The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book VI: The Puppet’s War
Episode 7: Six Black Doors
PREVIOUSLY: Listening at a closed door, Breen hears Princess Delanda screaming in terror. He wants to burst in and rescue her, but his wizardly cousin Pyre orders him to wait. Their attack must be perfectly timed, and the moment is not yet. Breen stands in an agony of indecision. He does not trust his cousin, but neither does he understand the dark, unnatural war they are fighting, and he cannot guess whether or not obeying Pyre would be expedient.
It was maddening not to understand the mystery he was confronting, but there was no point in wishing he were smarter. If he could not decide what was expedient, at least, thanks to his grandfather, he knew what was right. Standing up, Breen hefted his sword, squared his shoulders, and declared, “Since I’m now a soldier in Milfar’s army, my duty to the Princess is clear.”
“No!” the Pyre Puppet squealed. “You’ll ruin everything!”
“This army doesn’t take orders from undersized civilians!” he snapped, ramming the puppet into the bottom of his pocket. Taking a single deep breath and then kicking the door open, he leapt into the room beyond.
Before him, shown by the light of a single smoky torch, was a nightmare scene, Delanda, her naked blonde beauty stretched spread-eagled on a blood red stone altar, her eyes bulging in horror, her ripe breasts shaking as she screamed in terror.
Above her stood a hideous dirty gray figure, a sacrificial knife in its hand/paw. It had already made the first small cut above her heart, and was holding the tip of the knife, wet with her blood, above a crystal vase of strange design. Crimson drops fell from the knife to mix with the green glowing liquid in the vase.
No, it can’t be, he thought, yet as its little red eyes focused on him he knew he must fight a gray rat, as large and as intelligent as a man.
Surprise was his only advantage, and as his feet sped across the rotted marble floor he knew this advantage was lost.
Raising its knife, the rat turned to meet his charge, hate glittering in its blood-ruby eyes. Baleful forces swept from those eyes, striking him with a mind-numbing cold.
He tried to look away from those eyes that burned like twin furnaces — and could not! Neither could he move his arms or change the pace of his running feet. Gods, it’s paralyzed my will! My body is doing whatever habit dictates and I’m powerless to control it!
It was as though he were a tiny spectator sitting behind his own eyes, watching events he could do nothing about.
As he raced toward it, the rat braced itself, feet firmly set, the knife in its paw held out toward him at about the level of his stomach. It meant for him to impale himself.
His sword arm was limp at his side, sword pointed at the ground as his heedless feet rushed him forward. He saw the reddened knife glittering in its paw in that last instant before impact — then he struck, sword flashing up to sever its wrist, sending paw and knife flying through the air, and flashing back down in a stroke that gutted his enemy.
The fool used his magic to make me act without thinking, not realizing that my instinct was to kill.
The thing at his feet had changed; instead of a great rat it was a man — Ebbern — his rat-like face contorted in death.
Delanda was staring at him, her green eyes filled with dumb wonder, still too frightened to realize she was naked.
Poor child, she has less notion than I what this is all about.
As he started cutting the coarse, greasy ropes which bound her to the altar, he realized his pocket was empty. Pyre had escaped. Glancing about the room he saw no sign of the wizard, and the ambassador’s corpse was moving. No, rather something inside its robes was moving, like a rat in a sack of grain.
A corner of Ebbern’s robes rustled and the puppet appeared. “Fool, it rasped, “help me salvage a little from the ruin you’ve made. Forget that useless girl and look for the Rasp of Ulkan.” This said, it disappeared again into gray robes.
As Breen freed her hands, Delanda recovered enough to whisper tremulously, “Is it over?”
“Perhaps the worst part, Your Highness, but...” He saw something and broke off.
The ambassador’s hand/paw had fallen into the crystal vase of glowing green liquid. Though he was dead, his severed hand lived on, writhing like a five-legged octopus in an unnatural green set.
Gods, just like that heart I saw Ebbern cut out of some poor wretch! That unholy fluid will keep alive any severed limb or organ placed in it.
The princess was free and as though she were a sack of grain he swung her over his shoulder. “Pyre, hurry! We have to escape this place!”
“For once you’re right!” the puppet snapped as it reappeared, clutching a strange small object. Before Breen could see what it was, the puppet stuffed the object into its robes and pulled forth the red jewel.
“This,” the dark wizard whispered, “is a terrible waste. Would that your folly had not made it necessary!” It spoke something else, a single uncanny word that was a glimpse of the depths of Hell. The jeweled flame flared; for a single instant it was a finger of fire, pointing to a door and the dimly lit tunnel beyond. The next instant it was gone without trace.
“That way!” it declared. “Escape of some kind is in that direction.” The puppet rushed forward as fast as its small legs could carry it and Breen bent to scoop it up.
It never reached him.
The dead rat’s blood lay in a shimmering dark red pool between them. As the puppet approached, its reflection rose from the pool and grasped it. Before Breen could shout a warning, puppet and image were gone, sunk from sight into the crimson pool.
Rushing forward, he stood above the spilt blood and looked down into it: a red mirror, and within that mirror Pyre and his image wrestled.
It’s a liquid. If I do anything to make it ripple, I’ll destroy them both. He stood motionless, trapped by this dilemma while his sword quivered in his hand like a war horse eager for battle.
Despite the danger, he knew doing nothing would invite disaster. Slowly, with infinite care, he moved the point of his sword toward the remotest corner of the blood-mirror. The point touched the liquid surface and — exactly as he had hoped and prayed — slipped through without the slightest disturbance. His sword did indeed have the ability to reach through these unnatural mirrors. When his blade was sunk in blood to the hilt, he turned it at an angle.
Now to spoon those two from out this morbid soup.
On his shoulder the Princess moaned. She was an awkward weight, but less than the combat armor he had often worn. Having come so far to find her, he’d not thought of putting her down.
His sword was under the struggling pair and he was lifting them. Another moment and...
The sword shrank. In an instant it dwindled to doll size and vanished out of his frantically grasping hands. It was gone into the pool and before his astonished eyes one of the two tiny combatants — no telling which — grasped a small sword and attacked the other.
The sound was slightly too loud to have come from a normal cat. Breen glanced up and saw the great beast in the doorway — no, halfway through the doorway! Its great green eyes were fixed upon him and he knew there was but a few seconds’ grace before the monster attacked him.
For a heartbeat he hesitated; it ran against the grain to abandon a companion, even one like his cousin Pyre. The cat hissed, batting the air with dagger-long claws. As it twisted through the doorway, Breen fled, racing down the dim tunnel.
Tired, burdened by the half-conscious girl, he could not maintain a swift pace, and the cat was behind him, crawling down the tunnel, pursuing them like mice.
This cursed tunnel is too wide! That monster is going to catch us.
The tunnel grew slightly narrower, almost too narrow for the body of the huge cat. It still wiggled after them, advancing slowly, hunger burning in its cold green eyes.
Another few paces and Breen stopped, for the tunnel opened into a small room and there came to a dead end. Within the room were six black doors
One of these is escape and the other five are sure death — and which is which?
The great cat was drawing steadily nearer.
Steady, steady, try to think. Each door frame has a different pattern and in other ways the doors are all the same. Either I have to take a blind chance or there’s something about one pattern that makes it right.
The cat, was a scant few paces away, advancing eagerly.
The door I want is the one that takes us back home and the pattern for that door should be the reverse of the door that brought us here!
The cat was very close now; he could feel its hot breath. He dared not turn to look at it, lest terror freeze him.
The end door — that could be it! Or is it the middle? Or is all my thinking cracked?
The cat stretched, swung its paw at him, needle-sharp claws whistling through the air less than an arm’s length from his body.
The Princess awoke, saw the great cat and screamed furiously. She was a struggling burden, slipping out of his grasp.
The end door — it’s that or none!
With a leap he was through the door and gone.
Next episode: The Voice in the Flame
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon