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CHAPTER TWO

Lan sneaked back into town. It was a dangerous thing to do, but he had to know the evidence against him. The sheriff wouldn' t needlessly arrest him; the old man was cagey. He' d be certain of the criminal and the guilt before acting.

Lan heard the few citizens gathered along the wooden walkways buzzing with excitement. A crime always brightened their lackluster lives. This was one of the things he found so repugnant about city life. The people no longer thrilled to nature. They had to have more sophisticated entertainment, such as murder and those coughing mechanical cars that seemed all the rage at the moment.

": so there' s no question about it in our minds," the sheriff was saying to a news- crier.

" How can you be so sure, Honor?" the news- crier asked, his eyes shining brightly like twin black buttons in the sun.

" The usual spells were cast. The three of us saw Dar- elLanMartak' s image in Zarella' s room."

A cold chill raced up and down Lan' s spine. Zarella! He edged closer to hear the entire story.

" He wore a leather jerkin and forest boots, and we' ve found the murder weapon. There is no doubt that it' s Lan' s. I saw him with that same knife earlier in the evening."

" Why do you think he killed Zarella?"

The sheriff shrugged. " I can' t begin to guess. He loved the woman. Perhaps she spurned him. I know he wanted her to leave with him. That caused a fight earlier on with Kyn- alLyk- Surepta."

" What was Surepta' s comment?"

" Nothing. The man didn' t know about Zarella' s death. I am certain Lan is the murderer. My deputies are hunting for him. It won' t be easy for us to track him down, either. He' s wilderness- wise, and if he wants to lead us a long chase, he' s capable of it. But assure everyone that Dar- elLan- Martak will not escape justice. He' ll be caught, tried, convicted, and reduced."

Lan thought there was a tiny catch in the old man' s voice. The sheriff wouldn' t like to summarily reduce him- but he would. Duty required it.

He saw no way to convince the sheriff of his innocence. The magical conjurations had shown his clothing present. That it was probably Surepta wearing the leather jerkin and deerskin boots was something he couldn' t prove. It might have been anyone. Lan knew he had many enemies, and Zarella might have even more. Denying her favors to the wrong man could have produced this diabolical scheme to even the score before consigning her to Hell.

But it was Lyk Surepta' s doing. Lan knew it. And it was Surepta and his grey- clad soldiers who had killed Suzarra, too. Cold hate began to spread like a polar icecap in the man' s innards. His hand trembled on the hilt of his sword, but he was powerless to act, a leaf tossed on a high wind and nothing more. That helplessness more than anything else rankled.

Lan noticed the sheriffs office door slightly ajar. Boldly, he pushed his way inside. The tiny room was deserted. He crossed to the rack of weapons. The lock on the case yielded to slight pressure from his sword blade. First he took out a knife to replace the one he' d lost. Then he took out two clockwork mechanism pistols.

He' d seen these fired many times. While they were noisy and produced a choking cloud of smoke, they killed at a distance far greater than any mage could hope to accurately conjure a spell. He wound up the mechanisms and primed them with a firing cap, powder, and a lead slug. Thrusting them into his belt, Lan went out the rear door of the office. It wouldn' t do to be seen on the city streets now.

In the alley loomed one of the oil- reeking, demon- powered cars. This wasn' t what he' d hoped to find, but it would suffice. A horse suited him better, but a fugitive had to take what he found and not complain about bad luck.

" Demon! Are you in there?" he called to a tiny iron chamber set next to a heat exchange coil.

" Of course I am, you silly human! Where else would I be?" The demon sounded petulant. Lan couldn' t blame him. Being locked up inside the iron prison and choosing only hot air molecules and discarding the cold ones seemed like tedious work.

" Begin your selection," Lan ordered. " I wish to leave town."

“ You’ re not the owner of this machine,” accused the demon. “ I know his voice. Are you stealing me?”

Lan didn' t see any reason to deny it.

" Good!" exclaimed the demon, thumping loudly against the iron walls of the cylinder. " I' ll take you far from here if you' ll promise to release me when you' re done."

Lan considered the bargain. If the demon got him far enough away before the sheriff zeroed in on the thefts, he might yet escape the clutches of the law.

" Very well. But you' ll have to perform to the best of your ability. I won' t accept anything less," he cautioned the spellbound demon.

" You' ll get it!"

The boiler began to turn a dull, cherry red. In a few minutes, a full head of steam built up. Hissing and slewing from side to side, he maneuvered the car out of town.

He hadn' t been on the road twenty minutes when the demon shouted, " How much longer? My fingers are blistering! And my feet are turning cold from all the discarded molecules!"

" A little farther, that' s all." Lan was frantic. He' d hoped the demon would be able to work at top efficiency longer than this.

" Forget it, thief! I don' t care if I rot in this metal coffin. I' m not killing myself for any human."

The car began to lose power at the boiler cooled. Lan let the auto coast until it stopped. Looking behind, he saw frost appearing on the engine. The demon worked frantically in reverse now. He selected the slow- moving molecules and discarded the faster ones in way of protest for what he considered Lan' s abuse.

Lan shouted, " How do I let you out?" He was willing to keep his bargain in spite of the demon' s obstinance.

" Never mind. Just leave me alone."

So Lan did. He knew the sheriff would be after him both for murder and car theft. Lan wasn' t sure but thought it might be easier following him now because of the demon. Magic attracted magic in some unknown and unknowable fashion. Lan' s expertise was limited, but he was able to sense the use of magic. The sheriff was well trained and better able to follow the broad magical path caused by the demon.

Proceeding on foot now through the forest provided the best way of muddling his trail.

Looking around, Lan realized he was but a few hours' hike from the Old Place. With the distance- devouring pace of a frontiersman, he began striding in the general direction of the shrine. It would provide shelter and protection from magical spells and perhaps even grant him the information he needed to clear his good name.

After less than ten minutes of travel, Lan stumbled. He dropped to his knee, then rubbed his eyes. He felt sleepy. The incongruity of it struck him. He was filled with energy and the need to flee. Falling asleep at a time like this was sheer folly.

Or magic.

He closed his eyes and pivoted, relying on his magic- sensing ability to home in on a tiny brightness in the dark. He opened his eyes to see the sheriff and his two deputies standing in a small clearing behind him. Their hands were extended in his direction. He didn' t have to hear their chants to know they were casting a deepsleep spell on him.

He pulled out one of the clockwork pistols. Lan didn' t want to injure any of the three men; he counted them as friends- or had. Now they would reduce him on the spot if he gave them the chance. Intellectually he knew he should slay, if possible. The gun came up and he sighted along the barrel. Something stayed his hand, however. He couldn' t murder in cold blood. That would make him the killer they thought him to be, a killer like Surepta.

The pistol kicked backward in his hand as it spat out its leaden message. The bullet careened off a branch and whistled off into the still night. The ear- splitting report broke the concentration of the three men. The lethargy wrapping him like a cotton- wool blanket vanished.

Lan raced the wind into the dense thicket. The sheriff was slow to follow, not from weakness of spirit but from infirmity of body. Still having one pistol left, Lan carefully sighted along the barrel, wondering why some sighting device hadn' t been fastened to the top. At what seemed the proper instant, he pulled the trigger, heard the whir of the unwinding spring and a pop as the fulminate cap ignited; then the pistol bucked in his hand. The sharp crack deafened him, and the acrid gunpowder stench robbed his sense of smell of its usual keenness.

But the bullet did its work. One of the deputies- the one Lan hadn' t been aiming at- fell, gripping his leg and screaming in pain.

The diversion was enough to allow Lan to run for his life. He knew the sheriff wouldn' t pause long. The man' s honor was at stake. Without a successful capture- or a dead body- the sheriff would lose respect. Losing that, there would be little left for the old man. In a way, Lan felt sorry for him. But personal survival overrode any such maudlin sentiment.

He wasn' t about to surrender himself so the sheriff could keep his job, his self- respect. Being reduced to a blob of animal fat burning with cold magical fire wasn' t the way Dar- elLan- Martak wanted to depart this world.

The forest had fallen silent after the pistol discharge. One at a time, the animals began stirring again. The noises soon returned to normal. The soft clucking of a phor- hen was stifled by the sound of a python feeding. The scents came clean and fresh to Lan' s nostrils after breathing the vapors of civilization.

A pine- needle carpet crushed moistly under his feet, and a heady odor rose to be savored like the aroma of a fine vintage wine. The beads of salty sweat forming on his forehead were pulled away by the gentle breeze blowing into his face. Sensing the direction of the wind, Lan quickly turned to his right. The sheriff tracked with magic, but spells took time to conjure. Tracking by spoor might prove easierand Lan didn' t want to stay upwind too long.

Lan found a small hollow in a lightning- struck tree trunk. Breathing heavily, he leaned into the depression, his hands coming together in front of him. Tiny sparks jumped from finger to finger as he quietly chanted spells of his own. This confused predators intent on serving him as their dinner. He hoped it might momentarily confuse the sheriffs magics as well.

He strained his ears for sounds of pursuit. All he heard was normal nighttime symphony. No human scent disturbed the pungency of the forest, and he saw only dim shapes moving through the night, predators thwarted from feeding at sunset and now hunting anything incautious enough to stay away from the safety of burrow or nest.

Lan felt a surge of power pass through his body. This was his domain; he belonged here.

To share such glory with Zarella wouldn' t have been possible. He saw this now that it was too late. She was a creature of the bright lights, of the teeming city, of the mechanical world. Blown by the winds of fad and fashion, she never appreciated such beauty as that surrounding him now.

A fugitive of the law, yes. A criminal? Never. The forests knew no law save one: survival. Lan was fit; he survived. Simple to state, difficult to achieve. That was the way life was meant to be lived, at the very edge, constantly on the alert. The weight of a thousand manmade laws pressed down heavily on him. He didn' t understand why people tolerated such robbery of their freedom.

They did. He didn' t. Simple. He would return to the world he knew best. He heaved himself out of the charred wooden cradle and continued in a direction he hoped would further confuse the tenacious sheriffs pursuit.

A dark pile of tumbled stone loomed out of the forest' s shadow kingdom. He halted his headlong run, checked the direction of the wind, making sure he had successfully turned downwind from his pursuers, then sat on his heels, breathing heavily. He soon recovered enough to study the rock edifice.

The Old Place was deserted, and few came here. They claimed it was inhabited by evil spirits.

It was.

Lan had spent much time learning the ways of those spirits, finding the nexus of their power, the limits of their ghostly abilities. Here, unique of the power spots he knew, was the Pit of All Knowledge. With a little luck, the Resident would aid him. How, Lan didn' t know. There was only one way of discovering that. He boldly walked into the shadow world of the Old Place, barely noticing the humid, clammy air stroking at his skin.

" It' s not too bad. You' ll live," the sheriff said, examining the bullet wound in his deputy' s leg. " You just take a pinch of this powder and recite a level- two painkilling spell. The two of us will get back to you."

" What if you don' t, Honor?" the man whined, the pain chewing at his self- control.

" You mean what if we' re stupid enough to get ourselves shot to pieces, too? Then, son, you' re just going to have to hobble back to town on your own."

" Unless you can talk the demon in that stolen car into working a little for you," chimed in the other deputy.

" Never mind. Let' s go get Lan. Damn him to Hell! I hate going after him, of all people," the sheriff complained.

" A friend, isn' t he, Honor?"

" Yes. A friend. I just can' t imagine him doing five murders like that. Well, four of them I can. Lan was never one to take guff off anyone, and if the guards annoyed him, sure, I can see him cutting their throats. But not Zarella' s.”

" Women can twist a man around inside, Honor," said the deputy, as if stating a truth of the universe.

The older man didn' t answer. He stooped and picked up the discarded wheel lock pistol. Silently he laid it back on the ground and began pulling various phials from his pouch. Assiduously mixing pinches of powder from three of the containers, he produced a violet paste that soaked up water from the atmosphere.

Muttered quietly, the mage' s spell caused the paste to turn again into a fine- grained powder. The sheriff tossed this into the air and carefully watched the results.

" See, youngling? The hygroscopic powder shows Lan' s profile. If we' re careful and the wind doesn' t blow too hard, we can get a good trail on him. He' s too expert a woodsman to leave any other trail behind."

The deputy headed in the direction indicated by the grainy clouds of powder. Every few feet appeared the outline of their fugitive. Like a fuse ignited, the trail leaped onward into the forest with increasing speed.

The sheriff and his deputy were puffing hard when they came to a small clearing. Only a jumble of violet dust indicated the path.

" May all the gods of Ulfblom take him," cried the sheriff. " He' s used some sort of magic to muddy his track. The dust can' t figure out how to follow. Damn him!"

" What now? More of the powder?"

" No good. The spell is exhausted for twenty- four hours. Let' s get back to our wounded comrade in arms, assure him he won' t die a messy death, then go back to town."

" You' re giving up?" The deputy was incredulous. The old man had never given up before.

" Certainly not!" snapped the sheriff. " I want a couple sniffer snakes. Lan can confound my magics, but he won' t be able to get away from that pair of snakes Lar- ulLen- Beniton trained. Remember how they tracked down that wild howler monkey causing such a ruckus last year?"

The deputy remembered. He also remembered that they' d been too slow in reaching the trapped monkey. The snakes had ripped it apart. No real loss in that case, but to turn those slimy creatures loose on a man' s trail:

He didn' t even want to think of the results.

Lan stood in the tumble- down mass of stone for long minutes, waiting, listening. The baleful moan of wind insinuating its way between fallen blocks built up into a harmonic he knew well. The flesh crawled on his back as the sound magnified. Still, he refused to bolt and run.

Every instinct said flee! This was an evil place. The spirits would devour his soul and leave him a husk of a man.

Lan began walking with great care through the ruins. There was a safe path, a trail he' d blazed once. He didn' t fully understand how the spirits inhabiting the Old Place were kept in check, but there existed spots of safety throughout the ruin. Lan knew about territorial imperatives, had watched animals in the wild exercise their right to hunting space, living space, even dying space. Perhaps the dead ones fluttering up and down the empty hallways of this cold stone mansion wished to preserve their right to a quiet repose.

He couldn' t deny them that right.

The winding trail led to a huge room. The vault of the ceiling had been breached in several places. A thin sliver of moon peered down into the center of the room.

Once, this had been a proud, rich estate. Now tatters of tapestry hung rotting on the walls. The stench of decay persisted with the tenacity of death.

The dim light failed to show much more than rough stone and discarded furniture long eaten away by worms. The grit of dirt under his boots told of years- centuries- of desertion.

Still, in the midst of this dissolution was one feature that captured his attention and held it in an iron grip. The casual observer would have thought the pit in the center of the huge chamber to be a well. Closer examination might have evoked one more astute guess at some sort of altar.

Lan knew it was both- and neither.

His prior explorations of the Old Place revealed the secret of this pit. By the light of day, he had examined the ancient cuneiform writing on the rim of the pit. It was painstakingly slow work deciphering those crabbed, curled letters, but he had persisted.

A well, yes. It was a cistern of knowledge. Following the proper ritual brought forth a fountain of information unrivalled in the world. And it was an altar, too. It was the place of worship of a god so old that even its name had been forgotten. Not one of the modern gods of Ulfblom, this one was more elemental, more basic to the fabric of the universe. But, as with all things living, the entropy of existence had inexorably eroded small bits of power. As the millennia piled up, the god became ineffectual, allowing younger, more vital gods to supplant it.

The very name had faded even from the permanence of the well' s stone rim. But if power was gone, knowledge remained. All knowledgepast, present, future.

Lan approached the stone ledge with a steady stride, but his heart hammered wildly in his chest. He betrayed no outward sign of fear; inside he seethed with emotion. He alone of all men living knew a fraction of what the Resident of the Pit could do.

He stood, his leg resting against the rough, frigid stone of the well rim. The room was cold, but the stone was colder. The depths of space were boiling hot in comparison with the existence of this most ancient of gods.

In the blackness, untouched by silver moonbeams, something stirred. A small motion, silent and ominous. This was the Resident of the Pit that Lan must call forth. He swallowed hard, then turned and began searching the chamber for some indication of mortal life. No building, not even one haunted by the ghosts of millennia, escaped the invasion of rats and other small creatures. Lan sought and found such a beast.

The rabbitlike creature was deceptively docile. It sat on its haunches watching Lan advance. With the speed of light, powerful back legs launched the beast at his throat. The sharp fangs of a successful predator gleamed yellow- white in the moonlight.

And blood spurted darkly as Lan impaled the leaping beast on his sword point. As fast as the creature had been, Lan was quicker. The barely perceptible bunching of muscles had signalled its intent. His long sword had already cleared his scabbard by the time the rabbitthing was airborne.

Lan didn' t bother taking the kicking, still- alive creature off his blade. He carried it to the pit, hesitated, knowing the consequences of his act, then snapped the sword toward the depths of the pit. The beast slipped off the end of his blade, teeth clattering mightily against the carbon steel before it fell, kicking, into the pit. Unfortunately, the creature' s last snap ripped the sword from Lan' s grip. He watched helplessly as the gleaming blade cartwheeled downward.

A pitiful whine echoed briefly through the immense chamber, then silence reigned again. From the bowels of the planet came a deep rumbling. The dark, inchoate mass in the pit began taking substance. A wraithlike creature formed, constantly changing shape as if wind blew through a cloud of dense, inky fog. Even as Lan watched, colors came into the pit. The colors flowed one into another. No rainbow had ever shown more brilliance or innovation of hue.

By the time the deeply resonant voice sounded, Lan had steeled himself to meet the challenge he knew would come. One misstatement now and his soul was forfeit.

" Who beckons the Resident of the Pit?"

" A humble seeker of wisdom."

" I demand payment."

" A life has been given, blood has flowed."

" What is your name?"

Lan began sweating even though the night was cool, the air sluggishly moving inside the chamber. To give his name to a god gave power he wasn' t willing to relinquish. Yet the ritual spelled out on the stone rim of the well required him to give voice to his own name.

" I am Dar- elLan- Martak, second son of Aket- elLan- Takus and Marella of Far Court."

A long silence followed, as if the god meditated profoundly on this information. Then: " I will answer your questions, Dar- elLanMartak. There is one condition."

" What is that condition?" Lan felt fingers closing around his throat. The ritual hadn' t mentioned this.

" A question can be answered only once if it pertains to your personal affairs. Questions of science and magic and philosophy may be asked many times by many people, as they have in the past." The Resident sounded wistful about days long dead.

" It is for myself that I ask these questions."

" So be it."

" Will I escape the sheriff? The man who hunts me for murder?"

" Many men hunt you. The one to whom you refer will capture you in the early morning hours unless a course other than that which you contemplate is followed."

Lan considered this. He' d hoped to slip across the border into Lellvan and offer his services as a forester. The Resident now said this course of action would result in capture by the sheriff.

" What will happen if the sheriff captures me?"

" His evidence is overwhelming. The high sorcerers will uphold the sheriffs verdict. You will be declared guilty and: reduced. Let me ponder this term in its entirety."

Lan waited nervously while the Resident thought alien thoughts. He started nervously when the voice again boomed.

" I have studied all aspects of this phenomenon known to you as ' reduction.' It is simple application of disruptive vibrations to your molecules. The answer to your question is therefore: yes, you will no longer be alive if the sheriff captures you."

" If? I can avoid the sheriff?"

" Yes."

Lan waited for a more comprehensive explanation. When none came, he decided to press on. He had no idea how long this spell would hold, how much vitality the animal' s blood had given the Resident. It wouldn' t do to lose the only source of accurate information of the future he possessed.

" Is: who killed Zarella?" His voice choked with emotion.

" The one called Kyn- alLyk- Surepta. It was done with your knife, stolen earlier in the evening from you after a fight. He also stole your tunic and boots to cloud the trail and lend credence to the magics pointing to you as the killer."

Lan realized what the Resident was doing. Giving an answer was one thing, but giving a complete answer totally eliminated any chance of rephrasing the question later. Not that it mattered.

The sheriff wouldn' t accept the word of a disembodied spirit as the truth. Ghosts were notoriously deceitful, often intent on gaining vengeance on still- living people who had wronged them.

There seemed no way to convince the sheriff that the Resident of the Pit was an ancient god now physically powerless. Still, the cunning of the eldest god amazed and irritated Lan.

" Why did the murder occur?"

" Two reasons. First, Kyn- alLyk- Surepta desired the woman and she refused him his carnal pleasures. He saw a way of having his will and incriminating you at the same time. The second reason is theft. He stole a most valuable bauble given to Zarella."

" Then this bauble, whatever it is, could prove Kyn- alLykSurepta is the one responsible for the murder!"

" No. There are any number of ways he can lie about its possession. At the worst, he would be found guilty of theft. The murder would still rest on your head."

Lan thought how hopeless the situation was. Also, how ludicrous it became. With the sheriff hunting him at this very instant, he sat talking with a million- year- old deposed god, hanging on its every word, believing its pontifications because they matched his own thoughts.

As if reading his mind, the Resident said, " I speak truly. I cannot lie, as you know the term."

" Did Zarella love me? Really love me in a way she didn' t the others who came to the Dancing Serpent?" Lan was frightened of the answer. He hoped against hope for a positive answer, feared a negative one.

A pause lengthened into a full minute of silence. Only the wind blowing through the dried, glass- brittle leaves in the chamber came to his ears. Once, Lan thought he heard the chittering of a rat, but he wasn' t certain. He didn' t dare move. He felt his very sanity hanging in the balance on this answer. Had Zarella been worth all the heartache? Or had she merely been playing him for the fool? Dead, it hardly mattered in a physical sense, but Lan had to know.

" I have thought on this nonthing you call love," answered the Resident. " It is complex and has many manifestations. In the way you mean, she loved you."

Lan felt as if a huge burden had been lifted. He breathed more easily. Yet his love was dead, murdered by a man who escaped justice by sending an innocent victim to legal execution. Lan felt he personally could die happy if only he took Kyn- alLyk- Surepta with him.

That man' s viciousness and cruelty had caused the deaths of Zarella, her guards, and Suzarra. Lan swallowed hard and fought back moisture at the corners of his eyes. His half- sister had lost her life and honor trying to aid him. He could never forget that it was Kyn- alLyk- Surepta and his grey- clad soldiers who were responsible.

" Can I get revenge on Kyn- alLyk- Surepta?"

" No."

The answer was short, abrupt. It startled Lan, for he had become used to the Resident' s hesitating before answering. His future appeared blighted once again. Zarella was dead. Suzarra was dead. And he couldn' t avenge those deaths. A man of honor was stripped of all courses of action.

All except one. The idea came to Lan slowly, painfully. It had always seemed the coward' s way out to him. Now he saw it as something else, something more adventuresome. He was a lost soul in this world. The Resident assured him of death if he stayed. If he couldn' t survive in this overcrowded, too- many- lawed world, he could flee to another, perhaps better, world.

" Resident, is the: the Cenotaph Road open to me?"

" Yes."

" Will I avoid death following the Road this night?"

" No one avoids death. Not even a god. You will, however, not die in this world you currently inhabit. Death will come in another place at another time."

Lan started to ask the time and place of his demise, then bit back the question. If he knew, he would live only for his death. Better to experience all of life and ignore the scrawl of fate slowly inking his name on the Death Rota.

" If I take the Road, will the sheriff pursue?"

" No."

He thought of his friends, his family. Suzarra had been the closest, more a friend than relation. And staying would not aid his friends in the least. To leave behind an entire world frightened him; this was the world of his birth. It held comfort and familiarity. Taking the Cenotaph Road offered only doubt and danger.

" Will I ever return to this world if I follow the Road?"

" No. But you will escape forever the injustice of this world."

" And find injustice in other worlds."

" That was a statement, not a question. Do you wish to rephrase it so that I may properly answer?"

" No. Injustice is everywhere. It' s the nature of the universe."

Lan was startled when the Resident chuckled. It was the first show of emotion the nebulous being had displayed.

" That is a paranoid viewpoint. It is also true, in your terms. The only justice is that which you make yourself."

" I only wish I could bring Kyn- alLyk- Surepta to justice."

" You will."

" But you said I will never return to this world, that I' d never get revenge on him. What do you mean? What do you mean?" Lan shouted. But the Resident had begun to fade. The colors dissolved into a jet black indistinguishable from the void of space. Lan knew the being slipped back into the limbo from which it had come.

The Resident of the Pit faded into ebon blackness, patiently awaiting the next questioner. It might be a month or a century or a millennium; to the Resident it didn' t matter.

Lan sighed. It was a long hike to the cemetery and the properly consecrated cenotaph. He hoped he could reach the awaiting crypt before midnight- and the persistent sheriff.


***** | Cenotaph Road | CHAPTER THREE







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