Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

The humans who were able to observe this confrontation from the islands, or from the mainland, could not hear most of what was said. Only the magician who had called up the demons was able to hear most of their talk, by means of magic.

But all of the humans who watched could see how one of the lesser demons, perhaps stung by some taunt from Draffut, suddenly took on physical form-that of a giant, shark like fish-and in this shape went plunging from the air into the water.

Before the water of the tremendous splash had fallen back, the great fish had darted to attack Draffut.

Grabbing one of its jaws in each hand, Draffut lifted the hideous creature thrashing from the lake. The demon emitted a terrible and most unfishlike scream as its jaws, white shark-teeth showing, were stretched to the point of dislocation and beyond.

The body of the fish steamed and seemed to dissolve in air as the demon shed as rapidly as possible the physical form that it had so recently assumed.

Honan-Fu and Zoltan, cowering together on the sandy shore of an islet near where Draffut was standing in the water, were doing what they could to shelter themselves from demonic observation. In Zoltan’s case this consisted of little more than keeping his eyes shut and attempting now and then to heap sand over his own body. Honan-Fu presumably had rather greater powers at his disposal, but judging from the urgency of his muttering he was little more sanguine about the results.

The two, before the demons’ arrival, had already held brief conversation with some members of Honan-Fu’s old constabulary. The officer Cheng Ho, after talking briefly and privately with the Emperor, had dared to row himself out here during the night to talk to Draffut, and had been delighted to welcome his old lord Honan-Fu back to the land of the living. But Cheng Ho had been prudent enough to row away again before these demonic fireworks had started.

Draffut now turned his head to the two men remaining with him, and observed their concern. The giant said calmly: “I should perhaps explain that my compulsion against hurting people does not extend to demons-indeed I would like nothing better than to destroy them completely. But the death of any demon is practically impossible to accomplish, unless one has access to its hidden life.”

“Which, in this case,” gritted Zoltan between clenched teeth, “you do not have.”

“Alas, that is true. Still, I am not helpless, and can defend myself effectively, as well as any companions who are careful to stay close to me.” Draffut turned away to survey the situation once again.

By now the demon whose jaw had been nearly torn from its joints had melted back into insubstantiality. And it was still fleeing, deep now in aerial distance, and still howling with persistent pain.

At the moment there appeared to be no other challengers ready to take its place.

“Most of them,” Draffut confided quietly to his two human companions, “respect my powers too much. If they were willing to make a concerted effort they might destroy me, but they would be hurt in the process. Probably they would all be badly hurt. Courage is a virtue, as you know, my friends, and therefore demons have it not.”

Meanwhile the wizard Wood, high on his battlement, was thinking that the six demons as a group ought to be powerful enough to destroy the Lord of Beasts utterly-and yet they hung back, cowardly as usual, and would not accept the pain that would be necessary for them to accomplish his will.

He vowed their punishment if they did not obey his orders; and they understood that it was no idle vow.

So now Akbal, leader of the pack, drifted toward Draffut once more. Akbal alone of this group of demons had skirmished with Draffut in the past-in the far past, those old days when the New World was truly new. In those days the powers of Orcus and of Ardneh had moved across the earth. And now Akbal was minded to taunt the Lord of Beasts with his defeat in those days by the demon-lord called Zapranoth. Akbal hoped by this means to encourage his fellows, so that they would be persuaded to rush in a group to the attack whether he went with them or not.

“And remember, dog-god,” the boaster concluded, “that we here around you now are stronger than our brother Zapranoth ever was!”

“Around me? You do not stand around me. I see you all clustering together, as if for mutual protection. And I have no doubt that you are stronger liars than

Zapranoth was, and that is saying a great deal. But do not forget, while you are boasting of your strength, that I am still here, while Zapranoth the Liar is long dead.”

At that reply the insubstantial forms that danced above the water all hissed and steamed and rumbled in their rage. Akbal screamed: “But you are unable to touch our lives, o dog of gods and god of dogs! For we have them all hidden safely. And this time there will be no little human being coming with a spell to save you!”

“Here I am, if you care to attack me. As for human beings, little or great, perhaps you have something to learn of them as well.”

This reply so incited the anger of Akbal that, forgetting his caution and his clever plans alike, he too dared to take on solid form alone and try the strength of Draffut. Plunging into the water, the demon strode against him in the shape of an armored man as tall as Draffut was. Chest-deep he waded toward the Lord of Beasts, amid the billows of the morning mist now rising from the lake.

The two grappled. But still the ancient power that had made Draffut what he was endured in him, the power of that other lake, the Lake of Life, older by far even than Wood and his magic, as old perhaps as the Great Worm Yilgarn. And the demon Akbal, rage and struggle as he might, was unable to withstand him.

With a last desperate effort the demon managed to twist away. He lunged into a retreat, half-drowning himself before he could completely shed the material body he had adopted for the trial.

The Beastlord roared with laughter at the sight. “And you call yourself stronger than Zapranoth? Only in lies and malice, it may be.”

And now the entire squadron of angry demons gathered in conference, each trying to convince the others that they ought to hurl themselves in a group against Draffut and overwhelm him. But each demon’s fear of him was too strong; and it was with relief that they heard the voice of their human master, summoning them back to the castle. Rather would they face Wood’s punishment than Draffut now.

Prince Mark, who with Ben and Lady Yambu had been peering over the top of the low wall that separated the grotto from the adjoining courtyard, watching the demons, suddenly sprang to the top of the wall as the demons again clouded the air almost directly overhead. “In the Emperor’s name,” Mark shouted to the demons, “I send you far!”

Ben, who knew the Prince and his powers, had been more than half anticipating some such action. But Yambu cried out in surprise. Her cry was echoed by a whistle from above, deafeningly shrill, which stirred the clouded air above the castle. And then another whistle sounded, like the first but slightly different in its pitch; and then another and another. Louder and louder rose the chorus, at last becoming a mad shriek that seemed to split the sky before it was transformed into a lower, polyphonic howling. This last sound was as filled with fear and rage as any human outcry might have been.

And then in turn the howling faded. And with its fading there diminished also the cloudiness of the morning air, and the sense of sickness that had afflicted almost everyone. The sound of the demonic voices faded rapidly at first, and then more slowly, and more slowly still, so that no human being who heard it was ever quite sure that it had really come to an end.

But whether or not the sound of their departure had ever ended finally, the whole collection of demonic presences that had befouled the air above the castle were now indubitably gone.

Wood, who was still standing with Shieldbreaker in hand upon his highest battlement, had never expected anything like this. He did not see Mark jump up to give the order-the courtyard and grotto were out of his direct line of sight-but he heard the man’s voice raised in the shouted command that sent the demons scattering.

He had heard almost nothing of the Prince’s voice before, and he did not recognize it now. But again there leaped into his mind the stories his advisers, Amintor in particular, had told him about Mark. Never had Wood really believed that Prince Mark possessed such power over demons, but he would certainly have raised the subject in his planned interrogations of the prisoner.

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