Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“Our lives here would be much easier if-”

Calm, inflexible, Ardneh’s voice overrode his. “At this moment many lives in the West are more difficult than yours. And there are greater dangers to you than this discomfort that you speak of. I am too busy to even discuss the matter now. Another may help you where I cannot.”

Another? Who? But there would be no use in trying to ask; Rolf could feel that Ardneh’s presence had departed. Despite himself, despite his awareness of the legless, armless, dying who were far worse off, he half-willingly nursed a sullen anger.

Catherine was still asleep – or still wanted him to think she was. He tried once more to get to sleep himself, but it was hopeless. Getting up, he groped his way through dark but now partially familiar corridors, to the chill cave air of the tunnel and at last to the warmth of summer night outside. For a time he stood cautiously just inside the tunnel mouth, his ears sorting out the natural activities of the prairie night as he heard them through the murmur of the stream. Then he climbed the little hill above the entrance to the cave, and sat in the grass to contemplate the stars.

“Whooo, Roolf.”

The great bird was almost within reach of his hand before his eyes could find it in the night. “Strijeef! It’s good to see you again. How are you? What news?”

The bird spoke briefly of reptiles recently slain, and personal perils avoided; and then of the march of great armies, how both East and West were converging on this northern land. “Each day the great battle that is to come grows nearer. All in Duncan’s army speak of it.”

“So says Ardneh, also. Have you a message for me from Duncan?”

From his courier’s pouch Strijeef’s nimble talons brought out a small roll of paper, which he tossed to Rolf with a flirt of his murderous beak. “Yoouuu are promoted to captain, and the woman Gathering is formally enrolled as warrant officer. And there is one more bit of news, that I bring of my oown sight. Large four-legged beasts are coming here, loong before either army. A pack of beasts I doo not know, and they will be here before daylight.”

It had rained during the night, and in the dismal morning the west prairie smelled more of autumn than of summer. The army of the East was striking camp, preparing for another day of northward march. From the earliest light Charmian had been outside her tent, keeping an alert eye on the tent where Wood had rested. And now at last she saw him emerge from it, wearing a soft, rich robe.

Once more a circular space, set apart from other camp activities, had been made ready for the chief wizard’s intended work. In the middle of that space Chup had been left waiting through the night, still bound to his iron frame, and guarded by two soldiers.

Wood had paused, just outside his tent, in conference with other wizards. Charmian took the opportunity to approach the waiting victim. Grabbing Chup’s long hair, she turned his face around to hers. He snarled, but there was no recognition in the scarcely-human sound. His eyes were those of a trapped beast.

Once she had yearned to tear those eyes out with her nails. Now she had the chance to do so. But somehow the desire had fled.

Wood was approaching now, followed by two assistants, as silent and somber as their master. At a flicker of the chief wizard’s eyes toward her, Charmian darted out of the circle. Just past its edge, she paused, alone and watching as before.

As soon as a few preliminaries were out of the way, Wood came closer to the victim on his iron frame. The wizard raised and spread his empty hands. For this sacrifice he must use nothing so direct as a knife. Subtle and bloodless must be the draining of this victim’s life. Its energies were needed as solvents and lubricants, to melt the seals and oil the hinges of the dungeon door through which Orcus must eventually pass if it was finally decided to free him. Wood began to work now with his most subtle arts, to extract the energies of Chup’s life without the use of material weapons. Proceeding slowly and carefully, Wood ignored, or at least he did not stop to savor, the reactions of the victim whose mind must be made clear so he could understand what was happening to him. The essential oil of despair must be added to those of fear and pain. Chup, regaining his wits at last, strained at his iron bonds, and looked up with a new and understanding horror at the man who was beginning to kill him.

Wood had killed in ritual so often than now it seemed no more important to him than the cracking of an egg. While his voice chanted, and his hands gestured, his mind held steady to the useful working image. Once more in imagination he had descended to the nethermost dungeon. Now he stood there like an artisan, a workman lubricating a lock, an intricate tremendous lock that held a massive door, a door securely sealed and barred, whose key had been put so far away that it had been forgotten. Another terrible ceremony would be needed for the recovery of that key, but that was for another day.

On the other side of the door, Wood knew, the monster moved (aye, he could feel and hear it through the door), the utter beast, a slouching, slimy and wall-bulging weight, that slid against the door, and turned within its tiny cell and padded on along the tiny circle it must walk. It was fully awakened now. He felt its foul breath issuing… enough. When he envisioned demons breathing, more than enough. The workman’s image was the one that he must keep in mind. He must oil the unopenable hinges, and the lock, and make them ready to be used. Now, twist and squeeze the oily rag (whose name was Chup) to get the solvent and the lubricant. Probe deeply now into the lock and clear the sealing force from all the parts…

Incredibly, the workman’s hand upon the door was seized, by something from the other side. Wood’s hand went dead as ice. A numbing shock flew all along his arm. He tried to step back from the door, to pull away. When that effort failed he sought to tear his mind out of the image at once, terrible though the dangers were in doing so. But still his hand was held. He could only gape in horrified disbelief as the monster, having been somehow granted some kind of fingerhold within the lock, proceeded to make good use of it, applying his full strength.

The lock went smash at once, the crossbars on the door were splintering. The weight against the other side leaned harder and the bars broke off. Slowly, leisurely almost, the door swung on its hinges opening… with an effort inspired by ultimate terror, Wood broke away, returning to his body in the world of men.

Charmian, still watching her husband’s face intently, was the first person outside the wizards’ ring to understand that something was going hideously wrong. She saw Chup’s face change once more, a new kind of calm replacing the understanding fear, and she thought that he was on the point of death. For mixed reasons, she felt a pang of disappointment, and was unconsciously drawing herself up to express her feelings in some gesture when she saw that which converted her movement into the start of a retreat.

Suddenly she saw that Chup’s right hand, showing not even a tremor, moving with deliberate sure-ness, had pulled itself free of its restraint (had those straps ever been iron, that now Jay twisted like torn cloth?) and was moving to take hold of the thicker iron band across his chest. The hand found its grip, and quivered once. With a ringing snap the chest-band burst, sending a fragment of metal singing like a missile past Charmian’s head. Not that Chup’s actions had anything to do with her; his eyes, with their new and terrible calm, were fixed on Wood.

Wood, his eyes meeting that gaze, stood frozen for a long moment, his practiced hands for once contorted awkwardly. Similarly his two assistants were transfixed, one with arms outthrust as if to ward off a lunge by Chup, the other bent forward ludicrously, as if with stomach-ache. Every detail of the tableau seemed in that moment to be carved of stone.

Then Wood’s hands shot forward, fingers clenched, thumbs pointing, aimed like some boy’s hands holding a strange and imaginary weapon in play. Toward Chup’s rising figure, garbed in the rude, stained robe of a sacrifice, there leaped out from Wood’s hands a soundless scimitar-curve of multicolored light. It flashed from the wizard across nearly the entire space that separated him from Chup. But the last half-meter of space remained inviolate.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred