Magicks and Marvels abound
in
The Long Dark Road to Wizardry!

A Serialized Sword & Sorcery Epic

by RICHARD K. LYON & ANDREW J. OFFUTT
About the authors

Book Four: The Whispering Mirror


Previously: Ermont, capital city of Zadok, sat in the middle of a great plain like a mighty stag surrounded by wolves. All around the city's high proud stone walls stood the mud spattered tents of the Thessian army, conquerors of a dozen nations. Within the city many hail Sir Druin as a hero, the man who will break the siege and save them all. Druin's cousin Breen, however, is convinced that Druin is a monster, the man responsible for the massacre of their family at Castle Paragas...
******
Episode 4: A Game of Cat and Rat


WEARING DEPRESSION LIKE A SECOND cloak, Breen trudged up to the little house that was home to him and his grandfather so long as they must remain in this besieged city. Twilight was creeping over the city, stealthy as an assassin. As he reached the door, Breen saw someone rushing at him from out of the darkness. He heard the shout as he reached for his dagger.

"My Lord Breen!" the unknown called. "It's Sir Vorund!"

"Oh." Breen remembered the skinny knight who had been his friend that day at Castle Paragas. The youth relaxed, but only little. The knight's face hardly resembled that of a bearer of good tidings.

"Is it true?" Vorund asked breathlessly. "Did you publicly accuse Lord Druin? Try to force him into a duel?"

Breen sighed. "It's true. But as you must know he's too busy dueling others to bother with me."

The worry clouding Vorund's sky-colored eyes deepened."Ah, lad! I fear me you may be quarreling with your only friend. Small reason you and I have to trust King Thilloden -- and if such people as we have any friends at all, 'tis surely Mylord Druin."

"The street's a bad place to speak against the king," Breen said quietly, and opened the door. "Come in, Sir Vorund. Mind the lintel."

A second surprise awaited Breen within; someone was waiting in the sitting room. He stared at the wizard Ebbern, who was about as attractive as spiders and rats. Words exploded from Breen in the accusative, "What are you doing here? Where's my grandfather?"

The maroon-robed man bowed politely and stringy gray-and-white hair swung past his pinched face.  A rat's face, Breen thought.

"I," the wizard replied, "came to talk with you and your grandfather. But after he admitted me, the old man had a small stroke. My presence was good fortune, as I've some skill in such matters. He is in his bed, resting comfortably, and should enjoy a full recovery."

"I don't want to seem ungrateful, but I mean to check what you just said, wizard." As Ebbern gestured agreement and Breen started past him, Vorund touched the youth's arm. "Lad," he murmured, "we must talk. Dark things are happening and..."

Abruptly Vorund's face went gray and he clutched at his chest. Even as Breen tried to grab him, his legs went limp. The stringy knight crumpled to the floor like a sliced wash-line.

"I do believe," Ebbern observed impersonally, "the poor fellow is having a heart seizure."

***
HIS FACE CONTORTED IN pain, Vorund still struggled to speak. Hurriedly Breen squatted and bent an ear to the man's lips.

"I came here to warn you," Breen heard. "Things happening in the king's court .... men disappearing wi-without ... q-queen's bedroom, mirror there... " Approaching death wracked him in a final spasm and with his last bit of breath Vorund said, "At night the mirror ... whispers ... "

His own condition close to debilitating shock, Breen rose from a corpse. He looked at Ebbern, and his expression became one of intense suspicion. "I notice, wizard, that you made no attempt to help my friend."

"There was nothing I could do," Ebbern said with a rather elaborate gesture. "Besides, the poor fellow feared me. Had I approached him twould merely have worsened his state."

"Worse than death? Rather a coincidence, isn't it? First my grandfather's stroke. Then Vorund's seizure, all in one night and with you present." Breen's indifferent upbringing had hardly taught him not to stand up to the aged; even wizardly ones.

"Tragically, no," the ugly little man replied in a sigh. "This city is under siege and near starvation. We are all weakened, my boy. Death is all too common. It is our constant companion."

Slowly Breen let out his breath. Much as he mistrusted the wizard, there was no reasonable ground on which he could accuse him of anything. "Suppose," he said, still watching his unwelcome guest most closely, "suppose that you just state your business, sir, and depart. I must to my grandfather."

"He lives, Breen; he sleeps now; he needs that rest. Today you publicly accused the most noble Lord Druin of plotting the massacre at Castle Paragas. That is something King Thilloden has long suspected, without being able to prove it. Do you have proof -- evidence, that would stand up to a court of his peers?"

"No. That's why I tried to force the knave into a duel."

"Ahh, young man, young man," the mage said, with a placating gesture of a twice ringed hand that was like an albino spider. "I could have told you that that would be of no avail. Still," the mage paused, paced about the sparsely furnished room. His robe whispered about doubtless spindly legs Breen had no desire to behold. "Still, my young friend, there is somewhat you can do, something which would greatly advance you in the king's Favor." Again Ebbern paused to stare sidewise, eyebrow cocked. Fixing, those eyes were. Breen didn't like that gaze.

"There are many things I could do, did I choose! Trusting you is not one of them, Sir!"

Even as he snapped the "sir" as an insult, the youth was staring into the wizard's red eyes. They were larger, much larger, than they had any right to be. Ebbern spoke softly, purring. "Would you be willing to spy on Druin? Suppose I were to provide you with a magical disguise, so that you could follow Druin unknown, learn what he plots against the kingdom..."

I must go to my grandfa-- "Well, uh ... I mean, that would depend on ..." His voice trailed off with his capacity for thought. He had to gaze in helpless fascination into the wizard's enormous red eyes -- eyes like unto glowing pools of blood. He had the strangest feeling, uncanny, and far from pleasant, as if he were shrinking. No, of course not.  But that chair is growing!

"I'm so pleased that you agree," Ebbern whispered, and reached down toward Breen.

To the boy's horror the old man was now gigantic, his hand so large that he could -- and did -- pick Breen up by the scruff of the neck as if he were a kitten. Squealing in angry protest, Breen squeezed shut his eyes against the horror of vertigo. He was being carried through the air. It was not just Ebbern; the entire room had grown to prodigious dimensions, furnished for giants.

From somewhere the mage produced a leather poke that was covered, strangely, with a mesh of chain armor. Without ceremony Breen was dropped into that reinforced sack. As its top was drawn shut to imprison him in utter darkness, he heard the wizard's voice:

"Don't get excited, lad. After you've done your spying on Druin and learned what he's up to, just come back here and I'll gladly turn you back."

* * *

TRAPPED IN BLACKNESS, Breen fought down panic and struggled to understand what had happened to him. He realized that the whole room, Ebbern included, had not grown. He had indeed shrunk! That frightsome concept made his whiskers bristle and his tail twitch, even as he forced himself to accept it.

Wait, I don't have any whiskers, much less a tail!

Shuddering in the grip of an uncanny feeling, Breen began to feel himself with his paws. He did indeed have whiskers, as well as a long furless tail. His body was covered in sleek but greasy fur and ...

Dark Lady Theba preserve me! That rat-faced swine has changed me into a rat!

In sudden panic he struggled furiously to claw and bite his way out of the sack. Logic was long fled and even his grasp on sanity was tenuous. Panting, he gained enough control to realize that no matter what claws and teeth did to the leather, he was not going through chainmail.

The mind he set to thinking was still his own, not a rat's. Unnerving as it was, he could not complain that Ebbern's"magical disguise" was not effective. Indeed it could well be the solution to his problem. This way he might well be able to effect a settling of accounts with Druin. One cheering aspect was that rats could not talk. Therefore Breen need not worry about being returned to his normal form. Ebbern had to do that, if he wanted to hear what his unwilling spy had learned.

Gods and stars, the youth thought as a measure of calmness returned, this is monstrous ironic, I've come full circle! Become a rat!  Breen thought, from the bottom of a sack that swung gently as he was carried to an unknown destination.

For all his fears, he remained the streetbred optimist and opportunist. Since the day last week when Druin had mysteriously reappeared, his bastard cousin Breen had known that he must somehow destroy him.

Now perhaps he had a chance to accomplish that, retain his new wealth, and gain the king's favor into the bargain. For a long moment Breen focused on that happy prospect. He had been worried about Uster's health. Lack of food was more cruel to the elderly than to any. If Breen could win King Thilloden's favor, he and Uster could join the privileged few who feasted at the palace.

Now if I can--

The sack he occupied ceased its swaying

Have we reached our destination? What? Where?

New panic surged in, dark as the domain of Drood of the Thousand Arms. The bag opened and Breen blinked at the influx of moonlight. Then a huge hand grabbed him and he was hurled violently through the air.

Sailing over a high stone fence, he saw a grassy lawn rushing rapidly up at him. An instinctive twitch of his tail brought Breen the rat down on all four widespread feet. This new body, he exalted, has some great features!

He reared up to survey his new surroundings. Now what am I supposed to do? Directly before him bulked a stately manor house. At a guess: Druin's headquarters. The home base of his sworn enemy!

Breen hesitated, whiskers twitching as he reflected. He had small reason to trust Ebbern. Still, it was hardly likely that the callous wizard would go to so much trouble in bringing him here if that house did not hold something well worth learning about. For a youth with curiosity and an adventurous spirit, the choice was easily made.

Breen padded silently forward on four wee paws, approaching the medium-sized house. He soon saw that gaining entry would be no problem. A small hole had been cut in the bottom of the door, obviously intended for a cat. Cats in Ermont had long since gone to the stew pot.

***

BREEN APPROACHED THE DOOR without a second thought, the coolest rat in Ermont. Just as he was about to enter, his rat's nose warned him.

The musky odor was undeniably male and Breen could not help imagining a powerful, huge-pawed animal skilled at rat murder.

Cat!

It might be just a pampered housepet, though -- and whatever it is, I'm not making myself any safer by standing here shivering. Breen moved not as rattus rattus but as homo usually sapiens. The rat passed in by the cat's entry.

Within the house he stared about, startled and puzzled. The place was seemingly deserted. Dark it was, dark as in Drood's gaze, save for the moonlight streaming through broken windows. A ghostly lacery of spiders' webs sagged under the dust that was thick on the floor. From all appearances no one had been here for years, decades ...

Except that someone had. Human footprints marked the dust of the floor, fresh tracks. Each was longer than Breen's new body. Now he saw that strands of cobwebbery hung loose here and there, torn. Last night, perhaps the night before, someone had been here. Judging from the footprints and the fact that so few cobwebs had been disturbed, that someone had been moving with surreptitious care.

Breen gulped back curiosity and refused to rush off on the trail of this previous invader. Instead he examined the cobwebs. His bright red rodent's eyes saw clearly, despite the darkness, and what he saw was disturbing. These strands were ... not quite right! What their origin might be he could not guess, but of one thing he was sure: no honest spider had spun these ghostly threads that laced the room.

Moving with utmost care, he followed the footprints,

Through a sitting room full of long disused chairs they led him, into a dining chamber. He ran up a chair to inspect a table elegantly set with silver cutlery, crystal in goblets, ornate porcelain plates. All were covered in cobweb and dust. Someone planned a big party, set the table, and rushed off to leave it here for twenty years worth of spiders.

The trail of footprints ended in a corner with a fresh corpse.

Feeling about as comfortable as a wine taster in Naroka, Breen recognized Lord Hrucial of Wellstream, a favorite of King Thilloden. His Majesty's boon companion in drink and womanizing -- and, some dared whisper, the man Thilloden relied upon when a discrete assassination was needed. The handsome wretch's dagger still shone silver in his cold hand, but what had laid him low was a mystery. There wasn't a mark on the body.

A stroke or a heart attack, perhaps, Breen mused without cheer. Twould seem that I'm not the first Ebbern has sent to this spiders' house.

Fear's chill fingers clutched at his little stomach and his rodent's body quivered with
nervous excitement. Now Breen knew he was in the very thick of a dark unholy war between wizards, Thilloden and his mage Ebbern against Druin and whatever direful powers he was allied with. Hrucial must have come here in the dead of night to murder Druin. Instead he...

The spiderwebs! They're alarms! Touch one of them and Druin knows he has an uninvited guest.

Breen had a moment to feel profoundly grateful for the instinctive caution that had kept him from disturbing the webs. Then he moved on.

Probably, he mused as he scurried along, this whole downstairs area is a trap. So what's above stairs, so well protected?

The main staircase he assumed had to be a trap: In the kitchen; however, he found what he sought. A back stairway wound upward, a narrow strait into the unknown.

He crept upward. Soon he was rewarded by the sight of dim lamplight and the sound of human voices. At the top of the stairs he saw a topaz bar of light across the bottom of a closed door that, to a rat, looked a hundred feet tall. Freezing in place, he listened to the muffled voices from the far side of the door.

"Yes, grandfather, I appreciate the risks. Still, given our other options, I think it's the best gamble."

Druin! the youth thought, and excitement swelled huge in his tiny body. The reference to "grandfather" puzzled him -- until he remembered: Was there not a rumor that Druin's maternal grandfather was a black wizard? Something vastly important was afoot. Go close enough to peek under the door, and I'll see what.

He was just starting to leave the stairhead when it struck.

Abruptly and only for an instant the very air seemed alive, glowing with power. Wild ultra-vivid colors flashed before Breen's eyes and his fur bristled in fear. It was as though the very nature of reality had been warped for a tiny moment, and instinctively he knew what it was. Magic. Black magic. Some sort of dire spell had just been cast.

As Breen cowered back, the door slowly creaked open. From the protective darkness Breen watched fearfully, little red eyes bulging while he wondered what unearthly horror that opening portal might reveal...

They came forth. Without cheer Breen beheld a shriveled old man and a large black cat. A tom, lean and long, with big dangerous paws. Breen could see only menace in those slanted slits of green that were the cat's eyes.

Quoth the oldster to the animal, "Remember, Druin, you must be back here before dawn."

Drood's eyeballs -- my cousin's transformed himself into a cat -- natural enemy of
rats. Us rats!

Galvanized by terror at this utterly unnatural event with its dread implications for himself personally, Breen bolted down the stairs. He was near the bottom before he realized how incongruous his fear was. He had matter-of-factly accepted his own transformation, precisely because it was a matter of fact: a situation he could not change but could use to advantage. Equally a matter of fact was that his enemies also used magic. Best to direct his worry and fears to his real problems -- of which he had plenty. To begin with, in seconds the cat would descend that narrow stairwell, and nothing he could do would prevent it from scenting him.

If it corners me, I'll just have to fight, Breen thought.

***

EVEN AS HE RACED OFF THE STAIRS, through the kitchen and under the grate of the long abandoned fireplace, he considered the idea. Here was a good place for a stand. In these tight quarters his opponent's size would not be so great an advantage.

Still ... He thought about those huge paws and shuddered. To a rat the claws of that unnatural feline must be like daggers. Brrr! All a poor rat has going for him is his vaunted courage, which is a bad bargain. Who'd want to be the one to fight like a cornered rat!

Terrified but ready to fight, he cowered in the absolute darkness under the big iron grate, listening.

Softly, on almost silent feet, his foe was coming toward him. He saw it emerge from the stairwell, sleekly gliding with that sinuousness some called beautiful. Not a rat! It did not seem to be sniffing the floor. His hopes rose -- and the cat bent its nose downward. One sniff and it turned to pad directly toward Breen. Its eyes, almond shaped but looking big as unripe pears, flashed like emeralds in the moonlight that sneaked into the room. Could it see him, here in these darkest of shadows? It was easily twice his size, and instinct kept telling rattus rattus to flee, flee, while intellect told Breen to wait, wait.

Now the cat was much closer. Still it was not looking directly at him. Abruptly the flattened feline head turned ever so slightly.

Their eyes met...
 

Next Episode ... THE WRONG CAT
 


Previous episode Next episode


Table of ContentsPulp and Dagger icon
The Long Dark Road to Wizardry is copyright Richard K. Lyon and Andrew J. Offutt.  It may not be copied without permission of the authors except for purposes of reviews.  (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)