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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 5: The Puppet

PREVIOUSLY: No longer sure who he really is, Gulnor is trapped in blind darkness in an unknown realm. The approaching footsteps are not those of men, but he dare not run, for anything that marches in darkness will have very good hearing. Judging by the sound, there are ten of the unknowns: the first six are walking in single file followed by four marching abreast and carrying sticks that scrape along the left- and right-hand walls of the tunnel.

Not moving, not breathing, afraid that his rapidly beating heart would betray him, Gulnor stood frozen as one after another of the marchers of darkness passed by him. As the sixth passed, he stepped out, his foot striking the ground in exact time with theirs. After a dozen paces he started breathing again. Gods, I’m doing it, walking unknown in their midst!

Their way led through a complex maze of tunnels, a seemingly endless pattern of turns, stops, and starts, all signaled slightly in advance by the leader.

I can march with them all night, but how do I get out of this spot?

In these close quarters he couldn’t help smelling them. The faint sound emanating from their bodies was not at all like breathing, rather a suck-flap sound, such as one might expect from a shark out of water.

As hosts of half-formed plans raced through his mind, the sound of their footsteps changed and began to reverberate as though echoing in some vast cavern. After going some distance, the marchers turned right, went farther, and stopped.

Slowly, as he waited for them to move again, a grim realization came to him: this was the lair of the marchers of darkness. The nameless beings around him were home and would stand where they were indefinitely. He could feel fear and despair gathering to destroy him. With harsh resolution he told himself, Stand to it, Man! It’s often you’ve had to stand long hours at attention and this is nothing different.

But he knew it was. Before, the slightest motion brought a reprimand; now it meant nameless death.

There was not the dimmest glimmer of light in this enormous darkness, but a host of faint sounds came echoing through the blackness. Far to his left he could hear something huge slowly slithering with occasional burbling sounds; to his right, something else sounded like an army of hogs eating.

It’s only my imagination, only my fear that makes what I hear seem hints of grisly horror. If I could see, they’d be...

He could not make himself believe the sounds came from any common source nor could he force himself not to notice the odor: a stench as of a charnel house.

Stop it, man. Thinking about how afraid you are only makes your fear worse. Think of something else!

There, that group of marchers, count their steps!

At 108 paces, the leader tapped right turn and 316 paces later their footsteps abruptly faded away, as if they’d gone out of the cavern into one of the tunnels. As he counted other groups, a map of this chamber began to grow in his mind. The marchers all followed the same few paths, leaving nearly all of the chamber to whatever made those sounds.

There came a sound from the thing that slithered, a brief rhythmic sigh, and the marcher in front of him paced forward, turning and marching toward the slithering whatever. As the cadence of its marching feet stopped, he heard an intense cracking, followed by dead silence.

The way ahead of him was open, and suddenly his dark-accustomed eyes saw what he dared scarcely believe: the faintest dying ghost of a light. There was no light in this vast cavern nor in the twisted tunnels that led into it, yet somewhere, at the other end of one of those tunnels, there was light whose dimmest trace diffused back into this cavern.

If I move, will they hear me?

Another group of marchers was making the darkness resound with the sound of their feet. Hoping he would seem an echo of them, he strode forth, his pace matched to theirs. In his mind’s eye, his route seemed crystal clear.

As he walked the thousand and one paces to the first right turn, he saw himself as a figure moving on a map. Walking thirteen paces and turning left, he found that on either side of him there was fetid warmth. He had two more turns to make on a route that obviously carried him around and between these dwellers of darkness.

If his paces were even slightly too long or too short, he would blunder into — he knew not what. As he rounded the third turn his hopes soared.

I’ll win! I’m going to march through Hell itself!

At the fourth turn exaltation was like strong wine, making his head spin.

At first he scarcely noticed that there was something on his body — crawling up to his shoulder. Though his heart nearly stopped he did not miss a step. Instinctively he reached back and grabbed it.

Why ’tis only the magician’s puppet, a harmless piece of wood. Must have gotten stuck to my armor.

A puppet, moving like a live creature? Twisting out of his fingers it was free, and took a seat on his shoulder. With no small effort of will he continued his steady pace out of the cavern and well down the tunnel. When, at last, light glimmered ahead he could restrain himself no longer and rushed headlong toward it.

Abruptly there was nothing under his feet. In blind confusion he was sliding down a steep grade. For one flashing instant he fell free through brightly lighted space and the next the water hit him like a giant’s fist.

Dazed, he struggled frantically to swim, the weight of his armor dragging him down, while the puppet, floating beside him, snapped, “Lackwit, the water isn’t over your head!”

Standing up in the water, he thought he was in a forest of ancient marble pillars, all of them encrusted with seaweed like weird trees. At second glance, however, he realized he was in a long, narrow room, its walls composed of mirrors. One end of this badly tilted room was flooded; the other, dry. Grabbing up the puppet he walked up out of the water.

In absolute fury, Breen — for now he knew his rightful name — sat himself down on a dry spot and gestured viciously with his sword at the puppet in his other hand. “Cousin Pyre,” he snarled, “it’s time and past that we had a talk. First of all, where are we?”

In a soft calm voice it replied, “How should I know? You’re the one who brought us here.”

“By all the bracelets on Drood’s Thousand Arms, I’ll have a better answer than that!

“Very well, ask me a better question.”

“Why shouldn’t I chop off your stinking little head?”

Reaching up, the puppet removed its head and, holding it in its hands, asked: “Any other questions?”

“Yes!” Breen snapped, his anger racing ahead of his thoughts. For a moment his mind foundered and unable to think of anything else to say, he continued, “I demand that you explain this whole thing from the beginning!”

“Ahh,” murmured the puppet, “now that is a good question, for this is indeed a tale that starts at the Beginning. When the World was first created, the Gods foresaw that men should face a thousand mortal perils and accordingly gave us the Thousand Gifts, each sufficient for one of the perils — or at least that’s what pious myth teaches.

“The only certainty, however, is that there are scattered about the world objects that are charged with vast occult power and have little or no apparent use. The Rasp of Ulkan, for example, has powers great beyond imagination, and still it is only a cutting tool. A jeweler would find it handy for cutting diamonds and such trivial purposes.

“I cannot say how many ages the Rasp has been naught but a curiosity, but at the start of this adventure my grandsire Mardarin — whose talent for seeing the future exceeded mine — saw evil, danger to all that live, gathering like a brewing storm. This danger had struck at Castle Paragas and would strike at several other places including Ermont, Nestramon, and, last of all, the keeping place of the Rasp.

“While I’ve no way of knowing our unknown foe’s motive, I surmise that they — or perhaps it — fear the Rasp and wish to neutralize it early in this war. In any case I was forearmed with knowledge and therefore arranged for you to—”

“Wait!” Breen protested. “You’re saying that you knew King Practus and his court would be slaughtered and did nothing to prevent it!”

“Yes,” it answered blandly. “By sacrificing a rather poor king I was able to push an important pawn through my enemy’s defenses. We are now in their stronghold and undetected. With surprise we may overwhelm them.”

“Cousin, did it ever occur to you that I wouldn’t want to be your pawn, that I’d refuse to fight your war?”

“Oh, obviously you’re a free man and I’d never dream of pressing you to my service. If, of your own will, you choose to cooperate with me against a common foe, well and good. Otherwise we must each go our separate ways and manage our affairs as best we may.”

“Cousin,” Breen snarled angrily, “you say all those polite words knowing full well that left to my own devices in this grim place, I’d surely die.”

The puppet nodded. “I’m glad you see the advantages of cooperation so clearly.”

“Yes, but if you think...” Breen began. He bit the sentence off as the puppet motioned him to silence. Outside the room something was sniffing, sniffing the way a cat does outside a mouse hole.

The puppet gestured toward the only possible hiding place — the water. Moving with the silence he had learned in war, Breen slipped under the murky waters even as something huge entered the room.

Next episode: Moment of Decision

Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon

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