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The Guardian
14. Thought of Zartin

...A world lit by flowing lava surrounded him...

This time he felt himself vulnerable and open again; powerful gift from the Theater could not amplify his powers any more. This time he was on his own; free spirit, drawn from his body and released in the place where all living creatures could meet one another.

He was floating in the sky - or it wasn't a sky at all ? - amidst the brilliant soft clouds, enjoying the sensations of freedom and calmness. He was being lured to float endlessly here, to abandon all his quests and duties, to rest here forever. But it would be too easy a way. After several weeks of being a fugitive he could not fall prey to such simple tricks.

He remembered the words of a prayer (Rhissa called it 'Thought of Zartin') and the unspoken words began to flow in his mind. He grew more assured and strong as the words of power were passing through his mind. He saw the surrounding clouds to become more red, to darken and swirl...

"Alhaes thena oli Zartin bethaval..."

Then he heard bells ringing and understood his Voice was somewhere near. In this realm, where all thoughts could materialize into a sensible and visible forms, all words could be words of power, if uttered correctly.

"...keavel fin Ariden solajen..."

A lava-spitting abyss replaced peaceful green meadows below. Hot air flew upwards, bringing reddish sparks and roaring of mighty underworld forces. Clouds vanished; air was like melting glass - filled with ephemeral images, dancing, disappearing and coming out of nothing. Air ran slowly, it was thick and viscous and beautiful landscape turned into a hellish sight.

"...faloinh kennawas uanot saleg."

A floor came from below; it was warm, too. Quite tolerable to walk, but reminding of terrible power dozing somewhere beneath. He was in a corridor built of melted stone. Dragon heads, modelled in obsidian with ruby eyes were grinning at him. Every several paces they were, placed on the walls, giving him room barely to advance.

Nlaminer realized he had a body once again; not anything of his possessions, but just his own body. He felt rather uncomfortable in this hot environment, but there was no other way. Wind stopped blowing; deep humming filled the twisting passages and sourceless light fell around, allowing no shadow to be cast.

Nlaminer moved along. There was no directions here; one way was as good as another. He preferred not to choose and simply walked the path he was facing.

Echo followed him; several times he thought someone else was creeping up behind him. He turned around - nobody. But spirits of shadows were twinkling around him, and shadows of voices were whispering in his ears. And his Voice left him altogether.

He touched one of the obsidian heads; he thought he heard hollow laughter rolling behind his back. Then the sensation passed. He stood, listening and looking around; no form came round the corner and no spoken word met his hearing, too.

Something was wrong here. He was far away from Rhissa's buoyant spirit; some dark and malignant creatures stirred inside him. What were they ? Why they were here ? For a moment he understood Rhissa cannot help him any more; he was alone here, surrounded by eerie silence and stone grins of the dragon heads.

"I am alone," he whispered, ready to dart down the corridor, half-expecting some horrible shadow float to meet him.

Then he heard several voices, talking at the same time, different, alien, mocking his own voice. 'Alone... alone... alone...' they repeated and laughed.

"Who are you ?" he asked, feeling ashamed and angry. There was nothing here that could actually harm him, and yet he was afraid some irrational, ancient fear. What on earth was happening right now ?

Voices imitated his question and laughed again. He turned around abruptly; was it some shadowlike figure that retreated round the nearest corner or it was just a trick of light and his own imagination ?

He looked at his hands and opened wide his eyes. Hands were oscillating between several forms. They were his own furry hands...

then they melted into bronze-like strong hands of some other humanoid creature... they were turning into reptile hands, into wing-like Tafu hands, into dragon paws and there was no end to these transformations. He touched his face; he was shocked, as there was several sensations relative to one another; as if several Nlaminers touched their cheeks at the same instant and felt one another's sensations.

I am losing my mind, he thought desperately. Hold, he ordered himself, stop changing. I am Nlaminer rad Haorrst, of Marrkes origin, thrown into an alien world. He repeated the words that were the only link between the world of real things and the one of nightmares. But the weird process did not stop.

He walked along. This was even more confusing, for there was Nlaminer-Marrkes, proceeding on his feet, and there was Nlaminer-Tafu, flying on his wings, there were crawling, jumping and whatever possible other Nlaminers moving to the same goal, led by the same mind... or it was many minds combined into one ?

"Zartin !" he shouted with all the strength he could muster, "Lord of Dragons, I ask for your help !"

Walls shook and fell like a card house. He was in another room now; it was still red and hot, but there was no dragon heads on its walls... and no ceiling. Purple sky stared at him out of its myriads of stars.

"You are tiresome, mortal," he heard a bright resonant voice. A wild energy came from this voice, and walls were illuminated with many hues of red color as this voice touched them. "Am I supposed to answer your silly questions ? I am no predictor. If you will not turn back, then you will feel my curse very soon. OUT !!" the voice boomed and Nlaminer felt as if fierce scalding wind was blowing his being away; several of his new Nlaminer parts were thrown into a dark abyss that opened behind his back. But most of him remained where he was and he heard terrible hissing coming out of the mighty throat. Now Zartin (and Nlaminer was quite sure it was him) will accurse him... A nice addition to their problems...

"You were not at the Judgement, O Lord of Dragons," Nlaminer heard his own voice, steady and strong. Strange, it was not his own voice, but who was speaking with his mouth ?

"Judgement ?" a question was nearly visible; the owner of the majestic voice had a power giving visible shapes to spoken words.

"How do you know that ?"

"We, I and my friend, tricked the one naming himself Toxxar and we are chased right now. You are our only hope, Zartin the Great. I would not like to rely on Chaos. Whatever the price you will demand, I am ready to pay it."

He stopped after this awkward speech was spoken and waited.

"Amazing," Zartin replied with hardly concealed interest, "Name yourself, and then I will talk to you."

"I am Nlaminer rad Haorsst, a Marrkes," he began and saw a humanlike figure materializing in the room. The 'Human' had deep, blazing eyes and dark skin. Even in his human form, Zartin emanated power and vigor, and his voice made the wall creak and wave.

Nlaminer paused. "I can tell you the whole story, Lord of Dragons, though it could take several years. Actually, we need a help to discover a hideout of the creature imitating the god Toxxar. He can disclose our camp any moment; my friend out there brought me here to talk to you."

Zartin smiled. His smile was mysterious and unreadable. "You can tell me the whole story later. I am fond of stories... well, I like bravery and jewelry even more,.. as you could suspect..." a tiny hiss was heard. Zartin was laughing. "... but I am quite impressed. I thought you ventured to ask my advice... I hate those silly fortune tellers and am merciless to them." He smiled again, this time his smile was deadly cold.

"But we need your advice, Lord of Dragons," Nlaminer insisted. "I cannot call it something else."

"And if I refuse ?"

"Then I will persuade you until you either smite us to death or agree to help us. We are fugitives; we changed the Balance in our world and we need to eliminate the danger, to the end."

"You hate this so-called Toxxar, I see," Zartin said, "I can understand that. But my prices are very high, Nlaminer rad Haorsst. I am always insatiable with heroic deeds and adventures. What if I demand of you the adventures you never thought of ? Will you risk your life to fulfil your promise to me ?"

Nlaminer did not hesitate. "I will."

"And your friend ?"

Nlaminer shrugged. "Our lives have different paths to follow. I cannot promise for her. She has her own god, her own race and her own goals. I can guarantee I will take any adventure, if you like them."

"I feel you are not cheating. Good. But tell me again, why do you hate your enemy ?"

"Hate," Nlaminer repeated and stood silent. Yes, he hated the foul and mad creature indeed. And this was strange. He never felt that emotion for long; it never controlled his soul. Something awakened in him; he heard bells ringing again. His Voice was coming to help him.

"I cannot tell you why," he replied to Zartin. They were standing on a green meadow now, with green trees all around and gentle breeze coming from above. "I think something happened to me... but I cannot even guess what."

"Look," Zartin came nearer and touched his forehead. "Turn around, Nlaminer and see what is following you."

Nlaminer felt dazzling light penetrating his skull and turned.

And the sky grew bloody again.

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-- mecenat --

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