Fafhrd raced down the earthen tunnel, waving his torch wildly behind him, thrusting at the sentient shadows that licked down from the ceiling. He finally reached the treasure chamber, and his eyes had only a moment to register what he saw there before he turned to face the pursuing shadows again. A wizened old woman? No... a half-starved girl, no older than nine or ten, wrapped in a meager robe.
"Stay behind me!" he yelled over his shoulder. " 'Ware the shadows!" He stabbed again with torch and sword. Both flame and steel had the power to disrupt the murk for a few breaths.
"I am the guardian of this fane," the girl said in a small, steady voice. Fafhrd whirled to face her again: "The hell you say!" The girl stood as tall as she could, and indeed, she seemed to have more than the usual dignity about her, but Fafhrd still found her claim absurd. "Some desperate rogue may have set you to watching this place, but that doesn't mean you don't need guarding yourself." Then he yelped as a shadow lashed his shoulder, and turned again to battle.
Blackness surged around him with a hundred questing arms that sought his every weakness. As he fought on, he strained his ears for any sound of the Gray Mouser's approach. His companion was always a swift and silent fighter -- save when he chose to favor his opponent with a quip or a jest. But this damn bloodthirsty mist was surely no fit audience for wit.
Again, and once again, the shadows snaked through his guard. Fafhrd bellowed in rage. Behind him, the waif commenced chanting, whether in prayer or spell, he could not discern. But he thought he did hear a faint scuff of boot leather in the corridor he'd come from, and began to anticipate his friend's arrival with some relief. The blackness pressed closer.
Suddenly the girl moved to stand before him. She quelled his unuttered warning with a glance; and now he saw why he thought her a crone at first look, for there was something infinitely old and weary in her eyes. She raised her arms high and the shadows shifted. They began to swirl like water-spouts around her outstretched arms. Her eyes did not leave his, and he obeyed her wordless command for stillness. Just then, the Mouser rounded the corner and pulled up short, clearly perplexed at the tableau before him.
The shadows descended further, seeping into the girl and staining her skin. The Mouser began to move, but Fafhrd checked him. Some deep magic was at work here, and Fafhrd's instinct urged him to trust the girl.
She gave a great shout, and the shadows poured into her. Her body twisted in pain. Fafhrd's chivalry warred with his caution, but before he could he could lift a hand to help her, the girl glared at him again. He could only watch as she consumed the blackness, her will and her body strained to their utmost. When the last blot was absorbed, she breathed a shuddering breath. Her face sagged into the sad ghost of a smile, and she collapsed.
The spell broken, both men fell to their knees at her side. They were too intimately familiar with death: they knew before setting a hand on her that her soul had fled. Fafhrd was a man of strong emotions; he let the sudden flood of his grief pour out in one of the death songs of his tribe -- songs now known only to him. The Mouser knelt in respect for a time, then moved to the back of the chamber.
His dirge completed, Fafhrd turned and found his partner ransacking the altar. "Leave it!" he roared. "The blasted idols will serve as the child's grave goods."
"If we leave them anywhere the villagers can find them," the Mouser reasoned, "they'll only put them back here and train another whelp to take her place."
Fafhrd had no argument against this. It seemed perverse to honor her noble, inexplicable sacrifice by desecrating the temple she had guarded, yet in the end they did so. Hoping to make up for the affront, Fafhrd built her a truly magnificent cairn. Nevertheless, his heart remained uneasy.
The Gray Mouser felt that Fafhrd was being entirely unreasonable. Not that this was an uncommon occurrence in their friendship: the tall barbarian was of a most romantical disposition, prone to sudden moods of gravest sorrow or noblest rapture, which he never hesitated to inflict on those around him. The Mouser had many tricks up his sleeve for negotiating these moods ("drinking it off" being a reliable favorite), but this time, nothing was working.
The ill-fated raid on the temple had unhinged Fafhrd. What weighed him down now was not his usual sorrow, full of maudlin (though not unskillful) poetry and garnished with some manly weeping. No, this was a dull and bitter lassitude. The Mouser had poured buckets of wine down Fafhrd's gullet in the past fortnight -- Fafhrd not objecting in the slightest -- yet it had produced no tension-relieving tavern brawl, no flirtation with a distracting courtesan.
Last night had been another failed bender. Despite his pounding head, the Mouser could no longer put off rising from his tangled sheets. After the morning necessities, he slumped back on his pallet, a cup of bitter tea warming his hands. Fafhrd was practicing his forms, as he did every morning. In deference to the damp drafts of Lankhmar's half-hearted winter, he was even wearing clothes. His sword whirled as he paced back and forth across their latest temporary lodging -- the garret above the Brass Prawn.
"I think I'll head out to the marsh today," the Mouser said. "Probably do something stupid and wait for Sheelba's hut to come rescue me. Seems to be the best way to get his attention." Fafhrd did not respond. "And you? Any plans for today?"
Fafhrd grunted noncommittally. "Hadn't thought about it yet." He continued his exercises, as rhythmic and light on his feet as a dancer, despite his massive musculature.
The Mouser dumped most of his tea in the slop bucket. He arrayed himself in his shabbiest gray for his battle with the Great Salt Marsh.
The Gray Mouser scrambled down the gravel embankment of the Causey Road. He was half an hour's walk from the Marsh Gate and he had yet to see any evidence of Sheelba the wizard's stilt-legged hut. The surest way to find it was not to look for it, so he set himself to relieving the world of some of its salt spiders and sea cobras. He laid to with rapier and dagger, and forgot his frustrations for a time in the satisfying crunch of chitin and spurt of ichor. (In truth, the Mouser was quite fond of most wild creatures, having been apprenticed in his youth to a gentle forest mage. But even his former master had had nothing nice to say about salt spiders.)
It wasn't until he'd got himself well-tangled in a thorn tree that the hut appeared, looming over him. "Sheelba!" he called. "Sheelba, come out, you eyeless bastard!"
The empty doorway gaped at him.
"Sheelba! You broke it, you fix it! We got you your damned idol. Now set Fafhrd straight. Magic him, if you have to!"
Silence from the hut, more cursing from the swordsman. Finally, Sheelba's grating voice: "Break yourself to match, then see what needs fixing." The hut turned and ambled away.
The Mouser unleashed a torrent of blasphemy that would have done a Kleshite camel driver proud. He had six separate tears in his clothing by the time he escaped from the tree.
Upon his return to Lankhmar, Mouser spent the afternoon dicing with a gang of extortionists, whose trade he had once followed in rather desultory fashion. The rattle of the bones and the hum of gossip lulled him into reverie, and he found his mind drifting to those bygone days. It had been an uncharacteristically peaceable season in misty Lankhmar: no one was hiring swords, and he and Fafhrd could come to no agreement on how else to earn their keep. In the end, Fafhrd got religion; he almost single-handedly (and almost literally) resurrected an obscure godling called Issek of the Jug. The Mouser, meanwhile, had gone where the money was, taking work as an enforcer for Lankhmar's church protection racket. The inevitable conflict in this scenario was, indeed, not evaded, and the Mouser eventually found himself ordered to shake down Fafhrd and the priest he followed.
The Mouser of a decade ago would have scoffed to think he'd someday look back fondly on those days. And yet, here he was. Fafhrd, that starry-eyed dolt, had been ridiculously beautiful as an ascetic, his wild red locks and marble skin just waiting to be painted on an icon. Women from duchesses to scullery maids had flocked to hear him liturgize. And ah, that day when the Mouser finally broke the choke-hold of virtue and tempted his old friend back to drink... it was like the sun rising after one of those blighted polar winters. (Another experience in the Mouser's life for which Fafhrd was entirely to blame.)
It is fortunate for the Mouser that the dice games of Lankhmar are not games of skill. Despite his distraction he left the afternoon's gaming no poorer than when he arrived.
He returned to their rooms above the Prawn to find Fafhrd sharpening his weapons, his travel gear arrayed on the floor before him. "I've taken a job," Fafhrd said.
Heartening news! the Mouser thought. "And what job is that?"
"Duke Elayo has hired me to kill the Beast."
The Mouser paused for a moment to see if adequate words might come to mind. They did not. He turned on his heel and left, and did not return that night.
In the world of Nehwon, there is a cave. In every world, there is a cave. There is always, and forever, this one cave. Its deepest cavern is the rocky womb of worlds, and when it births them the cord is not severed. The visible cave is the stone umbilicus, and if you follow it deep enough, you will reach the source.
Only wizards travel there. Shielded by magics that preserve them from primordial chaos, they slip from world to world. Wizards -- and the occasional monster.
The Beast was one such monster. Some say it was mad before its journey, others that chaos deranged it. It did not belong in Nehwon, and its wrongness troubled the very land. It had settled in Duke Elayo's demesne; bravos and adventurers of every nation sought the fame of slaying it, and few survived the encounter.
Hung over once again, and still furious, the Mouser mounted the steps to the garret. The clank of dishes told him that his friend had not yet departed on his absurd quest.
"Duke Elayo has desired your death ever since you deflowered his only daughter," the Mouser said without preamble as he flung open the door.
"Her idea, not mine," said Fafhrd mildly. "And anyone can see she's happier running that shipping business of hers than she ever would have been as a princess."
"Let me try smaller words, you oaf: Elayo wants the Beast to kill you."
"And should the petty grudges of small-minded men keep me from a chance for glory?"
"Glory, my left nut! If 'twere glory you were about, you'd be swaggering and reciting ancient lays, and saying, 'What ho, old friend, shall we have an adventure?' "
Fafhrd made no response, only continued wrapping waybread and dried meat for the journey.
The Mouser grabbed Fafhrd's arm. "You are ruining yourself with grief, and I cannot comprehend it!"
Fafhrd gently lifted the Mouser's hand and let it go. "Not grief."
Fafhrd had no explanation. As he packed his bags he said, "You can sell the rest of my possessions. It should be enough to settle our account with the landlord."
"Bugger that," the Mouser said. "I'm coming with you."
Fafhrd was not much given to introspection. But he had a secret vanity: he liked to imagine the songs that the tribes of the Cold Waste would sing about him after his death. And in that regard, his recent behavior troubled him. How would the warriors explain it in song?
He hummed absently as his stout horse covered league after league. Bits of the old sagas ran through his head, and he tested each one in turn. Ulvkil? No.... Kisping? Gods, he hoped not! Floki? Perhaps....
Floki's joy faded slowly:
Gone the savor of sailing to war,
Gone the sweetness of girlish laughter
And stolen kisses by candleglow.
Gone the savor... yes, 'twould serve. But if Fafhrd were to follow Floki's fate, then the Mouser shouldn't be here. That too troubled Fafhrd. A man's doom was his own. If the gods saw fit to strip all pleasure from a man's life and make all his accustomed activities seem stale and profitless, leaving noble self-sacrifice as the only possible meaning for his existence, well... a man's friends shouldn't have to suffer for it.
He broached the topic at their next stop to water the horses: "Look, Mouser, a man's doom is his own--"
"Shut it, Fafhrd," the Mouser snapped.
Doom and peevishness made for stilted conversation.
With every mile they put behind them, Fafhrd could feel change stirring within him. He could not call himself happy; no, his life still seemed hollow and futile. Yet his soul was unfolding in some indefinable way, growing to encompass the sere grass and the stones of the road and the wind that whistled in his ears. His senses seemed sharper than they had since his youth. The world impressed itself upon him in the smallest detail. The woodsmoke of their fire that night had all the complexities of the rarest Ilthmarine wine; the night wind seemed to caress every hair on his head.
Fafhrd took first watch, and as the Mouser's face relaxed in sleep, Fafhrd watched the years fall away. He could see again the brash and cheerful youth who'd become his friend the first night they met, so many years ago.
Fafhrd laid down beside him. He had no fear of slumber: he was in the grip of fate now, being pulled toward some destiny that mere bandits or wolves could not waylay. The moon shone brightly down upon them. By moonlight, he committed to memory every line and scar on the Mouser's face.
The next day, talk continued to be scarce. Fafhrd and the Mouser had shared many a companionable silence in their day, watching the sunlight play on ocean waves or the wind ghost over grain fields. But those silences had been easy, apt to be broken at any moment by jest or song or philosophical discourse. Nothing save barest necessity could spur them into speech today.
Fafhrd wondered if his friend heard the call of his own destiny. The Mouser professed no faith in gods, but surely fate cared little for man's unbelief.
The day's ride brought them near to the valley of the Beast. The silence in their camp that night was a palpable thing. It heightened every other sense. Each move the Mouser made seemed to shape currents in the air that Fafhrd could feel, or even taste. He tried again and again to speak, but something always stopped his tongue.
In the morning, as the Mouser was waking, Fafhrd made one last try. "Mouse?" he rumbled, "Mouse, you should go."
"Get it through your thick head," the Mouser rasped in a sleep-hoarse voice. "I'm staying."
They broke their fast and then arrayed themselves for battle, as they had done so many times before. They descended into the valley, as striking a picture as ever they made, if only someone were there to see it: a tall Northern man clad in furs and barbarian finery, and a small, swarthy Southerner wrapped all in shadowy gray, with the pale, clear morning sky behind them.
Fafhrd looked to the side and found the Mouser smiling his old wicked smile, and he grinned in return, his heart finally at ease, for surely, their doom was eternally shared.
Afterwards, they never could describe the battle.
It was not the first time that they'd felt some power moving through them. It was not the first time that they suspected that they were agents of something greater than themselves. But this time, they knew it completely. How could they describe to anyone the way they killed the Beast? They moved in ways that were not possible, with a strength that men did not possess. They lived through wounds that could not be survived, and in the end, the land was cleansed.
In the end, they were alive: sprawled on the grass in a hollow where the dew had yet to dry, worn ragged by the power that rode them, Fafhrd half-suspecting that this was in fact the afterworld. The heart-weariness that had blocked his speech was gone, but he could find no words strong or bright enough to answer the living joy he saw in the Mouser's eyes. Instead, he grabbed the Mouser and kissed him, a rough salute that landed askew.
It was a kiss that asked nothing in return. For a few moments the two men lay curled together in the wet grass, breathing shared breath. Then the Mouser lifted his hand, and Fafhrd felt clever fingers skimming over his features and ruffling the curls of his beard. "Did Duke Elayo really say he'd pay you, or was this all some whim of yours?" the Mouser asked, his voice as intimate as if he were whispering endearments.
"He hired me. Or at least, a man claiming to be his agent hired me. Truth be told, I don't remember the exact terms of the contract. It didn't seem important at the time." Fafhrd tilted his face closer.
"You are a numbskull," the Mouser said, closing the last gap between them. He kissed with lips and then nipped with teeth.
"Great men cannot be bothered with such trivialities," Fafhrd whispered. He kissed the corner of the Mouser's answering grin. Several minutes passed in deeper, more passionate embraces, which were somewhat dampened by the fact that both men felt as if their joints had been unstrung and put back together crookedly.
"If I could somehow manage to stand," the Mouser said, "I'd pack up the horses and head for the nearest brandy. And a hot bath."
"We need to go pick up our pay first -- unless you plan to sing for your supper."
The Mouser groaned. "And Elayo will probably try to kill us before we leave. The life of a hero is damned inconvenient, Fafhrd."
"It is, it is."
With much cursing, they did eventually heave themselves upright, and headed back to camp, arm in arm. The life of a hero may be inconvenient, but it is not without its charms.