They emerged under an oppressive late evening sky and rain was already starting to fall heavily. Anyone other than Ravenkar would have been alarmed by yet another impromptu gathering of storm clouds above the Ultima’s head, but the old Khir shaman had witnessed much in his time and was a phlegmatic character to say the least. He would need to be in the hours ahead.
The palace was so vast that Ravenkar had not gleaned even a remote familiarity with its cultured ramblings as yet, but as a long paved channel appeared in front of him, its stepped sides rising into darkness, he knew immediately that the main courtyard lay spread-eagled above them. He cursed under his breath; it seemed as though half of his life of late had been spent treading up and down stairs. But as they began to ascend the flight to their right those thoughts were immediately banished, for a solemn triangle now framed the ascending figure of his companion, its obdurate symmetry oblivious to the descending murk.
As they set foot upon the checkered esplanade that snaked across the courtyard, they were immediately exposed to the full force of the driving rain as it cut loose upon them. Ravenkar pulled his cape more tightly about him and leaned into its raking fury, unashamedly bobbing for shelter when he could behind the unbending figure of Nûrgal. He had only glanced briefly in this direction on the day of the fateful audience with Typhon, but it had not struck him then that this would be such a long trek.
He would not have thought it possible but as they progressed across the courtyard it began to rain even harder, just as the esplanade began to disassemble into the ubiquitous cobbles. Yet notwithstanding his discomfort, as the protective line of rain trees began to loom over them he found himself unsure of the welcome they would provide. It was not the trees themselves, but rather what lay beyond. His instincts railed at what might be concealed there but that was soon forgotten as the canopy of densely packed fronds enveloped them and gradually, mercifully, the rain became a remote distraction. He paused to shake his cape and watched idly from his leafy cocoon as the watery curtain spattered the courtyard, its sound muted, now a world away.
Nûrgal did not disturb his reverie as he stood entranced under those expansive gray leaves, but something else did; almost imperceptible, but insistent for all that. Eventually it commanded his attention, brooked no refusal. He turned to face two pairs of staring crystalline eyes.
When the Ultima finally spoke it was in whispered, almost reverential tones.
‘And now Ravenkar of Khir, you must stand before the Marokonda and listen to the rain as it falls. Confront them, for the time is nearly upon us!’
Hurricanes swept over the planet. The rain of red-hot gravel had become a deluge. The darkness deepened and the oceans were in turmoil. Churning waters once again breached the atoll to threaten the whirlpool therein. The black Stone fought its way remorselessly to the surface, but then, with freedom beckoning, the reluctant pool reached out and the Stone slowed. Mighty forces were locked in stalemate.
Ravenkar faced the legendary birds of Khanju, their plumage black in the fading light. Beneath the arch of their inner wings, etched in haphazard fashion into a raised horizontal stone that lay between them, was an inscription that he deciphered thus:
So now, stranger, think of home,
Whilst we consider the merits of your request.
If worthy, your journey to bewilderment will be brief.
If not, then beware,
For bewilderment will instead find you,
And long will it last.
Again it was the old language, but only one word gave Ravenkar reason to stumble. The first “bewilderment” he could guess at, given the nature of their destination. To the second he finally applied a most gloomy interpretation.
Nûrgal’s voice floated past him. He reeled it in at the last instant.
‘There is nothing cryptic about the inscription. Think of Tak Khiroba, think of Skîros. Distill the essence of your past into but a few images. Only impostors need fear this confrontation, need ponder upon endless wanderings through the Dead Waters.’
So it was, with those words of comfort ringing in his ears, that Ravenkar gave one of the enigmatic birds his undivided attention. He had convinced himself that the statue to his left was marginally the less intimidating of the two and so he presented himself before it now. Alas, those searing orbs that scrutinized him did little to instigate fond recollections of home and it wasn’t until he remembered Nûrgal’s rather odd exhortation that his apprehension began to abate.
The rain was the key. Its habitual echoing splatter allowed him to make an immediate association. The thrumming was faint, such was the depth of the overhanging canopy, but its steady insistent beat allayed his worries and transported him effortlessly to the sheltered cloisters of Tak Khiroba, where a similar sound assailed his ears.
The rain bounced off the angled slate roof that ran unbroken around three sides of an open quadrangle. Three such quadrangles embroidered the rear of the monastery, all facing directly west. He was in the central enclosure that housed the mighty copper gong whose booming resonance called the priests to prayer. To someone so familiar with its outline it looked dull and uninteresting against the backdrop of rain that slanted across the valley below, visible across the open westward side. And so his thoughts drifted to another day.
The gong’s burnished form was behind him now and he knew that if he turned he would be blinded by a thousand setting suns reborn in its dimpled surface. He looked instead to the lake, at the head of the valley, molten at its center but sheathed in rippling white and ochre at its edges where the rearing summits were reflected. The sun, basking in the hazy orange skies that were peculiar to northern Khir at that time of year, had nearly run its course and chill shadows would soon be reaching out to claim the monastery. But not just yet.
The scene evaporated and instead of a single sun, twin stars transfixed him. Exposed to their cold glare he was unable to move. So cold was he that he would have shivered had he been able. Then, with infinite slowness, each star transformed itself from a single source into a myriad of needle-thin beams that assaulted him, penetrated him, dissected him.
He had never imagined that clouds would be like this. Their substance sparkled all around him. They had to be clouds for his hair was dank and swept out behind him and his robes billowed and the wings of the Marokonda rose and fell to either side, shedding rainbow vortices from their feathered surfaces. There was no sense of time for there was nothing on which to focus save the rhythmic beating that bore him onwards.
The clouds fell away and he passed into sunlight; the transition was abrupt and although he had never seen the landscape below he knew he was flying eastward over the Mountains of Mor, home to the bird that bore him. Behind him lay the Inner Sea and Djebal Doron, shrouded still by those jeweled mists from which he had just emerged. The jagged peaks, unmatched by any in Isladoron, thrust up towards him through a thin clinging veil, more familiar this time: wispy and white. A dark meandering line bounded those peaks to the south, or rather had gouged its way through the range. Beyond, the Atlâks were in fact the southern continuation of that same lofty range, their flanks descending into Khâl before waning eventually against the Gangja Plateau and the pitiless sands of the Jâlreg.
The dividing line was the least used egress to the Outer Seas and its names were many, but “Cold Chasm” was the one that had stuck with him. The rearing cliffs to either side ensured that no sunlight ever reached down to the desolate waters of that strait. The route was shunned for obvious reasons, to the extent that no one within Ravenkar’s not inconsiderable lifetime had ever been known to journey along it. He thought now fleetingly of Shamul who, unsurprisingly, was never slow to voice his opinions on all matters maritime. His old friend had told him tales of precipitous falls and capricious currents that supposedly bedeviled its waters. Pragmatic seafarer that he was, naturally Shamul had then proceeded to discount such tales, insisting that one day he would master its chill reputation; as yet he had simply been too preoccupied. Nor did Ravenkar doubt that Shamul would eventually fulfill his promise, for he was not one given to idle boasts.
He continued to scan the scene below from his unusual vantage point. No evidence of falls was apparent but something surprising did catch his roving eye. He got no further chance to scrutinize it for the bird swept upwards.
It was no more than a brief realization. As the view below began to fade it occurred to him that the air at this rarefied height would soon be so thin that he would struggle to breathe. It occurred to him almost simultaneously that he wasn’t breathing. And still the bird bore him upwards, to the very fringes of the Great Void.
He did not think to look down now, for there was nothing there. In fact he could not look down for he was enveloped in something cold, something clammy. It invaded the very fiber of his being. It pressed in upon him, confining him. Yet throughout it all the wings of the Marokonda continued to beat, even though there was no sense of motion, and they did not cease to beat until the pressure was nigh intolerable. Only when it pinned those wings against its body and flipped completely around in a single lithe motion, did he recall that this was as it should be. They were flung forward like an arrow released from a bow.
There was a gateway ahead. He knew it was a gateway for it was as Nûrgal had described it: four simple lines that raged against reason. An incipient cry of anguish formed in the shaman’s throat but so rapid was their flight that the gateway was behind them by the time its full fury was unleashed. It was indeed a cry of anguish, but also a cry of joy, of wonder. All about him constellations swirled, clamoring for attention. He was at a crossroads and just had to reach out to touch any one of them.
It was here he knew that the judgment of the Marokonda was imposed, where wayward souls were cast adrift. He knew because voices called out to him as the beating wings slowed and the bird began to circle back. There was terror in their timbre; terror beyond desperation, beyond hope. But Ravenkar was not afraid for he knew his purpose to be true.
Circle back to what?
The constellations were fading, but only because something possessing a sharper, more exquisite beauty was emerging. Against it their distant allure could not hope to compete and as the circle of the Marokonda’s flight tightened, a slowly spinning cube began to dominate the scene. As they drew closer the backdrop of the heavens became distorted as entire star-fields appeared to be warped by the terrible energies that resided along its twelve edges. Ravenkar could not bear to dwell on those infernal rods, letting his attention settle rather on the sides that they framed; six scenes of an altogether more benign nature. And yet? Even here there was a simmering clarity that spoke of forces beyond the compass of human intellect; an intensity that burned each scene onto the retina, scoring it there, irremovable, so that the next scene had to be transposed upon it, rather than trail in its fading wake.
The scenes were of a timeless nature. They were not representative of the here and now, nor indeed of any specific period in the past or future; rather they were indicative of location. Ravenkar knew this intuitively and along with that knowledge came the realization that he recognized but two of the locations. Two locations that were in fact one and the same.
On opposing sides of the cube, spinning idly round as the bird drew ever nearer, the unmistakable outline of Djebal Doron was apparent. On occasion that outline would be rapidly magnified on both faces, so that at the extreme limit of the magnification the courtyard pool and its attendant rain trees would be apparent on one face, whilst on the other, darkness would abruptly prevail; darkness relieved only by a sporadic subterranean shimmer of light. It was towards this second face that the bird seemed to be inexorably drawn, matching its speed to that of the rotating cube and appreciably narrowing the intervening distance with each metronomic beat of its wings.
What then of the remaining faces? Again an innate awareness imposed itself on Ravenkar. These were not alien scenes but rather locations on his own world and only a stubborn belief that he had seen more and done more than anyone else on the planet railed at this truth. He also fancied that there was a sequence to the scenes, but as to this he was less certain.
The green isle came first he surmised. Lush, but precipitous for all that and despite the verdant splendor, an inexplicable pall of menace seemed to inhabit the place. As the focus changed, even as it had with Djebal Doron, a dark, deep lake was revealed; the menace still lingered.
If the first isle had been steep-sided, the second was vertiginous, but there was less deception to its harsh, bare slopes and shadowed canyons, although the hidden plateau that was revealed under the intense scrutiny of magnification could never be accused of radiating benevolence.
There was no overhead perspective of the third isle, for what could be gleaned from such an image? It was an isle only in that it was isolated by the encircling sea. That sea was stark blue and from it a chiseled fissured finger of bleached rock arose to an implausible height, its full extent concealed by a rigid layer of cloying mist.
The tumbling cube and the circling bird allowed him only the briefest of glimpses of the fourth isle and for that he was grateful. Its isolation was palpable. Where could this bleak outpost reside? He was looking down at an island whose heart had been ripped out. In its place a churning vortex had been installed whose black waters circled with remorseless fury. And now Ravenkar felt that vortex drawing him in.
He sensed the bird’s wings folding back once more and was consumed by dread. Was this then to be his end? But before they were catapulted into oblivion that particular face of the cube rolled over and he realized that the Marokonda had never for an instant wavered from its intended goal: the face of darkness.
Four different lines this time and once again, that frigid confinement, but on this occasion buffering their speed; then a sensation of gradual descent. Westward now, retracing their path across the Mountains of Mor and thence into that unlikely sparkling cloud that marked the end of their flight.
Onward swept the bird and a numbing weariness came upon Ravenkar. He gave himself up to the cloud and it coalesced about him, and he was absorbed by it.
He was standing, somewhat tentatively, before the Marokonda once more. It gazed impassively back at him. For just an instant he had imagined its wings folding and settling. He did not even question the impression. Its twin was at its side but no longer was the canopy of rain tree branches above them. As his bemused senses made a languorous return, Ravenkar edgily disengaged from the hypnotic gaze that held him in thrall and began to assimilate his subterranean surroundings.
Directly to his left a wall of ice shimmered. Ice, yet not ice. Pinpoints of the most vivid coloring merged to cast over the surface a luminous haze of ever-changing hue, which imbued the chamber with a disturbing supernatural quality. Ravenkar knew that behind that wall the Dead Waters lurked. Had he just been dipped in their profound embrace?
Dripping water caused him to look up. A lazy arch of brickwork formed the roof, but like a patchwork quilt it was interlaced at apparent random with glazed tiles that leered down at him. At first he thought the contorted faces molded upon them mocked him, but on closer inspection he discerned that the expressions were ghastly grim and he quickly diverted his eyes from their scrutiny. But to exaggerate his unease, addled whispers now cavorted around him. Were they vying for his attention? Some seemed to remonstrate with him, but to the majority there was an air of melancholy, of hushed desperation.
He was about to continue his explorations when the shadows directly to his right fled, driven back by a ball of red light that seemed to rise out of the earth. At its core it exuded a fizzing phosphorescence that Ravenkar would normally have associated with a spluttering firework, except that this particular firework was floating. It preceded a figure darker than shadow, ascending a flight of stairs whose stones were surely unaccustomed to such a dramatic intrusion of illumination, albeit less stable than a guttering candle.
‘Even I cannot journey here without the aid of the Marokonda, although familiarity eases the flight. This solemn chamber is shrouded by the Dead Waters, where space and time are condensed. It is their domain. Only they can cruise through the treacherous shoals that abound there, soar over its boundless expanse.
‘Always men have sought entrance to this place, as indeed they are at liberty to do so. For a price, they may enter the citadel and make their way to stand beneath the rain trees, even as you have done; alas, their only reward at that stage is a delegation from the Hierarch to oversee their every move. The price though is prohibitive for it is meant to deter, and so, over the centuries, many have accessed the courtyard by more nefarious means. It matters not, for all, irrespective of their methods, have suffered a similar fate; none did fool the withering inquisition of the great birds. Take heed of them, for their pleading souls whisper to you now. Few, if any, even guessed at what the maze might hold and therein lies the key. Without that knowledge, it is a futile quest. Myth, in the guise of untold riches, drew them in and magic, in the guise of the Marokonda, dispatched them; it holds them still in the unforgiving clutches of the Waters, one step from release, but that step verging on an eternity.’
The Ultima strode over to Ravenkar and grasped his shoulder firmly.
‘I had thought that here we would have to wait until a sign presented itself; some indication that the potency of the maze was diminishing. I had thought that here we could linger for a brief time whilst you gathered your wits about you and recovered your sanity; forewarning of the journey you have just undertaken is a scant prop at best, as you now know, for words can only convey so much. Now however, I fear that we might be too late, for already the battle of wills is being played out and from the conflict ripples wash across our path, even as Arish-Tâ hinted, dousing those obstacles that would do us harm. So come, let us hurry! Like flotsam and jetsam may we yet be transported to our goal.’
The spiral that was the stairs curled resolutely downwards. The further they descended, the more stable did Nûrgal’s fizzing light become, until at the bottom of the stairwell its glow was almost constant.
‘I’m afraid my little revolving ornament does not have the wit and wisdom of your own.’ Nûrgal’s voice echoed along the arched tunnel that lay behind the elaborate wrought-iron gate he was opening. ‘It journeys constantly, no more than a mere flicker to you and I, to retrieve the modest energy that powers it. It cannot gorge itself like the Drathkal, nor can it venture with impunity into different realms. It lights our way however and, as you may see, in more ways than one, although it is not normally required to aid such a mundane radiance as this. I have never witnessed the maze at rest and in such relative darkness. Even here, its deceitful sparks are normally at play.’
All that Ravenkar could presently see was another low brickwork passageway. Mold clung to its arched surface and water glistened there. They advanced cautiously behind the pulsing orb until they arrived at what appeared to be a dead end. Nûrgal turned and looked back along the passageway and so Ravenkar did likewise. Suddenly the floor beneath their feet lurched and the section on which they were standing slowly gave way. There was a distant humming, a vibration, as they descended yet further, now into the very depths of the pyramid itself. To augment the numbing claustrophobia, the orb chose that moment to fade, glowing with all the venom of a dying incense stick. After an eternity it pulsed back to life, just as the platform thudded to a halt and began to revolve.
They had been deposited in a long straight passageway of not inconsiderable width, where torches were the only adornment. These burned at regular intervals down each side and drew the eye directly onwards to what lay ahead. Nûrgal stepped out immediately, an urgency in his gait. Ravenkar followed, his eyes on the arching roof above. He noted, with a passing appreciation, that the jointing in the dressed stone there was almost invisible and doubted that he could have even wedged a knife blade between the individual blocks. Where had he seen this workmanship before? Certainly not in Skîros. He continued to ponder upon this as they walked until something else caught his attention. They were still some way from the end of the passageway when he noticed that the ground there had been excavated down to a slightly lower level. This was presumably so that the imposing sigil that now barred their way could be viewed in its entirety.
‘This then, is where it truly begins.’ There was almost a hint of anticipation in the Ultima’s voice as, with no more than a casual gesture to either side, he extinguished all the torches in their wake. Two torches only remained, those before them now, and they burned with renewed vigor, as though gaining succor from the demise of their colleagues.
In the spreading tongues of light, an eight-pointed sun was revealed. It was unlike anything Ravenkar had ever encountered in the sprawling multitude of texts he had studied, or even browsed, although its core had a disturbing resemblance to the dreaded symbol of Tarrak Kanga.
The elements of the sigil held an uneasy alliance, which at times made it difficult to view. On occasion it did indeed resemble the image of a sun, albeit a baleful one, for what could possibly thrive in such an iniquitous light as that projected by its viridian halo. More often than not however, it was as though the halo, its profile akin to two superimposed squares with one rotated an eighth turn with respect to the other, had been punched through by an errant sphere to leave visible the black void beyond.
It was when viewed in this mode that the slivers of a symbol were more readily apparent, their silvery contrails blossoming irreverently across the all-consuming blackness. And when the ephemeral symbol was viewed assiduously it would respond, its outline becoming more substantial, to such an extent that the observer was left wondering how it had not been immediately apparent.
The symbol had the harsh simplicity of the old language and was a representation of the character “Κ”. Here however it floated in the blackness of the sun’s core with its vertical component at the center; the arrowhead was consequently forced to the right, its lines cut short by the imprisoning circle. This had the effect of dragging the eye up the vertical to the vertex of the topmost ray of the halo, where a much smaller symbol resided, only just visible beneath the roof. It was the same character but about it was an array of tiny circular indentations, each with a groove cut through it, but never at the same angle. Some of the grooves passed through, others emerged, like pointers, from the center of the indentations. They lent a mechanistic aspect to the symbol.
At each of the other seven points of the sun another symbol was located, with its own exclusive array of indentations and Ravenkar examined them now in turn, noting that if some of the symbols were not direct representations of old language characters, they were certainly similar, probably even more archaic in their origins.
But now his musings were interrupted by the insidious grinding of gears and the whirring of cogs, some of the sounds emanating from the wall directly in front of him, but others resonating from deep within the pyramid. And the huge “Κ” before him began to revolve in clockwise fashion so that when its vertical component had reached the horizontal, below it, framed by the arrowhead, a triangular opening into the maze was revealed.
The first chamber stretched out before them. Gone was the dressed stonework and in its stead huge blocks resided, positioned with immense skill, to form an unerring circular cross- section, roughly twice the diameter of the passageway they had just left. Again the jointing, where exposed, was almost imperceptible, but lichen covered most of it, giving the place a dank and dreary complexion.
Nûrgal’s voice echoed harshly in the hushed surroundings. ‘Arish-Tâ ensured that the existence of this infernal level would never again be forgotten, nor the “prize”, although the absolute truth regarding the nature of that particular morsel, namely that it is a book, is known only to the Hierarch and our monarch. He did not however expound on the difficulties, or should I say, the virtual impossibility, of the task at hand. That has been for successive generations to discover, and always to their cost. The accumulated dead of four millennia lie ahead and in all that time no one has grasped the reward. A fortunate few have returned; battered, bleeding and even mad. Or they have not returned at all.’
Their path through the chamber was a paved walkway no more than two cubits across; no guardrails were in position to prevent a fall. The walkway was at mid-height within the block cylinder, suspended from above, and any slip would not in itself necessarily prove fatal although the drop was fairly severe. Rather, it was the liquid canal that oozed beneath that seemed the more deadly, replete with its collection of bloated bodies, most of them floating belly upward.
‘I will save you the bother of counting.’ Nûrgal’s rasping voice cut across Ravenkar’s grim observations. ‘The maze constantly evolves in a number of respects, not least of which is the body count. The liquid has the uncommon ability to preserve whatsoever should end up in its amorphous depths; whether or not this was intentional I cannot say, but I do know that its prime purpose is not preservation, rather it is obfuscation.
‘If you recall, disparate strands of red energy descend the cone. Kuprakindi harnessed them and filtered them down to this level, so that they collect in that strange brew of lichen that clings to the walls. Here the covering is thin but elsewhere it is like a vibrant pelt. Regardless, it quenches the eccentricities of the energy, albeit temporarily, and allows it to build steadily to a saturation point, whereupon it clamors for release. Whenever a chamber is accessed, raging capillaries appear, as untrammeled energy tracks through the moss. The energy is drawn to an open artery at the end of each chamber and emerges as an appalling bolt of deadly intent which plays out its short life in orchestrated repetition between mirrored surfaces, crossing the walkway at many points. Navigating the maze is partly concerned with observing that bolt, taking note of its frequency and the locations where it intersects the walkway. The liquid below does not help in this task; it bends the bolt’s image, makes it more difficult to track.
‘And know this, my friend. In each chamber there is a measured tread that will carry the traveler through unharmed to the point of egress. That tread though is different in each chamber, and to maintain it whilst all about is deadly mayhem is no simple task. Loose the tread and your life is forfeit; which brings me back to those poor unfortunates you see below.
‘The ability of the liquid to sustain its captives, in appearance at least, has led to the irreverent practice of identifying each section of the maze by its particular body count; that irreverence has been born, as I am sure you can appreciate, by the sheer bloody-mindedness required to even contemplate entry into this labyrinth. So, let us then proceed through the Sepulcher, where but six lie, and hope no new appellation will be required after our attempt.’
And so, with heads bowed, they pursued their grim destiny through the chamber. But despite the need to concentrate on the narrow walkway Ravenkar could not avert his eyes from the faces that haunted the canal below, nor the garb that alluded to their origins. Who indeed were they?
It seemed that any confrontation with the Marokonda was discouraged but not actively prevented, once access to the courtyard had been gained at least. There was no physical barrier around them, although he suspected access to the bridge through their arched wings would be a different matter entirely. He knew that miscreants, infidels and adventurers simply did not make it past their inscrutable gaze and it had probably been centuries since any had tried. Presumably, even men of wealth and influence were now deterred by their reputation. He now also knew that to make it as far as the maze itself it was necessary to know what resided at its end; and that was a very closely guarded secret. Which left only the Hierarch.
He had assumed that the robes of the Hierarch would have changed little, even over a multitude of centuries, for it was an austere sect and its members had little need of ostentation; the sight of Nûrgal’s distant predecessor in the Iron Chamber had only strengthened that impression. On two of the figures below however, resplendent scarlet leather platelets and burnished metal shoulder pads peeped out from the confines of the sodden red cloaks that shrouded them. This immediately brought to mind the warrior priests of Haan, and Ravenkar shuddered. For all the pious utterances of the contemporary Hierarch it would seem that militarism had crept into their ranks also. But when?
Their state of decay could not enlighten him. They could have fallen to their doom but yesterday, as could another of the six whose checkered black and red cloak complemented the unlikely pointed hat that adorned his head; a hat that sat there, not bludgeoned to a jaunty angle, but relatively undisturbed, as was the curled and manicured beard that framed the face and floated off in the opposite direction. Glittering bangles circled his wrists and jeweled rings his fingers, metals untarnished by the passage of time. Nor did his outrageous shoes, with their pointed spiraling toes, look any the worse for wear. Indeed they served only to raise another, perhaps more pertinent question: Why would anyone enter such a dangerous place embedded in footwear that absolutely beggared belief?
The puzzled shaman made a mental note to raise the issues later, but for now he knew that his focus had to be elsewhere. He gave no more than a brief glance towards the remaining three figures below whose robes were more subdued, more akin to his expectations. His guilt at such a cursory examination was mollified by the benign expressions resident on their faces. A passer-by such as himself could almost be forgiven for thinking that they indulged in peaceful sleep.
Nûrgal had slowed and Ravenkar now saw that several branches led off from the main walkway, both to the left and to the right. They took the second branch, off to the left, which led directly to an ominous shadowy opening in a curved segment of the wall. He counted seven more branches, the one they had already bypassed and six beyond, each leading to a different segment. It then became apparent that the eight segments in this arrangement were complete circular segments, unlike their jointed predecessors in the rest of the chamber, and each had an opening of its own. The remaining seven of those openings however, were positioned at odd angles around their circumferences. Ravenkar sensed immediately that all of the segments must rotate, not only with respect to the rest of the chamber but also independently of one another and indeed there was an abiding impression of latent motion about them; the air swirled here and ripples intersected on the surface of the liquid below as it quivered. Beyond the eighth ring the walkway widened into a circular platform that marked its end.
‘Stray onto the wrong branch,’ said Nûrgal with some solemnity, ‘then into the wrong opening, and your fate will be sealed. The stone ring will grind to a halt and block any return, leaving a stark choice between suicide and starvation. You would normally linger awhile on yonder platform to make your choice. You would be safe there for a short while from the questing energy seeking your demise. But only for a short while. The correct choice would be the ring that was traveling more slowly than the rest. That ring though would never be out of step with the other seven by more than but a second or two, nor would there be any pattern from previous incursions to help you identify it.
‘But today such matters need not concern us, for the rings are at rest! The beast sleeps! I had not dared to hope. It is as Arish-Tâ said.’ Nûrgal’s voice was more animated than Ravenkar had ever heard. ‘And let us hope the beast still sleeps at the last, and we do not have to face the full fury of the Hospice, to use its most familiar term of reference.’
From the manner in which he spat out the words, Ravenkar assumed that the Ultima was not entirely in favor of the flippant references given to the different sections of the maze and that thought suppressed what might have otherwise been a wry chuckle. The paucity of numbers that flowed undisturbed in the wake of “The Hospice” also gave him pause for thought and further diluted any incipient show of mirth.
Nûrgal strode forward in the manner of one who has seen it all before, but then stopped, as though mulling something over. ‘I can only imagine the panic that assails Isladoron at this moment, for even as we speak the heart of our temple must be at rest, so finely entwined is it with its other half. For weeks it has slowed, but never to a standstill. And as the energy that drives this abominable level is constrained, so does its machinery settle into a preordained pattern. A pattern that leaves it open, vulnerable at last. I see now that all that has gone before was meant only as a tantalizing glimpse of that which awaited, a reminder to pay heed to our myths and the events that spawned them. The maze was never meant to be breached until now; until the comet cut a swathe through our skies and the Black was able to loosen its bonds. Come, we must drive on into its center whilst that dark Stone yet contrives an escape.’
They had passed out of the first chamber and as near as Ravenkar could judge, the tunnel in which they now found themselves was perfectly straight, but he had no terms of reference, no light. The orb spluttered fitfully in those narrow confines but it was enough to reveal a rough bare rock surface streaked with rivulets of what he assumed was water. There was no time to verify the assumption though for his guide pressed on relentlessly, until after about a hundred stuttering paces the tunnel ran out and directly below them was a circular aperture, hewn out of the floor. An iron ladder, rusting and incomplete, was attached to the end wall before them and dropped down into a small enclosure below. Nûrgal climbed down with practiced ease; Ravenkar was slightly more circumspect in his descent.
They were in an eight-sided vault, except that one of those eight sides had disappeared, obviously their exit route. Seven of the entrance sigil’s peripheral characters were apparent, one at the center of each of the remaining panels. The character “Ў” was absent.
‘The same eight characters always embellish the maze’s main sigil,’ said Nûrgal, as they entered darkness once more, ‘but their order is rarely consistent, save that the “Κ” is always at the top and identifies the first chamber. The order must be memorized for that represents the order of progression that will be required through the maze at that particular time.
‘The vault we have just exited is in fact a gateway. All eight sides are normally in evidence and upon alighting on the floor you would see them begin to revolve about you, eventually becoming as one. Then they would slow, and as they did so, a character of the main sigil would appear before you on each panel. From that moment, until the vault stops rotating, there is an interval of about five heartbeats. The procedure might occur once, or it might occur a hundred times, but you would wait until the order of the characters reflected the order around the main sigil, not too easy a task I can assure you, after the rigors of one or more of the chambers. There is then a similar interval before the vault starts up again. During that time you would make your decision. If you had perceived that the order was correct you would plunge through the panel displaying the character of the next chamber; that would be your way out. Should the order have been incorrect, then you would meet with a most untimely demise. Thus would it also be had the order been correct and you had not made your move. Thus is it ever in the maze.’
Ravenkar did not like the next transition. Great stone blocks pressed in on either side and the roof was so high that the meager light of the orb could not ensnare it. For the first time he sensed the colossal weight of masonry that enclosed them and smiled grimly at the thought of Jak’s response to such a situation. The space never widened but the roof eventually sloped downwards to frame an exit, where Nûrgal now stood.
‘Behold, the Tomb, where ten bodies bask. At this portal a curtain would normally hang and here we would pause a while to harmonize with its vibrations, for it would be a curtain of energy: focused delyrium. We would soon step through, for its red energies would be low, not like the violet veil that allegedly awaits us at journey’s end. Of more import would be its frequency, for that would dictate the tone for the chamber to come. It would set the measure of our tread. And then my little bauble would reveal its greatest asset, for it would pulse at that frequency, undismayed by all going on around it, until we had gained the exit. But come, let us negotiate the Tomb, and then the Necropolis, where but one fewer lie.’
The Stone began to spin on its axis and archaic bonds began to assert themselves; by infinitesimal degrees it was slipping its shackles. Which was when the eye of the prevailing tempest passed over the atoll. The seas no longer breached the white wall and the rhythm of the Pool began to reassert itself. The Stone was unconcerned. It had assessed the stellar shifts that were taking place. It was only a matter of time and in the manner of all things elemental, it had infinite patience. It sank slowly back into the watery clutches of its prison, but anticipatory currents flashed throughout its crystalline structure.
Ravenkar was tired and leaning heavily now on his staff. It was not just the physical exertion that was draining him. He had thought the scattered inmates of the previous chambers would have inured him to this, but he was wrong. It would be a callous soul indeed who could walk through the Hospice unperturbed. Here the bodies did not float in splendid isolation, benevolence molded into their faces, as though contemplating some sublime horizon. Instead, most of those raw countenances had been overtaken by surprise, shock even, that their lives, hitherto replete with import and consequence, should be snatched from them in so summary a fashion, with little or no attention to the formalities normally attendant upon such occasions. Limbs were entwined in the most intimate of embraces, joints twisted to their limits and beyond. Within this morass of spent humanity the liquid trickled or it flowed, sustaining its grisly tableau with a minimum of fuss, rearranging its charges like a fastidious caretaker.
Ravenkar did not speak, but Nûrgal disconcertingly answered his questions anyway.
‘There is no single factor that heightens the danger in this particular chamber. It is the eighth and last, therefore the prize is close at hand; expectancy usurps concentration, quickens the measured tread. Observe also the lichen; here it is at its most profuse and the energy build-up is more intense. The bolt, when it comes, is like a captive beam from a dying star. Here more than anywhere the tread is the key, for the beam is too fast to follow; that it shies away from entering the liquid is of little help or consequence, although it is probably fortunate, given the carnage it would create.’
Nûrgal had been about to say something else but instead he visibly tensed as a barely discernible wash of color enveloped the lichen. It was not an insipid green as might have been expected; rather the swaying fronds were infused by a delicate red, so brittle that it evaporated almost immediately, but only to reappear in a distinctly more menacing guise. A lambent ripple now passed through the lichen, which began to glow like embers wafted by a rising wind, lighting up each of the faces below with an anticipatory glow.
No words were needed. Time was no longer their ally. Ravenkar’s eyes darted ahead but the expected way out did not materialize. It was then that he realized the walkway was not ramified in the usual fashion and that there was in fact a different mode of exit from this chamber. Even as he gauged the distance involved, a dull grinding sound came to his ears, the like of which can only emanate from heavy stones moving against one another. The horizontal component of the character at the walkway’s end began to move inexorably around to the vertical and the arrowhead that was their way out began to rotate with it.
Confronted by the prospect of an extended stay in the Hospice, Ravenkar’s weary limbs were suddenly imbued with hitherto unsuspected reserves of energy and the distance to salvation narrowed with remarkable swiftness. Fortunately, the closing mechanism operated with exquisite slowness, as is ever the case where monstrous cogs must come into close proximity, and the two priests were just able to throw themselves through the diminishing wedge of the exit as the air crackled behind them and a terrible keening sound echoed around the chamber they had just vacated.
The grinding had stopped and there was silence. Absolute. The Well was unnerving, even as Nûrgal had predicted. A vertical cylinder that was maybe two hundred paces across, its upper and lower bounds hidden in swirling vapors. Across its center spanned a bridge of the most curious design.
The Ultima stood before Ravenkar and began to speak, his voice masked with a cold efficiency. But the older shaman knew better than that. He knew how many times Nûrgal must have stood where they stood now, how many times he must have attempted this crossing only to be beaten back under a hail of impenetrable energy. For as they now knew, the archmage Kuprakindi had decreed that none should succeed here until the time was right.
‘Until our goal is in sight, look down only. Anchor your sight, your body, all that is you, to these cobbles beneath. Delight at the multitude of their elegant hues, wonder at the cement that binds them. Do not under any circumstances let your vision stray to the gilded lanterns that flank our path, or beyond, into the emptiness that awaits.
‘Even my familiarity with this sinuous enigma cannot slow my quickening pulse, for today, Ravenkar of Khir, there is no turning back. Today we shake the devil’s hand, whether it waits for us at the bottom of the Well or on yonder side.’
And so it was that Ravenkar followed the Ultima’s tread out onto the bridge with one last look at what was in store for them; that lazy gut-wrenching twist at the center of the bridge, where up became down and down would slide effortlessly above them. He tore his gaze from the mesmeric spiral of the lanterns and with a sigh of resignation started to admire the cobbles beneath his feet. The lowering of his head was also a subconscious act of recognition that acknowledged the presence upon the walls of the congregation.
Their enchantments dictated that these two intruders should be sent flailing into oblivion, yet coursing below, under the harsh ceramic exteriors into which they had been molded, was a current of hope. And thus it was that conflict raged. The eternal mists within the Well that reacted with their stilted exhalations, that sent blasts of stinging reprimand scurrying around the bridge, were effectively absent, coiled in vapid reluctance at the chamber’s vertical extremities. And so it was that all around, with deadly breath bated, their expectant senses followed the progress of the two tiny figures as they crossed the creaking stone spiral. Even when the coiled pearl-green opalescence began its inevitable insidious approach in concert with the black Stone’s descent, the conflict was sustained and the bonds of enchantment were strained to absolute limits as pursed ceramic lips fought to contain the barbed condemnations that would put an impenetrable blockade across the path of the assailants.
A tide approached now, of that there was no doubt. An insistent churning rush on whose back a cacophony of voices wailed and moaned and screeched, all to the accompaniment of frustrated demons scraping their metallic fingernails down the ancient walls.
Ravenkar staggered on and pulled himself up on his staff to stand next to Nûrgal, even as Raven Lôkar had stood next to Arish-Tâ, so long ago. Step after labored step had seen him negotiate the bridge, and the convoluted detail at its center was now behind him. His silver mane and the robes he wore still followed the normal dictates of gravity. His beard still drooped. The flames in the lanterns still sought solace in the opposite direction. He dared to raise his gaze.
A stone hand was before them, each finger the girth and length of a forearm. It sprouted from an alcove at the bridge’s end. On its outspread palm a voluminous tome rested. Its gleaming pages flicked over of their own accord as the two men stood before it, caught between stealth and urgency.
And then it SNAPPED shut!
Hand and book retreated into the alcove but a beckoning forefinger urged them on, even as a violet veil flickered into being across the opening.
‘And now my friend, I think it is up to you,’ shouted Nûrgal over the din of their impending doom.
The infra energy that sought them ploughed through the enclosing mists, which drew it from reluctant mouths like voracious smoke rings, to smash into the walls above and below them. Ravenkar, who had long since ceased his dalliance with the concepts of “above” and “below”, started forward as Nûrgal stood resolute, his great cape swirling about him, dispersing the encroaching medium through which the energy flowed. The old shaman knew he had but moments to accomplish his task, but where to begin?
It was more like a pellucid haze than something tangible, and that, he surmised, was because it was unstable and flickered incessantly. Behind it, the great book was vertical in the hand’s cold grasp; the three outermost fingers curled around the spine and pressed into the front cover, the forefinger was splayed outward and the thumb, presumably, pressed against the back. Embedded into the front cover was the eight-pointed sun, surely Kuprakindi’s own sigil, with the “Κ” at its center. There were however no other characters to aid him.
He sat cross-legged before the veil and composed himself. Could this be so difficult? But there were so many inconsistencies with the ultra energies. The Drathkal could access prodigious quantities of it, but he dared not go down that route; the Quorum at Tak Khiroba could barely muster a hesitant flame when it was required, which fortunately was not often. Yet the energy was already here; he did not have to seek it out.
Thoughts of Tak Khiroba sent his thoughts down another path; caused him to remember the other curtains within the maze that Nûrgal had mentioned. Could that be it?
His earlier dealings with the Marokonda allowed Ravenkar to slip effortlessly into the darkness of the Inner Sanctum at Tak Khiroba, just as the mantra was being invoked; the mantra that allowed the priests to succumb to the trance within which they could excite their dwindling store of dêlyrium. In an instant the same mantra was issuing forth from his own mouth as he sought the frequency of the barrier confronting him. Up through the unwavering reds to the less stable realms, yet still it did not respond. But it was at that place, at the very edge of the spectrum, at the extreme limit of his capabilities, that the characters became visible through the veil. A single verse had emerged on the cover of the book, just beneath the sigil, with each of its three lines extending out from the three grasping fingers. It read thus:
To gather that which you seek,
You must risk all and reach out,
As did I.
In an instant Ravenkar exited his trance. In the limited time available the translation had not been beyond him, for which he was grateful. The more archaic characters had responded to his desperate substitutions, but how did this help him? What sense did it make? And then something tugged at the frayed corners of his intellect. He had altered something because it allowed for a smoother translation; it fitted better into the scheme of things, or at least his perception of that scheme. The tense had seemed at odds with the rest of the verse. As did I? As do I?
And then he smiled, whilst raising his right hand before the veil, his thumb pointing upwards, his forefinger splayed outwards and his three remaining fingers curled around an imaginary book.
He knew he was right, but for a few terrible moments nothing happened. The coldness of the vapor was about to consume them; the coiling rings of energy were smashing the walls above them and the walkway behind them.
When it happened he did not know if he was more fearful of the onrushing energy or the animated object before him. There was no jerking to its movement; it manipulated itself with a fluid grace, a terrible delicacy. The veil was gone and the book was before him. He reached out tentatively to touch it, to caress its fabled cover.
And as he touched it, the hand froze and the enchantments within the maze were no more. The numerous walls within its infamous confines did not shudder, rather its chambers echoed with the sound of shattering stone and the collective sigh of a thousand tortured souls as they were released into the Great Void.