Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Chup cautiously went down the rest of the ladder. The centipede remained completely quiet. He left the ladder and paced toward the door that led to the next lower level; and now the dryness of fear was growing in his throat. Behind him he heard the ladder being drawn up; so it had been planned, in case some officer should come while he was down below.

There was a bloated bulk of darkness that he only just avoided stepping on, when it made a feeble movement in his path. He had been told of this also. It had been a man, and was still alive, nourishing the larvae of the centipede inside itself. Perhaps its hands would someday join the thieves’ bundle over the tunneled walk; perhaps it had in fact once been a would-be thief.

In the faint light from below he could make out the way to the next lower level: an ordinary doorway led to a simple solid stair of stone, narrow and curving but quite open. What was below had no desire nor occasion to come up, and the centipede would be too frightened to go down.

Chup went down, armed with the three words of magic Hann had taught him. They weighed now like swallowed arrows in his throat, syllables not fit for ordinary men to bear. Chup went down the curving stair, and before him the increasing light carried a hint of the color of gold.

As he had been instructed, Chup counted the turnings of the stair, and stopped on what should be the last, before the source of light ahead could come into his view. There he drew in his breath, and said, clearly and loudly, pausing after each word, the three words of the incantation.

With the first word, there fell a silence in the air, where before he had only thought the air was silent; there had been a certain quiet murmuring that he was not aware of until it ceased.

With the second word, the light in the room below was dimmed, and the air became fresh and ordinary, where before he had only thought that it was so; and time began to make itself felt, so that Chup perceived the age in all the slimy stones that built the vault surrounding him.

The third word of the incantation seemed to hang forever on his tongue, but when he had said it, time flowed on once more as it should. The golden light before him grew as bright as ever; a certain rippling watery reflection in it had been stopped so it was steady, where before he had only thought that it was so.

With that Chup went on down, walking into Som’s treasure room through its sole entrance. The vaulted chamber was round and high, perhaps twenty meters across. The golden light came from the center of it, seemingly from the treasure itself. It lay in careless-looking heaps, for the most part brilliant yellow metal, coins and jewelry, bars and foldings of gold leaf; here and there the piles were studded with the sharper glint of silver or the brighter flash of gems.

The treasure was still sealed from Chup by a last encircling fence, of what seemed fragile metal wands. He had no need to cross that barrier or worry about it. Instead he looked up at once to the upper vaulting of the high chamber. By the light of the ensorceled treasure, he saw that up there the seven guardian demons hung, where Hann’s three words had sent them, like malformed bats in fine gray gossamer robes. They were head down, with arms or forelegs -it was hard to specify -that hung below their heads. Several of the dangling limbs hung nearly to the level of Chup’s head, so elongated were the demons’ shapes. One had a gray blur of a talon run like a fishhook through the hide of small furry beast, a living toy that struggled and squeaked incessantly to be free, and very slowly dripped red blood. As Chup watched the demons, they began to drone, like humans newly fallen asleep who start to snore.

With a shudder he pulled his gaze down and stepped forward. He stood staring for just a moment in awe at the accumulated wealth before him. He thought he had seen riches before, and owned some too. But he had known only handfuls compared to this.

The moment of distraction passed; what drove him had far more power over him than greed. Taking now from his pocket the golden circlet of Char-mian’s hair -infinitely brighter in his eyes than any hoard of metal -he held it up before him in both hands. He was reluctant ever to let it go. But after all it was the woman he wanted, not her token. It was for the sake of their future life together that he must give away the charm; for no other reason could he have parted with it now.

He tossed it from him, over the innocent-looking fence of fragile rods, toward the piled-up wealth. As it passed from his fingers it seemed to draw from him a greater spark than ever man might get by rubbing cloth and amber; and with this spark, invisible for all its power, Charmian’s image in his mind was smashed and shattered as in a broken mirror.

Under the blow, Chup lurched forward two steps, hands outstretched and groping. Like one aroused from sleep-walking he blinked and cried out incoherently. His case was all the worse for his remembering all the nightmare that had brought him here; nightmare magic, that had made him trust his bride…

Tightly he squeezed shut his eyes, forgetting for the moment even the dreaming, droning, blinded demons over his head as he tried to call back Charmian’s face. He visualized her now as beautiful as ever. But now, freed of the potent charm, he recognized her beauty as nothing but a mask worn by an enemy.

He stood gazing dazedly through the fragile-seeming fence of wands. The gold circlet had vanished, lost in the dazzle of the yellow metal stacked and strewn there… and now that he was freed of it, he did not want it back. Nor her. She would be with Tarlenot now, or Hann, or someone else. And Chup realized that he no longer minded that.

The thought broke in upon him that she must have known he would be freed by tossing away the charm. Or did she think he was still bound to her and blinded by the simple magic of her attraction, like the other men she used? No, he never had been enthralled by her before he picked up the charm. She must have known that he would, at this point, be set free.

To do what? Where did his best interests lie? Was he now committed irrevocably to helping her against Som?

Remembering now her face and voice over the last few days, he concluded that she still hated him for not being manageable without magic, especially for once slapping her to put an end to a mindless hysteria of noise. Was she done with using him now, and was her revenge already set?

At best his time of safety here was passing quickly. Cautiously he turned to leave the treasure chamber.

Above his head the little furry animal still writhed and squeaked, impaled upon the demon’s dangling talon. Chup put up a hand in passing to rob the demon of its toy; he tossed the small beast ahead of him up the curving stair. There it might find a crevice in which to die in peace. The curses of three thousand wizards on all demons! He could not slay them, but he would take the chance to rob one of a toy. When he had climbed round the first turn of the ascending stair he paused, and uttered in reverse order Hann’s three words. The light changed subtly, down below, and no longer was there perfect silence.

When he had climbed to the darkened level of the centipede, he was glad that he had wasted no more time below, for already the beast was stirring. It was not moving yet, but trying to rise, its feet a-scratching on the pavement in the darkness. He waited briefly, to give his eyes a better chance to see.

Now that he had thought a little, it seemed to him that he would have no more usefulness to Char-mian. No longer bewitched, he could do nothing for her that someone more manageable-Tarlenot – could not do almost as well. She hated Chup, he felt quite sure of that, and she was not the girl to leave her hate unsatisfied.

He could see the dim shape of the centipede now, lying on its side, curling and uncurling like a slow snake swimming in the dark. Its feet scraped but were not yet ready to support it. Chup moved in the utmost silence, stepping toward the place where they must let down the ladder for him… here? Would this be where Charmian meant for him to die?

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred