Read chapter Two from thief of Llarn

CHAPTER TWO

Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library

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IT LOOMED like Ys or Avalon, its towers slim and graceful, its walls high, but not high enough to hide the red rooftops of the buildings behind it, out of which a citadel towered in crimson glory. As we neared, it changed color as the crimson in the clouds and altered to an angry red. It was as if the city flushed with rage at sight of us.

Tuarra shivered and drew closer. “What is it? Where are the people?” she whispered.

There were no people. The city was empty, abandoned. It towered in magnificence—not in ruins, but as in the full bloom of its early splendor. All it needed was a population. The flier edged closer, and now I saw that the corners and the edges of the walls were rounded with the slow erosion of the years and by the winds that swept across these grasslands. The buildings too, had that massy look, as if they were half melted in the cauldron of eternity.

The flier slipped above the wall. The streets lay empty below us. There was not a single sign of human habitation. Ruins I could have understood: Men had lived in them before. This deserted city was something else again.

For there was life here I could sense it, as you are sometimes uneasy when you are being stared at. It was as if someone—or something—were questing at the edges of my brain.

I lowered the flier. It bumped when it hit the stone street. Tuarra made a queer sound, deep in her throat. I whirled. She was staring straight ahead, eyes wide and fearful. I caught her arm, but it was as if she did not feel my grip.

“Tuarra! What is it?” She did not hear me. Her eyelids never blinked. Then, suddenly, she collapsed. I caught her, held her warm and fragrant body against me. She was alive; she breathed. I was content with that, for the moment.

When she stirred, I loosed my arms and wrapped my fingers around the handle of my grawn, easing it from the tight clasp of its holster. The grawn is like an earth revolver, but it fires red energy from a pellet of a specially treated radioactive alloy. Each bullet is harmless in itself, yet it can trigger a destructive beam that will blow a man to powder. Every fighting man on Llarn wears a round medallion around his neck, a kranth, that protects him from this red beam. The kranth draws the beam toward it, absorbs its lethal energies without harm to the wearer. Tuarra wore such a medallion, as did I. Her head moved. “Alan Morgan? There is something living in this place—something terribly powerful. It—it was in my mind, searching it.”

“Did it harm you?”

“No—no. It only seemed—elated.”

“It didn’t tell you where there’s any water, did it?” I asked wryly. I was beginning to develop a powerful thirst. We had finished our food and the last of the lakk. I was not hungry yet, but my throat felt dry.

“Why, maybe it did,” she said slowly, letting me help her to her feet. “At least, I know where to go.”

She set off along a street away from the flier, walking with supreme confidence. I went after her, keeping my hand on the grawn.

Less than half a mile away a trickle of water flowed from a bronze spout carved to represent an animal which Tuarra assured me had never been seen on Llarn, at least since The War.

We bent and drank.

When we were done, the bronze animal whispered, “Sentos Sun will see you now.”

I am afraid my mouth dropped open in utter disbelief. Though I am aware that the khorls and epheloin of Llarn possess powers which might be termed magical, I had not suspected the presence of a khorl in this abandoned city.

In reality, of course, that magic is no more than the telekinetic powers of their minds applied in a form of energy. Or to put it more simply—they possess the power of mind over matter.

Tuarra put her hands to her temples while her head went down as if very heavy. She whispered, “The—the one who calls himself Sentos Sun is in the citadel. We must hurry, Alan Morgan.”

She turned and began walking away from me. I remained some distance behind her, with the grawn naked in my fist. If there was to be a surprise attack, I wanted the attackers to be the ones surprised.

Seemingly, we were the only ones alive in this ancient city. No one else appeared, and our footfalls echoed with hollow loneliness as we mounted the great staircase leading to the citadel. Huge bronze doors stood open before us.

We walked into a great hall lined with gray wood. From the walls hung strange weapons and even stranger banners and shields. I had not seen swords like these since I had been a prisoner in the museum which the Azunn called the Hall of Dead Things. I would have paused to examine those weapons, for I am a fighting man and am always interested in the tools of my trade, especially when they are unusual. But Tuarra was moving on through another doorway, so I had to limit my inspection to a casual glance before hurrying after her.

The chamber into which we now stepped was huge. Its ceiling towered so far above us it seemed lost in shadows.

At the far end of the vast chamber was a great throne of gold, encrusted with jewels glittering in the pale light. The throne was on a dais of gold and bordered by an area where the floor tiles themselves were thick with gems. It was a display of barbaric wealth, of riches beyond count. Some of the jewels on the throne were as big as tomatoes.

From the golden apex of the room, a floor spread outward toward slim pillars arching upward into delicate groins below walls hung with forgotten battle standards, with shields and armaments not seen in Llarn in ten thousand years. This was the audience hall of a line of conquerors, of rulers proud and noble.

A fat man sat upon the throne staring at us. He was bald, gross. He wore a thin jacket with wide half-sleeves that came down to the middle of his thighs. He reminded me of a Japanese wrestler, though his skin was as white as my own.

His pig eyes widened in disbelief at sight of us. Then he began to chuckle. His fat body rippled; it shook; it quivered like pale jelly to his giant mirth. He threw back his bald moon-head and roared his laughter to the high ceiling and its shadows.

“I’m going mad,” he said at last, wiping the tears of bitter mirth from his eyes. “I have been alone so long on Llarn that I dream I am being visited by a Vrann girl and a Lothian. And Astarra knows, I am the only living thing on Llarn.”

“There are millions of people alive on Llarn,” I said. The fat man stared at me. “Strange, very strange. I did not make up that speech for you to say, as I have done with others whom I have materialized to share the eons of my loneliness.”

He leaned forward, staring. “I shall make you both disappear. That will prove you are only figments of my imagination.”

Nothing happened to us, and the fat man sat back, perplexed. He spoke as if to himself. “It cannot be! There is no life but me. I am the last ruler of forgotten Xuxul I am Sentos Sun. And yet—you are here.”

There is no ruler in Xuxu but Xuxul its god! It was a thought, powerful, throbbing, that filled my mind. I saw the fat man rise to his feet, staring about him, ashen of face and fearful. He began to shiver so that the skin ran in waves on his big body. Sweat oozed out on his flabby face until it was bathed in moisture.

“You are the materialization, Sentos Sun!”

The fat man sat down, abruptly. He shook in the grip of a terrible fear. His blubbery lips quivered as he said, “It is Xuxul! Praise to Xuxul the all powerful Praise to the Lord of the city of Xuxu”

“Other beings do exist on Llarn, Sentos Sun.” There was a little pause during which Tuarra pressed close against me so that I slipped my arm about her naked shoulders. She was shivering almost as badly as Sentos Sun. “Xuxu is a myth,” she breathed. “Long ago Xuxu was Supposed to have been the greatest mercantile city on the planet. Xuxu and Azorra—ages before The War, long before the blue men came to inhabit it—ruled the five great oceans. Only Okyl and Ytal, very much smaller, exist now out of the original five seas. And in Xuxu, Xuxul was its god.

“The ships of Xuxu went everywhere—to distant Loth, to Paloranis, even as far as fabled Ylavon. Its sailors were the greatest on Llarn; its vessels the swiftest to sail the mighty oceans. The wealth of Xuxu was a legend on Llarn, even today. It was Xuxu which boasted the great jewel called the Desire of the World, Xuxu which clad her palace guards in gold armor, Xuxu which feasted day and night, which danced and sang away time.

“Then the oceans began to dry up and fade away. Xuxu was stranded on a continental shelf of that ocean called the Xulthic Sea. But Xuxu did not despair. There were other seaports belonging to Xuxu, seaports, easily reached by caravans. Xuxu lived on while the oceans which gave it wealth were dying of old age.

“For a thousand long centuries, Xuxu fought against the inroads of time. Now only dead sea bottoms lay around it, and even its once—great seaport cities like Zaxeron and Xull no longer shipped goods by water.

“Then came The War. Xuxu was not a part of it, yet it suffered. Its people died; its streets grew empty of life. There were a few who fled away to live out their lives in some dry, dead corner of their world. And the cloud banks came to stay above Xuxu and its dead seas. After The War, Llarn knew no more of Xuxu.”

“It is also part of the fable,” Tuarra breathed, moistening her red lips with her tongue, “that in Xuxu there lived an immortal man, a scientist who created a liquid which bestowed eternal life on him. It also changed him in some way until he became—a monster.”

She laughed, but her laughter quavered. “In Kharthol we use the name of Xuxul to make naughty children behave. I never thought he might be real.”

“Reality is relative, woman of Kharthol As you will learn! Sentos Sun—fetch them!” The fat man rose to his feet, gesturing. “Follow me, both of you.” He turned and walked away from the golden throne where the rulers of Xuxu had sat a million years before. He moved toward a great archway of gleaming red metal.

“Wait,” I called. Sentos Sun ignored me. So too, did Tuarra. She walked straight forward after the fat man as if I did not exist, just as she had done in the city itself. I still held my grawn. I lifted it and my fingers tightened about its grip as I went in her shadow after the fat man.

Sentos Sun led us down a ramp of gray stone and through a corridor decorated by faded works of art. We entered a round room surmounted by a dome that glowed with a pale blue light. In the exact center of the chamber was a huge, circular table on which rested—

The tabletop shimmered in the blue light. One moment I saw a miniature landscape with trees and mountains and a great body of water stretching on for miles. Then the pattern shifted and now there was a city there and tiny men and women moving about like animated toys. A third time the shimmer came and went and now a ship plowed on endless sea as naked oarsmen bent and straightened. The tabletop was a chessboard in dimensional depth!

“This is the game of life and death. Play this game with me and win, and you may serve me, Lothian. Fail—and you and your Woman die!”

I growled, “And if I refuse?”

“You cannot refuse!”

I felt a coldness, a blackness, swirling about me. The room where I stood with Tuarra was gone, whisked away in an instant of disintegration. I seemed to hang in a darkness where nothing but my body existed. And then I heard Xuxul speaking once again.

“You are a piece in a game of dimensional worlds, Lothian. I cannot read your mind because you do not come from Llarn. But I scanned the brain of your female companion when you landed your flier in Xuxu, and I know all she knows.”

His thoughts flowed through my mind. There was a danger on Llarn which Xuxul could sense, a danger which might mean death to him and slavery to all the rest of Llarn. The danger had something to do with the thefts of the verdals from Moorn and from Kavadar, and from the temple of Astarra in Kharthol, but Xuxul was ignorant of their connection.

The power of Xuxul was great, but it was not limitless. It could range out across the Clouds of Comoron, and everything they covered or touched. But the danger came from beyond those clouds, like weak radio waves barely received on a crystal set.

When our flier had first touched the cloud barrier, Xuxul had become aware of us. It was his telekinetic energies that had drained our fuel, that had forced us to land, that had guided us to Xuxu. What the corlth had begun in Kharthol by locking the flier’s automatic controls, Xuxul finished in the world he ruled.

Through the brain waves Xuxul poured upon me, I sensed its deep fright, its struggle to stay alive. It was afraid its very existence depended on its overcoming the threat that had been spawned beyond the clouds. Yet beyond these clouds Xuxul could not fight—except through a human being.

“I need an agent, Lothian!” In the past ages of his loneliness Xuxul had played his little game with visitors to the cloud-lands where he ruled. None had ever defeated the moves he made. And so—they had died. Not because Xuxul was cruel, but because he needed to remain secret, unknown, until he could grow and expand and reach the final strength which would be his heritage.

Now he was to play that game with me in deadly earnestness. For the first time he hoped he would be defeated, for it would mean I was worthy to carry out his orders in the lands beyond Xuxu. It was a test, a training ground, an initiation which would show whether. I was a strong enough reed on which to lean.

The game itself was a many—dimensioned board on which Xuxul could shape the worlds which were his battlegrounds. The telekinetic energies of his mind could shift a time and space axis, could create, could add to or subtract from the miniature world where he matched wits with his opponents. It might not be enough, these worlds within a world, but it was his only way to test the bravery and fighting qualities of this man named Alan Morgan whom he had selected to be his agent against the threat which menaced his life and the lives of all the men and women on Llarn. A thought stirred in my mind.

“I came to Llarn to serve an ephelos,” I breathed. “Now you ask me to serve you.”

“It was the fact that you served Vann Tar—this I learned from the brain of your companion—that gave me the idea of using you as my own champion. Otherwise, I might have let you die out there under the cloud-lands I sleep often of late, lost in my own dream worlds. I have not played my dimensional game for many, many years.”

Now Xuxul had to strike out at the forces gathering beyond the Clouds of Comoron and must use me as a weapon. Well, this suited me well enough. My own task was to fight whatever it was that had stolen the verdals. If I could do it as champion of Xuxul, my purpose would be the same. In a sense, we were uncommon allies united against a common foe.

But to fight the verdal takers I must survive this game. I wanted to cry out that Xuxul was endangering the only man who might help him by allying him with Kharthol and the other cities on Llarn which also sought to fight the verdal takers. If I perished in some stupid game of chance, if I were never to see Tuarra again—

I tried to speak, but could not. My hand still held the grawn. I could feel the scabbard of my sword where it hung in chains from my weapon belt. And an anger was beating up inside me, making me quiver with a fury I had never know.

And then, suddenly, I was sprawled in a narrow alleyway!

It was night on Llarn in a city I have never seen. Overhead the great band of crushed moons was lazily circling, flooding the alley where I lay with silver light. Big round cobblestones were hard under my chest and against my cheek. I pushed to my knees and then stood, staring at the rotted shutters and broken windows of a building wall, and further off, the lights from a tavern doorway.

Oddly enough, I knew where I was—and who I was. Xuxul had planted the knowledge in my mind. After all, a pawn in a chess game has certain abilities. One of my abilities must be to know the task that has been set before me.

I was in the city of Loth as it had been just before The War. My mission was simple: I was to steal a jewel. The jewel was set in the royal staff of the emperor of Loth, and was kept in a tower that had no door.

I was Alan Morgan, though at the same time, I was Uthian the Unmatched

Uthian, the greatest thief ever known on Llarn! Uthian, who had stolen the rarest treasures of the world. Uthian, whose quick wits and wonderful sword-arm had carried him from one end of his planet to the other, always stealing, always successful, rich beyond belief, engaging in his thefts to spice what might otherwise have been a humdrum existence,

I wore a black kilt with silver threadings, black sandals, and a broad black leather belt from which hung my weapons. I did not coat my body with the jet dye which thieves of later times used. Uthian depended on his wits and his sword for safety.

If anyone could steal the scepter jewel, it was Uthian. But how Uthian was to do it depended on Alan Morgan! I was a player on a stage, acting the part of a man who was a legend ten thousand years old. As Alan Morgan, I wished in vain for the nimble wits which had made The Unmatched so famous. But I had only myself to depend on.

Oh, I would do it—or make a good try. Otherwise, I knew instinctively I would never be released from the game board, never see Tuarra again. I would have stolen a dozen jeweled staffs to hold my beloved Tuarra in my arms again. I began my walk along the alleyway. I was in a poorer part of town where thieves and worse liked to congregate. The night air was filled with the sounds of drunken voices and harsh cries. Once a woman screamed. I stared upward, knowing I was a piece in a game, striving to see past the confines of the board, to see Tuarra and Sentos Sun where they might be watching.

I could see only Loth and the great moon-band. Something came running from an intersecting street, something warm and soft that bumped into and clung to me. It was a girl with dark hair and wide black eyes that stared up into my face as her mouth fell open. I was surprised to see that her skin was white, until I remembered that this was Loth in the days before its destruction during The War, the Loth of ten thousand years ago, when the people of Llarn possessed skins as pale as mine.

The girl was afraid. Two men were chasing her, big men in Lothian uniforms, men who sailed the five oceans in the ships of Loth. At sight of me one of them yanked out his sword.

“Don’t let them take me! Please!” she begged. I found myself wondering if this were a part of the game, this girl and the two men and this chance meeting in an alleyway. Game or not, his sword looked real enough so I yanked out my own steel and met his first mad thrust.

The touch of the sword eased my mind. I was here; I was fighting. I need know no more. I drove into him, sent him backward crying out in surprise. His fellow came to join him but by the time his blade was in play, I was thrusting through the chest of my attacker.

I whirled to whip the second sword in a bind, slid out of that into the straight thrust. The girl had not run away. She was waiting to see what happened, leaning forward with both fists clenched in the anxiety that ate at her nerves.

The second man was frightened. He had never met a blade like mine—here and then there with but a flash of moonlight on metal to show its movement.

Far into him I finally ran my blade, then yanked it free as the man collapsed and lay unmoving at the foot of a building wall.

The girl laughed softly behind me. “You are no Lothian. No Lothian can fight the way you do. Who are you?”

“Uthian,” I grinned. “Uthian—whom some men name the Unmatched.”

Her eyes widened until they were enormous, while her cheeks turned pale. Instinctively she turned and looked up and down the alleyways which ran together here in the slums. Her hand came up to brush back her hair.

She was a pretty thing, with coarse black hair falling about her naked shoulders and her mouth large and very red beneath a tilted nose. Her kilt was worn and patched, spotted by lakk stains, and the broad belt that held it to her slim middle was mended in several places.

“Are you mad to say that?” she gasped. “Why must I be mad to admit my own name?” Her hand caught my wrist and drew me into the black shadows of a building. “Men say that Uthian has threatened to steal the great jewel which sits in the royal staff of Ventrol Voor,” she whispered.

“Men speak the truth,” I nodded.

“But—men say also that this is untrue, that what Uthian actually intends to steal are the battle plans of Ventrol Voor, who even now is readying for war against Meradion and Kharthol.”

“Then men lie,” I said simply.

She pressed closer to me, smiling lazily. “In any event, it would be worthwhile to make sure I say nothing of your presence in Loth.”

“It certainly would,” I admitted honestly.

Stealing the scepter jewel was no less dangerous than being a spy in an enemy country in time of war, I thought.

With a little flush of guilt—I wondered if Tuarra was able to watch the game board—I put my arm about the girl and hugged her. I had need of a friend here in Loth. I drew her closer and began to walk slowly down the alleyway.

“What price for your silence?” I wondered,

She giggled, “I’m not very expensive. I’m a public house girl. A few copper anths. Perhaps a silver quinn, if you have

one,

“Or a handful of golden torks?” She gasped and tried to break free but I held her tightly in the crook of my arm, saying, “I am a thief, little one. I am Uthian, the greatest thief on Llarn. I am going to rob the royal scepter—so why shouldn’t I also take along a few coins for you as well?”

“You’re mad,” she whispered fiercely. “I thought those sailors were bad, but they were sane, at least.”

I am no great hand with women. Tuarra laughs at me sometimes, and teases me for my lack of gallantry when a visiting daganna comes to Kharthol. But I knew enough to realize that the poorer class of people do not have any great love for their rulers, and that gold will buy a loyalty that kingship will not.

“If you don’t want a dozen torks or more,” I said casually, “go tell them what you know.”

She pulled away when I let her go, and stood there rubbing her arm where I had squeezed it. Her face scowled at me. . “Steal the royal scepter!” she hissed. “Only Ventrol Voor can enter the Tower of Treasures. You are a fool!!”

I shrugged. “If that’s true, then you haven’t lost anything. You can always go to the police with news that I’m a spy.

They might give you a silver quinn to betray me. I’d make it richer for you to be my friend.”

She hesitated, staring at me. Doubt and disbelief fought inside her—and greed. Oh, her greed was plain to see in her bright eyes.

“If I keep silence, you may kill me later.”

“I could kill you now if such were my intentions.” She agreed grudgingly to the fact, nodding her head. Then she sighed, ” Alta is a fool, my mother used to say of me. I’m still a fool. I’ll take my gamble with you.”

“Then show me this treasure tower.” She caught my hand in hers, pressing my fingers, flirting with me as we walked along. If we were seen, even by a trooper, he would assume I had hired her companionship, she explained. The tower was not a far walk. We would be there soon, she assured me, though what I would do once I saw the tower was beyond her.

It was beyond me as well, I felt. We saw the tower from half a mile away. It was a tall, lean dark shape of black stone. From this distance, it seemed made of solid rock without a break, and my heart sank. Nobody could steal anything from that citadel except perhaps Ventrol Voor himself.

Yet as we came nearer, as the light from the moon-band circling overhead flooded the square, I saw there were dark recesses in those walls where barred windows had been placed. The lowest window was a good thirty feet above the street level.

It would be a simple matter to lay a ladder against the wall, climb up, unfasten the bars, and enter. When I spoke of this to Alta, she hooted.

“And what of the guards on the roof who patrol the tower day and night? Every few minutes they peer over the edge down at the street below. If anyone so much as lingers to stare up at the tower, a guard shoots.”

Her hand drew me into a doorway recess. “See,” she whispered. “Even now a man looks down from above.”

I glanced where she pointed and caught the glint of moonlight on a metal helmet as a trooper walked along the rim of the roof, peering downward. After a few seconds, he disappeared.

“I don’t suppose I can count on a few minutes while he makes his rounds?” I asked.

Alta shook her head. “No. He may come right back and peer down or wait a few minutes, or even stand there for an hour. There is no set pattern.”

Whatever I do must be done swiftly, or not at all. I stared hard at the tower. Its stones were smooth. They afforded no hand grips by which to climb. With a hook and a rope I might catch the bars in the window and pull myself upward, but this would take time and one of the guards might come to the roof and see me.

I was honestly stumped. The black tower was impregnable. My shoulders rounded slightly in dejection. Again I scanned that tower. If I could jump that high—but I could not, even with the lesser gravity of Llarn. My earth muscles could lift me little more than half that distance.

I scowled, remembering Earth. A pole-vaulter could hit that height here on Llarn, aided by his earth muscles. A really good vaulter could probably do thirty feet or more. I was no pole-vaulter, however,

Then the thought touched me that there must exist a way to enter the tower, to take the royal scepter or the jewel it held. Otherwise, this was no game I played here in this created world. Each player must have a chance at victory, no matter how great the odds.

I considered. Xuxul was testing my wits as well as my fighting ability in this game of life and death. So far I had shown little wit. There was a path into that tower. There had to be, to make sense of this drama of which I was a part. Alta moved suddenly, touching me with her elbow. “We can’t stand here all night,” she muttered.

I had no time limit, as far as I knew. Xuxul had not decreed how long I could take before I should have lost the contest.

I shrugged. I needed time to think. I moved back to let Alta slip out of the doorway recess. The butt of my grawn scraped the wall, and suddenly, I knew the way.

“Wait,” I said softly, and lifted out the grawn. I aimed it at the stone wall and pressed the firing stud. A thin beam of red light ran from the handgun to the wall. And part of the stone wall disappeared.

Alta had a hand to her mouth, barely cutting off her cry of surprise. Above her hand, her eyes stared at me in terror. I was far back in time, here on this dimensional game board. The grawn was a very new weapon, with its energy beam able to cut matter into powder. Uthian would have stolen this black grawn I was using. Perhaps this was even the first time he had used it. Certainly the girl Alta had never seen one before. To her, it must have been like the wan of a wizard as it flared.

I fired three more times, cutting out a hole in the tower wall. Alta was crowding back into the doorway, whimpering faintly.

I said, “Keep thinking about the gold torks I’m going to get you.” Apparently her greed was greater than her fear, for after a time she took her hand down from her mouth and began breathing more normally.

“What is that thing?” she asked, nodding at the grawn. “A new tool,” I grinned. She sniffed, but she listened as I told her what I meant to do. Next time the guard came to the edge of the roof, I would wait until he turned away. Then I would race forward and dive through the opening I had made.

My trouble would come when I left the tower. If the guard came to the edge and peered over as I came running out, I was a dead man. This was where Alta would earn her golden fortune.

“Raise your arms above your head if the guard comes to the roof edge,” I said. “If your arms are by your side, I’ll know the way is clear.”

She nodded, running her tongue around her lips as if she already tasted the things her share of the loot would bring. She shrank back further into the shadows and stared upward at the roof. We waited in silence for what seemed an hour or more.

The guard came into view. He stood a long time there, looking out across the city and the square. At last he turned his back and I lunged forward.

I can run fast on Llarn, yet never did I run faster than I did with that gaping opening in the Tower of Treasures luring me on. I hurtled across the cobblestones of the square and dove off my feet for that black hole. I was well aware that I might hit some object inside the tower and create an unholy racket which would bring the guards down around my head—but this was a risk I had to take. I hit the tower floor with an impact that drove the air from my lungs. I lay there gasping, quivering with relief. The first part of my problem had been solved. I was inside the tower. But I had yet to find the royal scepter, and then escape as safely as I had entered.

I rose to my feet, slipping off the hide sandals which all Llarnians wear. My bare feet would make no sound upon the floor tiles. Silently I padded to the nearest display case and found myself staring down at coins that had ceased to exist ten thousand years before. I scooped up a dozen of them, slipped them into my belt pouch. At least Alta would have her wealth.

I moved on, vaguely aware that the royal scepter would not be displayed quite so publicly as the coins. Like a ghost I moved between the cases and the great dioramas which held the relics of Lothian history. Xuxul had made these things from his memory perhaps, or he might possess the secret of time travel and have hurled me back in all reality to the days when Loth had been a mighty power in its world. None of that mattered. To me, this was reality I sensed I could be killed just as dead here as I might be in the Llarn which I had left. Equally, I could kill—or steal—with the same amount of difficulty I would meet in my own time.

It took me over an hour to locate the scepter. It rested in a transparent crystal casket on a ledge ten feet above the floor on the second story of the tower. When Ventrol. Voor wanted it for state occasions then a ladder was carried here and set up against the wall. But I made a running jump, caught the ledge with one hand and the chest with the other.

I landed catlike on my feet with the chest tucked under an arm. I put the chest on the floor, broke the lock with a red needle beam, and lifted out the scepter. Xuxul had not asked for the scepter; all he wanted was the jewel. I pried it loose with my dagger.

It was white as a diamond, that jewel, but where the moonlight caught it as it filtered in the tower windows, it turned blue and red and then a brilliant gold. I had never seen its like. I tucked it into my belt pouch along with the golden coins I had taken for Alta. Then I made my way back to my sandals, donned them, and moved toward the opening in the wall.

Alta was standing in the shadows, staring upward. When she glanced at the tower where I stood, I gestured to reassure her. She nodded her head, then motioned me to run for it.

I leaped forward. Next moment Alta raised her arms high above her head The guard was looking down. He had seen me! I dove for the ground and twisting in midair, landed on my back. I saw the guard as a dot leaning over the edge of the roof, a weapon in his hands. He was taking time to aim.

There is no need to aim with a grawn. The red needle beam holds steady when you trigger it. All a man need do is sweep it toward his target as he might move the beam from a flashlight.

I fired, hit the edge of the roof, turning it to powder, then swung the beam up and sideways. It caught the guard full in the face. His head disappeared.

I was up and running. Alta came out of the doorway sobbing with relief. I am sure she considered me a dead man when she raised her arms.

For three hundred yards we ran before I drew her toward the entrance to a tavern. I fumbled in my belt pouch, bringing out the golden coins I had stolen. They made a sweet sound as I dropped them into her cupped palms.

She giggled with delight. “I’m glad I gambled with you, Uthian. You’ve made me a rich woman, indeed.”

Her arm reached up to hook my neck and pull my head down to her reaching lips. She never completed that kiss. I saw her eyes widen with disbelief and horror. . . .

I stood once again in the game-room at Xuxu. I must have disappeared right in front of Alta. It was no wonder she had stared with such horror in her face.

I can almost believe that you are Uthian the Unmatched in truth, Alan Morgan. No man has ever before brought back the scepter jewel to me.

There was a little stillness in the room. I crossed to Tuarra, took her into my arms. She clung to me, but her chin did not quiver and her dark eyes were bright with anger.

“Alan, what happened to you? Where did you go? A moment you were here. A moment you were gone. Now you have reappeared again.”

“I went to Loth.” Her eyebrows arched with incredulity. “Loth? Loth has not existed for more than ten thousand years. It was destroyed in The War.”

“Nevertheless, that is where I went.” I told her of what had happened, how I was Alan Morgan and yet a thief named Uthian. At the word her red lips opened.

“Uthian? Uthian the Unmatched was the greatest thief ever known on Llarn. It is said there was nothing he could not steal. He ran off with a dagan’s sister. He lifted the pearl of Alfan from a pit of reptiles. He stole the formula for a fluid of immortality from Paloranis. Yes, the same city where we met, though when we went there it was in ruins.” Uthian is dead. The immortality fluid was utter nonsense. Actually it was a trap to catch Uthian, which he avoided. But now Uthian is dead. And yet he shall live again, Alan Morgan—through you.

I said, “The farce is over, Xuxul.” At the same time, I drew my grawn.

And also at the same time—Tuarra disappeared She was warm in my embrace with my arm about her then she was gone. I stared about wildly. My weapon came up aimed at Sentos Sun, who blinked at me benevolently. “No man can dispute the wishes of Xuxul. If you would see your woman alive again, you must obey, he said.

I have always considered myself a brave man. To save Tuarra I would leap into a pit of mad aporads armed only with my sword. Yet here—with a man who was not a man standing before me, and the being named Xuxul able to work miracles with the help of the Clouds of Comoron—I was like a babe.

“Tuarra must not die,” I growled, “at any cost!”

“Good. It is the answer I want. Go you to the game board, where you will see your Tuarra.”

I stepped forward, heart hammering. Before my eyes the game board shimmered. Gone were the great buildings of Loth; gone was the tiny tower that had held the scepter of Ventrol Voor. Instead, I was staring at a jungle world and at a tiny woman no larger than my thumbnail—who was fleeing before an oncoming monster the like of which I had ever seen.

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