Mayer Alan Brenner – Spell of Catastrophe

THE AIR WAS THICK and the heat oppressive. Outside the flap of canvas that covered the doorway, a vast range of beige desert overlaid by a scattering of scrub ran to the horizon. The line of dust raised by the approach of the caravan hung motionless in the air, stretching south from the oasis into a cluster of low hills. Max dropped the flap, turned, and descended the short flight of steps, his eyes still smarting from the desert sun. Each stair had the solidity of rough board, reassuring after the sands of the past few days, except for the bottom one, which yielded under Max’s foot in a very unstairlike fashion. He rocked back and squinted down. The stair shifted in the gloom and became a man dressed in loose dark clothes sprawled out on the floor, burbling pleasantly from somewhere in a comprehensive stupor. By the look of him, he might be burbling still when the caravan passed through the next time, heading south again at the end of its run. That probably meant the local rotgut was either very tasty or very dangerous. Max stepped across the man and proceeded across the room. At the other end of the room was a bar, on which Max rested an elbow. The room itself occupied a natural gully in the rock next to the oasis, covered over with a heavy canvas tent. Cables ran from eyebolts driven into the rocks up to timbers that supported the canvas roof. Another caravan had been parked at the oasis when Max had arrived, but most of its crew had not been in evidence. They were certainly missing no longer.

Gently reeling forms were propped in chairs and on tables, and piled in low mounds on the rock floor. An arm wrestling match was in process at one side, deep in the shifting green haze from a half-dozen guttering candles. The bartender emerged from a shadow behind the counter and pushed a mug at Max. “You know any good ruins around here?” Max said to him. A hefty growl from the other end of the bar drowned out any reply. The man behind the growl, Max discovered as he turned to eye him, was about seven feet tall, and waving a trestle table over his head with one massively corded arm. “You want another drink?” Max said. “I’ll buy you another drink.” The guy growled and hefted the table. “Okay,” Max said, “no drink.” It was just as well, as the bartender had managed to conveniently disappear from sight. Behind the counter, framed by several large boulders, was a cave containing stacks of large kegs. The upper lip of the cave formed a narrow ledge overhead. Dangling in front of the ledge over the bar was a line of additional kegs, lashed together in threes and suspended by cables from pulleys. The cables ran down to a rack of marlinspikes in the rock at the end of the bar, just on the other side of the counter from Max, in fact.

The giant swung the table again and took a bead on Max. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Max said. “It’s too hot for this kind of nonsense.” The man reared up with the table. “All right, then,” said Max, “have it your way.” Max leaned over the counter, selected one cable, grasped it firmly with his right hand, and sharply cocked his right wrist. A blade sprung out of his sleeve below his palm and slashed the rope. Max rose swiftly into the air as the trio of lashed kegs at the other end of the bar equally swiftly descended. The kegs struck the waving table, the table overbalanced as its wielder lost his grip, and with one loud thud and a trio of lesser thuds the table hit the giant’s head and the kegs again hit the table. All collapsed in a clatter and small cloud of dust. A final two shards fell to the floor, there was a moment of silence, and then the unmistakable sound of a contented snore arose from deep within the heap. Max swung from the rope onto the ledge over the bar and seated himself. He sipped at his drink, which he had retained in his left hand, and slid the knife back into its spring-loaded sheath. “Fortunately for you,” he said down at the pile of wreckage, “it is far too hellish out here to get involved in serious exertion.” After another week at the outside the caravan would be clear of the desert, he thought, and then it was a straight shot across the plains to Drest Klaaver, where at last report Shaa was hiding out.

He was looking forward to seeing Shaa again. If Shaa didn’t try to kill him on sight, that is. The bartender had reemerged from his hiding-place. “So what about the ruins?” Max called down. “Ruins?” the man said, looking out at the room. “Whaddaya need more ruins, what you did here isn’t enough for you?” FOR A CHANGE, Max was not actually on the run, which is to say that he didn’t think anyone in particular was after him. Of course, his perception (which happened to be wrong) did not materially change the situation. He did indeed have a pursuer, and later that night the pursuer caught up. The large moon was up, too, along with some of the small fast ones. Max dangled his legs over the tailboard of the rear wagon, watching ground pass in the pale light. A large shaggy form loped around the wagon and hoisted itself next to him. “I still say you should have hacked him into little pieces,” the shaggy hulk said. “If you could have waited for me, I would have hacked him into little pieces.” “All the time with you, Svin, it’s fight, fight, fight, hack, hack, hack,” Max said. “I’m not going to say your philosophy may not be superior, and it certainly has the virtue of simplicity, but by the same token -” “It is the course of honor, the only true path for a warrior born,” Svin said with a note of finality.

“That’s fine as far as it goes,” Max said, “but not all of us are warriors born. Some of us subscribe to the possibility of old age instead.” Svin thought that over. Shadows passed over the large moon – three circling dwarf buzzards, moonlight shimmering on their feathers. The smallest one swooped down to have a look at them, its ten-foot wingspan draping a darker black over the rocks. “Look at that thing,” Max said, waving his hand at it. “It’s got a body to feed, but it manages fine without a lot of hacking and slashing. I don’t know how much of a goal in life those things have, but they seem to get by pretty well on a more passive lifestyle.” “Where do you think it finds enough to eat?” Svin, perhaps because of a Northern metabolism honed in the icy wastes, was perpetually hungry. “There’s always carrion around somewhere, if you know where to look for it and you’re willing to do what you’ve got to do.” Svin shook his head. “Carrion, Max, is for lesser beings. We will die in battle, as a man should, and go triumphant to meet the gods.” Max, who had met some of the gods, had not been impressed. “Watch out for remarks like that, Svin, you never know who’s listening.

” “Fah!” Svin said. “What does it matter if -” Max heard a muffled ‘clunk’ next to him. Svin began to raise one hand to his head, then fell over backward into the cart. A heavily thatched arrow with a flat blunt head dropped into his lap. Max pushed off the tailgate and landed silently behind a rock. The wagons began to clatter and jangle away down the path. A low voice buried in a reedy gargle came from the same direction as the arrow. “Honor have addressing I Maximillian, Vaguely Disreputable?” Max raised himself slightly and squinted over the rock. Back there in the gloom, he thought he could make out two glowing orange sparks, spaced at the right separation for eyes. “… You’re Haddo,” he said. “Haddo am I. Serve I Great Karlini. You come?” Karlini? “Yes, I’ll come,” Max said. “Of course I’ll come. Just let me get my stuff.

” He got up and sprinted after the wagons. Svin was breathing, and a large lump was forming on his forehead not far above his nose. Max shook him, without noticeable effect, then rolled him into a more secure position deeper inside the wagon. Shaking his own head, Max found his two packs, slipped the larger one onto his back, and jumped to the ground. The caravan moved away behind him. The pair of orange eyes approached. “You were a little rough on poor Svin back there,” Max said, handing Haddo his arrow. “Situation’s nature was unsure I.” “Yes, well, I suppose they don’t make barbarians like they used to, either.” “Considerate you are,” Haddo said, indicating the arrow, which then disappeared inside a sleeve. The glowing orange spots (which Max assumed were eyes, for want of a better explanation) floated in the opening of a hooded black cloak. The moonlight failed to penetrate the opening, and in fact seemed to make little impression on the surface of the cloak either. “Thanks give I.” Haddo glided off into the desert to the west. Max followed.

“Nice bit of shooting, though, Haddo.” “In practice, I.” ” … So how is everything, Haddo?” “Problems. Always are problems.” ” … Are you going to tell me what’s up, or do I have to wiggle your tongue myself?” “To wiggle, first must find,” said the featureless black hood. “Karlini will tell.” “Where is Karlini?” “Days by foot. Trackless are wastes.” Max sighed. More time stomping through the desert. “In the old days, they had machines, Haddo, machines that could have -” “Old days gone. Matter not. Still now, things not bad.” “I wouldn’t exactly call walking for days through trackless wastes ‘not bad’.” Haddo sounded smug.

“Said I only distance by foot. Did not say by foot we go. Brought I bird.” THEY REACHED THE BIRD before dawn. Max and Haddo climbed yet another hard-packed rise in the false light, watching for more of the thorny succulents that had already snagged the strap off the pack Max was toting in his hand. At the bottom of the down slope below the rise was a dark rounded sand dune. Haddo scampered down the slope and whistled a low trilling whistle. The dune stirred and rose. It was the bird. Only major cities and other big-time operators usually kept the big buzzards, which might mean that Karlini had come up substantially in life since Max had seen him last. The buzzards ate a lot, but not being especially concerned about their menus, each one could serve quite adequately as a refuse disposal department for a metropolitan area. Among the species of giant birds, they were also about the dumbest. No one needed much intelligence from a bird, of course, but it was helpful if the bird had the attention span to remember what it was doing through to the end of its current task. The buzzards were particularly notorious for getting distracted during official state visits or large pageants and unexpectedly taking off for their ancestral breeding grounds, often bearing with them several surprised dignitaries. Farthrax the Munificent had been crowned Emperor, in fact, after returning, the better part of a year later, from the mountains where the breeding took place.

He had always refused to talk about it, but the general amazement over his return was enough to cement him as a favorite of the gods. “Is this thing safe?” Max said. “Through trackless wastes rather walk you?” Haddo said. He resumed whispering in the bird’s ear slit. Max grabbed a dangling rope and climbed aboard. Haddo scratched behind a feather, patted the bird on the side of the head, and came back. Max helped him swing into the saddle in front of him, forward on the body between the wing roots. The bird stood, hopped up and down tentatively a few times, flared its neck feathers, and flopped down again. “Nothing say you,” Haddo muttered. He screeched at the bird. The bird screeched back, then lurched to its feet. Max checked the belt holding him in the saddle. The buzzard fanned its wings, broke into a run, strode up the ridge, and hopped into the air. The sun rose as the bird circled, gliding and gradually gaining altitude. Thermals and whirling dust devils sprouted from the desert floor.

The bird began to move in earnest, gaining speed with precise flicks of its wingtips, spiraling up one thermal and launching itself across the desert to the next. Around noon a line of craggy hills appeared in the northwest, and later in the afternoon the hills were rolling in a picturesque but jagged scroll beneath the broad wings. The hills were as barren as the desert, but the exposed rocks displayed colorful strata of red and purple and bright yellow. The shadows lengthened and the colors of the rock had begun to glow with deeper hues when Max suddenly thought he smelled damp salt. “Haddo,” Max said. “Not to bother,” Haddo snapped. “Landing procedure complex is.” A salt lake grew underneath, tucked into the folds of the hills, silent and smooth in the still air. The buzzard banked around a peak and headed for an island. The island was covered with buildings – no, a castle. Then Max took a closer look. The castle was not on an island, the castle was the island. Walls and towers dropped smoothly into the lake and the upper part of one ring of crenellations protruded from the water like a reef of stepping stones, the top of each rectangular block barely awash. The bird circled once around the central cluster of towers, gauging the air currents, abruptly nosed over, and dived. It pulled up just above a flagpole, sideslipped onto a walled field, ran a few steps, and settled to the ground.

Max helped Haddo down and followed him to the front of the bird, feeling like the flagstones of the courtyard were executing sharp banks beneath his feet. Haddo whistled something at the bird, letting Max scratch under its neck. After a moment, Max gingerly straightened. “Okay, Haddo,” he said. “Thanks for the flight. Now what about Karlini?” Haddo gave a final remark to the bird. “Here wait,” he said to Max, and staggered off through a doorway. Someone passed him coming out, the someone wrinkling his nose fastidiously. “Wroclaw!” Max said. “Nice to see you again.” “Very good to see you, sir.” Wroclaw’ s gaunt skin was an olive-drab green, and his bones were of not quite human proportions. His ancestors had been conjured, one way or another, but that wasn’t something usually discussed in polite company. “Are you fit, sir?” “That remains to be seen. I suspect it depends on what Karlini wants out of me.

” Wroclaw coughed discretely. “Very good, sir. Will you see the master now?” “I hope so, Wroclaw, I really do.” “Ahem, yes,” Wroclaw said, “sir. Will you follow me, please?” Crossing the doorway, Max’s hair crackled with static and he caught a whiff of ozone. Inside the corridor, though, the air was much cooler and the tang of salt was much less apparent. “Do you know what I’m doing here, Wroclaw?” Max said.


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Updated: 14 December 2020 — 19:23

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