The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book VI: The Puppet’s War
Episode 2: Can I Trust the Man
PREVIOUSLY: Milfar, a nation that has not had a war in generations, has an Imperial Guard that stages the world’s most elegant parades. Gulnor is preparing for his first major parade when he notices something wrong with his image in the mirror. Whereas his drill sword has neither edge nor point, his image is holding a razor-sharp blade. As he struggles to understand this bizarre turn of events, his image steps out of the mirror and attacks him...
Edging his way backwards, he passed through a doorway. His image stopped and lowered its sword.
How’s this? The demon seems to relax after I step through a door... that wasn’t there. I’m in another room — one that’s also empty with a bare wooden floor and a door at the end — the exact mirror image of the room I just left.
Stepping cautiously to the door, he opened it and stared into nothing, blank void. Looking about he saw to his horror that every part of this room that wasn’t visible from the other was also insane emptiness.
Stay calm, keep your nerve, he told himself as his hands sweated and his breakfast lay cold and heavy in his stomach.
On the other side of the mirror his image stood, laughing at him in silent contempt.
That’s too much!
Lowering his head, he charged full speed at his outré twin. Instead of raising its sword it stepped aside, leaving the mirror vacant.
It’s going to let me escape!
On the wood floor he moaned and tried to see through stars of pain. Blessed Gods, from this side the mirror’s as hard as a stone wall! Through blurred eyes he could see the image standing above him, waiting. As he got up, it beckoned.
He reached forward until his hand touched cold glass. Swiftly feeling up and down he confirmed his fears: the mirror was impenetrable and he was quite trapped.
The specter raised its saber, not in a threatening manner, more as if it wanted to show him something. Gently it tapped the upper right corner of the mirror. No effect. Again, harder.
With a sharp snap a small piece of the mirror broke off and the corresponding section of the room vanished. The specter drew back its sword arm for a hard blow at the center of the room.
It means to smash the mirror with me inside and — Oh Gods — I’ll be as though I never were!
As by its own will his sword leapt into his hand. The image’s saber swept down, his blade springing to meet it, passing through the mirror and turning the blow.
During its momentary surprise he thrust at the image’s unguarded stomach. Almost! The tip of his sword reached within two fingers of its target before his hand rammed into the impassable mirror.
No time to wonder at this, for his image was launching a furious attack, blow after blow that he parried by the narrowest of margins. For a hundred heartbeats they dueled, perfectly matched in speed and strength.
He seemed to have a small edge in skill. As the fight progressed his opponent began to make little arm motions before each stroke that betrayed its intention. He was stopping each thrust by a wider, more comfortable margin. It was hasty and growing careless, leaving itself open — almost within the limited reach of his sword. It signaled for a thrust at the bottom of the mirror; he dropped sword to meet the expected blow — that didn’t come!
Too late he raised his sword as the image struck the top of the mirror, smashing it to fragments. Above him the top of the room vanished with a thunderous crash.
He saw it swinging at the center of the mirror and ducked as the middle of the room roared into nothingness.
Squatting in the bottom of the mirror he waited for the last blow. It was giving him a moment to think about what was coming, standing with its feet directly in front of his face.
Probably his pointless sword could not pierce those hard leather boots — but if it wants me to kiss its feet, I will!
He stabbed and incredibly his sword bit like a serpent’s fang.
Jerking back he hauled the foot into the mirror like a harpooned fish. Struggling for balance it fell, kicking his face with its other foot. He hung on for dear life, pulling, shoving, grabbing — and suddenly, his head was outside the mirror. The demon was hammering at him with its sword, clumsy blows that made his helmet ring like a gong. Ramming his head into its stomach he scrambled forward.
A slight pulling at his rear made him glance back. A piece of his armor had passed through a crack in the mirror and been cut like butter. With small sounds, one after another of the cracks grew longer. A maze of cracks was spreading down the mirror like closing jaws and ignoring the image’s blows he fought to escape.
Abruptly his feet pulled clear, and he and his image were thrashing about on the floor.
They rolled over and he found its weight on top of him, pinning him down as its blade rose for a death stroke.
Where’s my sword?
His desperately searching fingers touched and closed about the hilt of his blade still in the image’s foot. As it swung at his head he twisted hard. The edged steel whistled past his face, biting into the floor. Ere it recovered, he raised his knee between them and kicked with all his might. Thrown from him it rolled, coming instantly to its feet, sword in hand.
What is it? A foot wound like that would cripple any man.
Slowly it circled him, blood bubbling from its foot with every step, blood that fell splattering on the floor and evaporated into red mist. Its catlike grace was unmarred, nor was there any sign of weakness.
Can this monster be slain?
It lunged at him, they exchanged strokes for a furious moment and it fell back.
Only probing, taking my measure.
Standing motionless, his double watched him with blank expressionless eyes, some plan forming behind them.
If you think I’ll let you stand there and plot out my murder, you have a surprise coming!
He waited two long deep breaths, enough that it wouldn’t expect him to attack — and sprang upon it. For a few strokes he had the offensive, an advantage that slipped from his grasp like sand.
The battle raged on with ever swifter pace; ’twas as though they were partners in a dance, a mad waltz with death for whoever committed the first small failure.
Doesn’t it ever tire? I can’t keep this up.
With each lightning exchange he was being forced further off balance. It lunged at his head and he raised sword to parry.
I’m opening my guard! I won’t be able to stop its next stroke!
As their blades clashed together, his sword surged, a sudden rage of hidden power biting into the other’s saber and shattering it.
His unnatural twin stared in dumb surprise at the steel fragment it now held while Gulnor’s blade darted toward its stomach.
He missed! At the last possible instant the image leapt backwards — and fell into the maze of cracks that had been the mirror.
As it was cut into countless pieces, it screamed without sound, blood splattering and boiling into a thick red fog that filled the room.
Through crimson darkness came the sound of breaking glass. The fog faded into wisps of scarlet cotton and was gone.
Except for the broken mirror scattered over the floor there was no sign anything had happened.
Gods! Did it really happen? If I’m not drunk, the world has suddenly gone mad. No one will believe me if I tell about this — and likely I’ll be flogged for breaking regulations by dueling with my ceremonial sword. Flogged... that’s what I’ll be for being late to assembly.
He entered the assembly room, marching toward his assigned place with a calm unhurried pace, though, as he feared, all the others were there waiting for him. As Captain Volsa rushed toward him, his face was an emotionless blank, ready for another game of cat and mouse, officer and soldier. Hopefully the Captain would again decide Gulnor was a dull farmboy, a clod who didn’t suffer enough to make flogging worth while.
Strangely, Volsa didn’t shout. In an oddly tentative, questioning manner he whispered, “Sir, your uniform is disarranged.”
When Gulnor stood mute, the Captain whispered again, more urgently, “Sir, please, anyone who sees you will know you’ve been in a fight. Unless you want to give the whole plan away, let me fix your uniform.”
Giving no sign of his puzzlement, Gulnor nodded and the Captain set to work with trembling fingers, sweat on his brow and the back of his neck despite the cool of the morning. As he finished he muttered “If the Master had taken my advice, we’d have...” The rest was inaudible.
Finished, Volsa stepped to the head of the Guardsmen to lead them into the Throne Room, into a sparkling room of crystal chandeliers, rose marble walls and floor, and long cloth of gold drapes.
The people in that room, the aristocracy of Milfar in their jeweled silks and satins, paid little heed as the Guardsmen marched to their assigned positions with strict military precision.
Odd, today we’re drilling in honor of Princess Delanda, and she’s not here.
King Practus, on his ivory throne, in his ermine robes and diamond studded crown, still looked much like a man kept waiting by his daughter.
If her lateness covers mine, that’s a small worry gone and I’ve enough else to worry about.
Why? Why me? I’m an ordinary soldier. No one in the world has any great reason to wish me well or ill and now some nameless dark power tried to destroy me and there’s no reason for it... unless I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Usually when a soldier dies there’s nothing personal about it; the poor wretch simply got in someone’s way.
Got in the way of — What?
What kind of conspiracy begins with supernatural murder? With such beginnings what grisly horror will be next?
Red-eyed, her face tear-stained, the Princess Delanda was led, half-dragged, into the Throne Room by her honor guard. No sooner was she shoved into her seat than King Practus, violating custom, sprang to his feet and declared, “Fellow countrymen, Dear friends, I have joyous news I cannot wait to share with you. As you know, my Beloved Delanda has traveled, visiting many foreign lands, and today we celebrate her safe return. Fellow countrymen, we have even greater cause for rejoicing.
“During her tour, many princes asked for Delanda’s hand in marriage and offered treaties of great advantage to the state, yet none of them was worthy of her. Moreover, my daughter, being a deeply religious girl, as many of you know, has always wished above all else,” he raised his voice to cover the girl’s sobbing, “to take Holy Orders and enter the Convent of the Sisters of Melanth.
“’Tis custom that entering nuns have a token dowry, a symbol of their father’s blessing, but I have decided not to stint! Behold!”
He pulled a small, oddly-shaped bit of metal from under his robes and held it up for all to see. “For my daughter’s dowery the oldest and rarest treasure in the kingdom, nothing less than the Rasp of the God Ulkan!”
Listen to the fools prattling away! They don’t know! They’ve no idea something evil is creeping up on them.
Aye, and I’m little better off. I know nothing, save that some faceless unknown tried to slay me. No, strictly speaking what they tried to do was to replace me. Now a conspiracy to replace a single guard makes no sense, therefore...
The speech over, Volsa signaled for a sword drill. In unison the Guardsmen raised their swords and bowed toward Princess Delanda. Turning abruptly the man on Gulnor’s right thrust at him, the blow passing narrowly above his head as he ducked. As the man on his left stabbed at his unguarded back, Gulnor dodged, sprang past the right hand man to face a third.
Lunge, parry, thrust, counter thrust, they spun about each other in the dance of battle, as did the other Guardsmen, their swords clashing together in union to fill the Throne Room with warlike thunder.
How many of these are still my friends, and how many are things that stepped out of a mirror?
The tempo of the drill accelerated, building toward a climax, the Guardsmen striking at each other faster and faster, missing by ever narrower margins. The Guardsmen were blurs of swift, flashing steel, their swords beating against each other to make the throne room reverberate like the inside of a great, frantic battle drum.
Abruptly total silence fell, each man suddenly frozen motionless. They stood in a sword ring, each man holding his sword to his right-hand fellow’s throat, the sword of his left-hand neighbor resting on his own throat.
The blade at my throat, is it dull or razor-edged? Dull would mean it’s a drill sword, held by a friend. Sharp, and he that holds it is an enemy that only looks like a man. Dull or sharp — I cannot be sure.
Next episode: Through the Black Door
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon