It was only now that the Ancient Master noticed what appeared to be wagon tracks, running here and there across the short grass and the barren earth. He paced the field eagerly, muttering a short spell that served to enhance his eyesight temporarily. Yes, perhaps half a dozen four-wheeled vehicles, pulled by load beasts, had been here briefly, had circled, had unloaded at least part of their cargo and then had loaded up once more and moved out. It appeared that the wagons had departed in the general direction of the southern end of Lake Alk-maar, where it was drained by the outflow of the Tungri. The magician knew from scouting reports that the last road running in that direction ended at a dock, a few kilometers out of town. And at that dock was the beginning of the downriver water-route leading to the lands of the south and west.
There must be some connection, the magician thought, between the wagons and the massacre. But what that connection might be was not immediately apparent.
He intended to find out.
For a time now the Ancient One, raging silently at his bad fortune in being thus victimized, walked back and forth among his dead.
And only after he had walked upon this field of corpses for a time, his thoughts busy with other matters than the physical reality around him, did he realize that not all of the fallen men around him were as yet completely dead.
It was a sound that told him, a soft and intermittent little noise that came and went like breath, and yet did not much resemble any other sound that he had ever heard from human lips. He located the source of the sound, and approached it, and saw one of the fallen bodies moving slightly, shaking lightly on the ground.
Only then did it occur to the wizard that the sound he was hearing might possibly have some relationship to human laughter.
He bent down, and with his strong hands seized this man who unlike his fellows was still breathing, and hoisted him to his feet in an effort to compel him to tell what had happened. But despite his magic the only reply that the magician could elicit was a continuation of the ghastly rhythmic croaking, forced out between swollen lips. The victim’s eyes were puffed shut as if with weeping, his whole face was swollen and discolored, and he appeared to be in the last stages of exhaustion.
The wizard now called upon deeper powers, making a renewed effort at enchantment. But still the man died, standing on his feet and trying to laugh, before he could be forced to speak more coherently.
The wizard withdrew his magic, letting the body fall.
Well, if one man had survived, so might another. The magician prowled, striding swiftly, until he found another of the fallen figures stirring, this one a little more vigorously than the first.
In response to a spell directed at him by the magician, this man even managed to get to his feet.
And now he came shambling toward the wizard, a quivering, blank-faced survivor, his uniform begrimed, his weapons still unused at his belt. He stumbled to a halt within a long stride of the Ancient Master.
Commanded to speak, the man rasped out: “The wagons… Show of Ensor…” The words trailed off.
“Go on! Speak! Speak, I command you!”
“… dancing girls came out. Men in the front row grabbed ’em. I was thinking, why couldn’t I have been standing there, get a chance at a good feel at least…. Then…” The man’s voice died again.
“Then… we all… the laughing started.”
“The laughing? Speak up clearly!”
“Yes sir. Laughing. Like-hee, hee-first there was this big man, in a strongman’s costume. He stood behind the girls. And then-ho, ho-there was this little clown-”
The soldier swayed on his feet. Sounds, almost recognizable as a kind of laughter, bubbled from his lips again, the last laugh turning into a bright red bubble of blood.
The second man fell dead. The Ancient One bent over him, gesturing. But all the powers of magic that the wizard could bring to bear were ineffective now.
The magician stood back and sent forth a calling spell above the fallen. But there was no spark of life left in their ranks to respond to the power he emanated.
The Ancient Master turned abruptly until he was facing toward the manor’s torchlit gate, which was standing closed. That gate had been deserted by those who were supposed to guard Lady Ninazu, and by every other human presence as well.
The wizard had already heard enough about the mysterious figure called the Emperor to think that he could recognize him in this strange new “little clown.”
“And now the damned villain has taken flight-got away somewhere-before I could come to grips with him. But no matter. I’ll get my hands on him eventually.”
He who called himself the Ancient Master remained standing in the middle of the field, his mind and soul engaged now with the next step in the process of summoning up his demons. His eyes, more reptilian than human now, stared at nothing. As he stood there, all but oblivious to his physical surroundings, the stars turned indifferently in their high smooth paths above him. An hour of the night slid by, and then another.
Then suddenly the Ancient Master moved again. Signaling his griffin to follow him, and with the Sword of Force gripped firmly in his right hand, he strode on toward the manor’s front gate. Surely someone in there would be able to give him a better report than either of those he’d heard so far.
There were still no attendants in sight as the Ancient One approached the closed grillwork of the gate, but a single shout was enough to bring them out of hiding. Figures in servants’ garb scrambled about, and the gate was quickly opened for him from inside.
“What has happened here?” He swept an arm behind him, indicating the field of fallen men. “Why was I not informed of this?”
The steward, summoned by lesser servants, had already appeared and was struggling to find answers. “The flying messengers have all disappeared, dread lord.”
“I know that. Someone could have brought word in a boat of what had happened here. Did you see what happened?”
“Not I, sire. But there was nothing that we could do to help your men-”
“Yes, yes. I’ll hear about your problems later. Where is Lady Ninazu? She, if no one else, ought to have been aware of what was happening out here. Don’t tell me she slept through it all.”
“Sire-” The steward was more devastated than ever. “Sire, the lady has disappeared.”
The servants, though none of them would admit being eyewitness to anything important, took turns in trying to tell the story of the night’s events-or rather in trying to avoid personal responsibility for its telling. But eventually it came out in a fashion. After the destruction of the garrison, they had discovered first the lady’s absence, and then that a boat was missing. Then a drowned sentry had been found in the water near the docks. And then-
It was at approximately this point that the magician observed one of the stable hands staring at the griffin, as if he had never seen anything like such a beast before, which his Lord knew was not the case.
“What ails you?” the Ancient One demanded sharply.
The man stumbled and stuttered. “Sire, it is only that I had thought that there was only one of them. I mean the one that’s still in the stables. The load beast one.”
“What in all the lands of the demons are you raving about?”
The man stuttered and staggered his way through an explanation of sorts. A trip to the stables to view what he said was really a griffin revealed a very ordinary load-beast, with no detectable tinge of magic about it at all.
“And you say that I came riding on this peasant’s animal, and left it here?”
“It must be that I am wrong, sire. Very wrong.”
“Either that or you are very mad. Or else someone has been playing jokes.” The magician issued terse orders for the man to be locked up until he could return to question him some more, or have him brought to the island for that purpose. But there was no time to investigate this matter now. Indeed, the whole trip to the mainland had taken the Ancient One longer than he had expected. By the time he remounted his griffin and urged it into the air again, the sky in the east was beginning to turn pale with the first faint hints of dawn.
The affair of the slaughtered garrison represented a setback, of course, and he had not made much progress toward solving it. Still, the wizard remained basically confident of his position. With Shieldbreaker at his side, and his demonic reinforcements on their way, he could not see that he had anything seriously to fear.