Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Still, humanity was at the heart of the struggle. Only humans were capable of dealing with both beasts and spirits on their own terms. People had largely deserted the technology that had enabled them to Change the world. But before their forget-fulness could become complete, the pressure of the new war made them try to recall and rebuild what they had lost. Thus it was that the technology of the Old World had never entirely died.

Orcus grasped how vitally important human beings were to the struggle, but when he began to train and organize his human slave-allies he underestimated their true potential. There was among the first generation of his recruits a man so consistently successful in his assigned tasks, and at the same time so apparently common and predictable in his motives (therefore as trustworthy as anyone in the East could be) that Orcus promoted him time and again. The human did well in each succeeding job, and accomplished each without giving the appearance of more ambition than a human being (in Orcus’ view) should have. Eventually the man was given command not only of other humans, but of lesser demons as well. So John Ominor advanced, using skillfully the centuries of extra life with which his demon-master was pleased to reward him.

Perhaps Orcus, who had never fully understood men, never understood himself either. He may have come gradually to think himself omnipotent, and so grew careless. Whatever the explanation! without a hint of warning, he was tricked and overthrown by the man Ominor. John Ominor, with the men and demons he had suborned to aid him, cast down the demon-emperor Orcus and bound him in perpetual slumber. Orcus was not slain, could not be slain, because his life could not be found. Nor could he be made to reveal where it was. It was as if he did not know. The victorious new lords of the East were puzzled; the circumstances of Orcus’ birth, that would have explained much, were unknown to them.

As was the existence of Ardneh.

Still the war against the West went on, as bitter as ever, and now more slowly, for Orcus’ power was sorely missed by the East. But to awaken him enough to use him properly would be very dangerous. He was kept bound with certain other untrustworthy powers, under the world, in darkness and tormented sleep. The fitful flashes of consciousness that came amid his dreams he spent constructing scenarios of revenge.

Riding a griffin-like, demonic steed that galloped in midair across the demon-haunted night, the gnarled sorcerer known as Wood flew northwest among the clouds. He had been Ominor’s accomplice in the overthrow of Orcus, and he was Ominor’s chief wizard still. He and his mount had risen from the vast encampment of the army of the East, and he was flying to seek out the Constable’s small force where it was resting in its frustrated pursuit of Rolf of the Broken Lands.

Wood’s mount flew faster than any beast or man could travel or ever had, unless it were some Old World master of the technologies of speed. The tall clouds of a midsummer storm glowed with muffled lightning to right and left as Wood flashed between them. The demon-beast, whose shaggy back he rested on, ran silently on air. Its griffin’s hooked-beak eagle-head bobbed and swayed at the end of the long neck, along which feather and scale commingled. Its wings spread and sailed, seemingly no more than banners or balances as it ran on wind and nothingness with driving, pounding legs. This steed would carry no other human not even Ominor himself.

In the flicker of lightning, Wood’s face was grim. Out here in the northern hinterland something was going very dangerously wrong. When the Constable had sent his first appeal for magical help of the highest order it had seemed likely he was trying to cover up some blunder made by his own wizard, or by himself. But now in Wood’s own auguries the ominous portents had grown too grave and numerous to ignore. Some of the very highest powers of the West must be fighting hard to foil Abner’s efforts in this obscure place.

Now already the demon-griffin’s course was slanting down, angling steeply toward the gently rolling land dimly visible below. The prairie came clearer now, where the scudding cloud-shadows let the moonlight fall. Down the griffin flew toward one particular grove on the tree-sprinkled expanse, a grove where torches burned, protecting huddled reptiles against marauding birds. The arrival of Wood and his demon-steed under those trees opened all the reptiles’ eyes and made of them glittering beads in the flaring torchlight. With a mixture of wariness and relief Abner’s handful of human soldiers watched Wood dismount.

With a single, secret word Wood hobbled his baleful mount. Leaving it standing in the middle of the camp, he strode toward the door of the tent where the Constable’s banner hung limply from a staff. Before the magician reached the tent Abner emerged from it, looking weary and on guard, to greet him with the gestures appropriate for welcoming an equal.

Entering the large tent, Wood caught just a glimpse of loveliness, of a golden, impossibly graceful body rising hastily from a couch and vanishing behind a hanging partition of rich silk, trailing unbelievable blond hair. He had to think that the timing was deliberate, that he was meant to see what he had seen.

Wood was not noticeably perturbed. Without further preamble, he demanded of Abner: “What is delaying matters here?”

Abner spread his massive hands. “Western magic. Why else should I call upon you? The so-called magician you have furnished me seems utterly unable to cope with what is being done to us.”

His suspicions confirmed, Wood nodded gravely and closed his eyes. He let himself be thoroughly aware of the thin tent-floor just beneath his feet, of v the grass pressed down under that, of tree-branches not very far overhead (and of the golden woman somewhere nearby, getting dressed; had she been distracting Abner from business? most men’s effectiveness would have been impaired with her around), and of the soldiers and the sleepy reptiles and of his own most savage mount outside. Wood was adapting, submerging himself into the psychic climate of the place, letting its energy patterns inform his mind. At first, nothing seemed much out of the ordinary. But he persisted, and, in a little while, sighed and opened his eyes.

“Ardneh has taken the field against you,” he said then to the Constable. “He is exceedingly subtle, and it is little wonder that your wizard has been unaware of what is setting all his work at naught. I could perhaps have been deceived myself had I not met Ardneh the day we summoned him to our capital. I will always know him now.”

Abner nodded slowly. “Then what do you advise? Does it make any sense for me to press on with forty men against him?”

“You must press on, with what ever men you have, and gather more as fast as you can bring them here. Our whole future is turning on what is going to happen, somewhere not far from here to the northwest.”

“And Ardneh? Can you clear him from my path?”

“I can,” Wood said brusquely, “with the powers I shall soon invoke to help me with the job. Within a day or two, if not tonight… I mean to make a trial of it tonight.”

He made a short gesture of farewell and strode out of the tent. When he had swung himself astride his steed, Wood cast about him by his arts until he was able to sense the location of the two fugitive humans whose capture had so far been beyond the powers of the East. They were resting now, it appeared, not many kilometers distant.

“One of them labors under some kind of minor curse,” Wood commented, to the Nameless One, who had appeared from somewhere and was now standing motionless a little distance off. “Your doing, I suppose?”

“I…yes, great Lord.” The Nameless One bowed as if in modesty.

Wood nodded, not troubling to find out the details. It was remarkable that the man had been able to accomplish even that much against the opposition that he faced here. “Well done. But now restrain yourself to a defensive posture for a time.”

“As you will, Lord.”

Wood dug heels into the cold flanks of his riding-demon, and into the ear that it unfolded for him, he whispered the needful word. With a roar of sound they rocketed into the air. Once above the treetops, he again turned his mount’s massive, sharp-beaked head into the north. This time he was content to fly at low altitude, and he did not urge the griffin to anything like full speed. He meant to test the strength of Ardneh to the full this night, and to destroy it if he could, without undergoing a desperate risk himself. But there was no great hurry about it; he did not expect to be able to take Ardneh by surprise. To Wood, the something-dut-of-the-ordinary that was Ardneh was coming clearer now, bit by bit in tantalizing glimpses like the one he had had of Abner’s concubine. Subtle hints of splendid powers, and of a beauty that could not, unless it were a lie or under some evil bond, could not be any part of the Empire of the East.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred