City of a Million Legends Wildside Press 2003  Berkley, 1985 
First Lifewave Book 2

For other editions see Bibliography


Berkley Books front pages

LADY IN RED

A film of scarlet chiffon draped from the jeweled tiara sparkling between her upright ears and fell like a regal train to her feet. A twist of the scarlet circled her body, revealing most of her silken, smoke-gray fur.

She was sumptuous, seductive--and deadly.

And Zref knew her. The Enemy.

Pulsing waves of yearning battered at Zref, calling him into the Crown scintillating about her: "You can't escape this time, Mazemaster. Come, tell me what you've done with it! I won't be put off again!"

Berkley books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

The First Lifewave Series

MOLT BROTHER

CITY OF A MILLION LEGENDS

 

 

CITY OF A MILLION LEGENDS

JACQUELINE LICHTENBERG

(Berkley "B" symbol)

BERKLEY BOOKS, NEW YORK

CITY OF A MILLION LEGENDS

A Berkley Book/published by arrangement with

the author

PRINTING HISTORY

Berkley edition/February 1985

All rights reserved.

Copyright 1985 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg.

Cover illustration by David Mattingly.

This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part,

by mimeograph or any other means, without permission.

For information address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

200 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016.

ISBN: 0-425-07513-3

A BERKLEY BOOK TM 757,375

The name "BERKLEY" and the stylized "B" with design

are trademarks belonging to Berkley Publishing Corporation.

 

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

To Sharon Jarvis,

who asked for this series

To Susan Allison,

who waited patiently for this book

To Margo Block,

my first collaborator,

who, more than twenty years ago,

showed me what I could do when asked

To Chasdo, (my first computer)

Inanimate Collaborator, because this is its First Novel

Acknowledgments

I'd like to thank the people who have, wittingly or not, contributed to my development of the peculiar theory of karma and reincarnation which I use as a background for the Book of the First Lifewave: Judy Thomases, who reawakened, my interest in the occult in the early seventies; Marion Zimmer Bradley, who clued me in to some excellent occult writers; Sybil Leek, who has the gift of clarity; Grant Lewi, Noel Tyl, Robert Hand, Mark Schulman and Donald Yott, whose writings on astrology have proved most valuable; legions of occultists who discuss such things as the theory that the twentieth century is seeing the reincarnation of many of those involved in the fall of Atlantis; and the hoards of sf/f fans who have allowed me to read Tarot for them or who have argued my hypotheses with me.

The theory of the workings of karma used in the Lifewave novels are my own derivations, and not to be confused with the theories being tested by working esotericists, nor with Reality. The Lifewave novels are not textbooks, but works of fantasy, using the serious theories of esotericists with as much literary license as hard-sf writers use the modern theories of physics.

One of the esoteric laws which Jean Lorrah has pointed out that I play fast and loose with here is the Magic Circle of twelve or thirteen. Jean has argued to get me to add two more to Zref's aklal, and I've refused because of a technical theory I'm using underneath the background of these books.

That theory is not at all relevant to the drama of this story, so it is unmentioned. I don't even plan to get into it in the sequel to City of a Million Legends, currently titled The Last Persuaders, although that book does have a schooling sequence at Mautri where that theory is taught.

But I would dearly love to hear from anyone who feels this book has been spoiled by the omission of discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of the background. I'd like to know what you feel should be included so I may cover it in future novels. Jean Lorrah and I always love to hear honest criticism from our readers because that is how we become better writers. Honest praise is also helpful--without it, we might well omit your favorite thing from the next novel!

Write us at the post office box below. Enclose a legal size, Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope (SASE), and we'll send in, formation on current and future Lifewave and Sime/Gen novels and fanzines.

2003 update -- email simegen@simegen.com 

Table of Contents

Chapter Title Page

One Mating 1

Two Seeking-With 15

Three Epitasis 31

Four Almural 41

Five Human Mating Dance 55

Six Sirwin 67

Seven Glenwarnan Diorama 83

Eight Molt 95

Nine Stonehenge 109

Ten Shattering the Crack 125

Eleven Glenwarnan Secrets 139

Twelve Lifereadings 153

Thirteen Crystal Crown 167

Fourteen City of a Million Legends 183

Fifteen Thiarac 197

Sixteen Bhirhirn 213

Inscription Found Outside the

Ancient Ruins of the Maze

TO ALL WHO COME AFTER----BEWARE: DANGER: WARNING. SEE WHAT WE HAVE HAD TO DO TO THE GLORY THAT WAS OURS. WE HAVE DESTROYED IT.----OBLITERATED UTTERLY. THE CAUSE WAS----. HEED THIS TALE.

IN THE HEIGHT OF OUR----THERE CAME ONE WHO----ALL THE----POWER. HE CALLED HIMSELF OSSMINID AND WALKED THE MAZE RIGHT HERE AHEAD OF WHERE YOU STAND NOW. HE EMERGED SUCCESSFUL, ACQUIRING THE POWER TO PERSUADE ANY LIVING CREATURE TO HIS WILL.

BUT THIS WAS NOT ENOUGH FOR HIM. HE----THE CROWNS AS WELL. USING HIS POWER, HE BENT THE CROWN COUNCIL TO HIS WILL AND WAS GIVEN THE CROWN----AS WELL. HE IT WAS WHO SET OUT TO PROVE THERE WAS NO REAL NEED TO----CROWN AND MAZEMASTER.

FOR A TIME, THE GLORY OF OUR----INCREASED. OSSMINID RULED AS MAZEMASTER AND LEFT THE CROWNS TO THE CROWN COUNCIL. BUT AS HE RULED, HE CHANGED.

----HE SOUGHT TO CHOOSE CANDIDATES TO WALK THE MAZE. FEW OF HIS CHOICES SUCCEEDED. FEWER AND FEWER PERSUADERS EMERGED TO DO THE WORK OF OUR----.

ONE DAY HE WRAPPED HIMSELF AS MAZEMASTER AND WALKED INTO THE EMPEROR'S CROWN, AS WAS HIS RIGHT. HE HAD NO PERSUADER TO SEND TO THE WARRING PLANET, AND SO HE SENT HIS OWN THOUGHTS THROUGH THE EMPEROR'S CROWN.

THIS WAS NOT JUST A MESSAGE FROM THE EMPEROR OF CROWNS. THIS WAS A FORCE FELT OVER THE WHOLE PLANET. NONE COULD RESIST. THE POPULATION WAS----

WE SOUGHT TO REPLACE OSSMINID. HE WOULD NOT LOOSE THE----HE HAD GATHERED. THERE WAS KILLIN. HE WOULD NOT YIELD. ON THE DAY HE ENTERED THE CROWN FOR A SECOND TIME, HE----TO DESTROY US.

TO STOP HIM, WE DESTROYED OURSELVES, KNOWING THAT WITHOUT CROWN AND MAZE, OUR----WOULD DISINTEGRATE.

WARNING. WARNING. WARNING.

THE MAZEHEART THAT----US THE POWER TO PERSUADE COULD NOT BE DESTROYED. WE HAVE REMOVED IT AND CONCEALED IT.

WARNING. WARNING. WARNING.

THE----OF HOW THE MAZEHEART----DIES WITH US. KNOW ONLY THAT WE DARED NOT----INTO A----FROM WHICH NOTHING EMERGES. ALL OUR----WOULD NOT LET US PREDICT WHAT WOULD HAPPEN.

IF THE MAZEHEART IS FOUND----DESTROY ITSELF.

THE LAST PERSUADER

 

CHAPTER ONE

Mating

Zref Ortenau MorZdersh'n lay supine on the fine white sand at the edge of the spawning pond contentedly watching the surging waters where the two kren mated. Zref was nude in the steamy air, though outside the pond room he'd have worn several layers of clothing to protect his human skin against the mountain chill.

Suddenly, all his contentedness vanished in a flush of protective alertness such as he had not felt since his first bhirhir, his molt brother Sudeen, had died.

He sat up, gathering his legs under him, scrutinizing the two kren in the pond, Arshel and Khelin.

"What's the matter?" asked Ley, Khelin's bhirhir.

Zref shrugged, peering about the room, half expecting to see ghosts lurking in the steamy air.

Ley brushed his hair back from his face and whispered, one human to another, "Come on! You know Khelin's never attacked any female, let alone Arshel! Relax."

Zref shivered, realizing he'd broken out in a cold sweat. He searched for a logical cause for his alarm. Arshel was not yet truly Zref's bhirhir; they couldn't pledge until the mating finished. But he already felt as protective as he'd ever felt with Sudeen. And now it seemed a presence invaded this most private room threatening Arshel--his brothers Khelin and Ley--himself.

The heart-pounding surge of alarm was abating, the presence gone. "I trust Khelin, too," he whispered to Ley.

But Zref remained sitting, inspecting the room.

The kren had salted the pond water and warmed the air simulating Arshel's native tropical island, so she could suffer the rigors of egg-laying in comfort. But the rest of the room was typical of all freshwater spawning ponds. The water filled half the floor. The other half, almost all the way to the door leading to the rest of the immense MorZdersh'n family home, was a gently sloping sand hill. To Zref's right hulked the free-standing arch, the "door to the room without walls" of kren philosophy. To one side, pegs jutted from the wall, holding street clothing. On a table set beneath the clothing, Zref and Ley kept toiletries. Focusing on Ley. Zref noted that his fellow human's tan was fading, and he seemed to have gained some weight during the long mating, though he still had a muscular build.

Ley flipped his long, sand-colored hair back and whispered, "They're going to want us in there soon."

"Maybe not," answered Zref. He focused on the kren pair in the water. Iridescent scales flashed in the artificial light, but it was easy to pick out Arshel's darker saltwater-spawn coloring. Two earless heads surfaced and the sound of kren voices reached them over the lap-rush-lap of the water. Soon, Arshel would be laying her egg.

An uprush of curiosity swept aside the soft murmuring of the water as deep inside Zref's mind the comnet Interface signaled a message had dropped into his private file, that part of the Interface Guild's comlink set aside for Zref to use as his own memory. Years ago, his brain had been surgically altered to give him access to the webwork of connected computer banks located in all the far-flung centers of the Hundred Planets civilization, so that now opening the Interface was natural and peculiarly satisfying.

The Urgent Flag on the message had caused the high-intensity curiosity. Mating or no, he had to read that message. "There's someone waiting to see you in the reception room of your house. Youta."

Youta, an Interface of the Jernal species, had been on Camiat long enough to know not to interrupt a kren mating. Zref opened and dropped a return message into Youta's private file. "The person will have to wait. Zref."

"This is a Hundred Planets security matter, and a Guild Policy matter. Rodeen will not break her word and order you off Camiat while you are still obligated to Arshel, but we all believe you both should go. Youta."

No! But Zref didn't drop that reply, and before he could frame something diplomatic, Ley was shaking him.

"Zref, pay attention. You can't open now!"

"I'm sorry, did they call us?" Zref searched the churning waters while lowering his blood pressure to control his curiosity, determined not to be seduced into opening when Arshel needed him.

Ley, restraining Zref with one hand, warned, "Not yet, but it can't be long now; Khelin is frantic." Ley pulled his hand back, glancing sideways at Zref. "Is something wrong? You've never opened when your attention should be on them."

Zref arranged his face into a grateful smile. Ley was treating him as if he were actually Arshel's bhirhir. "The Guild is dropping me messages demanding my attention." He hadn't intended to say that, but Zref had served the Hundred Planets as an Interface long enough not to be surprised at what came out of his mouth in answer to a direct question.

"During a mating?! You shouldn't let them do that!"

Zref was relieved that Ley hadn't phrased his advice, Why do you . . . which would have compelled him to answer. As it was, he felt nothing.

Ley frowned. "Khelin hasn't raised a drop of venom in almost five days. He must be in agony, but he's so involved he can't even feel it. I never thought kren could behave like this . . . as if he wants the mating to go on forever!"

Zref averted his gaze and opened briefly, then said, "According to the literature, the three years they've gone, with this being their fifth consecutive egg, already is a record. And no such mating has occurred between a pair that had mated with each other previously."

Ley looked at Zref in chagrin. "My brother the Interface. I'll never get used to it." He shook his head, then wondered, "Could it have something to do with Khelin's priesthood?" He gestured at Zref not to answer.

The Mautri disciplines both Arshel and Khelin had mastered seemed to have gentled their mating habits while intensifying their concentration on the process. Zref squelched the bubbling question of why this was, and why he, knowing Ley was human and not at all likely to be inflamed by Khelin's condition and attack Arshel himself, still felt a growing sense of threat. He decided the entire threat to Arshel came from the messages still dropping insistently into his private file--threatening to interrupt them.

Ley scrambled to his feet. "Look."

Khelin poked his head up above the rim of the pond, his skull outlined by the soaked down fluff that normally haloed his head. His hide gleamed, cascades of rainbows adorning his earless skull. He raised one hand, webbing spread, to beckon. "She's ready."

Shoulder to shoulder, Zref and Ley walked down the sloping sand and into the water, until they stood waist deep, facing one another with the kren couple between them.

If they had been kren, the situation would have them squaring off as potential combatants, venom flowing into their venom sacks, fangs lowered to strike position. Since they both happened to be human, they had worked out a symbolic gesture which helped to put the kren subliminally at ease. Making fists, they touched knuckles across the two kren who were floating nearly submerged, hyperventilating in preparation for the long submergence.

Arshel floated on her back. The bulge of her abdomen which contained the egg broke the surface, rippling as the powerful muscles drove the egg into her fully extended ovipositor. She reached for Zref's hand and squeezed, her eyes closed as she concentrated on the Mautri disciplines to relax her sphincters and pass even such a large egg as this easily. He returned her squeeze reassuringly.

Khelin urgently motioned Ley aside. Then, in one swoop, he flipped Arshel over, submerging them both as he thrust his male organ deep, both pushing the egg down its channel and lubricating it with his sperm.

Zref saw Ley's lips moving in a silent count as the kren disappeared beneath the surface. "I'm timing them," Zref said.

Ley smiled. "Just don't get lost in the comnet."

"If I do, my watchdog function will alert me at four minutes. If we have to bring them up, we will, but I don't think that's what they wanted us here for." Over the last five matings, Zref had built these routine monitoring functions into his private file so that they would operate even around a sheaf of unread messages.

The movements below the surface churned Zref off balance, dragging him into neck-high water. Ley followed, swimming. "That was awfully strong," said Ley. "I'm worried." He hyperventilated, and Zref followed suit.

"That's three minutes," said Zref. "Let's go down."

They submerged. Khelin's large webbed hands were spread around Arshel's abdomen, encouraging the egg to descend into the ovipositor as he gripped her from behind. Arshel's face was relaxed into a sublime ecstasy, Khelin's into rapture. The two humans watched critically and then surfaced. Ley puffed, "They're both getting enough oxygen through their skins. They can stay down three or four minutes more."

Zref sculled to keep his balance in the churning water. "Arshel's color was good: I think she can make it--but I'm not sure about Khelin. He's doing all the work."

"Ah, but he's having the time of his life! Did you see the expression on his face? I think he'd strike at me if I tried to make him stop now!"

They breathed together, and Zref said, "That's five minutes." Together they jackknifed straight to the bottom, but by the time they got there, the egg was a pearlescent blob against the pale grains of sand. Khelin was happily scooping sand up around it, beckoning Ley over to help him.

Arshel turned to Zref and, in self-conscious imitation of the human gesture of acceptance, embraced him.

The flexible, kren scales were familiar. The venom sack at her throat was still flaccid, empty from the long mating. Her ovipositor had already tucked itself away and the pleated skin of her abdomen was coming back into place. Her firm muscles were pliant, not tense. Her overflowing vitality filled Zref with inexplicable joy, so rare for an Interface.

Khelin's exuberant egg burying had kicked up so much sand Zref couldn't see. He signaled, and together they surfaced, Zref panting while Arshel floated, breathing easily.

Moments later, Khelin and Ley surfaced, laughing. The image evoked precious memories of Sudeen finishing a mating.

Khelin swept Arshel aside. "At last, Arshel! That was the final time for us!"

Her wide, dark eyes bloomed with a new joy. "Truly?"

"Yes, my magnificent mothering-lady, I'll never have to do that again." There was a deep, abiding affection in his voice that Zref had never heard from Sudeen. Khelin moved Arshel toward Zref, catching Zref's eye. "So now at last you can immunize Zref to your venom, and Zref can offer you immunization to MorZdersh'n in proper bhirhir pledge--making you truly MorZdersh'n!"

Bhirhir, not mating, bound kren into families, and Zref knew Khelin appreciated their delaying their pledge to allow the mating. Nevertheless, the kren placed Arshel's webbed hand in Zref's, his own hand on Zref's shoulder. "I apologize for my disgraceful behavior. I don't even understand my own feelings now; I can only try to make amends. I owe you so much, Zref."

Had Zref demanded it even during the mating, Khelin, as brother to Sudeen and thus Zref's nearest relative in MorZdersh'n, would have had to provide venom for Zref to immunize Arshel in the sealing of their bhirhir. Thus immunized, Arshel would be infertile to all MorZdersh'n, and her odor couldn't trigger Khelin's mating. Zref put his own hand on Khelin's shoulder. "Brothers don't owe each other." Glancing to Arshel. he added, "Nor do bhirhirn."

"Tomorrow, then--we can go to Hengrave to pledge," said Arshel, glowing.

Zref strangled back a surge of curiosity, remembering all the unread messages bursting his private file. Sighing, he trudged up out of the pond followed by Ley and the two kren. They all watched him as they toweled off and dressed. But he didn't want to spoil this moment by mentioning the summons to leave Camiat--but not for Hengrave.

Khelin brought Zref his shoes. Khelin's head fluff was already dry, though the two humans were using hot air blowers on themselves. As Zref turned his blower off, Khelin searched Zref's face with the look Zref had once labeled his "blue priest's gaze," a look that meant Khelin was using his peculiar psychic gift for probing motivations. "Zref, I remember you with Sudeen. You feel for Arshel as you did for Sudeen. Despite being an Interface, you feel."

Zref felt no impulse to answer. Ley said, "He may be the most peculiar Interface in existence, but he's still an Interface and won't answer you unless you ask." Zref was the only Interface made using a combination of modern techniques and recovered First Lifewave knowledge. As a result, he had access both to the comnet and to his own unconscious, making him the only Interface who could feel anything other than the Primary Emotions.

"It's not that I won't answer. It's that I--can't."

"Then answer this," said the kren. "The Guild has granted you permission to exist as both Interface and person. Why can't you grant yourself the same permission? Why did you walk away from Arshel just now--knowing how it would hurt her? I can't be party to establishing a bhirhir where such callousness is practiced."

"No!" Zref turned to Arshel. "You didn't think I--Arshel, if you're ready, we will pledge bhirhir tomorrow. The Guild can take their offworld job and--"

"Offworld job?" asked Arshel instantly, and Zref had to tell them then about the message drop.

"In our reception room?" asked Khelin. "Now?"

Without volition, Zref dropped to Youta. "Is that person still waiting for me at MorZdersh'n? Zref."

"Yes, with less patience every moment. Why haven't you been answering your mail? I was about to drop to Jimdiebold to say you'd had a relapse and couldn't open at all! Youta."

In a fit of temper such as he'd not had since before becoming an Interface, Zref dumped all the "mail" in his private file back into Youta's private file, then he closed.

"Yes, the visitor is still waiting." Free of the question, Zref added, "I must see him, Arshel. I'll turn him down, though. Even Rodeen concedes that's my right."

Khelin's gaze seared Zref with the intensity characteristic of his talent. Ley moved to Khelin's side, an alert bhirhir. Suddenly, the three of them formed a solid front founded on a deep mutuality which excluded Arshel.

"Something threatens," pronounced Khelin. It wasn't the usual Khelin utterance. Hardly recovered from mating, the Mautri blue priest was raising venom.

Zref put one arm around Arshel's shoulders, almost in position to express venom--an intimacy bhirhirn practiced only in total privacy. But she didn't shrink away. "The four of us," said Zref, "will stand before any threat." With his other arm, he embraced Ley.

The exclusivity of their three-way bond held fast for a moment, and then a coldness invaded the room. As if in response, something changed in Khelin. He shyly touched Arshel. The three of them became four, and the coldness vanished so quickly Zref reeled in an odd, euphoric vertigo.

He looked down from a glittering tower upon a city served by wide boulevards, dotted with parks and lakes.

Health, serenity and enthusiasm rose from the city like a heat shimmer. He lived here among the gold and platinum roofs, the balmy breezes and open shopping arcades where most goods were free. All citizens shared the capacity to experience penetrating beauty.

Because of a single moment of faulty judgement, he had destroyed this city . Neither he nor anyone else would be reborn here again.

And in the pond room, he knew that the end of his exile was at hand, if he could bear the cost.

The reception room was artificially lit, its windows buried entirely under midwinter snow. After the tropical heat of the spawning pond, it felt cold. But the room was done in the warm, welcoming elegance of MorZdersh'n.

Before entering, Zref paused to flip his Interface Medallion out of his breast pocket. He was wearing his oldest Guild uniform, with kren-style house shoes, and his hair was wild from too many immersions. But he fixed his most forbidding expression on his face, and marched into the room as if it were his private office, Arshel at his shoulder as bhirhir, Khelin and Ley flanking the two of them. The man, a human, was pacing restlessly before the large polished stone table in the center of the room. There were a number of small conversation pits throughout the large room which was divided by rows of columns into private areas. But Zref chose to keep the atmosphere businesslike. He strode to the table and seated himself at one end.

"I am Master Interface Zref."

The human shoved his knee-length coat back behind his hips, and braced his fists on his hipbones. He wore a fur brimmed hat tilted onto the back of his head, and knee-high black boots. He was the image of high-powered Business.

"I have been waiting a good while to see you, Master Interface."

"You will be billed only from this moment," said Zref.

"Are you going to introduce me to your friends?"

"I had not planned to," said Zref.

Amusement chased exasperation across the man's face until he gave a courtly bow in the latest fashion and amended, "Will you please introduce me to your friends?"

Zref did so, and the man repeated, "Arshel Holtethor Lakely. I'd been told I would not be allowed to meet you."

Arshel began to answer, but Zref held up his hand. "State your business, sir." He glanced aside and queried the comnet for the man's identity.

"I've come to invite you--both you and your bhirhir Arshel--to come on a Schoolcruise Pilgrimage Tour to the spiritual shrines of the galaxy. Your duties would be exceptionally light. You would be free to enjoy yourselves."

"I go where the Guild assigns me."

"And the lady?" he asked, looking to Arshel.

Arshel held her silence, but she obviously disliked this man. Zref received the answer to his query, and said, "Mr. Onsham, we're not interested in taking any tour sponsored by Lantern Enterprises. It isn't the spiritual shrines of the galaxy that interest Lantern: it's the remains of the civilization of the First Lifewave. Such remains no longer interest us. I believe that completes our business."

"I believe that it does not," countered Onsham. "I'd hoped to keep this friendly, but now I must ask you to check with your Guild Dispatcher, Master Interface Rodeen. She avers that the Guild has ceased its vendetta against Lantern Enterprises, and therefore the remains of the First Lifewave are of interest to Interfaces."

Zref lowered his blood pressure to control a sudden, overwhelming curiosity. Liking this man less and less, he opened with a deliberate rudeness, looking directly into Onsham's eyes. "Checking as per instructions of a Mr. Onsham. Zref." That was twice in less than an hour he'd acted on a kind of angry impulse Interfaces never had. It was as if his obligations to the Guild were threatening something precious he almost had with Arshel.

"Check Guild File #9777. And, Zref, I expect you'll do this for us. Ostensibly, we support education. Rodeen."

Rising and pacing around the table, Zref called up the file. A query dropped into his private file from his physician, the human Interface Jim Diebold, asking about the status of the mating. Zref answered, and Diebold came back immediately.

"Listen, Zref, I'm privy to #9777, so if you can't get back here to Hengrave to take immunization, at least do it at the Camiat Guild hospital, not in that house. There's no telling what that venom will do to your brain chemistry. I'd come if I could. Jimdiebold."

Zref acknowledged, then opened the high security file.

It was a datafile on the search for the City of a Million Legends that had ended when he and Arshel met. He skimmed the part that he knew. Ever since the first two nonhuman species had contacted each other and begun the first interstellar alliance of the Second Lifewave, they had found a common motif buried in their legends, a city rumored to exist in some inaccessible spot or some far gone time. Fabulous fantasies came true there; people lived together without strife, every peasant lived in luxury, disease was unknown, knowledge beyond all dreams allowed them to manipulate the fabric of the cosmos--magic.

Every planet had legends of travelers straying into the City for a time and returning wealthy beyond imagining, or suddenly talented or youthful. One legend even told of a traveler who came back from the City of a Million Legends to find dead relatives returned to life.

Recently, archeologists had uncovered scattered traces of the First Lifewave civilization--the first occupation of the galaxy--and suddenly it was believed that the City of legend had been the capital of that ancient civilization.

Ancient inscriptions were found indicating that in the heart of a maze at the center of the City was an Object. Gazing upon this Object conferred the ability to persuade anyone to do anything. Such "Persuaders" had been an arm of the government of the First Lifewave. Experts averred that the Mazeheart Object might still exist, and the race was on.

Zref and Arshel had been swept up in that headlong search, until three years ago, because of Arshel's ability as an archeovisualizer--able to read the history of an artifact by touching it--they had been the ones to find the actual maze in the City of a Million Legends. But all they found was an inscription saying the Object had been removed and hidden by the last of the Persuaders.

Zref had thought that chapter of his life closed. But new data had been added to the Guild's file. In recent months, a new archeological expedition funded by the Hundred Planets government, had disappeared. Suddenly, books were being published purporting to instruct individuals in how to search for the Mazeheart Object; swarms of ill equipped explorers were camping out on inhospitable planets and having to be rescued. An Interface's report indicated a probability that organized criminals were still determined to find this legendary treasure--before the forces of law and order did.

The final entry was an official HP document on their new expedition to search for the Mazeheart Object, warning that the existence of the expedition must not leak into the hands even of the member HP governments lest the panic begin anew; with each special interest group scrambling to get the Object before anyone else so it wouldn't be used against themselves.

Within yet another internal security barrier, which melted as he addressed it, Zref found the last entry. Guild research showed that the HP statisticians had discovered the Guild's unwritten policy against archeological research, and so in order to get an Interface, this Official HP expedition to find the Mazeheart Object was disguised as the Lantern Schoolcruise Pilgrimage Tour which he and Arshel were being invited to join. The ruse was expected to fool whatever criminal forces had destroyed the previous expedition, as well as the Guild.

When Zref came back to awareness of the room, he heard Khelin saying, ". . . once worked for Lantern Enterprises. A schoolcruise is something new for Lantern."

"Indeed. We expect the novelty to attract many students interested in the strange fact that spiritual shrines seem to outlast many civilizations. Already, dozens of acknowledged experts on such eternal shrines are among the students. We expect more will sign up when they discover an Interface will be aboard to help with their research project."

"Research project?" probed Khelin, and Zref understood that he was diverting Onsham's attention from Arshel while Zref was unable to function as her bhirhir. She stood behind him, but some odd sense told him she was raising venom.

"Each student who successfully completes an original project on the shrines we visit will receive degree credit at Camiat University, plus the right to submit his project to Lantern. If it's selected as the basis of a Lantern novel, the author will be paid more than the price of the Cruise!"

Zref rebelled at the idea of lending himself to such use. He'd given his allegiance to the Guild only when they adopted the policy of slowing archeology to prevent First Lifewave technology from wrecking this civilization. Yet the Guild was right. With the gathered brainpower of the Hundred Planets, the curious, enthusiastic students, the Cruise might succeed. If so, he ought to be there. "Mr. Onsham, when does this cruise depart Camiat?" asked Zref.

"In three days."

"Call your superiors and have departure postponed at least three days. At that time, we will give you a definite answer--but I don't guarantee it will be yes."

"Zref!" gasped Arshel. From her tone he knew she was raising venom, feeling the threat of abandonment.

He held up one hand to silence her, and kept his gaze firmly on the human before him, more Guild Interface than bhirhir now. "The comtap is right outside that door." When Onsham had left the room, Zref was assailed with irate objections. Only Khelin kept silence.

All trace of the wild distraction of mating was gone from Khelin now, and he seemed more than a blue priest. He seemed as deep and still as any white priest as he breathed softly, "They're going to find the Object." Then as if it were torn from him, he verbalized what was buried alive in Zref's heart, "I can't allow them to find it!"

Only Interface's detachment kept Zref's voice from shaking. "If we don't go with them, how can we stop them?"

"Zref, no!" cried Arshel, and her voice was shaking. Her venom sack pulsed as new venom spurted from her glands. "I won't--I can't! You promised!"

The last time Arshel had become involved in the search for the Mazeheart Object, she had ended by striking and killing her bhirhir Dennis with her own venom.

"I promised to take you bhirhir," said Zref, "which I very much want to do. I promised to enroll you in the Mautri priesthood school, and stand by until you attain the white and no longer need a bhirhir--and then to dissolve our bhirhir. I'll do all those things. But neither you nor I know we'll be allowed to do them now. Tomorrow, we will go to the Guild facility here in Camiat, and complete our pledge. Then we'll go to Mautri and seek admittance for you. If you're accepted, I'll tell Onsham the answer is no."

She sighed her relief, and her venom sack relaxed. But Khelin held his grave withdrawal from them until Onsham came back with Lantern's agreement to await Zref's answer.

Read Chapter Two

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This Page Was Last Updated by JL  07/26/15 02:24 PM EST (USA)


 




 



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