They had sought refuge in Gagammudrak during the tumult, far beneath the raging surface, joined as one, plotting their return. As storms waned they had risen with evil intent through her spiraling splendors and then turned toward Isladoron like a malevolent tide.The bodies functioned more efficiently underwater. The previous occupants had preferred to spend most of their time there. Beneath the waves they were sleek and maneuverable, whereas on land they were ungainly, and a reluctant stutter attended their every motion. So in the first days, when their interminable search had led them to the cursed lands, they had tried to take over the forms of the land-dwellers. They had met with varying degrees of success. Not surprisingly it had taken them some time to adapt, and that had been the problem. As they had squeezed the minds of their victims it had become apparent that another Stone was guardian of that particular realm. Even as it had become apparent, so that Stone had mysteriously regained its power and its pulsing energies had rolled over them. As they had slipped hurriedly back beneath the waves, their more unfortunate brethren, most of those who had assumed the forms of the land-dwellers, were left paralyzed and helpless. And they had never returned. What had happened to them? The Mass had been left permanently weakened.

During the next period of heavenly disruption they had lingered but briefly in those awkward bodies, long enough only to glean information and facilitate the final assault. Tales of the mountains had surfaced, and a place of healing. But that was all.

This time however, they were prepared. A designated few would take over land bodies at the outset, leaving their marine carcasses in the shallows, where they could be easily retrieved. Whilst their brethren continued the search, they would concentrate solely on mastering their unfamiliar forms. And then they would enter the fray!

 

So the vanguard came now, down the three great watery arms that led to Djebal Doron; probing, seeking. Just a few of them at first, gliding surreptitiously down the arteries that led to the heart of their enemy, exulting at its feeble pulse, which caused not a ripple of disruption in the reservoir of dark delyrium that coursed within them, that was an integral part of them. But they would not venture into the Inner Sea, at least not just yet. That lesson had been learned.

This time they would attempt to snare their beloved bauble before it departed the cursed lands. Once that had been accomplished they would dislodge the other and destroy it, whilst it was no threat to them. Their dark Stone would be set in its place and within its benevolent shroud they would possess the land-dwellers; they would glean their secrets and lay waste to the cancer of their civilization.

This time they would treat the dark Stone with respect. This time they would become intimate with it and learn how to negotiate its crystal portals. One by one they would engage those portals and pass through them into the dimensional vortex beyond, there to be spewed forth into an unsuspecting alien firmament. Free at last!

The rest of their brethren too dreamt of this, as they lay in solemn repose around the outer shores of Isladoron. To different beings, those beings that might leave a more transient footprint upon the sentient pathway of the universe, that attitude of repose would be called “waiting”. But to such creatures as these, in the context of what had already passed and what was yet to come, it represented nothing more than the anticipatory flicker of an eager eye. Their prey would be flushed out, the net would tighten and the prize would be theirs. Nothing could escape.

 

They were the final two and they emerged now from the murky depths of the strait. Behind them the luminescent peaks of the Khir Highlands hung like bleached scalps, as Iambos struggled to light up the treeless flanks beneath. Their saurian forms raised barely a ripple as they settled into the shallows. Others had stolen ashore along the length of the strait, but none so far in as this. Those others would even now be making their way inland under the cover of darkness. Searching by night; killing by night. For now. Until stealth was no longer required. Until the object of their affections was firmly within their grasp.

The two looked at each other and one of them began to speak. The clicks and trills utilized by their hosts beneath the waves were of little use here but they had immersed themselves in the old language; it had been digested and brought back by the fortunate few who had survived their initial tryst with the land-dwellers all that time ago. It was immensely difficult for them but its guttural simplicity suited their needs. Telepathy of course was possible for such unified creatures as these, but for that they needed physical proximity, contact even, as indeed they would when subduing their intended prey. For this mission, speech had been deemed more practical, at least for general communication.

The words were labored and they did not address each other by name. This was a conundrum that their collective intelligence had been unable to unravel. “Self” and “identity” were not concepts that sat well within the individual components of their divided psyche; even “Zakarcë” was not a name as such, but an archaic term for “ruler”. That single exception apart, they addressed one another according to the physical characteristics of their host bodies.

 ‘Not then a sign as yet,’ hissed Scar-on-the-Cheek.

‘Not even a glimmer,’ replied Twisted Neck. The words came convulsively as though the carcasses they emanated from were about to retch.

As the night wore on the low dense cloud that was an enduring feature of the area began to draw back in and Iambos faded from view. Light rain began to fall. The two Eidola made their way silently into the reed beds that barred their way, preferring to glide down the network of stagnant tributaries rather than utilize the rickety wooden landing that traversed the swaying leagues with stubborn directness; holed where nature had tried to reclaim her heritage, but largely intact and deviating neither left nor right. This was a useful transition area for them. Water to land; but gradually. They would drift through this wetland until sunrise and then skulk, hidden on its shores through the morrow. Then would come the pain.

They could sense that pain now. Vague images only because of the distances involved, as opposed to the intense clarity of telepathy. But they paused nevertheless to view the world through other eyes; the eyes of their brethren. Those who had already forged through moon-dappled landscapes, covering as much distance as they could before dawn had exposed them to screaming light and forced them to seek refuge in darker, danker surroundings.

Thus would it be for several days, or so it was foretold. By then, acclimatization would be well under way: their secondary breathing mechanisms would have settled down and the intake of air would be less painful, more efficient; their eyesight would be sharper and they would be able to consciously retract the protective membrane that flickered involuntarily across their eyes.

Their hearing and sense of smell would require no adjustments however: every vibration, every wind-borne smell within leagues was theirs to interpret, to dissect.  Nor would their muscles need adjustment, at least any adjustment would be minimal. Developed to accommodate crushing pressures, they provided prodigious strength when those pressures were removed; strength to run, leap and fight. Always though, allied to that strength, was a lack of control; an overcompensation that robbed them of their fluidity and endowed them with a faltering gait, a characteristic hesitancy in all of their motions.

Perhaps if each had been at one with the body it possessed, this would have disappeared in time. Perhaps if the original sentience that had been compelled to retreat into the final bastion of its inner mind – perhaps if that sentience had been allowed a degree of latitude, then a greater measure of control could have been achieved. But that sentience would not be allowed to return. That sentience was shackled in eternal torment. Indeed, restoring even a scintilla of control was an involved procedure, for each victim had already had its neural networks rewired to interfere with its perceptual machinery, until it could no longer filter incoming data. Sensory overload and shutdown had inevitably followed and these were not readily reversible consequences.

And notwithstanding the pain of acclimatization, there was always the other pain; nagging, insistent. They could feel it now as they advanced through the reeds, prickling at their scaly hides, plucking at their innards; a nauseous wretched sensation, lapping tentatively against them with each faint, rhythmic pulse.

 

The scant light of a soaking predawn and they had reached their objective. Sparse grasses carpeted a sandy bank that stood proud of even the tallest reeds. Tough roots had anchored the meager soil and the bank rose like a rampart to mark the inner boundary of the Wetlands. Blurring the transition though were the tattered corpses of its former residents, a phalanx of trees, torn from their plots by an unmerciful wind. Scattered with feckless abandon, they lay there, their final resting places determined solely by the random vagaries of the tempest’s ire; a tempest that was now, thankfully, just a memory. Beneath one such upturned bole the creatures slunk and prepared to wait out the coming of the day. They floated in the lee of its gnarled bulk, more comfortable than they could ever have hoped, as the relentless drizzle closed in.

 

*

 

Dawn was yet a way off as the Kraken’s oars dipped tentatively into the waters of the bay. A less severe shade of blue in the eastern sky, just visible through the thinning mists, was the only indication of its approach.

A sullen stone face watched the departure as best it could, as the oars were swiftly shipped in response to an aggressive current that had gripped the black vessel and was guiding it out into the channel. Sullen and inscrutable, for the tongue had withdrawn and the mouth had closed. The guiding mechanisms still worked flawlessly and the seal across the stone mouth was yet intact. The influx of water had ceased, as had the repetitive pounding of the machinery that powered the innards of the lighthouse.

Once into the channel the Kraken was drawn inexorably onward and began to close with the smooth western wall whose grim bulk now loomed large to port. It was almost possible to lean over the gunwale and touch it. Abduul had taken up station at one of the steering oars but was applying only the deftest of touches, intent merely on preventing the bow from yawing. He had realized almost immediately that he was powerless to dictate the overall course of the vessel for the current was just too strong.

The wall began to arc away seawards but the Kraken clung stubbornly to it, riding the water at breakneck speed. If that was disconcerting to those who cringed beneath its ponderous shadow, it was, paradoxically, of immense comfort to the rest of the crew who were peering intently out to starboard. Beneath their startled gazes protruding rocks of every possible jagged nuance swept past and the sound of crashing tortured surf was everywhere.

The seven who had braved the lighthouse had not gone far since their return. Six were stationed on the section of deck just aft of the dripping dingy, while the seventh stood further astern, continuing to apply his subtle ministrations to the steering oar.

‘Would I be correct in assuming that this current is not a natural phenomenon?’ shouted Shamul against the tumult of the surf.

‘You would indeed,’ replied Nûrgal, his voice cutting through the surrounding mayhem. ‘Do you recall? “Make your entrance as you would Festiv Eidolos. The exit is not yours to choose.” Here, the seabed was torn and twisted and the approaches to Diadonnara were forever sundered; approaches through which men and women of great import had previously journeyed. Remember the heads on the sunken quay, all looking through here to afford them welcome?’

‘The Duidarra?’ ventured Azella.

‘Yes, and their direct descendants. But such voyages preceded the coming of the Eidola, preceded the pall of sorcery that fell upon this deserted shore.’ The Ultima let the words trail off into the raucous elements.

‘Such disruption no doubt benefited Kuprakindi,’ said Ravenkar, his observation emerging uncertainly through chattering teeth. ‘It would not suit his plan to have easy access in and out of this place.’

‘Bugger me,’ swore Shamul. ‘Could he not perchance have devised a middle way? After yesterday’s leap I doubt if the Kraken will ever be the same again.’

‘Aha! Yes, yes indeed!’ Gôpinda had sprung to his feet and entered the conversation. Familiar now with these unheralded pronouncements, the others simply waited for him to continue. It was a very brief pause. ‘The rush of the wind upon my handsome face, it begins to abate. Yes, yes! I am believing that the current relaxes its grip upon us.’

This proclamation was met by exasperated mutterings, Shamul apart. The Kraken’s captain was staring resolutely forward, his nostrils dilating as he sniffed the air. ‘I do believe you are right, Gôpinda,’ he conceded. ‘Your senses almost rival your looks.’

Gôpinda bowed in response, oblivious to the sarcasm.

 

Dawn had finally arrived, only to be immediately consumed by low gray clouds extending away as far as the eye could see. Shamul had taken the Kraken from the center of the strait towards its eastern boundary. It was starting to rain. They were approaching the Wetlands.

Reed beds were now apparent but they would only make their approach on Gôpinda’s say-so. The guide stood now in the bow, peering shoreward. Every so often he would turn and make a motion with his hands, as though pressing down on something. The crew soon realized he was imploring them to row more quietly, not an easy task when Shamul was pacing about and demanding that they row more quickly. Not wishing to incur the wrath of either, they fell into an uneasy compromise.

In effect, both men were intent on avoiding detection, the one by stealth, the other by speed. With the mainmast still strapped to the deck, they had both agreed that the forward sail should not be raised either, making the Kraken much more difficult to discern from the shore as the perpetual gloom of the Wetlands closed in about her.

Nûrgal and Ravenkar stood towards the stern, but they took care to ensure that Abduul could not overhear them. They trusted the first mate implicitly but the words that they spoke were not for the ears of others.

‘I am pleased,’ said Nûrgal, ‘that events have transpired as they have. It is a delicate thread that we follow and at least we have unraveled one or two of the knots.’

‘Yet I take it from your tone,’ replied Ravenkar, in a voice that was little more than a harsh whisper, ‘that all is not entirely to your satisfaction.’

There followed a silence of sorts, as Ravenkar followed Nûrgal’s gaze amidships, where Azella was engaged in a dangerous game with Riako. Four razor-sharp djammba flashed back and forth between them and the pace was quickening. Both the protagonists had been laughing, yet the smiles were now frozen to their faces as their competitive instincts lured them on. But Jonjon, who had been watching studiously from a relaxed position against the gunwale, had evidently decided that enough was enough. In an instant he was between them, clutching two of the lethal little knives in each hand. The look of anger on his face left neither Azella nor Riako in any doubt as to his state of mind and both now stared at the deck in the misplaced hope that it would swallow them up.

Ravenkar was chuckling to himself. ‘She becomes one of them, I think.’

‘She does indeed,’ answered Nûrgal, ‘and that bodes well. She has a remarkable capacity for endearing herself to those around her; a talent inherited from her father, I suspect. But there is something else too. She has an ability to bend people to her will, whether they like it or not. She can see their innermost secrets and manipulate them accordingly. She has not told me of this, but I can sense it in her. This is also a talent that Joel possesses, but not I think, to such an outrageous degree.’

‘But I do not think that Azella is the cause of your concern,’ said Ravenkar, in a slow deliberate manner.

‘No. It is beyond Azella that I look, towards your apprentice. Not once has he followed the paths of the spinning djammba. His attention is elsewhere.’

Jak was also amidships, but away from the current commotion. He was obsessively knotting a piece of rope, but the rope was merely a diversion for he barely glanced at it. Instead, his eyes bored into the back of the figure currently ensconced at the bow of the Kraken.

‘I have sent him into dangerous realms my Khir friend, and for that I apologize. But I did what I deemed to be necessary. Perhaps though, the chair of the Duidarra was a step too far. Kuprakindi conceals himself from the Eidola behind myth and magic yet he uses the same to cajole and manipulate us. Guiding Jak to me was part of his plan but having him put in that chair was not. I sense it!’

‘Hmm, I wonder,’ muttered Ravenkar enigmatically. ‘Would that I had been at Tak Khiroba when the Drathkal appeared. Would that I had been able to follow the movements of he who brought it there. Would that I had been able to keep my eyes affixed on Jak during that time.’

The Ultima nodded in assent before continuing. ‘I fear I have roused an untamed beast within him, Ravenkar. You must be careful over the days to come that it remains upon its leash.’ So saying, he turned towards the stern. ‘Abduul, could you see to it that our little band assembles here forthwith, yourself included? The time has come. Leave Gôpinda to his musings though, for he is already well acquainted with what I am about to reveal.’

 

A small canopy had been erected on the stern deck to alleviate the effects of the rain and twelve figures sheltered beneath it as the Kraken coasted ever nearer to the mass of reeds off her starboard bow, ever further into the watery embrace of the Wetlands. There had always been a sense of remoteness to this part of the strait, sparsely inhabited and perpetually shrouded by low cloud as it was; the steady pounding upon the canvas only accentuated this and as the gentle rustling of a multitude of flapping wings enfolded them, their isolation was complete.

The Ultima stood at the center of the gathering with the remaining eleven forming a loose circle about him. The five brothers were already dressed for the arduous day ahead in an array of bristling weaponry and were squatted on their haunches, sharpening an assortment of small knives. It was more out of habit than any dire need. Nimrakhál and Abduul stood behind them, both with arms folded but wearing very different expressions upon their faces. Questing gray eyes flickered constantly within one, but the eyes within the other stared resolutely ahead, resigned to their fate. Jak stood just around from Abduul and if his perpetual grin had not entirely disappeared, it had most certainly faded. Next was Azella, her enigmatic cloak pulled tightly about her. She seemed to be shivering within its folds and even the hood was slightly raised although its severe pointed end still trailed down her back. The cloak had assumed the dull gray of its surroundings and for once seemed to be a thing of substance rather than the ephemeral product of an uncertain imagination. Ravenkar too was in one of his more substantial poses, standing up straight with both hands gripping the top of his staff. His own hood was flung back and his pipe emerged horizontally from his mouth, belching out a constant stream of noxious fumes. Instead of thinning and trailing off behind the stern of the Kraken, the fumes were coagulating and hanging there stubbornly as an amorphous dense blanket, much in the same fashion as any clouds that strayed into the Wetlands. As an added benefit they hung at head height so that his companions could share in their dubious pleasures. Shamul, closing the circle, pondered upon that now, wondering if he could adopt the lower squatting position of the brothers with any degree of comfort. But soon his attention was elsewhere; the harsh voice of Nûrgal demanded that it be so.

‘Look toward my face, all of you, and gaze upon that which threatens us all!’ So saying he began to turn, slowly, and as he did so, the very fabric of the air about him seemed to tear. Into the resultant fissures poured the smoke from Ravenkar’s pipe and it seemed that even the sodden air about them rushed in to fill the void. Leaden primordial mists enveloped them.

 

Those eddying mists still played about the corpses: battered mutilated corpses that were strewn everywhere upon the blood-stained turf. A cloaked figure was surveying the scene, monstrous spear in hand. Slowly it turned, even as Nûrgal had turned, and all in the circle reeled back. Before them a skeletal aberration stood, iridescent skin wrapped loosely about it, violet impassive eyes glowering forth. Within those eyes burned a terrible intelligence.

 

Not a word was spoken. The rustling of wings was no longer about them, but all other sounds were amplified: the lapping of the water against the Kraken’s hull; the falling rain against the canopy. Nûrgal’s hand disappeared into the folds of his cape. It reemerged as a clenched fist. With an uncharacteristic display of melodrama he allowed each metal-encased finger to uncurl, one after another. Lying within his upturned palm were eleven tiny capsules, ornate and delicate.

‘Within each capsule that you see is a potion: the juice of the red lotus, thrice refined, blended with dread widowsbane, whose potency Jak can already testify to.

‘I offer these up not for your pleasure, should you perchance require release from the everyday pressures of life. Release they will most certainly bring, but it will be a release from which you might well not awaken. I talk of eternal release, for they will deaden your mind and take you to within a heartbeat of that enigmatic state. Then, if your bodies are not soon recovered, most assuredly shall you roam down its ample corridors.

‘I offer these up instead for that fearful moment when you are confronted by the Eidola and any effort towards escape is futile. As they reach out to you, bite down upon these pretty little containers. Do not hesitate, for then there will be no release! Torment without end will be your only fate. Set this within your mind. Think on it again and again until you have resolved to do it, for there must be no hesitation.

‘And one further warning. The creatures may not confront you in the guise you have just witnessed for they have the capacity to insinuate themselves into any sentient form and manipulate it. Beware of all strangers! Initially there will be tell-tale signs, but as the days pass and they become ever more familiar with the bodies they have usurped, those signs will disappear.

‘The bodies of the sea creatures, or “Mnemnar” as they were once called, were designed to function primarily at the great depths that exist within the oceans beyond Isladoron. When they ventured onto land, which was rarely, their movements were invariably awkward and this of course is a problem for the Eidola too. If they are ensconced within our bodies however, that problem will gradually disappear.’

‘The “Mnemnar” you say, Ultima? I wonder, what were they like?’ Sadness tinged Azella’s words.

Nûrgal looked directly at her for a while. ‘It is good that you ask, daughter of Joel, more especially after the images you have just witnessed. They were a sleek and handsome race and in the time of the Duidarra there was undoubtedly contact with them, although once again, records are scant. You would all do well to remember that they are not the enemy. That particular abomination lies within them; a malignancy that has stripped them of all dignity and consigned their souls to the shores of madness. The same malignancy that has utilized their physical forms yet simultaneously allowed them to deteriorate, so that they are now manifest as mere parodies of their former selves. It is right that you should feel pity, but do not let that pity cloud your judgment. The fate of the Mnemnar will be your fate also should you not avail yourselves of these capsules.’

 

The makeshift raft was low in the water, due largely to the metallic nature of much of its cargo. Five bobbing figures clung idly to it, treading water and waiting. Four watched the dull outline of the Kraken disappearing into the murk, as she headed out into the open water of the strait; the fifth, Jonjon, did not allow himself such a luxury. Jonjon’s full attention was focused on a rickety wooden structure protruding from the reeds, as he waited expectantly for Gôpinda’s signal.

Just before Gôpinda had slipped over the Kraken’s rail and into the water he had taken Jonjon to one side and spoken with him. ‘Something is already amiss. The birds are there. Yes, yes, they are undoubtedly there! I sense it. But they do not call out to one another and this is of great concern to me.’

He had then startled Jonjon by going from speech to birdsong and back to speech without so much as a pause for breath.

‘That was the call of the Great Reed warbler,’ he had asserted. ‘But then I am sure that you knew that already, yes, yes?’ he had continued, grinning. ‘And I am sure that you thought it to be just a smidgeon lower and slower than it should have been; that it deviated from perfection, yes? Indeed I thought it to be advisable to differentiate from the birdsong itself, but now I am thinking that if there is no birdsong, why bother, hmm?’

A faraway look had come into the eyes of Gôpinda at that moment. ‘No birdsong. My, oh my. Normally their calls range far and wide, but not today Jonjon, not today. And that, I think, is good for us, for when you hear a call you will know it is me, even though your instincts will tell you otherwise. “Surely a mere mortal cannot mimic a bird so?” That is what you will ask yourself, yet know it to be true.’

And without further ado he had gone.

So Jonjon waited now and even as the Kraken faded completely from view, he heard it. A single call, as promised.

It required no more than a few concerted leg thrusts to reach the jetty and although Gôpinda was nowhere to be seen the brothers hauled themselves up onto its rotting timbers, eyeing each other uneasily as it swayed alarmingly from side to side. A staggering collection of weaponry was then transferred from the raft to an assortment of belts, clips, sheathes and hidden pockets. The five small bags that remained were full of gold coins and each of the brothers took one.

Jonjon was surprised that his brothers were so quiet in such close proximity to such a large amount of money, but said nothing, merely watching as they pushed the raft back out into the strait. As one, they contemplated its receding outline, lost in their own thoughts.

Their forlorn attitudes complemented the mournful air that clung to the place. Warm drizzle slanted down from the russet-gray sky of a drab morning, its insidious droplets seeping behind every fiber of clothing on their backs, somehow more intrusive than the waters from which they had just emerged. The resonant incessant pattering subdued all other sounds save that of the susurrant breeze through the surrounding reeds. It wasn’t just mournful; it was eerie and mournful.

They turned to find a figure confronting them. It was dressed in an old leather waistcoat, a rather effeminate pair of leggings and an odd pair of metallic sandals. There had been no warning of Gôpinda’s approach.

‘Mmm,’ was his only comment as he came up to them and started to tighten straps and make minute adjustments. Both Koto and Kenryu carried a short sword and for both of them it was purely a secondary weapon. Nevertheless Gôpinda insisted that they carry it in similar fashion to his own, bound and strapped across their backs to eliminate any unnecessary sound. He also meticulously examined the pair of finely balanced axes and short stabbing spear that Kono favored, together with the miscellany of close-quarter weapons that the other four preferred. Nothing escaped his trained eye. When he was finally satisfied he gave each of them a two-handed slap about the shoulders.

‘And now we go. Yes, yes, we go,’ he hissed.

Thus it was, with Gôpinda at their head, that they began their tentative foray into the Wetlands. The sodden timbers of the jetty protested but meekly as they passed by and indeed their early progress went largely untroubled, save for a single point of concern.

The brothers hailed from a wary people: to the west were the Shungareg, forcing them up against the redoubtable Atlâks; to the east, they were ever susceptible to incursions from the unpredictable Jâlregs. This, naturally enough, had imbued them with an innate sense of caution, but when set aside the actions of their guide, this inbred restraint seemed more akin to a frivolous outpouring of reckless abandon. After a short while they could not but help share occasional sidelong glances of concern at Gôpinda’s behavior, which at times exhibited distinct traits of paranoia.

Although the solemn swaying curtain of reeds pressing in on either side scarcely promoted a relaxed demeanor, he was prancing along on tip-toe over the mossy wooden planks with nervous cat-like motions. He was about fifty paces to the fore and had insisted that the distance should be maintained, unless that should mean he was lost to sight. His head rotated very deliberately from side to side and every so often his right hand would reach up to finger the hilt of the huge sword that hung diagonally across his back in a padded scabbard. On occasion he would raise a hand, indicating that he wanted them all to stop, and then dart off to one side in a threatening manner, only to return and wave them all on again. And so it continued.

Morning had passed into midday and still the relentless drizzle fell. Gôpinda had made constant assurances to the effect that this was a good thing as it kept the insects at bay; the others however were not so sure as they strove to wipe congealing dust from their smarting eyes. Yet this was not an insurmountable problem, and no one was too downcast, for even at their present guarded pace they would reach the mouth of the Sunga by late afternoon, when they would pass into more elevated terrain. There was a tacit assumption that such elevated terrain would be more accommodating, although not one of them could have given a reason for that assumption had they been pressed, as only Gôpinda had trodden these seldom used paths before. In much the same way, any one of them would have had difficulty explaining away the low whispers that passed between them; even had they chosen to shout, the intense rain would surely have blanketed out the noise.

Something about this was nagging at Riako and he began to lag slightly behind his brothers. It was as though an unseen force was imposing its will upon them, insisting that they should maintain a respectful silence. Familiar instincts began to stir within him as his eyes strayed up yet another watery ramification, causing his imagination to stray also, wondering where it might once have led. Just then the curtain of cattails at its end was drawn aside and he was looking out over a large lagoon. At its center nestled a structure that had about it an air of permanence, unusual for the Wetlands. More fragile dwellings, most with conical thatched roofs, were clustered around the shore on slender stilts. Fishing nets hung from the stilts and reed canoes bobbed gently below. Smoke coiled lazily from holes in the roofs and the cries of children at play carried to him across the water.

All of this he perceived in the time that it takes for a cattail to sway one way and then the other, in the pull of a gentle breeze. He stood, startled, waiting for the village to reappear, but as the reeds parted again all that was visible was a brackish lake, overgrown and bereft of life.

He was disturbed from his reverie by the sound of hammering and when he looked along the jetty he realized that the others were now well ahead. They were skirting by an old man who was seated by a small pile of timber, obviously repairing an area of wooden slats. His boat was moored below. So intent were his brothers in negotiating this tortuous portion of the walkway that they did not even acknowledge the man, even when they were past. As Riako approached, a wizened sunburnt face turned up to greet him. A gap-toothed grin was revealed beneath the edge of a flat wide-brimmed straw hat. The voice, when it came, was clear and strong, contradicting the slight frame from which it emerged.

‘I have been waiting for you, my friend. I have been waiting for what has not been an inconsiderable length of time.’

‘For me?’ stammered Riako. ‘But I do not even know you!’

‘Nor I you,’ came the response. ‘Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “for one such as you”. And you are only just in time, I might add. The delyrium that was placed within me is fading fast.’

‘Delyrium within you?’

‘Ah, yes. It is so. But that is a tale for another time. As for now, you must let me introduce myself. I am called Huàn. It is by no means all that there is to my name, but it will suffice.’

‘And I am Riako.’

Huàn’s eyebrows lifted in surprise beneath the brim of his hat, although he did not betray the reason for his surprise. ‘Well then, we are well met Riako, and having met I must now ask you to accompany me to a special place.’

Riako was not caught entirely off-guard by the request but he nevertheless feigned a certain discomfort. ‘Is it important that I come with you? Why must I come with you?’

‘I have something to give to you, of course. A gift. It may be nothing and it may be something, but who can say? Nevertheless, it was deemed important enough to create it, which was no easy task I suspect. And when I was awoken, it was deemed important enough to sustain me by means most dubious for these last lonely years, so that I might give it to one such as you, should you pass this way.’

‘But where are we going? How long will this take? I must put this to Gôpinda, to my brothers.’ Even as he uttered this, a half-smile played across Riako’s mouth as he recalled Azella’s last words to him before he had clambered overboard to join his brothers in the water. Words meant for his ears alone.

‘Ah, where to begin?’ came Huàn’s enigmatic reply. ‘The place we go to is but a short journey from here, yet few can ever find it. The cattails, you understand? Each looks very much like its neighbor. They can be arranged to conceal such a place; its boundaries are there, it is just that they are ill-defined, fashioned to confuse. An enchanted clearing within a forest, or a lagoon within a wetland: is there really much difference? A place of power, where the world as you know it has been distorted to accommodate a world more familiar to others.’

‘Might I enquire as to who you are talking to, Riako? I know it is not yourself, for you are not angry enough.’ It was the subdued voice of Jonjon that addressed him now. So intent had he been on his new acquaintance, he had failed to notice the others returning.

‘I am talking to Huàn, dear brother.’ Riako’s words trailed slowly away and a look of resignation filtered across his face as he recognized a familiar pattern unfolding. His brothers were unaware of Huàn’s presence.

Jonjon had assumed an uncompromising stance in front of him, feet planted firmly apart and arms folded. His eyebrows had adopted arched positions and asked the question that his mouth had no need to voice.

‘He is a native of these parts, Jonjon,’ said Riako, looking skywards, ‘and he would very much like me to go somewhere with him. He has a gift for me.’

When Jonjon simply glared back at him, a more imploring tone came into Riako’s voice. ‘I feel this is important, dear brother.’

Gôpinda now entered the discussion, his frustration clearly evident. ‘We have no time for this, Jonjon. No time, no time, no time at all! We must make the mouth of the Sunga as soon as possible. Indeed we must! Time is most assuredly of the essence. Three days I have allotted to our task and three days it must be. Understand please that I know something is apparent to your brother, something that is most certainly not apparent to the rest of us. Even I, yes, yes, yes, even I, have known him long enough not to dismiss this out of hand, no indeed. But let us suppose that he should return with something that may be of advantage to us, the loss of time we will suffer will more than offset that advantage. Indeed it will.’

‘What can I say to him, Huàn?’ Desperation began to edge its way into Riako’s manner.

‘I have no desire to trade, my new friend, but needs must, I suppose. Tell Gôpinda that you will return in the blink of an eye and that when you return you will bear tidings of Dol Kathra, if that is what he seeks.’

‘Dol Kathra, but …’

In the time it would allegedly take for Riako to complete his journey, a gleaming arc of steel had traversed the intervening distance between Gôpinda’s scabbard and the younger man’s throat. The startled brothers had no time to react and Jonjon’s steadying hand arrested any hastily conceived ideas.

Gôpinda’s voice had changed. It was low and measured and threatening. ‘Do pardon the aggression, friend Riako, but this sword is as much to protect you as to do you harm. Here it will remain whilst I assess the situation. Assimilate. Yes, yes! Could you perchance put yourself in my position? Infinitely preferable I think, so not too difficult.

‘You are conversing with a phantom, a figment no less; and during this conversation you happen upon something that is dear to my heart. Yes, yes? No, no! An obsession of mine? Hmm, closer. My reason for being? Yes, yes! That would be it! So now, what am I to think, dear Riako? Do you play with my mind? Do you taunt me perhaps?’

The rain thrummed down onto the jetty and the waters beneath; a thousand ripples had merged before Gôpinda resumed. ‘The sweet fruits of life have ripened and gone sour upon me. Yes, yes! Do not argue for I know it to be so. I look unkindly upon my fellow man. First I act and then I question. Often I do not even question, for I do not care. So why then do I now hesitate, Riako? Can you tell me? Hmm? What is it that our figment has to say of Dol Kathra? How can he even know that she is my life?’

Before Riako could force the question out between his parched lips, Huàn had answered. ‘No apologies suffice my friend, for I should have seen the extent of Gôpinda’s burden. In order to gain his confidence, simply tell him that I know the alloy from which his sandals are cast; it is produced only here, in the Wetlands, and its price is inestimable. None save the Taksumnai hoard it and their hoard is suitably small. They shape it into such sandals as he wears and present them to their best; those precious few who excel under their teachings. One such will emerge perchance every two or three years and receive his prize at a clandestine ceremony of ill-repute.

‘The ceremony is “Kathul Xalkhuital” or literally, “Night of the Awakening”. Tell him that, for it is forbidden knowledge about which you could not possibly know. If that does not suffice, tell him also that the enigma that is Dol Kathra’s fate is known to many, but there are few I think who can shed any light upon it. Yes? Well, I would be one of the few.’

Riako was braver than most. He had to be, given some of the visions that came to him. However the speed of Gôpinda’s action had sorely tested his resolve and with death pressed against his throat, only a strangled series of exclamations emerged, ‘Cer… ceremony, Gôpinda. Kath… Kath… Kathul Xalkhuital!’

The eyes of the warrior instantly narrowed in contemplation. ‘There was no mention of time. Was there? No, no, I think not. Well then, friend Riako, how long for this little journey, hmm? How long will it take?’

‘But an instant,’ came the reply.

Jonjon closed his eyes and prepared to meet his gods. At least Riako would be able to make the introductions.

But Gôpinda seemed to flow in reverse as his sword found its way back into the scabbard and he assumed a cross-legged sitting position upon the jetty, his palms turned upward and outward. ‘Then pray, why do you delay? Yes, yes indeed! Away with you and your well-informed acquaintance!’

And before the disbelieving gazes of his five companions, Riako lowered himself between the overhanging cattails and disappeared.

 

Huàn knelt in the front of the canoe, his paddle dipping this side then that, encouraging it through the thinning reeds. As they passed languorously into the mirror-smooth waters of a lagoon, Riako knew it to be the same lagoon he had viewed earlier from the jetty. All was lifeless now though. No children, no nets, no smoke. The drizzle added to the overall gloom and Riako had within him the unshakeable conviction that the power was dissipating from this place. It was fading and would soon be gone. There was wreathed about it an ambience of unutterable sadness.

Huàn was intent on taking them out into the center of the lagoon for it was there, at its heart, that a settlement lay: five thatched dwellings upon tall stilts, forming the points of a pentagonal complex. Each was framed as an upturned cylinder supporting a conical roof and they were interlinked by a perimeter walkway. Other walkways led from each of these corners to a central sixth structure, much larger than its neighbors, but similar in outline.

It did not take long to reach the complex and with a dexterity that was surprising for one so old, Huàn moored the canoe and stepped across onto the bottom rung of an adjacent ladder. Riako stumbled along the length of the rolling boat and grasped at the same ladder, to find that Huàn was already at the top and looking down at him. A bony hand reached down and clutched reassuringly at his own, to draw him upwards onto a tightly bound reed platform. Huàn was indeed more than an apparition. The question had been germinating in Riako’s mind, almost unnoticed.

From where he was standing now he could see clearly all around the lagoon. Its perimeter was marked by a succession of abandoned dwellings, low and long. He knew they were abandoned because of the gaping holes in their roofs and walls and the collapsed sections of the landings that had once encircled them.

Only at the far end of the lagoon was the pattern interrupted. It was there that a flat peninsula of land intruded, its flanks plagued by a myriad of tiny reed-infested islands. Upon this peninsula was a cluster of odd stone structures.

They passed directly from the platform into the nearest of the thatched structures. It was obviously where Huàn lived. Wicker shields and bronze spears were attached to the walls, telling Riako what he had already instinctively known: this, and the other corner structures, had been watchtowers. A charcoal fire burned low in a central grate, its embers glowing with renewed vigor as the old man crossed behind to roll up a full-length slatted blind, which served as a second door; a door that accessed one of the internal walkways that led to the larger structure at the core of the village. Having secured the blind he then motioned for Riako to follow him.

‘Take care my friend, for it is not often that I go where we go now, to the temple. The walkway is intact but it will be treacherous.’

Even as they emerged, the drizzle changed to a driving downpour and all sound was extinguished, save the howling of a rising wind and the creaking of slender timbers beneath their feet. Huàn’s tread was light over the lichen covered planks, but not so Riako’s, who had to cling for dear life to the rotting mangrove branches that were the only handrails along the length of the walkway. Despite the rain, he could see and smell neglect all around: dark holes in thatch and the putrefying stench of fibrous decay. As he looked further afield it became apparent that this was the only walkway left intact. Elsewhere, flimsy ropes were all that spanned between the elevated structures of the Rhymrron, whilst the few wooden treads still in evidence coiled down ignominiously into the waters of the lagoon.

Huàn had stopped. He had reached the end of the walkway. Before him was not a slatted blind but a heavy wooden door. It was obvious that its iron-bound timbers had not been procured locally. The huge beams that angled up into the conical roof were of similar origin and at that close distance thick copper plates could be seen spanning across them, beneath the sparse thatching. The same thatching had been carried down over wall panels that were almost as intimidating as the door. The supporting floor was hidden beneath dense reed matting but its beams rested on extremely sturdy piles, all too evident through the gaping holes in the walkway. These merely reinforced the impression that here abided a structure that predated the more flimsy accoutrements that surrounded it and shielded it from view.

Upon the door, in carved relief, was a huge lizard: a salamander Riako fancied. He had never seen a salamander up to six spans in length, but he suspected such a creature would not be out of place in the Wetlands. The teeming rivulets that streamed across it, around it, magnified its faded colors and imbued it with a life of its own.

He stood there, entranced. It was a carving, wasn’t it; an inanimate thing of wood? Surely it hadn’t just moved? He reasoned that it must have been the chaotic passage of water across the creature’s skin that had confused him. Skin! What was he thinking? And yet he was sure that the colors had become more vibrant even in the time it had taken for these unnerving questions to pass through his head.

He was struck now by the symmetry of the salamander’s body and as soon as that symmetry had imposed itself, the pattern was immediately obvious: five symbolic points, the watchtowers, highlighted by the darker markings on the amphibian’s snout and feet. He knew, without looking, that the snout was directly aligned with the one watchtower he couldn’t see from his present position, the watchtower directly behind the temple, and that the feet represented the other four watchtowers. Darker markings? When had they materialized?

The door swung noiselessly inwards.

And closed behind them so that they were in darkness. The rain continued to pound down outside but it was dull now, and distant.

Huàn’s voice came to him, but that too was from far away, floating to him across a void. ‘There are several villages like this, Riako, scattered across the Wetlands, but all have fallen into disrepair since the “poison”. A few years is a long time in such territory and the reeds are quick to claim back what is theirs. The other villages did not survive because they did not have an edifice such as this at their core, wherein can be accessed the source of the energy that conceals this lagoon from the outside world, that makes it a place of power. Even here, the legacy of the Rhymrron is fading fast, but I say to you now, there are elements of our culture that are more durable than the dwellings we build.

‘Do not wait for your eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness, for that I’m afraid would take many cycles. Suffice to know that you need feel no fear, for you are one of the few to whom this place would extend a welcome. This is the “Temple of the Salamander” and under its hallowed roof many secrets lie.

‘The salamander is a creature of the fire, Riako, and we in the swamp are very reliant upon fire. Charcoal flames warm our bones and our food. Their fiery heat smelts the bronze for which we are renowned, the bronze which journeys the length and breadth of the continent.

‘But let me tell you now, Riako, that not all of the copper and tin at our disposal is used to fashion trinkets. A tiny part, the purest of each, is kept aside for another purpose entirely, a purpose of infinitely greater importance: those metals are used to bind together the “disc”.’

An uncontrollable shiver passed down Riako’s spine.

‘Yes, Riako. I see that you know of it, but perhaps by another name? Do you feel it before you? Its warped thrumming power is all around; ready to eclipse anything that might challenge it. The energy at its heart has the same source as my own, and yet is its polar opposite. But it is identical in every way to that which drives the Eidola. Dêlyrium. I wonder, can you sense it?’

Huàn’s voice seemed yet more distant. ‘“Come hither, for now is the time,” it is written. “One hundred passes has Iambos made and strange electrum must once again be forged, from gold and silver, copper and tin. But here it is recorded, lest we forget, so too must a fifth be added. Under favorable aspect of sun and moon should it be merged, that white metal, that metal of demons, that metal unnamed.”’

Huàn paused to draw breath but this did not bring his voice any closer. In fact his next words could scarce be heard. ‘And yet it is not this that I offer you!’

It was as though a hammer blow had been struck and the words were its aftermath, echoing around the chamber.

‘But I cannot return without it,’ stammered Riako, all pretense cast to the winds. ‘I dare not return without it.’ He felt Huàn’s bony hand land upon the back of his neck.

‘Calm yourself, Riako, and listen to what I have to say. I will tell it from the beginning and I will tell it quickly.

‘In the region of Tak Pôraka, there is a custodian of evil. If that is where you are bound, then beware! It came down from the north, to the valley above Dol Kathra, whereupon it released its poison. A cloud of death rolled over that fair city and settled upon the river that is its pride. Almost a whim! The city was simply too close to its lair. Some within its walls may have known of secret ways; hidden trails traversing Tak Pôraka and leading to forbidden places.

‘Thus the poison sank into the headwaters of the Sunga and from that moment on, by malign design, the people of the Wetlands, like those of Dol Kathra, were doomed. The tainted water flowed past the forest of Dirrid Arborra and ever southward. Jîngapur was spared for the river runs fast there and the people do not use it overly much for drinking purposes. Beyond Jîngapur it slows again as the Sunga Delta draws ever nearer.

‘At the last it poured from the Sunga’s mouth and into the Wetlands: an area which filters the river, which takes from it its nutrients, its poisons, all the particles it has accumulated on its long journey south; an area which purifies the river before it flows into the strait. But of course this was no normal poison. In a matter of days the fate of the Rhymrron was sealed.’

‘And yet here you are,’ said Riako, stating the obvious.

‘The initial effects were not pleasant,’ Huàn continued on as though Riako had not spoken, ‘but at least death arrived quickly for most. Having seen so much death around me, I did not expect to awaken as the fever drew me into unconsciousness. And yet I did.

‘At the moment of my stirring I did not know where I was and nor did I care, for I was consumed by terror. It was stood over me you see, looking down at me.’

‘It?’ countered Riako, not really sure if he wanted an answer to his abrupt question.

‘I could not discern its face, only the purple shroud that hung about it. It spoke to me, but not in the usual manner. Its words came inside my head, yet I cannot remember exactly what was said. All that I know is what I must do and why I must do it. And of course, what you must now do.’

‘What I must do?’ said Riako, quelling an incipient annoyance at the brevity of his questions.

‘Yes, Riako, you are the key,’ came the reply. ‘I have something to offer to you, but only if you are the individual to whom it should be offered, and the temple will discern whether that is so. If you are indeed that individual, then it will tell you where we must look.’

‘You mean that you have a gift for me, but you do not know where it is?’ said Riako, barely able to keep the frustration out of his voice.

‘Oh, I know where it is, it is just that I do not know how to get there,’ was Huàn’s phlegmatic response and before Riako could question him further, the old man had grabbed his hands with surprising force and was thrusting them upwards.

‘Can you sense where the disc is, Riako? You can sense it, yes, vibrating there? Now, bring your palms in upon it, from either side. That’s it!’

There was a brief crackling of energy, like blue lightning viewed from an immense distance, and Riako was in a different place.

It was raining. Of course. But the rain here was louder and more immediate, more urgent. He was in a place of stone, an enclosure; its circular wall was blackened and the rain poured in through a hole above. No, it was a window of sorts. And there, to his left, an arched opening. A door, possibly.  What was this place? It was so dark, so difficult to see. A sound distracted him from below. He looked down.

The floor was of uniform drabness and blackened, like the wall, but in the center was a raised portion; a hearth? The elements, notably the rain, had kept its surface relatively free from the blight that had discolored the rest of the enclosure. In fact, only one thing marred the bland expanse of that surface and it was a dark rectangular line at his feet. It was pencil thin and precise and within its bounds he now realized that a different substance had been confined. He had missed the subtle striations at first. And certainly that! What? It was maddeningly elusive. But then it was forgotten as a dark expanding rectangle appeared within the dark rectangular line; eventually filled it. A trapdoor.

But where was he?

The faraway thrumming of the rain now told him he was back in the temple. But there was another sound. Scraping. A series of dull thuds. Where was it coming from?

Huàn was looking directly at him, a look of expectancy on his face. ‘Well then Riako, what is it to be? Do we know where we are going?’

‘I saw a trapdoor Huàn. A trapdoor. But I know not where. So dark.’ Riako uttered these words as though in a trance. ‘My palms are burning, Huàn. They are burning. I feel a weakness creeping up on me.’

With that, the old man ushered Riako towards the door, which swung noiselessly outwards.

And closed behind them.

Had they both made their way back to the watchtower at that moment, eager for respite from the driving rain, then all may have been lost. But something had occurred, and such happenings create subtle vibrations all of their own. They demand attention, albeit in a much understated manner. So they did not make their way back along the walkway. Instead, they both turned.

Rain still streamed over the salamander but the patterns of its flow had changed. They had changed because the salamander was no longer where it had been. It had turned. It had adopted a new position upon the door.

Riako began to tremble, but approached the door nonetheless. Now it was as though the falling rain was leaching all vitality from the creature. Gone was the translucent sheen of the skin, but even as he watched it fade his eyes became fixed upon the dark markings of its extremities. No sooner had he fixed their positions within his mind than they too had disappeared.

Both men stood there, transfixed. Both men stood there, lost in their own thoughts. Both men stood there, just a little afraid.

Eventually, a very thin smile forced its way onto Riako’s features. Tentatively, he reached out and stroked the wooden carving of the salamander. ‘I think Huàn that somewhere else in this lagoon six structures lie, with one central and five about it? Am I right, Huàn? Oh, yes, I think I am right!’

 

Huàn knelt now in the back of the canoe, talking as he paddled, clearly intent on taking them to that jutting peninsula on the far side of the lagoon. Despite the rain, Riako could hear him clearly as he spoke. There was bitterness in his words; bitterness at what had happened to his people.

‘Nothing is certain in these times. Who can predict the patterns of the seas or the winds after such a heavenly tumult? And so, who would be the first to arrive on our fragile shore? Would it be the Eidola or those who seek Môgrodôth?

‘You are astute, Riako. I am sure you have discerned all is not as it might be; that the power in this place is waning. It wanes slowly, almost imperceptibly to such as us, but nevertheless it is not what it once was. Of course, some power remains and even now your companions are unable to overcome its subtle suggestions and manipulations. You however have the ability to do so, as do the Eidola who are attuned in similar fashion; know in passing though that neither you nor the Eidola will be able to uncover the majority of Khanju’s hidden places. But I digress.

‘Even today did I watch as two of the Eidola passed close by. They sensed the lagoon, that much I know, for I saw their heads turn. But something was driving them on and they did not pursue the dictates of their senses.’

Riako clutched at the torch they had hastily plucked from Huàn’s watchtower; clutched at it till his knuckles were white. Nausea threatened to overwhelm him. He said nothing and simply stared straight ahead, waiting for it to subside.

‘Such is fate. A little to the south and nothing would have distracted them. They would have been drawn to the temple by the artifact within; by the dêlyrium that is bound to it. And yet, that would still have been acceptable, for in their elation, in their haste, they would not perchance have perceived that something else lurked hidden in the lagoon, something of far greater import.’

‘Something else, you say? That which we now seek?’

‘That is correct, Riako. A secret to be concealed at any cost. And at this point are the dire connivances of the purple one exposed, for who could possibly reveal this secret? Why, only the captured mind of one of the Rhymrron elders, or perhaps that of an aspiring acolyte; an unsuspecting soul who had overhead something not meant for his tender ears. But nothing would be revealed Riako, would it? Not if those whose minds we contemplate were lying dead with poison festering in their veins, eh, eh?

‘Yet if they do not stumble directly upon it, the Eidola will inevitably seek this place out. They will learn of it from those poor unfortunates in Jîngapur or Pak Lak who stray into their malign orbit. They will learn of a “powerful artifact” hidden by the Rhymrron in the Wetlands. By that time they may be more thorough in their approach, not so easily deflected, but by that time it will be too late, for the secret, the one that matters, will hopefully have gone and you, Riako, will have taken it.’

For a while Huàn became more intent on paddling than talking and the peninsula drew ever closer. A ramped landing lay on its far side but he took the more direct route and soon the keel of the canoe was grinding over a rough shingle beach that lay concealed behind a tall islet of reeds. A short flight of worn earth steps took them up onto a fragmented stone pathway and it was but a brief walk from there into the utilitarian heart of the lagoon.

Riako could now see at close quarters the odd structures he had viewed only from afar. Immediately he was reminded of oversized bee skeps, except that these were constructed from stone and mortar rather than straw. He knew immediately that this was the place.

Five of the structures, each about twice his height and probably half as wide as that again, formed a pentagonal perimeter, although the paths linking them were set out differently to the elevated walkways surrounding the temple. Here, there was no perimeter path; each structure was connected to the two farthest away from it. The paths formed a perfect pentagram and the sixth structure, much larger than the others and in a better state of repair, sat within the central pentagon formed by those paths.

‘These were our charcoal kilns,’ said Huàn. ‘The central kiln was ceremonial. It was where the special wood was burned for the forging of the disc: the disc in the temple. Most of our wood came from the forests at the base of the Sungara Escarpment but that wood was rafted down from Dirrid Arborra. This spit of land we stand upon, where the kilns are set, merges with one of the few islands within the Wetlands. That iron tower you see stands at its center. It was the main forge. About it are set the other forges, or what is left of them. It is there that many metals were smelted and where the bronzework, so beloved by my people, was fashioned.’

They stood now before the copper door of the ceremonial kiln. Huàn reached out to touch its ornate surface but Riako grasped his hand. ‘I do not think that would be wise. Something warns me that complex enchantments are in place at this moment and that we must seek out our goal by the most direct route.’

Huàn merely nodded in sad agreement.

The intricately wrought salamander upon the temple door had left Riako in no doubt as to his bearings and he turned slowly, in clockwise fashion until he faced directly down a path leading to one of the four kilns he could actually see. He turned again, until a second path confronted him and slowly, he began to walk. It was towards this location that the salamander’s snout had been last turned.

At the end of the path they stooped through a low doorway and entered the kiln located there. The open trapdoor was immediately visible. They turned and smiled grimly at each other.

‘So, it seems that you might claim your prize after all, my friend,’ said Huàn, stooping down. He motioned for Riako to lower the torch and, taking its wax-soaked hessian end in one hand, he struck a flint against the raised portion of the floor with the other. The resulting flame did nothing to dispel the dark shadowy gloom of the place; it did however illuminate a steep flight of steps heading down into the darkness.

Riako was glad of the torch; its light was not all-pervading but at least it revealed the treacherous moss that was lying in wait for them and which had appeared after only eight or nine steps. Though these steps and the lining on the walls were of marble, it was obvious that the path they now trod was normally below water and that even as the trapdoor had been triggered, so must the water have started to drain from the chamber. The moss slowed their progress and it was a long way down. Riako, in his eagerness, nearly elected to take the quick route on a number of occasions, but Huàn was always there to grab hold of him and stop him falling. In fact, it was Huàn who finally stumbled, losing his concentration on the final step as he peered ahead into the blackness to see what lay ahead. It was not what they had expected, neither though was it a total surprise, and they stood there for a while, pondering their next move.

A rectangular pool stretched out before them and the three walls that flanked it reached upward to a low roof just within the scope of their meager light. A stark choice now confronted them because none of those walls revealed an obvious exit. They could return whence they had come, or they could lower themselves into the water below and make their way towards the opposite wall where the dim outline of a submerged channel appeared to offer a way forward. Hope was still with them however for they could see that the water level continued to fall.

 

‘It is at its lowest ebb, I fear,’ said Huàn. For a long time they had been watching the receding water intently, willing it down to the bottom of the channel, but to no avail. Although it had sunk to a steady level, that level was a mere arms length below the roof of the channel.

‘At least we can keep the torch dry,’ muttered Riako. ‘Do you suppose we will have to swim? I cannot see the bottom, but in this light that is hardly surprising.’

Even as he said the words, Riako was handing the torch to Huàn and lowering himself into the water. He breathed a sigh of relief as his feet encountered the bottom, even if the water was at the level of his armpits; and freezing cold. He took back the torch and helped Huàn into the water. Was it his imagination or did the old man suddenly seem a lot frailer?

It was not to be a pleasant experience. As they passed underneath the roof of the channel Riako found that his body was already adjusting to the cold, which pleased him, but almost immediately he realized that it was not going to be the cold that stalked him; it was to be fear. Irrational fear. His vision beneath the heights of Diadonnara was still with him and at any moment he expected to see the twin fins of Ikthra Ikthra slicing through the water towards him.

Of course, such an event did not transpire; it was doubtful that an adult devil fish could even fit into such a channel. But it made for a long walk, and to keep himself sane as he waded through the claustrophobic passage Riako had elected to count the number of his elongated steps. He was nearing a hundred when a sharp horizontal edge appeared up ahead, at the periphery of his vision, and then a patina of reflected light on a wall beyond. He turned to Huàn who nodded his head and grinned in encouragement.

But when they emerged into the next chamber, it was far from encouraging. Four sheer walls reared up around them, disappearing into obscurity above. No portal beckoned; nor a stair, nor a ladder, nor even a handhold.

Frustration urged Riako onwards and it was then that he felt the floor beneath his feet give way. Slightly. Had he imagined it?

A sound came to them then; the unmistakable sound of rushing water. It was remote, but definite. They stood there with faces upturned, fearful but expectant.

It was only when the water began to lap about their necks that they realized just what was happening and that there was to be no immediate inundation. Reluctantly they allowed their feet to rise up beneath them and watched as the channel they had just exited became fully submerged. They paddled resolutely as the water rose inexorably up the shaft and tried to remain calm, for both knew that panic was their foe. But as the water around them became deeper and deeper, neither could keep a certain desperation from their movements. Where was this to end?

The torchlight flickered haphazardly around the four walls as they were borne upwards but another light had intruded now. The fact that it was constant was a comfort, but there was little else about it to provide succor. There was an icy tinge to it that chilled the soul and nothing happened to soften its glow as they drew ever nearer to its beckoning rays.

It ended at the lip of a cavern. The cavern was about the same height as the central kiln had been, but much wider. Riako had no difficulty rolling onto its damp apron but he had to drag Huàn from the water. The old man looked utterly spent and knelt on the hard rock floor, gasping, for what seemed to be an eternity.

While Huàn recovered, Riako sat facing out over the now still water, thinking it strange that the cavern’s harsh light barely illuminated the walls of the shaft. It was then, when he was lost in thought, that a palpable feeling of dread swept across him and the hairs at the nape of his neck began to stand on end. He spun around, djammba in hand, ready to strike.

‘Aha! You sense it too,’ wheezed Huàn. ‘I was warned that we would not find this place to our liking. This is where the Stone Tree resides and matters are not so passive here as they are within the shadowy lair of the salamander. This is part temple, part tomb, wherein spirits good and evil consort. It is a place both sacred and profane; nothing mundane lingers here long.’

As Riako advanced into the cavern his torch flared and died, leaving him to ponder yet further on the cold radiance about him. It passed through his mind that it was akin to being imprisoned in a pale sapphire, but that thought was quickly put to one side as the intensity of the light increased. And then he could see it.

It sprouted from a hillock at the center of a tarn – that particular word came to mind because it rekindled memories of those small lakes, always called tarns, that lay gouged into the high valleys of the Atlâks; dark, cold and deep.

It did indeed bear the hallmarks of a tree, a petrified tree, a thing of stone. Its uppermost boughs pressed hard against the cavern roof and made their way back down the walls, reminding him of a weeping willow. But rather than conveying a sense of confinement, the scene suggested something entirely more alarming to him. To him, the tree was pressing vigorously upward and outward in an unremitting assault on the enclosure that sought to contain it. Even as he watched, tiny shards of rock plummeted from the roof to join their brethren on the steep slopes of the hillock.

‘I assume our way lies across this bridge?’ said Riako almost despairingly, not really requiring an answer.

Huàn did not provide one.

Roots big and small burrowed into the hillock. One however splayed outwards, across the tarn, before disappearing into the bedrock amidst a confusion of cracks and fissures. Into its writhing form had been carved a succession of irregular stairs. Riako set foot upon it now, with Huàn in close attendance.

‘Be ready, my friend. First we must pass through the tomb. Many spirits reside there, although most are at peace.’

Huàn’s words didn’t register immediately with Riako, who was staring into the placid inky blackness beneath them, but they did insinuate themselves when the stairs passed up into the mammoth root system beneath the bole of the tree. Here, a small vault had been formed by the closely entwined roots and there was an audible sigh as they walked inside such as he had heard when standing amidst the kilns at the edge of the lagoon, as the wind had wended its way through the nearby reeds.

After that, silence.

The floor they stood upon was like sand, except that the grains were colorless, almost transparent. At its center was a tiny pool and at the pool’s center was a small crystal, elongated and upright; it looked almost like a dark sliver of glass. Every so often it shimmered and a ripple would pass across the pool, across the carpet of grains, to wash up against the roots of the tree. Riako scarcely felt the energy as it journeyed beneath his feet, but knew fine well what it was. As he tracked the ever-widening circumference of the next ripple he made a discovery.

‘Spirits you say. I do not think that these are spirits!’

Two bodies lay entombed there, one directly to his right and the other to his left. They lay on ornate stone slabs with their heads towards the center of the chamber and their legs disappearing into the more substantial roots that formed the walls. Each was enveloped in a tracery of minute stems that left exposed only hands and a face; upon those faces were expressions of sublime contentment.

‘It is Rhythred and Frithya, the last of our people. The purple one spared them, not out of any benevolence on his part, more out of necessity. Should the great cycle recur then so must the Rhymrron be reborn. So must the tale of myth and magic be retold.’

‘She is so … beautiful,’ said Riako softly, looking down at the benign face to his right.

‘Beautiful, yes, but we must not linger here!’ Huàn’s voice was hoarse but urgent, and he began to drag Riako towards the stairs at the far side of the chamber.

‘Easy my friend, easy,’ said Riako. ‘I am with you.’

‘Forgive me, Riako, but my time draws nigh and there is yet one thing that you must do.’

The stair emerged from the roots and rose in a gentle curve towards the bole of the tree, where it ended. The two men made their way slowly up there to stand before a round indentation in the stone bark of the bole. Huàn reached out and brushed his hand across it. The indentation was deep and its diameter slightly less than the length of his forearm. At its base it ascribed a perfect circle, and within that circle had been etched the most mesmerizing of designs. Essentially it was a pentagram within a ring of stylized flames and within the pentagram, within its central pentagon, lay curled a salamander.

‘It is here that the disc is placed after each new forging, so that it might be sealed with the energy you have just encountered, that flows into the ancient roots. Here it remains for one complete cycle of Iambos before it is removed to the temple.’

‘And it is there now, Huàn, not here. In any event, you wish to give me something else. Is that not so? And, I think, there is only one place left to go.’

Riako was looking at an ethereal silvered trail that spiraled upwards and around the main trunk. He hadn’t noticed it before. Huàn raised his eyebrows and smiled.

Seven or eight steep steps took him to the far side where he discovered a vertical series of handholds hewn into the stone. They were outlined in the same uncertain fashion as the trail. He began to climb.

It was where the trunk began to narrow appreciably that he found it. Another circular indentation, hidden from below by the inward slope.  But something sat within this indentation. A filigree of blue energy crackled across its metallic surface, which was unadorned, save for a single feature nestled at its center: a salamander again, but delicate this time, exquisite.

‘Behold, the “Electrax”.’ Huàn’s voice drifted up from below.

‘But how can that be? What then languishes in the temple?’ The questions rolled slowly and quietly from Riako’s mouth. His eyes never left the Electrax.

‘You are the first to stand there in four thousand years, my friend, other than the purple one,’ came Huàn’s reply. ‘That is how often the route you have just followed becomes apparent. In any event, to ascend the tree is an act of utter blasphemy for the elders of the Rhymrron. They forge their disc, they seal it and then they place it in the temple. And it has power, make no mistake. Nevertheless, it is not the original, for that has been forged but once and cannot be subjected to the vagaries and weaknesses of men. The creature that forged it placed it there, as surely as he placed Rhythred and Frithya in the tomb. It was placed there even as my people lay dying. So take it Riako and remember always the price that was paid.’

With trembling hand Riako reached towards the Electrax. The instant his fingers touched its glistening metal, the field of energy across it subsided and instead, surged up the bole of the tree and into its boughs. The entire chamber began to tremble and rock fragments began to rain down upon them.

‘Conceal it and do not look upon it again until you have need of it. You must pay heed to these words.’ Huàn’s voice only just carried over the discord that raged all around.

Riako, like his brothers, had many hidden pockets; pockets within pockets. He chose one now within the leather vest that was snug against his skin. The disc was only a span across but bigger than the throwing stars he normally concealed there, so he had to force it inside. He completed the task by securing a wafer-thin studded flap that was sewn across the top of the pocket and then made his way carefully back down to where Huàn stood waiting. They exchanged brief strained smiles and then ran.

He was through the tomb and almost down to the bridge before he became aware that Huàn was not with him. He stopped then and slowly turned. That earlier feeling of dread had returned. With deliberate steps he went back to the tomb, oblivious to the falling debris. He saw Huàn immediately. He sat midway between the far exit and the slab upon which Rhythred lay. His back was propped against the wall and his legs were tucked up against his chest.

‘Alas, I will not be going with you, Riako.’ Huàn’s words came out as a strangled whisper. ‘Do not grieve for me. This was always meant to be the way of it. Go now! The water falls down the shaft, even as we speak.’

But Riako did not go. Instead, he held Huàn’s hand. He continued to hold it even though he had to watch in muted horror as minute tendrils emerged from the stone roots and slithered insidiously across Huàn’s body. He continued to hold it even as the ground shook ever more violently about him. Only when he was sure that the old man had taken his last breath did he let go.

He walked slowly from the tomb and across the bridge. He determined then that he would never forget Huàn’s fate nor that of his people, the Rhymrron. He also determined that he would never forget exactly who was responsible.

He stepped out from the lip of the cavern with scarce a downward glance.

 

*

 

Both pairs of eyes opened simultaneously. Gone was the contentment within which they had basked.

What was this place? Where was this place? Was this death or a new beginning?

But as the tremors eased, so too did the concerns. Eyelids grew heavy and contentment stole back upon the scene.

 

*

 

Azella thought once more of Imrhad as her toes curled around the smooth shingle and the shallow water washed over her bare feet. She had removed her boots, not because of any desire to preserve them, but rather as a symbolic gesture. This was fabled Khanju of which she had heard so much and she wanted to feel its earth beneath her feet; or at the very least some of the rounded pebbles that littered one of its beaches.

She hoped Imrhad was at peace. The ominous low cliffs that she would forever associate with his death were almost upon her now. Their weathered forms had assumed yet more guises under such close examination, but memories of that fateful day would not allow her mind to indulge itself. The realization hit her then that such memories were threatening to overwhelm her and so she tried to banish them by focusing on her immediate predicament.

 

Other than this little bay, she knew that there were very few places to effect a landing upon the northern shores of the Inner Sea. The shallow shelf at this western corner had allowed muddy detritus from the Sunga to build up in the lee of Diadonnara and thus the Wetlands had formed. Then, tucked right up against the headland, was this shingle beach. The beach marked the start of the cliffs, whose pockmarked facade rose swiftly, swept around the cape and journeyed on for many leagues. Not until it encountered the Spine was it finally spent. The harsh seaward face of the Spine, that impervious upwelling of dolerite which virtually split the entire island into two, surrendered in turn to the Mountains of Mor, whose towering cliffs went on to flank the northern side of Cold Chasm. Like its companion, the Winding Strait, this bleak waterway did not afford a particularly attractive route to the Outer Seas.

She allowed all of this to struggle fitfully through her mind as she waded ashore, her body angled down towards the beach to counteract the tugging water. She was light on her feet when the situation demanded it and was just congratulating herself on maintaining  a fair degree of poise in such difficult circumstances when Abduul danced past her, an ornate casket in the crook of one arm and a rolled up canvas tent in the other. She could only look on in jealous bewilderment and tentatively followed him across the shingle to the base of the cliff, where her companions awaited.

As Azella sat down to dry her feet and pull her boots back on, it occurred to her that most of their supplies and equipment had already been expertly bundled into backpacks. She noticed, with some amusement, that a small one had even been allocated to Ravenkar. Her own was about the same size. Looking along the rest it seemed that Shamul would be the first to carry the infamous casket, as his pack was still open and an empty space had been left at the top.

Ravenkar, Jak and Nimrakhál were taking it in turns to reach into a black jar that Shamul had passed on to them. On Gôpinda’s strict instructions they were applying a gluey resinous dye to all the exposed parts of their anatomies. Also in accordance with his instructions, they applied it sparingly and with the utmost care; he had been concerned that any spilt drops might betray their landing place. They too had their concerns, but these centered more on the abject smell of the stuff, rather than any overzealous application. It was gradually to transpire though that its reek was a small price to pay. In the ambient light of that early morning its color was a dirty turquoise, but once it had dried it caused each of them to fade alarmingly into the background.

Azella reached down without hesitation towards the jar as Nimrakhál offered it to her. Recalling Gôpinda’s advice she scooped only a tiny dollop of the pungent camouflage into her palm.

‘Just a smidgeon, dear lady, that is all, yes, yes,’ he had said. ‘After all, you have your cloak, which I suggest you do not remove. No, no, no! Now,’ and he had wagged an admonishing finger at the black jar, ‘might I suggest just a flash, to be administered lightly beneath each eye? Water will not easily remove it you see, hmmm. Obviously a major advantage with regard to your friends here, yes? But not with you I think, dear lady, not with you.’ He had concluded his little speech with a bow and a magnanimous sweeping gesture of the arm.

She continued to think of Gôpinda as she procured a tiny mirror from her cloak and sat down between Jak and Ravenkar. She smiled to herself as she fashioned a pair of lightning bolts beneath her eyes. Thoughts of the guide faded though as she tuned in to the hurried whispers of the group around her: Shamul fussing like a mother hen with the good men and true who would pilot his beloved Kraken back to Djebal Doron; the others, about to embark on a journey into the unknown, their banter ranging from good-natured to bad-tempered and all kept afloat by a bladderful of sarcasm, notably from Ravenkar.

A shadowy figure ended all that as it drifted into the center of proceedings and clapped its hands. The sound reverberated around the enclosed beach and instantly, there was quiet.

‘I would ask that you all take one last look at the casket before you and reflect again upon its importance.’ The Ultima did not appear to be speaking to anyone in particular, but each one in that gathering felt as though they were being addressed on an individual basis; as though the words were meant for their ears alone.

A prolonged silence followed which none dared to break, so that finally it was the Ultima who spoke again. ‘But now I think that the time for words has passed. Only brave deeds will suffice hereafter. So begone with you! Into the wilds of Khanju you must pass, whilst I return to more familiar territory.’ And with that he clasped his scaly cape about him and strode imperiously towards the shoreline and the waiting dinghy.

Only six souls remained on that stony strip to watch him go, each a little surprised that he had bothered with the dinghy.

 

*

 

Riako hauled himself back up onto the jetty, almost causing a startled Kono to topple backwards into the water. Only Gôpinda had sensed his imminent return, but his only warning to the others had been a sullen raising of the eyebrows. He remained seated now as Riako breathlessly launched into his tale. He was amazed, like the brothers, that there was a tale to tell, for to all of them it seemed that its teller had been gone no longer than it takes an eye to blink.

Of course, when the tale had run its course, the brothers wanted to see the disc. Or at least Koto, Kono and Kenryu wanted to see the disc; Jonjon was slightly more circumspect.

‘No, my friends!’ Gôpinda was having none of it. ‘Let your brother keep this “Electrax” hidden and let us be about our task, more especially if the Eidola are close at hand. No one wishes to see, or indeed possess, this strange disc more than I, especially if it would lead me to its creator, the despicable “purple one”. But it was given to Riako and I think it best that he keeps it hidden. Hidden, yes indeed! These items are meant to be cared for by such as Riako. In the hands of others, others such as ourselves – noble of course, yet prone to brief moments of almost indiscernible weakness – such items might have a habit of “slipping the leash”, so to speak. Yes, yes, and once lost, to reappear in the hands of others; others like Riako but not so, hmm, how can I put it? Ah, yes, yes indeed! Others not so benevolent!’

So saying he strode off down the jetty, but barely had he gone twenty paces before that curious cat-like gait was once more apparent. The five brothers followed, keeping their distance as instructed. Each had one eye on Gôpinda, but the other habitually wandered off into the distance where the mouth of the Sunga awaited, together with an evening meal and shelter if they were lucky. And an end to the Wetlands, which were wholly living up to their name.

 

*

 

They had barely strayed from their dormant state all day, basking there in the fetid water. So silent and unassuming had they been that even the marsh birds had tentatively returned to the vicinity. But then, at that nebulous time when afternoon was passing into something later, when chill breezes were pricking at the bloated wet warmth of the day, they made their move. Amidst a flurry of spray and a scattering of confused screeching birds, they hauled their revitalized bodies onto the bank, merged stealthily with the shadows and set off inland.

It had been an impulsive decision and one which they were to regret after no more than a few dozen paces. The cloud had hung all day over the poisoned Wetlands, like a bandage over a festering sore. Once beyond its protective swathe however they were immediately confronted by sunnier climes, where, from their perspective, a blistering red orb hung low in a mackerel sky. They were now constantly coerced into raising webbed claws to deflect its searing rays, for it would be some time yet before their eyes could automatically adjust, even to this dwindling light of day. Eventually though, to their undisguised relief, the Khir Highlands gained their glittering prize and the Eidola faded into the darkness.

 

*

 

Gôpinda missed very little. He had heard the birds scattering before he had caught sight of them. They were well off as yet but he made a mental note to tread with extreme caution in that particular vicinity. He gauged the area of the disturbance to be more or less coincident with the end of the jetty, where it would deposit them onto the boundary of the Wetlands and thence into the sprawling delta of the Sunga. He estimated that another hour or so should see them there.

It transpired that he was not far wrong. In actual fact, just over an hour had passed by the time Gôpinda found himself leaping down from the jetty onto the tree-strewn bank that marked the end of the Wetlands. He motioned for the others to stay where they were before he took up a position in the middle of the wooden debris there and lapsed into an apparent state of catatonia.

He was listening – listening to the lapping of the water, the wind in the cattails, the rustling of dying leaves, the warbling of the birds and the buzz of the insects. Progressively down the scale he went, through the spinning of webs and the burrowing of minute tunnels, until finally he was attuned to the land itself; its every vibration. And he knew then that something was amiss.

The brothers were all experienced trackers, a talent that Gôpinda would now put to good use. He sectioned off the immediate area and conveyed to them all, in no uncertain terms, the danger that he suspected to be close at hand. He asked them to recall the image conjured forth by the Ultima aboard the Kraken and simply observed as their layers of fatigue rapidly peeled away. When he thought they were ready, he motioned them forward and assumed a central position where he could keep his eyes on all of them simultaneously. Then, with deliberate slowness, he drew his sword from its protective scabbard. It was a statement of intent.

It was not long before Kenryu raised the alarm. His section was the furthest inland. If the search had not been instigated the tracks he was now pointing at would have gone unnoticed. He did not have to say anything by way of explanation. The creatures had been careful, but not careful enough; the blinding sun had been their undoing.

A long avenue of undergrowth stretched away into the distance. Leading into its shadowy lee were two sets of claw prints. They were embedded into a small patch of muddy ground and emanated from a blanket of dead leaves at the head of a toppled trunk, which the creatures had obviously used to try and mask their emergence from the marshes.

The prints were well-defined. The heel indentations were roughly human in size, maybe slightly larger, and they were five-clawed, with an indication of webbing. But it was the size of those claws that was disturbing. The trackers discussed for a while whether they were retractable, like those of a cat, but came to no definite conclusion; they were at least a little heartened by the fact that the creatures had erred, although that did open up the possibility that the Eidola were so confident of their supremacy that leaving tracks was not a concern.

‘Do they know of our little expedition?’ Kenryu could not quell the nervous inflection in his voice.

‘I think not,’ replied Jonjon. ‘They search for their beloved Stone, as the Ultima suggested they would, and these two have been lucky. Do we track them and dispose of them, Gôpinda?’ He turned towards Gôpinda as he asked this and so did not see the startled expressions of disbelief on the faces of his brothers. Gôpinda did, and grinned.

‘No, Jonjon, no, no. Eager though your brothers appear to be to accompany you on such a noble undertaking, I think not. The Ultima is of the opinion that the creatures can communicate with each other over distance, albeit briefly. They can see into each other’s mind, yes? Do not forget that they are essentially of one mind, yes? I fear therefore that any “disposal” would have to be carried out with almost impossible alacrity, yes, yes? So now I think that the chase will soon be on, Jonjon, but we, not they, will be the quarry.’

He placed his hands upon the other man’s shoulders, rather in the way of Jonjon himself when reasoning with Riako. ‘You are fierce and proud and brave, Jonjon, but you are not foolhardy. Do not forget the nature of our would-be hunters, nor how numerous they are. You are also cunning, Jonjon. Yes, but yes! I know this to be a fact. Do not forget that we will have need of that cunning as the net tightens about us. And finally, you are a wanderer, Jonjon, as am I. Is that not so? Indeed yes! Why do I even ask this question? Your brothers follow you, but who do you follow, Jonjon? What do you follow? What is it that you seek? Hmm, hmm?’

When no response was forthcoming, Gôpinda continued, regardless. ‘I shall tell you Jonjon. I think that you seek a purpose. I think that you seek something that will make your life meaningful, yes? Am I right? Of course I am right! And might I suggest that a purpose has just presented itself, Jonjon? Oh my, yes indeed!’

At this juncture Gôpinda did a very strange thing indeed. He released Jonjon’s shoulders, propelled himself full circle with minute shuffling movements of his sandaled feet, and thence resumed his tirade. ‘We go to the north and beyond, my friend. Do you not wish to see beyond? “Beyond”, Jonjon. The word stirs up something even in my cynical bedeviled soul. Now that the culprit has been exposed, now that I know the truth behind the demise of my beloved Dol Kathra, I can see a new horizon stirring beyond her glorious spires. At last I would like to see “beyond”.’

‘Yes, Gôpinda,’ came the smiling reply. And the smile was genuine and a glistening malevolence shone once again in Jonjon’s eyes.

 

*

 

Shamul paused at the stone bridge and looked back down the track. They had found the cut-back in the cliffs behind the beach. It was exactly where Gôpinda had said it would be. It had been steep and riddled with scree, but not too difficult to climb. He suspected more hazardous paths lay in wait. They had pushed on from there at a reasonable pace.

Time was on their side for the moment. It was Gôpinda and the brothers who had the more urgent schedule. For now, his main concern was to reach the rendezvous point undetected by prying eyes.

The area they had been trekking through all day was a safe haven in the riotous sea of vegetation that sprawled across southern Khanju. It was effectively isolated by the Sungara Escarpment and had been spared the worst excesses of the jungle flora further to the east. It was bedecked in the main by thick grasses, rowan trees and ferns; ferns that grew almost as large as the trees. Admirable cover, especially when complemented by the odious camouflage they had applied on the beach. Even when the sun had been directly overhead he had suffered occasional difficulties in locating everyone.

The bridge was the first evidence of civilization they had encountered, albeit of very basic construction. Its short span carried the track over the turbulent waters of the Ang, as they plunged down to join with the Sunga. Water drained down the slopes of the Sungara Escarpment into the Ang, which itself sprang from a remote tarn at the head of the escarpment. The Ang would be their companion until the third day, when they would rendezvous with Gôpinda at its headwaters.

The escarpment now rose steeply before them and as Shamul crossed the bridge he could just trace the outline of the track as it skirted the tumbling stream. Away from the track, off to his right, was a thin stand of silver fir trees, much more prominent now they had gained some height. He looked back at the sun; it was still relatively high in the sky but he was only too well aware how soon it would disappear behind the Highlands. He walked over to the trees and made his decision instantly. Behind was an inviting depression that sloped gently down to the base of the rock wall. They would even be able to light a small fire there; probably one of their last. He signaled his intent to make camp.

 

It had been good to be able to drink some of the exotic tea that Ravenkar had insisted they bring with them. He had been most persuasive about its restorative properties and it did not take up much room in their packs. It made a welcome accompaniment to the dried meat and fruit that would be their staple diet for the days to come. After drinking it, all of them had fallen into a deep sleep, barring Nimrakhál, who had volunteered to take the first watch. On Ravenkar’s instructions, he had just taken a few sips of the heady brew.

None of the small tents that they carried had been unpacked, for the heat of the fire lingered there in the hollow, even though it had only been allowed to burn until the water from the stream had boiled. Nimrakhál’s eyes stared out from his keffiyeh, restless as always, although he sat with the stillness of one who had dwelt for many years in the desert. He looked at the sleeping forms huddled around the dying embers and wondered briefly whether to extinguish the fire completely. He decided against it, not wanting to give away his position by the trees.

 

*

 

One represented the natural order of things. Not two.

The White was constrained by a formidable edifice of stone, its lumbering architecture laced with the protective mortar that only a visionary science could provide.

The Black was constrained by a thinning blanket of aged necromancy.

It was just a matter of time until the natural order of things was restored.

Troughs of turbulence still radiated from the troubled facets of the dark Stone as it sought out its companion. Its probing was constant, insidious, until finally, success! It had ruptured its weakening captor! A subtle, almost indiscernible shift, but a weakening nevertheless. Yet before it could compound the damage a replenishing salve of delyrium flowed into the breach, as it was meant to, and all was well. However, it was not quite an instantaneous compensation.

 

*

 

It was like a thunderclap. The embers of the fire disappeared and a wave of warm air rolled over Nimrakhál. The sound echoed around the hollow and reverberated against the rock wall of the escarpment.

 

*

 

It was well into the night and once out of the Wetlands their progress had been good. But suddenly, they stopped. And they looked at each other. It had stolen upon them without warning and just as swiftly had been gone. Slitted eyes met to confirm that it had ever existed and if such creatures could possibly have smiled, they would surely have smiled then.

Oh, it had been so brief, yet they had both detected it! A moment so very fleeting that they had even doubted its arrival and its passing. As hungry mouths squeezed the last drops of blood from the meager prey they had snagged to sustain their flagging energies, Scar-on-the-Cheek and Twisted Neck lay down to absorb the dank coolness of their surroundings and allowed their minds to meander into those of their brethren who were close enough to allow such empathy.

Many were feasting better than they and animal parts littered the limited shroud of vision that such contact provided; the two probing psyches lingered jealously on the vacant eyes of several land dwellers and the remains of their dismembered bodies, heaped in the corner of an abandoned stone hall. Yet some feasted as they did, on whatever scraps were available.

But to all, the replenishment of energy supplies was now of secondary importance as at the forefront of their collective consciousness they held aloft an elusive moment that would surely have slipped from their grasp had it not been of such import; that had been so ethereal it would surely have escaped their notice had it not hinted at the absolute focus of their malicious plotting.

Within its miniscule span, the pain of untold centuries had momentarily been assuaged; a soothing balm had washed over them only to recede almost before their receptive shudders had exposed its presence. There could be no doubt as to the source of that balm, only as to its whereabouts.

 

HERE ENDS THE FIRST VOLUME