Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Charmian crouched motionless as the vile rabble of the demons began to appear in the torchlit night before her. One after another their hulking, obscure shapes blurred into the world, and almost at once vanished again for other parts of it. Wood when he awoke, or some other magician of comparable stature, could round them up again, and no doubt would; but they were not going to stand still and wait for it.

Charmian had good reason to be afraid. That she herself was of the East might mean very little to these ill-disciplined powers. Any one of them, hungry to inflict pain, or yearning for the taste of some immaterial human essence, might destroy her on impulse -or, worse, swallow her without destroying. Imagine the emotions of a spoiled infant, combined with the force of some huge animal or elemental power, and cleverness above the human average.

To try to run away might draw attention to herself, but still she was on the brink of doing so. She was distracted by the realization that the Western prisoners still alive were now awakening. The light spells Wood had placed on them were loosened by his unconsciousness. No one had thought to bind them physically, or perhaps the thought had been that to do so might insult the chief wizard of the East.

Now Charmian saw her husband stir. An instant later Chup got to his feet. He was only a few meters away, and when his eyes fastened on her she did not dare to run.

He was a more immediate threat than any of the demons, who so far had ignored her as they came into sight and vanished again. She took a step nearer to him, and with hands clasped beseechingly cried out: “Help me, Chup! I’ve released you, saved your life. You must get me away from here!”

Chup continued looking at her. She read cold rage into his fixed stare, and then realized that it was only blank. Now his forehead wrinkled. With men screaming and demons flickering in the background, he gave the impression of a man with all the time in the world, trying to understand some interesting problem. Now she noted that the other surviving Westerners were wandering around wit-lessly; their minds must be still half-imprisoned by Wood’s spells.

Now she drew back from Chup again, but he moved with her, studying her face as if he sought some answer there. She feared to turn and run lest some predator’s instinct make him chase her and attack. “Come, Chup! I beg of you. Save me! Help me get away!” The Constable was dead, Wood fallen, and demons seemed to rule the world. There was nowhere else for Charmian to turn. She pleaded, tugged at Chup’s unyielding arm, and at last in her desperation slapped his face. This last made him frown at her most villainously, though he gave no sign of retaliation. The frown frightened Charmian, and she hastened to soothe him with strokings and soft words. His face smoothed and he looked content once again, while above him and Charmian the insubstantial horrors of demons came and went, casting light of purple and gold and green, and leaving waves of sickness in the air.

An Eastern soldier, probably maddened by some passing demon’s touch, came bounding at them. Chairmian saw his contorted face and his uplifted sword. She turned to try to run, but slipped and fell. As the man leaped toward her, Chup caught him by one arm, seemed to wave him in midair as if he were a banner, and threw him sprawling on his face, so heavily that he did not rise.

Recovering, Charmian crawled to pick up the sword the man had dropped. Murmuring “Come, My Lord Chup, come with me. We will help each other,” she held it out toward Chup, whose hand closed on the pommel as naturally as a mouth might close on food. Taking hold of his other hand, big and hard, docile and trusting, Charmian led him out away from the remains of smoldering tents and torches, away from the passing pyrotechnic demons, out into the summer night. Other humans could be heard running and crying out around them in the dark, but no one paid them any heed.


Ardneh’s Life

“Wolf tracks, if I’ve ever seen them” Rolf announced. It was mid-morning on the day after their arrival at Ardneh’s base. They had camped overnight wrapped in their cloaks in a small, ancient dormitory, where the plumbing still worked but the ancient furnishings had otherwise crumbled long ago. Ardneh, still busy integrating into his own complex being the strange artifact that had been their gift, had not yet explained to them in any detail what their chief tasks here were to be. But he had asked them to make a short reconnaissance round the old mine entrance, to see if there were any signs of their having been followed. When this request puzzled them, Ardneh explained: “It is here, inside my own physical structure, that my powers are in some ways most limited.” And there came to Rolf, with seeming naturalness, the mental image of a hand trying to bandage itself.

Now he stood with Catherine at the mouth of the ancient adit. A thunderstorm had come and gone during the night, unheard by them inside, leaving fresh mud where the small stream’s banks had been dry dirt. The splayed prints in the mud were those of large and heavy animals. “Only natural beasts of some kind, we can hope,” Rolf added now.

“Look.” Catherine was pointing at the hard rock ledge a couple of meters in from the entrance. Rolf crouched beside her. The faint smear of mud on rock was not yet quite dry. His eyes could not really make it into a large paw-print. But something, or someone, had left it there within the last few hours.

“Are there wolves that serve the East?” Catherine asked.

“I have heard stories of such, but never seen them. Ardneh will know.”

“We were to scout outside; I suppose we had better not retreat at the mere sight of a track.”

Rolf agreed, and they proceeded cautiously. But, once away from the mud at the adit’s entrance, they could discover no evidence of enemies or large beasts. New rivulets, still gurgling with rainwater, entered the stream at several points, and a hundred meters downstream from Ardneh’s cave it was now much deeper than it had been, overtopping its normal banks to comb long grass with its current.

After following the stream that far they scouted in a circle centered on the entrance to the cave. They climbed the hill, crawling cautiously round its grassy top to observe a peaceful summer world in all directions. From there the circle brought them back to the stream and its swift pools. Catherine knelt to scan the bank closely; her thighs showed white before her skirt fell back demurely into place.

The little glade felt utterly secure, isolated from friend and foe alike. A thought that Rolf had banished came leaping back, with power irresistible: Maybe the curse has ended now –

Two minutes later, feeling numb with fury, he was turning away from Catherine, picking up his just-dropped scabbard from the grass. The sword came out into his right hand, and with it he hacked murderously at the Lady Charmian’s image, projected by his rage on a small tree. He was leaving marks to show enemy scouts that someone had been here. All right, then, he was leaving marks.

“I am changed again,” came Catherine’s wearily steady voice from behind him. “Changed and dressed.”

Walking behind her, on their silent way back to the cave, he thought that even her normal, youthful shape was after all far from lovely. Those bare legs moving ahead of him were not curved in the way that a man’s dreams told him a girl’s legs should be curved. Too thin and wiry. My Lady Charmian chooses ugly servants, always – And Rolf felt sullen, mean, and ugly too.

Wood woke with a start, and instantly sprang to his feet. The movement came in a burst of fear-born energy that drained away as quickly as it had come, and left him tottering. He stood swaying in the cheerful sunlight, amid unfamiliar grass and trees, unable to recall how he had come to be here.

Gradually, in bits and pieces, it came back: the error made in weariness, the jolting punishment from Orcus. But that had been during the night, and it was late morning now. Or might it even be early afternoon –

With a shock Wood beheld that the grass where he had lain still remained pressed down, showing the outline of his body. Within the outline it was even yellowed, beginning to die from lack of sun.

How many days had he been lying there? Within the outline of withered grass, beetles were scurrying to find new shade. But though he must have been motionless as a corpse, apparently no living thing had come closer than that to molesting him. A magician of Wood’s power was not completely unprotected even when unconscious.

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