" How much longer, Krek? My legs are killing me." Lan valiantly worked his way up the steep incline amid sharp rocks that contrived to slip under his boots. His hands were scraped raw, and his knees carried the marks of too many painful encounters with the mountainside. The only cheery prospect lay in the fact that the soldiers pursuing them wouldn' t have been able to scale the walls of the canyon, now almost two days in the past. Lan doubted if their commander' s anger could whip them to do the impossible.
" Not far. I twitch with the nearness of the Road. The cemetery rests atop this mound of dirt."
Lan cast a furtive glance over his shoulder. If he did take a tumble, he would be airborne for long minutes before striking the ground far below. Luckily, the clouds covering this world hid the worst of a fall from his eyes.
" Let' s hurry. I' m tiring again, and my leg hurts."
" You always complain of your leg. Humans are so weak," the spider observed as he agilely leaped from boulder to boulder. " Spiders are obviously superior creatures. We have a sufficient number of legs to support us."
Lan had learned not to argue with Krek over trivialities. The spider' s world view differed so much from his at times that he wondered at the fate casting them together. The man had to work harder to keep up with the spider as the pair climbed higher up on the lone mountain. Whatever the spider' s philosophies, he proved extraordinarily adept at scaling rock. Lan' s brief excursions into the el- Liot Mountains on his home world had been minor jaunts compared with the climbing he' d done this past day. Yet, as he' d grown more and more weary, Krek' s strength had burgeoned. Gone was all trace of the pliant, woeful beast he' d met in the midst of the boggy lands. Krek had found his element in the craggy reaches of rock. Lan envied him his climbing ability; with every aching, sore muscle he envied him.
Finally, the mountain leveled and a mesa sprawled with small rock spires shooting up across it. Lan stood for a moment, panting. An ineffable feeling took control of him, and he knew this to be the cemetery they sought. Under each stony monument rested a corpse. Under all, save one, the one they needed to escape this festering, slimy world.
" Come, friend Lan Martak, we must hurry. The time is at hand for the Road to open to us."
" So soon? On my world, it is only at midnight."
Krek made an odd up and down motion, his eight legs never leaving the rock.
" It is the same here. Midnight approaches, you silly human. Why do you think I am so nervous?"
Lan blinked. He hadn' t realized the spider was in the least nervous. His actions hadn' t seemed out of line with those the man had come to expect. Still, the spider' s innate sense of time on this oddly clocked world had proven accurate in the past. There existed little to dispute it now.
" Which tomb is it we want?"
" That one," said Krek, one leg quivering in the direction of a solitary grave marker. " The cenotaph of:" and only a clacking noise mixed with a sound similar to frying bacon came from his mouth. Lan knew better than to ask the spider to repeat the name. It didn' t matter; all that counted was their hasty departure from this world and their arrival on Krek' s web world.
" Oh, Lan Martak, with the goal so near, I find myself quivering and weak once again. I fail to lift such a puny stone." The spider' s claws scooped out stony ground on either side of a huge slab of limestone, but no matter how the creature struggled, the slab refused to yield up the cenotaph below. Lan immediately added his strength to that of his companion and went tumbling into a heap as the stone sheet grated to one side.
" So weak am I. Who can blame me? The promise of adorable Klawnrik' wiktorn- kyt makes me woozy." Krek sat down in a hairy pile and simply shook. Again Lan felt an electric tension in the air, similar to that he' d felt in the tomb of Lee- Y- ett back on his home world. Powerful magics danced in the air around him. The time for transport to another world neared, too near to argue with Krek over trivial matters. Lan kicked the spider into the yawning pit and, as a thunderclap sounded, dived after him.
Lan landed atop Krek, but gone was the surrounding rocky mountaintop. Replacing it stretched a storm- wracked landscape more to Lan' s liking. The cemetery stood out in bold relief every time a jagged blast of naked lightning slashed the night. But nowhere could be seen greyness. Colors ran wild in the inky darkness: lush green trees with brown trunks, oddly shaped purple shrubs barely knee- high, intense yellow stalks of some wheatlike grain; even the very tombstones were boldly etched in vivid pink granite.
As the tiny fists of rain jabbed at Lan' s face, he felt tears of joy mingling with the natural moisture. Unabashed, he dropped to his knees and cried out his relief at being free of a world where he didn' t belong. Here, no matter what lurked in the forest, was more like home to him. This was terrain he understood, loved.
" Rain! The putrid water!" shrieked Krek. " I drown in this filthy downpour."
Lan clambered to his feet and pulled the spider half- erect. Bending over him, Lan formed a temporary shield from the pelting rain. Then Krek darted for the overhanging limbs of the nearby forest. The distaste for water added speed to his loping gait, and Lan found himself hard- pressed to keep up. He had to laugh aloud at the sight of the wet, furry spider shaking himself like a mongrel dumped into a lake.
And he was safe from the sheriff and the grey- clad soldiers and persecution. Free, free, free!
The heavy rain vanished as if it had never existed, leaving a world scrubbed clean and fresh. Lan inhaled deeply, savoring the crisp scent of the countryside. Myriad odors crowded in on his nose, vying for attention. Flowers in full bloom, all colors of the rainbow, scattered across verdant green fields like droplets from the palette of a drunken painter. Lan stooped and plucked one small golden flower and studied it. Feathery petals as fine as spun glass formed an intricate geometric pattern that gathered the sun' s rays and bent them into new and wonderful hues. The heady aroma reminded Lan of the most expensive perfumes, the texture of warm honey.
Krek stood by, watching his friend in the odd pursuit of sniffing each and every flower. Finally, the spider spoke.
" What is this insane delight you receive from those bits of food?"
" Food? I don' t eat flowers. Rather, I drink in their beauty, I savor their redolence. I:" Lan stopped and smiled. The spider lacked a sense of smell. Perhaps he was also unable to detect the subtle differences in shading among the flowers that so appealed to the man. On impulse, Lan laced the long green stem of a flower through the coppery strands of hair on one of Krek' s front legs.
" Why did you do that? The pollen makes my leg itch." A convulsive shiver dislodged the flower. As it fluttered down, Lan grabbed it with practiced ease.
Holding it aloft, he said, " Beauty, Krek, comes in all forms. You have no appreciation for the finer things the universe has to offer."
" What more would I want than plenty of insects to eat, my mountain web, and, of course, Klawn? You humans complicate your lives to the extent that I fail to see how you can possibly survive."
" Never mind, friend Krek. Let us make haste for your mountain fastness and your mate. I must explore this world further. It appeals greatly to me."
" It does have a certain attractiveness," conceded Krek, " though not in these lower reaches. Wait until we spy the Egrii Mountains. Those are noble peaks."
Lan abruptly stopped in the middle of the road, feeling unreasoned dread. Tense, alert as if a challenge to a duel had been issued him and he was unsure where the first blow would come from, he dropped to one knee and pressed his ear to the hard earth. A distant rumbling sounded loud and clear. From the rhythmic pattern, the man recognized the hoofbeats of many horses galloping toward them.
" Do you feel it, Krek? The vibrations?" He waited until the spider dug hard claws into the dirt. A violent shaking indicated Krek' s assent. " Think it' s likely to be anyone we don' t want to meet?"
" I have no enemies on this world, but it has been many years since my departure. The humans here were always kindly, if a bit distant to the web- born."
Lan felt a growing unease. The paranoia of fleeing the grey- clad soldiers had etched itself firmly into his consciousness. And the flight from his lifelong friend, the sheriff, back on his home world heightened his need to be absolutely certain of the horsemen' s intent before revealing himself to them.
" Down. We hide until they' ve passed by," he commanded. Krek obediently sank into the field of flowers and twitched several times as if sneezing. Then he became indistinguishable from any of the other rocks jutting up amid the flowers. Lan approved of the camouflage, then saw to his own in a narrow ravine. He had barely dropped into it when the leading horseman galloped into view.
Lan sucked in his breath and held it. The rider could have been the twin of the commander left angry and frustrated on the swamp world. Dressed in grey with crimson piping at the collar and cuffs, the horseman spurred his mount down the road with a fury that was an echo from the other world. Lan waited. Soon, trotting at a more leisurely pace came the main body of soldiers.
All were similarly dressed.
Their leader' s voice carried with surprising clarity. " Lord Waldron wishes all the roads patrolled, Sergeant. You and five men patrol the Highlands Pike. I will:" The remainder of the words was swept up in a clatter of hooves and the widening distance. Only when the dust had settled back to the roadbed did Lan poke his head up and study the terrain, as if all the soldiers lay in wait to pounce on him.
Seeing no one, he went to Krek' s side and told the spider, " Your world is overrun by those greys, too. What is this Highlands Pike the sergeant is supposed to guard?"
" Oh, I will never see my dainty bride, never, never, never! Why does such woe befall me? Why did I ever leave my web in the first place?" Again the spider wept large, gelid drops from the corners of his eyes. Lan sank to the ground cross- legged and allowed his churning mind to settle. Becoming as disheartened as Krek accomplished nothing.
" Krek," he said in a voice both measured and calm, " how do we get you back to your web- and Klawn? I don' t even know in which direction the Egrii Mountains are to be found. Please tell me so I can help you." Running in the back of his mind, too, was the promise of treasure. If he had to be fleeter than the grey- clad soldiers, a horse of his own would prove beneficial, as would a few more weapons than the pitiful dagger carried at his belt.
A shaky leg pointed across the field. Lan squinted and fancied he saw a snowcapped mountain peak. If so, at this distance, that mountain literally gutted the azure sky. Quite a climb lay ahead. Undaunted, he got to his feet and urged the spider on. By the end of the day, he had to fight down the urge to strangle the self- pitying creature with its own hairy legs.
Gasping in the thin mountain air, Lan pointed and said, " There it is, Krek. Your web." He knew with innate certainty that he was correct. The monstrous web spanned an entire mountain valley. The silvery strands of the web swung thicker than his thighs, and the complex pattern confused his mind as he tried tracing it. Just what the web was supposed to catch and hold- if anything- he didn' t want to ask.
" My web, and my mating web! There, high up! Klawn awaits me! Dear little Klawn!"
Lan shuddered involuntarily when he saw " dear little Klawn." Krek' s mate easily massed half again as much as the gigantic spider. Lan vaguely remembered hearing that the female of most arachnid species tended to be larger than the male. He hadn' t believed it possible; now he was forced to reconsider.
" Krek, old friend, it' s been some adventure. I' m almost sorry to be parting company with you." And he was. The spider' s ability in the mountains far exceeded his own rock- climbing skill, and more than once Krek had saved him from tumbling untold thousands of feet to his death. Even the spider' s attitude had changed for the better. Looking at Krek confirmed this. The once bedraggled fur on his legs now bristled and gleamed like copper wire in the sun. The limpid eyes of melted chocolate had firmed and became windows on a warrior' s soul. Powerful snaps of the mandibles would have instantly severed an armored man' s torso. This was a formidable opponent, this Krek.
" I, too, shall miss your quaint views, friend Lan Martak. But so spins the web, so goes life itself. One moment."
The spider leaped and caught a strand of the web with deceptive ease. Faster than any hunting wolf, Krek raced along the great aerial highway. Lan sat on his haunches, back against the stony wall, and vainly tried to force enough oxygen into his protesting lungs. Far above, Krek met Klawn. For a brief instant the pair remained motionless in the web; then the entire valley whistled as the web whipped to and fro with their frenetic movements.
The two spiders, still high in the air at the center of the web, separated. The smaller one vanished, only to reappear in a short while with a blazing gem clutched in his beak. Lan' s attention instantly fixed on the jewel. He had actually forgotten the promise to receive part of Krek' s web treasure for his aid in bringing the two arachnid lovers together once again.
The blazing jewel turned out to be a large chest, its sides encrusted with indescribable gems. As it weaved a crazy pattern in the spider' s clutches, it touched every color imaginable. His eyes ached from the strain of trying to focus on light not meant for the human eye. Most of all, as the jeweled chest came closer, he felt himself pulled deeper and deeper into its crystalline perfection. Never had he seen such flawless gems- and the best was locked within.
" This is yours, Lan Martak. May you do well with it."
Krek dropped the heavy chest into Lan' s benumbed grip. He lowered the treasure trove to the ground and opened the silent- hinged lid. Inside glowed gems of all kinds, many types of which Lan had never before seen. His heart beat rapidly as he allowed the cool gemstones to run through his fingers like expensive water. He was rich beyond his wildest imaginings!
If only Zarella had lived to see this. He sighed, then forced his thoughts away from his dead love.
" Krek, I couldn' t. This is too much."
" For the service you have performed, it barely suffices. I am content. For the moment. Take this small portion of my web treasure and buy the flowers you seem so fond of nuzzling."
Lan laughed. With wealth such as this, he could buy more than flowers to nuzzle. And he would, as soon as he reached a city!
" Another drink for my good friend, barkeeper," cried Lan, drunkenly weaving through the smoky room. His head buzzed as if inhabited by a hive of fire hornets, yet he didn' t want this elusive friendship he' d so carefully fostered with drinks to fade and vanish from his side. She was too lovely to disappear forever.
Lan shook his head to clear it slightly, then put his arm around her slender shoulders and pulled her closer. Lan didn' t even notice the slight tenseness as she endured his wine- sotted embrace. The fiery redhead laughed too loudly and gently stroked along the line of his jaw, then pulled his mouth to hers for a kiss. Lan failed also to see her shudder when she' d finished with her onerous duty.
" Linnde, my lovely seductress, you are lovely," he said, his compliments drunkenly redundant. The room refused to stop pumping up and down, but Lan didn' t care. Being drunk was something new for him. Back home- worlds away- he had never allowed strong spirits to dull his senses. He had needed them for survival, for appreciation of the forests, the oceans, the mountains. But that was a long way off, a long way back. A twinge of homesickness assailed him. He could never return. His friends all thought him dead, and worse, his memory lived on as Zarella' s murderer. A tear formed in self- pity.
Cut off. He was cut off from the world he knew so well. But the spider' s treasure cask had opened up a new world to him. Before, in his previous life, every coin had to be watched closely. Now he discovered the world of the easy spender and how simple it was to find new friends to share his good fortune.
Like Linnde. She pushed back a strand of fiery hair that contrasted so beautifully with her milky white, translucent skin. Never in his life had Lan hoped to find a companion so lovely. Even Zarella, dead, lovely Zarella who had spurned his love on the far- off world, lacked the lissome grace of Linnde.
" Another drink, milord?" she asked, motioning to the man behind the long wooden bar. Lan started to decline, then found the drink being held to his lips for him. This was the life! Service such as he' d never experienced before, and all because of his good fortune in helping a lovelorn spider back to his mate.
Lan tasted the potent brew, felt it blaze down his gullet; then the room spun so fast he tumbled to the floor. Sprawled gracelessly, he laughed.
" Linnde, come join me!" he called before passing out.
When he regained some semblance of consciousness, he discovered he was in bed, neatly covered with a quilt. Still a little drunk, he sat up and watched the room spin crazily around him. A quick search told him that Linnde had relieved him of the burden of carrying several jewels. He didn' t care. The few poor stones he' d had on him were small payment for the service of getting him up here. And he had to admit ruefully that he might have had all manner of fun with Linnde before passing out. He simply didn' t remember.
" Auction!" came the loud cry from the street. " Our Saviour, King Waldron of Ravensroost, declares an auction of slaves taken in the recent Amisha campaign. Auction!"
The strident bellowing cut through his head like a hot knife through a snow bank. Lan held his head for a moment, then tottered to his feet. He propped himself against the window sill and peered into the street. For a few seconds he blinked; then his eyes adjusted to the brilliant light of day. It comforted him knowing he was on a world that experienced discernible day and night.
Still, the grey- clad soldiers irked him. While in this tiny hamlet, they had ignored him completely, and for that he was glad. His cask of jewels was a prize any of those surly bastards would slice his throat to steal. But he had not been treated well by Surepta. Back home.
Again came the pang of self- pity he had tried to drink away the night before. Surepta had killed Zarella, and there was no justice. Somehow, Lan generalized his hatred of Surepta into hatred for all the grey soldiers. They had inched their way into his world, like worms gnawing away at the innards of an apple. They infested an otherwise placid country in such a way that all appeared normal on the surface. Underneath crawled murderers and liars and thieves robbing him of his lover, his family, his friends, his world.
The drunken buzz continued inside his head, but over it he shouted, " I' ll stop you!" Lan regretted the vow instantly. His head felt as if it were going to split. More quietly he added, " I have money now. I' ll use that to stop all of you! If I can' t have Surepta' s life, all of yours will have to do."
He thought of the jewel- studded case and rushed to the panel in the wall behind which he kept his treasure. Lan let out a gusty sigh when he saw the box residing exactly as he' d left it. Linnde might have stripped him of his portable fortune, but the greater treasure had eluded her.
Lan wrapped the jeweled cask in a spare cloak he' d purchased, belted on a rapier of the finest steel and deadliest edge, then swung a luxurious cape around his broad shoulders. For a moment, he allowed it to flow and billow richly. As he turned, it spun from his body to settle properly, the fur- rimmed bottom scant inches above the ground. He looked to be a young nobleman in his fine garb.
He paused to admire his finery in a dusty mirror, then hefted the cask and went down into the street to see what type of auction had interrupted his drunken stupor.
Lan Martak couldn' t believe he' d heard the soldier properly, but he had. A slave auction. On the block were half a dozen men and women in various stages of undress and dishevelment. Two of the men appeared to be emaciated and fighting a losing battle with death. One woman' s face was too badly scarred for him to determine even her age, much less any features. But the remaining man and two women held his attention.
The man was a sturdy enough sort and not ill- treated, not yet. The two women were gems beyond compare, even matched against any of the baubles he carried so snugly under his arm. The tall, dark- haired one stood with head held high and an arrogance that showed, no matter the chains rattling at her wrists, that she possessed an indomitable spirit. While no beauty, she had a comeliness that pleased Lan. The other woman, a petite blonde, simply stunned him with her beauty.
" This one," called out the auctioneer, pointing to the blond woman, " will keep even the most discerning happy. Smile for the gentlemen," he ordered. The blonde pouted, a tiny tear tracking down her cheek. " See, gentlemen? She is without peer."
" She is without more than that. She is without courage to spit on you!" The dark- haired woman started to carry out her threat, but one of the nearby guards tugged strongly on the chain around her neck and forced her to kneel, head bowed.
" And that one has spirit. Only the strongest should bid for her." The auctioneer glanced at the kneeling woman and saw her arms shaking in reaction. Nervously, he gestured to the guard to hold her down until afterward.
Lan heard a voice cry out, " Fifteen crowns for the three remaining," and then realized he' d spoken. His upbringing had been such that the idea of, slavery sickened him. Bidding so openly, so drunkenly, shocked him into sobriety. His mind remained a bit fogged, but he slowly worked out the problem to his own satisfaction. He did not bid for the desire to own a slave- even one as beautiful as the blonde- but to free them.
He would buy them and manumit them immediately. He didn' t bother examining his altruistic urges further. Deep down he realized this was the I first opportunity he' d had to fight against the grey soldiers and the slavery they brought with them. He need no longer fight with sword; he had wealth to do battle now. The bidding became more intense and required his full attention.
" Twenty crowns," came a cold voice from the front of the crowd.
" Twenty- five," countered Lan.
A fat merchant rubbed his hands together, then plunged into a thick pouch before shouting, " Thirty and not one silver piece more!"
Lan laughed at the merchant. The bidding sparked some instinct in him that had remained dormant for most of his life. This thrilled him in some way he didn' t understand. Stalking elusive game gave a similar rush of excitement, but the knowledge that he controlled the destinies of three human beings surged even more powerfully in his veins.
And he thwarted the grey- clads' scheme for domination. By purchasing these three and then freeing them, he formed a cadre of resistance. Given time and his riches, this world would be rid of the soldiers. If he could not return to his own world and fight them there, he' d make his stand on this world and form a bastion of freedom to rally all those who hated the greys.
" Fifty- five," said the man in the front. Lan pushed through to find the man sitting in a folding chair, a huge box filled with gold pieces in front of him. Markers from five other slaves dangled on a necklace around the man' s neck. Lan knew he bid against a veteran slaver, one who might go to any lengths for one as lovely as the blonde.
" Sixty," Lan said without hesitation. His wealth was vast. Holding back this churlish slaver' s financial attack amused him.
" I wish to inspect the merchandise before bidding further," the slaver said. The soldier conducting the auction started to motion the man to the platform when Lan interrupted.
" No! Either bid or drop out." He smiled as he saw the flash of consternation cross the slaver' s otherwise impassive face.
Turning to the three on the auction block, Lan saw a complete array of emotion displayed. The man tried to keep his rampaging emotions in check and failed. Sheer terror was mirrored in his bloodshot eyes. The blonde trembled like a thoroughbred before a race, but the dark- haired woman stood with back as straight as a ramrod and glared defiantly at him. For some reason, he had expected some show of gratitude and encouragement from the trio.
Wasn' t he going to free them?
" I bow out," said the slaver, waving his hand as if it no longer mattered.
" Sold," rapped the soldier. A few of the jewels changed hands, and Lan found himself the possessor of three markers indicating ownership of the slaves. He repositioned the jeweled cask under his arm and imperiously waved the trio down from the platform.
" Master," begged the man, " be kind to me. I: I' ll try to please you however I can."
Lan' s gorge rose at the servile attitude. He expected a man to be a man, not a grovelling dog. But the blonde clung seductively to his arm. This made him swell with pride. She, at least, recognized his true intentions.
The black- haired amazon said only, " You are careless with your riches. The soldiers have both eyes and greed."
" Never mind that," Lan said uneasily, recognizing the truth in her words. " Let' s go to the edge of town. I want to tell you what I plan."
" At once, master," came the instant reply from the man. Lan restrained his initial impulse of kicking the man senseless. Instead, he pointed down the road and let the man follow, three paces behind as slaves did. The blonde, however, stayed on his arm.
" I am called Velika, master, and am so grateful to you!" The adoration in her grey- green eyes warmed him and drove away the last tendrils of drunkenness entangling his brain. For a brief moment, he had worried that he hadn' t done the proper thing in buying these three. Now he knew that his wealth had been put to good use keeping them from the clutches of a real slaver.
Just to meet Velika, it had been put to the best use possible.
" And your name?" he asked the other woman.
Her eyes danced with a bright blue ferocity that told him she cared not at all for him. The words dripped ice water.
" I am Inyx, a traveller of the Road and warrior of the Klendalu. I bow to none."
Lan felt obligated to hurry through his explanation of how he intended freeing them all, how he hated the very concept of human ownership of other humans.
" So you see, I wanted nothing more than to free you from those grey- clad tyrants."
" But, master," pleaded Velika, " what am I to do? I cannot defend myself in this world! Not with King Waldron' s soldiers pouring out of thin air. My parents are dead and I am alone. Even my dog has run away. Protect me, I beg you, protect me!" She gripped his arm with a steely need that touched him.
Gently, Lan told her, " Very well, Velika. I' ll be more than happy to protect you."
Inyx cleared her throat and stared across the field at the edge of town.
" Here," Lan said, tossing the keys to their chains to the man. " Free yourself and go home. I have no need of a slave." As Velika tightened her grasp on his upper arm, he hastily added, " But a companion is always a welcome addition to one like myself who walks the Road."
" You," sneered Inyx, " have also followed the Cenotaph Road? Amazing." She stopped and cocked her head to one side, listening. " That roar. What is it?"
Above the treetops some distance away rose a parti- colored globe, a hot- air observation balloon. Lan watched it for some minutes, marvelling at its use on this world. On his, they were little more than toys for the wealthy. The soldiers contrasting greyly against the brilliant colors of the fabric and the multihued banner dangling from the gondola told him that this was a weapon of war on this world.
The roar and hiss of the burners carried across the field as the balloon rose in search of the proper air current. A hundred yards above the ground, the balloon sailed at right angles to its original drift. It glided silently toward the foursome.
" No," cried the man, " not again! They rained fire from the skies on me once, but not again!" He bolted and ran for the cover of trees. Lan called after him, but it was to no avail. He shrugged it off. Let the coward flee from this pretty aerial globe. As long as Lan felt the heft of his fine sword at his side, he could defeat anything this interloper warlord Waldron threw against him.
A jingle of chains indicated Inyx had freed her wrists. She cast her bonds aside and declared, " I agree with him. Standing in the middle of an unprotected area is folly. Let' s find shelter away from their prying eyes." She glanced up at the balloon, now almost overhead. While the man had displayed nothing but fear, Inyx showed only concern.
" Don' t worry. We' re all free citizens now," Lan told her. " They won' t attack simply out of spite." Lan felt Velika move beside him and a flutter of worry tugged at his mind. How much of what he said was bravado intended to impress the blond woman and how much was common sense? Inyx spoke from experience- experience he, too, shared. The grey- clad soldiers displayed nothing but a viciousness that was inexplicable. He knew from his brief but bloody encounters with themdamn Kyn- alLyk- Surepta!- they were treacherous.
" At least let me have the dagger so uselessly dangling from your belt," demanded Inyx. " With that, they' ll never be able to take me alive again."
" Again? How did they happen to catch you before?" he asked the young woman. He saw her stiffen and her features harden.
" They ambushed a merchant' s caravan, killing all save that craven who just fled and me. An arrow grazed my skull and knocked me unconscious; otherwise I' d have fought to the death. When I regained my senses, I had already been chained like some zoo beast. Never have I been so humiliated!"
Lan shook his head in wonder. He believed this proud woman fought with the best. Still, he vastly preferred the blonde so desperately needing his guidance and protection. Inyx obviously desired nothing but to be left alone. But how could he shirk his duties and cast Velika out into such a cruel world?
He couldn' t. Not after he had taken it upon himself to free her from slavery. That line of thinking made him wonder exactly what real good he' d done any of them. The man, now fled, had a slave' s mentality. He would cower and refuse to fight no matter what honor dictated. Sooner or later, he would again feel the chains of slavery that matched his behavior. And Inyx would never suffer such a fate. Too proud, too stubborn, she might wear a slave' s chains only until she escaped or died. Lan couldn' t see her accepting any other option. Lan had to admire her more than either of the others, but still he felt flattered at Velika' s need for him.
" Oh, master," cried Velika. " You are too kind!" The tears rolled down her full cheeks, leaving salty tracks behind. He reached out and touched the tear on her left cheek. For an instant, he recoiled, as if bitten by an insect. The fluid stung his finger and caused a sensation similar to needles being thrust into his flesh to race up his arm.
" You' re so lovely," he said, in a voice that sounded as if someone else spoke. He touched the other tear and experienced the same sensations, though less intense. Lan felt momentary confusion and reeled. Velika supported him.
" Master, are you well?"
" He' ll be better under cover of those trees," said Inyx, pointing.
" He' s in no condition." More tears welled in Velika' s eyes before starting their liquid tumble over her cheeks. Lan felt an overpowering urge to hold her. He bent and kissed her. Tears lightly caressed his parted lips, sent animal surges throughout his loins. Again the vertigo assailed him.
" How do they power those balloons?" he asked, craning his neck to peer upward at the globe. This brief question allowed him to hide the unexplained confusion inside him. The three grey soldiers in the gondola waved their arms frantically as if signalling. " Do they use a demon spell to manufacture the hot air?"
" Of course not. Too wasteful," came Inyx' s tart reply. " The burning gas is manufactured on the bleak world. But enough of that. Let' s go before they drop their flame nets on us."
Lan twisted to get a better view of the colorful balloon. He might have heard the crunch of boot heels in the dirt. He heard nothing else, unconsciousness claiming him before he struck the ground.