FICTION / FANTASY /GODS
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Long ago, the gods forged Twelve Swords of Power and threw them on the gameboard of life to watch men scramble. But they forged too well; the Swords could kill the gods themselves.
Now, ages later, the Swords are as powerful as ever -- and still coveted by good and evil men alike. Some have been lost again, and some destroyed. Prince Mark of Tasavalta holds five Swords: Woundhealer, Stonecutter, Dragonslicer, Sightblinder, and the greatest of them all, Shieldbreaker -- the Sword of Force against which no enemy can stand. With their help, he has ruled peacefully, protecting his people from all dangers.
A year ago, Prince Mark defeated Vilkata, the dark King, who sought to gain the swords by force. Mark exiled Vilkata beyond the boundaries of the world, where not even Vilkata's horde of demons should have been able to find an escape for the mad sorcerer.
But the Dark King has overcome all barriers and returned to seek revenge. With him he brings Mindsword, the Sword of Glory -- with the power to compel obedience from all who come within its range.
The Dark King's timing is perfect: Prince Mark is in a far corner of his kingdom, defending his people against a dragon. Vilkata finds the castle almost undefended, the ultimate power of the Swords almost in his grasp. Between him and the Sword vault stands only one small warrior: Prince Mark's son, Prince Stephen, armed with Shieldbreaker, Sword of Swords. But how can a fourteen-year-old boy, no matter how well armed, resist the evil power of the Dark King -- especially with the Mindsword in Vilkata's hand?
--From Cover blurb.
Hunched in his saddle on the flying demon's back, buffeted by winds of air and magic, Vilkata the Dark King confronted catastrophe with a snarl of defiance. In his left hand Vilkata gripped the magical reins of his monstrous steed, and in his wounded right fist he clutched the black hilt of the naked, god-forged Mindsword, its flashing steel blade stained lightly with his own blood.
The cuts on his right wrist and hand had been inflicted perhaps three minutes ago. After that the Mindsword had been sheathed again, its powers muffled; but when the Dark King had finally succeeded in getting control of the Sword, only a few moments ago, his first act had been to fling the scabbard clear, unleashing all Skulltwister's magic.
Even armed and mounted as he was now, the elder wizard, survivor of a thousand dreadful perils, could not doubt that this time, at last, the doom of utter destruction had overtaken him.
With facial muscles clenched hard around the long-empty sockets of his eyes, the Dark King uttered a tremendous scream, vented all the agony of his soul in a bellowing curse, a malediction as profound as it was impotent, directed at all his enemies, known and unknown, and at the universe itself for spawning them.
The Dark King's enemies were many, and what was happening now gave proof, if any proof were needed, that some of them at least were very strong.
Around Vilkata, from the quasi-material throats of the two dozen or so flying, shape-changing demons who formed his hideous escort, there rose a despairing howling of such a pitch and volume as to suggest that the end of the world had come.
He, Vilkata, together with his mount and his entire escort--these now including in their number the mighty demon Akbar, so recently the Dark King's mortal foe--the whole swarm of them, despite the Mindsword's presence, regardless of anything that any and all of them could do, were being swept away, helpless as leaves in a tornado.
Only moments ago, a mere few heartbeats in the past, the wizard Vilkata had been, as he thought, on the brink of triumph. He had been locked in airborne combat above the torchlit palace of his archfoe, Prince Mark of Tasavalta. And then, in the twinking of an eye, not only had the Tasavaltan palace passed quite out of the Dark King's sight and reach, but so had the whole night-shrouded city of Sarykam, as well as all of the human enemies and temporary allies by whom Vilkata had been surrounded. It seemed that he had been cut off from the whole world.
And the Dark King knew the cause. It was impossible to avoid the bitter truth, even if he could not understand it. He had heard the incantation of his doom, foolish-sounding but irresistible, shouted by Prince Mark.
An instant after those words had fallen upon the air, the shouts, the clash of metal, the glare of torches, all were gone. Vilkata and his demons had been wrapped up, bundled together as if by hands of divine power, and thrown away. Now blackness and near-emptiness surrounded him and the two dozen hideous, half-material creatures whose loyalty the Mindsword had compelled. They were now encapsulated within an almost featureless void that was pervaded by a sense of movement, caught in helpless hurtling flight at some indeterminable but awesome speed.
They were in rapid motion, certainly. But toward what destination? Speed and destination were both completely out of their control. Gravity, as modified by the flying demons' magic, seemed to come and go in yawning leaps. All sense of direction had been lost; even up and down no longer seemed to have consistent meaning.
Vilkata understood that his own greatest weakness, as was so often the case among humans, was the mirror-image of his strength. The fact was that the Dark King's own skills in magic had long ago led him to depend almost absolutely upon demons. The man was physically blind, by his own hand and choice, and had been so for most of his long life. Only by magically borrowing the vision of a demon was he able to see at all, but ordinarily the vision thus provided was keener than that of any merely human eyes. Not now. Currently his perception of his surroundings was only sufficient to suggest that the tornado of material and non-material energies evoked by Mark was carrying him and his inhuman escort into a strange realm indeed.
The exact nature of this realm, or condition, was obscured by the same forces that enveloped Vilkata and bore him through it. But at least his immediate fate was not to be annihilation, as he had feared at the outset. Perhaps, he told himself, there even remained a glimmer of hope for ultimate recovery.
Meanwhile, defeat, even if it should prove only temporary, was made all the more bitter by the fact that only moments earlier he, the Dark King, had been, as he thought, so close to final victory. So close to winning, to being able to gather in the gods' great Swords all for himself! But that chance had now been obliterated. He, who had long played the great game for ultimate authority, was in the grip of forces that held him helpless as an infant. Now, despite the awesome power of the one Sword he still possessed, despite the strength of the demonic mount between his knees and the other terrible monsters flying near at his command--despite all this, disaster.
Still, moment after moment flew by, and he remained alive. The ultimate blow had not yet fallen.
At least he had no fear that the demons whose absolute master he had become, all of them droning and murmuring around him now, were going to turn against him. No, Vilkata's sense of magic assured him that even here in this peculiar domain of darkness and of hurtling movement, the Mindsword still retained its power to compel obedience, loyalty, and worship.
Only moments before Mark's curse of banishment took effect, Akbar and Vilkata had been opposed to each other in deadly combat. But then, suddenly, the demon had been deprived of Shieldbreaker, the Sword which had for some time protected him, and almost at the same time the Mindsword had come into Vilkata's hands. Akbar, along with every other thinking being within its radius of operation, had fallen immediately under the domination of the Sword.
Now silence held. And duration, in this strange and shadowy and almost timeless realm, had become difficult to quantify. Now, more than ever, the man could tell that he was dependent upon his demonic escort for his continued survival, his very existence. Compelled by the power of the Mindsword to an uncharacteristic loyalty, they were magically supplying him with air to breathe, as well as eyes to see with. It was as if the sealed-off space which enclosed Vilkata and his creatures during their helpless flight had quickly come to lack any atmosphere of its own.
Yes, the calculation of time was certainly a problem in this state . . . more and more the wizard became convinced that time here--wherever here might be--was evolving very strangely. Had this enforced passage endured now for a day, an hour, a month, a year? Vilkata had now lost all confidence in his ability to estimate duration.
Whatever might have been the correct objective reckoning of time, an epoch at length arrived when one of the demons, murmuring deferentially as it hovered near its worshipped master, informed him that it had fabricated for his priceless Sword a new sheath (the original was irretrievably lost) of some leathery material, obtained from the gods knew where. In this sheath he could put his priceless Sword to rest while he tried to heal his injured hand. That was all right; the Dark King knew from experience that the Mindsword need not be held unsheathed continuously to maintain its compulsion, once that influence had been established.
And now, too, he was able at last, with a sigh of relief, to let go the reins of the huge magical creature he was still riding. Let go, for the time being, and try to get some rest. In truth he was very weary. At a murmured command from him the saddle he had been sitting in reshaped itself to suit his comfort, became something like a bed or hammock. The demon-beast he had been riding reshaped itself as well, a trick they could do practically at will; then it vanished for the time being from his ken. Still it continued to re-orient itself as necessary, providing for its worshipped master some semblance of consistency regarding up and down.
For many, many years the Dark King had had no eyes to close; but now he did the trick of magic that allowed him to disconnect his borrowed vision. With sight now gone, he could still hear and feel his faithful demons around him.
Ever since disaster struck he had drawn some measure of comfort from the fact that he certainly was not going unaccompanied into the peculiar night which had so totally engulfed him. His erstwhile enemy, the mighty Akbar, was drifting near him now, and the Dark King with only a minimum of effort, performing an act magically analogous to slitting his eyelids open, was able to see, through Akbar's inhuman perception, his own physical body, albino white of skin and hair, tall and strong and ageless. And currently somewhat damaged.
The demon Akbar, doubtless taking note of this activity, commented sadly and unnecessarily that its master had been wounded. Vilkata's right arm and hand had by now ceased to bleed, but were still somewhat painful, gashed from an earlier accidental contact with the Mindsword, the Blade of Glory. This particular weapon was known, among other things, for the ugliness, the resistance to treatment, of the physical wounds it could inflict.
"See what you can do in the way of healing me," the magician ordered brusquely. He held up his right hand, on which all of the blood was not yet dry.
The damned monsters could probably do some good if they tried, Vilkata thought. Though in the ordinary course of events the healing of any living thing, especially a human, would certainly be among the least likely actions to be expected of any demon.
Once before, years ago, the Dark King had enjoyed an extended possession of the Mindsword. When in that epoch he had carried the weapon into battle, his demonic vision had shown it to him as a pillar of billowing flame long as a spear, with his own face glowing amid the perfect whiteness of the flame. And so the weapon appeared to him now.
Hand resting uneasily on the hilt of his newly re-sheathed Sword, he totally blanked out his vision once again, and endeavored to rest. But anger and resentment prevented anything like complete relaxation.
And exactly what was it that had mobilized this impersonal and overwhelming force against Vilkata?
Almost nothing, or so, in his present state of brooding helpless rage, it seemed to him.
No more than a few words of incantation cried out by his archenemy Prince Mark.
Such was the mysterious power against demons, and against those who depended upon demons, enjoyed by Mark the Emperor's son.
When the Dark King decided that he had rested enough, and reclaimed his demonic vision, there was really almost nothing to be seen. This bizarre state of darkness and movement which had been imposed upon Vilkata and his escort by some enigmatic, overwhelming power, this rushing passage into an incomprehensible distance, protracted itself for what he began to find, subjectively, to be a very long time indeed. It seemed to him that he endured an immeasurable epoch, divorced from any objective standard of duration.
LIttle more in the way of deliberate, articulate communication passed between the man and the members of his demonic escort while the journey lasted. Vilkata had begun to fear that this condition might prove to be eternal, when at last hints of change broke the monotony. A murmuring developed among the demons. Something like a normal flow of time seemed to resume, and presently demons and man alike were able to sense that the darkness and the sense of rushing movement were also coming to an end.
And now, Vilkata realized with mingled relief and apprehension, the compelled journey had at last concluded. The sense of encapsulation persisted for the moment; but seeming weightlessness had been supplanted by gentle gravity. Once more up and down had become perfectly consistent--though the magician retained the odd impression that his body was now considerably lighter than it had been.
Now finally the sense of encapsulation was fading. Man and demons were free to move about. For the first time since the Prince had cursed him, Vilkata could feel a solid surface under his booted feet; a surface that felt like sandy soil.
Issuing crisp orders, making sure his compulsively loyal escort were deployed as a bodyguard ranked closely about his own person, Vilkata magically grafted the vision of first one of his enslaved creatures and then another to his own mind, in hopes that at least one of their viewpoints would be able to provide him with useful information.
Having thus done his best to transcend the handicap of his own empty eye-sockets, the Dark King looked about him warily.
He was standing on a dusty, heavily cratered, windless, airless plain--he could still breathe, he sensed, only because his demons were loyally providing him with air. The Sun glared, with abnormal brilliance, out of a black sky. The temperature of his surroundings was extremely high, well past the point of human endurance, had he not been magically protected.
Vilkata's first impression of this environment was that it was a hellish place indeed to which the Emperor's son had exiled him. This land, this airless space, were virtually as dead as the encapsulation he had endured on the long journey. This place was breathless and silent, in fact altogether lifeless, to a degree that the Dark King had never before encountered or even imagined.
Now, beyond the foreground of dusty, almost level plain, he could perceive hills of assorted sized, rounded and smoothly eroded but harshly cratered. The farthest of these elevations marked out a sharp horizon under the clear but dark sky which was strewn with unlikely numbers of hard, unwinking stars. Already, as the last traces of encapsulation disappeared, there were many stars to be seen, and more were steadily becoming visible.
In the middle distance of Vilkata's field of view there clustered a dozen or so strange buildings. These were unmistakably relics of the Old World, structures fabricated of unknown crystalline and metallic materials, the basic dome-shape elaborated in incomprehensible variations. Certainly no human skills available in Vilkata's world could have created anything like them. Some were no bigger than peasants' huts, others the size of manor houses.
The inventions of the Old World were not completely foreign to the Dark King, whose education had not been restricted to matters of statecraft and magic. Like every serious scholar, he had read how the arrogant humans of that long-gone era, armed with their mysterious technology, had admitted no limits to their ambition--and yet had been overtaken by destruction all the same.
Issuing orders to his demons in a steady voice, Vilkata sent a couple of them ahead to scout among the buildings. In less than a minute the pair were back, saying they could detect no danger. Irritated by what he considered their casual attitude, told them to go and look again, to make absolutely sure.
But despite his irritation the Dark King had been reassured, and in his impatience did not wait for his scouts' second report. Hand ready on the Sword-hilt at his side, he started to walk toward the apparently deserted settlement. As soon as he began to walk, new strangeness almost overcame him; his strides on this ground were awkward and bouncing, almost a slow bounding, as if his body had somehow been deprived of most of its weight.
Before he had covered half the distance to the nearest of the strange domed, half-crystalline structures, his pair of scouts, who could move with the speed of quasimaterial beings, were at his side again. Still the two demons had discovered no clear and present danger. But they were obviously excited and worried by things they had just observed, babbling to their Master about Old World technology beyond anything that they had ever seen before. Below the visible settlement there stretched extensive underground passages and rooms, many of them still in a good state of preservation; and in some of these there appeared to be wonders indeed.
The Dark King brushed aside talk of Old World things; he simply was not interested. "And people? Is this place inhabited?"
"Not as far as we can tell, Master. There has been no one, I think, for a very long time indeed."
Vilkata grumbled some more at the excited creatures, and alertly kept on walking. It was not that he had any wish to explore this alien land, where so much strangeness, so much--technology--was going to make it difficult to concentrate on the familiar and important things of magic. But the Dark King wanted to learn where he was as quickly as possible, because he was eager to reassure himself regarding his chances of returning to more familiar regions without inordinate delay. Only when he had done that would it be possible to get on with his own business. And he had plenty of vital business demanding his attention: first, of course, glorious revenge--and when the lust for revenge was sated, a return to the methodical accumulation of power.
Walking toward the Old World buildings with steps which were still mystically light and springy (even though not magically assisted), over a crunchy soil, the Dark King put the question about location to another of his demonic servants. Instinctively he chose for this purpose the demon who might be expected to be most knowledgeable and capable, the Mindsword's most eminent recent convert, Akbar himself.
"Where in the world are we, Akbar? Tell me, you cloud of slime, are we still on the same continent as Tasavalta and Sarykam?"
Akbar now assumed in Vilkata's perception the shape of a sturdy, reliable manservant who walked beside him, crude boots crunching in the soil. In apologetic tones the manservant informed the Master that the journey they had just concluded so helplessly had evidently been indirect as well as protracted. They had been helplessly following for approximately two earthly years a long wandering course through airless space. Akbar in his usual smooth, oily fashion did his best credit for making the experience as relatively comfortable as it had been for the human wizard.
But Vilkata, staring incredulously at his informant, was shocked. Outraged! Two years, wasted in confinement, as surely as if he had been clapped into a dungeon!
The Dark King snarled at his faithful demon, sending the manservant-image cowering back in fear and disappointment. A demon could ordinarily take any shape it chose, within broad limits, and Akbar's likeness was now abruptly transformed to that of a young woman. Her body, voluptuous and nearly nude, minced along on delicate bare feet beside Vilkata, moving hesitantly and awkwardly, as if she were on the verge of darting away to take shelter behind one of the boulders occasionally dotting the landscape. The look on the young woman's nearly perfect face confirmed the impression of her utter helplessness and fear. In fact her countenance reminded Vilkata strongly of a young servant girl whose name he had forgotten--it was years since he had amused himself for an evening by torturing her to death, but he still retained fond memories of the experience.
At the moment, the adoption of this particular image by the demon struck the Dark King as disgustingly stupid. Akbar could be that way at times--as though he thought his Master wanted or needed distraction, when his true need was to concentrate intensely on his problems!
Akbar, as Vilkata thought to himself, had always been one of the most cowardly and self-effacing of demons, though by no means one of the least powerful. The race were hardly noted for their bravery; but always this one had preferred to avoid even the slightest risk of death or punishment, whenever possible to use other creatures, human, animal, or demonic, to attain his ends.
But right now the wizard had more important problems demanding his attention than trying to fathom the depths of a demon's character--if one could apply that word to any member of such a race. His physical environment was the first thing he had to understand. Where exactly was he, and in what kind of place? Here the pervasive ascendancy of forces other than magic made him uneasy.
His almost-bounding footsteps slowed and stopped. He paused in his springy walk toward the enigmatic buildings. His demonic escort stopped as well, and waited, droning and half-visible, in the space around his head. He was close enough now to the Old World structures to see that many of them were ruined. Whatever information might be discoverable among them could wait. Just now, with the utter alienness of his surroundings impressing itself upon him with ever-increasing force, he wanted a simple answer to a simple question: Which way was home, and how far?
Distractedly Vilkata ran trembling fingers through his white beard, which--as he just now noticed for the first time--had indeed grown long during the strange involuntary voyage just completed. Staring around him at the strange hills, he once more demanded the clear answer he had not yet been given.
"And where have our coerced wanderings brought us? What is this place?"
The cringing image of the young woman, becoming suddenly even more attractive, looked up brightly and edged closer. Her eyes turned bright and hopeful as she replied: "Sire, we are now standing on the Moon, upon that portion of her surface perpetually most distant from the Earth."