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 Six: The Puppet's War

Previously: Invited to dine with Duke Esaur and the Royal family, Breen at last discerns the truth...

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Episode 9 (Conclusion): Hell Come to Supper



"ONCE SUCH A PERFECT MIRROR EXISTED," Breen replied with a casualness that matched the others, "how could one say which side was reality and which reflection?"

As the young mercenary said these words, the group around the table twitched, a slight involuntary response to the great secret he had just laid open. As though nothing had happened Breen continued, "Although Ebbern's first spell did not quite make the mirror perfect, he did manage to attract the Gods alone know what dark forces from Beyond. They enslaved Ebbern, the Queen and the King, used them in their intrigue to get the means to perfect the mirror."

"So," hissed the Duke in a voice soft as a snake's, "you understand everything that's happened."

"Wait, I don't understand any of this!" Delanda interrupted. "Breen, why did you call me Queen?"

"Because in truth you are the Queen of this sorely troubled land."

"But that's not possible. I'm a youngest daughter, last in succession. I couldn't be queen unless my entire family were... dead." She could not speak further for as she looked about at her supposed relatives she saw and knew. The hair on the back of her neck prickled and her throat tightened as fear became mounting terror.

"Perhaps," said the thing that wore the outward appearance of Duke Esaur, "this masquerade has gone on long enough. Little warrior, you toy with powers vast beyond your imagining. Tell us what we would know and we shall deal gently with you." As he spoke, three men-at-arms, their swords naked, entered via the kitchen door, taking positions behind Breen.

He twisted his head, looked at them, and blandly said, "You with the great knife in your hand, be a good fellow and cut me some more roast beef." Turning back to the thing in the Duke's seeming form, he continued, "Since I'm not owing you any favors, why should I be telling you such valuable secrets?"

He placed his hand on his wine glass and dared not lift it, lest his hand shake and betray the fear he struggled to hide. Never in battle had there been such an angry knot in his stomach or such cold worms crawling up his spine and still he must maintain a calm front, must buy time by haggling over the price of secrets he knew not.

Delanda, Delanda, I've fought my share of battles, drunk my fill from Life's cup, and I've no complaint for myself. But you... still sweet with youth and untouched beauty -- why, why do the Gods allow this vile fate to take you?

"I see," declared the Duke-thing, "that you need a lesson." It gestured and slowly all the lights grew dim. First the candles died and a heartbeat later the glow from the fireplace ceased.

Again Breen was in total darkness and again he heard feet marching, echoing through a vast cavern. Something very close to him was slithering, the charnel house odor intense, and it was eating with that obscene crunching noise.

It spoke.

Rivers of emotion flowed in that wordless sound: hunger, cosmic hunger born of aeon long waiting, a hunger for, existence... Long, too long, it whispered, you have basked in the sunshine of life and being ... while we/I waited in the emptiness of the outer darkness, waited for this opportunity. Now nothing can stop us/me.

The flow of emotions became a torrent as the sound turned into a kaleidoscope of sightless mind filling visions. It/They saw itself, a great strayed beast, now seizing its prey in its claws. Its need, their hunger, permit no delay for killing the victim. It/They could and must sink their teeth into the quivering flesh, devouring the creature while it still lived.

The vision faded, the candles burst into flame -- and the darkness slowly receded. Once again the Imperial Dining room wore the mask of normalcy.

"Can you now see that it is futile to oppose us?" asked the Duke-thing, "or do you need another, far less pleasant lesson?"

Glancing backwards Breen saw that a fourth man-at-arms had joined the other three, Captain Volsa. No, that was impossible. Volsa had met the fate of traitors, been beheaded. This fourth man had a similar face but was far taller.

"Answer me!" demanded the copy of Duke Esaur, dark fires burning in its eyes.

Abruptly Delanda thrust a steak knife into Breen's hand and pressed her body close to his. "Kill me!" she screamed. "They mean to suck the life, the very being, out of our world and only my death can stop them!"

The Duke-thing smiled faintly and did not move.

Gently holding the knife away from Delanda, Breen said, "I take it that your plans are now so far advanced that her death matters little?"

"Obviously!" it purred. "The sacrifice of a virgin princess was only one of our options."

That fourth figure, its face is definitely Captain Volsa, even though the eyes are blank and staring. That means that... I know what I must do.

"Very well, in that case I'll tell you what Pyre is going to do."

Casually, as though he merely wished to stretch his legs, Breen pushed his chair back and slowly rose. "It's not such a great secret, as you suppose," he continued, "for under the tactical circumstance Pyre has little choice. He can no longer strike at you through Delanda and must now attack directly."

Idly cleaning his fingernails with the steak knife Breen stepped around the corner of the table, stopping close to the Duke-thing. He was only one pace away from the mirror, the innocent seeming portal that had opened to discharge this hell onto the Earth. "Naturally you are guarding against such an attack. If Pyre approached bearing any weapon of power, you would instantly sense it and counterattack."

He paused slightly, getting a better grip on the knife. "Thus Pyre has only one logical move."

The fourth man-at-arms slowly nodded his head.

"And that is?" the Duke-thing demanded.

"Very simply, THROW ME THE SWORD!" shouted Breen, his hand flashing to bury the knife in the Duke-thing's right breast, transfixing the heart.

The fourth figure had thrown the sword even as he spoke. It glittered through the air. As he stretched his hand to receive the bright weapon, one of the guards rushed at him, sword raised. The enchanted blade dropped into his waiting hand and he started turning to meet the guard. He wasn't going to make it. He could see his opponent's sword thrusting at him and he couldn't swing his weapon fast enough to block it.

Something struck the guard, his thrust went wide of the mark and Breen's blade slashed through his throat. The grim projectile which hit the guard lay on the floor: Captain Volsa's head.

Gods, he must have snatched the head off his shoulders and thrown it!

A backward glance showed the headless figure fighting with the two remaining guards. They rained sword strokes upon him with no more effect then if he had been a block of wood.

A single stride brought Breen to the mirror. As he fumbled at the handle of his sword he knew the battle was as good as won. The guards were engaged and could not stop him. The mirror images of Delanda's relatives were milling about, screaming at him in hatred and no more able to attack a warrior than the original nobility would have been. Victory was in his grasp...

The lights went out.

He stood in total darkness and heard the thing that slithered reaching toward him. By its own will his sword flashed out, cutting through something soft. He was splattered with a vile smelling thick liquid that burned his skin.

It slithered, seeming to reach toward him from all sides. His sword struck this way and that, making a ring of destruction, yet there seemed no limit to the obscene hands raised against him and his own strength was failing. When he no longer had the energy the enchanted sword required...

Far away there was light.

He was still in blind darkness yet he could see a bright figure coming. It was a headless man, his body burning fiercely. Under each arm it held a struggling helpless guard.

The darkness made one last effort to seize him and was gone.

Again the room seemed only a room. He twisted the end of his sword hilt and into his waiting hand dropped the Rasp of Ulkan.

The scream came from everywhere and nowhere, "No, No, I/we have a right to be! Stop! You must--"

He slashed the Rasp across the surface of the mirror. The first scratch spread like wildfire, the mirror rupturing with a thunderous roar and a blinding flash of light.

When Breen could see again, there was nothing left except shattered bits of wood and powdered glass upon the floor.

Of all the mirror image people none remained; he and Delanda were alone with the burning man. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat and addressed this weird headless creature. "Pyre, would you be a good fellow and stand in the fireplace? I shouldn't want you to set the palace on fire."

It turned, took three steps, and sat down beside the spit where the side of beef was roasting. A subtle change and it was inert, only a large wooden dummy burning in the fireplace. Flames danced upon it and within those flames was the wizard's face.

"I, I, don't understand," stammered Delanda.

"Really quite simple," replied the burning mage. "I came through the Black Door shortly after you two. As a tiny puppet I could do little and hence I transferred myself to the large figure I'd used earlier. Couldn't find my own head and as the captain had no further use for his, I took it."

"But, but, what was all this about?" she demanded. "Who was this enemy from beyond the mirror?"

"No, my dear, it is enough that we have met dark forces and turned them back. You should not ask to understand such things." The fire was dying and the wizard's voice seemed to come from far away, the last words barely audible. There was a sudden flaring, something bright shooting up the chimney, and nothing remained in the fireplace save glowing embers.

"Where did he go?" she murmured.

"I know not," Breen answered, "perhaps my Queen, he returned whence he came."

"And I really am Queen? I have to rule this troubled nation?"

"Yes."

"Breen, please, I want you, I need you by my side."

He took her into his arms, pressed her shapely body close against his and the long day ended far more happily than it began.

* * *

FAR AWAY, IN CASTLE ICE, A FIGURE SAT motionless in a chair for many days. Slowly it began coming back to life. Though long disused muscles ached furiously, no groan escaped his lips. That was the way of the man who had once been Sir Druin.

Rising he strode across the room through a door and out onto a balcony. Turning his painfully stiff neck upward he gazed at the night sky. Twas black and starless, which Pyre thought fitting, for the Norgemen were right: the Gods were long dead. In this black and demon-haunted world there was no morality, only constant danger. One such peril he had just averted. There would be others and to meet them he would do whatever was necessary.

The End.


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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.)