About the Author
The bestselling author of more than 100 books, Alan Dean Foster is one of the most prominent writers of modern science fiction & fantasy. Born in New York City in 1946, he studied filmmaking at UCLA and first found success in 1968, when a horror magazine published one of his short stories. He is the author of the popular Pip & Flinx novels as well as dozens of film novelizations, including Transformers, Star Wars, the first three Alien films, and the story for the first Star Trek film.
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The most powerful man in the world couldn't sleep.
At least Hymneth the Possessed thought of himself as the most powerful man in the world, and since those few who might have contemplated disputing him were no longer alive, he felt comfortable with having appropriated the title to himself. And if not the most powerful man, then he was certainly the most powerful mage. Granted that there might be a handful of imprudent individuals foolhardy enough to stand before him as men and women, there were none who dared confront him in the realm of the arcane and necromantic. There he was the Master of masters, and all who dabbled in the black arts must pay him homage, or suffer his whims at their peril.
Yet despite the knowing of this, and the sum of all his knowing, he could not sleep.
Rising from his bed, a graven cathedral to Morpheus that had taken the ten finest wood-carvers in the land six years to render from select pieces of cobal, redwood, cherry, walnut, and purpleheart, Hymneth walked slowly to the vaulted window that looked out upon his kingdom. The rich and populous reach of Ehl-Larimar stretched out before him, from the rolling green hills at the base of his mountaintop fortress retreat to the distant, sun-washed shores of the boundless ocean called Aurel. Every home and farm, every shop and industry within that field of view acknowledged him as supreme over all other earthly authorities. He tried to submerge his soul in the warmth and security of that understanding, to let it wash over and burnish him like a shower of liquid pleasure. But he could not.
He couldn't shake the accursed dream that hadkept him awake.
Worse than the loss of sleep was his inability to recall the details. Nebulous, hazy images of other beings had tormented his rest. Awake, he found that he was unable to remember them with any degree of resolution. His inability to identify them meant it was impossible to deal with their condition or take steps to prevent their return. He was convinced that some of the likenesses had been human, others not. Why they should disturb him so he could not say. Unable to distinguish them from any other wraiths, he could not formulate a means for dealing with them directly. The situation was more than merely irritating. Priding himself as he did on the precision with which he conducted all his dealings, the persisting inexactitude of the dream was disquieting.
He would go out, he decided. Out among his people. Receiving their obeisance, grandly deigning to acknowledge their fealty, always made him feel better. Walking to the center of the grandiose but impeccably decorated bedroom, he stood in the center of the floor, raised his arms, and recited one of several thousand small yet potent litanies he knew by heart.
Light materialized that was solid, as opposed to the feeble sunbeams that entered through the tall window. Taking the form of small yellow fingers that were detached from hands, it set about dressing him. He preferred light to the hands of human servitors. The feathery touch of commandeered glow would not pinch him, or forget to do up a button, or scratch against his neck. It would never choose the wrong undergarments or lose track of a valuable pin or necklace. And light would never try to stick a poisoned dagger into his back, twisting it fiercely, slicing through nerve and muscle until rich red Hymneth blood gushed forth over the polished tile of the floor, staining the bedposts and ruining the invaluable rugs fashioned from the flayed coats of rare, dead animals.
So what if the digits of congealed yellow light reminded his attendants not of agile, proficient fingers but coveys of sallow, diseased worms writhing and twisting as they coiled and probed about his person? Servants' flights of torpid imagination did not concern him.
While the silken undergarments caressed his body, the luxurious outer raiment transformed him into a figure of magnificence fit to do sartorial battle with the emperor birds-of-paradise. The horned helmet of chased steel and the red-and-purple cloak contributed mightily to the plenary image of irresistible power and majesty. Seven feet tall fully dressed, he was ready to go out among his people and seek the balm of their benison.
The pair of griffins who lived out their lives chained to the outside of his bedroom door snapped to attention as he emerged, their topaz cat eyes flashing. He paused a moment to pet first one, then the other. Watchdogs of his slumber, they would rip to pieces anyone he did not escort or beckon into the inner sanctum in person. They could not be bribed or frightened away, and it would take a small army to overpower them. As he departed, they settled back down on their haunches, seemingly returning to rest but in reality preternaturally alert and awake as always.
Peregriff was waiting for him in the antechamber, seated at his desk. After a quick glance at the two pig-sized black clouds that trailed behind the sorcerer, he rose from behind his scrolls and papers.
"Good morning, Lord."
"No it is not."Hymneth halted on the other side of the desk. "I have not been sleeping well."
"I am sorry to hear that, Lord." Behind the ruddy cheeks and neatly trimmed white beard, the eyes of the old soldier were blue damascened steel. Nearly six and a half feet tall and two hundred and twenty pounds of still solid muscle, Peregriff could take up the saber and deal with a dozen men half his age. Only Hymneth he feared, knowing that the Possessed could take his life with a few well-chosen words and the flick of one chain-mailed wrist. So the ex-general served, and made himself be content.
"Strange dreams, Peregriff. Indistinct oddities and peculiar perturbations."
"Perhaps a sleeping potion, Lord?"
Hymneth shook his head peevishily. "I've tried that. This particular dream is not amenable to the usual elixirs. Something convoluted is going on." Straightening, he took a deep breath and, as he exhaled, the air in the room shuddered. "I'm going out today. See to the preparations."
The soldier of soldiers nodded once. "Immediately, Lord." He turned to comply.
"Oh, and Peregriff?"
"How do you sleep lately?"
The soldier considered carefully before replying. "Reasonably well, Lord."
"I prefer that you did not. My misery might benefit from company."
"Certainly, Lord. I will begin by not sleeping well tonight."
Behind the helmet, Hymneth smiled contentedly. "Good. I can always count on you to make me feel better, Peregriff."
"That is my service, Lord." The soldier departed to make ready his master's means for going out among his people.
Hymneth took pleasure in a leisurely descent from the heights of the fortress, using the stairs. Sometimes he would descend on a pillar of fire, or a chute of polished silver. It was good to keep in practice. But the body also needed exercise, he knew.
As he descended, he passed many hallways and side passages. Attendants and servants and guards stopped whatever they were doing to acknowledge his presence. Most smiled; a few did not. Serveral noted the presence of the noisome, coagulated black vapors that tagged along at their master's heels, and they trembled. Passing one particular portal that led to a separate tower, he paused to look upward. The woman was up there, secluded in the small paradise he had made for her. A word from her would have seen him on his way exalted. That was not to be, he knew. Not yet. But he had measureless reserves of confidence, and more patience than even those closest to him suspected. The words would come, and the smiles, and the embraces. All in good time, of which he had a fullness.
He could have forced her. A few words, a pinch of powders, a few drops of potion in her evening wine and her resistance would be forgotten, as frail and fractured as certain tortured tracts of land to the east. But that would be a subjugation, not a triumph. Having everything, he wanted more. Mere bodies equally magnificent he could acquire with gold or spell. A heart was a much more difficult thing to win. He sought a covenant, not a conquest.
With a last look of longing at the portal, he resumed his descent. Passing through the grand hall with its imposing pendent banners of purple and crimson, its mounted heads of sabertooths and dragons, arctic bears and tropical thylacines, he turned left just before the imposing entryway and made his way to the smaller door that was nearer the stables.
Outside, the sun was shining brightly, as it usually was in Ehl-Larimar. Several stable attendants were concluding their grooming of his chariot team: four matched red stallions with golden manes. The chariot itself was large enough to accommodate his cumbersome frame in addition to that of a charioteer. Peregriff was waiting on the platform, reins in hand. He had donned his gilded armor and looked quite splendid in his own right, though he was both overshone and overshadowed by the towering figure of the caped necromancer.
The scarlet stallions bucked restlessly in harness, eager for a run. Hymneth found that he was feeling better already. He climbed into the chariot alongside his master of house and horse.
"Let's go, Peregriff. We will do the population the honor of viewing my magnificence. I feelI feel like bestowing a boon or two today. I may not even kill anyone."
"Your magnanimity is truly legendary, Lord." The old soldier chucked the reins."Gi'up!"
Snorting and whinnying, the team broke forward, speeding down the curved roadway that led up to and fronted the fortress. Through the massive portico in the outer wall they raced, sending dust and gravel flying from their hooves. These were inlaid with cut spessartine and pyrope. Catching the sunlight, the faceted insets gave the team the appearance of running on burning embers.
Down the mountainside they flew, Peregriff using the whip only to direct them, Hymneth the Possessed exhilarating in the wild ride. Down through the foothills, through groves of orange and olive and almond, past small country shops and farmhouses, and into the outskirts of the sprawling country metropolis of wondrous, unrivaled Ehl-Larimar.
Looking back, he found that he could see the fortress clearly. It dominated the crest of the highest moutain overlooking the fertile lands below. But the direction in which they were traveling prohibited him from seeing one part of the fortress complex, one particular tower. In that obscured spire languished the only unfulfilled part of himself, the single absent element of his perfection. It bothered him that he could not see it as the chariot raced onward.
Inability to sleep, inadequate angle of vision. Two bad things in one morning. Troubled but willing to be refreshed, he turned away from the receding view of his sanctuary and back toward the wild rush of flying manes and approaching streets.
Manipulating the team masterfully, Peregriff shouted to his liege. "Where would you like to go, Lord?"
"Toward the ocean, I think." The warlock brooded on the possibilities. "It always does me good to visit the shore. The ocean is the only thing in my kingdom that's almost as powerful as me."
Without a word, the soldier cracked the long whip over the team. Instantly, they swerved to their right, taking a different road and nearly running down a flock of domesticated moas in the process. Mindful of the increased pace, the twin ebon miasmas that always trailed behind the necromancer clung closer to his heels. When a brightly hued sparrow took momentary refuge from the wind on the back of the chariot, they promptly pounced on the intruder. Moments later, only a few feathers emerged from one of the silken, inky black clouds to indicate that the sparrow had ever been.
They sped past farmers riding wagons laden with goods intended for market, raced around slow, big-wheeled carts piled high with firewood or rough-milled lumber. Iron workers peered out from beneath the soot and spark of their smithies while nursing mothers took time to glance up from their infants and nod as forcefully as they were able.
Through the sprawling municipality they flew, the chariot a blazing vision of carmine magnificence illuminating the lives of wealthy and indigent alike, until at last they arrived at the harbor. Hymneth directed his charioteer to head out onto one of the major breakwaters whose rocky surface had been rendered smooth through the application of coralline cement. Fishermen repairing nets and young boys and girls helping with the gutting of catch scrambled their way clear of the approaching, twinkling hooves. Buckets and baskets of smelly sustenance rolled wildly as they were kicked aside. In the chariot's wake, their relieved owners scrambled to recover the piscine fruits of their labors.
Within the harbor, tall-masted clippers and squat merchantmen vied for quay space with svelte coastal river traders and poky, utilitarian barges. Activity never ceased where the rest of Ehl-Larimar met the sea. Gulls, cormorants, and diving dragonets harried stoic pelicans, jabbing and poking at the swollen jaw pouches of the latter in hopes of stealing their catch. Except for the inescapable stink of fish, Hymneth always enjoyed visiting the far end of the long stone breakwater. It allowed him to look back at a significant part of his kingdom.
There the great city spread southward, terminating finally in the gigantic wall of Motops. Two thousand years ago it had been raised by the peoples of the central valleys and plains to protect them from the bloodthirsty incursions of the barbarians who dwelled in the far south. Ehl-Larimar had long since spread southward beyond its stony shadow, but the wall remained, too massive to ignore, too labor-intensive to tear down.
Northward the city marched into increasingly higher hills, fragrant with oak and cedar, lush with vineyards and citrus groves. To the east the soaring ramparts of the Curridgian Mountains separated the city from the rest of the kingdom, a natural barrier to invaders as well as ancient commerce.
Under his rule the kingdom had prospered. Distant dominions paid Ehl-Larimar homage, ever fearful of incurring the wrath of its liege and master. And now, after years of searching and inquiry, the most beautiful woman in the world was his. Well, not quite yet his, he self-confessed. But he was supremely confident that time would break down her resistance, and worthy entreaty overcome her distaste.
Unlike the commercially oriented, who employed boats and crews to ply the fecund waters offshore beyond Ehl-Larimar's fringing reefs, solitary fisherfolk often settled themselves along the breakwater and at its terminus, casting their lines into the blue-green sea in hopes of reeling in the evening's supper or, failing that, some low-cost recreation. A number were doing so even as he stood watching from the chariot. All had risen at his approach and genuflected to acknowledge his arrival. Allsave one.
A lesser ruler would have ignored the oversight. A weaker man would have dismissed it. Hymneth the Possessed was neither.
Alighting from the chariot, he bade his general remain behind to maintain control of the still feisty stallions. Trailing purple and splendor, his regal cape flowing behind him, he strode over to the north side of the breakwater to confront the neglectful. Peregriff waited and watched, his face impassive.
Other fisherfolk edged away from his approach, clutching their children close to them as they tried their best to make their individual withdrawals inconspicuous. The last thing any of them wanted to do was attract his attention. That was natural, he knew. It was understandable that simple folk such as they should be intimidated and even a little frightened by the grandeur of his presence. He preferred it that way. It made the business of day-to-day governing much simpler.
Which was why he was taking the time to query the one individual among them who had not responded to his arrival with an appropriate gesture of obeisance.
The stubble-cheeked man was clad in long coveralls of some tough, rough-sewn cotton fabric. His long-sleeved shirt was greasy at the wrists with fish blood and oil. He sat on a portion of the breakwater facing the sea, long pole in hand, two small metal buckets at his side. One held bait, the other fish. The bait bucket was the fuller of the two. By his side sat a tousle-haired boy of perhaps six, simply dressed and holding a smaller pole. He kept sneaking looks at the commanding figure that now towered silently behind him and his father. The expressionless fisherman ignored them both.
"I see by your pails that the fish are as disrespectful of you as you are of me."
The man did not flinch. "'Tis a slow morning, and we had a late start."
No honorific, the necromancer mused. No title, no "Good morning, Lord." By his slow yet skillful manipulation of the pole, Hymneth determined that the fellow was not blind. His reply had already marked him as not deaf.
"You know me."
The man gave the rod a little twitch, the better to jog the bait for the benefit of any watching fish. "Everyone knows who you are."
Still no praise, no proper acknowledgment! What was happening here? It made no sense. Hymneth was fully aware that others were watching. Surreptitiously, covertly as they could manage, but watching still. He would not have turned and walked away had he, fisherman, and child been on the far side of the moon, but the presence of others made it imperative that he not do so.
"You do not properly acknowledge me."
The man seemed to bend a little lower over his pole, but his voice remained strong. "I would prefer to be given a choice in who I acknowledge. Without any such choice, the actual execution of it seems superfluous."
An educated bumpkin, Hymneth reflected. All the more important then, to add to the body of his edification."You might be more careful in your choice of metaphors. The use of certain words might inspire others, such as myself, to employ them in another context."
For the first time, the fisherman looked up and back. He did not flinch at the sight of the horned helmet, or the glowing eyes that glowered down at him. "I'm not afraid of you, Hymneth the Possessed. A man can only live so long anyway, and there are too many times when I find myself thinking that it would be better to die in a state of freedom than to continue to exist without it."
"Without freedom?" The wizard waved effusively. "Here you sit on these public stones, on this beautiful day, with your son at your side, engaging in a pursuit that most of your fellow citizens would consider a veritable vacation, and you complain of a lack of freedom?"
"You know what I'm talking about." The fellow's tone was positively surly, Hymneth decided appraisingly. "Ultimately, nothing can be done without your approval, or that of your appointed lackeys like the stone-faced old soldier who waits silently in your chariot. You rule ultimately, tolerating no dissent, no discussion. Throughout the length and breadth of all Ehl-Larimar nothing can be done without your knowledge. You spy on everyone, or have it done for you."
"Knowledge is a necessary prerequisite of good governance, my man."
"Ignoring the will of the people is not." Again the pole was jiggled, the long, thin wisp of a line punctuating the surface with small black twitches.
"It's a dangerous thing for people to have too much will." Stepping closer, Hymneth knelt directly behind the man so that he could feel the warm breath of the Possessed on his own dirty, exposed neck. "It makes them restless, and upsets everyone's digestion. Much better simply to live and enjoy each day as it comes, and leave the matter of willing to another."
"Like you." Still the man did not flinch, or pull away. "Go aheaddo your worst. It can't be any worse than the rest of my luck this morning."
"My worst? You really do think ill of me, don't you? If you were more worldly, my man, you'd know that I'm not such a bad sort, as absolute rulers go. I have no intention of doing anything to you." The front of the helmet turned slightly to the right. "Fine boy you have there." Reaching out a mailed hand, Hymneth ruffled the child's hair. The expression on the face of the six-year-old was of one torn between uncertain admiration and absolute terror.
For the first time, the fisherman's granite resolution appeared to falter ever so slightly. "Leave the boy alone. Deal with me if you must."
"Deal with you? But my man, I am dealing with you." Reaching into a pocket, the necromancer removed a small stoppered glass vial. It was half full of an oily black liquid. "I will not trouble you with the name of this elixir. I will tell you that if I were to sprinkle a couple of drops of it onto this fine stalwart young lad's hip, it would shrivel up his legs like the last overlooked stalks of summer wheat. They would become brittle, like the stems of dried flowers. Walking would cause the bones to splinter and shatter, causing excruciating pain no doctor or country alchemist could treat. Then they would heal, slowly and agonizingly, until the next time he took a wrong step, and then they would break again. And again and again, over and over, the pain as bad or worse with each new fracture, healing and breaking, breaking and healing, no matter how careful the young fellow strove to be, until by adulthood, if he survived the pain that long, both legs had become a mass of deformed, misshapen bony freaks useless for walking or any other purpose except the giving of agony."
His helmeted face was very close to the fisherman's ear now, and his commanding voice had dropped to a whisper. The man's face was twitching now, and several tears rolled down his stubbled cheek.
"Don't do that. Please don't do that."
"Ah." Within the helmet, a smile creased the steel shrouded face of Hymneth the Possessed. "Please don't do thatwhat?"
"Please . . ." The fisherman's head fell forward and his eyes squeezed tight shut. "Please don't do thatLord."
"Good. Very good." Reaching over, the warlock ran a mail-enclosed forefinger along the young boy's cheek. The little lad was quivering now, manfully not crying but obviously wanting to, shivering at the touch of the cold metal. "That wasn't so difficult, was it? I'm leaving you now. Remember this encounter with pride. It's not every day that Hymneth the Possessed stoops to converse with one of his people. And be sure to respect my departure appropriately." The silky voice darkened ever so slightly. "You don't want me to come back and talk to you again."
Straightening to his full, commanding height, he returned to the chariot and stepped aboard. "Let's go, Peregriff. For some reason the ocean doesn't hold its usual cheer for me this morning."
"It's the woman, Lord. The Visioness. She preys on your thoughts. But her misgivings will pass."
"I know. But it's hard to be patient."
Peregriff ventured an old soldier's smile. "The time spent in extended contemplation will make the eventual resolution all the more agreeable, Lord."
"Yes. Yes, that's true." The sorcerer put a hand on the older man's arm. "You always know the right thing to say to comfort me, Peregriff."
The white-maned head dipped deferentially. "I try, Lord."
"Back to the fortress! We'll have a good meal, and deal with the turgid matters of state. Let's away from the stench of this place, and these people."
"Yes, Lord." Peregriff rattled the reins and the magnificent mounts responded, turning the chariot neatly in the limited space available. As it turned, Hymneth glanced in the direction of the breakwater's edge. The people there were standing, poles set aside, hats in hand and heads bowed reverentially. The head of one particular man was set especially low, as was that of his son. Both were trembling slightly. Seeing this, Hymneth let his gaze linger on them for longer than was necessary, even though he knew it was petty of him to find enjoyment in such trivial exercises of power.
Then Peregriff chucked the reins forcefully, shouted a command, and the chariot leaped forward, racing down the breakwater back toward the harbor, the city, and the stern cliffs of the Curridgians. Food awaited, and drink, and contemplation of the as yet unattained comeliness of his special guest.
Something darted out in front of the chariot, scrambling frantically to avoid the pounding, approaching hooves of the scarlet stallions. A black cat, skittering across the chariot's path.
"Look out," the necromancer yelled, "don't hit it!"
Even though it brought them dangerously close to the edge of the breakwater, Peregriff obediently and expertly utilized the reins to angle the galloping chargers slightly to the right. Spared, the unprepossessing cat vanished into the rocks. Looking back sharply, Hymneth tried to locate it, but could not.
Having guided the striding stallions back to the middle of the breakwater, his chief attendant was looking at him uncertainly. "Lord, it was only a mangy stray cat. No loss if it were killed."
"Nono loss." Hymneth found himself frowning. What had that singular moment been about? For just an instant, something had burrowed into and infected his state of mind, causing him to act in a manner not only unbecoming but atypical. Whom had he been panicked forthe cat, or himself? It was very peculiar.
Two inexplicable incidents in little more than as many minutes. First the fisherman, then the cat. It was turning out to be an idiosyncratic morning. One that, for reasons unknown and despite Peregriff's best efforts to cheer him, saw him finally reach the fortress still unsettled in mind and more ill at ease than he had been in years.
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