Authors: Mark Acres
“Kill that sow, Heinrich,” called his friend. He had drawn his sword and was about to step into the fray when George yelled a battle cry as he, too, charged into the open field. The remaining soldier turned to face this new threat, which appeared to be the more dangerous of the two; but unfortunately for the green fighter, he had not the slightest idea of how to meet a pike charge—especially when he carried no shield and was armed only with a longsword. In the heat of the moment he decided to plant his feet, extend the sword, and try to either parry the pike or, failing that, leap aside at the last moment.
George was more experienced than that; he had killed more than one highly trained knight on the battlefield. The only question in George’s mind, as he ran forward, was which way the man would dodge. He knew the blow of a longsword would not be strong enough to deflect the weighty pike shaft, and he knew from long experience that his own momentum would ram the weapon clean through his lightly armored foe.
George quickened his pace to his top speed. The soldier struck. Not only did his blow not deflect the pike, the vibration from the blow traveled through the hilt of his sword and stabbed his hand with terrific pain. The surprise of this caused him to hesitate, less than half a second. That was too much time.
The business end of George’s pike sliced through the man in an instant, cleaving him from sternum to backbone. George let go of the pike as the soldier stumbled forward and off to one side, dead before the pike point hit the ground. He flopped about piteously as his body slid down the shaft to crash against the cold ground. But George had no time to admire his handiwork. “Marta, behind you!” he shouted.
Marta spun around from her recent attacker to see that the man she’d sent sprawling was now not only up but swinging a level, neck-high sword blow at her. She ducked and then launched herself headfirst at her foe, screaming in rage as she flew through the air to crash into his chest. At the instant of impact, she grabbed his neck in her bare hands and wrapped her mouth around his nose, biting hard. She both heard and felt a satisfying crunch, and the taste of blood was in her mouth before the twosome hit the ground, for the force of her attack had sent the man falling over backward.
George, meanwhile, seeing that Marta was being taken from front and rear, waited until her second attacker was ready to strike her from behind and then hurled himself onto the man, wrapping his scrawny but strong legs around the man’s waist, and his arms around his head and neck. His left hand dug at the man’s face until his middle finger located an eye socket. George poked and gouged. His foe screamed in alarm as half his field of vision suddenly disappeared, and his one good eye saw its recent companion drop to the ground, trailing bloody tissue. The shock was too great for the soldier, who momentarily ceased his struggle. George grabbed his jaw and twisted hard. He heard the crack of the man’s neck, then rode the corpse as it fell to the earth.
Marta, meanwhile, had spit the Heilesheimer’s nose back into his face while her fat fingers clamped into his soft throat. The would-be warrior thrashed helplessly on his back, legs kicking, hands tearing at Marta’s hair, but he had not the strength to force her bulk off him. In less than a minute, the last of the life was choked out of him.
“Heilesheim scum,” Marta muttered, as she spit another mouthful of the man’s blood into his dead face. “You won’t be enjoying any more of our Shallowford cows, will you?”
“Well done, Marta! You’re a wonder, you are,” George exclaimed, climbing off the corpse beneath him and glancing about to find his pike. “By the gods, you’re a wonder!”
“The wonder is how we will ever be able to move undetected now,” Bagsby said dryly. George and Marta turned, startled by his voice.
“Guv! Didn’t know you’d joined the fray!” George sang out cheerily.
“I didn’t—there was no need,” Bagsby replied. “However, that fellow running for his life over there will start halooing for the rest of the company before long, and I suggest we be gone from here before they come.” Bagsby’s pudgy face was screwed up into a scowl of disapproval. “Once we get to safety, we’d better have a chat about the advantages of not being seen,” he added, turning to stride angrily back into the woods.
“I couldn’t help myself,” Marta explained, as the foursome held conference in a shallow depression surrounded by piles of rock on the very bank of the River Rigel. The big woman sat on a water-smoothed, flat rock, her gaze cast down at the shallow pool where she was washing off her large feet. “That village ahead was my home once, and those beasts did such things there that...”
“Yes, yes,” Bagsby interjected. The little man squatted on another rock, perched high enough above the others to accent his position of leadership. He gazed impassively out at the swift, rolling current of the Rigel—eighty yards wide at this point—with the enemy land of Heilesheim on the far side. “We’re all aware of your pain from your past experiences, and no one here blames you for your hatred of Heilesheim. But your actions have put us at serious risk. One of those five men has escaped. Right now, a swarm of Heilesheim troops will be combing the north bank of the river, looking for a big, crazy female and her deserter companion,” Bagsby explained.
“‘Ow would they know I was a deserter?” George challenged.
“Where else would you have learned to use a pike? And if you weren’t a deserter, why were you attacking regular troops in the company of this crazed... lady?”
“Unnhh,” George grunted.
“The soldiers will be searching for us even now,” Shulana said. “At the rate we’ve been traveling, they’ll overtake us within a few hours—a day at most if we’re very lucky and try to go back the way we came.”
“Then,” Bagsby said, suddenly cheerful, “we’ll lighten our load and go where they’ll never think to look for us.”
Marta flinched visibly at the mention of lightening their load. “Those goods,” she said, pointing to the bundle that inevitably became George’s bane on the march, “are all I have left in the world. If you think I’m going to give them up without a fight…”
“Not at all,” Bagsby said, leaping to his feet, “You can carry all your loot, Marta, and we can carry treasure, too.”
“‘Ow?” George asked.
Bagsby leaned over and placed his face squarely in front of George’s, a twinkle in his eye, and a good-natured smile on his face. “Magic,” he said.
“Of course,” Shulana interjected. “I could diminish some of these things.”
“I thought that only worked for a little while,” Marta said, still suspicious.
“That particular spell lasts until it is canceled—usually by using a command word,” Shulana explained. “I can shrink the Golden Eggs down to the size of pebbles and then, when the command word is spoken, they’ll return to their normal size.”
“Excellent!” Bagsby shouted, clapping his hands. “Let’s get going. With the Golden Eggs no larger than pebbles, there’ll be no need to shrink any of your things, Marta. He began grabbing items off the rocks and tossing them toward Marta’s precious pile of goods. “You and George can easily share the burden now.” He stopped in midstride then suddenly turned to Shulana. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we all knew the command word, in case one of us is killed or captured?”
“‘Ere now, that’s good thinkin’!” George agreed. “If anything ‘appens to you two, I wouldn’t want to be stuck with little gold pebbles instead of the greatest treasures in the world.”
Shulana’s brow creased in a small frown. It was dangerous, involving novices in anything magical. Indeed that was the reason she had not used the spell earlier to ease their journey. But, still, it was only one word, and it would have a very limited effect, she reasoned. “Very well. Gather round and listen closely.”
In the waning moments of darkness Shulana taught the three humans one word of elven magic, the word that would break the spell she then cast on each of the Golden Eggs of Parona. Bagsby held the two shrunken treasures in the palm of his hand, then slid them into a tiny purse attached securely to the leather strap around his waist. Secretly, he felt an enormous sense of relief. Now he alone could carry the treasure. It was a wonder to him that Marta hadn’t noticed the strange warmth that sometimes emanated from the eggs. Nor, apparently, had she noticed that, from time to time, there were strange vibrations from deep within them. Now, he no longer had to worry about her making such a discovery. He wondered if Shulana had pried around them and noticed these strange facts, but he dared not ask. No matter. His plan was working. Now it was time to be off.
“It’s done. Let’s march, before those troops are on to us.”
“Wait a minute,” Marta asked, puzzled. “You never said where we were going.”
“I said we were going where the troops would never think to look for us—and we are,” Bagsby replied merrily.
“Where?” Shulana asked.
“There!” Bagsby said, extending his arm and pointing straight out across the River Rigel. “We’re crossing the river into Heilesheim.”
staggered back from the window of his tower room at Lundlow Keep, his mind so filled with pain and rage that he could neither think nor speak. Incapable of intelligibility, he emitted an animal scream of pure hatred.
With the one eye that remained to him he surveyed the ruin of what, only moments before, had been a major magical laboratory and study. Still screaming, he strode across the circular room, kicking this way and that the charred remnants of tables, chairs, shelves, and reading stands, shattering further pieces of glass that were already burnt shards, completing the destruction of ancient tomes whose price was beyond naming—now all consumed by the flames and lightning that had engulfed the room.
Through the greasy, stinking smoke that still filled the chamber, he perceived the form of a man who appeared in the doorway—a man in chain mail and shield. It was a guard… one of the guards, one of the entire company of guards… one of the imbeciles whose sole reason for existing was to have prevented this intrusion and destruction from happening!
“Lord Valdaimon! Are you harmed?” the man called, vainly waving at the smoke that assaulted his face and lungs.
Valdaimon turned to face the man and screamed his rage.
“By all the gods!” the man exclaimed, his face growing visibly pale even through the black smoke. “Oh, by all the gods!” The man staggered backward, turned, and stumbled out the door, visibly ill.
“Come back here, you coward! Come back and face the wrath of Valdaimon!” the ancient wizard shrieked. At least, that’s what he thought he had shrieked. There was no response from beyond the door, only the sound of a single man being sick. “Answer me!” Valdaimon called, listening carefully to the sounds of his own voice. The words! The words were not right. He tried again. “Guard,” he called in softer tones. To his own ear, it sounded as though he said something more like “groourd.”
Horrified, Valdaimon raised his right hand to his face—or at least, he thought he had raised his hand—until his remaining eye informed him that his right arm and hand were gone.
In the main hall of Lundlow Keep, far down the great spiral staircase that led to the tower room, the assembled guards listened with fear to the animal bellowing of the man they had been assigned to protect by no less a personage than King Ruprecht of Heilesheim himself. Only the most stupid among the men were worried about their future as soldiers; most were certain that the penalty for their failure to stop the intruders who had ransacked Valdaimon’s private chamber would be death.
The captain of the guard was nonplussed: he didn’t know how the thieves had gotten in; he couldn’t comprehend how they could have defeated his skilled guardsmen in combat, and he hadn’t the slightest notion of what they might have stolen. Normally, he would have ordered a quick pursuit, but no one had seen the plunderers leave. Worse, he feared that any men he sent out in pursuit would immediately desert rather than face the penalty for failure.
“Caaaannn,” a firm voice called from the stairway.
The captain ordered his men to fall into ranks, then turned to see the source of the sound. His horror was complete when he saw the form of Valdaimon on the steps—but a much modified form. The old wizard had always been an ugly devil with his shrunken, shriveled old body, wrinkly, jaundiced face, and a mouth that held only a handful of pointy yellow teeth. But now the hideousness was, if anything, more complete. The entire right side of the wizard’s face was terribly burned. Flesh peeled from the bony ridge above the right eye socket, revealing the white of bone, and beneath the empty socket, even larger strips of flesh drooped downward, peeled away from the scrawny, stringy muscles of the right cheek. There were burns, too, in a bizarre, random pattern down the old wizard’s chest. His tattered robe was charred, and great, gaping holes revealed the flesh beneath—and at times, more hints of bone. But worst of all was the mouth. The entire right side looked as if it had simply melted, the lips and flesh forming one bulging mass that had dripped obscenely onto the narrow chin, then hardened and clung there.
“Caaann,” the nightmare figure called again, waving with its left hand and arm for the captain to approach.
“Lord Valdaimon,” the captain replied, walking slowly toward the base of the stairs, “you are... injured. What can I do?”
Never had the captain seen more pure hatred in a face as Valdaimon’s one eye burned into his soul. But then the old wizard released his gaze and hung his head, shaking it slowly from side to side.
“Is there nothing I can do?” the captain inquired cautiously.
Valdaimon gestured vaguely behind his legs and squatted as though to sit. He looked inquisitively at the human cretin—had he understood?
“A chair, a chair!” the captain shouted. “A chair for Lord Valdaimon!”
Valdaimon nodded affirmatively, pointing back up the great spiral staircase. Then he turned, without attempting to speak further, and trudged laboriously upward, lifting his scrawny, yellowed feet with their long, hardened nails one at a time onto the next step, and then the next. Two guards followed his slow progress, carrying a large wooden chair and several pillows for the wizard’s use in the tower room.
“My lord,” the captain called, “is there nothing else we can do?”
Valdaimon waved his hand in the air with a gesture of dismissal. There was nothing any human could do for him.
He wanted revenge, but first Valdaimon decided to get some much-needed rest. A portion of his life force had been poured into the corpse of a guard and sent on an errand to the far eastern reaches of Heilesheim; the rest of his “soul,” as men would call it, had been stored in the special gem that still hung from a chain around his neck. His body reverted to dead dust as he lay in his special wooden box, filled with earth from his native soil.
It had been Bagsby, of course. Valdaimon knew that as soon as his rage had cooled enough to let his keen mind function. Now he sat in the chair, alone in the tower room, seeing and smelling the damage from Bagsby’s attack. From the bits and pieces of evidence available and what he had seen of the guards in the main hall of the keep below, he deduced the sequence of events that had led to his own sorry state.
Clearly Bagsby had distracted the guards in some way, causing the mass confusion. Then he and his group—at the end, Valdaimon had seen the elf woman and two other humans fleeing with Bagsby, even though they were much diminished in size by the elf’s spell—had somehow tricked one of the guards into breaking down Valdaimon’s locked door, the only entrance to the tower room.
The still-lingering smell of smoke and the thorough destruction wrought by the fires told Valdaimon what had happened next. The first guard through the door had triggered the magical trap that Valdaimon had set—an explosion of fire sufficient to destroy any force bursting through the door. But the wizard had anticipated that a thief might push someone else in first to set off any magical trap, which was why he had set a second trap—a lightning bolt trap—to incinerate a second group coming through the door. How that imp Bagsby was clever enough to escape the second trap Valdaimon wasn’t sure; yet somehow Bagsby had set off the trap while avoiding the destruction it entailed.
Then the little thief, with the help of that elf, had found the Golden Eggs of Parona, even though they were hidden by an invisibility spell. The elf had shrunk herself, the thief, and the eggs, and all had made their getaway down a rope out the tower window. But not before they had found a vial of holy water, blessed by the human god of love and fecundity, which had somehow survived both the fire and the lightning. They had poured it over Valdaimon’s resting body, and as a result, he had lost one eye, his right arm and hand, and the use of his mouth for intelligible speech. He had no hope of being able to cast spells without the ability to speak clearly, nor could he use any magic of real power without the ability to gesture. In addition, the explosions and fire had destroyed his roomful of magical components many of them quite rare: bits of mandrake root, the blood of a vampire long since destroyed, eyes, bladders, dried feces and dried brains from over three dozen rare creatures, and a collection of body parts from humans known to history for their… misbehaviors. Some
of these were replaceable, but some were not. And that did not take into account all the priceless books, scrolls, and parchments the wizard had accumulated in this, his second-best study.
The worst of it, though, Valdaimon realized, was that now Bagsby had the Golden Eggs of Parona—with the secret of all-powerful fire from the sky hidden somehow within them—and he, Valdaimon, was momentarily powerless even to pursue this puny mortal who had so offended him!
Then, there were the political repercussions to consider. Valdaimon dreamed back over the past century—how, at the height of his powers as a wizard, he had maneuvered for decades to bring Heilesheim to its present pitch, of military and political development, and the forefathers of the present king, Ruprecht, to the Heilesheim throne. He remembered the countless plots and ploys, the endless string of minor spells and enchantments, the thousands of insults, impolite stares, sneers of disgust, and royal rebuffs he had suffered—all from mere mortals who were not worthy to be his slaves. He remembered his great goal—the conquest of the Holy Alliance through the power of Heilesheim, and then the unleashing of the unbelievable power of fire from the sky when he had solved the secret of the Golden Eggs. At last he would dominate the entire earth, and there would be no power of human, elf, or god that could stand in his way.
But now all this was cast in doubt. He could not even appear in the presence of the king in his current state. The young egomaniac would sneer, laugh, and despise him—and the Baron Culdus, general in chief of the Heilesheim armies, would take Valdaimon’s place as the decadent king’s most trusted adviser.
Powerless! He, Valdaimon, powerless! The old wizard’s face contorted again with the pangs of unbearable rage.
A fluttering of wings sounded from the narrow window that peered out from the tower room. Valdaimon did not turn around to see what caused the sound; he knew. He closed his one eye and let his mind wander—only a short distance—over to the window. There, his mental essence entered and merged with that of the fat, filthy crow whose landing was the source of the sound. Through the eyes of this, his familiar, he saw his own decrepit body slumped in the chair—deformed, defiled, and powerless.
Of course the crow had returned as soon as its master was wounded. The magical force that had bound it to the wizard remained intact, and the spell remained in force, even though the wizard could cast no new spells. Now, Valdaimon’s mind blended with that of the cunning creature, recovering its memories. It had followed and followed and followed Bagsby, right until the little thief had taken his booty and headed south. No doubt he would make for the River Rigel, Valdaimon realized, and the cover of the forests on its banks.
The lowly crow dared to think a thought.
it thought, in the vague form in which it could think, tilting its head to one side to study more carefully the unfamiliar cast of the familiar body of its lifelong owner, feeder, order giver, and veritable god.
The thought struck Valdaimon like a thunderclap.
As fast as thought, Valdaimon forced his mind back into his hapless body. Of course, the obvious solution to his dilemma was to possess another body with his own life force and then, with his powers of speech and gesture restored, perform magic as he pleased. But the higher magic would still be denied him. The correct pronunciation of the words, the subtleties of the hand movements, the balance of tensions throughout the body required for the casting of truly great spells, required a lifetime—-or several—of training. No mere borrowed body, no matter how tightly controlled, would be capable of the tasks that would confront Valdaimon in the weeks to come. Only his own body would truly do. But a god could heal that body.
Valdaimon shuddered. As a wizard he had, even in mortal life, eschewed religion; and in his present undead form, he was considered an abomination by almost all the gods of the Heilesheim pantheon. And certainly no god of the Holy Alliance would assist him.
But there was one god who was not so... particular. There was one god who reveled in the cracking of skulls, the shedding of blood, the destruction of life, and the desolation of entire countries—a god who would tolerate any evil so long as his own power was enhanced, a god to whom even the undead could turn, so long as they had some bargaining chips: Wojan, the Heilesheim god of war. He would strike a bargain with the god of war and get his body back. And then he would engulf the damnable Bagsby and his elf—and the whole mortal world—in fire from the heavens, and become himself an immortal king!
“Caaaannn uh goourd,” the old wizard shouted. “Caaann uh goord!”
There was a clank of metal footsteps on the cold stone steps up to the tower room, and in due time the panting captain of the guard presented himself, carefully averting his eyes from the unbearable sight of this disgusting creature who had the king’s favor. Through a series of violent gestures and unintelligible exclamations, Valdaimon made the lowly human understand that he should prepare the guard troop to move out. Valdaimon was returning to Hamblen, to the palace of the king.
Ruprecht of Heilesheim gazed down from the window of the great council chamber in the palace of the former king of Argolia. He watched with amusement the curls of black smoke, seeking the sky above the burning city. The pitiful squeals of civilians, many being beaten or worse by his rampaging army, brought a smile to his thin lips. The booty of Clairton had been given to his army as reward for its great victory—a move calculated to improve morale and inspire love for the man who would soon be the ruler of the entire known world. Still smiling, the thin, pale wastrel turned from the window and shook his long, greasy black locks.