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Jack L. Chalker

Empires of Flux & Anchor

For Somtow Sucharitkul

a spectacle of unmitigated horror with a dash of Bakti

1

RECALCITRANT GODS

Gods do not normally expect to look out the windows of their palatial heavens and see an enemy army advancing.

Gyasiros Rex, Lord of Yalah, god and king in one, watched the forces advance and tried to think of what to do. His all-seeing eyes showed him the scope of the encirclement, despite the fact that the nearest enemy trooper was a good hundred kilometers away, but the fierce determination in the would-be attackers did not worry him. His Fluxland kingdom had an energy shield impenetrable to all except those he, as a god, might choose to admit, and it had been placed there by the sheer force of his will. Neither the troops nor their weapons could pass that shield until and unless it was broken down.

The tremendous power that Flux gave to selected individuals always seemed either to corrupt or drive the wielder of such power into some unique form of madness. Gyasiros had been born in Flux and trained as a wizard in the great magical university at Globbus, where he’d shown exceptional power in taking the raw energy that was the Flux itself and transforming it and all inside it as he willed. He was certainly a god in his own Fluxland, his power there absolute, and he loved it. Not merely political power; the very trees, rocks, animals, and even the sky were of his design and his to create, destroy, or alter as his mood moved him. He was worshipped by his people, who knew, too, that divine will rewarded the faithful and punished the transgressor.

He liked things this way, and he was in no mood to change or accommodate to anyone else’s thoughts or ideas. The rest of World concerned him not at all, except for the necessary trade through the stringers that brought him new toys and, occasionally, new books, which filled him with new ideas. He knew, of course, of the seven gates to Hell, sealed long ago, and knew that there were those who would open them once more and end World as he knew and liked it, but this was a remote sort of threat that did not concern or worry him He knew, too, of the great Church that ruled all twenty-eight Anchors, those places where no Flux existed and no powers worked, but he thought the Church welcome to such areas. Whole nations without magic were Gyasiros’ own idea of what Hell must be.

Stringers had brought him word of a schism within that church, led by a priestess who was once of Anchor but now a powerful wizard in Flux, but this, too, he tended to feel was no concern of his. That had been far away and long ago, and what was it to him what theology ruled outside of Yalah and was imposed on the common masses?

And when the Reformed Church had sent emissaries to Yalah, he had not even bothered to listen to them. Although one had been a wizard of reasonable power and had been most insistent, he had impatiently turned them both into dogs. Later, two more had come, both very strong wizards, and he had been challenged somewhat. He found the challenge amusing, but on World, where the power of a Fluxlord was measured by the amount of geography he or she could control and stabilize, Gyasiros controlled one of the largest areas known.

In the end he’d changed the big man into a stately tree, and after that priestess or whatever she’d been had been forced to dance naked in the streets and then lick his feet, he’d removed her power of reason and freed her to live as an animal in his private forest.

But now, seeing the vast army besieging Yalah, he was beginning to feel annoyed.

This annoyance increased as the attack upon his shield commenced, an attack of such power and ferocity as he’d never known. The energy reserves and concentration required to stand against it caused the very ground to tremble and the reality of Yalah to shimmer and waver.

He began to get an awful headache.

Ultimately, he had to contract his shield boundaries a full ten kilometers to maintain a decent level, but this actually increased the psychic attack, as there was now less area for the enemy to concentrate upon. And as the shield withdrew, the armies advanced.

Not that he hadn’t left all sorts of ugly surprises for them. The grass oozed acid that burned through clothing and armor and into flesh, while the roads became ugly tar-pits that grabbed and sucked down those who trod upon it, swallowing whole wagons. He knew that the attacking wizards must divert some power to neutralize his traps, and he waited to open his counterattack until he discerned a weakness in the attacker’s will, but he sensed only a slight lessening of the attack, and that for a very brief period, and he began to grow worried. He had been attacked many times before by ambitious young wizards, some very powerful, who wanted to grab a ready-made Fluxland and, in defeating him, create instant respect and recognition, but all had failed. This, however, was different. These forces were seasoned troops, driven by some sense of mission, and there were so many of them! He knew that his own population, vast as it was, lacked the skill and training necessary to take them on in open battle. Oh, because he could command them, they would fight to the death and take a heavy toll, but it didn’t take great wisdom to see that an army like this had faced that sort many times before—and was still here.

The headache grew far worse. He began to regret that he hadn’t just sent those emissaries packing. Now, with his record, he could hardly expect them to send someone else. Mentally he cast about for his attackers, seeking the strongest wizard of the bunch. It was an easy task, although all were quite powerful. This one stood out like a beacon on a dark night, and he seized upon it. For the briefest moment he let down his guard for all save that one, and shot down its energy flow a single concept he was certain would be understood.

“It was?”

Then it all went back up, and he resumed the fight, waiting to see if the challenge would be taken. It was the simplest way out, but it would take some time after the wizard received and understood the message and invitation for word to get to the others. Now he could do nothing more than draw as much energy as possible from the Flux and wait.

The waiting was about three hours, about what he’d expected. His headache was now tremendous, but he was still holding on, after having to give up almost a quarter of Yalah.

Suddenly the attack on his shield ceased, and the relief was so great that this very cessation of hostilities almost caused him to pass out. That he did not only confirmed his own self-image and made him more confident. He was tired, true, but so were they, and so would be this one chief wizard he would have to meet and, perhaps, take on, one-on-one.

He looked out and watched as grim-faced, battle-hardened troops heard a call and divided and fell back in a mixture of awe and respect. The chief wizard, his true antagonist, was coming, as he had hoped. Still, it was difficult to believe the wizard’s appearance when finally it materialized.

She was a small, thin, boyish-looking woman. She looked almost dwarfed against the backdrop of that great army. She had straight, stringy reddish-brown hair down to her waist, but wore no makeup or jewelry and looked pale and thin, her face hard and worn, aged far beyond her years. She wore only an old tattered robe that seemed two sizes too short for her and whose original color could not really be determined. She was barefoot.

Although her appearance was startling, particularly for one of such power, he did not underestimate her threat. Size, sex, age—none of that mattered in the Flux. He threw her a string—a weak energy beam that remained stable from origin to destination—and she saw it and acknowledged it with an offhanded nod to herself. Her body suddenly glowed, and then there was a bright flash and a surge of energy along the string. In an instant she was no longer so far away, but in his great hall, facing him.

Up close, she looked no different, only a bit older and more shopworn than he’d first thought. He, on the other hand, presented a more than regal appearance to her, in his flowing white robes, his golden, jewel-encrusted crown, and handsome, bearded face. He was at least two meters tall, and his body was perfectly proportioned and

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