The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book VI: The Puppet’s War
Episode 3: Through the Black Door
PREVIOUSLY: When Gulnor’s own reflection steps out of the mirror and attacks him, a horrendous battle takes place. Gulnor finally manages to destroy the specter, but other than a broken mirror there is no evidence that anything has happened.
Gulnor rejoins his fellow Guardsmen, and they perform a sword dance for the royal family. The dance ends with the Guardsmen standing in a circle, each man holding his sword to the throat of the man on his right.Only at this deadly moment does Gulnor realize that his mirror image had intended to replace him — which would make sense only if some or all of his fellow Guardsmen had also been replaced. Is the sword at his throat a dull drill sword held by a friend? Or is it a sharp sword held by an inhuman thing?
While the audience politely applauded the sword dance, Gulnor stood motionless, confused and frightened. The Guardsmen’s performance was over, but they continued to stand in sword circle, Captain Volsa waiting for a signal from the King — or waiting for some other reason.
Gulnor was sweating. Why this delay, this deadly waiting? This circle should have broken long ago. If the conspirators plan something, what are they waiting for, who are they waiting for?
They meant to replace me and have no way of knowing that they failed. Do they want me to commit some horror or will a common, ordinary act keep them from suspecting me?
His sweat was very cold, his heart raced, and all he could think of was the obvious: if he gave himself away, there was a sword at his throat.
Appearing from nowhere a tall hawk-faced man, clad in flowing black robes, strode toward the Guardsmen. In the calm voice of one who knows he must be obeyed he said, “It’s time you left the stage.”
His eyes falling briefly on Gulnor, he gestured, a swift barely perceptible motion indicating that Gulnor should move to a certain spot. Without hesitation he obeyed, the other guardsmen following him, leaving the center of the Throne Room to stand in positions around the edges. With no one watching him, Gulnor leaned against the wall and breathed, trying to relax fear-knotted muscles.
Did I give myself away? Did they realize I’m not one of them and quietly mark me for murder?
Help! I need help!
Who, who can I turn to? I’ve no proof, is there anyone who might believe me? Is there even a single comrade I can be sure isn’t a thing come from a mirror?
Merciful gods, what have you done to me? I’m only a farm boy and you’ve set me to fight demons!
The dark-robed stranger stood alone in the center of the room. From his high ivory throne, King Practus called down, “Magician, it is not yet time for your performance.”
Bowing slightly, the man replied, “When Your Majesty engages a magician, you should expect the unexpected.”
The King had no chance for further objection as the magician had already begun. Reaching his empty hands into the air he grasped a tray. When spun the tray became a small table which he placed on the floor.
“Your Majesty, Nobles and Ladies of Milfar, what magic is greater than bringing the dead to life, what illusion more profound than making a lifeless piece of wood seem to be a breathing person? I have promised to show you great wonders, and I begin with a puppet show.”
To the crowd’s disapproving murmur he said, “I assure you: most of you will not see a better show in all the rest of your lives.
“The characters of our play.” A small wooden puppet stepped out of his empty hand and walked onto the table. “The legendary wizard Pyre.”
Again the crowd murmured, for many knew that Pyre was no legend but a grim reality, much to be feared.
The magician paused. Thus far he had done the merest slight of hand, yet all watched him, wondering, perhaps even fearing what would come next.
The magician’s hand held a second puppet, one strongly resembling King Practus. “The other character of our story is a foolish king. Since his daughter wanted to marry, this king spent long hours plotting, trying to devise some way in which he could be rid of his daughter without the expense of giving her a dowry.
“When he found a long-forgotten talisman in a dusty corner of his treasury, he decided to shut his daughter up in a nunnery, using this apparently worthless object as her dowry.”
Scarcely able to believe his ears, Practus bolted to his feet, shouting, “Knave, how dare you speak such words to a King upon his throne?”
With unconcealed contempt the magician replied, “Patience, Your Highness. The best part of my story is yet to come.”
“Guards,” Practus roared, “take this fool out and smite his head from his body!”
Bowing and smiling the magician walked toward the King. “If Your Majesty would have my head,” — placing both hands on his head, he began to lift — “you need only ask. Here!”
His neck exploded into a red fountain, the head flying through the air to land at the King’s feet, staring up at him with glassy eyes. The body staggered drunkenly, spouting red oceans, and crashed to the floor.
For an instant there was utter silence, the incredible horror holding every eye, stopping every mouth. No one moved, nor even breathed. One of the body’s legs twitched and the screaming began, madhouse screaming, the vociferous sounds of those locked away from all normal reality. Bedlam reigned until none had breath or strength to make any sound.
In this quiet of exhaustion a small nobleman was finally able to make himself heard. “The blood,” he yelled, “it’s only tomato soup!”
Grabbing the headless body and swinging it aloft, he shouted, “Look, it’s only wood, nothing but a large puppet!”
Kneeling, Practus examined the head, also wood; the fixed dead eyes only bits of colored glass.
While another man would have been baffled by these strange events, Practus saw only how to turn events to his advantage. Smiling, he raised one hand, saying, “Did you enjoy our little hoax? Did we fool you?”
Pausing long enough for the startled exclamations and protests to subside, he continued, “Ahh, I see we did. You see, the magician asked me to help play a small joke on you, and I agreed. At first I thought the whole thing was too absurd, especially that part about my daughter wanting to marry. Still, I see we played our parts well enough to deceive you.”
Practus sat down amidst the cheers and applause of his court, well pleased with himself. Something most uncanny had happened, but with a single skillful lie he had smoothed the whole thing over and could now forget it. He gestured to the Lord Chamberlain, saying, “Let us pass by the next few events and go to the reception of foreign ambassadors.”
“Your Highness, there is only one, the Ambassador of Kilmar.”
Practus snorted. The world was full of little faraway countries he had never heard of.
“Your Majesty,” the Chamberlain hastily interposed, “the Ambassador has promised that he brings you a truly extraordinary gift.”
Even as Practus nodded his consent, the doors of the throne room were opening to admit a strange group: a stick-thin man with the receding chin and the narrow-set, small furtive eyes of a rat; he was followed by several dull-eyed workmen carrying boxes and crates.
Standing by one wall, Gulnor watched, racking his brain. What does it mean? What are all these dark events? Either I’m as good as dead already or I’ll have a chance to surprise them — perhaps strike a telling blow. A chance, yes, and unless I can find some clue to all this madness, that precious chance will slip through my fingers.
The workmen were opening the boxes, assembling the contents to make a large door — a thing of ornately carved wood — black as coal, smooth as ivory.
I saw them put that thing together and now I can’t see any trace of seam or joint! Are the seams merely hidden by extraordinarily fine craftsmanship. or are they gone in violation of reason?
Wait, listen. There’s something else wrong about that door besides the lack of seams and those vaguely obscene carvings. It’s standing against a blank wall and yet if I strain my ears I can hear heavy breathing from behind the door!
Out of the corner of his eye he saw something move — or did he?
I’ve got to control my imagination — thought I saw the magician’s puppet get up and walk across the table. Gods, if I start having delusions, I’ll destroy myself without any help from my foes.
The King had come down from his throne to inspect the door.
Is he deaf, not to hear that unnatural breathing?
“This mean gift,” snapped Practus, “is an insult to the Throne! Send this so-called Ambassador on his way with a flogging!”
His thin nose twitching, his eyes bright with waiting malice, the Ambassador murmured, “What is to be, must be,” gesturing as he spoke to the four guards standing around the King.
Leaping forward, Gulnor cried “TREASON!”
Only once did Practus scream as the guards smote him, a cry that ended with a burble as his severed head flew through the air to land beside the magician’s wooden head. For only an instant his teeth chattered.
Heedless of the odds, Gulnor plunged into the midst of the traitor guards, his sword striking like wild lightning. Taken by surprise, the first of the mirror-men was turning to face Gulnor when a swift stroke removed his eyes.
The second parried Gulnor’s lunge, to have his sword break like a rotten twig and his hand sliced off. The last two tried to make a united defense while their comrades slipped to the floor, profusely bleeding red fog. The crimson mist was also in Gulnor’s brain and when it cleared he saw that he, a novice at combat, had slain four of the enemy.
There was no time to wonder at this impossible victory, for battle, fierce and gory, raged throughout this room of ivory walls and crystal chandeliers.
The mirror men are slaughtering my comrades! We must outnumber them two to one and it’s like sheep against wolves!
He gave no heed to the noncombatants, the nobility of Milfar, rushing about like animals trapped in a forest fire, searching desperately for escape and finding none. The doors were blocked with fighting men and anyone approaching was promptly slain, whether by enemy or panic-blinded friend, there was no knowing.
I don’t know aught of war, and there’s no one but me to take command! Springing up onto a table, he shouted, “Loyal Guardsmen — hear me! The enemy does not bleed! Anyone who bleeds is a friend!”
Again and again he screamed at them, waving his arms frantically, bellowing until his lungs ached. For all he accomplished he might as well have asked a hurricane to stop or cried halt to a wild horse stampede. With a sick feeling of defeat he stepped off the table.
We’re beaten, broken past all hope of rallying — doomed unless we can retreat. They’re holding every exit with a steel grip...
Where can I break that grip?
The Guardsman seemed to rush upon him from nowhere. The man, face covered with blood from a gushing scalp wound, was running blind, striking at everything that moved.
“No!” he shouted, “I’m a friend!” ducking as the man’s sword whistled over his head. To avoid the next thrust he had to jump backwards, stumbling over the magician’s table. One of the wooden figurines clung unnoticed to his armor.
Directly in front of the crazed man was a girl, wide-eyed and terror-stricken. The maniac was raising his blade to slay her.
The weapon shot down — and smashed like glass upon Gulnor’s interposed sword. Howling like a soul in the Pit, the man staggered away leaving Gulnor with his arms suddenly full of hysterical girl.
“Your Highness,” he said, for this was none but the Princess Delanda, “please be calm. I’ll take you to safety.” She clung to him more tightly, sobbing greatly, not hearing his words. The Throne Room, center of Royal pride, was drenched in blood like a slaughterhouse, every exit firmly in enemy hands.
We can’t stay here!
The Black Door was only a few paces away and now he saw that it had somehow, unnaturally, opened.
Beyond the Black Door there should have been only a blank wall; instead it opened onto a long, narrow, twisted corridor. Better a mystery than certain death. He rushed toward it, dragging the Princess with him.
As they plunged through the Door, she sensed that this was escape and started to run. Strangely, going through the Black Door didn’t put them on the other side of the door. Instead the other side of the door was a distance away at the far end of a twisty corridor. The clangor and screams faded behind them as the fugitives fled down the corridor.
Next Episode: The Marchers of Darkness
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon