Consciousness ate slowly through Coriolanus' sleepy gray haze. He could feel no daylight through his eyelids, which was odd. It was only the vernal eclipse when he'd dozed off, and that only happened in midday. He must have slept more than 23 hours!
If so, he felt unusually weak for having taken such a long nap. Despite his body's groaning protest, he unstuck his eyes and looked at the night.
It was still dusk, yet . . . now, that was strange. Huge, striped Rylon, whose first crescent was beginning to show, had changed its place in the sky; it wasn't supposed to do that. This meant that someone had moved him, without waking him up, to a far distant geographic location on the World. He scanned the horizon; yes, this clearing was definitely not where he had gone to sleep.
That got him to his feet instantly, his ultralight hardened-leather plate body armor not hindering him in the slightest. Someone had taken him away from his home in Norland! He searched the foliage surrounding the clearing frantically for any recognizable signs but found none. Even the plants in this area were different from Norland's. What cruel trick was being played?
The faintest hint of orange Luminos' passage lingered on the west horizon; Rylon had moved perpendicular to the ecliptic, to the north. Well, at least he was in the same time zone. But Rylon had shifted its position by more than its entire diameter, which filled nearly three-and-a-quarter hours in the sky. He must have been moved south by . . . over five hundred kay-ems? No one could ride him that fast in twenty-three hours, no matter what kind of horses they used.
Odd . . . both Alpha and Beta showed their tiny faces; they hadn't been near that point in their cycle when he fell asleep. Beta, the inner and smaller moon, superimposed its crimson, volcanic crescent over Rylon's dark side. Alpha, the large, gray-white outer moon, was at the far point in its orbit, just skimming Rylon's darkened upper edge. In fact, from what he could see of Rylon's emerging crescent, the bands of its own color were subtly altered as well. The yellow-browns of the Center Stripe were too well mixed with the whites around it. He hadn't seen it like this since —
No, he'd never seen it like this, but in his early youth he'd seen the stripes mixed even less than when he fell asleep. For the airy swirls of Rylon's surface to have integrated that much farther would take years. That could only mean one thing. . . .
A horror seized him so hard he couldn't shake it free. Hopefully, he seached for Rylon's feeble ring, which was supposed to be invisible for the next ten years; but its white trail became plain as soon as he looked for it. "I've been thrust into the future!" he wailed.
He dropped to his knees and smashed his fists against the packed earth. 'First they took me from my home, now they took me from my time,' he thought. 'I've been kidnapped from both. Magic must be responsible for this!'
He got up and glanced around, futilely looking for any hint of whoever might have distorted his time frame. Sighing, he dropped his shoulders. Anyone sly enough to cast spells on him wasn't going to stick around unless he or she wanted to be seen. A trained instinct told him it wasn't safe to stand out in the open like this, so he picked up his shield, made sure his falchion and scabbard were still there, and lightfooted off into the surrounding forest.
The forest was dense and dark; it would almost completely obscure his vision until midnight, when Rylon would be full. He forged onward through the brush — though carefully, since the terrain was unfamiliar and he'd learned to keep quiet while on the move. Rylon's crescent was his only reference point, his only guiding beacon; it was Rylon that told him he was headed north.
He continued for what must have been half an hour before he spotted trouble. In a small clearing just ahead, three large, grayish humanoids, each toting a longbow, sat around a campfire. They were Outer Worlders, denizens of the other side of the World, the side facing away from Rylon. Perhaps they were responsible for bringing him here.
No, they hadn't even noticed him — but if they did, he was sure they'd start twanging arrows at him. They were Outer Worlders, from "the land of the dead and the un-dead." He had to finish them all off. He drew his falchion into his left hand. Soundlessly, hidden by trees, he crept up on the group until he was less than a meter behind one of them, and then his gold- tinted blade flashed between the base of the skull and the shoulders.
The head toppled neatly to the dusty floor, blood spurting from the severed neck arteries. The other two instantly began wailing in some language he didn't know, and jumped up, trying to ready their bows.
But he was faster than both of them. He dashed over to the one on the left and strafed his falchion across its chest. That blow incapacitated it, to say the least. The other, now quite frightened, loosed his arrow while starting to flee. Coriolanus calmly interposed his shield between himself and the projectile, curving the shield just enough for the arrow to deflect off of it rather than stick to it. It didn't matter much whether he stopped the arrow or not; his armor would probably have caught it anyway.
He ran after the tall gray man, mercilessness in his eyes. Catching up with him was no problem; though the other was probably more familiar with the terrain, Coriolanus was far nimbler. The gray turned and gasped as Coriolanus caught up, and in so doing ran into a tree and doubled over. Now Cory had the beast. He straddled him and raised his falchion.
The large man cowered in terror. With only a bow, he'd been essentially unarmed since he started running; and now he was helpless.
Coriolanus looked down at him, sneered, and cut his throat.
"Performer!" came a shout from the surrounding shrubbery. Then, other voices began shouting various words of praise. Stunned, Coriolanus assumed a full defensive stance, expecting more sickly Outer Worlders to charge him.
The man who emerged holding one hand triumphantly high was definitely an Inner Worlder. He wore a loose-fitting blouse and light blue pants. Coriolanus gasped; this was the traditional outfit worn by wizards, by those awful users of magic. That wasn't any better than those Outer Worlders. This wizard was probably going to blast him apart; or kill himself in the process. But his words — why had he said "Performer" in Coriolanus' own language? Surely, this place must be south of Norland!
Two others followed the first out of the bushes. Their lightly tanned skin and clothing that was indigenous to his homeland were a welcome relief; something he finally recognized. One was a dwarf: bearded, barely 120 cee-ems high, wearing metal plate armor and carrying a battle axe. The other was a woman who, except for a sheathed two-handed sword, looked and dressed almost exactly like Coriolanus, right down to the superlight rigid leather armor.
"Exceptional!" said the wizard-like man. His voice seemed younger than Coriolanus had expected. "I haven't seen a performance like that since the last fair came to Norland; and you did it on the moment!"
"You mean you're from Norland too?" asked Coriolanus, astonished.
"We're all Norlanders," he declared. "What do you call yourself?"
"My name's Coriolanus. . . ." His attention faded to the woman. "Call me Cory, it's brighter."
"I'm called Resolve," the wizard began, but stopped when he realized how futile it was to talk to Coriolanus at that moment.
"What's your name," he asked the woman.
She smiled. It wasn't the shy type of smile that young, protected women gave; hers shone with command. "The name's Fhef. And Resolve's right, you've got one impressive fighting style."
"Fhef," he rolled the name over aloud. "That's got a pretty sound to it . . . Fhef. I like it."
She could see what he was getting at; he was practically gawking. "Cory isn't so bad, either, fast guy," she said, and patted his shoulder. "But there're more important things to be done first."
"Oh?" he said sarcastically. "Have you all been transported here from out of the past?"
"Yes, we have," Resolve said.
That was enough to shock Coriolanus back to seriousness. "You wouldn't happen to have found the magic-using lichens who brought us here, would you?"
"No. I'm not even sure any human force did this."
"Rylon!" shouted the dwarf, who until then had remained eerily silent. "It was Rylon's will that commanded us into the Inner World's future!"
Coriolanus closed his eyes in acquiescence, recognizing the dwarf's stream of bilge instantly. That sounded exactly like what a Rylon cultist would be saying right now; he was in the company of a fanatic.
"Cory," said Fhef, introducing the stocky man, "Meet Sonna, the — uh — high servant of Rylon."
"Have you been good to Rylon?" Sonna asked, his voice rasping. Coriolanus ignored him.
"Coriolanus," Resolve began, "Whatever brought us here has led us to stumble onto something pretty important. We found some ruins a little farther north that're . . . rather disturbing."
"How so?" Coriolanus asked, feigning courtesy.
"Well, it's rather hard to get all the details, especially since we're outside the light of Luminos, 'The bringer of light and the sustainer of life'—"
"You mean, 'The bringer of light and life.' That's the quote."
"No, because it's wrong."
"What?" Coriolanus yelped.
"You'd have to see the site to understand. We're going back there now; you're welcome to join us."
"Uh . . . sure," Coriolanus replied meekly, almost feeling impelled along some unknown path.
Together, they trudged north through a hole in the bushes. Fhef, Cory noticed, was hanging back of Resolve and Sonna. He dropped back to join her.
"Now that I've got you in private," she said, "There's something I want to talk to you about."
"Oh?" Coriolanus perked up.
Fhef didn't discuss what he wanted her to, though. "Back there in the clearing, when you ambushed those Outer Worlders, why didn't you let the last one go?"
"Because it was an Outer Worlder, a magic-corrupted villain."
"You mean you attacked three people just because they were natives of the Outer World?!"
"They weren't people, they were —"
"— people, just like you and I and all the World's other citizens! Why the prejudice against Outer Worlders, Cory?"
Coriolanus pondered this a bit, then: "Because the Outer World's . . . where most magic comes from."
She puzzled. What was so alien about magic? "Well, that falchion of yours is enchanted, isn't it?"
"Yeah, but —"
"And so's your rigid leatherplate armor and my rigid leatherplate armor and Sonna's battle axe and my two handed sword." She unsheathed her sword to show him. "See? Magic's just a symbol of the high class. Why is that —"
Cory silenced her. Beyond them, Resolve was pointing ahead into a dirt bowl more than twenty meters across. At the center of the depression, dimly lit by Rylon's waxing crescent, a row of rigid grey plates lay partly exposed. Despite the ages of wear it had suffered, the structure doubtlessly looked like metal.
"There it is," announced Resolve.
"What is that thing?" Cory wondered.
"Some kind of vehicle," Resolve figured, "Though not any type that anyone would be familiar with."
Coriolanus inspected the crater. "Did you dig this?"
"No," Fhef assured him, "We found it with almost as much of the — er, vehicle exposed as there is now."
"Well then, Resolve," Cory inquired, "Who dug it up?"
"Don't know; though I'm guessing it's whoever or whatever brought us here. It may have been excavated by magic, but I can't tell. Most of the time it's impossible to distinguish between magical effects and 'physical' ones since That Power Which Fuels Life and Death is so much a part of everything."
Coriolanus stopped dead, but not for so long as to be noticed; Resolve's last concept had sent about three different unpleasant emotions down his spine and into his solar plexus. The use of magic was often called, "Wielding That Power Which Fuels Life and Death." It had always puzzled Coriolanus why That Power Which Fuels Life and That Power Which Fuels Death were grouped together; maybe that was part of the reason why he disliked magic so badly.
They entered the ditch and spread themselves across one side of the worn shrine in the center, Resolve standing next to Coriolanus. "It might help you to understand," the mage said, "If you could see the craft."
He put his hands together in front of his forehead, closed his eyes, and began murmuring. Cory strained to hear the syllables; they sounded like complex versions of the magic "words" he was familiar with. Resolve relaxed his face and slowly drew his hands apart. The space between his palms was a shade of gray brighter than the surrounding darkness. The grayish glow grew out from his hands until it encompassed him, then Cory, then Sonna and Fhef, and finally the metal construct itself.
Relolve snapped his arms full apart to either side, opened his eyes wide, and gave a loud shout. The gray area burst into dazzling blue-white; he'd lit up the scene nearly as bright as Luminos.
Coriolanus was both revolted and awed, but settled into acceptance when he felt sure the light was harmless. "The metal this structure is made of," Resolve began, "Is some form of iron; the lodestone test proved that. However, it's tougher and harder than any iron I can think of, even steel."
"Oh yeah?" Cory announced, coming right up next to it, falchion in hand. "Nothing's so tough it can't be cut through!"
Fhef shouted, "Cory, no!" as Coriolanus brought his falchion down on one of the metal plates. There was a dull thwack, and the gold-hued sword vibrated in his hand.
"I tried that already with my two-handed sword," Fhef finished.
"Didn't even scratch it," Cory droned in amazement.
Resolve broke in. "That's the least of what we've discovered." He stood on top of it and pulled on one of the plates. This one was hinged. "The entrance to this thing happens to be one of the few parts sticking out above the ground. From inside, this thing is tremendous; it extends for about twenty meters ahead and over fifty behind — we haven't even explored all the levels yet!"
"You mean this thing is more than one floor deep?"
"Three floors extending down for about ten meters, to be exact. But it's not the size of this artifact that's important so much as what's inside it. Look at this."
He reached inside and pulled out a small box that had been moved to an inner ledge. One face held a dial much like a clock. "A timepiece, right?" Resolve asked rhetorically. "Then why does the dial only measure 24 hours? All the clocks in the World have gone up to the full length of a day — 96 hours — since as far back as history's been recorded."
"Well," suggested Coriolanus, "It's only 24 hours from Luminoset to full Rylon, and 24 hours again from there to dawn. You can pretty much tell which cycle you're in if you look outside."
"But only if you're on the World."
"Wha . . . what?"
"I found this plaque, too . . ." As he bent down to retrieve it, the dwarf Sonna stepped up to the hole and climbed down past him. Coriolanus giggled slightly; dwarves were so insecure for lack of height that they always had to prove themselves, both in muscularity and in "courage."
Resolve returned with a metal plate that had oddly square black letters etched in it. "Can you read this?"
"Not very well."
"It's a very old version of our vernacular. Apparently, it says, 'Earth space ship 45356.' I'm not sure what a space ship is, but I'm guessing it's a ship for travelling through space."
"You mean through the void between the planets?"
"Yes — or between the stars."
This muffed Coriolanus. "Don't tell me you subscribe to the theory that the stars are distant Luminoses!"
"Why not? It would explain a lot of things. Anyhow, I got a look at what was in the far end, and as far as I can guess, it's a huge, complex version of the same thing you have at the end of a sky rocket.
"A thrust machine . . ." Cory turned the thought over.
"Exactly. It's already been supposed that a powerful enough sky rocket could reach Rylon."
Coriolanus smiled; he was getting a brilliant idea. "Could this have been made by the Primordial Beings?" Oh, now he was on to something. The godlike race that sprang from the loins of the World those eons ago, the ones destroyed by their own dark magic, they went to other planets, to Rylon, maybe to Luminos. Yes. Maybe they weren't all dead, maybe a few still held their immortality, and maybe one of them had brought him and these others here from out of the past.
"I don't think the Primordial Beings ever existed," Resolve interrupted his train of thought. "Not in the godlike way we think of them, anyway."
At first, Cory's heart sank, but then the radical nature of that statement surfaced as a shock.
"Gods don't need space ships," Resolve continued. "They don't need thrust machines, or armored walls, or clocks. No gods captained this vessel, only men." He noticed Cory's shock and confusion going deeper. "Haven't you ever noticed how things don't quite seem to fit? How humans and their cousins are the only animals capable of defending themselves? How Rylon as a light in the dark seems out of place? How Luminos seems too red or orange, how the 40-day year seems twice too short — how the 96-hour day seems four times too long?"
Now Cory could begin to see what he was getting at. The twenty-four hour clock. Sure, the days seemed four times too long, but wouldn't that cause people to experiment with 24-hour timekeeping cycles?
"I dated the ship," the wizard declared. "It's possible to date things by reading their magic traces, you know."
Cory smirked unpleasantly. Yes, he knew that.
"It's about thirty thousand years old. A few papers are preserved in unmovable transparent chambers in the front. A lot of their dates seem to indicate a year that's over 360 of their days long — about twice the length of our 40-day year. One of them makes a reference to something called, 'Terraforming,' and from what I could pick up the word means changing a planet to support life."
Cory knew, subconsciously, what Resolve had just implied, but he couldn't accept it without being sure. "Just . . . what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that life on the World hasn't been around for more than thirty thousand years! The people who crewed this space ship, and maybe other vehicles like it, were our forerunners. No race of gods sprang from the loins of the world, regular people came here from some other place. Dark magic caused the downfall of primordial civilization — sure. There's more than enough evidence to support that. But it was ordinary humans, like you or I, that infected the world with their dark magic."
"Dark magic, no!" Cory burst out. "All magic's what killed the World. Look at you, you're perpetuating that decadent trend right now! Casting a spell to pollute the air with light. Dark magic and bright magic are both deadly; don't try denying it!"
Coriolanus tromped off into a nearby catch of trees before Resolve had a chance to reply. "Cory," Fhef inquired, beginning to follow him.
"No, don't," Resolve said, stopping her. "He needs to let off energy."
'Sure he does,' Fhef thought, waited for Resolve to turn his attention elsewhere, and then followed Cory's trail into the forest.
She found him seated on a boulder, fiddling with a twig and staring up at Rylon. She sat down beside him.
"Huh?" he started. "Oh, hi Fhef. I meant what I said back there, about magic being bad. Magic kills."
She put her arm around his shoulder. "And so does a two- handed sword or a falchion, Cory. We knew we were taking death into our hands the moment we strapped our scabbards to our bodies."
Cory took out his curved, gold-hued falchion to illustrate. "Sure, and these are magic weapons, too." He swished the blade through the air a couple of times. "This is a great old blade, took a long time to construct and enchant. My father gave this to me, and his father passed it on before him."
"Heirloom, huh? I'm surprised you use it as your main weapon."
"Well, it's not that kind of heirloom. My father was a thief, pure and simple. He wanted me to be a robber just like him. Can you imagine that: me, taking up a career as a burglar!"
"What did you want to be, then?"
"A fighter. A full-blown front-line warrior, the type the high classes hire out. I would have been a thief, too, if not for . . ." he drifted off.
"If not for what, Cory?"
". . . Greslan. I met him at age ten; that's when he gave me this armor. I'm surprised it still fits."
"It's magic, remember?"
He ignored that. "Greslan was an old wizard, going on a hundred at the time. He got me to look at myself and be what I really wanted. I wanted to be a fighter, so he helped train me to be a fighter."
"A wizard taught you how to fight?"
He sheathed his falchion. "Sure, he wasn't all spells and philosophy; he had some skill with weapons and armor, too. He taught me to parry, to search for weak spots, to wriggle around effectively when I was wearing armor, everything. I even picked up how to read magic writing from him. Of course, my father was still teaching me how to move stealthily, attack from behind, lose myself in the shadows, and all that. It was a real experience integrating those two trainings together."
"This Greslan sounds like a nice guy, and he was a magic person, too."
Coriolanus' features hardened. "Yeah, and magic was what killed him."
"How did that happen?" She could see him starting to breathe heavily. He was working against something.
"I was . . . I was 34, barely an adult." He was speaking more rapidly now. "He was working on some spell; I never learned what it was supposed to do, but it was a powerful one. He . . . didn't do something right, had a bad energy balance or something, and all the power was channeled straight into him. He couldn't take the strain — if he was younger, he might have survived, but not at 120. The idiot killed himself with his own magic spell! . . . He was my best friend."
Fhef looked up at Rylon with him in momentary sympathy. There was a tiny blue flash against Rylon's dark side; that was a lightning storm on the giant planet itself. It wasn't unusual to see storms the size of the World on the night face.
She turned to him: "Sounds like he didn't have much life left anyway. He probably had to use bright magic just to stay alive until one-twenty."
"Yeah, I already thought of that. But even with his good intentions, his bright magic still took his life."
"Maybe the fatal spell was dark magic."
"Greslan use dark magic? Never. He . . ." His voice trailed off as he searched his memory. "Oh, Rylon, I don't know what to believe right now!"
He turned to face her, and found her face very close. She moved in and kissed him passionately.
He broke off considerably brighter. "Well, that didn't take you long."
"At the rate things are moving now," Fhef told him, "We might not live to see the light of Luminos again. Say, where in Norland are you from?"
"West Riverfork, at the apex of the delta."
"You're fooling! I live less than three kay-ems northeast of there."
"Really? Then how come it took so long for me to find you?"
"Maybe you just never looked." She reached over to her side and yanked a release catch on her armor. The suit popped open, and she removed and discarded it.
Coriolanus was quick to follow her example. Soon, both were lying horizontally, embracing each other with all of their clothing under them for blankets and their armor to their backs.
There was no armor between them that Rylon night.
When Coriolanus woke up attached to Fhef, Rylon was nearly half full. He withdrew and stood up, using his skills to avoid waking her. He put on his underclothes, his boots, his armor, and his falchion, and strapped his dagger-and-scabbard to his right boot ("Always have backup arms," his father had told him). Picking up his shield, he walked out to join Resolve and face Sonna.
Resolve greeted him as he re-entered the dig. "I can tell by that expression you two had a good time."
Cory noticed countless exotic pieces of paraphernalia littering the ground; they looked like some of the other things Resolve had taken out of the vehicle. "And I see you've been indulging yourself as well."
Resolve walked over to him. Sonna followed, clutching something long and rolled-up in his right hand. Resolve said, "When Sonna went into the space ship, he looked in one corner and found this."
Sonna stepped up to him and handed him the rolled-up sheet. "Rylon be praised! This is a scribed spell."
Coriolanus snatched it up and unrolled it, focusing his attention on what was on the page. Symbols and syllables swam by his eyes in a sea of background empathy. Greslan had told him that the syllables weren't nearly as important as the feeling of what went into the writing.
"Electricity," Cory said at last. "A ram, a sphere — and a lot of energy."
Cory looked up, bringing himself back out of the spell's world. This was the first time he'd seen any hint of astonishment cross Resolve's face.
"You can read evocations?" the wizard asked.
"Sure. Greslan taught me, though sometimes I wish he hadn't."
Coriolanus paused. "An old friend."
"No matter. Keep the scroll, you might need it."
Cory practically dropped it. "I don't want to carry some old magic work around with me! I'd surely never invoke that much self-destruction."
Resolve exhaled. "Keep it. We have work ahead of us."
"What kind of work?"
"It wasn't some gods who abused dark magic and lost their immortality, right? It was human beings, like us, and they lost their civilization. That means that whenever a civilization gets going, dark magic can ruin it and sour all life for millenia. About where are we now as far as civilization development goes?"
"'Scapes me. I guess we're . . . pretty far along."
"We have moral codes and etiquette, we build with concrete, and we work iron and high-class steel. We can light up the dark in any color of the rainbow. In other terms, we've just started to dig our way out of the hole our ancestors put us in thirty-some thousand years ago. Even 'civilization' was nearly meaningless only five hundred years hence.
"Civilization is blooming, and with it, dark magic. Even back in the Norland we came from, some witchlocks were beginning serious study into the science of dark magic manipulation. I estimated that it would take about twenty years for dark magic to get its opportunity to take over; and that's about how far in the future we are right now."
Cory swallowed hard. "Then all of history's desolation could return again, because of magic."
Resolve ignored the implications of that statement. "And I think I've finally sensed out dark magic's vehicle."
"Dark magic's vehicle?" Cory asked.
"Yes; by itself, dark magic just stagnates where it is and doesn't wreak much destruction. But with someone controling it — someone to be its vehicle or tool — dark magic thrives. Anyway, the dark magic source is less than four kay-ems from this very spot."
Resolve pondered this a bit further. "Hmm . . . seems the thing that brought us here wants us to stop whoever dark magic's catalyst is, what with putting us not four kay-ems away. Who or what could have that much foresight?"
"Rylon could!" the dwarf bleated.
Resolve cringed his eyes for the fourth time in as many hours. To Cory, though, this blatant fanaticism set his mind in motion. "Magic, in a way, is mind. It is all minds, and it is its own mind."
"I'd never heard that quote before," Resolve admitted.
"It's something Greslan taught me before he . . . . Anyhow, could magic itself bring us here? I mean, does somebody have to control it?"
Resolve gasped in slow motion and clutched his forehead. "I've been a fool! Why didn't that surface to me? Of course magic could bring us all back here on its own! People disappearing from the face of the World have been reported before; magic could have just been pulling them to where they were needed! In this instance, it saw the potential catastrophe and, being independent of time, took the tools it needed from out of the past and set them in a situation where they could work."
"And we're the tools," Cory deduced.
"Right," Fhef said, marching onto the scene with her sword drawn. She sidled up next to Coriolanus. "You didn't think you could get by without waking me, did you? I'm a warrior too."
Cory smirked at her and turned back to Resolve. "Did those things you brought out from the space ship tell you anything?"
"About our past, yes; about our current situation, no. Let's get going. We have to cross four kay-ems in less than six hours."
Sonna shouldered his battle axe and nibbled on something out of his left hand. Cory revulsed; it looked like he was eating a freshly-killed forest animal. That seemed like something the dwarf might do. He reached into his own belt pouch, pulled out a handful of dried semi-edibles, looked back up at the armor-clad dwarf, and pocketed his food again. He wouldn't be able to eat for a while.
Fhef sheathed her sword and caught sight of the scroll that Cory'd tucked inside his falchion strap. "What's that," she asked, pointing it out.
Cory seemed to be repelled from it. "Some scribed magic spell. Resolve wanted me to hold onto it because I can invoke it; I won't call its power into being, though."
"What kind of spell is it?" she asked aloofly.
"What other kind? A destructive one."
She shut and rolled her eyes. "Come on, Cory," she put her hand on his shoulder. "Resolve, lead the way!"
There was no path to follow, and apparently no pattern in the route Resolve took. 'Typical wizard's instincts,' Cory thought. 'No logic to them at all.'
Only one hour down the non-road, a rustle in the nearby shrubbery caught their attention. Everyone poised for conflict. A lone gray figure with a longbow staggered out of the bushes, obviously disoriented, wearing only a quiver and a row of leaves over a deep chest slash. He started, suddenly realizing that he was in the presence of other people; and when his attention came to Coriolanus, he screamed.
He fumbled with his bow, horrified to realize that there was no way he could ready an arrow in time. He looked behind for a place to run, but he could barely turn around without stumbling. He dropped the bow.
"Oh, no!" Coriolanus realized. "That's the one Outer Worlder I didn't kill back there." The gray stared up straight into his eyes. The black eyes didn't seem nearly so alien anymore.
"Does he want to kill you?" Fhef asked.
"Looks more like he's afraid I'll kill him." He lowered his shield, sheathed his falchion, and exhaled as relaxedly as he could make it look.
The large gray man's mouth flickered into a smile. An Outer Worlder actually smiled! Fhef put away her two-handed sword and Resolve lowered his hands; only Sonna was still suspicious. Resolve approached the man. "Resolve," he said, pointing to himself. Then: "Fhef; Coriolanus . . . uh, Sonna."
The gray one cowered back a little, but finally relaxed. Extending his arms, Resolve came up to him, laid his hands on his chest, and closed his eyes.
The gray sighed, contentedly, his eyes seeming to grow sharper and brighter. The rigid scar on his chest was becoming more alive, less hindering. Resolve opened his eyes and removed his hands, brushing away the leaves from the chest; the Outer Worlder wouldn't need them anymore, and they hadn't much medicinal value anyway. The wound now stood as only a giant scab.
After exchanging a few mumbles with the gray man, Resolve rejoined the group. "He says his name's Eferti," he relayed, making Cory wonder (but only momentarily) how he found that out before Resolve led them off again toward the known and the unknown.
Cory and Fhef were at the back of the line, arm-in-arm. Coriolanus looked over his shoulder at Eferti, smiling, and made the faintest gesture of, "Come along." Eferti happily retrieved his bow and fell into line behind the two figures in rigid leather armor.
"Glad to see you've seen things my way," Fhef said.
Coriolanus responded, "We could use an archer anyway."
Four hours of walking passed, four hours of moving and resting at wearying intervals, and Resolve stopped cold. "Just up ahead," he whispered. "Oh, but it's close! If anyone wants to back out, say so now."
No one moved or made a sound. They knew what was at stake.
Silently, Resolve led them to seeing range.
Seven strides later, Coriolanus could see them past the trees. The wooded area up ahead wasn't as dense as the woods he was in, and Rylon's light showed the 30-meter-wide region was littered with moronic, lifeless looking grey people on patrol. "Homunculi," Resolve reported. "They're animatons, dead bodies set into motion through dark magic. All right, you know what to do — now go!"
Everyone, including Eferti, chose a blank spot in their cover and dashed through it, shouting various phrases of confusion. Fair fights weren't Coriolanus' strong point, but at least he fantasized about them.
Cory looked straight into the face of a grunting one not three meters away. Fine, he would engage this one first. Weaving erratically as Greslan had taught him to do, he moved in; but not fast enough to strike first. The un-dead automaton swung a good, solid right hook that landed dead center on Cory's interposed shield.
Cory's right arm recoiled, vibrating. He actually felt that hard blow through his shield! Okay, so it was strong, though it didn't look it. He brought his left arm around in a Rylon's- crescent arch and hacked his falchion down across the thing's left shoulder. There was no blood.
Shocked by the fact that the beast was still coming, Coriolanus realized just how much of an advantage not being alive gave it. He would have to stop the zombie by ruining enough of its muscles for it to be inoperative.
Another fist swung out, but this time he ducked under it and struck the enchanted blade across its neck as hard as he could. The head rose up by half a cee-em, and rolled onto the dust. The creature finally collapsed.
Breathing heavily, he glanced around for the next most likely target. Off to one side, he saw Sonna parry a grey fist and then practically cut his opponent's chest in half with his battle axe while saying, "Foul Outer World creature, I banish you to the darkness from which you came!" Yes, Cory thought, he sure banished it good.
The nearest active zombie had its attention occupied by Fhef. In one smooth motion, she raised her two-handed high above her head, shouted, and brought it down to neatly cleave the animated beast's head in two. At the point her sword was above her head, her height from tip to boot must have been well over three meters; it was an impressive sight Cory wouldn't be likely to copy.
Where were the rest of the beasts? There must have been more than just three or four. Resolve had just cast some pyrotechnic spell on one of them, putting enough holes in its body to take it out of action. Another one was clomping up from behind; the wizard heard it, turned around, and clapped his hands in front of his face. The creature kept coming; Cory realized Resolve was in trouble and started running. Yet they were nearly twenty meters away, and the beast was practically on top of its prey right now.
An arrow shot out from behind a tree and stabbed the animaton in the back. This was enough to draw its attention away from the wizard and toward the one who'd fired. Coriolanus looked to the arrow's source, and saw Eferti starting to retreat. The Outer Worlder had quite probably saved Resolve's life. It was about time Cory returned the favor. He dashed up to the beast, maneuvered into a tactical position behind it, and hacked three solid times across its spine. With its nervous system severed, the zombie doubled over.
He looked up at Eferti, who was smiling, and raised a triumphant left fist in the same friend/victory manner Resolve had done when Cory finished off Eferti's comrade. But this time, he meant it.
"He surprised me," Resolve apologized, "And I instinctively shot a pain at him. That would paralyze a living creature, but these guys aren't affected by pain." He looked off into the surrounding forest, and caught sight of another homunculus retreating, probably to regroup. "Can't let them get away," he mumbled as he chased after it.
So Resolve had made a mistake. Well, after all, he hadn't gotten much sleep since the whole ordeal started. Cory figured it would probably never happen again.
Cory spotted another retreating zombie. He had followed it out of the demi-clearing when Fhef intercepted him. "Wait a minute, lover," she panted, out of breath from the encounter's exertion, "What's one of the first tactics they teach you in warrior training?"
"Uh . . . striking by surprise." It was the one he was most familiar with, anyway.
"No, before that. Diversion."
Coriolanus was speechless.
"You send soldiers out to be obvious and/or cause lots of damage, and this takes the enemy's attention away from your real goal. That's what these zombies are doing; they're not standing guard, they're diverting us! What else would they be doing without their creator?"
"But what are they diverting us from? And where?" Cory was getting nervous.
"Well, where are they retreating from?"
He looked around. He caught glimpses of them moving away in all directions. "They're going practically everywhere away from . . ." His eyes bugged wide open. ". . . straight ahead. RESOLVE!"
The wizard was nowhere in sight; the zombie had succeeded in leading him away. "SONNA!" Cory shouted. The same non-response. "EFERTI!"
"It's no good," Fhef admitted. "We've got to move, and we've got to move fast. Their controller probably knows that the diversion's worked by now, and he'll certainly slip past us if we go back and get the others."
"Then we're going ourselves," Cory said, taking a slight bit of lead. "Forward!"
'Brilliant decision,' Fhef thought sarcastically, and jogged straight ahead with him. Their jog soon quickened into a stride.
They stopped short after half a kay-em. Across a ten-meter expanse of treeless grass, a group of five grey, lifeless animatons surrounded their animator, who stared right back at Cory and Fhef. The man in the center was doubtlessly human; in fact, he was an Inner Worlder right down to his dark magician's robes.
Cory issued Fhef a hand signal to go around the outside of the group, leaving him to face this problem frontally. "All right, magic user, chaos provoker, you're not going to break our civilization down for the second time!"
The necromancer smiled a wily grin and voiced, "Nhhh." His hands crossed in front of his stomach and spread out, saying the universal "No, get out of my way."
"Kraaaah!" Coriolanus shouted, and charged in toward him with his gold-tinted falchion raised high.
The un-dead's master wiggled his fingers and clenched his fists over his solar plexus. Cory stopped and doubled over, a wave of black sickness washing over him. He would have vomited had he eaten anything recently.
The sickness passed momentarily, but now he knew what a weapon his opponent posessed. Fhef charged at the mob from the side. "Go get 'em, Fhef!" Cory encouraged her.
A grey set upon her instantly. She ducked the first blow, then swung her two-handed sword at it. It would have hit, if the beast hadn't knocked it out of the way with dagger-point precision.
'Oh, no,' Cory thought, lowering his falchion to his waist. The two of them were no match for five zombies and a dark sorcerer, especially when the wizard had this much control over its zombies' skill.
He fiddled with his falchion, wondering what to do next, when he felt the rolled-up paper sticking out of his sheath strap. He gasped, dropped his sword, and took out the scroll and unrolled it in one motion. The spell sat on the page as it had before. The magic, destructive spell.
He looked up at Fhef, who looked back at him and brightened up when she saw the scroll. Didn't she know what she was proposing? Death! He looked down at his own body. He'd be adding death to the World with this scribed spell. Magic, death, magic and death; and a memory of Greslan's convulsed, dead body rushed back to him. His old mentor had looked so pale, so frozen. But he hadn't gotten that way without a fight; no, Cory'd watched the old man blow it. He'd looked on helplessly as the retributive magic worked itself on his insides until the agony stopped making him wriggle.
He looked at the parchment in his hands once more. The symbols were clear as the night; they held the power that was his — and Fhef's — only chance of victory. He alone had had the tutelage to read the symbols and channel their energy. But he would be using magic, for Rylon's sake; he'd be wielding That Power Which Fuelled Greslan's Death! Fighting chaos with chaos just didn't work, as he'd figured hundreds of times.
Fhef had taken one of the zombies' punches and was in a guerilla retreat. She looked back at her lover and shouted, "Read it, Cory! READ IT!"
There seemed no other choice. The grey-skinned beasts were advancing on him, their master shouting his final, triumphant orders in their midst. Coriolanus was shaking like mad; all his agility, all his skill, even the family falchion and Greslan's armor were no match for their sheer force of numbers.
He looked down, and with a skill that hadn't been practiced for over a decade, he read the scrawls from the page.
The instant he uttered the last syllable, electric arcs began crackling over his left arm. Coriolanus jumped, scared, but the arm was unhurt. Then, by an urge almost sexually intense, he flailed his arm so that it faced his adversaries and tensed it, pulling it back as if from a recoil. The blue-white static jumped from his arm into the air as a bolt of lightning, and as soon as it reached the dead-center of the oncoming mob — hitting the controller square — it flared out into a sphere.
Ball lightning; Rylon's fire, it was called on the rare occasions when it occurred naturally. Fhef and he watched the display as the grey humanoid masses fried in the heat of their skin's own resistance. The aurora was too bright to see exactly what was happening to the sorcerer in the center, but they didn't need much imagination.
The flare subsided; all that remained was once-living charcoal. There was silence, augmented only by the bleats of full Rylon insects.
Coriolanus walked toward Fhef, she staggered to him, and they hugged each other. They had done it, they had accomplished what they had to do, and he knew it.
How long would it be before they returned to their home land and their home time? It might be in three minutes, it might be never. At this point, Coriolanus didn't care if he never went home. Though he hadn't been here for twenty-four hours, he felt more at peace than he ever had at West Riverfork. Maybe Fhef being in his arms was the sole reason for that, and maybe not.
He stroked her hair and stared up at Rylon. The giant night watcher was nearly full; it would be full by the time Resolve and the rest arrived. A group of homunculi with their creator destroyed wouldn't be much of a problem for Resolve, or Sonna; or Eferti, for that matter.
Rylon, long regarded as the mother of the World — to think its nocturnal face had been beheld by men for only thirty thousand years! The World even seemed to favor its parent, locked in a 96-hour orbit with the same side always to Rylon so that it never moved in the sky.
Perhaps some day, men could leave the World and venture past Rylon, past Luminos, to the far distant Luminoses across the black night sea. They had come here in the past, after all, and some day maybe other men would come. But all this was for the future and, even with the chance bright magic had given the World, they wouldn't leave the place they called home for a long, long time.
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Roger M. Wilcox.
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