The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book VI: The Puppet’s War
Episode 6: Moment of Decision
PREVIOUSLY: Following the marchers of darkness, Breen finally recalls who he really is. Encountering a magician’s puppet which is really his dead cousin Pyre, he finally learns that this was all a clever plan to sneak him, Breen, into the stronghold of the enemy. But, just then, a sound is heard. He and Pyre hide in the water. Something huge enters the room...
Looking up through the water, Breen could see it only as a blur of light and shadow moving about the room, searching. While his air-starved lungs began to ache, the blur paced to and fro, sniffing where he had sat, staring out at the water where he hid.
It’s only an illusion, that thing can’t really see me, he told himself as it put one huge paw into the water. His lungs on fire, he watched it as it stood poised on the water’s edge.
Does it know I can’t hold my breath much longer? Is it waiting in hopes of killing me without the bother of getting wet?
Long moments crept past as his eyes blurred, his lungs caught fire and his brain clouded with pain.
I have to rise and fight it or drown without fighting.
As he started up, the puppet’s hand rested on his shoulder delaying him for yet another instant. Breaking the surface he saw the rear end of the creature gliding out the door.
Gods, that cat’s as big as a horse!
For moments he stared after it — strangest of all, the cat’s body had been distorted, like an image seen in a magnifying glass. In his ear the puppet whispered, “Up and hurry! We must flee this place.”
“But there’s only one exit!” he protested. “Would you have me follow close behind that monster cat?”
“Better danger than certain disaster.”
Reluctantly, making as little noise as possible, he waded out of the water and stepped toward the door. He didn’t quite make it. Three paces from the door the whispering started, ghost voices coming unbidden into his mind.
Who, who are you?
What are you doing where you do not belong?
Two paces from the door and his sword was trembling. It seemed to hear the voices and want to answer them.
We invoke you, intruder, name yourself!
A single pace from the door and his sword throbbed, quivering as occult power focused on it. The steel seemed a living being, tortured to the point that it must scream.
WE COMMAND YOU: SPEAK OR...
Though the door and the voices were still, the sword quivered for a moment like a frightened stallion and was at peace. “What,” Breen asked in awe, “was that?”
“A calling,” replied the wizard. “Enchanted weapons such as your sword are all partially alive and may be Called. Had I not protected it well, the sword would have shouted our presence to the enemy.”
Breen was walking down a dim, unlighted hallway. At regular intervals for as far as he could see, doors on the right side of the hallway opened into brightly-lit rooms.
“Pyre,” he ventured, “you’ve told me naught of our battle plan.”
“This is war and I plan to do whatever is necessary, no matter how harsh. As for the details — they are my concern.”
At the threshold of the nearest doorway, a thought ghosted through his mind. Perhaps my death will be one of those details.
As he stepped through, this and all other thoughts were swept out of his mind. He stood staring, rubbing his eyes in disbelief. The room before him was an ancient temple, the lower end sunken in water, an exact duplicate of the ruined shrine he’d just left!
“Interesting,” murmured the mage, “when the priests of Ragranor installed those mirrors on either side of the temple, they planned to befool their God by making the few worshipers they could gather seem a multitude. I much doubt they foresaw this effect.”
“What effect?” he demanded. “Why are there two identical temples?”
“Go down the hallway,” it answered; “see if there are only two.”
Outraged by this new mystery, he raced down the hallway, finding that each in the endless series of doorways opened into another shrine of the Mad God Ragranor.
All utterly, insanely identical.
Nothing in the world he knew could produce two things exactly alike, and now he faced a host beyond counting, all the same.
Could it be a curse, some monstrous wish of a dying god?
Excited to the point of frenzy, he was racing down the hallway, determined that he would somehow run to the end. Ahead of him were regularly-spaced doors, seemingly without end. His breath was a little short and somehow his eyes didn’t focus as they should.
Wait — no — his eyes were fine; it was the temples themselves that had become strangely blurred.
“Far enough,” announced the puppet; “now you’d best go back to the middle.”
An angry reply rose in his throat and died unspoken as he turned and started dog-trotting back. After a time he could see a gap in the pattern ahead, one dark opening in the line of bright entrances.
Reaching the opening, he came into an inky black tunnel. Apparently the puppet now knew where they were and where they must go, for it gave him directions, tapping first one shoulder for a right turn, then the other for a left, guiding him through a winding maze.
This little fiend is giving me orders and I’m following them blindly — literally.
Often in the distance he heard marching feet and other less identifiable sounds.
Could it be leading me to my death? Perhaps, and if so, ’tis no worse than battle. Or perhaps it will be something far worse than my own death, some monstrous act of evil for which the fiend will require my assistance?
Twice the wizard made the soldier stop and stand motionless, silent. Each time whatever might have heard them went away, and they continued. After more twists and turns than Breen could count, they came into a passageway of moss-encrusted stone lit by guttering, smoky lamps. A cold wind that seemed to blow from nowhere to nowhere swept this corridor.
Of the many doors opening off this hall, one promptly interested Pyre. On opening it, Breen saw a small room stuffed to overflowing with ornate furnishings: a bed of carved ivory and silken sheets, polished mahogany dressing tables, a great mirror, a jade chamber-pot and a host of other objects, all once valuable, now tattered ruins.
“As if,” he murmured, “a pack rat decided to live in human luxury.”
“True,” the mage answered, “this is the bedroom of a wererat.”
Abruptly several of the pieces fell together. “The Ambassador of Kilmar!” Breen exclaimed. “He’s our old enemy, the wizard Ebbern!”
Pyre nodded. “And if my suspicions are correct, he’s also the one who planted the seed of all this evil. Very likely Queen Islaina wanted a perfect mirror in which to admire herself, and Ebbern was such an obscene fool as to attempt granting the request, never dreaming of the consequences.
“No matter. What’s done is done. Now Ebbern is merely a minorling in the service of our enemy and we must attend to more important matters. Come.”
Continuing down the hallway they reached a corner and turned it. The next corridor was long and at its end, coming toward them, were several figures.
“The timing is wrong for a fight,” whispered the puppet. “Bluff.”
The figures were near enough that he could make them out: soldiers dressed more or less as he. Something was odd about them, he couldn’t quite say what.
Steady. Just act as though they’re ordinary soldiers.
They were closer, much closer, and he could not see them any more clearly. Their very bodies were blurred, wavy — like reflections in a pool of water.
They saw him, mumbled something incomprehensible, raised their hands in something that resembled a salute. Marching at a steady fast pace he returned their salute correctly, brushed past them, and turned the corner. He could breathe again, his heart slowed to a less frantic beat and... ahead he saw an iron-bound oaken door. Fully six soldiers, slightly blurred replicas of men he knew, stood at attention before it.
“We must pass through that door,” the puppet whispered in his ear, “and that means you must kill all those guards before they can raise an alarm.”
“But...” Breen whispered back as one of the guards glared at him and thrust a suspicious spear in his direction. Damn! The fat’s in the fire! he thought as his sword flashed out, chopping the head off that spear. While the spearman stared stupidly at his useless weapon, the mercenary continued his stroke into a second foe’s throat.
As the others shouted in surprise and fumbled for their weapons, Breen sprang among them, his sword swiftly weaving a deadly pattern. Moving with the swift grace he’d learned on a hundred battlefields he smote, dodged, hid and struck again. Their awkward blows rained harmlessly off his armor while his thrusts and slashes drank their lives.
’Twas swiftly over.
Standing like a bloodstained wargod above a grim red harvest, Breen snarled, “Cousin Pyre, will you please in the future remember — getting me into six-to-one fights is not good planning.”
“On the contrary,” the other replied pleasantly, “it reflects excellent planning on my part. As you yourself once remarked, the Imperial Guard of Milfar is a group of toy soldiers, absolute strangers to combat. Our enemy has made himself an army of copies of them; and you, my tiger, move unnoticed among them thanks to my cunning.”
Controlling his temper with some difficulty Breen snapped, “What’s next?”
“Give me your sword.”
It grasped the hilt of the sword he offered and turned. From the secret compartment thus revealed it took a jewel, a thing that burned with smoky red fire.
“What,” he whispered in awe, “is that?”
“A singly potent charm of great power. The means of power tend to be conspicuous, and it required all my skill to make your sword an effective hiding place.”
“Wait,” he protested, “you’re saying that except for this good-only-once jewel, you came here without any of your magical powers?”
“Yes, wars are won by boldness.” It gestured toward the iron-bound oak door. “In but a little while, the critical moment shall come. You shall burst through yon door. And by casting a mighty spell I will hurl our enemies into the outer darkness.” Its tiny black eyes gleamed with anticipated triumph. Offhandedly it continued, “There’s even a good chance you and I will survive this victory.”
Narrowly looking at the little wooden figure, Breen wondered. What did his wizardly cousin plan: an honest victory or some dark unholy deed? How far could he trust this weird being who’d once been his relative? “I think,” he announced, “I’ll listen at that door.”
“That would be bad tactics. If you...” Paying no heed, Breen strode forward and stooping, pressed his ear against the rough oak door. Though the sounds were muffled, in a moment’s listening he was soon sure of what he heard.
“That’s the Princess Delanda! She’s screaming in mortal terror.”
“Yes,” the puppet replied in words like ice, “it is indeed the Princess. And though it seems harsh, we must wait. We can strike but a single blow, and timing is vital.”
He stared at the puppet, though its painted eyes gave no hint of its thoughts. Perhaps its plan would save all their lives or perhaps he and Delanda would be sacrificed like pawns in a chess game.
The moment of crisis, the young mercenary realized, had come. While he dared not trust the dark mage, neither could he act independently, for he’d no notion what was happening. Damn, I should be able to figure this out. I have as many clues to the mystery as Pyre has.
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon