Refuge of the Damned
The starship Ixion was dying.
For three weeks the two men who manned it had pushed it to its limits, fleeing the forces of Imperial Kerathar. So far as they knew, they were the sole survivors of the fleet led by Prince Ferien. The revolt had been crushed when General Ketil had managed to lure Ferien's forces into a trap in the Reynard system, and the little scoutship had barely escaped the massacre intact, breaking through the Kerathar lines in a bold sally and jumping outsystem.
Cut off by Ketil, the Ixion had been forced to flee beyond the borders of the empire, out into the rim of the galaxy. System after system it had passed, harried by Kerathar pursuit, plunging and further into the unknown. At last the pursuers had turned back, fearing to travel further. Men called this area the Black Wastes, and legends told how ships that entered it never returned, and how it was filled with hell-spawn, evil spirits, and other horrors of Third Age technology.
For the Ixion, though, there was no choice. It had long since passed the point of no return, and must press on, though no ship had ever ventured so far beyond the limits of known space. For days the ship had jumped from system to system, desperately searching for a source to replenish its dwindling supplies of food, water, oxygen, and fuel.
But now it had reached the limit of its endurance. The Ixion had never been designed to withstand the rigors of extended outsystem travel. Already scarred from the battle in Reynard and badly in need of repairs, the ship's systems had shut down, one by one, until little more than life-support and engine thrust remained.
In the cramped confines of the little ship's bridge, the two men peered intently at a small screen of scrolling figures, their faces eerily lit in the darkness by the greenish light spilling from the rows of monitors.
The younger of the two, a lean man with dusky blonde hair, dark eyes, and a handsome face, licked lips that were cracked and dry. As the oxygen supply had given out the cabin had grown oppressively hot, and the young man had stripped off his shirt and boots, so that all he wore was a ragged pair of pants. There was an intensity in his eyes which bordered on madness, and stinging beads of sweat trickled between his brows.
His companion was a giant of a man, standing at least two hands taller. His hair was raven black, and cropped short, and his eyes were icy blue. He wore a black form-fitting suit of supply Virana body armor which covered him from the neck down, leaving only his head and muscled arms exposed. At his hip was slung a Calver projectile pistol which had the look of a weapon well-used. Despite the heat, he did not sweat, though his gaze was likewise riveted to the small screen of changing numbers.
Abruptly the scrolling of the numbers halted, and the younger man fell back in his chair with a cry of despair. "Nothing! Seven planets and eighteen moons and nothing, nothing... nothing we can use!"
"Long range sensors have been wrong before, Decius," said the bigger man. "It may be that there are tritrinium deposits we could mine, or a pocket of ice we could melt-"
"There is no ice!" snarled the man named as Decius. "No food, no fuel, no nothing And we could not get to it even were it there. This is a scoutship, not a terraformer. We have not the equipment to mine or drill. We have not even spacesuits." He gave a bitter laugh. "And now we have not the power to make another jump to infraspace. This system will be our tomb."
The bigger man scowled. He was of a different race than Decius, a breed which had conquered and thrived on one of the most inhospitable worlds in the galaxy, and the thought of abandoning of hope rankled. "We are not dead men yet, Decius."
"No? Are we to make fuel from nothing? It has been three days since our water gave out, and we have less than twenty hours of air. You deceive yourself, Vanar. All that remains to us is a lingering death by suffocation. Abla! This head is unbearable!"
"We will live," said the big man with grim determination. "I have a debt to settle with General Ketil and his dogs."
"You dream," said Decius, licking his lips and eyeing the pistol that hung at his companion's side. "Soon or late, we are dead men. Let it be now."
Quick as lightning, he darted for the other man's weapon.
Swift as he was, the big man was quicker. Side-stepping in a catlike movement, he struck the smaller man a glancing blow, sending him crashing into a darkened and lifeless bank of control panels a few feet away.
"What madness is this?" Vanar demanded, drawing his weapon in astonishment.
Decius had rolled over to face him, and lay there panting, a trickle of blood coming from a shallow scrape high on his cheek. For a moment he was silent, glaring at the bigger man. "No madness," he said at last. "Give me the pistol."
"Nay, I think not. The heat has addled your brain."
Decius shook his head. "I have never been saner. We have only two choices: a slow death or a quick one. I choose quick. Give me the weapon!"
For a moment Vanar stood undecided. Perhaps a quick death would be a mercy. Certainly leaving a man to suffocate was no kindness.
Decius, misunderstanding the bigger man's silence, surged forward, grabbing for the weapon again.
With a muttered curse Vanar stepped back, raising the pistol and clipping the other man on the top of the head with its butt, sending him reeling back. He raised the weapon again, leveling it at the smaller man. "Cease this madness!"
Decius laughed. "What will you do? Shoot me?"
"Yes, fool," replied the other with a dour look. "In the leg, mayhap, or the arm. It would be painful, but you would not die."
A faint but persistent beeping suddenly made both men whirl back towards the readout for the long range sensors.
"What is it?" asked Decius as Vanar bent over it.
Vanar grunted. "Something artificial. In secondary orbit around the fourth planet of the system."
Decius hissed in surprise. "Artificial? This far out? Is it a ship?"
The big man bent to the keypad and tapped out a complex set of instructions. "We'll know in a moment."
They waited a few anxious minutes while the computer constructed a visual image from the information the sensors had processed.
"It might be one of Ketil's," ventured Decius, but Vanar shook his head dismissively.
"Ketil's dogs turned back days ago. They fear their master, right enough, but they are superstitious men, and fear the Black Wastes more. No, this is something else-"
Just then the image blinked into existence, and both men caught their breath in surprise.
"Abla!" swore Decius. "What is that?"
Vanar shook his head. "Orbital platform, perhaps. Too big for a ship, and I see no engine drives."
It was roughly cylindrical, with two flared circular orbs on each end. The image was necessarily hazy; there was no color to it and no details. The computer did the best it could with the information the sensors gave, but the resolution was poor at best.
"I never saw a platform like that," said Decius. "You don't think it's Third Age, do you?" His voice was tinged with fear. It was never wise to tamper with Third Age technology.
Vanar shrugged, already tapping out another series of commands to the computer. "It matters not. Whether it is peopled by ghosts, men, or demons, we must go."
* * *
"No ships," murmured Vanar.
The voyage to the fourth planet had taken just under an hour. After matching orbit with the oddly-shaped platform, the Ixion had closed to within a hundred miles. Now, through the eyes of the ships cameras, the two men were getting their first real look at it.
The fourth planet's orbit was a wide one, and the light from the system's primary, a type VI star, filtered dimly here, creating a perpetual bluish twilight. The orbital platform, if that's what it was, hung motionless before them. It was vaguely gray in color, though it was difficult to be sure in the uncertain light, and constructed of some metallic substance, though so far as they could tell it was not ultrasteel. There were no joints or seams, so far as they could see, making it look as if it were all one piece. Below lay the grayish mass of the planet, a methane gas giant.
"What?" asked Decius.
"No ships," repeated Vanar, gesturing at the monitors. "I see airlocks and docking bays, but no ships."
"Are those airlocks?" asked Decius.
"What else could they be? They're oddly shaped, true, but the mechanisms aren't that different than those we use."
"Still," said Decius, "we may have some trouble mating our hatch with one of theirs."
Vanar nodded. "They're of differing sizes. We'll find one that's close and make it work."
There was a moment of silence between them. There was a feeling of incredible age about the platform, as if it might have hovered here untouched for centuries, even millennia.
"At least there's power," said Decius, pointing to the monitor, which showed two brightly blinking red lights at either end of the cylindrical platform, and dimmer lights lining its length at various places. "That's a good sign."
Vanar grunted. There was power, true enough, but that was a little disquieting, especially if this platform was as old as it looked. No technology he knew of could sustain itself so long. No technology but one.
He shook the grim foreboding off. He was no fool, and had no more desire to tamper with relics of the Third Age than any other man, but he would do what he must to survive. "There," he said, pointing to a small docking bay on the underside of the platform. "That looks the right size. We'll try our luck there."
Decius nodded, and gingerly touched the flight controls, delicately guiding the tiny maneuvering rockets and bringing the ship into position. A moment later, and the ship's arm had extended, forming a four foot long passage to the airlock. There was a hiss and a change in the air pressure as the seals connected and the small passageway suddenly bloomed out, filling with air.
"There went the last of our oxygen," muttered Decius.
"Any leaks?" asked Vanar.
Decius squinted over a console a moment. "Looks like not. We have a clean match."
Vanar nodded, a little relieved. As his companion had pointed out, pressurizing the little hatch had nearly depleted their air supply; they would not have had enough left to try again, should something have gone wrong.
Decius sat back. "Well, it's done." He looked at Vanar. "What now?"
Vanar threw his jacket at him. "Put it on," he said at Decius' questioning look. "We don't know what to expect. It's bad enough you don't have battle armor."
"It's abandoned," protested Decius. "If there was anyone there, they would have answered our hails."
"We don't know that." Vanar stooped for a moment, reaching beneath the console and fumbling with something. When he straightened he was holding a bundle wrapped in duracloth.
"What's that?" asked Decius, interested.
"A little something I keep for emergencies." Vanar unrolled the bundle, revealing two weapons. The first was a standard-sized scattergun, pump-action with a reversible stock. The second was more exotic - a sword of some kind. The blade was sheathed along its three-and-a-half foot length, but the hilt was golden, with a pommel cleverly worked into the shape of a snarling dragon. Vanar tossed the scatgun to Decius, who caught it deftly.
Decius checked the weapon over with the expert familiarity of the professional soldier. "Only two shells?"
Vanar nodded. "Don't waste them. Keep behind me; I'm armored, and I have more rounds."
"And the sword?" asked Decius as Vanar slung it so it hung cross-wise on his back.
"An old friend."
"Well, I hope we don't need it. Anything that gets close enough for a sword is already too close for me."
Vanar had already turned, ducking his head to pass through the small hatch into the short stretch of corridor beyond.
Decius followed, and moments later, after passing by the cramped engine room where their sleeping hammocks were slung, he joined him at the inner airlock.
Vanar was already punching in the seven digit password into the keypad. The inner locks disengaged, and with a rush of stale air the door folded back on itself.
The perma-plast expandable corridor which connected the ship to the platform was so small that Vanar had to bend over at the waist to enter. Artificial gravity ended at the main body of the ship, so he simply plunged forward as if diving into water, letting the force of his momentum carry him down the short passage to the opposite airlock.
Decius followed in like manner. He held the scatgun loosely in one hand, and had put on the sweat-stained uniform jacket, though he left it unbuttoned. "You realize, of course," he said, his voice sounding hollow and strange in the little corridor, "that there might not be oxygen in there. It could be filled with poisonous gases, or maybe vacuum."
Vanar was examining the hatch, looking for some mechanism to open it. But it was featureless, save for a small blue-gray square plate. He shrugged his massive shoulders. "If we can open it at all, we'll find out. We have no pressure suits, so it matters little."
He looked for a hidden mechanism without success, then returned his attention to the little plate. Acting on impulse, he raised his right palm, laying it flat to the surface of the little square. Instantly an electric-blue line whipped from the top of the square to the bottom, just below the surface of the plate.
Vanar snatched his hand back in surprise, but was not hurt. There was a low hum, and the door before him flickered once and suddenly vanished.
"Pelbion!" he swore, ripping his pistol from its holster and pointing it into the darkness before him.
"Never saw an airlock open like that before," muttered Decius from behind him, gripping the scatgun tightly. "Third Age technology, for certain."
Vanar said nothing, his eyes searching through darkness. Nothing was moving. As his eyes adjusted, he was able to see within. A plushly carpeted ceiling lay flush with the top of the airlock, while a glossy jade-colored floor lay several feet below the bottom edge of the door. It would be a large step down. Every ten paces of a gemlike orb was embedded in the floor, shedding a faint bluish-white light. Cool air flowed out of the opening, playing over his face and swirling into the corridor behind him. It was a welcome relief from the suffocating heat of the ship.
Decius sighed, pushing forward eagerly. "Great Abra! I never though cool air could feel so good! Let me by; I have been trapped within this accursed oven of a ship for too long. May Yazid strike me if I ever complain of cold again!"
"Quiet, fool," snapped Vanar, shoving him back and entering himself. "You will draw every hostile-"
With a grunt of surprise, he found himself flung upwards toward the ceiling. He rolled as he struck, and came to his feet warily.
Decius smirked. "Looks like the platform has artificial gravity."
Vanar glared at him, but said nothing. Decius followed him in a moment later, realigning himself first so that he stepped lightly onto the carpeted floor instead of sprawling.
They were in a hallway which stretched into the distance, on and on, for as far as they could see. The walls and ceiling were of some smooth deep-green stone, cool to the touch, with black veins swirling through it. The carpet beneath their feet was plush and of some dark color - brown, perhaps, or crimson. It was difficult to be certain, for the only light came from the gemlike orbs set into the ceiling above.
Vanar padded stealthily forward, Decius at his heels.
Aside from the faint current of air which wafted by them on its way to the ship, where the oxygen tank pumps were already working, the hall was utterly still, and quiet as a tomb.
The light from the orbs stabbed down, illuminating small circular puddles of light on the floor directly below each crystal. Dust motes played and shifted in the columns of light, while deep shadows surrounded them.
Neither man spoke as they stole from shadow to shadow, skirting the light and keeping alert for any sound.
They passed smaller halls which branched off to either side of the larger one. Vanar turned off on one of these, choosing it at random, and passed through an even more dimly lit corridor into a large room.
The room was oval in shape, with a depressed floor. There was a three foot wide platform which ringed the room, beyond which were three descending steps which led down to the floor.
The room was lighted by a circular series of crystals which were set into the center of the ceiling and which shined down upon a block of black stone roughly the size of a table.
Vanar stepped down the steps and toward the black stone which dominated the room, while Decius skirted the depressed area, moving to one of the four other corridors which opened into the room.
Vanar circled the block of stone. He stretched out a hand to touch it, then snatched it back in surprise. The stone looked mirror-smooth, but it was rough to the touch, and warm. He touched it again. There was a faint but persistent vibration coming from deep within the block, a pulsing not unlike a heartbeat.
He backed away, his skin crawling. There was something unnatural about the block. Was it a living thing? Or did some creature slumber within its depths?
Decius had reappeared at the mouth of the corridor he had just entered. "Stairs," he said, "leading down."
Vanar glanced back at the black stone again, then turned to follow Decius. The carpet ended abruptly at a small landing, beyond which a set of wide, shallow steps led downwards into darkness. The landing and steps were of the same glossy dark-green stone as the walls and ceilings.
Flicking on the mini-flashlight that was sewed into his collar, Vanar led the way down. The stair spiraled, opening into a another oval-shaped room, identical to the one above except that its center was empty.
Vanar paused for a moment, listening.
"You hear something?" asked Decius after a minute.
Vanar shook his head. His every instinct whispered of danger, but he could find no reason. "Nothing. This place is very strange. There is power here, plainly, and ventilation, but I hear no machinery. It is unnerving."
"Third Age," said Decius, as if that phrase explained all, "but abandoned. Do we go forward or double back?"
Vanar shrugged, and padded forward. There were three other exits to this room; randomly he chose the one to the left. It let into a long corridor, much smaller than the great hall above but identical otherwise. It ran uninterrupted for thirty paces before angling sharply to the right, where it opened into another spacious room.
This chamber was rectangular rather than oval, though the corners were softly curved. Directly across lay the opening to an identical corridor, while to the right was a circular hole in the floor.
They moved to the edge of the hole. Vanar aimed the mini-flash downwards, but for as far as they could see the smooth walls stretched emptily. Beyond lay only blackness.
"A ventilation shaft, perhaps?" Decius ventured aloud. "It may be that the machinery which powers this plays lays down there, far below."
Vanar had already turned away. A small whitish object in the far corner of the room had caught his eye. He bent over it. "Bone," he said, lifting the yellowed stick. "Human."
Decius looked it over. "Femur," he agreed, "but old."
"Not so old," said Vanar. "A few years, maybe, but hardly centuries. And it looks gnawed. It's been cracked open and the marrow is gone."
Suddenly he tensed, cocking his ear towards the mouth of the second corridor and straining to hear. Decius, too, had gone still.
A long moment of silence passed, and then the sound came again.
It was a muffled clink, as of metal rubbing upon metal, accompanied by a low moan.
The two men exchanged glances. Decius tightened his grip on the scatgun as Vanar stalked forward.
The big man moved quickly, in noiseless pantherish strides, and so easily and naturally did he melt into the shadows that Decius nearly lost sight of him. Unwilling to be left behind, the younger man did his best to keep pace, nearly colliding with Vanar's broad back a moment later when the big man suddenly halted.
The little corridor had reached an intersection, branching off in three directions. Vanar listened intently, hoping to catch the slight sound again.
For an instant there was silence. Then a shrill scream shattered the still air.
Decius felt the hackles at the base of his neck rise at the sudden unnerving sound. He was unsure which direction the scream had come from, but Vanar instantly darted forward, making for the passage to the right.
Decius followed him at a run through the short darkened tunnel and out onto a small balcony which overlooked a massive chamber.
It was a gigantic circular well, lined with six tiers of ascending balconies. They stood upon the lowest of these, with the domed ceiling towering nearly fifty feet overhead. The floor lay about twelve feet below them, and was of smooth white marble, overlaid with a bizarre black pattern reminiscent of a many-legged spider. Standing at the center of this, hands chained above her head to a wooden post, was a dark-haired woman clad in gauzy silks.
Trembling, she twisted and fought against her bonds, her eyes fixed fearfully upon one of the rough tunnels which opened into the chamber at ground-level. These passages were unlike the smooth-walled halls they had traversed up to now. They were dark, circular in shape, and looked to have been bored into the rock by some crude machine or terrible creature.
"Great Abra!" Decius murmured, staring at the fantastic scene.
Vanar paused at the edge of the balcony only a moment before vaulting over. He landed catlike on the balls of his feet, spinning to make certain there were no enemies at his back. There were five tunnels bored randomly into the cured wall; though all looked empty none were lighted, and it was impossible to see into them any distance. Vanar sprinted towards the girl as Decius dropped to the floor behind him.
At the sight of them, the girl's screams had stopped. Her eyes were wide with shock ad disbelief, and something like hope flickered across her delicate features. "Sansa?"
Vanar reached her an instant later, and reached up to release the manacles that imprisoned her wrists.
To his surprise he found that the manacles were smooth and unlined, with no joins or seams that he could find. the metal seemed to be of one piece. "Clain, girl," he swore softly, "how do you get the damn things off?"
"Sansa?" she asked again. "Net hintra uig ni Sansa?"
Vanar glanced back at Decius, who was watching the mouths of the tunnels. "Ever heard a tongue like that?"
Decius shook his head. "It's babble to me."
Vanar reached for the manacles again, this time searching for a break in the chains. The girl saw what he was doing, and shook her head violently. "Sansa! Nug yi... Yagatu!" Her eyes went wide with fear, focusing on something beyond his shoulder. "Yagatu!"
Vanar whirled. Decius was backing towards him, his scatgun aimed toward the mouth of the central tunnel. "Something there," he said, not turning. "Something big."
A low rumbling growl came from the darkness, and something large shifted. A single malevolent red eye came into view at the edge of the shadows; large, unblinking, and glowing balefully.
"Yagatu!" cried the girl again, her lips working in a wordless cry. Panicked, she flung herself against the chains which held her, spouting gibberish in her foreign tongue.
Decius took another half step back, raised the scatgun, and fired.
The thing gave a roar which made the ground tremble and melted back into the darkness of the tunnel.
"Hold your fire, fool!" snapped Vanar. "Make certain of your shot!"
"I wounded it," said Decius grimly. "It will think twice before returning."
A sudden roar emanated from the mouth of a different tunnel, making both men whirl.
"You've angered it," said Vanar angrily, turning back to the girl, who had swooned and was hanging limply from her bonds, her lips moving in silent prayers. "Next time, wait until you can get a clear shot. And aim for the eye."
A third roar sounded a moment later, from yet a different direction. Decius spun again. "Abra! You don't think there's more than one of them, do you?"
Vanar followed the length of the chains with his fingers, looking for any break. They were attached to a thick pin which had been driven into the wood at the top. "Likely the tunnels are intertwined. It may be that the thing is circling, hoping to take us unawares from behind." He stared at the lynch pin, wondering if it could be pulled loose.
A snuffling sound, like a mighty snort, came from the central tunnel, and Decius whirled again. "The damn thing's toying with us!" he said, becoming unnerved. "Hurry and get the girl loose, so we can get out of here!"
Vanar grunted, taking hold of the chains, and was heaving with all his might. Sweat stood out on his brow, and his mighty thews strained, but the pin moved only slightly.
He redoubled his efforts, but the pin would move no farther. "Clain!" he swore, letting go.
A low rumble made him turn from the girl to face the tunnel at his back. The beast was crouched there, its malevolent red eye fixed on him.
Decius started forward, his weapon raised. Vanar spun back to the girl, drawing the sword slung on his back. It glowed with a silvery-blue light that came from within the blade, and gave a clear ring as it was unsheathed.
"Sansa!" said the girl, her eyes wide with awe.
"Keep down," instructed Vanar, swinging the sword with all his might.
The tip described a lazy silver arc as the sword struck the post. It sheared through metal and wood as if they were butter, severing the chains a few links from the girl's wrists. Astonished, she toppled forward, but Vanar caught her up as she fell.
The creature in the tunnel shambled into he light, snuffling, and Decius gasped, backing off as it advanced.
It was like something from a nightmare. It's head was vaguely frog-like in shape, with a wide mouth lined with fiercely jutting teeth. The single eye was located high on the head, and there were two holes lower down which might have been nostrils. Directly between them jutted a yellowish horn which curved menacingly outward.
It had six short but powerful legs, each ending in a three toed foot bristling with claws for rending, and its body was long and tapered into a short clublike tail. The skin was tough and horny. The muscles along the length of its torso swayed and bunched as it stepped into a crouch, looking as if it were about to pounce.
It opened its mouth and roared a long, shivering howl of rage and blood, then surged forward.
"The eye!" cried Vanar, racing towards the balcony, the girl under one arm. "Aim for the eye!"
Decius fired the scatgun and dodged to the side as the thing charged him.
The shot was true, and the creature bellowed in rage and pain as its eye vanished in an explosion of gore, leaving a gaping wound that dripped greenish blood.
Vanar reached the balcony at a run. Without pausing the hoisted the girl aloft, half lifting, half throwing her upwards. She gave a small shriek as she flew upwards, and disappeared overhead, landing on the balcony.
The wound was terrible, but apparently not mortal, for the beast charged on, maddened with pain. Decius was scarcely able to avoid being trampled as it rushed past. No sooner had he rolled to his feet than the thing halted, and, showing an agility which was amazing in a creature so large, whipped around to face him again. The thing was blinded, but it could still track its prey using its keen sense of smell.
Dropping the now-useless scatgun, Decius backed off a few steps, looking about wildly for some avenue of escape. The creature was blinded, after all, and it might be that quick movement would get him past it before it realized his intent.
He tried darting to the left, then to the right, but, pouncing quickly, the thing headed him off both times. It stalked forward a few paces, until Decius found himself backed to the wall.
"Here!" called Vanar from behind it. "Come and die, hellspawn!" The flechette pistol he held barked four times in rapid succession, and the creature screamed in rage and fury, spinning to face him. Vanar had chosen his targets randomly, and fist-sized holes appeared in the creature’s neck, right foreleg, and torso.
Decius ducked to avoid the violently lashing tail as the creature turned and sprang towards its new attacker, but was unable to entirely avoid its sweep. A glancing blow from one of the bony ridges at the end of the tail sent him stumbling back into the wall, seeing stars.
Vanar stood his ground as the thing leaped for him, calmly firing twice more, putting one round into he creature's left cheek and another into the black tongue which protruded from its gaping maw.
Then, just as it seemed he must go down under the rushing teeth and claws of the monster and be torn to pieces, he leaped catlike to one side.
He had been standing before the mouth to one of the tunnels, and the creature, propelled by its own inertia, thundered into it, unable to halt itself. It uttered a furious roar of impotent fury, for within the narrower confines of the tunnel it could not turn about as easily as within the room.
Vanar raced to where Decius sat, still dazed by the glancing blow of the creature's tail. He hauled the man upright, and half-dragged him to where the girl crouched on the balcony.
Decius had begun to recover himself by the time they were beneath the girl, though there were still bright flashes at the edge of his vision. When Vanar shoved him upwards, he leaped with all his might, catching the edge of the balcony and hauling himself up. The dark-haired girl had taken hold of his jacket once he was within reach, and was doing her best to aid him, pulling with desperate speed.
As Decius' legs disappeared over the rim of the balcony, Vanar holstered his weapon and lunged upwards, his fingers scrabbling for purchase on the edge of the stone. But the balcony was too high to reach, and he missed by a span of more than a foot.
The creature roared. It had managed to turn itself around, and now emerged from the tunnel. It snuffed the air twice, scenting its prey, and lowered its head to charge. It would not be fooled in the same way again, and there was no tunnel for Vanar to retreat to.
Decius suddenly reappeared over the brink of stone above, swinging one arm down and extending it. Vanar leaped again, catching hold of the proffered arm just above the wrist, and with a mighty heave which made Decius groan and wonder if his arm might be pulled from the socket, he hauled himself up, clambering to safety.
The creature roared again as it leaped for him, all gnashing teeth and rending claws. Vanar's legs swung away at the last moment, barely evading it, and it struck the stone wall below with a terrible crash, causing the balcony to shiver and rock.
"Yagatu! Yagatu!" cried the girl in warning, backing into the hallway and gesturing furiously for them to follow.
Vanar needed no encouragement. He scrambled up over the side of the balcony, using a fistful of Decius' jacket as a handhold, then reversing his grip to haul Decius from the floor once his feet were on solid ground.
The girl fled before them, and pausing only to take better hold on his companion, Vanar followed. Decius stumbled along as quickly as he could, but he was still dizzy and would have tottered and fallen without Vanar's help.
Behind them, one of the creature's forelegs curled over the edge of the balcony, the claws digging into the stone for purchase. It clambered into view, climbing slowly like an ungainly spider. It screamed in fury and pressed forward after the scent of its prey, but the narrow hall was too small to accommodate its bulk.
It screamed again, thrashing about, its head and shoulders pressed into the narrow opening, its body on the balcony without.
Vanar did not look back.
* * *
The girl fled on and on, darting through the mazelike halls. They passed by chamber after chamber during their flight, some oval, some circular, some square. Some of the rooms were more massive even than the great well where they had left the beast, and others were so small that they were scarcely more than alcoves set into the wall of the hall they were passing through. Most of the rooms were empty, but some had strangely shaped objects at their center, or bizarre paintings on the floor or walls, half-glanced in their hurried flight. They ascended several sets of stairs at one point, and at another they ran along a narrow balcony which overlooked a black chasm which seemed to stretch forever below them. At last they entered the chamber with the pool, and here Vanar and Decius halted, refusing to go further, though the girl gestured frantically for them to continue, talking rapid-fire in her foreign tongue.
It was another oval shaped room, with marble-white flagstones instead of plush carpeting for the floor. There were crude paintings and sketches of dark beings on the walls and ceiling, but Decius and Vanar had eyes only for the shallow pool which lay on the far side. The four light crystals which illuminated the room were all focused down upon the pool, making the still liquid within seem to glow with a faint blue aura.
"Water!" cried Decius as they entered.
He pulled away from Vanar and half stumbled, half crawled to the small pool. The water was clear and inviting, though it might be poisoned or ensorcelled for all he knew. He had been without water for two days, and could not have checked his burning thirst in any case.
Vanar was able to hold himself only a moment longer before lunging forward to join his companion, crouching on hands and knees to get at the life-giving fluid.
The water was cool and refreshing, and for several minutes both men said nothing, burying their faces in it and taking long draughts.
The dark-haired girl plucked at Vanar's sleeve, speaking insistently in her alien language. She spoke quietly and glanced furtively about as if fearing she might be heard.
"Leave off your babbling, girl," said Vanar, shaking her off and returning to the pool. "The beast is far behind us now. We go no farther until I have slaked my thirst."
Decius grinned at him, droplets of water running down his chin. "I've never tasted better water. Abra! It is nectar!"
Both men returned to the water, drinking greedily. The girl subsided her talking, and waited with impatience, keeping a wary eye on the openings to the two halls which led into the room.
At long last Decius had drunk his fill, and rolled over onto his back, smiling happily. "I feel something of my former self again. Abra! We have found air and water. Who knows but we may actually live through this nightmare, Vanar?"
The big man grunted. He had sat up, and was looking at the girl. "We still need fuel and food. Perhaps she can guide us."
"Who are you?" asked her, speaking in Xerdon. "What place is this?"
She stared at him blankly, shaking her head.
"She understands Xerdon no better than Nithian," said Decius. "Try Falanen."
"You speak that tongue better than I," said Vanar. "You try it."
Shrugging, Decius repeated Vanar's earlier questions in Falanen, expecting no better results. "Who are you? What place is this?"
To the surprise of both men, she answered. "This one is Cylithera, handmaiden of Zahalari." Her dialect was strangely stilted and formal, and she spoke the language as if she had only a passing mastery of it. "This place is Xechticutl, City Among Stars."
Decius and Vanar glanced at each other. "Who is Zahalari? The creature from the pit?"
She shook her head. "That one is Yagatu, one of the six Guardians."
"Guardian?" said Vanar in surprise. "Your Yagatu looked little like anyone's guardian to me, girl. Who chained you there?"
"My people, the servants of Zahalari, in the ritual of cleansing by blood. The Guardians must be appeased with sacrifice. It has always been so, since the age millennia ago when Zahalari led his people here from the Great Beyond."
"Your own people put you there?" asked Decius. "Abra! Why do they not slay the damned things and be done with them?"
The girl shook her head, impatient at their misunderstanding. "The Guardians are immortal, and cannot be slain by the hand of man."
"That one may not be slain," muttered Vanar, "but I wager it will feel our sting for some time to come. It is blinded and wounded, and may bleed to death."
"No," said the girl, "Yagatu cannot be harmed by your weapons. It will regenerate its wounded areas. And now that I have defied the order of Zahalani, the other Guardians will rise and wreak terrible vengeance upon my people."
"This Zahalani you speak of," said Vanar, "he is master of the Guardians?"
She nodded. "And of my people. He is the God that Walks, He who led us from the Great Beyond so many centuries ago."
"Then," said Vanar, "if he is your protector, as well as their master, why does he not keep them fro wreaking destruction and vengeance on your people?"
"Zahalani cares not for his people, save that they should obey his commands. He is a mighty sorcerer who is immortal. It was He who conquered the horrors of Xechticutl." She gestured. "This place was not made by human hands. It was already old when Zahalani discovered it, and was not friendly to life. But Zahalani worked great and terrible magics, and made it inhabitable for our kind. Thus we shelter here by his providence, and must obey his command."
"Then this Zahalani is a man?" asked Vanar.
"He is no man," said the girl. "He is a God. Perhaps, ages past, he was once a man, before he crossed from the
Great Beyond, but he is no longer."
"The 'Great Beyond'?" asked Decius. "You mean the star systems beyond this one?"
She was confused. "I know nothing of such things. There is Xechticutl and there is the Great Beyond. There is nothing else. But you must know this?"
Vanar shook his head. "We are not of your city. We traveled here by starship, across the void. We know nothing of your ways."
She looked at them in wonder. "You are from the Great Beyond. I wondered if it were so when I first saw you. I have never seen one with eyes like yours." She touched Vanar's chin, then turned to Decius. "And your hair is like flame. Such things are not known in Xechticutl. Are you gods?"
Vanar laughed. "Nay, no gods. I am Vanar, of the planet Tybalt, and this id Decius, a Severian. We are men, and we care little for your Guardians or your master. We need fuel and food, and water, like this pool."
She repeated their names slowly, as if she found them difficult to pronounce. "Van-ar and De-see-us. Your names are strange to me. As for food and water, there are plenty of both in the High City, but this 'fuel' is a thing I know not. My mastery of this tongue is not great, it is only an interest in the ancient language of our ancestors which allows me to converse with you at all. Perhaps I have misunderstood this thing?"
Vanar thought, trying to explain. "Power. We need power. What powers this place?" At her confused look, he pointed to the light crystals above the pool. "What gives these lights their energy? There must be machinery somewhere in this place. What powers the ventilation?"
"I know not," she said, "but legends say that in the Deep Rooms where Zahalani dwells there are many strange and wonderful machines, filled with great magic. Perhaps this 'fuel' you seek is there. But if so, it is hopeless. No man dares to cross into Zahalani's realm. It is death."
"We'll see," said Vanar grimly.
"Vanar," said Decius, looking about him for the first time. "I don't know where we are, or how to return to the ship. After that run, I am lost. Do you know the way?"
Vanar shook his head. "I'm turned around. This place is a maze." He turned back to the girl. "There is a chamber, oval, like this one."
She nodded. "Yes, there are many places like this."
"This one has a block of stone, so high," - he raised his hand to show - "square, of some black stone. It is warm to the touch, and seems to vibrate as with a heartbeat."
Her face had gone ashen with fright as he spoke. "The Chamber of the Sleeping One," she said. "It must never, ever be entered by man. Even Zahalani fears the Sleeping One. It is the real master of Xechticutl, and even all of Zahalani's great powers could do no more than imprison it in slumber. Should it be loosed, destruction and death will reign here again."
"Then you know the chamber?
If you can get us there, I can find the way back to our ship."
She shook her head. "No, no. It must not be done. The danger is too great. But haste," she added, looking around furtively. "We dare not tarry here. My people will be roused by the stirrings of the Guardians. Should they find us, our fate will be worse than if we were in the belly of Yagatu. Though your weapons are mighty, they are many in number, and would overpower you."
Decius gave a wistful look at the pool of water, then nodded. "But which way should we go? I assume that these 'Deep Rooms' and 'High City' are not near each other."
Cylithera shook her head. "The one is above us, the other far below, in the places that no man has ventured. But we must go neither way." She trembled. "Either way, we should be delivered to Zahalani. If you have a place of safety, this 'starship' you speak of, then let us go there."
Vanar shook his head. "No good, girl. That starship won't go anywhere without fuel, and we wouldn't last long anyway without food or water." He looked at Decius. "We go down. If this sorcerer was once a man, it may be that he still has the material needs of men. If so, we shall find food and water there. We need fuel worst of all, though, and it seems likely that we shall find power there. I've no liking for tampering with Third Age technology, and this Zahalani sounds like a master of it." He patted the hilt of his sword. "But I have never yet met a sorcerer or demon who could laugh off the bite of cold steel, Third Age or not."
"I've been wanting to ask you about that," said Decius. "That toy of yours is no ordinary sword. It cut through that post, and the girl's chains, as if they were air."
Vanar shrugged. "I found it long ago, in the tomb of another Third Age sorcerer. The blade is stronger than ultrasteel, and lighter. I've no doubt it is Third Age, but it is a sword, like others I have swung, though better tempered. And it has served me well."
The girl was trembling violently. "No, no. We must not venture into Zahalani's realm. Our lives would be forfeit!"
"They are forfeit if we don't girl," said Vanar. "We must have fuel, or we will never leave this cursed place. I will risk the wrath of your pet sorcerer. Lead on."
* * *
Down winding stairways and through fantastically shaped chambers they passed, treading in silence and halting often to listen for pursuit. If the Guardians were roused and prowling these halls they were doing it quietly, for they heard no more roars and saw no sign of any beasts.
Once they halted on the middle landing of a stairwell, flattening themselves against the wall and doing their best to merge with the shadows as a line of men crept by in the chamber below them. The men were strangely dressed, these men, going naked save for loincloths and feathered headbands. They were armed with spears and their faces were painted with some white chalky substance, save for dark circles around their eyes and noses, so that it looked like an eerie procession of skulls drifting past.
They skulked by in silence, a line of twenty or so moving in single file. Long minutes after they had passed, Cylithera ventured to breathe again. "My people," she whispered. "Ghost warriors of the Toki tribe. They are expert in the methods of torture."
Vanar said nothing. His grip had tightened on his pistol as they passed, and he did not relax it.
A little while later, they were halted by the distant sounds of screaming coming from the direction they had come, accompanied by the inhuman screeching of some... thing.
"Ragnor," said Cylithera, "fiercest of the six guardians. It has caught the scent of the ghost warriors, and will not rest until they have all been destroyed. Let us hop that it does not catch our scent."
She led the way onward again, ever bringing them farther and farther into the depths. As they passed lower, the quality of the light crystals changed, until instead of the clear bluish light of the chambers above, the crystals flickered with a dim red light, giving the corridors and rooms they passed an unsettling aspect.
Eventually she halted before a narrow passage which led down into utter darkness.
"Beyond lay the Halls of Darkness," she said, "where no man has ever tread before. It is the domain of Uigmuir, the Dweller in Darkness. Uigmuir is the Silent Guardian, most horrifying of the six. No man has ever seen it and lived. The Deep Rooms lay below this, beyond Uigmuir's domain, but we cannot reach them."
"Is there another way?" asked Decius, not anxious to face another creature like the one they had fought earlier, especially since he now had no weapon.
Cylithera shook her head. "There is no other way. We must pass the Halls of Darkness. Worse, I cannot guide you through them, for I know not the way."
"So be it," muttered Vanar, switching on his mini-flash and taking the lead.
These lower hallways were subtly different than those above. They twisted and curved, and sometimes doubled back on themselves. At other times they ended in a blank wall, and the little group would be forced to backtrack and take another route. There were no rooms, and the halls were all of the same narrow dimensions. The lower halls were more labyrinthine and mazelike than the upper, and negotiating them was much more difficult.
These lower ways were more ancient than the upper halls. The floors here were not carpeted, but rather constructed of broken white flagstones which were unevenly matched, and a staleness of old dust hung in the air. It was not so silent down here as it was above; there was a distant hum, nearly inaudible, and a low thrumming vibration could be felt in the walls and floor. This was encouraging; it seemed to signify that they were getting closer to some sort of big machinery.
It was utterly black here; the only light was the narrow beam from Vanar's collar flash. Decius brought up the rear, keeping the girl between them, and he looked back often into the impenetrable blackness, fearing that some horror would upon them from behind. What he would be able to do if that should happen, weaponless as he was, he did not know. He heard nothing, yet he had the uneasy feeling that they were being watched, and stalked.
Once Vanar pulled up short, as something appeared at the edge of the light beam. It was the skeleton of a human, stretched out on the floor.
"It is whole," said Vanar, bending over it. "The bones are neither broken nor gnawed. It looks as if a man simply fell down and died here, leaving his bones behind in the passing of years."
"He was taken by the Silent One," said Cylithera, her voice quavering with fear. "It kills like this, leaving its victims whole."
Decius and Vanar exchanged glances.
"Something follows us," said Decius, giving voice to his fears.
Vanar grunted. "I know. It thinks to stalk us quietly, but it makes more noise than it knows. It keeps its distance for now, but will try to close in on us as we get deeper into its maze. We will hear it if it comes closer." He unholstered the flechette pistol and handed it to the younger man. "Eight rounds left. Don't waste them by firing off into the dark."
Decius nodded, a wasted movement in the darkness. He was surprised and disturbed that Vanar had agreed with his premonition so quickly. He hadn't actually heard anything, after all, and though Vanar seemed confident they would hear the thing approaching if it came nearer, Decius wasn't so sure. He had known Vanar long enough to know that he man's senses were nearly superhuman. Though he was glad to be armed, he was more unsettled than before.
Vanar unsheathed his sword and continued forward.
He stopped periodically, feeling the walls with his palm. He picked the path by choosing the way which led to the more forceful vibration, in the hope that it would lead to the machinery Cylithera had spoken of, and gradually the noise of the humming increased to a low roar.
As the noise level increased, Decius became more and more uneasy, for it would partially mask the sounds of any approaching creature. Often he would stop, straining his ears to catch the sounds of movement. As before, he heard nothing, yet the surety grew in him that the thing which followed was closing in on them.
They had to backtrack several times as they came to dead-ends, but they seemed to make steady progress.
It was when they were backtracking from a fork which had led to a dead-end that they came face to face with the Silent Guardian.
Decius didn't see it at first. Vanar had suddenly halted several paces after passing the fork, and Cylithera gave a little cry.
It lurked at the edge of the light, and not much of it was visible beyond the tips of two of its legs and the gigantic, hairy head. The large, faceted eyes reflected the beam of the tiny flashlight in a million black shining plates, and the two pincers quivered ever so slightly.
"Spider," said Vanar calmly, eyeing the monstrosity before him.
For a moment the tableau held, then Decius spoke. "What do we do now?" he asked quietly the pistol shaking slightly in his grip. It was useless against an arthropod this size, he knew. The giant arachnid had no vitals to hit, and the little flechette rounds would hardly do enough damage to injure it.
"Back up," said Vanar. "Take the other fork." He held the sword in an easy stance. "I'll take the rear."
Decius licked his lips, his mouth suddenly gone dry. "We... we just turn our backs on it and walk away?"
Vanar nodded. "If it wanted to attack, it would have."
It was a tense moment as they backed off, but the gigantic spider made no movement.
"Why didn't it attack?" asked Decius moments later, once they had put a little distance between themselves and the spider.
"It's herding us," said Vanar, keeping an eye to the rear. "It follows us still."
"Herding us toward what?"
But Decius' question was answered almost as quickly as it had been asked, for the tunnel they had been forced to back into ended abruptly in a door.
It was the first door they had come to since entering the airlock, and it was designed along much the same lines. A featureless metal door set into the wall, with a blank plate of dark glass at about shoulder height. Above the door, however, was a red oval with a black circle in its center, which stared down like some malevolent eye.
At the sight of it, Cylithera caught her breath. "It is the symbol of Zahalani."
Vanar had turned forward for only a moment, flashing the light upon the door. But, though Decius heard nothing, when the light was turned back, the spider was there, again lurking at the edge of the beam, motionless as if it had always been there.
"Open it," said Vanar, not looking back. "Perhaps we can put a door between us and it."
Decius had to fumble in the darkness for the black plate, but eventually his palm found it, and there was a slight whirring as the mechanism scanned his handprint.
"It's not opening," said Decius. "Maybe the damn lock is attuned to Zahalani's hand only."
"Try again," barked Vanar. Cylithera had her eyes closed, and was mumbling prayers in her native tongue.
But as Decius reached to palm the lock again, the door whispered open with a hiss of air and a dull orange glow spilled into the hall from the chamber beyond.
Decius rushed through, Cylithera at his heels.
A moment later Vanar backed through the door, still keeping a wary eye on the motionless arachnid. The spider made no move beyond a twitching of its pincers.
Calmly Vanar took hold of the edge of the open door and swung it noiselessly shut. There was a satisfying click as the lock engaged.
"It's a good thing this door didn't vanish into smoke like that airlock," remarked Decius, looking about the chamber they were in. "I'm glad to have a solid piece of steel between us and that thing."
Vanar shook his head. "The spider wanted us to enter here. It must have had reason. Perhaps there are other entrances to this place. I've a feeling we are in greater peril here than before."
"You may be sure of that," said Cylithera, shivering. "This is the dwelling place of Zahalani. Should he find us, his vengeance will be terrible."
They were in a wide room lit by the dull orange glow of molten metal, which was being poured in a constant flow into a great basin across the way. All around them great banks of machinery churned, whirled, ticked, and stammered. The heat hung heavy in the air, like a haze. The ceiling was actually nearly twenty meters above, but because some of the bizarre machines reached nearly up to it, it looked lower than it actually was.
"This is power?" asked Cylithera, pointing at the orange glow.
Decius nodded. "Of a sort. But not the kind we need."
Vanar leading, they picked their way through the maze of lumbering machinery.
Minutes later, they stumbled upon an arch which led into a side-chamber which glowed with a pulsating greenish light.
This room was lushly carpeted, with a raised dais on one side. And empty black throne stood atop the dais, and behind it hung an exotic silk curtain which partially concealed a tunnel which opened into darkness.
But what arrested the attention of the two men were the fist-sized gemstones which were embedded in the walls, and which gave the chamber its light. They were emerald green in color, and pulsed steadily and in time with each other, throbbing with an inner light.
"It cannot be..." exclaimed Decius in surprise, moving closer to one of them and bending to examine it closer. "It is!" he cried a moment later, grinning like a madman. "Stargems! Green Stargems! Hundreds of them! This is a treasure trove worthy of an emperor!"
Cylithera could not understand his excitement. "This is fuel?"
He cackled. "This is fuel. Fuel for a king! Green stargems - I had thought them but myth. With one of these, we would have enough power to make the journey back into civilized space in only one jump! And with the rest..." He eyed the walls greedily. "With the rest, we could own a planet... no, an entire starsystem!"
"I like it not," muttered Vanar. "It is too easy. Pry one loose from the wall and let us be gone."
Eagerly Decius seized the nearest stargem, but though he heaved with al his might, he could not move it. "It is embedded," he complained.
Vanar approached, shoving the tip of his sword into the tiny crack between the stargem and the wall, and worked it back and moments they had made good progress, and the stargem was loosened in its setting, though still held in place.
"Fools!" came a mocking voice from the black throne. "Do you think to trespass on my domain and plunder my wealth?"
Vanar whirled Where the throne had stood empty a moment before, now a man sat.
He was a giant of a man, bare-chested with glowing eyes the color of fiery amber and long raven hair which tumbled past his shoulders. He was black-skinned, but his features were delicate and finely chiseled rather than negroid.
"I am Zahalani!" he intoned, rising from the throne. "Know this and tremble, for your fate shall be terrible indeed! Kneel and beg for merciful death!"
Vanar sprang for his throat, snarling as he swung his sword.
His aim was perfect, the point of the sword connecting with the black man's throat at the apex of his swing, and the giant's eyes widened in surprise at the unexpected attack. But Vanar's battle cry turned to a yelp of surprise when the sword met no resistance and, lurching off-balance, he found himself passing straight through the giant man as if he were no more substantial than air, to land hard on the floor on the other side.
"Pitiful savage!" said the gigantic man, with a mocking laugh. "Did you think to harm me with your puny weapons? I am a God! You live by my whim! I have watched your every movement since the moment you stepped off your primitive ship. It was I who commanded the Silent One to bring you here. This place shall be your tomb!"
Decius fired twice at the man, and though he knew he could not have missed at such short range, the black man only smiled. "Know fear, foolish one," he said. "I cannot be harmed by your primitive weapons."
"Hold your fire," called Vanar, picking himself up and glaring at the black man. "You will only hit me. It is some kind of holographic image. The man himself is too much a coward to face us."
The giant man's face purpled with rage at Vanar's words. "You dare? You dare?!! Your deaths will be long, the pain exquisite!"
"Ignore this prattling ghost," said Vanar. "He would not boast so could he do half the things of which he speaks. Get the stargem loose, and let us be gone."
Uncertainly Decius returned to the loosened stargem. It was uncomfortably warm to the touch, so he removed his jacket and used it to yank and twist at the pulsating gem.
Zahalani uttered a low laugh. "You think me powerless, puny mortals? Behold my servant Uigmuir!"
There was a skittering sound at the curtain, and suddenly the spider was there. The long black legs were tufted with thick hairs which shivered as they pushed through the curtain, and the black, multi-faceted eyes rested on the three intruders with a cold, alien stare.
"Get the stargem loose," said Vanar, facing the creature, "and get ready to run."
Without warning, the stargem Decius strained against came loose, and he tumbled sprawling to the ground. "I have the gem."
The creature took up position in front of the curtained hole and settled into a half-crouch, looking as if it might pounce forward at any moment.
"Where will you run?" asked Zahalani. "There is no exit from this place, save the hole which Uigmuir guards. As for the door you entered by, you will find it sealed.
"Uigmuir is one of my favorite servants. Shall I tell you something of how it kills? It injects its prey with n extremely painful poison which paralyzes the nervous system and turns the inner organs to liquid. Uigmuir drinks this. It is not a pretty way to die."
He laughed again. "But I have a worse death prepared for you. Am I powerless? Yes, for the moment, for I am not here, but am attending to the punishment of my people for their defiance. But I shall return, and Uigmuir will hold you here until I do."
With a last mocking smile, the image of Zahalani wavered and faded from the air, and they were left alone in the eerie chamber with the monstrous spider.
"What shall we do?" asked Decius.
"We deal with the bug and make for the ship," said Vanar grimly, hefting his sword. I will draw it into battle, and you and the girl will slip by it and into the tunnel. Make ready to run."
"But the other stargems," said Decius, sick at the thought of leaving such a fortune behind. "Might not we gather a few more first?"
"Stargems are no use to us if we are dead," snapped Vanar. "Time presses us, and I have no wish to wait for that devil Zahalani to return. Make ready!"
Swiftly Decius wrapped the stargem in his jacket, tucking it under one arm. He unholstered the pistol Vanar had given him earlier. "What can I do?"
Vanar glanced back at him. "Aim for the eyes," he said. "You can't really harm it, not with that weapon, but you may give it a moment of surprise and give me a slight advantage. Don't waste more than two shots, though. We may run into more of this sorcerer’s pets on our way to the ship."
Decius nodded. "Two shots." He passed the bundled stargem to Cylithera and raised the pistol, choosing his targets.
Vanar circled the creature, approaching from the left, while Decius and Cylithera made for the right. The spider sat still as a statue.
"Now!" said Vanar when they had reached the best position.
Decius fired, and the pistol coughed twice.
The giant spider twitched as two fist-sized explosions suddenly shattered the lower half of its right eye. It shifted towards Decius in surprise, trying to compensate for its sudden decrease of vision on that side, and Vanar struck.
With a cry, he leaped forward, striking with the sword. In a spray of black ichor, the blade sheared through the spider's two forward legs on the left side, leaving twitching stumps less than two feet in length. The severed legs fell to the floor, spasming.
The spider made a sort of chittering cry as it tried to turn back to Vanar and lurched off balance, toppling forward for a moment before it compensated its balance.
As quickly as Vanar had struck he leaped back, evading the fierce mandibles-fangs as they swung around and struck out at him.
Furious, the spider took a clumsy half leap towards him.
"Run!" cried Vanar, and at the same moment Decius and Cylithera dashed for the tunnel.
They were through before the spider could turn back, and for a moment the thing stood undecided. Vanar stood before it, sword still dripping with its black blood, while the other two had escaped into the mazelike tunnels. Its primitive mind wrestled with the problem for a moment before coming to a decision.
It swung towards Vanar, moving with a clumsy gait as it adjusted to the loss of its legs. This was the one who had hurt it, and a bestial hatred surged at the sight of him. The other two had entered the mazelike warren of tunnels where it dwelled, and it would track them down and destroy them at its leisure later, after it had settled with this one.
Vanar watched it come through half-slitted eyes, weighing his chances in another strike. The spider moved slowly, but he was unconvinced that it was as crippled as it tried to appear. The thing was cunning, and he doubted it would be taken unaware a second time.
Vanar backed off a slow step as the thing shuffled forward, then turned and darted through the arch, racing into the massive room filled with alien machines.
Uttering a keening shriek, the gigantic spider charged after him.
* * *
Cylithera raced through the winding tunnels, Decius at her heels. She used the stargem to light their path, holding it high overhead so that its greenish pulsating light fell in a wide circle about them, illuminating the walls and floor ahead and behind.
For the fifth time in as many minutes they came to a blank wall and had to turn back. Decius cursed silently, wondering if they would ever find their way out of this labyrinth. All the halls looked exactly the same, and every time they rounded a curve, he feared they would find themselves facing the spider monstrosity.
Several times they passed the remains of the great spider's previous victims. Most were merely bleached skeletons, but a few were more recent, still clothed in places with blackened and withered flesh.
They had seen and heard nothing of either the great spider or Vanar since leaving the throne chamber, and Decius wondered at the other man's fate. How long would he last against the arachnid?
Longer than most men, perhaps, but it had been nearly a quarter of an hour since they had left the green-lit chamber. Surely the spider had destroyed him by now, and was pursuing them.
Just as Decius was beginning to think they were traveling in circles and would never escape this black labyrinth, they came to a long straight hall which ended in a set of stairs leading upwards.
With a surge of relief, Decius saw the faint glimmer of reddish light coming from above, and realized they had finally found the way out of these darkened halls and into the halls above.
Quickly they raced up the steps and entered the halls above. Decius glanced back down the stairs, listening for the scrabbling sound of the pursuing spider, and shivered. It would be evil luck indeed if the arachnid caught up to them now, just when they had won free of the darkened maze and been given a glimmer of hope of making it to the starship.
"I know where we are now," said Cylithera, "but where are we to go? There is no place that is safe from Zahalani and the Guardians."
"The ship," said Decius. "We make for the ship. You will guide us to the chamber with the black stone - the Sleeping One, you called it - and I will find the ship from there."
"What of Vanar?" she asked. "Can we leave him behind?"
"Can we do otherwise?" he asked in return. "Vanar must fend for himself now, if he is not dead already."
She nodded. It was a grim choice, but Decius spoke wisdom.
Quickly they fled upwards, Cylithera leading. After a time they gained the upper halls, where the light crystals shone blue-white instead of red. They stole along as stealthily as they could, for the other Guardians roamed these halls.
They came to a chamber which reeked of blood, and Cylithera gasped and turned away at the gory sight which greeted them there.
The chamber was strewn with the mangled corpses of Cylithera's people. The walls and floor were spattered with blood, and dismembered body parts were scattered about. It was difficult to tell how many bodies there were, for they were torn apart so terribly, but there might have been hundreds.
Decius was a soldier, and he had seen many terrible things, but even he paled at the sight. "Abra! Whatever did this..." His voice trailed off. Whatever did this, he had no wish to meet.
Cylithera had turned back to the carnage. Visibly she steeled herself. "We must cross here," she said. "We cannot go around."
Decius nodded, taking her arm with one hand and gripping the flechette pistol tightly with the other.
Together they threaded their way through the terrible room, stepping lightly to avoid the bodies.
They had crossed into the hall beyond when Decius heard a slight noise from behind. Squeezing Cylithera's hand tightly, he drew her back into the shadows with him, waiting to see what followed.
Suddenly a shape appeared at the end of the hall.
Decius gasped in surprise and relief, lowering his weapon. "Vanar!" he said. "I had not thought to see you alive again! But what of the spider?"
"It follows still," said Vanar, trotting up to join them. "I led it a merry chase, and though it tried to trap me in its labyrinth, I beat it at its own game. But we must hurry, for though it is injured it follows closely."
"It is not far, the chamber of the Sleeping One," said Cylithera.
Vanar nodded. "Good, then we are not far from leaving this cursed place. Lead on, girl."
They slipped like ghosts through the halls, threading their way through narrow deserted corridors and strangely shaped chambers. At last Cylithera halted at an arch.
"Beyond lays the chamber of the Sleeping One," she said, and Vanar nodded, taking the lead.
Softly they stole into the oval room. It lay as before, silent and empty save for the block of stone at its center.
They were halfway across when Zahalani strode through the arch leading to the hall opposite.
He appeared as suddenly as he had in the throne room, and he wore a feral smile. "So!" he cried. "Did you really think to escape my wrath? Now my vengeance will be complete!"
Vanar did not halt, leaping forward to give battle and swinging the sword with all his might. The tip licked out to strike the sorcerer's cheek, and rebounded as if it had struck iron.
With an almost casual blow, Zahalani sent him reeling backwards. A tiny scratch had appeared on the sorcerer's cheek, oozing blood, and Zahalani reached up a finger, touching it in amusement. "Savage! Did you think I was a hologram? Nay, I have finished the punishment of the disloyal ones. I am in the flesh to deliver divine retribution to you."
Decius fired the remaining six rounds of the flechette pistol at the sorcerer, but the shots were deflected inches from the black man's face by some sort of invisible power screen, sending fragments ricocheting into the surrounding walls and floor.
Zahalani laughed. "You dare to pit your pitiful weaponry against the awesome forces I command?" He made an arcane gesture, and Decius screamed and fell tot he ground in contortions, his muscles writhing in spasms.
The sorcerer seemed to take malicious glee in Decius' agonies. A moment later he gestured again, and the muscle spasms ceased. Decius lay there moaning.
"A little taste of what's to come," said Zahalani. His eye fell on Cylithera, and his lip twisted in rage. "As for you, traitorous little slut, you will come to know pain such as you have never imagined. You will scream and beg for a death as easy and clean as that which comes of being given to Yagatu!" He merely pointed at her, and suddenly she clutched at her throat, unable to breathe.
Vanar had climbed surreptitiously t his feet while the sorcerer's attention was distracted. He seized the choking girl by the wrist, running toward the archway they had entered the chamber through, half dragging her behind him.
But he had taken no more than five steps before he reeled back. The giant spider had appeared in the opening, blocking the way and chittering eagerly, its alien eyes falling upon him.
"Nowhere to run, little insects," said Zahalani mockingly. "Uigmuir hurts from the wound you dealt him, foolish one. He hungers for your flesh. I will feed it to him, one piece at a time."
Cylithera's face had turned blue. Gasping and choking, she sank to the floor, her eyes rolling back in her head.
Only when she had slipped from consciousness did Zahalani relax his terrible power over her; her stomach rose and fell with breath, and color slowly began to return to her features.
He scowled at her. "Traitorous woman of a traitorous people. I should have destroyed them all long ago. But for her kind I would never have been trapped in this place." He looked at Vanar. "They destroyed the ships, you see, to imprison me. So I turned them into my slaves, but even their descendants were disobedient and slothful. A weak and useless people, but now you have come, as an unwary moth to the flame, and you have brought me a starship."
He grinned. "And now at last am I freed from this place. My return to the civilized systems will be glorious and terrible, for they have grown weaker while I have grown stronger. Soon all men will bow to me!"
Vanar struck again, this time aiming a low eviscerating blow at the sorcerer's midsection. The tip of the sword drew a thin red line across Zahalani's abdomen, but it felt as if he had struck petrified wood, and though he had put all his strength behind the blow, the wound was hardly more than a light scratch.
Zahalani's hand flashed out, seizing Vanar by the throat and lifting him, struggling, off his feet. The sorcerer stared at him as if he were an exotic bug. "What a single-minded barbarian you are. Facing certain death, you still cling to life." He cast Vanar to the floor.
"I wonder," he said with a mocking smile, "what it will be like to break you. You are trapped; there is no escape. You cannot fight me. What will you do?"
Vanar got slowly to his feet, glaring at the sorcerer. "You talk too much," he said simply, and whirled, bringing the sword down with all his might on the edge of the block of ebony stone.
There was a sound like the ring of a distant bell as the blade struck, and the hilt shivered violently in Vanar's hands, sending a painful vibration up his arms. The sword rebounded from the stone with more force than Vanar had used in his swing, and he nearly lost his grip on it. Where it had struck the stone, there was now a tiny crack which glowed with an unnatural red light.
Zahalani's triumphant smile turned into a look of terror. "Impossible!" he cried, his eyes widening at the sight of the crack. "No mere mortal weapon could-"
But Vanar wasn't listening. Hands and arms still tingling and numb from the vibration, he swung again, putting even more force behind this second blow.
The crack widened, and red light from within the stone began shining brightly.
"You fool!" cried Zahalani, terrified. "What are you doing? You will destroy us all!"
The sorcerer rushed forward, knocking Vanar aside, but the damage had been done. There was a tearing sound, and suddenly the room was bathed in blood red light.
Something dark and wreathed in flames emerged from the stone accompanied by a wave of heat which swept through the room. It was humanoid in shape, with two glowing green spots that might have been eyes, but more than this Vanar could not tell, for his gaze seemed to slide off the thing, as if it were something so terribly alien that his mind simply refused to comprehend it.
It was tall, taller even than the sorcerer, and as it stood its terrible gaze fell upon the spider Guardian.
The giant spider, which had been slowly backing away, abruptly flipped over onto its back, shrieked once, and began to curl into itself as if it were being burned alive.
Turning his face away from the alien thing, Vanar raced to where Cylithera lay. It was the work of a moment to toss her over his shoulder, where she lolled unconscious. He snatched Decius, who had been watching awestruck, catching his attention. "Get the stargem!"
Decius scrambled to his feet, gather up the crystal in his jacket again, and then the two were sprinting for the hall, neither looking back.
Behind them, the sorcerer's scream went on and on, increasing in volume and timbre, until it was the shrilling travesty of a human voice.
They raced through the hallways, retracing the path to the ship. A few moments later they sailed through the still-open airlock into the connecting arm.
"Close the inner seals!" shouted Vanar as they entered the ship, setting the girl down and racing for the control consoles. "We leave now!"
Decius had already secured the inner hatch. He lost his balance and lurched to the floor moments later as Vanar fired the maneuvering rockets, tearing the ship away from its hold on the orbital platform. The perma-plast ship's arm was torn to pieces in the quick and desperate maneuver.
Decius regained his feet and hoisted the stargem, making for the engine room.
Minutes later he joined Vanar, who sat facing one of the monitors, staring at the shrinking image of Xechticutl, City among Stars.
"Stargem's loaded," said Decius, wearily sinking into the other chair. "We've still got no food or water, but we have oxygen in plenty, and with that stargem we could make civilized space in three jumps, maybe less."
Vanar nodded. "Good enough. The girl?"
"Sleeping. I put her in one of the cots. I checked her for wounds, but she has no marks." Decius gave a weary laugh. "She needs less first aid than you and I." He stared at the image on the monitor. "Let's clear this Yazid-cursed system."
Vanar nodded, and tripped the hoagland drive. The Ixion leaped to infraspace.