"Awright, Rube! Reach in nice 'n' easy an' fork over yer credit cube an' nobody gets h ... gakk!
The man found it hard to continue with the hand holding his throat in a vice-like grip; a hand that had shot out with appalling speed from beneath the cloak of the hulking ursine figure before him. Now the thug felt himself lifted a good meter off the ground by that selfsame hand still attached to his throat. Then he felt no more.
His companions had stood aghast at this display, but now they were galvanized into action. One of them leaped forward and a flash of steel was glimpsed. It was a killing stroke as the knife sunk in -- or would have been if the victim were not already dead -- for the stranger, a brown-furred Lysean of greater than average size, had used the body in his grip as a shield. Then he slammed it down, smashing the knife man to the ground. Reaching huge, heavily-muscled arms out to either side, he seized two more of his assailants by the collar and slammed them together with bone-crushing force. A rasp of steel cut the air as the fifth drew forth his cutlass and sprang at the big Lysean. But the Lysean easily sidestepped, and smashed at his opponent's back with massive hammer-locked fists as the charge carried his assailant through. Spying a heavy trash bin nearby, he stepped over to it and lifted it over his head with only the slightest of efforts. The swordsman's eyes bulged in amazement as he slowly regained his feet; it would take him no small effort to even budge the big, and he was no mere stripling!
Exhibiting a confidence he no longer felt, the swordsman called, "Using that bin as a shield will do you no good. I'll merely hack it to splinters and then I'll have you!"
A booming laughter filled the air as the Lysean heaved his "shield" upon the swordsman, flattening him.
The Peralan tensed. The fur on the back of his neck stood up and his ears set back in alarm. But what danger could there be in a crowded spaceport saloon such as this? Perhaps the man who had been asking about him earlier. But the man had received naught but a low throaty growl from him. He had sensed the man's mood and he didn't like it. Was it a sense of recognition he had detected? Did the man know who he was? The Peralan scanned the crowd again and his gaze froze. There was the man at the door; the one who had been so curious about him earlier. But who was he talking to?
He stiffened as soon as he saw them enter: Kynara! Their appearance was similar to his, but their dress was unmistakable as that of the self-appointed hunters and executioners of the Peralans, supposed "renegades" of his race. The man had recognized him! Even as the Peralan began to back towards the crowded dance floor his hand went beneath his cloak and found one of his specially-weighted knives.
"It's him, I know it's him! He's sitting over there at the bar! Now, do I get my money or ..." The words choked off into a horrible blood-filled gurgling as the man sunk to the floor. One of the Kynara examined the corpse and found the knife embedded in the throat even as the other drew his blast pistol and fired. A high-pitched whistling filled the air, blending with a high-pitched scream as a girl to the left of the Peralan fell amid a shower of sparks, a bright flash blowing off the top of her head.
Damn, I've been spotted, he thought, quickly surveying the saloon as he rolled off to the right. There's the stairs going up ... and below that the back door ... no, can't chance it. Gotta go upstairs.
He was halfway up the stairs when he heard the pounding feet from above him. The bodyguards, strongarm types who guarded the lovely bodies housed in the upstairs rooms, making sure none of the ladies got hurt (at least, not without additional charge) can't face them too!
The Peralan dove off the stairs, executing a midair flip in turn, and landed nimbly on his feet in the midst of a crowd of terrified people. Spreading his arms out to either side, he dove into them, windmilling the crowd toward the back door.
The Kynara were halfway across the packed saloon now, kicking and shoving people away from them as they made their way for the back door. A moment ago their target was on the stairs, but before they could get a shot at him he dove for the floor. An arm of the crowd suddenly floated toward the door, and amidst the commotion it flew open, then shut again. They had him now! One of the Kynara brought his wrist to his mouth and sputtered something into the comm-link. The area near the door cleared and the Kynara stepped forward. A moment later two more Kynara entered, confusion on their faces. One of the newly-arrived Kynara stepped forward slightly.
"I'm sorry, sir, but we didn't see him! He never came out!"
It was the moment he had been waiting for; the newest Kynara were just inside the door.
Before the stunned eyes of the first two Kynara something impossibly fast shot down from the rafters above the door and kicked their companions squarely in the head, sending them crashing to the floor. Landing on his feet, an electronic hum cut the air as the Peralan activated his lightsword. The deep blue glow of the deadly laser blade played about his face, his feeling an air of exaltation. The looks of disbelief slowly turned to smiles as the Kynara holstered their blast pistols and drew forth their lightswords. Dueling with swords was a way of life for their race, and it was considered an honor to cross blades with one of your own kind. Even if they were Kynara ... or Peralans!
Arcs of light flashed and crashed about the saloon as the blue and red blades contacted each other. Even two against one, the Peralan held his own, and soon it was one on one, the other having been slashed across the ankles by the blade of the Peralan, and then decapitated by his companion's blade as he fell into it. The remaining Kynara threw stroke after stroke at the Peralan, and each time the Peralan parried and matched the stroke with one of his own, but neither swordsman gained purchase. Finally, in desperation, the Kynara tried on of the Peralan's own strokes, the slash at the ankles that had felled his companion. As the Peralan leapt up and away from this stroke, his own blade slashed out above the combatants' heads, seemingly slashing at nothing. But as his leap carried him clear it became apparent that the blade did connect ... sending the massive light fixture crashing down upon his opponent's head. Feeling that he'd wasted enough time, that he couldn't await the city guard to come and haul him away, he dashed out the back door.
He ran down one alley and then another, finally coming face-to-face with a blood-spattered and angry Lysean.
"If you're here to try your luck against me too, you'll soon be joining your friends!" growled the towering Lysean, indicating several inert heaps on the ground at his feet.
The Peralan blinked in astonishment as he recognized what the bloodied lumps were, and stumbled a hasty "No," adding, "I must say, I am impressed! No less than five lowlifes, some of them armed -- were! But at the moment I've got the city guard on my tail and I'd prefer to keep my pelt. I'd advise you to accompany me if you value yours as well. It's likely that normally nobody cares about lowlifes such as these, but when they don't find me they'll be plenty mad, and I'd hate to be caught for jaywalking then!"
Grudgingly, the Lysean assented and then fell to trying to keep up with his newfound companion as he ran towards the city's outskirts.
High up in the rocky hills a campfire glowed dully in the night air.
"Ahrn Sarahl," introduced the Peralan. "Master of knife and sword, pleaser of women, and a damn good shot with ... but modesty prevents me from saying more."
A great booming laughter came from his companion, and at this he felt eased. He'd hate to stir up another emotion in this giant among giants, such as one of anger.
"I am called Branic-Tuul," the Lysean said at last after the laughter subsided.
"I recognize you!" said the other.
"What? You recognize me?" The giant stiffened suspiciously. Was this man looking for him? Where else could he have seen his likeness?
"On posters adorning the city's walls. A very good likeness, I think. And wanted in no less than twenty-four sectors. I'm impressed!"
Branic-Tuul relaxed and again his face displayed amusement.
The Peralan continued, "I'm afraid my own record is a bit higher, though less publicly-displayed, my friend."
Branic-Tuul laughed softly. This little Peralan would not be outdone in anything! Then the laughter left his voice and he became serious. "But listen, Ahrn. We will not be Ahrn Sarahl and Branic-Tuul for much longer if we stone here on Shonhi. Let's grab us a ship and leave this mudball!"
The Peralan's face brightened. "My sentiments exactly, Branic! But where can we hope to get a ship? The city will be guarded well -- doubly so now, after our little display."
Both rogues smiled at that thought, having told each other their respective stories and deciding they were well-suited companions.
Then the Lysean spoke up, "There are other cities and other ship-ports. Surely there are not marines enough in all the service to guard them all!"
"Right you are, Branic! And I propose that first thing in the morning we set ourselves to it! But no, good night, friend Branic.
Both of the adventurers had found their way to Shonhi in an effort to leave their pasts behind them. And what was more, they were homeless, outcasts and refugees of their respective societies. The people of Lysea were mostly enslaved now, their world having been overrun by the Nekrons, fierce machines bent not merely on conquest but the eradication of all organic life. The survivors had necessarily become nomadic refugees. Peralou, on the other hand, was split in two by political revolt, the military faction of warrior elite, the Kynara, having declared all other Peralans not with them renegades and traitors to their own people, to be hunted down and executed. The two rogues found they had much in common.
But they differed as well in many wells. The Peralans were rather lean and slight of build, somewhat lupine in appearance with their fleecy coats of long brown fur, pointed snouts with jaws filled with an abundance of long canines, and pointed ears set atop their heads. They were extremely quick and agile, and were gifted with heightened senses which allowed them to easily track and even sense the mood and vaguest intentions of an opponent. They had a highly-developed "sixth-sense" as well, and it was difficult indeed to sneak up on them. And they were highly-skilled in most forms of weaponry -- especially swords and similar bladed weapons -- and were phenomenal soldiers.
The Lyseans, on the other hand, were on the whole a race of giants, very few standing below two meters tall. Their size and musculature made them a little slow in coordination, but their great strength more than made up for this limitation. They were covered from head to foot with a short brown fur, and the shape of their skulls was roughly that of the Terran bear. But their brutish appearance belied their intelligence, for they had a very high capacity for learning and were an inquisitive people by nature. Their culture was heavily based on the sciences and even the arts. Although they would surely use weapons, they preferred to fight unarmed, or with simpler, more humane weapons such as clubs and the like. On the whole they were a peaceful race. But even so, one did not often willingly arouse the ire of a Lysean!
In appearance they were not typical of their respective races. The Peralan was even slighter of build than most of his people, standing 1.7 meters to the usual 1.9 or 2. The Lysean towered over most of his own people at 2.5 meters to the usual 2.2 or 2.3.
In temperament, too, the two adventurers differed. Whereas Ahrn Sarahl was apprehensive and easily excitable, Branic-Tuul exhibited a strong calm in similar situations. Too, the Peralan was often rash and impulsive where the Lysean was more apt to calculate and plan accordingly. The Peralan was pessimistic, where the Lysean was optimistic. But both adventurers' traits would have their place in a given situation.
The three suns began their slow ascents into the Shonhian sky. Something else made its appearance in the sky as well, accompanied by the low whistle of jets, but the adventurers slept on. There were three of them, as they swiftly took up position like hornets advancing upon a beetle or spider.
A blinding white flash seared the sky, accompanied by a piercing sonic scream as deadly beams lanced toward their targets. The ground near the two rogues erupted in fiery blasts. Rolling to their feet at once, the adventurers dove for cover almost automatically.
"A-gravs!" barked Branic-Tuul. "Looks like the guard found us all right. I knew it was too good to last."
"Speak for yourself, friend," shouted Ahrn Sarahl. "I've been itching for a fight like this! But as each vehicle carries twelve men, perhaps there's one vehicle too many. I'm going to try to take out one before they land."
The Peralan drew his laser carbine to him, and popping up the laser-sight, aimed at the undercarriage of the vehicle directly on the A-grav housing itself. A red pinpoint beam lanced from the carbine to its target as the sonic whine of the vehicle died and it dropped from the sky into the rocks below with deafening impact. The occupants of the vehicle never had a chance. Instantly, the other two vehicles set down on the other side of the crown of the hill, lost from sight of the two adventurers. But at least now the guard would approach with caution, which would slow them down considerably.
Quickly and silently, the two began to race around the northeastern side of the hill, hoping to flank their pursuers. Of course it was possibly the guard would also choose this path of action and they would meet head on. But then, such was life, reasoned Ahrn Sarahl. One could never be sure of anything.
The pair halted in their tracks as the Peralan sniffed the air, his ears and eyes alert as well. His ears stood up straight even as he saw the familiar bobbing of a light blue helmet crowning the rocks ahead. The guard was coming this way!
The Peralan swiftly began to crawl to a position higher than that of his companion, to set up a crossfire zone between the two. As he crawled, one of the soldiers shouted something and weapons were brought to bear from behind the many rocks ahead of the Lysean. Setting his blast carbine for intermittent bursts, the Lysean raked the rocks, forcing the heads down. The Peralan had now reached a position high above the Lysean and the he was pleased to see that most of the soldiers were not covered from his position. Slowly and methodically, he began to pick off the pinned soldiers one by one.
A shot blasted near his left knee. They had tried a similar tactic and he could now see three soldiers even with him in the rocks. Knowing that he had to protect his companion from their shots picking him off as easily as the Peralan's did the pinned guard, the Peralan set up a barrage of automatic fire at the three soldiers with his carbine in his left hand, while firing more selectively with the blast pistol in his right hand at the rocks overhanging them. He brought the rocks sliding down on top of them. Only one leapt clear. He fired at the Peralan, who returned fire and ripped a beam through the soldier's throat with his carbine extended from the rocks even as he jumped back from the first beam. His back contacted not a hard rock wall as he expected, but instead empty air. Turning, he saw that where rock wall had been only moments before now stood a dark opening, the rock face having silently slid aside, as an unknown mechanism was accidentally activated. Half-entering, he called to his companion, but could not be heard over the exchange of fire below.
Down below, Branic-Tuul was holding off his opponents well enough, but there were still about fifteen or so left and he knew he couldn't hold them off forever. Even now they had set up a light laser machinegun and were cutting through most of his cover, keeping him on the run. Too, they tried to flush him out with grenades.
Where was Ahrn Sarahl?
Something bounced off his right shoulder. Grenade! he thought, as he looked desperately around at his feet. But he found naught but rocks. He turned his face upwards again just in time to catch a small rock just above his left eye. It had come from above. It must have been Sarahl! For just a moment he stood up from his cover to let them see where he was, then dove back as the inevitable grenades were lobbed in. The blinding explosions covered him from sight as he made his way to an overhang and began to climb upwards.
At long last he reached the top, and the Peralan helped him over the edge, indicating the open passageway. As they slipped into it, it slid shut again noiselessly. They found themselves in a dark passageway roughly hewn from the rock by crude digging tools. The Peralan activated his lightsword to light their way and moved ahead as the Lysean fell in behind.
"Best not to use our guns here," explained the Peralan, "as any shots would likely bring the mountain down upon us."
The Lysean assented. Flexing his massive fingers, he prepared himself for unarmed defense.
"You really should get yourself a sword," said the Peralan. "It would save you so much effort."
"I need no sword," said the big Lysean. "But I do carry one, anyway," he added with a slight smile.
The Peralan laughed at this. Would these Lyseans never admit to anything? Such pride in their strength! But then, it really was something to be proud of. But he preferred his sword just the same, although he was no slouch at unarmed combat himself.
They walked in silence. Something about the place was too oppressive, not conducive to lighthearted banter. In fact, the two adventurers were beginning to wish they hadn't entered at all. Better to take their chances with the soldiers than -- what?
Then the silence was broken by a whispering susurrus of sound, echoing weirdly and hollowly from far away. What the pair could hear of this made them uneasy -- the sound began to take on an air of chanting which seemed to issue from throats not easily identifiable. But why would they hear sounds such as this underground of all places? And what nameless supplication would such underground dwellers give, and to what?
A steady rhythm began to echo from somewhere behind them, and the source was nearly upon them when they recognized the sounds for what they were: footfalls! They managed to take cover in rocky niches only moments before the source of the sound appeared.
What they saw filled them with a singular revulsion: A patrol of the underground dwellers returning to what unnamable depths could only be conjectured -- but what dwellers they were!
There were a score of them. They stood about two and a half meters tall and their bodies were anthropoid, but their long necks were surmounted with great snakelike heads replete with yellow slit-pupilled eyes and wide, fanged, hinged jaws. Too, they possessed extraordinarily limber arms and legs, coiling and tentacular rather than jointed or segmented; they doubtless were much more fluid and flexible, less restricted in movement choices than most beings. They carried primitive weapons such as spears and clubs and axes, and their bodies seemed to be covered with glittering scales, doubtless acting as a sort of natural armor. Their voices were a curious and excited hissing as they passed the two rogues and continued on.
It was long after the monstrous dwellers had passed when the two finally ventured forth from hiding. Exchanging like curses and exclamations of horror and revulsion, they again pressed on, taking the same path the serpent-men had taken. This path continued to take them towards the now quite audible ululations. The chanting was in no language they recognized and, again, consisted of that curious hissing sound, monotonous in pitch but rising in excitement and falling again at intervals. What was more, after certain phrases were intoned, a chorus of hissing voices even more intensely echoed this chant with what sounded like a word or name: "Yig." The duo wanted less and less to continue their present path, yet were driven on not only by what lay behind them, but also by a certain morbid curiosity to see what lay ahead. They turned into a shorter tunnel and sensed that they were very near indeed to the culmination of their journey.
Suddenly a wave of serpent-men appeared before them, waving their weapons wildly. In a flash the adventurers turned about, but their escape was blocked here as well by more of the loathsome creatures. Ahrn Sarahl reluctantly took up a fighting stance with his lightsword as Branic-Tuul reached for a good-sized boulder to heave. As the Lysean leaned against the wall it gave beneath his weight and he tottered momentarily over the edge of a hole before falling and spinning downward. After what seemed an eternity he hit bottom and all went black.
Ahrn Sarahl watched helplessly as his friend fell through the trapdoor to unknown depths below. There was a chance the Lysean survived, he thought, but fighting now would do him little good. He was severely outnumbered and suddenly didn't feel like fighting, his heart heavy. He stood nimbly as strong tentacles seized him and dragged him off.
Branic-Tuul was lying at the foot of a dirt-walled tunnel, and further down the tunnel something approached, but he did not see this as he lay still. The intruder moved slowly but surely along the rounded walls of the tunnel, and an odd green glow preceded it. At long last it emerged into the sight of the Lysean -- had he been awake to see it. Perhaps it was merciful he was not.
It stood about three meters tall and appeared to be a giant glowing green spider. Its body was about four meters long and its legs nearly the same length again. Its dripping venomous fangs were at least a meter long as well, and it moved hungrily toward the prostrate figure.
Ahrn Sarahl felt himself dragged into a large semicircular chamber in which were carved around the perimeter of the monstrous horseshoe-shaped floor a series of stone benches upon which sat a vast throng of the snake-men. The throng faced inward to the center of the half-bowl, where he now saw himself being dragged to. Here stood a series of high stone, curiously-stained, block, obviously serving as altars. And what the Peralan saw tied there to one of the blocks filled him with awe.
She was beautiful, clad head to foot in downy white fur with black-tipped ears, face, paws and tail. Her body had the form and all the apparent sleekness of a cat, and, too, her head was rather catlike in shape, but over overall form was anthropoid -- as were most sentient aliens in the universe. She was a Luvian, and although he had seen examples of her race before, she was easily the finest he'd ever seen of both Luvian and female alike. Her wide blue eyes met his electrically, and for an instant the fear he saw therein was replaced by a warmth and a sense of confidence in him, and he knew that he had to save her. But then he felt strong arms pull him to one of the blocks and his arms were lashed tightly down.
The creature was almost upon Branic-Tuul when one of its forelegs brushed him on the thigh.
"Not now, girl, I'm too tired," he muttered and rolled over.
Slowly and silently the spider-thing continued to make its way forward until the fangs were just over his face. The fangs cleaved empty air as he rolled away beneath the creature.
"Ha! I knew my Sunnla had bad breath, but not the carrion stench of you, my friend!" he challenged as he stood up behind the creature, having rolled completely out from under it. Heaving a great boulder above his head, he brought it down on the creature's thorax. Slowly, the creature began to turn. A knifelike leg whipped out and felled the Lysean to the ground. Before he could regain his feet the creature scrabbled atop him.
There was an expectancy in the air as he and the girl lay tied down before the congregation, but not for long. From a curtained alcove in one of the walls strode a massive figure clad in black robes and with its face hidden from view, obviously the high priest. It took its place before the altars and addressed the throng in that unknown hissing language. Then, to the Peralan's surprise, it addressed he and the girl in the common universal tongue, sibilant voice still tinged with that infernal hissing.
"You are to be the first of many sacrifices to Yig in many a millennia. You should feel honored."
"Oh, yes, I feel honored all right," spat Ahrn Sarahl. "But I'd be even more honored to give you this honor! Untie us and let me tie you up here for Yig, whatever that is -- or whatever you think it is." When it came to religion, the Peralan was a notorious skeptic.
"Silence, blasphemer!" the figure raged. "Yours is not the place for insolence! Yours is only the place to die so that Yig might live again and walk the spaces between the stars anew!
"Many aeons ago, Yig, the Father of Serpents, came to Shonhi from his homeworld of Zandanua, where his serpentine brother, Rokon, rules still. Here, Father Yig found us, his Children, and we raised up his images and offered sacrifice to him in secrecy so that the way may be prepared for Yig to flourish once again and spread his mighty rule anew, as he did on Zandanua. But now the time is here, the stars will soon be right for his ascension! Soon the Faithful shall be rewarded greatly, and the very universe shall quake with terror at the thunderous approach of Yig! Praise be to Yig!"
And with that pretentious soliloquy, the high priest drew from his robes a long, curved blade.
Again he could feel the fetid breath of the spider-thing on his face, and even some of its venom dripped upon his cheek, searing it and lacing him through with white-hot pain.
"Curse you, hellbeast!" he roared as he brought his fists up sharply into the beast's midsection. "That ought to give you indigestion ... or at least slow you down enough for this!" As he spoke his hand went to his boot and came up again with a slender tube about fifteen centimeters in length: a vibro-knife. Activating this, he slid it upwards again and again until the thrashing beast finally lay still and released wave upon wave of hot, stinking gore upon him.
Locking his arms beneath the beast, he strained upward with all his might, sliding his own body forth until he was at last free from the pinning weight of the carcass. Regaining his feet, he began the long climb upward from the depths of this death-pit.
Reaching the top, he set off in the direction of the cries of supplication, now nearly deafening in their intensity. Strange, he thought, he didn't seem to need a light source as a dim glow lit all before him. Shrugging, he moved on.
He had been moving down the various winding tunnels when he again heard echoing footfalls coming up close behind him. Too, he could hear the ring of angry, determined voices.
"Come on, lads, move along! Aye, I like not these hellpits as well, but if our quarry did indeed enter here, we follow!" bellowed an officer. "I feel it in my bones we are close, so look alive, you men!"
So it seemed the city guard had found their escape route after all!
Realizing he had no cover here, Branic-Tuul leapt into a niche -- rather a short, side tunnel -- and hugged the back wall. As he did so, it gave beneath his weight and swung inward, dumping him inside.
He seemed to be on a sort of balcony overlooking the scene below. And what a scene it was! His companion was tied to a stone block altar, along with a Luvian girl, and over them stood a giant figure clad in black robes with face hooded from view. Watching in rapt fascination was a great throng of the serpent-men, held in thrall by the proceedings.
Even as the sacrificial blade dove towards the Peralan's chest, a high-pitched whistle rent the air, accompanied by a bright flash, and the high priest's hand with the blade was sent spinning end over end across the chamber, blown off by the Lysean's blast carbine shot. All eyes turned upon the Lysean. At once a score of angry snake-men rushed up crude stone steps to where the Lysean stood. The Lysean stepped forward into full view for a better shot at the onrushing warriors.
Ahrn Sarahl watched the Lysean step into view -- and saw to his astonishment that Branic-Tuul was glowing a greenish hue from head to foot! As he watched, the warriors halted in mid-charge, and laying their weapons down, fell to their knees in supplication. One word escaped the hissing throats of the throng almost in unison; a name: Yig!
"Branic! They think you're their god, Yig!" yelled the Peralan. "Play along; it's our only hope!"
Quickly grasping the situation, the Lysean ordered the serpent-men to untie the Peralan and the girl.
"No! This is not Yig," began the high priest, leaping forward, clutching his bleeding stump to his chest in agony. "It is an interloper and he must be --"
His legs had carried him too close to the altar and the Peralan's unbound foot shot out like lightning, connecting solidly with the head of the high priest. But what the Peralan felt beneath his foot forced him to retract it swiftly with revulsion.
Seeing their high priest unconscious, and having no other choice but to follow the direction of their "god," the serpent-men began to untie the two captives. Soon they were free. They turned to leave.
"Halt! Stand where you are!" called an authoritative voice.
Standing within the mouth of the tunnel on the opposite side of the chamber was line up a small patrol of city guard soldiers, weapons trained and ready. At their left stood the commander, pistol in hand and barking orders.
"I want those two there," he called, pointing to Ahrn Sarahl and Branic-Tuul. "And I want them alive!"
Calmly, "Yig" addressed his throng, "My children, they are interlopers and they must die! So speaks Yig!"
The soldiers never had a chance. As one the body of Children of Yig turned and rushed upon them in a loathsome wave. The soldiers bravely stood and cut a number of them down, but for every one killed there were two to take its place. Soon the remaining soldiers turned to run down the tunnel, the Children hot on their heels.
Taking advantage of the situation, the two adventurers and their newfound companion made good their escape. The Luvian supported herself on Ahrn Sarahl, feigning a twisted ankle, and Peralan minded not at all.
Nearly free from the labyrinthine depths, they stopped to rest and made introductions.
"I am called Shialla Lur," she purred in a musical voice. "My mother died when I was but a babe and I never knew my father. I was raised by an aunt in the city when that ... that ... cult ... kidnapped me ... to ... to ..." She broke into tears.
The Peralan took her into his arms. "Fear not, Shialla Lur. Ahrn Sarahl shall not let any harm come to you," he murmured. "And likewise can be said for my friend here, Branic-Tuul."
But Branic-Tuul was not listening. In fact, he appeared to be staring over the couple's shoulders, a look of shock upon his face.
"What --" began the Peralan as he leapt to his feet and turned, lightsword at the ready.
There, standing before them was a massive figure easily twice as tall as the big Lysean, with slightly snakish head, yellow, slit-pupilled eyes, huge fangs, and exuding a green glow.
"Yig!" the three cried out simultaneously.
Slowly Branic-Tuul got to his feet and stood alongside his companion before the god.
"YOU DARE INVADE MY REALM! FOR THAT YOU MUST DIE!" boomed a thunderous voice.
"I fear neither man nor beast -- nor god!" exclaimed Ahrn Sarahl as he leapt to the attack. His lightsword danced in exquisite arcs and cleaved empty air. He stepped back in surprise.
"A hologram! Mere illusion --" began the Peralan as the figure began to fade.
"Quite right, you meddling fool! For what little good it will do you now!"
The voice came from behind them. Turning, the two adventurers saw the figure of the high priest standing behind the Luvian with an arm locked about her throat; the same arm that had held the knife -- and now it once again had a hand attached!
"You!" exclaimed the Lysean. "But your hand --"
"Limb regeneration is only one of my many powers," he sneered.
"That's handy --" began the Peralan.
"Silence! You will listen!" The high priest waved a hand and suddenly the adventurers went rigid, unable to move a muscle. "I am no mere high priest, but the greatest of the psi-masters! Or at least I was, until ... but that need not concern you. What does is that I have dwelled here for centuries raising this army of serpent-men whom I evolved from mere vipers to be my warriors, only to be thwarted by you two. Normally such as you would be beneath my notice, but you have wronged me in this, my greatest feat: the resurrection of omnipotent Yig, and so you must die!"
Another wave of the hand and the adventurers were again able to move.
"You're insane!" affirmed Branic-Tuul.
"And turned us green with his purple prose, eh, Branic?" said Ahrn Sarahl. "Oh. So sorry for that, my friend, considering your present condition," he explained, referring to the Lysean's glowing gore-drenched form. "You know, you really could use a bath." The Peralan wrinkled his nose.
The Lysean's massive fist connected with the snout of the Peralan, sending him crashing into the wall.
"Branic, what --"
But the Peralan froze as he saw the Lysean's features were tinged with madness and hatred, then suddenly he began to hate that face. Leaping up into the air, he kicked, hard. As he landed on his feet again, his hand went to his lightsword.
"You wanted to see my blade, Peralan, and now you shall!" gritted the Lysean through clenched fangs as he pulled out and activated his own lightsword.
Shialla Lur watched in horror as the companions' blades met again and again.
"Ahrn, Branic, stop this! Don't you see, it's his doing! He's making you fight each other!"
She began to hate her captor, more than she had ever hated anyone before. And she felt that hatred projected in waves.
Suddenly the psi-master screamed and flailed wildly at the air, releasing the girl.
"Shialla -- why? --" he gasped.
The Lysean and the Peralan stopped fighting and stared blankly at each other, scarcely believing they had tried to kill each other. The girl stepped quickly away from the psi-master's body, which was now rolling and writhing upon the ground convulsively. After a moment it lay still and the two adventurers were at her side inquisitively.
"What happened?" questioned the Lysean.
"I'm not sure," answered the Luvian. "Look!"
As they watched, the body jerked spasmodically and the robes parted and fell open. Beneath they saw the white fur of a Luvian.
"H-he knew my name. He m-must have been my f-father," choked the girl. "He must have given me to the snake-men as part of s-some unwholesome bargain."
"Yes, I thought as much," said Ahrn Sarahl. "But there's something else he had to give up."
The Peralan crossed over to the body and flipped back the hood with his boot. There lay exposed a monstrous serpentine head, the yellow-slitted eyes gazing upon them in death.
"But what killed him?" inquired Branic-Tuul.
"I did," the girl answered. "Look to his corpse again."
As they did so, the adventurers saw tiny greenish things scuttle from beneath the folds of the robe and swarm into the body itself.
"They must be the children of the spider-thing I killed!" exclaimed the Lysean. "But what --"
"I have been bequeathed some of my father's powers," continued the girl. "I focused upon my father's hatred and amplified it with my own, and sensing the hatred in these creatures for the death of their mother, I sent this increased hatred into them and directed it against my father. The spider-things did the rest."
"Let us be gone from this place," said Ahrn Sarahl finally.
"Thanks be to Yig that ship-port guard was a drinking man -- else we'd have had to hurt him," Ahrn Sarahl said. "But drunk on duty -- imagine that!"
"Curses be to Yig! This ship we 'borrowed' is out of fuel!" replied Branic-Tuul.
"No matter, friend Branic. There's a lone ship ahead portside. We can 'borrow' her fuel! Perhaps she has a rich cargo as well!"
The Lysean smiled and nodded assent.
"Branic," the Peralan began hesitantly, "what of the 'real' god known as Yig? Do you think he exists?"
"Who can say?" the Lysean replied after a moment's contemplation. "We, as mortals, cannot hope to question the gods. Whether they do exist or not, they are gods after all."
The Peralan considered this, then said, "Do you think Yig, if he exists at all -- after all these millennia -- is dead?"
"'That is not dead which can eternal lie ...'" intoned the Lysean solemnly.
The Peralan shivered. He had heard of that forbidden computer disk circulated in certain shunned places throughout the universe, said to be an ancient record of things best left alone. 'Disk of the Damned' it was called ... but it was rumored to have an elder name. ...
A silence fell between them.
"Ahrn, perhaps you should have brought her."
"Nonsense, my friend! I have enough people on my tail now. One female isn't going to make a difference. Besides, she'd only be in the way."
"If you say so, Ahrn," replied the Lysean.
"Yes, I do, Branic!" retorted the Peralan, and he told himself over and over again that he was right. But it would be a long time before Shialla Lur wasn't on his mind.
Created: January 31, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004