Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Thy wish is granted, said Ardneh softly in his mind.

Before John Ominor the world became pure light, the last light that he ever saw.

Ten kilometers farther from Ardneh and Orcus than Ominor had been, in the moment of the acid light that etched and ate the world, Rolf thought: Ardneh warned us not to look back; he must have meant literally that.

The light from behind them threw their long shadows ahead, shadows that were dark even in the teeth of the lowering sun. To keep Catherine’s eyes turned forward, away from that terrible light, Rolf slid his arm around her neck. A thousand faces ahead of him were turning, to squint with astonishment and pain into the glare, then turning away again to shield their eyes. Within the distance of a few steps the army had shuffled to a halt.

On the exposed skin on the backs of Rolf’s arms and legs, the heat grew swiftly to the point of pain, and then as swiftly dwindled. At the same time the great light dimmed, leaving mere daylight that seemed like darkness by comparison. Now, where Ardneh’s darkness had once been, and Orcus’s sickening glow, a mighty fireball was crumbling in upon itself like some vast ember, becoming a sphere of brown, scorched smoke.

And now came the swiftest shockwave of the blast, racing through the earth, rolling beneath Rolf’s feet and Catherine’s. The earth smote up at them as if in anger, and the long column of the army staggered on its thousands of legs. Rolf saw grass dancing, in a new, windless way. Then came the soundwave with its deafening shock, and after that a blast of wind that knocked the army down. Sterile wind, cleaned and burned free of all energies of life, but howling like a demon anyway, and hurling dirt clouds like an elemental.

Scarcely were people able to stand up before the wind hit them from the opposite direction and knocked them down again. An avalanche of air was rushing back toward the blasted center where now around and below the crumpling fireball an airy mountain of smoke and powdered earth began to bloom. In all this furious movement there was no smallest sign of life.

Now in Rolfs mind there was nothing left of Ardneh, except in memory. Nor could he detect the psychic weight of Orcus any longer. Above the place where they had struggled, the mountainous column of smoke and dust turned ever blacker as it rose rapidly into the sky, curling and roiling into a mushroom at its peak. From every quarter inrushing winds bore tribute of more dust to build the pyre of Ardneh and Orcus higher still toward the upper air.

The army of the West was on its feet again, watching, in stunned silence. Finally Duncan, with some difficulty controlling his frightened mount, began talking out loud to himself: “Ominor’s army. There, and then gone. Like that. And the Demon-Emperor, too. I’m magician enough to feel the certainty of that death. Annihilation. And Ardneh. Ardneh. Gone.” The roar of the explosion seemed to persist, though now it was more in the mind and ringing ears than in the air. Kilometers away across the prairie, small scattered groups of refugees were coming into view, looking like ants beneath the titanic blast-cloud. Staggering, walking or running without evidence of purpose, human figures were moving like maddened insects across the scorched and wasted land.

Nearby, a human voice let out a roar. Rising in his stirrups, Duncan marveled: “Is that what’s left of Ominor’s reserve – ? Why no, sweet demons Us that all that remains of the army of the East?”

He wheeled his mount, and began to call out orders to his captains. Up and down the column, men and women came to life, and began to change the army’s posture from retreat into a halt for rest and food, and preparation for new action soon.

Ever and again the people of the army paused in their work to watch the awesome cloud. At the height it had now attained, beyond that of any mountain ever seen, a wind was beginning to tear it away toward the desolate north. The ant-Uke Eastern survivors, or some of them at least, were moving closer across the plain, unknowing or uncaring that they approached the army of the West. Duncan ordered out squads of cavalry, to seek out any enemy units large or coherent enough to pose a possible threat. Among the stragglers coming in on one flank was a tall figure that Rolf thought he recognized; he began to walk toward it, Catherine coming with him. Behind them, Duncan was shouting exultantly: “Wizards, will you read me your grim portents now? All your worst have been fulfilled today, and yet we stand in triumph! The East lies broken-backed before us, and ere autumn turns to winter we will be in their capital!”

“Chup!” Rolf reached to grip the tall man by the hand. “I see you were again too tough to die!”

Chup looked back at him strangely at first, not saying anything.

Rolf nodded to a slight, muffled figure that he had gradually become aware of standing in attendance at Chup’s side. It appeared to be a female servant, burdened with a few bits of baggage, and wrapped in a blanket that concealed even her face. “Who’s this?” he asked.

Catherine, bolder here than when she had last faced Chup, was moved to demand of him: “Is she some prize you’ve won at war? Did you not give up holding slaves when you joined the West?”

“A prize, maybe,” said Chup. “But not of war.” Unmoved, unreadable, he looked at Rolf and Catherine in turn. The crack of a smile appeared in his face, a new crevice in old rock. “This is my wife.”

Rolf stared. Two strands of golden hair escaped the dingy blanket where it was drawn close around the figure’s face.

“Oh, I’ll answer for her behavior now. She has been…persuaded, as I once was, to join the West. When I’ve had a chance to explain the situation to a court, I doubt they’ll want to visit any further punishment upon her. What has happened seems too… fitting… as it stands.”

Behind them, in a group of the army’s leaders, Gray’s voice was orating: “Good Prince, if there is anything impossible to men, it is going back to what has once been changed. True, the Old World energies of nuclear power are once more with us, like outlandish demons that only technologists can control. But the energies of magic remain in force, still much stronger than they were in the days of Ardneh’s origin. The world we live in from this day hence is a blend of Old and New, and so is doubly new. True, most of the evil spells that were in force yesterday are now nullified as a consequence of the defeat of Orcus. Others have been reversed…”

“It seems,” Chup was saying, “that a certain evil spell that this one laid upon a former serving-maid was, like many another curse, turned back upon its maker when the great demon fell. My lady here will quickly turn into a hag, unless she receives the proper treatment once or twice a day.” Again Chup smiled. “Before entering this camp I encountered and questioned a certain pudgy wizard that I know. I am informed by magical authority that no man’s stroking but my own is going to preserve my lady’s comeliness. Doubtless because I am the only man in East or West who has ever thought or felt any more for her than… well.”

Chup suddenly put out a hand, to stroke the cheek inside the blanket. And Catherine, watching, was startled by the movement’s gentleness.

The End

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