The city was old, begrimed by time. A place of wind-worn stones and tumbled masonry, its towers tilting and its walls crumbling. Wild sheep cropped the grass that grew between cracked paving stones, bright-plumed birds nested among columns of faded mosaic. The city had once been splendid and terrible; now it was beautiful and tranquil. The two travelers came to it in the mellow haze of the morning, when a melancholy wind blew through the silence of the ancient streets. The hoofs of the horses were hushed as the travelers led them between towers that were green with age, passed by ruins bright with blossoms of orange, ochre and purple. And this was Soryandum, deserted by its folk.
The men and their horses were turned all one colour by the dust that caked them, making them resemble statues that had come to life. They moved slowly, looking wonderingly about them at the beauty of the dead city.
The first man was tall and lean, and although weary he moved with the graceful stride of the trained warrior. His long fair hair had been bleached near white by the sun, and his pale blue eyes had a hint of madness in them. But the thing most remarkable about his appearance was the dull black jewel sunk into his forehead just above and between the eyes, a stigmata he owed to the perverted miracle workings of the sorcerer-scientists of Granbretan. His name was Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke von Köln, driven from his hereditary lands by the conquests of the Dark Empire, which schemed to rule the world. Dorian Hawkmoon, who had sworn vengeance against the most powerful nation on his war-tormented planet.
The creature who followed Hawkmoon bore a large bone bow and a quiver of arrows on his back. He was clad only in a pair of britches and boots of soft, floppy leather, but the whole of his body, including his face, was covered in red, wiry hair. His head came to just below Hawkmoon’s shoulder. This was Oladahn, cross-bred offspring of a sorcerer and a Mountain Giantess from the Bulgar Mountains.
Oladahn patted sand from his fur and looked perplexed. “Never have I seen a city so fair. Why is it deserted? Who could leave such a place?”
Hawkmoon, as was his habit when puzzled, rubbed at the dull black jewel in his forehead. “Perhaps disease—who knows? Let’s hope that if it was disease, none of it lingers on. I’ll speculate later, but not now. I’m sure I hear water somewhere—and that’s my first requirement. Food’s my second, sleep’s my third—and thought, friend Oladahn, a very distant fourth…”
In one of the city’s plazas they found a wall of blue-grey rock that had been carved with flowing figures. From the eyes of one stone maiden fell pure spring water that splashed into a hollow fashioned below. Hawkmoon stooped and drank, wiping wet hands over his dusty face. He stepped back for Oladahn to drink, then led the horses forward to slake their thirst.
Hawkmoon reached into one of his saddlebags and took out the cracked and crumpled map that had been given him in Hamadan. His finger crept across the map until it came to rest on the word ‘Soryandum’. He smiled with relief. “We are not too far off our original route,” he said. “Beyond these hills the Euphrates flows and Tarabulus lies beyond it by about a week’s journey. We’ll rest here for today and tonight, then continue on our way. Refreshed, we will travel more rapidly.”
Oladahn grinned. “Aye, and you’d explore the city before we leave, I fancy.” He splashed water on his fur, then bent to pick up his bow and quiver. “Now to attend to your second requirement—food. I’ll not be gone long. I saw a wild ram in the hills. Tonight we’ll dine off roast mutton.” He remounted his horse and was away, riding for the broken gates of the city while Hawkmoon stripped off his clothes and plunged his hands into the cool spring water, gasping with a sense of utter luxury as he poured the water over his head and body. Then he took fresh clothing from the saddlebag, pulling on a silk shirt given him by Queen Frawbra of Hamadan and a pair of blue cotton britches with flaring bottoms. Glad to be out of the heavier leather and iron he had worn for protection’s sake while crossing the desert in case any of the Dark Empire’s men were following them, Hawkmoon donned a pair of sandals to complete his outfit. His only concession to his earlier fears was the sword he buckled about him.
It was scarcely possible that he could have been followed here, and besides, the city was so peaceful that he could not believe any kind of danger threatened.
Hawkmoon went to his horse and unsaddled it, then crossed to the shade of a ruined tower to lie with his back against it and await Oladahn and the mutton.
Noon came and went, and Hawkmoon began to wonder what had become of his friend. He dozed for another hour before real trepidation began to stir in him and he rose to resaddle his horse.
It was highly unlikely, Hawkmoon knew, that an archer as skilled as Oladahn would take so long in pursuit of one wild sheep. Yet there seemed to be no possible danger here. Perhaps Oladahn had grown weary and decided to sleep for an hour or two before hauling the carcass back. Even if that were all that was delaying him, Hawkmoon decided, he might need assistance.
He mounted his horse and rode through the streets to the crumbling outer wall of the city and to the hills beyond. The horse seemed to recover much of its former energy as its hoofs touched grass, and Hawkmoon had to shorten the rein, riding into the hills at a light canter.
Ahead was a herd of wild sheep led by a large, wise looking ram, perhaps the one Oladahn had mentioned, but there was no sign at all of the little beast-man.
“Oladahn!” Hawkmoon yelled, peering about him. “Oladahn!” But only muffled echoes answered him.
Hawkmoon frowned, then urged his horse into a gallop, riding up a hill taller than the rest in the hope that from this vantage point he would be able to see his friend. Wild sheep scattered before him as the horse raced over the springy grass. He reached the top of the hill and shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun. He stared in every direction, but there was no sign of Oladahn.
For some moments he continued to look around him, hoping to see some trace of his friend; then, as he gazed toward the city, he saw a movement near the plaza of the spring. Had his eyes tricked him, or had he seen a man entering the shadows of the streets that led off the eastern side of the plaza? Could Oladahn have returned by another route? If so, why hadn’t he answered Hawkmoon’s call?
Hawkmoon had a nagging sense of terror in the back of his mind now, but he still could not believe that the city itself offered any menace.
He spurred his horse back down the hillside and leaped it over a section of ruined wall.
Muffled by the dust, the horse’s hoofs thudded through the streets as Hawkmoon headed toward the plaza, crying Oladahn’s name. But again he was answered only by echoes. In the plaza there was no sign of the little mountain man.
Hawkmoon frowned, almost certain now that he and Oladahn had not, after all, been alone in the city. Yet there was no sign of inhabitants.
He turned his horse toward the streets. As he did so his ears caught a faint sound from above. He looked upward, his eyes searching the sky, certain that he recognized the sound. At last he saw it—a distant black shape in the air overhead. Then sunlight flashed on metal, and the sound became distinct, a clanking and whirring of giant bronze wings. Hawkmoon’s heart sank.
The thing descending from the sky was unmistakably an ornate ornithopter, wrought in the shape of a gigantic condor, enameled in blue, scarlet, and green. No other nation on Earth possessed such vessels. It was a flying machine of the Dark Empire of Granbretan.
Now Oladahn’s disappearance was fully explained. The warriors of the Dark Empire were present in Soryandum. It was more than likely, too, that they had recognized Oladahn and knew that Hawkmoon could not be far away. And Hawkmoon was the Dark Empire’s most hated opponent.
Hawkmoon made for the shadows of the street, hoping that he had not been seen by the ornithopter.
Could the Granbretanians have followed him all the way across the desert? It was unlikely. Yet what else explained their presence in this remote place?
Hawkmoon drew his great battle-blade from its scabbard and then dismounted. In his clothes of thin silk and cotton he felt more than ordinarily vulnerable as he ran through the streets seeking cover.
Now the ornithopter flew only a few feet above the tallest towers of Soryandum, almost certainly searching for Hawkmoon, the man whom the King-Emperor Huon had sworn must be revenged upon for his ‘betrayal’ of the Dark Empire. Hawkmoon might have slain Baron Meliadus at the battle of Hamadan, but without doubt King Huon had swiftly dispatched a new emissary upon the task of hunting down the hated Hawkmoon.
The young Duke of Köln had not expected to journey without danger, but he had not believed that he would be found so soon.
He came to a dark building, half in ruins, whose cool doorway offered shelter. He entered the building and found himself in a hallway with walls of pale, carved stone partly overgrown with soft mosses and blooming lichens. A stairway ran up one side of the hall, and Hawkmoon, blade in hand, climbed the winding, moss-carpeted steps for several flights until he found himself in a small room into which sunlight streamed through a gap in the wall where the stones had fallen away. Flattening himself against the wall and peering around the broken section, Hawkmoon saw a large part of the city, saw the ornithopter wheeling and dipping as its vulture-masked pilot searched the streets.
There was a tower of faded green granite not too distant. It stood roughly in the centre of Soryandum, dominating the city. The ornithopter circled this for some time, and at first Hawkmoon guessed that the pilot believed him to be hidden there, but then the flying machine settled on the flat, battlement-surrounded roof of the tower. From somewhere below other figures emerged to join the pilot.
These men were evidently of Granbretan also. They were all clad in heavy armour and cloaks, with huge metal masks covering their heads, in spite of the heat. Such was the twisted nature of Dark Empire men that they could not rid themselves of their masks whatever the circumstances. They seemed to have a deep-rooted psychological reliance on them.
The masks were of rust-red and murky yellow, fashioned to resemble rampant wild boars, with fierce, jeweled eyes that blazed in the sunlight and great ivory tusks curling from the flaring snouts.
These, then, were men of the Order of the Boar, infamous in Europe for its savagery. There were six of them standing by their leader, a tall, slender man whose mask was of gold and bronze and much more delicately wrought—almost to the point of caricaturing the mask of the Order. The man leaned on the arms of two of his companions—one squat and bulky, the other virtually a giant, with naked arms and legs of almost inhuman hairiness. Was the leader ill or wounded? wondered Hawkmoon. There seemed to be something theatrical about the way he leaned on his men. Hawkmoon thought then that he knew who the Boar leader was. It was almost certainly the renegade Frenchman Huillam D’Averc, once a brilliant painter and architect, who had joined the cause of Granbretan long before they had conquered France. An enigma, D’Averc, but a dangerous man for all that he affected illness.
Now the Boar leader spoke to the vulture-masked pilot, who shook his head. Evidently he had not seen Hawkmoon, but he pointed toward the spot where Hawkmoon had abandoned his horse. D’Averc—if it was D’Averc—languidly signed to one of his men, who disappeared below, to re-emerge almost at once with a struggling, snarling Oladahn.
Relieved, Hawkmoon watched as two of the boar-masked warriors dragged Oladahn close to the battlements. At least his friend was alive.
Then the Boar leader signed again, and the vulture pilot leaned into the cockpit of his flying machine and withdrew a bell-shaped megaphone, which he handed to the giant on whose arm the leader still rested. The giant placed this close to the snout of his master’s mask.
Suddenly the quiet air of the city was filled with the bored, world-weary voice of the Boar leader.
“Duke von Köln, we know that you are present in this city, for we have captured your servant. In an hour the sun will set. If you have not delivered yourself to us by that time, we must begin to kill the little fellow…”
Now Hawkmoon knew for certain that it was D’Averc. No other man alive could both look and sound like that. Hawkmoon saw the giant hand the megaphone back to the pilot and then, with the help of his squat companion, help his master to the partially ruined battlement so that D’Averc could lean against it and look down into the streets.
Hawkmoon controlled his fury and studied the distance between his building and the tower. By jumping through the gap in the wall he could reach a series of flat roofs that would take him close to a pile of fallen masonry heaped against one wall of the tower. From there he saw that he could easily climb to the battlements. But he would be seen as soon as he left his cover. It would be possible to take that route only at night—and by nightfall they would have begun torturing Oladahn.
Perplexed, Hawkmoon fingered the Black Jewel, sign of his former slavery to Granbretan. He knew that if he gave himself up he would be killed instantly or be taken back to Granbretan and there killed with terrible slowness for the pleasure of the perverted Lords of the Dark Empire. He thought of Yisselda, to whom he had sworn to return, of Count Brass, whom he had sworn to aid in the struggle against Granbretan—and he thought of Oladahn, with whom he had sworn friendship after the little beast-man had saved his life.
Could he sacrifice his friend? Could he justify such an action, even if logic told him that his own life was of greater worth in the fight against the Dark Empire? Hawkmoon knew that logic was of no use here. But he knew, too, that his sacrifice might be useless, for there was no guarantee that the Boar leader would let Oladahn go once Hawkmoon had delivered himself up.
Hawkmoon bit his lips, gripping his sword tightly; then he came to a decision, squeezed his body through the gap in the wall, clung to the stonework with one hand, and waved his bright blade at the tower. D’Averc looked up slowly.
“You must release Oladahn before I come to you,” Hawkmoon called. “For I know that all men of Granbretan are liars. You have my word, however, that if you release Oladahn I will deliver myself into your hands.”
“Liars we may be,” came the languid voice, barely audible, “but we are not fools. How may I trust your word?”
“I am a Duke of Köln,” said Hawkmoon simply. “We do not lie.”
A light, ironic laugh came from within the boar mask. “You may be naïve, Duke of Köln, but Sir Huillam D’Averc is not. However, may I suggest a compromise?”
“What is that?” Hawkmoon asked warily.
“I would suggest you come halfway toward us so that you are well within the range of our ornithopter’s flame-lance, and then I shall release your servant.” D’Averc coughed ostentatiously and leaned heavily on the battlement. “What say you to that?”
“Hardly a compromise,” called Hawkmoon. “For then you could kill us both with little effort or danger to yourself.”
“My dear Duke, the King-Emperor would much prefer you alive. Surely you know that? My own interest is at stake. Killing you now would only earn me a baronetcy at most—delivering you alive for the King-Emperor’s pleasure would almost certainly gain me a princedom. Have you not heard of me, Duke Dorian? I am the ambitious Huillam D’Averc.”
D’Averc’s argument was convincing, but Hawkmoon could not forget the Frenchman’s reputation for deviousness. Although it was true that he was worth more to D’Averc alive, the renegade might well decide it expedient not to risk his gains and might therefore kill Hawkmoon as soon as he came into certain range of the flame-lance.
Hawkmoon deliberated for a moment, then sighed. “I will do as you suggest, Sir Huillam.” He poised himself to leap across the narrow street separating him from the rooftops below.
Then Oladahn cried, “No, Duke Dorian! Let them kill me! My life is worthless!”
Hawkmoon acted as if he had not heard his friend and sprang out and down, to land on the balls of his feet on the roof. The old masonry shuddered at the impact, and for a moment Hawkmoon thought he would fall as the roof threatened to crack. But it held, and he began to walk gingerly toward the tower.
Again Oladahn called out and began to struggle in the hands of his captors.
Hawkmoon ignored him, walking steadily on, sword still in one hand but held loosely, virtually forgotten.
Now Oladahn broke free altogether and darted across the tower, pursued by two cursing warriors. Hawkmoon saw him dash to the far edge, pause for a moment, and then fling himself over the parapet.
For a moment Hawkmoon stood frozen in horror, hardly understanding the nature of his friend’s sacrifice.
Then he tightened his grip on his sword and raised his head to glare at D’Averc and his men. Bending low, he made for the edge of the roof as the flame cannon began to turn in his direction. There was a great whoosh of heat over his head as they sought his range; then he had swung himself over the edge and hung by his hands, peering down into the street far below.
There was a series of stone carvings quite close to him on his left. He inched along until he could grasp the nearest. They ran down the side of the house at an angle, almost to street level. But the stone was plainly rotten. Would the carvings support his weight?
Hawkmoon did not pause. He swung himself down on the first carving. It began to creak and crumble, like a bad tooth. Quickly Hawkmoon dropped to the next and then the next, bits of stone clattering down the sides of the building, to crash in the distant street.
Then at last Hawkmoon was able to leap to the cobbles and land easily in the soft dust that covered them. Now he began to run, not away from the tower—but toward it. He had nothing in his mind but vengeance on D’Averc for driving Oladahn to suicide.
He found the entrance to the tower and entered in time to hear the clatter of metal-shod feet as D’Averc and his warriors descended. He chose a spot on the staircase (which was enclosed) where he would be able to take the Granbretanians one at a time. D’Averc was the first to appear, stopping suddenly as he saw the glowering Hawkmoon, then reaching with gauntleted hand for his long blade.
“You were foolish not to take the chance of escape your friend’s silly sacrifice gave you,” said the boar-masked mercenary contemptuously. “Now, like it or not, I suppose we shall have to kill you…” He began to cough, doubling up in apparent agony, leaning weakly against the wall. He signed limply to the squat man behind him—one of those Hawkmoon had seen helping D’Averc across the battlements. “Oh, my dear Duke Dorian, I must apologize… my infirmity is liable to seize me at the most inconvenient moments. Ecardo—would you…?”
The powerfully built Ecardo sprang forward grunting and pulling a short-hafted battle-axe from his belt. He tugged out his sword with his free hand and chuckled with pleasure. “Thanks, master. Now let’s see how the no-mask prances.” He moved like a cat to the attack.
Hawkmoon poised himself, ready to meet Ecardo’s first blow.
Then the man sprang with a great feral howl, the battle-axe splashing the air to clang against Hawkmoon’s blade. Then Ecardo’s short sword ripped upward, and Hawkmoon, already weak from exposure and hunger, barely managed to turn his body in time. Even so, the sword slashed through the cotton of his britches and he felt its cold edge against his flesh.
Hawkmoon’s own blade slid from beneath the axe and crashed down on Ecardo’s grinning boar mask, wrenching one tusk loose and badly denting the snout. Ecardo cursed, his sword stabbing again, but Hawkmoon leaned against the man’s sword arm, trapping it beneath his body and the wall. Then he let go of his own sword so that it hung by its wrist thong, grasped Ecardo’s arm, and tried to twist the axe from his hand.
Ecardo’s armoured knee drove into Hawkmoon’s groin, but Hawkmoon held his position in spite of the pain, tugged Ecardo down the stairs, pushed, and let him fall to the floor under his own momentum.
Ecardo hit the paving stones with a thud that shook the whole tower. He did not move.
Hawkmoon looked up at D’Averc. “Well, sir, are you recovered?”
D’Averc pushed back his ornate mask, to reveal the pale face and pale eyes of an invalid. His mouth twisted in a little smile. “I will do my best,” he said. And when he advanced it was swiftly, with the movements of a man more than ordinarily fit.
This time Hawkmoon claimed the initiative, darting a thrust at his enemy that almost took him by surprise but that he parried with amazing speed. His languid tone belied his reflexes.
Hawkmoon realized that D’Averc was quite as dangerous, in his own way, as the powerful Ecardo. He realized, too, that if Ecardo were merely stunned, he himself might soon be trapped between two opponents.
The swordplay was so swift that the two blades seemed a single blur of metal as both men held their ground. With his great mask flung back, D’Averc was smiling, with an expression of quiet pleasure in his eyes. He looked for all the world like a man enjoying a musical performance or some other passive pastime.
Wearied by his journey through the desert, needing food, Hawkmoon knew that he could not long sustain the fight in this way. Desperately he sought an opening in D’Averc’s splendid defense. Once, his opponent stumbled slightly on a broken stair. Hawkmoon thrust swiftly but was parried and had his forearm nicked into the bargain.
Behind D’Averc the warriors of the Boar waited eagerly with swords ready to finish Hawkmoon off once the opportunity was presented to them.
Hawkmoon was tiring rapidly. Soon he was fighting a purely defensive style, barely managing to turn the thrusting steel that drove for his eye, his throat, his heart, or his belly. He took one step backward, then another.
As he took the second step, he heard a groan behind him and knew that Ecardo’s senses were returning. It would not be long before the boars butchered him.
Yet he scarcely cared, now that Oladahn was dead. Hawkmoon’s swordplay became wilder, and D’Averc’s smile grew broader as he sensed his victory coming closer.
Rather than have Ecardo at his back, Hawkmoon sprang suddenly down the steps without turning around. His shoulder bumped against another, and he whirled, prepared to face the brutish Ecardo.
Then his sword almost dropped from his hand in astonishment.
The little beast-man was in the act of raising a sword—the boar warrior’s own sword—over the stirring Ecardo’s head.
“Aye—I live. But do not ask me how. It’s a mystery to me.” And he brought the flat of the blade down on Ecardo’s helmet with a great clang. Ecardo collapsed again.
There was no more time for talk. Hawkmoon barely managed to block D’Averc’s next thrust. There was a look of astonishment in D’Averc’s eyes too as he saw the living Oladahn.
Hawkmoon managed to break through the Frenchman’s guard, piercing his shoulder armour. Again D’Averc swept the blade aside and resumed the attack. Hawkmoon had lost the advantage of his position. The savage boar mask grinned at him as warriors poured down the stairs.
Hawkmoon and Oladahn backed toward the door, hoping to regain the advantage, but there was little chance of that. For another ten minutes they held their own against the overwhelming odds, killing two Granbretanians, wounding three more. They were wearying rapidly. Hawkmoon could barely hold his sword.
His glazed eyes tried to focus on his opponents as they closed in like brutes for the kill. He heard D’Averc’s triumphant “Take them alive!” and then he went down beneath a tide of metal.
Wrapped in chains so that they could barely breathe, Hawkmoon and Oladahn were borne down innumerable flights of stairs into the depths of the great tower, which seemed to stretch as far below ground as it did above.
At length the boar warriors reached a chamber that had evidently been a storeroom but which now served as an effective dungeon.
There they were flung face down on the coarse rock. They lay there until a booted foot turned them over to blink into the light of a guttering torch held by the squat Ecardo, whose battered mask seemed to snarl in glee. D’Averc, mask still pushed back to expose his face, stood between Ecardo and the huge, hairy warrior Hawkmoon had seen earlier. D’Averc had a brocade scarf to his lips, and he leaned heavily on the giant’s arm.
D’Averc coughed musically and smiled down at his prisoners. “I fear I must leave you soon, gentlemen. This subterranean air is not good for me. However, it should do little harm to two such robust young fellows as yourselves. You will not have to stay here more than a day, I assure you. I have sent a request for a larger ornithopter that will be able to bear the two of you back to Sicilia, where my main force is now encamped.”
“You have taken Sicilia already?” Hawkmoon asked tonelessly. “You have conquered the isle?”
“Aye. The Dark Empire wastes little time. I, in fact”—D’Averc coughed with mock modesty into his scarf—“am the hero of Sicilia. It was my leadership that subjugated the island so swiftly. But that triumph was no special one, for the Dark Empire has many capable captains like myself. We have made excellent gains in Europe these past few months—and in the East, too.”
“But Kamarg still stands,” Hawkmoon said. “That must irritate the King-Emperor.”
“Oh, Kamarg cannot last long besieged,” said D’Averc airily. “We are concentrating our particular attention on that little province. Why, it may have fallen already…”
“Not while Count Brass lives,” Hawkmoon smiled.
“Just so,” D’Averc said. “I heard he was badly wounded and his lieutenant von Villach slain in a recent battle.”
Hawkmoon could not tell whether D’Averc was lying. He let no emotion show on his face, but the news had shocked him. Was Kamarg ready to fall—and if so, what would become of Yisselda?
“Plainly that news disturbs you,” D’Averc murmured. “But fear not, Duke, for when Kamarg falls it will be in my safekeeping if all goes well. I plan to claim the province as my reward for capturing you. And these, my boon companions,” he continued, indicating his brutish servants, “I will elevate to rule Kamarg when I cannot. They share all aspects of my life—my secrets, my pleasures. It is only fair that they should share my triumph. Ecardo I will make steward of my estates, and I think I shall make Peter here a count.”
From within the giant’s mask came an animal grunt. D’Averc smiled. “Peter has few brains, but his strength and his loyalty are without question. Perhaps I’ll replace Count Brass with him.”
Hawkmoon stirred angrily in his chains. “You are a wily beast, D’Averc, but I will not let you goad me to an outburst, if that’s what you desire. I’ll bide my time. Perhaps I’ll escape you yet. And if I do—you may live in terror for the day when our roles are reversed and you are in my power.”
“I fear you are too optimistic, Duke. Rest here, enjoy the peace, for you’ll know none when you get to Granbretan.”
With a mocking bow, D’Averc left, his men following. The torchlight faded, and Hawkmoon and Oladahn were left in darkness.
“Ah,” came Oladahn’s voice after a while. “I find it difficult to take my position seriously after all that has happened today. I am still not even sure whether this be dream, death, or reality.”
“What did happen to you, Oladahn?” Hawkmoon asked. “How could you survive the great leap? I had imagined you dashed to death beneath the tower.”
“By rights I should have been,” Oladahn agreed. “If I had not been arrested by ghosts in midfall.”
“Ghosts? You jest.”
“Nay. These things—like ghosts—appeared from windows in the tower and bore me gently to earth. They were the size and shape of men but barely tangible…”
“You fell and knocked your head and dreamed this stuff!”
“You could be right.” Suddenly Oladahn paused. “But if so, I am dreaming still. Look to your left.”
Hawkmoon turned his head, gasping in astonishment at what he saw. There, quite plainly, he could see the figure of a man. Yet, as if through a pool of milk, he could see beyond the man and make out the wall behind him.
“A ghost of a classic sort,” Hawkmoon said. “Strange to share a dream…”
Faint, musical laughter came from the figure standing over them. “You do not dream, strangers. We are men like you. The mass of our bodies is merely altered a little, that is all. We do not exist in quite the same dimensions as you. But we are real enough. We are the men of Soryandum.”
“So you have not deserted your city,” Oladahn said. “But how did you attain this… peculiar state of existence?”
The wraith-man laughed again. “By control of the mind, scientific experiment, by a certain mastery of time and space. I regret that it would be impossible to describe how we came to this condition, for we reached it, among other ways, by the creation of an entirely new vocabulary, and the language I would use would mean nothing to you. However, be assured of one thing—we are still able to judge human characters well enough and recognize you as potential friends and those others as actual enemies.”
“Enemies of yours? How so?” Hawkmoon asked.
“I will explain later.” The wraith-man glided forward until he was leaning over Hawkmoon. The young Duke of Köln felt a strange pressure on his body, and then he was lifted up. The man might have looked intangible, but he seemed far stronger than an ordinary mortal. From the shadows two more of the wraith-people drifted, one to pick up Oladahn and the other to raise his hand and somehow produce a radiance in the dungeon that was mellow yet adequate to illuminate the whole place. Hawkmoon saw that the wraith-men were tall and slender, with thin, handsome faces and blind-seeming eyes.
Hawkmoon had supposed at first that the people of Soryandum were able to pass through solid walls, but now he saw that they had entered from above, for there was a large tunnel about halfway up the wall. Perhaps in the distant past this tunnel has been some kind of chute down which sacks of stores had been rolled.
Now the wraith-people rose into the air toward the tunnel and entered it, drifting up it until light could be seen far ahead—the light of moon and stars.
“Where are you taking us?” Hawkmoon whispered.
“To a safer place where we shall be able to free you of your chains,” the man who carried him answered.
When they reached the top of the tunnel and felt the chill of the night air, they paused while the one who had no burden went ahead to make sure that there were no Granbretanian warriors about. He signed to the others to follow, and they drifted out into the ruined streets of the silent city until they came to a simple three-storeyed house that was in better condition than the rest but seemed to have no means of entrance at ground level.
The wraith-folk bore Hawkmoon and Oladahn upward again, to the second level, and passed through a wide window into the house.
In a room bare of any ornamentation they came to rest, setting the pair down gently.
“What is this place?” Hawkmoon asked, still unable to trust his senses.
“This is where we live,” the wraith-man replied. “There are not many of us. Though we live for centuries, we are incapable of reproducing ourselves. That is what we lost when we became as we are.”
Now through the door came other figures, several of them female. All were of the same beautiful and graceful appearance, all had bodies of milky opaqueness; none wore clothes. The faces and bodies were ageless, scarcely human, but they radiated such a sense of tranquility that Hawkmoon immediately felt relaxed and secure.
One of the newcomers had brought with him a small instrument, scarcely larger than Hawkmoon’s index finger, which he now applied to the several padlocks on the chains. One by one the locks sprang open, until at last Hawkmoon and then Oladahn were free.
Hawkmoon sat up, rubbing at his aching muscles. “I thank you,” he said. “You have saved me from an unpleasant fate.”
“We are happy to have been of use,” replied one of their number, slightly shorter than the rest. “I am Rinal, once Chief Councilor of Soryandum.” He came forward smiling. “And we wonder if it would interest you that you could be of help to us, also.”
“I would be glad to perform any service in repayment of what you have done for me,” Hawkmoon said earnestly. “What is it?”
“We, too, are in great danger from those strange warriors with their grotesque beast-masks,” Rinal told him. “For they plan to raze Soryandum.”
“Raze it? But why? This city offers no threat to them—and it is too remote to be worth their annexing.”
“Not so,” Rinal said. “For we have listened to their conversations and know that Soryandum is of value to them. They wish to build a great structure here that will house scores and hundreds of their flying machines. The machines can then be sent out to all the surrounding lands to threaten and defeat them.”
“I understand,” Hawkmoon murmured. “It makes sense. And that is why D’Averc, the ex-architect, was chosen for this particular mission. Building materials already exist here and could be remodeled to form one of their ornithopter bases, and the spot is so remote that few, if any, would note the activity. The Dark Empire would have surprise on their side right up to the moment they wished to launch an attack. They must be stopped!”
“They must be, if only for our sake,” Rinal continued. “You see, we are part of this city perhaps more than you can understand. It and we exist as the same thing. If the city were destroyed, we should perish also.”
“But how can we stop them?” Hawkmoon said. “And how can I be of use? You must have the resources of a sophisticated science at your disposal. I have only a sword—and even that is in the hands of D’Averc!”
“I told you that we are linked to the city,” Rinal said patiently. “And that is exactly the case. We cannot move away from the city. Long ago we rid ourselves of such unsubtle things as machines. They were buried under a hillside many miles from Soryandum. Now we have need for one particular machine, and we cannot ourselves obtain it. You, however, with your mortal mobility, could get it for us.”
“Willingly,” said Hawkmoon. “If you give us the exact location of the machine we shall bring it to you. Best if we left soon, before D’Averc realizes we have escaped.”
“I agree that the thing should be accomplished as soon as possible,” Rinal nodded, “but I have omitted to tell you one thing. The machines were placed there by us while we were still able to make short journeys away from Soryandum. To make sure that they were not disturbed, we protected them with a beast-machine—a dreadful contraption designed to frighten off whoever should discover the store. But the metal creature can also kill—will kill any not of our race who dares enter the cavern.”
“Then how may we nullify this beast?” Oladahn asked.
“There is but one way for you,” Rinal said with a sigh. “You must fight it—and destroy it.”
“I see.” Hawkmoon smiled. “So I escaped from one predicament to face another scarcely less dangerous.”
Rinal raised his hand. “No. We make no demands on you, If you feel that your life would be more useful in the service of some other cause, forget us at once and go your way.”
“I owe you my life,” Hawkmoon said. “And my conscience would not be clear if I rode away from Soryandum knowing that your city would be destroyed, your race exterminated, and the Dark Empire given the opportunity to wreak even more havoc in the East than it has already. No—I will do what I can, though without weapons it will not be an easy task.”
Rinal signed to one of the wraith-folk, who drifted from the room, to return at length with Hawkmoon’s battered battle-blade and Oladahn’s bow, arrows, and sword. “We found it an easy matter to recover these,” smiled Rinal. “And we have another weapon, of sorts, for you.” He handed Hawkmoon the tiny device they had used earlier to open the padlocks. “This we retained when we put most of our other machines in store. It is capable of opening any lock—all you must do is point at it. It will help you gain entrance to the main storeroom where the mechanical beast guards the old machines of Soryandum.”
“And what is the machine you desire us to find?” Oladahn asked.
“It is a small device, about the size of a man’s head. Its colours are those of the rainbow, and it shines. It looks like crystal but feels like metal. It has a base of onyx, and from this projects an octagonal object. There may be two in the storeroom. If you can, bring both.”
“What does it do?” Hawkmoon inquired.
“That you will see when you return with it.”
“If we return with it,” said Oladahn in a tone of philosophical gloom.
The Mechanical Beast
Having refreshed themselves on food and wine stolen from D’Averc’s men by the wraith-folk, Hawkmoon and Oladahn strapped on their weapons and prepared to leave the house.
With two of the men of Soryandum supporting them, they were borne gently down to the ground.
“May the Runestaff protect you,” whispered one, as the pair made for the city wall, “for we have heard that you serve it.”
Hawkmoon turned to ask him how he had heard this. It was the second time he had been told that he served the Runestaff; yet he had no knowledge that he did. But before he could speak the wraith-man had vanished.
Frowning, Hawkmoon led the way from the city.
Deep in the hills several miles from Soryandum, Hawkmoon paused to get his bearings. Rinal had told him to look for a cairn made out of cut granite, left there centuries before by Rinal’s ancestors. At last he saw it, old stone turned to silver by the moonlight.
“Now we go north,” he said, “and look for the hill from which the granite was cut.”
Another half hour and they made out the hill. It looked as if at some time a giant sword had sliced its face sheer. Since that time grass had grown over it again so that the characteristic seemed a natural one.
Hawkmoon and Oladahn crossed springy turf to a place where thick shrubs grew against the side of the hill. Parting these, they discerned a narrow opening in the cliffside. This was the secret entrance to the machine stores of the people of Soryandum.
Squeezing through the entrance, the two men found themselves in a large cave. Oladahn lit the brand they had brought for the purpose, and the flickering light revealed a great, square cavern that had evidently been hewn artificially.
Remembering his instructions, Hawkmoon crossed to the far wall of the cave and looked for a tiny mark at shoulder height. At last he saw it—a sign written in unfamiliar characters, and beneath it a tiny hole. Hawkmoon took from his shirt the instrument they had been given and pointed it at the hole.
He felt a tingling sensation in his hand as he applied slight pressure to the instrument. The rock before him began to tremble. A powerful gust of air made the brand flames stream, threatening to blow them out. The wall began to glow, become transparent, and then disappear altogether. “It will still be there,” Rinal had told them, “but temporarily removed to another dimension.”
Cautiously, swords in hand, they passed through into a great tunnel full of cool, green light from walls like fused glass.
Ahead of them lay another wall. On it glowed a single red spot, and it was at this that Hawkmoon now pointed the instrument.
Again there was a sudden rush of air. This time it nearly blew them over. Then the wall glowed white, turning to a milky blue before vanishing altogether.
This section of the tunnel was the same milky-blue colour, but the wall ahead of them was black. When it, too, had faded, they entered a tunnel of yellow stone and knew that the main store chamber and its guardian lay ahead of them.
Hawkmoon paused before applying the instrument to the white wall they faced.
“We must be cunning and move swiftly,” he told Oladahn, “for the creature beyond this wall will come alive the moment it senses our presence —”
He broke off as a muffled sound reached their ears—a fantastic clashing and clattering. The white wall shuddered as if something on the other side had flung a huge weight against it.
Oladahn looked dubiously at the wall. “Perhaps we should reconsider. After all, if we wasted our lives uselessly we…”
But Hawkmoon was already activating the instrument, and the protecting wall had begun to change colour as the strange, cold wind struck their faces. From behind the wall came an awesome wail of pain and bewilderment. The walls turned to pink, faded—and revealed the machine-beast.
The wall’s disappearance seemed to have disturbed it for an instant, for it made no move toward them. It crouched on metal feet, towering over them, its multicoloured scales half-blinding them. The length of its back, save for its neck, was a mass of knife-sharp horns. It had a body fashioned somewhat like an ape’s, with short hind legs and long forelegs ending in hands of taloned metal. Its eyes were multifaceted like a fly’s, glowing with shifting colours, and its snout was full of razor-sharp metal teeth.
Beyond the mechanical beast they could see great heaps of machinery, stacked in orderly rows about the walls. The room was vast. Somewhere in the middle of it, on his left, Hawkmoon saw the two crystalline devices Rinal had described. Silently, he pointed to them, then made to dash past the monster, into the storeroom.
Their movements as they ran stirred the beast from its daze. It screamed and lumbered after them, exuding a repulsive metallic smell.
From the corner of his eye Hawkmoon saw a gigantic taloned hand clutching at him. He swerved aside, knocking into a delicate machine that toppled and smashed to the floor, scattering bits of glass and broken metal parts. The hand plucked at air an inch from his face, then grabbed again, but Hawkmoon had already sidestepped.
An arrow suddenly struck the beast’s snout with a clatter of metal on metal, but it did not scratch the yellow-and-black scales.
With a roar, the beast sought its other enemy, saw Oladahn, and pounced toward him.
Oladahn scampered backward but not fast enough, for the creature seized him in its paw and drew him towards its gaping mouth. Hawkmoon yelled and struck his sword at the thing’s groin. It snorted and flung its prisoner aside. Oladahn lay supine in a corner by the door, either stunned or slain.
Hawkmoon backed away as the creature advanced; then he suddenly changed tactics, ducked, and dashed between the surprised beast’s legs. As it began to turn, Hawkmoon dashed back again.
The metal monster snorted in fury, its claws thrashing about it. It leaped into the air and came down with an earsplitting crash, rushing across the floor of the gallery at Hawkmoon, who squeezed down between two machines and, using them for cover, crept closer to the machines he had come to take.
Now the monster began to wrench machines aside in its insensate search for its enemy. Hawkmoon came to a stop by a machine with a bell-shaped nozzle. At the end of its nozzle was a lever. The machine seemed to be some kind of weapon. Without pausing to think, Hawkmoon pulled the lever. A faint noise came from the thing, but nothing else seemed to result.
Now the beast was almost upon him again.
Hawkmoon prepared to make a stand, deciding that he would fling his sword at one of the eyes, since they seemed to be the creature’s most vulnerable feature. Rinal had told him that the mechanical beast could not be killed in any ordinary sense; but if it were blinded, he might stand a chance.
But now, as the beast came into direct line of the machine, it staggered and grunted. Evidently some invisible ray was attacking it, possibly interfering with its complicated mechanism. It staggered, and Hawkmoon felt triumphant for an instant, judging the beast defeated. But the creature shook its body and began to advance again with slow, painful movements.
Hawkmoon saw that it was slowly regaining its strength. He must strike now if he was to have any chance at all. He ran toward the beast. It turned its head slowly. But then Hawkmoon had leaped at its squat neck and was climbing up the scales to seat himself on the mechanical beast’s shoulders. With a growl it raised its arm to tear Hawkmoon away.
Desperately Hawkmoon leaned forward and with the pommel of his sword struck first at one eye and then at the other. With a sharp, splintering sound, both eyes were dashed to fragments.
The beast screamed, its paws going not to Hawkmoon but to its injured eyes, giving the young duke time to leap from the creature’s back and dash for the two boxes he sought.
He pulled a sack from where it was looped over his belt and dropped the two boxes into it.
The mechanical monster was flailing around. Metal buckled and snapped wherever it struck. Blind it might now be, but it had lost none of its strength.
Skipping around the screaming beast, Hawkmoon ran to where Oladahn lay, bundled the little man over his shoulder, and ran for the exit.
Behind him the metal beast had caught the sound of his footsteps and had begun to turn in pursuit. Hawkmoon increased his pace, his heart seeming about to burst from his ribcage with the effort.
Down the corridors he raced, one after the other, until he reached the cave and the narrow opening that led to the outside world. The metal monster would not be able to follow him through such a tiny crack.
As soon as he squeezed through the opening and felt the night air in his lungs, he relaxed and studied Oladahn’s face. The little beast-man was breathing well enough, and there seemed to be nothing broken. Only a livid bruise on his head seemed serious, explaining why he was unconscious. Even as he inspected Oladahn’s body for worse injuries, the beast-man’s eyes began to flutter open. A faint sound came from his lips.
“Oladahn, are you all right?” Hawkmoon asked anxiously.
“Ugh—my head’s on fire,” Oladahn grunted. “Where are we?”
“Safe. Now try to rise. Dawn is almost here, and we must get back to Soryandum before morning, or D’Averc’s men will see us.”
Painfully Oladahn pulled himself to his feet. From within the cave came a wild howling and thundering as the mechanical beast sought to reach them.
“Safe?” Oladahn said, pointing to the hillside behind Hawkmoon. “Possibly—but for how long?”
Hawkmoon turned. A great fissure had appeared in the cliff face as the mechanical beast strove to free itself and follow its enemies.
“All the more need for speed,” said Hawkmoon, picking up his bundle and beginning to run back in the direction of Soryandum.
They had not gone half a mile before they heard an enormous crash behind them. Looking back, they saw the face of the hill split open and the metal beast emerge, its howling echoing through the hills, threatening to reach all the way to Soryandum.
“The beast is blind,” Hawkmoon explained, “so it may not follow us at once. Perhaps if we can reach the city we will be safe from it.”
They increased their pace and were soon on the outskirts of Soryandum.
Not much later, as dawn came, they were creeping through the streets seeking the house of the wraith-folk.