Already fine red particles were beginning to drift down through the upper atmosphere. Down they fell, with ever increasing intensity, until even the ubiquitous ocean strained to mask their insidious presence. The multitude of small islands scattered haphazardly throughout its watery embrace had already succumbed.
Only a lonely pyramid of land remained defiant amongst that limitless oceanic expanse. A fractured continent with power at its hub; power that had been nurtured for just such an eventuality as this.
Isladoron. Born a single mass only to be rent asunder by ancient cataclysms, its core vulnerable in those formative days and unable to prevent the ocean from pouring in along three great ruptures. Three arteries leading to a flooded heart; three straits feeding an inner sea. Where they began, at the encircling ocean, they were flanked by shifting sands that burrowed beneath the incoming waves. Where they ended, at the encircled sea, they were flanked by perpendicular cliffs that supported the very sky.
Such is the divisive nature of all sentient beings across the cosmos that three islands were thus formed, rather than a single shattered tract. Khanju was deemed to lie to the north, Isla Khâl to the southeast and Isla Khir to the southwest. But strangely, there was a fourth isle too.
At the confluence of the three straits, embedded within the great caldera that resided there, was a towering pinnacle of rock. And upon this rock, this fourth isle, indeed around it and within it, was Djebal Doron.
Djebal Doron, mystical and ensorcelled “City of the Stone” whose power held sway over the entire continent, nurturing it or subjugating it, depending upon the perspective sought. Glittering proof that the lessons of history were soon forgotten, their legacy curtailed by the pressing desires and future expectations of a grasping populace. For few in that city recalled the ultimate purpose of the enigmatic artifact in their midst, the source of the power that even now sheltered them from the clogging residue of an interstellar intruder; fewer still recalled the malignant forces residing in the deeps that encircled their continent, forces that would see it destroyed and absorbed back into their cold black domain.
Dusk was now falling about Djebal Doron and with it came a dense mist, rising from the placid sea like steam from a simmering cauldron, enveloping the web of harbor wharves, submerging the quayside taverns and warehouses, slithering up the steeply sloping cobbled streets and into the Merchant’s Circle. There it mingled with tree guarded avenues, ever more acute, curled around flower adorned archways and sent tendrils snaking hesitantly through the multitude of minarets that sprang from manicured lawns and marbled plazas like ornamental candles. Soon these too were doused as the shroud billowed upward.
Only at the citadel did it halt, dismayed perchance at the prospect of scaling vertical walls of solid granite and confronting the splendor therein. It rose instead in labored fashion to a barrier of bulbous amber lanterns that circled the citadel’s perimeter. From afar the lanterns were radiant with the allure of exotic delights, an allure that totally belied the nature of their immediate supports: the tapering iron jaws of mythical beasts, elongated heads cantilevering out from the stonework like an array of grim trophies. The mist was content to swirl wistfully in this ambient orange glow, far below the overhanging parapets.
Here then was the palace and above it, the temple. From a distance they appeared to be as one; as though hewn and sculptured to form a single impregnable monolith. But a closer inspection would reveal two markedly different structures.
A gaunt pyramid represented the temple, one wall facing north toward Khanju, another eastward toward Isla Khâl, a third westward toward Isla Khir and the fourth southward, over the Inner Sea toward the Great Strait. All the walls possessed a glazed sheen to them, intensifying almost imperceptibly into an eerie white radiance as darkness descended. There was little in the way of welcome from this illumination and indeed none of the walls betrayed any sign of a portal.
Of the palace only the top floor was visible, yet how it mesmerized the eye. Subtle blends of polished stone and shadow intermingled, highlighting engravings and statues that portrayed denizens of a foregone era, their bejeweled eyes staring forth, intrigued by all about them, their gazes constantly shifting in flickering torchlight. Walls, now curving, now straight; vaulted ceilings scarcely visible tapering down to passages and halls of claustrophobic intensity; alleyways meandering aimlessly and ending abruptly; colonnades with no beams to uphold. Yet if the roving eye paused not for detail but instead pulled back and viewed with casual focus, a continuity became manifest that molded the apparent disarray into a preconceived elegance. Below it was also thus. A maze of halls and passageways wended their way down, deep into the core of the pinnacle …
It was in one such subterranean hall that Typhon X, lord and master of an entire continent, sat brooding. Only one passageway led down to this hall and only one man other than Typhon was aware of its existence. That man currently approached, his breathing measured and shallow, despite the stale air that permeated these depths.
The hall was not large, nevertheless its corners were swathed in darkness, for the only light was provided by a pile of logs crackling venomously in the stone fireplace. Shadows danced gleefully on the low ceiling and on the rich green velvet drapes that hung down over walls of bare rock. They did not reflect Typhon’s mood however. His brow was furrowed and sweat glistened there. Glazed eyes stared intently ahead. He had been drinking. Wine still trickled slowly down his moustache and into his beard, thence following a well defined path down onto his tunic, staining the fabric a deep red. Gnarled hands gripped the wooden arms of his seat. He did not stir as curtains parted and a figure appeared, silhouetted against the dimly lit corridor behind.
‘Enter, Nûrgal y Naimon.’ Typhon’s voice was slurred but this could not disguise a certain apprehension.
The figure strode confidently forward to stand in the center of the hall. It remained a silhouette, for this was the Shaman Ultima and his rank demanded that his garb be black, not that he would have had it otherwise. With gauntleted hands he grasped the extremities of his scaly cloak and drew it about him.
Typhon’s drooping head jerked upward, as in one who is striving to delay beckoning sleep. Indeed that luxury visited him only fitfully these days. With eyebrows raised he surveyed the cocoon before him and attempted to stare regally into the shaman’s eyes, thus to disconcert him. His gaze found no resting place on the mask before him. Intently he searched for some hint of the true features beneath yet none could he discern. The mask had been fashioned by a craftsman of a former dynasty: so fine as to resemble a layer of soot, yet so unyielding as to vanquish any whims of the flesh beneath; mouth curled malignantly down at the corners, nostrils above flattened and wrathfully flared; ears fan-like, their ribs pressed back against the head; eyes – but what of the eyes? No glimmer of firelight played within their forbidding boundaries, not even a shadow stalked their vacuous territories. Inside their arcane vaults only impenetrable blackness resided.
Typhon addressed the floor.
‘Well Ultima, speak to me if you would. Tell me of this infernal red dust that plagues our shores and the star that so kindly illuminates it for our benefit.’ The master of all Isladoron shifted his bulky frame uneasily in his chair. The chair creaked uneasily beneath him.
‘The two phenomena are obviously linked, lord.’ The words were delivered in a dull monotone.
‘Would you care to enlarge upon that, dark one?’ Typhon’s words could barely be discerned, uttered as they were through clenched teeth.
‘Not as yet, lord,’ came the laconic reply. ‘Not until I have more information to hand. However I believe the culprit to be a comet rather than a star. It is but a single day since I stood upon the Beachlands to witness its effects: the sky was a deeper red and tracks of bloodied weed littered the sand; the sea was a poisoned blue and its waves and currents seemed to surge with energy anew.’
Silence prevailed. Typhon knew better than to ask how such a journey to the western shores of Khir might be possible, being well versed in the abilities of his chief advisor, and so he hauled himself from his chair to stand before the fire, with arms outstretched to the mantelpiece. He stood there for a long time, as though lost in reverie, before the logs eased their position and a flurry of sparks reawakened him.
‘Are any of these happenings referred to in the Libraries?’
‘I have made a thorough search, lord,’ replied Nûrgal, ‘back to the first of our recorded volumes, but all I can unearth are hints and vague references.’
‘But as you know,’ Typhon continued, ‘even those volumes do not establish our true beginnings. Many of my advisors are now suggesting that the answers we require may be buried…’ and here his voice became almost a whisper, as though reluctant to continue, ‘… in a certain collection of chronicles.’
Familiar ground was being covered here and the seething retort was not altogether unexpected. ‘Yes lord, but you must remember that it is I who serves as your chief advisor and in my humble opinion, whilst those chronicles remain beyond our reach, speculation as to their contents will not benefit us in the slightest.’
At this stage, as always in their dealings, Typhon’s initial apprehension began to abate when confronted by the Ultima’s forceful assertions. ‘Nevertheless, they appear to be the oldest volumes in Djebal Doron, do they not? Nor do they sit neatly catalogued within our Libraries, but skulk instead beneath the inner recesses of the temple, do they not? And they are guarded by a maze of iron, stone and necromancy, are they not? Would you have me believe, Nûrgal, that this demented predecessor of yours decided upon such a location merely to conceal a child’s fairy tale?’
Nûrgal, as always, remained undeterred by the sarcasm. ‘You present supposition lord, not definitive proof. A number of volumes in the Libraries date back to a very early age; to a time in fact when Djebal Doron was just beginning to establish itself. Because the Chronicles of Arish-Tâ appear to predate even those venerable publications, there may be some credence to your argument; however I would state once again that until we are able to penetrate the maze in which they are housed, such speculation is pointless.’
‘And where do we stand with regard to that little conundrum?’ Typhon almost spat out the words in frustration.
‘To begin with,’ came the reply, ‘your previous assertion regarding Arish-Tâ’s state of mind – it must be put into perspective. He was, let us not forget, Shaman Ultima during our city’s First Dynasty. Can I suggest that in those dim distant days priorities were not as now? That such priorities were more spiritual than material and that patterns of thought took on an entirely different aspect?’
‘The inference was, Nûrgal, that all who hold your position are somewhat unbalanced. I was not singling out Arish-Tâ as a unique case.’ This uttered in as disdainful a tone as Typhon could muster.
Nûrgal continued, undismayed. ‘Firstly, let us remember that Arish-Tâ himself was not responsible for creating the maze. He merely placed the chronicles within its custody. Its actual instigator was cunning indeed, for the sorcery that guards it emanates from the Stone itself; I have already been subjected to its potency and know that something yet to be uncovered must actuate a route through its defenses, otherwise the contents of the chronicles would forever remain a mystery.
‘It is of a wild and grotesque nature. Superficially it changes constantly, but upon entering the maze an intruder must seek out the current which flows beneath. To succeed in this, the mind must be ordered; it must be capable of rapid analysis and structured response. A madman might have the capacity for inspired spontaneity, but such is not the way in the maze. He would simply succumb.’
Typhon pulled thoughtfully on his beard. ‘Perhaps, just this once, you could dispense with your talent for “structured response” and indulge me with idle speculation regarding the contents of the chronicles? And I implore you – do not embellish your answer with fanciful phrases and cryptic ambiguities as is the manner of my other advisors when confronted with subjects about which they know little.’
There was scarcely a pause before Nûrgal answered.
‘I believe they contain a message.’
This time there was a distinct pause, an extremely long pause, while Typhon smoldered and fumed but finally gave vent to his rage by merely hissing through his teeth. He had suffered enough at the hands of advisors for one day but was reluctant to provoke the man who stood before him. It was an uneasy alliance between then at best although they generally worked toward similar agendas. Nevertheless the answering sarcasm exceeded the normal bounds of dialogue between them.
‘Of course. A message. A simple communication of such elevated genius that a mere scroll cannot be used to set it down upon. And can it share a bookshelf alongside the greatest literary, scientific and historical works that our civilization can provide? But no! It must reside in hallowed isolation such that men must risk death to reach it. Of course – why had I not deduced this before!’
The black mask came up with a start and Typhon’s eyes widened reflexively. ‘I must beg your leave, lord. There is a matter which requires my immediate attention.’
Typhon reached beneath his chair to produce a flagon of prodigious proportions. His steady hand did not betray the quickening of his heart. ‘Do not leave on my account, sorcerer. My temper is simply testament to the inadequacies of your fellow advisors.’
‘Truly, lord, this is a matter of some urgency.’
‘You may of course go, Nûrgal, though I fear these matters will return to haunt us in the days to come.’
A swirl of darkness and the shaman had departed.
Typhon did not partake immediately of the pitch red wine in his grasp but instead stared intently into the fire, seeking inspiration. When none came he drank and as he drank so he reflected upon what had just transpired. Had he almost apologized? What a novel experience that would have been! But he had to be careful in his dealings with Nûrgal, for instinct told him that he would soon have dire need of the Ultima’s insight. He could not treat him as he treated others; as the harsh dictates of his office often demanded he should treat others. Courtesy was always his first approach but he was never long in dispensing with it should his patience be tried. Yet the shaman had seemed almost indifferent; as though matters of even greater import preyed upon his mind …
Nûrgal returned via a myriad of climbing passages and spiraling steps to the palace courtyard, thence up the ostentatious White Stairway to the south face of the temple. It was possible to avoid this circuitous external route and ascend directly into the base of the temple, but that way required concentration and currently his thoughts were collected elsewhere.
Night had overtaken Djebal Doron and just as the brilliance of a star is accentuated by gathering darkness, so had the escalating sheen of the walls merged into an amplified halo around the temple. As Nûrgal traversed the platform that marked the summit of the stairway his gaze appeared to assume material form, like a bloom of iridescent breath into the cold night air, but denser and more focused. Without pause he approached the temple wall and as he did so the portion directly before him began to lose its enhanced luster and then dissipate, as it was enveloped in that spectral glare cast by his mask. Whilst gloomy interior enveloped the trespassing shadow, it reformed, leaving no trace of any breach.
Inside, pace unaltered, Nûrgal continued his way along a broad low-roofed tunnel, rising gradually toward a faint beckoning glow at the far end. This was the only light source along the entire passageway and so virtual darkness had engulfed him from the moment he had entered. As he progressed onward however, the smooth arched wall began to mirror the sparse light and his form cast a dim shadow on its surface. His billowing cloak betrayed a steady breeze and gave the impression that he floated, rather than walked, up the tunnel. His noiseless tread on the glassy floor did little to belie the effect.
A ponderous weight of masonry now hung above him and waves of energy were beginning to course and ripple through its mass. To the uninitiated this writhing display of unfettered power would be cause for fear; to Nûrgal it was merely a diversion.
He briefly registered two archways approaching, branching off to either side of the tunnel. Their dark innards hid steeply angled stairways; to the left he could descend to the second gallery and to the right he could ascend to the upper gallery, his intended destination. He had often marveled that the ancient architects had been able to construct the complex passageways within such a confining structure, but such thoughts did not intrude today. He swept past the junction with scarce a glance, having determined to access the more expeditious route to the upper gallery.
At the point where the tunnel ended, where stone became pure energy, Nûrgal did not even break stride and stepped without hesitation into the hollow cone that marked the core of the temple.
Manipulating his cloak like some grotesque bird he maneuvered into the swirling updraft of air that clung to the periphery of the cone. Within this updraft raw fuel was drawn up from where it bubbled and seethed from the center of the Inner Sea caldera; this “essence” was siphoned through the bedrock of Djebal Doron into the vacuum that nestled just beneath the Stone itself, at the temple’s apex.
But the shaman’s attention, as always, was fixed on the very center of the cone, where a single filament descended; such was the immense scale of the temple that the filament appeared to be no more than a slender gossamer thread. But that thread inflamed the cone with its characteristic bloodshot radiance and pulsed with venom, despite the fact it was but an unused by-product, a residual fraction of the mysterious dense energy that the Stone procured to power itself and to facilitate its arcane processes.
Arcane and alien, like the term of reference used in the most ancient texts for that energy. “Delyrium” was a much simplified corruption of the term which itself had been, at best, an approximation to the original.
All of this floated imperceptibly within Nûrgal’s mind, below the more esoteric knowledge he was bringing to the surface and forging to his will. But something else had inserted itself and snagged at his perception. He felt that it had always been there, but only now had it come to the fore. Was this some ancient element of collective memory that had intruded and if so, was it peculiar to his shamanic bloodline?
Whatever the answer to that question he now sensed, knew even, that some external force was intermittently exerting its will upon the Stone above; but what was the nature of that force? No matter, he could not allow himself the luxury of random thought at this juncture. It would soon be time for ritual to assert itself, for he had to ascend into the very chamber that housed the Stone. This he rarely did and in times past there had been time to prepare; yet he had to know and know now! The involuntary shudder that had passed through him during his audience with Typhon had been a sensation he had not experienced before and he had to determine its cause. Atavistic instincts had subsequently directed him to his current location and he had not questioned them.
He rose swiftly now on a succession of heaving currents, their warm surges intermingling with crackling pinpoints of red light that tracked and exploded all around him like predatory shooting stars. Thus he continued to soar upward sensing the masonry falling away about him but conversely, as the cone closed about him, feeling ever more confined. Then, as he was forced ever closer to the dangerous central thread, the upper gallery appeared. This gallery, like the nine below it, was in effect an annular niche cut back into the masonry. From the second gallery down, the temple was a veritable warren of passages, galleries and stairways where members of the elite priesthood, or Hierarch, roamed at will. But up here at these exalted heights there was only one gallery, one stairway, and only ever a single occupant, the Shaman Ultima, who now alighted with practiced ease onto the roughly hewn floor.
He did not allow himself the luxury of pondering upon that roughness, so typical of all the galleries and so contrary to the nature of the main architecture; so at odds with the unfeasibly smooth finish of the parent blocks, their elegant lines and their almost imperceptible joints. He barely glanced at the numerous murky alcoves cut into the back wall of the gallery, aware that tonight he would not require access to the esoteric knowledge housed there, in the variegated guise of rotting parchment scripts, rusting metallic scrolls or moth-eaten hide bound texts. Instead, he made for a particularly shadowy recess from which two upturned hands sprouted; like the obsequious upturned face above them, they were fashioned from an unusual mottled jade which hinted at the onset of some rare exotic ailment. Couched in the palms of the hands was a pewter bowl and in the bowl a most evil brew writhed and frothed. Its steamy entrails exposed the plant that lurked virtually unseen within the depths of the recess. The brew was a refined amalgam of its copper-veined leaves and the sinuous leathery vines that clung so assiduously to its supporting branches. Resin from the leaves would modify his consciousness and extract from the vines would ease that resin into his system, subduing any enzymes that might neutralize it.
A sip of this vile liquid was all he needed, for his journey would not be long, and having sipped, he returned the bowl to its imploring owner before making towards an impossibly steep flight of stairs cut into the back wall; so steep, it was easier to ascend by using the upper steps as handholds, which he now did.
An enclosed landing awaited him and he sat carelessly upon it for there was not enough clearance to stand. Directly above was a trapdoor, which, like the rest of the temple, was cut from stone. But this stone did not display the monolithic uniformity of its ubiquitous brethren, for within its subtle striations an enigmatic form was at play, its movements dictated by the angle from which it was observed. The form was frustratingly elusive, often on the verge of revealing itself, only to disappear at the last into obscurity. In this Nûrgal had often likened it to the workings of the trapdoor into which it was set; not once had the mechanism revealed itself, despite the ambitious claims of countless talented priests who had preceded him that its lumbering secrets were within their grasp.
Again, such superficial thoughts were put to one side and he drew his cloak tightly about him. In that comfortable cocooned position he let the poison slip into his system. It had been the most minute of doses yet a clammy coldness now insinuated itself, and as he focused on the slowing beat of his heart, a mantra began to issue forth from his mouth, initially as a harsh exhalation; a single savage sound which he repeated, slowly at first, then quickening and softening until his lips were still, his body was at peace and his mind, his perception, had transferred from one beat to another and was rising upward, through the trapdoor.
Through a suffocating tide of blood and into a sea of blinding white agony, until separate images and sensations at last became discernible. Barren blackness veiling the top of the chamber far above, where four walls came together at the apex. Vast emptiness just below, punctuated by random wisps of gray rising from bubbling blue-white mists. Coldness. The chamber floor; a cauldron of boiling snow. A ripple of energy, colossal power flashing across the surface with each rhythmic pulse of the Stone. The Stone itself, resting in its mounting at the centre of the floor. An elongated ovoid of brilliance, but multifaceted, crystalline, not smooth; blinding torment at the peak of its cycle, mere pain at the nadir. Arcane and alien. Refining the essence and creating a protective aura over the entire continent. An aura that kept at bay the myriad of natural and psychic forces that swept so brutally over the planet’s surface.
As Nûrgal underwent this mental anguish, it became slowly apparent. As recollections of former excursions into this revered chamber flashed fleetingly across his consciousness, he knew his instincts had not failed him. The pulse of the Stone had slowed. With that knowledge came dread.