rol said, “It is a little bit funny.”
A retort died on Fehrd’s dry lips. “Can we not have this argument until nightfall? I’ll be more than happy to tell you both what imbeciles you are when the sun isn’t trying to roast m-”
Fehrd cut himself off as he literally bumped into Rol. “Uhm, do you mind? The whole point of walking is to actually walk.”
Then Rol held up his left arm and Fehrd shut up instantly, his arm reaching for the end of his staff. Behind him, he could hear Gan drop the pack onto the sand.
Rol was half a head taller than Fehrd-who was fairly large himself-so he had to shift to the side to see what got Rol to stop.
Just over a rise in the sand, Fehrd could see a mass of people: four large carriages, a few crodlus and kanks, most of which were being used as pack animals rather than mounts, and a variety of styles of dress. Among other things, it meant they were finally in sight of the Great Road.
At first, it looked to be a simple caravan of people, of a type you often found once you hit the main passageways in the wastes. There was safety in numbers, after all.
At least, in theory-those people weren’t safe. For one thing, they were all out in the open in the heat of midday without moving, which was suicide. You didn’t expose yourself to high sun willingly unless you were accomplishing something, like making forward progress.
For another, the entire group was surrounded by a collection of crodlus whose carapaces had been dyed with distinctive black markings that were visible even at that distance.
“The Black Sands Raiders,” Fehrd muttered.
“I really hate those guys,” Gan said with a sigh.
Fehrd yanked his father’s staff out of the too-small scabbard. The Black Sands Raiders had been roaming the area of the wastes for decades. Once, their raids were all committed by their leader, Zeburon, the so-called “Iron Rider,” but lately their ranks had swelled to the point that splinter groups had been created to do secondary raids and such.
They generally traveled in groups of a dozen or so, all riding crodlus with painted carapaces. Zeburon himself hid his face with an iron helm etched in ancient runes that nobody could read anymore. For his part, Fehrd chose to believe that they translated to, “The wearer of this helm is lost, please return to the Janos family in Gulg,” secure in the knowledge that no one-not even Zeburon himself, in all likelihood-could contradict him. Regardless, they had an appallingly high success rate.
Zeburon’s minions simply wore all black, though some painted copies of the helm runes in silver onto their wraps. The color choice had always struck Fehrd as horribly impractical. Darker colors just made you hotter, which was insanity in the wastes.
But then, Fehrd supposed that sane people didn’t try to make their living robbing caravans.
On more than one occasion, the three of them had been hired specifically to protect caravans just like that one from the iron rider’s band.
Rol continued to stare straight ahead. “Do we get involved?”
Nodding enthusiastically, Fehrd said, “Absolutely. They might be grateful and pay us-or at least feed us something that isn’t jerky.”
From the back, Gan asked, “What if we get hurt-or killed?”
Fehrd snorted without bothering to look behind him. “Please-how many Black Sands jobs have we messed up?”
“Yeah, when we were expecting them and ready for it. This is a little different, especially if we aren’t getting paid.”
“We’re right on the edge of their sightlines,” Fehrd said. “They’re gonna see us soon either way.”
“Fine, we do it,” Gan said. “Frontal assault?”
Fehrd spared Gan an incredulous look. “That’s about as crazy as-well, as playing frolik with Hamno Sennit.”
Gan’s response was a gesture that was a sign of peace in Balic, but was something a bit more rude everywhere else in Athas.
Ignoring Gan with the ease of long practice, Fehrd turned back to look at the caravan.
“Rol, can you get close enough to take care of the crodlus while we distract them?”
At that, Rol just turned and looked at Fehrd.
“Right, stupid question. Get going.”
Rol nodded, and ran back the way they had come.
Then Fehrd turned to Gan. “You’re about to have a broken ankle.”
“Why do I have to be the one who has a broken ankle?”
“Because you’re the one who lost-”
Gan waved him off. “Lost the crodlus, right. Fine.” With a sigh, he got down on all fours, then fell on his back.
Fehrd then turned, took several deep breaths so he’d seem out of sorts, and then ran right toward the caravan. Waving his arms back and forth over his head, he cried, “Hey! Hey! My friend is hurt.”
Several people turned to look at Fehrd as he ran. Some were shocked, most were confused-and the raiders looked angry.
“Who the frip is that?”
As soon as he got fairly close to the caravan and its marauders, Fehrd stumbled forward and fell face first into the sand, thus feeding the perception of him being beside himself with worry over his friend.
“I’m sorry,” he said breathlessly, “I’m really sorry, but my friend, he’s hurt, can you help me, please? I think his ankle’s broken.”
Being closer, he was able to take in the details of the situation. There were indeed four carriages, one of them very large and made of stone rather than canvas. It was sealed tight, except for thin slits in a few spots-which added up to a slave trader, the only people who’d be carrying cargo that might try to escape. Animal carriers would have larger holes for breathing. Unsurprisingly, it had six crodlus reined to it, where a canvas carriage of that size would normally only require two.
The other three were fairly standard, and he noticed several people sitting on the edges of them nervously.
As for the raiders, they had planned their attack well. There were only six painted crodlus surrounding the caravan, evenly spaced and preventing anyone from escaping. Some crodlus had two riders, some one, but there were as many raiders on the ground amidst the caravan members as there were crodlus with only one rider, so obviously each crodlu had two when all was said and done.
A dozen raiders, just like usual. Each carried a bone knife, some fairly long. Based on Fehrd’s experience, they likely all knew how to use them also.
One of the raiders stepped forward, and Fehrd knew instantly that he was the leader of the bunch, because the others on the ground stepped aside for him and all the riders turned to look at him.
“Broken ankle, you say? That’s terrible. We’re having a bit of trouble with one of our carriage wheels right now, but I think we can spare someone.” He turned to one of his men. “Harak, go with him. Check it out, while we finish fixing this wheel.”
“Whatever you say, Draz,” the other one said.
Stumbling to his feet, Fehrd bowed several times. “Thank you, sir, thank you so much, I’m so worried about my friend.”
Harak walked up to Fehrd and indicated the way he’d come with a hand. “After you.”
“Of course, sir, just come with me, sir, thank you so much.” He started jogging through the sand. Harak was able to keep up with long strides.
Gan was lying obligingly on the ground, his pack at his side, massaging his ankle. “Morning glory, but this hurts. If you could help me, sir, I’d really appreciate-”
“Shut up,” Harak said, taking out his bone knife.
Fehrd then clubbed him in the head with his father’s bone staff.
As he fell forward, Gan pulled his own bone knife out of the holster in his not-really-broken ankle and plunged it into Harak’s chest.
Getting to his feet, Gan said, “That’s one.”
The bleating sound of hungry crodlus pierced the air. Fehrd turned around to see that Rol had done his part: spreading the gourmet crodlu chow on the ground. The crodlus immediately picked up the scent and came running, despite the best efforts of the Black Sands riders.
“See? Rol had a good reason for keeping the chow,” Gan said with a grin as they started running back to the caravan.
Fehrd snorted. “He probably slept with the merchant’s daughter or something.”
Chaos was reigning in the caravan, as the raiders tried to get the hungry crodlus under control, and failed rather spectacularly. Fehrd had been concerned that they might have had well-trained crodlus, but that had been unlikely. The Black Sands Raiders lived hard and rode their beasts into the ground. The niceties of training the crodlus were superfluous when they could just steal another if one they had failed in some way.
But that also meant they had no chance of getting them under control when someone spread gourmet chow on the ground.
Rol was taking advantage of the chaos by pulling the riders off their mounts and slitting their throats.
There was a reason why the three of them were some of the best bodyguards in Athas. Rol’s inability to keep it in his trousers gave them entirely the wrong reputation for getting more employment, but they were underestimated at the peril of their opponents.
Two of the raiders saw Gan and Fehrd running back toward them, screamed something that Fehrd couldn’t make out, and then threw their bone knives.
Both of them ducked the throws fairly easily. Fehrd smiled and brandished his father’s staff.
Gripping the staff firmly so that his hands were evenly spaced, Fehrd hit one Raider at the temple with one end of the staff, then twirled it so that it hit another one in the collarbone. The first dropped to the ground, while the other stumbled backward, and Fehrd took shots at his groin and jaw, then he too fell.
Gan took care of two more with his own knife, leaving just the leader, Draz, standing before them.
The man’s smile was visible under his head scarves. “Not bad for a last act.”
Fehrd smiled. “I don’t think so.”
Then Draz took a staff of his own out of a back scabbard.
That just made Fehrd’s smile widen. “You know how to use that thing?”
In response, Draz came at him with a strike to his head. Fehrd blocked it easily, but the move wasn’t meant to harm, but to simply answer the question. The Black Sands leader had been trained-his grip was formal, and his strike swift. It would have been effective against an unarmed opponent.
Gan moved to help Rol with the remaining raiders, which Fehrd barely acknowledged out of the corner of his eye. His attention was entirely focused on Draz.
They circled each other for a moment in the sand, and then Draz whipped his staff in an attempt to strike at Fehrd’s stomach. Fehrd blocked it easily, but Draz pulled back before Fehrd could hook his opponent’s staff in an attempt to disarm him.
Fehrd swung down toward Draz’s ankle, which Draz blocked, but that left his face briefly open as he defended it. Fehrd brought his staff up toward Draz’s chin-which Draz managed to dodge-then swung it around again to try to hit his chin a second time. That time, though, Draz blocked it with his staff, the impact ringing through Fehrd’s arms.
Then Fehrd whirled around to try to hit Draz from the other side, but the sandy ground made it difficult for him to maintain his footing. For a brief moment, he panicked, and Draz immediately went on the offensive, sending the staff right toward his face.
Fehrd managed to deflect it, but he almost lost his grip in the meantime.
Draz snarled and swung the staff around more quickly, and Fehrd was only barely able to get his staff up.
It wasn’t until after Fehrd cried out in pain that he realized that Draz’s staff had smashed into his fingers. It was a struggle to keep those fingers curled in a grip.
So he kicked Draz in the groin.
Expectedly, Draz stumbled backward, making an “ooooohhhh” noise, prompting Fehrd to swing the staff at his head. Draz managed to duck that, but Fehrd kept the arc going, swinging low.
His father’s staff smashed into Draz’s shin, knocking his feet out from under him. He fell onto his back, his staff having fallen to the sand next to him, and Fehrd immediately stood over him, the end of the staff right at his throat.
Smiling, Fehrd said, “Not bad for a last act.”
Draz snarled. “I don’t think so.”
Fehrd never saw Draz’s hand move, but suddenly it was up, having thrown a bone knife right at Fehrd’s chest.
Oddly, he didn’t feel any pain, even though he saw the hilt of the knife sticking out of his chest. But he couldn’t move, though whether from the shock of being stabbed or surprise that Draz would use a knife in a staff fight, he honestly wasn’t sure.
“Fehrd.” That was either Gan or Rol, Fehrd couldn’t tell.
He just stood there like an idiot, the knife sticking out of his chest.
Then he saw Rol beating the unholy crap out of Draz while Gan stood in front of him. “Fehrd.” Gan was saying-but his voice sounded like it was miles away. “Are you all right?”
Fehrd swallowed, and it tasted like acid.
“I seem to have a knife in my chest.”
Then he finally fell over.
The last thing he heard was Gan screaming at the top of his lungs.
Somehow it just figured that the last thing he’d ever hear was Gan carrying on about something …
Gan’s left eye itched.
He stood and watched the funeral pyre they’d made up for Fehrd and the members of the Black Sands Raiders who didn’t get away. The flames licked into the night sky.
You didn’t bury bodies in the wastes. Corpses attracted predators, and it was impossible to bury a body deep enough to be hidden from them-not with the way the sands shifted. So you waited until dark when it got very cold, and you burned the bodies. In death, they still served a purpose: to keep the caravan from freezing. It got cold at night, and by the time things settled down in the caravan and all the bodies were gathered in one place, and the possessions of the dead distributed among the survivors, as was traditional, it was near sunset.
As the red sun sank below the horizon, the bodies of the raiders and of Fehrd were set afire.
Gan always used to understand the hard practicality of it. That night, he had a harder time doing so.
For all his bravado to Fehrd earlier that day, the fact was Gan knew that it was his own damn fault that they had been stuck traveling the wastes on foot. And in the privacy of his own mind, he was willing to admit to himself, at least, if not to Rol and Fehrd, that he’d been an idiot. For some reason, Gan had been arrogant enough to think that he would be the one to beat Hamno Sennit at the game that he always won at.
If he hadn’t been such an idiot, they might have had the crodlus. If they’d had the crodlus, they would have been at Raam, and never even encountered the raiders. True, the people of the caravan would’ve been robbed, but people got robbed in the wastes all the time. It wasn’t Gan’s responsibility to help all of them.
It was his responsibility to look out for Fehrd-indeed, it was their mutual responsibility to look out for each other.
He and Rol, they’d failed Fehrd. And it was entirely on Gan.
A man walked up to Gan from his right side, which was the only reason why Gan noticed his arrival, since that was the only side where he had any peripheral vision. He’d been introduced to the man earlier, but had no recollection of the man’s name. That was primarily because the introduction had taken place only a short time after Rol had pried Gan off of Draz’s corpse, Gan having stabbed him several dozen times. Gan’s memory of that particular time was fuzzy at best. The man was human, at least, and had thick black hair and an equally thick beard, both of which were curled into ringlets.
“I, ah,” the man said haltingly, “wanted to, uhm-to thank you again. You and your friends saved our lives. I’m-I’m truly sorry that your friend died.”
Having no interest in discussing Fehrd with a perfect stranger, Gan turned his one-eyed gaze on the man. “Look, uh-I’m sorry, I forgot your name.”
“I’m called Yarro. I’m the caravan master. We’re traveling to Raam-all, that is, save for the slave traders. They’re staying on the Great Road, heading to Urik.”
Nodding, Gan said, “We’re also bound for Raam. And we’re running late. If we could travel with you …”
Yarro breathed a loud sigh. “We were hoping you’d say that. We were already robbed once, before the slaver joined us, and we fear that a third attack will destroy us.”
“Don’t worry.” Gan put a hand on Yarro’s shoulder. “We were caught off guard-Rol and I will be ready this time, and the only people who’ll get hurt are the bastards who try to harm this caravan.”
It was bravado, but it was what they always said when they started a job. Normally, Fehrd was the one providing that reassurance, of course, but Gan figured he needed to get used to it.
“What brings you to Raam?” Yarro asked.
“My sister.” That, for the first time since he was cheated in that damned frolik game, prompted Gan to smile. Thinking of Feena always did that. He adored his little sister, and right then, seeing her ice blue eyes and curly blond hair was the most important thing in his life. “She’s working for some traveling merchants. They’re in Raam for the bazaar.”
Yarro frowned. “I think that bazaar ends for the season tomorrow-or perhaps the next day. And we’re still three days out of Raam.”
“I know. They’ll wait for us.” Despite his words, Gan wasn’t at all convinced that that was the case. Feena would ask, of course, and Komir would probably also speak up for Gan, but Serthlara and Shira hated him, and Karalith didn’t think all that highly of him either. He wouldn’t put it past them to go on without them.
And since Gan had no idea where the Serthlara Emporium was headed next, he and Rol would be in trouble.
Well, not in trouble, precisely-but Gan hadn’t seen his sister in far too long, and he wasn’t too keen on the notion of not knowing where she was. Sure, they could leave a message with someone in Raam, but there was no guarantee Gan and Rol would see it.
Also, Fehrd was the one with all the friends and contacts in Raam …
Again, Gan stared at the flames that grasped upward, the flickering light making it impossible to see the stars, leaving the sky bereft.
With a sigh, Gan turned away. He was getting maudlin, and it needed to stop.
Following him back to the main gathering of the caravan-everyone was clustered around the slave trader’s stone cart, as it was the largest vehicle-Yarro started, “We don’t have much to pay you …”
“It’s okay.” Gan waved him off. “Just feed us something that isn’t jerky, and we’ll consider ourselves well compensated.”
Yarro did better than that. His own carriage had space for Gan and Rol’s pack, and all of the other carriages were willing to let one or both of them ride. Since they were charged with protecting the caravan, they rotated where they sat, each making sure that they had good sight lines for the land beyond where the caravan was.
Even with the caravan forced to move at the pace of its slowest member-in their case, the slave trader-they were making far better time than Gan, Rol, and Fehrd had been on foot.
It was small consolation, but Gan would take what he could get. With Fehrd dead, it was even more important that he reach Feena before Serthlara left Raam.
Early the following morning, just as the caravan was getting underway for the day, a messenger came riding through on an erdlu bound for Raam. Yarro provided him with information to post at the Raam caravan station, including his own name as caravan master and the roster of travelers who would be arriving there in a few days’ time. Gan hoped that Feena would see his and Rol’s names (the messenger refused to put Fehrd’s name, an insistence on brutal honesty that Gan had rarely encountered on the wastes) and make sure the emporium didn’t leave town until they arrived.
“I’m worried,” Yarro said at one point the next afternoon, “that the raiders will return to avenge their comrades.” They were both riding in Yarro’s carriage, which was taking point-the slaver, where Rol currently was, bringing up the rear. It was being pulled by a large crodlu with a particularly bright carapace that reminded Gan of Forna, one of the crodlus that Hamno cheated him out of in the frolik game.
In response to Yarro, Gan shook his head. “There are a lot of dangers out here, but I guarantee that won’t be one of them. Only four of them survived, and their leader, Zeburon-”
Yarro’s eyes widened as he interrupted. “The Iron Rider?”
No, Zeburon the tailor. Gan was barely able to restrain himself from saying that out loud. “He doesn’t take to failure very well. Honestly, they probably won’t even report back to Zeburon for fear of dying. It’ll be weeks before the other raiders even know that this bunch is mostly dead. By then, you’ll be long gone. Besides, they’re more than like to just stay away from this region for a while, if they lost this many people hereabouts. Zeburon’s more about profit than revenge.”
“So we’re safe?” Yarro sounded very hopeful.
Though it was tempting to agree just to assuage the man, Gan couldn’t bring himself to do so. “From the Black Sands, yeah, but there’s plenty more out here that’ll get you, believe me.”
“Yeah.” Yarro suddenly had a faraway look.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Gan said, “how did you wind up being a caravan master?”
“I’m not,” Yarro said. “Not in the guild, anyway. No, those bastards were charging ridiculous prices to lead us through the desert, but it’s a path I’ve traveled before in my youth. Besides, my brother used a caravan master to get to Urik once, and the man took them to Tyr instead, and then charged double to bring them to Urik. They’re charlatans, all of them.”
In fact, most of them were good at what they did, or they didn’t stay in the guild. Too many people depended on caravan masters to survive for the guild to tolerate incompetence or criminal activity.
Of course, Yarro’s brother’s caravan master might have forged his guild membership too. Either way, traveling without a proper caravan master was imbecilic. However, since Yarro was Gan’s and Rol’s client, he thought it would be impolitic to say so.
Instead, he asked, “Why are you headed to Raam?”
That faraway look got farther. “Let’s just say that my family’s health depended on us no longer remaining in Balic.”
Gan knew that look, and knew that he’d get no more specifics out of Yarro.
Not that he really cared all that much, he just wanted to talk about subjects other than the job at hand. That was the sort of thing that made the clients nervous, and it was easier to protect people who weren’t nervous.
Generally talking about personal things distracted them enough not to worry about, say, the huge sand creatures that could easily jump up and eat them all alive. However, it was equally obvious that Yarro had no interest in discussing why he was traveling through the wastes.
Luckily, he’d provided another topic. “I’m sorry, which ones are your family?”
Yarro’s face brightened, and he proceeded to point out his wife, his son, both daughters, and his “no-good” son-in-law, whom he only took along because his daughter insisted, and the son-in-law’s brother, who was “a much nicer boy-I don’t know why Fatma didn’t marry him instead.”
At the very least, Yarro wasn’t talking about how worried he was anymore. Gan just had to make sure he didn’t attempt that conversational gambit again before the journey ended, since the details Yarro provided were falling right out of his head. Gan had never had a good memory for such personal details …
Eventually, it was time for the evening meal. The food wasn’t great-most of it was overcooked mush-but it was a feast after subsiding on jerky for the better part of a month.
Rol, of course, didn’t bother. He loved jerky. Gan had been openly concerned-before the frolik game made it irrelevant-that Rol would have only provided jerky for the trip even if they’d had excess funds to spend on vittles.
Afterward, Gan sought out Rol, who was gnawing on a piece of jerky and chatting up one of the girls in the caravan. Gan had no recollection of which group the girl belonged to-besides Yarro’s family, and the slave trader, there were three or four other sets of people traveling together-but she was young, short, slender, and had darker hair, all typical for one of Rol’s potential conquests.
As Gan approached, Rol straightened and said, “Apologies, m’dear, but duty calls.”
“That’s quite all right,” the girl said breathlessly as she gazed up at Rol. “I feel so much safer with you here to protect me.”
She wandered off, and Gan just stared at her. “She does know that I’m part of the protection too, right?”
Rol frowned at Gan. “Stop whining, will you? Did you even talk to any of the women here?”
“No, because I prefer to take the job seriously.”
Shrugging while popping the last of his jerky into his mouth, Rol said, “Long as you take it more seriously than you do frolik.”
“Very funny.” Gan sighed. “Look, I think we should do night-guard duty. With the pyres last night, we didn’t really need to, but I don’t think the torches these people are using’ll be much use-”
“I was gonna suggest the same thing, actually,” Rol said, which Gan figured was a lie, but he let it go. “You want first shift?”
Gan was about to agree, then he looked over at the girl Rol had been flirting with. “No, you take it.”
Putting his large hands on his hips, Rol asked, “Why did you look at Tirana before making that decision?”
Impressed that Rol had actually gone to the trouble of learning her name, Gan asked, “Why do you think?”
“You think that if you’re on first shift, that I’ll spend the time you’re on duty with her, and never actually get any sleep, so that I’ll be too tired to properly be on watch for the rest of the overnight. Whereas if I take first shift, I won’t be free to flirt with her until the middle of the night, when she’ll probably be asleep.”
Nodding, Gan said, “That’s pretty much it, yeah.”
Rol grinned widely. “You’re not as dumb as you look. But then, you couldn’t be.”
“That’s certainly true.” Gan chuckled. “I’m going to see which carriage is willing to put up with my snoring.”
“Good luck with that,” Rol said with a chuckle of his own. “I’ll keep the place safe from anakores.”
Gan wandered off, trying to see where Tirana was staying. For some reason, he thought it might be amusing to sleep in the same carriage as her for his first shift …
Karalith looked up from helping a rather stubborn dwarf and saw Vas Belrik return to the bazaar with only two of his bodyguards.
She had been expecting that he’d bring the entire entourage when he returned that morning-especially that wizened old tutor of his. In terms of logistics, it was certainly better that he brought a smaller group, since there were half-a-dozen customers at the emporium already. His crodlu only made a minor impact on the foot traffic, as opposed to the near-stampede his team of mounts caused yesterday.
Tricht’tha, of course, had arrived half an hour early, as was her wont. The thri-kreen was never late for a financial transaction. The rest of the time, she had a rather elastic relationship with punctuality, but she took the placement of coins into her pincers very seriously.
Shira and Torthal were both dealing with an elf couple who were trying to decide on knickknacks for their kitchen, while Karalith’s twin brother Komir was struggling to help a mul pick some spices. She wondered where the hell Zabaj was-Komir’s Davek was never very good, and this mul spoke with an odd accent.
Unfortunately, Zabaj was still off with Feena delivering that shipment. They should have returned half an hour ago-the delivery was to arrive right at sunup-but they hadn’t gotten back yet.
For her part, Karalith was trying to convince an insane dwarf woman that the silks really were from Tyr and really were worth a silver a foot.
When Belrik came back, the dwarf finally decided to wander off to another vendor, having refused to accept that any silk could possibly cost that much, there was no silk in all of Athas that was worth more than ten coppers a foot. She almost crashed into one of Belrik’s bodyguards as she stomped off in a huff.
Belrik stared after the dwarf as he dismounted. “They should really watch where they’re going.”
Favoring Belrik with her seductive smile, Karalith said, “I’ll knock a copper a foot off the linens if you go back and have your crodlu step on that dwarf.”
Braying a laugh, Belrik said, “Were it my crodlu, I would gladly do so, but sadly, this mount is merchandise. I can’t risk the dwarf’s filth lowering the crodlu’s value.”
“Enough!” Tricht’tha stepped forward. “Do you have the thousand gold?”
His eyes remaining on Karalith, Belrik held out a hand to one of his bodyguards, who removed a pouch from his belt.
Taking the pouch, Belrik jingled its contents for apparent theatrical effect and then handed it to Tricht’tha.
The thri-kreen voiced the same thought Karalith had when she heard the low number of clicks resulting from Belrik’s action: “That does not sound like one thousand coins.”
“It isn’t.” Belrik smiled, showing off his annoyingly perfect teeth. “It’s one hundred coins-but they’re hundred-gold coins.”
Tricht’tha muttered, “I’ll believe it when I see it” in Chachik, then tugged the ends of the drawstring pouch to peer inside it. Then she let loose with a Chachik curse. “Impressive,” she finally said in Common, indicating that they truly were coins worth one hundred gold each.
Then, Tricht’tha handed the map over to Belrik, who again held out a hand to a bodyguard-the other one, that time. The guard provided a tube-shaped container, into which Belrik very gingerly placed the map.
Handing the tube back to the guard, Belrik said, “Be careful-that map’s irreplaceable, unlike you.”
“Yes, sir,” the bodyguard muttered.
Then Belrik leaned forward on the textile table, his elbows distressing the silk. “So, Karalith, now that my business with the thri-kreen is concluded, may I interest you in breaking your fast with me?”
Karalith looked nervously over at her parents. Her father was busy with a customer, but her mother shot as disapproving a look as Karalith ever saw at her.
Belrik followed Karalith’s gaze over to the elderly human woman, and Karalith saw his crestfallen expression. “I suppose,” he said after a second, “that I have my answer. A mother’s silent disapproval is the loudest statement in the world, I’ve found.”
Karalith looked away. “Thank you for understanding, Vizier Belrik.”
“Since I cannot ask this over the meal as I’d hoped, let me ask you here. I will be mounting an expedition to find Sebic’s treasure-”
“Sebowkan,” Tricht’tha said testily.
Sparing a glower at the thri-kreen, Belrik said, “Whatever his name, it’ll be my treasure soon enough.” He stared right at Karalith. “Come with me. Help me find the treasure; it will be an amazing adventure.” Looking briefly behind him at the Raam city walls, he added: “And it will take me away for a time.”
At first, Karalith stared back at his dark brown eyes, which were confused. Karalith suspected that he was not a man who had to ask for things-he simply demanded them, and they occurred.
“I’m sure the adventure will be amazing,” she said after finally breaking eye contact. “But I cannot. I have obligations to the emporium that I cannot shirk, even for so tempting an offer as this.”
Belrik sighed long and hard. “I cannot convince you otherwise?”
“Convince me? Almost definitely.” She glanced over at Shira, who was back to the elf couple with Torthal. “Convince her? No chance.”
“What about your father? He and I spoke for a bit yesterday, and I believe I could-”
But Karalith was shaking her head. “It is not my father who makes those decisions, I’m afraid.”
That prompted a frown. “What a pity. So rare anymore to find a man who can stand up to his wife.” Belrik sounded wistful when he said that.
The conversation continued for a few more minutes, but eventually Belrik came to realize that Karalith was never going to be able to go with him on his treasure hunt.
Karalith did her best to convey disappointment in her inability to do so until he finally got back on his crodlu and left the bazaar.
The moment he was out of sight, Karalith turned to Tricht’tha and grinned broadly. “Well done.”
The thri-kreen laughed, a lovely chittering noise. “I thought he’d never leave.”
“Luckily, we heard about his shrew of a wife,” Karalith said. “Made it easier to convince him that Mother would never let me leave and Father couldn’t do anything about that.”
“I’m just glad we were able to fleece that dungeater for Lyd’s sake.”
Just then, Zabaj and Feena finally came back to the emporium, holding hands. They made an entertaining contrast, the towering, dark mul and the petite, blond human. Torthal hadn’t been thrilled when they started their relationship. “You don’t dip into your own sand,” he always said. Karalith wasn’t even sure what that meant, but Feena and Zabaj seemed happy, so she didn’t see what the problem was. Occasionally, someone would look askance, but most people didn’t care. It was a hard world-most people figured that if you found love, you should hang onto it. There wasn’t much chance of long-term happiness there-muls were generally sterile and Zabaj was no exception-but when you lived your life wandering through the desert from place to place, you didn’t have the luxury of thinking long term.
Komir gave Zabaj a pleading look, and the latter came over to help Karalith’s brother deal with his customer in a language he would understand. Feena gave him a quick kiss on his meaty hand before letting go of it and joining Karalith and Tricht’tha behind the table.
Having finished with the elf couple, Torthal and Shira also came over. “Well done on the stern-mother expression, my love,” Torthal said.
“Flatterer,” Shira replied with a mock-demure look.
“Oh, and well done you,” Torthal said to Karalith. “Good enough that we took that pampered idiot for a thousand gold, but getting him to pay two coppers a foot for the linens without him even blinking was genius.”
Feena pouted. “I missed all of it?”
“Afraid so,” Karalith said. “He just left, having received a gentle turn-down to my accompanying him on his ‘adventure.’ ”
Tricht’tha made several appreciative clicks. “She was brilliant.”
“So were you,” Karalith said. “You play the frantic customer quite well.”
“What’s this about the linens?” Feena asked.
“He was fondling the silk so eagerly,” Karalith said, “that he barely registered when I said the linens were two coppers a foot instead of one, especially since the silk was so much more expensive. I was worried that that old tutor of his would say something.”
“Perhaps Cristophe didn’t know any better,” Tricht’tha said. “Or perhaps he deliberately kept quiet as to their worth to annoy him for making him carry his ancient carapace to the bazaar all day. Probably that, honestly. He spoke Chachik better than any non-thri-kreen I’ve ever heard.”
Karalith regarded Tricht’tha. “He must’ve created an impression-I didn’t even remember his name.”
In Chachik, Tricht’tha said, “He speaks my language a lot better than you.”
Feena laughed. “I’m glad you managed to finish it. Wish I’d seen-how much linen did the idiot buy?”
With a grin, Karalith said, “A hundred feet.”
Shira smiled. “I never object to a one-hundred-copper profit.”
Tricht’tha started rummaging through the pouch Belrik had handed over. “Now, we take out three hundred for Gash for forging the map-”
“No,” Karalith said quickly, “only two hundred. He screwed up the first forgery, remember?”
“Huh?” Feena asked.
“Because Belrik drags Tricht’tha’s dear friend Cristophe with him to the bazaar, we had to make sure that there was a particular impurity in the parchment. That was the only way we’d sell it to him. Gash forgot that on the first treasure map he made for us, so he had to make another one and take a hundred off the price.”
“Or,” Tricht’tha added, “have his reputation permanently soiled. If word got out that he forgot so simple a characteristic, he’d never get any forgery work again.”
“Certainly not from us,” Torthal said, “and we’re his best customer.”
Feena nodded. “So we can still give Lyd five hundred?”
“Of course,” Karalith said. “That was what we promised her to get back at dear, sweet Vizier Belrik for blacklisting her.”
Turning to Tricht’tha, Feena asked, “May I please go with you to give Lyd the five hundred? I couldn’t participate in the game, the least I can do is present her prize.”
Tricht’tha turned her large red eyes onto Torthal and Shira. “I have no objection, if you don’t.”
“Why couldn’t you participate in the game?” Shira asked. “The delivery was at sunup.”
Torthal added, “You didn’t stop to fornicate along the way, did you?”
Punching Torthal in the arm, Shira said, “Torthal, stop that.”
“It’s a reasonable question.”
Feena glared at Shira. “No, it isn’t. Zabaj and I wouldn’t do that.” She sighed. “No, when we arrived, we discovered that the boy who bought the merchandise did so without the consent of his parents. It took a great deal of arguing before they were finally convinced to actually accept delivery.” She smiled. “I used a bit of persuasion. But it still took some time.”
Karalith chuckled. Feena had mind-magic-what those who were trained in it called “the Way”-which was often helpful when they played the game on someone. It was particularly useful for the tougher players, but Belrik was sufficiently predictable-thanks to what Lyd told them-that Feena’s extra help wasn’t needed.
Sometimes Karalith wondered how Feena’s life might have differed had she been born to a class that would have enabled her to study at a school teaching the Way. Such schools were all over Athas, and they trained people who went on to advise businesses, merchants, nobles, and monarchs.
They’d never know, of course, but Feena was already fairly skilled with her abilities just from what she taught herself. Had she been properly trained in the Way, she probably would have blossomed into a force to be reckoned with.
Of course, had circumstances permitted that, Karalith probably never would have met Feena or her brother.
“Fine, go on,” Torthal said to Feena and Tricht’tha, “but try to get back before the lunch crowd arrives.”
“Of course,” Feena said.
“And,” Torthal added, “you’ve still got to take those spices to that family at midday.”
“Yes, of course.” Feena and Tricht’tha had already started walking toward the gate in the Raam city wall that would lead them to the Coins Quarter and the small house that Lyd could no longer afford to rent since Belrik blacklisted her. With the five hundred gold, though, she’d be able to start over somewhere beyond Belrik’s reach.
Karalith, meanwhile, went back to the carriage, having extracted the remaining five hundred gold in ceramic coins from the pouch, letting Tricht’tha and Feena take Belrik’s pouch to Lyd.
The thing was a mess, as usual. It drove Karalith mad, it really did, to see clothing and bedclothes tossed about all over the place, parchments piled haphazardly, and spare merchandise unsorted. The bazaars tended to be frantic affairs, and the off-hours were usually spent recovering from being at the table all day. Karalith understood that Shira and Torthal weren’t as young as they used to be, but that excuse didn’t hold for Feena, Zabaj, or Karalith’s brother.
Tricht’tha had her own excuse, of course-thri-kreens’ sense of neatness differed widely from that of most other people.
But when the bazaar ended in three days, they were going to waste hours cleaning up the carriage in order to secure everything for travel.
Finally, after tossing aside several piles of clothing-which made the mess worse, a bit of hypocrisy that Karalith chose to ignore-she finally liberated the strongbox. Shira and Karalith had the only keys to the box. For years, Shira had insisted on having the only key, but these days, Shira and Torthal usually only worked for about half the day at the table. When they were gone, Karalith and Komir were in charge, and one of them had to have access to the strongbox.
There were moments when Karalith was worried about what would happen when her parents finally died. It was going to happen sooner or later-particularly Shira. Elves lived longer, but Torthal was also still proportionally as old for an elf as Shira was for a human. Even though he had fifty years on her, they were in many ways the same age.
The strongbox was probably more valuable than its contents. Made from iron and oak, materials that were virtually impossible to find anymore, the ornately designed box was large enough to hold all of their coins. And if the emporium ever was in trouble, they could always sell the box …
Inside the box were several compartments, and Karalith counted out two hundred in gold-stamped coins to put in the small corner compartment for coins owed, with the remaining three hundred going into the center compartment for the emporium’s own profits.
Karalith smiled as she saw how much was in that center compartment. After what they did to Belrik, it was possible that they wouldn’t be able to come back to Raam for at least another couple of years. Prior to running the game on him, she would have considered that an acceptable loss, especially given the declining state of Raam these days, but this season they were actually doing decently here, for once.
But she was willing to live with it-and so were the rest of them. Lyd was a friend, and you didn’t do what Belrik did to the Serthlara Emporium’s friends. Not without retribution, anyway.
“All put away?”
Karalith turned around to see her twin brother Komir. Like her, Komir had the slight points to his ears that indicated their mixed heritage, but that was the only similarity. He had the ordinary sunken cheekbones and thin shoulders of a human, and the wide eyes of an elf. The best indicator, though, that he was Torthal Serthlara’s son was the same as Karalith’s: the sea green eyes.
Another non-elf trait was that Komir had shaved his head. The sweat got to him, he said, and he found it easier to survive under Athas’s crimson sun without any hair in the way. It was a pity, as his hair was thick, lustrous, and shining-but Karalith knew the value of practicality. And the round, bald head gave her brother a rugged look that sometimes aided in the game.
“Yes,” she said in response to her brother’s query. “I set aside the two hundred for Gash, and Tricht’tha and Feena are taking the five hundred to Lyd now.”
“Excellent. Lyd doesn’t deserve to have that sandscraper blacklisting her.”
Karalith nodded. Lyd hadn’t even been able to get a table at this season’s bazaar because Belrik had soiled her reputation. Nobody in Raam would buy her wares anymore, all because he misunderstood the description of her burlap, confusing it with her raw silk supply.
“That five hundred,” Komir continued, “should be enough to get her to some other city where Belrik’s good name won’t sully hers.”
Grinning, Karalith said, “I don’t think Belrik’s name will be all that good after he digs around the wastes for months looking for a treasure that isn’t there.”
“You don’t feel sorry for the little bastard, do you, Lith?”
Karalith glared at her brother. “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response, Ko. You said it best-he’s a sandscraper. I wouldn’t let him clean my sandals.”
Komir snorted. “He wouldn’t know how. Still, I hope that Feena’s brother doesn’t take too long to get here. I’d just as soon be away from Raam as fast as possible.”
“Agreed.” She wrapped one arm around her brother’s shoulder. “So let us go sell as much as possible so we won’t ever have to come back …”
Rol really, really had to pee.
There were a lot of reasons he was sorry that Fehrd was dead, but right now the one foremost in his mind-and in his bladder-was the fact that, with only two of them, the overnight shifts on guard duty were longer. This had happened on other occasions where only two of them worked a job, or one of them was injured and couldn’t pull guard duty. In fact, it happened every time: the final hour of Rol’s shift involved a lot of jumping up and down waiting for Fehrd or Gan to relieve him so he could relieve himself.
The night had been fairly quiet. The caravan had torches that were placed at the perimeter to keep some of the nocturnal creatures away. It didn’t always work if they were hungry enough, but generally they stuck with prey that wouldn’t require them to blind themselves in order to capture it.
Rol tried to distract himself by thinking about Tirana. At least, he was pretty sure that was her name. He had always had trouble remembering women’s names. Gan had expressed opinions as to what that meant, but Rol mostly ignored them. Ignoring Gan was the only way to properly tolerate being in his presence half the time.
Tirana was the daughter of the slave trader, whose charm was in inverse proportion to that of her father. Generally, people assumed slavers to be utter bastards with no redeeming social value, but in Rol’s experience, they were generally quite calm and sensible. They were businessmen, mostly, and treated their slaves precisely the way they would any other merchandise. Often that meant they were well cared for.
However, Tirana’s father, Calbit, fell into the utter-bastard stereotype. In fact, he was the first one Rol had met who did. He had-according to his daughter-a collection of fighters from all over who he’d purchased on behalf of his partner back in Urik.
Rol had always been grateful that he’d managed to avoid having to fight in the arenas. Gladiatorial fights were the most popular sport going, and Rol had seen a few from the cheap seats in arenas all over Athas. Mostly he came away from them thanking powers greater than him that he wasn’t down on the combat stage. He preferred to fight for fun or for profit. Doing it by force just took all the fun out of it.
He contemplated whether or not it was worth tempting Calbit’s wrath by waking his daughter and having some fun with her before going to sleep. Of greater concern was tempting Tirana’s wrath, as annoying her would not lead to the result he was hoping for.
At least, not that night.
Then again, he didn’t have much longer to go. They’d reach the Dragon’s Bowl fork some time the next day, and then the slavers would continue on the Great Road to Urik while the rest of them veered off to Raam. So it might well have been his only chance, if he thought about it.
Not that he was truly thinking straight, as he hopped back and forth on the shifting sands.
The best part was that she’d come to him, initially. She expressed sorrow over Fehrd’s death, for which Rol thanked her and then quickly changed the subject. Death, he felt, never really suited the mood of a conversation with a woman. So every time she tried to bring Fehrd up, he changed the subject to something that was more conducive to his endgame.
“Finally,” he bellowed when he saw Gan approach his position on the perimeter of the caravan, the torchlight combining with his eye patch to cast odd blacks onto his face. “What took you so long? My back teeth are floating.”
“You know, seriously, you can just relieve yourself while you’re on duty.”
“That’s not what I do.” Rol had a work ethic, after all, and Gan knew that. “The last thing I want is to have to take on bandits with the family jewels hanging out.”
Gan rolled his eye, which looked ridiculous with the patch. “You don’t even know your family.”
“Hardly the point, and you know it.” Rol shook his head. “Anyway, it’s been quiet. A few lizards here and there, but nothing big enough to eat, much less be a danger.”
Nodding, Gan pulled out Fehrd’s staff. Or, rather, Fehrd’s father’s staff.
Rol asked Gan the same question he’d asked when Gan had removed it from Fehrd’s corpse. “You do know how to use that thing, right?”
“Fehrd gave me lessons,” Gan said.
With a sigh, Rol said, “Fehrd gave you one lesson, three months ago.”
“I’m a quick study.”
Rol opened his mouth to argue the point-in fact, there were several points worth arguing with Gan about-but he decided not to in favor of finally emptying his bladder. “I’ll be at the slaver carriage if you need me,” Rol said. Even if Tirana-or whatever her name was-wasn’t awake nor to be awakened, he liked the idea of waking up in her carriage.
Then, recalling something he’d meant to tell Gan, but had forgotten in the mental anguish of not being able to pee, he turned and said, “By the way, I saw some dead aguardi cacti around.”
“So your comment about anakores turned out not to be a joke?” Gan asked.
“Maybe not. Keep your eye open.”
“Will do,” Gan said as Rol walked toward a sand dune. When he got over to the other side of that, he could urinate in private.
As he adjusted his breeches so he could finally relieve himself, he thought about where in the caravan he might have his liaison with the slaver’s daughter. Privacy was, after all, hard to come by in a group of three dozen travelers (and that wasn’t even counting the slaves in the stone cart).
The next sound he heard was not one he expected. His urine hitting the sand, the howl of the wind, even the flickering of the nearest of the torches-all of them hovered in the background.
But suddenly, he found himself compelled.
In some ways it reminded him of the Way-Rol and the others had done some security work for more than one wizard in their time-but this didn’t quite match how he’d felt when mages worked their mind-craft on him.
He was overcome with an urge to stop what he was doing and walk toward-something to his left.
“Do you mind, I’m a little busy here,” he muttered, waving an arm past his ear, as if that would help. “Look, unless you’re a good-looking woman-or, frip, even a bad-looking one-I’m going to be very put out when I beat you into submission for interrupting my-”
Suddenly, Rol couldn’t move.
For all his life, Rol had prided himself on being in tune with his body. If you were going to make a living at physical violence, you needed to be in control of your movements and be fully aware of what you were capable of. You had to know your own strength down to the last iota. This was useful not only when he was beating up bandits or killing an anakore, but also in his dealings with women, who appreciated his strength and self-control.
So to find himself suddenly unable to control his limbs pissed him right off.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t even shout his outrage to the skies-or even to Gan, who wasn’t all that far away-because the control extended to his mouth.
His legs awkwardly started to amble across the sand to his left, farther from the dune where he’d been relieving himself. More than once he fell forward, only to clamber clumsily to his feet.
It was magic of some kind, that was painfully obvious. Rol had been on the receiving end of the Way before. But that usually had some impact on the thoughts of the person being affected. More than one mage had subsumed Rol’s will to his own, but on those occasions, Rol only had the vaguest recollection of the time he was controlled.
This, though, was wholly different. He was fully aware of what was happening. If this was the Way, it was a kind Rol had never encountered before.
And that, quite frankly, was pretty damned unlikely.
Whatever controlled him didn’t seem to know how the human body worked. About six years back, Rol had been injured in his left leg so badly that he couldn’t walk for months. Gan and Fehrd had managed to find a healing potion that cured him-a nobleman’s son couldn’t actually pay for services rendered, but he was able to get his hands on the potion-but after being bedridden for so long, he had to virtually relearn the simple act of walking.
Even then, though, he did better than whatever controlled him was capable of making him do.
After a few more minutes of ridiculous walking, Rol found himself standing before the corpse of a creature unlike any he’d seen in this or any other part of the desert. It was gray-at least the parts of its skin that were still intact-with four legs in varying degrees of decay and destruction. Bones jutted through cracked, desiccated flesh, rotted organs dotted about.
Rol barely registered any of that, because his eyes were forced to be focused upon a tiny pool of crimson and silver flecked liquid in the chest cavity. For several seconds, he just stared at it. Rol wondered what it was. It was the wrong consistency to be blood …
Then it started to roil and bubble, and Rol heard a voice that was at once everywhere and nowhere.
You will be mine. You are the first. You will not be the last. We will spread throughout this new world and fulfill our master’s purpose. Tharizdun’s will be done.
Rol had all of about two seconds to wonder who the frip Tharizdun was before the liquid shot upward like a waterspout to his face.
It covered his visage, blinding him, leaving him unable to breathe.
Then it began to ooze into every opening: his eyes, his nose, his mouth, his ears. All at once, his eyes stung, he gagged, he suffocated …
Hot knives of pain sliced through his mind as he tried desperately to scream, but he couldn’t even breathe, nor even attempt to draw breath.
He collapsed face first onto the sand, thinking that this was a really stupid way to die …
Gan was rather surprised when Rol walked right past him without acknowledging his presence.
He was even more surprised to realize that he hadn’t closed his breeches.
“Rol, what’re you doing?”
“Hm?” Rol stopped and stared at Gan as if he’d never seen him before. “What?”
Gan just pointed at his groin.
Looking down, Rol said, “Oi! Sorry about that.” Quickly, he adjusted his clothes.
“After your whole ‘family jewels’ nonsense, I can’t believe you’d just wander around like that.”
“Sorry,” Rol said, “I was distracted.”
Gan frowned. “You feeling all right?”
“Of course. I feel great, why?”
“Rol, I’ve known you for ten years, and this is the first time you’ve ever apologized for anything.”
Rol shrugged and again said, “Sorry.”
That was twice Rol used that word in the last minute and also in Gan’s lifetime. “Rol, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I just had to pee. Gonna go get some sleep.”
As Rol walked past him, Gan called out, “Aren’t you gonna try to sleep with Tirana?”
Rol ignored him and kept walking.
Gan assumed he was just refusing to rise to the bait. He rarely did, truth be told, which was one of Rol’s more annoying qualities. Especially since Gan always allowed himself to be baited by the other two.
Turning, he continued his walk around the caravan perimeter. He had seen the same dead cacti that Rol mentioned, and that meant that there might be anakores nearby. The nomadic creatures tended to burrow underground and eat roots, leaving the plants above to wither.
Of course, the creature could have come through days before. Gan certainly hoped so-anakores were pains in the ass.
Naturally, that meant that one leaped out of the sand right toward him.
Gan barely had a chance to slash at the creature with his bone knife before it was on top of him. Weighing in at somewhere around three hundred pounds, the creature had Gan pinned to the sandy ground before he consciously knew what was happening, the anakore’s clawed hands holding him down, rendering him unable to take a second swipe with his knife.
The first swipe, sadly, barely made it through the anakore’s skin, and it wasn’t even bleeding very much.
In the flickering torchlight, Gan couldn’t really see the creature’s tiny eyes, but its spinal ridge and flat ears stood out in the light.
Gan couldn’t move his arms, but his legs were completely free, so he wrapped his legs around the anakore’s torso and locked his ankles. It didn’t do too much to immobilize the anakore in and of itself, but an anakore’s spinal ridges weren’t just decorative: they had cilia on the ends that enabled the anakore to detect movement against the shifting sands. The ridges were there to protect the ultra-sensitive cilia, but they were still exposed on top, which meant that Gan’s legs clamping down on them caused the anakore distress.
With a howl, the anakore thrashed between Gan’s knees, and its grip on Gan’s shoulders loosened a bit.
That was enough for Gan to yank his right arm loose and stab the anakore in the left bicep.
The creature’s tough skin meant it wasn’t much more than a flesh wound, but it distracted the anakore enough that Gan was able to flip the creature over with his interlocked legs, slamming it into the ground to Gan’s left.
Such a move would have been more effective on solid ground, but at least it gave Gan the opportunity to get to his feet. He held his bone knife out, taking the anakore’s measure.
As he studied the creature, he saw that the anakore was a bit on the skinny side. Usually when you found an anakore alone, it had gotten lost from its tribe, and this one had apparently been lost for a while.
That meant it was desperate and wouldn’t go down easily.
Anakores also had long arms and claws, so he was better off with a weapon that had a longer reach. He pulled out Fehrd’s father’s staff, hoping that the one lesson he took from Fehrd would take.
He swung the staff toward the anakore’s head, not actually coming anywhere near it. The anakore snarled and backed off a step, then lunged. Gan swung desperately again, but it went under the anakore’s arm. Gan felt the wind of the anakore’s claws as they just missed raking his face, and it was his turn to back up-and stumble onto his rear end in the sand.
The anakore leaped onto him once again, slicing at Gan with his claws. Pain ripped through his shoulder as the anakore drew blood.
Through the haze of agony, Gan registered that the anakore had actually pinned his legs, so he wouldn’t be able to use the same move as before.
But he had the staff, which he wrapped around the anakore’s back, grabbed it from the other end, and then rubbed it up and down the spinal ridges.
That did more than discomfit the anakore, and it screamed to the night sky.
And then it slashed at Gan’s face. Salty blood seeped into his mouth from the fresh cuts in his cheek. Had the anakore struck an inch higher, Gan would have lost his one remaining eye.
Letting go of the staff with his right hand, he brought it away from the creature’s back and thrust it up into the anakore’s belly. While he did that, he once again grabbed his bone knife with his right hand and tried to make an upward thrust.
Neither really did much harm to the anakore, but it did once again get the thing off him.
Trying to recall the grip Fehrd taught him, Gan raised the staff over his head and struck straight downward, at the last second recalling that he should use the palm of his right hand to help drive the staff with more force.
To his utter shock, the anakore didn’t parry the strike.
After a second, he realized why, as it hit the creature on its bony head to absolutely no obvious ill effect. The impact of bone striking bone shuddered through Gan’s arms, and almost forced him to drop the staff.
It was starting to get brighter. That didn’t make sense to Gan, as dawn wouldn’t come for hours.
“Having a little trouble?”
Gan whirled around to see Rol holding one of the torches-which explained the brighter light.
“No, no, doing just fine,” Gan said. “Feel free to lounge about and watch it claw me to pieces.”
“I would, but I’d honestly prefer to get some sleep.” Rol swung the torch at the anakore. It backed off, whimpering. Anakores’ biggest weakness was bright light.
Rol swung it a few more times, laughing, then leaped straight at the anakore.
For a moment, Gan couldn’t believe his eye. It was one thing to get into a grappling match with a human, elf, dwarf, or mul-but an anakore? That was suicide. Gan’s own techniques only worked temporarily because of the sensitivity of the top of the spinal ridges, and all that did was keep him from getting killed in the first two seconds of the fight.
Rol and the anakore rolled around on the sand for a few turns, taking them farther away from Gan-and from the torch, which Rol had dropped.
Gan bent down to pick up the torch. As he did so, blood dripped onto the sand and the torch itself from the wounds in his cheek and shoulder. He knew that he’d need to tend to those soon-but his first priority was Rol. The idiot had saved Gan’s hide, and Gan needed to return that favor.
They were a team, after all. That was what they did.
Howling loudly enough that Gan was amazed it hadn’t attracted the attention of the entire caravan, the anakore managed to pin Rol the same way it had pinned Gan.
But unlike before, it had two opponents. Gan shoved the fiery end of the torch into the anakore’s face, causing it to recoil.
That distracted it long enough for Rol to reach up, grab the anakore’s head at each flat ear, and then twist it far enough that its neck snapped with a crack that echoed into the night.
Rol then threw the anakore’s corpse off to the side and got to his feet.
Gan just stared at him.
“Something wrong? Besides the fact that you’re covered in blood?”
“How did you do that?”
Pointing at the anakore, Gan said, “That! I’ve seen muls who couldn’t break an anakore’s neck like that.”
Rol just shrugged. “It was pretty skinny-probably weak. I don’t think it’s been with its tribe for a long time.”
Gan nodded, having come to a similar conclusion. “Yeah, but still-”
“You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Uh, yeah, thanks.” Gan swallowed and tasted more blood. “I need to get these wounds tended to.”
“Are you all right?”
Gan turned to see Tirana running up to the pair of them. Several other people from the slaver’s caravan were behind her, approaching more cautiously.
“It’s all right,” Rol said. “Nothing to be concerned about.”
One of the slaver’s people asked, “Was that a braxat?”
“No,” said another, “I think it was a gith.”
“Don’t be an ass, that was definitely an anakore.”
“That doesn’t look anything like an anakore.”
Rol bellowed, “It’s dead, is what it is. That’s all that matters. Look, we took care of it. That’s what we’re here for. All of you, please, go back to sleep.”
Tirana, though, wasn’t having any of that. The head of the slavers wasn’t either, and the two of them approached Gan and Rol.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
Rol gave her that annoying smile of his that he always used whenever he was chatting up a woman. “I’m fine, Tirana, really.”
“I’m kind of bleeding a little,” Gan said. With the adrenaline from the fight wearing off, his knees were starting to wobble, and he feared he was about to fall over.
Tirana turned as if noticing Gan for the first time, a look Gan was, frankly, used to from women Rol was flirting with. “Oh, dear, that looks horrible. You need to come back with me, I’ll patch you right up.”
“My daughter’s right,” the head slaver said.
Now Gan shot Rol a look. Why did it not surprise him that Tirana was the slaver’s daughter?
The slaver continued: “That was pretty damned brave, there, what you two did. That was an anakore, yeah?”
Gan nodded, and instantly regretted it, as the action made his head swim.
The next thing he knew, the slaver was holding him upright-which was good, as Gan no longer felt at all confident in his legs’ ability to do so. The man had to be at least in his fifties with bony arms and breath that came straight from the sewers of Under-Tyr, and the fact that Gan needed his help did more to bespeak his weakened condition than the blood that continued to seep from his shoulder and cheek.
“I’ll stay on patrol,” Rol said. “That anakore looked like he was alone, and there aren’t any other signs of anything, but it’s better to be safe.”
“That ain’t necessary,” the slaver said. “Whyn’t you come back to our carriage, let us get you a drink for your troubles?”
“Thanks, but no. Take care of him, though, will you? I still have a few uses for him.”
Gan couldn’t even work up mock outrage at Rol’s comment. Besides, if Rol was still abusing him, that meant that his wounds weren’t all that serious. Which, of course, they weren’t. This was a normal comedown from a fight, particularly one with a lot of bleeding. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and Gan was sure it wouldn’t be the last.
Tirana got on the other side of Gan from her father, and the pair of them each supported Gan under his arms. However, Tirana was calling back to Rol as they guided Gan toward the carriage. “I’ll be back in a little bit with a drink for you, at least. It’s a draft my uncle developed, it’ll keep you awake.”
“Thank you, Tirana, that’s very kind.” Rol’s voice grew distant as they made their way toward the caravan.
“Let me guess, you use that draft to pep up the slaves before they go into the arena?” Gan’s own words sounded slurred-he definitely needed to get the bleeding stopped soon.
“Somethin’ like that, yeah,” the slaver said. “Don’t you worry none, Tirana and me, we’ll fix you right up.”
Gan did not nod, having learned his lesson from the last time. He did, however, hope that this draft worked. Making Rol take the entire night to guard the caravan was going to take a lot out of him …
The red sun was just starting to peek over the eastern sand dunes when Yarro awakened. The rest of his family was still asleep-they had been awakened twice in the middle of the night, and so slept past sunup. But Yarro always rose when the sun did. He felt that if he did not start when the day did, then the day was incomplete.
Yarro couldn’t bring himself to blame his family for sleeping in a bit-though he fully intended to, at the very least, castigate his son-in-law for waking late. But between that anakore that attacked and the slavers deciding all of a sudden to leave in the middle of the night-and making a horrible racket as they did so-nobody in the caravan got a good night’s sleep.
Still, they needed to get a move on. That was three attacks on the caravan since they went out, and Yarro was starting to understand why caravan masters charged so much for their services.
He really hoped that the next couple of days of the trip would go more smoothly. Luckily, they had rid themselves of the slaver and still had their two new bodyguards.
Yarro didn’t really understand those two. If Storvis and Mandred grieved for their comrade, they didn’t really show it. In fact, based on how they deflected any attempt to even mention the man, Yarro wondered if they had even liked him all that much.
He stepped out of the tent, looking at the large gap in the gathered carriages where the slaver had been. If nothing else, not having them around would allow them to move faster, since it was all canvas carriages that were left.
Looking around, he couldn’t spot either Storvis or Mandred. The former, he knew, had been injured by the anakore, and it was possible that Mandred was sleeping somewhere.
He did see T’Kari, the warrior who was on her way to Raam to meet up with her ranger lover. She was traveling with a group of bards, who were contracted to do work for one of the Nawab-caste families. She was practicing some physical moves with a certain elegance. Yarro watched as she kicked and punched and blocked-and then stumbled.
“Fripping sand,” she muttered.
Since she was pausing, Yarro took advantage to speak to her. “T’Kari, have you seen Mandred or Storvis?”
T’Kari sneered, “What, the thugs? Couldn’t even handle an anakore.”
Yarro said nothing, preferring to remain civil, but he fumed over her criticism, since he’d asked her to protect the caravan, but she refused unless Yarro paid a price he could not afford.
“Anyway,” she continued, “didn’t you hear? They left with the slavers.”
“What?” Yarro blinked a few times. “Why did they do that?”
Shrugging, T’Kari said, “That’s what Tirana told me. When Calbit decided to head out in the middle of the night, Tirana told me that the thugs were going with them. I guess they figured they could squeeze more out of them-or maybe they thought Urik was a better destination.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Yarro said. “Storvis told me he was going to meet his sister. They even made sure to have their names on the messenger’s roster.”
“You’re assuming he told you the truth,” T’Kari said with another sneer.
Then she went back to her exercises.
With a sigh, Yarro turned to wake his family up. He needed to get everyone started sooner if they were to be denied their protection.
I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Feena Storvis said as she stood near the caravan station outside Raam.
Next to her, Zabaj gripped her small hand in his large one and said, “So you say.”
“Don’t patronize me, please, Zabaj?” Feena glowered up at her lover. “I can feel that something bad happened to Gan.”
The caravan station was a shed in front of a clearing just outside the city-state’s main border. Caravan masters held offices there, and the large space was handy for loading and unloading carriages. According to the posted bulletin from a messenger, a large caravan with someone named Yarro listed as the master was coming in. Both Feena’s brother Gan and his friend and partner Rol were on the list of travelers. It was the only caravan due in that day, and so the space was clear, with only a few others like Feena and Zabaj, waiting for the caravan to arrive. A few merchants were selling food and drink, and Feena was seriously considering the latter, as the red sun was beating down on them. Sweat started to drip into her eyes despite a linen head wrap around her curly blond locks.
Zabaj looked down at her. “Is this the Way, or sisterly worry?”
“Both.” Feena let out a long breath and used her free hand to adjust her head wrap. “Besides, did you notice? Fehrd wasn’t on the list of travelers.”
With a shrug, Zabaj said, “Maybe Fehrd got fed up with those two idiots and left ’em.”
Feena gently smacked the mul on his huge arm. “Stop that-my brother’s not an idiot, and Rol’s smarter than both of them.”
“Not so’s you’d notice,” Zabaj muttered.
That got Zabaj another smack, which prompted him to smile down at her with his sharpened teeth. He’d had them filed down to points during his time in the arena in Tyr, before Komir and Karalith managed to free him as part of a game they were running on the arena trainer.
Since then, he’d worked for the Serthlara Emporium as their strongman. He enjoyed using his half-breed might for more practical purposes.
When Feena had first met Zabaj, she’d assumed him to be just another arena thug with what little brains he had having been punched to mulch. His taciturn manner did nothing to change that feeling-but she also was able to sense something more to him.
Eventually, she was able to see the thoughtfulness behind his blunt, laconic manner.
It was all just impressions. Feena’s mind-magic was unfocused and not always reliable, but she generally trusted her instincts. She often wondered how her life would have been different if she had been able to properly study the Way, but such options were not available to one of her station.
However, she could trust what she felt more often than not-including Zabaj’s personality. Plus, she liked the way he smelled. He had a pleasant musk about him-one that caused many people to walk in the other direction, but which she found oddly enticing. And it intensified when he got sweaty.
Zabaj scratched his wide forehead with his free hand. His head was bald everywhere except right on the crown-there, he had grown his dark hair out and tied it into a topknot.
Then he squinted and pointed toward the wastes with his free hand. “I think that might be them.” Tiny dots on the horizon seemed to be coalescing into actual carriages and mounts as they grew larger.
Feena bit her lower lip. That close, she should have been able to feel Gan’s presence. But she felt nothing of him at all.
About twenty minutes later, a huge caravan of sand-caked canvas carriages that were carried by just-as-sand-caked crodlus ambled into the receiving area. Staff immediately started splashing the crodlus with buckets of water, and the people on the carriages were greeted by those who were waiting for them.
Feena didn’t see Gan or Rol-or, for that matter, Fehrd. More to the point, though, she still didn’t sense Gan.
Zabaj looked down at her with his big green eyes. “Maybe he’s sleeping or something. Or unconscious. He might’ve been hurt.”
“I hope so,” was all Feena would say, and even that was agonizing. The only way for Gan to be so close and Feena not sense him would be if he was so badly hurt as to be near death.
Either option didn’t bear thinking about.
After nearly half an hour of not seeing any of them, Zabaj let out a snort. “Let’s talk to somebody.”
Noticing a man with his hair in dark ringlets who was talking to the area supervisor, Feena said, “That’s probably the caravan master.”
The pair of them walked over, still hand in hand, and waited a respectful distance from the conversation until it ended. Once the supervisor broke off to take care of some other business, Feena approached the man in the ringlets.
“Excuse me, are you Yarro? The caravan master?”
The man frowned. “Well, I am the master of this caravan, but I don’t believe the title-” He shook his head. “Never mind. Yes, I am Yarro. May I help you?”
“My name is Feena Storvis-I was supposed to meet some people traveling with you-my brother, Gan Storvis, as well as Rol Mandred and Fehrd Anspah.”
Yarro’s eyes went wide. “Was that the other one’s name? Huh.” Again, he shook his head. “My apologies-they did travel with us on the Great Road up until the Dragon’s Bowl, then they continued on with the slavers to Urik.”
Zabaj barked a noise that made Yarro jump. Then he added: “Slavers? No.”
“Yes,” Yarro said, rather nervously.
“You’ll have to excuse my friend,” Feena said with a glare at Zabaj. “Please, tell me what happened.”
Yarro quickly-and with several furtive glances at Zabaj-told Feena about the caravan being menaced, the three men who saved them, one of whom died, the other two agreeing to protect the caravan the rest of the way to Raam.
“They said they were going to Raam?” Feena asked.
Yarro nodded. “In fact, your brother mentioned you specifically-not by name, but that he and Mandred were meeting with his sister. I guess the other one was too. They didn’t really talk about him much.”
That was typical of Gan and Rol-and of Fehrd, for that matter. If they were working a job, they said almost nothing personal. Feena was surprised that Gan even mentioned her at all, under those circumstances.
She also was stunned that Fehrd got himself killed by some Black Sands bandit. Yarro went on at great length about how fearsome the raiders were, but Gan, Rol, and Fehrd should have been able to take care of them in their sleep.
Then Yarro said, “And then they went off with the slavers.”
Zabaj’s grip on Feena’s hand tightened at that last word. “That’s not possible.”
Yarro swallowed audibly. “I’m telling you, that’s what happened.”
“No.” Zabaj was suddenly looming over Yarro.
Quickly, Feena said, “I’m sure that Rol and Gan did leave with the slavers-what isn’t possible is that they ‘went off’ with them. At least, willingly.”
“I–I can’t speak to that,” Yarro stammered. “I was asleep when it happened. I just know what I was told by one of the other people in the caravan.”
“Who?” Zabaj managed to cram considerable menace into that single syllable.
Frantically looking around the receiving area, Yarro’s eyes eventually settled on a woman wearing a brocade jacket. “Her-T’Kari. She told me that the two of them went off with the slavers.”
Zabaj immediately made a beeline for the woman, practically dragging Feena along. Turning back to Yarro as she half-walked, half-ran to keep up with the mul, Feena said a quick thank you to the caravan master.
Whatever response he might have made was lost to Zabaj’s determination to get to T’Kari.
“Slow down,” Feena cried.
At that, Zabaj did reduce his pace to one more suited to Feena’s shorter legs.
“Thank you,” she said. “Look, I know how you feel about slavers, but-”
“No,” Zabaj said very quietly, “you don’t.”
She moved in front of him, forcing him to stop walking, and reached up to cup his cheek in her hand. “Yes,” she whispered, “I do.”
They said nothing for a moment. Feena stared into Zabaj’s green eyes, and saw the sadness there, as well as the anger over what he went through in the arena.
Then Feena added, “And you and I both know that my brother would rather die than willingly go with slavers, and Rol wouldn’t be caught dead in the arena of his own free will. They had to have been kidnapped.”
“I know that your brother and Mandred are decent fighters. You really think they got kidnapped?”
“They’d lost Fehrd and fought an anakore. Gan was hurt, they were both tired-sure, it’s possible.”
Zabaj turned back to look at Yarro, who was consulting with a woman and several younger people-probably his family. “Assuming he told the truth.”
Zabaj turned back to Feena with a dubious expression.
She sighed loudly, her tiny nostrils flaring. “Look, I can’t always spot a lie, but someone like that? He was tired, had dozens of things on his mind-he didn’t have the wherewithal to lie. What he told is us what he believes happened.”
“Then let’s see what that woman believes happened.” Zabaj looked over Feena’s head at the woman in the brocade jacket. She was staring off at the entrance to the city.
“Excuse me,” Feena said as they approached her. “Are you T’Kari?”
“Unless you’re here to tell me where-” Then she looked at them. “No, you couldn’t be. Never mind, I’m not interested.”
“We need information,” Feena said insistently. “There were two men who protected your caravan. Yarro said that you saw them leave with the slavers?”
T’Kari shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t remember,” she muttered as she looked past them back at the city.
Zabaj stepped right into her line of sight and growled, “Try.”
She frowned. “Look, I don’t have time for this.”
Feena smiled. “Seems to me you have plenty of time, since whoever you’re waiting for hasn’t shown up yet. Until they do show up, you can answer a simple question, can’t you?”
Letting out a lengthy sigh, T’Kari said, “Look, I saw each of them go into the slaver carriage at different times, and they were both being physically supported by someone else when they went in-the first one by the slaver and his daughter, the other one just by the daughter about half an hour later. I got woken up by the slavers leaving in the middle of the damned night after that. Now, can I please get back to my life?”
Feena rolled her eyes. Zabaj just growled. Quickly, Feena said, “Thanks for your time,” and pulled on Zabaj’s arm so that they could walk away together.
“This is bad,” Feena said.
Zabaj nodded, his topknot waving back and forth. “Yes. We need to talk to the others.”
“Well, we need to get out of Raam before Belrik realizes we sold him a fake map. Urik’s as good a place as any to go, right?”
“We’re about to find out,” Zabaj said as they headed back to the bazaar.
Komir hated emporium meetings.
Generally, he preferred decisions to simply be made. Talking it over just gave him a headache. Take the Belrik game, for example. The nobleman screwed Lyd over, so it was simple: they would screw him back. They took a thousand gold and a hundred copper off him, gave Lyd a chance to start over, and the bastard would spend months digging in the wastes for a nonexistent treasure where-if the desert could be trusted-he’d get eaten by something with big teeth and chronic indigestion.
Regardless, forcing Komir to sit around the carriage with his sister, his parents, Feena, Zabaj, and Tricht’tha just meant they’d be going around and around and around for hours without actually doing anything. He was seated at the head of the carriage, near the reins of the crodlus. The mounts weren’t even hooked on yet-they were off at the stables being watered and fed before their journey to wherever they were going next. However, the carriage was packed and ready to go, awaiting only a decision as to what their destination was.
Komir liked it better when Shira and Torthal simply ran things. They told everyone what to do, and that was the end of it.
But they were aging, and they both thought it was important for Komir and Karalith to be able to make decisions for the emporium in the future.
Which meant that every decision had to be examined and discussed and dissected.
“It is possible that they went on purpose,” Tricht’tha said with a chitter of disapproval.
“No, it isn’t,” Zabaj said sternly. “They would never travel with a slaver.”
“They would if the slaver hired them,” Torthal said quietly. “That is what they do for a living. And from what you and Feena were told, they were already protecting the caravan.”
Karalith shook her head. “Because it was on the way to Raam in any case. Gan even mentioned Feena to the caravan master. They were intending to come here.”
“Perhaps they’re running a game on the slavers,” Shira said. “I wouldn’t put it past either of those two to try something idiotic like that and leave Feena twisting in the sand.”
Komir finally spoke. “Why not just go to Urik and find out for ourselves? We have to go somewhere, why not there?”
“We’re far better off heading to Tyr,” Torthal said. “King Hamanu’s insane.”
Snorting, Komir asked, “Which makes him different from every other sorcerer-king how, exactly?”
Ignoring him, Torthal continued: “Besides, Belrik might have friends in Urik.”
Tricht’tha chittered something in Chachik, then said in Common: “It’ll be weeks before he even realizes he’s been gamed.”
“You hope,” Zabaj said.
The thri-kreen glowered at the mul. “I know.”
Komir smiled. He knew where Zabaj was going with this.
“I’ve been in this hunt for half my life,” Tricht’tha said haughtily. That much was true-by the standards of the short-lived thri-kreen, she was an old hand at the game, having been involved with the emporium for four years. “I know how the prey thinks, and this one bought into it. He won’t even consider the map to be false until he’s been out digging for weeks.”
Zabaj smirked. “Exactly.”
With a grateful look at her lover, Feena said, “I know my brother, Tricht’tha-as well as you know the game. And I’m telling you, he and Rol are prisoners of those slavers.”
Torthal scowled. “They’re not close enough for your mind-magic to work.”
“It has nothing to do with that, Father,” Komir said before Feena could defend herself. “You’re always telling us to trust what we know. Well-Feena knows Gan. And so do I. If he agreed to meet Feena, he’d have tunneled through the sand to get here. I’m with her and Zabaj, they were kidnapped.”
“And so what if they were?” Tricht’tha spoke up again. “We’re not their keepers.”
“He’s my brother.” Feena glared at the thri-kreen with her ice blue eyes. “But fine, if you don’t want to help, then I’ll travel to Urik myself. I’m sure I can find a caravan headed that way.”
“We saw one posted at the station,” Zabaj added. “The two of us will take that.”
Shira tut-tutted. “Come now, Feena, don’t be ridiculous. We can’t let you go off on your own like that. You’re one of us, and we look out for our own.”
At that, Shira’s face soured. “Hardly. And Rol and Fehrd certainly aren’t.”
“Fehrd’s dead,” Komir said bluntly. “And that alone is cause for concern. Besides which, Lyd isn’t one of ‘our own,’ either, but we risked getting blackballed in Raam forever, and possibly getting arrested, just to help her out.”
Torthal raised an eyebrow. “There was profit in that one.”
Komir glared at Serthlara. “A few hundred gold isn’t worth what we risked to game Belrik. But Lyd’s friendship was. Are you all going to stand here and tell me that Feena’s blood tie with Gan is less powerful than Lyd’s with us?”
“Yes,” Shira said bluntly. “We chose Lyd as a friend, and she’s been there for us in the past. We’re stuck with Gan.” Zabaj opened his mouth to speak, but Shira wouldn’t let him finish. “However,” she added quickly, “that doesn’t mean that Gan is unimportant. And, if it comes to that, it’s been a few years since we gamed a slaver.”
Torthal nodded. “That alone is worth the trip.”
“Very well, then,” Shira said with the utmost reluctance. “We’ll go. Let’s try to find out anything we can about the slaver who took them before we go.”
“Not us,” Feena said. “They know us there now.”
Komir hopped off the carriage. “I’ll do that.” Anything to get away.
Karalith smiled and rolled her bracelets up her arms. They always fell back down again, and Komir had spent most of his life to date wondering why she did that. “I’ll go with you.”
“Good,” Torthal said. “Be back by sundown.”
As they walked away from the bazaar-which was in shutdown mode, with all the merchants packing themselves up, and occasionally indulging a last-minute customer who just had to have one last item-yes, I know you packed it up, but could you please pull it out for me? — Komir stared over at his twin sister, who was the same height as he. “You didn’t participate much.”
She shrugged. “No point. We were going to Urik no matter what, I just didn’t feel like going through Mother and Father’s motions.”
Komir sighed. “This was another of their life lessons, wasn’t it?”
In a fair impersonation of Torthal, Karalith said, “ ‘Can’t just make a decision, child, you have to understand it.’ Gan is family-that’s all that should matter. But they decided to play devil’s advocate just so we’d all understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
“Well, they do have one point.”
Karalith stopped walking and glared at her brother. “You’re even more sick of their nonsense than I am.”
“Oh, absolutely.” Komir nodded emphatically. “But not every family member of someone in the emporium is going to be worth saving. I think they wanted us to make sure it wasn’t automatic in case someone’s related to a ne’er-do-well.”
“Gan is a ne’er-do-well,” Karalith pointed out.
Komir shrugged. “Yeah, but he’s our ne’er-do-well. And he’s a good guy, honestly, he just doesn’t shut up. If he could stay quiet-”
“And Rol could stop sleeping with anything that moves …”
With a grin, Komir said, “Yeah, they’d be a force to be reckoned with.” The grin fell. “I still can’t believe Fehrd’s gone.”
Karalith scratched her chin with her index finger. Komir leaned in to pay close attention, as Karalith generally did that when she had a good idea. “Yeah,” she said, “but Feena said that the two of them didn’t talk much about Fehrd to the caravan. That could work in our favor …”
Gorbin stood across from the stocky elf in the arena, bored to death as he punched him repeatedly in the stomach.
After ten years, it had become routine for the mul. He got into the arena. His opponent stood across from him, either looking very cocky or scared to death. The elf was one of the cocky ones. Unusually bulky for his race, the elf called himself Sehmet, and claimed to be the best fistfighter in Athas.
When he showed up in Urik, he stood in the town square challenging anyone who’d come to beat him, and he always won. He also ended each fight with the following statement: “I can beat anyone-even Gorbin. Especially Gorbin!”
Finally, he got his wish, invited by the owners of the Pit of Black Death-a tapped-out obsidian quarry that had been converted into the premiere gladiatorial arena in Urik-where Gorbin had been the main event for a decade.
“You’re done today, Gorbin,” Sehmet said. “This is the day you go down.”
Gorbin said nothing. He didn’t like to talk while he fought. Sorvag always told him that it wasted energy.
They circled each other for a minute or so, the way fighters always did, waiting for the other one to show some kind of weakness. The scared ones usually just waited for something to happen, but the cocky ones like Sehmet often got bored and attacked first.
The elf didn’t disappoint-he lunged for Gorbin with a massive overhand right punch.
Gorbin caught the punch in his left hand. The impact was impressive, but nothing the mul couldn’t handle.
Sehmet looked stunned, gaping at his fist lodged in Gorbin’s hand as if he’d never seen the like before. He probably hadn’t.
Then Gorbin flexed his hand, breaking Sehmet’s arm at the wrist. The elf screamed in pain as he fell to his knees, and then Gorbin let go of the fist and just started punching.
About a minute later, Sehmet was dead. Had he been a fellow slave, Gorbin would have left him alive, but challengers like him deserved what they got.
Gorbin had yet to lose a single fight in the arena.
In fact, he was still waiting for his first real challenge.
It was really getting boring.
He was the biggest and the strongest, and he’d been training his whole life. Part of it was his being a mul, of course, but he’d known a few muls in his time, and none of them were as big and strong as he was.
When he thought about it-which wasn’t often, as thinking had never been Gorbin’s strong suit, and besides, it usually just got in the way of the fighting-he figured that he owed it to Sorvag.
Gorbin had been an infant when Sorvag found him in the wastes, apparently abandoned by his parents for reasons he would never know. Gorbin still had no idea why Sorvag hadn’t just left him there. After all, he’d been just a mewling half-breed infant. Over the years, Gorbin had seen hundreds of infants; they were small, smelly, noisy, and utterly useless in every way. Sure, they grew up to be adults eventually, but prior to that, they were just horrible. Gorbin simply could not imagine that anyone would willingly take a baby into his life the way Sorvag did.
Perhaps Gorbin should have asked Sorvag that at some point before he killed him.
It was Sorvag’s own fault. He’d trained Gorbin for longer than he could remember. Sorvag had told him that he’d found Gorbin as an infant in the wastes, abandoned, and took him in. Sorvag fed him special nutritional food, made him only drink water-never fruit juice, nor any alcohol-and had him exercise constantly.
At the age of four, Gorbin had his first fight, against a ten-year-old who made fun of his face. Gorbin looked different from the other children he met in Urik. He only met one other mul, but she was a sickly little girl who died a few days after Gorbin met her. The rest had different eyes, different ears, different teeth, and that made him reviled.
One of them decided to make his revulsion verbal, and he expressed his dislike at a very loud volume.
So Gorbin hit him as hard as he could.
The boy stopped talking after that. And the revulsion went away too. Or at least happened out of his hearing, which was good enough for Gorbin.
As Gorbin got older, he got bigger and stronger, and he also learned more and more about how to fight. Dozens of men came to Sorvag’s house to show Gorbin this technique or that hold or this block or that punch.
Gorbin wasn’t the only child that Sorvag trained, though he was the only one who lived with Sorvag. He was also the only mul-children of elves, dwarves, goliaths, and even the occasional thri-kreen spawn would be brought by to Sorvag’s house in order to learn how to fight. Some of them only stayed to train for a week or two, some for months on end, some would come once a week. Gorbin worked with a few of them sometimes, but mostly Sorvag kept Gorbin’s lessons separate.
When Gorbin turned fifteen, Sorvag said he had a surprise for him. At that point, Gorbin had done everything Sorvag told him to do. It seemed reasonable-Sorvag fed him, clothed him, housed him, and let him beat people up pretty much any time he wanted. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Sorvag.
Gorbin came into the kitchen of Sorvag’s house, and a skinny old man stood there. “This is Calbit,” Sorvag said to Gorbin. “He and his partner run the Pit of Black Death.”
“Really?” Gorbin’s eyes went wide. He knew all about the Pit, of course. Sorvag had taken Gorbin to a few of the matches, and Gorbin had always said he wanted to fight there. “I can take any of those guys,” he’d said many times.
Sorvag had always been cagey in response to Gorbin’s pleas, never confirming that the mul was destined to someday fight in the arena.
But Gorbin could feel it in his bones-that day was the day. Why else would he have been training for a decade and a half?
“Do I get to fight there?”
Calbit snorted, a noise that sounded like a crodlu when it was unhappy. “Ain’t like you’re gonna have a choice, boy.”
“You see,” Sorvag said, “the Pit owns you.”
Gorbin blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to understand.” Calbit then turned to Sorvag. “I thought you explained it to him.”
“Not in so many words,” Sorvag said weakly.
Gorbin walked up to face the man who’d been everything to him. “You’re selling me into slavery?”
“You were always a slave from the beginning,” Sorvag said. “I didn’t find you in the wastes, you were purchased by Calbit here and brought to me to train. You’re a mul-there’s nothing for you but the arena.”
“You lied to me?” Gorbin asked the question in a whisper.
For fifteen years, Sorvag always told him what to do. He had earned the authority he had over Gorbin. So to find out that he’d lied to him all that time was devastating.
Sorvag suddenly looked sad and pathetic-just like the people Gorbin hit shortly after he hit them-and muttered, “I’m-I’m sorry.”
Gorbin beat him to death right there.
When he was done, Calbit was just standing there calmly, unconcerned by the pulpy mess that Gorbin had made of Sorvag’s head, or by the blood mixed with brain and bone that was all over the kitchen.
No, Calbit was just looking at him. “Guess this means we’ll have to find someone else to train the kids. Ah, well, least I don’t have to pay his rates anymore. Damn thief, is what he is.” Calbit looked at Gorbin and smiled. “And a liar too. Idiot.”
It never really occurred to Gorbin to turn and beat Calbit to death, even though the old man couldn’t have done anything to stop it. But with Sorvag dead, Gorbin had no idea what to do next. He had spent all fifteen years of his life on Athas doing what Sorvag told him to do.
So he simply gravitated to the next available authority figure. Besides, Calbit would have simply called in the soldiers if he disobeyed, and while Gorbin had every confidence in his ability to win any one-on-one fight put before him, he didn’t think he’d be able to take on a cadre of soldiers.
So they branded his left bicep with a distinctive mark that said he was their gladiator-an action that only hurt for a few hours-and for the next ten years, Calbit and his partner Jago put Gorbin in the arena.
In many senses, his life improved. Sorvag’s home was a decent, if ramshackle, house in the Old District. With the Pit, Gorbin had a comfortable cubicle that was larger than any of the rooms in Sorvag’s house.
True, it was a cage by a nicer name, but it was still luxurious by the standards he was used to. Calbit also fed Gorbin better food than Sorvag ever did. “I don’t hold with all of Sorvag’s nonsense about nutrition,” Jago had said once. “People should eat what they want to eat.”
In his first fight for the Pit, Gorbin went against a malnourished troll Calbit had found in an alley. Gorbin hated how hot it got, with the sun bearing down into the arena, the obsidian walls holding the heat so that the fighters were sweltering.
Gorbin beat down the troll in less than a minute.
Then he fought a succession of opponents in bouts that were of even shorter duration.
After that, Jago insisted on putting him in the main-event fights. On any given night at the Pit, there were up to four fights. Up to that point, Gorbin’s bouts had all been opening matches-the undercards. The main event, though, was reserved for the real fighters.
Jago was fairly certain that Gorbin was that. So was Gorbin, if anyone asked him-which they didn’t.
Calbit wasn’t sure, but he decided to go ahead and let Gorbin face Mochri the Half-Giant. Mochri wasn’t the best fighter, but he was pretty good. Calbit liked to use him to test the newbies, see if they could handle the main event.
Gorbin took Mochri down in five minutes. Mochri never fought again after that day, falling into screaming fits any time they tried to bring him near the arena. Jago finally had him beaten to death as punishment.
Meanwhile, Gorbin worked his way up to the top of the main stage. Dwarves, elves, humans, half-giants, thri-kreens, goliaths, even one dray.
And Gorbin beat them all.
The dray was a tough one, but Gorbin was pretty sure he was lame. That still made him more formidable than anyone Gorbin had faced.
As a youth, Gorbin had gained some notoriety in the Old District where Sorvag lived, mainly from the other kids-the ones who tried to make fun of him when he was smaller and later the other ones who trained with Sorvag, who spread rumors about Sorvag’s prize pupil.
But that was nothing compared to the fame fighting for the Pit granted him. Everyone in Urik knew who Gorbin was. He found that he liked that, at first.
For the better part of a year, Gorbin fought regularly against Szanka. Those matches were almost interesting. Szanka was fast and smart, which almost made up for the fact that he was nowhere near as big and strong as Gorbin. He was able to avoid many of Gorbin’s blows, and therefore actually had some staying power.
But then one night, Szanka went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Nobody knew why, though one of the other fighters-a slave who’d been captured in one of Urik’s wars-said it probably had something to do with Gorbin hitting him in the head so often.
Ultimately, Gorbin was the biggest and the strongest and, thanks to Sorvag’s tutelage, the best trained. Which meant that he always won. And everyone knew him, and he was cheered every time he came into the arena. It was wonderful.
A decade later, it grew much less wonderful. Sure, everyone knew him, but mostly as the person nobody could beat-the person who made the Pit boring.
It got to where few people wanted to fight him. His fights were either against people who were so scared from his reputation that they folded in an instant, or idiots who thought they’d be the ones to unseat Gorbin from the top spot. The latter were invariably incompetents who folded in two instants.
He kept fighting because he didn’t have a choice. Oh, escape was a possibility, but he tried that a few times and found that he had nowhere to go. Everyone in Urik knew who he was, so he couldn’t hide from the soldiers. As a slave, he had no resources he could truly call his own. And the only skill he had was fighting. True, there were other arenas in Urik, and they would kill to have an attraction as popular as Gorbin, but as soon as he fought for one of them, Calbit and Jago would send the soldiers.
Gorbin had never been outside Urik. He had no idea how to survive in the wastes, didn’t know what direction to go once he departed the city-state’s borders.
He was trapped.
So he fought. No matter how bored he was.
Every morning, he woke up on the floor of his cubicle. Over the years the cubicle had gotten bigger and better apportioned, and he had a large comfortable bed, on which he never slept. Sorvag always made him sleep on a hard floor. “So you can sleep anywhere,” he’d said at the time. And it was true, up to a point. He could sleep anywhere, as long as it was hard and unyielding. Put anything cushioned under him, though, and he’d toss and turn.
So he stuck with the floor and the bed continued to lay unused against one well-decorated wall of his lavish cubicle. He’d been told that there were nobles whose houses were less fancy than his cubicle.
But he still slept on the floor.
One morning, he woke up to Jago bellowing at him. “Gorbin! Wake up! Calbit’s back. And he’s got fresh meat.”
For some reason, Jago always wanted Gorbin to see the new slaves that came in. “You’ve earned the right to pick your opponents,” Jago would say, and then Calbit would usually add: “And which of these useless bags’a bones you don’t wanna fight.”
Gorbin trudged out of his cubicle, bleary-eyed, and walked out into the corridor to follow Jago.
The co-owner of the Pit was short and stocky while his older partner was skinny and bony. Given how big and strong Gorbin was, he could easily break Jago in two.
If only he had somewhere to go after he killed Jago. Or maybe Calbit would have the soldiers finally kill him.
The corridor went past several other cubicles, where the other slaves were allowed to continue sleeping. To Gorbin, that meant it was still early in the morning.
Somehow, it just figured that Calbit would return from his trip at some ridiculous hour.
The corridor emptied out into the large carriage bay, where Calbit had steered the four crodlus who pulled the stone carriage. His daughter Tirana was instructing the guards on where to take the slaves.
Most of them were the usual collection of ne’er-do-wells, weaklings, and idiots that Calbit always collected on these long trips. On one of those trips, twenty-five years earlier, he had brought back a mul infant whose mother had died in childbirth. The orphan’s father, a rapist dwarf with a wandering eye, had been killed in a street fight, never aware his forced coupling would sired a bastard.
It had taken Calbit five years to finally tell Gorbin the truth of his lineage. It was after one of the times he had tried to escape, claiming he wanted to find his birth parents, and ask them why they sold him to Calbit. Calbit had explained that the one who sold him was his mother’s sister, who had no interest in raising the result of her sister’s rape and plenty of interest in the gold coins Calbit had given her in exchange.
Looking over the new arrivals, there were two who stood out to Gorbin.
First off, they weren’t standing slouched and hunched over. They were shackled, just like everyone else, but they held their heads up high.
They were also looking around at everything, noticing things-even though one of them had only one eye, the other covered in a patch. Gorbin had never been good at noticing things, but he noticed when other people noticed things. Sorvag had taught him that much.
What Gorbin really saw in those two was that they knew how to fight. Only the best fighters Gorbin had faced in the arena moved with the grace and ease and awareness that those two did-the types who would almost last long enough for Gorbin to work up a sweat.
He pointed. “Those two.”
Jago stared at him. “What?”
“I want to fight those two.”
Calbit walked over to where the pair of them were watching Tirana guide the guards. “Did he actually point at someone?” Calbit asked Jago.
Nodding, Jago said, “The two tall ones, there.”
That caused Calbit to grin. He was missing several teeth, and Gorbin found the sight disgusting, but never said anything. “Those two were a find, lemme tell ya. Took out most of a group of Black Sands Raiders, and took down an anakore.”
Jago grinned as well. “Nice. Let’s put ’em in the undercard for a bit, get them warmed up so-”
“No,” Gorbin said. “I want to fight them.”
Pointing at the one with the patch, Jago said, “That one only has one eye.”
“Yeah,” Calbit put in, “and I saw him take down four raiders all by his lonesome, without no help from the other two.”
“Other two?” Gorbin frowned. “I only see two.”
“The raiders killed one of ’em. Probably wasn’t even a real fighter, truth be told. Maybe he owned ’em, I don’t know. Point is, these two can hold their own, maybe even against Gorbin.”
Folding his arms over his wide chest, Jago said, “I don’t know. Newbies always go on the undercard.”
Gorbin moved to stand right in front of Jago, emphasizing how big and strong he was. Sometimes he thought that Jago and Calbit forgot that. “You always ask me if I want to fight someone. I want to fight them. Let me fight them.”
Calbit looked at Jago. “I’m telling you, these two will be wasted on the undercard. They’ll bring people in-might be the first challenge Gorbin’s seen in years.”
Gorbin didn’t bother to point out that the next challenge would be his first.
Jago shook his head. “Not right away. If we just throw them in with Gorbin, no one will show up, because they’ll think it’s just the latest failed challenger. We need to build interest-and, besides, the last person you thought would be a challenge was that half-elf that Barglin beat in half a second.”
For a moment, Calbit stared angrily at Jago, then he looked away and nodded.
Jago called over to Tirana. “Send those two to cubicle four.”
The one with the eye patch started yelling then. “Where the frip are you taking us?”
Calbit snarled. “Where d’you think?”
Struggling against his restraints, the one with the patch cried, “We don’t want to fight. We’re free men, dammit.”
“Not no more,” Calbit said quietly.
Gorbin spit at the floor. “Another coward.”
That got the eye patch’s attention. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, mul-you put me in the arena, and I’ll fight, and I’ll win. So will my friend Rol here. See, we do this for a living.”
Indicating Gorbin with his head, Jago said, “So does he.”
The eye patch turned on Jago. “No, he does it because you guys tell him to. I see the brand there. He’s your slave. Me and Rol, though, we do this in the real world-there aren’t any rules when we fight.”
“No rules here, neither,” Calbit said.
“Please.” The man with the patch snorted. “Your fights are all in an enclosed arena with the fighters right in front of one another. That’s nothing. I swear to you, right here, right now-we will fight in your stupid arena and we will win and we will eventually be rid of this place. When Rol and I kill someone, it’s either because we’re being paid to or because we or someone we care about’s life is in danger, but I’m telling you right now, Calbit, that one of us is going to kill you, and it won’t be for either of those reasons. It’ll be because you fripping deserve to die a very slow, very painful death.”
The other one, Rol, finally spoke, doing so in a very quiet, even tone. “Gan, shut up.”
“You should listen to your friend,” Calbit said. “Take them away.”
One of the guards grabbed Rol by the wrist, then immediately pulled his hand back, a look of disgust on his face. Looking at Rol’s arm, he shouted, “What is that?”
Gorbin noticed that the guard’s palm was slicked with some kind of red ooze-it wasn’t blood, Gorbin had fought enough humans to know exactly what their blood looked like.
Following the guard’s look to Rol’s wrist, he saw some kind of bump on his skin. It was smeared with the same red ooze that was on the guard’s hand.
Calbit looked at Tirana. “Get the healer over here to give him a once-over. That’s just what we need, some kind of disease.”
“It’s nothing,” Rol said. “You want me to fight, I’ll fight. And I’ll win. And, like Gan said, eventually-I’ll kill you.”
A bit more gingerly, the guards led Rol and Gan off, Tirana following. Gorbin watched them, thinking about what Gan had said. “What did he mean?”
“About what?” Jago asked.
“That stuff about rules and enclosed arenas and stuff.”
“Nothing, don’t worry about it. C’mon, let’s get you back to your cubicle.”
As Jago led him back down the corridor, Gorbin thought about what Gan had said. He’d always fought in the arena or under the very watchful eyes of Sorvag.
He wondered what fighting in the real world, the way Gan and Rol did it, was like.
Gan had been to many arenas in his time, and he’d been to Urik many times, but he’d never been to the Pit of Black Death.
He would, honestly, have been happy to keep that streak alive.
For a long time, the site had been an obsidian mine, and a tremendous source of income for the city-state’s treasury. But once it was tapped out, King Hamanu had no more use for the land and sold it to the highest bidder-who, Gan assumed, was Calbit and his partner.
Like most mines, the center of it was a giant round well in the ground, which had been converted to an arena, with wooden scaffolding along the obsidian-scored walls. The catacombs beneath the well, which had linked up the various smaller veins of obsidian, had been converted to offices for the staff and cubicles to house the fighters. The smaller ones fit one or two people, and were reserved for the best fighters who fought during the main event of each evening’s entertainment.
Last time they were in Urik, Gan had expressed confusion over why anyone would even bother to show up for the earlier fights. Fehrd had pointed out that you could attend the early fights for a cheaper admission price, and get good seats that were generally reserved for the wealthiest of the wealthy for the main event.
Gan really missed Fehrd.
Fighters were led at combat time up a spiral staircase to the holding area located under the scaffolding that served as seats. Armed guards stood at every exit, and-according to the grumblings of some of the other fighters-there was some kind of magical protection. The other fighters were sufficiently vague on the subject that Gan suspected there was no magic, just a rumor that Calbit and his partner started to scare the fighters into submission.
Every time Gan tried to ask Rol what was wrong, Rol dismissed it. “Just a lesion. Nothing to worry about.”
That had been the same thing that the healer-a gaunt, elderly elf who looked like he wanted to be anywhere other than at the arena-had said after examining all three of the so-called lesions that had appeared on Rol’s skin. In addition to the one on his left wrist, there was also one on his right leg, with a third on his neck.
Rol added: “Probably a bad reaction to something in that fripping concrete cart. Wasn’t exactly clean in there, and who knows where those other people came from.”
“I guess.” Gan sighed. “Still, you’ve been a bit-well, odd since we hooked up with that caravan.”
Rol just glared at him.
Gan held up his hands. “Right, right, Fehrd’s been killed, we got kidnapped by slavers, and we’re stuck in Urik as gladiators. I can see how that might make you a bit off your game, but we’ve got to start thinking about escaping.”
“Only thing I’m thinking about right now is removing Calbit and Tirana’s heads from their necks with my bare hands.”
Rol didn’t speak the words in his usual matter-of-fact tone.
“Okay, now I’m really worried.”
“Why?” Rol asked.
“Because this isn’t like you. C’mon, Rol, we’ve been in worse situations than this.”
“With Fehrd,” Rol added. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’ll get through this. For now, though, we fight.”
“That’s what worries me-you know who that mul was, right? It was Gorbin. He’s been-”
“I know who he is. I saw him fight last time we were in Urik. His fights never last longer than a few minutes.”
“Which is why we need to get out of here before we have to fight him.”
“I’ll beat him.”
“Do I have a choice? Besides, we don’t know the lay of the land well enough to escape. We’ll need at least a week.”
Sighing, Gan leaned back on the cubicle’s hard bunk. Rol was, as usual, right. They needed a plan, and in order to plan, they needed information.
Gan wasn’t sure when it was, exactly, that the guards led them out of their cubicle and up the spiral staircase. Between being drugged-by Tirana’s draft meant to keep them “awake”-and kidnapped, and being stuck in either a stone carriage or an underground dungeon, he had lost all sense of time.
But when they reached the holding area, he could see that the outdoor arena was lit solely by torchlight, so it had to be nighttime. There were dozens of torches all around the perimeter of the arena, and they barely kept the place visible against the stygian backdrop of the former obsidian mine.
Six fighters joined Gan and Rol, but they mostly shied away from them. The only one who didn’t was a goliath who looked right at Gan and Rol and said, “You two? Dead. Neither one’a ya’s gonna last more’n three seconds in the arena with me. An’ yeah, I saw whatcha did ‘gainst the anakore, but anakores ain’t nothin’ away from their packs. You two? Goin’ down.”
Ignoring the goliath, Gan walked over to the gate-which, to his surprise, was made from metal. It was old metal, rusted in spots, probably dating back to the earliest days of the king’s reign. No doubt, it was prohibitively expensive to replace, and Gan suspected that a sharp kick to the right spot would snap some of the metal spurs in twain.
Filing that away for future reference, Gan looked out at the arena floor as Calbit’s partner came out and held up his hands, causing the crowd noise-which had been so constant in the background that Gan hadn’t really noticed it up until then-to die down.
“Good evening. I’m Fal Jago, and on behalf of my partner Helsno Calbit, I welcome you all to the Pit … of Black Death.”
Gan wondered what the dramatic pause and overemphasis of the arena’s name was supposed to accomplish. Did anybody not know the name of the place?
However, several people cheered, if raggedly, at the mention of the name, so Gan supposed it served some sort of rile-up-the-crowd function.
“Tonight is a very special night here at the Pit, as we present a new crop of fighters that we have brought here from arenas all across Athas. The finest warriors in the land, and all of them come here, because they know that this is where true battles are waged, where glory is gained, where victory is won.”
More cheers, even though Gan mostly wanted to wretch. He’d heard better oratory from drunks in taverns.
“The first battle of the evening will be between two of our finest newcomers. First, from the wastes to the west, fresh off of several dozen kills in the iron mines of Tyr-the grand goliath, Krackis.”
With a grinding sound that Gan felt all up and down his spine, the metal gate rose slowly upward, providing easy access to the arena floor. The goliath who’d been trash-talking Gan a moment earlier ran forward. He jogged out into the arena with his arms raised in the air.
Whatever response he was hoping to engender with that gesture failed, as the crowd sounded unimpressed. At best, he got a smattering of applause.
“Facing him in the finest arena in the land will be a challenger from the far-off land of Nibenay, a man who singlehandedly defeated a team of bandits in the Alluvial Sand Wastes-the one-eyed wonder, Gan.”
Gan shook his head in annoyance. “I’ve been to Nibenay all of once in my life.”
One of the other fighters, a stocky dwarf, barked a laugh. “Seriously? You actually critiquing Jago’s nonsense? He’s a fripping barker, you moron, he’s tryin’ to rile up the crowd. Accordin’ to him, I wiped out an entire elf caravan with my teeth last year.”
Gan regarded the dwarf, who was bald with a thick mustache. “I take it you used actual weapons to wipe out the elf caravan?”
That resulted in another barked laugh. “Never even met an elf in my life, till I came to this benighted place. Nah, I was arrested for fightin’, an’ they put me here instead’a jail. I live, I’m out in a year-go to jail, it’s ten, and probably get killed inside within a year.”
His eye widening, Gan asked, “Ten? For a fight?”
The dwarf grinned. “Well, when the guy you beat up is the king’s nephew, they take a dimmer view of it. Kid wasn’t supposed to be in that tavern, so they didn’t put me to death or nothin’, since I didn’t know he was a nobleman. Course, I woulda beat the little twerp up anyway, he was a real fripping piece of-”
One of the guards pushed the dwarf aside and then shoved Gan toward the gate. He sauntered out into the arena, seeing no reason to rush or to play to the crowd.
To his amusement, he got precisely the same applause that Krackis received, with a fraction of the effort.
“Let the fighting begin,” was the last thing Jago said before he left the floor, leaving Gan and Krackis to circle each other.
Gan stood with his elbows in and angled slightly so that he presented his left bicep to his opponent. For his part, Krackis just stood facing Gan directly, holding his fists over his head. Gan sighed silently; Krackis’s pose probably looked impressive to the crowd, but holding his arms up like that was an unnecessary effort and left his middle exposed.
Krackis, predictably, made the first move, throwing an overhand right toward Gan, which he easily deflected with his left arm, though pain shot through his forearm with the parry. That told Gan a lot; his foe was very strong and had probably never been in a fight with anyone who knew what he was doing.
The goliath peppered Gan with a few more punches, and one of them inevitably was strong enough that Gan couldn’t properly parry it-Krackis’s sheer strength was enough that Gan fell to the arena floor in a heap.
Proud of himself, Krackis raised his arms and looked to the crowd, who obliged him with cheers that echoed off the obsidian walls.
Seeing his opportunity, Gan thrust his right leg upward with a sharp kick to Krackis’s solar plexus.
The cheers modulated almost instantly into gasps as the goliath doubled over, struggling to breathe. Gan followed it up with a punch to his oversized head, knocking Krackis to the floor.
With the crowd goading him to get up, Krackis managed to struggle to his feet. Gan waited until he was standing, then kicked downward at his knee. The impact of his foot on bone broke it, the crack echoing throughout the arena, followed quickly by Krackis’s screams as he fell to the floor again.
Suddenly the crowd was cheering more enthusiastically, chanting Gan’s name. However, Gan paid no attention, focusing entirely on Krackis.
But the goliath was still screaming in pain, and did not get up.
Jago stepped out then, holding up both arms. “The match is ended. The winner is Gan.”
Two guards came out as the crowd celebrated Gan’s victory. They helped the now-hobbled Krackis out. Gan walked behind them under his own power.
“You cheated,” Krackis said through clenched teeth.
“I was under the impression there weren’t any rules.”
“There aren’t,” one of the guards said before Krackis could respond. “The only rule is that one person wins, and the other loses.”
Gan smiled. “Looks like rule number two applies to you, Krackis. Hope your leg heals soon.”
We’re getting closer,” Feena said without prompting, startling Komir next to her as he held the crodlu reins.
They had been in the wastes for two days without incident, which was nothing short of miraculous. Komir just knew that meant something horrible would happen that day, so he was completely on edge. Just then, they were trudging slowly up a rise. Shira and Torthal were asleep in the back-they were taking more and more midday naps.
From behind him in the front part of the carriage, Tricht’tha chittered something in Chachik, then: “We know we’re getting closer, that’s kind of the point of going through the wastes to Urik-to get closer.”
Shaking her head, Feena said, “No, I mean we’re closer to where Gan is. I can feel him now.”
“Good,” Komir said. “I’d hate to go all the way to Urik for no good reason. For all that I joked about it, Father’s right-King Hamanu is crazy.”
Zabaj had been walking alongside the carriage-his long legs could easily keep stride with the pace the crodlus were making while pulling the carriage uphill-and he suddenly moved closer to the front where Komir and the others were. “We need to be alert.”
Peering ahead, Komir saw what the mul was talking about. “That’s the top of the rise.”
Nodding, Zabaj said, “Prime ambush spot.” Then he started moving faster, wanting to be ahead of the crodlus when they arrived at the top of the rise in case there was an ambush.
Nervously, Komir flicked his wrists to whip the crodlus with the reins. It didn’t serve any useful function except to annoy the mounts, since they couldn’t really go any faster with the burden they had. But the last thing he wanted to deal with was an attack on the carriage, especially since they were traveling alone. Zabaj could handle most problems-few of the desert scavengers could stand up to a mul-and Tricht’tha could hold her own in a fight too.
That was more for use against those who couldn’t be talked to. Opponents who could hold a conversation were not ones that they were too terribly worried about.
Zabaj was standing at the top of the rise when the carriage arrived, hands on hips.
“We’re clear,” the mul said, three seconds before four people leaped out from beneath the sand.
Komir barely had time to acknowledge that they were there when one of them had grabbed Feena and yanked her down off the carriage. He smoothly wrapped an arm around her neck. They wore the trademark all-black of the Black Sands Raiders, though the outfits were a bit ragged and torn. Of their mounts, there was no sign-which was odd, as atop the rise, they could see everything for miles.
“Oh great,” Komir said, as much for the benefit of the others in the emporium still inside the carriage as it was for their attackers, “more raiders. Is there any way this trip can get worse?”
“Give us everything you have,” demanded the man with his arm on Feena’s neck, “or the girl dies.”
Tricht’tha chittered. “Thought the Black Sands only traveled in groups of twelve.”
“We did. The others’re dead, and our crodlus ran. We got nothin’ left, so we got nothin’ to lose. We want all your coin.”
Komir pointed behind the carriage. “Go about ten miles that way, you may catch up with it. You’re the third set of thieves we’ve hit since we left Raam.”
Another Raider spoke. “That’s a pretty well-laden carriage.” He was closest to Zabaj, and the mul was staring daggers at him, his fists clenching and opening. Zabaj wasn’t going to do anything until Feena was safe, but the fact that Feena was in danger didn’t speak well for the Raider’s continued survival if Zabaj had anything to say about it.
Shrugging, Komir said, “That’s merchandise. You wanna take it, knock yourself out, but without crodlus, you’re gonna have a hard time of it.”
The one holding Feena said, “We can take your mounts.”
“You crazy, Voras? It’ll take us weeks to get back if we’re carrying all this crap.”
Voras turned on the other one. “Shut up, Tralk.”
Another one said, “He’s right, I ain’t takin’ no carriage.”
The last one said, “Why not?”
From behind Komir, he heard his sister say, “Oh, please, let them take the carriage.”
Whirling around, Komir cried, “What?”
Climbing to the front of the carriage and taking the seat next to Komir where Feena had been before being grabbed, Karalith said, “Just let them take it. We’re close enough that we can get there on foot within a few days.” Before Komir could say anything, she said, “Just take it. We’ll walk to the spot on the map.”
Voras’s eyes widened. “What map?”
Komir put his head in his hands. “Nice one, Sis-why’d you mention the map? Two other sets of thieves come by, they take all our coin, as well as half the merchandise, and you don’t mention the map. Now you mention the map?”
“What map?” Voras asked again.
“Who cares?” Karalith pointed at the raiders. “They obviously want the merchandise. Look at them, they’ve got no mounts, no coin-they go back to their bosses like this, they’ll get their hands cut off. They bring back a merchant carriage, and it’ll be fine.” She turned to Voras. “Just let us keep the map, and the rest of it’s yours.”
Tightening his grip on Feena’s neck, Voras spoke very slowly. “If I have to ask again, the girl will be dead on the sand. What map?”
Karalith waved her arms back and forth. “Don’t hurt her. Look, it’s a treasure map, but you don’t want that. There’s merchandise in here that’s worth hundreds of gold.”
Komir didn’t react to that, but he was smiling inside, as the merchandise was actually worth thousands.
With one arm, Voras tightened his grip on Feena’s neck; with the other, he pulled out a bone knife and put it at Feena’s jugular. Komir saw Zabaj tense and take a step forward in the sand.
“Go ahead,” Voras said to Zabaj. “Move closer and kill her.” Then he turned to Karalith. “You will fetch this map.”
“What?” Karalith sounded stunned. “No, you don’t want that. It’ll take months to dig up the treasure. You’ve got all this merchandise right here, and we-”
“Fetch the map now or I will slit this woman’s throat.”
Zabaj moved toward the carriage. “I’ll get the fripping map.”
“No, Zabaj, please.” Karalith was starting to weep. “After all we went through to get that map-the merchandise is just stuff, they can have it, but the map is-”
Voras interrupted. “The map is going to be mine in about seven seconds or your woman-”
“Will die,” Komir finished, “we got it, already. Zabaj, get the map.”
The mul was already climbing into the back of the carriage. Komir prayed to the bright red sun of Athas, although he knew it wouldn’t heed his prayer, that Zabaj’s thumping around wouldn’t wake Shira and Torthal. Not that he doubted that they’d be able to go along with the game, but Torthal especially tended to be a bit out of it when he first woke up, and that might have ruined the whole thing.
But all he heard was Zabaj’s rooting around in the back of the carriage. So he kept an eye on Tralk and the other two, who also had gotten bone knives out.
Tralk said, “We should take the crodlus too.”
Another one shook his head. “No, these are carriage-trained. We’ll never get ‘em to ride through the sand unless they’re draggin’ something.”
Komir breathed a sigh of relief. He was really worried that he was going to have to convince them that the crodlus would be of no use without the carriage, and Komir had always found it easier to convince people of things that were false than to do so with the truth. If they couldn’t convince them, the raiders would actually take the crodlus, then waste at least an hour while they tried and failed to make the crodlus move while untethered to the carriage.
The carriage shook as Zabaj’s weight was removed from it. Slowly, the mul walked over toward Voras, a rolled-up parchment in hand.
“Let her go, and the map’s yours.”
Voras grinned, showing yellowed, broken teeth. “Nice try, mul. Tralk, get the map.”
Nodding, Tralk moved cautiously toward Zabaj, keeping his bone knife at the ready. “Give it to me, mul.”
Scowling down at the Raider with a look that Komir knew Zabaj had used in the arenas of Tyr back in the day, the mul held out the map. Tralk hesitated a moment and gulped down a swallow before actually snatching the map.
He backed up slowly, keeping his eye on Zabaj the whole time.
“Take a look at it,” Voras said.
Komir stole a glance at his sister. Karalith was fidgeting. “Look, okay, it’s a treasure map,” she said as Tralk unrolled it, “fine, but like I said, it could take months before-”
“Shut up.” Voras bellowed. “Tralk, talk to me.”
Tralk peered at the parchment before him. “Who the frip is Sebowkan the Elder?”
“Ain’t he the king of Tyr?”
Voras frowned. “I thought he was that defiler from Nibenay.”
But the fourth one, Komir noticed, had a faraway look on his face as he spoke very, very softly. “That’s one of the guys that ruled during the Green Age.”
Tralk made a snorting noise. “Was that before or after the Orange Age?”
The third one chuckled at that, but the fourth one still looked serious. “Look, this ain’t no joke. I knew a guy, right, and he told me all about Sebowkan’s treasure-that it was all lost-like.”
“Was lost.” Karalith pouted as she said it. “We found it. We earned it.”
At that, Voras laughed. “Ah, well, you see, my dear, the whole point of the Black Sands Raiders is that we take that which other people have earned.” He turned to Tralk. “Where is it?”
“The woman’s right, it’s only a few days’ walk from here.”
“Good. That map’s easier to move with than this setup. Bad enough we’re coming back to Zeburon without most of our people or our mounts. A treasure map will go a lot farther with him than a carriage full of worthless trinkets.” Voras suddenly threw Feena forward, and she fell facedown in the sand.
“Oof.” came her muffled voice from the ground even as Zabaj moved amazingly quickly.
“Feena.” Kneeling down beside her, Zabaj put an arm on her shoulder and slowly guided her to her feet.
“I’m all right,” grumbled Feena as she spit sand out of her mouth and glared at Voras.
Zabaj stared at the leader. “You have your map.”
“And you have your woman. It’s tempting to kill you.”
Zabaj smiled at Voras, showing his sharpened teeth. “You’re welcome to try.”
“Perhaps another time. Please don’t try to follow us-we know this desert far better than you, and it won’t end well.”
Slowly, never taking their eyes off the emporium’s carriage, the four raiders moved off with their newly acquired treasure map.
As soon as they were out of sight, Komir let out a long laugh. “Well done, Lith.”
Karalith took a mock bow. “Thank you, thank you.”
“This is no laughing matter,” Zabaj barked. “Feena was almost killed.”
Her tone sharpening, Karalith said, “Yes, but she wasn’t, because we gamed those imbeciles into thinking that treasure map that Gash screwed up was good.”
Shooting her lover a glance, Feena then said to Karalith, “And I am grateful, Karalith.” She looked up at Zabaj again. “Those men were desperate-and I’m pretty sure they’re the remnants of the same group that killed Fehrd.”
Komir nodded. “Didn’t need mind-magic for that. When Lith and I talked to some folks from the caravan back at Raam, several of them mentioned that only four of the raiders survived, and they ran off without their crodlus. Can’t imagine there’s more than one group of Black Sands like that in this region.”
Tricht’tha rubbed two of her pincers together, a sure sign of agitation. “I’m just glad we had Gash’s map. What would we have done if he’d gotten it right the first time?”
Karalith shrugged. “Something else. This is what we do, Tricht’tha.”
“Next time,” Zabaj said with a growling undertone, “try to do it without endangering Feena.”
“It’s not as if we chose to endanger her, Zabaj,” Karalith said sharply.
Zabaj snarled. “You could have just given them what they wanted. What if one of them recognized the map for a fake?”
Before Karalith could provide yet another sharp retort, Komir stepped in. “Zabaj, that wouldn’t happen-there are maybe six people in all of Athas who know about that impurity. It was just our bad luck that Belrik’s pet tutor was one of them-hell, that’s why Gash made that mistake in the first place, it’s not something that he would’ve needed to bother about under any other circumstances. There was no chance that a Black Sands thug was gonna know about that impurity.”
Feena put a hand on Zabaj’s huge arm. “My love, it’s all right. Komir and Karalith are right, just leave it-”
But Zabaj wasn’t having any of it. “And what if that one didn’t know about Sebowkan, and they thought it was crap?”
Komir opened his mouth to respond quickly before either Karalith or Tricht’tha could, but a voice sounded from inside the carriage. “What is all that racket?”
They all turned toward the carriage, where Torthal was sticking his head out the rear, his white hair flying off in all directions.
“What is all this yelling about? Shira and I are trying to sleep.” He frowned. “Why aren’t we moving?”
Komir was unable to help himself, he burst out laughing.
So did Karalith and Feena and, in her own way, Tricht’tha.
After a few seconds, so did Zabaj.
“What’s so damned funny?” Torthal asked.
For the first few days, Gan and Rol fought in the undercard.
Gan’s initial fight against Krackis was actually the longest of their matches. It was immediately followed by Rol’s first fight.
Like Gan’s, it was against a goliath.
Unlike Gan’s, it ended with one punch.
Rol walked out onto the arena floor to gasps of disgust, as three of those lesions had grown on his face, marring Rol’s irritatingly attractive visage.
The goliath who faced Rol was less verbose than Krackis-he would almost had to have been-and focused entirely on staring at Rol.
But as soon as Jago told them to start fighting, Rol threw a right punch to the goliath’s head, which whirled from the impact so fast it broke the goliath’s neck, and he fell to the floor in an instant.
The real problem, though, was that the lesions wouldn’t go away.
They showed up everywhere, red and hideous, like giant bumps on his skin.
Calbit and Jago brought in healers, but none of them were able to do any good. But he wasn’t sick otherwise, just covered in lesions, so they kept fighting.
And they kept winning.
After a week, the guards came to bring everyone up for the undercard fight-but they didn’t open the cubicle doors for number four.
Gan ran up to the door, peering through the barred window. “What’s going on?”
“Who cares?” Rol was behind him, sitting on his bunk, staring ahead into the air. Rol’s listlessness in the cubicle was almost as worrying as his fierceness in the arena.
“Hang tight,” the guard said. “You’re the main event tonight.”
With a sigh, Gan said, “Great.” He turned to Rol. “Maybe now we can start talking about escape plans?”
Still staring ahead blankly, Rol said, “I’m working on one.”
Gan blinked. “Excuse me?”
“I said I’m working on one.”
“Were you going to share this with me?”
“I haven’t finished it yet. I didn’t want to talk to you about it until I was sure it would work.”
“Are you sure it’ll work now?”
Rol finally looked at Gan with bloodshot eyes. “Honestly? Not really. I think it’ll fail. That’s why I didn’t mention it.”
“So why’d you mention it now?”
“Just making conversation,” Rol said with a shrug.
Gan sat down next to him on the bunk. “Something’s wrong, Rol.”
“Really? What was your first clue, the garbage on my skin?”
“This goes back to the Great Road, Rol,” Gan said intently. “You took down that anakore singlehandedly. What happened out there?”
“Nothing happened. I went to take a piss, I came back, I killed an anakore. And then I came here and am getting lesions on my skin. You now know everything I know.”
Gan snarled. “There’s got to be more to it than that.”
“Brilliant observation.” Rol threw up his hands. “Calbit and Jago have had a dozen healers in here, and they don’t know anything.”
“Yeah.” Gan leaned against the wall. “So we keep fighting?”
“Until I come up with a good plan. Or you do, but let’s face it, that’s pretty unlikely.”
That prompted a chuckle from Gan. “Well, that was nice.”
“Verbal abuse of me-you almost sound like your old self …”
The pair of them sat alone for a while after that, until the guards came to bring them up the spiral staircase.
They were alone in the waiting area. Stepping forward toward the rusty metal gate, Gan looked out at what he could see of the crowd, which was primarily those in the front rows opposite where the holding area was. It was only about five percent of the full crowd in his line of sight, and since it was expensive front-row seats, they were the most fanatical and devoted fans of the arena.
Which meant they were holding up signs that expressed their love for Gorbin, sometimes with a simple declarative like GORBIN’S THE BEST, others simply with his name or a crude drawing of his face. Some children were in his line of sight, and many were carrying small dolls that bore Gorbin’s likeness.
Jago was standing in the center of the arena again. “Tonight is a very special night here at the Pit, as Gorbin will once again take the arena-but against two new foes. These are vicious killers from beyond the wastes. You’ve seen them in the early fights, and they’ve won each and every single time. Now they’ll take on the greatest fighter in the Pit’s history-Gorbin.”
Boos for that. Nobody wanted to see Gorbin defeated. But the boos were surprisingly subdued.
And that’s when it finally hit Gan what was wrong with the crowd noise. There wasn’t enough of it. Last time he was in Urik, the seats shook from the din.
He turned to Rol. “The crowd sounds quiet.”
“It’s what they usually sound like,” Rol said with a shrug.
“Yeah, when we’re out there-but we’re the undercard. This is the main event of the Pit of Black Death, and I’d swear to you there’s not even a hundred people out there.”
Rol shrugged again. “Maybe people are tired of the arena.”
Gan scratched his chin. “Or maybe they’re tired of watching Gorbin win all the time.”
“Presenting Gorbin’s first challenger of the evening: Rol Mandred.”
Rol shrugged a third time. It seemed to be all he did anymore. “Guess I’ll have to take him down, then.”
The guards guided Rol toward the gate, which obligingly rose with its usual metallic squeal. Rol stepped into the arena.
The boos intensified, but they were still fairly subdued.
Rol and Gorbin circled each other. Gorbin looked kind of bored, which Gan suspected had something to do with the crowd’s reaction. The last time he was there, the hairless mul had stared intently at his opponent from underneath the bone ridge on his forehead. He had looked fierce and intimidating. The crowd fed off that.
With nothing to feed off of, though, they were listless.
Then Rol did something Gan had never seen his friend do in all the years they’d known each other.
Rol didn’t grin. He smirked, he smiled-especially if he was chatting a woman up-and he laughed sometimes, if the mood struck him.
But he never grinned.
In the arena, the two opponents circled each other. Neither took his eyes off the other, waiting for the other to make the first move.
The mul still looked bored, and Rol was still grinning that damned grin, but otherwise they were focused.
Finally, Gorbin made the first move, swinging a massive fist at Rol.
Rol caught it in his left hand.
A gasp rippled through the amphitheater-and the holding area as well. Muls were quite strong, and Rol, for all his might, was only a human. There was simply no way that Rol should have been able to just catch a mul’s punch without any ill effects.
Yet Rol looked as if he’d just caught a lightly tossed ball.
Gorbin looked stunned, staring at his fist in Rol’s hand as if he’d never seen anything like it. And indeed, he probably hadn’t.
Rol then punched the mul right in the nose while letting go of Gorbin’s fist. Rol’s fist struck Gorbin’s nose with a meaty thud, blood flying from his nostrils, and he fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
The crowd went completely quiet.
Walking over to the fallen mul, Rol looked down at him. “That the best you can do?”
Snarling, Gorbin wiped his nose with the back of his wrist, then leaped to his feet and started throwing dozens of punches. Rol was able to counter some of them, and some struck full on. Rol didn’t fight back, just let Gorbin hit his arms, keeping his elbows in so that Gorbin didn’t strike his stomach or chest.
Then Rol grinned again.
Gan’s heart skipped a beat. “What the hell is wrong with you, Rol?”
Rol let loose with a quick kick that slammed into Gorbin’s stomach, causing the mul to blow out a big breath and stumble backward. Not letting up, Rol kicked him again and punched him in the face a few more times.
Gorbin’s face was caked with blood from his nose and mouth, and he was breathing very heavily, spitting blood onto the stone floor. Rol was still grinning.
Then Rol grabbed Gorbin’s arms and lifted the mul-who had to weigh twice what Rol had ever been able to pick up before-and threw him across the arena floor. Gorbin hit the stone ground and skidded along to the obsidian wall.
Still the crowd was silent.
Gan looked at what he could see of the audience from the holding area. The signs had been lowered; the dolls of Gorbin’s likeness were being clutched for dear life, as if to ward off the mul’s apparent defeat.
Rol ran over to Gorbin’s prone, broken form, and stepped on one of his arms. The snap of bone echoed throughout the subdued amphitheater. Then he picked Gorbin up by that arm-causing the mul to scream in pain-and threw him toward the holding area.
Backing up instinctively, Gan watched as Gorbin slammed into the metal cage with a clang.
Struggling to get to his feet, Gorbin said, “I don’t understand-I’m the biggest and the strongest. I should be winning.”
Walking over to stand over Gorbin, Rol spoke in a quiet tone that Gan could barely hear. “There is no ‘biggest.’ There is no ‘strongest.’ Because there’s always someone who’s stronger and bigger. And sooner or later that person finds you.” Rol then kneeled down on the mul, his knees pinning Gorbin’s chest. Despite just wiping the floor with the greatest fighter in Urik, Rol didn’t even sound winded. “When that person does find you, it’s your time to die.”
Oddly, Gorbin’s blood-caked face brightened at that. “You mean I don’t have to fight anymore?”
“Thank you.” Gorbin sounded incredibly relieved.
To Gan’s amazement, it seemed that-when Rol grabbed the sides of Gorbin’s hairless head and yanked it to one side, snapping the mul’s neck-Gorbin died happy.
However, Gan had someone else’s happiness on his mind-not so much that of a dead fighter, but that of a restless crowd who had come there to watch the latest in a series of predetermined Gorbin fights.
The silence extended for several seconds.
It was broken by Jago, who was grinning even more widely than Rol had been.
“My friends, we have ourselves a new champion! For the first time in a decade, Gorbin has been defeated!”
Gan was seriously worried that the crowd would riot.
Then one person in the audience bellowed, “It’s about damned time!”
Someone else-or it might have been the same person, Gan couldn’t tell-started to clap.
Soon the applause started to spread throughout the arena.
That was followed by cheers and yips of joy.
After a few seconds, one of the incomprehensible yells started to coalesce into something understandable:
“Rol! Rol! Rol! Rol!”
At once Gan was relieved and frightened. The former because the crowd seemed to accept Rol’s victory. Indeed, they were embracing it, having gotten over the shock of Gorbin’s defeat.
The latter because what he just saw was completely impossible. There was no way, none, that an unenhanced human of Rol’s strength and talent-considerable though both were-could have wiped the floor with any mul like that, much less a mul as talented as Gorbin.
Something was wrong with Rol, and Gan needed to find out what it was.
He really wished that Feena was there …
Rol’s hands hurt.
That was the worst part.
No, the worst part was the headaches. They were awful.
No, the worst part were the horrible lesions that kept sprouting on his skin and would not go away.
No, the worst part was that those lesions would sometimes pop and smear red ooze all over everything.
No, the worst part was constantly being forced to fight for the pleasure of other people instead of being paid for it like a sensible person.
No, the worst part was that Rol was starting to forget who he was.
Yes, that was definitely the worst part.
He tried not to think about it too much.
Besides, that was only sometimes. Most of the time he knew damn well that he was Rol Mandred, that he was a human, that his best friends were Fehrd Anspah and Gan Storvis, that he hired himself out as a rent-a-thug, and that his parents were named-
He couldn’t remember his parents’ names.
But he tried not to think about it too much.
His hands hurt.
Some nights, when he slept-on those rare occasions when he could actually sleep, not toss and turn in the “cubicle” that Calbit and Jago had put him and Gan in-he dreamed about the red liquid. But in the dream, the red liquid was swirling madly in a whirlpool. Unfamiliar images crashed onto his consciousness like dunes overflowing during a sandstorm: a large golden vortexlike eye, a strange creature with gray skin but with shoulders covered in red crystal, a female wizard turning a tiefling into stone …
Plus phrases he did not recognize: the Elder Elemental Eye, Bael Turath, Voidharrow.
That last one he heard a lot in his dreams.
But then he woke up. And he tried not to think about it too much.
Sometimes he thought that he was better off not thinking at all. Just giving in to all of it.
That would make life easier.
“Rol, you okay?”
For a moment, Rol panicked. He knew the voice, knew it, as certain as he knew his own name was-
What was his name?
Gan. That was it. No, Gan wasn’t his name, Gan was the name of the person talking to him. His own name was Rol Mandred. He knew that.
He always knew that. Except when he didn’t.
“I’m fine.” His voice sounded weird. “My hands hurt a little, but I’m fine.”
He looked around the cubicle, but couldn’t see Gan.
Maybe he was imagining Gan. Maybe he was imagining all of it. Maybe Gan didn’t exist. Maybe it was all a dream and he’d wake up from it soon.
Maybe the red liquid was the reality and Gan was the fantasy.
Yes, embrace the Voidharrow …
He shook his head. “Not you. The other voice.”
“There is no other voice, Rol. It’s just me.”
After a second, Rol realized that he couldn’t see Gan because Gan was in the cubicle across the hall. Now he remembered-once they became the new main event, Gan and Rol were each given their own cubicles. That was just a stupid name for what was really a cell, just like any other. Rol had been in plenty over the years, so he knew what they were like, and this was most definitely a cell, no matter what they called it. Like that time in-
He couldn’t remember where it was.
Grimacing, he tried to recall that time when he was in that cell. There was a woman-there was always a woman-and her husband got a little peeved the way husbands always did, and did they take it out on the woman who cheated? No, they took it out on Rol, who was just having a bit of fun, and they threw him in a cell. They were quite humorless, the magistrates in-
Why couldn’t he remember the city-state where he was imprisoned?
“Gan, do you remember where it was when I was imprisoned for sleeping with that girl?”
At that, Gan actually laughed. “Seriously? Rol, you’re gonna need to be considerably more specific than that.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Rol, we need to work on escaping this place.”
“What? Why?” Rol knew that Gan was right, but he couldn’t remember why Gan was right.
Speaking very slowly, Gan said, “Because we’ve been enslaved, you jackass.”
“Right, right, I knew that.” Rol tried to force himself to focus. It was just so hard …
He wished he could remember how they got there. It had something to do with Fehrd, but he could no longer recall how Fehrd was involved. Or even where Fehrd was. He should have been with them.
Gan was talking about something that may have been important. It was hard to tell with Gan, since he was always talking. “It’s gonna be a lot harder now. Ever since you became the featured attraction, they’ve hired a lot more security. The crowds’re bigger too.”
“Why is that?”
“You, you moron.” Gan sounded angry; his yelling made Rol’s headache worse. “You beat the unbeatable fighter. People actually give a frip about the fights in this arena for the first time in years. Calbit and Jago hired about a dozen mercenaries to supplement the other guys, and some of them even have metal swords. The patrols are all random too-haven’t been able to find any kind of pattern. I gotta tell you, we had a better chance of escaping before you killed that mul.”
“What the hell choice did I have?” Rol screamed, and slammed a fist into one of the cubicle walls.
His hand no longer hurt, oddly, and a large chunk, and several small chips, fell to the floor from the stone wall.
“Will you please calm down?” Gan said. “You’ll bring the guards, and then we can’t talk.”
“Maybe I don’t want to talk to you. In fact, Gan, I’m sick of talking to you. All you ever do is talk.”
“Good, that’s good.”
Rol frowned, confused. “What’s good?”
“You’re complaining about me. That’s a good sign that you’re you.”
“Of course, I’m me. Who else would I be?” Rol asked that question despite not being entirely sure of the answer.
“I wish I knew.” Gan spoke with tremendous emotion, so much so that Rol blinked in surprise. Gan usually didn’t speak quite so strongly. “Rol, ever since that night in the desert, you haven’t been yourself-in any way. You’re ridiculously powerful, and you look more and more like you’re diseased. I’m scared.”
Gan never admitted to being scared of anything. At least, Rol didn’t think he ever had. It was hard to recall specifically.
Hell, he still couldn’t remember his parents’ names. And his head still hurt.
“We have to get out of here, Gan,” Rol said. “I don’t care what it takes. We need Fehrd to make a plan.”
There was a long pause before Gan replied to that. “Fehrd’s dead, Rol.”
Rol had forgotten that.
In fact, he still didn’t remember it, and wasn’t sure that Gan wasn’t lying.
No, that was crazy. Gan wouldn’t lie to him.
“Are you sure he’s dead?”
“Remember, Rol, that Black Sands thug killed him. They were fighting with staffs, and then the leader took out a knife and stabbed him with it.”
Rol didn’t remember that at all. But it didn’t sound right, somehow. “Why would he stab him if they were fighting with staffs?”
In a voice reeking with incredulousness, Gan said, “He was the leader of a band of thieves-on what planet do you expect him to behave honorably? Hell, I don’t expect you to behave honorably, and you’re the closest thing to an honorable person I’ve ever met.”
That surprised Rol. Somehow Gan saying something nice to him didn’t match with what he expected Gan to say.
Things were obviously worse than he thought.
But he couldn’t think straight, so that wasn’t surprising.
He just needed to rest. Maybe then his hand wouldn’t hurt so much and his head wouldn’t hurt so much and he’d start to remember things again. Like his parents’ names and how Fehrd died and where it was he was in that cell and …
Give in to the Voidharrow and all-
“What is it?” Gan sounded concerned.
Rol shook his head. “It’s fine. Really, I’m fine, I just-” He moved to rub his eyes, then realized that his fingers were covered in lesions. No, they weren’t lesions anymore, they were red pustules that made it impossible for him to even touch anything.
He snarled. “We need to get out of here.”
“I’m open to suggestions as to how.” Gan let out a very loud breath. “I wish Feena was here.”
“Who the frip is Feena?”
Impatiently, Gan said, “My sister, you moron. She-” He cut himself off, then whispered, “Someone’s coming.”
Rol hoped it was someone who could make his hands not hurt.
A new voice said, “Stand, whaddayacall, away from the door.”
Actually, Rol realized it was an old voice: Sasker, one of the guards. He always came with three other guards, all armed with metal swords.
So Rol stood back from the door.
It creaked open to reveal Sasker, along with the usual three guards. Their swords were out.
“Time for your next fight, and-” Sasker stopped short and stared goggle-eyed at Rol. “What the frip happened to you?”
Rol had no idea what he was talking about. “I’m the same as always.”
“Not hardly. Your face is all, whaddayacall, covered in crap.”
One of the thugs said, “Maybe we should have a healer look at ’im.”
Sasker looked at him as if he was insane. “Right, another one. Calbit hates payin’ for healers, and they sent, whaddayacall, half a dozen to look at this guy. ’Sides, it’s time for the fight.”
Defensively, the thug asked, “What if it’s contagious-like?”
The look on Sasker’s face didn’t change. “You’re bein’ paid to keep the fighters in line. You ain’t bein’ paid to, whaddayacall, think. So shut the hell up.” He turned back to Rol. “Get up, Mandred. Time to earn your keep.”
“You don’t pay me.”
“Fine, earn Calbit and Jago their keep, then. C’mon, let’s go.”
At that point, Rol could do the walk to the arena in his sleep. The three guards were at triangle points around him too far for him to grab, but far enough away to be able to effectively use their swords if he made a false move.
His hands really, really hurt.
They brought him into the waiting area and then Jago started doing his routine, and Rol could barely hear it over the crowd noise.
The noise just would not stop. Rol tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t go away, and he tried to listen to something else, but there was just the noise and nothing else and it was just making his headache worse and worse. He needed to find something else to listen to.
Embrace the chaos, my friend. Spread the seed and everything will be yours.
That wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but somehow, that voice-that annoying voice, that voice which had been in the back of his head since that night in the desert and that would not go away no matter how many times he tried-didn’t make his headache worse.
In fact, right then, hearing the voice, the headache went away.
And his hands didn’t hurt.
So finally, after not listening to the voice, after wishing the voice would go away, he embraced the voice.
He barely paid attention to Jago as he droned on about fights and battles and other nonsense. The crowd was cheering, but he paid even less attention to that.
All he saw was the thri-kreen facing him in the arena.
Spread the seed …
The thri-kreen skittered on all his legs across the arena, trying to avoid Rol, then jumping up onto his hind legs to slice at Rol with his pincers.
Spread the seed …
Rol smiled. He’d faced the thri-kreen before, and usually ducked and dodged his pincers, mainly out of a desire to keep the pustules from bursting.
Suddenly, that was just what he wanted.
A pincer came at his face and Rol didn’t move. It cut through one of the pustules, causing a minor bit of pain in Rol’s cheek and sending red ooze spraying out onto the thri-kreen.
Dimly, Rol registered the gasp of the crowd. Jago had taken to blaming Rol’s “affliction” on his nonexistent trip to the Beastbarrens, where he met “strange creatures beyond all possible imagining” and that one had done that to him.
So naturally there was concern when one of the strange red bumps that were covering him burst all over the thri-kreen.
That concern no doubt elevated when the thri-kreen started to scream.
Rol’s smile widened. The Voidharrow would not be denied. It would spread and bring magnificent chaos.
And deep down in the darkest recesses of Rol Mandred’s mind, that thought terrified him. And the fact that his terror was so deeply buried while he was outwardly thrilled at the very concept terrified him even more.
Drahar hated coming to the arena.
When he first was appointed to be King Hamanu’s chamberlain-the previous appointee having made the mistake of publicly disagreeing with one of the royal edicts-the king had attended the fights at the absurdly named “Pit of Black Death” once a month. And, of course, all the highest ranking members of the court had to attend as well.
At first, Drahar had dreaded the very notion. He had been born into a sirdar family, and one of the benefits of being born to that higher class was that he didn’t have to participate in the gutter practices of those beneath his station. From the time he was born, he knew he was destined for great things, especially once he proved to have some psionic ability, and therefore received training in the Way at the King’s Academy. Of course, as a scion of the sirdars, he was able to receive the advanced training.
Many options were open to Drahar after graduating the Academy, but he found himself gravitating to politics. The true power in Athas belonged with those who ruled the city-states, and Drahar knew he had to be part of that. His only plan was to work his way into the king’s inner circle. His skills in the Way got him appointments he might not have received otherwise, and his own intelligence and craftiness took him the rest of the way. He became a sirdar, just like his parents.
Unlike his parents, he was able to elevate himself to one of the highest positions possible for someone not actually of royal bloodlines.
Stupidly, he had assumed that would mean never having to go to the arena. What was the point of being one of the most powerful people in Urik if he couldn’t avoid the things that revolted him? And there was nothing on Athas more disgusting than watching two people fight for no reason. Truth be told, watching people fight for cause wasn’t particularly appealing, either, but there, at least, Drahar could understand it.
But to call two people punching each other repeatedly “sport” made a mockery of true sport. Drahar wasn’t much for participating, but he loved to watch, especially simtot, which was a field sport that involved directing a ball toward a net while riding a crodlu. That required riding skill, as well as observation of one’s surroundings, and a certain skill in geometry, since one needed to calculate angles of trajectory and such. It was a sport that rewarded intellect and skill.
However, affairs of state were often conducted in the royal box at the Pit. A critical trade agreement was hammered out during one of the fights between Gorbin and Szanka, before Szanka died in his sleep of unknown causes.
According to Hamanu, that was when the fights started going downhill. It was Drahar’s considered opinion that they were already deep in a valley, but he said nothing, mindful of his predecessor’s fate.
After a while, Gorbin won every fight quickly, and after a while, the king got bored with the fights. Drahar could have danced in the streets, he was so overjoyed when two months went by without an arena visit.
Soon the king turned to other hobbies-including, to Drahar’s joy, simtot-and Drahar was convinced that he would never need to set foot in the Pit, or any other such place, again.
Unfortunately, it was Templar Tharson’s favorite entertainment. And Drahar needed Tharson on his side.
Tharson actually went to the Pit every night he was able to. Sometimes-often, in fact-his duties as commander of the Imperial Guard kept him away, but if he was free, he was there. The king even let Tharson use the royal box, which had the benefit of being raised high above the arena. If Drahar did have to suffer through the fights, he could at least do it from a distance.
They had gone there that night after a particularly frustrating meeting with the king.
Hamanu sat on his throne, which was unusually drab. One of the things Drahar admired about Hamanu was that the king did not believe in what he referred to as “unnecessary finery.” He wore silks that were well-tailored, of course, and jewelry appropriate to his station, but he saw no need to be ostentatious. His throne was simply a chair, albeit one that was cushioned and apparently comfortable, on a dais that kept the monarch on a higher plane than the others in the throne room.
Drahar was sitting with the other members of the court in uncushioned chairs that were arranged in a semicircle around the throne. The meeting had been to discuss possible methods of raising capital to increase the ranks of the Imperial Guard. Although the king’s army more than served its function to protect the city-state against invaders, many in the court felt that the king’s sights should be set beyond the walls of Urik. But the Guard, as currently situated, would be spread too thin to properly wage a war and also protect the homeland.
Both the mines and the orchards-the two primary sources of income for Urik-had produced low yields of late. It wasn’t enough to cause major difficulties for anyone living there, but it also meant that they had no surplus. On the one hand, it was one reason why raising the capital necessary to expand the Guard would be difficult. On the other, it was all the more reason why Urik needed to conquer more lands-like, say, Tyr.
The meeting was being held because Tharson and Drahar were attempting to convince Hamanu to take the latter position.
“We could always expand the ranks through conscription of civilians into the service,” Tharson said to the king.
Tharson barely finished his sentence before Hamanu replied, “No. We need soldiers, Templar, not knife fodder. More to the point, we need trained soldiers, not random fools taken off the streets.”
One of Drahar’s fellow sirdars said, “Even if we did conscript, we would have to feed and clothe them.”
Tharson made a noise like a fireball. “We’d have to pay them if we wanted them to be any good at it. Unpaid soldiers are poor ones.”
“It does not matter,” the king said. “I do not wish to sully the ranks of the Guard by lowering the standards of service.”
Drahar knew that Hamanu had had experience in that regard, including some campaigns that had been lost due to not recognizing that quantity was not the same as quality. Still, he had hopes that the king might see reason.
“Magnificence, the mines are not going to suddenly improve their yields. In the long term, such gains are always temporary. The only way for us to remain as powerful as we are is to find another resource to exploit-which, sadly, does not exist anywhere in the region, if at all in Athas-or expand our territory.”
“In fact,” the king said witheringly, “the mines have always fluctuated. Next year might see an uptick, and the orchards are certainly likely to bounce back as well. I appreciate the desire to expand my kingdom, but it must wait at least another year. That is all.”
Drahar managed to control his reaction in public with the ease of long practice-he was always mindful, after all, of his predecessor’s fate.
But internally, he was seething.
He and Tharson walked out of the throne room together, Drahar saying, “We must discuss this.”
Tharson nodded. “Tonight, at the arena.”
For once, Drahar didn’t bother to control his reaction. “Must we?”
“Oh, yes, we must.” The templar smiled. “Someone managed to kill Gorbin.”
His eyes widening, Tharson said, “What do you mean ‘so?’ This is Gorbin.”
“It’s just people punching people. There’s no art to it. Sooner or later, someone was bound to be able to punch better than Gorbin.”
“Regardless, it’s past time I saw a good fight at the Pit.”
Drahar was still waiting for the first time he would see one, but said nothing.
And so, the pair of them were taken on palanquins to the Pit. Drahar was grateful for the silk curtains that kept him from having to look out onto the streets of Urik as he was carried through-bad enough they couldn’t contain the smell. It wasn’t so bad when they first left, but the Pit was located closer to Urik’s slums. The architecture changed from large, complex buildings with elegant stonework and molding that were sculpted into leonine themes-even the palanquin they rode had bas-relief lions carved into the sides-to ramshackle structures that barely protected their inhabitants from the harshness of the midday sun.
Depressingly, Drahar could track their progress via his nose. He wasn’t sure whether it was due to the poor handling of local sewage or the fact that the populace never bathed. While Drahar knew that water was hard to come by, the very least they could do was try to clean themselves at least once a month, if not the weekly bath Drahar himself always took.
After that, arriving at the royal box at the Pit was something of a relief. Drahar could smell soap and cleaning waxes-obviously the owners kept the place clean for Tharson, which Drahar appreciated in the abstract. Certainly, it made having to sit through such nonsense a great deal easier.
Wine was brought for everyone, and Drahar gulped down most of a tankard in one sip, hoping the alcohol would dull the experience.
It failed in that regard, leading Drahar to suspect that the wine was watered down as a cost-saving endeavor. Either that or the owners saw the value in their customers not being too drunk.
Any hope that the experience might have improved in the years since the king lost interest in the arena were dashed when Drahar saw that Jago-or was it Calbit? he could never keep the arena’s owners’ names straight-was still doing the same tired barker routine at the top of each fight. Even more pathetic: the crowd was eating it up.
The first few fights were of little interest even to Tharson, as they were lesser bouts between contestants whom Jago claimed were all “among the finest brawlers in Urik.” Drahar finished his third tankard by the end of the second fight, having endeavored to pay as little attention as possible to the events on the stage, endeavoring to engage Tharson in conversation about how they would go about convincing Hamanu that he was wrong to put off invading Tyr for a year.
At first, Drahar was successful, but then Jago came out and announced that “the moment you all came here to see” had arrived.
Only then did Drahar notice that the crowd had expanded considerably. Therefore the reception to Jago’s request to welcome the new champion, whose name was apparently Rol Mandred, was much, much louder than their previous reactions.
Then the fighter came out, and Drahar nearly dropped his tankard.
This Rol Mandred was a creature of magic. What’s more, he had a taint that was, quite simply, impossible.
Tharson was staring at him. “What’s wrong, Drahar?”
Drahar shook his head. “I’m sorry? What makes you think anything is wrong?”
“You’re actually watching the arena,” Tharson said with a grin. “Usually you only pay that level of attention to something that relates to magic.”
Quietly, Drahar said, “Very observant, Templar.”
Now the grin fell. “There’s magic on the arena floor?”
“The new fighter-Mandred, is it?”
“He’s the reason we’re here.” Tharson gulped down whatever he was drinking from his tankard. “That’s the one who killed Gorbin.”
“I doubt it took him much effort,” Drahar muttered. “He appears human, but he’s a creature of magic.”
“He barely appears human,” Tharson said with a snort. “Look at those poxes all over him. And I’ve never seen a human that size.”
Looking more closely, Drahar saw that the clothes Mandred was wearing were tight against his pockmarked skin. In particular, they were pulling on his shoulders. The clothes were also well-worn and had desert sand on them-which meant they were probably being worn by Mandred when he was brought in from whatever forsaken land Calbit found him in.
“He’s human,” Drahar said, “but he’s growing. The magic is changing him slowly.”
“Is that why he looks diseased?”
“Possibly.” Drahar shook his head. “What I do not understand is that he has the taint of the Abyss.”
That prompted a rare smirk from Drahar. “A theory. The Abyss is the void in the chaotic realms beyond our world.” At Tharson’s blank expression-Drahar had to remind himself that, while Tharson was one of the finer military minds in Athas, he had no training in the Way-the sirdar added, “There are-theoretically-many realms beyond our own. The Abyss is like an open wound across them all.” He shuddered. “It’s a horrible place.”
“How’s that? A wound in reality?”
Drahar blinked. He thought that an odd question for Tharson to ask-but, again, he had little training. “And in theory-it’s a mad chasm of entropy. The Abyss is a void of sorts, yes, but it’s also a presence-a death urge capable of devouring the world if left unchecked. The triumph of chaos over order is what they tell us.” Another smirk, as he recalled several lecture-hall discussions that quickly degenerated into arguments. “Or the triumph of order over chaos, depending on who you ask.”
“Really?” asked Tharson with a thoughtful sip from his tankard.
“And you think that one bears its mark?” The templar pointed at Mandred, who was facing off against a half-giant.
The roar of the crowd muted Drahar’s response, and he found himself, for the first time in his life, fascinated by what was going on in the arena.
Having no clue as to what constituted good technique, Drahar simply watched what looked to him like incredibly graceless stumbling about. The half-giant had tufts of hair all over his body, which were only slightly more attractive than the pustules that ravaged Mandred’s flesh.
They were circling each other at first, and then the half-giant lunged.
He crashed right into Mandred, who barely even seemed to notice.
Mandred just smiled and swung his fist downward onto the half-giant’s head like a hammer.
The half-giant fell to the floor, either unconscious or dead. Drahar couldn’t really tell, and also didn’t really care.
What fascinated him was that the power of the magic he sensed increased when Mandred pounded his opponent, who was carried out on a wheelbarrow. Drahar could see the half-giant’s large stomach rise and fall, so the blow wasn’t fatal.
Three others came out to fight Mandred-a bulky elf, who’d been one of the earlier fighters; a scrawny hejkin, one of the abominations of the desert covered in boils that made him an amusing visual match for Mandred; and a fat human-and none of them lasted much longer than the half-giant had.
He sent the elf flying into the crowd, nearly crushing two children. The hejkin, Mandred picked up and twirled over his head. He then threw the creature into the obsidian wall, and its bones made wet, cracking sounds that echoed throughout the arena. Some of his boils burst with the impact, leaving pus to ooze out onto the arena floor. Somehow Drahar couldn’t bring himself to be surprised that nobody bothered to clean it up.
With each victory, Drahar sensed the increase in Mandred’s power.
It was the fight against the fat human-Jago identified him as Daj Douk-that was of particular note to Drahar. For starters, it lasted the longest of the battles, which meant it could be measured in minutes rather than seconds. That was mainly due to Mandred’s blows being struck at Douk’s voluminous belly. Mandred’s fists seemed to be absorbed by the rolls of fat, while Douk just stood there and laughed it off.
Unfortunately, Douk had two things going against him: first, that his own blows to Mandred’s body were even less effective; and second, that Mandred had the presence of mind to change his strategy and strike at Douk’s head.
Douk was not an entire fool, however. He managed to parry the first blow to his head.
Unfortunately, it caused one of the lesions on Mandred’s skin to burst, sending a red liquid squirting out from the broken skin.
Drahar winced and frowned, finding the sight more than a little revolting. The simultaneous gasp from the crowd indicated a similar reaction. What surprised him was Tharson-a hardened veteran of dozens of campaigns-also pursing his lips in disgust.
The gasps got louder when Douk started screaming as the liquid sprayed onto his face.
Thus distracted, Mandred was able to backhand Douk in the side of the head, knocking him to the floor.
Douk lay on the ground, still screaming, his hand to his head where the red liquid had spread.
Drahar sensed the Abyssal taint still-but it was on Douk, as well as Mandred.
Then Douk’s scream grew louder, and pustules very similar to those of Mandred started to form on his skin. Douk was only wearing a loincloth, so Drahar could see his skin break out all over right before his eyes.
The fat human also started to grow in size. His scream modulated from one of pain and anguish to one of rage and anger.
But before he could get to his feet, Mandred pounded him on the top of the head in much the same manner as he did the half-giant at the start of the bout.
Drahar closed his eyes, focusing the Way toward Mandred. With his mind, he was able to sense the Abyssal taint, the magic that coursed through Mandred’s entire body, changing him-and changing Douk as well.
What was more impressive was that the strange magic had increased in power each time Mandred caused violence. When he killed his foe, the intensity was even greater.
The transfer of the magic to Douk caused a slight dimming, but it was temporary-and brief.
For the final battle, Jago brought out half-a-dozen opponents. Amazingly, that fight went fastest of all, as the six foes had simply no chance against Mandred. Their strikes would have had more effect on a stone wall, and Mandred’s own blows were instantly fatal. The increase in magical potency had led to a concomitant increase in Mandred’s strength.
Drahar then turned to Tharson. “We may now have a solution to our issues with raising a proper army.”
Tharson squinted. “You’re not thinking-”
“Yes, I am. Mandred is a powerful creature of magic, and he can be ours. What’s more, he can possibly create more just like him.”
“Perhaps.” Tharson took a long gulp, draining the last of his tankard. Then he summoned one of the errand boys that worked the arena. “Take a message to Calbit and Jago. Inform them that the Imperial Guard will be coming later this evening to remove Rol Mandred and Daj Douk from the arena. If they ask why, tell them that they are being …” Tharson smiled, “conscripted into service to the king.”
The errand boy nodded and moved off.
A slave poured Tharson and Drahar both fresh drinks. The templar held his up. “To Rol Mandred.”
Holding up his own tankard and clanking it against Tharson’s, Drahar said, “To Urik’s future in our hands.”
Helsno Calbit was about ready to kill someone.
He was tempted to grab one of the mercenaries’ bone knives and slit the throat of whichever fighter had the most losses, just for the satisfaction.
But no, then he’d have to pay to clean the blood off the stone floors of the cubicles. And all of a sudden, their ability to pay for that was in jeopardy. Bad enough that that hejkin’s green pus was all over the catacomb floors from his burst boils; one of the guards had expressed concern that someone might slip on it, but it was the least of Calbit’s problems.
Of course, he had no choice in the matter. How could he? The king’s chamberlain and the commander of the Imperial Guard wanted Mandred, and that was the end of it. People who went against those who represented the king could measure their life expectancy in seconds.
It had all been going so wonderfully. When he first saw those three goons beating up on the Black Sands Raiders, he immediately started talking to Tirana about ways to get them into the stone carriage. After all, anyone who could take down eight raiders and leave the remaining four scattered to the sands without mounts were people he could count on to give good value in the arena.
Tirana inherited her looks and seductive capabilities from her mother. Thankfully, she didn’t inherit the bitch’s personality. That meant, though, that she could make any man do her bidding with just a few well-placed words.
Calbit had done worse to get fighters for the arena.
He’d only left Urik in the first place because Gorbin’s success was making it damn near impossible to find anyone willing to get in the ring with the bastard. He’d had to travel across the wastes for weeks, hoping that Jago didn’t make a mess of the place while he was gone. All their excess capital-which was damned little-was used to buy slaves, which was why he had to resort to kidnapping. That, and taking some prisoners from a town magistrate eager to clear space in his jail, a transaction that only required a modest bribe. Said bribe garnered him a dozen slaves, and it was the same amount that he paid per head for the merchandise he got from the other slavers.
And then there were Mandred and Storvis, who were quite literally a steal.
It was a pity that the third one died at the hands of the Black Sands Raiders, though Calbit got the impression that the other two didn’t care all that much. Perhaps the one who died was their original owner, and they’d been hoping that his death meant freedom. Or maybe they didn’t like him very much.
Maybe they were in his debt.
Not that it mattered anymore.
For a few days, everything was perfect. Up until last year, even with declining attendance thanks to the sameness of the main event, they were still making a profit. Any and all attempts to change things up were even bigger failures. True, Gorbin wasn’t much of a draw, but no Gorbin nearly resulted in a riot every time. The few people who did show up did so because they wanted to watch the mul pound the hell out of his opponents.
But it became a case of diminishing returns, and last year they were starting to lose profit.
Hence Calbit’s taking his daughter on their extended trip.
Sure enough, they found everything they wanted and more. Mandred was an even more amazing fighter than his singlehanded defeat of the anakore indicated. Within two days, they were back to breaking even, as the crowds poured in, eager to see who managed to defeat the mighty Gorbin.
He was muttering as he walked down a corridor toward the office that he and Jago maintained. “Conscription, my right toe-what’s he trying to pull, anyway? Taking coin away from honest folk …”
“Talking to yourself, Calbit?”
Looking up, he saw that Jago was also approaching the office. The shorter man was rubbing his hands with glee.
“Yes,” Calbit said sharply, “it’s my only guarantee of intelligent conversation.”
Jago just shot him a look.
“Things are finally looking up, and those idiots from the court have gone and-”
“Made everything better. Are you mad, Calbit? I was ready to hand Mandred over to them right then instead of waiting until this morning when the guards came.”
Calbit frowned as they both entered the office. The space had been a guard post when the catacombs were part of the mine. It had no windows, and so had to be lit by torches regularly, but Calbit actually preferred that. After weeks spent trudging through the wastes with the sun beating down on him, being surrounded by cold obsidian and firelight was oddly appealing.
“What are you on about, Jago?” he asked his partner.
“We had to put down the last thri-kreen today. Mandred must’ve bled on him or something. In fact, Douk is the first one he’s infected that hasn’t gone crazy-and that’s probably just because he hasn’t had a chance to yet.”
Reluctantly, Calbit said, “You may be right.”
Jago’s eyes widened. “May be? The guards have barely been able to contain him. It’s only a matter of time before he’s strong enough to break down the cubicle door. Honestly, if we didn’t have Storvis, I think he might’ve already broken out. Ironic, given that breaking out is all Storvis talks about.”
“Well, there’s no chance of that-he’s our best fighter, now.”
“In any event, we’re well to be rid of Mandred. Even with all the other issues, he wasn’t any better than Gorbin.”
Calbit blinked, stared at Jago, then blinked again. “Are you mad?” he finally blurted out after being unable to make his mouth work for several seconds.
“No. Mandred was beating everyone who came at him. Hell, he was beating several people who came at him at once.”
Pointing at the door to the office, Calbit said, “And the audience was devouring it whole.”
“For now, yes.” Jago shook his head. “Once the novelty of Mandred wore off, though, we were gonna be right back in the same hole.”
Calbit hadn’t thought of that.
Jago went on. “Now we have fights without predetermined outcomes. There’s unpredictability again.”
“I suppose. Still, I really wanted Mandred to bring us back into a profitable zone before we’d have to coast.”
“We won’t have to coast.” Jago walked up to Calbit and put a hand on his shoulder. “We’re back, my friend.”
Shrugging the hand off his shoulder, Calbit turned his back on his partner. “Stop calling me that.” Calbit had never liked Jago, but he had been the one to put up the initial capital that allowed them to purchase the mine from the king once it was tapped out. Plus, he was much better at working the crowd than Calbit ever was. Jago actually liked to talk to people, whereas Calbit found pretty much everyone save for his daughter to be useless.
“Fine,” Jago said, “but we’re-”
Calbit turned to see his lovely daughter standing in the doorway with another smaller woman with ice blue eyes and curly blond hair behind her.
Very rarely did Calbit smile, but he was willing to do so for his child. “What is it, Tirana?”
“This woman is named Wimma Anspah, and she’s here about Mandred and Storvis.”
The blonde barged past Tirana into the office. She wore clothing with brightly colored ostentation, as one would expect from a woman of Raam, an elaborate dress and equally elaborate shoulder bag. “Are you in charge here?”
“We are,” Jago said quickly. “What is the issue?”
Squinting down at the woman, Calbit asked, “And why is your name so familiar?”
Tirana answered the question. “She bears the same family name as the man who was killed by the Black Sands Raiders.”
The Anspah woman snapped at Tirana. “He was my husband. And from what I’ve been able to piece together from the caravan station in Raam, he died saving your worthless hides.”
The sharp-tongued woman reminded Calbit far too much of Tirana’s mother for his liking.
“As my daughter said, your husband was killed by Black Sands Raiders,” was all Calbit was willing to say.
“Yes, he died, and those two idiot slaves tried to run off.”
Calbit frowned. “What are you on about, woman?”
“She’s saying,” Jago said with a smile, “that Mandred and Storvis are her slaves. Am I correct?”
The woman-Wimma-smiled insincerely at Jago. “Ah, I see you must be the brains of the outfit.”
“That’s enough.” Calbit was losing patience. “State your business, madam, or leave our property.”
“Funny you should mention property, as that is why I am here. You have mine.” She reached into the shoulder bag and pulled out a parchment. Jago took it from her and unrolled it to look it over. “This is the statement of ownership stating that my husband, Fehrd Anspah, and I, his lawful wife, own Gan Storvis and Rol Mandred. You will produce them immediately.”
“Not really possible, I’m afraid.” Calbit smirked at Wimma, enjoying the fact that, no matter what the end result of the conversation was, she was not going to come out of it with what she wanted.
The new fact did explain why Storvis and Mandred were so tight-lipped regarding the third member of their party. They obviously didn’t want it out that they were his slaves and his death freed them.
Calbit admitted to admiring their plan. It might have worked if not for Calbit’s own greed-that and the tenacity of their owner’s wife.
“And why is that?” Wimma asked Calbit.
Jago interrupted before Calbit could answer. “This statement of ownership is genuine, and it is signed by the proper Raam authority.” He handed the parchment back to Wimma. “Sadly, Raam authority carries very little weight here.”
“Actually, it carries quite a bit. The most recent treaty between Grand Vizier Abalach-Re and King Hamanu has very specific language regarding the disposition of slaves between owners. There is not a templar in Urik who won’t honor this declaration of ownership.”
“You overestimate the power of the templars, my dear,” Calbit said nastily, “mostly because you don’t understand what, precisely, is going on here-or where it is you have stepped into.”
Again the insincere smile came out, directed at Calbit. “It’s a fighting arena called the Pit of Black Death, it’s owned by the pair of you, and your main attraction is a mul named Gorbin.”
“Yes, well, things have changed. Gorbin’s dead-killed, in fact, by your slave.”
Wimma’s mouth fell open. “Did he, now? Well, he was always a most excellent fighter. Which one was it, Storvis or Mandred?”
“Mandred. And therein lies your problem,” Calbit said. “You see, the lord chamberlain and the commander of the Imperial Guard got it into their heads that they could use Mandred for some purpose or other, and so this morning the Imperial Guard took Mandred away to Destiny’s Kingdom. So if you want him back, you’re gonna have to take it up with the king. Oh, and best of luck getting a magistrate to side with you on that one.”
As soon as Wimma looked down at the floor, Calbit knew he’d won.
Then she looked back up again and spoke in a tight voice. “There is still the matter of Storvis. Or did the king take him as well?”
“No, we still have Storvis,” Jago said before Calbit could deny it. Calbit shot him an annoyed look-there was no proof that they had Storvis, after all, and he wasn’t willing to give up the only bright spot he had left. “However,” Jago continued, “we have no great desire to give him up.”
Wimma seemed to stew on that for several seconds. “Perhaps a templar will not side with me in prying my property out of your king’s hands, but out of yours?”
“Go right ahead,” Tirana said from the doorway, and Calbit took pride in how she matched the Raam bitch for haughtiness. “I believe the wait to see a templar for a new case is three weeks.”
“Oh no, Tirana,” Calbit said dramatically, “that’s for Urikites. For outsiders, it’s more like three months.”
“Fine.” Wimma pursed her lips. “What if I made it worth your while?”
Calbit was about to tell her to go frip herself, but Jago didn’t give him the chance. “How?”
“I have come into possession of a mul.” That last word was said with undisguised disdain. “He’s obnoxious, he smells bad, and he eats too much-but he can brawl, and I understand that that’s what you prefer in this place. I’ll gladly trade my slave for him.”
Before Jago could agree, Calbit said, “How big is he?”
Wimma shrugged. “Perhaps a head taller than I?”
Calbit liked the sound of that. They hadn’t had a decent mul in the arena aside from Gorbin in ages, and they always provided the best bouts.
He looked at Jago, who nodded. “Very well,” Calbit said. “Let’s see this mul first, and assuming we like the looks of him, you’ve got yourself a trade.”
Wimma’s smile was far more genuine when she replied, “Excellent.”
They arranged a time and place to make the exchange, and Calbit had been hoping that would be it.
But then Wimma said, “I wish to see Storvis.”
“What for?” Calbit asked angrily.
“I have no proof that my property is unharmed-or indeed that he is truly here. If I do not receive it, I will go to the templars, and I don’t care if I have to wait three weeks, three months, or three years, I will have satisfaction.”
Having lost patience with the woman about four seconds after first laying eyes on her, and not wishing to inflict her on Tirana, Calbit fobbed her off on Jago. “You take her.”
Shrugging, Jago said, “Very well. Follow me.”
Gan wasn’t sure how things could possibly get worse.
Just by thinking that, he knew that things probably would.
They should have just kept walking. Gone around the caravan and let the raiders have their way with them. Maybe they would’ve killed that old bastard Calbit and his treacherous daughter.
Failing that, they should have rejected the slaver’s hospitality. Both he and Rol should have known better than to trust someone who trafficked in human flesh to be in any way compassionate.
Since they’d taken Rol away, Gan had come up with several dozen scenarios that would have removed him from his predicament, with Fehrd actually winning his fight against the Black Sands leader and keeping them from being captured.
But the one scenario he’d been avoiding was the one that would have guaranteed that Fehrd would still be alive and that Rol wouldn’t be all sick and strong and weird and that Gan wouldn’t be stuck in a dungeon fighting people every night.
Because the guilt was too much for him to handle.
It was all his own damn fault for playing in that thrice-damned frolik game.
Fehrd had been right, of course. Fehrd was always right. It was why he was such a good friend and why he was such a spectacular pain in the ass. He had told him beforehand that playing in the frolik game was stupid, and he’d told him afterward that it was stupid, and like an idiot, Gan hadn’t listened to him.
And so Fehrd was dead, and it was all Gan’s fault.
Rol was missing, taken by the Imperial Guard somewhere, and that was Gan’s fault too.
Whatever was wrong with Rol was probably Gan’s fault as well.
He would never see Feena again, but spend what was left of his life fighting other idiots in the arena. He’d been lucky so far, but eventually one of them was going to figure out that all they had to do was approach him from the left, and he’d be doomed.
If he could just see Feena one last time …
The wish was so fervent within him, that when he heard Feena’s voice from the corridor, he simply assumed it to be a hallucination of his rapidly-becoming-deranged state.
“This is where you keep the fighters? I’m impressed-my slaves don’t live anywhere near this well back home.”
Gan wondered why, if he was hallucinating Feena’s voice, she sounded so brutal and nasty.
Jago’s voice came next. “Perhaps he won’t want to leave.”
“I was not under the impression that he would be given a choice.”
“No,” Jago said in response to Feena’s harsh words, “the choice is ours. If we choose to trade your mul for our slave-”
“He’s not your slave, he’s mine.”
“So you insist.”
Gan could hear three sets of footfalls: Jago and the nasty woman who spoke with Feena’s voice were two, with the third likely being one of the guards.
Sure enough, it was the latter who barked at him. “Stand away from the door.”
It was turning into a very odd hallucination.
And then he hallucinated Feena’s voice in his head. Play along, Gan. My name is Wimma Anspah, and Fehrd was my husband, and we owned you and Rol.
When the door opened, Gan saw his sister wearing the most ridiculous outfit he’d ever seen, and realized that it was no hallucination. His sister had come to rescue him. Untrained as she was, there weren’t many people that Feena could simply project thoughts into without burning their brain out, but the blood tie with Gan made it possible for her to do so.
His first thought was, Rol’s not here-the Imperial Guard took him-
We know, Feena assured him.
And there’s something wrong with him.
Aloud, he said, “You know, I was just sitting here wondering how this day could possibly get worse, and then you go and find me.” He gave Feena-or rather, “Wimma”; obviously she was supposed to be from Raam, based on the absurd outfit-a derisive look.
“It wasn’t difficult, Gan,” Feena said with a vicious smile. “I simply followed the cloud of stupidity that hangs over your head. You thought that my husband’s death would allow you to escape your rightful bondage.”
“There’s nothing ‘rightful’ about being bonded to you and that bastard of a husband of yours.” Gan tried to channel all his self-loathing into bile directed at Feena. He just hoped she’d forgive him-then rejected the notion as ludicrous, since she was the one who wanted him to behave like this.
The good news, of course, was that if Feena was there playing dress-up, it meant that all of the Serthlara Emporium was there as well. It was the first thing to go right in Gan’s entire life since he lost the frolik game, and it killed him that it wasn’t going to go quite according to plan thanks to the Imperial Guard’s apparent interest in Rol.
“Just me now, thanks to you getting the bastard killed.” Feena then turned to Jago. “Very well, I’m satisfied that you have Storvis, at least. I’ll take up retrieving Mandred with the king.”
Jago laughed at that. “Good luck with that.”
“We’ll meet tomorrow to make the exchange.”
The guard slammed the door, leaving Gan to wonder what he was being exchanged for.
Feena continued to hold “Wimma Anspah’s” vicious smile during her entire walk down Obsidian Way toward the Slave Gate and the emporium’s carriage, currently parked at the Three Brothers Stable just outside Urik’s walls near the City of the Dead, Urik’s cemetery.
Only when she passed the City of the Dead-a place she had truly feared she would find Rol and Gan-with its forbidding, rusted iron fence topped with lions’ head posts, did she put her own face back on.
The stable was located just past the boneyard. Feena had thought it an odd location for a stable, but it was near the crossroads where the four thoroughfares that went through Urik all met. Besides, the cemetery’s caretaker was one of the Three Brothers.
As she climbed into the back, Feena said without preamble, “We have a problem.”
Since they were running a game, and since there really wasn’t anywhere in Urik for them to set up shop as merchants, the members of the emporium had to continue to live out of the carriage even after arriving at the city-state. You never knew when running a game who might be needed, so anyone who wasn’t in play had to stay out of sight.
When Feena arrived, they were all sitting in a circle in the center section of the carriage-the only spot that had anything like proper floor space-eating. On either side were the shelves, all tightly packed with the emporium’s merchandise (on the left) and everyone’s personal belongings (on the right), with hammocks for everyone hanging from the roof over the shelves.
Zabaj handed her some jerky as she entered, and she swallowed it hungrily. The sort of role playing that the game required often made her hungry.
“What’s the problem?” Karalith asked before gulping down some water.
Quickly, Feena outlined the situation. She finished by saying, “Gan’s fine, at least. A bit cut and bruised, but that’s to be expected.”
“Whatever your brother’s failings,” Tricht’tha said, “he brawls well. In fact, that arena may be the best place for him.”
“Not as a slave,” Feena said tightly, using some of Wimma’s iron on the thri-kreen.
Komir spoke up before Tricht’tha retorted. “In any case, we need to make this exchange, and then bring down the arena.”
Tricht’tha chittered a curse in Chachik. “What? Why are we doing anything to the arena? The Pit is one of the most beloved arenas in Athas.”
“Because,” Karalith said, “we want the Pit’s owners to be out of business for two reasons. One, they kidnapped our friends.”
“And two,” Komir added, “it looks like we need to game the king once we’ve gamed the arena, and in order to do that, we need the arena to be bereft of ownership.”
Tricht’tha rubbed her arms together. “That doesn’t make sense. If something happens to the owners, the arena becomes property of the state.”
“Yes,” Feena said, “and then the state finds someone to administer it for them.”
Komir and Karalith both smiled. “That’s where we come in.”
“What does that give us?” Tricht’tha asked agitatedly.
“A place from which we can take Rol,” Komir said, rubbing his bald crown. “Right now, he’s a prisoner of the templars. There’s no way we can get him out of there-but if we can talk the king into releasing him back to the arena, and we own the arena, then we’re free to take him along with us at our leisure.”
Only then did Serthlara speak up. “There’s a problem with your plan.”
Feena already knew what it was, but Karalith and Komir looked confused. “What do you mean, Father?” the latter asked.
Staring right at her lover, Feena said, “Zabaj.”
The mul had been sitting silently during the entire exchange, staring daggers at Feena. “You did this without asking me.”
“I had no choice, Zabaj, you know that.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No,” Karalith said, “she didn’t. We thought the provenance claiming ownership of Rol and Gan was sufficient, but we didn’t know that Rol had become their star attraction, or that Rol had been taken. She needed to come up with another solution fast, and offering to trade you was her best bet. Besides,” and she cast a glance at Komir, “her brother needs her.”
Zabaj ignored Karalith and continued to look at Feena. She stared right back. She couldn’t project her thoughts to Zabaj the way she could to Gan, but she was able to project her emotions onto him, and she let him know psionically just how important it was to her.
But she could also feel Zabaj’s emotions, and the mul had very strong feelings on that particular matter.
“I swore I wouldn’t fight in the arena again.”
“That’s not true.” Feena refused to turn away from her lover’s gaze-which was good, as accusing him of lying and then turning away would have been the gravest of insults. “You swore you wouldn’t be enslaved again. You won’t be a slave-at least, not really.”
“Once I’m inside, I’ll be a slave.”
“Until we rescue you,” Komir said. “Zabaj, this will work. We’ve never let you down before, have we?”
“There’s always a first time,” he muttered.
Feena walked up to Zabaj and stroked his cheek. She had yet to remove her gaze from him, nor had she ceased to project her feelings onto him. Aloud, though, she only said one word. “Please.”
They stared at each other for several seconds.
Zabaj finally looked away. “Very well. For you, my love, I will do this.”
After kissing the mul on the cheek, she turned back to the others. “I picked up from Calbit that they need more guards.”
Karalith regarded Tritcht’tha. “Time to bring Chrids’thrar out of retirement?”
“Why not?” Tricht’tha chittered. “Haven’t hunted with her in a while.”
Feena shook her head. Where the others all referred to their schemes as “the game” and “gaming” people, to the thri-kreen it was a hunt. That matched with the usual mode of thri-kreen, a predatory race for whom hunting was the primary means of survival.
But Tricht’tha had been the last survivor of her clutch, the rest having died during a particularly brutal sandstorm. Many a thri-kreen would have killed themselves, but Tricht’tha simply sought out another clutch. No other thri-kreen would have her, but she found satisfaction working with the emporium. She claimed to never be suited to the type of hunt that her own people engaged in-the impression Feena got, both from her psionic abilities and from Tricht’tha’s own conversation, was that her clutch might well have starved to death had the sandstorm not gotten them due to their mediocrity as hunters-preferring the type of challenge brought on by the game.
Karalith got up and moved toward the shelves on the left, specifically the one where the spices were kept. “Of course, Chrids’thrar goes nowhere without her flask, and this flask will be full of something special …”
At first, everything had been fine for Drahar. The soldiers brought Mandred and Douk to Destiny’s Kingdom, the king’s compound that included his palace, the King’s Academy, and more. Both prisoners were locked in one of the king’s dungeons, which both Drahar, as the king’s chamberlain, and Tharson, as the commander of the Guard, had full use of. Their task was to figure out how to exploit whatever it was that made Mandred so mighty.
Then the next morning, Drahar’s assistant, Cace, came into his office. “I’m sorry, sir, but I have some bad news.” She spoke in her usual calm tone-bringing him tea, telling him an appointment had been canceled, passing a message from his wife, passing a message from the king, telling him they were being invaded, Cace always delivered the news with the same soothing affectation.
Distractedly, Drahar asked, “What is it?” He was going over some shipping manifests that didn’t track with what was actually delivered.
“Mandred broke the dungeon door down.”
That got him to look up from the manifests. “Excuse me?”
Cace repeated: “Mandred broke the dungeon door down.”
“That would be the stone dungeon door?”
Drahar put his head in his hands. “Where is he now?”
“One of the psionists was able to subdue him, but he said it would only last a few hours.”
That prompted Drahar to put the manifests down and run to the dungeon.
Looking through the small window that allowed air into the cell, he saw Mandred lying on the floor.
Or at least something that resembled Mandred.
His flesh was no longer covered head to toe in pustules, but his entire epidermis was now a reddish gray color. The only exception were his shoulders, which still had the red-tinged lesions-and the flesh under them was fully red and pockmarked. His body hair had disappeared entirely, and his head and beard hair had thinned considerably.
The otherworldly magic was doing more than making him stronger.
He glanced at Cace. “Get one of the psionists over here-Frocas, maybe, or Danvier.”
“Danvier was the one who subdued him.”
Drahar nodded. That was why he kept Cace around, to remember details like that. “Fine, make it Frocas. I want a constant watch on him-control if necessary. Have Frocas go at it for eight hours. By then, Danvier should have recovered enough to take over. Mandred isn’t to make a move that isn’t controlled by a psionist, is that clear?”
The next morning, Cace ran into his office at the exact same time. “Something’s happened to Frocas.”
Again, Drahar ran down to the dungeon. There he saw Frocas lying on the stone floor, convulsing, while Danvier was on her knees, concentrating harder than Drahar had ever seen her do.
“Can … barely … hold … him.”
Drahar’s own psionic ability was nowhere as strong as that of a proper psionist, but he was able to help in some ways. Placing a hand on Danvier’s shoulder, he was able to bolster her own psionic talent with his own. His own participation was passive, but it served to strengthen Danvier’s ability to hold onto Mandred.
And then he felt it.
Let me loose, let me loose, let me loose, let me loose, let me loose, LET ME LOOSE!
Chaos. Aggression. Hate. Violence. Brutality. Murder.
Free me and allow me to loose my greatness upon this world. Free me, free me, free me, free me, FREE ME!
Never before had Drahar considered those characteristics to be palpable, but they were strong enough to touch in Mandred.
I must be free. Let me loose. Free me. Let me free. Loose me upon this world.
It threatened to overwhelm him, and he was getting it secondhand through Danvier.
Focusing all his concentration, he added every erg of power he could to Danvier’s own efforts.
The voice receded after that scream, but Drahar could still hear it. I will not be denied …
“Maybe not,” Drahar muttered, “but you will be controlled.”
Then he collapsed.
He woke up in his own bed, surrounded by Cace, two healers, and one of the king’s page boys. The latter ran out of the room as soon as he awakened, no doubt to inform the king that his closest advisor was no longer unconscious.
Cace quickly filled him in. “Danvier is in her chambers as well. Three other psionists are now standing watch over Mandred.”
“No, not Mandred. Whatever’s taking him over, I felt it. It was an incredibly violent force. We need to harness it.”
Drahar started to sit up, but one of the healers-the young man-put a firm hand on his shoulder. “You need rest, Lord Chamberlain. This will keep.”
Gently, Drahar put the hand aside. “No, it won’t.” Then he sat up fully, at which point the room started to jump around in several directions at once, and Drahar’s breakfast started to surge upward from his stomach to his throat.
Both those things stopped when he very, very slowly lay back down.
“Or perhaps it will,” he said weakly.
“You need at least a full night’s sleep before you get up from this bed, Lord Chamberlain,” the other healer, an older woman, said.
Cace added, “I’ve already taken the liberty of rescheduling your appointments.”
“Good.” Drahar nodded to his assistant, then considered. “Keep three psionists on the dungeon at all times, and tell all the court psionists to prepare. I need to enter Mandred’s mind, and I’ll need everyone we can get to keep him under control and boost my own power.”
“Of course, sir.”
The female healer tut-tutted, while the male shook his head. “You really shouldn’t try to perform any acts of magic for at least a few days, Lord Chamberlain.”
“We do not have that option. It’s obvious that this creature is getting stronger and harder to control.”
The two healers looked at each other, then back at Drahar. “Very well, but one of us should be monitoring you at all times.”
“I was going to insist on it,” he lied. It actually hadn’t occurred to him, but it was an excellent idea.
Drahar got a good night’s sleep, and then went into his office the next morning, intending to catch up on everything that happened while he was sick in bed.
However, Cace ran in immediately. “Something’s happened to Mandred.”
The worst part for Rol was the total loss of control.
The excruciating pain in his extremities, he could deal with. Watching his body change and alter itself, that was bizarre, but tolerable in its own way. Even the increase in strength that accompanied each act of violence was something he could handle.
You are …
But from the moment he surrendered to the voice, gave in to the Voidharrow, he lost all control.
You are going …
One of the things that defined Rol as a fighter was that he was in full control of himself. He only used exactly as much force as was necessary to win a battle.
You are going to …
Now, though, he had nothing. He couldn’t move, couldn’t talk, could barely think. He had no idea where he was, nor where Fehrd or Gan were, nothing.
You are going to spread …
No, he did remember. Fehrd was dead. Someone killed him. And Gan-Gan had done something stupid. Of course, Gan was always doing something stupid, so that was hardly new.
You are going to spread the …
It didn’t make sense that Fehrd was dead. The three of them had been through so much together, that the notion of Fehrd just dying like that was insane.
You are going to spread the seed.
Willing himself to speak, he screamed, “No.” But nobody heard him-he didn’t even hear himself.
But the Voidharrow heard his plaintive cry.
Yes, you will. You cannot resist. None can resist. None have ever been able to resist. You have lost this battle.
“Like hell,” Rol said. “I’ve fought every type of sand creature in the desert, I’ve fought demons, I’ve fought madmen and madwomen who wanted me dead, I’ll fight you too.”
You dare to compare those pitiful opponents from your past to me? Such a fool, you are, little human. You are mine.
“Who you calling little?”
I have already remade you in my image, fool.
“What’re you talking about?”
Your metamorphosis is almost complete.
The Voidharrow granted him the ability to see himself.
Then he screamed.
His skin had turned gray.
His hands only had three fingers each.
And he had grown larger.
Something felt wrong with his shoulders and chin as well.
“What have you done to me?” Still he spoke, but could not hear his own voice. The Voidharrow had granted him the wherewithal to feel his own face, and his mouth did not move when instructed by his mind.
He was still caged within his own body-or, rather, what his body had been changed into-but the only difference was that he could see the bars on the window.
I have granted you the greatest gift that anyone can receive.
Then Rol screamed again, but it was not a scream of his own making-and he could hear it.
What is this? We are invaded!
That didn’t sound good.
Suddenly, Rol felt his stomach contract into a ball, pressure slamming into both temples making his head feel as if it was being squeezed, and his muscles turn to jelly.
After a second, the sensations died down, and he found himself standing in a multicolored plane. The ground beneath him was purple, the walls around him were orange, and the ceiling was a pink and red spotted pattern. The purple floor felt as if it was made of metal.
At least, Rol thought it was metal. He’d never walked on a metal floor, but it certainly felt like what metal should have felt like …
And then he realized what was happening. Someone was entering his mind.
Rol had been interrogated by a mind-mage before. He’d found himself on some strange plane of existence where nothing made sense, and then afterward his spit tasted bitter and acidic for the next week, and he couldn’t hold any food down for two days.
It was happening again.
One thing that relieved him: he looked like himself. His skin was back to its former bronzed state, and his arm was the size it had been for most of his adult life.
Standing next to him, on a part of the floor that was gold instead of purple, was a large creature with gray skin, three fingers on each hand, strange rubylike protrusions coming out of its shoulders, and a bizarre mouth. Its chin had been bisected down to the throat, making it look as if the mouth had three lips.
“Holy frip, is that what you’re turning me into?”
Yes, it is, little human. Do you not admire the dreadnaught?
“I don’t even know what the dreadnaught is.”
Another voice said, “Nor do I.”
Looking up, Rol saw a tall, thin man walking on the ceiling. He was wearing the functional beige clothing of one of Urik’s sirdars, and was surrounded by a glow that Rol just knew indicated magic.
Ah, one of the wizards of this realm comes forth to greet me.
“I am Drahar, the chamberlain of Urik.”
“So you’re the bastard who took me from my friend.”
Drahar regarded Rol for a moment, then turned to the monster. “Fascinating. It seems that you are both occupying this mind, and that you-” he pointed at the gray monster “-are the source of the strength and power that I sensed in Rol Mandred.”
I am much more than that. This little human that you refer to as “Rol Mandred” is but the first to become a dreadnaught in my service.
“You say ‘my’ service-whose service is that, exactly?”
Rol stared at Drahar, but he also realized that he wanted the answer to that question too.
I am the Voidharrow, and I work in service with Tharizdun.
“I do not know that name.”
He is a great and powerful god, but not from this world of sand and sun. Through me, his will shall be done.
Rol continued to stare at Drahar. “You don’t believe this nonsense, do you, sirdar?”
Drahar gave Rol a look that only a noble-born ass could give to a person of lower station. The aristocracy had it bred in them. Even as he gave the look, the colors changed, each shade becoming noticeably darker, the pink spots becoming bloodred. “I believe what I am presented with, Rol Mandred-this creature certainly has a power that could be called godly.”
What this foolish little human believes is of little consequence.
“But what I believe is quite critical,” Drahar said. “At the moment, my psionists are controlling your movements and keeping you restrained. That will remain the case unless you cooperate.”
So you are the one who ordered me sedated?
“Yes. And I will do so permanently unless you-”
Cooperate, yes. How would I cooperate with the likes of you?
“Oh,” Rol said with a laugh, “he’s a chamberlain in King Hamanu’s court. Trust me, dreadnaught, this is who you want to get in bed with if you want to serve this ‘Thor’s done’ person.” The colors all brightened, and the purple became bright red, with the spots becoming green.
It’s Tharizdun, and your advice is unnecessary.
“Yes,” Drahar said dismissively, “it’s obvious that your active participation in this endeavor has come to an end. It’s a testament to the power of your will that you can even participate in this conversation. But that is the extent of your influence, Mandred.” Drahar turned to the dreadnaught. “However, he is correct about one thing-it would behoove you to cultivate me as a friend. I have the ear of the most powerful king in the world.”
Rol muttered, “Yeah, he keeps it in a jar on his shelf.”
Drahar continued as if Rol hadn’t spoken. “King Hamanu desires to rule all of Athas. All that stands between him and that desire is the power necessary. You have the means to grant us that power.”
“Is that all you have to say?”
For now. Go away, while we consider your offer.
The monster gestured with one hand, and suddenly, Drahar was gone.
Rol hoped that the departure was painful for the wizard.
Then Rol was back in the dungeon where he had been. With Drahar gone, so was the strange plane-which was kind of too bad, as he missed the spots.
He also had again lost control. However, he wondered if that was because the Voidharrow had taken that control-or because Drahar did. He said that his psionists were keeping physical control of him.
Drahar had also expressed surprise that Rol had any kind of presence. He wondered if the Voidharrow was truly as strong as it claimed to be.
Outside the cell, he could hear voices.
“Are you all right, Lord Chamberlain?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Forgive me, Lord Chamberlain, but that doesn’t answer the question.”
“Yes, it does. Is the creature being held?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Odd, isn’t it, little human, that the desires of the king as expressed by Drahar are exactly the same as the desires of Drahar?
“Not odd at all,” Rol muttered. “Drahar’s the chamberlain. His desire is to keep the king happy by whatever means necessary. Kind of like you and this Tharizdun.”
Perhaps. He does not wish to bargain, but to force us.
“I’d think you’d like that.”
You are wise, little human. A pity you will die.
“If I die, who gets to be your dreadnaught?”
I speak of your mind, not your body.
Rol said nothing further. He knew he retained at least some sliver of himself. He needed to make use of that.
He just wished he knew how …
Sasker hated his job.
Not that there was anything especially bad about it. It was better than digging in the mines or shoveling manure in the orchards or any number of other jobs that would’ve been a great deal less pleasant than watching over a bunch of slaves between fights.
But he really wanted to be a soldier.
Like everyone in Urik, Sasker was tested by the templars as a child, and his aptitude was for soldiering.
So he volunteered for the Imperial Guard.
At first, everything was fine. He went through the training, just like everyone else. In fact, he excelled at it, which was more than he could say for his bunkmate, Torvald.
Torvald didn’t like to do all the work. He didn’t put a full effort into his training, always lagging behind everyone else-or taking shortcuts that required less effort.
What amazed Sasker was that the drill sergeant didn’t seem to notice when Torvald slacked off. That wouldn’t have bothered Sasker so much, except the sergeant noticed it for everyone else. Even the ones who weren’t actually slacking off. One time, Sasker had been the first one to finish doing pull-ups, and the sergeant yelled at him for making the others look bad-then he yelled at Jonas, who was the last one done.
But Torvald, who only did half the required pull-ups, got off with nothing. Again.
Eventually, Sasker grew tired of it and complained to the sergeant.
Actually, he did more than complain. Sasker carried on for five minutes, enumerating everything that was wrong with Torvald and why he’d make a terrible soldier and why was the sergeant, whaddayacall, letting him off so easily?
The next morning, a lieutenant came into the barracks with two soldiers and told him to pack his things. He was kicked out of the Guard.
On the way out of the barracks, the lieutenant said, “And don’t expect much by way of job prospects after this, Sasker. At least, not as long as Lord Torvald’s alive.”
Sasker winced as they literally pushed him out the door. Torvald was the son of a sirdar.
Somebody could have told him.
The lieutenant had been right about the lack of job prospects. He spent his days failing to find work and his nights drinking in taverns and running up bar tabs he couldn’t afford to pay. It took a great deal to get him drunk, as Sasker had always had a high tolerance for that kind of thing, so he drank a lot.
Finally, someone at one of the taverns-the third he’d been frequenting since being kicked out of the Guard, after the first two refused him service until he paid his rather large bill-mentioned that the Pit of Black Death was looking for guards.
Sasker had always loved going to the Pit as a kid, though he generally preferred the early fights, because he could get closer to the action. He hadn’t been there in a while. First he had training to deal with, and since being kicked out, he couldn’t afford it, since the arena insisted on coin up front to pay for your seat.
But his training as a soldier proved a good fit for the job of keeping an eye on the slaves between fights as a guard, plus he’d get to see the fights for free!
That last part turned out not to be true very often, as most of the guards were kept down in the dungeon area to make sure that the slaves who weren’t fighting didn’t take advantage of the chaos of the fights to try to escape. So Sasker spent a great deal of time patrolling the dungeons and escorting the fighters to the holding areas, but not actually watching the fights.
The job got really boring really fast.
It didn’t help that he didn’t get along with the other guards, because one of them was Jonas. Being last to do pull-ups was far from Jonas’s only sin as a trainee, and he was drummed out of training, but for whatever reason, Jonas decided that it was entirely Sasker’s fault. Where Sasker had taken a few months to find the job, Jonas had landed at the Pit almost immediately after being kicked out of the Guard, so he already was friends with the other guards. The moment Sasker showed up, though, Jonas poisoned the others against him, making him a pariah.
But at least they paid him. He’d settled all three bar tabs, and even started to save up his coins. He wasn’t sure what he was saving for, but it was something his mother always told him to do when he worked, so he did it.
Maybe someday he’d be able to get a better job somewhere.
“Greetings, fellow guard!” came a jolly voice from behind him as he was doing his rounds down the corridor.
Turning, Sasker saw a thri-kreen. While she wasn’t wearing a guard’s uniform-thri-kreens didn’t wear much by way of clothing-she did have a patch attached to her thorax that matched the one on Sasker’s own tunic, and those of all the others.
“I am Chrids’thrar. I just started working today. A pleasure to meet you.”
“Uh, whaddayacall-thanks. I’m Sasker.”
“Oh, yes,” Chrids’thrar said, making those weird noises that thri-kreens always made. “I’ve heard about you.”
Sasker rolled his eyes. “Talked to Jonas already, huh?”
“Yes, but I found him to be a fool, so I’m sure he was lying.”
“Wow.” Sasker was impressed. He didn’t usually get the benefit of the doubt like that.
“I hear there’s a new mul in the arena,” the thri-kreen said enthusiastically.
“Yeah, he’s, whaddayacall, in the next cubicle.”
They approached the cubicle in question, and Sasker looked inside.
The new mul was a surly sort. Sasker had heard about the bitch who owned him, who apparently was Gan’s original owner. “We got this guy and lost, whaddayacall, Gan. He was an okay guy, Gan. Liked him better than this jerk.”
The mul just glowered at Sasker, which was what he always did.
Thankfully, the mul didn’t talk. Gan talked a lot, but it was okay when he did it, because he was intelligent. Sasker had known a few muls in his day, and they were all idiots.
“Hey, after the fights tonight, come join me for a drink,” the thri-kreen said.
“We’re not allowed to drink on duty,” Sasker said dolefully. It was yet another thing he hated about the job.
“That’s why after the fights.”
“We’re still on duty.”
“Yes, but all the other guards do it.”
Sasker sighed. For the past three months his job after the fights was guard duty on the mul-prior to that, it was on Mandred, and prior to that, it was on Gorbin. He’d heard that, since he got that task, the other guards had little gatherings after the fights to eat or drink, even though they too were technically on duty. Of course, he hadn’t been invited to them. “Then I definitely shouldn’t go. I’m, whaddayacall, not welcome.”
The thri-kreen made more of those noises. “Don’t be silly. This is special wine from Yaramuke. Very rare.”
That got Sasker’s attention. He’d heard stories about the wine that they made in Yaramuke before it was destroyed, and he had been simply dying to try it.
Still, he didn’t think it would be a good idea if the others would be there. “Sorry, I gotta keep an eye on this jerk.” He indicated the mul with his thumb.
“Oh, come now. It’s a special occasion. My first day. The mul will keep.”
Again, Sasker sighed. “I’ll, whaddayacall, think about it, okay?” He had no intention of going, but at least by saying that, he’d placate the thri-kreen, who seemed like a nice sort.
Besides, he’d heard that thri-kreens were good in a fight. There hadn’t been a riot in a while, but you never knew, especially given how crazy things had been since Gorbin finally got himself killed.
The rest of the day passed in relative calm, and then Tirana posted the duty roster for the evening. Sure enough, he had guard duty on the mul after the fights ended. Everyone else had roving duty, except for Chrids’thrar, who was guarding the other main-stage fighters.
Except she wouldn’t be-she’d be sharing drinks with the others while Sasker actually did his job.
He was tempted to talk to Tirana about what was going on, but his experiences with the Imperial Guard taught him the value of telling tales to your supervisor. He kept his mouth shut and did his job without causing problems.
Besides, it was Tirana’s job to keep track of the guards. That was the task her father had given her in the arena, so let her figure it out. It wasn’t Sasker’s problem.
The fights that night went as expected. He may have been a surly bastard, but the mul was a good fighter. His arms were scarred from previous brands that arenas had put on him and then removed. Calbit would be coming in the next day with the branding iron, at which point the mul-and two other slaves who’d come in yesterday-would get the Pit’s brand on their biceps.
Along with the mercenaries that Calbit and Jago had hired after Gan and Mandred had arrived-whom Sasker hated, as they were even stupider than the mul, though he had to admit that they were handy-Sasker escorted the mul back to his cubicle.
“You should go drinking with your friends,” the mul said as Sasker pushed him into the cubicle.
Scowling, Sasker said, “You shouldn’t, whaddayacall, listen in on other people’s conversations.”
Then the mul did something Sasker hadn’t seen him do in the two days he’d been there-he smiled.
Once the door was locked, the mercenaries all went off-they didn’t say, but Sasker bet that Chrids’thrar had invited them to drink with her too-and he was alone with the mul.
About an hour passed, and Sasker noticed that it was unusually quiet. He hadn’t noticed at first, since the time after the fights usually had a sharp reduction in noise level with the crowds having gone home. But that night was far quieter than usual. The only sound he heard was the mul snoring-he’d nodded off half an hour earlier.
“Greetings, my friend.”
Turning, Sasker saw Chrids’thrar coming down the corridor holding a flask.
“You didn’t come to drink with us.”
“Yeah, I told you it’d, whaddayacall, be a bad idea.”
“That’s too bad.” The thri-kreen was offering the flask with one of her pincers. “This is really, really good wine.”
Sasker glanced inside the mul’s cubicle. He was still snoring.
“What the hell.” He took the proffered drink and gulped it down.
It was sweet and caustic, which wasn’t at all what he was expecting. The liquid also burned in his throat, but it wasn’t the good burning that he got from the liquors in the taverns.
Then the room started turning all kinds of interesting colors. Particularly the ceiling …
It was only when he noticed that the ceiling was bright pink that he realized that he was on the floor. He couldn’t feel his legs. The burning sensation in his mouth and throat had become an embracing numbness.
“Shouldn’t he be asleep?” the mul asked, which confused Sasker, as the mul should have been asleep.
Clumsily reaching for his bone knife, he saw the thri-kreen standing in front of the open cubicle door, the mul standing next to her.
“I don’t get it,” the thri-kreen was saying-except she sounded different, much quieter-“the feresh should have taken him out in an instant like it did the other guards.”
Sasker tried to make his mind focus. Obviously the thri-kreen wasn’t who she said she was, which was kind of annoying, and she had drugged his wine. Sasker was so grateful that he had a high tolerance.
He almost lost his grip on the bone knife. Concentrating, he held onto it.
If only someone was close enough for him to stab. Unfortunately, the thri-kreen and the mul were moving away from him.
“What the frip is going on?”
That was Tirana.
“Something’s happened to the guards, and-Why is the mul out of his cubicle?”
The mul said, “Gan told us what you did to him and Rol to lure them here. That means I don’t need to be nice.”
Sasker struggled to his feet even as Tirana screamed. He heard the sound of bones breaking, and then the screams stopped. Sasker couldn’t see what was happening, as he was staring at the floor after having managed to get to his knees.
He gathered every inch, every muscle, fighting through the fatigue that was covering him like a blanket, and struggled to his feet.
Once he did so, he found himself face-to-face with the mul. Beyond him was the thri-kreen, and beyond her the broken body of Tirana, her head at an impossible angle.
“I told you to drink with your friends,” the mul said. His breath was awful.
“Wouldn’t have helped,” the thri-kreen said.
Needing all his energy to raise his arm, he did so without speaking.
Before he could strike, the mul grabbed his hand and directed it right down into his chest.
The wine from Yaramuke-or whatever it was-had numbed him to the point that it didn’t actually hurt. But he could see his blood dripping from his chest onto the stone floor.
Sasker’s final thoughts before the darkness claimed him were that he really, really hated his job.
Fal Jago always went back to his office after the fights were over and had a drink. By the time the last fight was done, he was exhausted and wired at the same time. Being out on the stage, hearing the roar of the crowd as he riled them up, preparing them for the fight, was at once thrilling and tiring.
Since Calbit didn’t do anything during the fights, Jago was more than happy to leave the supervision of the guards and the closing down of the arena to him.
One could argue that Calbit didn’t do much of anything beyond recruiting, but that wasn’t fair. After all, if it wasn’t for Calbit, Jago wouldn’t even have known that the Pit was available for sale. And Calbit was expert at finding prospects for the arena.
But it had been Jago who provided the capital to allow them to purchase the arena from the crown. Jago rather wished Calbit remembered that more often.
Jago missed Storvis, but the mul who’d replaced him was doing very well. He suspected that their profits would be tremendous before too long.
He had no idea what it was that Mandred was turning into, but he was more than happy to have it out of his arena.
Reaching down, he yanked open the lowest of the drawers of the desk he and Calbit shared in the office, then removed its sole item: a bottle of wine from one of Urik’s finest vineyards. Jago had come to an arrangement with the vintner; he provided Jago with the finest bottles from his stock, and Jago gave him free seats in the arena.
He hadn’t actually shared the details of the arrangement with Calbit. What his partner didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, and besides, then Jago would just have to share the wine.
As he poured it into a goblet, he shuddered at that notion. Twirling it around in the goblet, he imagined Calbit slugging it down like the uncouth sand rat he truly was.
Calbit hadn’t been able to find anyone to properly train fighters since Sorvag’s death. Sorvag’s boys would always give the people a good show, but once Gorbin killed him, that was the end of it. Gorbin’s skills not withstanding, Jago thought the lack of good training was the real reason the fights had become so poor.
The ease with which Mandred took Gorbin down bore that out. Mandred and Storvis had training. The only other people who did so well in the arena were ex-military.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that the partnership was not working. Calbit’s contributions were less and less valuable-and took him farther and farther away from the arena for longer and longer periods of time.
Jago had been saving since he and Calbit bought the place from the crown. He hadn’t been able to save as much the past couple of years, but he had enough coin stashed away that he could sell his share of the arena to Calbit and finally retire.
With the new mul in place and the fights becoming unpredictable, it was a good time. Jago wouldn’t need to sell the fights anymore-worst-case, Calbit could hire a professional barker.
Or maybe Calbit would try it himself. That would be a laugh. The least charismatic person in all of Athas trying to announce the bouts. Jago would probably come back to the arena to see that.
Though that was unlikely. Urik was a city of magnificent architecture and glorious spires that clawed for the skies like the lions that provided the motif for so much of it.
And Jago spent all his days and nights in a tapped-out obsidian mine. Never feeling the red sun on his face, instead all his hours were spent surrounded by stygian darkness barely illuminated by inadequate torches.
He’d had enough. A few more fights, once the profits were guaranteed to be back on track, and Jago would sell to Calbit. He’d buy a castle with lots of windows so he could see the sun for as long as it was up.
It would be glorious.
“Where the frip is everyone?”
Jago sighed at the sound of his partner’s voice. Usually Calbit was supervising the guards at this point, leaving Jago in peace.
Calbit stormed in. “What the frip is going on?”
“What are you blathering about, Calbit?”
“I can’t find a single one of the guards.” He frowned at Jago. “What are you drinking?”
Setting the goblet down quickly, Jago said, “Nothing. What happened to the guards?”
“I haven’t the first fripping clue. I can’t find Tirana or any of the mercenaries, either, and-”
Calbit cut himself off at the sound of someone walking down the hall. Jago peered past his partner to see the new thri-kreen guard, whose name he couldn’t remember, skittering down the hall.
“You’re both here,” the thri-kreen said. “Good. I need to show you something.”
Moving toward the thri-kreen, Calbit snarled. “What is going on? Where is everyone?”
The thri-kreen chittered in her native tongue for a bit. Jago’s Chachik was a bit rusty, but it was something about being unable to believe what she was hearing.
Jago certainly felt that way a lot when Calbit spoke.
“It’s really difficult to explain,” she finally said in Common. “If you’d just come with me, it’ll all make sense.”
Shooting Jago a look, Calbit asked, “Can you believe this idiocy?”
Somehow, Jago managed to restrain himself from saying what he wanted to say.
“Look,” the thri-kreen said, “if you just come this way …”
Calbit turned on the thri-kreen. “I will not ‘come this way’. I am the owner of this arena.”
Picking up his goblet, Jago muttered, “part-owner,” into it before gulping down more wine.
“And I will not tolerate being told what to do by some idiot thri-kreen guard whom I only just hired yesterday. Now tell me what’s going on or I’ll-urkkklggggg.”
While Jago was in mid-sip, the thri-kreen suddenly slashed at Calbit’s throat with a bone knife. Blood spurted everywhere, splattering onto the obsidian walls. Jago choked on his wine and started coughing like crazy.
“Shut up,” the thri-kreen said.
Dimly, Jago registered the sound of breaking glass, only then realizing that he’d dropped the goblet. Wine spilled, pooling in the uneven cracks on the floor. Some of it ran toward the wall, mixing with Calbit’s blood.
Slowly, Jago backed toward the wall. He could feel his heart pounding against his ribs. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, or what you want, but I can-”
“Do nothing,” said another, deeper voice.
The mul walked into the office, past the thri-kreen.
“Sorry for taking your kill, Zabaj.” The thri-kreen pointed with one of her pincers at Calbit, who was lying on the floor, gurgling and dying as blood poured from the cut in his neck. “He wouldn’t come.”
“No matter,” the mul-whose name was apparently Zabaj, even though the paperwork Wimma had provided called him Harkoum-said. “I can still kill this one.”
Jago held up both hands, as if to ward the mul off. “Wait-wait, please. I don’t know what you want, but-”
“Oh, that’s simple,” Zabaj said. “We want you dead.”
“But I haven’t done anything.” Jago’s voice broke, and he sounded squeaky, like a young girl. It rather distressed him.
The thri-kreen made a chittering noise. “You enslave people in your arena, you force them to fight for your own profit, and you say you haven’t done anything?”
“I don’t do anything more than what thousands of other people in Athas do. Why don’t you kill them?”
The mul moved closer to Jago, looming over him. Jago could smell the food they fed him on Zabaj’s breath. Jago made a mental note that, in the unlikely event that he lived through the next seven seconds, he should improve the quality of the food given to the fighters.
“Because they didn’t kidnap my friends.”
“Kidnap?” Calbit didn’t kidnap anyone, they were all purchased fair and square, except for-
Suddenly, it came clear to Jago.
“You’re friends of Mandred and Storvis, aren’t you? Look, that wasn’t me.” He was getting frantic, waving his arms back and forth. “That was Calbit. You already killed him.” Sparing a glance over at the floor, he saw that Calbit was no longer moving, thus proving his statement true. “I had nothing to do with that. I didn’t even want those two in the arena.” That was only half true-he liked Storvis, he was a good fighter without being insane like Mandred-but he wasn’t about to say that.
Zabaj shook his head, the topknot waving back and forth. “You might-might-have convinced me that you weren’t worth killing. But you participated as much as your partner did, and your attempts to distance yourself from the blood on your hands sickens me.”
Jago swallowed down the bile that was building up in the back of his throat. “What are you going to do?”
Zabaj smiled. It was the most frightening thing that Jago-who had spent the last several years of his life managing life-or-death fights in the greatest arena in the world-had ever seen in his life.
“Kill you quickly,” was the mul’s reply.
When Zabaj returned to the carriage, Feena hugged and kissed him repeatedly.
“I’m so sorry, my love, truly.”
Zabaj let her molest him for several seconds before grabbing her arms. “We will talk later.”
“I know I made you go back on your word, and I’m sorry we couldn’t mount the rescue until after you had to fight, but-”
Gan winced as he watched Zabaj grip Feena’s arms even tighter, so much so that she grimaced. “We will talk later,” he repeated.
Staring at him with his one good eye, Gan said, “Zabaj, I never got the chance to thank you for helping get me out of there.”
“You may do so again,” Zabaj said. “Between us, Tricht’tha and I killed Tirana, Calbit, and Jago. They all died wondering where their guards were.”
Tricht’tha chittered. “They were very easily swayed by the lure of Yaramuke wine.”
“Well, who wouldn’t be?” Komir said with a chuckle. “Especially with all the feresh you put in it.”
Sitting next to him, Karalith said, “Our next goal is to find a way to make ourselves the new caretakers of the arena.”
“I can help there,” Tricht’tha said. “One of the guards was talking about a party that the king is throwing.”
Zabaj added: “And one of the fighters said that it wasn’t the king who wanted Rol.”
“What?” Gan thought that was absurd. “It was the Imperial Guard who took him. They report straight to Hamanu.”
“The fighter was a dwarf named Barglin.”
Gan frowned. “Bald, thick mustache?”
“Yes,” Zabaj said.
“Okay, yeah, I knew him-didn’t know his name. Even fought him once. I’d trust him.”
“You never learned his name?” Feena asked.
“Wasn’t really focused on making friends, Sis.”
“In any case,” Zabaj said, “he was watching the royal box. The king wasn’t there, it was his chamberlain and the commander of the Guard who were watching Rol.”
Tricht’tha rubbed her pincers together in a manner that Gan had always found just a little nauseating. “One of the other guards said the same thing as that dwarf. He was posted near the royal box. Chamberlain Drahar was the one who noticed Rol, and it was after he talked to Templar Tharson that Rol was ordered to be taken to the palace.”
“Perfect!” Komir leaped to his feet. “That’s our way in. We set Hamanu against Drahar and Tharson.”
Gan felt his stomach churn. “Uh, wait a minute. Look, I’m grateful for what you’ve done-honestly, if I lived to be as old as Hamanu, I wouldn’t be able to pay you guys back. But now you’re talking about gaming the King of the World. Isn’t that just a little insane?”
Feena looked at him. “No crazier than playing frolik against Hamno Sennit and expecting to win.”
Glaring at his sister, Gan said, “We’re talking about a slightly different scale here, Sis. Now, look, I want Rol back more than any of you. But-taking on the king?”
Komir sat back down, facing Gan directly. “See, that’s the wrong way to think. The way to play the game is to never, under any circumstances, think of any player in the game as different from any other player. The victim is the victim, regardless of whether it’s a miner or a king. You play the game the same way.”
“But the consequences if you fail …”
That got a grin out of Komir. “That’s why we try very hard not to fail.”
Gan shuddered. He’d seen that grin before-on Rol before he went after a woman. And the last time he did that …
Meanwhile, Komir got back up and went over to the shelves on the right. “Now where did Mother and Father put those letters of introduction from that dead sirdar?”
Karalith uttered a long-suffering sigh and also rose. “They’re not there, idiot.”
While the siblings dug around for what they needed, Gan watched as Zabaj rebuffed every attempt Feena made to talk to him. Finally, he left the carriage, and she did as well.
Tricht’tha sat down on all sixes next to him. “How are you feeling?”
“Miserable-but also grateful. I never expected you guys to come after us. Hell, I never expected you guys to find us. So many things had to go right …”
“Feena was the one who wanted to get you. So did Komir. And Zabaj.”
Gan chuckled. “But not the rest of you?”
“No.” Tricht’tha pulled some jerky out of a pouch and offered Gan some.
He held up a hand. “Thanks, no. I’ve had enough jerky to do me the rest of my days. Anyway, I am truly grateful. I just hope we can rescue Rol-and cure him.”
“Do you have any idea what happened to him?”
“No.” Gan shook his head and blew out a breath. “The more I see, the more it’s something magical, but beyond that …” He shrugged. “I got nothing.”
Tricht’tha was masticating her jerky. “Did you have to fight him?”
“Mercifully, no. I was the second-best fighter they had left after him, so they used me as the lead-in to him. Sooner or later, though …” He shivered, then looked at the thri-kreen’s compound eyes. “Thanks for deciding to help.”
“Feena argued that you were part of our clutch. I suppose you are, in a way.”
Gan frowned. “I thought you didn’t like your clutch.”
“You thought wrong,” she snapped. “I simply am happier with the clutch I have found than the one I was born to.”
With that, she moved away to clamber up to her hammock and sleep.
Feena came back into the carriage alone. She sat down next to Gan, who wrapped an arm around her.
“You okay, Sis?”
“Zabaj may never forgive me. I all but forced him to do this because I made the offer to trade him for you without consulting him first.”
“If you were just going to send Tricht’tha in anyway, why do the trade at all?”
“Because we needed to get you out of there, and we needed Zabaj in place in order to properly game the arena. There was no way to get you the plan in time.”
Gan nodded. Feena could send sentences into Gan’s mind without much effort, but anything more complicated than that-like, say, a plan-would require her to focus and concentrate, and also be proximate to Gan. She couldn’t do that if she was at the Pit and still in her “Wimma” persona.
“Also,” she continued, “Zabaj is stronger than you and would be in better shape for the violent part of the plan.”
“Yeah. I guess I was just hoping I’d get to be the one to slit Calbit’s throat. And Tirana’s. Jago, I might’ve let live.” He chuckled. “Though I can take some solace in the fact that Tirana wasn’t really interested in Rol. A welcome change, that.”
Feena, he noticed, wasn’t laughing. Instead, a tear rolled down her cheek.
“I may have lost him, Gan,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Gan whispered.
“It’s not your fault.”
“Well, it kinda is, yeah.”
Feena sat up straight and looked him in the eyes with those ice blue eyes she’d inherited from their mother. “No, Gan, it isn’t. You were kidnapped-that’s not your fault.”
“Yes, actually, it is. If I hadn’t lost that frolik game-”
She interrupted him. “If you hadn’t played the frolik game, you likely would have done something else impulsive and thoughtless.”
“I speak the truth.”
Gan sighed. “Yeah, I guess so.”
She lay back down against him. It was good to see his sister again.
They stayed that way, the sounds of Serthlara and Shira snoring in the background, along with Komir and Karalith bickering over which clothes to wear.
He just hoped that they could rescue Rol as easily as they rescued him.
King Hamanu hated parties.
For a time during his reign, he had banned parties from Urik altogether. He was younger then-only in his first century-and he figured that he was the king so he could do what he wanted.
Eventually, though, as he matured, he realized that he needed-to some extent-to cater to the wishes of his people. Even an absolute monarch as powerful as Hamanu needed his people to be happy. They didn’t have to like everything he did-indeed, they didn’t have to know everything he did-but they were less likely to complain if they had sufficient distraction.
For the upper classes, it was parties such as the one he was attending. In that case, it was less a distraction than a general attempt to keep the sirdars happy. Happy sirdars made for non-complaining sirdars. Hamanu had had his share of complaining sirdars over the years, and he’d grown weary of having to kill them.
For the lower classes, there were the vulgar attractions, most notably the Pit of Black Death. He had been grateful that the Pit had once again become a popular venue, as the arena was a good way to distract the poor from their miserable state.
Which made it that much more annoying that Calbit and Jago had gotten themselves killed. Their fighters had all escaped, and while a few of them wound up captured or imprisoned, most were in the wind.
He wasn’t sure what the occasion was for the party-he had a social secretary whose job it was to find appropriate reasons for the parties and space them out in such a manner that the sirdars were kept happy by their frequency, and that Hamanu wasn’t driven crazy by the same thing. It was being held in a large function room that was often used for state dinners.
Hamanu hated them too.
Currently, he sat in one of his thrones. When his reign began, he had had ornate, ostentatious thrones all over Destiny’s Kingdom. But after several centuries, the desire for showing off his station grew tiresome. He referred to himself as the King of the World-a bit of hyperbole that seemed reasonable in his (relative) youth, and which he was well and truly stuck with-and for many decades, he thought that required a level of finery.
But being so self-consciously royal proved exhausting after a while. Not to mention annoying. So the royal finery became more streamlined, the patterns faded, the colors darkened.
As the king went, so went the people, since he was King of the World, so the people of Urik over the years started wearing more neutral colors as well.
Hamanu’s younger self, he knew, would be appalled. But the simplicity appealed to him now. No one in his court now knew of Hamanu as anything other than a king of uncomplicated tastes.
It also meant that at parties such as this, he wasn’t blinded by the brocade. Meeting with people from Nibenay often gave him a headache, their clothing was so covered in brightly colored stitching.
Plus, as an added bonus, he could easily pick out the people who were not from Urik. There were always several-visiting dignitaries, wealthy travelers, and so on-and he noted two in particular. Both appeared to be half-elves, and they were dressed in wraparound linens that bespoke recent times in Tyr. The woman had several bracelets on each arm.
Their race made them stand out. It was the rare half-elf who could manage to be invited to such a gathering-and indeed, many of the humans and elves in the room were giving the pair odd looks.
One of the sirdars came by with a drink for Hamanu-often the nobility would do so in order to speak with the king-and the king asked him who they were.
“They bore a letter of introduction from Lord Porsich, magnificence.”
Hamanu nodded, sipping his drink absently. Porsich was an ancient dray sirdar who’d died of old age a year earlier. He was only a few years older than the king.
“Do they have business in Urik?”
The sirdar’s face was overcome with disgust. Hamanu almost smiled. “I sincerely hope not, magnificence, but I only know what I have told you-and I’m afraid I only knew that because I happened to be standing near the entryway when they were announced, and they showed the doorman the letter.”
Again, Hamanu nodded, then dismissed the sirdar with a wave.
Sighing audibly, the sirdar ran off.
He supposed the woman was attractive and the man handsome-it was hard for Hamanu to tell anymore. They seemed to be working the crowd.
The woman had found Drahar and was talking with him, though the chamberlain seemed a bit distracted. Seeing that the man was alone, Hamanu instructed a page boy to encourage the man to bring the king a drink.
Minutes later, the half-elf gentleman was on one knee holding out a drink to the king on his throne.
“On your feet,” Hamanu said. “You’ll rumple your linen.”
The young man rose. “Of course, sir. You honor me with your presence.”
“Sir” was a standard honorific. Generally, Hamanu preferred “magnificence,” but strictly speaking, he wasn’t Hamanu’s subject, so that particular title didn’t make sense. “What brings a half-breed from Tyr to my city-state?”
“Actually, sir, my sister and I were born here in Urik. However, we were raised in Tyr. Forgive me-I am called Dalon, and my sister is Wrena. We were disowned by both of our parents, and were taken in by a dwarf nobleman of Tyr who took pity on us. He raised us as if we were his own. But he died a few years ago, and we came into an impressive inheritance.”
“And you knew Lord Porsich?”
Dalon winced. “I’m afraid not, sir. Our patron did-but I never met the man. We were sorry to hear of his death.”
“Not nearly as sorry as he was.”
Hamanu noted that Dalon’s laugh sounded genuine, not the nervous laughter that often accompanied the king’s witticisms. It was, he’d found, a good way to judge people, by how they laughed.
“We actually came here on some family business, but we were also hoping to observe the running of a gladiatorial arena. The Pit of Black Death is, in many ways, the metal standard for how to run such a place. Unfortunately …” Dalon trailed off.
“Yes, well, given how things ended, I don’t think the Pit was quite the model of efficiency its reputation indicated.” In fact, Hamanu wondered if Calbit and Jago had gotten so complacent, thanks to the constant winning of Gorbin, that they let other concerns grow lax. Once they lost Gorbin, they lost their ability to run things-if indeed they ever had it.
The king then asked: “Are you thinking of running an arena in Tyr?”
“Possibly,” Dalon said cautiously. “We’d invested in the Stadium of Tyr, but since the revolution …”
Hamanu nodded. “Yes, I can see how that would devalue your investment somewhat.”
“Indeed. Honestly, at this point, we feel we could run things ourselves given the opportunity. Since we had that family business here, we thought we’d see how the best did it.” Dalon took a sip of his own drink. “It’s just a pity that such a great source of bouts is no more.”
“Oh, it still exists.”
“Excuse me?” Dalon sounded confused.
Hamanu shook his head. Laws in Tyr were much different, after all. “With the deaths of not only the owners of the Pit but also their heirs, the ownership of the arena falls to the state.”
Dalon looked intrigued by that. “In other words, sir-to you.”
“Precisely. Have you considered returning to your home city-state?”
Taking another sip, Dalon then said, “Well, since the revolution, there’s very little keeping us in Tyr. In truth, without our patron’s protection, our half-breed status made us targets.”
“Indeed.” Hamanu summoned a page boy. “Bring Chamberlain Drahar over here.”
Drahar still seemed distracted as he came over, the half-elf woman trailing a bit behind. Seeing her, and noticing the significant look Dalon gave her, Hamanu waved his hand toward himself. “Come over as well, my dear. This would appear to concern you also.”
She curtsied and replied, “Thank you, sir. I am Wrena.”
“Dalon’s sister, yes. He’s told me of you. Lord Chamberlain, I wish you to meet with these two tomorrow and interview them about the possibility of their taking over administration of the Pit. It’s one of Urik’s finest centers for entertainment, and I wish it to be a going concern again.”
“Uhm, very well.” Drahar rubbed his temple. “Apologies, I have a bit of a headache. I’ve actually been speaking with Wrena here-you didn’t tell me that you were an entrepreneur.”
“Given that our interest was in running an arena, I thought it best to avoid that topic of discussion. We’d heard that the gladiatorial arena was not your preferred method of spending your leisure hours.” Wrena smiled shyly and looked away as she continued. “Besides, I prefer not to mix business with pleasure. This is a party, not a meeting.”
“Of course. Then let us set up such a meeting-tomorrow in my office, midday?”
Dalon and Wrena looked at each other and both nodded. “That would be perfect. We can always change our lunch to a dinner.”
“Excellent.” Hamanu raised his glass. “To the Pit.”
They all did likewise and repeated the toast.
The King of the World drank his wine with the hopes that he would once again be able to keep the lower classes distracted.
It almost made the party worth it …
Drahar had learned very early in life that one never, under any circumstances, even considered questioning the self-styled King of the World.
That was the only reason he didn’t ask Hamanu if he was completely mad at the party.
Had it been anyone else to suggest that Drahar be the one to test the half-elf siblings to see if they were worthy of administrating the Pit, he would have asked that question. Why on Athas would anyone think that he, of all people, would even know how to judge whether or not someone was qualified to run an arena?
However, his primary job as chamberlain was to facilitate making the king’s will into reality.
So when Cace announced that Dalon and Wrena had arrived for their midday meeting, he took a deep breath and told her to let them in.
They were dressed, he noticed, in much more casual wear than they had been the previous night, having eschewed the formal wear of a state-sponsored party for more practical linens. It was a particularly hot day, so the change made sense, though it didn’t do much to create an impression with Drahar.
As if reading his thoughts, Wrena said, “We know that we’re not quite dressed for the occasion, but bear with us. My brother and I were talking last night, and we agreed that a meeting in an office was no way to prove that we were fit to run the Pit.”
Drahar raised an eyebrow. “Then what did you have in mind?”
“We wanted to show you how good we are at running a fight,” Dalon said.
“Last night,” Wrena added, “you were telling me about a tavern you used to go to when you were a student at the King’s Academy-I can’t remember the name, but you said it had gone into the sewer since then.”
Involuntarily, Drahar smiled. “The Bright Water Tavern,” he said fondly. The tiny watering hole wedged in between a blacksmith’s and a dry goods store in Old District had been the location of many a late-night celebration during his student days. Drahar and his comrades had first gone because they were hungry after taking a trip to the Bright Water Well, one of the oases around which the city-state was first built centuries before.
But it had become a favorite of soldiers and mercenaries, forcing the students to go elsewhere. Not that Drahar would consider a drinking binge in his position in any event, but if for some reason he would, Bright Water would not be where he would go.
“Yes! That’s the place.” Wrena adjusted her bracelets, which she seemed to do unconsciously. “If you could take us there, we could run an impromptu fight.”
“Impromptu?” Drahar felt dubious. Bar fights, he knew, were volatile things. Even the ones in the arena were sloppy affairs.
Dalon was smiling confidently. In fact, Drahar could psionically detect the confidence exuding from him. “We can take two people in this tavern of yours, get them to fight each other in a manner consistent with an arena fight. It’s a mercenaries’ hangout, you said, so there are bound to be grudges. This way they can work it out in a contained manner that doesn’t destroy the bar, and we show you what we’re capable of.”
While those circumstances would indeed be convincing, Drahar didn’t particularly wish to be anywhere nearby when it inevitably failed.
Before he could voice an objection, Wrena said, “Surely you can bring some guards for protection.”
“Oh, that’s a given,” Drahar said. He wouldn’t dream of traveling anywhere in the city without at least four soldiers from the Guard covering him. For such an event, he was probably better off with six.
“Bring as many as you want,” Dalon said brashly. “But you won’t need them.”
For a brief instant, Drahar considered fobbing it off on Cace. That was what assistants were for, after all.
Then he remembered his predecessor’s fate and the fact that the commission came straight from Hamanu.
“The king wants this,” he finally said, “so I’ll go along, but the moment things go wrong, you two are not only out of a job, but I’ll be forced to exile you from Urik.”
“What?” Dalon bellowed, but his sister nodded sagely.
“That’s eminently reasonable,” Wrena said. “Thank you, Lord Chamberlain, you won’t be sorry.”
“I was already sorry the moment I was assigned this ludicrous task,” he muttered.
He summoned Cace, giving her instructions on what to do while he was gone, including hourly checks on the psionists who were studying Mandred and keeping him in check. He also wanted reports from the templars who were researching the “Tharizdun” that the creature mentioned.
When he was done instructing Cace, Drahar stood up. “Well, then. Let us depart.”
Within an hour, Drahar’s palanquin was taking him through the streets of Urik. Dalon and Wrena walked alongside, their head wraps protecting them from the midday sun. Two soldiers were in front of them, with two more in front of the palanquin, and two more bringing up the rear.
Wrena shivered at one point in contrast to the heat, adjusting her bracelets as she did so. “I’ve never been to Old District before.”
Drahar regarded her with annoyance. “Now is hardly the time to express reluctance.”
“She’s not reluctant,” Dalon said quickly with a glare at her. “It’ll be fine.”
The chamberlain started to wonder whose idea it was. Drahar had told Wrena about how Bright Water had gone downhill over the years, and he wondered if she properly conveyed that to Dalon when she told her brother about it.
Once they reached Old District, the palanquin slowed to a crawl-and that was with the soldiers in front clearing a path.
As it was Urik, nobody questioned being told to step aside by a member of the Guard, but the streets in the more ancient part of town were narrow, and it was difficult to maneuver.
Drahar wondered what he was thinking to agree to such a thing.
Then he saw the familiar thoroughfare that led to the oasis, and soon saw the sign that proclaimed the name of the tavern in yellow letters carved into a very old, very jagged wooden sign. For a brief moment, Drahar smiled, remembering the long nights and the hung-over mornings. The first time he ever got sick from drinking was at Bright Water.
Due to the reason for his return, he expected to get sick a second time.
Realizing he had no desire to set foot in the place and risk spoiling some very fond memories, he called out to the lead soldier. “Sergeant Mazro, accompany these two into the tavern and watch them. I expect a full report.”
Komir exchanged a quick glance with Karalith at Drahar’s instructions to the sergeant. It would certainly simplify matters, as a sergeant in the Imperial Guard was less likely to notice subtleties than the chamberlain.
Still, they needed the game to run smoothly.
Karalith had clearly remembered the name of the tavern, of course, and they’d sent Gan and Zabaj there ahead of time. They’d taken the precaution of removing Gan’s eye patch. That was his most distinguishing feature, and removing it made it less likely that he’d be recognized by Drahar.
Mazro walked behind the two of them as they entered.
They’d already been to Bright Water, so Komir knew the layout. The interior was narrow, with the bar to the right-a goliath standing behind it serving the drinks-and three very long tables running from front to back on the left, with three elf barmaids bringing drinks and taking empty tankards away. There was a massive bloodstain on the floor, which people avoided. Large numbers of burly men sat at the tables or at the bar, or stood crowded next to one another (everywhere but near the bloodstain). The ambient noise levels were through the roof, a wall of sound that slammed into them as they entered.
That level went down once people noticed Mazro’s uniform and sword, but not as much as it might have elsewhere.
Komir spied Zabaj standing near the bar with a half-giant and a human, the other two laughing at something the mul said. Gan, meanwhile, was seated alone at a table. That alone was surprising, as Gan was usually the gregarious one, while it was almost impossible to get Zabaj to use more than one sentence at a time.
Gan noticed their entrance-easily covered, as everyone noticed their entrance-and then gulped down the remainder of his drink.
Komir caught snatches of conversation as they ambled through the tavern.
“I heard that the Pit got shut down by the king. Sorta thing you’d expect.”
“Think the orchards’ll do better next year?”
“Actually, y’see, that ain’t the same Hamanu. Y’see, it’s been a new guy every twenty years’r so, y’see, that replaces the last one. We’ve had somethin’ like twenty Hamanus runnin’ the place, y’see.”
“And then the anakore said, ‘You didn’t come here to hunt, did you?’ ”
Komir looked at the sergeant. “Drink?”
Mazro stared at Komir for a second, as if never having considered the possibility. Then he stared back at the entrance to the tavern. “Best not. Even if Dry-hump out there didn’t smell it on my breath, he’d feel it in my head.”
Nodding in understanding, Komir was grateful that Feena had been nearby. She’d loitered outside Destiny’s Kingdom when they went to see Drahar, and had followed the palanquin discreetly all the way to the tavern. Komir wasn’t sure where she was right then, but he hoped she was continuing to use her mind-magic to keep Drahar from detecting any malicious intent. He’d have to cast a spell to truly get inside their heads, but as long as he continued to trust them-or at least trust Karalith-he wouldn’t probe too deeply, so they needed Feena to project a veneer of “Dalon” and “Wrena” to help with the game.
It was Feena’s usual role in the game, and she’d gotten better and better at it over the years. They doubted she’d be able to pull it off with someone of Hamanu’s power, but with the chamberlain, all would probably be well.
Gan got up from his bench and started walking-stumbling, really-toward the bar, on a vector that would take him right past Zabaj and his new friends.
Right on cue, he bumped into Zabaj’s drink-holding arm, knocking his mead to the stone floor.
“Watch out, y’imbecile!”
Gan held up a hand. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. Really sorry.”
Zabaj moved as if to loom over him, since his job was to start the fight that Dalon and Wrena would manage, but before he could, the half-giant interpolated himself between Zabaj and Gan.
“I don’t give a frip ‘ow sorry y’are, imbecile, y’should watch where the frip y’r goin’.” To accentuate the point, the half-giant pushed Gan.
Gan oversold it, stumbling back much farther than necessary from the shove.
Komir shot a glance at Karalith, who quickly shrugged.
Zabaj, however, tried to step in. “Hranoc, I can fight my own-”
“Nah, see, I’m sick’a the imbeciles. Everywhere I turn, imbeciles. Knockin’ over drinks an’ eatin’ too much food an’ cuttin’ in front’a people on the line f’r the bar an’ I’m just sick of it. No more imbeciles.” He clenched his fist and moved toward Gan.
Again, Komir looked at his sister. Obviously, they’d stumbled into a crazy person. But they had to make the best of it, since he apparently wanted the fight all to himself.
Then Komir looked at Mazro. “This is our best chance.”
The sergeant shrugged. “Go for it.”
“Excuse me,” Komir said, walking so he was next to both Gan and Hranoc, but not actually between them. Karalith, meanwhile, headed outside.
“Whaddaya want? You another imbecile?”
Komir smiled at the half-giant. “No, sir, I’m not. At least, I don’t think so. No, I just want to give you an opportunity to work out your disagreement with this drunken gentleman here without causing damage to a perfectly nice tavern.”
The goliath behind the bar said, “I’m all for that. Take this crap outside, wouldja please? I still ain’t cleaned up from the last fight.”
That, Komir thought, explained the bloodstain. “Come with me,” Komir said.
Hranoc looked at the people he was with. While the others just shrugged, Zabaj said, “I’d rather not get thrown out of the tavern.”
Karalith had-probably with the help of Mazro’s soldiers-cleared a space and was bent over drawing a large circle on the cobblestones outside the tavern with a piece of chalk. The crowd, however, was all standing on the perimeter, kept in line by the soldiers, wanting to see what was happening.
“Consider this an impromptu arena,” Komir said. “Hranoc here will face-er, what’s your name, sir?” he asked Gan.
Komir managed not to wince. It was generally preferred to use aliases that had no specific connection to you. “All right, Fehrd, you stand on that side, and Hranoc, you face him.”
Gan stumbled toward where he was supposed to go. Hranoc laughed. “This oughtta be fun. Always thought I’d do good in th’arena.”
“Well, now’s your chance,” Komir said.
For the first time since the game started, Komir saw Feena. Actually, he heard her first, crying out, “Three copper on the half-giant.”
To his credit, Gan did not react when he heard his sister betting against him.
As they’d hoped, it started a rash of bets.
Hranoc started circling the perimeter of Karalith’s hastily drawn ring. The crowd started to cheer and bellow. For his part, Gan was trying to stay upright-or at least looking like he needed to struggle to do so.
Finally, Hranoc lunged forward, and Gan blocked the punch with an awkward-looking motion that Komir knew was actually quite controlled.
Then Gan kicked him in the shin.
Hranoc stumbled backward much more painfully than Gan had been stumbling, letting out several curses in a language Komir didn’t recognize. At least, he assumed they were curses …
They exchanged blows several times after that, neither really landing a solid hit.
Any time they were in danger of getting too close to the edge of the ring Komir moved to stand between them and the chalk line, gently touching Gan on the shoulder to keep him in bounds. (Had he been fighting Zabaj as planned, he would have touched either of them, but Hranoc was an unknown quantity.)
After about three minutes of sparring, Komir gave a quick nod to Gan.
At that point, Gan grabbed the top of Hranoc’s head with his left hand and held him at arm’s length. With his right, he started repeatedly punching the half-giant in the gut.
For the seventh punch, he let go, which sent Hranoc backward toward the other side of the ring. Then Gan walked over and kicked him in the face, then swept out his feet so he fell onto his back with a thud.
Finally, Gan stepped hard on his gut, causing the half-giant to let out a loud gasp.
“I ain’t no imbecile,” Gan said.
Then he fell over, as if he’d passed out.
“I believe we can safely call Fehrd the winner,” Komir said with a laugh.
There were jeers and cheers alike, and the clacking sounds of ceramic coins changing hands.
Komir looked over at the palanquin, where Drahar was watching with a combination of admiration and disgust. Given what Karalith had told him about the chamberlain’s opinion of arena fights, the latter was understandable and he was grateful for the former. It meant he’d bought it.
“Well done,” was all the chamberlain said before he retreated back behind the palanquin’s curtains.
Komir smiled at Karalith. The first stage of the game was done.
The part of the game that Karalith hated most was the paperwork.
She understood its necessity, of course. In the game, details were everything. That was why they claimed not to remember the name of Drahar’s academy tavern and had him lead them to it. A small detail, but it meant that Drahar wouldn’t even consider that Gan and Zabaj were plants. For that matter, it was why they sent Gash’s original map back.
And it was why she and Komir were stuck with Drahar’s assistant-a very efficient, very straightforward, very boring young woman named Cace-signing contracts that would grant Dalon Zavno and Wrena Zavno the right to administer the Pit of Black Death.
They had spent hours going over the contracts, and Karalith’s eyes were starting to glaze over.
However, when they were finished, Cace’s words prompted her to sit up and notice.
“Now that the deal is in place, the king wishes to speak to you. You may dine at his table this evening.”
“We’ll be honored,” Karalith said with a curtsey.
For the first time since their return to the palace, Cace’s expression changed-to one of disdain as she looked at what Karalith and Komir were wearing. The linen had become rumpled and sweat stained and caked with sand despite all efforts to brush it off.
“You are expected,” Cace said dryly, “to dress formally.”
“Of course,” Karalith said with another curtsey, and then they departed Destiny’s Kingdom.
They had just enough time to return to the carriage, find appropriate clothes to change into, make sure that Gan was okay-he’d bloodied his nose when he “passed out,” pointing out that he usually only fell down involuntarily and wasn’t used to doing it on purpose-and return to the palace, where a steward met them at the gate and escorted them to the dining room.
That turned out to be the same room where the party was held the previous night. Karalith barely recognized it, as the paintings on the walls had all been changed, the long tables along the wall had been removed, and replaced by a large wooden table that sat at least twenty. The only reason she could tell it was the same were the lions engraved in the molding on the doors and windows.
Karalith was long experienced at hiding her feelings-you didn’t last three seconds in the game if you didn’t-but she was hard-pressed not to gape at the table. Wood of that size was obscenely rare. That table was probably worth more than all the gems in the compound combined.
“It’s good to be the king,” Komir muttered, and Karalith smiled.
Several others were attending, many of them sirdars whom Karalith remembered from the party. A couple were dignitaries from other city-states. Unlike the party, where they were mostly relaxed and social, tonight they were all making the most inane small talk, using shorter sentences and ending conversations abruptly.
Karalith understood the difference. At the party, people generally only spoke to the king if they wished to, or if he specifically wished to speak to you. But at an intimate dinner, you had to speak to him.
That turned out to be less of a concern than expected, however, as the king didn’t actually arrive until the dessert course. Which resulted in even more awkward and stilted conversation, as no one knew exactly when Hamanu would show up.
When he did arrive, he focused entirely on eating the cake his cooks had prepared. Karalith found the dessert to be dry and tasteless, but the king devoured it eagerly, getting crumbs in his beard as he did so.
Dessert passed in uncomfortable silence, save for the sounds of chewing, then suddenly, Hamanu looked right at one of the sirdars, an older gentleman who served as the king’s minister of agriculture. “Lord Pammot, why are the orchards underproducing this year?”
Pammot choked on his cake at the question. The sirdar next to him slapped his back a few times and he recovered. “No one can predict the vicissitudes of the soil, magnificence.”
“Odd, isn’t it, how the ministers all take credit when something goes well, but when it goes poorly, it’s an unforeseen circumstance? When we had that bumper crop three years ago, Pammot, you were the first to crow about how well ‘your’ crops did. In fact, you parlayed that into a higher stipend for yourself, as I recall.”
Already pale, the minister of agriculture was turning bone white. “Y-yes, magnificence, that’s true, but-”
“So the reverse should be the case as well. Your stipend will return to what it was when you first started at this post.”
Several emotions played across the sirdar’s face at once: relief that he wasn’t going to be physically punished for the poor yield, annoyance that his income was being reduced, and fear at letting that annoyance be seen by the king.
That fear was justified. “Is there a problem with my decree, Lord Pammot?” the king asked in a quiet voice.
“No.” Pammot all but barked. “Your decree is quite reasonable.”
Hamanu smiled. “ ‘Reasonable’, eh? Yes, I can see how you would think that. But one of the advantages to absolute power is that I’m within my rights to be unreasonable-since I’m the one who grants rights. So perhaps I should do something less reasonable and more fun. Have you executed, perhaps?”
At that, Pammot fainted dead away, falling forward into his cake. A second later, he coughed, having aspirated his dessert. Two stewards came by to help him up.
“Bring him to the dungeons,” Hamanu said. “I’ll decide what to do with him later.”
Karalith and Komir exchanged glances. They were going to have to play the game very carefully.
“Wrena, Dalon, would you like to accompany me on a walk through the palace? I’m sure you didn’t get to see all of it during your other trips.”
Komir cleared his throat. “Only this room and the chamberlain’s office, sir.”
“Excellent. Once the meal has ended, you will both join me.”
“We would be honored,” Karalith said.
“Yes, you would be.” Hamanu smiled.
When the stewards cleared the dessert plates and Hamanu stood, the rest of the dinner party couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. Karalith had to admit to finding it very amusing.
They followed behind the king as he left the dining area. He took them through several dank corridors, then down a spiral staircase, eventually winding up in the dungeon area.
“Do you like Destiny’s Kingdom?”
Komir and Karalith exchanged glances, not sure who the question was aimed at. Karalith nodded to him, indicating that he should speak-when in doubt, the male was probably the one being addressed, especially by someone as old as Hamanu.
“It’s quite impressive,” Komir said blandly.
“Of course it is,” Hamanu snapped. “It’s a palace. I sometimes wonder if I should remodel it.” He shook his head. “Never mind. I understand that you’ve agreed to administer the arena. How soon can bouts recommence?”
“I’m afraid it’s impossible to determine that as yet, sir,” Komir said. Karalith shot him a look and he just blinked at her.
So she stayed quiet and trusted him.
“We’ve conducted a full inspection of the amphitheater, and it’s quite subpar.”
That, of course, was a lie-though among them, Zabaj, Feena, Tricht’tha, and Gan were able to provide vivid descriptions.
“I believe that the previous owners were increasing their profit margin by not maintaining the facility’s infrastructure. The equipment has been poorly maintained, the floors are not adequately cleaned-there are bloodstains all over the floors, some of which I suspect date back to the earliest days of your reign, sir.”
Hamanu stopped walking. “This sounds like a very clever way to not answer my question.”
“With respect, sir,” Karalith said, “he did answer the question. His answer was simply ‘I do not know.’ ”
The king stared at Karalith with an expression that she could not read, then he continued to walk down the staircase, bringing them to the dungeon level.
“What is required to change the answer to something a bit more specific?”
“Capital,” Komir said.
Karalith glared at her brother. What was he playing at?
Komir continued: “According to the terms of the contract we signed in the chamberlain’s office, the Urik treasury is financially responsible for any maintenance that needs to be performed that is the result of a preexisting condition.”
Suddenly Karalith was grateful that her brother had more patience than she for minutiae. She hadn’t even noticed that clause in the contract-and it had to be there. Hamanu was too wily a monarch to not check before committing to laying out money.
But it also meant that this particular game might earn them quite a bit-they’d take the coin for the maintenance and repairs, and then disappear, with Hamanu unable to do anything, since his contract was with two people who didn’t actually exist.
Hamanu snorted. “The Urik treasury cannot subsidize the arena.”
“It’s not a subsidy, sir,” Komir said, “it’s maintaining the crown’s own property.”
“My concern is with maintaining the crown’s own army-in fact, it’s my preference to increase it, but our coffers cannot even manage that.”
They turned a corner to see three women and one man all dressed in the blue linens that indicated a mind-mage. All four were concentrating.
“This is one of our hopes for doing so.” Hamanu indicated the cell where the mind-mages stood. “My psionists are currently attempting to figure out how to control this creature. Chamberlain Drahar and Templar Tharson had him and another one removed from the arena you’ve assumed control of.”
One of the mind-mages-or “psionists”-stepped aside at Hamanu’s urging, allowing the king to peer inside the barred window to the cell.
“Take a look,” he said after a moment.
First Komir went to the door, and he noticeably paled. He moved away, stricken, and then Karalith did likewise.
Having lived all her life dealing with the worst Athas had to offer, from surly customers to sand creatures who wanted to kill her, there was very little that could frighten Karalith.
The sight of what Rol Mandred had turned into, however, managed that feat.
If Gan hadn’t made reference to the changes Rol was undergoing when last he saw his friend, Karalith might not have believed that it was him. His skin was slate gray, strange faceted jeweled armor covered his shoulders, his hands and feet were mutated, and his mouth was segmented.
It was the most foul creature Karalith had ever seen-and she had seen the foulest creatures Athas had to offer.
And somehow it was Rol.
“If we can determine how to control that creature, then our army will be a wonder to behold.” Hamanu spoke almost dreamily.
Karalith’s idea started to coalesce in her head. “What if we adjusted the terms of the contract in such a way that benefits you in the long term?”
Hamanu frowned. “Excuse me?”
“Instead of you subsidizing the arena, as you put it, what if we instead consider it an investment?”
That got Hamanu to raise one white eyebrow. “So the money I provide would be repaid?”
“With interest,” Karalith said.
“And what would you require in return for this particular amendment, which doesn’t benefit you in the least?”
“On the contrary,” Karalith said with a smile, “it benefits us tremendously to create good will between us and our new landlord. But, as it happens, there is one thing that we would humbly request, if you’d be willing to give it.”
“And that is?”
She pointed at the door. “Him.”
“He was removed from the arena.”
Komir stepped in then. “And what has he done for you? At least in the arena, he can be earning profit-Drahar and his psionists can continue to study him at the Pit, but he’ll be earning you coin so you can raise that army you want.”
Hamanu stroked his beard. “An interesting proposition. I must admit, having that creature in the arena will be a draw.”
“Exactly,” Karalith said. “You’ll make back your investment within a week of opening. And we’ll continue to provide you with a share of the profits, which you can use to raise your army.”
The king’s face split into a massive grin, one that Karalith would have found disturbing before she saw what Rol had turned into.
And right then, Karalith knew that they had him.
The happiest day of Barglin’s life was when that big mul kicked the rusted metal gate to the arena in, allowing all the fighters to escape.
The thri-kreen who was working with the mul had told everyone that if they wanted paying work, to meet in three days at sunset at Dedie’s Tavern on Geros Way in Potters’ Square.
A goodly number of the fighters, Barglin knew, would take advantage of the opportunity to get the hell out of Urik, and Barglin didn’t blame them.
But Barglin was escaping from a prison sentence. When you were arrested in Urik, the Imperial Guard tended to take anything of value you have on you, and they had done so to Barglin. It wasn’t much of a haul for the two soldiers in question. Most of Barglin’s net worth had gone toward the drinks, the imbibing of which led in part to the altercation that had preceded his arrest.
Still, he had nothing save the clothes on his back, so he figured he’d keep that appointment.
The only problem was that he had to sleep in the streets, since lodging was out of the question. That was something he’d never done before while sober. Two nights of tossing and turning on cobblestone convinced the dwarf that it was an experience best enjoyed while unconscious from ale.
So it was with a very sore lower back and a growling stomach that Barglin entered Dedie’s at sunset. He recognized about half a dozen of the fighters from the Pit-a mere fraction of the total who were freed by the mul and the thri-kreen-all sitting in a corner, talking about this and that, and Barglin joined them.
“Barglin,” cried one of the other dwarves. “Welcome. Have an ale. It’s on our benefactors.”
An objection that he had no coin died on his lips. If they were paying for drinks too, he definitely wanted to hear their pitch. He signaled for an ale and squeezed in between the dwarf who’d spoken and a five-legged thri-kreen.
“I expected to see Jono here.”
“He got himself hired to guard a caravan.”
“Wish I’d thought of that.”
“Right, like anyone’d hire you to guard a caravan. You can’t even see over the carriages.”
“Wonder what the deal here will be.”
“Didja hear? They killed Calbit and Jago.”
“Hope they killed that bitch of a daughter of Calbit’s too. You know what she did to me?”
“Nothin’, prob’ly, but I bet she promised a whole helluva lot.”
A barmaid brought over Barglin’s ale, which he sipped eagerly, foam getting into his mustache, and some of the ale dribbling down his chest. He didn’t care. The crisp sensation of the ale cascading down his throat was the most wonderful feeling in the world right then.
“A little thirsty, there, Barglin?”
Barglin swallowed, paused, let out a loud belch that echoed off the tavern walls, then smiled. “A bit, yeah.”
A voice from behind him said, “There’ll be more where that came from.”
Turning, Barglin saw the one-eyed human who’d come in with Rol Mandred. “Gan, I thought they traded you out for that mul.”
With Gan was a curly-haired blonde. “They did,” she said with a smile. “My name is Feena-I’m Gan’s sister. And we have an offer for you gentlemen.”
“That’s why we’re here,” Barglin said.
“What is it?” another asked.
“Simple-we want you to return to the Pit.”
Silence fell over the table.
Barglin burst out laughing. “Good one, Gan. You and your sister have a great sense’a humor.”
“We’re not kidding, Barglin,” Gan said. “But it’ll be different this time. For starters, it’s only for a day or two. For another, you won’t have to fight.”
A half-giant asked, “What do we have to do?”
Feena said, “Sit in the cubicles while we pretend to be fixing the place up for the grand reopening. Once we’re done, you’ll each get three silver and be on your way.”
Gulping down some more ale, Barglin then wiped more foam from his mustache. “We don’t have to fight?”
“No. You’re just there to make it look like we have fighters ready to go once we open. There’ll be mind-mages there, so we need to have people who are used to being in those cubicles. The mind-mages will be busy elsewhere, but we don’t want to take the chance.”
“So basically,” Barglin said, “you’re paying us three silver to sit on our asses?”
Gan chuckled. “Pretty much, yeah. Think you can handle that, Barglin?”
Three silver would pay for a corner of a carriage in a caravan that would get him away from this town with its royal nephews who picked fights in taverns. “Yeah, I think I can. When do you need us there?”
“Right away,” Feena said. “Finish your drinks, and we’ll head over now.”
Rol had to admit to taking great pleasure out of the creature’s frustration.
For days, he’d been hearing importunings and implorations, not to mention boasts and threats, all relating to the great power wielded by the monster that had taken over his mind and transformed his body.
And yet there it was, being held in check by three mind-mages.
Rol himself was just as helpless, of course, but at least the thing that had taken everything away from him was being stymied.
If only those mind-mages would figure out a way to change him back …
Still, it was something.
You are a fool. This is only a temporary setback. Soon, chaos will reign over this world and-
“Oh, will you give it a rest, already?” Rol was really getting tired of the thing’s speeches. “These guys have you.”
Yes, but they are attempting to study me. To learn more about me so they can control me-they are even bigger fools than you are, and soon they will discover their mistake, though too late to stop me. I only need them to waver but once, or to probe too deeply.
The creature’s ramblings were interrupted by the door to the cell opening. A soldier was standing in the doorway. “Bring him.”
The soldier was talking to the mind-mages, apparently, since Rol’s newly oversized legs proceeded to get up and walk toward the door, even as the creature was screaming.
Rol just laughed. “What are you complaining about? Isn’t this the part where they might probe too deeply?”
Perhaps. They will rue the day they attempted to control me, for I am chaos and cannot be controlled.
To Rol’s surprise, the psionists took them away upstairs and out of the dungeon area.
Where are they taking us?
“How the frip should I know?”
They put Rol into a carriage that was attached to a pair of crodlus. They trudged their way slowly through the streets of Urik. Rol didn’t know the area well enough to figure out where they were going until they arrived at a very familiar mine.
“We’re coming back here?” Rol said, but of course only the creature heard, and it didn’t respond.
He was brought to a cell-or, rather, cubicle-very much like the one he was in when Calbit and Jago brought him there. On the way, they passed several other cubicles, many of which had familiar faces in them.
For a long time, he sat, which wasn’t qualitatively different from sitting in the castle dungeon. He wondered if he’d be asked to fight again.
He hoped not. Rol had never shied away from a fight in his life, but knowing what the creature could do, he feared for what would happen to whatever poor bastard got into the ring with him.
At least it would probably be over quickly …
Drahar was stunned when he went down to the dungeon to find Mandred’s cell empty.
There were no psionists, no guards, nothing. Just an empty room.
He stormed back upstairs and summoned Cace. “What happened to Mandred?”
Calm as ever, Cace replied: “The king agreed to send him back to the arena. The new owners plan to contribute their future profits toward expanding the Imperial Guard, which they agreed to in exchange for having Mandred be the main attraction again.”
“Is he-” Drahar cut himself off. It wasn’t wise to even think about questioning the King of the World’s sanity.
Normally, the first couple of words wouldn’t even escape his lips like that, but he was well and truly frustrated.
No such person as “Tharizdun” existed anywhere in any archive that Drahar had been able to track down. He’d gone to his tutors at the King’s Academy, many of whom were mages of many centuries’ standing, and who were in touch with wizards from all across Athas. Few people in the world kept any kind of history-surviving the present generally took precedence over preserving the past-but it did survive to a degree in the minds of the oldest residents of Athas. They didn’t recall everything, of course, but surely they would remember something powerful enough to turn Mandred into the creature he had become.
None of them had the slightest idea who Tharizdun might be, nor did they recognize the creature.
And the king had taken the creature away.
A panic seized him. “Please tell me the psionists went with him.”
“Of course,” Cace said.
“Don’t say ‘of course’ as if it were a normal thing,” Drahar snapped, then immediately regretted it. “My apologies, Cace, it’s been a trying day. Cancel my remaining appointments.”
“Where will you be?”
“At the arena, of course. The whole point of bringing Mandred here was to use him to supplement the Guard, without having to pay to train more soldiers.” He let out a long breath. “Still, if that’s what magnificence wants, that is what he will get. But I will continue to do as I was instructed, so I’m going to the Pit to continue my work.”
Gan was going insane sitting around.
Feena had told him to stay in the back office where the money was kept. A messenger from the castle had brought the “investment capital”-three thousand gold, with the promise of another two thousand once the treasurer determined that the first thousand had indeed been spent on upkeep.
That determination would never take place, of course. Thirty silver would go to the fighters, and there were some other expenses involved-like all that ale the fighters drank at Dedie’s-but mostly the Serthlara Emporium would wind up with a near-three-thousand-gold profit, and Gan would have his freedom once again.
Fehrd would still be dead though.
And then there was Rol.
With the three thousand in place, it was just a matter of distracting the soldiers and the mind-mages in such a way that they could get Rol out of there.
Gan’s job was to stay in the back room for the dual purpose of guarding the money and staying out of sight. He’d been a prominent fighter there, albeit only for a couple of days, and someone might recognize him. The eye patch, after all, was distinctive.
But after sitting in the office for the better part of a day, he was going quite mad. His knees ached, his left eye socket itched, and he had to pee.
So he got up and walked around for a bit, locking up the door to the office to keep the money safe.
As soon as he turned a corner, he bumped into a man in fine linens who looked maddeningly familiar.
Then he recalled when last he’d seen him: in a palanquin outside the tavern near the oasis. It was Chamberlain Drahar. He was being escorted by two soldiers.
“Excuse me,” Gan said quickly, turning around to go back to the office. He promised never to leave it ever again.
“Stop,” the chamberlain bellowed.
Not wanting to do so, Gan ignored the order and kept going.
“Stop that man.”
Unlike Gan, the soldier did as Drahar instructed, and he ran after Gan. Quickly picking up speed, Gan started to run, hoping that the staircase he thought was around the corner was still there, as once he got downstairs, he could easily lose the soldier in the catacombs.
However, the staircase wasn’t there-it was the dead end that led to the office he’d just locked.
Turning around, he saw the soldier facing him while holding a large bone staff. “I don’t like it when folks make me run.”
The soldier swung downward with his staff, which Gan was able to block by crossing his wrists-one of the first tricks Fehrd had taught him during his one and only lesson in use of the staff as a weapon.
He then grabbed the staff and yanked it downward, forcing the soldier to lose his grip. With the staff firmly in hand, Gan struck the soldier in the jaw, sending him onto his back. Gan finished him off by slamming one end of the staff into his nose.
The soldier lay dead at his feet, the bones of the nose having been jammed up into his brain. Gan then ran back the way he came, hoping that he could run away before the second soldier caught up.
Like far too many of Gan’s hopes of late, it was a forlorn one. The soldier slammed his right arm into Gan’s throat as he turned the corner, sending him crashing to the floor in the same manner as the first soldier had done a few seconds earlier.
However, the second soldier didn’t finish Gan off, instead yanking the staff out of his hands and hauling Gan to his feet, pulling his arms behind his back.
Roughly bringing Gan to Drahar, the soldier said, “ ’Ere ’e is, sir.”
Drahar stared at him. “You were a fighter in this arena. I saw you. Yet now you walk around free. Something about that is wrong. Something about all of this is wrong.” He turned to the soldier. “Take me to Mandred’s cell, and bring him with us.”
Gan put up a struggle out of habit, but he knew it was no good. The soldier had him gripped tightly.
He tried not to think too hard about how he had screwed up yet again.
They went downstairs to the catacombs, eventually winding up in front of the cell where they’d put Rol. Three mind-mages were standing outside the door, concentrating for all they were worth. A soldier-that one a sergeant-was standing next to them.
“I’m not sure what’s going on here,” Drahar said to the sergeant, “but until I do know what’s going on, I want Mandred back in the palace where I know we can control him.”
The sergeant looked confused. “My lord?”
“I will take responsibility with the king, Sergeant. I believe that there is a trick being pulled on us.”
For a moment, Gan considered denying it, then decided, for once in his life, to not speak. Talking would just make things worse.
As the sergeant moved toward the door to unlock it, the mind-mages each stepped back, their faces still twisted with concentration, eyes focused forward on the door, none of them actually looking where they were walking.
With a creak, the door flew open, the sergeant telling the monster that Rol had turned into not to move (as if he could).
Then one of the mind-mages slipped on a bit of green pus on the stone floor that hadn’t been cleaned up.
A second and a half later, all hell broke loose.
The dreadnaught was free.
Joy echoed throughout the mind that once belonged to Rol Mandred, as the Voidharrow chortled with glee at the loosening of the mental bonds that had been used to shackle the dreadnaught in place.
It was the first of many soldiers of Tharizdun that would stalk across the land bringing the god’s will to life. As the Voidharrow’s first act of freedom, the dreadnaught reached out to grab the soldier on top of his head and then twist. With a meaty squelch, flesh tore and blood spurted, and the snap of the man’s spine as it broke in twain echoed in the corridor.
The dreadnaught exited the cell in two lengthy strides, face-to-face with the psionists, as well as the king’s chamberlain, Drahar; another soldier; and Gan Storvis, the one-eyed human who had been friends with Rol Mandred.
The Voidharrow took great glee in the look of dismay on the one-eyed human’s face at the sight of what his friend had become.
A dismay that increased noticeably when the dreadnaught grabbed two of the psionists around the waist, picked them up, and slammed them headfirst into the third one’s torso. Flesh and bone and muscle and blood commingled in a twisted, pulpy mass from the impact of the three bodies against one another.
The soldier turned and ran away, and Drahar looked as if he wanted to do the same, but instead he seemed to be preparing to cast a spell.
Gan Storvis stepped forward. “Rol, it’s me. Please, you’ve got to-”
With a mighty howl, the dreadnaught opened all three lips and screamed, making it clear to the one-eyed human that he had no say in what the dreadnaught had to do.
Even as the dreadnaught screamed, Drahar cast a spell. The scream modulated from one of anger to one of agony as spikes of pain shot through the dreadnaught’s head.
Drahar was attempting to regain control. The Voidharrow could not allow that, so it resisted.
Gan continued to plead his pathetic cause. “C’mon, Rol, you can do it. Fight this.”
But Rol was no longer a factor. The Voidharrow had taken full possession of this body and transformed it into something better.
The dreadnaught backhanded Gan across the face with its left hand, sending Rol’s friend through one of the doors to the cubicles that held the fighters.
To his credit, Drahar only hesitated for a moment before casting another spell.
One that brought the dreadnaught back to the Astral Plane where the Voidharrow and Drahar had had their last conversation. The multicolored plane was designed differently than before. The ground was earth, not metal, and it was cerulean. The walls were a sickly green, while the ceiling was striped.
But as before, there were three figures on the plane. One was the Voidharrow, one was Drahar-but the other was Rol Mandred.
But no, he was merely a shadow, a remnant of the original consciousness that belonged to the body. Mandred was curled up in a corner of the plane against one of the green walls, not moving, not even breathing.
Even that shadow would be gone before too long.
Drahar faced the Voidharrow. Unlike the previous time, Drahar came in on the floor.
You wish to control me, minion?
“I wish to work with you, dreadnaught,” Drahar said. “We should not be at odds. Together, we can-”
Do nothing. The Voidharrow does not collaborate, I subsume. And then I destroy. Your assistance is neither required nor necessary, minion.
And then the dreadnaught struck Drahar. The walls grew darker, becoming the color of cacti.
Komir looked up at his sister’s words. He was standing in the arena, looking up at the wooden seats in front of the obsidian walls. With no people in the seats, the black walls were intimidating as hell. He felt as if he was staring right into the Abyss.
Karalith had come in through the entryway to the holding area. Remnants of a rusted metal gate hung from the top of the entryway like stalactites, all that remained of the gate after Zabaj had kicked his way through it, freeing the enslaved fighters.
“What’s the matter?” Komir asked.
“Gan isn’t in the office. And one of the fighters said he saw Drahar walking around with a soldier.”
“Yeah, crap. We’ve got our ‘investment’ from Hamanu, we just needed Feena to distract the psionists so we can get Rol and get out of town. That’s gonna be a lot harder with the chamberlain here.”
With a sigh, Komir said, “Yeah. C’mon, let’s see what Drahar’s doing here-maybe we can use it to our advantage.”
“I don’t know, Komir.” Karalith sounded hesitant, something Komir had never experienced in his sister before.
“We’ve already taken a lot of risks here. I mean, we’ve gamed the King of the World.”
Komir glared at her. “How else were we supposed to get Rol out? If we didn’t game the king, we’d have had to try to figure out a way to break him out of the dungeons in Destiny’s Kingdom-something we’re utterly ill-equipped to do. Gaming the king is a bit more within our means. Besides, what happened to all that nonsense about not caring who the victim is, just running the game the same no matter what?”
Karalith stared at him. “I was trying to reassure Gan. But he’s right, this is a little crazy, and if we try to game Drahar again, we’ll be pushing our luck all the way over the edge. We need to cut and run.”
“Fine, then,” Komir said, “let’s do that.”
“Good.” She sounded relieved. “We’ll get the coins out of the office, get Feena, Gan, and Zabaj, and get the frip out of here.”
“What about Rol?”
Karalith threw up her hands, causing her bracelets to rattle up and down her forearms. “What about Rol? Have you seen what he’s been turned into? I’m not sure he wouldn’t be better off with the psionists.”
“Uhm, okay,” Komir said slowly, “but you get to explain that one to Gan and Feena.”
“I will. Don’t worry about it. Let’s just go.”
Komir wasn’t at all confident that there would be nothing to worry about-but she was also right that they needed to finish this and get the hell out of Urik. They’d rescued Gan, at least, and they were about to make off with almost three thousand gold. It was a helluva big score, one that would have Komir dancing in the streets normally, especially given who they took the gold from.
But Gan wasn’t going to like them leaving Rol.
However, he saw the same thing Karalith saw: whatever that creature was, it could no longer truly be considered to be Rol Mandred.
Komir wondered if that meant that Gan was going to want to stay with the emporium. Komir certainly didn’t mind-he’d always enjoyed Gan’s company, even if he did talk a little too much-and Feena would naturally be all for it.
The others, though, might take some convincing.
As he followed Karalith down into the catacombs, he reminded himself to worry about one thing at a time. They had to get out of there alive, first, a notion complicated immensely by the presence of the chamberlain.
Zabaj was walking down one of the corridors when they got down there, and Karalith walked up to him.
“Can you retrieve the coins from the office and bring them to the carriage?”
The mul raised both eyebrows. “We’re leaving?”
Komir snorted. “Yeah.”
“Just hold back enough silver so we can pay the fighters,” Karalith said. “Oh, and when you get to the stable, have Mother and Father get the carriage ready to bug out. We’re going to have to get out of Urik pretty much the instant we all get into the carriage, and since they’re back there guarding the merchandise anyway, we might as well have them make the getaway as smooth as possible.”
Zabaj turned to carry out that instruction. Komir allowed himself a small smile. Nobody got their crodlus moving faster than Mother.
As soon as he turned the corner, the malformed body of what had once been Rol Mandred came crashing through the stone wall, pulverizing it as if it were made of sand.
Komir looked at his sister. “There’s just no way that that’s a good thing.”
An eldritch glow that Komir recognized as the residue of powerful magic covered Rol, followed by Drahar floating through, surrounded by a similar glow.
Then he saw that the chamberlain’s nose was gushing blood onto his upper lip. That was less impressive-he knew from Feena that such only happened to practitioners of the Way who were overstepping their abilities.
Rol gestured and seemed to throw the glow off him, slamming it instead into Drahar, who deflected it aside, causing it to shatter another wall, sending rock flying. Komir raised his arm to protect his bald head from the debris.
Beyond that wall were the cubicles that held the fighters. Peeking out from his arms, Komir saw that at least one of them was dead, one was buried under rubble and might have been dead too, and several others were injured.
“What the frip is that?”
“Hell with this-I’ll get three silver somewhere else.”
As the fighters scattered like mice, Komir saw one of the dwarves-a bald fellow with a thick mustache-trying to help the one who was buried.
“What are you doing?” some idiot asked. To Komir’s shock, he realized that he was the idiot-confirmed by his feet moving, somewhat against his better judgment, toward the dwarf to aid him.
The dwarf-whose name, Komir recalled, was Barglin-said, “Gan’s under here.”
Komir felt his stomach drop. “What was he doing in here?”
Barglin was grabbing rocks and throwing them to one side, trying to clear Gan’s body. “He got knocked in here by that thing with the three mouths that used to be Mandred. Now you wanna help me, or not? He might live if we get him out.”
“If we don’t get out of here, we might not live.” Even as Komir said the words, he kneeled down and, like the dwarf, started tossing stones aside. He wasn’t about to leave Gan behind on top of everything else.
Drahar was losing.
In truth, he had lost before he started. Whatever the Voidharrow creature was, he was considerably more powerful than Drahar. The chamberlain feared he might be more powerful than Hamanu.
Drahar had to put everything he had and more into his fight. To spare anything, even to summon the king to aid him, would be suicidal.
Too late, he realized his own arrogance, his own blindness. All he’d thought about was how he and Tharson could use the creature to curry favor with the king by providing him with a way to raise an army that would enable him to truly become the King of the World.
Instead, he’d let himself be fooled by charalatans-he wasn’t sure how or why, but he knew now that Wrena and Dalon were frauds-and now he was about to die at the hands of an otherworldly creature he couldn’t hope to understand.
But he for damn sure wouldn’t go down without a fight.
On the Astral Plane, the Voidharrow punched him repeatedly in the stomach. A sad irony that their magical battle would translate in the ether to the very fisticuffs that Drahar so abhorred.
This ends now, minion, the dreadnaught boasted as he slammed Drahar with a misshapen fist.
“No, it doesn’t,” said another voice.
A blonde with curly hair was standing behind him. Drahar hadn’t the first clue who she was, but his trained mind instantly detected that she had a powerful talent-albeit raw and unfocused.
“I will aid you, Lord Chamberlain,” she said, touching his shoulder. He could feel her power flowing into him. “Together, we will make this thing pay for what it did to Rol.”
The chamberlain grabbed onto the woman’s power, and for a moment it nearly overwhelmed him. She was obviously untrained-which, if nothing else, proved she was not born and raised in Urik. Hamanu’s templars tested every child born under his rule and placed them appropriately. A child of her ability would have been fast-tracked to the King’s Academy just as Drahar had been-but where his placement was due to his station, hers would’ve been entirely due to ability.
But Drahar was in no position to dwell on the waste of letting her potential lay fallow. Right now what he needed was the strength of this woman-whose name, he now knew, was Feena Storvis, the sister to the one with the eye patch-to stop the Voidharrow.
Perhaps now he might not lose. At the very worst, he’d put up a better fight.
Karalith was making sure that everyone who was still upright got out safely.
One half-giant grabbed her and asked, “When do we get our money?”
“Go to the Three Brothers Stable by the City of the Dead and wait for us there, you’ll get paid. Tell the thri-kreen that I sent you, and say the word ‘geresche.’ ” It was a codeword that was meant to sound like elven, but it truly meant nothing. But it signaled to Tricht’tha that the fighters had truly been sent by someone from the emporium.
Once they all got out, she found Zabaj, holding a large metal box filled with their profits from the increasingly dangerous job. “What’s going on?”
Karalith blew out a breath. “Everything’s going to hell is what’s going on. Whatever Rol’s turned into, it’s powerful enough to take on the chamberlain. Feena’s gone to help him.”
As soon as she’d said it, Karalith realized she should have kept her mouth shut.
Zabaj immediately dropped the box onto the stone floor. It hit with a rattling thunk and Zabaj ran back the way Karalith had come.
With a sigh, she hauled the box of ceramic coins and made her way to the exit. She wasn’t sure where Komir was, but she trusted her brother to take care of himself. She needed to get the hell out of there before the chamberlain and the monster conspired to destroy the entire arena.
Zabaj ran through the catacombs of the arena and what he saw chilled him to his very bones.
Intellectually, the mul knew that Feena was a mind-mage. Not a trained one, and she mostly only used her skills to help fool victims in the game, and to occasionally block the emporium members’ thoughts from other mind-mages.
So it was easy for him to forget how powerful she was.
There she stood, side-by-side with Drahar, magic coursing through them both, lattices of energy that were intertwined and being thrown at the monster that Rol had been changed into.
For all his life-both in the arena and with the emporium-Zabaj had solved most problems with his might. Either he’d punch things or lift heavy things or do something else that required his prodigious strength.
This, however, was a fight where he wasn’t sure what good his physical abilities would do.
But Feena was fighting for her life, and she was the woman Zabaj loved. He was still angry at her for making him go back on his word and become a part of this foul place, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t lay down his life for her if necessary.
So he charged the creature, slamming it into the wall.
Feena felt a surge of joy as Zabaj’s bulk sent the Voidharrow smashing into a wall. So focused was the otherworldly monster on the magical end that it had lost track of the physical.
Drahar, with Feena’s help, took advantage of the distraction to strike as hard as possible.
In truth, the actual spellcasting was all Drahar. Feena’s lack of training in the Way prevented her from being an active participant, instead being relegated to being a power source. She was simply the water that flowed through the pumps-Drahar was the well that did the work to bring it out.
Zabaj’s arrival, however, weakened the creature enough that Feena was able to split her focus briefly. Drahar could handle things for a bit.
Instead, Feena turned her attention to the corner of the Astral Plane where she saw Rol curled up into a ball.
But she sensed nothing. Rol’s presence was gone from this mindscape.
Still, she reached out mentally, tried to find a spark, a presence-something that might have remained of Rol within.
Rol-it’s Feena. Please tell me there’s something here. Tell me that some part of you is hanging on.
“… go away …”
The voice was small, faint-Feena barely heard it. It was cloaked in agony and despair and loss.
But it was definitely Rol.
Listen to me, Rol, I can help you.
“I’m beyond help. Just let me die in peace.”
In truth, he was very close to that. His last spark of consciousness was flickering and dying. A few more moments and it would be too late.
And even the tiniest spark could be fanned into a flame.
We’re here fighting for you, Rol. Me and Komir and Karalith-Zabaj is fighting the creature you’ve turned into. And Gan’s been here all along trying to save you.
“I can’t be saved, Feena. There is no Rol Mandred anymore, there’s just the Voidharrow.” The voice grew louder, but the despair thickened.
So you’re just going to give up?
“What choice do I have?”
Feena was suddenly furious. I guess you’re right-there is no Rol Mandred. Because the Rol I know, the Rol that my brother pledged his lifelong friendship to, would never give up without a fight.
“How can I fight myself?” A glimmer of hope started to shine through.
You can take back control of your own body. I can help you.
“It’s no use, Feena. It’s not even my body anymore.” The hope started to weaken, and the voice grew faint again.
You can at least try to stop it from causing further harm. Zabaj and Gan and I are trying to fight it. You can help us.
“Gan’s here?” The hope came through more clearly then. “He’s still alive?”
Yes, and fighting for you.
“What do you need me to do?”
Feena thought for a moment. I can give you a mental boost-it might be enough to give you physical control of at least a small part of the creature.
Determination pierced through the veil of despair, fanning the flames of Rol’s consciousness. Feena diverted some of her power into Rol, hoping that what she took from Drahar could be spared.
She felt Rol concentrate on his right arm, thinking about all the things he did with it: punching people, holding knives, putting it around pretty women, eating fine food, eating bad food, eating that fantastic jerky, drinking far too much ale, and throwing open doors to make dramatic entrances.
Feena found herself learning a bit more about Rol than she expected just from that …
Rol flexed his fingers-and the fingers of the creature moved.
On its right hand, at least. Its left hand smashed into Zabaj’s stomach.
The creature’s voice then came from everywhere at once. You are a fool, Rol Mandred. Are you truly so deluded that you believe you can defeat me?
“I’d say I’m exactly that deluded, yeah.” After saying that, Rol made the creature punch himself in the nose.
Zabaj chose that moment to return the creature’s favor by punching it in the stomach in the real world at the same time that Feena and Drahar both started to strangle him on the blue earthen floor.
Rol tried to expand his influence beyond that right arm, but found himself being beaten down by the creature.
Feena poured more of her own abilities into Drahar. With them hitting the creature on three different fronts-the two of them magically, Rol mentally, and Zabaj physically-they stood a chance.
At least, Feena had to hope that.
Drahar probably felt that thought, because he then said to her, “There’s only one thing we can do, and we must do it now.”
In her mind’s eye, she could see the spell he would need to cast, which Drahar shared with her through their mental link.
“It will kill him,” Feena said, “and possibly us and Zabaj as well.”
“Violence makes it more powerful. The longer this fight continues, the worse our position becomes. And Mandred’s final echo of consciousness won’t last much longer. Once it finally expires, we’ll die.”
Feena knew Drahar was right, for all that she wanted him to be wrong. Time was their biggest enemy right then.
“Let’s do it,” she said, wishing that there was some way that she could say good-bye to Zabaj and to Gan.
Komir and Barglin were pulling Gan’s broken form out from under the rocks-he was still breathing, thankfully-when suddenly there was a fierce glow that was brighter than the sun.
Komir shielded his eyes as Rol, Feena, Drahar, and Zabaj-who had joined the fracas while Komir and the dwarf were rescuing Gan-were enveloped in it.
But he couldn’t just see the light, he could feel it. The brightness seemed to actually touch his mind.
That was when Komir realized that it was probably the most powerful burst of mind-magic he’d ever encountered.
After a few seconds that seemed to take forever, the light faded, dimming into nothingness.
Three bodies were left lying on the stone floor staring up at the ceiling, and a mul who was blinking furiously.
“What just happened?” Barglin asked.
“Damned if I know,” Komir muttered. “You all right, Zabaj?”
“Feena.” Zabaj kneeled down beside her.
Barglin hefted Gan over his shoulder. “I’ll take care of him. You help the mul.”
Smiling, the dwarf said, “Gan was okay to me. And he was kinda funny, plus he cared about his friend. You don’t see that every day.”
Nodding, Komir walked over to see both Feena and Drahar lying on the floor, staring blankly up at the ceiling. They both breathed shallowly, but they showed no signs of consciousness. He waved his hands over Feena’s eyes, and she didn’t blink.
The monster was not breathing. In fact, the strange red stones that protruded from its shoulders were starting to crack and shatter and fall to the floor as powder.
“Damn,” Komir muttered.
Komir stared at the body in the hopes that it might change back to the familiar form of Rol-but it stayed as the strange monster.
Then he walked over to Zabaj, who was cradling the shell-shocked Feena in his arms, stroking her cheek with his oversized hand. “C’mon, Zabaj, we need to get out of here.”
The mul didn’t move.
Putting his hand on his friend’s wide shoulder, Komir said more forcefully, “Zabaj-we have to go.”
Zabaj looked up at Komir as if he had no idea who the half-elf was. Then he looked down at Feena again, nodded, and stood up.
Leaving Drahar’s body behind, they departed, Komir leading the way, Barglin carrying Gan, Zabaj carrying Feena.
They passed the bodies of several soldiers, as well as the pulped remains of the mind-mages who’d come with Rol.
“I can’t believe Drahar actually thought he might be able to control that thing,” Komir said with a shudder.
“He paid the price for thinking that,” Zabaj said.
“Yeah. C’mon, Karalith and Tricht’tha should be waiting for us at the carriage. We need to be out of Urik as soon as we can.”
Gan didn’t feel very good.
He woke up to find himself lying in a hammock that was rocking back and forth. Below him, several items were secured with straps, and looking over, he saw two older people asleep on another hammock.
After a second, he recognized them as Torthal and Shira Serthlara, the owners of the emporium.
It would seem he was rescued.
“You’re awake.” It was Karalith who spoke the words, and Gan looked down to see her standing in the middle of the carriage, her palm against one of the boxes of goods for balance.
“I guess so. Either that, or the afterlife involves being greeted by people you know in settings you’re familiar with while being in considerable pain.”
Karalith smiled, but it didn’t extend to her eyes. “No such luck, I’m afraid. You’ve got a lot of broken bones. And we’re in the middle of the wastes, so it’ll be a while before we can get you to a healer.”
“It doesn’t feel like I’ve got a lot of broken bones.”
“That’s because we’ve given you a draft that numbs the pain.”
“Which also explains why I’m so sleepy even though I was unconscious a minute ago.” Gan swallowed, an action that almost hurt. “What happened to Rol?”
At that, Karalith just gave him a solemn look.
Gan sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of. I was hoping that-”
“He nearly killed Feena. She’s still catatonic-Zabaj is watching over her. Barglin’s up front with Tricht’tha, watching over the reins. Turns out, he’s pretty good with the crodlus. We may keep him around a bit.”
It took Gan a few moments to remember who Barglin was. “The dwarf came along?”
“According to Komir, he saved your life.”
“I’ll have to thank him, then. Meantime, I can thank you.”
“Oh, no need,” Karalith said with another of those incomplete smiles. “We got the King of the World for three thousand gold. Nobody’s ever pulled a game like that before. We’ll go down in history for this one.”
Karalith’s voice caught, belying the boastfulness of the words.
Gan couldn’t blame her. “Some history. Feena and I are both in bad shape, Fehrd and Rol are dead, and this strange force has been unleashed on the world.”
“Well, the strange force shouldn’t be an issue. Komir and Zabaj said that Rol was dead, and whatever possessed him died with it.”
Gan leaned back and stared at the ceiling. “Well, that’s good, at least.”
“I’ll go tell Barglin and Komir that you’re awake.”
“Thanks again, Karalith. If you guys hadn’t come for us …” Gan trailed off, for once unable to find the right words.
Karalith just nodded and walked gingerly to the front of the carriage.
Gan let the rocking of the carriage and the effects of the draft lull him to sleep slowly. They were obviously going at a steady clip, but given that they’d stolen so much gold from King Hamanu, they needed to be away from Urik in a hurry.
Without Fehrd and without Rol, Gan had absolutely no idea what he was going to with his life now.
First, obviously, he was going to have to heal. But Gan had always followed the lead of the other two. Somehow he doubted that the emporium would be willing to let him stay on-and he wasn’t even sure he wanted to. Tricking people out of money really wasn’t Gan’s thing. He preferred to take it more honestly.
But the choice wouldn’t be his for a while. Certainly not until he healed up. Attempts to move his limbs had sent pain slicing through his body, pushing against the power of Karalith’s draft, and he thought it best simply to stay still.
As he faded into sleep, he wondered what the frip he was thinking playing that damned frolik game …
Templar Tharson strode through the winding corridors of the dungeons beneath Destiny’s Kingdom.
Tharson had never had much use for the place. Since becoming commander of the Imperial Guard, he’d had to spend far more time there than he was comfortable with. He preferred the simplicity of the soldiers’ barracks. None of the ostentatious lion architecture that infested the city-state like a disease, just simple beds, simple walls, simple doors.
A simple life.
His life had become anything but simple, of course. The higher he got in rank, the more politics entered into it.
Tharson hated politics.
At least at his rank, he got paid more. A few more years in service to Hamanu, and he’d have accumulated enough coin to retire.
And if he could bring a victory to the king, he could retire in luxury.
The creature that he and Drahar found in the arena was the first step toward realizing that goal.
Of course, there had been setbacks.
The worst was yesterday’s debacle at the Pit of Black Death. The creature Rol Mandred had turned into went mad, killing several of the court’s top psionists, including Drahar. In the chaos, the new owners of the Pit disappeared with three thousand gold.
Tharson had already sent a garrison of soldiers after those owners, but they had a large head start-it had been hours before anyone at the palace even knew that something bad had happened at the arena-and the templar didn’t expect them to be caught.
There would be no helping them if they came back to Urik, though …
But Tharson did not despair. Drahar’s death was tragic, but he had done his part in identifying this new resource that they could exploit.
It was up to Tharson to exploit it.
He arrived at the dungeon that was occupied by a fighter named Daj Douk.
Looking into the barred window of the dungeon door, he saw that Douk was covered in reddish bumps all up and down his skin just like Mandred had been.
Tharson smiled. Soon he would have an army of unstoppable creatures at his command. And then he would be able to conquer Tyr in King Hamanu’s name.
The Voidharrow had lost its form.
The plan had been given a brutal setback. The weakling human Mandred had proven a perfect host, feeble minded and easily taken over. True, he prattled, but after millennia alone in the destroyed universe, the Voidharrow had to admit to not minding that so much. Perhaps that was why he had let Mandred retain a fraction of consciousness-which was foolish, in the end, for that had enabled those little beings to stop the Voidharrow, preventing him from spreading glorious chaos in Tharizdun’s name.
The Voidharrow required another host.
Around him were mostly corpses.
The only one still breathing was the minion. But his mind had been shattered by the effort of destroying the Progenitor’s host.
Which was fine, as the Voidharrow did not need his mind. In fact, the lack of it would save him the trouble of having to destroy it.
Slowly-ever so slowly-the Voidharrow gathered itself. The red powder on the stone floor of the arena near the shoulders of the former host started to quiver and coalesce and liquefy.
It took some time-the Voidharrow had been greatly weakened by the minion and the woman and that strange half-breed who had distracted him on the physical plane-but eventually, he was successful in returning to his natural state.
Then it was simply a matter of oozing across the floor to the prone form of Chamberlain Drahar.