Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Long the reptile writhed and twisted before death claimed it. When its struggles ceased, Myrnis moved from the worn stone steps, treading daintily between its coils until she could kneel beside the Tantagolian.
“Makonnon, hear me,” her melodious voice whispered. “Lend me whatever powers you can summon up—or Kyrik dies.”
I hear you, Illis. I hear and send my—powers!
The woman held out her waxen hands, saw them change color, become iridescent, coruscant with glowing luminescence. Tiny lights sparkled upon her fingers and palms, like little lanterns set aflame by demoniac fires. The woman smiled, nodded.
She lowered her glittering hands to that frothy, stinking ichor, moved them about. And where she touched it, the bubbly liquid smoked, turned into whitish air that blew about in the crypt and dissolved. Clean showed the heavily tanned skin of the warlock-warrior, smooth and healthy, yet still he did not move.
It was as if he lay frozen in death. The woman put her luminous hands to his eyes, and her voice was sepulchral, she seemed to whisper out of graves long since lost to the world of men.
“Through the wizardry of ancient Makonnon, I fight the evil necromancies of the demon-snake, servitor of Moforgon, father of demons. Give life and sight to this man whose spirit wanders in the gray and gloomy hands of Niflheim. Life and sight to him, by the power I now bear.”
The crypt was very still. Then Kyrik stirred, sighed. His eyes opened, he stared blankly up into eyes of glowing emerald, held in a waxen face. His spirit was slow in returning to his massive body, yet it came, slowly and hesitantly, as though afraid of what would happen.”
He whispered, “Illis! Do I dream—or is it you? Am I dead? You died, I mind, in Tantagol when you helped me to slay Absothoth by shattering the crystal prism.”
“I did not die as mortals know death, Kyrik,” she breathed. “I lost my energies and slept for a time, to restore them.”
He nodded, lips smiling, eyes closed. More and more strength came back to him as he rested, while the woman who was Myrnis and Illis crouched over his body, her long brown hair veiling her face and glinting eyes. Now when he moved again, she smiled faintly and with infinite tenderness.
Gradually he gathered his muscles and rose up on one elbow. His eyes studied the nut-brown face of the Romany girl questioningly.
“A moment ago I could have sworn you were someone else,” he muttered. “I must have been dreaming.”
Myrnis put a hand to her hair and threw it back. “I fainted. What happened?”
“No blame to you for fainting. That devil thing was nearly the death of me. Pah! I’ve used magic in my time, I’m a warlock as well as a warrior, but these demons sicken me with their strange powers. Here, give me a hand.”
She got to her feet and caught his hand in both of hers trying to lift him upward. With his other hand on a stone outcropping of the wall, the Tantagolian rose to his feet, swaying for a few moments until his legs were steady.
Myrnis pressed her soft belly to his, lending him the strength of her body. His arms went about her as he stared deep into her green eyes, seeing her love for him in their depths, yet also sensing something—alien—that lay inside her, as if waiting to be released.
Kyrik rumbled a curse in his throat. He was seeing visions. This was not Illis, the goddess who had come to life to aid him in the past, merely the gypsy girl, his companion on his wanderings. What he had glimpsed a short time ago was only the product of his momentary weakness.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “I’m fine. But what do we do now?” He scowled, puzzled; scratched his thick mane of tawny hair. “Illis take me if I know. We have the bells of Salmalinda—but what can we do with them?”
She moved across the crypt floor, stepping carefully to avoid the dead snake, and lifted the golden wires and little silver bells, mounted on the base of solid gold. Her hands raised it upward, and quivered as the sound of elfin tinklings ran about the room.
“No man today could make a thing like this. Listen to the bells,” she breathed, eyes brilliant.
“Demon work,” he nodded.
“Oh, yes. Nothing human could have created something so lovely—and so powerful. I believe that the pealings of these bells reach between the worlds, into those lands where Moforgon and other demoniac beings dwell.”
“It may be so. Right now I have a need for fresh air. This place has a stink to it. Come, Myrnis.”
The girl bent, wrapping his scarlet cloak with the fur edgings about the golden-wired carillon. The bells were muffled now, though they emitted a faint tinkle or two as she came across the floor, carrying the enchanted thing. On the stone staircase she turned and looked at him.
“Why do you suppose that thief was coming to get this thing? What need would he have for it?”
“Endole? Some wizard hired him, perhaps.”
“Yes, that is what I think. But then—who ran a dagger into him and killed him? Are there others who want the bells?”
He shrugged his vast shoulders. “Why think of such things? We have the bells. That’s enough.”
Her hips swayed as she ascended the staircase. Kyrik ran his eyes up and down her shapely bare legs, revealed to mid-thighs by the shortness of her tunic. She was an attractive wench, by all the gods. She’d be better employed making love to him than in worrying about some ancient silver bells.
Myrnis was silent as they emerged under lowering gray skies and began the walk through the ruined temple toward the flat-bottomed skiff, yet her thin brown eyebrows were drawn together as she wrestled with unanswerable questions. Not until they were in the skiff and halfway to the shore did she speak again.
“This Endole was a thief, I understand.”
“A master thief, aye. One of those I freed from jail in Tantagol when I overthrew Davonides. I’ve heard it said that no man was his equal when it came to rifling a treasure or filching a purse off a merchant’s belt without being noticed.” He bared his teeth in a wide grin. “I mind me when I was young—a thousand years ago before Jokaline put that spell on me, and before I was king of Tantagol—I joined the thief pack under a different name.
“Ah, those were good days. They didn’t know a prince of the House of Tantagol was their companion. I was young, without a care to line my face.”
Her green eyes sharpened. “Could you join the thief pack today? A thousand years later?”
“Hoh. Once a thief, always a thief. Still, I may have lost the delicate touch that let me lift the almoner off the girdle of a townsman without his knowing. I always repaid the men I stole from, in one way or another.”
Myrnis leaned forward from the prow, resting her dimpled chin on a brown fist. “So, then. You could walk among thieves even now, and be welcome?”
He puffed air between pursed lips, puzzled. “I suppose I could. But I’m not going to.” His huge hand pointed at the muffled bells. “There’ll be enough money from the sale of those to keep us in meat and wine for months to come. Besides, I have money enough back in Tantagol.”
She shook her head and mirth touched her full red mouth. “I think not, Kyrik. We have other things to do with the bells.”
He forgot to paddle in his amazement. “What?”
“We’re going to find out who wants these bells of Salmalinda—and why.”
“It’s no concern of yours.”
“Ah, but it is, Kyrik of the Victories.” She laughed, but not as Myrnis might have laughed. Instead it was with mirth in which jeweled chimes tinkled. Her green eyes blazed their emerald radiance in the whiteness of her skin. It seemed that her face changed into the supernal loveliness of the face of Illis.
Kyrik rose to his feet. The skiff swayed and slid sideways through the waters.
“Illis!” he bellowed. “Be still. Yes, yes. I’m back again, as I showed you when you lay half-conscious in the crypt. I’m alive inside the body of this gypsy girl.”
Kyrik stared at her, chuckling. “She won’t like that, she’s jealous enough of you.”
Her shoulders shrugged inside the worn woolen tunic. “No matter for that. We play for high stakes. Why else did Makonnon send me here?”
The warlock-warrior sat down slowly, his eyes never leaving her face. “Makonnon? He’s only a legend. A wizard who lived five thousand years ago. What’s he to do with us?”
“There is evil in this world. I don’t know what it is yet, nor does Makonnon. Yet he sent me to help you to discover it, and stamp it out.”
Kyrik thought as he dipped his paddle into the black swamp waters, turning questions over in his mind, like a dog running in a spit-wheel before a hearth fire. If Illis was in the right, and knowing her from the past he was sure that she was, then these bells of Salmalinda were but the opening gambit in a very deadly game. His warrior heart thrilled to the thought, for he had grown tired of merely wandering about the world of late.
He chuckled and the goddess laughed, throwing back her head and letting her mirth ring out across the black water, disturbing a nesting crane that fluttered its great wings and rose into the sky. “Aye, laugh,” Kyrik nodded. “You knew I’d snatch at any chance of getting into a fight. So there’s wickedness scheming and plotting, is there?”
She nodded, suddenly grave. “We must fight it, Kyrik. It’s you and I against the demons.”
“And what of Myrnis? I don’t want the girl harmed.”
Jealousy flared in her eyes. “Oh, she won’t be. I’m merely in her body. You couldn’t have a goddess wandering about with you, so I entered into her.”
His eyes ran over the beige tunic that was spotted and worn by usage. “You’ll want a new dress, I suppose? And bracelets for your arms, rings for your fingers?”
“Indeed not. I’m a gypsy girl to the world, not a goddess. Only you will know that.”
Kyrik had the impression that she spoke with a corner of her mind, that another part of her was elsewhere. And the manner in which she kept the bells in their scarlet wrapping so close to hand, so that she could reach out and touch them often, betrayed her worry. As Illis, she must know, or guess at, the powers of those chimes.
She asked softly, “What do you know of this dead thief? Did you know him well, back in Tantagol?”
“I talked with him, having an interest in the thieves’ guild. He was a member of the Closed Circle of Master Thieves. There were five of them, all told. Endole and Lalery, Theelth and—and Porthis. Who was the fifth? Ah, yes. Andrew. Great thieves, every one of them. Lalery is a woman.”
Myrnis—Illis watched his lips as though by seeing their movements she could look deep into his mind. She prompted, “And this closed circle met from time to time?”
“On important projects, yes. I suppose the bells of Salmalinda might be considered such. By the gods. They were hard enough to come by. Endole mentioned that they meet at a tavern in Krathikkan, just over the border of Karalonia, in Ocar.”
“Then we’ll go there,” she said. “We may not be admitted to the circle. I’m not Endole.”
Her hand patted the cloak that hid the bells. “These shall be your password. Oh, they’ll let you join them, all right—if only to lay hands on the bells.”
“They’re that important, then?”
“They are so important, I am almost—afraid.” Her emerald eyes lost their brilliance, the pallor of her flesh changed back slowly to the nut-brown tint of the Romany girl’s. Myrnis shuddered, gasped, straightened slowly. Illis was gone, resting now inside the gypsy. A coldness ran down Kyrik’s spine.
“Damn the bells,” he growled. “No need to curse them. They are part of an overall plan, I think.”
“A plan onto which we stumbled when Endole was killed in that alleyway and gave me the map.”
She shook her head. “It was no accident that brought the thief to you. It was the work of Makonnon. He fights the evil of which the bells are a part.
It was strange to listen to the gypsy girl, knowing it was Illis inside her who spoke these words. What of Myrnis? Did her spirit sleep? Had she abandoned her body to the goddess? She had little choice in that, he knew.
They slipped through the brackish waters with the wind blowing stronger, bending the reeds as the skiff went sliding through them. Myrnis huddled in the prow, arms wrapped about herself for warmth, and even the Tantagolian tightened his teeth against the chill breeze.
Kyrik ran the shallow skiff up onto the shore, then leaped out to help the girl carry the bells toward their waiting mounts. They swung into the saddles, and urged the horses to a walk, then a canter.
“Krathikkan lies to the south and east,” Kyrik said. “A ride of two days, perhaps, if we don’t sleep.”
“We shall not sleep,” Myrnis murmured grimly. “It is too important, what we do.”
All the rest of that day they trotted along the almost obliterated trail that had been in ancient times a highway between the seaside city of Pthesk and the inland city of Krathikkan. Here and there were paving blocks not yet covered by grass or loam, and occasionally they went past milestones tilted at odd angles with the passing of the years, or completely fallen.
They paused to rest the horses and eat food from the saddlebag or drink from the sadly shrunken wine-skin. At these moments Kyrik stretched his length on the grass but Myrnis walked about, nervous and restless.
The night was cold beneath the stars and the two moons that roamed the sky. Without his cloak, Kyrik shivered and the gypsy girl huddled in the kak, even colder than he. Forests lay to the right, and to the left were meadow-lands where distant farmhouses could be seen. At intervals both moons were in the sky, shining silvery upon the land, showing the travelers the twisting, dipping roadway, long faded into a rutted path.
All that night they rode, and dawn found them well into Ocar, angling their gallop toward a more traveled highway. Reddish streaks in the east touched the stonework of an old fane with a fiery glow which in a moment became golden.
Kyrik said suddenly, “Girl, my belly rumbles with emptiness. It’s time we ate, and fed the horses, too.”
“Just a little further, Kyrik. There’s a wayside tavern yonder where we can buy food and drink and oats for the animals.”
She was slightly ahead of him, riding easily, her arms folded about the bells. Kyrik cocked his head at her. Myrnis had never been in Ocar before. How knew she about the tavern? It was Illis who remembered it, he told himself; this girl with the two people inside her would take some getting used to. He did not want to question her, for no matter how much affection she showed him, Illis was a goddess.
He was content when his eyes picked out the little weather beaten inn with a thatched roof, off to the side of the road. Candles gleamed in its leaded windows, for the day had become gloomy, and two horses were waiting saddled and bridled in the yard.
His eyes ranged over those mounts as he pulled the black stallion to a halt. Those horses looked fresh, they had been rubbed down well, and he surmised that they had been fed. His horse and Myrnis’ mare were tired, splashed with mud and dust, their mouths flecked with foam.
“First care to the animals,” he called to the girl, who nodded.
He helped her down and watched as she stretched her legs, walking back and forth in the tavern yard while he took the horses to the stables in the rear. A boy came running and Kyrik tossed him a copper coin.
“Oats and a good rubdown,” he said. “Have them ready in two hours.”
Then he followed Myrnis into the tavern, sniffing at the roasting beef and newly baked bread. His lips widened in a grin. By Cramthor of the War Hammer! He was like a starving man, he felt as though he had no belly. And there were signs of weariness in the gypsy girl, he saw, as he brought her to a bench and table.
Other wayfarers were eating, one a slim woman clad in black velvet, with hair the color of platinum and purple eyes. Her skin was very white, as though the sun had never touched it, and her full mouth was the color of rich red wine.
“Lalery,” he guessed, staring. Endole had described her to him often enough, saying that she was nothing but a shadow in the night when she went out to steal.
The women glanced up, locked eyes with him. No recognition dawned in those purple depths. Why should it? He had been dead a thousand years, locked inside that statue from which Aryalla had freed him. Kyrik rumbled a laugh and swaggered forward.
“Could you be Lalery Kovadis?” he asked. Her slim white hand tightened on the slim dagger with which she had been slicing meat. The man who sat at table with her glanced up, and froze at sight of the big warlock-warrior. Kyrik guessed at the identity of the man also: this over-fleshed giant who was almost as big as himself was none other than Porthis, a thief out of Antherak to the north, a man who affected leather jerkins with copper plates attached and who carried a huge battle-ax in a sling over his shoulder. The ax rested now against the table, its horn handle close to the hands that shoveled bread, and meat into his mouth.
Porthis shook his head, and his long black hair danced. “We know you not, stranger. Nor have we any need to know you. Go back to your girl.”
But Lalery said in melodious accents, “Be still, Porthis. This man knows my name and I wonder how he learned it. Few do.” She smiled with her mouth but her purple eyes hardened suddenly, cruelly. “It is dangerous to speak my name in public, barbarian.”