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THIRTY: The Other Side

The Old Man watched dreamily as the Star Rider reactivated the Power and opened a transfer stream.

A gang tumbled through immediately. A bewildered boy and a maskless Tervola followed. Curses pursued them. Then a javelin flickered through, smashed into the Tervola's skull.

The Old Man and Star Rider froze, stunned. Then, cursing, the bent man scuttled after the boy. Catching him, he demanded, "What happened?" Panic edged his voice.

Everything was going wrong. The leukemia victim had expired. The Mercenary's Guild had cleansed itself. There had been no time to replace Pracchia members. Now Chin, his most valuable tool, lay dead at his feet. "Help him!" he roared at the Old Man, before the Fadema could answer his question.

The Old Man knelt beside the Tervola. It was hopeless. The javelin had jellied Chin's brain.

"Ragnarson," the Fadema whined.

"What? What about him?"

"He crossed the steppes. He made an alliance with Necremnos. He came down the Roe and attacked from boats. He captured the Fadem. We barely held on till transfer time."

The others began arriving. They milled around, trying to comprehend the latest disaster.

"Move along! Move along!" the Star Rider shouted. "Get to the meeting room." Badalamen came through. He looked dashing dressed as a desert general.

"Who's this?" the bent man demanded, indicating the boy.

"The fat man's son. His wife got away."

"Take him to the meeting room." He kicked Chin's corpse. "Incompetent. Can't get anybody to do anything right. Argonwas supposed to be ready for war." Pettily, viciously, he used the Power to murder the Fadema's soldiers.

He asked the Old Man, "How will I ever get out of here?" Then, "Drag the bodies to Norath's pets." He kicked Chin again.

While working, the Old Man slowly put together the thought that he had never seen his master behave this irrationally.

He wandered to the meeting room once he finished, arriving amidst a heated discussion.

The setbacks were gnawing at Pracchia morale. The stumbling block, the man responsible for the delays, was O Shing. He wouldn't move west. Nor would he be manipulated.

"Remove him," Badalamen suggested.

"It's not that simple," the Star Rider replied. "Yet it's necessary. He's proven impossible to nudge. If he weren't more powerful than Ehelebe-in-Shinsan.... Most of the Tervola support him. And we've lost our Nine-captain there. He died without naming a successor. Who were the members of his Nine? We must locate them, choose one to assume his Chair. Only then can we take steps against O Shing."

"By then he may have moved west voluntarily," Norath observed.

"Maybe," the bent man replied. "Maybe. Whereupon we aid him insofar as he forwards our mission. So. We must proceed slowly, carefully. At a time when that best serves our western opponents."

"What about Argon?" the Fadema demanded.

"What can we do? You admit the city is lost."

"Not the city. Only the Fadem. The people will rally against them."

"Maybe. Badalamen."

The born general said, "Megelin has been stopped. It was difficult and expensive. It will continue to be difficult and expensive if El Murid is to be maintained. The numbers and sentiment oppose him. But it can be done."

"The point was to weaken that flank of the west. That's been accomplished. Continued civil war will debilitate the only major western power besides Itaskia."

"There will be nothing left," Badalamen promised.

"Win with enough strength left to invade Kavelin," said the bent man. "Seize the Savernake Gap. Make of yourself an anvil against which we can smash Ragnarson when we come west."

After the meeting the Star Rider went into seclusion, trying to reason how his latest epic could be brought back under control. At last he mounted his winged steed and flew west, to examine Argon.

He drifted over the war zone and cursed. It was bad. Not only had Ragnarson done his spoiling, he had extricated himself cheaply. The Argonese were too busy with the Necremnens to pursue him.

He fluttered from city to city, hunting Chin's little fat man. He finally located the creature in company with Ragnarson. He raced to Throyes, gave instructions to order the fat man to eliminate Ragnarson before Ravelin's army returned home. When Badalamen finished Megelin he could move north against limited resistance....

Then he butterflied about the west, studying the readiness, the alertness, of numerous little kingdoms. Some, at least, were responding to Varthlokkur's warning.

He was pleased. Western politics were at work. Several incipient wars seemed likely to flare. Mobilizations were taking place along the boundaries of Hammad al Nakir too, in fear that El Murid might reassume his old conqueror's dream.

The raw materials for a holocaust were assembling.

He nudged a few places, then returned to his island in the east. He began hunting Chin's replacement.

Lord Wu was initiated into the Pracchia minutes before Badalamen announced his defeat in Kavelin. Wu showed no enthusiasm for his role. Badalamen blamed a lack of reliable intelligence. Both men, supported by Magden Norath, peti-tioned the return of the Power.

"What can I do about it?" the bent man demanded. "It comes and goes. I can only predict it.... Fadema. Are you ready to go home?"

"To a ruin? Why?"

"It's no ruin yet. Your people are still holding out. Necremnos's leaders are too busy one-uping each other to finish it. A rallying point, a leader, a little supernatural help, should turn it around. Badalamen. Go with the Fadema. Destroy Necremnos. They're too stubborn ever to be useful. Then head west. Seize the Savernake Gap. Throyes will help."

Badalamen nodded. He had this strength, from the viewpoint of the bent man: he didn't question. He carried out his orders.

He was, in all respects, the perfect soldier.

"What supernatural aid?" the Fadema demanded. "Without the Power...."

"Products of the Power, my lady. Norath. Your children of darkness. Your pets. Are they ready?"

"Of course. Haven't I said so for a year? But I have to go with them, to control them."

"Take a half-dozen, then." He buried his face in his hands momentarily. To the Old Man, who sat silently beside him, he muttered, "The fat man. He failed. Or refused. Throw the boy to Norath's children."

A pale vein of rebellion coursed through the Old Man as he rose.

The boy gulped, shivered in the Old Man's grip. He stared across the mile-wide strait. A long swim. With desert on the farther shore.

But it was a chance. Better than that offered by the savan dalage.

Shaking, he descended to the stony beach.

It was the turning of the year and, the bent man hoped, the shifting of luck to the Pracchia. Wu would have finalized plans for the removal of O Shing. Badalamen's report on the war with Necremnos would be favorable....

The Pracchia gathered.

Badalamen's report could have been no better. Norath and his creatures had turned it around. When Shinsan marched, the Roe basin would be tributary to the Hidden Kingdom. The holocaust had swept the flood plain and steppes. Argon was closing in on Necremnos.

But Lord Wu didn't show. The Pracchia waited and waited for Locust Mask to come mincing arrogantly into the room.

Later the bent man wearily mounted his winged steed. His flight was brief. It ended at Liaontung.

TWENTY-NINE: A Dark Stranger in the Kingdom of Dread | All Darkness Met | THIRTY-ONE: Baxendala Redux