There was a pause. Wood began to answer indirectly. “My Lord, shortly before that I faced Ardneh, and I was weakened thereby. Ardneh is now mightier than we have ever suspected he might become. He may be as strong as -one other, whom we both know of, whose name I have not mentioned – ”
Ominor stood up. “Are you really leading where I think you are? Was that the purpose of the ceremony you had begun?” The secret tent muted sound, but still the anger in his voice was terrible. “Of course; who else could have struck you down like that?”
“Lord Emperor, hear me out, if you would save the East! I tell you I have faced Ardneh and I know! We must arouse the One whose name should not be said, to fight for us. Or else we perish.”
“Arouse him,you say? Not simply tap his power?”
“Yes.” Wood swallowed. “Awaken him enough to send him into battle. Keep reins upon his senses and his will, and send him back below when he has served.”
There was again a little silence before Ominor said: “You think it will be possible to release the one you speak of, then bottle him again like so much wine?”
“It is a risk that must be taken, supreme Lord.”
“You really believe you can do that?” The Emperor’s loud crude voice made it sound as if Wood’s sanity rather than his ability, was in question.
“Lord, Ardneh had exhausted me before the Other struck me down. Nor could he even then escape our bondage, as you see. Before beginning again I will rest myself, and make thorough preparation. Next time I will have help – ”
“Of course!” Ominor clapped his hands, as if blessed with a sudden happy thought. “To help you we must call upon those same three powers that hovered above the lake, and warded harm from our imperial person, the day that we invited Ardneh to our palace -ah, it seems so long ago. Yes, call them, let them clamp shut their jaws upon all who threaten us, as you swore they were eager to do.”
Wood hung his head, taking care to indicate nothing but total submission. Ardneh had already driven those three demons from the field, in the cur-pack with the others, as Ominor must understand. Just now was not the time for Wood to say anything more at all.
Having made his point and inspired what he thought to be sufficient fear, the Emperor was ready to talk business. “Wood, despite the recent record of your failures, I find myself listening to this new plan of yours. But I am not yet convinced. I know, better than you or anyone else, the dangers of what you propose. Do not take another step along that road unless I bid you do so. However.” Wood’s eyes lifted. “However, if what you tell me of Ardneh is true, we may have to take the most desperate steps, and quickly. So rest now, and prepare yourself-are there any preliminary steps remaining?”
Wood was eager once again. “One more sacrifice, great Lord. I need not promise it will be far more carefully conducted than the last. That is all, and the One we speak of will be reachable for quick summoning, or for quickly being reburied as deep as ever.”
There was a silent pause. “Go and do it,” said Ominor then abruptly. He stood up, ripped open with his hand the little tent of blackness, and strode out.
Returning to his private quarters, the Emperor was soon visited by one of his chiefs of technology, and by his Master of the Beasts, who came in lupine form. For once, both brought good news. In recent days the technologists’ Old World devices had detected a steady increase in electromagnetic activity in a certain small area to the north. It seemed to be precisely where the Beast Master’s half-intelligent scouts now reported the scent of two humans, male and female, entering a strange cave. From the same direction had come the winds that had defeated Wood and scattered his demonic horde. In that direction, also, was Duncan’s army tending, as if something were there that the Prince wanted to defend.
I have found Ardneh’s life. Ominor did not say the words aloud. But he dismissed his aides and stood alone for some time, looking at the map. Then he summoned his field commanders and demanded from them a faster movement to the north. Such beasts as were already near the objective were to try what could be accomplished by a prompt attack.
“Ardneh, how long will we be here?” Rolf sat on a chest of Old World tools. His hands were playing nervously with a gripping, twisting device of silvery metal. Catherine, on the other side of the room, lay curled up on the floor as if she hoped to sleep. Not many words had passed between the two of them since their return from the scouting expedition. On hearing their report of paw-prints, Ardneh had urged that at least one of them remain awake and alert at all times; they could not depend upon his being able to warn them of danger, here in his own blind interior.
Ardneh’s answer to his question now took Rolf by surprise. “The number of days is not now
determin-able. But almost certainly it will not be as long as a month. By then the outcome of the war will have been decided.”
Across the room, Catherine’s head came up, her face turned in Rolf’s direction.
Rolf opened his mouth, closed it, tried again. “It will be over? “was all that he could find to say at last.
“The next major battle will decide the war,” Ardneh replied matter-of-factly. “And it will be fought here, within the month, though the war will not end entirely for another year or two.”
“Around me and over me. I must bring the strongest of the enemy to me, and break them here, if they are to be broken at all. And Duncan must come with his army, to be ready to strike again when I have done my utmost.”
Catherine asked: “And what are Rolf and I to do?”
“There will be much. Physical repairs and rearrangements to be made, things I cannot do for myself, enough work to keep two humans busy until the issue is decided. Rolf has great natural skill in technology; also he is familiar enough with me not to be greatly awed by my presence. Therefore I decided that he should be the one to bring me the heart of the power lamp.”
Catherine put out a slender hand, to touch a giant piece of hardware. “I have no great skill with things like these.”
“More than you know,” Ardneh’s voice assured her. “You will be of help with the machinery. But your chief value to my plan, the reason I brought you here, lies elsewhere, in the future. I see it dimly, but cannot explain. You have powers that you know not of. Powers of life, that build the world.”
“Magic? No, I cannot…”
“Not magic. Not un-magic, either. All. Reality.”
Her eyes turned to Rolf, as if beseeching him for help. It was a moment of openness between them, such as they had not shared since rejoining Ardneh. But though Rolfs heart went out to that look, he had no other help to give.
Ardneh gave them no time to brood any more, but announced that the integration of the power source that they had brought was now complete. He led them now to other rooms and began to show them some of the tasks they must accomplish. There were interlocking nests of metal and glass to be opened, disassembled, moved, put together again in new configurations. There were long cables, like multi-headed snakes, to be unpacked, tested, and installed. The outward shapes of the machinery were not very complex, but still some practice time was necessary. Rolf’s fingers soon got the feel of what was wanted; Catherine, less in tune with technical matters, increasingly limited her help to unpacking, fetching, and carrying, taking up tools only when necessary.
That night in the ruined dormitory, sleep would not come to Rolf. He tossed about for a while, looking again and again at the motionless, cloak-covered form on the far side of the room. Finally he sat up. “Ardneh.”
It seemed a long time before an answer came. “What is it?”
“Catherine is under a spell of the Lady Char-mian’s.” The figure on the far side of the room was still apparently asleep. “If you could counteract it, both of us would be grateful.”
This time the pause was longer still. Then the voice above Rolf said: “I am aware of the spell. To counteract it would be difficult, because of the source of power that was tapped to make it. And to counteract it does not seem essential.”