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The Long Dark Road to Wizardry

by Richard K. Lyon

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Book VI: The Puppet’s War

Episode 4: The Marchers of Darkness

PREVIOUSLY: Princess Delanda’s party is attended by a group of unnatural beings who perfectly resemble the Guardsmen they have replaced. When they attack, they block all the exits except for a black door, which has appeared by magic. To save the Princess, Gulnor carries her through the black door and finds himself not on the other side of the door but in a twisting corridor that seems to lead to the other side.

Running as fast as he could with the princess, Gulnor was filled with relief that they were approaching the end of the corridor. And, as though a sleeping demon had awoken, everything began to change. It grew cold. The very air thickened, making each motion slower, harder, than the last.

Like figures in a nightmare they tried desperately to run — and were held to a maddeningly slow pace. Now they were scarcely moving, while the end of the corridor was receding unnaturally into the distance.

The cold was upon them, fierce and hungry, like leeches eagerly sucking the warm life from their bodies. They could not move, trapped like flies in honey. The Princess whimpered; Gulnor still fought, cursing this evil magic.

As by a will of its own his sword sprang into his hand, lifting to blaze with light, and the cold retreated, creeping from them like a wounded beast. They rushed on. Abruptly the doorway at the end of the corridor was in view — was speeding toward them — and they tumbled through.

For a long moment, Gulnor lay on his back, breathing in relief. When he finally rose and looked about, he cursed mildly: another corridor, or perhaps a tunnel.

This one at least looked ordinary enough: straight parallel walls, floor and ceiling. The only light, a dim lamp set high in one wall, did not reach far enough to show either end of this place. The cold, dank air hinted that they might be far underground. Other than that, he had no clue where they might be.

Behind him Princess Delanda demanded, “Why did you kidnap me?”

“But I didn’t...” He half-turned toward her, saw the rock she was swinging at his head — and was engulfed in darkness.

* * *

Gods... MY HEAD!

If I move it’ll split wide open and my brains will spill out... or rather... they would if I had any.

He reproached himself harshly for now, too late, he saw the trap he’d entered. That accursed door led into enemy territory, and by now the enemy must have captured the Princess. What he did not understand was how everything could go so badly and he could still be alive. It was almost as though he’d had help.

Back on the farm my uncle... He couldn’t complete the thought, and suddenly he had a very cold feeling. He abruptly realized he couldn’t remember anything about the farm or his uncle. Worse, though he’d firmly believed in them till this moment, he had a sinking feeling that he never had really been able to recall them.

This is absurd. As sure as my name is Gulnor, I...

Whoever he might be, he knew his name was not Gulnor or anything like it. Moreover, as he looked at his hands and arms he saw subtle changes, or rather subtle things he’d never noticed before. There were long-healed scars that hinted he was not the untried soldier he supposed himself to be, but rather the veteran of many battles.

Sweet Theba, what a mess! I have no notion who or what I am, and I’m trapped in the middle of some nightmare war.

Oddly he wasn’t depressed. Instead he had a feeling of grim determination, as though he had met situations this bad before and still prevailed. The trick was to work your problems one step at a time. Just now, the obvious first step was to get that lamp off the wall so he could see where he was going as he explored this place. Stretching upwards, he barely grasped it with the tips of his fingers. To his utter surprise it came free easily — and went out, leaving him in total darkness.

After a black moment he decided it wasn’t a total disaster. The lamp was full of oil and he had steel. With plenty of rocks underfoot it shouldn’t be that difficult to find a bit of flint.

Scarcely had he begun to search when he heard them. Very distant, yet there was no mistaking the sound of marching feet, steadily coming toward him. His straining eyes could not make out the faintest glimmer of light.

What sort of men would march in total darkness?

The tap-tap-tap of the marching feet was nearer, now very distinct. It was subtly but clearly wrong, an alien cadence, the sound of beings who walked on two legs and were not men.

Through his mind ran a host of shapeless fears and one grim certainty: anyone who marched in darkness must hear exceedingly well. Running would only betray him into their hands... or claws.

Slowly, rising with extreme care, he stepped to the wall and flattened himself against it.

If only they’re in single file...

Just stay calm and it will be alright. Pretend this is only one of those foolish blindfold drills Duke Yimas insisted on.

They do sound like single file.

He could feel the clammy cold sweat over his entire body. They were close, very close. Soon it would be over, one way or another.

The leader changed the pace and as the followers rippled back into step, he could almost see them — ten — six in a line followed by four walking abreast. There were little scraping sounds. Of the four, the ones on the far right and left must be holding sticks that they scraped along the wall.

Can’t run, can’t hide, that leaves me one choice.

Next episode: The Puppet

Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon

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