Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Far in the rear a thread of dust was rising from what must be another column of Eastern troops, entering the base of the mountainous shadow with which Ardneh had covered himself. Above the shadow, and bulking just about as large, a cloud of imperial purple disfigured the sky. It drew the eye and sickened the stomach like the first sight of death. One could grow accustomed to the sight of death, though; never to this. Rolf was awed despite himself when he began to realize the full immensity of Orcus. Ardneh’s shadow was now so far away it would have been out of sight over the horizon, but for the gentle saucer-shape of the plain between. And the formless, purplish thing in the air above Ardneh looked as big as an egg held at arms’ length. No single being could be that huge, Rolf told himself; but so it was.

Duncan, nodding wearily, was saying something in reply to Thomas’s last remark. Whatever was being said, Rolf did not hear it, because now he was looking far ahead and watching Catherine’s kinsmen spurring faster and faster forward along the slow column of the weary army. And now there was a brown-haired girl-figure running to them. The men were reining their animals to a dusty halt, leaping to the ground, embracing her.

Now the column was falling behind Rolf as he ran, all the dusty silent faces of it turning, each to watch him briefly as he came abreast and drew ahead. Her arm was pointing off to the right of the line of march. Thence I found my way, she must be explaining to her kinsmen. And now at last her face turned in Rolf’s direction, and now she too began to run.

They stopped an arm’s length short of touching. “You are alive, alive,” Catherine kept saying, over and over, with her face contorted as if in tearful anger. Then she and Rolf seized each other.

After a little he noticed that the two Offshore men were standing nearby. The joy of finding Catherine was still in their faces, but now they were looking at Rolf even more closely than before. He must have exchanged some words with them, but later he had no clear memory of what they were.

“Ardneh’s shadow is gone,” said someone walking in the column near them, looking back.

Another said: “And the demon is descending on him for the kill.

Orcus and Ardneh, who today dwelt together again in their own place of intense and private violence, spoke to each other with great freedom and intimacy now,-so closely were they grappled on all the levels of energy, so entwined were they in all the dimensions of space that they could find. While each strained to end the other’s life, no other creature could hear what passed between them, but between them understanding flowed.

Orcus said (though not in human words): “Now it is finally proven and acknowledged between us that I have become stronger than you. My army of human slaves digs into your roots, and all your forces weaken as I myself descend to quench your life. In a moment more my will must prevail over yours, and it is my will that you be as nothingness, as if you had never been.”

And Ardneh (in the same inhuman way of speech) replied: “So be it. I am willing to reach the end of life, for today all my tasks are ended too.”

Orcus would not be distracted. “Die.”

“I die, and at the moment of my death let go the Change that I have held upon the world. It is my will that the nuclear energies flow again; that you, hell-bomb creature, be as you were when my change first came upon you.”

Only in that moment did Orcus understand who Ardneh was and what Ardneh’s death would mean. In that same moment Orcus reversed the trend of all his magics, of all the evil spells around the world that drew from him; only in this manner might he reverse the fate that Ardneh had prepared. As a man dragged to the edge of a precipice will throw away all his treasures and his weapons, to grab with every finger for some saving hold, so did the Demon-Emperor now abandon all the threads of Eastern wizadry, leaving them to tangle, break, and recoil as they might. Now he bent all his energies to stay Ardneh from the brink of doom, seeing, at last, that the two of them were flying toward it bound together.

Now it was Ardneh who strained toward the brink of extinction, bent on ending his own weakened life. The momentum of the struggle tending in that direction was too great for Orcus to stop it now. Orcus felt that his own reversed efforts were failing, and knew such terror as he could know.

Twenty kilometers from where the struggle between Orcus and Ardneh was reaching its climax, Charmian raised her head, startled by the sudden disappearance of the dome of darkness. Chup, walking beside her, also turned his head to watch.

Since escaping from Ominor’s camp, Chup had been searching for Duncan’s, but had had great difficulty keeping away from Eastern forces. Charmian had stayed with him, not knowing if she dared try to get away, or even if she wanted to. Would she be any safer with Ominor himself? Now, it seemed, the Empire of the East belonged to one who was immune to any human woman’s charms.

In the distant sky, above where the dome of darkness had vanished, the cloud of silken purple sickness that was Orcus was contracting now, concentrating, falling, taking a shape like that of bird or reptile to plunge majestically upon some victim.

Chup turned back sharply to say something to Charmian, and froze when he caught sight of her again.

Really she had felt nothing, no pain, no change. It was only the expression on Chup’s face that terrified her, waking the worst of her old nightmares, making it come true by day.

“What are you goggling at?” she shrilled at him. “What, what?” She heard her own voice crack most strangely.

Chup would not say anything in answer. Neither would he stop staring.

She screamed croakingly at him again, and put her hand to her throat. When she saw it, her own hand, she let her aged crone’s scream sound once more. And now, across her back, the crippling pain of stiffened age was undeniable. She cried out again, on and on and on. Only dimly was she aware that Chup was near her, reaching out.

To the Emperor John Ominor, astride his battle-stallion near the place where the border of darkness had been, and where now broad daylight fell on the massed thousands of his digging army, and on the hundred parts of Ardneh they had already uprooted, there flew at this moment a minor demonic power who served him as bodyguard and personal sentry. It clamored a rapid warning: “Take flight! There is some trick, some trap! Orcus fights now for nothing but his own survival!”

Ominor’s first thought was that this message itself was a trick. But he could not see how taking flight might harm him. After the merest moment’s delay, he pronounced a word that was unknown even to Wood, and that had remained unsaid for millenia. With the last syllable still on his lips the Emperor vanished from his saddle with a thunderclap of sound that made even the war-stallion bolt. At the same moment, and with another crash of noise, Ominor reappeared upon a small hill some ten kilometers away. He staggered briefly with the sudden change from a riding to a standing posture, then found a solid footing in the grass. Looking around him at the place of temporary refuge that he had chosen in the moment before his flight, it seemed to him that he had chosen well. He was quite alone, and he could see plainly what was happening around Ardneh, while being himself remote from any imaginable danger.

He peered back toward his army, and the ravaged plain in which its multitude was digging, and into which the purple form of Orcus had descended, to be absorbed like water in the earth. Nothing untoward seemed to be happening. But he would wait here a little to make sure. He could return to his army in a moment if necessary.

… suppose now that Ardneh were the winner. Assuming that most of the Eastern army could be salvaged, the Emperor Ominor (he did not yet concede that he had been deposed) saw certain advantages in such an outcome. A triumphant Orcus would be hard to cheat of his revenge, though Ominor still had a trick or two to play toward that end. At worst, whichever titanic power survived seemed likely to be weakened by the struggle. That Orcus and Ardneh should kill each other off was doubtless too much to wish for…

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