Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy



With slow steps Rolf walked twice around the Elephant, keeping a cautious distance from it, holding his torch high.

Except for the impression that it gave of enormous and mysterious power, this before him did not much resemble the creature depicted in the symbols. This was a flattened metal lozenge of smooth regular curves, built low to the ground for something of its massive size. Here could be seen no fantastically flexible snout, no jutting teeth. There was no real face at all, only some thin hollowed metal shafts projecting all in one direction from the topmost hump. Looking closely Rolf could see that around that hump, or head, were set some tiny glassy-looking things, like the false eyes of some monstrous statue.

Elephant was legless, which only made it all the more impressive by raising the question of how its obvious power was to be unfolded and applied. Neither were there any proper wheels, such as a cart or wagon had. Instead Elephant rested on two endless belts of heavy, studded metal plates, whose shielded upper course ran higher than Rolf’s head.

On the dull metal of each flank, painted small in size but with Old World precision, was the familiar sign -the animal shape, gray and powerful, some trick of the painter’s art telling the viewer that what it represented was gigantic. In its monstrous gripping nose the creature in the painting brandished a sharp-pointed spear, jagged all along its length. Under its feet it trod the symbols:


-whose meaning, and even language, were strange to Rolf. Now, holding his breath, he ventured to put out a hand and touch a part of one of the endless belts, a plate of armor too heavy for a man to carry or for a riding-beast to wear into a fight. Nothing seemed to happen from the touch. Rolf dared to lay his hand flat on the featureless surface of the Elephant’s metal flank.

Then he stepped back and looked around the rest of the cave. There was not much to see. A few openings in the curving walls, holes too small for men to enter. Maybe they were chimneys of a sort; the air in the cave was good. And there were the huge doors set in the wall just ahead of Elephant -if “ahead” was the direction in which the projections on the topmost hump were pointing.

These doors were flat expanses of metal, seemingly covering an opening of just the right size to permit Elephant’s passage. The vertical cracks of imperfect closure at the doors’ edges were noticeably wider at the bottom than at the top, as if the great panels had “been slightly warped. Through each widened crack a small heap of pebbly dirt had sometime trickled to the floor below.

Rolf knelt thoughtfully to finger some of this debris. As nearly as he could calculate, the floor here was at approximately the same vertical level as that of the canyon outside. The same landslide that had made the rock-jumble out there might easily have buried these doors.

He closed his eyes for a moment to better visualize the various distances and directions of his movements in coming into the cave. Yes, it seemed so. Let these doors be opened, and some of the house-sized rocks outside them cleared away, and Elephant would be free.

His rush-light had burned down to a finger-searing shortness and he lighted another from it. The air in the cave seemed as fresh as ever, and what little smoke his torch gave off was rising steadily. It would be far too much dispersed and faint for anyone to notice at the outer entrance of the cave.

Rolf walked again around Elephant, running his hand along its surface. On this circuit he paid much closer attention to details. This was like handling Thomas’s eyeglasses; there was no feeling of magic here, but a sense of other powers that somehow seemed to suit Rolf better than wizardry.

High on one vast armored flank, just above the covered upper leveM of the endless tread, was a barely perceptible circular line, like the crack of a very close-fitting door. Recessed in the surface of this circle was a handle that might tug it open, if it was indeed a door. And now Rolf saw there were four small steps, set into the solid metal, ascending from floor level to the circle.

He took a deep breath, gripped his torch precariously between his teeth, and climbed. The handgrip on the door accepted his fingers easily. Deep in his throat he muttered a protective spell, half-forgotten since his childhood-and then he pulled. His first tug was resisted, and his second. Then, when he dared lean all his weight outward from the handle, ancient stiffness yielded with a sudden crack of sound. The door, incredibly thick, swung open on a hinge. In that moment a sharp, straining click sounded somewhere in Elephant’s inside, and there was light, striking out of the door like the golden beams of the sun.

Already off balance, Rolf half-leaped, half-fell from Elephant’s side, his torch landing on the stone floor beside him. He did not need the torch, with the flood of true illumination washing out of Elephant’s opened side. That golden glow was not as bright as sunlight, he saw now, but it was as steady as the sun, without smoke or flames or flickering

Now Ardneh will appear, Rolf thought, and made himself stand up. He had some idea, or thought he did, of how a demon should look, but no ideas at all about a god. He waited, but no creature of any sort appeared. Elephant was as immobile as ever.

He chose to take the light as a favorable sign, and once more climbed the steps, pausing to marvel at the balance of the heavy door that he had opened. He paused again with his eyes just above the lower rim of the doorway, for the shapes inside were of a bewildering variety and all at first seemed utterly strange. Printed or graven symbols, not one of which Rolf could read, were sprinkled” thickly everywhere. Nothing moved; nothing was clearly menacing. The light as steady as the sun came from little panels that glowed like white-hot iron but yet seemed to radiate no warmth.

Pulling himself up gradually until he was halfway into the doorway, Rolf listened. From somewhere deeper inside Elephant came very faint murmuring, a little like running water, a little like soft wind. Wind it was, perhaps, for air was moving faintly out of the doorway, past Rolf’s face.

He sat in the doorway a little longer, probing the strangeness before him with busy eyes. Actually the open space inside Elephant was not very big. Three or four men would pretty well fill it, and be crowded among all the strange objects that were already there. But now Rolf could see certain indications that humans were meant to enter. The door itself had an immensely strong but simple latch that could be worked only from inside. And the narrow clear paths of the metal floor had been roughly surfaced, as if to provide good traction for human feet. And from the fixed furniture of peculiar objects there extended several projections that looked like tool-handles, made to fit the grip of human fingers.

Soon Rolf was crouching entirely inside the doorway, bathing in the heatless light, continuing to marvel. From here he could see more. Three objects that had puzzled him at first he suddenly understood to be chairs. They were low and stoutly made, faced not toward one another but side by side, turned in what seemed to be the direction Elephant was facing, toward the huge flat doors.

With gradually increasing boldness, Rolf carefully stood upright -though he was not tall, he had little head-room-and made his way step by step, touching things with deliberate caution, to the central chair. This chair was thickly surfaced with stuff that might once have been good padding but was now hard and brittle. It cracked at his touch and sent up a cloud of dust when he at last dared to sit on it. The dust made him sneeze, but soon it was borne away by the mysterious whispering circulation of the air.

Around the three seats and in front of them were ranged many incomprehensible objects, made of metal and glass and substances more difficult to name. Here were several of the handles that might have been those of tools or weapons; experiments first cautious and then more energetic convinced Rolf that none of these handles were intended to be pulled free to reveal simple tools of some sort on their working ends.

Elephant seemed to be accepting Rolf as some huge placid work-beast might tolerate a baby’s prodding; when this comparison occurred to Rolf he smiled. A feeling of possessive power was growing in him. All these wonders were becoming his – already they belonged more to him than to any other living man. Suppose Thomas were here now, or Loford. Suppose one of the clever and mighty wizards of the Castle. Would any of them dare do this? And Rolf raised a hand, and touched casually one of the light-panels, which gave off only the faintest warmth.

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