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EIGHTEEN: The Unborn

For a week no one dared enter the chamber where Fiana lay, where her child-of-evil was being nurtured by one of the older wickednesses of the world. Even Gjerdrum lacked the courage to intrude. He carried meals to the door, knocked, retreated.

Varthlokkur was indulging in those black arts which had made him so infamous. By week's end he had terrori/ed both Karak Strabger and Baxendala.

During the day the castle was obscured by a whirling, twisting darkness which throbbed like a heart beating. Its boundaries were sharply defined. The townspeople called it a hole through the walls of Hell. Some claimed to see the denizens of an Outer Domain peering out at the world with unholy hunger.

That was imagination. But the darkness was real, and by night it masked the stars over Karak Strabger. Eldritch lights from within sometimes cast red shadows on the mountains surrounding castle and town. And always there were the sounds, the wicked noises, like the roar of devil hordes praising some mighty demon-lord....

On the floor of the little chamber the sorcerer had laid out a pentagram which formed one face of an amazing construct. Eight feet above the floor floated another pentagram, traced in lines of fire. Rising like the petals of a flower, from the luminescent design on the floor, were five more pentagrams, sharing sides with five pentagrams depending from the design above. The whole formed a twelve-faced gem. Every apex was occupied by a silvery cabalistic symbol which burned cold and bright. Additional symbols writhed on the surfaces of the planes.

The dead Queen lay on a table at the construct's heart. U ponher breast lay the monster she had died to bring into the world. Outside, the wizard worked on.

He called his creation the Winterstorm, though it had nothing to do with weather or season, but, rather, a dead magician's mathematical way of looking at sorcery. It was a gate to powers undreamt even in Shinsan. It had enabled the destruction of the Princes Thaumaturge in times of yore.

Like so many evils, it was terribly beautiful.

For a week Varthlokkur had labored, taking no rest, and little food. Now his hands trembled. His courage wavered. His sense of morality recoiled. The thing he was trying to create would be more evil than he. Darker, possibly, than the incalculable evils of Shinsan. What it did to the world would be determined by his ability to control it-especially in the critical moments approaching. If he failed, he would be just the first to die a grisly death. If he succeeded only partially, it would be but a matter of time till he lost control.

Success had to be complete and absolute. And he was so tired, so hungry, so weak....

But he had no choice. He couldn't stop now. Nor could he turn back. He was committed.

On the edges of his consciousness, out where his heightened senses met the Beyond, he heard the Lords of Chaos chuckling, whispering amongst themselves, casting lots for him.... He wasn't that kind of wizard. He refused to make deals. He increased the might of the Winterstorm and compelled them to respond to his will. He ordered, and they performed.

They hated him for it. And forever they would wait, tirelessly, patiently, for his fatal slip.

His fiery wand touched several floating symbols. Those beings on the edges of his senses screamed. Agonized, they awaited his commands.

The symbols blazed brighter. Colored shadows frothed over the barren walls. The dark cloud shuddered and swirled round the stronghold. The people of Baxendala locked their shutters and doors. The handful of castle servants huddled downstairs. They would have fled if Gjerdrum had let them.

The Marshall had told him not to let anyone leave till he heard otherwise. The news was to be stifled till Ragnarson had stabilized the political response.

Gjerdrum was devoted to his Queen and Marshall. Though wanting nothing more than to flee himself, he kept his flockinside. Now, with the howl above redoubling, he again prepared to block a rush toward freedom.

Varthlokkur raised his arms and spoke softly to the denizens of the netherworlds. He used the tongue of his childhood.

Those things would respond to any language. But the old tongue, shaped by the wizards of ancient llkazar, was precise. It didn't permit ambiguities demons could exploit.

He commanded.

The things on the Other Side cringed, whined-and obeyed.

The Queen's corpse surged violently. The terrible infant, englobed in a transparent membrane, still in a fetal curl, levitated. Its head turned. Its eyes opened. It glared at Varthlokkur.

"You see me," the wizard said. "I see you. I command you. You are my servant henceforth." For seven days he had been shaping its hideous mind, teaching it, building on the knowledge of evil stamped on the thing's genes. "Henceforth you shall be known as Radeachar, the Unborn."

The name, Radeachar, meant only "The One Who Serves," without intimations of actual servitude. It had overtones of destruction, of sorcery held ready as a swordsman holds a ready blade. In olden times those sorcerers who had marched with Ilkazar's armies had been entitled Radeachar. The nearest modern equivalent was the shaghun of Hammad al Nakir.

It fought him. The things he compelled to aid him battled back. He pitted his will and power against the Unborn....

He had to win beyond any shadow of compromise.

It lasted thirteen hours.

Then he collapsed.

But not before Radeachar had become his lifelong slave, virtually an extension of his own personality.

He slept, unmoving, on the cool stone floor for two days. And, though the blackness had freed the castle, and spring silence reigned, no one dared waken him.

The distraction of Varthlokkur's undertaking allowed Nepanthe, and those who followed her, to slip through the Gap during the time the wizard slept.

Varthlokkur never sensed the nearness of the woman who meant more to him than life itself.

She was married to his son now, but he and she had an agreement. When Mocker died -unless Varthlokkur himself were responsible- she would become his wife. The bargain. woven on the looms of Fate, had made it possible to destroy Nu Li Hsi and Yo Hsi.

He awakened almost too weak to move. From amongst his paraphernalia he secured a small bottle, drank it dry. A warm, temporary strength flooded him. He lay down again, let it work. A half hour later he went downstairs.

"You can turn them loose now," he told Gjerdrum. "What needed doing is done. And Ragnarson has finished in Vorgreberg."

"I haven't had word from him yet."

"You will."

Gjerdrum considered. Varthlokkur was probably right. "Okay. I won't tell them they can leave. But if they get away while my back is turned, that's all right."

"They won't go far. They won't be welcome in Baxendala. They'll stay around till you're ready to leave for Vorgreberg."

Varthlokkur insisted on showing Gjerdrum his masterwork.

Eanredson took one look and retched.

Varthlokkur was hurt. "I'm sorry." He had been proud, forgetting that it took a peculiar breed to appreciate his artistry.

"Come, then," he said. "We'll be needed in Vorgreberg."

"You're going to take that.... That.... With us?"

Puzzled, Varthlokkur nodded.

"Better do it on the quiet. The very damned quiet, else you'll start a revolution. The black arts aren't popular with the man in the street."

Varthlokkur's feelings were bruised again. His greatest work had to remain hidden? "All right. I'll leave it here."

"Good." Gjerdrum glanced at the Unborn. This time he forced his gorge down.

"You'll get used to it."

"I don't want to. It should've been killed when Wachtel saw what it was."

"You're being very narrow...."

Gjerdrum refused to argue. "If we're going, let's go. I've been away too long. That foreigner, Prataxis, has probably screwed everything up."

They left that afternoon. Gjerdrum kept going through the night. They reached Vorgreberg the next evening, exhausted. Gjerdrum had to invoke the wizard's reputation to keep the servants from scattering with their horror stories.

Gjerdrum and Varthlokkur got no rest. Prataxis dragged them to the Marshall's office immediately.

"About time," Ragnarson said. "You got Derel's letter?"

"No," Gjerdrum replied.

"Must've crossed paths. Just a note telling you to get your butt home."

"I was waiting on him."

"Everything taken care of?"

"I still have to make the servants forget," the wizard replied.

"Won't be necessary. The news is out. The Thing elected me Regent. They're already forming a committee to consider royal candidates."

"There're some things he should make them forget," Gjerdrum growled.

Ragnarson glanced at Varthlokkur.

"I performed a few sorceries. They upset him. Before we left, I performed a divination. Very unclear, but two names came through. Badalamen. The Spear of Odessa Khomer."

"Meaning what?"

"I don't know. Badalamen may be a person. The Spear sounds like a mystical weapon. It isn't one I've heard of. And that's unusual. Those things are pretty well known."

"Neither means anything to me," Ragnarson said. He related recent events in Vorgreberg, concluding, "I've prepared for mobilization."

"Before the mercenaries leave?" Gjerdrum asked. "They'll come at you twice as hard...."

"No problem. Oryon wants to go. To poke around High Crag for the connection with Shinsan. Meanwhile, we're going to turn Kavelin upside down. These assassinations and kidnappings have got to stop."

Varthlokkur glowed. "I have the perfect device. The perfect servant, the perfect hunter...."

"Gjerdrum? What's the matter?"

"I saw his perfect hunter."

Ragnarson looked from one to the other.

"The baby," Gjerdrum said. "The demon thing. He kept it alive."

Ragnarson leaned back, closed his eyes, said nothing for a long time. Then, softly, suppressing his revulsion, "Tell me about it."

"I merely salvaged it," the wizard replied. "I did what was necessary so it survived, bound it to me, taught it. It's not as bad as your friend thinks."

"It's horrible. You should have killed it."

"I go with Gjerdrum emotionally. How can it help?"

"It can find the men you want found. And kill them, or bring them to you."

"How'II it tell enemies from friends? When can you begin?"

"I could call it right now. It detects enemies by reading their minds."

The hairs on Bragi's neck bristled. Read minds? In all likelihood it would read everyone, friend or foe. "Let me think about it. Gjerdrum. You brought Fiana?"

Eanredson nodded.

"Good. Set up the funeral. Big as a coronation. With open house here. The works. Vorgreberg is restless. It's time we distracted it some. I've got a feeling there won't be time for fun much longer." He turned to Varthlokkur. "Can we possibly hit Shinsan first?"

"A spoiler? No. They're moving. The old destiny call is echoing from border to border. They've recovered from the war with Escalon and the feud between O Shing and Mist. They're ready. They're short just one element. An enemy. The Tervola want us."

"How do you know?"

"It's no secret. Baxendala shattered the myth of their invincibility. They want to regain that. You just said a Tervola was seen in the Kapenrungs. They're doing the obvious. Softening up. Eliminating men who would resist. Trying for a sure thing. I suggest we loose Radeachar now-before they reach anyone else who shapes the power. Did you find the Tear?"

"Gjerdrum, would you step outside please?" Once Eanredson left, "It hasn't turned up. Mist can't find a trace. She and Valther can't find our enemies, either. They're either well shielded or gone."

"Why did you ask the boy to go?"

"They got Nepanthe."

The sorcerer rose slowly, face darkening.

"Wait! She's not dead. They kidnapped her. So to speak. My son Gundar heard a man tell her he could take her to Mocker.

She and Ethrian went with him. Mist couldn't locate her, though."

"Excuse me. I've got work to do. I'll summon Radeachar. He'll begin bringing your enemies in soon. Then I'll gather the Brotherhood. And see if anyone will loan troops for another Baxendala. This time, I think, we'd better keep after O Shing till he's done for."

He dropped back into the chair. "I'm tired. Weary unto death. This constant struggle with Shinsan has got to end. Us or them, for all time."

Ragnarson countered, "Would that settle anything? Per-manently? Aren't there always more evils? If we destroy Shinsan, won't something else arise? Somebody once said that evil is eternal, good fleeting."

"Eternal? I don't know. It's relative. In the eye of the beholder. The Tervola don't think they're evil. They feel we're wicked for resisting destiny. Either way, though, I want rid of Shinsan. A force of equal magnitude isn't likely to rise in my lifetime."

"Wizard, I'm tired too. And emotionally exhausted. I have trouble caring anymore. I've lost so much that I'm numb. Only Kavelin is left. Till we find a new king.... Well, I'll keep plugging."

The wizard smiled. "I believe you've found a home, Marshall."

"What? Oh. Yes. I guess. Yes. I still care about Kavelin. Bull don't know what to do."

"Trust me. Not forever, but for now. Our interests are congruent. I want peace. I want to escape the machinations of this pestilence in Shinsan. I want Nepanthe...."

"Did you grab Mocker?"

"No. I promised Nepanthe. My promises are good. And he's my son...." There was no resentment in his response.

"What?"

"It's true. It's a long story, that doesn't matter now. But he is."

"Uhm. That explains why he isn't afraid of you.... Does he know the other thing?"

"No. And he'd better never find out. But back to our congruency of interest. You have my pledge to remain a steadfast ally till Shinsan falls. Or destroys us."

"All right. Destruction seems most likely."

"Maybe. They have the advantages. Unity. Power. A huge army.... Why dwell on it? The die is cast. The doom is upon us. The Fates speed us from their bows. I'll go now. You may not see me for a while."

This was the point, according to Prataxis, when the First Great Eastern War began. He selected it primarily because histories need milestones. First causes could be traced back, and back, and back. And heavy, massed combat didn't occur till the Second Great Eastern War. Some authorities argued that Baxendala should be called the First Great Eastern War, and seen separately from Ravelin's civil war. Though the rebels accepted aid from Shinsan, Shinsan's objective in intervening was eventual mastery.

Whatever, this was the moment when, irrevocably, Ragnar-son and Varthlokkur committed themselves to destruction of the Dread Empire.


SEVENTEEN: Michaels Adventure | All Darkness Met | NINETEEN: Funerals and Assassins



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