Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore

  The wizard jumped up and shrieked, throwing his skinny arms in front of him in a feeble attempt at defense. Luthien cried out for victory and brought the sword in a vicious arc, just under the flailing arms, and the young man snarled grimly as the sword struck against the wizard’s side, boring right across. He saw the wizard’s robes, brownish-yellow in hue, fitting for the sickly looking man, fold under the weight of the blow, saw them follow the blade’s path.

  Blind-Striker had moved all the way around, left to right, and the robes with it, before Luthien realized that Paragor was not there, that the wizard somehow was no longer in these robes. The young Bedwyr stumbled forward a step, overbalancing as his sword found nothing substantial to hit. He caught himself and wheeled about, the brownish-yellow robes folded over his blade.

  He saw a shimmer across the room against the wall beyond the foot of the bed, as Paragor came back to corporeal form, wearing robes identical to the ones wrapped over Luthien’s sword. He saw Praehotec, eyes blazing, rage focused squarely on Luthien, coming over the bed, rushing right past Katerin and barreling over one of the cyclopians as he went, the fiend’s great wings buffeting both Katerin and the other one-eyed guard.

  Luthien knew that he was dead.

  • • •

  Like his companion, Oliver thought the key to this fight would be in slaying the wizard. And like his companion, Oliver came to understand that getting to Paragor would not be easy. At first, the halfling started right, following Luthien. Then, seeing that Luthien would get the attack in, Oliver had cut back toward the middle of the room, toward Katerin. The halfling’s eyes bulged when he realized Paragor’s magical escape, and how they bulged more when Oliver saw Praehotec, gigantic and horrid Praehotec, coming over the bed!

  With a squeak, Oliver dove down, crossing under the tumbling cyclopian and slipping under the bed as the demon charged out. The agile halfling recovered quickly, in a roll that turned his prone body about, and he scrambled right back out the way he had come in so that he could stab at the downed one-eye with his rapier. He scored a hit, then a second and a third, but the stubborn brute was up to its knees, bellowing like an animal, turning around to face the halfling.

  Oliver stuck it once again as it turned, and then the halfling let out a second squeak and faded back under the bed, the enraged cyclopian in close pursuit.

  • • •

  From the very beginning, Katerin had not been a model prisoner, and she kept up her reputation now. She accepted the hit as Praehotec passed, the demon’s wing knocking her flat to the bed and blasting her breath away. Her instincts yelled for her to go to Luthien, to die beside him, for she knew that he could not defeat this monstrous beast. But her wits told her to inflict as much pain on wretched Paragor as she could, and so as she went flying downward, she tensed her muscles and threw herself into the fall, hitting the cushioned bed with enough force to bounce right back to a sitting position. The second cyclopian, half on the bed and half off, dazed by the weight of Praehotec’s wing, was more concerned with its companion, who was scrambling under the bed, than with Katerin.

  The brute felt her arms come across its broad shoulders, the chain binding her wrists scraping its face as her wrists came down in front of its burly neck. In a split second, the cyclopian felt Katerin’s feet against its upper back, and she was pushing and tugging with all of her strength, her chained wrists fight across the one-eye’s throat.

  • • •

  The dominant thought in Paragor’s mind as he easily vanished from in front of Luthien’s mighty swing was that he had erred in keeping Praehotec so long. Before he ever came back to his corporeal form, the wizard knew that the demon would be going after Luthien, meaning to kill the young man and tear him apart, to punish the young Bedwyr, this legendary Crimson Shadow, for its defeat on the high tower of the Ministry.

  Thowattle’s warnings of turning the young man into a martyr echoed in Paragor’s mind, and so his first attack, a beam of searing, crackling, white energy, was aimed not at Luthien, nor any of his companions, but at Praehotec.

  The demon was close enough to Luthien by then that the wizard’s attack appeared to be an errant casting. The white bolt slammed Praehotec’s leathery wing, doing no real damage to the beast, but stopping its charge, slamming the monster against the far wall.

  Luthien, fighting hard to curb his terror, lunged forward, thrusting Blind-Striker with all his strength. The mighty sword had been forged by the dwarfs of the Iron Cross in ages past, its blade of beaten metal folded a thousand times. Now, after centuries of use, it was better than when it was forged, for as the blade wore down, each layer was harder than the previous. It sank deep into demon flesh. Luthien ignored the hot, greenish gore that erupted from Praehotec’s torn torso and pushed on, throwing all his weight behind the attack. Blind-Striker went in right up to its jewelled and golden hilt—the sculpted dragon rampant. The sharpened points of the sculpture’s upraised wings, the formidable cross-piece of the weapon, gouged small holes in the demon’s flesh.

  Luthien, snarling and screaming, looked up into the demon’s fiery eyes, thinking he had won, thinking that no beast, not even a monster of the Abyss, could withstand such a strike.

  Praehotec seemed in agony, green gore oozing from the wound, but gradually a wicked grin widened across the monster’s serpentine face. A trembling, clawed hand reached out to Luthien, who backed off to arm’s length only, not daring to withdraw the blade. A long, low growl came from the pained demon’s maw; Praehotec’s trembling, weakened hand caught Luthien by the front of his tunic and pushed him, the twelve-foot giant extending its long arm, driving Luthien back step by step, and since the young Bedwyr didn’t dare let go of Blind-Striker, the sword followed, sliding from the wound.

  When Praehotec’s arm was fully extended, Blind-Striker was only a few inches deep in the monster’s chest. Luthien yanked it all the way out and snapped it straight up, nicking the bottom of Praehotec’s jaw. Before he could do any more harm, though, the demon clenched its hand tighter and yanked its arm out to the side, hurling Luthien back by the door.

  The young Bedwyr came up in a roll to see Paragor casting straight at him. Through the open door Luthien dove, pulling it closed behind him.

  The door slammed all the faster when Paragor’s blast of lightning hit it, splitting the wood right down the middle so that splinters followed Luthien out into the hall. Luthien was up again in an instant, meaning to charge right back in, but he had to dive aside as the door exploded and Praehotec burst through.

  Luthien skittered behind the beast, back in front of the door. He saw Katerin on the bed, tugging for all her life, the cyclopian gasping and clawing at her hands and wrists. He saw the second brute, dodging futilely side to side as it tried to squirm under the bed, as Oliver’s darting rapier poked it again and again.

  “Get out!” Luthien cried to Oliver and he pulled the amber gemstone from his pouch and sent it skidding under the bed, hoping the halfling would see it and find the chance to take Katerin along with him if that stone was indeed an escape.

  Paragor was approaching, dark eyes focused right on Luthien, as though nothing or no one else mattered in all the world. The duke’s hair flared in wild wings behind his ears, and he seemed inhuman, as monstrous as the beast Praehotec.

  Luthien accepted that he was overmatched, but he didn’t care. All that mattered was that Katerin and Oliver might escape, and so the young Bedwyr spun about, snarling with fury and slashed Blind-Striker across Praehotec’s back, right between the wings.

  The demon howled and whipped around, clawed hand raking. But Luthien was already gone, rolling to the side, and Praehotec’s great hand caught nothing but the door jamb and remaining pieces of the door, launching a volley of splinters right into Paragor’s face.

  “Fool!” the duke yelled, hands going to his bloody face. “Do not kill him!”

  Even as Paragor yelled his instructions, Blind-Striker came in again, a crushing blow to the side of the cr
ouching demon’s head. Praehotec let out a wail, and no commands the wizard-duke could utter then, no reasoning, would have contained the fiend’s fury. Praehotec wheeled wildly, filling the corridor with its huge form, preventing Luthien from skipping behind this time.

  They faced off, the demon still in a crouch, its wings tight to its back so they would not scrape against the walls. The corridor was small and rather narrow, had been built for defense, and its ceiling was not high enough to accommodate the tall fiend. Praehotec was at no disadvantage, though; it could fight this way easily enough.

  Luthien, too, went into a crouch, backing down the hall as the demon stalked him. Clawed hands came at him, and all the young Bedwyr could do was whip his sword back and forth, parrying. Luthien nearly tripped over one of the dead cyclopians, and knew that if he had, his life would have come to a sudden and violent end.

  Regaining his footing and looking up at his foe, Luthien watched in blank amazement as two dagger-length beams of red light emanated from Praehotec’s blazing eyes. The serpentine maw turned up into another of those awful grins as the demon crossed its eyes to angle the beams. As soon as the light beams touched, a third beam burst forth, a red line that hit Luthien square in the chest, hurling him backward.

  He fought for his breath, felt the burn, the spot of sheer agony, and saw the grinning beast still approaching. He tried to backpedal, all his sensibilities told him to flee, but the door held firm behind him, and it could only open one way, into the corridor.

  Had Luthien been thinking clearly, he might have stepped aside and thrown it wide, then run out into the palace proper. But he could not stop and reason, not with the pain and with Praehotec so close, great arms reaching for him. And then his chance was lost altogether as Praehotec worked more magic, swelling and twisting the door in its jamb so that it would not open at all.

  • • •

  “Will you fall down and die, you ugly offspring of a flounder and a pig?” Oliver shouted, poking the cyclopian yet again. He had pierced the creature twenty times, at least. Its face, its chest, and both its reaching hands sported bright lines of blood. But the brute didn’t cry out, didn’t complain at all, and didn’t retreat.

  Something skittered beside Oliver and he heard Luthien call out for him to escape. Without even knowing what it might be, the halfling instinctively scooped up the bauble. Then he changed tactics. He poked at the cyclopian again, but fell back as he did so, allowing the brute to get further under the bed. When it had squeezed in all the way, Oliver, much smaller and more maneuverable in the tight quarters, poked it hard in the forehead, then scampered out the other side, coming to his feet to find Katerin still tugging with all her strength, though the strangled brute was no longer fighting back.

  “I think you can stop now,” the halfling remarked dryly, bringing Katerin from her apparent trance. “But if you really want to fight,” Oliver continued, dancing away from the bed as the crawling cyclopian swiped at him, “just wait a moment.”

  Oliver danced away; Katerin stood up. She looked at the door, and so did the halfling, watching Paragor’s back, the wizard apparently picking at his face, as he exited the room.

  Then Katerin’s attention was back to the immediate problem: the cyclopian reemerging from under the bed. She crouched and waited, and as the brute stood up, she called to it. As soon as it turned, Katerin leaped and tumbled, hooking her chained wrists under the one-eye’s chin and rolling right over the brute’s shoulder.

  She came around and down hard to her knees on the floor, tugging the cyclopian viciously behind her, bending back its back and neck. She hadn’t planned the move, but thought it incredibly clever and deadly indeed, but the cyclopian was stronger than she realized, and she was not heavy. The brute’s bloody hands reached back over its shoulders and clasped Katerin by the elbows, then tugged so hard that the sturdy woman gave out a scream.

  Oliver, busy examining the amber gem, casually strolled right in front of the engaged one-eye. The brute, straining to look back at Katerin, didn’t even notice him.

  “Ahem,” the halfling offered, tapping his rapier on top of the brute’s head.

  The cyclopian visibly relaxed its hold on Katerin and slowly turned to face front, to stare into the tip of Oliver’s rapier.

  “This is going to hurt,” Oliver promised, and his blade darted forward.

  The brute let go and grabbed wildly, trying to intercept, but the halfling was too quick and the rapier tip drove into the cyclopian’s eye.

  Oliver walked away, examining the stone once more, trying to recall all that Siobahn had said when she had given it to Luthien. Katerin, her arms free once more, for the blinded brute was wailing and thrashing aimlessly, turned herself over to face the creature’s back, twisting the chains tight about its neck.

  Had the powerful cyclopian grabbed her again, it might have been strong enough to break the strangling hold, but the one-eye was beyond reason, insane with pain. It thrashed and jerked, rolled to one side and then the other. Katerin paced it, her bindings doing their deadly work.

  Oliver wasn’t watching. He moved to the bottom of the bed and hurled the amber gemstone at the wall, calling three times for Brind’Amour. It shattered when it hit, but before a single piece of it could fall to the floor, it became something insubstantial, began to swirl as a fog, becoming part of the wall, transforming the wall.

  Oliver recognized the magical tunnel and understood that he and Katerin could get away. “Ah, my Brind’Amour,” the halfling lamented, and then he looked from the potential escape route to the shattered door. None of the three, not Luthien, the demon, or the wizard, was in sight.

  “I hate being a friend,” the halfling whispered, and started toward the door.

  Before he had gone three steps, though, two forms came rushing through the amber fog into the room. Oliver’s jaw drooped open; Katerin, finishing her latest foe, dared to hope.

  Brind’Amour and Estabrooke.

  • • •

  The parries came furiously and in rapid succession, Blind-Striker whipping back and forth, left and right, always intercepting a hand just before it raked at Luthien—or just after, before the demon could gain a firm hold or sink its terrible claws in too deep. Luthien couldn’t keep it up; he knew that, and knew, too, there was no way for him to launch any effective counter measures.

  Beams of red light began to extend from Praehotec’s blazing eyes.

  Luthien screamed, put one leg against the door and hurled himself at the beast, rushing in between the extended, grasping arms. He came in high, but dropped low as Praehotec crossed its eyes, the beams joining and sending forth another jarring bolt that flashed over Luthien’s head and slammed into the door, blasting a fair-sized crack.

  Luthien stabbed straight out, scoring a hit on Praehotec’s belly. Then he slashed to his right, gouging the demon’s great wing, and followed the blade, rolling around the beast, trying to go between Praehotec and the wall and get into the larger area of the corridor.

  Praehotec turned, and though the giant couldn’t keep up with Luthien’s scrambling, the beast did swing a leg fast enough, lifting a knee into Luthien’s side and slamming him painfully against the corridor wall.

  Luthien bounced out the other side, still scrambling on all fours, scraping his knuckles and gasping for breath, trying to make it back to the door of the wizard’s room, though he didn’t even have his head up, so bad was the pain.

  He saw the hem of the wizard’s brownish-yellow robes, a sickly color for a sickly man.

  Luthien forced himself to his knees, threw his back against the wall, and squirmed his way up to a standing position. Before he ever fully straightened, before he ever truly looked Paragor in the eye, he heard the crackle of energy.

  Blue lines of power arced between Paragor’s fingers, and when he thrust his hands toward Luthien, those lines extended, engulfing the man in a jolting, crackling shroud.

  Luthien jerked spasmodically. He felt his hair standing on end,
and his jaw chattered and convulsed so violently that he bit his tongue repeatedly, filling his mouth with blood. He tried to look at his adversary, tried to will himself toward the wizard, but his muscles would not react to his call. The spasms continued; Luthien slammed the back of his head against the wall so violently that he had to struggle to remain conscious.

  He hardly registered the movement as Praehotec finally turned and advanced, a clawed hand reaching for his head.

  With a roar of victory, the beast grabbed for its prey, meaning to squash Luthien’s skull. But the energy encircling the young Bedwyr sparked on contact and blew the demon’s hand aside. Praehotec looked at Paragor, serpentine face twisted with rage.

  “You cannot kill this one!” the duke insisted. “He is mine. Go to his lover instead and take her as you will!”

  Luthien heard. Above all the crackling and the pain, the sound of his own bones and ligaments popping as he jerked about, he heard. Paragor had sent Praehotec to Katerin. He had given the demon permission to kill Katerin . . . or worse.

  “No,” Luthien growled, forcing the word from his mouth. He straightened, using the wall for support, and somehow, through sheer willpower, he managed to steady himself enough to look the evil duke in the eye.

  Both Paragor and Praehotec stared at the young Bedwyr with a fair amount of respect, and so it was Luthien, gazing over the duke’s shoulder, who noticed the blue-robed wizard at the open doorway to the duke’s bedchamber.

  Brind’Amour’s hands moved in circles as he uttered a chant. He took a deep, deep breath and brought his hands back behind his ears, then threw them forward, at the same time blowing with all his might.

  Luthien got the strange image of the wizard as a boy, blowing out the candles upon his birthday cake.

  There came an explosion of light, and a great and sudden burst of wind that flattened Luthien against the wall at the same time as it blew out the arcing energy emanating from Paragor’s hands, freeing the trapped young Bedwyr.

  Paragor stumbled, then turned about, glaring at this new adversary, recognizing him as the old man he had seen in the divining basin. Now, with the display of power from the man, Paragor pieced things together.

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