CHAPTER 4: WHERE THE RIVER MEETS THE SEA

It was dawn and a spectacular one at that. Just off the Snake’s Mouth where the mighty Osira relieved itself into the Outer Seas, a Skalian war galley was coasting back and forth, in and out. Out, but rarely further than the protective shroud of the Stone. Beyond that normally imperceptible shroud, a thick drizzle of red dust was descending and the rising sun was a blood orange, thrusting up over the horizon. The crew stared, fascinated by this contrast, this revelation. If any had harbored doubts as to the power that lay within Djebal Doron, they were now utterly dispelled.

As dawn gave way to morning and morning passed into midday, still the galley was there, searching; trawling for a floating timber at worst, a survivor at best. Just some indication as to the fate of the large fleet of fish-boats that had departed Skal some twenty days ago. This had been its destination, a prolific fishing ground where the warm nutritious waters of the Osira mixed with the all-encompassing ocean.

The sun’s rays were intense even through the dust-laden atmosphere overhead, and the crew were stripped to their waists. Their minds were beginning to wander in this sultry environment, for the rhythm of the galley’s drum was slow and it only required a lethargic pull on the oars to send the sleek vessel gliding far through the calm water. It was prowling at the very fringe of the distinctive boundary that had developed, a mere oar’s length from the neighboring dust film, but for its captain the novelty of this sight was fast fading and his attention was focused landward, captured by the infinite green line of palms that fluttered mesmerically behind the heat haze lingering above the scorched beach. His keen eyes though went beyond the palms, following the beach around to where it expired against the rocky promontory that flanked the eastern edge of the bay in which they now found themselves. The feature was clearly marked on the charts as a hazard, for it continued well out into the ocean. Also marked on the charts was the extent of the Stone’s aura but he knew without even looking that it fell well beyond the promontory, much further out into the ocean. Why then were the rocks at the end of the promontory and the weeds strewn across them submerged in a layer of red dust?

 

Beneath the waves the outline of the hull was clearly visible. A dynamic black oval on pale purple. The path of the oval was being followed intently; pursued by an ancient sentience unused to light such as this for rarely had it ventured to the surface. Recollections came of another era, threadbare now, such was the timescale involved. They had confronted those above, had insinuated themselves into their pulpy frames and feeble minds. In response to these spirit-like abilities, the surface ones with their mellifluous tones had labeled them “Eidola”. It was not a word suited to their own harsh vocabulary.

 

Recollections faded as cold intelligence chose the moment.

Now! It had to be now!

Eagerly, the Eidolon moved upward.

 

The captain was awakened from his reverie by a shrill call from the bow look-out. The drumming stopped, oars dragged listlessly in the water and the forward motion of the boat was gradually slowed.

 

A raft of driftwood had just floated through the barrier, its surface caked in red grime, and on it a body was stretched out. Unbeknown to the crew of the galley the body was devoid of life, but as boat hooks grappled to haul it in, an unseen entity entered; an opaque shimmer on the surface of the water was all that betrayed its presence. The Eidolon’s other body, scarred and misshapen, but altogether more suited to the rigors of the ocean, pressed against the underside of the raft, hidden from sight. Catharsis for the consciousness imprisoned therein would be brief.

Unseeing eyes lolled upwards, the torso twitched convulsively. The Eidolon manipulated the muscles and vocal chords of this new body with practiced ease. The former vitality within had been allowed to linger until the appearance of the galley, whereupon it had been extinguished; there could be no distractions, however slight.

A beckoning arm lured down the attentive ear of the captain. Parched burnt lips were drawn back and a few dying words were gasped. ‘Khirs, they…slew us all!’

 

The body was at rest. The drum beat was urgent. The Eidolon reclaimed its more familiar guise and slunk back to the depths.

CHAPTER 5: UNDER THE WALL

Upon passing through the main gates of the citadel a sprawling courtyard was encountered, flanked on either side by the uppermost levels of the palace. An inquisitive eye though would be transported directly across the courtyard, transfixed by the angular grimness of the temple beyond as it reared up amidst the main body of the palace. The eye would be drawn immediately to the apex of that temple, before straying back down the great granite steps of the White Stairway. It would come to rest at the bottom of those steps, just above the same courtyard, where it would be greeted by an imposing line of rain trees.Upon closer scrutiny it would be seen that this line was actually a perimeter, and that it surrounded a curious quadrangle between the White Stairway and the courtyard, into which there were only two points of access: the one, at the base of the granite steps, and the other, an almost hidden pathway straying in on the opposite side, from the courtyard esplanade.

The granite steps descended into the quadrangle through a gap in the initial line of trees, whereupon they encountered an ornate green bridge. The single wooden span of the bridge arced steeply across the quadrangle, thence to link with the hidden pathway beyond.

It was a second swaying mass of rain tree branches on this opposite side that concealed the pathway, probably by design rather than neglect; their untrimmed fronds hung down over the end of the bridge in the manner of giant gray laburnums and within their shadows it could just be discerned, winding its tortuous way to the courtyard.

It was difficult to discern the exact route of the obscure quadrangle path as it emerged from the trees and into the courtyard, for it began to meander aimlessly, appearing at several points to lack the necessary will to continue. Gradually however a random finished stone became evident amongst the weary worn cobbles, until suddenly, at the midpoint of the courtyard, a checkered esplanade of alternating black and white marble was in place. This single feature, the esplanade, now began to impose itself, to dominate its surroundings, railing against the vast bland cobbled expanse in which it found itself.

And so, having imposed itself, having escaped its rambling beginnings, the now resplendent path could finally head in a purposeful line toward the main gates – alas to find one further obstacle attempting to impede its progress.

About a hundred paces from the gates a deep channel cut a swathe across the entire width of the courtyard, with arched portals at either end providing lower level access into the palace. Shallow steps had been cut down into it on both sides and these also extended across the entire width of the courtyard.

But daunting though this was, the esplanade took it in its stride, tumbling down one side and rising up the other, before resuming its imperious journey towards the gates.

Should anyone have found themselves on that final section of the esplanade, having been granted the rare privilege of walking the entire route from the upper temple entrance down to the citadel gates, it would not however be the checkered marble beneath their feet that would be uppermost in their mind, nor even the magnificent White Stairway trailing in their wake. They would have encountered two other landmarks, both destined to make a much more lasting impression.

Firstly, beneath the ornate bridge, extending out to overhanging branches on all sides, they would have seen a tranquil fathomless pool. Nothing stirred within this pool. Neither ripple nor reflection disturbed its placid surface; neither wind nor birdsong troubled the dank still air above it. Nature had decided that here was a place to shun. These were the Dead Waters.

Secondly, they would have found that it was not just a concealed path that lurked in the darkness beneath the branches of the rain trees. Two ominous statues lay in wait there also: they represented fabulous birds of myth from Isladoron’s distant past. Identical in every respect, each of the sculpted creatures grasped with cruel talons the ornate vertical plinths below, their inner wings linking to form an archway through which the path led. It was only when that archway had been negotiated that the birds could be seen to full effect: proud, almost arrogant in aspect; severe golden beaks; plumage of the deepest aubergine, deeper even than the summer fruit of the rain tree. And gazes of searing intensity, that made for a most uncomfortable walk through to the courtyard.

 

*

 

Today the checkered esplanade had been well trodden. Two delegations had entered the citadel and left a trail of clinging footprints in their wake which remained undiminished, despite the light drizzle that fell. As though it had been held at bay by the gates, the trail swept into the courtyard like a muddied tide and disappeared down into the recessed alleyway that traversed it. It failed nevertheless, despite its apparent momentum, to reemerge on the far side. Only Nûrgal’s footfalls had echoed there of late.

As the last figures had descended the steps from the courtyard, burnished helmets snuffed out one by one, the gates had swung shut, forged steel bolts sliding into position with noiseless precision.

Only then had those figures risked a backward glance. Pride and latent anger had dictated they cross the courtyard with heads bowed, brooking no intimidation from the inert scowling stares of beasts that clutched with stone claws to the palace walls, nor from the sighing wind crooning its restrained melody all about them. Forbidding gates and looming temple had ensured the glances were short-lived however, before those final delegates had hurriedly continued in pursuit of their companions.

 

One delegation had entered the palace at the eastern end of the alleyway, the other at the west, and both had been conveyed downward and northward to the lower levels of the palace by wandering marble-lined corridors, until not a single member of either delegation could state their location with any degree of certainty.

Then had come the stairwells, where all pretense of decoration had ended. One flight after another, they were steep and they were grim and their only adornments were the fitful flames of occasional torches. They were evidence as to the more utilitarian aspects of the place; that this was a spitefully defended fortress as well as a palace.

Finally, from the base of these stairwells and amid much cursing, the delegates had been disgorged into opposing chambers from where they could clearly see each other. There though, within the confines of these entrance chambers, the cursing had stopped, for they were about to set foot in Two Tower Hall.

 

Grim and ill-lit it was not, but it was scale rather than adornment that had caused chatter to cease. The cross-vaulted ceiling might have represented the very sky for all its accessibility. The minute tesserae that adorned its barreled surfaces were coated with metallic leaf which imbued them with a luminous aspect that distanced the ceiling yet further from the floor.

As the delegates now filed into the main hall from the smaller side chambers, most eyes were directed upward but a monotonous drone inevitably drew them to the rear. Again the image was distant and ethereal and initially, distorted; but in fact the convex surface before them was no illusion. This formidable cylinder, which formed the back wall of the hall, rose from the bowels of the island, through the palace and into the temple above. Humming energy churned through filigreed strands embedded into its mineral surface obviating the need for any decoration and contributing to a fluctuating tapestry of subdued light.

And thence eyes were drawn an immeasurable distance, down to the front of the hall.

The second tower was actually embedded into the citadel wall beneath the shadow of the temple’s north face. Its ornamental onion dome was fully five stories above the jagged parapet that topped the wall although it was still dwarfed by the temple; those five stories formed the annex to the main library. Beneath this, both tower and wall plummeted down the sheer north face of Djebal Doron until they merged with the island’s bedrock and on the inner face of the tower, as it passed through Two Tower Hall, a section had been removed; not enough to disturb its integrity, but a substantial portion nonetheless. Dominating the resultant alcove was a throne, in effect an unadorned ivory shield, its edges scalloped. Leaning back at an acute angle as though frozen in the act of toppling, it made scant contact with the dais beneath; in fact, this meager edge apart, it possessed no visible means of support. Yet in a niche at its center, outlined by baleful beams of afternoon light that filtered through opaque crystal windows couched in the tower’s outer wall, sat Typhon X. At his side stood the shadowy figure of his first advisor.

Now that they had taken in their surroundings the two delegations shuffled tentatively forward, ushered into position by a mere handful of guards who then proceeded to melt away as surreptitiously as they had materialized. An awkward silence ensued as the supreme ruler of Isladoron raised a questioning eyebrow and scrutinized each party in turn; that single eyebrow apart, his face gave away nothing. Back and forth along the assembled ranks his questing eyes traveled before falling on the Skalian ambassador. With a curt gesture of the hand he motioned the man forward. Then it was down to business.

 

Typhon sat, twisting and turning on his ivory throne as his anger grew. It was not the angular nature of the throne that was the cause of his discomfort, rather the tempestuous tone of the confrontation unfolding before him, as insults were traded back and forth across the floor. Dôrônish was the accepted language of his court and was the language from which all contemporary languages had been derived, as the harsh unwieldy words of the old tongue had faded into obscurity. It had traveled well westwards, and Khîrrîsh, although clipped and more precise, was essentially the same. To the east however it had not flourished to the same extent and had assumed two mantles: the first version, Askâlân, was now the province of the elite only and was indeed Dôrônish, albeit formal and long-winded; the second, to which those Skalians on the floor below had now reverted, was riddled with slang and regional variations and was the spoken word of the masses. Typhon had often thought upon hearing it that it was a regression towards the old tongue and although he had no difficulty in following it, today it aggravated and offended him.

The Skalians stood to his right and their intentions were obvious, both from their garb and their manner. Dress uniforms of white bone armor had been recently polished and the cruel curved blades that hung at their sides were but a small part of their weaponry. Their ruddy – faced ambassador, after a series of pleas directed at Typhon, had now bypassed his arbiter and was bellowing profanities at his counterpart in the Khir ranks. That worthy, to his credit, remained silent and aloof. Like his compatriots he seemed mildly surprised at the venom of the insults which were being hurled at him, but the expression of disdain on his features did little to placate the situation. He bore little armor and the narrow sword at his side was his only weapon. It was more than some of his delegation had at their disposal.

Nûrgal’s attentions lay elsewhere. At the rear of the Khir ranks stood a number of hooded individuals, two to be exact, who had thus far contributed little to the debate. He surveyed them now, although that emotionless mask did nothing to betray his interest.

Priests indeed, some would say shamans, but having little in common with their illustrious kindred who so dominated life in Djebal Doron. They managed to serve the peoples of Isla Khir in a more practical passive manner, acting as spiritual healers rather than domineering priests, and were accorded a respect that was almost reverential. Unfortunately the scattered peoples of Khir formed but a small fraction of Isladoron’s population and in Djebal Doron and the fertile plains of Khâl these “healers” were deeply mistrusted, feared even. The courts and councils of Skal argued that society could actually be manipulated in a passive manner, by merely allowing selected evils to run their course unhindered.

Nûrgal knew all of this. He knew that ignorance bred mistrust and fear and that someone in that estranged sect could conceivably possess an even greater understanding of the darker elements of delyrium than he. Dêlyrium it was oft called: the collective name for the obscure energy strands of blue and indigo that fell from the Stone on but rare occasion. Strange, he thought to himself, that the addition of a single accent could have such a profound effect. A linguistic quirk that the letter beneath the accent, together with its trailing companion, had to be uttered with such guttural excess that the letter preceding them became almost redundant. More than strange in fact, that what had once been a flowing word should be transformed into little more than a savage exclamation, a curse almost. Why should that be? Why did its very mention engender such loathing? And at that point he would surely have smiled, had he been able. Ignorance to the fore once again.

The Stone separated the energy it procured as a prism separates light. Only a miniscule fraction went unused in converting the essence, and most of that was at the red end of the spectrum. This was enough however for the Hierarch to store and manipulate. More than enough to provide for the more exalted elements of society that which they lusted after; that which the mere application of logic and science could not provide. But Nûrgal knew that smaller Stones existed, no bigger than a normal gemstone. Initially under the control of the enigmatic Duidarra, those minor stones had protected isolated pockets of life on the continent before the initiation of the major Stone. They were rumored to produce almost no residual energy, but what little they did produce supposedly gravitated towards the darker end of the spectrum. Despite strenuous denials he suspected one of those Stones resided deep under Tak Khiroba; how else could priests from that revered monastery have gained such an affinity with dêlyrium? Priests like the two who stood before him now.

He knew that dark could complement light and that he would have to harness all available knowledge in the approaching weeks.

The scene blurred for a heartbeat. Motes of white light flickered before him. He allowed them to coalesce and float undetected through the delegation below; a surreptitious probe, a mere fraction of his overall consciousness. As expected, as he drifted through the ranks of militia and statesmen, their untrained auras were displayed as vague confused outlines, scarcely more in some instances than a thin colorless sheen. As he approached the rear of the assembly he permitted his consciousness to thin, almost to the point where it disassembled into separate motes once more.

Both priests radiated an aura like the halo that shimmers about the flame of a candle. Almost imperceptibly Nûrgal tightened his prying tendrils and smiled inwardly as the two figures slowly lowered their hoods. He was impressed that they had detected him but he wasn’t finished yet. His tendrils contracted still further.

A defensive blue-tinged patina flared briefly at the edge of one man’s aura before Nûrgal relented and saw staring back at him sparkling eyes of cobalt; they peered out from a lined weather-beaten face that was framed by prickly silver-gray hair, some of it on top of the head but most assuming the form of a short pointed beard. The supporting frame was slight, but Nûrgal sensed a latent well of power here and passed on to the second Khir.

He saw a much younger, more powerful frame. He saw an oddly ageless face creased with a perpetual grin which was at odds with a drooping moustache, black, like the fierce knotted tail of hair hanging from an otherwise shaven head. Nûrgal pressed ever so slightly again but sensed no resistance this time, no hidden reserve of power. And yet? Could it be?

He had insisted upon attending the audience for just this possibility. He had searched everywhere and almost given up hope. He shifted his perception to a more familiar area, as though scrutinizing one of his own priesthood. Something wild and formidable touched upon him. Elation! He quelled it immediately. It had almost caused him to miss another questing consciousness delicately extracting itself. To all but Nûrgal it would have been hidden. But as he prepared to investigate, events on the floor suddenly escalated.

A scimitar was arcing savagely through the air toward the position where, but an instant ago, the Khir ambassador had been standing. But in that instant the Khir had bounded back beyond the range of the short curved blade and drawn his own sword. As his Skalian attacker toppled past off-balance, he made a short jump forward, almost a skip, followed by a malicious lunge under his opponents guard and up through a joint in the overlapping shoulder armor. A fountain of blood spewed down the Skalian’s limp arm but, oblivious to this, he had rolled over and produced a short throwing knife in his free hand. As he crouched there with murderous intent, gleaming weapons of death appeared in every Skalian grip.

 

Then the staff of Typhon was dancing down the hall between the two factions. It buzzed with a vitality of its own. It slurped with anticipation, its liquid growl emphasized by the resounding silence which now prevailed in the great chamber. This way and that it darted before the retreating ranks of would-be aggressors.

A pall of fear had descended upon the hall, for all were aware of Typhon’s staff and its insatiable bloodlust. Now it lay before them, pulsating. The air around it shimmered. The head, like a malignant goddess, was spinning uncontrollably, the savage contorted features regurgitating a ghastly gel which congealed in fetid lumps across the floor. All eyes passed quickly from this repugnant symbol of their ruler’s power to the bottom level of the dais and thence upward. Eleven semicircular slabs in the form of steps extended out into the hall. Ten steps to mark the ascending orders of the Hierarch and the eleventh to mark the monarch’s dominion over all. On that top step Typhon stood, his sinuous shadow zigzagging down the other ten and out over the floor to envelop his staff. His leonine head was framed in the deeper evening light that now penetrated the windows behind and whilst that may have softened the irate features which leered down, it did little to diminish the scathing whiplash of his tongue.

‘My little pet would feed upon your barbarian flesh and fondle your insolent souls! Your trivial animosities shall be resolved elsewhere and without the aid of Djebal Doron. And now I suggest you depart this hall before your screams echo in its rafters and your entrails taint its hallowed floor!’ A smiling expectancy had settled upon the monarch’s face.

Nervous shuffling. Recriminatory glances. But Typhon was not to be disappointed. Depart they did, as the palace guard reappeared on cue to shepherd them back up grim stairwells and along richly adorned circuitous corridors. Depart they did, cursing and muttering. But quietly. For all were afraid of Typhon and his staff.

 

As the last remnants of the delegations filed disconsolately from the hall, with one of those remnants still bleeding profusely, a deep rumbling sigh issued forth from Typhon’s throat as he settled back into his throne. ‘Why, oh why? Why now?’ This addressed to no-one in particular.

‘Not a coincidence I fear,’ Nûrgal answered. He stepped back to allow the staff to return to its owner. The despicable thing swept back into its master’s grasp, dormant now and featureless. Typhon leant on it for support, his eyes narrowed slits no wider than the thoughtful lines that creased his brow. His ringed fingers ranged carelessly through his beard, straightening it into its more customary form; a mass of curls had been introduced for the benefit of his recently banished visitors. When he spoke again his fidgeting fingers reflected his uncertainty.

‘Over the years I have been forced to acquaint myself with the conniving and triple-dealing that infests our politics. The Khirs were genuinely surprised at the supposed fate of Skal’s little fishing expedition. Is it possible that they could be so stupid? Is Joel losing his touch? I think not. I fear more subtle forces are at work here, but I am at a loss to identify them. Many paths are converging, Nûrgal, and we need to track them all. I am considering calling an Assembly. Am I overreacting? Would your underlings be up to the task?’

Nûrgal was impressed by Typhon’s urgency but pondered for a while on his proposed course of action. Twenty generations had passed since the last Assembly. It was a measure for desperate times. It represented a coming together of the upper echelons of the Hierarch, a joining of minds; it was dangerous and it was unpredictable.

‘I fear that will not suffice, lord. The path concluded by an Assembly is an optimum one. Whereas a given individual may not have foreseen that path, it is nevertheless based on the collective knowledge of the individuals within the Assembly. Such knowledge, insofar as it applies to our current predicament, is woefully incomplete. Who is this subtle adversary? What is the exact threat posed by the approaching comet? Is it linked to the slowing pulse of the Stone? We are uncertain on all counts.’

Typhon’s eyes bulged dramatically at this last information. He prodded at the floor with the end of his staff as though about to say something, but finally chose to remain silent.

‘Despite my reservations, however, I do not condemn your suggestion out of hand,’ continued Nûrgal. ‘It is just that I would like to reduce the number of participants.’ He forged on before Typhon could give vent to his frustration. ‘It would need to be an Assembly incorporating members of the Khir sect, specifically two who were present at today’s fiasco. One exhibited qualities that might be distinctly different to my own and the other … well, I am not sure; he may or may not be of value.’

Typhon smiled at this. He had a fairly good idea which way the scales would tip if his chief advisor had taken an interest. ‘Very well, Nûrgal. Convene this motley collection as you will, and let us hope that something comes of it.’

 

The monarch grasped his dreadful staff and pulled himself to his feet, to stand next to the Ultima. The great hall was silent now and its cavernous depths dwarfed the unlikely triumvirate. But here was gathered the power of Djebal Doron. The strength of generations that had subdued a continent and protected it against the ongoing ravages of time was distilled into these three. Whatever the threat, it had chosen stubborn adversaries.

 

*

 

Jak gazed ruefully back at the intimidating pinnacle of Djebal Doron as it fell slowly astern. An eclectic array of potent architecture was on display. Styles had been gathered from the three surrounding isles and thrown together over the centuries, thence to be molded into a singular elegance that belonged to none of them. Curling upturned eaves from mystical Khanju, minarets and spires from the sweltering southlands of Khâl and precipitous sloping roofs from the highlands of Khir: they had all been hurled into a melting pot and left to stew. Shimmering whitewashed walls had been added and a final garnish applied; burgeoning fronds of purple bougainvillea and hanging tracts of yellow dragonsbreath.

Upon emerging from the pot, this amalgam had been assembled onto an artificial framework, or so it seemed to Jak, and suspended upon a sorcerous platform of mist. The mist perpetually shrouded the low harbor walls, defying all efforts of the sun to disperse it, and reality was only restored by the harsh brown band beneath the citadel which betrayed the parent rock onto which the city clung, into which it burrowed.

It was twenty five years since he had been brought into the world, yet this had been his first excursion into that most enigmatic of cities. All too brief. Only fleeting impressions remained: the dizzying climb up devious cobbled alleyways; the transition into steep tree-fringed avenues; the sudden emergence of crooked worn steps overhung by leathery creepers with their masses of tiny pink flowers that ebbed and flowed in the breeze like an alien sea; the lung-bursting ascent inhaling a fragrance that suffused everything, benumbing the mind and slowing the body; and then …

The citadel: he had walked through the shadows of its gates and embraced their archaic wrought iron scrollwork, serpentine patterns writhing, untrammeled by even a hint of flaking rust. Unlike those around him he had then lifted his face to the heavens and allowed the cold rain to sweep away his torpor. He had marched, head held high, across the courtyard, determined to confront the temple and commit its every nuance to memory. He had descended the winding torch-lit stairs, running his fingers down the bare stone walls as though some minor facet of their long history would thereby be imparted to him. He had witnessed the eerie insubstantial ceiling in the great hall, drifting in and out of focus, and the thrumming energy that coursed through the latticework of its rear wall. But his had been an enquiring mind and not fearful like most gathered there. That had changed.

Nûrgal: his insidious probing tentacles had descended with clinical precision. They had caused a profound sense of dread to envelop him. But there had been something else too. Something had stirred within his soul which he sensed even now. But what?

Typhon: his initial silence and bored demeanor had caused the Skalian delegation to overstep the mark. He had reasserted his authority in devastating fashion with that foul staff. To think that not a single armed guard had been present!

The shadowy figure in the purple robes: had no-one else seen him? Certainly not his mentor, Ravenkar, whose prying eyes rarely missed anything; nor for that matter anyone else in their delegation. Yet the man had been there, calmly observing them all as they had filed through the entrance vault. Hadn’t he? And again, he had seen the flourish of a purple robe just as the Ultima’s scrutiny had ended.

Then there had been the cowed exit from the hall and the citadel and once again those tiny flowers with their numbing fragrance. He hadn’t tried to resist, for what would have been the point?

Finally, the stumbling descent through the confusing tracery of delicate alleyways and plazas until the bright striped awnings and the milling evening crowds had informed them that the harbor was near.

Jak clutched tightly on the stern rail and took a deep breath. Did the effects of those flowers still linger? It had not been quite as simple as that…

 

The transition area between the Merchant’s Circle and the quayside was a labyrinth of cobbled streets that wended their way through a wide band of two and three story whitewashed dwellings. Still a little dazed, he thought to himself that it would be no difficult matter to go astray within this twisting repetitive succession of brightly painted shutters and domed roofs.

There again, would that be such a terrible fate when confronted with the interminable drone of conversation between Ravenkar and Ambassador Soza?

The figure jolted him from this reverie immediately; the figure in the purple robes crossing the intersecting lane, directly in front of them. Jak felt a need to call out but his natural reticence got the better of him. Yet those robes had a mesmeric swirling sheen to them and before he knew it he was standing at the corner, ostensibly inspecting the skewered pieces of spiced chicken and squid that simmered there over a street vendor’s slow charcoal grill. Even as he feigned to stoop for a more rigorous inspection, the figure swept along the smaller back lane, paused outside a shop and, without turning, disappeared inside. A small market thrived there beneath colorful canopies, with stalls sprawling out over the cobbles. The shop in question though was distinct from its neighbors in that it had no wares on display beyond its frontage. But as Jak approached he scarcely noticed any of this, for his attention was firmly captured by the strange sign.

It was hanging from an elaborate arm of iron scrollwork above the entrance: a metal disc, brightly painted on both sides and about three spans across. The background was quartered by alternate segments of black and white and on it a juggler capered, right leg bent at the knee, left leg straight, right arm bent at the elbow and gesturing upward, left arm straight and extended out. Both his hands had the last three fingers curled over the palm, with thumb and forefinger pointing out; four bright yellow spheres were poised above his head, as though passing from one hand to the other. He was bedecked in a costume of bright red, from the trailing tips of his three-pronged cap to the toes of his upturned shoes. Surprisingly, given his mode of attire, he looked down upon the street with tight-lipped scorn.

Jak looked back up and although his grin was still in place the sign sent shivers down his spine. As he made to go into the shop an impromptu gust of wind set it spinning and in his still dazed mind the juggler appeared to hop from one foot to the other and back again, his head thrown back in uproarious laughter, the yellow spheres describing a lazy arc between his outstretched hands.

A hasty lengthening of the stride took him unceremoniously through the front door, and thence, to the accompaniment of a small silver bell, into a cornucopia of jeweled delights. But despite all the more immediate attractions, it was a subdued glimmer from the deep recesses of the shop that caught his eye and sent him sauntering down the meandering corridor at its center. He pulled his robe tightly about him as he went so as not to disturb the profusion of rings, necklaces, pins, and assorted curios that assailed him.

The corridor led to a circular room beneath a small dome. There was no natural light on offer and so two lanterns had been hung from the rug-covered walls, their oily vapors mingling with an assortment of incense. As he stooped to examine the source of the beckoning gleam, a tiny female figure stepped out of the shadows.

He was looking at a necklace, and closer scrutiny positively took his breath away; just the gift he was hoping to find. More of a choker than a traditional necklace, it was fashioned from the thinnest of beaten metal that had about it a dimpled pink-white hue that he did not recognize. A delicate flower clung to the front, its seven exquisite petals also formed from wafers of that unfamiliar metal, its core though a glittering diamond that would surely push the price above the paltry sum he carried with him, despite its diminutive size. The seven petals and the jeweled center marked it as a flame daisy, the rare mountain flower of his Khir homeland.

As he turned the choker over in his hand, the figure approached. Her hunched demeanor was not matched by her lively eyes. Her fine features and ostentatious dress sense hinted at a Khâlian upbringing and his confusion was therefore total when she addressed him in flawless Khîrrîsh; or rather, started to shout at him in flawless Khîrrîsh. Her hand, ringed to excess, again a Khâlian trait, forced his own to close about the choker, whereupon she then set about forcing him back along the corridor and out of the shop.

‘Take it, take it! He said you should take it!’ She was screaming at him now, whilst kicking violently at his shins.

The easiest way out of the situation was to do precisely that. Not wishing to attract attention and certainly having no desire to convey the impression that he was robbing a defenseless old woman, he staggered out into the street, managing to fling his purse and its entire contents in the opposite direction, just before the door slammed shut.

Clutching his forced purchase tightly to his chest, his eyes were inevitably drawn upwards to look at the sign again. The juggler had ceased his games and stood again on one leg, with a smile that gave absolutely nothing away. That at least gave him some small comfort as he hurried away down the cobbled streets.

By the time the quayside finally reappeared, the crowds were thinning out as people stole off into the late evening. Having no wish to indulge in any further explorations he immediately started out on the long straight walk that would take him along the main wharf. Its creaking timbers led into the center of the bay where all of the foreign craft were encouraged to moor. It was only now that his wits were beginning to return, prompted no doubt by the sight of furled Skalian sails on the opposing side of the wooden islet that nestled at the wharf’s end.

No-one was about as he boarded, so he made straight for his bunk and sleep. A deep sleep.

 

Jak took another deep breath, wanting to hold onto the moment as Djebal Doron slipped yet further astern. But he caught sight of Ravenkar approaching and his thoughts wandered again.

Early dawn had seen a solitary red-robed figure strolling down the wharf as they were preparing to cast off. A hurried consultation had ensued, the bald head of the priest nodding in concert with his mentor’s silver-gray pate. What had that been about? Jak suspected that all was about to be revealed.

Ravenkar arrived at the stern rail, casting off his hood and rubbing thoughtfully on his beard. ‘I presume you would like to know the outcome of my little discussion earlier, or am I wrong? Your curiosity is positively underwhelming!’

‘You, old one, have seen Djebal Doron on many occasions. Do not forget that this is my first encounter and I would still savor it while I can.’

‘Less of the “old one” if you please,’ scowled Ravenkar, ‘and you may be pleased to know that you will shortly be having a second encounter.’

Jak’s arched eyebrows betrayed his interest and Ravenkar continued. ‘The Black Sorcerer craves an audience with us, my languid apprentice. Have I now pricked your apathy?’

‘An audience? And what sort of word is that? Could I replace it with “interrogation” or “inquisition” perhaps?’

‘I think we have already been subjected to that, wouldn’t you say? Do not underestimate him, Jak. He is more tolerant than his less exalted brethren. I really don’t know what will be required of us. Perhaps our more unusual talents can be of assistance to him.’

‘Unusual talents for unusual times,’ mused Jak.

‘Yes, indeed,’ agreed the older man as he followed Jak’s gaze up into the red dawn.

 

Red day followed red dawn as the sleek vessel skimmed across the choppy waters of the Inner Sea. When Jak wasn’t mulling over all the unpleasant things that might occur during a direct confrontation with the Shaman Ultima, he spent most of the day where he was now, in idle conversation with the helmsman, who, as it happened, was also the captain on this voyage. Jak, not exactly of diminutive stature himself, was dwarfed by the man. Shamul was his name: Shamul-ud-Djin to be precise.

 

Shamul existed on the fringes of accepted society. He preferred that his infamous vessel, not in fact the craft he currently graced, should be recognized as a trader and it came as a constant surprise to find that many people actually viewed him as a privateer rather than a merchant. It was not a state of affairs that particularly upset him, it was just that he could have dispensed with the notoriety.  And there was little doubt that despite occasional flirtations with anonymity, Shamul, his crew and his vessel, had indeed developed a certain notoriety.

He respected few men, but fortunately Ravenkar was one of that select band. The two of them went a long way back together, although Jak had never been able to get to the bottom of that particular story. Only Ravenkar’s insistence had ensured that the infamous “trader” was not participating in this particular voyage, being anchored instead in a little frequented fjord on the eastern seaboard of Khir, just to the north of Skîros.

Notwithstanding their friendship it had still been no easy task to persuade the big man to abandon his vessel, to convince him that stealth should prevail over aggression. It had been amidst much protest that a skeleton crew of his men had switched to another vessel in the same fjord, thence to find themselves garbed, as befitted crewmen of such a vessel, in ostentatious silks rather than pragmatic leathers. For it was in fact the royal vessel, belonging to Joel of Skîros and although the crew could bemoan their attire there were no such complaints about the craft. Built to outrun opponents rather than outfight them, it could accomplish this with some style, its shallow draft enabling it to skim the surface with ease.

Although they owed allegiance to none, Shamul and his crew looked upon Skîros as their home town and enjoyed its liberal ways. These ways were due in part to their vessel’s owner, the town’s cunning old warlord Joel, who tended to rule with an amused tolerance rather than an iron fist; a man who could in truth be absolute ruler of Isla Khir in its entirety, but who shunned pompous titles and all that went with them. Nevertheless, it was only in the desolate Highlands and the sparse southwest that he did not hold sway and that was more from choice than necessity.

The switching of crews at the remote Tolfjord had been enacted for Joel’s peace of mind as well as Ravenkar’s, in order to deter the more prudish members of his council from assailing him with protests concerning the enlistment of renegades into the service of “noble” Skîros. The city had always been underhand in its political dealings and Joel certainly wasn’t going to be the first to break with tradition. Also, the malice attendant with the message delivered by the Skalian envoys had alarmed him, as had the consequent summoning of his ambassador to Djebal Doron. He had sensed trouble from the outset and although his usual crew were more than competent they were by no means as devious as Shamul’s. Thus had he followed the advice of Ravenkar and installed Shamul and his men as temporary guardians to the ambassador.

 

As evening closed in, the conversation became more animated, directed primarily at the triangular Skalian sails in their wake. Ravenkar and the ambassador had now made their way to the stern and were putting their points of view to the olive skinned behemoth at the tiller, who smiled benevolently down at them, nodding in assent. The old priest sighed in exasperation, knowing from bitter experience that their captain was paying them not the slightest heed.

‘Shamul, we have suggested that you could possibly put a little more distance between ourselves and those two purple sails that appear to be tracking us. Now while you are in agreement with our proposition and, as the gods will surely bear testament, my eyes are no longer as sharp as they were, the distance in question inexplicably appears to remain constant.’

Shamul’s ill-famed yellow eyes narrowed and he tugged thoughtfully on the enormous gold ring that hung from his left ear. ‘They are men o’war, old one, not men of the sea. Can we not taunt them a while longer?’

Ravenkar, aware of the spreading smile on Jak’s face, did not rise to the bait but before he could make any sort of reply he was cut off by Ambassador Soza’s relieved tones. ‘If I am not mistaken, they begin to veer off!’

Even as they watched, the two purple sails turned sharply away and soon, in the spreading darkness, were only just visible on the port side, as they fell over the horizon towards the east, and the Khâlian coastline.

‘Old one indeed!’ muttered Ravenkar as he made his way to the well-appointed cabins below deck.

 

It normally took just over two days to traverse the Inner Sea, heading due south from Djebal Doron, before the entrance to the Great Strait was encountered. The slight wind had been in their favor and the sleek craft had reduced that time by some four or five hours. Thus as Jak emerged into the pre-dawn light, his cloak wrapped tightly about him, he could already sense the approaching landmass. The previous day and night had passed without incident but with precious little conversation. The normally exuberant crew had been relatively quiet, eyeing the agitated red sky above with some concern. All thoughts had strayed to a strange chill that remorselessly pursued them and to the ominous approach of the comet.

He was troubled. Something was about to happen. The dream had awoken him and he knew it was another premonition. Since Ravenkar had taken him under his wing all those years ago and he had begun his training, such dreams had haunted him less and less until now they were little more than distant memories, albeit vaguely disturbing ones. Had the crew’s general unease triggered some sort of emotional response within him?

His mother had told him often that it was a talent that could be put to good use, but so vivid were the images it induced he had decided it was a talent he could well do without. He suspected in fact that this aptitude had been passed down to him by his mother or at the very least, her union with his father had caused some inconsistencies within him. That was to say the combination of his mother’s origins, shores beyond even the Jâlreg Desert, and his father’s origins, the Khir Highlands, had produced a child that was constantly at odds with his peers. Which of course had drawn Ravenkar to him as a moth to a flame. The monks from the monastery at Tak Khiroba periodically scoured Khir for children with unusual talents and although Jak’s village in the Highlands was remote by most standards, to the indomitable monks such a journey presented only a minor inconvenience on life’s pathway.

It had not been a long dream; such dreams never were.

 

His father’s face was before him and words, many words. His father’s mouth was moving and it was his father’s voice that he could hear, but mouth and voice were not synchronized. He listened for all that, for he was warm and comfortable. He could sense his two younger sisters nearby, in the adjacent bed. Outside it was raining and the wind howled, but here he was safe. The more he listened, the more the mouth and the voice came together until at last, they were as one. Then the words became visions.

It had been Isladoron as he had never known it. Huge seas battered the outer shores and bitter merciless winds swept up the Great Strait. Only the beat of the Stone kept the gathering psychic disruptions at bay. Law and order had broken down and chaos ruled in its stead.

Those who had been elected to watch over the forbidden southern shores of mystical Khanju had been remiss in their duty and so another took over the mantle. The watcher had pale lavender eyes and the eyes were all that could be seen. They were not warm, as lavender would suggest, but frigid; violet with all the vitality drawn from it.

They had set forth for Khanju in droves, braving its jungles and their cruel denizens, to seek out fabled Chok Apûl and plunder its riches. They had been gripped by a fever and their greed knew no bounds. But the watcher had deemed that it was time to teach the men from the south a lasting lesson, so that the rigors of his watch would diminish and all would be well again.

The lesson was indeed harsh, and would echo down the centuries. None who ventured into that forsaken land were destined to return other than those who were to bear tidings of the carnage; those few souls chosen by the watcher to witness atrocities the like of which no sane being should ever have had to look upon.

But even as the tales were told and the tread of human feet receded once again from Khanju’s shores, Gudruk, warlord of the southern Highlands and his terrible priest Kaleb had set forth with a mighty band of warriors. They had not sought untold riches, although truth be told, those would not have gone amiss. Rather they had been lured northwards after something more specific.

Within their mountainous domain was hidden the power of healing. Centuries earlier people had fled a terrible enemy, bringing their withered and their dying to the place of this healing, and then beyond, where sanctuary lay within a ring of insurmountable peaks. Their path to the place of healing was dark and grim, yet past a certain point their enemy could not pursue.

The priest Kaleb had been a pragmatist and not content with vague rumors of healing or with myths of mountain-bound havens, he had left his warlord’s realm to verify the tales, or forever dispel them. He had returned with a craving gleam in his eyes, announcing that the healing was indeed more than myth and the artifact responsible bore the symbolism of Chok Apûl, a single glyph etched at the center of its outer face. At the center of the inner face, that glyph was again apparent but three more accompanied it. Around all four had been scored the outline of a container, a chest. With this chest and its contents in their possession the armies of Isladoron would melt away before them.

 

By the time Gudruk and Kaleb had set foot on the mist shrouded plateau where Chok Apûl lay, both girls slept soundly, but Jak himself was agitated as his father’s voice resonated around the room, reverberated inside his head.

The watcher’s servants had taken their toll. Jak had known this without being told. He was out in the shallows, looking inward at a long strip of pristine sand backed by a seemingly impenetrable wall of lush jungle. The jungle had parted abruptly and had coughed up two desperate figures onto the beach. Only two.

Horns had sounded close by but undeterred, Gudruk and Kaleb had begun to hack at the jungle fringes with huge curved knives until the bow of a concealed boat became apparent. With a strength born out of dire necessity, they had dragged the boat over the thin intervening band of sand and into the breaking seas.

Aside from the great knives they bore and the staff of the priest, their only other possession had been a brightly lacquered chest.

As Jak had continued to watch, a screaming multitude of painted pagans had flooded out of the trees and onto the beach; but they had been too late. The escaping boat had already been out of bowshot. As the wild-eyed Kaleb had waved his staff and hurled insults at the howling savages, they had fallen silent.

Several days had passed. The wind had increased apace with Kaleb’s fury. He had been unable to open the chest. All his invocations had come to nothing. Despite the clarity of the dream, Jak too was having problems with the chest; it had remained indistinct, floating in and out of focus.

The raging seas had been another matter. He had felt the pitching deck of Gudruk’s war vessel, and experienced the naked fear of his last remaining followers as the wind blew against them, refusing them entry into the Winding Strait and the refuge of Bahar. Instead they had been swept down the coast until finally, their mast broken and their hull waterlogged, the elements had relented and they had found themselves becalmed in a small bay.

Alas, the cliffs reared skyward on all sides of the bay and there had been no landing place. Thus it was that Gudruk and Kaleb had faced each other over that enigmatic chest, murder and madness in their darting eyes, the bodies of their former comrades hacked and bloated in the lapping waters.

The sonorous tones of Jak’s father were unremitting and unforgiving. Try as he might he was unable to elude them, nor the scene before him. As he had looked on, the waters next to the crippled vessel had erupted as Varvak himself, Lord of the Sea, had surfaced, in the guise of a great serpent. For a brief instant Jak had looked straight into the serpent’s contemptuous black eyes before the entire deck had heaved upwards in the grasp of its terrible jaws, and razor sharp teeth had splintered it asunder. He had been drawn down into the cold dark depths. But he had not died. Nor had he awoken.

There had been light above him and he had struck out towards it. As his head had broken the surface and he had wiped the streaming water from his eyes, the beach had been before him again. Still standing there, fierce painted faces staring expectantly out to sea, had been those serried ranks of feathered warriors. A number of them had moved down to the water’s edge and were reclaiming a dark object that bobbed in the surf. Jak had been able to see it now with the utmost clarity. An ornate lacquered chest, red lacquer, and on its surface had been inscribed four distinct symbols.

 

Jak knew his father had never told such a tale but that had only mattered when he awoke.

The wave hugging mists of early morning had barely lifted as they approached the entrance to the Great Strait. Ahead, off the starboard bow, the towering indented coastline of Isla Khir was closing in to meet them; and behind, to cement the greeting, two triangular sails were closing in from the northeast.  Shamul was studying them intently through his spyglass as Jak approached.

‘Those are not the vessels which followed us out of Djebal Doron,’ he said in measured tones, lowering the glass. This was uttered to no-one in particular, not even Ravenkar, who stood shivering at his side. ‘Their sails are larger but their hulls are much smaller and their oars double, not triple banked.’

‘Some thought has gone into this then,’ remarked Ambassador Soza wryly. He had followed behind Jak, almost unobserved. ‘Fresh crews and fast boats waiting at a preordained location to the east of our route. Can we outrun them Shamul?’

‘Of that I am sure ambassador, even with these idle wretches pulling at the oars. But they too must know that.’ With a flourish of the hand he summoned the lithe figure of his fist mate from amidships, where he had been overseeing the trimming of the sail. ‘Abduul, position yourself in the bow and keep careful watch.’ But he had barely uttered the words before a cry came from the prow of the boat.

A third, larger sail had now materialized directly in front of them, emerging from what at that distance and angle appeared to be no more than a crack in the cliff face. It was as yet a way off but there was no obvious haven in that barren coastline; no obvious escape.

‘Can we head out across the strait towards Khâl?’ This from Jak, but before he could say anything else a raised hand from Ravenkar stilled him. Ambassador Soza laughed and spun on his heel.

‘It would appear that the Skalians are most definitely upset. Our pleadings of innocence have fallen on deaf ears. Interesting. I shall be amidships preparing our meager force. I do not think Jak that our experienced friend here would really profit from any advice that we are able to give.’

Shamul was oblivious to this dialogue anyway and was gazing distractedly shoreward. Very deliberately, he reached inside his jerkin and pulled forth a faded leather pouch which he then proceeded to place on the deck before him. Jak had never seen this pouch before, but to the crew it was obviously a familiar sight. A chorus of groans greeted its appearance. Once more their fate was to be placed in the lap of the gods.

‘Today, I think, is a day for dice,’ announced Shamul with great solemnity. ‘A day for dice and a day for the elements.’ So saying, he loosened the drawstring on the pouch and reached inside. When his hand reemerged, three objects nestled within its expansive palm.

‘I have seen such dice before,’ said Jak, intrigued, ‘at least dice that were similar. Twelve sided, with each side forming a pentagon. But the sides on those dice were numbered. The markings on these sides are not familiar.’

‘Ah, but I think they are,’ replied Ravenkar, in the irritating supercilious manner he reserved for such a moment as this. ‘Think to the seers, those purveyors of insight into lives past and lives yet to come. Think of the cards that they employ and tell me now what you see.’

Jak scrutinized the exquisite markings a little more closely, and smiled, despite himself. Although no two markings were the same, a pattern had revealed itself. ‘Well, well, well. Cups and coins, sticks and swords. Three of each in various guises, if I am not mistaken, on each of the dice.

‘“Wands” dear boy, not “sticks”,’ said Ravenkar, nodding irritably.

‘“Wands” most certainly,’ boomed Shamul, now addressing everyone on board, ‘and wands as we all know represent “fire”. So should three wands face skyward after I have cast these dice, then fire it shall be. We shall die the deaths of heroes as Khâlian vessels burn about us. That shall be our first option.’

‘And the other three?’ asked Ravenkar, a worried frown now producing yet another crease across his careworn features.

‘The second shall be “cups”. Cups for “water”, not unnaturally. Across its gilded surface shall we flee, to take solace and safety in its open expanse, even as Jak has suggested. Methinks however that the chase would be close run and the dice may shun this choice.’

‘Your faith in these damnable dice never fails to astound me, Shamul. To even consider that the fates might have our best interests at heart!’ Ravenkar sounded exasperated. ‘And what of the third option?’

‘“Swords” shall be the third. Swords to represent the “air”. The thin air that is all about us and into which we shall disappear as you and your apprentice weave your spells.’ An imploring grin now adorned Shamul’s features.

Mutterings of assent from the crew greeted this choice. Recourse to their arcane arts would indeed allow the two priests to cause havoc with the pursuit, probably allowing them to slip away. But even as he waited for Ravenkar to reply, Jak was dismissing this option. Their vows forbade it. They could only use sorcery to combat sorcery. Such was ingrained into the very fabric of Tak Khiroba.

Yet Ravenkar hesitated, and his reply, when it came, was noncommittal, evasive even. ‘Let us hope that the swords remain sheathed on this occasion. And the fourth option?’

‘“Coins” of course, for coins are all that remain. Coins for “earth”, or land in this instance,’ said Shamul, gesturing at the intimidating coastline of Khir.

‘You mean then to dash us against the cliffs!’ There was genuine alarm in Ravenkar’s voice. ‘You would splinter us asunder, should the dice ask it of you?’

‘The dice do not ask, old friend; the dice demand, otherwise why would I seek their counsel?’ Shamul grinned as he said this and then called out to his crew. ‘Your deliberations are needed my loyal friends. What is it that you would prefer? Fire or water, earth or air?’

As he closed the dice within his fist, the captain made one final bellowing exhortation. ‘Come my bony beauties, let it be one throw only and let us have the wands. Me and my companions would take these Khâlian curs to the bottom in a blaze of glory. Is that not so?’

The crew responded in kind, imploring their gods to let the wands prevail.  As Shamul drew his hand back though, each and every one of them was praying silently that swords would win the day.

It did indeed require but a single toss. End over end went the dice and it was as though the path of each was preordained. They came to rest amidships, at the foot of the mast, with scarcely a hairsbreadth between them.

Ambassador Soza was the closest. He did not even have to move. His face, as befitted his calling, was expressionless. Neither did his voice give anything away. ‘You are really going to hold us to this, captain?’

‘Why most certainly, ambassador,’ came the level reply.

‘Very well then,’ answered Soza. ‘I see before me three discs. Each disc is of a different size and color, but upon each disc the same symbol has been ascribed: it is a pentacle. These, I take it, would be coins?’

In the silence that followed, Shamul acted quickly. Without warning he leant hard on the rudder, shouting out commands as he did so. For an instant Jak thought that his own advice was being followed as the bow slewed around to port. But the sleek craft just continued to turn in a lazy arc until they were heading directly north, at which point Shamul then steered slightly westward to follow the curving profile of the Khir coast. One of the trailing galleys adjusted its course slightly to block any escape up the coast and Jak noted how speedy it was. In fact Shamul seemed to be steering on a heading that would intercept that particular boat, which again changed course as he watched. After a while it was obvious that the blocking boat was maintaining an even distance between them so that the other pursuing boats could catch up.

As the sun rose majestically over the Gangja Plateau the game was still in progress and to all the participating players it appeared that the captain of the Khir boat was just delaying the inevitable. This thought had occurred to Jak as well but he instantly dismissed it. He couldn’t help but wonder however why Shamul looked constantly to the shore. They were now well off the main trading lanes, simply because these cliffs were so desolate and offered no hint of a safe landing.

The crew were tiring now. The sail had been lowered as they had turned, whereupon Shamul, in his inimitable fashion, had professed a desire for more speed. Not full speed, but just enough to keep the pursuing boats at bay. The third boat was still reluctant as yet to close. Jak, at Shamul’s request, was returning to the tiller with a flagon of water. Even as he offered it, an insidious grin split the captain’s face from unadorned lobe on one side to earring on the other; his disconcerting eyes were ablaze. Another bellowed command ensued and as they turned to port their speed dropped appreciably as the oars lay fallow in the water. All faces were turned to the stern. Jak’s still wore his smile but his jaws were clenched and his muscles taut. The captain was indeed intent on following the dictates of his dice.

Could he cope with this madness? As the great cliffs came ever closer Jak also wondered briefly how his vows would fare in the approaching situation. He would soon find out. Unless of course Ravenkar decided to employ his more iniquitous talents and undo centuries of unwavering commitment from their shamanic order at one fell swoop. The frenzied sound of drumbeats drifted across the waves, returning his wandering thoughts to harsh reality; the Skalians had vengeance on their minds.

They could not hope to evade the rapidly closing snare and escape into open waters, yet that much had been evident from the start. They were heading shoreward and the pace had picked up again. The three Skalian boats were now roughly parallel with each other and directly astern. Their sails were down and their oarsmen were rapidly closing the gap. Warriors clustered at the prows, their white bone armor an insipid pink in the unnatural light. Was Shamul really going to dash them into the cliffs? The pitiless gray rock of those colossal walls offered no haven.

But even as Jak thought it, he knew he was mistaken. It was the surf that alerted him, or rather the lack of it. Chaotic white foam stretched along the coast in either direction, but there, directly before their bow, was a short stretch of clear water. It was uncanny how nature had wrought her trick, but ahead was most definitely a small bay; it was just that the cliffs that embraced it had been aligned and weathered so as to match perfectly the outer cliffs. When viewed from the seaward side it was as if a single unbroken face swept down the coastline. It soon became obvious however that those inner cliffs were just as steep, just as forbidding, and offered absolutely no prospect of escape. Why then had they come to this drear place?

They entered the bay making overly fast headway and Shamul immediately ordered the oars to be backed up. It was all Jak could do to tear his eyes away from the pursuing galleys and risk a quick look at his surroundings, for arrows were already falling, with derisive chants following hard in their wake. The drumbeats were already beginning to echo around them.

Something seemed familiar, terribly familiar. His head began to spin.

There was a heavy swell in the bay and as the waters began to sink, two fissures appeared in the otherwise featureless cliff wall off the bow. As the waters sank yet further, the fissures widened into cavernous black openings, surveying with contempt the scene before them. Dizziness almost overwhelmed him. He saw Ravenkar reach out to support him; too late. He was on his knees and gulping desperately for air. Unsteadily, he got back to his feet, leaning now on his mentor. His mind was oddly detached as he turned.

The three enemy vessels were still line abreast after Shamul’s careful maneuverings and thus none escaped. As they swept into the ominous bay all three bows dipped simultaneously. Drumbeats ceased and were replaced by the splintering of timbers and the screams of dying men.

As Shamul brought them about Jak risked a look over the side. The water at the back of the bay was deep but as they approached the entrance the depths rose up to meet them and even in that dark bloodied water he could see them; ranks of jutting tusk-like rocks just below the surface. Only their shallow draft had saved them. How had Shamul known of this place?

 

Many had gone straight under, dragged down by the weight of their armor. Of those left, the majority had been instantly torn to pieces on the jagged reef below. The few who had survived that terrible mauling could only stare helplessly up at the sleek galley passing through their midst; stare up at a huge man with blazing eyes. Too late did they recognize their foe.

 

The galley sped with easy grace through the choppy waters of the Great Strait. The same gnawing chill was still in the air, but now it felt that much harsher. None of the crew had derived any pleasure in leaving their stricken foes floundering in the deadly shallows of that nameless bay but there had been few options. To slow their own vessel would have been suicidal; they would simply have been swamped, and in all likelihood, overpowered. And so they had left the Skalians to their fate.

They had ventured as far as they dared from the coast to avoid the rapidly lengthening shadows of evening and retain some semblance of warmth. An icy gray blanket was just rolling over them as a line of green flares came into view, far down the coastline. The flares marked the entrance to Skorfjord. The entrance to the fjord was also its narrowest point and across that entrance someone had decided to build a wall.

It was as though the cliffs to either side had been pulled across and forged together, had been chiseled and honed to form an impenetrable curtain; as though the surrounding mountains would erode before this stark monument relented before nature. This was Haan’s Wall, and its immense intimidating bulk loomed up before them now.

As they approached, Jak finally recounted his dream, his premonition, to Ravenkar.

‘Always listen to your mother, Jak,’ said his mentor, smiling and wagging an admonishing finger. ‘Try not to repress this talent, but to embrace it instead. Your mind has become disciplined in the time that you have been with us, but a malaise is descending upon us all.  It comes with the comet. I fear this will happen again and when it does, be sure to analyze it in the minutest detail. Try to analyze all your dreams, although they will not always be predictive; nor will they always fall so close to the event.  Immerse yourself in their vibrancy and confront their terrors. It is a talent, although you may not think of it as such. There is a possibility that the Ultima recognized this talent within you. I do not know.

‘The meaning of a dream is not always easy to divine. You have never been to that cove and yet you dreamt of it, and in such detail. According to Shamul, it is well known amongst certain practitioners of his profession. Your father was a fisherman and may have looked upon it at some time. Or even his father or his father before him. It is documented that such images can be passed down through the generations.’

‘And what of the chest?’

‘As for the chest, that is another matter entirely. I have no knowledge of such a chest. I do think though that we should mention it during our impending “interrogation”, as you like to call it. Nûrgal may know of it.

‘I can however throw a little light on the four symbols that you saw on the casing. Those symbols represent the four sacred artifacts of Chok Apûl which disappeared millennia ago. I know this because one of them resurfaced and has been in our possession at Tak Khiroba. It is the Drathkal; an anonymous little thing really, considering the legends surrounding those items. I say its name quietly and I will refrain completely from naming the others. That is for another time, when events perchance have unfolded further. As to their purpose, that too must wait, although it is not as though I am well versed in the subject. Even the Drathkal has me confounded and it is not for want of trying. I have scrutinized that damnable thing until my eyes could no longer focus and still have I barely touched upon its secrets!’

‘And should three swords have bared their blades? Must I wait for an answer to that also?’ Jak managed to keep the emotion from his voice, but it was not without a struggle.

‘No, my boy. To that you deserve an answer. But I will first ask a question. Why, do you suppose, such a premonition came upon you when it did? I have talked of a “malaise”, but let us be specific.

‘Alas, I am at a loss,’ said Jak, after careful consideration.

‘And can you not guess why I hesitated when Shamul gave his third option?’

‘Again, I am at a loss,’ answered Jak, thoroughly bewildered.

‘Why, dêlyrium was abroad, of course.’ Ravenkar’s smile was wide. ‘Surely you did not doubt me?’

 

Way up above, the flares cast an uneasy alliance with the retreating rays of sunset, silhouetting the towers in which they burned. The guards on the battlements stared down suspiciously at the galley as it emerged from the gloom beneath, then as its identity became apparent the gate-master was informed. Soon the deep resonant notes of the entrance gong were booming forth from the mouth of Haan, whose armor-garbed effigy straddled the face of the gate. An abrupt reply issued forth from the drum aboard the galley. There then followed a complex exchange of notes known only to gate-master and drum-master, which varied from vessel to vessel, from day to day. These codes could not be readily imparted to the uninitiated and the profession of drum-master was a specialized one; each vessel had their own and this vessel was no exception. The drum-master here was the only seaman not of Shamul’s crew.

At last came the dull grinding sound of giant cogs beginning to turn and ponderously, almost grudgingly, the outer gate began to rise.

 

As Skîros had expanded, so it had cut back into the steep thickly wooded slopes that flanked the inland reaches of the fjord. The resultant rubble, not being suitable for building material, was simply dumped in the narrow entrance and this, together with the gradually descending cliff walls, was to form the basis of the great wall. Its construction was initiated by one of the city’s earlier chieftain-kings and took the form of a low earth barrage. In those barbarous times Skîros was easy prey for the marauding bands of barbarians that plagued all coastline settlements, irrespective of creed or culture. With its host of wooden dwellings it was particularly vulnerable and suffered a constant cycle of growth, prosperity, inferno. With the barrage however the attacks became less frequent and gradually a sustained flourishing community was established.

The next threat to Skîros came from within. Haan: a man who craved power and was destined for legend. A man who nurtured around him an elite cadre, a vanguard of followers, still considered by many to be the most efficient and ruthless collection of killers in Isladoron’s tempestuous history.

Yet at the outset, few of Haan’s opponents were butchered out of hand. Some were bought off or blackmailed but even recourse to those tactics was seldom required; such was the man’s presence, such was his ability to convince others of his sincerity and righteousness that few amongst those others remained skeptical, still fewer cynical.

The Khir priesthood were completely taken in by his masquerade. He elicited their unqualified support and a valuable asset it proved to be. They saw it as a perfect opportunity to enlighten the less fortunate with their doctrine. Thus the deep-rooted but hitherto introverted religious beliefs of the Khir people were brought to the fore and were the vehicle whereby Haan enlisted their support, so essential initially. The priests actually came to believe in the grandiose concepts and tempting illusions that they set before the people and, almost unnoticed, the tyrant’s control seeped into the bloodstream of Khir, like a slow acting venom. Without quite realizing how it happened the populace found themselves hailing a new leader and Haan’s jihad was underway.

His mastery in the art of war was total, his corps irresistible, thus success came easily; so easily that it seemed right was indeed on his side. It was with sanctimonious piety that those who had no desire to be enlightened were subjugated. Those same unfortunates were then transported to Skîros and put to work on the wall; Haan’s Wall. And there they would die in their thousands.

The wall was to be his eternal monument and as it grew so too did his perception of it; it would come to mirror the growth of his ego. As its shadow fell over Skorfjord so too did Haan’s shadow begin to fall over all of Isladoron.

Where a more prudent general would have consolidated, Haan pressed on relentlessly and so his horde thrived. It was not long before all of civilized Khir fell before him and the coastline of Khâl swiftly followed. But as the barbaric multitude seethed and festered and gathered itself for the plunge into the rich southern plains, their leader’s covetous eyes were to turn in a different direction, beyond the Great Strait and across the Inner Sea, coming to rest on that exotic land of Khanju and its legendary riches. So it was that even as the Shungrung Plains were shuddering beneath the thundering assault of his screaming cavalry, Haan himself, together with his cadre, was heading north.

Legend said that one fateful day those on Djebal Doron awoke to find their island encircled by black sails, all bearing the dread emblem of Haan: the ringed red serpent. What was Haan’s reasoning? That much was never documented. Suffice to say that his fleet could most assuredly have passed to either side and continued on its way to Khanju unhindered. Did his power have to be absolute? Was he irked by that lofty air of superiority assumed by all who ventured forth from that city and was it tacitly accepted, even by those close to hand, that those denizens were the real masters of Isladoron? Whatever the reason, an ultimatum was summarily delivered by Haan in person, whereupon he retired to his flagship to await a reply. Three days he had given them.

But somehow pressure radiated outwards rather than inwards. Unease began to spread through the waiting crews; it was insidious at first, seemingly prompted by the thickening of the misty mantle from which the island seemed to sprout.

It was on the third morning that Haan’s body was discovered; all the evidence suggested that he had died in his sleep, his face a mask of peaceful contentment. His followers knew better. Unease rapidly transcended into panic and for the first time they knew fear. The head of the beast had been removed and so the body began to unravel; the inspiration and the terror that bound it together were gone and the carefully nurtured religious illusions went with them. The priesthood of Khir were to slink back to their mountain retreats and reexamine their ancient vows. The reticent ways that they now displayed were a legacy of that time.

The fleet came about and did not pause in its flight until that terrible place was far behind. It dispersed on its passage down the Great Strait and so it was that only a small core of vessels remained to negotiate the approaches to Skorfjord; to find that the tyrant’s wall had finally been completed.

 

The galley, sails now furled, was guided gently into the torch-lit complex of quays that awaited it and with grim inevitability the gate grated behind them. As Jak watched it descend a numbing pall of claustrophobia came down with it. Watching that slot of evening light being slowly eclipsed was like observing a coffin lid being lowered into position. He tried to dispel such thoughts immediately but knew he would never relish passing through here, with that enormous weight of masonry poised overhead.

They passed down the central channel, coasting gracefully over slick black water, and Jak began to relax as the arched brick roof sloped ever upwards, finally disappearing into shadow as they neared the inner gate. This gate was in fact two gates which slid apart into recesses cast into the main body of the wall. They formed a much larger access than the outer gate but despite that were still exceptionally sturdy, although their stout timbers could never afford the same protection as the laminated metallic colossus that faced onto the strait. Jak found himself comparing the beautiful painted scenes before him with the dull metallic gleam of that outer gate. Through a yellowing patina of age he was viewing a city such as he had never seen before, where birds soared lazily on outstretched wing around fluted columns and windswept spires. It was an arresting and slightly surreal scene. Was it those languid birds? Was it the blurring of the details that so accentuated their wingspans? He squinted and tried to focus through the spluttering torchlight, but the forms remained maddeningly elusive. Why had he never noticed this before? And it was then that it struck him.

A red sliver of fading sunset cut the ancient city in twain as the gates were dragged apart and as the familiar sight of the fjord unfolded so an appreciation of the unfamiliar finally surfaced. He had never seen that painting before; he had never seen the inner gates closed before! It was a gesture of aggression and was reserved only for times of war, or so he had been told. The inner gate would be opened only when the outer gate had descended. As he shook off the reverie that had settled upon him, he also noticed the number of guards patrolling the bordering quays and sensed the pervading urgency.

Jak’s relief was marked by a blossoming of warm breath into the chill evening air as they cleared the wall and glided out onto the still silent waters of the fjord, pursuing the tantalizing red orb reflected on the surface. It was still well beyond their reach when the wooden jaws of Skîros closed about them.

The lights of the city stretched far up the northern hillside to their right in stark contrast to the more severe face on their southern flank which on occasion plunged almost vertically into the depths. Innumerable wharves reached out to greet them, but they continued leisurely on their way until the slopes on their left became more amenable and swept around before them to form the familiar terraced hub of the city.

Curiously, the wharves petered out here and the stone quayside from which they emerged continued round in a lazy uninterrupted curve. It was topped by a picturesque promenade thronging with people at this early evening hour. But even at that distance Jak could sense a certain agitation in their movements which were thrown into flickering relief as a lamplighter ignited the elevated braziers that punctuated the promenade at regular intervals.

All of this was cut off abruptly from his gaze by a monolithic cylinder of stone that rose from the bed of the fjord like an upthrust arm; a comparison that was given yet more credence by the circular parapet and battlements that topped it off like a clenched fist.

These were the imposing lines of Joel’s Keep, named not after its present occupier but one of his early predecessors. Its labyrinthine innards were distributed over fully ten stories so that whenever the early morning sun began its ascent it would cast a tortuous shadow over the dockland area of the town, the more so as only a narrow expanse of water separated it from the arc of the main quayside. Despite this, no access was offered at that level. Old tales alluded to a network of tunnels beneath the bay but from a practical standpoint the only way into the keep from the landward side was directly below parapet level; it was here that an unassuming portal overlooked the most elegant of bridges, whose single arch transcended not only the water beneath but also the bustle of everyday life in the fishing and commercial quarters, to link the keep directly with the more subdued uphill districts and thereby the main highway in and out of the city. It was referred to as “Arabella’s Arch” after the feisty wife of the earlier Joel, who had eventually succeeded him under distinctly dubious circumstances.

The only other access projected out into the fjord; a steep flight of steps descended to a long wharf against which several large war galleys were presently anchored. It was towards this wharf that the royal galley now turned.

Only two figures were there to acknowledge the homecoming, in line with the secretive nature of the voyage; the captain of Joel’s guard, Erekul, and Princess Azella, only child of Joel and Semira. The one, tall and distant, the other, short and engaging. Azella was not supposed to be there but Ereluk had known better than to argue. She had come primarily to welcome Jak and of course the mentor she shared with him, Ravenkar, but secretly she had hoped to glimpse the infamous Shamul. As it was however, she caught no more than a bellowing shadow in the deepening gloom as the two Khir priests disembarked and made their way towards her.

As Ravenkar’s apprentice it had been inevitable that Jak should encounter Azella, and their relationship was one of warm affection, protocol not allowing it to progress beyond that. Joel’s dislike for protocol was well documented but that attitude did not extend towards his daughter; nevertheless he had a high regard for Jak whom he had known virtually since Ravenkar had taken him under his wing. Jak, for his part, was now well acquainted with the royal sphere and took it all within his phlegmatic stride. Respect had to be earned, king or no king, warlord or not, and he would earn it in his own steady way.

A brief hug and then Jak was looking down into ice-green eyes that stared back at him, unblinking; a wicked smile accompanied the stare.

‘Well, noble sorcerer, what glorious gift have you brought back from the enchanted isle to gain favor with your future empress?’

‘No longer destined to be merely a queen then?’ laughed Jak, his hands closing about her neck and shaking it in mock anger. ‘As always, never a thought about the hardships of our voyage!’

‘None at all,’ joked Azella as she pulled his hands away and they linked arms. ‘Now then, tell me of Djebal Doron. I can barely remember when I last graced its giddy heights. Tell me of the women and their fashions, of the market places and the food. Tell me of Typhon and Alanna; regale me with the dark deeds of the Ultima.’

About her neck was now a choker of beaten metal so fine she knew not that it was even there. At its front, seven petals confined a tiny glinting diamond; the same glint that had mesmerized Jak from afar and had almost persuaded him to claim it as his own.

Jak was pleased with his purchase and his sleight of hand. Thoughts of his premonition were swiftly receding as he began to recount the delights of Djebal Doron to the eager ears of Azella. Ravenkar meanwhile had swept past them and was now in animated discussion with Ambassador Soza as they made their way up the winding steps.

Only the wary figure of Erekul remained at the bottom, watching his charges, listening to their receding conversations. His hand played idly over the hilt of his sword as his head turned in the other direction and the faint sounds of Shamul’s crew came to him from the far end of the wharf. Unease had settled upon him, its clammy threads almost tangible.

Erekul had an instinct for danger and he always took heed of it; indeed it usually left him with little choice, as was the case now. It was more than the heightened awareness of a warrior going into battle. He had often thought it just the opposite. Dullness would impose itself and giddiness would threaten to overcome him; it was as though the filter of his conscious thought was being removed and he could no longer sift through the mass of subliminal information that his mind was exposed to. He could no longer function in the normal way. He would suffer a fleeting panic as he was overwhelmed, but then a different filter would emerge and everything about him would slow; inanimate objects would lose their clarity and could become almost transparent but whereas living images would also blur, they would burn with increased vitality in his mind’s new eye.

For one disconcerting second the planks beneath him had faded but then the sensation was gone and normality had returned. He continued to stare all about him. Never had a warning come and gone so quickly. But where could the danger lie? He realized his sword was drawn and it was with great deliberation that he sheathed it again and stood there, listening, observing. The sun had slipped behind the jagged Peaks of Skor by the time he made his way up the steps and into the keep.

 

A gluttonous fire crackled over the rough stone hearth, blitzing sparks in all directions. A central oval table, fortunately just out of range of the aggressive ash, was replete with food and drink, hastily set out, but sumptuous nonetheless: two green glazed earthenware platters overflowing with a rich chicken stew, laced with brown rice and bright yellow peppers, garnished with olives and leaves of hara dhania; complementary yellow platters submerged in crabmeat spiced with garlic and pungent adrak, ringed with green chillies. Smaller red dishes piled high with flatbreads or full with simmering accompaniments: green beans with coconut, potatoes with khas khas, aubergine with yogurt and many more.

At one end of this table sat Joel, at the other Semira, his wife. Both were in merry mood. Semira because Joel was, and Joel because he had just emptied a bottle of fine Askalpur wine. As the company entered, he stood up to extend a welcoming hand, staggered, and sat down again. His slight form did not present an imposing figure, slouched as it was in an enormous chair that had been procured from the main banqueting hall. But as enemies could well testify, it was more prudent to pay closer attention to the piercing gray eyes, which took in everything, and the creased parchment face, which betrayed nothing; which treated surprise, disappointment, elation and sorrow as one and the same; which absorbed them and dispersed them, with a minimum of fuss, into its wrinkled folds. A tinge of red presently outlined those piercing gray eyes.

‘Surely the mighty warlord of Skîros is not drunk?’ remarked Azella, feigning indignation.

‘So you would mock me, would you daughter? I will have that waspish tongue of yours removed one of these days. And where might I ask, did you come by that bauble about your neck? The state finances would be far healthier were it not for you and your mother!’

Azella’s hands went up to her neck in surprise. Semira’s followed suit to caress the single pearl that hung about her own neck, staring quizzically at her husband as she did so; it was in fact her sole adornment. Joel pressed on regardless.

‘You appreciate of course that we will need every last copper when the fleet of Skal comes knocking upon our door!’

‘It is though a rather large door,’ murmured Semira, to everyone’s general amusement. Joel’s scowl did little to dampen her captivating smile.

This banter confirmed Jak’s suspicions and explained the extra activity beneath the wall. It also seemed to explain Joel’s desire to indulge himself in the cuisine of southern Khâl; it might be some time before supplies could be replenished. The lack of surprise on the faces of Ravenkar and Soza further told him that Erekul must have already informed them that war with Skal, and by implication Khâl, was imminent.

The enemies of old were demanding retribution for the disappearance of their fish-boat fleet and Jak surmised that they had been intent on this action regardless of the outcome of events at Djebal Doron; regardless of any protestations of innocence from Joel.

The planned celebration was slightly muted at first but the abundance of Askalpur wine had soon eased everyone into a more relaxed frame of mind and with the exit of Ambassador Soza, Joel’s good mood became infectious. Soza was a very valuable and respected member of Joel’s inner sanctum but was not a man who could ever be accused of behaving with reckless abandon. Over the next few hours a succession of people wandered in and out of the impromptu gathering, some invited, others not. Such was the nature of Joel’s court. None of the guests however slipped past the intense scrutiny of Erekul and his guards.

Thus did the evening slip by, an informal affair spent in much merriment and feasting. Indeed, why not? They were invulnerable as long as they cared to remain behind the impregnable bastion that was Haan’s Wall.

 

The servants had doused the torches long ago. Only the waning light of the fire lingered. The smoke-scented atmosphere had added to the stupefying effect of the drink: Joel was slumped forward over the table at one end, Semira was lying back in her plushly padded seat at the other, wrapped in a huge shawl; Azella had curled up in front of the hearth, Jak’s coat wrapped loosely about her; Jak was in a corner of the room, slumped on the bare wooden floor, the task of arranging three large cushions into a comfortable position having proved to be beyond him; Ravenkar sat cross-legged in another corner, dozing. He had retired there at a relatively early stage in the proceedings, claiming fatigue from the journey. His pipe however lay suspiciously at his side. He had refused all protestations from Erekul to the effect that a bed might in fact be more comfortable than a section of bare floor.

All were at peace.

 

A faint ripple stirred at the bow of the royal galley as something detached itself from the hull. It passed unobserved to the base of the keep wall. Two skeletal hands reached out and clasped at the bare stone. A guard’s head turned briefly at the faint sound of splashing water. He idly looked out over the battlements but could not make out the warped black cloak of skin that clung to the wall.

Sunken violet eyes peered upward from an oversized skull bereft of hair or flesh, possessing instead only an iridescent layer of scarred tissue; the misshapen frame that supported it was clothed likewise. It moved up the wall in a series of swift jerks. The quick staccato motion complemented its appalling appearance.

It hung, poised, at the top of the wall; waiting.

 

Faint steps now! Stamping of cold feet. The guard stopped, leant against his spear and blew into cupped hands. He stared instinctively up at the night sky as yet more heavenly debris flamed across its dark fabric, then casually down through the adjacent crenel into the murk beneath. Yellow fangs had sunk into his throat almost before his sight had registered the nacreous patchwork skull leering back at him. Again, the economic snatching movement, this time to prevent the spear clattering to the ground. Together with the guard it was dragged into the shadows.

The creature continued on its way, more slowly now, more purposeful. Its bony feet rasped against the stone floors. At the slightest sound it crouched menacingly within its cloak and so remained unnoticed, undetected. Down twisting stairways it passed, wraithlike, deeper and deeper into the heart of the keep, until it chanced upon a long arched corridor.

A faint trace of smoke disturbed its sensitive nostrils. At the midpoint of the passage, to the left, was an opening. Next to it a sentry was leaning back into the recess formed by the door column and the wall; his head nodded uncertainly. The black shape crept surely along the wall, then stopped abruptly. The sentry was shaking his head vigorously. He looked directly into the bright torchlight above the lintel in an effort to shake off his torpor and then took a few paces forward and shook his head again. Too late did he see the distorted shadow on the wall before him, springing up to engulf his own. A muted gargle was the only warning he could give before his neck snapped and he was lowered silently to the ground.

The five slumbering occupants of the hall were unaware of the deadly glowing figure that lurked in the doorway, a savage barbed knife in its bony clutch. It crossed silently to the large central table and looked searchingly about. Emaciated lips were drawn back to allow a low prolonged hiss to pass between. There, before the hearth, lay its quarry. Yet the creature paused. About the sleeping figure was a mantle, a vague disturbing shroud that it wondered at. No matter. In one silent bound it was there, knife poised and ready to strike. It allowed itself a moment of exultation, allowed itself to savor what was to come; the removal of life from the form below.

And then Azella turned over. The creature suppressed a scream as a pale red radiance assaulted its eyes. It staggered desperately back, fighting paralysis, as the searing ray of light seemed to seek it out.

Azella settled back and the pain was gone. Violet eyes bore down into her. It dared not approach again, for fear she should stir once more. Robbed of its prey, its eyes turned elsewhere. It sensed power all around. But not here; this one would suffice.

Thus were Semira’s last moments terrible indeed. As slimy fingers fell upon her mouth to suppress any cry she might make, she awoke and saw the grinning monstrosity. It jabbed the blade deep into her heart, then with sadistic malice, transfixed her to the chair.

 

Early morning, cold and damp. Erekul was not quite fast enough. As he had sprung over the slumped form of the sentry, whiplash sword drawn and ready to mete out steely death, he had awakened Joel. Though his eyes were bleary and his wits not yet about him, the old warlord would never forget the pleading face of his wife, exposed to him for an instant before the cloak of his captain had concealed it from him.

Tears of disbelief had welled in Joel’s eyes by the time he reached the slumped form of his wife. With one arm he steadied himself against Erekul, with the other he stretched out, trembling, towards the covering cloak and pulled it back. Erekul had closed Semira’s eyes and attempted to knead the flesh of her face, but as if to torment him, the rictus was already returning.  It was of no consequence. All that Joel would ever see would be the helpless bulbous eyes and that creased convulsed face.

New tears now welled in his eyes; grief had displaced disbelief. Despite this his words came in measured tones. ‘Cordon off this area, Erekul. Close the main gate and ensure that not a single person leaves this keep. Check with the watch and ascertain if anyone departed during the night. After that, everyone within the confines of these walls will be questioned. I will have this Skalian assassin!’

Erekul was taking heed of the words but his thoughts were elsewhere; with the dead guard on the battlements and with the fleeting glimpse of danger that had passed his way on the wharf.

Ravenkar and Jak also heard the words but had eyes only for the knife.

Azella did not hear the words. Rage and despair battled within her to gain the upper hand.

 

At that moment, a small fish-boat passed through the outer gate of Haan’s Wall and had anyone on board been staring intently downwards into the water, they might have seen a dark shape detach itself from the hull and glide swiftly away, southwards.

Just before noon the same fish-boat returned to report that a vast fleet had been sighted approaching from the east, heading directly towards Skîros. As if on cue, as the sun reached its zenith, a line of purple sails broached the horizon.

 

CHAPTER 6: THE PLATEAU

Outside the realm of the Stone, all was chaos. A constant rain of gravel now tore at the surface of the sea, while patches of fiery naphtha scorched it and burned upon it. In response, the sea boiled and raged and great bodies of water began to build.

(more…)

CHAPTER 7: BY THE MOUTH OF THE WINDING STRAIT

Men in shining armor looked down derisively from the battlements of Haan’s Wall. Every now and again an archer would loose a nonchalant arrow at the packed body of galleys below, never bothering to follow the flight and see where it might strike. Time and again, flaming metal projectiles would be launched at the wall, only to rebound harmlessly into the sea. All mere gestures. Eventually the Khâlian fleet, purple Skalian sails at its heart, retired and formed a loose arc about the fjord entrance, out of range of anything that could be deployed against them. The blockade of Skîros had begun. (more…)

CHAPTER 8: AT THE TEMPLE OF THE LITTLE BALD ICEMAN

At the head of the track and the foot of the rock face stood a giant pine. It marked the top of the tree line. As the gentle music of the wind whistled through the ravines and gullies far above, its branches swayed in harmony.

Krul noticed none of this as snow and scree alike were crushed beneath the ribbed soles of his iron-shod boots and his purposeful stride led him to one of the ropes that dangled down from a distant ledge. A mailed fist grabbed at it and gave it a vigorous pull to test the anchorage. Another mailed fist was placed above the first and Krul had begun his ascent.

Only when the Leader of the Clann had reached that first ledge did he look down. A few of his warriors had started to climb but most were filing up the muddy puddle-strewn track that cut a straight but steep line down through the forest; the track stopped at the fjord’s edge by a short stout jetty that was normally frequented only by woodcutters. The fine drizzle falling onto its sap covered planks had made it a treacherous landing place and more than one man was nursing a bruised knee.

Krul watched idly as the final ferry ploughed back across Skorfjord towards Joel’s Keep, oars dipping gently into the water, causing scarcely a blemish on its surface. He adjusted his pack, wiped the rain from his eyes and then picked his way along the ledge, checking the grappling hooks; the climbers had done their job well and no adjustments were needed.

The second section was a long turgid grind. It was much more exposed to the elements and he was glad of the short close fitting cape and the fur-lined leggings that he wore. His pack was larger than he would have liked but being of the Clann the odds dictated that eventually he would have to fight; it was what the Clann did, and the light armor and weapons contained in each of their packs were essential. Thus it was no little time before he had hauled himself up to the top of the rope and onto the next convenient ledge; now he could even look out over the top of Haan’s Wall, but only onto the turbulent red and gray sky as it stretched out to the dim horizon.

On the way up the third section it began to occur to Krul why this was a route only frequented by those absorbed in the intricacies of climbing, as even his massive strength began to wane. A quick glance and he thought he could now make out the sea, but as he drove on upwards the wind was howling, an icy blanket of drizzle cut into his face and hands, and he wasn’t much interested in the view anymore.

As the Clann clawed their way ever higher into the kingdom of ice and snow that waited patiently to greet them, the green sea of conifers far beneath gradually faded into an evening murk that diffused even the sharp pin-points of light that were springing up around the bay. This registered very briefly with Krul as he climbed towards the grumbling sky but he didn’t have time to dwell upon it as a flurry of snow swept down a wide gully far to his left and blew hard across him. His eyes followed it over to the right where the wind proceeded to twist it around great vertical spindles of rock. Notwithstanding the immediate discomfiture this was a good sign, for it meant that at last the rock face was breaking up and he was nearing the top.

It wasn’t an abrupt leveling out but more of a gradual leaning inward when he was finally able to abandon the rope and it wasn’t long after that when his gait began to relax into something akin to a walk, albeit it an extremely awkward walk through knee-deep snow. Only occasionally did he have cause to use his hands or, even more infrequently, employ his ice axe. The depth of snow continued to be his main impediment for some time, as it was for the rest of the Clann, especially those who led. Those behind could plant their feet in ready-made tracks but obviously those to the fore were not able to indulge in such luxuries. There had been talk of snowshoes at the outset but the need to minimize the weight of their packs had put an end to it. Krul cursed at that decision now but knew that in the long term it had been the correct choice.

Such was the height of the range in which they were being enveloped that cold and shadow descended upon them very quickly and the transition into darkness passed almost unnoticed. Krul looked up to get his bearings, concerned now, for to tread this path at night would be a treacherous undertaking. They had to press on and gain their first objective without delay.

In a fleeting act of charity the clouds chose that particular moment to part and moonlight from far flung Iambos was scattered across the snowfield, illuminating a mass of scurrying black figures. As one, they paused to look skyward. But it was not Iambos that had caught their eyes, rather the exotic tail of its new heavenly neighbor as it disappeared over the horizon; their spinning planet would now take them into night and away, so this was a last chance to view its scorching trajectory as it made its inexorable way around the sun.  Krul too was momentarily bewitched by the sight of the comet until more pragmatic matters asserted themselves and he began to seek out their goal in earnest.

 

The moon imbued the snow with a pale luminous sheen and its reflective glare served to highlight the mouth of the cave. It regarded the approach of the Clann with toothless amusement, its lavish grin promising shelter from the extravagant elements. Krul removed a flare from the strapping on his pack, tore off the waterproof wrapping and ignited it. He stood with legs planted firmly, braced against the wind, and waved it expansively over his head. This red signal flare caused an immediate chain reaction as white flares spluttered in response on a broad front across the slope. Krul counted the flares twice and having assured himself that the requisite ten were ablaze he swiveled around and headed upslope.

The covering of snow thinned dramatically as he approached the cave and exposed a meager trail through the layer of scree beneath. As he gained the entrance he jammed the flare forcefully into the loose rock and built up a small mound around it, checking out the extent of their haven in the flickering red light; it wasn’t big but it would suffice. Next, flint in hand, he approached a pile of wood that had been dumped unceremoniously on the cavern floor. It was still dry from the previous day when the climbers had deposited it there. It wouldn’t make for a huge fire but at least it would drag the chill from the bare rock walls. They would have to make the most of it; it would be their last luxury for some time, probably until they reached the old fort on the far side of the range. The rising flames he conjured had barely begun to lick at the damp air when the menacing silhouettes of his comrades appeared at the mouth of the cave.

 

The snow on the mountains thrusting up before them was coral pink as the great beacon of the sun emerged over the eastern skyline. After a sparse dawn breakfast of emergency rations the elite troops of Khir set off against this humbling backdrop, following trails long abandoned. Ever upwards they trekked, skirting around bottomless gorges, crouching through dripping spiked caverns, treading tentatively over curving bridges of ice. Their eyes constantly scanned the void above; by day across skies once china blue, now indigo or startling magenta, and by night across a star-strewn firmament where even gentle beams from Iambos were tinged a sanguine hue. All the while expectant that a stifling white blanket would descend and thwart their plans with abrupt finality.

But their luck held. Such did not happen, and the end of the fifth day saw them entering a narrow ravine. Thankfully they were able to traverse the raging torrent that flowed through it without immersing themselves in the icy waters, but the way out was steep and Krul was reluctant to negotiate its twists and turns in the impending twilight. He gave the order to make camp.

The Clann fanned out across a large triangular plateau that was wedged between the stream and the slope, so fatigued that they never questioned the presence of such a flat tract in the midst of that tortuous landscape. They constructed a low wall around their perimeter from the multitude of stones that lay all around, scattered like littoral debris from an ancient highland sea. At least its elevated profile gave the illusion of warmth and protection as they bedded down within its confines.

 

The ghosts whispered to each other. It had been centuries since anyone had ventured here. The Clann heard the chatter but mistook it for mountain breezes gusting through the ravine.  How were they to know that just beneath them, nestled amongst the weathered detritus upon which they lay, the remains of ancient walls fought against grinding demise? How were they to know that within the outline of those walls, the stubs of fluted temple columns protruded from the bedrock; that between their broken rows marched an aisle of polished stone from which, beyond an ornate archway, arose a low curved stairway? On a mild summer’s day, when the waters were at their stillest, the aisle’s scoured outline could yet be seen in the deep pool that had formed in the lea of the plateau, as could the archway to which it led. But now, even though its top was exposed, the entrance to Tak Palanq was consumed by frothing mayhem, and the much easier route it afforded was hidden.

 

As one hundred and one men broke camp the following morning an air of optimism prevailed, for the highest point of their journey lay just above.

No ranks existed within the Clann save that of Leader. There was the Leader and there were ten squads of ten men apiece. Each squad had a nominal captain but this was only to facilitate communications; whatever the task and whatever the numbers required to carry it out, be it ten or the full one hundred, Krul would normally address them all. The fact that he was now engaged in conversation with one of the captains, Bargor, meant only that Bargor had taken an inordinate interest in Krul’s map.

Bargor was an immense man, broader even than his Leader, and when he spoke the tone of his utterances was similar to the low gentle growl of a bear; thus, as was the habitual custom of the Clann, he had been given a second name, “Brega”, derived from the old tongue.

Krul had unrolled Ravenkar’s map as carefully as frozen hands would allow and had sworn again as his eyes took in the vast regions marked down as “uncharted”, although he knew that he was lucky to possess any sort of map at all; just from where the shaman had managed to conjure up the archaic rotting scroll was a matter of pure conjecture. He had then lapsed into a veritable orgy of profanities as great lumps of parchment began to curl and break off at the edges, and mountain ranges, passes, lakes and forests were cast to the winds. Fortunately, most of the charted regions in the center had remained, as had the faded red line they were following.

‘I like this map, Krul, or at least, I like what remains of it,’ growled Bargor. ‘It reminds me of my childhood. Do I take it that we are about to proceed up “Hackensak’s Back”, down through the “Crystal Gorge”, taking in the “Temple of the Little Bald Iceman” before traversing the “Lake of the Slumbering Sentinel”? Look, there are even little pictures, and they are so beautiful!’

‘Oh, really,’ answered Krul, never known for his appreciation of sarcasm or indeed a need to embellish his sentences. ‘Bargor, I am pleased that it amuses you. It amused me also until Ravenkar availed me of the area’s reputation. Several passes cross these mountains, all of them longer and more arduous than the route we currently follow; most of them impassable for many months. Yet this lake and the tunnel of Mithra Baltak which it precedes, were always shunned.’

Bargor reached out and slapped Krul on the back, an act that would probably have felled a lesser man. ‘Best that we do not linger then, eh? Should we bury provisions for the return journey?’

Krul nodded in assent and then his hand swept forward and the writhing millipede that was the Clann wriggled anew, towards the top of Hackensak’s Back.

 

The Peaks of Skor were now all about them and a curious silence had descended as Krul set foot on the top of the ridge. The panorama before him gave him cause to remember how Ravenkar had taken him aside, even as the Clann horses were being readied for the journey to Tolfjord, and had guided him down into a long leaking cavern below the foundations of the keep. It had been a fairly unpleasant location, with the grime and mold of years long past caked to its dank walls. Upon making a restrained enquiry as to why he had been brought to such a place, Ravenkar had informed him that it exuded the “necessary atmosphere”. Fearing that Joel’s affliction was spreading he had nevertheless refrained from making any comment, knowing that the old shaman seldom did anything without a purpose. The temperature in the cavern was cold, cold enough to make him shiver, but Ravenkar seemed not to notice, muttering distractedly to himself before taking a very deliberate deep breath. He had held onto this for an inordinate amount of time, and then, with similar considered precision, he had exhaled, studying attentively the swelling bulb of warm air before him as it began to coagulate and effervesce. There had been a multitude of twinkling points of light, of maroon and gold, of emerald and orange, of lilac and silver, and Krul had been forced to shield his eyes, for then, as now, he had been standing between two tall peaks looking down into the Crystal Gorge. Ravenkar had deemed it necessary to show him that particular location and warn him of the dangers soon to follow.

 

The entire Clann was arrayed, line abreast, along a snowy crescent, squinting down at their proposed descent. An ice cap extended out before them, filling the bowl at the midst of the surrounding mountains. Almost at the far side, although not clearly defined at that distance, a circular hollow plunged into its depths and radiating out from that hollow to the point where they stood, was a slender crevasse. It stretched accusingly towards them like a spent thunderbolt, its dark profile only rarely relieved where surface ice had slid and slithered and attempted to seal the breach. Into this rent, just below them, flight after flight of narrow steps had been chiseled.

They now descended hurriedly into this alluring void, and were soon lost from view. With memories of his encounter with Ravenkar still lingering Krul knew that there would be no resting place on this leg of their journey and that if they hadn’t made the mysterious hollow by nightfall they would simply have to press ahead until they did. Dawn till dusk, the shaman had assured him. Krul hadn’t been so sure if that was feasible but knew that it was pointless debating the matter.

The men watched as their Leader approached the top step and lowered a rope from his shoulder to the ground. He then removed a sharpened eyebolt from his belt, drove it into the ice wall and secured one end of the rope to it. Ten stilted paces further on he would drive in another bolt and run the rope through that as well; and so on until the other end of the first rope was secured. Another warrior would then take a second rope and repeat the procedure. They had one rope per squad although not all were required. The final man cut the first knot, secured himself to the severed rope and removed the intermediate bolts as he went. These bolts, together with the rope, would be transferred up the line to be reused at the front. Reeling in that final rope and removing the bolts would prove to be the most exhausting of all the tasks.

The steps, unlike the walls, had a dull finish and had numerous thin grooves cut into them so that Krul found his feet almost sticking to them. Despite this, he was glad of the rope. The steps had been cut into the left face of the crevasse and the drop down to the other side was dizzying. By the time he had anchored the leading end of the first rope, the route was curving gracefully round to the right and still slightly down. The polished walls were becoming oppressively high and claustrophobic as the strip of faded pink that was the sky receded.

As the steps arced back to the left and still further down, the faint sound of running water floated up to the grim line of warriors and brief dappled glimpses of a stream far below reminded them, if they needed such a reminder, that death was but a step away.

It was just where the stream vanished beneath the ice and the path straightened out again that they came across the altar. Up until then they had not given a thought to the past. They knew that they traveled a trail that had been seldom used in their time and thus accorded it no particular significance. The ice steps had been fashioned by human hand but then again seemed almost an extension of the ice face, and so they had taken them in their stride, preoccupied as they were with just staying alive; but here, a sweeping semicircular platform had been hewn into the face of the ice and still it lingered there, reluctant to submit to the ravages of time.

The low stone slab was a palpable indication of the former importance of this route; a thin layer of frost leant it a stark beauty but that could not conceal the unmistakable stains of sacrifice that marred its surface. A small square had been chiseled into the center. It was effectively split into two across a diagonal, where two triangular gemstones came together; the one, black and probably jet, the other, a most unusual mineral that fluctuated from clear to white, and back again, depending upon how it was viewed. One by one the Clann filed past and for the very first time began to see beyond their present mission: began to wonder why and when this altar had been constructed; began to wonder what ills might be attendant with the approach of the comet.

And there was something else: it was behind the altar, almost hidden behind a layer of sheet ice. It was an entrance, its circular form outlined with the most delicate green and red mosaic, which would fade into obscurity at various points about the circumference, only to reemerge, vivid and vibrant at others. Did it lead directly into the mountain or did some arcane construction method allow it to float in the shifting ice? No time to ponder.

Beyond the altar, the walkway broadened out considerably but still the abyss awaited to their right and so they persevered with the rope, hanging on to it dourly, warming their feet and hands any which way, whenever they could; wrapping scarves around their heads so that only their eyes were visible beneath their hoods, bright and feral. Cornered animals in an alien landscape.

 

The walls of the abyss had been closing together for some time and now, at last, the walkway merged with the wall to their right, and they were able to dispense with the rope. During this time a roof had been forming above their heads and initially, although it was well out of reach it was nevertheless punctuated at several points by long rents in the surface ice so that light still filtered through to them. Now however, just as they were able to coil up the ropes, those rents had disappeared and darkness was starting to envelop them. Krul went ahead to investigate and in a matter of moments curses were echoing back along the fissure.

The roof had plummeted downwards and all that was left was a crawlspace, no more, and around it the ice creaked and groaned in ominous fashion. It was here that Bargor now volunteered to take the lead, on the premise that if he could make it through then so could the rest of the Clann. He had also brought up the matter of his upbringing in the Highlands, where mining was a way of life; when, even as a youth … and at that point Krul had relented.

It turned out to be only twenty paces or so in length. Not far, but it took its toll. The chill leached the energy from the big man’s body with eager efficiency and by the time he was through it was all that he could do to hammer a bolt into the ice wall and fix a rope to it. But then, as he began to shake uncontrollably, something wonderful happened. He realized that the roof had gone entirely and the sky had reappeared. Into this resurgent flushed strip, the dazzling orb of the sun was insinuating itself with comfortable familiarity, shining down from its zenith and pouring its warming rays into the freezing cleft. He tugged three times on the line, the signal that it was secure, and then turned to look down the length of the strip; with unwavering resolve it stretched off into infinity.

 

The walkway was still fused with the walls to either side and for the first time in many a long year it reverberated to the sound of pounding feet. Under a darkening sky the Clann ran for their lives. It wasn’t a breakneck sprint, rather a steady, measured jog. The first man set the pace and the rest followed in behind. Every so often they would stop, another man would take the lead and off they would go again. As a precaution, the pacesetter was secured by a short length of rope to the man behind; that was their only concession to safety.

 

“Dawn till dusk,” was the phrase that Ravenkar had used. It rolled through Krul’s head as he ran. But which dusk? They had already passed several alcoves cut back into the walls that had the appearance of shelters. Would it be possible to survive a night on this walkway? He supposed it might, with the right equipment: a plentiful supply of wood; stones to store the heat of a blaze; frames to raise bedding above the level of the ice. None of which they had. “Dawn till dusk.”

 

It was under an angry evening sky that everything changed. They parted company with the wall to their right and almost immediately steps emerged. They reassumed a careful walk and Krul advanced to hammer in the first of their specialized bolts. But that was as far as he got. Each blow of the hammer caused a flash of coruscating color to explode from the tip and surge deep into the wall. Not even the tiniest indentation was left on the surface.

Now they were surely in trouble and as they looked back along the way, indeed they could just make it out: the transition plane from ice to this unfamiliar crystalline material. But as they stood and talked, quickly and calmly discussing their options, they stamped their feet as humans are wont to do in conditions of extreme cold. It was only then that they found that such an action was impossible, for their feet were actually adhering to the steps. Whereas ice would have exuded water, a viscous wax oozed gently from this melting crystal. It did not form an instant bond but plodding forward one slow step at a time, it gave them enough reassurance to proceed.

By the time they had accommodated this new phenomenon into their cautious gait, the steps were descending at an alarming rate and an enormous oval of troubled amethyst sky had formed over their heads. They had finally reached the hollow, the heart of the Crystal Gorge.

 

To right and left great ice cliffs ranged, forming an immense bowl, deeper than it was wide. Everywhere, great vertical intrusions of the crystal were visible in the ice, but whereas the latter had a uniform subdued glow to it, the crystal was vibrant in contrast and just beneath its white surface sheen, it prickled with color.

Far below was a frozen lake; even at that distance there was an ominous quality to it. Crossing it was a low bridge that led to a dark archway in the far wall.

Their way now clung to the wall on the left, in the guise of a plunging stairway. Despite the clinging properties of the steps, few even of the Clann cared to look and dwell on the fall that awaited should they stumble to the right. Nor was their cause helped by the acute angle of their descent; should they stare straight ahead it was not the hooded head of their predecessor that they saw but the curving cliff wall, which inevitably drew their questing eyes back into the bowl. For most it was simply a question of where to position their feet and little else, so that when the snow began to fall they scarcely noticed; shrugs of indifference greeted the approaching peels of thunder. They were not able relax until the stairway deposited them on a bizarre shore, and its sharp clear shingle was crunching beneath their feet.

All around the bowl the lake extended out to the base of the vertical cliffs; only here, where this peculiar beach intruded, was its surface interrupted. A single way forward was all that beckoned, but a small diversion was required first and for now Krul had called a halt.

The majority of the exhausted warriors sat down to rest upon the beach, only to leap back up again with cries of dismay. Having examined the lacerations on the soles of their boots a little more closely it was with some trepidation that they lowered themselves down again, this time seating themselves upon their packs. Despite the urge to curse at their unwelcoming surroundings, there was something pristine about the scene that kept most of them quiet, as though to speak would irredeemably violate its tranquil beauty. Instead they contented themselves by examining the razor-edged pebbles beneath their feet in more detail whilst keeping half an eye on their Leader as he headed up the beach towards a most outlandish structure.

 

A faint tinkling sound accompanied Krul’s progress as he approached the temple. This puzzled him until he realized that crystal fragments were constantly falling from its delicate sloping roofs. Given the great antiquity of this place, he suspected this was not to their detriment.

There were three diminishing levels to the temple, culminating in what was scarce more than a bell housing at the top. Each level was topped by a sloping roof which made a giddy descent down to its eaves, and then, as though startled by the waiting drop, curled back on itself. Upon each roof was a covering layer of the purest white snow. The translucent walls were etched with wondrous scrollwork, delicate and mesmeric; Krul wondered what tool had achieved this as he perceived the familiar motes of restless light that danced within their slight substance. His eyes watched their subtle gyrations for but a moment before they were drawn to the base, where three broad steps led up to a pair of imposing columns that bore similar scrollwork. Beyond these columns lay a circular entranceway; it was unadorned and served simply to frame the darkness inside.

Krul swaggered up to the steps, mounted the bottom one and waited patiently. And waited. And waited.

The silence that prevailed in that icebound kingdom began to press in upon him. The falling snow muffled what little sound was emanating from the waiting Clann and the drifting flakes were beginning to irritate him. He changed his focus to the gentle shower of particles that was being constantly shed by the temple itself but the dull repetition of that sound was soon aggravating him still further.

The snow continued to come down, heavier now, and Krul remained rooted to the bottom step, finding that his right hand had strayed to the great war-axe that was strapped snuggly across his back. Should he ignore Ravenkar’s warning words and barge inside, or stay where he was in front of his men, the epitome of indecision? He fingered the axe longingly and then, very deliberately lowered his hand. This was not an instinctive movement; just the opposite in fact. It was a premeditated action prompted by his indomitable will; a will that had gained slow supremacy over an unfamiliar superficial impatience seemingly intent on coercing him towards impulsiveness.

The gesture prompted a slight stirring within the temple. It was barely perceptible at first, but then the darkness within was cast aside to reveal an inscrutable little man of ice, standing there in flowing robes of twinkling finery. His bare right arm was horizontal across his body and from it hung a dimpled metal gong. The gong rotated slowly, even though there was no breeze, and Krul could see that around the perimeter of each of its elusive faces a sigil had been engraved: the same sigil, but red on one side and green on the other. It was the sigil of the Eternal Serpent, the mythical creature that symbolized the recurring cycles of time. He knew this because Ravenkar had told him of it. But what the shaman had failed to mention was that as the gong rotated it would snare his gaze; that he would not be able to tear his eyes away from it. Faster ever faster it spun until the eager straining light reflected from its surfaces began to coalesce with red, with green, and there in the air before him hung the coiled form of a bronze serpent, its scaled tail disappearing into its own voracious jaws. The great snake pulsed with life and its writhing coils mesmerized him as it gorged on itself; a meal of everlasting sustenance for its length remained undiminished. Then the outline of the gong was once more apparent and two sigils materialized to release him from his trance.

The Iceman’s left arm was straight at his side. A thong was looped about the wrist and attached to it was a striker. The striker appeared to be cast from the same lustrous metal as the gong.

The enigmatic little man moved forward to stand on the edge of the top step, although even here he was dwarfed by the bulk of Krul. To the watching Clann it was as though their Leader was shaking his head in disbelief at the figure confronting him; in reality he was trying to dispel the effects of the stupor that had taken hold of him but moments before. Also, he was surprised to find himself mulling over the Iceman’s composition; could he be of crystal rather than ice and if so, did small pieces fall from his diminutive form in like manner to those that fell from the roofs of his abode? To his disappointment, the figure did not crumble before him, rather it interrupted his musings by addressing him in extremely imperious fashion; or at least someone addressed him, as deep resonant tones floated out from the temple entrance. The lips of the Iceman remained firmly closed, his slanting eyes staring resolutely ahead, unblinking.

‘I thank you for waiting. You have shown great tolerance.’

Krul was sweating and straining to quell the impulse. He had to subdue it! Yet it would be so pleasant, so satisfying to take his axe and split that gleaming hairless dome, to cleave that smug passionless mask in twain. The voice droned on.

‘Kindly accept the gong and strike thrice to one side before crossing the bridge, no more, no less. When all have crossed, strike the gong once only to the same side and place it in the hand of the Keeper.’

Krul’s hands were trembling. He dug the mailed glove of his right hand into his exposed left forearm and concentrated on hurting himself. There was a trickle of blood and the hateful mocking little man before him became slightly more bearable.

‘Upon returning, take the gong from the hand of the Keeper and strike it twice to the green and thrice to the red. When all have crossed, strike the gong thrice to one side only, no more, no less, and return it to my custody.’

Silence. Two icy claws stretched out to him. He snatched the gong and the striker and turned quickly away.

 

As he stood at the foot of the bridge Krul wondered what all the fuss had been about. Ravenkar had been most insistent, melodramatic even, if annoyingly vague. He recalled the shaman’s words now. “Your mission could fail at the temple, Krul. I am not sure what will occur but I suspect that a form of test awaits. Something more than your usual level of diplomacy may be required.”

Krul was the first to admit that diplomacy had never been his strong point but as it happened the little fellow had been quite accommodating.

A stairway emerged from the shingle of the beach and coiled up to the bridge. There were only two shallow coils, for the bridge was not high above the lake, but such was the immensity of its span that its belly appeared to be lower than it actually was, almost hugging the icy surface. Icicles of all shapes and sizes were suspended underneath but at no point did they touch that surface; nor were there any intermediate supports to break its frigid bounds. The bridge was bereft too of any guard rails and whilst this was not a matter of immediate concern, as the fall to the ice would not be great, it nevertheless dictated caution. It was not alone in that. An air of menace hung about the place. How far away that tunnel seemed on the other side of the lake.

Krul eyed the gong dubiously as he reached the top step and set foot on the bridge, noting for the first time four tiny symbols that nestled at the center of the face he was examining. How small it was, he thought, as he grasped the striker more firmly. Still, so too was the Iceman.

The striker catapulted forward and the Clann fell to their knees, those still on the shingle shore not caring a jot about the pain that assaulted those unfortunate joints but looking only to protect their ears from the savage cacophony that currently reverberated around the hollow. Krul, in a state of shock, doggedly struck again, this time according the gong a little more respect. His third blow was delivered with positive timidity. The Clann observed in awe, marveling at such delicacy, a quality hitherto undisplayed by their Leader.

They crossed two abreast. A thick blanket of snow now blotted out any distinguishing features which the bridge might have possessed, including its defining edges, and so their progress was tentative. As the final warriors set foot upon the span, the leading band were about halfway across, but had halted, uncertain glances passing between them. Below, the frozen surface remained undisturbed; only in patches was the ice thin enough to see the water beneath and then only where the capricious wind had kept the latest snowfall at bay. It was one such patch that had claimed their attention. In reality, it had only been a transitory motion that had caught their collective eye, not even enough to cause more than a few sarcastic comments, and so it was that their muffled footfalls soon resumed. Just then though a vibration passed along the bridge. It was a gentle disturbance, but definite for all that. It was merely a prelude.

A shadow passed beneath the bridge and this time it was not fleeting. It was accompanied by a fearful sound, far from gentle: not loud, but insidious; rasping, scraping, slithering. The ice on the surface heaved and groaned, but it did not break. Fortunately, neither did the Clann. Nerves frayed and flushed with dread they somehow maintained a steady advance across the bridge, but with eyes darting constantly to the shadow that trailed them.

A flat promontory of ice marked the end of the bridge and they were deposited onto it directly, for it was at a higher elevation than the beach. The first of them gathered there before the tunnel entrance as the surface of the lake around them began to crack and geysers of gray water spouted high into the air. They feigned indifference by adjusting their packs and their weapons, all the while willing the last of their comrades to make good their crossing so that they could retreat into the dark haven of the tunnel. They watched in anticipation as the gong yelled out its terminal cry, and with unbridled relief as the broken ice settled and the shadow that had lingered just beneath faded, disappeared.

 

The Keeper resided at the entrance to the tunnel. In a hole in the ground to be exact, for ice had given way to rock That it sprang up before them from its concealed position was beyond question; what had triggered its dramatic appearance was open to conjecture. But there it was nevertheless, raised eyebrows and extended hand leaving no doubt as to its wishes. Its wooden form towered over them, surly features holding them to account and indeed a burgeoning anger seemed to be coursing through its fibrous structure. What manner of timber was this that pulsed red with apparent sentience?

Krul advanced cautiously, his axe ready to mete out splintering oblivion at the merest twitch of aggression. The carved painted features remained phlegmatic, but mindful of how the rapid appearance of the Keeper had caught them unawares, Krul draped both the gong and its companion striker onto the vicious spike that protruded from the head of his twin-bladed weapon and slid them down over the waiting hand. In a blur of motion the hand of the Keeper tightened and was retracted and its entire bulk then spun around in a half circle, even as it descended back into the waiting ground. All that marked its passing was a slight hissing of air and a dull grinding of rock.

Soon, the men too had disappeared, filing into a rocky maw that delivered them from an expansive world of glittering ice into one of darkness and confinement.

 

Once more the tunnel echoed to the tread of human feet. Despite the intervening centuries its solid slabbed floor had been little affected. The stale dry air had held the tentacles of erosion at bay and its firm surface eased their relentless journey but when the passage widened into a cavern, Krul took the opportunity to call a halt and allow a brief respite for his troops. It had taken about an hour to reach this point and he let it be known that for the following hour they could rest. Assuming all went well, dawn would almost be upon them when they gained the far end of the tunnel and another short rest would follow before they confronted a new day and its attendant perils, namely the approaching hordes of Khâl.

There were several small altars and resting places along the way but only here had Mithra Baltak chosen to bare its soul. Had those men not been so thoroughly fatigued might they possibly have searched just beyond their torch-lit perimeter, or even perchance have given closer scrutiny to that which was intermittently brought into relief by those hastily placed brands? But at this juncture they were more focused on the future than the past; conserving weary limbs and snatching precious moments of sleep before the final push to their journey’s end. What would it avail them to know of another age when the skies had also been a disconcerting red? Would their tired minds have been able to decipher the engravings and symbols that called out to them, or even interpret the bold strokes and pigments that had been used by those artists of a bygone era?

 

The great iron doors were badly askew. Their hinges had rusted through long ago and so they leant, like tired sentries, against the tunnel walls. The insatiable tawny plague was also at work on their exposed innards and jagged beams of moonlight pierced their rotting remnants.

Krul approached, fatigue etched into his every movement. Wedging himself between the collapsing portals he gazed outward into the departing night sky. His eyes did not rest on the shallow sea of cloud that tarried below but were drawn immediately to Iambos, and the illusion was with him in those beguiling shades ‘twixt night and day that those sturdy doors about him had been smashed through by rays from the waning moon, as if they had no more substance to them than the parchment of Ravenkar’s map. Of the comet there was no sign, for it was now on the far side of their world. He turned to the expectant faces behind him and nodded. Their trek was almost at an end and although their sleep would be all too brief, for most it would be restful in that ghostly half-light.

 

Dawn arrived in a shroud of terracotta through the corroded doors, then softened to hazy pink. Nearby, water was splashing down hard gray walls, leaving a narrow green curtain of lichen in its wake. Through scattered piles of scree it tumbled before winding its way down as a bubbling writhing stream of meltwater towards a gap in the ridge below. Directly overlooking this gap was the mouth of Mithra Baltak and from its convenient vantage point the waking Clann could casually peer down through the stark cut and survey the flat expanse of jade that lay beyond; still further away, burnt ochre swept down before the rising sun like melting butter, over the pitted hillsides and into the Nrulu Valley.

 

Krul made his way warily down the weathered stairway that jutted out from the cliff wall, his habitual lithe movements masking the creaking of joints and muscles that protested at recent outrages. Warriors followed, like caged animals released. The fort that had once encircled the stairway had long since crumbled, although the outline of the foundations was plain to see and the remnants of stone temple columns abounded, chipped and cracked and horizontal, like rotting logs in a forest. Behind such pillars the Clann would be hidden from below and it was but a short journey to pursue the stream through the low cones on the ridge before them and thence onto the plateau. So here it was that they lay down their packs and spread out their meager regimen of unleavened bread, bitter rice, lentils and strips of spiced meat. At least fresh water was not a problem. It was here also that they set about assembling their war gear.

Each man would wear a coat of fine chain mail and other than his helmet, that was to be his only armor; where other protection had been brought, it was of hardened leather and not metal. The heavier accessories preferred by many currently languished in the armory of Joel’s Keep, for obvious reasons. This was to be a skirmishing battle and the small wickerwork shields that they all carried bore testament to that; strapped to the tops of their packs these shields had also protected them from the worst of the elements during the rigors of the preceding days.

The mail would be discarded only while they slept and even then would be close to hand. Rumors as to the techniques of its manufacture and its unlikely properties were rife; rumors which the Clann encouraged. In effect it was impossibly strong and flexible, given that its weight was absolutely minimal. None save those of that elite unit knew that it was forged near the mines of Robahar in the Highlands of Khir, where on a clear day the coastline of Khanju was visible. Such days were rare. More usually low clouds infiltrated tall peaks to shroud the most nefarious of goings-on; ancient metalwork practices forbidden by all formal rules of engagement. But the Clann had never been particularly fond of rules, especially where engagement was concerned. Not for them the circumspect self-doubting of their more spiritual brethren.

The miniature hexagonal plates of which the mail was comprised had no pristine sheen to them, but instead were a dull dappled composition of bronze and metallic blue and an orange that had all the joy leached from it. The master-forgers had also imbued them with a convex profile so that they would flex, or at worst, collapse under the force of a particularly vicious blow; the short jerkins worn beneath, although expertly crafted from two layers of hide, were little more than housing for a layer of highly resilient tenacious padding, again of suspect origin, designed to further absorb such a blow.

The double links that bound each plate to its neighbor were a different proposition entirely.  They had about them the lustrous silver pink gleam of a precious metal and that same metal had also been used to fashion the gorget that protected each warrior about the throat. It was into the front of each of these neckpieces that the simple uncompromising symbol of the Clann had been molded: a mailed fist.

At the back of each gorget two curious metal tees protruded almost vertically, as though to provide extra support for the head, but it was over these that complementary channels slotted, these fixed within each man’s helmet.

The helmet was yet further testament to the refined skills of the artisans of Robahar. It was the helmet that was the defining element of the Clann and it was the helmet more than anything else that struck fear into the hearts of those who would tangle with this select band.

 

In the forests of the Highlands, those that sloped languidly down to the shores of the Outer Seas, roamed the ultimate predator, the pine-tiger. Man, in his conceit, liked to say that it had but one enemy. Such a claim was deluded. The revered beast was too wary and too astute by far to ever fall prey to the clumsy efforts of man to track and kill it, but this was not a fact that the Clann preached with vigor. It was the cat’s distinctive skull that formed the template for their infamous headgear and if people wished to believe that such a skull had been obtained the hard way, then so be it; so was their mystique yet further enhanced.

Who could possibly know how much obdurate willpower those beasts possessed, but irrespective of where and when the pall of death should fall upon them, they would invariably, relentlessly, return to the same site to die. It was this graveyard that the Clann would reluctantly pillage, albeit on rare occasion, for the prowess of that brotherhood dictated that replacements were seldom required.

A scant path, lonely and unheralded, wound up into the banks of clouds that loomed almost perpetually over Robahar; clouds whose bloated bellies were constantly fueled and discolored by the noxious fumes that simmered over those forges of ill repute. It rose further through blackened heather, treacherous obscured bogs and oily tarns, to emerge high on the northwestern corner of the Khir Highlands. From this vantage point, at least before the impending celestial intrusion, the Outer Seas would stretch away to the horizon, an infinite blanket of blue, and distant Khanju would beckon over a turquoise strait. Neither though would command the attention of those who would tread the path, for only the Clann passed that way and they did so with singular intent.

They would follow the path down the western slopes. It would be almost imperceptible now, descending into the tree line. As towering pines closed around, scouts would be dispatched to the south along a trail which merged with their own. A chance encounter with one of the great cats was unlikely to say the least, indeed such an encounter had never yet occurred, but it was along this second trail that a dying animal would make its approach.

All of the Clann would tell the same tale at this juncture. There was a great solemnity within those trees, and their gentle swaying and resinous odors had about them a timeless quality. To each warrior would be imparted a notion that he had passed that way before and lethargy would steal up and smite him; a desire to rest amongst those familiar boughs and indulge the notion. Always though it would be tantalizingly out of reach, like a half-forgotten song drifting across a placid lake from the farthest shore that is borne away by the wind, just as the memory is about to grasp it.

Then before them would be the archway, its three rough-hewn components requiring little embellishment, such were their proportions: a megalithic portal into another realm. Lichen-adorned steps led down into a shallow depression within which no trees grew. It was not a place to tarry. Bleached bones littered the hard-packed earth; the air thrummed with energy to the exclusion of all external noise. From within its confines the surrounding forests and the mountains beyond appeared warped and bloated. This was one of the fabled places of power, unique in Khir save for a single other. They were present not at all in Khâl, or so it was rumored,  and yet were cast with liberal abandon throughout Khanju, if one but knew where to look.

Usually it was a single skull that would be removed, two at the most, and then the warriors of the Clann would retreat from that forbidding circle.

If still in place, the lower jaw was removed. The two short tusks that protruded from the upper jaw were left in place; they provided little in the way of protection but were not a comforting sight to behold. The skull itself was then used as a template about which a metallic paste was applied, to be followed by a single piece casting of the same dull metal that formed the chain mail. Nondescript as mail it might have been, but on this larger scale tableau the effect was startling, with swathes of orange and blue embedded in a patina of bronze. The skull was left inside and the composite bone and metal headgear provided a redoubtable piece of armor.

 

And so, with helmet and chain mail arrayed at his feet, each warrior now labored within the perimeter of the old fort, honing his beloved weapons yet again and fashioning arrows from the abundant wolf-willow and birch of the area.

Most of the collective effort however was expended in felling selected polepines. From these sturdy trees the Clann set about producing rudimentary javelins which could be used for stabbing as well as throwing. They also began to fashion another type of spear, half as long again and altogether more menacing. These were stouter and fewer in number but were worked upon in a much more assiduous manner.

Whilst these preparations were underway two figures, replete with helmets and mail, were making their way stealthily down the boulder-strewn little gulley that bisected this narrow portion of Kananaaltra. One was the unmistakable form of Krul, the other was Saudir ben Ishmal who, unlike Bargor, was habitually referred to by his Clann name of “Hakkulbak”, which was the old tongue word for a porcupine. The profusion of arrows that invariably accompanied him went a long way toward explaining this, although now he bore only two quivers, attached at his back by a wide leather belt hung crosswise from shoulder to waist. The arrows contained in the quivers were long and deadly and black. Attached at the front of the belt were three throwing knives and in his right hand he gripped an elegant laminated bow; the bow, double-curved, was almost as tall as the man.

The shallow ravine that the stream had cut across the plateau was one of the few areas of cover available in that vast featureless lawn and as they neared its end they lay down on either side of the bubbling meltwater to crawl warily towards the brink. Removing their helmets they peered out over the edge.

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