Edition 17: Riding the Tiger By Thomas Canfield
Sorcerer Jusan and servant Asrai travel to Irushtan, purporting to seek diamonds from the miners who toil in the deepest, darkest shafts. What they seek is much more important: the prevention of a war that would destroy them all. Thomas Canfield’s mythological quest is a great example of the great world building of sword and sorcery epics. SY
The mines of Irushtan were the richest ever discovered. They burrowed into the hard red clay of the Laramie outback, cut through layers of sediment and rock and opened virgin earth which no man had heretofore thought to plunder. They honeycombed the land with an elaborate array of shafts and tunnels. No one individual could attest to the full extent of the mines or profess to a complete knowledge of them. They yielded more precious stones and claimed more lives, bred more misery and incited greater greed, than any operation ever had. It was here that the sorcerer Jusan came, announcing that he wished to purchase diamonds.
For seven days the miners flocked to the cottage Jusan had rented. They waited in line, clutching knotted handkerchiefs in which they carried their hoards, eyeing one another warily. They were admitted one at a time, bid to enter by Jusan’s servant, Asrai. Asrai was a supple-limbed youth of nineteen who bore the dusky complexion and dark eyes of those who dwelt far to the East.
“Welcome,” Jusan greeted each miner in turn. “I see that you are a veteran of many years hard labor in the mines. It resides in your face and in your eyes. A difficult life by any measure, and one which none but the stout of heart dare to venture. Perhaps it is you for whom I have been searching. Come, let us see what you bring me.”
The miner, encouraged by these words, finding Jusan neither so distant nor so august as he had imagined, recounted tales of his time in the mines and of what he had seen there. He spoke of old injuries that he had suffered. Jusan picked through his hoard all the while, holding the occasional specimen to the light. When the miner had finished speaking, Jusan would push the diamonds back to him.
“All these are quite ordinary, I’m afraid. The brokers of such items are men who cheat on both ends of the transaction, purchasing and selling, for they reckon all men fools but themselves. Beware, they will cheat you as readily as another. You are an honest man I see and will fare ill because of it. The mines will surely swallow you in time. They will destroy you as they have destroyed countless others. You would do well to seek another line of work.” The miner would be ushered out a back door, grim-faced, lips tight with anger, afraid to say anything for the resources of sorcerers were extensive and their whims and caprices must be indulged.
“You should choose your words with greater care, lord,” Asrai advised, following the departure of one such miner. “They are too harsh and intemperate. You create a legacy of ill-will that may yet return to haunt us. A wise man would not speak so.”
Jusan dismissed this with a flick of his hand. “Why should I misrepresent their circumstances? So that these men might entertain notions of a better future? I will not do them so great a disservice. There are others who will lie to them. I will not join the chorus.”
At the end of seven days the miners had ceased to come. They had grown bitter and disillusioned and denounced Jusan as a fraud. He had come not to purchase diamonds, they asserted, but to spy on the miners, to glean from them their hard won knowledge of the mines and turn it to some advantage of his own.
Of the thousands of diamonds that he had examined, Jusan purchased only three. One was a pale, misty green that evoked images of the sea and of water cascading through a curtain of ferns. The second was a rich imperial blue, possessing a satiny gloss that lent it incredible depth and luminosity. The final stone, a fierce, unblinking spark of fire resembling a tiger’s eye, was savage, hypnotic, spellbinding.
Asrai stared at the trio of diamonds, standing well across the room. Fascination and fear flickered on his face at the same time, and it was uncertain which emotion would take precedence. Jusan’s calm demeanor was reassuring. The sorcerer had confronted many challenges, had faced many adversaries and had come through intact. And yet…
“What will you do now, lord? You possess the diamonds you sought for so long but it cannot be said that you own them—for they cannot be owned. They belong to no man and never have. Their power has deceived many and destroyed more. Their beauty is a part of that deception.”
“It is so. But what incomparable depth and fire!” Jusan held up one of the diamonds. Light flooded across the room, saturating the air. The light conveyed heat but did not burn; imparted tranquility but it was devoid of mental peace. Its dual nature was both mesmerizing and terrifying. Jusan closed his fist around the diamond. The light vanished.
“The Grey Trolls of Kilkarin forged these stones many millennia ago. But whether even they understood what they had created I do not know. Trolls then were more learned and accomplished. They sought always to extend their knowledge and to master the physical world. They became experts at metallurgy and mining. They built enormous forges that tapped the heat at the very core of the earth.
“And so they came to create diamonds. They were very cunning, these trolls, very adept; but they were not wise.
“As their power grew so, too, did their arrogance. They demanded tribute from all they encountered and enslaved those who resisted. They exterminated the Jvengi race. They imagined themselves superior beings, lords over every living thing. They did not perceive their own folly.”
Jusan paused, smiled. “Some would say that men have become so in our own day. It is an argument not without merit. But for the trolls their arrogance proved fatal.
“They honeycombed the mountains with their dwellings, their tunnels reaching ever deeper into the earth. They reckoned themselves too powerful to be stopped. Only when it was too late did they discover how badly mistaken this assumption was.”
“The Shtatzwig?” Asrai interrupted.
“Yes.” Jusan’s expression was distant. “The Shtatzwig, an ancient race of whom nothing was known. They had dwelt within the remotest reaches of the earth, believed to be creatures of fantasy and myth, the mere rumor of their existence suspect.
“So it might have remained had not the trolls invaded their domain. Their first contact resulted in a violent repulse. Hundreds of trolls were slaughtered. Yet they pushed ahead and so set off a chain of events, which are still playing out to this day.
“Were the Shtatzwig always so merciless and fierce? Who is to say? None can testify to their nature before they were disturbed. But once challenged they boiled forth with the fury and venom of a nest of hornets. They attacked, almost overran the trolls, would have overrun them had it not been for the diamonds. The trolls suffered grievously but in the end escaped destruction by sealing the breach they had created and confining the Shtatzwig to their ancestral home.
“But these mines, and the folly of those who own them, have jeopardized all that. They have again brought us to the brink of catastrophe—a catastrophe which can only be averted by using these stones and harnessing the power that resides within them.”
The miners came later that same night carrying clubs and pikes and brandishing long, curved knives known as svins. Each man bore a torch and the light transformed their faces into cruel and brutal caricatures, hollow-eyed masks with elongated noses and thin, fleshless lips. The men were frightened by what they were about to do and so they shouted and yelled, working themselves into a frenzy.
Asrai raced into Jusan’s room to warn him and found the sorcerer standing at the window.
“It has begun.” Jusan appeared sad but unperturbed. “I had hoped that what I said might have opened their eyes. Alas, it is not so.” Jusan watched as the mob encircled the cottage. The bobbing sea of torches appeared to mesmerize him.
“We are surrounded!” Asrai declared. “Cut off! You will not find them inclined to parley, lord. They fear you too much.”
“Rather they should fear themselves. Had they listened to me, as a wise man might, they would have fled, and so been out of danger. But a fool is inclined to hear only what he wishes and makes a poor audience. Words are wasted upon him.” Jusan paused, his face growing harder. “As is pity.”
One of the miners flung a torch into the air. It inscribed a parabolic arc across the night sky, landing in a shower of sparks upon the roof of the cottage. A great howl of satisfaction rattled the windowpanes. A fusillade of torches followed the first. The room began to fill with smoke. Still Jusan stood at the window, unmoving, watching the bedlam without.
Jusan sighed, turned. “It is time.” Jusan withdrew a silk pouch hidden in the folds of his robe. Within were the diamonds. Jusan selected the green stone. A cool, limpid light washed across the room. First one facet, and then another were lit by pale fire. Jusan stared into the stone and it, in turn, stared into him.
A blast of hot air knocked Asrai to his knees. Tongues of flame licked at the rafters. The cries of the miners echoed through the house. Jusan cupped the diamond in his palm, smiled, a smile perhaps of resignation as much as anything. He slipped the diamond beneath his tongue.
Green fire filled Jusan’s consciousness, scoured the inside of his skull. He opened his mouth to protest but could not speak. The world dissolved into a swirling sea of green mist. The cottage, the fire, the frenzied mob, all were swallowed and obliterated. Jusan was caught in a surging current of light, unable, had he wished, to fight or oppose its momentum. He spiraled downwards into the unhallowed confines of the earth.
Gradually the light thinned and scattered. The mist dissipated. The world settled into concrete lines again. Jusan stretched like a cat, shaking the weariness from his bones. Asrai lay sprawled on the ground at his feet, semi-comatose. They had landed in one of the mineshafts, miles beneath the surface.
“Up, up! You must compose yourself, Asrai. We cannot afford to indulge such weakness. Danger lurks everywhere. Should it catch us unawares…we shall have no need of rest then.”
Asrai staggered to his feet, his expression slack, seemingly unable to sort out what had happened.
The diamond beneath Jusan’s tongue felt bitterly cold. The whole of his lower jaw ached. He would have liked to spit out the stone but dare not do so. Once invoked, the stone’s power grew and expanded. It both heightened the acuity of Jusan’s senses and extended the range of his sorcery. But it projected inwards as well as outwards. To access such power one ceded a measure of control. Jusan must now ride the tiger as it were, for he could not safely dismount.
Green haze lingered in the air, providing sufficient light to illuminate the tunnel for several yards. The stone was a deep, grainy black. Jusan tried to imagine what it must have been like for the miners working in such conditions. To tunnel here would not have been possible at all but for men driven by insatiable greed and, perhaps, by madness.
“Come, Asrai, are you frightened?” Jusan asked
“Frightened, lord?” Asrai was rubbing his arms. “I’m chilled to the bone. The cold is such that…I have no recollection of anything other than cold.”
“That is a problem soon mended. The earth harbors all manner of things. Cold is but one of them. Where we propose to venture, cold dare not follow.” Jusan felt in his robes for the silk pouch, knowing that, without the diamonds, they faced certain death. They began the long descent into the depths in silence.
They walked in the shimmering wash of green light. It played along the floor and walls and, as they passed, faded and was absorbed. From somewhere, far in the distance, came the sound of dripping water. There were numerous junctions where the tunnel split, wending off into secondary shafts or abandoned cul-de-sacs. Always they selected the passage that led downwards.
Heat bled up through the floor of the tunnel. Fissures appeared in the stone. Jusan paused to examine them, probing with his fingertips as he might an open wound. His expression grew more and more bleak.
“What have you found, lord? What message does the rock bear?” Asrai, who before had complained of the cold, now glistened with sweat.
“It is nothing that I can identify.” Jusan rubbed the stone with his fingers. “There is some spoor, the vestige of a scent, but it corresponds to no living creature I have ever encountered. And yet…”
Jusan stared down the tunnel. Darkness clotted in the air. a stealthy thread of pain embedded in the shadows. It stabbed at Jusan, caused the breath to catch in his lungs. The pain appeared to infuriate him. He flung himself forward and Asrai struggled to keep up.
The light gradually lost its purity, became infected with a feeble, sickly air, as though grown stale. Jusan’s jaw radiated with pain. The diamond beneath his tongue was decaying, disintegrating, losing cohesion. He bit down on it hard and it broke into a thousand fragments.
Light flooded the tunnel. Detail leapt out in sharp relief. The passageway opened into a cavern. Overhead, where the roof had seemed to be, giant stalactites hung. As ancient as the earth itself, they might easily crush a man should they fall. At the outer edge of the light, lurking in the shadows, something moved. Shtatzwig!
The light flickered and went out. The sound of claws scrabbling over rock cut through the silence. Jusan grabbed the blue diamond and slammed it against a boulder. It kindled like a miniature sun, throwing waves of light along the walls. Shtatzwig were boiling out of the vault overhead. There were scores of them, more than Jusan could possibly count. The light flayed their eyes and they beat at the air in an effort to fend it off. The clacking of their exoskeletons filled the cavern with noise.
Jusan thrust the diamond aloft. The glare outlined his form in a flickering mantle of flame. The Shtatzwig lunged at the alien sun, spitting with anger. They scuttled crab-like through the shadows, maneuvering to get closer.
Jusan leapt up on to a boulder. He cast blue bolts of fire at the Shtatzwig, filling the air with the scent of scorched ozone. The stone itself began to ignite. Erratic gusts of wind whipped through the cavern, alternating hot and cold. Great angular slabs of rock began to shear away from the walls.
The Shtatzwig surged forward in a final desperate rush. Jusan was driven back, pinned against an outcropping of rock. A violent, confused scrum ensued. Jusan flung the diamond to the ground and a great, gaping fissure opened at his feet.
The earth convulsed in a spasm. At the very last instant Jusan stretched out his hand. It was a gesture devoid of hope, bidding Asrai to flee. But there was nowhere to run, no possibility of escape. Destruction reigned all around. The sole consolation left to them both was that the Shtatzwig would once again be confined, sealed deep within the bowels of the earth.
Only it was not an empty gesture. A huge red and gold fireball came hurtling at Asrai. He shut his eyes, expecting to be incinerated. Instead he was enveloped in a pulsating cocoon of light. The light seemed to absorb him as the parched earth might a drop of rain. Asrai had a final vision of a dagger of rock plunging directly at him and then lost consciousness.
He awoke lying in a patch of shade beneath a tree. The sun shone overhead. Convinced that his surroundings were real and not an illusion, Asrai sat up. He hadn’t died after all. He couldn’t quite get his mind around it. He could still hear the sound of boulders crashing down around him, could feel their impact. Unable to save himself, Jusan had reached out and saved Asrai instead.
A light sparkled in the grass nearby. Glittering with hard brilliance, the very image of the fireball that had absorbed Asrai: the tiger’s eye diamond, beautiful beyond all reckoning. Asrai stared into its depths and a world of possibility seemed to open out before him. With the stone Asrai might conquer empires, found dynasties. There was nothing he might not accomplish, no goal he might not aspire to. Already the diamond had marked him. Already it wormed its way into the fabric of his being, insinuated itself into his thoughts. But, as with any such object of power, its help could only be purchased at a terrible cost. For all the grandiose vision of the future Asrai imagined before him, for all its tantalizing possibilities, if he succumbed, Asrai a servant forever remained.
Canfield’s phobias run to politicians, lawyers and oil company executives. He likes dogs and beer. He has a Twitter account at @Yankcentric76. Also an infrequently updated website: www.marsupialsarise.com.