John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“Some of what you say is true,” nodded the traveler.

“Some? Only some? What then is false? Tell me! And it had better be correct, or else you shall go to join that stupid chief priest who finally tired my patience! You can see what became of him!”

The traveler glanced up and spread his hands. Indeed, it was perfectly clear-what with the second mouth, the red-oozing one, the priest had lately acquired in his throat.

“Well, first of all,” he said, “there does exist a way to bring the idol to life. And second, yes, it will then destroy the enemies of this city. But third, they do not hide in far corners of the land. They are here in Acromel.”

“Say you so?” Duke Vaul frowned. “You may be right, for, knowing what a powerful weapon we wield against them-or shall wield, when we unknot this riddle-they may well be trying to interfere with, our experiments. Good! Go on!”

“How so, short of demonstrating what I mean?”

“You?” The duke jerked forward on his throne, clutching the ebony arms so tightly his knuckles glistened white. “You can bring the idol to life?”

The traveler gave a weary nod. All the laughter had gone out of him.

“Then do it!” roared Duke Vaul. “But remember! If you fail, a worse fate awaits you than my chief priest suffered!”

“As you wish, so be it,” sighed the traveler. With his staff he made a single pass in the air before the altar, and the idol moved.

Agshad in the attitude of devotion did not open his clasped hands. But Lacrovas swung his sword, and Duke Vaul’s bearded head sprang from his shoulders.

Pellidin let fall the three crushed persons from his hand and seized the headless body. That he squeezed instead, and the cupped hands of Agshad in the posture of accepting sacrifice filled with the blood of the duke, expressed like juice from a ripe fruit.

After that the idol stepped down from the altar and began to stamp on the priests.

Thoughtfully, having made his escape unnoticed in the confusion, the traveler took to the road again.

Perhaps there would be nothing worse to behold during this journey than what he had observed in Acromel. Perhaps there would be something a million times as bad. It was to establish such information that he undertook his journeyings.

In Kanish-Kulya they were fighting a war, and each side was breathing threatenings and slaughter against the other.

“Oh that fire would descend from heaven and eat up our enemies!” cried the Kanishmen.

“Oh that the earth would open and swallow up our enemies!” cried the Kulyamen.

“As you wish,” said the traveler, “so be it.”

He tapped the ground with his staff, and Fegrim who was pent in a volcano answered that tapping and heaved mightily. Afterwards, when the country was beginning to sprout again-for lava makes fertile soil- men dug up bones and skulls as they prepared the ground for planting.

On the shores of Lake Taxhling, men sat around their canoes swapping lies while they waited for a particular favorable star to ascend above the horizon. One lied better than all the rest.

But he lied not as his companion lied-to pass the time, to amuse each other harmlessly. He lied to feed a consuming vanity hungrier than all the bellies of all the people in the villages along the shore of the lake, who waited day in, day out, with inexhaustible patience for their menfolk to return with their catch.

Said the braggart, “If only I could meet with such another fish as I caught single-handed in Lake Moroho when I was a stripling of fifteen! Then you would understand the fisherman’s art! Alas, though”-with a sigh-“there are only piddling fish in Lake Taxhling!”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, who had accepted the offer of food by their fire. And the next dawn the boaster came home screaming with excitement about the huge fish he had caught, as great as the one he had taken in Lake Moroho. His companions crowded around to see it-and the mountains rang with their laughter, because it was smaller than some others they themselves had taken during the night.

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