by Kirk Straughen


Illustrated by Kevin Duncan

Foreword

The association of sound and colour in this story may prove slightly confusing to the reader. Therefore I should explain that it is inspired by an unusual condition known as synaesthesia - an abnormality where the sufferer commonly experiences sounds, letters, numbers or words as colours. Individuals with highly developed synaesthesia may even speak of an aroma's texture, or its sound.

This unusual condition is thought to be caused by crosstalk between the brain's various sensory areas, and while it is abnormal for human beings to experience the world in this way, it is not so for the intelligences of the reality you are about to enter.

Kabrisamnu knew he was going to die. The wizard stood in stoic and meditative solitude upon the utmost height of his castle-tree. A slender finger was this coral-like growth, its puce trunk clad in leaves resembling metallic ebon blades, and so tall that whirlpools of amethyst cloud spun lazily passed its dizzy crown that thrust to the Middle Sky.

Far beneath lay the Boiling Sea, its bursting emerald bubbles sending shimmering rings of creamy sound across the roiling fluid's vast expanse; while far above the silver spheres - components of the Upper Sky - danced in ever changing patterns, their tinkling forms an endless harmony of rippling opal song.

A strange reality, this world of Nirnunir. Strange, too, its inhuman children: Tall was Kabrisamnu, his exoskeleton translucent and of an amber hue. Six many jointed arm-legs supported his rod-like body, each terminating in a tripod of three long and dexterous fingers. Six eyes like topaz jewels circled his pear-shaped head, crowned with a U-shaped organ that vibrated to give him speech.

Of weird and unearthly appearance was the wizard, and yet touched by a trace of mortal humanness; for he, too, wondered whether death would be the end, or the beginning of something strange and inexplicable.

A gentle touch disturbed his philosophic contemplation. One eye swivelled down and beheld Metchmetch, his sole companion. The creature - a magenta sphere of articulated propelling spines - had rolled against one leg. Lucid tentacles emerged from between its quills, some bearing eyes - like spheres of polished obsidian - which sombrely regarded him.

"Master is troubled?" It queried in a piping voice whose tones filled the air with sparks of citrine light.

The wizard gazed upon the thing with an emotion akin to fondness. The creature was the product of an experiment gone wrong in his student days. A failure by the standards of his peers.

To him, though, it was success: a loyal companion that kept at bay intolerable loneliness, for the savant lived in isolation to escape the Byzantine intrigues of his fellow wizards - a tactic that had worked up til now.

"Yes," replied Kabrisamnu, with his usual frankness. "Emnistur has challenged me to a duel. He has already killed three of Nirnunir's greatest wizards, and I was never as half as good as they, even in my prime. And when I'm dead the arrogant thom will place my crown upon his head to celebrate the victory."

"Master could flee," suggested his companion, timidly.

"In a sense I've been doing that all my life. No, its time I faced death with what fortitude is left to me."

Metchmetch hooted forlornly. Its body wavered like a flame, became a kaleidoscope of weirdly shifting geometries, the flowing forms an indication of deep distress.

Carefully, Kabrisamnu picked up his strange companion, wondering what words of comfort he could offer at such a time. The wizard could think of none, and so he stood in silence, his gentile touch more soothing than empty platitudes could ever be.

Time passed. Metchmetch settled. A growing speck caught the wizard's searching gaze.

"Emnistur's flying-mechanism approaches," he quietly said as he lowered his companion to the floor of the richly carven platform. "Best you hide yourself before he lands."

The creature sped off rapidly and Kabrisamnu, who watched it descend the spiral ramp to his abode, didn't know whether to be offended or amused at the unseemly haste with which it fled away.

Again, the wizard focused his attention upon the flying-mechanism, now clearly visible as it drew near - a thin disc of orange crystal twenty feet across, one edged with a silver band of alloy whose circumference was ringed with vitreous cones, lavender in hue, that emitted bubbles of soft grey sound as they slowly turned upon their axes.

The machine slowed, settled to the ornate floor, and Kabrisamnu observed Emnistur as he alighted from his craft's upper plane. Swift and sure were the duellist's movements as he advanced upon the ancient wizard, and arrogant his flaring words; strident their crimson sound.

"Your life I'll take, old one; and your crown. Though I think the last more valuable than the first."

Kabrisamnu ignored this boorishness. Death was certain. Certain, too, was his determination to face the end with stoic dignity.

"Then let us repair to the duelling circle," was his calm reply. "And there you may prove your worthiness to wear it."

The two beings descended the spiral ramp in the mighty stem that supported Kabrisamnu's huge apartments. Strange was this awesome structure that depended from a vast cavern within the soaring castle-tree:

Like a chandelier was its woody architecture - all carved with swirling, organic arabesques whose alien geometries seemed to twist reality's fabric with their unnatural lines; while high above, the cavern's roof was masked with an eddying mist whose turquoise vapours shed their thrumming light upon the fantastic scene.

The singing radiance shone through circular fretwork panels in the stem, illuminating the downward way upon which the wizards walked, and also flowed through others in the vaulted ceiling of the antechamber where the beings at last emerged.

In the centre of this spacious room was the duelling circle - a disc of ebon stone bordered with swirling vortices of hissing light that chased each other about its edge, and at the northern rim of its onyx plane was a pedestal upon which rested Kabrisamnu's shimmering crown.

Emnistur's covetous gaze drank in its shining form - a double helix of golden spheres encircled by rings of ruby crystal, and in the scarlet bands danced flecks of emerald flame in endless whirling patterns too swift for any eye to follow.

Another trophy to add to my collection, he smugly thought.

Both beings stepped upon the duelling circle. Kabrisamnu fought down his rising fear, raised an arm-leg - a signal he was ready.

Utter silence descended upon the scene. Each combatant's mind slowly merged with the subtle forces that underpin reality - that substratum of whirling vortices of immense atomic power.

The air grew electric, hissed with gathering forces of dynamic intensity. The surface of the disc began to ripple with outward flowing rings of ebon flame. Before each wizard fountains of actinic light gushed up from its wavering form, became swirling whirlwinds of glowing force that began to shift and change under the duellists sculpting minds.

Forms emerged from whirling energy - spheres and cubes; rods and cones; dodecahedrons, octahedrons and geometric planes. They swirled about like eddying leaves, then slowly merged to form towering and indescribable mechanisms of phantom light that sung with unearthly sound.

The manifestations surged towards each other, clashed. Kabrisamnu felt the terrible shock through his controlling rays of psychic force, his pentagonal energy shields. His mechanism wavered. One component flared, drenching the scene of battle with exploding light.

Emnistur saw him stagger back, felt a surge of pleasure at his pain. Kabrisamnu rallied, restored his faltering mechanism, but only just. He thrust it forward. Octahedrons joined tip to tip, forming ghostly tentacles of peacock light that ensnared his foe's creation.

Emnistur concentrated. Spinning cones of lilac force moved outward from the centre of his ethereal mechanism, shearing the net of phantom tentacles enmeshing it. The severed limbs spun away, and the entire manifestation dissolved into blinding radiance that struck down the ancient wizard with thunderous tones of flaring prismatic light.

Slowly, the terrible afterimage faded from Kabrisamnu's eyes. Looking up he beheld Emnistur standing over him, the gloating light of triumph in his chartreuse orbs, the helix crown clasped within the triad of his avaricious hand.

His words were cruel - flying sparks of carmine that burst about his speech organ when he spoke:

"Before I kill you," he gloated. "I want your last sight to be that of your crown upon my head."

With a desperate effort Kabrisamnu sought to merge his mind with the quantum world of atomic force, to summon up his shields of power. Too late - Emnistur placed the crown upon his skull, stepped clear as his fearsome mechanism bore down upon the defeated foe.

Multitudinous spheres formed tendrils of blazing light, whipped out to seize Kabrisamnu in their fiery grip. The helix crown wavered like a flame. Its circumference expanded to a saw-toothed ring of inward facing horizontal blades.

Frantically, Kabrisamnu rolled away from the flaming tentacles. The serrated crown-ring dropped, contracted like a spinning metal noose. The ancient wizard glimpsed Emnistur's head and body tumble lifeless to the ground, the phantom mechanism wink out. Alarmed, Kabrisamnu scrambled upright as the killer crown rolled towards him. He scuttled away wondering as to the cause of his diadem's frightening transformation.

Again it shimmered - a shifting pattern of forms whose outlines settled into the familiar shape of Metchmetch.

"Is Master hurt?" It queried with concern, its dark eyes fixed upon him; child-like, yet somehow now strangely sinister.

Shaken, Kabrisamnu stared at the thing. Slowly, he recovered his accustomed poise, and then with dry humour did thus reply:

"Not as much as Emnistur." Then, more seriously, and with undertones of awe: "I never knew you could mimic things so well. You certainly deceived Emnistur and me."

"Of course, Master. Some things even mighty wizards do not know."

Kabrisamnu could not help but agree with that remark.

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