Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Sitting in the middle chair, he noticed that above each seat there hung a mask. Each mask had a strap, as if to hold it on a human head, and two glass rounds for eyes. From each mask’s nose there curled away a snout of more than Elephantine length, to fit into a socket in the wall. Rolf’s first touch made the face of the mask that rested above his chair crack dryly, and broke the long snout into a shower of dust and brittle fragments.

Blinking his eyes and brushing powder out of his hair, he looked around him apprehensively. But still nothing happened. Even the murmuring whispering seemed to be smoothing itself down nearer silence.

Rolf sighed out a long shuddering breath and was aware that, for the moment at least, the last of his fear had left him. His being here was all right, all right with whatever powers were in charge. He waited. The quiet air seemed pregnant with importance. The movement of the air carried the fresh dust away. A broken mask perhaps did not matter to Ardneh, for Ardneh was not a demon. He was – something more than that. If he was anything at all.

On a sudden impulse Rolf spoke soft words aloud. “Ardneh? You were a god in the Old World, where this Elephant was made. I know that much. I don’t know any spells to call you up. Since you’re not a demon maybe spells aren’t needed-I don’t know.”

He paused. Encouragement seemed to wrap him, through the softly moving air.

“Loford says that you have come to stand for freedom, and so I… I wish that you would work through me. Someone said that the Old One was Ardneh, in a way, and in the same way I want to be Ardneh too.” For a moment Rolf in his imagination saw himself as the warrior of Loford’s vision, mounted on Elephant, armed with the thunderbolt in his hands. And for a moment the dream did not seem ridiculous.

Still no voice but the steady fading murmuring answered him. Rolf twisted in his seat, suddenly feeling like a fool kid playing, talking to himself. He sneezed again in the fresh dust raised by his movement. So much for that. It would be nice to have a sorcerer’s power, but there was no point in playing at it like a child. He had no real control of demons, nor of gods either, whatever they might be.

He decided to get on with the job. Again he began to test the objects before him and around him with his hands, pulling and prodding and twisting carefully. If there was a magical aspect to Elephant, he was incapable of dealing with it. He would just have to approach it like a farmer confronted with some strange and enormous tool, trying the handles that should make it work-Rolf grunted in surprise, and snatched his hands away from the table-like thing before him. Within a glassy panel on that table a series of dots of light had suddenly appeared, all regular in form and spacing though no two alike in color. Above and around the dots and also limned in pure light were sets of characters, in a language unreadable to Rolf. The largest said: CHECKLIST.

After contemplating this for a little time, and reassuring himself that nothing more serious had happened, Rolf was emboldened to put his hand back on the control he had last touched, and push where he had just pulled. The lights in the panel before him obediently died away. He turned them on and off and on again, savoring new power.

The upper most dot on the panel was bright orange. A small knobbed lever at the side of the panel, near Rolf’s right hand, had also acquired a marking of orange light. He pushed it, and it moved with a click.

NUCLEAR POWER IGNITION sprang out in orange characters beneath CHECKLIST on the panel. And at the same moment Elephant grunted.

The grunt came from deep in Elephant’s guts. It repeated itself, and turned into a groan, like the agony of some deep bellyache. Rolf, stricken suddenly by all old fears redoubled, grabbed at the little lever to reverse what he had done. His shaking fingers missed, as the whole bulk of Elephant lurched beneath him. The groaning divided itself into divers voices, like those of a cage full of demons all in torment and wrestling one against another. Rolf sat paralyzed, afraid to try to stop them now, afraid to let them go. The voices slowly managed harmony in their wrath, their shouting racing faster, blurring into a single shuddering roar.


Rolf might have leaped up and fled, but for the thought that he could never get out of the cave before Ardneh struck him down. He clutched his dust-exhaling chair and waited.

Nothing struck him. Instead, Elephant’s shaking gradually diminished. The roaring deepened, becoming smoother and more certain. An exhilarating sense of enormous power being delivered into his hands blended with Rolf’s returning confidence, making it stronger than ever.

The orange dot was gone now from beside the NUCLEAR POWER ON legend inside the glass panel, and the markings of orange light were gone from the little lever. The next highest dot in the panel was purple, and now purple markings glowed on another small handle, this one at Rolf’s left.

This time he closed his eyes in wincing anticipation as the control clicked under his fingers. When he opened them again he knew another brief spasm of fear. A ring like a giant’s collar, nearly a meter in diameter, was descending from above his chair to encircle his head.

The ring came to a halt, not touching him, at the level of his eyes. The inner surface of it was flat and bright, shot with moving patterns of light, the way he supposed a wizard’s crystal might look if the visions were uncertain. But soon this confusion cleared away, and Rolf found that by some power he was looking through the surface of the wide ring as if it was a window. This was something more in-pressive than Thomas’s far-seeing glasses. He could see the cave around him, the big flat doors ahead, with perfect ease, as if the solid mass of Elephant had become transparent as water.

Purple was gone. Now there was a red dot on the panel, and a red-lit control to handle.


A pair of thin red lines, crossing each other at right angles, had appeared on his vision-ring. Rolf pressed at the red control again, and a spurt of what looked like liquid fire came lashing feebly from one of the projections on Elephant’s snout. It was as if Elephant had retched up a mouthful of pure flame, and fouled its own forequarters with its spitting. Only one drop of the flame shot as far as the doors ahead, where it hung heavily, oozing lower like a fire-tear, leaving a blackened trace above it.

Now Rolf sat still for some time, watching the spattering of fire cool and blacken on the door and on Elephant’s impervious metal hide. At last he tried again the control that had brought the fire, but this time nothing came. The red dot, unlike the previous ones, stayed on the panel, along with ARMAMENT INOPERATIVE, though he could make the thin red cross-lines on his vision-ring come and go.

He decided that he would go on anyway to the next color, which was a spring-sky blue. He got the blue dot to go out, and went on, testing control after control. There were others that stayed lighted, turning red. Some caused strange rumblings or cracklings around him. Some controls produced no effect that he could see, except for changing the lights on the panel.

When finally the lowest dot in the sequence winked away, the CHECKLIST legend vanished with it. And now for the first time light appeared on the two most prominent handgrips within his reach, outlining them in bright green. These two handles, sturdy enough to have fit a plow, stood one on each side of his chair. He had tried moving them before, without result. Now he tried again.

At his first gentle pressure on the levers, the roaring beneath him, which had gradually been smoothing itself down to a lower level of noise, came swelling up. Rolf hesitated, waited, and then stiffened his arms, pushing the two levers forward. Groaning anew, Elephant gave a lurching start and moved. Suddenly the doors were very close ahead. Startled, Rolf yanked both levers back. His great mount bucked, with a sound of studded metal plates laboring like monstrous claws on the stone floor, and then lurched into reverse. It gathered speed. Now the rear wall of the cave was very close behind. Again Rolf over-reacted, pushing the levers forward hard. In his haste he moved them unevenly this time, the right farther than the left. Elephant skewed toward his left as he advanced again. His right shoulder touched a door just as Rolf, fighting against panic, once more reversed his two hand controls. Any child could use a pair of reins. You had to let the creature you were driving know that you were boss. The homely thought-pattern helped him get himself under control, and when he had done that he found that the control of Elephant was easy.

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