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fantasy novel chapter 26
questing hero novel text online

Warning: this novel is intended for an adult audience. It contains violence and vulgar language and, additionally, contains at least a little sexual content.


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Chapter 26

        Faced by the daily challeges posed by this wilderness of mountains, Togura was not dismayed. He liked to climb; he had no fear of heights; he welcomed the difficulties posed by his chosen route, for every difficulty diminished the chance of an unpleasant encounter with other human beings.
        The views afforded by altitude, which grew daily more extensive, were proof of his accomplishments. At the end of each day, with more and more of the world at his feet, he was abel to congratulate himself on an undeniable achievement. Having survived all kinds of terror, he was convinced that the worst was over. His living nightmares were over. He was free. He was full of confidence. He was happy.
        He drank fresh, clear water from tumbling mountain streams. At night, he built huge, raging fires; roaring with exultant delight, he danced beside these shameless beacons, rousing distant echoes with raucous drinking songs. He had nothing to drink but water; it was unmitigated freedom which made him feel drunk.
        He woke early, always filled with eagerness for the day ahead. Every day brought him new challenges, new delights. Wild mountain flowers, the like of which he had never seen before, as few flowers grew in Sung. Elegant rock crystals, some sunlight white, others delicately tinged with violet. The sight of mountain hawks and eagles, sliding effortlessly through the air as they haunted the echoing skies.
        In bad weather, his journey could have been a dreary saga of suffering and torment. But chance favoured him. The sky, a perfect ascension of blue, breathed fair winds only; the sun, miraculous, constant luminary, lazed from the eastern quadrant of the sky to the west, bright as a promise of perfection.
        Togura, shaking off a certain world-weariness which sometimes afflicts the very young, indulged himself, daring his life on difficult climbs when an easy ridge would have allowed him a more sober ascent, then - sometimes with a memory of rotten rock rattling away to disaster beneath him - celebrating his triumph with a shout:
        "Three cheers for Togura!"
        Far from the irrational conflicts of human affairs, he forgot all about the superstitious notions which had formerly begun to take possession of him. In the mountains, he trusted to his own balance, timing, judgment and strength. His universe yielded to his mastery. The nights, lit by his carefree fires, held no terror for him. He saw nothing which made him afraid, even though he once exchanged discourtesies with a wild-cat at close range.
        Possessed by the unmitigated sanity of the mountains, Togura rapidly began to doubt the reality of many of his own memories. Had he really fought against his half-brother Cromarty, matching blade against blade? Had he really seen torture, death and revolution in a ruined city in the swamps of Sung? Had he really met a man in D'Wait who had the head and horns of a bull? He could not credit any of it.
        Indeed, he thought all of human history increasingly improbable. Possessed by the perfection of his own health, joy and freedom, he could no longer believe in the incestuous rages, the narrow hatreds, the jealous lusts, the uncouth slanders and the muddy, scuffling wars which constituted the annals of human enterprise.
        "I declare a Golden Age," said Togura, greeting yet another dew-bright sunrise. "We are born perfect to a perfect world, therefore perfection is our nature, truth and destiny."
        The sanity of the mountains had made him, within the terms of the world he had escaped from, quite mad.
        Togura the Prophet, bearer of an uncommonly optimistic Revelation, gained the uppermost heights of the Ironband Mountains. It was noon, on a clear, bright day, with the sun at its zenith and somewhat to the south; despite the sunlight, it was cold, for at this height there still remained patches of snow and slush, the last debris of winter. Togura surveyed the view, and gave himself three cheers - one for initiative, one for effort and one for success.
        Then, in a moment of arrogance quite contrary to the tenor of his Revelation, he declared:
        "I, Togura Poulaan, lord of all I survey, name this summit Mount Togura. I name these uplands the Togura Heights, claiming all for me and mine for all eternity."
        Having thus annexed his territory, he then had the problem of whether to call himself baron, earl, duke, prince, king or emperor.
        "Lord Emperor Togura," he said, announcing his choice aloud. "Master of All the Mountains, their Surrounds, and Surrounding Oceans."
        That had a nice ring to it. He celebrated his bloodless imperial conquest by eating a little smoked horsemeat, chewing it slowly while he admired the view. At his rear, to the north, lay the lowlands of Estar. On his right, to the west, in the distance, the Central Ocean. On his left, more mountains. And to the south? Ahead of him, to the south, there were lowlands of some kind. The Harvest Plains, he hoped.
        As Togura gazed down at the southern lowlands, which were in fact the Lezconcarnau Plains, the wind started to get up. it was cold; shivering, he started downhill. By late afternoon, the sun had clouded over; by evening, a grey, persistent drizzle was dampening down his spirits. Nevertheless, he was not despondent. He found a scratch of a cave which would give him a dry night, and, with the competence of a seasoned traveller, lit a fire and made a brilliant blood-warming blaze from damp wool.
        The next few days were difficult.
        The going was very slow. The southern side of the mountain range proved to be steep, dangerous and heavily wooded. Where he could, he followed winding animal tracks through the trees, as the undergrowth, surfeited with nettles and brambles, proved uncommonly inhospitable. Once he sighted a wild pig, a monstrous wild-haired razorback boar; prudently, he climbed a tree. Finding a rotten log which had been torn open, apparently by heavy-duty claws, he suspected the presence of bear. He found deer tracks, and then paw marks like those of a wild-cat, only much larger.
        Though this should by rights have been the sunnier side of the range, the heavy vegetation made it cold, dank and shadowed. Often, stooping down a deer track with crowding branches overhead, he would go for half a day through unbroken twilight. Then the trees would end with a burst of sunlight, revealing the gash of a gorge, the looming depths of a massive sink hole, or a sheer cliff plummeting down to bone-breaking rocks.
        Running into such obstacles, Togura had to sidetrack and backtrack. Every day gave him at least five good reasons for sticking to the Salt Road. Still, he was here, now - he had to find a way to the south, or starve. He cut his rations down to almost nothing, and persisted.
        Finally, to his delight, he found a small river with a track running alongside it. The track was overgrown, as if nobody had come this way for a season or so, but, with the help of a stout stick with which he could beat down the more unruly outcrops of nettles, he could follow it. He did so, for the river ran south.
        Early on the second day downriver, he rounded a riverbend, eager to get a clear view of a massive red brick edifice whiche he had glimpsed through the trees. He was rewarded by the sight of the river running downstream for half a league or so until it disappeared into a gap in one wall of a castle.
        The castle, a massive pentagon of red brick, many times taller than the surrounding trees, was surmounted by a pyramid, also built of red brick. There was no sign of any gate or door; only slit windows pierced the brickwork. Togura gawked at it - then realised he could be seen from those slit windows.
        He ducked down out of sight behind some shrubbery, but, after a moment, rose to his feet again. The surrounds were so overgrown that the castle could scarcely be inhabited. He had seen no huntsmen or herdsmen, no farms or fields, no charcoal burners, no woodcutter clearings, no beggars or wandering lunatics; he had seen no roads and no woodsmoke, and no paths barring the single overgrown rivertrail he was following; the area was, as far as he could tell, a deserted wilderness.
        Boldly, Togura set off down the riverpath. He was half way to the castle when an arrow thunked into a tree just beside his head. Togura had scarcely had time to react when half a dozen men downriver broke cover. They were a bunch of hairy individuals with bows, spears and wildskin clothes. As they shouted at him, he turned and fled. They pursued, gaining on him easily. Their laughter came scarpering after him.
        Another arrow slammed into a spindly tree-trunk just in front of him. Togura dropped his baggage, but still they gained on him. Whooping ferociously, they closed in for what sounded very much like the kill. Despairing of escape uphill, Togura jumped into the river. It was cold, swift and deep. It swept him away toward the castle.
        Floating in the water, Togura saw his pursuers turn and start to trudge down the riverpath. They seemed in no hurry. He wondered why. Looking downriver, he saw the castle was much, much closer. Its walls blocked up the sky ahead of him. Suddenly he did not like the look of the gaping black hole in the castle wall which was swallowing the river. It looked cold, dangerous and nasty.
        Togura struck out for the riverbank. But the current was too strong for him. Momentarily, he gained a hold on a slimy rock near the water's edge. Then the current plucked him away and channelled him into the darkness. The daylight rapidly slid away from him. Hearing a thunderous water-rumble up ahead, he guessed that there was a weir or waterfall waiting for him. Desperately, he struck out for the bank, fearing that it would be a wall of sheer rock.
        His fears had no foundation. He found that the bank, which was low, was made of something spongy which tore, broke and crumbled as he kicked and clawed, fighting free from the water. Once on the bank, cold, shivering and dripping wet, he tore away another handful of the spongy substance underfoot and held it up to the light. The diminished illumination showed him something looking grey, unpleasant and unhealthy; he dropped it.
        Togura did not know it, but he was standing on a vast, lethal, carnivorous fungus. By now he had kicked several holes in it, and had torn away chunks of its substance. Usually, it did not take kindly to such cavalier treatment; in the usual course of events, it would have eaten away his legs by now, and would just have been making a start on his testicles. However, this was one of its rare periods of dormancy, which lasted for twelve days and occurred once in every three hundred and thirty-three years. So, for the moment, he was safe.
        Walking upstream, Togura was met by a solid wall running flush with the river. Going downstream, he met the same. He realised he was standing on a kind of landing bay. There was no path by the river. He could trust himself to the water, which thrashed into thunder in the darkness ahead, but he suspected that would be suicide - or at least a severe form of masochism. The alternative was to see if there was a tunnel, stairway, chimney or sump leading away from the landing bay.
        Togura wandered about in the dark, bumping into things, swearing, shouting to test the echoes, and falling into holes. One of the larger holes dropped him down so sharply that he almost broke his leg. He got off with a sprained ankle. Hobbling about, swearing more viciously than ever, he found, at last, a stairway, which he climbed.
        The stairway led into a maze of passages dimly lit by strips of green illumination running along the ceilings - a kind of lighting unlike anything Togura had ever seen before. The passageways, which were hazy with spiderwebs, were thick with dust and littered with junk - shards of pottery, empty stone jars, petrified bones, snail shells, drifts of ironsand, broken glass of truly amazing quality, containers of a light and fragile metal which did not seem to rust, and other oddments.
        At regular intervals, the floor was punctured by bright sunlight streaming in through slit windows. Peering out through one of these windows, Togura found himself looking to the south; the river exited from the castle below him. Two men on the bank were patiently watching the river. Much wandering later, he found himself able to get a view to the north. The view here was graced by the presence of a man squatting by a riverside fire, apparently roasting something on a spit.
        Togura was - this did not surprise him, for he was used to being in this situation - both hungry and thirsty. He was not yet seriously worried. However, after having lost himself and found himself several times, he realised that he was going round in circles. His clothes were still damp, his boots were still sodden, and he was getting very tired from walking on the hard, unyielding floor.
        "It'll take a miracle to get out of here," said Togura, in one of the moments of despair which he thought he had outgrown.
        A miracle - or magic.
        Of course! Why not try magic? There was nothing to say that wizards had built this place, but, on the other hand, there was nothing to say that they hadn't. Togura promptly tried some of the tricks which the wizard of Drum had taught him, in defiance of all the laws, rules and regulations of the Confederation of Wizards. He tried a Word of Opening, a Word of Closing, then three or four Words which were supposed to do something, though he could not for the life of him remember what.
        Nothing happened.
        The brick remained brick, the dust remained dust, the glass remained glass, the bones remained bones. In frustration, Togura shouted aloud a Word of Ultimate Destruction, which he had been warned never ever to use except in the direst emergencies. Again, nothing happened. If wizards had left any power in this place, he had failed to find the right Words to activate that power.
        What else could he try?
        "Onamonagonamonth!" chanted Togura.
        It was a Word of Location.
        It worked!
        In the distance, a ringing note, like that from a bell, sounded loud and clear, then died away to nothing. An artefact of power lay in that direction. Togura took a few paces, then spoke his Word of Location again. The bell-bright tone ignited once again. In this manner, he led himself through the maze, reaching, at last, a big, high-vaulted hall where the ringing tone was almost overwhelming.
        "It's here," muttered Togura, as the note once more died away.
        But where?
        The hall was cluttered with the most appalling jumble of antiquated lumber, spinning wheels, mirrors of startling brightness, decayed paintings, broken tiles, weapon racks, body armour, spokeless wheels of a black substance which was hard yet flexible, and assorted lumps of rust which perhaps had once been something flexible, together with old leather-bound books in indecipherable script, stone tablets, graven images of bronze and jade, coins made of lead and bits of seamless lightweight piping.
        "Onamonagonamonth!" cried Togura.
        The ringing note almost deafened him. As far as he could tell, it seemed to come from one particular corner. As the sound died away, he waded toward it, barking his shins on an ironbound chest, which served to diminish his enthusiasm. He cautioned himself not to get over-excited. When he found the whatever-it-was, he might find it incomprehensible. Or useless. It might be a wizard-made device for skinning onions by enchantment, a magic funnel for desalinating the sea, a novel weapon specifically designed for killing dragons, or any other of a thousand million unhelpful devices.
        Once he reached the corner, he rummaged through various kinds of junk - more rocks, more bones, a crown made of a heavy metal which was possibly gold, a box decorated with the design of a heart and a hand, a couple of dirty stone jars, a feather cloak which fell to pieces when he picked it up, a lump of rock-heavy swamp kauri and a ship in a bottle.
        The only thing which looked like it might be magic was the ship in the bottle, for it was a thing which was, on the face of it, an impossibility. Togura hated to break a piece of glass so large, so finely wrought and so rare, but, yielding to necessity, he smashed the bottle. Then, for good measure, dismantled the ship. Finding nothing. He ran through his Words again. There was only one he had failed to use, so now he used it on principle:
        There was a sharp click.
        And, in the dust, something moved.

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The text on this page is part of the fantasy novel The Wordsmith and the Warguild by Hugh Cook, which, when published in North America in 1988, was divided into two separate volumes, The Questing Hero and The Hero's Return. This text can be read for free online. However, the text is copyright - all rights reserved. For permission to use this text or any portion of it contact Hugh Cook.

The Wordsmiths and the Warguild was first published in 1987. Copyright © 1987, 1988, 1998, 2004, 2006 Hugh Cook.