“If we hurry,” Ethis repeated.
“So you're a tracker, eh?” Drakis said cautiously. “Odd you never mentioned this before. You seem to be a man of inestimable hidden talents, Ethis. Anything else about yourself you'd care to share with us?”
“Not at the moment,” Ethis said. “We've not the time.”
HIS IS MADNESS,”Urulani huffed.
“And to what particular aspect of this madness are you referring?” Drakis responded. The air weighed down on him, laden with the moisture from the night's rain. He was sweating profusely and having trouble keeping the salty liquid out of his eyes. The clouds had cleared with the rising sun but the warmth only served to increase his discomfort. “The fact that we are here at all? Or perhaps that we actually believe we can survive a thousand leagues from any help? I can think of a number of different ways that our situation would qualify as insane.”
“Did you include the fact that we're following a chimerian into ruins which we know to be deadly,” the captain said, sweat beading on her dark forehead, “in order to give a dwarf back a piece of rock? How about that we have happily left our stronghold because a proven traitor among us tells us some goddess none of us have ever heard of told her so? Was that on your list?”
“Well, we're apparently not
happy about that,” Drakis answered, pushing aside a massive fern frond, trying to keep Ethis and Mala, both of whom were ahead of him, in sight. “And I'll even admit that it was on my list.”
“She cannot be trusted, Drakis,” Urulani said as she followed at his heels. “Even the Lyric thinks she is insane.”
“This isn't the time, Captain.”
“We may not
another time,” Urulani snapped back. “I'm beginning to wonder if all you southlands humans are lunatics.”
What a horrible place,
he thought, as he made his way around a fallen pillar jutting out of the shattered stones of the nearly obliterated roadway.
Who in their right mind would want to live here? Who out of their right mind would want to live here either?
A quick smile flashed across his face. There were certainly enough people here to ask that question and get an answer with authority. The Lyric had not been in her right mind since House Timuran fell and it was beginning to look as though Mala had joined that particular tribe as well. Mala's new obsession with having seen a goddess and fleeing back into the jungle ruins looking for some “living road” made just about as much sense as the Lyric. Maybe they were all destined to that fate, he thought as he struggled to keep his footing over a pile of loose stones between a row of bushes with thorns nearly as long as his hand. Perhaps it was an inevitable result of breaking the magical bonds that had held him in a blissful stateâinnocent of the true horror of his life as a slave. What had his freedom won him except misery, suspicion, and a journey that had brought him to die in a land far from anything that he had ever known? All this because his name happened to be the same as the one mentioned by some long-dead poet and because everyone else, it seemed, wanted the story to be true.
“Well, if I am insane,” Drakis said, entering a small section of the road where the cobblestones were fitted so tightly together that they had kept the jungle foliage at bay, “I wish it were in a more pleasant climate. What do you think, Captain? Does the fact that I would rather die in more pleasant surroundings prove me sane or not?”
Urulani smiled slightly. “I think that leaves the entire question open.”
“Well, Ethis must be crazy,” Drakis stated looking ahead of them. “He's carrying the dwarf.”
Urulani looked up as well, peering through the jumble of broken walls, street, and plants. Jugar was strapped to the back of the chimerian, lashed down like scowling cordwood being hauled to market. “He's the only one who could shoulder the little fool. The dwarf's none too happy about it, but his comfort is the least of my concerns.”
“What about the Lyric?” Drakis wiped his brow again but it did not seem to help.
“She's ahead of us, too,” Urulani reported as she scanned the thick undergrowth around them. “The Lyric seems to be keeping up better than I am. I'm more comfortable with a deck under my feet. Land is hard for me. What about your wondrous goddess-talker?”
“Up ahead,” Drakis replied.
“With Ethis?” Urulani said, raising one dark eyebrow.
“Yes,” Drakis nodded, not wanting to be drawn into that particular argument. “With Ethis.”
The roadway they were following could barely be discerned as having ever lived up to the name. Ferns and thick brush, as well as a number of towering trees, had laid claim to the ancient path. From roots to leaves they had broken up the evidence of man's ordered mind and handiwork over the centuries, until only scattered pieces remained. If there had once been far-seeing towers, they were now obscured by the enormous trees growing in thick succession. Only jumbled fragments remained. The ruins of Pythar were, to Drakis, a metaphor for madnessâlike making one's sad way through the remains of greatness that no longer functioned or even made sense.
They had left the cliff-city as soon as they could gather what remained of their belongings. Ethis asked them to go down by the same stairs they had come up the previous day. Their intruder had apparently come to them some other way, which Ethis believed too dangerous for Mala or the Lyric to traverse. He had gratefully left Urulani off of that list as Drakis was coming to appreciate the captain of the Sondau Clan and knew that any inference of her being weak might well have ended in blows exchanged. Ethis said the trail led downward and that he and the dwarf would meet them at the base of the stairs once he knew where the trail went. Drakis half believed the chimerian would dump the dwarf and disappear altogether, abandoning them, but Ethis arrived as promised. He showed them a passage to the other side of the broken bridge and onto what once had been a wide boulevard, now choked with vegetation.
Ethis, followed closely by the suddenly enthusiastic Mala, led them down the broken avenue. They passed several ruins whose remains made Drakis' heart ache for their lost and ruined beauty: a partial wall with frieze carvings across its face forming compelling patterns within patterns; a fountain which, though long since nonfunctioning, intermingled its own perfectly crafted stone leaves with those of the surrounding plants; or a staircase, rising to nothing with stone riser posts formed to look like jumping fish. In each case, Drakis felt the ghostly presence of artisans who were long dead. Who carved that frieze, he wondered? What hand held the hammer and the chisel? To whom did they go at the end of their day's labor? The evidence of their hands was everywhere, and Drakis struggled to comprehend their loss.
Four separate streets intersected the boulevard. Ethis paused for a moment, his head and body rising slightly as he turned around. His voice was lowered when he spoke, “They're back.”
“Back?” Urulani said. “The hunters, you mean . . . or whatever they're called?”
“Yes,” Ethis said.
“Can we get back to the cliffs?” Drakis asked at once.
“No,” Ethis said, shaking his head. “They're coming from the cliffs. The markings lead this way. Come on!”
He dashed down the avenue to his left, weaving across the fitted stones among grass blades that were nearly ten feet tall.
“Where are we going now?” Urulani asked as she adjusted her grip on her sword.
“One foot after the other, Captain,” Drakis said, drawing his own sword. “Anywhere but here.”
They both ran after the others into the opening formed by the remaining stones of the road. It was a ragged course, but Drakis soon realized that it
a path. In places, he noticed, the stones did not fit the pattern of the remaining road. There were large, flat stones laid across the ground that bridged the grass between sections of the old avenue.
A loud rustling sounded behind them. Whatever was following them had plunged into the tall grasses. Either they did not know of the path or they were heedless of it. Drakis glanced back and could see the tops of the grass blades violently shaking behind him and to his left.
He gritted his teeth, concentrating on the path before him and the back of Urulani, who was running the twisted way in front of him.
With shocking suddenness, they emerged from the grasses into another clear intersection. This area appeared to be burned, as though a fire had passed through a few seasons before. Ahead of them, the Lyric and Mala were running toward a black thicket of brush that looked as though it were spilling from one of the branching alleys. Ethis was standing in front of it, waving them on.
There was an opening in the wall of brush. Mala and the Lyric had already passed into the opening.
Drakis and Urulani ran across the space quickly and ducked into the low opening, passing Ethis. There was an obvious path beaten into the ground, again weaving back and forth deeper into the thick brush.
“Ouch!” Urulani exclaimed quietly.
Drakis looked at her.
Her arm was bleeding near the shoulder. The brush was filled with razor-sharp thorns.
Ethis came in behind Drakis, pulling a woven patch of the same thorny materials behind him and sealing the way behind them. As Ethis turned, the dwarf strapped on his back swung toward Drakis.
suffered such indignities in my life!” Jugar was almost purple with rage, his spittle flying at Drakis' face, only a hand's breadth between them. “Slung to the back of this thieving bendy like I was one of his rubber-bottomed offspring . . .”
“Silence, fool,” Ethis hissed. “We're not alone.”
Straw-thin rays of sunlight were all that penetrated the thicket, the branches of the thorn-covered brush so thick around them that it was impossible to see anything beyond. Ethis raised one long hand, holding his palm toward Drakis and Urulani.
The thicket shook suddenly with several impacts, each followed immediately by whooping and screeching sounds that they felt as a chill in their bones. Shadows moved across the face of the thicket, blotting out shafts of light back and forth. Ethis turned to Drakis, his expressionless face registering concern for the benefit of his companions. Then he motioned with his hand for them to continue farther into the thicket.
“This path is no accident,” Drakis whispered to Urulani.
They emerged from the thicket into an enormous plaza, its grounds also burned to stubble where the grasses were just starting to reestablish themselves. Broken columns on either side lined the area that was nearly fifty feet across and more than three hundred feet in length. At the far end stood a wall nearly three stories high with additional crumbling walls and structures holding it vertical. The remains of buildings lined the great square. The rest of their companions were waiting nervously for them.
The terrible whooping sound came again from the left. Others soon joined it in chorus, beyond the ruins across the square and from the ruins to their right.
“Now where?” Drakis demanded of Ethis.
The chimerian's head moved in swift jerks as he took in the area around them. “That way,” he said, point to their right. “Down the length of the plaza! Run!”
“Oh, no!” cried the dwarf. “Not RUN!”
Ethis plunged ahead of them, all four of his arms swinging with the effort of his dash, the dwarf roaring now in pain with every step. Drakis had the Lyric by one arm as they both dashed down the center of the plaza together. Mala ran alone, her auburn hair bouncing in the wind behind her.
Ethis suddenly skidded to a halt in the center of the plaza.
Drakis nearly fell over trying to stop short of running into anyone. “What is it?”
“It ends,” Ethis said in blinking astonishment.
“What ends?” Urulani demanded.
“The trail,” Ethis said. “It ends right here!”
“I think you may be right for once, chimerian,” Jugar said after drawing a deep breath. “Look!”
They were swarming over the ruined walls.
They might have been mistaken for humans except for the long, barbed tails. Their legs were different, too, double segmented with both forward and backward knee joints. Their feet had a heel claw and elongated toes with long claws at the end as did the hands at the ends of their immensely powerful arms. The bones of their faces were angular, ending in jutting spiked bones. Their wide mouths were filled with long, sharp teeth.
Their scales shone in the sun as they screamed.
They flowed like a tide over the ruins from all directions at once, surrounding the plaza. They crept forward, crouching down on all four appendages, coiling muscles to strike.
Drakis raised his sword, wondering just how tough the hides of these horrors would prove to be. There would be no time for words. Even if there were, he had nothing to say.
The stone beneath their feet suddenly shifted, tipped, and dropped beneath them. Caught off-balance, they all tumbled into each other, sliding sideways down the stone into the darkness.
The monstrous horrors screamed as one, leaping forward toward their prey, but it was too late.
The stone had already risen back into place.
Their prey had vanished into the earth.
RAKIS ROLLED OVER QUICKLY, his right hand desperately searching for his sword.
“Sorry,” he said, moving his hand in a different direction across the stone floor.
“Touch me again with that hand and you'll lose the arm that goes with it!” Urulani snapped.