Authors: L. Sprague deCamp
THE FALLIBLE FIEND
L. Sprague de Camp
The Fallable Fiend
L. Sprague de Camp
THE PERFECT SERVANT (NOT!)
He looked like a cross between a dragon and a catfish, and he could bend iron bars into pretzels with a flick of his hand. But what Zdim the mild-mannered demon really was, was a scholar of logic and philosophy. That's why when Zdim was drafted for a year's servitude on the mortal plane he felt that a monumental administrative error had been made.
And even though Zdim resolved to be absolutely obedient and to do
what he was told, the wizard who employed him soon agreed…
I remembered how insistent Doctor Maldivius had been about my devouring the first person to enter the sanctum before his return. No exceptions, he had said; I must follow his orders literally and implicitly. When I tried to ask whether he was fain to except his apprentice, Master Grax, he had shut me off. Meseemed he wished me, for some arcane reason, to treat Grax as I would any other intruder . . .
Presently Grax stood in the entrance with a sack of edibles, bought in the village, on one shoulder. “Hola there, stupid!” he cried. “Poor old catfish, can do nought better than sit in the sanctum and look ugly, like the idol of some heathen god—ho what do you do?”
Grax had advanced into the sanctum as he spoke. The youth had time for but one short scream as I tore him to pieces, and ate him.
Baen Books by L. Sprague de Camp
The Hand of Zei
The Glory That Was
The Fallible Fiend
With Fletcher Pratt
The Complete Compleat Enchanter
Land of Unreason
With Catherine Crook de Camp
The Stones of Nomuru
The Incorporated Knight
The Swords of Zinjaban
With David Drake
The Undesired Princess and the Enchanted Bunny
THE FALLIBLE FIEND
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 1972, 1973 by Ultimate Publishing Co., Inc.
Copyright © 1973, by L. Sprague de Camp
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Book
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, N.Y. 10471
Cover art by Darrell Sweet
First Baen printing, July 1992
Distributed by SIMON & SCHUSTER
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, N.Y. 10020
Printed m the United States of America
Electronic Version by Baen Books
To Isaac Asimov,
who started after I did but
has natheless written more books.
Ego te olim assequar!
On the first day of the Month of the Crow, in the fifth year of King Tonio of Xylar (according to the Novarian calendar) I learnt that I had been drafted for a year’s service on the Prime Plane, as those who dwell there vaingloriously call it. They refer to our plane as the Twelfth, whereas from our point of view, ours is the Prime Plane and theirs, the Twelfth. But, since this is the tale of my servitude on the plane whereof Novaria forms a part, I will employ their terms.
I at once repaired to the court of the Provost of Nine. I had known the Provost before his elevation. In fact, as boy-demons we had hunted flitflowers together in the Marshes of Kshak, and I hoped to claim exemption on the basis of this old friendship. I said: “My dear old Hwor, how good to see you again! All goes well with you, I trust?”
“Zdim Akh’s son,” said Hwor sternly, “you should know better than to address your Provost, in the discharge of his office, in familiar terms. Let us have due decorum.”
“Well—all—” I stammered. “I beg your pardon, Lord Provost. Now, about this notice of induction, I believe I may claim deferment.”
“On what grounds?” said the Provost in his most grating official voice.
“Imprimis, on the ground that my mate, Yeth Ptyg’s daughter, has just laid a clutch of eggs and needs me at home to help guard them. Secundus, having been trained in philosophy and logic, I am unsuited to the land of rough-and-tumble, adventuresome life, which, I am told, awaits one on the Prime Plane. Tertius, the philosopher Khrum, whose apprentice I am, has departed on a fortnight’s fishing trip, leaving his effects, correspondence, and pupils in my care. And quartus, our crop of rabbages is nearly ripe and will need me to harvest it.”
“Deferment denied. Imprimis, I shall send a bailiff to help your mate in guarding the eggs and collecting the crop. Secundus, besides your philosophy, you are also well-read in Prime Plane history and biography and so are better fitted to cope with the exigencies of that world than most demons sent thither. Tertius, a few days off will not harm the respected Khrum’s pupils and correspondents. And quartus, we
have somebody, and your name has come up in the drawing. Our growing population and rising standard of living require more and more iron, and private interests must yield to the common good. So you shall report here three days hence for evocation.”
Three days later, I bit Yeth good-bye and returned to the Provost’s court. Hwor gave me parting advice: “You will find the average Prime Planer a soft, weak being. Unarmed, he presents no threat. The folk of that plane, however, have conceived an array of lethal weapons, wherewith they practice the barbaric art of war. Do not needlessly expose yourself to harm from such weapons. Whereas we demons are stronger, tougher, and longer-lived than the men of the Prime Plane, it is not yet known for sure whether we have souls, which upon death move on to another dimension, as do the souls of Prime Planers.”
“I will be careful,” I said. “Khrum tells me that the Prime Plane afterworld is an extraordinary place, where gods are feeble wraiths, magic is virtually impotent, and most of the work is done by machinery. He assures me that, to preserve the symmetry of the cosmos, there should logically be an afterworld related to our plane in the same way—”
“I daresay,” said Hwor. “You must excuse me, but I have a busy schedule. Take care for your safety, render faithful service, and obey the laws of the Prime Plane.”
“But how if these laws be mutually contradictory? Or if my master command me to commit an illegality?
“You will have to work that out as best you can.” He pointed a claw. “Kindly stand on yonder pentacle.”
I stepped to the center of the diagram, and the technician closed the figure with a piece of charcoal. Then I had to wait half an hour by the time candle.
At last the lines of the pentacle glowed red. Thereby I knew that he who had contracted for me had uttered his incantation. And then—
—the Provost’s courtroom vanished and I stood, instead, in a rough-hewn underground chamber, on a pentacle just like that in my own world. I knew that a hundred-pound ingot of iron had rested upon the pentacle whereon I now stood, and that this ingot had taken my place in the Twelfth Plane. Our accursed lack of iron compels us to indenture our citizens as bondservants to the Prime Planers.
The chamber was circular, about twenty feet in diameter and half as high. The surrounding wall had a single opening into a dark tunnel. The air had a dank, dead quality.
A pair of ornate brass lamps illumined the chamber. Volumes crowded bookshelves around the walls. Furnishings included chairs, tables, and a divan, all worn and battered. The tables were littered with bowls, braziers, balances, mortars, and other tools of a wizard’s trade. On a small stand rested a holder, in which lay a blue sphere the size of a human being’s fist. It was evidently a magical gemstone, for it glowed with a flickering light.
There were two human beings in the chamber. The elder was a thin, stoop-shouldered man almost as tall as I, which is quite tall for a Prime Planer. He had bushy gray whiskers, hair, and eyebrows, and was clad in a patched black robe.
The other was a short, stout, swarthy, black-haired boy of about fifteen years, wearing waistcoat and hose and holding some of the wizard’s paraphernalia. My tendrils picked up hostile vibrations from the boy, although at that time I had not known enough Prime Planers to interpret his emotions. From the way the youth shrank from me, however, I inferred that fear comprised a goodly part of them.
“Who are you?” said the elderly one in Novarian.
“I—Zdim Akh’s son,” I replied slowly. Although I had studied the language in school, I had never conversed with native Novarians. Fluency therefore came to me slowly. “Who—you?”
“I hight Doctor Maldivius, a diviner,” replied the man. “This is Grax of Chemnis, my apprentice.” He indicated the boy.
“Catfish!” said Grax.
“Mind your manners!” said Maldivius. “The fact that Zdim is indentured gives you no right to bully him.”
“What—is—catfish?” I asked.
“A fish found in—all—rivers and lakes on this plane,” explained Maldivius. “That pair of tendrils on your upper lip remind him of the barbels of such a fish. Now, you have contracted to serve me for a year. Is this well understood?”
I wriggled my tendrils in annoyance, but this fellow had the upper hand of me. Although I could have broken him in two, my misbehavior would have caused me trouble when I got back to my own plane. Besides, we are told, before submitting to evocation, not to be surprised at anything Prime Planers do.
“Aye, sir,” I said.
To one who has never seen a Prime Planer, they are repulsive. Instead of a coat of beautiful blue-gray scales, glistening with a metallic luster, they have soft, almost naked skins in various shades of pink, yellow, and brown. Once denizens of the tropics, they adapt themselves to cooler climes by covering these skins with woven fabrics. Their internal heat, combined with the insulation afforded by these structures, called “garments,” enables them to survive cold that would freeze a demon stiff.
Their eyes have round pupils with only a small accommodation to light; hence they are almost blind at night. They have funny little round ears. Their faces are sunken in, their muzzles and fangs being hardly more than vestiges. They have no tails, and their fingers and toes end in flat, rudimentary claws called “nails.”
On the other hand, if in appearance and behavior they often seem bizarre, they are extremely clever and ingenious. They are endlessly fertile in thinking up plausible reasons for doing what they wish to do. I was astonished to learn that they have terms like “fiendishly clever” and “devilishly shrewd.” Now, “fiend” and “devil” are opprobrious terms, which they apply to us demons—as if we had more of this perverted ingenuity than they!
“Where—am—I?” I asked Maldivius.
“In an underground labyrinth beneath the ruined temple of Psaan, near the town of Chemnis.”
“Where is that?”
“Chemnis is in the Republic of Ir, one of the Twelve Nations of Novaria. Chemnis lies at the mouth of our main river, the Kyamos. The city of Ir is nine leagues up the Kyamos. I have repaired this maze and turned the central chamber into my sanctum.”
“What would you of me?”
“Your main duty will be to guard this chamber when I am absent. My books and magical accessories—especially that thing—are valuable.”
“What is it, sir?”
“Ahem. It is the Sibylline Sapphire, a divinatory crystal of the highest quality. You shall guard it with care, and woe betide you if you carelessly knock over the stand and break the gem!”
“Should I not, then, remove it to one side, where it will not be in way?” I said.
The boy Grax puckered up his face—these human beings have very mobile, expressive faces when one learns to interpret them—in a glare of hostility. “Let me,” he said. “I don’t trust old Catfish.” He moved the stand and turned to me. “Next thing, Master Catfish, you shall cook and clean for us, ha ha!”
“Me, cook and clean?” I said. “That female work! You should have evoked a demoness!”
“Ha!” sneered the youth. “I’ve been cooking and cleaning for three years, and I’ll warrant it won’t hurt you for a change.”
I turned to Maldivius, who after all was my master. But the wizard only said: “Grax is correct. As his knowledge of the arcane arts advances, I shall require more and more of his time to assist me. Therefore he cannot continue his domestic duties.”
“Well,” I said, “I shall endeavor to give satisfaction. But you tell me, sir, that this place is near a town. Why not hire a woman from this town for these tasks? If it be like towns on my plane, there would be unattached females—”
“No argument, O demon! You must follow my orders, literally and exactly, without questioning. I will, however, answer your question. In the first place, the townsfolk would be terrified of you.”
“Of me? But, sir, at home I am deemed the mildest and meekest of demons, a quiet student of philosophy—”
“And, second, I should have to teach the wench how to get in and out of this maze. For obvious reasons, I do not wish to publish this information to the world at large. Ahem. Now, to begin your duties, your first task will be to prepare tonight’s dinner.”
“Gods of Ning! How shall I do that, sir? Must I sally forth to run down and slay some wild creature?”
“Nay, nay, my good Zdim. Grax will show you to the kitchen and instruct you. If you begin now, you should have a savory repast ready by sunset.”
“But, sir! I can broil a wild fluttersnake over a campfire on a hunting trip, but I have never cooked a real dinner in my fife.’
“Then learn, servant,” said Maldivius.
“Come along, you!” said Grax, who had been lighting a small lanthorn at one of the brass lamps. He led me out of the chamber and into the tunnel. The path bent and wound this way and that, passing a number of branches and forks.
“How on earth do you ever find your way?” I asked.
“How on earff do I effer ffind my vay?” he said, mocking my accent. “You memorize a formula. Going out, ’tis right-left-right-left-left-right-right. Coming in, it’s the opposite: left-left-right-right-left-right-left. Canst do that?”
I muttered the formulae. Then I asked: “Why does Doctor Maldivius locate his kitchen so far from his sanctum? The food will be cold by the time the cook gets it to his board.”
“Silly! If we cooked inside the maze, the place would be filled with smoke and fumes. You will just have to run with your tray. Here we are.”
We had reached the entrance to the maze, where the tortuous corridor straightened out. Doors opened into chambers on either hand, and at the far end I could see daylight.
There were four of these chambers. Two were fitted up as bedrooms; the third was used for storage of the dwellers’ possessions. The fourth, next to the exit, was the kitchen. This last had a window cut in one wall.
In the window was mounted a casement with an iron frame and many small, leaded panes. The casement was now open, affording a view. The chamber was built into the side of a cliff, with the waves of the Western Ocean striking rocks at the base of the cliff a score of fathoms below. The cliff curved, so that from the window one had a good view of its precipitous slope. It was raining outside.
A stream of water had been diverted through an earthen pipe into the kitchen, so that it trickled from above into one of a pair of wooden sinks. Grax made a fire on the hearth and set out the spits, cauldrons, frying pans, forks, and other implements of cookery. Then he opened bins containing edibles and explained the nature of each, betimes berating me for my clumsiness and stupidity.
I learnt to interpret his vibrations as manifestations of hatred. I found this hard to understand, since I had done nothing to earn Grax’s enmity. I suppose he was jealous of anyone who infringed his monopoly of old Maldivius’ time and regard—despite the fact that I was here against my will, earning a meager hundredweight of iron for the use of my people. I envied those who could afford to use iron for mere window casements.
Well, I went through many ordeals during my servitude on the Prime Plane, but never did I experience more exasperation than in preparing that dinner. Grax rattled off his instructions, set the sand glass going to time my cookery, and left me. I tried to follow his directions, but I kept confusing his figures for time, distance from the flame, and so forth.
When I thought I had everything under control, I set out for the sanctum to ask further instructions. I promptly took a wrong turning and got lost in the maze. At last I found myself back at the entrance. With effort, I remembered the formula for entering the labyrinth and this time attained the sanctum without a mistake.
“Where is our dinner?” said Maldivius, sitting with Grax in two of the battered chairs. The twain were drinking, out of pottery cups, the liquor called
imported from Paalua across the Western Ocean.
“I must ask you, sir—” and I requested more details. When the magician had given them, I found my way back to the entrance. The kitchen was full of smoke and stench for, during my absence, the sliced ham, the main item, had burnt to a large black cinder.