The Last Book Of Swords : Shieldbreaker’s Story (2 page)

BOOK: The Last Book Of Swords : Shieldbreaker’s Story
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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 sizes, 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 were 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, he 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 he 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 indeed 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 quasi-material 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 kept on walking. It was not that he had any wish to explore this alien land, where so much strangeness, so much—
—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 stated, 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 of 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 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 to take 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 into 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 using 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 attribute such a quality as character to any member of the 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.

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 noticed for the first time—had indeed grown long during the 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.”




Chapter Two


The demon who had pronounced the shattering words, together with all his colleagues, peered in anxious silence at his Master, concerned to see what effect this news might have upon him.

Vilkata, stunned by the announcement, said nothing for a few moments. It was impossible to hear such an unprecedented claim without doubting it. Yet the unearthly strangeness of the environment, impressing itself upon him more intensely with every moment, immediately undermined his doubts. And the Dark King reminded himself again that the Mindsword compelled perfect loyalty; whatever his demons’ natural inclination, they would not, could not, lie to him. Not unless they deemed that their Master’s best interests would be served by such deception—and that condition hardly seemed likely to apply in the present situation.

Was it conceivable that a demon could be mistaken in such a matter? No, not likely either.

Seeking to establish beyond all doubt the truth of his situation, and wanting the best advice he could obtain on what to do about it, the Dark King summoned the whole number of his faithful demonic horde close about him. There were about two dozen of them in all, at the moment assuming a variety of human and almost-human shapes. Though Vilkata recognized them all individually, he had never taken a count of their exact number.

One reason for this summoning was that he did not want any of the demons straying for any dangerous length of time beyond the physical distance at which the Mindsword’s influence would, in time, begin to fade.

When he was sure he had the full attention of each member of his escort, he demanded proof of the incredible statement one of their number had just made. Characteristically, he phrased the request in the form of an accusation.

“We are on the
Do you really expect me to believe

Judging by the expressions on the faces of his slaves and guardians, such belief was indeed what they, in their current state of enforced loyalty, had expected. The angry tone of their Master’s question disturbed them.

“What proof can you offer?” the Dark King demanded.

If he had expected Akbar and the others to be perplexed by this demand, he was mistaken. To prove to their choleric Master as clearly as possible that they spoke the truth, they lifted him gently and carried him at arrow-speed over the rolling hills of the peculiar landscape, directly away from the clustered Old World domes. When his bearers put him down a minute later, the Dark King found himself gazing by means of his borrowed vision at an almost recognizable Earth, just risen straight ahead of him above the sharply defined and not-too-distant horizon.

The great orb, vastly larger than the Moon as seen from Earth, and nearly full, was now hanging motionless among the crowded stars, for all the world like some blue-white Moon, monstrously swollen.

There was half a minute of silence before the Dark King, in a changed voice, murmured: “That is … what I think it is?”

“Indeed, Master.”

As he stared at his native planet, Vilkata’s magically augmented vision was able to descry, beneath the white film of distant clouds, the shape of continents and oceans. The sight was finally convincing.

Suddenly his homeworld, so eminently recognizable, also looked so close, almost within reach. Vilkata wanted to reach up and pluck blue Earth from black sky, crush all the juices from the planet in his grip.

Impulsively he demanded: “How long will it take us to get back there? Surely not a matter of years again? Such delay would be unendurable!”

Akbar, speaking with a fanatic’s vehemence, and quickly supported by a chorus of his lesser colleagues, assured his Master that they would find a way to make the homeward leg of their journey infinitely faster.

“Never years, Master!”


Vilkata glared at them all. “Months, then? That would be almost as bad. Assure me that the return trip to our own world will not be prolonged over months.”

Akbar now turned supremely smooth and reassuring. “Days only, Master, I am sure. Never more than days.”

“How are we to travel? I have the feeling that this place is still connected to the Old World, that it does not support magic as well as it might.

“Yet magic here works well enough for your purposes, Master, for here we are. As for getting home, I can see already that there are several ways. We will soon determine the swiftest and most secure,” the demon promised.

“How?” Vilkata’s voice, demanding particulars, grew louder, threatening. He waved the glowing torch-vision of his Sword. Even before the lengthy voyage just concluded, he had flown uncounted times on demons’ backs, and was very familiar with the process. The idea of deliberately setting out to travel from the Moon to the Earth by such means was unsettling, whatever magical protection might be provided.

“We will discover the best way,” Akbar assured him vaguely. The demon, evidently sensing that his Master considered the maidenly form inappropriate just now, had taken that of a stout male warrior. “I suggest we begin, great Master, with a thorough investigation of those buildings we had sighted.”

“Be it so.”

Again Vilkata was lifted gently by his guardians, and in moments they were all back at the abandoned Old World settlement—if that was the right word for this collection of enigmatic and apparently deserted structures. As they flew above the pockmarked surface, the Earth once more slipped back below the strangely foreshortened lunar horizon.


* * *


With the complete dissipation of the encapsulating force, whatever it had been, which had confined the man and demons together through their outward voyage, the demons’ vision had dramatically improved, as had that of the wizard who shared their perceptions. Now a truly unreasonable number of stars were crowding the dark sky. Standing out in the display was a pair of the brighter planets, the latter familiar to Vilkata from his long-ago studies in astrology. And always there was the mercilessly glaring Sun, which so far had shown little inclination to move from the place low in the sky where the Dark King had first seen it.

Flying, he was able to observe more clusters of human construction in the distance. Whatever the true nature of this place, whatever its true location (he still clung fiercely to an atom of doubt about being on the Moon—he did not want to be there!), it was certainly marked, in scattered locations, with other clustered, abandoned settlements, the ruins of strange buildings and devices.

Vilkata had learned the fact in his studies long ago—had learned but until now had never totally believed—that the arrogant humans of the Old World had indeed, even without the benefit of any magic at all, colonized the Moon.

One of the first things he had observed upon his arrival here was that the landscape was heavily cratered, pocked and blasted with marks as of violent impacts or explosions. These concavities came in all sizes, from kilometers in diameter—all distances here were hard for a stranger to estimate by sight, and Vilkata thought that ordinary human vision would have done no better than his—down to only centimeters. Some of these scars, whatever their provenance, overlay older craters and were as fresh looking as if they had been formed only yesterday. In depth and width and conformation these craters seemed to testify to titanic explosions, waves of heat which had slagged and melted native rock and buildings alike.

Directing his demonic guardians to put him down again in the middle of the first cluster of Old World constructions they had observed, the Dark King could see that many or most of the house-sized domes were more than half destroyed, looking empty and airless as the surrounding landscape.

Hand on his Sword hilt, moving again with enforced slow springy strides, Vilkata at last stepped warily in through one of the fractured walls, entering one of the broken, glassy shells. The tiled floor, looking quite ordinary, was by far the most familiar thing in sight. Now at last he was able to see enough details to convince himself completely that these buildings were the work of the legendary folk of the Old World, constructed with the aid of all their mysterious technology. Indoors and outdoors the place was littered thickly with the leavings of that antique race of humanity, the piled debris of their colossal failure. Even as the tracks of their booted human feet remained here and there visible in the crunchy soil around the buildings, evidently preserved neither by technology nor magic, but only by the unearthly nature of this environment.

The Old World culture of technology, Vilkata knew, had died some fifty thousand Earthly years ago.


* * *


In response to mumbled orders from the increasingly tired and bewildered wizard, his escort soon located for him, in one of the better-preserved ruins, a real bed, solid furniture upon a solid floor. They filled his vision with bright, cheerful light, supplied his new quarters with air, and found for him, miraculously preserved by more Old World technology, wine to drink and real food to eat. A volume of comfortable living space the size of a small house was magically sealed off.

Once a secure and comfortable physical environment had been provided for their Master, half a dozen demons, borrowing the shapes of young and beautiful humans of both sexes, came crowding together on his bed to tempt him with their bodies. He considered this display thoughtfully for a few moments, then snarled at its creators. Waving the naked, flaring Mindsword at them, he bade them get out of his sight, ordered them on pain of destruction to concentrate their efforts upon vigilantly standing guard.


* * *


When, about eight hours later, Vilkata awakened from the first real sleep he had enjoyed since his banishment—his first in two years, if Akbar was right about the time—with the hilt of the sheathed Mindsword still gripped in his long-since healed right hand, he felt considerably better. The Dark King was once more in command of himself, and ready to resume control over his own destiny.

A good thing, too, that he felt rested. Because within a few minutes of his awakening his demons came to inform him of certain unsettling discoveries they had made while he slept—there were ominous hints from beneath the lunar surface of a whole domain of ongoing mysterious activity seemingly not native to the Moon. The centerpiece of this phenomenon seemed to be a certain very ancient but still active individual presence, no more than a hundred kilometers away.

At the moment when his demons brought this news, the Dark King was standing before a mirror of magic which presented him with a demonic vision of his own eyeless countenance. He paused in the act of magically depilating his two-year beard.

“What sort of activity and presence?” he demanded. “What are you talking about?”

The demon-image of a voluptuous woman—this time one of Akbar’s lesser colleagues was acting as spokesman—observed him warily. “Great Lord, it is certainly connected with the Old World, and yet it is not entirely of that.”


What? What kind of information is that? Either tell me something definite and meaningful, or—or—”

Again it was Akbar’s turn to speak. He loomed in insubstantial form, a talking cloud. “Great Lord, it is very hard to say exactly
it is that we have discovered. There is much
, as one might expect in any Old World settlement, and besides that there is much that is alive.”

“Alive? Where? What is alive?”

“As to where, Sire, some kind of life exists here under the surface, in places not readily accessible to our examination. We cannot be more specific at the moment because there are barriers, magical and otherwise, to our close approach. We might assault those barriers successfully. Whether we might gain or discover anything that would be worth the cost…”

The Dark King thought. “Human life? You told me earlier that there was none.”

Akbar’s cloud shape contracted, suggesting a humble bow. “To our infinite shame, Tremendous Master, we may have been mistaken. What kind of life it is is hard to say without obtaining a closer look.”

“Dangerous to us? To me?”

“I think not, Sire. Rather such life as exists here seems—quiescent. Of course, what might happen if we probe harder in our investigations…” Akbar gave the image of a shrug.

“You are babbling,” Vilkata accused his faithful slave. Then he took thought before he added: “I do not intend much exploring here. I suppose you have already carried out some local investigation, or you would not have detected this supposed life.”

“A rather thorough probing of our surroundings within a kilometer or two seemed only prudent, Master.”

The Dark King had to admit as much. “What else have you found? But never mind, it’s plain I must look the situation over for myself. You can tell me of your discoveries while I walk.”

BOOK: The Last Book Of Swords : Shieldbreaker’s Story
7.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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