Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

And in the instant of his appearance, the cloud-image of Zapranoth, that had for so long loomed above the battlefield in domination, had vanished from the sky.

Now, scattered all across the plateau, inside the citadel and out of it, bodies of fighting men let weapons rest, and held their breaths, waiting for they knew not what. Only the valkyries above still droned on imperturbably, taking up the slain and mangled and returning to find more.

Had there been listeners a kilometer away, the High Lord Draffut’s voice would no doubt have reached them plainly when he spoke. “Lord of Demons, drinker of men’s lives! I hear no taunting from you now. You must maintain a solid form if you will try to stop what I intend to do today -a solid form that I can grasp.”

The voice of Zapranoth, even louder than Draf-fut’s voice, began before the other had ceased. “Foul upstart beast-cub, calling yourself lord! Lord of vermin! Lord of cripples! Though it may be that I cannot end your life, you will soon wish that it had ended yesterday.”

The two blurred toward each other.

Rolf did not truly see them come together, for there flashed out from their contact a moment of blind blackness to engulf him. The men around Rolf were all blinded too, if he could judge by the multitudinous outcry that sprang up. Even as the men were blinded, came the shock; Rolf once more felt it in the mountain underneath his feet, and this time in the air around him, too, more like a blow than like a noise.

He fell and blindly clutched the earth. When vision came back, it was to showmen of East and West all crawling, seeking refuge, intermingled for the moment without fighting, as predator and prey seek safety from a flood upon a floating log, and keep a truce.

Rolf tried to rise, to get away, but before he could regain his feet there sounded in the voice of Zap-ranoth an awesome bellow of rage. With this cry the mountain lurched beneath Rolf, and its surface split like a torn garment. A fine crevice, nowhere wider than a man’s body, ran faster than the eye might follow it across the walls and gardens and terraces of the citadel; in one direction it shattered the outer, battlemented wall, revealing the field before the citadel, where the army of the West had been stopped and where most of its soldiers still lay stunned; in the other direction the flying split raced up through the upper mountain, defining hidden faults by making them its path. The splitting ceased before it reached the domain of the Lord Draffut. Up there the coruscating light still flooded from an open giant’s doorway, and through their smaller passages the valkyries still flew in and out.

Now when he looked back at them Rolf saw the two mighty fighters plain. The Lord of Beasts was biting down upon the armored shoulder of the Lord in Black. Draffut’s drawn-back lips revealed enormous fangs, and these were sunken in. Rolf saw that wherever Draffut touched the black armor, it moved and flowed and yielded to the resistless life that poured from him. Around the demon’s waist his huge beast-forearms, bright with glowing fur, were locked like mortised logs to hold and crush.

And yet the being in black seemed mightier. For all the Dark Lord showed of pain, he might have felt nothing from the bite that seemed to pierce his armor. With his own great arms Zapranoth strove to loosen the hold about his waist. He tested out one counter-grip and then another, working without haste or hesitation. At last he got both his dark-metaled hands clamped to his satisfaction upon one arm of glowing fur. If the metal of his gauntlets ran and dripped with life, he did not heed. Now Zapranoth’s enormous shoulders tilted, and he strained. Slowly-very slowly -he began to win.

Rolf cried out, and bit his lip, and tried to move. Some power would not let him take a step toward the fight. He threw his sword at Zapranoth; the spinning blade vanished in midair.

Slowly -ever so slowly -Zapranoth was breaking the grip about his waist. When that was done, maintaining his own grip on Draffut’s arm, he bent it farther. Draffut’s jaws did not relax their bite, but through them came the muffled outcry of a titan’s pain.

Rolf yelled again, and hurled a rock, and picked up another, larger one. Somehow his frenzied rage enabled him to run forward. Caring nothing now for his own fate, he tried to strike the demon with a rock. Turning in their struggle, the giants brushed him aside unnoticed. He felt an impact, and his body soaring. The ground flying up to meet him was the last part of the battle that he knew.

Chup, like all other mortal men, had been knocked down by the repeated rolling of the earth. He had continued to keep in sight the ugly young girl who clung to the swaying rooftop, her bright eyes fixed now on the giants’ struggle. Then the opening crevice had split the mountain between Chup and the object of his attention. Even while the earth was still heaving like a ship’s deck, Chup gathered his resolve and crossed the narrow chasm with a lunge, nearly falling into it though it was scarcely wider than his body.

Behind him he heard Draffut’s muffled cry of agony, as his arm was mangled in the demon’s grip. Chup did not look round. He ran on toward the building where Lisa was. Now it was so close that the roof and the girl on it were out of his field of vision.

“Will you still nurse at my shoulder, beast?” It was the roaring voice of Zapranoth. “I have no milk to yield! Bah! If I tore your arms off, no doubt you would nuzzle at me still.” A brief pause. “But I can see a way to cause you greater pain than that, vile animal. All you care for is your Lake of Life. Now look! See what I do!”

Chup did not look, but jumped to grab the roof. His fingers slid on marble and he fell; when he hit the ground again, he did look back. Despite the untroubled speeches of the demon, his right arm in its armor was now hanging almost motionless, below the unrelenting pressure of Draffut’s fangs. But Zapranoth’s left arm was free, and with a barrel-sized armored fist he now smote down into the split that climbed the mountain. Twice he struck, a third time and a fourth. With each blow the mountain shook and rumbled; with each rumbling the crack widened by a little and lengthened generously. Draffut, his limbs broken-looking, his fur now dulled and matting, seemed helpless to do anything but cling to the demon with his jaws.

With the last blow of the demon’s fist, the lengthening crevice broke into the doorway from which Draffut had come down; and with that the rumbling of the tortured mountain ended, in a sound as of a great clear bell. For a moment all was still. Then through the broken, distant doorway the Lake of Life came spurting, a flood of fiery radiance, leaping, pouring down, dazzling even in full sun.

At the draining of the lake, there came from Draffut’s tight-clamped jaws a howl more terrible than anything that Chup had ever heard. Beneath the loose fur of the Beast-Lord’s neck, his muscles bulged, as if he tried to tear the demon’s shoulder off. Now Zapranoth, too, let out a wordless cry. Struggling as savagely as ever, the two of them rolled away, while both armies fled in panic from their path. Meanwhile the lake came down the mountain in a thin but violent stream, sliding into crevices and up from them again, leaving in its pathway rock that knew the taste of life and moved, before it sank as if reluctantly into being not-alive again.

At this latest shuddering of the earth, the building before Chup, like many others in the citadel, collapsed. The walls bulged out and crumbled almost gently, the roof caved inward with a noise that was not loud amid the greater thunders of the mountain. Chup stayed on all fours, crawling forward into the fresh ruin. He quickly found the girl, covered with dust from the masonry that had collapsed beneath her, but showing no sign of any great hurt. Sprawled on her belly on a mound of stones, she drew in gasps of air as if readying a scream. A place on her forehead bled a trickle, and she stared dazedly at Chup and past him.

A burning brazier inside the structure had been crushed, and Chup poked together its spilled coals, lighted no doubt when this day had been a peacefully chilly autumn morning. He fed in splinters from a broken beam until he had a hardy little fire. When the girl looked at him with some understanding, and began to sob, he asked: “Remember me, young Lisa?”

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