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Into the chamber stepped Gwyllis, household fixture for years beyond count, dry and brittle as an abandoned chrysalis.
“Bring it in,” commanded Dhruzen.
Gwyllis bowed and retired. Moments later, he was back, tottering beneath the weight of a sizable object that he placed with care at the center of the table.
Farnol leaned forward in his chair. He beheld a swirling complexity of interlaced vitreous coils, colorless for the most part, but marked with occasional touches of crimson. At first, the great glass knot appeared randomly formed, but closer inspection revealed elements of structure and design. Here, a subtle pattern of glinting scales. There, the suggestion of a talon. The hint of a snout, the wink of a fang. And visible at the center of the gleaming mass, a compact dark heart, its nature open to conjecture.
“Beguiling, is it not?”
“Indeed.” Farnol looked up to meet his uncle’s happy gaze. A nameless pang assailed him.
“Nephew, you will observe the small leaden casket reposing at the center of the glass knot. Its contents are not without interest to you, but will not be reached save by way of sorcerous art. I invite you to open the casket.”
“Sorcery is quite beyond me. An iron hammer of good weight, fit to shatter the glass impedimenta, should serve just as well.” Farnol spoke with a lighthearted air designed to conceal growing uneasiness.
“Impractical. The importunate blows of a hammer would serve only to reinforce the resolve of the defenders.”
“The glass reptiles, Nephew. They appear lifeless, but do not deceive yourself. They brim with righteous defensive zeal. Once roused, their tempers are short and their venom swift.”
“Indeed?” Farnol took a closer look, and now discerned the intricately interlaced, transparent saurians. Crimson color marked their eyes, their claws, and their bulging poison ampoules. Their number was impossible to gauge. “Well. They seem stout guardians. Let them protect their treasure, whatever it may be. I will not disturb them.”
“I urge you to reconsider. The casket at the center of the reptilian knot recommends itself to your attention, for it contains the sole known antidote.”
“To the bane that you have just swallowed. It was in the excellent wine. I had feared that you might note the addition of a foreign substance, but your mind seemed set on other things. Perambulating Rocks, perhaps. Or Vringel Attitudes.”
“Poison! Then you have murdered me, Uncle?”
“My dear lad, you must not think it. Do you take me for an ogre? What I have done reflects pure avuncular affection. I offer you an opportunity to honor the traditions of Karzh. If the conditions I impose appear extreme, you may take it as an expression of my absolute confidence in your abilities. Now attend, if you please. The draft that you have swallowed is trifling in its effect, scarcely more than an inconvenience. Three or four days must elapse before internal desiccation occasions anything beyond passing discomfort. Another two or three before desiccation gives way to conflagration, and a full ten days before the inner fires consume heart, mind, and life. But why speak of such unpleasantness? Surely it is irrelevant. You need only apply the most rudimentary of magical spells to loosen the knot, open the casket, and swallow the antidote. No doubt you will complete the task within hours, if not minutes, for how could the legitimate master of the manse fail? Nephew, I know that you will make me proud.” Rising from his chair, Dhruzen clapped his kinsman’s shoulder, and departed.
For some seconds, Farnol of Karzh sat motionless, studying the tangle, then spoke without turning his head. “Gwyllis. Fetch me a hammer, an ax, or a crowbar.”
“Useless, Master Farnol,” returned the ancient servant, in tones treble and tweetling. “Be certain that it is magic alone will serve your purpose. Master Dhruzen has ordered it so.”
“I shall summon a magician from the city.”
“The adept will not be admitted. Master Dhruzen has ordered it so.”
“I shall carry the glass knot into Kaiin, then.”
“The knot may not leave the manse. Master Dhruzen—”
“I shall order otherwise, and the servants must obey. I have come of age.”
“An alteration in status perhaps unrecognized by the duller among the household menials.”
“Ah, Gwyllis—my uncle has planned it well. I fear I am a dead man. There is but one course left. I must kill Dhruzen before the poison takes me. It is a small consolation, but it is better than nothing.”
“Permit me to suggest an alternative. While it is true that your uncle’s methods and motives appear questionable, there can be no denying the validity of his argument. It is more than probable that you possess a certain measure of sorcerous ability. You have been given considerable incentive to discover it. You must now apply yourself.”
“Impractical. My mind is not constructed to encompass magical spells. My measure of natural ability expresses itself as a negativity.”
“Here is neither the time nor place for negativity. As for the construction of your mind and the quality or quantity of your abilities, such things are perhaps less immutable than you imagine. Tcheruke the Vivisectionist, who dwells among the hives at the edge of Xence Moraine, is just the man to sift your brain for hidden talent.”
“A courtesy title, I believe. Tcheruke is a magician of much erudition, paired with intermittent and unpredictable philanthropy. If your plight interests him—and I would advise you to make certain that it does—then he may undertake to repair all deficiencies. Seek out Tcheruke, and do so without delay.”
Farnol nodded. Deep inside him, a point of heat glowed into being.
THE SUN stood near its low zenith when Farnol rode away from Manse Karzh. The weary star glowed through a veil of purple haze. The warmer tones faded out of existence at the horizon, where the indigo skies deepened to the color of ink. To the south rose Kaiin, its white walls reflecting faintly violet light. The burnished dome of Prince Kandive the Golden’s palace dominated the skyline, and beyond glinted the waters of the Bay of Sanreale. The narrow track before him circled the northern extremity of the city, winding through the quiet hamlets and leading by leisurely degrees to the Old Town, a silent wilderness of tumbled ruins, broken walls and prostrate columns, fallen turrets and shattered towers, all worn smooth and rounded of contour by the passage of uncounted ages. Past a broken obelisk he rode, beyond which spread a wide court, and now he found his way littered with eyeless corpses—here a great warrior in cloison armor, there a young man in a green cloak, and others, many others. Their cavernous regard chilled him to the heart, but could not extinguish the little fire burning hot at the pit of his stomach. He nudged his horse and rode on.
The senescent red sun limped across the sky, and now the Old Town lay behind him. The grade of the path steepened as the land began to undulate. Shaggy fields of Foun’s dalespread clothed the hillocks and hollows in patinated bronze, sparked with the bright rose-gold of vessileaf. Another hour of riding brought him to the verge of Xence Moraine.
FARNOL DREW rein and gazed about him. The land dipped and rolled like the waves of a petrified sea. Everywhere bulked the great boulders and mounds of debris deposited in the lost ages of the past; all of them polished to satiny sheen. The long rays of the westering sun warmed multifarious crowns and summits to crimson. Shadows pooled purple and charcoal in the hollows. Among the hills wound a slow brown stream, its banks lined with tall, narrow, emphatic mounds, whose regularity of size and shape suggested intelligent construction. He studied them for a time, but caught no hint of motion or life. At length, he urged his horse forward at a cautious pace.
The deserted mounds rose twice the height of a man. Closer inspection revealed them to be formed of rock, mortared with glinting crystalline adhesive and plastered over with a black substance whose even luster suggested porcelain. For the most part, the outer coverings were intact and unblemished. Here and there, however, the force of some ancient assault had ripped away chunks of matter to reveal interiors comprising countless compact polyhedral chambers strung like beads upon narrow corridors and galleries. Farnol resisted the impulse to halt and inspect. The sun was sagging toward the horizon, and the shadows rose like specters from the depths of the ancient earth. He rode on, following the curves of the listless stream until he encountered a gigantic mound, towering above its companions, rising five times the height of a man. The featureless structure communicated nothing beyond assertiveness, yet instinct pushed him toward it. Twice he circled the mound, discerning no gleam of light, no evidence of habitation. Dismounting, he approached and rapped upon the hard surface. No response, but now at last he glimpsed life. A sinuous form slipped along the edge of his vision, and was not there when he turned to look. The wind sighed in regret. His heartbeat quickened, and the spot of heat at the bottom of his stomach seemed to pulse. Farnol drew a deep breath, tried to moisten dry lips, and rapped again.
A nearby tuft of rewswolley shuddered in response. The bristling stalks parted to reveal a hole. A lean figure thrust its head, shoulders, and torso up into the dying light. Farnol glimpsed grey garments; a narrow face partially concealed by a mask fitted with bulging, faceted eyepieces; bony white hands with long, curved fingernails; and a cloak of diaphanous, transparent stuff.
“Well, and what do you seek?” asked the stranger.
“I seek Tcheruke the Vivisectionist.”
“What do you want of Tcheruke?”
“His assistance, for which I am willing to pay well.”
“And what does he care for your terces? Shall he bury them on the Xence Moraine, and wait to see if they sprout?”
“I can offer him an interesting tale—the story of a foolish young heir to a fine estate, a treacherous uncle, and a murder taking place slowly, over the course of ten days.”
“I state with assurance that Tcheruke will hear it, for I am he. Enter.” Head and torso vanished into the hole.
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