The Hour of the Gate Spellsinger #2. Alan Dean Foster

Jon-Tom reeled dizzily at the top of the steps. All wrong,

he knew. Out of place, out of time. He was not standing

before the entrance to this strange Council Building in a city

named Polastrindu. A five-foot tall otter in peaked green cap

and bright clothing was not eying him anxiously, wondering if

he was about to witness a fainting spell. A bespectacled

bipedal turtle was not staring sourly at him, waiting for him

to regain his senses so they could be about the business of

saving the world. An enormous, exceedingly ugly black bat

was not hovering nearby, muttering darkly to himself about

dirty pots and pans and the lack of workman’s comp a

famulus enjoyed while in a wizard’s employ.

Sadly, saying these things were not did not transform the


” ‘Ere now, mate,” the otter Mudge inquired, “don’t you

be sick all over us, wot?”


Alan Dean Foster

“Sorry,” Jonathan Thomas Meriweather said apologetical-

ly. “Oral exams always make me queasy.”

“Be of good cheer, my young friend,” said the wizard

Clothahump. He tapped his plastron. “I shall do the neces-

sary talking. You are here to add credence to what I will say,

not to add words. Come now. Time dies and the world draws

nearer disaster.” He ambled through the portal. As he had

now for many weeks, the transposed Jon-Tom could only

long for his own vanished world, hope desperately that once

this crisis had passed Clothahump could return him to it, and

follow the turtle’s lead.

Inside they marched past scribes and clerks and other

functionaries, all of whom turned to look at them in passing.

The hall itself was wood and stone, but the bark-stripped logs

mat supported this structure had been polished to a high

luster. Rich reds faded into bright, almost canary-yellow

grains. The logs had the sheen of marble pillars.

They turned past two clusters of arguing workers. The

arguing stopped as they passed. Apparently everyone in

Polastrindu now knew who they were, or at least that they

controlled the dragon who’d almost bumed down the city the

previous night.

Up a pair of staircases they climbed. Clothahump puffed

hard to keep up with the rest. Then they passed through a set

of beautiful black and yellow buckeye-buri doors and entered

a small room.

There was a single straight, long table on a raised dais. It

curved at either end, forming horns of wood. To the right a

small bespectacled margay sat behind a drafting table. He

wore brown shirt, shorts, boots, and an odd narrow cap. The

quill pen he was writing with was connected by wooden arms

to six similar pens hovering over a much larger table and six

separate scrolls. It was a clever mechanism enabling the

scribe to make an original and six copies simultaneously. An



assistant, a young wolf cub, stood nearby. He was poised to

change the scrolls or unroll them as the occasion demanded.

Seated behind the raised table was the Grand Council of

the City, County, and Province of Greater Polastrindu, the

largest and most influential of its kind in the warmlands.

Jon-Tom surveyed the councillors. From left to right, he

saw first a rather foppishly clad prairie dog draped in thin

silks, lace, neck chains, and a large gold earring in his right

ear. Next came a corpulent gopher in pink, wearing the

expected dark wraparound glasses. This redoubtable female

likely represented the city’s nocturnal citizens. His eyes

passed impatiently over most of the others.

There were only two truly striking personalities seated

behind the table. At its far right end sat a tall, severely attired

marten. If not actually a military uniform, his dress was very

warlike. It was black and blue and there were silver epaulets

crusting his shoulders and chevronlike ripples on his sleeves.

Double bandoliers of small stilettoes formed a lethal “X”

across his chest. His clothing was so spotless Mudge whispered

that it must have a dirt-repellent spell cast on it.

His posture matched his attire. He sat rigidly erect in his

low chair, his high torso not bending even slightly across the

table. His attitude was also much more attentive than that of

any of the other council members.

Jon-Tom tried to analyze their states of mind as they took

stock of the tiny group waiting before the long table. Their

expressions conveyed everything from fear to amusement.

Only the marten seemed genuinely interested.

The other imposing figure on the dais sat in the middle of

the table. He was flanked by two formal perches on which

rested the representatives of Polastrindu’s arboreal population.

One was a large raven. At the moment he was picking his

beak with a silver pick held easily in his left foot. He wore a

red, green, and ocher kilt and matching vest. On the other


Alan Dean Foster

perch was the smallest intelligent inhabitant of the warmlands

Jon-Tom had yet encountered. The hummingbird was no

larger man a man’s head. It had a long beak, exquisite

plumage, and heavily jeweled kilt and vest. It might have

flown free from the treasure vaults of Dresden.

Gold trim lined the kilt, and a necklace of the finest gold

filigree hung around the ruby-throated neck. He also wore a

tiny cap similar to an Australian bush hat. It was secured on

the iridescent head with a gold strap.

Jon-Tom marveled at the hat. Slipping it on over that

curving beak would be a considerable project, unless the strap

joined at a tiny buckle he couldn’t see.

All inhabitants and stretches of the province were thus

represented. They were dominated by the motionless figure of

the marten on the far right, and by the stocky individual in

their center.

It was that citizen who commanded everyone’s attention as

he pushed back his chair and stood. The badger wore specta-

cles similar to Clothahump’s. His fur was silvered on his

back, indicating age.

He had very neatly trimmed claws. Despite his civilized

appearance Jon-Tom was grateful for the manicure, knowing

the reputation badgers had for ferocity and tenacity in a fight.

Deep-set black eyes stared out at them. He wore a stiff,

high-collared suit marked only by a discreet gold flower on

his lapel. One paw slammed down hard on the table. Jon-Tom

hadn’t known what to expect, but the instant angry outburst

was not the greeting he’d hoped for.

“Now what do you mean by bringing this great narsty

fire-breathing beastie into the city limits and burning down

the harbor barracks^, not to mention disrupting the city’s

commerce, panicking its citizenry, and causing disruption and

general dismay among the populace?!?” The voice rose



immediately to an angry pitch as he shook a thick warning

finger down at them.

‘ ‘Give me one reason why I should not have the lot of you

run into the lowest jails!”

Jon-Tom looked at Mudge in dismay. It was Clothahump

who spoke patiently. “We have come to Polastrindu, friend,

in order to—”

“I am Mayor and Council President Wuckle Three-Stripe!”

snorted the badger, “and you will address me as befits my

titles and position!”

“We are here,” continued the wizard, unperturbed an<

unimpressed, “on a mission of great consequence to every

inhabitant of the civilized world. It would behoove you t(

listen closely to what I am about to tell you.”

“Yeah,” said Pog, who had settled on one of the numerous

empty perches ringing the room, “and ifya don’t, our gooc

buddy da dragon will bum your manure pile of a rat-warrer

down around your waxy ears!”

“Shut up, Pog.” Clothahump glared irritably at the bat.

While he was doing so the unctuous gopher leaned ovei

and spoke to the badger in a delicate yet matronly voice.

“The creature is undiplomatic, Mayor-President, but he has a


“I will not be blackmailed, Pevmora.” He looked down

the other way and asked in a less belligerent tone, “What do

you say, Aveticus? Do we disembowel these intruders now, 01


The marten’s reply was so quiet Jon-Tom had to strain to

make it out. Nevertheless, the creature conveyed an impres-

sion of cold power. As would any student interested in the

law, Jon-Tom noticed that all the other council members

immediately ceased picking their mouths, chattering to each

other, or whatever they’d been doing, in order now to pay



Alan Dean Poster

“I think we should listen to what they have to say to us.

Not only because of the threat posed by the dragon, against

whose breath I will not expend my soldiers and whom you

must admit we can do nothing about, but also because they

speak as visitors who mean us nothing but good will. I cannot

yet pass on the importance of what they may say, but I think

we can safely accept their professed motivations. Also, they

do not strike me as fools.”

“Sensibly put, youngster,” said Clothahump.

The marten nodded once, barely, and ignored the fact that

he was anything but a cub. He smiled as imperceptibly as

he’d nodded, showing sharp white teeth.

“Of course, good turtle, if you are wasting our time or do

indeed mean us harm, then we will be forced to take other


Clothahump waved the comment away. “You give us credit

for being other than fools. I return the compliment. Now

then, let us have no more talk of motivations and time, for I

have none of the last to spare.” He launched into a long and

by now familiar explanation of the danger from the Plated

Folk and their preparations, from their massed armies to their

still unknown new magic.

When he’d finished the badger looked as bellicose as

before. “The Plated Folk, the Plated Folk! Every time some

idiot seer panics, it’s ‘the Plated Folk are coming, the Plated

Folk are coming!'” He resumed his seat and spoke sarcastically.

“Do you think we can be panicked by tales and rumors

that mothers use to scare their cubs into bed? Do you think

we believe every claim laid before us by every disturbed

would-be leader? What do you think we are, stranger?”

“Stubborn,” replied Clothahump patiently. “I assure you

on my honor as a wizard and member in good standing of the

Guild for nearly two hundred years that everything I have just



told you is true.” He indicated Jon-Tom, who until now had

been silently watching and listening.

“Last night, this young spellsinger actually encountered an

envoy of the Plated Folk. He was here to foment trouble

among local human citizens, and according to my young

associate he was well disguised.”

That brought some of the more insipid members of the

council wide awake. “One of them… here, in the city …!”

“He was attempting to begin war between the species,”

reiterated the wizard. More mutters of disbelief from those

behind the long table.

“He wanted me to join with his puppets,” Jon-Tom explained.

“The humans he’d recruited say the Plated Folk have prom-

ised to make them the overlords and administrators of all the

warmlands the insects conquer. I didn’t believe it for a

minute, of course, but I think I’ve studied more about such

matters than those poor deluded people. I don’t think they

have many followers. Nevertheless, the word should be

spread. Just letting it be known that you know what the Plated

Folk are trying to do should discourage potential recruits to

their cause.”

The muttering among the councillors changed from ner-

vous to angry. “Where is he?” shouted the hummingbird,

suddenly buzzing over the table to halt and hover only inches

from Jon-Tom’s face. “Where is the insect ofifal, and his

furless dupes?” Tiny, furious eyes stared into larger human

ones. “I will put out their eyes myself. I shall…”

“P&rch down, Millevoddevareen,” said Wuckle Three-Stripe,

the badger. “And control yourself. I will not tolerate anarchy

in the chambers.”

The bird glared back at the Mayor, muttered something

under his breath, and shot back to his seat. His wings

continued to whirr with nervous energy. He forced himself to

calm down by preening them with his long bill.


Alan Dean Foster

“Such fringe fanatics have always existed among the

species,” the Mayor said thoughtfully. “Humans have no

comer on racial prejudice. These you speak of will be warned,

but they are of little consequence. When the time for final

choices arrives, common sense takes precedence over emo-

tion. Most people are sensible enough to realize they would

never survive a Plated Polk conquest.” He smiled and his

mask fur wrinkled.

“But no such invasion has ever succeeded. Not in tens of

thousands of years.”

“There is still only one way through Zaryt’s Teeth,”

proclaimed a squirrel, “and that is by way of the Jo-Troom

Pass. Two thousand years ago Usdrett of Osprinspri raised the

Great Wall on the site of his own victory over the Plated

Folk. A wall which has been strengthened and fortified by

successive generations of fighters. The Gate has never been

forced open, and no Plated Folk force has ever even reached

the wall itself. We’ve never let them get that far down the


“They’re too stratified,” added the raven, waving a wing

for emphasis. “Too inflexible in then” methods of battle to

cope with improvisation and change. They prepare to fight

one way and cannot shift quickly enough to handle another.

Why, their last attempt at an invasion was among the most

disastrous of all. Their defeats grow worse with each attack.

Such occasional assaults are good for the warmlands: they

keep the people from complacency and sharpen the skills of

our soldiers. Nor can we be surprised. The permanent Gate

contingent can hold off any sudden attack until sufficient

reinforcements can be gathered.”

“This is no usual invasion,” said Clothahump intently.

“Not only have the Plated Folk prepared more thoroughly

and in greater numbers than ever before, but I have reason to

believe they have produced some terrible new magic to assist



them, an evil we may be unable to counter and whose nature I

have as yet been unable to ascertain.”

“Magic again!” Wuckle Three-Stripe spat at the floor.

“We still have no proof you’re even the sorcerer you claim to

be, stranger. So far I’ve only your word as proof.”

“Are you calling me a liar, sir?”

Concerned that he might have overstepped a trifle, the

Mayor retreated a bit. “I did not say that, stranger. But surely

you understand my position. I can hardly be expected to

alarm the entire civilized warmlands merely at the word of a

single visitor. That is scarcely sufficient proof of what you

have said.”

“Proof? I’ll give you proof.” The wizard’s fighting blood

was up. He considered thoughtfully, then produced a couple

of powders from his plastron. After tossing them on the floor

he raised both hands and turned a slow circle, reciting angrily.

“Cold front, warm front, counteract my affront.

Isobars and isotherms violently descend.

Nimbus, cumulus, poles opposizing,

Ions in a mighty surge my doubters upend!”

A thunderous roar deafened everyone in the room and there

was a blinding flare. Jen-Tom dazedly struggled back to a

standing position to see Clothahump slowly picking himself

up off the floor and readjusting his glasses.

Wuckle Three-Stripe lay on the floor in front of him,

having been blown completely across the council table. His

ceremonial chair was a pile of smoking ash. Behind it a neat

hole had been melted through the thick leaded glass where the

tiny lightning bolt had penetrated. The fact that it was a

cloudless day made the feat all the more impressive.

The Mayor disdained the help of one of the other council-

lors. Brushing himself off and rearranging his clothing, he


Alan Dean Poster

waddled back behind the table. A new chair was brought and

set onto the pile of ash. He cleared his throat and leaned


“We will accept the fact that you are a sorcerer.”

“I’m glad that’s sufficient proof,” said Clothahump with

dignity. “I’m sorry if I overdid it a mite. Some of these old

spells are pretty much just for show and I’m a little rusty with

them.” The scribe had returned to his sextupal duplicator and

was scribbling furiously.

“Plated envoys moving through our city in human dis-

guise,” murmured one of the councillors. “Talk of interspecies

dissension and war, great and strange magic in the council

chambers. Surely this portends unusual events, perhaps even

a radically different kind of invasion.”

The prairie dog leaned across the table, steepling his

fingers and speaking in high-pitched, chirping tones.

“There are many forms of magic, colleagues. While the

ability to conjure thunder and lightning on demand is most

impressive, it differs considerably from divination. Do we

then determine that on the basis of a flash of power we cease

all normal activities and place Polastrindu on war alert?

“Should the call go out on that basis to distant Snarken, to

L’bor and Yul-pat-pomme and all the other towns and cities of

the warmlands? Must we now order farmers to leave their

fields, young men their sweethearts, and bats their nightly

hunts? Commerce will come to a halt and fortunes will be

lost, lives disrupted.

“This is a massive question, colleagues. It must be answered

by more than the words and deeds of one person.” He

gestured deferentially with both hands at Clothahump. “Even

one so clearly versed in the arts of wizardry as you, sir.”

“So you want more proof?” asked Jon-Tom.

“More specific proof, yes, tall man,” said the prairie dog.

“War is no casual matter. I need hardly remind the other



participants of this council,” and he looked the length of the

long table, “that if there is no invasion, no unusual war, then

it is our bodies that will provide fertilizer for next season’s

crops, and not those of our nomadic visitors.” He looked

back out of tiny black eyes at Jon-Tom. “Therefore I would

expect some sympathy for our official positions.”

A mild smattering of applause came from the rest of the

council, except for Millevoddevareen the hummer. He con-

tinued to mutter, “I want those traitorous humans. Put their

damn perverted eyes out!” His colleagues paid him no

attention. Hummingbirds are notoriously more bellicose than


“Then you shall have more conclusive proof,” said the

weary wizard.

“Master?” Pog looked down solicitously at the turtle. “Do

ya really tink anodder spell now, so close ta da odder, is a

good idea?”

“Do I seem so tired then, Pog?”

The bat flapped idly, said without hesitation, “Yeah, ya do,


Clothahump nodded slowly. “Your concern is noted, Pog.

I’ll make a good famulus out of you yet.” The bat smiled,

which in a bat is no prettier than a frown, but it was unusual

to see the pleased expression on the fuzzy face of the

normally hostile assistant.

“I expect to become more tired still.” He looked at

Jon-Tom, then around him at Mudge. “I’d say you represent

the lower orders accurately enough.”

“Thanks,” said the otter drily, “Your Sorceremess.”

“What would it take to convince you of the reality of this


“Well, ifn I were ignorant o’ the real situation and I


Alan Dean Foster

needed a good convincin’,” Mudge said speculatively, “I’d

say it were up t’ you t’ prove it by showin’ me.”

Clothahump nodded. “I thought so.”

“Master… ?” began Pog wamingly.

“It’s all right. I have the capacity, Pog.” His face suddenly

went blank, and he fell into a deep trance. It was not as deep

as the one he had used to summon M’nemaxa, but it impressed

the hell out of the council.

The room darkened, and curtains magically drew them-

selves across the back windows of the chambers. There was

nervous whispering among those seated behind the long table,

but no one moved. The marten Aveticus, Jon-Tom noted, did

not seem in the least concerned.

A cloud formed at the far end of the chamber, an odd cloud

that was flat and rectangular in shape. Images formed inside

the cloud. As they solidified, there were gasps of horror and

dismay from the council members.

Vast ranks of insect warriors marched across the cloud.

They bore aloft an ocean of pikes and spears, swords and

shields. Huge Plated generals directed the common troops,

which stretched across misty plains as far as the eye could

see. Tens of thousands paraded across that cloud.

As the view shifted and rolled, there was anxious chatter

from the council. “They seem better armed than before… look

how purposefully they drill…. You can feel the confidence

in them . . . never saw that before. .. . The numbers, the


The scene changed. Stone warrens and vast structures slid

past in review. A massive, bulbous edifice began to come into

view: the towering castle of Cugluch.

Abruptly the view changed to one of dark clouds, fluttered,

and vanished. There was a thump, the cloud dissipated,

together with the view, and light returned to the room.

Clothahump was sitting down on the floor, shaking his



head. Pog was hovering above him, fumbling with a vial. The

wizard took a long sip of the liquid within, shook his head

once more, and wiped the back of his mouth with an arm.

With the bat’s help he stood and smiled shakily at Jon-Tom.

“Not a bad envisioning. Couldn’t get to the castle, though.

Too far, and the inhibitory spells are too strong. Lost the

damn vertical hold.” He started to go down, and Jon-Tom

barely got hold of an arm in time to keep the turtle from

slumping back to the floor.

“You shouldn’t have done it, sir. You’re too weak.”

“Had to, boy.” He jerked his head toward the long table.

“Some hardheads up there.”

The councillors were babbling among themselves, but they

fell silent when Clothahump spoke. “I tried to show you the

interior of the castle keep, but its secrets are too well

protected by powerful spells I cannot pierce.”

“Then how do you know this great new magic exists?”

asked the ever skeptical prairie dog.

“I summoned M’nemaxa.”

Mutters of amazement mixed with disbelief and awe.

“Yes, I did even that,” Clothahump said proudly, “though

the consequences of such a conjuration could have been fatal

for me and all those in my care.”

“If you did so once, could you not summon the spirit once

more and leam the true nature of this strange evil you feel

exists in Cugluch?” wondered one of the councillors.

Clothahump laughed gently. “I see there are none here

versed in wizardly lore. A pity no local sorcerer or ess could

have joined us in this council.

“It was remarkable that I was able to conduct the first

conjuration. Were I to try it again I could not bind the

M’nemaxa spirit within restrictive boundaries. It would burst

free. In less than a second I and all around me would be

reduced to a crisp of meat and bone.”

“I withdraw the suggestion,” said the councillor hastily.


Alan Dean Foster

“We must rely on ourselves now,” said Clothahump.

“Outside forces will not save us.”

“I think we should…” began one of the other members.

He fell silent and looked to his left. So did the others.

The marten Aveticus was standing. “I will announce the

mobilization,” he said softly. “The armies can be ready in a

few months’ time. I will contact my counterparts in Snarken

and L’bor, in all the other towns and cities.” He stared evenly

at Clothahump.

“We will meet this threat, sir, with all the force the

warmlands can bring to bear. I leave it to you to counter this

evil magic you speak of. I dislike fighting something I can’t

see. But I promise you that nothing which bleeds will pass

the Jo-Troom Gate.”

“But General Aveticus, we haven’t reached a decision

yet,” protested the gopher.

The marten turned and looked down his narrow snout at his

colleagues. “These visitors,” and he indicated the four strang-

ers standing and watching nearby, “have made their decision.

Based upon what they have said and shown to us, I have

made mine. The armies will mobilize. Whether they do so

with your blessing is your decision. But they will be ready.”

He bowed stiffly toward Clothahump.

“Learned sir, if you will excuse me. I have much work to

do.” He turned and strode out of the room on short but

powerful legs. Ion-Tom watched his departure admiringly.

The marten was someone he would like to know better.

After an uncomfortable pause, the councillors resumed

their conversation. “Well, if General Aveticus has already

decided so easily…”

“That’s right,” said the hummingbird, buzzing above the

table. “Our decision has been made for us. Not by these

people,” and he gestured with a wing, though it was so fast

Jon-Tom couldn’t swear he’d actually noticed the gesture so



much as imagined it, “but by the General. You all know how

conservative he is.

“Now that we are committed, there must be no dissension.

We must act as one mind, one body, to counter the threat.”

He soared higher above the floor.

“I shall notify the air corps of the decision so that we may

begin to coordinate operations with the army. I will also send

out the peregrines with messages to the other cities and towns

that the Plated Folk are again on the march, stronger and

more voracious than ever. This time, brothers and sisters, we

will deal them a defeat, give them a beating so bad they will

not recover for a thousand years!”

Words of assent and a few cheers echoed around the

council chamber. One came from the cub manipulating the

scrolls. His scribe looked at him reprovingly, and the young-

ster settled back down to his paper shuffling as Millevoddevareen

left via an opened window.

“It seems that your appeal has accomplished what you

intended,” said the gopher quietly, preening an eyelash.

Gems sparkled around her thick neck and from the rings on

every finger. “At least among the military-minded among us.

All the world will react to your cry of alarm.” She shook her

head and smiled grimly.

“Heaven help you if your prediction turns out to be less

than accurate.”

“I can only say to that, madam, that I would much rather

be proved inaccurate than otherwise in this matter.” Clothahump

bowed toward her.

There were handshakes and hugs all around as the council-

lors descended from their dais. In doing so, they left behind a

good deal of their pomposity and officiousness.

“We’ll finish the slimy bastards this time!”

“Nothing to worry about… be a good fight!”

There was even grudging agreement from the Mayor, who


Alan Dean Foster

was still irked that General Aveticus hadn’t waited for the

decision of the council before ordering mobilization. But

there was nothing he could do about it now. Given the

evidence Clothahump had so graphically presented, he wasn’t

sure he wanted to try.

“You’ll advise us immediately, sir,” he said to Clothahump,

“if you leam of any changes in plan among the Plated Folk.”

“Of course.”

“Then there remains only the matter of a new and perhaps

more elegant habitation for you until it’s time to march. We

have access to a number of inns for the housing of diplomatic

guests. I suppose you qualify as that. But I don’t know what

we can do with your great flaming friend back in the court-

yard, since he so impolitely burned down his quarters.”

“We’ll take care of him,” Jon-Tbm assured the Mayor.

“Please see that you do,” Wuckle Three-Stripe was recovering

some of his mayoral bearing. “Especially since he’s the only

real danger we’ve been certain of since you’ve appeared

among us.”

With that, he turned to join the animated conversation

taking place among several members of the council.

Once outside the chambers and back in the city hall’s main

corridor Jon-Tom and Mudge took the time to congratulate


“Aye, that were a right fine performance, guv’nor,” said

the otter admiringly. “Cor, you should o’ seen some o’ those

fat faces when you threw that army o’ bugs up at ’em!”

“You’ve done what you wanted to, sir,” agreed Jon-Tom.

“The armies of the warmlands will be ready for the Plated

Folk when they start through the Jo-Troom Pass.”

But the wizard, hands clasped around his back, did not

appear pleased. Jon-Tom frowned at him as they descended

the steps to the city hall courtyard.



“Isn’t that what you wanted, sir? Isn’t that what we’ve

come all this way for?”

“Hmnun? Oh, yes, my boy, that’s what I wanted.” He still

looked discouraged. “I’m only afraid that all the armies of all

the counties and cities and towns of all the warmlands might

not be enough to counter the threat.”

Jon-Tom and Mudge exchanged glances.

“What more can we do?” asked Mudge. “We can’t fighl

with wot we ain’t got. Your Magicalness.”

“No, we cannot, good Mudge. But there may be more than

what we have.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, sor?”

“I won’t rest if there is.”

“Well then, you give ‘er a bit of some thought, guv, and

let us know, won’t you?” Mudge had the distressing feeling

he wasn’t going to be able to return to the familiar, comfort-

able environs of Lynchbany and the Bellwoods quite as soor

as he’d hoped.

“I will do that, Mudge, and I will let you know when ]

inform the others….”



The quarters they were taken to were luxurious compared

to the barracks they’d spent their first night in. Fresh flowers,

scarce in winter, were scattered profusely around the high-

beamed room. They were ensconced in Polastrindu’s finest inn,

and the decor reflected it. Even the ceiling was high enough

so Jon-Tom could stand straight without having to worry

about a lamp decapitating him.

Sleeping quarters were placed around a central meeting

room which had been set aside exclusively for their use.

Jon-Tom still had to duck as he entered the circular chamber.

Caz was leaning back in a chair, ears cocked slightly

forward, a glass held lightly in one paw. The other held a

silver, ornately worked pitcher from which he was pouring a

dark wine into a glass.

ROT sat on one side of him, Talea on the other. All were

chuckling at some private joke. They broke off to greet the



Alan Dean Foster

“Don’t have to ask how it went,” said Talea brightly,

resting her boots on an immaculate couch. “A little while ago

this party of subservient flunkies shows up at the barracks and

tells us rooms have been reserved for us in this gilded hole.”

She sipped wine, carelessly spilled some on a finely woven

carpet. “This style of crusading’s more to my taste, I can tell


“What did you tell them, Jon-Tom?” wondered Flor.

He walked to an open window, rested his palms on the sill,

and stared out across the city.

“It wasn’t easy at first. There was a big, blustery badger

named Wuckle Three-Stripe who was ready to chuck us in jail

right away. It was easy to see how he got to be mayor of as

big and tough a place as Polastrindu. But Clothahump scorched

the seat of his pants, and after that it was easy. They paid

serious attention.

“There was a general named Aveticus who’s got more

common sense than the rest of the local council put together.

As soon as he’d heard enough he took over. The others just

slid along with his opinion. I think he likes us personally, too,

but he’s so cold-faced it’s hard to tell for sure what he’s

thinking. But when he talks everybody listens.”

Down below lay a vast black and purple form coiled in the

shade of a high stone wall. Falameezar was apparently sleep-

ing peacefully in front of the inn stables. The other stable

buildings appeared to be deserted. No doubt the riding lizards

of the hotel staff and its guests had been temporarily boarded


“The armies are already mobilizing, and local aerial repre-

sentatives have been dispatched to carry the word to the other

cities and towns.”

“Well, that’s all right, then,” said Talea cheerfully. “Our

job’s finished. I’m going to enjoy the afterglow.” She fin-

ished her considerable glass of wine.



“Not quite finished.” Clothahump had snuggled into a

low-seated chair across from her couch.

“Not quite, ‘e says,” rumbled Mudge worriedly.

Pog selected a comfortable beam and hung himself above

them. “The master says we got ta seek out every ally we


“But from what has been said, good sir, we are already

notifying all possible allies in the warmlands.” Caz sat up in

his chair and gestured with his glass. Wine pitched and rolled

like a tiny red pond and he didn’t spill a drop.

“So long as the city fathers and mothers have seen fit to

grant us these delightful accommodations, I see no reason

why we should not avail ourselves of the local hospitality.

Polastrindu is not so very far from Zaryt’s Teeth and the Gate

itself. Why not bivouac here until the coming battle? We can

offer our advice to the locals.”

But Clothahump disagreed. “General Aveticus strikes me

as competent enough to handle military preparations. Our

task must be to seek out any additional assistance we can.

You just stated that all possible warmland allies are being

notified. That is so. My thoughts concerned possible allies


“Elsewhere?” Talea sat up and looked puzzled. “There is

no elsewhere.”

“Try tellin’ ‘is nib’s ‘ere that,” said Mudge.

Talea looked curiously at the otter, then back at the wizard.

“I still don’t understand.”

“There is another nation whose aid would be invaluable,”

Clothahump explained energetically. “They are legendary

fighters, and history tells us they despise the Plated Folk as

much as we do.”

Mudge circled a finger near one ear, whispered quietly to

Jon-Tom. “Told you ‘e was vergin’ on the senile. The


Alan Dean Foster

lightnin’ an’ the view conjurin’ ‘as sent him oS t’ balmy


The most unexpected reaction came from Pog, however.

The bat left his beam and hovered nervously overhead, his

eyes wide, his tone fearful.

“No, Master! Don’t tink of it. Don’t!”

Clothahump shrugged. “Our presence here is no longer

required. We would find ourselves lost among the general

staffs of the assembling armies. Why then should we not seek

out aid which could turn the tide of battle?”

Jon-Tom, who had returned from his position by me open

window, listened curiously and wondered at Pog’s sudden


“What kind of allies were you thinking about, sir? I’m

certainly willing to help recruit.” Pog gave him an ugly look.

“I’m talking about the Weavers, of course.”

The violence of the response to this announcement startled

Jon-Tom and Flor.

“Who are these ‘Weavers’?” she asked me wizard.

“They are thought to be the most ferocious, relentless, and

accomplished mountain fighters in all me world, my dear.”

“Notice he does not say ‘civilized’ world,” said Caz

pointedly. Even his usually unruffled demeanor had been

mussed by me wizard’s shocking pronouncement. “I would

not disagree with that appraisal of Weaver fighting ability,

good sir,” continued the rabbit, his nose twitching uncontrollably.

“And what you say about them hating the Plated Folk is also

most likely true. Unfortunately, you neglect the likely possi-

bility that they also despise us.”

“That is more rumor and bedtime story than fact, Caz.

Considering the circumstances, they might be quite willing to

join with us. We do not know for certain that they hate us.”

“That’s for sure,” said Talea sardonically, “because few

who’ve gone toward their lands have ever come back.”



“That’s because no one can get across the Teeth,” Mudge

said assuredly. ” ‘Ate us or not don’t matter. Probably none

of them that’s tried reachin’ Weaver lands ‘as ever reached

’em. There ain’t no way across the Teeth except through the

Gate and then the Pass, and the Weavers, if I recall my own

bedtimey stories aright, live a bloody good ways north o’ the


“There is another way,” said Clothahump quietly. Mudge

gaped at him. “It is also far from here, far from the Gate, far

to the north. Far across the Swordsward.”

“Cross the Swordsward!” Talea laughed in disbelief. “He

is crazy!”

“Across the great Swordsward,” the sorcerer continued

patiently, “lies the unique cataract known as the Sloomaz-

ayor-la-WeentIi, in the language of the Icelands in which it

arises. It is The-River-That-Eats-Itself, also called the River

of Twos, also the Double-River. In the language and knowl-

edge of magic and wizardry, it is known as the SchizoStream.”

“A schizoid river?” Jon-Tom’s thoughts twisted until the

knot hurt. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“If you know the magical term, then you know what you

say is quite true, Jon-Tom. The Sloomaz-ayor-la-WeentIi is

indeed the river that makes no sense.”

“Neither does traveling down it, if I’m following your

meaning correctly,” said Caz. Clothahump nodded. “Does

not The-River-That-Eats-Itself flow through the Teeth into

something no living creature has seen called The Earth’s

Throat?” Again the wizard indicated assent.

“I see.” Caz ticked the relevant points off on furry fingers

as he spoke. “Then all we have to do is cross the Swordsward,

find some way of navigating an impossible river, enter what-

ever The Earth’s Throat might be, counter whatever dangers

may lie within the mountains themselves, reach the Scuttleteau,

on which dwell the Weavers, and convince them not only that


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we come as friends but that they should help us instead of

eating us.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Clothahump approvingly.

Caz shrugged broadly. “A simple task for any superman.”

He adjusted his monocle. “Which I for one am not. I am

reasonably good at cards, less so at dice, and fast of mouth,

but I am no reckless gambler. What you propose, sir, strikes

me as the height of folly.”

“Give me credit for not being a fool with my own life,”

countered Clothahump. “This must be tried. I believe it can

be done. With my guidance you will all survive the journey,

and we will succeed.” There was a deep noise, halfway

between a chuckle and a belch. Clothahump threw the hang-

ing famulus a quick glare, and Pog hurriedly looked innocent.

“I’ll go, of course,” said Jon-Tom readily.

The others gazed at him in astonishment. “Be you daft

too, mate?” said Mudge.

“Daft my ass.” He looked down at the otter. “I have no


“I’ll go,” announced Flor, smiling magnificently. “I love

a challenge.”

“Oh, very well.” Caz fitted his monocle carefully, his pink

nose still vibrating, “but it’s a fool’s game to draw and roll a

brace of twelves after a munde-star pays out.”

“I suppose I’ll come too,” said Talea with a sigh, “be-

cause I’ve no more good sense than the rest of you.”

All eyes turned toward Mudge.

“Right then, quit staring at me, you bloody great twits!”

His voice dropped to a discouraged mutter. “I ‘ope when we

find ourselves served up t’ the damned Weavers for supper

that I’m the last one on the rottin’ menu, so I can at least ‘ave

me pleasure o’ watchin’ ’em eat you arse’oles first!”

“To such base uses we all eventually come, Mudge,”

Jon-Tom told him.



“Don’t get philosophical with me, mate. Oh, you’ve no

choice for sure, not if you’ve a ‘ope o’ seeing your proper

‘ome again. Old Clothahump’s got you by the balls, ‘e as.

But as for me, I can be threatened so far and then it don’t

matter no more.”

“No one is threatening you, otter,” said the wizard.

“The ‘ell you ain’t! I saw the look in your eye, knew I

might as well say yes voluntary-like and ‘ave done with it.

You can work thunder and lightnin’ but you can’t make the

journey yourself, you old fart! You don’t fool me. You need


“I have never tried to deny that, Mudge. But I will not

hold you. I have not threatened you. So behind all your noise

and fury, why are you coming?”

The otter stood there and fumed, breathing hard and

glaring first at the turtle, then Jon-Tom, then the others.

Finally he booted an exquisite spittoon halfway across the

room. It bounced ringingly off the far wall as he sat down in a


“Be billy bedamned if I know!”

“I do,” said Talea. “You’d rather travel along with a

bunch of fools like the rest of us than stay here and be

conscripted into the army. With Clothahump and Jon-Tom

gone, the local authorities will treat you like any other bum.”

“That’s bloody likely,” snorted Mudge. “Leave me alone,

then, won’t you? I said I’d go, though I’d bet heavy against

us ever comin’ back.”

“Optimism is better than pessimism, my friend,” said Caz


“You. I don’t understand you at all, mate.” The otter

shoved back his cap and walked across the carpet to confront

Caz. “A minute ago you said you weren’t no reckless gam-

bler. Now you’re all for agoin’ off on this charmin’ little


Alan Dean Foster

suicide trot. And of all o’ us, you’d be the one I’d wager on

t* stay clear o’ the army’s clutches.”

The rabbit looked unimpressed. “Perhaps I can see the

larger picture, Mudge.”

“Meanin’ wot?”

“Meaning that if what our wise friend Clothahump knows

to be true indeed comes to pass, the entire world may be

embarking on that ‘trot’ with us.” He smiled softly. “There

are few opportunities for gambling in a wasteland. I do not

think the Plated Folk will permit recreation as usual if they

are victorious. And I have other reasons.”

“Yeah? Wot reasons?”

“They are personal.”

“The wisdom of pragmatism,” said Clothahump approvingly.

“It was a beneficial day indeed when the river brought you

among us, friend Caz.”

“Maybe. But I think I would be still happier if I had not

misjudged the placement of those dice and been forced to

depart so precipitately from my ship. The happiness of the

ignorant is no less so than any other. Ah well.” He shrugged

disarmingly. “We are all of us caught up in momentous

events beyond our ability to change.”

They agreed with him, and none realized he was referring

as much to his previously mentioned personal reasons as to

the coming cataclysm….

The city council provided a three-axle wagon and a dray

team of four matched yellow-and-black-striped lizards, plus

ample supplies. Some among the council were sorry to see

the wizard and spellsinger depart, but there were others who

were just as happy to watch two powerful magicians leave

their city.

Talea handled the reins of the wagon while Flor, Jon-Tom,

Mudge, Clothahump, and Caz sorted living quarters out of

the back of the heavily loaded vehicle. Thick canvas could be



drawn across the top to keep out the rain. Ports cut in the

slanting wooden walls provided ventilation and a means for

firing arrows at any attacker.

Aveticus, resplendent in a fresh uniform and as coldly

correct as ever, offered to provide a military escort at least

part of the way. Clothahump declined gracefully, insisting that

the less attention they attracted the better their chance for an

uneventful traverse of the Swordsward.

Anyway, they had the best protection possible in the form

of Falameezar. The dragon would surely frighten away any

possible assailants, intelligent or otherwise.

It took the dray lizards a day or two to overcome their

nervousness at the dragon’s presence, but soon they were

cantering along on their strong, graceful legs. Bounding on

six solid rubber wheels the wagon fairly flew out of the city.

They passed small villages and farms for another several

days, until at last no sign of habitation lay before them.

The fields of golden grain had given way to very tall light

green grasses that stretched to the ends of the northern and

eastern horizons. Dark wintry rain clouds hovered above the

greenery, and there were rumblings of distant thunder.

Off to their right the immense western mountain range

known as Zaryt’s Teeth rose like a wall from the plains. Its

lowermost peaks rose well above ten thousand feet while

me highest towered to twenty-five thousand. Dominating all

and visible for weeks to come was the gigantic prong of

Brokenbone Peak, looking like the ossified spine of some

long-fossilized titan.

It was firmly believed by many that in a cave atop that

storm-swept peak dwelt the Oracle of All Knowledge. Even

great wizards had been unable to penetrate the winds that

howled eternally around that inaccessible crag. For by the

time any grew wise enough to possibly make the journey,

they had also grown too old, which might explain why


Alan Dean Foster

isolated travelers sometimes heard monstrous laughter ava-

lanching down Brokenbone’s flanks, though most insisted it

was only the wind.

The Swordsward resembled a well-manicured field. Patches

of other vegetation struggled to rise above the dense grass,

were only occasionally successful. Here and there small

thickets that were either very thin flowering trees or enormous

dandelions poked insolently above the waving green ocean

Despite Clothahump’s protests General Aveticus had given

them a mounted escort to the boundary of the wild plains.

The soldiers raised a departing cheer as the wagon left them

behind and started out through the grass.

There were no roads, no paths through the Swordsward.

The grass that formed it grew faster than any bamboo. So

fast, according to Caz, that you could cut the same patch bare

to the earth four times in a single day, and by nightfall it

would be as thick as ever. Fortunately the blades were as

flexible as they were prolific. The wagon slid over them


Each blade knew its assigned place. None grew higher than

the next and attempted to steal the light from its neighbor.

Despite the flexibility of the grass, however, the name

Swordsward had not been bestowed out of mischief or indif-

ference. While Falameezar’s thick scales were invulnerable,

as were those of the dray lizards, the others had to be careful

when descending from the wagon least the sharp edges of the

tall blades cut through clothing and skin.

Jon-Tom learned quickly enough. Once he’d leaned over

the back of the wagon to pluck a high, isolated blue flower. A

quick, sharp pain made him pull back his hand. There was a

thin line of red two inches long across his palm. It felt as if

someone had taken a piece of new paper and drawn it fast

across his skin. The wound was narrow and bled only for a

minute, but it remained painful for days.



Several times they had glimpses of lanky predators like a

cross between a crocodile and a greyhound. They would pace

the wagon for hours before slinking off into the green.

“Noulps,” Caz told him, peering out the arrowport behind

him. “They would kill and eat us if they could, but I don’t

think that’s likely. Falameezar scares them off.”

“How can you tell?”

“Because they leave us. A noulp pack will follow its

quarry for weeks, I’m told, until they run it down.”

Days became weeks that passed without trouble. Each day

the black clouds massing in the west would come nearer, their

thunder more intimate. They promised more severe weather

than the steady, nightly rain.

“It is winter, after all,” Clothahump observed one day. “I

worry about being caught out here in a really bad storm. This

wagon is not the cover I would wish.”

But when the full storm finally crested atop them, even the

wizard was unprepared for its ferocity. The wind rose until it

shook the wagon. Its huddled inhabitants felt like bugs in a

box. Rain and sleet battered insistently at the wooden sides,

seeking entry, while the lizards lay down in a circle in the

grass and closed their eyes against the driving gale.

The wagon was wide and low. It did not leak, did not tip

over. Jon-Tom was even growing used to the storm until, on

the fourth day, a terrible scream sounded from outside. It

faded rapidly, swallowed up by the wind.

He fumbled for a candle, gave up, and used his sparker.

Flame flashed off emerald eyes.

“What’s the matter?” Talea asked him sleepily. The others

were moving about beneath their blankets.

“Someone screamed.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“It was outside. It’s gone now.”

Heads were counted. Flor was there, blinking sleep from


Alan Dean Foster

her eyes. Nearby Caz leaned up against the inner wall

Mudge was the last to awaken, having displayed the unique

ability to sleep soundly through thunder, screaming, and


Only Clothahump looked attentive, sensing the night smells

“We’re all here,” said Ror tiredly. “Then who screamed?”

Clothahump was still listening intently, spoke without mov-

ing head or body. “The lowliest are always missed the last.

Where is Pog?”

Jon-Tom looked toward the back of the wagon. The hang-

ing perch in the upper left comer was empty. Rain stained the

wood, showing where the canvas backing had been unsnapped.

He moved to inspect it. Several of the sealing snaps had been

broken by the force of the gale.

“He’s been carried off in his sleep,” said Clothahump.

“We have’to find him. He cannot fly in this.”

Jon-Tom stuck his head outside, immediately drew it back

in. The ferocity of rain and wind drowned both skin and

spirits. He forced himself to try again, called the bat’s name

several times.

A massive, damp skull suddenly appeared close by the

opening. Jon-Tom was startled, but only for a moment.

“What’s the matter, Comrade?” Falameezar inquired. “Is

there some trouble?”

“We’ve… we’ve lost one of the group,” he said, trying to

shield his face against the battering rain. “Pog, the bat. We

think he got caught by a freak gust of wind and it’s carried

him off. He doesn’t answer, and we’re all worried. He can’t

walk well in the best of weather and he sure as hell can’t fly

in this gale. Also, there don’t seem to be any trees around he

could catch hold of.”

“Never fear. Comrade. I will find him.” The massive

armored body turned southward and bellowed above the

wind, “Comrade Pog, Comrade Pog!”



That steady, confident voice echoed back to them until

even it was overwhelmed by distance and wind. Jon-Tom

watched until the black shadow shape faded into the night,

men drew back inside, wiping water from his face and hair.

“Falameezar’s gone after him,” he told the anxious watchers.

“The storm doesn’t seem to be bothering him too much, but I

doubt he’s got much of a chance of finding Pog unless the

storm forced him down somewhere close by.”

“He may be leagues from here by now,” said Caz dolefully.

“Damn this infernal wind!” He struek in frustration at the

wooden wall.

“He was impertinent and disrespectful, but he performed

his duties well for all his complaining,” said Clothahump.

“A good famulus. I shall miss him.”

“It’s too early to talk in the past tense, wizard.” Flor tried

to cheer him up. “Palameezar may still find him. Quien sabe;

he may be closer than we think.”

“Your words are kind, my dear. Thank you for your


The wagon rattled as another blast of near hurricane force

whistled about them. Everyone fought for balance.

“But as our young spellsinger says, the weather is not

encouraging. Pog is not very resourceful. I don’t know….”

There was no sign of the bat the next day, nor of Falameezar,

and the storm continued without abating. Clothahump wor-

ried now not only that Pog might never be found but that the

dragon might become disoriented and not be able to relocate

the wagon. Or that he might find a river, decide he was bored

with the entire business, and simply sink out of sight.

“I don’t think the last likely, sir,” argued Jon-Tom.

“Falameezar’s made a political commitment. We’re his com-

rades. He’ll be back. It would take some kind of personal

crisis to make him abandon us, and there isn’t much that can

affect him.”


Alan Dean Foster

“Nevertheless, though I would like to have both of them

back with us, time is becoming too important.” The turtle let

out a resigned sigh. “If the weather breaks tomorrow, as 1

believe it may, we will wait one additional day. Then we musl

be on our way or else we might as well forget this entire


“Praise the weather,” murmured Mudge hopefully, ano

turned over in his blankets….



When Jon-Tom woke the following morning, his first sight

was of the rear canvas panel. It had been neatly pinned up,

and sunlight was streaming brilliantly inside. Flor knelt and

stared outward, her black hair waterfalling down her back.

She seemed to sparkle.

He sat up, threw off his covers. It was eerie after so many

days of violence not to hear the wind. Also absent was the

persistent drumming of raindrops overhead. He leaned for-

ward and peered out. Only a few scattered storm clouds hung

stubbornly in an otherwise clear sky.

He crawled up alongside her. A gentle breeze ruffled the

Swordsward, the emerald endlessness appearing as soft and

delicate as the down on a young girl’s legs. The distant

yellow puffballs of dandelion trees looked lonely against the

otherwise unbroken horizon.

“Good morning, Jon-Tom.”

“Buenos dias. Que pasa, beautiful?”


Alan Dean Foster

much. Just enjoying the view. And the sunshine. A

week in that damn wagon.” She fluffed her hair out. “It was

getting a little squirrelly.”

“Also smelly.” He breathed deeply of the fresh air, inhaled

the rich sweet smell of the rain-swept grasses. Then he

stepped out onto the rear wagon seat.

Slowly he turned a circle. There was nothing but greep

sward and blue sky in all directions. Against that background

even a distant Falameezar would have stood out like a

truckload of coal in a snowbank. But there was no sign of the

dragon or of his quarry.

“Nobody. Neither of ’em,” he said disappointedly, turning

back to look down into the wagon. Talea had just raised her

head from beneath a pile of blankets and blinked at him

sleepily, her red curls framing her face like the scribbles of a

playful artist.

“I am most concerned,” said Clothahump. He was seated

at the front end of the wagon, stirring a pot of hot tea. The

little copper kettle squatted on the portable stove and steamed

merrily. “It is possible that—” He broke off, pointed toward

Jon-Tom, and opened his mouth. Jon-Tom heard only the first

of his comment.

“I do believe there is someone be—”

Something yanked hard at Jon-Tom’s ankles. Arms

windmilling the air, he went over backward off me platform.

He landed hard, the grass cushioning him only slightly.

Blackness and colorful stars filled his vision, but he did not

pass out. The darkness was a momentary veil over his eyes.

By the time his head cleared his hands had been drawn above

his hair, his ankles placed together, and tough cords wrapped

around them. Looking down at his feet, he saw not only the

bindings but a remarkably ugly face.

Its owner was perhaps two and a half feet tall, very stocky,

and a perversion of humanity. Jon-Tom decided it looked like



a cross between an elf and a wino. The squat creature boasted

an enormous, thick black beard.

Out of this jungle peered two large brown eyes. They

flanked a monstrous bulbous nose and were in turn framed by

a pair of huge, floppy ears that somehow managed to fight

their way out of the wiry hair. There were hints of clothing

beneath the effervescent mass.

Thick, stubby fingers made sure of Jon-Tom’s bonds. A set

of sandals large enough for the recumbent youth floored

enormous feet.

Tying the other knots was a slightly smaller version of the

first ugly, except he was blond instead of dark-haired and had

watery blue eyes.

Something landed on Jon-Tom’s chest and knocked the

wind out of him. The newcomer was solid as iron and

, extremely muscular. It was not the build of a body builder but

instead the seamlessly smooth and deceptively porcine mus-

culature of the power lifter.

The one on his chest now was female. Only a few red

whiskers protruded from her chin. She was no less gruesome

in appearance than her male counterparts. She was shaking a

fist in his face and jabbering at high speed. For the first time

since arriving in Mudge’s meadow words had no meaning to


He turned his head away from that indifferently controlled

fist. Angry noises and thumping sounds came from the

wagon. He looked to his right, but the grass hid whatever was

happening there.

Of only one thing was he certain: the sward was alive with

dozens of the fast-moving, excited creatures.

The dray lizards wheezed and hissed nervously as the little

monsters swarmed onto harness and reins. Mixed in with the

beelike babbling of their assailants Jon-Tom could make out

other voices. Most notable was that of Caz, who was speak-


Alan Dean Foster

ing in an unfamiliar language similar to that of their captors.

Mudge could be heard alternately cursing and bemoaning his

fate, while Talea was railing at an attacker, warning that if he

didn’t get his oversized feet off her chest she was going to

make a candlewick out of his beard.

A pole was brought and neatly slipped between the bind-

ings on Jon-Tom’s ankles and the others at his wrists. He was

lifted into the air. Clearing the ground by only a few inches,

he was borne off at considerable speed through the grass. He

could see at least half a dozen of his captors shouldering the

pole, three at his feet and three above his head. Although his

sense of speed was artificially accelerated by his proximity to

the ground, he fervently prayed that his bearers’ sense of

direction was as efficient as their deltoids. The sharp grass did

not seem to bother them.

With a creak he saw the wagon turn and follow.

He had resigned himself to a long period of jouncing and

bumping, but it hardly seemed he’d been picked up when he

was unceremoniously dumped on the ground. Flor was dropped

next to him. One by one he watched as the rest of his

companions were deposited alongside. They mashed down

the grass so he could see them clearly, lined up like so many

kabobs. The similarity was not encouraging.

Clothahump had evidentally retreated into his shell in an

attempt to avoid being moved. They had simply hefted him

shell and all to carry him. When he finally stuck arms and

legs out again, they were waiting with lassos and ropes. They

managed to snare only a leg before he retreated in on himself.

Mutterings issued from inside the shell. This produced

excited conversation among the creatures. They kicked and

punched at the impervious body frantically.

The activity was directed by one of their number, who

displayed a variety of metal ornaments and decorative bits of

bone in hair and beard. Under his direction a couple of the



creatures poked around inside the shell. They were soon able

to drag the protesting, indignant turtle’s head out. With the

aid of others they shoved several bunches of dried, balled-up

grass into his mouth and secured the gag tightly. Clothahump

reached up to pull the stuffing out, and they tied his arms

also. At that point he slumped back and looked exhausted.

The creature resplendent in bone and metal jumped up and

down happily, jabbing a long feather-encrusted pole at the

now safely bound and gagged turtle. Evidently the fashion

plate was the local witch doctor or wizard, Jon-Tom decided.

He’d recognized that Clothahump had been starting a spell

inside bis shell and had succeeded in rendering his opponent

magically impotent.

Jon-Tom lay quietly and wondered if they would recognize

the sorceral potential of his singing, but the duar was inside

the, wagon and he was firmly tied on the ground.

Moans came from nearby. Straining, he saw another of

their captors idly kicking Talea with considerable force. Each

time she’d curse her tormentor he’d kick her. She would jerk

in pain and it would be several minutes before she regained

enough strength to curse him again.

“Knock it off!” he yelled at her assailant. “Pick on

somebody your own size!”

The creature responded by leaving Talea and walking over

to stare curiously down into Jon-Tom’s face. He jabbered at

him experimentally.

Jon-Tom smiled broadly. “Same to you, you sawed-off


It’s doubtful the creature followed Jon-Tom’s meaning, but

he accepted the incomprehensible comment with equanimity

and commenced booting the lanky youth in the side instead.

Jon-Tom gritted his teeth and refused to give the creature the

satisfaction of hearing him groan.

After several kicks produced nothing but a steady glare, his


Alan Dean Foster

attacker became bored and wandered off to argue with some 01

his companions.

In fact, there appeared to be as much fighting taking place

between members of the tribe as there’d been between them

and their captives. Jon-Tom looked around and was astonished

to see tiny structures, camp fires, and ugly, hairless smallei

versions of the adults, which could only be children. Small

green and blue lizards wore backpacks and suggested scaly

mules. There was consistent and unrelenting activity taking

place around the six bound bodies.

Camp fires and buildings gave every appearance of having

been in place for some time. Jon-Tom tried to estimate the

distance they’d traveled.

“Christ,” he muttered, “we couldn’t have been camped

more than a couple of hundred yards from this town, and we

never even saw them.”

“The grass conceals the Mimpa,” Caz told him. Jon-Torr

looked to his right, saw rabbit ears pointed in his direction

“They move freely among it, completely hidden from most

of their enemies.”

“Call ’em what you like. They look like trolls to me.” Hi?

brow twisted in thought. “Except I always thought troll?

lived underground. Singularly unlovely bunch, too.”

“Well, I know naught of trolls, my friend, but the Mimpa

live in the sward.”

“Like fleas,” Mudge snorted from somewhere nearby

“An’ if I could get loose I’d start on a little deinfestation,


Now Jon-Tom could just see the otter’s head. His cap was

missing, no doubt knocked off during the struggle for the

wagon. The otter was jerking around as if he were wired,

trying to break free.

Of them all he was the only one who could match their

captors for sheer energy, but he could not break the ropes.



Jon-Tom turned his attention back to the rabbit. “Can you

talk to them, Caz?”

“I believe I can understand their language somewhat,”

was the reply. “A well-traveled animal picks up all sorts of

odd knowledge. As to whether I can ‘talk’ to them, I don’t

think so. Talking takes two, and they strike me as particularly

nonconversant with strangers.”

“How is it they speak a language we can’t follow?”

“I expect that has something to do with their being

violently antagonistic to what we think of as civilized life.

They’re welcome to their isolation, so far as I am concerned.

They are incorrigibly hostile, incorrigibly filthy, and bellicose

to the point of paranoia. I sincerely wish they would all rot

where they stand.”

“Amen to that,” said Flor.

“What are they going to do with us, Caz?”

“They’re talking about that right now.” He gestured with

an unbound ear. “That one over there with the spangles, the

chap who fancies himself something of a local dandy? The

one who unfortunately forestalled Clothahump’s spell cast-

ing? He’s arguing with a couple of his equals. Apparently

they function as some sort of rudimentary council.”

Jon-Tom craned his neck, could just see the witch doctor

animatedly arguing with two equally pretentious and noisy


One of them displayed the mother of all Fu Manchu

mustaches. It drooped almost to his huge splayed feet. Other

than that he was entirely bald. The third member of the

unkempt triumvirate had a long pointed beard and waxed

mustachio, but wore his hair in a crew cut. Both were as

outlandishly clad as the witch doctor.

“From what I can make out,” said Caz, “Baldy thinks

they ought to let us go. The other two, Battop and Bigmouth,


Alan Dean Foster

say that since hunting has been poor lately they should

sacrifice us to the gods of the Sward.”

“Who’s winning?” Flor wanted to know. Jon-Tom thought

that for the first time she was beginning to look a little

frightened. She had plenty of company.

“Can’t we talk to them at all?” he asked hopefully. “What

about the one who had Clothahump gagged? Do you know hb

real name?”

“I already told you,” said Caz. “His name is Bigmouth.

Flattop, Baldy, and Bigmouth: that’s how their names translate.

And no, I don’t think we can talk to them. Even if I knew the

right words I don’t think they’d let me get a word in

edgewise. It seems that he who talks loudest without letting

his companions make their points is the one who wins the


“Then if it’s just a matter of shouting, why don’t you give

it a try?”

“Because I think they’d cut out my tongue if I interrupted

them. I am a better gambler than that, my friend.”

It didn’t matter, because as he watched the debate-came tc

an end. Baldy shook a threatening finger less than an inch

from Bigmouth’s proboscis, whereupon Bigmouth frowned

and kicked the overly demonstrative Baldy in the nuts. As he

doubled over, Rattop brought a small but efficient-looking

club down on Baldy’s head. This effectively concluded the


Considerable cheering rose from the excited listeners, who

never seemed to be standing still, a condition duplicated by

their mouths.

Jon-Tom wondered at the humanoid metabolism that could

generate such nonstop energy.

“I am afraid our single champion has been vanquished,”

said Caz.



“I don’t want to die,” muttered Flor. “Not here, not in

this place.” She started reciting Hail Marys in Spanish.

“I don’t want to die either,” Jon-Tom yelled at her in


“This isn’t happening,” she was saying dully. “It’s all a


“Sorry, Flor,” he told her unsympathetically. “I’ve already

been that route. It’s no dream. You were enjoying yourself

until now, remember?”

“It was all so wonderful,” she whispered. She wasn’t

crying, but restraining herself required considerable effort.

“Our friends, the quest we’re on, when we rescued you that

night in Polastrindu… it’s been just as I’d always imagined

mis sort of thing would be. Being murdered by ignorant

aborigines doesn’t fit the rest. Can they actually kill us?”

“I think they can.” Jon-Tom was too tired and afraid even

to be sarcastic. “And I think we’ll actually die, and actually

be buried, and actually be food for worms. If we don’t get out

from here.” He looked across at Clothahump, but the wizard

could only close his eyes apologetically.

If we could just lower the gag in Clothahump’s mouth

when they’re busy elsewhere, he thought anxiously. Some

kind of spell, even one that would just distract them, would

be enough.

But while the Mimpa were uncivilized they were clearly

not fools, nor quite so ignorant as Caz believed. That night

they confidently ignored all their captives except the carefully

watched Clothahump.

At or near midnight they were all made the centerpiece of a

robust celebration. Grass was cut down with tiny axes to form

a cleared circle, and the captives were deposited near the

center, amid a ground cover of foul-smelling granular brown


Plor wrinkled her nose, tried breathing through her mouth


Alan Dean Foster

instead. “Mierda… what have they covered the ground here


“I believe it is dried, powdered lizard dung,” said Caz

worriedly. “I fear it will ruin my stockings.”

“Part of the ceremony?” Jon-Tom had grown accustomed

to strange smells.

“I think it may be more than that, my friend. It appears to

retard the growth of the Sward grasses. An efficient if

malodorous method of control.”

Small fires were lit in a circle, uncomfortably near the

bound prisoners. Jon-Tom would have enjoyed the resultant

celebration for its barbaric splendor and enthusiasm, were it

not for the fact that he was one of the proverbial pigs at the

center of the banquet table.

“You said they’d sacrifice us to the gods of the Sward.”

As he spoke to Caz he fought to retain both confidence and

sanity. “What gods do they have in mind?” His thoughts

were of the lithe, long-limbed predators they’d seen sliding

ribbonlike through the grass their first week out of Polastrindu.

“I have no idea as yet, my friend.” He sniffed disdainfully.

“Whatever, I’m sure it will be a depressing way for a

gentleman to die.”

“Is there another way?” Even Mudge’s usually irrepress-

ible good humor was gone.

“I had hoped,” replied the rabbit, “to die in bed.”

Mudge let out a high whistle, some of his good spirits

returning. “0′ course, mate. Now why didn’t I think o’ that

right off? This ‘ole miserable situation’s got me normal

thinkin’ paths crossed whixwize. And not alone, I’d wager.”

“Not alone your whixwized thoughts, or dying in bed?”

asked Caz with a smile.

“Sort o’ a joint occasion is wot I’d ‘ave in mind.” Again

the otter whistle, and they both laughed.



“I’m glad somebody thinks this is fanny.” Talea glared at

them both.

“No,” said Caz more quietly, “I don’t think it’s very

funny at all, glowtop. But our hands and feet are bound, I can

reach no familiar salve or balm from our supplies though I am

bruised all over. I can’t do anything about the damage to my

body, but I try to medicate the spirit. Laughter is soothing to


Jon-Tom could see her turn away from the rabbit, her badly

tousled hair even redder in the glow from the multiple fires.

Her shoulders seemed to droop and he felt an instinctive

desire to reach out and comfort her.

Odd the occasions when you have insights into the person-

alities of others, he thought. Talea struck him as unable to

find much laughter at all in life, or, indeed, pleasure of any

kind. He wondered at it. High spirits and energy were not

necessarily reflective of happiness. He found himself feeling

sorry for her.

Might as well feel sorry for yourself, an inner voice

reminded him. If you don’t slip loose of these pygmy para-

noids you soon won’t be able to feel sorry for anyone.

Unable to pull free of his bonds, he started working his

way across the circle, trying to come up against a rock sharp

enough to cut diem. But the soil was thick and loamy, and he

encountered nothing larger than a small pebble.

Failing to locate anything else he tried sawing patiently at

his ropes with fingernails. The tough fiber didn’t seem to be

parting in the least. Eventually the effort exhausted him and

he slid into a deep, troubled sleep….



It was morning when next he opened his eyes. Smoke

drifted into the cloudy sky from smoldering camp fires,

fleeing the still, swardless circle like bored wraiths.

Once more the carrying poles were brought into use and he

felt himself lifted off the ground. Flor went up next to him,

and the others were strung out behind. As before, the journey

was brief. No more than three or four hundred yards from the

site of the transitory village, he estimated.

Quite a crowd had come along to watch. The poles were

removed. Mimpa gathered around the six limp bodies. Chattering

among themselves, they arranged their captives in a circle,

back to back, their legs stuck out like the spokes of a wheel.

Arms were bound together so that no one could lie down or

move without his five companions being affected. A large

post was placed in the center of the circle, hammered exuberantly

into the earth, and the prisoners shoulders bound to it.

They sat in the center of a second clearing, as smelly as the


Alan Dean Foster

first. The Mimpa satisfied themselves that the center pole was

securely in the ground and then moved away, jabbering

excitedly and gesturing in a way Jon-Tom did not like at the

captives ringing the pole.

Despite the coolness of the winter morning and the consid-

erable cloud cover, he was sweating even without his cape.

He’d worked his nails and wrists until all the nails were

broken and blood stained the restraining fibers. They had

been neither cut nor loosened.

Along with other useless facts he noted that the grass

around them was still moist from the previous night’s rain

and that his feet were facing almost due north. Clothahump

was struggling to speak. He couldn’t make himself under-

stood around the gag and in any case didn’t have the strength

in his aged frame to continue the effort much longer.

“We can move our legs, anyway,” Jon-Tom pointed out,

raising his bound feet and slamming them into the ground.

“Actually, they have secured us in an excellent defensive

posture,” agreed Caz. “Our backs are protected. We are not

completely helpless.”

“If any of those noulps show up, they’ll find out what kind

of legs I have,” said Flor grimly, kicking out experimentally

with her own feet.

“Lucky noulps,” commented Mudge.

“What a mind you have, otter. La cabeza bizzaro.” She

drew her knees up to her chest and thrust out violently. “First

predator that comes near me is going to lose some teeth. Or

choke on my feet.”

Jon-Tom kicked outward again, finding the expenditure of

energy gratifying. “Maybe they’ll be like sharks and have

sensitive noses. Maybe they’ll even turn toward the Mimpa,

finding them easier prey than us.”

“Mayhap,” said Caz, “but I think you are all lost in

wishful thinking, my friends.” He nodded toward the muttering,



watchful nomads. “Evidently they are not afraid of whatever

they are waiting for. That suggests to me a most persistent

and myopic adversary.”

In truth, if they were anticipating the appearance of some

ferocious carnivore, Jon-Tom couldn’t understand why the

Mimpa continued to remain close by. They appeared relaxed

and expectant, roughly as fearful as children on a Sunday

School picnic.

What kind of devouring “god” were they expecting?

“Don’t you hear something?” At Talea’s uncertain query

everyone went quiet. The attitude of expectancy simultaneously

rose among the assembled Mimpa.

This was it, then. Jon-Tom tensed and cocked his legs. He

would kick until he couldn’t kick any more, and if one of

those predators got its jaws on him he’d follow Flor’s sugges-

tion and shove his legs down its throat until it choked to

death. They wouldn’t go out without a fight, and with six of

them functioning in tandem they might stand an outside

chance of driving off whatever creature or creatures were

coming close.

Unfortunately, it was not simply a matter of throats.

By straining against the supportive pole Jon-Tom could just

see over the weaving crest of the Sward. All he saw beyond

riffling tufts of greenery was a stand of exquisite blue- and

rose-hued flowers. It was several minutes before he realized

that the flowers were moving.

“Which way is it?” asked Talea.

“Where you hear the noise.” He nodded northward. “Over

there someplace.”

“Can you see it yet?”

“I don’t think so.” The blossoms continued to grow larger.

“All I can see so far are flowers that appear to be coming

toward us. Camouflage, or protective coloration maybe.”

“I’m afraid it’s likely to be rather more substantial than


Alan Dean Foster

that.” Caz’s nose was twitching rapidly now. Clothahump

produced a muffled, urgent noise.

“I fear the kicking will do us no good,” the rabbit

continued dispiritedly. “They apparently have set us in the

path of a Marching Porprut.”

“A what?” Flor gaped at him. “Sounds like broken


“An analogy closer to the mark than I think you suspect,

night-maned.” He grinned ruefully beneath his whiskers. “As

you shall see all too soon, I fear.”

They resumed fighting their restraints while the Mimpa

jabbering rose to an anticipatory crescendo. The assembled

aborigines were jumping up and down, pounding the ground

with their spears and clubs, and pointing gleefully from

captives to flowers.

Flor slumped, worn out from trying to free herself. “Why

are they doing this to us? We never did anything to them.”

“The minds of primitives do not function on the same

cause-and-effect principles that rule our lives.” Caz sniffed,

his ears drooping, nose in constant motion. “Yes, it must be a

Porprut. We should soon be able to see it.”

Another sound was growing audible above the yells and

howls of the hysterical Mimpa. It was a low pattering noise,

like small twigs breaking underfoot or rain falling hard on a

wooden roof or a hundred mice consuming plaster. Most of

all it reminded Jon-Tom of people in a theater, watching

quietly and eating popcorn. Eating noises, they were.

The row of solid Sward grass to the north began to rustle.

Fascinated and horrified, the captives fought to see beyond

the greenery.

Suddenly darker vegetation appeared, emerging above the

thin, familiar blades of me Sward. At first sight it seemed

only another type of weed, but each writhing, snakelike

olive-colored stalk held a tiny circular mouth lined with fine



fuzzy teeth. These teeth gnawed at the Sward grass. They ate

slowly, but there were dozens of them. Blades went down as

methodically as if before a green combine.

These tangled, horribly animate stems vanished into a

brownish-green labyrinth of intertwined stems and stalks and

nodules. Above them rose beautiful pseudo-orchids of rose

and blue petals.

At the base of the mass of slowly moving vegetation was

an army of feathery white worm shapes. These dug deeply

into the soil. New ones were appearing continuously out of

the bulk, pressing down to the earth like the legs of a

millipede. Presumably others were pulled free behind as the

creature advanced across the plain.

“‘Tis like no animal I have ever heard of or seen,” said

Talea in disgust.

“It’s not an animal. At least, I don’t think it is,” Jon-Tom

murmured. “I think it’s a plant. A communal plant, a

mobile, self-contained vegetative ecosystem.”

“More magic words.” Talea fought at her bonds, with no

more success than before. “They will not free us now.”

“See,” he urged them, intrigued as he was horrified,

“how it constantly puts down new roots in front. That’s how

it moves.”

“It does more than move,” Caz observed. “It will scour

me earth clean, cutting as neat and even a path across the

Swordsward as any reaper.”

“But we’re not plants. We’re not part of the Sward,” Hor

pointed out, keeping a dull stare on the advancing plant.

“I do not think the Porprut is much concerned with

citizenship,” said Caz tiredly. “It appears to be a most

indiscriminate consumer. I believe it will devour anything

unable or too stupid to get out of its path.”

Much of the Porprut had emerged into the clearing. The

Mimpa had moved back but continued to watch its advance


Alan Dean Foster

and the effect it produced in its eventual prey. It was much

larger than Jon-Tom had first assumed. The front was a good

twenty feet across. If the earth behind it was as bare as Caz

suggested, then when the creature had finished with them

they would not even leave behind their bones.

It was particularly horrible to watch because its advance

was so slow. The Porprut traveled no more than an inch 01

two every few minutes at a steady, unvarying pace. At that

rate it would take quite a while before they were all con-

sumed. Those on the south side of the pole would be forced

to watch, and listen, as their companions closer to the

advancing plant were slowly devoured.

It promised a particularly gruesome death. That prospect

induced quite a lot of pleasure among the watchful Mimpa.

Jon-Tom dug his feet into the soft, cleared earth and kicked

violently outward. A spray of earth and gravel showered

down on the forefront of the approaching creature. The

writhing tendrils and the mechanically chewing mouths the^

supported took no notice of it. Even if-the prisoners had their

weapons and freedom, it still would have been more sensible

to run than to stand and fight.

It was loathesome to think you were about to be killed by

something neither hostile nor sentient, he mused. There was

nothing to react to them. There was no head, no indication of

a central nervous system, no sign of external organs of

perception. No ears, no eyes. It ate and moved; it was

supremely and unspectaculariy efficient. A basic mass-energy

converter that differed only in the gift of locomotion from a

blade of grass, a tree, a blueberry bush.

In a certain perverse way he was able to admire the manner

in which those dozens of insatiable mouths sucked and

snapped up even the least hint of growth or the tiniest

crawling bug from the ground.

“Fire, maybe,” he muttered. “If I could get at my sparker,



or make a spell with the duar. Or if Clothahump could

speak.” But the wizard’s struggles had been as ineffective as

his magic was powerful. Unable to loosen his bonds or his

gag, he could only stare, helpless as the rest, as the thousand-

rooted flora edged toward them.

“I don’t want to die,” Flor whispered, “not like this.”

“Now, we been through all that, luv,” Mudge reminded

her. ” ‘Tis no use worryin’ about it each time it seems about

t’ ‘appen, or you’ll worry yourself t’ death. Bloody disgustin’

way t’ go, wot?”

“What’s the difference?” said Jon-Tom tiredly. “Death’s

death, one way or the other. Besides,” he grinned humoriessly,

“as much salad and vegetables as I’ve eaten, it only seems


“How can you still joke about it?” Flor eyed him in


“Because there’s nothing funny about it, that’s how.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

“You don’t make any sense, either!” he fairly screamed at

her. “This whole world doesn’t make any sense! Life doesn’t

make any sense! Existence doesn’t make any sense!”

She recoiled from his violence. As abruptly as he’d lost

control, he calmed himself. “And now that we’ve disposed of

all the Great Questions pertaining to life, I suggest that if we

all rock in unison we might be able to loosen this damn pole

and make some progress southwestward. Ready? One, two,


They used their legs as best they could, but it was hard to

coordinate the actions of six people of very different size and

strength and would have been even if they hadn’t been tied in

a circle around the central pole.

It swayed but did not come free of the ground. All this

desperate activity was immensely amusing to the swart spec-


Alan Dean Foster

tators behind them. As with everything else it was ignored b)

the patiently advancing Porprut.

It was only a foot or so from Jon-Tom’s boots when the

proverbial sparker he’d wished for suddenly appeared. Amid

shouts of terror and outrage the Mimpa suddenly melted into

the surrounding Sward. Something blistered the right side of

Jon-Tom’s face. The gout of flame roared a second time in his

ears, then a third.

By then the Porprut had halted, its multiple mouths twisting

and contorting in a horrible, silent parody of pain while the

falsely beautiful red and blue blooms shriveled into black ash.

It made not a sound while it was being incinerated.

A winged black shape was fluttering down among the

captives. It wielded a small, curved knife in one wing. With

this it sliced rapidly through their bonds.

“Damn my ears but I never fought we’d find ya!” said the

excited Pog. His great eyes darted anxiously as he moved

from one bound figure to the next. “Never would have,

either, if we hadn’t spotted da wagon. Dat was da only ting

dat stuck up above da stinking grass.” He finished freeing

Clothahump and moved next to Jon-Tom.

Missing his spectacles, which remained in the wagon,

Clothahump squinted at the bat while rubbing circulation

back into wrists and ankles. The woven gag he threw into the


“Better a delayed appearance than none at all, good famu-

lus. You have by rescuing us done the world a great service.

Civilization owes you a debt, Pog.”

“Yeah, tell me about it, boss. Dat’s da solemn truth, an’ I

ain’t about ta let civilization forget it.”

Free again, Jon-Tom climbed to his feet and started off

toward the wagon.

“Where are you going, boy?” asked the wizard.

“To get my duar.” His fear had rapidly given way to



anger. “There are one or two songs I want to sing for our

little friends. I didn’t think I’d have the chance and I don’t

want to forget any of the words, not while they’re .still fresh

in my mind. Wait till you hear some of ’em, Clothahump.

They’ll bum your ears, but they’ll do worse to—”

“I do not have any ears in the sense you mean them, my

boy. I suggest you restrain yourself.”

“Restrain myself!” He whirled on the wizard, waved

toward the rapidly carbonizing lump of the Porprut. “Not

only were the little bastards going to feed us slowly to that

monstrosity, but they were all sitting there laughing and

having a hell of a fine time watching! Maybe revenge isn’t in

the lexicon of wizards, but it sure as hell is in mine.”

“There’s no need, my boy.” Clothahump waddled over

and put a comforting hand on Jon-Tom’s wrist. “I assure you

I bear no misplaced love for our hastily departed aboriginal

associates. But^as you can see, they have departed.”

In truth, as he looked around, Jon-Tom couldn’t see a

single ugly arm, leg, or set of whiskers.

“It is difficult to put a spell on what you cannot see,” said

the wizard. “You also forget the unpredictability of your

redoubtable talents. Impelled by uncontrolled anger, they

might generate more trouble than satisfaction. I should dislike

being caught in the midst of an army of, say, vengeful

daemons who, not finding smaller quarry around, might turn

their deviltry on us.”

Jon-Tom slumped. “All right, sir. You know best. But if I

ever see one of the little fuckers again I’m going to split it on

my spearpoint like a squab!”

“A most uncivilized attitude, my friend,” Caz joined

them, rubbing his fur and brushing daintily at his soiled silk

stockings. “One in which I heartily concur.” He patted

Jon-Tom on the back.


Alan Dean Poster

“That’s what this expedition needs: less thinking and more

bloodthirstiness. Cut and slash, hack and rend!”

“Yeah, well…” Jon-Tom was becoming a bit embarrassed

at his own mindless fury. It was hardly the image he held of

himself. “I don’t think revenge is all that unnatural ac


“Of course it’s not,” agreed Caz readily. “Perfectly natural.”

“What’s perfectly natural?” Flor limped up next to them.

Her right leg was still asleep. Despite the ordeal they’d just

undergone, Jon-Tom thought she looked as magnificent as


“Why, our tall companion’s desire to barbeque any of our

disagreeable captors that he can catch.”

“Si, I’m for that.” She started for the wagon. “Let’s get

our weapons and get after them.”

This time it was Jon-Tom who extended the restraining

hand. Now he was truly upset at the manner in which he’d

been acting, especially in front of the dignified, sensible Caz.

“I’m not talking about forgiving and forgetting,” he told

her, shivering a little as he always did at the physical contact

of hand and arm, “but it’s not practical. They could ambush

us in the Sward, even if they hung around.”

“Well we can damn well sure have a look!” she protested.

“What kind of a man are you?”

“Want to look and see?” he shot back challengingly.

She stared at him a moment longer, then broke into an

uncontrollable giggle. He laughed along with her, as much

from nervousness and the relief of release as from the poor


“Hokay, hokay,” she finally admitted, “so we have more

important things to do, si?”

“Precisely, young lady.” Clothahump gestured toward the

wagon. “Let us put ourselves back in shape and be once

more on our path.”



But Jon-Tom waited behind while the others reentered the

wagon and set to the task of organizing the chaos the Mimpa

had made of its contents.

Walking back to the cleared circle which had so nearly

been their burial place, he found a large black and purple

form bending over a burned-out pile of vegetation. Falameezar

had squatted down on his haunches and was picking with one

massive claw at the heap of ash and woody material.

“We’re all grateful as hell, Falameezar. No one more so

than myself.”

The dragon glanced numbly back at him, barely taking

notice of his presence. His tone was ponderously, unexpectedly,


“I have made a grave mistake. Comrade. A grave mis-

take.” The dragon sighed. His attention was concentrated on

the crisped, smoking remains of the Porprut as he picked and

prodded at the blackened tendrils with his claws.

“What’s troubling you?” asked Jon-Tom. He walked close

and affectionately patted the dragon’s flank.

The head swung around to gaze at him mournfully. “I have

destroyed,” he moaned, “an ideal communal society. A

perfect communistic organism.”

“You don’t know that’s what it was, Falameezar,” Jon-

Tom argued. “It might have been a normal creature with a

single brain.”

“I do not think so.” Falameezar slowly shook his head,

looking and sounding as depressed as it was possible for a

dragon to be. Little puffs of smoke occasionally floated up

from his nostrils.

“I have looked inside the corpse. There are many individu-

al sections of creature inside, all twisted and intertwined

together, intergrown and interdependent. All functioning in

perfect, bossless harmony.”

Jon-Tom stepped away from the scaly side. “I’m sorry.”


Alan Dean Foster

He thought carefully, not daring to offend the dragon but

worried about its state of mind. “Would you have rather

you’d left it alone to nibble us to death?”

“No, Comrade, of course not. But I did not realize fully

what it consisted of. If I had, I might have succeeded in

making it shift its path around you. So I have been forced to

murder a perfect natural example of what civilized society

should aspire to.” He sighed. “I fear now I must do penance,

my comrade friend.”

A little nervous, Jon-Tom gestured at the broad, endless

field of the Swordsward. “There are many dangers out there,

Comrade. Including the still monstrous danger we have talked

so much about.”

It was turning to evening. Solemn clouds promised another

night of rain, and there was a chill in the air that even hinted

at some snow. It was beginning to feel like real winter out on

the grass-clad plain.

A cold wind sprang from the direction of the dying sun.

went through Jon-Tom’s filthy leathers. “We need your help,


“I am sorry, Comrade. I have my own troubles now. You

will have to face future dangers without me. For I am truly

sorrowful over what I have done here, the more so because

with a little thought it might have been avoided.” He tamed

and lumbered off into the rising night, his feet crushing dowr

the Sward, which sprang up resiliently behind him.

“Are you Sure?” Jon-Tom followed to the edge of the

cleared circle, put out imploring hands. “We really need you,

Comrade. We have to help each other or the great danger will

overwhelm all of us. Remember the coming of the bosses of


“You have your other friends, your other comrades to

assist you, Jon-Tom,” the dragon called back to him across

(he waves of the green sea. “I have no one but myself.”

“But you’re one of us!”



The dragon shook his head. “No, not yet. For a time I had

willed to myself that it was so. But I have failed, or I would

have seen a solution to your rescue that did not involve this


“How could you? There wasn’t time!” He could barely see

me dark outline now.

“I’m sorry, Comrade Jon-Tom.” Falameezar’s voice was

faint with distance and guilt. “Good-bye.”

“Good-bye, Falameezar.” Jon-Tom watched until the dragon

had completely vanished, then looked disappointedly at the

ground. “Dammit,” he muttered.

He returned to the wagon. Lamps were lit now. Under their

familiar, friendly glow Caz and Mudge were checking the

condition of the dray team. Flor, Clothahump, and Talea were

restocking their scattered supplies. The wizard’s glasses were

pinched neatly on his beak. He looked out and down as

Jon-Tom, hands shoved into his pockets and gaze on the

ground, sauntered up to him.

“Problems, my boy?”

Jon-Tom raised his eyes, nodded southward. “Falameezar’s

left us. He was upset at having to kill the damn Porprut. I

tried my best to argue him out of it, but he’d made up his


“You did well even to try,” said Clothahump comfortingly.

“Not many would have the courage to debate a dragon’s

decision. They are terribly stubborn. Well, no matter. We

shall make our way without him.”

“He was the strongest of us,” Jon-Tom murmured

disappointedly. “He did more in thirty seconds to the Porprut

and the Mimpa than all the rest of us were able to do at all.

No telling how much trouble just his presence prevented.”

“It is true we shall miss his brute strength,” said the

wizard, “but intelligence and wisdom are worth far more

than any amount of muscle.”


Alan Dean Foster

“Maybe so.” Jon-Tom vaulted into the back of the wagon.

“But I’d still feel better with a little more bmte strength on

our side.”

“We must not bemoan our losses,” Clothahump said

chidingly, “but must push ahead. At least we will no longer

be troubled by the Mimpa.” He let out an unwizardly chuck-

le. “It will be days before they cease running.”

“Do we continue on tonight, then?”

“For a short while, just enough to leave this immediate

area behind. Then we shall mount a guard, just in case, and

continue on tomorrow in daylight. The weather looks un-

pleasant and we will have difficulty enough in holding to our


“Then too, while I don’t know how you young folk are

feeling, I’m not ashamed to confess that the body inside this

old shell is very much in need of sleep.”

Jon-Tom had no argument with that. Falameezar or no

Falameezar, Mimpa or no Mimpa, he was dead tired. Which

was a good deal better than what he’d earlier thought he’d be

this night: plain dead.

The storm did not materialize the next day, nor the one

following, though the Swordsward received its nightly dose of

steady rain. Plor was taking a turn at driving the wagon. It

was early evening and they would be stopping soon to make


A full moon was rising behind layers of gray eastern

clouds, a low orange globe crowning the horizon. It turned

the rain clouds to gauze as it lifted behind them, shedding

ruddy light over the darkening sward. Snowflakelike reflec-

tions danced elf steps on the residue of earlier rain.

From the four patient yoked lizards came a regular, heavy

swish-swish as they pushed through the wet grasses. Easy con-

versation and occasional laughter punctuated by Mudge’s

lilting whistle drifted out from the enclosed wagon. Small



things rose cautiously to study the onward trundling wooden

beast before dropping down into grass or groundholes.

Jon-Tom parted the canvas rain shield and moved to sit

down on the driver’s seat next to Flor. She held the reins

easily in one hand, as though bom to the task, and glanced

over at him. Her free hand rested across her thighs. Her long

black hair was a darker bit of shadow, like a piece of broken

black plate glass, against the night. Her eyes were luminous

and huge.

He looked away from their curious stare and down at his

hands. They twisted and moved uncomfortably in his lap, as

though trying to find a place to hide; little five-footed crea-

tures he could not cage.

“I think we have a problem.”

“Only one?” She grinned at him, barely paying attention

to the reins now. Without being told, the lizards would

continue to plod onward on their present course.

“But that’s what life’s all about, isn’t it? Solving a series

of problems? When they’re as varied and challenging as

these,” and she flicked long nails in the air, a brief gesture

mat casually encompassed two worlds and a shift in dimen-

sion, “why, that adds to the spice of it.”

“That’s not the kind of problem I’m talking about, Flor.

This one is personal.”

She looked concerned. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Possibly.” He looked up at her. “I think I’m in love with

you. I think I’ve always been in love with you. I…”

“That’s enough,” she told him, raising a restraining hand

and speaking gently but firmly. “In the first place, you can’t

have always been in love with me because you haven’t known

me for always. Metaphysics aside, Jon-Tom, I don’t think

you’ve known me long enough.

“In the second place, I don’t think you’re really in love

with me. I think you’re in love with the image of me you’ve


Alan Dean Foster

seen and added to in your imagination, es verdad, amigo^ To

be erode about it, you’re in love with my looks, my body

Don’t think I hold it against you. It’s not your fault. Your

desires and wants arc a product of your environment.”

This was not going the way he’d hoped, he mused confusedly.

“Don’t be so sure that you know all about me either, Flor.”

“I’m not.” She was not offended by his tone. “I mean,

how have you ‘seen’ me, Jon-Tom? How have you ‘known’

me? Short skirt, tight sweater, always the perfect smile,

perfectly groomed, long hair flouncing and pom-poms jounc-

ing, isn’t that about it?”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“I’m not patronizing you, dammit! Use your head, hom-

bre. I may look like a pinup, but I don’t think like one. You

can’t be in love with me because you don’t know me.”

“‘Ere now, wot the ‘ell are you two fightin’ about?”

Mudge stuck his furry face out from behind the canvas. ” ‘T!S

too bloomin’ nice a night for such witterin’.”

“Back out, Mudge,” said Jon-Tom curdy at the interrup-

tion. “This is none of your business.”

“Oh, now let’s not get our bowels in an uproar, mate. Suit

yourself.” With a last glance at them both, he obligingly

retreated inside.

“I won’t deny that I find you physically attractive, Flor.”

“Of course you do. You wouldn’t be normal if you

didn’t.” She stared out across the endless dark plain, kissed

with orange by the rising moon. “Every man has, ever since

I was twelve years old. I’ve been through this before.” She

looked back at him.

“The point is you don’t know me, the real Hores Quintera.

So you can’t be in love with her. I’m flattered, but if we’re

going to have any kind of chance at a real relationship, we’d

best start fresh, here and now. Without any preconceived



notions about what I’m like, what you’d like me to be like, or

what I represent to you. ComprendeV

“Bor, don’t you think I’ve had a look at the real you these

past weeks?” Try as he might, he couldn’t help sounding


“Sure you have, but that’s hardly long enough. And you

can’t be certain that’s the real me, either. Maybe it’s only

another facet of my real personality, whose aspects are still


“Wait a minute,” he said hopefully. “You said, ‘chance at

a real relationship.’ Does that mean you think we have a

chance for one?”

“I’ve no idea.” She eyed him appraisingly. “You’re an

interesting man, Jon-Tom. The fact that you can work magic

here with your music is fascinating to me. I couldn’t do it.

But I don’t know you any better than you know me. So why

don’t we start clean, huh? Pretend I’m just another girl

you’ve just met. Let’s call this our first date.” She nodded

skyward. “The moon’s right for it.”

“Kind of tough to do,” he replied, “after you’ve just

poured out a deeply felt confession of love. You took that

apart like a professor dissecting a tadpole.”

“I’m sorry, Jon-Tom.” She shrugged. “That’s part of the

way I am. Part of the real me, as much as the pom-poms or

my love of the adventure of this world. You have to leam to

accept them all, not just the ones you like.” She tried to

sound encouraging. “If it’s any consolation, while I may not

love you, I do like you.”

“That’s not much.”

“Why don’t you get rid of that hurt puppy-dog look, too,”

she suggested. “It won’t do you any good. Come on, now.

Cheer up! You’ve let out what you had to let out, and I

haven’t rebuffed you completely.” She extended an open


Alan Dean Foster

hand. “Buenos noches, Jon-Tom. I’m Plores Maria Quintera.

Como ‘stasT’

He looked silently at her, then down at the proferred palm.

He took it with a resigned sigh. “Jon-Tom.. .Jon Meriweather.

Pleased to meet you.”

After that, they got along a little more easily. The punctur-

ing of Jon-Tom’s romantic balloon released tension along

with hopes….



It was a very ordinary-looking river, Jon-Tom thought.

Willow and cypress and live oak clustered thirstily along its

sloping banks. Small scaly amphibians played in thick under-

brush. Reeds claimed the quiet places of the slow-moving


The bank on the far side was equally well fringed with

vegetation. From time to time they encountered groups of

animals and humans occupied in various everyday tasks on

the banks. They would be fishing, or washing clothes, or

simply watching the sun do the work of carrying forth the


The wagon turned eastward along the southern shore of the

Sloomaz-ayor-le-WeentIi, heading toward the growing massif

of the mountains and passing word of the coming invasion to

any wannlander who would listen. But the River of Twos was

a long way from Polastrindu, and the Jo-Troom Gate and the


Alan Dean Foster

depredations of the Plated Folk only components of legend to

the river dwellers.

All agreed with the travelers on one matter, however: the

problem of trying to pass downstream and through the Teeth.

“Eh?” said one wizened old otter in response to their

query, “ye want to go where?” In contrast to Mudge the

oldster’s fur was streaky-white. So were his facial whiskers.

Arthritis bent him in the middle and gnarled his hands and


“Ye’ll never make it. Ye won’t make it past the entrance

and if ye do, ye’ll not find yer way through the rock. Too

many have tried and none have ever come back.”

“We have resources others did not have,” said Clothahump

confidentally. “I am something of a formidable conjurer, and

my associate here is a most powerful spellsinger.” He ges-

tured at me lanky form of Ion-Tom. They had stepped down

from the wagon to talk with the elder. The dray lizards

munched contentedly on rich riverbank growth.

The old otter put aside his fishing pole and studied them.

His short whistle indicated he didn’t think much of either man

or turtle, unseen mental talents notwithstanding.

“Sorcerers ye may be, but the passage through the Teeth

by way of the river is little but a legend. Ye can travel b\

legend only in dreams. Which is all that’s likely to be left of

ye if ye persist in this folly. Sixty years I’ve lived on the

banks of the Sloomaz-ayor-le-Weentli.” He gestured fondly

at the flowing water behind him. “Never have I heard tell of

anyone fool enough to try and go into the mountains by way

of it.”

“Sounds convincin’ enough for me, ‘e does.” Mudge

leaned out of the wagon and spoke brightly. “That settles

that: time to turn about for ‘ome.”

Ion-Tom looked over his shoulder at the green-capped face

“That does not settle it.”



Mudge shrugged cheerfully. “Can’t biff a bloke for tryin’,

mate. I ought t’ know better, I knows it, but somethin’ in me

insists on tryin’ t’ fight insanity in the ranks.”

“Ya ought ta have more faith in da master.” Pog fluttered

above the wagon and chided the otter. “Ya oughta believe in

him and his abilities and great talents.” He drifted lower

above Mudge and whispered. “Frankly, we all been candi-

dates for da fertilizer pile since we started on dis half-assed

trek, but if da boss tinks we gots to go on, we don’t got much

choice. Don’t make him mad, chum.”

But Jon-Tom had overheard. He walked back to stand next

to the wagon. “Clothahump knows what he’s doing. I’m sure

if things turned suicidal he’d listen to reason.”

“Ya tink dat, does ya?” Pog’s small sharp teeth flashed as

he hovered in front of Jon-Tom. One wing pointed toward the

turtle, who was still conversing with the old otter.

“Da boss has kept Mudge from runnin’ off and abandonin’

dis trip wid t’reats. What makes ya tink he’d be more polite

where you’re concerned?”

“He owes me a debt,” said Jon-Tom. “If I insisted on

remaining behind, I don’t think he’d try to coerce me.”

Pog laughed, whirled around in black circles. “Dat’s what

you tink! Ya may be a spellsinger, Jon-Tom-mans, but you’re

as naive as a baby’s belly!’ He rose and skimmed off over

the river, hunting for insects and small flying lizards.

“Is that your opinion too, Mudge? Do you think Clothahump

would keep me from leaving if that’s what I wanted?”

“I wouldn’t ‘ave ‘alf a notion, mate. But since you say you

want to keep on with this madness, there ain’t no point in

arguin’ it, is there?” He retreated back inside the wagon,

leaving Jon-Tom to turn and walk slowly back down to the

riverbank. Try as he would to shove the thought aside, it

continued to nag him. He looked a little differently at



Alan Dean Foster

“There be only one way ye might get even partway s

through,” continued the old otter, “and if yer lucky, out

again alive. That’s to have a damn good boatman. Qne who

knows how to maneuver on the Second river. That’s the only

way ye’ll even get inside the mountain.”

“Can you recommend such an individual?” asked


“Oh, I know of several good boatfolk,” the oldster boasted.

He turned, spat something brown and viscous into the water,

then looked from the turtle to Jon-Tom. “Trouble for ye is

that ain’t none of ’em idiots. And that’s going to be as

important a qualification as any kind of river skill, because

only an idiot’s going to try and take ye where ye wants to


“We have no need of your sarcasm, young fellow,” said

Clothahump impatiently, “only of your advice. If you would

rather not give us the benefit of your knowledge, then we will

do our best to find it elsewhere.”

“All right, all right. Hang onto ye shell, ye great stuffed

diviner of catastrophes!

“There’s one, just one, who might be willing to help ye

out. He’s just fool enough to try it and just damnblast good

enough to bring it off. Whether ye can talk him into doin’ so

is something else again.” He gestured to his left.

“Half a league farther on you’ll find that the riverbank

rises steeplike. Still farther you’ll eventual come across sev-

eral large oaks overlooking a notch or drop in the cliffs. He’s

got his place down there. Goes by the name of Bribbens


“Thank you for your help,” said Clothahump.

“Would it help if we mentioned your name to him?”

Jon-Tom wondered.

The otter laughed, his whistles skipping across the water.

“Hai, man, the only place me name would help you is in the



better whorehouses in Wottletowne, and that’s not where ye

are going!”

Clothahump reached into one of his plastron compart-

ments, withdrew a small silver coin, and offered it to the

otter. The oldster stepped away, waving his hands.

“No, no, not for me, friend! I take no payment for

assisting the doomed.” He gathered up his pole and gear and

ambled crookedly off upstream.

“Nice of him to give us that name,” said Jon-Tom,

watching the other depart. “Since he wouldn’t take the

money, why didn’t we try to help his arthritis?”

“Arth.. .his joint-freezes, you mean, boy?” Clothahump

adjusted his spectacles. “It is a long spell and requires time

we do not have.” He turned resolutely toward the wagon.

Jon-Tom continued to stand there, watching the crippled

otter make his loping way eastward. “But he was so helpful.”

“We do not know that yet,” the turtle insisted. “I was

willing to chance a little silver on it, but not a major medical

spell. He could simply have told us his stories to impress us,

and the name to get rid of us.”

“Awfully cynical, aren’t you?”

Clothahump gazed up at him as they both scrambled into

the wagon. “My boy, the first hundred years Of life teaches

you that no one is inherently good. The next fifty tells you

that no one is inherently bad, but is shaped by his surround-

ings. And after two hundred years… give me a hand there,

that’s a good boy.” Jon-Tom helped lug the bulky body over

the wooden rail and into the wagon.

“After two hundred years, you leam that nothing is pre-

dictable save that the universe is full of illusions. If the

cosmos withholds and distorts its truths, why should we

expect less of such pitifully minute components of it as that

otter… or you, or me?”


Alan Dean Foster

Jon-Tom was left to ponder that as the wagon once more

rolled noisily westward.

Everyone hoped the oldster’s recommendation was sounder

than his estimate of distance, for it took them two full days of

traveling before they encountered three massive oaks domi-

nating a low dip in the riverbank. While still a respectable

width, the river had narrowed between the higher banks and

ran with more power, more confidence, and occasional flecks

of foam.

Still, it didn’t appear particularly dangerous or hard to

navigate to Jon-Tom. He wondered at the need for a guide.

The river was far more gentle than the rapids they had passed

(admittedly with Falameezar’s muscle) on the journey to


The path that wound its careful way down to the shore was

narrow and steep. The lizards balked at it. They had to be

whipped and cajoled downward, their claws shoving at the

dirt as they tried to move backward instead of down the

slope. Gravel and rocks slid over the side of the path. Once

they nearly had a wheel slip over the edge, threatening to

plunge wagon and lizards and all ass-over-heels into the tiny

chasm. Verbally and physically, however, they succeeded in

eventually getting the lizards to the bottom.

Reeds and ferns dominated the little cove in which they

found themselves. To the left, hunkered up tight against the

cliffs, they found a single low building. It was not much

bigger than a shack. A few small circular windows winked

like eyes as they approached it, peering out beneath brows of

adobe and thatching. Smoke curled lazily from the brown and

gray rock chimney made of rounded river stones.

What attracted their attention the most was the boat. It was

moored in the shallows. Water lapped gently at its flanks. A

well-tumed railing ran around the deck, and there was no

central cabin.



A heavy steering oar bobbed at the stem. There was also a

single mast from which a fore-rigged sail hung limp and

tired, loosely draped across the boom.

“I hope our guide is as tough as his boat looks to be,”

said Talea as they mounted the covered porch fronting the


“Only one way to find out.” Jon-Tom ducked beneath the

porch roof. The door set in the front of the building was cut

from aged cypress. There was no window or peephole set into


Pog found a comfortable cross-beam, hung head down

from it, and let out a relieved sigh. “Not fancy, maybe, but a

peaceful place ta live. I’ve always liked rivers.”

“How can you like anything?” Talea chided him as they

inspected the house. “You see everything upside down.”

“Lizard crap,” said the bat with a grunt. “You’re da ones

dat sees everyting upside down.”

Clothahump knocked on the door. There was no response.

He rapped again, harder. Still nothing, so he tried the handle.

“Locked,” he said curtly. “I could spell it open easily

enough, but that would mean naught if the owner is not

present.” He sounded concerned. “Could he perhaps be off

on business with a second boat?”

“If so,” Jon-Tom started to say, “it wouldn’t hurt us to

have a short rest. We could wait until—”

The door opened inward abruptly. The frog that confronted

them stood just over five feet tall, slightly less than Talea, a

touch more than Mudge. Tight snakeskin shorts stopped just

above his knees. The long fringework that lined its hem fell

almost to his ankles. It swayed slightly as he stood inspecting


The shorts were matched by a fringed vest of similar

material. Beneath it he wore a leathern shut that ended above

his elbows. Fringe reached from there to his wrists. He wore


Alan Dean Foster

no hat, but a single necklace made from the vertebrae of

some large fish formed a white collar around his green-and-

yellow-spotted neck.

His ventral side was a pale blue that shaded to pink at the

pulsing throat. The rest of his body was dark green marked

with yellow and black spots. Compared to, say, Mudge or

Clothahump, the coloration was somewhat overwhelming. He

would be difficult to lose sight of, even on a dark day.

Examining them one at a time, the frog surveyed his

visitors. He thoroughly sized up every member of the group,

not missing Pog where he hung from the rafter. The bat’s

head had swiveled around to stare curiously at the boatman.

The frog blinked, spoke in a low monotone distinguished

by its lack of inflection, friendly or otherwise.

“Cash or credit?”

“Cash,” replied Clothahump. “Assuming that we can

work out an agreement to our mutual satisfaction.”

“Mutual my ass,” said the frog evenly. “I’m the one who

has to be satisfied.” When Clothahump offered no rebuttal,

the boatman expressionlessly stepped back inside. “Come on

in, then. No point in standing out in the damp. Sick custom-

ers make lousy passengers.”

They filed in, Jon-Tom and Hor electing to take seats on

the floor rather than risk collision with the low, thick-beamed

ceiling, hi addition, the few chairs looked too rickety to

support much weight.

The frog moved to a large iron stove set against a back

wall. A large kettle simmered musically on the hot metal. He

removed the cover, stirred the contents a few times, then

sampled it with a large wooden ladle. The odor was foul.

Taking a couple of large wooden shakers from a nearby wall

shelf, he dumped some of their powdered contents into the

kettle, stirred the liquid a little more, and replaced the iron

cover, apparently satisfied.



Then he sauntered back to the thick wooden table in the

center of the room. Boating equipment, hooks, ropes,

woodworker’s tools, braces and pegs and hammers lined the

other two walls.

At the back was a staircase leading downward. Possibly it

went to the hold, or to clammier and more suitable sleeping


Leaning forward across the table, the frog clasped wet

palms together and stared across at Clothahump and Jon-Tom.

His long legs were bent sideways beneath the wood so as not

to kick his guests. Caz was standing near one wall inspecting

some of the aquatic paraphernalia. Talea hunted for a suitable

chair. She finally found one and dragged it up to the table,

where she joined the other three.

“My name’s Bribbens Oxiey, of the sandmarsh Oxieys,”

the frog told them. “I’m the best boatman on this or any

other river.” This was stated quietly, without any particular

emphasis or boastfulness.

“I know every loggerhead, every tree stump, every knot,

boulder, and rapids for the six hundred leagues between the

Teeth and Kreshfarm-in-the-Geegs. I know the hiding places

of the mudfishers and the waterdrotes’ secret holes. I can

smell a storm two days before it hits and ride a wave gentle

enough not to upset a full teacup. I even know the exact place

where ten thousand years ago the witch Wutz tripped over the

cauldron full of magic which doubled the river, and I know

therefore whence comes the name Sloomaz-ayor-le-Weentli.”

Jon-Tom gazed back out the still open door, past the

dangling Pog, to what still appeared to be a quite ordinary

stream. Somewhere, he imagined, the river had to fork,

hence the nicknames River of Twos, Double River, and the

others. Since the fork was not here and was unlikely to be

between this spot and the mountains, it had to lie upstream.


Alan Dean Foster

He would soon have the chance to find out, he thought, as he

returned his attention to the conversation.

“I can turn my craft circles ’round any other craft and

reach my destination in half their time. I can ride out weather

that puts other merchantmen and fisherfolk under their beds.

I’m not afraid of anything in the river or out of it.

“I personally guarantee to deliver cargo and/or passengers

to their chosen destination for the agreed-upon fee, on the

date determined in advance, if not earlier, or to forfeit all of

my recompense.

“I can outfight anyone, even someone twice my size,” he

said, glancing challengingly at Jon-Tom, who tactfully did

not respond, “outeat any other intelligent amphibian or mam-

mal, and I have twenty-two matured tadpoles who can attest

to my other abilities.

“My fee is one goldpiece per league. I’m no cook, and

you can provide your own fodder, or fish if you like. As to

drink, river water’s good enough for me, for I’m as home in

it as in this house, but if you get drunk on my craft you’ll

soon find yourself swimming for shore. Any questions so


No one said anything. “Anyone care to dispute anything

I’ve said?” Still no comment from the visitors. Full of

impatient energy, Talea left her seat and stalked to the door,

stood there leaning against the jamb and staring out at the

river. Bribbens watched her and nodded approvingly.

“Right.” He leaned back in his chair, picked idly at the

tangled fringe of his right sleeve. “Now then. How many of

you are going, is there cargo, and where is it you wish to


Clothahump tapped the table with short fingers. “There is

no cargo save our nominal supplies and personal effects, and

all of us are going.” He added uncertainly, “Does our

number affect the fee?”



The frog shoved out his considerable lower lip. “Makes no

difference to me. Fee’s the same whether one of you goes or

all of you. The boat has to travel the same distance upstream

and the same distance down again when I return. One

goldpiece per league.”

“That’s part of the reason for my inquiry,” said the


“The goldpiece per league?” Bribbens eyed him archly.

“No. The direction. You see, it’s downstream we wish to

go, not up.”

The frog belched once. “Downstream. It’s only three days

from here to the base of the Teeth. Not much between. A

couple of villages and that’s all, and them only a day from

here. No one lives at the base of the mountains. They’re all

afraid of the occasional predator who slinks down out of the

Teeth, like the flying lizards, the Ginnentes who nest in the

crags and crevices. I hardly ever find anyone who wants to go

that way. Most everything lies upstream.”

“Nevertheless, we wish to travel down,” said the wizard.

“Far farther, I dare say, than you are accustomed to going. Of

course, if you chose not to go, we will understand. It would

only be normal for you to be afraid.”

Bribbens leaned forward sharply, was eye to eye with

Clothahump across the table, his body stretched over the

wood, webbed hands flat on the surface.

“Bribbens Oxiey is afraid of nothing in or out of the river.

Visitor or not, I don’t like your drift, turtle.”

Clothahump did not pull away from the batrachian face

inches from his own. “I am a wizard and fear only that which

I cannot understand, boatman. We wish to travel not to the

base of the mountains but through them. Down the river as

far as it will carry us and then out the other side of Zaryt’s



Alan Dean Foster

The frog sat back down slowly. “You realize that’s just a

rumor. There iftay not be any other side.”

“That makes it interesting, doesn’t it?” said Clotbahump

Fingers drummed on the table, marking time and thoughts.

“One hundred goldpieces,” Bribbens said at last.

“You said the fee didn’t vary,” Talea reminded him fror

the doorway. “One gold piece a league.”

“That is for travel on earth, female. Hell is more expensive


“I thought you said you weren’t afraid.” Jon-Tom was

careful to make it sound like a normal question, devoid of


“I’m not,” countered Bribbens, “but neither am I stupid

If we survive this journey I want more in return than personal


“Once we enter the mountains I shall be dealing with

unknown waters… and probably other unknowns as well.

Nevertheless,” he added with becoming indifference, “it

should be interesting, as you say, wizard. Water is water,

wherever it may be.”

But Clothahump pushed away from the table, spoke grimly.

“I’m sorry, Bribbens, but we can’t pay you.”

“A wizard who can’t transmute gold?”

“I can,” insisted Clothahump, looking embarrassed. “It’s

just that I’ve misplaced the damn spell, and it’s too compli-

cated to try and fake.” He checked his plastron again. “I can

give you a few pieces now and the rest, uh, later.”

Bribbens rose, slapped the table loudly with both hands.

“It’s been an interesting conversation and I wish you all luck,

which you are going to need even more than you do a good

and willing boatman. Now if you don’t mind excusing me, I

think my supper’s about ready.” He started back toward the




“Wait a minute.” Clothahump frowned at Jon-Tom. Bribbens

halted. “We can pay you, though I’m not sure how much.”

“My boy, there is no point in lying. I don’t do business

that way. We will just have to—”

“No, we can, Clothahump.” He grinned at Mudge. “I’m

something of a beggar in wolfs clothing.”

“Wot?” Then the otter’s face brightened with remem-

brance. “I’d bloody well forgotten that night, mate.”

Jon-Tom unsnapped his cape. It landed heavily on the

table and Bribbens eyed it with interest. As he and the others

watched, Jon-Tom and Mudge slit the cape’s lining. Coins

poured from the rolled lower edge.

When the counting was concluded, the remnant of Jon-

Tom’s hastily salvaged gambling winnings totaled sixty-eight

gold pieces and fifty-two silver.

“Not quite enough.”

“Please,” said Ror, “isn’t it sufficient? We’ll pay you me


“Later. I know.” The boatman would not bend. “Later is a

synonym for never, female. Would you wish me to convey

you ‘almost’ to the end of me river and then make you swim

the rest of the way? By the same light, I will not accept

‘almost’ my determined fee.”

“If you’re as able as you are stubborn, you’re for sure the

best boatman on die river,” grumbled Jon-Tom.

“There’s something more.” Talea was still leaning in the

doorway, but now she was staring outside. “What about our

wagon and team?”

“Sure!” Jon-Tom rose, almost bumped his head, and

looked down at Bribbens. “We’ve got a wagon which any

farmer or fisherman would be proud to own. It’s big enough

to carry all of us and more, and sturdy enough to have done it

all the way across the Swordsward from Polastrindu. There

are harnesses, yokes, four solid dray lizards, and spare


Alan Dean Foster

wheels and supplies, all made from the finest materials. It

was given to us by the city council of Polastrindu itself.”

Bribbens looked uncertain. “I’m not a tradesman.”

“At least have a look at it,” Plor implored him.

The frog hesitated, then padded out onto the porch, ignor-

ing Pog. The others filed out after him. .

Tradesman or not, Bribbens inspected the wagon and its

team intimately, from the state of the harness buckles to the

lizard’s teeth.

When he was finished underneath the wagon, he crawled

out, stared at Clothahump. “I accept. It will make up the


“How munificent of you!” Caz had taken no part in the

bargaining, but his expression revealed he was something less

than pleased by the outcome. “The wagon alone is worth

twenty goldpieces. You would leave us broke and destitute.”

“Perhaps,” admitted Bribbens, “but I’m the only one who

stands a chance of leaving you broke and destitute at your

desired destination. I won’t argue with you.” He paused,

added as an afterthought, “Dinner’s about ready to boil over.

Make up your minds.”

“We have little choice,” said Clothahump, “and no further

use for the wagon anyway.” He glared at Caz, who turned

away and studied the river, unrepentant. “We agree. When

can we start?”

“Tomorrow morning. I have my own preparations to make

and supplies to lay in. Meanwhile, I suggest you all get a

good night’s sleep.” Bribbens looked at the cliffs which rose

to the east.

“Into the Teeth.” He fixed a bulbous eye on Jen-Tom.

“You’ll have no need for money in there, nor on the other

side, if there is one. My offspring will find it here if I don’t

come back, and it will do them more good than the dead.”



Humming to himself, he turned and padded back toward his


They slept in the wagon again that night. As Bribbens

formally explained, their fee included only his services and

transport and did not extend to the use of his home.

But the following morning he was up before the sun and

was ready to depart before they’d hardly awakened. “I like to

get an early start,” he explained as they gathered themselves

for the journey. “I give value for money. You pay for a day’s

travel, you get a day’s travel.”

Caz adjusted his monocle. “Reasonable enough, consider-

ing that we’ve given a month’s pay for every day we’re likely

to travel.”

Bribbens looked unperturbed. “I once saw a rabbit who’d

had all his fur shaved off. He was a mighty funny-looking


“And I,” countered Caz with equal aplomb, “once saw a

ftog whose mouth was too big for his head. He experienced a

terrible accident.”

“What kind of accident?” inquired Bribbens, unimpressed.

“Foot-in-mouth. Worst case I ever saw. It turned out to be


“Progs aren’t subject to hoof-in-mouth.”

The rabbit smiled tolerantly. “My foot in his mouth.”

The two held their stares another moment. Then Bribbens

smiled, an expression particularly suited to frogs.

“I’ve seen it happen to creatures other than my own kind,


Caz grinned back. “It’s common enough, I suppose. And I

see better out of one eye than most people do out of two.”

“See your way to moving a little faster, then. We can’t

sleep here all day.” The boatman ambled off.

Talea was leaning out of the wagon, brushing sleepily at

reluctant curls tight as steel springs.


Alan Dean Foster

“Since you layabouts aren’t ready yet, I’m going to take

the time to secure my team and wagon and lay out fodder for

them,” said the frog.

“Possessive little bugger, ain’t ‘e?” Mudge commented.

“It’s his wagon and team now, Mudge.” Jon-Tom carefully

slipped his staff into the loops crossing his back beneath the

flashing emerald cape. “They’re in his care. Just like we


When they were all assembled on the boat and had tied

down their packs and supplies, Bribbens loosed the ropes,

neatly coiled them in place, and leaned on the long steering

oar. The boat slid out into the river. Pog shifted his grip on

the spreaders high up on the mast and watched as silver sky

raced past blue ground.

Before very long the current caught them. The cove with

its mud-and-thatch house vanished behind. Ahead lay a gray-

brown wall of granite and ice; home to arboreal carnivores,

undisciplined winds, and racing cloud-crowns.

Jon-Tom lay down on the edge of the craft and let a hand

trail lazily in the water. It was difficult to think of the journey

they’d embarked upon as threatening. The water was warmed

from its long journey down from distant Kreshfarm-in-the-

Geegs. The sun often snuck clear of obstructing clouds to lie

pleasantly on one’s face. And there seemed no chance of rain

until the night.

“Three days to get to the base of the mountains, you


“That’s right, man,” Bribbens replied. The boatman did

not look at Jon-Tom when he spoke. His right arm was curled

around the shaft of the steering oar, and his eyes were on the

river ahead. He sat in a chair built onto the railing at the

craft’s stem. A long, thin curved pipe dangled from thick

lips. River breeze carried the thin smoke from its small white

bowl up into the sky.



“How far into the mountains does the river go?” Flor was

on her knees, staring over the front of the boat. Her voice was

full of expectation and excitement.

“Nobody knows,” said Bribbens. “Leagues, maybe weeks

worth. Maybe only a few hours.”

“Where does it end, do you suppose? In an underground


“Helldrink,” said the boatman.

“And what’s Helldrink, Senor Ranar’

“A rumor. A story. An amalgam of all the fears of every

creature that’s ever navigated on the waters in times of

trouble, during bad storms or on leaking ships, in foul

harbors or under the lash of a drunken captain. I’ve spent my

life on me water and in it. It would be worth the trip to me if

we should find it, even should it mean my death. It’s where

all true sailors should end up.”

“Does that mean we’re likely to get a refund?” inquired


The boatman laughed. “You’re a sharp fellow, aren’t you,

rabbit? I hope if we find it you’ll still be able to joke.”

“There should be no difficulty,” said Clothahump. “I, too,

have heard legends of Helldrink. They say that you know it is

there before you encounter it. All you need do is deposit us

safely clear of it and, we will continue our journey on foot.

You may proceed to your sailor’s discovery however you


“Sounds like a fine scenario, sir,” the boatman agreed.

“Assuming I can make a landing somewhere safe, if there is a

safe landing. Otherwise you may have to accompany me on

my discovery.”

“So you’re risking your. life to leam the truth about this

legend?” asked Flor.

“No, woman. I’m risking my life for a hundred pieces of

gold. And a wagon and team. I’m risking my life for


Alan Dean Foster

twenty-two offspring. I’m risking my life because I never

turned down a job in my life. Without my reputation, I’m

nothing. I had to take your offer, you see.”

He adjusted the steering oar a little to port. The boat

changed its heading slightly and moved still further into the

center of the stream.

“Money and pride,” she said. “That’s hardly worth risking

your life for.”

“Can you think of any better reason, then?”

“You bet I can, Rana. One a hell of a lot less brazen than

yours.” She proceeded to explain the impetus for their jour-

ney. Bribbens was not to be recruited.

“I prefer money, thank you.”

It was a good thing Falameezar was no longer with them,

Jen-Tom thought. He and their boatman were at opposite ends

of the political spectrum. Of course, with Falameezar, they

would not have required Bribbens’ services. He was surprised

to discover that despite the archaic, inflexible political philos-

ophy, he still missed the dragon.

“Young female,” Bribbens said finally, “you have your

romantic ideas and I’ve got mine. I’m helping you to satisfy

your needs and that’s all you’ll get from me. Now shut up. I

dislike noisy chatter, especially from romantic females.”

“Oh you do, do you?” Ror started to get to her feet.

“How would you like—”

The frog jerked a webbed hand toward the southern shore.

“It’s not too far to the bank, and you look like a pretty good

swimmer, for a human. I think you can make it without any


Flor started to finish her comment, got the point, and

resumed her seat near the craft’s bow. She was fuming, but

sensible. It was Bribbens’ game and they had to play with his

equipment, according to his rules. But that didn’t mean she

had to like it.



The boatman puffed contentedly on his pipe. “Interesting

group of passengers, more so than my usual.” He tapped out

the dottle on the deck, locked the steering oar in position, and

commenced repacking his pipe. “Wonder to me you haven’t

killed one another before now.”

It was odd, Jon-Tom mused as they drifted onward, to be

moving downstream and yet toward mountains. Rivers ran out

of hills. Perhaps the Sloomaz-ayor-le-WeentU dropped into an

as yet unseen canyon. If so, they would have a spectacular

journey through the mountains.

Occasionally they had to set up the canvas roofing that

attached to the railings to keep off the nightly rain. At such

times Bribbens would fix the oar and curve them to a safe

landing onshore. They would wait out the night there, rain-

drops pelting the low ceiling, until the sun rose and pushed

aside the clouds. Then it was on once more, borne swiftly but

smoothly in the gentle grip of the river.

Jon-Tom did not fully appreciate the height of Zaryt’s

Teeth until the third day. They entered me first foothills that

morning. The river cut its way insistently through the green-

cloaked, rolling mounds. Compared to the nearing moun-

tains, the massive hillocks were merely bruises on the earth.

Here and there great lumps of granite protruded through the

brush and topsoil. They reminded Jon-Tom of the fingertips

of long-buried giants and brought back to him the legends of

these mountains. While not degenerating into rapids, the river

nonetheless increased its pace, as if anxious to carry those

traveling upon it to some unexpected destination.

Several days passed during which they encountered nothing

suggestive of habitation. The hills swelled around them,

becoming rockier and more barren. Even wildlife hereabouts

was scarce.

Once they did drift past a populated beach. A herd of

unicorns was backed up there against the water. Stallions and


Alan Dean Foster

marcs formed a semicircle with the water at their backs

protecting the colts, which snorted and neighed nervously.

Pacing confusedly before the herd’s defensive posture wa

a pack of perhaps a dozen lion-sized lizards. They were sleei

as whippets and their red and white scales gleamed in th


As the travelers cruised past, one of the lizards sprang

trying to leap over the adults and break the semicircle

Instead, he landed on the two-foot-long, gnarly hom of one

of the stallions.

A horrible hissing crackled like fresh foil through the day

and blood fountained in all directions, splattering colts and

killer alike. Bending his neck, the unicorn used both forehooves

to shove the contorted body of the dying carnivore oflf his


The boat drifted around a bend, its passengers ignorant of

the eventual outcome of the war. Blood from the impaled

predator flowed into the river. The red stain mindlessly

stalked the retreating craft….



It was the following afternoon, when they rounded a benc

in the river, that Jon-Tom thought would surely be their last.

The foothills had grown steadily steeper around them. They

were impressive, but nonexistent compared to the sheer

precipices that suddenly rose like a wall directly ahead

Clouds veiled their summits, parting only intermittently to

reveal shining white caps at the higher elevations; snow and

ice that never melted. The mottled stalks of conifers looked

like twigs where they marched up into the mists.

It was a seamless gray cliff which rose up unbroken ahead

of the raft. Solid old granite, impassable and cold.

Bribbens was neither surprised nor perturbed by this im-

passable barrier. Leaning hard on the sweep, he turned the

boat to port. At first Jon-Tom thought they would simply

! ground on me rocks lining the shore, but when they rounded

a massive, sharp boulder he saw the tiny beach their boatman

was aiming for.


Alan Dean Foster

It was a dry notch cut into the fringe of the mountain.

Warm water slapped against his boots as the boat’s passen-

gers scrambled to pull it onto the sand. Driftwood mixed with

the blackened remnants of many camp fires. The little cove

was the last landing point on the river.

On the visible river, anyway.

The wind tumbled and rolled down the sheer cliffs. It

seemed to be saying, “Go back, fools! There is nothing

beyond here but rock and death. Go back!” and a sudden

gust would send Talea or Mudge stumbling westward as the

wind tried to urge their retreat.

Jon-Tom waded out into the river until the water lapped at

his boot tops. Leaning around a large, slick rock, he was able

to see why Bribbens had rowed them into the protected cove.

Several hundred yards downstream, downstream was no

more. An incessant crackling and grinding came from the

river’s end. An immense jam of logs and branches, bones,

and other debris boiled like clotted pudding against the gray

face of the mountain. Foam thundered on rock and wood like

cold lava.

He couldn’t see where the water vanished into the moun-

tainside because of the obstructing flotsam, but from time to

time a log or branch would be sucked beneath the brow of the

cliff, presumably into the cavern beyond. The thickness of the

jam suggested that the cave opening into the mountain couldn’t

be more than a few inches above the wateriine. If it were

higher, he would have been able to see it as a dark stain on

the granite, and if lower, the river would have backed up and

drowned out, among other things, me cove they were beached


But the opening must be quite deep, because the river had

narrowed until it was no more than thirty yards wide where it

ground against the mountainside, and the current was no

swifter than usual.



“What do we do now?” Flor had waded out to stand next

to him. She watched as logs several yards thick spun and

bounced off the rock. They must have weighed thousands of

pounds and were waterlogged as well.

“There’s no way we can move any of that stuff upstream

against the current.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he told her. “Even if Clothahump

could magic them aside, the opening’s still much too low to

let the boat through.”

“So it seems.” Bribbens stood on the sand behind them.

He was unloading supplies from the boat. “But we’re not

going in that way. That is, we are, but we’re not.”

“I don’t follow you,” said Jon-Tom.

“You will. You’re paying to.” He grinned hugely. “Why

do you think the Sloomaz-ayor-le-WeentU is called also The

Double River, The River of Twos?”

“I don’t know.” Jon-Tom was irritated at his ignorance. “I

thought it forked somewhere upstream. It doesn’t tell me how

we’re going to get through there,” and he pointed at the

churning, rumbling mass of jackstraw debris.

“It does, if you know.”

“So what do we do first?” he said, tired of riddles.

“First we take anything that’ll float off the boat,” was the

boatman’s order.

“And then.”

“And then we pole her out into the middle of the current,

open her stoppers, and sink her. After we’ve anchored her

securely, of course.”

Jon-Tom started to say something, thought better of it.

Since the frog’s statement was absurd and since he was

clearly not an idiot, then it must follow that he knew some-

thing Jon-Tom did not. When confronted by an inexplicable

claim, he’d been taught, it was better not to debate until the

supporting evidence was in.

“I still don’t understand,” said Flor confusedly.


Alan Dean Foster

“You will,” Bribbens assured her. “By the way, can you

both swim?”

“Fairly well,” said Jon-Tom.

“I don’t drown,” was Hor’s appraisal.

“Good. I hope the other human is likewise trained.

“For the moment you can’t do anything except help with

the unloading. Then I suggest you relax and watch.”

When the last buoyant object had been removed from the

boat, they took the frog at his word and settled down on the

beach to observe.

Bribbens guided the little vessel out into the river. On

locating a place that suited him (but that looked no different

from anywhere else to Jon-Tom and Hor) he tossed over bow

and stem anchors. Sunlight glistened off the boatman’s now

bare green and black back and off the smooth fur of the nude

otter standing next to him.

Both watched as the anchors descended. The boat slowly

swung around before halting about a dozen yards farther

downstream. Bribbens tested the lines to make certain both

anchors were fast on the bottom.

Then he Vanished belowdecks for several minutes. Soon

me boat began to sink. Shortly only the mast was visible

above the surface. Then it too had sunk out of sight. Mudge

swam above the spot where it had gone under, occasionally

dipping his head beneath me surface. The amphibian Bribbens

was as at home in the river’s depths as he was on land.

Mudge was almost as comfortable, being a faster swimmer

but unable to extract oxygen from the water.

Soon the otter waved to those remaining on shore. He

shouted something unintelligible. They saw his back arch as

he dived. He repeated the dive-appear-dive-appear sequence

several times. Then Bribbens broke the surface alongside him

and they both swam in to the beach.

They silently took turns convoying the floatable supplies



(carefully packed in watertight skins) out to the center of the

stream, disappearing with them, and then returning for more.

Finally Bribbens stood dripping on the beach. “Good thing

the river doesn’t come out of the mountain. Be too cold for

this sort of thing.”

“What sort of thing?” a thoroughly bemused Flor wanted

to know.

“Let’s go and you’ll find out.”

“Go? Go where?”

“Why, to the ship, of course,” said Talea. “You don’t

know, do you?”

“No one explains things to me. They just look.” She was

almost angry.

“It will all be explained in a minute,” said Clothahump


The boatman held out a watertight sack. “If you’ll put

your clothes in here.”

“What for?” Flor’s gaze narrowed.

Bribbens explained patiently, “So they won’t get wet.” He

started to turn away. “It’s no difference to me. If you want to

spend the journey inside the probably cold mountain in wet

clothing, that’s your business. I’m not going to argue with


Jon-Tom was already removing his cape and shirt. Talea

and Caz were doing likewise. Flor gave a little shrug and

began to disrobe while the wizard made sure his plastron

compartments were sealed tight. Physically he was the weakest

of them, but like the boatman, he would have no difficulty

going wherever they were going.

There was one problem, though. It took the form of a black

lump hanging from a large piece of driftwood.

“Absolutely not! Not on your life, and sure as hell not on

mine.” Pog folded his wings adamantly around his body and

looked immovable. “I’ll wait for ya here.”

“We may not return this way,” explained Clothahump.


Alan Dean Foster

“You may not return at all, but dat ain’t da point dat’s

botherin’ me,” grumbled the bat.

“Come now.” Clothahump had elected to try reason on his

famulus. “I could make you come, you know.”

“You can make me do a lot of tings, boss,” replied the

bat, “but not you nor anyting else in dis world’s going to

drag me into dat river!”

“Come on, Pog.” Jon-Tom felt silly standing naked on the

beach arguing with the reluctant bat. “Ror, Talea, Caz, and I

aren’t water breathers either. But I trust Clothahump and our

boatman to know what they’re about. Surely we’re going to

reach air soon. I can’t hold my breath any longer man you.”

“Water’s fit for drinking, not for living in,” Pog continued

to insist. “You ain’t getting me into dat liquid grave and dat’p


Jon-Tom’s expression turned sorrowful. “If that’s the wa;»

you feel about it.” He’d seen Talea and Mudge sneaking

around to get behind the driftwood. “You might as well wai

here for us, I suppose.”

“I beg your pardon?” said the wizard.

Jon-Tom put a hand on the turtle’s shell, turned him toward

the river. “It’s no use arguing with him, sir. His mind i-;

made up and—”

“Hey? Let me loose! Damn you, Mudge, get off m>

wings! I’ll tear your guts out! I’ll, I’ll…! Let me up!”

“Get his wings down!… Watch those teeth!” Hor and

Jon-Tom rushed to help. The four of them soon had the bat

neatly pinned. Talea located some strong, thin vines and

began wrapping the famulus like a holiday package.

“Sorry to do this, old fellow,” said Caz apologetically,

“but we’re wasting time. Jon-Tom’s right though, you know

I’m probably the worst swimmer of this lot, but I’m willing

to give it a go if Clothahump insists there’s no danger.”



“Of course not,” said the wizard. “Well, very little, in

any case. Bribbens knows precisely how far we must descend.”

The boatman stood listening. He eyed the bat distastefully.

“Right. Bring him along, then.”

They carried the bound and trussed famulus toward the

water’s edge.

“Let me go!” Pog’s fear of the river was genuine. “I can’t

do it, I tell ya! I’ll drown. I’m warning ya all I’ll come back

and haunt ya the rest of your damn days!”

“That’s your privilege.” Talea led the way into the river.

“You’ll drown all right,” Bribbens told him, “if you don’t

do exactly as I say.”

“Where are we going, then?” Jon-Tom asked, a little


The frog pointed out and down. “Just swim, man. When

we get to the spot I’ll say so. Then you dive … and swim.”

“Straight down?” Jon-Tom kicked, the water smooth and

fresh around him. A little shiver of fear raced down his back.

Clothahump and Bribbens and to a lesser extent Mudge need

have no fear of the water. It was one of their environments.

But what if they were wrong? What if the underwater cave (or

whatever it was they were going down into) lay too deep?

A friendly pat on one shoulder reassured him. ” ‘Ere now,

why the sunken face, mate? There ain’t a bloomin’ thing t’

worry about.” Mudge smiled around his wet whiskers. ” ‘Tain’t

far down atall, not even for a splay-toed ‘uman.”

Bribbens halted, bobbing in the warm current. “Ready then?

Just straight down. I’ve allowed for the carry of the current,

so no need to worry about that.”

Everyone exchanged glances. Pog’s protests bordered on


“Here, give the flyer over.” A disgusted Bribbens gripped

one side of the bat, locking fingers tightly in the bindings.


Alan Dean Foster

Pog resembled a large mouse sealed in black plastic. “You

take the other side.”

“Righty-ho, mate.” Mudge grabbed a handful of vines

opposite the frog.

With the two strongest swimmers holding their reluctant,

wailing burden, Bribbens instructed the others. “Count to

three, then dive.” The humans nodded. So did Caz, who was

doing a good job of concealing his fears.

“Ready? One… two… better stop screaming and take a

deep breath, bat, or you’ll be ballast.. .three!”

Backs arched into the morning air. The howling ceased as

Pog suddenly gulped air.

Jen-Tom felt himself sliding downward. Below the surface

the water quickly turned darker and cooler. It clutched feebly

at his naked body as he kicked hard.

Around him were the dim forms of his companions. A

slick palm touched one fluttering foot, pushed gently. Looking

back he could make out the plump shape of Clothahump. He

was swimming casually around the nonaquatics. The water

took a hundred years off his age, and he moved with the grace

and ease of a ballet dancer.

The push was more to insure that no one lost his orienta-

tion and began swimming sideways than to speed the swimmers

in their descent.

Even so, Jon-Tom was beginning to grow a mite con-

cerned. Increasing pressure told him that they’d descended a

respectable distance. Both he and Flor were in fairly good

condition, but he was less sure of Pog and Caz. If they didn’t

reach the air pocket they had to be heading toward shortly,

he’d have to turn around and swim for the surface.

The surface he broke was unexpected, however. He felt

himself falling helplessly, head over heels, windmilling his

arms in a desperate attempt to regain his balance.

A loud splash echoed up to him as someone else hit the



water. Then he landed with equal force, sank a few feet, and

fought his way back to the surface and fresh air.

He broke through and inhaled several deep breaths. Nearby

Talea’s red curls hung straight and limp as paint from her

head. She blinked away water, gasped, and sniffed once.

“Well, that wasn’t bad at all. I’d heard it wasn’t, but you

can’t always trust the tales people tell.”

Her breasts bobbed easily in the current. Jon-Tom stared at

her, more conscious now of her nudity than he’d been when

they’d first removed then- clothes up above.

But they were above. Weren’t they?

Something shoved him firmly between the shoulders.

“Let the current carry you.”

Jon-Tom turned in the water, stared into the vast eyes of

Bribbens. Looking past him he saw the ship. It was neatly

anchored and sat stable in the middle of the stream, perhaps

ten yards away. They were drifting toward it.

Following the boatman’s advice he relaxed, his body grate-

ful for the respite after the dive, and let the current push him

toward the boat. Mudge was already aboard, restocking

supplies. He leaned over the side and gave Jon-Tom a hand

up, then did the same for Talea.

There was a large, flopping thing on deck that Jon-Tom

first thought to be an unfortunate fish. It flipped over, and he

recognized the still bound and outraged body of Pog. He

accepted Mudge’s preferred towel, dried himself, and began

to untie the famulus’ bonds.

“You okay, Pog?”

“No, I’m not okay, dammit! I’m cold, drenched, and sore

all over from that fall.”

“But you made it through all right.” Jon-Tom loosened

another slipknot and one wing stretched across the deck. It

jerked, sent water flying.


Alan Dean Foster

“Not much I can do about it now, I guess,” he said


With the other wing unbound the bat got to his knees, then

his feet. He stood there fanning both wings slowly back and

forth to dry them.

Mudge joined them. His fur shed the water easily and,

almost dry, he was slipping back into his clothes.

“Wbt’s up, mate?” he asked the bat. “Don’t you ‘ave no

word for your old buddy?”

The large sack of clothing lay opened nearby. Jon-Tom

moved to sort his own attire from the wad.

“Yeah, I got something to say ta my old buddy. You can go

fuck yourself!” The bat flapped hard, lifted experimentally

off the deck, and rose to grip the right spreader. He hung head

down from there, his wings still extended and drying.

“Now don’t be like that, mate,” said the otter, fitting his

cap neatly over his ears and fluffing out the feather. “It was

necessary. You were ‘ardly about t’ come voluntarily, you


Pog said nothing further. The otter shrugged and left the

disgruntled apprentice to his huff.

Jon-Tom buttoned his pants. While the others continued

dressing around him, he took a moment to inspect their

extraordinary new surroundings.

There was a dull roaring as if from a distant freight train. It

sounded constantly in the ears and was a subtle vibration in

his own body. His first thought was that they were in a dimly

lit tunnel. In a way they were.

The ship rode easily at anchor. On either side were high,

moist banks lush with mosses and fungi^ That they were not

normal riverbanks was proven by the peculiar habits of the

higher growths clinging to them. These fems and creepers put

out roots both upward and down, into both running rivers.

Above was a silver-gray sky: the underside of the upper



river. Jon-Tom estimated the distance between the two streams

at perhaps ten meters. The mast of the boat cleared the watery

ceiling easily.

How the two rivers flowed without meeting, without smashing

together and eliminating the air space between them, was an

interesting bit of physics. More likely of magic, he re-

minded himself.

“Easy part’s over with.” Bribbens moved to wind in the

bow anchor, using the small winch bolted there.

“The easy part?” Jon-Tom didn’t hear the boatman too

clearly. Water still sloshed in his ears.

“Yes. This much of the Sloomaz-ayor-le-WeentIi is known.

Little traveled in its lower portion, but still known.” He

pointed with a webbed hand over the bow. Ahead of them the

river(s) disappeared into darkness.

– “What’s ahead is not.”

Jon-Tom walked forward and gave the boatman a hand

with the winch. “Thanks,” Bribbens said when they were


A strong breeze blew in Jon-Tom’s face. It came from the

blackness forward and chilled his face even as it dried his

long hair. He shivered a little. The wind came from inside the

mountain. That hinted at considerable emptiness beyond.

Here there was no mass of water-soaked debris to prevent

their continued traveling. The mouthlike opening could easily

swallow the logs and branches bunched against the mountain-

side above. The cliff did not descend this far.

When they had the second anchor up and secured and the

boat was drifting downstream once more, Bribbens moved to

a watertight locker set in the deck. It offered up oil lamps and

torches. These were set in hook or hole and lit.

The wind blew the flames backward but not out. Oil light

flickered comfortingly inside conical glass lamps.


Alan Dean Foster

“Why didn’t you explain it to us?” Flor brushed at her

long black mane while she chatted with the boatman.

Bribbens gestured at the squat shape of Clothahump, who

rested against the railing nearby. “He suggested back at my

cove that it’d be a good idea not to say anything to you.”

Jon-Tom and Flor looked questioningly at Clothahump.

“That is so, youngsters.” He pointed toward the flowing

silver roof. “From there to here’s something of a fall. I

wasn’t positive of the distance or of what your mental

reactions to such a peculiar dive might be. I thought it best

not to go into detail. I did not wish to frighten you.”

“We wouldn’t have been frightened,” said Flor firmly.

“That may be so,” agreed the wizard, “but there was no

need to take the chance. As you can see we are all here safe

and sound and once more on our way.”

A muttered obscenity fell from the form on the right


They were interrupted by a loud multiple splashing to

starboard. As they watched, several fish the size of large bass

leaped skyward. Their fins and tails were unusually broad and


Two of the leapers fell back, but the third intersected the

flowing sky, got his upper fins into the water, and wiggled its

way out of sight overhead. Several minutes passed, and then

it rained minnows. A huge school of tiny fish came shooting

out of the upper river to disappear in the lower. The two

unsuccessful leapers were waiting for them. They were soon

joined by the descending shape of the stronger jumper.

Jon-Tom had grown dizzy watching the up-and-down pur-

suit. His brain was more confused than his eyes. The new

optical information did not match up with stored information.

“The origin of the name’s obvious,” he said to the

boatman, “but I still don’t understand how it came to be.”

Bribbens proceeded to relate the story of the Sloomaz-ayor-



le-WeentIi, of the great witch Wutz and her spilled cauldron

of magic and the effect this had had upon the river forevermore.

When he’d finished the tale Plor shook her head in disbe-

lief. “‘Grande, fantastico. A schizoid stream.”

“What makes the world go ’round, after all, Flor?” said

Jon-Tom merrily.

“Gravitation and other natural laws.”

“I thought it was love.”

“As a matter of fact,” said Clothahump, inserting himself

into the conversation, “the gravitational properties of love are

well known. I suppose you believe its attractive properties

wholly psychological? Well let me tell you, my boy, that

there are certain formulae which…” and he rambled off into

a learned discussion, half balderdash and half science: which

is to say, fine magic. Jon-Tom and Flor tried to follow, largely

in vain.

Talea leaned on the bow railing, her gaze fixed on the

blackness ahead and around them. The cool wind continued,

ruffling her hair and making her wonder what lay ahead,

concealed by the screen of night.

For days they drifted downstream in darkness; water above,

water below, floating through an aqueous tube toward an

uncertain destination. Jon-Tom was reminded of a corpuscle

in the bloodstream. After all the talk of Zaryt’s “Teeth” and

of traveling into the “belly” bf the mountain, he found the

analogy disquieting.

From time to time they would anchor in midstream and

supplement their supplies from the river’s ample piscean

population. Occasionally Bribbens and Mudge would make

exploratory forays into the upper river. They would climb the

mast, Mudge helping the less adapted boatman. A small float

attached to an arrow was shot into the underside of the current

overhead. The float was inflated until it held securely. Then

the cord trailing from it would be tied to the mast. Bribbens


Alan Dean Foster

and the otter would then shinny up it, to disappear into the

liquid ceiling.

With them went small sealed oil lamps fitted with handles.

These provided light in the darkness, a necessity since even

such agile swimmers as the two explorers could become lost

in the deep waters.

On the twelfth day, when the monotony of the trip had

become dangerously settled, Bribbens slid down the line in a

state of uncharacteristic excitement.

“I think we’re through,” he announced cheerily.

“Through? Through where? Surely not the mountains.”

Clothahump frowned. “It could not be. The range is too

massive to be so narrow. And the legends…”

“No, no, sir. Not through the mountains. But the airspace

above the upper river has suddenly expanded from but a few

inches to one many feet high. There is a substantial cave, far

more interesting to look at than this homogeneous tunnel. We

can travel above now, and there’s some light as well.”

“What kind of light?” Flor wanted to know.

“You’ll see.”

Preparations were made. Buoyant material did not have to

be dragged or shoved downward this time. Instead, they

simply had to raise it to the upper stream and insert it,

whereupon it would instantly bob to the second surface.

Mudge was waiting to slip a line on such packages and drag

them to shore.

When all their stores had been transferred, the nonaquatics

climbed the mast rope and pushed themselves into the upper

river. It was far easier to ascend than that first uncertain dive

had been.

Jon-Tom broke the surface with wind to spare. He remained

there a while, treading water as he inspected the cavern into

which the river emerged.

The boatman had understated its size in his usual phlegmat-



ic fashion. The cave was enormous. Off to his left Jon-Tom

could see the abrupt cessation of the solid stone wall that had

formed a tight lid on the upper stream for so many days.

Little debris drifted this far on the river, and what few pieces

and bits of wood tumbled by were worn almost smooth from

the continual buffeting against that unyielding overhang.

More amazing were the cavern walls. They appeared to be

coated with millions of tiny lights. He swam lazily toward the

nearby beach, crawled out and selected a towel with which to

dry himself, and moved to inspect the nearest glowing rocks.

The lights were predominantly gold in hue, though a few

odd bursts and patches of red, blue, green, and yellow were

visible. The bioluminescents were lichens and fungi of many

species, ranging from mere colored smears against the rock to

elaborate mushrooms and step fungi. Individually their lumen

output was insignificant, but in the millions they illuminated

the cavern as thoroughly as an evening sun.

He was kneeling to examine a cluster of bright blue

toadstools when a vast rush and burble sounded behind him.

He turned, instinctively expecting to see some unmentionable

river monster rising from the depths. It was only their boat.

The first days on board he’d wondered at the purpose of

great collapsed intestines, carefully scraped and dried, that

lined the little craft’s hold. Now he knew. Having been

inflated in turn they’d given the boat sufficient lifting power

to rise like a balloon from the lower river right up to the

surface of its twin.

Now it bobbed uncertainly as Bribbens rushed to open the

valves sealing each inflated stomach before they could lift the

ship from its second surface to the ceiling of the cavern.

Water ran off the decks and out the seacocks. Mudge pumped

furiously to purge the remaining water from the hold.

Dry and dressed, the passengers were soon traveling once

more eastward. The scenery had improved greatly. Jon-Tom


Alan Dean Foster

hoped the cavern would not shrink around them and force

them again down to the dull surface of the understream.

He needn’t have worried. Instead of compacting, the cav-

ern grew larger. It seemed endless, stretching vast and fluo-

rescent ahead of them.

Phosphorescent growths made the river an artist’s palette,

oils of many colors all run together and anarchically brilliant.

Gigantic stalactites drooped like teeth from the distant ceil-

ing. Some were far larger than the boat. They drifted past

huge panels of flowstone, frozen rivers of stained calcite.

Helictites curled and twisted from the walls, twitching at

gravity like so many crystalline whiskers. Fungi flashed from

diem all.

On both sides they could see passages branching from the

main cavern. Jon-Tom had a powerful urge to grab a lamp

and do some casual spelunking. But Clothahump reminded hiru

there would be ample exploring to do without deviating frori

their course. So long as the river continued to run eastward

they would keep to the boat.

The size and magnificence of the cavern kept him fror.i

thinking about the composition of the Sloomaz-ayor-le-Weenti:

It was disconcerting to sail along a river that flowed not o.-

rock or sand but on air.

“How do you know it even has a solid bottom?” Plor onc,-

asked their boatman. “Maybe it’s a triple—or quadruple–


Bribbens rested in his seat at the stem, one arm draped

protectively across the steering oar.

“Because I’ve been in and out of it many times, lady.

Anyway, no matter where you are on the river the anchors

always bite into the second bottom.”

Here and there the warm glow of the bioluminescents

would fade and then vanish. At such times they had to rely on



me lamps for light until they reached another fluorescent


It didn’t bother Pog. He’d finally recovered from his

lengthy grumpiness. To him the darkness was natural, and he

enjoyed the stretches of no-light. They could hear him swooping

and darting beyond the range of the boat’s lamps, playing

dodgem with the cave formations. Sometimes he’d leave the

boat for long stretches of time, much to Clothahump’s dis-

pleasure and concern, only to have his internal sonar unerringly

bring him back to the ship many hours later.

“Beautiful,” Jon-Tom was murmuring as he watched the

glowing shapes drift past. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Talea stood next to him and eyed the dark openings that

branched off from the main cavern. Sometimes these gaping

holes would come right down to the river’s edge.

“Funny idea of beauty you have, Jon-Tom. I don’t like it at


“Humans got no appreciation of caves,” said Pog with a

snort, weaving in the air above them. “Dis all wasted on ya

except da spellsinger dere, an’ dat’s da truth!”

“Can I help it if I prefer light to dark, freedom to

confinement?” she countered.

“Amen,” said Flor heartily.

For both women the initial loveliness of the formations had

been surrendered to the superstitious dread most people hold

of deep, enclosed places. Jon-Tom was the only one with a

real interest in caves, and so he was somewhat immune to

such fears. To him the immense shapes, laid down patiently

over the ages by dripping water and dissolved limestone,

were as exquisite as anything the world of daylight had to


Flor and Talea were not alone in their nervousness, however.

“I think I liked it better inside the rivers,” Mudge said one

morning. “Leastwise there a chaploiew where ‘e was, wot?”


Alan Dean Foster

He indicated the darkness of a large, unilluminated sic

passage with a sweep of one furry arm. “Don’t care much tc

this place atall. I ain’t ready t’ be buried just yet.”

“Superstition,” Clothahump muttered. “The bane (


As for their boatman, he remained as calm as if he’d bee

sailing familiar waters.

“Does this place have a name?” Jon-Tom asked him

watching a clump of bright azure mushrooms on the shore,

“Only in legend.” Bribbens looked away for a moment.

An impossibly long tongue flicked out and snared something

which Jon-Tom saw only as a ghost of glittering, transparent

wings and body.

The frog smacked his lips appraisingly. “No color, but the

flavor isn’t bad.” He nodded at the cavern. “In stories and

legends of the riverfolk this is known as the Earth’s Throat.”

“And where does it go?” Bor asked him.

Bribbens shrugged. “Who knows? Your hard-shelled men

tor believes it to travel much of the way through the mow

tains. Perhaps he’s right. I prefer to think we’ll come ou

there instead of, say, the earth’s belly.”

“That doesn’t sound very nice.” Nearby Talea fingered the

haft of her knife as though she could intimidate the surrounding

darkness with it.

Or whatever else might be out there….



They were beginning to think they might complete the

passage through the Teeth (or at least to the end of the river)

without mishap. Long days of idle drifting, the boat carried

smoothly by the current, had lulled the fears they’d acquired

on the Swordsward.

Pog, his hearing more acute than anyone else’s, was first to

note the noise.

“Off key,” he explained in response to their queries, “but

it’s definitely somebody’s idea of song. More than one of

whatever it is, too.”

“I’m sure of it.” Caz’s long ears were cocked alertly

toward the northern shore. They twitched in counterpoint to

his busy nose.

It was several minutes more before the humans could hear

the subject of their companion’s intense listening. It was a

rhythmic rising and falling, light and ethereal as an all-female


Alan Dean Foster

choir might produce. Definitely music, but nothing recogniz-

able as words.

It was occasionally interrupted by a few moments of vivace

modulation that sounded like laughter. Jon-Tom could appre-

ciate the peculiar melodies, but he didn’t care for the laughter-

chords one bit.

Bribbens interrupted their listening, his tone quiet as al-

ways but unusually urgent. “Tiller’s not answering properly.”

Indeed, the boat was drifting steadily toward the north

shore. There was a gravel beach and rocks: not much of a

landing place. Muscles strained beneath the boatman’s slick

skin as he fought the steering, but the boat continued to

incline landward.

Soon they were bumping against the first rocks. These

obstacles poked damp dark heads out of the water around the


Flor stumbled away from the railing on the opposite side

and screamed. Jon-Tom rushed to join her. He stared over the

side and recoiled instinctively.

Dozens of shapes filled the water. They had their hands on

the side of the boat and were methodically pushing at it evec

though it was already half grounded on the rocky bottom.

“Steady now,” said Talea wamingly. She stood at the bow,

her knife and sword naked in the glow-light, and pointed tc

me land.

A great number of creatures were marching toward the

boat. They were identical to the persistent pushers in the

water. All were approximately five feet tall and thin to the

point of emaciation. They were faintly human, memories of

almost-people parading in unison.

Two legs and two arms. They were nude but smooth-

bodied and devoid of external sex organs. For that matter they

displayed nothing in the way of differentiating characteristics

They might have been stamped from a single mold.



Their white flesh was truly white, blank-white, like milk

and bordering on translucence. Two tiny coal-pit eyes sat in

the puttylike heads where real eyes ought to have been. There

were no pupils, no ears or nostrils, and only a flat slit of a

mouth cutting the flesh below the eye-dots. Hands had short

fingers, which along with the legs looked jointless as rubber.

In time to the music they marched toward the ship, waving

their arms slowly and hypnotically while singing their moan-

ing, methodical song.

Jon-Tom looked to Clothahump. The wizard looked baf-

fled. “I don’t know, my boy. None of the legends says

anything about a tribe of albino chanters living in the Throat.”

He called to the marchers.

“What are you called? What is it you want of us?”

“What can we do for you?” Flor asked, adding something

unintelligible in Spanish.

The singers did not respond. They descended the slight

slope of the beach with fluid grace. The ones in the lead

began reaching, clutching over the railing.

Two of them grabbed Talea’s right arm. “Ease back

there,” she ordered them, pulling away. They did not let go

and continued to tug at her insistently.

Several other pale singers were already on the deck and

were pulling with similar patient determination at Jon-Tom

and Mudge.

” ‘Ere now, you cold buggerers, take your bloody ‘ands off

me!” The otter twisted free.

So didJTalea and Jon-Tom. Yet the pale visitors wordlessly

kept advancing, groping for the strangers.

Another sound quietly filled the cavern. It seeped across

the river and dominated the rise and fall of the expressionless

choir. A deep, low moaning, it was in considerable contrast

to the melody of the white singers. It was not at all nice. In

fact, it seemed to Jon-Tom that it embodied every overtone of


Alan Dean Foster

menace and malignance one could put into a single moan. It

issued from somewhere back in the black depths, beyond

where the singers had come from.

“That’s about enough,” said Bribbens firmly. He hefted

his backup steering sweep and began swinging it at the

singers stumbling about on deck. Two of them went down

with unexpected lack of resistance. Their heads bounced like

a pair of rubber balls across the deck. The black eyespots

never twitched and they uttered not a word of pain. Their

singing, however, ceased. One of the skulls bounced over the

railing and landed in the water with a slight splash, to sink

quickly out of sight.

A shocked Bribbens paused to stare at the decapitated

corpses. There was no blood.

“Damn. They aren’t alive.”

“They are,” Clothahump insisted, struggling awkwardly in

the grasp of three singers who were trying to wrestle his

heavy body off the ship, “but it is not our kind of alive.”

“I’ll make them our kind of dead.” Talea’s sword was

moving like a scythe. Three singers fell neatly into six halves.

They lay on the deck like so many lumps of white clay,

motionless and cold.

Jon-Tom hurried to assist Clothahump. “Sir, what do you

think we… ?”

“Fight for it, my boy, fight! You can’t argue with these

things, and I have a feeling that if we’re taken from this boat

we’ll never see it again.” He had retreated inside his shell,

confounding his would-be abductors.

Above the shouts of the boat’s defenders and the singsong

of their horribly indifferent assaulters came a reprise of that

ominous, basso groaning. It was definitely nearer, Jon-Tom

thought, and redoubled his efforts to clear the deck.

He was swinging the club end of his staff in great arcs,

indiscriminately lopping off heads, arms, legs. The singers



broke like hardened clay, but the dozens dismembered were

replaced by ranks of thoughtless duplicates, still droning their

eerie anthem.

“Get us out in the current!” Talea was trying to keep the

white bodies away from the bow.

With Mudge shielding him from clutching fingers Bribbens

put down his oar and returned to the main sweep. Though he

leaned on it as hard as he could, and though the current was

with them, they still couldn’t move away from the shore.

Jon-Tom leaned over the side. Using his reach and the long

club he began clearing bodies from the waterline. White

bands pulled possessively at him from behind, but Flor was

soon at his side swinging her mace, cutting them down like

pale shrubs. Most of them ignored her. Possibly it had

something to do with her white leather clothing, he mused.

He concentrated on swinging the club in long arcs, knocking

away heads or pieces of boneless skull with great rapidity.

Their slight resistance barely slowed the force of his swings.

When the heads were knocked loose the bodies simply

ceased their shoving and slid below the surface. A few

bobbed on the current and drifted like styrofoam down the


The singing continued, undisturbed by the bloodless slaugh-

ter, by screams of anger or despair. Rising louder around the

boat was that rich, bellowing moan. It had become loud

enough now to drown out the chorus. A few fragments of

rock fell from the cavern roof.

Finally enough of the bodies had been swept from the side

of the boat for it to drift once more out into the river. Like so

many termites supple white singers continued to march down

toward the water. They walked until the water was up to their

chests and began swimming slowly after the boat.

Breathing hard, Jon-Tom leaned back against the railing,

holding tight to his staff for additional support. All of the


Alan Dean Foster

original swimmers who’d forced the craft in to shore had

been knocked away or decapitated. Now that they were out

again in midstream, the current kept them well ahead of their

lugubrious pursuers.

“I don’t understand what—” He was talking to the boat-

man, but Bribbens wasn’t listening. He’d suddenly locked the

steering oar in position and was unbolting smaller ones from

the deck.

“Paddle, man! Paddle for your life!”

“What?” Jon-Tom looked back at the shore, expecting to

see the horde of singers clumsily stumbling after them across

the rocks.

Instead his gaze fastened onto something that stifled the

scream welling up in his throat and turned it into that peculiar

choking noise people make at times of true horror. A vast,

glowing gray mass filled the cavern shore behind them. It

came near to touching the ceiling. Where large formations

rose the gray substance flowed over or around it, displaying a

consistency partly like cloud and then like lard. Its moans

rattled the length of the cavern and echoed back from distant


It looked like a fog wrapped with mucus, save for two

enormous, pulsing pink eyes. They stared lidlessly down at

the tiny fleeing ship and the stick figures frozen on its deck.

Bits of its flanks were in constant motion. These portions

of mucus slid toward the ground. As they did so their color

paled to a now familiar white. Tumbling like the eggs of

some gigantic insect, they dropped off the huge slimy sides

onto the rock and gravel. There they rolled over and stood

upright on newly formed legs. Simultaneously a section of

their smooth faces parted and a fresh voice would join

intuitively in the awful mellifluous chorus of its duplicates.

Something hard and unyielding struck Jon-Tom in his

midsection. Looking down he saw the hardwood oar Bribbens



had shoved at him. The glaring frog face moved away, to pass

additional oars to the rest of his passengers.

Then he was back at his sweep, rowing madly and yelling

at his companions. “Paddle, damn you all, paddle!”

Jon-Tom’s feet finally moved. He leaned over the side and

ripped with the oar at the dark surface of the river. It was

difficult going and the leverage was bad, but he rowed until

his throat screamed with pain and a deep throbbing pounded

against his chest.

Yet that horror lurching and tumbling drunkenly along the

shore just behind them put strength in weakened arms. Talea,

Ror, Caz, and Mudge imitated his efforts. Pog had hidden

behind his wings, where he hung from the spreaders, a

shivering droplet of black membrane, flesh, and fear. Clothahump

stood and watched, watched and mumbled.

A thick gray pseudopod reached across the river, emerging

from the slate-colored moving mountain. It slapped violently

at the water only yards from the stem of the fleeing vessel.

For all its nebulous horror, the substance of the monster was

teal enough. Water drenched those on board.

Black almost-eyes glistened wetly as white grub-things

continued peeling from the pulsating bulk of the beast.

Jon-Tom frowned; someone had spoken above the reverberant

bellowing. He looked across at Clothahump.

“The Massawrath.” The wizard noticed Jon-Tom staring at

him, and he repeated the name. “I have seen it in visions, my

boy, suspected it in trances, but to have located its lair… Is it

not appalling and unique? Do you not recognize any of this?”

“Recognize…? Clothahump, have you gone mad? Or

have we all? Or is it just that… that…”

He hesitated. For all its utterly alien appearance, there was

truly something almost familiar about the apparition.

Again the pseudopod slapped at them. There was a broken

groan from the boat. The tip of the massive appendage had


Alan Dean Foster

struck just to Clothahump’s left, tearing away railing along

with a bit of the deck. The turtle had instinctively withdrawn

and rolled several yards bowward. There he stuck out arms

and legs once more and struggled to his feet while Bribbens

rowed harder than ever and quietly cursed the abomination

pursuing them.

Several partly formed white shapes had fallen from the end

of the pseudopod. They lay on deck, their uncompleted limbs

thrashing slowly. Among them was a head that had not grown

a proper body and a lower torso the chest region of which

tapered to a point.

Jon-Tom pulled in his oar and began kicking the disgusting

things over the side. The last one clutched and pulled at him.

It had arms but no legs. He was forced to touch it. Somehow

he kept down his nausea and pulled it away from his legs.

The white, rubbery flesh was cold as ice. He lifted it and

heaved it over the railing, its weak grip sliding along his arm.

It splashed astern while the Massawrath hunched its way over

boulders and stalagmites, pacing just aft of the racing ship

and gibbering mindlessly.

“If the river narrows and brings us in reach, we’re fin-

ished.” Talea spoke in a high, nervous voice and wrestled

with the long oar.

“What is it?” Jon-Tom wiped his hands on his pants but

the clamminess he’d picked off the flesh wouldn’t dry. He

raised his oar and shoved it back into the water.

“The Massawrath,” Clothahump repeated. His hurried

tumble across the deck apparently hadn’t affected him. “She

is the Mother of Nightmares. This is her lair, her home.”

Jon-Tom tried not to watch the loping gray slime. Bits of

congealed white, animated puddings, continued to drip from

those vast flanks, climb to their feet, and march for the water.

They remained at least twenty yards astern though they kept

up their pursuit. They did not have the muscular strength (if



they had muscles, Jon-Tom thought) to overtake the boat. An

anny of fellow singers surged and marched around the base of

the Massawrath. Some were indifferently squished beneath

the vast mass, others shoved aside into the water.

“And what are the white things?” Flor forced herself to


Clothahump peered over his glasses at her in evident

surprise. “Why child, what would you expect the Mother of

Nightmares to produce, except nightmares? I asked if you

recognized them. Having no dreams to invade they are

presently unformed, shapeless, incipient. Here in their place

of birthing they are partly solid. When they pass out and into

the minds of thinking creatures they have become thin as

wind. Their lives are brief, empty, and full of torment.”

“Wha-at?” Caz swallowed, tried again. “What does the

blasted thing want with us?” The fur was as stiff on his neck

as the nails of a yogi’s board.

“Nightmares need dreams to feed on,” explained the

wizard. “Minds on which to fasten. What the Massawrath

Mother feeds on I can only imagine, but I am not ready to

offer myself to find out. I do not think it would be pleasant to

be nightmared to death. Mayhap she feeds on the loose minds

of the mad, carried back to her by those fragments of

nightmare offspring that survive longer than a night. It is said

the insane never awaken.”

It continued to trail them, roaring and moaning. Pale things

fell like white sweat from her back and sides. Occasionally a

fresh appendage, gray and wet, would extend out toward

them. It did not again come close enough to contact the boat.

Jon-Tom remembered Talea’s frantic warning: if anything

forced them nearer the Massawrath’s shore they would be

better off killing each other.

Another worry was the vibration he’d been feeling for more

than a few minutes. Though it steadily intensified, it seemed


Alan Dean Poster

to have no connection with the pursuing Mother of Night-

mares. Soon a vast thunder filled his ears, powerful enough to

reduce even the Massawrath’s moan to a faint wailing.

Still it grew in volume. Now the maddened gray hulk

struck out at the boat with dozens of pseudopods of many

lengths. They raised water from the river and dropped dozens

of slimy nightmares behind the boat.

The roaring grew louder still, until it and the vibration

underfoot merged and were one. Exhausted from wrestling

with the steering sweep, Bribbens leaned across it and tried to

catch his breath. Then he frowned, staring over the bow.

Several minutes went by and an expression of great calm

came over his face.

Jon-Tom relaxed on his own oar and panted uncontrollably.

“You… you recognize it?”

“Yes, I recognize it.” The boatman looked happy, which

was encouraging. He also looked resigned, which was not.

“Every boatman knows the legends of the Sloomaz-ayor-le-

Weentli. It could only be one thing, you know.

“At least the Massawrath will not have us. This will be a

cleaner, surer death.”

“What death? What are you talking about?” Talea and the

others had shipped their own oars as their pursuer fell back.

Bribbens reached out with an arm and gestured across the

bow. Ahead of them a thick fog was becoming visible. It

boiled energetically and spread a cloud across the roof of the

great cavern.

“dothahump?” Jon-Tom turned back to me wizard. “What’s

he raving about?”

“He is not raving, my boy.” The stocky sorcerer had also

turned his attention away from the fading horror behind them.

“He told you once, remember? It is why the Massawrath

cannot follow and why she flails in rage at us. She cannot

cross Helldrink.”



Thunder deafened Jon-Tom, and he had to put his hands to

his ears. He felt the noise through the deck, through his legs

and entire body. It pierced his every cell.

Fog and roaring, mist and thunder drew nearer. What did

mat say? It’s speaking to you, he told himself, announcing its

presence and declaring its substance. It was familiar to

Bribbens, who’d never seen it. Should it therefore also be

recognizable to him?

Waterfall, he thought. He knew it instantly.

Hurrying to the storage lockers, he tried to think of a

saving song. The duar was in his hands, clean and dry,

waiting to be stroked to life, waiting to sing magic. He

draped straps over his neck, felt the familiar weight on his


One final tune long cables of gray mucus reached out for

mem. The Massawrath had extended itself to the utmost, but

its reach still fell short. Quivering with frustration, it hunkered

down on the rocks now well behind the boat, the volcanic pits

of its eyes glaring balefully at those now beyond its grasp.

Ahead fog boiled ceilingward like wet flame.

Jon-Tom stared mesmerized at the mist and hunted through

his repertoire for an appropriate song. What could he sing?

That they were nearing a waterfall was all too clear, but what

kind of waterfall? How high, how wide, how fast or… ?

Desperately he belted out several choruses from half a

dozen different tunes relating to water. They produced no

visible result. The boat’s course and speed remained unchanged.

Even the gneechees seemed to have deserted him. He’d come

to expect their almost-presence whenever he’d strummed

magic, and their absence panicked him.

Nothing ahead now but swirling vapor. Then Talea cursed

loudly. Caz gave a warning shout and locked his arms around

the railing while Mudge put his head on the deck and covered


Alan Dean Foster

his eyes with his hands, as though by not seeing he might not

be affected.

A faint mumbling rose behind Jon-Tom. Helpless and

confused, he spared a second to look around.

Clothahump was standing by the steering sweep, next to a

stoic Bribbens. The wizard’s short, stubby arms were raised,

the fingers spread wide on his left hand while those on the

right made small circles and traced invisible patterns in the


With a snap the mainsail rose taut, the luff rope zipping up

me mast with a whirr though no hand had touched the

rigging. A terrified Pog reacted to the ascending sail by

letting loose the spreader he’d been hanging from. A power-

ful updraft caught him, and he had to flap furiously to regain

his perch. This time he clung flat to the spreader, arms and

legs wrapped as tightly about the wooden cross member as

his wings were around his body.

Clothahump’s murmur changed to a stentorian, wizardly

monotone. Now the wind blew hard in their faces, rough and

threatening where the gentle on-bow breeze of previous days

had been a comfortable companion.

The roar that permeated his entire body had numbed

Jon-Tom’s hearing completely. But his vision still functioned.

They were almost upon a cauldron of spray and fog. Water

particles danced in the air and became one with the river. He

wanted to close his eyes, but curiosity kept them open. They

no longer could see or hear the Massawrath.

A harder gray loomed immediately ahead, a definitive axis

around which the mist boiled and filmed: the edge. The little

boat crossed it… and kept going. All the while Clothahump

continued his recitation. Even his charged voice was lost in

the aqueous thunder, though Jon-Tom thought he could make

out the part of the chant that made mention of “hydrostatic



immunatic even keel please.” The boat now eased out on the

turgid air.

With the cold, distant interest of a parachutist whose chute

has failed to open, Jon-Tom let the duar lie limp against him

and moved to the railing. He looked over the side.

A thousand feet deep, the waterfall was. No, five thou-

sand. It was hard to tell, since it disappeared into mist-

shrouded depths. It might have dropped less than a thousand

feet, or for all he could tell it might have plunged straight to

the heart of the earth. Or to hell, if its legend-name was


Instead, the depths seemed to hold a fiery, red-orange glow.

It arose from a distant whirlpool point.

As me boat continued to cruise smoothly across emptiness,

he finally saw the source of much of the thunder. There was

not just one waterfall, but four. Others crashed downward to

port and starboard, and the fourth lay dead ahead. These

sibling torrents were each as broad and fulsome as the one the

boat had just crossed. Four immense cascades converged

above the Pit and tumbled to a hidden infinity called Helldrink.

They were vast enough to drain all the oceans of all the


The boat lurched, and everyone grabbed for something

solid. They’d reached the middle of the Drink and had

encountered the vortex of spray and upwelling air that dwelt

there. The little vessel spun around twice, a third time, in that

confluence of moist meterologics, and then was spun free by

the vortex’s centrifugal power. It continued sailing steadily

across the chasm.

Ahead the far waterfall loomed closer. The bow made

contact with the water, the keel slipped in. They were sailing

steadily now upstream, against the current. Wind rising from

the Drink now blew at them from astern instead of in their


Alan Dean Foster

faces. The sail billowed and filled for the first time since

they’d entered the Earth’s Throat.

Clothahump suddenly leaned back against the railing. Hi’

hands dropped and his voice faltered. The boat slowed. For

an awful moment Jon-Tom thought the wind wouldn’t be

enough to cancel the insistent force of the swift current. Only

Bribbens’ skill enabled them finally to resume their forwara


Gradually they picked up speed, until the awesome pounding

of the falls had fallen to a gentle rumbling echo. They were

traveling upstream now, the wind steady behind them. The

same luminescent growths lined portions of cavern wall and

ceiling. They were in a subterranean chamber no different

from the one they had fled.

Emotionally wrung, Jon-Tom leaned over the side of the

boat and gazed astern. By now the last mists had been

swallowed by distance. No Massawrath clone waited here to

challenge them.

It did not have to. Never again could it send its pale white

children to haunt the sleep of at least one traveler. Having

been exposed, Jon-Tom was now immune. The encounter had

innoculated him against nightmare. One who has looked upon

the Mother of Nightmares cannot be frightened by her mere

minions of ill sleep.

Clothahump had slumped to the deck. He sat there rubbing

his right wrist. “I am out of shape,” he muttered to no one in

particular. His attention rose to the mast. Pog was twisted

around the upper spreaders like a black coil.

The bat was slowly unwrapping himself. His malaria-like

shivers faded, and he spoke in a querulous whisper. “Oint-

ments, Master? Unguents and balms for ya arm, maybe a blue

pill for ya head?”

“You okay?” Jon-Tom gazed admiringly down at the

exhausted wizard.



“I will be, boy.” He spoke hoarsely to his famulus.

“Some ointment, yes. No pill for my head, but I will have

one of the green ones for my throat. Five minutes of nonstop

chanting.” He sighed heavily, glanced back to Jon-Tom.

“Keep in mind, my boy, that a wizard’s greatest danger is

not lack of knowledge nor the onset of senility nor such

forgetfulness as I am now prone to. It’s laryngitis.”

Then everyone was swarming happily around him. Except

me unperturbable, steady Bribbens. The boatman remained at

his post, eyes directed calculatingly upstream. They had left

the boat in his hands, and he left the congratulating in theirs.

It was later that Mudge found Jon-Tom seated near the bow

and staring morosely ahead. Strong wind from behind lifted

his bright green cape, and he tucked it around and between

his upraised knees. The duar lay in his lap. He plucked

disconsolately at it as multihued formations passed in glowing


” ‘Ere now, lad,” said the otter concernedly, leaning over

and squeak-sniffing, “wot’s the matter, then? That Massawatch-

oriswhatever’s behind us now, not comin’ down at us.”

Jon-Tom drew another chord from the instrument, smiled

faintly up at the otter. “I blew it, Mudge.” When the otter

continued to look puzzled, he added, “I could’ve done the

same thing as Clothahump, but I couldn’t come up with the

right music.” He looked down at the duar.

“I couldn’t think of a single appropriate tune, not even a

chord. If it had all been up to me,” he said with a shrug,

“we’d all be dead by now.”

“But we ain’t,” Mudge pointed out cheerfully, “and that

be the important thing.”

“Our cheeky companion is correct, you know.” Caz had

come up behind them both. Now he stood opposite Mudge,

looking at the seated human. His paws were behind his back

and folded just above the putfball of a tail. “I doesn’t matter


Alan Dean Foster

who does the saving. Just as friend Mudge says, the fact that

we are saved is the important thing. Remember, it was you

who tamed the great Falameezar that fiery night in Polastrindu.

Not Clothahump. You want to hold all the glory for yourself?”

When he saw that the irony was lost on Jon-Tom he added,

“We all work for the same end. It matters nothing who does

what so long as that end is achieved. It shall be, unless some

of us put our personal feelings and desires above it.”

Mudge looked a little uncomfortable at the rabbit’s bluntness.

” ‘E’s right, mate. We can’t be thinkin’ o’ ourselves in this

business.” The last was said with a straight face. “You’ll

‘ave plenty o’ opportunity t’ demonstrate your wonderfulnes’

t’ the ladies when this all be done with.” He winked anG

whistled knowingly before leaving for the stem.

Caz considered giving the self-pitying human a comforting

pat, decided Jon-Tom might regard it as patronizing, and left

to join Mudge.

Jon-Tom, sitting by himself, muttered aloud, “The ladie

have nothing to do with it.” He watched the cavern wall’

glide past. Gentle spray licked his face, kicked up from the

bow as the boat made its way upstream.

They didn’t, he insisted to himself, resting his chin o.

folded hands. He’d only been worried about the general


Then he grinned, though there was no one to see him. The

trouble with studying law is that you develop a tendency u

bullshit yourself as well as your counterparts. What about thi

theory that all great events, all the turning points of histor

had in some measure or another been motivated by matters (

passion? Catherine the Great, Napoleon, Hitler, Washingtc

… the sexual theory of history explained a hell of a lot c

things economics and social migration and such did not.

It was quite a different kind of history that balanced on thi^

outcome of their little expedition. Jon-Tom had never accorded



the theory much credit anyway. Yet though meant at least

partly in jest, Mudge’s words forced home to him how often

emotional yearnings coupled with the basic desires of the

body could overwhelm those usually thought of as rational


So he was sitting there moping about nothing except

himself. That was selfish and stupid. Maybe it had affected

the thinking of Napoleon and Tiberius and others, but it

wouldn’t affect him. It was a damn good thing Clothahump

had found the words that had escaped his human companion.

His moroseness fading, he strummed softly on the duar. A

flicker of dancing motes haunted his left elbow. When he

turned to inspect them, they’d gone. Gneechees.

What still did worry him was the thought that the next time

he might be called upon to sing some magic, he might be as

mentally paralyzed as he’d been when nearing Helldrink. He

would have to fight that.

It wasn’t the thought of death or the failure of their mission

that troubled him as he sat there and played. It was a fear of

personal failure, a fear that had haunted him since he’d been a

child. It was the fear which had driven him to pursue two

different careers without being able to choose between them.

And though he didn’t realize it, it was the fear which had

driven more men and women to greatness than far more

rational motivations….



Several days later the cathedral hove into view. It was not a

cathedral, of course. But it might have been. No one could

say. That turned out not to be as confusing as it seemed.

To Jon-Tom it looked like a cathedral. The ceiling of the

great underground chamber in which it rose was several

hundred feet high. Towers and turrets nearly touched that far

stone roof. At that distance massive stalactites, each weighing

many tons, resembled pins hanging from a carpet.

The bioluminescents were especially dense here and the ;

chamber and its far reaches so brightly lit that it took me ‘

travelers several minutes to adjust to that unexpectedly vi- |

brant organic glow.

It was more like a hundred cathedrals, Jon-Tom thought,

all executed in miniature and piled one atop the other. Care

and fine craftsmanship were apparent in every line and curve

of the labyrinthine structure. Thousands of tiny colored win-


Alan Dean Foster

dows gleamed on dozens of levels. The edifice filled much of

the huge chamber.

It was a measure of the distances his mind had crossed that

it was only incidental to him that the building shone a rich,

metallic gold. Of course, that might only be a result of

extensive use of gilt paint. Still, he vowed privately to keep a

close watch on their avaricious otter.

The term miniature was applicable to more than just the

building. When it became clear to them that the inhabitants of

the strange boat were not hostile, the builders began to show


No more than four inches tall, the little people were

covered with a rich umber fur that suggested sable. This fur

was quite short, and long, fine hair of the same shade grew

on the heads of male and female alike. Hordes of them started

emerging from tiny doors and cubbyholes. Most resumed

working on the building. Acres of scaffolding bristled on

battlements and turrets and towers. One group of several

dozen were installing a massive window all of a yard high.

Bribbens eased the boat in toward shore. At closer range

they could make out thousands of golden sculptures adorning

the building, gargoyles and worm-sized snakes and things

only half realized because they originated in other dimen-

sions, from a different biological geometry. Unlike the gneechees,

these wonderful creations could be viewed, if not wholly


As the boat drifted still closer the thousands of tiny

workers began milling uncomfortably, clustering close by

doorways and other openings. Ion-Tom hailed them from his

position at the bow, trying to assuage their worries.

“We mean you no harm,” he called gently. “We’re only

passing through your lands and admire your incredible build-

ing. What’s it for?”

From the crest of a water-caressed rock a fur-covered



nymph all of three and a half inches tall shouted back at him.

He had to strain to understand the tiny lady.

“It is the Building,” she told him matter-of-factly, as

though that should be explanation enough to satisfy anyone.

“Yes,” and he lowered his voice still further when he saw

that his normal tone was painfully loud to her, “but what is

the building for?”

“It is the Building,” the sprite reiterated. “We call it

‘Heart-of-the-World.’ Does it not shine brightly?”

“Very brightly,” Talea said appreciatively. “It’s very beau-

tiful. But what is it for?”

The down-clad waif laughed delicately. “We are not sure.

We have always worked on the Building. We always will

work on the Building. What else is there to -life but the


“You say you call it ‘Heart-of-the-World.'” Jon-Tom stud-

ied the radiant walls and glistening spires. At first he thought

it had been made of real gold, then stone covered with gilt

paint. Now he wasn’t sure. It might be metal of another kind,

or plastic, or ceramic, or some unimaginable material he

knew nothing of.

“Perhaps it is the very heart of the world itself,” the little

lady offered in suggestion. She smiled joyfully, showing

perfect minuscule teeth. “We do not know. It beats with light

as a heart does. If our work were to be stopped, perhaps the

light would go out of the world.”

Jon-Tom considered saying more but found reason and

reality at odds with one another, mixed up like a dog and a

cat chasing each other around a pole, getting nowhere. He

looked helplessly to Clothahump for an explanation. So did

his companions.

“Who can say?” The wizard shrugged. “If it is truly the

architecture of the heart of the world, then at least we can tell

others that the world is well and truly fashioned.”




Alan Dean Foster

“Thank you, sir.” The sprite leaped nimbly to another rock

further upstream to keep pace with them. “We do our best.

We have become very adept at adding to and maintaining the


“Make sure,” Jon-Tom called to her, “that its glow never

goes out!” They were passing into a, narrower section of the

river cavern, leaving the unnamed little folk and their enig-

matic, immense construct behind.

“Who knows,” he said quietly to Flor, “if it is the heart of

the world, then they’d better not be disturbed in their work.

That’s a hell of a responsibility. And if it’s not, if it’s only a

building, an obsession, it’s too beautiful to let die anyway.”

“I never thought the heart of the world would be a

building,” she said.

“Aren’t we all structures?” With the Massawrath and

Helldrink safely far behind he was feeling alive and expan-

sive. He’d always been that way: high ups and abyssal

downs. Right now he was up.

“Each of us develops piece by piece. We’re full of careful-

ly built rooms and halls, audience chambers and windows,

and we’re populated with changing individualistic thoughts. I

never imagined the heart of the world would be a building,

though.” He stared back down the tunnel. It was growing

dark, the radiant growths vanishing as they were prone to at

unexpected intervals.

“In fact, I never thought of the world as having a heart.”

The last rich light from the distant chamber was lost to

sight as they rounded a slight bend in the river. Bribbens was

lighting the first lamp.

“That’s a nice thought, Jon-Tom. If only having a heart

meant you would be happy.”

“I suppose it often means the opposite.” But when the

import of her last comment finally penetrated, she had left

him to chat with their stolid steersman.



Jon-Tom hesitated, thought about pursuing it further by

rejoining her to say, “Flor, are you trying to tell me some-

thing?” But he was as afraid of showing ignorance if he was

interpreting her wrongly as he was of failure.

So he sat himself down in the nickering light and began to

clean and tune his duar. As he tightened or loosened the

strings, a gneechee or two would appear behind him, peering

over his shoulder. He knew they were there and did his best

to ignore them.

They were compelled to run on lamplight. Gradually the

immense cave formations, the helictites and flowstone and

such, began to grow smaller. In the narrowing confines of the

river channel the rush and roar reverberated louder from the

walls. The continuing absence of the familiar fluorescent

fungi and their cousins was becoming unsettling.

No one liked the darkness. It reminded them too much of

sleep, and that reminded them of the now distant but never to

be forgotten sight of the Massawrath. More importantly, their

lamp oil was running out. Bribbens had prepared well, but he

hadn’t expected to journey for long in total darkness. The

now sorely missed bioluminescents were all that had kept

them from traveling in black. Soon it appeared they might

have to do so, relying on Pog’s abilities to guide them, unless

the light-producing vegetation reappeared.

A hand was shaking him. It was too small to be part of the

Massawrath, too solid to be one of its children. Nevertheless

he had an instant of terror before coming awake.

“Get up, Jon-Tom. Move your ass!” It was the urgent

voice of Talea.

“What?” But before he could say anything more she’d

moved on to the next sleeping form. He heard her banging on

an echoing surface.

“Wake up, wizard. You lazy old wizard, wake up!” She

sounded worried.


Alan Dean Foster

“I still admit to ‘old’ but not the other.” A grumbling

Clothahump clambered to his feet.

Jon-Tom blinked, fought to dig sleep from his eyes. It was

hard to see anything in the reduced light from the lamps.

Bribbens was trying to conserve their dwindling supply of oil.

Then he saw the cause of her anxiety. In the blackness

ahead was a writhing sheet of flame, completely blocking the

river. It hung in the air there, a dull, thick orange-silver that

did not move. The others awoke and moved to the bow to

examine it. All agreed it was a most peculiar kind of fire.

As they cruised closer no rise in temperature or indeed any

heat at all could be felt. The orange-silver hue did not


“Can it be another structure like the Heart-of-the-Wbrld

building of the little folk?” Flor licked her lower lip and

stared anxiously forward.

“No, no. The color is all wrong, supple shadow, and there

is no sign of separation; levels, floors, or windows.” Caz

faced the wizard. “What is your opinion of it, sir?”

“Just a moment, will you?” Clothahump sounded irritable.

“I’m not fully awake yet. Do you children think I have your

physical resiliency simply because my brain is so much more

active? Now then, this surely cannot be dangerous.” He

called back to Bribbens. “Steady ahead, my good boatman.”

“Don’t have much choice.” The frog snapped off his reply

as he tightened his grip on the steering sweep. “Tunnel’s

become too narrow for us to turn ’round in. Some of the

rocks hereabouts look sharp. I don’t want to chance ’em, so

it’s steady ahead unless it turns desperate.”

The boatman was forced to raise his voice to a near shout

to make himself understood. The rush of air in the pipe of a

cave argued noisily with the increased force of me current.

They watched silently while mat cold flame came nearer.

Then there was another, dimmer light haloing it, and the



orange-silver no longer blocked their progress. The new light

came from tiny shining points that flickered unevenly, but not

like gneechees. These were both visible and motionless.

“Well, shit.” Mudge put hands on hips and sounded

thoroughly disgusted with himself. ” ‘Tis a prize pack o’

idiots we be, mates.”

Jon-Tom didn’t understand immediately, but it didn’t take

long until he knew the reason for the otter’s embarrassment.

When he did so he felt equally ashamed of his own fear.

The orange-silvery color was familiar enough. Then they

emerged from the cavern. The great rising orb of moon no

longer shone directly down into the Earth’s Throat.

“We made it.” He hugged a startled Talea. “Damned if

we didn’t!”

The character of the land they had emerged into was very

different from that of the Swordsward and the river country of

Bribbens’ home. It was evident they had climbed a consider-

able distance.

Behind them towering crags reached for the stars. Clouds

capped them, though they were not as thick as those on the

eastern flanks of the range. No open plains or low scrub

bordered the river here. There was no fragrant coniferous

forest or high desert.

Mountains rose all around the little river valley in which

they found themselves. Despite the altitude the country dis-

played the aspect of more tropical climes. It was warm but

not hot, nor was it particularly humid. Jon-Tom thought of a

temperate-zone climax forest.

Vines and creepers leaped from tree to tree. A thick

undergrowth prevented them from seeing more than a few

yards inland on either shore.

It was with relief that Jon-Tom inhaled the fresh air,

fragrant with the aroma of flowers and green things. Though

hardly tropical, the climate was more pleasant despite the


Alan Dean Poster

altitude than any place he’d yet been. Compared to the

bone-rattling winds of the Swordsward it was positively


“Fine country,” he said enthusiastically. “I’m surprised

none of the warmlanders have tried to migrate here.”

“Even if they knew this land existed they could not get

over the mountains,” Clothahump reminded him. “Only a

very few in memory have ever made that journey. Even if

would-be settlers could survive the trip, kindly keep in mind

that this land is already occupied. Legend says the Weavers

dislike any strangers. Consider what their opinion would be

of potential colonists.”

“And these are the people we’re trying to make allies of?”

Flor wondered.

“They are not overt enemies,” Clothahump told her,

shaking his head slowly. “Legend says they are content

enough here in their land. Yet I admit legend also insists they

hold no love for any but their own kind. It is said they like

most to keep to themselves and maintain their privacy.

“As near as I know we are the first folk to journey past the

mountain barrier in hundreds of years. Perhaps the legends no

longer hold true. It may be that in all that time the inhabitants

of the Scuttleteau have mellowed.”

“They sure sound charming,” said Flor apprehensively. “I

can’t wait to meet them.” Her voice rose in tone, and she

mimed a sardonic greeting. “Buenos dias, Sefior Weaver.

Como esta usted, and please don’t eat me, I’m only a

tourist.” She sighed and grimaced at me wizard. “I wish I

were as confident of success as you are.”

“I’m ‘ardly an optimist, meself,” Mudge commented,

surveying the near shore and considering a warm swim.

“Oh well. Surely they will see the need,” said Caz

hopefully, “to stand together against a common threat.”

“That is to be hoped,” the wizard agreed. “But we cannot



be certain. We can only pray for a friendly welcome. Should

we actually achieve anything more than that, it would exceed

my wildest hopes.”

There were some shocked looks in response to that. Jon-

Tom spoke for all of them. “You mean… you’re not sure

you can persuade them?”

“My dear boy, I never made any such claim.”

“But you gave me the impression…”

Clothahump held up a hand. “I made no promises. I

merely stated that there was little we could do if we remained

in Polastrindu and that we might have some chance of

securing another strong ally were we to successfully complete

this journey. I never said that reaching the Scuttleteau was a

guarantee we could do that. Nor did I ever display any

optimism about striking such an alliance. I simply declared

that I thought it would be a good idea to try.”

“You stiff-backed, bone-brained old fart, you led us on!”

Talea was nearly too furious for words. “You cajoled us

through all that,” and she pointed back toward the mouth of

the tunnel they’d recently emerged from, “through every-

thing we’ve suffered since leaving Polastrindu, without think-

ing we had any chance to succeed?”

“I did not say we did not have a chance.” Clothahump

patiently corrected her. “I said our chances were slim. That is

different from nonexistent. When I say achieving such an

alliance would exceed my wildest hopes, I am merely being

realistic, not fatalistic. The chance is there.”

“Why the fuck couldn’t you have been ‘realistic’ back in

Polastrindu?” she growled softly. “Couldn’t you have told us

how slight you thought our chances of success were?”

“I could have, but no one thought to ask me. As to the

first, if I had been more, shall we say, explicit in my

opinions, none of you would have come with me. Those who


Alan Dean Foster

might have would not have done so with as much confidence

and determination as you have all displayed thus far.”

Since this logic was irrefutable, no one chose to argue.

There was some spirited name-calling, however. The wizard

ignored it as one would have the excited chatter of children.

Pog found the situation unbearably amusing.

“Now ya see what I have ta deal wid, don’tcha?” He

giggled in gravely bat-barks as he swung gleefully from the

spreader. “Maybe now ya all’ll sympathize wid poor Pog a

little bit more!”

“Shut your ugly face.” Talea heaved a hunk of torchwood

at him. He dodged it nimbly.

“Now, now, Talea-tail. Late for recriminations, don’tcha

tink?” Again the rich laughter. “His Bosship has ya all

where he wants ya.” A series of rapid-fire squeeks seeped out

as he delightedly lapped up their discomfort.

“It does seem you’ve been somewhat less than truthful

with us, sir,” said Caz reprovingly.

“Not at all. I have not once lied to any of you. And the

odds do not lessen the importance of our trying to conclude

this alliance. The more so now that we have actually com-

pleted the arduous journey through the Earth’s Throat and

have reached the Scuttleteau.

“Admittedly our chances of persuading the Weavers to join

with us are slight, but the chance is real so long as we are

real. We must reach for every advantage and assistance we


“And if we die on the failure of this slight chance?” Flor

wanted to know.

“That is a risk I have resigned myself to accepting,” he

replied blandly.

“I see.” Talea’s fingers dug into the wood of the railing.

She stared at the river as she spoke. “If we all die, that’s a

risk you’re prepared to take. Well, I’m not.”



“As you wish.” Clothahump gestured magnanimously at

me water. “I herewith release you from any obligation to

assist me further. You may commence your swim homeward.”

“Like hell.” She peered back at Bribbens. “Turn this

deadwood around.”

The boatman threw her a goggle-eyed and mournful look.

“How much can you pay me?”

l&T >»

“I see.” He turned his attention back to the river ahead. “I

take orders only from those who can pay me.” He indicated

Clothahump. “He paid me. He tells my boat where it is to

go. I do not renege on my business agreements.”

“Screw your business agreements, don’t you care about

your own life?” she asked him.

“I honor my commitments. My honor is my life.” This

last was uttered with such finality that Talea subsided.

“Commitments my ass.” She turned to sit glumly on the

deck, glaring morosely at the wooden planking.

“I repeat, I have not lied to any of you.” Clothahump

spoke with dignity, then added by way of an afterthought, “I

should have thought that all of you were ready to take any

risk necessary in this time of crisis. I see that I was mistaken,”

It was quiet on the boat for several hours. Then Talea

looked up irritably and said, “I’m sorry. Bribbens is right.

We all made a commitment to see this business through. I’ll

Stick to mine.” She glanced back at the wizard. “My fault. I

apol… I apologize.” The unfamiliar word came hard to her.

There were murmurs of agreement from the others.

“That’s better,” Clothahump observed. “I’m glad that

you’ve all made up your minds. Again. It was time to do so

because,” and he pointed over the bow, “soon there will be

no chance of turning back.”

Completely spanning the river a hundred yards off the bow

was a soaring network of thick cables. They made a silvery


Alan Dean Foster

shadow on the water, a domed superstructure of glistening

filaments in the intensifying morning light.

Waiting and watching with considerable interest from their

resting places high up in the cables were half a dozen of the


Clothahump knew what to expect. Caz, Mudge, Talea,

Pog, and Bribbens had some idea, if through no other means

than the stories passed down among generations of travelers.

But Jon-Tom and Flor possessed no such mental buffering.

Primeval fear sent a shudder through both of them. It was

instinctive and unreasoning and cold. Only the fact that their

companions showed no sign of panic prevented the two

otherworlders from doing precisely that.

The six Weavers might comprise a hunting party, an official

patrol, or simply a group of interested river gazers out for a

day’s relaxation. Now they gathered near the leading edge of

the cablework.

One of them shinnied down a single strand when the boat

began to pass beneath. Under Bribbens’ directions and at

Clothahump’s insistence, Mudge and Caz were taking down

.the single sail.

“No point in making a show of resistance or attempting to

pass uncontested,” the wizard murmured. “After all, our

purpose in coming here is to meet with them.”

Unable to override their instincts, Jon-Tom and Flor moved

to the rear of the boat, as far away from their new visitor as

they could get.

That individual secured the bottom of his cable to the bow

of the little boat. The craft swung around, tethered to the

overhead network, until its stem was pointing upstream.

Having detached the cable from the end of his abdomen,

the Weaver rested on four legs, quietly studying the crew of

the peculiar boat with unblinking, lidless multiple eyes. Four

arms were folded across his cephalothorax. His body was



bright yellow with concentric triangles decorating the under-

side of the sternum. His head was a beautiful ocher. The slim

abdomen had blue stripes running down both the dorsal and

ventral sides.

Complementing this barrage of natural coloration was a

swirling, airy attire of scarves and cloth. The material was

readily recognizable as pure silk. It was twisted and wrapped

sari-style around the neck, cephalothorax, abdomen, and

upper portions of the legs and arms. Somehow it did not

entangle the Weaver’s limbs as he moved.

It was impossible to tell how many pieces of silk the visitor

was wearing. Jon-Tom followed one feathery kelly-green

scarf for several yards around legs and abdomen until it

vanished among blue and pink veils near the head. A series of

bright pink bows knotted several of the scarves together and

decorated the spinneret area. Mandibles moved idly, and

occasionally they could see the twin fangs that flanked the

other mouth-parts. The Weaver was a nightmare out of a Max

Ernst painting, clad in Technicolor.

The nightmare spoke. At first Jon-Tom had trouble under-

_ standing the breathy, faint voice. Gradually curiosity over-

threw his initial ten-or, and he joined his companions in the

bow. He began to make sense of the whispery speech, which

reminded him of papers blowing across stepping-stones.

As the Weaver talked, he tested the cable he’d spun himself

from bridge to boat. Then he sat down, having concluded his

prayer or invocation or whatever it had been, by folding his

four legs beneath him. His jaw rested on the upper tarsals and

claws. The body was three feet long and the legs almost

doubled that.

“it has been a long time,” said the veiled spider, “fa-

beyond my lifetime, beyond i think the memory of any

currently alive, since any of the wamuand people have visiteo

the scuttleteau.”


Alan Dean Foster

Jon-Tom tried to analyze the almost nonexistent inflection.

Was the Weaver irritated, or curious, or both?

“no one can cross the mountains.” A pair of arms gestured

toward the towering peaks that loomed above them.

“We did not come over the mountains,” said Clothahump,

“but through them.” He nodded toward the river. “We came

on this watercourse through the Earth’s Throat.”

The spider’s head bobbed from side to side. “that is not


“Then how the hell do you think we got here?” Talea said

challengingly, bravery and bluster overcoming common sense.

“it may be that…” The spider hesitated, the whispery

tones little louder than the Breeze wafting across the ship.

Then faint, breathy puffs came from that arachnoid throat. It

was a laughter that sounded like the wind that gets lost in

thick trees and idles around until it blows itself out.

“ah, sarcasm, a trait of the soft-bodied, i believe, what do

you wish here on the scuttleteau?”

Jon-Tom felt himself drawn to the side by Caz while the

wizard and Weaver talked. The rabbit gestured toward the


The other five Weavers now hung directly above the boat

from short individual cables. It was obvious they could be on

the deck in seconds. They carried cleverly designed knives

and bolas that could be easily manipulated by the double

flexible claws tipping each limb.

“They’ve been quiet enough thus far,” said Caz, “but

should our learned leader’s conversation grow less than ac-

commodating, we should anticipate confronting more than

one of them.” His hand slid suggestively over the knife slung

at his own hip, beneath the fine jacket.

Jon-Tom nodded acknowledgment. They separated and

casually apprised the others of the quintet dangling ominously

over their heads.



When Clothahump had finished, the spider moved back

against the railing and regarded them intently. At least, that

was the impression Jon-Tom received. It was difficult to tell

not only how he was seeing them mentally, but physically as

well. With four eyes, two small ones and two much larger

ones mounted higher on his head, the Weaver would be hard

to surprise.

“you have come a long way without being sure of the

nature of your eventual reception, to what purpose? you have

talked much and said little, the mark of a diplomat but not

necessarily of a friend, why then are you here?”

Above, the Weaver’s companions swayed gently in the

breeze and caressed their weapons.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t tell you that,” said Clothahump

boldly. Jon-Tom moved to make certain his back was against

the mast. “Our information is of such vital importance to the

Weavers that it can only be related to the highest local


“nothing a warmlander can say is of any importance to the

weavers.” Again came that distant, whistling laugh, blowing

arrogantly across the deck.

“Nilontfwml” roared Clothahump in his most impressive

sorceral tone. Vibrations rattled the boat. Whitecaps snapped

on the crests of sudden waves, and there was a distant rumble

of thunder. The five watchers in the net overhead bounced

nervously on their organic tethers while the Weaver in the

boat stiffened against the rail.

Clothahump lowered his arms. One had to stare hard at the

inoffensive-appearing little turtle with the absurd spectacles to

believe that voice had truly issued from that hard-shelled


“By my annointment as Sorcerer-Majestic of the Last

Circle, by the brow of EIrath-Vune now long dust, by all the

oaths that bind all the practitioners of True Magic back to the


Alan Dean Foster

beginnings of divination, I swear to you that what I have to

say is vital to the survival of Weaver as well as warmlander,

and that it can be imparted only to the Grand Webmistress


That pronouncement appeared to shake their visitor as

badly as had the totally unexpected demonstration of wizardly


“most impressive in word and action,” the spider husked.

“that you are truly a wizard cannot be denied.” He recovered

some “octupul” poise and executed a short little bow, crossing

all four upper limbs across his chest.

“forgive my hesitation and suspicions and accept my

apologies should i have offended you. my name is ananthos.”

“Are you in charge of the river guards, then?” Plor

indicated the five remaining armed Weavers still drifting in

the wind overhead.

The spider turned his head toward her, and she fought hard

not to shudder, “your meaning is obscure, female human, we

do not ‘guard’ the bridge, there are not any who would harm

it, and none until now come out of the hole into which the

river dies.”

“Then why are you here at all? Why the bridge?” Jon-Tom

didn’t try to conceal his puzzlement.

“this is,” and the Weaver gestured with one limb at the

network of silken cables and its watchful inhabitants, “a

lifesaving grid. it was erected here to protect those young and

ignorant weavers who are fond of playing in the river lamayad

and who sometimes tend to drift too close to the hole which

kills the water, were they to vanish within they would be

forever lost.

“did you think then we were soldiers? there is no need for

soldiers on the scuttleteau. we have no enemies.”

“Then a revelation is in store,” muttered Clothahump so

low the Weaver did not hear him.

“the bridge is to help protect infants,” ananthos finished.



“Now don’t that soothe a beatin’ ‘eart!” Mudge whispered

disbelievingly to Jon-Tom. “A fearsome lookin’ lot like this

and ‘e says they’ve no soldiers. Wot a fine pack o’ allies

they’ll make, eh?”

“They’ve got weapons,” his companion argued, “and

they look like they know how to use them.” He raised his

voice and addressed the Weaver. “If this is nothing more than

a station for rescuing wayward children, then why do you and

your companions carry weapons?”

Ananthos gestured at the surrounding forest, “to protect

ourselves, of course, even great fighters may be overwhelmed

by a single large and powerful foe. there are beasts on the

scuttleteau that would devour all on this craft and the craft

itself in a single gulp. because we do not maintain an army to

confront nonexistent enemies does not mean we are fleet-

limbed cowards who run instead of fight, or did you think we

were all eggsuckers?” He bared his respectable fangs.

“the confident and strong have no need of an army. each

weaver is an army unto itself.”

“It is about armies and fighting that we come,” said

Clothahump, “and about such matters that we must speak to

the Webmistress.”

Ananthos appeared as upset as a spider could possibly be.

“to bring warmlanders into the capital is a great responsibili-

ty. by rights of history and legend i should turn you around

and send you back into the hole from whence you emerged.

and yet”—he struggled with the conflict between prescribed

duty and personal feelings and thoughts—”i cannot dismiss

the fact that you have made an impossible journey for reasons

i am not equipped to debate, if it is of the importance you

insist, i would fail did i not escort you to the capital, but to

see the grand webmistress herself…”

He turned away from them, whether from embarrassment

or indecision or both they could not tell.


Alan Dean Foster

“Why don’t you,” said Caz helpfully, “take us int

protective custody, convey us to the capital under guard, an

turn us over to your superiors?”

Ananthos looked back at him, his head bobbing in that od_

side-to-side motion that was half nod and half shake. He

spoke in a whispery, grateful hush.

“you have some understanding of what it means to be

responsible to someone placed higher than oneself, warmlander

of the big ears.”

“I’ve been in that uncomfortable situation before, yes,”

Caz admitted drolly, polishing his monocle.

“i bow to your excellent suggestion.”



He leaned back and called breathily upward, “arethos,

imedshud! intob coom.” Two of the watchful Weavers dropped

to the deck, their spinnerets snipping off the cables trailing

from their abdomens. They studied the warmlanders with


“these will accompany us on the journey, for i can hardly

claim to have you in restriction, as your tall white friend has

suggested, all by myself, yet i am charged with the watchfiuness

on this bridge and cannot leave it deserted, so three of us will

accompany you and three remain here.

“we shall proceed upstream, a day’s journey from here,

the river lamayad splits, several days further it splits again.

against that divide, set against the breath, is our capital, my


He added wamingly, “what happens then is no longer my

responsibility, i can make no promises as to the nature of your

reception, for i am low in the hierarchy, most low, for all that


Alan Dean Foster

no weaver lies in the mud and none soars above the others.

our hierarchy is a convenience and necessary to governing,

and that is all.

“as to an audience with the grand webmistress…” his

voice trailed away meaningfully.

“Diplomacy moves best when it moves cautiously,” said

Caz, “and not in dangerous leaps.”

“For now it will be more than enough if you see us to the

capital, Ananthos,” Clothahump assured him.

The spider seemed greatly relieved, “then my thoughts are

clear, i am neither helping nor hindering you, merely refer-

ring you to those in the position to do so.” He turned and

ceremoniously detached the cable holding the bow of the

motionless boat.

Bribbens had remained by his oar during the discussion.

Now he leaned gently on it as once again the wind began to

fill the sail. The boat turned neatly on its axis as the cry of

“ware the boom!” rang out from the steersman. Soon they

had passed beneath the intricate webwork spanning the river

and were once again traveling upstream.

“i’ve never seen a warmlander.” Ananthos was standing

quite close to Jen-Tom, “most interesting biology.” Despite

ten thousand years of primitive fears, Jon-Tom did not pull

away when the spider reached out to him.

Ananthos extended a double-clawed leg. It was covered

with bristly hairs. The delicate silk scarves of green and

turquoise enveloping the limb mitigated its menacing appear-

ance. The finger-sized claws touched the man’s cheek, pressed

lightly, and traveled down the face to the neck before with-

drawing. Somehow Jon-Tom kept from flinching. He concen-

trated on those brightly colored eyes studying him.

“no fur at all like the short bewhiskered one, except on

top. and soft… so soft!” He shuddered, “what a terrible

fragility to live with.”



“You get used to it,” said Jon-Tom. It occurred to him mat

the spider found him quite repulsive.

They continued studying each other. “That’s beautiful

silk,” the man commented. “Did you make it yourself?”

“do you mean, did i spin the silk or manufacture the scarf?

in truth i did neither.” He waved a leg at the others, “we

differ even more in size than you seem to. some of our

smaller cousins produce far finer silk than a clumsy oaf like

myself is capable of. they are trained to do so, and others

carefully weave and pattern their produce.” He reached down

and unwrapped a four-foot turquoise length and handed it to


A palmful of feathers was like lead compared to the scarf.

He could have whispered at it and blown it over the side of

the boat. The dye was a faint blue, as rich as the finest

Persian turquoise with darker patches here and there. It was

the lightest fabric he’d ever caressed. Wearing it would be as

wearing nothing.

He moved to hand it back. Ananthos’ head bobbed to the

left. “no. it is a gift.” Already he’d refastened two other long

scarves to compensate for the loss of the turquoise. Jon-Tom

had a glimpse of the intricate knot-and-clip arrangement that

held the quasi-sari together.


Now the head bobbed down and to me right. He was

beginning to match head movements to the spider’s moods.

What at first had seemed only a nervous twitching was

becoming recognizable as a complex, highly stylized group of

suggestive gestures. The spiders utilized their heads the way

an Italian used his hands, for speech without speaking.

“why? because you have something about you, something

i cannot define, and because you admired it.”

“I’ll say we’ve got something about us,” Talea grumbled.

“An air of chronic insanity.”


Alan Dean Foster

Ananthos considered the comment. Again the whispery

laughter floated like snowflakes across the deck. “ah, humor!

humor is among the warmlander’s richest qualities, perhaps

the most redeeming one.”

“For all the talk of hostility our legends speak of, you

seem mighty friendly,” she said.

“it is my duty, soft female,” the Weaver replied. His gaze

went back to Jon-Tom. “please me by accepting the gift.”

Jon-Tom accepted the length of silk. He wrapped it muffler-

like around his neck, above the indigo shut. It didn’t get

tangled in his cape clasp. In fact, it didn’t feel as though it

was there at all. He did not consider how it might look

sandwiched between the iridescent green cape and purpled


“I have nothing to offer in return,” he said apologetically.

“No, wait, maybe I do.” He unslung his duar. “Do the

Weavers like music?”

Ananthos’ answer was unexpected. He extended two limbs

in an unmistakable gesture. Jon-Tom carefully passed over

the instrument.

The Weaver resumed his half-sit, half-squat and laid the

duar across two knees. He had neither hands nor fingers, but

the eight prehensile claws on the four upper limbs plucked

with experimental delicacy at the two sets of strings.

The melody that rose from the duar was light and ethereal,

alien, atonal, and yet full of almost familiar rhythms. It

would begin to sound almost normal, then drift off on strange

tangents. Very few notes contributed to a substantial tune.

Ananthos’ playing reminded Jon-Tom more of samisen music

than guitar.

Flor leaned blissfully back against the mast, closed her

eyes, and soaked up the spare melody. Mudge sprawled

contentedly on the deck while Caz tried, without success, to

tap time to the disjointed beat. Nothing soothes xenophobia



so efficiently as music, no matter how strange its rhythms or

inaudible the words.

An airy wail rose from Ananthos and his two companions.

The three-part harmony was bizarre and barely strong enough

to rise above the breeze. There was nothing ominous in their

singing, however. The little boat made steady progress against

the current. In spite of his unshakable devotion to his job,

even Bribbens was affected. One flippered foot beat on the

deck in a futile attempt to domesticate the mystical arachnid


It might be, Jon-Tom thought, that they would find no

allies here, but he was certain they’d already found some

friends. He fingered the end of the exquisite scarf and

allowed himself to relax and sink comfortably under the

soothing spell of the spider’s frugal fugue….

It was early in the morning of the fourth day on the

Scuttleteau that he was shaken awake. Much too early, he

mused as his eyes opened confusedly on a still dark sky.

He rolled over, and for a moment memory lagged shockingly

behind reality. He started violently at the sight of the furry,

fanged, many-eyed countenance bending over him.

“i am sorry,” said Ananthos softly, “did i waken you too


Jon-Tom couldn’t decide if the Weaver was being polite

and offering a diplomatic way out or if it was an honest

question. In either case, he was grateful for the understanding

it allowed him.

“No. No, not too sharply, Ananthos.” He squinted into the

sky. A few stars were still visible. “But why so early?”

Bribbens’ voice sounded behind him. As usual, the boat-

man was first awake and at his duties before the others had

risen from beneath their warm blankets. “Because we’re

nearing their city, man.”

Something in the frog’s voice made Jon-Tom sit up fast. It


Alan Dean Foster

was not fear, not even worry, but a new quality usually absent

from the boatman’s plebian monotone.

Pushing aside his blanket, he turned to look over the bow,

matching Bribbens’ gaze. Then he understood the strange

new quality he’d detected in the boatman’s voice: wonderment.

The first rays of the sun were arriving, having mounted the

mountain shield soaring ahead of the boat. In the distance lay

a range of immense peaks more massive than Zaryt’s Teeth.

Several crags vanished into the clouds, only to reappear

above them. Jon-Tom was no surveyor, but if the Teeth

contained several mountains higher than twenty thousand feet

then the range ahead had to average twenty-five.

More modest escarpments dominated the north and south.

Swathed in glaciers and clouds, the colossal eastern range

also displayed an additional quality: dark smoke and occa-

sional liquid red flares rose from several of the peaks. The

towering range was still alive, still growing.

The sparks and smoke that drifted overhead came from a

massif much closer than the eastern horizon, however. Quite

close a black caldera rose from surrounding foothills to a

height a good ten thousand feet above me river, which banked

to the south before it. Ice and snow crowned the fiery

summit. —

Snow gave way to conifers and hardwoods, they in turn

surrendered to the climax vegetation of the variety which

flanked the river, and that at last to a city which crept up and

clung to the volcano’s flanks. Small docks spread thin wooden

fingers out into the river.

“my home,” said Ananthos, “capital and ancestral settle-

ment from which the first weavers laid claim to the scuttleteau

and all the lands that abut it.” He spread four forearms, “i

welcome you all to gossameringue-on-the-breath.”

The city was a marvel, like the scarf. The similarities did

not end there, for like the scarf it was woven of fine silk.



Morning dew adhered to struts and suspensions and flying

buttresses of webwork. Roofs were hung from supports strung

lacily above instead of being supported by pillars from be-

neath. Millions of thick, silvery cables supported buildings

several stories high, all agleam with jewels of dew.

Other cables as thick as a man’s body, spun from the

spinnerets of dozens of spiders, secured the larger structures

to the ground.

On the lower, nearer levels they could discern dozens of

moving forms. It was clear the city was heavily populated.

Spreading as it did around the base of the huge volcano and

climbing thousands of feet up its sides, it appeared capable of

housing a population in the tens of thousands.

There was enough spider silk in that single city, if it could

be unwrapped to its seminal strands, to cocoon the Earth.

Once Jon-Tom had spent an hour marveling at a single

small web woven by one spider on an ocean coast. It had

been speckled with dew from the morning fog.

Here the dew seemed almost choreographed. As the first

rising rays of the sun struck the city, it suddenly turned to a

labyrinth of platinum wires and diamond dust. It was too

bright to look at, but the effect faded quickly as the dew

evaporated. The sun rose higher, the enchanting effect dissi-

pating as rapidly as the sting fro.m a clash of cymbals. Left

behind was a spectacle of suspended structures only slightly

less impressive.

Gossameringue was all spheres and ellipses, arches and

domes. Jon-Tom could not find a sharp angle anywhere in the

design. Everything was smooth and rounded. It gave the

city a soft feeling which its inhabitants might or might not


As the sun worked its way up into the morning sky, the

little boat put in at the nearest vacant dock. A few early

morning workers turned curious multiple eyes on the unique


Alan Dean Foster

cargo of warmlanders. They did not interfere. They only

stared. As befitted their historical preference for privacy,

these few Weavers soon turned to their assigned tasks and

ignored the arrivals. It troubled Clothahump. A people fanatic

about minding its own business does not make a ready ally.

Under Ananthos’ escort they left the boat and crossed the

docks. Soon they had entered a silk and silver world.

“This mission had best be successful,” said Caz as they

began to climb. He placed his broad feet carefully. The

roadway was composed of a fine checkerboard of silk cables.

They were stronger than steel and did not quiver even when

Jon-Tom experimentally jumped up and down on one, but if

one missed a rung of the gigantic rope ladder and fell

through, a broken leg was a real possibility.

After a while caution gave way to confidence and the party

was able to make faster progress up the side of the mountain.

“I’ll settle for just getting out of here alive,” Talea

whispered to the rabbit.

“Precisely my meaning,” said Caz. He gestured back the

way they’d come. The river and docks had long since been

swallowed up by twisting, contorting bands of silk and silken

buildings. “Because we’d never find our way out of here

without assistance.”

It was not all silk. Some of the buildings boasted sculp-

tured stone or wood, and there was some use of metalwork.

Windows were made of fine glass, and there was evidence of

vegetable matter being employed in sofas and other furniture.

Though the Weavers were not arboreal creatures, their

construction ignored the demands of gravity. The whole city

was an exercise in the aesthetic applications of geometry. It

was difficult to tell up from down.

Caz was right, Jon-Tom thought worriedly. Without Weav-

er help they would never find their way back to the river.

They climbed steadily. Wherever they passed, daily rou-



tines ground to a halt as the populace stared dumbfoundedly

at creatures they knew only from legend. Ananthos and his

two fellow guards took an aggressive attitude toward those

few citizens who tried to touch me warmlanders.

The only ones who weren’t shoved aside were the curious

hordes of spiderlings who swarmed in fascination around the

visitors’ legs. Most of these infants had bodies a foot or more

across. They were a riot of color underfoot; red, yellow,

orange, puce, black, and more in metallic, dull, or iridescent

shades. They displayed stripes and spots, intricate patterns

and simple solids.

It was difficult to make sense of the extraordinary variety

of colors and shapes because the predominant sensation was

one of wading through a shallow pond made of legs. With

remarkable agility the youngsters scrambled in and between

the feet of the visitors, never once having a tiny leg kicked or

stepped on.

They reserved most of their attention for Talea, Flor, and

Jon-Tom. Bribbens and Clothahump they ignored completely.

Nor were they in the least bit shy.

One scrambled energetically up Jon-Tom’s right side, pull-

ing thoughtlessly at his fortunately tough cape and pants. It

rode like a cat on his right shoulder, chattering breathily to

its less enterprising companions. Jon-Tom tried hard to think

of it as a cat.

The adolescent displayed a cluster of painted lines that ran

from its mandibles back between its eyes and down the back

of its head. The cosmetics did not give Jon-Tom a clue as to

its sex. He thought of brushing it away, but it behooves a

guest to match the hospitality of his hosts. So he left it alone,

resolutely ignoring the occasional reflexive flash of poisonous


The spiderling sat there securely and waved its foot-long


Alan Dean Foster

legs at disapproving adults and envious brethren. It whispered

in a rush to its obliging mount.

“where do you come from? you are warm, not cold like

me prey or the creatures of the forest, you are very tall and

thin and you have hair only atop your head and there very

dense.” The youngster’s partly clad abdomen brushed rhyth-

mically against the back of Jon-Tom’s neck. He assumed it

was a friendly gesture. The fur on the spiderling’s bottom

was as soft as Mudge’s.

“you have funny mouths and your fangs are hidden, may i

see them?”

Jon-Tom patiently opened his mouth and grimaced to show

his teeth. The spiderling drew back in alarm, then moved

cautiously closer.

“so many. and they’re white, not black or brown or gold.

they are so flat, save two. how can you suck fluids with


“I don’t use my fangs—my teeth—to suck fluids,” Jon-

Tom explained. “What liquid I do ingest I swallow straight.

Mostly I eat solid food and use my teeth to chew it into

smaller pieces.”

The youngster shuddered visibly, “how awful, how grue-

some! you actually eat solid, unliquified flesh? your fangs

don’t look up to the task. i’d think they’d break off. ugh,


“It can be tough sometimes,” Jon-Tom confessed, recalling

some less than palatable meals he’d downed. “But my teeth

are stronger than yours. They’re not hollow.”

“i wonder,” said the spiderling with the disarming honesty

common to all children, “if you’d taste good.”

“I’d hope so. I’d hate to think I’ve lived all these years

just to give some friend an upset stomach. I’d probably be

pizza-and-coke flavored.”

“i don’t know what is a pissaoke.” The infant bared tiny



fangs, “i don’t suppose you’d let me have a taste? your elders

aren’t watching.” He sounded hopeful.

“I’d like to oblige,” Jon-Tom said nervously, “but I

haven’t had anything to eat yet today and might make you

sick. Understand?”

“oh well.” The youngster didn’t sound too disappointed.

“i don’t guess i’d like you sucking out one of my legs,

either.” He quivered at the thought, “you’re a nice person,

warmlander. i like you.” Jon-Tom experienced the abdomen

caress once again. Then the spiderling jumped down to join

his fellow scamperers.

“luck to you, warmlander!”

“And to you also, child,” Jon-Tom called hastily back to

him. Ananthos and several responsible bystanders were final-

ly shooing the spiderlings away. The children waved and

cheered in excited whispers, like any others, their multiple,

multicolored legs waving good-byes.

A greater weight pressured his left arm and he looked

around uncertainly. It was no disrespectful spiderling, howev-

er. Flor’s expression was ashen, and she slumped weakly

against him. He quickly got an arm under her shoulders and

gave her some support.

“What’s wrong, Flor? You look ill.”

“What’s wrong?” Fresh shock replaced some of the paleness

that had dominated her visage. “I’ve just been poked, probed,

and swarmed over by a dozen of the most loathesome,

disgusting creatures anyone could…”

Jon-Tom made urgent quieting motions. “Jesus, Flor. Keep

your voice down. These are our hosts.”

“I know, but to have them touch me all over like that.”

She was trembling uncontrollably. “Aranqs… uckkkk! I hate

them. I could never even stand the little ones the size of my

thumb, for all that Mama used to praise them for catching the

cockroaches. So you can imagine how I feel about these. I


Alan Dean Foster

could hardly stand it on the boat.” She moved unsteadily

away from his arm. “I don’t know how much more of this I

can take, Jon-Tom,” and she gestured at Ananthos, who was

marching ahead of them.

They turned up another, broader web-road. “What matters

isn’t what they look like,” Jon-Tom told her sternly, “but

what’s behind their looks. In this case, intelligence. We need

their help or Clothahump wouldn’t have herded us all this

way.” He eyed her firmly.

“Think you can manage by yourself now?”

She was breathing deeply. The color was returning to her

face. “I hope so, compadre. But if they climb over me like

that again…” A brief reprise of the trembling. “I feel

so.. .so icky.”

” ‘Icky’ is a state of mind, not a physiological condition.”

“Easy for you to say, Jon-Tom.”

“Look, they probably don’t think much of the way we

look, either. I know they don’t.”

“I don’t care what they think,” she shot back. “Santa

Maria, I hope we finish with this place quickly.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He noted the way in which the rising

sun, bright despite the intensifying cloudiness, sparkled off

the millions of cables and the silken buildings and webwork

walkway they were climbing. “I think it’s kind of pretty.”

“The fly complimenting the spider,” she muttered.

“Except that the flies are here hunting for allies.”

“Let’s hope they are allies.”

“Ahhh, you worry too much.” He gave her an affectionate

pat on the back. She forced a grin in response, thankful for

his moral support.

Jon-Tom’s attention returned forward, and to his surprise

he found himself staring straight into Talea’s eyes. The

instant their gazes locked she turned away.

He decided she probably hadn’t been looking at him.



Probably trying to memorize their path in case they had to try

and flee. Such preparation and suspicion would be typical of

the redhead. It did not occur to him that the glance might

have been significant of anything else.

They had climbed several thousand feet by the afternoon.

Ahead loomed an enormous structure. How many spiders,

Jon-Tom wondered, had labored for how many years patiently

spinning the silk necessary to create those massive ramparts

of hardened silk and interlaced stone?

The royal palace of Gossameringue was made largely of

hewn rock cemented together not with mortar or clay or

concrete but layer on layer of spider silk. Turrets of silver

bulged from unexpected places. The entire immense structure

was suspended from a vast overhang of volcanic rock by

cables a yard thick. Those cables would have supported a

mountain. Though the wind was stronger here, high up the

volcanic flank, the palace did not move. It might as well have

been anchored in bedrock.

They entered a round, silk-lined tube and were soon walk-

ing through tunnels and hallways. It grew dark only slowly

inside since the glassy silk admitted a great deal of light.

Eventually torches and lamps were necessary, however, to

illuminate the depths.

They confronted a portal guarded by a pair of the largest

spiders yet seen. Each had a body as big as Jon-Tom’s, but

with their loglike legs they spanned eighteen feet from front

to back.

They were a rich dark brown, without special markings or

bright colors anywhere on their bodies. The multiple black

eyes were small in comparison to the rest of the impressive

mass. Shocking-pink and orange silks enveloped torsos and

legs. There was also a set of white scarves tied around two

forelegs and the nonexistent necks. Huge halberds with intricately

carved wooden shafts rested between powerful forelegs.


Alan Dean Foster

They didn’t move, but Jon-Tom knew they were closely

scrutinizing the peculiar arrivals. For the first time since

they’d entered Gossameringue he was frightened. Thoughts

of the friendly spiderlings faded from his mind. It would have

been little comfort had he realized that the pair of impressive

guards before them were there precisely to intimidate visitors.

Ananthos turned to them. “you will have to wait here.”

After conversing briefly with the two huge tarantulas he and

his two associates disappeared through the round entrance.

While they waited, the visitors occupied themselves by

inspecting the now indifferent guards and the gleaming silk

walls. The silk had been dyed red, orange, and white in this

corridor and shone wetly in the light of the lamps. Jon-Tom

wondered how far from the entrance they’d come.

Mudge sauntered over next to him. “I don’t know ‘ow it

strikes you, mate, but seems t’ me our eight-legged friends

‘ave been gone a ‘ell of a long time now.”

Jon-Tom tried to sound secure as well as knowledgeable.

“You don’t just walk in on the ruler of a powerful people and

announce your demands. The diplomatic niceties have to be

observed. History shows that.”

“More o’ your studies, wot? Well, maybe it do take some

time at that. Never met a lot o’ bureaucrats that did move

much faster than the dead. I expect they’re all like that, slow

movin’ an’ slow thinkin’, no matter ‘ow many legs they got.”

“Here they come,” Jon-Tom told him confidently.

But it was not Ananthos and his familiar comrades who

emerged from the opening but instead a tall, very thin-legged

arachnid with a delicate body and eyes raised high on the

front of his skull. His forelegs were tied up in an intricate

network of blue silk ribbons and there were matching purple

ones on the rearmost limbs.

One wire-thin leg pointed at Caz, who stood nearest the



portal, while dozens of spiders of varied size and color

suddenly poured from behind him.

“immobilize them and carry them down!”

“Hey, wait a minute.” Jon-Tom was unable to get his staff

around before he’d been seized by half a dozen hooking legs.

Others thrust threatening spears and knives at his belly.

“There has been a mistake.” Clothahump was already

disappearing around a comer, carried on his back.

“Put me down or I’ll cut your smelly heads off!” All fire

and helpless frustration, Talea was being carted closely be-

hind the wizard.

Then Jon-Tom felt himself turned on his back and borne on

dozens of hairy legs, kicking and protesting with equal lack

of effect.

They went down into darkness. How far he couldn’t guess,

but it wasn’t long before they were dumped into a silk-and-

stone cell under the imperious direction of the emaciated and

beribboned spider in charge.

The silk lining the chamber was old and filthy. There were

no windows to let in light, only a few oil lamps in the

corridor beyond. Jon-Tom gathered himself up and moved to

inspect the cross-hatched webwork that barred their exit.

It was not sticky to the touch, but was quite invulnerable.

He leaned against it and shouted at their retreating captors.

“Stop, you can’t put us in here! We’re diplomatic visitors.

We’re here to see the Grand Webmistress and…!”

“Save your wind, my friend.” Caz stood at the outermost

comer of the cell, squinting up the silk ladder-steps. “They’ve


“Shit!” Jon-Tom kicked at an irregular, flattened piece of

shiny material. At first he thought it was a piece of broken

pottery. Closer inspection revealed it was a section of chitin.

It clattered off a stone set in the far wall.


Alan Dean Foster

“God damn that sly-voiced Ananthos. He led us all th

way by making us believe he was our friend.”

“He never said he was our friend.” Bribbens sat against

wall, his head resting on his knees. “Merely that he w.

doing his duty. Get us this far, then it’d be up to us, he said

The frog chuckled throatily. “Certainly hasn’t gone out of h

way to make it easy for us, looks like.”

Talea was sniffing the air and frowning. “I don’t know it

any of you have noticed it yet, but—”

There was a startled scream. Jon-Tom looked left. Flor had

been standing there. Now she’d fallen forward and landed

hard on the floor. Her foot had vanished through an opening

in the wall and the rest of her was slowly following….



They hadn’t noticed the passageway when they’d been

chucked into the cell. There was no telling where it ran to or

what had hold of Hor. Blood oozed from beneath her nails as

she tried to dig her fingers into the floor.

Jon-Tom was first at her side. Without thinking, he leaned

over and heaved a head-sized rock at her foot. There was a

breathy exclamation of surprise and pain from beyond. She

stopped sliding.

Caz and Mudge half dragged, half carried her across the

cell. Whatever had hold of her had missed her leg, but her

boot was neatly punctured just behind the calf.

As he backed away from the opening several legs scram-

bled through. They were attached to a two-foot-wide bulbous

body of light green with blue stripes and spots. Jon-Tom took

note of the fact that it wore only one black silk scarf tied

around the left rear leg at the uppermost joint.

The visitor was followed closely by a second, smaller


Alan Dean Foster

spider. This one was an electric maroon with a single large

gray rectangle on its abdomen. A third spider squeezed into

their cell, barely clearing the passageway. It was gray-brown

with white circles on cephalothorax and abdomen and had

shockingly red legs. All wore only the single black scarf on

identical limbs.

The three spiders stood confronting the wary knot of


“what the hell,” said the first spider who’d entered, in a

tone so high and flighty it was barely intelligible, “are you?”

“Diplomatic ambassadors,” Clothahump informed them,

with as much dignity as he could muster under the circumstances.

The little arachnid bobbed his head in that maybe yes,

maybe no movement Jon-Tom had come to recognize, “may-

be you’re diplomatic ambassadors to you,” he said, “but

you’re just food to us.”

“they look nice and soft,” said the big one in a slightly

deeper but still tenebrous voice. His body was a good three

feet across, bulky, and with three foot legs. “diplomats or

blasphemers, ambassador or storage-stealers, what difference

does it make?” He displayed bright red fangs, “dinner is


“You think so? Touch one of us again,” said Jon-Tom

wamingly, “and I’ll shove your fangs down your throat.”

The first spider cocked multiple eyes at him. “will you

now, half-limbed?” The latter was an apparent reference to

Jon-Tom’s disproportionately fewer number of limbs, “tell

you a thing, if you can do that we’ll treat you as something

more than dinner, if you can’t”—he pointed with a leg

toward the shivering Flor—”we start with that one for an


“Why her, why not me?”

The spider could not grin, but conveyed that impression

nonetheless, “almost had a taste, she smells full of fluid.”



It was too much for the terrified arachniphobe, that casual

talk of being sucked dry like a lemon. She turned and


“there, you see?” said the spider knowingly.

Jon-Tom quelled his own rising nausea. He ignored the

gagging sounds behind him to keep his attention on the big

red-legged spider. It had scuttled off to the side, away from its


“you can have me if you can get me,” it taunted.

“Same goes for me,” said Jon-Tom grimly. “Leave the

others out of this.”

“we’ll do that for a start.” The spider was sitting back on

his hind legs, waving the four front limbs ritualistically as it

bobbed from side to side. Then it brought them down and

rushed forward.

It had been a while since Jon-Tom had practiced any

karate. Four years, in fact. But he’d become reasonably good.

before he’d quit. What he hadn’t learned was how to attack

something with eight limbs. Not that they would matter if the

spider got those red fangs into him. Even if this particular

arachnid’s venom wasn’t very toxic, the shock alone might be

enough to kill.

The attacker’s intent seemed to involve throwing as many

legs as possible at its prey in order to distract him while the

fangs bit home.

It was possible the spider wouldn’t expect an attack. If the

eight limbs were confusing to Jon-Tom, then perhaps his

human length and long legs might equally puzzle the spider.

Besides, the best defense is a good offense, he reasoned.

So he ran at his opponent instead of away from it, keeping

his eyes on his target as he was supposed to and trying hard

to remember. Up on the opposite foot, kick out with the right,

left leg tucked under the other.

Agile claws reacted quickly, but not quickly enough. They


Alan Dean Foster

scraped at Jon-Tom’s neck and arms. They didn’t prevent his

right foot from landing hard between the eight eyes (there

was no chin to aim for).

The impact traveled up Jon-Tom’s leg. He landed awkwardly

on his left foot, stumbled, and fought desperately to regain

his balance.

It wasn’t necessary. The spider had stopped in its tracks.

Making mewling noises horribly reminiscent of a lost kitten,

it sat down, rolled over on its back, and clawed at its face.

The leg movements slowed like a clock winding down.

Jon-Tom waited nearby, panting hard in a defensive posture.

The leg movements finally ceased. Green goo dripped from

between the eyes, which no longer shone in the lamplight.

The spider who’d entered the cell first scrabbled over to its

motionless, larger companion.

“damme,” he breathed in disbelief, “you’ve killed jogand.”

Jon-Tom caught his breath, frowned. “What do you mean,

I’ve killed him? I didn’t kick him hard enough to kill him.”

“dead for sure, for sure,” said the smaller spider, turning a

respectful gaze on the man. Blood continued to seep from the


Fragile exoskeleton, Jon-Tom thought in relief and astonish-

ment. Come to think of it, he’d seen a lot of clubs here.

They’d be very effective against recalcitrant arachnids. In-

stead of a glass jaw, the spider possessed a glass body.

Or maybe he’d just slipped in a lucky blow. Either way…

He glared warily at the remaining pair. “No hard feelings?”

The first spider gazed distastefully down at his dead com-

panion. “jogand always was the impulsive type.”

They were distracted by a clattering in the corridor. A

Spider they did not recognize approached the webwork silk

bars. He was not the skinny one with all the ribbons. As they

watched silently, he poured the contents of a pear-shaped



bottle on a section of the bars. They began to dissolve like so

much hot jelly.

Another figure emerged from the shadows to stand just

behind the jailer: Ananthos.

“i am terribly sorry,” he told them, waving many legs at

the cell. “this was done without higher orders or good

knowledge, the individual responsible has already been


“Blimey but if we didn’t think you’d sold us over!” said a

relieved Mudge.

Ananthos looked outraged, “i would never do such a

thing, i take my responsibilities seriously, as you well should

know.” Then he noticed the corpse on the cell floor, looked

back into the cell.

” ‘Twere ‘is wizardship there,” said Mudge, indicating

Jon-Tom. Ananthos bowed respectfully toward the human.

“a good piece of work. i am sorrowful for the trouble

caused you.”

A pathway large enough to allow egress had been made in

me bars. Ananthos’ companions moved aside as the prisoners


The small spider tried to follow Clothahump out and was

promptly clobbered behind the head by one of the guards.

The spider shrank back into the cell.

“not you,” muttered the guard, “warmlanders only.”

“why not? aren’t we part of their party now?” He hooked

foreclaws over the rapidly hardening new bars two of the

guards were spinning.

“you are common criminals,” said Ananthos tiredly. “as

you must know, common criminals are not permitted audience

with the grand webmistress.”

The little spider hesitated. His head cocked toward Jon-

Tom. “you’re going to see the grand webmistress?”

“That’s what we’ve come all this way for.”


Alan Dean Foster

“then we’ll stay right here. you can’t force us to come!’

And both spiders drew back behind the bleeding corpse of

their dead companion, scuttled for the tunnel leading to their

own cell.

Their sudden shift sparked uncomfortable thoughts in John

Tom’s mind as he followed Talea’s twisting form up the

stairwell they’d so recently been hustled down.

“What do you suppose he meant by that?” She looked

back down at him and shrugged.

“i told you i could do nothing for you beyond bringing you

to gossameringue,” Ananthos explained, “it must be consid

ered that the webmistress not only might not assist you but

may condemn you to rejoin those rabble in their hole,” and

he gestured with a leg back down the stairs.

“So we could find ourselves right back in jail?” asked


“or worse.” He continued to point downward with the

waving, silk-swathed leg. “i hope you will not hold what

occurred down there against me. a chamberiaine overstepped

her authority.”

“We know it wasn’t yc’ir fault,” said Clothahump reassur-

ingly. Pog seemed about to add something but kept his mouth

shut at a warning glance from the wizard.

Before long they had retraced their ignominious descent

and stood before the high, arching doorway flanked by the

two immense guards. A small blue spider met them there. He

was full of apologies and anxiety.

When he’d finished bobbing and weaving, he beckoned

them to follow.

The chamber they entered was high and dark. A few

narrow windows were set in the rear wall. Only a couple of

lamps burned uncertainly in their wall holders, shedding

reluctant amber light on vast lounges and pillows of richly



colored silk. It did not occur to anyone to wonder what they

were stuffed with.

More surprising was the large quantity of decorative art.

There were sculptures in metal and wood, in stone anc

embalmed spider silk. Gravity-defying mobiles stretched frorr

ceiling to floor. Some were cleverly lit from within by tin;

lamps or candles. Some of the sculpture was representational

but a surprising amount was abstract. Silken parallelograms

vied with stress patterns for floor space. The colors of both

sculptures and furniture were subdued in shade but bright of

hue: orange, crimson, black and purple, deep blues and

deeper greens. There were no pastels.

“the grand webmistress Oil bids you welcome, strangers

from a far land,” the little spider piped, “i leave you now.”

He turned and scurried quickly out the doorway.

“i must go also,” said Ananthos. He hesitated, then

added, “some of your ideas mark you almost akin to the

eternal weave, perhaps we shall meet again some day.”

“I hope so,” said Jon-Tom, whispering without knowing

why. He watched as the spider followed the tiny herald in


They walked farther into the chamber. Clothahump put

hands on nonexistent hips, murmured impatiently, “Well,

where are you, madam?”

“up here!” The voice was hardly stentorian, but it was a

good deal richer than the breathy weaver whispers they’d had

to contend with thus far; chocolate mousse compared to

chocolate pudding. It seemed the voice had slight but definite

feminine overtones, but Jon-Tom decided he might be

anthropomorphosizing as he stood there in the near darkness.

“here,” said the voice once more. The eyes of the visitors

traveled up, up, and across the ceiling. High in the right-hand

comer of the chamber was a vast, sparkling mass of the finest

silk. It had been inlaid with jewels and bits of metal in


Alan Dean Poster

delicate mosaic until it sucked all the light out of the two

feeble lamps and threw it back in the gaze of any fortunate

onlookers. The silk itself had been arranged in tiny abstract

geometric forms that fit together as neatly as the pieces of a

silver puzzle.

A vast black globe slid over the side of the silken bower.

On a thin thread it fell slowly toward the chamber floor, like a

huge drop of petroleum. It was not as large as the massive

tarantulas guarding the entryway, but it was far bulkier than

Ananthos and most of the other arachnid inhabitants of

Gossameringue. The bulbous abdomen was nearly three feet

across. Save for a brilliant and all too familiar orange-red

hourglass splashed across the underside of the abdomen, the

body appeared to be encased in black steel.

Multiple black eyes studied the visitors expressionlessly.

The spinnerets daintily snipped the abdomen free from the

trailing silk cable. Settling down on tiptoe, the eight legs

folded neatly beneath the body. Then the enormous black

widow was resting comfortably on a sprawling red cushion,

preening one fang with a leg tip.

“i am the grand webmistress OU,” the polite horror

informed them. “you must excuse the impoliteness of cleaning

my mouth, but my husband was in for breakfast and we have

only just now finished.”

Jon-Tom knew something of the habits of black widows.

He eyed the jeweled boudoir above and shuddered.

Clothahump, unfazed by the Grand Webmistress’ appear-

ance, stepped briskly to the fore. Once again he laid out the

reason for their extraordinary journey. He detailed their expe-

riences on the Swordsward, in the Earth’s Throat, related the

magical crossing of Helldrink. Even in his dry, mechanical

voice the retelling was impressive.

The Grand Webmistress Oil listened intently, occasionally

permitting herself a whispered expression of awe or apprecia-



tion. Clothahump rambled on, telling of the peculiar new evil

raised by the Plated Folk and their imminent invasion of the


Finally he finished the tale. It was silent in the chamber for

several minutes.

011’s first reaction was not expected, “you! come a little

nearer.” She finally had to raise a leg and point, since it was

impossible to tell exactly where those lidless black eyes were


She pointed at Jon-Tom.

His hesitation was understandable. After the initial shock

of their appearance, he’d been able to overcome his instinc-

tive reactions to the spiders. He’d done so to a point where

he’d grown fond of Ananthos and his companions, to a point

where he could allow curious spideriings to clamber over his

body. Even the three antisocial types they’d encountered in

the cells below had seemed more abhorrent for their viciousness

than their shape.

But the dark, swollen body before him was representative

of a kind he’d been taught to fear since childhood. It brought

to the surface fears that laughed at logic and reason.

A hand was nudging him from behind. He looked down,

saw Clothahump staring anxiously at him.

“come, come, fellow,” said the Webmistress. “i’ve just

eaten.” A feathery, thick laugh, “you look as though you’d

be all bone, anyway.”

Jon-Tom moved closer. He tried to see the Webmistress in

a matronly cast. Still, he couldn’t keep his gaze entirely away

from the dark fangs barely hidden in their sheaths. Just a

graze from one would kill him instantly, even if the widow’s

venom had been somewhat diluted by her increased size.

A black leg, different from any he’d yet encountered in

Gossameringue, touched his shouMtBr. It traveled down his


Alan Dean Foster

arm, then his side. He could feel it through his shirt and


Close now, he was able to note the delicate and nearly

transparent white silks that encompassed much of the shining

black body. They had been embroidered with miniature scenes

of Gossameringue life. Attire impressive and yet sober enough

for a queen, he thought.

“what is your name, fellow?”

“Jon-Tom. At least, that’s what my friends call me.”

“i will not trouble you with my entire name,” was the

reply, “it would take a long time and you would not remem-

ber it anyhow, you may call me Oil.” The head shifted past

him. “so may you all. as you are not citizens of the

scuttleteau, you need show no special deference to me.”

Again the clawed, shiny leg moved down his front. He did

not flinch, “do you also support the claims and statements of

the small hard-shelled one?” Another leg gestured at


“I do.”

“well, then.” She rested quietly for a moment. Then she

glanced up once more at Jon-Tom. “why should we care

what happens to the peoples of the warmlands?”

“You have to,” Clothahump began importantly, “because

it is evident that if—”

“be silent.” She waved a leg imperiously at the wizard, “i

did not ask you.”

Clothahump obediently shut up. Not because he was afraid

of me large, poisonous body but because pragmatism is a

virtue all true wizards share.

“now, you may answer,” she said more softly to Jon-Tom.

History, he told himself, trying not to stare at those fangs

so near. Try to see in this massive, deadly form the same

grace and courtesy you’ve observed in the other arachnids



you’ve met. To answer the question, remember your history.

Because if you don’t…

“It’s quite easily explained. Are not you and the Plated

Folk ancient enemies?”

“we bear no love for the inhabitants of me greendowns,

nor they for us,” was the ready reply.

“Isrft it clear, then? If they are successful in conquering all

of the warmlands, what’s to prevent mem from coming for

you next?”

There was dark humor lacing the reply, “if they do there

will be such a mass feasting as gossameringue has never


Jon-Tom thought back to something Clothahump had told

him. “Oil, in thousands of years and many, many attempts

the Plated Folk have failed even to get past the Jo-Troom

Gate, which blocks the Pass leading from the Greendowns to

me warmlands.”

“that is a name and place i have heard of, though no

weaver hasever been there.”

“Despite this, Clothahump, who is the greatest of wizards

and whose opinion I believe in all such things, insists this

new magic me Plated Folk have obtained control of may

enable them to finally overthrow the peoples of the warmlands.

After hundreds of previous failures.

“If they can do that after thousands of years of failure,

why should they not do so to you as well? A thousand swords

can’t fight a single magic.”

“we have our own wizards to defend us,” Oil replied, but

she was clearly troubled by Jon-Tom’s words. She looked

past him. “how do i know you are all the wizard this fellow

says you are?”

Clothahump looked distressed. “Oh ye gods of blindness

that cloud the vision of disbelieving mortals, not another



Alan Dean Foster

“it will be painless.” She turned and called to the shad-

ows. “ogalugh!”

A frail longlegs came tottering out from behind a high pile

of cushions. Jon-Tom wondered if he’d been listening back

there all along or if he’d just recently arrived. He barely had

the strength to carry the thin silks that enveloped his upper

body and ran in spirals down his legs.

He looked at Clothahump. “what is the highest level of the



“by what force may one fly through the airs atop a



“what is the way of turning common base metals into


Clothahump’s contemptuous and slightly bored expression

suddenly paled.

“Well, uh, that is of course no easy matter. You require the

entire formula, of course, and not merely the descriptive term

applied to the methodology.”

“of course,” agreed the swaying inquisitor.

“Base metal Into gold, my… it has been a while since

I’ve had occasion to think on that.”

Quit stalling, Jon-Tom urged the wizard silently. Give them

an answer, any answer. Then the truth will come out in the

arguing. But say something.

“You need four lengths of sea grass, a pentagram with the

number six carefully set in each point, the words for shifting

electron valences, and… and…”

The Grand Webmistress, the sorcerer Ogalugh, and the

other inhabitants of the chamber waited anxiously.

“And you need… you need,” and the wizard looked up so

assuredly it seemed impossible he’d forgotten something so

basic for even a moment, “a pinch of pitchblende.”



Ogalugh turned to face the expectant Oil, spoke while

bobbing and weaving his head. “our visitor is in truth, a

wizard webmistress. how great i cannot say from three

questions, but he is of at least the third order.” Clothahump

harrumphed but confined his protest to that.

“none but the most experienced and knowledgeable among

the weavers of magic would know the last formula.” He

tottered over to rest a feathery leg on the turtle’s shoulder.

“i welcome you to gossameringue as a colleague.”

“Thank you.” Clothahump nodded importantly, began to

look pleased with himself.

The longlegs addressed Oil. “it may be that these visitors

are all that they claim, webmistress. the fact that they have

made so perilous a journey without assurance of finding at its

end so much as a friendly welcome is proof alone of high

purpose, i fear therefore that the words of my fellow wizard

are truth.”

“a troublesome thing if true,” said the webmistress, “a

most troublesome thing if true.” She eyed Jon-Tom. “there

has been hatred and enmity between the plated folk and the

people of the scuttleteau for generations untold, if they can

conquer the inhabitants of the warmlands then it may be, as

you say, that they can also threaten us.” She paused in

thought, then climbed lithely to her feet.

“it will be as it must be, though heretofore it has never

been.” She stood close by Jon-Tom, the hump of her abdo-

men nearly reaching his shoulder, “the weavers will join the

people of the warmlands. we will do so not to help you but to

help ourselves, better the children of the scuttleteau have

company in dying.” She turned to face Clothahump.

“bearer of bad truths, how much time do we have?”

“Very little, I would suspect.”

“then i will order the calling put out everywhere on the

Scuttleteau this very day. it will take time to assemble the best


Alan Dean Foster

fighters from the far reaches, yet that is not the foremost of

our problems, it is one perhaps you might best solve, since

the proof of your abilities as travelers is not to be denied.”

She studied the little group of visitors.

“how in the name of the eternal weave are we to get to the

jo-troom gate? we know only that it lies south to southwest of

the scuttleteau. we cannot go back through the earth’s throat,

the way you’ve come to us. even if so large a group could

cross helldrink, my people will not chance the chanters.”

“Offspring of the Massawrath,” Caz murmured to Mudge.

“Can’t say as I blame them. I’m still not sure it wasn’t blind

luck that got us through there, not sensible actions.”

“I don’t want to go back myself,” said Talea.

“Nor me, Master,” said Pog, hanging from a strand of dry

silk overhead.

“Then it follows that if we cannot return by our first route

we must make a new one southward.”

“through the mountains?” Ogalugh did not sound enthusiastic.

“Are they so impassable then?” Clothahump asked him.

“no one knows, we are familiar with the mountains of the

scuttleteau and to some small extent those surrounding us, but

we are not fond of sharp peaks and unmelting snows, many

would perish on such a journey, unless a good route exists, if

one does, we do not know of it.”

“so it will be up to you, experienced travelers, to seek out

such a path,” stated the queen.

“your pardon, webmistress,” said the spindly sorcerer,

“but there are a people who might know such a way, though

they would have no need or use of it themselves.”

“why must wizards always talk in riddles? whom do you

speak of, ogalugh?”

“the people of the iron cloud.”

Rich, whispery laughter filled the chamber, “the people of



the iron cloud indeed! they will have nothing to do with


“that is so, webmistress, but our visitors are experienced

travelers of the mind as well as the land, for have they not

this very instant convinced us to join with them?”

“we are but independent,” Oil replied, “the people of the

iron cloud are paranoid.”

“rumor and innuendo spread by unsuccessful traders who

have returned from their land empty-clawed, it is true they are

less than social, but that does not mean they will not listen.”

He turned to face Jon-Tom.

“they are much like some of you, friend, like yourself, and

those two there,” he pointed to Mudge and Caz, “and that

one above,” and he pointed now at Pog.

“They sound most interesting,” said Clothahump. “I con-

fess I know nothing of them.”

“Are they good fighters?” Flor wondered. “Maybe we can

get more out of them than directions.”

“they are great warriors,” admitted Ogalugh readily, “but

you speak so facilely of making allies of them. you do not

understand, they are interested in nothing save themselves,

– will support no causes but their own.”

“That’s just what we were told to expect of the Weavers,”

Jon-Tom said with becoming boldness.

“but we are sensible enough to see advantage and necessi-

ty where they occur,” Oil argued back. “the people of the

iron cloud, i am told, are unaffected by events elsewhere.

they are protected by their indifference and their isolation.”

“Nothing is safe from the evil the Plated Folk build,” said

Clothahump somberly.

“i am already convinced, wizard,” she said. “convince

the ironclouders: not me. it will be enough if they can show

our fighters the way through the southern peaks.”

“I have some small diplomatic skill,” said Clothahump


Alan Dean Foster

immodestly. “I believe we can persuade them to do that, at


“perhaps, you must, or we can be of no help to you and

your peoples, no matter what the plated ones decide to do. we

will march when ready, but if we cannot find a way, we will

be forced to turn back.

“i will send from among the weavers a personal representa-

tive. perhaps the proof that we have joined with you will help

to convince the people of the iron cloud, in any case,

someone will be necessary to come back to report on the

results of your mission, be it successful or not.”

“Not to preempt your prerogatives. Oil,” said Caz careful-

ly. “but if we might be permitted to choose the repre-

sentative … ?”

“Sure,” said Jon-Tom quickly, turning to face the

Webmistress. “Would it be okay if a river guard named

Ananthos served as your representative?”

“ananthos… i do not know the name. a common river

guard, you say?”

“Yes. He’s the one who brought us here.”

“a common river guard of uncommon discernment, then.

but still, it should be someone of higher rank.”

“Please, Oil,” Jon-Tom said, “rank will mean nothing to

these Ironclouders if what you say of their nature is correct.

And Ananthos is familiar with us. We know we can get along

with one another.”

“a sound recommendation, i suppose.” She sighed and

that whole globular black mass quivered, “it is the common

soldiers who will decide this battle to come, as they do all

such battles, perhaps it is fitting that one of their rank be our

ambassador, as you say, it will likely not matter to the


“very well. you may have this ananthos. he will go with

you as would one of my own children, uzmentap!”



“yes my lady, yes my lady?” A tiny adult spider scurried

into the chamber, the same one who had admitted them a

little while earlier.

“put out the word to all the ends of the scuttleteau, to the

uppermost flanks of the mountains and the bottoms of the

rivers, to all the believers in the weave and to all who would

defend their webs against the plated folk, that a temporary

alliance has been struck with the people of the warmlands to

help them drive the plated beasts back into their putrid hole of

a homeland once and for all!”

“it shall be done, my lady,” said the herald quickly. She

dismissed him with a wave of one leg and he hurried away to

do the bidding.

“we will move as soon as we have word from your

messenger ananthos,” she told them. “we will go hopefully

with a known route and will try our best if none such is

available, but i will not send the best of the weave over the

high snows to a cold death.”

“We know that,” said Clothahump gratefully. “You can’t

be expected to sacrifice yourselves to no purpose. But don’t

worry. We’ll convince these people to show us a way.”

Jon-Tom did not think it a judicial time to mention the

possibility that such a path might not exist.

“it is in your claws now. i will have this ananthos found

and will give him my personal instructions and the scarf of

ambassadorial rank. will you require an escort?”

“We’ve gotten this far on our own,” Talea pointed out.

“From what you say these Ironclouders aren’t hostile, just

stubborn.” She patted the sword at her hip. “We can take

care of ourselves.”

“i did not mean to imply otherwise, i will see that you are

well supplied with food and—” She broke off at the twisted

expression on Flor’s face, one that was sufficiently intense

and abrupt to transcend interspecies differences, “perhaps

‘*” 177

Alan Dean Foster

you had best see to your own provisioning, at that. list what

you wish and i will see it is provided, i had forgotten for a

moment that you partake of nourishment in a fashion some-

what different from ours.”

“Our marital habits are a little different, too.” Jon-Tom

glanced significantly toward the bejeweled boudoir.

“so i have heard, honor is a strange thing, sometimes it is

better to die happy and honored than to live miserably and

unrespected. and you do not consider the effects such repeat-

ed matings have on my own mind. a burdensome thing, i am

not permitted a lifetime of happiness but instead short periods

followed by regretful melancholy, tradition must be upheld,

however.” She waved a leg magnanimously.

“all that is required will be provided, i only hope that we

have sufficient time to prepare and that we are granted a path

by which to proceed.”

“We are most grateful,” said Clothahump, bowing slightly.

“You are a Grand Webmistress indeed.”

“it is no compliment to say that one can see the truth.”

She waved several legs. “good fortune to you, newfound


The visitors began to file out of the chamber. Jon-Tom go

halfway to the portal, then turned and walked back to her.

“the audience is at an end,” Oil told him somewhat less

than politely.

“I’m sorry. But I have to know something. Then I’ll leav<

you to your privacy.”

Fathomless eyes regarded him quietly, “ask then.”

“Why did you single me out to talk with, instead o

Clothahump or Caz or one of the others?”

“why? oh, because of your delightful and inspiring selec

tion of garb. it marks you clearly as a superior being to your

companions, wizardly talents notwithstanding.”

Turning, she walked rhythmically back to stand below the



royal bower. Reattaching fresh silk to the dangling cable, she

promptly climbed up and disappeared behind the barrier of

gems and silken embroidery.

Jon-Tom was left to consider his bright black leathern

pants, the matching boots and dark shirt.

It was only much later, as they were departing Gossameringue

with Ananthos in the lead, that Jon-Tom had the startling and

unsettling thought that the Grand Webmistress might have

been considering him as material for something besides




It was terrible in the mountains.

Higher peaks towered to east and west, but as they moved

south they were traversing the wmdswept flanks of Zaryt’s

Teeth, where they merged with the lower but still impres-

sive mountains from which the greater heights sprang. It

was bitingly cold. Soon they were walking not on rock or

earth but on snow so dry and fresh it crunched like sugar


On the third day after leaving the Scuttleteau and its gentle

rivers and warm forests they encountered snow flumes. The

day after that they were stumbling through a modest blizzard.

Oil’s fears that the southern range might prove unnegotiable

seemed well founded.

Mudge and Caz suffered least of all, in contrast to their

companions who did not enjoy the benefits of a personal far



Alan Dean Poster

Everyone profited from the example set by the stoic

Bribbens. Though highly susceptible to the cold he trudged

patiently along, silent and uncomplaining. Oftentimes his

bulbous eyes were all that could be seen outside the thick

clothing the Weavers had provided. He kept his discom-

forts to himself, and so his companions were shamed into

doing the same.

Working with only rumor and supposition, the least reliable

of guides, Ananthos somehow managed to pick a path


They had made little progress in five days of hard marching

when Jon-Tom had his idea. A temporary camp was estab-

lished in the shelter of a small cave. Jon-Tom and Plor led the

others in the hunt for suitable saplings and green vines. These

were then woven together with spider silk dispensed by


With the aid of the new snowshoes their pace improved

considerably. So did their spirits, boosted not only by their

improved method of travel but by the hysterical image Ananthos

presented as he shuffled along on six of the carefully wrought

shoes, picking his way as uncertainly and carefully as a water

sender trying to cross a pool of mud.

They also improved Bribbens’ morale. While they kept him

no warmer, the enormous shoes on his webbed feet gave him

tremendous stability.

Jon-Tom moved up to march alongside Ananthos. It was

the morning of their eighth day in the mountains.

“Could we have missed it?” His breath made a cloud in

front of his face. The cold fought implacably for a rout&

through his clothes. The crude parka hastily fashioned by the

Weavers was no substitute for a goose-down jacket. There

was a real danger of freezing to death if they didn’t find

warmer country soon.

“i don’t think so.” Ananthos indicated the precious scroll



he kept in a protective, watertight tube strapped to his rear

left leg. “i can only rely on the chart the court historians

made for us. no weaver has been this far south in many

years, there was no reason for doing so and, for obvious

reasons, no desire to do so.”

“Then how can you be so sure we haven’t passed it?”

“i can be only as sure as the charts, but the tales say if one

but continues south, as we have, following the lowest route

through the mountains, he will come upon the iron cloud, that

is, if the tales are true.”

“And if there is an iron cloud at all,” Jon-Tom mumbled.

A leg touched his waist, but Ananthos’ reassurances were

stolen by the wind.

Despair is sometimes the preface to hope. On the ninth

day the weather took pity on them. The snow ceased, the

storm clouds betook themselves elsewhere, and the temper-

ature wanned considerably, though it did not rise above


As if to compensate they were confronted with another

danger: snow blindness. The brilliant Alpine sun ricochetted

off snowbanks and glacier fronts, turning everything to shock-

ing, adamantine white.

They managed to fashion crude shades from Ananthos’

supply of scarves. Even so they were forced to keep their

gaze to the ground and their senses at highest alert, lest the

next snowbank turn out to be just the fatal side of some nearly

hidden chasm.

Another day and they started downward.

Two weeks after departing Gossameringue they found the

iron cloud.

They were climbing a slight rise, bisecting a saddle be-

tween two slopes. For days they had seen little color but

varying shades of white, so the highly reflective black that

suddenly confronted them was physically shocking.


Alan Dean Foster

Across a rocky slope of crumbled granite patched with

snow was a mountainside that appeared to have been deluged

with frozen tar. It was encrusted with ice and snow in

occasional crevices.

Clearly the immense, smooth masses of black which

jutted like an oily waterfall from the flank of the mountain-

side were composed of material much tougher than tar.

They resembled a succession of monstrous bubbles piled

one atop another without bursting. Holes pockmarked the


It was the metallic luster that led Flor to exclaim in

surprise, “Por dios, es hematite.”

“What?” Jon-Tom turned a puzzled expression on her.

“Hematite, Jon-Tom. It’s an iron ore that occurs naturally

in formations like that,” and she pointed to the mountainside,

“though I never learned of any approaching such size. The

formation is called mammary, or reniform, I think.”

“What is she saying?” asked Clothahump with interest.

“That the ‘iron’ part of the name Ironcloud is taken from

reality and not poetry. Come on!”

They descended the gentle slope on the other side of the

saddle and made their way across the stony plateau. The huge

black extrusion hung above them, millions of tons of near-

iron as secure as the mountain itself. Viewed against the

surrounding snow and sky, it did indeed look much like a


But where were the fabled inhabitants, he wondered? What

could they be like? The holes which pierced the masses

overhead hinted at their possible abode, but though the party

surveyed them intently there was no hint of motion from


“It looks abandoned,” said Talea, staring upward.

“Don’t see a soul,” Pog commented from nearby.

They slid their burdensome backpacks off while examining



the inaccessible caves above. Climbing the granite wall was

out of the question. Not only did the massive formation

overhang but the smooth iron offered little purchase. Without

sophisticated mountaineering gear there was no way they

could reach even the lowest of the caves.

It was clear enough how the invisible inhabitants managed

the feat, however. From the rim of each cave opening hung a

long vine. Knots were tied in each roughly six inches apart.

The profusion of dangling vines, swaying gently in the

mountain breeze, gave the formation the look of a dark man

with a beard.

The problem arose from the fact that the shortest cable-vine

was a good two hundred feet long. No one thought themself

capable of the combination of strength and dexterity neces-

sary to make the climb. Talea considered it, but the thinness

of the vine precluded the attempt. Whoever used the vines

weighed a good deal less than any in the frustrated party of


Mudge was agile, but he wasn’t fond of climbing. Ananthos

was clearly too large to enter the hole, though he stood the

best chance of rising to the height.

“We waste time on peripheral argument,” Clothahump

finally snorted at them, when he was at last able to get a word

in. “Pog!”

Everyone looked around, but the bat was nowhere to be


” ‘Ere ‘e is!” Mudge pointed toward a large boulder.

They ran to the spot to find the bat squatting resolutely on

the gravel behind the rock. He looked up at them with

determined bat eyes. „

“No way am I going up dere and sticking my nose in one

of dose black pits. No telling what might take a notion to bite

it off.”

“Come now, mate,” said Mudge reasonably, adjusting his


Alan Dean Foster

parka top, “be sensible. You’re the only arboreal among us.

If I didn’t think that vine’d bust under me weight, I’d give a

climb a good try. But why the ‘ell should one o’ us ‘ave t’

risk that, when you could be up there and back in a bloody

minute or two without so much as strainin’ your wings?”

“An accurate evaluation of our situation.” Caz positioned

his monocle tighter over his left eye. He’d steadfastly refused

to surrender the affectation, even at the risk of losing the

monocle in the snow. “You know, you really should have

been up there and back already, on your own initiative.”

“Initiative, hell!” Pog flapped his wings angrily. “One

more display of ‘initiative’ from dis crazy bunch and we’ll

find ourselves meat on somebody’s table.”

“Now Pog,” Clothahump began wamingly.

“Yeah, I know, I know, boss. Go to it or ya’ll turn me into

a human or worse.” He sighed, unfurled his wings experi-


“perhaps i could get up there—at least if i can’t fit inside,

i could attach to a hole above and hang down to, look in.”

Ananthos sounded awkward, wanting to contribute.

“You know that surface is too slick for you to get a hold

on, and if you could you probably couldn’t get in and move

around in there. Your leg span is too wide. Besides, I think

Pog should have a chance at this.” Clothahump was firm.

“A chance at what? Meeting my maker in a cold hole in da


Ananthos looked pained, but Jon-Tom gave Pog encour-

agement with his eyes.

“If you’re all determined den to see poor Pog get his throat

laid open, I expect I’ll have ta be about da business. I warn

ya, dough, if I don’t come back alive I’ll come back dead and

haunt ya all to an early grave.”

“Don’t take any chances, Pog,” Jon-Tom advised him.

“Probably you won’t find anything, or anyone. Just fly up



and check out one or two caves, see if this place is really as

deserted as it looks. If it is, maybe you’ll leam the reason


“Maybe one of da reasons is hiding in one of dose caves!”

snapped the worried bat, gesturing upward with a wing


“If so then don’t hang around to argue with it,” said

Talea. “You’re going up to look, not to fight. Get your butt

back down here as fast as you can.”

Pog hovered just above the ground, lit on top of the boulder

he’d been hiding behind. “No need ta worry ’bout that, Talea

lady.” He pulled his knife from its back sheath and slipped it

between his jaws.

“Wish me luck,” he mumbled around the blade.

“There is no need for luck when intelligence and good

judgment are exercised,” said Clothahump.

Pog made a rude noise, flapped his wings, and launched

himself from the crest of the rock. He dropped, skimmed

inches above sharp gravel, and then began to climb, using the

warm currents rising from the bare plateau to ascend in a

steady spiral.

“You think he’ll be okay?” Flor shielded her eyes from the

glare and squinted at the sky where a black shape was

growing gradually smaller. Pog now looked like a toy kite

against the pure blue curtain overhead.

“Instinct is a powerful aid to self-preservation.”

“Oh?” she said with just a hint of sarcasm. “What book

did that come out of?”

Jon-Tom was also leaning back and looking toward the lip

of the iron cloud. He just swallowed Flor’s remark.

Hemarist, da tall human lady had called it. No, dat

wasn’t right. Hema… Hematite. Like in a tight spot, which

is what you gots yourself into, Pog thought to himself. He

was high above the rocky plain now. The figures of his


Alan Dean Foster

companions were sharp and distinct against the gray gravel. He

could tell they were watching him.

Waiting ta see how I get it, he thought miserably.

He circled before the lowest of the globular projections.

His personal sonar told him nothing moved inside any of the

several caves he’d flown past. That at least was a promising

sign. Maybe the place was deserted.

Black iron, huh? It looked like a vast black face to him,

with no eyes but lots of little mouths ready to swallow you,

swallow you whole. Pretty soon he was going to have to stick

his head into one of ’em.

Why couldn’t ya have listened ta your mudder, he berated

himself, and gone inta da mail soivice, or crafts transport; or

aerial cop work?

But nah, ya had ta fall hard for a pretty piece o’ fluff who

won’t give ya da time o’ night, den get stinking drunk and

apprentice yourself ta a half senile, sadistic, hard-shelled,

hard-headed old fart of a wizard in da faint hope he’ll

eventually turn ya inta something more presentable ta you

lady love.

He thought of her again, of the smoothly elegant blend of

feathers from back to tail, of the slightly cruel yet delicate

curve Of beak, and of those magnificent, piercing yellow eyes

which turned his guts to paste when they passed over him.

Ah, Uleimee, if ya only knew what I’m suffering for ya!

He caught himself, broke the thought like a ceramic cup. If

she knew what you was suffering she wouldn’t give a flyin’

fuck about it. She’s the type who appreciates results, not

well-meaning failures.

So gather what’s left of your small store of courage, bat,

and be about your job. And don’t think about whether when

your time’s up, old Clothamuck will have forgotten da formu-

la for transforming ya.

But, oh my, dat cave mouth looming just ahead is dark!



Empty, dough. His eyes as wen as his sonar told him that. He

fluttered next to the opening for a while, wrestling with the

knowledge that if he didn’t explore at least one of the caves

his mentor would simply force him to return and try again.

He drifted cautiously inside. He sensed the echo of his

wing beats pushing air off the tunnel walls. Then he settled

down to walk.

The floor of the cave was carpeted with clean straw, carefully

braided into intricately patterned mats. They appeared to be

in good repair. If this iron warren was abandoned, it hadn’t

been so for long.

The tunnel soon expanded into a larger, roughly oval-

shaped chamber. It was filled with a peculiar assortment of

furniture. There were lounges but no chairs, and high-backed

perches. The lounges suggested creatures that walked, as did

the climbing vines dangling outside each cave opening, but

the high-backs pointed to arboreals like himself. He shook his

head. Deductive thinking was not his strong suit.

The utensils were also confusing rather than enlightening.

A little light reached the chamber from the cave opening, but

his sonar was still searching the surroundings as though it

were pitch dark. His heart beat almost as rapidly. Finish dis,

he told himself frantically. Finish it, and get out.

Several additional chambers branched from the back of the

one he was studying. He would begin with the one immedi-

ately on his right and work his way through them. Then

Clothahump couldn’t say he’d made only a superficial inspec-

tion and order him to return.

It turned out to be a pantry-kitchen arrangement. It was

discouraging to find that whoever had lived in the cave was

omnivorous. In addition to instruments for preparing meat

and fruit there was also a surprising garbage pile of small

insect carcasses and empty nuts.

It was an eclectic and indiscriminate diet. Perhaps it also


Alan Dean Foster

included bats. He shuddered, drew his wings tighter around

his small body. One more room, he told himself. One more,

and den if da boss wants more info he can damn well climb

up and look for himself.

He entered the next chamber, found more furniture and

little else. He was ready to leave when something tickled his

sonar. He turned.

A pair of huge, glowing yellow eyes stared down at him.

Their owner was at least seven feet tall and each of those

luminous orbs was as big around as a human face. Pog

stuttered but couldn’t squeeze out word or shout.

“Hooooooo,” said the voice beneath those fathomless eyes

in a long, querulous, and slightly irritated tone, “the hell are


Pog was backing toward the chamber exit. Something

sharp and unyielding pricked his back.

“Tolafay asked you a question, interloper! Better answer

him.” The new voice was completely different from the first,

high and almost human.

Pog glanced over his shoulder, saw eyes not as large as the

first pair he’d encountered but larger still in proportion to the

body of their owner. Four yellow eyes, four malevolent little

angry suns, swam in a dizzying circle around his head. He

started to slump.

The sharp thing moved, poked him firmly in the side.

“And don’t faint on us, interloper, or I’ll see your body

leaves your gizzard behind….”

‘^What the devil’s keeping him?” Jon-Tom stared with

concern up at the cave where Pog had vanished.

“Maybe they go very deep into the mountainside,” Talea

suggested hopefully. “It may take him a while to get all the

way in and all the way out again.”

“Perhaps.” Bribbens stared longingly at a small creek that



flowed from the base of an icefall across the barren little

plateau. “How I long for a boat again.” He lifted one of his

enormous, snowshoed feet.

“Walking’s beginning to get to me. No fit occupation for a


“If it’s any consolation I’d rather be on a boat myself just

now,” said Jon-Tom.

Then Mudge was gesturing excitedly upward. “Ease off it,

mates! ‘Ere ‘e comes!”

“And damned if he hasn’t got company.” Talea unsheathed

her sword, stood ready and waiting for whatever might drop

out of the sky.

Pog drifted down toward them, a black crepe-paper cutout

against the bright sky. He was paced by a similar silhouette

several times more massive, with a distinctly animate lump

attached to its back.

Dozens of other fliers poured from the perforated cloud-

cliff like water from a sieve. They did not descend but instead

blended together to create a massive, threatening spiral above

the plateau.

Talea reluctantly placed her sword back in its holder.

“Doesn’t look like they’ve hurt Pog. We might as well

assume they’re friendly, considering how badly we’re


“Characteristic understatement, flame-fur.” Caz’s monocle

waltzed with the sun as he craned his neck to inspect the

soaring whirlpool overhead. “I make out at least two hundred

of them. Size varies, but the shape is roughly the same. I

think they’re all owls. I’ve never heard of such a concentrated

community of them as this, not even in Polastrindu, which

has a respectable population of noctural arboreals.”

“It is odd,” Clothahump agreed. “They are antisocial and

zealously guard their privacy, which fits with what the Weav-


Alan Dean Foster

ers told us about the psychology of Ironcloud’s inhabitants.

Yet they appear to have established a community here.”

Pog touched down on the high boulder he’d so recently

tried to hide behind. The flier shadowing him braked ten-foot

wings. The force of the backed air nearly knocked Flor oft

her feet.

The creature took a couple of dainty steps, ruffled its

feathers, and stood staring at them. The high tufts atop She

head identified this particular individual as a Great Homed

Owl. Jon-Tom found himself more impressed with those great

eyes, like pools of speculative sulfur, than by the creature’s


The lump attached to its back, which even Caz had not

been able to identify, now detached itself from the light,

high-backed saddle it had been straddling. It slid decorative

earmuffs down to its neck, unsnapped its poncho, and leaned

against its companion’s left wing.

Now the spiral high above started to break up. Most of she

fliers returned to their respective caves in the hematite. A few

assumed watchful positions.

Jon-Tom eyed the lemur standing close to the owl. It was

no longer a mystery who made use of the thin, knotted vines

fringing the cave mouths. With their diminutive bodies and

powerful prehensile fingers and toes, the lemurs could travel

up and down the cables as easily as Jon-Tom could circle an

oval track.

Pog glided down from the crest of his boulder and sauntered

over to rejoin his friends. “Dis guy’s called Tolafay.” He

gestured with a wingtip at the glowering owl. “His skymate’s

named Malu.”

The lemur stepped forward. He was barely three feet tall.

“Your friend explained much to us.”

“Yes. Quite a story it was, tooooo.” The owl smoothed the



folds of its white, green, and black kilt. “I’m not sure how

much of it I believe,” he added gruffly.

“We have managed to convince half a world,” replied

Clothahump impatiently. “Time grows short. Civilization

teeters on the edge of the abyss. Surely I need not repeat our

whole tale again?”

“I don’t think you have to,” said Malu. He indicated the

watchful Ananthos. “The mere fact that a Weaver, citizen of

a notoriously xenophobic state, is traveling as ally with you is

proof enough that something truly extraordinary is going on.”

“look who is calling another ‘xenophobic,'” whispered

Ananthos surlily.

“It had better be extraordinary,” the owl grumbled. He

used a flexible wing tip to wipe one saucer-sized eye. “You’ve

awakened all of Ironcloud from its daily rest. The populace

will require a reasonable explanation.” He blinked, shielding

his face as the sun emerged from behind a stray cloud.

“How you can live with that horrid light burning your eyes

is something I’ll never understand.”

“Oh very well,” said Clothahump with a sigh. “You will

convey details of our situation to your leader or mayor or—”

“We have no single leader,” said the owl, mildly outraged.

“We have neither council nor congress. We coexist in peace,

without the burdens imposed by noisome government.”

“Then how do you make communal decisions?” Jon-Tom

asked curiously.

The owl eyed him as though he represented a lower

species. “We respect one another.”

“There will be a feasting tonight,” said Malu, trying to

lighten the atmosphere. “We can discuss your request then.”

“That’s not necessary,” said Flor.

“But it is,” the lemur argued. “You see, we can welcome

you either as enemies or as guests. There will be a feasting

either way.”


Alan Dean Foster

“I believe I follow your meaning.” Caz spoke drily, eyeing

Tolafay’s razor-sharp beak, which was quite capable of snap-

ping him in half. “I sincerely hope, then, that we can look

forward to being greeted as guests….”

They gathered that evening in a chamber far larger than

any of the others. Jon-Tom wondered at the force, technolog-

ical or natural, which could have hollowed such a space in the

almost solid iron.

It was dimly lit by lamp but more brightly than usual in

deference to the Ironclouders’ vision-poor visitors. Trophy

feathers and lizard skins decorated the curving walls. Nearly

a hundred of the great owls of all species and sizes reveled in

music and dance along with their lemur companions.

Their guests observed the spectacle of feathers and fur with

pleasure. It was comfortably warm in the cave, the first time

since departing Gossameringue any of them had been really


The music was strange, though not as strange as its

sources. Nearby a great white barn owl stood in pink-green

kilt playing a cross between a tuba and a flute. It held the

instrument firmly with flexible wing tips and one clawed foot,

balancing neatly on the other while pecking out the melody

with a precision no mere pair of lips could match.

Owls and lemurs spilled out on the great circular iron floor,

dancing and spinning while their companions at the huge

curved tables ate and drank their fill. It was wonderful to

watch those great wings spinning and flaying at the air as the

owls executed jigs and reels with their comparatively tiny but

incredibly agile primate companions. Claws and tiny padded

feet slipped and hopped in and around each other without

missing a beat.

The night was half dead when Jon-Tom leaned over to ask

Ror, “Where’s Clothahump?”

“I don’t know.” She stopped sipping from the narrow-



mouthed drinking utensil she’d been given. “Isn’t he magnif-

icent?” Her eyes were glowing almost as brightly as those of

an acrobat performing incredible leaps before their table, his

long middle fingers tracing patterns in the air. A beautiful

female sifaka joined him, and the dance-gymnastics contin-

ued without a pause.

Jon-Tom put the question to the furry white host on his

other side.

“I don’t know either, my friend,” said Malu. “I have not

seen the hard-shelled oldster all evening.”

“Don’t worry yourself, Jon-Tom.” Caz looked at him from

another seat down. “Our wizard is rich in knowledge, but not

rich in the ability to enjoy himself. Leave him to his private

meditations. Who knows when again we will have an oppor-

tunity for such rare entertainment as this?” He gestured

grandly toward the dancers.

But the concern took hold of Jon-Tom’s thoughts and

would not let go. As he surveyed the room, he saw no sign of

Pog, either. That was still more unusual, familiar as he was

with the bat’s preferences. He should have been out on the

floor, teasing and flirting with some lithesome screech owl.

Yet he was nowhere about.

Jon-Tom’s companions were having too good a time to

notice his departure from the table. In response to his ques-

tions a potted tarsier with incredibly bloodshot eyes pointed

toward a tunnel leading deeper into the mountainside. Jon-

Tom hurried down it. Noise and music faded behind him.

He almost ran past the room when he heard a familiar

moaning: the wizard’s voice. He threw aside the curtain

barring the entryway.

Lying on a delicate bunk that sagged beneath his weight

was the wizard’s bulky body. He’d withdrawn arms and legs

into his shell so that only his head protruded. It bobbed and

twisted in an unnerving parody of the head movements of the


Alan Dean Foster

Weavers. Only the whites of his eyes showed. His glasses lay

clean and folded on a nearby stool.

“Hush!” a voice warned him. Looking upward Jon-Tom

saw Pog dangling from a lamp holder. The flickering wick

behind him made his wings translucent.

“What is it?” Jon-Tom whispered, his attention on the

lightly moaning wizard. “What’s the matter?” The echoes of

revelry reached them faintly. He no longer found the music

invigorating. Something important was happening in this little


Pog gestured with a finger. “Da master lies in a trance

I’ve seen only a few times before. He can’t, musn’t be


So the two waited, watching the quivering, groaning shape

in fascination. Pog occasionally fluttered down to wipe mois-

ture from the wizard’s open eyes, while Jon-Tom guarded the

doorway against interruptions.

It is a terrible thing to hear an old person, human 01

otherwise, moan like that. It was the helpless, weak sound a

sick child might make. From time to time there were snatches

and fragments of nearly recognizable words. Mostly, though,

the high singsong that filled the room was unintelligible


It faded gradually. Clothahump settled like a fallen cake.

His quivering and head-bobbing eased away.

Pog flapped his wings a couple of times, stretched, and

drifted down to examine the wizard. “Da master sleeps

now,” he told the exhausted Jon-Tom. “He’s worn


“But what was it all about?” the man asked. “What was

the purpose of the trance?”

“Won’t know till he wakes up. Got ta do it naturally.

Dere’s nothin’ ta do but wait.”



Jon-Tom eyed the comatose form uncertainly. “Are you

sure he’ll come out of it?”

Pog shrugged. “Always has before. He better. He owes




Once there were inquiring words at the curtain and Jon-

Tom had to go outside to explain them away. Time passed,

the distant music faded. He slept.

A great armored spider was treading ponderously after

him, all weaving palps and dripping fangs. Run as he might

he could not outdistance it. Gradually his legs gave out, his

wind failed him. The monster was upon him, leering down at

his helpless, pinioned body. The fangs descended but not into

his chest. Instead, they were picking off his fingers, one at a


“Now you can’t play music anymore,” it rumbled at him.

“Now you’ll have to go to law school… aha ha ha!”

A hand was shaking him. “Da master’s awake, Jon-Tom


Jon-Tom straightened himself. He’d been asleep on the

floor, leaning back against the chamber wall. Clothahump

was sitting up on the creaking wicker bed, rubbing his lower


Alan Dean Foster

jaw. He donned his spectacles, then noticed Jon-Tom. His

gaze went from the man to his assistant and back again.

“I now know the source,” he told them brightly, “of the

new evil obtained by the Plated Folk. I know now from

whence comes the threat!”

Jon-Tom got to his feet, dusted at himself, and looked

anxiously at the wizard. “Well, what is it?”

“I do not know.”

“But you just said… ?”

“Yes, yes, but I do know and yet I don’t.” The wizard

sounded very tired. “It is a mind. A wonderfully wise mind.

An intelligence of a reach and depth I have never before

encountered, filled with knowledge I cannot fathom. It con-

tains mysteries I do not pretend to understand, but that it is

dangerous and powerful is self-evident.”

“That seems clear enough,” said Jon-Tom. “What kind of

creature is it? Whose head is it inside?”

“Ah, that is the part I do not know.” There was worry and

amazement in Clothahump’s voice. “I’ve never run across a

mind like it. One thing I was able to tell, I think.” He

glanced up at the tall human. “It’s dead.”

Pog hesitated, then said, “But if it’s dead, how can it help

da Plated Folk?”

“I know, I know,” Clothahump grumbled sullenly, “it

makes no sense. Am I expected to be instantly conversant

with all the mysteries of the Universe!”

“Sorry,” said Jon-Tom. “Pog and I only hoped that—”

“Forget it, my boy.” The wizard leaned back against the

black wall and waved a weary hand at him. “I learned no

more than I’d hoped to, and hope remains where knowledge

is scarce.” He shook his head sadly.

“A mind of such power and ability, yet nonetheless as dead

as the rock of this chamber. Of that I am certain. And yet



Eejakrat of the Plated Polk has found a means by which he

can make use of that power.”

“A zombie,” muttered Jon-Tom.

“I do not know the term,” said Clothahump, “but I accept

it. I will accept anything that explains this awful contradic-

tion. Sometimes, my boy, knowledge can be more confusing

than mere ignorance. Surely the universe holds still greater

though no more dangerous contradictions than this inventive,

cold mind.” He reached a decision.

“Now that I am sensitized to this mind, I am confident we

can locate it. We must find out whose it is and destroy him or

her, for I had no sense of whether the possessor is male or


“But we can’t do dat, Master,” Pog argued, “because as

you say dis brain is under da control of da great sorcerer

Eejakrat, and Eejakrat stays in Cugluch.”

“Capital city of the Plated Folk,” Clothahump reminded


“Dat’s right enough. So it’s obvious dat we can’t.. .we

can’t…” The words came to a halt as Pog’s eyes grew wide

as a lemur’s. “No, Master!” he muttered, his voice filled

with dread. “We can’t. We can’t possibly!”

“On the contrary, famulus, it is quite possible that we can.

Of course, I shall first discuss it with the rest of our


“Discuss what?” Jon-Tom was afraid he already knew the


“Why, traveling into Cugluch to find this evil and obliter-

ate it, my boy. What else could a civilized being do?”

“What else indeed.” Jon-Tom had resigned himself to

going. Could this Cugluch be worse than the Earth’s Throat?

Pog seemed to think so, but then Pog was terrified of his own


Clothahump’s strength had returned. He slid off the bed,


Alan Dean Foster

started for the doorway. “We must consult the rest of our


“They may not all be in a condition to understand,”

Jon-Tom warned him. “We have generous hosts, you know.”

“A night of harmless pleasure is good for the soul now and

then, my boy. Though it should never descend to unconscious-

ness. I am pleased to see that you have retained control of


“So far,” said Jon-Tom fervently, “but after what you’ve

just proposed, I may change my mind.”

“It will not be so bad,” said the wizard, clapping him on

the waist as they swung aside the concealing curtain and

moved out into the tunnel. “There will be some danger, but

we have survived that several times over.”

“Yeah, but it’s not like an innoculation,” Jon-Tom muttered.

“We haven’t become immune. We keep taking risks and

sooner or later they’ve got to catch up with us.” He ducked to

avoid a low section of iron ceiling.

“We shall do our best, my boy, to see that it is later.”

Pog remained behind, hanging quietly from the oil lamp in

the now empty room. He considered remaining behind

permanently. The Ironclouders would shelter him, he was


That would mean no transformation, of course. All that

he’d suffered at the wizard’s hands, and mouth, would

have been for naught. Also, as the only arboreal of the

group, he knew how they depended on him for reconnaisance

and such.

Besides, better death than life cursed by unrequited love.

He let free of the lamp, dipped in the air, and soared oin

into the tunnel after the two wizards.

There was the anticipated debate and argument the nexl

morning. One by one, as before, the various members of the



little group were won over by Clothahump’s assurances,

obstinacy, and veiled threats.

Their course decided, it was time to ascertain the position

taken during the night by the inhabitants of Ironcloud. Five of

the great owls faced Ihe travelers on the plateau below the

cave city. Two were homed, two pale bam, and one a tiny

hoot, who was smaller than Pog but equal in dignity to his

massive feathered brothers. With them were five lemurs. The

sun was not yet up.

“We do not doubt your seriousness nor the truth you tell,”

Tolafay was saying, “nor the worth of your mission, but still

we doubted whether it was worth breaking a rule of hundreds

of years of noninvolvement in the arguments of others.” He

gestured at Ananthos.

“Yet we share such feelings with the inhabitants of the

Scuttleteau and they have nonetheless agreed to help you. So

we will help, too.” Murmurs of agreement came from his


“That’s settled, then,” said a satisfied Clothahump. “You

will be valuable allies in the coming war and—”

“A moment, please.” One of the lemurs stepped forward.

He had a high, stiff collar and light vest above billowing

pantaloons of bright yellow. “We did not say that we’d be

your allies. We said we’d help.

“You asked us to give the Weavers permission to travel

through our country and to provide a route southward through

the mountains so they can reach the Swordsward and then

make their way to the Jo-Troom Gate you speak of. That’s

what we’ll do. We’ll also try and find you a way to the

Greendowns. But we won’t fight.”

“But I thought—” Jon-Tom began.

“No!” snapped one of the other owls. “Absolutely no. We

simply can’t do any more for yooooo. Don’t ask it of us.”


Alan Dean Foster

“But surely—” A restraining hand touched Talea and she


“It is more than we’d hoped for, friends. It will suffice.”

Clothahump turned to face Ananthos. “We have the allies we

came to find.”

“so you do,” said the spider at last, “provided the army

can be assembled in time to make the march.”

“I can only hope that it does,” the wizard told him

solemnly, “because the fate of several worlds may depend on


“Not Ironctoud,” said another of the owls smugly. “Ironcloud

is impregnable to assault by land or air.”

“So it is,” agreed Caz casually, “but not by magic.”

“We’ll take our chances,” said Tolafay firmly.

“Then there’s nothing more to be said.” Clothahump


Wordlessly the Ironclouders departed, owl and primate

soaring to join their brethren high in the night sky. Great

wings and glowing eyes shone as the night hunters returned in

twos and threes to their black home. They filled the air

between earth and moon.

Another pair lifted from the plateau, heading for interior

darkness and a good, warm day’s sleep. Jon-Tom could

only hope those homes would be as invulnerable as their

inhabitants believed from the eventual attacks of the Plated


The last of the lemurs stared at them curiously while her

companion owl kicked impatiently at the ground. The sun had

peeked over the eastern crags and those great eyes were

three-quarters closed in half sleep.

“There’s one tiling I’d like to know. How do you warmlanders

expect to penetrate Cugluch?”

“Disguise,” Clothahump told her confidently.



“You do not look much like Plated Folk,” replied the

lemur doubtfully.

Clothahump shook a finger at her, spoke knowingly. “The

greatest disguise is assurance. We will be protected because

no Plated One would believe our presence. And where

assurance operates, magic is not far behind.”

The lemur shrugged. “I think you are all fools, brave

fools, and soon-to-be-dead fools. But we will show the

Weavers the path they require and you the path to your

Deaths.” She looked upward. “Your guides come.”

.Two owls descended to join them. One motioned to the

waiting Ananthos. The Weaver trembled slightly as he made

his farewells.

“we shall meet at the gate,” he told them. “that is, if I

survive this journey, i am not afraid of heights, but I have

never been in a high place where i could not break a fall by

attaching silk to some solid object, you cannot spin from a


He climbed on the owl’s back, waved legs at them. The

owl took a few steps, flapping mighty wings, and then soared

into the air of morning. He wore dark shades to protect him

from the sunlight.

They watched until the wings became a black line on the

horizon. Then the pair faded even from Caz’s view.

The small hoot owl stood muttering to herself nearby. Her

kilt was black, purple, and yellow. “I’m Imanooo,” she

informed them brusquely. “Let’s get on with this. I’ll point

you the way for two days, but that’s all. Then you’re on

your own.”

The remaining lemur mounted his saddle. “I still think

you’re all fools, but,” he smiled broadly, “many a brave fool

has succeeded where a cautious genius has failed. Fly well.”

He saluted with an arm wave as he and his friend rose



Alan Dean Foster

Alone in their cold-weather garb, the travelers watched

until the last pairing vanished into the hematite. Then Imanooo

rose and started off to the south, and they followed.

The path where there was no path carried them steadily

lower. The unvarying downhill hike was a welcome change

from the tortuous march to Ironcloud. The day after Imanooo

left them they began to discard their heavy clothing. Soon

they were down among trees and bushes, and snow was only

a fading memory.

Jon-Tom slowed his pace to stay alongside Clothahump.

The wizard was in excellent spirits and showed no ill effects

from the past weeks of marching.


“Yes, my boy?” Eyes looked up at him through the thick

glasses. Abruptly Jon-Tom felt uncomfortable. It had seemed

so simple a while ago when he’d thought of it, a mere

question. Now it fought to hide in his throat.

“Well, sir,” he finally got out, “among my people there’s

a certain mental condition.”

“Go on, boy.”

“It has a common name. It’s called a death wish.”

“That’s interesting,” said Clothahump thoughtfully. “I

presume it refers to someone who wishes to die.”

Jon-Tom nodded. ‘ ‘Sometimes the person isn’t aware of it

himself and it has to be pointed out to him by another. Even

then he may not believe it.”

They walked on a while longer before he added, “Sir, no

disrespect intended, but do you think you might have a death


“On the contrary, my boy,” replied the wizard, apparently

not offended in the least, “I have a life wish. I’m only putting

myself into danger to preserve life for others. That hardly

means I want to relinquish my own.”

“I know, sir, but it seems to me that you’ve taken us from



one danger to another only to take successively bigger risks.

In other words, the more we survive, the more you seem to

want to chance death.”

“A valid contention based solely on the evidence and your

personal interpretation of it,” said Clothahump. “You ignore

one thing: I wish to survive and live as much as any of you.”

“Can you be certain of that, sir? After all, you’ve already

lived more than twice a normal human lifetime, a much fuller

life than any of the rest of us.” He gestured at the others.

“Would it pain you so much to die?”

“I follow your reasoning, my boy. You’re saying that I am

willing to risk death because I’ve already had a reasonable

life and therefore have less than you to lose.”

Jon-Tom didn’t reply.

“My boy, you haven’t lived long enough to understand

life. Believe me, it is more precious to me now because I

have less of it. I guard every day jealously because I know it

may be my last. I don’t have less to lose than you: I have

more to lose.”

“I just wanted to be sure, sir.”

“Of what? The reasons for my decisions? You can be, boy.

They are founded upon a single motivation: the need to

prevent the Plated Masses from annihilating civilization.

Even if I did want to die, I would not do so until I had

expended every bit of energy in my body to prevent that

conflagration from destroying the warmlands. I might kill

myself if I suffered from the aberration you suggest, but only

after I’d saved everyone else.”

“That’s good to hear, sir.” Jon-Tom felt considerably


“There is one thing that has been troubling me a little,


“What’s that, sir?”

“Well, it’s most peculiar.” The wizard looked up at him.


Alan Dean Foster

“But you see, I’m not at all certain that I remember the

formula for preparing our disguises.”

Jon-Tom hesitated, frowned. “Surely we can’t enter Cugluch

without them, sir?”

“Of course not,” agreed Clothahump cheerfully. “I sug-

gest therefore that you consider some appropriate spellsongs.

You have seen one of the Plated Folk. That is what we must

endeavor to look like.”

“I don’t know if…”

“Try, my boy,” said the wizard in a more serious tone,

“for if you cannot think of anything and I cannot remember

the formula, then I fear we will be forced to give up this


Though he worked at it for the next several days, Jon-Tom

was unable to think of a single appropriate tune. Insects were

not a favorite subject for groups whose music he knew by

heart, such as Zepplin or Tull, Queen or the Stones or even

the Beatles, who, he felt sure, had written at least one song

about everything. He searched his memory, went through the

few classical pieces he knew, jumped from Furry Lewis to

Periin Husky to Foreigner without success.

The dearth of material was understandable, though. Love

and sex and money and fame were far more attractive song

subjects than bugs. The thinking helped to kill the time and

made the march more tolerable.

Never once did it occur to him that Clothahump might

have invented the request simply in order to keep Jon-Tom’s

mind on harmless matters.

Three more days passed before they reached the outskirts

of the vast, festering lowlands that formed the Greendowns.

They rested on a slope and munched nuts, berries, and lizard

jerky while studying the fog and mist that enshrouded the

lands of the Plated Folk.

Conifers had surrendered the soil to hardwoods. These now



fought to assert their dominance over palms and baobabs,

succulents and creepers. Occasionally a strange cry or whistle

would rise from the mist.

Jon-Tom finished his meal and stood, his leathern pants

sticking to his legs from the humidity. To the west towered

the snow-crowned crags of Zaryt’s Teeth. It was difficult to

believe that a pass broke that towering rampart. It lay some-

where to the southwest of their present position. At its far end

was the Jo-Troom Gate and beyond that, a section of Swordsward

and bustling, friendly Polastrindu.

His own home was somewhat more distant, a trillion miles

away on the other side of time, turn right at the rip in the

fabric of space and take the fourth-dimensional offramp.

He turned. Clothahump was busy with wizard’s business.

Pog assisted him.

“We’d better come up with something.” Talea had moved

to stand next to him, stood looking down into the mist. “We

go down there looking like ourselves and we’ll be somebody’s

supper before the day’s out.”

“Aye, that’s the truth, lass,” agreed Mudge. ” ‘E’U ‘ave t’

make us look like a choice slice o’ ‘ell.”

“He already has, I think,” was Caz’s comment. “You’d

better straighten your antenna. The left one is pointing back-

ward instead of forward.”

“I’ll do that.” Mudge reached up and was in the middle of

straightening the errant sensor when he suddenly realized

what had happened. ” ‘Cor, but that was quick!”

Clothahump rejoined them. Rather, they were joined by a

squat, pudgy beetle that sounded something like Clothahump.

Pale red compound eyes inspected them each in turn. Four

arms crossed over the striated abdomen.

“What do you think, my friends? Have I solved the

problem and allayed your fears, or not?”

When the initial shock finally wore off, they were able to


Alan Dean Foster

take more careful stock of themselves. The disguises seemed

foolproof. Talea, Ror, Mudge, and the rest now resembled

giant versions of things Jon-Tom usually smashed underfoot.

The middle set of arms moved in tandem with their owners

actual ones. Pog had turned into a giant flying beetle.

“Is that really you in there, Jon-Tom?” The thing with

Hor’s voice ran a clawed hand over the pale blue chitin

encasing him.

“I think so.” He looked down at himself, noted with

astonishment the multijointed legs, the smooth undercurve of

abdomen, the peculiar wave-shaped sword at his hip.

“Not too uncomfortable, my boy?”

Jon-Tom looked admiringly at the squat beetle. “It’s a

wonderful job, sir. I feel like I’m inside a suit of armor, yet

I’m cooler than I was a few moments ago without it.”

“Part of the spell, my boy,” said the wizard with pride.

“Attention to detail makes all the difference.”

“Speakin’ o’ attention t’ detail, Your Mastemess,” Mudge

said, ” ‘ow do I go about takin’ a leak?”

“There are detachable sections of chitin in the appropriate

places, otter. You must take care to conceal bodily functions

of any kind from those we will be among. I could not

imagine Plated Folk jaws through which we might eat, for

example. Hopefully we can finish our business in Cugluch

and be out of it and these suits before very long.”

“You remembered the formula well,” Jon-Tom told the


“Well enough, my boy.” They left their packs and started

down the slope into the steaming lowlands. “One key phrase

eluded me for a time.

“Multioptics, eyes of glass,

sextupal reach in fiberglass,



hot outside but cool within,

suit of polymers I’ll spin.”

He proceeded to detail the formula that had provided such

perfectly fitted disguises.

“So these are foolproof, then?” Talea asked hopefully

from just ahead of them. It was difficult to think of the

black-and-brown-spotted creature as the beautiful, feisty Talea,

Jon-Tom mused.

“My dear, no disguise is foolproof,” Clothahump replied


“Dat’s for damn sure.” Pog fluttered awkwardly overhead

on false beetle wings.

“We are entering the Greendowns from me northern ranges,”

the wizard reminded them. “The Plated Folk cannot imagine

someone intentionally entering their lands. The only section

of their territories which might be even lightly watched is that

near the Pass. We should be able to mingle freely with

whoever we chance to encounter.”

“That’ll be the true test of these suits, won’t it?” said Caz.

“Not whether we look believable to each other, but whether

we can fool them.”

“The formula was as all-encompassing as I could fashion

it,” said Clothahump confidently. “In any case, we shall

know in a moment.”

They turned a bend in the animal path they’d been follow-

ing and came face to face with a dozen workers of that

benighted land. The Plated Folk were cutting hardwood and

loading the logs on a lizard-drawn sled. Unable to retreat, the

travelers marched doggedly ahead.

They were nearly past when one of the cutters, a foreman

perhaps, walked over on short spindly legs and gestured with

two of his four limbs. Jon-Tom marked the gesture for future


“Hail, citizens! Whence come you, and wither go?”


Alan Dean Foster

There was an uncomfortably long silence until Caz thought

to say, “We’ve been out on patrol.”

“Patrol… in the mountains?” The foreman looked askance

at the snows beyond the forest’s edge. He made a clicking

sound that might have passed for laughter. “What were you

patrolling for? Nothing comes from the north.”

“We do not,” said Caz, thinking furiously, “have to

provide such information to hewers of wood. However, there

is no harm in your knowing.” His disguise gave his voice a

raspy tone.

“In her wisdom the Empress has decreed that every possi-

ble approach be inspected at least once in a while. Surely you

do not question her wisdom?” Caz put his hand on his

scimitar, and two limbs gripped the strange weapon.

“No, no!” said the insect foreman hastily, “of course not.

Now, of all times, the greatest secrecy must be preserved.”

He still sounded doubtful. “Even so, nothing has come out of

these mountains in years and years.”

“Of course not,” said Caz haughtily. “Does that not prove

the effectiveness of these secret patrols?”

“That is sensible, citizen,” agreed the foreman, his confu-

sion overcome thanks to Caz’s inexorable logic.

The others had continued past while the rabbit had been

conversing with the foreman. That worthy snapped to atten-

tion and offered an interesting salute with both arms on his

left side. Caz mimicked it in return, his false middle arm

functioning smoothly in tandem with the real one.

“The Empress!” said the foreman with praiseworthy


“The Empress,” Caz replied. “Now then, be on about

your business, citizen. The Empire needs that wood.” The

foreman executed a sign of acknowledgment and returned to

his work. Caz tried not to move too hastily down the slope

after his companions.



The foreman returned to his cutters. One of the laborers

glanced up and asked curiously, “What was that all about,

citizen foreman?”

“Nothing. A patrol.”

“A patrol, up here?”

“I know it is odd to find one in the mountains.”

“More than odd, I should think.” His antennae pointed

downhill toward the retreating travelers. “That is a peculiar

grouping for a patrol of any kind.”

“I thought so also.” The foreman’s tone stiffened. “But it

is not our place to question the directives of the High


“Of course not, citizen foreman.” The laborer returned

quickly to his work.

Wooded hillsides soon gave way to extensive cultivated

fields cleared from bog and jungle. Most were planted with a

tall, flexible growth about an inch in diameter that looked like

jaundiced sugar cane. Swampy plantings alternated with herds

of small six-legged reptiles who foraged noisily through the

soft vegetation.

They also encountered troops on maneuver, always marching

in perfect time and stride. Once they were forced off the

raised roadway by a column twelve abreast. It took an hour to

pass, trudging from east to west.

They passed unchallenged among dozens of Plated Folk.

No one questioned their disguises. But Clothahump grew

uneasy at their progress.

“Too slow,” he muttered. “Surely there is a better way

than this, and one that will have the ex$a advantage of

concealing us from close inspection.”

“What’ve you got in mind, guv’nor?” Mudge wanted to


“A substitute for feet. Excuse me, citizen.” The wizard

stepped out into the road.


Alan Dean Foster

The wagon bearing down on him pulled to a halt. It was

filled with transparent barrels of some aromatic green liquid.

The driver, a rather bucolic beetle of medium height, leaned

over the side impatiently as Clothahump approached.

“Trouble, citizen? Be quick now, I’ve a schedule to keep.”

“Are you by chance heading for the capital?”

“I am, and I’ve no time for riders. Sorry.” He lifted his

reins preparatory to chucking the wagon team into motion


“It is not that we wish a ride, citizen,” said Clothahump,

staring hard at the driver, “but only that we wish a ride.”

“Oh. I misunderstood. Naturally. Make space for your-

selves in the back, please.”

As they climbed into the wagon, Jon-Tom passed close by

the driver. He was sitting stiffly in his seat, eyes staring

straight ahead yet seeing very little. Seeing only what

Clothahump wanted them to see, in fact.

Under the wizard’s urging, the rustic whipped the team

forward. The mesmerization had taken only a moment, and

no one else had observed it.

“Damnsight better than walking.” Talea reached awkwardly

down to draw one foot toward her, wishing she could massage

the aching sole but not daring to remove even that small

section of the disguise.

“Sure is,” agreed Jon-Tom. He balanced himself in the

swaying, rocking wagon as he made his way forward.

Clothahump sat next to the driver. The insect ignored his


“A great deal happening these days,” Jon-Tom said by way

of opening conversation.

The driver’s gaze did not stray from the road. His voice

was oddly stilted, as though a second mind were choosing the

words to answer with.

“Yes, a great deal.”



“When is it to begin, do you think, the invasion of the

wannlands?” Jon-Tom made the question sound as casual as

he could.

A movement signifying ignorance from the driver. “Who

is to know? They do not permit wagon masters to know the

inner workings of the High Military. But it will be a great day

when it comes. I myself have four nestmates in the invasion

force. I wish I could be among them, but my district logisti-

cian insists that food supplies will be as important as fighting

to the success of the invasion.

“So I remain where I am, though it is against my desires.

It will be a memorable time. There will be a magnificent


“So they claim,” Jon-Tom murmured, “but can we be so

certain of success?”

For a moment, the shocked disbelief the driver felt nearly

overcame the mental haze into which he’d been immersed.

“How can anyone doubt it? Never in thousands of years has

the Empire assembled so massive a force. Never before have

we been as well prepared as now.

“Also,” he added conspiratorially, “there is rumor abun-

dant that the Great Wizard Eejakrat, Advisor to the Empress

herself, has brought forth from the realms of darkness an

invincible magic which will sweep all opposition before it.”

He adjusted the reins running to the third lizard in right line.

“No, citizens, of course we cannot lose.”

“My feelings are the same, citizen.” Jon-Tom returned to

the rear of the wagon. Clothahump joined him a moment

later, as he was chatting softly to the others.

“If confidence is any indication of battleworthiness.’we’re

liable to be in for a bad time.”

“You see?” said Clothahump knowingly as he leaned up

against a pair of green-filled barrels, “that is why we must


Alan Dean Foster

find and destroy this dead mind that Eejakrat somehow draws

knowledge from, or die in the attempt.”

“Speak for yourself, guv’,” said Mudge. ” ‘E wot fights

an’ runs away lives t’ fight another day.”

“Unfortunately,” Clothahump reminded the otter quietly,

“if we fail, like as not there will not be another day.”



Several days passed. Farms and livestock pastures began to

give way to the outskirts of a vast metropolis. Fronted with

stone or black cement, tunnels led down into the earth. On

the surface row upon row of identical gray buildings filled the

horizon, a vast stone curve that formed the outer wheel of the

capital city of Cugluch.

As they entered me first gate of many, they encountered

larger structures and greater variety. Faint pulses of light from

within cast ambivalent shadows on the travelers while the

echoes of hammerings resounded above the babble of the

chitinesque crowd. Once they passed a wagon emerging from

a large, cubical building. It was piled high with long spears

and pikes and halberds bound together like sheaves of grain.

The weapon-laden vehicle moved westward. Westward like

the troops they’d passed. Westward toward the Jo-Troom


It had rained gently every day, but was far warmer than in


Alan Dean Foster

the so-called warmlands. Pat, limpid drops slid off their

hard-shelled disguises, only occasionally penetrating the well-

fashioned false chitin. Cooled by spell, those inside the insect

suits remained comfortable in spite of the humidity, dothahump.

as a good wizard should, had foreseen everything except the

need to scratch the occasional itch.

Only an isolated clump of struggling trees here and then

brought color to the monotonous construction of the city. It

was an immense warren, much of it out of sight beneath the

surface of the earth.

They pushed their way through heavier and heavier traffic,

increasingly military in nature. Clothahump guided the drive,

smoothly, directing them deeper into the city.

Wagonloads of troops, ant- and beetle-shapes predominant,

shoved civilian traffic aside as they made their way westward,

Enormous beetles eight and nine feet long displayed sharpened’

horns to the travelers. Three or four armed soldiers rode or

the backs of these armored behemoths.

Once a dull thump sounded from behind a large ova:

structure. Jon-Tom swore it sounded like an exploding shell

For an awful moment he thought it was the result of Eejakrat’a

unknown magic and that the Plated Folk had learned the ust

of gunpowder. His companions, however, assured him it wa?

only a distant rumble of thunder.

Buildings rose still higher around them. They were matched

by roads that widened to accommodate the increased traffic

Weaving ribbons of densely populated concrete and rock rose

six and seven stories above the streets, hives of frenetii

activity devoted now to destruction and death.

Sleep was in snatches and seconds that night. Clothahump

woke them to a soggy sunrise.

Ahead in the morning mist-light lay a great open square-

paved with triangular slabs of gray, black, purple, and blu”

stone. Across this expansive parade ground, populated no\v



only by early risers, rose a circular pyramid. It consisted of

concentric ring shapes like enormous tires. These tapered to a

smooth spire hundreds of feet high that pierced the mist like a

gray needle.

Half a dozen smaller copies of the central structure ringed

it at points equidistant from one another. There was no wall

around any of them, nor for that matter around the main

square itself.

Despite this the driver refused to go any further. His

determination was so strong even Clothahump’s hypnotic

urgings failed to force him and his wagon onto the triangular


“I have no permit,” he said raspily, “to enter the palace

grounds. It would be my death to be found on the sacred

square without one.”

“This is where we walk again, my friends. Perhaps it is

best. I see only one or two wagons on the square. We do not

want to attract attention.”

Mudge let himself over the back of the wagon. “Cor, ain’t

that the bloody ugliest buildin’ you ever saw in your life?”

They abandoned the wagon. Clothahump was last off. He

whispered a few words to the driver. The beetle moved the

reins and the wagon swung around to vanish up the street

down which they’d come. Jon-Tom wondered at the excuse

the unfortunate driver would offer when he suddenly returned

to full consciousness at his delivery point after nearly a week

of amnesia.

“It seems we need a permit to cross,” said Caz appraisingly.

“How do we go about obtaining one?”

Clothahump sounded disapproving. “We need no permit. I

have been observing the pedestrians traversing the square,

and none has been stopped or questioned. It seems that the

threat is sufficient to secure the palace’s exclusiveness. The


Alan Dean Foster

permit may be required within, but it does not seem vital for

walking the square.”

“I hope you’re right, sir.” The rabbit stepped out onto the

paving, a gangling, thoroughly insectoid shape. Together they

moved at an easy pace toward the massive pyramidal palace.

As Clothahump had surmised, they were not accosted. If

anything, they found the square larger than it first appeared,

like a lake that looks small until one is swimming in its


From this central nexus the spokes of Cugluch radiated

outward toward farmland and swamp. The city was far larger

than Polastrindu, especially when one considered that much

of it was hidden underground.

Thick mist clung to the crests of the seven towers and

completely obscured the central one. Nowhere did they see a

flag, a banner, any splash of color or gaiety. It was a somber

capital, dedicated to a somber purpose.

And the massive palace was especially dark and forebod-

ing. Here at least Jen-Tom had expected some hint of bright-

ness. Militaristic cultures were historically fond of pomp and

flash. The palace of the Empress, however, was as dull as the

warrens of the citizen-workers. Different in design but not

demeanor, he decided.

The lowest level of the circular pyramid was several stories

high. It was fashioned, as the entire palace complex no doubt

was, of close-fitting stone mortared over with a gray cement

or plaster. Water dripped down its curves to vanish into

gutters and drains lining the base. There was a minimum of


The triangular paving of the square ceased some fifteen

yards from the base of the palace. In its place was a smooth

surface of black cement. That was all; no fence, no hidden

alarms, no hedgerows or ditches. But on that black fifteen



yards, which encircled the entire palace, nothing moved save

the stiffly pacing guards.

They formed a solid ring, ten yards from the palace wall,

five yards apart. They marched in slow tread from left to

right, keeping the same distance between them like so many

wind-up toys. As near as Jon-Tom could tell they ringed the

entire palace, a moving chain of guards that never stopped.

At Clothahump’s urging they turned southward. The guards

never looked in their direction, though Jon-Tom was willing

to wager that if so much as a foot touched that black cement,

the trespasser would suddenly find himself the object of

considerable hostile attention.

Eventually they stood opposite an arched triangular portal cut

from the flank of the palace. The entryway was three stories

high. At present its massive iron gates were thrown wide. A

line of armed beetles extended from either open gate out

across the cement to the edge of the paving. The unbroken

ring of encircling guards passed through this intercepting line

with precision. The moving guards never touched any of the

stationary ones.

“Now wot, guv’nor?” Mudge whispered to the wizard.

“Do we just walk up t’ the nearest bugger an’ ask ‘im

polite-like if the Empress be at ‘ome an’ might we ‘ave ‘is

leave t’ skip on in t’ see the old dear?”

“I have no desire to see her,” Clothahump replied. “It is

Eejakrat we are after. Rules survive by relying on the brains

of their advisors. Remove Eejakrat, or at least his magic, and

we leave the Empress without the most important part of her

collective mind.”

He gazed thoughtfully at Caz. “You have laid claim to a

working knowledge of diplomacy, my boy, and have shown an

aptitude for such in the past. I am reluctant to perform a spell

among so many onlookers and so near to Eejakrat’s influence.

I’ve no doubt he has placed alarm spells all about the palace.


Alan Dean Foster

They would react to my magicking, but not to your words.

We must get inside. I suggest you employ your talent for

extemporaneous and convincing conversation.”

“I don’t know, sir,” replied the rabbit uncertainly. “It’s

easy to convince people you’re familiar with. I don’t know

how to talk to these.”

“Nonsense. You did well with that curious woodcutter

whom we encountered during our descent. If anything, the

minds you are about to deal with are simpler than those you

are more familiar with. Consider their society, which rewards

conformity while condemning individuality.”

“If you want me to, sir, I’ll give it a try.”

“Good. The rest of you form behind us. Pog, you stay

airborne and warn us if there is sudden movement from armed

troops in our direction.”

“What does it matter?” said the sorrowful bat from inside

his disguise. “We’ll all be dead inside an hour anyway.” But

he spiraled higher and did as he was told, keeping a watchful

eye on the guards and any group of pedestrians who came


Following Caz and Clothahump, me travelers made their

way toward the entrance. There was an anxious moment

when they stepped from paving to cement, but no one

challenged them. The guards flanking the approach kept their

attention on a point a few inches in front of their mandibles.

Then it was through the encircling ring, which likewise did

not react. They were a couple of yards from the entrance.

Jon-Tom had the wild notion that they might simply be able

to march on into the palace when a massive beetle slightly

taller but much broader than Caz lumbered out of the shadows

to confront them. He was flanked by a pair of pale, three-

foot-high attendants of the mutated mayfly persuasion. One of

them carried a large scroll and a marking instrument. The

other simply stood and listened.



“State your business, citizens,” demanded the glowering

hulk in the middle. He reminded Jon-Tom of a gladiator ready

to enter the arena, and pity be on the lions. The extra set of

arms ruined the illusion.

With the facility of an established survivor, Caz replied

without hesitation. “Hail, citizen! We have special, urgently

requested information for the sorcerer Eejakrat, information

that is vital to our coming success.” Not knowing how to

properly conclude the request he added blandly, “Where can

we find him?”

Their interrogator did not reply immediately. Jon-Tom

wondered if his nervousness showed.

After a brief conversation with the burdenless mayfly the

beetle gestured backward with two hands. “Third level,

Chamber Three Fifty-Five and adjuncts.”

Politely, he stepped aside.

Caz led them in. They walked down a short hallway. It

opened into a hall that seemed to run parallel to the circular

shape of the building. Another, similar hall could be seen

further ahead. Evidently there was a single point from which

the palace and thence the entire city of Cugluch radiated in

concentric circles, with hallways or streets forming intersecting


Jon-Tom leaned over and whispered to Clothahump. “I

don’t know how you feel, sir, but to me that was much too


“Why shouldn’t it have been?” said Talea, feeling cocky

at their success thus far. “It was just like crossing the square


“Precisely, my dear,” said Clothahump proudly. “Yousee,

Jon-Tom, they are so well ordered they cannot imagine

anyone stepping out of class or position. They cannot conceive,

as that threatening individual who confronted us outside

cannot, that any of their fellows would have the presumption


Alan Dean Foster

to lie to gain an audience with so feared a personality as

Eejakrat. If we did not deserve such a meeting, we would not

be asking for it.

“Furthermore, spies are unknown in Cugluch. They have

no reason to suspect any, and traitorous actions are as alien to

the Plated Folk as snow. This may be possible after all, my

friends. We need only maintain the pretext that we know what

we are doing and have a right to be doing it.”

“I’d imagine,” said Caz, “that if the spoke-and-circle

layout of the city and palace is followed throughout, the

center would be the best place to locate stairways. Third

level, the fellow said.”

“I agree,” Clothahump replied, “but we do not wish to

find Eejakrat except as a last resort, remember. It is the dead

mind he controls that must remain our primary goal.”

“That’s simple enough, then,” said Mudge cheerfully.

“All we ‘ave t’ do now is ask where t’ find a particularly

well-attended corpse.”

“For once, my fuzzy fuzz-brained friend, you are correct.

It will likely be placed close by Eejakrat’s chambers. Let us

proceed quickly to the level indicated, but not to him.”

They did so. By now they were used to being ignored by

the Plated Folk. Busy palace staff moved silently around

them, intent on their own tasks. The narrow hallways and low

ceilings combined with the slightly acidic odor of the inhabit-

ants made Jon-Tom and Flor feel a little claustrophobic.

They reached the third level and began to follow the

numbers engraved above each sealed portal. Only four cham-

bers from the stairway they’d ascended was a surprise: the

corridor was blocked. Also guarded.

Instead of Ihe lumbering beetle they’d encountered at me

entrance to the palace they found a slim, almost effeminate-

looking insect seated behind a desk. Other armed Plated Folk

stood before the temporary barrier sealing off the hall beyond.



Unlike their drilling brothers marching single-mindedly out-

side, these guards seemed alert and active. They regarded the

new arrivals with unconcealed interest. There was no suspi-

cion in their unyielding faces, however. Only curiosity.

It was Clothahump who spoke to the individual behind the

desk, and not Caz.

“We have come to make adjustments to the mind,” he told

the individual behind the desk, hoping he had gauged the

source correctly and hadn’t said anything fatally contradictory.

The fixed-faced officer preened one red eye. He could not

frown but succeeded in conveying an impression of puzzle-

ment nonetheless.

“An adjustment to the mind?”

“To Eejakrat’s Materialization.”

“Ah, of course, citizen. But what kind of adjustment?” He

peered hard at the encased wizard. “Who are you, to be

entrusted with access to so secret a thing?”

Clothahump was growing worried. The more questions

asked, the more the chance of saying something dangerously

out of sync with the facts.

“We are Eejakrat’s own special assistants. How else could

we know of the mind?”

“That is sensible,” agreed the officer. “Yet no mention

was made to me of any forthcoming adjustments.”

“I have just mentioned it to you.”

The officer turned that one over in his mind, got thoroughly

confused, and finally said, “I am sorry for the delay, citizen.

I mean no insult by my questions, but we are under extraor-

dinary orders. Your master’s fears are well known.”

Clothahump leaned close, spoke confidentially. “An attri-

bute of all who must daily deal with dark forces.”

The officer nodded somberly. “I am glad it is you who

must deal with the wizard and not myself.” He waved aside


Alan Dean Foster

the guards blocking the doorway in the portable barrier.

“Stand aside and let them pass.”

Caz and Talea were the first through the portal when the

officer suddenly put out an arm and touched Clothahump.

“Surely you can satisfy the curiosity of a fellow citizen.

What kind of ‘adjustment* must you make to the mind? We

all understand so little about it and you can sympathize with

my desire to know.”

“Of course, of course.” Clothahump’s mind was working

frantically. How much did the officer actually know? He’d

just confessed his ignorance, but mightn’t it be a ploy? Better

to say anything fast than nothing at all. His only real worry

was that the officer might have some sorceral training.

“Please do not repeat this,” he finally said, with as much

assurance as he could muster. “It is necessary to apfrangle

the overscan.”

“Naturally,” said the officer after a pause.

“And we may,” the wizard added for good measure,

“additionally have to lower the level of cratastone, just in


“I can understand the necessity for that.” The officer

grandly waved them through, enjoying the looks of respect on

the faces of his subordinates while praying this visitor wouldn’t

ask him any questions in return.

They proceeded through the portal one by one. Jon-Tom

was last through and hesitated. The officer seemed willing


“It’s still in the same chamber, of course.”

“Number Twelve, yes,” said the officer blandly.

Clothahump fell back to match stride with Jon-Tom. “That

was clever of you, my boy! I was so preoccupied with trying

to get us in that I’d forgotten how difficult it would be to

sense past Eejakrat’s spell guards. Now that is no longer a



constraint. You cannot teach deviousness,” he finished pridefiuly.

“That is instinctive.”

“Thank you, sir. I think. What kind of corpse do you think

it is?”

“I cannot imagine. I cannot imagine a dead brain functioning,

either. We shall know soon enough.” He was deciphering the

symbols engraved above each circular doorway. The guarded

barrier had long since disappeared around the continuous

curve of the hallway.

“There is number ten… and there eleven,” he said excitedly,

pointing to the door on their right.

“Then this must be twelve.” Talea stopped before the

closed door.

It was no larger than any of the others they’d passed. The

corridor nearby was deserted. Clothahump stepped forward

and studied the wooden door. There were four tiny circular

insets midway up the left side. He inserted his four insect

arms into them and pushed.

The spring mechanism that controlled the door clicked

home. The wood split apart and inward like two halves of an


There was no light in the chamber beyond. Even Caz could

see nothing. But Pog saw without eyes.

“Master, it’s not very large, but I think dat dere’s

someting…” He fluttered near a wall, struck his sparker.

A lamp suddenly burst into light. It revealed a bent and

very aged beetle surrounded by writhing white larval forms;

Startled, it glared back at them and muttered an oath.

“What is it now? I’ve told Skrritch I’m not to be disturbed

unless… unless…” His words trailed away as he stared

fixedly at Clothahump.

“By the Primordial Arm! A warmlander wizard!” He

turned to a siphon speaker set in the wall nearby. “Guards,


Alan Dean Poster

guards!” The maggots formed a protective, loathesome semi

circle in front of him.

“Quick now,” Caz yelled, “where is it?” They fanned out

into the chamber, hunting for anything that might fit

Clothahump’s description.

One insectoid, one mammalian, the two wizards faced each

other in silent summing up. Neither moved, but they were

battling as ferociously as any two warriors armed with sword

and spear.

“We’ve got to find it fast,” Ror was muttering, searching

a corner. “Before…”

But hard feet were already clattering noisily in the corridor

outside. Distant cries of alarm sounded in the chamber. Then

the soldiers were pouring through the doorway, and there was

no more time.

Jon-Tom saw something lying near the back wall that might

have been a long, low corpse. An insect shape stepped up

behind him and raised a cast-iron bottle high. Just before the

bottle came down on his head it occurred to him that the

shape wielding it was familiar. It wasn’t one of the insect

guards who’d just arrived. Before he blacked out under the

impact he was positive the insectoid visage was that concealing

Talea’s. The realization stunned him almost as badly as the

bottle, which cracked his own false forehead and bounced off

the skull beneath. Darkness returned to the chamber.

When he regained consciousness, he found he was lying in

a dimly lit, spherical cell. There was a drain in the center, at

the bottom of the sphere. The light came from a single lamp

hanging directly over the drain. It was windowless and

humid. Moss and fungi grew from the damp stones, and it

was difficult to keep from sliding down the sloping floor.

Compared to this, the cell they’d been temporarily incarcerat-

ed in back in Gossameringue had been positively palatial.



No friendly Ananthos would be appearing here to recfify a

mistaken imprisonment, however.

“Welcome back to the world of the living,” said Bribbens.

Good times or bad, the boatman’s expression never seemed to

change. The moisture in the cell did not bother him, of


“I should’ve stayed on my boat,” he added with a sigh.

“Maybe we all ought to ‘ave stayed on your boat, mate,”

said a disconsolate Mudge.

It occurred to Jon-Tom that Bribbens looked like himself.

So did Mudge, and the other occupants of the cell.

“What happened to our disguises?”

“Stripped away as neatly as you’d peel an onion,” Pog

told him. He lay morosely on the damp stones, unwilling to

hang from the fragile lamp.

Clothahump was not in the cell. “Where’s your master?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” the bat moaned helplessly.

“Taken away from us during da fight. We ain’t seen him

since, da old fart.” There was no malice in the bat’s words.

“It was Eejakrat,” Caz said from across the cell. His

clothing was torn and clumps of fur were missing from his

right cheek, but he still somehow had retained his monocle.

“He knew us for what we were. I presume he has taken

special care with Clothahump. One sorcerer would not place

another in an ordinary cell where he might dissolve the bars

or mesmerize the jailers.”

“But what he doesn’t know is that we still have the

services of a wizard.” Flor was looking hopefully at Jon-


“I can’t do anything, Ror.” He dug his boot heels into a

crack in the floor. It kept him from sliding down toward the

central drain. “I need my duar, and it was strapped to the

inside back of my insect suit.”


Alan Dean Foster

“Try,” she urged him. “We’ve nothing to lose, verdad?

You don’t need instrumental accompaniment to sing.”

“No, but I can’t make magic without it.”

“Give ‘er a shot anyway, guv’nor,” said Mudge. “It can’t

make us any worse than we are, wot?”

“All right.” He thought a moment, then sang. It had to be

something to fit his mood. Something somber and yet hopeful.

He was fonder of rock than country-western, but there was

a certain song about another prison, a place called Polsom,

where blues of a different kind had also been vanquished

through music. It was full of hope, anticipation, whistles, and

thoughts of freedom.

Mudge obligingly let out a piercing whistle. It faded to

freedom through the bars of their cell, but whistler and singer

did not. No train appeared to carry them away. Not even a

solitary, curious gneechee.

“You see?” He smiled helplessly, and spread his hands. “I

need the duar. I sing and it spells. Can’t have one without the

other.” The question he’d managed to suppress until now

could no longer rest unsatisfied.

“We know what probably happened to Clothahump.” He

looked at the floor, remembering the descending iron bottle.

“Where’s Talea?”

“Thatpwto!” Hor spit on the moss. “If we get a chance

before we die I’ll disembowel her with my own hands.” She

held up sharp nailed fingers.

“I couldn’t believe it meself, mate.” Mudge sounded more

tired than Jon-Tom had ever heard him. Something had

finally smashed his unquenchable spirit. “It don’t make no

bloomin’ sense, dam it! I’ve known that bird off an’ on for

years. For ‘er t’ do somethin’ like this t’ save ‘er own skin, t’

go over t’ the likes o’ these.. .1 can’t believe it, mate. I




Jon-Tom tried to erase the memory. That would be easier

than forgetting the pain. It wasn’t his head that was hurting.

“I can’t believe it either, Mudge.”

“Why not, friend?” Bribbens crossed one slick green leg

over the other. “Allegiance is a temporary thing, and expedi-

ency the hallmark of survival.”

“Probably what happened,” said Caz more gently, “was

that she saw what was going to happen, that we were going to

be overwhelmed, and decided to cast her lot with the Plated

Folk. We know from firsthand experience, do we not, that

there are human allies among them. I can’t condemn her for

choosing life over death. You shouldn’t either.”

Jon-Tom sat quietly, still not believing it despite the Sense

in Caz’s words. Talea had been combative, even contemptu-

ous at times, but for her to turn on companions she’d been

through so much with… Yet she’d apparently done just that.

Better face up to facts, Jon boy. “Poor boy, you’re goin’ t’

die,” as the Song lamented.

“What do you suppose they’ll do with us?” he asked

Mudge. “Or maybe I’d be better just asking ‘how’?”

“I over’eard the soldiers talkin’. I was ‘alf conscious when

they carried us down ‘ere.” Mudge smiled slightly. “Seems

we’re t’ be the bloody centerpiece at the Empress’ evenin’

supper, the old dear. ‘Eard the ranks wagerin’ on ‘ow we was

goin’ t’ be cooked.”

“I sincerely hope they do cook us,” Caz said. “I’ve heard

tales that the Plated Folk prefer their food alive.’ \ Flor

shuddered, and Jon-Tom felt sick.

It had all been such a grand adventure, marching off to

save civilization, overcoming horrendous obstacles and terri-

ble difficulties. All to end up not as part of an enduring

legend but a brief meal. He missed the steady confidence of

Clothahump. Even if unable to save them through wizardly


Alan Dean Foster

means, he wished the turtle were present to raise their spirits

with his calm, knowledgeable words.

“Any idea what time it’s to be?” The windowless walls

shut out time as well as space.

“No idea.” Caz grinned ruefully at him. “You’re the

spellsinger. You tell me.”

“I’ve already explained that I can’t do anything without the


“Then you ought to have it, Jon-Tom.” The voice came

from the corridor outside the cell. Everyone faced the bars.

Talea stood there, panting heavily. Flor made an inarticu-

late sound and rushed the barrier. Talea stepped back out of


“Calm yourself, woman. You’re acting like a hysterical


Flor smiled, showing white teeth. “Come a little closer,

sweet friend, and I’ll show you how hysterical I can be.”

Talea shook her head, looked disgusted. “Save your strength,

and what brains you’ve got left. We haven’t got much time.”

She held up a twisted length of wrought iron: the key.

Caz had left his sitting position to move up behind Hor. He

put furry arms around her and wrestled her away from the


“Use your head, giantess! Can’t you see she’s come to let

us out?”

“But I thought…” Hor finally took notice of the key and


“You knocked me out.” Jon-Tom gripped the bars with

both hands as Talea rumbled with the key and the awkward

lock. “You hit me with a metal bottle.”

“I sure did,” she snapped. “Somebody had to keep her

wits about her.”

“Then you haven’t gone over to the Plated Folk?”



“Of course I did. You’re not thinking it through. I forgive

you, though.”

She was whispering angrily at them, glancing from time to

time back up the corridor. “We know that some humans have

joined them, right? But how could the locals know which

humans in the warmlands are their allies and which are not?

They can’t possibly, not without checking with their spies in

Polastrindu and elsewhere.

“When the fighting began I saw we didn’t have a chance.

So I grabbed a hunk of iron and started attacking you

alongside the guards. When it was finished they accepted my

story about being sent along to spy on you and keep track of

the expedition. That Eejakrat was suspicious, but he was

willing to accept me for now, until he can check with those

wannland sources. He figured I couldn’t do any harm here.”

She grinned wickedly.

“His own thoughts are elsewhere. He’s too concerned

with how much Clothahump knows to worry about me.” She

nodded up the corridor. “This guard’s dead, but I don’t know

how often they change ’em.”

There was a groan and a metallic snap. She pushed and the

door swung inward. “Come on, then.”

They rushed out into the corridor. It was narrow and only

slightly better lit than the cell. Several strides further brought

them up before a familiar silhouette.

“Clothahump!” shouted Jon-Tom.

“Master, Master!” Pog fluttered excitedly around the wiz-

ard’s head. Clothahump waved irritably at the famulus. His

own attention was fixed on the hall behind him.

“Not now, Pog. We’ve no time for it.”

“Where’ve they been holding you, sir?” Jon-Tom asked.

Clothahump pointed. “Two cells up from you.”

Jon-Tom gaped at him. “You mean you were that close and

, we could’ve…”


Alan Dean Foster

“Could have what, my boy? Dug through the rocks with

your bare hands and untied and ungagged me? I think not. It

was frustrating, however, to hear you all so close and not be

able to reassure you.” His expression darkened. “I am going

to turn that Eejakrat into mousefood!”

“Not today,” Talea reminded him.

“Yes, you’re quite right, young lady.”

Talea led them to a nearby room. In addition to the

expected oil lamps the walls held spears and shields. The

furnishings were Spartan and minimal. A broken insect body

lay sprawled beneath the table. Neatly piled against the far

wall were their possessions: weapons, supplies, and disguises,

including Jon-Tom’s duar.

They hurriedly helped one another into the insect suits.

“I’m surprised these weren’t shattered beyond repair in the

fight,” Jen-Tom muttered, watching while Clothahump fixed

his cracked headpiece.

The wizard finished the polymer spell-repair. “Eejakrat

was fascinated by them. I’m sure he wanted me to go into the

details of the spell. He has similar interests, you know.

Remember the disguised ambassador who talked with you in


They stepped quietly back out into the corridor. “Where

are we?” Mudge asked Talea.

“Beneath the palace. Where else?” It was strange to hear

that sharp voice coming from behind the gargoylish face once


“How can we get out?” Pog murmured worriedly.

“We walked in,” said Caz thoughtfully. “Why should we

not also walk out?”

“Indeed,” said Clothahump. “If we can get out into the

square we should be safe,”



They were several levels below the surface, but under

Talea’s guidance they made rapid progress upward.

Once they had to pause to let an enormous beetle pass. He

waddled down the stairs without seeing them. A huge ax was

slung across his back and heavy keys dangled from his belts.

“I don’t know if he’s the relief for our level or not,” Talea

said huskily, “but we’d better hurry.”

They increased their pace. Then Talea warned them to

silence. They were nearing the last gate.

Three guards squatted around a desk on the other side of

the barred door. A steady babble of conversation filtered into

the corridor from the open door on the far side of the guard

room as busy workers came and went. Jon-Tom wondered at

the absence of a heavier guard until it came to him that escape

would be against orders, an action foreign to all but deranged

Plated Folk.


Alan Dean Foster

But there was still the barred doorway and the three

administrators beyond.

“How did you get past them?” Caz asked Talea.

“I haven’t been past them. Eejakrat believed my story, but

only to a point. He wasn’t about to give me me run of the

city. I had a room, not a cell, on the level below this one. If I

wanted out, I had to send word to him. We haven’t got time

for that now. Pretty soon they’ll be finding the body I left.”

Mudge located a small fragment of loose black cement. He

tossed it down the stairs they’d ascended. It made a gratifyingly

loud clatter.

“Nesthek, is that you?” one of the administrators called

toward the doorway. When there was no immediate reply he

rose from his position at the desk and left the game to his


The excapees concealed themselves as best they could. The

administrator sounded perplexed as he approached the doorway.

“Nesthek? Don’t play games with me. I’m losing badly as

it is.”

“Bugger it,” Mudge said tensely. “I thought at least two

of them would come to check.”

“You take this one,” said Clothahump. “The rest pf us

will quietly rush me others.”

“Nesthek, what are you…?” Mudge stabbed upward

with his sword. He’d been lying nearly hidden by me lowest

bar of the doorway. The sword went right into the startled

guard’s abdomen. At the same instant Caz leaped out of me

shadows to bring his knife down into one of me great

compound eyes. The guard-administrator slumped against me

bars. Talea fumbled for the keys at his waist.

“Partewx?” Then me other querulous guard was half out

of his seat as his companion ran to give the alarm. He didn’t

make it to the far door. Pog landed on his neck and began

stabbing rapidly with his stiletto at the guard’s head and face.



The creature swung its four arms wildly, trying to dislodge

the flapping dervish that clung relentlessly to neck and head.

Ror swung low with her sword and cut through both legs.

The other who had turned and drawn his own scimitar

swung at Bribbens. The boatman hopped halfway to the

ceiling, and the deadly arc passed feet below their intended


As the guard was bringing back his sword for another cut,

Jen-Tom swung at him with his staff. The guard ducked the

whistling club-head and brought his curved blade around. As

he’d been taught to, Jon-Tom spun the long shaft in his hands

as if it were an oversized baton. The guard jumped out of

range. Jon-Tom thumbed one of the hidden studs, sad a foot

of steel slid directly into the startled guard’s thorax. Caz’s

sword decapitated him before he hit the floor.


Everyone looked to the right. There was a waste room

recessed into that wall. It had produced a fourth administrator

guard. He was taller than Jon-Tom, and the insect shape

struggling in the three-armed grasp looked small in comparison.

The insect head of Talea’s disguise had been ripped off.

Her red hair cascaded down to her shoulders. Two arms held

her firmly around neck and waist while the thud held a knife

over the hollow of her throat.

“Move and she dies,” said the guard. He began to edge

toward the open doorway leading outside, keeping his back

hard against the wall.

“If he gives the alarm we’re finished, mates,” Mudge


“Let’s rush them,” said Caz,,

“No!” Jon-Tom put an arm in front of the rabbit. “We

can’t. He’ll—”

Talea continued to struggle in the unrelenting grip. “Do

something, you idiots!”


Alan Dean Foster

Seeing that no one was going to act and that she and her

captor were only a few yards from the doorway, she put both

feet on the floor and thrust convulsively upward. The knife

slid through her throat, emerging from the back of her neck.

Claret spurted across the stones.

Everyone was too stunned to scream. The guard cursed, let

the limp body fall as he bolted for the exit. Pog was waiting

for him with a knife that went straight between the compound

eyes. The guard never saw him. He’d had eyes only for his

grounded opponents and hadn’t noticed the bat hanging above

the portal.

Caz and Mudge finished the giant quickly. Jon-Tom bent

over the tiny, curled shape of Talea. The blood flowed freely

but was already beginning to slow. Major arteries and veins

had been severed.

He looked back at Clothahump but the wizard could only

shake his head. “No time, no time, my boy. It’s a long spell.

Not enough time.”

Weak life looked out from those sea-green eyes. Her mouth

twisted into a grimace and her voice was faint. “One of.. .these

days you’re going to have to make… the important decisions

without help, Jon-Tom.” She smiled faintly. “You know… I

think I love you….”

The tears came in a flood, uncontrollable. “It’s not fair,

Talea, Damn! It’s not fair! You can’t tell me something like

that and then leave me! You can’t!”

But she died anyway.

He found he was shaking. Caz grabbed his shoulders,

shook him until it stopped.

“No time for that now, my friend. I’m sorry, too, but this

isn’t the place.for being sorry.”

“No, it is not.” Clothahump was examining the body.

“She’ll stop bleeding soon. When she does, clean her chitin



and put her head back on. It’s over in the corner there, where

the guard threw it.”

Jon-Tom stood, looked dazedly down at the wizard. “You


“I’ll explain later, Jon-Tom. But all may not be lost.”

“What the hell do you mean, ‘all may not be lost’?” His

voice rose angrily. “She’s dead, you senile old…”

Clothahump let him finish, then said, “I forgive the names

because I understand the motivation and the source. Know

only that sometimes even death can be forgiven, Jon-Tom.”

“Are you saying you can bring her back?”

“I don’t know. But if we don’t get out of here quickly

we’ll never have the chance to find out.”

Hor and Bribbens slipped the insect head back into place

over the pale face and flowing hair. Jon-Tom wouldn’t help.

“Now everyone look and act official,” Clothahump urged

them. “We’re taking a dead prisoner out for burial.”

Bribbens, Mudge, Caz, and Hor supported Talea’s body

while Pog flew formation overhead and Jon-Tom and Clothahump

marched importantly in front. A few passing Plated Folk

glanced at them when they emerged from the doorway, but no

one dared question them.

One of the benefits of infiltrating a totalitarian society,

Jon-Tom thought bitterly. Everyone’s afraid to ask anything

of anyone who looks important.

They were on the main floor of the palace. It took them a

while to find an exit (they dared not ask directions), but

before long they were outside in the mist of the palace


The sky was as gray and silent as ever and the humidity as

bad, but for all except the disconsolate Jon-Tom it was as

though they’d suddenly stepped out onto a warm beach

fronting the southern ocean.

“We have to find transport again,” Clothahump was


Alaa Dean Foster

murmuring as they made their way with enforced slowness

across the square. “Soon someone will note either our ab-

sence or that of our belongings.” He allowed himself a grim


“I would not care to be the prison commandant when

Eejakrat leams of our escape. They’ll be after us soon

enough, but they should have a hell of a time locating us. We

blend in perfectly, and only a few have seen us. Nevertheless,

Eejakrat will do everything in his power to recapture us.”

“Where can we go?” Mudge asked, shifting slightly under

the weight of the body. “To the north, back for Ironcloud?”

“No. That is where Eejakrat will expect us to go.”

“Why would he suspect that?” asked Jon-Tom.

“Because I made it a point to give him sufficient hints to

that effect during our conversations,” the wizard replied, “in

case the opportunity to flee arose.”

“If he’s as sly as you say, won’t he suspect we’re heading

in another direction?”

“Perhaps. But I do not believe he will think that we might

attempt to return home through the entire assembled army of

the Greendowns.”

“Won’t they be given the alarm about us also?”

“Of course. But militia do not display initiative. I think we

shall be able to slip through them.”

That satisfied Jon-Tom, but Clothahump was left to muse

over what might have been. So close, they’d been so close!

And still they did not know what the dead mind was, or how

Eejakrat manipulated it. But while willing to take chances, he

was not quite as mad as Jon-Tom might have thought. I have

no death wish, young spellsinger, he thought as he regarded

the tall insect shape marching next to him. We tried as no

other mortals could try, and we failed. If fate wills that we are

to perish soon, it will be on the ramparts of the Jo-Troom

Gate confronting the foe, not in the jaws of Cugluch.



Once among the milling, festering mob of city dwellers

they could relax a little. It took a while to locate an alley with

a delivery wagon and no curious onlookers. Clothahump

could not work the spell under the gaze of kibbitzers.

The long, narrow wagon was pulled by a single large

lizard. They waited. No one else entered the alley. Eventually

the driver emerged from the back entrance of a warren.

Clothahump confronted him and while the others kept watch,

hastily spelled the unfortunate driver under.

“Climb aboard then, citizens,” the driver said obligingly

when the wizard had finished. They did so, carefully laying

Talea’s body on the wagon bed between them.

They were two-thirds of the way to the Pass, the hustle of

Cugluch now largely behind them, when the watchful Jon-

Tom said cautiously to the driver, “You’re not hypnotized,

are you? You never were under the spell.”

The worker looked back down at him with unreadable

compound eyes as hands moved toward weapons. “No,

citizen. I have not been magicked, if that is what you mean.

Stay your hands.” He gestured at the roadway they were

traveling. “It would do you only ill, for you are surrounded

by my people.” Swords and knives remained reluctantly


“Where are you taking us, then?” Ror asked nervously.

“Why haven’t you given the alarm already?”

“As to the first, stranger, I am taking you where you wish

to go, to the head of the Troom Pass. I can understand why

you wish to go there, though I do not think you will end your

journey alive. Yet perhaps you will be fortunate and make it

successfully back to your own lands.”

“You know what we are, then?” asked a puzzled Jon-Tom.

The driver nodded. “I know that beneath those skins of

chitin there are others softer and differently colored.”

“But how?”


Alan Dean Foster

The driver pointed to the back of the wagon. Mudge

looked uncomfortable. “Well now wot the bloody ‘ell were I

supposed to do? I thought ‘is mind had been turned to mush

and I ‘ad to pee. Didn’t think ‘e saw anyway, the ‘ard-shelled


“It does not matter,” the driver said.

“Listen, if you’re not magicked and you know who and

what we are, why are you taking us quietly where we wish to

go instead of turning us over to the authorities?” Jon-Tom

wanted to know.

“I just told you: it does not matter.” The driver made a

two-armed gesture indicative of great indifference. “Soon all

will die anyway.”

“I take it you don’t approve of the coming war.”

“No, I do not.” His antennae quivered with emotion as he

spoke. “It is so foolish, the millenia-old expenditure of life

and time in hopes of conquest.”

“I must say you are the most peculiar Plated person I have

ever encountered,” said Clothahump.

“My opinions are not widely shared among my own

people,” the driver admitted. He chucked the reins, and the

wagon edged around a line of motionless carts burdened with

military supplies. Their wagon continued onward, one set of

wheels still on the roadway, the other bouncing over the rocks

and mud of the swampy earth.

“But perhaps things will change, given time and sensible


“Not if your armies achieve victory they won’t,” said

Bribbens coldly. “Wouldn’t you be happy as the rest if your

soldiers win their conquest?”

“No, I would not,” the driver replied firmly. “Death and

killing never build anything, for all that it may appear




“A most enlightened outlook, sir,” said Clothahump. “See

here, why don’t you come with us back to the warmlands?”

“Would I be welcomed?” asked the insect. “Would the

other warmlanders understand and sympathize the way you

do? Would they greet me as a friend?”

“They would probably, I am distressed to confess,” said a

somber Caz, “slice you into small chitinous bits.”

“You see? I am doomed whichever way I chose. If I went

with you I would suffer physically. If I stay, it is my mind that

suffers constant agony.”

“I can understand your feelings against the war,” said

Flor, “but that still doesn’t explain why you’re risking your

own neck to help us.”

The driver made a shruglike gesture. “I help those who

need help. That is my nature. Now I help you. Soon, when

the fighting starts, there will be many to help. I do not take

sides among the needy. I wish only that such idiocies could

be stopped. It seems though that they can only be waited


The driver, an ordinary citizen of the Greendowns, was full

of surprises. Clothahump had been convinced that there was

no divergence of opinion among the Plated Folk. Here was

loquacious proof of a crack in that supposed unity of totalitar-

ian thought, a crack that might be exploited later. Assuming,

of course, that the forthcoming invasion could be stopped.

Several days later they found themselves leaving the last of

the cultivated lowlands. Mist faded behind them, and the

friendly silhouettes of the mountains of Zaryt’s Teeth became


No wagons plied their trader’s wares here, no farmers

waded patiently through knee-deep muck. There was only

military traffic. According to Clothahump they were already

within the outskirts of the Pass.

Military bivouacs extended from hillside to hillside and for


Alan Dean Foster

miles to east and west. Tens of thousands of insect troops

milled quietly, expectantly, on the gravelly plain, waiting for

the word to march. From the back of the wagon Jon-Tom and

his companions could look out upon an ocean of antennae and

eyes and multiple legs. And sharp iron, flashing like a million

mirrors in the diffuse light of a winter day.

No one questioned them or eyed the wagon with suspicion

until they reached the last lines of troops. Ahead lay only the

ancient riverbed of the Troom Pass, a dry chasm of sand and

rock which in the previous ten millenia had run more with

blood than ever it had with water.

The officer was winged but flightless, slim, limber of body

and thought. He noted the wagon and its path, stopped filling

out the scroll in his charge, and hurried to pace the vehicle.

Its occupants gave every indication of being engaged in

reasonable business, but they ought not to have been where

they were. The quality of initiative, so lacking in Plated Folk

troops, was present in some small amount in this particular

individual officer.

He glanced up at the driver, his tone casual and not hostile.

“Where are you going, citizen?”

“Delivering supplies to the forward scouts,” said Caz


The officer slackened his pace, walked now behind the

wagon as he inspected its occupants. “That is understand-

able, but I see no supplies. And who is the dead one?” He

gestured with claws and antennae at the limp shape of Talea,

still encased in her disguise.

“An accident, a most unforgivable brawl in the ranks,”

Caz informed him.

“Ranks? What ranks? I see no insignia on the body. Nor

on any of you.”

“We’re not regular army,” said the driver, much to the

relief of the frantic Caz.



“Ah. But such a fatal disturbance should be reported. We

cannot tolerate fighting among ourselves, not now, with final

victory so soon to come.”

Jon-Tom tried to look indifferent as he turned his head to

look past the front of the wagon. They were not quite past the

front-line troops. Leave us alone, he thought furiously at the

persistent officer. Go back to your work and leave this one

wagon to itself!

“We already have reported it,” said Caz worriedly. “To

our own commandant.”

“And who might that be?” came the unrelenting, infuriat-

ing question.’

“Colonel Puxolix,” said the driver.

“I know of no such officer.”

“How can one know every officer in the army?”

“Nevertheless, perhaps you had best report the incident to

my own command. It never hurts one to be thorough, citizen.

And I would still like to see the supplies you are to deliver.”

He turned as if to signal to several chattering soldiers stand-

ing nearby.

“Here’s one of ’em!” said Flor. Her sword lopped off the

officer’s head in the midst of a never-to-be-answered query.

For an instant they froze in readiness, hands on weapons,

eyes on the troops nearest the wagon. Yet there was no

immediate reaction, no cry of alarm. Flor’s move had been so

swift and the body had fallen so rapidly that no one had yet


While their driver did not believe in divine intervention, he

had the sense to make the decision his passengers withheld.

“Hiui-criiickk!” he shouted softly, simultaneously snap-

ping his odd whip over the lizard’s eyes. The animal surged

forward in a galloping waddle. Now soldiers did turn from

conversation or eating to stare uncertainly at the fleeing



Alan Dean Foster

The last few troops scrambled out of the wagon’s path.

There was nothing ahead save rock and promise.

Someone stumbled over the body of the unfortunately

curious officer, noted that the head was no longer attached,

connected the perfidy with the rapidly shrinking outline of the

racing wagon, and finally thought to raise the alarm.

“Here they come, friends.” Caz knelt in the wagon,

staring back the way they’d come. His eyes picked out

individual pursuers where Jon-Tom could detect only a faint

rising of dust. “They must have found the body.”

“Not enough of a start,” said Bribbens tightly. “I’ll never

see my beloved Slqomaz-ayor-le-WeentIi and its cool green

banks again. I regret only not having the opportunity to perish

in water.”

“Woe unto us,” murmured a disconsolate Mudge.

“Woe unto ya, maybe,” said the lithe black shape perched

on the back of the driver’s seat. Pog lifted into the air and

sped ahead of the lumbering wagon.

“Send back help!” Jon-Tom yelled to the retreating dot.

“He will do so,” Clothahump said patiently, “if his panic

does not overwhelm his good sense. I am more concerned

that our pursuit may catch us before any such assistance has a

chance to be mobilized.”

“Can’t you make this go any faster?” asked Hor.

“The lanteth is built for pulling heavy loads, not for

springing like a zealth over poor ground such as this,” said

the driver, raising his voice in order to be heard above the

rumble of the wheels.

“They’re gaining on us,” said Jon-Tom. Now the mounted

riders coming up behind were close enough so that even he

could make out individual shapes. Many of the insects he

didn’t recognize, but the long, lanky, helmeted Plated Folk

resembling giant walking sticks were clear enough. Their

huge strides ate up long sections of Pass as they closed on the



escapees. Two riders on each long back began to notch

arrows into bows.

“The Gate, there’s the Gate, by Rerelia’s pink purse it is!”

Mudge shouted gleefully.

His shout was cut off as he was thrown off his feet. The

wagon lurched around a huge boulder in the sand, rose

momentarily onto two wheels, but did not-turn over. It

slammed back down onto the riverbed with a wooden crunch.

Somehow the axles held. The spokes bent but did not snap.

Ahead was the still distant rampart of a massive stone wall.

Arrows began to zip like wasps past the wagon. The passen-

gers huddled low on the bed, listening to the occasional thuck

as an arrow stuck into the wooden sides.

A moan sounded above them, a silent whisper of departure,

and another body joined Talea. It was their iconoclastic,

brave driver. He lay limply in the wagon bed, arms trailing

and the color already beginning to fade from his ommatidia.

Two arrows protruded from his head.

Jon-Tom scrambled desperately into the driver’s seat, trying

to stay low while arrows whistled nastily around him. The

reins lay draped across the front bars of the seat. He reached

for them.

They receded. So did the seat. The rolling wagon had

struck another boulder and had bounced, sending its occu-

pants flying. It landed ahead of Jon-Tom, on its side. The

panicky lizard continued pulling it toward freedom.

Spitting sand and blood, Jon-Tom struggled to his feet.

He’d landed on his belly. Duar and staff were still intact. So

was he, thanks to the now shattered hard-shelled disguise. As

he tried to walk, a loose piece of legging slid down onto his

foot. He kicked it aside, began pulling off the other sections

of chitin and throwing them away. Deception was no longer

of any use.

“Come on, it isn’t far!” he yelled to his companions. Caz


Alan Dean Foster

ran past, then Mudge and Bribbens. The boatman was assisting

Clothahump as best he could.

Hor, almost past him, halted when she saw he was running

toward the wagon. “Jon-Tom, muerte es muerte. Let it be.”

“I’m not leaving without her.”

Flor caught up with him, grabbed his arm. “She’s dead,

Jon-Tom. Be a man. Leave it alone.”

He did not stop to answer her. Ignoring the shafts falling

around them, he located the spraddled corpse. In an instant he

had Talea’s body in a fireman’s carry across his shoulders.

She was so small, hardly seemed to have any weight at all. A

surge of strength ran through him, and he ran light-headed

toward the wall. It was someone else running, someone else

breathing hard.

Only Mudge had a bow, but he couldn’t run and use it. It

wouldn’t matter much in a minute anyway, because their

grotesque pursuit was almost on top of them. It would be a

matter of swords then, a delaying of the inevitable dying.

A furry shape raced past him. Another followed, and two

more. He slowed to a trot, tried to wipe the sweat from his

eyes. What he saw renewed his strength more than any


A fuzzy wave was fanneling out of a narrow crack in the

hundred-foot-high Gate ahead. Squirrels and muskrats, otters

and possums, an isolated skunk, and a platoon of vixens

charged down the Pass.

The insect riders saw the rush coming and hesitated just

long enough to allow the exhausted escapees to blend in with

their saviors. There was a brief, intense fight. Then the

pursuers, who had counted on no more than overtaking and

slaughtering a few renegades, turned and ran for the safety of

the Greendowns. Many did not make it, their mounts cut out

from under them. The butchery was neat and quick.

Soft paws helped the limping, panting refugees the rest of



the way in. A thousand questions were thrown at them, not a

few centering on their identity. Some of the rescuers had seen

the discarded chitin disguises, and knowledge of that prompted

another hundred queries at least.

Clothahump adjusted his filthy spectacles, shook sand from

the inside of his shell, and confronted a minor officer who

had taken roost on the wizard’s obliging shoulders.

“Is Wuckle Three-Stripe of Polastnndu here?”

“Aye, but he’s with the Fourth and Fifth Corps,” said the

Sd-aven. His kilt was yellow, black, and azure, and he wore a

|-lhin helmet. Two throwing knives were strapped to his sides

I’beneath his wings, and his claws had been sharpened for war.

“What about a general named Aveticus?”

“Closer, in the headquarters tent,” said the raven. He

brushed at the yellow scarf around his neck, the insignia of an

arboreal noncommissioned officer. “You’d like to go there, I

take it?”

Clothahump nodded. “Immediately. Tell him it’s the mad

doomsayers. He’ll see us.”

The raven nodded. “Will do, sir.” He lifted from the

wizard’s shell and soared over the crest of the Gate.

They marched on through the barely open doorway. Jon-

Tom had turned his burden over to a pair of helpful ocelots.

The Gate itself, he saw, was at least a yard deep and formed

of massive timbers. The stonework of the wall was thirty

times as thick, solid rock. The Gate gleamed with fresh sap, a

substance Caz identified as a fire-retardant.

The Plated Folk might somehow pierce the Gate, but picks

and hatchets would never breech the wall. His confidence


It lifted to near assurance when they emerged from the

Pass. Spread out on the ancient nver plain that sloped down

from the mountains were thousands of camp fires. The


Alan Dean Foster

warmlanders had taken Clothahump’s warning to heart. They

would be ready.

He repositioned his own special burden, taking it back from

ttie helpful soldiers. With a grimace he unsnapped the insect head

and kicked it aside. Red hair hung limply across his shoulder.

He stroked the face, hurriedly pulled his hand away. The skin

was numbingly cold.

There were two arrows in her back. Even in death, she had

protected him again. But it would be all right, he told himself

angrily. Clothahump would revive her, as he’d promised he

would. Hadn’t he promised? Hadn’t he?

They were directed to a large three-comered tent. The

banners of a hundred cities flew above it. Squadrons of

brightly kilted birds and bats flew in formation overhead,

arrowhead outlines full of the flash and silver of weapons.

They had their own bivouacs, he noted absently, on the flanks

of the mountains or in the forest that rose to the west.

Wuckle Three-Stripe was there, still panting from having

ridden through the waiting army to meet them. So was

Aveticus, his attitude and eyes as alert and ready as they’d

been that day so long ago in the council chambers of Polastrindu.

He was heavily armored, and a crimson sash hung from his

long neck. Jen-Tom could read his expression well enough:

the marten was eager to be at the business of killing.

There were half a dozen other officers. Before the visitors

could say anything a massive wolverine resplendent in gold

chain mail stepped forward and asked in a voice full of

disbelief, “Have ye then truly been to Cugluch?” Rumor

then had preceded presence.

“To Cugluch an’ back, mate,” Mudge admitted pridefully.

” Twas an epic journey. One that’ll long be spoken of. The

bards will not ‘ave words enough t’ do ‘er justice.”

“Perhaps,” said Aveticus quietly. “I hope there will be

bards left to sing of it.”



“We bring great news.” Clothahump took a seat near the

central table. “I am sorry to say that the great magic of the

Plated Folk remains as threatening as ever, though not quite

as enigmatic.

“However, for the first time in recorded history, we have

powerful allies who are not of the warmlands.” He did not try

to keep the pleasure from his voice. “The Weavers have

agreed to fight alongside us!”

Considerable muttering rose from the assembled leader-

ship. Not all of it was pleased.

“I have the word of the Grand Webmistress Oil herself,

given to us in person,” Clothahump added, dissatisfied with

the reaction his announcement produced.

When the import finally penetrated, there were astonished

murmurs of delight.

“The Weavers.. .We canna lose now…. Won’t be a one

of the Plated Bastards left!… Drive them all the way to the

end of the Greendowns!”

“That is,” said Clothahump cautioningly, “they will fight

alongside us if they can get here in time. They have to come

across the Teeth.”

“Then they will never reach here,” said a skeptical officer.

“There is no other pass across the Teeth save the Troom.”

“Perhaps not a Pass, but a path. The Ironclouders will

show them the way.”

Now derision filled the tent. “There is no such place as

Ironcloud,” said the dubious Wuckle Three-Stripe. “It is a

myth inhabited by ghosts.”

“We climbed inside the myth and supped with the ghosts,”

said Clothahump calmly. “It exists.”

“I believe this wizard’s word is proof enough of any-

thing,” said Aveticus softly, dominating the discussion by

sheer strength of presence.

“They have promised to guide the Weaver army here.”


Alan Dean Foster

Clothahump continued to his suddenly respectful audience.

“But we cannot count on their assistance. I believe the Plated

Folk will begin their attack any day. We confronted and

escaped from the wizard Eejakrat. While he does not know

that we know little about his Manifestation, he will not

assume ignorance on our part, and thus will urge the assem-

bled horde to march. They appeared ready in any case.”

That stimulated a barrage of questions from the officers.

They wanted estimates of troop strength, of arboreals, weap-

ons and provisioning, of disposition and heavy troops and

bowmen and more.

Clothahump impatiently waved the questions off. “I can’t

answer any of your queries in detail. I am not a soldier and

my observations are attuned to other matters. I can tell you

that this is by far the greatest army the Plated Folk have ever

sent against the warmlands.”

“They will be met by more warmlanders than ever they

imagined!” snorted Wuckle Three-Stripe. “We will reduce

the populating of the Greendowns to nothing. The Troom Pass

shall be paved with chitin!” Cries of support and determina-

tion came from those behind him.

The badger’s expression softened. “I must say we are

pleased, if utterly amazed, to find you once again safely

among your kind. The world owes you all a great debt.”

“How great, mate?” asked Mudge.

Three-Stripe eyed the otter distastefully, “hi this time of

crisis, how can you think of mere material things?”

“Mate, I can always th—” Flor put a hand over the otter’s


The mayor turned to a subordinate. “See that these people

have anything they want, and that they are provided with food

and the best of shelter.” The weasel officer nodded.

“It will be done, sir.” He moved forward, saluted crisply



His gaze fell on the form lying limply across Jon-Tom’s back.

“Shall the she be requiring medical care, sir?”

Red hair tickled Jon-Tom’s ear. He jerked his head to one

side, replied almost imperceptibly.

“No. She’s dead.”

“I am sorry, sir.”

Jon-Tom’s’gaze traveled across the tent. Clothahump was

conversing intently with a cluster of officers including the

wolverine, Aveticus, and Wuckle Three-Stripe. He glanced

up for an instant and locked eyes with the spellsinger. The

instant passed.

The relief Jon-Tom had sought in the wizard’s eyes was not

there, nor had there been hope.

Only truth.



The meeting did not take long. As they left the tent the

tension of the past weeks, of living constantly on the edge of

death and disappointment, began to let go of them all.

“Me for a ‘ot bath!” said Mudge expectantly.

“And I for a cold one,” countered Bnbbens.

“I think I’d prefer a shower, myself,” said Flor.

“I’d enjoy that myself, I believe.” Jon-Tom did not notice

the look that passed between Caz and Flor. He noticed

nothing except the wizard’s retreating oval.

“Just a minute, sir. Where are you going now?”

Clothahump glanced back at him. “First to locate Pog.

Then to the Council of Wizards, Warlocks, and Witches so

that we may coordinate our magicking in preparation for the

coming attack. Only one may magic at a time, you know.

Contradiction destroys the effectiveness of spells.”

“Wait. What about.. .you know. You promised.”

Clothahump looked evasive. “She’s dead, my boy. Like


Alan Dean Foster

love, life is a transitory thing. Both linger as long as they’re

able and fade quickly.”

“I don’t want any of your fucking wizardly platitudes!”

He towered over the turtle. “You said you could bring her


“I said I might. You were despondent, You needed hope,

something to sustain you. I gave you that. By pretending I

might help the dead I helped the living to survive. I have no


When Jon-Tom did not respond the wizard continued, “My

boy, your magic is of an unpredictable quality and consider-

able power. Many times that unpredictability could be a

drawback. But the magic we face is equally unpredictable.

You may be of great assistance… if you choose to.

“But I feel responsibility for you, if not for your present

hurt. If you elect to do nothing, no one will blame you for it

and I will not try to coerce you. I can only wish for your


“I am trying to tell you, my boy, that there is no formula I

know for raising the dead. I said I would try, and I shall,

when the time is right and other matters press less urgently on

my knowledge. I must now try my best to preserve many. I

cannot turn away from that to experiment in hopes of saving

one.” His voice was flat and unemotional.

“I wish it were otherwise, boy. Even magic has its limits,

however. Death is one of them.”

Jon-Tom stood numbly, still balancing the dead weight on

his shoulders. “But you said, you told me…”

“What I told you I did in order to save you. Despondency

does not encourage quick thinking and survival. You have

survived. Talea, bless her mercurial, flinty little heart, would

be cursing your self-pity this very moment if she were able.”

“You lying little hard-shelled—”

Clothahump took a cautious step backward. “Don’t force



me to stop you, Jon-Tom. Yes, I lied to you. It wasn’t the

first time, as Mudge is so quick to point out. A lie in the

service of right is a kind of truth.”

Jon-Tom let out an inarticulate yell and rushed forward,

blinded as much by the cold finality of his loss as by the

wizard’s duplicity. No longer a personality or even a memory,

me body on his shoulders tumbled to the earth. He reached

blindly for the impassive sorcerer.

Clothahump had seen the rage building, had taken note of

the signs in Jon-Tom’s face, in the way he stood, in the

tension of his skin. The wizard’s hands moved rapidly and he

whispered to unseen things words like “fix” and “anesthesia.”

Jon-Tom sent down as neatly as if clubbed by his own staff.

Several soldiers noted the activity and wandered over.

“Is he dead, sir?” one asked curiously.

“No. For the moment he wishes it were so.” The wizard

pointed toward the limp form of Talea. “The first casualty of

the war.”

“And this one?” The squirrel gestured down at Jon-Tom.

“Love is always the second casualty. He will be all right in

a while. He needs to rest and not remember. There is a tent

behind the headquarters. Take him and put him in there.”

The noncom’s tail switched the air. “Will he be dangerous

when he regains consciousness?”

Clothahump regarded the softly breathing body. “I do not

think so, not even to himself.”

The squirrel saluted. “It will be done, sir.”

There are few drugs, Clothahump mused, that can numb

born the heart and the mind. Among them grief is the most

powerful. He watched while the soldiers bore the lanky,

youthful Jon-Tom away, then forced himself to turn to more

serious matters. Talea was gone and Jon-Tom damaged. Well,

he was sorry as sorry could be for the boy, but they would do


Alan Dean Foster

without his erratic talents if they had to. He could not cool

the boy’s hate.

Let him hate me, then, if he wishes. It will focus his

thoughts away from his loss. He will be forever suspicious of

me hereafter, but in that he will have the company of most

creatures. People always fear what they cannot understand.

Makes it lonely though, old fellow. Very lonely. You knew

that when you took the vows and made the oaths. He sighed,

waddled oS to locate Aveticus. Now there was a rational

mind, he thought pleasantly. Unimaginative, but sound. He

will accept my advice and act upon it. I can help him.

Perhaps in return he can help me. Two hundred and how

many years, old fellow?

Tired, dammit. I’m so tired.. Pity I took an oath of

responsibility along with the others. But this evil of Eejakrat’s

has got to be stopped.

Clothahump was wise in many things, but even he would

not admit that what really kept him going wasn’t his oath of

responsibility. It was curiosity….

Red fog filled Jon-Tom’s vision. Blood mist. It faded to

gray when he blinked. It was not the ever present mist of the

awful Greendowns, but instead a dull glaze that faded rapidly.

Looking up, he discovered multicolored fabric in place of

blue sky. As he lay on his back he heard a familiar voice say,

“I’ll watch him now.”

He pushed himself up on his elbows, his head still swim-

ming from the effects of Clothahump’s incantation. Several

armed warmlanders were exiting the tent.

“Ya feeling better now?”

He raised his sight once more. An upside-down face stared

anxiously into his own. Pog was hanging from one of the

crosspoles, wrapped in his wings. He spread them, stretching,

and yawned.

“How long have I been out?”



” ‘Bout since dis time yesterday.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

The bat grinned. “Relaxing, trying ta enjoy themselves.

Orgy before da storm.”

“Talea?” He tried to sit all the way up. A squat, hairy

form fluttered down from the ceiling to land on his chest.

“Talea’s as dead as she was yesterday when you tried ta

attack da master. As dead as she was when dat knife went

into her t’roat back in Cugluch, an dat’s a fact ya’d better get

used ta, man!”

Jon-Tom winced, looked away from the little gargoyle face

confronting him. “I’ll never accept it. Never.”

Pog hopped off his chest, landed on a chair nearby, and

leaned against the back. It was designed for a small mamma-

lian body, but it still fit him uncomfortably. He always

preferred hanging to sitting but given Jon-Tom’s present

disorientation, he knew it would be better if he didn’t have to

stare at a topsy-turvy face just now.

“Ya slay me, ya know?” Pog said disgustedly. “Ya really

think you’resomething special.”

“What?” Confused, Jon-Tom frowned at the bat.

“You heard me. I said dat ya link you’re something

special, don’t ya? Ya tink you’re da only one wid problems?

At least you’ve got da satisfaction of knowing dat someone

loved ya. I ain’t even got dat.

“How would ya like it if Talea were alive and every time

ya looked at her, so much as smiled in her direction, she

turned away from ya in disgust?”

“I don’t—”

The bat cut him off, raised a wing. “No, hear me out.

Dat’s what I have ta go trough every day of my life. bat’s

what I’ve been going trough for years. ‘It don’t make sense,’

da boss keeps tellin’ me.” Pog sniffed disdainfully. “But he

don’t have ta experience it, ta live it. ‘Least ya know ya was


Alan Dean Foster

loved, Jon-Tom. I may never have dat simple ting. I may

have ta go trough da rest of my life knowin’ dat da one I love

gets the heaves every time I come near her. How would you

like ta live wid dat? I’m goin’ ta suffer until I die, or until she


“And what’s worse,” he looked away momentarily, sound-

ing so miserable that Jon-Tom forgot his own agony, “she’s


“Who’s here?”

“Da falcon. Uleimee. She’s wid da aerial forces. I tried ta

see her once, just one time. She wouldn’t even do dat for


“She can’t be much if she acts like that toward you,” said

Jon-Tom gently.

“Why not? Because she’s reactin’ to my looks instead of

my wondaful personality? Looks are important. Don’t let

anybody tell ya otherwise. And I got a real problem. And

dere’s smell, and other factors, and I can’t do a damn ting

about ’em. Maybe da boss can, eventually. But promises

don’t do nuthin’ for me now.” His expression twisted.

“So don’t let me hear any more of your bemoanings.

You’re alive an’ healthy, you’re an interesting curiosity to da

females around ya, an you’ve got plenty of loving ahead of

ya. But not me. I’m cursed because I love only one.”

“It’s kind of funny,” Jon-Tom said softly, tracing a pattern

on the blanket covering his cot. “I thought it was Flor I was

in love with. She tried to show me otherwise, but I

couldn’t… wouldn’t, see.”

“Dat wouldn’t matter anyhow.” Pog fluttered off the chair

and headed for the doorway.

“Why not?”

“Blind an’ dumb,” the bat grumbled. “Don’t ya see

anyting? She’s had da hots for dat Caz fellow ever since we



fished him outa da river Tailaroam.” He was gone before

Jon-Tom could comment.

Caz and Flor? That was impossible, he thought wildly. Or

.was it? What was impossible in a world of impossibilities?

Bringing back Talea, he told himself.

Well, if Clothahump could do nothing, there was still

another manipulator of magic who would try: himself.

Troops gave the tent a wide berth during the following

days. Inside a tall, strange human sat singing broken love

songs to a Corpse. The soldiers muttered nervously to them-

selves and made signs of protection when they were forced to

pass near the tent. Its interior glowed at night with a veritable

swarm of gneechees.

Jon-Tom’s efforts were finally halted not by personal choice

but by outside events. He had succeeded in keeping the body

from decomposing, but it remained still as the rock beneath

the tent. Then on the tenth day after their hasty retreat from

Cugluch, word came down from aerial scouts that the army of

the Plated Folk was on the march.

So he slung his duar across his back and went out with staff

in hand. Behind he left the body of one who had loved him

and whom he could love in return only too late. He strode

resolutely through the camp, determined to take a position on

the wall. If he could not give life, then by God he would deal

out death with equal enthusiasm.

Aveticus met him on the wall.

“It comes, as it must to all creatures,” the general said to

him. “The time of choosing.” He peered hard into Jon-Tom’s

face. “In your anger, remember that one who fights blindly

usually dies quickly.”

Jon-Tom blinked, looked down at him. “Thanks, Aveticus.

I’ll keep control of myself.”

“Good.” The general walked away, stood chatting with a

couple of subordinates as they looked down the Pass.


Alan Dean Foster

A ripple of expectancy passed through the soldiers assem-

bled on the wall. Weapons were raised as their wielders

leaned forward. No one spoke. The only noise now came

from down the Pass, and it was growing steadily louder.

As a wave they came, a single dark wave of chitin and

iron. They filled the Pass from one side to the other, a flood

of murder that extended unbroken into the distance.

A last few hundred warmlander troops scrambled higher

into the few notches cut into the precipitous canyon. From

there they could prevent any Plated Folk from scaling the

rocks to either side of the wall. They readied spears and

arrows. A rich, musky odor filled the morning air, exuded

from the glands of thousands of warmlanders. An aroma of


The great wooden gates were slowly parted. There came a

shout followed by a thunderous cheer from the soldiers on the

ramparts that shook gravel from the mountainsides. Led by a

phalanx of a hundred heavily armored wolverines, the

warmlander army sallied out into the Pass.

Jon-Tom moved to leave his position on the wall so he

could join the main body of troops pouring from the Gate. He

was confronted by a pair of familiar faces. Caz and Mudge

still disdained the use of armor.

“What’s wrong?” he asked them. “Aren’t you going to

join the fight?”

“Eventually,” said Caz.

“If it proves absolutely necessary, mate,” added Mudge.

“Right now we’ve a more important task assigned to us, we


“And what’s that?”

“Keepin’ an eye on yourself.”

Jon-Tom looked past them, saw Clothahump watching him




“What’s the idea?” He no longer addressed the wizard as


The sorcerer walked over to join them. His left hand was

holding a thick scroll half open. It was filled with words and


“In the end your peculiar magic, spellsinger, may be of Jar

more use to us than another sword arm.”

“I’m not interested in fighting with magic,” Jon-Tom

countered angrily. “I want to spill some blood.”

Clothahump shook his head, smiled ruefully. “How the

passions of youth do alter its nature, if not necessarily

maturing it. I seem to recall a somewhat different personality

once brought confused and gentle to my Tree.”

“I remember him also,” Jon-Tom replied humoriessly.

“He’s dead too.”

“Pity. He was a nice boy. Ah well. You are potentially

much more valuable to us here, Jon-Tom. Do not be so

anxious. I promise you that as you grow older you will be

presented with ample opportunities for participating in self-

satisfying slaughter.”

“I’m not interested in-—”

Sounding less understanding, Clothahump cut him off testi-

ly. “Consider something besides yourself, boy. You are upset

because Talea is dead, because her death personally affects

you. You’re upset because I deceived you. Now you want to

waste a potentially helpful talent to satisfy your personal

blood lust.” He regarded the tall youth sternly.

“My boy, I am fond of you. I think that with a little

maturation and a little tempering, as with a good sword, you

will make a fine person. But for a little while at least, try

thinking of something besides you.”

The ready retort died on Jon-Tom’s lips. Nothing pene-

trates the mind or acts on it so effectively as does truth, that

most efficient but foul-tasting of all medicines. Clothahump


Alan Dean Foster

had only one thing in his favor: he was right. That canceled

out anything else Jon-Tom could think of to say.

He leaned back against the rampart, saw Caz and Mudge,

friends both, watching him warily. Hesitantly, he smiled.

“It’s okay. The old bastard’s right. I’ll stay.” He turned

from them to study the Pass. After a pause and a qualifying

nod from Clothahump, Mudge and Caz moved to join him.

The wolverine wedge struck the center of the Plated Polk

wave like a knife, leaving contorted, multilated insect bodies

in their wake. The rest of the warmlander soldiers followed

close behind.

It was a terrible place for a battle. The majority of both

armies could only seethe and shift nervously. They were

packed so tightly in the narrow Pass that only a small portion

of each force could actually confront one another. It was

another advantage for the outnumbered warmlanders.

After an hour or so of combat the battle appeared to be

going the way of all such conflicts down through the millenia.

Led by the wolverines the warmlanders were literally cutting

their way up the Pass. The Plated Folk fought bravely but

mechanically, showing no more initiative in individual com-

bat than they did collectively. Also, though they possessed an

extra set of limbs, they were stiff-jointed and no match for the

more supple, agile enemies they faced. Most of the Plated

Folk were no more than three and a half feet tall, while

certain of the warmlanders, such as the wolverines and the

felines, were considerably more massive and powerful. And

none of the insects could match the otters and weasels for

sheer speed.

The battle raged all that morning and on into the afternoon.

All at once, it seemed to be over. The Plated Polk suddenly

threw away their weapons, broke, and ran. This induced

considerable chaos in the packed ranks behind the front. The



panic spread rapidly, an insidious infection as damaging as

any fatal disease.

Soon it appeared that the entire Plated Folk army was in

retreat, pursued by yelling, howling warmlanders. The sol-

diers at the Gate broke out in whoops of joy. A few expressed

disappointment at not having been in on the fight.

Only Clothahump stood quietly on his side of the Gate,

Aveticus on the other. The wizard was staring with aged eyes

at the field of battle, squinting through his glasses and

shaking his head slowly.

“Too quick, too easy,” he was murmuring.

Jon-Tom overheard. “What’s wrong… sir?”

Clothahump spoke without looking over at him. “I see no

evidence of the power Eejakrat commands. Not a sign of it at


“Maybe he can’t manipulate it properly. Maybe it’s beyond

his control.”

” ‘Maybes’ kill more individuals than swords, my boy.”

“What kind of magic are you looking for?”

“I don’t know.” The wizard gazed skyward. “The clouds

are innocent of storm. Nothing hints at lightning. The earth is

silent, and we’ve naught to fear from tremorings. The ether

flows silently. I feel no discord in any of the levels of magic.

It worries me. I fear what I cannot sense.”

“There’s a possible storm cloud,” said Jon-Tom, pointing.

“Boiling over the far southern ridge.”

Clothahump peered in the indicated direction. Yes,’there

was a dark mass back there, which had materialized suddenly.

It was blacker than any of the scattered cumulo-nimbus that

hung in the afternoon sky like winter waifs. The cloud

foamed down the face of the ridge, rushing toward the Pass.

“That’s not a cloud,” said Caz, seeking with eyes sharper

than those of other creatures. “Plated Folk.”


Alan Dean Foster

“What kind?” asked Clothahump, already confident of the


“Dragonflies, a few large beetles. All with subsidiary

mounted troops, I fear. Many other large beetles behind


“They should be no trouble,” murmured Clothahump.

“But I wonder.”

Aveticus crossed the Gate and joined them.

“What do you make of this, sir?”

“It appears to be the usual aerial assault.”

Aveticus nodded, glanced back toward the plain. “If so,

they will fare no better in the air than they have on the

ground. Still…”

“Something troubling you then?” said Clothahump.

The marten eyed the approaching cloud confusedly. “It is

strange, the way they are grouped. Still, it would be peculiar

if they did not at least once try something different.”

Yells sounded from behind the Gate. The warmlanders own

aerial forces were massing in a great spiral over the camp.

They were of every size and description. Their kilts formed a

brilliant quiltwork in the sky.

Then the spiral began to unwind as the line of bats and

birds flew over the Gate to meet the coming threat. They

intercepted the Plated Folk fliers near the line of combat.

As soon as contact was made, the Plated Folk forces split.

Half moved to meet the attack. The second half, consisting

primarily of powerful but ponderous beetles, dipped below

the fight. With them went a large number of the more agile

dragonflies with their single riders.

“Look there,” said Mudge. “Wot are the bleedin’ buggerers

up to?”

“They’re attacking ground troops!” said Aveticus, outraged.

“It is not done. Those in the sky do not do battle with those

on the ground. They fight only others of their own kind.”



“Well, somebody’s changed the rules,” said Jen-Tom,

watching a tall amazonian figure moving across the wall

toward them.

Confusion began to grip the advance ranks of warmlanders.

They were not used to fighting attack from above. Most of

the outnumbered birds and bats were too busy with their own

opponents to render any assistance to those below.

“This is Eejakrat’s work,” muttered Clothahump. “I can

sense it.’It is magic, but of a most subtle sort.”

“Air-ground support,” said the newly arrived Flor. She

was staring tight-lipped at the carnage the insect fliers were

wreaking on the startled warmlander infantry.

“What kind of magic is this?” asked Aveticus grimly.

“It’s called tactics,” said Jon-Tom.

The marten turned to Clothahump. “Wizard, can you not

counter this kind of magic?”

“I would try,” said Clothahump, “save that I do not know

how to begin. I can counter lightning and dissipate fog, but I

do not know how to assist the minds of our soldiers. That is

what is endangered now.”

While bird and dragonfly tangled in the air above the Pass

and other insect fliers swooped again and again on the ranks

of puzzled warmlanders, the sky began to rain a different sort

of death.

The massive cluster of large beetles remained high out of

arrowshot and began to disgorge hundreds, thousands of tiny

pale puffs on the rear of the warmlander forces. Arrows fell

Aom the puff shapes as they descended.

Jon-Tom recognized the familiar round cups. So did Flor.

But Clothahump could only shake his head in disbelief.

“Impossible! No spell is strong enough to lift so many into

the air at once.”

“I’m afraid this one is,” Jon-Tom told him.

“What is this frightening spell called?”



Alan Dean Foster

The wannlander troops were as confused by the sight as by

the substance of this assault on their rear ranks. At the same

time there was a chilling roar from the retreating Plated Folk

infantry. Those who’d abandoned their weapons suddenly

scrambled for the nearest canyon wall.

From the hidden core of the horde came several hundred of

the largest beetles anyone had ever seen. These huge scara-

baeids and their cousins stampeded through the gap created

by their own troops. The startled wolverines were trampled

underfoot. Massive chitin horns pierced soldier after soldier.

Each beetle had half a dozen bowmen on its back. From there

they picked off those wannlanders who tried to cut at the

beetle’s legs.

Now it was the wannlanders who broke, whirling and

scrambling in panic for the safety of the distant Gate. They

pressed insistently on those behind them. But terror already

ruled their supposed reinforcements. Instead of friendly faces

those pursued by the relentless beetles found thousands of

Plated Folk soldiers who had literally dropped from the sky.

The birds and their riders, mostly small squirrels and then-

relatives, fought valiantly to break through the aerial Plated

Folk. But by the time they had made any headway against the

dragonfly forces confronting them the great, lumbering flying

beetles had already dropped their cargo. Now they were

flying back down the Pass, to gather a second load of

impatient insect parachutists.

Glee turned to dismay on the wall as badly demoralized

troops streamed back through the open Gate. Behind them

was sand and gravel-covered ground so choked with corpses

that it was hard to move. The dead actually did more to save

the wannlander forces from annihilation than the living.

When the last survivor had limped inside, the great Gate

was swung shut. An insectoid wave crested against the




Now the force of scarabaeids who’d broken the wannlander

front turned and retreated. They could not scale the wall and

would only hinder its capture.

• Strong-armed soldiers carrying dozens, hundreds of ladders

took their places. The ladders were thrown up against the wall

in such profusion that several defenders, while trying to spear

those Plated Folk raising one ladder, were struck and killed

by another. The ladders were so close together they some-

| times overlapped rungs. A dark tide began to swarm up the

| wall.

| Having no facility with a bow, Jon-Tom was heaving spears

I as fast as the armsbearers could supply them. Next to him

| Flor was firing a large longbow with deadly accuracy. Mudge

I stood next to her, occasionally pausing in his own firing to

| compliment the giantess on a good shot.

I The wall was now crowded with reinforcements. Every

II time a wannlander fell another took his place. But despite the

number of ladders pushed back and broken, the number of

climbers killed, the seemingly endless stream of Plated Folk

: came on.

; It was Caz who pulled Jon-Tom aside and directed his

attention far, far up the canyon. “Can you see them, my

friend? They are there, watching.”

! “Where?”

“There… can’t you see the dark spots on that butte that

juts out slightly into the Pass?”

Jon-Tom could barely make out the butte. He could not

discern individuals standing on it. But he did not doubt Caz’s


“I’ll take your word for it. Can you see who ‘they’ are?”

S “Eejakrat I recognize from our sojourn in Cugluch. The

| giant next to him must be, from the richness of attire and

‘servility of attendants, the Empress Skrritch.”


Alan Dean Foster

“Can you see what Eejakrat is doing?” inquired a worried


“He looks behind him at something I cannot see.”

“The dead mind!” Clothahump gazed helplessly at his

sheaf of formulae. “It is responsible for this new method of

fighting, these ‘tactics’ and ‘parachutes’ and such. It is telling

the Plated Folk how to fight. It means they have found a new

way to attack the wall.”

“It means rather more than that,” said Aveticus quietly.

Everyone turned to look at the marten. “It means they no

longer have to breach the Jo-Troom Gate….”



“Is it not clear?” he told them when no one responded.

“These ‘parachute’ things will enable them to drop thousands

of soldiers behind the Gate.” He looked grim and turned to a


“Assemble Elasmin, Toer, and Sleastic. Tell them they

must gather a large body of mobile troops. No matter how

bad the situation here grows these soldiers must remain ready

behind the Gate, watching for more of these falling troops.

They must watch only the sky, for, if we are not prepared,

these monsters will fall all over our own camp and all will be


The officer rushed away to convey that warning to the

warmlander general staff. Overhead, birds and riders were

holding their own against the dragonfly folk. But they were

fully occupied. If the beetles returned with more airborne

Plated Folk troops, the warmlander arboreals would be unable

to prevent them from falling on the underdefended camp.


Alan Dean Foster

Attacked from the front and from behind, the Jo-Troom Gate

would change from impregnable barrier to mass grave.

Once out on the open plains the Plated Folk army would be

able to engulf the remnants of the warmlander defenders. In

addition to superior numbers, which they’d always possessed,

the attackers now had the use of superior tactics. Eejakrat had

discovered the flexibility and imagination dozens of their

earlier assaults had lacked.

Not that it would matter soon, for the inexorable pressure

on the Gate’s defenders was beginning to tell. Now an

occasional Plated Folk warrior managed to surmount the

ramparts. Isolated pockets of fighting were beginning to

appear on the wall itself.

” ‘Ere now, wot d’you make o’ that, mate?” Mudge had

hold of Jon-Tom’s arm and was pointing northward.

On the plain below the foothills of Zaryt’s Teeth a thin dark

line was snaking rapidly toward the Gate.

Then a familiar form was scuttling through the nulling

soldiers. It wore light chain-mail top and bottom and a

strange helmet that left room for multiple eyes. Despite the

armor both otter and man identified the wearer instantly.

“Ananthos!” said Jon-Tom.

“yes.” The spider put four limbs on the wall and looked

outward. He ducked as a tiny club glanced off his cephalothorax.

“i hope sincerely we are not too late.”

Flor put aside her bow, exhausted. “I never thought I’d

ever be glad to greet a spider. Or that to my dying day I’d

ever be doing this, compadre.” She walked over and gave the

uncertain arachnid a brisk hug.

Disdaining the wall, the modest force of Weavers divided.

Then, utilizing multiple limbs, incredible agility, and built-in

climbing equipment, they scrambled up the sheer sides of the

Pass flanking the Gate. They suspended themselves there, out



of arrow range, and began firing down on the Plated Folk

clustered before the Gate.

This additional -firepower enabled the warmlanders on the

wall to concentrate on the ladders. Nets were spun and

dropped. Sticky, unbreakable silk cables entangled scores of

insect fighters.

Dragonflies and riders broke from the aerial combat to

swoop toward the new arrivals clinging to the bare rock. The

Weavers spun balls of sticky silk. These were whirled lariatlike

over their heads and flung at the diving fliers with incredible

accuracy. They glued themselves to wings or legs, and the

startled insects found themselves yanked right out of the sky.

Now the birds and bats began to make some progress

against their depleted aerial foe. There was a real hope that

they could now prevent any returning beetles from dropping

troops behind the Gate.

While that specific danger was thus greatly reduced, the

most important result of the arrival of the Weaver force was

the effect it had on the morale of the Plated Folk. Until now

all their new strategies and plans had worked perfectly. The

abrupt and utterly unexpected appearance of their solitary

ancient enemies and their obvious rapport with the warmlanders

was a devastating shock. The Weavers were the last people

the Plated Folk expected to find defending the Jo-Troom


Directing the Weavers’ actions from a position on the wall

by relaying orders and information, via tiny sprinting spiders

colored bright red, yellow and blue, was a bulbous black

form. The Grand Webmistress Oil was decked out in silver

armor and hundreds of feet of crimson and orange silk.

Once she waved a limb briskly toward Jon-Tom and his

companions. Perhaps she saw them, possibly she was only

giving a command.

The warmlanders, buoyed by the arrival of a once feared


Alan Dean Foster

but now welcomed new ally, fought with renewed strength.

The Plated Folk forces faltered, then redoubled their attack.

Weaver archers and retiarii wrought terrible destruction among

them, and the warmlander bowmen had easy targets helplessly

ensnared in sticky nets.

A new problem arose. There was a danger that the growing

mountain of corpses before the wall would soon be high

enough to eliminate the need for ladders.

All that night the battle continued by torchlight, with

fatigue-laden warmlanders and Weavers holding off the still

endless waves of Plated Folk. The insects fought until they

died and were walked on emotionlessly by their replacements.

It was after midnight when Caz woke Jen-Tom from an

uneasy sleep.

“Another cloud, my friend,” said the rabbit. His clothing

was torn and one ear was bleeding despite a thick bandage.

Wearily Jon-Tom gathered up his staff and a handful of

small spears and trotted alongside Caz toward the wall. “So

they’re going to try dropping troops behind us at night? I

wonder if our aerials have enough strength left to hold them


“I don’t know,” said Caz with concern. “That’s why I was

sent to get you. They want every strong spear thrower on the

wall to try and pick off any low fliers.”

In truth, the ranks of kilted fighters were badly thinned,

while the strength of their dragonfly opponents seemed nearly

the same as before. Only the presence of the Weavers kept the

arboreal battle equal.

But it was not a swarm of lumbering Plated Folk that flew

out of the moon. It was a sea of sulfurous yellow eyes. They

fell on the insect fliers with terrible force. Great claws

shredded membranous wings, beaks nipped away antennae

and skulls, while tiny swords cut with incredible skill.

It took a moment for Jon-Tom and his friends to identify



the new combatants, cloaked as they were by the concealing

night. It was the size of the great glowing eyes that soon gave

the answer.

“The Ironclouders,” Caz finally announced. “Bless my

soul but I never thought to see the like. Look at them wheel

and bank, will you? It’s no contest.”

The word was passed up and down the ranks. So entranced

were the warmlanders by the sight of these fighting legends

that some of them temporarily forgot their own defensive

tasks and thus were wounded or killed.

The inhabitants of the hematite were better equipped for

night fighting than any of the warmlanders save the few bats.

The previously unrelenting aerial assault of the Plated Folk

was shattered. Fragmented insect bodies began to fall from

the sky. The only reaction this grisly rain produced among the

warmlanders beneath it was morbid laughter.

By morning the destruction was nearly complete. What

remained of the Plated Folk aerial strength had retreated far

up the Pass.

A general council was held atop the wall. For the first time

in days the warmlanders were filled with optimism. Even the

suspicious Clothahump was forced to admit that the tide of

battle seemed to have turned.

“Could we not use these newfound friends as did the

Plated Folk?” one of the officers suggested. “Could we not

employ them to drop our own troops to the rear of the enemy


“Why stop there?” wondered one of the exhilarated bird

officers, a much-decorated hawk in light armor and violet and

red kilt. “Why not drop them in Cugluch itself? That would

panic them!”

“No,” said Aveticus carefully. “Our people are not pre-

pared for such an adventure, and despite their size I do not

think our owlish allies have the ability to carry more than a


Alan Dean Foster

single rider, even assuming they would consent to such a

\ proposition, which I do not think they would.

“But I do not think they would object to duplicating the

actions of the Plated Folk fliers in assailing opposing ground

forces. As our own can now do.”

So the orders went out from the staff to their own fliers and

thence to those from Ironcloud. It was agreed. Wearing dark

goggles to shield their sensitive eyes from the sun, the owls

and lemurs led the rejuvenated warmlander arboreals in dive

after dive upon the massed, confused ranks of the Plated Folk

army. The result was utter disorientation among the insect

soldiers. But they still refused to collapse, though the losses

they suffered were beginning to affect even so immense an


And when victory seemed all but won it was lost in a

single heartrending and completely unexpected noise. A sound

shocking and new to the warmlanders, who had never heard

anything quite like it before. It was equally shocking but not

new to Flor and Jon-Tom. Though not personally exposed to

it, they recognized quickly enough the devastating thunder of


As the dust began to settle among cries of pain and fear,

there came a second, deeper, more ominous rumble as the

entire left side of the Jo-Troom wall collapsed in a heap of

shattered masonry and stone. It brought the great wooden

gates down with it, supporting timbers splintering like fire-

crackers as they crashed to the ground.

“Diversion,” muttered Flor. “The aerial attack, the para-

chutists, the beetles… all a diversion. Bastardos; I should

have remembered my military history classes.”

Jon-Tom moved shakily to the edge of the wall. If they’d

been on the other side of the Gate they’d all be dead or

maimed now.

Small white shapes were beginning to emerge from the



ground in front of the ruined wall. Waving picks and short

swords they cut at the legs of startled warmlander soldiers.

Like the inhabitants of Ironcloud they too wore dark goggles

to protect them from the sunlight.

“Termites,” Jon-Tom murmured aloud, “and other insect

burrowers. But where did they get the explosives?”

“Little need to think on that, boy,” Clothahump said sadly.

“More of Eejakrat’s work. What did you call the packaged


“Explosives. Probably dynamite.”

“Or even gelignite,” added Flor with suppressed anger.

“That was an intense explosion.”

Sensing victory, the Plated Folk ignored the depradations of

the swooping arboreals overhead and swarmed forward. Nor

could the hectic casting of spears and nets by the Weavers

hold them back. Not with the wall, the fabled ancient bottle-

neck, tumbled to the earth like so many child’s blocks.

It must have taken an immense quantity of explosives to

undermine that massive wall. It was possible, Jon-Tom mused,

that the Plated burrowers had begun excavating their tunnel

weeks before the battle began.

Without the wall to hinder them they charged onward. By

sheer force of numbers they pushed back those who had

desperately rushed to defend the ruined barrier. Then they

were across, fighting on the other side of the Jo-Troom Gate

for the first time in recorded memory. Warmlander blood

stained its own land.

Jon-Tom turned helplessly to Clothahump. The Plated Folk

soldiers were ignoring the remaining section of wall and the

few arrows and spears that fell from its crest. The wizard

stood quietly, his gaze focused on the far end of the Pass and

not on the catastrophe below.

“Can’t you do something,” Jon-Tom pleaded with him.

“Bring fire and destruction down on them! Bring…”


Alan Dean Foster

Clothahump did not seem to be listening. He was looking

without eyes. “I almost have it,” he whispered to no one in

particular. “Almost can…” He broke off, turned to stare at


“Do you think conjuring up lightning and floods and fire is

merely a matter of snapping one’s fingers, boy? Haven’t you

learned anything about magic since you’ve been here?” He

turned his attention away again.

“Can almost… yes,” he said excitedly, “I can. I believe I

can see it now!” The enthusiasm faded. “No, I was wrong.

Too well screened by distortion spells. Eejakrat leaves noth-

ing to chance. Nothing.”

Jon-Tom turned away from the entranced wizard, swung

his duar around in front of him. His fingers played furiously

on the strings. But he could not think of a single appropriate

song to sing. His favorites were songs of love, of creativity

and relationships. He knew a few marches, and though he

sang with ample fervor nothing materialized to slow the

Plated Folk advance.

Then Mudge, sweaty and his fur streaked with dried blood,

was shaking him and pointing westward. “Wot the bloody

‘ell is that?” The otter was staring across the widening field

of battle.

“It sounds like…” said Caz confusedly. “I don’t know. A

rusty door hinge, perhaps. Or high voices. Many high voices.”

Then they could make out the source of the peculiar noise.

It was singing. Undisciplined, but strong, and it rose from a

motley horde of marchers nearing the foothills. They were

armed with pitchforks and makeshift spears, with scythes and

knives tied to broom handles, with woodcutters’ tools and

sharpened iron posts.

They flowed like a brown-gray wave over the milling

combatants, and wherever their numbers appeared the Plated

Folk were overwhelmed.



“Mice!” said Mudge, aghast. “Rats an’ shrews in there,

too. I don’t believe it. They’re not fighters. Wot be they doin’


“Fighting,” said Jon-Tom with satisfaction, “and damn

well, too, from the look of it.”

The rodent mob attacked with a ferocity that more than

compensated for their lack of training. The flow of clicking,

gleaming death from the Pass was blunted, then stopped. The

rodents fought with astonishing bravery, throwing themselves

onto larger opponents while others cut at warriors’ knees and


Sometimes three and four of the small wamilanders would

bring down a powerful insect by weight alone. Their make-

shift weapons broke and snapped. They resorted to rocks and

bare paws, whatever they could scavenge that would kill.

For a few moments the remnants of the warmlander forces

were as stunned by the unexpected assault as the Plated Polk.

They stared dumbfounded as the much maligned, oft-abused

rodents threw themselves into the fray. Then they resumed

fighting themselves, alongside heroic allies once held in

servitude and contempt.

Now if the wamilanders prevailed there would be perma-

nent changes in the social structure of Polastrindu and other

communities, Jon-Tom knew. At least one good thing would

come of this war.

He thought they were finished with surprises. But while he

selected targets below for the spears he was handed, yet

another one appeared.

In the midst of the battle a gout of flame brightened the

winter morning. There was another. It was almost asif… yes!

A familiar iridescent bulk loomed large above the combat-

ants, incinerating Plated Folk by the squadron.

“I’ll be damned!” he muttered. “It’s Falameezar!”

“But I thought he was through with us,” said Caz,


Alan Dean Poster

“You know this dragon?” Bribbens tended to a wounded

leg and eyed the distant fight with amazement. It was the first

time Jon-Tom had seen the frog’s demeanor change.

“We sure as hell do!” Jon-Tom told him joyfully. “Don’t

you see, Caz, it all adds up.”

“Pardon my ignorance, friend Jon-Tom, but the only

mathematics I’ve mastered involves dice and cards.”

“This army of the downtrodden, of the lowest mass of

workers. Who do you think organized them, persuaded them

to fight? Someone had to raise a cry among them, someone

had to convince them to fight for their rights as well as for

their land. And who would be more willing to do so, to

assume the mantle of leadership, than our innocent Marxist


“This is absurd.” Bribbens could still not quite believe it.

“Dragons do not fight with people. They are solitary, antiso-

cial creatures who…”

“Not this one,” Jon-Tom informed him assuredly. “If

anything, he’s too social. But I’m not going to argue his

philosophies now.”

Indeed, as the gleaming black and purple shape trudged

nearer they could hear the great dragon voice bellowing

encouragingly above the noise of battle.

“Onward downtrodden masses! Workers arise! Down with

the invading imperialist warmongers!”

Yes, that was Falameezar and none other. The dragon was

in his sociological element. In between thundering favorite

Marxist homilies he would incinerate a dozen terrified insect

warriors or squash a couple beneath massive clawed feet.

Around him swirled a bedraggled mob of tiny furry support-

ers like an armada of fighter craft protecting a dreadnought.

The legions of Plated Folk seemed endless. But now that

the surprise engendered by the destruction of the wall had

passed, their offensive began to falter. The arrival of what



amounted to a second warmlander army, as ferocious if not as

well trained as the original, started to turn the tide.

Meanwhile the Weavers and fliers from h-oncloud contin-

ued to cause havoc among the packed ranks of warriors trying

to squeeze through the section of ruined wall to reach the

open plain where their numbers could be a factor. The

diminutive lemur bowmen fired and fired until their drawstring

fingers were bloody.

When the fall came it was not in a great surge of panic. A

steady withering of purpose and determination ate through

the ranks of the Plated Folk. In clusters, and individually, they

lost their will to fight on. A vast sigh of discouragement

rippled through the whole exhausted army.

Sensing it, the warmlanders redoubled then- efforts. Still

fighting, but with intensity seeping away from them, the

Plated Folk were gradually pressed back. The plain was

cleared, and then the destroyed section of wall. The battle

moved once again back into the confines of the Pass. Insect

officers raged and threatened, but they could do nothing to

stop the steady slow leak of desire that bled their soldiers’

will to fight.

Jon-Tom had stopped throwing spears. His arm throbbed

with the efforts of the past several days. The conflict had

retreated steadily up the Pass, and the Plated combatants were

out of range now. He was cheering tiredly when a han6

clamped on his arm so forcefully that he winced. He lookeo

around. It was Clothahump. The wizard’s grip was anything

but that of an oldster.

“By the periodic table, I can see it now!”

“See what?”

“The deadmind.” Clothahump’s tone held a peculiar mix-

ture of confusion and excitement. “The deadmind. It is not in

a body.”


Alan Dean Foster

“You mean the brain itself s been extracted?” The image

was gruesome.

“No. It is scattered about, in several containers of differing


Jon-Tom’s mind shunted aside the instinctive vision and

produced only a blank from the wizard’s description. Flor

listened intently.

“It talks to Eejakrat,” Clothahump continued, “his voice far

away, distant, “in words I can’t understand.”

“Several containers.. .the mind is several minds?” Jon-

Tom struggled to make sense of a seeming impossibility.

“No, no. It is one mind that has been split into many


“What does it look like? You said containers. Can you be

more specific?” Flor asked him.

“Not really. The containers are mostly rectangular, but not

all. One inscribes words on a scroll, symbols and magic

terms I do not recognize.” He winced with the strain of

focusing senses his companions did not possess.

“There are symbols over all the containers as well, though

they mostly differ from those appearing on the scroll. The

mind also makes a strange noise, like talking that is not. I can

read some of the symbols… it is strangely inscribed. It

changes as I look at it.” He stopped.

Jon-Tom urged him on. “What is it? What’s happening?”

Clothahump’s face was filled with pain. Sweat poured

down his face into his shell. Jon-Tom didn’t know that a turtle

could sweat. Everything indicated that the wizard was expending

a massive effort not only to continue to see but to understand.

“Eejakrat… Eejakrat sees the failure of the attack.” He

swayed, and Jon-Tom and Flor had to support him or he

would have fallen. “He works a last magic, a final conjura-

tion. He has… has delved deep within the deadmind for its

most powerful manifestation. It has given him the formula he



ds. Now he is giving orders to his assistants. They are

ringing materials from the store of sorceral supplies. Skrritch

watches, she will kill him if he fails. Eejakrat promises her

the battle will be won. The materials… I recognize some.

No, many. But I do not understand the formula given, the

purpose. The purpose is to… to…” He turned a frightened

face upward. Jon-Tom shivered. He’d never before seen the

wizard frightened. Not when confronted by the Massawrafh,

not when crossing Helldrink.

But he was more than frightened now. He was terrified.

“Must stop it!” he mumbled. “Got to stop him from

completing the formula. Even Eejakrat does not understand

what he does. But he… I see it clearly… he is desperate.

He will try anything. I do not think… do not think he can


“What’s the formula?” Flor pressed him.

“Complex … can’t understand…”

“Well then, the symbols you read on the deadmind

I containers.”

“Can read them now, yes… but can’t understand…”

“Try. Repeat them, anyway.”

Clothahump went silent, and for a moment the two humans

I were afraid he wouldn’t speak again. But Jon-Tom finally

managed to shake him into coherence.

“Symbols… symbols say, ‘Property.’ ”

“That’s all?” Flor said puzzledly. “Just ‘property’?”

“No… there is more. Property… property restricted ac-

cess. U.S. Army Intelligence.”

Flor looked over at Jon-Tom. “That explains everything;

the parachutes, the tactics, the formula for the explosives to

undermine the wall, maybe the technique for doing it as well.

Los insectos have gotten hold of a military computer.”

“That’s why Clothahump tried to find an engineer to

combat Eejakrat’s ‘new magic,’ ” Jon-Tom muttered. “And


Alan Dean Foster

he got me instead. And you.” He gazed helplessly at her.

“What are we going to do? I don’t know anything about


“I know a little, but it’s not a matter of knowing anything

about computers. Machine, man or insect, it has to be

destroyed before Eejakrat can finish his new formula.”

“What the fuck could that devil have dug out of its

electronic guts?” He looked back down at Clothahump.

“Don’t understand…” murmured the wizard. “Beyond

my ken. But Eejakrat knows how to comply. It worries him,

but he proceeds. He knows if he does not the war is lost.”

“Someone’s got to get over there and destroy the computer

and its mentor,” Jon-Tom said decisively. He called to the

rest of their companions.

Mudge and Caz ambled over curiously. So did Bribbens,

and Pog fluttered close from his perch near the back of the

wall. Hastily, Jon-Tom told them what had to be done.

“Wot about the Ironclouders, wot?” Mudge indicated the

diving shapes of the great owls working their death up the

Pass. “I don’t think they’d ‘old you, mate, but I ought to be

able to ride one.”

“I could go myself, boss.” Clothahump turned a startled

gaze on the unexpectedly daring famulus.

“No. Not you, Pog, nor you, otter. You would never make

it, I fear. Hundreds of bowmen, a royal guard of the

Greendowns’ most skilled archers, surround Eejakrat and the

Empress. You could not get within a quarter league of the

deadmind. Even if you could, what would you destroy it

with? It is made of metal. You cannot shoot an arrow through

it. And there may be disciples of Eejakrat who could draw

upon its evil knowledge in event of his death.”

“We need a plane,” Jon-Tom told them. “A Huey or some

other attack copter, with rockets.”

Clothahump looked blankly at him. “I know not what you



describe, spellsinger, but by the heavens if you can do

anything you must try.”

Jon-Tom licked his lips. The Who, J. Geils, Dylan: none

sang much about war and its components. But he had to try

something. He didn’t know the Air Force song….

“Try something, Jon-Tom,” Flor urged him. “We don’t

have much time.”

Time. Time’s getting away from us. There’s your cue,

man. Get there first. Worry about how to destroy the thing


Trying to shut the sounds of fighting out of his thoughts, he

ran his fingers a couple of times across the duar’s strings. The

instrument had been nicked and battered by arrows and

spears, but it was still playable. He struggled to recall the

melody. It was simple, smooth, a Steve Miller hallmark. A

few adjustments to the duar’s controls. It had to work. He

turned tremble and mass all the way up. Dangerous, but

whatever materialized had to carry him high above the com-

bat, all the way to me end of the Pass.

Anyway, Clothahump’s urgency indicated that there was

little time left now either for finesse or fine tuning.

Just get me to that computer, he thought furiously. Just get

me there safely and I’ll find some way to destroy it. Even

pulling a few wires would do it. Eejakrat couldn’t repair the

damage with magic … could he?

And if he was killed and the attempt a failure, what did it

matter? Talea was dead and so was much of himself. Yes, that

was the answer. Crash whatever carries you and yourself into

the computer. That should do it.

Time was the first crucial element. Though he did not

know it, he was soon to leam the other.

Time… that was the key. He needed to move fast and he

didn’t have time to fool with machines that might or might


Alan Dean Poster

not work, might or might not appear. Time and flight. What

song could possibly fill the need?

Wait a minute! There was something about time and flight

slipping, slipping into the future.

His fingers began to fly over the strings as he threw back

his head and began to sing with more strength than ever he

had before.

There was a tearing sound in the sky, and his nostrils were

filled with the odor of ozone. It was coming! Whatever he’d

called up. If not the sung-for huge bird, perhaps the British

fighter nicknamed the Eagle, bristling with rockets and rapid-

fire cannon. Anything to get him into the air.

He sang till his throat hurt, his fingers a blur above the

strings. Reverberant waves of sound emerged from the quivering

duar and the air vibrated in sympathy.

A deep-throated crackling split the sky overhead, a sound

no kin to any earthly thunder. It seemed the sun had drawn

back to hide behind the clouds. The fighting did not stop, but

warmlander and insect alike slowed their pace. That ominous

rumble echoed down the walls of the Pass. Something ex-

traordinary was happening.

Vast wings that were of starry gases filled the air. The

winter day turned warm with a sudden eruption of heat. Hot

air blew Ion-Tom against the rampart behind him and nearly

over, while his companions scrambled for something solid to

cling to.

Atop the wall the remaining warmlander defenders scattered

in terror. On the cliffsides the Weavers scuttled for hiding

places in the crevices and crannies as a monstrous fiery form

came near. It touched down on the mountainside where the

remaining half of the wall was worked into the naked rock,

and twenty feet of granite melted and ran like syrup.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!” roared a voice that could raise a

sunspot. The remaining stones of the wall trembled, as did



the cells of those still standing atop it. “WHAT HAVE YOU


“I…” Jon-Tom could only gape. He had not materialized

the plane he’d wished for or the eagle he’d sung to. He had

called up something best left undisturbed, interrupted a jour-

ney measurable in billions of years. It was all he could do to

gaze back into those vast, infinite eyes, as M’nemaxa, barely

touching the melting rock, fanned thermonuclear wings and

glared down at him.

“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to gasp out, “I was only


“LOOK TO MY BACK!” bellowed the sun horse.

Jon-Tom hesitated, then took a cautious step forward and

craned his neck. Squinting through the glare, he made out a

dark metallic shape that looked suspiciously like a saddle. It

was very small and lost on that great flaming curve of a spine.

“I don’t… what does this mean?” he asked humbly.








“But I don’t know what I did, and I don’t know how I did

it,” Jon-Tom told him softly.









Alan Dean Foster



Jon-Tom hesitated. But eager hands were already -urging

him toward the equine inferno.

“Go on, Jon-Tom,” said Caz encouragingly.

“Yes, go on. It must be the spellsong magic that’s protect-

ing us,” said Hor, “or the radiation and heat would have

fried all of us by now.”

“But that little lead saddle, Hor…”

“The magic, Jon-Tom, the magic. The magic’s in the

music and the music’s in you. Do it!”

It was Clothahump who finally convinced him. “It is all or

nothing now, my boy. We live or we die on what you do. This

is between you and Eejakrat.”

“I wish it wasn’t. I wish to God I was home. I wish.. .ahhh,

fuck it. Let’s go!”

He could not see a barrier shielding the streaming nuclear

material that was the substance of M’nemaxa, but one had to

be present, as Hor had so incontrovertibly pointed out. He

cradled the battered duar against his chest. That barrier had

momentarily lapsed when M’nemaxa had touched down, and

a thousand tons of solid rock had run like butter. If it lapsed

again, there would not even be ashes left of him.

A series of stirrups led to the saddle, which was much

larger up close than it had appeared from a distance. He

mounted carefully, feeling neither heat nor pain but watching

fascinated as tiny solar prominences erupted from M’nemaxa’s

epidermis only inches from his puny human skin.

It was little different in the saddle, though he could feel

some slight heat against his face and hands.

“Just a minim, guv’,” said a voice. A small gray shape

had bounded into the saddle behind him.

“Mudge? It’s not necessary. Either I’ll make it or I




“Shove it, mate. I’ve been watchin’ you ever since you

stuck your nose int’ me business. You don’t think I could let

you go off on your own now, do you? Somebody’s got t’

watch out for you. This great flippin’ flamin’ beastie can’t be

‘urt, but a good archer might pick you off ‘is back like a

farmer pluckin’ a bloomin’ apple.” He notched an arrow into

his bowstring and grinned beneath his whiskers.

Jon-Tom couldn’t think of anything else to say: “Thanks,

Mudge. Mate.’i”

“Thank me when we get back. I’ve always wanted t’ ride a

comet, wot? Let’s be about the business, then.”

The serpentine fiery neck arched, and the great head with

its bottomless eyes stared back at them. “COMMAND, MAN!”

“I don’t know…” Mudge was prodding him in the ribs.

“Shit… giddy up! To Eejakrat!”

Whether the message was conveyed by the word or the

mental imagery connected with it no one knew. It didn’t

matter. The vast wings seared the earth and a warm hurricane

blasted those who were beneath. Those wings stretched from

one side of the canyon to the other, and the honclouders,

seeing it race toward mem, scattered like gnats.

A swarm of dragonfly fighters rose to meet them, the

Empress’ private aerial guard. They attacked with the mind-

less but admirable courage of their kind.

Mudge’s bow began its work. The soldiers riding me

dragonflies fell from their mounts and none of their arrows

reached the sun riders. Those that were launched impacted on

me body or wings or neck of M’nemaxa and were vaporized

with the briefest of sizzling sounds.

“Hy past them!” Jon-Tom ordered. “Down, over there!”

He gestured toward the blunt butte rising fingeriike near the

rear of the Pass. Beyond lay the mists of the Greendowns.

Jon-Tom’s attention shifted to concentrate on a single

figure standing before a pile of materials and a semicircle of


Alan Dean Foster

metal forms. Dragonflies and riders tried to break through to

do battle with swords, but wings and hooves touched them,

and their charred remnants fell earthward like so many sizzling

lumps of smoking charcoal.

The imperial bodyguard sent a storm of arrows upward.

Not one passed the belly of that flaming body. Jon-Tom was

watching Eejakrat. He held his own spear-staff tightly, ready

to pierce the sorcerer through.

Then his attention was diverted. In the air above the

computer floated two faintly glowing pieces of stone. They

were so tiny he noticed them only because of their glow.

Behind the sorcerer danced the fearful, iridescent green shape

of the Empress Skrritch.

What devastating magic so terrified the imperturbable

Clothahump? What was Eejakrat about to risk in hopes of

winning a lost war?

“Down,” he ordered M’nemaxa. “Down to the one

surrounded by maggots and evil, down to destroy!”

A whispery sorceral mumbling, rapid and desperate, sounded

from the crest of the butte. Eejakrat had panicked. He was

rushing the incantation, as others had done before him,

though he knew nothing of them. The two glowing shards of

stone moved through the air toward the onrushing spirit fire

and its mortal riders, and toward each other. Stones and spirit

would meet at the same point in the sky.

They were no more than fifty yards from it and as many

more from the butte’s summit when M’nemaxa suddenly gave

forth a thunderous whinny. The infinite eyes glowed more

brightly than the stones as the two came almost together a

couple of yards in front of them.

There was a faint, hopeless scream from Eejakrat below, a

desperate croaking Jon-Tom deciphered: “Not yet… too near,

too close, not yet!”



Then the world was spinning farther and farther below

them like a flower caught in a whirlpool.

Gone was the Troom Pass. So too was the butte where

Eejakrat had gesticulated frantically before the Empress Skrritch.

So were the milling mob of Plated Folk plunging to war and

the insistent battle cries of the warmlanders.

Gone were the mists of the distant Greendowns and noi-

some distant Cugluch, gone too the mountain crags that

towered above insignificant warriors. Soon the blue sky itself

vanished behind them.

They still rode the spine of the furiously galloping M’nemaxa,

but they rode now through the emptiness of convergent

eternity. Stars gleamed bright as morning around them,

unwinking and cold and so close it seemed you could reach

out and touch them.

You could touch them. Jon-Tom reached out slowly and

plucked a red giant from its place in the heavens. It was warm

in his palm and shone like a ruby. He cast it spinning back’

free into space. A black hole slid past his left foot and he

pulled away. It was like quicksand. He inhaled a nebula,

which made him sneeze. Behind him Mudge the otter seemed

a distant, diffuse shape in the stars.

He breathed infinity. The wings and hooves of M’nemaxa

moved in slow motion. A swarm of motile, luminescent dots

gathered around the runners, millions of lights pricking the

blackness. They danced and swirled around the great horse

and its riders.

Where the world had no meaning and natural law was

absent, these too finally became real. Gneechees, Jon-Tom

thought ponderously. Only now I can see them, I can see


Some were people, some animals, others unrecognizable;

the afterthoughts, the memories, the souls and shadows of all


Alan Dean Foster

intelligent life. They were all the colors of the rainbow, a

spectrum filled with life, both mysterious and familiar.

He began to recognize some of the forms and faces. He

saw Einstein, he saw his own grandfather. He saw the moving

lips of now dead singers he had loved, and it was as if their

music swelled around him in the ultimate concert. He noted

that the faces he saw were not old, and showed no trace of

death or suffering. In fact the famous physicist’s eyes glittered

like a child’s. Einstein had his violin with him. Hendrix was

there, too, and they played a duet, and both smiled at Jon-Tom.

Then he saw a face he knew well, a face full of fire and

light. He concentrated on that face with all his strength,

trying to pull it into his brain through his eyes. The face was

distinct and warm; it seemed to float toward him instinctively.

His whole being glowed with love as it neared him, and

suddenly when it touched his lip a flame ignited inside him

and he almost lost his seat. It was the Talea gneechee, he

knew, and he surrounded it with his entire will.

“We must go back. Now!” he roared at the fiery stallion.



What song? Jon-Tom thought. There seemed no music

equal to the immensity of space and stars all around him.

Every song he had ever heard dried up on his tongue.

The Talea gneechee seemed to stir someplace deep inside

him, and he looked out at the cold blue distance ahead. It was

time to go back where he belonged. He couldn’t be specific,

but he suddenly had a real sense of where he belonged in life

and he knew he could get there.

His mouth opened and his fingertips caressed the duar. A

new sound rose, a new voice came both from the duar and

from his mouth, and though he had never heard it before he

knew it was, finally, his true voice.

Stars spun faster around him, the universe seemed wrenched



for an instant. His head throbbed and his throat burned with

the strange wordless song that poured from him like a river a

million times stronger than any earthly river.

Now blue sky hurried toward them, then the snowy caps of

mountains. The boundary was back—the luscious, palpable

limit of existence. He felt more alive than he had ever in his


“Cor, wot a friggin’ ride!” Mudge’s joyous voice came

from behind him.

“Love you, Mudge!” screamed Jon-Tom, ecstatic to hear

that familiar sound.

“You’re crazy—where the ‘ell we been?”

Everywhere, Jon-Tom thought, but there was no way to say








“Wot’s ‘e talkin’ about, guv’nor?”

“Eejakrat’s magic, Mudge. Clothahump knew mat they

could not control it, and it has created devastation so utter

that even M’nemaxa had to detour around it. It’s happened

before, but in my world. Not here. Look.”

The mushroom cloud that billowed skyward from the far

end of the Troom Pass was not large, but it was considerably

darker and denser than any of the mists behind it.

Below them now the last of the Plated Folk army, those

who’d been lucky enough to be trapped in the middle of the

Pass, were surrendering, turning over their weapons and

going down on all sixes to plead for mercy.

Beneath the now fading mushroom cloud that marked the

failure of Eejakrat’s imported magic, me butte he’d stood


Alan Dean Poster

upon had vanished. In its place there was only an empty,

radioactive crater. The bomb Eejakrat had been in the process

of creating had been a relatively clean one. What remained

would serve as a warning to future generations of Plated Folk.

It would block the Pass far more effectively than had the

Jo-Troom Gate.

Raming wings slowed. Mudge was deposited gently back

on top of the wall. Jon-Tom thanked the flaming being but

would not return with him.

“THREE MILLION YEARS!” M’nemaxa boomed, his neighing

shaking boulders from the cliffsides of the canyon.



The vast fiery form rose into the air. There was an

earsplitting explosion that rent the fabric of space-time. The

gap closed quickly and M’nemaxa had gone, gone back to

resume his now truncated journey, gone back to the every-

where otherplace.

Bodies, furred and otherwise, swarmed around the returnees—

Caz, Flor, Bribbens holding his bandaged right arm where

he’d taken a sword thrust. Pog fluttered excitedly overhead,

and warmlander soldiers mixed queries with congratulations.

The battle had ended, the war was over. Those Plated Folk

who had not perished in the modest thermonuclear explosion

at the far end of the Pass were being herded into makeshift


Jon-Tom was embarrassed and nervous, but Mudge glowed

like M’nemaxa himself from me adjulation of the crowd.

When the excitement had died down and the soldiers had

gone to join their companions below, Clothahump managed to

make his way up to Jon-Tom.

“You did well, my boy, well! I’m quite proud of you.” He

smiled as much as he could. “We’ll make a wizard of you



yet. If you can only leam to be a bit more specific and precise

in your formulations.”

“I’m learning,” Jon-Tom admitted without smiling back.

“One of the things I’ve learned is to pay attention to what lies

behind a person’s words.” He and the wizard stared into each

other’s eyes, and neither gave ground.

“I did what I had to do, boy. I’d do it again.”

“I know you would. I can’t blame you for it anymore, but

I can’t like you for it, either.”

“As you will, Jon-Tom,” said the wizard. He looked past

the man and his eyes widened. “Though it may be that you

condemn me too quickly.”

Jon-Tom turned. A petite, slightly baffled redhead was

walking toward them. He could only stare.

“Hello,” Talea said, smiling slightly. “I must have been

unconscious for days.”

“You’ve been dead,” said a flabbergasted Mudge.

“Oh cut it out. I had the strangest dream.” She looked

down at the canyon. “Missed all the fighting, I see.”

“I saw you.. .out there,” Jon-Tom said dazedly. “Or a

part of you. It came to me and I knew it was you.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” she said sharply. “All I

know is that I woke up in a tent surrounded by corpses. It

scared the shit out of me.” She chuckled. “Did worse to the

attendants. Bet they haven’t stopped running.

“Then I asked around for you and got directions. Is it true

what everyone’s saying about you and M’nemaxa and…”

“Everything’s true, nothing’s false,” Jon-Tom said. “Not

anymore. Whatever entered me I sent back to you, but it

doesn’t matter. What is is what matters, and what is, is you.”

“You’ve gotten awfully obscure all of a sudden, Jon-


He put his hands on her shoulders. “I suppose we have to

stay together now.” He smiled shyly, not able to explain what


Alan Dean Foster

had happened in Elsewhere. She looked blank. “Don’t you re-

member what you said to me back in Cugluch?” he asked.

She frowned at him. “I don’t know what you’re talking

about, but that’s nothing new, is it? You always did talk too

much. But you’re wrong about one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I do remember what I said back in Cugluch,” and she

proceeded to give him the deepest, longest, richest kiss he’d

ever experienced.

Eventually she let him go. Or was it the other way around?

No matter.

Caz and Hor sat on the ramparts nearby, hand in paw.

Jon-Tom shook his head, wondering at that blindness that

conceals what is most obvious. Bribbens had disappeared,

doubtless to make arrangements for reaching the nearest river.

Falameezar was able to help the boatman with that, being a

river dragon. That is, he was when he wasn’t too busy

reeducating his rodent charges about their responsibilities and

rights as members of the downtrodden proletariat. Clothahump

had gone off to discuss the matters of magic with the other

warmlander wizards.

“What now, Jon-Tom?” Talea looked at him anxiously. “I

guess now that you’ve mastered your spellsinging you’ll be

returning to your own world?”

“I don’t know.” He studied the masonry underfoot. “I’m

not so sure you could say I’ve mastered spellsinging.” He

plucked ruefully at the duar. “I always seem to get what I

need, not what I want. That’s nice, but not necessarily


“And for some reason being a rock star or a lawyer doesn’t

seem to hold the attraction it once did. I guess you could say

I’ve had my horizons somewhat expanded.” Like to include

infinity, he told himself.



She nodded knowingly. “You’ve grown up some, Jon-


He shrugged. “If experiences can age you, I ought to be

the equivalent of Methuselah by now.”

“I’ll see what I can do about keeping you young….” She

ran fingers through his hair. “Does that mean you’ll be

staying?” She added quietly, “With me, maybe? If you can

stand me, that is.”

“I’ve never known a woman like you, Talea.”

“That’s because there aren’t any women like me, idiot.”

She moved to kiss him again. He edged away from her,

preoccupied with a new thought.

“What’s the matter? Not coy enough for you?”

“Nothing like that. I just remembered something that’s

been left undone, something that I promised myself I’d try to

do if given the chance.”

They found Pog hanging from a spear rack in the middle of

the remaining wall. The warmlanders were beginning to

disperse, those not remaining behind to guard the Plated Folk

forming into their respective companies and battalions pre-

paratory to beginning the long march home. Some were

already on their way, too tired or filled with memories of dead

companions to sing victory songs. They were traveling west

toward Polastrindu or southward to where the river Tailaroam

tumbled fresh and clear from the flanks of the Teeth.

The sun was setting over the fringes of the Swordsward.

The poisonous silhouette of the mushroom cloud had long

since been carried away by the wind. Their kilts flashing as

brightly as their wings, squads of aerial warmlanders in

arrowhead formations were winging back toward their home

roosts. A distant line of silk-clad shapes showed where the

Weavers were wending their way northward along the foot-

hills, and a dark mass was just disappearing over the northern

crest of the mountains in the direction of fabled h-oncloud.

“Hello, Pog.”


Alan Dean Foster

“Hi, spellsinger,” The bat’s voice was subdued, but Jon-

Tom no longer had to ask why. “Some job ya did. I’m proud

ta call ya my friend.”

Jon-Tom sat down on a low bench near the spear rack.

“Why aren’t you out there celebrating with the rest of the


“I attend to da needs of my master, you know dat. I wait

for his woid on what ta do next.”

“You’re a good apprentice, Pog. I hope I can leam as well

as you.”

“What’s dat supposed ta mean?” The upside-down face

turned to stare curiously at him.

“I’m hoping that Clothahump will accept me as an appren-

tice wizard.” The duar rested in his lap and he strummed it

experimentally. “Magic seems to be the only thing I have any

talent for hereabouts. I’d damn well better leam how to

discipline it before I kill myself. I’ve just been lucky so far.”

“Da master, da old fart-face, says dere’s no such ting as


“I know, I know.” He was slowly picking out a tune on the

duar. “But I’m going to have to work like hell if I’m going to

attain half the wisdom of that senile little turtle.” He started

to hum the song that had come to him back in the tent on that

day of fury not long ago, when a certain famulus had been

thoughtful enough to comfort him and lay down the life laws.

“I appreciated what you said to me that time in the tent,

when I came out of the stupor Clothahump was forced to put

me into. You see, Pog, Clothahump cared about me because

he knew I might be able to help him. Caz and Ror and

Bribbens cared about me because we were dependent on one


“But the only ones who cared about me personally, really

cared, turned out to be Talea, and you. We’ve got a lot in

common, you and I. A hell of a lot in common. I never saw it



before because I couldn’t. You were right about love, of

course. I thought I wanted Hor.” Talea said nothing. “What I

,really wanted was someone to want me. That’s all I’ve ever

jwanted. I know that’s what you want, too.”

( Now he began to sing out, loud and clear. Suddenly there

was a shimmering in the air around the bat. It was evening

now, and the wall was growing dark. Camp fires were

beginning to spring up on the plain where Plated Folk and

wannlander for the first time in thousands of years were

beginning to talk to one another.

“Hey, what’s going on?” The bat dropped from his perch,

righted himself, and flapped nervous wings.

The bat shape was flowing, shifting in the evening air.

“That was my falcon song, Pog. I’ve got to get my

spellsinging specific, Clothahump says. So I’m giving you

the transformation you wanted from him.”

Talea clung tight to Jon-Tom’s arm, watching. “He’s

changing, Jon-Tom.”

“It’s what he wants,” he told her softly, also watching the

transformation. “He gave me understanding when I needed it

most. This is what I’m giving in return. The song I just sang

should turn him into the biggest, sleekest falcon that ever

split a cloud.”

But the shape wasn’t right. It was all wrong. It continued

to change and glow as Jon-Tom’s expression widened in


“Oh God. I should’ve waited. I should’ve held off and

waited for Clothahump’s advice. I’m sorry, Pog!” he yelled

at the indistinct, alien outline.

“Wait,” said Talea gently. Her grip tightened on his arm

and she leaned into him. “True, it’s no falcon he’s becoming.

But look—it’s incredible!”

The metamorphosis was complete, finished, irrevocable.


Alan Dean Foster

“Never mind, never mind, never mind!” sang (fae trans-

formed thing that had been Pog the bat. The voice was all

quicksilver and light. “Never mind, friend Talea. Be true to

Clothahump, Jon-Tom. You’ll get a wing on it, you will.”

A flock of fighters, eagles perhaps, crossed the darkling

sky from east to west. A few falcons were scattered among

them. Perhaps one was Uleimee.

“Meanwhile you’ve made me very happy,” Pog-that-once-

was assured the spellsinger.

Jon-Tom realized he’d been holding his breath. The trans-

formation had stunned him. Talea called to him softly and he

turned and found her waiting arms.

Above them the change which had been Pog searched with

keen eyes among the winged shapes soaring toward the

distant reaches of the warmlands. It saw a particular female

falcon emerging with others of her kind from a thick cloud,

saw with eyes far sharper than those of any bat, or owl, or


Leaving the two humans to their own destinies, and rising

on suddenly massive wings, the golden phoenix raced for that

distant cloud, the sun setting on its back like a rare jewel.

Categories: Alan Dean Foster