Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Kyrik bought the horses. He would have been a fool not to, he told himself. Yet he did not like the smell of the purchase. There was too much left unsaid, for no matter how hard he pressed the blacksmith with his questions, that man only shrugged and looked wise.
He slung the sack containing food and the wine pannikers over the horses, behind the fine saddles that he also purchased for only a fraction of their normal cost.
Olvia said, when they were mounted and walking the horses down the long street which led into the mountains behind Obarium, “Now do you believe me?”
“I do. But why should Borrade go to so much trouble for two strangers? Why furnish us with excellent mounts like these, unless . . .”
“Well? Unless what?”
“Unless they’re stolen and they want to be rid of them. But then, that makes little sense, either. The smith could always ship them somewhere else and dispose of them at a profit. He lost money with us.”
“He’ll make up that profit a hundredfold,” Olvia spoke darkly. “But I can’t understand how.”
Kyrik shrugged. They were at the edge of the city now. He could see no one following them or even looking after them, as he turned in the kak and let his eyes run along the road they had taken.
They rode far that first day, and halted only when twilight covered the land with its soft glow. Not far ahead of them was a stone house, set back a little from the road. A stone fence surrounded it, and behind it was a large stable, also of stone and with a thatched roof.
“We bed there, if they’ll have us.” growled Kyrik.
His thundering knock on the front door brought a short, thickset man to the door. He was affable enough, his blue eyes twinkled at sight of Kyrik’s bulk, and he peered past him to see Olvia where she sat the roan. His eyes touched the gray stallion a moment.
“What’ll be your wish, master?”
“A bed and food. We’re willing to pay.” The short man shrugged. “Mine is not an inn, you must understand. I keep this wayside house because I don’t like city life, and because it’s far enough from Obarium to bring travelers to stay and exchange gossip.”
“But you won’t refuse payment?”
“Perhaps not. Come in, you and the lady. I’ll send a boy to unsaddle and rub down your mounts.”
He also served a fine meal, Kyrik thought as he munched on pork, with beans and yams from the garden off to one side of the stone house. The short man ate with them, with his young boy of around twelve.
Only once did the thickset man ask a question. It was as he was bringing in a fruit pie. As he set it down, he asked, “Are you going far?”
“To Zandol. I—I—we have friends there.” The smith nodded. “I have a map of Zandol, if you should be interested.”
Kyrik grinned. “By Illis! I was about to ask you something about a map. We didn’t have time to go searching around Obarium for a mapmaker. I’ll gladly pay you.”
The man waved his payment aside. “It’s enough for me to have your company.”
He sent the boy to light them to an upstairs room for the night. When they were alone, the Tantagolian took out his dagger and handed it to Olvia.
“For your protection. I don’t trust that man below stairs.”
“No more do I.”
“They’re making everything too easy for us, he and Borrade. It’s almost as if we’re serving some purpose for them, by going into Zandol.”
Kyrik put a bar before the door as Olvia slid out of her tunic, but no one bothered them during the night. Kyrik was a light sleeper—he had learned the trick on his campaigns, a thousand years ago and would have heard anyone creeping stealthily along the corridor, or fumbling at the door latch.
Next morning the blacksmith was extraordinarily cheerful as he feasted with them on big pancakes with huge chunks of sausages beside them. He gave advice freely, even when it was not asked.
“The road ahead is clear, all the way into Zandol. When you come to the riven rock, swing your mounts to the left, and just keep riding.”
Kyrik insisted on paying him a griff for the night’s lodging. “I wish it could be more,” he told him honestly. “You’ve made our way a lot easier.”
The smith shrugged. He came and stood there as they swung into the saddles and rode off to the south and east. He lifted a hand once and waved it, before he went back into the house.
Olvia muttered, “I suppose we should be on our guard.”
“Oh, not yet. Not until we find this wizard we’re after.”
“Oh You think that’s what this Borrade wants? Us to free Ammalauth-Vul?”
“I can’t think of any other reason he’s been so friendly. In some way, he wants the mage. For what reason, I don’t know.”
They rode all that day, with a pause now and then to rest their horses or to eat. And when they came to the riven rock, parted in half by a land-quake or a bolt of lightning, Kyrik nodded ahead.
“There are the mountains of Gyre. The caverns are in those mountains.”
The mountains were a pale purple bulk in the distance. Two more days in the saddle, Kyrik decided. They would ride until dark, then make a fire and eat under the stars.
On the morning of the third day, they came to a little trail that wound upward between jagged rocks toward the peaks of the mountains. Kyrik reached for the map which the blacksmith had given him. He studied it a moment, brows furrowed.
Olvia urged her horse closer. “Is it of any help?”
“Of course. You don’t think that man would have handed us a map that wasn’t of help, do you? No, no. He wants us to find the caverns. He also wants us to free Ammalauth-Vul, if my instinct is correct.”
Olvia leaned closer. “This is the road, then. It takes us up past those —” her fingertip touched what seemed to be old ruins, “—and then the way is clear.”
On either side were bushes heavy with berries at this season of the year. Only this narrow road-covered over with weeds and a few flowers to show that none ever came this way—stretched ahead of them between the bushes and the trees, and the jagged rocks that loomed up on all sides.
The mountains rose up, stark and sheer. A hawk wheeled across the sky, its wings outstretched. There was an eternal silence that was almost an ache in the ears as they turned their eyes to the purple cliffs all about them.
“No sense delaying,”” Kyrik grunted. “If there’s danger, it won’t run away while we loiter.”
He put his hand to the wizard’s sword and drew its blued steel blade from the scabbard. If danger came at them suddenly, he meant to he ready for it. But as they went on, only the hoof-falls of their mounts broke that strange silence in which these mountain lands seemed wrapped. Kyrik moved his shoulders restlessly and muttered under his breath. They saw the cavern entrance when they came to a bend in the road. It resembled the face of a snarling gnome, with stalactites hanging down like brilliant teeth waiting to devour the adventurous. Above, in the cliff-wall itself, were two glaring eyes formed by roundish knobs of gneiss jutting from the rock.
Olvia muttered, “It seems to be warning us off.”
“Rock and calcium can’t hurt us.” She gave him a dark look. “I wasn’t referring to those. But there’s something inside those caves, Kyrik. Something—evil.”
He grinned, “Ammalauth-Vul?” She shook her head. “A guardian of some sort. Left here by Nokthon to do his will.”
The Tantagolian shrugged. “If steel can kill it, it will die.”
“And if steel is useless?”
“Then we’ll die. But I mean to find out. Come along.”
He swung down from the saddle, went forward with the blade naked in his fist. Behind him Olvia slipped to the ground, ran to catch up to him.
Her eyes darted into the gloom of the caves, as though she might see what menaced them. Once she ran ahead of him, but his hand reached out, caught her.
“Na, na, girl. Stay behind me.” She glanced at him slyly. “As a witch, I might be able to smell out the danger before it attacks.”
He only shrugged and tightened his hold on his sword hilt.
They moved under the stalactites into a dimness that closed about them like a mist. The light was bluish, very soft, so that outlines seemed blurred and the stalagmites rising from the cavern floor took on the aspect of teeth. Above, the hanging stalactites seemed about to drop, to impale them.
Olvia wrinkled her nose. “Faugh What a stink.” Kyrik nodded. He had smelled this odor once before, in Tantagol, when he had gone to see a collection of vipers gathered by a seaman in the olden days when he had ruled as king. It was musky, fetid. It sent cold chills down his spine.
Yet there were no snakes, none that he could see, at least. At any moment he expected to see a striped venor rise up and dart its flat head for the bare flesh above his war-boot.
Yet no attack came. The caverns were silent as the tomb. They moved on, treading lightly, instinctively trying to make as little noise as possible. Kyrik held his blade low, ready to slash at anything that moved.
Deeper into the caverns they went, until the opening through which they had come was out of sight. And yet the blue light persisted. It seemed to come from the stalactites and the stalagmites themselves, as though they glowed.
“A magical spell,” sniffed Olvia, glancing upward. “There’s no other explanation.”
Kyrik was used to incantations and their results. He did no more than nod his head. Somewhere in this mountain was the wizard Ammalauth-Vul.
Somehow, he must find him and discover a way to set him free.
“There,” said Olvia breathlessly, pointing. They saw a door set into the solid stone. It was of oak, heavily reinforced with iron, and without a latch. Kyrik made for it, grinning.
Over his shoulder he said to Olvia, “Here’s where the wizard is kept, no doubt of it. And it wasn’t so difficult a task to find him, now was it?”
That was when they heard the slithering of scales on stone. Olvia whirled, stared a moment, then whimpered, a hand to her mouth. “Coroboron,” she breathed in horror. Kyrik saw a gigantic serpentine body, with half a dozen fanged heads jutting upward from that awesome shape. Forked tongues darted in and out of the many heads, in which baleful black eyes glittered with malignant fury.
“Nothing can slay that demon-saving only magic. Its scales are invulnerable to ordinary steel.”
Kyrik raised his sword. “Then we die, girl, as I said.”
The many-headed monster slithered to meet him.
A head darted forward, fangs bared for the biting. If the venom from those twin poison fangs touched his skin and broke it, he would die in a matter of hours. The sweat came out on Kyrik’s forehead as he stood his ground and darted out the blade.
To his surprise, the point dug into the scaled neck, bringing forth an oozing ichor. Its stench was overpowering, so that Kyrik shook his head and grunted, “If it doesn’t finish you off one way, it will another.”
But he was encouraged. His eye ran along the sword he held. Olvia had said only magic could kill Coroboron. Well, then Old Upanokol must have put an enchantment on it, for the snake-being was drawing back as if in shocked surprise.
Kyrik leaped. His sword upraised, he slashed downward with it at an angle. Through scales and flesh that steel went, and a flattened head leaped upward to soar across the cavern.
The snake hissed in pain and fury. Olvia was staring, eyes wide, her full mouth a little open. “Kyrik The wizard’s sword. It will help you to—”
Coroboron moved so swiftly for all its bulk that Kyrik saw only a blur of colored scales. Then its tail was sweeping him and Olvia off their feet, closing around them. Olvia screamed. They were caught and held securely. Savagely they fought, Olvia using her dagger, that did no more than scratch the scales at which she aimed. The pressure about her middle was tightening, tightening. It was getting harder, for her to breathe.
Kyrik was in little better shape. But he had the sword and as the snake-being drove one of its five remaining heads forward, the Tantagolian thrust with the point of the blade, straight down into that gaping maw.
The snake hissed and drew back. But the agony of that thrust made it react, so that its body lashed and flailed. It flung Olvia from it, heels over head, to land against a stalagmite and lie there with her neck at an odd angle.
Kyrik roared in rage. “By Illis! If you’ve killed her, I’ll cut you into thumbits and feed you to the desert rat!”
His sword was itself a blur as he swung it viciously, aiming not at head or body but anything he could reach with its keen steel. The edge bit deep, gouging out huge chunks of scaled flesh, so that Coroboron writhed and lashed itself here and there across the cave, smashing into stalagmites and snapping them across, or rearing upward to the very ceiling, breaking stalactites.
And always, Kyrik swung his sword-arm. Twice he caught a head that darted for him, fangs bared. That head he sheared off at the thin neck that held it, so that the snake-thing hissed shrilly in its maddened rage. Yet even as it lost its head, the snake-being tightened its hold on his body until Kyrik felt that his very bones were being crushed to powder. He fought for breath his lungs were trapped—and still swung his thickly muscled arm.
The fight was too uneven, he knew.
But that feral part of him which led him always to victory in the past was not yet conquered. His hand was flat against the scaled body. If Coroboron twisted again, if his thick body loosed its hold on him only for an instant, he was ready to leap.
The great snake was unable, in its present position, to tighten its folds about the Tantagolian as much as it desired, in a grip that would pulp flesh and powder bones. And so it shifted, ever so slightly, to entwine its lower coils about a stalagmite which would give it leverage.
To do this, it must relax its constrictor muscles. Kyrik was waiting, patient as a wild animal. He felt the easing of the muscles under those hard scales, knew the ripple of movement which would enable the reptile to achieve its purpose.
Kyrik lunged. He sought only to avoid the coils that held him, he forgot his sword for the nonce. Upward he went, with a hand flat on the thick body, jerking his legs upward as he doubled his knees against his chest.
The snake hissed and sought to catch him once again. But the Tantagolian was too alert. He drove his war-booted feet against Coroboron, used its scales as a springboard. He vaulted outward over the rough stone floor of the cavern, slipped, and then regained his balance.
He whirled, sword up. The faint glowing light caught the ruby in its pommel. That red jewel winked and gleamed, flared blood-red as Kyrik swung the blade.
Straight for one of the remaining heads he slashed, saw the edge of his steel sink into flesh and gristle. His hand yanked it free as he swung it once again.
Coroboron was weaker. It had lost all but two of its heads now, was now fearful of losing more. It drew back, hissing savagely, its heads swaying upward toward the ceiling of the cave, eyes brilliant with pain and fury.
Beside it, Kyrik seemed nothing but a puny man-thing. The reptile had never suffered pain before at the hands of any man. It was invulnerable, or so it thought. Yet this man, clad in a mail shirt and fur kilt, was defying him.
Reason told Coroboron to retire. . Yet the battle frenzy that shook it from its two heads to the tip of its tail counseled attack. It had been summoned up to keep intruders from this cavern by the mage Nokthon. Under thrall it was, to slay any who entered.
The reptile drove downward with both heads. Kyrik swung his sword. Poised on the balls of his feet, knowing that he lived or died in these few moments, he put all the power of his mighty muscles behind his blade.
Through scales and flesh the keen edge went, Kyrik grunting with the effort. He saw ichor leap and spray, heard the shrill cry from one of the heads an instant before it was lopped off.
He dove sideways, seeing the two heads lift into the air and turn lazily, jaws still agape. He hit the ground and rolled, reaching out an arm for the limp body of the girl Olvia, yanking her to him and carrying her beyond a thick stalagmite.
For Coroboron was in its death throes, and its vast body was whipping and threshing across the cavern floor, spewing ichor, smashing rocky pinnacles, occasionally lifting upward to the stalactites themselves.
Kyrik huddled against the base of the rocky pinnacle he had chosen to protect him. Olvia he held in his arms, worried by her lifelessness. Yet he dared not pause now to revive her. If she were still alive, it were better that she stay unconscious until Coroboron was dead.
In time that vast body quieted, relaxed. Its folds drooped downward, it spread its length across half the cavern. Once or twice it quivered, but the life was gone out of it.
Kyrik rose to his feet, lifting Olvia in his arms. Her face was white and drawn; her head hung downward over his brawny forearm.
For long moments, he stared into that face, until he saw the eyelids quiver. Then he grinned and lowered her to the cold stone floor. He went back into the open air where they had left the horses, and from the back of one he lifted down a wine panniker.
The wine revived her. She swallowed, opened her eyes and tried to smile. The smile faded away as she sought to move.
“I think he broke every bone in my body,” she murmured.
Yet she stirred, uneasily at first, and then more strongly, discovering that her legs and arms worked, that she could sit up. Gently, Kyrik raised her to her feet.
Olvia stretched, turning her supple body this way and then that. She laughed ruefully. “I’ll be sore for a week or two, and I’m all over bruises. But I’ll live.”
She turned then and stared at the oak door set into the solid rock wall. Its wooden planks and iron fastenings seemed almost to mock them.
Kyrik moved toward it, raised the sword and hammered at it with the pommel. He raised thunderous echoes in the cavern, but when these died away, there was no sound.
Olvia glanced at the Tantagolian. There was despair in her voice as she asked, “Can Ammalauth-Vul be dead? Surely you made enough noise to wake him, if he were asleep.”
“I’ll break open the door,” Kyrik growled. “You cannot. A magical spell protects it.” The oak planks seemed almost to mock them.