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       Voyage to the City of the Dead, p.1

           Alan Dean Foster
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Voyage to the City of the Dead


  ***************************************************

  Author: Alan Dean Foster

  Title: Voyage To The City of the Dead

  Series: A Novel of the Humanx Commonwealth

  Series No:

  Original copyright year: 1984

  Genre: Science Fiction

  Date of e-text: 01/14/2001

  Prepared by:

  Last Revised: / /

  Revised by:

  Version: 1.0

  Comments: Download both lit and txt version.

  Please correct any errors you find in this e-text,

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  ***************************************************

  By Alan Dean Foster : Published by Ballantine Books:

  The Icenggger Trilogy

  ICERIGGER

  MISSION TO MOULOKIN

  THE DELUGE DRIVERS

  The Adventures of Flinx of the Commonwealth

  FOR LOVE OF MOTHER‑NOT

  THE TAR‑AIYM KRANG

  ORPHAN STAR

  THE END OF THE MATTER

  FLINX IN FLUX

  MID‑FLINX

  BLOODHYPE

  THE HOWLING STONES

  The Damned

  Book One: A CALL TO ARMS

  Book Two: THE FALSE MIRROR

  Book Three: THE SPOILS OF WAR

  THE BLACK HOLE CACHALOT

  DARK STAR THE METROGNOME and Other Stories

  MIDWORLD NOR CRYSTALTEARS

  SENTENCED TO PRISM SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE

  STAR TREK@ LOGS ONE‑TEN VOYAGE TO THE CITY OF THE DEAD

  WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE . . . ... WHO NEEDS ENEMIES?

  MAD AMOS PARALLELITIES*

  * forthcoming

  Books published by The Ballantine Publishing Group are available at quantity discounts on bulk purchases for premium, educational, fund‑raising, and special sales use. For details, please call 1‑500‑733‑3000.

  Copyright © 1984 by Alan Dean Foster

  First published in the USA in 1984 by Ballantine Books

  This edition published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, a Division of Random House, Inc.

  First NEL Paperback Edition 1986 Third impression 1987

  British Library C.I.P.

  Foster, Alan Dean

  Voyage to the city of the dead.

  I. Title

  813'.54[F] PS3556.0756

  ISBN 0 450 39874 9

  The characters and situations in this book are entirely imaginary and bear no relation to any real person or actual happening.

  This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, byway of trade or otherwise, be lent, re‑sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronically or mechanically, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval system, without either the prior permission in writing from the publisher or a licence, permitting restricted copying, issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, 7 Ridgmount Street, London WC1E 7AA.

  Printed and bound in Great Britain for Hodder and Stoughton Paperbacks, a division of Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., Mill Road, Dunton Green, Sevenoaks, Kent TN13 2YA. (Editorial Office: 47 Bedford Square, London WC1 B 3DP) by Cox & Wyman Ltd., Reading

  For, Daniel, with love,

  For when he gets older and starts traveling…

  Chapter One

  They didn't call in the Guard because the intruder was already half dead. Still, they were upset.

  Muttering angrily among themselves over the outrageous breach of protocol, the members of the Zanur looked to their leader for direction, but Najoke de‑me‑Halmur held his peace. It was up to the intruder to explain himself, and fast. Hands still hovered close to sheathed knives, although it was be­coming apparent this was no assassination attempt‑the in­truder was too enfeebled to present a threat to anyone but himself. So Najoke stayed his hand as well as his lips. Seeing this, the other members of the Zanur calmed themselves.

  Two unkempt servants attended the intruder, and they had their hands full keeping him on his feet. He was com­pletely bald, as befitted his age, but more than age had been at work on that body recently. Pain was evident even in the movement of the eyes, and their owner was breathing as if he'd run a long ways, for all that two younger Mai supported him.

  Several of the more impatient members of the Zanur started toward the stranger. De‑me‑Halmur stayed them with a wave of one slim, six‑fingered hand. "Patience, my friends. Let us hear what this despoiler of etiquette has to say. Retri­bution can come later. We are no judges here."

  The leader's words sparked the withered visitor's atten­tion. He shrugged off the helping hands of his servants, much as he continued to push away the clutching hand of death. Though unsteady and shaking, he stood straight and by him­self. "Good members of the Zanur, I beg forgiveness for this intrusion on the affairs of state. When one has little time left, one has no time at all for protocol. I have much to tell you."

  De‑Yarawut rose and pointed, hairless brows drawing to­gether. "I know you. You reside in my district."

  The elderly speaker tried to bow to the side, as etiquette required, and the effort nearly sent him sprawling. His servants rushed to help but he gestured them back.

  "I am flattered by your remembrance, Zanural de‑Yara­wut. I am Bril de‑Panltatol. A humble trader who works Upriver." The drama of the oldster's intrusion, his unfor­givable breach of tradition, was beginning to fade. And he was known. No surprises were here.

  Legends sing of the wrongness of such thoughts.

  "No excuse can be made for your interruption, de‑Panlt­atol," de‑me‑Halmur said. "You know the penalties."

  "Your most excessive indulgence, Moyt, but as I said and as you can see, little time is left to me."

  De‑me‑Halmur had not become ruler of a great city‑state without the occasional ostentatious display of compassion. "You must have bribed efficiently to obtain this entrance, oldster. You are to be admired for that. Say what you have come to say."

  "Good members of the Zanur, I have for most of my life been a trader of fine woods and metals between our great city of Po Rabi and the Upriver. Hai, even as far as Kek­kalong." Kekkalong was a very long way Upriver, and many of the Zanurals had never journeyed beyond the boundaries of the city. They listened to the rover with a little more respect.

  "I am a good citizen and work hard for my city. So I listen well to any tale or rumor that suggests the opportunity to increase my wealth."

  "As do we all," Zanural de‑Parinti commented. "Get on with it."

  "Among the many tales of the Upriver are those which speak of a dead place, home to spirits and ghosts and demons beyond counting, who guard such wealth as could not be counted in a thousand lifetimes by all the accountants of all the city‑states that ring the Groalamasan itself."

  "A wonderful story, I'm sure," another Zanural called from his council seat. "I too have heard such stories."

  "It is well known," de‑Panltatol continued, "that the nearer one travels to the source of such tales, the more vivid and impressive they become‑or else they fade away entirely.

  "This particular tale is told over and over again in a hundred towns and villages of the North. I have listened to it for more than fifty years. I resolved finally to pursue it to the last storyteller. Instead it drew me onward, pulling me ever farther north. Sometimes the tale smelled of
truth, more often of village embroidery, but never did I lose track of it entirely.

  "I went beyond maps and merchant trails, always up the Barshajagad, following the current of the Skar and in places abandoning it completely. I walked‑ I, Bril de‑Panltatol­ upon the surface of the frozen Guntali itself!"

  Now the whispers of interest were submerged by ill­concealed laughter. The Guntali Plateau, from which arose all the great rivers of the world that drained into the single ocean that was the Groalamasan, was so high and cold and thin of air that no Mai could travel upon it. Yet the wrinkled old trader was laying claim to such a feat.

  Like his fellow merchants and Zanural, de‑me‑Halmur refused to countenance the possibility, but neither did he laugh. He had not become Moyt of Po Rabi by dismissing the most elaborate absurdities without careful dissection. "Let this one continue proving himself the fool, but let him not be convicted until he has finished his story."

  "Up past even far Hochac I went," de‑Panltatol was breathing harder now, "and my journey was but beginning. I lost servants and companions until I was obliged to travel on my own, because none would go farther in my company. All believed me mad, you see. I nearly perished many times. The rumors and the river led me ever onward."

  "Onward to what?" another of the Zanural snorted deri­sively.

  The oldster glanced sideways and seemed to draw strength from his scoffers. "To the source of all the tales and songs. To the land of the dead. To the part of the world where demons and monsters make their home. To the top of the world, good Zanural."

  This time the laughter could not be contained. It did not appear to discourage the old trader.

  "I found the City of the Dead. I, Bril de‑Panltatol! And I came away with a piece of it." He frowned then, and wheezed painfully. "I don't remember that time very well. My mind was numbed by all I had endured. How I stayed alive I don't know, but I drove myself to make another boat. I made many boats, I think. It's hard to remember. I dis­guised what I had brought away beneath a bale of Salp skins and brought it all the way Downriver, all the way back to my home, to Po Rabi."

  De‑me‑Halmur's wide black eyes flickered. "A most in­teresting and entertaining story, de‑Panltatol, but all such tales of demon cities are entertaining. I hope you are a better trader than you are a storyteller." Polite laughter rose from the other members of the Zanur.

  "Is that what you broke into our conference to tell us?" snapped another Zanural angrily. "If you can do no better than that, I promise you your age will not save you."

  "There is only one thing I can add to what I have told you," the exhausted trader admitted. "For it I have ruined my mind and my self, so there is little for you to threaten me with. My triumph will be short‑lived and I will not buy the seat on the Zanur that I longed for." A few insulted murmurs arose among the Zanural, loudest from those whose fortunes were smallest.

  "So I will leave my tale to you, together with that one other thing, and let you judge, Zanural of the city, if I might have been thought equal in wealth to sit among you." He turned and blew on a small bone whistle that hung from a cord around his neck.

  A dozen laborers entered in two columns of six. Between them they held ropes attached to a low dolly. Laughter gave way to curiosity and confusion among the members of the Zanur. The dolly had six axles and fat rubbery wheels made from the treated sap of the arer tree.

  From his place at the head of the long council table de-­me‑Halmur saw the pile of fine gray Salp pelts piled high on the dolly. They were valuable but not exceptionally so. Cer­tainly they weren't heavy enough to require the use of a six­axle and twelve strong Mai to pull the load. He could see the way muscles strained against something massive but con­cealed. He stood slightly, unconscious of the movement, to have a better view.

  The laborers halted and moved aside. With the aid of his servants Panltatol staggered to the dolly, Disdaining help, he reached out and shakily pulled the skins onto the floor. They'd been sewn together and came off as one.

  There was something else on the dolly, as de‑me‑Halmur suspected, but the sight of it struck him speechless‑a single metal bar reposed on the wooden platform. It was twisted and bent by some unknown force and was as thick as a large Mai's body. But that observation passed quickly. The Zan­ural were interested in its composition far more than its shape.

  It had not been polished and it displayed long gashes and much pitting, evidence of exposure to powerful chemicals or energies. Its color was familiar.

  "I did not actually enter the place of the dead." Panltatol's voice was weakening. "I was near, very near, when weather so terrible it cannot be imagined except in dreams finally forced me to retreat. This relic I found on the banks of the Skar, where the river had carried it. This alone I was able to bring back with me. Zanural of Po Rabi, this is my legacy."

  Forgetting their dignity, abjuring protocol, they left their seats to examine the massive metal bar. Sensitive six­fingered hands caressed the smooth gray substance. The dull silvery sheen was a property of the metal itself.

  It looked like sunit. It had the color of sunit. It felt like sunit. When three of the Zanural from northern Po Rabi tried to lift it and could not, they were positive it was sunit.

  De‑Changrit, who on the Zanur was second in power only to de‑me‑Halmur himself, removed a small ingot from the money belt that circled his waist. It was a serl, the largest denomination coined by any of the great city‑states that lined the shores of the Groalamasan Ocean, newly minted in pow­erful Chienba. He placed it in one of the gouges cut in the flank of the bar and tried to calculate the worth of the twisted mass in his head. He was a superb businessmai and his estimate was very near the mark.

  "Several million," he announced aloud. "At least." Hav­ing already made their own calculations, several of his associates nodded by way of confirmation.

  De‑Panltatol abruptly sat down on the edge of the dolly, leaning back against the bar for support. He ran one hand gently across the cold metal, lovingly, as if it were a woman reclining in his hammock. There was not a Mai among the Zanur who did not feel the same love for that bar. It rep­resented a great and compact fortune.

  When the murmurs and excited conversations began to die down it was Changrit who asked the question uppermost in all minds. "Is there more?"

  His tone was respectful now, no longer sarcastic or ac­cusing. Thus vindicated, Panltatol seemed to draw strength from some unknown source. They were no longer laughing at him.

  "Honored sirs, I do not know. I found only this one piece, washed up on a rocky and wild shore. But the rumors that drove me to the top of the world always spoke of more in the City of the Dead."

  Many signs were made by the Zanural, for they were as intensely superstitious as the common folk. Daily their lives were punctuated by the performance of rituals designed to ward off unfriendly deities and spirits, which all Mai knew ruled the affairs of each individual from birth to death. At the rear of the chamber a wide‑eyed servant hastily dumped more incense in the ritual burner, in case the spirits in at­tendance that day were possessed of particularly large noses. The air of the chamber was immediately suffused with sweet fragrance.

  "No actual City of the Dead exists," one of the Zanural ventured hesitantly. "It is not a real place."

  De‑me‑Halmur used his hands eloquently. "No such solid piece of sunit as this exists, yet it sits there before us."

  "More," Panltatol mumbled. "More in the City of the Dead."

  "How much more?" asked Changrit with becoming avariciousness.

  "They say ... the rumors say ... that the city itself is built of sunit." Dead silence greeted his declaration, appropriately. "I am sorry I did not go farther." A thin smile appeared on his withered face. His right arm lay like brown cloth against the cold metal. "I am so tired, honored ones. I must rest a while."

  "Wait!" Changrit rushed forward. With his own arms he supported the oldster, a sign of the esteem in which Panltatol was suddenly held
. "How do we find the City of the Dead? How could one retrace your travels?"

  "Why, don't you know?" Panltatol whispered. "There is no City of the Dead. The journey cannot be made. But I made it. I, Bril de‑Panltatol, went where it is impossible to go. But you can't follow, none of you." He said it with vehemence as he unexpectedly sat up without aid. "You can't follow because only an insane one could make such a journey. I am mad, you see, and you are not." A sudden thought made him blink with confusion.

  "Very tired." He leaned back against Changrit again and closed his eyes. They would not open again.

  Changrit gently lowered the thin body. "A true Mai. He sacrificed everything in hopes of improving his fortune. I honor him."

  "We all honor him," de‑me‑Halmur said, "as we will honor his memory."

  "What of the sunit?" Lust was apparent in the voice of the Zanural who voiced the common thought. All eyes were on the bar.

  "You know the law," de‑me‑Halmur said sternly, if a trifle reluctantly. "I covet it as much as any of you, but it goes to his family and employees." He made a protective sign in case certain spirits were listening. "The law is clear."

  Zanural de‑Peyetmy was almost in tears. "Couldn't we bend the law just a little?"

  "I am sworn to uphold it, and I will do so. Those who would bend the law ultimately find themselves strangled by it." Murmurs of assent sounded from around the table.

  "Of course," de‑me‑Halmur went on, "there is the matter of a death tax." A few smiles appeared. "Also the fact that de‑Panltatol undertook this journey without proper author­ization, and we still must deal with the matter of his rude intrusion into the Zanur Chamber." He studied the bar. "I would say that perhaps half should go into the city treasury."

  "That still leaves a nice fortune." Changrit had retaken his seat on de‑me‑Halmur's left. "No family could be disappointed to receive such an inheritance. Now that the law has been dealt with, how are we to deal with this remarkable story?"

  "A great journey," one of the other Zanural announced portentously. "One to be enshrined in memory and song. I myself will commission a song cycle to commemorate it."

 
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