Read chapter Three from Thief of Llarn

CHAPTER THREE

Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library

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I BENT ABOVE the board. I reached out to grasp the monster —later, I was to learn that it was a doplomorous and that it had existed two million years before the first man had walked upon the planet Llarn—but my fingers hit something smooth and hard. A force field? Or might it have been a time field? I did not know. I did not care.

My mouth was dry. The monster was coming closer, closer. Even in its miniature state it was terrible, with great white tusks protruding between bluish lips. Its scaled body hammered along, shaking the trees bordering the jungle path where Tuarra fled.

“Save her! Save her!”

“I cried. Will you obey me?”

“Yes! Yes! Only—” Tuarra was in the room running, stumbling, sweat staining her dear face, twigs and leaves clinging to her body. She cried out, stared wildly at me, then collapsed in my arms. I held her tight, kissing her beautiful face.

“You begin to understand my powers, Alan Morgan. You have given your word to help me. It is enough.”

“I shouldn’t think anyone like you would need help!”

“Not beneath the Clouds, no. Here I am a god. Ah, but the Clouds did not cover the world of Llarn, and beyond the Clouds of Comoron there were men who schemed and planned, men whose actions might harm Xuxul, even destroy him. And so Xuxul was afraid.

On Llarn as you know, thieves are stealing verdals! Though I am a god, I am also mortal. What is to be done with those verdals can and will destroy me. Long ago, I was a man, such as yourself.”

His name had been Vool Pan. He was the greatest scientist in the seaport city of Xuxu. His inventions had made him famous all across the world of the five oceans. He was honored; he was rich; he had everything any man could need. Then he heard of Uthian and his attempt to steal the secret fluid of immortality from Paloranis.

Immortality Yes, this is what Vool Pan wanted—the one thing on Llarn he did not have. With immortality he could enjoy his life for all eternity. And so he set his mind to trap Uthian the Unmatched by creating first a jewel such as had never been seen on Llarn. His creation emitted a tiny electronic note which reached the pleasure centers of the brain, affording the beholder such delights that no man could let it go.

And so the gem called the Desire of the World had to be placed behind a thick glass wall, on top of a black velvet cushion,

So dense were the throngs that came to see it and be thrilled by its endless electronic touching of their brains, the dagan of Xuxu had decreed that none might see the World’s Desire, that it must be always kept in a locked room in the House of Treasures, and that a guard be maintained before its great bronze door.

Yet the fame of the jewel spread outward over the oceans, and eventually word of the World’s Desire came to Uthian the Unmatched. Uthian was fascinated by what he heard. A jewel so lovely it had to be locked away from the sight of men. A jewel to make men forget wife and home and family, just by looking at its faceted depths, Incredible! Uthian did not believe such a gem existed; yet he decided he would steal it. It was the challenge to his wits which Uthian enjoyed.

Uthian came to Xuxu posing as a mercenary soldier, a man who sold his sword to the highest bidder. As a sell-sword, he sought service with the Dagan of Xuxu. So marvelous was his swordsmanship, so accurate his aim with a grawn, that he was hired almost as soon as his tests were over.

No man had ever seen the face of Uthian and recognized it as that of the master thief. On all his jobs he wore a plastic mask, a mask that fitted over his features and changed them subtlely. He had many such masks, having stolen them from one shop or another in his long career.

Here in Xuxu, he would not need a mask. It was his plan to be assigned to guard the Desire of the World. All he need do would be to unlock the bronze door, slip inside and steal the gem, then relock the door and finish his guard duty. Time enough to flee when his replacement came.

All went as Uthian had imagined it—up to a point. He was assigned guard duty. He picked the lock. He came face to face with the blazing jewel he intended to steal. And he could do nothing except stand and stare.

Never had he felt such delight. Never had he imagined anything so glorious, so pleasurable as the sheer enjoyment of looking at the gem in its thick glass case. He froze motionless, entranced.

He would have been apprehended, of course, were it not for the scientist Vool Pan. Vool Pan did not know when Uthian would arrive, but he had reasoned out just such a plan as Uthian might use. To guard against Uthian actually stealing the jewel, Vool Pan had placed a spy device inside the glass case that held it. From his laboratory he saw Uthian staring in at the jewel, and understood that his trap had snapped shut.

Vool Pan hurried to the House of Treasures, protected by a device that countered the electronic beeps of the jewel so that they were warded off before they reached his brain. He dragged Uthian away from the jewel, and made him an offer.

He, Vool Pan, would help Uthian steal the jewel—for a price.

The price was the immortality formula which Uthian had stolen from the science laboratories of Paloranis.

Uthian laughed. He was a thief, but he had honor of a sort. He would steal but he would not lie. The formula was worthless. He had tried it, and it had not worked. Nevertheless, whether it worked or not, this was the price Vool Pan would take to help Uthian steal the jewel. And naturally, Uthian agreed.

He went back for the useless formula and returned with it. In exchange, Vool Pan gave him a device similar to the one he had worn to protect his brain from the pleasure beams of the jewel. At least, this would permit him to steal that man-made jewel—if he could.

Uthian was not at all sure he would be able to steal it. Even for the greatest thief in all the world, there are limitations. There was a huge, thick glass case about the jewel, wired to close the doors of the House of Treasures instantly if it were broken. A blow to shatter the case would do the thief no good, even assuming he could crack that thick glass.

And the great metal base on which the glass case rested with the jewel on its pyramid inside it appeared to be absolutely solid.

“Could you steal the World’s Desire, Alan Morgan?”

I was so deep in his story that I had to shake myself back to the moment. The mental voice of Xuxul was so hypnotic, so compelling, that I was held in a trance by the yarn he was spinning.

“I’m no thief,” I protested.

“Yet if you are to serve me, you must become a thief. A great thief, a corlth without an equal! I think I should test that ability again. You shall play my game once more with me, Alan Morgan of Earth.”

And suddenly

I stood before the bronze doors of the Room of the Desire of the World in ancient Xuxu. I knew now that I was no larger than a thumbnail; that I was somewhere on that dimensional game board fighting for my life and for the life of the woman I loved.

Vool Pan told Uthian how to steal the jewel. You must do it on your own—if you can!

The voice touched my mind, was gone. My bare back was pressed to the bronze door. The protective device Vool Pan had given me was in my belt pouch. Outside the House of Treasures it was night on Llarn. My replacement would not come for close to eight kors.

I wheeled and knelt. The tiny metal device which I used to pick locks was in my hand, being thrust inside the keyhole. A moment only I fumbled—the hands of Uthian are deft and powerful—and then the bolt went back and the bronze door yawned open to a push of my fingers.

Instantly I stepped inside the room, whipping out the protective device and slipping it over my forehead. There was a pale light flooding the chamber from the glowing metal strips at the base of the walls and the edges of the ceilings. This light rested on the great jewel so that it blazed and pulsed and shone with a blinding brilliance.

I was tempted to remove the protective device from around my head, but I knew I dared not. To do so would mean I would fall under the spell of the great gem and would become helpless as a child.

I ran to the metal base on which rested the thick glass case. I knelt and slid my hands all around that cold metal square. Here, beneath the glass case, was the answer to the secret. It had to be, since the glass was wired against breakage or tampering and since the jewel had been created only for one purpose: to be stolen.

Vool Pan had made the jewel to lure Uthian here. That meant that there must be a way to steal it. The way existed. It was up to me to find it.

I knelt and searched the metal base. I found nothing. I tried to budge it, and could not. Then I ran my fingertips over the smooth black metal. What the eyes could not see, the marvelous fingertips of Uthian might feel.

There was nothing. No—wait! Here! A flaw in the metal, a pocking.

I knelt and searched, turning my head to catch the light upon that flaw from an angle. There it was, a tiny marking. I, Uthian, settled back on my heels, hunkered down before that pockmark, and thought.

After a while I lifted out the leather pouch I always carry with me. Somewhere in my pouch there was a needle. Yes, this was it, thin and long. Thin enough to be pushed inside the pockmark and twisted. I inserted and turned it in the metal pockmark.

A section of the wall swung open. I was looking inside at a dark interior lighted only by the radiance that filtered through the thick glass case from the overhead illumination. And there was a small metal platform directly under the transparent glass pyramid that held the jewel.

I reached an arm into that opening and tried to reach up into the cone that held the jewel. My fingers would go no more than halfway up that glass shape. The Desire of the World was safe.

There seemed to be no way to extract the gem except by breaking the glass case and so setting off the alarm. And yet —there had to be. Vool Pan had made it so it might be stolen by Uthian, after Uthian turned over to him the immortality formula.

A memory tugged at my mind. The jewel and the glass cone reminded me of —of what? Some vague recollection, something of the past. . . .

I emptied my leather pouch on the floor. My tools were here, even a candle for melting the wax with which to take the impression of a key. A candle! I who was Uthian in this strange game of dimensional death began to laugh, silently.

I struck a flame and lighted the candle. The candle I placed on the platform directly under the glass cone which held the jewel. Clever Vool Pan Oh, clever! To build a jewel and then its setting so that the one might serve to ease the theft of the other—

I closed the metal wall, forming a sealed container for the candle. The flame would burn; it would exhaust the air inside the metal base, forming a partial vacuum. And the jewel would slip through the opening in the cone tip on which it rested and fall into the metal base.

Long ago I had seen an egg perched on the mouth of a bottle. A candle had been lit inside the bottle. Seconds later the egg had plopped down through the narrow neck and into the bottle itself.

I watched the jewel.

Suddenly, it was gone, drawn down into the base. I grinned. I opened the metal base. I reached in and the World’s Desire nestled in my fingers. I was tempted to yank off the protective device on my head in order to sample its delights, but I fought down that compulsion for my own safety. I closed the base wall. I ran to the bronze door and swung it shut, I took up my post once again.

I would look upon the jewel later, in my quarters. . . .

And so Uthian did, long ago. And ever since Uthian has stared upon the jewel, heeding only its constant beeping to the pleasure centers of his brain!

I took a deep breath, aware that Tuarra was close beside me in the chamber of the dimensional game board. Sentos Sun was at the doorway, lifting a hand and beckoning us to follow him.

“Come with me,” the fat man said. “I am to show you Uthian.”

Tuarra and I went after him down a corridor and a ramp that led into the bowels of this gigantic building that housed the huge game board. Here open doors revealed rooms that were freshly painted and newly furnished. Tuarra exclaimed over the excellence of the furnishings, saying there were a few pictures in the dusty books in the libraries of Kharthol which showed furniture like this, massive and yet graceful, which had been used before The War.

Here you shall live in luxury, Tuarra—while Alan Morgan goes upon the mission in my service.

Tuarra made a wry face. This was not to her liking, but she was daughter of Llarn enough to understand that a danger threatened not only Xuxul in Xuxu, but her own people in Kharthol, because of the stolen verdals. By serving Xuxul, I would serve also Drakol Tu, her father.

We came to a stop before an archway that lead into a groined vault where a man lay inside a glass casket. His body was perfect, strong and tanned, clad in the short maroon kilt and leather harness which had been the uniform of the palace guards of Xuxu, long ago. His yellow hair was cropped short like my own, and his eyes were wide open, staring. He looked upon the jewel of the World’s Desire.

It was a magnificent gem about the size of an Earth plum, pure white and blazing where the light touched it. It hung in a golden net suspended from the top of the glass casket.

The fat man said, “The glass protects you from its influence, the influence which Uthian for all his skill as a thief could not deny himself. He died staring at the jewel, oblivious to everything but the bliss it brought him. Xuxulor Vool Pan—has kept him here ever since.”

Tuarra said, “There is no resemblance between you, Alan.” No man has ever seen the face of Uthian and known it, except for me! Uthian the Unmatched lived ten thousand years ago. Yet with your wits, Alan Morgan, you can make the thieves of Llarn believe you are that same Uthian!

“To what end?” I asked.

Listen—and learn! two months before, three thieves of Llarn had entered the land beneath the clouds on a dral. They had ridden for miles, searching for the dead city of Zaxeron. Xuxul had been surprised by their appearance; few men came to the land of radioactive clouds, it being far from the normal trade routes of the Vrann cities.

Xuxul had searched their brains as he had searched the brain of Tuarra when we landed on the plains beyond the city. From them—without the knowledge of the thieves —Xuxul had discovered that the thieves of Llarn served one man, the Dagan of the distant city of Korok. What Pthorok Tok wanted with the verdals the thieves were stealing for him, they did not know, only that he promised high rewards for every verdal brought to his palace.

You know how a verdal is formed, Alan Morgan!

I did know. In the subterranean vault below the arctic ice I had watched the golden helix which had been Vann Tar shape itself into another phase of existence. When the helix had disappeared, only the verdal remained. It was a by-product of that evolutionary step by which an ephelos went on to become—something else. It was not a jewel, strictly speaking, any more than the World’s Desire was a jewel. In my undisturbed meditations for the past hundred centuries here in Xuxu, I have realized the danger of the verdals. A hint—a shadow—no more. Yet I know that they may be deadly dangerous to all life on Llarn which is not protected in some manner by Pthorok Tok. As Uthian in the black thief’s garb he wore, which I shall create for you, you must learn what that danger is—and prevent it!

My task was to pose as Uthian himself, to travel in the flier to the dead seaport city of Zaxeron and there to meet the thieves coming also to Zaxeron to steal a verdal that reposed somewhere within its walls. Tuarra would be safe, here in Xuxu.

She smiled wryly as I looked at her, lifting her smooth shoulders in a little shrug. She would utilize the time during which I would be gone to study rare and ancient manuscripts, she assured me. Then she might report back to the scientists of Kharthol about what life had been like here in Xuxu before The War.

“It is really a most unusual opportunity,” she admitted as we walked with Sentos Sun from the room that held the crystal casket in which Uthian lay dead.

My arm hugged her waist. “I’ll be back as fast as I can. We’ll get on to Moorn, or if the danger’s over—to Kharthol.”

She kissed me a long time in the empty square before the deserted palace, then stood beside Sentos Sun as I climbed into the flier and activated its motor. The fuel tank was full. However Xuxul had drained it I did not know. But now the energy bars had been restored to their former strength. The flier rose into the air. I waved to Tuarra, then turned the prow of the small ship toward the city of Zaxeron. Now that I knew something of the city of Xuxu, I found myself scanning the ancient wharfs that once had extended out into the shimmering Xulthic Sea, but which now protruded into what was just one more Llarn desert. Here had the great merchant and the war fleets gathered; here had come the nobility and the great of the planet. Now Xuxu was no more than another dead city, so many of which dotted the surface of this dying world.

I understood that Tuarra would be safe in Xuxu. Her only danger would come if anything happened to me. I would use my wits to prevent that, and my sword. I remembered that Uthian had been a master swordsman. In that, at least, we were alike.

The flier sped across the ancient sea bottom. High above, the clouds glowed with golden brilliance, since it was day on Llarn and Alfan bathed them with its rays. Visibility in this world where all the colors were so muted, was excellent.

The thieves I was to contact in Zaxeron would approach that city by dral, an animal not unlike an earth horse, but with horns on its head and silvery mane and tail. No motor would work beneath the Clouds of Comoron unless Xuxul willed it to work. I realized that I must hide my flier before I went into the city. To do otherwise would make the thieves suspicious of me.

In the distance was a smudge of darkness: Zaxeron. I dropped the flier lower until I was only ten feet above the dry bottom of the Xulthic Sea. I raced along that dusty sea floor stirring little whirls of sand behind me.

Nearer I came to the dead seaport, and still nearer. At last I dropped the flier down behind a row of rocks so that no one looking this way from the city would see it.

I went on by foot and entered Zaxeron toward evening. The dust of the dead sea bottom was thick and heavy on my black kilt, my weapon-belt, and on my black sandals. I had no way of knowing from whence the thieves would come. I walked on through the city, aware that hunger was a living thing inside my belly.

I shall feed you, Alan Morgan. Beneath the Clouds, I am supreme.

Before my eyes, I saw the city change. The dusty thoroughfares were gone, the grime on the building walls disappeared. This was a young, new Zaxeron, where sailors walked the streets and ships swung on their anchors in its mighty harbor. I saw men and woman before me clad in the exotically lovely garb of a hundred centuries ago. I came to a stop and stared.

There are eating places all around you. Select one. I began to understand the power of Xuxul. He was a god in truth beneath the silvery clouds that overlay his domain. He could brush aside the veils of space and time. He could create life of a sort, as witness Sentos Sun, perhaps as company for the human element which still remained in him.

Also, he could create food, I supposed. I wondered if that food would be as nourishing as the food I ate in Kharthol. Well, there was one way to find out. I turned in at a doorway over which hung an olanth-wood sign carved in the shape of a bowl of stew.

There were three dozen bare wooden tables in the public eating house. I sat at a small one, and became so absorbed in the ebb and flow of humanity about me that the pert little waitress had to touch my arm to rouse me from my dreamings.

I blessed the gods of Llarn for the fact that Xuxul had implanted in my mind an understanding of the language which had been spoken in Zaxeron so long ago. I ordered stew and a steak and a ewer of lakk. Then I settled back to wait and listen to the conversation at a nearby table.

“. . . caravan from Xuxu with robes as thin as gossamer! He’d have made a fortune if the raiders hadn’t caught him.”

“Something ought to be done about them. The raiders are everywhere! The rumor has it that they hide out in the rock hills. Think there’s any truth in it?”

“Who knows? Who cares? I’m a sailor, not a caravan master. I’m here to see the great verdal.”

“But not to steal it, I hope” There was laughter at the table. The sailor grinned, “Not likely! You ever see that barrier they have in front of it?

Dissolves human flesh! Brrr. Can you imagine melting to death? Lying there and screaming with your nerves all shredded—agony in every fiber—screaming for Thulun to come for your soul?”

The sweat stood out on my face. If the verdal were protected by such a barrier, what chance did I have to steal it? I brightened. In ten thousand years the power of the barrier would have lessened, even disappeared.

I turned to make friendly conversation. I said, “I come from Paloranis. Is there really such a barrier? We in Paloranis have always felt it was just a rumor to discourage thieves somebody like Uthian, for instance.”

One of the men scowled. “Who’s Uthian? Never heard of him. Probably some local robber who’d be caught on his first venture here in Zaxeron.”

I told the man he was right. Uthian was the current bugaboo in Paloranis. But if Uthian could only live a long time, he might steal the verdal. The barrier would fade with the centuries.

“Not likely. They built it to last forever. At least for a thousand million years!”

The men laughed at my expression, then turned back to chat more quietly by themselves. I bent over the bowl of stew and ate greedily.

So! This was just another game of wits and skill I had to play with my life as forfeit. As Uthian, I was supposed to be clever, tricky, full of guile. If any thief could steal the great verdal of Zaxeron, Uthian could do it.

Another thought made my blood run cold. The real Uthian had never stolen this verdal in Zaxeron. Maybe he had come here, looked at the barrier, and had given it up as a bad job. If the real Uthian couldn’t have done it, I didn’t stand a chance.

Discouragement might have taken the edge off my appetite, but I finished the stew and the bork steak easily enough, and felt somewhat more confident. I had already stolen two objects which the real Uthian had also stolen. Maybe I could figure out a third.

I walked out into the street, jostling elbows with sailors from foreign lands and with the girls who sought to take their silver quinns. I had asked directions from the men at the next table who told me with wide grins—asking, at the same time, if I might be Uthian—that the great verdal of Zaxeron was housed in the Temple of Thulun, so that the dark god of the seas might protect it with his power.

My feet made solid thumps on the street even as the people and the seaport city began to vanish. First they thinned, then they shimmered so that I could see the dead, dusty buildings behind them, then they were gone back into the time out of which Xuxul had summoned them. I walked alone in ancient Zaxeron, the wind eddies sweeping the sea floor dust about its paving stones, the silvery light from the clouds high above, for it was night on Llarn.

It took me close to half a kor to find the Temple of Thulun. It was a tall, domed structure, with carvings to represent great waves and ships caught in those huge swells. There were no doors on the temple entrance, only a dark and brooding emptiness. Nor were there any panes of crystal in the windows, which were deeply recessed but open to the sea winds that once swept between the fluted columns. I went up the wide treads, walking in the deep hollows formed by the millions of feet which once walked where I now strode.

I moved through the entrance-way into a cool dimness. Here were statues to the great admirals, the renowned sailors who had made Zaxeron and Xuxu great in the years beyond recall. Ship models molded in deep niches and the walls were rotting into powder. A touch of the fingertips would make them crumble into dust. I looked; I marveled; I wished Tuarra were here to drink in this knowledge and report it back to her people in Kharthol.

“No, Ghan Karr! Wait. . . .” It was a soft voice, the voice of a woman that floated out of the building from somewhere up ahead of me. I felt nerves crawl on icy feet along my spine. Was this another demonstration of the weird powers Xuxul boasted? Ah, but I was to meet some thieves here in Zaxeron. Perhaps they were already here—and stealing the verdal.

I tugged at the grawn in its holster at my belt and loosed my sword. I was Uthian the Unmatched, I told myself—no longer Alan Morgan. I was a thief who had lived for ten thousand years.

I moved forward toward the great chamber that lay beneath the temple dome. My heart thundered with nervous energy. I stepped between two statued pillars.

Two men and a woman stood before what looked to be a column of blazing colors rising upward out of a broad stone and metal base to the wide dome itself, high above. My eyes were caught and held by that awesome shaft of brilliance and by the metal object one of the men was thrusting toward it.

It was a grappling hook he pushed toward the column of incandescent colors, a device with which to catch the golden links from which a basketwork of gold filigree hung. Inside the filigree was the great verdal of Zaxeron.

The jewel almost blinded the onlooker with its brilliant green fire. Perhaps this was the effect of the color shaft. Ordinarily a verdal does not glow with such fire, yet this gem flared and pulsed almost as if alive.

The grappling hook touched the shaft—and burned like a flame!

The metal blazed with a red fury as if it were torn from the heart of the star-sun Alfan. No wonder a man melted when he tried to penetrate that barrier.

I swallowed. If I were to pose as Uthian the Unmatched, it might be my task—to prove my identity, as it were—to steal the verdal for these thieves.

Only in such manner would I show myself worthy of being taken along with them to distant Korok, to meet and serve its dagan, Pthorok Tok. From Pthorok Tok I would learn what use he meant to make of the stolen verdals and stop him if I could.

The man who held what was left of the grappling hook’s long handle cursed savagely and flung it away.

“No one can steal that thing,” he rasped. The woman said, “Pthorok Tok does not like failure.” She had a voice like a fairy song, that woman. Her thick mane of red hair was piled high on her shapely head and her skin was a gold so pale it was almost white. In the black harness of the professional guild thief and with black sandals on her feet, she was breathtakingly lovely. She began to walk about the stone and metal base of the light shaft and her every movement was a poem of motion. I could see her face now—the slanted eyes and thin brows and ripe red mouth which gave her such an exotic look. There was a hint of cruelty in those proud features.

“You can tell me how to steal it, then,” the man who was Ghan Karr growled.

The thief who had remained silent thus far stirred. “It eats wood, it eats metal and it is supposed to melt human flesh,” he said at last.

He was tall and slim, this last man. His head was bald and in the black kilt and belt he seemed like a grinning ghost. Later, I was to learn his name was Evran Dekk.

“If we could shut off the power source,” the woman said thoughtfully, “we could do away with the shaft.”

“And where’s the power source located?” Ghan Karr snapped. “In the basement? We’ve already examined that and found nothing. In the stone and metal base? Watch!”

He drew his grawn and triggered it. A thin red beam ran to the stone shaft, spread outward over it. Its scarlet energy did not even scorch the surface. The man holstered his handgun, saying, “The ancients knew how to build, I give them that. I’ve never met anything as tough as that stuff.”

“It can’t be stolen, the tall man sighed.

“Will you go back to Pthorok Tok and tell him that?” the woman asked. There was a touch of fear in her voice, I thought, and wondered what manner of man the Dagan of Korok might be.

They stood staring at the colored shaft and at the brilliant verdal in its golden filigree basket hanging so high above their heads. It dangled there like a tempting fruit, yet it was as if it were on an entirely different planet. The man who had created the color shaft had been a genius. I wondered to myself if it had been Vool Pan.

If it had been, then Xuxul knew its secret. I wondered also if Xuxul would tell me how to steal it. Or perhaps this was my final test. If I, as Uthian the Unmatched, could steal the verdal, then I would be acceptable as his agent and be permitted to go out beyond the Clouds of Comoron to Korok and discover there what Pthorok Tok intended to do with all his stolen verdals.

The woman sighed. “We have no other course open. We must go back—admit defeat. Let Pthorok Tok send whom he will. No man can steal that jewel.”

I moved from the shadows. “I can steal it,” I found myself saying.

The shorter thief yanked out his grawn even as he whirled around to stare at me with wide, disbelieving eyes. The woman was crouched tensely, her red mouth a little open. The tall man who seemed so much a living spirit merely smiled and waited. There was a deep cunning in his eyes as they studied my body, my white skin and the black garments I wore in my role of Uthian the thief. “Who are you?” the woman asked. “Where’d you come from?” the short man growled. The tall thief said nothing. He waited quietly, but the thought touched my brain that he was far more dangerous than either of the others.

“My name is Uthian,” I told them. “I have lived for the past ten thousand years in the city of Xuxu.”

“You lie,” Ghan Karr said. His grip on the handgun loosed, and he slipped it back inside his holster.

The woman said sweetly, “Uthian the Unmatched? Is this whom you claim to be? Uthian, who stole the immortality fluid of Paloranis?”

The tall man started at that, and now he scowled, for the first time seeing me as a threat. His eyes drifted sideways toward the woman.

“What do you think, Marga?”

“His skin is white, as was the skin of Uthian long ago. His hair is golden, as was the hair of Uthian. His garments—” She broke off and shook her head.

The short man grinned. “Uthian was a master swordsman. Let this one prove his swordsmanship on me.”

“Next to myself, Evran Dekk, Ghan Karr is the finest blade in all the guild,” the tall man Smiled coldly.

“No Sword can match my own,” I answered. “If Evran Dekk fights better than does Ghan Karr, then I shall prove myself with Evran Dekk.”

“No,” said Marga. “You shall fight Ghan Karr.” The short man laughed and leaped, his sword appearing in his hand as if by magic. There was no avoiding its point without drawing my own steel.

As Alan Morgan, I was never one to avoid a discussion with swords. As Uthian, I was just as willing to let the blades whisper back and forth. My steel came out and parried the blade stabbing for my vitals.

The ease with which I slid from the parry into the riposte made the shorter man gasp. Confidence is ever the foe of any fighting man. My point dipped into Ghan Karr’s sword-arm and slashed a path through skin and sinew.

His sword clattered on the floor. With his left hand clapped over his bleeding wound, he stared at me, lips drawn into a snarl. “You tricked me! I wasn’t ready for . . .” His voice trailed off when I laughed at him.

“Any man who comes at Uthian with a sword naked in his hand must be ready for anything—even death if it be the will of Uthian to slay him.”

I shook my blade so the drops of blood on its point made scarlet spots on the tiles, and looked beyond those red flecks at Evran Dekk. There was challenge in my stare, and the pride which Uthian himself would feel if his ability with the steel were disputed.

“Well?” I asked. “Does Evran Dekk hide behind the word of a woman?”

Marga had forbidden Evran Dekk to test my swordplay, choosing Ghan Karr as her warrior. Ghan Karr had put up no fight at all. Did they think that the riposte with which I wounded him was luck?

The thin man flushed and his sword rasped from its scabbard. He did not fling himself upon me as Ghan Karr had done. His attack was a slow, deliberate one. Our blades touched, quivered and fell away to touch again. It was as if he would explore my ability before committing himself.

Laughter came into my throat. “Cold one, this is not the way of Uthian. To Thulun with your slowness”

My blade blurred as I moved it. Evran Dekk skipped back but I was after him, laughing, taunting him, making my steel a web that twisted about his blade like a vine that clung. My wrist yanked—and the sword came upward out of Evran Dekk’s hand to fly high through the air. It clattered almost at the feet of Marga.

Over the fallen sword her green eyes blazed. There was shock and disbelief on her beautiful features, and a faint hope. She bent and lifted the blade and when Evran Dekk would have taken it from her, she put it behind her back.

“No,” she said. “You shall fight no more with him. Alive or dead, Uthian or another, I would speak with him.”

“And I would fight again with him,” Evran Dekk snarled. Marga stamped her foot like a queen. Indeed, she was a queen of sorts among the thieves, I was to learn. Always the thieves of Llarn patterned their guild after the governments of their own cities. Among her kind, Marga was a daganna in all truth.

Evran Dekk shrugged, but the face he turned at me was dark with hate. I had made an enemy of him, I realized. Well, Uthian had made enemies before in his time. I let my sword ease back into its scabbard.

Marga said, “You will forgive our incredulity. Uthian is a legend these days in the guild. Men tell one another how he stole the jewel in the scepter of Ventrol Voor or the miniature paintings of Comon Gor, Dagan of Meradion.”

She smiled sweetly as she asked, “You can explain these thefts, of course?”

I grinned at her. “I can—when and if I choose to do so. But why should I? Uthian does nothing without a profit. I have lain in Xuxu a long time. And for those hundred centuries of my living entombment—every moment of which I spent staring at the Desire of the World, kept alive by the immortality fluid—I have done much thinking.”

“What is the World’s Desire?” Ghan Karr asked. “A jewel so exquisite no man can look at it and turn away. Gazing into its depths, a man sees visions—his brain becomes numb with joy. If it were not for the immortality fluid I stole from Paloranis, I would have been dust long ago. But enough of Uthian. Why do you want to steal that verdal?” Evran Dekk opened his mouth as if to protest against Marga speaking any more to me. His eyes brooded coldly at me, seeing in me a rival for his rank among the thieves. I shrugged when Marga remained silent. “It makes no difference to Uthian whether you take him into your confidence. Always I have worked alone, never with a confederate. When I steal the great verdal of Zaxeron

“You cannot steal it,” Ghan Karr flared. “No man can!” Marga echoed. Only Evran Dekk said nothing, though his eyes spoke for him with a cold, bright fury. His hate was alive inside his ribs. He would willingly have killed me, I know, but his brain was whispering that this Uthian might be of use to him. Let Uthian steal the verdal if he could, and Evran Dekk would find a way to take it away from him.

“Uthian is more than a man,” I laughed. “Uthian is an immortal. I have spent ten thousand years gazing upon the jewel called Desire, and planning ten times ten thousand perfect crimes.”

Marga smiled on me suddenly. “Steal the great verdal of Zaxeron and come with us to Korok. Pthorok Tok will reward you as he will reward the other thieves in our guild.”

“And how will Pthorok Tok reward us?” I asked.

“He will share the wealth of all Llarn with us.”

“You call that a reward? I can steal the wealth of Llarn. Nothing is safe from Uthian the Unmatched. Nothing!”

As Uthian, I bragged as I would never have done as Alan Morgan, but I understood that I must create an awe of Uthian in the minds of these thieves. Ghan Karr was staring at me with his mouth open. There was something deep in the eyes of Marga that told me she believed my story, or wanted to believe it. Only Evran Dekk seemed unimpressed, yet I realized that he, most of all, wanted me to lift the great verdal of Zaxeron from its filigree nest.

The tall man waved a hand at the green jewel where it hung in its golden network inside the shaft of destructive color. “Go ahead, then. Steal it.”

“Uthian works alone. He does not share the secrets of his ways with ordinary thieves. You three shall ride out of Zaxeron to beyond the Clouds of Comoron. There you shall wait for me. I shall join you with the great verdal in my pouch.”

Marga said, “No You shall steal it before us all. That way, we shall know whether or not you are tricking us.”

“Uthian works alone,” I told her. Evran Dekk shrugged. “What difference does it make if we see him steal the jewel—so long as we can take it to Pthorok Tok?”

“No difference,” snapped Ghan Karr. Marga bit her full lower lip. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, really. I just wanted to learn what method Uthian would use that none of us had thought of.”

“Perhaps some day I’ll tell you,” I grinned. Ghan Karr picked up the sack of tools he had brought with him into Zaxeron. Marga sighed and turned her green eyes toward the verdal within the light shaft. Evran Dekk simply swung about and walked toward the shadowy archway that led to the open doorway.

I walked with them for awhile to the landward edge of the city. I chose Marga as a companion, letting Ghan Karr and Evran Dekk move on ahead. The woman was friendly enough, bubbling with curiosity, wanting to know if I were really Uthian, if I had swallowed the fluid of immortality and if there were any of it left.

“Oh, yes,” I assured her. It was the simple truth I told. From Xuxul I understood that the so—called immortality fluid which the real Uthian had stolen from Paloranis was still locked away in the vaults of Xuxul.

Vool Pan had tested the immortality fluid, and had found the ingredient which, when added to the useless fluid, actually made it into an elixir of immortality. Or perhaps it was the effect of the radioactivity in the Clouds of Comoron plus the liquid which had given him an endless life. Vool Pan, who was now Xuxul, was not sure. All he knew was that he was a god with eerie powers in a world that belonged to him alone.

“I would like to be immortal,” she sighed. “Who knows? Someday—you may be,” I smiled. It would not hurt to make a friend out of Marga. I would need friends in Korok. I would especially need someone to guard my back when Evran Dekk tried to steal the great verdal from me. I hinted this to the Queen of Thieves.

“Evran Dekk is a dangerous man,” she admitted. “But I shall guard your back, Uthian. I would not want Evran Dekk to be the one who brought the great verdal before Pthorok Tok and claimed that he had stolen it.”

“He could not claim that, with you and Ghan Karr alive,” I pointed out, and was aware of her green eyes regarding me slyly.

“I know that,” she nodded. We understood each other, and our mutual danger. At the edge of the city I halted while Marga and the others walked toward the three hobbled drals they had ridden in to Zaxeron under the Clouds of Comoron. I watched them saddle the beasts and swing up into the kaks. Marga waved a hand at me. Then they cantered off into the night of Llarn, becoming smaller and smaller until they disappeared from view. I walked back alone into Zaxeron. All I had to do now was steal the great verdal. And I honestly admitted that I did not have the slightest idea how I was going to do it.

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