Saberhagen, Fred – The Swords 03 – The Third Book Of Swords

even the weakest demon? And what a repulsion!

Repulsion was the wrong word. It had been instant

banishment, as if by catapult.

His puzzlement was not new; essentially the

same question had been nagging at him off and on

for the past four years, ever since a similar experi-

ence in the Blue Temple treasure vaults. Mark had

recounted that event to several trusted magicians

in the meantime, and none had given him a satis-

factory explanation, though they had all found the

occurrence extremely interesting.

He was not going to have time to ponder the mat-

ter now.

From just inside the inner doorway of the tent he

could hear voices, five or six of them perhaps, men’s

and women’s mixed, chanting softly what Mark

took to be words of magic. The voices came wafting

out with the cool air and the perfume, some kind of

incense burning. There was another odor mingled

with it now, one not intrinsically unpleasant; but

when Mark thought that he recognized it, the

strength seemed to drain from his arms and legs,

making it momentarily impossible to go on. He

thought that he could recognize the smell of burn-

ing human flesh.

Ardneh be with me, Mark prayed mechanically,

and wished even more ardently that living, solid

Draffut could be with him also. Then he put back a

heavy curtain with his hand, and made himself

walk forward into the next chamber of the tent. A

moment later he wished that he had not.

The human body fastened to the stone altar-table

was not dead, for it still moved within the limits of

its bonds, but it had somehow been deprived of the

power to cry out. Yesterday it had probably been

young; whether it had then been male or female

was no longer easy to determine, in the dim light of

the smoking lamp that hung above the altar.

Around the altar half a dozen magicians of both

sexes were gathered, various implements of torture

in their hands. There was a lot of blood, most of it

neatly confined to the altar itself, where carved

troughs and channels drained it away. Near the

altar stood a small brazier, with the insulated

handles of more torture-tools protruding from the

glow of coals.

Mark had seen bad things before, in dungeons

and in war; still he had to wait for a moment after

entering. He closed his eyes, gripping tightly the

hilt of Sightblinder, cursing the Sword for what it

had let him see when he looked at the victim. He

knew a powerful urge to draw the Sword, and

slaughter these villains where they stood. But a sec-

ond thought assured him that it would not be easy

to accomplish that. The air in here was thick with

familiars and other powers, so thick that even a

mundane could hardly fail to be aware of them.

Those powers might now be deceived about Mark,

but let him draw a sword and they would take note,

and he thought they would not permit their human

masters to be slaughtered.

And there was something more important, he

was beginning to realize, that he must accomplish

here before he died.

The half dozen who were gathered around the

altar-table, garbed and hooded in various combina-

tions of gold and black, paid little attention to Mark

when he entered. One of their number did glance in

the newcomer’s direction, taking a moment from

the chant between the great slow pulse-beats of its

hideous magic in the air.

“Thought you were off somewhere else,” a man’s

voice casually remarked.

“Not just now,” said Mark. He exerted a great

effort trying to make his own voice equally casual.

Whatever the other heard from him was evidently

acceptable, for the man with a brief smile under his

hood turned back to his foul task.

Mark stood waiting, praying mechanically for a

sign from somewhere as to what he ought to do

next. He did not want to retreat, and he hesitated to

move on into the interior doorway he saw at the

other side of the torture chamber. And he continued

to wish devoutly that he could somehow get out of

sight of what was on this table.

Presently one of the women in the group turned

her face toward him. She asked, in a sharp, busi-

nesslike voice: “This area is secure?”

Not knowing what else to do, Mark answered

affirmatively, with a grave inclination of his head.

The woman frowned at him lightly. “I thought I

had detected some possible intrusion, very well

masked . . . but you are the expert there. And I

thought also that our next subject, the one still in

the cage outside, possesses some peculiar protec-

tion. But we shall see when we have her in here.”

Briskly the woman turned back to her work.

Mark, with only a general idea of what she must

be talking about, nodded again. And again his

answer appeared to be acceptable. Whoever they

took him for, none of these people seemed to think it

especially odd that he should continue to stand

there, watching them or looking away. He contin-

ued standing, waiting for he knew not what.

Quite soon another one of the men turned away

from the altar, as if his portion of the bloody ritual

were now complete. This man left the group and

approached a table near Mark, there to deposit his

small bloodstained knife in a black bowl of some

liquid that splashed musically when the small

implement went in.

Then, standing very near Mark and speaking in a

low voice, this man asked him, “Come, tell me-

why did he really summon you back here?” When

there was no immediate reply, the man added, in a

voice suddenly filled with injured pride, “All right

then, be silent, as befits your office. Only don’t

expect those you keep in the dark now to be eager to

help you later, when-”

The man broke off abruptly at that point. It was

as if he had been warned of something, by some sig-

nal that Mark totally failed to perceive. The man

turned his face away from Mark, and toward the

doorway that Mark had supposed must lead into

the inner chambers of the pavilion.

Meanwhile one of those still at the altar warned,

in a low voice: “The Master comes.” All present-

except of course the sacrificial victim-fell to their

knees, Mark moving a beat behind the rest.

It was Vilkata himself who emerged a moment

later through the curtains of sable black. Mark had

never laid eyes on the Dark King before, but still he

could not doubt for an instant who this was.

The first impression was of angular height, of a

man taller than Mark himself, robed in a simple

cloth of black and gold. The hood of the garment

was pulled back, leaving the wearer’s head bare

except for a simple golden circlet, binding back

long ringlets of white hair. The exposed face and

hands of the Dark King were very pale, suggesting

that the whiteness of the hair and of the curled

beard resulted from some type of albinism rather

than from age.

The second impression Mark received was that

some of the more horrible tales might be true, for

the Dark King was actually, physically blind.

Under the golden circlet, the long-lashed lids

sagged over what must be empty sockets, spots of

softness in a face dtherwise all harsh masculine

angles. According to the worst of the stories, this

man in his youth had put out his own eyes, as part

of some dreadful ritual necessary to overpower his

enemies’ magic and gain some horrible revenge.

Looped around Vilkata’s lean waist was a sword-

belt of black and gold, and in the dependent sheath

there rode a Sword. Even in the dim light Mark

could not fail to recognize that plain black hilt, so

like the one he was now clasping hard in his own

sweaty fist. And Mark, his own vision augmented in

some ways by Sightblinder, could not miss the

small stylized white symbol of a banner that

marked Vilkata’s Sword.

It was of course the Mindsword, just as Draffut

had warned. Mark was struck with the instant con-

viction that what he had to do now was to get the

Mindsword out of Vilkata’s possession, prevent his

using it to seize the world. The decision needed no

pondering, no consideration of consequences.

Vilkata’s blind face turned from left to right and

back again, as if he might be somehow scrutinizing

his assembled magicians carefully. Mark could

read no particular expression on the harsh counte-

nance of the Dark King. Then one large, pale hand

extended itself from inside Vilkata’s robe, making a

lifting gesture, a signal to his counselors that they

might stand. Would the King have known, Mark

wondered, if they had all been standing instead of

kneeling as he entered? But then there would not

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred