Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

By his arts he saw his demons driving north, beyond the clouds of driving mist that lay between. To meet them now came Ardneh’s lightning, this time a single swordblade, flickering, walking along the energy spectrum through all the bands where demons had their half-material existence.

Yet again Wood’s troops were thrown back, in fear and agony; and now at last they had found the enemy more terrible than Wood, and however he cursed and threatened they would not go into the north again. He sharpened his incantations yet more, wreaked suffering upon his quivering vassals, and banished them to hidden dungeons till they should be useful once again. Now, however, he was calm in all his curses and punishings. He no longer raged. He saw now that a little more effort from his demons would not have helped; they were simply not strong enough to stand against Ardneh.

How could Wood have so grievously underestimated his enemy’s strength? Had Ardneh somehow managed a tremendous accession of power recently?

It was not simply that Ardneh was powerful enough to defeat them. Most shattering was the realization that the devastating defense had not even occupied Ardneh’s full attention. While watching the last defeat of his demon-troop, Wood for the first time had managed -or had been permitted -to perceive the extent of Ardneh’s world-wide activities. It was a frightening disclosure. Ardneh could not have possessed such strength for long, Wood realized, or the East would have lost the war some time ago instead of now thinking itself on the verge of victory.

In the form Wood’s vision took, Ardneh appeared in the guise of a tall, powerful man, striding through a pack of curs that swirled snapping and growling vainly around his legs. The dog named Wood received no more attention and effort than was necessary in order to beat him off; meanwhile Ardneh’s chief attention was directed somewhere else, somewhere Wood’s dream-perception could not follow.

Lies, Wood told himself, and felt somewhat relieved; lies. Propaganda, put into his mind to intimidate and weaken him. But he had no evidence that it was lies. And if such a trick could be worked on him, and he could not tell it was a trick”, he might well be facing an enemy who could destroy him. -in the nick of time he realized that Ardneh was coming at him for the kill –

His host had been dispersed. He turned and fled, the lightning-bolts pursuing him downwind. Wood lived through it, although his demon-steed was struck so violently it lost the power of flight. All of Wood’s arts that remained useful to him now barely availed to save his life, to let him tumble from his falling mount into rain-sodden bushes, amid a scene of wild storm and waving branches. Bruised and shaken and winded, but not seriously hurt, he realized that Ardneh had departed, and that he himself was within a kilometer or two of the camp where he had left the Constable.

Limping and cursing his way through the marshy grass and rain, Wood knew that the ultimate powers available to the East would have to be invoked.


They Open Doors, They Take Down Bars

Wood, stumbling on scratched and weary legs toward the Constable’s camp, rehearsing in his mind what he might say to make his arrival there appear less inglorious, was within a hundred meters of his goal when he heard the surprise attack led by Chup burst out ahead of him.

After the first shock, Wood was not really surprised. The night belonged to the West, and it was not the first time an Eastern position thought secure had been taken unawares. He paused, trying to determine what was going on ahead. The enemy force seemed quite small. Ardneh was nowhere near. Wood had no functional demons to call on at the moment, but still, after his moment’s assessment of the situation, he pressed on at a hurried walk. His personal anger was aroused, instead of the rest and food and drink he had been looking forward to, here was only another fight. But his rage was cold and eager. The smart of his defeat by Ardneh would be eased by victory here; instead of appearing humbled before the Constable, he would come in as a savior. There were fires ahead, and screams of panic. The East was not doing very well at the moment.

It was for good reason that Wood was accounted the greatest wizard of the East. When swords were out and blood was spilled, it was difficult for any magician to raise an effective spell-the Nameless One even now lay bleeding out his life ahead, Wood’s extra senses told him-but Wood’s arts were still powerful, even now when his best powers had been scattered and his most potent energies exhausted. He still had one vital advantage, that of surprise, fully as important for the magician as for the soldier….

On legs that no longer felt tired and injured, Wood approached the camp, where shadowy figures ran and fought before the burning tents. It took him a moment to make sure that there was no Western wizard among the attackers who might be capable of serious opposition to Wood’s spells. The fat one who had earlier, with Ardneh’s help, overcome the efforts of the Nameless One was there, but that meant nothing to Wood, as Ardneh himself was still absent from the scene.

Standing in the shadows of a tree near the edge of the burning camp, a vantage point from which he could see without readily being seen, Wood pronounced one lengthy word and began to make small gestures with one hand. The fat Western wizard was the first to fall, whirling round almost gracefully, elaborate talismans spilling from his hands like so much trash, before he tumbled like a chopped-through tree. One after another, as they came into Wood’s view, the other men of the Western raiding party fell, backs arching, twisting in convulsions. There seemed to be less than a dozen of them in all, even fewer than Wood had thought at first. They could do nothing against Wood because he gave them no time to find him with their blades. One of their leaders came closest. A tall man, he emerged from the Constable’s tent with bloodied sword held high. Seeing Wood, or somehow sensing his position, the Westerner charged like a maddened beast. But though his long strides brought him so close that Wood had to dodge back at the last moment from the killing blade, it was the Westerner who fell.

He was the last, except for one or two who might have managed to run away; in his depleted and exhausted state Wood did not care to make the effort to be sure of that. All the others lay on the earth, their convulsions quieting as Wood led them smoothly into ensorceled slumber. Those he had felled were still alive, and he had a good reason for keeping them so.

The surviving Eastern soldiers who had survived were gathering in the center of the camp once more. Wood called to a junior officer and charged him with seeing to it that the prisoners were gathered together and kept alive until they should be needed. But no sooner had Wood finished giving these orders than he looked up to see that the golden girl he had earlier glimpsed in Abner’s tent had emerged from some hiding place or other clad now in a silken robe, and was raising a dagger over one of the prone Westerners.

“Forebear, girl!” Wood called out. “We have far weightier business than your grievance against this wretch, whatever it may be. Where is the Constable?”

The golden woman threw down her dagger and turned to Wood. Now she was the picture of submission. “Alas, my lord Wood, the Constable is dead. At the last minute, when the enemy had already entered the camp, he saw the danger and met it bravely. He did what he could, but it was not enough.”

Wood nodded, unsurprised, then looked around and raised his voice. “Where is the senior surviving officer, then?”

When that man had made himself known, Wood questioned him: “Have you enough able troops to defend this site until the dawn? There can hardly be a dozen live Westerners within ten kilometers of us at the moment. I will be available to help in an emergency, but not for keeping watch. There is another task upon which I must concentrate. I want to know if I can safely relax my vigilance to do so.”

“Aye, aye, my Lord, I think so. We have at least twenty men still on their feet. These Westerners can move soft as demons. Our sentries had their throats cut – ”

“That should keep their successors awake, at least for a few hours. Now I am going to set to work, and you must detail two men to fetch and carry for me. That you may cooperate intelligently with me, I will give you some explanation.” He paused; the woman was watching him, round-eyed, and some of the soldiers were gawking dazedly. Wood took the officer by the arm and led him to one side; and he made his own image change in the eyes of the gawk-ers, to something that was not fit to look upon, and they hastened about their business. Then to the officer Wood said: “I have tonight met Ardneh face to face, and have found his strength grown awesome. I can only guess at how he has managed to augment his powers; now they are enough to tip the scales of the entire war against the East.”

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