The verse was no more. Only the “K” remained, imprisoned by blackness and the halo of a viridian sun. And even that image was not constant. Ravenkar reflected on this as he delicately traced his fingertips across the cover. Was this metal beneath his tentative touch? As he pressed down lightly with his thumb, the surface rippled outwards and as he changed his perspective, so did the enigmatic symbol at the cover’s center change its hues. Then an iron clamp on his shoulder brought an end to the scrutiny.‘Well done my Khir friend! I will not press you just yet for the details, it is enough that the fabled book is before us. I fear though that we cannot linger here to examine it. Are you up to the task of carrying it? Such an arrangement would suit me if only to see the expressions on the faces of my priestly brethren. But it looks to be exceedingly heavy, does it not? And you, my friend look spent by this ordeal – though better spent than dead, I’m sure you would agree?’
‘A concise and accurate observation, Ultima,’ gasped Ravenkar. Now that it had been pointed out, he began to realize the extent of the weariness that gripped him. ‘However, I have merely provided the last piece of the jigsaw and must surely defer to he who has compiled the remainder. That apart,’ and this was followed by a rasping cackle, ‘as you have rightly pointed out, I am in no fit state to bear the weight of these metal pages. They have about them a certain ponderous quality and for all Kuprakindi’s undoubted talents I suspect we will not find anything to the contrary when we attempt to take them in hand.’
‘Yet Arish-Tâ thought not to mention it,’ said Nûrgal, sliding one gloved hand beneath the edge of the book, to test its weight. As he prized it from its stone resting place he allowed its bulk to rest on but three fingers, with no apparent discomfort. The two priests stared at each other, sharing a brief moment of exultation.
‘How could I ever have doubted?’ muttered Ravenkar, even managing a smile. He saw now that another sigil adorned the back cover, but was afforded only the briefest of glimpses as Nûrgal tucked the book under his arm; even the Ultima’s prodigious reach was barely sufficient to secure it comfortably. He grasped his staff tightly and hauled himself to his feet. No time for rest, yet the thought of crossing that twisting bridge again was not one he could entertain lightly.
The maze though had one final surprise in store for them. It had begun even as the book had been lifted from the hand; it was more of a vibration than a sound. But it was accompanied by a faint breeze passing across them, which elicited a sharp ‘Aha!’ from Nûrgal.
A passageway had appeared behind the giant hand and even as they looked, the appendage that had lingered so long was disappearing down into the bedrock. Ravenkar had a momentary vision of a stone behemoth in caverns below letting out a sigh of relief as it shook its wrist, but then he was plunging headlong into a beckoning dark rectangle, in the footsteps of the Ultima.
The darkness did not last. Rounded stones set in the passageway walls swiftly dispelled it, but in a most curious fashion, lighting up the way with a lurid luminescence. It was disconcerting too that the lights were immediately extinguished as they passed. They had little time to conjure up demons in their wake however, for the passageway ended abruptly at a vertical cylindrical chamber which rose above them to an indeterminate height. The same stones illuminated its core.
A recess had been set into the floor and its dimensions did not leave much room for doubt. Nûrgal set the book within it and almost immediately the floor began to rise. The ascent was long and ponderous, so that its abrupt end caught them both by surprise. There was no forewarning of any imminent stoppage, not even a hesitant slowing, so that it was amidst flailing arms and muttered curses that they shuddered to an almost instantaneous halt.
A new passageway now confronted them, which they staggered into virtually without pause, and as they struggled up its sloping floor a humming energy soon became apparent, emanating from the wall to their left. The wall’s gentle curve and pulsing strands marked it as part of the central cylinder beneath the temple and as their route changed direction again, Ravenkar’s unerring sense of direction placed them directly over that part of the temple foundation from which Two Tower Hall had been hewn.
An innocuous incline bore them onwards and upwards, encased now by the gargantuan blocks of the pyramid itself. The dust about their feet and the lichen that clung to the walls and ceiling were testament to the fact that this was a seldom used route and thoughts assailed both of them that almost four thousand years had elapsed since man had last passed that way; nevertheless the footsteps of Arish-Tâ and Raven Lôkar echoed heavily in the quietude of that confined space.
The passageway ended directly in front of a blank slab, but once again an obliging recess presented itself, this time in the adjacent wall. Oddly, the lichen had not invaded its territory and so it was a simple matter for Nûrgal to place the book within its bounds. Nothing that followed though was as simple. The tortured resonance of straining machinery enveloped them, but the slab before them did not budge. Everything went quiet. Nûrgal calmly removed the book and then placed it again in the recess. Almost immediately a terrible rending sound came to their ears and then, with grinding determination, the slab began to rise. Rivulets of green slime trickled down in the opposite direction and pooled on the dusty floor, to be highlighted by an ever-expanding window of natural light.
They stepped out into the cool damp haze of early morning and the stench of decay. A forest of tadstooles was before them; tadstooles of the “giant” variety, basking in a spongy bed of fungus, whose mass of rubbery threads had been torn apart by the opening slab. An uncomfortable mushy trek ensued beneath a canopy of fleshy caps, their moist red surfaces disrupted by a riotous miscellany of green and white blotches. Worse was to follow, for around the mushy expanse was an unforgiving ring of tangelwood, flourishing in impenetrable clumps, like the interlocking nests of mythical birds plucked from some unlikely aviary.
It was the most obvious place to make for as it marked the only break in the tangelwood barrier. Sitting there, as though dropped from a great height, was a tuber-tree. Strands of tangelwood struggled out from beneath the tree’s vast ovoid nucleus, part trunk, part root, giving the impression that they had been flattened where they stood; but the tree was the older by far. Its customary looping branches, all of extreme length, could be seen on the far side of the barrier, arcing outwards away from the pyramid, away from where the exhausted duo stood. They could only wonder at the extent of the root system beneath their feet but such considerations did not occupy them for long.
The stairs were not hidden, but neither were they obvious. In the manner of many things in that ensorcelled isle, they materialized as and when they were required. They had been cut from the fibrous substance of the tuber itself and the exposed surface had hardened to a finish that was as gnarled and tough as the tree’s external bark. Twelve steps took them down and twelve more brought them back up again, to look upon the rambling excesses of the palace gardens. The tuber-tree was in bud but as yet its spreading leaves did not restrict the vista before them.
They stood upon a promontory that jutted out from the temple and was level with the mid-point of the palace walls, just as their lower sections thickened to form an accessway around the entire perimeter, from which stairways led up to the battlements. The ground sloped down in an arcing loop before them, into the gardens. To their left and westwards, the last vestiges of the night loitered still. To the east the sun was abreast of the battlements, but its light was dim. The red veil was gone but the shroud about it was denser, and a black iris that was the comet now sucked at its vitality.
The gardens were not of the well-manicured variety, but did not suffer because of it; indeed they cast a rapturous spell over most who viewed them. They were arranged about a ragged boulevard that led from the library tower in the north wall to an even taller structure, albeit no more than a column really, that supported a most ornate cupola. The latter reared up before them now but Ravenkar resisted the temptation to follow its swaying outline skyward; uncomfortable memories lay in that direction. Instead, his eyes strayed back down to their destination, the library tower. He preferred to dwell on its more solid associations, rooted as it was, far below in Two Tower Hall. It beckoned now, just discernable behind the column, basking in the rising sun’s meager light.
An erratic flight of stairs took them off the promontory onto a rocky slope and, in keeping with the rest of their journey, this last leg was not to be an easy one. The slope they found themselves on was slick, uneven, and it was only when they encountered a rudimentary pathway circling around the back of the cupola’s column that they were finally able to relax and make their way down into the gardens.
Sweet scents and gentle sounds enveloped them and Ravenkar could barely suppress a smile. They had negotiated the maze and emerged unscathed with its cherished prize. And it only got better! Soon he would be able to immerse himself in a steaming hot bath and his aching joints would be salved. But as they stepped out onto the boulevard, the urge to smile swiftly faded.
Gravel was everywhere. It did not constitute a carpet, more a faint scattering, but the eye could not avoid it as it lay smoldering in the moist aftermath of dawn; evidence, if any was required, that during their sojourn in the maze the Stone’s aura had been breached.
The library abutted the north wall of the palace with two side wings extending down the east and west walls. With the gardens at its center, its white stucco walls, its cloistered lower terrace and four ornate balconies above, it possessed a restrained elegance. Its only concessions to ostentation were the swaying fronds of dragonsbreath whose bright yellow petals tumbled from the balconies on all three sides, refusing to acknowledge that darkness was stalking the land.
And of course the three onion domes.
A turret marked the end of each side wing. These soared up above the battlements and complemented the larger main tower, anchored at the middle of the north wall. Set upon each of the structures was a magnificent dome, fashioned from exquisite round-edged tiles of magenta and cobalt blue. Three exotic candles, burning with blinding flames of burnished glaze by day, trimmed to mirrored starfield by night.
And of course the Reader.
Ostentatious or outlandish? He sat before the main tower, his back against its curving stuccoed side, his legs crossed upon the terracotta tiles of the roof. Two arms were extended out to the right and upon the hand of each was an open book. Two arms were extended out to the left and upon the hand of each was an open book. But he read none of them. Instead, his head strained forward, to rest in contemplation upon the arch of his two remaining hands. Did he reflect upon a sentence just read? Did he ponder over some unfolding bloom in the gardens below? Did he assess the qualities of those who entered his library? Did he mull over the origins of the cosmos? None could tell, for his cloak was wrapped tightly about him and its hood held his eyes in shadow.
Evening, and orange lanterns hung in the cloisters. What now of the Reader? Perversely, his eyes shone brightly, reflecting the auburn glow below, but still they betrayed nothing. Could he hear the conversation in the topmost room of the tower behind him? Would he be interested?
The room was circular. Obviously. The large wooden table at its center was circular. Perhaps not out of necessity. Antique bookshelves lined the walls and antique books lined the shelves. Only the windows interrupted this ring of knowledge and there were two of them. Vertical slits both, one looked out over the gardens and the other looked out over the sea. Orange lanterns burned here also and shadows were few, for the lanterns were many. Torches were not in evidence, nor a warming fire. Open flames were frowned upon throughout the library and this room was no exception. Despite this, it was far from cold. Ducts funneled warm air from the lower levels and it collected here, beneath the onion dome. This system had an additional benefit for which it had surely never been designed, namely, the dispersal of the cloying clouds of tobacco smoke that tended to emanate from long-stemmed pipes.
Azella had already given Ravenkar a quiet word of reprimand as they entered the room, although no one else had seemed inclined to do so. Even Typhon had just wafted his hand across his face with an amused tolerance. And so, for a while, a convivial atmosphere prevailed.
Ravenkar had rested all day and was in reasonably good spirits although he continued to mutter about stairs, perhaps with some justification. It was a long haul up to their present location and though the first three flights of the upper tower were by no means an easy climb, at least they were recognizable as stairs; solid stone affixed to the outer wall with a sturdy inner balustrade. Beyond that however a rickety wooden spiral led to their present location and thence upward to a platform within the dome. Precisely the reason that Nûrgal had chosen it in fact; its isolation. And that choice had absolutely delighted Typhon, as it broke several protocols that had recently been established by the Hierarch. The tower itself had been the province of the First Order for several years. It was their inner sanctum and theirs alone, with all others banned, on pain of death. Typhon had signed the relevant decree just to keep them happy, but it had always irked him. So he welcomed this opportunity to tread on their toes although he knew he should be above such trivialities. He did after all have absolute control over all matters in Djebal Doron; it was just that he preferred to use that control sparingly. Or at least Alanna preferred him to.
Jak was well on the way to recovery although he was having trouble sleeping. He browsed around the bookshelves now but quickly found that there would be no light reading to be had here. Surely that was not the original “Cysterix”? Could it possibly be? He felt an arm linking with his. Azella was at his side. She had been at his side often over the past two days but he was having problems getting used to the new Azella. Was it the perfume? Was it the spiky hair? Was it the inner confidence that Alanna had provoked? Was she infiltrating the boundaries that he had so resolutely put between them, which protocol demanded? Did she even know she was doing it? Life was suddenly full of confusion, where before none had existed. She had changed so very quickly.
‘Dear Jak, we are here for the sole purpose of looking at a book, not a prospect I can view with much enthusiasm in this case. Yet it seems that one is not enough for you. Am I correct?’
‘I fear one will have to suffice for I suspect that touching, let alone reading, is strictly forbidden in this sanctum. Have you seen some of these titles?’ Jak could barely keep the excitement from his voice and Azella could only laugh at his enthusiasm.
‘It seems not everyone shares your interests,’ she said, nodding towards Shamul, who currently occupied the only sofa in the room. It was a very fine sofa, too fine by far to have to suffer Shamul’s boots upon its delicate upholstery, but there they were nevertheless. He had pulled it halfway around the room and was now staring distractedly out to sea.
Yet Shamul was not bored, or at least not as bored as he looked. He had set Abduul the task of seeing to the Kraken and keeping the crew out of trouble, and had been rather looking forward to this little interlude. He suspected that a great adventure might ensue from the goings-on that were soon to transpire in this peculiar room, and he was ready for an adventure. Something meaningful with a tangible goal; something outside the everyday scuttle of life. He suspected that this was what had attracted him to a friendship with Ravenkar all those years ago; a desire to experience something different. The old shaman had rarely disappointed and it was just possible that this time he might have surpassed himself.
There was a creaking from below and the atmosphere changed in an instant. Not even the Ultima could disguise his approach on those stairs. First came the mask and then the cloak; an air of foreboding clung to him as always, but for once he was not the center of attention. Rather, it was the object beneath his arm at which everyone looked. The Rhyme of Kuprakindi.
Nûrgal placed the book, with some aplomb, on the wooden table at the room’s center, and then stepped back with arms spread. ‘And there my friends, you have it. Quite what we are to do with it is another matter entirely. I have spent most of this long afternoon studying it, and have failed utterly to advance even beyond the first page. The language is Duidarran, with which I have some familiarity, but it is a bizarre variant. It is, literally, written in rhyme. As in Arish-Tâ’s day, we have few familiar with that language, unless you yourself, Ravenkar, can assist. Many of the Hierarch even dispute the existence of the Duidarra, so I’m afraid they can be of no help.’
This comment elicited a roll of the eyes from Typhon but he said nothing, preferring instead to watch Ravenkar, who was gently turning the pages.
‘My knowledge is very basic. I’m afraid I was only able to decipher the lines in the maze because of some preliminary translation work I carried out several years ago on texts in Tak Khiroba. But to translate an entire book, especially when it has been further refined into verse – that I am afraid is beyond me!’
‘Can we not take it to Tak Khiroba?’ asked Jak, but without conviction. ‘Abraaham is a genius with languages.’
‘Possibly,’ said Ravenkar, looking at the Ultima, ‘but I fear time is against us.’
Nûrgal simply nodded his head in agreement.
‘These colored scratches would be Raven Lôkar’s notes, I take it?’ said Jak, tentatively touching the pages of the book for the first time. They were wafer thin, yet not transparent in any way; they felt brittle but could not be twisted or folded.
‘Yes indeed,’ replied Nûrgal, ‘and I have given much time to pondering them.’
‘But they seem barely decipherable,’ said Typhon, joining the debate for the first time. ‘They seem to be little more than scrawls.’
‘No, my lord, I do not mean that I have been pondering upon their translation. Rather I have been pondering as to why such a translation would be necessary.’
‘That has also puzzled me,’ said Ravenkar, rubbing his hands and obviously warming to the task. ‘Kuprakindi was obviously aware of the timescales involved. He must have considered the possibility that the Duidarran language might at least be modified over the ages. This leads me to hope that we are missing something, for as you rightly say my Lord Typhon, these writings of Raven Lôkar are indecipherable. They are notes only, jotted down above the original and with scant regard to anyone who might have an inkling to read them.’
‘Perhaps we could possibly unearth some other works of Raven Lôkar,’ said Jak, a hint of desperation in his voice, ‘then we could acquaint ourselves with the nuances of his handwriting.’
The mask of Nûrgal shook with frustration, more at their lack of options than at Jak. ‘You recall the words of Arish-Tâ? Raven Lôkar was looked upon as a lunatic by the majority of the Hierarch. His work was the subject of ridicule or jealousy. It will not have been retained for posterity, that I can assure you.’
And so it went on, deep into the night. Shamul had vacated the sofa and Azella had immediately occupied it. It was a comfort for her to be in the presence of so many and she quickly fell into a dreamless sleep. Typhon pulled on his beard and Ravenkar did likewise, chewing on his pipe now rather than smoking it. But then, to everyone’s consternation, he sat down on the floor, his back against the sofa, with the obvious intention of refilling it. He was having a problem with his tobacco tin however.
‘Shamul, my good fellow, could you possibly help me with this tin?’
‘Do I have to?’ came the sardonic reply.
‘Shamul, my old friend, comrade-in-arms, he who has access to Joel’s treasury when I so decree it, could you possibly help me with this tin?’
Shamul gave an apologetic shrug to no one in particular. ‘Very well, old one, but is it possible that you might have another tin that contains something less noxious?’
It was as he was bending down that something caught the seafarer’s eye.
‘Jak, what are those lines across the pages? Are those too Raven Lôkar’s doing?’
‘Lines, what lines?’ said Jak, who had been idly turning the pages in the hope that something, anything, would present itself.
Ravenkar had now seen them as well, and all thoughts of his pipe disappeared. ‘Yes indeed Shamul, you are right. Keep the page as it is Jak. We have a lantern behind it, and I suspect those lines are only visible when lit up from behind. Can we lower any of those lanterns?’
Nûrgal was already in the act of lowering one but it would only come down so far. He motioned for Jak to lift up the book and suddenly lines were apparent everywhere. They were like threads embedded in the page. All were horizontal and they disappeared into the spine of the book.
‘What can they be?’ said Ravenkar, frustration apparent in his voice. ‘What are we missing? This is so annoying!’
‘I fear that whatever it is, it also eluded our predecessors and compelled Raven Lôkar to make these scratchings,’ said Nûrgal, stooping to get a proper view. ‘Jak, are you able to raise the book higher?’
‘No Jak, do not raise the book higher. In fact, could you set it down upon the table, but this time, with the back cover facing upwards?’
Everyone turned to face Typhon. He was clutching desperately at his staff, and his face was ashen. The tension of the moment must have transmitted itself to Azella, for she stirred and also looked at the king. When he spoke it was as though he was far away.
‘It is not common knowledge, but there is a sigil upon the bottom of my staff; I do believe it bears a very close resemblance to the sigil on the back cover of the book. Nor is it a well known fact that my staff appears to have a resolute attraction towards said sigil. Probably, I would venture to suggest, because that it is a fact to which I alone can bear testament.’
So saying, he began to stagger across the room in a most unkingly fashion. It was the stagger of one who was being led, an action no one would ever normally attribute to Typhon. He received no assistance, for not even Shamul would dare lay a hand on that abominable staff. Jak made sure the book was in the center of the table and then slowly backed away, allowing the king an unimpeded approach. Nûrgal had closed in behind and was watching everything intently.
Ravenkar tore his eyes from Typhon and concentrated on the sigil. It was a dull white annulus surrounding an area that was entirely black. The annulus was broken at the top, although the gap was small. Outside the gap was the character “K”. Seven more characters were evident, equally spaced around the annulus. He knew now that they were Duidarran in origin. His natural impulse would have been to read them in clockwise fashion and the orientation of two of the characters told him that his impulse was correct. The word that appeared before him was “K Ў R Э Λ Đ Ŏ Я” or “KYRELDOR”. He also noticed tiny indentations around each character and his thoughts immediately went back to the maze, and its entrance. That was as far as he got.
Typhon stood over the book, his right hand poised above it, trembling, for it bore the full weight of the staff. His left hand was steady. He brought the staff slowly down towards the cover. It began to shimmer as green-tinged energy rippled along its length and only the Ultima did not flinch as a pulse of that energy passed from the staff, through the king, and into the book. The annulus on the cover flared a brilliant white, as did its attendant characters, and there, on the base of the staff, was revealed its mirror image.
‘It is a seal of sorts!’ said Nûrgal in hushed tones.
The staff came down now; whether it descended by its own volition or at the behest of the king, was unclear. It hovered a short distance above the book and then wobbled and spun, seeking the correct orientation. It came even lower until there was but a hairsbreadth between the sigils. It was just then that the tiniest of filaments emerged from its base, seeking out the indentations that circled each character on the cover. There was a mechanical hiss and at that moment Typhon appeared to awaken, as though from a dream. He looked incredulously at the book and at his staff.
The staff was absolutely vertical and a baleful green light was concentrated at its end. Vague wisps of smoke were apparent as if it was burning its way through the cover and then the cover itself began to fade. Its outline was still there but it was transparent, as though transformed from metal to glass, and beneath, the first page could clearly be seen. The first was rapidly replaced by the second and then the second by the third, until the procedure became too quick for the eye to follow. The lines that had been hidden began to glow, all of them, until an elaborate network of filigreed energy had been established throughout the entire book. And everyone around the table took an involuntary step backwards as a voice scythed through the air in a series of elongated gasps. That the voice was indisputably male and emerged from the mouth of the incumbent goddess at the head of the staff, merely added to the surreal nature of the situation.
‘Hear now the words of Kuprakindi, mage of the
Dark Age, companion to the Duidarra. Hear the
words and note them well. Listen to the Staff of
Madraggor as it tells my tale, for only once will
it be told.’
There could be no doubt that Kuprakindi had indeed made allowances for the passage of time and that this dreadful haunting voice was going to lay bare the dim distant past of Isladoron.
The single candle in the room, contained in an elaborate glass vessel at the head of the stairs, had burned down by two fingers and still the staff droned on. Nûrgal and Ravenkar had already exchanged speculative glances on more than one occasion, for as yet, barring a few notable exceptions, little that was new had been revealed. But all that was about to change. Suddenly the voice no longer came in gasps, rather its owner could have been in the room with them. The tones were beyond mellifluous; they were hypnotic, decadent, insidious, probing.
‘Much can change with the Hellion, for that is
its nature. Yet for several more cycles it should
come to pass, even as I say to you now. In the
same plane it does lie and so will it go before the
sun, even as you look, and to its very center, but
not beyond. Back whence it has come will it
appear to go and the full venom of its tail shall
recede, but beware, for it bears down upon you
still. Toward the third day of its reverse no more
will it blight the sun and gravel will turn to dust
once more. Toward the fourth day, so will its tail
have passed beyond you, but then will the world
begin to shudder. Toward the seventh day it will
be at its closest and sparks will fly and seas shall
rise and it shall fill the evening sky as it passes
in your wake. It is then that the Black shall cast
aside its shackles and merge with the White. It is
then that darkness will descend, but not
darkness as you know it. So severe will it be that
neither sun nor Hellion will part its clogging
veil. And it is then that you must enter that most
holy of shrines and summon forth the Cucullus
from the soulless realm in which it lies, and as
described herein. Cast it over the one Stone and
it shall become two. Within its folds the Black
will lie, hidden from jealous eyes that would
possess it. But do not delay, for soon the folds
will fade. Seven must hasten to the Lighthouse
where the path will be revealed. To access the
Lighthouse you must first enter Kyreldor. Seven
then to follow, four on land and three at sea. The
second will give you the casket, into which the
Eidola cannot see. The fourth will deliver
Môgrodôth and that which lies beneath. The last
will point to Kyreldor. So is your path revealed,
but still you are blind. To access the seven you
must know how the blind man sees and here is
not the place to tell. Look anew to your books
and therein you may find the answer. Look to the
following for the setting of the Drathkal and so
will it summon the Cucullus.’
And even as they looked, one of the pages within the book assumed a more substantial guise and down its outer edge a series of diagrams appeared. There were six of them in all, each one representing a segment of the Drathkal. As Azella and Jak looked on, they were reminded of the cross analogy that Ravenkar had used onboard the Kraken when explaining the orb’s mechanics. The diagrams were all of a similar scale and the arms of each cross were roughly the width of a slender finger; as a consequence of this, a box was formed at the center of each cross and within this box, in all six cases, nestled the symbol “Ŏ”. Four similar boxes adorned the ends of each cross and to each had been assigned a further symbol.
Against the first cross were written the words:
Look down upon the key segment.
Arrange it thus –
At the top of the vertical arm was the symbol “Ą”. At the bottom of that arm was the symbol “R”. At the right hand end of the horizontal arm was the same symbol “R”, and at the left hand end was the symbol “Э”.
Against the second cross were written the words:
Turn the Drathkal directly away.
Look down upon the second segment.
Arrange it thus –
At the top of the vertical arm was the symbol “Đ”. At the bottom of that arm was the symbol “Я”. At the right hand end of the horizontal arm was the same symbol “Я”, and at the left hand end, once again, was the symbol “Đ”.
Against the third cross were written the words:
Turn the Drathkal directly away.
Look down upon the third segment.
Arrange it thus –
At the top of the vertical arm was the symbol “Ŧ”. At the bottom of that arm was the symbol “Ą”. At the right hand end of the horizontal arm was the symbol “Ż”, and at the left hand end was the symbol “Ŋ”.
Against the fourth cross were written the words:
Turn the Drathkal directly away.
Look down upon the fourth segment.
Arrange it thus –
At the top of the vertical arm was the symbol “Ŋ”. At the bottom of that arm was the symbol “R”. At the right hand end of the horizontal arm was the symbol “Я”, and at the left hand end was the symbol “K”.
Against the fifth cross were written the words:
The fifth segment lies directly to the left of the fourth.
Look down upon the fifth segment.
Arrange it thus –
At the top of the vertical arm was the symbol “Ŧ”. At the bottom of that arm was the symbol “Λ”. At the right hand end of the horizontal arm was the symbol “Ў”, and at the left hand end was the symbol “R”.
Against the sixth cross were written the words:
The sixth segment lies directly to the right of the fourth.
Look down upon the sixth segment.
Arrange it thus –
At the top of the vertical arm was the symbol “Я”. At the bottom of that arm was the symbol “Đ”. At the right hand end of the horizontal arm was the symbol “K”, and at the left hand end was the symbol “R”.
Already the energy seemed to be fading as Ravenkar desperately copied the diagrams onto the inside cover of a book he had hastily plucked from an adjacent shelf. Then the green light flickered and died and the staff crashed onto the table, dormant again. Nûrgal calmly picked it up and returned it to Typhon.
‘It would seem my lord, that your staff is older than either of us had suspected, older even than Madraggor, esteemed first monarch of the New Age, although it bears his name. How old I wonder? It would appear to be descended from the archmage himself. And then of course, other questions present themselves. What was Kuprakindi’s relationship with the Duidarra? “Companion” is a strange term to use. Could this staff have been Duidarran in origin and modified by him to suit his own purposes?’
‘Well at least we have the answer to one question,’ said Ravenkar, scribbling furiously, ‘and possibly a few more, if I can just commit this final diagram to paper. There, I have it now I think!’ Even as he said it, the residual energy illuminating the final page perished and the back cover began to reassert itself.
‘And what would that particular question be?’ asked Azella, reluctantly, for Ravenkar had a familiar smug look upon his face.
‘Why, Raven Lôkar’s translation of course. Remember Arish-Tâ’s assertion to the fact that Raven Lôkar was not exactly held in high esteem. Queen Katelyn too had distanced herself from him and was distraught when she discovered that Prince Ethrûll had become involved. So, I would postulate that during that particular cycle the staff never came close to the Rhyme. I would also postulate that Raven Lôkar was a very erudite man indeed. It now seems obvious that the information within the book is meant to be transferred vocally through the staff. Direct translation from the text is a last resort. Erudite or not though, I wonder if any help was forthcoming?’
‘You mean Duidarran texts that might have mysteriously materialized at the very time he was laboring over his translation?’ said Jak.
‘Indeed,’ answered Ravenkar. ‘Materialized, dare I suggest, in similar fashion to that adornment around Azella’s neck.’
‘And following on from that, I too have a question.’ Typhon’s voice had regained its authority. ‘How is it that my animated companion here was able to communicate in our own language, as opposed to the old tongue or this “Duidarran”?
‘That I fear is a question you must address to the staff itself.’ Nûrgal’s reply was intense and not flippant, but the king assumed the latter.
‘And that is the sort of reply I would expect from one of your esteemed underlings in the Hierarch,’ came the retort.
‘I merely mean to convey, my lord, that the answer to that question is currently beyond the scope of our knowledge. It would though, certainly imply some meddling on Kuprakindi’s part. The staff knew the language then as it knows the language now and it made the necessary translation as the symbols guided it through the script.’ The Ultima was about to continue on but then his mask snapped sharply around to address Ravenkar. ‘I do hope, my Khir friend, that you are being especially careful with that orb of yours.’
‘Fear not, Ultima, for it requires a most definite pressure on the key segment before it is activated’
‘You are following the settings on the diagrams!’ Azella cried out in alarm. ‘Surely that does not need to be done yet?’
‘Well, well, it was never my intent to cause such consternation,’ said Ravenkar, genuinely bemused. ‘I take it then that no one is interested in what has emerged around the three great circles? Yes? No?’
‘Oh, get on with it wizard,’ said Shamul, smiling. ‘We know you are desperate to tell us.’
‘Very well then, if you insist,’ Ravenkar replied, ‘but just let me write out these three lines with all the symbols orientated correctly, to confirm my suspicions. Whether any of us will then be the wiser for what is revealed here, I do not know.
‘If you remember, Azella, I told you aboard the Kraken that these strings are not always comprised of twelve characters only. All I meant was that on occasion, the first character in the string is sometimes tagged onto the end and so the string becomes thirteen characters in length. Myth, and to a lesser extent, common sense, lead me to believe that such is the case here. Two of the strings appear to begin and end with the “Ŏ” at the center of the key segment, set apart from the other segments incidentally by the nature of its characters, which are embossed rather than flush. “ŎRĐŎЯŦŎĄŊŎRĄŎ”, if you will forgive my pronunciation, means literally, “follow the path to Toanorao”. Likewise, we have “ŎRĐŎЯŻŎŊŦŎΛЭŎ”, or “follow the path to Zontoleo”. Finally, if those first two strings can be said to run through the poles of the Drathkal, then the third string circles the equator. It reads “ŎRĐŎЯKŎRЯŎKЎŎ”, or “follow the path to Korrokyo”.’
‘None of that means anything to me,’ said Azella, bemused.
‘Then the royal reading is sadly lacking,’ shouted Shamul in mock outrage. ‘You have never encountered Abu Sindhi’s “Faraway Places”?’
‘Er, no, I don’t believe so,’ replied Azella, stretching her words out for it was obvious that everyone else in the room knew the book quite well. Her worst fears were confirmed when Jak began to nod sagely.’
‘And this then would be our future sovereign.’
‘Oh, just tell me about the wretched book!’
‘Myth and magic, that is what we must take from this,’ said Ravenkar. This entire business is couched in myth and magic, to mislead those who would bring us down. Mythical tales are rarely the simple product of an imagination given flight. Often, couched within them, are tenets of profound significance. Whether that is the case here or not, Azella, well you must read it and make up your own mind.
‘The story concerns a disgraced ambassador who, through no fault of his own, is exiled from Skal. On his travels through Isladoron he ends up in Kathustra Pavalorn where he takes up ship with the pirate Askangalor, who is setting sail for the fabled land of Parracador with its gleaming spires and temples of gold. On their way, for one reason or another, they are forced to set foot on three very strange islands. I’m sure you can guess their names?’
‘So we must ask ourselves whether these islands just belong in myth, or if there is more to them,’ said Azella. ‘And what of Kyreldor? What, or where, is Kyreldor? And if that is our goal, how is it that we must first go there before we go to the lighthouse, which I presume is a reference to Diadonnara?’
‘And what of the other reference,’ said Jak, ‘the reference to the blind man?’
‘So many questions,’ said Ravenkar ‘and so few answers.’
‘“Look anew to your books”, wasn’t that what he said?’ bellowed Typhon. ‘Well, here we are with books all about us. Jak’s question is one for the Curator, I think.’ So saying, he pulled a small bell from one of his sleeves and gave it three short shakes.
‘I have another question, I’m afraid.’ This was said with such portentous overtones by Shamul that the entire room fell silent.
‘It seems to me that something terrible occurred about four thousand years ago. I speak now not of these “Eidola”, but only of the comet or “Hellion”. Was that the word? It is a long time, yes, but is it long enough for all references to it to be erased? Would its import be forgotten by all? Would tales of such an event not be passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth alone?’
‘And that, friend Shamul, is a very good question,’ answered Nûrgal ‘and one that I have long pondered. I would answer you thus:
‘When studying the human mind, more especially in relation to children, it is a fact that terrible events are often pushed from the immediate consciousness into obscure backwaters of the subconscious, there to fester, unobserved; to manifest themselves but rarely, and even then, in unexpected ways. It would appear that this same psychological phenomenon is applicable to adults as well as children, to nations as well as individuals. A collective amnesia if you like, brought about by unspeakable trauma.’
‘Talking of which,’ interrupted Typhon, ‘I do believe the Curator is on his way up.’
The Ultima seemed unconcerned at Typhon’s sarcastic intrusion and fell silent, his attention drawn, like everyone else, to the stairs.
Those stairs seemed to creak for an age, but eventually an ancient stooped figure of a fellow appeared at the top. He had a tiny orange cap perched on his head and flowing robes to match. His white beard reached to his knees and put Ravenkar’s to shame. His eyebrows were similarly impressive and from beneath their hirsute shade, two startling blue eyes peered forth, surely as blue as Azella’s were green. They were set in a face that had at least one line for every year it had witnessed.
‘You wished to speak to me, my king?’
‘That I do, my dear Curator, that I do, and it is a matter of some urgency. Could you perhaps enlighten us as to any recent influx of reading material? We would be interested in something a little out of the ordinary, perhaps. You know the sort of thing. Something that the Hierarch would likely skip over. Something devoid of religious dogma; something that the rest of us might actually find entertaining.’
‘Possibly something pertaining to ancient myths, Curator,’ said Nûrgal, a little more directly.
‘Well now, isn’t that strange?’ stammered the old man. ‘I really must apologize my lords. It is not customary of late to accept such books into the library, but the fellow really was most persuasive; insistent almost. It was done in the Kharos style he said, and I had to agree. The illustrations had no perspective to them but the draftsmanship was superb. Simple, precise, elegant. And the colors! I have never seen pigments employed that were so vibrant; more especially given the age of the book.’
‘The age of the book?’ said Typhon, raising an eyebrow.
‘One of the reasons I accepted it,’ answered the Curator. ‘He seemed to have the provenance to prove it, although I must confess that I did not scrutinize it too intently, so besotted was I with the book.’
‘The age of the book?’ said Typhon again, eyebrow still raised.’
‘It appears to date back several thousand years, my lord. “It will be a most valuable addition to your library” were his exact words, and I must say I had to concur. I do hope I have not offended, my lords. I would normally have presented such an item before the Hierarch.’
‘My dear Curator,’ responded Typhon magnanimously, ‘you have our eternal gratitude for your errant ways. Now, are you perchance able to lay a hand on this sumptuous volume? We would very much like to see it for ourselves.’
‘It is in the tower basement, my lord Typhon. Bottom level, column seven, row three.’
‘Could you perhaps be a little more precise, Curator?’
‘Er, book six I believe,’ said the Curator, panicking momentarily.
Azella stared reproachfully at the king, whilst Ravenkar, Jak and Shamul developed a sudden interest in the floor planks.
‘I can seek it out now lord, if that is your wish.’ The old man was desperate to please.
‘That would be perfectly splendid, Curator, and please treat those stairs with a little more reverence than you showed on the way up.’
The orange garbed figure turned to go, but as he reached the top of the stairs, Nûrgal’s icy voice delayed him. ‘Curator, are you able to describe the man who so kindly made this addition to our library?’
‘Why, yes my lord Nûrgal. That is, yes and no. I cannot recall his face at all, and that is most unusual, for I have a good memory for faces. I do remember his attire though. He wore a hooded robe of the most unusual purple.’
‘I too have seen this man!’ shouted Jak, much more loudly than he had intended.
The cloisters were in shadow for their lanterns had long since been doused. At such times the Reader would normally sleep, but not this night. Moonlight bathed the cupola; it flirted with the column below and then danced along the meandering boulevard, over a bridge and into the library courtyard. The bridge carried the boulevard over a shallow lake whose boundaries, in keeping with the gardens that enclosed it, were overgrown and uncertain. Indeed, such had been the tempestuous nature of the last few days, its entire surface was ill-defined beneath a windblown carpet of dragonsbreath petals.
As is the nature of such things however, Iambos had found a small clearing amongst the floating petals in which to bask, and her reflected radiance shone clearly in the Reader’s eyes. He watched as a lone cloaked figure made its way over the bridge. It moved elegantly, gracefully, but there was urgency to it as well. Not a figure to be trifled with.
They had tried to put the pieces together, with particular regard to the man in purple. He was obviously instrumental in much that was going on around them, but the pieces, as yet, would not fit. How significant was this second book? Was it even the book they required? After Jak’s revelation, they were fairly certain they would not be disappointed in that respect. Jak’s tale had also led them conveniently onto the subject of the Orakal, about which the Ultima seemed informed, but not overly so. But what little he did know was new to all of them.
‘The Orakal’s function is uncertain, but I can tell you this much,’ he began. ‘It is a conduit for the energy that is delyrium. If there is an imbalance, then the relevant energy will flow through it until balance is restored. The energy in our realm is residue from the workings of the Stones and so is manifest as a specific color or frequency. To consider the extreme example, if there is an excess of dêlyrium within its sphere then stable red will flow through the Orakal until the imbalance is no more. But its sphere of influence is reputedly very small, which is why it is rarely mentioned in the relevant texts; it seems that it is necessary to be almost upon it before it serves its function. This has always seemed unlikely to me and the fact that it has been placed into our hands confirms my doubts. It is an item we must treat with careful reverence.’
‘And why has it come to me?’ asked Azella, almost with an air of indignation.
‘The process that I have just described occurs when the Orakal is left to its own devices. Apparently, it is possible for some who wear it to control the frequency of the energy that flows through it,’ answered Nûrgal.
‘But what would be the point of that?’ asked Azella.
‘We have reached the limits of my knowledge upon the subject, for information is sparse, to say the least. I can now offer only supposition.
‘The Orakal, like the Drathkal, has a number of functions, but was created, like the Drathkal, for one specific function that overrides the rest. As yet we do not know what that function may be, but everything would suggest that it has not been evidenced for four thousand years.’
‘It is that old then! You are convinced that it is a part of all this?’ said Azella.
‘More than ever after Jak’s story. And there is one other thing.’ The Ultima now confronted Azella directly. ‘You recall, no doubt, that I caused its appearance to change and that in its altered state the jewel at its core was concealed. No reason is given for this in any of the related material that I have access to. My guess would be however, that when it is at the height of its powers, it blazes forth like a beacon; a beacon that must be concealed at all costs. To change it back and forth is but a simple task for me. To maintain it as the Serpent is a task that is beyond me. But for you, it may be a different. You have a gift, Azella, and I think that one way or another, you would have ended up with the Orakal. You must be aware of that gift. Perhaps you consider it to be unrelated, but I can assure you it is not. We must examine that gift and apply it accordingly. Now, do you even have to think, Azella? What might this gift be?’
But at that moment the stairs below creaked. The Curator had returned. Expectant eyes turned to the stairhead, but it was not an orange cap that appeared. The figure that did appear pirouetted with an easy grace and a concealing hood was flung back.
‘Well now, what do I see before me?’ said Alanna. ‘Five men and one young girl!’
‘A good match, do you not think my dearest?’
‘Do not attempt to go down that route, husband of mind, for I will not be pacified. On the last such occasion as this I made a suggestion, now I make it a demand. I will be consulted! Is there anyone within this room who has not heard that?’
So saying, Alanna stormed over to the wooden table and with a distinct lack of delicacy, dropped the book she had been carrying onto the book that was already there.
‘Henceforth, whilst Azella is within the bounds of this island, let it be known that she is in my charge. If her presence is required at some clandestine gathering then I too shall be at that gathering. Now, Ultima, tell me please, why do you question her so vigorously about her gift?
‘My lady, I was not aware that I was questioning her vigorously.’
‘Exactly my point, Ultima. I am aware of your desperation to obtain answers, particularly with regard to the Orakal, but sometimes gentle persuasion triumphs over a more aggressive approach. Do you really think she can relax her mind and be forthcoming with that grotesque mask thrust into her face? Come Azella, sit by me on the sofa.’
Typhon, possibly still suffering from his earlier ordeal, was yet aghast at the sudden sight of his wife. His state was now compounded by her unerring grasp of current events.
‘My lord king,’ Alanna said, in more composed fashion, ‘that expression is not becoming of one in a position of great authority. You seem surprised that I am so well informed, yet surely you cannot have forgotten that prescience is one of my particular gifts? And besides, do you really imagine that I did not linger awhile at the foot of the stairs?’
Alanna flopped down onto the sofa and raised a most regal eyebrow. ‘Now, can someone please tell me what is so important about this book that the Curator was so intent on delivering?’
If anything, the Curator had understated the beauty of the book. In plan it was about half the size of the Rhyme, but equally as thick. It was sewn with silk and bound with fading leather. A patina of sorts was apparent on most of the thick paper pages suggesting that some form of preservation had been attempted; it had been successful if the age of the book was to be believed. Embossed upon the cover in bold scrolled lettering was the title:
Tales of Antiquity
Below, embossed in similar fashion, but with smaller lettering, were the words:
Compiled by Ibn Alassi
Ravenkar elected himself as page turner by dint of the fact he was the most accomplished linguist of those gathered there. In truth, Alanna was probably the most accomplished, it was just that Ravenkar had spent more time poring over obscure manuscripts. Fortunately the language was not Duidarran, nor was it strictly of the old tongue. Generally, although each tale differed, an early form of Dôrônish had been employed, interspersed here and there with snatches of the old tongue. It often gave the shaman pause for thought, but never halted him completely.
At first, no one was particularly bothered about the words, so spectacular were the illustrations. It was difficult to imagine that the pigments could ever have been more vivid; so intense were they it seemed they could have been applied that very day, although the scenes they portrayed were most definitely of a bygone era. When Nûrgal, practical as ever, had the temerity to suggest that they might want to return to the contents page, his suggestion was initially met with mutterings of dissent. They were very quiet mutterings though and they soon found themselves scanning the required page.
And there it was! The fifteenth tale of twenty six. It attracted all eyes simultaneously, as it was the only story whose author was “unknown”. Its title was simple:
Tale of the Blind Teacher
Its title may have been simple but this particular tale lapsed more often than others into the old tongue and it was some time before Ravenkar was ready to tell it. By that time he had consulted with Alanna and Nûrgal and had jotted down several notes with verse numbers against them. Finally, he began:
His was a talent supreme,
He was blessed beyond mortal man.
Not for him clouds of white, but amaranthine and yellow, ochre and jade.
Not for him fields of green, but saffron and umber and carmine and blue.
And people looked upon his work and wept.
Yet humility was also with him,
And so finally did he arrive in that far-off place,
That place much talked of, where six spires touched the sky,
Wherein lived he who was not his equal, but his better,
Possessed of years that had honed his skill to a level unmatched.
But the passage of those years had been impartial,
And whilst many days had given, so had they taken.
Thus had he traveled from sharp, to blurred, to blind.
Yet he with the talent was undeterred; humility, but persistence too,
So soon an apprentice was he in that city of tall spires, yet with a mentor who could not see.
‘Tell me master,’ said he, ‘for I crave to know.
What is the essence of color to you who can no longer see?
Did its vibrations dim as shadows lengthened and darkness fell?’
‘Apprentice of mine, I sense pity in your voice, but pity not.
Color is more vivid for me than ere before.
I touch color, I feel color; it is through color that I am.
Seven colors do I invoke, seven memories do I thus recall,
And from those memories come tumbling forth the pigments of my life,
In all their skulking shades and riotous hues.’
Red, and I am in Askalhabdar.
At my back, the fertile slopes wend their way down to the sea,
Before me, an endless ocean of grassland beckons,
And today, on its nearest shore, floats a ribbon of raucous glee.
Today, this day that offers light and dark in equal measure,
Begins the Festival of Delights.
It is in the faces of the musicians as they pound their frantic beat,
It is in the rhythm of the dancers as they quicken across the floor,
It is in the eyes of the lovers as their passions break all bounds.
It is Life and it is Death and is the red that I remember most of all.
Orange, and I am in Kathustra Pavalorn,
Where the desert comes down to the ocean wide.
Behind me, the mountains frame the setting sun,
And rich textures merge:
Vermilion rock into amber sand, amber sand into darkening sea.
But it is neither this setting sun nor the quickening breeze that make me shiver.
It is the skeletons that stretch before me,
Victims of a treacherous shore.
Bleached timber bones laid out to dry in sinking light.
And this is the orange that I remember most of all.
Yellow, and I am in Robahar.
The sound of the forge is all about.
Blistering air singes my hair,
Hammers rise and fall.
The birth of a great sword is at hand.
The runes have been inscribed,
A thousand times it has been turned,
And now for the final quench!
But when, and only when, the metal is the color of the autumn moon.
And this is the yellow that I remember most of all.
Green, and I am in Kartha Nagal.
The oaks of the forest are all around.
Their leaves float silently down to the sullen river below.
I stand beneath the great archway,
Torchlight flickers, beckoning me to the tombs beyond.
Moss carpets the massive stones, whilst between, wormwood burrows.
Leaves, lichen, water, weeds; green abounds.
But above hangs the copper bell that tolls for all souls, for thee and for me.
Upon it, within it, clings shimmering verdigris.
And this is the green that I remember most of all.
Blue, and I am in Ihmlahadistan,
Where the dead are not set in catacombs deep for worms to chew,
But laid on platforms high that scrape the void,
Where noble hawks may feast and eagles dine.
Prayer flags strain against the ever-present wind,
Their colors fading fast in the death chill of its breath.
Not so the sky above,
It thrives in this gaunt land.
Boundless, vibrant, constant, unsullied, evocative.
And this is the blue that I remember most of all.
Indigo, and I am in Zora-Rak.
The stark stone lines of the bell tower surround me, the city a tapestry below.
Rain slants down across its ancient slate roofs,
Which merge seamlessly with the Outer Seas, cold and gray.
The ponderous architecture, granite and gloomy, weighs down upon me.
I descend the spiral stairway into the temple, cavernous and candle-filled.
Chanting follows me eastward and I cross the transept, echoes of rain to either side.
Before me now the stone god rises, serene and indifferent,
Bathed in light from windows tall, whose stain is opaque, virulent, chilling.
And this is the indigo that I remember most of all.
Violet, and I am I know not where.
It matters not, this place, that place?
For every place pales in his presence,
All people bend before his will.
We prostrate ourselves before him, obey his every whim.
Can it be the aura that is about him, blazing clear and bright?
No, rather it is that which is upon him that keeps us in silent thrall,
That robe the color of poison or shadows of the night,
That robe which fades and dazzles, confuses and confounds.
And this is the violet that I remember most of all.
‘And what are we to make of that?’ said Ravenkar, looking up from the book.
‘Well, all is now abundantly clear to me,’ said Typhon, his hands resting atop his staff. ‘The riddle of the seven has been put to rest and the identity of the one we seek has been laid bare. Is this really the book we seek?’
‘Could that final verse be a reference then to Kuprakindi himself?’ asked Azella.
‘Certainly the timescale would be about right, if indeed this book dates back four millennia, for I suspect these tales were already old then,’ said Jak.
‘What then of this other fellow in purple. Is that too Kuprakindi? I think not!’ said Ravenkar, who was still idly turning the pages of the book. ‘A trained acolyte following carefully coded instructions? Is that possible?’
Nûrgal stepped to the forefront, his head bowed and his arms crossed. ‘I think perhaps we should concentrate on what we know, rather than what we do not know. The seven remain a riddle, but we have done everything that the Rhyme hinted at; Azella, you above all of us must familiarize yourself with the tale just read, for I suspect it will fall to you to interpret it on the journey north.’ The Ultima made no attempt to continue at this juncture for he was well aware of the stir his statement would cause.
It was not Azella that spoke next, but Alanna. A brief smile played across her lips. ‘I suppose, Ultima, that now I am scripted to fling my arms up in outrage and shout at you once more. In all honesty that is precisely what I would like to do, however, I know you speak the truth. The Orakal has come to Azella and this is a journey she must make. I do not deduce this from analysis and logic as you do. Rather, I feel it.’
‘Dearest,’ interrupted Typhon, ‘I assume you would be willing to confront her father with that reasoning when his daughter’s corpse is washed up on Khanju’s desolate shores? You remember, at your bidding, I offered his one and only daughter sanctuary upon this island in her time of trouble? Remiss of me I know, but I neglected to mention to him that we might in fact remove her yet further north.’
Azella gave neither Alanna nor Nûrgal a chance to reply. Her green eyes shone and her voice never faltered. ‘My lord, I am daughter of Joel and heir to all that he represents. The period of my grieving has now passed. I have set aside a part of myself and my mother will reside there always. But a fire now burns within me and unless I tend to it, it will consume me. I would see her avenged and I would see this continent safe from those who would seek to destroy it. If this means that I must journey north and leave the redoubtable walls of Djebal Doron behind me, then so be it.’
A period of silence ensued. Alanna smiled a knowing smile.
‘Well, that has certainly told me, and in no uncertain terms,’ said Typhon eventually. ‘And notwithstanding that, I am unable even to fall back upon my most trusted strategy. Having my wife and my chief advisor at each other’s throats is a policy that has held me in good stead over the years, yet suddenly it has betrayed me. My options are gone. I shall write to Joel immediately and inform him that his daughter has escaped my custody and flown north, in search of love and riches untold.’
‘You shall do no such thing,’ said Alanna, frustration in her voice. ‘Instead you shall turn your formidable intellect to the problems at hand. Ultima, I suspect you had not quite finished?’
Nûrgal walked deliberately over to the stairhead and peered down. When he was satisfied that no none was there he stood up straight with his arms extended to either side.
‘Do not be alarmed. This is merely a precaution. There are many vents in this tower, in this library. There are many ways of amplifying sound. You should find this distracting, but not disturbing. You will find initially that you will want to shout, but that will pass.’
A sound now came to the room. It was very difficult to describe it accurately. Jak would later liken it to a colony of bats exiting their cave and indeed it was similar to the flapping of many wings, but it seemed to be outside the room rather than inside.
The Ultima still stood at the head of the stairs. His arms were no longer extended but now he seemed to fill the entire room. He was completely unperturbed by the quiet mayhem he had created and when he spoke, as promised, he did not shout. A faint echo accompanied his words, but that was all. ‘Our plans must remain flexible, but through them a thread must run. The comet is not a totally predictable beast. Strangely, as it starts to pull away from our sun, its tail precedes it. We see the result of that now. First, the iron dust, then naphtha and gravel. The Stone has spared us from the worst of these excesses but, as of now, the comet will appear to track back across the face of the sun; that is because our planet begins to win the race and will finally pass in front of the comet. Know this though. It will be a close-run thing. Even now we begin to lose its tail, but in about seven days the beast will unleash its full fury as it passes just behind us. As we have heard, it is then that the Pool will be overwhelmed and our nemesis released. It is then that our defenses will be lowered. Word will go out, where possible, to the many communities in Isladoron that skirt the sea. Whether those warnings will be heeded is another matter.’
‘And Skîros?’ asked Azella.
‘Skîros should be safe behind its wall. Skal has more to fear, but even there, it is a city that rises quickly up the hillsides.
‘On the seventh day, or possibly the eighth,’ he continued, ‘Ravenkar and I will enter the temple and the Drathkal will be cast. But at least no maze this time, my Khir friend!’
‘But many stairs I fear,’ said Ravenkar, smiling.
‘Alas, yes. Those are unavoidable,’ answered Nûrgal. ‘Hopefully, at that stage we will emerge unscathed and the black Stone will be ours, within this “Cucullus”.
‘Then will the Eidola be upon us. We have spoken little of them thus far, but soon our thoughts must turn towards them. You have in your heads only the words of Arish-Tâ, as they were spoken in the Iron Chamber, together with vague references from Kuprakindi. I will divulge more, much more, that I have gleaned from my readings, but here is neither the time nor the place. But know that they will suspect we have removed the Black and that we will try to transport it away from these shores. They will indeed suspect many things. But they will not know!
‘Initially, they will need to cast their net wide and we will need to slip through it. One fact you must be aware of, if you have not already surmised it from Kuprakindi’s earlier ramblings: these creatures would appear to possess a terrible ability. It seems that raw energy is part of their makeup; a miniscule amount to be sure, but withering in its potency. With it they can paralyze any sentient being and go on to assume control of its body, although I suspect such control does not come without its problems. At the outset, I am guessing that they will appear in the guise of the sea creatures they have so abominably usurped, and although those noble creatures could once walk on land, it was not their preferred environment. This gives us an early advantage. By the time they have learned to maneuver comfortably in those bodies, or, may our gods forbid, in human guise, let us hope we are well on our way.’
‘And what is the fate of those who are “usurped”?’ asked Azella, her voice quiet and controlled.
‘If the creatures do not relinquish their control, then madness, eternal damnation.’
‘Pray, do not mince your words, Ultima,’ spluttered Typhon. ‘If you are to be the purveyor of bad news then at least be forthright with it.’
Before the king could say anything else, Alanna’s hand had clamped down tightly over his mouth. ‘Please Ultima, do continue.’
Nûrgal did as bidden, but in the same somber vein. ‘I do not know how soon we will be able to leave Djebal Doron behind us. There will be great winds, there will be darkness, and there will be thunder and lightning. And that is where we will have need of you, Shamul, my friend. Are you willing to commit your vessel and yourself to the task at hand? I ask this from courtesy only for I have already sensed the will within you.’
‘Then you already know my answer, Ultima,’ came the reply.
‘And what of beyond? That ideally would have been a task for the Clann, or at least one of their squads, but alas, I fear their prowess will be required closer to home. Are you able to gather some of your crew about Azella and see her safely through Khanju to Môgrodôth?’
Shamul laughed out loud. ‘Many more speeches like that last one and she will have my crew groveling at her feet, imploring her to take them. As for myself, well I have become attached to her of late and would not like to see harm come to her. And besides, I know what allegedly awaits at Môgrodôth. The chance to sail such a vessel is not one I could pass up lightly.’
‘We will first make for the lighthouse at Diadonnara then,’ continued Nûrgal, ‘and as I have said, flexibility is the key. We will see what awaits us there and then head north. I do not expect to be with you from that moment onwards, not initially at least, but I suspect communication may not be beyond us. Think at least, Shamul, as to which of your crew will be best suited to such a journey. I am guessing at this stage that a small group will suffice. Stealth rather than strength may see us through. And there is one more thing.’
‘You only have to ask, Ultima,’ replied Shamul.
‘Is there amongst your men one who has such a gift as Alanna?’
‘One who is prescient, you mean?’
‘Yes. I ask more in hope than in expectation. Once it was a gift presented to many, but now alas, few possess it. Khanju is a strange land and someone endowed with such a gift might be more receptive to its idiosyncrasies.’
‘Well,’ said Shamul, thoughtfully stroking his chin, ‘there is Riako. If we take him then his brothers must accompany us also, for they will not be separated. I may have chosen them anyway. They might be unruly but they are trained in the more “ignoble” of the fighting arts and are hardy in the extreme. Riako is the youngest and gentlest of the five. He has the ability to create tension when previously there was none; his dreams scare even the most obdurate of my crew; he predicts the outcome of matters that have not even arisen so that when they do arise we have forgotten that he brought them up in the first place, and worse, that he was right. Would that seem to fit the bill?’
‘That would seem to be a most precise fit,’ said Nûrgal. ‘I cannot even say why I feel this to be important at this juncture, only that he may guide you when the way is less than obvious.’
‘Talking of which,’ said Ravenkar, perking up suddenly, ‘none of us are even remotely familiar with Khanju and its terrain. Does any of your crew fit that particular bill, Shamul?’
‘Do not concern yourself on that score.’ Typhon now rejoined the discussion. ‘We have many outcasts from western Khanju in Djebal Doron, especially since the demise of the trade route up to Dol Kathra. Assuming you do not stray too far eastwards, I’m sure a decent guide can be found. My guards seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in the quayside taverns, perhaps now they can put that time to good use.’
‘Is it not just possible to head directly north to Zoth, and then westwards, as Jak did?’ asked Azella, ‘Or is Zoth too difficult to find?’
‘I fear, my girl,’ answered Ravenkar, ‘that the great and munificent Kuprakindi intends to lead us a very merry dance indeed before we reach our destination. Piece by piece will he lead us on and only when it is assured that the Eidola cannot intervene will he present us with the final piece, that which leads to Môgrodôth. It is their ability to intrude into our very thoughts that he feared; to pick up on rumor and hearsay; to finally track down their Stone, or at the very least to seek out the way to the caverns below the castle and destroy what lies there.’
‘With all of that I would agree,’ added Nûrgal. ‘And so, to conclude, I am guessing that in about nine or ten days, comet be willing, we will be able to leave for Diadonarra. Shamul, I do not have to tell you how to provision your vessel, nor do I have to tell you that it must be done in the utmost secrecy. Perhaps, in five or six days time, it would be an idea to prepare your crew for what is to come and keep them within the confines of the quayside, or even the Kraken; much more easily said than done, no doubt.’
The Ultima brought his hands together and the clap echoed around the room. The sound of beating wings ceased.
One by one they filed down the rickety stairs and thence down to the lofty marble lobby that marked the main entrance to the library. There they bid their farewells, fatigue etched across their faces. The sumptuous sofas littering the lobby looked especially inviting, but none of them had too far to go. Ravenkar, Jak and Shamul were still in the queen’s lower quarters and so continued their descent down the tower. Nûrgal swept off towards the east wing; he had much reading still to do, with particular regard to the Staff of Madraggor. Azella and the royal couple made their way outside and down the boulevard towards the queen’s garden quarters. Within the gardens themselves the royal guard watched them go, unobtrusive as ever. They were not alone in their observations. On the roof of the library Iambos shone still in the eyes of the Reader.
Tired as she was, sleep did not come easily to Azella. She had left the windows to her room open and the sound of the fountain in the garden below finally set her mind off in a direction she had been reluctant to take. When the trance came upon her, and trance it surely was, for her eyes were open yet she did not see, a smile had stolen over her face even as it had that day of her eighth birthday, sat upon Joel’s knee in what she liked to think of as her “secret” garden.
Arabella’s Arch began where the slopes that reared up from the harbor front were at their steepest. It then extended out to Joel’s Keep in a southwesterly direction. On riding across its giddying span and into the keep, newcomers would be immediately taken aback by the imposing buttresses that leapt from the courtyard to support the outer wall. There were six in all: two flanked the main gate, two more, directly opposite, flanked an almost square tower on the far side of the courtyard and the final two ran into smaller circular turrets midway between the tower and the gate. The tower’s walls descended down through all levels of the keep, and it was the only direct means of ingress. Arched wooden doorways in its sides led out onto the battlements which circled back to the main gate, encountering on their way the smaller turrets to each side.
At the inner edge of each of these jutting stone promontories, where they arose from the courtyard, burnished bronze portals were embedded into the cobbles. The same newcomers would ponder on their use, noting that each was comprised of two separate doors, hinged at their outer edges. They would briefly wonder as to whether the doors dropped into the courtyard or opened upwards and, having failed to resolve any of these questions, their attentions would stray to the low stone structures that ringed the courtyard between the buttresses.
They would take in the steeply sloping slate roofs, the implacable identical facades and realize, with growing concern, that they had no idea whatsoever as to which of those structures housed the stables. Eventually someone would emerge and put them out of their misery, leading them off in the requisite direction. The time this would take to happen was largely dependent upon the status of the newcomers; the more elevated the status, the longer the time, for such was the perverted nature of Joel’s wit.
The newcomers would dismount and, invariably in ill-humor, make towards the tower. If they were particularly perceptive and that perception had not been unduly dulled by their disposition, they might notice that the walls of that tower were higher than the main battlements. They could never guess though that behind those elevated walls a garden lay.
The narrow pond ran almost the full length of the garden. To either side, herbs of an unimaginable variety prospered, primarily to cater to Joel’s love of exotic food but also contributing to a myriad of healing potions stocked in the apothecary far below. The walls around the garden were high and on a hot day such as this it was an effective sun trap. The narrow slits that allowed for stunning views across the fjord and over the town provided little by way of ventilation, even when the wind was at its fullest.
Azella had many reasons to love the garden but mainly it was because of the gargoyles that ringed the tops of the walls. There were twenty in all; she counted them often just to make sure they hadn’t played a trick on her. They were the sort of gargoyles that might play tricks, unlike their nastier brethren who resided further down, just below the battlements. They were neither sleek nor menacing, just the opposite in fact, and in most cases it was surprising that the wall could support their bloated stone forms, protruding horizontally as they did, out over the herbs. They all had exaggerated features with crossed eyes and blubbery protuberances, but her favorite was the fish with the pursed lips that hung tantalizingly over one end of the pool. A veritable cascade of water spouted constantly from its mouth sending ripples surging over the otherwise still surface and forcing the water violets that thrived there to congregate at the far end, as a bobbing lilac carpet. The silence at that far end was palpable, in complete contrast to the tumult at the other end, which was where Azella now sat, perched upon Joel’s knee.
‘I have something to tell you today, my little one. A secret. That is why we are sat here, near to your beloved fish, where no one can overhear us.’ Joel’s words mingled with the sound of the water. She understood but was not really listening. She was counting the gargoyles again and fidgeting with a piece of grass. Her father’s exasperated sigh caught her attention and she looked upwards only to see arched eyebrows and a stern face. His gray eyes bored into her and caused her to catch her breath. She had never seen that look before and was a little frightened.
‘One day you will inherit the mantle that I wear, Azella. I mean to see to it that you are ready for that day and if on occasion I must be harsh with you, then so be it. But this you know, for we have spoken of it before, yes?’
She nodded meekly in assent as he continued, his voice now lowered to a whisper. ‘It is most likely that you possess a strange gift, little one. If you do, it will seek you out and make itself known to you. It invariably shows up within our line, although never to more than one in each generation, I am reliably informed.’
Joel stopped talking for a moment and drew her closer. It was so quiet in the garden that afternoon. No birds, no insects, just the steady fall of water into the pool.
‘Always in this world,’ he continued, ‘are those who would sow the seeds of deceit that they might reap for themselves an unfair advantage; that would lie to get their own way, to put it more simply. This gift will forewarn you of them and it will speak to you of its own volition, that is, when it so chooses. The first time, should it ever occur, it will frighten you. I can tell you it fairly scared the absolute … the er, yes, well, suffice to say that I was most taken aback. For you see Azella, it does actually speak to you, after a fashion. It comes as a voice in your head, albeit a distant voice. Let us say that you and a companion have been journeying together and have suddenly been overtaken by a huge storm. The voice you hear is the voice of your companion calling to you from afar, through the raging wind, imploring you to beware. Yes – I think that is the best way I can describe it to you. Thoughts will also flood into your head unbidden and you will wonder if they are your own. Yet whatever the origin of those thoughts, or indeed the voice, there is one certainty: the person before you will be laid bare. You will know that they are lying and, more often than not, you will know why they are lying and what they hope to gain.’
Joel had stopped again. A cloud, the only cloud in the entire sky, was passing across the sun. The sun reappeared and Joel started talking again as though he had been waiting for permission. ‘My child, I fear that this is a conversation that we will share on many occasions, for you must be totally prepared for all that might occur when this gift first alights upon you. So this will not be the only time that I will tell you that your sight too might be affected; appearances can blur and shift under its scrutiny. Commit this to memory so that you are ready.
‘The first time is the worst, doubly so, for it will inevitably be during a time of stress; that is what seems to trigger it. Beyond that you will gradually come to terms with it, learn to manipulate it, use it that is, a little more easily. I now view it as an alter ego, or should I say a trusted friend who no one else can see. But then I would, for am I not completely mad!?’
Joel’s eyes had widened to saucers and a grin had split his face from ear to ear. He was now holding Azella by the feet and shaking her like a rag doll. Her laughter echoed around the garden, subduing even the spurting fish. He stood her on her feet and knelt before her, solemn once more.
‘I foresee troubled times ahead for you, Azella. I foresee times that will cast a shadow over the centuries to come. Be brave with your gift my girl, for I sense that in my case I have merely drawn a cup from the well. Promise me that you will remember these words, for I am sure you will have need of them someday.’
She came out of the trance with a start and focused slowly on her surroundings. The sound of the fountain seemed more distant now. The thin silk curtains rustled in the faint breeze and a memory stirred.
It had come to her on her sixteenth birthday when a courtier from Kartha Nagal had suggested she might like to visit that city and partake of the southern air; that she might like to learn more of the city’s long history, so much richer than that of barbarous Skîros.
It had been a much gentler initiation than she could have hoped for. It had been like welcoming a long-lost friend. And indeed it was as Joel had said it might be: the courtier had seemed to dissolve and reform before her eyes; the resultant caricature had left no doubt as to his intentions and he had stormed angrily from the ballroom, unable to elicit anything from her other than helpless gales of laughter.
All of this passed fleetingly through her mind until it settled where she least wanted it to settle: Be brave with your gift my girl, for I sense that in my case I have merely drawn a cup from the well.