Lan Martak struggled out onto solid land for the first time since blundering onto this world. His leg throbbed abominably, and he bit his lower lip to keep from crying out in pain. Only when he had a tree to guard his back did he rest, however. This was a strange, dimly lit land, and all manner of beasts might be prowling for dinner at this very instant. The huge and hungry alligator- creature had been one small hint at what lurked behind the seemingly placid exterior of an unfamiliar countryside.
He pulled away his pants leg and allowed the wound to bleed freely. He doubted the alligator carried poison on its fangs, but the filth floating in the still water might be laden with any number of noxious germs. When his leg began to run chill from lack of blood, he wiped away the caking accumulation of mud and blood and began to dress his wound. When he satisfied himself he had done the best job possible under the circumstances, he put away his small medical kit and began massaging the limb.
As he did so, he chanted a minor healing spell. He felt itching begin deep within the bound wound and he knew the healing had begun satisfactorily. Before long, needles of returning circulation danced along the entire length of his leg.
Having assured himself that he wasn' t going to bleed to death, he surveyed the land around him. This world differed so much from his native one that he sucked in his breath in surprise. The grey, leaden overcast seemed perpetual. No hint of a bright, blue- white sun shone on this dismal swampy place. The trees were mostly blue cypress and willows, tired limbs dragging the muck of the land, only occasionally stirring to the caress of a vagrant breeze. The air itself was fetid, cloying, possibly even carrying the sick sweetness of death in it. Somewhere near, something decayed and no one cared. Lan used the tree for support and pulled himself erect. From his added height, he discovered little better view of the scenery. There stretched an endless array of the willows, and the glasslike smoothness of the treacherous lake multiplied the effect like a hall lined with mirrors.
Still, he lived. He could boast about that- if he found anyone to brag to. He massaged and tugged at his leg and found virtually unimpaired mobility. The minor magical spells he used had closed his wounds. Now only time and his own body' s processes were required to finish the healing. A more powerful mage might have conjured a deephealing spell, but such potent chants were beyond his capabilities and knowledge. Content with the healing already occurring, he jumped up and down a few times to test the strength in his leg, then stopped, deciding not to push himself to the limits of endurance unless it seemed vital to his continued survival.
" Which way?" he wondered out loud. The words were swallowed by the deserted countryside. For the first time he realized that, outside of the breeze rustling the willows, not a sound could be heard. Although straining his acute hearing to the utmost, he failed to detect a single animal moving. " Is this such a desolate land, then? Hola! Is anyone within hearing?" he shouted.
Stillness mocked him.
" Best to find a stream and follow it," he said to himself, anxious for the reassuring sound of his own voice. " But first, where is north?" Pulling a compass from his pouch, he studied the freely swinging needle. After almost a minute of the random movement, he put it away, confused at the lack of reading. This world apparently had no magnetic pole. Lan knew of no other way of determining position as long as the clouds obscured the evening stars and the daytime sun.
Lan decided one direction was as good as another, since he knew nothing of the terrain. He spat on the back of his left hand, then snapped his right index finger down smartly into the wetness. The direction in which the tiny bullet of spittle sailed marked the direction of his march. To ensure as straight a course as possible, he marked every fifth tree with a blaze. The utter sameness of the bog country would betray him eventually if he didn' t do something to warn himself of unconscious circling. A lifetime spent wandering aimlessly in this morass of muck and bog wasn' t as attractive a prospect as a nice cozy fire, a full belly, and all the beer he could drink.
He trudged for eternity before his wound began shooting painful lances of fire into his leg. The wound opened once on him, then threatened again less than an hour later. He bowed to his own weakness, chanting the healing spell over and over. Gathering dry wood for a fire proved difficult, but he had all the time in the world. A tiny pyramid of dried wood in front of him, he closed his eyes, remembered the fire spell, and felt sparks jumping from fingertip to fingertip. He reached out and applied the ends of his hands to the wood. When the fire began to leap cheerfully and dance in the tiny pit he' d dug, he settled down and warmed himself. The insidious wetness of the swamp had completely soaked through his boots. Drying them out and cleansing them of the fungus he' d accumulated on the thick soles and sides ranked high on his list of priorities.
A few mouthfuls of his dried rations and one swallow of water from a small flask was all he allowed himself. Tomorrow, he had to hunt for game and try to find a source of clear water, preferably lacking in large, carnivorous alligators bent on eating him. But now, sleep was more important to Lan. In the span of a few heartbeats, he slept, snoring peacefully, the only other noise disturbing the night being the fire crackling down into embers.
The shrill keening brought him instantly awake, knife in hand. For a moment, he couldn' t locate the source of the awful noise. His ears finally fought off the last remnants of sleep and zeroed in on a dense brush thicket a short run from where he' d slept. The keening was drowned out by a loud thrashing noise, then the unforgettable lament of a dying wolf.
Lan struggled into his still- wet boots. If the wolves of this world were as vicious as those in his, he wanted to be able to fight and run at a moment' s notice. He packed together his meager belongings, slung them securely around his waist, then faced the thicket again. He wished for the first time that he still had his sword. A tiny dagger hardly seemed adequate to go into battle against powerful predators.
He also worried over the first sounds he' d heard. An animal in distress didn' t make such a noise; this had an oddly intelligent tone to it. But he put no name to the kind of beast screaming out in terror with such a high- pitched, wordless cry.
Instinct told him to flee. He wasn’ t at full fighting capacity yet. The wound on his leg was no longer serious, but it might slow him at a fatal instant. Yet all his training, all his ethical upbringing, demanded that he aid another caught by wolves. The wilderness was a dangerous place alone; those solitary souls stalking the most distant reaches of it had to band together against the perpetual tide of death.
A human owed it to another to rescue anyone in trouble.
Balanced on the edge of dilemma, he heard the shrill sound of anguish come again. This time it was followed by fluent cursing. He picked up only the trailing words of the imprecation.
": damn you beasts to Ajo! I will devour your livers! If you do not devour me first. Damn you all!"
That pushed Lan Martak back onto the track of honorable behavior. He felt a passing resentment that he had even considered failing to aid the other. He had to rescue the person in the grove. He couldn' t abandon anyone to the savage hunger of the wolves. He vividly remembered finding the remnants of an exploration team in the foothills of the el- Liot Mountains. Three men and a woman had been partially eaten by the filthy predators. He had the stomach of one who had seen much death in his travels, but those gnawed corpses sickened him more than he had ever admitted to a soul. It would be impossible for him to now let another fall in that identical way if he could aid him.
That renewed desire to succor didn' t cause Lan to rush in foolishly, however. He picked up a pair of the driest limbs, wrapped cobwebs of desiccated moss around each, then thrust them into his dying fire. In a few seconds, he carried two flaming torches to frighten away even the boldest of wolves.
He made his way to the thicket, glad for the added light cast by the flambeaux. The depths were veiled in impenetrable shadow; he made out only the dim outlines of the skulking wolves.
" Away, I say! Aieeeeee! My leg! You repulsive four- legged menace!" came the cries of rage and pain from the denseness. A large wolf flew through the air to smash into a tree bole several feet beyond Lan. Surprised, he turned and saw the creature' s crushed body sprawled bonelessly at the base of the tree. Whoever fought inside the thicket did a noble job of it. To bodily throw so heavy a wolf required strength far beyond Lan' s.
But he knew that a wolf pack, if hungry enough, would tackle even a ferocious jann- pard and chevy it to death. First one snarling wolf would attack, only to be driven back. While it retreated, another wolf would attack. And then another. As they backed away, still others would leap and bite until the prey fell exhausted.
Lan cautiously entered the dense thicket, holding his torches high above his head. His eyes adjusted to the flickering light. He counted on the wolves' eyes taking even longer to adapt. In that short time, he had to attack and, with luck, so would the pack' s prey.
" I' m going to rescue you," he shouted. " Don' t worry. I' ll help you get free of the wolves." He crashed through low tangle of heavily thorned brush until he came to a small clearing. Voicing a wordless scream, he momentarily distracted the circling wolves. A savage lunge with his knife disemboweled one careless enough to turn and attack without first studying its intended victim. His torches were knocked from his hand by the leap of another; then he heard the soul- chilling howl of pain and anguish. The wolf had set itself on fire. As it ran from the clearing, it emitted sparks like some child' s unsupervised fireworks.
The other wolves milled about, the thrust of their attack now parried. Lan charged another wolf, one easily waist high. Because he held a retrieved torch in front of his body, he forced the animal to circle directly into his blade. Others seemed disinclined to press the attack now that their prey had an ally.
" Are you all right?" Lan bellowed to his still hidden companion in arms against the wolf pack.
" Damn, it is such a sorry state I am in! And you, you fool! Watch how you use that torch. You are sure to set me afire!"
" Don' t worry about that, worry about the wolves."
" Pah! These animals are nothing. But what if you set fire to my legs? How should I fight something as terrible as that?"
" Just roll around on the ground, dunce!" Lan had little time to argue. These wolves proved themselves more determined than any he had encountered on his own world. Either they were starved or, as their harsh yellow eyes hinted, they possessed more than a rudimentary intelligence. It was nothing less than a miracle that anyone fended these creatures off, and here his companion had nothing better to do than complain about the careless use of his torch. " Easy for you to say, you stupid human." Lan Martak stopped dead. A quick toss of the torch ignited still another wolf and sent it screeching into the night, a living funeral pyre. The last statement from the rescued party struck him as being so peculiar that Lan felt he must investigate immediately. He turned, facing the voice. As the torch flickered out its dull light, he saw revealed a huge hairy- legged spider, cowering away from the flames.
" Get away from me with that torch, I say! You will do me grievous harm if you get too careless." The spider seemed to be the source of the voice. Lan wondered if he had somehow become embroiled in a nightmare and no longer separated reality from dream.
He mentally checked all the clues assailing his senses. The torch crackled and popped brightly in his hand, and warmed him. Hot resins from the wood seeped forth and dripped painfully onto his flesh. The smell of the burning wood and charred wolf- flesh told him he received the very spoor expected. His mouth felt as dry as a boll of cotton from fear and adrenaline. His boots squished from dampness- if this were a dream, why didn' t he simply wish them dry?
" Are you all right?" he asked lamely.
" Of course I am," declared the spider indignantly. " I am quite able to take care of myself. Not that it matters," came the voice, self- pitying now. " I am nothing. Nothing!"
Lan imagined salty tears welling at the corners of huge, unseen eyes. Deciding his back was too vulnerable, he circled to his right, holding the torch in front of his body for protection. A largetrunked tree soon pressed, rough and reassuring, into his spine. To his immediate right loomed a tangle of iron- grey berries, the thorns on the bush dripping poisonous ichor. His left flank remained open as was the area directly before him. Only when his defense seemed adequate did Lan allow suspicious eyes to scan the monstrous spider squatting in front of him.
Had he been at home, he would have thought someone played a joke on him by constructing this overlarge spider with the matted fur legs and lumpy body. He wasn' t at home; this wasn' t a joke.
" Who are you?" he asked, barely able to trust his voice.
" I am Krek- k' with- kridike," came the voice again. " You may call me Krek. Humans never get the second syllable out properly." An odd chitinous clicking noise echoed from the dancing shadows surrounding the spider.
" What manner of beast are you? I' ve never seen a spider so huge before."
" Indeed." The spider sniffed. " You must be one of the provincials from this world. Little wonder you have never seen a mountain arachnid from the upper fastness of the Egrii Mountains."
The spider jumped forward with startling speed. The hairy ropes on each side of the central mass that Lan ascribed to tree roots stiffened to lift the creature upward. He took a deep breath as he studied the towering beast. It was easily half again as tall as he, and Lan measured as a giant among the lowlanders. The hairy legs spanned a full five paces, and the body suspended at the juncture of those copper- wire- studded appendages weighed at least as much as Lan.
To fight such a beast would be foolhardy. Besides, he had rescued it from the wolves. It should be grateful.
" Either set fire to my legs"- a visible shudder rippled through the creature at the mention-" or hold the torch away. There. Thank you. I see now that you are indeed human." Again the odd sigh. " Long have I fled your kind on this world. No longer. I am so weary. Come. Kill me."
" I mean you no harm. Didn' t I risk my life to save you from the wolves?"
" You humans seldom do things with logic. Why not save me from them for your own perverse killing pleasures? Straying so far from my web has worn down my will to survive."
Lan planted the butt end of the torch in the ground and moved away from the sputtering fire. Sparks flew everywhere now, and he began to share Krek' s fear of being set on fire. He sank to the ground, crosslegged, and gave the spider his closest scrutiny. It was even more repulsive than Lan had anticipated. The huge mandibles snapped noisily, in a menacing manner. The man had a momentary vision of being neatly clipped in half by those powerful death scythes. The only feature of the spider' s " face" that softened the fierceness proved to be the eyes. They were an odd dun color, as limpid as the eyes of a maiden in love and as far- focused.
" Why did you leave your web in the first place? I can' t see you being native to this world. There isn' t a lump of muck large enough to call a mountain, much less the lofty spires that must be your domain."
" Ah, you are another traveller along the Cenotaph Road." For a moment, the self- pity evaporated and Krek talked with some animation. " I left my lovely web seeking adventure. Nothing ever seemed to happen. Just hang around all day, dangling at the end of a sticky strand, waiting for some ugly humans to caravan by. They would either pay the tribute due me or:"
A resounding clack of huge mandibles graphically showed the alternative to tribute. Lan' s hand moved to his sheathed knife with an instinctive jerk.
" But I frightened you! I am sorry. You humans are so fragile. Why, the last one I encountered on this miserable, wet, soggy ball of mud hardly struggled at all in my hunting web before he was entangled so badly he hanged himself. A pity. And it was such a tiny web. I was casting forth for a wild boar or a roe, perhaps, nothing more. But along he gallops on that silly four- legged beast you humans are wont to sit astraddle and that was it. Whish! All caught up and quite dead before I could rescue him."
Lan blinked rapidly at the idea that this spider' s web actually caught and held not only a human but his horse. He felt the developing silence to be ominous. He wanted to babble to fill, the quiet. Instead, he stilled his impulses, swallowed, and considered what he would tell this bizarre arachnid.
" I' m an unwilling traveller," Lan confessed. " There was a slight misunderstanding, a lady dead- not by my hand!- and I fled to avoid the unpleasantness of being reduced."
Krek wasn' t listening. A thin sigh wheezed from him as he settled down to the ground. With his legs pulled in, the spider appeared no more than a shadowy boulder in the clearing.
" No, this is not the terrain of my personal choosing. So true," the spider mused, " so true. How I wish I had not been struck with the obscene desire to explore other worlds. Not a one of my ancient and noble race has left the web of our ancestors. None, save me." Its entire body shivered as if infected with the shaking palsy. " I, Krek of the Pinnacles, the one who yearns for other worlds, ventured out. Look at my sorry straits now. I, who once bragged of warrior prowess, rescued by the likes of you. A mere human!"
Lan let out a short, harsh laugh, more from nervous release than any other reason.
He said, " You don' t look like a warrior at all."
Again came the crashing of powerful mandibles. Lan felt the blood rush from his face. His hand gripped the handle of his knife with feverish intensity, ready for a fight, even though he knew he could never overpower such a large creature.
" If I' ve offended you, many pardons," Lan said hastily. " I only meant:"
" I know what you meant, and it is regretfully true. My vitality has been sapped. The farther afield I travel from my superb, mountainspanning web, the weaker I become. Once, I was a noble among nobles. I traversed the highest reaches, and none matched my fighting abilities. When the accursed yearning to explore erased my good sense, my powers slipped away like water through the fingers of that ridiculous hand of yours. It has been too long since I returned to the web of my hatching, far too long. I am torn by my inner need to return to mate and my physical weakness from being too long gone from my clan' s territory."
Lan nodded, understanding. It was never good to be away from a personal place of power. Krek' s problem was compounded by being a traveller on the Cenotaph Road. Lan knew of no way to return to the world of one' s origin, though. The Resident of the Pit had warned him that he could never return home. Krek carried the same burden.
" I would give my entire web treasure if only I could return to Klawn- rik' wiktorn- kyt."
" Not what, who. My betrothed. Such a fine mating web she spins. Such delicacy and intricacy of pattern. It is a joy to race along the strands, feeling the vibrancy of the web under your legs. Ah, it makes the very fur on my legs tingle thinking of her. All lost to me, all lost!"
Lan watched the spider shrink to rock size. If he hadn' t known the large dark lump in the center of the clearing was Krek, he might have blundered along and mistaken it for an inanimate resting spot off the mucky ground.
" I wish I could help you, Krek, but that first step along the Road is a permanent one. There' s no going back. You and I are cut off forever from our home worlds."
Krek uttered a sound that seemed a cross between a snort and a cough. Lan wondered if the spider had fallen ill. When Krek spoke, he knew differently.
" Foolish human! Of course you can walk backwards on the Road. Whatever gave you the idea you could not?"
" But I was told:"
" Told wrong. All one has to do to find the appropriate spot is to close your eyes and drift. The cenotaphs glow inside the mind, and if you concentrate on any individual one, images dance about it. So simple. I know precisely the way back to my web."
Lan thought over the spider' s words. To go home! He could persuade Krek to show him the way!
Then the desire faded like a night- blooming flower facing the dawn. Nothing pulled him home. Zarella was dead. Her murderer would come to grief, so said the Resident. But the Resident had been wrong once. Could it have erred on this? Somehow, Lan thought not. Discounting this, what did his home world have that couldn' t be found elsewhere?
The negative points outweighed the positive ones. Why not let Krek guide him along the Road?
" Krek," he said with more spirit then he' d felt in days. " What exactly comprises this web treasure of yours? You said you' d give it all simply to return to Klawn- whatever- you- said." The spider didn' t seem a bad sort, and if a little gold could be made escorting him back into those Egrii Mountains he mentioned, so much the better. But Lan didn' t want to end up with a few cocooned bugs. Treasure to a spider might differ vastly from the treasure of a foot- loose adventurer.
" Web treasure?" Krek asked dully. " I seldom think of it anymore. It was once a noble stash. Rubies as large as roc- eggs. Silver chains a mile long. There is even the Eye of the Rainbow."
" What' s that?"
" According to human tales, all rainbows leap from the center of this gem. While it does possess a certain brilliance, I have seen other stones with better clarity and color. And this is so small, too. Hardly as large as your fist."
" How did you get this Eye of the Rainbow?" Lan doubted this jewel would prove too valuable, but the silver chains and the rubies sounded enticing.
" A careless human caravan. Refusing the tribute due me called for their deaths. The Eye was in a large box filled with the softest silks I have ever seen spun by mere- spiders. It will be an inspiration to my hatchlings."
" The Eye of the Rainbow?"
" No, no, no! The silk. Such a fine draw. The expertise shown in spinning those uniform threads, the unique composition, those are the things our younglings can learn."
" Would you give me the pick of your web treasures if I escorted you safely back to your web and, uh, your mate?"
For the first time, Krek rose and bounced as if his legs were made of spring steel.
" Yes! Oh, yes, yes! To return to lovely Klawn- rik' wiktorn- kyt! For that, anything!"
Lan Martak wondered what sort of task he' d just volunteered to perform. Still, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. And if by some chance he learned Krek' s trick of locating the cenotaphs- and was able to glimpse the world beyond- that would be worth more than any jewel or trinket.
" Good," he said. " We' ll leave in the morning."
Krek stirred slightly, then said, " It is morning. Cannot you tell the difference between day and night?"
Lan looked above to the heavy, black rain clouds drifting just above the treetops. The glare seemed less intense in the woods, but he definitely had much to learn.
" We' ll leave after I' ve rested. Does that suit you, Krek?" he said testily.
" Why not?" blandly replied the spider.
Lan found no answer for that. Curling into a tight ball, he slept.