Authors: Robin Wayne Bailey
SWORDS AGAINST THE SHADOWLAND
BOOK EIGHT IN THE ADVENTURES OF FAFHRD AND THE GRAYMOUSER
ROBIN WAYNE BAILEY
Copyright © 1998, 2009 by The Estate of Fritz Leiber.
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
For Fritz Leiber, whose work I so admire, with the hope that I've done his creation some small justice.
For Richard Curtis and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, with deepest gratitude for giving me this chance to walk where a giant went before.
And always for Diana.
THE MOUSER'S DREAM
eep underground, beneath the busiest streets of fabled Lankhmar City, in a shadowed corner of the secret Temple of Hates, the wizard Malygris wiped heat-sweat from his brow, leaned slender hands on his worktable, and laughed.
The triumphantly evil sound of his mirth echoed on the blackened stone walls of the narrow, rectangular chamber and among the many squat columns that supported its claustrophobically low ceiling before it drifted up the carefully concealed ventilation shafts, through the sewers and the sewer gratings, to touch the ears of a throng of celebrants who wandered through the Festival District on the first night of Midsummer's Moon, but the only one who noticed tilted his head and dismissed the sound as an amusing trick of the wind and gave his attention once more to the pretty harlot he had rented for the evening.
The yellow light from a pair of half-melted candles glimmered on the cucurbits and alembics assembled on the worktable. A stack of dusty books cluttered one corner of the scarred, wooden surface. Powder-filled vials, beakers of strangely colored liquids, and small bowls of pungent herbs, along with metal instruments, some gleaming, some scorched black by flame, were scattered about in seemingly haphazard fashion.
With two sweeps of his voluminously sleeved arms, Malygris swept the table clear, leaving only the candles and a single alembic. Glass shattered and books fluttered through the air like terrorized birds unable to take flight.
Pushing back the hood of his robe to reveal a shaved head, he bent close, dark eyes glittering, to stare at the blood-red vapor that slowly swirled inside the bulbous vessel. As he watched, a tendril of that unholy mist rose up through the vessel's tapering neck, pushed and prodded at the unyielding stopper, retreated, then probed the stopper again.
Malygris ran the tip of one unnaturally long finger around and around the outside of the stopper. There was no more laughter in him. His face contorted into a mask of jealousy and rage.
"I have you now, Sadaster, my enemy," he hissed in a whisper that was more serpentine than human. "Thief of my one, true love. Often have I struck at thee, and always have you thwarted my revenge. Nevermore, Sadaster, nevermore."
Malygris picked up the alembic with the red vapor, caressed it in his hands, ran the cool glass down the soft tissue of his throat as he sighed an almost erotic sigh, then pressed it to his breast. Closing his browless eyes, he felt the beat of his heart against the delicate vessel.
With an almost imperceptible subtlety, the vapor began to pulse, matching his heart rhythm for rhythm.
Malygris drew back the hand that clutched the fruit of his vile researches. A silken sleeve slithered down his bony, hairless arm as some faint doubt made him pause. Then, breath held, he dashed the alembic to the floor.
The glass exploded, but without so much as a hint of sound. For a moment, the red vapor pooled among the glistening shards before it began to float upward, writhing gracefully, like a ribbon on an updrafting wind.
The candles sputtered in sudden fury, spitting hot wax across the table and upon one of Malygris's blue-veined hands, eliciting from the wizard a sharp cry of pain and surprise. Without seeming cause, the flames extinguished themselves, leaving Malygris in the subterranean dark.
The wisp rose up through the roof of the Temple of Hates, up through layers of earth, through the smooth granite paving that made Festival Street. The celebrants of Midsummer's Moon, well on their way to drunkenness, took no notice as it climbed higher and higher into the night, caught a current of breeze, and wafted across unsuspecting Lankhmar, becoming more and more tenuous, then finally invisible, to a mansion on Nun Street in the River District.
The home of the mage, Sadaster, was the envy of the city's nobles. Within its gates and high walls, orange and lemon groves poured out their heady perfume, and every flower known to the world of Nehwon, no matter the season, that was not poisonous blossomed. A fountain of purest white stone created a pleasant, soothing trickle while wind chimes made random music.
In the master bedroom of this wondrous house, Sadaster lay with his beautiful wife, Laurian, asleep on his arm with only a sheet of thin red silk to cover them. Midsummer's Moon floated at zenith, but the glow of the bright star, Shadah, suspended on the horizon, spilled straight through the window. In its radiance, he admired Laurian's sweet face and felt his heart fill with love. The first signs of age marked the corners of her eyes and her lips, and gleaming in the starlight, he spied a single silver hair. Yet he loved those eyes and lips and that softly textured hair more than life.
The mist, no longer a ribbon, filtered down around the mansion, undetected by wizardly wards or protections, and waited.
Sadaster moved ever so gently so as not to awaken his wife as he kissed her hair. All traces of silver vanished from those beloved locks. With the tip of his little finger, he brushed the outer corners of her eyes and her mouth, erasing the evidence of time.
Even as he completed these simple magicks, he wept quietly, for he knew that his spells could only hide the effects of aging and that someday, Laurian, the great blessing of his life, would go to the Shadowland, as all mortals did, leaving him, with his wizard's lifespan, lonely and alone.
Drying his tears, Sadaster hugged his wife closer, and put away such thoughts. Beyond the sill, Shadah twinkled hypnotically like a rare jewel, and the night wind played a gentle lullaby. Inhaling the fragrances that rose from the garden, Sadaster at last surrendered to sleep.
The mist waited no more. It entered the room through the walls and the roof, through the floor and through the window. Unseeable tendrils seeped toward the bed, flowed upon the silken sheets, and touching the nostrils of the sleeping mage, wormed their way into his body.
Without waking, Sadaster gave a small cough.
The Gray Mouser woke from a troubling dream and sat slowly up on the thin blanket that made his pallet. The campfire he had made to keep away the mountain leopards had burned down to red-glowing embers. Only a few tiny flames flickered here and there among the coals.
On the other side of the fire, Fafhrd, his companion, lay stretched out under a blanket too small to cover his huge frame, his bare feet and legs sticking out from one end. A strangely troubled expression creased Fafhrd's sleeping face, and without waking, he closed one giant hand slowly around the leather sheath of the great sword he called Graywand and clutched it to his body.
Unable to shake the perplexing dream from his mind, the Mouser rose slowly to his feet. The wind blew cool and moist against his face and down the unlaced neck of his rumpled gray silk tunic as he turned his gaze up toward the stars. In the north, the seven-starred constellation called the Targe shone serenely, and directly above it, bright Shadah. The Mouser scratched his head.
A low moan drew his attention back to Fafhrd as his friend sat up, rubbed a hand through the tangled locks of his red-gold hair, and shook himself. Fafhrd looked toward the Mouser with an expression that said he was still not quite awake. "Little friend," Fafhrd grumbled, "the strangest dream has come to me."
The Mouser’s frown deepened. "And to me," he answered, bending toward his pallet to retrieve his weapon belt, from which depended a slender sword and dagger.
"I dreamed of a jealous wizard ..." Fafhrd started to explain. Then, as if for the first time, he took note of the Mouser s actions and came fully alert. His voice dropped to the barest whisper, and one hand closed about the hilt of the great sword. "Have I been a sleepy-eyed, dull-eared slaggard? Does some danger steal upon us?" His eyes suddenly widened. "I was on watch!"
"You fell asleep," the Mouser said, keeping his voice low. "Later, I'll poke merciless fun of you for it. For now, though, I spy no immediate threat." Fastening the sword belt around his waist, he turned back to his partner. "It is no small matter, however, this dream you've had. Were there two wizards and a woman?"
Fafhrd's eyes widened yet again, and he rose cautiously to stand beside the fire. The dim light glowed on his powerfully muscled form. Nearly seven feet tall, the Northerner towered over his much smaller companion. "Aye," he answered, "and one of them died a horrible, wasting death."
The Mouser shrugged. "I woke up before that part," he said, "But if your wizard died in Lankhmar on Midsummer’s Moon, then I've had this same dream."
"In Lankhmar, yes, curse that wretched city's name," Fafhrd said with a scowl. "And there was a festival, but Sadaster didn't die until nearly the Eve of the Frost Moon." His brow wrinkled with sudden concern. "What thievery is this?" he said with an air of offense. "Must we now split and share our dreams as we share our booty?"
Bending toward his pallet once again, the Mouser retrieved the cloak that, wadded, had served his head for a pillow. It was made of the same coarse gray silk as his tunic, and he tossed it around his shoulders and fastened it at his throat. "You are still half-asleep, Fafhrd," he said. "Use those innocent-seeming green eyes of yours for something besides bait to attract pretty girls and the wives of aristocrats."
Fafhrd seemed momentarily confused. Then he stared around their small camp. "The booty!" he cried in dismay, forgetting to lower his voice. "It's gone. Lord Hristos jewels—all our hard work!"
The Mouser raised one eyebrow and smirked. "Hard work, yes," he muttered. "You spent a whole night boffing the lord's wife until she finally lost consciousness ..."
Fafhrd shrugged sheepishly under his partner's scolding.
". . . while I pilfered every bauble in the house."
Again, Fafhrd shrugged. "Someone had to distract her," he replied.
"You might have distracted a few of her servants or her guardsmen, too, while you were in the business of distracting."
The Northerner snorted. "I distracted her husband well enough when he returned unexpectedly to find you clutching every star in that firmament he called a strongroom."
A brief smile flickered over the Mouser’s lips as he remembered the glimmering wealth in Lord Hristo’s treasure chests and the comforting weight of the saddlebags on his shoulders once he had quietly transferred that wealth.
"And a merry chase into the Mountains we led him, too," Fafhrd continued, "with his soldiers hot on our heels. Damn clever of you, little man, to spill one of the bags in our wake. Hristo's soldiers fairly flew out of their saddles to snatch the sparklies from the dust." He came around the fire and dealt the Mouser a congratulatory slap on the back. "But where—tell me now and tease me no more—is the remaining treasure?"
"With our horses, I suppose," the Mouser answered simply. "Still in the Mountains of the Elder Ones."
Fafhrd glared at his companion before turning his gaze to follow the Mouser’s. Abruptly, he rubbed his eyes again to make sure all sleep was gone from them. Then he dived for his boots and began pulling them on. "The Mountains!" he exclaimed. "They're gone, too!"
Shaking his head, the Mouser stared once more upward at the night sky, noting familiar constellations and the positions of the stars. "I suspect the mountains are right where they've always been," he said with a nervous calm. "It is we who are gone from the mountains, shifted somehow across the world in our sleep—a sleep no doubt forced upon you as you kept watch."