The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book III: The Wind at World’s End
Episode 2: Wind Wolves
part 2 of 2
Previously: To gain the power he will need to avenge the murder of his family, Lord Druin goes in search of the Floating Mountain, the legendary home of the dread wizard Mardarin. Though Druin has never met the wizard, Mardarin is his grandfather.
Druin’s party is attacked by a night demon, a thing with the appearance of a beautiful woman. One by one she calls Druin’s men, leaving each a dry husk. Druin’s heroic efforts do not save any of his men, and he escapes only thanks to the coming of dawn. As she disappears into the fading darkness the she-demon promises to come for him the following night.As Druin hurries toward his grandfather’s home, he comes across the tracks of eight men carrying some heavy object, a mystery he investigates briefly before hurrying on. Topping a rise, he sees Floating Mountain hovering above a vast desert; it is many days’ journey away. Night is coming and he cannot reach his grandfather’s keep. His only hope of avoiding his appointment with the night demon is gone...
Good, Druin told himself, while chills ran up and down his spine. That means my enemy cannot reach me here. Though he’d heard of wind-wolves, he had always supposed them a mere legend, a scare-tale to frighten the credulous.
Now, listening to the uncanny howling that came from everywhere and nowhere, he could believe. Perhaps there were ghost wolves one could neither see nor fight, wolves whose victims vanished in a single horrific moment, devoured by invisible jaws.
“Ahh, good companions, I hope you will excuse me for being a trifle confused,” he began politely, “but as I understand it, the Floating Mountain only comes nigh here at night. How are we supposed to run to it while these wind-wolves are about?”
Bungamin smiled. “That is what our followers are for. You saw them outside. We run in center, they ring us. Maybe lose a few, but they are cheap.”
And where am I supposed to run? Druin wondered. He was, he knew, the weakest member of a survivors’ club.
“It’s nearly full dark,” Count Kainus said to no one in particular.
“I shall cover the fire,” Torguadis said in an equally offhand manner, and began arranging a black drape in front of the hearth.
As the room was swallowed in darkness, Druin protested. “Gentlemen, would one of you mind explaining this strange preparation?”
“The Lady,” Kainus gently told him, “never dines until after dark and prefers that the room be dimly lit. Naturally, we honor her preference.”
The others nodded in agreement and abruptly Druin’s hands were clammy with a chill sweat. His mouth went dry as the sands outside. Now he understood it all. Even while fear gripped him, his mind filled with a strange chilly clamminess, and on the instant he knew precisely what he must do to survive. The irony was heavy, ugly. While his fears came under the control of an icily calculating mind, he was tempted to laugh.
Slowly the inn’s door opened and a woman entered the common room.
At first, his eyes not yet adjusted to the poor light, Druin could see only that she wore a flowing white gown and moved with a grace denied mortal women. His three companions prostrated themselves before her in an abject adoration that befitted a goddess. And as his eyes adjusted Druin knew that they were right — she in white was divinely beautiful and deserving of worship.
“Greetings, my lady,” he said in a flat voice, standing erect. “I rather expected that you would meet me here.”
Did you? Really? Her voice was all golden bells in a sweet breeze.
“’Twas logical. You promised to meet me tonight, and since you could deduce that I’d be here, you had your casket carried to this place.”
Well, clever man, she whispered. True. Since there is no point in postponing what must be, pray follow me.
She turned and was gone. Druin moved swiftly after her, still wearing his long cloak with the little lamp in one of its pockets. When he stepped out onto the desert, she was out of sight but there was no mistaking the tent to which she had repaired. It shone as though filled with moonlight.
When he opened the tent flap and stepped through, he saw her clearly for the first time. His mouth fell open and he could scarcely speak or breathe.
Please come in, she murmured. While I do not like the light of sun or fire, I would have you see and know me. So I arranged this moonlight. She moved with silken swiftness that he might see her, and hers was a beauty beyond the beauty of woman, beyond the words of the poet.
You have, I fear, her golden voice said in tones sweeter than wine, misunderstood what has been happening. True, men come to Me and die, but this ‘sacrifice’ they make of their own free will. For I am Theba, All-mother of humankind.
Ages ago a great evil befell. We, the other gods and I, went into darkness and humankind lost our guidance and blessing. Since that tragic day, men have fought one another blindly, each with his hand raised against his brother.
Yet We did not die as mortals do, for we cannot. Now the stars have turned and are favorable. I can live again, bless the world again... with your help.
She was slipping out of the white gown and despite its beauty she was as a butterfly leaving an ugly cocoon. Eyes bulging, Druin stared at the slimness of Her waist, the glory of her full breasts, the slim hips.
Give me your life, Druin, your poor broken life, and I will give you love. The pure white gown of gauze and silk and cobwebbery fell from Her in a shower of liquid ripples, and she stood before him in pearly nudity. With exquisite slowness she — the goddess, the very goddess Theba — moved her long perfect legs apart in open provocation and offertory.
Come to me, Druin, she whispered, smiling twofold.
Druin’s heart was a galloping charger and his blood burned with fever. He knew that to touch those breasts, to be prisoned between those legs, would be ecstasy beyond the joy a man might hope for in a dozen lifetimes. His mind swam in a confusion of desire and his manhood swelled, but all the while there was coldness in his orphan’s soul like a great block of ice.
Her spell did not prevail. His hand snapped from under his cloak. It held the little oil lamp — Theba’s lamp. In a single swift motion he cracked the lamp and spattered its contents upon Her. While Her ocean-deep eyes widened in dismay, he raised his hand toward Her perfect body.
“BURN, MY LADY, BURN!” he shouted, and where he touched Her, the oil burst into devouring red flames. Instantly, they enveloped Her.
From her lips Druin heard not a sound but a silent scream that echoed in his mind. NO! she howled, I WANTED SO LITTLE AND COULD HAVE GIVEN SO MUCH IT IS NOT...
The rest was silent. Her body burned like dry parchment. As he watched, Druin wondered: Had she lied?
Was he destroying a demon, a blood-sucking creature of the night that had impiously pretended to be Theba herself? Perhaps, and perhaps the Norgemen were right.
Perhaps the gods had all died ages ago, Theba herself included, and all humankind was merely a noisome worm crawling about a decaying world. If so, he was destroying the last remnant of what had once been a great Goodness.
It did not matter. What he was doing was necessary. The lord of Zadok had vowed to serve no gods save only Expediency. Since this one had sucked her or its lovers dry of their fluids, it followed that she herself was dry, seeking fluid because fluidless... and therefore vulnerable to fire. Thus he had decided, and he was right.
The flames were spreading rapidly — actually blazing. To Druin’s right the emblazoned coffin was smoldering, and on his left the tent wall was aflame. Heat swept out at him as from an open door to Hell. Druin staggered back, stumbling out of the tent and into the chill night air of the desert.
His comrades were avenged, and others saved. As for the vengeance due his family, the work of a son of a duke and grandson of a wizard was not finished.
* * *
He was not even through with this night’s activity. Behind him someone shouted, and he whirled to face Bungamin, Count Kainus, and Torguadis.
“He has murdered Our Lady!” the black giant screamed. Even as he spoke, his spear-armed warriors were rushing from the tent to rally to their chief. The other two tents were disgorging the Count’s men, creaking in their hard leather jackets and brandishing swords, and Torguadis’s acolytes, all of whom held ominous black staffs.
Confronted by this armed array, Druin stood smiling ironically. He spoke in a mocking voice, and as he did he pointed past them. “Gentlemen, look to your left. Floating Mountain comes! It is almost here. Which will you choose — to chase me, or it?”
Armed retainers looked to their masters. Though Bungamin continued to glare at Druin like a hungry beast, Torguadis glanced left and stood staring in open-mouthed awe.
There, enormous beyond belief, so near it seemed one could almost reach out and touch it, was the mountain, drifting a few yards above the desert. Its snowy cap shone in the bright moonlight.
“Come!” the priest screamed. “Never will we have another such chance!”
His eyes never leaving Druin, the black chief took a spear from one of his men. “After this dog lies twitching toward death! He — Count Kainus?”
The Count, touched by the light of the full moon, was changing. His face crawled with hair and his open lips revealed vulpine fangs. Bent low to the ground, he lifted that hideous head and howled at the moon. Then he was racing away, four-footed, toward the drifting mountain.
Instantly the priest was off and running behind him, holding up his skirts and shouting: “All of you, follow me!” His own acolytes and Kainus’s men obeyed and Bungamin’s warriors were swept along, willing or no.
Left behind, their gigantic chief cursed, hurled the spear at Druin with haste, and turned swiftly to speed after the others. Druin twisted aside to let the spear hiss harmlessly by. It struck quivering in the sand, plowing deep, and he laughed mightily.
* * *
As he watched, the runners drew into their planned formation, masters within, servants outside. Though the desert was swept with a wind of arctic cold, most of Bungamin’s warriors wore only loincloths. The howling of the wind-wolves rose to crescendo and one of the blacks, a clean-limbed youth, exploded into a bloody cloud. His naked skeleton ran a pace or two before collapsing on the red-stained sand.
Next a soldier. The bronze studs of his leather clothing popped like corks from a host of bottles, the leather itself torn to shreds, while his unprotected arms and legs simply vanished. Another black was skeletonized and the attack focused on one of the black-pajamaed, yellow-skinned acolytes. Though his right hand disappeared, he clutched his black rod in the left and smote the empty air with desperate fury. Twice he was rewarded by death shrieks before his throat was torn out and his blood fountained onto the sand. Dead on his feet, he fell headlong. His corpse lay on the ground, twitching side to side while it disappeared.
Despite their horrid casualties, the runners pressed steadily onward. The watching Druin marveled at their courage and their stupidity. How far would they go, he wondered, running through the frigid night while their numbers melted like candle wax, all in pursuit of a goal that retreated one step for every racing pace they took?
For a little he watched them running headlong into the distance, leaving their dead behind like marker stones. Then he turned and walked slowly toward the inn.
While he had just tricked a group of fools out of their lives, that was no reason to let them continue to deprive him of supper.
Inside, he seated himself and ladled vegetable stew onto his plate. The diminutive proprietor sat in a dark corner and watched him with burning eyes. When he spoke, it was in a husky whisper. “I see you didn’t go with the others to chase Floating Mountain.”
“Of course not,” Druin replied between mouthfuls of the green mess. “Only a lackwit would believe that a mountain could actually float. One hardly had to note that it throws no shadow to know that what one sees outside is a mirage.”
“True,” his unprepossessing host said, dark eyes sparkling. “However, many men cannot use their wits when they confront the supernatural, and so seem lackwit.”
“I don’t have that problem,” Druin replied. After another spoonful of stew, he added, “And by the way, grandfather, this wants salt.”
End of Book 3
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon