Andre Norton.

The Gifts of Asti online

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* * * * *

Transcriber's Notes:

This etext was produced from Fantasy Book Vol. 1, No. 3 1948.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright
on this publication was renewed.

A number of typographical errors found in the original text have been
corrected in this version. A list of these errors is found at the end
of this book.

* * * * *





THE GIFTS OF ASTI


ANDREW NORTH


_She was the guardian of the worlds, but HER world was dead._


Even here, on the black terrace before the forgotten mountain retreat of
Asti, it was possible to smell the dank stench of burning Memphir, to
imagine that the dawn wind bore upward from the pillaged city the faint
tortured cries of those whom the barbarians of Klem hunted to their
prolonged death. Indeed it was time to leave -

Varta, last of the virgin Maidens of Asti, shivered. The scaled and
wattled creature who crouched beside her thigh turned his reptilian head
so that golden eyes met the aquamarine ones set slantingly at a faintly
provocative angle in her smooth ivory face.

"We go - ?"

She nodded in answer to that unvoiced question Lur had sent into her
brain, and turned toward the dark cavern which was the mouth of Asti's
last dwelling place. Once, more than a thousand years before when the
walls of Memphir were young, Asti had lived among men below. But in the
richness and softness which was trading Memphir, empire of empires, Asti
found no place. So He and those who served Him had withdrawn to this
mountain outcrop. And she, Varta, was the last, the very last to bow
knee at Asti's shrine and raise her voice in the dawn hymn - for Lur, as
were all his race, was mute.

Even the loot of Memphir would not sate the shaggy headed warriors who
had stormed her gates this day. The stairway to Asti's Temple was plain
enough to see and there would be those to essay the steep climb hoping
to find a treasure which did not exist. For Asti was an austere God,
delighting in plain walls and bare altars. His last priest had lain in
the grave niches these three years, there would be none to hold that
gate against intruders.

Varta passed between tall, uncarved pillars, Lur padding beside her, his
spine mane erect, the talons on his forefeet clicking on the stone in
steady rhythm. So they came into the innermost shrine of Asti and there
Varta made graceful obeisance to the great cowled and robed figure which
sat enthroned, its hidden eyes focused upon its own outstretched hand.

And above the flattened palm of that wide hand hung suspended in space
the round orange-red sun ball which was twin to the sun that lighted
Erb. Around the miniature sun swung in their orbits the four worlds of
the system, each obeying the laws of space, even as did the planets they
represented.

"Memphir has fallen," Varta's voice sounded rusty in her own ears. She
had spoken so seldom during the last lonely months. "Evil has risen to
overwhelm our world, even as it was prophesied in Your Revelations, O,
Ruler of Worlds and Maker of Destiny. Therefore, obeying the order given
of old, I would depart from this, Thy house. Suffer me now to fulfill
the Law - "

Three times she prostrated her slim body on the stones at the foot of
Asti's judgment chair. Then she arose and, with the confidence of a
child in its father, she laid her hand palm upward upon the outstretched
hand of Asti. Beneath her flesh the stone was not cold and hard, but
seemed to have an inner heat, even as might a human hand. For a long
moment she stood so and then she raised her hand slowly, carefully, as
if within its slight hollow she cupped something precious.

[Illustration]

And, as she drew her hand away from the grasp of Asti, the tiny sun and
its planets followed, spinning now above her palm as they had above the
statue's. But out of the cowled figure some virtue had departed with the
going of the miniature solar system; it was now but a carving of stone.
And Varta did not look at it again as she passed behind its bulk to seek
a certain place in the temple wall, known to her from much reading of
the old records.

Having found the stone she sought, she moved her hand in a certain
pattern before it so that the faint radiance streaming from the tiny
sun, gleamed on the grayness of the wall. There was a grating, as from
metal long unused, and a block fell back, opening a narrow door to them.

Before she stepped within, the priestess lifted her hand above her head
and when she withdrew it, the sun and planets remained to form a diadem
just above the intricate braiding of her dull red hair. As she moved
into the secret way, the five orbs swung with her, and in the darkness
there the sun glowed richly, sending out a light to guide their feet.

They were at the top of a stairway and the hollow clang of the stone as
it moved back into place behind them echoed through a gulf which seemed
endless. But that too was as the chronicles had said and Varta knew no
fear.

How long they journeyed down into the maw of the mountain and, beyond
that, into the womb of Erb itself, Varta never knew. But, when feet were
weary and she knew the bite of real hunger, they came into a passageway
which ended in a room hollowed of solid rock. And there, preserved in
the chest in which men born in the youth of Memphir had laid them, Varta
found that which would keep her safe on the path she must take. She put
aside the fine silks, the jeweled cincture, which had been the badge of
Asti's service and drew on over her naked body a suit of scaled skin,
gemmed and glistening in the rays of the small sun. There was a hood to
cover the entire head, taloned gloves for the hands, webbed, clawed
coverings for the feet - as if the skin of a giant, man-like lizard had
been tanned and fashioned into this suit. And Varta suspected that that
might be so - the world of Erb had not always been held by the human-kind
alone.

There were supplies here too, lying untouched in ageless containers
within a lizard-skin pouch. Varta touched her tongue without fear to a
powdered restorative, sharing it with Lur, whose own mailed skin would
protect him through the dangers to come.

She folded the regalia she had stripped off and laid it in the chest,
smoothing it regretfully before she dropped the lid upon its shimmering
color. Never again would Asti's servant wear the soft stuff of His
Livery. But she was resolute enough when she picked up the food pouch
and strode forward, passing out of the robing chamber into a narrow way
which was a natural fault in the rock unsmoothed by the tools of man.

But when this rocky road ended upon the lip of a gorge, Varta hesitated,
plucking at the throat latch of her hood-like helmet. Through the
unclouded crystal of its eye-holes she could see the sprouts of yellow
vapor which puffed from crannies in the rock wall down which she must
climb. If the records of the Temple spoke true, these curls of gas were
death to all lunged creatures of the upper world. She could only trust
that the cunning of the scaled hood would not fail her.

The long talons fitted to the finger tips of the gloves, the claws of
the webbed foot coverings clamped fast to every hand and foot hold, but
the way down was long and she caught a message of weariness from Lur
before they reached the piled rocks at the foot of the cliff. The puffs
of steamy gas had become a fog through which they groped their way
slowly, following a trace of path along the base of the cliff.

Time did not exist in the underworld of Erb. Varta did not know whether
it was still today, or whether she had passed into tomorrow when they
came to a cross roads. She felt Lur press against her, forcing her back
against a rock.

"There is a thing coming - " his message was clear.

And in a moment she too saw a dark hulk nosing through the vapor. It
moved slowly, seeming to balance at each step as if travel was a painful
act. But it bore steadily to the meeting of the two paths.

"It is no enemy - " But she did not need that reassurance from Lur.
Unearthly as the thing looked it had no menace.

With a last twist of ungainly body the creature squatted on a rock and
clawed the clumsy covering it wore about its bone-thin shoulders and
domed-skull head. The visage it revealed was long and gray, with dark
pits for eyes and a gaping, fang-studded, lipless mouth.

"Who are you who dare to tread the forgotten ways and rouse from slumber
the Guardian of the Chasms?"

The question was a shrill whine in her brain, her hands half arose to
cover her ears -

"I am Varta, Maiden of Asti. Memphir has fallen to the barbarians of the
Outer Lands and now I go, as Asti once ordered - ."

The Guardian considered her answer gravely. In one skeleton claw it
fumbled a rod and with this it now traced certain symbols in the dust
before Varta's webbed feet. When it had done, the girl stooped and
altered two of the lines with a swift stroke from one of her talons. The
creature of the Chasm nodded its misshapen head.

"Asti does not rule here. But long, and long, and long ago there was a
pact made with us in His Name. Pass free from us, woman of the Light.
There are two paths before you - ."

The Guardian paused for so long that Varta dared to prompt it.

"Where do they lead, Guardian of the Dark?"

"This will take you down into my country," it jerked the rod to the
right. "And that way is death for creatures from the surface world. The
other - in our old legends it is said to bring a traveler out into the
upper world. Of the truth of that I have no proof."

"But that one I must take," she made slight obeisance to the huddle of
bones and dank cloak on the rock and it inclined its head in grave
courtesy.

With Lur pushing a little ahead, she took the road which ran straight
into the flume-veiled darkness. Nor did she turn to look again at the
Thing from the Chasm world.

They began to climb again, across slimed rock where there were evil
trails of other things which lived in this haunted darkness. But the sun
of Asti lighted their way and perhaps some virtue in the rays from it
kept away the makers of such trails.

When they pulled themselves up onto a wide ledge the talons on Varta's
gloves were worn to splintered stubs and there was a bright girdle of
pain about her aching body. Lur lay panting beside her, his red-forked
tongue protruding from his foam ringed mouth.

"We walk again the ways of men," Lur was the first to note the tool
marks on the stone where they lay. "By the Will of Asti, we may win out
of this maze after all."

Since there were no signs of the deadly steam Varta dared to push off
her hood and share with her companion the sustaining power she carried
in her pouch. There was a freshness to the air they breathed, damp and
cold though it was, which hinted of the upper world.

The ledge sloped upwards, at a steep angle at first, and then more
gently. Lur slipped past her and thrust head and shoulders through a
break in the rock. Grasping his neck spines she allowed him to pull her
through that narrow slit into the soft blackness of a surface night.
They tumbled down together, Varta's head pillowed on Lur's smooth side,
and so slept as the sun and worlds of Asti whirled protectingly above
them.

A whir of wings in the air above her head awakened Varta. One of the
small, jewel bright flying lizard creatures of the deep jungle poised
and dipped to investigate more closely the worlds of Asti. But at
Varta's upflung arm it uttered a rasping cry and planed down into the
mass of vegetation below. By the glint of sunlight on the stone around
them the day was already well advanced. Varta tugged at Lur's mane until
he roused.

There was a regularity to the rocks piled about their sleeping place
which hinted that they had lain among the ruins left by man. But of this
side of the mountains both were ignorant, for Memphir's rule had not run
here.

"Many dead things in times past," Lur's scarlet nostril pits were
extended to their widest. "But that was long ago. This land is no longer
held by men."

Varta laughed cheerfully. "If here there are no men, then there will
rise no barbarian hordes to dispute our rule. Asti has led us to safety.
Let us see more of the land He gives us."

There was a road leading down from the ruins, a road still to be
followed in spite of the lash of landslip and the crack of time. And it
brought them into a cup of green fertility where the lavishness of
Asti's sowing was unchecked by man. Varta seized eagerly upon globes of
blood red fruit which she recognized as delicacies which had been
cultivated in the Temple gardens, while Lur went hunting into the
fringes of the jungle, there dining on prey so easily caught as to be
judged devoid of fear.

The jungle choked highway curved and they were suddenly fronted by a
desert of sere desolation, a desert floored by glassy slag which sent
back the sun beams in a furnace glare. Varta shaded her eyes and tried
to see the end of this, but, if there was a distant rim of green beyond,
the heat distortions in the air concealed it.

Lur put out a front paw to test the slag but withdrew it instantly.

"It cooks the flesh, we can not walk here," was his verdict.

Varta pointed with her chin to the left where, some distance away, the
mountain wall paralleled their course.

"Then let us keep to the jungle over there and see if it does not bring
around to the far side. But what made this - ?" She leaned out over the
glassy stuff, not daring to touch the slick surface.

"War." Lur's tongue shot out to impale a questing beetle. "These
forgotten people fought with fearsome weapons."

"But what weapon could do this? Memphir knew not such - ."

"Memphir was old. But mayhap there were those who raised cities on Erb
before the first hut of Memphir squatted on tidal mud. Men forget
knowledge in time. Even in Memphir the lords of the last days forgot the
wisdom of their earlier sages - they fell before the barbarians easily
enough."

"If ever men had wisdom to produce this - it was not of Asti's giving,"
she edged away from the glare. "Let us go."

But now they had to fight their way through jungle and it was
hard - until they reached a ridge of rock running out from the mountain
as a tongue thrust into the blasted valley. And along this they picked
their slow way.

"There is water near - ," Lur's thought answered the girl's desire. She
licked dry lips longingly. "This way - ," her companion's sudden turn was
to the left and Varta was quick to follow him down a slide of rock.

Lur's instinct was right, as it ever was. There was water before them, a
small lake of it. But even as he dipped his fanged muzzle toward that
inviting surface, Lur's spined head jerked erect again. Varta snatched
back the hand she had put out, staring at Lur's strange actions. His
nostrils expanded to their widest, his long neck outstretched, he was
swinging his head back and forth across the limpid shallows.

"What is it - ?"

"This is no water such as we know," the scaled one answered flatly. "It
has life within it."

Varta laughed. "Fish, water snakes, your own distant kin, Lur. It is the
scent of them which you catch - "

"No. It is the water itself which lives - and yet does not live - " His
thought trailed away from her as he struggled with some problem. No
human brain could follow his unless he willed it so.

Varta squatted back on her heels and began to look at the water and then
at the banks with more care. For the first time she noted the odd
patches of brilliant color which floated just below the surface of the
liquid. Blue, green, yellow, crimson, they drifted slowly with the tiny
waves which lapped the shore. But they were not alive, she was almost
sure of that, they appeared more a part of the water itself.

Watching the voyage of one patch of green she caught sight of the
branch. It was a drooping shoot of the turbi, the same tree vine which
produced the fruit she had relished less than an hour before. Above the
water dangled a cluster of the fruit, dead ripe with the sweet pulp
stretching its skin. But below the surface of the water -

Varta's breath hissed between her teeth and Lur's head snapped around as
he caught her thought.

The branch below the water bore a perfect circle of green flowers close
to its tip, the flowers which the turbi had borne naturally seven months
before and which should long ago have turned into just such sweetness as
hung above.

With Lur at her heels the girl edged around to pull cautiously at the
branch. It yielded at once to her touch, swinging its tip out of the
lake. She sniffed - there was a languid perfume in the air, the perfume
of the blooming turbi. She examined the flowers closely, to all
appearances they were perfect and natural.

"It preserves," Lur settled back on his haunches and waved one front paw
at the quiet water. "What goes into it remains as it was just at the
moment of entrance."

"But if this is seven months old - "

"It may be seven years old," corrected Lur. "How can you tell when that
branch first dipped into the lake? Yet the flowers do not fade even when
withdrawn from the water. This is indeed a mystery!"

"Of which I would know more!" Varta dropped the turbi and started on
around the edge of the lake.

Twice more they found similar evidence of preservation in flower or
leaf, wherever it was covered by the opaline water.

The lake itself was a long and narrow slash with one end cutting into
the desert of glass while the other wet the foot of the mountain. And it
was there, on the slope of the mountain that they found the greatest
wonder of all, Lur scenting it before they sighted the remains among the
stones.

"Man made," he cautioned, "but very, very old."

And truly the wreckage they came upon must have been old, perhaps even
older than Memphir. For the part which rested above the water was almost
gone, rusty red stains on the rocks outlining where it had lain. But
under water was a smooth silver hull, shining and untouched by the
years. Varta laid her hand upon a ruddy scrap between two rocks and it
became a drift of powdery dust. And yet - there a few feet below was
strong metal!

Lur padded along the scrap of shore surveying the thing.

"It was a machine in which men traveled," his thoughts arose to her.
"But they were not as the men of Memphir. Perhaps not even as the sons
of Erb - "

"Not as the sons of Erb!" her astonishment broke into open speech.

Lur's neck twisted as he looked up at her. "Did the men of Erb, even in
the old chronicles fight with weapons such as would make a desert of
glass? There are other worlds than Erb, mayhap this strange thing was a
sky ship from such a world. All things are possible by the Will of
Asti."

Varta nodded. "All things are possible by the Will of Asti," she
repeated. "But, Lur," her eyes were round with wonder, "perhaps it is
Asti's Will which brought us here to find this marvel! Perhaps He has
some use for us and it!"

"At least we may discover what lies within it," Lur had his own share of
curiosity.

"How? The two of us can not draw that out of the water!"

"No, but we can enter into it!"

Varta fingered the folds of the hood on her shoulders. She knew what Lur
meant, the suit which had protected her in the underworld was impervious
to everything outside its surface - or to every substance its makers
knew - just as Lur's own hide made his flesh impenetrable. But the
fashioners of her suit had probably never known of the living lake and
what if she had no defense against the strange properties of the water?

She leaned back against a rock. Overhead the worlds and sun of Asti
still traveled their appointed paths. The worlds of Asti! If it was His
Will which had brought them here, then Asti's power would wrap her round
with safety. By His Will she had come out of Memphir over ways no human
of Erb had ever trod before. Could she doubt that His Protection was
with her now?

It took only a moment to make secure the webbed shoes, to pull on and
fasten the hood, to tighten the buckles of her gloves. Then she crept
forward, shuddering as the water rose about her ankles. But Lur pushed
on before her, his head disappearing fearlessly under the surface as he
crawled through the jagged opening in the ship below.

Smashed engines which had no meaning in her eyes occupied most of the
broken section of the wreck. None of the metal showed any deterioration
beyond that which had occurred at the time of the crash. Under her
exploring hands it was firm and whole.

Lur was pulling at a small door half hidden by a mass of twisted wires
and plates and, just as Varta crawled around this obstacle to join him,
the barrier gave way allowing them to squeeze through into what had once
been the living quarters of the ship.

Varta recognized seats, a table, and other bits of strictly utilitarian
furniture. But of those who had once been at home there, there remained
no trace. Lur, having given one glance to the furnishings, was prowling
about the far end of the cabin uncertainly, and now he voiced his
uneasiness.

"There is something beyond, something which once had life - "

Varta crowded up to him. To her eyes the wall seemed without line of an
opening, and yet Lur was running his broad front paws over it carefully,
now and then throwing his weight against the smooth surface.

"There is no door - " she pointed out doubtfully.

"No door - ah - here - " Lur unsheathed formidable fighting claws to their
full length for perhaps the first time in his temple-sheltered life, and
endeavored to work them into a small crevice. The muscles of his
forelegs and quarters stood out in sharp relief under his scales, his
fangs were bare as his lips snapped back with effort.

Something gave, a thin black line appeared to mark the edges of a door.
Then time, or Lur's strength, broke the ancient locking mechanism. The
door gave so suddenly that they were both sent hurtling backward and
Lur's breath burst from him in a huge bubble.

The sealed compartment was hardly more than a cupboard but it was full.
Spread-eagled against the wall was a four-limbed creature whose form was
so smothered in a bulky suit that Varta could only guess that it was
akin in shape to her own. Hoops of metal locked it firmly to the wall,
but the head had fallen forward so that the face plate in the helmet was
hidden.

Slowly the girl breasted the water which filled the cabin and reached
her hands toward the bowed helmet of the prisoner. Gingerly, her blunted
talons scraping across metal, she pulled it up to her eye-level.

The eyes of that which stood within the suit were closed, as if in
sleep, but there was a warm, healthy tint to the bronze skin, so
different in shade to her own pallid coloring. For the rest, the
prisoner had the two eyes, the centered nose, the properly shaped mouth
which were common to the men of Erb. Hair grew on his head, black and
thick and there was a faint shadow of beard on his jaw line.

"This is a man - " her thought reached Lur.

"Why not? Did you expect a serpent? It is a pity he is dead - "

Varta felt a rich warm tide rising in her throat to answer that teasing
half question. There were times when Lur's thought reading was annoying,
He had risen to his hind legs so that he too could look into the shell
which held their find.

"Yes, a pity," he repeated. "But - "

A vision of the turbi flowers swept through her mind. Had Lur suggested
it, or had that wild thought been hers alone? Only this ship was so
old - so very old!

Lur's red tongue flicked. "It can do no harm to try - " he suggested
slyly and set his claws into the hoop holding the captive's right wrist,
testing its strength.

"But the metal on the shore, it crumpled into powder at my touch - " she
protested. "What if we carry him out only to have - to have - " Her mind
shuddered away from the picture which followed.

"Did the turbi blossom fade when pulled out?" countered Lur. "There is a
secret to these fastenings - " He pulled and pried impatiently.

Varta tried to help but even their united strength was useless against
the force which held the loops in place. Breathless the girl slumped
back against the wall of the cabin while Lur settled down on his
haunches. One of the odd patches of color drifted by, its vivid scarlet
like a jewel spiraling lazily upward. Varta's eyes followed its drift
and so were guided to what she had forgotten, the worlds of Asti.


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