PROLOGUE

Ӂ

I came to this place,
But I know not how.
What is this edge of the world and whither does it lie?
 Edge? I think not.
Are we carried over its rigid limit into the firmament beyond?
No! Instead it clutches at our very bowels and would drag us down,
Constrained by an elemental swirl,
Into liquid oblivion.

(more…)

CHAPTER ONE: ANCIENT DAYS

The ornate craft approached even as they descended the winding stairway. Its color was difficult to discern in the flickering light, its tiny form less so. A high sinuous prow scythed through the placid waters of the lake before coming to an abrupt halt, allowing the flat stern to ascribe a lazy arc around it and nestle with perfect precision against the bottom stair.

The lake was not wide, even if it did occupy the entire cavern floor, but it was with some trepidation that the four men now boarded the ferry and began the final stage of their journey. Under less trying circumstances any one of them might have idly glanced around at the slowly receding stairway, or stared up with mild curiosity towards the domed roof, exposed only fitfully by random bursts of light from the depths below. But not so here. All eyes were nervously drawn to the grim structure at the center of the lake, focusing on the shimmering patina of enchantment that played upon its stark cylindrical walls and encircled its capstone far above. Here lay the source of their anxiety. Anxiety bordering on fear.

The craft soon began to slow and as it did so, the most imposing of the four men arose: this was the Ultima, their leader and head of their order. With great deliberation he raised his right arm and held it aloft, partly to steady himself in the shallow hull, but more in acknowledgement of a metallic disc that had appeared before them and towards which they were headed. It was embedded into the curved wall of the structure, and upon its surface was the imprint of a hand. As the distance closed, a symbol appeared upon the palm of the imprint and it was as though its lines were scored with liquid gold. The symbol was not constant and as it changed, so did its lines flow into one another until, it seemed, a continuous transformation was underway.

The Ultima’s hand was almost within touching distance of the disc before the fluctuations came to an end. The symbol now apparent shone forth with unwavering intensity. Within the light that emanated from it, a similar symbol could be discerned upon the Ultima’s palm, a mirror image in fact, etched into the skin. The clear pigment daubed upon its outline, that normally concealed it from prying eyes, shone clear and white in the glow of its twin.

An elemental grinding could be heard as stone gears engaged. There was a stirring of dust and then joints appeared, where before there had been none. The section of the wall before the Ultima, and the disc upon it, receded into shadow, revealing a narrow stone passage in their wake. He stood impassively as the air about him was sucked into the opening and his cloak struggled for release. But even as that air settled and his cloak ceased to flap, an odious stench began to permeate down from the concealed innards of the structure.

As befitted his position as leader of the Hierarch, the ancient priesthood to which this select group belonged, the Ultima’s face was concealed by a mask. Its wafer-thin metal was of strange and delicate design, but not so delicate that any expression could sully its gaunt features. As he stepped into the passageway those features were suddenly illuminated by a cold unnatural light that permeated the very stone about him. His three companions followed closely behind, stooped and fearful.

Abruptly, the passage turned and they found themselves ascending a steep and winding stair. Their footfalls left no sound as they were absorbed into the dense stonework all around and each man now knew that the sparse texts relating to this shunned place had not lied. Here was a place built to last. A keep of metal and solid stone, into which burrowed a single stair leading to a single chamber.

They had been forewarned, but the stairway was unimpressed. Almost imperceptibly its sinuous ascent began to loosen their grip on reality; it was difficult to believe that such endless spiral musings could be contained within a structure of finite height. But on and on they pressed with commendable resolve, even as it was leeched from them with every arduous step. It was only when utter exhaustion threatened that respite finally beckoned.

They did not pause as they entered the chamber. They did however take the time to light the makeshift brands they had brought with them, for darkness had descended upon them, snuffing out the gelid light that had led them there. The resinous flames did little more than provide a wavering cocoon around them but nevertheless served to highlight the object that had lured them to such a desolate outpost. There, at their midst, upon an unremarkable stone dais, lay an ornate sarcophagus.

The Ultima took up a position at the foot of the sarcophagus, whilst two of his red-cloaked acolytes shuffled warily to its sides. The third came to stand at its head and it was this third man that spoke now, even as he placed a thick black candle before him, on the dais.

‘Are we truly intent on awakening this creature then, Ultima?’

‘Côh-Hrista, we have not undertaken such a journey to fail now, at the last. Within this sealed casket lies the architect of our order, the final one to whom all knowledge was passed. It is because of his birthright and vile knowledge gleaned from his depraved wanderings that he lies here still, and does not grace Pandemon’s dark shores.’

‘Can those shores be less welcoming than this dread tower?’ came the faltering reply.

‘I trust that we shall not find out this day.’ The Ultima’s voice reverberated around the still chamber, its echoes seeming to mock his assertion. ‘Now come, all of you, let us be about our task. Drak Vorsa, the candle if you would! Yours too, Zal Tzeno.’

Four black candles burned with feverish intensity as the Ultima produced a faded leather book from the folds of his cloak and began to recite words long unspoken from its pages. For a while it seemed as though those words were uttered in vain but then gradually a twisted skein of smoke began to envelop the casket. Within that smoke the casket walls appeared to dissolve and the outline of a figure slowly emerged. The figure was in a state of repose and was featureless, for about it had been wrapped a continuous strip of metal leaf and upon that strip had been engraved glyphs of curious form.

And now the Ultima took something else from his cloak, this time with an attitude that was almost reverential. It shimmered and shifted in his palm, its protean form insubstantial at best, but as he placed it within the vortex of swirling smoke and incantations so did it begin to assume greater definition.

The four who watched knew, if they hadn’t already known, that here was a thing unutterably alien. As it hovered there its unstable form did not just assume solidity, but went beyond, to such an extent that all about it soon became vague and uncertain. Its writhing malevolence glinted in their startled eyes as it sought after their souls and surely would it have gorged itself but for the calm intervention of the Ultima.

The words that emerged from his mouth were not uttered with any degree of urgency, nor were they imbued with desperate invective. They were words from an arcane language, a language of baffling complexity given its age, but though they were spoken calmly and with assurance, they were nevertheless despicable words of tainted power.

‘I command thee amulet to seek out the first sigil and return the soul that is imprisoned within thy bounds to its rightful owner! Let him return and reclaim his rightful place amongst us. Let thy guardianship be at an end. I invoke this command solely by the language that I speak, knowing that its words bind thee.’

For a moment nothing happened, but then the object of his attentions began to rotate and as it did so the final traces of smoke were swept away until there, before the four men, couched in the utmost clarity, was indeed an amulet. The crystalline sheen of its many facets made it difficult to identify a definite color but that was not uppermost in the numbed minds of those that watched. All of them, even the Ultima, were unnerved by its independent motion, its apparent sentience; allied to this were the distinctly perceptible palpitations that accompanied that motion, hinting that here they were observing the ruminations of something organic and not merely witnessing the preordained progression of a lifeless stone.

The pulsing amulet appeared to hover for an age and yet it was surely no more than a few heartbeats before it settled upon the metal leaf. Immediately it began to dim as its energy was dissipated into the strip and, one after another, those curious glyphs upon the strip were illuminated in rapid succession, until a fiery envelope blazed around the figure that lay there.

And then the fire went out.

 

All four men took an involuntary step back as the shrouded figure tensed. The metal that had bound it clung to it yet, but was little more than crumpled foil. Beneath, the flesh was shriveled, barely intact, but seemed to flourish with each passing moment. By the time its back arched and it arose to look about, even the pallid hue of the skin had disappeared.

With infinite patience, it took in each priest in turn, even Côh-Hrista who stood trembling behind. And yet its eyes never opened. Then, with unnatural swiftness, it snatched at the amulet and held it aloft. There was an excruciating parched inhalation before a voice emerged. It was sickeningly sweet and oozed forth like nectar from an overripe fruit, but at least the language that emerged was their own, barring a few archaic intonations.

‘How long has it been, acolyte? Even as I was betrayed, so did I know that this day would come.’ And now the eyes were open, staring with cold contempt at the Ultima.

To his credit the Ultima did not flinch, but stared back with equal resolve. His voice, to the alarm of his companions, conveyed not reverence, but loathing.

‘Kastorcellex, here you have lain, undisturbed, for almost five centuries. It was because of you that our order was created, the order of the Hierarch, to ensure that none such as yourself should ever again rise to power. I am no acolyte, I am Shaman Ultima, leader of that order, and I say to you now, Betrayer of Souls, Master of Chaos – whatever epithet you might care to assume, this is not the day for which you have yearned! That dark day lies yet far into the future when the enchantments that bind you here have run their course. Would that they could have been eternal but it seems that the universe gives even the most evil of its progeny a second chance.’

‘Hah! What do I care of the universe and its desires?’ Again that lilting sweetness. ‘Let us be forthright, priest. It is simply that the Hierarch does not have the power to shackle me until the end of days. Even as we speak I sense decay gnawing at the feeble bonds that hold me. Now, out with it! What is it that you require of me?’

‘Those “feeble” bonds will hold you for many a year to come. Millennia will have passed before your tread once again sullies our lands and by then it is my distinct hope that those who follow in my path will have found a way to counter the evil that succors you, that shields you.’

‘And yet here you are.’ The one known as Kastorcellex did not embellish the statement. He merely tried to smile. The resultant rictus that spread across his shriveled face was terrible to behold.

‘Yes, here I am. And I have a proposition for you.’

The rictus widened, but no reply was forthcoming. The Ultima continued.

‘I suspect that you always knew of the Mnemnar and the fate that befell them. Indeed, perhaps you calculate even now. Has the comet passed?’

‘Do not presume to play games with me, priest!’ All pretense of civility had passed. The words emerged as a prolonged hiss. ‘The very fact that you should mention it betrays the answer. How is it that you survived? That is the real question.’

‘It is a long game that you play, corpse. You submitted to your shackles far too readily. Did you perchance hope that those who usurped the Mnemnar would account for us in similar fashion? Did you perchance hope that when your bonds had finally decayed you might emerge reborn into a world that had forgotten your legacy? A long game, I say again corpse, and a dangerous one, like my own, for I am here to deal you an advantage. My aim is to perpetuate the seed of our forefathers so that it might flourish and see off this abomination that threatens . . .’

A shrill laugh interrupted the Ultima. It reverberated around the chamber and would surely have undermined the very sanity of lesser men. ‘I think not, for it is the “Eidola” of which you speak. An ancient evil whose appetites and depravities can only be appreciated by one such as myself. Unfortunate, is it not, that they should find their way here? Of course, they will prevail. Do not, for a single moment, think that it could be otherwise.’

‘Yet this time they did not. Ponder on that, corpse. Something was unearthed at the last. A book. More than that I will not say. The timing of its appearance and the sorcery that guarded it were designed to thwart even the most skilled of occult practitioners – dare I say, practitioners such as yourself. The Eidola were mentioned within its pages, together with their patience, which would seem to be infinite. They seek out something and our destruction is a mere by-product. They will try again during the comet’s next cycle, for that is when our protection is nullified and we are at our weakest. It is of that time that I would speak to you now.’

‘Yes, yes.’ The hissing had returned, but was still languid, untroubled. ‘And what would you have me do, minion? A warning perhaps, for those yet to come?’

For the first time the Ultima faltered, if only for an instant. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I see that you are quick to grasp the situation.’

‘My intellect far exceeds your own, priest, and that of any of your craven followers. Do not forget this fact. You would leave a warning, but a warning that must survive a span of four thousand years. But how to accomplish such a task?’ The rictus slowly spread once more across the parchment features. ‘Why of course! Where else, but within the bounds of the Iron Chamber. I begin to enjoy this game.’

‘I am in awe of your deductions, corpse.’

‘Sarcasm will avail you naught, priest. Nor will it conceal your intentions, which now lie naked before me. You would set a warning within the Chamber, but alas, you know not how. For that you require one who yet knows the ways of the Duidarra. One to whom all knowledge was handed down. One such as myself.’

The Ultima’s reply was couched in cold fury. ‘“One” indeed would be the salient word, corpse, given that you butchered all others who were entrusted with such knowledge.’

‘Yes, yes, and for such a minor infraction I lie here now.’ Kastorcellex would surely have raised a crumbling hand to stifle a yawn had he been able, but the rictus had assumed control for the moment. ‘Let us not linger in the past, priest, for it is the future you seek to secure. You need knowledge that I alone possess, but what is it that you offer in return? Let me see – I do not know the nature of this benefactor, this book merchant, yet I see that his writings have prolonged your fate. But for how long? Will your wretched descendants see out the next cycle should they be warned? An interesting question. Let us answer that question in the affirmative. What then, in the light of such an outcome, would you be able to put before me?’

‘Who is to know what might happen over a span of four thousand years, corpse? Perhaps one might arise who can banish forever from our realm this dread amulet in which your soul resides. Perhaps another might arise, who, like yourself, may take the view that privileged information is not to be shared? Who is to know with any certainty?’

‘So it is anonymity that you would offer me, priest. Do I surmise correctly? Are you in a position to make such an offer?

‘I can see to it that this place is shunned. It is hardly accessible even now, but I will have all references to it removed from our texts and from our maps. The fort beneath which you lie is too big to conceal, but I can place a glamor about its inner walls, wherein the entrance to this drear place lies. All above will fall into disrepair and the land about it will decay, although, of course, the mechanisms that hold you here will continue to function.’

‘Not enough, priest,’ came the rasping reply, ‘but then you already know that, do you not?’

‘My word then would not be deemed sufficient?’

Kastorcellex did not deign to reply and the silence that prevailed seemed more suited to that mournful chamber than any animated interplay of words. Outwardly, the Ultima appeared at peace with the world, but the very quietude that reigned suggested otherwise and when he finally spoke the words emerged reluctantly. They were strained, flat and rehearsed, for he had known this moment would come. They were also accompanied by gasps of dismay from his three colleagues, although they knew better than to intervene.

‘If I was to place this amulet within your care, would that then allay your suspicions? As you are undoubtedly aware, with the passing of each Ultima this wretched stone is passed on to the next for safe keeping. With it passes not only the tale of your demise but also the danger that yet lingers within these subterranean shores. Should that tradition come to an end so too will your infamy trail off into obscurity’

Still Kastorcellex said nothing.

‘You know too well, corpse, of the sacrifice that I do make. With this amulet you may access other realms, although mercifully, your physical manifestation will remain dormant. Within this realm too you may stray, but not far, for the binding forces that hold you will call you back. Upon that fateful day they fade, so hopefully may our descendants, should they have survived, be better suited to cope with your evil machinations.’

And still Kastorcellex said nothing. The flame of each black candle guttered, and was gone. Silence insinuated itself once more, its only companion the strained breathing of four men. Even the brands they bore burned with quiet solemnity and it was only when they too began to exhibit flickering signs of distress that the corpse’s head tilted ever so slightly to one side.

‘Come hither, priest. Let me tell you of the Iron Chamber.’

CHAPTER TWO: POISON

Frithya’s pale eyes were moist as she stood at the tip of the long wooden jetty that snaked out into the estuary. Earlier in the day the sky had been a vivid blue but now the Wetlands were shrouded in their habitual drizzle and with it a numbing melancholia had settled upon her. She rarely questioned such debilitating bouts any more, preferring just to let them run their course, but her companions had long since abandoned her there, knowing better than to intrude upon her musings at such times. So it was that she stood on the creaking timbers, like a lone sapling leaning into the heightening wind. Her ashen hair, cropped close on one side, hung considerably longer on the other; it now whipped across her face with spiteful abandon, but was met, at best, with indifference. Her attention was elsewhere.

The ornate barge plowed a solitary furrow across the estuary, with scarce a ripple to mark its passing. Its oars were shipped just as its single sail was being raised. Upon that sail the image of a majestic tree sprang into being, its raking branches imbued with billowing life upon the straining canvas.The symbolic splayed leaves with their distinctive red veins marked it as a blood oak from the forest of Dirrid Arborra. Frithya knew this. She knew that the blood oak grew nowhere else. She knew that even in Dirrid Arborra it was rare. She knew it was sacred. And she knew all this because the bole of one such tree had just been deposited upon her home shore by the receding barge.

Relieved of their cargo, the twin hulls of the barge rode high in the water. As Frithya watched they were turning in a graceful arc to port, a course that would deliver them swiftly from the endless blanket of reeds and into the expansive mouth of the Sunga delta. Then it would be northwards, and home.

Frithya’s eyes widened for just an instant. The sail suddenly hung limp from the mast. Her hair lay undisturbed upon her shoulder. All about her was still. But then a knowing smile played across her lips. Rarely was anything straightforward in the Wetlands. She was aware, almost without looking, what it all meant. A casual glance confirmed her suspicions. Distant as yet, but relentless in its approach. The other habitual visitor to the Wetlands. Mist.

Such was the price to pay for languishing at the end of the strait. Often did it amplify the effects of the squalls that raged unchecked across the Outer Seas. And their aftermath. But sometimes, as on this day, tranquility was drawn down its temperamental length and deposited upon the vast reed fields in the guise of a cloying gray blanket.

So now, as the mist rolled irrevocably over the retreating barge, Frithya turned, knowing it was time to make her way back. The curving profile of the jetty lay before her, its worn planks almost confrontational, uneven timbers turning ever more treacherous in the descending gloom. Undeterred, she stepped out as she always did, her dancing feet making a mockery of her slick adversary. She sang to herself as she went, determined to enliven her mood and dispel the despondency threatening to engulf her. I will not allow this gloom to have its way, if only for Rhythred’s sake. First, it will be the Forging. The clans of the Rhymrron will gather from the Wetlands and beyond. And then, we are to be wed. At long last. He is my soulmate and I would be bound to no other.

She laughed. Her mood was indeed lifting as she made her way back. One by one, lanterns were being lit in the workshops around the kilns and their warm glow drew her on. The kilns too beckoned to her. Unusually, the outer five had all been lit. Only the central sixth, the ceremonial kiln, remained dark, its isolation accentuated by the diffuse ring of light thrown up by its encircling companions. She laughed again, thinking once more of Rhythred. They had been brought together at an early age and the Elders had insisted that they marry. The usual story. It was incumbent upon them to unite their respective clans.

And of course, as was her way, she had defied them.

To the left she could make out the lagoon now, beyond the spit of land that separated it from the estuary. She could even see the ethereal temple at its center and the skeletal bamboo quays extending out towards it from the reed infested perimeter. It was upon the narrow spit that the kilns sat, off to her right, concealing the lagoon from all but the most determined of gazes. Before them the open water extended into the advancing mist, punctuated only by a ragged string of sandy islets. Their own reed boats made light of such an approach, but it had proved to be a tortuous passage indeed for a wide barge bearing a heavy cargo.

As the shoreline drew nearer the reeds became taller, obscuring the lagoon and the temple from her view. A figure peered intently at her from their midst. She couldn’t make out its features for it was shrouded in a curious garment: a voluminous hooded cloak, or so she thought. The garment had assumed the shifting shades of the pervading gloom, but she knew its color. It was the color of her eyes.

Strangely, none of this registered with her directly. Not in the moment. It would only be later when it came back to haunt her. For now it was Rhythred’s sullen face that dominated the conscious part of her mind. She was reliving the day she had informed him that marriage was not for her. At least not there and then – there was too much of the world to see. Did I really say that? And that was when she had been drawn to him, as an understanding smile had spread across that sullen face.

The same smile was waiting for her as she finally stepped off the jetty. ‘Indulge yourself, maid, why don’t you? Linger whilst you may in those gentle daydreams before the harsh realities of married life confront you.’ Rhythred held out his hand to steady her.

‘I think it is obvious to whom the daydreams belong,’ she answered, pushing his hand away. ‘I am no maid, as we both know. And is that haircut really supposed to impress me?’

Rhythred drew his hands self-consciously back over the sides of his head, where stubble was all that remained. Unfortunately, this allowed Frithya to slap him, none too gently, over the central braided portion. ‘Is this meant to strike terror into the hearts of your enemies? And do you really think my father is going to hand me over to a complete stranger? Worse, a complete stranger with a terrible haircut?’

‘Ah, but your father has already seen it and by marrying you, my enemies will be no more. That is the point of this wedding, is it not?’

Rhythred quickly bit on his tongue, but it was too late. Already she had skewered him with her otherworldly gaze and had brought to bear the supercilious smile she invariably reserved for occasions such as this. ‘It is not true love that motivates you then, husband to be? You would wed me solely to appease a sordid collection of old men? You would accept my hand solely to honor some trivial alliance between tribes?’

But then the smile was there again and she had relented. She took his arm and they strolled across the shingle to the place where the great tree lay and mingled there with the others who had gathered before it. It was early evening and the incoming mist had leeched all the warmth from the day, but it was of no concern to those who wandered there.

The people of the Wetlands were inveterate traders and bronze was their specialty. It was the pure direct heat of charcoal that sustained their forges and consequently their hearths and their stoves. And it was here that the charcoal was produced, in five great kilns that hugged the shoreline; a perfect stone pentagram protruding from a carpet of driftwood and pebbles, rising like an indulgent whim conjured forth at the behest of some wayward practitioner of the dark arts. In preparation for the days ahead all five were currently ablaze and the foremost two kept the chill at bay on that exposed little crescent on the edge of the lagoon.

There was also however the sixth kiln.

Frithya stood before it now running her hand down the leftmost of two ornate copper doors and the ancient text embossed upon its surface. Almost without thinking she began to recite the lines. Reflected flames and shadows intermingled and their swirling forms played across the words making them almost impossible to decipher. But so many times had she read them, she knew them by heart:

On frozen shore does it shiver in alien light,

Slick and cold,

Ensnared twixt fingers of a fervent hand.

About it towering walls do shimmer whilst shattered ice does groan.

 

On high does it linger in blind repose,

Sere and parched,

Caught in the glare of a desert sun.

About it rabid winds do blow whilst chequered plazas crumble.

 

Down below does it skulk in bloated shadow,

Damp and tarnished,

Trapped in the bowels of a lizard’s lair.

About it twisted branches do writhe whilst poisoned waters gather.

 

From here to beyond does it cleave a silent furrow,

Insubstantial and unfettered,

Though all would clamp it in their craven hold.

About it writhing energies do glisten whilst incipient boundaries fall.

Ӂ

For naught can quell its restless soul.

 

‘And now, are you any the wiser for having read that for the thousandth time?’ asked Rhythred, putting a comforting arm around her.

‘No,’ answered Frithya, ‘yet more intrigued than ever.’ Her eyes strayed over to the other door but he had anticipated her:

Come hither, for now is the time.

One hundred passes has Iambos made

And strange electrum must once again be forged,

From gold and silver, copper and tin.

But here it is recorded, lest we forget,

So too must a fifth be added.

Under favorable aspect of sun and moon should it be merged,

That white metal, that metal of demons, that metal unnamed.

 

‘Impressed?’ Rhythred’s eyebrows arched innocently, even though he knew the reply would be scathing.

‘Beloved, am I impressed that you can read? Possibly, in this awkward light. But there again, the lettering is fairly large, so my answer would be no, I am not impressed in the slightest. Now, had you been able to decipher the left side door, then I would indeed have been impressed.’

‘But it is centuries since anyone last uttered that language. Why would I devote years of my life to become familiar with its intricacies?’

Frithya chose not to respond to Rhythred’s gentle baiting. Instead, she guided him back towards the beach to stand before the great tree.

The roots had not been entirely removed, their remnants protruding like gnarled arteries, unceremoniously severed. The branches though had gone entirely, so that shadows danced with uninterrupted glee along the smooth bole. Frithya tentatively ran her hand over the bark. It was cold to the touch. It felt, and looked, more like stone than wood. I wonder what sights you have witnessed in your long life, she mused. Would you have chosen to end life like this, in a far-off place? I wonder, is it an end or is it a beginning? Is your energy reborn during the Forging?

Even as she thought it, something pulsed through her. For just an instant she couldn’t remove her hand from the tree. She couldn’t even cry out. She couldn’t even see.

And then it was over. A gentle energy suffused her. As she turned to Rhythred, the memory of it was already fading.

 

The day of the Forging had been one of those strange days: it was as if the weather had been preordained; as if the constant rain and mist had been summarily banished to be supplanted by crystal blue skies and a fiercely bright sun. And now, as it drew to a close, as the sun’s glare began to wane, suddenly was pale Iambos visible in the darkening eastern sky. In response, out of the ragged reed fields at the perimeter of the lagoon, a myriad of tiny candle-bearing rafts emerged, floating serenely upon its mirrored surface. Simultaneously, from the heart of the lagoon, a processional convoy of altogether larger vessels set forth.

Frithya tracked the convoy’s progress with an ambivalence that surprised her. So here we find ourselves once more! The people watch from afar whilst the privileged few go about their business. And it will only worsen as night falls. Heresy! She kept these words even from Rhythred, who stood at her side. They were closer than most but still a considerable distance from the convoy’s destination. Her eyes flickered there now, settling upon the central kiln, and again the ire began to build within her. She had been there when the smoke had changed from gray to blue. She had been there when the metal roof had been lowered and sealed, and the upper doors closed. And she had been there for the final act: the lower inner doors had already been closed for many hours but the coming together of the great copper doors and their enigmatic scripts was something she would not have missed.

That had been five days ago. But I am not there now! The thought scraped across her sensibilities like a rusty knife. Oh no, that would be just too much to ask. Everything must be shrouded in secrecy and impenetrable ceremony, witnessed only by damnable priests and their acolytes. She sensed Rhythred turning to her and realized she was gripping his hand tightly. Too tightly. She forced herself to relax and become a mere spectator.

The last of the ceremonial reed boats docked against the stone jetty that led to the kiln area. “Under favorable aspect of sun and moon…” Frithya thought to herself. They had better get a move on. But it was with unhurried precision that the white-robed priests disembarked, formed into a neat file, and made their way to the forge.

Frithya knew that they had with them the disc. She knew that for the first time in a hundred cycles it had been removed from the temple and was drawing ever nearer to its ignominious fate. Or should that be glorious rebirth? Succumb to the teachings, Frithya! Oh, but I am in rebellious mood today.

After what seemed to be an eternity, the procession reached the forge. It was the only high building in the entire community and the crude iron tower at its center was just visible against the early evening sky. The priests disappeared inside, accompanied now by much chanting, which carried across the lagoon in haunting fashion. Frithya could see sparks emanating from the top of the tower and knew that the charcoal had been fired. Even now it would be sucking oxygen from the demon ore, reducing it to but a few grams of ultra-precious molten metal that would be transferred with infinite care to the waiting crucible. Within that crucible it would merge with the molten constituents of the disc. Even as the amalgam cooled it would become the focal point of another procession, this time transporting it to the mold. The mold. Ah, yes. Frithya seethed again. Where was the mold? Oh, that’s right! Only the priests know. Yet another piece of privileged information to be concealed from the common people.

It was dark as the line of torches made its way from the forge to the kilns. It appeared to stop at the very center of that strange collection of structures, before the ceremonial kiln itself. And then the torches were extinguished.

 

Early next morning saw Frithya in the Finishing Hall. She liked it there. There was an intense arcane energy to the place. Crumpled parchments and obscure books mingled effortlessly with copper pots and pans, measuring jugs, glass bowls, metal bowls, wood bowls, wire strainers, sacks of salt, baking soda and assorted minerals, not to mention the vinegars and the endless shelves of assorted bottles that contained them. But it was through the use of these mundane items that perfection was sought, for in this hall only the finest of bronze artifacts resided: diaphanous jewelry, masks beaten so fine as to mimic almost any expression, and decorative armor to grace even the grandest of courts. This and more. It was here that the most delicate of patinas were applied to those artifacts, that would further set them apart and imbue them with values far in excess of the basic raw materials that had gone into their making; values  that few could afford.

In days long since gone most of the Wetlands’ copper had originated in Zora Rak, but as a curtain of uncertainty and decay had fallen over much of Khanju so had the tiny nation turned to the far south and Tarrak Kanga for most of its ore. And along with the ore so had come a steady transfer of knowledge, most particularly in the arts of refinement, and Frithya watched now as one of the main exponents of those arts, Master Yiu, went about his work.

Like his patinas, almost everything about Master Yiu was delicate, and not just because of his advancing years. His demeanor was delicate, his features were delicate and his limbs were delicate. Even the make-up on his pinched face was applied with the utmost delicacy although Frithya suspected such restraint was more an attempt to integrate himself into his immediate environment without altogether abandoning the traditions of his homeland.

Yiu’s hands however were a different matter entirely. Delicate they were most definitely not. Callouses, burns, cuts and bruises abounded on their gnarled terrain, yet their dexterous movements always held Frithya in thrall. Even now she held her breath as those same hands made a series of minor adjustments to a particularly exquisite necklace suspended via copper wires in a simmering brew of Yiu’s own making. She had watched him prepare this concoction over a period of several weeks and was delighted that he had taken her into his confidence. Many of the finishing techniques that she was now privy to were specialized knowledge, their constituents and procedures closely guarded secrets.

Frithya’s thoughts and those of Master Yiu were suddenly interrupted by a tremendous crash out in the courtyard. For one so old, Yiu moved with surprising grace and speed but he was still well behind Frithya as she pushed through the arched door that led to the outer courtyard. Almost immediately a sense of foreboding consumed her but she forced it aside to confront the moment. Yiu’s eldest grandchild, Syn-La, lay writhing on the ground, clutching at her stomach. Behind her, rusting copper sheets lay in disarray. It had been one of Syn-La’s tasks to accelerate their demise; the green verdigris would eventually be scraped off and mixed into many of Yiu’s brews. The bowl containing the fermented grape skins that she used for the task lay at her feet, its contents slowly seeping over the cobbles.

Frithya cradled Syn-La in her arms, stroking her long dark hair. The girl was in agony and fear was at play in her widening eyes. What is happening here? Has she risked a drink from the bowl? Frithya dismissed the thought the instant it entered her head. Certainly she was the wildest of Yiu’s three grandchildren, but she would never have done anything so stupid.

From the corner of her eye she saw that Yiu was scooping water into a cup from the rainwater barrel in the corner of the yard, but even as she assimilated this information Syn-La began to choke. And then she stiffened. No, this cannot be happening. Please, do not let this happen. If there really are any gods looking down upon this damnable world of ours, I beg of you, do not let this happen. But Frithya knew that it had indeed happened. Syn-La was dead. Almost as if he knew, Yiu cried out, his arms stretching out imploringly towards his grandchild. But then he stumbled, and fell. And lay writhing.

Frithya gently lowered Syn-La to the cobbles, but she did not go to Yiu’s aid. She no longer confronted the moment. She knew he was doomed.

 

Chaos confronted her as she abandoned the quiet confines of the Finishing Hall. How long had she stayed at Syn-La’s side? She had no idea, but some stray mote of sanity in her confused mind told her that it must now be late morning. There again, why was the time of any consequence whatsoever? There were people everywhere. Dead people. She had thoughts only of Rhythred. Then the cramps started.

No-one ran to help her as she fell, but she saw a figure turn and stride deliberately towards her. It was shrouded in a voluminous hooded cloak of shimmering purple. The color of her eyes.

She could only have passed out for a few seconds for when she awoke the figure was kneeling over her. A hand went down to her midriff and such was the pain at that moment she thought she must have been eviscerated. But then the pain was gone, alas only to be replaced by an alarming numbness which now began to spread throughout her body.

The face that looked down at her was benign. It was ageless. And it was decadent. Incomparably, irredeemably decadent. A voice came to her, yet the lips were still. ‘The poisoned waters shall not claim thee just yet, my lady. Deep within their embrace thou shall lie, but immune from their seeping barbs. Only when the Hellion is upon us and the world shudders, only when Iambos has ten more times run her course, only then shall thy fate be apparent.’

 

 

CHAPTER 3: THE PYRAMID AND THE PALACE

Already fine red particles were beginning to drift down through the upper atmosphere. Down they fell, with ever increasing intensity, until even the ubiquitous ocean strained to mask their insidious presence. The multitude of small islands scattered haphazardly throughout its watery embrace had already succumbed.

Only a lonely pyramid of land remained defiant amongst that limitless oceanic expanse. A fractured continent with power at its hub; power that had been nurtured for just such an eventuality as this.

 

Isladoron. Born a single mass only to be rent asunder by ancient cataclysms, its core vulnerable in those formative days and unable to prevent the ocean from pouring in along three great ruptures. Three arteries leading to a flooded heart; three straits feeding an inner sea. Where they began, at the encircling ocean, they were flanked by shifting sands that burrowed beneath the incoming waves. Where they ended, at the encircled sea, they were flanked by perpendicular cliffs that supported the very sky.

Such is the divisive nature of all sentient beings across the cosmos that three islands were thus formed, rather than a single shattered tract. Khanju was deemed to lie to the north, Isla Khâl to the southeast and Isla Khir to the southwest. But strangely, there was a fourth isle too.

At the confluence of the three straits, embedded within the great caldera that resided there, was a towering pinnacle of rock. And upon this rock, this fourth isle, indeed around it and within it, was Djebal Doron.

Djebal Doron, mystical and ensorcelled “City of the Stone” whose power held sway over the entire continent, nurturing it or subjugating it, depending upon the perspective sought. Glittering proof that the lessons of history were soon forgotten, their legacy curtailed by the pressing desires and future expectations of a grasping populace. For few in that city recalled the ultimate purpose of the enigmatic artifact in their midst, the source of the power that even now sheltered them from the clogging residue of an interstellar intruder; fewer still recalled the malignant forces residing in the deeps that encircled their continent, forces that would see it destroyed and absorbed back into their cold black domain.

 

*

 

Dusk was now falling about Djebal Doron and with it came a dense mist, rising from the placid sea like steam from a simmering cauldron, enveloping the web of harbor wharves, submerging the quayside taverns and warehouses, slithering up the steeply sloping cobbled streets and into the Merchant’s Circle. There it mingled with tree guarded avenues, ever more acute, curled around flower adorned archways and sent tendrils snaking hesitantly through the multitude of minarets that sprang from manicured lawns and marbled plazas like ornamental candles. Soon these too were doused as the shroud billowed upward.

Only at the citadel did it halt, dismayed perchance at the prospect of scaling vertical walls of solid granite and confronting the splendor therein. It rose instead in labored fashion to a barrier of bulbous amber lanterns that circled the citadel’s perimeter. From afar the lanterns were radiant with the allure of exotic delights, an allure that totally belied the nature of their immediate supports: the tapering iron jaws of mythical beasts, elongated heads cantilevering out from the stonework like an array of grim trophies. The mist was content to swirl wistfully in this ambient orange glow, far below the overhanging parapets.

Here then was the palace and above it, the temple. From a distance they appeared to be as one; as though hewn and sculptured to form a single impregnable monolith. But a closer inspection would reveal two markedly different structures.

A gaunt pyramid represented the temple, one wall facing north toward Khanju, another eastward toward Isla Khâl, a third westward toward Isla Khir and the fourth southward, over the Inner Sea toward the Great Strait. All the walls possessed a glazed sheen to them, intensifying almost imperceptibly into an eerie white radiance as darkness descended.  There was little in the way of welcome from this illumination and indeed none of the walls betrayed any sign of a portal.

Of the palace only the top floor was visible, yet how it mesmerized the eye. Subtle blends of polished stone and shadow intermingled, highlighting engravings and statues that portrayed denizens of a foregone era, their bejeweled eyes staring forth, intrigued by all about them, their gazes constantly shifting in flickering torchlight. Walls, now curving, now straight; vaulted ceilings scarcely visible tapering down to passages and halls of claustrophobic intensity; alleyways meandering aimlessly and ending abruptly; colonnades with no beams to uphold. Yet if the roving eye paused not for detail but instead pulled back and viewed with casual focus, a continuity became manifest that molded the apparent disarray into a preconceived elegance. Below it was also thus. A maze of halls and passageways wended their way down, deep into the core of the pinnacle …

 

It was in one such subterranean hall that Typhon X, lord and master of an entire continent, sat brooding. Only one passageway led down to this hall and only one man other than Typhon was aware of its existence. That man currently approached, his breathing measured and shallow, despite the stale air that permeated these depths.

The hall was not large, nevertheless its corners were swathed in darkness, for the only light was provided by a pile of logs crackling venomously in the stone fireplace. Shadows danced gleefully on the low ceiling and on the rich green velvet drapes that hung down over walls of bare rock. They did not reflect Typhon’s mood however. His brow was furrowed and sweat glistened there. Glazed eyes stared intently ahead. He had been drinking. Wine still trickled slowly down his moustache and into his beard, thence following a well defined path down onto his tunic, staining the fabric a deep red. Gnarled hands gripped the wooden arms of his seat. He did not stir as curtains parted and a figure appeared, silhouetted against the dimly lit corridor behind.

‘Enter, Nûrgal y Naimon.’ Typhon’s voice was slurred but this could not disguise a certain apprehension.

The figure strode confidently forward to stand in the center of the hall. It remained a silhouette, for this was the Shaman Ultima and his rank demanded that his garb be black, not that he would have had it otherwise. With gauntleted hands he grasped the extremities of his scaly cloak and drew it about him.

Typhon’s drooping head jerked upward, as in one who is striving to delay beckoning sleep. Indeed that luxury visited him only fitfully these days. With eyebrows raised he surveyed the cocoon before him and attempted to stare regally into the shaman’s eyes, thus to disconcert him. His gaze found no resting place on the mask before him. Intently he searched for some hint of the true features beneath yet none could he discern. The mask had been fashioned by a craftsman of a former dynasty: so fine as to resemble a layer of soot, yet so unyielding as to vanquish any whims of the flesh beneath; mouth curled malignantly down at the corners, nostrils above flattened and wrathfully flared; ears fan-like, their ribs pressed back against the head; eyes – but what of the eyes? No glimmer of firelight played within their forbidding boundaries, not even a shadow stalked their vacuous territories. Inside their arcane vaults only impenetrable blackness resided.

Typhon addressed the floor.

‘Well Ultima, speak to me if you would. Tell me of this infernal red dust that plagues our shores and the star that so kindly illuminates it for our benefit.’ The master of all Isladoron shifted his bulky frame uneasily in his chair. The chair creaked uneasily beneath him.

‘The two phenomena are obviously linked, lord.’ The words were delivered in a dull monotone.

‘Would you care to enlarge upon that, dark one?’ Typhon’s words could barely be discerned, uttered as they were through clenched teeth.

‘Not as yet, lord,’ came the laconic reply. ‘Not until I have more information to hand. However I believe the culprit to be a comet rather than a star. It is but a single day since I stood upon the Beachlands to witness its effects: the sky was a deeper red and tracks of bloodied weed littered the sand; the sea was a poisoned blue and its waves and currents seemed to surge with energy anew.’

Silence prevailed. Typhon knew better than to ask how such a journey to the western shores of Khir might be possible, being well versed in the abilities of his chief advisor, and so he hauled himself from his chair to stand before the fire, with arms outstretched to the mantelpiece. He stood there for a long time, as though lost in reverie, before the logs eased their position and a flurry of sparks reawakened him.

‘Are any of these happenings referred to in the Libraries?’

‘I have made a thorough search, lord,’ replied Nûrgal, ‘back to the first of our recorded volumes, but all I can unearth are hints and vague references.’

‘But as you know,’ Typhon continued, ‘even those volumes do not establish our true beginnings. Many of my advisors are now suggesting that the answers we require may be buried…’ and here his voice became almost a whisper, as though reluctant to continue, ‘… in a certain collection of chronicles.’

Familiar ground was being covered here and the seething retort was not altogether unexpected. ‘Yes lord, but you must remember that it is I who serves as your chief advisor and in my humble opinion, whilst those chronicles remain beyond our reach, speculation as to their contents will not benefit us in the slightest.’

At this stage, as always in their dealings, Typhon’s initial apprehension began to abate when confronted by the Ultima’s forceful assertions. ‘Nevertheless, they appear to be the oldest volumes in Djebal Doron, do they not? Nor do they sit neatly catalogued within our Libraries, but skulk instead beneath the inner recesses of the temple, do they not? And they are guarded by a maze of iron, stone and necromancy, are they not? Would you have me believe, Nûrgal, that this demented predecessor of yours decided upon such a location merely to conceal a child’s fairy tale?’

Nûrgal, as always, remained undeterred by the sarcasm. ‘You present supposition lord, not definitive proof. A number of volumes in the Libraries date back to a very early age; to a time in fact when Djebal Doron was just beginning to establish itself. Because the Chronicles of Arish-Tâ appear to predate even those venerable publications, there may be some credence to your argument; however I would state once again that until we are able to penetrate the maze in which they are housed, such speculation is pointless.’

‘And where do we stand with regard to that little conundrum?’ Typhon almost spat out the words in frustration.

‘To begin with,’ came the reply, ‘your previous assertion regarding Arish-Tâ’s state of mind – it must be put into perspective. He was, let us not forget, Shaman Ultima during our city’s First Dynasty. Can I suggest that in those dim distant days priorities were not as now? That such priorities were more spiritual than material and that patterns of thought took on an entirely different aspect?’

‘The inference was, Nûrgal, that all who hold your position are somewhat unbalanced. I was not singling out Arish-Tâ as a unique case.’ This uttered in as disdainful a tone as Typhon could muster.

Nûrgal continued, undismayed. ‘Firstly, let us remember that Arish-Tâ himself was not responsible for creating the maze. He merely placed the chronicles within its custody. Its actual instigator was cunning indeed, for the sorcery that guards it emanates from the Stone itself; I have already been subjected to its potency and know that something yet to be uncovered must actuate a route through its defenses, otherwise the contents of the chronicles would forever remain a mystery.

‘It is of a wild and grotesque nature. Superficially it changes constantly, but upon entering the maze an intruder must seek out the current which flows beneath. To succeed in this, the mind must be ordered; it must be capable of rapid analysis and structured response. A madman might have the capacity for inspired spontaneity, but such is not the way in the maze. He would simply succumb.’

Typhon pulled thoughtfully on his beard. ‘Perhaps, just this once, you could dispense with your talent for “structured response” and indulge me with idle speculation regarding the contents of the chronicles? And I implore you – do not embellish your answer with fanciful phrases and cryptic ambiguities as is the manner of my other advisors when confronted with subjects about which they know little.’

There was scarcely a pause before Nûrgal answered.

‘I believe they contain a message.’

This time there was a distinct pause, an extremely long pause, while Typhon smoldered and fumed but finally gave vent to his rage by merely hissing through his teeth. He had suffered enough at the hands of advisors for one day but was reluctant to provoke the man who stood before him. It was an uneasy alliance between then at best although they generally worked toward similar agendas. Nevertheless the answering sarcasm exceeded the normal bounds of dialogue between them.

‘Of course. A message.  A simple communication of such elevated genius that a mere scroll cannot be used to set it down upon. And can it share a bookshelf alongside the greatest literary, scientific and historical works that our civilization can provide? But no! It must reside in hallowed isolation such that men must risk death to reach it. Of course – why had I not deduced this before!’

The black mask came up with a start and Typhon’s eyes widened reflexively. ‘I must beg your leave, lord. There is a matter which requires my immediate attention.’

Typhon reached beneath his chair to produce a flagon of prodigious proportions. His steady hand did not betray the quickening of his heart. ‘Do not leave on my account, sorcerer. My temper is simply testament to the inadequacies of your fellow advisors.’

‘Truly, lord, this is a matter of some urgency.’

‘You may of course go, Nûrgal, though I fear these matters will return to haunt us in the days to come.’

A swirl of darkness and the shaman had departed.

Typhon did not partake immediately of the pitch red wine in his grasp but instead stared intently into the fire, seeking inspiration. When none came he drank and as he drank so he reflected upon what had just transpired. Had he almost apologized? What a novel experience that would have been! But he had to be careful in his dealings with Nûrgal, for instinct told him that he would soon have dire need of the Ultima’s insight. He could not treat him as he treated others; as the harsh dictates of his office often demanded he should treat others. Courtesy was always his first approach but he was never long in dispensing with it should his patience be tried. Yet the shaman had seemed almost indifferent; as though matters of even greater import preyed upon his mind …

 

Nûrgal returned via a myriad of climbing passages and spiraling steps to the palace courtyard, thence up the ostentatious White Stairway to the south face of the temple. It was possible to avoid this circuitous external route and ascend directly into the base of the temple, but that way required concentration and currently his thoughts were collected elsewhere.

Night had overtaken Djebal Doron and just as the brilliance of a star is accentuated by gathering darkness, so had the escalating sheen of the walls merged into an amplified halo around the temple. As Nûrgal traversed the platform that marked the summit of the stairway his gaze appeared to assume material form, like a bloom of iridescent breath into the cold night air, but denser and more focused. Without pause he approached the temple wall and as he did so the portion directly before him began to lose its enhanced luster and then dissipate, as it was enveloped in that spectral glare cast by his mask. Whilst gloomy interior enveloped the trespassing shadow, it reformed, leaving no trace of any breach.

Inside, pace unaltered, Nûrgal continued his way along a broad low-roofed tunnel, rising gradually toward a faint beckoning glow at the far end. This was the only light source along the entire passageway and so virtual darkness had engulfed him from the moment he had entered. As he progressed onward however, the smooth arched wall began to mirror the sparse light and his form cast a dim shadow on its surface. His billowing cloak betrayed a steady breeze and gave the impression that he floated, rather than walked, up the tunnel. His noiseless tread on the glassy floor did little to belie the effect.

A ponderous weight of masonry now hung above him and waves of energy were beginning to course and ripple through its mass. To the uninitiated this writhing display of unfettered power would be cause for fear; to Nûrgal it was merely a diversion.

He briefly registered two archways approaching, branching off to either side of the tunnel. Their dark innards hid steeply angled stairways; to the left he could descend to the second gallery and to the right he could ascend to the upper gallery, his intended destination. He had often marveled that the ancient architects had been able to construct the complex passageways within such a confining structure, but such thoughts did not intrude today. He swept past the junction with scarce a glance, having determined to access the more expeditious route to the upper gallery.

At the point where the tunnel ended, where stone became pure energy, Nûrgal did not even break stride and stepped without hesitation into the hollow cone that marked the core of the temple.

Manipulating his cloak like some grotesque bird he maneuvered into the swirling updraft of air that clung to the periphery of the cone. Within this updraft raw fuel was drawn up from where it bubbled and seethed from the center of the Inner Sea caldera; this “essence” was siphoned through the bedrock of Djebal Doron into the vacuum that nestled just beneath the Stone itself, at the temple’s apex.

But the shaman’s attention, as always, was fixed on the very center of the cone, where a single filament descended; such was the immense scale of the temple that the filament appeared to be no more than a slender gossamer thread. But that thread inflamed the cone with its characteristic bloodshot radiance and pulsed with venom, despite the fact it was but an unused by-product, a residual fraction of the mysterious dense energy that the Stone procured to power itself and to facilitate its arcane processes.

Arcane and alien, like the term of reference used in the most ancient texts for that energy. “Delyrium” was a much simplified corruption of the term which itself had been, at best, an approximation to the original.

All of this floated imperceptibly within Nûrgal’s mind, below the more esoteric knowledge he was bringing to the surface and forging to his will. But something else had inserted itself and snagged at his perception. He felt that it had always been there, but only now had it come to the fore. Was this some ancient element of collective memory that had intruded and if so, was it peculiar to his shamanic bloodline?

Whatever the answer to that question he now sensed, knew even, that some external force was intermittently exerting its will upon the Stone above; but what was the nature of that force? No matter, he could not allow himself the luxury of random thought at this juncture. It would soon be time for ritual to assert itself, for he had to ascend into the very chamber that housed the Stone. This he rarely did and in times past there had been time to prepare; yet he had to know and know now! The involuntary shudder that had passed through him during his audience with Typhon had been a sensation he had not experienced before and he had to determine its cause. Atavistic instincts had subsequently directed him to his current location and he had not questioned them.

He rose swiftly now on a succession of heaving currents, their warm surges intermingling with crackling pinpoints of red light that tracked and exploded all around him like predatory shooting stars. Thus he continued to soar upward sensing the masonry falling away about him but conversely, as the cone closed about him, feeling ever more confined. Then, as he was forced ever closer to the dangerous central thread, the upper gallery appeared.  This gallery, like the nine below it, was in effect an annular niche cut back into the masonry. From the second gallery down, the temple was a veritable warren of passages, galleries and stairways where members of the elite priesthood, or Hierarch, roamed at will. But up here at these exalted heights there was only one gallery, one stairway, and only ever a single occupant, the Shaman Ultima, who now alighted with practiced ease onto the roughly hewn floor.

He did not allow himself the luxury of pondering upon that roughness, so typical of all the galleries and so contrary to the nature of the main architecture; so at odds with the unfeasibly smooth finish of the parent blocks, their elegant lines and their almost imperceptible joints. He barely glanced at the numerous murky alcoves cut into the back wall of the gallery, aware that tonight he would not require access to the esoteric knowledge housed there, in the variegated guise of rotting parchment scripts, rusting metallic scrolls or moth-eaten hide bound texts. Instead, he made for a particularly shadowy recess from which two upturned hands sprouted; like the obsequious upturned face above them, they were fashioned from an unusual mottled jade which hinted at the onset of some rare exotic ailment. Couched in the palms of the hands was a pewter bowl and in the bowl a most evil brew writhed and frothed. Its steamy entrails exposed the plant that lurked virtually unseen within the depths of the recess. The brew was a refined amalgam of its copper-veined leaves and the sinuous leathery vines that clung so assiduously to its supporting branches. Resin from the leaves would modify his consciousness and extract from the vines would ease that resin into his system, subduing any enzymes that might neutralize it.

A sip of this vile liquid was all he needed, for his journey would not be long, and having sipped, he returned the bowl to its imploring owner before making towards an impossibly steep flight of stairs cut into the back wall; so steep, it was easier to ascend by using the upper steps as handholds, which he now did.

An enclosed landing awaited him and he sat carelessly upon it for there was not enough clearance to stand. Directly above was a trapdoor, which, like the rest of the temple, was cut from stone. But this stone did not display the monolithic uniformity of its ubiquitous brethren, for within its subtle striations an enigmatic form was at play, its movements dictated by the angle from which it was observed. The form was frustratingly elusive, often on the verge of revealing itself, only to disappear at the last into obscurity. In this Nûrgal had often likened it to the workings of the trapdoor into which it was set; not once had the mechanism revealed itself, despite the ambitious claims of countless talented priests who had preceded him that its lumbering secrets were within their grasp.

Again, such superficial thoughts were put to one side and he drew his cloak tightly about him. In that comfortable cocooned position he let the poison slip into his system. It had been the most minute of doses yet a clammy coldness now insinuated itself, and as he focused on the slowing beat of his heart, a mantra began to issue forth from his mouth, initially as a harsh exhalation; a single savage sound which he repeated, slowly at first, then quickening and softening until his lips were still, his body was at peace and his mind, his perception, had transferred from one beat to another and was rising upward, through the trapdoor.

 

Through a suffocating tide of blood and into a sea of blinding white agony, until separate images and sensations at last became discernible. Barren blackness veiling the top of the chamber far above, where four walls came together at the apex. Vast emptiness just below, punctuated by random wisps of gray rising from bubbling blue-white mists. Coldness. The chamber floor; a cauldron of boiling snow. A ripple of energy, colossal power flashing across the surface with each rhythmic pulse of the Stone. The Stone itself, resting in its mounting at the centre of the floor. An elongated ovoid of brilliance, but multifaceted, crystalline, not smooth; blinding torment at the peak of its cycle, mere pain at the nadir. Arcane and alien. Refining the essence and creating a protective aura over the entire continent. An aura that kept at bay the myriad of natural and psychic forces that swept so brutally over the planet’s surface.

As Nûrgal underwent this mental anguish, it became slowly apparent. As recollections of former excursions into this revered chamber flashed fleetingly across his consciousness, he knew his instincts had not failed him. The pulse of the Stone had slowed. With that knowledge came dread.

 

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.