Draffut lifted his great forearms high, then let them down, like falling trees, with a huge splash. “Demons! They are the only living things that I would kill, if I could. They devour men’s lives, and waste their bodies. For no need of their own, but out of sheer malignity, they steal the healing fluid from my lake, and taunt me when I rage and cannot come to grips with them.”
Chup was now able to sit straighter on the ledge, and his voice had grown stronger. “You would kill Zapranoth?”
“Him soonest of them all! Of all the demons that I know, he has done human beings the greatest harm.”
“I know where he has hidden his life.”
All was silent, except for the sweet seashell roaring of the lake. Draffut, standing absolutely still, looked down steadily at Chup for so long that Chup began to wonder if a trance had come upon him.
Then Draffut spoke at last. “Here in the citadel? Where we can reach it?”
“Here in the citadel he hid it, where he could keep his eye upon it every day. Where we can reach it if we are strong and fierce enough.”
The Beast-Lord’s hands, knotted into barrel-sized fists, rose dripping from the lake. “Fierce? I can be fierce enough for anything, against obstacles that do not live, or against demons, or even against beasts if there is need. I cannot injure men. Not even -when it must be done.”
“I can, and will again.” With a great effort Chup rose up, swaying, to his feet. “Som and his demon-loving crew… as soon as I can hold a sword again. Lord Draffut, the human Lords of the East are more like demons than like men.” Lifting a weak arm, Chup pointed to the distant beachlike place, where people were being cared for by tall inhuman figures. “Who are those?”
“Those? My machines. At least they were machines, when I was young. We all have changed since then, working in this cave, in constant contact with the Lake of Life. Now they are alive.”
Chup had no time for marveling at that. “I mean those being healed. If you would fight the demons, fight the men who help them. Turn against the East. Order your machines, beasts, whatever they are, to stop healing Som’s troops now.”
At that, Lord Draffut’s eyes blazed down upon him. “I have never seen Som, let alone acknowledged him as lord, and I care nothing for him. Men come and go around my lake, and use it. I remain. Long before there was an East or West, I lived. From the days of the Old World I have healed human wounds. Weapons were different then, but wounds were much the same, and men change not at ail-though to me they then were gods.”
Were what? Chup wondered, fleetingly; he had not heard that word before.
Draffut spoke on, as if relieving himself of thoughts and words too long pent up. “I was not in the Old World as you see me now. Then I could not think. I was much smaller, and ran behind human beings on four legs. But I could love them, and I did, and I must love them still. Turn against the East,you say? I am no part of that abomination! I was here before Som came-long before-and I mean to be here when he has gone. I walked here when the healing lake was made, by men who thought their war would be the last. When they went mad and ran away, I was locked in, with the machines. I -grew. And when new tribes of humanity came, I was ready to lend them the collars, and the valkyries’ help, that they might be healed when they fought. And – after them -came others – ”
The High Lord Draffut slowed his angry speech. “Enough of that. Where is the life of Zapranoth?”
Chup told him, things that he had heard and seen, and how the pieces seemed to fall together. The telling was quickly finished, but Chup was standing straight before he’d finished; he felt his strength increasing by the moment. “The girl’s name is the same, you see. Lisa. Though I would wager that her face and memory have been changed. And she has been here just half a year.”
Draffut pondered but a moment more. “Then come, Lord Chup, and I will give you arms. If there are men I cannot frighten from our path, then you will fight them. If what you say is true, no other obstacle can keep me from the life of Zapranoth. Come! Swim!” And Draffut turned and swam away, cleaving the lake with stretching overhand strokes. Chup dove in and followed, faster than he had ever splashed through water.
Knife of Fire
Rolf’s balloon skimmed lower, dragged against tall shrubbery, and scraped free, but then continued sinking. In the quiet he could hear the gas escaping from a dozen arrow punctures in the bag. Mewick pointed silently at the next hedge ahead of them; this one they would not clear.
Rolf swung up to the basket’s rim, and leaped in the instant before they struck the hedge. He hit the ground with sword already drawn-but there were no opponents yet in sight.
In all directions, other balloons were coming down, seeding armed desperate fighters throughout the inner courts and buildings of Som’s citadel. But some balloons had missed the walls, or were still going up. Lacking the djinn’s help, or guiding ropes to follow, there was no pattern in the landing. Mewick was to assume leadership of the five man squad in Rolf’s balloon, once they had landed. But Mewick, like the rest, now stood perplexed for a moment beside the hedge; it was hard to see which was the best way to move to join up most effectively with other elements of the assaulting force. And from this garden they could see no vulnerable target where Som might be hurt with a quick attack.
Only Rolf had glimpsed a goal, and he turned toward it when it seemed as likely a direction to take as any other. He ran toward the place where he had seen his sister, Mewick and the others pounding after him, across empty lawns and over deserted terraces.
The girl was still on the roof. Her face was turned away, toward the battlefield, where like the smoke of burning villages the Demon-Lord hung in the air.
She looked round when he shouted, and he knew he had not been mistaken. But there was no recognition in her eyes when they met his, only confusion and alarm.
Rolf started toward her, but then stopped as a squad of men in black appeared, coming in single file round the corner of the building where she was.
He called out once more: “Lisa, try to come this way!” But there was no way for her to manage that right now. The Eastern squad was coming on to block the way. They were only auxiliaries, without the collars of the Guard, and armed with a varied selection of old weapons, but they were eight to face Rolf and his four companions. The eight soon proved to lack the willingness for battle of the five; one of their number they left behind, bleeding his life out in a flowerbed, and others, fleeing, clutched at wounds and yelled and left red trails.
Rolf tried to get another look at Lisa on her roof. But there was no time. Beyond a tall hedge and a wall of masonry, some thirty meters distant, a huge collapsing gasbag showed where another Western squad had landed. These now seemed heavily beset, to judge by the shouts and noises there. Another force in black, ten or twelve men maybe, could be glimpsed through hedges as they hurried in that direction.
Drops of gore flew from Mewick’s hatchet as he motioned for a charge. “That way!” And they were off.
The shortest route to this new fight, lay over a decorative stone wall, head high. Rolf sheathed his sword to hurl himself up at full speed and with two hands free to grab. He drew again even as he lunged onward from his crouch atop the wall, and as he leaped struck downward with full force, to kill a Guardsman from behind. They were in a walled-in garden, with more than a score of men contending in a wild melee. Rolf landed awkwardly, off balance, but bounced up into a crouch at once, just in time to parry a hard blow that nearly knocked his sword away.
Above the garden the huge gasbag, draped with its plastic mail, was steadily collapsing, threatening to make a temporary peace by smothering the fight. But yet there was room to wield weapons. The five beleaguered crewmen of this balloon welcomed with shouts the arrival of Mewick and his squad, and doubled their own strokes. But this time the enemy were Guardsmen, and more numerous than the squad of auxiliaries had been.
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