Rain slanted down across the dark timbers of the deck but the exhausted crew scarcely noticed. It had been just past noon when they cleared the harbor walls of Djebal Doron and they had been rowing ever since, finding it increasingly difficult to make headway against the mounting seas, to overcome the great clockwise spiral of the hurricane. Under favorable conditions their voyage would have taken just over half a day and the early hours would have seen them nearing the Spire, but Shamul had been forced to gamble with a number of variables, not least of which was the direction of the hurricane itself.The Spire was actually due west of Djebal Doron, but to plot a direct course under those prevailing winds would have been tantamount to suicide. They had set out rowing more south than west, angled into the predominantly southeast winds. The hurricane had been traveling due east, very slowly, and so the winds would have gradually swung around and hit them from the south. Alas, it was now picking up speed and veering to the south which was going to bring the southwest winds into play. They had to reach the rock before those southwest winds took them in their grip, otherwise all would be lost.
Midnight had come and gone. Shamul had made his decision. He gave the order to ship the oars and a ripple of expectation passed along the galley for all aboard knew what was coming; to ride before a wind such as this would be a new experience for them all and they were only too well aware that the odds were against them, even in such a supremely tough vessel as the Kraken. In the momentary relief that came from the cessation of rowing many of them peered intently into the darkness ahead, straining eyes and ears for the merest hint of crashing surf. Each knew in his heart of hearts that they were nowhere near the coast as yet. It was just their way of preparing themselves for the moment when they were; when even a few seconds warning might help them evade the clutches of eager rock and rampant waves.
Shamul leaned hard over on the steering oar as figures scurried around in the darkness ahead of him, trying desperately to gain some purchase on the slippery deck as sails were unfurled and the yards were trimmed to run before the wind. For one extended moment the galley wallowed out of control as the winds swept directly onto her beam, then she surged forward as the seas took her up.
Now that she had come about and had the wind almost directly astern, the scything ship responded to even the slightest touch on the tiller and exultation flooded through the mighty frame that guided her. For the moment, cold, rain, wind and darkness were forgotten and man had become one with the surging swaying rhythm of an elemental force as it bore him with indiscriminate ferocity into the uncertain night.
The hours passed and the wind became a howling fury as they passed into the body of the hurricane. The rain drove down harder and with each gale-lashed crest the Kraken rose yet higher, only to plummet into a trough that was yet more cavernous than the one that had preceded it. All good sense dictated that the sails should be lowered before they were ripped from their supports but the captain was having none of it. They had to cover these last few leagues to the Spire with the sails still raised. More and more the seas were coming at them from the south. The instant they passed to south and west they were doomed.
Panels had been battened across the lower oar ports and most of the crew sheltered down there, awnings fixed in position above their heads. Even the most hardened seamen amongst them had never seen such seas as these, yet for all that it was a feeling of resignation that prevailed, rather than any sense of naked fear. One or two even tried to sleep, failing miserably in their efforts, but the majority set to bailing out the water that flooded about their feet, which, while deep, did not pose any imminent threat. A few tended the creaking sails but there was little that they could do save sympathize with the protesting canvas and pray for its safe deliverance.
In the general cabin quarters, just to be at odds with all and sundry, Ravenkar slept a deep and peaceful sleep. His exhaustion from the sojourn to the temple, particularly the dust bedeviled climb up its flank, had taken precedence over any anxieties regarding their current plight and his snores filtered into the cacophony already created by the creaking timbers, the pounding seas and the lashing winds. Azella and Jak simply played dice, knowing well that any help they offered would only hinder the efforts of such an experienced crew. Their travails over the past weeks had put them in good stead for such a rigorous examination as this and each had a profound belief that their lives were not meant to end just yet. Nevertheless, they were not born of the sea and at the crest of each heavy wave their eyes met and widened, and Jak’s perpetual grin gave strength to them both.
In Shamul’s cabin, at the very stern of the vessel, the tall passenger sat cross-legged upon the floor with his head bowed. He appeared to be in a trance and his sinuous frame accommodated each pitch, heave and roll of his surroundings with a minimum of fuss. He murmured to himself but on closer inspection it could be determined that the same phrase was being repeated again and again; only in pitch and in frequency did it vary. Every so often his head would rise as awareness returned, and then it was gone again and his head would drop. But even during such moments as these the mantra was unrelenting.
He was far above the bowl of the Inner Sea and looking directly down. Slightly to the east he could sense a faint pulse, but its beat was unsure and barely reached beyond the structure that enclosed it. Far to the south and gathering, coalescing about the sandy marshlands of Khir, the rocky shoals of Tarrak Kanga and the silty deltas of Bunanga Bay, burning primeval auras pricked savagely at the extended bubble of his consciousness like a swarm of alien insects. More disturbingly, he could sense them to the north and west, flickering elusively. A much sparser presence, but distinct for all that. And so it went on around the eastern seaboard; a constricting ring of refined evil around the entire continent.
He let go there and returned. Down he swept as ragged pitiable light dared to intrude through the eastern gloom. Even that would have helped, but the Spire was to the west and not the east, still backed by night’s retreating shadow and the dark cliff face that had spawned it. But although it was not yet visible he could sense its location from the grandiose sweep of the coastline and he realized, with not a little surprise, that the yellow eyes of Shamul must sense it also for he guided his vessel unerringly towards it. Yet although reassured, he lingered awhile yet, hovering just above the tortured galley. Could this be a product of the storm or was it something altogether different? It approached from the south with calm intent. It bore down upon them and would surely thwart them.
Shamul would not be relieved. After the initial pulsing of adrenalin had gone, fatigue had begun its insidious workings, gnawing at him like a burrowing worm, and to evade it he had retreated deep within himself, donning a well-worn shell of stoicism that could only have been nurtured by a life at sea. Within this shell his only companions were time, distance and the strength and direction of the wind. Only occasionally did other matters intrude, and then at a subliminal level; unfamiliar protest within the Kraken’s timbers, more than familiar protests from the crew. With the approach of their destination he began to shrug aside this mantle and adrenalin imposed itself once more.
In his estimation the cliffs should now be directly off the port bow, but he sensed the seas changing direction again. His two major worries were the light, or lack of it, and the sails. Such was the amount of wind-borne dust still loitering in the atmosphere, it was impossible as yet to actually sight the cliffs and ominous tears had begun to appear in both sails.
It was the sound that made his decision for him. Low and distant as yet, but fundamental. He knew he was not mistaken for he could see by their gestures that several of the crew had heard it too. The pounding of surf. A long lazy cove lay directly to the south of the Spire and several more to the south of that. No sandy havens lay within their tapering pincers, only weed and weathered stones. He prayed this was the most northerly and gave the order to gather the sails back up to the yards and to unship the other steering oar.
Once the sails were up he would break out the top rows of oars and they would try to coax the Kraken around the Spire into the calmer waters that lay beyond. By his reckoning they were close enough now and would not need the extra impetus given by the sails to offset the changing direction of the wind. He was however under no illusions. They would have to get very close to the Spire and they would only get one chance. If they were caught up by the swell and swept beyond, the oars would be worse than useless in the open sea.
Although it was a dangerous operation it was an order the crew had been eagerly anticipating. They had been amusing themselves in typically sardonic fashion by placing bets on the eventual nature of their demise; overstressed braces, tearing sails or snapping masts. Long odds were also available on the simultaneous snapping of both masts. Nobody however had been particularly keen to collect and it was with relief rather than trepidation that several saturated figures made their cautious way to the foot of each mast. With ropes tied about their waists acting as lifelines back to their colleagues, they set to work on the brails.
It was at this juncture that the tall passenger appeared on deck. Seemingly oblivious to the pitching of the deck and the sheeting rain, he strode aft towards Shamul. The stranger possessed that quality only a few possess, whereby anyone who happened to be in his path simply melted away, unwilling even to risk an accidental confrontation. Nor indeed would any who had ventured inadvertently into his close proximity be able to recall his features with any degree of certainty. In any event, he reached the stern deck unopposed, to stand face to face with the captain and there followed a brief exchange whereupon he turned and made his way back down the deck in the same nonchalant manner.
All eyes were on Shamul. After only the briefest of pauses he raised his arms aloft and then swept them abruptly apart. The incredulous crew reeled back their comrades and the sails remained aloft. Who was this stranger who could bend their captain’s ear so and stroll across treacherous timbers with such apparent ease?
Whoever he was he had now positioned himself directly between the two masts and had assumed an attitude of complete indifference; hunched almost, with head bowed and hands clasped out before him.
An outrigger spanned across the stern deck, in fact was part of it. Flush with the timbers, it protruded beyond the gunwales and it was onto these short cantilevered sections that the steering oars had been fixed. Just inboard of each oar was a rugged steel eyelet through which looped the multi-stranded hemp ropes that ran to the extremities of the mainmast yards and braced them against the vagaries of the winds. Those saturated ropes now groaned, pleading for release, as yet more stress was placed upon them; the securing eyelets bent visibly forward.
Had he been given an order then Shamul may have hesitated, but instead it had been a matter-of-fact statement. The words resounded yet in Shamul’s head: Disaster is hard on our heels, Shamul. It bears down on us even as we speak. I know not whether it is a product of the comet’s passing or whether the Eidola have conjured it forth. Given our efforts at secrecy, I would hope the former, but either way our choices are compromised. Lowering the sails would appear to be the sensible option, but it will surely doom us all. Should you keep them raised I will do all within my powers to focus the winds yet further and to aid you in locating the Spire. The rest will be up to you. I am sure you would have it no other way.
A curt nod had been enough to send the enigmatic passenger back along the deck to his current location. He had paused then, not to question his options but just to gather himself. With the sails aloft their one chance had just become that much more difficult.
As he had given the order, Abduul, currently straining on the second steering oar, had looked over at him in dismay but he had merely shrugged in response. Such was the howling of the wind that it would have been an effort to make himself heard anyway, and so he had put his shoulder to the oar and scanned the obstinate murk beyond the bow, desperately seeking out the elusive coastline. He knew it must be close and was concerned that the eastern light, albeit feeble, had not yet provided even a glimpse.
He had never really thought that forces over and above those that battered them now could be brought to bear. He had not thought it possible to manipulate the elements in such a fashion; that even greater violence could be conjured forth from the bowels of the storm. This, even though he was fully aware of his passenger’s identity. He looked at the steel eyelets and thought again.
His eyes automatically traced a path from the eyelets, along the stays, to the mainsail. It had lost all semblance of a sail, instead assuming the appearance of an impossibly taut diaphragm. Something was not right.
The mainsail had originally been black, but over the years this had been reduced to a slightly less impressive bleached gray. Even so, it had never been this black! And where was the intimidating Kraken’s head, normally emblazoned across the central swathe. Shamul did not blink, nor indeed did he rub his eyes. He waited for the sensation to pass. It did not. Instead, the sail became a part of the sky. It was a window in the twilight of the receding night, held open by the straining ropes to either side. As he looked through it, entranced, a gray image flickered and was gone, only to reappear as a slight yaw brought the window to bear upon it again. Motes of white shifted across the surface of the image and now he recognized it for what it was: the Spire and the cliffs behind. But so close! His inverted vision could even discern the swells that waited for them.
He strove to keep the rock pinnacle at the center of the window and could sense Abduul doing likewise. Soon it filled the entire sail and its presence was palpable, in the manner of an executioner’s axe, poised at the summit of its downward arc. Together, they eased and cajoled the Kraken across the intervening waters, gauging the swells, riding them, until the raucous crash of breaking waves began to dominate all other sounds. And then a cluster of stray beams from dawn’s struggling light suddenly exposed the stark outline of the Spire, looming over the yards.
Unperturbed by the anarchy that raged all about, its featureless face took in the scene with serene equanimity. Why should it possibly care if a bobbing piece of driftwood was about to be dashed against its unforgiving base? Nor did the racing currents that bore the driftwood venture an opinion one way or another. They simply went about their business, for they had passed that way many times before.
Aboard the driftwood however, matters were somewhat different. If force of will alone could have propelled its crew around into calmer waters then triumph would have assuredly been theirs already. Alas, it could not. Both helmsmen knew that they had to close with their rocky adversary to a point that bordered on the suicidal. Little favored them save the depth of the water, which would be of scant consolation should they be pitched into its icy folds.
Already the crew had sidled instinctively to starboard and were willing the galley out into more open waters, but both Shamul and his indomitable first mate knew that even here, within a stone’s throw of the looming rock, they would be swept past their goal. Thus it was with an insane optimism that they allowed one more surge to carry them inwards and then, with an obstinacy born of desperation, leant into their oars. For a moment they seemed to be climbing the rock face and a jarring scrape that sent a shudder along the entire length of the galley surely presaged their doom. But at the last they were plummeting down and away and Shamul let out a bellow of triumph for he knew that the next swell would sweep them unmolested around the point.
The cry had scarce left his lips when the steel eyelets at his feet sprang from the deck and were catapulted skyward by the braces. An ear-splitting crack rent the silence and the top of the mainmast pitched forward. It toppled down, completely severed at its mid-point, and came to rest on the forward yard. The hunched figure between the masts continued to exert the most extreme pressure on the remaining sail.
Silence? How had silence imposed itself? Shamul’s subconscious had registered the silence even as he had shouted out in triumph and had formed its conclusions before his immediate senses had caused him to recognize the approaching threat. Like the cry in his throat, so the wind had died too; the rage of nature that had been with them since Djebal Doron had been quenched. Even as he looked the remaining sail flapped and hung limply, all vitality drained from it. The figure standing before it stood upright once more and turned to face him, looked past him. The crew, to a man, also looked there, a mixture of fear and awe etched into their features. He noted the height to which their gazes had been drawn and decided not to turn his own head. Abduul he noted was of a similar inclination, and the pair of them clung grimly to the steering oars.
Almost gently the swell took them up, that final swell that they had fought so hard to reach. It bore them around the angular corner of the Spire just as a watery wall of the most monstrous proportions cascaded through the narrow gap that separated monolith from mainland, not two boat lengths behind them. It was as if a hand had gripped them from below and thrust them upwards and forwards at the same time. Suddenly the cliff tops were not so very far above them and they were at a frightening angle, staring down the slope of a rampaging leviathan.
Shamul now turned with an indifference that surprised him and watched as the rogue wave passed behind them. It was as though he could not accept what he was witnessing and had divorced the sight from reality. Despite their own unnatural height, the crest of the rampaging surge was far above; an effervescent mist cloaked its passage but a curtain of churning white could be seen at its head that would surely have crushed them to fragments. Worse though by far was the silence that attended it; that allowed it to pursue its unsuspecting prey unannounced until the very last, when it would reveal itself in all its ghastly glittering splendor.
When the wind came in its wake its familiar sound was almost a relief, but it was more distant now as they fell into the lee of the Highlands. Shamul and Abduul still toiled with the oars but their effect was minimal as the gargantuan swell ploughed a furious furrow up the coastline. Now the deep waters came to their aid and suffocated most of its pulverizing energy, but time after time they were almost swamped as waves came back off the cliffs and the sea about them was transformed into a foaming morass. Strangely, it was of little consequence to the crew. As if in a communal trance their eyes followed the path of the great wave as it disappeared across the wastes of the Inner Sea and beyond, where an unsuspecting Khanju awaited.
The assault upon them by the elements had been relentless, but if the crew had thought that a period of rest and recreation would now ensue they were sorely mistaken, as the man with the blazing eyes took up the mantle. No sooner had the swell dissipated than they were ordered to break out the oars. The broken section of the mast was hauled down and its yard removed. Together they were lain down lengthwise and lashed to the desk whilst the forward sail, or what was left of it, was brailed up. As the cargo was checked, the bailing continued unabated. The battered Kraken was leaking everywhere but they would rid her hull of more water yet before they attempted to caulk the faulty seams. To a man though they gave praise, silent and not so silent, to her formidable strength and durability. They were all acutely aware that no other vessel would have seen them through.
The hours passed and the slow steady rhythm of the oars brought back a sense of stability. They hugged the shore but rarely did the light of an insipid sun warm their path. As it settled down over the western peaks more extensive canvas awnings were rigged to keep the nagging cold at bay. It was no later than mid-afternoon but so close in to the mountains were they that already they were wreathed in shadow. It was at least some consolation that the surface of the sea was now relatively benign. The swell had abated and no more than an occasional mild undulation came their way.
Of the passengers, little was seen. Azella, Jak and Ravenkar made the odd foray above deck, but the other two did not show themselves at all. Ravenkar had emerged several hours after they had rounded the Spire. He had not appeared to notice the broken mast and had made only the vaguest of enquiries as to the status of the voyage. He was actually searching for his tinder box as he always liked to meditate on his pipe after a long sleep, and that he had most certainly had, if only because Azella and Jak had elected to pin him within his bunk, having had no other useful contribution to make. Of course, as they were to remind him many times in the coming days, that had resulted in a more terrifying experience for them than the crew, who at least had been able to attribute causes to the scraping of the Kraken’s hull, its sudden elevation to great heights and its giddying fall from grace.
A long cold night finally gave way to morning and the wind skittered nervously along basalt faces, unsure of the eddies and vortices that lay in wait for it beyond jagged protrusions and within sullen caves. Well over a league above, the white-capped curves of the mountain peaks were accentuated, extrapolated, by sweeping arcs of snow ribboning into dull pink skies, an indication that the hurricane had not quite done with them yet. But by evening of that same day even those flurries had subsided and for the first time in many weeks the skies were completely clear. High up in the heavens a steely blue hue had imposed itself and at the very apex, stars glittered. Lower down to the west, pink and red became more dominant but they were interspersed with unfamiliar layers of green and yellow, hinting that it would be some months yet before the atmosphere had rid itself of invading debris. One such layer seemed to emanate from the lower point of rising Iambos, currently visible as but the merest sliver of a crescent, her pearly presence welcome for all that. Not so welcome was the ragged scar that dwarfed her, the source of all the ills that had befallen Isladoron of late; the ball of light at its head was less venomous now but still reluctant to depart before it had witnessed the outcome of its malice.
Dawn of the following day came and went almost unnoticed. A tranquil sky unblemished by clouds and a flat sea with only the sweep of the oars to disturb it. By late morning however there was a most definite stirring, albeit on deck.
Abduul lay almost casually on his steering oar whilst before him, across the broad sweep of the stern deck, carpets were arrayed. Most of these carpets were of great antiquity, which meant only that they were extremely worn and frayed and not that they were items which would bestow untold wealth upon their owner should he be fickle enough to sell them. Nevertheless the dust cloud that heralded their unfurling was always the prelude to an occasion of some importance. This would usually be the entertainment of guests or local dignitaries or the inevitable drinking session that marked the aftermath of such entertainment, had it not occurred on board.
The first mate knew that no such explanations sufficed this time and smiled as he saw Azella approaching, arm in arm with Ravenkar. He thought it strange that the old shaman’s outward demeanor fluctuated daily and sometimes even the within the span of a given day. On a morning he could be wizened and weary, yet by evening the trappings of old age might have been flung aside and replaced by a display of vigor and enthusiasm.
He watched and continued to ponder as Ravenkar lowered himself to the deck, propped by an ancient gnarled stick on one side and Azella’s shoulder on the other, fussily arranging his robe before adopting his habitual cross-legged pose on the deck. This was followed by the production of his long-stemmed pipe into which he stuffed a fibrous green substance, not dissimilar to seaweed in outward appearance, and over this disheveled mass he held a warm yellow flame of uncertain origin. Upon its demise the contents of the bowl still showed no visible signs of burning yet a bittersweet scent of almonds and honey filled the air. A thin smile split the shaman’s wan features and he stared contentedly out over the rail and across the placid sea towards Khanju.
Jak now sauntered nonchalantly up and took his allotted place, smiling his smile and bowing reverentially before Azella with his hands steepled together. Raised eyebrows and a wry smile were the only response. Nor indeed was a word spoken until Shamul strode imperiously amongst the carpets. Beckoning Abduul to join them he pulled out a cheroot, availed himself of Ravenkar’s mysterious flame, then slouched down in tranquil repose and blew coiling rings of smoke into the heavens.
As Abduul beckoned another of the crew to take the tiller, six distinctly dubious looking characters were making their way towards the stern. He smiled inwardly for despite their intimidating appearances all but one hung back warily from the circle of carpets. It was something new for them to receive such an invitation and they were not comfortable with it. Shamul impatiently waved them inwards. By the time Abduul was lowering himself to the carpeted deck his captain was in full flow, making the introductions.
Azella of course was already vaguely familiar with the men standing nervously before her but had not been formally introduced. She was a little uneasy that all of them hailed from Khâl, but of course trusted Shamul implicitly to make the correct choice. Despite her unease she deliberately refrained from subjecting them to the full force of her attentions. A most brief scrutiny told her that none of them bore her any ill will. That would do for now. Shamul, as could be expected, laid bare to her the vast litany of flaws that each possessed.
First before her were Jonjon and Riako, the eldest and youngest of five brothers.
She already knew of Riako for he was one such as the Ultima had requested. Unlike the rest of his brood he was soft spoken and very deliberate in what he said; his utterances were rare and his manner intense, so that when he did speak, people tended to listen. Many of the things he said were strange or difficult to decipher and were it not for the menacing blades of his brothers, there were those that might have cast aspersions on his sanity.
Jonjon in particular was his protector. Although many years separated them, the ravages of time had yet to settle on his shoulders and as he stood there with his arm around his younger brother it seemed to Azella that he embraced his alter ego.
Only the eyes betrayed them. Within Jonjon’s a glistening malevolence bristled, hinting at the engine within that had driven him beyond the boundaries of his homeland, whereas Riako’s retained a much more mellow glow. Their tall lithe frames disguised their origins but the rich russet hue of their skin did not. Only where the Osira skirted the Southern Atlâks could it be found; a deep brown for the most part, but it bordered tantalizingly on a pellucid red and could be translated imperceptibly, unnervingly, to that color in but the blink of an eye; it could be with the onset of a diaphanous evening twilight or the coming of the day as light filtered gently through dew-heavy mist to presage the arrival of the sun; but more usually it was when reason had subsided before drunken anger or inebriated passion ruled denial.
Kono, Koto and Kenryu were more typical of the area. They were squat and muscular rather than tall and lithe; carefree and not intense. The Shungrung Plains were the melting pot of Khâl but these three, along with their two brothers, hailed from the foothills of the eastern provinces where, for better or for worse, blood was rarely mixed and traditions were brutally maintained. Only the Jâlregs dared to intrude upon their borders, threading their way annually across the high southern passes of the Atlâks to barter for breeding stock to supplement their magnificent desert grays, the only horses that could thrive in their withering climate.
“Carefree”, as Shamul was quick to point out, was where the problems began with these three. They were carefree to the extent that trouble sought them out and they bore the scars to prove it. This was in fact a blessing in disguise, for it allowed their comrades to differentiate between them, the brothers themselves being loathe to assist. Even their shaven heads sprouted identical topknots, admittedly bound with garish bands, but bands alas that the brothers frequently exchanged.
Kono had lost the two smallest toes of his right foot, which was fine if he was wearing sandals, not so good if he had boots on his feet. As a consequence of this he had developed a slight limp, but it was discernible only to those who knew him well.
Koto also had problems on the right side. A little more dramatic from an aesthetic standpoint in that most of his ear was missing. There were times when he wore a ridiculous fur cap with dangling ear flaps. He would wear it forwards or backwards, but either way it concealed his severed ear. Again, as with the hair bands, it was often swapped about to promote confusion.
Kenryu’s claim to fame was a snaking scar down his left forearm, testament to an act of brotherly love when he had deflected an axe; an axe that had been destined for the central portion of Koto’s head but which, by way of this solicitous intervention, had ended up in the more remote region where his ear lurked.
All three shuffled nervously in front of Azella, grinning an identical grin, as Shamul barked out a seemingly interminable list of their faults. But she knew better and smiled an engaging smile in return. She had heard that they thought and fought as one and despite the scars, had never been bested.
Last before her was Nimrakhál, which in Jâlreg parlance meant “leopard from the empty land”. Azella sensed a supreme confidence to this man and liked him immediately, but she did not delve further. All she knew about him was that he had spent his later years amongst the desert people but was not one of them; they had given him a new name and he had assumed it. As Shamul told it, the Kraken had suffered the misfortune of docking in Kathustra Pavalorn just as Nimrakhál had emerged from the desert sands.
He was a native of the Gangja Plateau, which to the Jâlregs, and in fact most races, was most certainly “the empty land”. It transpired that he had spent many of his formative years on the borders of that desolate place, in Ihmlahadistan. It was said that he had become steeped in many arts there, both violent and learned, as was the nature of the place. Azella had already noticed that many of the crew went to him for guidance, but their approach was usually deferential rather than familiar, an attitude he neither encouraged nor suppressed.
He was very tall and very gaunt and his sun-darkened face had a world-weary look to it, apart from his sunken gray eyes which flickered constantly until they decided to settle on something of interest, as they had settled on Azella now. A short time ago this would have unnerved her, but not now, more especially as Nimrakhál had taken to wearing his keffiyeh of late in the dust laden atmosphere and consequently his eyes were the only part of his face that had been visible for prolonged periods. As it happened, its concealing folds were absent at this gathering and his eyes were framed by a crimson headband and his black hair, which hung long and straight. She knew beyond doubt that she was being assessed in some way, but she tried to give nothing away and resisted the temptation to exploit her own particular talents. She was rewarded with a knowing smile as he bowed low before her and assumed his position upon the carpets.
Was it now an air of apprehension that hung over the small assembly, for not a word was uttered? Only Ravenkar, who enjoyed uncomfortable silences, seemed at ease as he puffed on his pipe and looked around each face, trying to establish some sort of eye contact. He was unsuccessful. Everyone else had suddenly developed a fascination with the silken foibles of the carpets, tracing a woven scroll upon which they sat to its conclusion and then beginning anew with another.
The last to board the Kraken were also the last to join the circle. It was not that they did this for effect, rather they arrived when it suited them to do so. The smaller of the two collapsed into a cross-legged pose with bemusing alacrity whilst the taller remained upright.
A strange sound arose then, like the flapping of many wings, but only those sat upon the stern deck were aware of it. Elsewhere upon the galley an uncanny silence had arisen, engulfing her all the way forward to the bow; no mean feat considering her size, but put into rude perspective by the brooding quietude which skirted the skyscraping cliffs that lay off her port beam. The elements were calm with the wind dormant, the sea near flat, and not a sound, not even the creak of a straining timber, to disturb their serenity; even the oars glided in and out of the water in listless fashion, as though torn between propelling the galley forward and disturbing the pervasive tranquility.
In the midst of this silence the remainder of the crew, those not within the exalted circle, went about their business, ostensibly splicing ropes, repairing damaged sailcloth, caulking leaking seams, preparing food or sharpening weapons. They were of course doing none of these things. Had they been, such a silence could not have taken root. Instead, in the time honored traditions of rogues, they were trying to eavesdrop. Yet even those who had shuffled to the aft section of the Kraken, even those who had gone far enough to procure withering scowls from their captain, had shuffled back again, none the wiser. The domineering figure at the center of proceedings gave every sign of talking, even down to his mannerisms and gestures, it was just that nothing coherent emanated from his mouth. In truth, it was but a few who bore testament to this, who raised their heads and chanced a fleeting glance; the rest, savage souls though they were, found themselves daunted by his presence.
What the brave few saw was what they expected to see, yet no two saw the same and the sight that each witnessed was fleeting; barely had an image coalesced in their minds before it was gone, displaced and distorted, rippling away like a broken reflection on a pond. Another image would appear, possibly the same as the first, and then another and another, each too brief to retain. Unable to concentrate on the features they would turn their frustrated attentions to the voice only. Each would hear a word, but alarmingly, it was already fading in his memory by the time the next word came to him.
Rumors began to circulate as to who might be able to effect such diversions, rumors that were for the most part correct, and incursions into the aft section of the Kraken were swiftly abandoned.
The voice was like no other voice. A fine blade of hardened steel being honed to perfection against a remorseless grindstone. ‘By way of introduction, to those of you who do not know me, I am Nûrgal y Naimon, Shaman Ultima.’ This elicited a clenching of the hands from Nimrakhál and vacant stares from Jonjon and his brothers who had just had their worst fears confirmed. Ravenkar had mentioned the Ultima’s inevitable involvement in their earlier meeting; it was just that he had just neglected to indicate that it might be so imminent.
‘I understand that my learned friend from Khir has already outlined the task at hand, so I will be brief. Much that I have to say is merely to underscore the importance of that task.
‘Before us lies a box.’ He gestured at the squat container that he had placed on the deck before him. It was almost cubic in shape, each side measuring the length of a man’s forearm, from elbow to wrist. ‘Within its ornate confines lies a precious stone. In so saying, I have understated the value of both the container and its contents. Henceforth you must do likewise.
‘On our landing in Khanju it passes to you, for your safekeeping.’ The mask fixed upon each of them in turn and lingered there, before moving on. It was a moment none of them would quickly forget. ‘Only a precious few know of this box and of the stone it contains. Other than Lord Typhon and Alanna, his queen, those precious few sit here.’ An imperious sweeping gesture of the arm took in the seated figures around him.
The Ultima paused for a long time.
‘Or perhaps I should qualify that statement,’ he finally continued. ‘Only a precious few know of this box and of the stone it contains – and their exact whereabouts. For be in no doubt about this! There are others who know of this stone. They seek it out and they will go to any lengths to possess it. They will approach you in any guise that suits their needs, either to steal it away by deception, or to wrench it from you by force. Should cunning take their fancy, then pity now the poor souls who will be employed. People like yourselves, but possessed; mannequins dancing to the tune of crazed puppeteers. Should violence be their preference, as is most likely, then mannequins of an altogether different nature will stand before you. This guise I will reveal to you when we part company, should we have successfully negotiated Diadonnara’s uncertain trials. Now is not the time for such an unveiling. At this moment you need only know that Khanju awaits your arrival. Its wastelands and jungles will echo to your tread, so let that tread be light, for you will most surely be pursued.
‘Within its boundaries four locations of great import lie. At each location something must be enacted that will enable you to continue your journey. I suspect that Azella will hold the key at these locations, so guard her well. Guard her well in any event, for Lord Typhon will be most displeased should you misplace her.
‘I hope you begin to see the nature of the web that you enter. Your final destination lies far to the north but the architect of that web would not have you go there directly. Little by little will he reveal the way, as he did four thousand years ago to our predecessor, Raven Lôkar. If it is only a little that you know then it is only a little that you can tell, when the enemy comes calling.
‘Be aware also that time is not on our side. Our adversaries will summon all their resources to recover this stone. Initially they will be weak, for the sea is the natural habitat of the bodies they choose to inhabit. But that will change. You must pass swiftly from one location to the next and in this your guide will be most instrumental.’
The Ultima now gave a nod in the direction of the figure who sat at his side. ‘Thus do I introduce Gôpinda. He is to be that guide. He has spent many years in Khanju and knows well its uncertainties and its … shall I say its idiosyncrasies?’
The man called Gôpinda sprang from the cross-legged position he had adopted to a fully erect stance in one sinuous bound. His hands came together in an attitude of prayer and he bowed low before each of the assembly, pivoting around as though skewered to the deck. For Azella he reserved the deepest and most gracious bow.
Although his eyes were open they seemed to be focused on some distant object and Azella could not but help comparing them with the restless questing eyes of Nimrakhál. There was a tranquility in these eyes that disturbed her. She realized her pulse had quickened. What was it? Something else. Could it be their color?
She smiled inwardly, for all was surely revealed. As he turned away she knew the somber shadows that skirted the Kraken had not been playing subtle tricks upon her imagination. In Gôpinda’s eyes the day was already well advanced, but in one more so than the other. In the left, the deep opalescent blue of a summer’s eve resided; in the right, twilight had already descended.
But why then did her heart still pound?
And then she had it. She felt her throat constricting; her breathing became shallow and labored. It was because his eyes saw nothing and they saw everything. It was because she could not read him at all!
She continued to observe him, wary now, and distrustful. Something told her that was unfair and so she said nothing. After all, Joel had intimated that a select few would be able to conceal themselves from her for a brief time, and, before they relented, it would be like observing them through a veil. He had though never mentioned having a door slammed in her face. She would bide her time.
A livid purple scar cut across Gôpinda’s cheek beneath the lighter eye and when he smiled, which was nearly always, it was like a grotesque extension of his mouth. It was at once ingratiating and superior and not at all like the extrovert slice that constantly split Jak’s features. It was entrenched in a head which, like his entire body, was hairless. Again, like his body, it was oiled and glistening.
Other than his footwear, his only attire was an old leather waistcoat and a ballooning pair of leather leggings which tapered to a halt beneath his knees. They were suspended from a wide belt that had a vague sheen to it, suggesting some indeterminate alloy rather than leather. Not so vague though was the formidable bulk around which it clung.
The problem with Gôpinda’s body was discerning where the muscle ended and the fat began. A distant view would encourage any prospective enemy to make his approach with a minimum of caution. That attitude would swiftly become more circumspect however as upon closer inspection a very unusual individual would be revealed, blessed with an uncommon array of muscles. Apprehension would follow, closely pursued by the desire to beat a hasty retreat, evinced primarily by the delicate movements of the man; the dance-like steps and the mesmeric pattern woven by his odd shoes with their overlapping plates of wafer thin metal. By the time the black sun on his throat was apparent, escape would not be an option.
His voice, when it came, was something of a surprise. Not deep and resonant as might have been supposed, but high and mocking, like his smile. ‘A pleasure to meet you all, I am sure, I am sure.’
That was all he had to say. His legs folded instantaneously beneath him and he was sat upon the deck once more. The speed of his transition was alarming, as was its silent execution.
The Ultima continued his discourse as though he had merely paused for breath, although in truth his first few words went largely unnoticed, such had been the distraction of Gôpinda’s brief introduction. ‘We should sight Cape Diadonnara from our starboard bow ere long and be upon it by late afternoon. Beyond that, I am afraid our schedule will be a little more speculative. In Kuprakindi’s era the lighthouse would have been readily accessible, although only to a privileged few. Four thousand years later I do not believe its secrets would have been common knowledge, but certainly they would have been easier to unearth then than they have proved to be this time around. So it is well that fortune, in the guise of Typhon’s staff, has seen fit to bestow upon us knowledge that Raven Lôkar never had, but for all that, the lighthouse remains something of an enigma and I cannot guarantee that our entrance will be straightforward.
‘In an attempt to clarify the task at hand, I have spent many recent days in the palace library. The Curator, to my surprise, has been positively bustling, if such an aggressive word can be applied to one with such a languid disposition, and his industry has been rewarded on several counts. I marvel at his success. I also wonder at the forces which govern it, but that is another matter. Would that I had been present when the man in purple arrived with his book and had been able to witness his comings and goings. Alas I cannot be in all places at once.’
Most of the assembly, the crew members especially, were slightly taken aback by this revelation, but of course said nothing. Instead they shuffled nervously, waiting for what was to come next.
‘As you know, the pinnacle at the cape resembles the Spire but its rock is much more fragile. Ostensibly it would appear to offer an easier climb, should that be our only option, but its handholds would be treacherous and crumbling. Such a climb would be the way of last resort, but make no mistake, if needs must, we will attempt it. My agile friend here assures me that the ascent would not be beyond him and indeed, the necessary ropes and equipment are stored below. I would however fear for the rest of us. There is though, hopefully, an alternative.
‘The structure is ancient beyond compare and although it does indeed function as a “lighthouse” I suspect that to be a secondary function. The very fact that it has survived for so long must lead us to question the nature of the materials from which it was constructed and beyond that, the identity of its builders. Nowhere in the library, even in those remote hallowed sanctums accessible only to the Hierarch, are any references made to its function, its construction or indeed its constructors. The Curator did manage to unearth something of note however, amongst the maps of the area!
‘The maps of the cape are many and detailed, for it has always been a hazardous region to navigate, yet one that could not be avoided for vessels that were bound for Jîngapur and the northern trade routes. It has been interesting to trace its evolution through those maps, to what we have today; or perchance “deterioration” might be a more applicable term. But I digress.
‘What he unearthed were some obscure documents languishing amongst those maps. Strange that they should be there for they were certainly not maps; rather they were formalized sketches, contained in a very slim notebook. Again I am forced to ponder at the fortuitous appearance of such a book whose covers appeared to be leather, but were not leather, and whose pages were ostensibly parchment, but a type of parchment that I have never before encountered. Indeed, if the dates inscribed within that volume were accurate, was it even parchment that I was examining, given the inordinate amount of time those pages had apparently survived?
‘Nevertheless, within this notebook had been inscribed a startling succession of the most precise diagrams whose purpose, on first examination, I could not even guess at. I did not have time to pursue their geometric ramblings and so put them to one side. But the Curator was made of sterner stuff I am glad to say. He was nothing if not determined.
‘I now suspect that those diagrams could possibly have revealed the inner workings of the lighthouse but that would be pure conjecture on my part. What I can definitely tell you is that beyond those diagrams, a separate pocket had been fabricated within the back cover. Within the pocket the Curator discovered another series of sketches, inscribed upon the same parchment, but here the studied precision had gone; it was as though this particular little package had been hastily conceived.
‘The lines upon this series of sketches were faint but their import clear. Here were pathways from a bygone era leading out of Jîngapur and many other settlements now long gone. Without exception they all led to Diadonnara, but as they neared their destination each path disappeared and symbols had been inscribed to mark their demise. Those symbols were very specific and reappeared on subsequent pages, each with a string of curious glyphs beneath them. The glyphs themselves were meaningless to me but the patterns they wove were not. It would appear that a glamor of concealment had been placed at the end of each path and the glyphs were the key to dispersing those glamors. Thus was access to the final pathway granted. The enchantments protecting that pathway must have been powerful indeed for its location, crossing an isolated bridge to the base of the lighthouse, was obvious. Against that, I suppose, a single access would be easier to safeguard.
‘That pathway of course has long since gone, crumbling with the bridge into the turbulent cauldron of the surrounding sea, but I tell you these facts to illustrate my earlier point: the lighthouse is not all that it seems, for who would enact such measures to simply protect a “lighthouse”? Whatever our means of ingress, we must tread carefully. And that would bring me to the substance of my little address.
‘The sketches revealed another entrance, one that was carefully disguised and offered direct access from the sea. It is interesting that on all the maps, irrespective of their age, a bulbous outcrop marks the extremity of the cape. A narrow stretch of water separates it from the main pinnacle. The pinnacle itself has weathered; on more contemporary maps it presents but a fraction of its former glory. The outcrop however has not. It has remained constant throughout the ages.
‘From almost any location it is impossible to see that an anchorage lies within this outcrop, at least if the sketches are to be believed. Perchance the gulls nesting on the outward face of the pinnacle can bear testament to it, but to date they have kept their secret.’
‘And such is the tempestuous nature of the sea in the vicinity of the outcrop, who indeed would be so foolish as to attempt to see what lies within?’ Shamul’s tone was flat, totally devoid of emotion.
‘Who indeed? Surely only the most exceptional of those born to the sea and familiar with its ways,’ answered Nûrgal, with just a trace of sarcasm. ‘Yet even such as they would require a helping hand, something to supplement their rare talents. More of that though later. Now, I think, would be a suitable time for Gôpinda to take center stage once more.’
The Ultima took a step back but remained standing, his head bowed and his cloak wrapped around him in an attitude of repose. No one doubted though that he was aware of all about him.
The guide was back on his feet in the twinkle of an eye. He was a born actor, not content to merely convey information but afflicted with the need to captivate his audience with an array of dynamic flourishes and dramatic pauses. His high nasal tones had an almost hypnotic effect.
‘The lighthouse! Yes, the lighthouse! Hmmm … but yes, I am sure we will be able to negotiate that little obstacle. And then what? Yes, and then what!? Might I suggest the following? And please do feel free to interrupt, even should I be in full flow, even should the moment seem inopportune!’
Thus did Gôpinda begin to outline his plan, clearly expecting no interruptions, despite his assertions to the contrary.
‘We shall remain in our most mysterious, our most secretive anchorage as night takes its course and at the first hint of light on the morrow we shall take our leave, assuming that is, our business is done. Yes, it must be done! We will skirt around behind the Singing Rocks and carefully follow their curve shoreward. Let it be carefully, for they are most treacherous indeed! And then what shall we find? What shall we find, I ask you!?’ Gôpinda positively shouted this question at his captive audience and appeared to be genuinely perplexed when no one could answer him.
‘What shall we find? Well then, I shall tell you! A small beach is what we shall find. A beach of shingle and the like, where we can land. Or at least half us can land, oh yes. And with most of the provisions, meager though they be.’
‘Why only half of us?’ asked Jak, knowing full well that an answer was imminent, but determined to be awkward, nevertheless. The constant smile upon his face belied exactly how he felt about their guide, who had already managed to irritate him; no mean feat given the young shaman’s normally cheerful disposition.
‘Aha!’ shouted Gôpinda, shaking even Ravenkar from the torpor that had started to descend upon him. ‘Why indeed? Because the other half will already be gone! We do not land at the beach immediately. First a slight detour. Patience, my young friend. Let your mind linger awhile and all shall be revealed.
‘Stealth: that is to be our way, our watchword. But, as our great Ultima has already pointed out, speed too must drive us on. Speed, speed! Yes! So first, a detour, and a most speedy detour it will be, let me assure you. And then, from that most innocuous of beaches will the important half of our party strike out, with vigor, with intent! Thus, in very short order, will they encounter the writhing tail of the Spine: that which you call the Sungara Escarpment. And then, a decision will be theirs to make! Up, or indeed down? Which path will they tread when confronted by its gloomy countenance, its precipitous cheeks? As you know, we have ropes my friends, ropes in the hold, for just such a challenging opportunity as this! But wait! Wait indeed, for I am willing to wager those ropes will not be required, that our important half will err toward the more sensible option. Up or down? It will be up of course! Yes, yes, but only moderately so. Across and around will also come into play, more so in fact, and soon they will find themselves in the foothills behind Jîngapur. And who shall meet them there!? Who shall meet them there, I ask you?’
At this juncture Gôpinda stuck his thumbs into his armpits and puffed out his ample chest, taking all of the rigorous guesswork out of the answer.
‘And where will you have been?’ Jak tried to convey an absolute minimum of interest, but his impatience betrayed him.
‘Why, to get us some ponies I would hope,’ said Ravenkar, stubbing his pipe on the deck and startling everyone. ‘I surely hope our good friend here is not intending that we should walk all the way to Môgrodôth.’
A particularly obsequious smile now spread across Gôpinda’s face. ‘Great and noble wizard of Khir, you have deduced my intentions most precisely. I can only hope that the intellect of our enemy is more constrained than your own.’
‘Yes, yes, Gôpinda, but even my rampant intellect is struggling to ascertain your route, for only the Wetlands lie between Diadonnara and Jîngapur. You must be some guide indeed if you intend to plot a path through that morass.’
‘That I am, that I am. Thanking you, my esteemed wizard, thanking you for the astuteness of your observation. Ten leagues up the strait the Kraken must take us first, before the beach. Yes, yes, ten leagues I do believe. And what shall we find there!? Can anyone tell me?’ A penetrating stare around his frustrated colleagues yielded nothing. Again he was aghast at the apparent inability of those around him to answer a straightforward question.
‘A path! That is what we shall discover. Or at least the beginning of a path, and indeed, what else could we ask for!?’
‘Well,’ said Ravenkar, drawing out the word, ‘a middle and an end would not go amiss, but I suppose it would not do to get too bogged down with specifics when we are discussing the Wetlands.’
‘I can only assume the learned wizard has traveled that way before, such is his grasp of my words.’ A sudden hint of sadness had crept into Gôpinda’s manner. He became almost tolerable. ‘It is an ever-changing landscape and its paths are elusive; yes, yes, they most assuredly are. Its denizens, the Rhymrron, preferred it so, for they were a shy race. This beginning of which I speak is rare. It is an enduring footprint upon their environment; an indication that they passed that way. It is a jetty, and it served one of their larger settlements where people worked with the reeds, bending them into fine houses and fashioning them into sleek boats which they used for fishing. Fishing and other things besides, yes, yes. We will follow this jetty into the heart of their domain and if their ghosts are willing, so will the middle and the end become apparent.’
‘Gôpinda, you talk of the Rhymrron as though they are no more,’ said Ravenkar, unable to keep a somber tone from affecting his own voice. ‘It is admittedly some time since I encountered them, fifteen years or so ago; a gentle race as you say, but living their lives and enjoying their quiet pleasures nevertheless.’
‘The waters became poisoned and the fish died. Then the people. That is what happened. And their settlements were no more. So very sad.’ Gôpinda’s abrupt reply was whispered and then he stared resolutely at the deck. It was no little time before he continued.
‘The jetty. Yes, the jetty! I will land there first with the brothers five, indeed I will. They are horsemen, are they not!? And ponies they shall soon gather. We shall be brisk and we shall be efficient. Even as the Kraken is coming about we shall be heading inland, to find what we shall find. Life has been extremely tough of late for those between Jîngapur and Pak Lak. Oh my, yes. To that I can testify. No longer do men of ill-repute buy the ripened pleasures of their more dubious crops; no longer do intricate necklaces of Rhymrron bronze and polished shell travel northwards to Dol Kathra, nor crates of dried fish, nor casks of pungent pepper. No, no, my goodness no! Many will be only too keen to yield up their beasts of burden, even for the modest amount of money I shall be offering them. Of course it cannot be too modest for it must also ensure their silence. Yes, yes, am I right!?’
‘You shall have the money you require, Gôpinda,’ said Ravenkar, looking towards the Ultima, ‘for money is not in short supply on this little expedition. I am sure that you are astute enough to offer just the right amount for both ponies and silence. But see to it that the silence is indeed bought and not enforced. I fear there will soon be murder aplenty without any assistance from your good self.’
Gôpinda affected the demeanor of one who had been extremely hurt, yet he managed to continue, despite his trauma. ‘Yes indeed, yes indeed. And now, where was I? Ah, yes; the ponies! We shall purchase them with the utmost discretion. One, maybe two at a time, as though only for our personal needs, and when we are done we shall fade away without a trace.’
‘Only to reappear in the hills behind Jîngapur with the remainder of the money, I would hope,’ responded Shamul grimly.
‘Most assuredly, most assuredly.’ Gôpinda was about to continue but a raucous cry from the top of the remaining mast interrupted him. All eyes were cast in the direction of the lookout’s pointing finger and not a word was spoken for several moments as almost everyone on board, that little gathering apart, gathered by the starboard rail. Murmurs of recognition gradually rippled through their ranks as one by one they discerned a faint vertical line on the horizon. And then it was gone, swallowed up by the perpetual mists that flirted with the southern coast of Khanju.
As the excitement dissipated, those upon the circle of carpets looked in bemusement towards Gôpinda. If sadness had been apparent a little earlier when he had been discussing the fate of the Rhymrron, deep melancholy, despair even, now seemed to envelop him. It was evident even before he spoke, in the glaze across his unblinking eyes and in the clenching of his fists. When he did finally speak it was evident there too, in the softness of his words and the tremor that infiltrated them.
‘Eight days at most would have brought us from Jîngapur to Dol Kathra, for it is a well worn path, indeed it is. However I fear that the path we are destined to tread will not be so direct and the ponies will only take us so far along it. But if we are not to make our approach via the Spine and Zoth, and please, please, I pray to all my gods that we are not, then surely it will eventually be through Dol Kathra. I am convinced that Môgrodôth lies due north of Dol Kathra, this most assuredly, and so, at the last, we must make our way through the unforgiving wastes of Tak Pôraka. But better to trek without delay across that desolation my friends, yes better that, than to tarry within Dol Kathra’s sad bounds.’
‘Pray Gôpinda, if it causes you pain, do not dwell on the fate of Dol Kathra,’ said Ravenkar, stroking on his beard.
‘No, it is most necessary,’ replied Gôpinda, ‘most necessary indeed. For within its fate lies the measure of what we might face, above and beyond these Eidola.’
And now something most strange happened. As Gôpinda sought to tell his tale, the words simply would not come. It was as though some inner conflict had caused his throat to constrict and until it was resolved, silence would prevail. Even his breathing was labored, to the extent that those who watched began to fear for his well-being. But as tears began to course down his smooth cheeks so too did a trickle of words begin to emerge. They emerged without the habitual gestures and without the constant assertions. Whether the tears were tears of sadness or tears of rage was unclear.
‘On soft gray mornings, while dew hung heavy still on the air and the last shades of night were fleeing up steep slopes to their snow-clad domain: that was the time I liked the best. While she slept yet beside me, I would pull the furs around her fair shoulders and slip out into the crisp dawn. The piper would be playing from atop his tower far up the valley, his haunting tune rarely the same as he conjured forth the sunrise. He started early, as did I, for always it would be before the sun’s burgeoning bloom had risen over those jagged peaks behind the city. It was said that when his pipes no longer sounded she would lose her way and abandon us to eternal night. And to think that I should laugh at this! Oh my, yes indeed!
‘As I made my way through the deserted cobbled streets I had only the piper’s dirge to keep me company and of course Barb, who padded noiselessly at my side. Yet I was happy, for at such times memories of Tarrak Kanga would come to me and I would stare them down and banish them, content, nay, exultant at my new-found peace!
‘Soon the pastel plaster and the scrolled stonework would be behind me, for Dol Kathra is not a big city. I would walk the well-worn path that hugged the river, ignoring the paved road above that led southwards around the forest, and delight in the smooth clarity of the water’s sound as it merged with the harsh pipes. As both faded into the tumult of the approaching falls, I would ascend the grassy bank and take up with the road, following it over the sturdy arch that spanned the plunging river. Always I would stand for a moment and embrace the rising spray whilst Barb continued on, oblivious to such extravagances, eager to reach our haven which beckoned to us now from just across the bridge. On the far bank a steep hillock lay to our left and, parting company with the road once more, I would follow the obscure winding trail that led up its flank. All the way to the top I would go, where a small clearing nestled, hidden from below. From its grassy sward I could see the river cascading into the gorge below, only for it to be quickly lost in the stronghold of Dirrid Arborra. I could see the vast circling arm of the road south, its pavement reluctant to intrude on the territory of the great forest. And of course, I could look back upon the city and her bristling white minarets, her pearly rooftops and her cobbled byways. Barb would pause to take in the view with me, always sitting on the same spot, his huge eyes absorbing all about him. At such a time he was oblivious even to the howls of his brethren hailing him from afar. Somehow they would sense his presence; I know not how.
‘I would look up at the sky beneath which my new home nestled, spiked still with fading starlight, and my heart would sing. My, my, oh how it would sing! And in concert with its song so would my dance begin. Yes my friends, it would begin! The “Dance of Steel”, plucked from Taksumnai legend, or should I say copied in haste from Taksumnai scrolls during my years of captivity; each inked stroke sufficient to bring down upon me a wrathful retribution such as only the Taksumnai could devise.
‘Each morning I would draw my sword and do this dance, my steps faltering and clumsy. Each morning I would do this dance until the sun’s first rays had chased the stars westward and warmed me in their glow. Each morning I would do this dance, until finally its strange rhythms and complex steps had become second nature to me.
‘But one morning as I began my dance I became aware that something had changed. Barely had my sword left its scabbard than the sound of the pipes had ceased. It was not a gradual cessation or even a graceful one; the notes died abruptly, strangled before they could take flight. This was not something that came to me immediately, as a bolt out of the heavens. Rather was it a slow realization that infiltrated my senses with guile, that caused my blade to falter so that I might confront it. It seemed that I staggered over to the edge of the clearing, there to witness the mist that clung to Dol Kathra, in which her spires played. Mist? No, no my friends, I fail to do it justice. An unnatural fog was pouring down the valley and I could not tear my gaze away as its abhorrent tentacles seeped into the city’s slumbers. Pink motes danced before my eyes and as my legs buckled beneath me and consciousness departed I knew beyond the shadow of any lingering doubt that I would never again hear those pipes summoning the dawn.
‘When I awoke Barb was gone. I have not seen him since. Hard earth now lies around the shoulders of my beloved and many more of the people of Dol Kathra are similarly clad. Those few that survived go about their lives still, but they are bereft of will, bereft of desire, bereft of hope. When the fog retreated up the valley so did their souls go with it.
‘Yes, yes, dearest friends! Several years have passed since the desecration of Dol Kathra but I remember it as though it was yesterday. Many times I ventured north to find the perpetrator of this evil, only to return, beaten and despondent. Since then I have wandered Isladoron trying to forget and have failed in that quest also. Now I am to return with hope anew!’
Silence prevailed again, a long silence, and this time not even Ravenkar spoke. When Gôpinda finally resumed, something of his normal self had returned. ‘Never did I see the tower of the piper. By all accounts he was not one to welcome guests and his abode lay well off the main trail up to Tak Pôraka. This time I mean to pay him a visit and determine his fate! Oh, yes indeed my friends, that I most assuredly do!’ And so saying, Gôpinda bowed before the assembled company and sat down again with that same alarming alacrity.
Afternoon came at a leisurely pace, oblivious to the collective sense of urgency that had gripped those aboard the Kraken. Upon her battered decks preparations were being made but all had an eye on the horizon. Irrevocably, that which had been a vague inconstant vertical line began to assume a discernible form and a familiar haunting melody drifted out to greet them, like the welcome from an old friend. This time though their bearings were assured as the lingering mists had retreated to the shore before a rising wind. There they played about the approaching pinnacle so that it sat upon the surly sea like a lonely upstart isle, rather than a shattered appendage jutting from the mainland. With all perspective gone the true size of their goal was masked for a while, but as they traversed the intervening waters it began to loom ever larger.
By the time the lengthening shadows of the Highlands had reached out to caress them, every detail of the pinnacle was laid bare before their faltering gaze, with scarcely two lengths of the hull separating their bow from its fissured fascia. It did not seem unduly put out by their presence, unlike the surrounding sea whose fluted wails dared them to port, and of course the nearby rocks, whose funneled sighs dared them to starboard.
It was to port that Shamul stared now as the Kraken hovered in an area of dead water where the sea’s flow divided to circumvent the pinnacle. Abduul worked the tiller with just a nudge here and a pull there, whilst shouting out instructions to the crew, sometimes portside, sometimes starboard, sometimes to both, as they backed up with the oars to maintain their position. Shamul was in the bow with Nûrgal at his side, both oblivious to the shifting Kraken. Ravenkar, Jak and Azella had just joined them there, outstretched arms indicating that they were not quite so comfortable with the pitching deck; nevertheless they all looked quizzically upward, arching their necks in the vain hope that they might catch just a glimpse of the lighthouse.
‘You mentioned that something might be in place to aid us, Ultima? I fear, looking at the current, that we will need all the help we can get.’
In response to Shamul’s comment, Nûrgal conjured forth a small piece of parchment and held it out so that they could all see it clearly. The sketch upon it was most certainly not a precision diagram; its lines had the consistency of a blunt charcoal point, which had also been used to provide shading where necessary. Despite this, it was obviously a representation of Cape Diadonnara. An arrow pointed down between the outermost rocks and writing was scrawled above it.
‘The date on the sketch, and its contents, would put it after the fall of the great bridge.’ Nûrgal paused, allowing them time to examine the sketch. ‘Do not concern yourselves with the note for I have already deciphered it, but I would welcome your thoughts as to its exact meaning. Before you are written the words, “Herein lies the way. Make your entrance as you would Festiv Eidolos. The exit is not yours to choose.” The language is that odd hybrid we have already encountered: part Dôrônish, part old tongue. Alas, I am at a loss to interpret it further.’ Nûrgal’s voice trailed off into the discord of raging noise to either side.
There followed sage mutterings and a universal scratching of heads and eventually Nimrakhál was summoned, for he was a well-traveled man. But he too was unable to shed any light on the matter and Ravenkar was about to shout out for Gôpinda when it became apparent that Azella was wearing a grin of diabolical smugness.
‘Why, you must all have forgotten. Or could it be? But no, surely everyone has read it? I cannot believe it to be otherwise!’
‘Child, you are trying my patience,’ said Ravenkar, somewhat testily. ‘And looking to the stern, I would venture to suggest that Abduul’s reservoir of that particular attribute has also just about run its course.’
‘My, my, it really is increasingly difficult these days to ascertain whether I am a young lady, a girl or even a mere child, is it not? At least we can agree that by the bow stands a thoroughly grumpy old man!’
‘Yes,’ said Jak, hastily intervening, ‘but it really would be helpful if we could leave this undeniably hazardous location before nightfall.’
Azella’s response was an imperious raising of the eyebrows and it was only the Ultima’s presence that prevented her from further baiting her two companions.
‘“Eternity” by Eleanor of Korbindahar. Am I to believe that not a single one of you is familiar with the greatest love story ever told?’
‘Er, “Festiv Eidolos”?’ Jak was doing his absolute best not to respond to the taunting.
‘An ancient name for the “Day of the Dead”, for it is a tale set long ago in Kartha Nagal.’
‘And how exactly does that help us?’ Jak’s question was as much to himself as anyone else, but even as the words passed through his lips he was regretting them.
‘Well, I am so sorry! Do forgive me! I was asked about “Festiv Eidolos” and I have told you. Would you, or would you not, like me to enlighten you further?’
Jak knew better than to interrupt again and Azella ploughed on, as she would have done anyway. ‘I believe that every sixth year, on the day of the winter solstice, practically the entire population of Kartha Nagal used to take it upon themselves to dress up in the most outrageous costumes and form a procession; it would wind its way from the Silver Necropolis in the city’s center to the Great Tomb that lies on the edge of the southern forest. It was a day of celebration, when those lost spirits that had gathered at the necropolis were escorted, or shown the way, to a more eternal resting place.
‘The necropolis is an amazing place. Cousin Sasha took me there once. It is named after the many tiny mausoleums within its boundaries, which are all embellished with silver to one extent or another. It is not on hallowed ground however and so no one is actually buried or entombed there. It is more a place of remembrance and a gathering point for those lost souls that …’
It had suddenly dawned upon Azella that she was talking to herself, for all eyes had turned towards Shamul, who had leapt up onto the gunwale and draped his arm around the neck of the galley’s figurehead, surely the ugliest, most bizarre carving ever to plough a furrow across the Inner Sea. He embraced it now like some long-lost friend, whilst he raised his free left hand to his ear. He remained in this precarious position for some time before pirouetting around and springing back down onto the deck in one lithe motion.
‘Strange, I think, how narrow is the line we tread: a lost phrase known only to one of our company, the youngest at that, and I do believe it has given us the way in.’ There was a pause as Shamul looked at them all with an amused tolerance. ‘Yet I see that you all still have a puzzled air about you! But pray, indulge me, for after all, I may be mistaken.’ So saying, Shamul flung his head back to the skies and stretched out his arms expansively. ‘And having indulged me, why then, then of course, you may take me to task. You and the gods, damn them!’
‘Hmm, yes,’ whispered Ravenkar, as he watched Shamul swaggering astern, ‘but I fear the gods may get their barbs in first – our own splintered remnants may find it somewhat more difficult.’ He whispered this lest Shamul should hear, for he knew how prickly his friend could be when exposed to the blunted blade of sarcasm.
With each successive swell they approached the point beyond which a return would not be possible, but that was not immediately evident as the Kraken yawed and heaved with surly grace before the narrow channel that sought her doom. This resolute defiance had permeated through to those upon her decks as they waited for their captain’s signal; another chance to look death in the eye and spit in his face. Shamul himself was affectionately nuzzling the figurehead again, but this time with a scimitar clutched in his raised left hand. All on board now knew they awaited the sixth wave.
He had only counted through the sequence once. The surge of the sea was becoming irresistible. He doubted if oar power alone could hold them steady much longer. Had it been wishful thinking?
The fourth wave smashed into the channel and surged off to his left, disappearing from sight behind the menacing spur around which they would have to skirt; that jutted inward from the bulbous formation which marked Diadonnara’s tip. Great gouts of water were hurled skywards behind the spur’s obdurate bulk, its glistening sides looking distinctly unnatural in the fading light.
No! It had definitely been a different sound, something he had discerned earlier, even before Azella’s whiplash tongue had exerted its revenge. He had made the connection immediately.
The fifth wave began to crest. These were big waves. The sea bed obviously reared up sharply at the entrance to this channel.
The sound had been softer, he was sure of it. But sure enough to risk his beloved Kraken and all those on board?
The scimitar flashed downward and almost simultaneously two banks of oars dug into the water; cheers of defiance rent the air. It was all that was required. It was as if a hidden hand had taken hold of the galley and driven it forward. And then upward. The white line that was the crest of the sixth wave ran just before the bow, whilst its ever-steepening face bore down upon the waiting channel. As they were swept into its patient embrace Shamul had an all too revealing view of the shingle bed rising up to greet them. The force of the water mercifully swept them around the spur and as he clung on for dear life he caught a glimpse of Abduul, still leaning into the steering oar; commendable though his first mate’s ministrations were, he doubted that they would be much of a factor with regard to their impending destiny: the channel followed a lazy curve to the left and came to an abrupt end as a glistening ridge of rock forced its way up through the foam-flecked shingle.
The fate of the preceding waves now played itself out in Shamul’s mind’s eye. The jarring thud against this impenetrable intruder and a ragged column of water hurtling skyward. It did not require an outlandish flight of fancy to insinuate wooden shards and broken bodies.
But this was the sixth wave, and as it had been since time immemorial when the men who roamed here had dominion over wind and tide, everything upon its empowered back was miraculously transported over that adamantine ridge into the deeper waters that lay beyond. All would say in the aftermath that time had slowed; that moments had run into each other and had been stretched to infinity. They would say that the Kraken never had cleared the ridge before it, rather that it had dissolved into a million motes on the one side and had coalesced back together on the other. But there was no incisive clarity to any of this, nor indeed any consensus as to the exact sequence of events other than a collective realization that the barrier had been left behind.
Shamul, having seen the Kraken survive one danger by the scaly skin of her barnacled belly, immediately recognized the onset of another. Releasing his grim hold on the figurehead, he allowed his legs to fold beneath him and rolled into the cavity beneath, bracing his feet against the rugged spar that braced his erstwhile companion.
Not constructed for skimming sylph-like across magical mirrored surfaces, the Kraken did not disappoint. The entire bow plunged down beneath this particular one and then, in concert with the rest of the hull, lurched upwards to almost clear its grasp, only to settle back again upon it, with all the poise of a skewered pig. A somnolent revolution ensued in the slackening current and by the time she had regained her former heading, she was almost at a standstill.
An eerie silence was all about, now that they were shielded from wind and sea alike. A dark lagoon lay off their port beam and under Abduul’s sure guidance the Kraken limped in, propelled by the slow sweep of her few remaining oars.
There was still enough light to view the steep sides of the lagoon which gouged deep into the outcrop like a ravenous bite from some luscious fruit. Despite its size though, it was perfectly concealed from prying eyes, save any that might be looking down from the western face of the dreadful pinnacle that loomed behind them.
There was also enough light to view the mottled stone face that peered out at them, despite the best efforts of the lush leathery vegetation to conceal it. Was it the lengthening shadows that lent it that odd expression? Its rough blocks seemed to frame the top of a mouth that was open, agape almost, in an attitude of surprise. Yet was this so unexpected? How many years had passed since this closeted realm had last been invaded?
There was not enough light however to reveal the stone tongue that protruded from that same mouth, for it lay well below the surface. At one time it had acted as a wharf. Had those aboard the Kraken been able to see it, they may have wondered whither it led; and wondering whither it led they may have been drawn closer; and having been drawn closer, perchance they may have heard the faint rhythmic pounding of machinery far below.
But such was not to be and time was pressing. The crew, for the most part, were ill at ease; as far as they were concerned this was not a natural anchorage in which they found themselves. There was an air of foreboding about the place and the water, although clear, was deep and silent. As the Kraken’s dinghy was unlashed from the raised platform on which it was stored, just forward of the aft section, it was done quietly and it was then lowered into the water in a manner that was almost reverential, lest some concealed power should be offended. Communications were whispered rather than shouted. Senses were nervous and alert.
Nûrgal stood in the bow of the small boat. Behind him, atop a mass of coiled ropes, Gôpinda lounged as though he had not a care in the world. Shamul and Abduul shared the rowing duties and in the stern sat Azella, along with Ravenkar and Jak.
Azella’s fingers probed uneasily beneath the delicate metal filament that ringed her neck, trying to assuage her prickling skin. She shared the crew’s feelings about this place. Her unease continued to accompany her even when they had left the oppressive confines of the lagoon behind and were heading out across the short stretch of water that separated them from the pinnacle; the more so because Nûrgal appeared to be guiding them towards a featureless rock face. But as the pinnacle drew nearer, an unobtrusive flight of stairs became apparent. Emerging from the water it rose to a stone platform. The platform was little more than a niche in the cliff, which reared upwards and outwards beyond it, but now she could see that it led to a portal of sorts, and within that portal another stairway seemed to beckon.
At the head of the first flight of stairs, where it merged with the platform, the union had been marked by two finely sculpted statuettes. With audacious skill, and a total lack of reverence, Shamul looped the dinghy’s mooring line over the seaward figure, drawing the little boat in and securing it. He remained there, as one by one, his companions disembarked and made their way up. He cast a suspicious eye all around before finally bounding after them, sword at the ready, mimicking Abduul who led the way.
As they stepped onto the platform Azella was able to examine the two statuettes more closely. Their features had been heavily eroded and finer details were lacking, but both still possessed a sleek elegance. A sinuous arm extended upwards from each and at its end, clutched snugly in webbed hand, was a pearly sphere. Molded from a completely different material to that of their metallic supports, and evidently unaffected by the ravages of time, their surfaces were unpitted, slick even, to the touch. It vaguely occurred to her that they might be organic in nature and her eyes widened involuntarily as she realized they were suffused with a gentle luminous glow which was becoming ever brighter in the gathering gloom. For just a moment their light seemed to mesmerize her and hold her enthralled, but then the Ultima’s strident tones caused the spell to evaporate and she stepped onto the platform.
‘This is undoubtedly where Raven Lôkar found himself almost four millennia ago. It is equally certain that he and Prince Ethrûll passed into yonder tunnel and eventually found their way up to the lighthouse. As I have already intimated, that way is fraught with peril. It is a crumbling path of clinging stairs, of treacherous handholds and falling rocks. Even in their day it would have been a hazardous climb; let us not forget that four thousand years had already passed since the time of Kuprakindi.’
As proof of his words, if any was needed, the platform on which they stood was littered with debris and far above they could all just discern a series of exposed steps; the enclosing wall had presumably plummeted into the sea long ago and the remaining outline, broken and jagged, filled them all with dread. Azella hooked her arm nervously around Jak’s, without once taking her eye off the narrow band of protruding steps. ‘Oh, my,’ was all that she could muster.
‘So marvel at what you will soon see as we hasten in the footsteps of Raven Lôkar,’ Nûrgal continued, ‘or at least what remains of it. Marvel at its antiquity and the race that created it. You may then find yourselves wondering at our own civilization and as to why it has progressed so little. Four millennia from the Dark Age to the First Age and then four more beyond that. I am singularly unimpressed! No matter; let us proceed.’
So it was that six figures made their way reluctantly across to the portal. Such was their enthusiasm for the task ahead it was as though they walked through treacle and so preoccupied were they with morbid thoughts that it was some time before it dawned upon them that one of their number, the one garbed entirely in black, was standing aloof between the two statuettes.
‘I spoke figuratively of course, for it is downwards that we must proceed and not up. Did I not mention the perils of the stairs?’ Nûrgal was gesturing down into the sea. ‘Much can happen in four millennia and indeed it did, between the Dark Age and the First. The bed of the Inner Sea is not perchance as stable as we would like to think; a calamitous settlement occurred in this vicinity, along the coastal shelf. It was responsible for the sundering of Diadonnara’s bridge and likewise it was responsible for the submergence of the entrance that we seek. The portal before you is the way of last resort. Sheer desperation was the motivation that drove Raven Lôkar and Ethrûll through it to scale the dizzying thread beyond; had Arish-Tâ accompanied them, a choice would possibly have presented itself, as it does now.’
‘But I am guessing that you do not intend for us to swim? Yes, yes, am I right?’ Gôpinda was already at the edge of the platform and looking down into the clear water.
‘Leave the climbing equipment here Gôpinda, for where we go first, it will not be required. But, should all else fail, then upward it will be,’ said Nûrgal. ‘In answer to your question, I can utter an emphatic “no”. At least, not unless matters should veer towards the unexpected. Should that happen then most certainly you will be required to swim; should that swim be successful or futile depends very much on what awaits below.’
‘An enticing prospect then,’ muttered Jak under his breath, not wishing the Ultima to hear.
‘Enticing indeed, friend Jak,’ replied the Ultima, gesturing downwards once more.
Twilight was upon them with darkness fast approaching. This registered with Azella only because the glow from the two globes was more lustrous and was reflected on the placid surface towards which they were descending; through which they were about to pass. Could this be? An unseen saucer was pressing down upon the water, forcing it out of their path. The saucer quickly became a bowl and then the steps became treacherous, slimy weed threatening every foothold. She began to count, and so intent was she on counting and staying upright, that she was not immediately aware of the bowl becoming a bubble and the water closing over her head.
She was however most certainly aware that all external sounds had disappeared, one of them, mercifully, being the incessant mutterings of Gôpinda. All that she could hear now was the tense labored breathing of her companions. Her hand played across the clammy wall to her right and she stared resolutely downwards at her feet, as even her new-found determination would not permit her to peer off into the surrounding water; to expose herself to the vagaries of her imagination, where demons were surely rising, given rein by the irredeemable dwindling of the light. She did finally allow herself some sort of smile however, prompted by a sudden blistering oath from Jak. He walked behind her at the mercy of his own demons; a waking horde that reveled in his confinement.
The steps were fairly regular and Azella estimated each to be about a span in height. She had counted off twenty when the little column slowed and Nûrgal urged them to shield their eyes.
Only Ravenkar recognized the spluttering orb of red flame; it burned brightly now, flushed with a sanguine urgency. For an instant, a seething morass of darting quicksilver forms was betrayed beyond the floating light. It parted like a curtain before them to reveal a muted backdrop of shaped stone thrusting up through still white sands.
The steps came to rest on a triangular stone plaza. Two sides faced outward and seaward and from each a piled stone quay strayed off into the gloom. These were no ordinary piles however for their impeccable fluted forms protruded up beyond the decks they supported. Even now it was obvious that in their prime they must have been capped with a brooding host of chiseled heads whose intransigent features had all scanned an ancient horizon to the north and west, where the Winding Strait lay. Intransigent maybe, but not eternal. Those few eyes that remained were now consigned to a more murky desolate view.
Just off to their right, where the plaza butted up against the rock wall, a doorway confronted them, albeit bereft of any door. Rusted hinges intimated that one had hung there, and a substantial one at that. Beyond, a corridor awaited, but it did not offer up a cornucopia of welcoming delights. Its frazzled lighting was unnerving and as she looked along it Azella found herself thinking that an uninterrupted darkness might have been preferable. Globes, similar to those they had already encountered, made intermittent flickering appearances along the walls, sometimes harsh and dazzling, sometimes dull or even feeble. Other than completely scrambling the senses, they served only to hint that the corridor was straight and possessed the profile of a low arch.
Into this mayhem the Ultima now stepped, a cursory wave of the arm being all he offered by way of encouragement to his companions. In effect, the bubble of air that accompanied him offered a much more compelling inducement and they followed him in, keeping very close order. In the confined space of the corridor the bubble became more of a cylinder and at first, everything seemed to be with them; the cylinder was of a comforting length and Nûrgal’s orb burned effervescently. It did not last. The corridor gave up each step grudgingly as they slipped and slithered on its floor; the cylinder then began to contract at an alarming rate and with it, whether by accident or design, the orb began to splutter.
It had been by design. Nûrgal spun around, startling them all. ‘We have a decision to make and I suggest we make it quickly. I cannot maintain both the flare and our airy little realm indefinitely. Already its walls begin to press in upon us. We must either proceed in darkness or return to the surface and confront the dubious pleasures of the more vertiginous route.’
‘The pinnacle may be high, but it is not wide,’ said Ravenkar, hastily for him. ‘This tunnel surely cannot go on for much longer. I suggest that we proceed.’
‘Very well,’ said the Ultima, obviously of the same mind. ‘Let us continue.’
And with that, the orb was extinguished.
Almost immediately, to add to their woes, the entire floor lurched beneath them. Gôpinda, Shamul and Abduul, because their reactions were more finely honed, remained upright; Nûrgal, because he was Shaman Ultima, remained upright; the other three collapsed in an untidy heap. Every globe, whether before them or behind them, was extinguished, and a high-pitched drone, like a distant bee, came to their ears. The floor lurched again and then, as the drone metamorphosed into a more moderate hum, it slowly began to carry them forward. Azella and Jak returned unsteadily to their feet, whereas Ravenkar merely adopted his favorite cross-legged position, though he did at least refrain from reaching for his pipe, no doubt prompted by the ever-diminishing air supply.
This, for Jak, was the ultimate nightmare. Confined in a fragile sac of air, an elemental weight of rock pressing down and an elemental wall of water pressing in, determined to regain its former territory. He felt Azella’s hand grasp his own for she knew of his fear, but her touch was remote and faint. He was struggling within himself. He knew that terror should be welling up inside him and he was ready for it, prepared to subdue it. And yet? Another feeling was present and it was the dominant feeling, yet so unexpected was it that he was quite unable to accept it. It was a sensation of security, of sanctuary. He was fighting to dismiss it, longing almost for the more familiar claustrophobia and the resultant fear that invariably accompanied it. But the fiend had arisen and would not allow it. The rogue that was his alter ego had been summoned and he did not even know how; the rogue that seemed to delight in all that he did not. His internal strife was ended abruptly as the floor beneath them shuddered to a halt. Nûrgal’s orb spluttered into life.
Azella shivered. The light cast by the orb was not impressive but its effect on their cocoon was immediate. It was sucked inward and a rippling chill passed across her exposed forearm. Before them, reflecting the uncertain red light, appeared to be the exposed face of a vertical metallic cylinder. Its surface was unblemished and that was all there was to inspire comment. Nothing marred its perfect façade: no clinging coral; no debilitating rust; no handle to grasp.
This last might have induced panic in most people, but not so in Nûrgal. His search was thorough, unhurried. First he cast the orb’s light to the left … nothing. Then to the right. Initially, that too seemed fruitless and he scraped at the rotting amalgam that clung there to the wall almost as an afterthought. But of course, that was when it revealed itself. Through the slime and moldering mulch it emerged … an eight-pointed sun.
They all stared at it, mesmerized, their plight momentarily forgotten. Here then surely was their salvation. But what to do with it? Its dark center projected outwards by perhaps the length of a knuckle. The symbol inscribed upon its end was unmistakable even though its vertical component was horizontal and its arrowhead was pointing upwards … towards a larger and correctly orientated representation of itself that resided with seven more symbols in an outer circle. Each symbol was located directly over a point of the sun.
The central stud was obviously a pointer and was demanding to be turned. But to where? Nûrgal reached out to put it to the test. There was no hesitancy on his part, but as he grasped it, there was a distinct motion inwards. Try as he might, it refused to turn. So he pressed it further inwards. The point of the sun directly beneath the “K” shone forth with a balmy radiance that put the orb to shame. Nûrgal immediately extinguished his little accessory again and tentatively twisted the pointer. This time it offered no resistance. His mask came up to face the others.
‘I would welcome any suggestions.’
For a while there was silence, but then laughter erupted. It was vaguely disturbing and not a little manic. All eyes turned towards Jak.
‘Why, is it not obvious?’
‘No, my young apprentice, it is not obvious,’ said Ravenkar, placing a steadying hand on Jak’s shoulder. ‘At least not to me and nor, I suspect, to any of us. But we would all be very happy if you could enlighten us.’
The sense of sanctuary was all-pervading. Why did they all look so concerned? Jak gave a beatific grin to put them all at ease. ‘“To access the Lighthouse you must first enter Kyreldor.” Isn’t that what he said? What short memories you all have!’
Not a word was spoken. In a way it was obvious. Now that Jak had pointed it out. And yet, when your life hangs in the balance, it is as well to be sure and the others were a little taken aback by Jak’s apparent lack of concern. Also problematical was the absence of any of the required symbols, barring the “Ў”. Nûrgal’s scrutiny rested on Jak for but a moment however and then he turned the pointer through a half circle. Another point of the sun flared brightly. It flared so brightly that only Nûrgal noticed the flickering transformation of the remaining symbols. He twisted the pointer to the newly apparent “R”.
Thence appeared “Э” and then “Λ” and then “Đ” and then “Ŏ” and then “Я”. Thus were the symbols entered and thus did each point of that enigmatic sun light up before them. And thus did they wait.
Azella sat with her companions in silence, waiting for she knew not what, as the membrane closed in upon them. The only sound she was aware of was that of her rapidly beating heart. The fate that awaited was not a pleasant one, at least for her; she knew there was no way she could possibly swim back down the corridor. Could any of the others?
In such situations it is difficult to reflect upon the passage of time and when the silence was broken she had no idea how long she had been seated there.
‘Do you hear it?’ It was Gôpinda’s voice.
‘I hear it!’ echoed Abduul.
‘Hear what?’ came Shamul’s gruff reply.
‘Just the two of us then?’
‘It would appear so,’ replied Shamul, even more gruffly. ‘No, wait! I hear it now.’
‘Yes,’ said Nûrgal, simply.
Nevertheless, it was some time before she was able to pick up the sound. It was a low resonant vibration and it came from far above.
‘I have heard such a sound before.’ This from Ravenkar. ‘Not exactly the same, but similar. Beneath the temple. Yes!’
It was obvious to her though that his recollection had not prepared him for what happened next. The ground trembled beneath them and they were consumed in a coiling array of tiny bubbles, as though the water about them was boiling. The sound, magnified by the water, was rising to deafening proportions when abruptly, along with the bubbles, it ceased. A vertical green line appeared directly in front of them; it rapidly expanded to a rectangle whilst great globules of air emanated from it, roiling and seething excruciatingly past them down the corridor.
A hand grabbed her none too gently around the back of her neck and forced her towards the light; into the light. Her feeble protests were in vain. The light faded dramatically and all she could see was the dim outline of her companions, entombed in its muted glow. A juddering reverberation seized the wall against which she was leaning, the only wall, for the chamber in which she found herself was circular, and she found herself being pressed inexorably down towards the floor. Terror began to rise within her, but as the trembling of the chamber about her dulled to little more than a gentle quiver, it subsided, and a calmness came upon her.
There was a sensation of motion, rapid motion. It was a comforting sensation. She was happy, she was relaxed, light-headed even. She began to smile. Even as the world began to spin about her and shadows began to stealthily erase it from her view, she was not concerned. The motion ceased.
Far above the Inner Sea a metal portal hissed open to herald the unceremonious entrance of six drenched figures amidst a deluge of frothing water, which, in the time it takes to draw breath, had washed away the idle dust of four thousand years and laid bare the floor of a short corridor. If that floor was unremarkable, its adjoining walls were anything but.
The metallic glyphs they bore began to glow gently as disused circuits were energized once more and enthralling patterns began to appear beneath the wreathing cobwebs that had accumulated over the centuries. Dense and resilient though they were, the dust laden snares were no match for the resurgent symbols beneath which smoldered with ever increasing intensity, determined that their information would be obscured no longer. Yet the six had more important matters on their mind and it was only the seventh and final figure to emerge that paid any heed to their lambent ramblings. Nûrgal’s step was confident and controlled as he strode across to discern the message that the glyphs were so intent on imparting.
It was the smell that began to drive away the shadows. To simply call it bittersweet, which it was, did it an injustice. It was at once pungent enough to take her breath away, yet sweet enough to make her stomach heave. She felt two arms supporting her shoulders and then a paroxysm of coughing overtook her. Two distinctly separate images of Ravenkar’s head swam before her eyes and she forced a smile, trying to appease the concern shown on both. As they coalesced into one she saw him hastily blowing something from the back of his hand.
‘And what, pray, have you just administered to me?’
‘Er, merely a mild potion to stir your senses child, somewhat akin to smelling salts,’ came the muffled reply.
She looked into the impassive faces of Shamul and Abduul as they helped her to her feet, noting that even their eyes were red and smarting. ‘Smelling salts? I think not. And do not assume that because you refer to me as a “child” I will in any way …’ Here she stopped, for Nûrgal had raised his hand.
‘Alas, I must request just a semblance of quietude. These glyphs are Duidarran and, whilst it is fortuitous that they are not in the form of a convoluted rhyme, nevertheless they are by no means straightforward. Forgive me, if on occasion I falter. I would ask you to try and put any hesitancy on my part to one side and commit to memory what I say, for I have no way of knowing how long these words might be illuminated for our benefit. They appear to read thus:
Mankind’s … legacy is thus far … transient, that of the Duidarra less so,
But the stars, their legacy is eternal.
Herein are the eight constellations of the … Great … Precession
And so will they help you on your way.
But which way is it that you seek?
Do you … yearn for the Runes or perchance the Chairs that … usher you to them?
Is it the Mystic Circles that you crave?
Is it the long blue path to Gagammudrak that beckons?
No, it is none of these, for Kyreldor has been entered and thus will it be:
Six to sit around the outer ring,
The first upon Lithsa,
The second upon Zerpentha,
The third upon Jy’gon Jagra,
The fourth upon Konnduit Illumantha,
The fifth upon Dagra Lunabak,
The sixth upon Methra Krakan.
None will approach Shymmra Baarb’hal nor Ikthra Ikthra,
For this is Kyreldor and it is they that will point out the way,
That will cast their light upon each … statue? … pillar? … obelisk!
Yet what of the seventh?
That … special seventh who holds close the Orakal.
To the center the seventh will go,
And there will stay, till the abyss … unfolds.
‘Hmm. Close enough,’ muttered the Ultima, clearly not entirely satisfied. ‘It was not such a utilitarian language as our own, but no matter. So now I would suggest that we put this corridor behind us and advance to the inner sanctum to see if we can make sense of these words.’
Water trickled yet down the three steps that marked the end of the corridor, and thence onto the floor of the circular chamber that awaited them. It was not a chamber of any great size, indeed, had it not been for the eight circular windows that ringed its domed ceiling, it might well have seemed claustrophobic. Azella’s eyes were drawn immediately to those windows and their magnificent etched surfaces. Therein were the eight constellations of the Great Precession and it was difficult to shed the notion that these were the actual stars themselves, glinting down from the night sky outside and framed by hollow apertures above. She counted them off one by one, starting to her left with “Lithsa”, the Temptress. Next came “Zerpentha”, the Coiled Snake. Beyond that “Ikthra Ikthra”, the Devil Fish. On the far side of the chamber languished “Jy’gon Jagra”, the Leaping Cat and “Konnduit Illumantha”, the Jeweled Door. Following on around to her right were “Shymmra Baarb’hal”, the Crystal Bow, “Dagra Lunabak”, the Sword of the Crescent Moon and “Methra Krakan”, the Mouth of the Kraken.
Down came her eyes to the floor, to circle back in the opposite direction. Hard up against the wall, nestling beneath their equivalent constellations, were eight chairs of a most unusual design. Her thoughts turned immediately to the chair that Jak had described to her. The flowing metallic lines of these chairs seemed the same, as did the high backs, but these were surely not as elaborate nor as intimidating. These chairs looked as though they were for sitting in, yet they did not look at all out of place in this bizarre setting, so who was to say? Beneath them, bold and black, even beneath the dust, a dark annulus ringed the chamber. It was wide enough to allow any one of them to comfortably walk around it and approach the seat of their choice whilst avoiding the outstretched legs of anyone who might already be seated.
Within the annulus it appeared that no dust had settled at all, alarmed perhaps at the prospect of concealing the serpent images that lay there, one red, the other green. Their gaping jaws lay on opposite sides of a diameter and their coils spiraled in towards the center. Thus they lay in apparent harmony, with not a hairsbreadth between them. Their scales were not a constant red, nor a constant green, rather light played across their rich dappled hues and imbued each with a flickering vibrancy. It was from the center of this alarming disc that a spiral staircase arose.
The vertical pillar that was the core of the stairway did not seem up to the task: its willowy form was elegant but so very thin. The treads that spiraled up around it seemed to sprout from it at random and from their leafy forms hung fronds of delicate tracery, but despite this, it did not convey the impression of a sentient growing plant. Instead, it was as though it had been cast in a single piece and then removed from its mold too quickly, its dripping alien metal left to solidify without any thought to angular trimmed edges. So did it rise up and disappear into a shadowy aperture.
‘Well then,’ said Ravenkar, trying to lighten the mood and mask his concern for Azella, ‘I suggest we take our seats and await the performance. I assume it does not matter which seat as long as we avoid the two that were mentioned?’
‘Indeed, I do not think it matters,’ replied Nûrgal. ‘I would just say to you all that these chairs are of Duidarran design and whilst they look innocent enough you must be prepared for anything.’ There was a long pause as he turned to look directly at Azella. ‘As must you, daughter of Joel. Approach me now, if you will.’
Azella walked tentatively over to the Ultima and did her best to look directly into that intimidating mask. He grasped both of her hands tightly.
‘And so it begins for you, Azella. It is you who “holds close the Orakal” and you alone. But you have our complete faith and support in all things; this you must know. Alas what you must also know is that I cannot prepare you for what is about to happen. Now we enter unfamiliar territory. There are no texts or scrolls to guide us for they have been tampered with or destroyed; we learn as we go. Stand firm and remember now and always that your friends are all about you.’ With that the Ultima released her hands and motioned her towards the center of the floor as he took up the final seat. He observed wryly that it was Zerpentha that had been left free.
She advanced now, not with trepidation, but with a steely resolve. She noted that with every step she took the staircase spiraled upwards. This did not induce fear within her, nor even interest; for now it was peripheral and merely something to catalog in her memory. By the time she took up position at the disc’s center, it had disappeared entirely into the aperture above.
She found herself facing the far end of the chamber, directly away from the corridor that had led them in. Slightly to her left sat Jak, below Jy’gon Jagra, and slightly to her right was Ravenkar, below Konnduit Illumantha. They both smiled at her. Beyond Jak was Ikthra Ikthra and beyond Ravenkar was Shymmra Baarb’hal. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to splay her arms outward towards the empty seats.
She was consumed with a sense of well-being and as she raised her arms yet further, so that they pointed towards the windows above the seats, it was as though her body had become weightless. As her right hand made an involuntary grasping motion, the five major stars of Shymmra Baarb’hal floated down towards her and hung there, suspended, just beyond her reach; as her left hand did the same, so did the five stars of Ikthra Ikthra come to her. And then she was lost from view as a beam of intense light enveloped her from above.
She was observing all that was happening with an air of detachment and even when a tiny gemstone floated up in front of her, she was not remotely concerned. She followed its ascent however until it found a place of balance directly over her head and at the level of the eight great windows that ringed the chamber. She was staring straight up into the beacon of Diadonnara, but it did not seem to matter.
Without warning the gemstone began to swell, and continued to swell, until a melon-sized orb hung there, glistening and opaque, its brilliance gone. Spinning about this bleak artifact, sparkling motes of every conceivable color became apparent; dazzling satellites imprisoned by a featureless planet.
Such was her preoccupation with this transformation that it was no little time before she sensed darkness edging in upon her. The fabled light above her was fading and consequent upon this, the diminutive moons above her raced ever faster around their predestined orbits. But only when the light was in its death throes and the transformed Orakal was threatening to douse it entirely, did the implosion occur. Gravity grabbed the spinning motes and dragged them inwards.
Above her the beacon of Diadonnara was but a guttering remnant as the searing gem that was the Orakal passed down before her eyes. She welcomed it back. Again it was an involuntary act; a subconscious embrace. There was a distinct slithering motion about her neck and she stood in virtual darkness, her detachment gone. For the first time she felt a pall of fear nagging at her.
As above, so below. Scales stained rust-red slithered harmoniously into their viridian counterparts. She could only stand there, mesmerized by the serpentine flux, as the two became inextricably entwined and at some indeterminate point, were transformed into one.
The beast lay beneath her. Its coils were silver. No! Its coils were ice. Creaking. Groaning. Cracks. Fissures. The floor disintegrated and plunged into the void below. She looked down into that void and became one with it.
Six metallic chairs suddenly tilted forward and downward. The six alarmed occupants stared down into the empty cylinder that separated the top of the lighthouse from the bottom, wondering how they had not been pitched headlong into its fathomless depths.
The darkness was all around her and it was complete; not even the smallest spark of light played within its confines. But it was not just an absence of light, for it was tangible and she could sense motion. Its tendrils enveloped her and swept her up. She exulted in it: the ebon swirl that masked her presence; the cold that invaded her every fiber; the effortless speed with which she was being borne.
Her motion had slowed. She had no idea how much time had elapsed. That seemed important now whereas previously it had been meaningless. Tiny pinpricks of incandescence coalesced above her, isolated at first but soon becoming dense and close, like a phosphorescent carpet. She passed through its plane, scattering its wefts and warps, but not lingering to study its tattered aftermath. Onward and upward.
“Upward” was a direction that could at last be separated and identified. Her motion ceased.
She sensed the surface and it was far below, a fragile diaphragm that had for so long imprisoned her and yet was now of little consequence.
The vertigo quickly passed and she looked down upon Khanju, its entire coastline visible as a luminous line against the surrounding waters, enigmatic lights playing across its interior. Her fingers began to tingle and she remembered why she was there. The stars were still in her grasp. She brought her right hand slowly down and released Shymmra Baarb’hal.
All six seated around the annulus were well familiar with maps and immediately recognized the outline of Khanju as it floated beneath them, revolving slowly about the cylinder. But as they stared wide-eyed at the image, they knew on some fundamental level that this was no map. Such was their preoccupation with this concept that the appearance of five dim stars went almost unnoticed. Only as the stars grew in intensity and sought out their destinations did those who watched begin to follow their paths and wonder at their purpose. When the stars finally came to rest they were none the wiser; they knew only that the constellation of Shymmra Baarb’hal now hung there beneath them, superimposed over the west of the island.
The southernmost star, the star that marked the bottom tip of the Crystal Bow, flared briefly and the area of Khanju above which it hovered suddenly filled the entire cylinder; they were looking down upon Cape Diadonnara and central to the scene was the very structure in which they now sat. Light filtered around the western perimeter, pink, then gold. It began to spread across the entire vista. They could see the Kraken anchored in the lagoon. It lurched backwards, into the adjacent channel, and for an instant was poised before Diadonnara’s pinnacle before disappearing southwards into the open sea. Darkness spread from the west and once again only the dim outline of the lighthouse was visible. The scene panned northward. Fleeting impressions of a night-cloaked landscape.
A second star flared, the star that marked the point where the short inverted curve at the bottom of the bow reversed direction into the main curve of the bow’s limb; they were looking down upon a lake. It was not a particularly large lake, more of a highland tarn. If not for the muted light of a waxing Iambos reflected on its surface, it may not have been visible at all. Again the scene shifted back through the previous day and the watching six tried to take in the surrounding terrain, desperately searching for anything that might help them to recognize the whereabouts of the lake in the days to come. No life strayed into their view and there were no obvious structures. It was a strange landscape of undulating hummocks, heaths, bogs and heather-clad ridges. All that really impressed were the darkness of the lake and the leached umber of the adjacent hummocks, both unlikely to aid their search. Nothing resembling an obelisk crossed their vision. Eastward and northward. Much further this time.
A third star flared, the star that marked the point of the “V” in the taut bowstring where the arrow would be notched; they were looking down upon what? Not easy to see. Flares punctuated the scene and fires burned. Gasps as evening light intruded. A city! Ancient: crumbling towers, eroded pyramids, canals. Everywhere though, nature was making inroads. There was not enough light in the day for the six to even begin to orientate themselves. Westward and northward.
A fourth star flared, equivalent to the second but on the upper section of the bow’s limb. Nothing to see at all. It wasn’t until afternoon gave way to midday that the mists began to thin. He who sat upon Dagra Lunabak tensed. His breathing came in short tortured gasps. His companions did not need to be told that they looked down upon the bristling minarets and winding cobbled streets of Dol Kathra. Then northward, but not so far.
A fifth star flared. The star that marked the uppermost tip of the Crystal Bow. Even when the day returned it was not much help. Dark brooding clouds dominated the scene. The six knew though, beyond any doubt, that Môgrodôth lay beneath, for even those clouds could not subdue the sinister spire that marked its center.
She brought her left hand slowly down and released Ikthra Ikthra.
Where Shymmra Baarb’hal had ended so did the Devil Fish begin. The southernmost star flared. Dark brooding clouds over Môgrodôth. Swiftly, north and west. A vague impression of emptiness or vastness or both.
A second star flared, the star that marked the apex of the smaller dorsal fin of that most feared predator of the Outer Seas. An island. Daylight revealed it to be green and lush, its sides steep. A dark lake. All who were seated above gave an involuntary shudder. Swiftly, north and east.
A third star flared, the star that marked the junction of the two dorsal fins. An island. Barren and with near-vertical sides. Shadows everywhere. Plunging ravines and a circular plateau. Too circular to be natural? And at its center? Too little time. Swiftly, north and west.
A fourth star flared, the star that marked the apex of the larger dorsal fin. It took some time to see it, even in the light of day. A tiny bleached square of rock amidst a stark blue sea. Swiftly, north and east.
A fifth star flared, the star that marked the base of the larger dorsal fin, just behind the monstrous head. Could this be journey’s end? Cold terror within all who looked down. To undergo such a trek and have it end here! Surely none could enter that writhing maelstrom and survive.
Wrapped again in that cold ebon swirl. Down, down, down. From the abyss that lay beneath her she saw a thousand shards rise up. A floor of ice formed beneath her. It began to swirl, but she had eyes only for Jak and Ravenkar, before her again.
Despite the rigors of the voyage scant few had managed to sleep amidst the still waters of the lagoon, overshadowed as they were by the glowering pinnacle. The light at its peak was dazzling and distracting in the extreme, but it shone predominantly outwards and upwards, casting a most meager portion onto the Kraken.
Jonjon lay rigid, as though cast from stone. He had been trying to get to sleep upon a straw mat, doing his best to ignore the insects that buzzed about his head and his exposed skin. But now he held a djammba in either hand and was prepared for the worst, without quite knowing why. He repeatedly ran his thumbs across the razor sharp blades for reassurance. His brother lay next to him, by the gunwale. No mat and a small coil of rope for a pillow, he slept on, blissfully unaware of the insects and oblivious to any incipient danger. But suddenly his breathing became shallow and his eyes opened.
‘It took me brother, it took me!’
‘What took you Riako?’
‘Why, the mist brother, the mist.’
‘And where did it take you, Riako?’
‘Into its folds brother, into its folds.’
Jonjon smiled knowingly and sprang up onto his haunches. From a back pocket he produced a tiny silver flask and took a sip of its contents. The raquirri would ward off the chill night air; he was never quite sure what the rest of the blend might do. He pulled Riako up and gripped him by the shoulders.
It was a game only he could play and for anyone else the conversation would now be at an end. But Jonjon had the patience of the predator, the assassin, and just as crucially he knew exactly when to bring it to bear. Right now Riako was cold to the touch, icy cold, and his skin was clammy. Jonjon knew this was important and so Riako found himself caught in the unrelenting gaze of his brother’s eyes. But he felt no fear; just the opposite. Those eyes were a haven from the fear that constantly pursued him and any words he could muster would haul him ever closer to its protective walls.
‘Into its folds, Riako?’
‘Into its folds, brother, deep into its folds and I could not breathe. It was all around me, smothering me, and I didn’t know which way to turn. I couldn’t even feel the deck beneath my feet. There was a figure; it reached out to me. And then the light went out.’
‘The light went out?’
‘The great light, brother. Up there. In the lighthouse.’
Muttered oaths and curses played around the circle that had predictably gathered about them and the gloom of the lagoon pressed down ever more heavily. Anxious faces were lent yet more distress as the shadows their features cast were elongated by the galley’s lanterns. Jonjon said nothing and waited.
‘I lay back to await my fate and it seemed that I drifted upwards, for the mist began to thin. And then …’ Riako’s eyes glazed over and Jonjon sensed that he was slipping back into his dream or, from his brother’s perspective, an alternative reality.
Jonjon had witnessed this in the past, not often, but often enough to know what to do now. He strengthened his grip on Riako’s shoulders and yelled into his face. It seemed like an act of blasphemy; that a cry reserved for the rolling foothills of the Atlâks, nurtured to carry over the grazing herds that foraged there, should reverberate around such a forlorn cove. Ever alert and watchful at the rear of the assembled crew, Nimrakhál cursed silently, reluctant that anything should disturb the equanimity of their surroundings and translate itself to the shore. Nevertheless, the cry appeared to have served its purpose as awareness filtered back into the youngster’s eyes and words began to tumble forth anew.
‘It was peaceful there brother, stretched out like that. I could breathe again. But it was black, brother, so very black. There were no stars you see, no stars at all. And that’s when I began to wonder if it was indeed the sky. If, instead of floating up I’d been falling down and was perched over some immense chasm, some bottomless well. And then I began to panic brother, for as I looked down, that’s when I saw the stars. And there were only five. That’s right, brother. In the whole of that dark place there were only five stars: all I could see were the twinkling lights of Shymmra Baarb’hal.’ Riako’s body was tense. Then a wan smile played across his thin lips and a look of relief came to his face.
Jonjon waited and even as his brother began to tremble, he said nothing.
‘And then he came. It was Ikthra Ikthra himself, brother, paying me a visit. I could see his great fins slicing through the darkness, circling around me. Can you imagine that, brother? Can you imagine that? I was so relieved to see another in that dark place that I gave not a thought to his intentions. Round and round he swam, brother, ever faster, until I was at the center of a boundless whirling pool. It began to haul me down, brother, further and further down. But just as it closed in above me, I began to wake and the hard timber of the deck was beneath me and I knew everything would be alright. And it is, brother, isn’t it?’
‘It is Riako, that it is. But what did it all mean? Have you any idea at all?’
Riako could sometimes interpret his own dreams or visions, though not always in a manner that made sense to anyone save himself.
‘Buggered if I know, brother,’ he answered, laughing out loud.
The circle around them gradually dispersed and Jonjon followed Nimrakhál back along the Kraken’s deck. Riako was well capable of looking after himself – when he was awake.
The two men, cautious to a fault, sat away from the direct light cast by each of the two stern lanterns. ‘Well then, Leopard, what did you make of that?’
Nimrakhál’s constantly shifting eyes were suddenly very still. He grabbed Jonjon by the arm and pointed. A carpet of thick mist was pouring over the stern rail.
It was just at that moment that Diadonnara’s great light flickered and died.
They were shouting at her, but she could not hear what they said. Jak was reaching towards her but his hand was wreathed in static and now Ravenkar was trying to pull him back. He would have failed had Gôpinda not lent his strength to the situation. What was the matter with them? It wasn’t until she was right in front of them that she saw it and even then it was elusive; a subtle shifting of the air that was only discernible from a specific angle. A barrier had been placed around her!
Fury had blazed briefly within Jak’s eyes but that was mellowing to concern as he stood there helpless, his arms at his sides. Much more of a worry was the expression in Ravenkar’s always expressive eyes: resignation. In Gôpinda’s eyes: nothing. It had gone very cold. She turned.
The spiral staircase had descended and at its base stood a figure. It beckoned towards her. It was a kindly figure; it radiated benevolence. She turned back towards her companions to seek their advice. It was a most natural act. She was almost halfway into that turn when a bolt of searing agony passed through her neck. She could not speak, nor even breathe. She turned back towards the figure and the pain relented.
The figure still beckoned, but more urgently now. Azella advanced because she had to. The pain that was her only other option was too intense.
Was this figure familiar? Kind wrinkled face and eyes as sharp as her own, but gray. Its arms were spread to either side, welcoming her.
But she could not squeeze the word from her throat and the more she tried the more her heart began to pound as the unreality of the situation began to impose itself upon her. What would her father be doing here and why would he be dressed in such a curious fashion?
Metal clasps of assorted colors ringed his arms and disappeared into a flowing purple mantle. A mantle which disturbed her. A mantle which did indeed flow, but more as a liquid than a fine silk. Wispy white hair protruded from beneath a skull cap of the same regal color. This was unadorned save for a single central fin which was low and swept back, rather in the manner of a cat’s ear, when it is cornered.
Her scrutiny returned to the figure’s face. It smiled. She screamed.
It was a terrible scream, all the more so because no one could hear it. The smile was malignant and could never have adorned the face of her father. Indeed, as the lips curled back, so the skin upon the face stretched until every last wrinkle had been exorcised, every last grain of color drained, every last trace of Joel banished. But what she finally looked upon was far from featureless, could never have been called insipid.
No face should have been that perfect. Its beauty was elegant, sickly, decadent; it was flawless and it was ageless. And what of the hair that framed it? Gone were the frail uncertain strands of an ageing monarch and in their stead the dazzling white mane of an absolute ruler presided. As she sought desperately to control herself, to cling to the last vestiges of her sanity, that mane began to rise and spread, as though caught in a divine wind. It began to glow like an incandescent cluster of platinum filaments so that the face at its center lost its unsullied ivory hue, becoming colorless, almost transparent by comparison.
Azella looked on from a far-off place. Vermilion and amber flames now played delicately amongst the rippling filaments and were soon fanned to an emerald blaze and then an indigo inferno. The figure laughed and the inferno was gone. Amethyst eyes bored into her, through her; bared her soul.
‘Look to me child. Look you upon the face of Kuprakindi!’
The words were mouthed but no sound came forth. Instead they exploded inside her head, shattered her place of retreat and utterly exposed her; demanded that she confront her circumstances and acknowledge a fear that was elemental. The resolve and fortitude that had overcome the trauma of the preceding weeks, that had been responsible for reshaping her persona, was well and truly stripped away. What would lie beneath?
Her breathing steadied and her pulse slowed as she allowed the fear to flow through her. Terror stalked beneath the surface but she would not yield to its probing and it was with an unflinching gaze that she met the scouring visage threatening to unhinge her.
Something swept unchecked through the pathways of her mind. Not even the dimly lit alleyways where only half-truths lurked could deny it passage. Down into a well it passed, whither dark scenes had been dismissed; scenes that her consciousness had refused to collate, had falsely consigned to the realms of dreamscape. Under its glare they floated irrevocably upwards to assume their allotted places within her memory. All save one that is: the evanescent image of a towering skeletal figure with murder in its eyes; the hiss of rage as it sought to evade a pale red radiance threatening to engulf it. That scene was immediately relegated to the depths once more and darkness swiftly engulfed it.
Azella endured. Even as the apparition placed one of its hands about her neck and smiled, she endured.
A comforting warmth suffused her, soothed her whole body. She found that she could turn and that her muscles acted of their own volition once more. She did not move away however for she was yet held by those amethyst eyes and the voice, when it came, tensed her to the point of paralysis, ignoring as it did the intervening space and insinuating itself again directly within her head, within her every fiber.
‘Zakarcë came closer than ever did he know! And for thee my child, revenge. How sweet sustenance it is on which to feed. How well it doth succor thee for that which is to come.
‘Truly I feel thou art the descendent of Ethrûll, whom did I modify, ere his banishment. Truly doth my gift flow yet in thy veins; the gift that would gain thee access to each of the seven.
‘Only this will I tell thee, for only this dost thou need to know. That which is entwined about thy neck, it has been empowered. Within it now doth the raw delyrium of the beacon abound. It will lead thee in turn to each of the seven, each obelisk, within which doth delyrium focused abound, and neutralized this must be; thus will the circuit be complete and thus will the bearings be set; thus will Môgrodôth and Kyreldor be laid bare.
‘As thou wouldst turn toward each of the seven, so will the gemstone glow ever more brightly; turn away and will its soul be diminished. The nearer art thou, so too will its fervor increase, but beware, for so too will it be as balefire to the Eidola. As thou dost approach each, more must it be the serpent about thy neck and less the flower.
‘And when thou art confronted by an obelisk! From the Orakal, into the delyrium contained, must the opposite flow, and quickly child, quickly, ere the facet within each capstone doth close up and deny thee. Therefore must thou begin thy disharmony exactly at the pitch that is required. Only the smallest adjustment canst thou make. Hast thou done thy reading child? Invaluable it will be.
‘Some reading I see has passed thee by. In days long since gone, the way, it was open. Taught to men by the Duidarra. Knowest thou of the Duidarra child? Knowest thou of those left by the Aes, to shepherd thy forebears until the nurturing of the great Stones was complete? I see only shadows where knowledge should there be!
‘Yes, taught to men by the Duidarra, should ever the dark Stone arrive on their shores, washed up there by the excesses of the Hellion. The Hellion, yes! But never the Eidola! Whence came they!? Evil and buried deep, I do think.
‘Open no more could it be. Thus did I tamper with the seven, and four symbols did I create, that myth and magic might prevail: the sacred symbols that dictate delyrium’s song.
‘There is the first and doth it create the song; there is the second and doth it elevate the song, so that in our heads will its rhythm pound; there is the third and doth it slow the song, so that in our heads will its rhythm fade; and then there is the fourth and doth it end the song. Ethrûll was wise to all their ways for well did I instruct him, but thou art not Ethrûll. In this do I fear no contradiction. Must thou now listen!
‘Two are there now that are uncovered. The first and the third. The Drathkal did I place in that most hallowed sanctuary, Tak Khiroba. The Kadrabellax is in the hands of the little one. It is the second and the fourth that now thou must seek.
‘But fourth comes before second; it doth lie within the Wetlands, where did I place it as the poison, it did flow. The People of the Reeds, they are no more, for now. Yet one survives. He will await. As long as it may take. He will await for the strange one that is with thee. Only he can deliver the Electrax, and must thou have it! For only it can destroy the power that binds the casket, into which must the dark Stone be placed; the casket that is in Chok Apûl. Then shall it be hidden at last from the Eidola. Only listen! Listen! Thou must listen! There, where it is destined to be, must thou leave the Electrax. There, will it be hidden well. Hidden from the Eidola. Do thou not let it journey with thee, lest they take it and the Stone be theirs!
‘And the second. Thence at last shalt thou have a weapon against thy pursuers. Amplifies doth it their own power to work against them. Careful though thou must tread, for doth the Drabellax lie within the pearly heights that are Dol Kathra, wherein is the poison at its most lethal.
‘So three thou shalt have to ease thy way and the fourth, who is to say? Go now and gather thy companions about thee and thence be about thy task. Know though that to one such as Kuprakindi thou art all as dust before the wind; mine eyes shall be upon thee at all times and should failure beckon then shall that dust be driven into the eternal desolation of the Void. Care I not about thee; only do I care that the Eidola are denied!’
No longer was the voice inside her head. But with its passing so too did all her strength and resolve slip away. She stumbled to her knees and her breathing came in ragged gasps. For an instant she thought that all was irrevocably lost, her sanity gone.
“And for thee my child, revenge.” She clung to those words now, whilst a memory stirred. It lingered, just beyond her grasp. She had sensed it rise as Kuprakindi had delved into her mind, only for it to depart as dark secrets do, shunning the intense glare of determined examination. But she would have it! If not now, then fine. It would indeed provide “succor”. With that notion uppermost in her mind, some semblance of normality began to impose itself; sight and sound began to permeate the cocoon of madness that had threatened to engulf her.
A swirl of color caught her eye. It was deep indigo in the subdued light that remained. As it disappeared into the aperture above, the stairway began to slowly revolve and retract. She watched impassively as it too was lost from view and a panel slid noiselessly into place to mask any hint of its existence. So seamless was the joint around it, that had she just stepped into the chamber she would never have guessed that there, directly overhead, lay an entrance into the uppermost enclosure of the lighthouse.
The barrier had gone and they walked in towards her, encircling her. They were concerned but they were wary too when they saw the set of her face and the grim determination that it radiated. It was Nûrgal who spoke first, taking her hands and questioning her in a dull, calming monotone.
‘You saw him, did you not?’
‘And what was the impression that he left upon you? Think carefully on this, for it is important. Was he benign, helpful, or was he distant, harsh even?’
Azella stared straight back into the black mask before her and answered without a trace of emotion. ‘He read my thoughts, exposed my every memory and bared my soul. He was unutterably evil.’
Nûrgal relaxed his grip, but said nothing.
‘Of whom are we speaking?’ offered Abduul tentatively.
‘Why, of the great and ancient Kuprakindi,’ drawled Ravenkar languorously, deriving much satisfaction from the identical expressions at play on the faces of Abduul and Shamul; an initial blossoming of awe, a brief pause at disbelief, a terminal wallowing in dread.
‘He still lives? But how can that be?’ stammered Abduul, after the fashion of someone suddenly forced to confront a reality that had never even strayed into their wildest imaginings.
‘No, of course not,’ scoffed Shamul. ‘I have heard of similar happenings, usually I might add, from the mouth of our sly old friend here. Spirits, images, call them what you will, imbued with a special message and configured to appear only when some hidden glamor is triggered.’ These words were uttered with less and less conviction as he beheld Ravenkar’s head rotating slowly from side to side.
‘Alas, would that it was so, Shamul. What we witnessed, or to be more precise, what Azella witnessed, was a projection. Some of us within the Khir Brotherhood and, I suspect, the Hierarch, can briefly project our senses to distant shores; but only shores upon which we have previously trodden. One other amongst our contemporaries,’ and with this he cast a furtive glance sideways, ‘can form his image at the focal point of that projection and communicate through that image. Never though have I heard of an individual who could project his image and take control of another through that image.’
‘And so you knew it to be Kuprakindi,’ said Abduul.
‘No. I merely suspected that Kuprakindi’s handiwork was manifesting itself. I noticed a blurring of the air, a vague distortion. Only when the Ultima mentioned “him” and Azella answered, did I know for certain.’
‘I knew,’ said Jak, as though from a trance.
‘And how could you possibly have known, my dear apprentice?’ said Ravenkar, somewhat overbearingly.
‘Because I saw him.’
‘You saw him!?’ Everyone seemed to shout at once.
‘Quiet, if you please!’ The Ultima stood directly before Jak.
‘And how did you know, Jak? Even having seen the figure that stood before Azella, how did you know that it was Kuprakindi?’
‘It was his movement. Always in the ancient texts, odd words were used to describe the way he moved. Words such as “float” or “flow”. And now I have seen it for myself. I talk not only of when he ascended the stairway. It was more than that. Even as he stood before Azella, his being, his essence, was fluid.’
The Ultima exchanged a quizzical glance with Ravenkar, but again, did not say anything. Indeed at that moment all conversation came to an end for a dull green light now poured out from the corridor behind them, casting an ominous gleam onto the polished scales upon which they stood. Gôpinda, who had been uncharacteristically quiet throughout the entire proceedings, already hovered there. His keen ears had detected something approaching.
‘Well, well. What are we to do? Do we linger yet awhile in these most entrancing surroundings or do we accede to this most subtle of hints? Hmmm.’
A healthy band of pale light was rising across the eastern horizon and elsewhere in the sky stars shone down with a focused clarity that had been absent for many weeks. Iambos added to their luster, but even together they could not subdue the aberration that was the Hellion, evident still as an evil blot on their glittering tapestry.
Not immediately aware of this heavenly dispute, five gasping figures broke the calm surface of waters that were under the more immediate influence of two spectral globes. The figures were silhouetted from below by a diffuse red orb which slowly rose up beneath them, only to be extinguished at the last. As the five swam towards the welcoming radiance of the globes, two more figures emerged in much more sedate fashion, climbing a flight of stairs. With a minimum of fuss all seven clambered into the dinghy that was moored there. A few long pulls on the oars saw the small boat and its occupants disappearing into the mist-shrouded waters. Orange lanterns in the enclosed bay beyond were all that was visible of their destination.