" My legs ache so," complained Krek. " Must we carry that useless box with us?"
" I' d walk if I had legs. Lend me a pair of yours," snapped Claybore from the inside of his wooden box. " Or perhaps I can conjure enough to take them from you."
" Enough of that," cut in Lan. " We' re in this together. No squabbling." For a moment he feared that the sorcerer could do exactly as he threatened. He remained in awe of the talking skull, and mingled with that awe came a touch of fear. Claybore' s power had been severely limited when his skull had been imprisoned in the wooden box by Waldron, but Lan couldn' t erase from his mind the memory of the twin beams of ruby destruction.
" Wherever this is," added Krek.
Lan sighed and sank to the ground under a convenient tree. He rested his tired back and felt the weight of the world descend on him. He' d lost Velika. She had chosen Waldron over him. And all he had to show for the emotional pain was a crystal globe capable of moving between worlds- and the head of the sorcerer who had originally conjured it into existence.
Sorry fare in exchange for one he' d loved so.
Inyx came up and laid a surprisingly gentle hand on his shoulder and said, " Be glad for her. She is with the one she truly loves."
Lan didn' t hear Krek mumble, " Yes, herself."
" You might be right," Lan said, " but that doesn' t make the ache any less real."
She squeezed his shoulder in a way that was more than comradely, then told him, " We have all we need from Waldron. We have the Kinetic Sphere, We can walk the Road and find treasures undreamed of, even in our wildest imaginings."
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He might have lost Velika, but the Siren' s call of unknown worlds still tugged mightily at his sleeve, urging him onward.
" Which of those worlds do we choose?"
" Any- all!" cried Inyx. " What does it matter? Aren' t we free to venture where we please?"
" Yes," cut in Claybore. " Take this world for example. A lovely world simply waiting for your presence. Explore it! Experience it!"
Lan Martak remembered how Claybore had spun the worlds by in the Kinetic Sphere, then slowed and appeared to seek out this particular one. But he pushed the thought from his mind. Too many other things rushed in to confuse him. Velika. Inyx. The Kinetic Sphere. Krek. The jumble was too great to worry what it was about this particular world that Claybore specifically sought.
" This does appear to be a kindly world for one as old and infirm as myself," said Krek. The trilling words came with a modicum of animation now. The spider rejoiced in his own way of being free of his home world and his overamorous bride, Klawn- rik' wiktorn- kyt.
And Lan rejoiced, too, for him, for himself. What the old sheriff said to him so long ago about Zarella came back. He belonged in the country, not locked in the city. This countryside stretching off as far as the eye could see was for him. He didn' t believe ZarellaVelika- would ever have appreciated the sylvan beauty, the simplicity, the intricacy, the life- giving feelings he now felt.
" I' ll explore ahead. Any direction pleasure you more than that one?" asked Inyx, pointing into the setting sun.
" That' s fine," said Lan. He glanced into the box containing the sorcerer' s skull and saw an eerie caricature of a smile form on the exposed teeth. He started to ask Inyx to scout elsewhere, then thought better of it. Better to see where Claybore wanted to go than to blunder unsuspectingly on it.
A sorcerer' s surprises were often fatal.
As Inyx walked off, almost strutting, Krek came to Lan and said, " A brief discussion with you, friend Lan Martak. I am still woefully ignorant of human customs."
" What is it, old spider?"
" Why do you moon over Velika? That human female appeared far less desirable than Inyx."
" So what do you know of human tastes?" Lan shifted uneasily, not liking the way the conversation turned. He didn' t know if he was up to exposing the emotional wounds yet or not.
" Nothing, and that is why I request information. Maybe I am stupid as well as ignorant, but I must try to sift these things out in my enfeebled brain. Velika was headstrong, greedy, and ambitious and obviously cared for no one but herself. Where lay the power, so did she. You were only momentarily in such a position, whereas Waldron commanded vast legions."
" You don' t know a thing about love."
Krek thought for a minute, then jerked his head around in a tight circle. " I fear you are right. We spiders are civilized."
" But Klawn tried to eat you!"
" Of course, what is more civilized than that? It is I who am the barbarian. I am, of course, disgraced, but in my current state of debility, I cannot worry over such things. Rather, I worry over you."
" Thanks, but it isn' t necessary."
" Could Velika fight as nobly as Inyx? Could she provide you better companionship? I see an active, noble human female in Inyx."
" You and she get along well together. You never cared for Velika."
" True, but this does nothing to detract from Inyx' s charms."
" I don' t want to talk about it, Krek. Besides, the wound in my leg is beginning to ache again. In fact, I ache all over. My body has been slashed and stabbed and bruised and beaten too much. Let' s camp here for the night."
" I feared you would say that because of the stream of running water being so close." The spider shivered and moved from Lan' s side.
" Your wounds are minor," piped up Claybore. " A simple spell will heal them. Allow me."
But Lan didn' t voice his objections quickly enough. He felt the familiar lethargy of a potent healing spell stalking his senses. His own brand of magic was puny in comparison; he feared Claybore' s power even as he felt the positive effects of the spell beginning to heal deep inside. In a few minutes, all the pain had been washed from his body and the gaping wounds were closing visibly, leaving only tiny hairline scars by the time Inyx returned from her scouting.
" You' re healed!" she exclaimed, examining the once- wicked wound on his leg. " Claybore?"
" Your humble, obedient- servant," spoke up the skull. " I am pleased to be of assistance to those who rescued me from that tyrant."
" How did Waldron ever get you: I mean, how:?" Inyx was momentarily flustered.
" How did he come to decapitate me and place me in this wooden prison?" the sorcerer finished for her. " I hardly expected a primitive from a world such as Waldron' s dismal mudball to strike so cunningly. He was a genius in his way. He instantly recognized the Kinetic Sphere for what it was. Even as I bent to acknowledge his sovereignty over his world, he drew and struck a dastardly blow that severed head from torso."
Inyx shivered. Lan had to admit this was less than toothsome commentary.
" But the box?" asked Krek, seemingly unaffected by the gruesomeness of the description. " How did your head come to remain in it while your body was elsewhere?"
" Waldron attempted to bury my body to create the strains in the universal fabric necessary for a permanent gate. He failed. But a sorcerer as powerful as I hangs tenaciously to life. My head lived onif this can be called living."
" What of the beams of destruction?" asked Lan, realizing Claybore held back more than he revealed.
" They tr-" The sorcerer cut off in midword. " They are manifestations of my power, the only power I retain."
" Living imprisoned thus in a box," mused Inyx. " A horrible fate."
" It is better than wandering the cosmos as a totally disembodied spirit," answered Claybore. " I live, after a fashion. I am content."
Again Lan sensed the untruth. Uneasily, he shifted around and asked Inyx, " What did you find?"
She smiled and breathlessly told him, " A caravan! People, Lan, people! And from the richness of their dress, this is a most prosperous world."
" Good. I just wish we were as prosperous. Looting Waldron' s vaults would have improved our position enormously."
" We have the Kinetic Sphere," she said, patting the crystalline globe. " This is worth more than a ton of jewels. And we have one another." She looked up and locked gazes with Lan. No true telepathy existed between them, but a definite communication without words developed. He reached out and took her hand in his.
" How far are these other humans?" asked Krek. " While I do not seek out humans, I feel that:" The spider talked on, unaware of Lan and Inyx rising and moving away from him and Claybore. When they were far enough distant, Lan pulled Inyx close, her lips first brushing his, then crushing down hard.
" Sure enough, there is the caravan you saw yesterday, Inyx," said Lan, his arm flush with the woman' s. She turned and smiled at him. He returned a grin; then they swung off together down the hill.
" Friend Lan Martak, carefully study the scene ahead, and you will notice the reason the merchants are not moving along their highway."
" What? I don' t see anything."
" They are under attack," came Claybore' s cold words.
" Yes," clacked Krek, his mandibles snapping together. " And I see my first good meal in more weeks than I can remember." The spider lumbered down the hill in full charge. Lan pulled at Inyx' s arm, urging her to more speed. He felt an obligation to fight alongside the spider.
" Fear not," said Claybore. " The spider is capable of defeating them."
" We' ll help him, nonetheless," panted Lan, increasing his speed. Comrades fought together.
The guards from the caravan battled valiantly against the dogsized grasshopper creatures, but the droves of insects washed over them like an ocean' s tide covering a beach. Lan and Inyx swung swords and killed several of the grasshopper- things with each stroke, but sheer numbers would soon tire them out. Judging by the partially devoured corpses on the ground, the insects had a taste for human flesh.
But it was Krek who proved the most effective. He gobbled and gorged and fought with the ferocity of a hundred men. And somehow, this communicated to the grasshopper- things. Perhaps the spider was a potent natural enemy on this world, or they might have been intelligent enough to realize their potential meal dined off them. However it was, the grasshoppers began retreating with oversized froglike hind legs propelling them in immense jumps.
Krek finished his meal and looked up, belly full and now content in other ways. The way Lan' s arm circled Inyx' s shoulders, and her arm his waist, convinced the giant spider that all was as it should be. Even the mocking smile on Claybore' s bony mouth didn' t bother him.
Krek settled down and watched Lan and Inyx go to the merchant leading the caravan and begin the endless dickering over the value of their services. But Krek did wish the merchants would be more careful with their torches. One tiny spark and his furry legs would be ablaze. Humans could be so vexing at times.
Scanning, formatting and basic proofing by Undead.