Ardus Virlor was bored. This isn’t what he expected immortality to be.
The first few centuries had been the most enjoyable, fully occupied with his explorations, his researches into the stuff of the world. So what if his friends and relatives rejected him? They were all dead now, dust these many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The world endured. He endured.
If only there were no people in it. The hardness of the world he could bear, the softness of people was just…mush, like swimming in oatmeal, his senses dulled, his capacities stunted. So…unknowable.
He must know. He had endured the killer frosts, the plagues, the disasters that claimed all others, he could endure this. And the reward would be vaster than he had expected. The Eye of the World, through which could be seen all that was. He would see, he would know. And people wouldn’t be so…changeable anymore.
He had to find it, had to learn how to use it. Had to have the lore, no matter where they hid it. And they hid it, all right, carefully, tightly, worshipped it as a matter of faith instead of the record of truth, the instructions he needed. Imbeciles.
What happened to them? It was a gap in his memory that troubled him, but since he had the scroll he didn’t waste very much thought on the matter. No doubt they had seen reason.
He gulped his drink, relying on the alcohol to dull his senses, or perhaps to dull his distaste for the things they reported to him. So close, so close. Terrible irony that he had to walk when they did, but this is the time. Endure, endure.
It will all be over soon.
Tarkas was running for his life. Again.
‘Well, fleeing for my life,‘ his mind automatically corrected itself, ’It is the watha which is running.’ A watha is a beast of burden, the likes of which are to found in nearly every realm a Hero like Tarkas might find himself in. Heroes like Tarkas avoided them, as a rule. Not that either disliked the other, but a Hero, being of Mendilorni stock, is more of a burden than any beast should be asked to bear, so Heroes don’t ask, out of compassion. Besides which, a man on watha-back is a man who gets noticed. Heroes don’t really want that kind of attention, but try telling that to a howling mob.
Heroes don’t get many vacations, either, except for the permanent kind; they attract trouble, the same way a hole in the ground allows things to fall into it. So they tend to wander, going where the gods need them to go, doing whatever the gods need them to do. The last time he had had a break, it had lasted barely long enough for him to get back to the center of Irolla’s domain. Hardly had he kissed her before an earthquake in Drakanshar had called him away again. His longest respite, nearly a record-setter, had been for two whole hands of days, but that was many years in the past now.
“Drat!” he grumbled to himself, although he wasn’t entirely sure what ‘drat’ meant. His mentor had used the expression once long ago, but had never explained it. He had been so sure that he had planned for every contingency, in this latest round of his game with the gods. All Heroes played it, Tarkas better and more seriously than most. They didn’t expect to win, but playing well was more the object than actually winning, so no one minded. He’d even heard of a realm where they studied rituals and techniques of ‘Free Time’, but he had found a military academy instead, and quickly left. “What did I do wrong?”
This was a nice, stable realm, no upheavals in the recent past, no great convulsions impending. There should have been little enough for a Hero to do here. So he’d studied their customs and made his entry accordingly, sidestepping the obvious ploy of a religious holiday. He was no amateur! He’d come out of the mist in a desert as he’d expected, at the time he’d expected, walked to the nearest town (right where he expected it to be), went to the nearest tavern and ordered a flagon of their best. How was he supposed to have known about the eclipse?
Blasphemy was such an easy crime to commit.
By a fortunate coincidence, the guard who responded to the commotion had a girth which equaled his rank, and moreover, arrived at the main entrance to the establishment just as Tarkas fought his way out. A neatly-executed flying drop kick, catching the poor man under his hastily thrown up right arm, dislodged him from his perch and sent him plummeting into the mud and muck of the street. Tarkas took his seat and kicked the beast into surprised motion, adding yet more to his list of crimes.
The same religious holiday that got him into trouble also allowed him to escape it, as the gates had been left open for the entry of pilgrims. Now they allowed the exit of escaping felonious strangers, as well as the hastily-assembled posse in pursuit of him. Tarkas had been chased out of a lot of places, and knew that his advantages would be only temporary. His mount would tire, his knowledge of the terrain was scant, he was alone. If he was to make proper use of the initiative while he possessed it, it would have to be soon.
Soon would do. Clearly this was the work of one of his many superiors, and he may as well get about it. If he refused he would end up in even less pleasant circumstances than this, and besides, someone must be very anxious, to throw an unscheduled eclipse in his way. His research couldn’t have been so far wrong! The first thing to do obviously was to lose his pursuit, and to do that he would need some help from the terrain. His arrival had been planned to occur out in the desert, in a rocky defile that had plenty of cover. Hopefully he could use that to good effect.
It was good that his destination was so close, as his watha was losing speed at a great rate, stumbling and puffing. The track he was following turned to stone and gained walls, rising high over his head, even mounted as he was. It had been used as an ambush site many times in the past, he knew, and he was certain that at least some of his pursuers would be directed towards the overlooks. Not that he intended to stay around long enough for them to spy him. All he needed was one good corner, to block their vision for a beat or two. Up ahead, very good, a large boulder. Now to set up the timing, not hard for someone who had to practice not counting his own heart’s beats.
Two of them later, he was ready. He removed his feet from the loops, preparatory to leaping clear. Now! He sailed through the air, landing lightly behind the boulder, the watha continuing hollowly up the defile. “All right, whoever you are, do what you will.”
On foot, alone, surrounded by enemies in an ambush zone. Just fardling marvelous! He sped off on foot, keeping under cover wherever possible, now far more concerned about those overlooks, listening for the sound of pursuit, but not really expecting it. Even if they thought him worth chasing this far, they would not damage their mounts doing it. They would move slowly, letting their cohorts get up above first. They might even overshoot him, following the sound of his own watha’s pads.
No such good fortune! His watha had stopped only a few hands of paces up the track, exhausted by its unaccustomed burden. Worse, there was a large boulder in the road, large enough that a watha could not pass it, although he himself might have been able to. Surely his pursuers had not made it so far so soon--! No. If they had just dropped this, he would have heard. And it can’t have been here long, this was the main trade route through these hills, and the townsfolk would want it clear. But still, he didn’t like it. It reminded him of any of a number of traps he had been in over the years, even though it was not a trap.
“Of course—” Tarkas blurred into motion, the black length of his sword taking the life of a desert gnat as it sliced through the air without sound. Before the last echo of the first word had faded, the tip of the young Hero’s wondrous blade was lodged under a man’s chin as he sat calmly on a rock, hands on knees. “--it’s a trap, you young idiot!”
He wore a long robe with a hood, so Tarkas could not see his hair; his manner suggested age, while his hands bespoke youth. He sat with the kind of preternatural stillness which usually only the undead can muster, the kind where Tarkas had to look to see if he was breathing or not. He was, not that Tarkas had been concerned about it; the bright sunlight was reassuring.
“Are you finished?” asked the hooded man, rising smoothly to a standing position. Too smoothly; he wasn’t so much trying to stand as allowing himself to rise, his hands hanging limp at his sides. There were not many who could move in such a fashion, not here. The stillness of the air, even his watha’s pads seemed muted; they would not be disturbed. Tarkas relaxed.
“You don’t know me,” the cloaked man chided him.
There were a lot of gods he did not know. “I know enough.”
The man smiled, humorlessly. “Do you?” he asked, but continued without waiting for an answer, “You seem to have a problem. Would you care for some assistance?”
About time! Tarkas shrugged, sheathing his sword with a deliberately nonchalant air. “Oh, only all that you may provide.”
Again the man smirked. “I doubt that you will need quite so much. Proceed up the trail for thirty-nine paces. On the left you will see a boulder. Behind that there is a cave entrance to another path which will lead you to safety.”
Tarkas waited, but no more seemed to be forthcoming. “And your purposes?” he prompted, wondering what need this god had of him, sure that merely saving his own life was not the reason for this manifestation.
The man’s smile vanished, the sudden crashing noisiness of the world emphasizing his displeasure. “Do not question my purposes,” he commanded. “Go.”
An order from a god is an order from a god, no matter how strange. Tarkas turned and went, squeezing his way with some difficulty past the stone in the crevice. The cowled one watched him leave, his stance revealing not one whit the relief he felt. The young man would accomplish all, he was sure, and his own intervention undetectable. Nor had he forgotten the details. First the large boulder blocking this path, which flickered and vanished obediently. One arm moved, flinging a vial of some oily liquid-looking substance against the rocks, where it shattered, releasing a pungent, evil-smelling stench that would have bothered even him had he not altered his own sense of smell. The watha had no such ability; it reared and fled, terror overcoming its exhaustion. The man watched it go, satisfied. The mating-musk would sow confusion among the lad’s pursuers, and also convince them of his horrible demise. That it might also attract something to lair here was a negligible risk, he thought…
…and vanished, leaving only faint footprints pressed into the stone.
Tarkas sped up the track, counting his footsteps. There were so many boulders! How in this world would he know which one--? As the counter in his head reached ‘seven plus four' (a bastard expression born from two different and unrelated counting systems), he saw it, a giant rock that was completely out of place: the wrong color, the wrong material, wrong texture, wrong composition, it assaulted his tightly-strung senses. He looked up, down, all around. Finally he scrambled up the stone wall and looked down behind the stone. Yes, a crack, a space. He pushed, his Hero’s strength barely able to widen the crack enough to allow him to squirm down behind the stone, his leather jerkin protecting only his body from the rough scraping, his arms and legs scratched but not yet bleeding. Bracing his back on the rear wall, he pushed with his legs and arms to keep from being crushed, and widen the space as he descended. His head disappeared into the gap before his feet touched the lip of a hole, and now it was a fight to hold the stone back using only his arms. Ultimately he lost, but his head made it down into the space even as the boulder crunched back against the wall, trapping him in darkness.
He leaned against the wall, resting and catching his breath. His pursuers could not move that stone with a team of watha, they’d never guess where he went. He held his fingers up, running them lightly around the edges of the mouth he was now sitting in. Yes, there was air movement. Good, time to get moving. “Light!” he commanded, and the hilt of the sword behind his head glowed, not a strong light, but enough to reassure someone who depended on his eyes.
He was in a tunnel, a stone tube that continued beyond the range of the sword’s feeble illumination. The colors were muted, if there were crystals they did not glint; he’d have to be careful with his hands, lest they get all cut up as he felt his way along. If he were lucky the tunnel would get higher soon. He crouched off, his knees taking most of the abuse. Behind him, long after he had gone and wouldn’t notice, both the out-of-place boulder and the hole hiding behind it went away to wherever it was they had come from.
Many rest breaks later, during which he would lie flat to remind his knees how to straighten, the tunnel did widen, and narrow. It did many things, except end. There were vents, to be sure, and gaps admitting light, but high up in great vaulted chambers where they could not be reached. It was boring, as well, and only the thought that he was here for some reason kept him from calling up a thatway trail and leaving entirely for parts known.
What was that smell? It reminded him of blood, but not quite.
He stopped where he was, not turning, his arms held out to the sides of the tunnel he could only barely see. He backed up, his fingers revealing more than his eyes. When he found the gap in the stone, he stopped, inhaling deeply. Not for the first time, he regretted Deffin’s absence. The faithful beast would have found the crack fifty paces beforehand. He wondered how the nizarik was doing, not moving there in the tunnel as his mind wandered. But he had other things to worry about. The smell was fainter here, and absent before the crack. He had no doubt that this was the reason for his coming.
The crevice was high and narrow, forcing him to edge in sideways, his sword, naturally, in his leading hand. Here it served three purposes, lighting the way as before, but also a probe and a defense. He tapped his way through the slit, his sword ringing slightly against the walls as the smell became stronger and ever more unpleasant.
He stopped and stilled, his mouth opening to make it easier for him to hear. Hear what? A faint, high-pitched whisper. He tapped his sword sharply, once.
"There is who?” a voice quavered at him.
“There is who? There is who?” the tunnel echoed on the quaverer’s behalf.
He hesitated briefly, not having thought to invent an appropriate name for this realm. “Demlas Tarkas,” he responded at last, and paused, but there was no echo of his words.
“Mortal are you?” came the next question, more strongly this time. “Mortal are you? Mortal are you?”
That stopped him. Why would--? Again he hesitated, a host of unwelcome possibilities ghosting through his mind. But there was only one way to know. “Unmortal am I.”
“Unmortal is he!”
“Praise the one!”
“Saved we are!”
‘Saved?’ ‘We?’ Tarkas moved forward. If it was a trap, he was already trapped; if not, he wasn’t going to be attacked in here. In short order his sword struck nothing. The tunnel had widened, and he could breathe again, although he didn’t want to, not too deeply. The smell here was overpowering, the air still and stagnant. The speakers were not immediately seen, but only because they were lying on the floor, unmoving, surrounded by a sea of black that was nearly the same color as their skin, at least in the light cast by Tarkas’ swordhilt. The image came to him, from his readings on this realm, one of his ancient histories. Goblins!
But the goblins had been wiped out centuries ago. At least, that is what the book had said. Tarkas had learned the hard way that some books were more hopeful than accurate, and this looked like one of those times. He sheathed his sword, aware that goblins, cowards as a rule, would have attacked him in ambush or from behind, if they were going to. His hand leaving the hilt increased the light on the scene.
The black sea was a pool of blood, goblin blood, as he had suspected. It was leaking from all the cuts on the three goblin bodies, cuts that had been inflicted specifically to maim, to leave its victim cruelly immobile and utterly helpless. “You poor bastards,” he sympathized, hoping that he had used the word ‘bastards’ correctly this time.
“Pity us don’t.”
“Deserve it we do.”
“Stupid we were.”
Ever more strange, and now the Hero had no idea what was happening. Goblins are hard to wound and harder to kill, yet these wounds had apparently stayed open for quite some time. Goblins admitting error? Desert? What had happened here? “What did you, that was stupid?”
“Hero we fought.”
“Captured him we did.”
“Captured his woman we did.”
“Hurt her we did.”
“Hated us he did.”
“Escaped us they did.”
Tarkas broke in. “You tortured his woman and he did this to you in revenge?” It seemed odd behavior for a Hero.
“Many of us there were.”
“Fled us they did.”
“Pursue them we did.”
Tarkas was sure that their pursuit had been unwilling. If their quarry had been strong enough to escape they should have felt well rid of it. His knowledge of the history of the goblins was scant, and he wondered who—or what—could have had the influence over them to give such orders. “You pursued him here?”
“Here it was not.”
“Stupid that question is.”
“Foolish you are.”
The rebuke offended Tarkas not at all; he had not really thought so. “You pursued him here and then someplace else?” he amended.
“First we were.”
“Magic he used.”
“Portal he called.”
There were not many magic-users here. One of the Hero’s reasons for coming had been the relative lack of magic, and so no real need for him or his talents, while there were others more formidable than himself when it came to physical combat. But he imagined that a Hero summoning a thatway trail would look like magic to those with no experience.
“You fell upon him when he opened his…portal?”
“Different it was.”
“Not here we were.”
“Someplace else we went.”
They had no idea, nor was Tarkas permitted to enlighten them.
“Foolish we were.”
“Attacked him we did.”
“Fought us he did.”
That was foolish. Goblins are not great fighters, relying more on their relative invulnerability and numbers than in martial skill. But still—“How came you by these wounds?”
“Angry he was.”
“Inflict them he did.”
“Kill us he intended.”
Tarkas could understand that. Once his Irolla had been threatened like that, and the temptation had been his. “What stayed his hand?”
“Saved us she did.”
“Pleaded with him she did.”
“Mercy he showed.”
This was mercy? Tarkas was almost about to vomit. He must have missed something. “How so?”
“Stayed his hand he did.”
“Sent us back he did.”
“Healing he intended.”
The story as he understood it made no sense to Tarkas. No Hero should have acted like that, yet no conceivable accident could account for their condition. Was this the god’s purpose, to set him on the trail of a rogue Hero? After he aided the goblins, of course. What kind of aid could he provide? “Why did you not heal?”
“Know we do not.”
“Know we do not.”
“Know we do not.”
“Masters we called.”
“Come they did not.”
“Help us they did not.”
A surprise that was, Tarkas thought to himself, unconsciously mimicking the goblins’ speech pattern in a ghastly, yet defensive, echo. None who might have mastered these would have cared overmuch about their slaves’ predicament, except to laugh at it occasionally. The gods here might have been willing, perhaps, but he did not know how these poor, uh, souls would go about asking, nor were goblins at all likely to—
“Prayed we did.”
“Gods we called.”
“Came none did.”
This news was received with remarkable calmness. In fact, the amazement Tarkas felt was a mild surprise at how surprised he was not. So many odd things—
“Then the One came.”
“Aid us he promised.”
“Left us he did.”
And came to me, Tarkas knew, although why a god would go to such lengths--? Well, the gods did many strange things, as he knew better than any, and often trying to understand them was usually an exercise in futility. “I have met this ‘One.’” Suddenly his head exploded in pain, his skull feeling skewered with hot, dull knives, and the next moments were a blur to him.
The little chamber exploded with a high-pitched yelping, the goblins clamoring in apparent glee. But it ended soon, they were truly feeble.
“And you came.”
“His promised aid you are.”
“Save us you will.”
That declaration was the first thing Tarkas heard that made sense, the words more than mere sounds in the maelstrom inside his head. “Save you I will,” he mumbled, setting off more yelping, and he considered how he was going to accomplish that feat. His magic, in this world, was less than it usually was, and this task seemed far more than he usually tried to accomplish with it. A task of this sort seemed to call for a mira—Wait! This realm. He’d studied it, but not with this in mind. What were the rules here? If only he could think! But his memory was still there, and soon it delivered the information he needed.
“I must go,” he told them, setting off howls of despair. “There is only one who can save you, and only I can get him to do it,” he lied, with the skill of long practice. Always leave them guessing, he had been told so long ago, even when ‘they’ were goblins. There were some things he could never tell them, and it was not much of a lie in any event.
“Where do you go?”
“Who this one is?”
“How save us he will?”
“The one I must see is the lord of this place. He is called—“ Tarkas paused, trying to remember if there was a special name he should use “—Menniver.”
Again the chamber rang with yelps and echoes of yelps, but these were not of glee nor did they fade. Tarkas clapped his hands over his ears as pain that was painless grew inside his skull.
“Doomed we are!” cried one during a brief pause for breath.
“Doomed we are!” cried the second as the first resumed.
“Why?!” yelled Tarkas, in the small gap between their utterances, hoping that the third would answer him, and he was not disappointed.
“Menniver’s curse this is!”