Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The counterblow Charmian could not see directly, only its effect. To her, watching in a timeless moment of terror, it seemed that Wood’s face stayed where it was, a malignant frozen mask, while behind it and below it his head and body were shattered into bloodless clods and dust. Then the face disintegrated into flying dust. Simultaneously Wood’s two aides were flung aside like rags. The blow that had struck the wizards went in a soundless shock through air and earth. Charmian fell to her knees. In the aftermath she heard the men of the army yelling and running away.

The body that had been Chup’s stood tall and seemingly unscathed, turning to and fro to look and listen. Charmian saw that the camp a little distance off was full of tumbled tents and running men. Black-garbed wizards came running nearer, then turned and fled, or stood and trembled helplessly, when he who had been Chup looked at them. No trace of Wood was left, and the two who had been helping him were rolled-up rag-bundles on the ground. Charmian was the only living perspn within fifty meters of Chup’s terrible eyes, and now they turned to her.

Still on her knees, she now stretched forth her arms. “Ardneh.” Her voice was quavering, almost inaudible, even to herself. “Ardneh, mercy -a thousand thanks and mercies are your due, for having slain that man who held me as his slave.”

The eyes that had been Chup’s held her only a moment longer, then moved back to scan the turmoil in the camp. Suddenly a voice more terrible than Chup’s boomed from the throat that had been his: “Hear me, humans, vermin of the earth! I, the Emperor Orcus, have come to reclaim my throne, and to put all the world beneath my feet. Know and believe this, and hold yourselves in readiness to obey. Your fates depend upon how faithfully you serve me in the battle soon to come against the West. For now, farewell.”

Only Charmian was near enough to see what happened next. The body that had been Chup’s was racked by a prolonged shuddering, making the departure of the possessing power effectively visible. Suddenly it was once more her husbnad who stood before her.

Chup drew a deep breath, like a man returning from an underwater plunge. There was wonder in his eyes, but not bewilderment; he had evidently been conscious of all that happened while Orcus used his body to escape.

Chup’s gaze came to rest on Charmian. She gave a low, choked cry, got to her feet and tried to flee, but before she could take a step Chup’s hard hand clamped her arm.

“We are going to leave,” said Chup in a quiet rasp. “I think no one will try to stop the Emperor Orcus as he walks away.”

“My own true Lord,” said Charmian, with something like a sob. “I know what you must think of me; I do not care, now that I see you whole and free again.

“Move out,”he said, preoccupied with looking for pursuit. Thousands of distant eyes were on him, but no one in the shaken army of the East was offering to come closer. “Try to raise an alarm and I will break your spine before they get me.”

Thus they walked away.

When Orcus first came fully awake within his more-than-physical dungeon his first clear thought was that someone or something was helping him, reaching to give him unforced and willing aid. Powerful abilities besides his own were laboring to set him free, dispersing the fogs and webs of enchantment that had kept him more than half asleep, letting into his cell a light of almost blinding clarity. Never before had Orcus been given free and willing help, and the motives of his helper now loomed as a mystery. But he had no time now for asking questions, no time for anything but the giant effort he must make to win his freedom.

The magical images in which Orcus saw the event were jumbled, not as clear as Wood’s dungeon door and lock. But Orcus saw the way that he must take. The man who was being drained and used by Wood became for Orcus first a handgrip, a fragment of real life thrust near him in his prison of chaos. And then the human fragment became a lifeboat bobbing and tossing on a mad sea. Made able to think and move again by some unknown source of outside help, Orcus possessed the man and used him, poured his own demonic bulk into the little matrix of the human brain, and by this fulcrum levered his own titanic energies back into the world of men.

After that it was the work of a moment or two to release his borrowed body from its physical bonds, that he might more readily use it if he chose. It was only the work of another moment to strike Wood down. After that, a quick survey of the immediate situation, and the human body provided a convenient voice for the Demon-Emperor to use in announcing his return to the assembled human army of the East.

Even as he spoke, his thoughts and perceptions raced ahead. He felt some regret at slaying Wood so quickly. Age-long revenge on those who had betrayed him was desirable, and Wood must have been among them, as surely as the arch-traitor must have been Ominor. But meanwhile, Orcus saw and understood why Ominor had dared to think of bringing him back into the world. The danger from the West was presently very great. Without Orcus the East would not be strong enough to meet it. And if the West prevailed, the intriguers of the East would find that they had nothing to steal from one another.

At the heart of the danger from the West there loomed a power new to Orcus; new and strange, and stronger than any that he had ever faced before. Whether the strength of this new enemy was greater than his own he could not immediately determine, but he had the impression that the force of this enemy was still waxing. The enemy had a name, Ardneh. The name was unhidden, arrogantly revealed-make what magical use of it you like, malign powers of the East. Ardneh glowed, in the spectra of several energies, with deadly enmity for Orcus and all his works. All these things Orcus perceived within moments after re-entering the world of men, while still looking through the eyes of the man who was to have been sacrificed.

With his chief enemy waxing stronger, there was no point in delaying the struggle that must come. Casting aside the man he had possessed, Orcus mounted in a silent invisible rush into the upper air. From there, he swept the great curve of earth with his multitude of senses. He saw the dispositions of the main armies of both East and West, and he saw something more, that all but caused him to disregard those armies. Some kilometers north of the spot from which he had arisen, he sensed a series of chambers under the ground, and a concentration of life that moved and pulsed therein. Despite the distance, and the magical defenses that ringed it all about, to Orcus the nature of the place was plain, and the identity of the life within it. Above that place the Demon-Emperor flew slowly, and then toward it he went falling like an avalanche.

Inside one of the caves of Ardneh, Rolf saw the lights go dim. At the same moment came a heightening in intensity of the ubiquitous hum of technological power, usually so low that he was doubtful of hearing it at all.


There was no immediate answer, no feeling of Ardneh’s presence.

Going toward the outer room where he had seen Catherine working a few minutes before -it seemed there were always more cables to be connected, more devices unpacked or moved -Rolf met her coming, wide-eyed, to look for him.

There was unconcealed fright in her voice. “Rolf, it has gone dark outside. The sun is gone.”

He felt his own heart lurch, but tried to appear calm. “Not the sun. If it’s dark, it must be something…”

Ardneh interrupted, speaking from above them and seemingly from all around them, louder than they had ever heard him before. “The days of the decisive battle have begun. Orcus, emperor of demons, has found me and is attacking. Do not let the darkness outside worry you. It is local, and is part of my defense.”

“Ardneh, what can we – ”

“Go to Room Three at once, and stand by to reconnect the generators there.”

When they had been working for a little time in the chamber that Ardneh had taught them to call Room Three, he interrupted his detailed technical orders to inform them: “I have repulsed the first attack of Orcus. He will make further efforts, but our struggle is not likely to be decided now, until the armies of men have come to join it. Meanwhile there are more changes in equipment to be made.”

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