Authors: Martin Ash
Leth nodded tensely, scanning the woods. 'The Portal has effectively come to us. Is it deliberate or mere chance?'
The five dismounted. The seeking eye led them up a sparse winding trail for about a hundred paces between stunted oaks and thrusts of limestone. They came to a small glade atop a knoll, and there before them was a hazy discolouration of the air, approximately circular in form, resting a little distance above the earth.
Shenwolf gazed upon it and nodded. 'Aye, it is from this that I came into the world.'
Leth motioned them back. 'Take cover. Now we wait.'
They concealed themselves behind a screen of nearby trees. An hour passed and then the small, semi-transparent globe of the seeking device that had located Urch-Malmain in Orbelon's World appeared in front of Issul. It made a series of agitated motions. Issul leapt to her feet. 'This is it! Urch-Malmain is alone in the chamber of the Living Artefact. Move swiftly.'
Leth drew his sword. He looked from her to the children, to Shenwolf. 'Are you all ready?'
They nodded. Leth placed the sapphire helm over his head, lowering the visor. The others donned the helmets Triune had given them. The eye-slits of each, including Leth's, were obscured by strips of reflective metallic gauze. Through this gauze they could see without difficulty, but to the Noeticist, or anyone else gazing upon them, their eyes were concealed.
Leth moved to the Portal. He was to leap through first, with Shenwolf immediately on his heels. They aimed to take Urch-Malmain alone and unawares on the other side. Galry and Jace would follow immediately with Issul.
Leth glanced around once to ensure they were all with him, then stepped up without hesitation into the Portal. His body seemed to freeze for a pulsebeat, seized in a shimmering light, then he was gone. Shenwolf followed upon the instant.
Issul lifted Galry and Jace together. They clung to her sleeves.
'It's all right,' she reassured them hurriedly. 'I’m coming with you, but we must be quick.'
She kissed them both. 'Release me now.'
As they let go she eased them gently into the Portal. She watched for an agonized heartbeat as their small perfect forms shimmered and vanished. She stepped up to push herself through, and was dimly aware of a soft, heavy thumping sound. She half turned. There was a blurred brownish movement at her side. Something locked around her, gripping her powerfully and propelling her away from the Portal. She struggled, crying out, but her arms were pinioned to her sides. She was lifted off the ground and borne away. Glancing down she saw that she was held by a long, powerful arm clad in shaggy, thick drab-brown fur. A foetid, stale reek assaulted her nostrils.
Issul twisted and kicked but was helpless in her abductor's grip. She was carried along at a rapid lurching pace, then, after perhaps half a minute, thrown to the floor. She fell, half-dazed. Something rolled her onto her back and an irresistible weight pressed down upon her. Huge hirsute figures were moving around her, towering against the sky.
Through a haze of pain she distinguished a grating male voice, harsh, mocking and familiar.
'Hah now, the Issul bitch! Deluded miltpot! Whore of the Soulless! Now you may witness the end that you deserve.'
She could half-see Grey Venger above her, at the edge of her vision. She heard him laugh, a wild jubilant jabber, then hawk and spit. She felt the tepid slime of his sputum collect upon her lips.
Issul retched, and strained, but grullags held her arms and legs firmly to the ground. Something struck her head a glancing blow. Then a face, closer than Venger's, descended until it was just inches from hers, and another voice whispered mockingly in her ear.
'Hello, dear Aunt Issul,' said Moscul. 'I did wonder when I would see you again. I’ve missed you so.'
Through the frantic haze a single thought hammered into her mind:
'Are the children safe?'
She was dazed and disorientated. It had happened so fast. She had had no time to think.
Yes! Yes! She had seen them pass into the Portal. She had put them there herself, and had witnessed them vanish in the haze.
They were with Leth.
But safe? In Urch-Malmain's domain?
She could barely believe it. To be parted from her family again.
. Her thoughts spun around and around, anguish and disappointment flooding her, an imponderable weight lying upon her limbs, deadening the blood in her veins. For a moment she lay limp and unresisting, her spirit gone.
Rough hands were tearing at her hauberk and clothing. Her legs were pulled apart. With new horror she saw Grey Venger lowering himself between her thighs. His hands were tugging at his waistband; his eyes
blazed, a leering grin on his face.
Issul's life returned. She writhed with every fibre of strength in her body, but she was held fast and helpless by immensely muscled grullag arms. Grey Venger drew back his lips, his wet tongue flickering along their length, showing stained teeth. He thrust down his trousers and inclined himself over her.
It was Moscul who spoke.
The Legendary Child. His voice was that of a four-year-old boy, yet it was clear, calm and resonant with authority. 'Not now. Uncle Leth may return to look for her, and we don't know what he might bring with him.'
Issul glared up at Grey Venger, sick with her hatred. It seemed that his lust had the better of him, that he was prepared to ignore the Legendary Child. His face was contorted in some dreadful transport. He squeezed shut his eyes and threw back his head, twisting and arching his neck, shuddering, froth bubbling at his mouth. Between his teeth he let out a long, rasping breath. Then his eyes opened, glazed and unfocused, and rolled upwards into his skull. His jaw had gone slack. He curled his lip and drew back, quivering.
Abruptly Issul was yanked to her feet. Her wrists were bound behind her. She was lifted and slung across a grullag's shoulder. With Moscul skipping close beneath her she was borne off with jolting, loping strides into the forest.
Urch-Malmain stood hunched before the living artefact, observing its intricate array with a glassy, glittering gaze. He was garbed in a long purple robe, a short, slender rapier buckled at his waist. With his good hand he kneaded his bony chin pensively.
From within the artefact the entity, Aztin, spoke. 'A visitor comes!'
Urch-Malmain glanced up in surprise.
Before Aztin could reply a figure materialized suddenly within the Portal. Urch-Malmain jerked back in startlement.
Leth took two swift paces forward and slammed his fist into the Noeticist's face, sending him sprawling onto his back to the floor.
'Try nothing!' he warned as Urch-Malmain scrambled away in shock.
'I am a cripple! I am a cripple! How dare you!' bawled Urch-Malmain.
'Be silent! Try nothing. Your powers are worthless. Hear me. I am sent by both Orbelon and Triune. Harm me and you are lost.'
At these names Urch-Malmain grew quiet and still.
Shenwolf had appeared in Leth's wake. He slipped past and wrenched open the door of the chamber. An Abyss warrior was stationed outside. He turned. Shenwolf's dagger slid cleanly between his ribs. The warrior uttered a soft surprised gasp; his life departed him and his corpse crumpled to the flagstones.
Shenwolf dragged the body into the chamber and pushed the door almost shut, leaving just a narrow gap. He positioned himself so that he might peer through and view the stairs outside.
'If any others come, you will order them to throw down their weapons,' Leth commanded Urch-Malmain.
'What do you want?'
'For now, to talk without interruption, chicanery or bewitchment.'
'May I stand?'
Leth nodded. Urch-Malmain clambered to his feet, rubbing one shoulder and touching the back of a hand tenderly to his cheek where it had met Leth's fist. His eyes were moist and offended. 'How valorous, Swordbearer, to charge in here like a berserk blue armour-clad ape and bully an invalid!'
Leth ignored him. Urch-Malmain squinted at his helm and the reflecti
ve visor. He mouthed something beneath his breath, then looked at Galry and Jace. His eyes lit up. 'Ah, are these your lovely children again? Have they have come back to see me also? I am honoured and charmed. Except . . . there are too many of you. You crowd this space. It is uncomfortable. Would you be so kind as to leave now, please'
Leth leaned forward and drew free Urch-Malmain's rapier from its scabbard. Urch-Malmain's manner disconcerted him. While the Noeticist had plainly been taken unawares, his self-recovery was remarkable. His attitude now was slyly jovial and knowing. He seemed suddenly to be almost relishing the situation.
From within the living artefact murmurs and whispers began to issue.
'Swordbearer! It is the Swordbearer!'
'The Swordbearer, yes. What does he want? What does he want?'
'Iss, bring Galry and Jace away from the Portal,' said Leth. There was no response. '. . . Iss? Issul?'
He stepped back from Urch-
Malmain, his sword levelled at the Noeticist's throat, and quickly flicked a glance over his shoulder. Instantly he knew alarm.
'Galry, Jace, where is your mother?'
The children turned to the Portal. 'She was with us,' Prince Galry said, and his voice quavered. 'She said she was coming.'
Neither child's face was visible, but their voices tore at Leth's heart; they were distressed and struggling to hold back their fear.
'Perhaps she had another, un
missable appointment,' quipped Urch-Malmain. 'It happens. Sometimes one forgets these things.'
Leth shouted to the entity, Aztin, 'Aztin, have you blocked the way and prevented her passage?'
'I have done nothing,' replied Aztin in a peeved voice.
Leth issued a curt command. 'Shenwolf, go back. Find out what has happened to Issul.'
Shenwolf strode without hesitation across the chamber to the Portal.
'No!' declared Urch-Malmain. 'Aztin, allow no one through!'
Shenwolf stepped beneath the silver arch. Nothing happened.
'Urch-Malmain, I will slay you here where you stand,' seethed Leth.
'Then do so,' replied the Noeticist. 'And you will be trapped here forever, never finding what you need. And please step back a little, Swordbearer. Your proximity is truly an offence against my person.'
breath shuddered. All advantage was lost, all surprise gone. Roles were reversed. Urch-Malmain smiled a crooked smile. 'Well, I think we are in a better position to engage in a little haggling now, aren't we.'
The voices of the Portal entities grew more dominant.
'The Swordbearer has returned!'
'The Swordbearer! The Swordbearer! What is his purpose?'
'Does he commit crimes?'
'Does he wish to slay Master Urch?'
'Why does he bring such violence?'
Urch-Malmain grew impatient and ordered them to shut up. Shenwolf stepped angrily from the Portal and returned to his station at the door.
'So what is it you want, Swordbearer?' enquired Urch-Malmain. 'And put away your sword, you impetuous king. It is no longer relevant.'
Leth fought with the urge to drive the blade through Urch-Malmain's heart.
avail you nothing,' said Urch-Malmain, and Leth had the discomfiting feeling - as he had had before - that his enemy had read his mind. Urch-Malmain continued. 'I admit, I am surprised to see you. I sent servants to find you and just three returned, all bedraggled with self-pitying tales of capture and escape. I thought you were lost to me. And now you come rudely bursting in, committing injury upon my person and murdering a guard without provocation when I thought you desired nothing more than to be wholly free of me. You are an enigmatic fellow.'
Leth was in turmoil. Issul's failure to appear had utterly shaken him. He glanced back again and again at the Portal, praying to see her standing there. But she did not come. What could have happened?
He was seized by indecision.
What now? I cannot abandon it all. But Iss . . . Issul. . .
Urch-Malmain was peering at the visor again.
'Intriguing. A pathetically simple device, yet should I try to meet your gaze I see only my own reflection. Hmm. An old trick. Should I try to alter the minds of any one of you, would I succeed only in mesmerizing myself? Plainly, that is your belief. Or your hope, at least. Well, we shall see. But you name my two dear and ancient friends, Orbelon and Triune. What of them? Are they well? They have sent you here? Do they extend fond greetings? What do they wish of me?'
Quite suddenly Leth became aware of the tone of his voice: a silky monotone delivered with quiet and sure calculation.
'Cease!' Leth ordered loudly. He felt his mind was swimming, and recognized that Urch-Malmain had taken the moment, was directing his voice in such a manner as to lull him into reverie. He blinked several times, clearing his thoughts, ever more conscious of the power and guile of the foe he faced.
'Leth, what is troubling you?' enquired Urch-Malmain, then uttered a squawk as Shenwolf stepped up from behind him and slipped a blindfold over his eyes. 'What is
this! How dare you! This is an outrage!'
'Beware his voice, also,' warned Leth.
Shenwolf was tying Urch-Malmain's arms. 'Shall I gag him too?'
'No, we must talk. But be alert to his wiles.' He addressed Urch-Malmain again. 'You surely know the answer to your question. They seek their Souls.'
Urch-Malmain's fleshy lips curled. 'Their Souls? And they believe I have them?'
'Or have knowledge of where they were hidden by Strymnia.'
'I see. The bargaining position becomes clear.'
'Is it so?'
Urch-Malmain did not answer directly. 'What do I stand to gain by giving you this information?'
'Hah, Leth, to you take me for a cabbage-head? Do they? Orbelon and Triune will never permit me to return to Enchantment.'
'You are wrong. They have no wish to destroy you, as you must surely know. The death of any one of you diminishes Enchantment. It is ironic, but they wish you back among them - so long as they are in possession of their Souls. They do not even seek to destroy your mentor, Strymnia, only to temper her strivings.'
'She was never my mentor!' snapped Urch-Malmain with sudden pique.
'It matters not. You are surely aware that Triune controls the tail of the Portal. She also observes us now. Without her assistance you will never be permitted to leave Orbelon's World.'
Urch-Malmain cocked his head as if darting his gaze around the chamber from behind the blindfold, seeking evidence of Leth's statement. He grimaced irefully. 'Triune . . .'
He let the words trail away.
Leth saw no reason to inform him that Triune could not hear their conversation. Nor was he prepared to reveal that Triune's 'control' of the Portal's tail was limited indeed. He wondered
, had Triune seen what had become of Issul?
'We should discuss this Portal also,' Leth said. 'Are you aware of what you have done here?'
'You are bringing about the death of Orbelon's World.'
'What is that to me?'
'If you are trapped here, it is everything, so I would have thought. But the process will wreak catastrophic effects upon our own world, too. You are undoing yourself.'
Urch-Malmain shook his blind head. 'The process is reversible provided that action is taken soon. When I am free I will have the Portal dismantled. The energy accumulation will be redistributed and dispersed.'
'Both Orbelon and Triune are interested only in their Souls,' said Leth. 'Without them they are finished. They cannot withstand Strymnia,
nor you if they allow you to return. I think you know them and can recognize the truth of my words. They will not under any circumstances allow you liberty until they are in possession of their Souls.'