What then were these shapes that lay out in the bay leaching power from the ponderous waves as they thundered in to journey’s end upon this septic stretch of Khanju’s western shores? Nature would surely have balked at the creation of so many identical forms in such a confined area, and identical they were, despite her best efforts to camouflage their convex upper surfaces with jungle moss and bird droppings.

Birds in fact rarely settled on them, other than to defecate. They did not like the bobbing lenses, or to be more exact, the vibrations that emanated from them. The sea lichen that clung to their undersides was not so fussy, although it could gain no purchase on the dull chords that plunged down to the seabed.

With each incoming wave the buoys rose to the crest to make good their escape, but then their tethering chords would tighten as the springs that anchored them to the sea bed reached their limits. Thus were the magnetic rotors that joined chord to spring hauled up and down between fixed coils, the whole contained in housings whose angular features had long since been tamed by abrasive sands and voracious coral.

At the water’s edge, where this unnatural jungle crescent basked in fetid decadence amid the mountainous landscape, a sheathed serpentine form emerged from the north amidst the tangled mangrove roots, only to disappear almost immediately into a squat tower of seamless stone; a similar form emerged from the lush wilderness to the east, seeking refuge also within that stone haven. Reckless creepers smoldered at the tower’s base, but otherwise life shunned its crackling boundary. Unconcerned, it maintained its lonely vigil within that wary mass of profligate foliage.

 

*

 

The towering spire was black against the blood red orb of the early morning sun. Beneath its twisting peak, beneath the topmost circle of sinister embrasures, four eroded stairways splayed outward and downward into the roiling mists below. No balustrades flanked their edges and no supports eased their loads until they reached the four towers that marked the corners of the castle walls. Only these towers and the ominous pinnacle at their center had managed to free themselves from the cloying aberrant vapor that seemed to spew up from the very bowels of the castle, before billowing out over its walls onto the landscape beneath.

To three sides its eager tendrils uncoiled over sloping pastures, hiding their gentle undulations, flowing as a milky tide around the serried ranks of jutting boulders that thrived there, upright and grim, like bulbous tombstones. Having negotiated this sprawling necropolis it then proceeded over furrowed pavements of weathered stone, snaked upward through thinning grass, before finally coming to rest in a small forgotten valley high up in the encircling mountains.

To the fourth side its path was more abrupt. Over bleak and black vertical cliffs it plummeted before spreading out like a boundless carpet over the unfriendly seas so very far below. Down there, insect silhouettes glided in and out of its clammy threads in apparent harmony, but they were the same voracious leathery reptiles that wheeled and screeched and preyed upon one another along the slimy topmost ledges of the cliffs; whose shadows terrorized anything that crawled or burrowed. Only in the distant past had creatures roamed free in these far-off lands.

 

The lidless red eyes stared into his own and Jak recoiled, but then the cruel pointed head of the reptile turned away and its savage beak was probing deep into a cleft that ran behind the ledge on which it was perched. It plucked forth an odious maggot-like creature which oozed whiteness from the gaping tears in its sides, and swallowed the monstrous squirming larva whole. Then, with a croak of triumph, it soared off the ledge and with wings pinned back, arrowed downwards. Jak followed.

 

Downwards, ever downwards. To his whirling mind all perspective was quickly lost and the mistfall became a field beneath him that bulged into bluegrass foothills, then spread into an oppressive eddying wall of flint.

But then there was the sun, and the rushing of the air and he was hovering, like the reptile he had pursued, above the salty mists. He began to sink with exquisite slowness into their dim realm.

He was suffused with a compelling warmth. He would linger here awhile and then return, his task completed. But no, he must fight this! His task was far from complete, yet what else was there? It was difficult in this altered state. He had no familiar points of reference. Confusion threatened to overwhelm him. He did as Nûrgal had instructed him to do. He went back to the beginning.

 

‘From the bowels of the palace to the very stars,’ gasped Ravenkar, waxing lyrical. ‘But so many stairs!’ So saying, he collapsed with a distinct lack of grace onto one of the sumptuous embroidered cushions that ringed the cupola, and stared with no little fascination at the ornate copper dome above them. Its lurid designs spilled down the four alabaster pillars that supported it and despite his best intentions, the old shaman found that he was painfully craning his neck to follow the descent of the explicit carvings.

The cupola swayed disconcertingly in the evening breeze, which was not too surprising given its extreme height and the spindly nature of the hollow column on which it sat. Within this column was a steep spiraling stairway that led down to the upper levels of the palace gardens; the torches that burned there now seemed little more than uncertain pinpricks of light. Only the temple reached out above the cupola, at once comforting and disconcerting; its looming bulk helping to ground them, but at the same time cutting an unsettling triangular swathe through the canopy of stars.

The ring of cushions was broken at one point only, by a chair of the most elaborate design. It had been molded from brass, although few of its disparate sections still retained the bright yellow hue of that alloy. To sit on it was to sit on the lap of a bizarre metallic being leaning backward on its haunches: a thin spinal section tapered at the top to a jointed neck and that neck was tilted at such an unlikely angle that the head it supported stared outwards and upwards, beyond the rim of the copper dome; arms and legs were attired in a voluminous cloak of brass but the upturned hands and the webbed feet protruding from it were spindly, almost skeletal.

Nûrgal gestured Jak towards the chair and bade him make himself comfortable, no small challenge under the circumstances. He indicated to Ravenkar the specific locations where they would be sitting which, with the chair, effectively partitioned the circle into three equal segments. As Ravenkar took up his position, he was very much aware of the intricate pattern that had been embroidered into the ancient black leather cushion on which he was about to sit. Silver filaments had been woven into the representation of two trees, intertwined; glittering green sequins hung from their branches whilst darker threads coiled threateningly around their slender boles. Nûrgal, about to seat himself on an identical cushion, alluded to the significance of the pattern immediately.

‘And so we begin a most unusual Assembly, not at all the coming together of minds envisaged by our noble ruler. Again Jak, we must rely on your rogue instincts and again I must ask you to travel where others, save myself, cannot. The burden alas must be yours for I must use what little time is at our disposal to discuss certain matters with your mentor. Know though that we will not leave your side throughout your journey.

‘Tonight you tread a different path, through space and not time. For that you must partake of this repellant broth that I am about to offer you.’ Whereupon he produced a pewter flask from his robe and passed it to Jak.

‘Two mouthfuls will suffice. It will begin its work as we speak.’

Jak, having been briefed earlier on his possible fate, acquiesced immediately and took the required gulps. Initially it was not unpleasant, but the bitter aftertaste lingered and he felt the bile rising in his throat. He calmed himself and concentrated on Nûrgal’s droning monologue.

‘It is a potent brew and although many things go into its making, it is essentially the fermented widowsbane leaves that are the key; they will ease your psyche to that place beyond the confines of your body. It is of interest to note that left to its own devices the body would neutralize their effect, but our forefathers discovered that if small quantities of the leech-vine were added to the mix, the body was helpless to intervene.

‘Both leaf and vine are in short supply and so we nurture our own; nevertheless my young friend, few now partake of this brew.’

‘You scare me Ultima, and I am here merely to hold his hand,’ said Ravenkar. ‘Yet I know you consider this to be necessary.’

‘I feel a chance has presented itself,’ came the reply. ‘A chance for us to steal a march on our enemies. If I remember correctly, “… the path that would lead them eventually to the bleak northern shores of Khanju and Castle Môgrodôth  …” were the words as spoken by Arish-Tâ. Let us see if we can find this castle and the vessel that is berthed there; a glimpse of that which awaits!’

Nûrgal now turned his attention to the only other feature of note in the cupola. Reaching underneath a cushion, he procured a small handful of tangled purple osmunda from a low open barrel and flung them onto an iron brazier that hung from the center of the dome, suspended on three chains. The ferns sizzled, adding another hue to the eerie light. He then grasped a leathery tube that led into the base of the brazier and blew into it. The coals blazed a brighter shade of green and the charred ferns settled down a little further.

The sway of the cupola had caused a gentle circular motion to be imparted to the brazier, nevertheless the heady fumes that issued from it appeared to be irresistibly drawn towards the ominous brass chair on which Jak sat.

Nûrgal ceased his blowing and looked across at Jak.

‘And now Jak, I must ask you to lean back into the chair and grasp its hands firmly. Do not be alarmed at the consequences.’

Jak did as he had been bidden and immediately, amidst a whirring of cogs, the seat tilted back slightly, taking up all of his weight as his feet cleared the floor. Simultaneously, the head of the chair began to ratchet down over his own and envelop it in a mask. He found that the faceplate of the all-encompassing brass mask was a lenticular arrangement and through it he could see quite clearly, although the periphery of his field of vision was alarmingly distorted. His hearing was unaffected for he was aware that Nûrgal was talking again; if anything the words were accentuated, for the voice echoed around him.

‘You sit Jak, in a chair of the Duidarra. There are several others, but for now, that is not important. In the time before the Stone, the Duidarra ruled over Isladoron with an iron hand. They had to, for in those far off days, although the physical elements raged as they do now, their cries were as whimpers in comparison to those of the psychic storms that swept unchecked across the planet.  As a protective measure they set up a series of conduits, highways if you would prefer, across their realm; utilizing these, they could view it in its entirety without exposing themselves to the ever-present threat assailing, rupturing even, their minds. As you know, the storms whereof I speak could cause drastic chemical imbalances to even the most ordered of minds.

‘To this day I marvel at the ingenuity of our ancestors. Perhaps that ingenuity, allied to their sustained resilience in the face of insuperable odds, prompted the placing of the Stone. But were they capable of such technology as this? Interestingly, I think not. So who then were the Duidarra? A question for another time I think. In any event, with the coming of the Stone their peculiar talents were no longer required and they have faded into history. Their legacy however, scant though it is, is of special relevance to us now.

‘Khanju was the center of all things when their prosperity was at its peak, and it was along the Spine that they set up their networks. Along the back of that great dike they were able to construct a series of hill forts or hubs, to give them their correct term of reference. From these hubs their conduits extended east and west to the very limits of the island. The hubs, given their exposed positions, were generally a sophisticated labyrinth of tunnels burrowing into the hard dolerite of the dike. Low-walled fortifications were all that marked their presence on the surface.

‘It is to one of these forts that I would send you now Jak. To Zoth, the most northerly of the hubs, and within its network, hopefully, will lie MȎGRODȎTH.’

Jak had been sitting there, listening intently to the Ultima, doubting that the potion he had taken was having the desired effect. But as he began to formulate a question, strange beings and vistas suddenly flickered before his eyes. The beings moved with a languid grace and the air about them was marginally distorted; he knew, without being told, that this was a protective barrier of some kind. They had no skin to speak off, just a series of minute overlapping plates. Again, without being told, he knew that these were artificial. There was something of the infinite about them. Something that spoke of a terrible age at best. Something that said they had seen it all and were ready to move on.

‘What are these networks you speak off, Ultima?’

To Nûrgal and Ravenkar, the words were slurred and uttered with apathy.

‘The runes were the key, Jak.’ And from his robe Nûrgal brought forth a dulled copper casket, its edges encrusted in verdigris. The perforations in its lid were likewise rusted.

‘Might I borrow your pipe, friend Ravenkar?’

Ravenkar, who had been puffing away in concerned fashion for no little time, simply raised his eyebrows and handed over his most prized possession, Drathkal apart.

Nûrgal, with some delicacy, held the casket over the bowl of the pipe and tapped on its side; the powdery yellow contents gradually formed a thin crust over the smoldering weed inside. He drew on the pipe, careful not to inhale, and the bowl became an amber inferno. Very precisely, he then tipped the contents onto the brazier. A pall of yellow smoke began to rise, forming slowly into a distinct bulb, which hung there beneath the copper dome, unmoved either by the gentle evening breezes or the swaying motion of the cupola.

‘Now Jak, grasp the hands of the chair tightly within your own and pull on the right, push on the left. Look directly through the smoke as you do so.’

Ravenkar, in the act of relighting his pipe, coughed in some dismay as the entire cupola began to revolve. Nûrgal continued on in the same unflustered tone.

‘It is almost due north of here and no obstruction, natural or man-made, will hinder your view. When it begins to appear, try to lighten your touch. To go back, simply push on the right and pull on the left. When it is at its clearest, you may rest from your exertions.’

Jak felt a gentle pressure nudging his head and upper body forwards and suddenly he was in a clearing, a great fire burning at its center. It was night. Sinuous creatures with the most lurid skins dallied at the edge of the clearing, gazing benevolently at him. Butterflies as big as shields hovered in close attendance, radiating the most outrageous patterns from their flapping wings. Inevitably though, his attention was drawn back to the fire. Something was materializing in its smoky confines. As it became more distinct, the creatures were drawn into the distorted edge of his vision allowing the cupola and his two companions to come into focus once more.

But now, beneath the copper dome, hung a most intriguing symbol. For an instant it flared then began to fade. Jak nudged almost nonchalantly at the controls until the symbol was again suspended before him, flowing now as though wrought from molten gold.

‘Behold Jak, the Rune of Zoth! If you progress ever so slightly from north around towards the east, you will encounter the other hub runes as they are arrayed down the Spine, but this is the one that most commands our attention. Absorb its every intricacy Jak, as I speak. It is a complex task, made possible only by your enlightened state. Heed what I say but concentrate on the rune. When you have committed its every subtlety to memory, you will know, for then will your journey begin.

‘Note that the rune is circular and can be envisioned as four very different quadrants that comprise the whole. Once at Zoth, the quadrants assume significance. Zoth is relegated to the southeast quadrant, for that is where it is located in relation to the other three network points. To the south and west lies Zadrazoth, to the north and west lies Karkazoth and located in the northeast is Tothrazoth. These form the extreme points of the network. Should you need to venture to any of these drear places, you will find only a monolith, and at its base you will find the associated quadrant of the main rune. In Zoth itself, the quadrant rune is also located on a monolith, but the monolith itself is enclosed by a temple. The main hub rune is inscribed on the cornerstone of that temple.

‘To move within the network, envisage only a single quadrant, and you will be drawn towards it. In this manner you will be able to cover the entire coastline. Initially head due north to Tothrazoth, then let Karkazoth draw you west; it is a remote isle, several leagues off the mainland. Thence, subject yourself to the pull of Zadrazoth and, once there, you will have completed your search.

‘This journey should not be dangerous Jak, but possibly disorientating. Should confusion arise, think back to this scene and your body, pinioned in the chair. Try not to think of your mind as detached, for indeed I do not truly know if it is or if it is not; I merely follow the dictates of the Duidarran procedures and do not pretend to understand them fully. Imagine rather that it is connected to your body by an infinite band of rubber, which you can contract at any time. And if all else fails, then the image of the full rune will be your salvation.’

 

Nûrgal’s words were fading. ‘To gain elevation, imagine that the rune is flat on the ground beneath you and that it is getting smaller; you are floating away from it. To descend, draw yourself back to it …’ Was he imagining it, or had the roles been reversed; did those skeletal brass hands now grasp his own? The air rippled before him and the rune reached out to him. For a heartbeat he was above the cupola looking down on the scene, then the rune was all about him, a sphere now, not a disc. It began to spin.

 

A disc again, but he knew with a dire certainty that it wasn’t within the cupola. Sight and sound were still with him as, inexplicably, he knew they would be. Touch was not however, and the deprivation caused a flaring within his mind. As soon as he identified the flaring as panic, it threatened to engulf him.

Immediately he imagined that he had been stretched to some extreme limit and that this, his psyche, was still attached to his body; that the stretching was so severe, he was temporarily unable to feel his limbs, let alone control them.

How long he was suspended there in that uncertain limbo he did not know, for in that situation, time was a meaningless concept. But eventually it proved to be a useful deception, for he found himself concentrating on the rune again. It was the inverse of the rune in the cupola. What had been the defining markings were now dull and lifeless, and it was the background that was infused with molten energy. He did not let it disturb him. He suspected the effect was deliberate. The rune he required was now buried deep in his psyche; it was not a physical representation on a wall. He unearthed it and imagined he was floating above it and then away from it.

First, the ponderous permanence of a trilithon entrance, its massive stones chipped, worn, but immutable. Then, fanning around to either side a ring of standing stones, a battered monolith at their center. Finally, a low crenellated outline, its angular features now weathered and rounded, and he knew he was drifting over the ruined fortress town of Zoth.

This time Iambos came to his aid, bathing the entire landscape in a preternatural half-light and to his surprise he found a certain restrained elation had allied itself to this debatable new freedom. He doggedly refused to give it full rein though and constantly maintained his grip on reality by picturing the cupola, his prone body and the chair to which it was bound.

Higher still and the east and west boundaries of the dike became apparent, framed by the lush jungles far below, but to the north it stretched away into darkness. Concentrating on the northeast quadrant of the rune he followed it, towards Tothrazoth.

League upon league fell away before him, but their featureless monotony did little to daunt him. It was only when he reached the ocean that the magnitude of his task began to dawn upon him, began to blunt his fervor. This backbone of dolerite that he had been following, known as the Spine, effectively split the entire island into two halves. In the south it merged seamlessly with the omnipresent cliffs that ringed the Inner Sea, but in the north, where it outcropped into the ocean, it splayed westward and here its exposed face had been eroded into a series of jagged cliffs forming an endless progression of dour splintered coastline. Had he been in bodily form he would have sighed, but still he allowed Karkazoth to draw him slowly westward.

No one would ever approach this area from the sea and if they did a swift rebuff would be their only reward. It offered not even the promise of a safe haven. So it was to Jak’s amazement that the mark of an ancient highway lay beneath him, curving around from the back of the dike and pursuing its westward extension. Abandoned ruins lay in profusion along its dusty length, although none approaching the size of Zoth and all in an even greater state of disrepair. What souls could have settled in these desperate outposts of humanity? What hopes and dreams could they have fostered? Did rare minerals or precious stones lie just beneath the desolate surface?

The road had floundered without trace well before a small array of windswept islands appeared out to sea. The outlines of surf marked the paucity of their size, but Jak assumed Karkazoth lay somewhere in their midst. The night had virtually slipped by unnoticed as he allowed Zadrazoth to draw him south. And it was then that he found the castle.

It sat perched on a rise near the cliff edge, at the base of a small decaying valley that assiduously worked its way up into a low elongated range of mountains clinging to the back of the dike like a spiky parasite. Had he been able to search from the seaward side it would have been readily visible, but beyond Karkazoth the clinging mists had forced him to hug the cliff tops and mountains behind, skirting the bays and inlets, looking always out and down to the sea. Thus it was that he had almost missed the fissure in the ridge between two rounded peaks, along with the precipitous path that had been etched into one of its shadowy sides, and that worked its way down to the head of the valley. Only the vertical black cylinder of rock that masked the fissure from view had given him pause to stop and look, almost as an afterthought. As he had idly regarded the lichen carpeting its surface and the brambles that disguised its smooth unnatural contours, he had slowly become aware of a repetitive resonance emanating from it. He had known immediately that a glamor had been placed there and that had he been in bodily form the fissure would have been concealed from him.

He swept downwards and skimmed over the pitted valley floor, manipulating the rune quadrants with ease now. He knew instinctively that the castle he found confronting him was Môgrodôth. It was as though the air confined in that little valley had solidified and the name was rippling out towards him. An icy chill embalmed its walls and fear began to gnaw at him as the extent of his isolation fell into perspective. He skirted around the walls to be confronted by lidless red eyes. He followed the mistfall over the edge and down, in the wake of the reptile.

 

Thus was he back in the heaving vapors above the sea, confusion and complacency put to flight. Breakers crashed ahead and he made his way surely towards their sound, familiar amid all that desolation. The mists thinned, parted by the cascade of spray thrown up as massive swells bore down on the cliff face.

An inlet! There were many of course in this indented coastline, but usually nothing more than deep fissures. This though appeared to be something larger; two lofty buttresses of jumbled rock marked the entrance and it cut back sharply into the general line of the cliffs. The walls to either side rose steeply from the buttresses and disappeared beneath a jutting overhang where they intersected the main cliff face. Jak made for the vast expanse of shadow beneath the overhang, sure that it marked the end of his search. Far above he could just discern the tips of the two seaward towers of Môgrodôth.

Almost immediately though despair welled up inside him, as he took in his surroundings. The inlet extended some way beneath the overhang but at its end he was confronted by a wall of rock, blank save for the trails of reptile droppings that smeared its slick surface; the nooks and ledges of this sheltered cove served as an ideal nesting place for the leathery hordes. Yet as he turned to face the sea, all the swooping, diving and caterwauling that assaulted his remaining senses could not deflect a growing suspicion about the place: the angularity of the inner walls and their junction with the overhang; the similar sloping of the two outer walls and the identical height of the buttresses that marked the opening into the sea.

Even as he grasped at the tantalizing concept he let it slip effortlessly away. What would have been the point of holding it to account? That which he sought was not there. A small part of his psyche wondered that he had abandoned it so easily and that he was putting the place behind him with such haste. But it was ineffectual and scarce deterred him as he slid out of the inlet.

The sun was a distant circle, a baleful orange eye watching him through a rising gray curtain. Jak tried to shrug off this dismal impression and derive some warmth from its glow, but the castle above mocked his efforts and its cold malignance plunged him into a despairing languor. He allowed the southwest rune to take him in its hold and hugged the shattered seaward face of the dolerite as it descended slowly towards more level terrain.

That terrain was still some way off when he arrived at the Zadrazoth monolith. Idle curiosity prompted him to approach it, accessible as it was at the center of a small sandy bay, the first he had encountered on this forlorn coast. It stood atop a massive intrusion of rock that had thrust its way up like a battered disc at the water’s edge. As he approached, he noticed a subsiding stairway leading down from the monolith into a central depression within the rock, and thence into darkness.

The rune flowed like its parent, in inverted fashion, and he wondered how many years had passed since its concentrated radiance had last been activated. It was only as he turned away, the thought still lingering, that he noticed the low stone walls on the north side of the bay where a vein of fertile terraced land made its way down to the crimson-stained sands. He saw that saplings were scattered here and there on the upper terraces, but already, despite their youth, they were in a state of decay; his vision meandered downwards past the more densely populated lower terraces and paused briefly as it alighted upon the narrow beach, whereupon a small forest stood, the young trees stouter, but still struggling. It then became apparent that many actually sprouted from the sea itself, saltwater lapping at their lower boughs, and that these were a little healthier; their red-veined leaves were caked with salt but they fluttered exuberantly, like the pennants of a victorious army. But even here, in more robust climes, death had managed to intrude. A large boulder had crashed down from the unstable heights above and sheared the top from one of the saplings. Its stump poked from the sea like a severed finger seeping blood; and was he imagining it? But no. As the next wave drove shoreward, the inner rings of the broken trunk unmistakably blushed before regaining their natural russet hue.

But had it not been for that errant boulder he may never have glanced beneath the waves into deeper water and witnessed the ancient executions that had taken place. Rank upon rank of neatly leveled stumps, many as wide as Typhon’s ivory throne, graced the seabed. He did not attempt to guess their age for he knew they had been harvested long ago and were now utterly dead, their bleached forms like the stems of giant mushrooms. But it was not their age that preoccupied him and it was with renewed intent that he left that enchanted place and heeded Karkazoth’s distant call once more.

 

The coastline passed swiftly beneath him and only as it began to recede to the east did he realize he was being pulled seawards. Before him again was the tiny string of islands on which he had assumed Karkazoth must lie, and passing right across it, something else. It held him entranced.

Beyond the aura of the Stone the days were becoming progressively darker. Fiery ash was falling amid the dust, hissing vehemently as it plunged into the sea, darkening it irrevocably towards an all-embracing purple. An unaccountable desire to linger there embraced him, blunting his newfound resolve, and it was with some reluctance that he eventually turned back towards Môgrodôth.

 

Ravenkar displayed no emotion as Nûrgal approached the chair, but the blood began to pound at his temples.

‘Something acts against him, Ravenkar. It clouds his judgment, disturbs his focus. Needs must! Fear not, for he is strong. He will survive.’

The older man did not argue although he was sorely afraid for his apprentice. He did not fear the Ultima, which placed him in a fairly exclusive group, but he did respect him; their conversation that night had covered many things and he knew the importance of Jak’s quest. Many of the Duidarran networks had fallen into ruin since the coming of the Stone and so it was extremely fortuitous that the most northerly and remote should still be functioning. It was an opportunity that had not been open to Arish-Tâ, even should he have been as well versed as Nûrgal in the ways of the Duidarra. By the time Raven Lôkar had deciphered the Rhyme, it would have been too late to delve down the precarious path that Jak currently pursued.

So Ravenkar watched as Nûrgal approached the chair, and noted that he was careful not to disrupt Jak’s line of sight to the rune. He made no comment as the Ultima stopped behind the chair and raised his hands to the sides of that eccentric mask before pressing inwards; nothing else. He gritted his teeth, what few he had left, and clenched his fists as the entire cupola began to vibrate.

Energy now began to enter the chair of the Duidarra at its base. Its ascent was restrained but inexorable as it flowed through an intricate webbing previously disguised, a delicate tracery fused into the surface. When the rising flow cast its spidery outline across the mask, the figure in the chair began to convulse.

 

Such pain came to Jak at that moment. The rock face in front of him exploded into a million points of light that pierced him like a rain of poisoned arrows. So intense was it that as he slipped beneath the icy waves he welcomed the darkness with a quiescent finality. But as he sank, he remembered the Chamber; how he had allowed the fear to flow through him.

The power rose from within, a slumbering colossus whose presence only Nûrgal had guessed at. It grabbed him from the inside and turned him out. It galvanized his psyche with a tide of energy, until his senses sang.

Yet still he sank in turmoil, confronted by that emergent leviathan, the rogue power within him; ever downward he was drawn as he fought to survive. The bottom approached, with death waiting in its muddied murk.

He had allowed fear to prod the beast, to stir it from its slumbers, but now that fear had to be confronted. He had need to take it into himself as Ravenkar had taught him, and identify it.

It was not the fear he had expected. It was not the lingering evil of Môgrodôth that faced him, it was the rogue; the fiend that had lain dormant in him for so long. Now that it had awoken it would not be denied and to acknowledge it was simply not enough. He needed to go yet further.

What was this fiend and why did he fear it? And then the notion came to him, a thread to which he clung tightly. Was it not for others to fear the fiend? For better or for worse it was an integral part of him and so why not choose to welcome it as an ally? Could he possibly hope to embrace it? There came to him then a moment of calm and within it, everything changed.

The thread became a lifeline and slowly, ever so slowly, he clambered back up it towards the surface.

He sensed again the menace that was Môgrodôth, but now he was at one with the sea and its surging rolling rhythms; in his rogue state even touch, or a rudimentary semblance of it, was not beyond him. So it was that just as he neared the frothing crests of that tempestuous ocean, he felt a warm current snagging at him, more in the nature of a soothing balm than a wrenching pull. Grabbing at its entrails he followed their tortuous patterns back down, seeking their source.

At the base of the cliff, just above the junction where it had thrust upwards through an unsuspecting seabed, was a cavern. As caverns go it was not particularly imposing, yet Jak hovered there for an age, his resurgent senses oblivious to the cruel shifts of water. Atavistic instincts warned him against going any further; it was as though the past itself welled out of this opening. But with a resignation that surprised him he eventually slipped into its ominous mouth; into waters from another age.

The blackness was total. He sensed that the walls were closing in upon him and that he was rising through a near-vertical shaft. The years pressed down on him from above trying to deny him entrance, but to no avail. He suspected that now, finally, his quest was nearing its end.

 

Something within the castle stirred. Such was Jak’s elation he did not perceive it. But Nûrgal did; hundreds of leagues distant, only vaguely aware of Jak’s location and certainly not comprehending that he was directly beneath Môgrodôth, he felt a presence.

It had come unbidden. An iron will. A will that exuded an aura of excessive single-mindedness, so rigid, so focused, that no external influence or reason could possibly sway it. A balanced mind might have considered it insane.

To intimate that Nûrgal was afraid would be wrong. Possibly a being such as Nûrgal could never truly know fear himself but could only recognize it in others. To say that the unknown had presented itself and that he was wary of it would be more akin to the truth. What could be irrefutably asserted however was that this happening had induced within him a sense of foreboding; of dread.

The Ultima had returned to stand by the brazier and Ravenkar displayed no emotion as the stained little casket reappeared from the folds of the black robe. Yet when the shaman slipped a catch and sent the entire mass of powder tumbling onto the coals he could not suppress a questioning stare. Nûrgal, undismayed, blew again into the leather pipe. The bulb that arose this time was bible-black, and as the sorcerer supreme raised his arms to the skies to disgorge a litany of enchanted abuse at their serene façade, it began to rotate, to suck in the surrounding air, which in turn further fueled the brazier and its contents. And the bulb grew.

It came to Ravenkar just then that a rumbling gloom had gathered above the cupola, above the palace, above Djebal Doron, as though every scattered cloud within the aura of the Stone had come together as one to bear witness to the blasphemous happenings beneath. Splattering echoes of rain reverberated around the tiny dome and lightning crashed out a vivid warning. The warning went unheeded as a darkness that would tolerate no light enveloped him. He forced his awareness to fold in upon itself and allowed the darkness roll over him, which was fortunate, for against a backdrop dimmer than the farthest reaches of the stellar void, the Rune of Zoth blossomed forth like an exploding sun.

 

Jak now saw a circle of fetid light above him. His instincts told him that it must be above, but the extent of his disorientation was alarming. The murky confines of the shaft masked all points of reference and removed any realization of upward motion. It was oppressive and began to crush in upon him, but the rogue within was exultant and so he floated now, almost relishing the situation; then with brash disregard, he hurtled upwards towards the light.

 

Far above, a sullen wind swept faded leaves and choking dust around the deserted courtyards of Castle Môgrodôth. It crooned its haunting tune along lonely corridors and up crumbling stairways till it emerged to swirl fitfully around crenellated battlements and four scarred towers. Like gigantic cornerstones these cylindrical towers anchored the castle into the bedrock, two into the valley and two into the cliff face.

At the cliff face, the towers scaled far down the weathered rock, well below the level of the valley floor, before gradually stepping inwards, insinuating that the castle was actually of cavernous proportions and that the landward approach completely belied its immensity. Despite their great height however, these two towers differed only at their very summits. Here, in each, the topmost stair led into a sparse cylindrical room possessed of the most meager viewing slits; this was the highest room in the southern tower, but in the northern tower, it was not. For within the very roof of the northern tower another chamber existed and upon that same roof could be found a feature most strange.

The conical slate roof did not rise to a point, but terminated rather abruptly at a small level platform on which was perched a metal throne. Surprisingly few of the roof slates were missing and the throne also had survived extremely well, probably due to the unusual metal from which it had been cast. Although it did not gleam with the manicured burnish normally associated with a throne, it was nevertheless free from the layers of rust that would surely have tainted it had a more familiar metal of lesser resolve been used in its construction. Not that a smattering of rust would have bothered the creature currently sat upon it.

“Gargoyle” would have been the closest term of reference, but still woefully inadequate. It had assumed such a form because, after all, what else would be perched atop a castle tower? And not surprisingly, the epidermis it had selected to complement that form possessed the texture of stone, although the reptile droppings had been an additional disguise it had not conceived.

It had infinite patience and indeed, such was required. The intervals between its master’s summonings often spanned centuries. It was its master’s eyes and ears, so that even as Jak ascended the shaft, eyelids were being pulled back to reveal glistening purple orbs beneath; its stone texture was already more malleable and would soon be able to accommodate movement.

It was totally without malice, yet totally devoid of compassion. It performed according to its master’s dictates; a master alas who could never claim to be dispassionate, especially where uninvited guests were concerned.

Directly below the throne, ensconced within the sloping conical roof, was the additional chamber. Within its lead-lined confines, amongst an assortment of the most eccentric devices, lay a prostrate figure. About this figure burned a violet penumbra, which spluttered and crackled and writhed with a life force of its own. It had been many years since the figure had deigned to exhibit any animation, usually preferring the other to do its bidding. But as Jak’s senses probed towards the dim circle that marked his destination, the eyes of the figure opened and the mouth of the figure gave vent to a shriek that would surely have toppled a lesser castle.

 

The rune blazed ferociously in his mind. It was so distinct as to be almost tangible. It compelled him to return, but the rogue within was having none of it. He surfaced in an icy pool that would have stagnated long ago but for the subterranean trickle that maintained a barely perceptible swirl across its surface. In the distance a cascading torrent was to be heard, which obviously found its avenue of escape further along the cliff face; his mind did not dwell on any of this however. Such was the incipient paralysis developing, relentlessly preying on his peripheral vision, reducing his focus to a solitary image, it was a measure of Jak’s resolve that his mind could dwell on anything, as it now did. Even the intensity of the rune could not diminish a cavern of majestic proportions, its interior bathed in the reflected green glow of a million insects, the luminous latticework of their bodies clinging to the walls high overhead. All the more startling therefore that something else should dominate the scene, its lambent timbers resting on the dry cavern floor, its exquisite tapering masts disappearing into the opaque void that masked the vaulted roof from view.

 

The throne was empty. Descending rapidly, scabrous leaden hands clawed a purchase on the crumbling face of the northern tower whilst purple eyes scanned downward with predatory resolve.

 

Jak realized he was losing control. This was invasive, and it was no gentle reminder. The rune was being imposed upon him, to the expense of all else. He plummeted back down the watery shaft sensing that if he did not show willing and exact a measure of control he would simply be dragged back by the quickest possible route, namely through the hard earth that surrounded him. Was that possible?

As he surfaced in the heaving swells there was a heavy splash nearby. His immediate thought was of a reptile diving after fish. That was immediately dispelled.

It was looking at him as he swiveled around, now with practiced ease. Looking at him! The head jerked from one side to the other as it appraised him. What could it possibly see? There was an air of melancholy in the purple eyes. It changed instantly to ruthless malevolence as the languid leaden creature before him began to disassemble into something truly terrible.

He glimpsed a sunken visage with a ghostly pallor, transparent almost. In contrast it was framed by a mane of hair so vibrant that charged particles seemed to flow through it, separating each strand from its neighbor, with every one of those strands like a crackling filament of wire.

Then his thought processes were virtually eclipsed as he hurtled upwards. He was now just an observer as that odd spindly range of mountains swept below, but enough of his psyche remained to know that he was being pursued; that something stalked him in those forbidding territories. The dike arced round before him, heading south. Below, in its circling embrace, was the jungle. Fires burned down there but he had no time to ponder their presence in a supposedly dead land.

He was heading southeast as the rune drew him on, skimming over the harsh rock surface and hoping desperately that Zoth was close. He did not even see the fort as the rune, aware of his imminent approach, flared suddenly in front of him. Something snagged at him but then intricate lines of energy had enfolded him and the rune was promptly extinguished behind him.

He had a brief impression of acrid bitter smoke before unconsciousness took him into its comforting folds.

 

*

 

The woman’s face floated before him. He thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her smile was serene, benevolent. Her hair was short, spiky even, apart from a single braid that fell over her shoulder. It was snow white where it framed her face, but tinted at the tips to match the voluminous blue of her eyes. The circlet around her head matched the large disc-shaped earrings she wore in that it was imbued with a confused flow of color that was forever shifting: sometimes it was so sharp that the face became indistinct, ill-defined; or again it might fade so that the face was thrown into clear, almost disembodied, relief.

And then he felt her touch. Its warmth and tenderness passed into him, into his body. The warming would not relent, to such an extent that his body was becoming taut. He wanted it to stop, but it would not. His carcass began to split asunder. He began to scream. The woman’s wondrous blue eyes rolled upwards in their sockets till only the whites were visible; she moved away and beckoned him to follow.

 

She was sat on the bed next to him, smiling, placing a cold towel against his brow.

‘Welcome back, Jak. Despite the best efforts of the monarch and his chief advisor, you have returned and for that they should be eternally grateful.’ The smile became radiant. ‘It would not do to have had this brave young woman deprived of a dear friend, as well as a mother.  I am Alanna, Healer,’ she continued, ‘and I welcome you to Djebal Doron.’

Jak, managing only a weak smile, now stared in some confusion, but not at Alanna. It was the figure at her side that had captured his attention. Azella; was it Azella? She had undergone a transformation. Her hair had been fashioned in the manner of Alanna’s, except that it was as black as the older woman’s was white, and of course the tips were emerald green. Ornate mottled markings splayed out beneath her eyes, following the line of her high cheekbones and beyond, lending to her face the demeanor of a predatory animal. This though was largely offset by the wry crinkle of amusement that currently occupied the same territory, as she watched Alanna fussing over him.

Before Jak could continue his musings, he saw that Azella was mouthing something at him, trying not to catch Alanna’s attention, but it was Alanna who spoke next.

‘I believe Azella is trying to tell you that as well as Healer, a most honored position amongst our people, my time is also spent as a mother and a queen. The latter is not something I readily own up to, given the loathsome demeanor of the king and the extent to which he manipulates innocent young people into his scheming!’

She turned to skewer a shadowy figure with her gaze, now stark and imperious, and it was only then that Jak appreciated the king himself was at hand, along with several other notables. As one, they had collected well beyond the immediate sphere of the queen.

‘Now, my dearest, do not be too hard on me. After all it was the Ultima who hijacked our guests, whilst at the same time assuring me of the absolute necessity of such an act.’ The king shuffled from foot to foot, his discomfort further exaggerated by his staff, which again seemed unusually animated.

‘This time, sir, we have been lucky,’ replied Alanna icily. ‘I have managed to drag Jak back from the precipice over which he has hovered for the best part of this day. Despite my refined talents it was ultimately his own innate resolve that may have saved him, and even now, something still concerns me; it is elusive though and eludes my probing. My point however, would be that neither your reptilian-faced counselor nor that spluttering splinter that you hold with such reverence, has been of any use in this matter. Perhaps before you make decisions in the future, you might seek a more feminine appraisal of the problem at hand, and I would suggest that Azella, as well as myself, should be included in any such consultations!’

‘Dearest,’ came the unctuous reply, ‘as always your comments are most informed and most welcome.’

‘Do not patronize me, husband,’ was Alanna’s angry response, before she turned her attention back to Jak.

‘Now Jak, rest is essential. You will probably be surprised when you find out just how long you have been unconscious. I would prefer that you remain awake for the next few hours whilst your mind reacquaints itself with your body and I have given you a potion that will help you in this. I will return shortly and you can then give me an account of everything that wretched sorcerer has put you through. For now it will be good therapy to relate your experiences to your friends here; I know they are desperate to learn of your adventures.’

Alanna rose to her feet and drew Azella towards her, kissing her on the forehead.

‘Sit by him, young lady, and observe him if you would,’ she whispered. ‘I want to know everything, from his mildest mutterings to his wildest cries.’

And with that the queen of Djebal Doron gathered up her immaculate silk dress, proffered an arm to Typhon, and swept from the room, king in tow.

 

White muslin hangings shifted in the gentle breezes that entered the room through openings on two sides. Beyond, balconies opened out onto stairs, which led down to the palace gardens. Eclectic groupings of paintings, tapestries, rugs and pottery adorned the walls and floors, complemented by the soft glow of scented candles. But even those civilized trappings could not mask the raw threat from nature as thunder clamored in the distance and lightning danced across the sky in response to the approaching menace. The comet had appeared first, several days ago, as a slight tainting on the burnished disc of the sun, a dull blemish at its edge. But that blemish had grown, and turned towards Isladoron like a revolving eye, seeking out its prey.

 

It was as though the queen’s departure had caused a vacuum in her wake as Jak’s companions were sucked into the space around his bed.

Shamul was chuckling uncharacteristically at Abduul’s dazed appearance. ‘Close your jaw, lecherous one. Women like that are meant to be viewed from afar.’

‘Would that I had gone on your journey Jak,’ came the response, ‘and the queen was attending to me in your stead.’

‘Do we not have more pressing matters to discuss, gentlemen?’ said Azella, steepling her hands. The two seafarers didn’t seem to be in agreement but acquiesced anyway. Jak however did not.

‘She certainly seems to have had a big influence on you in my enforced absence,’ he said, laughing.

‘Yes, well, she has many talents,’ answered Azella. ‘She has forced me to confront my situation, and to be strong.’

‘And told her that now she makes the transformation from girl to woman; that the odds are stacked against her for she must make that transition quickly, and for a princess of Khir in these troubled times the responsibilities that will be heaped upon her are many.’ Ravenkar came forward and put a comforting arm around Azella’s shoulders. ‘So now Jak, let the story unfold for tonight it is my turn. Tonight I must accompany the “reptilian-faced counselor” to a most unpleasant destination.’