“Stop grumbling, Skander,” The Rel responded. “You waste air and can’t be understood by anybody but me anyway. You are quite right, thoughwe’ve been stalled.” Vardia, whose head and vocal mechanism were not related in any way to her respiratory system, asked, “Who could be responsible? Who knew we were here, would be staying at that particular hotel? Perhaps our people have tracked you down.” There was hope in her voice. “Don’t get yourself that excited, Czillian,” The Rel replied. “As you can see, the delaying action slowed us but did not stop or deter usnor did it liberate you. No, this smells of darker stuff. Of the one who planted the hidden listening device in the baron’s of-fice at Zone and prevented our escapade weeks ear-ner.” This was the first Vardia had heard of that incident, and it made her think back to the many things that had happened to her. That distress signal where one could not have been operating. The vanishing of the two shuttlecraft on Dalgonia, and the disappearance of their lifeboat. The opening of the Well Gate only after they were all securely in it. Captain Brazil’s firm belief that he was being suckered by someone. That strange snakeman, Ortega. Over seven hundred chances, and Brazil is met by the only person at Zone who knew him. Coincidence? She suddenly felt furious, thinking of all of it in detail. Someone was using herusing all of them moving them like pieces in a game. What about the hex assignments? Skander to a place where she had all the tools at her disposal, corrupting a peaceful people in the process. She to the hex next door, assignedactually assigned.9to work with Skander and kidnapped with her. By whom? Someone working for that bastard Datham Ham! And Captain Brazil! She had gotten the word when Brazil had entered Zone, looking exactly the same as he had before. Why didn’t the Gate change him? And that pathetic little addictdumped into a hex almost perfect for getting back to being human without pres-241
sures. Brazil had been hung up on her, she recalled. Probably they were together now. Why? she wondered. Sex? That was something the animals did, she told herself. She had never understood it, or why people liked it; and if her own twinning was any indication, it was a most unpleasant experience. Why was a distinguished, high-ranking person of such a responsible position as Captain Brazil willing to jeopardize his career and his life for the sake of some wasted girl he never knewdidn’t know, in fact, even through Zone? Even if he had saved her, she wouldn’t have contributed anything. She was practically an animal then. More sense to get her to a Death Factory where her remains would help fertilize a field. Perhaps this was why the Corn philosophy was developing and spreading, she thought. It was rational, planned. Like being a plant, or one of these robots. Even Hain’s dirty crew couldn’t stop the march of such perfection of order, she felt sure. The sane hexes here proved it. “We will have better service, and a shorter stay, at other hotels,” The Rel informed them, breaking Vardia’s reverie. “I think we will be out of this place where we are so unpopular in two days. Slelcron will be no faster but easier. No one communicates with the Slelcron. We will be ignored but unimpeded. As for Ekh’lwell, I have no information there, but I feel confident that, no matter what happens, we will not be beaten.” “You seem pretty sure of yourself,” Vardia commented. “More prophecy from The Diviner?” “Logic,” The Rel replied. “We were impeded for someone’s purpose. Why? To what end? So they can beat us to the equator? I doubt it. It would be easier to kill us than detain us so. No, they will have to come out to us at the equator. They want to be there when we arrive because they know who and where we are, but not what Dr. Skander knowshow to get to the Well. They want in with usindeed, they may be allies, since they will assuredly take steps to see that no one else beats us to the goal. And make no mistake
about it, there is another expedition. The Diviner has said that we will not enter until all the recent Entries combine. That is fineas long as we are in charge.” “We will be,” Hain suddenly said, Near the Ivrom Border in the Umiau Nation THEY PRESENTED A SIGHT UNPRECEDENTED ON THE Well World: a broad raft of logs, pulled along by ten Umiau wearing harnesses. On the raft were a Dillian centaur, a giant stag, a two-meter-tall bat, and a Czillian, plus a well-depleted bale of hay and a box of dirt. “Why can’t the Umiau just take us all the way up?” Vardia asked Brazil. The stag turned his head. “I still can’t get used to the idea that you are in two places at once, so to speak,” he said through his radio speaker. The splashing and sound of the wind on the water made it hard to hear his little box if you weren’t positioned just right. “I have a hard time thinking that the little captain I came here with is a huge deer,” she replied. “Now answer the question.” “Too dangerous,” he told her. “We’re going as far up as possible, but you eventually start getting some nasty currents, whirlpools, and other stuff. They don’t get along too well with the inhabitants, either. The Umiau would make out, but those nasty fish with the twenty rows of teeth would chew up this raft and us before we could be properly introduced. No, we’ll take our chances with a hundred and sixty kilometers of Ivrom.” “What is Ivrom, Nathan?” Wuju asked. She had gotten the translator, and overcome most of her reservations. He treated her gently, and said only the right things, and she had eased up. There was still that
something different about him, that indefinable something they ali sensed but couldn’t put their fingers on. Wuju had talked it out with Cousin Bat. “How would you feel,” Bat had asked her, “if you’d awakened not a Dillian but a regular horse? And looked down at your own dead body? Would you still be the same?” She had accepted that explanation, but Bat didn’t believe it himself. What had changed in Brazil was the added air of total command, of absolute confidence and certainty. And he had as much as admitted he knew the answer to the total puzzle. He could get in to the control center, control the worldor more. Bat was more encouraged now, really. So much the better. The man with the answers had no hands, couldn’t even open a door by himself. Let him get in, Bat thought smugly. Let him show how to work things. “Nathan!” Wuju said louder. “What is Ivrom? You haven’t told us!” “Because I don’t know, love,” he replied casually. “Lots of forest, rolling hills, plenty of animals, most familiar. The atlas said there were horses and deer there. It’s a nontechnological hex, so it’s the sword-and-spear bit again, probably. The intelligent life form is some kind of insect, I think, but nobody’s sure. Those active volcanoes to our leftthat’s AlisstI, and it’s a formidable barrier. The people there are thick-skinned reptiles who live in temperatures close to boil-ing and eat sulfur. Probably nice folks, but nobody drops in.” She looked over at the range of volcanic mountains. Most were spouting steam, and one had a spectacular lava fountain along a side fissure. She shivered, although it wasn’t cold. “This is the way to travel if you can!” Brazil said with enthusiasm, taking a deep breath of the salty air. “Fantastic! I used to sail oceans like this on big ships, back in the days of Old Earth. There was a romance to the sea, and those who sailed it. Not like the one-man space freighters with their computers and phony pictures of winking dots.” “How soon will we land?” Wuju asked him, a bit
ill at the rolling and tossing he liked so much. She was happy to see him obviously enjoying himself, talking like his old self again, but if it was at the cost of this kind of upset stomach, she would take land. “Well, they’ve gone exceptionally fast,” he replied. “Strong devils, and amazing in their element. I’ll have to remember that strength. Wouldn’t do to underesti-mate our Dr. Skander.” “Yes, but how long?” she insisted. “Tomorrow morning,” he replied. “Then it’ll be no more than a day or so to Ghlmonwe won’t have to cross the whole hex of Ivrom, just one facetand another day to the top of the bay in Ghlmon.” “Do you really think we’ll meet themthe others, that isup there?” Vardia asked. “I’m most anxious to free my other selfmy sisterfrom those creatures.” “We’ll meet them,” Brazil assured her, “if we beat themand we certainly should at this rate. I know where they have to go. When they get there, we’ll be ready for them,” “Will I be able to scout this Ivrom tonight?” Cousin Bat called out to him. “I’m sick and tired of fish.” “I’m counting on you. Bat,” Brazil replied laughing. “Eat up and tell us what’s what.” “No more midnight rescues from the jaws of death, though,” Bat replied in the same light vein. “You never know. Bat,” Brazil replied more seriously. “Maybe this time I’ll rescue you.” The Umiau had been remarkably uninformed about Ivrom, which wasn’t as strange on the face of it as it would seem. The Umiau were water creatures, and their need was for technological items they could not manufacture. An alliance with the Czillians was natural; their other neighbors they at least knew from watery experience, even if they didn’t get along too well with all of them, and AlisstI was too hot to han-dle. Ivrom, named from the old maps and not by the inhabitants, was peaceful forests and meadows, no major rivers, although it had hundreds of tiny creeks and streams. It was a nontechnological hex, so it wasn’t easy to get to, even harder to move around in,
and probably not worth the trouble. Of course, the major problem was that no one who had ever set out for Ivromto study, for contact, or to go through it had ever been seen or heard from again. For 260
a new one started. What we have here today is only the youngest worlds, the youngest races, the last. The Markovians all strugg!ed here, and died here. Not only all matter, but time itself, is a mathematical construct they had learned and overcome. After many generations, the hexes became self-sufficient communities if they worked. The Markovians, changed, bore children that bred true. It was these descendants, the Markovian seed, who went to the Well through the local gates to what we now call Zone, that huge Well we entered by. On the sixth day of the sixth month of each six years they went, and the Well took them, in a single sweep like a clock around the Well, one sweep in the middle of the night. It took them, classified them, and transported them to the home world of their races.” “But surely,” she objected, “the worlds had their own creatures. There is evolution” “They didn’t go physically,” he told her evenly. “Only their substance, what the Mumies called their ‘essence,’ went. At the proper time they entered the vessels which had evolved to the point of the Well. That’s why the translator calls it the Well of Souls, Wuju.” “Then we are the Markovian children,” she breathed. “They were the seeds of our race.” “That’s it,” he acknowledged. “They did it as a project, an experiment. They did it not to kill their race, but to save it and to save themselves. There’s a legend that Old Earth was created in seven days. It’s entirely possiblethe Markovians controlled time as they controlled all things, and while they had to develop the worlds mathematically, to form them and create them according to natural law, they could do millions of years work rather quickly, to slide in their project people at the exact moment when the dominant life formor life formswould logically develop.” “And these people hereare they all Entries and the descendants of Entries?” she asked. “There weren’t supposed to be any,” he told her. “Entries, that is. But the Markovians inhabited their own old universe, you know. Their old planets were
still around. Some of the brains surviveda good number if we blundered into even one of them in our little bit of space. They were quasi-organic, built to be integral with the planet they served, and they proved almost impossible to turn off. The last Markovian couldn’t shut his down and still get through, so they were left open, to be closed when time did to the old worlds what it does to all things left unmaintained.” “Then there are millions of those gates still open,” she speculated. “People could fall in all the time.” “No,” he replied. “The gates only open when someone wants them to be open. It doesn’t have to be a mystical keyalthough the boy Varoett, back on Dalgonia, caused it to open by locking into his mind the mathematical relationships he observed. It doesn’t happen randomly, though. Vamett was the exception. The key is mathematical, but anyone near one doesn’t have to know the key to operate the Gate.” “What’s the key, then?” she asked, puzzled. “Spacersthousands of them have been through the Well, not just from our sector but from all over. I’ve met a number. It’s a lonely, antisocial job, Wuju, and because of the Fitzgerald Contraction and rejuve, it is a long one. All those people who came here through gates got signals on the emergency band that lured them to the gates. Whether they admit it or not, they all had one thing in common.” “What was that?” she asked, fascinated. “They all wanted to or had decided to die,” he replied evenly, no trace of emotion in his voice. “Or, they’d rather die than live on. They were looking for fantasy worlds to cure their problems. “Just like the Markovians.” She was silent for a while. Suddenly she asked, “How do you know all this, Nathan? The people here don’t, those children of the Markovians who didn’t leave.” “You got that, did you?” he responded admiringly. “Yes, when the last were changed, they sealed the Well. Those who didn’t want to go, lost their nerve, or were happy herethey stayed, with only a mem-ory, perhaps even regret once it was done, for they
kept the phrase *until midnight at the Well of Souls’ alive as the symbol of forever. How do I know all this? I’m brilliant, that’s why. And so is Skander that’s why we’re going where we have to go.” She accepted his explanation, not noticing the evasion. “But if everything is sealed, why bother?” she asked. “Skander can’t do any harm, can he?” “Deep beneath our feet is a great machine,” he told her seriously. “The Markovian brain is so ptwerful that it created and maintained the home worlds as it maintains this one; the brain keeps the equations that sustain all unnaturally created matter, that can undo the fabric of time, space, and matter as it created them. Skander wants to change those equations. Not just our lives but our very existence is at stake.” She looked at him for a long time, then turned idly, staring into the forest, lost in her thoughts. Suddenly she said, “Look, Nathan! The flying lights are out! And I can hear something!” He turned and looked into the forest. They were insects of some kind, he thought, glowing as they flitted through the forest. The light, he saw, was constantthe blinking that had been apparent from shore was an illusion, caused by their passage behind the dense foliage. The darkness was too complete for his deer vision to get any detail, but the floating, gliding lights were clear. There was something very familiar about them, he thought. I’ve never been here, yet I’ve seen this before. “Listen!” Wuju whispered. “Hear it?” Brazil’s fine-trained ears had already picked it up even over the crashing of the waves. It was music, haunting, strange, even eerie music, music that seemed to penetrate their very bodies. “It’s so strange,” Wuju said softly. “So beautiful.” The Faerie! he thought suddenly. Of course there’d be Faerie! He cursed himself for not thinking of it before. This close to the equator there was bound to be magic, he realized. Some of those authoritarian sons of bitches had snuck onto Old Earth and it had been hell getting rid of them. He looked anxiously
at WuJu. She had a dreamy look on her face, and her upper torso was swaying in time to the music. < “Wuju!” he said sharply. “Come on! Snap out of it!” She pushed him away and started forward, toward the woods. He rushed up and tried to block her way, but she wouldn’t be deterred. He opened his mouth and tried to grab her arm, but it wouldn’t hold. “Wuju!” he called after her. “Don’t go in! Don’t desert us!” Suddenly a dark shape swooped down from the sky at him. He ducked by lowering his forelegs and started running. It swooped again, and he cursed the poor vision that kept him from taking full advantage of his reflexes. He heard maniacal laughter above him, and the mad thing swooped again, brushing him this time. They’re forcing me into the forest! he realized. Ev-ery time he moved in any direction but in the creature’s, laughing and gibbering, it would swoop in and block his way. “Cousin Bat! Don’t do it! It’s Nathan Brazil!” he called to the dark shape, knowing the effort was fu-tile, that the bat was under a Faerie spell. Brazil was in the woods now, where Bat couldn’t follow by flying. He saw the creature standing there, outlined in the starlight glare on the ocean, looking up and down the beach. He looked around, and barely made out a large form heading away about eight meters farther in. It’s useless, he realized-The music’s got her and Bat’s got me. I’ve faced them down before, he thought, and won. Maybe again, because they don’t know that. No choice here, though. If I don’t follow they’ll send some other creatures after me. He could barely see despite the light from the flitting bugs that grew thicker and thicker as he entered the forest, but he smelled Wuju’s scent and followed it. After what must have been twenty minutes, he emerged into a clearing in the woods. A toadstool ring, he thought grimly.
Under a particularly huge tree was a wide ring composed of huge brown toadstools. The music came from here, made by the thousands of insects that swarmed in the center of the ring. Wuju was in the ring, too, almost covered by the creatures, so thick now that they lit up the place like a lamp. She was dancing and swaying to the eerie music of their wings, as were a number of other creatures, of varying shapes and sizes. The music grew in intensity and volume as more and more of the creatures of light came to the ring. Sitting in the hollow of the great tree, still and observing, was a glowing insect much, much larger than the othersperhaps close to a meter. It had the oval shape of a beetle, and a light, ribbed underside that was highly flexible. Two long, jointed hind legs were held in front of it in a bent but relaxed position, and two forelegs, longer and with sharp-toothed ridges, that seemed to be leading the insect orchestra, waving in perfect time. It sat like this, underside exposed, leaning against the tree, a face on a telescoping neck down on the chest, watching things. The face was strange, not insect-like at all, nor was the position of the sitter nor the fact that it had only four limbs. It appeared to have a tiny, scruffy moustache, topped by a perfectly round and black nose, and two almost hu-man eyes that reflected the glare of the proceedings with an evil and ancient leer. There was a sudden darkness above, and Cousin Bat landed in the middle of the circle, bowed to the large onlooker, and joined the dance. The strange eyes of the lead bug darted around the circle, then over to Brazil, whose form was just barely visible still hidden by the forest. Suddenly the leader’s forelegs went into a V shape, and the music stopped, everyone staying perfectly still; even the bugs seemed frozen in midflight. The lead bug, who Brazil knew was the Swarm Queen, spoke to Cousin Bat, and Brazil found it interesting that the translator carried it as the voice of an incredibly tiny and ancient old woman.
So are the legends of witches born, he thought sardonically. “You have brought only two! I charged you to bring all three!” the Swarm Queen accused Bat. Bat bowed, his voice flat and mechanical. “The other is a plant. Highness. It is rooted for the night, asleep beyond any recall except the morning sun.” “That is unacceptable,” the Swarm Queen snapped. “We have dealt with this problem before. Wait!” She turned to Brazil, and he felt the piercing eyes fall on him. “Deer! Come into the circle!” the Swarm Queen ordered, and Brazil felt himself moving slowly, halt-ingly, toward the circle despite no order on his part. He felt the energy grow to almost overpowering proportions as he crossed the toadstool ring. “The ring binds you all! Bound be ye till my re-turn, or till morning, till midnight at the Well of Souls,” she intoned, then flipped over on her stomach, supported by all four legs. The back had long, integral wings and seemed to glow with the same stuff as her underside, although Brazil knew that was mostly reflection. “You will show me,” she said to the bat, and Bat immediately took off, the Swarm Queen following with a tinkling sound that was like a single note in the eerie Faerie symphony. Brazil tried to recross the circle of toadstools, found he couldn’t. He idly kicked at one, but it proved to be more rock than toadstool, and his hoof met with a clacking sound but nothing else. He looked at the inhabitants of the circle. All, like Wuju, were frozen, like statues, although he could see that they were breathing. There was a monotonous, yet pleasant, hum from the Faerie, marking place. Many of the other creatures were vaguely humanoid; all were small, a few monkey-like, but all were distorted, hellish versions of their former selves. Brazil remembered the encounters on Old Earth. Since the Faerie created their own press to suit themselves, they had a pretty good reputation in folklore
and superstition. He had never discovered how they had managed to get in. Oh, some representatives of many other races hadsome as volunteers to teach the people, some because their home worlds had closed before they personally had reached maturity and Old Earth had the room and a compatible biosphere. He wondered idly if those primitive peasants who told such wonderful stories of the Faerie would still like them if they knew that these folk doubled as the basis for witches and many evil spirits. Once created by some Markovian mind, they could not be wiped out; they had to run their course and survive or fail as the rules said. They had done too well. They worked their magic and dominated their own hex, using the collective mental powers of the swarm directed and guided by the Swarm Queen who was mother to them all, and tried to spread out. They managed to interfere in thirteen other Southern hexes where the mathematics did not forbid their enormous powers, before the Markovians finally moved to limit them to their own hex. Here they were in their own element, and supreme. How many thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of swarms existed in this hex? Brazil wondered. I beat them outside of their own element once, but can I do it here? About an hour passed, with Brazil, the only mov-ing thing in the ring, getting more and more nervous; yet he held onto a streak of optimism deep inside. If they couldn’t succeed with Vardia before daybreak, these nocturnal creatures would go back to their tree burrows. Swarm Queen included. How long to dawn? he wondered. A sudden thought came to him, and he started carefully to draw a pentagram around the circle. He tried to be casual, so it didn’t look as if he were doing much of anything; but his hoof managed to make the mark in the grassy meadow. This was a long shot, he knew, but it might stall the Swarm Queen until morning. He was about halfway around when brush crackled
and he saw Vardia walk onto the knoll and into the circle, the Swarm Queen resting on her sun leaf. There was a shadow above, and Bat landed back in the circle. As soon as Vardia was across the toadstool ring, the Swarm Queen flew back over to her seat under the tree and resumed that casual and unnatural sitting position. Too late, he thought, and stopped the pentagram. I’ll have to accept the spell and break it- ” The Swarm Queen looked thoughtful for a few minutes. Then, quickly, she looked at the circle. “Be free within the circle,” she said almost casually in that tiny, old-woman’s voice. Bat staggered a few seconds, then caught himself and looked around, surprised. He saw the others and looked amazed, “Brazil! Vardia! Wuju! How’d you get here?” he asked in a puzzled tone. Wuju looked around strangely at the assemblage. She saw Brazil and went over to him. “Nathan!” she said fearfully- “What’s happening?” Vardia looked around and barely whispered, “What a strange dream.” Bat whirled, spied the Swarm Queen, and started to walk toward her. He got to the circle, and suddenly couldn’t make his feet move. He napped his wings for a takeoff, but didn’t go off the ground. “What the hell is this?” Bat asked strangely. “Last I remember I was flying near the shoreline when I heard this strange musicand now I wake up here!” “These creatures seem to” Wuju began, but the Swarm Queen suddenly snapped, “Stand mute!” and the Dillian’s voice died in midsentence. The Swarm Queen glanced up at the barely visible sky. “There’s a storm coming,” she said more to herself than to anyone. “It will not be over until after dawn. Therefore, the simplest thing should be the best.” She looked up at the buzzing swarm, then flipped over and walked into the circle. Brazil could feel the power building up. The Swarm Queen flipped afpin lightly, and sat on the side of a toadstool, inside the ring, forelegs behind her to steady her.
“What shall we do with the interlopers?” she asked the swarm. “Make them fit,” came a collective answer from the swarm. “Make them fit,” the Swarm Queen echoed. “And how can we make them fit when we have so little time?” “Transform them, transform them,” suggested the swarm, The Swarm Queen’s gaze fell on Wuju, who al-most withered at the look and clung to Brazil. “You wish him?” the Swarm Queen asked acidly. “You shall have him!” Her eyes burned like coa!, rind the humming of the swarm intensified to an almost unbearable intensity. Where Wuju had been, there was suddenly a doe, slightly smaller and sleeker than Brazil’s stag. The doe looked around at the lights, confused, and then leaned down and munched a little grass, oblivious to the proceedings. The Swarm Queen turned to Vardia. “Plant, you want so much to act the animal, so shall you be!” The buzzing increased again, and where Vardia had stood was another doe, identical to the one that had been Wuju. “It’s easier to use something local, that you know,” the Swarm Queen remarked to no one in particular. “I have to hurry.” She turned her gaze on Cousin Bat. “You like them, be like them!” she ordered, and Bat, too, turned into a doe identical in every way to the other two. Now she turned to Brazil. “Stags should not think,” she said. “It is unnatural. Here is your harem, stag. Dominate them, rule them, but as what you are, not what you pretend to be!” The swarm increased again, and Brazil’s mind went blank, dull, unthinking. “And finally,” pronounced the Swarm Queen, “so that so complex a spell, done so hurriedly, does not break, I bequeath to the four the fear and terror of all but their own kind, and of ail things which disturb the beasts. They are free of the circle.”
Brazil suddenly bolted into the dark, the other three following quickly behind. There was the rumble of thunder, the flash of lightning. “The circle is broken,” intoned the Swarm Queen. “We go to shelter,” responded the swarm as it dis-persed. The other creatures came alive, some gibbering insanely, others howling, as the lightning and thunder increased. ” The Swarm Queen flipped and walked quickly over to her tree and into the base. “Sloppy job,” she muttered to herself. “I bate to rush.” The rain started to fall. Even though it was a sloppy spell, it took Brazil almost a full day and night to break it. The flaw was a simple one: at no time during the encounter had the Swarm Queen heard him talk, and it just hadn’t occurred to her that he could. The input-output de-vice on the translator continued to operate, although it did little good for the rest of the night in the storm and throughout the next day, when the nocturnal Faerie were asleep. When the creatures emerged at nightfall, though, they talked. The conversations were myriad, complex, and involved actions and concepts alien to his experience, but they did form words and sentences which the transceiver mounted in his antlers delivered to his brain. These words, although mostly nonsense, gave a continual input that banged at his mind, stimulated it, gave it something to grab onto. Slowly self-awareness returned, concepts formed, forced their way through the spell’s barrier. That spark inside of him that had always ensured his preservation would not let him lapse or quit. Concepts battered at his brain, forcing word pictures in his mind, building constructs which burst into his consciousness. It was like a war against an invisible barrier, something inside him attacking, always beating at the blocks that had been placed. Suddenly, he was through. Memories crowded
back, and with them came reason. He felt exhausted he was totally worn out from the struggle, yet he knew that precious time had been wasted, and more roadblocks raised. He looked around in the dark. It was very hard to see anything except the flitting shapes of the Faerie, but he knew that he must be deep inside the hex. He looked around. Asleep nearby were the three transformed members of the expedition, absolutely identical even to scent. The Swarm Queen had been in a hurry and had used but a single model. Realizing there was little that could be done until shortly before dawn, lest he give himself away to some curious Faerie by acting undeerlike, he relaxed and waited for the sky to lighten. With daylight came safety, and the freedom to move. He spent over an hour trying to make some kind of contact with the three does, but their stares were blank, their actions totally natural. The spell could not be broken from without as far as they were concerned. For a while he considered abandoning them; they would follow him to the border, of course, but would be unable to cross it. The stakes certainly warranted it; logic dictated it. But he knew he couldn’t do it. Not without a good try. He started off, wishing he could trace the wild, crazy route they had used to get where they were-He decided that the best thing to do would be to head due east; no matter what, that would bring him to the ocean sooner or later, and from there he could get his bearings. He moved with the swiftness that only a deer could have in the forest, and the three followed him loyally, almost slavishly-Pan of the spell, he guessed. The Swarm Queen had bound Wuju to him, and then duplicated her transformation precisely on the other two, which simplified things a great deal. He made the ocean before nightfall, but had no way of telling if he were north or south of the Faerie
colony he sought. He decided that he had accomplished enough for one day, and that the next day would tell the story. He awoke later than intended, the sunlight already glaring down on the ocean, causing diamond-like facets to cover the surface, Which way? he wondered. Am I north or south of our last position? He finally decided to go north; at worst, this ^ould take him to the Ghlmon border and where he had to go. If he didn’t run into the place he was looking for, he would have to abandon them for a while and re-turn later to straighten the matter out. About an hour up the beach he came upon the packs, still sitting in the sand where they had camped the first night. They were wet and sand-blown, but still intact. As the does romped in the surf or sniffed at the strange-smelling things in the sand, he worked fever-ishly, cursing his lack of hands. It took ten minutes to open a pack, and several more to work one of the flame guns that Vardia had carried out of the pack. The next task was somehow to pick it up. He finally managed a grip of sorts with his mouth. It was awkward, and he dropped it many times as he went back into the forest, but each time he patiently turned it just right and handled it again. It seemed like hours getting the flame pistol through that forest, but at last he came upon the clearing of ominously familiar character: the toadstool ring and the great tree. It was too well etched in his memory to be simply a similar place of some other swarm, and his deer’s nose confirmed the proper scents. Carefully he searched for a large, uneven rock, and with great difficulty rolled it to within a meter of the hollow area that was the Swarm Queen’s throne, at the base of the big tree. He managed to prop the flame gun sideways against the rock, so that it was mostly upright and pointed at the hollow. Satisfied, he went and got sticks from the forest and built a crude pentagram around the pistol and rock. Next he positioned himself so his forelegs were on ei-ther side of the pistol, the left one serving as a back-272
stop for the grip area which also contained the gas, the right one just to the right of the trigger. He nodded to himself in satisfaction, and briefly checked the sun and the location of his three does, all of whom were idly grazing nearby. About two hours to sundown, he thought. Just about right. He brought his right foreleg to bear on the trigger. The pistol jiggled but remained in the right general direction. There was a hiss of escaping gas, but no flame. He released it, realizing that the flint igniter mechanism would require a hard and quick Jerk on the trigger. He knew that, if he did that, he might lose control of the gun, even have it suddenly jump up and bum him. He sighed and made up his mind. Tensely, he planted his left foreleg against the gun butt and his right just touching the large, unguarded trigger made for Czillian tentacles. Suddenly, in one sudden motion, he pulled against the trigger hard with his right leg. It jumped a little, but stayed firm. And remained unignited. Steeling himself, he tried again. Once more it failed to ignite, because he had flinched and not pushed the trigger straight back. He wondered idly if he could succeed, given his physical limitations. If not, he would just have to abandon his companions. He tried one more time, using extra force. The pistol ignited, but the thing almost jerked out of his precarious hold. Carefully, without releasing the trigger, he gingerly managed to point the thing back in the general direction of the tree. Just to the left of the tree the area was smoldering, some of it still afire. Now the jet of flame focused on the tree hollow, and he could see the bark smolder and catch, the fire al-most enveloping the tree like something liquid and liv-ing. Smoke billowed up, the scent disturbing to his nostrils. Birds screeched, and forest animals ran for cover in panic. Suddenly he heard what he had been waiting for: a tiny, weak voice coughing. The Swarm Queen had more than one exit avail-273
able, and she crawled dizzily out of the top of the tree trunk, near the point where the four main branches went off. She was blind, sick, and groping feebly, starting to make her way up the side of one of the branches. “Swarm Queen!” he called, not letting up on the flame. “Shall I burn you or will you meet my conditions under pain of reversal?” “Who are you that dares do this to me?” she’managed, coughing and groaning in fear and misery as she maintained her dignity. “He who was wronged by you, and he who drove your ancestors off distant planets!” he replied boldly, but idly and somewhat fearfully wondering how much more of a charge the pistol had. “Do you yield under pain of reversal?” The large bug hadn’t made it up the branch, almost overcome by the smoke and feeling the flames. Brazil was suddenly afraid she would fall into the fire before she yielded. “II yield!” she called. “Turn off your cursed fire!” “Say the whole thing!” he demanded. “I yield under pain of reversal, dammitall!” she screamed nervously. At that moment the charge ran out of the gun and it sputtered and died. Brazil let go, and looked at it strangely. A few seconds longer, he thought, and I’d have lost. “Get me down before I burn!” screamed the Swarm Queen, who was still very much in danger. The flames continued to smolder in the tree and around the trunk, although without the added fire they were slowly turning to glowing red against the charred and blackened side. “Jump straight ahead and fly to the ground,” he told her. “You know the distance.” She could have done so before, of course, but the heat and fire always induced panic in these creatures. She landed shakily and sat, trembling, for several minutes. Finally she regained her composure and peered up at him with those old and evil semihuman
eyes, squinting. She was not totally blind in the light, but her vision was quite poor. “You’re the deer!” she gasped in amazement. “How did you break the spell? How do you talk at all?” “Your spells cannot hold me for long,” he told her. “That which inhabits this simple vessel is your superior. But it does bind my companions, and it is for their sake that I charge you.” “You have three charges only!” she spat, looking at the still smoking, blackened tree. “Consider them carefully, lest I kill you for what you have done to my home and my honor!” “Honor be damned,” Brazil replied disgustedly. “If you had any, there would have been no need to invoke a reversal. Remember that well. Should you default on the charges, it is I who will be Swarm Queen and you who will be a deer!” “State the charges, alien,’* she responded in a bitter tone. “They will be honored.” Brazil thought carefully. “One,” he said. “My three companions and I shall cross the border into Ghlmon, traversing the distance from here to there without spell or any form of interference that would cause danger or delay.” The Swarm Queen’s eyebrows rose, and she said, “Done.” “Two: the spells shall be removed from my three companions, and they shall regain all mental faculties, all memory, and shall be restored to their original forms.” “Done,” the Swarm Queen agreed. “And the third?’* “You shall cast a spell to be effective when we cross the Ghlmon border that will erase all memories, effects, and signs of us four having been here, including those from your own mind.” “A pleasure,” she said. “So shall it be when darkness falls.” “Until midnight at the Well of Souls,” he responded. And she was stuck. Should any of the conditions cease to function or be unfulfilled, the original spell would bounce back at her. Nightfall came in about two hours. There were still
some wisps of smoke from the tree, but little else to show the struggle. When the swarm emerged from its thousands of holes in the surrounding trees, it found the queen disturbed, but they sensed that a battle had been fought and that she had lost. Since their power could only be focused through her, they had to go along. The three does had scattered during the fire, but all had timidly returned by dusk and were herde4 into the toadstool circle without much difficulty. The Swarm Queen’s eyes burned with hatred, but she followed orders. As the swarm gathered in the cir-cle and hummed its strange music, she pronounced the first charge, for their safe conduct, then turned to the second. “The three within the circle shall be restored in mind and body to their original selves!” she pronounced, and as she said it, it was so. Brazil gasped, cursing himself for a fool in remembering the literalness of charges. In the circle stood Vardia, not as a Czillian, but as she had looked those first days on his shiphuman, about twelve years old, thirty or so kilos, with shaven head. Next to her, looking even more confused, was not the Dillian Wuju but Wu Julee, obviously a healthy and unaddicted one, but about forty-five kilos, long black hair, and decent-sized but saggy breasts. And there was a stranger there. He was a boy, about Vardia’s apparent physical age, with short hair and prepubescent genitals, about 150 centimeters tall, muscled, and fairly well proportioned. “Well, Master Varnett,” Brazil said, bemused. “Out of the woodwork early, I guess.”
Ekh*l THE DIVINER AND THE REL AND THE SLELCRONIAN in Vardia’s body surveyed the towering, snow-capped mountains ahead of them. The mountains, majestic and all-encompassing, ran right to the sea. A small beach was visible, composed of blackish sand. Out into the water they could see sea stacks, the remnants of long-extinct volcanic activity. The sky was a leaden gray, and the air was terribly cold off the ocean. “Clouds will be moving in soon,” Hain remarked be-hind them. “Rain or snow likely all along the beach. We’d better get started.” “Can we make it without going into the mountains?” the Slelcronian asked apprehensively. “What if we run out of beach?” “Friend Hain, here, can cling to the sheer walls if necessary,” The Rel replied confidently, “and she can ferry us around that way. No, this looks like rough, slow going but one of the easiest steps. The border with Yrankhs is just a few meters beyond the waterline, so we’re not likely to meet the denizens of Ekh’la kind of flying ape, I believe. The Yrankhs are not ones we’d like to meetflesh-eaters allbut they are water-breathers and not likely to bother us unless we decide to swim.” “The fog’s coming in,” Skander noted. “We’d better get going.” “Agreed,” responded The Rel, and they started down to the beach. It was easy going, relatively speaking. The beach did disappear for several miles at one point or another, but although it ate up a lot of time, there was no problem in Hain ferrying them across one by one.
After almost three days, including delays from both terrain and a cold, bitter rain that stopped them for several hours, they were about three-quarters of the way to the Ghlmon border. The only living things they had encountered were seabirds in the millions, crying out in rage at the intruders. Once or twice they thought they caught sight of something huge flying about the mountamtops on great white wings, but the creatures never came close and no one was sure. At a particularly long break in the beach, which took Hain over an hour to negotiate each way, the only incident of the slow passage occurred. Hain set off first with the Slelcronian and the supplies, leaving The Diviner and The Rel alone with Skander on the beach. Skander sat munching some dried fish, apparently unconcerned about the pace or the rough portage ahead. Then, satisfied that Hain was out of sight and hearing along the rocky cliff, the Umiau looked up at The Rel. It was hard to tell the front from the back of the creature even if she knew the Northerner had a front or back. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, she started edging down toward the nearby ocean breakers. Less than five meters from the water. The Rel noticed, and started coming toward Skander at a surprisingly fast speed. “Stop!** the creature called. “Or we shall stop you!” Skander hesitated a fateful moment, then made a break for the beckoning waves. The Diviner’s glowing, winking lights became extremely intense, and something shot out from the globe, striking with a loud crash just in front of the mermaid. Skander rolled but did not stop. Another bolt shot out, striking Skander in the back, and she gave a cry then went limp, the water actually touching her outstretched arm. The body was motionless, eyes staring, but the sharp rise and fall of the chest showed that she lived. The Rel glided up to the creature and halted next to the body. “I wondered just how long that mind of yours would be controlled by that silly hypnotism,*’ it said in its
even, toneless voice. “But you forgot the Slelcronian lesson. Don’t worryyou will be able to move soon. A fraction more voltage and your heart would have stopped, though. The only reason that you live is that we need you. The same for the othersHain for transportation, the Slelcronian because its powers might be useful in a pinch. Now, you’ll be coming around shortly. But remember this! If you escape you are of no use to me. If we must choose between losing you and killing you, you are most surely dead. Now, you may movethe correct way. And shall we say nothing of this to our companions, eh?” Skander surrendered, as movement returned. She still felt numb, but not merely of body. The Rel continued in control, and she had no doubt that she was trapped. Hain returned in a little over two hours, and, after a short rest, was able to handle the two of them. “We’re almost there,” the great insect told them. “You can see the damned place from the last stretch of beach. It looks like a piece of hell itself.” Hain was right. Ghlmon looked like a place one would run from, not to. The shoreline curved off to the northwest, and the land of Ghlmon started abruptly, the last of the Ekh’l mountains just slightly inching into the new hex. It was a land of blowing sand, dunes ranging in all directions right down to the sea. Outside of the ocean, there was no sign of water, vegetation, or any break in the oranges and purples of the swirling sand. “You really would have to be crazy to go there willingly, wouldn’t you?” Hain said slowly, more to herself than to the others. “No water at all,” Skander sighed. “No soil, nothing but sand,” the Slelcronian added unhappily. “The first truly pleasant place we’ve seen in the South,” said The Rel. Sander turned to The Rel. “Well, 0 leader, how do we proceed?” she asked sarcastically. “We keep to the coast,” the Northerner responded casually. “Hain can continue to catch fish. The Slelcronian. will have to go without vitamins for a day or
two, but it will get plenty of sun. Better water in that stream back there,” The Rel told the plant creature. While the Slelcronian did so, Skander asked, “What about you, Rel? Or don’t you eat?” “Of course we eat,” The Rel replied. “Silicon. What else?” In a few minutes, they crossed the border. The wind was close to forty kilometers per hour, the temperature around forty degrees Celsius. It was like going from midwinter into the worst day of summer, and the swirling sand bit deeply into all of them. They were still within sight of the Ekh’l mountains when they had to stop for the day. Skander collapsed on the hot sand and shook her head exhaustedly. “What kind of creatures could possibly live in this hell?” she mused. Almost as if to answer the question, a tiny head popped out of the sand near them. Suddenly, it leaped out of the sand, revealing a small, two-legged dinosaur, about a meter high, with short, stubby arms terminating in tiny but very human hands. It had a very long tail which seemed to balance it. It was a darker green than the Czillian, but this was broken by what appeared to be a tiny, rust-colored vest and jacket. The creature came up to them and stopped. Its flat head and raised eyes set on each side of a spade-shaped mouth surveyed them with quick, darting motions. Suddenly it leaned back on its tail in a relaxed posture. “I say, old fellows,” it said suddenly in a casual tenor that seemed to come from deep inside its throatsuggesting a translator in use“Are you the good guys or the bad guys?”