The great black horse, with flowing amber mane, raised its tail high as though cantering on thin air, and with a mien of undisguised pride and triumph sent, "You’d think they’d get the message by now, Thalan." The beast then spiraled to an outcropping of the nearest peak and alit lightly a safe distance from the burning skimmer.
Sheathing his crystal blade and dismounting, Thalan replied, "My concern is whether they had time to get a message to the landing craft, and if Bayan intercepted the message."
"I wouldn't worry, boss. The way I hit ‘em, they didn’t have time to break wind, let alone get out a transmission. In any case, you probably fused all their circuits with Valerian's new toy before they even knew we were within striking range," observed the horse.
"Still, Peg, Bayan is shrewd and it may not be long before he connects me with these accidents the offworlders seem plagued with. He knows my feeling toward them and never refrains from sharing that knowledge. He sees these alien thieves as his chance to turn the Council against me and usurp my rule."
"You could kill him. Executions are within your power, you know," Peg sent. "Valerian hates him too, for all that he is your cousin, and Valerian’s still the Council Elder. I don’t think he’d miss the smarmy bastard."
"I am well aware of Shamahk’s opinion of our cousin, but Dunsan law requires that the Prince's chief advisor be a blood relative. And although I concur with Valerian and you, Bayan is my kin, and as such, I am forced to endure him. If I had any other surviving relatives, I would relieve Bayan of his obligations immediately," Thalan explained once again. It was becoming a refrain oft repeated in ever more heated discussions with his friend the saurian horse.
"I'm not being totally altruistic, here, Thalan," sent Peg. "If Bayan could produce proof of my existence, he’d bring us both down. I don't like the thought of him sneaking off to the aliens with word of my helping you methodically kick their skimmers out of our skies. Whatever thin detente we have with them would be crushed and they'd overrun our world in force and take what they came here to bargain for. Do the world a favor and execute him while he has no support."
"No," said Thalan. "Not yet, at least. Suspicion is not evidence and I can't reform our laws without good reason. I know, I know...you think this is the best possible reason. I promise, when I catch Bayan collaborating with the offworlders I will happily send a bolt through his black heart myself. Meanwhile, let's move away from here, unless you feel up to confronting a rescue ship. The landing craft must see their skimmer is off scan, by now."
Peg ran, beating her huge leathery wings as she gained speed enough for liftoff, then she leapt from the ledge into the wind and with enormous down thrust, sailed upwards to the misty peaks of Mount Sharron. Peg blocked a mental smile as she thought of her friend Thalan, Weir Prince. He had all the evidence he needed to remove his kinsman, uncovered enough plotting, conniving and betrayal to execute him a hundred times over. It was not evidence her friend required, it was a hardening of the heart. Rider and mount were but a mote against the rising sun as the rescue craft arrived to sift through the rubble of its sister ship.
In the City of Planes, a vast assembly of varicolored crystal, following ancient geometrical designs, grown, rather than built, when the universe was but young, Valerian had just received word of the offworlder disaster and was suffering through yet another demand for swift reprisal, from Dhorzh, Ambassador and Commanding Officer of the alien landing craft. In all, seven of the skimmers had been destroyed since the Jaradic force had landed on Dunsany a Oneyear ago, and twenty-one crew members were either dead or severely wounded. The alabaster Council Chamber echoed from vaulted ceiling to curved walls with the Ambassador's booming voice, while the Shamahk sat erect on his black onyx bench, which too, had grown seamlessly upward from the warm floor. Occasionally, the Shamahk raised a slim, pale hand to interrupt, but Dhorzh either couldn't see or ignored the gestures. Bayan sat within the amber obelisk reserved for Lord Thalan, obviously enjoying the scene before him. Whenever Ambassador Dhorzh seemed about to lose his train of thought, Bayan deftly prompted him toward a new avenue of attack, while contentedly paring his black fingernails with a slim crystal dagger.
Finally, Valerian stole an opening, "A flying horse, Ambassador? With a black rider? But, this is impossible, there are no such creatures on this world. At least, there haven't been for centuries, since the Ghorian Wars, in fact. And even then, the Book tells of no horse of the size you insist. Your information must be mistaken, or your informant is delirious."
Bayan raised his eyes to the Shamahk and drawled, "Perhaps, perhaps not. I myself have heard rumors from traders of Sharron concerning such a monster as the Ambassador's man describes. They whisper that it is the size of a whalefish and can loose bolts of lightning from its eyes."
"Shut up, Bayan," snapped Valerian! "This situation is too grave for your juvenile games. The Ambassador has lost more good men, this morning. We know how treacherous the Lowland Wastes can be to those unfamiliar with them. And we don't require you to spread your ghost stories by way of explanation."
Bayan laughed, "Shamahk , you can't possibly be referring to the Vohl of Solhoth? The Vohl as the treacheries of the Wastes? That's ridiculous, they're too timid to be a threat to Dunsans, and it's a long stretch to consider them a threat to Jaradic men at arms. Are you suggesting they may have knocked the skimmers out of the sky by hurling crystals at them?"
Valerian stabbed Bayan with an intense glare. "Vohls are the direct descendants of the Ghorian race. Would you dare face one? Even armed with sword and lance? I thought not." Valerian wrapped his robes more tightly around him, as though warding off a chill. "And what right have you to occupy Lord Thalan's throne? Stand down from there, at once," he ordered.
"By right," Bayan sneered, "of popular decree. I am Lord in my cousin's absence."
Valerian's flushed and tautening face radiated rage as he spoke with quiet menace, "You have no benefit of popular decree. You are not surrogate Lord in anyone's absence. You are nothing but a barely tolerated necessity thrust upon this court and council by an ancient, and I fear, shortsighted codicil to the First Lord's Codex. And if you had eyes to see with, you would know you owe your miserable life to the man you seek, in vain, to overthrow. Now, leave this chamber and let men get on with their tasks." Bayan stood, back ramrod straight, about to reply when he was cut short.
"No," Dhorzh purred. "I wish him to remain." The Ambassador walked slowly to where Bayan had risen from the obelisk and with a downward wave of his hand motioned him seated, once more. Then he spun on Valerian, spitting out his next words, "It is only by the edict of my Emperor that we bargain, at all, for what we want of this primitive planet. If it were within my power, I would enslave your people and take what we came for and lay waste this rock."
He paused, as if for effect and studied the Shamahk’s reaction to his words. Then continued more softly, "However, my Emperor is a humane man and an honest one, therefore we come in peace as traders and importers of our technology. We have need of your unique crystals and would have them at an equitable price. Yet, until we discover who or what is sabotaging our survey skimmers, both our peoples stand to lose a great deal."
Dhorzh smiled amiably, opening his arms as though weighing what he would next say, "Of course, I don't personally believe in a devil horse that flies and spits fire. But, I do believe in your arcane powers, Shamahk Valerian and I believe it well within those powers for you to create the illusion of a flying horse within which to conceal some sort of weapon you've hidden from us. In fact, I sometimes wonder if this world is as primitive as you would have offworlders think. Eh? I wonder."
Valerian arose from the gold-veined blackness of the onyx bench and limped, slightly dragging his crooked leg, across the white stone floor toward the great chamber doors, set without discernable hinges or seams, into the high curved walls. He stopped, half turned his head and shoulders and remarked, "What you and your kind think of our world, whether you choose to believe us primitive or no, matters little to Lord Thalan or myself and the Council. But, answer me this; does your planet or any of your conquered worlds have homes and cities that grow of their own accord to perfectly suit the needs of those who dwell within their walls. Your survey skimmers are illegal, as we have repeatedly warned you. The Council will not be held responsible for the actions of Dunsan's wishing to protect our laws. We shall meet again tonight, when our young Lord is present at the banquet, to discuss further trade between us. But, I warn you, although you may avail yourselves of our crystal, you may not have the living quartz, under any circumstances." So saying, Shamahk Valerian slowly walked, his white and gold robe of office trailing behind him, through the portals and the massive stone doors silently closed, as if by magic command, putting to rest any argument Ambassador Dhorzh might have voiced.
"Old fool," Bayan spat! "You needn't fear his threats, Dhorzh. You shall have your living quartz."
"Not such an old fool as you imagine. That ancient relic has powers even our most refined technology can't fathom. We've been scanning him and your cousin, Thalan, since our arrival a full Oneyear ago, and for all that time they have both successfully deflected our most sophisticated attempts at Mindsee. If you plan to keep blood flowing in your veins, don't sell them short. You're only a little man with big dreams, and that old man has seem all your dreams and more. And, for the love of your life, stop being so damned obvious with your allegiances. I'd have killed you long ago if you'd shown be such disrespect. Think on it, boy," warned Dhorzh."
"You just help rid me of Thalan and I'll keep my side of the bargain. With him dead, I interpret the laws of Dunsany. And we both know how advantageous it is to have friends in high places. In the meantime," Bayan removed a small cloth-wrapt object from his tunic and offered it to Ambassador Dhorzh. "Take this back to your flying fortress and see if your marvelous technology can analyze it."
Dhorzh looked suspiciously at the bundle. "What is it," he asked?
"Quartz, of course. Living Dunsan quartz." Bayan smiled.
Thalan and Peg walked through the maze of crystal mist that guarded the entrance to the cave of the extinct Ghorian Overlords, high atop the black quartz western face of Mount Sharron. The cave mouth itself was enveloped in an energy bubble designed by the telepaths of that ancient race to dissuade intruders. Unless the requisite mind link was established by the one attempting to pass into the inner recesses, his molecules would be scattered only to coalesce again as a part of the crystal maze, thus, ironically, reinforcing that first line of defense. Thalan formed the now familiar mind link with Peg and both probed the intricacies of the mental lock, releasing block after block, until the energy bubble parted like an invisible curtain admitting the two with only the slightest of mental disorientation. Thalan had chosen this cave as a safehold for two reasons. First, it was of enormous size, having housed much of the Ghorian forces and still boasting a plentiful, if curious, hoard of weaponry, impregnable body armor and highly stylized headgear ~ some of which was suited, strangely enough, to humanoid heads. The second reason was its built in defenses. Not many of Dunsany would dare venture into these legend-haunted environs of the hell spawned Ghorian Wizards in the first place, but for those brave, or curious enough, they would shortly find themselves woven into the crystal maze. As an added advantage, Peg could actually stretch her wings in any direction without impediment.
"I'll have to be getting back right away, Peg," said Thalan, slipping off his riding gloves. "Valerian no doubt has all he can handle with emissaries from the offworlder's ship. I can't let him continue bearing the brunt alone."
Thalan moved into one of the many smaller rooms of the cavern fortress, where he stored various suits of clothing, changed from his leather riding gear into black satin breeches, shirt, tunic and cloak, then slipped into the black, leather soled slippers he preferred while within the city. The severity of his costume was offset by the merest thread of gold, bordering his tunic and cloak, bringing his yellow hair and beard into warm contrast. He belted his bone-scabbard short sword about his waist, slipped thin crystal stilettos into sheaths in both boots and the inner arms of both sleeves drew his chain of office over his head, a golden obelisk surrounded by a filigreed parabola, signifying the City of Planes, and placed the amber quartz circlet on his head. Finally, Thalan affixed the jade green paladin to the left breast of his tunic, reflecting his piercing gray green eyes and completing the image that was Thalan, Weir Prince and Lord of Dunsany. Then thumbing the crosspiece of his short sword to the 'off' position, he stepped back out into the main chamber and struck a dramatic pose.
"Well, how do I look, like a Lord of this world?
Peg sent, innocently, "What? No weapons?"
In the blink of an eye, Thalan was performing a passable juggling act with all four stilettos. "I thought I'd travel light. After all, what harm could possibly befall me in the bosom of my own hearth fires?"
"I agree," said Thalan. "I'll contact you in the usual manner following the banquet. There should be an overabundance of news to report, as well as more ultimata from our friend the, the Ambassador."
Peg sent back, "Keep the mind link open this evening. I want to see what you see. If you start diddling the kitchen girls, you may miss something important. Things have the feel of coming to a head, if you'll excuse the allusion. You may have to make your excuses and depart in a hurry."
"As you wish."
Thalan replaced his weapons and stepped across the chamber's patterned floor to a bas relief designed into a pillar at the center. It was a stylized representation of a creature of conical shape with five tentecular appendages sprouting from the top and five others forming the base. If it had once been meant to portray a living being, Thalan was glad of its long extinction. He placed the fingertips of his left hand at the apex of the upper tentacles and those of his right at the lower. Thalan then began to shimmer and his form wavered, expanding outward to fill the chamber like a mist ghost. "Keep in touch," he called and he contracted into himself with an audible crack and was gone.
"Hell of a way to travel," thought Peg, as she passed through an arched passage into an antechamber draped with heavy wall hangings, each depicting a scene from a specific Ghorian battle fought against early settlers of Dunsany. Invaders, in truth, like all settlers. Some showed images of slaughter on the part of the Ghorian, some images of outlandishly cruel torture of humanoid figures, while others depicted a gigantic Ghorian, presumably meant to represent the great Yosoth Ghor, himself, progenitor of the Ghorian race. His ten extended tentacles each boring into the skulls of separate Dunsan victims. One got the impression that the Ghorian never lost a battle, let alone the war.
Pegasus, perhaps last of her fabled kind, settled down onto a deep pile of these tapestries, torn from the walls and formed into a makeshift bed, unfurled her massive wings, rested her head on folded knees and began scanning for Thalan's thought waves to initiate the mind link. Although the Ghorian particle transport scattered Thalan's molecules into the atmosphere, his essence of self remained in tact in the ethereal soup. It was a simple matter, once the mind link was established, for Peg to guide the free-floating particles to a predetermined point in the City of Planes where they could be safely reintegrated into the solid form that was Lord Thalan. While Peg and Thalan had discovered many of the mysteries of their ancient enemy, they had yet to master the art of reformation once particularization had taken place. Therefore, Peg sent the fingers of her powerful telepathic mind out in search of the Thalan essence, grasped it and directed it to a narrow focus in a familiar room within the Palace of Light.
Aboard the Jaradic Lightcruiser, what the Dunsan's referred to as a landing craft, Ambassador Dhorzh stood, half bent at the waist, hands clasped behind his back, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet behind a SciTech who, evidently feeling his superior's irritation at the slow progress in analyzing the living quartz, commanded his wall sized screen to display the latest in a series of disappointing component breakdowns. So far, the quartz yielded no magical information hinting at its uncanny ability to grow in a structured and preordained manner. The data probes and scanners, particle, bio and chem. analyzers all indicated repeatedly and infuriatingly that it was basic quartz crystal, relating to forms indigenous to any one of a thousand known planets throughout this galaxy. Except that it could not be compressed. And that its growth, once apparently begun, could not be halted. It could be cut with both laser and particle beams, broken by a crystal cutter's wedge and sheared with a diamond saw, but it could not be retarded in its slow, steady growth. Dhorzh passed quickly to the display screen and stabbed a finger at the unfolding scroll of numbers and symbols. Turning on the SciTech, he barked;
"Why does it grow? We have six of this vessel's SciPods working at maximum capacity, doing I don't even dare guess what, and we can't discover why it grows as it does. Why?"
The SciTech was about to make an attempt to cover his ignorance when he was saved the embarrassment by the appearance of a tall, gaunt, waxen skinned apparition at the port of the SciPod. Senior Scientifics Technician, Garth an Bols, stopped in the port way with a half amused smile touching the merest fraction of her severe mouth. Her manner had the assurance of one who knows her own value and is ever ready to welcome disputation on that point. Only one other of the Jaradic Empire wore the Imperial Torc; Garth an's nephew, the Emperor.
Her cool voice filled the SciPod, "The question you should be attempting to answer, Dhorzh, is not why, but rather, how.”
Garth an entered the compartment with the grace of a slow breeze. She motioned the SciTech to leave and turned her attention to the display wall and the Ambassador. "Look closely at the mass of information, Dhorzh. Seal it in your mind. For an entire afternoon, the most sophisticated men and machines at the disposal of this Lightcruiser have labored to unlock the secret of the legendary Dunsan Quartz we traveled an entire star system to find. And what have we learned? It grows. Are you impressed? The truly amazing, I mean the really astonishing thing, I find about all this grand analysis you've commissioned, behind my back, is that it was totally unnecessary." Her voice rose to a crescendo with each following word, "Quartz is a crystal, Dhorzh, and crystals have a natural tendency to grow! You idiot!"
Dhorzh stiffened his broad back and drew up his shoulders, but even at full height, he seemed a head shorter than Garth an at that moment, who stood staring back up into his burning eyes. His large hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically at his sides and he actually bristled, his red face emitting a dusting of ions as he glared at SciTech Bols. "I am well aware of your connections, SciTech, but I will not be addressed in such a manner. I am the Emperor's Ambassador, and as such am accorded certain privileges under law, and one is the privilege of respect."
"How very fortunate for you," said the Senior SciTech. "However, I am the Emperor's aunt, and that effectively places you at a distinct disadvantage, does it not? Now, pull in your blunted horns and get that grim look off your face." Garth an walked back to the console and seated herself. With furious dexterity, her long fingers tapped across the data input cubes and a holographic image appeared between the two and began slowly rotating, exposing intricate detail. It was a mass of lines, planes, angles and points of varying color and size. Garth an said, "This is the sample of quartz you acquired, no doubt by surreptitious means. I believe it was given to you by our groveling friend, Bayan, who probably believed he was handing over an authentic node of Living Quartz. However, if you look closely, you will see it is not. It is, in fact 3 irradiated quartz, a bastard combination of trivalent or tetravalent iridium. As common, it seems, as a double-cross."
Dhorzh screwed his face into a comedy of puzzlement. "But, that is impossible," he reasoned. "Why should Bayan jeopardize..."
Garth an cut him off. "Allow me to finish, please. This mutant combination of mineral and metallic elements, in these particular valences indicates to me that someone with a keen sense of the ironic has been monitoring Bayan's dealings with you. I believe I know who it is, but I'll keep that to myself for now. Caution is indicated, however, since this person is clearly as dangerous as I am. So, you see where all this is leading, Dhorzh? You wondered earlier why the samples were growing so rapidly; remember? I think it is because the quartz has been artificially combined with iridium. Whoever saw to it that we "stole" this sample, obviously knew that we would spend a great deal of time analyzing the wrong problem before we could spot and reverse the real one. Brilliant mind, I must admit. Once we struck the crystal with our cutting beams we triggered an unstoppable reaction. "
"SciTech Bols," begged Dhorzh, "I am a soldier and a diplomat, not a scientific. I can fathom the intrigue and deception involved with what you say, but I cannot see where the danger lies in studying this stone."
"The danger, Ambassador, is that if we don't remove every fragment of your liberated quartz from this Lightcruiser it will continue to grow at an artificially advanced rate, one that we ourselves initiated, until it splits our hull from the inside and destroys this ship, leaving us stranded. Look at the holograph."
The image, suspended before the two was undergoing a transformation of alarming proportions. New crystal formed and built upon old, expanding ever outward, driving shafts and shards in all directions simultaneously, until the entire SciPod was completely overtaken by the image, ceiling to floor, wall to wall. Garth an Bols tapped a console key and the image winked out. She said, "You'd better give the order, now, I only accelerated the model's growth factor by one and a half..."
Her words were quickly drowned out by the scream of tearing metal walls from SciPod1 and bleating of alarms throughout the ship.
To Be Continued...