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CHAPTER THREE

Lan Martak fled from shadows. Since leaving the Resident of the Pit, he had dodged and cut back on his trail and swung through the limbs of the dense trees and done a half- dozen other tricks designed to throw the sheriff off. He hadn' t dared use another of his minor magical spells for fear the sheriff could detect it and turn it against him. The old man had taught him a little of his magic, but Lan realized he pitted himself against long years of experience he couldn' t hope to match. He held a wide measure of respect for the old man, perhaps too much.

Braced in the crotch of a tree, Lan panted and wiped sweat from his forehead. When his strength flowed back, he dropped lightly to the ground and instantly froze. A sound, so slight a city dweller would miss it, came to his alert ears. He felt his eardrums itching as they strained. Adrenaline flowed through his arteries, sending his heart pounding wildly in his chest. Pursuer or pursued. Those were the only two conditions he knew.

And the rules were different for him now that he had joined the pursued.

He inhaled deeply, sampling the cool night breeze for some spoor to indicate what had alerted him. The sharp, acrid tang of a sniffersnake made him tremble. The icy hand of fear clutched once at his heart, then relaxed as he stilled his runaway pulse. He hadn' t thought the sheriff would loose those vile creatures.

It came again to him how a murder in this civilized community was the height of crime. The townspeople ignored real crimes, crimes against honor and dignity, while putting too much emphasis on a condition that would occur sooner or later anyway. Better to die with honor, Lan thought, than to be disgraced. Lan only wished he could kill Kyn- alLyk- Surepta and show to all how treacherous the other grey- clad soldiers were. But there seemed no way of even hinting that Surepta had done the dishonorable crimes. Magic failed occasionally, became muddled and obscured. He raged futilely, thinking of Lyk Surepta swaggering, unscathed by justice, untainted by the slightest guilt.

That thought more than any other made his hand tremble and his lips pull back into a thin line.

A slithery sound warned him of the approaching sniffer- snakes. Deaf, almost blind, the snakes tracked only by smell. He could scream and the snakes would take no notice. Let one small hair fall from his head, however, and the snakes sensed it immediately. Even magical potions failed to increase the abilities of lesser animals to equal the sensitivity of sniffer- snakes' sensory pits.

If their tracking ability had been all, Lan would have relished the challenge. Outwitting them and their preternaturally acute sense of smell was a duel worthy of his own abilities. But when the sniffersnakes tracked, no human dared follow. They hated with an intensity and an elemental intelligence. Anyone would do for their passionate hatred of humanity, including their keepers, but set on the trail of a fugitive, they paralyzed their victim with the bite of poisoned fang, then chewed with teeth. Carnivorous reptiles, they never stopped eating until the victim was totally devoured.

Lan shuddered as the slithering sounds grew louder. He began loping along, his legs covering vast chunks of terrain. The wind whispered through his hair, drew away the cold fear- sweat, soothed him. The stars burning mindlessly in the ebony bowl of the sky all peered down at him, questioning his ability to escape the voracious reptiles. He wondered if the stars held an intelligence and, if so, were wagering on him- or against him- in this death race.

Lan never broke stride as he jumped into a tree and began swinging limb to limb like some oversized monkey. The rough bark cut his hands, forcing him to pull himself up onto a branch and walk along it. The coal- bright eyes of the sniffer- snakes beneath him peered up, malevolent. They coiled, hissing and clacking their teeth together, until one caught his scent on the tree trunk. With a sinuosity that appeared magical, the snake immediately wrapped itself around the trunk and began swirling itself into the tree. Even though his time would be better spent racing the wind to the graveyard, Lan found himself unable to tear his gaze off the hunting sniffer- snake.

It hypnotized him with its boneless movements to and fro. When the snake reached the limb on which he stood, he came to his senses. Never had he heard of such hypnotic power in the reptiles, but he knew it existed. Nothing else explained his failure to run.

He slipped his knife from its sheath as the fiery- eyed snake slithered toward him. Faster than thought, he lunged- and missed. He recovered his balance in time to prevent a fall to the ground. He glanced down to a tight knot of a dozen or more of the sniffersnakes.

" Keep calm," he told himself. " Calm and you' ll still be able to reach the graveyard before midnight. Otherwise, you' ll be ready for the graveyard in seconds."

The snake mocked him. It pulled itself up into a coil on the branch and hissed contempt. Lan was loath to throw his dagger at the beast; a miss spelled death. He followed the head as it weaved back and forth, then felt a lethargy spreading to his arms and legs. Realizing it was the hypnotic effect of the snake, he fought successfully against it. As long as he didn' t relax his guard, the snakes had to rely on mere physical attacks.

A glance over his shoulder assured him that a jump into the next tree would be futile. Several of the sniffer- snakes already perched on the only limb within reach. As the hissing snake confronting him moved closer, he launched himself straight up.

The snake' s strike missed. As it extended along the limb, it opened up its entire length to attack. Lan dropped from the limb above and let his boots crush the snake' s back. Hissing fiercely, it fell from the limb to land among its fellows, broken beyond recovery. Lan hastily shot back up into the heights of the tree, transferred in a direction he hoped wouldn' t contain more of the slithering beasts, then made his way until he came to a rushing stream.

Walking a limb until the stream gurgled under him, Lan looked around for some sign of human presence. None. He braced himself for the chill water, then splashed down in the center of the flowing river. He immediately dived and swam underwater as far as possible before surfacing. He gulped a lungful of air, then dived once again. With this porpoiselike progress, he hoped to elude the sniffersnakes.

It worked. He arrived at the cemetery twenty minutes before midnight- alive and uneaten.

Lan scouted the graveyard to make sure it was as deserted as it seemed. While he found no obvious human presence, he did interrupt a pair of mating wolves. They left the cemetery with ferocious snarls to warn him against following them to some nearby place where they would continue their amorous activities.

Lan sat down, his back propping up a tottering tombstone, thinking how his life might have been different. He and Zarella might have been out here this evening with activities in mind similar to those of the wolves. Fate had cast a different role and robbed him of her. And, with cruel jest, fate went further and even held him accountable in human circles for her death.

" It' s not fair," he muttered to himself. Yet, he told himself, where was the contract saying life had to be fair? No such agreement existed. Fate could be cruel if it chose; as easily, it could benefit him.

His sharp ears picked up the crunch of booted feet against gravel. He started to bolt for the deeper shadows of the forest, then stilled his impulse. Best to remain stationary, then silently work his way around the cemetery until he found the proper crypt for his journey away from this world.

The sheriffs voice drifted on the light breeze.

" How should I know if he' s here, you fool? The sniffer- snakes might have got him already."

" Sure, Honor, whatever you say, but it seems a churlish thing to do, sending those snakes after him and all."

The deputy' s voice carried sincere regret, but Lan knew it wasn' t born of personal friendship. The man just hated to see anyone trailed by those vicious, carnivorous reptiles.

" Had to be done, boy. No other way of catching one as smart as Lan Martak. Trained him myself, like a son, I did. Damn fine man."

" Then why' d he kill Zarella? It was a bloody crime."

Lan imagined the sheriff shrugging thin shoulders, pulling tiredly at his scraggly white beard, and spitting. The old man' s words chilled him more than the cold stone against his spine.

" A man does strange things in the name of love. That whore Zarella twisted him up inside, maybe, and when he found out she never intended anything honorable, he killed her."

" But so bloody," persisted the deputy.

" A man changes." For a moment silence hung like a damp, suffocating fog over the cemetery; then the sheriff continued, " This place always makes me uneasy, jittery. I feel like visitors from beyond are knocking on my door."

" I know what you mean," came the frightened voice of the deputy. Lan smiled to himself. The deputy would be the most easily scared away. He took a quick look at the stars overhead, found the War Dog constellation spinning around the triad of unchanging stars, and knew he had little time left to find the proper crypt and enter it.

He peered out from behind the tombstone and saw the sheriff, his back to Lan, dealing cards to the deputy. The nervous gestures assured Lan of success in the deputy' s case. Getting rid of the sheriff without killing him would be more difficult.

Lan found several small pebbles and began flicking them behind the deputy. At first, the man glanced up, suspicious, not sure he' d really heard anything. His hand rested firmly on his sword, but he didn' t draw. Seeing nothing, he turned back to the game of magically lit cards, which provided a way of passing time without forcing him to think too much of his unwanted duty in the empty graveyard. Lan dropped another stone just behind the deputy.

This time, the man rose and pulled his sword, shouting, " Someone' s here!" He waved his blade and slashed at the darkness, killing only empty air.

" Sit down, you fool. If Lan is anywhere near, he' s heard you by now."

" A ghost brushed me. I felt it!"

Lan let the man' s imagination prey on itself for a few minutes, then rubbed his hands through some dew- laden grass. Dripping with moisture, he snapped his fingers in the deputy' s direction. The sparkling droplets arced through the air and landed on the man' s face. The deputy blanched death- pale, wiped the water away, rose on shaky legs, and let out a frightened howl.

" I felt them! I tell you, I felt them! A ghost. Hundreds of ghosts!"

The sheriff reached out and pulled hard on the man' s sleeve. Lan cursed his luck. Another few seconds and the deputy would have run into the night, leaving only the sheriff. The old man' s basic good sense prevailed over ignorant fear.

" Sit and be quiet. There are no ghosts, not around us. I cast a spell to ward them off," he lied for the man' s benefit.

" Y- you did? Wh- why didn' t you tell me?"

The old man shrugged it off.

" It' s nothing. One of these days, I' ll teach you the spell. Quite simple when dealing with ectoplasmic beings. Much easier than lighting the cards." He glanced down at the spread of softly glowing cards on the stone between them. " I see why you wanted to run, Miska. I have you beaten easily this hand."

" Your spell wards off ghosts? All types of ghosts?" persisted the deputy.

The sheriff nodded. " Let me tell you of some of the residents of this graveyard. My conjurings told me that Lan would head here, possibly to follow the Cenotaph Road."

" No!" gasped the deputy. " No man would be so foolish. To go into: into nothingness."

" Is that so silly?" mused the sheriff. " I think not. Listen good, Miska, and learn how a man might think. In Lan' s case, it' s salvation. Another world, another chance. In a way, I hope he makes it."

" H- how is the Road taken? I' ve heard of the dire results but never of the actual path."

" See yonder, monument? At the center of the cemetery?"

" Lee- Y- ett' s tomb? A brave man, from all accounts."

" Truly a brave man. He was among the first to explore the elLiot Mountains. He braved those heights, mapped the passes to allow commerce with the Boc- traders near Burning Sea, and even did some mining. That cost him his life. While mining drell- gems, a rockslide buried his body so deep it' d take the gods themselves a million years of digging to uncover the remains."

" But, Honor, yonder is his crypt. I see it. You mean he' s not in it?"

" No. The full ceremony of death was performed, but without his corpse. Respect was due him for his accomplishments, and thus it was granted. A fine monument to a man who enriched our lives. But only an empty grave yawns."

Lan circled the pair and situated himself closer to the cenotaph. He tossed another small stone so that it bounced off the deputy' s booted foot. This was all it took to send the nervous man lurching into the night.

" Stop, damn your eyes, Miska, stop! Don' t run off!" the sheriff yelled, knowing even as he said it that his deputy was beyond hearing. He squinted a bit and called out in a softer voice, " Lan? Lan Martak? I know you' re out there, boy. I don' t want to make a night of this, so why don' t you give yourself over?"

Lan had to bite his lower lip to keep from laughing. All that awaited him at the old man' s hand was death. He' d rather find that along the Cenotaph Road. Be it ugly, messy death in the jaws of some vicious beast or a peaceful death in bed with a loving family at hand, he didn' t care. Either was preferable to being rendered down into a pool of molten animal fat by the sheriffs diabolical spell.

The Road beckoned. He knew not where it led, nor did anyone else. Adventure, yes. Possibly treasure and fame. He wondered why he had never considered this before. Zarella had held him back, certainly. His love for the woman had blinded him to the world- worldsstretching in all directions around him. If he couldn' t avenge her death, why not seek glory in other worlds?

He knew there' d be no returning once he laid down in the cenotaph of Lee- Y- ett, but what matter? The restless power of that brave, lost, roving spirit would whisk him away to another world, perhaps to a better world, but certainly away from this one, away from the sheriffs order of reduction, away, even, from memory.

But he knew that wasn' t possible. Zarella would remain firmly embedded in his mind until he died. And Suzarra. Even the old sheriff, who had been like a father to him.

On his belly, Lan wiggled closer and closer to the empty tomb. He knew the sheriff awaited him. Only this one gravesite provided the path he must take. But the sheriff nervously paced around the perimeter of the small stone edifice. Lan hesitated; he couldn' t kill the man. The sheriff deserved his respect. To rob an old man of the final few years of life would be a sin greater than the one with which Lan was charged.

Glancing at the wheeling stars overhead warned him that midnight approached, less than five minutes remaining before the cenotaph' s magic worked on any living being inside the crypt. Lan gathered his feet under him, then jumped out like an attacking panther. A hard fist drove for the sheriffs head and connected with a greying temple. The man uttered not a sound as he sank to the ground, unconscious.

Lan hastily checked for a pulse. It still beat strongly.

" I' m glad, Honor, really I am," Lan breathed. " I' d hate to harm one such as you. The town needs your strength, especially now." He pulled the sheriff into a more comfortable sitting position against the cold stone tomb, then confronted the task of removing the heavy marble slab over the cenotaph.

Grunting mightily, Lan worked open a tiny space through which he barely squeezed. The inside of the grave smelled musty, yet not so oppressive as the youth thought it might be. No cobwebs adorned the insides, and he discovered no creatures of any sort lurking within. Only a pedestal of hard pink granite stretched in the center of the tiny room. With trepidation, Lan went to the bier and placed a shaking hand on the stone. To his surprise, an inner warmth radiated outward. He jumped onto the bier and reclined. Staring overhead, he saw the small opening through which he' d entered and the stars in the night sky beyond. The small angle of vision prevented him from working out the time from the few visible stars. He only hoped he' d arrived in time. He might be off a few minutes in his reading; the stars rarely provided a casual observer the accuracy that a good chronometer did.

" Lan," came a weak voice. " Lan Martak! I know you' re in there, Lan. Don' t do it. Come out."

The sheriffs voice filled Lan with fear. He didn' t dare leave the cenotaph, not now. Midnight was too close. Yet his magic- sense stirred, telling of potent spells being conjured by the sheriff to lure him forth. The old man knew an infinite number of spells to bind him to this world and his fate.

" Very well, Lan. By logic and reason," the sheriff began the mnemonics of his spell, " in every season, stumble, faint and fall, at my beck and call."

Lan' s toes tingled as the spell slowly possessed him. He' d never attempted to thwart such a potent spell as this before. He allowed the coldness to spread, still hoping he' d arrived in time for the cenotaph to take him.

Then he dropped through empty space, screaming at the gutwrenching pain.

Lan Martak fell through nothingness for an eternity. The pain twisted him inside until he was sure that he had died and gone to the Lower Places. Then he splashed down into waist- deep water, nearly drowning himself in the muddy lake as he floundered about, gasping and blowing spumes of froth.

Spluttering, he fought to get his feet under him. When he began to sink in the soft mire of the lake bottom, he leveled his body and tried to float on the surface of the blood- warm water. A gentle pressure freed his boots from the sucking mud, and soon he kicked his way into the center of the shallow lake. As far as he could see in all directions stretched the silent, decaying lake. The surface of the water reflected a turbulent sky hung with thick rain clouds. The humidity and the heat were truly oppressive, but the usual flights of insects failed to take wing and buzz annoyingly around his face.

Lan continued kicking until the mild paralysis left his legs. He had been lucky to escape along the Cenotaph Road when he had. Another few seconds would have immobilized him. But the sheriff and the other world were behind him now. His home world. Lan fought down a sudden surge of irrational panic at the thought of abandoning all he had known for a lifetime.

All that mattered now was his continued survival in this strangely quiet lake.

" Come on, arms and legs, take me to shore," he said, and waited to hear the returning echo of his words. The reassuring echo failed to come.

Sighing, he resigned himself to being totally alone in this world. As he stroked slowly for land, he wondered if he had gone backward in time or if this might be a world layered next to his own like the skin of an onion.

Lacking five minutes of shore, he became vaguely uneasy. In the forests, the source of his tension would have been instantly obvious. In the watery world of this filth- ridden lake, it took several seconds for him to realize that tiny ripples were overtaking and passing him. The lake had been unnaturally still when he unceremoniously tumbled into it. Now the ripples indicated some large body in the water swimming away from him.

He turned and tread water, peering into the mist now veiling most of the lake. The bow waves from whatever beast also occupied the water were plain, but no creature surfaced to confront him. Lan debated heading for shore at the fastest pace possible, then decided that that would only waste strength and gain him nothing. The swimming creature paddled away from him, after all, not toward him. What danger did it really present?

Still, he felt growing panic. The fog hanging like liquid lead over the lake thickened, swirling and billowing over his head. The muddy water became increasingly oppressive, its warmth insinuating itself into his body and robbing him of strength in odious ways, the thick waters clogging his flaring nostrils, the very nearness of the mud bottom sucking up his courage.

He swam faster. The presence he felt grew stronger. Lan wished fervently he had solid dry land under his feet again. He was a fierce fighter- on the good earth. Here, virtually helpless in the water, he could fall easy prey to any watery Hell- creature. The ripples passing him stopped, and only his own turbulence winged back from his frantic strokes.

His left hand slammed hard into a bumpy surface rising from the murky water. Lan opened his mouth to scream and was rewarded with a lungful of the boggy, tired water. Sputtering, he thrashed about trying to get his feet under him. He rapidly discovered the mucky bottom was too distant; he had to tread water while he spat out the mud clogging his throat.

Then he saw the solid object he' d struck. Baleful yellow eyes peered at him, totally lacking in mercy. He knew that look. It was the way a predator studied a prospective dinner. Lan refused to be food for any creature living in such squalid surroundings.

" Away!" he yelled, hoping the sound of his voice would momentarily startle the aquatic beast. It didn' t. The silence quickly returned and became even more frightening as the beast swam in evernarrowing circles, spiralling slowly in to look him over. " Away, I say! I don' t want to kill you!"

He fumbled out his knife and clumsily brandished it. The beast' s eyes never blinked. It came closer.

When the ripples vanished, Lan moved instinctively. He gulped in all the fetid air his tortured lungs were capable of holding, then he dived. The creature attacked underwater, and Lan had to meet it on its own terms or have his slowly kicking legs neatly sheared off by powerful jaws.

The murky water prevented his seeing farther than an arm' s length. He didn' t need sight, though, to sense the alligator surging in for a quick kill. A shock wave preceded it. One second it poised at the limits of sight, then jaws swung open so far that Lan realized the creature might swallow him whole and not even chew. He dived deeper and came up under the maneuvering alligator. His knife ripped into the soft belly and pulled out a long, thin line of red blood. Then the creature went berserk. The froth from its struggles made vision impossible. Lan continued stabbing blindly, hoping to inflict mortal wounds on the beast. When his lungs burned and approached the bursting point, he relaxed and let his buoyancy take him to the surface. As his head popped into the still air above the invisible battlefield, he gasped. Hurried breaths refilled his aching, straining lungs in time to dive under again when he felt teeth chewing into his leg.

He had seriously wounded the alligator during the first encounter, and only this saved him from the loss of a leg and his life. The weakened creature snapped down with its usual bone- shattering bite, only to find the necessary muscles severed by knife slashes. But it remained a formidable opponent underwater, using its bulk to good advantage.

While it couldn' t cleanly bite entirely through Lan' s leg, it gripped with ferocious strength. It rolled over and over under him. He knifed it repeatedly, feeling his strength waning as he did so. The pressure in his lungs mounted with frightening speed. He allowed a few bubbles to slip past his lips. His knife moved with agonizing slowness in the viscous water. The wounds he inflicted seemed increasingly minor. The alligator bled, yes, but the man faded from lack of oxygen faster than it did.

When he was certain only breathing water remained, Lan' s head cleared the surface again. Gasping painfully, he found himself pulled under too soon. He went back down, the alligator still worrying his leg with its once- powerful jaws.

Lan succeeded in driving the point of his dagger into one of the unblinking yellow eyes. The alligator' s thrashing had been frantic before, but now it turned into a tempest sucking all into its vortex.

Whirling in a tight circle, it dived for the bottom of the lake, taking Lan with it. The rush of water past his ears exerted extreme pressure and made him feel as if someone had invaded his head to kick the inside with heavy boots. As a powerful tail lashed past, he stabbed out in panic, his knife sinking repeatedly into soft, unprotected flesh.

The alligator instantly freed his leg. Lan shot to the surface, more dead than alive. He swam along slowly on his back, gasping in the humid air and relishing its now- sweet taste in mouth and nose. His leg trailed behind him, useless from the mauling, but he lived. And, unlike the alligator, he was still able to father another generation.


CHAPTER TWO | Cenotaph Road | CHAPTER FOUR







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