The scent of burning wood was now apparent to Chemalak as he worked his way stealthily down the valley slope, keeping the swollen stream between himself and the Khâlian encampment. He had elected to make this foray alone, suspecting that even his supreme talents in the art of concealment would be put sorely to the test. Not that he had been given an array of options. Krul had flatly refused his request at first and he had been forced to explain his reasoning. The scene played out in his mind, even as he ran.
Westward, any route downwards off the plateau became suicidal. The Clann scouts, Chemalak amongst them, had quickly realized this when they had been searching out locations to ascend back out of the forest, come the aftermath of the battle. Even the slopes behind the eastern bluff had required climbing ropes, but here, in the vicinity of the second ravine, near-vertical gullies and sharp edged spurs were all that awaited. Yet clinging to that crumbling chaos Chemalak had discovered a platform of sorts, and it was where he stood now, with Krul and the eagle-sighted Hakkulbak.
Before the battle he had followed the tumbling stream out of that westerly ravine as his brothers-in-arms had hacked out its bed to provide themselves with additional cover. He had hoped it would continue down on its merry way into the forest below, cutting a moderately steep gorge into the mountainside as it went. But of course, inevitably, it had spouted out in dramatic fashion over a vertical rock face. The steps he had then noticed on his way back up, concealed in shadow beneath the overhanging plateau. They seemed to materialize from a dark gully in the cliff face.
‘Alright, I’ll give you that the steps are definitely man-made,’ Krul muttered gruffly, ‘and so, having conceded that, I suppose I must concede that this overgrown ledge is also a deliberate construction.’
‘I suppose the presence of a seat would also lend credence to that viewpoint.’ Chemalak’s terse remark was met with a scowl from Krul and a smile from Hakkulbak.
The Clann leader was about to question that assumption too, but the words caught in his throat as Hakkulbak lurched backwards from the object in question clutching a huge clump of thorny vegetation. What was now revealed certainly had the contours of a seat, a comfortable one at that, and as the archer renewed his labors, nothing was uncovered to counter Chemalak’s assertion. What was emerging however was a very strange seat indeed, more akin to a high-backed chair. That back was tapered and disappeared into a mass of thornwood bushes that would have yielded only to the determined application of a heavy machete or some other instrument of similar disposition, such as Krul’s war axe. Unsurprisingly, Krul seemed disinclined to use his prized weapon for such a menial task, preferring instead to lean on it, whilst idly observing Hakkulbak’s increasingly frustrated efforts at restoration.
The seat though was not the principal reason for their meeting upon that ledge and suddenly they were given a jolting reminder of that.
They were all in a position to witness it, although Hakkulbak was in the act of turning away. Was it occurring with ever increasing frequency or had they just been fortunate to climb onto the platform at exactly the right time? It was something fundamental that occurred, yet such was the swiftness of its passing they were now forced to look at each other for mutual confirmation of its happening.
There had been no noise whatsoever, but for a fraction of a second the fabric of the darkening sky had been ripped asunder, distorted by a jagged column of coruscating energy. The scene had been scorched onto their retinas and had triggered something lying dormant in their genetic memories. Ancient messages of warning had been flooding their neural pathways before their perceptive senses had even acknowledged the event and so it was that the words emerged from Krul’s mouth almost as a stammer.
‘I t-take it that I was not alone in witnessing that?’
There was no immediate response, for the others were actually incapable of speech, but eventually Chemalak managed to answer.
‘It came from over there, deep in the forest to the west of the river. I am sure of it. I knew I had seen something earlier!’
They followed the line of his indignant finger, far out across the forest below, to where an indistinct circle had formed amongst the trees. Even as they watched it was fading, but its existence was irrefutable.
‘Tell me Chemalak, what exactly did you see earlier?’ Krul had his voice under control by this time.
‘It was insubstantial. As it is now, but even fainter. I would see it out of the corner of my eye, but when I tried to observe it directly, it was not there. No trace of it whatsoever through the spyglass.’
‘We have all sensed something ominous about this valley,’ said Hakkulbak. ‘Perhaps this is the nub of our concern.’
‘Would that Ravenkar was here.’ Krul was scraping the blade of his axe across the underside of his chin, as he always did when a particularly difficult problem presented itself. Its rather sharp edge had a wonderful way of focusing his thoughts. ‘Whatever that sign may portend, my only concern at this moment is the safe return of the entire Clann to Skîros. I do not see how sorcerous happenings in the forests of this remote valley can possibly influence that. And yet. Something stirs within me. A feeling of unease hounds my soul.’
‘Then let me go, Krul, and let me go alone,’ pleaded Chemalak. ‘If there is anything to fear, I will discover it. Should it discover me, then you will have lost but one of our number.’
Still Krul hesitated. When his answer finally came it was accompanied by a bead of blood trickling down his neck. A huge hand clamped down on the back of Chemalak’s shoulder.
‘So be it, brother, but tread carefully. I fear this time that your nimble footfalls shall tread across the very skirts of hell.’
The evening clouds had dispersed and although Iambos was on the wane, it still lit up the valley floor like a beacon. Chemalak could clearly make out the sentries on the opposite bank and knew that they would be especially alert after the day’s events. Another would have cursed the lack of cloud cover, but to one such as him it exposed his enemy and allowed the stars to be his guide.
Further into the forest he swept, his every sense on alert. His tread was quicker now for he had much distance to cover, but no tracks did he leave in his wake. The scent of pine was thick about him as he dodged through dappled shadows, pausing only to glance at the starfield above and the peaks behind, their snow-clad slopes bathed in eerie luminescence, courtesy of the benevolent moon.
For a while it was the retreating mountains that guided him more than the stars, but before long he had need of neither, which was just a well, for about him the trees had heightened and their trunks had gathered closer. The mountains were obliterated and what few stars he could see were strangely sullen. It was the faint sound of drumbeats that drew him on.
The lower branches and the undergrowth were becoming stifling but he eyed the track that had appeared with some diffidence. Under less pressing conditions he would have been more circumspect, but time was passing and as ever he could not rely on its support. Before him was a line of hard-packed earth with a thin grass verge to either side. It had received a recent pounding, so at least his footprints would be difficult to pick out. With this in mind he stepped cautiously onto it and quickened his pace, although the loping gait that bore him forward was now deliberately irregular.
So intent was he on concealment that it was no little time before he noticed that the nature of the trees to either side had changed. A line of thick-boled trees, ancient beyond compare to the forest they held back, now lined the route. The very lowest of their branches were far above and formed a canopy that blotted out the sky.
A weariness came over Chemalak as the avenue and its resinous odors took him into their sinister embrace. An incontestable urge to lie down came over him; to savor the moment and reminisce of the times he had passed that way before.
His back was pressed against a gnarled trunk and his body began to sag. The drums, insistent though they were, served only to amplify his torpor with their steady pounding rhythm.
His head snapped back. Adrenalin surged through him. What was happening? The rhythm had changed. It was faster now, more urgency to it. What had he been thinking? Even as he asked the question, so he knew the answer.
The track began a gentle descent, exposing tortuous root systems to either side. The insidious resinous vapors were more pungent than ever but other odors were now in evidence. Foul noxious substances were abroad. Chemalak almost gagged and found that his eyes had begun to smart. He pulled the hood of his scaly cape yet more tightly over his head and pressed on from one shadow to the next, a ghostly lizard, until a gateway loomed large ahead. Three stones of gargantuan proportions, somehow fashioned into an arch. This then was Khir’s other place of power!
He had followed the track as far as he dared and ducked now beneath the snaking roots of one of the great trees. More familiar evergreens awaited him on the far side, but the trees were tightly packed and the undergrowth near impassable. With the grace and agility of a big cat, or perhaps the lizard whose skin he bore, he hauled himself into the interlocking branches above and began to climb. With drumbeats echoing all around him, he edged his way upwards and onwards.
The climb was arduous and when he came upon the clearing he was surprised at the height he had gained, for he had lost sight of the ground long ago. He took up a position of relative comfort in the crook of a polepine tree, just where the main trunk divided. His body was hidden behind this vertical fork and supported on two thick branches that splayed horizontally out of it, away from the clearing. He noticed, with some dismay, that all the branches on all the trees radiated out in this fashion and none actually extended into the clearing, lending to it the guise of an almost perfect circle. From his vantage point he was given the most bizarre impression that the trees were actually backing away from it; as though those that should have grown inside the clearing had encroached upon the space of their surrounding neighbors, rather than embrace life within its bounds.
It was large, well over a hundred paces across, and not a single blade of grass thrust through its smooth rock floor. The air within it crackled and reeked of ozone and Chemalak knew, like the graveyard of the pine-tigers, it had been there long before the coming of the forest; that such clearings were strewn across the mystical wastes of Khanju, locked away from sight of mortal man by potent glamors; that in such places nefarious magic had been practiced at the dawn of time by sorcerers more demons than men.
But this was Khir, and whilst it was recorded that two places of power existed within its borders, not even the priests of Tak Khiroba knew of the second’s whereabouts, let alone the means of its unlocking. For reasons unknown, at least to the Clann, the glamor that protected the pine-tigers’ refuge had long since faded but it was rumored to be a unique instance. All others were said to be intact, including this one. Who then could have gleaned its secret?
The answer was not long in coming. A stepped stone dais occupied the center of the clearing. There were five sides to it and five ascending levels, each smaller than the one below. On the topmost level a figure kneeled, arms outstretched to the heavens in a gesture of supplication. Chemalak’s vision was blurred now in response to constant aggravation from rising smoke and the substances it bore, so instinctively he pulled the spyglass from one of the many pockets that riddled the battered leather waistcoat he invariably wore beneath his cape. The figure swam into the lens with a clarity that was startling.
Azrahôtep! Vile creature of Mor! The figure froze in the lens with an abruptness that was chilling. And turned.
Chemalak did not lower the lens but instead, shrank from it, willing his aura to ebb into the scales that concealed him, to disperse into the branches that held him and dissipate into their leaves.
A questing probe of searing concentration passed over him at that moment, scorching the surrounding trees with no less intensity than an enraged dragon might display. He felt its heat lingering over him, curious, searching. After an eternity measured in the span of but a few heartbeats, it lifted and was gone. He allowed his awareness to return but was powerless to dictate the speed with which it pooled; it seemed like rainwater collecting in a barrel, dripping down with excruciating slowness from a frugal gutter. But even when the clearing finally had his full attention once more, it was through the slanted eyeholes in his hood and not the lens.
The drums had reached a crescendo. Each was placed at the extreme edge of the clearing, lining up with a corner of the central dais. Ostensibly there was nothing unusual about them; animal skin stretched and fixed by ropes over a wooden framework. Even the sound they produced was not out of the ordinary. What could be deemed strange however were the vibrations they imparted to the air. Something resembling a shimmering heat haze had arisen around the periphery of the clearing and the tremulous fluttering of the leaves in his immediate vicinity did not go unobserved by Chemalak. For better or for worse he was ensnared, or, adopting a more favorable interpretation, he was more inside than out.
Before Chemalak’s eyes moved back to the dais they came to rest fleetingly upon the creatures that pounded the drums, raising and lowering their mallets with metronomic precision. Their chalk-white bodies were completely hairless and oddly sexless. A notion came to him unbidden, a notion that something abhorrent had been enacted here. He pictured these creatures breaking out of pods, sleek and fully formed, rather than following the more conventional path to maturity. He shook his head violently, for a notion also came to him that his imaginings might extend to a sprouting of wings from his back and an ascension into the heavens if he continued to inhale those noxious fumes.
Simultaneously, although he was quite sure it was not in response to the shaking of his head, two concentric rings of figures sprang to their feet from the clearing floor. What he had taken for priests, their bodies pitched forward in postures of groveling obeisance, were nothing of the sort. Mundane priestly garb did indeed mask their bodies, but leather and metal skulked beneath and as hoods were flung back, the warrior-slaves of Tarrak Kanga revealed themselves.
Even without the distinctive brushes of spiky hair running down the center of their otherwise shaven heads, he would have recognized them. There was something about the way they moved, about the upright way they held themselves. As Chemalak’s eyes scanned the outer circle and then the inner, counting roughly two hundred warriors, they were inevitably drawn back to the dais and the figure that was the object of affection for all those assembled there.
As Azrahôtep cavorted around the perimeter of the bottom step, iron grillages became apparent to the Clannsman. They obviously covered five pits, each of which was positioned at a vertex of the bottom step and thrust down through the clearing floor. The grillages were little more than a step across in either direction but the depth of the pit that each concealed was another matter. He supposed that they might well have descended to the very bowels of the planet, so abhorrent were the fumes that issued forth from them.
Azrahôtep fanned those fumes, strutting around his stage with cape outstretched. So mesmeric was his performance that the passage of the five drummers towards the dais went almost unobserved by Chemalak, more especially as the pounding rhythm of the drums continued to reverberate around the clearing; apparently, once initiated, it required no further impetus. It was only at the last that the watching Clannsman became aware of them as they halted, each above a grillage, mallets hanging limply around their necks, vacuous drug-induced expressions betraying a complete indifference to their surroundings. It was then that the odious monster of ceremonies approached them and throttled the life out of them, one after another.
It was the same procedure for each: grasping the mallets, he would loop the connecting wire about the neck from which it hung, dragging the unfortunate creature down like a sacrificial goat until its head was directly over the pit; he would pull tight, knee now upon the creature’s back, until a ring of red emerged; he would pull tighter, until a copious gush of blood spattered the grillage beneath, from where it would drip unerringly into the depths below. The bodies convulsed and then lay still, the prelude to an unnerving period of utter tranquility during which Azrahôtep returned to the top of the dais and the assembled warriors stood rigidly immobile, almost to attention; during which Chemalak reflected on the events he had just witnessed, wondering if those strangled corpses had in fact possessed mothers and fathers after all; during which he marked the shaman for death, regardless.
Drip, drip, drip. The catalyst worked its ancient magic. Blood magic.
Even Azrahôtep’s strong fingers had trembled as he made ready for the ceremony and unlatched the small casket before him. The crumbling texts had told him of the five ceremonial blocks on the third level of the dais, on the south facing step; of the caskets that lay below each block. His hands had seemed detached from his body as they followed the sequence for unlocking the second block, gateway to the second and most savage of the ceremonies. As the block had slid smoothly aside, allowing him to extract the casket from within, it had come to him: all of this was meant to be, all the way back to his faith in those glyph-ridden texts.
The texts, although similar, had been older by far than the parchments handed down to him by his father, They had been amongst the possessions of his predecessor, Szelsar the Vain, formerly chief advisor to Muramotek.
The poison he had used to dispatch Szelsar had been particularly refined; vain the man might have been, stupid he most assuredly was not. The sealed jar within which the texts had been concealed was testament to this. It had been identical in every detail to the bland earthenware jars around it that contained the exotic waxes, cosmetics and perfumes with which Szelsar had so liked to preen himself: nevertheless its contents had been immeasurably more precious. Only his vindictive glee in ruining all that his archrival held dear had caused those contents to be unearthed, but even as the fragments of pottery scattered across the marble table and the tightly scrolled parchments hit the floor, he had known instinctively of their worth.
What had Szelsar made of them? What had he divined from the bold but elusive diagrams that littered their fragile surfaces? It must have been frustrating in the extreme to have had only half the answer to the puzzle. Here were specific details relating to all the places of power within Isladoron. Specific details – but, alas, no locations.
He had suspected the scrolls immediately, for he had already followed up on the legacy of his birthright. He had always thought that his father’s Morish scrolls might be copies of much older scrolls that had probably originated in Chok Apûl. It was now easy to speculate that those originals were indeed Szelsar’s scrolls and the incomplete copies from his father had been hastily done. Hastily done at the behest of some sinister adversary? One of his very own ancestors perhaps? No matter, incomplete or not, they had led him, one by one, to Khanju’s places of power. For he had possessed the one vital element that Szelsar had lacked: the key plan!
Whilst scrutinizing his recently acquired bounty he had come across the heavily inked drawing of a five-stepped ziggurat, and a memory had stirred, although he had not made the association immediately. He had gone to the concealed location where his own scrolls were stored and unfurled the key plan; Szelsar’s scrolls were all cross referenced to this one scroll with a straightforward numbering system. He had intended to begin in Khanju, scrutinizing the places he had yet to visit, for there were many. But even as he had spread the plan out and smoothed it flat, his eye had been drawn to the forefinger of his left hand, or, more precisely, to the sculpted nail at its end. Directly beneath it was a circle, and nestling within that circle was a pentagon. Both outlines had been faint, obscure even, and they had been situated not in Khanju, but at the head of a remote valley in Khir!
He believed in destiny, particularly his own, so such divine intervention was to be expected. Thenceforth he had focused his obsessive intellect upon Khir’s lesser known place of power. It had been difficult to reconcile the bold, forceful glyphs on those aging pages of Szelsar’s scrolls with the vague diminished outlines on his key plan, but something had driven him on. In short, he had faith, and providence was soon to repay that faith and give him an unexpected chance to prove the validity of the scrolls.
It so happened that Muramotek had always been more assiduous in his pursuit of the seemingly ageless feud with Skîros than recent members of his bloodline; more ambitious for conquest, for power. The convenient disappearance of the fish-boat fleet had provided the perfect excuse to further such ambitions. When the plotting had begun in earnest in the bowels of Castle Skal, as chief advisor to Muramotek, he himself had been invited to attend. It had not been a popular invitation so he had been delighted when the emperor had faced down the entire war council with regard to its legality. And when General Oju had suggested that they approach Skîros via the southern route through the Nrulu valley, his joy had been complete. More than he could ever have hoped for!
He had been careful, diffident in his support, knowing only too well of the mistrust with which an outsider such as himself was viewed. Eventually though, Oju had prevailed and so the tentative plying of Muramotek’s will to his own had begun: the tantalizing mention that a place of power existed upon their route; the innocuous suggestion that it might be of benefit to them.
But despite the good fortune that had attended him, he had never intended to invoke the second ceremony. For that he had the Clann to thank. To pass through the portal and view what lay beyond was all that he had ever envisaged. If he had been pressed he might have admitted to a desire to bait some lower order demon, to shackle it to his will; that really would have been the limit of his ambitions. But this! He had not supposed an opportunity like this would present itself so soon.
Good fortune? Even as he now opened the casket, something stirred; something dangerous that resided within him. In preparing himself for the coming trial, he had relaxed the rigid discipline that normally shielded him from its intrusions; the discipline that protected him from the malignant mote of consciousness that accompanied him almost everywhere, and which would have driven lesser minds insane.
There was always a price to be paid, a balance to be maintained, and his desire to wander into forbidden realms had cost him dear. Before he had usurped Szelsar he had roamed far and wide throughout Khâl. Kondaara had been one of his favorite haunts. It was a place where people often went missing. Most of them were destined for a life of servitude in Tarrak Kanga anyway. One day a slave ship had gone aground in a storm, just outside the harbor; the reefs were treacherous there. Did it really matter if a few bloated corpses went astray? His intention had been to subject them to a series of ancient rites from an era of necromancy best forgotten, but he had been thwarted at the very first. Consciousness lingered yet in one of the corpses, but it had been under the control of another.
A mere mortal would have been unable to resist its withering assault, but he had been made of sterner stuff and so it had not been able to dominate him. Alas, nor had he been able to gain the upper hand either, and so it was that a pact had been made: henceforth, he would tread where it could not and help bring its plans to fruition, whilst it would help nurture his mastery of the dark arts. But despite the pact he had been under no illusions. He had known, with a fair degree of certainty, that its plans would never be revealed to him. He had known, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that someday the collective to which this malignance belonged would try to subsume him or, failing that, destroy him utterly. So in the interim he had determined to maintain the uneasy alliance, welcoming its return after the forays it made back to the collective, hoping that eventually he might find a way to bolt shut the trapdoor through which it gained access. The difficulty would be in keeping those particular plans to himself.
What was causing it to stir? Thus far it had remained superficially indifferent to his latest intentions. All that had been apparent was a tiny psychic flux, immediately concealed, as they entered the clearing, no doubt prompted by the fact that here was a place of power. And he had ignored it. This though was an altogether larger flux, a surge almost. Not exactly fear, he thought, but certainly something akin to anxiety.
Anyone else would have been paralyzed by caution at that moment, and have given more credence to the warnings in the scrolls, but such was his lust for dark knowledge that an exultant inferno swept through him. It lit up the dark recesses where his eyes allegedly dwelled, and stretched his parchment skin to the limit. It caused his fingers to tremble as he opened the casket, his hands to visibly shake as he plucked the three glass phials from within. It caused his gait to falter as he had made his way down to each pit in turn, therein to pour exactly one fifth of the contents of each of those phials. And then there was the amulet.
Drip, drip, drip. The catalyst worked its ancient magic. Blood magic. Three powerful compounds, already smoldering, were thus combined into an arcane amalgam; smoke and clogging fumes rose inexorably upwards before spewing out vehemently over the rock floor of the clearing. In concert with their appearance, two hundred pairs of arms were thrust skywards and two hundred guttural voices took up a ritual chant to the rhythm of the still beating drums. Two hundred bodies began to gyrate and then the warrior-slaves of Tarrak Kanga were lost as the toxic fumes consumed them, altering perceptions, disrupting nerve mechanisms.
Chemalak watched from above whilst the heaving fumes worked their perfidious magic and Azrahôtep resumed his fanning motions, strutting around his stage with cape billowing. Soon it no longer billowed, but flapped, a skeletal frame at its core, so that to the now impressionable mind of the Clannsman, a demented lizard-bird appeared to hover over the dais. He strove to shrug off the image, recognizing the dire effects the fumes were having, even ensconced on his elevated perch. He tore off a patch of lint from the strip he kept in his field pack and moistened it with a few drops of water from the small leather bottle he always carried. He pressed the lint over his mouth and nose and gradually his head began to clear.
The fumes were clear but distorted the air as they rippled upwards. The smoke from which they emanated was dense though and did not rise, but lay over the clearing like a thick white carpet. One by one the paralyzed warriors collapsed into its weave.
Had he lapsed into sleep? The smoke had thinned slightly and the clearing now resembled a bubbling cauldron. He could vaguely discern dark shapes within its smothering confines. What was happening on the dais? He had to know! But his lids were so heavy. Sleep stole up on him and there was nothing he could do to keep it at bay. In a way he welcomed its comforting folds. The dream that came with it though. That was another matter.
It was as well that it was a dream for it was disturbing, and the most disturbing aspect was the gentle tranquility; it was all-pervasive. Within the muting bounds of that tranquility dark cracks began to propagate outwards from the dais, across a clearing floor now clear of smoke. It was only as they neared the perimeter that Chemalak realized his mistake, for in fact they were not cracks but tendrils: a gelatinous latticework whose pulsing strands clung to the bare rock and ceased their voracious expansion only as they approached the circling trees. Particularly galling was their tendency to focus and gather about the comatose figures that littered the ground.
As Chemalak tracked the tendrils back to their source he now saw that the dais was better defined. Its levels were no longer chipped and worn but had been dressed in black granite, the regular angular surfaces comprising a smooth pentagonal ziggurat. But his eyes did not linger on its ominous bulk, for from its center now arose a monolith. As was the way with dreams he did not question its abrupt appearance but instead pursued its vertiginous ascent up into the heavens.
Unease intruded and Chemalak had to confront its spread. It was only a dream! What did it matter that the stars were not in their correct position and that he was being permitted a glimpse of different skies? For a while he did not question the blurred nature of that firmament. Only when its glittering occupants assumed a stunning clarity and lost the indistinct tails that had accompanied them, did it occur to him that he had witnessed the end of a journey. A journey through time.
It was impossible to gauge the exact height of the monolith for its top was lost in the belly of those ancient heavens, but as his captive gaze slithered back down the ever-widening profile, the unease that he had held at bay now filtered into his very core. Evil clung to this monument. It was etched into every one of its five slender faces. What were those grotesque characters that adorned the veined stonework? Had some denizen of the netherworld, some malevolent mason, been given free rein to chisel his occult handiwork into its translucent matrix, to expose once more an elder language long since banished by civilized men with no further need of its foul letterings and subversive syntax?
Silence pressed in upon him relentlessly and time dragged on, even though he had no reliable means of gauging its passing. The ziggurat dominated his dreamscape; was it a subconscious aversion perhaps that drove him to resist the hypnotic allure of the monolith? He scrutinized the polished fascia blocks and the minerals within that sparkled and gleamed with a vibrancy that suggested they had only just been fitted into position. He followed them down, step by step, to the clearing floor and saw now that the snaking tendrils that so appalled him emerged from the same pits where cruel death had been meted out in a time yet to come.
As he tried to rationalize this paradox, the Serpent suddenly came to him. It was flaunting its many guises, and invariably in the act of devouring its own tail. Where did these images originate, for their roots were certainly not entwined with his own? Why did they come to him unbidden, for he was not normally given to such spiritual leanings? The circle of life, and so the circle of time? Was he trying to come to terms with this sorcery that he was caught up in?
It was the stuff of nightmare; one disturbing vision tumbling out after another at the depraved request of the fumes he had ingested. He must end it, but he sensed that this was just a prelude.
On a now abandoned platform overlooking the forest, a delicate tracery of subdued light filtered through the undergrowth. The current responsible for it was minimal but once activated it could not be stopped. It was nagging, insistent, as it was meant to be, for the creature it prodded was prone to sleeping; it loved to sleep. For millennia it had slept a peaceful sleep, and now, for a second time, something had dared to rouse it. It would undoubtedly have sighed at that moment, had it been able. Instead it settled back into the mud and waited for the aggravation to pass. But it would not.
Chemalak’s neck snapped back. He had not been looking up for some time and there had been no sound to warn him. He just knew. A shadow passed across the stars, and then again. Something was descending the monolith, spiraling around it with casual grace. With all perspective gone and logic cast to the winds, he initially took it for an airborne reptile, but the descent was too measured, too calculating. Down and down it glided on outspread wing until the unmistakable form of Azrahôtep took shape. Chemalak willed himself to awaken but knew intuitively that he would not; at least not until his nightmare had run its allotted course.
In Azrahôtep’s wake he could discern a multitude of quivering ethereal figures, their spectral bodies trembling with fragile energy, but he could not put any detail to them for they preferred to cluster towards the top of the great spindle, reluctant to abandon their cosmic lair.
But then the sorcerer of Mor took a hand. Upon alighting he placed a hand on one of the bottom panels of the monolith and began to read aloud. Who was to know the last time that anything had been uttered in that execrable tongue? Certainly not the dreaming Clannsman who shuddered inwardly as its hideous grating words assailed his ears. Nausea gripped him whilst Azrahôtep continued his rant, as he passed slowly around the bottom five panels of the monolith. The words tore at Chemalak’s sensibilities, usurped all that was decent within him; on and on it went, but just as the craven animal he had become was about to announce itself to its tormentor, the words ceased.
A sickening light had developed at the base of the monolith, within its core. If ever a light could be deemed unholy, this was it. It cast a deathly pall over the ziggurat and began an inexorable ascent towards the heavens.
Sound now at last, beyond the shaman’s despicable ravings! Agitated shrieks from the peak of the monolith, intermingled with keening howls of anticipation. It seemed there was a level below which those vaporous entities could not pass in their present forms and so impatiently they awaited the rising column of light.
It did not disappoint. From outside to in they passed as it rose into the void, to a point higher than Chemalak would have believed possible. When it finally attained the apex of that dreadful stone needle, sated at last, Azrahôtep stepped forward again to scandalize all that was pure and good in the upper reaches of that remote valley by reciting the text chiseled into the next layer of panels. Even as he began his limited circuit and even as Chemalak strove to quell his rising bile and the animal within, the light began its descent. Transported within its ghastly beams suspect shadows fluttered with unfettered malice, eager to feed again on the souls of men.
The light passed within the ziggurat and was extinguished.
At last the nightmare began to fade, as an uncompromising tide of weariness rolled over Chemalak’s disturbing catalogue of visions. Not however before an all-embracing spasm had enveloped the latticework of tendrils below and sinister compressed forms had begun to meander through its corrupt capillaries. All across the clearing prostrate figures jerked and twisted as though at the behest of some malignant puppet-master, as the demons that had been summoned entered into them. Pitiful wails and gentle sobs filled the night air and he could still hear them long after the visions had gone.
It was the sound of a horn that awoke him. A prolonged blast that called to him across time as well as space. The air about him rippled no longer and as surging adrenalin returned him to full awareness he cast a tentative eye to the sky. No hint of dawn yet, but familiar patterns of twinkling light hung over him. Relief was his first response and he took several deep breaths to expel the last of the wretched fumes from his lungs, bemused at the direction his mind had taken under their influence. He began to stretch his taut muscles, taking infinite pains not to attract attention from below. Torches burned brightly there on the dais and an unbroken wall of phosphorescent flame ringed the clearing; it had sprung to life in response to the most casual of gestures from a figure standing where, but moments before, a towering monolith had seemed to reach up to the heavens. The figure was that purveyor of dreams, Azrahôtep, and Chemalak cringed inwardly as he mused on the extent of his hallucinations.
But now he caught sight of a second figure on the dais; the unmistakable figure of Hûn, leering out over the scene below him. Was that overbearing sneer ingrained into the man’s features? If any other expression had ever attempted to displace it, he had certainly not been there to bear witness to it. Where had Hûn appeared from? Why was he here? These were the questions that sprang immediately to mind even as there was a collective stirring in the clearing and life attempted to insinuate itself into the still slumbering warriors.
Chemalak almost felt sorry for them. What perverted illusions had entered into their minds and battered at their sanity under the full influence of those toxic clouds? What torment had besieged their sensibilities?
That compassion was instantly allayed, to be replaced by an incipient dread. These were not the movements of normal men. He eased himself ever so slightly backwards and downwards, in readiness to flee that accursed place, but it was just then that Hûn chose to raise his arms aloft and Chemalak knew that he must linger awhile yet.
In his left hand the eldest son of Muramotek held a horn; in his right hand he bore a short spear. It was the spear that had the undivided attention of the Clannsman. The tip of its blade was just visible where it had been driven through the bleached skull of a pine-tiger!
In response to Hûn’s exhortations, base howls now rent the air; gripped it in fact and tore it asunder. Lips were stretched impossibly back from snarling mouths before splitting, and fangs emerged from bleeding gums. Jaws were distended and broken, as mouths were turned almost inside out. Cartilage and bone cracked and splintered as limbs realigned themselves. Surging swelling muscles burst through flesh and skin, accompanied by great gouts of blood and mucus. Shuddering paroxysms racked the warped creatures below, diminishing in their intensity only when, mercifully, the transformations appeared to be nearing an end.
And when finally it was done, there they stood, rank upon rank. Half as high again, monstrously extended appendages terminating in claws that snapped wildly at unseen foes, deformed torsos that convulsed with pent-up alien energies. Bloody foam and drool flew through the air and bulging red orbs in straining sockets swiveled around in the direction of the dais.
It was nearly over! He had dared to invoke the second ceremony and venture where his peers had feared to tread! They fed now on the souls of Oju’s dearly departing, but for how long? Their appetites were insatiable, all-consuming. Also of course, once again, there was a balance to be maintained; he knew that. He had dipped into their well, in that ethereal world of theirs, and had left the amulet there, the same amulet that had been ensconced in the casket containing the phials. It burned now in another era, its evil energies substituting for the demons that had been all too easily lured away to feast elsewhere. Ciphers on Szelsar’s scrolls warned of the extreme dangers of the second ceremony, of the amulet. They hinted at safeguards that had been set up. He smiled to himself, for in reality they did much more than that; they went on at great length about such safeguards, but he had possessed neither the time nor the inclination to unlock their secrets. The amulet was a temporary measure at best, that he knew. It would fool those wretched guardians of Order for only so long before they sought to repair the fabric he had torn in such desultory fashion. Then perchance they would turn their critical gaze in his direction. He did not fear them. Proponents of Chaos, such as himself, had always existed, had never been completely subdued. That was a balance too.
But for now his charges needed guidance, and he would need to see that it was provided. It would not do to let them run amok; at least, not just yet. When the hated Clann had been disposed of, and he could bend Muramotek yet further towards his will; then, perhaps.
All these thoughts and more were rudely interrupted. Hûn was barely able to conceal his delight at the scene unfolding before him.
‘So then conjuror, I grow impatient. When can we depart?’
The Prince of Skal was oblivious to the burning slits that bored into the back of his head.
‘By dawn’s first light they will be ready, son of my emperor. By then they will have mastered the eccentricities of their modified bodies. And by then they will have focus. Such focus is essential, for within their crazed minds a battle for sanity rages. It is of course a battle that they will ultimately lose as their souls are forever consumed, but for now hope still roams its doomed course within them. Hope that this transformation is but temporary; that the completion of their task will bring release and the rewards they were promised. But as the demons within become the masters, then hunger will usurp hope. Hunger will become their focus, their sole motivation, and as that time draws near one feast will far outweigh any other culinary distractions that may present themselves!’
‘Ah, yes, the Clann!’ Hûn bounded down the steps of the dais with spear upraised, thrusting the skull skywards.
‘KGHLAANN … KGHLAANN … KGHLAAN!’
The response from ten score torn and distorted throats was deafening.
Chemalak lowered himself to the ground and melted back into the forest, as only he could. He sprinted through close-packed trees and hurdled dense undergrowth with abandon until his keen nose detected a luxurious resinous odor. He had determined to return by way of the track, for speed was now the key to the Clann’s salvation and as the line of ancient trunks that guarded it reared up before him, he leapt between the two closest boles with scarce a pause. In the blink of an eye he realized that he had misjudged his location, for the track was well below him, still ascending from the clearing; the same blink also took in a large detachment of troops just off to his right. He rolled instinctively as he hit the ground and somewhat fortuitously ended up in a tangled root system, where torso-thick stems hid him from view.
The black plumes on their helmets marked the troops as Hûn’s personal bodyguard. Chemalak assimilated this piece of information and then dispensed with it. It was irrelevant. He could only hope that he would encounter no more of them on his way back. It was with a certain resignation that he crossed his arms and reached into two deep pockets at the top of his leggings. When he withdrew them, a long slender blade appeared to protrude from each balled fist. The Clannsman would have been surprised to learn that Muramotek possessed a weapon of similar design to his own, although of altogether smaller proportions. These were single blades only, but reinforced at their tips and able to punch through plate armor, if required. He did not intend to stop for anyone or anything, and the track was narrow. He eased himself out from his hiding place and stared defiantly down towards the great stone portal. It was a game he often played and this time its outcome was little different. Many of the Skalians were actually looking his way but that strange cape deceived them all.
Something caused him to tarry just a little longer, despite the overriding desire to be on his way. Tension hung heavy over these men; this was not a popular detail. He smiled a grim smile and spun on his heel. With blades extended before him he ran for his life, and the lives of his comrades.
Krul was awake in an instant. All around him flames were being extinguished and silent warriors were springing to their feet, weapons leveled in readiness. He feared the worst when he saw the perimeter guards take up new positions on the little ridge below and had that fear confirmed when he saw Chemalak spring between them and sprint for the center of the encampment. The very fact that he could see the enigmatic scout was reason enough for dire concern.
Chemalak had confirmed that the massive force at the head of the valley was at rest and the sentries could be pulled in. Krul had wanted the entire Clann to hear the tale and so they sat or stood now in the bowl of the old fort, beneath the worn steps that led up to Mithra Baltak. The shadowy stairway was just visible in the flickering light of the last fire that burned, about which they were gathered.
And when the tale was done, only Bargor was able to respond. His characteristic growl carried through the thin air to every ear.
‘You have heard my tales before, friends. I have many of them, for there is little else to do during the Highland winters other than huddle around the fire and exchange stories.’ He sighed at the obvious remarks this drew, but continued without comment. ‘In all those tales though, I never did hear one such as Chemalak has just told. I share this with you only so that you might place more credence in what I am about to say and know that it is not yet another rambling Highland fancy.’
‘Friend Bargor, a little more urgency if you please!’ said Krul, with something between a smile and a grimace, knowing only too well that the big man could rarely be rushed.
‘I learned my sword-play across the Winding Strait in Jîngapur.’ A lifting of the head and a pulling back of the shoulders were indications that Bargor was trying, but the voice alas emerged as the same unhurried drawl. ‘The Swordmaster there was my father’s closest friend and I stayed with him for three years, until my eighteenth year was upon me.
‘Jîngapur had always been shunned by the other settlements along the Strait for it was a fortress town, the first on the tortuous route north to Dol Kathra. All used to be wary of the travelers and the trade rumored to frequent that route in distant days. I suppose reputations die hard, for during my apprenticeship there was the school and little else. The school in fact still survives, which is more than can be said for most of the settlements.
‘What I remember of Jîngapur however is not the school, but the ruins: ruins in which to wander, ruins in which to fight, ruins in which ancient warriors had refined their art, ruins in which ghosts wandered. For Jîngapur is old indeed. Temples have been built upon temples and its elevated streets hide thoroughfares built long before our own civilization took root.
‘Beneath the central plaza is a concealed stairway that leads down to one such thoroughfare. The Swordmaster took me down there in my second year. The steps I remember were roughly hewn and the cobbles that had once adorned the buried street had long since been worn down. At the end of this street, which wavered neither to the left nor to the right, was an edifice of dull stone, a dome. It had not been built to impress, rather it had been built to last. Its blocks were massive and its joints difficult to discern. On that first occasion we stood for an eternity before its entrance. There was no door to hinder us, or anything else for that matter, but I could see from the reverence in the Swordmaster’s every expression that no door had been required; this had been a place that only a privileged few had dared to enter.
‘When we finally crossed its hallowed portal, a simple arch, I felt the stone beneath our feet rock gently forward, then back again, and the darkness was illuminated by a thousand torches, such that I had to hold my hands before my eyes. Even as I stood there, the floor began to disassemble. Flagstones dropped from view to reveal troughs, pits even, whilst others pushed upward to form columns and stepped towers. “Behold, the Mausoleum of Kharroddid, ancient home of our order.” My mentor’s voice reverberated around the dome’s innards, even though his utterance had been no more than a whisper.
‘I do not mind admitting that the place terrified me. Fortunately we returned there on but a handful of occasions, always though when one part of my journey was ending and a new part beginning. Within its confines, across that ever-changing stone landscape, the Swordmaster would test me to the extremes of my abilities. “It is only right that your coming of age be witnessed by the souls of our forefathers,” he would say. Such were the rigors of that chamber that often did I think I might well be joining my esteemed forefathers.’
Bargor paused, expecting laughter. When none was forthcoming, he resumed.
‘Very well then. To the point of my little tale! Around the inner perimeter of the dome ran a fanciful stone frieze; fanciful to my mind at least. It was chiseled in the most delicate relief and it seemed that the passage of time had not affected it in the slightest. The detail upon it was still there for all to see, and, although macabre, was astounding in its complexity. Save for the archway at the entrance, it ran unbroken around the chamber and extended upwards from the flags of the floor to about the height of my head, where it was framed by a ring of caskets. The caskets obviously slotted into the wall, and their ends, where they faced into the chamber, were about an arm-span upwards and across. Each of these ends was endowed with an ornate handle of jade at its center. Here, I was to learn, was where our predecessors had been laid to rest, Swordmasters all. Although I guessed at the identity of a few, never in truth did I ascertain their number. No easy task, for above the lowest ring was another, and then another; up and up they rose towards the top of the dome. Nor was there time to count, for this was a place of business. Across the eccentricities of that damnable floor we would skip and dance, weaving a tapestry of steel. But always there was a constant, the frieze, and make no mistake, although we did not venture there often, our sessions were long and arduous. So it was that the details of that stone banner became embedded in my mind.
‘Despite its length, only a single scene was depicted upon it. I was to learn that this one event had initiated a coming together; it had unified Khir’s fighting elite at a time when great deeds were recorded by word of mouth, before histories were set down on parchment.
‘And so my friends, there at the far end of the dome was where the story began. I said that the frieze was broken only at the doorway; well now you may say that I lied. How to describe the architecture at that opposite end? Was it part of the frieze or did the frieze spring outward from it? In any event, the monolith, for monolith it surely was, thrust upwards from the floor, clinging to the wall like a rib. Only at the apex of the great ceiling did it peter out, and gathered there – well, I had taken them for stars, albeit misshapen stars. Clustered at the base of the monolith, maybe ten to either side, were sleeping figures. As the frieze progressed around the wall both sets of figures awoke and stretched their aching limbs. And stretched and stretched. On one side a face would now occupy the entire depth of the carving, its contorted features projecting utter malice. On the other, a body would now writhe upon the ground, limbs askew at impossible angles.
‘Time dictates that I keep my impressions to a minimum so I will only say that where the walls began to curve back in towards the entrance all the figures had started to reassemble and shortly thereafter were upright again, on both sides. Strange to relate, despite their hideous aspect I found that there was a certain elegance to them, but it only served to accentuate the horror that I felt when looking upon them.
‘Between the upright creatures and the entrance was where the story ended, for there stood two swordsmen, in postures of overt symbolism. They were backed up against either side of the portal, forming a final barrier to the world beyond. It was obvious from their unnatural scale within the frieze that they represented many swordsmen, that here was the coming together of our order. It may be worthy of note that they stood there in armor the like of which I have never seen; heavy, plated and bloated. It may also be worthy of note that the weapons they held out before them were two-handed, each as much a bludgeon as a sword.’
There was an intensity to Bargor’s expression as he looked from warrior to warrior, almost daring them to take issue with him.
‘Well, maybe I should have told this tale before,’ he mused, realizing, as though for the first time, that he had the undivided attention of the entire Clann. ‘In any event, let none doubt that there is a precedent to that which Chemalak has witnessed this night.’
A lithe figure now stepped into the firelight. It was Errelon, swiftest of the Clann, and by no small measure. “Jagra” was his second name, although there was doubt as to whether this word was of the old tongue, as was the tradition, or if it was of a localized dialect predating even that language. It had a supposed Khîrrîsh equivalent, which alluded to the fabled black cats that had once roamed the jungles of Khanju, but although the word existed, the cats did not. Their memory nevertheless had passed into legend rather than obscurity and the word was yet spoken with reverence.
Errelon was of western Khir where the forests of the Highlands swept dramatically down to the sea and the harsh winds of the Outer Seas howled across the Beachlands. Those who did not know him would say that his every feature was honed for speed: the leading edge of his nose that was angular, like the prow of a ship; the black hair that was streaked with pale bleached strands trailing horizontally; ears that were flat against the side of his head and bizarrely elongated at their tips; eyebrows that swept upwards at their outer edges, seemingly to streamline him yet further. Those who did know him, namely his Clann comrades, would say that he had spent too much of his youth standing on the Beachlands, facing out to sea.
‘Brother Brega,’ he began, ‘your order is much respected throughout the Clann. You have had much to teach even the oldest dogs within our ranks and you have done so openly and with good grace. I would however like to know more of your mentor, this enigmatic man who taught you, for surely he was wise in the ways of the world? What did he have to say of these depictions upon the walls of the tomb? No time to count, but surely time to talk? Or was he a taciturn man, much like yourself, and not well disposed to the telling of tales?’
‘Ah, Jagra, as always your tongue is as quick as your feet. Would that I could cut it from your mouth.’
‘Would that you could catch me to do so,’ replied Errelon, grinning.
Bargor was silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts, before responding in a somber tone.
‘I will tell you of his thoughts, or as near as I am able. Like many who instruct, he was also introspective, questioning his responses, searching for ways to hone his reactions, in some instances to quell his instincts, in others to enhance them. Thus did he stray into many fields, thus did he become a learned man. He tried to impart this knowledge to me at every opportunity, but at eighteen I was very selective, thinking in my ignorance that much of it would be of little use. To this subject however, possibly because of its dire content, I developed an immediate affinity. I can hear his voice in my head, as though it was yesterday …
“The world that we inhabit is one of many within the firmament, but, and such is our fate, it resides near a vertex, or hub, of dimensional turmoil. Know that within the sphere of influence of such hubs, physical and psychic disruptions abound. During the countless eras of its growth our world has been swept further from that hub into slightly more stable realms, but in the early years of life upon its surface such was not the case and the final mold for the dominant species had yet to be cast. Creatures other than man were abroad and man himself was radically different. Within some men lurked a demon; whether it was lodged there at birth or was a parasitic product of that ancient environment is uncertain. No matter, it was said that at times of great stress, which befell men more often in those distant days, the demon would gain the upper hand and a metamorphosis would occur. The most common term for it was ‘kortha-fregoz’ or ‘devil-frenzy’. It was not a common occurrence and there was of course a price to pay. If the demon was too strong then the frenzy would not subside and eventually the transformed body would disintegrate. If the host was strong but the frenzy too prolonged, then the reformed body would be burnt out. Possibly, as man developed, he learnt how to control this demon or, as is much more likely, with the coming of the Stone there was no longer a surfeit of the negative energies upon which it thrived and so it abandoned him for more verdant pastures in adjacent dimensions. Yet always amongst us have been those who would manipulate and control: those who were sorry to see the passing of that demon within and who sought to call it back whence it had gone, to help further their own ambitions; those who would seek out the portal to its new domain and tempt it back with lush morsels.”
… almost word for word I am tempted to say.’
Bargor leant forward now, a mischievous smile playing across his features. ‘But then he was only a Swordmaster. What could he possibly know of such lore?’
‘More than enough for me,’ said Krul with a conviction and an urgency that all of them were feeling. ‘We must assume that these wretched abominations will pursue us until they drop, and let us hope that when they drop we are still beyond their clutches.
‘Abandon everything that is not essential for the journey back to Skîros; let that include our mail coats and the majority of our weapons.’
The Clann never questioned their Leader, but silent glances were exchanged at this.
‘There is a concealed ledge beneath the rim of the plateau,’ Krul continued in the same remorseless vein. ‘Hakkulbak will show you the way. Store the coats there. I am more concerned that the enemy does not find them rather than that we should lose them. Such will be his haste to make up for lost time that perchance he will pass our treasure by. But tread lightly and leave no tracks. Go now and return quickly, for we have a tortuous trek ahead to the temple by the lake – and whatever destiny that might await us there.’
They came with the pale wash of dawn, bounding up the slope with death in their bloodshot eyes, their shadows graceful to behold but their malignance tainting the early morning light as they leapt onto the plateau. Hûn and his cadre met with them there.
They had set off well in advance, content in the knowledge that Azrahôtep had his charges well shackled for a few more hours at least. Hûn had worried at the succession of guards they had encountered along the track, not his own men, with the strange puncture marks in their armor. There had been five in all, but none would be giving up his story. His concerns had evaporated however when the old fort had been found. They had given way to an apoplectic rage.
The Clann had obviously left in a hurry. They had known they were going to be hunted down. How had they known? He had finally consoled himself with a single thought. Running is one thing but making good their escape is something altogether different.
That thought occurred to him again now as he and his guard were hemmed in by the slavering horde. He thrust the impaled skull skyward again, as much to reassure himself as to inspire any more enthusiasm into the warped forms of Oju’s warriors. He watched in astonishment as Azrahôtep strode casually through their midst. How had he kept pace with them? Had one of them possibly carried him? He did not dwell upon such a thought.
A hurried exchange revealed that the shaman was not as relaxed as he seemed. Something bothered him.
‘They seek the Clann, Hûn, but I sense something else is drawing them on. The more we close on this mountain, the stronger it becomes.’
Most of them had absorbed and consumed the weak human minds. They could smell their prey now. Smell would guide them for their vision was blurred. It would lead them to their first feast, where they would replenish their depleted energies. That would be enough to take them beyond.
It registered with them as a limitless well of nourishment. It shone like a beacon within their scrambled senses, calling out to them, beckoning them.
‘Yes, yes, that is all very worrying, conjuror, but at this precise moment I would really rather like to get them on their way, lest the desire for an additional snack invades their delicate digestive systems.’ Hûn was eyeing the tightening cordon.
‘I have told you, there is nothing to fear as long as you have the talisman.’ Azrahôtep’s voice was flat, emotionless. ‘But you are right, better not to tempt providence. Send them on their way.’
Hûn’s guard parted all too willingly, to allow him access to the bottom of the stairway; the stairway that led to the tunnel above. One more bellowed exhortation, one more expansive gesture with the spear was all that it took. He only just leapt off the stairway in time.
In the valley below sentries were rousing the army for the day’s march. All of them, whether Skalian, Jâlreg, Atlâk, Shungareg or Taksumnai, glanced nervously upward as howls and screams echoed down from the plateau. The screams soon faded but the howls lingered awhile, deeper and more resonant. Then they too were gone as the mountain swallowed them up.
Everywhere tents were disappearing as though a silent whirlwind was sweeping unchecked across the valley floor. Even the indomitable canvas domes of the Atlâks were being dismantled with a minimum of fuss. There was an air of expectancy as the full might of Khâl assembled. Man and beast threw off the lethargy of the night and readied themselves amidst simmering clouds of dust, rattling swords, groaning wheels and flapping pennants. Orders were barked out and columns wheeled in response, as hooves thundered. This was the final push, up onto the plateau. Once they had gained its placid pastures only the makeshift army of Khir would bar their way, and this time the ground would be of their own choosing. They would rumble down upon their enemies and trample them underfoot without even breaking stride. Thenceforth the way to Skîros would be open.
Always though there was the Clann, lying in wait to strike up at their soft underbelly like a concealed snake. Had they really retreated through the mountains as was rumored? Watchful eyes still scanned the way ahead.
As the morning wore on, the snows over the Peaks of Skor shifted uneasily. Ice in the upper glaciers creaked and groaned. It might have been supposed that the mountains were protesting at the abominations currently passing through their bowels, but these happenings were mere harbingers of an event that would herald a much greater evil.
Subtle changes in the snowscape however were not of paramount importance to the Clann as they rested far below in the darkness of Mithra Baltak, discarding yet more of their equipment. Krul vaguely remembered this cavern from the outward journey. They had rested here and it was barely an hour’s march from the temple. He was surprised at the progress they had made, testament yet again, as if any was needed, to the quality of his men. They had maintained a steady loping gait for hours now with but the briefest of respites along the way. Here, he sensed, they would need a longer stay to gather themselves for the final push.
All around men lay gasping, almost at the end of their endurance. The air here was warm and dry and they took it into their lungs with deep measured gulps. Krul did the same, trying to ignore his fatigue and think beyond their present predicament. Even should they emerge from the glacier unscathed, without the majority of their equipment it would be an arduous task to overcome Hackensak’s Back and the leagues beyond. The proximity of Skîros would motivate them. It would have to. An effective balm against the freezing elements that would try to bring them down.
He had allowed these speculative thoughts to intrude because, as yet, there was still no sign of pursuit and he was beginning to wonder at Chemalak’s interpretation of the events of the previous night. He did not doubt for an instant that the insane ritual had occurred, but had it occurred exactly as his scout had perceived it? Immaterial. The time for discussion would be after they had crossed the bridge.
The burning brand he held highlighted the smooth contours of the cavern ceiling, no less diminished as he let the flame stray downwards. Like the rest of the tunnel through which they had passed its surfaces were finely finished. This was in stark contrast to the roughly hewn silver mines that riddled the plateau. Silver was a resource that had contributed greatly to the prosperity of Skîros. Forts had once existed around the entire crescent of Kananaaltra, established by the city to protect those who mined the rich veins of silver in her mountainous hinterland. The ore had been transported around the plateau before the covetous eyes of all who dwelled in the plains to the south and west, and then down through Mithra Sol and into Skîros. Eventually though the veins had been fully bled; the mines had fallen into disrepair and the forts had been abandoned.
Krul had known of the mines but not of the temple by the lake, so when Ravenkar had produced his ailing map, his first query, quite a sensible one he had thought, was to ask if Mithra Baltak was an old silver mine that had been extended to accommodate the temple. Not for the first time the withering response came to mind. My dear Krul, Mithra Baltak and its temple existed long before the coming of the mines.
And so he pondered again on their present location as he went deeper into its recesses, supposing it must have acted as a way-station where ancient worshippers could rest on their pilgrimage through the mountain. A sardonic smile came to his lips as he surveyed the current batch of pilgrims.
The flame strayed yet further downwards and as quickly as it had arisen, so was his smile dispelled. Staring back at him, accentuated by the stuttering bloom of the torch, were lowering purple eyes; eyes that bore into his innermost being. Without any shadow of a doubt he knew what he was looking at. Before him, Joel’s apparition, as conjured forth by the Black Sorcerer, had taken form and the terrible fate that had befallen his queen was fully realized.
The style was bizarre, but combined with the vibrant pigments that had been used, it conveyed the unsettling notion that here was a living tapestry. The creature was taller even than Krul and stood proud of the wall upon which it had been so skillfully sculpted. Around it were much smaller human figures in various stages of distress, tapering into a horizontal line of afflicted wretches disappearing into shadow. Krul shifted the brand to follow the path of the tortured queue along the cavern wall and arrived abruptly at the Iceman, holding out a stylized form of his gong. So large was the gong that it dwarfed its holder, and to the fore, ringing its perimeter, was the Serpent; yet now it was not in the act of devouring itself, rather had its form assumed two heads, one to the right, jaws agape, into which the victims tottered or crawled, and one to the left, out of which they emerged, upright and renewed. Such were the colors and techniques employed that it was difficult to focus on one head without being immediately drawn to the other, and then back again, thus completing the illusion that the serpent had in fact but a single moving head.
Inevitably though, Krul found himself once more confronting those demonic amethysts and this time, as he stood there with the torch raised high, he sensed figures gathering behind him.
The Clann looked in silence upon the face of their primordial foe. A foe so ancient and terrible as to have been shunned by the collective memory of their race. But as they looked, the veil that concealed that memory was drawn back and scenes that had lain dormant for countless generations were gradually exposed. Some began to shudder uncontrollably, not able to restrict the wellspring of emotions that gushed forth from their souls. With others, recollections were less distinct as the mists of time ebbed and flowed within their minds, but they too struggled to subdue the nervous spasms that threatened to engulf them.
Had a spell been cast upon this image such that it had the power to captivate all who looked upon it? Did those pigments contain a glamor such that all who viewed them were enthralled, stripped of their normal sensibilities?
Spell? Glamor? Whatever its nature, it was soon to be dissipated by Chemalak. He was not native to Khir and possibly not as susceptible to the enchantment that held his comrades.
So it was that a sound now pricked at the extreme boundary of his hearing, a gentle rhythm that disguised its source, tapping tentatively at the far-flung outer doors of his perception. So it was that his brethren could hear naught but his curse, as it echoed around the chamber, and then his footfalls, as he sprinted into the darkness whence they had all come. After that, silence, for he was never one to tread heavily. The silence was a brief one as he reemerged into the flickering cocoon of torchlight.
Those two simple words were enough to galvanize the Clann into action. Still they could not hear the approaching menace, but none ever doubted the Chameleon’s senses.
‘Run my friends! Run as though the hounds of hell were at your heels, for indeed they are!’ There was no panic in Krul’s voice, only icy intent. ‘The bridge is less than an hour away, such a meager portion of the day, I’m sure you would all agree.’
Grim expressions attested to the fact that this might not be the case, and the Clann were not accustomed to running away from trouble. For a terrible moment Krul thought they might plant their feet firmly to the cavern floor, draw their remaining weapons and meet the onslaught head on. The moment passed.
Swords, bows and axes were tightened across backs, tired muscles were stretched in preparation, but it was as sweating palms were drawn over leather under-jerkins that covetous memories assailed them; memories of their second skins, pliable and light, alas not light enough, buried beneath a hastily conceived tangle of thornwood branches and rocks. But such longings were put aside as Krul’s voice barked out again.
‘First man to the bridge, and I am looking at you Errelon, must search out the Keeper. I am assuming this will not be an onerous task and that our wooden friend will have been alerted to our approach. I am dearly hoping that he will welcome us with open arms and at the end of one of those arms will be a small gong with which we are all familiar.
‘Errelon, you must take the gong from the Keeper and with the utmost temerity, strike twice to the green and then thrice to the red. Tread carefully across the span, for during those moments we are in your hands, and then wait. Count us over and remember that Tyto and Spidra are no longer with us; we number ninety-nine, not one hundred and one. When the last of us are upon the bridge look to strike three more times, all to the same side. I cannot tell you exactly when to make those strikes, nor do I know what will result when you do. Rather let me tell you what I do know.
‘I must get as many of you back to Skîros as possible, this by order of Joel. Any who fall must be left. There will be no last stand for the sake of fallen comrades. Our aim must be to reach Skîros, even should we have to run all the way. You have seen the face of the true enemy upon this wall. Remember it well. Now go!’
And go they did, but once more at a steady pace; for even an hour can stretch out into an eternity when lungs are bursting and legs do not respond and an abject fate is in pursuit.
Those proficient with bow and javelin were towards the rear, a token concession to any sort of response should their flight be in vain. Only Krul and Bargor came after them and thus were they the last to enter the tunnel, close on the heels of Hakkulbak.
Just as their bulky shadows faded into the darkness an unearthly howl erupted from deep within the mountain, to be borne forward on a tremulous wave of surging air. It swept into the cavern and beyond, and not even the collective pounding of feet, the scraping of metal against metal, the creaking of metal against leather, the pounding of hearts nor the rasping of lungs could mask its dire threat.
The creatures did not pause as the Clann had done. Not for them the casual perusal of subterranean artwork. Insatiable frenzied hunger drove them onwards. Their quarry was at hand. The scent that pervaded their dripping dilating nostrils told them so. On they rushed with that uninterrupted perverted grace, misshapen limbs devouring great lengths of the tunnel in contorted strides. They ran in uncanny unison, all the while chanting in time to their step, chanting the name of their prey. It came in gasping strangled bursts that echoed ahead of them along the tunnel.
‘KGHLAANN … KGHLAANN … KGHLAAN!’
In their wake roiled the fetid stench of blistered purulent flesh.
Some way behind, Hûn and his guard followed, the long headscarves they wore beneath their spangenhelms wrapped tight across their faces in a desperate attempt to keep the scarce abating reek at bay. With them was Azrahôtep, seemingly unconcerned by it. His infernal eyes cast their own glow in that dark place and it appeared that the pulsing cloak about him was his main mode of propulsion, for the limbs beneath seemed to contribute little to his forward momentum. His metallic adornments had moved on from their habitual simmering and their occult surfaces now boiled, casting a withering kaleidoscope of harsh colors onto the tunnel walls. This did not distract him in the slightest for his thoughts were elsewhere. Deep furrows wrinkled the sorcerous quilt of his skin where it passed across his brow.
It did however distract his companions who avoided him almost as assiduously as they did the twitching mounds that occasionally sullied their path. They quickly learned to steer clear of the whimpering carcasses; where malformed bodies had been unable to sustain the blazing energies within.
Azrahôtep’s thoughts were on Szelsar’s scrolls and the constant references to a safeguard. Thus did his mind begin to wander. Brief images came to him of his numerous incursions into Khanju, all the way back to the very first of those northerly treks, when he had found the bridge. It was a bridge that he had known must be there, because the collection of ancient maps that he had acquired all showed it, albeit invariably as a vague dotted line. It was a bridge that had allowed him to forge a well-worn path: out of the Gangja, across the Atlâks then into the Mountains of Mor, and beyond. It was a bridge that had allowed him to plunder many of the secrets of that mysterious kingdom.
More images came, unbidden. Some, like the search for the southern access to the bridge, he hurriedly dismissed: the onset of winter, the passing of his companions and his first taste of human flesh; the descent into madness that had exposed the glamor at Om Garadann and revealed the stairway down to his goal. Others he savored: the elaborate web-like latticework of the bridge and the glow it exuded in those shadowy depths; the canyon it bore him to and the crumbling citadel of domes concealed there; the gentle monks who tended him and who, alas, he had been forced to usher into the next phase of their life cycle; the library that had prompted that act, sparse and frugal, but with a single glittering prize at its midst.
The prize that had shaped his destiny and opened the doors to untold knowledge! A jaded rotting piece of parchment, yes, but a key plan that tied together all of his scrolls and provided him with the means to unlock each and every place of power within Isladoron. But therein was the nub of it all. Once unlocked, that had been it. To divine the use of each of those places had been his next task and in those early days he had not possessed Szelsar’s scrolls; but if he had failed in that task, which was almost always, it had not been due to any safeguards placed there. Why then was this place any different?
He thought again of how the scrolls had emphasized the dangers of the second ceremony. Had he misinterpreted their meaning? Did they imply that the danger was to those who were summoned? He reasoned now that it was important to know who had written the texts. If it had been one such as himself, intent on wreaking havoc, then it could indeed be interpreted as such. He thought not though. The tone of the scrolls was scholarly and pompous, without passion.
Should he have examined the ciphers in more detail? But hold – was this regret? It was certainly not an emotion he was familiar with. Should he consult the oracle within, the Eidolon? He dismissed the notion immediately. Now was not the time. Even without its reservoir of dêlyrium it was still formidable, although he could maintain the upper hand. To wake it, and then be distracted, that was the danger. And there was a surfeit of distractions at the moment.
The lake was deep. Its waters were cold and they were black. No life stirred there, save one. Raxamorrah had been its name in those turbulent times before the Stone, when it had been nurtured by the Duidarra. It had always known that this was not its true home. Not just the waters around it, not just the ice that sustained it, not just the mountains, but the entirety that embraced all of those things. It belonged to another realm altogether.
It did not care about any of this, nor did it harbor concerns about the great length of time that had passed, for it slept a dreamless sleep. Aside from the wretched gong, little disturbed it. The heaving and cracking of the ice far above and the crash of snowy avalanche upon its surface went unheeded. When it craved sustenance it would slither drowsily forth into the wormholes that riddled the glacier and seek out the sparkling crystalline deposits that thrived within the ice, that looked like ice, yet were not ice; that had been cultivated solely for its benefit. It would settle there and replenish itself, allowing the stored cosmic energies to flow through its pores before slithering drowsily back to its watery lair. Such excursions were rare, for the nourishment released into its system at such times had been leeched over centuries from a benevolent sun. And it was not the most active of creatures.
Recently, much to its annoyance, it had been forced to endure a nagging, probing, irritating sensation. The sensation had brought back memories of the Duidarra and had raised its awareness, although not by an amount sufficient to actually rouse it. But now a membrane slid lazily back, revealing a translucent green eye. Towards the edge of this eye, green paled to yellow, so that it seemed to burn like an emerald sun; at its core only a single murky slit marred the entrancing glazed expanse. As Raxamorrah stirred, the slit became a swelling orb and as the orb dilated yet further, so the last vestiges of remaining light were sucked from the sun until all that remained was a chilling domain of utter darkness.
The worm knew immediately that the gong had not sounded. Something else had caused it to awaken. It was an approaching presence, a malevolent thudding that pounded through the very bedrock of the mountain. A memory meandered through its wily serpentine brain. It had been a long time indeed since creatures from its own realm had passed this way, but it knew it was not mistaken. Then, as its consciousness expanded outwards, so yet more reflections were triggered.
In its mind’s eye even the dour waters of the lake were lit up by the flash that crossed the sky. Undulating tremors passed through the mountain, and the surrounding waters seethed and bubbled. Gigantic fragments sheared off the glacier and plunged into the lake. Such memories were not pleasant and the eye narrowed in contemplation as Raxamorrah settled back into the mud at the lake bottom, streams of bubbles effervescing from the sides of its grim mouth.
But the pounding was insistent. It would not allow contemplation. Even as Errelon was nearing the end of the tunnel, it was flexing its prodigious coils and rising with restrained menace to the surface. If any were to pass it needed the gong to sound, and quickly. It knew exactly what sequence to expect; information that had been imparted to it in an earlier age by a figure in shimmering purple.
Even as Errelon sensed the end of the tunnel, even as the freezing air caressed his sweat-drenched body, he heard the chanting. It was so close, so very close. Dread began to compromise his tread, but then glistening light was illuminating the wall to his left and as he negotiated the slow curve before him, a circle of brightness appeared ahead. It drew him on through the exhaustion that was threatening to engulf him and as he emerged into the vast bowl of ice that marked his goal, his flagging senses drank in every detail.
It had been snowing heavily, but had stopped now. The snow had a feathery texture, characteristic of a recent fall, and the bridge looked top-heavy beneath its expansive blanket. His gaze followed its unlikely span across to the far side and the crescent of icy shingle that awaited. Nestled upon its unforgiving surface was the temple, solemn and reclusive, anticipating perhaps the drama that was about to unfold. His eyes were immediately drawn up the wall behind and thence around the entire bowl. Even though it was vast, the steepness of the walls, coupled with their height, lent an oppressive air to the place. Above, the heavy gray sky did little to alleviate matters.
Errelon took one pace forward; a slight hiss of air was the only warning that he received. Barely had his hand begun to reach for the short sword fastened across his back than before him loomed a glowering timber giant. He had not seen the Keeper in such close proximity at the time of their first crossing and had he not been past the point of exhaustion this time, he suspected that he might have found the sight intimidating. As it was he just stared straight back into the painted eyes above and took the object that had been proffered.
‘Thank you. Thank you very, very much my wooden friend,’ he managed to gasp. But his new acquaintance had already gone.
He looked at the gong with some trepidation. There was no mistaking the red or the green; their indelible forms slithered around its opposing sides. With calculating steps he approached the near end of the bridge and raised it before him. His right hand, the hand that clutched the striker, was shaking. Whether it was with apprehension or exhaustion, he did not know. Nor in truth, did he care. With a simple tapping motion, he struck the green side.
Snow and ice cascaded down onto the frozen surface of the lake from the precipitous cliffs that rimmed it, sending a reverberating thunderclap around the basin.
But that was not the sound the Clann heard. Errelon was not to know the effect that first single tap had on his flagging comrades. Its mellow sound surged down the hallowed track of Mithra Baltak, enveloping each and every one of them, insulating them inside a wall of rich noise, blotting out the howls that bore down on them, dredging up within them reserves of energy each thought he had long since expended. And with each further strike of the gong, one more to the green, three to the red, belief flooded into them and held at bay the despair that would have brought them down. And so it was, one by one, that they found a long bend before them, and at the end of that bend, a bright circular light.
Errelon was well ahead and knew that for a fact, so he took a moment to compose himself; to let the vibrations in his head settle, ensure they did not disorientate him, unbalance him. It would not do for him to trip over his own feet and be pitched headlong onto the ice, gong in hand, when the fate of his comrades was his responsibility, and his only. He knew there was no way back onto the bridge, not without ropes at least, and the thought of trudging over the beleaguered treacherous surface of the lake did not sit easily with him. Generally the mind had a tendency to reorganize its experiences, pushing those that were more unpleasant to the back of the queue, but not so here. Those uncertain shadows, that insidious rasping, all of it came back to him with a clarity that surprised him.
His first step onto the bridge was a tentative one and he immediately cursed. The snow was deep, very deep. It would hinder them, although hopefully it would be packed down by the time the rearguard made their crossing, and at least there would be no ice to contend with. Thus did he console himself as he began his own crossing, an uneventful venture during which he effected a curious effeminate prancing gait that would have disturbed him greatly had he been able to witness it.
He was about halfway over when the first of his comrades emerged. The sky had somehow managed to assume an even darker shade of gray and a light snow was drifting aimlessly down. He turned and called to them, urging them on. They did not call back, but instead, acknowledged him with waves. They were utterly spent, he could see that. But they were the Clann. They would endure. He even allowed himself a smile when he saw the ridiculous manner in which they tackled the deep snow.
Normally, he would have sprung from the end of the bridge with an expansive leap, but now he knew better. He negotiated the steps on the elegant spiral staircase one at a time and began to cross the shingle beach, relishing the crunching noise of shattering ice beneath his feet. He did not want to make any mistakes. Twenty or so paces gave him enough perspective to make the count accurately. He started at the near end of the bridge, even though he knew no one was close to that point as yet, and let his eyes wander deliberately along the span. Two, three …
Eighty one, eighty two … his eyes strayed to the tunnel exit. There was a better contrast there. Eighty three, eighty four, eighty five … slowly, steadily, he raised the gong.
The chanting was tormenting their ears. It reverberated all around them. Yet neither Krul nor Bargor looked back; they had eyes only for the end of the tunnel, which was almost upon them, ten paces away at most. Krul could already see that most of his men were not going to make it. A few had reached the far shore but most were strung out across the bridge in varying stages of exhaustion. The gong would have to be struck whilst most of them were still upon its span.
As the two warriors strove to cover those final lung-bursting strides to the mouth of Mithra Baltak, the rancid stench of decay enveloped them as their pursuers closed in. Krul had not discarded his axe and he reached for it now. If he could keep the wretched brutes at bay, even for a few moments, all might not be lost. Then he saw the two men directly ahead of them part and swivel around; Prukk and Dorakjak he thought. As two javelins came whistling past their ears, he was sure. And in between was the kneeling figure of Hakkulbak. In the time it took to draw a single long breath, three sleek darts had gone past them. There was a series of sickening crunches and muted screams. Then he saw Bargor turn.
Thus it was that two figures stood, barring the way onto the bridge. The one wielding an axe and the other with sword drawn. Chemalak’s description had only partly prepared them for the sight that met their eyes.
The first of the creatures lay writhing on the ground, clawing at the miscellany of shafts protruding from its chest. A second had just riven an arrow from its shattered skull and was struggling to rise, oblivious to the terrible wound that had been inflicted upon it. A third, barely slowed, came relentlessly on, clutching at the javelin that protruded from its midriff, front and back, with claws that were slick with spurting blood. The problems of all three were short-lived however as the pack fell upon them, driven beyond the bounds of sanity by the scent of blood and for just a moment, in that confined space, confusion reigned.
Krul grabbed at Bargor’s shoulder. ‘Come, my old friend! We may yet have a chance.’ And with that, the leader of the Clann leapt onto the bridge and made after the retreating Hakkulbak.
But Bargor did not come. No more running for him. Krul’s responsibilities were not his own. He watched the carnage before him with a calmness that surprised him. He remained calm as the eyes of the slavering horde turned towards him.
The stone frieze stretched out before him and he was the warrior waiting expectantly at its end. He was the final member of a once mighty guild, forged to face just such a threat as this. With the spirits of his Swordmaster brethren looking on, he stood astride the mouth of Mithra Baltak and his flashing sword wove an arc of destruction, cleaving flesh and bone alike as his foes strove to bring him down. At first they simply could not pass his wicked whiplash blade as it scythed back and forth across their path; the searing light in his eyes matched their own and they knew fear as the raging press behind bore them onto his implacable silhouette. At the last though, numbers inevitably took their toll; their grasping claws got to grips with him and their weight finally began to drag him down. It was then that a long black arrow thudded into the base of Bargor’s neck.
The Bear had fallen, dead beneath the trampling horde, but his act that day would never die, nor even fade, in the memories of the Clann, who watched from the far shore.
It was only as Krul turned again to watch the flight of Hakkulbak’s arrow that he realized Bargor was not with him. Desolation surged up within him as he watched his friend go under and then the archer was shouting at him and dragging him back as the abominable tide swept onto the bridge.
On the shore Errelon stood, wracked with indecision. Nearly all the Clann had crossed the lake and were clustered around the base of the stairway that led up out of the bowl, the obvious place to defend. Bargor’s stand had allowed Prukk and Dorakjak to get well past the span’s halfway point but they were showing worrying signs of effecting another turnabout and going to the aid of Krul and Hakkulbak, who were clearly stranded. But then Krul made Errelon’s decision for him by balling a fist and sweeping it into the open palm of his other hand. He made the gesture three times above his head as he ran. There could be no doubt as to his wishes.
Reluctantly, Errelon hit the gong. Once, twice, thrice …
The snow had been well trampled and so the four warriors had no difficulty running. Strangely, all four stopped simultaneously. Prukk and Dorakjak halted just above the spiral stairway and began to shout for new javelins as the majority of the Clann made their way back across the shore, obviously intent on helping their trailing comrades. Krul and Hakkulbak were poised more or less at the center of the bridge.
Krul stood, feet apart, twirling his axe, as Hakkulbak let fly with one arrow after another. Each and every one found a target, but the tide barely slowed. So intent were they on following the flight of the final dart that they did not see the ice break behind them.
For those on the shore, sight and sound coalesced and threatened to overwhelm their sanity. Jagged cracks splayed out across the lake and the sound of disintegrating ice echoed around the bowl. A colossal column of water erupted skywards, sending chunks of the lake’s frozen surface cascading down in its wake.
For those on the bridge, their entire world heaved upwards as the deck arched and groaned, and then came crashing down. A wall of powdery snow rippled shoreward. Ever one to improvise, Krul had powered his axe into the deck as it had risen beneath him. Hakkulbak, finding himself slipping to an icy death, had gratefully grasped the arm that was offered to him. Both men rose from their knees, intrigued to see that their impending demise had been momentarily delayed. Miraculously, most of the chasing horde had clung to the bridge in one fashion or another; warped limbs and grasping claws had come to their aid. But there seemed to be a reluctance, a hesitation to advance any further. Was that terror in their boiling eyes?
The two Clannsmen turned, slowly, and not without some trepidation.
Poised above them was the world’s most wondrous worm. Attired in scintillating scales of jet and amber it swayed with monstrous beauty over the bridge. With luminous green eyes it surveyed the scene below, a beatific smile affixed to its countenance. A hissing exhalation shattered the blanket of shocked silence that had settled, and then it was lowering its head down to the level of the bridge, whilst its body formed a gargantuan arch behind. It took in the Clann with a casual glance, but then, with deliberate slowness, those terrible eyes progressed along the side of the bridge until they reached two frozen figures at its center.
Where they stopped.
The height of Hakkulbak’s great bow scarcely matched the diameter of those orbs. The two men had little option but to peer into their depths, resigned to their fate as they were. As they waited for its manner to be decided, their minds functioned little better than their bodies, but it came to both of them that something more than typical reptilian intelligence resided there.
Nevertheless, it was with typical reptilian alacrity that a three-pronged tongue whipped out to remove the front ranks of Hûn’s baying pack from the bridge. This elicited a collective cry that bristled with outrage, but dripped with fear. Warped forms still loped out of the tunnel, straining now to climb over their static brethren, unaware of the menace before them, whilst those at the front edged backwards, their eyes on the frantic mêlée in the lake. That sight did not occupy them for long as the thrashing ceased and, one by one, bodies that should never have walked upon that fair land slipped mercifully into a watery grave.
Throughout the tumult, the eyes, those eyes, had never left the two statuesque warriors before them. Neither man had attempted to fight or to flee, for they were in thrall to that mesmeric stare; not that they would have chosen either of those options had reasoned judgment been theirs to wield. Even when the eyes, those eyes, did disappear, and the worm’s wedge-shaped head dipped slowly down to the level of the lake, their trance remained. Only when the worm began to slither underneath the span and the bridge responded with a tortured groan, did they awaken.
In a sinuous twisting blur of motion the worm had coiled itself thrice around the protesting span, and its head now hovered just above the deck, swaying menacingly from side to side as it confronted the cowering chaotic mass at the tunnel mouth. Krul and Hakkulbak meanwhile, were retreating guardedly towards the far shore when from the churning depths a slimy splayed tail reared up and began to wrap itself remorselessly around the icy walkway, obviously intent on reclaiming it in its entirety. This had a relatively sobering effect on both men and their dazed stumbling steps were suddenly transformed into lithe ground-eating strides, but they were still well short of the spiral stairway when they were forced to fling themselves onto the ice below to evade the thrashing coiling tail. The ice was unbroken that close into the shore and although the covering of snow cushioned their fall to some extent, it could not prevent them from skidding onto the shingle beach. Rolling onto their backs and gulping in air, they dug their fists into the skin-piercing shards, hoping the excruciating pain would go some way towards exorcising the memory of the worm’s petrifying scrutiny.
Raxamorrah was indifferent to the shafts glancing off its head. They were not even an annoyance. As always, the creatures that had sounded the gong, had called it to the surface, were blurred, indistinct, as were the bodies massed before it now. But within those gyrating forms at the tunnel mouth it could clearly discern the controlling nuclei from its own realm.
It knew that to disrupt the cosmic fabric and flood unchecked into another sphere, another time, into other bodies, was an abhorrence; a reviled transgression that far outweighed its own.
In its own realm it had been free to wander. Here it was not. It was shackled. The lake and the glacier were all it knew. But its punishment was not eternal. It would return.
It knew that the nearby gateway had always been the easiest to access and so inevitably it had become an enticing prospect to the many adherents of Chaos. Thus had the Duidarra devised a safeguard whereby the sorcerous progeny of the gateway were lured to this place. Within the temple lay the bait and within the lake lay the executioner. Only the purple one had changed things: had procured the gong; had decreed that some might cross. But still not its own kind, and with that it had no qualms.
The head ceased to sway. Instead it came to rest with dreadful quietude upon the cold surface of the bridge. The eyes rolled with immeasurable slowness from one side to the other and the nostrils dilated as the worm began to draw breath. And continued to draw breath …
There was no thought of an attack. Malformed appendages clawed desperately to regain the tunnel mouth, hacked in vain at flesh and rock alike.
Still the worm inhaled. Its rasping intake only ceased when it seemed that the entire bowl must surely be drained of air.
Within its scaly form a lethal brew was fermenting. Gases and withering venom mingled, and fuelled by the sudden release of latent solar energies, began to simmer and seethe into a single spiteful cocktail. The neck of the worm was swollen to twice its normal girth and yet further, as bloated pouches strained against their contents. Then it exhaled.
It was an unexpectedly gentle exhalation, almost as if the worm was sighing in exasperation at some minor irritation. Nevertheless, the wronged slaves of Tarrak Kanga and the demons within were consumed in a roiling opaque blanket of green death. It swept over them and claimed each one of them with impartial resolve, before advancing with undiminished intensity into the tunnel.
When it cleared, all that had endured was a single sword. Of that frenzied horde, nothing remained. They had simply dissolved within the toxic onslaught.
The Clann had advanced warily down the little beach and were gathering on the shore, in front of the temple. Each step onto the unforgiving shingle resounded around the darkening amphitheater as the worm disentangled itself from the bridge. It regarded them once more from across the lake, those frightening orbs ever more luminous in the deepening gloom, before broken ice and black water closed over it, and it descended languidly to its lair.
The frozen beach seemed to reach up and ensnare the men that stood upon it. It was as though its icy tendrils had immobilized them completely. They did not dare even to breathe, lest the sound should cause the ice before them to break and they should once again be exposed to that raking gaze.
But time passed and the surface of the lake remained undisturbed. The Sentinel had indeed returned to its slumbers.