A herd of multilegged beasts cavorted joyfully on his head. Lan Martak put his arms over his head to protect himself from their manic depredations, but this did no good. If anything, it increased the roar and pain inside his skull. Opening his eyes didn' t prove as traumatic for him as he' d feared from the interior throbbings. The dismal greyness surrounding him was almost soothing. Then came the grating harshness of human voices.
" He' ll be fine in a while. Took a nasty blow to the head as you dragged him through."
" I suspect my feeble efforts are not so much to blame as the closing of the gateway just fractions of a second after he came through to this side."
" That might be true. Even I felt the vortex of energy seething around the path, and in the past I' ve never been particularly sensitive to such things."
Lan rolled over and peered at the two. Inyx sat, her feet neatly tucked under her, facing Krek. Beyond was a world lacking contrasts. The sky stretched a leaden grey as if rains were imminent, the grass shone with an odd mottled greyish- green, the trees sported redolent, brittle swordlike leaves hardly differing in hue from the grass, and the very air hung with scummy grey particulate matter, the residue from too many coal and wood fires. The only thing colorful in the entire world was the red pain searing through his head like a heated battle ax.
" I assume we made it," he said slowly, the words thick and muddled. " Unless this is our reward for a lifetime of sin and evildoing. It looks too much like the bog world for it to be anything else."
" A reward it might be, but we still live," pointed out Inyx. " Waldron failed to cut off the Road soon enough to prevent our passage. I cannot be sure, but I think a heavy wagon passed along just before us, one laden with all types of foodstuffs."
" The mention of food reminds me how feeble I have become. It seems years since a good meal of grubs and bugs rested lightly in my digestive tract. Let us find sustenance, then discuss more worldly matters," urged Krek.
" I think the spider has a good idea. Can you move yet, Lan?"
" Whether I can or not, we' d better make tracks away from here. If Waldron sends a patrol after us through the gateway, they are sure to find us if we simply lie around." He peered around, wondering why Waldron had chosen this particular area for establishing a roadway through his Kinetic Sphere into Krek' s web world. There seemed little to recommend the location other than the brownish ribbon of dirt road slithering off toward the gently hillocked horizon. A heavy greygreen pall swirled in eddies no matter which direction Lan peered.
They staggered along for some time until Krek accumulated enough small insects to form a brief repast. Inyx ordered Lan to rest while she hunted food for them. The throbbing in his head had cleared, but he was grateful for her offer. He even slept, only to awaken with the smell of roast rabbit in his nostrils.
" This seems an unappetizing world, save for the rabbit," he said. " Never have I seen such featureless terrain, lacking in color, texture, and character. Even the bog world I met Krek on held some little variation."
" And the air is thick with ugly odors, too," Inyx added. " Friend Krek is luckier than we on that score."
" Lucky, you call it? When such small bugs are all I can find to eat? Why, I shall surely starve to death in a fortnight without proper food. I am already weakened to the point of starvation, and the distance from my web further saps my strength. Oh, how do I find myself in these impossible situations?"
" You cast your lot with us," said Lan dryly. " But what world is this? Can it truly be Waldron' s home? I thought a conqueror' s world offered something more than this spent countryside."
He attacked the burnt rabbit with the ferocity of a man too long gone past his mealtime. The grease only added flavor; it seemed at odds with the blandness of the world. After he and Inyx had shared the meager portion of the brains for dessert, Lan leaned back against the smooth trunk of a tree and picked his teeth with a small bone taken from the rabbit' s leg. In spite of the fact that Waldron probably had droves of grey- clad soldiers on their trail, he felt complacent and even content with his lot in life.
" No reason why not. In point of fact, friend Lan Martak, we might query those starvelings about it."
The roadway rumbled with the sound of a lopsided dogcart with wear- flattened wheels being pulled by two people. Their heads held low, they saw nothing but the dirt in the road bed. Lan called out to them, then waved, saying under his breath, " Vanish for a short while, Krek. We don' t want to scare them too badly."
The spider gusted a sigh. " Even my friends are ashamed of me. Pity that I am such a poor creature, unable to fight the good fight, to maintain myself in the manner to which I would like to become accustomed." Then, after he seemed no more than an inert rock in the grey countryside, he added, " Ask for any insects they might have on them."
Lan shuddered when the pair drew closer. The only bugs likely to come from these two would be body lice.
" Welcome, fellow travellers," Lan called out in what he hoped was a cheerful tone. The suspicion with which the two viewed him made him think a picture warrant for his arrest had preceded him. Yet the reactions of the two seemed more of inbred rampant paranoia than specific fear.
" Are you from the other side?" asked the woman, taking the initiative while her man stood watch over the pitiful belongings stacked helter- skelter on the dogcart.
" Yes, we both walked the Road," said Inyx, motioning Lan to silence. He propped himself against the tree, hoping to appear at ease and not a threat to these people. Without sword or dagger, his head still ringing like a ceremonial bell, either of these two emaciated grey- worlders might have bested him.
" You look well fed. I suspected that you did," the woman said. Lan tried to figure out if she were old or merely appeared old. It made little difference; life was obviously harsh on this world.
" We have been most recently in King Waldron' s castle on the next world," Inyx said boldly, hoping this would add stature to their position with the couple.
" Aye, and that' s a good thing. The Saviour needs to keep his finger on the world pulse. Are you to report back to him? You have the look of couriers, though you don' t wear the uniform of the Service."
" We are supposed to go among the people and listen to their pleas. Could you tell us yours?"
" That I will," spoke up the man for the first time. " Hail the Saviour! Praise the great Waldron! We are currently making way to the new settlement outside Ligginton. The wealth of other worlds flows into this one, at long last! Bless the day of our Saviour' s birth!"
" And bless the day when we, too, can take part in the Great Migration and leave this miserable world for other, lusher ones," the old woman added.
" You were more poorly off before?" asked Inyx, surprised anyone' s condition could be more miserable than these two now appeared.
" Aye, that we were. Seven sons and a daughter died of starvation, and my very own mother failed of the consumption, spitting out blackened lungs for a solid month before the demons took her. Breathing the foul air did it to her, it did."
" Foul air from what?" broke in Lan, curious.
" From the forges, man, from the steel mills, from the factories, from every damn thing burning peat. But with the new gas wells capped off and the food and finery from the conquered worlds acoming in, we have hope of surviving."
" So you feel Waldron is truly your Saviour?" asked Inyx.
" Aye, that he is," chimed in the man. " Bless him!"
" Shut up, Gorly," the old woman said tiredly. " Aye, Waldron of Ravensroost brings life to this exhausted world. Without him only misery would be our destiny. He was smart enough, he was, to grab that sorcerer that came awandering through from another world and make him spit up the secret of the other places."
" Sorcerer? You mean Shastry or Claybore?" asked Lan, vainly tying to remember the other names Waldron had so casually mentioned.
" Never heard his name, lad. But he plundered at will, taking even from poor folk like Gorly and me, until Waldron put an end to it. And discovering the Road, he calls it, opened up a source of food and clothing for us."
" Food and clothing not around here. Bless the Saviour. Long live Waldron!"
" Shut up Gorly," the old woman said.
They truly believed Waldron to be their Saviour. No trace of guile existed; both meant the praise they gave for Waldron. Lan prodded the woman by asking, " Do you know Waldron lives lavishly on the other world?"
" Aye, he comes back to speak with us now and again. He' s promised that we will all one day have such finery. Why, he even gave Gorly here a golden ring. Show these couriers, Gorly." She nudged the man in the ribs with a scrawny elbow.
The man fumbled in his pocket until he produced the end of a leather thong. Pulling, he fished out a massive ring inset with a precious stone. He proudly allowed it to spin slowly just below eye level.
" Why don' t you trade that for food? It' s worth a young fortune."
" Trade it? You hear that, Gorly? Trade it, the young one says. You are long away from this world. There is naught to trade for. Our poor farm produced scarcely food for one, much less the pair of usand we were the most successful in the old Thull Valley. Nay, the new settlement is enriched with alien fertilizers and food is abundant, wagons, coming in every day from conquered worlds. And there is even rumor we will no longer burn peat to keep from freezing. Magic from the other worlds will warm us. They even trade the gases from the swamps for other- world goods not sent in proper tribute to our Saviour. Imagine! They use our swamp farts!"
" I see," said Inyx, slowly assimilating the wealth of information she' d received. " I am sure the Saviour will smile on you again. And may you have more children."
" Pah! I am no fool. If we get food enough to fill our bellies, why add to the problem with more mouths? Come, Gorly, let' s be off. If we make Ligginton before sunset, we can feed this day."
The two hefted the sidepoles and began pulling their pathetic cart along the dusty road leading to their chimerical city filled with such unbelievable commodities as food and warm shelter.
When they were out of sight, Krek rose up and stretched cramped legs. He yawned once, clacking his mandibles together, and finally said, " It seems evil Waldron is a saint to his people. I must admit this is a most dismal world. Why, even the mere- spiders spin paltry webs, as if their hearts aren' t in the endeavor."
" This is a tired, overused world," said Inyx. " But it is wrong to loot adjoining worlds along the Road for the betterment of this one." She looked around and shuddered. " But why can' t they add some color other than grey? This is so depressing."
" I agree about that," muttered Lan. " Krek? Find us another cenotaph to get off this world and onto another, more hospitable one."
" You have given up your futile quest to regain the treasure lost and that Velika female?"
" No," Lan said slowly. " But I' ll be in a better position to launch an attack against Waldron after I' ve had some substantial food and a nice bed to catch up on lost sleep. This world cannot furnish those, so I' ll recuperate, then rescue Velika."
" As if she needed rescuing," snorted Inyx. " That' s one bitch who can roll with the punches and come to her feet. Or rather, end up on her back. Never have I seen such selfishness or viciousness."
" In Velika?" asked Lan, startled. " Hardly. She' s quite the opposite, in fact. She can hardly protect herself in the world Waldron' s created. And you are a fine one to talk of bloodthirstiness. I' ve seen you swinging a sword and slaughtering soldiers left and right."
" At least my ruthlessness is open, not under the covers like Velika' s."
" You misjudge her." Lan lapsed into silence, worried at the way both Krek and Inyx felt about Velika. While he had hardly been charmed by her disavowal of them in front of Waldron, he was positive that had been part of an abortive plan on Velika' s part to rescue them all. Something had gone wrong; that was why she had failed to free them from the prison tower before their execution time. Lan felt his innards twisting about in confusion. A burning sensation, more from memory than physical reality, stung his lips, his fingertips. His head ached horribly and threatened to explode like a bomb with his internal emotional conflicts- and he didn' t even know what the opposing sides were, much less what they fought over. He hadn' t the objectivity to study it, nor the time. He had to decide this matter once and for all time.
Velika wasn' t the vicious schemer Inyx pictured her as. Velika' s failure to free them in time proved that. Otherwise she' d have succeeded easily in getting them out of their chains and Waldron' s castle.
" Where' s the cenotaph leading off this world, Krek?" repeated Inyx. " I tire of this dreary world- and the company we' re keeping."
" Everyone tires of my company because I am such a pitiable creature. And I am sure you will heap further indignities on my head when I tell you that there is no cenotaph on this world that opens the Road. Only Waldron' s artificial gateway impinges on my muzzy mind."
" That figures." Inyx sighed. " No one of sufficient bravery has ever existed on this world to create the confined energies needed to open the Road. They' re probably all too busy scuttling out a living from the thin soil to go adventuring."
" That means we' ve got to go back through Waldron' s gate or we' ll be marooned here. That' s why Waldron hasn' t sent his soldiers. He knows we' re trapped on his home world." Lan reached for his sword and found only emptiness. Fighting back to the other world- and Velikaseemed more difficult with each passing second.
" Still another wagon of food and clothing," said Inyx, squinting slightly into the afternoon glare. The grey clouds had lifted a little but not enough to bolster their flagging spirits. The armed guards standing on either side of the shimmering curtain of pure energy effectively barred their return. They might kill one or two of the grey- clad soldiers, but to eliminate all five in such a way that an alarm wasn' t raised appeared impossible. Waldron' s skill as a general showed even in small details such as sentry duty.
Inyx had scouted the countryside while Lan had rested, finding the reason for the gateway' s existence here. The town of Ligginton lay only a few miles down the road. Through the gate passed food to supply the city, such as it was. Inyx reported that the town consisted of little more than hovels pushed together to share common walls.
The idea that this polluted, overcrowded, dirty, ill- supplied city was superior to a farm had revolted her. Yet that seemed to be the case.
" I shall sacrifice myself," announced Krek. " I am too cowardly to kill myself. This will redeem me in your eyes for all my past cowardices. Oh, why am I such a disgrace to all spiderdom?" He wailed like wind curling through an aeolian harp. Lan felt the dejection, too, but didn' t show it. He didn' t want to further depress the spider.
" A possibility exists," said Inyx, after considering the situation for a few more minutes. " Can the guards see through the hindside of the path opened by Waldron?"
" We can see into the other world. I don' t understand why theyof course! If all we can see from this side is the world to which the Road opens, then they can' t see us sneaking up on them, using the gateway as a shield!" Lan felt more enthusiastic about their chances of returning than ever before. " They might not think to post men there, and if they did, we can remove them without the others seeing."
Walking up the hill using the Road as concealment proved easier than Lan had thought. He simply had to remember he could see the guards perfectly while they were unable to see him at all. Three guards fell before the other two noticed. And one jump from Krek, a lightning slash of mandibles, and the fight ended.
" A sword!" yelled Lan, holding it over his head and waving it in circles. " I feel dressed again." He stripped a pair of daggers off the bodies and said, " Through the Roadway before Waldron senses something amiss."
The passage back proved far easier than the prior one. A moment' s vertigo and he stood in the black chamber containing the pinkly glowing Kinetic Sphere. Assaulting the limits of his vision wavered the actual projection of the gateway. He hefted his sword, then held aloft his left hand. A small chant produced flames licking from his fingers. A frightened yelp from Krek went unnoticed as he studied the now dimly lit chamber.
Lan had thought Krek' s cry resulted from the sudden magical fire leaping from fingertip to fingertip. Now he saw real danger lurking just beyond sword' s reach.
" Fardorus take me!" exclaimed Inyx, her blade dancing out in a complex maneuver to meet the attack of the ghostly creature. The substance of the wraith' s body might have been in question, but the evil glint of the steel sword it brandished brooked no doubt about its death- dealing capabilities. Inyx parried, cut over, and parried again. A quick disengage carried her point through the misty body with no visible effect.
" Waldron raids the space between worlds for his soldiers now," she panted, maintaining a purely defensive fight. She slashed viciously across the insubstantial neck and almost lost her balance. The blade of the mist- creature sought out her flesh and left an ugly, deep cut that bled profusely.
He saw that simple sword play wouldn' t destroy this being. Summoning his magical powers, Lan fed the full force of his being into the flame spell. Lances of fire blasted from his fingers and engulfed the vaporous spirit. It screamed wordlessly and popped! back into whatever world it had originated on.
Lan abandoned his flame- spell in favor of a healing chant directed at Inyx' s wound. He closed to attack from the side when a shuffling noise alerted him of more immediate personal danger. He sidestepped the cyclopean giant confronting him, swung his blade, and employed a twist of the wrist to send the sword threatening Inyx' s life cartwheeling through the air. He returned to his own defense in time to catch the point of the Cyclops' s pike on the edge of his own blade. As he dropped to his knee to combat the overwhelming power, he heard Inyx' s blade whir and bite deeply into an unprotected side. The one- eyed giant bellowed and turned to face its new attacker. Lan' s admiration for the monster' s intelligence evaporated as he spitted it through the groin.
Both Lan and Inyx joined Krek in combatting a multiarmed beast. The creature lacked mobility, but it needed none. Apparently able to use nine swords effectively, it seemed able to fight to the last arm without moving. Lan changed his tactics and closed to sword and dagger distance. A quick bind carried two swords from his path, while his dagger pinned another. Inyx shot through the gap he' d formed and drove her blade into juicy, pulpy flesh. The nine- armed beast emitted a curious sigh and evaporated like fog in the morning sun, leaving only nine swords behind on the floor as mute reminder of its existence.
" We do well as a team, Lan," Inyx told him, clapping him heartily on the shoulder. He grunted wryly at the compliment, turning his attention to the wound- healing chant to close the gash on her arm. She glanced down at it as soon as she felt the magical fingers gently closing off tiny veins and arteries; then her eyes rose and locked with his for a moment. Again they recognized more than simple teamwork existing between them.
Uncomfortably, Inyx shifted about, no words coming to her lips. Lan finished his healing spell and felt the same strange need to speak and the inability to put his feelings to voice. Krek relieved both of their fumbling needs.
" We had best remove ourselves from this worldless place. We spiders usually love out- of- the- way interstices, but I fear my overwhelming weakness and outright cowardice will betray us all."
" Right, Krek. I:" and Lan felt the floor vanish from under him. As had happened before when they' d entered Waldron' s dimensionless maze, he hung suspended light years above the slowly spinning galaxies as he began his plunge to infinity. But this time the vertigo didn' t totally seize control of his senses and cause wild panic. Inyx' s arm brushed his and gave a reference point to the real world.
Or was it the real world? Nothing seemed to belong to the reality with which he was accustomed. The very fighters sent against them by Waldron were phantasms, ghosts, creatures of dubious existence. Reality flowed like a clear stream in the springtime, sometimes overrunning its banks, while at other times drying up almost entirely. Could he be so sure he wasn' t falling through space and time on an endless journey to death?
And if he fell long enough, mightn' t he find that timeless place where the dead resided?
To find Zarella!
His heart raced at the thought of the lovely woman. The heart' s beating stilled to nothingness. She was only a wisp of memory to him now. Gone, long gone on a world also vanished from his reality. Tears welled in his eyes at the thought of never returning, yet he' d had his revenge on Kyn- alLyk- Surepta. And it had been as ashes in his mouth.
The Resident of the Pit had been correct, all too correct. Surepta had found justice at his hand, but Lan felt no sense of revenge, of fulfillment at the other' s death. And still he spun through the galaxies yawning under his feet, seeing the slow march of stars and worlds without number.
" I witnessed a duel of wizards on a world similar to this one," came Inyx' s disembodied voice. " They turned the entire glade dark and sent us whirling through space at a furious rate. I closed my eyes and concentrated on what I knew had to be my proper surroundings."
Proper surroundings? Lan was uncertain what that was now. He belonged to the universe. He roved among the stars at will. He was lost in eternity.
But the woman' s words kept repeating over and over in his mind. Lan screwed his eyes tightly shut and pictured the Kinetic Sphere pulsating with its almost obscene pseudolife, the ebon darkness of the surrounding room, the high- gloss floor, the fire- blackened door leading into the courtyard, other doors leading off into unknown directions. The dizziness passed, and he fought to maintain his mental picture against the new assaults on his senses. The interworld creatures couldn' t harm him now; he had substance and they did not.
A sharp pain lanced through his leg. He stumbled and fell. He hazarded a quick look and saw a quarrel piercing his calf. Breaking off the squared head, he withdrew the shaft and tossed it away. Wherever it had come from, it wasn' t from the nothingness of the wraith- dimension he fought his mental battles in.
" Why am I afflicted with this insane urge to leave my web?" moaned Krek. " I was happy. No spider could have been happier. I was content swinging across the Egrii Mountains. But no, fool that I am, I took to wandering. Oh, why, why!"
Inyx vanished from sight. Lan swallowed hard and fought down the pain rising in his leg like the ocean' s surf. The illusions diminished in intensity, and Lan thought it might be due to the pain from his injury. Pain drove out all mirages of the mind. A scuffling noise drew his attention and the point of his sword. A muted cry, then a body fell lifeless to the floor.
" Thanks for your quick sword, Lan," the black- haired woman said. " I thought you were still whirling in your orbit around all space."
" To tell the truth, I was until that crossbowman pulled me back to the here and now." He grimaced and sat down on the floor to begin the healing chants.
Inyx crouched beside him, then looked up at Krek and said, " Guard us for a few minutes. His magics take too long to work." She ripped away his pants leg and used the material to expertly bind the wound. Although the quarrel had missed all important bones and tendons, the wound still burned as if infested by a hill of acid ants. " There," she said finally, " that' ll take care of you for a short while. Later, when we have the time, you can chant away the cut with your spells."
" You' re expert at this. It seems you spend as much time repairing me as you do fighting."
" I' m an old hand at both. Until my brothers were killed, I spent my spare time sewing them back together. And Reinhardt:" Her voice trailed off, and Lan saw the twinkling speck of an unshed tear forming in the corner of her eye.
" Reinhardt? One of your brothers?"
" My husband, now dead a full year and more." She stood and said sternly, " On your feet. We must still fight free of the castle."
She helped Lan to his feet, and he found he could walk- after a fashion. He wondered how much more fighting would be necessary for escape.
And to rescue Velika.