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ABRI: THE LABYRINTH
Vasu stood on the wall above the gates of the city of Abri, stood silent and thoughtful as the gates boomed shut beneath his feet. It was dawn, which meant, in the Labyrinth, nothing more than a graying of night's black. But this dawn was different than most. It was more glorious than most . . . and more terrifying. It was brightened by hope, darkened by fear
It was a dawn which saw the city of Abri, in the very center of the Labyrinth, still standing, victorious, after a terrible battle with its most implacable enemies.
It was a dawn smudged with the smoke of funeral pyres; a dawn in which the living could draw a tremulous breath and dare to hope life might be better.
It was a dawn lit by a lurid red glow on the far distant horizon, a red glow that was brightening, strengthening. Those Patryns who guarded the city walls turned their eyes to that strange and unnatural glow, shook their heads, spoke of it in low and ominous tones.
"It bodes nothing good," they said grimly.
Who could blame them for their dark outlook? Not Vasu. Certainly not Vasu, who knew what was transpiring. He would have to tell them soon, destroy the joy of this dawning.
"That glow is the fire of battle," he would have to say to his people. "A battle raging for control of the Final Gate. The dragon-snakes who attacked us were not defeated, as you thought. Yes, we killed four of them. But for every four that die, eight are born. Now they are attacking the Final Gate, seeking to shut it, seeking to trap us all in this dread prison.
"Our brothers, those who live in the Nexus and those near the Final Gate, are fighting this evilso we have reason to believe. But they are few in number and the evil is vast and powerful.
"We are too far away to come to their aid. Too far. By the time we reached themif we ever did reach them, aliveit would be too late. It may already be too late.
"And when the Final Gate is shut, the evil in the Labyrinth will grow strong. Our fear and our hatred will grow stronger to match and the evil will feed off that fear and that hatred and grow stronger still."
It is hopeless, Vasu told himself, and so he must tell the people. Logic, reason said to him it was hopeless. Yet why, standing on the wall, staring at that red glow in the sky, did he feel hopeful?
It made no sense. He sighed and shook his head.
A hand touched his arm.
"Look, Headman. They have made it safely to the river."
One of the Patryns, standing beside Vasu, had obviously mistaken his sigh, thought it indicated fear for the two who had left the city in the dark hour before the dawn. They were embarking on a dangerous and probably futile search for the green and golden dragon who had fought for them in the skies above Abri. The green and golden dragon was the Serpent Mage, who was also the bumbling Sartan with the mensch name, Alfred.
Certainly Vasu was afraid for them, but he was also hopeful for them. That same illogical, irrational hope.
Vasu was not a man of action. He was a man of thought, of imagination. He had only to look at his soft and pudgy Sartan body, tattooed with Patryn runes, to know that. He must give thought to what his people should do next. He should make plans, he should decide how they must prepare for the inevitable. He should tell them the truth, give his speech of despair.
But he didn't do any of that. He stood on the walls, watching the mensch known as Hugh the Hand and the Patryn woman Marit.
He told himself he would never see them again. They were venturing out into the Labyrinth, dangerous at any time but doubly dangerous now that their defeated enemies skulked about in anger and waited for revenge. The two were going on a foolhardy and hopeless mission. He would never see them again, nor Alfred, the Serpent Mage, the green and golden dragon, for whom they searched.
Vasu stood on the wall and waitedhopefullyfor their return.
The River of Anger, which flowed beneath the city walls of Abri, was frozen. Its water had been frozen by their enemies, by spells cast on it. The hideous dragonsnakes had turned the river to ice in order that their troops could cross more easily.
Clambering down the rock-strewn sides of the riverbank, Marit smiled grimly. The tactics of her enemy would serve her.
There was just one small problem.
"You say this was done by magic?" Hugh the Hand, sliding down the bank behind her, skidded to a halt beside the black ice floe. He jabbed at it with the toe of his boot. "How long will the spell last?"
That was the problem.
"I don't know," Marit was forced to admit.
"Yeah." Hugh grunted. "I thought as much. It might end when we're standing in the middle."
"It might." Marit shrugged. If that happened, they would be lost. The rushing black water would suck them down, chill their blood, grind their bodies against the sharp rocks, fill their lungs with the black and now blood-tinged water.
"There's no other way?" Hugh the Hand was looking at her, at the blue sigla tattooed on her body.
He meant, of course, her magic.
"I might be able to get myself across," she told him. Then again, she might not. She was weakened in body from yesterday's battle, weakened in her spirit from yesterday's confrontation with Lord Xar. "But I'd never be able to manage you."
She set foot on the ice, felt its cold strike through to the very marrow of her bones. Clamping her teeth together to keep them from chattering, she stared at the far shore and said, "Only a short run. It won't take us long."
Hugh the Hand said nothing. He was staringnot at the shore, but at the ice.
And then Marit remembered. This man, a professional assassin, afraid of nothing in his world, had come across something in another world he did fearwater.
"What are you scared of?" Marit jeered, hoping to bolster his courage by shaming him. "You can't die."
"I can die," he corrected her. "I just don't stay dead. And, lady, I don't mind telling you, this sort of dying doesn't appeal to me."
"It doesn't appeal to me either," she said snappishly
back at him, but she noticed she wasn't going anywhere, had hurriedly snatched her foot back off the ice.
She drew in a deep breath. "You can follow or not, as you please."
"I'm of little use to you anyway," he said bitterly, hands clenching and unclenching. "I can't protect you, defend you. I can't even protect or defend myself"
He couldn't be killed. He couldn't kill. Every arrow he fired missed its mark, every blow he aimed fell short, every slash of his sword went wide.
"I can defend myself," Marit answered. "I can defend you, too, for that matter. I need you because you know Alfred better than I do"
"No, I don't," Hugh returned. "I don't think anyone knew Alfred. Not even Alfred knew Alfred. Haplo did, maybe, but that's not much help to us now."
Marit said nothing, bit her lip.
"But you're right to remind me, lady," Hugh the Hand continued. "If I don't find Alfred, this curse on me will never end. Come on. Let's get it over with."
He set foot on the ice, began to walk across it. His swift and impetuous move took Marit by surprise. She was hurrying after him before she quite knew what she was doing.
The ice was slippery and treacherous. The bonenumbing cold shot through her; she began shivering uncontrollably. She and Hugh clung to each other for support, his arm saving her from more than one sliding fall, her arm steadying him.
Halfway across, an eardrum-shattering crack split the ice, almost beneath their feet. A fur-covered clawed hand and arm shot up from the gurgling water, tried to grab hold of Marit. She grappled for the hilt of her sword.
Hugh the Hand stopped her.
"It's only a corpse," he said.
Marit, looking more closely, saw he was right. The arm was flaccid, sucked down by the current almost immediately.
"The spell's ending," she said, irritated at herself "We have to hurry."
She continued across. But a thin layer of water was now seeping over the ice, making it even more slippery. Her feet slid out from underneath her. She grabbed at Hugh, but he, too, had lost his footing. They both fell. Landing on her hands and knees, she stared into the horribly grinning mouth and bulging eyes of a dead wolfen.
The black ice split right between her hands. The wolfen popped out, lunged straight at her. Involuntarily, Marit shrank backward. Hugh the Hand caught hold of her.
"The ice is breaking apart," he yelled. "Hurry!"
They were at least two body lengths from the shoreline.
Marit scrambled toward the shore, crawling since she could not stand. Her arms and legs ached with the cold; the pain was intense. Hugh the Hand slithered along beside her. His face was livid, his jaw clenched so tight it resembled the ice. His eyes were wide and staring. For himborn and raised Oh a waterless world drowning was the worst possible death imaginable. Terror had very nearly robbed him of his senses.
They were close to the bank, close to safety.
The Labyrinth was intelligent evil, cunning malevolence. It permitted you to hope, let you imagine that you could make it to safety.
Marit's numb hand clutched at a large rock, one of several lining the riverbank. She struggled to grip it with unfeeling fingers, pull herself up.
The ice gave way beneath her. She plunged to her waist in frothing black water. Her hand slid off the rock. The current was carrying her down . . .
A terrific boost from strong arms propelled Marit up and onto the bank. She landed hard, the breath knocked from her body. She lay, gasping, until a gurgle and a wild yell caused her to turn around.
Standing precariously on an ice floe, Hugh clung with one hand to the trunk of a scrub tree growing out of the bank. He had thrown her to safety, then managed to grab hold of the tree.
But the rushing water was tearing the ice floe out from under him. The current was strong. His tenuous hold on the tree was slipping.
Marit flung herself bodily on Hugh just as he lost his grasp. Her numb fingers clutching at the back of his leather vest, she fought to pull him from the river. She was on her knees; the water was rising. If she failed, they would both go under. Desperately she held on to his vest, pulled it up nearly over his head. Digging her knees into the mud, she dragged the man's heavy body backward. Hugh was strong; he gave her what help he could. He kicked with his feet, sought purchase with his flailing legs, and, finally, managed to squirm his way onto the bank.
He lay still, gasping and shivering with cold and terror. Hearing a rumbling sound, Marit looked upriver. A wall of black water tinged with red foam, pushing huge chunks of ice in its path, thundered downstream.
"Hugh!" she cried.
He raised his head, saw the rushing floodwaters. He staggered to his feet, began scrambling up the bank. Marit was past helping him; she could barely make it herself She collapsed onto firm, level ground; was dimly aware of Hugh the Hand falling somewhere near her.
The river roared in rage at losing its prey; or perhaps that was only her imagination. She stilled her rapid breathing, calmed the wild beating of her heart. Letting the rune-magic warm her, she banished the terrible cold.
But she couldn't lie here long. The enemy chaodyn, wolfen, tiger-menmust be hiding in the woods, perhaps watching them even now. She glanced at the sigla tattooed on her skin; the glow of the runes would warn her of approaching danger. Her skin was slightly blue, but that was with cold. The sigla were dark.
This should have been reassuring, but it wasn't. It was illogical. Certainly some of those who had attacked the city with such fury yesterday must still be lurking outside the city walls, waiting for a chance to pick off a scouting party.
But the runes did not glimmer, except perhaps very, very faintly. If any of the enemy were about, they were far away and not interested. Marit couldn't understand it and she didn't like it. This uncanny absence of the foe frightened her more than the sight of a pack of wolfen.
Hope. When the Labyrinth offers you hope, it means that it is just about to snatch that hope away.
She pushed herself to a crouching position, alert and wary. Hugh the Hand lay huddled on the ground. He was shivering uncontrollably, his body racked by chills. His lips were blue, his teeth chattering so violently he'd bitten his tongue. Blood dribbled from his mouth.
Marit didn't know much about mensch. Could he die of the cold? Perhaps not, but he might fall sick, slow her up. Moving about, walking, would warm his blood, but she had to get him on his feet first. She recalled hearing from Haplo that rune-magic would work to heal mensch. Crawling over to Hugh, she clasped her hands over his wrists, let the magic flow from her body to his.
His shaking ceased. Slowly, a tinge of color returned to his pallid face. At length, he sighed, fell back on the ground, closed his eyes, letting the blissful warmth spread through his body.
"Don't fall asleep!" Marit warned.
Touching his tender tongue to his teeth, he groaned, grunted. "Back on Arianus, I used to dream that when I was a wealthy man, I'd wallow in water. Have a big barrel of it outside my house and I'd jump in it, splash it over my head. Now"he grimaced"may the ancestors take me if I so much as drink a sip of the cursed stuff!"
Marit stood up. "We can't stay here, out in the open like this. If you're feeling up to it, we have to move."
Hugh was on his feet immediately. "Why? What is it?"
He looked at the runes on her hands and arms; he'd been around Haplo long enough to know the signs. Seeing the sigla dark, he glanced up at her questioningly.
"I don't know," she answered, staring hard into the forest. "There's nothing close, seemingly. But. . ." Unable to explain her uneasiness, she shook her head.
"Which way?" Hugh asked.
Marit considered. Vasu had pointed out the site where the green and golden dragonAlfredhad last been seen. That was to the gateward side of the city, the side facing the next gate.* She and Vasu had judged the distance to be within half a day's walk.
Marit gnawed her lip. She could enter the woods, which would give them shelter but would also make them more vulnerable to their enemies, whoif they were out therewere undoubtedly using the woods to conceal their own movements. Or she could keep to the riverbank, keep in view of the ciq. For a short distance, any foe who attacked her would be in range of the magical weapons held by the guards on the ciq walls.
Marit decided to stay near the river, at least until the ciq could offer no more protection. Perhaps by then she would have picked up a trail that would lead her to Alfred.
What that trail might be, she didn't like to think.
She and Hugh moved cautiously along the river's shoreline. The black water churned and fumed in its banks, brooding over the indignities it had suffered. The two took care to keep clear of the slippery bank on one side and avoid the forest shadows on the other.
The woods were silent, strangely silent. It was as if every living being had gone away . . .
Marit halted, sick wit