8 Year 1016 afe
Warlord of the Dead
THIS ONE IS coming right at us!" Ethrian shouted. "Let's get out of here!" Sahmanan ran down the stone beast's neck. Ethrian pursued her.
A flash of silver plunged out of the blue. The beast shunted it slightly. It hit his side. He responded with a great bellow of rage.
"What are they?" Sahmanan asked, rising from the beast's back.
"I don't know." Ethrian surveyed the destruction wrought among the beast's soldiers. "But they're effective. Let's get down from here before one of them gets us." He gave her a gentle shove.
He looked out across the desert. The Tervola remained standing atop their dune. They did not seem dismayed by the advance of the armies of the dead.
Ethrian and Sahmanan were almost to ground level when another shaft arrived. It plunged almost straight down, in front of the beast's nose. It released its energy in Sahmanan's pond.
Huge gouts of steam flung skyward. Chunks of stone fell out of the beast's forelegs. The paving blocks between them churned and tossed. The exit from the caverns collapsed.
Sahmanan wept for her shattered project.
"Your Great One isn't doing so hot," Ethrian observed. "They're cutting us to ribbons. Maybe I made a mistake, giving him the power to defend us. He's just wasting the armies."
"He can get more."
"Really? You think the Tervola will let us out of the desert? That's just an exploration party. What happens when they get mad? They know what's going on now. They know what they have to do. Your Great One keeps on, we'll be dead by the end of the week. Him included."
Sahmanan cocked her head. "The silver things. They've stopped."
She was right. The bombardment had ended. Ethrian examined the damage the last shaft had done. "Going to take a lot of work to clear this." He walked on round to where he could see what was happening at the dune.
Nothing was happening. The stone beast's soldiers were standing around. "What now?" Ethrian demanded.
"They're gone. He can't figure it out. They walked down the back of the dune and disappeared."
Ethrian spat in disgust. "A transfer portal. I swear, I could do better than this so-called god if... "
"Don't talk like that!"
"I'll talk any way I want. Incompetence is incompetence. I want out of this place. I won't make it if this keeps on."
The stone beast growled something about not yet being in possession of his full might. Ethrian snarled that he had misused what he had been given. The argument persisted throughout the four days it took to clear the exit from the caverns. Ethrian insisted that the beast become his slave. The beast refused.
Sahmanan usually spoke for the godling. Now she remained quiet and thoughtful. She pottered round her pool like a child trying to find all the pieces of a broken china doll.
"They're waiting in the mountains," Ethrian told the woman. "A full legion, ready for battle. I suppose your Great One will waste the rest of his manpower there."
"He doesn't take defeat lightly, Ethrian."
He glanced at her. That was the first time she had used his name. "Neither do they, friend. Neither do they. In fact, they've been defeated only once. By my grandfather, my uncles, my aunt, and the man who killed my father. They were trying to avenge that when I was captured."
As if hoping the stone beast would not hear her, Sahmanan whispered, "I believe you. I'm afraid of them. But how do we get Him to listen? It isn't like it was. He doesn't give me my share anymore. In the wars with Nahaman I did most of the fighting."
"Maybe he blames you for losing."
"But I... "
"Whose fault it was wouldn't matter. He wouldn't admit it if it were his. He's supposed to be a god. Gods are supposed to be omnipotent and infallible."
"What should we do?"
"Follow the army. Be ready to help. We'll share its fate whether we do or not. The Tervola aren't merciful."
Sahmanan nodded. "Wait here."
She went down between the stone beast's legs, bucking the flood pouring from the caverns. For a long time Ethrian watched the soldiers march out, form units, and head toward the mountains. There seemed no end to the hidden horde.
Maybe the beast needed no finesse. Maybe it could accept the ridiculous casualties indefinitely.
Sahmanan returned as the sun was setting. She led two small dragons. "They lost their riders. The Great One has no use for them."
The thought of flying startled butterflies in Ethrian's stomach. "I don't know... "
"There's nothing to fear. It's like riding a horse. Just tell it what to do. They were as intelligent as us when they were alive."
"They aren't alive now." He meant they had to be animated by the stone beast. Riding them, they were at his mercy.
He smiled suddenly. He had nothing to fear. Did he? The godlet would preserve him till it acquired everything he had to give.
"Just do what I do," Sahmanan said. "Up!" Her mount hurled itself into the air. Its wings pounded like brazen gongs. She circled a hundred feet overhead.
Ethrian took a deep breath. "Up, you devil."
The dragon's back slammed against his behind. He wobbled, held on. The ground sank away. His heart hammered. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them his mount was circling behind Sahmanan's. They were a few yards above the stone beast's head. The change in vantage made the desert look ten times more vast. "I don't think I was meant for this," he shouted.
The woman glanced over her shoulder, said something to her mount. It peeled off the circle and streaked westward.
"Follow," Ethrian croaked.
He soon got the hang of flying, and knew he would never enjoy it. The fall was too long. Sahmanan, though, seemed born for wings. While he plodded along, inexpertly enduring, she hurtled high and low, exulting in aerobatics. He became queasy just watching.
Finally, she glided as close as the monsters' wings permitted. "We're almost there." The mountains loomed ahead. Barren foothills climbed below. Her right hand thrust out. Ethrian spied a notch marked with patterned lines. The lines swelled into defensive works.
Sahmanan dropped like a stone. Her wild plunge broke only yards above the lifeless mountainside. Her dragon banked and slid off into a side canyon which expanded into what had been a broad meadow in olden times. Ethrian followed at a higher altitude, and descended only when there were no mountains to crowd him.
The one-time meadow boasted rank upon rank of undead soldiery, arrayed as they had been beneath the earth. He counted, and counted, and counted some more, and scanned the column still winding across the desert. He could not calculate the number of them.
"How many soldiers?" he asked as his feet hit the ground. He sat down immediately. His nerves were raw.
"We had a hundred-fifty thousand. All he could control, plus a margin for replacement."
"What do you mean, all he could control?"
"He can only animate so many. About a hundred thousand right outside the mountain. Out here... Well... "
"Hmm." This bore closer scrutiny. "You'd better explain. If he's got weaknesses besides stupidity... "
"The farther from the mountain, the fewer bodies he can control. Inside five miles he can handle a hundred thousand. You couldn't tell them from live soldiers, except they'd keep getting up. Out here he can't control more than fifty thousand, and those clumsily. That's why these are just standing around. He has thirty thousand up in the pass."
"And if we go to the edge of the desert?"
"Ten or fifteen thousand. At a thousand miles he couldn't animate more than four or five."
Ethrian surveyed the ranks. "How did he plan to go anywhere? He has big ideas. Looks like a penny-farthing empire to me. It'll never get out of the desert."
"That's why we're important."
"Later." She would answer no more questions. It was not yet time, she insisted. First the beast had to avenge himself on the men in the pass.
Ethrian found some shade. After a time he decided he had it reasoned out.
The beast meant him to yield fully. It thought it could trick him into slavery. Then it would transfer its ability to manipulate the dead. Mobile, he would create the new empire.
He took his speculations to Sahmanan. She merely nodded.
He was smiling when he returned to his patch of shade. His position was stronger than he had anticipated. Smug, he dozed off.
He did not go into a deep sleep, only into a twilight state. He controlled his thinking. The moment was too good to waste.
Gently, gently, with little tugs at stubborn folds, he pulled himself free of his body. He floated over the army of the dead, unafraid of falling. He rejoiced in his freedom. There was no pain here.
He noted a darkness clinging to the mountains where the legion lay. He let himself sense, felt the edge of the stone beast's power. It was driving its hordes against Shinsan's earthworks.
Ethrian willed himself westward, was not pleased with what he found. The beast had hurled thirty thousand men at the defenses. Silver missiles slashed huge gaps in their ranks. Dead soldiers who got close enough to fight were overwhelmed immediately. The darkness was the smoke of fires burning the captured dead.
The beast's army was doing little damage in return. Shinsan's few casualties went out through the transfers before the beast could seize them.
Ethrian was disgusted. He drifted away to the west. He moved swiftly, covering a wide region. He became awed by the mind directing the legions.
The Tervola were three or four jumps ahead. He saw no hope of escaping the desert. The stone beast would squander his strength in that pass, send a trickle against the enemy fortress, and there it would end. A year hence the Tervola would chuckle over the great war in the desert, and marvel at the stupidity of the enemy they had defeated.
He fluttered back to his body.
"Have a nice nap?" Sahmanan asked.
"No." He told her what he had done and seen, and how little had remained of the beast's assault force on his return.
"Will he just keep on? There're only five thousand men up there. But they've got ten times that many coming to help. And behind those is the strength of Shinsan. Sahmanan, he's stubborn and stupid, but you've got to make him see what he's doing."
"I don't think he'd listen. He's angry. Maybe when he calms down."
"Calm him down. Do something. He's destroying us."
For a moment Sahmanan looked both vulnerable and winsome. She nodded once, violently, and mounted her dragon. The thing jumped into the air and sped eastward.
Ethrian considered the sun. It would set in another hour. He should rest. Sahmanan might be successful. He returned to his shady rock.
There was a little twilight left when Sahmanan awakened him. "Back already?"
"He wants you."
"He's willing to talk?"
She nodded. "He saw things today... He's very calm, very rational, and very worried. Their counterattack shook him."
"They let him spend most of his strength, then surrounded what was left. He didn't save a single soldier. They didn't lose five hundred men. He learned a lesson."
"He's willing to listen!" Ethrian grinned. "Let's go."
They flew. Sahmanan set a vicious pace. The wind whipped round Ethrian. He kept his eyes closed half the time. They reached the stone beast in half an hour.
The youth felt the change immediately. The rage and arrogance had gone out of the monster. It felt like a child who had planned to show off and had fallen on its face.
Ethrian took a stance in the rubble and shouted, "Sahmanan says you're ready to talk." His father had taught him to be bold, observing that the gods had given men gall for a purpose.
The beast was deflated, but not crushed. It responded with mild amusement.
Ethrian called up, "I know your limits. I know your weaknesses. I know what you need. And you have no one else."
The beast's amusement grew. "I now have the strength to find someone else."
Ethrian glanced at Sahmanan. She nodded. "But he doesn't have the time."
"Know what you're up against now?" Ethrian shouted.
"If you mean our opponents, yes. I underestimated them. The world has changed. Man's power has waxed. That of the gods has declined. Deliverer, I'll offer an alliance. The three of us as partners, against the world. You free us and guide our armies. Sahmanan will wield the weapons of Power. I'll channel my strength to you."
Ethrian turned to the woman. "I'm not sure I follow him."
"It's a troika offer. You deliver us, he gives you the armies and myself the power to battle the Tervola. We work together to build an empire."
"What does he get?"
"You might have to be a god to understand."
"Try me. Otherwise, I can only judge him by human standards."
"He wants to be the god of our empire. He wants us to create a new Nawami. After we do, we can move him to its capital, as patron diety."
"All? That's everything, Ethrian. He's awake now. He can't survive without worshippers. You look west and think of revenge. He looks and sees survival. Today's defeat showed him how fragile our chances are."
"How long before he would fade, or whatever happens?"
"Maybe centuries. Gods don't die fast. But the time of decision is now. We have to crush those people. We're doomed if we don't. You were right. They won't accept defeat."
The youth looked up. His old hatreds smouldered on. "If we make this compact, how do we guarantee it? How do you make a god keep his word?"
The beast snapped, "Time binds me, Deliverer. I can't stay here much longer. If I fail you, you can leave me to die."
"Your word is good till you have someone to worship you."
"For that long at least. There's no reason we shouldn't stand together afterward. Ask Sahmanan if I haven't treated her well. Even when it was not in my immediate interest."
Sahmanan agreed. "He stands by those who stand by him. I wouldn't be here if he didn't."
"All right. We're on the right road. Let's test it. Godling, invest me first."
The beast said nothing. Ethrian felt its displeasure and uncertainty. Sahmanan asked, "What do you mean?"
"What I said. If he gives me the power to control the dead, I'll believe him. I'll give him what he needs." He studied the woman carefully, saw no sly smirk of victory.
"Lie down," the beast told him. "When you waken, you will go test yourself against our enemies. We can take care of my needs later."
Ethrian told Sahmanan, "There has been a change."
"I told you. Don't think he likes it. But there's a realist under that arrogance and bluster."
The youth settled himself. He could not sleep! His mind kept pursuing visions of what he might do once this power was his.
He wakened suddenly, unsure where he was or what had happened. The woman in white stood above him. He lurched up, looking for crabs.
"It's all right. It's all right. It's over, Ethrian."
"Over? What?... I don't feel any different. Didn't it work?"
"It worked fine."
It seemed no time had passed. "How long was I out?"
"All night and all day. It's night again."
"That long? Really? We'd better do something. The Tervola... "
"They're still up there. The Great One says they're restless. They're ready to come see what we're doing."
Ethrian became filled with all the things that needed doing. "Where are those dragons?" The two beasts dropped from the sky. "Did I do that?"
"No. The Great One brought them. From now on, though, I'll manage them. You concentrate on the soldiers."
Ethrian frowned. The beast was not totally stupid. "All right." He hoisted himself onto a scaly back. In a moment he and Sahmanan were airborne.
As they sped westward he wondered what he would do. He really felt no different.
He felt it when he glided toward his waiting army. It was a vacuum that consisted of tens of thousands of vacuums waiting to be filled. Visions fluttered through his mind: The mountains as seen through countless pairs of dead eyes. He was disoriented for a moment. Then he began seeing with all those eyes at once. He felt the cord of power reaching back to the stone beast. His power. Power he could use any way he wanted.
The dragons landed. Ethrian peered over his mount's head. His silent army had turned to face him.
"I'll be damned," he said. "I don't have to do much, do I?"
"You have to decide who does what, when, and where. The rest is unconscious."
"I just tell so many to go attack and they will?"
"Yes. You have to tell them how and where."
He closed everything out and went out of his body. Eagerly, he swept up the mountains. He studied the enemy position, and returned. "I'm ready to start," he announced, and heard the amazement in his own voice.
"What should I do?"
"Just wait right now. Let me find the men I need."
In the heart of the night, when life was at its lowest ebb, the army of the dead returned to the attack. They went in silence. They did not move in massed formations as before; they were scattered all over the slopes. A fall of shafts would harm only a few.
The first ten thousand bore bows or crossbows. They did not try to close with the soldiers of the Dread Empire. They stayed out and sniped.
"That looks good," Ethrian said. "Sahmanan, take your dragon up. Distract the Tervola."
In moments she was speeding toward the pass, a spear of light preceding her.
Now the spearmen and javelineers, Ethrian thought, and another ten thousand men went in.
The mountains flickered under the fury of an exchange between Sahmanan and the Tervola. Lances of fire scored the underbelly of the sky. Ethrian mounted his dragon. He lifted the monster till he could see the battle's shape.
The spearmen were advancing perfectly, widely spaced. They passed the snipers and began skirmishing with troops the enemy had sent to rout the bowmen. They did not do well, one on one, but were having more effect than had the masses in the stone beast's assault. They were more supple and quicker under Ethrian's more immediate control. Shinsan's skirmish line fell back. The spearmen reached the earthworks. Snipers kept hurling darts into the fray.
Ethrian brought up ten thousand swordsmen, also in scattered array, and behind them wave after wave from the horde in waiting.
Or half-horde. The stone beast had squandered sixty thousand before relinquishing control.
Ethrian found it hard to believe that all those bodies were moving simply because he willed it. He had only to imagine a movement, and the men he wanted making it, and it happened. A hundred men to storm a knoll where an arrow engine was taking his main thrust in enfilade? There they were, scrambling uphill, falling, lying still for ten or fifteen minutes, then rising to charge again. It was like daydreaming with the daydreams coming true.
He had the Seventeenth completely engaged. Sahmanan kept the Tervola occupied. Only a few demons roamed the contested slopes, and they had little effect.
He had thought-space left for other maneuvers. Ten thousand tireless soldiers marched southward, to pass round the legion, form smaller units, and head west. When they left the desert they would begin "recruiting." Perfection, Ethrian thought. Sheer perfection.
He banked his mount and dropped lower, passing above the battle at a hundred feet. "Spooky," he thought aloud.
The battle was so quiet! Machines might have been fighting down there. He heard only the movement of feet and the clang of weapons. The dead had nothing to say. The soldiers of Shinsan were schooled to fight in silence. Few would cry out even when mortally wounded. Their sole voluntary sound was the rumble of signal drums.
A ballista shaft screamed up. It ripped a hole through his mount's wing. "Hey!" he said, more surprised than frightened. "That was too close."
They might not throw their magical shafts at his scattered men, but they would target him if they realized that he controlled their attackers. If he perished, the dead army would collapse. There might be nothing left when the stone beast reanimated.
He wished he controlled the flyers. Now would be a good time to commit them. Bring them swooping in, blasting away, and scrub the Tervola before they could defend themselves.
He thought at his snipers, telling them to take higher ground and concentrate on enemy commanders. They were no longer needed to cover the assault itself.
He was losing men, but it looked good. Already several hundred of the enemy were out. The defense had begun to fray. Several strong points had yielded. His own fallen were rising again.
They were worth ten live soldiers. They could rise and rise again... Omnipotence engulfed him. For a moment he knew how it felt to be a god.
He felt for the enemy dead, tried to raise them, to confuse the legionnaires by making them fight among themselves. He found nothing. Dead men, yes, but none ready for his command. They were passing through the transfers before they cooled.
Just for an instant he had forgotten that he battled the Dread Empire. There was no confusion on their side of the line. They would not lose sight of their mission. They would not panic. They were, as always, the best. He might end up taking but a single body into his own force, that of the last man guarding the last portal while the last corpse went through.
Ethrian reached into the Seventeenth's fortress, trying to find dead men there. He sensed bodies, but none he could touch. He would have to put his own warriors inside first. The enemy were too much in control right now.
He was not disappointed. His strategy was working. The pass would be his. He laughed. Most of his soldiers had gone down at least once, but few had been badly mauled. They rose again and again.
His laughter rang across the night. Sahmanan heard it. She called back, her voice merry with imminent victory. The Tervola heard it as well. They responded defiantly. The Seventeenth's battle drums roared.
The drums. Those infernal drums. He had heard his father tell of their endless, terrifying rumble, but never had heard them before. Chills crept down his spine. Fear hit him. He began to doubt.
Those were the drums of the Dread Empire, drums of promise, drums which proclaimed, "We of the Seventeenth do not stand alone. We of the Seventeenth know no fear. A hundred legions will rally behind us. Come find your doom, enemy of the empire."
Though his blood ran hot with the joy of victory, Ethrian could not help but hear the drums.
He was winning. The mountains would be his. He would travel on and meet Shinsan again, round the fortress beyond desolation's edge...
There were other legions and other armies. A hundred legions might be an exaggeration, but, for certain, this victory would be a small one. A minor incident on the road. The great battles were yet to come.
He had heard his uncle Valther describe the battles in Escalon, when Mist and O Shing had taken war to that once mighty kingdom. Compared to those this was a skirmish. For battles of that epic stature he would need all the might of his stone godling, and more.
The moon was a sickle that night, and rose just an hour before dawn. Its wan silver light splashed the concluding movements of a battle determined and grim, clearly lost and won, yet still as vicious as when it had begun.
The Dread Empire did not yield. Not a step. Before the last of her defenders fell, Ethrian lost forever his twenty-thousandth man.
And yet he was joyful. He had seventy thousand left, and was knocking on the doors of lands where others could be conscripted into his cause.
The last few drums spoke their defiance. He thought to his dead battalions. The dead gave voice to a battle cry. "Deliverer!" they rasped. All together, like a hellish choir. "Deliverer!"
He smiled as they completed the demolition of Shinsan's fabled Seventeenth Legion.