burning treetrunks at the least.
Momentarily a near-hush spread across the bat-
tlefield, as most of the people on it became aware of
that sight in the distance; and in that moment of
half-silence, the singing voices of the distant gods
were audible. What words they sang were hard to
catch, discordant as those far voices were, and
whipped about by wind; but enough could be heard
to be sure that they sang praise to Vilkata.
And the earth below the moving firebrands, and
the sky above them, were no longer fully dark; the
greater fire of dawn was on its way.
It was enough, it was more than enough, to turn
the retreat into a mere scramble for survival. Even
if the gods did not come soon to the Dark King’s
aid, daylight would; daylight would end the confu-
sion in Vilkata’s camp, let his people see how few
they really fought against. Whether the scramble
for escape was ordered or not, it was already under
Many of the city’s defenders were able to get back
into the tunnel before the tunnel was discovered by
Vilkata’s people, and a concerted effort made by
them to block its entrance. Ben was just a bit too
late to be able to use the tunnel, and Mark was later
By chance, perhaps, the two things on which the
Dark King’s hopes depended came back to him
almost simultaneously, even as they had been
taken: the Mindsword, and his demonic powers of
sight. As the first shouts were going up from some of
his people near his tent proclaiming victory over
the raiders, his hand fell at last on the black hilt.
The Sword was still lying where he had left it,
undisturbed and unseen, while fighting raged
around it. And at the same time the demon, able
now to return to duty, brought back Vilkata’s sight.
His first view was of the Sword in front of him, the
column of fire that was his usual vision of the blade
now muffled and enfolded within the leather
The Sword once more in his hand, the Dark King
ordered his vision expanded. He got a good look at
the partial ruin and still widespread confusion that
prevailed around him in his camp. His chief human
subordinates were just discovering that he was
missing. They were unsure whether he was still
alive, and many of them, Vilkata was convinced,
were hoping that he was not.
That would change drastically, as soon as he
showed them the Blade again. He got to his feet.
Now that he could see, it was easy to disentangle
himself from fallen fabric. If he had believed in
thanking gods, he would have thanked them now.
The Dark King’s sense of triumphant survival, of
being indestructible, was short lived. Haggard in
the early daylight, knowing that he must look
weakened and distraught, afraid of trying to seek
sleep again, afraid as well of appearing tired or
uncertain in front of his subordinates, Vilkata used
his private powers of magic to chastise his return-
ing demons. Where they had been, they could not or
would not say.
It was different when he demanded to know from
them what power had been able to drive them so
completely and easily away. Then they responded
sullenly that it was the name of the Emperor that
had been used against them.
“The Emperor! Are you joking?” But even as he
said the words, Vilkata realized that they were not.
In his own long study of magic and the world, he
had from time to time encountered hints of genuine
Imperial power; hints and suggestions and too, of a
connection between the present Emperor and the
being called Ardneh, the Dead God of two thousand
years ago, still worshipped by the ignorant masses.
Those hints and suggestions Vilkata had long cho-
sen to ignore.
The Dark King punished his demons, and con-
strained them as best he could to serve him faith-
fully from now on. Then he went, exhausted as he
was, to confer again with his human wizards, who
after the night just passed were quite exhausted
The magicians pulled long faces when their lord
mentioned the Emperor’s name to them. But they
had to admit that there might be some truth to the
claim of driving demons away by such a means.
Vilkata demanded, “Then why cannot we use it
“We are none of us the Emperor’s children,
“His children? I should hope not. Are you mad?”
The term “Emperor’s child” was commonly used
in a proverbial way, to describe the poor, the
orphaned, the unfortunate.
Before the subject could be pursued any farther,
there arrived a distraction. It was welcomed heart-
ily, at least at first, by the magicians; and it came in
the form of the morning’s first flying messenger,
bearing news that the Master of the Beasts thought
too important to be delayed. It told Vilkata that the
Silver Queen’s host had now actually been sighted,
marching against his rear. This time, Vilkata was
assured, the report was genuine.
The observed strength of the army of the Silver
Queen was not enough in itself to give the Dark
King much real concern. But there was the dread
Sword that he knew she carried; and, perhaps
equally disquieting, the thought that her timely
presence here might well mean that his enemies
had worked out some effective plan of co-operation
This last suspicion was strengthened when the
Tasavaltan army was also reported to be now on
the march, and also approaching Tashigang.
Rostov would make a formidable opponent. But it
would be a day or two yet, according to report,
before his army would be on the scene.
And there was Vulcan-Vulcan was now almost
at hand. It struck Vilkata more forcefully now than
ever before, that the gods were often stupid, or at
least behaved as if they were, which in practice of
course came to the same thing.
Holding the Mindsword drawn and ready in his
hand, the Dark King rode out to confront this deity
who said that he had come to do him honor.
Riding a little ahead of a little group of trembling
human aides, his vision provided by a demon now
equally tremulous with fear, Vilkata flashed the
Mindsword over his head. At the same time he cried
out in a loud voice, demanding the Smith’s obedience.
Vulcan’s first answer was a knowing grin,
shattering in its implications. Then the god laughed at
the human he had once been forced to worship.
With a wicked gleam in his huge eyes, Vulcan
brandished the smoldering tree-trunk that once had
been a torch, and announced that he meant to have
revenge for that earlier humiliation.
“Did your scouts and spies, little man, take seriously
what I shouted to them about my coming here to do
you honor? Good! For as soon as I have time, I mean
to do you honor in an unprecedented way. Ah, yes.
“I am a god, little man. Remember? And
Shieldbreaker is now in my hand! Can you understand
what that means? I, who forged it, know. It means I
am immune to all other weapons, including your
Mindsword. There is no power on earth that can
oppose me now.”
The Dark King, as usual at his bravest when things
seemed most desperate, glared right back at the god,
and nursed a silent hope that Doomgiver in some
human hand might still bring this proud being down. Or
Farslayer . . . then he saw another’ sheath at Vulcan’s
belt, another black hilt, and he knew a sinking moment
Vulcan, taking his time, had yet a little more to say.
He was going to have his revenge on Vilkata, but not
just yet. “First of all, little man, there are
more Swords that I must gather. Just to be sure . . .
therefore I claim this city and all its contents for my
own. And all. its people. They will wish that Mars still
lived, when my rule begins among them.”
And the god turned his back on the King, and
marched off to claim his city. However many
companions the Smith had had when he came over
the horizon, he was now down to just one, a four-
armed male god that Vilkata was unable to identify
offhand. Not, he supposed, that it much mattered.
As long as Vilkata was actually in Vulcan’s
presence, he had been able to confront the Smith
bravely enough. But when the confrontation was over,
the man was left physically shaking. Still, in a way he
was almost glad that Vulcan was now openly his
enemy. Always, in the past, it had taken a supreme
challenge of some kind to rouse Vilkata to his greatest
efforts and achievements. When he knew a crisis was
approaching, fear gnawed at him maddeningly, and
sometimes came near to disabling him. But when the