Though not so powerfully built as Harduk, the master was every bit as tall and his stride was every bit as long. By the time Harduk caught him, he had entered a large building that had the look of a temple. There was only the single doorway, its high arch carved with figures angelic and demonic, and the Distractian stepped warily through it.
Harduk expected it to be dark inside, but the far left corner of the building had collapsed inward... or rather, had been built to look as if it had collapsed inward. Harduk ground his teeth at the thought. The man he sought was only a few paces beyond the doorway, inspecting a ring of carved birds around one of the columns that supported the arched ceiling high above. "You there," called Harduk. "Are you the one responsible for this place?"
"Of course I am," said the robed man, turning to face him. He had white hair and a neatly trimmed white beard, which hung beneath a prominent nose. "Nearmis Oddbottom. And you are Harduk the slayer, mercenary and adventurer. You're early; we haven't even finished building these ruins, yet."
Harduk slowed his steps. "These ruins?" he echoed.
The master nodded. "These won't be the first of my ruins that you've destroyed, after all."
Harduk came to a stop, still several paces too far away to run the man through. "I've been to other ruins of yours?" he asked, thinking back over all the strange places his life had taken him.
"Ohhhh, yes." Nearmis Oddbottom pursed his lips. "I first noticed you in the City of the Dome. You were being chased by Duke Decantar... after a particularly lascivious night with his formerly-virginal twin daughters, I later learned... and you sought shelter in the ruins."
"...With the blood-hungry bat-men," Harduk said, remembering.
"Just so. You and the duke contrived to drop one of the great bridges into the course of the underground stream, which flooded the ruins and collapsed the dome."
Harduk nodded slowly, considering. The City of the Dome had been an ancient ruin, well outside the borders of civilized Learnandia. There had been treasure there, and danger; the remains of an entire ancient civilization, albeit one whose race had long since degenerated into primal savagery in the darkness. And if that had been one of Oddbottom's projects, then what of... "The great citadel in the sand, where I came following the pirate-woman Kandra? Where I fought the forgotten god who meant to take her for a sacrifice, and watched the city sink forever beneath the sands with its death?"
"Mine." Master Oddbottom studied Harduk calmly.
"And the black temple in the swamps of Nitere, guarded by those man-eating frogs?"
"The jeweled caverns beneath mount Killemal, whose stony guardians only moved when touched with light?"
"The towering spire in the foothills of the Vanidy Plateau, where mysterious lights tried to lure me to my death and the constant whispers of unseen voices drove my sanity to the breaking point?"
"The worshippers of the great spider-serpent in the sewers of Whiitvash, who took only the babies of bankers and highborn nobles for their sacrifices?"
The master hesitated, but shook his head. "That one belonged to the mage Kelinna -- their high priestess. She had some ideas about how a society should properly be run." After a moment, he added: "And if I recall your escape, you cut her in half, set the halves on fire, and fed them to the spider-serpent."
Harduk nodded slowly. "More or less. I salted them first. It seemed like the thing to do."
There was a momentary pause, then Nearmis Oddbottom pursed his lips. "I can see where it might," he admitted. "Be that as it may, the rest of the ruins you have visited were mine."
Harduk felt himself begin to relax. If these were true ruins, to be filled with monsters, traps, and treasure, then what did it matter that this man had built them? They were still ripe for the plundering. Still... "Why?" he asked. "Why do you build these places?"
Nearmis Oddbottom snorted dismissively. "I'm a seven-hundred-year-old wizard, boy. Have you any idea how hard it is to find a hobby that still entertains after even half a century? Should I take up knitting, instead?"
Harduk chuckled. "I must surrender my complaints," he said. "It seems the world would be less interesting without these projects of yours. Fetch me a boat, and I'll be gone from your island."
"No," said the wizard.
Nearmis Oddbottom was scowling. "I've lost a good two centuries of work in the last nine years, all of it because of you. You're a menace. You must be stopped."
He lifted one robed arm, but Harduk had the reflexes of a hunting cat. He was already springing forward, hand reaching up for Frostblight's hilt. Too late, he saw that Oddbottom had moved his other hand to one of the birds on the column. The floor opened beneath him, and he tumbled into darkness.