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-
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