The Spine of the World by R. A. Salvatore



  The smaller man, known by many names in Luskan but most commonly as Morik the Rogue, held the bottle up in the air and gave it a shake, for it was a dirty thing and he wanted to measure the dark line of liquid against the orange light of sunset.

  "Down to one," he said, and he brought his arm back in as if to take that final swig.

  The huge man sitting on the end of the wharf beside him snatched the bottle away, moving with agility exceptional in a man of his tremendous size. Instinctively, Morik moved to grab the bottle back, but the large man held his muscular arm up to fend off the grabbing hands and drained the bottle in a single hearty swig.

  "Bah, Wulfgar, but you're always getting the last one of late," Morik complained, giving Wulfgar a halfhearted swat across the shoulder.

  "Earned it," Wulfgar argued.

  Morik eyed him skeptically for just a moment, then remembered their last contest wherein Wulfgar had, indeed, earned the right to the last swig of the next bottle.

  "Lucky throw," Morik mumbled. He knew better, though, and had long ago ceased to be amazed by Wulfgar's warrior prowess.

  "One that I'll make again," Wulfgar proclaimed, pulling himself to his feet and hoisting Aegis-fang, his wondrous warhammer. He staggered as he slapped the weapon across his open palm, and a sly smile spread across Morik's swarthy face. He, too, climbed to his feet, taking up the empty bottle, swinging it easily by the neck.

  "Will you, now?" the rogue asked.

  "You throw it high enough, or take a loss," the blond barbarian explained, lifting his arm and pointing the end of the warhammer out to the open sea.

  "A five-count before it hits the water. " Morik eyed his barbarian friend icily as he recited the terms of the little gambling game they had created many days ago. Morik had won the first few contests, but by the fourth day Wulfgar had learned to properly lead the descending bottle, his hammer scattering tiny shards of glass across the bay. Of late, Morik had a chance of winning the bet only when Wulfgar indulged too much in the bottle.

  "Never will it hit," Wulfgar muttered as Morik reached back to throw.

  The little man paused, and once again he eyed the big man with some measure of contempt. Back and forth swayed the arm. Suddenly Morik jerked as if to throw.

  "What?" Surprised, Wulfgar realized the feint, realized that Morik had not sailed the bottle into the air. Even as Wulfgar turned his gaze upon Morik, the little man spun in a complete circuit and let the bottle fly high and far.

  Right into the line of the descending sun.

  Wulfgar hadn't followed it from the beginning of its flight, so he could only squint into the glare, but he caught sight of it at last. With a roar he let fly his mighty warhammer, the magical and brilliantly crafted weapon spinning out low over the bay.

  Morik squealed in glee, thinking he had outfoxed the big man, for the bottle was low in the sky by the time Wulfgar threw and fully twenty strides out from the wharf. No one could skim a warhammer so far and so fast as to hit that, Morik believed, especially not a man who had just drained more than half the contents of the target!

  The bottle nearly clipped a wave when Aegis-fang took it, exploding it into a thousand tiny pieces.

  "It touched water!" Morik yelled.

  "My win," Wulfgar said firmly, his tone offering no debate.

  Morik could only grumble in reply, for he knew that the big man was right; the warhammer got the bottle in time.

  "Seeming a mighty waste of a good hammer fer just a bottle," came a voice behind the duo. The pair turned as one to see two men, swords drawn, standing but a few feet away.

  "Now, Mister Morik the Rogue," remarked one of them, a tall and lean fellow with a kerchief tied about his head, a patch over one eye, and a rusty, curving blade weaving in the air before him. "I'm knowin' ye got yerself a good haul from a gem merchant a week back, and I'm thinkin' that ye'd be wise to share a bit o' the booty with me and me friend. "

  Morik glanced up at Wulfgar, his wry grin and the twinkle in his dark eyes telling the barbarian that he didn't mean to share a thing, except perhaps the blade of his fine dagger.

  "And if ye still had yer hammer, ye might be arguin' the point," laughed the other thug, as tall as his friend, but much wider and far dirtier. He prodded his sword toward Wulfgar. The barbarian staggered backward, nearly falling off the end of the wharf-or at least, pretending to.

  "I'm thinking that you should have found the gem merchant before me," Morik replied calmly. "Assuming there was a gem merchant, my friend, because I assure you that I have no idea what you are talking about. "

  The slender thug growled and thrust his sword ahead. "Now, Morik!" he started to yell, but before the words even left his mouth, Morik had leaped ahead, spinning inside the angle of the curving sword blade, rolling about, putting his back against the man's forearm and pushing out. He ducked right under the startled man's arm, lifting it high with his right hand, while his left hand flashed, a silver sparkle in the last light of day, Morik's dagger stabbing into the stunned man's armpit.

  Meanwhile, the other thug, thinking he had an easy, unarmed target, waded in. His bloodshot eyes widened when Wulfgar brought his right arm from behind his hip, revealing that the mighty warhammer had magically returned to his grip. The thug skidded to a stop and glanced in panic at his companion. But by now Morik had the newly unarmed man turned about and in full flight with Morik running right behind him, taunting him and laughing hysterically as he repeatedly stabbed the man in the buttocks.

  "Whoa!" the remaining thug cried, trying to turn.

  "I can hit a falling bottle," Wulfgar reminded him. The man stopped abruptly and turned back slowly to face the huge barbarian.

  "We don't want no trouble," the thug explained, slowly laying his sword down on the boarding of the wharf. "No trouble at all, good sir," he said, bowing repeatedly.

  Wulfgar dropped Aegis-fang to the decking, and the thug stopped bobbing, staring hard at the weapon.

  "Pick up your sword, if you choose," the barbarian offered.

  The thug looked up at him incredulously. Then, seeing the barbarian without a weapon-except, of course, for those formidable fists-the man scooped up his sword.

  Wulfgar had him before his first swing. The powerful warrior snapped out his hand to catch the man's sword arm at the wrist. With a sudden and ferocious jerk, Wulfgar brought that arm straight up, then hit the thug in the chest with a stunning right cross that blasted away his breath and his strength. The sword fell to the wharf.

  Wulfgar jerked the arm again, lifting the man right from his feet and popping his shoulder out of joint. The barbarian let go, allowing the thug to fall heavily back to his feet, then hit him with a vicious left hook across the jaw. The only thing that stopped the man from flipping headlong over the side of the wharf was Wulfgar's right hand, catching him by the front of his shirt. With frightening strength, Wulfgar easily lifted the thug from the deck, holding him fully a foot off the planking.

  The man tried to grab at Wulfgar and break the hold, but Wulfgar shook him so violently that he nearly bit off his tongue, and every limb on the man seemed made of rubber.

  "This one's not got much of a purse," Morik called. Wulfgar looked past his victim to see that his companion had gone right around the fleeing thug, herding him back toward the end of the dock. The thug was limping badly now and whining for mercy, which only made Morik stick him again in the buttocks, drawing more yelps.

  "Please, friend," stammered the man Wulfgar held aloft.

  "Shut up!" the barbarian roared, bringing his arm down forcefully, bending his head and snapping his powerful neck muscles so that his forehead collided
hard with the thug's face.

  A primal rage boiled within the barbarian, an anger that went beyond this incident, beyond the attempted mugging. No longer was he standing on a dock in Luskan. Now he was back in the Abyss, in Errtu's lair, a tormented prisoner of the wicked demon. Now this man was one of the great demon's minions, the pincer-armed Glabrezu, or worse, the tempting succubus. Wulfgar was back there fully, seeing the gray smoke, smelling the foul stench, feeling the sting of whips and fires, the pincers on his throat, the cold kiss of the demoness.

  So clear it came to him! So vivid! The waking nightmare returned, holding him in a grip of the sheerest rage, stifling his mercy or compassion, throwing him into the pits of torment, emotional and physical torture. He felt the itching and burning of those little centipedes that Errtu used, burrowing under his skin and crawling inside him, their venomous pincers lighting a thousand fires within. They were on him and in him, all over him, their little legs tickling and exciting his nerves so that he would feel the exquisite agony of their burning venom all the more.

  Tormented again, indeed, but suddenly and unexpectedly, Wulfgar found that he was no longer helpless.

  Up into the air went the thug, Wulfgar effortlessly hoisting him overhead, though the man weighed well over two hundred pounds. With a primal roar, a scream torn from his churning gut, the barbarian spun him about toward the open sea.

  "I cannot swim!" the man shrieked. Arms and legs flailing pitifully, he hit the water fully fifteen feet from the wharf, where he splashed and bobbed, crying out for help. Wulfgar turned away. If he heard the man at all, he showed no indication.

  Morik eyed the barbarian with some surprise. "He can't swim," Morik remarked as Wulfgar approached.

  "Good time to learn, then," the barbarian muttered coldly, his thoughts still whirling down the smoky corridors of Errtu's vast dungeon. He kept brushing his hands along his arms and legs as he spoke, slapping away the imagined centipedes.

  Morik shrugged. He looked down to the man who was squirming and crying on the planks at his feet. "Can you swim?"

  The thug glanced up timidly at the little rogue and gave a slight, hopeful nod.

  "Then go to your friend," Morik instructed. The man started to slowly crawl away.

  "I fear his friend will be dead before he gets to his side," Morik remarked to Wulfgar. The barbarian didn't seem to hear him.

  "Oh, do help the wretch," Morik sighed, grabbing Wulfgar by the arm and forcing that vacant gaze to focus. "For me. I would hate to start a night with a death on our hands. "

  With a sigh of his own, Wulfgar reached out his mighty hands. The thug on his knees suddenly found himself rising from the decking, one hand holding the back of his breeches, another clamped about his collar. Wulfgar took three running strides and hurled the man long and high. The flying thug cleared his splashing companion, landing nearby with a tremendous belly smack.

  Wulfgar didn't see him land. Having lost all interest in the scene, he turned about and, after mentally recalling Aegis-fang to his grasp, stormed past Morik, who bowed in deference to his dangerous and powerful friend.

  Morik caught up to Wulfgar as the barbarian exited the wharf. "They are still scrambling in the water," the rogue remarked. "The fat one, he keeps foolishly grabbing his friend, pulling them both underwater. Perhaps they will both drown. "

  Wulfgar didn't seem to care, and that was an honest reflection of his heart, Morik knew. The rogue gave one last look back at the harbor, then merely shrugged. The two thugs had brought it on themselves, after all.

  Wulfgar, son of Beornegar, was not one to be toyed with.

  So Morik, too, put them out of his mind-not that he was ever really concerned-and focused instead on his companion. His surprising companion, who had learned to fight at the training of a drow elf, of all things!

  Morik winced, though, of course, Wulfgar was too distracted to catch it. The rogue thought of another drow, a visitor who had come unexpectedly to him not so long ago, bidding him to keep a watchful eye on Wulfgar and paying him in advance for his is services (and not-so-subtly explaining that if Morik failed in the "requested" task, the dark elf's master would not be pleased). Morik hadn't heard from the dark elves again, to his relief, but still he kept to his end of the agreement to watch over Wulfgar.

  No, that wasn't it, the rogue had to admit, at least to himself. He had started his relationship with Wulfgar for purely personal gain, partly out of fear of the drow, partly out of fear of Wulfgar and a desire to learn more about this man who had so obviously become his rival on the street. That had been in the beginning. He no longer feared Wulfgar, though he did sometimes fear for the deeply troubled, haunted man. Morik hardly ever thought about the drow elves, who had not come around in weeks and weeks. Surprisingly, Morik had come to like Wulfgar, had come to enjoy the man's company despite the many times when surliness dominated the barbarian's demeanor.

  He almost told Wulfgar about the visit from the drow elves then, out of some basic desire to warn this man who had become his friend. Almost. . . . but the practical side of Morik, the cautious pragmatism that allowed him to stay alive in such a hostile environment as Luskan's streets, reminded him that to do so would do no one good. If the dark elves came for Wulfgar, whether Wulfgar expected them or not, the barbarian would be defeated. These were drow elves, after all, wielders of mighty magic and the finest of blades, elves who could walk uninvited into Morik's bedroom and rouse him from his slumber. Even Wulfgar had to sleep. If those dark elves, after they were finished with poor Wulfgar, ever learned that Morik had betrayed them . . .

  A shudder coursed along Morik's spine, and he forcefully shook the unsettling thoughts away, turning his attention back to his large friend. Oddly, Morik saw a kindred spirit here, a man who could be (and indeed had been) a noble and mighty warrior, a leader among men, but who, for one reason or another, had fallen from grace.

  Such was the way Morik viewed his own situation, though in truth, he had been on a course to his present position since his early childhood. Still, if only his mother hadn't died in childbirth, if only his father hadn't abandoned him to the streets . . .

  Looking at Wulfgar now, Morik couldn't help but think of the man he himself might have become, of the man Wulfgar had been. Circumstance had damned them both, to Morik's thinking, and so he held no illusions about their relationship now. The truth of his bond to Wulfgar-the real reason he stayed so close to him-despite all his sensibilities (the barbarian was being watched by dark elves, after all!), was that he regarded the barbarian as he might a younger brother.

  That, and the fact that Wulfgar's friendship brought him more respect among the rabble. For Morik, there always had to be a practical reason.

  The day neared its end, the night its beginning, the time of Morik and Wulfgar, the time of Luskan's street life.


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