Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The officer was sweating, evidently wishing he was a private simply taking orders once again. Wood went on: “It will be necessary to call up some special reserves. I am referring to a group of demons who have for one reason or another been put into confinement, in a place – outside the normal world. They are dangerous and unruly creatures, and I must impress upon you the necessity of my being allowed to concentrate in peace while I am working with them.”

All that Wood had said thus far was true. His great untruth had been in leaving out even the faintest hint of the existence of Orcus, the real object of the work he was about to do. Not even in his own inner thoughts had Wood allowed himself to form that name. Not for centuries now.

The officer wet his lips. “Great Lord, you will understand that I mean you no disrespect, when I venture the opinion that this project of releasing imprisoned demons, along with these discoveries regarding our enemy Ardneh, should be reported to headquarters as soon as possible. To the Emperor himself.”

The officer was sharper and bolder than he looked. Understanding that the man wanted to be reassured that there was no intrigue against the ‘Emperor in progress here – or perhaps wanted to be let in on it if there were-Wood answered patiently. “Send a message to headquarters any time you like. But I presume no reptile will fly until daylight, and I must begin the evocation here and now. Tonight. It is not a calling that can be made in an hour, or even in a day. There are many bars to be let down, sealed doors to be broken, locks to be opened for which the keys were thrown away. If we are to have help against Ardneh in time, I must begin now to call upon-the powers that are to help us. Should the Emperor for some unimaginable reason forbid me to go through with the calling, I can stop it at any point. Now if you will detail the men to help me, I must select the first required victim.”

The officer was reassured, and moved away, giving his men such orders as Wood had requested.

When Wood came to the Western prisoners, he found them now laid out in a row, all still unconscious from the effects of his paralyzing spells. The woman was standing there, once more looking down at one of the still forms. The same one. It was he who had come near killing Wood. This time her expression indicated thought, rather than uncaring hate.

It was Wood’s first opportunity for a long, close look at her. “What is your name, girl?”

“I am called Charmian, my noble Lord.” Her blue eyes were so luminous that his spell-casting fingers twitched defensively. But it was no more than woman’s inborn witchery she had, as power to bedazzle men. No more? There were numerous demonic spells not half so powerful. Wood pondered the possible advantages and drawbacks of sending her on as a gift to Ominor; the Emperor enjoyed alluring women as much as any ordinary man.

Wood looked down. “And who is this one at your feet, who makes you frown so thoughtfully?”

“He was my husband, Lord,” she said, managing to surprise him. She hesitated briefly before adding: “There is a question I would ask.” His expression gave assent, and she went on: “You are choosing one of these for a ritual victim? I thought as much… is the victim’s death to be an easy one or difficult?”

“Tonight’s victim will die easily.”

“Then I beg of you, dread Lord, take some other than this who was my bridegroom once. I would not have him die a quick and easy death.”

Duncan’s camp tonight was nearer to Ardneh, by some kilometers, than it had been the night before. Duncan each day moved his army north, following his wizards’ advice and his own intuition, and keeping pace with the parallel movement of the main body of his Eastern foes.

Now in Duncan’s tent, the seeress Anita, in deep trance, was muttering: “… they open doors to they know not what, they take down bars that were put up when they were wiser and more frightened.” The girl’s speech began to trail off, becoming more disjointed and unintelligible, until at last she could only cry out in unwonted fear. Duncan, weary from the dull riding and intermittent fighting of the day, tried to puzzle out what it could mean, but he could not. Neither could his wizards, who contradicted one another in sharp debate about the girl: whether to waken her or send her deeper into trance, whether what she said tonight had any useful meaning. At last she was taken out. Duncan and his councilors continued meeting through the night. There was no communication from Ardneh.

The blood of the first sacrifice was warm and fresh on Wood’s hands, and in his throat the words of power flowed like song, controlled, in harmony with the images formed in his mind by his practiced imagination. Energy flowed through him, from him. Shortly after starting the evocation he had felt a pang of worry, on realizing just how tired he was. This was not a task to be begun when weary; mistakes might be punished terribly. But now it was all going well enough.

It was a task that required a full mastery of magic, but he was equal to it. More than equal. In his imagination he was now descending worn stone steps, through a dark and narrow passage, going to visit the dungeon under the world. Other demons were confined there as well as Orcus, and Wood meant to release them in passing. They were not really dangerous – not to Wood. Now he could hear them, feel them, smell them, moving in some imagined cell just off his passageway. A pack of ethereal wolves, jostling one another for the chance at taking on reality once more. They knew their jailer was coming, and perhaps they knew he meant to let them out.

To Wood these were not much; they were cattle he penned up or loosed, no matter how monstrous and powerful they might loom in the sight of lesser men. To handle them he needed no protracted ceremonies, no human sacrifices; he could bring them up into the world tonight, without consulting the Emperor, and he meant to do so. It was only the Other, whose name Wood had been avoiding even in his thoughts, that made him worry now. It was the process of releasing Orcus, of course keeping hold enough on him to put him down again when the West had been defeated, that called for supreme wizardry and offerings of lives.

Now the first victim had been offered, and down in the deepest dungeon cell the chained One had begun to stir and tremble in his painful sleep. When those stirrings became evident to Wood, their magnitude restored his memory regarding what Orcus was truly like. Suddenly he now longer saw the gathering of the other outcast demons as a wolf-pack, even as a herd of unruly cattle, but as no more than a nest of squealing, snapping rats. Neither they or Wood had changed of course. It was only the comparison with Orcus.

Wood slowed his imagined descent of the stone steps. The bottom was near. Surprisingly, Orcus was not only stirring, not only beginning to awaken, he was already straining and struggling to be free. He radiated an incredible power and purpose. Impossible, of course, that his effort should succeed. Wood was still the jailer, armed and comfortable and with the stair behind him open for his ascent. He stood now at the ultimate cell door, looking down through bars and gratings at the wretch in chains, the giant cramped and bound. But the rousing of Orcus had begun too successfully, was proceeding a little too rapidly. To maintain the proper margin of safety, steps should be taken to slow things down.

The bloodied ritual knife still in his hand, the corpse of the first sacrifice still warm at his feet, Wood swayed a little with his weariness, swayed and frowned and changed the text that he was chanting, altered the shape of the dungeon whose symbol-structure was held so carefully in his mind…

Like a snake uncoiling from the uttermost depths beneath the world, the power Orcus came striking up at him. Through symbols and matter alike the shockwave traveled, launched by the half-conscious Demon-Lord, trying in blind fury to strike back at his tormentors. At the first impact of the shockwave, Wood cried out. He had a moment in which to realize that in his weariness he had mispronounced a word of his long chant, before he fell down senseless.

Even with Wood unconscious, the One who had struck him still could not escape his dungeon. The walls and bonds of magic were still too many and too strong. Orcus could not force his way back into the world of men, or even awaken fully from his sleep. But the hords of lesser demons that Wood had been about to herd back into the world were now able to force the passage for themselves. They lost no time in doing so.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred