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CHAPTER FIVE

A bug burrowed its way into his nose, making him snort and sneeze in protest. This was the rude awakening Lan Martak had the next " morning." As soon as he pulled the offending insect from his nostril, he looked up to the leaden rain clouds swirling above the trees. There seemed no difference at all in the light intensity, yet Lan felt this should be morning. He had slept long enough to take the edge off his nervous exhaustion from fighting the wolf pack and meeting his strange companion in arms, Krek- if a spider might be considered a companion in arms.

Lan looked to the dark shape, still crouched in the middle of the tiny clearing. Krek hadn' t moved a hair since their encounter. The man tried to figure out the spider, then shook his head. It would take much work to do something as complex as picking apart the inner workings of that intelligent arachnid' s brain.

“ Ready to do some hiking, Krek?” he called out, unsure of the spider’ s reaction. When the spider only let out a very human groan, Lan feared some injury had gone unnoticed in the excitement of the “ night” before. He went to the hulking beast and laid his hand lightly on the ridge above Krek’ s eyes.

The spider was crying.

" Krek, are you hurt? Did the wolves nip one of your legs?" He looked in confusion at the tangled array of furry legs curled around the spider. If one had been injured, he wasn' t sure how he would attempt fixing it. A bite, even a deep one, required only a bit of bandaging and a simple healing spell, but an outright break posed grave problems. He didn' t know how to splint a spider' s leg, and his mind reeled at the thought of Krek using a crutch.

" Oh," sobbed Krek, " it is all so useless! I shall never see the lovely Klawn- rik' wiktorn- kyt, light of my life, again. She is gone, gone forever!"

" Krek? Have you had a vision? Can you foresee the future?" Lan shook the spider hard now, trying to get information. Precognition was rare on his world; few claimed it and fewer actually possessed the talent. Once, he had gone to a spring fair years before meeting Zarella and watched the acrobats and jugglers perform. Tiring of them, he found his attention drawn to a tiny booth. The crone propped in the chair inside had spoken to him, telling of things in his future. At the time, he had laughed them off as ravings of an old woman wanting to impress him into giving her a few coins. He had, but when the very things she foretold came to pass, he experienced dйjа vu feelings for months. When the Resident of the Pit had foreseen his future, it had felt different. The Resident was not human by any definition and had lived for eons, the study of time but a hobby. It seemed fitting that such a being could peer into the clouded depths of the future for a few pertinent facts.

If Krek could foresee the future, what a boon!

" A vision? Whatever are you talking about, you silly human? I bemoan my fate, my pitiable fate, being marooned on this wet world, so far from my Klawn."

" You' re not hurt? Nothing' s happened to your mate? Then why in all the seventeen hells of the Lower Places are you weeping like a spinster at a wedding?"

" My fate seems so cruel at times," the spider explained. As the tears stained the fur under his eyes, he reached out and brushed the moisture away with a quick front claw. " Are you ready to travel?" he asked abruptly.

" Yes."

" Then why didn' t you say so? You humans waste so much time with your petty intrigues, it' s a wonder you accomplish anything at all."

The spider rose and began loping off in what appeared to be a totally random direction. Lan watched, open- mouthed, then trotted after Krek, hard- pressed to maintain the speed of the multi- legged creature through the boggy lands.

Lan used the time travelling to think, to sort out all he had learned in the past several hours. This storm- wracked watery world seemed a hollow shell, devoid of surface life. Yet something vicious occasionally sprang out to devour the unwary. The pack of wolves had to live off food more substantial than the damned, all- pervading fingers of fog drifting through the interminable swamps. Lan wondered if the cenotaph providing a gateway between worlds had to be one of a human to open the Cenotaph Road. While Krek was decidedly unhuman, he had mentioned accidentally killing a human in his travels on this world.

" Krek?" Lan panted, speeding up enough to pull alongside the spider. " Was that human caught up in your hunting web from this world?"

" I had not thought on the matter. The unfortunate occurrence happened not fifty days' travel from here, but I doubt he was of this world, now that you bring the question to light. I was so wrapped up in my own concerns at the time, you understand, I never thought on it."

" Surely, Krek, but if he wasn' t of this world, did he come through the cenotaph you took to get here?"

" Doubtful. The one in the Egrii Mountains is at such an altitude that you humans begin to wheeze and faint from lack of air. It does not bother me, of course."

" Of course," Lan agreed, to keep the spider talking. " So there are many paths leading to this world?"

" Certainly, and many off it. Why, I can see no fewer than four of them. The ones shielded by the bulk of the planet are beyond my sight, so many others might exist elsewhere. I am not perfect, friend Lan Martak."

Lan bit back a retort.

" How many of those four cenotaphs lead directly to your world? Only the one you came through?"

Krek' s head wobbled about until Lan thought it might fall off. Then he decided this was the spider' s equivalent of an assenting nod. One cenotaph, one world linked through it. This assumed that only one death had occurred to create the universe- strain required to traverse the myriad worlds. But he had heard of others with many worlds attached, and he had fallen some distance through thin air before hitting the surface of the lake when he' d walked the Road.

He asked and Krek answered, " That can mean only one thing. The empty grave on your world' s side was improperly consecrated. A oneway gate formed instead of a door leading in both directions. Not uncommon, especially in lesser- developed human cultures."

Lan bristled at the implied insult, then held his barbed reply in check. The spider was larger than he, and it did possess knowledge he needed if he wanted to walk the Road successfully after parting company. At this moment, Lan wished the appropriate cenotaph gaped in front of them. He didn' t trust his temper much longer with this selfimportant creature.

" Let' s stop for a few minutes' rest, Krek. My leg was injured yesterday."

" Last night," the spider corrected.

" I don' t care when it was, it still hurts." Lan stumbled to a halt, then fell to the ground. He rubbed his leg until the stiffness faded, then chanted his healing spell. He wished he' d learned more of the healing magics, but life had always seemed so filled with other, more important items. Looking up, he saw Krek passively standing, waiting for him to finish his odd human rituals.

" I want to rest awhile, Krek. My leg will give out under me if I don' t."

" Very well. I tire of running like this in the middle of the night."

" There' s no difference," Lan flared, irritated in spite of himself.

" If you say so."

Lan massaged his muscles and changed the bandage on the alligatorbitten leg. The terrain where he rested differed not one iota from where he had so ignominiously splashed down on this world. He wondered if Krek actually knew where he was going or if the giant spider simply wanted to play him for the fool. He was tired of sloughing around in knee- deep scum.

" How do you keep oriented on this world?" he finally asked. " My compass needle felt neglected with no magnetic field. And the sky and all those damned clouds prevent a sighting on stars."

" I know nothing of such things," the spider said. " I simply sight in on the cenotaph I desire, then go directly toward it. I am surprised you humans lack this talent. You boast of all manner of other, less useful talents."

" Such as?"

" The oddest one you call taste. It has something to do with the interaction of food on your eating orifice. I never understood that, though many lower animals apparently have it. They choose certain foods over others, simply due to this strange trait. Take the carrioneaters, for example. They prefer their food dead several days, just as you do. What difference does it make? Dead a day, dead a month? Is it not all the same?"

" You don' t taste your food? How dreadful. I don' t know what I' d do without being able to savor a juicy steak, cooked only until it' s red encased in a light brown skin. The salty tang of it as it works against my tongue is indescribable."

" That is what I said." The spider continued, unperturbed. " No, this sighting talent of mine is akin to vision, but differing."

" That makes as much sense as my description of taste," admitted Lan.

" The empty graves yawn wide and glow a variety of colors. They are so necessary to keep sanity on this dreary world. All seems bland here. Very depressing." For a long moment, the spider said nothing. Then: " It forces me to remember my plight, how I am adrift in a world of woe." Krek sank to the ground and pulled his eight legs under him. A gusty sigh vented like a fumarole before he said, " All this saps my strength. How can I go on?"

Lan stood, twisting to make sure his own legs were up to the task of pacing the spider' s loping gait. Sure that he was ready for a few more hours, he softly said, " Remember Klawn. Remember your mating web. And I' ll help you back to it."

" Ah, yes, I had forgotten precious Klawn- rik'- wiktorn- kyt in the midst of my sorrow." The spider' s eyes came unfocused and it stared, dewy- eyed, at nothing Lan could discern. He began to worry about the creature. Its flights of fancy took longer and longer. This might be a form of sleep or relaxation for the beast, but Lan was leery of taking such a chance. His experience included a creaturealmost human- that could dissociate its spirit from its body and roam the world at will. Not quite a ghost, the therra usually managed to return to its body before it died of starvation. If it failed and the body perished, the therra had to be hunted down and exorcised by an experienced mage. But all that lay behind him on his home world.

This world was: different.

" Krek. Krek! I hear voices. Men. Wake up, dammit!"

" Hmmm? Oh, yes, of course. I heard the men and all those silly four- legged horses some time ago. I assumed you had, also. Shall we go meet them?"

Lan' s exasperation at the spider knew no bounds. Krek had actually heard them before he had and said nothing. He stamped his foot, then regretted it as tiny stabs of pain jabbed into his wound. Controlling his voice with great effort, he told Krek, " I don' t know if they are peaceful or not. If there are too many of them, we can' t fight them all if they' re after our necks."

" Once," mused Krek, " I could have fought them all. But that was ever so long ago. My powers fade. Oh, why did I ever choose to roam? Fool that I am, it still seems a dream."

" Too late for recriminations," muttered Lan. " Our well- armed friends have seen us. Let' s hope, at least, they are our friends."

It took several minutes for the horsemen to trot into full view. Lan felt his stomach tighten into a knot. He thought he' d left such men as these behind him. The leader of the grey- clad soldiers reined in and peered down at Lan. His tunic and trousers were slightly different in tailoring from those Lan was familiar with back on his own world, but the arrogance and demeanor were identical. These greyclads were of the same band as those led by Kyn- alLyk- Surepta.

Lan did a quick head count. Fifteen of them, all mounted, all armed with sabers, some of the soldiers wearing body armor. He failed to detect any longer- range weapons such as bow and arrow or even the bulky wheel lock pistols of his own world.

" Good evening, sir," he said, assuming Krek to be right about the time of day.

The officer in charge said nothing. He stood in his stirrups and stretched, as if he' d been long asaddle. Finally, he deigned to notice Lan.

" What manner of man are you?"

Lan wondered how to answer such an odd question.

" The same as you," he said cautiously.

" You dare say you are of my clan!" roared the soldier, glowering down at Lan from his superior height. His hand rested on the hilt of his saber. From the whiteness of his knuckles, he would draw and slash at any instant.

" No offense intended," Lan hastily said, but his own hand slipped his knife free, hiding it behind his forearm. If the grey- clad soldier intended drawing the sword, a tiny wrist motion would send cold steel into his throat.

The soldier relaxed a little.

" We are the Saviour Waldron of Ravensroost' s outpatrol. We guard the far borders for our lord and master. I ask again, what manner of man are you?"

" I am Dar- elLan- Martak, recently come to this world of yours. All we ask is simple passage."

" We?" repeated the soldier. " You have companions?"

Lan turned to find Krek tightly compressed into an amorphous lump near a cypress. In the dim light it was impossible to tell that a tall spider lurked so near. Lan decided this was part of the duty he had shouldered. Krek either feared these men or had retreated into his own personal spidery world for reasons of his own.

" A figure of speech."

" No," demanded the soldier. " You said ' we.' Where are your travelling companions? Tell me!"

" I' m no peasant to be badgered by your likes. I have every right to walk this world unmolested by you."

" Kill him," came the sharp command from the officer.

Lan whipped his knife forward, wondering if he could hamstring a couple of the horses and escape in the ensuing confusion. He doubted it. These men carried their sabers as if they knew how to use them. All the accursed soldiers seemed superbly trained and ready to die in battle. He' d find his head severed from his torso the instant he dived for the horses.

To his surprise, the horses all reared, one even throwing his rider. The others bolted and ran, no matter how their riders tried to slow them. Lan saw that most of the grey- clad soldiers weren' t trying very hard to control their steeds, either. Even the officer turned pasty white and spurred his horse away, screaming incoherently.

Lan turned to find Krek towering behind him. The spider asked in a mild voice, " Why did they run like that? Did they remember an appointment? It was one like them who died in my hunting web. I feared they would inquire about that misfortune, as the others have done in the past. Perhaps they are willing to live and let live."

" Something like that, Krek. Let' s get moving to that cemetery. I think this world is getting too hot for us."

" Too hot? It seems the right temperature to me. A bit moist, perhaps. I hate water, you understand. But:"

Lan shut out the rest of Krek' s likes and dislikes. As long as the spider continued frightening patrol officers, all was fine.



CHAPTER FOUR | Cenotaph Road | *****







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