Authors: Michael A. Stackpole
Michael A. Stackpole
ONCE A HERO by Michael A. Stackpole
A Bantam Spectra Book I May 1994
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Copyright Â© 1994 by Michael A. Stackpole.
Cover an copyright Â© 1994 by Kevin Johnson.
Map copyright Â© 1994 by Elizabeth T. Danfonh.
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This book is dedicated to
As an artist, the pictures he paints are worth far more than a thousand words, and as an author, his understanding of heroes and heroism laid the foundation for much of this work.
This work could not have been completed without the help or influence of the following individuals:
Janna Silverstein, Ricia Mainhardt, Jennifer Roberson, and Liz Danforth, who, as the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse, promised me disaster if I didn't get this book right. All four of them endured the telling of chunks of this tale while I worked on it, and their forbearance was greatly appreciated.
Dennis L. McKiernan, Aiis Rasmussen, and Kate Elliot, who provided insights into fantasy and character that enabled me to pick out key points for emphasis. All three of them, in addition to Jennifer Roberson, are great storytellers, and if you've not read them, you are missing a lot.
Ron Wolfley, Brian and Frances Gross, and Bob and Patty Vardeman, who asked questions and made me defend points that helped determine the direction and content of this book.
Chris Harvey who went above and beyond the call of duty in locating a Maltese/English English/Maltese dictionary for me.
Sam Lewis and Brian Fargo who were patient in allowing me to indulge myself in writing the book.
And, as always, my parents, Jim and Janet; my brother, Patrick, and his wife Joy; my sister, Kerin, and again Liz, who supplied the support and encouragement that made it possible for me to finish the job.
The high-mountain night breezes whipped through the dark canyons of the Reithrese charnel town and greeted me with cold razor kisses on my eyes. The chill thin air whistled and moaned as it broke around corners and over the myriad gargoyles decorating Jammaq. Not for the first time I wondered why I had traveled so far to put myself in the heart of a city sacred to a people who, as a race, had sworn to kill me.
As always, the same answer came to my question: the sword. And that answer satisfied me. Though I had seen it only once, and on that occasion had felt its steely caress a number of times, I knew the blade was meant to be mine. And if possessing it required me to chase it to the gates of the Cold Goddess's Realm or beyond, I was prepared to go that far.
I shivered in my stolen clothes and let a steamy sigh get whipped away by the wind. Obsession breeds foolishness the way stale water breeds mosquitoes, and folks would describe our efforts as foolishness if my Elven companion and I failed in our quest. Still and all, no one else had ever done what Aarundel and I had accomplished so far in our mission, and I took some delight in that fact even if he did not.
I winked at Aarundel. "Don't go thinking of it as grave robbing, Aarundel, think of it as . . . as mining ore for bards to refine into golden song."
"I never thought it my destiny to be lauded before inebriates in a song titled. 'The True Death of the Dun Wolf.' " Aarundel tugged the red scarf away from his mouth and hunched his shoulders. That trimmed four inches off his height, making him shorter than I am. The loose-fitting black natari cassocks we wore added enough bulk to his slender build to let him pass for a Reithrese, though both of us were too tall to fool anyone with one eye open and enough sense to recognize Aarundel's pointed ears poking up through his black hair.
Of course, anyone with that much sense was well away from here.
The Elf's dark eyes glittered in the wan moonlight. "I have half a mind to leave now."
"If you had half a mind, you'd not have come here at all."
The Elf shook his head ruefully. "Clearly my faculties have been atrophied by five years of association with you."
"I'm thinking it's our dying that has befuddled you."
"Ah, yes, to be dead in the city of the dead. The concept amused, but the reality has failed to satisfy expectation." He spat at the nearest building. "This is a foul place."
"Foul it is, and fairly we will quit it, when we are done." Looking about through the dark-shrouded streets, I thought "foul" a rather mild adjective, for death haunted the city of Jammaq. The wind kept it cold, even in high summer, though I had no complaint about that. Growing up in the Roclaws, I had been born in an unseasonable blizzard and had spent more time walking on snow and ice than in spring-green meadows.
With ourselves being the exception, not a living creature walked the cobbled streets in the Reithrese city of the dead that night. The swirling wind brought with it the rotten scent of decaying meat, and that made taking every step toward the center of the city a battle. I pulled the natari scarf up over my nose again and let the wet-wool scent mask the death stench so I could go forward.
I had no idea what the Reithrese envisioned when they created Jammaq, but I could see what it had become over the centuries and centuries. Streets ran haphazard through the city, like cracks in ice, without rhyme and certainly with little reason. The outlying buildings, none over a single story tall, sprouted corners as a bird would feathers. Odd blocks jutted out, studding the walls with stone thorns so thick that even a rat would be hard pressed to find shadowed space large enough in which to hide. That fact had caused my friend and I no end of anxiety, until we both discovered that all but a few of the buildings were empty, and those that were not, advertised their condition with loud music and thin slivers of light limning tight- closed shutters and doors.
If it weren't enough that all the buildings had been blackwashed, each had been decorated in a most horrible manner. Gargoyles big and small, ancient and new-carved, perched on lintels and hung from eaves. They grew like warts from the buildings, snarling outward with fearsome fangs bared. Moving through the night, I could feel a thousand eyes watching us, but nary a one connected to a brain that could think or a mouth that could raise an alarm.