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Silence fell over the crowd in the Dancing Serpent as the six grey- clad soldiers marched into the room. Their boot heels hit the wooden planking with an ominous rhythm, a rhythm that spoke of doom and destruction and misery. The six arrogantly studied those in the smoky barroom, saying nothing. The tension rose until a man taller than the six strode into the room, his broad shoulders brushing the doorjambs as he entered.

" Drinks for all!" the man called out in a loud, booming voice. The bartender sighed and began putting the heavy glass bottles of potent liquor onto the bar. The others in the room relaxed, and soon nervous laughter echoed through the once- noisy establishment. The grey soldiers were not here to kill. Not this time.

In the corner of the room at a small table, a low conversation went on, neither participant taking much notice of the intrusion by the soldiers. Dar- elLan- Martak gestured in despair, his palms open and imploring.

" Please, Zarella, let' s leave this place and talk," the man begged. " With the likes of them around, none can relax."

Zarella laughed carelessly. " Oh, Lan, you' re such a fool. Do you have my price? I come expensive, you know!"

" Zarella, why do you do this to me? You know I love you. Let me prove it to you." He spoke in such deadly earnest that the woman hesitated to make fun of him. Few crossed Lan Martak, and fewer lived to brag of it. His expertise with the gleaming carbon- steel sword dangling at his side was legendary. And unlike most legends, this had a strong basis in fact. The grips of both sword and short dagger showed wear from long, hard, deadly use by the man' s strong hands and thick wrists.

She said gently, " Lan, please, it isn' t to be. We both know that. Your world simply isn' t mine. I belong here!" The woman gestured extravagantly, encompassing the tapestry- hung walls, the gaming tables, the long, stained bar propping up a dozen drunken men. " The Dancing Serpent is my life. Even for you, I won' t give it up."

" But there' s more to the world than this stinking pleasure palace. I can show you the jeweled towers of Lellvan. Have you ever seen the Sulfur Mountains? No, you haven' t. Or the Sinking Lands to the west. To look out over them at sunset and see the very earth shiver at your command outstrips anything this place could offer a fine woman like you." He sneezed once, not used to the cloying dope smoke in the air. The sawdust gritted uneasily under foot. It wasn' t clean dirt; it didn' t feel right to him. The very atmosphere in the Dancing Serpent was slimy, a thing unclean. The need to be free of the place added urgency to his words.

He glanced at the crowd and heaved a deep sigh. Zarella, lovely Zarella, deserved the freshness of the country and not the prison of this overpriced brothel. To have to put up with men such as those grey soldiers would sicken anyone- psychically as well as physically. Lan' s hand drifted unconsciously to his dagger when he saw the selfimportant Kyn- alLyk- Surepta leaning heavily on the bar. Thoughts of traitor flashed through Lan' s mind. Lyk Surepta had sold out to the grey soldiers in exchange for a commission, a high one by all accounts. Such was the clientele of the Dancing Serpent.

Zarella deserved much better than this.

The woman pushed the purple- feather- studded comb into the luxurious depths of her auburn mane. The nervous gesture gave her a moment to think. She let her eyes rove over Lan, then sighed deeply. The rising and falling of her breasts brought forth the wrong response from the man. He did not take it as a sign of hopelessness, of total disagreement with his plans. He saw it as indecision and thought she required only more cajoling. " Zarella, I love you! Doesn' t that matter?"

" Many men love me. That' s why I stay."

" That' s not the kind of love I mean. We can:"

He was interrupted by a gruff voice.

" Is this bumpkin bothering you, Zarella?"

Lan turned. Kyn- alLyk- Surepta towered over him, hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. Lan realized the officer wanted nothing more than to spill some blood this evening. It mattered little to him whose it was. The grey soldiers boasted of maintaining the peace, of driving the brigands from the nearby forests. They had done much the old sheriff had been unable to do, but their methods were little better than those of the brigands they displaced. Torture was a game for them, suffering a pastime.

Lyk Surepta was the worst of the lot. He was the only local man in the band and, like all recent converts to a new cause, felt the need to prove himself by being more brutal, more daring, more competent than any of the others in his company. " Leave us, turncoat," snapped Lan. " We are talking." The menace in that quiet voice would have frightened off a less determined man.

" Turncoat, is it, bumpkin? I am Kyn- alLyk- Surepta. Kyn, did you hear?"

Lan let his eyes roll upward as if importuning the gods for patience with a small child. But his hand never strayed far from the hilt of his dagger. His emotions seethed inside, turning from Zarella' s dismissal of his love to the arrogance of the grey- clad soldier. Still, Lan did not become careless. The man hadn' t won his kynranking being a dullard. And a jerky quickness to his movements warned of feral reactions. Lan had seen the type before. A quick kill or a stab in the back- they were one and the same to this man.

" And I am Dar- elLan- Martak, turncoat. Dar. When you joined the ranks of those grey- clad butchers, you forfeited kyn- rank. You cannot have it both ways."

Lan felt wrenching surprise when Kyn- alLyk- Surepta laughed at him.

" So you' re the buffoon all snigger at behind your back!" He guffawed loudly, throwing his head back and laughing openly toward the ceiling. Lan stood, his movement tightly controlled. He hadn' t missed the slight tensing of the wrist, the subtle change in the other' s stance. If he' d gone for Kyn- alLyk- Surepta' s throat, he would have found a knife in his own gut.

" Only hyenas laugh so loudly."

Sudden silence fell again in the Dancing Serpent. A few timid customers edged for the doors. The six soldiers with Kyn- alLykSurepta drew their blades as if a single brain controlled their actions.

" You would have carrion- eaters kill me?" Lan asked. He felt half a hundred eyes watching him, waiting. The tension in the air was electric. And he reveled in it. This was the vent needed for his emotions. Little matter if he had to dispatch this Kyn- alLyk- Surepta to Hell. It had been months since he had killed a man in a fight. And if the other six attacked, he felt insanely confident of besting them, too.

For Zarella, he could perform miracles.

" You call me a hyena?" bellowed Kyn- alLyk- Surepta.

" You name yourself."

A slight snick and flashing arc of silver were all the warning Lan had. His own blade easily parried the death- dealing slash. A quick half- step back gave him fighting room.

" All at once?" he asked. " Or one at a time? Whichever you prefer, turncoat!"

Kyn- alLyk- Surepta motioned violently to his men to stand back.

" This scum is mine. I will bury my blade in his quivering guts!"

" I' d have thought you' d wait for them to kill me. Hyenas are carrion- eaters. Seldom do they kill their own prey."

The thrust came straight for his heart. Lan turned slightly to the left, felt the blade hotly graze his skin. But the sword blade was past his body, beyond the spot where it could do real harm. His own knife point rested lightly against Kyn- alLyk- Surepta' s kidney.

" Catching you is too easy. I' ll throw you back and go fishing for bigger- finned creatures. What do you think, Zarella?" Lan held the other man' s sword arm in a deceptively mild grip. He watched as Kyn- alLyk- Surepta turned red in the face trying to break free and avoid the knife point digging into his back.

" Fighting, all the time fighting. Aren' t you two aware this is a pleasure palace? Sarn!" she called to the man behind the bar. " Bring drinks for my two friends."

The bartender quickly poured the drinks, his eyes never leaving the frozen tableau that could erupt into bloody death at any instant. He nervously checked the position of the six grey- clad soldiers before venturing out from behind the relative safety of the bar.

" Zarella says we should drink. Do we drink? Or does my dagger drink alone- of your blood?"

The trapped arm ceased struggling and relaxed.

The voice, trembling with impotent rage barely contained, came. " We drink. Such a charming hostess is not to be denied."

" I agree." Lan carefully backed away, wary that the sword still in Kyn- alLyk- Surepta' s hand wouldn' t find a sheath in his body. His eyes darted to the six soldiers, still holding their swords in white- knuckled grips. They had been ordered to remain where they were. Lan wondered at their discipline. Few from this area were so rigidly trained.

Lyk Surepta put his blade away, then took the small cup of the fierce liquor. He held it up to his lips in silent toast. Lan smiled slightly and reached for his own cup. As he did, Surepta tossed the liquor into his face.

It wasn' t entirely unexpected, yet some of the liquor found its way into his eyes. Lan' s reflexes worked for him. He was dropping and rolling to his right even as the liquor spattered across his face. The foot intended for his groin scraped his left hip and then harmlessly glanced off, finding only smoky air.

He wiped the liquor from his eyes. The room swam into blurry focus as he saw the grey form moving toward him. Instinct again told him where to roll to avoid the kick aimed at his face.

This time Lan came to his feet, clear- visioned. His hand never moved toward his knife. His voice threatened more than the action would have.

" You will die for that, turncoat. Name your next of kin so they might arrange a proper burial. Or will these soldier- lackeys of yours attend to the remains?"

" It' s not my corpse you should worry about, fool. You' ll be cooling meat in a few seconds!" In the same breath, he drew his sword again and made a long lunge.

And kept flying through the air. Lan neatly trapped his wrist, started a circular motion, and sent his attacker somersaulting. The sword clattered to the floor. Quick as a cat, Surepta tried to grab the fallen weapon. Even faster, Lan kicked it, spinning, into the far corner of the room. A howl of pain told that the blade' s sharp edge had found a human target. Neither Surepta nor Lan bothered with the spectator' s minor injury.

" You two, stop it!" cried Zarella, her tone chastising. Yet the carriage of her body, the inflections of her words, told she was delighted to have these two handsome, powerful men fighting for her favors.

" I will have her," snarled Surepta.

" Only in Hell!" Lan' s move came with sinuous, flowing speed. A tangle of arms and legs resulted in a stranglehold on Lyk Surepta' s neck. A brawny forearm tightened on the other' s windpipe. Tendons appeared in bas- relief as the pressure increased.

Try as he might, Kyn- alLyk- Surepta couldn' t break the death grip around his throat. He tried to gesture to his men, to call to them, to get help. Every second marked the passing of just a little more of his strength. He couldn' t reach the bushy brown hair of his attacker and pull the man over his shoulder. A rock- hard stomach resisted every blow from his elbows. Inexorably, he was pulled back over a knee jammed into his spine.

Lan felt the life slowly ebbing in the man' s body. He pressed his advantage- and found himself frozen like a glacier.

He stood as rigid as a statue, his eyes staring straight ahead. Try as he might, he couldn' t move his head. His arms were lead- heavy and his legs firmer than any granite. Lan' s pulse throbbed wildly in his temples, almost drowning out the faint voices around him.

" But I tried, Honor! Ask the others."

" Zarella tried to stop a fight over her? Now I' ve heard everything. The sun and both moons can dance a jig tomorrow, and then I' ll have seen everything, too."

Lan recognized the sheriffs tired voice. The old mage had cast a mild paralysis spell on both him and Kyn- alLyk- Surepta, of that he was now sure. Knowing the nature of his immobility, he began working out of it.

Lips moving the barest amount, he began chanting the counterspell. He was unable to say it loudly, and it took several minutes longer than normal for the debilitating paralysis to leave his limbs, but Lan knew better than to move before the sheriff conjured the counterspell on his own. The old man had pride. It wouldn' t do to humiliate him in front of a pleasure palace full of young bucks looking for trouble, nor would it do for the mage' s weaknesses to be shown to the damnable grey- clad soldiers.

Any hint that the sheriff was unable to stop them would bring hordes of them down on the city. Lan didn' t like all the laws, but he knew what they meant to the sheriff. He also knew what life would be like under the direct controls of the soldiers.

" It' s true, Honor. I was talking with Lan when Lyk came over. Lan refused to leave when Lyk made a legitimate nummary offer for my services."

The sheriff looked at Lan, and their eyes met briefly. The sheriff knew his spell had already been nullified but said nothing. He nodded slightly toward Lan, silently thanking him for this small concession to his authority. Lan knew it was the only consideration he was likely to get.

" So Lan is in the wrong? Who drew his blade first? No, don' t bother lying. I can see who still has a sheathed sword and who doesn' t."

A whining voice from the side of the room came, " He cut me, Honor! Dar- elLan- Martak cut me with the other' s sword!"

" Shut up, Lorgan. I' ll deal with you later. If I have the time." Turning to his deputy mage, the sheriff asked, " Is Kyn- alLykSurepta going to survive his wrestling bout?"

" Yes, Honor. He' d only fainted from lack of air. Nothing more. Not even necessary for any healing spells."

" So:" The sheriffs voice firmed with resolve. " Nothing has been done except stir up the clientele of the Dancing Serpent. Zarella, you should be charged for a floor show. But, from what you say, Lan is to blame. He' ll be removed from the premises."

" We claim the right to punish him!" spoke up one of the greyclad soldiers. " He attacked an officer in our corps."

" Your corps?" sneered the sheriff. " I do not recognize your authority. You might have rid us of those annoying brigands, but who are your lords? To whom do you swear fealty? You are strangely silent on those counts. Your pasty grey complexions sicken me. You hardly appear of this world."

A gagging sound interrupted the sheriff. Kyn- alLyk- Surepta sat up, his eyes fiery coals of hatred aimed at the world.

" You ask that?" coughed out Kyn- alLyk- Surepta. " We fight for the law. We desire only to drive out ones such as that." He glared at Lan, who still pretended paralysis.

" Where do they come from? I' ve not seen their like around here before," asked the mage.

" They come from: distant lands. It is of no consequence. I command them. We can take care of this upstart. You need not trouble yourself, Honor."

" I so choose. I am the duly appointed lawgiving authority here, and until that changes, your vigilante ways will not be tolerated. Leave. And take them with you."

Lyk Surepta shot a look of pure hatred at Lan, then retrieved his sword, sheathed it, and jerked his head in silent command to his soldiers. They marched off, boot heels clicking in unison. The sheriff turned back to Lan. A pass of the hand in front of Lan' s face caused a jolt to pass through his aching body. The last trace of paralysis was officially removed with this public act.

" Outside, Lan. I desire words with you."

Silently, Lan, the sheriff, and the two deputy mages started for the door. As Lan passed through, he bumped into Surepta. The man sneered but said nothing. The man appeared strangely satisfied at the outcome of the fracas as he turned and went away, his soldiers following like obedient dogs.

" Humph," snorted the sheriff. To his deputies he said, " I won' t need you. Go back to the office, and I' ll be along shortly. And try studying up on those paralysis spells. You were both sloppy back there!"

As they went off into the blackness along the dusty street, the sheriff said to Lan, " They' re good boys. Make damn fine sheriffs one day, if the grey- clads don' t overrun us all first."

" Those soldiers cause more trouble than they' re worth. Just appear and then scare off some thieves, and they think they own the town," said Lan bitterly. His feelings went deeper, but he couldn' t bring himself to say so to the sheriff.

The old man snorted. " You' re the one who' s trouble, Lan. If there' s any more out of you, I' ll reduce you where you stand. I' d hate to do it, but I will."

Lan shivered at the threat. Reduced. Turned into a sizzling spot of grease unrecognizable as human. It wasn' t a complex spell, Lan knew, but it was a highly secret one known only to the sheriff.

" Zarella is a beautiful woman, I' ll grant you that," the old man went on, " but she' s wrong for you. You have terrible tastes in women, Lan. You belong in the country, with a woman who can appreciate the things you do best. Go and enjoy the openness while it' s still there. Those things are taking over all too fast." The sheriff lifted his chin to indicate a pair of the soldiers walking a self- appointed patrol on the other side of the street.

" As you say, Honor, but don' t think this is the end of it. I love Zarella, and I' ll make her see my way. She' s going to marry me one day. Mark it, Honor, she' ll be mine!"

The sheriff shook his head in disgust and left without another word. Lan watched the man shuffle along in the dusty street, jumping just enough to avoid being run over by one of the chuffing Maxwell' s demon- powered auto cars. The sheriff raised his fist and issued a steady stream of invective at the magical- powered car, then vanished into his office, still angrily muttering about the price of progress.

Lan stood alone in the wide, dusty street, and yet he felt imprisoned. The town collapsed around him, and he felt the need to leave it far behind. Jogging along at an easy lope, he left behind the Dancing Serpent and Zarella and a city bulging with unnatural laws and grey- clad soldiers and motorcars holding demons in their guts. The cool night air gusting through his nostrils poured refreshing power into his body like water into a jug. He felt whole again.

" Oh, kyn- alBin, you' re such a lover!" squealed Zarella, sprawled on her huge round bed. She watched with polar eyes as the rotund man dressed. The broad smile playing across his lips told her he would be exceptionally generous this evening.

He' d better be. Having such a pig in bed disgusted her. If he hadn' t been so wealthy, she would have let one of the other pleasure girls have him.

Zarella almost laughed thinking of scrawny Luella with this mountain of fat. He would have suffocated the poor child!

" You' re a gem, Zarella. None like you. Here' s a token of my undying esteem." Zarella' s eyes widened with avarice. She was worldly- wise, but never had she seen such a large drell- gem, easily worth a prince' s ransom. Its rainbow colors filled the room with a cold radiance. She would have stayed the night with a score of demons to gain such a trinket.

" You' re too kind, but then big men have the biggest hearts and:" She let her eyes drop slightly and gave him the chance to mentally finish the rest of her little speech. He was pleased; so was she. It was a business deal like any other. What she had for sale, however, wasn' t open for barter among the usual commodity brokers.

" Till the morrow!" the man said, pleased with her response.

Zarella fell back on the soft bed, holding the drell- gem lightly in the palm of her hand. The depths of the jewel pulled her gaze deeper and deeper until she became lost in the maze of its reflecting planes. It was the most perfect gem she' d ever seen.

Her attention was dragged away by the sound of her door opening. The soft click of the lock brought her to a sitting position. Standing next to her bureau, arms crossed over his muscular chest, stood KynalLyk- Surepta. A vicious sneer marred his good looks.

" What do you want, low- born?" she snapped. He repelled her in a way she didn' t fully understand. That he had joined ranks with the arrogant grey- clad soldiers cast against him, but the distaste ran deeper. He seemed unclean.

" Low- born, is it? Surely you can guess why I' ve come." He towered over her. A hand faster than thought snared the jewel from her palm and held it up to the dimness of the glow- lamp beside her bed. " A drell- gem? A poor one, I' d say. And small, very small. Did DarelLan- Martak give it to you?"

" No. I haven' t seen him since he choked you unconscious. I wish he' d finished you then and there!" She felt a surge of viciousness. To degrade this man meant more to her than her own immediate safety. Besides, one scream would bring four guards able to handle any trouble Kyn- alLyk- Surepta might intend for her.

" Another of your many conquests, then. I think it' s time for you to be shown a real man' s skill." He began stripping off his grey tunic. As he casually tossed it aside, Zarella noticed a tanned leather jerkin next to his skin. The incongruity of the leather with the grey cloth puzzled her. This was something she' d have expected Lan to wear rather than the turncoat soldier.

" Ah, you notice my, hmmm, shall we call it insurance?"

" Insurance? I think you should leave. Already you bore me with your riddles. If you go any further, I might fall asleep from tedium."

He slapped her with the back of his hand. The force of the blow knocked her sprawling across the bed. Zarella tried to escape. A hand gripped a slender white ankle and pulled her back. The man flipped her over and glared at her supine form.

" Don' t ever say a thing like that to me again. I should punish you for what you' ve done this evening. You make a big play for me, then cast me aside. I suspect Dar- elLan- Martak' s been enjoying your charms, hasn' t he? Hasn' t he?"

The man slapped her again, this time with the callused palm of his hand.

Zarella clutched at her brutalized face. Hatred boiled from her eyes. If she' d known the proper spells, Kyn- alLyk- Surepta would have been changed into a bug to be crushed under her heel. But she didn' t. The only course left her was to scream. The guards down the hall would come to her rescue. She would laugh as they quartered this low- born scum and boiled his pieces in thick oil.

His cold words cut off her cry.

" Your four guards are dead. They smile with two mouths." He pulled out a bloodied knife and showed it to her.

" What do you want?" she demanded. For the first time since she was a virgin, Zarella felt fear gnawing at her insides. She didn' t want to die. The fetid odor of death, however, filled her nostrils.

" Isn' t that obvious? Martak humiliates me in front of the entire town. I want revenge." He began running his thumb along the edge of the blade as if to assure himself of its razor- sharpness.

" Why come to me?"

" You' re his woman. I overheard what he said. He wants to marry you, and you weren' t unwilling, just contrary. My revenge on him will be through you."

" So you rape me, is that it? Lan will cut out your liver and eat it raw!"

" No, no, he won' t. I will tell you exactly how clever I am. He can' t really care if I have my way with you or not. A woman of your profession would hardly consider that much in the way of revenge. No, I' ll take my pleasure from you, then kill you."

Zarella went cold from shock. She heard truth ringing in the man' s words. Lips trembling but voice steady, she said, " Lan will track you down. No matter where you hide, he' ll find you. Even in the middle of all your grey- clad soldiers, he' ll kill you."

" Ah, therein lies the beauty of my plan. First, though, satisfaction. And the rest, my dear lovely Zarella, I fear you' ll not live to appreciate."

She fought, but against overwhelming strength. He had his will, then left her corpse for the sheriff to find.

Robert E. Vardeman Cenotaph Road | Cenotaph Road | *****