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Roger Zelazny

Changeling

I

When he saw old Mor limp to the van of the besiegers' main party, the Lord of Rondoval realized that his reign was about over.

The day was fading fast behind storm clouds, a steady drizzle of cold rain descended and the thunder rolled nearer with each beat, with each dazzling stroke of light. But Det Morson, there on the main balcony of the Keep of Rondoval, was not yet ready to withdraw. He patted his face with his black scarf and ran a hand through his hair-- frost-white and sparkling now, save for the wide black band that passed from his forehead to the nape of his neck.

He withdrew the finely wrought scepter from his sash and held it with both hands, slightly above eye-level, at arm's distance before him. He breathed deeply and spoke softly. The dragon-shaped birthmark on the inside of his right wrist throbbed.

Below, a line of light crossed the path of the attackers, and flames grew upward from it to wave before them. The men fell back, but the centaur archers stood their ground and unleashed a flight of arrows in his direction. Det laughed as the winds beat them aside. He sang his battle-song to the scepter, and on the ground, in the air and under the earth, his griffins, basilisks, demons and dragons prepared themselves for the final assault.

Yet, old Mor had raised his staff and the flames were already falling. Det shook his head, reflecting on the waste of talent.

Det raised his voice and the ground shuddered. Basilisks emerged from their lairs and moved to stare upon his enemies. Harpies dove at them, screaming and defecating, their claws slashing. Werewolves moved in upon their flanks. On the cliffs high above, the dragons heard him and spread their wings....

But, as the flames died and the harpies were pierced by the centaurs' shafts, as the basilisks--bathed in the pure light which now shone from Mor's staff--rolled over and died, eyes tightly shut; as the dragons--the most intelligent of all--took their time in descending from the heights and then avoided a direct confrontation with the horde, which was even now resuming its advance, Det knew that the tide had turned, his vultures had come home to roost and history had surprised him in the outhouse, so to speak. There was no way to employ his powers for deliverance with old Mor out there monitoring every magical avenue of egress; and as for Rondoval's physical exits, they were already blocked by the besiegers.

He shook his head and lowered the scepter. There would be no parlaying, no opportunity for an honorable surrender--or even one of the other kind. It was his blood that they wanted, and he had a sudden premonition of acute anemia.

With a final curse and a last glance at the attackers, he withdrew from the balcony. There was still a little time in which to put a few affairs into order and to prepare for the final moment. He dismissed the notion of cheating his enemies by means of suicide. Too effete for his tastes. Better to take a few of them along with him.

He shook the rain from his cloak and hurried down the hallway. He would meet them on the ground floor.

The thunder sounded almost directly overhead now. There were bright flashes beyond every window that he passed.

Lady Lydia of Rondoval, dark hair undone behind her, turned the corner and saw the shadow slide into the doorway niche. Uttering a general banishing spell, appropriate to most unhuman wights likely to be wandering these halls, she made her way up the corridor.

As she passed the opening, she glanced within and realized immediately why the spell had been somewhat less than efficacious. She confronted Mouseglove the thief--a small, dark man, clad in blackcloth and leather--whom she had, until that moment, thought safely confined to a cell beneath the castle. He regained his composure quickly and bowed, smiling.

'Charmed,' he said, 'to meet m'lady in passage.'

'How did you get out?' she asked.

'With difficulty,' he replied. 'They make tricky locks in these parts.'

She sighed, clutching her small parcel more closely.

'It appears,' she said, 'that you have managed the feat just in time for it to prove your undoing. Our enemies are already battering at the main gate. They may even be through it by now.'

'So that is what the noise is all about,' he said. 'In that case, could you direct me to the nearest secret escape passage?'

'I fear that they have all been blocked.'

'Pity,' he said. 'Would it then be impolite of me to inquire whence you are hastening with--Ah! Ah!'

He clutched at his burned fingertips, immediately following an arcane gesture on the Lady Lydia's part when he had reached toward the bundle she bore.

'I am heading for a tower,' she stated, 'with the hope that I can summon a dragon to bear me away--if there still be any about. They do not take well to strangers, however, so I fear there is nothing for you there. I--I am sorry.'

He smiled and nodded.

'Go,' he said. 'Hurry! I can take care of myself. I always have.'

She nodded, he bowed, and she hurried on. Sucking his fingers, Mouseglove turned back in the direction from which he had just come, his plan already formed. He, too, would have to hurry.

As Lydia neared the end of the corridor, the castle began to shake. As she mounted the stair, the window on the landing above her shattered and the rain poured in. As she reached the second floor and moved toward the winding stairway to the tower, an enormous clap of thunder deafened her to the ominous creaking noise within the walls. But, had she heard it, she might still have ventured there.

Partway up the stair, she felt the tower begin to sway. She hesitated. Cracks appeared in the wall. Dust and mortar fell about her. The stairway began to tilt....

Tearing her cloak from her shoulders, she wrapped it about her bundle as she turned and rushed back in the direction from which she had come.

The angle of the stair declined, and now she could hear a roaring, grating sound all about her. Ahead, a portion of the ceiling gave way and water rushed in. Beyond that, she could see the entranceway sliding slowly upwards. Without hesitation, she drew back the bundle and cast it through the opening.

The world gave way beneath her.

As the forces of Jared Klaithe pounded into the main hall at Rondoval over the bodies of its dark defenders, the lord Det emerged from a side passage, a drawn bow in his hands. He released an arrow which passed through Jared's armor, breastbone and heart, in that order, dropping him in his tracks. Then he cast the bow aside and drew his scepter from his sash. He waved it in a slow circle above his head and the invaders felt an invisible force pushing them back.

One figure moved forward. It was, of course, Mor. His illuminated staff turned like a bright wheel in his hands.

'Your loyalty is misplaced, old man,' Det remarked. 'This is not your fight.'

'It has become so,' Mor replied. 'You have tipped the Balance.'

'Bah! The Balance was tipped thousands of years ago,' said the other, 'in the proper direction.'

Mor shook his head. The staff spun fester and faster before him, and he no longer appeared to be holding it.

'I fear the reaction you may already have provoked,' he said, 'let alone what might come to pass should you be permitted to continue.'

'Then it must be between us two,' said Det, slowly lowering the scepter and pointing it.

'It always was, was it not?' said Mor.

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