It was like a small pocket of tranquility, an oasis in a dusty desert of despair. Nûrgal did not seem unduly phased, possibly as a result of his mask, but Ravenkar took dreadful heaving gasps and violent coughs to clear his lungs.
‘Breathe deeply in this haven, for more is to come,’ said the Ultima. ‘The stairway will be the worst. Once inside the temple our path should be clear of this miasma.’
Ravenkar did not even glance at the Marokonda as they passed beneath the arch of their wings. Throughout the pummeling of the previous day and night he had attempted to disengage himself from the events around him. In the past he had found this to be an effective method of seeing him through times of great stress, but it had been put sorely to the test this time, especially when the very earth beneath his feet had started to pound. Yet once again it had served him well and so he employed it now, for at this particular moment he had no desire to relive his flight to the maze, let alone rekindle memories of the time he had spent within it.
Had he been more disposed to confront reality, he might well have shown at least mild concern at the gentle radiance which permeated the trees at the end of the path they were following. Again however he dealt with this by ignoring it, electing instead to accentuate the positive: the earth no longer shook, the sky was no longer being split asunder by implausible bolts of lightning and the air in their immediate vicinity was still relatively clear.
The path petered out and a bridge stretched away before them. Its span was perilously steep for its form was akin to the outer edge of a quadrant. Its green timbers were flawless and showed no signs of wear, although they creaked and groaned as soon as the two men set foot upon them. Its handrails were a curious oval shape in section and were painted bright red, whilst the side panels that supported them were green, like the deck. These panels were ornate in the extreme and under different circumstances Ravenkar would have examined their fanciful depictions in more detail but unfortunately, due to the excessive amount of carving that had been employed, there was more gap than substance to them and inevitably his eye was drawn to the waters beneath.
It was unnerving to see that nothing floated there, upon the surface of the mere. More unnerving to realize that the radiance he had ignored earlier hovered above the water like a surreal carpet of fire, but a fire that had a ghostly aspect to it, so mellow were its flames. Yet the grimy band of dust that had assailed the rest of the continent was kept at bay by it, indeed seemed to be repelled by it. It was there, above them, but was diluted to such an extent that dim starlight could even be discerned through its diminished veil, at least where it was not humbled by a trail of gas and debris sweeping across the heavens. Neither dim starlight nor comet trail however was reflected upon that water.
That he was able to look down as he now did was pure happenstance and Ravenkar realized it immediately. He had heard it said that nothing ever stirred within this quadrangle; that even reflections did not linger upon the mere’s surface. What then was this multitude of sparkling lights that he could now see? Of course, like the radiance, these lights were always present, it was just that they could only be seen in the total absence of external light; when sunlight, moonlight, starlight and the ambient glow of the pyramid had been obscured or removed. And so he watched the swirling patterns of stars at play deep down within the waters and wondered briefly at the number of dimensions on display.
He was no nearer an answer when they reached the far side of the bridge. A sharp acrid taste had insinuated itself on his lips and he had an overpowering desire to spit the bitterness from his mouth. He refrained though, for a few short steps had taken them onto the marble expanse that marked the foot of the White Stairway and such an act now seemed like blasphemy.
He did not pause to admire the stairway’s majestic ascent for he had seen it from afar and been suitably impressed. That he did not pause to look upwards was also an indication of his preoccupation with another matter. Breathing. What had heretofore been a relatively straightforward undertaking was now becoming an all-consuming struggle and he was reluctant to confront the task at hand. As they set foot upon the first step though, his cursory glance was almost inevitable; a reflex action of sorts. He was at least pleased to see that the rise on each stair was not particularly severe; not so pleased to see those stairs reaching endlessly into the murk above. And so the climb began.
The first landing was at the level of the tree tops and the battlements that ringed the citadel walls, although only the former were fleetingly visible. It was really just an absence of steps, a leveling off before the next flight, for the stairway was elegant in its simplicity: no pillars or guardrails accompanied its implacable ascent.
The second landing was of a similar nature. Its greater exposure meant that the dreadful dust swirled and eddied about him, yet perversely that allowed him to breathe a little easier.
The third and final landing, more a platform, was almost clear of the stuff. It was under assault from a rising wind and this allowed him to glimpse its distant edges quite clearly, before a paroxysm of coughing overtook him. The flat and featureless surface served only to exaggerate its apparent size.
Ravenkar thought of the pulsing beams of light that had appeared to rip through the fabric of the pyramid, and he wondered. Here it was before them. Intact. No familiar halo attended the massive stones that confronted them, despite the drear backdrop, but that apart it was as though nothing of note had occurred. It also came to him then that there was no immediate indication of an entrance either, but such a minute detail did not disturb him in the slightest, especially in his current state of mind. Why indeed should it, for had he not already passed through the base of the citadel walls? And so he watched, with an air of complete detachment, as an ever-expanding bloom of confined agitation materialized before Nûrgal, or more specifically, his mask. Within it, charged particles fizzed and crackled with reckless abandon causing a multitude of tiny explosions. The bloom floated slowly and inevitably into the wall, whereupon it instantly transmitted its unsettling properties into the stone blocks. The Ultima then followed, beckoning him to do likewise.
Ravenkar was forced to shield his eyes as a familiar red phosphorescence spluttered into life. It served to highlight a low arched tunnel leading off into the body of the pyramid. The reflections from the tunnel’s fused lining suggested that it might be rising ever so slightly and this was confirmed as they started to walk along it. It could not be described as a pleasant walk, confined as they were within all that masonry, and he quickly lost track of distance and time. The experience worsened as Nûrgal turned abruptly to the right and they passed into a much smaller passageway. Its short duration would have proved eminently acceptable had it not terminated at a flight of stairs.
The Ultima turned to him at that point and Ravenkar had the distinct impression that the mask concealed a malicious smile. ‘And so to the upper gallery,’ was all he said. There was though, no hint of humor in the voice.
How much longer could he endure this? Interminable stairs. Flight after flight. All the same. He started by admiring the precision with which they had been placed, for it quickly became apparent that they had not been hewn out as an afterthought. But admiration quickly gave way to exhaustion. He then consoled himself with the fact that the air was clear inside the temple. A little stuffy perhaps, but clear nonetheless. But consoling thoughts too quickly gave way to exhaustion. His callous companion was setting a grueling schedule insisting on no mid-flight rests whatsoever although, admittedly, they paused at every landing. No words were actually exchanged regarding this arrangement, it just became a matter of pride for Ravenkar that he did not become too much of a burden to Nûrgal, who seemed to float effortlessly up each flight.
Mustiness. A good sign. Ancient parchments, rotting scrolls, necromantic potions. This he was familiar with. They were nearing their goal. As he forced himself to look up he could see a chamber illuminated behind the flickering red orb. He planted his staff onto the next step with renewed vigor and hauled himself up behind it.
‘Well, well, well!’ The disembodied words floated out of the darkness above. The orb, as was its nature, had extinguished itself at just the wrong moment. Ravenkar found to his consternation that Nûrgal was still above him, having just ascended something more akin to a stone ladder than a stair. He was crouched in an alcove, the lifeless orb clutched in his hand.
Of course Ravenkar was looking directly at it when it flared back into life again. Flared back brighter than he had ever seen it, with not a flicker to interrupt its blinding glare. When he eventually steadied himself and regained some semblance of his sight, he could see it was framed by an indistinct rectangle.
‘Still I do not know the mechanism that works this trapdoor!’ There was more than a hint of frustration in Nûrgal’s voice, an inflection that Ravenkar had never heard before. ‘But it is open, and for that we must be grateful. I had assumed as much, for why else would it be here? It would nevertheless have been reassuring to have found reference to its workings somewhere. No matter. Come, my friend, let us ascend into the chamber.’
This matter-of-fact statement took hold of Ravenkar. It jolted him out of the reverie within which he had forced himself to dwell. The Stone lay directly above. The source of the power that protected their land, protected the entire continent. And with it lay another. Both of these things elemental, of the Void. The time was upon them. They must succeed or everything that he held dear would be laid to waste by an enemy he could scarcely envisage. A hand reached down from above.
Still the orb burned with uncharacteristic vigor, but within this chamber it was merely a pin-prick of light, an uncertain mote within a cavity of utter blackness whose limits could only be guessed at. Ravenkar and Nûrgal faced each other across an alien divide, the two most powerful artifacts on the entire planet between them; bound together as one, but lifeless beneath a bristling twisted skein of static.
It was indeed a single Stone that nestled in the mounting but both men could discern its flawed nature, even under that monochromatic glare. Flawed though, only in that each of its component parts was no longer what it had once been. The schizoid symmetry it now possessed was still a wonder to behold. The manic intermingling of dark and light wove a mesmeric web upon their senses and it was only when Nûrgal swept his cape across its intoxicating facets that Ravenkar was able to reach within a concealed pocket and pluck forth another orb, altogether more powerful than that which floated above them.
He had deliberately refrained from setting the key segment to the required orientation for although it required a significant amount of pressure to activate it, it was not an amount that would guard against an accidental stumble. He focused on the tiny symbols and wondered, not for the first time, just how old the Drathkal was.
One more twist and he was there, but already there was a great weight to it. He knew this was not an illusion. It was one thing to adjust it within the confines of the library tower, altogether another to adjust it within these hallowed bounds. This was what it had been created for; all its other functions were of a purely secondary nature.
He realized his palms were sweating as he made the final turn of the segment. He felt the weight increase almost immediately and he was left with no option. He pressed the segment down with a vicious jab of his thumb and pulled his hands away.
The Drathkal fell, but not all the way to the floor. Just above the floor it loitered and the glyphs on its three great circles began to glow. Up it came, completely under its own volition, to hover above the inert artifact at the center of the chamber. By now the glyphs were ablaze and Nûrgal’s orb redundant.
The Drathkal began to spin. It began to spin with such speed that the glyphs became indistinguishable from one another and soon all that was visible was a ball of intense light. Around this ball another formed so that the Drathkal appeared to float within a gaseous globe whose diameter was several times its own. This globe was defined by the incandescent shimmer that marked its surface rather than any identifiable hue, although a cold blue tinge, ephemeral at best, was at play there and random motes of brilliance hung within its confines.
Ravenkar watched in wonder. It was like viewing a white sun within an exotic blue universe where stars gleamed from afar. To where was the sun about to flee?
At the point of release that starry domain wavered and then folded in upon itself. Just before the collapse there was a tantalizing glimpse of spectral colors culminating in fading violet. Then nothing. Of the Drathkal there was no trace.
Imagine if you will a place where nothing resides as human knowledge would have it. A place bereft of substance or emotion as they are understood to be: where darkness shines forth to dispel numbing light but where neither state can be clearly defined; where gravity is a spent force and sorcerous energies rule the roost; where waves of enchantment break over sighing shores; where glamors gleam black, beacons atop screaming peaks; where incantations flow like water down crackling slopes and empty into lakes of spells that are noiseless, desolate and deep.
At the bottom of one such lake a light intrudes. Around the light an eddy forms and then a vortex. Scarce a ripple on the surface, but churning energy is being siphoned from the depths. This is not base energy though, of the sort mere humans can procure if they put their minds to it. This is energy many times refined. This is delyrium.
The light has gone. The breach is sealed.
Nothing flickered across Nûrgal’s impassive mask but a dull gleam was reflected in his companion’s expectant eyes as the air before him appeared to solidify, like an expanding breath of warm air clouding a still winter’s night. And then the air began to bleed.
Ravenkar instinctively thrust his hands forward to stem the flow and even as he did, recognized that he might regret his haste. Bloodied images of Imrhad passed through his mind as his hands plunged into the flow, but he need not have worried for the substance that frothed out of the air before him was completely impartial to the physical laws of his own time and space. It poured both around and through his fingers without severing them. It was ice cold to the touch and had the consistency of a dense liquid, yet the folds and creases scattered randomly across its surfaces belied that definition. It seeped upwards and outwards, as well as downwards, but was drawn irresistibly back towards the Stone, about which it began to coalesce. In crossing back through itself definite boundaries would emerge into which it would disappear, only to reappear through similar boundaries elsewhere. The Stone was all that constrained it and Ravenkar sensed that but for its presence, the enigmatic substance would vanish downwards, into the bowels of the earth and beyond, or upwards and outwards into the waiting Void.
And so was the Cucullus summoned. Around and into the composite Stone it seeped, trickling across fractal planes and easing them apart, forcing one crystal to relinquish its grip on the other. It drew a veil of night around the Black and drew it forth until it was poised, like an inverted shadow, above the White. Both men stared in rapt fascination at its suspended form, completely oblivious to all else. And thus they remained until the Cucullus appeared to flow no more and instead, gave every indication that it was about to adopt a quasi-solid state, whereupon the Ultima reached out and took it within his tentative grasp.
The black Stone could be sensed rather than felt. It assumed greater weight as Nûrgal removed it from the vicinity of its companion, but even when well clear it was barely heavier than an unleavened loaf of bread. Would that he could have passed it off as such, for its dimensions too were not dissimilar.
But there the comparisons ended. Coldness radiated outwards from it. Not a nagging coldness but piercing barbs that would have caused a lesser mortal to wince. He suspected that this was a property of the Stone rather than its cover, but for once his arcane talents could not avail him. He did note though that the latter was still changing its consistency, even as he held it. Rather than a viscous fluid it had now become a gel and had thickened to such an extent that no crystalline edges were apparent beneath.
As he pondered on this, a noise like the rustling of windblown leaves entered the chamber. It rapidly escalated to a whirring and then a droning and then, as would befit the return of any audacious and exalted traveler, a thunderclap. In concert with this came a halo of blistering ferocity which, just for a heartbeat, lit up the enclosing walls all the way up to their apex, at the very summit of the pyramid.
The Drathkal hovered between them for an age before fully materializing. Ravenkar assumed the time frame involved was directly related to the distance it had traveled and did not risk reaching out to grasp it, preferring instead to let its spinning stop and the attendant cacophony subside. Only when it had fallen upon the stone floor and lay dormant did he make a move towards it. A restrained touch told him it was neither too hot nor too cold to pick up, but before he did so, he found himself wondering once more just where it might have journeyed to. He felt a hand on his arm.
‘I think perhaps we should leave now, my friend. We have achieved our goal for the moment, but it is only the first of many. I too would like to know just where your enigmatic accomplice has been, but now is not the time. There is also the little matter of the trapdoor, whose agenda I cannot even guess at.’
The two intruders had left but their voices, hushed and reverential though they were, still echoed faintly in that quiet place as they made their way across the gallery and down the first flight of stairs. A stone slab slid noiselessly back into place. A tender opalescent light suffused the blackness at the center of the chamber. A ripple of energy, innocuous, barely perceptible, washed outward across the floor.
The sun was in mourning for its favorite land, grieving behind an all-encompassing shroud. On the upper slopes of the higher mountains it was still recognizable, but barely, its listless form a forlorn parody of its previous self. Lower down even that insipid manifestation was hidden, and its very existence was being called into question.
Animals sought refuge where they could, some in burrow or cave, but most beneath the protective canopies of the forests. Yet it was not long before even the strongest of branches began to wilt and predator and prey cowered alike, skirting stagnant pools, retching into lifeless undergrowth. Waiting for the end.
Mankind retreated into his edifices of wood and stone and sought solace by waning candlelight. But his plight was worsening by the hour, with no salvation in sight. Entombed in pockets of isolation minds fell prey to fear and panic hovered, a familiar demon waiting to pounce.
Strange then perhaps that those intent on violence should be spared the worst. High up on Kananaaltra’s rugged sward two armies stirred, shaking off the lethargy of inactivity imposed upon them. Even the Peaks of Skor had not been able to mask entirely the beams of light emanating from the north; beams that had ignited a primeval terror within the soul of every warrior who had witnessed them, momentarily erasing thoughts of conquest, of riches, of national fervor, of right and wrong. Rumors abounded, and of course these were soon transposed into hard facts. Priests were at the forefront of this, their lives and beliefs justified now that fear on an elemental scale had been imposed. They went through the ranks with renewed fervor, cajoling and inciting, their eyes ablaze. Their gods had visited doom and destruction upon the usurpers of Djebal Doron, crushed them for their arrogance and their false beliefs. They were a little more circumspect regarding the clogging layer of dust that had descended thereafter, but no doubt time would reveal the holy intentions that had prompted its fall.
The winds and surly currents of those high places ensured that no incapacitating blanket settled over men or horses, over tents or supplies, although the Khâlian horde suffered rather more than their enemies, at least those of their enemies who were huddled beneath the giant overhang of the Obakrag; for there were many who preferred the more open spaces, outside the grim sapping walls of the fortress, beyond the intimidating megalithic stares of its guardians.
But irrespective of location, there were few amongst the assembled armies who did not venture a glance downwards over the precipice to the forests below; who did not shudder at the bleak panorama that resided there, nor question its extent.
The answer to their question of course, had they but known, was that it extended all the way to the ragged edges of their continent. Beyond this, the oceans were all but at rest, weary from their forced exertions. Their tides and currents were restored but across their frothy domain the restless atmosphere still played, twisting and tormenting. Hurricanes rampaged at will, whipping up water into deranged surging crests. It would be many weeks before equilibrium overcame their random machinations but still, it was fortuitous in the extreme that one such savage breeze should happen upon the shores of Isladoron.
Its outriders arrived almost unnoticed, gentle wisps that caused scarce a puff of concern from the choking transgressor. Hard on their heels though came the howling skirmishers, sending a ripple of consternation through its dark congealed mass, but they were merely a precursor to the clamoring vanguard; it beat a path to the door and lashed the settled dust into gnarled vortices that rose into the heavens like incestuous fumes from a witch’s brew.
With the screaming song of the hurricane now added to the confining darkness, panic tightened its clutches and madness skirted every conscious mind in Isladoron, untethered as each was from any semblance of the familiar. Whilst no larger than its restless brethren, which roamed in similar unchecked fashion across the planet’s surface, it was nevertheless the product of a celestial conflict and was proportioned accordingly. The northeastern seaboard of Khanju was to escape the hurricane’s bludgeoning progress, but little else did. The continent would bear the scars of its destructive swathe for many a long year, yet would willingly leave them exposed as testimony to its few tempestuous hours of deliverance. An indiscriminate leveling of the skyline was an acceptable price to pay, as sparse light filtered cautiously down, unsure of its reception, and the choking blanket that had covered the land was blasted upwards into the stratosphere.
And so did the light gradually gain in confidence as the more gentle currents of the upper atmosphere dispersed the dust and rationed it on a more equitable basis to the remainder of a beleaguered world.
Dawn was heralded by a slackening of the winds and by the sun. No matter that it shone down with all the warmth of a bleached tangerine and no matter that it failed utterly to disperse the brooding clouds that gathered round its sallow face. It was the sun, and arms were thrown aloft to greet it. Anaemic upturned faces along Djebal Doron’s vertiginous alleyways bathed in its watery light. Balconies and rooftops disappeared beneath a teeming mass of people, as the normally reticent citizens celebrated with undisguised relief.
But blackened rainwater still trickled down gutters and gullies as a reminder, if any was needed, of the extended night that had gone before, and as the morning wore on the sun noticeably waned; so too did the initial euphoria and nervous eyes were cast upwards at the temple. But no salvation was forthcoming and the wind, almost imperceptibly, began to strengthen again.
The ropes that held the fearsome black warship groaned against their moorings, as it strained like an untamed dog on a leash. Its captain too was eager to be off; to make his dash westwards across the Inner Sea and into the protective shadows of the rearing cliffs of Khir. Luck had been with them thus far and the hurricane’s eye still lingered, reluctant perchance to tear its gaze from the mystical isle. Frothy crests though beyond the harbor walls hinted that its departure was imminent.
Shamul prowled back and forth amongst his men, his tongue less vitriolic than usual. As always there had been a multitude of tasks to attend to before sailing, notably the lashing of several cargoes against the bulkheads and the securing of hatch covers, but the crew had been extremely diligent, sensing no doubt the hazardous nature of the forthcoming voyage. For much of their stay they had willingly confined themselves to their quarters on the Kraken and for this, the unprecedented happenings of the last few days were not entirely to blame. Put simply, they had not found the local populace to be the most endearing or enthusiastic of hosts.
They sat now in huddled groups, cursing and shouting, laughing and crying, their moods dictated by the vagaries of the dice or the direction in which their captain’s abuse was directed. The abuse, such as it was, came automatically to Shamul for his attention was elsewhere. He scanned, with surreptitious glance, the quayside and its approaches. He was waiting for the final two passengers.
Ravenkar, Jak and Azella had returned to the Kraken early that morning. The old shaman had looked exhausted on his return, more tired than Shamul could ever remember seeing him, but had nevertheless insisted that the time was finally right to brief those few of the crew who would accompany them ashore on reaching Khanju. Shamul hated secrecy and all the connivances that clung to it, but the interlude in the library had left him in no doubt as to its necessity. He had asked Abduul to have a quiet word with those who had been chosen and one by one they had sloped off to the forward hold, each making his own excuse. Abduul himself was destined for the long trek northwards, so secrecy had been preserved. Shamul loved his precious Kraken and under normal circumstances would only have entrusted his first mate to sail her back to Djebal Doron, a voyage that would be necessary once the select few had disembarked and begun their journey. These however were not normal circumstances and Abduul could not be spared for such a task. His qualities made him ideal for the expedition that lay ahead, something that could also be said of the other six of the crew that had been selected; they had virtually picked themselves.
So it was that Ravenkar had explained to the little gathering precisely what would be expected of them in the weeks to come. He had explained first of all the events that had recently transpired and had then alluded to the priceless cargo that would be accompanying them. He had told them of the castle and what lay beneath. He had told them in no uncertain terms of what would be pursuing them; what would be trying to relieve them of their cargo. Thus did they learn of those responsible for Semira’s demise and their ability to transform sane people into malignant puppets; how they could gain access to the innermost minds of those people and expose their most closeted memories. People such as those who even now were milling around the outer quays, going about their business, idly wondering as to why the ominous black vessel was putting to sea at such a time as this; people who might soon be journeying to all corners of the continent little suspecting what might be lying in wait for them.
Shamul had quietly observed the reactions of the men he had chosen and knew, as the gleam of adventure lit up in their eyes, that he had chosen correctly.
Still his passengers had not materialized but Shamul’s train of thought was now interrupted by coarse laughter reverberating along the deck.
Abduul sat astride the low stairway that rose from the main deck and splayed out into the stern deck. With him was the man who would be assuming overall command on the return voyage. As Shamul watched the scene unfold he reflected briefly on his initial skepticism of that man. Upon meeting him and talking to him however, he had known immediately that his vessel would be in safe hands; those of a hardened seaman who had spent his life coaxing vessels around the Inner Sea and who was divorced entirely from the insular obsessions of his compatriots. Typhon’s merchant contacts had served him well.
An insidious grin was affixed to Abduul’s face, like an unblemished crescent moon, and for once the delicate dark features that surrounded it were creased with genuine mirth. He had apparently been in the act of outlining a few of the galley’s eccentricities, when he had been interrupted by Azella. To the amusement of the nearby crew, Azella had ushered him out of the way, and in no uncertain terms. Shamul recognized that the laughter held no malice but was instead tinged with affection and no little respect. Beyond the shadow of any lingering doubt this was the daughter of Joel that stood before his first mate, although none looking on from the quayside would have guessed it. Gone was the demure, if sarcastic, young lady who had boarded the Kraken at Tolfjord; the young lady who had often sought the background and remained there behind a tumbling mass of curls. In her stead was someone altogether different.
An inner strength now infused her and its light blazed through her ice-green eyes, when she chose to allow it. It seemed she could focus it to a piercing beam that would lay bare a man’s soul or soften it to an alluring radiance that would dull his senses and ensnare him like a fluttering moth. And all the while revealing nothing of herself, in the manner of her father, her features frozen and unresponsive to even the most taunting of barbs.
She now stood with feet planted firmly on the deck, as though she had sprouted from the very timbers themselves. Her hands rested on her hips and her elbows were turned outwards in an attitude of total confidence.
Abduul had already seen her hair, cut close all save for a single braid, and tinted green like her eyes, although the mottled markings beneath those eyes seemed even more pronounced. The close fitting shirt of mail that clung to her contours, well that he had most definitely not seen. It was of the same color as her tinted hair but several shades darker and afforded her protection from neck to thigh. He knew from the easy manner in which she bore it that its origin was probably Robahar and that Krul had most likely been its provider. The tiny hexagonal plates confirmed his suspicions. It was not unheard of for women to fight within the ranks of the Clann and the armor had a well-worn look to it; as though it had already deflected many a crippling blow.
Of no distinct color at all was the cloak that billowed out from her shoulders, borne high in the ever-strengthening wind. It had Abduul completely bemused. When he was able to focus on it, never longer than an instant at best, its scaly texture gave the impression that a lizard of sorts clung to her back. Two large oval markings on either side of a severely pointed hood did nothing to contradict the notion.
Black leggings, close fitting and supple, were clasped just below her knees. They were of roughened leather and, as with the mail, age had tempered them for the better. Ankle boots of the same material completed her appearance. They were sleek but sturdy.
It was one of these boots that tapped impatiently on the deck as Abduul, grin still in place, motioned her through with a flourish. An agile bound took her up onto the stern deck and as an errant gust of wind became ensnared in the folds of her cloak, she was gone. She reappeared, leaning casually on the port steering oar, outlined against a surly sky. She appeared to be studying two figures approaching briskly along the quay, but her thoughts were elsewhere.
After the meeting in the library and her subsequent trance, it was as if the floodgates had opened. It had been unnerving initially, overwhelming. She had seen even her closest companions in a different light and had needed to refrain from subjecting them to the scathing scrutiny that was now hers to employ.
Gradually, without ever fully understanding this power at her disposal, she had nevertheless come to terms with it. She had taken it a little further each day and whilst never deluding herself into thinking that it was hers to command, she now felt that she had established an ongoing pact with it.
Pushing Abduul to the limit of his tolerance and then dealing with his reaction had been part of her self-imposed training and he had proven to be a lot harder to read than most, which was exactly what she had needed. For his part, Abduul had already been privy to the initial change that had occurred in her but she knew that he had still been taken aback by the figure standing before him. After all it had only been ten days or so since he had last seen her.
The crew were unaware of the identities of the last two passengers, but Shamul knew only too well who they were. Had he not he may well have laughed at the contrast they presented; the one, tall and gaunt, the other, short and wide. He knew that any such laugh would have been short-lived. The tall man gave the impression that he was gliding rather than walking and the smooth swaggering gait of the other was nothing short of sinister; that such a hefty man should move with such grace with scarce a sound to mark his passing.
Shamul welcomed them both aboard with studied indifference, still paranoid about prying eyes. Both men made their way down to the stern immediately and again there was complete contrast. The shorter man took in every detail whilst the taller displayed no sign of interest in anything at all, save the ornate casket he was carrying. Both disappeared below deck and with a peremptory signal from Shamul, the moorings were slipped and they were underway.
The Kraken was a two-masted ship bearing ample sails which were brailed up to the yards at that moment. The forward sail was only used when the winds were set fair and was much smaller than the mainsail amidships. Few vessels were constructed with the vast reaches of the Outer Seas in mind and this was no exception. Although the mainsail was usually adequate, additional speed and maneuverability at close quarters were often required, especially given Shamul’s habitual profession, and to this effect the oars were often employed. There were twin banks down either side.
The bottom rows of oar ports were close to the waterline and thirty of Shamul’s strongest men sat down there when needed, fifteen to either side. Their power could be best harnessed in that position, where the angle with the water was at its shallowest. Slightly above and outside them sat the rest of the crew. Again there were fifteen oar positions to either side but these were rarely filled as it was not often that Shamul would require his entire crew to turn their hands to rowing.
Each oar was a work of art in its own right. Its small blade cut through the water with a minimum of effort and despite being much longer and more slender than the oar of a contemporary galley, it was nevertheless stronger. The wood from which it was fashioned grew only on the upper slopes of Tolfjord and beyond, on the more inaccessible slopes of the Highlands. It was said that the oars dated from antiquity and had been blessed by priests of Varvak, a belief which Shamul fostered for all he was worth.
Mystical oars apart, the sails were utilized when at all possible. With the wind astern their black expanse could thrust the savage ship through the water with tremendous speed. Braces enabled the yards to be trimmed fore and aft, but once the wind was towards the bow it became necessary to revert to the oars.
It was with this in mind that Shamul had determined they would set out towards the southwest, pulling hard on the oars. Once well out to sea they would arc around to the northwest and run under full sail before the less severe winds skirting the hurricane’s eye, until they reached the Spire: a solitary finger of rock that had broken away from the surrounding basalt cliffs. It marked the point where the Highlands jutted out into the Inner Sea and the coastline made an abrupt change in direction. Beyond it they could assume a more westerly course, hugging the coastline and hopefully creeping to safety beyond the screening mantle of mountains, as the full force of the raging southerly winds swept behind them.
As they cleared the harbor walls Shamul braced himself against the leeward steering oar, the other having been shipped, and tried to gauge the strength of the buffeting wind. It was rising now, of that there was no doubt. He cursed and then he smiled. At the very worst it would prevent them from reaching the Spire and striking out westwards. They would ride the Inner Sea as never before and only the southern coast of Khanju would be there to halt their momentous surge, their voyage into folklore!
Halt however, it most assuredly would. A “grinding, splintering, all hands lost” manner of halt. And as for folklore, it occurred to him that should this voyage end in such a manner then in a very short space of time indeed there would be no one around to write or sing of outrageous deeds.
So it was, with a grim smile etched upon his weathered face, that he procured an image of the Spire within his stubborn mind and began to bellow at his straining crew.