The Gods of the Gift
by Art Rosch ã 2010
“Do stars, like mothers, feel love for the life they give? Do they feel a million years of grief when one of their neighbors goes nova or fades into a brown dwarf at the end of its fusion life?
We have seen that consciousness follows complexity. We recognize a sufficient number of features in the actions of a star to suggest it to be at least as complex as a human brain. Stars spin, expand, contract, granulate, pulsate, generate magnetic and sonic fields of incredible diversity, and emit winds that might echo the power of adoration that flows between lovers, or between mother and child. We know nothing of stars’ relations to one another.
Their consciousness is simply too large to comprehend.”
from Starwinds, by Latif el Rashid
“If you don’t know what you’re feelin’, man, then you sure as hell don’t know what you’re doing.”
Twangy Pete, guitarist from The Dreadful Great, famous Jerk n’ Jell band
Chapter One:There Are No Miracles
When he was nine years old Garuvel Nep Zimrin discovered that he could disappear. He made this discovery as he was sitting in a gazebo hiding from his bodyguards. The quaint white structure was at the bottom of an immense sloping lawn, screened from The Great House by a stand of slender evergreens.
Garuvel sat on the structure's wooden floor, beneath the line of the railing, where he couldn't be seen. As Firstborn of a Great House he was supposedly a target for kidnappers. So far as he knew, there had never been a plot to take him, nor any threat to his safety. All the same, he was constantly watched by a contingent of bodyguards. . He hated those damned bodyguards, especially Shreep. Shreep The Creep he called him; there was something really wrong with that fat pig and he didn't understand how such a person could get the job of bodyguard for a piece of toast much less the Firstborn of a Great House.
Thinking about Shreep led him to another line of thought. He had worked it out over the last few weeks and was now admitting some hard truths. His bodyguards were incompetent layabouts. Every one of them was someone's second cousin or one of The Baron's card-playing friends' bastards. He had finally understood that the surveillance was a sham. His father, The Baron, was all but inviting the kidnapping of his firstborn. When that happened, and it would be sooner rather than later, Garuvel's father would suddenly be short of funds. The Baron would run around with great noise and fury, acting the role of a bereft parent.
"Oh Gods!" the Baron would cry, "They want two million zirks by tomorrow evening! I can't raise that kind of money so quickly! Oh Gods Oh Gods! What will I do? None of the other Magnates will lend me that kind of cash!"
What a deadly joke! Garuvel had worked out the facts of life. His younger brother, Verleth, was the Baron's favorite. He, Garuvel, was a thorn in his father's side. He had no ambition to run an interplanetary corporation. He had no aptitude for strapping on battle gear to wipe out aboriginals whose land might contain a deposit of Genzite. Verleth was a much better choice as a future magnate and warlord. He could have it, for all Garuvel cared. He was welcome to the legacy of The Firstborn. If he could, Garuvel would just give it to his brother.
It wasn't so simple. So long as he was alive, the legacy wasn't his to give.
It was an ancient rock-hewn tradition that the Firstborn became Magnate, inherited the leadership of his Great House. Garuvel had to be eliminated carefully. No suspicion could ever splash back to taint Verleth. Otherwise brothers would start killing brothers all over the planet.
Garuvel watched the little finches that nested in the stately evergreen spires. They landed and disappeared, twittering inside the moist branches. On the upper branches there loomed a flock of black-feathered zilfs, waiting for a chance to grab a chick.
Garuvel found a few small rocks in the gravel walk surrounding the gazebo. He threw them to disperse the zilfs. They flapped off in outrage, shouting "Wock! Wock! Wock!"
He admired the finches. They banded together to prevent zilfs from stealing and eating their young. They worked as a team, decoying, confusing, mobbing the zilfs with their agile bodies.
Garuvel had no such system of defense. With the exception of his mother, his kin seemed bent on pushing him out of the nest so that Verleth could accede to the position of Firstborn.
Garuvel's desire for privacy reached a level of obsession when there was trouble with his family. Lately it seemed that there was always trouble with his family. In this instance he was vexed by one of his brother's pranks. Verleth had trapped two cats in one of the estate’s outbuildings and put them into a burlap sack filled with white flour. He threw the sack into the stall where Garuvel’s horse was calmly chewing its sprouts. The horse kicked the stall’s gate in terror and escaped. The crazed animal trampled across the Number One tee pad on the Holes Course, just as the Baron raised his club over his shoulder. The horse ruined both the tee pad and the stroke.
Not being a tattler, Garuvel refused to shift the blame when the furious Baron confronted his sons. Verleth’s eyes gleamed with malice and his mocking smile made Garuvel’s fists curl with rage .
"No poetry for two weeks!" Baron Hatlath Or Zimrin pronounced Garuvel's punishment. "If I catch you with a book of poetry I'll take away all your books and then what will you do with your wretched life? Hmm?"
His father knew how to hurt him. When he was dismissed Garuvel fled from the high-gabled library. His face worked with the effort of holding back his tears. He lowered his head, almost touching his breastbone with his chin, to hide his feelings. His father always said the same things: “Why aren’t you more like Verleth? Why was I cursed with such a pathetic Firstborn”?
He retreated to the gazebo to nurse his frustration. Garuvel passed through the trees and walked up the steps. He sat and looked out through the painted white slats. As he recalled his father’s acid words, he spoke aloud, wistfully. His imagination was conjuring a fantasy, a daydream.
He said, “Sometimes I wish I could just disappear.”
Then he completely disappeared. He could not see himself from the neck down. Maybe his head floated in space, but he looked into a puddle on the floor of the gazebo and nothing looked back at him.
His hands went to his face, and he felt his ears, nose and mouth. He looked down at himself and there was nothing to see: no clothes, torso, legs, feet, nothing. He became disoriented. Then, as his fear mounted, he felt his heart beating in his rib cage, and the terror was oddly comforting because it let him know that he was still in his body, still connected to his consciousness. He was so nauseous that a sudden jet of vomit appeared as if from nowhere, arching across the gazebo and splattering on the wooden platform. He might be invisible, but his puke was not.
He thought, “I can’t be invisible, it’s not possible.” He cleared his mouth with a bit of saliva and spoke the words aloud, to ascertain that he still had a voice. He instantly re-appeared. He was shaking and his knees felt weak.
Wiping his face with a handkerchief, he decided to experiment. He repeated the phrase, “I wish I could disappear,” and he was thinking in a visual way about what had just transpired. Again, his body vanished, and he felt an odd sense of being in multiple places simultaneously. There was a barely perceptible sense of one place contracting, and another place expanding. His attention was riveted to more immediate concerns. Does he have control of this thing, can he repeat it at will? He disappeared and reappeared three times. He got used to the odd feelings: they were no more than an itch, nothing to worry about.
It was intuitive; he understood that three separate elements had to come together to form a sort of whirlwind of magic power. He had to imagine that he was invisible, form the image in his mind, then say the words aloud, something like "I am invisible", or “I have completely vanished.” If he did not say his desire aloud, if he did not pre-visualize the result, nothing happened. It took all three things: the thought, the visualization, the spoken words.
He experimented with a fart and produced a satisfying blurp that smelled of digested eggs. He laughed quietly, wickedly, as he thought of the pranks he could play. Then he quickly sobered as he considered the implications of what was happening. He used his handkerchief to clean up the vomit and buried it under rocks and leaves.
Garuvel felt a quiet flush of victory racing through his blood. This was power, this was huge! When he returned to his suite he stood before the mirror doing it over and over again: think it, visualize it, say it. "I am invisible". Whoosh! He was no longer in the mirror. He could see nothing when he looked down at himself; not his pleated white shirt, nor his baggy blue pantaloons. No legs, no feet. Nothing at all. The room behind him showed as it was; his bookshelves, his holos, everything was there.
"I am visible", he said, but nothing happened, until he remembered that he must hold in his mind the image of being once more visible. He tried it again. He imagined himself as he was before. "I am visible'. Whoosh! He reappeared instantly. True, there was this vague sense of unease each time he utilized this power. Some part of himself contracted, another part expanded. His entire being briefly fragmented and flew across the universe. It caused him concern. He was honest with himself: I do feel this, he thought, and there is something very scary about it.
What was the limit of this power? It surely could do more than produce farts and vanishings. This was a terrifying thought. If he could do other things, what might he become? When he used the power, he felt strange. He felt things shift and dislocate. He also had the eerie sense that someone was watching him;
he began to feel as though he was the subject of an experiment.
He shrugged off these feelings. He was old enough to understand that Power came with many side effects. He would proceed conscientiously in exploring this new power.
Let’s try something small, he thought. Something harmless. He looked at himself in the mirror and his first temptation was to make himself stronger, bigger, more athletic. He saw the reflection of his eyes and there was something in them that he wanted to keep. If he made himself stronger, even for a moment, he feared he would lose that thing he saw in his eyes. He feared he would become like Verleth. He didn’t know why, but he felt that being Verleth was actually a horrible thing. In spite of all Verleth’s advantages, there was something terrible and hollow about Garuvel’s younger brother.
He held out his hand and visualized a bell-shaped flower, peach colored with blue borders and green pistils peeking out over the top of slender petals. He would give it a gold pot filled with good fresh dirt. It would be a living thing.
As he formed this image he realized something very important about himself. He, Garuvel Nep Zimrin, lived to find beauty in everything. He knew that beauty was everywhere, even in the face of violence, selfishness and all manner of evil. He, Garuvel, was an artist. He wanted to create beautiful things.
He focused his mind once more, and when the image was clear, he spoke.
“This is my flower, symbol of my truth.”
It appeared with a slight pop, as it displaced the air in the space it now occupied. In his hand was this delicate creation. It was a living thing, it was real!
Again, there was an opening inside himself and a vision of vast spaces, of moving gaseous forms expanding and contracting.
“Now the flower is gone,” he spoke, “ but the truth remains.”
Nothing happened. He was startled for a moment before he remembered to make the picture in his mind. He spoke again. “Now the flower is gone, but the truth remains.”
The flower vanished with a slight hiss.
Until I figure this thing out, he told himself, I think I should limit myself to appearing and disappearing.
Garuvel felt suddenly powerful and needed to take advantage of this power. He began wandering around the family estate, prying into everyone's secret lives.
He watched his father, the Baron Hatlath Or Zimrin, playing cards with the other magnates of the Great Houses of Vygor. He learned that his father cheated quite deftly. All the Magnates cheated, but his father seemed to be the best cheater of the bunch.
He saw his mother as she watched the Faketron, indulging her passion for soap operas while her lap was full of knitting. Sitting in her big overstuffed chair, with her legs supported on a matching ottoman, she would ring at intervals for her maidservant, who brought little cups of green liquid. Garuvel sat invisibly at her side one day for the entire afternoon. He noticed that as the Baroness drank more cups of green liquid, her comments to the actors on the Faketron grew more raucous. Some of the things she said embarrassed him. He had always seen his mother as genteel and reserved. It was a shock to realize that his mother was not as he had thought. Towards late afternoon, after many hours of soap opera plot twists, she shouted hoarsely at a female character, “By the tits of the goddesses, will you fuck the man already!?”
Garuvel left the suite, shaken and confused.
He was tempted a few times to appear in his mother's lap, or to surprise Verleth playing nasty games with the sword-master's daughter. The more he learned that people’s private actions were different from their public faces, the less he entertained such childish fantasies.
Revealing his secret power would be catastrophic. He was well aware of the political web in which he lived. He was an unpopular Firstborn, a joke to his own father. He needed to find out everything he could about this new faculty, and use it to ensure his safety.
Did he have this power because he was a Firstborn from one of the Twelve Great Houses? Was this some power all the Firstborns held as a secret their whole lives, something that enabled them to maintain their ancient hegemony over the planet?
When other Firstborns came with their magnate fathers, he observed them carefully. He followed Klarvey Nep Waxold for a day. He saw nothing unusual. He scanned the faces of Termo Nep Feevey, Gabilon Nep Vorce, and Frexis Nep Komo, but saw no hint of secret power. Termo was a freckle-faced lout. Gabilon’s tongue twitched across his lips and his eyes followed the swaying of servant girls' skirts. Frexis drooled from the right side of his mouth and picked boogers from his nose. He flicked these bits of crud indiscriminately off his fingertips.
None of these Firstborns seemed to have any difficulty with the fact that they were destined to run their family's empires.
Garuvel, on the other hand, was always the victim of Baron Hatlath's rages. The subject was always the same.
"Look!" the Baron said, day in and day out, taking Verleth by the elbow and standing both of them in front of a mirror. "Look at the size of your brother! Look at his healthy coloring!" The Baron squeezed Verleth's biceps proudly. "What an arm! Why were YOU born first? Why am I so fucking bound by this old tradition of Firstborns right of inheritance? It makes no sense but I’m stuck with it. What's the matter with you, Garuvel? You don't get enough sun, enough exercise. You should emulate Verleth."
Looking in the mirror, Garuvel accepted his pitiful inadequacy. Though a year younger, Verleth towered over him, radiating aggressive competence. Garuvel regarded his own pale figure. The short pants and monogrammed blazer hung from his skinny frame in wrinkles and pouches. He wanted to get away as quickly as possible, to change out of his dinner uniform and go to Dryad's Grotto to read a volume of poetry by his hero, Harl Plesniak.
"What's the matter with you?" The Baron grew heated. "Can't you do anything right? Why did you bother to be born? If it weren’t for the tests, I wouldn’t believe you came from my loins! My grandfather was the mighty Armin Maximhammer! You take too much after your mother; she spoils and coddles you. What am I supposed to do?"
Garuvel's father wound up the tirade by slapping him on the back of the head with an open fan of playing cards. The blow was hard enough to cause Garuvel to stumble to his knees.
Taking this as his dismissal, Garuvel fled his fuming father and simpering younger brother. He went first to his room, where he got a flashlight. He donned his beret and put on his comfortable loose clothes. He filled a pack with vitta cakes and glorp juice. He easily picked the lock his father had fitted to the book case. Garuvel ran his fingers quickly over his shelf of favorite books. Today he would read"Starwinds", by the founder of Noetiphysics, Latif el Rashid. He would also take his favorite book of poetry, “Feral Tenderness.” It was considered the finest work of the writer Harl Plesniak. Garuvel passionately loved the work of Harl Plesniak. He didn’t care that the man was a Glook addict, that he had stolen King Fornik’s pet Zanziger and ridden it naked through the streets of Toguko. Sometimes a genius must be slightly mad.
Garuvel opened his door a crack and checked for signs of Verleth, the Baron, the sword-master, the sword-master's son, or any of his bodyguards.
Of course, Floot and Fawzi were on duty, standing idly outside his door,
smoking tangaroots. They didn't see his little reconnaisance. They were talking about women's anatomy.
Wait a minute. He had forgotten what he could do. Habit ruled him, and he was still behaving as if he needed to sneak down the hall without being seen. It was time for another experiment. The power’s frightfulness had deterred him, had kept him within careful limits. It was time to try something more substantial. He would brave the sense of contraction, expansion, of swooping across light years.
Sooner or later, he admitted, he would have to know how far this power extended. Otherwise he would spend his days cowering, as if some huge toothy animal lived in one of his armoires.
He applied the same mental trick to a different problem. He visualized himself sitting in Dryad's Grotto with his snacks and his books. "I'm in the grotto, feeling safe, a favorite book before my face," he said..
He found himself sitting on his favorite cushion, with a book in his hand and a cup of juice atop a flat rock. He was soothed by the sound of droplets falling musically from the cave ceiling into Celestine's Pool. There had been a faint whooshing sound followed by a loud bang as the transition became reality, as his sudden appearance displaced air molecules and particles of dust.
He had that odd sensation of being several places at once; contraction, expansion, vast reaches of empty space. Since these sensations had no tangible consequences he put them aside. For the first time in his life, he had real power! Now it was a question of whether he ruled the power, or the power ruled him. He was too young to anticipate that this question would become the dominant theme of his life.
Garuvel experimented. He traveled short distances instantaneously, then longer distances. He extended the limits of the power. Suppose he could make a tree or a rock appear somewhere it had never before existed? Late one night, he climbed out his bedroom window and used the vines and roof gables to let himself to the ground. Vygor’s second moon, Tantol, was almost eclipsing the larger moon, Zevkets. The light the moons cast was an eerie yellow-orange. A bank of clouds obscured the lower half of the twin orbs. The marks and lines on the moons turned them into leering faces. These omens gave Garuvel’s stomach a twitch of fear. Using the power was not to be taken lightly. It seemed to be much larger than his own being. He felt as if he was riding on the back of a jank wolf, a creature that could turn its head and rend his body in an instant.
He rode his fizzlespeed board to a remote corner of the estate. There was a little circular glade, enclosed by drooping Wairaba trees. He stood with his back to a tree well away from the center of the clearing. He concentrated, then spoke, “A great Wairaba tree, with branches too many to see!” He was trying to make his wishes into verses or epigrams. It gave the act of creation a touch of ritual and dignity.
There were loud pops and smaller explosions as molecules gave way to matter more dense. In the pallor of the moonslight, Garuvel saw his tree. There it was, utterly real, at the center of the glade where nothing before had existed besides grass and elderlion weeds. He touched it, tested the tensile strength of its branches, heard the spatulate leaves rustle as he let the limbs snap back. He climbed to a hefty branch and sat with his legs dangling to each side. He was feeling the unease, the expanding and contracting of his spirit across vast reaches of space. This time the discomfort was more intense, the sense of disturbance more tangible. It seemed that the bigger the “change”, the bigger was the accompanying effect. Garuvel began to consider putting this power away; it might be something far too potent for a child. It was not a toy! But then, he barely considered himself a child. He had suffered so much, it had etched his soul with unsought gravitas, matured him beyond his years. All the same, he resolved to stop playing games. He would wait and see if some means of discovery presented itself. Where had this thing come from? Why had it come to him? What was it for?
Garuvel needed to consider himself something more than a child. It was an illusion, a conceit, but it had great survival value. It bolstered his self esteem.
One night at dinner, Garuvel wolfed down his favorite dessert, a bowl of Mobo fruit, from the garden planet Eltubi. He ordered a servant to fetch him another bowl, but his mother intervened.
"Don't be so greedy, child, where are your manners? You have gobbled those fruits like a sow grubbing up fallen plums!"
Garuvel had been visualizing the Mobo fruit, hanging fat and plump on the vine, in a sunny endless orchard. His appetite for the fruit was so great that he found it unbearable to have it thwarted. In a flash of thoughtless rage he said, "I will have all the Mobo fruit I want, if I have to go to Eltubi to get it!"
He was whisked to the heart of that world's famous orchards. He had a moment of terror; he was light years away! He had never before left Vygor! He had to get home! He was in a panic, not thinking clearly, not working things through. His mind whirled, things contracted, expanded, whooshed here and there. In his panic he returned to the dinner table clutching an armful of fruit, his blazer stained purple from the juice.
When he saw the faces of his family, and those of the fourteen servants present in the dining room, he knew that he had made a terrible mistake. He had revealed his carefully guarded secret. Oh, how stupid! How childish!
His father's bodyguards, Gorlo and Wirt, converged upon his place at the table. Too late, he opened his mouth but he couldn’t summon a coherent vision, a fully formed desire. He was too frightened. Things had happened so quickly!
A cloth was clamped over his face. Its smell made his eyes water and his nostrils burn. He tried not to breathe it in, but Gorlo trussed him up roughly, and his breath only came more quickly as he panted with fear. He felt himself being dragged away, and as his consciousness faded, he heard a single dreaded word, a word that on Vygor stood for demonic sorcery: T'vorsh.
"No, no!" he wanted to cry, "I am not T'vorsh. You have it all wrong! I'm only nine years old. I don't shape-shift and conjure and consort with disgusting things in bottles. I made a mistake, I didn’t realize what I was doing!"
It was too late. His tongue was stilled. The last thing he saw before he was taken away was a shared glimpse of muted triumph on the faces of his father and his brother Verleth.
He was given to the Mentechs. They took him to the sinister Hejastra Hospital, a place redolent of screams in the night and sharp whizzing machines.
He was placed on a ward with other real or suspected T'vorshi, sorcerors who specialized in verbal spells and recitations, summoning and combining the four classes of Elementals into material substance. There were so many T’vorshi among wealthy families that the pursuit of sorcery was deemed a mental illness rather than a crime. Still, they were locked away and treated harshly.
Garuvel’s tongue was numbed, his thumbs and forefingers banded together to prevent him from signing or conjuring. He was drugged to keep him from performing mental mischief.
Eight years passed and Garuvel lacked the attention span to know his own suffering. His mind was featureless, his muscles waxy and thin. He might have died in that lonely place, were it not for a medical oversight.
In his seventeenth year, his hormones began to do their inevitable work. In a period of five months he grew four inches and gained fifty pounds.
No one seemed to notice. Garuvel had lain dormant for so long that his treatment was automatic. The drugs that had kept his mind vague and his tongue stilled began to lose their effectiveness. One day as Garuvel lay in his cell he dreamed strange images, things he had never before seen. He twiched so hard that he fell off his cot and cried out in pain. It was the first sound to emerge from his mouth since the fateful dinner with his family. As the weeks passed, his mind cleared. He began to practice speaking into his pillow, late at night. He made pencils and pins appear and disappear, to see if he still had the “power”.
As his mind returned, he realized that his life had been stolen, that he had lain in a cell for eight years, being fed through a tube, being changed and turned by surly attendants who had no care for the bruises they inflicted upon him. Why was he being kept here at all? Why didn’t they just do away with him? He must be a pawn. If Verleth got out of hand, the Baron could revive his Firstborn and use him as a lever.
Rage burned in his heart like a physical pain. He examined himself late at night, and saw how wasted he had become. He resolved to take his revenge. The ground would tremble, the seas rise up. Mountains would belch flame and poisonous gases. He would watch from high in the air, laughing, then transport himself to the orchards of Eltubi.
Garuvel stood looking out the mesh window of his cell, at the angled rooftops of the hospital. The sickly blue lights of the security lamps showed him a ghostly landscape. Fences of electric razor wire enclosed the hospital and seemed to keep at bay the gloom of the endless forests beyond. Those forests were home to jank-wolves, Ur-bears, hyanx, giant boar. The world Vygor was not worth saving. Carefully, he constructed a sequence of words and visualizations that would put him out of harm’s way as the planet exploded. As he opened his mouth to speak, a dizziness overcame him. He struggled to stand, but as the breath left his lungs, his knees gave out, and he fell to the floor. The walls of his cell began to shimmer and fade. He saw a great pulsing light and heard a sound as of distant horns rolling in across a vast ocean.
'I'm dying,' he thought. 'It's just as well, for I must be an evil creature after all."
Through the light he saw an entity. It was a tall winged creature , glowing with a nacreous shimmer. Half bird, half man, the being was ten feet tall. There were fingers at the ends of bone-like pin feathers next to its body. The wings vibrated with energy, they seemed to be holding and confining the power of flight, so that it could stand and look directly into Garuvel’s eyes. It spoke to him, but the words emerged all at once, not singly as in normal speech. It spread its wings wide, and Garuvel saw six other figures standing within the embrace of the great feathers. Each was of a different race, from a different world. One of them was himself, Garuvel Zimrin, as he might be when he came to full manhood.
The words spoken by the entity began to fall into place in Garuvel's mind. It had said, "We know who you are; it is time for you to know who you are."
Garuvel died, but his death lasted only a second. He was alive again, as someone else, in another life. He lived that life, then died, and was again reborn. His journey through a multitude of lives accelerated: birth, life, death, birth, life, death, until it seemed as if he were inside a revolving drum with pictures on its curved surfaces. He lived every kind of life, on every type of planet, in galaxies that had long since been pulled apart by greater galaxies or swallowed in black holes.
The wheel began to slow. Time relaxed and distended and tightened. He saw the winged being with its six companions. It uttered another of those multi-word sounds.
Garuvel found himself lying on the hard floor of his cell. The sound he had just heard rang like a bell in his mind. As before, its syntax soon asserted itself, and it became comprehensible.
"You are one of the Seven. You are a bearer of the Realgift. Any time you use the Gift, we will hear you. Any time one of us uses the Gift, you will hear us. You must know that The Great Balance must be maintained. That is our responsibility. A change here means a balancing change elsewhere. A trillion times you could utilize your gift, and all that will happen is that some cloud of hydrogen many light years away will grow, or shrink. It may be a puff of starwind into space or the burning of a lifeless pebble. We have no control over the Great Balance. Among our kind, some have traveled to many worlds to undo the damage done by the simplest alteration. As you make your change, you will immediately have a sense of that which has balanced, however distant.”
The beings began to fade away, growing smaller as if being reeled backwards into a vast distance.
“Farewell for now,” the Winged One said. “We will always be with you.”
It seemed as though tens of billions of years had passed. At last Garuvel understood something about his strange faculty: that he could Realize anything he could imagine. As he contemplated it, he was gripped with pure terror. Instead of being elated and bouyed with feelings of power, he could only think about how very complex things were, and how he sat there within the garden of his desires, knowing that with the slightest mistake, the garden could turn into a swamp of carnivorous weeds that would grow and grow, eating up the entire universe.
He lay there until he regained some composure.
He must get out of the hospital. He thought about what the Great Being had said. Now he understood the sensations that had followed upon each use of the Gift. If there was but a chance in a trillion of endangering lives, then he could not take it. He thought about the immensity of the universe. How much sheer nothingness surrounded each tiny world, each burning star. His choice was suddenly stark. Stay here and die. Chance the Gift, and live. The hospital, being a prison for magicians, was replete with all kinds of detectors. He tried to imagine an escape WITHOUT resorting to the RealGift. He was stumped.
How could he work his way out using the absolute mininum of power? He went back to his very first discovery: disappearance. He could become invisible. He could insulate his heat signature in the refrigerator of the food delivery van and leisurely ride away from his prison.
He thought carefully before beginning. He did not sleep that night.
In the morning he began his escape. As he made himself vanish, he could feel the Council, inside his mind, sharing each action of the Gift. They were mentors but not judges.
He paid one last visit to the Great House of Zimrin. His mother’s face had wrinkled. His father’s hair had gone grey. The servants winced with fear every time Verleth strode through a room.
Garuvel went to Dryad’s Grotto, where he had secreted money and a few books. As a child he was always planning to leave his home. He had accumulated six hundred golden zirks, a nice little sum on any world. He took two books: “Starwinds”, by Latif el Rashid, and “Feral Tenderness” by Harl Plesniak.
At the end of one Vygorian year, he was on the planet Eltubi, walking down a road that passed through miles of Mobo fields. Here there were great manor houses surrounded by mobo plantings. Out-buildings served as tasting rooms for both the fruit and the wine of the elegant growth. Little covered wagons, drawn by shaggy ponies, carried afficionados to these tasting rooms. Now and then Garuvel would step to the side of the road as a carriage passed. Raucous songs and laughter seemed to lift the vehicles off the ground. Legs and arms came through windows, bare toes wiggled, the springs of the carriage smoothed the lurches of the road’s pot-holes.
This roistering pleased Garuvel. It was so different from the status-obsessed dour atmosphere of Vygor.
He was dressed in a leather jerkin and trousers. There was a pouch strapped across his chest, and a fine sword sheathed at his side. His seventeen year old body was strong and healthy. He had experienced the Great Wheel of Life. He now had a strange gravitas for one so young, and a charisma which he wore lightly and without self consciousness.
He knew he had a lot of work to do.
Duels Of Character
"If we become visible to ourselves, we no longer bump into the invisible parts of other people." from the letters of Harl Plesniak
The dawn, like a nurse's fingers, swabbed the wound of the night away. Garuvel inhaled the morning odors of the planet R’zelfo. His multi-skin was pulled tight against the chill. He had adapted his body to the planet’s conditions and now had an extra pair of eyes,covered by a thin membrane, perched upon his forehead.
R’zelfo had a brisk period of rotation. The sun climbed visibly; the morning unfolded with spectacular abruptness. A rainbow of light glowed like a peacock fan above the waving trees. The planet's winds were turbulent, and during the night, a blanket of scarlet and purple leaves had blown down to cover Garuvel's campsite. From inside his multi-skin, he punched upward, and a fountain of leaves blew past his face.
Garuvel wriggled free of his thermal cocoon. He set the multi-skin’s control to Store and it collapsed back to its traveling size, like a handkerchief.
As he brewed a small cup of tea to eat with his arpak, Garuvel thought about the coming day. He would walk twenty or thirty miles to reach the city of Ifyonar. The trails would be rugged and there was always a chance of encountering nasty characters.
He had lived on hundreds of worlds, visited many more. Garuvel had honed his caution about the inhabitants of these worlds. It was no longer possible to categorize sentient races as “good” or “evil” or both “good and evil”, mixed palettes of qualities in moral terms. His credo was simple: be wary. Ignore what beings say. Observe what they do.
It was easy to lose himself on R’zelfo. The place was medieval; there were no technogogues, no cyber-wired dictators, no one curious about his history or eager to cull his favor because he was "Powerful". It wasn't always possible to conceal himself, but he tried.
His last home had been the planet Denarbin. He had let his guard down. He wanted to live like a normal person. After all, he WAS a normal person, except….except for this ‘thing’ he had, a ‘thing’ that he wouldn ‘t use, couldn’t use, for fear of becoming like an addict, running from pain, avoiding the sentient condition, the illnesses, heartbreaks, disappointments and the mortality implicit with life in the physical universe. On Denarbin he had made connections, indulged in a little romance. He had become a poet, with twelve volumes published under the name Raiss Heridus. One day, in the city of Foranti, he had been taking a cup of Hvaff with his friends at an outdoor cafe. The day was sun-drenched, the river rolled lazily and the fumes of Hvaff made everyone feel jolly. It was easy to ignore the political turmoil tearing apart the society of Denarbin.
Garuvel noticed the arrival of a number of unmarked aircars. They came spiraling from the sky on tight coils of shrieking exhaust. A squad of Patracts bounded from the cars, raising their machine guns ominously. The intent was to rid the environment of left-wing artists and bohemians. There was a movement of people across the square, as they fled from trouble. Their bodies converged and became a mass, which oozed across the area like a viscous fluid with a distinct boundary. Behind the trailing edge, there was nothing. Empty plaza, plus a group of foolish bootniks drinking at a fresca table. Everyone else leaked away through the gaps made by the plaza’s converging avenues.
Garuvel’s relationship with the Realgift was simple: just stay alive. Nothing else, no ‘solving the problems of the world’, nothing like that. He wasn’t God, and he knew he wasn’t God. So, at this moment on Denarbin, Garuvel knew from analysis of the political situation that he and two dozen people in the square were about to be massacred. There wasn’t really time to think about it. He had visualized, then recited: "On The Street of Dreamers there will be bliss, when these assholes’ bullets turn to piss."
As yellow liquid dribbled from cold grey barrels there had been astonishment, consternation, confusion, and some laughter. A few of the black-clad yoppers looked into the barrels of their guns and were rewarded with faces full of their own urine. Garuvel and his drunken friends ran for their lives while the confusion remained. It was the end for Garuvel of his conventional sojourn on Denarbin. He would now drop from sight and do “restoration work”. He would have to erase all memory, all causes and all effects to the n'th degree of his existence on Denarbin. It would be as if he had never existed.
Now he was on R’zelfo. New constellations to learn; new light, new smells, new people. His purpose in coming here was to find a master of Zektila, a peculiar martial arts discipline reputed to be the ‘dirtiest’ fighting style anywhere. It involved kicks, gouges, elbows, knees, thrusts to the genitals (wherever they might be located) and assorted bites and scratches. Yet it was organized, traditional and hierarchical. Garuvel couldn’t afford to be fastidious in this or any universe.
Always, he searched for the sages, the eccentrics, the madmen. Growing Toward the Gift, he called it. What else was there to keep him going for so long? He enjoyed getting involved with causes and politics. He couldn’t help it. He hated injustice. He couldn’t stand by and do nothing in a culture where he lived.
The central motive of his life was to develop his perceptions and his powers. He would do this through study, discipline, hard training, years of commitment. This was the path of any creature’s self-development. He had to train himself in his own way. This, he learned from the Council of Seven, was the reason the Gift had chosen him: because he was one the rare creatures who would have rejected it.
The air was chilly. The autumnal season was coming on, the sky was growing darker, the winds more cutting and unpredictable. He raised the hood of his native traveling cloak, tucked away his multi-skin, and slung his weapons and gear across his back. The road toward the City of Ifyonar was just beyond the next rise. He set out with a pace that would take him there before the blue sun set.
Birds hooted and moaned. It was a doleful sound that blended with notes the wind made as it blew through holes in ancient rocks. The terrain was rough and craggy, bent and folded by earthquakes. Garuvel's senses were alert. There were raiders and psychotics to be met all over R’zelfo.
He walked for several hours, winding his way amongst the crags and slopes of red and purple garaba trees. The sun had risen fast and high; in the distance, now, he could see the cloud-covered slopes of Mount Emerald Fire. The old city of Ifyonar nestled at its base and rose part way up the ancient volcano's flanks.
He had been here several months, and had already slipped into his old activist role: defender of poets and creative weirdlings. This journey to Ifyonar was on behalf of his friend Sokenz. The poet’s recitations had irritated a minor warlord, a man who felt slighted because his name was not mentioned in connection with enough heroic deeds. Sokenz was now in a dungeon. The only thing that could free him was a writ from the warlord’s Warlord, The Hefto of Stilril. The Hefto was reputed to have a gangster's sense of poetry. Garuvel hoped to get an audience, and attempt to sway him with the wit of Sokenz's erotic sonnets.
Garuvel had a talent for involvement. He thrived on difficulty. He knew that without conflict, there is no evolution. Without pain, there is no growth. Like an oyster dreaming of its pearl, he required that constant irritant.
Mount Emerald Fire was one of a chain of dormant volcanoes that comprised the Adamantine Range. The land rose and fell like ripples that radiated from the base of these silent giants. Garuvel was climbing one of these ridges, on a trail that switched back and forth, showing the ruts of centuries of wooden wheels. The landscape was full of gigantic rocks lifted high and hurled by the volcanoes over the eons. Creeping vines and trees of cones and needles grew out of the cracks. The gnarled lava forms were etched with faces and old signs laid here by men of the ancient times.
It was impossible to see what lay ahead, but something alerted Garuvel’s senses. He cast his eyes over the top of the gaunt rocks where he knew the trail would soon carry him.
Almost invisible, yet there was a glow, a bit of charge in the air that indicated the presence of human acitivity. He left the trail and began to scale the face of the rock so that he could see what lay on the other side. Past the summit, he slithered down through holes and crevices until he could see the trail from above, but not be seen. He found a nook that sheltered him from the wind.
Below him was a scene that resonated from the medieval histories of billions of worlds: a pair of warriors poised in dueling posture. They stood motionless in attitudes of thrust and counter-thrust. But for the rise and fall of breathing chests, they might have been stone icons.
The stillness went on and on, minute after minute. One of the swordsmen,whose blade was raised high, wore orange and yellow silken pantaloons tucked into ornamented boots that were laced up to mid-calf. A buttonless vest was fastened by a gaudy sash, and his helmet curled in burnished hues around his ears. His hands clutched spasmodically around the sword-hilt, and two beads of sweat rolled across his temples to drip slowly toward the tip of his nose.
The other warrior was dressed in a black leather jerkin, loose black pants that were tied with thongs around the ankles, and worn-looking leather sandals. His sword was held low, calmly and loosely. A purple headband barely constrained the wild spill of his ropy, braided black hair. A second, shorter sword lay in a scabbard tucked through his belt.
What was most striking about this man was the emotion in his eyes. He looked as if he had seen everything there was to be seen of human folly, tragedy and pain. He looked old, impossibly old in his expression, though his body was youthfully vigorous. Garuvel had never seen a face that contained so much content, held such a volume of experience. A deep mournfulness sat in his eyes. Such sadness thrust its way from the tangle of greasy braids; a face like the landscape, full of lines and crags. Despite the intensity of his emotion, his body was relaxed and alert, poised but ready for swift action.
More time passed. Garuvel hardly breathed. He already knew the outcome of the duel; it took no magician to discern abilities of the swordsmen. The wind tugged at the duellist's clothes. Then the warrior in the opulent clothing uttered a high, choking sob. He began to crumble, tried to hold himself up by planting his sword blade in the dirt. It was to no avail. In a moment he fell dead to the ground. The sword rocked back and forth; gusts of wind blew the dead man’s vest up to cover his face.
Neither of the blades had met; no blow had been struck.
The man in black heaved a sigh, looked with pity upon his fallen enemy, and drew himself out of his combat stance. He turned and raised his head to where Garuvel was concealed, and his eyes seemed to pierce the rocks. "I know you're there,' he said hoarsely. "Come out and show yourself."
Garuvel slowly rose from his crouched position and made his way carefully toward the path, both hands held away from his body.
"I mean you no harm; it was just chance that I witnessed your duel. How long have you known that I was watching you?"
"I heard you long before you climbed the rocks," the mournful warrior said. "In any case, you didn't impair my concentration. I didn’t need much concentration, not for this one.” He pointed to the fallen duellist.
Garuvel jumped the last few feet, landing lightly on the trail. For a moment, the two men eyed one another. The duellist took two steps to the right. Garuvel took two steps to the left, so that they continued to face one another in a prepared stance. The sad one's hands came away from his sheathed sword. "You are not one of them," he said. "I don't think I'd care to fight you. I'm not sure I would win; and believe me, I do not think that very often. In fact, I have never thought that until this moment."
"This is just an ornament." Garuvel patted the sword slung across his back. "I'm far more devoted to poetry than to weaponry."
The stranger snorted with incredulity. “That may be so,” he mused, “but still I’m glad we’re on the same side of the blade. At least for now.” He threw a penetrating look at Garuvel, but seemed satisfied that Garuvel’s return look was sincere. His gaze turned to the corpse of his opponent. By unspoken agreement, the pair took the dead man's extremities and hauled him to a place away from the trail. A shallow grave was dug. "He hadn't even the will to cross my sword," the strange warrior said, "Yet before the day is done, I fear that much blood will spatter the road."
Garuvel extended his arms and looked at the sleeves of his tunic with comic irony . "I hope the blood will be neither yours nor mine. I have only two shirts. I expected my errand to Ifyonar to be peaceful."
"I, too, am going to Ifyonar, but I doubt that my company will be soothing. It might require several changes of clothes.” For a moment, the man seemed to pass into a state of sad revery. Then his eyes regained their focus.
"Forgive me, sir, for not introducing myself sooner. I am Nutun Utulo. I have had many professions but at the moment I am an assassin."
"And I am known as Rebed Singman," Garuvel replied. "Also a man of many professions but at the moment, a poet."
Nutun laughed skeptically, but he said nothing. His gaze went to the horizon, where roiling clouds were approaching from over the top of the Adamantine Range, blotting out a third of the purple sky. The assassin wet his finger and painted his cheek with the moisture. With quivering nostrils, he turned his face back and forth.
"A brolmin is coming," he said, naming one of the thousands of winds known to the denizens of R’zelfo. "I've got to go. The fight is just beginning." He set out with a swift pace in the direction of Ifyonar.
Garuvel matched him stride for stride. "I’ve always been a curious person. It isn’t always to my benefit and sometimes it turns me into a pest. Still, I cultivate my curiosity for what it teaches me."
For eight or nine paces Nutun said nothing. "Very well," he said at last, keeping an alert gaze upon their surroundings. "I journey to Ifyonar to assassinate an evil man of great influence and wealth. He knows that I am coming. Part of the reason I seek him out is to recover items that he has stolen from members of my clan. These are vital artifacts that are essential to our culture. I could have ambushed my enemy, but he is not easy to take by surprise. He is well guarded, he is alert. Our battle has been going for eons. At this point, we’re both weary of the constant friction without a resolution. He made me a proposition. We would undertake a very ancient form of legal combat, an arrangement called a Chain Duel. Let’s fight and be done with it.”
“Yes, I have heard of that,” responded Garuvel. “It was part of the old Galactic Corzarian Code.”
“Yes,” Nutun explained, “The Chain Duel is written in the section of the Code entitled 'Blood Feuds, Revenge, Ambushes and Single Combat Legal Forms. This particular method allows the challenger to gain his enemy’s powers and possessions rather than having them pass to his heir or estate. I must post the time and route of my attempt. My intended target is allowed to place hirelings in my path in strict sequence: if I defeat one vassal, then two may take his or her place. If I then vanquish two, I must meet three opponents, and so on, until I pass through the gates of Ifyonar. Inside the city, my enemy is then bound to meet me in single combat. It’s an archaic, cowardly arrangement, designed to protect the wealthy and powerful. It can, however, provide a definitive solution to our ongoing enmity.”
The clouds had now covered the sky in an undulating waffle pattern. The sleet that accompanied a brolmin began to sting them like cold nettles. Nutun, like all R’zelfoi, seemed impervious to the change of weather.
"Is this why you look so mournful," Garuvel asked. "Because your honor has forced you to commit suicide?"
"Not at all,' Nutun replied, with a sardonic grin. "I believe fully in my competence to defeat any number of mercenaries and my intended target. But I grieve for the families of those who will soon die, because a rich man fooled them into thinking that I would easily be killed."
The brolmin pelted them briefly at full intensity. Then the clouds broke apart, and R’zelfo's blue star, Shest, again cast shadows upon the rocks and trees. The star was a blue dwarf variable with energy that waxed and waned in a complex but predictable sequence. It gave R’zelfo a pattern of eleven seasons and a brisk windy climate.
“And how do you know,” Garuvel asked pointedly, “that your enemy won’t simply cheat and lay a trap for you?”
Nutun laughed, a sound full of irony. “I expect him to. That’s why you’re here.”
A silence followed that statement. Garuvel took it at face value. He knew that there were no accidents, not in the deep underlying structure of reality. He had shown up here at this place and time, for a reason. If Nutun knew more about the reason, so be it.
“Very well,” Garuvel said, as they negotiated the rising trail and its next switch-back. "If you have no objection, I would like to witness this Chain Duel, and if I see a dishonorable act, I’ll support the person who is its victim. I don’t know you; perhaps it is you who is planning to break the agreement of The Code.”
Nutun gazed at Garuvel tolerantly. “That’s very wise. You’ll see how things pan out, and you’ll make your choice when and if it’s necessary. At any rate, I find your presence comforting. I don’t know why that is, but you seem to be a man who knows which wind to ride when many winds blow in many directions.”
The men continued to climb, working their way through rocky terrain. At times, they were required to help one another across chasms or through deep layers of brittle vines that offered virtually no path without vigorous slashing with their weapons. After cutting their way through one of these obstacles, they sat on a pinnacle of rock overlooking a small stream.
"You introduced yourself as a poet,” Nutun reminded Garuvel. “I have sympathy for the artist, especially writers. I’ve always regarded the most frustrating and futile branches of art to be poetry and sculpture. I mean, who cares? Unless you have made some whorish concession to popular tastes, who’s going to read your work, or view your objects? It’s a pursuit of many sorrows and few rewards. I hope, at least, that you are a good poet, and not a mere hack.” Again, he inspected Garuvel. “No hack, I’m sure of that. I have a good sense of these things. I have no objection to your writing about this adventure, once things have taken their course.”
Now the clouds were coming from the opposite direction, from the Gastrel Sea. They were shaped like lightning bolts, and refracted the Shest-light into electric blue shards. Nutun looked up. "What do you think? A fluxtrol or a mottled helskar?"
"Definitely a mottled helskar," Garuvel stated. "Soon there will be tear-drop hail."
Nutun affected a cough, which brought Garuvel's attention back to the landscape. "There are two behind that forked rock. You must keep at least fifty paces away from the duel."
Garuvel again scrambled over the rocks, fighting through a stand of spiny abrasive plants. He received several cuts, which bled for an instant and then began to heal. When he obtained a decent vantage point, he saw Nutun facing a man and a woman, whom he recognized as belonging to the Krosanje cult. This obscure sect promoted the renunciation of personal hygiene, cleanliness and health care as the road to enlightenment. The couple had possibly not bathed or changed clothes in decades. Their few remaining teeth were snaggled stumps. The loathesome smell of them wafted up to Garuvel.
Again, the silent interlock of the combatants took place. Nutun's enemies sidled back and forth, looking for a gap in his concentration. They found none. His mournful eyes followed their movements; his forward foot pivoted slightly. His back foot seemed rooted and solid. He seemed aware of every quiver of intention in his opponents.
As the minutes passed and the noisome pair found no advantage, they began to blow and spit bloody black juice from their mouths and noses.
Avoiding these tokens, Nutun began to stalk the Krosanje couple down the trail. They backed away clumsily, and soon their expressions of confident malice changed to fear. First the man stumbled and fell. Nutun stepped over him and continued pursuing the woman. In a moment, she tottered backward, her sword and stilleto flying from her hands as if pulled by invisible wires.
The duel was over. Nutun had not drawn his sword. As he relaxed, he sighed deeply.
"They weren't much," he said, "but he just let them throw their lives away for a few coins. It’s morally hideous and it's insulting. I hope to at least meet some decent fighters before Shest plops into the horizon." He squatted at the dead woman's feet. "Come. Help me. Disgusting as they are, their mothers will weep. Or celebrate..or...whichever."
They removed their clothing to bury the corpses. When they were finished, they used roadside pebbles and sand to wash their fingers and the bottoms of their shoes. They recovered their garments from where they hung upon the limbs of trees. Frankly examining one another, each saw a powerful physique. Garuvel was large and thick. Nutun's sinews were like flexible reeds. They seemed capable of infinite torque; slender but unbreakable.
Nutun looked down the road, over the hills. As he was beginning to walk, Garuvel touched his arm lightly; Nutun turned to face him.
"Don't you think digging graves all day might consume a lot of time and strength?"
"You're right," Nutun said fatalistically. "The longer I take, the more lives will be lost. It bothers me greatly, but they must lie where they fall. Their families will have to claim them."
They moved on. Around the next curve in the road waited the expected challengers. Nutun could not control three wills and three life-forces simultaneously. He was forced to draw blood. One man shot an arrow at him from a short and extremely curved bow. Nutun seemed to disappear. The arrow passed through empty space. When Nutun reappeared he was a pace away from the archer, whose scream of terror was cut short by Nutun’s stroke, which sent his head flying. The other two fighters attempted to attack from opposite sides. One raised his sword high, while the other came at Nutun with a pike that had a sharp metallic end and an ax head mounted in the shaft. Nutun stepped aside, slid under the sword stroke, moved towards the pikeman. This fighter thrust vigorously, only to find that he had impaled the other fighter. As the swordsman toppled, the momentum of his stroke cleaved his partner’s forehead. In the end, the result was three corpses with scattered body parts.
Nutun paced up and down the road. His forehead was knotted with anger. He turned and glared at Garuvel, as if this were somehow his fault.
"You think I like killing people? You think this is fun?"
He whirled away, feet slapping gravel. "I'm going, and I'm going fast. You must be sick to want to follow me….whatever the reasons are for our meeting."
Nutun began to run, weapons clinking against one another.
Garuvel admitted to himself both his fascination and his revulsion. He followed Nutun at a respectful distance.
In a great hurry, Nutun Utulo whirled and sliced, killed and moved on. Four opponents. Five. Then six.
They reached the summit of the ridge and began descending into the valley that lay before the great rise of Mount Emerald Fire. The terrain widened; small farms began to appear. People drifted toward the road in increasing numbers, to watch the combat. Most of their heads were covered by wide-brimmed woven straw hats that were fastened by string thongs. They were thick-limbed, short and stout, with flat faces and broad veiny red noses. Some carried rakes and scythes, with dirt and chaff still on the blades. They hooted and wagered and appointed unofficial counters, to keep the teams of Nutun's opponents from merging into one another. They were having a wonderful time.
Eight swords-persons awaited Nutun at the opening to Tourmaline Valley. The city, with its huddled low buildings, was visible a short way down the widening road. The clouds were forming into a Kellovek. Overhead, a great ragged mass of black cloud was gathering and circling in the mighty winds of the atmosphere. Shapes like great birds hung from the storm wall, and a bolt of lightning traveled from cloud mass to cloud mass. Rolling off to the west, a great cylindrical tail of cloud dropped distant misty rain squalls from its tapering base.
Nutun's fuming demeanor gave way to perfect calm the moment he entered combat. With so many opponents, Nutun's speed was that of a snake darting into a crevice. There seemed to be three or four of him; his body's outlines blurred, his sword was not a blade but a sheet of sharp death. His enemies' weapons flew into the air as he cut a swathe through counterstrokes that seemed feebly slow. Swords, daggers, maces, flying darts, clubs joined by pieces of chain, dozens of items became a storm that forced spectators to flee or dodge.
When it was over, Nutun had killed thirty five people. The onlookers emitted a satisfied groan, and fell to looting the bodies.
Garuvel hovered on the fringes of the crowd. Blue Shest was lowering in the sky. The kellovek began to raise a spiral of dust and leaves. In the sky, a great wheeling mass of ragged cloud had congealed and the wind acquired a coherence, an ominous purpose. Blades of lightning struck the tops of trees. Shortly, a krangelor writhed downward, and as it neared ground there came to meet it a dust devil tinted maroon by garaba leaves and blue sirtse needles. The debris began to whirl at stinging speeds, causing people to cover their faces with their hats.
The krangelor undulated this way and that. The spectators near the road squatted or held onto one another. Some laid themselves flat and clutched at fibrous weeds whose roots dug deep into the rocky soil. The whirlwind seemed to make up its mind and turned towards Nutun. His thick locks of hair, his talismans, his straps and weapon fasteners rose straight up in the suction, but his body held to the ground and he smiled with a demonic leer. He had a look of alien madness. The krangelor, now grown to ten feet or more at its base, engulfed him and headed straight down the road, toward the city, with Nutun running gleefully at its core.
Garuvel hid himself behind a high shrub and gathered his multi-skins, to make a quick armor set around his arms, torso and head. Debris was flying in an accelerating circle, sticks were burying themselves in trees, all kinds of detritus threw itself with seemingly wilful force at anything that moved. He detached himself and used all of his speed to keep up with Nutun. He was following a krangelor with a man at its center. He had experienced stranger things; but this was strange enough.
After running full out for five miles, his breathing began to reach a limit, he was puffing hard, almost spent. He was about to utilize an old discipline he had learned, to give himself a second wind. It wasn’t necessary. He arrived at Ifyonar's main gate a moment before the whirlwind roped back into the sky, depositing a grimy Nutun just a few paces from where he stood.
The battered, wild looking assassin acknowledged him without surprise. "Somehow I knew you would be here. You don’t let go of things easily, do you?" He had many cuts but the bleeding had stopped and the cuts were healing over.
Garuvel understood that he and Nutun carried certain common skills. These abilities may have different names, but they had the same result: self healing, an ability to command the body’s resources, to withstand pain.
"You are very powerful and very strange,” he said. “I am always seeking out the powerful and the strange. Often they're the same thing. I want you to know that I’m not bloody-minded, that I’m not attracted to violence. It's just that I have an intuition. My instinct tells me that however briefly we might know one another, I should be pleased to call you my friend."
For the first time, Garuvel saw a smile on Nutun's face. The expression changed his countenance so dramatically that Garuvel's heart was gripped. Nutun smiled with his whole body, with his whole being. In that smile, his face had become radiant with understanding and acceptance.
"Yes, I feel the same way. I don't know who you are today; but I recognize you from other times and other worlds. Sometimes it isn’t clear why people meet. I have a feeling that before long we'll know exactly why we have met."
They regarded one another, and the wind blew between them, picked at their hair and clothing. With a faint nod, they turned and passed through the gate.
The city was silent, but for the wind's moaning and the crackle and chink of chimes set in the doorways of houses. There were no straight lines in Ifyonar. Streets, alleyways, cul-de-sacs undulated without apparent order.The dwellings were dome-shaped, made of packed earth. Each boasted an ornate wind-scoop that proclaimed the owner's clan, lineage and history. Wind and weather had faded once-bright colors into bland pastels of pink, blue and yellow.
Nutun stalked down the the city's main street, avoiding the sewage ditch that ran sluggishly down the center of the avenue. Keeping his distance, Garuvel held to the sides. The silence was loud with hostility. The round dwellings piled up into enclaves that resembled wasps's nests. The entire city resembled a hive of malign creatures. At the top and center of each of these clusters rose the house of a clan elder. These were made of stone and had multiple stories, as many as four round compartments, diminishing in size as they rose in elevation. These manses were better maintained, and had freshly painted cupolas with eye-shaped windows that emitted no light. To Garuvel these empty black openings had a sinister look: they gave to each structure a four-eyed sneering R’zelfoi gargoyle face.
As Shest slid westward behind the mountains, the afternoon became a garish purple. Even the clouds looked like eyes; swirling kelloveks and klorvins mutated upon the wind's caprice, high in the upper atmosphere.
Garuvel and Nutun passed through an empty marketplace. Wooden shutters of deserted stalls clacked forlornly in the wind. Immense ravens rose and fluttered, distracted from their meals of garbage by the passing of the two men. Then they settled again, with dark delicacy, floated down with wings outspread, to light on their prizes of meat scraps and stale bread.
The street rose at a shallow angle. It narrowed and began to twist. Filthy hovels jammed against one another. The smell stifled Garuvel's nostrils. At the edges of his vision, he caught the scuttle of people dodging away from doorless entrances or out of windows covered with bits of rag.
Garuvel realized that Ifyonar was built upon a single huge mound. At its summit he could now see a grand and eccentric structure. It had domes and cupolas jutting like warts from every surface. He could hear the sound of the building’s wind-scoops. They made a low mocking laugh that rose and fell with the changing velocity of the wind.
Garuvel acknowledged what he had known all day: Nutun's quarry was the Hefto of Ifyonar.
The palace was enclosed by a high, spiked fence made from a bamboo-like substance. Nutun approached a gate of polished garaba wood, locked with chains and various elaborate mechanisms. He turned once to look back to where Garuvel stood in the afternoon's growing shadows. His eyes were fixed with satisfaction and steely will.
He turned back to regard the gate; Garuvel saw him begin to breathe in an odd pattern. Nutun's lips made popping sounds as he exhaled in short, powerful bursts, then hissed with a long, slow inhale.
The gate exploded inward. Links of chain dripped molten hot, the gate sagged on its hinges as springs flew from the locks. A bit of smoke was swiftly tattered by the wind.
Nutun leaped over the remains. He was encrusted with dirt; bits of leaf dangled from his ropy black hair. He pounced triumphantly into the courtyard of the Hefto's palace.
Garuvel decided to climb onto a low hanging balcony that seemed to have no adjoining room. It jutted, with several others, like an afterthought on the building's bulging facade. He clambered over a railing of wrought- metal serpents, and found a perfect vantage point. Behind him, rammed-earth walls of sickly pink and yellow curved away in either direction.
The Hefto waited before an arched doorway, at the top of seven broad steps of dark volcanic brick. He was squat, with arms and legs like the shanks of a bull. His head was shaved but for a long top-knot that bifurcated at the crown of his head and spilled to each brawny shoulder. He wore a leather vest and a skirt that resembled a butcher's apron. Beneath that were hide pantaloons and knee length boots tied with leather straps.. In his left hand was a spiked weapon on a wooden haft. It had four blades mounted at right angles to one another. Each blade had a different shape. One was a perfect crescent; the others were notched in various ways, designed to trap an opponents’ sword or spear. In his right hand, the Hefto brandished a weapon made of metal segments connected by metal rings. It had a handle the size of a man’s forearm. The next segment connected by a ring to the handle, followed by eight more segments, each connected to the next by a ring. The final segment was a tapering spike. The entire device gleamed in high polish. As he stood, coolly regarding the man who had demolished his gate, the Hefto swung this weapon easily, controlling the path of the device, changing its trajectory with his knee or his shoulder. It had somewhat the effect of a child expertly handling a jump rope. This rope, however, was made of steel weighing twenty pounds and could slice, crush, stab and impale.
Garuvel recognized the Nine Segment Whip, a weapon almost impossible to master, but lethal beyond credibility in the hands of one who knows its uses. The Hefto apparently knew its uses. As he and Nutun walked clockwise around the courtyard, he swung the Whip in hypnotic crossing patterns. The air hummed with the accelerating passage of the whip. It sang “Whoosh whoosh whoosh whoosh.” At intervals the Hefto purposely let the spike scrape the ground, and it spat a dusty divot into the air.
The Hefto’s eyes never left Nutun. He slowed the whip’s velocity.
"I see you got here," he said in an affable tone. His voice was a gravelly tenor, oddly high-pitched for a man with such a body. Beneath the fundamental note of his voice, there were many other tones, giving a faint impression that a crowd spoke in unison.
"You made me kill thirty five people." Nutun's voice was flat. His sword was drawn, held loosely in his right hand, low and pointing towards the ground. In his left hand a short sword had appeared. This was pointing into the air, so that the sword points were going in opposite directions. Nutun’s arms were spread wide, and as the whip swung, he raised and lowered each sword, countering the “X”s with crosses of his own. Left arm, short sword high, right arm, long sword low. Then reversed, as Nutun made slight shifts of his shoulders. Garuvel observed that if the lines of Nutun’s sword-hafts were connected they would form a perfect circle. Every way he moved the blades, his hands held to this circular geometry.
The Hefto stayed in his arc; he was biding his time. The whip’s reach was longer than that of Nutun’s sword.
"Nutun, you were always such a caring man,” he mocked. “The years haven't changed you. You're upset about creatures of the lowest quality. Not a decent fighter in the lot, just junk I picked out of the jails. They served their purpose; the citizens of Ifyonar need an occasional spectacle."
"You haven’t changed much, either, “ responded Nutun. “Otherwise I would not need to be here."
Before he had finished speaking, Nutun moved his body swiftly sideways, to dodge the spike of metal that the Hefto had sent streaking towards him. The Hefto pulled the whip back so that its midldle segment crossed his knee, then quickly unwound in the opposite direction. With a pivot of his hips, the Hefto regained control of the thing and resumed swinging its patterns. In his other hand, the Hefto made figure eights with the four-bladed sickle at the end of its burnished wooden haft.
Garuvel was analyzing how the two weapons worked together. Its greatest flaw, he realized, was its ostentation. It was too complicated a system. They were weapons of ego. The Hefto knew how to use them. His hands fit them with lethal aptitude.
Nutun's front leg bent slightly at the knee; his long blade came parallel to his right shin. His elbows bent as he drew the blade back to be at the precise angle. "What happened to my sister? Why was she pulled into the Black Cauldron? Or was she pushed?"
The Hefto laughed with derision, taking a step towards Nutun. "She felt that she couldn't remain married to us. She claimed that I had become morally corrupt. She said that we had stepped over the line from useful darkness to destructive evil." Again the whip raced towards Nutun, who moved away easily.
"You've never had the odor of sanctity about you." Nutun's eyes seemed unfocused, but they were seeing every secretive twitch of his enemy's muscles.
The Hefto swiped lazily with his sickle towards Nutun's ankle. “You merely tolerated us. I gave you some of the darkness you so desperately needed, to keep you vital, to keep you from becoming soft little mushrooms.” His voice dripped the syrup of contempt.
Garuvel was fascinated but baffled by the conversation.
“Now we’ve become free,” the Hefto proclaimed. "Liberated from goodness; unshackled from meaning. No longer a slave to so-called 'Cosmic Purpose'. No longer dependent upon the psychological crutch of a ‘Supreme Being’ who manages everything in the universe so that it makes sense. You should try it, Nutun. There is a vast realm of unfettered purpose, out here beyond the feeble morality of God."
Nutun's voice was pained. "There’s always a rationalization for the most hideous crime. Murder, rape, theft…..criminals have lovely excuses for their weakness. You are no different, Boraz. Now you have committed crimes beyond imagining. Your little nihilistic pose is just an excuse for having lost the courage of the Quest. You are the fallen angel."
Garuvel stored the interchange mentally, hoping to understand it later.
With a roar, the Hefto leaped toward Nutun. Metal whip, steel scythe, hairy arms and legs became a single vicious projectile. Nutun backed, parried. There was a flurry of sounds. Colliding metal blades sang with anguish. Pebbles and dust rose as the men’s feet went ‘retch retch retch’ in the loose gravel of the courtyard. The flying whip clinked on its rings like the sounds of coins spilling onto a pavement.
When Garuvel could see the two men distinctly, the Hefto was standing with his arms thrust straight away from his sides. His mucles bunched and fought; he grunted, but seemed unable to move.
Nutun was holding him fast with his eyes. The Hefto's eyes blazed back. Midway between the two men, the air glowed. The charred smell of burning molecules reached Garuvel on the balcony.
The hold broke, and the two men stumbled backwards, almost losing their feet. They scuffled for balance, faced each other again. The scythe whirled as the Hefto swung its haft in complex figures. For a fragment of a second, the motion distracted Nutun’s eyes. In that moment the whip raced out and trapped Nutun's sword between two of its segments. The Hefto pulled backward, drawing the whip tight. Nutun released the sword but The Hefto was prepared for the sudden loss of tension. He had planted his feet wide, with his body turned to face his opponent. Now he jumped forward so quickly that he got inside the reach of Nutun’s short sword. He wrapped his arms around Nutun, squeezing. Nutun dropped the short sword, as he caught the scythe by its haft to stop the Hefto from slicing open his head. The two men’s fists were together on the weapon’s handle, pushing in opposite directions. Grimy fingers and vein-bunched forearms clutched side by side, opposing forces moved back and forth with agonizing slowness. As the Hefto exerted himself, the scythe blade inched toward Nutun's left temple. The bundle of the mens’ fists trembled wildly. Grunting in short savage barks, they whirled twice, then stopped in a frozen tableau.
Garuvel's friend looked like a stick wrapped in dripping dough. The Hefto's yeasty body seemed to expand and engulf his enemy. Nutun, fighting for breath, uttered a desperate, strangled cry. There was a terrible sound of leather being squeezed, and perhaps bones cracking beneath Nutun’s jerkin. The Hefto was squeezing him to death. Then Nutun seemed to shrink further within himself, almost disappearing in the Hefto's grasp.
Garuvel waited, suspended between heartbeats.
Nutun found some last resource. He screamed and his voice seemed like a giant ladder, with each part of the scream a step; from bottom to top the scream made an ascent up those rungs until at the very height of its pitch, Nutun had gathered the force to release himself. His body suddenly and violently expanded, his trapped arm flew out, and his fist struck a twisting blow at the Hefto’s nose. There was a loud snap, and the Hefto lost his grip. He flew backwards and struck the fence, breaking several posts. Blood was leaking from his ears and nostrils, dripping onto his jerkin.
At that moment, another man came down the steps of the palace. "Chen-Seeck!” the Hefto screamed. “You’re not ready! Go back inside, at once! Obey me!”
The young male ignored the Hefto’s command. He was too old to be regarded as an adolescent, too young to be called a man. He came strolling lithely from the arch of the door. He was obviously the Hefto’s son. He was taller, more slender than his father, and his face wore an expression that was arrogant with unshakeable confidence in himself. He held no weapon other than a six foot wooden staff, burnished to a near-black hue. He carried the weapon lightly on his shoulder. As the Hefto rose to his feet, Nutun stood, breathing hard, his ribs pushing at his leather jerkin as his lungs worked. Bringing the staff into a combat position, the boy-man leaped down the steps, landing on the balls of his feet. He began to stalk Nutun Utulo.
This was no longer a Code Duel. With the appearance of Chen-Seeck, all rules were voided, all honor shattered. Garuvel leaped to aid his friend before the combination of the two men could kill him.
Garuvel drew his sword, “Whisper”, and interposed himself between Nutun and the son. Chen-Seeck smiled eagerly and took his staff in both hands.
Garuvel knew that a simple staff could be just as dangerous as a glittering array of metal weapons. His eyes met those of Chen-Seeck and he was chilled by what he saw. There was a flash of memory that dove through his mind as he avoided the staff’s first pass. The second pass was coming so quickly that he could only think, “Verleth”, before he turned to evade a straight thrust to his sternum.
He had feared and hated his brother, and he feared and hated this youngster. He had eyes that were certain, eyes that lacked humility, eyes that pulsed evil because they were completely self-absorbed and without conscience. The youngster had the face of a person who will always have the last word, who is set in his arrogance so deeply that he will never admit an error, never change. That is what Garuvel thought as the duel became serious, passed beyond easy testing into the seeking of another’s death.
He lost sight of Nutun and the Hefto. His eyes widened to take in everything that had to do with the staff and the boy/man that wielded the weapon. In that universe, he changed from poet to warrior in a heartbeat.
Chen-Seeck’s grip on the staff shortened and he took it in both hands about a quarter the way up its length. It swung with sickening speed towards Garuvel’s head. He ducked, and the weapon moved his hair with its passing wind. Garuvel was instinctively calculating three or four steps ahead, his mind raced with practiced intuition. He thought, “the boy knew he’d miss me. He’s setting me up for a high downstroke.” Then the staff was coming stright at him from above. He raised his sword and his arm jarred down to his shoulder and into his rib cage with the force of the blow. The sword would have cut through a staff of Garaba or Tenga wood, but it stuck briefly in Chen-Seeck’s staff before Garuvel freed it and pivoted so that he could see Nutun. Without words, each drew the other so that they were back to back.
Chen-Seeck was not as good as he thought he was. Something in his eyes broke. He went from thinking he would kill Garuvel with one or two strokes to being in a panic as he realized he was overmatched. Garuvel experienced a boiling fierce joy as he understood that the young man would die. It was like killing Verleth. He had always wanted to do this! His blood was up and there was no question of right or wrong; there was only kill or be killed.
Garuvel could feel the fight that Nutun was waging with the Hefto. Now he and his friend were at one another’s backs, dividing the Hefto and his son, multiplying their own power. A space of about six feet separated Nutun and Garuvel, so that each could pivot, turn, twist. Chen-Seeck tried to break the bond by putting his hands midway on the staff, about eighteen inches apart, and whipped it around so that its ends traced an hourglass figure. These toroids were difficult to break with a sword, and Garuvel almost gave way as Chen-Seeck shortened one hand and thrust to pierce Garuvel’s eyes. Garuvel extended his left arm and pushed the staff aside with the muscles below his elbow. He moved to within striking distance of Chen-Seeck, forcing the youth to wield his staff as if it were a blade. This reduced its advantage, and the pair dueled as if with swords. The sound of staff striking steel was a rocky “chink”, resonating like jade game pieces being wagered at a table.
Behind Garuvel, a cry of pain came from the Hefto. Pebbles splattered everywhere, grey dust rose in clouds and landed on the lips and eyelids with an irritating grit. Garuvel attacked. He moved forward inside the staff’s radius, taking a weak blow to the wrist as Chen-Seeck had no room to build his weapon’s speed. Then he found himself about two feet from the youngster, with his sword raised high and gripped with both hands. He slashed downward, saw the staff come up to attempt a parry. It was too slow, and he felt his weapon meet bone and flesh. The strength of the blow caused “Whisper” to cut through the fibula at the base of the neck, continuing down at an angle to neatly slice his enemy’s torso from shoulder to sternum.
A geyser of spraying blood went every where, landing in the dirt, staining the dust, splashing the mens’ clothes.
“Aaagh! You son of a whore’s cunt licker!” the Hefto bellowed. “You killed my son! His download wasn’t ready! I was making him immortal! Gods damn you to eternal hell!”
The Hefto fell to his knees and Nutun prepared to strike a killing blow.
“Fire on them, fire on them!” the Hefto shouted.
A volley of a dozen of crossbow bolts flew from the eye-shaped windows in the palace. Some stuck with hollow ticks into the dirt of the courtyard. Three of the bolts embedded themselves in Nutun’s body. One pierced the side of his neck.
Garuvel took two in his right arm and managed to elude the rest. His hastily prepared multi-skin gauntlets blunted the damage and kept the barbs from penetrating.
Nutun glared at his opponent. "I expected I might die today," he said with a sad grace. There was no fear in him. His throat was parched, the words came out cracked but they still held passion. “You violate everything! How sad, how terribly sad. You will be shunned everywhere you go. The avatars call you outlaw! You’ll never have a home. Eventually you will even shun yourself, and you will end your life alone with the person you most hate."
As Nutun spoke, Garuvel gathered his friend up, lifted him on his back and began to retreat towards the broken gate. Questions popped in his head like heated dried corn. He wasn’t so much in over his head as merely out of his element. He had no clue what was really transpiring. He had only his emotions to guide him.
The Hefto spit blood, wiped his arm against his eyes. He made a gesture with his hand, and a dozen armed, uniformed soldiers emerged from the palace to form a menacing phalanx.
"You must be joking," mocked the Hefto. A great spill of blood from his thigh was slowly drying; the wound seemed to be closing. "If we have entered the freedom of pure amorality, what meaning do things like laws and codes have? You are lagging behind, Melolos, you have killed yourself with your own ethics.”
Nutun clung to Garuvel's back, walking with one hand bunched in the material of his friend’s tunic. "Get me away," he whispered. "This can't end here. I am losing my strength."
The soldiers advanced in a crescent, attempting to block Garuvel and Nutun, while the Hefto hung back, laughing and screaming over the body of his son. He seemed completely insane.
Nutun and Garuvel became like a bladed wheel. The weight of Nutun’s body increased on Garuvel’s back; yet still Nutun fought with his long sword. They cut an opening in the circle of their foes and passed over the broken gate.
Garuvel lost all sense of thinking, planning, seeing. He was a pure fighting instinct, mind and body moving in swift unison. Blades came at his face; arrows poked at the barrier of his will. The Hefto's warriors flew backwards in a ragged pile. Garuvel helped Nutun through the city.
Suddenly the streets erupted with people. They were shouting, cursing, hurling bottles, rocks, garbage. Garuvel used his voice as a weapon. Drawing rage up from the base of his spine, he screamed a terrible sound. Ifyonar's inhabitants held their ears, shrinking back into their houses, wailing with dread. Empty market stalls collapsed; hovels caved in upon themselves.
Nutun slumped against Garuvel as they retraced their steps. The Hefto bellowed in the distance, urging his soldiers to pursue, but the zeal of his minions had diminished. As he looked back from the city gate, Garuvel saw his friend's blood trail.
"Nutun," he urged. "Do you know the Healing Whisper?" He felt his wounded companion nod. "Use it! Too much of your blood has gone."
"I am beyond that now, " Nutun croaked. He pointed to an arrow protruding from between his ribs. "That one has pierced a vital artery; I cannot bring the flow of Spang back into my aura."
Garuvel knew it was true. He felt his eyes sting; he felt an ancient grief, an emotion clutching his innards that he had hoped to avoid forever. But he was alive; and to be truly alive is to remain vulnerable to such feeling. There was no pushing it down into some blank region of his unconscious mind. He felt, once again, real grief. It was not like the grief that he had suffered when he lost his love, Vwanzila. It would not devastate his life but it was very deep, very personal.
It was Vwanzila who had taught him that he could not use the Realgift to suit his pleasure or convenience. He had watched her age, suffer and die. He had wanted to die with her, but she had convinced him that his destiny lay with the Realgift: that it must be cherished and defended. That it could never be used without the most rigorous moral questioning. Now he was pulled back into the same emotional current.
"Get me to some place where I can achieve my death-transfer," implored Nutun. His voice, his life was fading away.
Garuvel carried his friend from the city. He could hear the Hefto's hounds baying in the distance. He pulled Nutun's filthy, sticky body up the slope of Mount Emerald Fire.