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Handling a Valkan kite in any sort of breeze demands skill, nerve and strength. Young Inky had the first two in abundance; but the third... Well, now, young Inky was only a little lad, full of fire and spirit and years away from growing into his full strength. Every now and then I swear his feet left the ground.
He was laughing. The wind snatched his curls and tumbled them about his flushed cheeks. The breeze freshened and the kite swayed and rose and Inky really did go up.
That, I decided, was enough. I turned my back on the panorama spread out far below the clifftop. Valkanium's new buildings gleamed in the light of the suns and the waters of the Bay spread in glittering magnificence. Up here the air held the combined perfumes of sea and land, the fresh salty tang mingling with the aromas of shrubs and flowers as the ruby and emerald lights of the twin suns mingled in streaming radiance upon the world of Kregen. Looking at Inky, I turned away, too, from the clifftop fortress and palace of Esser Rarioch, my home.
Inky stared up, fascinated. His bare feet trailed across the turf as the kite pulled. I hastened my stride. If he went over the cliff...!
"Look!" he called, hanging onto the line, staring up. "Look!" His feet touched the turf and his bare toes curled and dug in. The line slackened. I looked up.
With sharp talons hooked over the top bar of the kite, a superb bird, all gold and scarlet, turned his fierce head sideways to glare down upon me. I knew him. Oh, yes, I knew this splendid bird. Inky could see him too and this did not surprise me. The Gdoinye, the messenger and spy of the Star Lords, may sometimes be seen by theinnocent at heart as well as crusty reprobates like me. When he spoke, cawing down his truculent message, I do not believe Inky heard anything other than the cry of a bird.
"Dray Prescot! You are required at once! The Star Lords in their wisdom afford you this, for their demands are not to be questioned, yet—"
I felt the breath rush from my lungs. A mist fell over my eyes.
"No!" I started to shout, hearing nothing, seeing nothing save an all-encompassing blueness. Above me, gigantic, reared the phantom Scorpion, enormous through the swathing mists, his blueness enveloping me in coldness, darkness and a fate I could not avoid.
Head over heels, spinning, the Star Lords hurled me from the high clifftop by Esser Rarioch in Valka, hurled me —where?
The Star Lords were in a hurry. As I felt the coldness bite into my bones I knew what that haste meant. Someone had fouled up. A Kregoinye, sent to do the bidding of the Everoinye, had failed. So the Everoinye hoicked out their expendable, their trouble-shooter, the fellow they'd used many times to patch over a hole in their careful plans. I felt heat.
Flames roared and coiled all about me and smoke stung my eyes and choked in my nostrils. The transition had been quick, deuced quick, by Vox! I stood in a burning building. That was the emergency, then, and I had to find the person the Star Lords wanted rescued. Yet the first and most important item I noticed was simply this —I was fully clothed! I wore my decent russet tunic cinctured with my old leather belt with the dull silver buckle. This belt carried various pouches of use. From separate belts hung my rapier and main gauche. I wore no shoes or sandals, bare-footed as Inky had been.
The floor, I may say, was hot.
Wisps of smoke drifted from the floorboards to join the gusts of foul-smelling smoke jetting from the walls and ceiling. This was a sizeable hall with wooden pillars supporting a beamed roof. The wood flamed. The stink of some unnameable substance permeated the suffocating air. Blazing beams bent and collapsed and smashed down in smothering avalanches of sparks. Half-shielding my face and eyes I peered around, feeling as though I was a scrap of meat thrust too precipitately into the fire. Smoke writhed like phantom snakes and sheets and fangs of fire darted everywhere.
Spouting sparks, a beam crashed down making me skip out of the way most smartly. Beyond the hedge of fire two bodies lay in contorted attitudes. This was the reason for my summary arrival here at the behest of the Star Lords.
Trying not to inhale the smoke and trying to shield my eyes I leaped the blazing beam. The man was nearest. He had worn a mail shirt and carried two or three swords and daggers; now he was just charring. I turned my attention to the girl. She had not yet burned and as I bent closer I saw she was not yet dead. She wore an odd-looking outfit consisting of a green slashed jerkin and tights, daggers snugged in sheaths at her waist. Sparks smoldered in her dark hair and I stopped to bash them out. Something bright and golden winked beside the man's curled fingers and swiftly I picked up a golden trinket and stuffed it away in my pouch. Then I hoisted the girl and started to find my way out of the furnace.
A pillar wreathed in tendrils of flame abruptly bent, broke and collapsed. The beam it supported smashed into the floor, through the floor, and took with it the best part of the aisle between the pillars this side of the hall. I suppose I must have looked like a beast at bay as I turned to seek another way out of this blazing bedlam.
Head down, cradling the girl, feeling the heat blistering my feet, I started for the nearest aisle between the columns. Spouts and gouts of flame licked up the wooden pillars, scarlet and orange transparencies, moth wings of destruction. There was no way through there. I hauled up and a beam smashed down to join the burning wreckage cumbering the floor. There was no way out at my back and each side roaring columns of fire blocked off sight and sense. The incessant crackling noise battered at me. I realized I was doing a strange kind of dance, lifting one foot and then the other, performing a weird hornpipe trapped there in the fiery furnace.
No way out through the aisles or doors, certainly no way up —therefore the way out was down.
Smoke continued to jet from the joins in the floorboards. The floor had once been highly polished and the wood seethed with a brown boiling scum. I could see no railing around stairs down. By this time the smoke made seeing even more difficult, to add to the constant half-closing of my eyes against the ferocity of the light and the sheer heat of the place. I began to feel the Star Lords had this time landed me in it far up past my armpits.
Copyright © 1991, Kenneth Bulmer.