Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Again the councilors murmured, in a consensus of approval. No one knew exactly what the sphere was, though it was certainly some Old World artifact. Its interior structure, visible only to wizards and quasimaterial, inhuman powers -and presumably to its makers as well-was complex and incredibly beautiful. Demons, djinn, and elementals exposed to the sphere seemed to find it the equivalent of a giant ruby or emerald in human values.

Facing back toward his chief wizard, Ominor returned to an earlier theme: “And what danger will he be to us here, Wood, if he does come?”

“No danger at all, Supreme Lord. My demons and subordinate magicians at every level are alert. Some of the supposedly neutral powers who acted as go-betweens in arranging this meeting are-as you know, Supreme Lord, but some of your councilors may not -secretly in our service. Ardneh has been too distrustful of them to let them find out much about him, but they report no indication that he is planning any attack on us today. Would that he did attempt to strike at us! To do that he would have to gather his full presence here, not only, so to speak, send us his eyes and ears and voice and little more. The more powerful his manifestation, the more he will render himself vulnerable. My demons are ready, their jaws will close upon him.” Behind the wizard Wood, above the innocent lake, the air shimmered for a moment, and there were visible in it three pools of shadow, distinct for a moment despite the sun. Then the air steadied, and all was azure summer once again. Wood went on: “I earnestly desire that he will try to attack us here today, but I fear he is too clever.”

But Ominor did not seem satisfied. His manner was that of a probing judge. “Our potential visitor, whom you say your powers are set to spring upon, slew the great demon Zapranoth, in the Black Mountains, as easily as a man might crush a toad. So you have reported to me.”

Wood blinked, and then it almost seemed he smiled. “Zapranoth of the Black Mountains, Lord? Yes. But do not attach too much importance to that. To the least of these three powers in the air behind me now-to the least of them, Zapranoth was vassal. Of demons greater than these three above the lake there is only -one.” Wood’s voice dropped on the last word, but still it seemed to have a special emphasis.

The plan for a direct confrontation with Ardneh had been Ominor’s own idea. A month ago he had broached it to his council arguing thusly: The power called Ardneh was certainly a sore annoyance to the East, though (as yet, at least) he could not be considered a mortal threat. Ardneh seemed to seldom or never appear in his own form, if he had one. Instead he worked in one human avatar after another, subtly possessing or influencing men to his own ends, which seemed to be in general agreement with those of the West, though Western wizards were thought not to have any certain control over Ardneh. Usually Ardneh worked so smoothly and carefully that his chosen host or partner seemed to feel that he was acting on his own. Only the greatest wizards on both sides of the war, and the high leaders they advised, were fully aware of how much the recent successes of the West were due to Ardneh.

Growing impatient of managing any direct attack upon this subtle foe, Ominor had settled on subversion, laced with treachery, as a logical alternative.

Now in the garden the cries of the impaled man were weakening rapidly. The torturers had prudently withdrawn a little distance, to be well out of earshot of the conference in the summerhouse, and as a consequence the victim seemed likely to enjoy a relatively rapid death.

Ominor, as the executioners had judged, was paying no further attention to the diversion. Having completed his brooding, almost accusatory survey of his aides, he got to his feet and said: “Then let us bring him. On with it.”

The conference broke up. The lieutenants of the powerful councilors hastened to them to receive orders. Soon all the garden back to the ivied palace wall was cleared of common soldiers, slaves, and everyone else not concerned directly with the coming confrontation. The torturers before they left were told by Wood that they might let their victim stay, told by Wood who nodded to himself as he spoke and thought that he saw opportunity here.

Explaining his thought to his Lord of Lords, the wizard said: “Ardneh has in the past once or twice possessed such a victim and acted through him. We shall have him, if he dares to try that trick today.”

Ominor thought briefly, then nodded his agreement. Followed now by a deferential train, he left the summerhouse and moved a short distance to where Wood’s assistants were beginning to set the stage for the encounter. This was on a flat paved place some ten meters square, bordered on one side by the low balustrade that guarded the sea wall’s outer edge, the lake rippling and chuckling some four or five meters below. The Emperor beheld several of Wood’s most able aides, master wizards themselves in any company but his, on their knees on the pavement, with chalk and charcoal making most careful diagrams.

Now the word was sent at once through intermediary powers to Ardneh that he was expected, under truce, as soon as he could manifest himself.

Some time passed. “What is going on in the mind of our guest?” the Emperor asked, breaking a little silence that had fallen on the group. “Is he having second thoughts about the wisdom of paying us a call?”

Wood lifted his gnarly hands, let them dangle in front of him as if seeking to dry them in the breeze. His two little fingers moved slightly, twitching like insects’ antennae. “Supreme Lord, he is near.” Wood’s bulging eyes, looking blind now, seeing more than any other eyes present, gazed out across the lake, “My Emperor, he is approaching. When you can see something near at hand above the water, speak and he will hear.”

Ominor at first saw only the distant fishing craft, and the towering cloud unchanged. Then, following a subtle gesture from Wood, he brought his attention closer to the shore, and noticed a patch of ripples somehow different from all the rest. At any other time he would probably have taken them for some effect of wind. But steadily they came closer, not blending like other waves into the general motions of the water. The Emperor was magician enough to feel it now. A hint of arrogant immensity. The presence of hostile power, aloof, quiet, waiting. The ripples, slowing their progress gradually, drifted to within a dozen meters of the low balustrade. Ominor’s accustomed eyes could tell now that above the ripples there was – something.

In his loud voice filled with certitude he said: “Hear me, dullard of the West! It must be plain by now, even to you, that the hour of your complete destruction cannot be far away. Yet I admit that it lies in your power to cause me some inconvenience still. And rather than see such abilities as you possess turned into nothingness, I would bring them into my domain. I am willing that you should receive some substantial rank in the hierarchy of the East, one that is probably higher than you dare to expect.”

He had spoken slowly enough for his hearer to have readily interrupted him with an answer at any of the several places. But there was no answer. The Emperor glanced at Wood and at his other waiting councilors, but got no help. Whether Ardneh’s silence was born of an attempt to impress them, or of fear, or of some other cause, there was no clue.

Under these conditions Ominor had no intention of going on with a long-winded speech. At the moment he had only one more thing to say: “In token of my sincerity… “And pulling from around his neck the crystal chain with its impressive burden, he whirled it once around his head and sent it flying out over the water, spinning in the sun. He watched for the bribe to vanish, into seeming air or in the grasp of some materialization. But the Emperor was disappointed; the treasure only splashed and sank, prosaically as a lump of rock, going quickly out of sight in the deep water.

Where no more strange ripples moved. The air was empty once again.

Close by his side, Wood said: “Supreme Lord, the creature is gone. All contact has been broken.”

The Emperor felt his tension slide away. Through him in a flash there passed understanding, contempt for his enemy, and elation. “He did not take the prize.”

“No. It lies somewhere in the water there.”

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