New entry May 06
Critters is 25!
Last November, Critters turned 25 years old! Wow! Thanks so much to all of you, who've made it such a resounding success!
Books from Critters!
Check out Books by Critters for books by your fellow Critterfolk, as well as my list of recommended books for writers.
How to Write SF
The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells by Ben Bova, best-selling author and six-time Hugo Award winner for Best Editor. (This is one of the books your ol' Critter Captain learned from himself, and I highly recommend it.) (Also via Amazon)
The Sigil TrilogyIf you're looking for an amazing, WOW! science fiction story, check out THE SIGIL TRILOGY. This is — literally — one of the best science fiction novels I've ever read.
I was interviewed live on public radio for Critters' birthday, for those who want to listen.
Free Web Sites
Free web sites for authors (and others) are available at www.nyx.net.
ReAnimus Acquires Advent!
ReAnimus Press is pleased to announce the acquisition of the legendary Advent Publishers! Advent is now a subsidiary of ReAnimus Press, and we will continue to publish Advent's titles under the Advent name. Advent was founded in 1956 by Earl Kemp and others, and has published the likes of James Blish, Hal Clement, Robert Heinlein, Damon Knight, E.E. "Doc" Smith, and many others. Advent's high quality titles have won and been finalists for several Hugo Awards, such as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy and Heinlein's Children. Watch this space for ebook and print editions of all of Advent's current titles!
THE SIGIL TRILOGY: The universe is dying from within... "Great stuff... Really enjoyed it." — SFWA Grandmaster Michael Moorcock
Announcing ReAnimus Press
If you're looking for great stuff to read from bestselling and award-winning authors—look no further! ReAnimus Press was founded by your very own Critter Captain. (And with a 12% Affiliate program.) [More]
The grass always grew better on the north side of Dwelk Hill, but at this time of year it was crowned with dry reed stalks that crackled underfoot. Willem made his way slowly, selecting soft patches of earth for each careful footstep as he approached the den. The female was out hunting while the smaller male guarded the brood. It would not be an easy snatch, but the hides alone were worth the risk of getting stung.
At least, that was the thought that kept Willem moving reluctantly toward his goal. Retreat and a safer (if less wealthy) future were set aside; the afternoon sun observed, judging. There was no fear, Willem told his legs. No need to run.
Inside the den, the male waited for dusk. His stomach emptied by regurgitation hours before, the brood nipped hungrily at his fore-mind, their cries insistent in the dark. There would not be food until dusk, when his mate returned. There had not been food last-dusk. From the base of his mid-mind hunger rose, overpowering thought.
Then there it stood in the distance before him, the biggest pig-- no, by thorn and gristle, it was one of those dratted men! Bothersome, meddlesome, rude little creatures, they were, and always coming around at dinner. Not an ounce of courtesy in their smelly, fleshy hides!
He pushed aside the niggling complaints of the brood, arose within the rough circle of matted grass, trampled twigs and animal bones that made up the den. He thrust out his head at the end of his serpentine neck and peered past the cover of trees surrounding and hiding his nest. Yes, a man, he thought with disgust, and the bile in the thought set the brood to mewling.
Quiet, he commanded across the link of minds, and the complaints instantly stopped. He watched the human a few minutes more. Only his slitted eyes moved as they followed the creature's every action. He relaxed when he felt he could predict the little beast, then padded off soundlessly across the human's approach.
Little vermin, we'll see who's hunting whom, he thought. He really was quite put out.
Willem reached the treeline, he hoped undetected. He heard the faint scrapings of broodlings but none of the larger sounds that always announced the sire. Had his evaluation been wrong? Would his work prove easier than first anticipated? It shouldn't be, his mind warned. The male always remained; he never left--
"Were you just in the area, little beast? Perhaps to visit your neighbors?"
Willem, drawing his sword, span toward the booming voice. But something, a great paw, slapped the blade from his hand and tossed him ten meters onto his back.
He lay stunned and winded, gasping for breath through a haze of pain, his mind barely registering the threat of the Gazpane until he felt a hot, sour breath wash over his face and felt the creature's mindspeak rattle his mind.
"Wake up, little pig; that's it, open your eyes and take one last look at me before I tear you limb from limb and feed you to my hungry brood."
Willem's mind whirled. He was a congenital liar and the web of fantasy he was able to weave had served him well from the ghettoes of Alluncindale to the Palace of Sighs - which, of course, was how he had got into this harebrained scheme in the first place!
"How dare you!" he blurted. "And get off me. I come to save your mangy hide from the Great Hunt and all you can do to thank me is treat me like a castaway Dunk. Quick, off me, or I'll never be able to save you and your brood."
The Gazpane cocked its giant head to the side and considered the puny specimen he had pinned to the forest floor. "And just why," he cast into Willem's mind," would you want to save me, you repellent little man-thing?"
"Ah," said Willem. "I've got plans for you, my friend."
Just at that moment, a couple of shuffling treefolk drew close. Their long limbs hang onto the forest floor, and their twisted legs stepped between the Gazpane and the man lying on the rotting leaves.
Willem gasped and gazed at the moving trees. He'd never seen any of these strange creatures, but was determined to use them to his advantage. They looked dumb enough, so his newly forming plan should be carried out with great ease.
The Gazpane backed away. His mind reeled, and his great paws tensed and changed into fists, then relaxed.
Flesh-beings. They always were a confusing bunch. They smelled awful, ate each other and were contsantly fighting and killing one another. As to why, the Crelks never understood. Their society was one of slow growth, meditation and peace.
Then the lanky one on the ground stood. A man, he was called, and he looked over the small bunch of Crelks with a eye for trouble, which this race always was. He ran, jumped and started climbing up into Grelinfor's branches! The large oaken crelk creaked loudly and swung his trunk in an arch. With a crash, the man fell to the ground with a grunt and lay still.
Behind the group of treefolk, the Gazpane took his chance to leap into battle, the man was down and looked to be injured. Now he could kill it before it decided to kill his brood! But the treefolk once again intervined.
"Noo-o. Do-not-kill-the-maaan." Grelinfor spoke in stilted common, and reached forward to pluck the Gazpane from the human's prone body. The Gazpane growled and sunk his strong jaws into the bark of the treekin who held him. Loud clacking issued from the being and the Gazpane went flying across the forest line, crashing into the forest floor.
"Always figh-ting theese flesh-folk, hmmmmmmm?" Hikti commented to Grelinfor.
"Yess. Now what do weee do with themmm?" The Crelks circled around the unconcious beings to decide.
Willem moved his arm through the fallen leaves. Was it broken? He saw a glint of shiny metal half buried in the dirt beneath the leaves he had swept away. It was an amulet. He yanked it from the ground and found it attached to a chain. It looked valuable, worth more than the bounty on the Gazpane. He looped it around his neck and had intended to flee, but immediately the entire world slowed all around him, or perhaps he was just moving incredibly fast. It was magic! Suddenly he felt he could defeat the dreaded Gazpane after all.
Willem felt the knowledge of the ages rushing toward him, filling his mind with everything that could possibly be known. He let his mind and body flow through the arifact, feeling its power, knowing he could do anything, accomplish anything. With that in mind, he smiled, and set toward the treekin who were huddling together and talking.
With his first step, the entire earth turned before his eyes. _Amazing!_ he though, _This artifact has so much power in it that the very earth bends with each footstep I take. No, not just the earth! Time and space itself revolve around me, I am godlike. I am a God!"
With that he laughed, loudly, a piercing, ringing laugh rich and made full by his own realization of the power that he controlled.
The treekin and Gazpane both watched Willem as he stumbled back and forth through the forest, his legs seemingly working against each. He had a smile on his face twisted with malicious glee, and one of his eyes was opened wider than the other. He laughed then, and it sounded like:
After much laughing and stumbling, he continued speaking, "Youse die, filthy tree beast...you, and all yer frens...I has the pwr...Dies! Hic!" He threw a valiant punch, but unfortunately he was twenty feet from the nearest treekin. The punch carried him to the ground, and he grunted loudly.
The trees looked at one another. "Ssssiiillly flesh- thinnnggg...why doesss he walk around as sssuccchhh?"
The Gazpane hated man-things...he hated the treekin...hell, he hated most things. But he was also intelligent. He knew that the treekin attacked all things that they thought would damage their forest, and once they attacked something, they would not leave it alone until it was dead. Or vice versa. He also knew that he wanted this man-thing dead, but he couldn't do that if the treekin killed him first. Thinking of his brood's safety, he thought about his plan and tried a different, logical course of action.
"Old Ones of the Forest," he spoke, "I ask you not to harm my friend."
The treekin turned, ever so slowly, and regarded him for a long while before answering. Willem was spouting nonsense and stumbling around like a one legged female dragon in heat.
"Whhaaaat is thissss, flesh thing? You fight thissssss, your fellllloooww flesh beast and then assssskkkk for his liiiiffffeee?"
The Gazpane swallowed, "Good Ones of the Woodlands, I never wished to fight this man-thing. He came to me with a gift, something to honor the birth of my brood."
The Gazpane knew that it was a bad lie, but he never said that logic was his strong suit.
"You see," thought the Gazpane, "his gift was that golden chain he has, an Amulet of Intoxication. The gift was to ease the pains of myself and my brood when we became...injured. Yes, that's right! Apparently, though, he slipped it onto himself. You know how those man-things are...they love their honey wine and brandy."
The treekin stared for a long moment. A small zephyr rustled their leaves a little, but they just stood, staring at the Gazpane. Willem was gargling and fighting with gravity off to the side, and the Gazpane waited for them to kill him.
After an eternity of hollow breezes and rustling leaves, the Crelk Hikti spoke up.
"Weeeee do not knowwww much abooouuuuttt thissss...we willlll leave bbbbaaaaccckkk to the for-essssst."
Grelinfor spoke, "Dooo nooot let ussss caaaaattttch you again, flesssh-thing. Dooo not disssstuuurb the foressssssstttt."
The Crelks turned, slowly, and stlaked away into the shadows of the trees. The Gazpane sighed in relief, then walked over to the drunken human. He picked him up by the scruff of his shirt, and carried him to the nest. The little broodlings did not know what to make of this thing that their sire had brought to them, and they sniffed and nipped at it suspiciously. The Gazpane used its claw to pick the amulet off of the man-things neck, and tossed it back onto the forest floor. Willem looked around, stone sober, and then saw the Gazpane. He just stared, eyes as big and white as the moon, and whole body trembling.
"Well, swift tongue," he spoke into the human's mind, "You had better hope that your mouth is faster than my jaws, because you have about three heartbeats to explain yourself before I snap your neck and use your flailing corpse as hunting practice for my broodlings."
"Oh, great Gazpane, whom all wise men worship and adore--"
"You're as good as dinner already. Talk!"
With the Gazpane slavering before him, Willem couldn't recall the lie he had planned to use. "Grouse! Yes, grouse! I was hunting grouse for my dinner!"
The Gazpane snorted a foul vapor of raw flesh and stomach acid. Willem almost passed out. "Do my offspring look like grouse to you? And what about saving my life? What about some great stinking hunt? And why am I even talking to you? Oh, forget it! Come along now." He snatched up Willem in his massive jaws, careful not to break any bones or puncture the skin with his razor teeth. Ignoring the human's terrified protests, he he took two loping bounds to the nest. There he plopped the intruder roughly amid the twigs, leaves and scampering youngsters.
"Now, children," he boomed with humor, "a hunting lesson, then a snack."
The Gazpane's brood surrounded Willem to better examine him. Willem's face was a mask of horror as a mob of sharp- toothed youngsters grinned at him with anticipation. The last time he had seen smiles that predatory, his Hildie the barmaid at the Crosseyed Boar had just placed a large order of meat-pies in front of the merchant Hugh Lardas.
Gulping audibly, he turned to the Gazpane, "A fine brood you have, milord. Such a shame that Lord Krendell has vowed to make a coat from their hides."
The Gazpane's eyes narrows, and Willem continues, "Ah, I see you have heard of the notorious hunter."
Willem felt something in his stomach. It felt like a acid was burning through him and he can't stop it.
The Gazpane turned his head focusing his right eye closely on Willem's face. "Explain to me why your knowledge of Lord Krendell should cause me to allow you to continue breathing. To the contrary your knowledge of the 'Dragon Hunter' urges me to kill you that much faster."
Willem's complexion went from pale to ashen as these words echoed in his mind. He stammered and stuttered, it was difficult to think clearly through the mists of fear that threatened to blanket his mind. "I, uhhh, I do not know Lord Krendell personally, no, no, no. I only know what I hear about him in the Cross-eyed Boar!" These words poured out of his mouth, fueled by fear, he continued. "Overheard a man talking, I did. He was whispering that Lord Krendell was in the area and that he was on the trail of a brood of Gazpanes. He said that he had already killed the female."
"Wh-h-h-a-a-t?" the Gazpane roared.
Willem lost his footing and fell back into the nest of dragonlings. Horror-struck by the Gazpane's sudden burst of anger, Willem began to think that with his babble of lies he might have gone too far. He began scrambling, trying to get to his feet before the dragonlings could pin him down.
The Gazpane moved in close and Willem could feel his hot acidic breath on his skin. "Y-O-U LIE!"
He had lied. For all he knew the female could come walking in at any moment--but he could hardly admit that now. "No, I assure you I would not lie to one such as yourself. I may have been foolish to come here, but I am not a fool," babbled Willem some more. He knew he was digging a deeper grave but he could not find away around it.
Then, at the bottom of his pit, Willem struck gold. Maybe there was a way out of this! It would take some fast talking for sure, but he'd done that plenty of times. It was just crazy enough to stand a chance of working too...
"Would you spare my life if I could deliver Lord Krendell into your hands?"
"What?" The Gazpane stopped short.
Willem was on a roll and hitting full stride. "Imagine, the greatest hunter in the realm, his body in your young ones bellies, his armor hanging on the cave wall like a trophy, and the greatest prize of all..." He trailed for a more dramatic effect. It worked.
"What? Tell me!"
"Killing the greatest hunter will make you feared beyond any beast of the realm, children will quake at the stories their grandparents pass down from generation to generation! You and your brood never have to worry about being hunted again!" As he finished, he was standing triumphantly with one fist raised in the air. The hatchlings surrounding him were cowed and looking up at him in awe, completing the picture.
The Gazpane fell for it, hook, line and sinker.
The Gazpane's eyes widened with visions of eternal peace and honor. Then they narrowed, glaring in suspicion at Wilhelm. "How will you do this?"
"Do what?" Wilhelm asked.
"How do you intend to deliver Lord Krendel into my jaws? If he is so formidable to have already slain my female?"
"Oh, It'll be easy," Wilhelm said blithely.
Willem stepped out of the den and onto well compacted earth surrounding the entrance. Breathing deep, he let the fresh air purge the fear he had felt in the confines of the nest. He was in the open air again and his confidence in his talents of persuasion and deception grew by the second.
Glancing up Dwelk Hill, he noted the position of the vertical rock face that crowned the hill from this direction. Although climbing to the top would be no problem for the Gazpane, he knew he would be unable to scale that final ten foot rise without assistance. His very life now rested upon that fact and the quickness of his hands.
From behind him he heard low hiss and he knew the Gazpane was impatient to begin their climb. Knowing what he was about to attempt, he couldn't help but wonder for a minute about the limitations in the Gazpanes mental link. The Magi council had discovered that a mental link existed between all Gazpane that were within a certain distance of eachother, and that it was stronger between Gazpane that were related by blood or mating. The exact distance seemed related to the mental strength of the Gazpanes in question. That the female might come into range was a risk he had no choice now but to take.
"This way," Willem said over his shoulder as he started up the hill towards the top. Under his breath he mumbled a quick prayer of thanks for whatever it was that kept the Gazpane from being able to read the mind of man.
The Gazpane slipped one knifelike talon down the back of Willem's expensive leather coat and stopped him dead in his tracks.
"An explaination first, manimal." His head appeared over Willem's right shoulder, then swung up over his head and back down onto the left.
Willem shuddered and stammered, "The T-toes of God! Upon Dwelk, yon. That's where the hunting encampment will be. It is there. Between the Toes! Honestly."
The Gazpane looked up and to the hill, his eyes narrowing as if in contemplation. His head raised as he viewed the hump that broke the smoothness of the horizon. He twisted his head slightly as though he was listening to the whispers in the breeze. Willem watched closely for any sign that the female may have mental contact with this male who was already suspicious of his words.
The broodlings were chattering in the background. Teeth snapping and growling seemed more prominant than the former. The sounds of bodies that were thudding against the dirt floor of the nest resounded in un-melodic repetition.
"SHHHHH," echoed so loudly in Willem's brain that he was afraid it may burst and leak out of his ears. The broodlings ceased their playtime immediately and hunkered down like a child would at the slap of a belt on the backside. Willem reached up with both hands and clasped them over his temples. He moved his jaw in an attempt to calm the ringing in his ears.
The Gazpane looked down to Willem once more with a rather humored look on his features. "Just remember how that felt. If I find you have deceived me, a voice in your head will be the _very_ least of your worries." Willem only managed to nod emphatically. He attempted to take a step forward, but only managed to scratch the ground beneath his foot. He looked over his sholder at the Gazpane. "Well"
The Gazpane released his talon from the man's shirt and waved his paw toward the hill. Willem quickly started again, "Hey, uh, you know, I may need just a little help getting to the top, with you." He offered a forced friendly smile. The Gazpane just growled and rolled his slitted eyes. His voice was gruff, even to Willem's mind ear, "Then _come_ _on_!"
Willem let the thought wander into his mind that this was going rather well concidering the first circumstances. He wondered just how far he would be willing to go with the plans. After all, Lord Krendall was his half brother, by way of the Senior Krendall's affair with his wife's hand maiden, but he was still blood relation. Whether or not Lord Krendall acknowledged Willem in public was not really the issue here.
This situation actually had possible positive outcomes. First of all, he could rid himself of the thorn in his side that was his glorified half- brother. The second, he could also become a hero after slaying the Gazpane for all the village and Fiefdom to witness.
Of course, then there was the downside.... He could become the broodlings meal. Oh well, two out of three ain't bad. In fact, it was definitely better odds than Willem was accustomed to having in his favor.
All of a sudden a _whooosh_ of air sounded from behind him, then a great wallop on his backside from the huge paw sent him flying through the air toward the top of the hill.
He landed with a thump and an oath. Actually, it hadn't been all _that_ bad; kind of like flying. Before he had quite gotten his bearings, the Gazpane was staring down at him. He looked even bigger from this angle; having landed on his backside afforded Willem an unusual view...of the fur-less defensless patch on his belly. He sat staring at that diamond of purple skin, longing for a lance, or at least a couple of good arrows.
"Well, Lunch," the Gazpane rumbled. "I believe you have to be standing to attack an enemy. Not even Krendall would be interested in you playing dead!"
"Get off him, monster!" a voice cried. Willem looked up to see Margaret, Lord Krendall's young wife, aiming a crossbow at the beast.
"Margaret, get out of here!" Willem cried, "This thing is dead set on getting Krendall's blood,"
"Well, he's not settling for yours," she replied, "Last warning, hell beast. In the name of my husband, Lord Krendall, release my brother-in-law."
"You are Krendall's wife?" the Gazpane cried, "Then I will have true revenge!" He released Willem, and started towards Margaret.
"Krendall killed his mate, didn't he," Margaret said. "Um, yeah," Willem replied.
"So, telling him I was Krendall's mate was a really bad idea, wasn't it?"
"Gee, do you think?"
Margaret let loose an arrow from the crossbow. The Gazpane caught it in his teeth, and crushed it. The brood rushed in around Willem, chattering and nipping at him as the larger Gazpane continued towards Margaret. She pulled the sword from her belt, and gritted her teeth.
"No!" Willem cried. The Gazpane stopped dead in his tracks, and burst into flames. Willem felt a burning in his chest, and looked down to see that where the amulet had touched his skin was shining.
Willem staggered backwards with the force of the power that he had just witnessed. The Gazpane was gone. He looked over to Magaret, who was still holding her sword up. "You can put your sword down now, I think." he said. She didn't answer him, but she did as he said. In Willem's mind, the broodlings cries grew louder. "Now what?" He asked Margaret
"Now perhaps you can explain why the Gazpane was so interested in devouring my wife," boomed a voice that caused Willem to jump. Willem looked into the deep blue eyes of his half brother Lord Krendall, and his world shrank again under that gaze. Krendall sat astride his magnificent red stallion, whose mane was colored the same blonde as Krendall's long hair. In his polished silver armor, the hilt of Joril peeking over his right shoulder, Krendall looked every bit the handsome hero. Willem looked down to his own tattered garments and cursed the fates for giving Krendall the looks.
Leather creaked as Krendall swung his leg over the tall steed, Yardly by name. Even on the ground though, Willem's half brother was tall and muscular. Willem genuflected to one knee as Krendall approached.
"Stand up, little brother," Krendall commanded. "Explain why it is that the Gazpane was chasing you. I am the hunter, you are the squire! Are you trying to displace me??
?No Lord Krendall,? Willem squeaked. ?I only wanted to scout the cave, to ensure there was no trap like the one in Raskergard!? Krendall eyed Willem closely for what seemed an eternity before finally nodding slowly.
Willem heaved a heavy sigh of relief at Krendall's nod, knowing that his half brother would shift his focus to the coming broodlings. Willem brushed the grass and dirt from his soft green trousers and his eye caught the shiny reflection of the medallion at his neck. His attention seemed to make the amulet hum a soothing tune meant only for his ears.
The first of the broodlings appeared over the lip of the hill then, seeming somewhat lost out of its cave. Willem watched as Krendall loaded one of his many enchanted arrows into the oversized crossbow he carried, and slowly took aim. The amulet tickled at Willem's brain as he watched Krendall release his arrow.
Willem could do nothing to stop the whizzing arrow, and at the last moment, he opened his mouth in protest. What came out, however, was a high pitched barking noise. The broodling jerked its head towards Willem in surprise and the heavily enchanted bolt sailed harmlessly by the small Gazpane's head. Willem and the broodling eyed each other for what seemed hours before Willem began to understand.
The voices of the broodlings rang off his mental walls. Willem gazed at his shocked expression that reflected from the amulet as comprehension pounded it way into his mind. Willem looked back into the confused eyes of the broodling and heard the stirring of the Gazpanes voice.
"Master," it called him.
Krendall looked at him, amused. "And what would I do with one of the filthy little beasts? Ride it like a horse?"
"Perhaps...it can hunt." Willem eyed the sharp teeth of the broodling, which was regarding him with a confused expression. He looked back at Krendall. "It would be rather impressive, to have a trained Gazpane hunting for you instead of ordinary dogs."
Krendall nodded slowly, considering.
Willem considered too. It would be a shame, he thought with a secret smile, if the lord's new pet turned on him....
Suddenly Willem realized what he'd just been thinking. He shook his head. Sure, Krendall was a pompous, self- important, vain and over-glorified lord of a half-brother. Sure, Krendall had everything handed to him on a silver platter carried by a pretty servant, while Willem was forced to scrape by with his wits. Sure, Willem coudn't stand him and all the constant bowing and scraping he had to do to keep on his good side wasn't helping his sense of brotherly love.
But to actually want to see him killed, torn apart by those vicious little brutes? Did he really want that?
"Willem?" Margaret asked. "Are you all right? You looked... odd."
Krendall snorted. "He always looks odd." He pulled a strong net from his saddlebag. "Come, Willem, take this side and we'll snare the beast. It's hardly paying attention to us at all."
Willem obeyed, but he didn't leap to assist as usual. He felt a curious buzzing in his brain, like a muffled voice or a whisper. He tried to hear what it was saying, he almost understood it...
Krendall slapped his shoulder, hard. "Wake up, boy! If we don't hurry it's going to get away."
"I'd be just as happy if it _did_ get away," Margaret muttered darkly, but the men ignored her.
As Willem grabbed the other side of the net he felt a sudden pain from where the amulet touched his skin. When he looked down at it, he saw that the amulet was back on him only it was floating away from his chest.
"Come on Willem!" Krendall shouted. "Stop standing there and move."
Willem continued to watch the amulet rise and pull the chain with it until it was completely off of his neck and floating away. As Willem started to reach for it, the world spun around him and he felt the ground beneath him.
A sharp pain was in his back and shoulder. The pain in his shoulder was dreadful and he could not move. The pain in his back felt like he was lying on a root and it held no comparison to the pain in his shoulder. Willem couldn?t see anything for some reason. It was dark and tears started to well up in his eyes from the pain.
"The-maaaaan is awaaak."
Willem jumped at the sound and pain shot through his shoulder and back.
"Good, I'm glad you brought him to me Grelinfor and you said the Gazpane went back to his brood with only a few minor bumps and bruises?"
"Whose there?" Willem asked into the darkness, but the conversation went on without him.
"Yesss. Theee Gazpane and his broodddd are saffffe for nowww."
"I will take care of the rest old friend. You better go on back now. Thank you again."
Willem felt someone touch him and he flinched causing a sharp pain to emanate from his shoulder and spread across his body. He could feel the tears seeping from the corners of his eyes, but could see nothing.
"Your shoulder is dislocated, but that is the least of your worries." The voice was coming from right next to him.
"Why can't I see?" Willem asked in frustration.
"Oh, yes let me take care of that."
A bright light caused Willem to squint. He tried to focus, but everything was a blur. There were dark shapes and bright flickering lights about, but he still couldn't fully see.
"Give it a moment, things will be blurry at first, but then you'll be able to see." The man talking seemed to be standing over him as he was lying on the ground. "I love a good challenge don?t you" At least that is what I gathered from learning of your plan to kill the Gazpane brood to make a profit on their hides before your brother- in-law could get to them first. That indeed seems like a challenging plan, only it looks like you failed miserably.
Willem could see the figure of the man clearer now standing over him and his surrounding began to take shape. It seemed as though he was in a dirt cave or hole with roots growing along the walls and candles and lamps all about the place, yet he could see the sky through an opening in the roof.
"Where am I and who are you?"
The man standing over him turned and moved off into the darkness of the hole. "I am someone faced with a challenge and a dilemma."
Willem was seeing better now and he was indeed in some kind of huge dirt cave. "What happened to me? Where am I?"
"Full of questions aren't you?" The man asked back from the darkness.
Willem could hear him rumbling through things in the back and tried to turn to see, only he was stopped short by the intense pain in his shoulder.
"Awgggg!!! That hurts!!"
"I told you that your shoulder was dislocated. A smart man would know not to try and move." The man appeared from the dark moving towards Willem. "I guess you are not a smart man, but then I should have figured that from the sending amulet you put on."
"Sending amulet?" Willem asked looking at the man who he could see plainly now. He had long gray hair and a beard and was covered in tattered clothes. Willem quickly labeled him a hermit, one of those religious tree lovers that lived with the animals of the forest. A healer and a mage all in one and some were often know to be quite mad.
"Yes, a Sending Amulet that let me see your desires and dreams." The old hermit looked off at nothing as if pondering something. "What to do now is the question I must answer and by the way, you killing the Gazpane or its brood is out of the question. What you do about your half- brother, or what he decides to do with you is another matter, but first I need to get some information from you." The old man moved around to the other side of Willem and leaned over. "Did your half-brother actually kill the Gazpane's mate as you lied your way from one situation to the next, or was this just part of your fantasy? Be careful of your answer." The old man placed a hand on Willem's shoulder. "I know how you like to make things up as you go along and I need to know the truth."
Willem's screams from the pain were hurting his own ears and he was beginning to weep openly. He tried to explain that he did not know. He only knew his half-brother was tracking the mate, nothing more. Willem took that opportunity to try and reach the brood before his half- brother's return.
The old man didn't seem satisfied with this and pressed on the shoulder several more times without asking another question.
Willem begged him to stop and told him he knew nothing more, but the old man was gritting his teeth and putting all his weight into pushing on Willem's shoulder.
A popping sound came from Willem's shoulder and the pain started to fade.
"I knew it would be tough for you, but I finally got your shoulder back in place." The old man looked relived and tired at the same time. "Now, what was that you were babbling on about?"
The pain in his shoulder had faded leaving only a dull drumming ache.
The old hermit regarded Willem calmly, his peircing blue eyes bore into Will's own. Will looked back through still stinging eyes. Studying the old fellow just as keenly. He looked to be a grubby old man, garbed in a patchwork of animal furs that he had obviously added to over time, producing a garment that had the effect of blending in seemlessly with his woodland environment. He seemed however to be in good health, his shaggy beared and wild hair, shot through whith occasional black, was matted with moss and debris of meals gone by.
"So tell me again then young man. Why do you hunt the Gazpane? Why do you engineer your half brothers death? And who gave you this Amulet of Sending?"
Will sighed, massageing his shoulder he began the tale.
The best lie, he'd discovered, was woven of partial truths. It made it easier to keep your story straight. So Willem did his best to shake the haze of pain and amulet hangover from his brain - he wondered where it had got to, that thing - and assumed a nonchalant pose - which proved a bad idea.
"I find it tiresome to keep repeating my advice. Don't move, the shoulder is in place, but mightily strained." The hedgewizard grabbed a hook and swung the kettle from the fire. He poured a cup of tea, handed it to Will. "You can cease braiding that lie, young fellow. I can feel it bubbling up inside you."
Willem closed his mouth on what he'd been about to utter. More truth than lies, it seemed. "Well, then, granther, perhaps you'll believe the truth? By all the gods, I swear this is true - I was hunting the hides because of a lady. My sister-in-law, in fact. She is lovely as a dove and viscious as a Gazpane herself. So you'll understand that when she ordered me to prevent her husband from being killed by old fang face and his brood or die trying - Well," he winked, swigging the tea, "I trotted out here as fast as my legs would carry me."
"Indeed. What an ingenious fellow you are."
Will preened. It was always good to be appreciated. "I was able to procure the amulet from a gentleman in the Lower Quarters, through contacts that would be best left unnamed. Not upright fellows like yourself, you see, granther."
"Ah. So you got a light-fingered discount? How admirable. I wouldn't be able to make such a transaction, I'm quite unable to deal with merchants, always lose the bargain."
Will preened some more. He buffed his nails on the front of his dirty jerkin and glanced slyly at the earnest face of his audience. "A natural talent of mine," he stated modestly.
"I can see that. However, do you think you can explain how the amulet departed from my hut here and ended up a day's march from here in Campenbelle?" That was Lord Krendell's Keep. "I had it only yesterday, then I didn't. Yet I found it in _your_ hands."
The old man began to glow an actinic green as he spoke, the intensity growing with the volume of his voice. He loomed and roared and gleamed until Willem saw nothing for the light blindness. The younger man cast a hand before his face, terrified and blubbering.
The light magick worked by the hedgemage was clearly strong. Willem was blinded into a state of seeing time flowing backwards, the events of days swimming past him at an alarming rate. Throughout it all his view was edged with a phosphorate green glow. Strikingly like the Gazpane, he could here the old man's voice merge into his mind.
"Your tricks and clever words are wasted on me, young sire. I can explore beyond such vulgar attempts at deceit to see the truth of your past. Ahh, yes. My amulet."
"Ah what demons enter into my mind! I wish them to be gone . What manor of evil is this tempist inwhcih i swim? Oh how I would give anything to awaken from this hell" He then felt himself land in a world of all water purple sky and no sound to be heard. " What is this place i have ventured?" He walks to the edge of a nearby clif looks down and sees a white infinity. " What .... where in ..no on.. GOd's world have I been relocated?" A dark voice from the voice speaks" Foolish one you are in my world ." The young man responded in terror. "And who is this that vexes me so ? "
The demons reached into his mind and tortured, while the green glow became associated with pain in his mind.
Wracked with this pain, the otherworldly vision faded. Only the green light remained. To Willem it felt as though spectral shards of green pierced his eyes and skin and mind and heart. He felt his very being sundered in the light. Raised unto infinity, he was drawn through the needles eye.
A black hole in the unending phosphorate light tore his tortured fragments. He keened. He spasmed. He pulsated. He opened his eyes. And there looking back was the hedgemage, a quiet smile playing on his lined face. Willem looked down to see his body wholely untouched by the experience. With no small feelings of amazement, he turned and vomited copiously on the dry dirt floor.
"I never suspected you to be of so weak a constitution young sire. But never thee mind, never thee mind. It seems you acquired my property, however, whilst stalking the gazpane brood father. The arrival of the ancient tree men is something of a rarity these days I hear and trust me when I say they are a deliberate folk. So what of the amulet. Ah, never thee mind. And all this is not to say that your time in the citadel wasn't, ah, rewarding," chuckled the old man. "Fine constitution in deed."
Willem watched the the old man slowly stand and readjust his long fur robes. The skins wove a complex pattern of fawn and grey with golden threads winding through. The mantle trailed behind him as he moved toward a tall wooden cabinet. Selecting a certain draw, he placed the amulet in with its many bretheran.
Surely, thought Willem, this was a place filled with magickal treasures. He suddenly felt a bit better.
"Sire," he said aloud,"I say, we still have not been properly introduced. You now know so much of my recent ... adventures and I know not even your name."
"Ah, Willem. Willem is my name. Strange coincidence, no?" said the old man with an arch of his wirey grey brows. "But people in these wooded parts know me now as the hermit Annune. More importantly, ah, I am someone faced with a challenge and a dilemma."
Annune walked over to Willem and gently helped him to his feet. Willem felt decidedly unsteady as they hobbled to the cave's entrance; his shoulder ached and his vision swam uncomfortably as he took hold of his nausea.
"Young sire, it is not unusual for people to be put off guard by the spell I cast, however, you seem particulalry malaffected. This is not the time for ailment. I need you to concentrate. Listen to me. Look out over the forest and see for yourself the evidence of my plight."
From the entrance of Annune's simple home in the mountain wall lay great swathes of green forest. A sea of leaves swayed to the merry tide of the wind and the sounds of forest creatures and bird song filled the fresh air. Willem knew he had not ridden here with the hunting parties that sallied forth from the citadel. It was a hidden valley behind the great range of the Beryl Mountains that rose steeply at the edge of his brother's land.So how was it that he would know the ill of this landon the other side of his known world? No warrior, rogue, hunter, or fool of a farming lad returned from those cliffs. It was only a place for eagles and air sprites. It seemed the old mage had travelled to his home, indeed he had recognised the town from his wretched time spell. People also knew of him, was it his own people of which Annune spoke? Lost in his revery, Willem was taken aback when he became aware of the hedgemage's suddenly intense gaze.
"I'm sorry, Annune, you startled me. Your eyes say that I must see, but I confess ignorance old man. It is all a wild and ancient forest from the steep cliffs of what I take to be the Beryl Mountains. You see, the ground is foreign but the landmarks' familiar - wait, familiar. I recognise this place but I have not travelled beyond the cliffs because no one can and survive. It is impossible. I cannot be standing on the edge of known lands, for where is the town and farmlands and roads? Where are my brother's people? This just cannot be."
Willem held the hedgemage's stare. His sight was troubled, Willem's features clouded over in confusion as he sought some familiar ground on which to lay the experience of this foreign yet well-known territory. The longer he held Annune's gaze, the more he recognised. But the growing familiarity was not of the sourrounding country. It was the recognition of own yellowed and myopic eyes staring back so deeply into his own. An aged mirror of his younger self.
"I am someone faced with a challenge and a dilemma, for you must become me or someone else," the Annune said as the outline of his old yet strong body started to fade into an emerald smoke. The smoke left the fragrance of a fallen rose in the air.
"No, please wait!" Willem reached up his hand to touch the old man's shoulder, but only felt the voidness of the air.
"You must become me or someone else..." the old man's voice echoed. He had completely dissolved in the air, saved for his piercing blue eyes, which still drilled into Willem's own.
_Willem's eyes drilled into Willem's own._
Willem was then left with nothing but the silence of the hut and the occasional twittering of the birds outside.
Willem glanced around, the voice still ringing in his ears. "Become me or someone else." Seemed rather simple, he would become someone else. Why would he possibly want to live on the far side of the Beryl Mountains? He just needed to figure out a way back home.
He looked back into the cave. Tangy black smoke rose from the few coals smouldering in the firepit, to stain the ceiling black, darkening the cave. Willem's eyes narrowed. This was a mage, right, so there would be magical booty.
Near the entrance, a small pile of firewood sat. After tossing several brands onto the pit, he began to explore with the added light. The wizard had lived on rush mats, with nothing but animal skins.
His heart began thumping loudly as he spotted the small niche carved into the wall. Slipping forward, as if someone might actually hear him in the middle of nowhere, he grabbed the bag from the niche. Like greedy child he opened and peered inside, imagining ruby's and emeralds and even diamonds waiting for his taking.
He dropped the bag in disgust, allowing the small animal bones to spill out. What looked like a squirrel skull rolled between Willem's feet, before stopping, and staring up at him, accusingly. He crunched down on the skull with his heel, wishing the strange omen gone.
Taking a brand from the fire, he held it aloft as a torch, and spied the entrance that led further into the cavern. He glanced back outside, at the wilderness, and doubted he could survive such an obsticle. Leaving the faint sunlight behind, he marched into the entrance.
The jagged tunnel led straight for some distance, before angling down. Smashing his head on a stone outcrop, Willem reeled, cursing before continuing to stumble forward. Ahead a faint blue light shimmered. It drew him like a moth to a flame, or perhaps a fish to a shiny lure.
He stepped into a circular chamber, where a pool of crystal water shimmered, prividing the milky light. Willem stepped forward, and gazed down at the bottom of the pool, where small objects glistened in the light. His breath caught, he knew a diamond when he saw one.
With no further thought, he dropped the torch and dived into the water. Like ink spilling across his vision, the world darkened. Panic roared up his throat along with bile as he paddled for the surface.
Then it felt as if a plug had been pulled. And with a whoosh, he swirled down.
Willem felt the panic give way to pure instinct as he continued to struggle, his mouth opening for air but only receiving water. He wasn't sure where he was attempting to paddle to, for the surface had long since disappeared.
Without warning, he felt himself slam against something solid and the weightless sensation of being submerged in water vanished. His eyes fluttered open hesitantly, trying to make out his surroundings through a blur of water that remained on his eyes. He found himself laying on a hard floor, a blanket of water coating the ground around him. Tunneling above him was what had once been the pool, drained of its contents.
As Willem stood dazeled to what just happened, he noticed the old man standing near the wall."Why do you still try to deceive me?" "what are you doing to me? I just want to get back to my brother." "You try to steal from me, lie to me, and then when my back is turned you try to escape from me. I am tired of your trickery." The old man started wave his bony arms around in circles humming Willem peered out of the corner of his eye and amoung the darkness was a small shaft of light. He shot across the dampened floor towards the light when all of as sudden he was encased in darkness agian. "For your treachery you will pay. You will be no longer able to lie or decive. Only the truth will come out of your mouth"
As the sound of the old man's voice faded, the light returned. He stumbled toward it, ran, fell into it. He looked up. He was back in the Cross-eyed Boar. He looked back. He had staggered out of the broom closet. He looked up as Hildie the barmaid rushed over and knelt beside him.
"Willem, where have you been? Tell me you've missed me!" she planted a kiss on his cheek.
"Hildie, I have not missed you. I have been in love with Margaret, my sister-in-law all this time. You've been a poor substitute."
Willem blushed to hear the truth escape from his lips. His cheek turned redder with the slap she gave him.
"How dare you!" Hildie pushed Willem back against the broom closet, letting him crash into its contents. "You've led me on all this time, only to tell me you are in love with her? You heartless...cruel... I hope your brother makes you curse the day you were born!"
“He has already made me pay. I have hated him ever since the day he was born.” I should not speak again. It might get me into less trouble, he thought. “Good-bye Hildie.”
He left for his home to be among the brood, hoping to get into less trouble. I do not need to open my mouth. They obey me with a mere thought. If I accept that, then. . . well. . . what am I thinking. That old man knows nothing about me. I am stronger than he, he thought as he made his way through the woods.
The wind in the branches and the pine needles cracking under foot. No other sound save the tread of his boots. He whistled some child's tune to ward off the chill in his bones. The trail became thin and barely cut the scrub brush at the base of the trees where the deer rubbed their antlers. Or so he hoped they were deer and the forest not ruled by the Immortals. He came to a small clearing where some forgone pilgrim had laid down stones to live in and raise a family and eventually die. The stones grown over with moss and the brush high all around. No pilgrims this outpost in ages. In the center, a single stone had been laid flat like a table and something dark and dried on the stone. He pressed a finger to the hardened puddle and a vision of a woman on the slab and a man leering above her with a blade. These were the things Willem saw in the forest, and he knew he was tresspassing on someone's sacred ground.
How had he wound up here? Where was he really? There was no such place as this on the path from the Cross-eyed Boar to his home. He had walked that path hundreds of times and knew every stone, every turn of the path.
Was he under the influence of some other spell, besides the one that forced him to speak the truth? He should never have got involved in this quest for Gazpane hides, it had backfired badly.
Still, now that he was on sacred ground, maybe he might find something useful to steal. He started to look around.