Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Now disaster was only seconds away from most of the major cities of the land. The part of Ardneh that had been built to change the world was empowered to act, and it functioned as it had been made to do. It laid hold upon the matter within itself and pulled its energies into a new shape, beginning a Change that spread through the substance of the earth like cracks through shattering glass. Around wave-front of Change sprang out with the speed of light from Ardneh’s buried site. But the setting in motion of the ultimate defense had taken a few seconds longer than anticipated. One enemy missile fell just before the wave-front reached it and exploded with full force beside a populous city, ending uncountable lives in the blinking of an eye. Other intercontinental weapons, falling like hail a few seconds later, failed to explode.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, surprise; the enemy was employing the same kind of an ultimate defense. But theirs was not controlled by any device as sophisticated as Ardneh, and their simpler mechanisms were never to become alive. This Rolf understood as in a dream, knowing it was so without knowing how he knew. But the enemy defenses also worked. A wave of Change springing from the other side of the world met that generated by Ardneh, and the fabric of the planet was altered more powerfully than anyone had expected.

Those few missiles that fell before the Change exploded, and the vast number that fell afterward were rendered practically harmless. One missile, however, to which Rolf’s attention was now silently directed, was caught precisely in mid-explosion by the wavefront emanating from Ardneh. The fireball, the blooming nuclear blast, had just been born and it was not extinguished but neither did it follow the normal course of the explosions that had preceded it. It did not fade, but changed in shape, ran through a spectrum of colors and back again, and writhed up toward the sky as if with agonizing effort. Rolf knew that he was watching a kind of birth, and one of terrible importance.

With the passing of the wave of Change, Ardneh himself immediately began his first stirrings toward life, as did many other formerly inert components of the world.

But neither Ardneh nor any of the others accepted life as savagely, exultantly, as this.



That writhing into a furious life, begun amid a violence beyond the capability of any human being to understand, was the earliest memory of the being who would later be named Orcus, later called Lord of Lords and Emperor of all the East. His earliest memory was recorded thousands of years before John Ominor was born, thousands of years before humanity lay divided into the two camps called East and West.

For a few thousand years after his violent birth, the being who would later be known as Orcus wandered in the desert places of the earth, avoiding humans, avoiding distraction as much as possible while he groped his way toward full sentience. Child of the awesome old technology and the mar-velous new magic that had begun with the Change, his substance was only partially subject to the laws of matter.

There were others more or less like him now in the world, though none so terrible of birth or power. Quickly men began to forget their technology, maimed as it was by the Change; almost from the moment of the Change they were speaking of the Old World and the New, and taking up the newly opened possibilities of magic to help them finish their aborted war. Since the Change it could scarcely be said that anything was lifeless; powers that before had been only potentialities now responded readily to the wish, the incantation, were motivated and controlled by the dream-like logic of the wizard’s world.

Humans grew aware of the existence of the being who would be Orcus, and in their dogged search for magical power they tried to devise means to control him. These efforts were annoying to him, in his growing self-awareness; to avoid them, when they became persistent, he wandered away from earth. Half-immune to the laws of physics and chemistry as the Old World had known them, he drifted without sustenance and almost without effort outward to the moon, where what had been human colonies were now dead and deserted, casualties of war and the failure of technology. Above the cratered surface Orcus drifted, watching, beginning to think, as the strange bubble-houses that had sheltered the humans decayed and burst in silence. All around, soft-looking mountains two thousand thousand times as old as humankind looked down, unchanging and indifferent.

Orcus was beginning to think, and to feel sharp emotions, and to be intensely aware of the world and of himself. He began also to fear the empty ‘moon, and the soft deep beyond, that by its immensity made him feel that he was shrinking steadily. Slowly through the solar winds of space he turned, willing himself to begin the long drift back to earth. He realized now that there, and perhaps nowhere else, he was a giant.

Now as he approached the earth again he saw humanity clearly, and began to understand and loathe them. A new generation of sorcerers had developed in his absence, men and women of greater magical skill and greater arrogance. These became aware of the demon who would be Orcus, and when they glimpsed his power they tried with fear and greed to summon him and master him. But their nets of magic burst and tore around him as he moved.

Long and slow and difficult was the groping of the demon to his full sentience and identity. Despite his hatred of the wizards’ race his own development followed the same general direction as theirs, under requirements imposed by the mental potentialities of the home planet they shared. The ways of Orcus’ thought were not unlike those of the men he hated, not when compared to others that he had dimly sensed in the great deeps beyond the frightening moon. (Never would he leave earth’s air again.)

Orcus moved over the earth and looked at the life upon it, with a hate and pointless envy that no man or woman could match. In himself he was the East, before the East had come to be. Men were building new civilizations now; most of the Old World and its technology lay buried and forgotten (unknown to men and demons, Ardneh too was now living, thinking, waiting.) And he who would be Orcus became aware now of others who were somewhat like himself, though smaller. These were demons and pro-todemons born from sunlike fires as he had been, but from comparatively minor acts of violence crossed by the wave of change. None of these others could begin to match his strength, and he cowed them when he met them, never questioning his own urge to dominate. Two other demons, who might in time have grown great enough to challenge him successfully, he met separately and slew. His struggle with one of these lasted for nearly a thousand years, and nearly depopulated one of the earth’s smaller continents of human and animal life, before he-who-would-be-Orcus managed to reach and snuff out the hidden life of his opponent.

Shortly after that age-long struggle he received his name. When he had made himself undisputed king of the demonic powers of the world, and therefore the chief enemy of most of the human race, magicians began to call him Orcus, after some demon-lord of ancient Old World legend. (Had there in fact been Old World demons, too? And was this Changing from whence he came nothing new, after all, beneath the ancient moon? The questions occurred to Orcus, but he made no attempt to answer them. He really did not care, one way or the other.)

Not only evil powers had been brought into objective reality by the Change. From earth and sea and sky there welled into existence other forms of inhuman but intelligent life. The Change that had damped the energies of nuclear fire had at the same time freed the energies of life. The nameless force that lay behind both kinds of energy could not, ultimately, be repressed; that which was inherent in every atom could not be destroyed.

Gradually the elemental powers of earth and sea and air came to be looked on as allies by that portion of humanity who chose the West, again,st the men and women who had elected to associate themselves with demons, and who with the demons had formed that society of essential selfishness called the East. How the name of East and West had come to be used rather than, say, North and South, or Red and Green, was no longer remembered in Rolf’s day. Nor would such a question ever have had any significance for Orcus.

Dominating the other quasimaterial powers of the East, and leading them in slowly intensifying war against the West, Orcus the Demon-Patriarch sought slaves and allies among the beasts of the planet as well as among the men. A race of intelligent flying reptiles had evolved in the mere thousands of years that had passed since the Change, so life-rich had the substance of the world become. These reptiles became close allies of the demonic powers, just as a species of huge, intelligent, nocturnal birds, the reptiles’ natural enemies, came into being and joined the West.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred