Shiara sensed the boy and girl looking up at her. Young, Shiara thought, sovery young. Convinced the world is full of hope and possibilities and so blindto the truth. She felt the warmth of the fire on her face and turned her headto spread the heat. Then she sighed and began the old, old tale.le.
“Once upon a time, there was a thief who loved a rogue…”
Cormac, tall and strong with his corn-ripe hair caught back by a simpleleather filet. He had doffed his leather breeks and linen shirt and stood onlyin his loin cloth. The fire turned his tan skin ruddy and highlighted theplanes and hollows of his muscles. The scars stood out vividly on his torso andlegs.egs.
“Well, Light. Do we know what the thing is?”
Shiara shook her head and the motion made her tresses ripple. Thehighlights in her hair danced from the flames and the motion..
“Only that it is powerful—and evil. An evil that can shake theWorld.””
“Mmmfph,” Cormac grunted and turned back to his sword. Again hechecked the leather cords on the hilt, running his fingers over them for anysign of looseness or slickness that might make the sword slip in his hand.”And it lies above us, you say?”y?”
Shiara nodded. “In a cave well above the tree line this thingsleeps.” She bit her lip. “It sleeps uneasily and I do not like tothink what it might become when it awakens.”.”
“And we must either possess it or destroy it.” He shook his head.”It’s an awful way to make a living, Light.””
“Terrible for two such honest tradesfolk,” she agreed, fallinginto the well-worn game..
The thief had been very, very good. With skill, cunning, carefully arrayedmagic and a good element of luck he had managed to penetrate the crypt beneaththe Capital where the most dangerous treasures of the Council were stored.d.
In the end it had not been the Council that had caught him. When thevault’s magic detectors screamed and guards and wizards came rushing toinvestigate, they found the thief already dead, his throat torn out by theguardian the original owner had set upon the thing he had come to steal.al.
The object of the daring raid had been a chest imprisoning a demon of thesixth order, a thing powerful enough but not so unusual as to attract the closescrutiny of the Mighty The real treasure was in the hidden drawer in the bottomof the chest. What the compartment contained was well worth scrutiny.ny.
“I had heard of the thieving of course,” Cormac told her as theytoiled up the steep trail toward the foreboding summit, “but I had notknown what was in the compartment.”.”
“A parchment,” Shiara said. “A map and a note that a veryold and very great treasure of magic lay somewhere in a cave near the top ofthis mountain.”.”
“So we come hotfoot deep into the Wild Wood to stir up something whichhas lain undisturbed for aeon and on,” Cormac said. “Better, I think,to leave it lie. Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof, Light.”.”
Shiara smiled thinly. “This evil’s day has come it seems. Someone knewof the map and we have strong reason to believe that that someone now knows atleast generally what the map had to say. We think someone was looking throughthe eyes of our thief when he died.”d.”
Cormac grunted. “So it is a race then.” He looked up at thesummit with its wreath of grey-black clouds..
“A race,” Shiara agreed. “Although we may have lostalready.””
“You sense something?”
“No, but I can use my head as well as my magic. Whoever sent thatthief had more time to prepare than we did. If the League knew generally whatwas on that parchment they could easily have been ready to move.”.”
“So that is why we were sent upon the Wizard’s Way. I mislike this,Light. If the League are ahead of us it means a meeting battle. Those arealways chancy and I have the feeling we would be outnumbered.”.”
“I doubt any of the factions of the League Council would be left outof such an enterprise, so I cannot argue with you. But what would you? Therewere no others in the Capital fit for such a mission and we dared notdelay.” She looked up the trail. “We can only hope we are intime.”me.”
As they worked their way up the steep slopes the forest changed aroundthem. The great oaks and beeches gave way to pine and firs and thick greenrhododendrons. Here and there outcrops of dark rock poked through the thinningsoil, more and more of it as they climbed.ed.
The air changed about them as well, growing cooler and dank with the glacier’sbreath. There was a dampness in the air that hinted fog and even in fulldaylight the mists moved the horizons closer. The mountain loomed over them andthey had to crane their necks further and further back to see the snow-cladsummit.mit.
They were almost to the treeline when Cormac pulled even with Shiara andspoke quietly in her ear. “We’re being followed I think.””
Not by look or action did Shiara show she had heard. “How many?”
Cormac shook his head. “Not many. Not creatures born to the woodseither.””
“The League? The ones who set the thief?”
Shiara stopped and closed her eyes. With intangible eyes and ears shesearched for signs of magic about them. She did not dare risk active magic soclose to something so powerful.l.
“Ahhh,” she breathed at last. “The League indeed. But oneman only. Luck may be with us, my Sun. I think this is a private quest, not anexpedition sent by the League Council.”.”
“You know this man?”
“He is called Toth-Ra, a minor wizard.”
“Is he dangerous?”
“Like an adder. Small and puffed with malice.”
“And we seek a dragon yonder.” Cormac jerked his head toward thesnow-covered heights. “Well, Light, what say you?””
“I say leave him for now. He cannot do us much harm and I will needeverything I have for lies above.””
Well behind the pair Toth-Ra toiled up the slope. He puffed as he came andstopped to rest frequently both because he was unused to exertion and becausehe did not want to tread too closely on the heels of the two Northerners aheadof him.im.
A pretty train this, he thought, like ants following a scent trail.
Even further above, he knew, was the party sent by the League to obtain thetreasures of the mountain. A group of black robes and apprentices, carefullybalanced to represent each faction of the League council. After them the twofrom the Council of the North. And finally, himself, representing naught buthis own interests.sts.
Like a jackal following lions. He smiled sourly. Well enough. For whenlions fight, jackals win..
Toth-Ra had little doubt these lions would fight. Even without theNortherners, the very richness of what lay above guaranteed that..
And if perchance he was wrong? If the fragile coalition that governed theLeague could hold together under the pressure of the indescribable wealth andpower from this hoard? Well, there would still be crumbs for a clever jackal togather.er.
With his face set in an unaccustomed smile, Toth-Ra continued his climb.
Shiara and Cormac were almost to the tree line when they heard a noise. Thetrail paralleled a cliff here and a thin moan came from a clump of bushes offthe trail off the cliff side.e.
Cormac drew his sword, but Shiara moved instinctively to the sound of acreature in pain. She thrust through the narrow band of bushes that lay betweenthem and the cliff face.e.
“Cormac, come here.”
As Cormac breasted through the brush he saw a twisted shape like a smallman lying on the rocks. Obviously it had fallen from the cliff above them..
“It’s a wood goblin,” Cormac siad, looking over it. “Leavethe poor creature.””
Shiara shook her head. “He has a soul and so deserves succor.”
“Have we time to do this?”
She looked up at him. “Have we time not to?”
Gently she moved the twisted broken body off the blood-smeared rocks andplaced it carefully on a patch of grass. Quickly the wizardess spread out acollection of healing implements and set to work.k.
Shiara labored the chance-found creature as if it were one of her own. Shechanted and muttered, made passes with her silver wand and sprinkled the bodywith herbs and powders.s.
As Cormac watched the wounds scabbed over and began to close. The twistedlimbs straightened and the bones within them knit. The little creature’sbreathing slowed and became more regular. At last it relaxed and began to snoresonorously.ly.
“Now what?” Cormac asked as Shiara turned away fro the sleepinggoblin..
“He needs rest and a chance to rebuild his strength. In another day ortwo he will be fine, but now…””
“We do not have a day or two to give over to nursing him. Have youforgotten what brought us here?””
“No, I have not forgotten. But he,” she nodded to the creature,”will be awake soon and we can ask where his tribe is. I will have to resta bit in any case.” She finished packing her kit and sat down heavilybeside her patient.nt.
It was less than an hour later that the wood goblin stirred, moaned andopened his eyes. He started and tried to rise at the sight of the two humans,but Shiara placed a hand on his shoulder.r.
“Rest now,” she told him. “We’re friends.” The goblinlooked dubious but settled back. “I am Shiara and this is Cormac. What isyour name?”?”
“Ugo. Me Ugo.” The goblin’s speech was creaky and slurred but hewas understandable..
“Does your tribe live nearby?” Shiara asked.
“Tribe all dead,” the little goblin said sadly. “Ugo allalone.””
Cormac grunted in sympathy. Unlike their large cousins the hobgoblins, woodgoblins lived in closely knit groups. A wood goblin whose tribe had perishedhad little to live for and scant chance of surviving.g.
“I am sorry,” Shiara said. “Now rest here for a while andyou will feel better.” She rose and signaled Cormac that she was ready tomove on.n.
“Wait, Lady,” cried Ugo. The little creature scrambled painfullyup and knelt in front of her. “Take me with you. I serve you, Lady,”the goblin pleaded. “Let me stay and serve you.”.”
Cormac looked at Shiara. The last thing they needed was a servant of anysort, much less an ailing wood goblin. But refusing would surely doom him.Without a substitute for his tribe the little creature had no will to live.e.
Shiara reached down and put a hand on the goblin’s head. “Very well,Ugo. We accept your service.” His ugly face glowed and he looked upadoringly at Shiara.a.
“Here is your first task, Ugo, and it is an important one. We go tothe top of this mountain on a mission from the Council of the North. If we arenot back in three sunsets,” she held up three fingers for emphasis,”you must make your way to the Fringe and contact the Council. Tell themwe have failed and others must be sent to complete the business. Do youunderstand?”and?”
“Yes, lady. Wait three sunsets. If you not back, go tellCouncil.””
“Then wait for us here, Ugo. Do not follow. Rest and stay out ofsight. we should be back in three days and if not, the message must reach theCouncil.”.”
“Yes, Lady. Ugo wait.”
“Do you really think the wight can get through the Wild Wood ifsomething happens to us?” Cormac asked once they were out of earshot..
Shiara shrugged. “Probably not. But it gives him a reason to live anda sense of his own worth. We will be done in less than three days.””
“Much less, I hope,” said Cormac, scowling at the mountainjutting above them..
Evening found them above the tree line, halfway across a jumbled field ofboulders. There was no snow but the air was cold and the wind keen and sharp.They used the faggots they had gathered on their climb through the forest tobuild a fire in a place where two great boulders leaned together and providedshelter from the winds.nds.
“Camped down in the trees. He apparently plans to gain the summit in asingle push tomorrow.””
“By which time, luck willing, we will have completed our business andbe away.””
“Luck willing,” Shiara agreed.
Their evening meal was barley porridge flavored with dried meat. It wasquickly eaten, but neither made a move to bed down. Instead they sat, staringinto the fire and enjoying the warmth reflecting off the boulders.s.
“Light, would you have chosen this life,” Cormac asked her.”Could you have chosen freely, I mean?””
Shiara stared into the flames. “I do not know,” she said at last.”Being a wizardess is not a free choice. You are born gifted and you tryto build your life around it.” She lifted her head and looked at him.”And you? Did you choose freely?”y?”
He laughed easily. “Oh, aye. Even as a child I had a taste fortrouble. Mine was a free choice.” He sobered. “As freely as any mancan choose, at least. I had no hand for farming and I did not want tostarve.”e.”
“Do you regret it?”
Cormac shook his head. “We’ve had a good run, lass. We’ve had somefine times and our fame will live after us. But there are times I miss thethings I have not had.”.”
“A home?” She asked with a little smile. “Andchildren?””
“The rest, aye. And children, perhaps. I was an only child you know.My line dies with me.””
Shiara laid her fingertips on his shoulder. “That could stillbe,” she said softly..
“Perhaps. But I’m an old horse to break. I suppose it’s a matter ofmaking choices and then regretting that in making them we give up otherthings.” He picked up a stick and poked the fire with it idly. “Ichose the sword road because it promised honor and fame. I have had all that,so I cannot complain of a bargain unfulfilled.”ed.”
“Did duty have no role in your choosing?”
Cormac grinned. “Oh, a mite. But I remember the day you came to theparade ground seeking a guardsman to cover your back while you burgled sometrinkety bit of magic. I saw you and decided none other would be your questcompanion.” He shook his head. “There were one or two others who wereminded to volunteer, but I convinced them otherwise.”se.”
“So you presented yourself to me the next day with knucklesbloody.” Shiara smiled at the memory. “But was it only mybeauty?”?”
“Well, I always have been a frippery fellow, Light. With never yourfine, serious purpose.””
“Mock me if you will, but we do important work.” She sighed. “Ido not know what I would have chosen had I been free to choose. But I had atalent for this and a head for the proper sort of spells. The job needed doing,desperately, so here I am.”m.”
“And you regret it?”
Shiara shook her head and the ends of her silvery hair danced in thefirelight. “No. My bargain has been fulfilled as well.” She smiled athim. “I have had all that and love as well.”.”
Cormac reached over and squeezed her hand. “We’ve had more luck thanany two mortals deserve, Light.””
Shiara stared into the fire. “It cannot last, you know.”
Cormac’s brows arched. “A premonition?”
“A thought, rather. It is risky work we do and soon or late it willcatch up with us.””
A ghost of a cloud crossed Cormac’s brow. “Mayhap,” he saideasily. “Or mayhap we will both die peacefully in bed.” He leered ather. “The same bed, I hope.” Shiara reached out and drew him to her.r.
They made love, desperately and with a bittersweet passion, as if theircoupling could erase the whole World and any thought of the morrow..
They found the cave less than three hours after they broke camp the nextmorning. Above the boulder field ran a steep canyon, cleaving its way towardthe mountain’s top. There was a rushing glacial stream, chill and sharp, downthe canyon, making the dark rocks slippery and hard to climb.mb.
They came around a twist in the canyon and saw the cave mouth halfway upthe cliff. There was a boulder-strewn ledge leading up from the canyon floor,making a natural pathway. The cave entrance itself was dark, jagged and aboutas inviting as the mouth of Hell.ll.
“Wait,” hissed Shiara and put her hand on Cormac’s bicep. Shepointed a little downslope from the mouth of the cave..
There was a flash of white against the dark rock, like the branches of adead and barkless tree. Cormac squinted and caught his breath. They were bones,not branches and from their shape and size they could only be the bones of onething.ng.
“A dragon,” Cormac said quietly. “A dragon died here, andnot a small one, either.””
“Dragons prefer caves as lairs,” Shiara said. “It wouldappear that this one chose the wrong resting place.””
“It did not die naturally.” Cormac pointed with his blade.”Look at the way the ribs are smashed. But what could do that to a growndragon?”?”
“The sort of creature which would be set to guard a greattreasure,” Shiara said gravely..
“And you think it is still there, Light?”
“A thing which could slay a dragon would not be expected to have ashort life.””
Cormac scanned the ledge and the cave mouth again. “There are no otherbones. Surely other things would have tried to lair here from time totime.”.”
“Perhaps they did not arouse the guardian. Dragons are moreintelligent than most animals. And greedier than most men. Or perhaps whateveris within is careful to dispose of its refuse so as not to warn others.”.”
“Hmm. A pretty problem then.” Cormac backed warily out of sightof the cave mouth and settled on a rock. “Do you sense magic?””
Shiara wrinkled her nose. “Like smoke in a hut in wintertime. It iseverywhere and strong. There is a blocking spell to confine the emanations, butthis near I can feel it pressing. Whatever is within that mountain is powerfulindeed.” She shivered. “And malign!”n!”
“But you cannot tell me what guards that door?”
“If I had to guess I would say a demon. But it would only be aguess.””
“So what now?”
“Now,” Shiara said, bending to her kit, “we need a stalkinghorse. Something to enter the cave in our stead and see what lies within.”She looked up at him. “Plug your ears.”.”
Cormac clapped hands to his ears while Shiara drew from her bag a gnarledbrown root no longer than the length of her index finger. Looking more closelyCormac could see that the root was bifurcated and vaguely man-shaped.d.
Shiara blew upon the root and spoke softly to it. Instantly the valley wasfilled with a hideous inhuman screaming. The root writhed and screamed inShiara’s grasp until she completed the spell. Then she stood up and threw theroot to the ground.nd.
Cormac blinked. Standing before him was himself, an exact duplicate down tothe scars on his arms and the creases in his worn leather swordbelt..
“How do you like our stalking horse?”
“A mandrake image.” Cormac walked around the figure and noddedapprovingly. “Lady, you outdo yourself.””
“Let us hope the guard at that gate finds it satisfactory,” Shiarasaid. She leaned close and whispered in the ear of the homunculus. Wordlesslythe thing turned and strode up the path toward the cave.e.
“It even has my walk,” Cormac said as the thing climbed to thecave mouth..
“It is your true double.”
The homunculus went fearlessly to the cave mouth and stepped in withoutbreaking stride. Shiara and Cormac held their breaths for three longheartbeats. Then there was a terrible bellowing roar from the cave and thesounds of swift combat. They saw movement in the darkness and then a tiny brownthing came flying out of the cave to bounce off the opposite wall of thevalley.lley.
“A demon in truth!” Cormac breathed. “How do you slay such aone?””
“With a more powerful demon,” Shiara said, still transfixed bywhat they had seen..
“You don’t have one of those in that bag of yours do you Light?”
“Not likely. But if it cannot be slain, then perhaps it can beimmobilized.” She set down her bag and rummaged around in it. “Firstwe must know more about it.”.”
“You’re not going to send another homunuculus of me into that, areyou? It does me no good to see myself slain.””
“That was the only mandrake root I had. But let us see what happenswith something different.””
With her silver wand she sketched a quick design in the dirt and spoke asingle phrase. Now another warrior stood before them, a tall lean man with darkhair, a lantern jaw and icy blue eyes. He was dressed in a mail hauberk andcarried a two-handed sword over his shoulder.er.
“Donal to the flesh!” Cormac laughed. “He looks as if he juststepped off the drill ground at the Capital.””
“No flesh, just an illusion. Now let us see what the demon makes ofthis one.” She spoke to the thing and without a word it turned and startedup the ledge.e.
At the mouth of the cave the false Donal halted and bellowed out achallenge that made the valley ring. There was no response. It approached theentrance and thrust over the threshold with its great sword. Again nothing.Finally it strode bodly into the cavern calling insults to whatever was within.in.
Once more Cormac and Shiara held their breaths. But this time there was nosound of battle from the cave..
After a minute the illusion returned to the cave mouth and waved to them.
“It didn’t go for it.”
“But that does not make sense,” Shiara protested. “The illusionwas indistinguishable from the homunculus.””
“Not to the demon,” Cormac observed.
“Yes, but I don’t see why the demon would attack a homunculus and adragon but not an illusion. It doesn’t…” she stopped short.”Fortuna, a true name! The homunculus had a true name but the illusion didnot.” She turned to Cormac with her sapphire eyes wide. “That thingcan sense a being’s true name!”me!”
“Dragons don’t have true names,” Cormac protested.
“Adult dragons do. Oh, not juveniles such as our cavalry ride, butwhen a dragon becomes a full adult it acquires a true name. The homunculus hada true name just as any demon does. That is how you control them. But theillusion did not.”t.”
Cormac eyed the cave mouth. “A very pretty problem then.”
“Worse than that,” Shiara said. “The demon did not know thetrue name of homunculus and I doubt the dragon stopped for conversation beforeentering the cave. Yet the demon killed them both.”.”
“Meaning it distinguishes beings with true names from beings withoutthem. But that it does not have to know a thing’s true name to find it and killit. It is enough that a thing has a true name.”.”
Cormac gave a low whistle. “No wonder it is tied so tight to thatcave. With that power it could seek out and destroy anyone in the World. Light,do you suppose the demon itself is the treasure?”?”
“I doubt it. I think the demon merely guards the treasure.”
“It must be treasure indeed to have such a guardian.”
“Aye,” Shiara said, studying the cave mouth. “Well, we willlearn little more sitting here. I think it is time to take a closer look.””
“Tread softly, Light.”
She turned to smile at him. “I will, my Sun.”
The pair approached the cave mouth cautiously. Cormac had his broadswordout and Shiara held her silver wand before her like a torch..
As they came closer Shiara stopped and pointed to a line carved in theliving rock across the front of the cave..
“The ward line. The demon cannot cross it.”
“Are you certain?”
“Certain enough. Give me a torch.”
Cormac reached into his pack and pulled out one of the pine torches Shiarahad prepared. The wizardess tapped the end with her wand and it burst intoflame. Shiara drew back and threw the torch across the line and they bothducked back out of sight of the cave mouth.th.
There was no sound or movement from the cave. When they peeked around thecorner they could see the torch lying on the rough rock floor of the cavern,burning brightly.y.
The space revealed by the torchlight was perhaps three times Cormac’sheight and somewhat less than that wide, but it ran back into the mountain wellbeyond the circle of illumination. There was no sign of life or movement.t.
“The demon must only materialize when someone enters the cave,”Shiara whispered..
“Well what now?” Cormac whispered back. “Are you satisfiedwith your view of the demon’s empty home?””
“Wait,” said Shiara, pointing inside the cavern. “What’sthat?””
Cormac followed her finger. There was something lodged in a crevice high onone wall of the cave. “A box, I think,” he said..
Shiara eyed the thing speculatively. “I wonder… Cormac, have youa rope in your pack?””
“You know I do, Light. And a grapnel too.”
Quickly Cormac retrieved the rope and hook from where they had droppedtheir packs..
“You want that box then?”
Shiara stood by him, her wand in hand. “I do. But be ready to run ifwe get more than we bargain for.””
Cormac swung the grapnel and cast it expertly into the cave. There was ahollow “clang” as the hook connected with the box. Cormac tugged andit clattered out of the crevice and onto the cave floor.r.
In the torchlight Cormac saw that his prize was a bronze coffer, decoratedin high relief and apparently bearing an inscription on the top. Another quickthrow and Cormac dragged the box out of the cave and across the warding line.e.
“Don’t touch it,” Shiara warned. As Cormac recoiled his rope shebent to examine the coffer..
Shiara opened the box with a pass of her wand and a whispered incantation.Nestled inside was a smoky gray globe about six inches in diameter..
“The heart of the demon!” Shiara exclaimed triumphantly.”Now we can truly control this creature.””
She removed the ball from the coffer and held it in her hand. Anothermuttered spell and a dense cloud of smoke began to form within the cavern.Through the smoke loomed a great black shape.e.
The huge horned head swivelled toward them, but before the creature coulddo more, Shiara raised her wand and spoke another spell. The demon froze as itwas, the only sign of life the fire burning in its eyes.s.
Shiara sighed and sagged. “That should hold it,” she said.Carefully, she replaced the sphere in the box and carried it back into thecave. The demon did not even twitch when she crossed the threshold.d.
The wizardess was still considering the coffer when Cormac came up to her.
“Do we take that with us?”
“I wish we dared. It is a dangerous thing to leave behind, but itwould be a greater danger to carry it with us. There might be something aboveus which can undo what I have done and I do not wish to find a rampaging demonhere when we return.”n.”
“That is best.” She cast about the cavern looking for a hidingplace..
“Light, come look at this.”
Cormac was standing over a head-high pile of bones.
“So our demon did clean the place deliberately.”
“Not that. Look.” Cormac shifted his torch and used his sword asa pointer. At one side of the bone pile lay the crushed and mutilated corpse ofa man in a brown robe.e.
“An acolyte of the League! Then they are here before us.”
“Yes, but why only one body? Surely they would not send a brown robealone on such a mission?””
“Surely not. But they might use an acolyte as we used our mandrakehomunculus.””
Cormac nodded grimly. “Aye, that’s just the kind of thing they woulddo. But then where are the rest? Did they scatter away at the sight of thedemon?”?”
“Most likely they are somewhere up ahead of us. Once they knew thedemon was here, they found a way to counteract it. I do not think they tamperedwith the box, so perhaps they had the password.” She looked up the tunnel.”I think we face an interesting meeting.”g.”
“Best be on with it then,” Cormac said, shifting his grip on hissword..
The passage sloped up, climbing steadily toward the summit. Cormac wentfirst, naked sword in one hand and smoking torch in the other. Shiara followedwith another torch.h.
“You’re unusually pensive,” Cormac told her when they had gone asmall ways into the cavern. “What bothers you, Light?””
“Well, it is trouble past and overcome. I am more concerned about whatwe might find above us.””
“Yes, but it is how we overcame it. Why was the box where we couldreach it? A few feet further back in the cave and the demon would have beensafe from our efforts.”.”
Cormac shrugged. “So our sorcerer made an error. Even the bestmagician can err through overconfidence.””
“I know,” Shiara said. “That is what troubles me.”
Their way climbed steeply upward but the path was smoothed and widened.Either this had never been a natural cavern or it had been extensivelyreworked. The smooth black rock seemed to soak up the light of their torchesand the darknes pressed in on them from all sides. Shiara hurried slightly tostay within touching distance of Cormac.mac.
There was a low, distant rumble and the earth beneath them moved slightly.
“Earth magic,” Shiara said. “Very potent and barely held incheck here.” She looked around. “Left to its own, I think thismountain would have erupted hundreds of years ago.”.”
“A fitting lair for a sorcerer.”
“More than that, prehaps.”
“Light, will you stop being so gloomy? You’re beginning to make menervous.””
She smiled. “You’re right, my Sun. This place is affecting me, I amafraid.””
They climbed and climbed until it seemed they would emerge at the very topof the mountain. Finally their way leveled out and there before them was adoor.r.
The portal was of the deepest black granite, polished so smooth the burningbrand in Cormac’s hand threw back distorted reflections of the two adventurers.A gilt tracery ran along the lintel and down the doorposts. Runes, Shiara sawas she moved closer. Runes of purest gold beaten into the oily black surface ofthe granite.ite.
Shiara formed the runes in her mind, not daring to move her lips. “Itis a treasure indeed,” she said at last. “A trove of magic of thesort seldom witnessed. This is the tomb of Amon-Set.”.”
Cormac wrinkled his nose. “The name is somewhat familiar. A boggart tofrighten children, I think.””
“More than that,” she told her beloved. “Before he was anight-fright, Amon-Set was mortal. A sorcerer. So powerful his name has livedafter him and so evil he is a figure of nightmare.”.”
“Aye,” Cormac breathed. “The great dark one from thebeginning of the World. And he lies here?””
“I would not take oath he is dead.”
“I mislike rifling the tombs of sorcerers,” Cormac saidapprehensively..
“I like it even less than that. Such places are mazes of traps andsnares for the greedy or the careless.” She sighed and straightened.”Fortunately we do not have to steal. Only keep what is here from beingloosed upon the World.”d.”
“But before that we must enter.”
“So we must, love.” Shiara set down her pouch and knelt besideit. “Leave that to me.””
The lock was a cunning blend of magic and mechanics. Slowly anddeliberately, Shiara worked upon it, running her fingers over the surface tosense the mechanism within. Sometimes she operated upon it with cleverly constructedpicks. Sometimes she used incantations. Finally she pushed against it gentlyand the door sung open. Motioning Cormac to remain outside, she enteredcautiously.usly.
The room was vast, so big the walls were lost in the gloom. The marblefloor, tesselated in patterns of black and darkest green, stretched away infront of them. Shiara had the feeling that by stepping through the door she hadbecome a piece on a gigantic game board.rd.
The way was lit by witch-fires of pale yellow enclosed in greatmassively-carved lanterns, the light pouring out through the thin panels ofalabaster or marble that formed their panes. The glow held an odd greenishtinge that gave an unhealthy pallor to everything it touched.ed.
Here and there a censer smoked, emitting heavy fumes that curled and ranalong the floor like snakes. The incense was pungent with hints of cinnamon andsandalwood, heady with the fumes of poppies and the sharp chemical tang ofether. It was neither pleasant nor offensive, just strange. It did not quitehide the musty odor of time long passed in a place undisturbed and the faintsweetish hint of corruption that hung in the air. air.
Worse than the incense to Shiara was the magic that closed around her assoon as she stepped over the threshold. It was as close and stifling as a heavyquilt on a hot summer’s day. It pressed against her flesh and blocked hernostrils until she wanted to gasp for breath. It twisted and moved around herin odd directions and peculiar angles. She felt that if she stared into the airlong enough the magic would become visible. She did not want to contemplatewhat might follow.ollow.
Shiara took one more step forward and did gasp. There on the floor of thechamber, like a flock of crows dropped in mid-flight, lay half a score ofblack-robed bodies, already decomposing in the strange atmosphere of the room.Obviously the League’s sorcerers had found a trap that guarded the treasure.re.
In spite of the dead, Shiara’s gaze was drawn to the objects scatteredaround the room. Each sat on its own pedestal like exhibits in a museum—orpieces on a game board—and each of the ones Shiara could see was different.There was no obvious pattern or order to their placement, but Shiara did notdoubt there was some subtle design there.ere.
“What lies within?” Cormac asked from just over the threshold.
“Danger and magic,” Shiara told him. “Stay where you are fora moment.””
On the nearest pier of blue-white marble sat a jeweled crown. The goldenband was made to curl snake-like around the wearer’s brow. Gems covered itssurface so thickly the gold would be scarce visible when it was worn. Bluesapphires, blood-red rubies, sea-green emeralds, and lustrous pink pearls ranin twisted bands across the gold. Over each temple sat a smoky yellow topaz,golden as the eye of a dragon. In the center of the forehead was a blue-whitegem the likes of which Shiara had never seen. Over all of it flashes ofsubstanceless flame licked and leaped, clear as the fire of burning alcohol.Truly this was a thing designed to adorn the brow of a mighty sorcerer.orcerer.
Awed, Shiara reached out to touch the crown. Reached and then drew back.Some sense warned her tht to touch it would be fatal..
“Cormac, come in,” she called, not taking her eye off theglittering prize on the podium. “Move carefully and on your life, touchnothing!”!”
“Fortuna!” Cormac exclaimed when he saw the remains of theLeague’s expedition. “What happened to them?””
“One of them touched something, I think. Help me search the room, butmove carefully!””
As Shiara and Cormac passed from pedestal to pedestal the extent of thetrove became apparent. Each pedestal held an item of magician’s regalia. Here agreat gold thumb ring with a strangely carved sardonyx cameo stood on a drapeof leaf-green velvet. There a chest of scrolls stood open, each scroll bearingthe name of the spell it recorded. Against one wall an elaborately embroideredrobe, set with gems and so stiff with bullion it stood upright and ready toreceive its wearer. Above another pedestal floated a pair of silken slippersdecorated with pink-blushed pearls. There were flashing swords and blacklacquered armor, chests of gold and heaps of jewels, amulets and talismans andsilver-bound spellbooks galore. Every item reeked of powerful, subtle magic andancient, ancient evil.ient evil.
“Fortuna!” Cormac called from the shadows at the far end of thehuge wall. “Light, come look at this.””
Shiara followed the sound of Cormac’s voice and gasped at what she saw.This was no mere treasure house or cenotaph. It was indeed the tomb of a mightywizard!d!
The body lay beneath a clear crystal bell on a dais of milk-white crystal.Beneath the white silk shroud broidered round with blood red runes, thewizard’s husk was as incorrupt and composed as if he were only sleeping.Amon-Set had been a man of no more than average height, Shiara saw, with paleskin given only a semblance of color by the stark whiteness of the sheet. Thetracery of blue veins patterned his flesh in a manner disturbingly like thescales of a venomous reptile. The hands crossed on his chest were as long andslender as the hands of an artist. His hair was dark and shiny as polished jetand his brows were thin and dark, elegant against his skin. His lashes werelong and dark as well. Shiara did not care to contemplate what the eyes beneaththem must have been like.been like.
“Back away from it!” she called to Cormac. “Do not getcloser.””
As Cormac edged off, Shiara approached. With shaking hands she passed herwand over the bier. Then she sighed and her shoulders slumped. Magic aplentyshe found there, but not the smallest spark of life. Amon-Set was truly dead.d.
“The scroll did not lie,” Cormac said awestruck. “There istreasure indeed here.””
“The life’s work of one of the most powerful wizards that everlived,” Shiara agreed grimly. “My Sun, can you imagine the havoc allthis could wreak if it were loosed upon the World?”?”
“Well,” said Cormac briskly, “that is what we are here toprevent, is it not?””
Shiara nodded and passed her wand over the closest pedestal. Then shefrowned and drew back. She moved to the next pedestal and repeated the pass.The expression on her face showed that what she found was no more to herliking.ng.
“Magic?” asked Cormac.
“Aye. What is on these stands is protected by the spells around themand cannot be touched. I will have to unravel this maze before we dare move anyof it.”.”
Again and again, Shiara tested the pedestals, until at last she had triedeach of them..
“I see how it is now,” she said at last. “The spellsprotecting these things are all interlocked like jackstraws. If you move themat random than the whole mass comes down upon you.”.”
“Jackstraws have a key,” Cormac pointed out.
“And so does this riddle. One of these objects is the key. It can bemoved first and then the next and then the next.””
“How long will it take you to sort out the pile then?”
“Hours. Perhaps days. This is no simple puzzle and I dare not make amistake.” Her eyes went to the bodies on the floor..
“Should you summon more of the Mighty to help?”
Shiara considered and then shook her head. “There is nothing otherscould do here that I could not. Involving others only means risking them aswell.”.”
Cormac shrugged acceptance and Shiara set to work on unravelling thepuzzle. Three times she passed round the great gloomy chamber, testing eachobject.t.
“It is no good,” she said at last. “All of the spells areinterlinked and apparently none of them are the key.””
“I thought you said there had to be a key.”
“I thought so, but I can find no sign of one.”
“Well, Light. Where does that leave us?”
Shiara frowned and tapped the wand against her jaw. “I do not know. Itseems beyond reason that all this exists merely as a death trap for the unwary.There must be a key. Else why not destroy everything in the beginning and bedone with it?”t?”
“Malice?” Cormac suggested.
“A poor motive for all this work. Those of Amon-Set’s skill seldom didthings for such simple reasons.””
“There is one alternative. Rather than remove all these objects wecould destroy them here.””
“Wouldn’t that scar the land?”
“Most probably,” Shiara agreed. “It also means the loss ofall the knowledge here. I do not want to do that unless I have to. But Cormac,we cannot allow what is here to fall to the wrong person. Even a hedge wizardcould rise to bestride the World with what is in this place.”e.”
Cormac sighed. “Do as you think best, Light.”
She nodded. “I think with the right spell I can destroy all of this atonce.””
“How do you propose to do that?”
“Earth magic. The forces are finely balanced here. They can be upsetwith but little effort—well, little enough in terms of the results. I believe Ican fashion a spell to turn the magic against itself and so unbalance theflow.”w.”
“Earth magics are hardly a specialty of the Mighty,” Cormacpointed out..
“Earth magics are uncontrollable. But all we want is destruction. Itshould be an easy matter to take the top of this mountain off.””
“And take us up with it?”
“No. I will set the spell in motion through a counting demon. We willhave time to get away.””
Again Shiara knelt with her bag and set to work. She had nearly finishedthe spell when Cormac came over to her. He waited at a respectful distanceuntil she paused.d.
“You know, Light, I have been thinking.”
“Well, curse my suspicious nature, but it occurs to me there may bemore here than we see. We know that none of the visible things is the key tothis pile of magical jackstraws, but did it occur to you that there might besomething here that is not visible?”e?”
“Cormac, you are brilliant! Of course the final key would be hidden!Why did I not think of that?””
“Because you’re an honest thief, lass,” Cormac grinned. “Nowmyself, I’m a bit of a rogue.””
She leaned over and kissed him. “You are that.”
He looked around the room. “Now if I were a master sorcerer with asecret to hide, where would I hide it?””
“Someplace close, I think,” Shiara said, looking around the greatroom. Either in this room or in a room off it.” She started toward onewall and then stopped.d.
“Cormac, I want you to examine the room carefully for anything strangeor unusual.””
“In this place? Fortuna! But what will you be doing?”
“I am going to finish my spell.” She bit her lower lip.”Even once we find the key we may not want to use it. And I wish to finishthis business and be away quickly.”.”
“As you will, Light.” He moved off.
“And Cormac, touch nothing!”
Again the grin. “Since it’s you who ask, Light.”
While Cormac searched, Shiara concentrated on completing her spell. Sheforced herself to think only of the technical aspects, blocking out the uneasethat almost stifled her. Only when the spell was complete and primed and hercounting demon duly instructed did she look up.up.
“Have you found anything?” she called to Cormac across the gloomyexpanse of the hall..
“Nothing I care to think overmuch on,” he called, crossing theblack-and-green floor. “The place is strangely proportioned, thesepedestals seem strewn about at random and the pattern on this miserable floormakes my eyes ache.” He looked down at the patterned marble at his feet.et.
“The floor,” Shiara said reflectively. “Yes.” Shelooked up. “There may be a message here.” She stepped back to theentrance and looked out over the elaborate pattern formed by the squares ofmarble that floored the hall.ll.
From the door the tiles made the floor seem to sweep away in aroller-coaster perspective, tilting and writhing off into the distance. Thereseemed to be no horizon line and no point of perspective save madness in thebizarre geometry of the tiles. And yet……
“Cormac, walk out that way,” she said pointing toward one cornerof the hall. The swordsman followed her pointing finger. “A littlefurther. Now stop.” Inexorably the pattern seemed to pull him to theright. It was somehow wrong to move to the left at that point.nt.
“Now go left,” she commanded. Cormac dubiously obeyed.”Further left. No, don’t look down at the floor! Don’t close your eyes.Just keep to your left.” With his gaze locked at the shoulder level Cormacmoved more to his left and off into the gloom.om.
“Now what do you see?”
“Nothing much,” Cormac called back. “I just bumped into awall. Wait a moment, I seem to have company.””
“Nay, lass, he’s not dangerous now. But I think you will enjoythis.””
“Stay where you are.” Shiara moved away from the door and towardCormac who was invisible in the gloom. “Talk to me. Anything, just so Ican follow the sound of your voice.”.”
“Well, it’s dark over here, darker than any other part of the room.And our friend isn’t much of a conversationalist.””
“Fine,” said Shiara coming up to him. “Don’t look at thatfloor. It’s both a trap and a hiding place. It is designed to draw you awayfrom this spot and perhaps ensnare you if you are so foolish as to watch thefloor as you walk.”k.”
She nodded to Cormac’s silent companion. “I think that’s what happenedto him.””
Standing almost next to Cormac with his eyes fixed on the floor was ablack-robed wizard. He was obviously alive but equally obviously caught fast inthe grip of a spell. He could neither move nor talk but his eyes burned withvenomous hatred as he looked at the floor.or.
“Why it’s Jul-Akkan isn’t it?” Shiara said pleasantly. “Ithought you might be along on this and of course you’re too old a fox to becaught by the death spells around the hoard. What did you do, wait outsidewhile the others rushed to the pedestals?”s?”
She turned to Cormac. “Note him well, Cormac. Jul-Akkan is high in theCouncil of the League. Indeed he bid fair to become a master of all the League,were he able to rid himself of one or two of his more troublesome colleagues.Now here he is, caught like a fly in a honey bowl.”l.”
Cormac shifted and raised his sword for the killing stroke.
“No,” Shiara commanded. “I don’t know what that would do tothe spell and I doubt you could kill him so easily. No, best leave him while weattend to our main business.” She stooped to examine the wall behind Cormac.c.
“Now let us see what is here.”
A quick search of the wall revealed a thin narrow crack in the polishedblack stone of the wall. Carefully she ran her hand along it, feeling ratherthan seeing the unevenness that marked a panel in the otherwise solid stone.e.
She knelt down and pressed her hand against the panel. “It is lockedand enchanted, but not guarded, I think.””
“Don’t bet your life on that, lass,” Cormac warned. “Thisfellow was tricky enough for ten wizards.””
“I will venture nothing on the chance. I merely make theobservation.””
Shiara looked up at him from where she knelt. “You do not have to behere for this.””
Cormac shook his head. “You may need me.” Then he laid his handon hers. “Besides, a World without Light is not a World fit to livein.”.”
“Thank you Cormac,” she squeezed his hand. “Now stand out ofmy light while I unravel this puzzle.””
Again working partly by magic and partly with her picks and other tools,Shiara carefully pried the secrets from the lock. Cormac stood by nervously,fingering his sword hilt, his head turning this way and that as he searched fortangible manifestation of the danger he sensed here. Finally there was a clickand the panel swung smoothly back.ack.
Behind the panel lay another smaller room lit with the same balefire glowas the great hall. It took only a single lantern to light it. The stink ofincense and the reek of magic was fully as strong here as it was beyond. Butthere were fewer pedestals bearing treasures.es.
“A puzzle within a puzzle,” Cormac said as he surveyed theirlatest find..
Shiara pointed to a pier off to one side of the chamber. “There, Ithink.””
Cautiously she approached and then sucked in her breath at what she saw.
Laying atop the pedestal was a magician’s staff. But it was like nomagician’s staff Shiara had ever seen. It was perhaps four feet long and asthick as her wrist, but it was not wood or even metal. Instead it was made of acrystalline substance that seemed to show flickers of an amethyst light deepwithin itself. Tiny crabbed characters ran inscribed in bands around itssurface, save for a space about a hand’s breadth wide near the top. There wasno knob or finial on either end. It was more a sceptre than a staff, sherealized. A symbol of rule as well as a tool of magical power. power.
The wizardess passed her wand over the pedestal and smiled at the result.
“This is the key. If I neutralize the spell and move this, we canremove all else in this place.””
“Be careful, Light.”
“I will my Sun.”
Slowly and carefully Shiara began to unravel the spell binding the staff tothe pedestal. She made a final sweeping gesture and the spell flickered anddied.d.
In spite of removing the spell and in spite of her urgent desire to finishthis business, Shiara was reluctant to touch the evilly-glinting object beforeher. She had handled such staffs of other wizards before, but there wassomething about this one that awed and dismayed her.er.
Finally she placed her hand upon it and felt the waves of magic flowthrough her. It seemed as if a dark and vastly deep space opened up around her,inhabited by huge shadow things that pressed close, whispering offers of power,the fulfillment of all dreams and the slaking of all lusts. She had but towield the staff and…d…
Quivering, Shiara fought the temptation. She lifted the staff and carriedit across the chamber at arm’s length as if it were a poisonous serpent..
The waves of magic beat stronger against her, calling to her more and moreclearly. In a fit of panic Shiara tried to drop the staff and found she couldnot. Now it was the staff which was holding her.r.
All too late Shiara saw the deadly nature of the trap. The demon at thegate, the spells upon the common items were sufficient to ward off an ordinarythief or hedge magician. To penetrate those and unravel the maze of spellswithin the cavern and ultimately to possess the key would take someone trulyskilled in magic. One of the Mighty, or a black-robe wizard of the League.gue.
The whole cavern and all the magics within it existed simply to sort theuntalented or the incompetent from the powerful and to lure the powerful to thesceptre. The sceptre was the last and deadliest trap of them all.l.
No, Amon-Set was not dead, not truly. Within the smoky purple depths of thescepter he had waited out the ages, waiting for one whose body and skill hecould use to live again. The snow-white corpse on the crystal bier was indeeddead. But his soul lived within the sceptre; lived, hungered and awaited itsprey.rey.
The wizard who was skilled enough to grasp the sceptre of Amon-Set was a suitablevehicle for his reincarnation. And that was the true purpose of everythinghere. To find such a one and put them in a position where Amon-Set couldpossess them and so live again.in.
Shiara could feel herself ebbing away as the alien presence intruded. Shetwisted and struggled in the grip of the long-dead sorcerer. She fought backwith every bit of skill and knowledge at her command.d.
It was a hopelessly uneven fight. She felt the chamber’s magics convulseand yield under her desperate thrusts, but the core of Amon-Set locked her inan ever tightening embrace.e.
“Now!” a strange creaking voice cried from the door of thechamber. Shiara realized vaguely that someone else had entered the fray..
Cormac whirled at the voice and saw Jul-Akkan stumble into the room. Shiaracould not break Amon-Set’s hold on her, but her struggles had loosed the gripof the guard spells.s.
Cormac’s sword flickered at the wizard with the speed of a striking snake,but not fast enough; even weakened Jul-Akkan was faster still. His hand flickedout and Cormac screamed and dropped to the floor.r.
Without pausing, Jul-Akkan leaped across the room and grasped the sceptrewith both hands..
For an instant three beings warred. Then with a final mighty effort Shiarawas able to let go of the cursed thing. Jul-Akkan fell back with both handsplanted on the sceptre and his eyes widening as Toth-Amon took him.m.
Shiara staggered and shook her head. Through pain-dimmed eyes she sawCormac writhing in the final agonies of a death spell and the one who wasJul-Akkan writhing in the throes of rebirth. In seconds Cormac would be deadand Toth-Amon would be loosed upon the world again. Her Sun and her World bothteetered on the brink of destruction.ion.
Shiara’s eyes locked with Cormac’s as he pleaded silently with her to dosomething to release him from the awful pain..
Without bothering with the timing demon, Shiara triggered the destructionspell. “Forgive me, love,” she whispered as he slumped to the floor..
Magic after magic flared incandescent around the living, the dead and thereborn. The room shook under the force of the spells. The pedestals totteredand toppled. The lanterns crashed to the floor and went out.t.
Amon-Set struggled to rise, but he did not have full control. The sceptreslipped from his hands and dashed into pieces on the shaking floor. All aroundthem the magic grew in violence as forces contained past their time burst freeat last.st.
And then, in a mighty explosion of magic, the roof fell in. Shiara screamedas she saw Cormac’s body crushed under a falling block. Waves of magic flayedher. Her last sight was of the brilliant blue glow. The after-image burneditself into her brain. Reflexively and in shock, she stumbled from the room.om.
Above her the top of the mountain blew off. A column of angry orange fireshot high into the smoke-stained sky and bombs of flaming lava arced down intothe forest, setting fires where they fell.l.
Toth-Ra examined the great still demon carefully. Obviously the guardianhad been neutralized in some manner. So far, so good he thought. He had theword and sign to pass the demon, stolen from the crypt of the League, but hewas satisfied not to use them.em.
Let us see if anything of use remains here. He walked past the thing andinspected the cavern carefully. It did not take him long to find the coffer.When he opened it, he gasped. The heart of the demon lay within.n.
Toth-Amon smiled. Here was an auspicious beginning. Obviously the Council’sagents had beaten him here, but they were unlikely to know all the secrets ofthis place. There were still treasures to be gleaned while they attempted tounravel the mysteries.es.
Then the ground began to move under him. Toth-Ra ran to the mouth of thecave and reached it in time to see the mountain erupt, taking the treaures ofAmon-Set with it.t.
Balked, he danced in fury. “Gone. Gone, ay, all gone,” heshrieked..
No, he realized. Not all gone. There was still the guardian of the gate.
Heedless of the shaking earth or the erupting mountain he moved back acrossthe magically marked threshold clutching the box tightly. Once safely outside,he released the demon.n.
“What is your name?” he asked sharply.
“Bale-Zur,” the thing rumbled.
“And what is your virtue?” the wizard asked.
“To slay,” the great deep voice boomed out again. “To rendand tear any whose true name has ever been spoken in the World.””
Toth-Ra shivered. Here was power indeed! The treasure of Amon-Set might beconsumed in fire, but at least one of his servants could be bound to his cause.He eyed the burning mountaintop carefully. Perhaps this one alone would besufficient to make him the greatest in the League.ue.
“And what is your desire?”
“To slay,” the demon repeated. “To slay and slayagain.””
Toth-Ra placed both hands on the dusky globe. “Then I will bargainwith you,” the wizard said..
It was hours later when Ugo found Shiara wandering in the canyon above theboulder field..
“You live, Lady,” the little wood goblin cried joyfully as he ranto her..
“Ugo, Lady. You set me to watch. Then bad things happen and I come tolook.” He stopped. “Where is other?””
“Gone,” Shiara said dazedly. “Gone.” Then she seemed togather herself and held out her hand..
“Lead me, Ugo. Your senses are keen and between the night and theclouds I cannot see.””
“Close to high noon, Lady,” the little creature said sadly.”Sorry, Lady.””
Shiara said nothing. Ugo approached her and gently took her hand in his.
“Famous victory,” the wood-goblin said. “Bards will sing itlong.””
Shiara the Silver only laughed bitterly and let the goblin lead her downthe smoldering mountain..
“And what happened afterwards?” Moira breathed at last.
Shiara the Silver raised her head from her breast and turned her blind,lined face to her questioner. “Afterwards?” She said simply.”There was no afterwards.”.”
“Foolishness,” grumbled Ugo, poking up the fire.