Edward Fagen eyed the confines of the small cell, searching for a way out. The window in the mortared wall was blocked with wooden posts as thick as his arms. In time, he could dig the bars loose, but he was certain they'd pull him out long before, either killing him outright or first experimenting with the varied methods of delivering pain to a man.

There was an even chance Blane was dead already. Fagen thought about it for a moment and wondered how Minerva would react. It could get messy. She was crazy about Blane. Fagen got along well enough with her, but it was Blane who got her to do things she didn't want to do.

Outside the cell door, the Malaaz guard sighed. Fagen looked at the creature and decided it must be bored. It stared back at Fagen with dull, half-closed eyes. Its heavy-set brow was a dappled gray and free of eyebrows. Apart from the semi-circle of bright orange hair, the remainder of its head was hairless, same as the rest of its body. Vestigial slits continually quivered on both sides of its neck. The alien was bipedal and large, considering it was somewhat shorter than Fagen's six-foot frame. Muscular arms ended in hands that had four opposing digits for fingers. Shifting its bulk from one wide foot to the other, it sighed again and slipped a thick finger into its flat nose.

They were almost as stupid as they looked, but to Fagen's misfortune, he found they easily took offense, especially when it came to the royal family. Social justice among the Malaaz was meted out at the whim of the Tetrarch's consort, inevitably along lines that were advantageous to the consort. Unfortunately, she had taken an immediate disliking to Fagen.

The outside door swung open and two more of the creatures entered the jail. They consulted with the guard, making their point with a series of unintelligible sounds and back-handed slaps to their ample bellies. Without the translator, it was all gibberish to Fagen. One of the creatures released the latch and allowed Fagen's cell door to swing free. With grunts and what could only be taken as threats, they prodded him with their spears, directing him to move out of the cell. Fagen did so and was pushed outside, into the sunlight.

It only took a glance to see there was no chance for escape. Malaaz warriors surrounded him. They filled the courtyard and lined the ramparts. The main gate was open, but it too was filled with Malaaz, curious to see the human. The guards marched him to the largest building and pushed him inside.

The odor of incense filled the air. Bright shafts of light streamed from the ceiling, spotlighting the floor. More of the creatures stood along the walls. At the insistence of the guards, Fagen was shoved into one of the circles of light. As he lifted a hand to shade his eyes, a gong sounded. Off to one side, a curtain parted and, accompanied by his entourage, the Tetrarch strode into the room.

The Malaaz were big on pomp and circumstance. The Tetrarch's arrival was met by a sustained moan from the royal onlookers. All but Fagen dropped to their knees and patted the floor. Clouds of dust rose, instigating a round of coughs from the supplicants.

One of the guards whipped Fagen across the backs of his knees, causing him to kneel as well. The Tetrarch climbed the dais and took his seat on an uncomfortable-looking throne. The consort stared at Fagen, chittered in Malaaz laughter, and sat to the right of the Tetrarch. A sound like mechanical laughter came from the dais and Fagen focused his attention on the Tetrarch. The alien held Blane's translator close to its mouth.

"Can you hear me, you ugly thing?"

Fagen realized the Tetrarch was speaking to him.

"I hear and obey, oh great one."

"I am pleased. This... gadget that allows me to speak to you, is it alive?"

Fagen spoke uncertainly, unsure of the proper etiquette. "No, your highness, it is a mechanical device. Where I come from, many such things exist."

"Show me more of these miracles."

Fagen spread his hands. "Unfortunately, your guards took my things when I was captured. Perhaps if you would allow me to have my equipment, I could show you many such wonders..."

The consort spoke to the Tetrarch in a low voice. The Tetrarch grimaced in what the Malaaz used as a smile.

"And among these wonders of yours, are there not weapons? Marvelous weapons with untold power? I think you are a tricky one, a prankster not to be trusted."

"Your Lord, nothing could be further from the truth." Fagen took a step forward and the guards responded by raising their spears. The consort again leaned close to the Tetrarch and spoke into the hole on the side of his head. She finished and the Tetrarch nodded. He looked down at Fagen. "I believe you can be persuaded to cooperate." The Tetrarch waved a bejeweled hand and off to one side a curtain was drawn back, revealing Blane's heavyset form spread-eagled in mid-air between two sturdy beams.

"Hello, Fagen," said Blane.

"How's it hanging?"

"Not funny."

"Sorry. It was hard to resist."

"Silence!" bellowed the Tetrarch through the translator.

Blane sighed and rolled his eyes.

The Tetrarch barked at one of the royal guards. The guard moved beside Blane and placed the tip of his spear under Blane's chin. Blane looked at Fagen. "Edward, this has gone a little too far, don't you think?"

"Perhaps it has not gone far enough," the Tetrarch replied. "You will die unless your companion gives me the rest of his magic."

"Go ahead," said Fagen, "kill him. I didn't know him that well anyway."

"Edward!" protested Blane.

The Tetrarch suddenly seemed perplexed. He conferred briefly with his consort, then turned back to Fagen.

"If his life matters nothing to you, perhaps your own will." He barked out another unintelligible order and, brandishing a large, curved knife, the largest Malaaz guard stepped within the circle of light. "You may fight, then we shall see."

A knife slid across the floor toward Fagen. There was no time to consider alternatives; the Malaaz guard jumped forward, closing the gap quickly, barely giving Fagen enough time to pick up the knife before the first onslaught. The creature lunged, slashing at his chest. Fagen looked down and saw that his tunic was cut.

He ducked under another charge and the knife sliced through the air. Fagen dropped low and, instead of stabbing the warrior, he delivered a strong uppercut to its ribs with his free hand. The guard grunted and staggered back.

Blane shouted his support, but Fagen paid no attention. His full concentration was on the Malaaz guard. If he had to, he would kill it, but he hoped things wouldn't go that far. He'd rather disarm the creature.

The blow annoyed the guard. In rage, it spat upon the floor, stamped its feet, and charged once more. With ease, Fagen side-stepped the attack. Standing over the thing as it passed, he sent a quick left to what he hoped was the sweet spot on the creature's skull, slightly above and behind the ear hole. The punch landed solidly, snapping its head backwards. It didn't stagger and it didn't fall, but it didn't stop, either. The guard continued to charge, bent at the waist, long knife held outward, until it ran through the surrounding Malaaz and out of the building altogether.

A hush fell over the room. In relief, Blane chuckled. Fagen wasn't even breathing hard.

Mouth agape, the Tetrarch stared at Fagen for a long moment before finally leaning to his right and conferring with his consort. His eyes never wandered from Fagen. This time, he spoke with the female for a longer period before addressing Fagen.

Speaking through the translator, he said, "So. You are a warrior. You should have told me. It wasn't fair."

Fagen shrugged and looked at Blane. "Where's Minerva?"

"I'm afraid she's still checking out the energy source."

It dawned on Fagen that Minerva was out of range for Blane's implanted transceivers. They were going to have to get out of the predicament by themselves.

If only Blane hadn't popped off and called the aliens a race of idiots just as Fagen had handed him a translator, they wouldn't be in the mess in which they now found themselves.

The Tetrarch motioned to his royal guards and Blane was untied.

"What do you seek in my kingdom?" asked the head of the Malaaz, "Besides the inquiries you made?"

Fagen shrugged. "If you already know that much, then you must know what I seek. I want that which burns forever. I want the ghlowstone."

"Yes, of this I have heard. It is a quest for you? Some sort of test a greater god has bestowed upon you? For I see no other reason why one would come so far for such a thing. No one has ever seen the stone and lived. They say it is the oldest of all things and is not so easy to find. I am the great Tetrarch of the Malaaz and even I know little about it."

"I have a use for it."

The consort whispered behind the fan she held in her four-fingered hand.

The Tetrarch listened to her, then continued. "If you retrieve the stone, what will you do with it?"

"I will take it with me to study its properties. Where I come from, objects of this nature are held in great value."

Blane started to speak but remained silent when Fagen slightly shook his head.

"The path to the ghlowstone is fraught with peril. Even if you survive the journey, they say it is unapproachable, giving off poisonous vapors and heat which sears the skin."

"Yes, I have heard these stories."

"And yet you are willing to embark on such an adventure?"


The alien king lowered the translator and once again consulted with his consort. From Fagen's point of view, she was horrifically ugly. Even the tone of her voice made his skin crawl. The Tetrarch spoke into the translator again.

"It is said that where the ghlowstone is located, an abundance of jewels is to be found littering the ground. You may have the ghlowstone, if somehow you can survive, provided you bring back three copels of jewels. Of course, your companion will remain here to ensure your return. Do you agree?"

"No way," protested Blane. "I'm not staying here with these, these..."

Fagen didn't look at Blane. He didn't see any other choice in the matter. "Yes," he said, "I agree."

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