Apprentice gem trader Murdoc Jern lives on Angkor, a thriving hub of interstellar trade. One day, a furtive visitor brings him a ring discovered on an alien corpse. It’s made of age-pitted metal surrounding a dull and lifeless stone. Yet it exerts a powerful hold on Murdoc. And when his father is killed, Murdoc begins a quest, taking with him his only legacy, the mysterious ring, which he knows is the key to his dad’s death.
Accompanied by Eet, a feline mutant with paranormal powers, Murdoc hurtles through space, where he’s pursued by a religious order called the Green Robes. His journey takes him to distant planets and once-great armies marooned on vanished worlds. In a desperate battle to learn the ultimate meaning of the Zero Stone, Murdoc must bargain for his freedom—and his life—and confront the fate that befalls seekers of knowledge.
About the Author
For well over a half century, Andre Norton was one of the most popular science fiction and fantasy authors in the world. With series such as Time Traders, Solar Queen, Forerunner, Beast Master, Crosstime, and Janus, as well as many standalone novels, her tales of adventure have drawn countless readers to science fiction. Her fantasy novels, including the bestselling Witch World series, her Magic series, and many other unrelated novels, have been popular with readers for decades. Lauded as a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, she is the recipient of a Life Achievement Award from the World Fantasy Convention. An Ohio native, Norton lived for many years in Winter Park, Florida, and died in March 2005 at her home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
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The Zero Stone
By Andre Norton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 Andre Norton
All rights reserved.
The dark was so thick in this stinking alley that a man might well put out his hand and catch shadows, pull them here or there, as if they were curtain stuff. Yet I could not quarrel with the fact that this world had no moon and that only its stars spotted the night sky, nor that the men of Koonga City did not set torchlights on any but the main ways of that den of disaster.
Here the acrid smells were almost as thick and strong as the dark, and under my boots the slime coating the uneven stone pavement was a further risk. While my fear urged me to run, prudence argued that I take only careful step after step, pausing to feel out the way before me. My only guide was an uncertain memory of a city I had known for only ten days, and those not dedicated to the study of geography. Somewhere ahead, if I was lucky, very, very lucky, there was a door. And on that door was set the head of a godling known to the men of this planet. In the night the eyes of that head would blaze with welcoming light, because behind the door were torches, carefully tended to burn the night through. And if a man being hunted through these streets and lanes for any reason, even fresh blood spilt before half the city for witness, could lay hand upon the latch below those blazing eyes, lift it, to enter the hall beyond, he had sanctuary from all hunters.
My outstretched fingers to the left slid along sweating stone, picking up a foul burden of stickiness as they passed. I had the laser in my right hand. It might buy me moments, a few of them, if I were cornered here, but only a few. And I was panting with the effort that had brought me so far, bewildered by the beginning of this nightmare which had certainly not been of my making, nor of Vondar's.
Vondar — resolutely I squeezed him from my thoughts. There had been no chance for him, not from the moment the four Green Robes had walked so quietly into the taproom, set up their spin wheel (all men there going white or gray of face as they watched those quiet, assured movements), and touched the wheel into life. The deadly arrow which tipped it whirled fatefully to point out, when it came to rest, he who would be an acceptable sacrifice to the demon they so propitated.
We had sat there as if bound — which indeed we had been, in a sense, by the customs of this damnable world. Any man striving to withdraw after that arrow moved would have died, quickly, at the hands of his nearest neighbor. For there was no escape from this lottery. So we had sat there, but not in any fear, as it was not usual that an off-worlder be chosen by the Green Robes. They were not minded to have difficulty thereafter from the Patrol, or from powers beyond their own skies, being shrewd enough to know that a god may be great on his own world, and nothing under the weight of an unbeliever's iron fist, when that fist swung down from the stars.
Vondar had even leaned forward a little, studying the faces of those about us with that curiosity of his. He was as satisfied as he ever was, having done good business that day, filled himself with as fine a dinner as these barbarians knew how to prepare, and having gained a lead to a new source of lalor crystals.
Also, had he not unmasked the tricks of Hamzar, who had tried to foist on us a lalor of six carats weight but with a heart flaw? Vondar had triangulated the gem neatly and then pointed that such damage could not be polished out, and that the crystal which might have made Hamzar's fortune with a less expert buyer was an inferior stone in truth, worth only the price of an extra laser charge.
A laser charge — My fingers crooked tighter about my weapon. I would willingly exchange now a whole bag of lalors for another charge waiting at my belt. A man's life is ever worth, at least to him, more than the fabled Treasure of Jaccard.
So Vondar had watched the natives in the tavern, and they had watched the spinning arrow of death. Then that arrow had wavered to a halt — pointing at no man directly, but to the narrow space which existed between Vondar's shoulder and mine as we sat side by side. And Vondar had smiled then, saying:
"It would seem that their demon is somewhat undecided this night, Murdoc." He spoke in Basic, but there were probably those there who understood his words. Even then he did not fear, or reach for a weapon — though I had never known Vondar to be less than alert. No man can follow the life of a gem buyer from planet to planet without having eyes all around his head, a ready laser, and a nose ever sniffing for the taint of danger.
If the demon had been undecided, his followers were not. They came for us. From the long sleeves of their robes suddenly appeared the bind cords used on prisoners they dragged to their lord's lair. I took the first of those Green Robes, beaming across the table top, which left the wood scorched and smoking. Vondar moved, but a fraction too late. As the Free Traders say, his luck spaced, for the man to his left sprang at him, slamming him back against the wall, pinning his hand out of reach of his weapon. They were all yammering at us now, the Green Robes halting, content to let others take the risk in pulling us down.
I caught a second man reaching for Vondar. But the one already struggling with him I dared not ray, lest I get my master too. Then I heard Vondar cry out, the sound speedily smothered in a rush of blood from his lips. We had been forced apart in the struggle and now, as I slipped along the wall, trying to get beam sight on the Green Robes, my shoulders met no solid surface. I stumbled back and out, through a side door into the street.
It was then that I ran, heedlessly at first, then dodging into a deep doorway for a moment. I could hear the hunt behind me. From such hunting there was little hope of escape, for they were between me and the space port. For a long moment I huddled in that doorway, seeing no possible future beyond a fight to the end.
What fleeting scrap of memory was triggered then, I did not know. But I thought of the sanctuary past which Hamzar had taken us, three — four — days earlier. His story concerning it flashed into my mind, though at that instant I could not be sure in which direction that very thin hope of safety might lie.
I tried to push panic to the back of my mind, picture instead the street before me and how it ran in relation to the city. Training has saved many a man in such straits, and training came to my aid now. For memory had been fostered in me by stiff schooling. I was not the son and pupil of Hywel Jern for naught.
Thus and thus — I recalled the running of the streets, and thought I had some faint chance of following them. There was this, also — those who hunted me would deem they had all the advantages, that they need only keep between me and the space port and I would be easy prey, caught deep in the maze of their unfamiliar city.
I slipped from the shadow of the door and began a weaving which took me, not in the direction they would believe I would be desperately seeking, but veering from it north and west. And so I had come into this alley, slipping and scraping through its noisome muck.
My only guides were two, and to see one I had to look back to the tower of the port. Its light was strong and clear across this dark-skyed world. Keeping it ever at my right, I took it for a reverse signal. The other I could only catch glimpses of now and again as I scuttled from one shadowed space to the next. It was the watchtower of Koonga, standing tall to give warning against the sudden attacks of the barbarian sea rovers who raided down from the north in the lean seasons of the Great Cold.
The alley ended in a wall. I leaped to catch its crest, my laser held between my teeth. On the top I perched, looking about me, until I decided that the wall would now form my path. It continued to run along behind the buildings, offering none too wide a footing, but keeping me well above ground level. There were dim lights in the back windows of these upper stories, and from one to the next, they served me as beacons.
When I paused now and then to listen, I could hear the murmur of the hunters. They were spreading out from the main streets, into some of the alleys. But they did so cautiously, and I believed they did not face too happily a quarry who might be ready to loose a laser beam from the dark. Time was on their side, for with the coming of dawn, were I still away from the sanctuary, I could be readily picked out of any native gathering by my clothing alone. I wore a modified form of crew dress, suited to the seasoned space traveler, designed for ease on many different worlds, though not keeping to the uniform coloring of a crewman.
Vondar had favored a dull olive-green for our overtunics, the breast of his worked with the device of a master gemologist. Mine had the same, modified by an apprentice's two bars. Our boots were magnet-plated for ship wear, and our under garment was of one piece, like a working crewman's. In this world of long, fringed overrobes and twisted, colored headdresses, I would be very noticeable indeed. There was one small change I could make; I did so now, balancing precariously on my wall perch, once more holding the laser between my teeth as I loosed the seam seal and pulled off my overtunic with its bold blazoning. I rammed it into as small a ball as I could and teetered dangerously over a scrap of garden to push it into a fork of branches on a thorn bush. Then I crept along the wall top for the distance of four more houses until I came to the end at the rise of another building. From there I had a choice of leaps — down to a garden, or into the maw of another alley. I would have chosen the alley had I not frozen tight against the house wall at a sound from its depths. Something moved there, but certainly no number of men.
There was the sucking sound of a foot, or feet, lifted out of the slime, and I even thought I could hear the hiss of breathing. Whoever crept there was not moving with the openness of those who quested on my trail.
My hands had been braced against the house wall and now my fingers fell into holes there. I explored by touch and knew that I had come upon one of those geometric patterns which decorated the walls of more important buildings, some parts being intaglio and others projecting. As I felt above me, higher and higher, I began to believe that the pattern might extend clear to the roof and offer me a third way out.
Once more I crouched and this time I unsealed my boots, fastening them to the back of my belt. Then I climbed, after pausing for a long moment to listen to sounds below. They were farther away now, near the mouth of the alley.
Again my schooling came to my aid and I pulled myself up those sharply etched hand and toe holds until I swung over an ornamental parapet, past bold encrustations of demon faces set to frighten off the evil powers of natural forces.
The roof onto which I dropped sloped inward to a middle opening which gave down three floors to a center court with a core pool, into which rain water would feed during the spring storms. It was purposely smoothed to aid in that transfer of rain to reservoir, so I crept beside the parapet, my hands anchoring me from one spike of the wall to the next. But I did so with speed, for even in the dark I could see that now I was only a little away from my goal.
From this height I could see also the space port. There were two ships there, one a passenger-cum-trader, on which that very morning Vondar had taken passage for us. It was as far from me now as if half the Dark Dragon curled between. They would know that we had bought passage on it and would keep it cordoned. The other, farther away, was a Free Trader. And, while no one normally interfered with one of those or its crew, I could make no claim on it for protection. Even if I reached sanctuary, what further hope would I have? I pushed aside that fear and turned to examine the immediate prospect of getting to the doorway. Now I would have to descend the outer face of the building into a lighted street. There were more bands of decoration and I had little doubt they would make me a ladder, if I could go unsighted. However, torches flamed in brackets along that way, and compared with the back streets through which I had fled, this was as light as a concourse on one of the inner planets.
Few men were abroad so late with legal reason. And I heard no sounds to suggest that the hunt had spread this far. They must rather be patrolling near the field. I had come this far; there was no retreat now. Giving a last searching glance below, I slipped between two of the ornaments and began the descent.
From hold to hold, feeling for those below, trusting to the strength in my fingers and wrists, I worked my way down. I had passed the top story when I came upon a window, my feet thudding home on its jutting sill. I balanced there, my hands on either side, my face to the dark interior. And then I was near startled into letting go my grasp by a shrill scream from within.
I was not conscious of making the first few drops of my continued flight down the wall. There was a second scream and a third. How soon would the household be aroused, or attention raised in the street? Finally I let go, fell in a roll. Then, not even stopping to put on my boots, I ran as I had not run before, without looking back to see what fury I had roused.
Along the house walls, sprinting from one patch of shadow to the next, I dashed. Now I could hear cries behind. At the least, the screamer had aroused members of her own household. But there came a street corner and — memory had served me right! I could sight the bright eyes of the godling on the door. I ran with open mouth, sucking in quick breaths, my boots still fastened to my belt and knocking against my hips, the laser in my hand. On and on — and always I feared to see someone step into the open between me and the face with the blazing eyes. But there was no halting and with a last burst of speed I hit against the portal, my fingers scrabbling for the ring below the head. With a jerk I pulled it. For a second or two the door, contrary to promise, seemed to resist my efforts. Then it gave, and I stumbled into a hall where stood the torches which gave light to the beacon eyes.
I had forgotten the door as I wavered on, intent only on getting inside, away from the rising clamor in the street. Then I tripped and fell forward on my knees. Somehow I squirmed around, the laser ready. Already the door was swinging shut, shutting off a scene of running men, light gleaming on the bared blades they held.
Breathing hard, I watched the door shut by itself, and then was content to sit there for a space. I had not realized how great the strain of my flight had been until this island of safety held me. It was good simply to sit on the floor of that passage and know I need not run.
Finally I roused enough to draw my boots on and look about me. Hamzar's tale of sanctuary had not gone beyond the few facts of the face on the door and the guarantee that no malefactor could be taken from within. I had expected some type of temple to lie behind such a story. But I was not in the court of any fane now, only in a narrow hall with no doors. Very close to me stood a stone rack in which were set two oil-soaked torches, blazing steadily to form the beacon of the door eyes.
I got to my feet and rounded that barrier, waiting for a challenge from whoever tended those night lights. With my back to their flames I saw only more corridor, unbroken, shadows at its far end which could veil anything. With some caution I advanced.
Unlike the glimpses I had had into the various other temples of Koonga, these walls were unpainted, being only the native yellow stone such as cobbled the wider streets. The same stone formed the wide blocks of the floor, and as far as I could see, the ceiling as well.
They were worn in places underfoot, as if from centuries of use. Also here and there on the floor were dark splotches following no pattern, which suggested unpleasantly that some of those who had come this way earlier might have suffered hurts during their flight, and that there had been no effort to clean away such traces.
I reached the end of the corridor and discovered it made a sharp turn to the right, one which was not visible until one reached it. To the left was only wall. That new way, being out of the path of the torches, was almost as dark as the alleys. I tried to pierce its dusk, wishing I had a beamer. Finally I turned the laser on lowest energy, sending a white pencil which scored the stained blocks of the flooring, but gave me light.
The new passage was only about four paces long. Then I was in a square box of a room and the laser beam touched upon an unlighted torch in the wall bracket. That blazed and I switched off the weapon, blinking. I might have been in a room furnished by one of the cheaper inns. Against the far wall was a basin of stone, into which trickled a small runnel of water, the overflow channeled back into the surface of the wall again.
Excerpted from The Zero Stone by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1968 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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