Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The violence of that wind was concentrated at the level of the Demon-Lord, well above the field where humans walked and fought. Men found that they could stand and swing their weapons though they staggered with the heavier gusts. And now the Guard came charging on again. Rolf put on his arm a shield taken from a fallen Easterner, gripped his sword hard, and waited in the line. While over their heads a torrent of air and cloud-forms thundered from the west to beat like surf upon the image of the demon, men lowered their eyes and worked to injure one another with their blades, like ants at war on some tumultuous wave-pounded beach.

The earlier fight had seemed to Rolf quite short. This one was endless, and several times he despaired of coming through alive. Mewick, howling like the wind, fought this time on Rolf’s right hand, and saved him more than once. Somehow he was not even wounded in this attack, which failed as the first one had.

While the warriors fought, the violence of the wind gradually abated; and even as the black-clad host fell back once more in dissarray, the weightless bulk of Zapranoth again came pressing forward.

“Gray!” Thomas, stumbling on a wounded leg, came forcing his way through to the wizard’s side. “Hang on, our men are coming!” Even now the first gasping and exhausted troops of the climbing Western army were nearing the top of the pass; the bulk of that army, on its thousands of laboring legs, was now in sight though far below.

Gray slowly, with the movement of an old, old man, turned his head to Thomas. In Gray’s face, that seemed to be aging by the moment, there was at first no hint of understanding.

Thomas raised his voice. “You, and you, support him on his feet. Gray, do not fail us now. What can we do?”

The answer came feebly, as from the lips of a dying man: “You had better win with the sword, and quickly. I will hold the demon off till my last breath… that is not far away.”

Thomas looked round to see that the vanguard of his main army was just arriving at the top of the pass, brave men too exhausted for the moment by their running climb to do anything but sit and gasp for air, and squint up doubtfully at the looming shape of Zapranoth. The winds had driven the demon some distance from the field; whether they had inflicted pain or injury upon him no one could tell save Gray, perhaps. Of the screen of white magic Gray had earlier thrown up, there were only traces left, flickering and flaring like the last flames of a dying fire.

Rolf found it was no longer bearable to look straight at the Demon-Lord.

“One man run down,” Thomas was ordering, pointing down the pass to the approaching reinforcements. “Tell any with the least skill in magic to push on before the other, and hurry!” He turned his helmet’s T-shaped opening toward Rolf. “Ready the balloons for the attack upon the citadel itself! We must not sit here waiting for the demon to set the course of battle.”

Rolf sheathed his sword and turned and ran shouting to rally his crew to the balloons. At his direction men put down weapons, eased off armor, took up tools and ropes. The technology-djinn, still constrained by the spells that Gray had put upon it, obeyed Rolf’s orders when he called them out.

When he could look up from his work again, Rolf saw that the Guard of Som had been reformed once more on the plain. The ranks of black were not greatly smaller than they had been at the start of the day’s carnage; Guard replacements were trotting out from the citadel wearing torn and bloodstained garments in which they had already been slain once today. But the Guard had missed its chance to push the stubborn West from its small foothold on the height; the trickle of reinforcement up the pass had thickened steadily. Soon it would become a flow of hundreds and of thousands.

There were wizards of diverse but minor skills ascending with the army; each of these as he arrived was hurried to the side of Gray, who still was conscious, though standing only with the help of strong men on each side. But one by one these lesser magicians fell away, nearly as fast as they arrived and sought to relieve Gray of some part of the invisible power of Zapranoth. Some crumpled soundlessly. Some leaped and fell, groaning as if struck by arrows. One man tore with his nails at his flesh, screamed wildly, and before he could be stopped, leaped from the precipice.

Rolf took it all in with a glance. “We are ready!” he shouted to Thomas.

“Then fill your baskets with good men, and fly! We will be with you there.”

Most of the survivors of the original assault force, being the type of men they were, had already boarded for the next attack. The wind seemed right. But Zapranoth was coming, rushing now toward them like a toppling wall. Rolf, in the act of boarding his balloon, looked up and cried out at the sight. With the majesty and darkness of a thundercloud great Zapranoth now passed above them; it was as if the skirts of his robe spilled madness and dragged lightning. Two of the balloons burst thunderously, even as the djinn in its invisible cage became a blur of terror. Above the djinn there lowered a drifting fringe of cloud, that in the winking of an eye became a closing pair of massive jaws. With the devouring of the djinn, Gray cried out in despair and pain, and his head rolled loosely on his neck.

Men were running, falling, waving weapons in the air. In the confusion Rolf lost sight of Thomas, who had not yet given the last order to cast off. But there was no doubt what must be done; the balloons were ready, a little wind still held. Even without the djinn they could rise up and drop again upon the citadel.

“Cast off!” Rolf shouted left and right; ropes were let go, and his flotilla rose and flew. The demon that had just passed by now turned, but did not strike at the balloons; perhaps Gray was not yet wholly overcome. As the craft passed over the formation of the Guard, stones and arrows made a thick buzzing swarm around them. Shafts pierced every gasbag, though the padded baskets shielded the men inside. But their flight was not intended to be far.

Lowering again, they reached the citadel’s low wall, and for the most part cleared it. Along the top of the wall, behind its parapet, one lean man in black came running toward the invaders as if to fight them all, while others ran away -by his behavior Rolf knew Som the Dead. But in another moment Som was left behind.

Inside the walls, the silent flyers skimmed above a different world, one that was still ordered, peaceful, pleasant to the eye. Trees, hedges, and the rooftops of low sprawling buildings skimmed the basket bottoms. There fled before them women in rich silks and furs, and a few servants in drab dress.

Only one person besides Som remained to watch them boldly. One young servant girl who had mounted a low roof gazed at the balloons, and past them at the battle. Rolf passed near enough to get a good look at her face.

It was his sister Lisa.


Lake of Life

There was a steady swell of sound, a moaning endless tone so long prolonged in his strange loneliness that Chup could not imagine or remember when he had begun to hear it; and this odd swelling was a light as well, of which he could not remember his first sight, so bright he did not need his eyes to see it, but not too bright for eyes in spite of that.

And it was a touch, a pressure, of an intensity to make it unendurable if it had been felt in one place or even many, but it bore in all directions on every fiber, inward and outward, so all the infinity of opposing pressures balanced and there was no pain. Chup lived encompassed in this swelling thing like a fish within the sea, immersed and saturated and supported by inexhaustible sound, pressure, light, odor, taste, heat of fire and cold of ice, all balanced to a point of nothingness and adding up to everything.

So he lived, without remembering how he had come to be so living, remembering only the soft and singing promise of the sword. He did not waken, for he had not slept. Then: I am Chup, he thought. This is what the beheaded see.

What had jogged him into thinking was the feel of someone prosaically pulling on his hair. He did not open his eyes now, for they were already open. He could see light and soft pleasant colors, flowing downward. Up he rose, pulled by his hair, until he broke with a slow splash of glory back into the world of air, in which his senses once more functioned separately.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred