Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The heavy bar grated as he raised it from the cell door, and he reminded himself to strive more realistically for silence. Cautiously he turned in the lock the key he had been given. The massive door swung outward at his pull. Chup’s shadow fell before him into the uncleanness of the cell. There Charmian huddled on the floor, wearing the same black clothing of her audience with Som, shimmering garments, slit revealingly, foolish now as rags would have been at the Emperor’s court.

When she recognized Chup, the sharp terror in Charmian’s face turned dull; she had evidently expected visitors even more menacing than he.

He stepped back from the doorway and said in a low voice: “Come out, and quickly.” When she did not move at once he added: “I’m going to try to free you.”

The words sounded so utterly false in his own ears that it seemed impossible that clever Charmian could believe them for a moment. But she stood up and came toward him, though hesitantly at first. Her blond hair hung disheveled, half-concealing her face. Without a word she came out of the cell, and stood against the wall, her face averted, while Chup played the game of dragging the shamming guard into the cell and barring up the door again. Then at a motion of Chup’s head she followed close behind him as he set foot upon the downward path.

They had gone down perhaps two hundred paces, when Charmian in a small voice broke the silence: “Where are we going?”

He answered, without turning. “We must go down, in order to get out.”

Her footsteps behind him stopped. “But down there is where the demons nest. There is no way out, down there.”

Startled, he too stopped, and turned. “How do you know? Have you come this way before?”

She seemed surprised by the question. “No. No, how could I have?” Still she was not looking directly at him.

“Then follow me,” he growled, and started down again. After a moment her soft footfalls followed. She must believe his masquerade, or she would be screaming at him or pleading. But the evidence of success brought him no satisfaction.

Pretending to be cautious and alert, looking this way and that, pausing now and then as if to listen, he led her down toward the pit. He felt weary and awkward as if he had been fighting to the point of physical exhaustion. It will mean changing yourself, Som had said, you must do violence to your old self. Yet what Chup was supposed to do was basically quite simple, and on the surface there was nothing in it difficult for a bold man. He was to bring her down (by fair words and promises, not by force -that had been emphasized) to the Demon-Lord’s chamber at the bottom of this hole. There where she expected a door to freedom he was to give her to the demon. And then he was to run away. If he did not run away, and briskly, the chamberlain had warned him, Zapranoth in his demonic humor might nip him too.

His pledging was a task for one who giggled and ran away, and Chup now liked it less than ever. He did not see how he could succeed, how Charmian could fail from one moment to the next to guess the truth. Well, let her. But no, she still followed him obediently. He realized suddenly how desperate she must have been, how ready to grasp at any hope.

His pretended alertness suddenly became real. From below, where all had been ominous silence, there arose now a murmuring strange sound which he did not at once identify but which he did not like.

The first whisper of it froze Charmian in her tracks behind him. “Demons!” she whimpered, in a voice of certainty and resignation.

Chup had been assured there would be no interference, no distractions, while they were going down. He took a step back, fighting his own fear of demons, trying to think. Thinking was not easy; the sound grew rapidly louder, and at the same time more plainly wrong. It put Chup in mind of the gasping of some unimaginable animal; it made him think of a terrible wind sent blowing through the solid earth.

Now there was light below, a pinkish glow, as well as sound. Chup could make no plan. As if seeking each other’s humanity, by instinct he and Charmian put their arms around each other and crouched down on the narrow path. The sound was almost deafening now, a climbing clamor flying upward from the pit. With it came the aura of sickness that accompanied demonic power, an aura stronger than Chup had ever felt before. The brightening roseate light seemed to drive back the feebly growing glimmerings of the sun. He clenched his eyes shut, held his breath -and the rush, as of a multitude of beings, passed by them and was gone.

“Demons,” Charmian whimpered once more. “Yes… oh, it seems that I remember them, rushing by me in this place. But how?”

“What do you remember? Have you been down this pit?” he rasped at her. He wondered if she was planning some deception. But she only shook her head, and continued to avert her face.

He pulled her to her feet and led her down the curving path once more. What else could he do? Daylight enough came trickling from above to show the way. They came to a doorway, but when Chup peered in there was nothing but an alcove, no way out. No way out… but he must go on to pass his pledging, to reach the power of the inner circles of the East.

What else could he do? Down and down they went, though very slowly now.

Soon it began again, the noise far down below them, climbing fast.

“It is Zapranoth,” said Charmian.

This time a bass quaver, that told of madness rampant in the foundation of the world; this time the whole world shuddered and sickened with the coming up, and the light it cast before was blue and horrible.

Charmian began to scream: “Lord Z -”

Chup grabbed her, stifling her mouth beneath his palm, and cast himself and her once more down upon the narrow curving ledge, this time at full length, with both their faces turned toward the wall of rock. With a twisting and a stretching of the universe, with impacts of great footfalls smiting air and rock, the blaring, glaring Lord of Demons trampled past them. If they were seen, they were ignored, as two ants might have been.

Chup did not see the demon. His eyes had shut themselves, and at the moment of the demon’s closest presence all his bones seemed turned to jelly. This must be Zapranoth. Against this, no use to think of showing bravery; compared to this, the demons rising earlier had been small. And the demon who, days ago, had entered his beggar’s hovel to heal and threaten him -that one had been a nasty child making faces, nothing more.

When the world was still and sane and tolerable once more, he raised his head, gripped Charmian by the hair, and turned her face toward him. “How did you know that it was him? From far away, when first he started up?”

She looked convincingly bewildered. “I don’t know… my Lord Chup, I do not know. By his sound? But how could I ever have heard him, met him, and forgotten it? You are right, I knew” at once that it was he. But I don’t know how I knew.”

Chup got slowly to his feet. There was one small comfort: the game he was to play could not proceed until the Demon-Lord came back from whatever unforseen errand had called him out. Chup would have to find some means of stalling until then. But at the moment he could think of no plausible excuse for staying where they were. Slowlyheled Charmian downward once again.

They had gone but two more turns around the gradually narrowing chimney when there came a different and more human sound, from far above. It was faint, but to Chup’s ears unmistakable-the cry and clash of men at war. Chup listened, knowing now what had called the demons forth. No one in the citadel had thought it possible for Thomas to make a direct assault; well, it was not the first time he had been underestimated.

So the wait for Zapranoth might take some time, though it seemed likely that he ultimately would return triumphant. It was hard to imagine that Thomas could raise a power equal to the Demon Lord, even if he could get his army up the pass. Chup grinned the way he did when he felt pain. He led Charmian on down until they came to another doorway opening into another blind alcove. There he took her by the arm and pulled her in.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred