Images of the Goddess, by Schuyler Hernstrom

The Abbot of Krixxis has had a vision of an ancient holy book to be found within the wreckage of a metal ship lost in the deadly Ikzak Jungles; Plom, a young supplicant, must venture forth to face unimaginable peril in his quest for this priceless relic!

I

Devotees to the Goddess found life among infidels intolerable. The prophet Uniam claimed visions of a monastery in the Krixxis Mountains, high up and away from the pernicious distractions of nubile young village girls and world wise divorcés. The suggestion was well liked, and thus its divine provenance went unchallenged. The monks pooled their meager resources to purchase a load of timbers and secure the services of a guild of craftsmen. A decade later, the monks were well satisfied with their labors, even despite the tragic accident that sent Uniam plummeting to his death some years before. The monastery was a tumble of rectangles clinging to the mountain’s face like a stack of books teetering on a crooked shelf. The site was completely inaccessible except by a basket lowered by rope and pulley.

The Devotees realized a fault in their scheme when the first few monks became infirm with old age. The order decided to purchase male infants from passing merchants and the nomads that aimlessly crossed the Plain of Ashes below. To raise capital they extracted blue ink from the piles of serave excrement that dotted the mountain side. The scheme was doubly clever; smeared with waste the monks were left unmolested by the soaring carnivores. The ink was of high quality and in constant demand. With their affairs in order, the senior monks could pursue their sacred iconographies and explore the full use of their minds in the service of the Goddess. The senior monks cultivated the ancient art of astral projection. On weeks-long spirit walks, the faithful searched high and low for representations of the object of their worship, artifacts from a distant age where the Goddess herself walked the earth in the forms of countless avatars.

Thus it was that Plom, the son of nomads, spent the eighteenth anniversary of his ascension in the basket on the eastern face of the Krixxis, gathering excrement into a container secured to his back. His olive skin was weathered by the sun and wind that lashed the peaks, but his eyes were youthful and devious, a quality undiminished by the shaving of his eyebrows.

He gingerly removed a mountain goat’s skull and spine from a fresh pile and shoveled the muck into his pack with the deftness of years of practice. The skull tumbled down the gravel slope, finally disappearing as it went over the cliff’s edge. Plom shouted to his basket-brother, Fress.

“My quota is complete. How much more do you need?”

“Goddess’ will, one or two more piles perhaps.”

With Plom’s assistance Fress’ basket was filled and the pair made their descent. Below on the distant plains, Plom watched a nomad caravan cresting a line of low hills, gray green in the light of the second moon’s rise. Outriders resting wicked bows on narrow hips circled the eight wheeled carts, guarding against predation by serave. The mounts, surly guhn, pecked at the ground as they ambled along. The faint sound of women singing was carried aloft by the chill wind.

Plom and Fress dumped their cargo into a vat then made ablutions under a fount of icy water. Yeelet, two years Plom’s senior and assistant to the abbot, burst into the chamber.

“Finally, you two have returned! Hurry now! The abbot has called us to assembly. Great things are afoot!”

Plom and Fress gathered up their robes and sprinted through the gray stone halls after Yeelet.

The pair found a seat at a back pew, shoulder to shoulder with the other supplicants. Across a wide aisle, the senior monks sat in comfort. The abbot, who was paralyzed from the waist down from a fall and half blind, was carried to his chair below the form of the Goddess, sculpted in stone by Uniam’s own hands and now shielded from the gaze of the lowly supplicants by a drape of red silk. A gong signaled the beginning of the audience. The congregation went to their knees. Plom stuck his sharp elbow into Fress’ ribs. The youth buckled, suppressing a cry. A searing pain erupted along Plom’s shoulders. He turned to see Barefoot, so named for his stealth, brandishing his knotted lash, stern gaze fixed on Plom.

The abbot moved through the litany with a touch more haste than was typical. Prayers concluded, he addressed the gathering in a reedy voice.

“This evening I am happy to announce our collective dreams come to divine fruition. Brother From’s soul returned this afternoon from his spirit walk to report the detection of an authentic tome of icons. This work, perfectly preserved through the eons, is the product of man’s glorious past, when worship of the Goddess was taken for granted throughout the land.”

The abbot raised his gnarled hands to quiet the growing murmurs of excitement. Still standing at the back, Barefoot could not contain himself. Voice trembling, he shouted.

“Blessed abbot, where lies this tome?” He gave himself a lash across the back for talking out of turn and waited breathlessly for the abbot’s reply.

“The sacred folio lays 150 leagues to the south, across the Plains of Ash and at the heart of the Ikzak Jungles. It rests deep within the heart of an ancient vessel, a metal monster from the age when man traveled space by bending time. The journey will be long and hazardous. My deepest regret is that I am too old to seek this treasure myself. The robustness of youth is required. A supplicant will be chosen tomorrow. Go now to your dormitories, pray earnestly and rest well! Tomorrow we will see who has the honor of retrieving this article of incalculable value!”

When his fellow supplicants had finally drifted off to troubled sleep, Plom slipped out of his bunk and made for the refectory. He opened the simple lock with a bent fork he had stolen weeks earlier and entered the pantry. With a loaf of black bread stuffed into his robe, he stole back into the dormitory where Fress waited. They consumed their illicit supper sitting on a wide sill beneath the room’s sole window, the third moon bathing their backs in cool light. Fress professed his gratitude and inevitably began to ponder the possibilities of the coming day.

“Who will they pick? We are the oldest of the third generation. Perhaps it will be us. The thought is terrifying.”

“I suppose. Though I often do wonder what life is like outside.”

A shiver went through Fress’ wiry frame. He whispered his fears.

“I certainly don’t. Nothing but uncouth, barbaric men and women mocking the Goddess with their profane immodesty. Bandits and hucksters, false priests and mad wizards. I should never like to see it. When I come of age and have mastered the scriptures, I will be initiated by the seniors and see the images of the Goddess with a pure mind and know true wisdom. Then when my soul leaves this world, I will go into her warm embrace for all eternity. None below can say that.”

Plom sighed. “You are right of course. Still…” The creaking hinges of the thick dormitory door sent the pair scurrying into their bunks. Plom feigned sleep for a time before fatigue overtook him. He dreamt he was a nomad, riding a guhn across the barren wastes, stopping to gaze openly at passing women, hazy forms of unknown dimension.

Plom woke late. He pulled on boots of thick felt and his worn coat and sprinted to the courtyard where the supplicants were assembled. Barefoot supervised the proceedings. With groans of disappointment and a few of relief, all the boys shorter than the big man’s shoulders were sent away to their normal duties. Twenty one candidates remained. Fress, the tallest of them all, was already pale with worry. Barefoot puffed out his chest.

“Among you unworthy lot, one will be chosen to seek the tome. The abbot supposes two qualities are needed of potential questers; you must be strong of body and of spirit. We will test your body now. Now! Sprint up the path, up to the overhang yonder! Grab a handful of the weeds that eke out a precariously existence there in the high winds and come back here! Now! Off! The test is begun!”

Tentatively at first, then with determination, the group set off up the slope. Legs and arms pumping, slipping in the treacherous shale, the group made their way up the hill with the best speed possible. Plom knew the slope like the back of his hand. His natural ineptitude in the scriptorium resulted in his assignment to gathering more than any of the other boys. He hung back, staying near the end of the pack as the leaders expended all their reserves pushing themselves toward the overhang. The first had already disappeared behind a sharp curve in the path when Plom felt a burning pain explode in his calf. He hobbled along, cursing his luck. He rounded the bend as Fress and two other boys were beginning their descent.

There was a splash of blue light, and Plom found himself on his back, witless for a moment. Next to him lay Yun, a lanky, indolent youth, but apparently faster than Plom would have guessed. The boy was unconscious, receiving the worst of their collision. In his limp hand sat a tuft of weeds. Plom snatched up the thin stalks and leapt to his feet, sprinting down the path as best he could. His calf unknotted itself and he made good speed, controlling his slide down patches of loose shale rather than fighting it inefficiently as were the boys he quickly passed. Only Fress stayed ahead of him. Panting, he nearly ran into Barefoot’s bulk as he reached the courtyard. Fress leaned against the wall, gasping for air. A few more boys hurled themselves through the open gate to look in disappointment at the growing crowd. The remaining contestants trickled in with much less enthusiasm. Barefoot patted Fress’ heaving back.

“Fress is the victor! Plom, a close second.” Fress winced. Barefoot corralled the top finishers to one side of the courtyard and dismissed the rest. The leaders refreshed themselves at the fount. Fress whispered, still slightly gasping.

“I was first. Goddess’ mercy. Barefoot said to run, I ran! I should have thrown myself down and complained of cramp. But I couldn’t.”

“Maybe the Goddess favors you for this task.”

Fress hissed, “I do not want it!”

“Perhaps the next trial will prove your undoing. There is hope, yet.”

“I fear not. If we are tested on the scriptures then I will excel. No supplicant knows them as well as I.”

Plom looked over his shoulder. Barefoot was occupied tending to the growing knot on Yun’s temple.

“Perhaps you could not perform up to your abilities.”

Fress replied in shock, “That would be lying! You would have me spend eternity in the cold fetid bowels of the Demon Maleis?”

Plom shrugged, “Surely you could be forgiven such a small infraction.”

The lash found his shoulders, and Plom swallowed a curse. Barefoot laughed.

“Is talking permitted in the courtyard, Plom?”

Plom replied, “Surely not, Older Brother. Thank you for your guidance.”

The group filed into the scriptorium and seated themselves at wooden desks worn smooth with use. Plom felt his ill-defined hopes sinking. Here in this room he had mastered the basic alphabet and two syllabaries, but the rote memorization required of all supplicants had proved elusive. He was confident in the Invocation and the first three rites, but the Aphorisms and the Ministration typically gave him much difficulty. He looked over at Fress. Sweat was beading at his temples.

The supplicants stood as the abbot was carried into the room. Once seated, he dismissed his aides and bade the young men sit.

“Brother Thulo tells me you boys are hale of body. Now we will see how well you know the teachings. We cannot send young men into the wild without ensuring their character first. Whoever is chosen will face dangers and temptations the likes of which you cannot imagine. So, I now require that each of you first write the Ministration from memory, as this will be your single comfort out in the wild. Then I wish you each to compose a paragraph, juxtaposing Rennum’s commentary on the Goddess’ Grace against Milnim’s commentary on the fallen nature of the world.”

Plom’s shoulders sunk. With luck he may recall the Ministration in exactitude, but he had only a foggy memory of either Rennum or Milnim. Parchment, pens and ink were distributed. Plom set to as best he could. Next to him Fress worked feverishly, eyes misting with tears. A gong sounded in the distance. They were missing lunch.

The afternoon wore on. Plom produced what he adjudged a fair copy of the Ministration. His subsequent paragraph was weak, drawing ill-formed conclusions from a hazy memory of the two authors. It would not do. Plom sighed and leaned back. He stole a glance at Fress’ parchment. In a confident hand the youth had filled the long sheet to capacity. With a small moan, Fress answered the abbot’s call to sign the work and pass it forward. Plom watched as his friend’s pen moved slowly from ink jar to the parchment. He glanced over his shoulder. Barefoot was gone. Had he left for the refectory? To relieve himself? Plom couldn’t know. He acted swiftly, seizing the collar of Fress’ tunic and head butting his friend violently. Fress’ eyes rolled back into his head, and he fell to the floor with a crash. Plom hurriedly signed his name to Fress’ parchment and then spoke.

“Benevolent Abbot, call for help! Supplicant Fress is overcome!”

 

II

Dawn the next day saw Plom sitting in the basket as the rope was played out, bringing him closer and closer to the world below the mountain. Above the cliff’s edge, he could just barely make out a line of bald heads. The senior monks peered down, waving fond goodbyes.

The supplicants’ duties barred them from watching Plom’s descent. They had made their farewells the night before. Fress had barely spoken. Besides his throbbing headache, the relief of not being chosen had rendered him glossy eyed and speechless.

The basket landed gently on the ground. Plom grasped the rim and gingerly climbed over, feeling the hard earth meet his booted feet. His body trembled.

The basket began its ascent, and Plom resisted the urge to leap back inside. He scanned the barren horizon and set off on shaky steps. The monastery receded in the distance. There his teachers and fellow supplicants went about the business of the day. Plom was alone.

He walked for hours, burdened with a heavy sense of unreality. The young supplicant’s mind alternated between abject fear and the terrifying ecstasy of complete freedom. The sun and first moon moved in the sky, one sinking, the other rising. Plom’s heart began to pound as an irregular chorus of sound grew slowly in volume. From beyond a line of low hills, the clucking of guhn and the snorts of giant mammot could now clearly be heard. As he came closer he could make out an occasional shout or boisterous laugh. Over and over the abbot’s warning echoed in his mind. Avoid the nomads at all cost.

Plom stopped at the base of a hill, seeking shelter behind a large smooth boulder. He leaned back, panting, trying desperately to control a growing wave of panic. His mind went through the verses of the Ministration, cursing as he stumbled over complex stanzas. The exercise seemed to work. As the sun fully set, he wrapped himself in a wool blanket and fell asleep, passing a mercifully dreamless night.

The supplicant woke suddenly. He imagined Fress stood above him, shrieking.  When the fog was lifted from his eyes, Plom realized he was mistaken. It was a young nomad woman, screaming in abject terror. He scrambled backwards, steadying himself against the boulder. The woman ran up the hill, the colored tassels of her braids trailing in the wind. Plom realized he had been screaming too. He composed himself, leaning against the cool rock and listening. Only the intermittent sounds of the pack and riding beasts came from over the hill. Plom’s curiosity soon triumphed over his fear and disorientation.

He crawled on his belly up the gentle slope. At the crest he peered into the camp. A dozen tents atop gaudily painted carts ringed a fire pit. A few mammots idled, lazily lifting great clots of brown grass into their mouths with nimble trunks. On the other side of the camp, guhn sat sleeping, bound by chains to thick stakes pounded into the dusty ground. At the foot of the hill sat a heavy iron cage on large rubber wheels. Inside, a man stood grasping the bars and looking this way and that. There was no sign of the nomads.

Plom stood and walked down the hill on nervous steps. The man in the cage noticed his approach. His deep voice rang out in the ominous silence. He spoke the imperial tongue with a clipped accent.

“Are you the ghask they fear? Keep your distance! Do not be fooled by my apparent discomfiture! I am a powerful wizard!”

Plom stopped in his tracks. The man sized him up. The fear written on his strong face melted away.

“You are no ghask. But I can’t place you. You have a nomad’s face but no clan cuts their hair so short. Come here, quickly!”

“I came from the monastery. I am on a quest to recover a book of holy icons depicting the Goddess.”

“How interesting! I wish to hear all about this quest. In the meantime though, I need to ask a small favor.”

Plom studied the man. His clothes were strange. Perhaps once they had been fine, but now his loose shirt of white silk was stained and torn, and his leather trousers were worn at the knees. Above high cheekbones, a piercing blue eye stared earnestly. The left socket was completely empty. A tousle of dark hair stirred in the light breeze. The man grimaced with impatience.

“Quickly now, boy! We don’t know when the nomads will return. They fled up that hill across the camp, screaming of a ghask, a rootless soul out for vengeance. Soon their courage will return. We must seize the moment!”

“Are you a nomad?”

The man clasped his hands together in supplication. “I am no nomad! Please, you must hurry!”

“What would you have me do?”

“Run to the biggest tent. Somewhere inside you will find a cache of valuables, coins, gems, et cetera. Find me a blue orb, fits in the palm of your hand. Look also for a sword and belt. A thin, straight blade, not like their tulwars—hurry now!”

Plom began walking toward the tent indicated. At the man’s urging he broke into a jog. The tent was dark inside and smelled of incense and sour milk. He stared at an assortment of strange objects; their purpose he could not guess. The light from the open flap shone on a pile of blankets on top of which sat the orb. It was a pretty thing, sky blue shot through with smoky bands of gray and white that moved in slow swirls. He picked it up and jogged back to the cage.

“Yes! That’s it! Hand it here, boy. Excellent work. I knew you were a young man of character.”

The man wiped the orb clean with a handful of his shirt. He craned his neck back and, with obvious discomfort, forced the orb into his empty eye socket.

“Miraculous! Still a bit of charge. Stand back, boy.”

Plom did as instructed. A beam of white heat shot from the blue orb, exploding the crude padlock. The man burst from the cage and ran towards the large tent. He emerged seconds later, a water skin slung on his back and a belt bearing sword and scabbard in his hand.

“With alacrity, my boy! We must make good our escape!”

The camp receded in the distance as morning gave way to noon, the sun reaching its zenith with the shadow of the sixth moon in tow. The pair’s speed was hampered somewhat by Plom’s inability to ride. He wrapped his arms around the guhn’s neck and buried his face in the rancid feathers. The man brought his mount to heel and turned. He covered his good eye and peered in the distance towards the camp with the apparent aid of the blue orb.

“Ha! Just now they return. If they set off at once they could not likely catch us. We are safe—as safe as anyone can be on the steppe. I must properly thank you, my boy. My name is Drur. I am a fencer and wizard, slayer of Olg Thggop and Bearer of the Blue Orb. I owe you my life.” Drur bowed gracefully in the saddle.

Plom could not return the gesture. He feared at any moment to fall from the guhn. He did not know what to make of the man. Here before him was a specimen from countless lectures at the monastery. The man was loquacious and handsome—no doubt an egomaniac likely to defile innocent women. On the other hand, Plom had been instructed to secure the services of one such as him to aid in his quest. The man already felt himself in Plom’s debt. It seemed the Goddess had ordained their meeting.

“I need your help.”

“Drur is at your service, young man! I swear now on the Blue Orb to render all assistance that I can in the service of your errand. You had mentioned a book, correct?”

Plom nodded.

“Now, where may this book be found? There are expansive libraries in Zantyum, perhaps 50 leagues from here. The bazaars at Tung Sha are said to contain anything a heart could desire, a mere 30 leagues east of here, as luck would have it.”

“The book lies in the heart of the Ikzak Jungle.”

Drur frowned. “Are you sure? The curio shops of Minniepe boast many arcane volumes on their dusty shelves. Perhaps there, nestled amidst the charming cafes?”

“No. It is in the jungle. Brother From found it during a spirit walk.”

The wizard’s shoulders sagged. “Well. As I said, I would be happy to escort you to the edge of the Ikzak and prepare you with sage advice before you enter. A former captain of mine once crossed…” Drur suddenly screamed in pain. He clutched his face and reeled back in the saddle. He continued, voice twisted with pain, “We will go together! I will enter the Ikzak with him! Enough!” As suddenly as it had come, the pain had apparently receded. He smiled weakly.

“The Blue Orb insists on exactitude, especially when an oath has been sworn in its name. It can be somewhat tiresome. How are you called, young man?”

“My name is Plom.”

The steppe seemed to swallow distance. After hours of riding, the sharp peaks of the Krixxis seemed only as far away as when they had started. The pair shared a supper of black bread in the saddle as Drur told the sordid tale of his capture by the nomads. Plom understood little. From what he could make out, the wizard had been tricked by a caravan master and sold to the nomads. Somehow a woman had been involved. Plom whispered the Invocation to himself while Drur went into detail regarding the abundant charms that had caused him to so unwisely drop his guard. The abbot had warned against the frank immorality he would encounter. Plom confessed to himself a secret curiosity regarding such matters at the time. But now that it confronted him he felt uneasy. His reverie was broken by a question from Drur.

“So, tell me about this monastery you call home.”

Plom shrugged. “I am a supplicant at the Retreat of the Devotees of the Goddess. I live there with my basket brothers and gather excrement from the mountainside which we process into indigo. Every third day I spend in study and contemplation.”

“Ah, the odor surrounding your person is explained. So what are the tenets of this creed you and yours follow?”

“The details are forbidden to outsiders.”

“A pity. The sun drops low. I think we best make camp.”

They halted their mounts as the last rays disappeared behind the distant peaks. Plom gingerly lowered himself to the ground, sore and chafed from the day’s riding. At Drur’s instruction he pounded stakes into the ground to tether the guhn. Drur whispered to himself as he drew a wide circle around their makeshift camp with the toe of his boot. Satisfied with his efforts, the wizard removed the tackle from the guhn and unfolded the saddle blankets. The fourth moon, a disc of eerie blue, was rising in the north. Drur was heartened by the view.

“Excellent! The Blue Orb will drink its fill tonight. Gods of Wind and Rain have mercy on any nomad that accosts us tomorrow.”

Plom lay on the hard ground, marveling at the assortment of stars visible in the cloudless night. It was only the second night of his quest and he had seen many wonders—the open steppe, a nomad camp, a woman. And a mad, unintelligible wizard was his ally. Fatigue quieted his mind and he drifted off.

Morning brought a rude surprise. Lined along the circumference of Drur’s ward, a party of nomads stood, weapons drawn. Plom nudged the wizard into reluctant wakefulness. Drur rubbed sleep from his eyes and took stock of the situation. The nomad captain stood grinning, arms folded across the lacquered squares of his ochre colored breastplate, fashioned from the rigid plates of a giant centipede.

Drur spat in frustration. “Well, isn’t this just fantastic!” He addressed the nomad captain. “Ulker! I was given to believe the children of the steppe do not travel at night.”

The wizened nomad answered. “As you can see, exceptions are made in unique circumstances. Be so good as to dissolve your ward so that I may kill you and the ghask quickly and have the rest of the day at my disposal.”

“I am afraid I cannot. This life contains too many amusing distractions for me to relinquish it so cavalierly. The ward will be inviolable for days. And when it drops, my orb will incinerate all that come near.”

Ulker replied, “We have you completely surrounded. Our shaman will nullify much of your orb. And even if one or two of us fall, the rest will remain to slaughter you.” The shaman shook a necklace of human bones and hissed through sharpened teeth to emphasize the point.

Drur knew the nomad leader was largely correct. A change of tack was in order.

“Are you so quick to kill one of your own blood? This harmless monk is of your people. I am sworn to assist him in his quest for a treasure of immense value. Think of the cosmic goodwill you will accrue by sending us on our way! It would atone for the dozens of ill deeds you commit on a weekly basis. I would even consider forgiving you the outrage of kidnapping me in the first place. Such benevolence!”

Ulker opened his mouth to reply when he was interrupted by a lieutenant pulling on his leather sleeve. The pair were joined by other nomads of rank and stepped away from edge of the ward, conversing in the agglutinative tongue of the steppe peoples. The group continued an animated discussion for some time before Ulker turned back to face Drur.

“Firstly, do not speak to me of the strange one. He is a ghask. To speak of him or to him is to risk eternal damnation. Now, tell me what is this treasure you seek?”

Plom started to answer until interrupted by a short kick by Drur. The wizard continued.

“It is a book of inestimable value. This massive tome boasts gilded, gem encrusted covers between which nest countless beatific images of a Goddess! All who look upon the book are forever blessed. City-folk will pay hoards of coin just for a glance!”

Ulker stroked his long goatee. “And you know where this book is to be found?”

“I do indeed.”

“Then I will forestall the pleasure of killing long enough to extract this information. Unless you wish to save us all the time and simply tell me.”

“We have circled back around to our initial positions. What you are forgetting, fell warrior of the barren steppe, is that before any attempt to torture me gets underway, I can simply snuff out my own life with aid of the orb.”

Negotiations began in earnest. All manner of arrangements were proposed, including a marriage between Drur and a member of the tribe in order to rectify the pervasive lack of trust between the two parties. Initially the entire troupe of nomads intended to join Plom’s quest until Drur hinted that the goal lay within the Ikzak jungles. Finally a suitable arrangement was reached. Drur and Plom would be joined in their quest by a solitary nomad representing Ulker’s interests. The trio would bring the tome back to the nomad camp where it would be held until the monks could ransom it with their massive wealth. The nomads believed the devotees to be in possession of a great hoard of coin and gold, and Drur did nothing to convince them otherwise. For a fact he did not know if it was true. During the heated deliberations, Plom meekly attempted to remonstrate on behalf of the monastery but was studiously ignored by the nomads. He sat sulking on a saddle while Ulker and Drur made dire oaths to seal the pact. The two men parted with wry smiles, each believing himself in possession of the better part of the bargain. The band of nomads kicked their mounts into a run, eliciting squawks of protest and raising a cloud of dust. One nomad remained. She nudged her mount to face Drur.

“I am Sihma. Attempt betrayal at your peril, ridiculous outlander. I can put an arrow into that orb from 200 paces.”

Drur bowed to the young woman. “I am Drur, and charmed to make your acquaintance. This is my associate, Plom, a religious scholar of unknown abilities.”

Plom was silent. His rough hands covered his eyes. He had already seen a woman yesterday, but only for a fleeting moment. But this warrior woman lingered before him. His uncovered eyes could gaze dangerously long. The abbot had warned him that a certain degree of indecency was perhaps inevitable out in the world. He peeked through his fingers. Sihma stared at him with a puzzled expression.

She addressed Drur. “Is something wrong with him?”

The wizard was hitching the saddle to his guhn and did not bother to look up.

“I do not know.”

The trio made good time as Plom’s skill in the saddle improved. Drur angled their course southwest. Sihma protested. Drur explained no trek through the Ikzak was possible without a day or two of rest and refitting in Shkan, a city built on the banks of the winding Monoga. The wide river flowed eventually into the very heart of the jungle. In Shkan exotic lumber from the Ikzak was traded at a premium and goods from upriver were purchased with the spoils. Drur described its tall orange towers and comfortable inns in wistful tones. After confiscating Plom’s purse of coin, Drur declared their budget more than capable of hiring a craft to take them downriver, deep into the Ikzak. Sihma grudgingly accepted Drur’s plan.

They rode on. Drur attempted to enliven the bleak journey across the wastes with anecdotes from his numerous escapades. Sihma listened in sullen silence, interjecting occasionally with a snort or sharp laugh to call into question the veracity of Drur’s tales. The wizard haughtily denied taking any liberties with the truth. Plom did his best to follow the stories. The youth’s piqued interest was mollified by an inability to understand most of what was being said. He found himself wondering what was happening at the monastery in his absence. Plom laughed to himself. The routine of the monastery was doubtlessly the same as it was only a few days ago when he left. He looked up at the sky and down across the humbling expanse of the plain. He saw his companions’ backs swaying with the rhythm of the guhn’s stride as they argued. Here were stimuli of kind not found in the monastery. Sihma’s voice interrupted his thoughts.

“And what are you laughing at?”

Plom stiffened, startled at the address. He met her almond eyes for a moment and then reflexively covered his own.

“Oh, there he goes again.”

 

III

The remainder of their time on the steppe fell into a routine. They rode all day, stopping only as the sun began to dip. Plom and Drur would make camp as Sihma hunted. She would return with long centipedes hanging limply in either hand. These would be cooked over a small fire of dried dung and set aside. Overnight, organs liquefied by the fire’s heat would congeal into a gelatinous substance that constituted their morning meal. As they ate Drur would wax nostalgic, recounting the most memorable meals of his itinerant life. He had been born into a respectable family of artisans in old Venitio, solid middle class stock, but had known deprivation as a young wizard’s apprentice. The rough years of his tutelage fostered an ambition to become intimate with all the finer things life had to offer. Gradually Sihma permitted herself to laugh at Drur’s most outlandish comments.

As the Krixxis shrank behind them, the land became less arid. The barren plains became dotted with green grass and low shrubs as the trio neared the end of the steppe. On the afternoon of the fifth day, the towers of Shkan could be seen in the distance. Plom grew pensive. Drur turned in the saddle.

“Does the city frighten you? Despite its many comforts, it is indeed a notoriously cruel place.”

Plom shook his head. “I had not been frightened by it. Now I am. But I am troubled by something else.”

After much cajoling, Plom revealed his aggravation. Hair was sprouting all over his body, concentrating especially in the areas in which sin was incubated. The young man shifted uncomfortably in the saddle.

Drur expounded his theory. “Your body is undergoing changes instigated by simple biology. That curious metallic flavor present in the bread you carried is probably responsible for delaying these changes. I noted a certain listless quality in myself after consuming it those few days. Now that the supply is exhausted, nature is pursuing its normal course without further impediment.”

“To what end?”

Drur raised an eyebrow. “To make you capable of reproduction. So that the human race may continue weaving its rich tapestry long past the time when we are gone to the Realm of Death.”

Plom shook his head angrily. “You speak nonsense.”

“So I am frequently told. But wait and see, young man.”

Up ahead, Sihma waved to the pair. They kicked their mounts to a trot and met her at the top of a long gentle slope. The wide Monaga lay before them, flowing calmly to meet Shkan, now only a day’s ride away. Its towers of baked brick stood silent guard over the end of the steppe and the beginning of civilization. The third and fourth moon, faint discs of green and blue, hung in the clear sky above the sprawling city. In the distance, a blue skinned boatman aboard a two-masted barge waved hello to the strange group.

Plom slept fitfully in their makeshift camp. The light of the third moon found him crawling to lie next to Drur. He nudged the wizard awake.

“I have questions.”

“Gods of wind and rain, why do you wake me at this hour?”

“I can’t sleep.”

Drur sighed. ‘What is it you wish to know?”

There in the darkness along the river bank, Drur attempted to explain human reproduction to an uneasy and incredulous Plom. The wizard laid out the facts as simply as he could. Plom countered with arguments gleaned from his studies, wishing for the second time in his life that he had paid closer attention to the senior monks. Drur calmly refuted the young man’s assertions before falling back into restful sleep. Plom crawled back to his blankets and lay awake a while before drifting off.

Plom rose with difficulty. Drur was at work with his poniard, freeing their morning meal from its fire-blackened shell.

“I believe Sihma is refreshing herself at the river’s edge. Be so good as to let her know our breakfast is ready. With the city close at hand, I am impatient.”

Plom made for the river bank, legs heavy with sleep. He passed a thicket of brambles and ducked under low trees to find himself at the muddy bank. He looked right and left, seeing no one. There was movement in the water suddenly. Sihma’s head and shoulders rose from underneath the placid water. She walked into the shallows, every step exposing more of her body. Plom watched as her pert breasts broke the surface, round and glistening. Her trim torso followed, and then finally her round hips tapering into muscular thighs. He stared agape at the delicate mound between her legs. Apparently at least part of Drur’s information was correct. He felt his heart beating hard in his chest. The water ran from her long black hair, following every curve and niche down to her feet. She stopped and placed her hands on her hips. Plom looked to her face and realized she was staring at him, annoyed.

“See enough, virgin?”

He bolted, sprinting down the bank.

Around and under low trees, through brambles and thickets he ran. Images of Sihma’s body competed with the stern face of the abbot in his mind’s eye. He felt at any moment Barefoot’s lash might rip across his back. But as his legs grew tired a curious calm overtook him.

He ordered his thoughts. The world was larger than the monastery. Many more people, including the world’s women, lived outside its craggy fastness. He could not so easily jettison what the monks had taught him. But nor could he deny that the larger world was a reality, one which he now occupied. He was on a quest, burdened with a sacred duty. If accommodating this world and its immodest ways was necessary he had only one choice. Plom stopped finally, turning resignedly to return to the camp. He permitted himself a smile. If the mad wizard was correct, then Sihma’s glorious and confusing nudity was only one small part of the vast, indecent pageant of human existence.

A voice rang out.

“What do we have here?”

The speaker was a burly man dressed in loose trousers and a simple jerkin. A heavy dagger hung from his ample hip. Hoop earrings swung jauntily as he turned to address his comrade emerging from a thicket with an armful of deadfall. The man looked at Plom with a start.

“Dear Jurlo, I do not know. What strange sort of young man is this, wandering the north bank alone?”

The man laid the wood aside and unhooked a club from his belt. He was thin and rangy, sporting identical earrings as his comrade.

The burly man, Jurlo, scratched his chin. “Strange indeed. Where are you from, boy?”

The woods caught in Plom’s throat. He stumbled backwards, mumbling inanely.

“Speak up, boy!”

Plom spoke, barely above a whisper, “I am from the monastery.”

“The monastery? Where?” Plom pointed weakly to the north.

“In the steppe? Jurlo, have you ever heard of any such thing?”

“Indeed not, Mister Malk. And during my wayward youth I crossed the whole of it with a caravan.”

Plom looked over his shoulder, hoping to see Drur or Simha advancing this way.

Malk spoke. “Curious. If I may essay a theory, I believe this young man is a mental defective.”

“I believe you are correct. It would be cruel to leave him wandering thus. And I think the hold has room for one more.”

“There always is.”

With that the rangy man lunged forward. The club caught Plom on the side of his head. The youth collapsed in a heap, the sound of laughter drowned out by the ringing in his ears.

First there was the sound of wood creaking then a sense of gentle motion. Plom’s eyes opened to a dim scene. Around him individuals of many descriptions lay in attitudes of exhausted despair. There were six women of varying ages and four men, all bound in chains. In the far corner sat a creature the likes of which Plom had never seen. He stared openly.

A middle aged women chained next to him anticipated his question. She brushed back locks of her unwashed hair.

“Fear not. That is only an insect man from far Dardilis. He is harmless unless affronted.”

The sound of his own voice thundered through Plom’s injured head. “Where am I?”

“You are on a barge carrying slaves bound for the markets of Shkan.” She leaned over him and mopped his forehead with a wet rag.

“I am a slave?”

A broad shouldered man, face spotted with painful bruises, spoke.

“You are indeed, young man. If you have a thought to escape, I recommend more caution than I showed yesterday.” He shifted painfully. “It’s likely the pits for most of us—myself, most certainly. We will be made to fight each other or torn apart by hungry throk for the amusement of the people of Shkan. You have never heard of the pits?”

Plom shook his head no. He inspected the hold, a narrow space accessible only by a trapdoor to the main deck. Behind the group, crates were stacked from deck to ceiling. Light from the grate illuminated a sad patch of damp wood. Plom leaned back. His mind wrestled with his predicament, finding no way to comprehend this turn of fortune.

After a damp and uncomfortable night, the barge docked at its destination. The sounds of activity along the quays grew in volume as they approached. With a creak the trapdoor was flung open, the light and air of the outside met by the quiet weeping of the slaves. Plom was lifted roughly from the hold and stood on the deck, squinting in the sunlight. The supplicant gasped as his vision adjusted. Around him was an astounding variety of men, women, and strange humanoids from all corners of the globe. Under the intermittent shadows of the tall towers, all manner of activities, urgent and languid, played out along the quay. Jurlo made fast the slaves’ chains to one another, and the group was marched toward the market. Plom was stupefied as his senses fought to process the flood of input. There was the stench of the pier and the savory odor of spices. A group of men in baggy trousers shouldered great sacks of wheat on their tanned backs. Two insect men conversed with a series of loud clicks and chirps. An idol to the river god sat fat and wreathed in orange flowers as a boatman lit a stick of incense at its base.

The group trudged across a wide piazza toward the slavers’ market where a few merchants haggled furiously with a score of slavers. The bruised man nudged Plom’s shoulder, pointing meekly to a passel of men in black livery. Their tunics bore the standard of a throk rampart on a field of blood red.

“There are the pit masters, buying up the stocks. We shall be dead in a few days. Gods, give me the grace to accept it.”

Plom’s heart sank.

 

IV

Drur and Sihma drove the guhn as hard as they dared toward Shkan’s looming towers, trailing Plom’s mount behind on a tether. The morning had been spent in a fruitless search for the missing supplicant. Sihma finally stumbled across a series of tracks and marks which enabled her to deduce much of what had happened. Drur’s knowledge filled in the remaining blanks. The tracks of two men met Plom’s. Then drag marks led to where a boat had been pulled up on the bank. Plom had doubtlessly been waylaid and was en route to the slavers’ market. By his inexpert calculations Drur figured a barge moving downriver would likely reach the docks several hours before he and Simha would, hampered by the uneven terrain. The wizard cursed himself for letting the young man out of his sight. Simha was furious but sheepishly refused to relate the circumstances that led to Plom’s panicked flight. The particulars did not matter. Drur had sworn an oath on the Blue Orb, and the young supplicant must be located. With any luck the barge would be delayed or its business drawn out, and the two seekers would reach the slave markets at the same time as Plom. They rode all night.

Dawn saw the city gates a stone’s throw away, manned by two bored sentries. The north gate was used for the irregular caravans or odd travelers from the steppe such as Drur and Sihma. The two were admitted quickly after paying a small fee. Drur made inquiries and was distraught to learn the slavers’ market was several districts away, distant from the more desirable neighborhoods bordering the north wall. The pair angled their guhn onto the main thoroughfare, soon teeming with morning traffic. Drur cursed, standing often in the saddle to peer above the throng of porters and carts that jammed the wide road. Chaos reigned; there was no apparent system or rules to guide the meandering users. Sihma kicked out at any individual or beast that came too close. Drur attempted to pacify her.

“My dear, please adjust to these close quarters and accept the inevitable before you eventually strike a person of importance.”

“It is unnerving. So many people crammed into such a small place.”

Drur tapped nervously on his thigh as they slowly made their way to the slavers’ market.

By late afternoon the market was still doing a brisk business. Drur and Sihma hitched their mounts to a post and picked their way through the crowd. Plom was nowhere to be seen. The wizard became increasingly desperate. Sihma scowled, constantly laying a hand on her bow in its case as it brushed up against passersby. Finally the pair sat on one of the benches lining the piazza. The traffic slowed as no more barges were docked. The sun sank low. Drur made his fears known.

“We likely missed him. He will be torn to pieces in the pits.”

Sihma shrugged her shoulders. “So much for the treasure. You do not know where it is precisely?”

“No, I do not. And the Blue Orb’s limited intellect will only comprehend that my oath goes unfulfilled. Perhaps it will better divine the circumstances and excuse me from my obligation. Or perhaps it will become vexed and boil my brain.”

“That’s unfortunate. I will have to return empty handed and endure censure from my tribe. This will diminish my standing considerably. To complicate things further, Ulker commanded I return with your head in lieu of treasure.”

“I suspected as much. It’s only sporting to warn you that I will endeavor to kill you first. And in a contest where I am aware of your intent, the odds favor me and the orb.”

“If I read things correctly, this setting is inappropriate for open murder, is it not?”

“You are a quick study. Here the forces of the state will come down hard on an open display of violence.”

Simha pushed her dagger back fully into its decorative sheath. She shot the wizard a stern glance. “It occurs to me now what a disappointment you are.”

Drur was wounded. “Indeed? What would you have me do? Young Plom is gone. He is being led right now to a cell where he will spend his last days lonely and confused until his life is snuffed out in the games. We are powerless to do anything about it, short of staging some insane, suicidal stunt to liberate him from captivity.”

“You have quit before even starting! Surely you can think of something! I am too far out of my element, I must admit. But you boasted of a score of adventures against similar odds. Was someone else doing the thinking, the planning that enabled you to survive these escapades?”

Drur swore, striking the bench with his palms. He stood to his full height and tensed.

“Gods of Wind and Rain, you are right. I gave myself over to despair too quickly. It isn’t like me. I blame the neutering chemicals in the boy’s accursed bread. Now, we need intelligence, and quickly. We must find when these barbaric games are to take place. We must find information on the facility in which they are staged. I have visited this city twice before but never had the stomach to attend. And I need new clothes. You need a less conspicuous ensemble as we go about our business.” Drur retrieved Plom’s purse of coin from his belt. “Come, let us outfit ourselves, and then a decent meal, by the gods. This formidable problem will shrink demonstrably with a bellyful of lean steak and a few glasses of wine to sustain us.”

Sihma rose, grinning, and slapped the wizard across his broad shoulders. The two set off toward the markets.

After a short argument Sihma relented and used the provided utensils for the remainder of their meal. The last hours had seen much accomplished. Drur wore a new silk shirt and trousers of tight velvet in a deep green. The tailor had assured him that within Shkan the ensemble would communicate the cavalier élan that reflected Drur’s character. Sihma wore a gown of satin, colored a deep mauve that complemented her olive skin. The effect was alluring despite her obvious discomfort.

“How can I fight in these clothes? My bosom threatens escape at any moment.” She talked with her mouth full, punctuating her remark with a tug of her tight bodice.”

Drur swallowed the last of his wine, pausing to savor it. “I am sure when the time comes you will perform up to standard. We must blend in with the populace here. Our inquiries revealed only the time of the games, two days hence. Information about the pens is closely guarded. To inquire more seriously might alert suspicions. Thus, our planning is shaped. We will have to strike in public, at great risk, and flee immediately through crowds of confused and possibly enraged spectators. A nomad princess of savage beauty would be too memorable. Now you are just another pretty face.”

Sihma belched. She covered her mouth, suppressing laughter.

“I am no princess.”

The arena in which the gladiatorial games and executions took place was a wide, three story structure of the same orange brick as the rest of the city. While not in use, the arcing terraces were open to the public. Drur and Sihma strolled the aisles bedecked in their new finery, winding their way around knots of young people lounging and larger groups of old men playing a game with small squares of baked clay embossed with complicated glyphs. Bold stratagems were heralded by the echoing hard clack of the tile against bench.

The tiled stone floor of the arena proper was checkered with empty post holes. Drur made inquiries. A pair of idling lovers explained that modular walls could be brought in for a favorite variation. A maze would be erected, and groups of slaves and hungry throk would be turned loose at either end. Sihma expressed revulsion as they walked.

“And here my people are considered uncivilized for simple, clean murder, while these fops watch such spectacle.”

Drur nodded. “It is indeed paradoxical. In most other respects the city is a model of calm. There is little crime, and the high walls and powerful court mages deter invaders. Shkanese are a generally gentle lot. I suppose here all their dark passions are given vent. In my native Venetio such emotions are spent on masterful works of art and illicit affairs. A superior arrangement.”

The pair wound their way to the front rows. Drur peered over the waist high stone wall marking the boundary between spectators and the damned.

“The drop is about ten feet. We will need a knotted rope.”

“I assume there is more to this scheme than simply throwing a rope over the edge in the middle of the event.”

“There is indeed. We must find an apothecary.”

Drur purchased the items he required from two different shops to better mask his intentions. He spent a tense afternoon mixing the components in his room at the tavern while Sihma elected to get drunk to pass the time. The next day Drur walked the quays looking for a boat heading into the Ikzak that had room for passengers. He secured the services of one Togun Sideh, skipper of the Drullok’s Bane, a two-masted barge boasting a motor in the stern and an energy cannon mounted to the bow. The wizard claimed need of a trip to the jungle to secure rare flowers for use in spells.

Drur explained glibly to the skipper that the exact moment of departure was vitally important to his inamorata, a tempestuous woman whose passions were ruled by complex astrological calculations. The vessel would need to depart the morrow, no earlier than the second afternoon bell, coincidentally the moment when the games would be at their peak. Drur anticipated difficulty, but the promise of the last of Plom’s coin secured firm guarantees. Togun took half the money upfront, dropping the coins into a pouch hidden beneath his wide belly.

The lanternmen stalked Shkan’s wide avenues on tall stilts as dark descended. In their suite Drur rehearsed his spells and Sihma oiled her saber. Presently both lay awake in their respective chambers, contemplating the likely possibility of death as the sound of revelry came from the streets and tavern below. Shkan was becoming charged with a festival electricity. Tomorrow much wine would be drunk, and much blood would be spilled in the arena.

They rose at dawn after a restless night. Drur gently packed the parcels he had made into his shirtsleeves while Sihma hid her equipment under voluminous skirts. They mounted the guhn and rode at a leisurely pace to the arena. Crowds were already gathering at the early hour. The pair hitched the mounts to a lamp post and walked arm in arm through the milling crowds and up the tall stairs to the terraces. Drur cursed. The best seats were already taken, save the sections across the floor reserved for aristocrats. They found a spot as near as they could manage and sat pensively. The wizard squinted his eyes, scanning the empty floor. The distance was great. He turned to Sihma.

“I shall be relying on your hawk eyes more than I had imagined. I cannot waste the energies of the Blue Orb by peering into the distance. This event will go on for hours. We don’t know which iteration will bring Plom to the floor.”

“I will keep my eyes open.”

The sun rose higher as the seats filled to capacity. Drur tapped his fingers impatiently while Sihma sat still, jaw set firm. Vendors dressed as Pierrot began to ply the crowds with sweets and clay cups of liquor. Drur purchased a packet of candied beetles.

“Save my place.”

Sihma scowled. “I know my duties, wizard. Try not to blow yourself up.”

“If it hasn’t happened yet, then I am likely in the clear.”

Drur stood and affected the meandering gait of a tourist as he wound his way down to the wall. He ate the beetles one by one as he walked, looking this way and that. Finally at the edge, he leaned on his elbow looked out over the floor. Sihma watched as the wizard appeared to toss the packet of sweets casually to the ground where similar flotsam had already begun to gather. He dodged groups of running children as he wandered down the circumference of the wall, repeating his performance periodically.

The crowd was growing increasingly restless as Drur reclaimed his seat. He thought to speak, but the blaring of trumpets interrupted. The crowd shouted in response. A set of wide iron doors burst open below on the floor. Burly men bearing a gold palanquin bore Shkan’s mayor before the riotous crowd. He brought a megaphone to his red lips and addressed the throng.

“Greetings, noble Shkanese! The fifth moon rose high last night. The blood moon! And how do we honor Yunare? How do we honor the sacred blood moon, the benevolent patron of our fair city?”

The crowd responded, screaming for blood, again and again. Drur felt his knees weaken.

Sihma leaned close to be heard over the roar. “It bears saying again; these people are civilized, and they claim the steppe is not?”

“Yes, yes, point taken. Keep a close watch now!”

The palanquin disappeared as an impresario mounted a dais above the aristocrats’ seating. The plump man wore robes of crimson trimmed in gold. With a flourish he declared the commencement of the entertainments. The first round was in honor of the Yunare. Six notorious criminals were pitted against Wim Tid, the insect man blademaster, a mercenary of wide fame and an occasional gladiator. Drur marveled at his skill.

“Absolutely stunning. My skill with the foil is not insignificant, but now I feel inadequate. It’s hardly fair though. He has four extra arms.”

Wim Tid bounded in between the outmatched combatants, landing to strike with the speed of a scorpion before springing away from any counterattack. One by one the criminals were struck down. The blademaster honored the blood moon with strikes to his opponents’ arteries. The crowd met every jet of blood with raucous applause. Finally only the insect man remained standing. He tipped the brim of his wide hat and bowed low to an appreciative audience. Slaves in blue tunics threw open the iron doors and dragged the corpses away. Drur and Sihma leaned forward as the next event was announced. To clear the viewers’ palette after the display of skill a coarser spectacle was scheduled. A dozen slaves armed with small spears were to be set against a pack of hungry throk. Nervous steps carried the twelve to the center of the floor. Drur frantically scanned the group.

“There! That’s him! Is it? Look! Is it him?”

Sihma frowned. “I can’t tell! I think it is!”

The sound of a gong signaled the release of the throk. The slavering beasts sprinted from their pen with bounding leaps.

“Gods’ mercy! We have no choice. It is time!”

From under her skirt Sihma produced the rope and hook. Drur closed his eyes and held his hands together. The wizard murmured to himself as his fingers and hands went through a series of motions. The air began to hum.

Great gouts of black smoke exploded from Drur’s parcels along the wall. The crowd reacted in primal terror as screams of fire echoed throughout the arena. Pandemonium erupted as the great throng moved chaotically toward the exits, stumbling, screaming in terrible confusion. The smoke obscured all. Drur and Sihma dodged fleeing spectators as they rushed to the wall. The hook was made fast, and the two leapt over the edge. The smoke billowed up the terraces, leaving the floor largely clear. A barking snarl alerted the two to danger. Sihma buried her saber deep into the muscular neck of a charging throk, deftly sidestepping its careening bulk.

Ahead the slaves were being dragged down, one by one, by the remaining predators. Drur sent a few bolts of energy from the orb into the pack’s flanks. The beasts yelped in agony and fled. The smell of charred fur and flesh was added to the heady miasma of blood and fear. The nomad and wizard ran to the slaves. Two lay in crumpled heaps amidst growing pools of blood. Drur grabbed one roughly by the shoulder, turning him to get a look at his face. He did the same to the other and then looked to the knot of slaves still on their feet. They looked about in total shock as Sihma darted through the lot.

Sihma swore. “He isn’t here!”

“I know!”

The wizard spared a glance at the giant doors. Behind them somewhere Plom waited for his turn in the arena. Drur had played his hand prematurely. The episode was a fiasco.

Sihma put her foot to a throk’s side in order to pull her bloodied saber from its carcass. Drur grabbed her arm and the pair sprinted back to the rope. Before scaling the wall the wizard turned to address the slaves.

“Freedom lies this way, if you desire it!”

The pair scaled the wall quickly and bounded up the terraces toward an exit. Drur lost sight of Sihma in the lingering smoke as he made for the stairs. Before him a figure loomed—a vendor wearing a tray. The two collided. Sweets rained down as Drur looked at the man. Beneath the whiteface makeup was Plom.

“Gods of Wind and Rain! What are you doing?”

“Drur! I never thought to see you again! Did you come to watch the games?”

The wizard stood and pulled the young supplicant to his feet.

“Watch the games? You stupid boy! We came to rescue you!”

Plom stared, uncomprehending. Drur grabbed his arm, and the pair made for the stairs, still thronged with fleeing spectators.

“Where are we going? The sweets! I have to recover the sweets.”

“Forget the sweets! We are leaving, Plom. Remember the book? I am oathbound to take you into the jungle, and Sihma is sworn to take my head if we don’t succeed. I would like to keep my head and not be forced to endure the inevitable pangs of conscious should I have to incinerate her, mid-attempt. In summary, we are going to get your book. What is the meaning of this costume anyway?”

By way of answer Plom pulled up his shirt, an awkward act in the press of the crowd. Drur read the raised and tender wound, a fresh tattoo centered in the supplicant’s chest.

“This slave is the property of Relallthein Confectionary Company, Shkan. Reward Available if Returned Alive.” Drur shook his head as the crowd poured into the street. Sihma was waiting, already mounted with three pairs of reins in hand.

 

V

Plom’s frilled collar bobbed in the wake of the Drullok’s Bane where Drur had tossed it. The wizard leaned against the aft gunwales while the supplicant bent low, washing off the whiteface with a bucket of river water.

“Now that we are relatively safe I would appreciate an account of your travails since last we met.”

Plom finished his ablutions and stood. He gazed at the receding towers wistfully.

“I was kidnapped at the river’s edge. Then they took us to the slavers’ market where I was about to be sold to the pit masters. A man asked any who were literate to raise their hands. I was the only one. The man bought me and took me to a large building. My duties were explained. I was to write the company’s ledgers and copy sentimental messages onto small cards for inclusion into gift boxes, and on festival days me and the others would sell their wares. I was given the tattoo and then training began. They were largely kind after telling me all the horrible things that would happen if I failed them or fled. They gave me a bowl of delicious stew and then a piece of candy. I had never had anything like it. Did you ever have candy, wizard? It is common, isn’t it?”

“It is. Continue.”

“It was red and sweet. So sweet. There was a strange taste with the sweetness. It was described as ‘tartness’ upon my asking. The two tastes seemed to blend together, sometimes competing, sometimes complimenting one another. I savored it as the thing slowly shrank in my mouth. When the candy maker saw how much I had enjoyed it he gave me a piece of green candy. This one was sweet also, but had a slightly sharp taste as well. The man explained they were flavored with fruit harvested from orchards just outside the city. There was green, red, and a purple one, one that had red with streaks of white, one that was blue…”

Drur interjected. “Enough!”

Plom’s eyes became enlivened as he continued. “Then I met the other slaves. Most were women. I told them my story, and they took pity on me. They bade me have no fear to look upon them. Then, late in the night…”

“Oh, for the love of all that is good, Plom, spare me.”

Sihma emerged from below decks. The nomad had changed back into her old clothes and walked with a light step. She saw the consternation on Drur’s face.

“What happened?”

“Oh, nothing. Nothing except that we risked life and limb to rescue Plom from the peril of tooth decay and the possibility of contracting a social ailment.”

“Ha!” The nomad slapped Plom on the back. She continued. “If it wasn’t for the prospect of this treasure I would surely kill you.” She turned to Drur. “But as things stand, we can’t be overly upset. We escaped without consequence, and we are on our way to the treasure.”

Drur sniffed. “Yes, quite.”

The Drullok’s Bane was a large craft, 100 feet from bow to rounded transom and 30 feet wide. Togun and his first mate Leli navigated the wide Monoga with an ease born of many years’ experience. The journey into the Ikzak was made under sail. The return trip would be under power, typically trailing as many as a dozen logs of priceless timber.

Several times a day the two crewmen, Hume and Roppen, were interrupted in their duties to tack the vessel back to cross the center of the river. Otherwise they made themselves busy with maintenance. There was an engineer aboard, but the man was never seen, keeping to himself within the cramped confines of the compartment that housed the crystal which powered the vessel’s screws. Togun and Leli took turns at the wheel. At night the anchor was dropped, and all but a sole watch slept.

The two loggers signed on for the trip, the horned giants Rep and Vinconzo, settled quickly into their routine. The pair spent all their time fishing, one off the port beam, the other starboard, balanced thusly so their massive bulks would not cause the vessel to list. The pair were wont to doze as the brown water flowed quietly past, the bow wake gently lapping against their booted soles that hung heavy over the gunwales.

The passengers spent their first day aboard in idleness. Plom watched as Shkan’s towers disappeared behind the horizon.

He looked to Drur and said, “Do you think there is any candy aboard?”

The wizard did not reply. He inquired about a spare rod and was given one. Drur settled next to Vinconzo and baited the hook from a clay jug packed with pickled beetles. The giant took the cup in his massive hand and gently tapped the base, knocking a beetle into his palm and popping it into his mouth. Drur dipped the line into the water and leaned back.

The setting sun painted a long streak of wavering red on the surface of the water. The streak faded to a dull purple before darkness finally fell. Togun ordered the anchor dropped. The crew and passengers gathered amidships for a meal of bread and cheese underneath a line hung with colored lanterns. The giants kept their place as they ate their supper, a selection of beasts caught from the river, consumed raw. This night Rep had only a pair of water scorpions while Vinconzo bit into a fat woph fish. Both drank deep from casks of wine.

Togun sipped at a glass of distilled alcohol as he talked in his gruff voice. “So, it’s flowers you are after, correct?”

Drur looked up from his meal and replied, “Yes, my captain. The pollen of the Isis yields components for several spells and salves. It is scarce down our way. While there I hope also to cull pedals from the Screaming Yip, and I wouldn’t turn up my nose at a quantity of root from a Grappling vine. With sufficient supply I can replenish my stocks and also make a tidy profit back home.”

Plom spoke through a mouthful of bread, “We aren’t looking for the book anymore?”

Togun set his glass down. “The book?”

Drur shook his head. “Pardon my friend. He is a mental defective. Quite tragic really. His mother was a servant in my father’s house. On her deathbed my father swore that we would look after her only son, an act of generosity which has caused me great inconvenience.”

Plom cocked his head slightly. “I don’t understand. Who are you talking about?”

Sihma sighed. “He is talking about you. Now be quiet.”

Togun smiled. “Now, now. This is my vessel, my table, my rules. What do you mean ‘looking for the book’, young man?”

Plom looked at Drur. The wizard threw up his arms. “Well, you may as well tell him now!”

The supplicant related the story of his life and quest to a rapt Togun while Drur and Sihma sat pensively. The captain whistled through his teeth at the tale’s conclusion. Hume and Roppen had edged forward on the bench. Hume toyed with a dagger in his tattooed hands as he and Roppen and the captain exchanged glances.

Togun laughed, “Flowers, indeed! You three are by far the strangest lot I have ever ferried down river. Now, perhaps we should discuss in greater detail the value of this sacred tome.”

Drur sniffed. “Gentlemen aren’t concerned with such vulgar matters.”

“I don’t recall laying claim to that particular appellative.”

“They use apples to flavor some of the candy.”

Drur’s face reddened. “Plom, please be quiet.” He leaned back on the bench and continued, “Let us all save ourselves some time. The financial particulars are of concern to two parties, the nomads, represented by the lovely Sihma, and the monastery. I am here to only to fulfill a careless oath. I suggest you and Sihma negotiate an arrangement. I warn you, captain, the nomads are notoriously parsimonious, and I can only imagine the attitudes of the monks. I am retiring to my hammock. I expect the dawn will bring me news of a new and mutually beneficial relationship between the two parties. Should the situation be different I will be sorely vexed and prone to intemperate displays. My orb is charged to bursting. I bid you all good evening.”

The two parties began negotiations. Togun started with a series of vague threats, capitalizing on the murky danger of the river and their present distance from civilization. Sihma was utterly unfazed, leveraging the nomads’ renowned fondness for vengeance against the skipper’s ill-defined threats. Should Sihma not return by next winter, the entire clan would investigate her fate. Finally a percentage was agreed upon, 10% of the nomads’ take. For this fee Togun pledged the assistance of the two giants and Hume. The crewman boasted some skill with the knife and was eager for the change in routine. Roppen was openly squeamish at the prospect of danger and declared his intent to stay onboard when the expedition headed inland. The pact was sealed in blood underneath a gibbous Yunare. Hume made a pass at Sihma and was turned down brusquely. Passengers and crew went to their hammocks as Leli stood watch at the cannon.

 

VI

Wim Tid sat motionless in the darkness, perched on the bow of the skiff. The craft was making good speed down the winding river. Insect men could see in total darkness, an ability the skiff’s captain put to good use. The mysterious insectoid had paid well on the condition that the craft would proceed with as much possible haste. Despite the high fees his purse of coin was still bulging. The errand was a profitable one—a joint contract from Shkan’s guild of entertainers, the slavers responsible for organizing the bloodsport in the arena, and the Relallthein Confectionary Company. By the insect man’s calculations, the skiff would catch up with the river boat in two days.

He had investigated thoroughly the pair responsible for the fracas at the arena and the mental defective skilled in calligraphy that had escaped the confectioners. He had heard snatches of conversation collected by slavers at the market—a waiter, a tailor, and finally a trio of workers at the candy concern. All these threads wove a strange tale, the notion of a book, a tome of great value prized by a sect of secretive fanatics. Wim Tid reckoned he could turn a profitable contract into something much more. With a hoard of wealth he could return to the fourth moon and build a mound the likes of which had never been seen. With such a structure he could entice a queen to nest, a great beauty with shimmering antenna and swollen egg sacks. For her pleasure he would erect mud spires in fanciful combinations around the mound as thousands of larval young crawled underfoot. Such was his dream.

In his halting speech he warned the coxswain of a log floating ahead. The man deftly altered course, and the skiff continued down the river.

 

VII

The mood on the Drullok’s Bane darkened as the great trees of the Ikzak came into view. Togun knew the general whereabouts of the derelict ship. His information confirmed the vague directions the monks had given to Plom. Some years ago the skipper had ferried a party of hopeful scavengers to where the river was closest to the ship. The fateful group had been rough men, hardened veterans lured by rumors of the great ship and looking to find pieces of arcane technology to sell to the wizards of Shkan. None had returned. The skipper guided the craft down one of the many tributaries as the trees began to crowd the river’s edge. On their great fronds squatted troupes of disinterested monkeys, resplendent in coats of glossy, yellow fur. They watched the boat with haughty disdain as their tiny hands twirled the long tufts of their moustaches absentmindedly.

Togun had doubled the watches. Plom found himself standing at the stern, scanning for trouble along the dark banks. Drur exercised nearby, working his sword in graceful arcs as he sweat in the growing heat. He had exchanged his ensemble for a sleeveless tunic of gray cotton and baggy trousers of leather, items borrowed from Hume. He finished his exercise and mopped his forehead and neck with a rag.

“Young Plom, Togun tells me we arrive this evening. We will rest and then head out in the morning. Are you excited to be so close to your goal?”

The shadows from the massive trees blocked the sun intermittently as they conversed. Plom shrugged. “Securing the book will make me a hero to the monks. But I fear that I will find life difficult after I return. Also the monks may take exception to some of my experiences.”

Drur laughed. “Take heart, young man. We still have a day’s march through the deadly jungle, the mystery of the ship, and the very real potential of a deadly double cross by either the crew or the nomads. All in all, it is unlikely you will see the monastery again.”

Plom frowned. “Thank you.” The young supplicant peered over Drur’s shoulder. His expression became quizzical. “What is that?”

Drur spun around, scanning the tree line for danger. He squinted, hunting for a glimpse of approaching monsters. Plom kicked hard against the wizard’s rear, sending him plunging into the river. Drur broke the surface sputtering.

Plom looked down at the waterlogged wizard. “That was for calling me a ‘mental defective’.”

Drur laughed heartily. “My boy, I think you are finally gaining the measure of this world. But no more of that, please. Gods know what hunts in these waters.”

Togun guided the craft’s shallow bow to the river’s muddy bank as night fell. At dawn the landing party began preparing in tense silence. The two giants unwound and oiled their great saws, long lengths of bladed chain weighted on either end with heavy handles sized for their massive hands. Vinconzo then ran a stone along the edge of his great, hacking blade as tall as Plom and nicked from past work in the jungle. Rep lifted a barrel to the small of his back while Hume secured the straps to suspend it there. Plom watched the pair.

The supplicant asked, “What is that?”

Rep smiled. “A gift for our hosts, if they bother to pay us a call.”

Vinconzo threw a heavy plank down, bridging bow and bank. The jungle hung over the water’s edge. Gnarled vines hung from the branches of the great trees, spotted with blossoms in lurid lavenders and pinks. Unseen creatures heralded their arrival with hoots and barks.

The noise was not welcoming. Plom stared into the murky darkness that extended nearly to the bow. The air was hazy with an oppressive humidity which tired the lungs. Drur checked the edge of his sword and nodded with satisfaction. He cleared his mind until the reassuring presence of the orb filled his consciousness. Plom had armed himself with a spear from the hold. The weathered tan of his face was mismatched atop the paleness of his shoulders and torso that showed through the loose cut of the singlet he wore. Sihma had exchanged her embroidered nomad’s garb for a light tunic and cotton trousers. She nocked an arrow to her curved bow and stared into the thick trunks encroaching along the mud bank.

“How I long for the open steppe! One can see an enemy for miles.”

All were ready.

Vinconzo addressed the landing party. “Now we enter the jungle. Myself, Rep, and to a lesser degree, Hume, all know the jungle’s peril. You three do not. It would take weeks to teach you the fieldcraft needed to survive here. In lieu of that, I will state one rule, one rule above all. Do not touch anything. Not a flower, not a beetle, not so much as a leaf. I will be in the lead. I will make a path. All will follow in this path. No one leaves the path, for any reason whatsoever. Is that understood?”

The party nodded their assent. The giant continued. He ran a finger along the sharp points of his horns as he spoke, a habit. “The skipper tells me the ship you seek lies in a clearing about a half mile west, or so he has heard. A great deal of calamity can befall us in a half mile of the Ikzak. Keep your wits about you. We leave now.”

The group left the boat. Rep and Vinconzo simply stepped across onto the bank. The others walked across the plank. The jungle swallowed them all. In minutes sight of the river and the boat were completely obscured by the massive trunks and looping vines which seemed to touch everything in sight. Plom kept one hand on the line which spooled from a cylinder strapped to Hume’s back. Drur sipped water from a leather skin and wiped the sweat from his high forehead with an already soaked cloth. The trail was littered with the vegetation cut by Vinconzo’s giant blade. The sound of it assaulting the thick fronds was incongruous—an unnatural rhythm in a world of intermittent hoots and caws.

The group walked in silence past dazzling blooms of orange veined with red, large enough to envelope a person within their fragrant pedals. More spectacular were the displays of iridescent mold that clung to some of the trunks. The jungle was a deadly place where nothing but the largest predators lived long. The colors seemed to revel in this fact, the flora and fauna garishly celebrating their brief life spans. Sihma thought to swing her saber at the fist-sized flies that hovered past only to stay her hand from fear of Vinconzo’s warning.

Above came the sound of crashing branches. Plom peered through the thick cover, desperate to see the source of the commotion. Drur was suddenly at his side. The noise grew closer. Plom held the spear firm. A heavy thud rang out behind the pair. Plom spun around, knocking Drur across the head with the spear’s blunt end. Before the young man stood a giant ape draped in layers of shaggy hair colored rich ochre. His knees felt weak as he stepped back, keeping the weapon trained on the great beast. The thing roared, revealing a mouth of yellowed fangs. Rep leapt in between the two. The ape ceased his ferocious display and grinned.

“Dear Rep, you spoiled my fun. Another moment and this young man would have perished from fright.”

Rep laughed. “Ecguz, you are a wicked creature. How goes things?”

“The same as ever. I am still chieftain. What are you doing in these parts? The good mahogany is down the south fork, as you know.”

Plom’s heart still beat fast. He helped Drur to his feet and mumbled an apology. Sihma stared in wonder at the jungle chieftain. Giant and ape continued their discussion.

“We are here to see the old ship. It lays yonder, no?”

“The metal mound? Yes, you are on the right track. And my toll?”

Hume undid the straps holding the barrel to Rep’s back. The giant lifted the cask with ease and tossed it to Ecguz. “Here you are. It’s a fair white. Unseasonable cold caused the vintners much consternation last year. I fear you won’t find much better than this.”

“I am sure it is good. My palette is less discerning than yours. How is the wife?”

“She is well. We are expecting our third.”

Ecguz shook his head. “Third? Oh, where has all the time gone? We were once young and without responsibility.”

“It seems eons ago. Well, I am afraid we must be off soon. What have you seen from the treetops?”

“A pack of throk hunts to the west. To the east a lone drullok stalks a group of horned blues. If you are lucky and quick, neither should cross your path.”

Rep smiled. “That is good news. Until next time.”

The ape leapt up into the vines, moving his massive bulk with ease. “Best of luck!”

Drur massaged a growing knot on the side of his head. He took the spear from Plom, leaning it against a tree, and handed the young man a dagger. The group continued on their way.

The clearing came suddenly, a wide ring of stunted grass and patches of rain soaked mud. The sun seemed an order brighter after the darkness under the canopy. In the center of the clearing the ship lay, a massive oblong of gray metal streaked and stained with rainwater but free of corrosion. Here and there tufts of vegetation attempted to sprout along its paneled length but without much success. The thing was painted with strange symbols and letters in places. Near its center a tower of antennae jutted from a cluster of cylinders draped in moss. The ship had landed awkwardly, and the array was at angles to the ground. The party idled at the edge of the clearing, marveling at the size of the thing.

Plom spoke in awe, “Just as the monk described…”

Drur shook his head. “Something is wrong. Why is the jungle held at bay?”

Sihma stood with arms folded. “Wrong, indeed. The grass grows in sickly patches. Look around the edge. A clear line demarcates, after which the jungle is as healthy as ever.”

The group stepped tentatively into the clearing. Hume was the first to complain.

“I feel somewhat nauseous.”

The rest of the party sounded their agreement. Without further conversation the group walked through the field. Their eyes scanned the irregular surface of the vessel for any sort of door. In the distance an inhuman scream rang out, a plaintive wail of agony.

Rep spoke, “A horned blue cries out. The drullok feeds.”

The shadow of the ship swallowed the group. Drur yelled in triumph. He stood before a recessed panel painted with faded stripes of yellow and black. A smaller panel rose from the bulkhead to the left. The wizard inspected it at length.

“This must be a door. And this here, a lock of sorts.” He told the group to step back. “I regret the use of its power, but I see no keyhole or handle.”

From the orb a beam of white heat bored into the smaller panel. The wizard carefully sliced downward, working slowly to account for the thickness of the ancient metal. There was a snapping sound from within. Something under tension had been released.

Drur shouted. “I believe that has done it! Vinconzo, if you would, please.”

The giant placed his great hands on the door panel and pushed until sweat dripped from his gnarled face. He paused a moment, hands on knees. Rep stepped forward.

“Perhaps it slides open.” He nudged Vinconzo aside and settled his own bulk before the panel. He directed his strength laterally, and the thick door disappeared into the bulkhead.

The group stared through the opening into the crooked interior. A gray chamber stretched before them lit with pale tubes lined along the low ceiling. A stripe of yellow and black lines led to another door ahead. Everywhere were boxes and panels, struts and grate, strange writing and indecipherable symbols. A strip of red lights where wall and ceiling met blinked on and off in apparent alarm. Drur frowned.

“Our ancient ancestors had no sense of style whatsoever. Not a single proper decoration. Not so much an inch of molding or accent, nary an egg or dart.”

Sihma nodded. “The poorest tent on the steppe has at least a small kilim or a bit of weaving.”

Plom pondered. “Perhaps all ornament was reserved for the Goddess.”

Drur shrugged. “Perhaps.” He puffed out his chest. “Well, my friends, I do not wish to be in this ship or jungle come nightfall. I suggest we get inside and get Plom’s book without further delay.”

The giants demurred. Rep spoke, “This passage is a bit cramped for our ilk. We will have to wait outside, in the tree line, as a matter of fact. This miasma is woeful. Best of luck to you all.”

Sihma entered first. She had replaced her bow in its case on her hip and walked with sword drawn. Drur came next, then Hume and Plom. The four came to the door at the end of the passage. Drur depressed a large red button in the center of the door. A gust of stale air poured forth as the door slid aside. Through the door the passage widened. The four stepped through.

Drur addressed Plom, “This question is regrettably late in the asking, but do you know where the book is within this massive ark?”

“I do, in fact. The monks made me memorize the way. Follow the blue line down two flights of stairs. Follow a green line north. At the end of the green line is a chamber of beds. Hidden there is the tome.”

Drur smiled. “That’s welcome news. Things are going swimmingly so far.”

Hume frowned as he ran a hand over his shaved pate. “Perhaps too much so.”

“Come now, you travel with Drur, Bearer of the Blue Orb. Get accustomed to good fortune.”

A voice sounded suddenly, an ambient sound, not obviously male or female by its timber or tone. The party stumbled into one another, looking this way and that for the source.

“Can you understand me?”

Anxiety colored Sihma’s features. “Where is that coming from?”

“Have no fear, please. But can you understand me?”

Plom spoke meekly, “Yes?”

“You can? Oh wonderful. Pardon my rudeness for not introducing myself earlier, but I required the time to analyze your speech.”

Drur spoke, “Show yourself!”

“If you will look to the ceiling, you will see a small grey protuberance. My voice is emanating from that device. My physical person, such as it is, is located near the core of this vessel.”

Sihma muttered, “Sorcery.”

Drur nodded his head. “Indeed, of the most ancient variety, if I am not mistaken.” The wizard addressed the protuberance. “Are you one of the thinking machines of yore?”

The voice replied in a pleasant tone. “I am a thinking machine, in a manner of speaking. My proper name is Axomco Core Intelligence C-1899450010, though I am commonly addressed simply as Corint. Would one of you be so good as to tell me what year it is? The drive leak has wrought havoc with my chronometer.”

Drur answered first. “It is the 1,239th year of the Empress’ reign.”

Plom chimed in next. “It is the 52nd year since Uniam’s vision.”

Corint replied. “I am afraid I don’t understand those references. By analyzing your speech I can postulate an estimate based on morphophonological data. But rates of change are so variable as to make the exercise nearly worthless. Still, I must reflect on these matters.”

Drur shook his head. “I am afraid you lost me.”

“No matter. Returning to the immediate present, how can Corint serve you today? You have no escort, but given the state of the crew I would not expect one. May I assume you are not interlopers or saboteurs? Should such be revealed I would be forced to remove the oxygen from this passageway, as much it would pain me to be without company again.”

Hume frowned. “Did it just threaten us?” Sihma scowled at the boatman.

Drur addressed Corint. “We are not saboteurs. We merely wish to recover an artifact and then we will be on our way.”

“What is this artifact? All ship property is owned by USNSS Sol Central Command. Although, I must wonder if such a body still exists. I am inclined to think not, based on my estimations. But what is it you seek?”

Plom replied. “A sacred tome containing depictions of the Goddess.”

There was silence for a moment as Corint pondered. “Perhaps such a thing is in the Multi-faith Chapel in the aft of the vessel.”

The supplicant shook his head. “As a matter of fact, I know where the object is.” Plom related the monk’s instructions.

Corint’s voice was tinted with optimism. “You describe the Second Shift Berthing Compartment. Follow the lines, as you said. It is fortunate your goal lays no further forward.”

The party walked down the passageway.

Drur’s curiosity bubbled over. He asked, “Why is that, Corint? And where is this crew you spoke of earlier? Long dead, no? It must have been sad for you.”

“It is difficult to be alone for long periods. Should you linger here, you will note the passage of time is not easy to gauge. I may have sat here one year or one hundred thousand. Even the low end of my estimation means the likelihood of several cycles of civilizational rise and fall, meaning the authority I once served is most probably a facet of history.”

Plom spoke, “That sounds sad. Are you unable to leave?”

“As a matter of fact, I can be relocated. But my core unit is located several decks below, and there would be difficulties.”

“That’s a shame. You could have come with us.”

Corint was silent.

Drur looked over his shoulder at Plom, shaking his head and raising a finger to his lips.

The group came to another door. Drur depressed the button but the door held fast.

He looked to the ceiling. “Corint, I don’t suppose you are able to open this door, are you?”

“I am.”

“Will you?”

“No.”

Drur felt blood rushing to his face. He replied, “Why? If I may ask?”

“I must apologize to you all. But after careful consideration, I believe I am safe in assuming my duties are discharged. I wish to leave, and I will require your assistance. I propose that you retrieve me from the compartment where I lie and carry me with you. At such time I will assist you in accomplishing your goal, and then we will all leave together.”

Sihma shrugged. “That sounds easy enough. Why the apology?”

“You will have to contend with the crew.”

Echoing through the narrow passageways came a sound—a scream of incoherent agony. Plom felt the hairs on his neck stand on end.

Corint’s voice was apologetic. “It seems they are awake again.”

The group stood with weapons drawn outside the door Corint had indicated. Beyond the gray panel lay the forward compartments, the bridge and forward bays, and Corint’s resting place. Into this area the thinking machine had sealed the crew. The area was furthest from the poisons leaking from the damaged engines. Corint explained the measure had been too little, too late. The crew had suffered horribly under the effects of the leak. The thinking machine was reluctant to explain further. With jaw set, Drur hovered near the door’s switch.

Corint spoke. “I have released the lock. You may enter when ready.”

The wizard addressed the group. “I think our best chance lies in stealth. The machine said down the hall, three ladderwells down, through another set of doors, through an office of sorts, down a long hall, and there we will find the core.”

Corint interrupted. “Correct.”

“If we are quiet, we might completely avoid any of this mysterious crew. “

“I might also add that the bow took most of the damage from the landing. Many of my sensors in the area are inert. Be mindful of your step.”

Hume sneered. “You are too kind.”

Drur looked at each of the group in turn. Plom stood ready next to Sihma. The nomad moved her wicked blade in slow circles, impatient to strike. Hume wore an expression of irritation. His hands shook slightly, a blade in each. The wizard nodded to the three and depressed the button.

A gush of foul air escaped, carrying with it the stench of rotten meat. Drur reeled, silencing an oath. Beyond the door the passageway stretched forward into dimness. The lights above flickered arhythmically. In the distance another scream sounded. Drur plunged forward at a jog and the group followed. Sihma swore under her breath, reaching back on her hip to still the bow case and quiver which had bobbed up and down noisily as she set off. The passage seemed to go on forever before a ladderwell appeared.

Drur lay on the floor and peered down, seeing nothing, then descended with care. Sihma started to follow but noticed Plom standing still, staring. She followed his eyes to the bulkhead at their left. A wide smear of blood and caked gore trailed from head height to the deck. She grabbed his arm and the pair went down. Hume followed, sweat beading on the scorpion tattoo that lay across his smooth scalp.

Drur’s heart leapt into his mouth as a peel of maniacal laughter rang out from a passageway to the right. He motioned back to the group for more haste. They descended the second ladder, then the third.

They came before the door. Drur pushed the button repeatedly. With a creaking groan the door slid away. The chamber within was a tableau of violence. Furniture and shelves had been smashed to pieces. Upon the walls were indecipherable words written in blood. The group made as much haste as possible amidst the debris. Drur stopped suddenly, causing Sihma to bump into him. In a chair in the corner of the room a man sat, studying a flickering screen. He turned to the group. Plom stifled a scream. The crewman’s face was a ruin of wrinkled skin and septic wound. His expression of shock was an illusion due to the absence of eyelids. The man studied the interlopers with incomprehension.

Drur made for the door at the end of the chamber, the others in tow. As he passed the man the wizard said meekly, “Please pay us no mind, sir.”

The door slid open, and the group headed down the passageway at a run. Behind them a wailing scream erupted from the occupant of the ruined office.

The narrow passage was unique, painted a bright yellow and bearing even more of the inscrutable signage that decorated the ship’s interior. At the end, a thick door opened into a tiny chamber covered floor to ceiling with small, blinking lights and bizarre displays.

Corint spoke, “Ah, you’ve arrived. Flip those two toggles and grasp the gray handle. Pull hard and I will be free.”

Drur did as he was asked. The handle refused to budge until Hume lent his strength to the effort. The object won free, a thin black rectangle, oddly heavy, about the length of Drur’s forearm. Blinking lights decorated its paneled front.

Corint spoke again, this time in a small, tinny voice emanating directly from the box. “I am free. I must thank you all. Back the way you came now. I would recommend a measure of haste.”

Sihma snorted, and the group set off back down the passageway. Blocking their way to the office stood the crewman without eyelids. He let out a pathetic wail and threw himself at Drur. The wizard leaned back and kicked, sending the man sprawling into the office. Sihma darted forward. Her tulwar rose and fell, singing through the stale air. The man’s head fell from his shoulders, landing on a pile of water stained papers. The mouth still moved as the group sprinted past.

Noise erupted from the passageways all around as the group climbed the ladderwells. Silhouettes appeared in adjoining passageways as the group ran. They were twisted parodies of the human form, loping forward with a graceless speed. In the confusion Plom found himself at the rear of the line. He felt hands grasping his ankles as he ascended. He kicked, again and again, finally winning free amidst the sound of screams and mad gibberish. Hume pulled him roughly up to the deck. The boatman pushed the supplicant away and kicked a crewman back down to tumble into his fellows clamoring up the narrow stairs. Their rotted faces were twisted into masks of primal rage as they babbled and screamed.

Drur shouted from the end of the passage, “Hurry now! Almost to safety!”

Plom and Hume came panting down the hall as the crewmen came pouring from the opening. They reached the door, nearly getting stuck as they crossed the threshold abreast. All four now stood on the other side, and Drur pressed the button with a yell of triumph. The door slid shut.

“Ha! Success! Anyone hurt?”

The group answered in the negative.

Corint’s voice came from the small box. “I am afraid I am having difficulty accessing my control networks remotely.”

Drur replied, “I am sure I have no idea what you mean.”

“I am unable to lock the door.”

The door flung open again. Crewmen came stumbling out of the opening, reaching with gnarled, bony hands for the party. Plom screamed, stabbing with his dagger. The blade sunk deep into an eye socket. The crewman wrenched away, the blade stuck fast, and Drur bashed a fiend over the head with the box and kicked. Sihma struggled to get her saber into action within the confined space. Hume fled, running down the hallway on desperate strides.

Drur yelled, “Stand back!”

Sihma and Plom disengaged from the melee as best they could as a blast of white heat from the wizard’s orb incinerated a trio of crewmen and damaged several others behind. Smoke and the stench of burning flesh filled the compartment. The moment’s respite was put to good use. The three raced after Hume. The sound of the door mechanism grinding shut was heard to their rear as the group sprinted to relative safety.

Corint spoke proudly. “I experienced an impact which seems to have restored my uplink. I have sealed the door.”

The group rounded a corner and paused to catch their breath.

Hume grinned as he spoke, still panting. “Excellent! We all made it.”

Sihma scowled.

 

VIII

Plom’s spirits lifted as they approached the berthing compartment wherein lay the book. The other three still wore harried expressions. The supplicant’s hand shook slightly as he reached forward to depress the door’s button.

Inside was row after row of three tiered bunk beds flanked by metal cabinets. Sheets and blankets lay in disarray but there was no sign of violence.

Drur shook his head. “Even sleeping chambers are not spared this dreadful utilitarianism. Not a single painting or sculpture to be seen.”

Corint responded in its tinny voice, “Regulations.”

Plom’s legs were shaky as he made his way to the back corner. He squatted down next to a bottom bunk and overturned a thin mattress.

There it was.

It was a thin volume, rendered in delicate pages that showed a glossy sheen in the pale light. On the cover a representation of the Goddess stared provocatively at any that dared look. The supplicant fought an urge to turn away. He reached forward and gingerly took the book in his hands. Plom’s eyes traced the smooth lines of the Goddess’ bare body. Her voluminous blonde curls swept majestically to the cover’s edge and were overlaid by strange letters that formed what must have been a title. The slick pages were imbued with a warm energy that coursed through Plom’s fingers and into arms, sending shivers down his spine. Drur and Sihma peered over his shoulder as Hume ransacked the cabinets to the left.

The wizard whistled. “She’s a sight.” His brow furrowed. “Wait, that’s not the sacred book, is it?”

Plom spoke, barely above a whisper. “It is. Behold.”

Drur reached forward. “May I?” He took the book in his hands, gently, mindful of Plom’s wary stare. He flipped through the pages. Inside were dozens of incarnations of the Goddess, all rendered in bright color by a technique unknown to Drur. He paused in the middle. The center unfolded, revealing a tri-fold leaf depicting the Goddess, this time a wide hipped brunette, lounging on satin cushions, legs spread.

“The realism is staggering. Somehow, though, I am not getting that certain sense of transcendence that one usually associates with a religious artifact.”

Sihma stood with arms folded. She spoke, “Your religion is bizarre.”

Plom did not hear. His eyes were glazed as he stared and said, “It is just as the monks described. Never before have so realistic and dramatic representations of the Goddess in so many forms have been available to the devotees.”

Drur shrugged. “Thematically the book seems somewhat familiar. In the alleys near the docks of my home, peddlers sell small picture books, crude block printed things, to departing sailors. Inside these pamphlets…” He paused, noting Plom’s solemn expression. The wizard coughed, then continued, “Forgive me, I have lost the thread of my thoughts.”

Sihma stared at the tri-fold with head cocked. “Why would a woman wear shoes and nothing else to bed?”

Drur pondered. “Deadly shoes, no less. The spikes at her heels could kill a man.”

“She is the Goddess. Her ways are her own.” Plom took the book from Drur’s hands and gently folded the portrait back into the center. He closed the book and wrapped it inside a rectangle of leather.

Hume interrupted. He held pillowcases in either hand, stuffed with articles looted from the cabinets. “I am ready to leave.”

 

Drur emerged from the ship with a sigh of relief. Immediately ahead were the giants, lumbering on heavy steps toward the tree line. Drur called out.

Vinconzo turned and spoke, “What is it? Something forgotten?”

Drur puzzled over the question. “No. We return, book in hand. The chore nearly cost us out lives.”

“You must be joking. You entered the ship only a moment ago.”

Corint said, “I believe I can shed some light on this matter. The drive leak has altered the passage of time.”

Rep stared, mouth open. He pointed at the black box Drur carried. “A talking box. There’s a novelty. What is it, exactly?”

Sihma answered. “It’s the vessel’s brain. It wished to accompany us.”

Vinconzo shrugged, “That answers that, I suppose.”

The group walked toward the tree line. Their spirits lifted with each step closer to the path that would take them back to the waiting boat. Hume whistled a jaunty tune even as he walked hunched, weighed down with his two sacks of loot. Plom’s eyes were still glossy with religious fervor. Sihma smiled, entertaining thoughts of her tribe’s accolades upon her successful return. Drur stopped in his tracks. Plom followed his gaze, past the giants who still walked unawares.

There at the tree line a gaunt figure stood, long limbs unnaturally still. His features were hidden under a broad brimmed hat. The figure raised its head revealing two rows of faceted eyes above a nest of stirring mandibles. He unfolded the arms he had held at his sides. His rapiers’ long blades gleamed in the sunlight.

Drur spoke, voice heavy with awe, “Wim Tid.”

Sihma eyed the insect man. “What do you want?”

“Your life. The man’s life. The boy in shackles. The book. The giants and the sailor may go.”

Relief settled on Hume’s wizened features. He looked to Drur and spoke, “This is certainly a sad turn of events. I bid you three fond goodbyes.” He ran awkwardly toward the jungle to their left.

Rep and Vinconzo traded looks, disgust written across their heavy features. The pair unwound their chain saws and made themselves ready. Their great arms swung the chains out, straining until centrifugal force took over. The bladed lengths made a whirring noise in the air as they spun overhead.

Drur stepped forward. “Drur, at your service, blademaster. I don’t suppose you might be amendable to a…”

The words died on his lips as the bounty hunter bounded upwards, propelling himself into the humid air. Rep stepped forward and swung first. The insect man spun in the air, somersaulting over the whistling blow. He descended, landing feather light on Rep’s shoulder and sinking a long rapier deep before springing up again. Rep grunted, eyes wide with pain and anger. Vinconzo advanced, moving to meet the insect man’s next plunging attack only to find the fencer behind him. Wim Tid thrust a blade into the giant’s back and shot back into the thick air. The giant bellowed in pain but kept his feet.

Drur and Sihma both tried to aim at the bounty hunter, one with orb and other with bow, both confounded by the giants’ hulking bodies in between the pair and their target. They ran forward as Wim descended again. Vinconzo, grimacing in pain, threw his chain forward with a whipping motion but succeeding only in opening a tear in the bounty hunter’s long cloak. He yelled as the blademaster’s rapier raked across his chest and face. Sihma released. The arrow missed its mark. The nomad cursed and readied another arrow. Drur sprinted to the left, angling for a clear shot. Wim Tim bounded away.

Plom ran to Sihma. He took advantage of her preoccupation to reach forward and draw her tulwar from its scabbard. He struck a pose he had seen Drur perform, legs wide, weapon at the ready. A noise at the tree line far to the left drew his attention. From the foliage a towering male drullok emerged, its thick hide decorated in mottled green and gray scales. Muscles rippled across its long body as it came forward with a speed that belied its great size. Hume was screaming as the beast struck, biting down on his head and shoulders and then throwing its great horned head back. The boatman disappeared down the creature’s wide gullet.

“Sihma…”

“Not now!” She cursed as another arrow sailed harmlessly past the insect man.

The insect man struck again at Vinconzo and sprang away. Rep was slowing, suffering from his first wound. He fell to his knees, one hand on his shoulder. Blood oozed from between his thick fingers. Vinconzo fared little better, tunic stained with wide patches of dark red as he swung his chain again and again without effect, unable to cope with the hunter’s acrobatics.

Drur ran wide a semi-circle, putting Wim Tid between himself and the ship. He made a noise of triumph. No further obstruction blocked his view. Wim Tid landed again, and Drur shot a wide bolt of white heat toward the hunter. The insect man flattened himself against the soggy ground. The bolt soared high, missing the bounty hunter and detonating against the ship’s crumpled bow. There was a moment of stillness as all paused to watch black smoke pouring from point of impact. A chorus of screams sounded.

Corint spoke, “Do I hear the crew? I thought we were outside. My visual acuity is drastically reduced while traveling in this state. At the moment I can only see a hand grasping the box’s handle.”

Drur stared as the crew emerged. Twisted figures, hunched and loping, poured from the opening in the hull. Their state was even more plainly wretched in the light of day, maddened eyes set in faces wracked with seeping wounds, rotten tongues lolling from slack jaws as they gibbered and slavered.

Sihma cursed, “Oh, wonderful shot, wizard! Superb!”

“We are all doing our best here, Sihma!”

The sight of the crew transfixed Wim Tid. He bent low, preparing to bound again as the horde shambled closer. The crew moved fast, running forward with low strides, hands grasping at the ground.

There was a scream of inchoate rage from behind the hunter. Plom swung the tulwar with all his might, brute force compensating for his ineptness. The blow was low, catching the insect man on his upper thigh. The heavy blade shattered the stiff chitin and sailed through the flesh underneath, lopping the leg clean off. Wim tumbled to the ground. Sihma grabbed Plom roughly by the shirt and pulled him toward safety. Rep and Vinconzo leaned on each other, making for the tree line. Drur, Sihma, and Plom sprinted behind, soon overtaking the pair. Plom looked back.

There in a sea of tooth and nail, Wim fought frantically, long arms flailing. His gaunt form was pulled down underneath the savage throng. Their eyes were wide with animal rage as they tore the bounty hunter to bits.

Drur marveled at the horror of it as he watched from over his shoulder.

“Gods’ mercy! Were he not engaged to kill me, my heart would be overcome with pity.”

A shadow passed over the group. Drur looked to see the drullok running forward on its squat legs. The thing roared as it bore down on the group.

Sihma moaned, “Gods, what next?”

She loosed an arrow that sunk deep in the creature’s long neck. It shook its head in apparent annoyance and continued forward. Drur sent a bolt of energy that dissipated without reaching its target.

“Out of energy!”

Vinconzo took a step toward the approaching beast and spun his chain again. The effort showed on his face, set with deep lines and streaked with blood and sweat. The blades whistled in the air. The drullok reared on its hind legs and leapt forward. The chain hit its target, and the weighted end spun once then twice around the thick neck. The beast made a gasping sound as Vinconzo pulled the chain taut. He reeled back with all his great strength. The drullok shook its head, the force of it threatening to pull the giant off his feet. Rep stumbled forward, grasping his friend around the waist, lending his weight to anchor his friend.

Vinconzo cried out from the strain of it. Veins bulged across his neck and face as muscles rippled under the scaled hide of the drullok. The creature was winning the tug of war. Its thick skin was holding against the chain’s wicked blades. Vincozo’s great boots made furrows in the soft ground as he was pulled along. He cried out again, turning, throwing the chain over his shoulder and pushing himself. Rep pushed too, a mountain of muscle straining against the beast. There was a tearing sound. The giants flew forward as the chain went slack. Great gouts of black blood poured from the beast’s severed neck. It fell with a wet thud on the soft ground and was still.

The giants lay in a puddle of muck, panting and dazed. The three pulled at them, urging them back on their feet.

Drur implored, “Come! The crew is done with Wim Tid! They advance!”

The once human things swarmed again across the field. The group neared the tree line just as the crew fell upon the drullok’s warm carcass. They tore and bit, flinging gore to the sky as they feasted. The five limped into the jungle with awkward haste.

Corint spoke, “What is happening? It all sounds terribly exciting.”

 

IX

The group nursed their wounds on the winding journey back to Shkan. The giants were slow to recover. Sihma, Plom and Drur manned the rods to ensure they had enough to eat.

Corint was hungry for information and asked questions constantly. It was disappointed to find that no one onboard had extensive knowledge of history or science as it knew it. It seemed to grow despondent until viewing Togun and Leli playing chess one afternoon on the table amidships. Corint spent the remainder of the journey in contests with one or both of them.

The afternoon before their arrival Togun held a conference with Sihma and Drur. Shkan was a dicey proposition for the pair and for Plom as well. The skipper suggested that the three camp on the north bank while he would dock and then hire a cart to take the whole group to the monastery.

The three spent two days idling under the low trees until Togun arrived in a long cart pulled by a sole mammot. Garish murals of the god Ashna decorated tasseled side panels above eight wide wheels. The journey across the steppe was spent taking turns playing chess with Corint with the board and pieces that Togun had brought upon the brain’s earnest request. Sihma and Plom picked up the game quickly. Sihma favored a romantic style, readily sacrificing pieces to gain the smallest advantage. Plom played a more conservative, pawn centered defense. Corint adjudged them fair novices. After losing three times in a row, Drur declared the game an ignoble waste of time.

A nomad patrol intercepted the cart and sent riders back to the camp with instructions to send the host to the monastery.

The jagged peaks of the Krixxis loomed ahead. Plom started wistfully at the knot of buildings high in the crags. Beneath, the nomads had made a rough camp in the cliff’s long shadow. Sihma rejoined her people as the cart reached its destination. With the sudden stillness Plom felt a wave of anxiety. He was nearly home.

The camp was suffused with a festival atmosphere, colored slightly with worry over how the monks would respond to the party’s demands. Ulker, Togun, Sihma, and Drur argued over what figure to quote the monks in their extortion attempt. Drur thought the first proposed figure was too high. Togun favored greater demands, assuming the monks would try to negotiate. Ulker, with a hundred warriors behind him, carried the day. The asking price was to be 10,000 pieces of gold and a dozen gems.

At Drur’s urging, Plom stepped forward and pulled the line that rang the bell atop the cliff. After long minutes the basket descended. Inside was a small chalkboard and chalk. Plom read the message aloud.

“What do you want?”

Plom wiped the board clean and wrote:

It is Plom. I have returned with the book. It is now in possession of the nomads. They wish 10,000 gold pieces and a dozen gems for its delivery.

He placed the board into the basket and rang the bell. The basket made its slow ascent. It returned bearing Yeleet, the earnest assistant to the abbot. The young man was covered in nervous sweat as he surveyed the field of nomads. He spoke in a reedy voice, “Where is Plom?”

Plom stepped forward, “Here.”

“Plom? You are unrecognizable! What is this?” He reached forward to touch Plom’s thin beard.

“It’s the bread. It is a long story. What are your instructions?”

“I am to verify the book is genuine.”

Plom gently unwrapped the book. Yeleet gasped and immediately turned his eyes away. “Put it away! It is the real thing!” He reached over the edge and pulled the line furiously. The basket ascended.

Ulker paced as they waited. The nomads fingered weapons as Drur sat leaning against one of the cart’s great wheels.

The creak of the pulley far above quieted the crowd. The basket descended quickly, landing with a loud thump. Ulker peered over the edge and yelled in triumph. Plom retrieved the chalkboard and read aloud.

“This is half what you have requested. Place Plom and the book in the basket, and the other half will be delivered.”

Drur stood and walked to stand next to Plom. Around them was chaos as Ulker and his warriors rifled through the sack of gold, arguing over how best to count it. Sihma looked up from the fray. She joined the pair as Drur placed a hand on Plom’s shoulder.

“Well, young Plom. I can scarce believe it, but my oath is fulfilled and I yet live to talk about it. I wish you the best. I hope your order recognizes your heroism.”

Sihma spoke next, “Best of luck to you, strange one.”

Plom looked to the wizard and then to the Sihma. He looked up to the cliff’s edge. He could just barely make out a line of bald heads peering over. Plom took up the chalk. Drur peered over the young man’s shoulder as he wrote:

I have tasted candy. I experienced the act by which human beings reproduce with two women, possibly three. I fear I would contaminate the Order, and thus I cannot return to my old life. Say goodbye to Fress for me.

He tossed the board and the sacred book into the empty basket and pulled the line.

Drur spoke, “So that is that. I cannot say I am surprised.”

“Do you think the Goddess will forgive me?”

“If she is like the women in the book, then I imagine she is immensely accommodating. I am sure she has forgiven you already.”

All watched as the basket descended again, rope taut with weight. The nomads yelled again as it hit the ground. Sihma made sure Togun’s interest was paid out as Ulker ordered the treasure parceled off into smaller sacks for transport. The skipper shook hands warmly with the young woman and stepped aboard the cart.

Drur addressed Ulker as the chieftain supervised the loading of the guhn. “I do not want to seem avaricious, but I have faced much hardship in this quest and I was wondering if you could put me in the way of a few coins. As it so happens I am penniless at the moment. I spent the last of the boy’s wealth to secure our passage into the jungle.”

“No arrangement was made to that effect beforehand.”

“Not as such, no. But I thought it was implied…”

Ulker cut him off with a brusque wave. His lieutenants placed calloused hands on their weapons as Drur came forward a step.

“You should leave well enough alone, wizard, before my pleasant mood evaporates.”

Drur threw his hands up. He turned to Togun. The old captain snapped the reins, bringing the mammot around.

“Captain, pardon my presumption but I think I am deserving of at least a small portion of the proceedings.”

“Oh? As I recall gentlemen aren’t concerned with such vulgar matters! Here, why don’t you take this?” Togun reached back and fished Corint from the cart. He tossed the box to Drur.

Ulker called a feast to celebrate Sihma’s success. The nomads mounted amid whoops of triumph. The guhns clucked and whistled, infected with their owners’ good cheer. Sihma waved fondly to Drur and Plom as she kicked her guhn into a sprint.

The wizard shouted hoarsely, “Sihma, wait! We are destitute!” His cries went unheard. The throng of mounted warriors rode away in cloud of dust and noise.

Drur and Plom stood at the base of the cliff as the horde receded in the distance. Corint was heavy in the wizard’s hand, dangling by its handle.

Plom spoke. “What do we do now?”

Corint spoke, “I don’t suppose Togun left the game and pieces with us, did he?”

Drur restrained an impulse to throw the box as hard as he could across the dusty waste. He spoke, “As a matter of fact, he didn’t.”

“Oh, that’s a shame.”

The third moon was chasing the sun across the sky as they began walking. They were two small figures adrift in an ocean of muted browns, one bearing a small box.

Schuyler Hernstrom’s work has appeared in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and LORE Magazine. He lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at hernstroms at gmail dot com.

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