The Fastness of Samoree was quiet. Only night birds broke the silence. Her ears strained for the sound of Kooroo's shrill warning cry, or the telltale scritch-scratch of chitinous legs on stone walls. It seemed to her she had spent every night of her life this way, waiting for blood-red monsters.
Indeed, she could remember nothing else. No childhood, no parents, no evenings of wine and music. The healers blamed the monster's sting -- and the fever it produced -- for that.
She sighed. Far below, the river was a silver ribbon glazed by the always-full moon. Breeze-stirred branches stretched as far as she could see. It was a landscape to inspire poetry, made for quiet walks with lovers. But Lillthan had no time for that.
She heard a footstep -- a man's, not a creature's -- and turned toward the shadows of the arched doorway. She knew who was there even before she saw the smirk that sometimes showed when parting clouds flooded his hiding place with moonlight. And she knew he would vanish before she took even one step toward him.
Lillthan had seen him much of late, a man gazing upon her from the darkness, then vanishing into it as though he were part of it.
But this time he stayed.
He stepped forward. Moonlight fell on a face darkly handsome. Carefully trimmed hair and beard adorned features that were a tad arrogant, and somehow familiar to her. His clothing and manner spoke of nobility, but he was not of the House of Samoree. She knew everyone in this unchanging place.
Lillthan wasn't sure why she wanted to smile, but she knew sentries don't grin at strangers in the night. "Who are you?" Lillthan made it more demand than question, and punctuated it with a raised sword. And even as she fixed her attention on the shadow-man, her ears listened for Kooroo's warning cry.
"I am Gadhill, fair one," he said, bowing deeply though keeping his brown eyes upon her. "I am a mage of considerable power, and I am completely at your service." He grinned as he rose; a practiced gesture, more theatrical than natural.
"I've seen you about, lurking, for several nights now," Lillthan said. She wanted to be angry, but somehow couldn't. She sensed no harm from him, and he at least was something new in this wretched place. The mystery of him intrigued her. But she was a warrior, a guard, and her inclination toward easy acceptance of him angered her. "You're a spy, or you're a..."
"A friend, milady," he said, and she wanted badly to believe him. "From afar, yes, but a friend no less. And a powerful one, too." Again the smile, and the glimmer in his eyes that said she was supposed to swoon. "Come now, don't you find me appealing?"
His manner irritated her, and reminded her of her duty. She had no time for courtiers. And whatever else Gadhill was, he was a wizard and thus a liar. She'd heard many a sorceror's boast, but never yet seen the mage who could combat Samoree's nightly terrors.
"Well, friend Gadhill," she said, aiming the massive sword at his breast. "Get the hell out of Samoree." She put steel in her voice that shamed the gleaming metal of her blade.
Gadhill awakened with a start, and ran hands across his face. Sweat and the hot air he gulped told him he was back in sun-drenched, sand-raked Krivell. Lillthan's rebuff felt like a kick in his gut.
He rolled slowly from the cot, his bare knees thunking on the dirt floor. His belly heaved, and the heat wrapped him like a blanket.
"You dreamed of it again, Gadhill?" The voice came from Salmad, who was repairing a saddle. Gadhill tried to breathe shallowly; everything in this wretched abode stank of camel.
"Yes," Gadhill said, rising on shaky legs.
"She was there?" Salmad's eyebrows arched lasciviously as his burly arms tugged at leather straps. "The blonde one with the flashing eyes and strong arms that could squeeze a man to delirium?"
"Yes," Gadhill said tersely, staggering toward the water jug. "Just as I imagined her." He gulped deeply; the water was warm, but helped erase for a moment the taste of air clogged with sand-dust and animal stench.
"Then why so glum, Gadhill?"
"It was more real this time, I mean, more solid," Gadhill said, leaning on a bench littered with hammers and hobnails and odd straps of leather. "It was all as I wanted it, all as I dreamed it. Lush, beautiful, green even by moonlight, and cool! A breeze, Salmad, not a hot raking wind but a breeze!" He was lost in the memory, and almost forgot the rivulets of sweat running down his naked chest.
"But she was more wondrous than any of it," Gadhill said. "Lillthan. Glorious, magnificent, incomparable Lillthan. I was there, too, I mean fully there, in Samoree. I could have touched her. I spoke to her, Sal, and heard her voice. Music, it was."
Then he remembered what her musical voice had said. "But my dream girl doesn't love me."
Sal's jaw dropped as his eyebrows shot up. "No?"
"No." Gadhill lifted a clay vial, and stared at the sticky blue stuff that clung to the rim. "I ran risks, great risks, to acquire this dream-stuff." Indeed, Gadhill had risked his life to acquire the potion. He had used it to dream himself a paradise and a brave, strong woman to share it with him. "Salmad, she doesn't want me there."
Salmad shrugged. "Who can understand women?"
"She's a dream woman!"
Salmad laughed. "The potion makes dreams real, yes? And who can understand real women?"
"But she is exactly as I imagined her! In every detail -- save that she doesn't love me." Gadhill dropped the vial and covered his face with shaking hands. "Gods, am I so pathetic even my fantasy rejects me?"
"Here, Gadhill." Sal handed him the flask he kept in his leather apron.
Gadhill took a deep swig of soora, then told Salmad of Lillthan's cold look and harsh words. "I was stunned, and lost all words -- me, the poet! -- and then I was back here. Here, to repair more saddles and live next to a stable and hope Greinius the One-Eyed doesn't learn who stole the recipe for his dream-stuff!" He smacked the workbench.
Salmad put a hand on Gadhill's shoulder. "What will you do?"
Gadhill lifted another vial, and sniffed the cork. "I'll do what we all do, Sal. I'll keep dreaming."
Lillthan yanked the blade free of the gigantic, twitching red corpse. Kooroo's cry had warned her, and she'd been waiting when the thing topped the wall. The battle had been no fight at all; one swift pounce and the great sword's point plunged through the carapace, into the soft creature within.
A small one, this, and still its arcing tail had towered over her head, dripping venom that glistened in the full moonlight.
Kooroo winged across the lunar face, and Lillthan blew a kiss to the bird. Then she placed a foot upon the dead thing, and with a mighty effort sent it hurtling from the rampart to the ground far below.
She could not count the number of these things she had killed in her life. Every night, they came. Samoree had lost many soldiers; those left were spread thinly along the walls. Most worked within call of help, but Lillthan had assigned herself this remote post, for she had Kooroo to warn her when the scorpions came.
Someone cleared his throat behind her, and she whirled.
Him again. Gadhill. She had wondered if he would return after the way she'd treated him, and could not decide if she was glad he had.
There was gentleness within him, she sensed, but he buried it beneath pretension and swagger. He attracted her as much as he annoyed her, and she'd sent him away as much to protect him as to quell the allure of his presence. She glanced down at the dead beast's blood, a grim reminder of why she had no time for Gadhill's flirtations. "Go away, and stay away," she growled.
Gadhill breathed deeply of the cool air, and caught a scent of sandalwood -- his favorite, of course -- as Lillthan approached. Golden hair spilled from beneath her helmet. Blue eyes challenged him. He admired the lean muscles, the strong shoulders, the sheer presence of her. He had composed a few lines for her, but saw now they were totally inadequate. He would revise.
Relax, he reminded himself. You are not Gadhill the saddle mender in this dream place. You are an archmage! Behave like one! He held out his arms to her, and grinned as he savored his own dream-bolstered physique. He was a being of power, fit for Samoree. Fit for Lillthan.
Her words indicated otherwise. "Go away, and stay away."
"I told you to be gone, Gadhill." Her tone was as hard as the flagstones her boots clicked upon. He stammered something unintelligible. He had dreamed of a woman with a warrior's bravery and the soul of a poet -- where was the poetic part? He found her take-charge manner enticing, in a way, but...
She was supposed to love him. He'd dreamed it that way.
Gadhill noted the ichor that clung to her blade.
"Lillthan... what has happened here?"
"What always happens here. Vanish while you can."
He looked into her eyes, and saw the sadness behind the anger. This was his world, his dream... how could she be so bitter? He had not dreamt that. And whose blood smeared her sword?
"Where are your soldiers, Lillthan? Why do you stand alone?"
"There are precious few fighters left. We spread ourselves along the walls as best we can. But we can do without magecraft. I've yet to see an adept who could do anything but make false promises."
That came as no surprise to Gadhill. He had invented this world, and had made certain he would be its only true mage. "Lillthan, whatever troubles Samoree, I've come to help." He gave her a reassuring smile. "And a great help it will be." He pulled the dagger from his belt, and instantly the flames curled around the length of its blade. The fire burned white, then orange, then green fading to blue. "Show me your enemy, Lillthan, and I will lay his head at your feet... along with my heart."
"Fool." It was a whisper, and Gadhill hoped he had not been meant to hear it. He thought he saw, at least, a glimmer of what he'd always hoped to see in her eyes. But she spoke again, and louder: "You would lay my enemy's head at my feet? You could lay dozens of them dead before me, and dozens more would take their place before the bodies stopped twitching. Samoree is damned, Gadhill, cursed. You can come and go as you please, apparently, so go."
"You'd refuse my aid? Lillthan, I'm a mage of consequence, truly!"
"I've met too many who've made such a claim," she said. "Fakes, all of them. No use against these things."
"Just go, Gadhill. You don't belong here."
"If anyone belongs here, I do," he said quietly. "And as for flummery, milady, I'll show you..."
A shrill cry interrupted him, and Lillthan moved like silent lightning. She ran to the rampart, and a swift bird darted past her head. She looked over the wall, then leapt back with sword raised. She gave Gadhill a fast glance, then turned her attention toward the approaching horror.
Gadhill saw the tail first, curling above Lillthan's head. A wet bead gleamed from its spear-like tip. Then pincers framed her, and snapped at her as she fended them with her sword. Then, as Lillthan backed toward him, the entire monstrosity climbed onto the battlement. Spider-like, it loomed before the warrior woman. To Gadhill's eyes, Lillthan suddenly seemed frail. And his own flaming dagger seemed a mere matchstick.
He recognized it at once, as a crimson son of the yellow demon that had haunted his nightmares since boyhood. It approached, and his knees buckled. The dream world he'd invented spun around him...
It loomed over her, blocking the moonlight. Its hard legs surrounded her like cage bars. But Lillthan was precisely where she needed to be.
The tail could not lash at her here, nor could the pincers reach her. The scorpion dashed and whirled madly across the flagstones, its legs tapping a staccato rhythm. Flecks of venom hissed and smoked on the flagstones. Lillthan, hunched over, scurried beneath the monster, waiting for the moment when she could plant her feet, aim the sword and...
She rammed the blade upward, and the thing's crimson shell crunched and cracked and splintered as the keen blade sank to the hilt. Green, gummy ichor spewed from the wound, knocking Lillthan's helm to the ground and drenching her in gore that stung her eyes and turned her hair into a clinging blindfold.
She dropped and rolled, and the thing's legs gave way. It plopped, twitched and died.
She rose, and marveled at the gore. It glowed weirdly in the moonlight.
No sign of him.
A brown blur flitted past her face, then Kooroo perched on her shoulder.
"I'm alive, birdie. I'm alive. No thanks, though, to the mighty Gadhill, wizard of consequence!"
"Gods, Salmad! I couldn't do a damned thing! I stood there, trying not to piss in my fine new garb, while the thing towered over her!"
Salmad placed a damp cloth on Gadhill's head. "You've a fever, Gadhill. Hot enough in this place without that."
Gadhill saw the worry in his burly friend's eyes. "You don't believe me, do you?"
Sal shrugged. "I watch you sleep, I watch you toss about, then you wake up and tell me of beautiful women who don't love you and gigantic scorpions who want to eat you. You've been guzzling that wizard-brew, and now you have fever. Beyond what a man sees, what can he really believe? But I'll help, if I can."
Gadhill's jaws clenched. "It's a real place, Sal, I swear it, and Lillthan's a real woman."
Salmad indicated their tawdry dwelling with a wave of his hand. "This is a real place, too, Gadhill, and we have nice little scorpions you can crush beneath your heels and women you can pay to love you, at least for a while. You should forget Samoree."
Gadhill laughed bitterly. "I created Samoree! Every dew-wet leaf, every windblown cloud... and Lillthan, too. Gods, what of Lillthan?"
Sal looked puzzled. "If you created it all, where did the scorpions come from?"
Gadhill hung his head. "From my mind, Sal, my own fear-wracked mind. I was a boy, and I awoke once to find a scorpion on my chest. A yellow one. Horrible. It stared me in the face, and its tail flexed and oozed poison... I couldn't move, not a muscle. My father..."
Gadhill choked on the rest of the story. His father had snatched the thing, and taken a sting. Father's death had been horridly painful.
"The dream-stuff... it built a whole world from my dreams. And my nightmares. It filled in the details I'd not thought of, such as a foe for my mighty warrior lover. Oh, capricious gods! And... gods! The dream scorpion was red, Sal! But there's a yellow one. There has to be a yellow one..."
"Listen, Gadhill. It's all dream stuff. Not real at all. Stay here, write more poetry and bed the local girls. You're a good man, Gadhill, there'll be girls enough for you here."
"None like Lillthan." He stared out the window, where hot winds stirred sand across hard-baked streets.
Gadhill's brown eyes flashed far less bravado this time, Lillthan thought, and he ran a nervous hand through his dark hair.
She greeted him coldly. "Has the mightiest mage in Samoree come to help me in battle once again?"
"It is true you are a mage of consequence, Gadhill. I never saw a man vanish so quickly." She had rehearsed that one in her mind, and enjoyed how the sting of it made him wince.
He fixed his eyes on her, and held out imploring hands. "There is much I have not explained, Lillthan. I have power, indeed, but I cannot always choose when I must go from Samoree. I..."
Her glare was like a sharp edge against his throat. "I saw your eyes, craven, when the thing came. I saw your wobbly knees!"
"Lillthan, you wrong me." He straightened, and thrust his chin forward. "I had to go... but I've come back."
She laughed bitterly. "Why?"
"I could not let you face those things alone." The words were a whisper she scarcely heard.
"You mean you could not let me face them alone again," she said, turning her back to him.
"The thing caught me unaware last night," he said. "I didn't expect... that. But I know now. I've steeled myself. I want to face it with you."
"Why?" She did not turn around.
"Why? Don't you know, Lillthan?"
She answered him with silence. Gadhill breathed hard behind her for a long while before he spoke.
"I've dreamed of you, Lillthan. Always dreamed of you."
Somehow, it was the answer she'd expected. Despite her anger, she wanted very much to trust Gadhill, to believe his claims of power and accept his help. But her anger was strong, particularly her anger over her own sentimental weakness.
She was about to send him away when Kooroo's treble cry ripped the silence.
Gadhill watched the three of them crawl over the wall. These monstrosities had plagued his sleep since boyhood. He had already felt the hot venom flow into him a million times, and been ripped apart by cold pincers a million more.
Everything in him wanted to run.
But Lillthan stood before them, sword high, as dauntless as he'd always dreamed her to be.
"Inside, Lillthan! We'll bolt the doors!"
Her eyes blazed, her breath came hard, but she managed to shout a word or two with each blow she dealt. "Can't... kill them... if I... hide!"
Lillthan's muscles rippled as her sword hacked through a leg, and she rolled hard to evade the stinger that stabbed at her. Her helm clattered across the stones, and her golden hair whipped about as she moved with lithe grace as pincers snapped at air where her lovely head had just been.
Her sword rang off the hard shells as often as it sliced through, and the monsters seemed tireless. Lillthan backed away, and slashed viciously. She was being forced toward the wall, toward the edge.
It's all a dream, Gadhill told himself. Not real. Wake up, go home. She can't really die. You don't really love her.
He took up the flaming dagger. His knees shook as Lillthan leapt upon one of the great stone blocks that crowned the rampart. Pincers lunged at her throat, and she took them off with a sweep of razor-honed steel. But she could back away no more, and all three horrors yet lived.
Gadhill growled to clear his throat of the fear that choked it. He aimed the dagger and shouted the words of command. "Thorzith xandra!"
The words gathered power from the world around him. That force flowed into him, and from him into the weapon. Searing green fire flashed from the dagger, washed the sky with eerie emerald light, ripped into the carapace of the nearest scorpion, burned it, crisped it and turned it into a rain of cinders.
Lillthan nearly toppled as her eyes went wide with amazement. She parried a pincer, and bent her powerful legs. Then, leaping almost vertically and shoving her free hand down upon a monstrous head, she rolled down the back of her foe. Gadhill marveled at her impossible athleticism, then remembered she was the stuff of dreams.
And now, so was he!
Lillthan landed on her back beside her enemy, and chopped another leg with a savage blow that sent shell bits and green spray flying.
"Do that again, mage!"
Gadhill filled his lungs with the chill air, and spoke again the killing words. The two remaining beasts rushed him, and panic almost choked the spell. But he had seen for himself now the power he wielded. Had he not dreamed this world, and dreamed himself to be a force worthy of the greatest love in it? Power surged within him, and another blast of emerald fire ripped the scorpions into wind-borne ash.
Lillthan's blue eyes stared at him, and a smile played upon her lips. She huffed, but managed to speak. "You... are a mage of consequence!"
Startled, Gadhill almost forgot to play his new role. He bowed, then blew out the flames on his dagger as though he held a candle. "Indeed."
With a wave of her hand. Lillthan presented Gadhill to Lord Tal of Samoree. "A true power, my lord. I've seen it with my own eyes. He left three of the scorpions little more than ash."
Murmurs of respect rose from the men-at-arms arrayed in uniformed splendor throughout the magnificent Red Hall.
"We are in your debt," said Lord Tal, wide eyes showing his amazement. "You shall have lands, riches and more! From where do you hail, Gadhill?"
"Far from here, lord." Gadhill's bow was slow, courtly -- and reminded Lillthan strongly of the swagger that had irritated her so. For moment earlier, she thought, he had seemed almost human. Now Gadhill's tone, indeed his entire manner, oozed with conceit. He tossed her a glance and a smile that no doubt were designed to make her knees weak. Lillthan bit her tongue; annoying he may be, but Gadhill could save Samoree.
Lord Tal smiled. "You will stay with us? And fight the scorpions?"
Gadhill raised his palm. "Magic is a mysterious thing, lord. I cannot stay here always."
"He's prone to sudden vanishments," Lillthan said.
Gadhill continued. "Yes. I will be in my own domain while the sun shines, gathering the powers cosmic that fuel my scorpion-killing blasts."
Lillthan rolled her eyes. Gathering the powers cosmic? Was he trying to sound pretentious?
The mage continued. "But I will return at night, when the scorpions come. You may consider them as dead. I shall blast each one that dares scale your walls."
Lillthan's heart drummed in her breast. "No!"
Lord Tal and Gadhill looked at her as though she were a fool. She stepped forward. "Shall we spend the rest of our lives killing scorpions one at a time?" She turned to face Gadhill. "What salvation is that, archmage? Can you guard every wall? Will you fend them off night after night, while we who have fought so long try to recall what it is like to spend an evening listening to music, or kissing a lover?"
Gadhill's jaw worked up and down and his eyes dashed back and forth, but no words came out.
"No!" Lillthan looked upon the soldiers gathered in the Red Hall. "We'll take this weapon, this mighty mage, and seek out the nest of these vile things. We'll crush them all in one terrible blow. We'll do it today, and have no more nights of terror in Samoree!"
Swords lifted. Affirming shouts echoed in the Red Hall. Lillthan raised a fist, and turned toward the mage who had made this day possible.
His knees were shaking.
Gadhill muttered prayers, and tried to concentrate on the runes rather than on the fears swelling in his mind.
A nest of them? Was Lillthan mad?
It was one thing to stand on a rampart and wait for the damned things to clamber within reach of his slaying flames; it was something different to seek out large numbers of them. Scorpions skittered across his thoughts, surrounded him, overwhelmed him, crushed him. And one of them was yellow.
He cursed. He remembered how good it had felt when Lillthan smiled at him, and how low he had felt when that smile faded at sight of his quaking knees. He'd told her it was a lingering effect of the magical forces he'd summoned. He wasn't certain she'd believed that.
He bent to the runes again, to spy out the location of the scorpion lair. He'd earned only blank stares upon telling the assembled soldiers he had no idea where the scorpions nested. Scorpions were desert-dwellers, and in this dream-world of his there were no deserts.
He gathered the runes again and dropped them slowly upon the marble table. The sound was not unlike the tapping of gigantic, chitinous legs on flagstones...
"Found them yet?" It was Lillthan, entering the sanctum Lord Tal had provided for his new archmage.
"I think so." He hoped he sounded brave. "I'm consulting again, to be sure."
"Sorry to interrupt. You've been at it a long time. I brought you mead, and cakes."
He looked up into her smile. His heart melted. "Thank you."
"Thank you, Gadhill." She kissed his cheek, and left.
He held his breath a long while, and looked down upon the stones. One hand moved them about on the table; the other gently touched the warm spot her lips had left on his face.
Lillthan halted her stallion to let it drink. A crystalline stream flowed over rocks of jade and amber hues, in sunlight that turned it all into a dazzling, beautiful array. It belonged in a song, or a poem, she thought. She couldn't remember ever being here before, and looked forward to returning when the scorpions were dead. She looked forward to many things long denied her.
"Is it much further, Gadhill? We must reach it before nightfall. There are but a hundred of us, and in such open land..."
"I know, milady," he said. "Trust me, I know we must not face them in this terrain. It's not far. Follow the river." His face was ash-white.
"Are you ill?"
"No," he said hastily. "No. Gathering my powers. Readying myself for the slaughter."
She laughed. "Don't kill all of them, mage. Save a few for me and Kooroo."
She waved her hand, and the column moved forward. It felt so good to be doing something at last, something that might end the endless waiting and fighting. She glanced upward, where Kooroo darted against billowing white clouds. She wondered if the world had ever seemed so lovely to her before the venom-fever purged her memory. It all seemed new.
Gadhill moved through a verdant landscape culled from every sweet dream he'd ever known; indeed, it sprang from his own poetry. But he noticed none of it.
His eyes could see nothing but looming doom. He thought of his body sleeping back in that desert hell, and hoped fervently that Salmad would ignore Gadhill's demand not to be awakened. How Lillthan could sing at such a time...
Fear rose in his throat, choked him. The runes had shown him visions -- nightmare visions -- of a dark cave where scorpions clambered by the hundreds. They crawled upon one another, climbed the walls, crouched on ledges. And they paid obeisance to one greater than them all.
A yellow one.
A yellow one, like the one that had frightened him so as a boy. A yellow one, such as had killed his father. A yellow one that glowed.
He'd told Lillthan: "I think she's the mother of them all. Or their god. If she dies, perhaps they all die. Or so the runes say. But she won't come out."
"Then we'll go in," Lillthan had answered with a hard smile.
And so Gadhill's hopes had died. He'd made himself believe he could perch somewhere near the cavern, and roast scorpions one by one as they skittered out of their lair.
But Lillthan was going in there, to seek the yellow one. And Gadhill was going with her. He hoped she would not have to drag him.
Lillthan addressed her men and pointed to the yawning cavern entrance. "Gadhill believes this to be the only way in or out. Gadhill and I will go in, and this is where the scorpions will emerge if we fail. We don't know how many are in there, but you'll have an advantage as they must emerge single-file. If the mage and I fail, your duty is clear."
Pride rose within her as she saw the many nods, the steely eyes, the steady hands.
"If we learn anything inside that forces a change in our tactics, we'll be back," she said. "Else, you'll not see Gadhill and me again until we drag out the corpse of the yellow one!"
Gadhill stayed close to Lillthan as they stalked in the dark corridor. His upraised palm held a soft glowing light; their own long shadows danced on the moist walls like... gigantic scorpions.
Lillthan turned and whispered. "What did you say?"
He tried to pull some of the strength in her deep blue eyes into himself. "Just an utterance, to maintain the protection spell," he lied.
"You are certain that will work? They won't sense us?"
"Of course I'm certain," he said, wishing he were.
"Then let's proceed." Lillthan continued into the darkness. It was all too much like walking down the throat of a monstrous snake, Gadhill thought. He turned the dagger nervously in his hands, and reminded himself he would have to take care not to blast Lillthan in his fright if something came racing toward them.
She turned, lifted a finger to her lips. The conspiratorial look in her eyes would have aroused him at any other time. Now it made him shiver.
Lillthan pointed ahead. The corridor widened, the ceiling lifted and massive boulders covered the floor. He lifted his illuminated palm a bit higher. The boulders, hundreds of them, glinted redly. And some of them moved.
"Scorpions," Lillthan's lips said silently.
Gadhill's mind screamed: Run!
Lillthan crept forward. Gadhill followed her, his mind focused on the magic that would let them pass unnoticed -- he hoped.
They moved slowly. Around them, scorpions slept or moved lazily. Gadhill's ghost light caught lifted tails, and he could see the globules of venom shining on the spear tips. His boots slid on a floor slick with poison, and an acid reek assaulted the air. Countless crimson giants surrounded them, but Gadhill's spell kept them unaware.
He became aware of another light. A corn yellow moon seemed to rise slowly in the distance. Towering tails stretched and curled as it approached, and Gadhill heard much skittering as the red scorpions turned and raised pincers in homage to the yellow one who approached.
Lillthan knelt, kissed the flat of her blade, then lifted it. She crept forward to deliver the killing strike. Gadhill had to will himself to follow her, to keep precious Lillthan within the sphere of protection he had woven.
It seemed, almost, as if the yellow one stared at him.
Closer, closer Lillthan crept. He tried to watch her instead of the horrid glowing monstrosity. He watched the muscles in her arms and legs writhe as she coiled herself to spring. Lillthan drew nearer, near enough to pounce, and he saw her powerful legs flex.
Then a braying from hell screamed in his ears, and the whole world spun.
Lillthan jumped. The plunging spear-tail glanced off her helmet. She regained her feet and saw the yellow scorpion's glow brighten as it turned toward her. Its legs lifted, spider-like, as it approached. Behind her, she heard ominous scratching on stone, like a million bony fingers scraping a coffin lid.
She spun. The yellow scorpion's light fell upon a forest of raised pincers, lifted tails. That forest was closing in on her rapidly.
And Gadhill was gone.
"Salmad! By all the gods and devils damned! What..."
The camel lurched, toppling Gadhill's cot. Gadhill fell, naked, onto the hot, sandy floor as the braying beast knocked over a workbench and Salmad fought to tug at the reins.
"It kicked down the door!" Salmad tripped over fractured timber. "Help me get this thrice-damned stubborn bitch back in her stall!"
Gadhill ran toward his own work table, and nearly caught a kick in the head as the camel whirled like a hairy storm.
"Salmad, I will blast you and the camel into burnt, crispy motes!" He snagged the vial before the camel's gyrations sent the entire bench tumbling. Gadhill ripped the stopper away with his teeth, spat it at the camel, and gulped the dream-stuff as though his life depended on it.
But it was not his life that depended on it. It was Lillthan's.
Lillthan hacked, and stabbed, and danced, and whirled. Gore splashed around her, drenched her, blinded her. Pincers clicked on her armor, ripped at her hair. Wild shadows spun around her as the dread yellow glow waxed and waned.
She wasted no breath cursing Gadhill. She had little enough left, anyway.
She rolled beneath a large scorpion, stabbed upward and prayed it would not crush her when it fell. Its body would be her shield from the rest of them, and she wondered how long it would avail her.
Not long, she knew.
Gadhill found himself once more staring down the dark throat of that tunnel. Deep within it, the yellow glow told him the mother scorpion still lived.
He saw nothing to tell him Lillthan still lived.
Gadhill gathered his courage, and swallowed the thoughts that came to him: She's not real. She's a dream. You can go home, dream some more. No need to plunge into peril.
But his heart drummed against his ribs, and his ears strained to hear her voice, and he knew he had to help her. Real or not. He had to help her, or die trying.
He ran forward. Shadows lurched, sometimes blocking the yellow beacon he approached. He could not see Lillthan anywhere in that twisting mass of scorpions.
His glowing nemesis fired like a desert sun, and raised its spear tail. The yellow one rushed him, skittering on the backs of its red minions. Its pincers snapped at the air, and its nova glow burned his eyes.
But Gadhill had a fire of his own.
The flame, jade-green and sun-hot, leapt from his dagger. It enveloped the yellow scorpion, turned it green, lit raging fires deep within the beast that radiated through a million cracks as its carapace flaked, then melted.
He thought of Lillthan, and turned the blast on another, and another, and another. Smoke and stench rose as scorpions burned, and they clambered over one another to escape the flame that doomed each of them, the power that Gadhill determined now to turn upon himself, the creator of this nightmare that had taken away his dream girl.
But not until his vengeance was complete...
Something gripped his leg in an iron grasp. He looked down upon a horrific image that dripped gore and smelled of venom, something that looked as though it had crawled up from a grave. Then bright blue eyes reflected his magical flame, and a beautiful smile appeared in a face plastered with wet hair, caked gore and sweat.
"Slay every damned one of them! You hold the exit, and they've nowhere to run!"
Relief nearly overpowered him, then became a fuel for power itself. Raw energy surged inside him, consumed him. He let it fill the cavern with death. It became a cauldron, hotter than any fever dream he'd ever had in sun-weary Krivell.
Lillthan acknowledged the anxious gazes by lifting her sword to the sky. "It is done!"
Cheers erupted, and Kooroo swooped down to perch on her shoulder.
Lillthan would have jumped in her joy, cried cheers to Gadhill -- but she could barely stand.
She gave Gadhill a stabbing look that said her blade would soon follow. But he stood there, cocksure, and stared at her with those brown eyes.
"You're bleeding, and covered with... whatever that is... and we must know if you've been stung," he said. "You've so many wounds from those damned pincers you'd never be able to feel it." He pointed toward the river. "Strip, jump in and bathe like your life depends upon it. It very well may."
The thought of poison in her veins spurred her. She wanted no more fever dreams, no chance of losing the memory of this victorious day. She dropped the sword as Kooroo squawked and rose, and she did as Gadhill commanded. Cool water stung her many scrapes and cuts. She grabbed handfuls of sand from the riverbed and scrubbed herself as hard as she could. She did not believe the green slime would ever come out of her hair.
"Here," Gadhill said, spreading a saddle blanket as she emerged from the water. She looked down upon her skin, and was thankful that the numerous cuts and scrapes were not deep. "Lie down," the mage commanded.
She did so, and saw the leer in his eyes and the way his pupils swelled as he looked at her. "If you enjoy this for even one heartbeat..."
"You pain me, fair one. It is your life I am concerned about." His hands prodded her skin, lifted her legs and arms, rolled her onto her back and belly as he searched for the puncture wound that would indicate she had been stung. "I will concern myself with your absolutely magnificent body later."
She knocked him on his ass.
Gadhill's fingers explored his stinging jaw. He'd meant the remark to be witty, flirtatious. After all, he'd saved the day and Lillthan was his dream woman. Wasn't she supposed to laugh at his jokes? She was made to love him!
The glare in her eyes told him to apologize -- now. But his inner arch-mage, the man who had vanquished Samoree's enemies, told him to show no weakness. Lillthan the warrior could never admire weakness.
Lillthan rose, wrapping herself in the dripping wet blanket. She tried to control the fury inside her.
"Of all the arrogant, ego-mad..."
Gadhill smiled. "Adoring, lovesick..."
She turned away from his laughing eyes. "Where is my damned sword?" Soldiers backed away, and pretended they were busy with other things.
"Lillthan, I love you."
She froze. There it was again, that something in his voice that made her want to forget all about peeling his skin away with her fingernails. She turned on him.
"Love? Listen, Gadhill. You've done great service for Samoree, and for me. I won't forget that. Ever. I'd have died in there if not for you. But if you think your deed has cleared the path to my bed, you are sadly mistaken and more full of yourself than I imagined."
"No, Gadhill! Do not speak to me of love. I've had no time for love, only fighting, but I've dreamed of love. I will have a quiet life now, music, poetry and -- one day, perhaps -- a gentle man to rub my feet. But I'll not become a quick hero's reward for a pompous mage!"
She turned quickly and stomped away.
Salmad shook his head in wonder. "An amazing tale, truly. You should write it all down. A tragic poem of battles and lost love."
"I haven't the heart," Gadhill sighed. He swigged warm beer from a dirty wooden bowl. "I create a dream world, a dream woman, a dream self... and still I'm a failure, Sal. Utter, complete, ultimate failure."
"You look bad. In the eyes, all wild." Sal poured more beer. "Drink more. Then we will go out, you and I, and I will buy you a woman for the night."
Gadhill nodded slowly, but it felt as though he was handing his soul over to a demon. He stared off into space for several minutes as Salmad puttered about the room talking of good liquor and beautiful dancers. It all sounded so empty.
Gadhill shook, gritted his teeth. "No, Sal. Love does not quit. Better to keep trying and keep failing than to give up."
"She's just a dream," Sal said pointedly.
"She's the woman I love," Gadhill said quietly. "Dream? Reality? Who cares? Who can tell?"
"If you keep making that potion and drinking it, you'll waste away. You lie there and sweat. I've seen you," Sal said. "I think you could die. Where is your dream then?"
Gadhill watched Sal's lip quiver, and forced a weak smile. "I'll keep trying, until I find a way to stay there. Don't worry. I'm the greatest mage in Samoree, remember?"
"You are one fine poet right here, Gad. This world is not so bad. I'll show you tonight. I'll find you a woman, one who will love you for your poems, just as you are... for a night, anyway."
Gadhill dropped his bowl on the table. "What did you say?"
"A whore, Gadhill. I'll buy you a whore. You remember whores, don't you?"
"No! I mean, yes, I remember..." Gadhill struggled to compose his beer-soaked thoughts. "Love me for myself, you said. Gods! What an utter fool I am!"
Then he laughed, and danced, and Salmad scurried away from the stream of beer that flew from Gadhill's bowl. "Are you mad, Gadhill?"
Gadhill ran to his friend and kissed him. "Mad? No! I was, but no longer! Do you not see?"
Salmad's shrug and wide eyes said he did not.
"Oh, my friend, victory may yet be mine, despite my own foolishness! I created a dream woman for myself -- a woman who could love me, then I foolishly turned myself into someone else entirely! She is made to love me, but she hasn't even met me yet! She met some arrogant, powerful archmage! All I must do is make her see. But I will make her see, Salmad, I will!"
Salmad frowned, and Gadhill filled his bowl anew. "I will prevail, Sal," he said, reaching for ink and quill. "She wants poems and foot rubs and quiet walks. I can do that! I have an entire lifetime of experience being exactly the sappy dreamer Lillthan wants!"
© Steve Goble 2012
Steve Goble's sword-and-sorcery fiction has appeared in numerous venues: Flashing Sword ezine, All Possible Worlds, Amazing Journeys Magazine, GrendelSong magazine, Sword's Edge e-zine, Down in the Cellar e-zine and more. One of his short stories — "The Gods-Forsaken World" from
GrendelSong # 2 — was an honorable mention in “The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008,”edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant