“This thing that you would have me do is small, and mean…” Then try as he might he could not form his shapeless revulsion any further. He made a weak and futile gesture and fell silent. Despite the clamminess of the chamber, sweat was trickling down his ribs. Now his coming here to argue seemed a hideous blunder. It wasn’t that he cared what happened to her… the face of Som was growing hard to look at. And there were no perfumes here… but Chup was long used to the air of battlefields.
The viceroy shifted in his seat, and lo, was very manlike once again. The dark flame had burned down to only a spark of night. “My loyal Chup. As you say, your talents are not those of a courtier; but they are considerable. Therefore will I not punish you for this insolent questioning; therefore will I condescend this once to explanation.
“The test you do not like is given you because you do not like it, because you have shown reluctance to do things that you think of as ‘small and mean’. To pledge yourself formally to the East is no meaningless ritual. In your case it will mean changing yourself, importantly, and I realize full well it can be very difficult. It is to do violence to your old self, in the name of that which you are going to become.”
Time was stretching on in the odd little room. Like a man dreaming or entranced, Chup asked: “What am I going to become?”
“A great lord with the full powers of the East to call upon. The master of all that you have ever craved.”
“But. How shall I change myself? To what?”
“To become as I am. No, no, not dead and leathery; I was playing with the woman when I told her she would be so. That is given only to me, here in the Black Mountains. I mean you shall become as I am in your mind and inward self. Now will you take the test?”
“My lord, I will.”
“You are obedient.” Som leaned closer, looking intently from his sunken eyes. “But in your case I wish for more than that. Loyal Chup, if you still had some affection for the woman, then merely to throw her to the demons might well suffice for your initiation. But as things are, it is not the woman, it is something else, within yourself, you must destroy ere you are ours completely.”
Som rose from his chair. He was not tall, but he seemed to tower above Chup as he leanedyet closer, with his smell of old death. “You must be for once not brave, but cowardly. Small and mean, as you describe it. It will be difficult only once. You must learn to cause pain, for the sake of nothingbut causing pain. Only thus will you be bound to us entirely.
Only thus will there be opened for you the inner secrets of power and the inner doors of wealth. And how can I give command of my Guard to one who is not bound to me and to the East?”
“Yes. The present Guard commander’s aged and scarred well past his peak of usefulness. And you know Thomas of the Broken Lands, who is planning to assail us here, you know him and how he thinks and fights.”
Not only an officer, but once again the commander of an army in the field… “My High Lord, I will do it! I hesitate no more!”
When Chup had gone, the viceroy returned to brooding on his other problems. What power was it, almost equal to his own, that dwelt in the circlet of gold hair and almost awoke in him the old desires of life?
His wizards would find out, in time.
In all their divinations lately, a threatening sign, the name of Ardneh, loomed up from the West. A name, with nothing real as yet attached to it. But it was in that sign, they said, that the Broken Lands and other satrapies along the seacoast had been lost…
We Are Facing Zapranoth
Thomas had been right about the reptiles, Rolf was thinking now, as he trudged up a small hillock to where his commander stood looking upward at the black, night-shrouded cliffs. Rolf’s breath steamed in the air before his face. The onset of winter’s chill, more noticeable at this altitude than it had been near the seashore, had kept the reptiles close to their roosts, had prevented their scouting out the army of the West during the days as it lay hiding in a hundred fragments. Night by night they had crept closer to Som’s citadel.
Rolf reached the spot where Thomas stood, alone for once, his head tipped back. There seemed little to be seen, gazing upward, except the stars above the cliffs, whose tops seemed but little below the twinkling sparks.
“I think it’s going to work,” Rolf reported. He had recently been given his first command, a work party to set in order and inspect the balloon-craft that the djinn produced. All through this night the technology-djinn had labored at Gray’s direction, making airships. Loford and the other wizards had concentrated on preventing the army’s discovery by demon or diviner dwelling on the cliffs above.
Gray had now learned to manage the djinn successfully, Rolf reported. At the foot of the cliffs were twenty balloons tugging gently at their mooring ropes, each of the twenty capable of carrying five armed humans. The balloons were to ascend connected in pairs by stout lines, and longer cords would fasten each pair to the ones behind it and ahead, so the hundred riders would find themselves together at the top.
“Once we begin it, it had better work,” said Thomas, nodding, when Rolf had finished detailing his report. Thomas himself was one of the hundred ascending by balloon to seize a foothold on the cliffs. Rolf was going up, to order the maneuvering and landing of balloons, and Gray, as wizard and technologist both. The other ninety-seven had been hand-picked from the fiercest warriors. At first Thomas had contemplated lifting his whole army in an aerial assault. But testing and maneuvering, by night and day, on various smaller cliffs between here and the Broken Lands, had dissuaded him. The number of things that could go wrong had proven almost limitless, and the time available for practicing was not. In maneuvers, the stunt had been worked successfully with as many as fifteen balloons. He had decided to risk twenty to seize the upper ending of the pass.
Thomas now had nothing more to say. Rolf, who had known him from his earliest days of leadership -not so long ago-wanted to offer more encouragement, but hesitated to interrupt what might be a necessary pause for thought. The pause was not long before Thomas turned suddenly and strode off down the hill. Rolf hurried after.
Most of Thomas’s other officers were waiting for him, in a body, and he strode in among them briskly. “All here who are supposed to be? Once more: our flares will burn with a green fire, to signal you to start to climb the pass. We’ll sound horns at the same time, as we’ve rehearsed. Once you get the word, by sound or light or both, that we’ve seized the top of the pass, come up as if a hundred demons were behind you.”
“Instead of waiting for us at the top, aye!” There were sounds of nervous laughter.
Gray’s tall figure loomed up. In one hand he raised what appeared to be an ordinary satchel. “The demons at Som’s command number far fewer than a hundred. And I have the lives of two of the strongest of them in here.”
“Zapranoth? Zapranoth’s life?” The murmured question came from several at once.
Gray, perhaps irritated, raised his voice slightly. “These are the lives of Yiggul, and of Kion. I have had them in my possession for some time, though for the sake of secrecy I have said nothing about them until now. And I have let them live, so I can destroy them when Som has called them up, thrown them into battle, and is depending on them. I am sure many of you know their names: they are both formidable powers.”
There was silence.
Gray lowered his satchel. “You will see me blow them away like clouds of mist, before they have had time to do us the least harm.”
“Not Zapranoth’s life,” one low-voiced listener said.
“No!” Gray snapped. “His life eludes us still. But these two are the strongest of the other demons. With these two gone, my brother and I can beat off the smaller fry like insects. We will not need the lesser demons’ lives to drive them off.”
There was no comment.
Gray went on, a little louder still: “Then, with all the others gone, we will be free to deal with him. Myself, Loford, the other stout wizards here. Zapranoth is mighty, well, so are we. We will hold off him or any other power, until your swords have won the day.”