A Serialized Sword & Sorcery Epic
by RICHARD K. LYON & ANDREW
About the authors
Book Three: The Inn at World's End
Previously: To gain the power he will need
to avenge the murder of his family, Lord Druin goes in search of the Floating
Mountain, the legendary home of the dread wizard Mardarin. Though Druin
has never met the wizard, he is his grandfather. Druin's party is attacked
by a night demon, a thing with the seeming of a beautiful woman. One by
one she calls Druin's men, leaving each a dry husk. Druin's heroic efforts
do not save any of his men and he escapes only thanks to the coming of
dawn. As she disappears into the fading darkness the she-demon promises
to come for him that coming night.
Episode 2: Wind Wolves
That was a problem to be considered later, along with why the sand was so white and sparkly under that vast floating mass of granite. Right now his problem was shelter for the night. The tomb-robbers whose trail he'd crossed must be going somewhere and all ports are good in a storm.
Running at a steady pace he soon picked up their trail. Following it he went up a small rise and there in the distance ahead were four tents clustered about ... an inn!
Impossible. He rubbed his eyes and squinted. The inn remained.
While a travelers' stop in the middle of this desolate expanse was absurdly unlikely, the large ramshackle building displayed the sign of the pilgrim's staff and was beyond doubt a place of accommodation.
Like as not Drood Himself is the cheerless proprietor, Druin thought. Though he was not inclined to take good fortune at face value, Druin trotted rapidly across the sands holding his swordhilt to prevent the scabbard's banging his leg.
The sun was lowering itself gingerly onto the horizon when he neared the inn. Despite its absurd location, business was evidently brisk. In the rope enclosure off to the right was an assortment of horses, mules and a single, bored camel. Men moved about among the tents. He saw several shining blacks wearing only breechcloths; three dusky yellow Narokans in black pajamas, stupidly absorbing sun; and four such as he in the bronze-studded leather that was pretty much standard for the soldiers of a western nobleman.
A towering giant in ebony, standing some little distance from the front of the inn, saw Druin and waved in a friendly manner. "Welcome, stranger" he called, between bites of the large haunch of meat in his fist. "Welcome to the Inn at World's End." He smiled. Druin saw to his horror that the man's teeth had been filed to points.
"Hallo," the young noble said, concealing his shock, "I"m Lord Druin of Zadok."
"Chief Bungamin. Why come you here?" Close up, Druin found the black even more impressive. He towered over seven feet and his bare chest rippled with powerful muscles. A huge lionskin was slung over his shoulder as an ordinary man would wear a cape. Except for it and a loincloth, Bungamin was naked.
"I've come," Druin said cautiously, "to see the wizard Mardarin."
"So are we all," the huge chief rumbled, "all come here for Mardarin." When Druin looked blank, he continued, "This only place to wait for Mardarin. Floating Mountain drifts all over desert, according to moon. Only place water is, is right here. So, everybody comes here, sits around getting soft, waits for mountain to come close. Lucky you to come just now. Tonight may be the night!"
"Pardon me," Druin said rather tentatively, "but isn't
that a human bone you're
"Oh yes. Was tricky trader. Good meat. You like some? Ho ho, I see you make face! When you hunger, you be glad to eat such good meat. Why you want to see Mardarin?"
Since there was no point in concealing the truth or telling all of it, Druin replied, "The King of Zadok had my entire family murdered by treachery and I want revenge."
"Ah, good reason." After taking a big bite of meat and chewing it with obvious relish, Bungamin continued, "I come here because I was big liberal. Had great plan for reform. After war, stopped killing and eating enemies and instead sold to slave traders. Good idea, but didn't work."
Another pause while the chief chewed a mouthful of trader. "Traders take captives all right, but tried to cheat; no payment! Big mess. Now Bungamin out of power and need help of Mardarin to get back power. One good thing, though -- this trader teached me how to preserve meat by smoking."
Bungamin, Druin mused, was speaking in what was not his native language. On a superficial level he was doing so rather crudely, creating the impression that he was a simple soul. There were, however, a great many complications in the language of Zadok, the need of adjective and noun to agree in phase and many other subtleties. The huge black was getting them all correct. Most people try to show you how very intelligent they are, but the really clever ones often want you to think that they're less clever than they really are.
While Druin and Bungamin had been talking, they had been walking toward the inn's front door. Bungamin touched the other's arm as they were about to enter, and whispered. "One thing more. Should warn you -- other guests." The mighty black actually shuddered. "They -- not good people like you and me."
While Druin wondered what it would take to bring a shudder
to a giant cannibal,
they entered the inn. The innkeeper proved to be a wizened little man with little black eyes like agates set deep within his skull. A thin fringe of unpleasant white hair circled his misshapen head like a mushroom's collar. Upon Druin's placing a small gold piece in his outstretched hand, he stepped out of the way and bowed with consummate politeness,
"Good, my Lord, welcome to my humble abode. You are just in time for supper."
Hoping fervently that his host meant that ambiguous remark in the ordinary way, Druin walked in. The common room seemed ordinary enough; walls of rough-hewn wooden beams and planking, a cheerful fire in a stone fireplace, and a long sturdy table of oak. Of the two who sat at the table, the short man, so broad of shoulder and dressed in the silks and samite of one very well born, rose and bowed politely. "Count Kainus of Thunland," Bungamin said, "Lord Druin of, Zadok?"
"Zadok, yes," Druin said, returning the bow. "It is the custom of my country, taught me by my father the Duke, to shake hands," he lied, and extended his hand.
After a slight hesitation, the Count accepted the gesture. He had, as the orphan lord had suspected, hairy palms. And his eyebrows met. After that clasp Kainus waved toward the seated man, a near skeleton in black robes, "And this grim fellow is Torguadis, formerly high priest of the Temple of the Great Spider in Shamash."
"Please," the priest snapped angrily, and his hard opaque eyes flashed. "Spare me the introductions. You know I do not wish to converse with unbelievers."
Druin smiled as he seated himself, and replied smoothly, "I find that a great pity, Your Reverence. Though I do not share your faith, I am a man of open mind and ears. There is much I would like to learn from you."
"The proper way to instruct the unbeliever and the heretic," Torguadis replied in a voice like an iron rod, "is by breaking on the rack."
Bungamin, who had seated himself on Druin's right, laughed with his mouth full. He swallowed and said, "Our priest's manners take getting used to. But wait till you see what you get for supper. You be glad I gave you good meat."
A cannibal apologizes for a priest, Druin thought, noting the empty clay bowl and rude wooden spoon before each of the four men seated around the table. In its center a large iron pot squatted unesthetically. A peek within confirmed what Druin's nose had told him -- vegetable stew.
"Looks good to me!" he assured, and reached for the pot only to discover that all three of his companions were glaring coldly. He knew that he had just committed a serious social blunder in this gentle company.
"We are," Count Kainus replied in a voice that could freeze salt water, "waiting for Our Lady."
What woman could command the reverence of this weird group was a mystery to Druin, but he spoke in swift contrition. "My apologies, gentlemen. Please remember that I am a stranger among you and had no way of knowing you awaited a lady."
The black nodded and shrugged and the Count said, "Certainly." Torguadis continued his stony silence.
Gods! What incredible company I dine with tonight! A religious fanatic, a friendly cannibal and, unless I'm much mistaken, a mannerly werewolf. Still I'm a great deal better off than I was last night -- here are four walls around me and a good fire to keep that night-demon at bay.
"While we wait," Druin said, "there is something I'd like to ask you. On my way here I came upon a trail. Apparently eight men left this inn, went to some place in the Valley of the Bones, and returned here bearing a heavy object. Do you know aught of this?"
To his puzzlement, all, with apparent sincerity, denied any knowledge of the event. Outside the sun was setting, and as dusk swallowed the landscape, wolves commenced to howl. The sound was especially eerie as each howl seemed the echo of the previous one, so that ghosts seemed to ride to and fro on the night wind. Darkness and that wind brought swift chill into the inn despite the fire.
"Druin," Bungamin said as he wrapped himself more tightly in his lion skin, "be glad you inside. Wind-wolves do not come near tents or this building. Anyone caught out in open, man or beast or demon..." He gestured "Vvt! No more."
Good, Druin told himself, while chills ran up and down his spine. That means my enemy cannot reach me here. Though he'd heard of wind-wolves, he had always supposed them a mere legend, a scare-tale to frighten the credulous. Now, listening to the uncanny howling that came from everywhere and nowhere, he could believe. Perhaps there were ghost wolves one could neither see nor fight, wolves whose victims vanished in a single horrific moment, devoured by invisible jaws.
"Ahh, good companions, I hope you will excuse me for being a trifle confused," he began politely, "but as I understand it, the Floating Mountain only comes nigh here at night. How are we supposed to run to it while these wind-wolves are about?"
Bungamin smiled. "That is what our followers are for.
You saw them outside. We
run in center, they ring us. Maybe lose a few, but they are cheap."
And where am I supposed to run? Druin wondered. He was, he knew, the weakest member of a survivors' club.
"It's nearly full dark," Count Kainus said to no one in particular.
"I shall cover the fire," Torguadis said in an equally offhand manner, and began arranging a black drape in front of the hearth.
As the room was swallowed in darkness, Druin protested. "Gentlemen, would one of you mind explaining this strange preparation?"
"The Lady," Kainus gently told him, "never dines until after dark and prefers that the room be dimly lit. Naturally, we honor her preference."
The others nodded in agreement and abruptly Druin's hands were clammy with a chill sweat. His mouth went dry as the sands outside. Now he understood it all. Even while fear gripped him, his mind filled with a strange chilly clamminess, and on the instant he knew precisely what he must do to survive. The irony was heavy, ugly. While his fears came under the control of an icily calculating mind, he was tempted to laugh.
Slowly the inn's door opened and a woman entered the common room.
At first, his eyes not yet adjusted to the poor light, Druin could see only that she wore a flowing white gown and moved with a grace denied mortal women. His three companions prostrated themselves before her in an abject adoration that befitted a goddess. And as his eyes adjusted Druin knew that they were right -- she in white was divinely beautiful and deserving of worship.
"Greetings, my lady," he said in a flat voice, standing erect. "I rather expected that you would meet me here."
"Did you. Really?" Her voice was all golden bells in a sweet breeze.
"Twas logical. You promised to meet me tonight, and since you could deduce that I'd be here, you had your casket carried to this place."
"Well, clever man," she whispered. "True. Since there is no point in postponing what must be, pray follow me."
She turned and was gone. Druin moved swiftly after her, still wearing his long cloak with the little lamp in one of its pockets. When he stepped out onto the desert, she was out of sight but there was no mistaking the tent to which she had repaired. It shone as though filled with moonlight.
When he opened the tent flap and stepped through, he saw her clearly for the first time. His mouth fell open and he could scarcely speak or breathe.
"Please come in," she murmured. "While I do not like the light of sun or fire, I would have you see and know Me. So I arranged this moonlight." She moved with silken swiftness that he might see her, and hers was a beauty beyond the beauty of woman, beyond the words of the poet.
"You have, I fear," her golden voice said in tones sweeter than wine, "misunderstood what has been happening. True, men come to Me and die, but this 'sacrifice' they make of their own free will. For I am Theba, All-mother of humankind. Ages ago a great evil befell. We, the other Gods and I, went into darkness and humankind lost Our guidance and blessing. Since that tragic day men have fought one another blindly, each with his hand raised against his brother. Yet We did not die as mortals do, for We cannot. Now the Stars have turned and are favorable. I can live again, bless the world again ... with your help."
She was slipping out of the white gown and despite its
beauty she was as a butterfly
leaving an ugly cocoon. Eyes bulging, Druin stared at the slimness of Her waist, the glory of Her full breasts, the slim hips.
"Give me your life, Druin, your poor broken life, and I will give you love." The pure white gown of gauze and silk and cobwebbery fell from Her in a shower of liquid ripples, and She stood before him in pearly nudity. With exquisite slowness She -- the goddess, the very goddess Theba -- moved Her long perfect legs apart in open provocation and offertory.
"Come to Me, Druin," She whispered, smiling twofold.
Druin's heart was a galloping charger and his blood burned with fever. He knew that to touch those breasts, to be prisoned between those legs, would be ecstasy beyond the joy a man might hope for in a dozen lifetimes. His mind swam in a confusion of desire and his manhood swelled, but all the while there was coldness in his orphan's soul like a great block of ice.
Her spell did not prevail. His hand snapped from under his cloak. It held the little oil lamp -- Her lamp. In a single swift motion he cracked the lamp and spattered its contents upon Her. While Her ocean-deep eyes widened in dismay, he raised his hand toward Her perfect body.
"BURN, MY LADY, BURN!" he shouted, and where he touched Her, the oil burst into devouring red flames. Instantly, they enveloped Her,
From her Iips Druin heard not a sound but in his mind a silent scream echoed. NO! She howled, "I WANTED SO LITTLE AND COULD HAVE GIVEN SO MUCH IT IS NOT..."
The rest was silent. Her body burned like dry parchment. As he watched, Druin wondered: Had She lied?
Was he destroying a demon, a blood-sucking creature of the night that had impiously pretended to be Herself? Perhaps and perhaps the Norgemen were right.
Perhaps the Gods had all died ages ago, Theba Herself included, and all humankind was merely a noisome worm crawling about a decaying world. If so, he was destroying the last remnant of what had once been a great Goodness.
It did not matter. What he was doing was necessary. The lord of Zadok had vowed to serve no gods save only Expediency. Since this one had sucked Her or its lovers dry of their fluids, it followed that She Herself was dry, seeking fluid because fluidless ... and so vulnerable to fire. Thus he had decided, and he was right.
The flames were spreading rapidly -- actually blazing. To Druin's right the emblazoned coffin was smouldering and on his left the tent wall was aflame. Heat swept out at him as from an open door to Hell. Druin staggered back, stumbling out of the tent and into the chill night air of the desert.
His comrades were avenged, and others saved. As the vengeance due for his family, the son of a duke and grandson of a wizard was not finished.
"He has murdered Our Lady!" the black giant screamed. Even as he spoke, his spear-armed warriors were rushing from the tent to rally to their chief. The other two tents were disgorging the Count's men, creaking in their hard leather jackets and brandishing swords, and Torguadis's acolytes, all of whom held ominous black staffs.
Confronted by this armed array, Druin stood smiling ironically. He spoke in a mocking voice, and as he did he pointed past them. "Gentlemen, look to your left, Floating Mountain comes! It is almost here. Which will you choose -- to chase me, or it?"
Armed retainers looked to their masters. Though Bungamin
continued to glare at
Druin like a hungry beast, Torguadis glanced left and stood staring in open-mouthed awe. There, enormous beyond belief, so near it seemed one could almost reach out and touch it, was the mountain, drifting a few yards above the desert. Its snowy cap shone in the bright moonlight.
"Come!" the priest screamed. "Never will we have another such chance!"
His eyes never leaving Druin, the black chief took a spear from one of his men. "After this dog lies twitching toward death! He -- Count Kainus?"
The Count, touched by the light of the full moon, was changing. His face crawled with hair and his open lips revealed vulpine fangs. Bent low to the ground, he lifted that hideous head and howled at the moon. Then he was racing away, four-footed, toward the drifting mountain.
Instantly the priest was off and running behind him, holding up his skirts and shouting: "All of you, follow me!" His own acolytes and Kainus's men obeyed and Bungamin's warriors were swept along willing or no.
Left behind, their gigantic chief cursed, hurled the spear at Druin with haste, and turned swiftly to speed after the others. Druin twisted aside to let the spear hiss harmlessly by. It struck quivering in the sand, plowing deep, and he laughed mightily.
Next a soldier. The bronze studs of his leather clothing popped like corks from a host of bottles, the leather itself torn to shreds, while his unprotected arms and legs simply vanished. Another black was skeletonized and the attack focused on one of the black pajamaed, yellow-skinned acolytes. Though his right hand disappeared, he clutched his black rod in the left and smote the empty air with desperate fury. Twice he was rewarded by death shrieks before his throat was torn out and his blood fountained onto the sand. Dead on his feet, he fell headlong. His corpse lay on the ground, twitching side to side while it disappeared.
Despite their horrid casualties, the runners pressed steadily onward. The watching Druin marveled at their courage and their stupidity. How far would they go, he wondered, running through the frigid night while their numbers melted like candle wax, all in pursuit of a goal that retreated one step for every racing pace they took?
For a little he watched them running headlong into the distance, leaving their dead behind like marker stones. Then he turned and walked slowly toward the inn.
While he had just tricked a group of fools out of their lives, that was no reason to let them continue to deprive him of supper.
Inside, he seated himself and ladled vegetable stew onto his plate. The diminutive proprietor sat in a dark corner and watched him with burning eyes. When he spoke, it was in a husky whisper. "I see you didn't go with the others to chase Floating Mountain."
"Of course not," Druin replied between mouthfuls of the green mess. "Only a lackwit would believe that a mountain could actually float. One hardly had to note that it throws no shadow to know that what one sees outside is a mirage."
"True," his unprepossessing host said, dark eyes sparkling.
"However, many men
cannot use their wits when they confront the supernatural, and so seem lackwit."
"I don't have that problem," Druin replied. After another spoonful of stew, he added, "And by the way, grandfather, this wants salt."
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The Long Dark Road to Wizardry is copyright Richard K. Lyon and Andrew
J. Offutt. It may not be copied without permission of the authors
except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read