"So Reever, you have come at last." Lutay's voice boomed out before we reached his throne. I knew that he was supposed to be a couple of thousand years old, but he still sounded plenty spry. Thornby, I thought to myself, this has got to be the strangest place you've ever gotten yourself into. The shimmering walls of the huge room looked as if they'd been carved from a single gemstone, there were strange statues on beautifully wrought pedestals in the carved niches along the walls. Tapestries depicting what I recognized as historical scenes were hung wherever I looked. So this is what the second-oldest civilization on the planet thinks of as high art, I mused. Looks like something straight out of "Better Keeps and Castles".
"Yes Lutay- I have come," The Reever answered. "It seems that the ancient enemy has reawakened at last. But I think that this is not the first we have seen of him- not in this guise."
"You know then that this is Valleor that has arisen to plunder our lives?"
"Yes, I suspected as much when I saw Tinhil's niece being taken. The black cloud creature was like something that I remember from Valleor's execution five million years ago- a shape he wore as he vaporized."
"I remember reading the records of the time telling of the war of the Gods," said Lutay sadly. "Much died that day that was bright and beautiful... Lands were covered by the sea, mountains arose, the whole world shook as Antuth and Valleor fought in the city of the Gods."
"Hundreds of thousands died that day, Lutay," said the Reever grimly. "Millions died- two fifths of all the people on the planet... My wife and sons died as our city's buildings shook themselves to pieces. Valleor's final blow- before Antuth felled him -shook the whole world. Valleor reached out from Albion- where he fought Antuth in the streets of the city of the Gods -and wrenched the world from its axis, twisted it aside from its normal plane of rotation. It was a vain attempt to distract the Gods long enough for Valleor to escape. The Gods were not distracted. They rallied behind Antuth and added their strength to his. Together they dispersed Valleor, body and soul. He literally blew away on the wind."
"We were naive enough to think the he was dead," said Lutay. "We chose to forget that he is a God. Somehow, he has managed to regain enough power to afflict us once again. My Grandfather suspected Valleor's return after hearing travelers tales of a thunderstorm that seemed to follow battles. Valleor's old allies would be in battle- when a fierce storm would arise and lash at the troops. Proof of nothing, I know, but there's more. My Father also kept careful records of his time. The storm appeared time after time at battles where Valleor's old allies fought. As if lashing them to fiercer battles as well as adding its lightnings to their swords and spears."
"My Grandfather can tell similar tales," smiled the Reever, "and his time goes back fifty million years," then he frowned. "What power aided Valleor to draw his vaporized body back together? The black cloud of battles is an old tale, so we must assume that far back in history someone was so insane as to help Valleor attempt to recreate his body. Now that I have made the connection between the black cloud and Valleor, I would guess that an answer to their identity would be lost in the dim ages of the past. Perhaps it is a guise that he wore of old, something that he has returned to wear, at need."
"Perhaps,"mused Lutay. "Though it gives me cause to wonder if Eliasthor is still a prisoner in the tower at the center of the Great Blight."
"Yes, He'd had dealings with Valleor in the distant past. It is possible that he was seduced into weaving a spell to reunite Valleor's essence- however thinly spread it had been." The Reever looked worried.
"I don't see what it matters where this thing came from," shouted Blackfur. "What we need to do is find a way to stop it!"
"Who is Eliasthor?" asked Pearl.
"A great wizard who ruled the city of Nesastor and the surrounding countryside. He grew too power-hungry and began to extend his borders. Small brush wars, really. The Immortals were about to have to take official notice, though. He'd been going too far to suit us. We never had to act, however. Eliasthor made an enormous blunder- he attacked Urkiev, the city of the Priest-Kings," the Reever began.
"They are not of this world- a colony established back in the dim, dark past. They forbid all contact with outsiders except for some trading in foodstuffs and minerals. Eliasthor attacked them and they struck back," added Lutay.
"The city of Nesastor was once a place of beauty-" sighed the Reever. "Now it is a vast sea of gray dust. Slowly, over the course of a single year, the buildings of the city began to decay, to crumble into powder. The ground itself dissolved along with the once-gleaming walls of Nesastor. Only the central tower of Eliasthor's palace remained- still gleaming white, but standing alone in a bottomless pool of gray dust. All of the people of Nesastor had left when the horror began. Those that didn't leave were never seen again. It is thought by the wise that they were consumed by the same force that crumbled the city."
"Eliasthor never left," sighed Lutay. "He took refuge in his tower. For many long years there have been tales of lights and strange sounds inside the tower. But since the dust region is many miles across these can be thought to be reports of anything."
"It is not known whether the tower remained untouched at the will of the Priest-Kings of Urkiev or at the will of Eliasthor," said the Reever as he took up the tale again. "Was he able to exert his power sufficiently to save himself and his tower? Or did the Priest-Kings see fit to save it as an eternal prison for Eliasthor? Even the wise do not know. No one can reach the tower- and the Priest-Kings will never speak of the matter."
"If he yet lives," said Lutay gravely, "alone in his ruined glory, Valleor may have come to him. If only in Eliasthor's dreams, Valleor would have merely to promise to deliver Eliasthor from his prison to gain his ends. Eliasthor was a mighty wizard. He gained great power before he was consumed by the desire to rule. For a thousand years Nesastor was a jewel on the face of the world. Eliasthor's greed and hunger doomed it. It would take a skill like his to cast such a spell as to give Valleor back his powers."
"It took the Gods themselves to destroy Valleor before, what can we do to stop him now?" I asked.
"It may not even be possible for us to destroy him. Even a spell to bind him to one spot would strain the powers of every magician in the world," said Tinhil. "Assuming that they could all be induced to help."
Lutay called for his Chamberlain to have a meal prepared for us. The Chamberlain announced that rooms had been made ready and we followed as he led us to them. The Reever stayed behind with Lutay to talk further. Frankly, I was ready for some rest and already tired of all the talking. I wanted to do something, not discuss it. Over the next few days I was going to get a lot tireder of discussion.
Our rooms were sumptuous and the meal was more like a feast. I could almost get used to this sort of treatment. Even in the Museum- where it seemed like the Collector could do anything or make anything, I'd seldom seen such opulence. And the people! Real freedom must be all they'd ever had. They were polite, even deferential, and seemed to radiate calm self-assurance. I suppose that living with the miraculous, everyday use of magic had given them that. How long would it take for someone to become so matter-of- fact about simply waving their hands, muttering some words, and making something appear out of nothing?
Over the next few days we were constantly in and out of meetings with the wizards of Tulag. To tell the truth, I was getting bored with all the endless speeches, conferences, and arguments- and there's only so much luxury that I can stand. I was wanting to get back to the trail and get back to work, but I knew that our little party would have no chance against the evil that stalked us- not without the help of the wizards. And their help was going to take time. Oh well, at least the girls here are friendly, I thought as I sat in on one conference.
"I can teach Tinhil the basics of the spell..." said Lutay in a tired voice. "But we have not the time to create the thing before you leave. And leave you must. Valleor's eyes must have been upon you for some time, perhaps since your last meeting... Perhaps even longer. Coming here will have blinded him to you, but that will raise his suspicions. He will see that the Reever is following his trail. He will attack, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. He needs these people he has taken for some purpose of his own. And so many so quickly, he must be pressed for time in some way. If you go further afield than you really need to then perhaps you can misguide him into wasting more of his time than he can spare. I will give you transportation which will enable you to reach my son, Alazar. He will pass on to you more of the spell, as much as we will have been able to create by the time you arrive at his tower. You will travel slowly, down river from here to the sea, then sail west to reach Alazar's home."
"It has been a long time indeed since I have traveled down Ariastor's waters," said the Reever. "The river holds bitter memories for me."
"You must take care," replied Lutay. "I have sensed strange awakenings in the world. Valleor is not the only ancient power that stirs. The agents of the Black Snake have been spying in lands north and westward from Urth in the High Valley. They have also been seen in the Newcomer's lands to the east, in the City of Lights itself. Valleor's slaves in the land that the Black Snake rules for him have long been preparing for war."
"Grave news indeed," said the Reever sadly. "I have many a score to settle with the Black Snake. But yet, I dread facing that woman. She is insane. In her mind, she and I have been spiteful lovers throughout time. In reality we have been bitterest enemies. She has tried to kill me a hundred times, to capture me a thousand more... My wife and sons were killed in an uprising she instigated- While Antuth and Valleor fought in the streets of Albion, we Immortals fought in the streets of our own city. I was cut off from the forces that defended my home. While I fought for my life in the lower levels of the city, my home was destroyed. I've always spurned her advances, but in her madness she imagines differently. She serves only Valleor, she is his high priestess and his lover. She is violence, death, and disorder. Willful rage is her weapon, madness is her shield, and I am the unwilling object of her obsession!"
"And yet she is an Immortal," replied Lutay. "Born as you were- to live forever, to guard the world from harm, to offer a guide to the younger races."
"Yes," sighed the Reever. "We are both Immortals, but that is the only way in which we are alike. She has given up her will to guard the world- now she seeks only to enslave it. I have long wondered why the Council has not sought to bring her to justice."
"Perhaps," said Lutay, "they know that she still has some part to play as our world grows older. Or perhaps they find her to be an example of how absolute power can corrupt even the greatest of lives. The High Council of the Immortals is wise in ways far beyond my understanding."
"About these interlopers I set you to trail..."
"Yes Sir? I have a full report ready for high speed transmission."
"Good, send it now. I will give it a fast read and go over it in detail after we sign off."
"Very good, Sir. Transmitting now..."
"Very good! I'm impressed with their abilities. And the robot is co-operating with them as well- interesting. Interesting use of it's PA system as well. All in all, a very likely group. Very well, something less dangerous next, I believe. But where? Ah! I know just the place. I've been there myself- at least, I've been on the other side of the planet. Digging ruined cities out of the dirt..."
"Your favorite hobby, Sir."
"Yes. While I was there I also discovered some clues to other archeological sites- from writings on the walls of temples and such -legends of even greater cities, lost in the jungles on the far side of the planet. When I returned to the Museum, I had an orbital scan done and was able to pinpoint several promising sites, but I put off exploring on my own."
"The weather, Maxwell. The weather. Rain, volcanos, soot, mud... Due to several active volcanos in the area and the high concentration of water vapor in the atmosphere it has been raining steadily on that particular continent for over one hundred and fifty years- local time. What hasn't been washed away has been covered in ash, soot, and mud. Don't go outside the buildings- you will materialize inside the largest, most promising one in the area. You wouldn't like it outside. Here is the course-"
"Received and understood, Sir."
"Good. What are your personal thoughts about these trespassers, Maxwell?"
"What specifically do you wish to know, Sir?"
"How are they shaping up? Are they an enemy strike team or are they here by accident?"
"Accident, Sir. I overheard them talking among themselves. They have no more idea about what is happening to them than does the proverbial men in the moon."
"I see," said the Collector. "We may be needing them as agents later on. Something strange has been happening since you were assigned to them. The Museum is under some kind of attack. It is a very subtle attack- mostly resulting in some anomalies in the permeability of several levels of the Museum. Strange things and people are popping up all over. Security is in disarray from so many reports. All of my regular agents are busy assisting the security forces. I wish that I could recall Thornby and put him in charge of it, but his communicator is malfunctioning."
"His implant was damaged, as I recall."
"Yes, his allergies forced me to take longer than is normally so on the replacement implant. It wasn't ready before he left, so he was forced to carry a com-unit in his pack. Somehow, he's manage to lose it or damage it- neither of which is an easy task. In any case, I must deal with the matter myself, very tiresome. I haven't felt this way since... Since... Well, I can't remember when exactly, but it has been a long time."
"Yes, those trespassers may be of use in a retrieval party before too long."
"I don't follow you, Sir. What do you mean?"
"Something is stirring that bodes ill for us all, but there may be a connection with an artifact trace that has been puzzling me lately. If these trespassers aren't part of the problem, then perhaps they can become part of the solution."
"The artifact in question is a weapon of considerable power- for Bethdish anyway -and these people might be able to investigate it for us while our own people are busy coping with troubles here inside the Museum. Keep the trespassers under surveillance for a while longer. I have preparations to make- for later."
"Yes Sir. I will file another report after the next landing."
"Good hunting, Maxwell."
"Thank you, Sir."
I'd been talking to Tinhil a lot since I joined the Reever's little band of heroes. For a retired High Priest he was pretty accessible, not stuffy like I imagined he would be. Besides, he had been the one to toss fireballs at that escapee from a dinosaur exhibit so I felt grateful to him for saving my life. I found myself treating him as if he were one of the parish priests I'd known as a boy, but far friendlier. Who knows? If there had been a priest like him in our village church, maybe I'd have spent less time getting into trouble... and in jail. I might have done something with my life besides become a third-rate burglar before the Collector rescued me from the fire that my last theft became. Tinhil even started speaking like the priests I remembered- after we'd had a few drinks together and some long talks about our respective faiths. I guess that's really my fault, but he just seemed to fall into the manner of speaking that I remembered from my youth. He was a tolerant old fellow, less concerned with whether or not I went to a church regularly than he was with whether or not I was trying to live up to my full potential. To him, it seemed that my soul was my own business but that wasted talents were a sin. He made it sound like his gods were more concerned with free will, honor, and fulfillment than with gathering more worshippers. From what he told me over the course of our many long talks, I gathered that there was a whole lot less corruption in the cathedrals of Bethdish than there had been on my home world.
"I wish my communicator hadn't been stomped on by that underfed lizard. I'm sure that the boss would be willing to help. As it is I've only got one sure way to get back to the Museum. I'd hate to have to use it though, I'm kind of squeamish."
"Oh? It does rather sound like a last resort."
"Indeed. I've always managed to avoid it."
"I'm curious, my son..."
"Not at all, Father. If we really need reinforcements, if it looks as if we're all about to die..."
"Yes, my son?"
"Well Father, you could always kill me."
"That seems rather extreme, my son."
"That's why its a last resort."
"I assume that simple cowardice is not the reason for this strange, um... request?"
"Oh no, Father. Its just that if I die, I'll wake up back at the Museum alive and well. Able to bring help almost instantly. Almost unlimited resources available on demand, at need. All problems solved and all the loose ends tied up in one neat bundle. There's just one catch."
"There always is, my son."
"Yeah, I have to die to use it."
I noticed a shift in the co-ordinates of the trespasser's commandeered transfer capsule as the Collector altered their course. They were about to re- enter the universe. I set my controls to arrive shortly after them and to conceal myself from them. I also called up a short briefing about the destination. Too short to do me much good. Just a fragment of a report- from a retrieval team -already three hundred years old. Out of date information wouldn't help me now. I felt the vehicle arrive and began to prepare myself to venture outside.
We finally made ready to leave Tulag and return to our quest. It had been fun, and interesting, to visit these odd wizards, but I was ready to get back to work. I said my goodbyes to the ladies I'd dallied with, stuffed my pack with the supplies that Lutay had provided for me, and joined my companions for the short trip back to Port Verbad.
"Nice boat," said Eli as we first saw our new transportation. "I like it."
"We're going to cross a sea in this little thing?" gasped Blackfur.
"Lutay said it would take us to Alazar," riposted Tinhil. He was always ready to argue with Blackfur. I was getting used to it by now. If they ever said a kind word to one another someone would have to pick Mama Thornby's little boy up off the floor in a dead faint.
"I'm not worried about the sea crossing," Tinhil added. "If this thing can take the river then we're home free on the ocean."
"Is the river so bad as that?" asked Pearl.
"It can be in the wrong season," the Reever replied. "Luckily for us there's been a lot of rain lately. The river will be higher- we'll go over all but the worst rocks. This boat will do nicely."
"I've never been out on an ocean before," began Eli.
"We've never been away from our own lake-country before either," said Pearl. "If it weren't for worrying about Aden I'd be enjoying this trip a lot more."
As we got aboard the small ship, Lutay said his farewells and sent us on our way. I marveled once again at the magic of the wizards of Tulag even as I was glad to be leaving. I hope that someday I'll be able to return and visit again, but that day looked to be long in the future.
"The ship is ready," said Lutay. "The course has been set. You will be unable to change it except at extreme need. There is no crew- the ship itself will do everything for you that a crew could have done. All you have to do is order the sails set in the way that you want them and they will set themselves so. I commend you into the hands of my son. He will be of great aid. Go with my blessings."
With that, the boat pulled away from the dock and our voyage began again.
Our trip down the river Ariastor was uneventful- the boat proved itself more than worthy of the most dangerous stretches of rapids. Our passage was not unremarkable, however, as we sailed right past the ruins of the Reever's first home- the first city of the Immortals. Great heaps of broken glass and rubble, shattered towers and domes- that was what it seemed as I looked at it for the first time. Even so, the great age of the place was evident- spookily so.
"What is this place?" asked Pearl.
"Another history lesson," grunted Blackfur grumpily. "Just what I wasn't looking forward to."
"Quiet, fool!" hissed Tinhill angrily. "Your own ignorance may be blissful to you, but my own is a gnawing pain. Be silent and learn something from your betters."
The Reever looked very sad as he gazed out over the vista of shattered towers, and it was a long time before he answered.
"This," he said sadly, "Was our home. Our forefathers had built a marvelous city here in the days of their youth. Way back in the dim, dark days- in the early mists of time -the city's crystal towers gleamed and glittered in the sunlight. I was born here, lived here, and part of me will never leave here. You cannot see my home- or at least, its ruin -from here. It was built farther inland and high in a vast tower. From the ramparts of my home I could once see Albion- the home of the gods -forever shining in the light of the sun. How I loved to stand in my garden with my family about me, and laugh to see the children playing in the warm light. Dark was the day our city fell. The Lord of Night had grown mad with jealousy of the love that our people gave to the Lord of Light. Valleor became very evil over countless thousands of years, plotting and scheming in his temple of darkness. Slowly gathering unto him those who felt themselves slighted. He gathered followers and waited as his strength slowly grew. Evil always attracts evil, like a magnet draws iron. After ages passed, Valleor felt himself strong enough to challenge Antuth for the supremacy of Albion. The Immortals that Valleor had recruited spread panic among the innocent here in our city- while he himself rampaged and slaughtered in the golden streets of Albion, high above. Many died that night- god and Immortal alike - no family was left unscathed. I was called to the defence of the temple of Antuth, and unknowingly kissed my wife and children goodbye for the last time. Long I fought there on the steps of Antuth's temple, my friends and my brother beside me. I slew many of the rebels, and wept for the loss of so many of our people. Valleor laughed with delight at the chaos he had spawned. As he murdered many of his fellow gods in the city of Albion, he also looked down upon his followers in the Immortal city and gibbered his approval. I stood at the temple gates, and none of the defilers did we allow to pass. The awful warfare of Immortal against Immortal, friend against friend, and brother against brother seemed to last centuries. Truly, it took only one night- and slowly came the dawn that we Immortals shall always remember. As the sun rose over our now wretched city, Valleor struck his final blow. He had met his match and more in combat with Antuth. Their lightnings and thunderbolts had splintered many of the beautiful buildings of Albion. The homes of the gods were laid waste as the ravening energies used in their combat were deflected. Then, as the sun rose and Antuth's power grew with it, Valleor struck in desperation. As Antuth looked on in stunned horror- Valleor reached out with his last remaining strength and shook the world to it's very foundations.
"Antuth was finally able to capture and imprison Valleor as the evil god spent his last powers in senseless destruction- but the damage had been done. The whole world reeled from the shock of Valleor's final, desperate stroke. The land spun and dropped as the seas rose in tempests. In our city, the jeweled towers shattered and fell. Many who had survived the holocaust 'til then were killed in that instant. None who survived escaped uninjured. I have never seen anything like that day again- not ever in my long lifetime. I hope never to see it's like again. Old lands sunk beneath the crashing waves- and new lands rose from the sea bed. The world was changed forever and much that was fair passed out of it. The beauties of the present world are many, but they cannot compare with the world as the gods had fashioned it. As we were told in Tulag, Valleor was punished by the remaining gods- who hoped that his evil would never arise again. Alas, he has found a way to return at long last. I pray that we shall find a way to put paid to him, forever."
Then the Reever spoke no more for a great while. He simply stood by the boat's railings and gazed out over the ruins as long as they were in sight. We left him to his thoughts- his hands clenched into fists of rage as tears wet his cheeks. Finally, he went below for the night.
Bethdish is a world circling a star, called Antuth by the natives (who named the star after the chief deity in their pantheon), presently some 65 lightyears from Earth. Rumor has it that the entire solar system had earlier been located in the Andromeda Galaxy, but was moved by some mysterious force to its new location in our own Milky Way Galaxy. The surviving written history of Bethdish covers some 12,000 years, (with the afore-mentioned displacement to the Milky Way occuring in their year 6055 -- circa 3140 AD, Terran Calendar) but the records of the Immortals reportedly go back roughly a billion years and relate the rise and fall of several civilized eras of non-immortal natives before the present recorded history begins.
The Immortals claim to have been directly created by the Gods of Bethdish, while the diverse non-immortal species are said to have evolved naturally. The several alien colonies now present are, of course, immigrants. One Xenoarcheologist of note, Professor Eustas Gray of the Emperor Norton University of San Francisco, has published several monographs on the subject of excavations on Bethdish that purport to uphold the Immortal's beliefs. Other experts in the field dispute his findings, but all the evidence is not yet in.
Further records of the history of Bethdish are forthcoming from this Author, while previous excerpts are available in your local information network.
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