Time to see what that plan of the little toad IS...
Duckweed lowered himself slowly down the cord. Ritual's still going on… Maybe, just maybe…
It wasn't easy. Two bags were now tied onto him with some of the same string he'd gotten from the fourth alcove, bulky bags that were fairly light but almost as big as his own body. His sword was in a hastily-wrapped semi-scabbard on his back. Rigging everything in the alcoves had taken him ten minutes, but it had been another five minutes to figure out how he was getting out of there past the guards. Fortunately, the rooms had been cut out of natural cavern and he'd finally noticed in the upper corner of one a small crack which he and the bags had just been able to squeeze through; apparently no one thought it was worth the trouble to block up. He'd set things going and then gotten out of there.
Getting very tight on the timing I think… Gotta get to the ground before everything starts happening. Normally he'd just drop – it was a long way down but he'd also long since found out that someone as small as he was could fall a lot farther than the big people without getting hurt.
But that was, of course, not a good idea right now.
The ritual was clearly reaching a crescendo. Three ranks of monstrous figures were circling the great pentagonal array, the inner moving to the right, the middle to the left, the outer to the right again, all repeating invocations in lockstep rhythm in a language that made Duckweed's skin prickle. And the rhythm was speeding up. It wouldn't be long now at all.
Only good thing is that means most of them are completely focused on their nasty ritual. He was still worried about the few guards inside the room who weren't part of the ritual. He was descending from the same little passageway he'd been in before, and it was in a shadowed part of the room… but mazakh had good eyes in the dark, some said they could see heat. Not much heat in a little toad, but all they needed to do was notice movement…
Only ten feet to go. But time was passing. Had it been five minutes? Seven? He'd been able to rig the clockwork, but no time to be sure of the exact timing. He thought he'd given himself ten minutes, but he couldn't be sure… and there were no clocks in here, so he wasn't sure how long it had been. I feel like a Newleg, stuck between the Swimmer and the Leaper.
Five feet. Finally he could relax a little. A giant stalagmite now cut him off from the guards' line of sight. He slid the rest of the way and landed gingerly on the cool stone. Now I just have to get over near the doors… not too near, though.
He scuttled from rock to rock, trying to keep from jarring the bags too much. Still, they should be okay with a little banging around.
One of the mazakh suddenly loomed up, pacing slowly around the perimeter of the room. Duckweed froze, pressing himself against the rock, trying to look like a lump of brownish stone.
Either it worked, or – more likely – the demon-snake never looked down. The little toad waited, fidgeting. He has to get far enough away so he won't hear me. I think I'm close enough to the doors, but if I try this and I get caught, it's not going to work! And I'm almost out of time!
The green and gray-scaled creature paused, sniffing suddenly, and Duckweed swallowed nervously.
It shook its head slightly and turned, moving away. Almost… almost… now!
He unslung one of the bags, opened the top, and carefully judged the direction and angle of the floor. Then he emptied the bag with a single crescent-shaped movement that sent its contents rolling across the floor towards the two doorways. The second he spread between the doorways and the pentacle, as the chanting approached a new crescendo. Oh, snakes and fisher-birds, I hope I didn't set everything for too long, it would suck bottom-mud if I—
The entire cavern shuddered, and there was a thunderous echoing blast that sounded like the rage of an awakened Dragon. A blaze of orange fire spurted from the little tunnel he'd just exited. Oh, ow, that would have hurt!
Hisses and chittering screeches of consternation echoed through the room, the ritual movement and chanting now ragged. A loud voice – human, I think! They're everywhere, those creatures – shouted, "Keep going! Dhokar morred zshenta vell…"
A second concussion rocked the cavern, sending fragments of stone sifting down from the ceiling. A huge stalactite suddenly plummeted down like a divine spear, crushing one of the insectoid creatures.
That was enough for the rest. Abandoning such a ritual was dangerous, but it was clear that something worse might happen if they didn't. The three circles broke and ran for the doors.
As they did, some of them stepped on the tiny, blackberry-sized glassy spheres the little toad had scattered in their path.
A series of fierce detonations erupted, shattering bodies, incinerating limbs, scattering corpses left and right as the compressed fire essence was liberated by the impacts and unleashed the quintessence of devouring heat upon all around it, just as had happened in the alcove rooms moments before when the Zachass Duckweed had rigged had fired one of its razor-edged missiles directly into one of the cases of fire-essence warspheres.
A third case must have detonated just then, because the first door suddenly bulged inward as another blast echoed through the cavern's very bedrock, sending a cascade of larger stone fragments raining down. Shrieks and roars of consternation filled the air, and Duckweed hopped desperately forward, dodging falling rocks and moving between running legs. No one was looking down now at all. I haven't seen anything but mazakh and those insect-things, which means…
And then, just behind him, half the cavern roof caved in with a rumble and a juddering roar that dwarfed even the explosion that triggered it. The blast of air and dust and pebbles from the impact blew him off his feet, and smoke and flame belched from the mass of rock as the remaining fire-essence sought release from within the rockfall. He tumbled uncontrollably, fetching up with a jolt against the base of another stalagmite.
Slowly the rockfall slackened from a fall to a stream to a trickle of sifting dust. Duckweed righted himself gingerly and listened. Everything was deathly silent except for the slow grumble of settling stone and the faint hissing of dampness boiling away from the heat of the fire essence. Dust clouded everything and for long moments he couldn't see anything; only the eerie rock-fire in the center provided light at all, and it was half-buried and slowly, slowly starting to fade.
But as the dust gradually cleared, the faint breeze showing that some small outlet, at least, remained to the surface, Duckweed became aware that there was another source of light. A glowing sphere floated about fifty feet away, near a shadowy upright silhouette.
"So near. So very near. By the Gods Below, how could this have happened?" It was the same human voice, filled with disbelief and rage. Muttered arcane words, and a wind ripped through the remaining cavern, clearing away the dust as though it had never been. Only some small clouds remained, seeming to glow in the unnatural light.
Duckweed could see now, in the flickering light from both rockfire and magical glow. Human, all right, long brown hair in carefully arranged braids, a set of three long, fine white scars in parallel on his bare upper right arm. He wore some sort of leather protective garment that left his arms clear. His lower half was dressed in black cloth pants of some kind, with tough-looking leather boots.
Much more worrisome for Duckweed were the eyes, which were now focused on him.
"Could it be…?" The man studied him intensely; abruptly, a strange carven crystal implement was in his hand, pointing in Duckweed's direction. "Speak now if you can, Toad, or I will incinerate you where you sit."
The little toad debated the question for a moment, but as the tanned hand began to tighten on the crystal, hopped forward a pace. "All right. I'm speaking."
A hiss, almost like that of a mazakh, escaped the man. "Surprising. Surprising. Would I be correct in surmising you are responsible for all this?"
Duckweed shrugged. "Well, some of it. I didn't really mean to bring the whole cave down. You had waaaaay too much of that fire-essence stuff."
The man gave a very small humorless grin. "So it would appear."
Duckweed blinked. It looked as though one of the clouds of dust was getting bigger. And the color looked … wrong.
"Your people are usually such lazy cowards. What fortune brought me you? One willing to risk such dangers as you cannot even imagine… and with such magnificent timing! You have ruined years of work, and with but seconds to spare." The wizard – for he was clearly some kind of magician – shook his head slowly. "Truly, I would like to take weeks to devise a suitable punishment for –"
The voice was faint, distant, yet cut through all other sound as a blade through grass, a hiss and a scrape as of metal claws climbing a cliff of granite. "Summoner…"
The man whirled. Scarcely ten feet from him, the thing Duckweed had taken for a strange dustcloud had grown larger, a perfectly circular pearlescent gateway, and within it something of polished black armor, bladed, edged, eyes that glittered with facets, mandibles and cutting, grasping mouth, something huge and terrible and very, very near to entering indeed. "My Lord…"
"Complete… the Summoning…"
The wizard glanced around. "I… I cannot. My pentacle is –"
"Ssspeak my Name, human. Sspeak it and I shall be free."
Duckweed was appalled. All he'd done, and the summoning could still be completed? With a broken pentacle? No, no, that's not just bad, that's very very bad, like a drought that makes the whole lake dry up bad. He had his sword out, but he didn't have any delusion that he could fight… that.
The wizard did not speak immediately, and the shape within the cloud stirred impatiently, revealing the shimmer of reptilian scales on the body. "Did you not wish to summon me? Speak my name!"
"Do you want fools as servants, or think me a fool for a sacrifice alone?" The man's voice was tense. "An uncompleted ritual like this? What guarantees do you offer to make it worth my while to risk my life and soul that way? You and your allies – whoever they were – wanted this as much as we. You have some reason for this, something much greater." He straightened. "Swear that, though the wards are broken and no spells laid upon you, that you will aid me as though the wards whole, the spells complete, and at the end of the service will seek no harm against me or mine. Swear it in the name of Kerlamion himself, his TRUE name."
The mazolishta – for Duckweed knew it could be nothing else – hissed again, but somewhat to his surprise – and apparently the wizard's – the hiss sounded almost pleased. "Wiser than many. Good. We have need of you, then. H'ved schkalavis mokhteth dergschokh, Kerlamionahlmbana!"
Oh no. Duckweed tensed himself. One last chance, I think.
The wizard cast a terrible triumphant grin at the little toad and turned back to the shadowy demonic presence. "Then come forth, Voo—ARGH!"
The wizard staggered and fell, clawing at his neck; Duckweed leapt from his shoulder, withdrawing the long, narrow blade he'd plunged deep into the man's back, evading the grasping hands, somersaulting above as the wizard hit the floor, turning, coming down, twisting his body, the human's eyes widening, hand reaching, brushing the little Toad's body, and then –
A terrible impact smashed Duckweed aside into the wall and everything seemed to go dark for a moment. He rolled painfully, groggily, to his feet. Ouch. Rib broken. Maybe more. Moving hurts. He blinked. It is a little darker…
The glowing sphere of light the wizard had summoned was gone. In the dim light of the demon-portal and the still-flickering rockfire, the reason was clear. The wizard's corpse lay, still twitching, on the cold stone, with the hilt of the tiny sword protruding from his throat.
Slowly the little Toad dragged himself over and yanked the sword out. Then he looked up.
The demon's portal was still there. Beginning to flicker slightly, but still present. "Speak my name."
"What? I didn't summon you."
It laughed, a screeching sound that sounded like tearing steel. "You stopped them, for I would have performed their bidding and your people – and others – would have died. Now you may gain that power for yourself. I will swear the same oath to you I did to this one. Give me my freedom and you shall have that power."
"Sorry." The little toad wiped the sword clean on the dead wizard's pant leg. "Besides, I don't know your name, so I can't do it."
"Easily remedied. I am Voorith." The name echoed through the cavern like a threat of fear. "Though your god and I have ever been at war, I care not for that, if only you free me."
The toad looked up and suddenly stuck his tongue out. "Go back where you came from, until Blackwart comes and eats you. You look like a bug so I'll bet he'll find you tasty!"
The demon screeched in frustration, and with that final denial began to truly fade, its summoners gone and its last chance of escape having rejected it. "Then tell me your name, Toad, as I have told you mine. Our fates have been intertwined, and one day we shall speak our names to each other again."
He suddenly realized that this was the moment. He was small, but no longer was he young. But what to choose? For in that choice he would be defined, and there was no changing once chosen. He thought back over the entire adventure, for this surely would give him the answer…
And saw the answer, the moment that defined the point when he became who he was. He looked up at the fading demon and smiled with the corners of his mouth. "Poplock," he said proudly. "Poplock Duckweed. Remember it."
"Oh, I shall." The voice was a whisper, a promise of impotent doom. "And so shall others. For this was not my plan, nor theirs, and you have inserted your tongue into something far more perilous than you can even begin to imagine… Toad." And the gateway was gone.
He blinked and glanced around in the fast-fading light. Got to get out of here. But…
Some minutes later, he eased his way from a narrow crack into the lowering light of the setting sun, near the Evermist of the Burning Waters. With him he dragged a small pouch from the wizard's waist, stuffed with the few objects the little toad could find before the light went out. Without light, the fresh breeze had been his real guide.
"Not a bad first try… for a small adventurer."
Cheerfully, Poplock Duckweed headed back to the village. He had quite a story to tell… and then a much bigger world to go find.
Tobimar squinted across the water. There was nothing to see, just more water, as the Lucramalalla continued through the five-foot seas. Of course, that was part of what bothered him; until now, the huge Sauran-built ship had sailed always just in sight of land, able to see ports and cities as they passed, ready in case they were hailed or if there was some need to stop. But sometime during the night, it seemed, they had swung far out to sea.
Still, even that didn't seem enough to cause his unease. He felt something was wrong, almost could see it, like heat-ripples from the sand, but he couldn't put a name to it. He looked around the ship.
To his mild surprise, he saw T'Oltha standing alone on the second deck, high above the first, immobile as a statue, looking out to sea as he had been. Well, there's my best source of information.
It only took a few moments to make his way up; the eight-foot creature was still standing where he had seen her.
"A good dawning, T'Oltha."
The draconic head turned slightly. "A good dawning to you as well, questing prince."
Of course the ship's Captain knew exactly who he was and something of the errand he was on. He just hoped it wouldn't be general crew knowledge; better to avoid too many questions that he didn't invite. "If it is no secret, why do we sail so far from land this day?"
The Sauran gestured with its taloned hand. "For this day, and for many more days, indeed, we must sail by guidance of stars and the gods; for there lies Elyvias."
That made sense. He hadn't realized they'd come so far already; yes, they had left Tor Port, a major city of the Empire of the Mountain, quite some days ago, but the great inacessible peninsula of Elyvias jutted from the southernmost reaches of the continent. "So we cannot even sail in sight of the land?"
The headshake was like the weaving of a snake. "The Maelwyrd extends full forty miles from the land, with but three miles nearest the land safe to sail for those who live there."
Tobimar glanced up. He had heard something of the latter, but never spoken of with the matter-of-fact certainty that T'Oltha used. "How do you know there is such a safe zone?"
T'Oltha gave a rumbling laugh like distant thunder. "Twice, under the guidance of the Lady of Aegeia, I sailed the shifting maze of the Maelwyrd and found my way safe to Elyvias. I have sailed those waters, young prince, seen what was left when the Archmage and Dragon King duelled at the end and sank part of the continent beneath them."
"If you have sailed them before –"
"Only under the Lady of Wisdom's guidance," she said, emphatically. "And only following the partly-known paths through. Here we are on the northern frontier of Elyvias, a narrow shore backed by the Northern Cataclysm Ridge, and where the mazakh have a strong hold. We still must follow the currents and land in a general sense, and so shall turn northward again to round the portion of the peninsula that projects in that direction. But only in the southernmost waters has the Maelwyrd been mapped at all, and only with the Lady Athena's guidance, or that of S'mbanullah or Elbon Nomicon himself, would I attempt even that route, let alone seek to penetrate the uncharted Maelwyrd here." The weaving shake of the head again. "No, we shall make no port again until Olthamian' a' ameris."
A snort. "As you and the other derntera call it, yes, as you remove the poetry and meaning of Fanalam' T' ameris' a' u' Zahr-a-Thana T'ikon and say 'Zarathanton'."
Tobimar grinned, but had to admit that the Sauran had something of a point. Changing "City of the Sea of Stars" to what amounted to "place with ships" did seem rather a step down. On the other hand, as the name of the capital city illustrated, the Sauran names could get to be long enough to need a couple of breaths to finish. "We are blessed neither with your longevity nor your lung capacity, o T'Teranahm," he said.
That gained him another deep laugh. "Truly said, little human. Truly said. As long as you remember the poetry that lies beneath, then the surface is of no matter, or so S'her once said."
He looked up at the ancient reptilian Captain again. The Saurans had inhabited Zarathan for longer than almost any other race of beings (save of course for the Dragons, their forebears and possibly one or two others), and – though they had, of course, had their own epics of betrayal and tragedy – had always been a force of stability and wisdom for the younger races; Khoros had often mentioned how much he had learned from the dragon-descended creatures.
That decided him. "T'oltha, you know something of our quest. Where do you think I should start my quest? Which port?"
To his surprise, the Sauran Captain bowed to him. "You ask my advice? It is well. For know, that while my ship has carried many of your questers, since first I took this ship six millennia agone, none have ever asked. Your mother's sister chose the Northern route, landed at the White Blade. Before her, a man, Karilar, and his choice was Tor Port itself, to seek an audience with the Archmage. Others, many others, yet none asking of me what my thoughts were." She looked up to the sky. "All sought in places of peril, of distant lands; one even took passage through the Maelwyrd to seek on Elyvias.
"I say instead that you begin in the city where all once began, and where one of my people still sits atop the Throne that is older than all the derntera combined. Go to the First City, take ship with me all the way to Zarathanton, and there I think you will find, if not answers, the path to your answers."
The capital city? Greatest of all cities? The idea made sense. He had thought before of Shipton itself, the great port, or of Aegeia, isolated and proud deiocratic state whose ruler was, it was said, the living incarnation of one of the gods of Wisdom. But T'oltha's advice resonated, fit with the part of him that could show him a safe path across a room in total darkness.
"I thank you, Captain. Then I am with you to the end of this journey."
"The end of this voyage, young one." The Sauran smiled, showing a fearsome array of teeth. "My journey is far from ending, and yours has not even begun."
And isn't that ALWAYS the case?