PREVIEW OF MACHIVARIUS POINT
The snug in “the Sayer’s Alms” afforded the three mercenaries a fine view of the landlady’s generous arse jiggling beneath a threadbare linen skirt. Woebeg smacked his lips, nodded his head in appreciation. Once Captain of the Brookbane Elite, he would recount his exploits to anyone within earshot - if they sat still long enough. He wiped his mouth on a stocky forearm, heaved himself forward, elbows on table, chin on back of hands. “So anyways, Brookbane is going fucking crazy, see? The flanks are taking too long, much too long to close in on the damned Nefarean shit-swillers, so he’s loosing men quickly.” He drew a diagram in a spill of ale on the tabletop to illustrate. “So now the bastard - I swear you’ve never seen anything like it - the crazy bastard pushes his personal guard aside and runs at the Nefars, just runs at them! And he starts screaming, screaming like a fucking lunatic: “You fucking dog fuckers! You fucking shit-eating fucks!” Hah! That huge black axe of his took down a good ten of them with one fucking blow - no shitting you! - And they just, well they just started to fall apart around him. He was this black whirling death. They couldn’t even get close.”
Woebeg reached for his Long Ale thoughtfully, sank a throat-full of the bitter liquid.
“What got me though, what I really couldn’t believe if I hadn’ seen it, witnessed it with these eyes, was what Brookbane - big fuck - did next: He just stopped, didn’t he? Stopped dead and stared at them! And you know what? The stupid crap-eating bastards just stopped and stared back! They didn’t know what the fuck to do! Brookbane, cool as you like, reached up and pulled off his helmet. Handsome fucker he was, grin like a crescent moon. “Give you a fair chance,” he shouts, “you dog-shagging Munger-fuckers!” and then he rushes at them again! This time he takes twenty, thirty of ‘em, and we’ve - you know, after seeing that - we’ve all got our helmets off and are going crazy too! We’ve all gone fucking feral, fucking berserk, and that’s when - finally! - the flanks closed in and finished the fuckers off. Shame is, you know, that if he hadn’t taken off his damn helmet…”
Remorse flitted across Woebeg’s wide face like a shadow.
“Well. You know the rest.” He drained his glass. “I assume, Tunny Mal-Tuboly, that the next round is yours?”
“I believe, old mate, that you are correct in that assumption! Same again chaps?” Tunny, rotund face barely visible behind black locks, that vast beard, rose unsteadily and weaved a passage to the bar, leaving Woebeg and the Ornish giant alone.
Pellaq had been studying Woebeg throughout the evening, looking for signs that he was the right man. He sensed in him something not quite whole - an absence - but otherwise, nothing. Pellaq had expected to know immediately if Woebeg was an ether-worker, a Warloq - wielder of magiks, a power capable of turning events so that Arddn, and this whole perception of reality, might have a future. Pellaq was distraught to find Woebeg such a disappointment, but he buried his feelings deep. “It must be so,” he thought, “it must be he.”
The former captain was a short man. His red hair was thinning, unkempt. While not long, his broken nose took up a large portion of his face width-wise. He had a strong jaw, intelligent blue eyes. Eyes he now fixed on Pellaq, searching the giant in turn. “So, Pellaq, why are you here, eh? Clearly not to visit the old temple!”
The giant adopted the accepted role of his kind when he answered, predictably: “There are no temples for the soul-less.”
For the Ornish, an act of violence, no matter the provocation or circumstance, would lose the perpetrator’s soul to the Munger - the Undead God. “Soul-less” Ornish often became mercenaries, their lives rendered pointless. It had become a death cult.
But giants die hard.
“I’m looking for is a man.” Said Pellaq. “Someone to organise, put together - let’s call it - a recognizance expedition. There’s a lot of important people worried about what’s rumoured to be brewing in Sutzeria, specifically Duhn. Tell me, have you heard of “the Wayfarer”?”
Woebeg snorted. “Balor Dark-eye? So-called “Soul-pike” and “Munger-spawn”? Yes, I’ve heard of him, every soldier has. I bet every child in Arddn knows some dark fucking story about the Wayfarer just now. Good fucking propaganda that! Scare us shitless first, eh?”
“Yes. The Warlordt of the Nefareans.” said Pellaq. “He’s commanding the Emperor’s operations from his base at Machivarius Point, we think – but there’s a lot we don’t know for certain. I’ll tell you it as it is, Woebeg, as we have very little time I think. No time at all, really, so it has to be so. We – those who have entrusted me with this operation - need to create a small, pretty much independent affiliation of mercenaries, fighters - the best. People we can trust, or who’s trust we can buy. And we need a leader. Someone prepared to try and infiltrate the Wayfarer’s inner circle. Maybe even attempt an assassination. Failing that, we require information. Captain Ban Errieu, your fame precedes you. Wherever I look, I find you. Aetuland is in danger. So I’m asking you; do this for us out of love for your country. And if not that, well then, do it because there is a great deal of money and land on offer.’
“How much up front?” Asked Woebeg.
Outside, in the shadow of the Sayer’s Alms, Pellaq leaned heavily against the wall. No ordinary Soul-less, for reasons even he could not as yet fully comprehend, he chose to continue his immersion into the “Echoes-To-Be” - ripples across the membranes of existence, agents of future possibilities. He studied under a tolerant Ornumnae Priest called Pellafinn. At first the priest had thought working with a Soul-less was distasteful, but he soon found it had many advantages. Pellaq brought with him knowledge of the politics, the hairline balance of power abroad in the continental mainland. Information Pellafinn could work with. The arrangement was clandestine, but it suited both well. Pellaq had learned of the end-of-times, the “Lynchpin”. He gleaned who presented the only possibility of a future for their reality. Over time it had been revealed - in whispers and smoke, frail yet compelling - what he must do. Yet now Pellaq was disheartened. He questioned his knowledge, all he had learnt. He railed. How could it - of all the men, all the Ornish, the Sayers - how could it be this man?
“Ah, but y’ are a fine woman!” Woebeg breathed into heron’s ear from behind. “I’ve a proposition to make...”
“You’ll remove your hands from my breasts or be barred!” She swung round and faced him, narrowing her eyes.
“But Heron, you don’t understand...” He lurched - another attempted embrace - twisted awkwardly, and spiralled into an ill-kempt heap on the floorboards.
“You’re drunk.” There was disdain, fists balled and planted on full hips.
“I’ve got money now, Heron love! Lots of it! Damn it woman! Can’t you see I want you? How much I - I fucking love you Heron? You, me, we could go somewhere; set - I don’t know - something up together! Just you and me, love. You and me.” He gazed up at her, tried to muster a little charm, but he was ill advantaged, and, less still, liked.
“Oh! I see now. You think you can buy me!” She shook her head, smoothed the sheets on the guestroom pallet - more out of irritation than necessity. “And what kind of a woman does that make me? Is that the level of respect you have for me now?”
Woebeg frowned. “Lordt, no, woman, that’s not what…”
“Do you think I’m looking for wealth, Woebeg? Is that it? I have all I ever wanted right here. This was my dream, nothing more. You’ve nothing you can add to it. I see what you’re up to - all those declarations, flowers, endless gifts - they don’t impress me. People talk, Woebeg. And I’ve heard you drunk, bragging about being “the thumb on Lordt Brookbane’s right hand” in the “grand old times”. But soldiery; it don’t hold a glamour for me. Never did. Conflict, killing people... You’re all bleedin’ fools! Like big bloody children you are, all fighting over bigger children’s play-things! Tonight I heard you boasting about how, apparently, you’ve been “entrusted with a secret mission for the Ornish”! Secret? Secret in what way exactly? Half the patrons of the “Sayer’s Alm’s” are waiting outside every night to relieve you of some of that gold you’ve been flashing around! So. What is it all for, Woebeg? Did the Ornish give it you to spend trying to impress me? Or do you really have something of value to do with it?”
Woebeg’s gaze dropped.
“If you’re any kind of a man at all you will do the job you were employed to do, and you’ll leave me bloody well alone. I don’t love you. I’m sorry. Never will. You’ve got to understand that. I’m not a soldier’s girl, Woebeg! Go do the thing you’re supposed to do. Do something right, if there is such a thing for a man like you. Do it well.”
“But. Heron. Please.”
He watched from the floor as her buttocks disappeared behind a slammed door.
Unexpectedly his eyes began to sting.
Thrashers plummet, their wings flaming. The riders strain to control the dives, but the beasts, consumed with pain and fear, spiral in chaotic panicked arcs to bloody deaths on rocks below. Nuddfegh Ho raises a slender white arm and a boulder, ten footfalls across, shoots into the air trailing sulphurous death.
A mauve arc of light splits open a thumb-wide gap in the world, horizon to horizon, severing Nuddfegh’s left arm below the elbow. He turns, quickly; as if it has not happened, runs forward, pulling his double-handed sword single handedly from its scabbard. It parts air with preternatural grace, writing the Killing Karnaghk. The defenders go down with appalling ease, and Nuddfegh keeps charging forward, towards the “Temple in the Deep”, screaming like Thotlan.
Then he’s before it, his blade high, descending fast, too fast…
Hergal opened his eyes. Blinked. It took him a moment to remember where he was, the little guesthouse he favoured in Peribold Walk. It had been another long boozy night in Tantrix-Alumnae, and he felt old. Had it been his doing, all of this? Could he in some way be tied to whatever energy – malignancy - was rendering null the paranatural across so many worlds?
“No.” he muttered. “I did not start this.” But the stated conviction was not echoed in his thoughts. He sat up, rubbed his brow with the heal of a palm. “Stop fucking haunting me!”
His old memories played tricks, often undistinguishable from persistent dreams. He thought it might be his basic magikal essentia conjuring a djinni, a phantom abhoration. That his great age had fouled his essence, made it impure with too much accretion - too many harboured memories of other lives to remain true to himself. All those angry other-selves - lives he had lived over appropriated centuries, upon other worlds - crying out to be set free, to be manifest again, and solid. A succubus, he had worn the bodies of other men as an Avatar, annexing their life spans. But he always returned to Arddn, to this body, this mind; Lordt Hergal Ban Egan, frost-eyed, fastidious, complex. In quiet moments he longed to be them all again. He had loved them. But the disturbing recollections concerning Nuddfegh Ho confounded him. He could not recall how long ago he had been Nuddfegh. Where he had been Nuddfegh, or if he had ever been Nuddfegh beyond the confines of a fever-dream. His cognizance was dissipated, incomplete, confused.
Hergal shook his head, rose groggily and shuffled to the window. “I am who I am. Whoever that is.”
Peribold Walk reverberated with chatter in the mid-day balm. Hergal regarded the circles of animated discussion with awakening interest. There was something occurring nearby. Numerous mercenaries, swiftswords, curmudgeons and dicers, filed down the narrow cobbled street towards the throughfare to Pontifrax’s Ring, and more specifically he guessed “the Sayer’s Alms”. Soft-skinned nobles passed comment in hushed tones, their faces revealing distaste and envy. A hush descended as a large Sayer passed by - horned, golden robed, elegantly feline. Some nobles spat, but quickly looked away less he touch them eye-to-eye.
Hergal’s mood further darkened. Such ethereal creatures withered under the crush of time, unmarked graves awaiting them.
“They fear what they no longer know.” He thought. “Well then. Let them fear.”
The man who sat facing Cherry Longorn in “the Sayer’s Alms” did not instil her with confidence, regardless of what his reputation suggested. It was said he had neither compassion nor fear upon the battlefield. That he was murderous. A butcher. Uncanny in violence.
Cherry thinned her lips, not liking him. Woebeg might be their leader, she thought, but it was an Ornish endeavour. She would be part of it whatever. It was a matter of history. There had been promises.
Woebeg had heard many tales of Cherry Longorn. An implausible creature of profound exotic beauty, she was a mercenary’s legend, an almost-myth. Though her true heritage was unknowable, it had been culled and crafted, improvised out of hearsay, a very few facts, into something credible. Over battlefield campfires, in a thousand Aetuland barracks, her story had been told and retold:
The daughter of a Soul-less mercenary and an Aetuland Noblewoman, she should have died long before birth. It was near unheard of for such unions to result in conception, and they never went full term - Idle Noblewomen were known to tussle with Soul-less mercenaries for this very reason. Cherry proved to be the rare exception. Her mother died giving birth to the enormous child after carrying her more than a year - it had been assumed that early signs of a pregnancy had been mistaken, and later that she carried twins. Cherry was bundled off to Ork on the isle of Gann, to be raised amongst the Ornish priestesses at their high temple. Of course her aristocratic family would wipe all trace of her from their histories. She would never be allowed to discover who she really was.
She would also never reach Gann.
A Nefarean Dragship, it was said, attacked the heavy-laden sea-barge, killing the sailors and looting the stores. They found the jet-black baby girl - whose eyes were as dark as a Kushnan night, even in the whites, but who’s hair blazed crimson, like the setting sun - and carried her off to Nefaria, a treasure.
At twelve years old Cherry, named for the red “o” of her lips, was six spans in height. Stronger than most men. Lavished with gems and exotic garments, yet caged in a gilt chariot, she was hauled from city to city, an exhibit. Men would pay to wrestle her. Nobles to bed her. Cherry Longorn was the most outré spectacle the continent had witnessed in a thousand years. She represented a fading past, was a last flourish of ancient legerdemain. She was also a captive, a slave, of unknown parentage and dubious origin.
At fourteen, Cherry sickened. Her satin skin began to dry, breaking open in raw cankers and weeping. Her celebrated hair fell out in clumps. The tendons of her hands began to constrict, tighten, curving sinuous fingers into claws. Her Nefarean masters were quick to realize there was little profit to be made with her in such a condition. Exhaustive treatments failed to return her health, so she was abandoned by the Silk Way in Ypo-Polaria; ailing, and frozen half to death.
Two days later there had been a rescue, of sorts. Despite her distressing condition the fat merchant recognised her for who she was. Never wealthy enough to enjoy her at the time of her celebrity, he had often been amongst the spectators. He clothed her, watched her lasciviously as she picked at the dry salted meat he proffered. All the while he thought of the stories he would tell. Cherry Longorn! He could hardly believe his good fortune. She should thank him, he had thought, for his kindness. Maybe she would beg to stay with him, who knew? He smiled to think how he would say he had spurned her while she begged - begged him! - for the comfort of his arms. How he would relish the incredulous gasps of fellow merchants! But he would need some kind of proof. A lock of hair perhaps? It was no matter. He would think of something.
That night he took what he obviously felt he deserved in a singular, brief act of rape. The following morning she killed him, along with his two attendant mercenaries - her training had made her lethal. Life had not bred her for compassion, and the merchant had little deserved it anyway. She took from one of the paid armsmen a short Kushnan stabbing sword, twisting its hilt painfully into the claw of her right hand, binding it there. The scabbard she fitted pointing upwards at her left shoulder, a leather loop to keep her hand, and the sword, in place while she got on with living. She could now defend that life.
For the first time ever, she was free.
She became a thief and an outlaw. Sometimes she chose to travel with mountain bandits, way-lay men. On occasion they would overpower and rape her. It would have been better had they killed her, as they would all suffer for their betrayals with imaginative, terrifying deaths. Her reputation soon ensured it happened less and less.
But her condition remained unstable, and eventually worsened. Once more she was dying, alone in a russet autumnal forest, somewhere east of the grand steppes of Nefaria. The rags she wore bonded with raw, seeping skin. She was unable to open her eyes for the cloying matter that caked them. Cocooned in her own discharge she shivered, cradled in the roots of a twisted Elm, awaiting the Munger’s kiss.
A clutch of stocky Dolomites waited nearby, sniffing the air for death. The blind scavengers shifted their maggot-white bodies impatiently from stump to stump, but scampered away screaming as the traveller neared.
He gently lifted the wretch, cradled her in his vast arms. A day later she sipped a little rabbit broth infused with medicinal herbs from his satchel. A week beyond that she lay naked in his arms as he bathed her in the warm volcanic pools that welled in the Ypo-Polarian foothills. He was entranced, watching intently as she recovered beauty lost to her. Laying her on his roab-skin cloak he bound up the remaining lesions that marred her legs, her arms, placed a compact - root extracts, crushed barks and fungi - over her still closed eyes. Finally, painstakingly, he eased open her hands, removed the sword, and bound them too with a medicinal compress.
Later, as he cooked a Marsh Hare over a small fire, she spoke to him for the first time.
“Why? Why are you here? Why are you doing this?” She whispered.
He paused some time before answering, and when he did his voice was tremulous. “Because we are the same, you and I. Because you are young enough to learn, I think, that not all men are the same. But you can, you must try to, see the goodness that also exists in this, in all worlds. There are echoes in everything that can be read, did you know? And they told me to seek you here – but it’s more complex than that. Sometimes we don’t own our destiny, not really. This part of my life was not my own, it was yours. Come here, do this thing. I saw it, so I came. Because, even if you have no soul - especially if you have no soul - life is always sacred. It may be all we have after all.”
“But - why wouldn’t I have a soul?’ she asked.
“Why?” The Ornish wanderer was aghast. “Don’t you know what you are?”
Cherry looked momentarily scared. She had never met anyone who had any idea what she was, or where she had come from. If they had, they had not told her.
The traveller could not fill in the details of her conception, her birth - he did not know them - but there were legends of her kind amongst the Ornish - of the rare survivors of human and Ornish couplings. It was most likely, he said, that a Soul-less warrior had sired her. That therefore she would have no soul. It was a cruel tradition, but such was the Ornish desire to avoid violence it had become inviolable.
Neither one could recall how interwoven their tragic yesterdays had been, and he did not dwell on things yet to come. He could not help but see the wounded child as anything else but that which she was. She cried herself to sleep in his arms that night, and something within him broke for a second time.
When the bandages were removed from her eyes Cherry’s rescuer had gone. She squinted into the dim light of the room, tried to find details in the blurred shapes moving around her, affix images to the voices and names. Whilst unsure how long she had been travelling, Cherry did know she had passed through the eastern reaches of the Nefarean Empire, crossing over the dark waters of the Sutzerean Straights into Sutzeria itself. The loss she felt when her companion left was profound, and this without ever laying eyes on him. He had been the first to show her any true kindness, but that was not all. Instinctively she knew they were bonded to each other, irrevocably.
“One day I will come back for you.” He had said.
He never told her his name.
Once her eyes had recovered she was led from Nor-Thal, a small settlement in Nudd Bay, to Tantrix-Alumnae. Here an Ornish priest, Iutznefydd-Baal Pellafinn, took care of her. He provided a small apartment in the Flacks, continued her treatment. She grew strong, became quite a celebrity in the bright oval city. After years travelling the continent she was an adept with language, could stand her ground with the city wags. But Cherry had lived a harsh life. She found it hard to settle in the little city. The narrow walkways, dimmed by tall, overhanging Ornish buildings, grew oppressive. She was restless. The fight with life had been cast in her and it fuelled her. Without the need to fight she felt unsure of herself, so she took the path chosen by her father and so many other Ornish Soul-less: She had the saga of her life, as she understood it, gleaned and charted in fine red tattoos across her skin - interweaving the faint pink scars of her prolonged illness.
She became a mercenary.
One brisk winter dawn she marched out of Tantrix-Alumnae into the world. She did not return for seventy-six years.
The message Cherry received in Aetullia had seemed urgent. She was needed, it said. When she arrived back at Pellafinn’s chambers asking questions the old priest had berated her for her absence, the stories of her exploits that had caused him such worry, but he had told her to go down into Tantrix-Alumnae and wait. She would be found. Cherry was about ready to move on again when the Soul-less mercenary had come for her. Giant, even by Ornish standards, his arms rippled in motion like the surface of an energetic stream. His were the wide flat shoulders of a born swimmer, and there was something of the hound in his long torso - deep chested, narrow at the waist. His expressive hands were strong and fine. They matched his face. His violet eyes were hard to look into for the torment that haunted them, but with profound clarity she realized that she loved Pellaq the moment their eyes met. She would have given him her own soul, had she one to give. She saw the sorrow he endured, an unspoken, terrible loss. (Cherry thought she knew about loss.) Though he would not say it, she also knew that it had been he who had saved her. That he had been true to his word: He had come back for her. Moreover, she knew he loved her. Had always loved her. She trembled inside, noticed how his hands shook - almost imperceptibly - whenever they spoke together. (In truth this shaking had stayed with him since he first caught sight of her, turning heads in Peribold Walk days earlier, and he was fighting a loosing battle to keep it under control.) She did not want to know why he had left her, the source of the fear that troubled his eyes. It was unimportant to her, passion made it irrelevant.
She was with him again.
In the ‘Sayer’s Alms’ Woebeg Ban Errieu was once more running through plans. He had maps of the Ornisbach laid out across the table, marked in varied colours denoting different routes. They would not be taking trade routes, or any of the more direct paths - they wished to be as inconspicuous as possible. Woebeg was committed in his manner - almost resigned Cherry thought.
“I’ll say it, I’m impressed with what I’ve seen, Longhorn.” Woebeg said. “You’re certainly formidable, that’s clear enough!” In various corners Ornish and human alike nursed cuts and bruises inflicted by her. Woebeg had been diligent in his trials. “But you must understand, we could all die. This is not some petty campaign to put down a bunch of Ghul-Raiders in Suddfenn! If they ever suspect us, if the shit-eaters get wind, we’re fucking dead. Simple as that.”
“Out there, on the battlefield, I’ll be yours Captain. I’ve crossed the Ornisbach many times. It’s not a place to hang about, but it’s just a big hill after all.”
““Just a big hill” eh?” Said Woebeg, looking up at her.
“Captain Ban Errieu, I’ll be coming along with you whether you want me there or not. You can stop your worrying about me, and start being glad of it. I don’t have to prove myself to you.”
“All right then, Longorn. I won’t stand in your way. Some important people, people who have concerns about Aetuland’s immediate future, are privately funding this undertaking – they apparently want you along. The Council of Lordts has - bloody typically if you ask me - failed to come up with any kind of resolution. War is more than bleedin’ well likely, far as I can see. Our employers seem to think so too. Now. Upfront the funds will get ten of us there and back I reckon. That’ll include new gear if we need it - but nothing too flashy! We don’t want any undue attention. The amount we will receive on returning - which I have already secured at the Methen Banker’s Guild - is enough to keep even you long-lived Ornish content for a couple of lifetimes. Alternatively there’s some substantial offers of land. I have contracts in my quarters if you want the extra security, but you do have my word on this as a former Captain of the Brookbane elite.”
“When do we leave?” asked Cherry.
Woebeg bit deeply into the forefinger of his left hand, breathing heavily. He had found a storeroom adjacent to Heron’s bedroom on the third floor of “the Sayer’s Alms” and the slatted wood and plaster divide had warped enough over time for slender cracks to appear - cracks just wide enough to peer through. He had picked his moment carefully. It was early. Crew Finches warbled in the Golden-Ethné tree, which dominated the small courtyard at the back of the Inn. The clatter of market stalls setting up - shouts, laughter, and the flap of pigeon wings - danced in on the gentle breeze. Heron, woken moments earlier by the hubbub, rose naked from her pallet. Woebeg’s heart lurched.
“Orn…” He whispered. “Oh, shit. Sweetheart, yes.”
She swayed, groggy, stretching her arms above her head. A brief, energetic yawn gave way to a single high, pure note that faded into birdsong. Woebeg quivered at the sight of her large breasts, rising with her arms, nipples engorged in the cool air.
“Heron.” He stammered quietly, urgently. “Oh you fucking beauty, you fucking fucking beauty.”
With a languorous gaze he caressed the contours of her body, fixed urgent eyes upon her dark curls of her pubic mound. It was not long before he ejaculated; semen spurting between shuddering fingers, pent up passion released with a violent scream that was barely a sigh.
He waited until she had dressed, gone below, and then let himself out of the storeroom. Crossing the hall he entered his rented quarters, coiled himself into a bundle on his pallet, wretched, wracked with guilt, the dreadful hollowness of the unrequited.
Two weeks passed. The duels and contests, organized with Heron’s begrudging permission in the courtyard, had paid off. A lethal ragtag alliance emerged. When Woebeg Ban Errieu finally left Tantrix-Alumnae he marched with nine others:
Tunny Mal-Tuboly. It was his kind of venture. “And Orn! If we pull it off we’ll be rich, man!”
The Ornish Soul-less; Iutzparthi-Llud Pellaq, the half-breed Cherry Longorn, travelling with him under their own mutual terms.
Two swarthy brothers from the south, Cass and Drum, lethal with numerous up-close weapons.
The pale, slender Arcassus Ban Tetrial wielded two short blades with brutal efficiency.
Balorvel Ban Kuss, a seasoned mercenary.
Marrat Ashemen-Hlot, who claimed he could track a wraith through fog.
And Nufeg Hagnodsfyorge, as fine a Bowman as any in Arddn.
Woebeg had not said goodbye to Heron. He did not think he would see her again.
Barakal Tush, the Sayer, watched from the shade of the Raven gate as they disappeared up into the foothills.
The band of spies and would-be thieves arrived at Dutwerth’s Leap on the afternoon of the sixth uneventful day following their departure from Tantrix-Alumnae. Dutwerth’s Leap had once supported an impressive castle, perched like a great black Rook on the edge of the precipitous overhang of rock. The castle had long since been dismantled and rebuilt as the small town of Dutwerth, clinging to craggy rocks like a child to its mother. Access routes were steep and meandering, but not overly taxing, and the hospitality in Dutwerth was legendary. Woebeg, Tunny and Balorvel Ban Kuss had enjoyed many visits to the foothill town over the years and were happy to be back. They each knew where to go for the best food, wine or ale available. After all, there was only one guesthouse in Dutwerth, “the Poniard of Bellthoria”.
Thom Ban Nutton, the Landlord of “the Poniard”, was fittingly a chiselled old rock of a man. He had served his time up at Da Derga’s Heights when Persheval Brookbane, Thral Brookbane’s father, held Lordtsway. Above the fireplace in the main barroom hung an enormous seven-span sword, and he liked to tell its story.
“Iutzethra-Llal Bellthoria was the largest damned Ornish Soul-less that there ever was alive in the world. As I stand, six and one half spans, so he stood fifteen – no lie! He once carried a cart and two Oxen - an Ox under each arm. The cart, fully laden mind, on his back - across the river Wynne. He could dam up a river with one of his Dragboat feet, and I watched him vault the walls at Tantrix-Alumnae - so wide was his back he could not fit through any of the gates! I swear, he washed his face by poking his head up into the clouds, uprooting an Oak to scrub those tombstone teeth with its roots.
“When I served Persheval Brookbane, Bellthoria was said to be at least six hundred years old, but for the cracks around his eyes and the pain in his knees you’d swear to a third of that! He was Brookbane’s personal guard, his closest confidant. He went everywhere with the aging Lordt. We’ve all seen the statue of the pair atop Methen gate at Tantrix-Alumnae, back to back-of-thighs at the Battle of Tuffin Hill. So it was no surprise when, in answer to the crap-eating Nefars invasion of Free Nochentia, Lordt Brookbane sent old Bellthoria to attain some assurances - against any possible invasion of Sutzeria and Aetuland - as much as to convey the acute displeasure of the High Council of the Lordts at the Nefars most recent aggressions.
“Bellthoria refused to be escorted though, and chose to go to the continent by his own means. He ran - with a great rolling and grunting and grinding of the knees - traversing the Aetuland Spine in three bounds, which nearly broke the island in two! On he ran, and his running whipped up a hurricane, which sunk twenty Nefarean pirate Dragboat hiding in Nudd Bay. And still he ran, hopping over the surging wild whiteness of the river Rae, as a child would a brook. The huge mountains that used to puncture the sky at Brows Well in Gwendd were laid low in the fury of his passing - so that it is now the flattest land in all the kingdom of Orn! Still, on he ran - to the Point of Fridd, and there leapt from those great jagged cliffs out over the Sutzerean Straights. The first mighty bound brought him to the Isle de Roche - where the hole he made filled up and became a great lake. The next took him to the Isle de Florettia - which sunk and is no more. And the third bound brought him into the false dominion of the crap-eating Nefars and their Munger-loving Emperor.
“So it was that Bellthoria was taken before the Nefarean Emperor, Khatzach ai Baden Shevic - the Majestrix-Rexae himself! The two of them talked into the night, for the emperor was impressed with the great stature of Bellthoria, as well as his noble bearing. For four days and nights Bellthoria kept the Emperor amused with feats of strength, tales of times passed from the world. At last, Shevic could resist no more. He could not help but comment upon the incredible size of the sword Bellthoria kept strapped across his back. The Ornish Soul-less - having drunk twelve barrels of the Emperor’s finest wine and six hogsheads of Long Ale - replied. “Sword? What sword? This is my hunting knife! Our swords we keep for battle, and those who would threaten our freedom!”
“It is said that Shevic became enraged and struck off Bellthoria’s right hand while a hundred and twenty eight men restrained him. He had the hand – which killed nine men even after it had been so rudely separated from it’s rightful owner - strapped to the hilt of the giant sword and sent back to Persheval Brookbane with a note, bearing the legend:
““If you come into Nefaria you had best bring your swords, not your knives.
“Until we meet in Orn.
“And there it is, the poniard of Bellthoria, by fucking Orn! And though you may scoff, it truly did look much more like a dagger than a sword in those bloody monstrous hands.”
Everyone knew that the sword over the fireplace was just a shabby, somewhat rusty, replica - though no one would ever say so out loud. But in the dim of the large barroom it commanded some awe, if not in its craftsmanship, then in its sheer size.
Woebeg enjoyed the tale for maybe the tenth time, snoozing in a warm corner, and waiting for things to start getting lively.
“Oh fuck.” Said Tunny; “This looks bad, chaps.”
Above them and either side of the narrow pass rogue Nefars stood, bows and blades poised, Nefarean brandings livid on serious brows.
“Quiet Tunny!” hissed Woebeg, breath spiralling in the ice-haze of low cloud. They had all left Dutwerth in high spirits, moving swiftly up into the Ornisbach via the relative shelter of Terrek’s Pass. Two days into the climb they arrived at an old border hut settled on a jut of rock, which punctured the glacier abutting Mount Jenedd. Here they spent the night, and Pellaq had revealed his plan to go on ahead into Sutzeria, once he had seen them across the glacier between Mount Tunday and Mount Durgh. He would say no more, but that he would be going to Orn, the spiritual center of the Ornish, and that he was going alone. (Cherry had gritted her teeth, confusion a scream within her. She was loosing him again. But she said nothing.)
Marrat Ashemen-Hlot was furious at himself for not spotting the signs that should have given the Nefars away. He knew instantly they were out-numbered - seven, eight to one. He began frantically searching for the best way out of their predicament.
“What are you doing up here?” Asked Woebeg as coolly as though the Nefars were old friends chance met.
“I do not think” said the stocky leader in a rolling voice of round vowels and clipped punctuation “that you are in the position to ask questions here. But what’s it matter, eh?” He laughed throatily. “We are, as you see, Nefars - is it “crap-eaters” or “dog-fuckers”? I cannot remember – and I suppose we don’t have masters now, see? Nevertheless, it is a shame, all right? As we do not like pissy Aetulanders much, so where do we go? It’s good you are here though. We are hungry, and I am sorry but we are fed up of eating our own crap. Maybe we eat some of yours, eh?”
The Nefars - those that understood - laughed darkly at the joke.
“We’re going to Sutzeria.” Said Woebeg, scratching his head. “Aetuland is falling apart. Doesn’t stand a bloody chance if this “Wayfarer” fellow really is coming. Not from what we’ve heard anyway. Truth is we don’t really care where our allegiance lies any more. Perhaps we could join you?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Said the rogue Nefarean leader. “We are hungry through being too many as it is.”
And with a barked order the Nefars attacked.
The first to die was Nufeg Hagnodsfyorge. He barely had time to fire a single arrow before one of the rogues pierced him below the ribs from behind, lifting him off the ground in the thrust. He died without a sound.
The same could not be said for Drum. He killed four of the attackers in quick succession, assorted blades dicing them, laying open their stomachs, throats, eyes in a wild flurry of motion. When the tendons behind his knees were sliced he toppled backward onto an awaiting blade and screamed like a girl until his throat was slit. Cass stumbled towards him, the fight forgotten. He barely noticed the relentless puncture of arrows as he held his brother in his arms, rocking him as his own life, in turn, fled.
Marrat Ashemen-Hlot secured himself in a narrow fissure. Shortly thereafter the tough veteran, Balorvel Ban Kuss, joined him. The two of them worked a deadly magic together, killing upwards of fifteen Nefars before long pikes were brought in, gouging chunks out of them in sickeningly slow systematic thrusts. Finally, Balorvel, in an act of mercy, hacked off the appallingly wounded tracker’s head before falling upon his own blade.
Tunny Mal-Tuboly danced through the Nefars in a manner that belied his bulk, but an axe blow opened his head and he went face down into the snow and lay still.
Arcassus Ban Tetrial and Woebeg had both run forward into the enemy, Woebeg screaming obscenities, Arcassus silent. The effect was the same: Both managed to break through the ranks of Nefars, killing and wounding them. They fought a fast-moving battle weaving through the mountains, the attackers in pursuit.
Woebeg felt the rise obtusely. He grinned. Shouted. He executed his strange stiff dance, killing more by far than he should have by rights. It was a gift of sorts, but he was blind to it. He’s methods were as unknown to him as those that died by them. He was an automaton, industrious in his slaughter. He spat fear at his opponents in great gouts, smothered them. His killing was arcane.
Arcassus fought with fury and desperation, though his soldierly discipline was telling in the numbers he sent screaming to the Munger. Yet eventually their flight brought them to a dead halt against a featureless granite face. They turned to find themselves facing another wall of fifteen grinning Nefars.
Woebeg laughed. “Come on then, you dog-fuckers!” He yelled, “Shit-eating dog-fuckers!” He ran at them once more. Behind him Arcassus yelped as an arrow pierced him in the hip.
Techen Phippe watched as one after another of his comrades was dispatched. He could not make sense of what he was seeing. The man jerked, twisted, laughed, and from him came fear. It was palpable, almost physical. It weakened them. Weakened him.
“Dog-fuckers! Shit-eaters!” He shouted, and Techen Phippe watched his companions die.
Fifteen were now ten. The other man was down, clutching at the arrow in his hip, trying to stop the blood. Ten men circled this crazy jigging old man, and yet, “And yet” thought Techen “we could loose this fight. We could fucking die here, all of us.”
Now there were nine.
Techen had once been a student of more peaceful ways. In the mountains he had studied the mysteries; nature, ether. Time - what had he learned amongst the priests of Ypo-Polaria so many years ago, when still a boy? Before the Nefarean army had razed the temples, stolen him away, branded him, made him one of them? What was it the Priests had taught him about fear and time? That in some way they were connected. Etherworks wrought in time could change it’s passing. He had been adept, skilled. He could have been Magus, should have been - but that was another life. If he could only now conquer the fear starting to infuse his bones, slow him down, then he had a chance. They all had a chance.
Techen Phippe watched, stepped back, changed his perspective, and this time, as the warrior cut down the next man, leaving six, he saw how the blood spread like a fan. Growing and blooming. Still growing...
He saw the scene at another angle, with ancient disciplines he’d only ever known as a means for enhancing the thought process. Etherworks, deep meditations, to better understand the world, not to destroy it. Techniques that slowed down time...
“If they’d only known” thought Techen, “the priest might have saved themselves, saved us from all of this.”
As the world danced slowly around him, Techen advanced upon this dealer of death and raised his own sword. He and Woebeg were in another realm, alone, just the two of them. Techen noted the looks on his companions faces as they tried to focus on him, understand how it was he also moved, how he was doing this. They looked shocked, scared.
Woebeg caught a motion, an intrusion, in his peripheral vision - something moving too fast. He turned in time to avoid the cutting edge of a sword, but it’s flat connected violently with his skull. Woebeg felt his consciousness shift again, slipping away now. But still the soldier in him reflexively struck back, a brute cut of little grace, his sword thudding into Techen’s side, almost halving him.
“Not right. That wasn’t right. There’s something fucking wrong about this.” thought Woebeg, senses dimming.
It was Cherry who caused most grievance to the mountain rogues, killing the leader with a thrust upward through his groin to the base of his ribcage, a wide savage smile like a gash across her face, his spurting blood saturating her. She moved with deadly purpose through a tide of tiny men, giant, ebon, an effigy of some forgotten goddess dragged screaming back to life by bloody sacrifice. Shear numbers brought her down in the end, but they would not be killing this rare prize.
Woebeg gritted chattering teeth as yet another of the Nefarean warriors raped him, fucked him.
He was naked, spread, face down in the snow, arms and legs lashed to stakes. Beaten, his mouth oozed bloody saliva onto the ice, body shuddering with cold and horror. He was a soldier, a veteran, but he had never been bested. Rape was an act he had not fully acknowledged in warfare. It was a denial, almost an abstraction. But he had born witness to it. (“All right lads, that’s enough now. That’s enough.”) He was helpless. There was no way free. He could not fight his way out of this. Bested. He thought. Beaten. I’m beaten. (“That’s enough now lads. Fucker’s had enough.”) I’m fucking beaten.
He turned his head to where Arcassus had been suffering a similar fate, but the swordsman’s eyes had glazed over. The Nefars kicked him anyway, joking with each other.
“Maybe you like to try some of this, eh? Is good, yes?”
Woebeg looked up as best he could at the man who was speaking and noticed with rising horror the lump of shit in his hand.
“N. N. N.” he stammered, but was cut short as the Nefar pulled back his head by the hair, smeared the vile matter around Woebeg’s mouth, forcing it between lips and teeth with rough, filthy fingers. Woebeg instantly gagged, puked, gasped for breath, but the man carried on, retrieving lumps from amongst the contents of Woebeg’s voided stomach, forcing them back in.
“Try it, please. It won’t kill you. Actually it might, but it will have been worth it.” He sounded almost offended in his tone. “No really, you will like it…”
Cherry turned her head away from the spectacle and took, in turn, her share of the Nefarean abuse. It was nothing new to her. She knew how to survive it.
There was cutting, pulling, and suddenly the tension was released. He felt strong arms role him over, lift him gently onto soft furs. Slowly everything was drawing closer, looming out of the night. There was a face, looming, looming out of the darkness. Coming towards him. Out of the night.
“How are you?” Asked Tunny Mal-Tuboly.
“Oh shit, Tunny.” Whispered Woebeg through chattering teeth. “I’ve seen better days...”
And he slipped back into the darkness.
“The Ornish say the Munger was trapped,” said Tunny; fingering the Mountain Marmot bone he had completely stripped of meat, eyeing it with melancholy. “In what they call ‘Vile-space’, and that it was inverted into the gemstone. They trapped a god inside a stone ten thousand years ago. The only way the Munger can be freed is by uniting the gemstone with the Torc it was mounted upon. Listen, mate; there is more truth to the Ornish legends than you might like to think. You may not believe them, but I - by Orn’s nads - have seen things with my own eyes that say different!”
Woebeg shook his head minutely, almost a shudder, his frown deepening. But he refrained from comment.
“The Torc is lost now, long ago. Hidden by the Ornish when they first came to Arddn from their own world. But - the gemstone never got where it was supposed to go. It was taken onto the continent, but never reached its destination. The Ornish Warloqs, to whom the gemstone had been entrusted, were attacked. The stone - lost.
“Some centuries ago, a gemstone with certain paranatural properties started appearing in Nefarean folklore. You’ve heard the legend of the “Dealing Stone”, right? Well it seems our Ornish benefactor believes it might actually exist, and be one and the same stone, by Orn! So, that’s what this is all about. I’ll tell you what though, mate; my head is fucking sore…”
Tunny Mal-Tuboly’s eyes fluttered momentarily in the firelight, he gingerly touched the blood-caked bandage dressing the festering gash in his forehead.
“Why didn’t fucking Pellaq tell me all this?” asked Woebeg, shivering in his furs the other side of the fire.
“Who can say?” replied Tunny, looking off towards the fading red tear of a sunset over the Ornisbach. “Maybe he witnessed me telling you in the Echoes-To-Be? Maybe he knew you wouldn’t risk your life for what you’d think was a pile of Rafasi-crap…”
“Well he’d have been bloody right there!” Rumbled Woebeg through gritted teeth.
Tunny’s face creased suddenly, a portrait of agony, and he hunched forward into a ball, shuddering.
“I’ll be glad to be off this damned mountain and inside some nice warm tart with a belly full, I can tell you!” He said. Woebeg nodded his agreement but was too wrapped in his own misery to be overly concerned about his friend’s condition.
“Woebeg.” Tunny continued, the uncharacteristically serious tone returning once more. “The fate of the world, mate, is down to us. You, me, and this fucking stone. And what a right bloody mess we’ve made of things so far! Looks as though the bastards have got poor Cherry too - still, I know enough about that one to almost pity the crap-eating swine that’s got her! Oh shit. Tactless bastard. I’m sorry Woebeg.”
“What for, Tunny?” Woebeg asked, distractedly. “What the bloody hell for?”
The sun had completely sunk behind the peaks and the now familiar utter blackness of the mountain night engulfed them.
Raised a slave in the conquered lands of the Nefareans, it had not taken long for Cherry to talk her way into the hearts of the rogue Nefars in the Ornisbach. She shared their language and customs. She was beautiful, exotic. They soon forgave her the deaths she had brought about, allowing her to become one of them. They fell in love with her.
Within a week they were all dead.
Cherry came down from the Ornisbach alive, but alone. There was only one desire within her - to find Pellaq. The Nefareans heavily controlled North-Eastern Sutzeria, where the ancient city of Orn inhered. Armies patrolled it systematically; much of the area had been raped. Pellaq would have had to take great care in reaching the city, and Cherry, if she was to be crossing Northern Sutzeria also, judged it best to do so in a position of employment. She went to Duhn to find a Nefarean merchant bound for Orn.
A vast, ill-treated place, Duhn sprawled by the river Rae in cosmopolitan confusion and unpredictable subjugation. Savaged and over-run more than any city in Sutzeria - or indeed on Arddn - Duhn was peopled by ragmen, gutter-wags, nomads, politicians, merchants and the soldiers of whichever nation held power there at any given time.
It was a city of towering scarred architecture, dusty grey parks, and long hedonistic nights. It existed for trade, was sick in its heart because of this. The impoverished were drawn to Duhn, motivated by the false hope that it might deliver them into wealth; transform them into creatures of cunning, devoid of week-minded morality. But it grazed on the poor, its streets littered with their bones.
Duhn was, however, a survivor amongst cities. It was ancient, and at its centre an Ornish temple still stood impassively. No invader would completely lay waste to it on account of its prime plot: It was the gateway into Sutzeria and Aetuland from the continent. Its trade halls were huge, generating vast revenue. It was essential to all that it be maintained – at least in the districts where fortunes were being created.
Cherry liked Duhn; she had taken on many commissions there. It was a city that thrilled her, appealed to her damaged nature. The rubble of Duhn’s recently breached walls bit unevenly upward through the ground like an enormous mantrap. The poverty and death permeating the outskirts safeguarded the inner city, driving many away. Walking northward up Prospect Place, Cherry noted huge pyres of smouldering human debris, belching malignant black clouds in the shadowy twilight. Packs of master-less Dogren - feathers tattered, colourless with dust, their spherical eyes refracting morsels of light - fought for gruesome titbits to swell cadaverous shanks.
A wide avenue, Prospect Place ran alongside the Great Union Canal, upon the putrid foamy waters of which barges ferried the city’s shit and debris. The grand cloistered houses, which ran along the opposite side of the rutted, sucking road, were, without exception, windowless. Small splutters of wane light hinted at pockets of life within. Above, upon the few hundred-span-high columns that still remained standing, were the lifeless mottled green husks of the Machivaria. Cherry recalled how once they had been the envy of Arddn. Cast in bronze, they were made in the image of a four-headed Lionid, each head facing outwards from the center. Lazrus Machivarius had found a means by which energy could be harnessed, increased exponentially, and put to good use throughout the city. He initially discovered that lightening could be employed to generate light. By containing the power it produced within a Tantric Sphere he could light one room for up to twelve days. Eventually columns topped with Lionid-headed “Machivaria”, as they became known, were placed strategically all over Duhn, adhering to the lehlines and co-ordinated with other geographical energy fields located above and beneath the city. Lazrus Machivarius - taking the principles of the Tantric Sphere and applying them to what he named “Tantric Tubes”, ether-work tunnels - linked up the Machivaria in a huge network above Duhn. The city blazed into light and for two centuries Duhn traded day and night, never sleeping, basking in the glow of the Machivaria.
It was darkly humorous to Cherry that, as it later turned out, no other city upon Arddn had energy fields of sufficient scale or complexity to maintain Machivaria in such numbers. They were unique to Duhn as, in time, other more efficient methods of creating light were devised elsewhere. It seemed fitting somehow.
Eventually persistent invasion and warfare damaged too many of the ingenious tantric-machines. The lights went out over Duhn, never to come on again.
Prospect Place ran straight up into Flackminster, where it joined Griphon Road, Torpe Street and New Haddly Street at Chittin Circus. Cherry paused to gaze at the large roundabout bearing the wreckage of a once fabulously ornate fountain. Now a mound of dead bodies adorned it, half obscured beneath a cloud of ravenous Rooks, Ravens and Wyrats.
No one had bothered to set the pestilent heap alight.
By the time she reached the inner walls it was midnight, but Duhn had still not revealed its true, ravishing, ugly face. She hid for a moment in the ruined fetid lobby of the formerly prestigious ‘Hotel Valdenpoliére, as a troupe of truculent Nefarean soldiers sauntered past, whooping. From there she could make out the remaining left wing of Pertinax’s summer palace, looming like a hollow in the darkness, and next to that, the old courthouse in Utoxiter Road. The legacy of the ancient Ornish settlement asserted itself here, in the grand scale of the facades, high doorways and bridges. Ornish architecture had always been beloved of Duhn, though no self-respecting Ornish - but for the wayward Soul-less - would any longer step foot in the cursed city. Cherry could hear far-off sounds of revelry; smell the culinary delectations of all-night restaurants. She was nearing the river Rae, and the gaudy shops and bars that festooned her banks.
In the dusk she meandered through hearty throngs on Celebration Row, smiling at admirers, enjoying the crush. Music pounded, oozed and throbbed out of bars, cafes, or erupted from the street itself. Charming beggars tipped hats. Others, less charming, swore, or spat, or stumbled in drunken stupors into gaps people made for them. An Epicurean paradise, as far as Cherry could see people milled, drank, ate, danced, fucked, spent - and made - money. She wandered delightedly along the whole great stretch of Celebration Row, through Aetuland Square, with its million lamps, down Florrid Road, Gray’s End, into Iuddydd Park. Here, a quieter crowd gathered around the enormous fire that perpetually burned, a place for lovers. Cherry skirted the blaze at a distance, not wishing to be reminded about matters of her own heart.
Finally she came to the Ornish-crafted canyon that was Iutzettra-Hai Crescent. Two titanic structures that curved, parallel to each other, in a gentle arc stretching from Iuddydd Park to Trypeston Station and the northernmost inner wall. Twin aeries in white Moniath Marble - massive slabs shipped over from Ypo-Polaria - each stood six hundred spans tall. The monolithic structures were featureless, but for the slatted windows, impressively huge doorways, and at night the candlelight. Magnified through lenses, it shone up through strategic ground-level holes ringed with railings, and danced over the buildings - creating the illusion that they were themselves made of light; gargantuan spectral structures of purest white.
By daylight their age was evident, however, for they were pockmarked with the scars of three thousand years of strife.
Cherry had long maintained rooms in Iutzettra-Hai Crescent. There was anonymity to be had there - a rare and blessed thing for her. Nowhere was safer in that ever-changing city. She found her way uneventfully to spacious penthouse chambers just as morning sunlight blazed through the slender windows, painting golden strips across her bleached white walls.
“I’m sorry Woebeg, I just…” Tunny Mal-Tuboly was leaning hard on Woebeg, breathing heavily.
“I just need to, to…”
He slumped to his knees and swayed unsteadily.
“I’m sorry old chap. Can’t seem to…”
Woebeg tried to lift him, move him from the path to the shelter of a tree and the comfort of soft grass. But the big shaggy mercenary was not responding, seemed not to notice.
“Come on Tunny, fer fuck’s sake…” he breathed through his teeth with the effort. “Let’s get your fat arse over here…”
The bigger man just pitched forward into the mud, rolled onto his side, panting.
“Woebeg!” he shouted. “I did tell you, didn’t I? About the stone?”
“Sod the fucking stone! And yes, you told me!” Shouted Woebeg; frustrated and verging on what he assumed must be panic - a feeling he was unaccustomed to.
“No no no, Woebeg, listen to me. The stone. You’ve got to get it back to them. To the Ornish. They’ll know what to do.”
“Bollocks to the stone, Bollocks to the fucking Ornish, and bollocks to you!” yelled Woebeg, a crimson bloom high in his cheeks. “Get up! Get up man! Look…” He pointed down the hill towards the hazy horizon. “There. It’s Duhn, fer crying out loud! No more than half a day’s crawl I’ll wage ya! You remember old Duhn, don’t you Tunny boy? Times we had! Who was that tart you met down Celebration Row? Emmer? Edina? Ran your flabby arse right out of town in the end, didn’t she? Come on Tunny.” He said, as the panic turned to sorrow and found a way out in moist rivulets down his ruddy soldiers’ cheeks. “I’ve got nothing else left but you, sunshine. Nothing. Just a little further, eh? We’ll get that head of yours cleaned up. Nothing a good night and a warm bed in Duhn can’t sort.”
But Tunny Mal-Tuboly - the jovial, jocular barrel of a man; the infuriating unreliable sloth; the fool, coward, drunk; the gem and salt; the hearty and compassionate, beloved of men and women alike through all mighty Orn and the emerald isle of Gan - this man had died on his way to Duhn. Slumped in a rut on a filthy path and a hopeless quest.