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A Hero Born

Michael A. Stackpole


  Michael A. Stackpole

  HarperPrism An Imprint o/HarperCollinsPaW«6m



  tanding high on the red bluff overlooking his grand project, the only sign of Vrasha’s irritation came in the rhythmic, jerked twitching of his leonine tail. The sable-furred Chaos demon otherwise stood rock still as he watched his people labor below him. He felt some pride in their devotion to him, but their mindless and slavish adherence to his commands also repulsed him.

  Even though this enterprise might kill me, not a one of them has tried to dissuade me.

  In a hideous grin, black lips peeled away from darker, crystalline teeth shaped like daggers. Vrasha knew those Black Shadows below labored for him because they believed he would be able to restore his father to life were his mission successful. Kothvir was to him little more than a memory, but to them he was a legendary leader who had come closer than any other to making Chaos a place in which the rigid races feared to venture.

  Out beyond the project, the opalescent Chaos Wall undulated like a curtain being caressed by a gentle breeze. On the bluff he could not feel its power, but even thinking about the creamy wall brought again to his flesh the sizzling tingle he had felt when walking close to it. Erected by the magick of those who lived beyond it, the Chaos Wall held back the forces of change in the same way a dike might hold the ocean at bay. Those born on the far side of it could pass through at will, but for anyone born in Chaos …

  “Vrasha, for one final time I ask you to reconsider.”

  Vrasha turned slowly to face the Black Shadow who had spoken to him. “Rindik, do you so fear my success that you beg me not to undertake this quest?”

  The larger Chaos demon shook his head. His black mane, unlike Vrasha’s, had been shaved away from the sides of his head in the manner of warriors. It exposed his triangular ears, which flicked forward and back in a sign Vrasha knew from long experience meant Rindik was decidedly agitated. “You know, half brother, that is not my reason. If you succeed, I will bow to your will and support you. 1 may be a simple warrior, but 1 respect your dreams and will welcome their successful fruition. I would not, however, have you throw your life away needlessly.”

  “1 do not throw my life away, Rindik. We have done tests.”

  “And in your tests, everything born on this side of the wall has died when you sent it through!” Rindik’s solid gold eyes narrowed. “All of your theories have been proved wrong, yet now you are set to subject yourself to that which has killed all other participants in your experiment.”

  “You do not understand!” Vrasha pointed at the huge, steeply angled ramp that ended on a sharp up-slope barely five yards from the Chaos Wall. “We have extended the ramp’s height and have increased the angle to the point where the velocity will be nearly doubled when 1 reach the wall. Unlike the early, grossly unsuccessful trials, having the sphere airborne when it reaches the wall seems to lessen the damage. That held true for creatures and for the other demons we have sent through.”

  “Yes, but they died nonetheless.”

  Vrasha batted that objection away with a contemptuous wave of his left hand. “They were Storm demons who had neither the courage nor presence of mind to kill themselves when you captured them.”

  “True enough, brother mine, but they died doing what you will do.” Rindik pointed back toward the northwest, where malignant green flashes of lightning darkened the bloodred sky. “And there the other Isvortu come to war on us for your use of their kin. 1 need you and your insight to help control them. Use another of your thralls to test this new contrivance you have built. 1 want you with me as we fight them.”

  “Rindik, you surprise me. Were you not the one who has told me that the Tsvortu would never defeat the Bfiarasfiadi? You yourself pointed out that their power to influence storms was nothing compared to the power of the Bfiarasfiadi to defeat death. We, the Black Shadows, have forever lamented the fact that the key to our opening the Necroleum and summoning forth our long-dead kin resides there, beyond the wall. You ask me to fight the Storm demons at a disadvantage when, with incredible ease, I can bring us the power that will put them down forever.”

  The warrior folded his arms across his broad chest, and his right hand played with the leather strips hanging down from the hilt of the sword strapped across his back. “I know what you intend to do, and I praise it. However, you too must admit that to bring back those resting in the Necroleum at this time is wrong. Our father, Kothvir, is resting there, but he is incomplete. The other sorcerers say he can be made whole again— if he is not, you know he will not rise to lead us again. How can you even consider this course of action when he would not be returned to us?”

  Vrasha hesitated as he recalled having once knelt before his father’s enthroned corpse in the Necroleum. His father stared down at him with one good eye and a jewel-filled eye socket. The irony struck him that the Bfiarasfiadi power to return from the dead was as useful as his father’s missing eye if the Fistfire Sceptre remained out of reach beyond the wall. That realization gave birth to his desire somehow to get his hands on the sceptre for the sake of his tribe if not for the power it would give him.

  “You forget, Rindik, that the Chronicles of Farscry say Kothvir’s eye will return to him when the appropriate ritual is performed.” Vrasha pressed his hands together and let his claws slowly slide from their sheaths at the ends of his fingers. “You interpret that to mean we must wait until his eye has been returned, but I see it as a prophecy whose blossoming I can hasten by taking action. You know Kinruquel would never grant us the power were we to leave Kothvir out of the resurrection.”

  The sorcerer drew the barbed dagger he wore bound to the upper part of his left arm. “You and I are of a blood. We share a destiny. Know that 1 will not abandon our father.” His thumb caressed the slender line of stars on the knife’s crosspiece. “loin me in my dream.”

  The warrior’s ears flicked forward. “Your dreams are my nightmares, Vrasha. You are obsessed with this quest of yours. You do not realize the danger in which you place yourself. Think, Vrasha, you could be propelling yourself into an ambush. You know little of your allies from Wallfar.”

  Vrasha let himself laugh lightly at Rindik’s suspicions. “They are of the Church of Chaos Encroaching. They have chosen to believe that men only come to know their full potential under the influence of Chaos.” He thumped his own chest with a fist. “They even purport to believe we Chaos demons were once men who have been living in Chaos for far too long. Ha!”

  Even Rindik could not suppress a laugh at that idea. “Foolish may be some of their beliefs, but they could still be waiting on the other side of the wall to capture you and sell you to their Emperor.”

  “Nonsense!” Vrasha waved a hand at his ramp tower and the strange sphere mounted at the top of it. “They have labored day and night to send through the wood we needed to build this ramp and my journeycraft. They have supplied us with the animals we have likewise needed, and they have reported on our earlier successes. Even so, they are pitifully stupid. While professing to worship Chaos, their cult holds its membership in thrall with the system of ranks endemic to Wallfar. This behavior proves them to be fools.”

  “And you trust them?”

  “Trust? Trust? Never and a day, not in the least.” Vrasha pointed toward the southeast. “They believe 1 will be coming through the wall a league or two in that direction. That was the site of our previous tests and the point at which they sent the cattle through. They are also expecting me to come through in a week or so. Going tonight means 1 will be in Herakopolis well before their Bear’s Eve Ball.”

  He waved his half brother before him, resheathed his dagger, then headed toward the catwalk link
ing the bluff to the ramp. Below him Bfiarasfiadi swarmed over the tower to bind its pieces together and reinforce the whole structure with more wood and rope. Others walked along the ramp’s surface and stained its wood dark with smears of beef tallow. Still others, on a platform at the very top, tugged on ropes and hauled dripping buckets ever upward.

  Vrasha moved from the catwalk to a ladder, which he quickly scaled. Reaching the top, he waited for his bulkier, slower half brother to join him on the crowded wooden plateau. As he looked down he saw the gore-spattered ground below, where a dozen Black Shadows slaughtered cattle and filled buckets to the brim with steaming blood and claw-minced flesh. Up there, so near his journeycraft, the scent of blood nearly overwhelmed him.

  Turning back, he watched Chademons pass bucket after bucket of meat and vitals up to the hide-bound wooden sphere he and his engineers had worked very hard to create. They had tested many bits of wood from Wallfar and settled for oak. It had been cut into thin strips, then laminated together to form a strong yet springy spherical skeleton for his journeycraft. Even dropping from the top of the tower to the ground would not break it.

  Rindik nodded as he studied the sphere that was half again taller than his half brother. “So you have chosen to cover the sphere with the skin of freshly slain cattle. You said that offered one of the Tsvortu some protection?”

  Vrasha nodded. “We bound him up in one or two, then swung him out on a rope. We know he survived the journey out because he worked a hand free and came back through clutching a tree branch from the other side.”

  “But he was dead when he swung back here, correct?”

  “A minor concern. He was only Tsvortu He did not know what was happening to him, so he died of fright.” Vrasha’s pupilless-orb eyes became golden slits. “1 have a mind, I have discipline, and I have a purpose. I will survive.”

  One of the blood-splattered Chademons knelt at Vrasha’s feet. “Master, your journeycraft is filled to the point at which you must enter it.”

  “The skins are holding?” Vrasha looked past him and saw darkish liquid oozing slowly from the seams where the skins were bound one to another.

  “Master, yes, they are. We are ready for you.”

  Vrasha nodded, and the Chademon rose to ascend some scaffolding to the top of the sphere. “It is time for me to leave, Rindik.”

  The warrior’s hands balled into fists. “1 cannot dissuade you?” Behind him green lightning again stabbed through the maroon twilight sky. “I have need of you here.”

  “There is more need for me there, in Wallfar.” He grabbed the scaffold’s crossbar, and Rindik boosted him upward. “1 will return, brother mine, with the Fistfire Sceptre, and then I will be able to fulfill all your needs.”

  “Farewell, Vrasha. You are the last broodchild sprung from Kothvir’s loins. May your legend be as great as his.”

  “No”—Vrasha laughed boldly—“greater. My legend will be greater.”

  Turning his back to his brother, Vrasha crossed the upper scaffolding and came to the top of the leaking bail. One of the Chademons held out to him a snaky length of tubing that ran from inside the sphere to a pinched orifice in the sphere’s flesh. Vrasha took it in his mouth and blew out hard. A thin mist of blood sprayed up out of a puckered blowhole. Breathing in and out several times assured Vrasha he would have enough air while sealed in the ball.

  Another of his minions approached him from behind and had him lean his head back. As Vrasha did so, he closed his eyes. He felt wet warmth that seeped into the fur on his face as the Chademon pressed two lumps of cow flesh over his eyes, then bound them in place with strips of hide. Vrasha tried to open his eyes, found he could not, and nodded his satisfaction to the others.

  As they had drilled many times, two Chademons eased their blind master forward and positioned his feet over the lip of the sphere’s round hatchway. Moving his feet forward and back, Vrasha quickly measured the dimensions of the opening, then worked himself closer and lowered his feet into the ball. The liquid, sucking sound he heard as his feet sank beneath the surface excited him.

  Unseen hands steadied him and guided his own hands to the opening’s rim. Planting his palms firmly on the latticework, Vrasha took his full weight on his arms, then slowly lowered himself into the sphere. The thick, clinging soup dragged at his legs. It squished between his toes and soaked through to his skin as, inch by inch, he immersed himself in it. It washed up over his thighs and groin to his waist, then he pulled his hands away from the hatch edge and plunged in fully.

  The viscous gel closed over his head, and, instantly, he felt panic. His hands flailed through the blood and entrails, but his motions only sent him lower, not up toward the opening. His head jerked back as his breathing tube grew taut, then he sucked in a breath.

  Concentrating on his breathing, forcing himself to inhale and exhale slowly, his mind overrode his desire to escape.

  Thinking as little as possible about where he actually was, Vrasha reached out and felt through the blood and tissue for the harness that had been suspended from the sphere’s cross bracing. By kicking his feet and drifting a little higher he found it. Twisting around, he lowered himself into the leather seat, then tied the straps that would keep him in place during his journey around his chest and legs.

  The sticky fluid wrapped him in a cocoon that deadened all sound from the outside world, save what little he could hear through the tube leading to his mouth. He marveled at how, sealed in a womb made of and filled with things from Wallfar, he would be reborn in that alien place. And through me will come the redemption of the entire Bharashadi race.

  Prepared for anything and everything he thought his journey would provide, he barked out a harsh order that echoed through his breathing tube to the outside.

  Distantly he heard a sharp sound, then felt a vibration ripple through the plasma. As his head started down, he reached out and grasped two of the cross braces. He felt himself slowly somersault forward the first time, then again with more speed. The sphere vibrated a bit side to side as it lumbered down the newer section of the ramp, then settled down as it hit the older portion.

  Inside, Vrasha’s mind clinically compared the sensations of his current journey with those of the days he had spent in the center of a giant wheel his minions had spun faster and faster. He had accustomed himself to the motion of rolling forward until it no longer made him dizzy, and he felt pride swell in his breast at his own foresight. Aside from the thunderous vibrations shaking him, being in the sphere felt exactly like being in the wheel.

  Suddenly the globe shifted ever so slightly, and the rotations started him whirling at an angle. The harness kept him suspended in the middle of the sphere, but the new direction of stress threatened to pull one crosspiece loose. Faster and faster he spun, and wood screamed in protest. He could even begin to feel the sphere shift and become misshapen.

  Vrasha slid his right hand along the crosspiece to its joint with another brace and sank his claws into both pieces of wood. 1 will not fail! The globe slowed almost imperceptibly, and suddenly he felt much heavier. ! cannot fail!

  Just as suddenly as the sphere had turned on its axis, the rumbling roar of his ride down the ramp ended. In an instant he realized he was airborne.

  A heartbeat later he hit the Chaos Wall.

  A net of razors ripped him apart. Millions upon millions of chiggers gnawed on his flesh with their steel teeth. Boring worms made of fire burned tunnels through his bones, and ice-winged wasps flew through the holes to build their frozen nests where their larvae could feast on his marrow. Each hair in his pelt became an agate needle that pierced his skin from the inside out.

  His brain boiled within his skull. His eyes saw colors that did not exist, and his ears heard those same colors as the death screams of creatures yet unborn. Unable to think, left only to sensing, dread swallowed him, terror crushed him, and hopelessness ground him into nothingness.

  A bone-blasting impact jarred him partway out of the nihilisti
c darkness closing over his being. In one second he felt pummeled as a shock wave bashed him from all sides, and the pressure closed a tight fist on him. Then, in the next, the closeness vanished, and he knew a moment’s freedom as the ball bounced up. He could tell, from its lightness and speed, that the first impact must have ruptured the skin and sprayed the liquid from it.

  The sphere turned over lazily and hit hard again. The stressed cross braces snapped and stabbed through the upper part of his right arm. He screamed aloud and yet louder as the sphere took to the air again and ripped the wood from the wound. He pulled his legs up and hugged his arms in, then waited for the earth to batter him one more time.

  His journeycraft slammed into the ground, and the lattice gave way. Splinters peppered him back and flank. The harness’s straps snapped, and he pounded the ground a second after his broken vehicle, then lay stunned as it lazily rolled over and the hide collapsed on top of him.

  The tingling weakness in his limbs distressed him at first. He remained very still and forced his mind clear. Slowly, in a deep voice that echoed within itself, even when whispering, he began to speak a spell. As he did so, a reddish gold aura surrounded him, and in seconds he had an accurate assessment of his wounds.

  Aside from the hole torn in his right arm, he had not been damaged. Vrasha allowed himself a smile, and instantly banished the concern he felt over the draining effort required to sustain it. Flicking out the claws on his left hand, he sliced through the thongs binding him into the harness. Once he had freed himself from its confines, he slashed away the hides covering him and tore off the blindfold.

  Kneeling amid the ruins of his vessel, he blinked blood from his eyes and looked up. He saw constellations gleaming in a black sky that no other Chaos demon had ever seen. He instantly forgot the pain in his arm and found a new energy begin to course through him. Cradling his right arm against his side, he forced himself to his feet and stood, bloody, battered, but not broken, in a world that had forever been denied to his kind.