Upon passing through the main gates of the citadel a sprawling courtyard was encountered, flanked on either side by the uppermost levels of the palace. An inquisitive eye though would be transported directly across the courtyard, transfixed by the angular grimness of the temple beyond as it reared up amidst the main body of the palace. The eye would be drawn immediately to the apex of that temple, before straying back down the great granite steps of the White Stairway. It would come to rest at the bottom of those steps, just above the same courtyard, where it would be greeted by an imposing line of rain trees.Upon closer scrutiny it would be seen that this line was actually a perimeter, and that it surrounded a curious quadrangle between the White Stairway and the courtyard, into which there were only two points of access: the one, at the base of the granite steps, and the other, an almost hidden pathway straying in on the opposite side, from the courtyard esplanade.
The granite steps descended into the quadrangle through a gap in the initial line of trees, whereupon they encountered an ornate green bridge. The single wooden span of the bridge arced steeply across the quadrangle, thence to link with the hidden pathway beyond.
It was a second swaying mass of rain tree branches on this opposite side that concealed the pathway, probably by design rather than neglect; their untrimmed fronds hung down over the end of the bridge in the manner of giant gray laburnums and within their shadows it could just be discerned, winding its tortuous way to the courtyard.
It was difficult to discern the exact route of the obscure quadrangle path as it emerged from the trees and into the courtyard, for it began to meander aimlessly, appearing at several points to lack the necessary will to continue. Gradually however a random finished stone became evident amongst the weary worn cobbles, until suddenly, at the midpoint of the courtyard, a checkered esplanade of alternating black and white marble was in place. This single feature, the esplanade, now began to impose itself, to dominate its surroundings, railing against the vast bland cobbled expanse in which it found itself.
And so, having imposed itself, having escaped its rambling beginnings, the now resplendent path could finally head in a purposeful line toward the main gates – alas to find one further obstacle attempting to impede its progress.
About a hundred paces from the gates a deep channel cut a swathe across the entire width of the courtyard, with arched portals at either end providing lower level access into the palace. Shallow steps had been cut down into it on both sides and these also extended across the entire width of the courtyard.
But daunting though this was, the esplanade took it in its stride, tumbling down one side and rising up the other, before resuming its imperious journey towards the gates.
Should anyone have found themselves on that final section of the esplanade, having been granted the rare privilege of walking the entire route from the upper temple entrance down to the citadel gates, it would not however be the checkered marble beneath their feet that would be uppermost in their mind, nor even the magnificent White Stairway trailing in their wake. They would have encountered two other landmarks, both destined to make a much more lasting impression.
Firstly, beneath the ornate bridge, extending out to overhanging branches on all sides, they would have seen a tranquil fathomless pool. Nothing stirred within this pool. Neither ripple nor reflection disturbed its placid surface; neither wind nor birdsong troubled the dank still air above it. Nature had decided that here was a place to shun. These were the Dead Waters.
Secondly, they would have found that it was not just a concealed path that lurked in the darkness beneath the branches of the rain trees. Two ominous statues lay in wait there also: they represented fabulous birds of myth from Isladoron’s distant past. Identical in every respect, each of the sculpted creatures grasped with cruel talons the ornate vertical plinths below, their inner wings linking to form an archway through which the path led. It was only when that archway had been negotiated that the birds could be seen to full effect: proud, almost arrogant in aspect; severe golden beaks; plumage of the deepest aubergine, deeper even than the summer fruit of the rain tree. And gazes of searing intensity, that made for a most uncomfortable walk through to the courtyard.
Today the checkered esplanade had been well trodden. Two delegations had entered the citadel and left a trail of clinging footprints in their wake which remained undiminished, despite the light drizzle that fell. As though it had been held at bay by the gates, the trail swept into the courtyard like a muddied tide and disappeared down into the recessed alleyway that traversed it. It failed nevertheless, despite its apparent momentum, to reemerge on the far side. Only Nûrgal’s footfalls had echoed there of late.
As the last figures had descended the steps from the courtyard, burnished helmets snuffed out one by one, the gates had swung shut, forged steel bolts sliding into position with noiseless precision.
Only then had those figures risked a backward glance. Pride and latent anger had dictated they cross the courtyard with heads bowed, brooking no intimidation from the inert scowling stares of beasts that clutched with stone claws to the palace walls, nor from the sighing wind crooning its restrained melody all about them. Forbidding gates and looming temple had ensured the glances were short-lived however, before those final delegates had hurriedly continued in pursuit of their companions.
One delegation had entered the palace at the eastern end of the alleyway, the other at the west, and both had been conveyed downward and northward to the lower levels of the palace by wandering marble-lined corridors, until not a single member of either delegation could state their location with any degree of certainty.
Then had come the stairwells, where all pretense of decoration had ended. One flight after another, they were steep and they were grim and their only adornments were the fitful flames of occasional torches. They were evidence as to the more utilitarian aspects of the place; that this was a spitefully defended fortress as well as a palace.
Finally, from the base of these stairwells and amid much cursing, the delegates had been disgorged into opposing chambers from where they could clearly see each other. There though, within the confines of these entrance chambers, the cursing had stopped, for they were about to set foot in Two Tower Hall.
Grim and ill-lit it was not, but it was scale rather than adornment that had caused chatter to cease. The cross-vaulted ceiling might have represented the very sky for all its accessibility. The minute tesserae that adorned its barreled surfaces were coated with metallic leaf which imbued them with a luminous aspect that distanced the ceiling yet further from the floor.
As the delegates now filed into the main hall from the smaller side chambers, most eyes were directed upward but a monotonous drone inevitably drew them to the rear. Again the image was distant and ethereal and initially, distorted; but in fact the convex surface before them was no illusion. This formidable cylinder, which formed the back wall of the hall, rose from the bowels of the island, through the palace and into the temple above. Humming energy churned through filigreed strands embedded into its mineral surface obviating the need for any decoration and contributing to a fluctuating tapestry of subdued light.
And thence eyes were drawn an immeasurable distance, down to the front of the hall.
The second tower was actually embedded into the citadel wall beneath the shadow of the temple’s north face. Its ornamental onion dome was fully five stories above the jagged parapet that topped the wall although it was still dwarfed by the temple; those five stories formed the annex to the main library. Beneath this, both tower and wall plummeted down the sheer north face of Djebal Doron until they merged with the island’s bedrock and on the inner face of the tower, as it passed through Two Tower Hall, a section had been removed; not enough to disturb its integrity, but a substantial portion nonetheless. Dominating the resultant alcove was a throne, in effect an unadorned ivory shield, its edges scalloped. Leaning back at an acute angle as though frozen in the act of toppling, it made scant contact with the dais beneath; in fact, this meager edge apart, it possessed no visible means of support. Yet in a niche at its center, outlined by baleful beams of afternoon light that filtered through opaque crystal windows couched in the tower’s outer wall, sat Typhon X. At his side stood the shadowy figure of his first advisor.
Now that they had taken in their surroundings the two delegations shuffled tentatively forward, ushered into position by a mere handful of guards who then proceeded to melt away as surreptitiously as they had materialized. An awkward silence ensued as the supreme ruler of Isladoron raised a questioning eyebrow and scrutinized each party in turn; that single eyebrow apart, his face gave away nothing. Back and forth along the assembled ranks his questing eyes traveled before falling on the Skalian ambassador. With a curt gesture of the hand he motioned the man forward. Then it was down to business.
Typhon sat, twisting and turning on his ivory throne as his anger grew. It was not the angular nature of the throne that was the cause of his discomfort, rather the tempestuous tone of the confrontation unfolding before him, as insults were traded back and forth across the floor. Dôrônish was the accepted language of his court and was the language from which all contemporary languages had been derived, as the harsh unwieldy words of the old tongue had faded into obscurity. It had traveled well westwards, and Khîrrîsh, although clipped and more precise, was essentially the same. To the east however it had not flourished to the same extent and had assumed two mantles: the first version, Askâlân, was now the province of the elite only and was indeed Dôrônish, albeit formal and long-winded; the second, to which those Skalians on the floor below had now reverted, was riddled with slang and regional variations and was the spoken word of the masses. Typhon had often thought upon hearing it that it was a regression towards the old tongue and although he had no difficulty in following it, today it aggravated and offended him.
The Skalians stood to his right and their intentions were obvious, both from their garb and their manner. Dress uniforms of white bone armor had been recently polished and the cruel curved blades that hung at their sides were but a small part of their weaponry. Their ruddy – faced ambassador, after a series of pleas directed at Typhon, had now bypassed his arbiter and was bellowing profanities at his counterpart in the Khir ranks. That worthy, to his credit, remained silent and aloof. Like his compatriots he seemed mildly surprised at the venom of the insults which were being hurled at him, but the expression of disdain on his features did little to placate the situation. He bore little armor and the narrow sword at his side was his only weapon. It was more than some of his delegation had at their disposal.
Nûrgal’s attentions lay elsewhere. At the rear of the Khir ranks stood a number of hooded individuals, two to be exact, who had thus far contributed little to the debate. He surveyed them now, although that emotionless mask did nothing to betray his interest.
Priests indeed, some would say shamans, but having little in common with their illustrious kindred who so dominated life in Djebal Doron. They managed to serve the peoples of Isla Khir in a more practical passive manner, acting as spiritual healers rather than domineering priests, and were accorded a respect that was almost reverential. Unfortunately the scattered peoples of Khir formed but a small fraction of Isladoron’s population and in Djebal Doron and the fertile plains of Khâl these “healers” were deeply mistrusted, feared even. The courts and councils of Skal argued that society could actually be manipulated in a passive manner, by merely allowing selected evils to run their course unhindered.
Nûrgal knew all of this. He knew that ignorance bred mistrust and fear and that someone in that estranged sect could conceivably possess an even greater understanding of the darker elements of delyrium than he. Dêlyrium it was oft called: the collective name for the obscure energy strands of blue and indigo that fell from the Stone on but rare occasion. Strange, he thought to himself, that the addition of a single accent could have such a profound effect. A linguistic quirk that the letter beneath the accent, together with its trailing companion, had to be uttered with such guttural excess that the letter preceding them became almost redundant. More than strange in fact, that what had once been a flowing word should be transformed into little more than a savage exclamation, a curse almost. Why should that be? Why did its very mention engender such loathing? And at that point he would surely have smiled, had he been able. Ignorance to the fore once again.
The Stone separated the energy it procured as a prism separates light. Only a miniscule fraction went unused in converting the essence, and most of that was at the red end of the spectrum. This was enough however for the Hierarch to store and manipulate. More than enough to provide for the more exalted elements of society that which they lusted after; that which the mere application of logic and science could not provide. But Nûrgal knew that smaller Stones existed, no bigger than a normal gemstone. Initially under the control of the enigmatic Duidarra, those minor stones had protected isolated pockets of life on the continent before the initiation of the major Stone. They were rumored to produce almost no residual energy, but what little they did produce supposedly gravitated towards the darker end of the spectrum. Despite strenuous denials he suspected one of those Stones resided deep under Tak Khiroba; how else could priests from that revered monastery have gained such an affinity with dêlyrium? Priests like the two who stood before him now.
He knew that dark could complement light and that he would have to harness all available knowledge in the approaching weeks.
The scene blurred for a heartbeat. Motes of white light flickered before him. He allowed them to coalesce and float undetected through the delegation below; a surreptitious probe, a mere fraction of his overall consciousness. As expected, as he drifted through the ranks of militia and statesmen, their untrained auras were displayed as vague confused outlines, scarcely more in some instances than a thin colorless sheen. As he approached the rear of the assembly he permitted his consciousness to thin, almost to the point where it disassembled into separate motes once more.
Both priests radiated an aura like the halo that shimmers about the flame of a candle. Almost imperceptibly Nûrgal tightened his prying tendrils and smiled inwardly as the two figures slowly lowered their hoods. He was impressed that they had detected him but he wasn’t finished yet. His tendrils contracted still further.
A defensive blue-tinged patina flared briefly at the edge of one man’s aura before Nûrgal relented and saw staring back at him sparkling eyes of cobalt; they peered out from a lined weather-beaten face that was framed by prickly silver-gray hair, some of it on top of the head but most assuming the form of a short pointed beard. The supporting frame was slight, but Nûrgal sensed a latent well of power here and passed on to the second Khir.
He saw a much younger, more powerful frame. He saw an oddly ageless face creased with a perpetual grin which was at odds with a drooping moustache, black, like the fierce knotted tail of hair hanging from an otherwise shaven head. Nûrgal pressed ever so slightly again but sensed no resistance this time, no hidden reserve of power. And yet? Could it be?
He had insisted upon attending the audience for just this possibility. He had searched everywhere and almost given up hope. He shifted his perception to a more familiar area, as though scrutinizing one of his own priesthood. Something wild and formidable touched upon him. Elation! He quelled it immediately. It had almost caused him to miss another questing consciousness delicately extracting itself. To all but Nûrgal it would have been hidden. But as he prepared to investigate, events on the floor suddenly escalated.
A scimitar was arcing savagely through the air toward the position where, but an instant ago, the Khir ambassador had been standing. But in that instant the Khir had bounded back beyond the range of the short curved blade and drawn his own sword. As his Skalian attacker toppled past off-balance, he made a short jump forward, almost a skip, followed by a malicious lunge under his opponents guard and up through a joint in the overlapping shoulder armor. A fountain of blood spewed down the Skalian’s limp arm but, oblivious to this, he had rolled over and produced a short throwing knife in his free hand. As he crouched there with murderous intent, gleaming weapons of death appeared in every Skalian grip.
Then the staff of Typhon was dancing down the hall between the two factions. It buzzed with a vitality of its own. It slurped with anticipation, its liquid growl emphasized by the resounding silence which now prevailed in the great chamber. This way and that it darted before the retreating ranks of would-be aggressors.
A pall of fear had descended upon the hall, for all were aware of Typhon’s staff and its insatiable bloodlust. Now it lay before them, pulsating. The air around it shimmered. The head, like a malignant goddess, was spinning uncontrollably, the savage contorted features regurgitating a ghastly gel which congealed in fetid lumps across the floor. All eyes passed quickly from this repugnant symbol of their ruler’s power to the bottom level of the dais and thence upward. Eleven semicircular slabs in the form of steps extended out into the hall. Ten steps to mark the ascending orders of the Hierarch and the eleventh to mark the monarch’s dominion over all. On that top step Typhon stood, his sinuous shadow zigzagging down the other ten and out over the floor to envelop his staff. His leonine head was framed in the deeper evening light that now penetrated the windows behind and whilst that may have softened the irate features which leered down, it did little to diminish the scathing whiplash of his tongue.
‘My little pet would feed upon your barbarian flesh and fondle your insolent souls! Your trivial animosities shall be resolved elsewhere and without the aid of Djebal Doron. And now I suggest you depart this hall before your screams echo in its rafters and your entrails taint its hallowed floor!’ A smiling expectancy had settled upon the monarch’s face.
Nervous shuffling. Recriminatory glances. But Typhon was not to be disappointed. Depart they did, as the palace guard reappeared on cue to shepherd them back up grim stairwells and along richly adorned circuitous corridors. Depart they did, cursing and muttering. But quietly. For all were afraid of Typhon and his staff.
As the last remnants of the delegations filed disconsolately from the hall, with one of those remnants still bleeding profusely, a deep rumbling sigh issued forth from Typhon’s throat as he settled back into his throne. ‘Why, oh why? Why now?’ This addressed to no-one in particular.
‘Not a coincidence I fear,’ Nûrgal answered. He stepped back to allow the staff to return to its owner. The despicable thing swept back into its master’s grasp, dormant now and featureless. Typhon leant on it for support, his eyes narrowed slits no wider than the thoughtful lines that creased his brow. His ringed fingers ranged carelessly through his beard, straightening it into its more customary form; a mass of curls had been introduced for the benefit of his recently banished visitors. When he spoke again his fidgeting fingers reflected his uncertainty.
‘Over the years I have been forced to acquaint myself with the conniving and triple-dealing that infests our politics. The Khirs were genuinely surprised at the supposed fate of Skal’s little fishing expedition. Is it possible that they could be so stupid? Is Joel losing his touch? I think not. I fear more subtle forces are at work here, but I am at a loss to identify them. Many paths are converging, Nûrgal, and we need to track them all. I am considering calling an Assembly. Am I overreacting? Would your underlings be up to the task?’
Nûrgal was impressed by Typhon’s urgency but pondered for a while on his proposed course of action. Twenty generations had passed since the last Assembly. It was a measure for desperate times. It represented a coming together of the upper echelons of the Hierarch, a joining of minds; it was dangerous and it was unpredictable.
‘I fear that will not suffice, lord. The path concluded by an Assembly is an optimum one. Whereas a given individual may not have foreseen that path, it is nevertheless based on the collective knowledge of the individuals within the Assembly. Such knowledge, insofar as it applies to our current predicament, is woefully incomplete. Who is this subtle adversary? What is the exact threat posed by the approaching comet? Is it linked to the slowing pulse of the Stone? We are uncertain on all counts.’
Typhon’s eyes bulged dramatically at this last information. He prodded at the floor with the end of his staff as though about to say something, but finally chose to remain silent.
‘Despite my reservations, however, I do not condemn your suggestion out of hand,’ continued Nûrgal. ‘It is just that I would like to reduce the number of participants.’ He forged on before Typhon could give vent to his frustration. ‘It would need to be an Assembly incorporating members of the Khir sect, specifically two who were present at today’s fiasco. One exhibited qualities that might be distinctly different to my own and the other … well, I am not sure; he may or may not be of value.’
Typhon smiled at this. He had a fairly good idea which way the scales would tip if his chief advisor had taken an interest. ‘Very well, Nûrgal. Convene this motley collection as you will, and let us hope that something comes of it.’
The monarch grasped his dreadful staff and pulled himself to his feet, to stand next to the Ultima. The great hall was silent now and its cavernous depths dwarfed the unlikely triumvirate. But here was gathered the power of Djebal Doron. The strength of generations that had subdued a continent and protected it against the ongoing ravages of time was distilled into these three. Whatever the threat, it had chosen stubborn adversaries.
Jak gazed ruefully back at the intimidating pinnacle of Djebal Doron as it fell slowly astern. An eclectic array of potent architecture was on display. Styles had been gathered from the three surrounding isles and thrown together over the centuries, thence to be molded into a singular elegance that belonged to none of them. Curling upturned eaves from mystical Khanju, minarets and spires from the sweltering southlands of Khâl and precipitous sloping roofs from the highlands of Khir: they had all been hurled into a melting pot and left to stew. Shimmering whitewashed walls had been added and a final garnish applied; burgeoning fronds of purple bougainvillea and hanging tracts of yellow dragonsbreath.
Upon emerging from the pot, this amalgam had been assembled onto an artificial framework, or so it seemed to Jak, and suspended upon a sorcerous platform of mist. The mist perpetually shrouded the low harbor walls, defying all efforts of the sun to disperse it, and reality was only restored by the harsh brown band beneath the citadel which betrayed the parent rock onto which the city clung, into which it burrowed.
It was twenty five years since he had been brought into the world, yet this had been his first excursion into that most enigmatic of cities. All too brief. Only fleeting impressions remained: the dizzying climb up devious cobbled alleyways; the transition into steep tree-fringed avenues; the sudden emergence of crooked worn steps overhung by leathery creepers with their masses of tiny pink flowers that ebbed and flowed in the breeze like an alien sea; the lung-bursting ascent inhaling a fragrance that suffused everything, benumbing the mind and slowing the body; and then …
The citadel: he had walked through the shadows of its gates and embraced their archaic wrought iron scrollwork, serpentine patterns writhing, untrammeled by even a hint of flaking rust. Unlike those around him he had then lifted his face to the heavens and allowed the cold rain to sweep away his torpor. He had marched, head held high, across the courtyard, determined to confront the temple and commit its every nuance to memory. He had descended the winding torch-lit stairs, running his fingers down the bare stone walls as though some minor facet of their long history would thereby be imparted to him. He had witnessed the eerie insubstantial ceiling in the great hall, drifting in and out of focus, and the thrumming energy that coursed through the latticework of its rear wall. But his had been an enquiring mind and not fearful like most gathered there. That had changed.
Nûrgal: his insidious probing tentacles had descended with clinical precision. They had caused a profound sense of dread to envelop him. But there had been something else too. Something had stirred within his soul which he sensed even now. But what?
Typhon: his initial silence and bored demeanor had caused the Skalian delegation to overstep the mark. He had reasserted his authority in devastating fashion with that foul staff. To think that not a single armed guard had been present!
The shadowy figure in the purple robes: had no-one else seen him? Certainly not his mentor, Ravenkar, whose prying eyes rarely missed anything; nor for that matter anyone else in their delegation. Yet the man had been there, calmly observing them all as they had filed through the entrance vault. Hadn’t he? And again, he had seen the flourish of a purple robe just as the Ultima’s scrutiny had ended.
Then there had been the cowed exit from the hall and the citadel and once again those tiny flowers with their numbing fragrance. He hadn’t tried to resist, for what would have been the point?
Finally, the stumbling descent through the confusing tracery of delicate alleyways and plazas until the bright striped awnings and the milling evening crowds had informed them that the harbor was near.
Jak clutched tightly on the stern rail and took a deep breath. Did the effects of those flowers still linger? It had not been quite as simple as that…
The transition area between the Merchant’s Circle and the quayside was a labyrinth of cobbled streets that wended their way through a wide band of two and three story whitewashed dwellings. Still a little dazed, he thought to himself that it would be no difficult matter to go astray within this twisting repetitive succession of brightly painted shutters and domed roofs.
There again, would that be such a terrible fate when confronted with the interminable drone of conversation between Ravenkar and Ambassador Soza?
The figure jolted him from this reverie immediately; the figure in the purple robes crossing the intersecting lane, directly in front of them. Jak felt a need to call out but his natural reticence got the better of him. Yet those robes had a mesmeric swirling sheen to them and before he knew it he was standing at the corner, ostensibly inspecting the skewered pieces of spiced chicken and squid that simmered there over a street vendor’s slow charcoal grill. Even as he feigned to stoop for a more rigorous inspection, the figure swept along the smaller back lane, paused outside a shop and, without turning, disappeared inside. A small market thrived there beneath colorful canopies, with stalls sprawling out over the cobbles. The shop in question though was distinct from its neighbors in that it had no wares on display beyond its frontage. But as Jak approached he scarcely noticed any of this, for his attention was firmly captured by the strange sign.
It was hanging from an elaborate arm of iron scrollwork above the entrance: a metal disc, brightly painted on both sides and about three spans across. The background was quartered by alternate segments of black and white and on it a juggler capered, right leg bent at the knee, left leg straight, right arm bent at the elbow and gesturing upward, left arm straight and extended out. Both his hands had the last three fingers curled over the palm, with thumb and forefinger pointing out; four bright yellow spheres were poised above his head, as though passing from one hand to the other. He was bedecked in a costume of bright red, from the trailing tips of his three-pronged cap to the toes of his upturned shoes. Surprisingly, given his mode of attire, he looked down upon the street with tight-lipped scorn.
Jak looked back up and although his grin was still in place the sign sent shivers down his spine. As he made to go into the shop an impromptu gust of wind set it spinning and in his still dazed mind the juggler appeared to hop from one foot to the other and back again, his head thrown back in uproarious laughter, the yellow spheres describing a lazy arc between his outstretched hands.
A hasty lengthening of the stride took him unceremoniously through the front door, and thence, to the accompaniment of a small silver bell, into a cornucopia of jeweled delights. But despite all the more immediate attractions, it was a subdued glimmer from the deep recesses of the shop that caught his eye and sent him sauntering down the meandering corridor at its center. He pulled his robe tightly about him as he went so as not to disturb the profusion of rings, necklaces, pins, and assorted curios that assailed him.
The corridor led to a circular room beneath a small dome. There was no natural light on offer and so two lanterns had been hung from the rug-covered walls, their oily vapors mingling with an assortment of incense. As he stooped to examine the source of the beckoning gleam, a tiny female figure stepped out of the shadows.
He was looking at a necklace, and closer scrutiny positively took his breath away; just the gift he was hoping to find. More of a choker than a traditional necklace, it was fashioned from the thinnest of beaten metal that had about it a dimpled pink-white hue that he did not recognize. A delicate flower clung to the front, its seven exquisite petals also formed from wafers of that unfamiliar metal, its core though a glittering diamond that would surely push the price above the paltry sum he carried with him, despite its diminutive size. The seven petals and the jeweled center marked it as a flame daisy, the rare mountain flower of his Khir homeland.
As he turned the choker over in his hand, the figure approached. Her hunched demeanor was not matched by her lively eyes. Her fine features and ostentatious dress sense hinted at a Khâlian upbringing and his confusion was therefore total when she addressed him in flawless Khîrrîsh; or rather, started to shout at him in flawless Khîrrîsh. Her hand, ringed to excess, again a Khâlian trait, forced his own to close about the choker, whereupon she then set about forcing him back along the corridor and out of the shop.
‘Take it, take it! He said you should take it!’ She was screaming at him now, whilst kicking violently at his shins.
The easiest way out of the situation was to do precisely that. Not wishing to attract attention and certainly having no desire to convey the impression that he was robbing a defenseless old woman, he staggered out into the street, managing to fling his purse and its entire contents in the opposite direction, just before the door slammed shut.
Clutching his forced purchase tightly to his chest, his eyes were inevitably drawn upwards to look at the sign again. The juggler had ceased his games and stood again on one leg, with a smile that gave absolutely nothing away. That at least gave him some small comfort as he hurried away down the cobbled streets.
By the time the quayside finally reappeared, the crowds were thinning out as people stole off into the late evening. Having no wish to indulge in any further explorations he immediately started out on the long straight walk that would take him along the main wharf. Its creaking timbers led into the center of the bay where all of the foreign craft were encouraged to moor. It was only now that his wits were beginning to return, prompted no doubt by the sight of furled Skalian sails on the opposing side of the wooden islet that nestled at the wharf’s end.
No-one was about as he boarded, so he made straight for his bunk and sleep. A deep sleep.
Jak took another deep breath, wanting to hold onto the moment as Djebal Doron slipped yet further astern. But he caught sight of Ravenkar approaching and his thoughts wandered again.
Early dawn had seen a solitary red-robed figure strolling down the wharf as they were preparing to cast off. A hurried consultation had ensued, the bald head of the priest nodding in concert with his mentor’s silver-gray pate. What had that been about? Jak suspected that all was about to be revealed.
Ravenkar arrived at the stern rail, casting off his hood and rubbing thoughtfully on his beard. ‘I presume you would like to know the outcome of my little discussion earlier, or am I wrong? Your curiosity is positively underwhelming!’
‘You, old one, have seen Djebal Doron on many occasions. Do not forget that this is my first encounter and I would still savor it while I can.’
‘Less of the “old one” if you please,’ scowled Ravenkar, ‘and you may be pleased to know that you will shortly be having a second encounter.’
Jak’s arched eyebrows betrayed his interest and Ravenkar continued. ‘The Black Sorcerer craves an audience with us, my languid apprentice. Have I now pricked your apathy?’
‘An audience? And what sort of word is that? Could I replace it with “interrogation” or “inquisition” perhaps?’
‘I think we have already been subjected to that, wouldn’t you say? Do not underestimate him, Jak. He is more tolerant than his less exalted brethren. I really don’t know what will be required of us. Perhaps our more unusual talents can be of assistance to him.’
‘Unusual talents for unusual times,’ mused Jak.
‘Yes, indeed,’ agreed the older man as he followed Jak’s gaze up into the red dawn.
Red day followed red dawn as the sleek vessel skimmed across the choppy waters of the Inner Sea. When Jak wasn’t mulling over all the unpleasant things that might occur during a direct confrontation with the Shaman Ultima, he spent most of the day where he was now, in idle conversation with the helmsman, who, as it happened, was also the captain on this voyage. Jak, not exactly of diminutive stature himself, was dwarfed by the man. Shamul was his name: Shamul-ud-Djin to be precise.
Shamul existed on the fringes of accepted society. He preferred that his infamous vessel, not in fact the craft he currently graced, should be recognized as a trader and it came as a constant surprise to find that many people actually viewed him as a privateer rather than a merchant. It was not a state of affairs that particularly upset him, it was just that he could have dispensed with the notoriety. And there was little doubt that despite occasional flirtations with anonymity, Shamul, his crew and his vessel, had indeed developed a certain notoriety.
He respected few men, but fortunately Ravenkar was one of that select band. The two of them went a long way back together, although Jak had never been able to get to the bottom of that particular story. Only Ravenkar’s insistence had ensured that the infamous “trader” was not participating in this particular voyage, being anchored instead in a little frequented fjord on the eastern seaboard of Khir, just to the north of Skîros.
Notwithstanding their friendship it had still been no easy task to persuade the big man to abandon his vessel, to convince him that stealth should prevail over aggression. It had been amidst much protest that a skeleton crew of his men had switched to another vessel in the same fjord, thence to find themselves garbed, as befitted crewmen of such a vessel, in ostentatious silks rather than pragmatic leathers. For it was in fact the royal vessel, belonging to Joel of Skîros and although the crew could bemoan their attire there were no such complaints about the craft. Built to outrun opponents rather than outfight them, it could accomplish this with some style, its shallow draft enabling it to skim the surface with ease.
Although they owed allegiance to none, Shamul and his crew looked upon Skîros as their home town and enjoyed its liberal ways. These ways were due in part to their vessel’s owner, the town’s cunning old warlord Joel, who tended to rule with an amused tolerance rather than an iron fist; a man who could in truth be absolute ruler of Isla Khir in its entirety, but who shunned pompous titles and all that went with them. Nevertheless, it was only in the desolate Highlands and the sparse southwest that he did not hold sway and that was more from choice than necessity.
The switching of crews at the remote Tolfjord had been enacted for Joel’s peace of mind as well as Ravenkar’s, in order to deter the more prudish members of his council from assailing him with protests concerning the enlistment of renegades into the service of “noble” Skîros. The city had always been underhand in its political dealings and Joel certainly wasn’t going to be the first to break with tradition. Also, the malice attendant with the message delivered by the Skalian envoys had alarmed him, as had the consequent summoning of his ambassador to Djebal Doron. He had sensed trouble from the outset and although his usual crew were more than competent they were by no means as devious as Shamul’s. Thus had he followed the advice of Ravenkar and installed Shamul and his men as temporary guardians to the ambassador.
As evening closed in, the conversation became more animated, directed primarily at the triangular Skalian sails in their wake. Ravenkar and the ambassador had now made their way to the stern and were putting their points of view to the olive skinned behemoth at the tiller, who smiled benevolently down at them, nodding in assent. The old priest sighed in exasperation, knowing from bitter experience that their captain was paying them not the slightest heed.
‘Shamul, we have suggested that you could possibly put a little more distance between ourselves and those two purple sails that appear to be tracking us. Now while you are in agreement with our proposition and, as the gods will surely bear testament, my eyes are no longer as sharp as they were, the distance in question inexplicably appears to remain constant.’
Shamul’s ill-famed yellow eyes narrowed and he tugged thoughtfully on the enormous gold ring that hung from his left ear. ‘They are men o’war, old one, not men of the sea. Can we not taunt them a while longer?’
Ravenkar, aware of the spreading smile on Jak’s face, did not rise to the bait but before he could make any sort of reply he was cut off by Ambassador Soza’s relieved tones. ‘If I am not mistaken, they begin to veer off!’
Even as they watched, the two purple sails turned sharply away and soon, in the spreading darkness, were only just visible on the port side, as they fell over the horizon towards the east, and the Khâlian coastline.
‘Old one indeed!’ muttered Ravenkar as he made his way to the well-appointed cabins below deck.
It normally took just over two days to traverse the Inner Sea, heading due south from Djebal Doron, before the entrance to the Great Strait was encountered. The slight wind had been in their favor and the sleek craft had reduced that time by some four or five hours. Thus as Jak emerged into the pre-dawn light, his cloak wrapped tightly about him, he could already sense the approaching landmass. The previous day and night had passed without incident but with precious little conversation. The normally exuberant crew had been relatively quiet, eyeing the agitated red sky above with some concern. All thoughts had strayed to a strange chill that remorselessly pursued them and to the ominous approach of the comet.
He was troubled. Something was about to happen. The dream had awoken him and he knew it was another premonition. Since Ravenkar had taken him under his wing all those years ago and he had begun his training, such dreams had haunted him less and less until now they were little more than distant memories, albeit vaguely disturbing ones. Had the crew’s general unease triggered some sort of emotional response within him?
His mother had told him often that it was a talent that could be put to good use, but so vivid were the images it induced he had decided it was a talent he could well do without. He suspected in fact that this aptitude had been passed down to him by his mother or at the very least, her union with his father had caused some inconsistencies within him. That was to say the combination of his mother’s origins, shores beyond even the Jâlreg Desert, and his father’s origins, the Khir Highlands, had produced a child that was constantly at odds with his peers. Which of course had drawn Ravenkar to him as a moth to a flame. The monks from the monastery at Tak Khiroba periodically scoured Khir for children with unusual talents and although Jak’s village in the Highlands was remote by most standards, to the indomitable monks such a journey presented only a minor inconvenience on life’s pathway.
It had not been a long dream; such dreams never were.
His father’s face was before him and words, many words. His father’s mouth was moving and it was his father’s voice that he could hear, but mouth and voice were not synchronized. He listened for all that, for he was warm and comfortable. He could sense his two younger sisters nearby, in the adjacent bed. Outside it was raining and the wind howled, but here he was safe. The more he listened, the more the mouth and the voice came together until at last, they were as one. Then the words became visions.
It had been Isladoron as he had never known it. Huge seas battered the outer shores and bitter merciless winds swept up the Great Strait. Only the beat of the Stone kept the gathering psychic disruptions at bay. Law and order had broken down and chaos ruled in its stead.
Those who had been elected to watch over the forbidden southern shores of mystical Khanju had been remiss in their duty and so another took over the mantle. The watcher had pale lavender eyes and the eyes were all that could be seen. They were not warm, as lavender would suggest, but frigid; violet with all the vitality drawn from it.
They had set forth for Khanju in droves, braving its jungles and their cruel denizens, to seek out fabled Chok Apûl and plunder its riches. They had been gripped by a fever and their greed knew no bounds. But the watcher had deemed that it was time to teach the men from the south a lasting lesson, so that the rigors of his watch would diminish and all would be well again.
The lesson was indeed harsh, and would echo down the centuries. None who ventured into that forsaken land were destined to return other than those who were to bear tidings of the carnage; those few souls chosen by the watcher to witness atrocities the like of which no sane being should ever have had to look upon.
But even as the tales were told and the tread of human feet receded once again from Khanju’s shores, Gudruk, warlord of the southern Highlands and his terrible priest Kaleb had set forth with a mighty band of warriors. They had not sought untold riches, although truth be told, those would not have gone amiss. Rather they had been lured northwards after something more specific.
Within their mountainous domain was hidden the power of healing. Centuries earlier people had fled a terrible enemy, bringing their withered and their dying to the place of this healing, and then beyond, where sanctuary lay within a ring of insurmountable peaks. Their path to the place of healing was dark and grim, yet past a certain point their enemy could not pursue.
The priest Kaleb had been a pragmatist and not content with vague rumors of healing or with myths of mountain-bound havens, he had left his warlord’s realm to verify the tales, or forever dispel them. He had returned with a craving gleam in his eyes, announcing that the healing was indeed more than myth and the artifact responsible bore the symbolism of Chok Apûl, a single glyph etched at the center of its outer face. At the center of the inner face, that glyph was again apparent but three more accompanied it. Around all four had been scored the outline of a container, a chest. With this chest and its contents in their possession the armies of Isladoron would melt away before them.
By the time Gudruk and Kaleb had set foot on the mist shrouded plateau where Chok Apûl lay, both girls slept soundly, but Jak himself was agitated as his father’s voice resonated around the room, reverberated inside his head.
The watcher’s servants had taken their toll. Jak had known this without being told. He was out in the shallows, looking inward at a long strip of pristine sand backed by a seemingly impenetrable wall of lush jungle. The jungle had parted abruptly and had coughed up two desperate figures onto the beach. Only two.
Horns had sounded close by but undeterred, Gudruk and Kaleb had begun to hack at the jungle fringes with huge curved knives until the bow of a concealed boat became apparent. With a strength born out of dire necessity, they had dragged the boat over the thin intervening band of sand and into the breaking seas.
Aside from the great knives they bore and the staff of the priest, their only other possession had been a brightly lacquered chest.
As Jak had continued to watch, a screaming multitude of painted pagans had flooded out of the trees and onto the beach; but they had been too late. The escaping boat had already been out of bowshot. As the wild-eyed Kaleb had waved his staff and hurled insults at the howling savages, they had fallen silent.
Several days had passed. The wind had increased apace with Kaleb’s fury. He had been unable to open the chest. All his invocations had come to nothing. Despite the clarity of the dream, Jak too was having problems with the chest; it had remained indistinct, floating in and out of focus.
The raging seas had been another matter. He had felt the pitching deck of Gudruk’s war vessel, and experienced the naked fear of his last remaining followers as the wind blew against them, refusing them entry into the Winding Strait and the refuge of Bahar. Instead they had been swept down the coast until finally, their mast broken and their hull waterlogged, the elements had relented and they had found themselves becalmed in a small bay.
Alas, the cliffs reared skyward on all sides of the bay and there had been no landing place. Thus it was that Gudruk and Kaleb had faced each other over that enigmatic chest, murder and madness in their darting eyes, the bodies of their former comrades hacked and bloated in the lapping waters.
The sonorous tones of Jak’s father were unremitting and unforgiving. Try as he might he was unable to elude them, nor the scene before him. As he had looked on, the waters next to the crippled vessel had erupted as Varvak himself, Lord of the Sea, had surfaced, in the guise of a great serpent. For a brief instant Jak had looked straight into the serpent’s contemptuous black eyes before the entire deck had heaved upwards in the grasp of its terrible jaws, and razor sharp teeth had splintered it asunder. He had been drawn down into the cold dark depths. But he had not died. Nor had he awoken.
There had been light above him and he had struck out towards it. As his head had broken the surface and he had wiped the streaming water from his eyes, the beach had been before him again. Still standing there, fierce painted faces staring expectantly out to sea, had been those serried ranks of feathered warriors. A number of them had moved down to the water’s edge and were reclaiming a dark object that bobbed in the surf. Jak had been able to see it now with the utmost clarity. An ornate lacquered chest, red lacquer, and on its surface had been inscribed four distinct symbols.
Jak knew his father had never told such a tale but that had only mattered when he awoke.
The wave hugging mists of early morning had barely lifted as they approached the entrance to the Great Strait. Ahead, off the starboard bow, the towering indented coastline of Isla Khir was closing in to meet them; and behind, to cement the greeting, two triangular sails were closing in from the northeast. Shamul was studying them intently through his spyglass as Jak approached.
‘Those are not the vessels which followed us out of Djebal Doron,’ he said in measured tones, lowering the glass. This was uttered to no-one in particular, not even Ravenkar, who stood shivering at his side. ‘Their sails are larger but their hulls are much smaller and their oars double, not triple banked.’
‘Some thought has gone into this then,’ remarked Ambassador Soza wryly. He had followed behind Jak, almost unobserved. ‘Fresh crews and fast boats waiting at a preordained location to the east of our route. Can we outrun them Shamul?’
‘Of that I am sure ambassador, even with these idle wretches pulling at the oars. But they too must know that.’ With a flourish of the hand he summoned the lithe figure of his fist mate from amidships, where he had been overseeing the trimming of the sail. ‘Abduul, position yourself in the bow and keep careful watch.’ But he had barely uttered the words before a cry came from the prow of the boat.
A third, larger sail had now materialized directly in front of them, emerging from what at that distance and angle appeared to be no more than a crack in the cliff face. It was as yet a way off but there was no obvious haven in that barren coastline; no obvious escape.
‘Can we head out across the strait towards Khâl?’ This from Jak, but before he could say anything else a raised hand from Ravenkar stilled him. Ambassador Soza laughed and spun on his heel.
‘It would appear that the Skalians are most definitely upset. Our pleadings of innocence have fallen on deaf ears. Interesting. I shall be amidships preparing our meager force. I do not think Jak that our experienced friend here would really profit from any advice that we are able to give.’
Shamul was oblivious to this dialogue anyway and was gazing distractedly shoreward. Very deliberately, he reached inside his jerkin and pulled forth a faded leather pouch which he then proceeded to place on the deck before him. Jak had never seen this pouch before, but to the crew it was obviously a familiar sight. A chorus of groans greeted its appearance. Once more their fate was to be placed in the lap of the gods.
‘Today, I think, is a day for dice,’ announced Shamul with great solemnity. ‘A day for dice and a day for the elements.’ So saying, he loosened the drawstring on the pouch and reached inside. When his hand reemerged, three objects nestled within its expansive palm.
‘I have seen such dice before,’ said Jak, intrigued, ‘at least dice that were similar. Twelve sided, with each side forming a pentagon. But the sides on those dice were numbered. The markings on these sides are not familiar.’
‘Ah, but I think they are,’ replied Ravenkar, in the irritating supercilious manner he reserved for such a moment as this. ‘Think to the seers, those purveyors of insight into lives past and lives yet to come. Think of the cards that they employ and tell me now what you see.’
Jak scrutinized the exquisite markings a little more closely, and smiled, despite himself. Although no two markings were the same, a pattern had revealed itself. ‘Well, well, well. Cups and coins, sticks and swords. Three of each in various guises, if I am not mistaken, on each of the dice.
‘“Wands” dear boy, not “sticks”,’ said Ravenkar, nodding irritably.
‘“Wands” most certainly,’ boomed Shamul, now addressing everyone on board, ‘and wands as we all know represent “fire”. So should three wands face skyward after I have cast these dice, then fire it shall be. We shall die the deaths of heroes as Khâlian vessels burn about us. That shall be our first option.’
‘And the other three?’ asked Ravenkar, a worried frown now producing yet another crease across his careworn features.
‘The second shall be “cups”. Cups for “water”, not unnaturally. Across its gilded surface shall we flee, to take solace and safety in its open expanse, even as Jak has suggested. Methinks however that the chase would be close run and the dice may shun this choice.’
‘Your faith in these damnable dice never fails to astound me, Shamul. To even consider that the fates might have our best interests at heart!’ Ravenkar sounded exasperated. ‘And what of the third option?’
‘“Swords” shall be the third. Swords to represent the “air”. The thin air that is all about us and into which we shall disappear as you and your apprentice weave your spells.’ An imploring grin now adorned Shamul’s features.
Mutterings of assent from the crew greeted this choice. Recourse to their arcane arts would indeed allow the two priests to cause havoc with the pursuit, probably allowing them to slip away. But even as he waited for Ravenkar to reply, Jak was dismissing this option. Their vows forbade it. They could only use sorcery to combat sorcery. Such was ingrained into the very fabric of Tak Khiroba.
Yet Ravenkar hesitated, and his reply, when it came, was noncommittal, evasive even. ‘Let us hope that the swords remain sheathed on this occasion. And the fourth option?’
‘“Coins” of course, for coins are all that remain. Coins for “earth”, or land in this instance,’ said Shamul, gesturing at the intimidating coastline of Khir.
‘You mean then to dash us against the cliffs!’ There was genuine alarm in Ravenkar’s voice. ‘You would splinter us asunder, should the dice ask it of you?’
‘The dice do not ask, old friend; the dice demand, otherwise why would I seek their counsel?’ Shamul grinned as he said this and then called out to his crew. ‘Your deliberations are needed my loyal friends. What is it that you would prefer? Fire or water, earth or air?’
As he closed the dice within his fist, the captain made one final bellowing exhortation. ‘Come my bony beauties, let it be one throw only and let us have the wands. Me and my companions would take these Khâlian curs to the bottom in a blaze of glory. Is that not so?’
The crew responded in kind, imploring their gods to let the wands prevail. As Shamul drew his hand back though, each and every one of them was praying silently that swords would win the day.
It did indeed require but a single toss. End over end went the dice and it was as though the path of each was preordained. They came to rest amidships, at the foot of the mast, with scarcely a hairsbreadth between them.
Ambassador Soza was the closest. He did not even have to move. His face, as befitted his calling, was expressionless. Neither did his voice give anything away. ‘You are really going to hold us to this, captain?’
‘Why most certainly, ambassador,’ came the level reply.
‘Very well then,’ answered Soza. ‘I see before me three discs. Each disc is of a different size and color, but upon each disc the same symbol has been ascribed: it is a pentacle. These, I take it, would be coins?’
In the silence that followed, Shamul acted quickly. Without warning he leant hard on the rudder, shouting out commands as he did so. For an instant Jak thought that his own advice was being followed as the bow slewed around to port. But the sleek craft just continued to turn in a lazy arc until they were heading directly north, at which point Shamul then steered slightly westward to follow the curving profile of the Khir coast. One of the trailing galleys adjusted its course slightly to block any escape up the coast and Jak noted how speedy it was. In fact Shamul seemed to be steering on a heading that would intercept that particular boat, which again changed course as he watched. After a while it was obvious that the blocking boat was maintaining an even distance between them so that the other pursuing boats could catch up.
As the sun rose majestically over the Gangja Plateau the game was still in progress and to all the participating players it appeared that the captain of the Khir boat was just delaying the inevitable. This thought had occurred to Jak as well but he instantly dismissed it. He couldn’t help but wonder however why Shamul looked constantly to the shore. They were now well off the main trading lanes, simply because these cliffs were so desolate and offered no hint of a safe landing.
The crew were tiring now. The sail had been lowered as they had turned, whereupon Shamul, in his inimitable fashion, had professed a desire for more speed. Not full speed, but just enough to keep the pursuing boats at bay. The third boat was still reluctant as yet to close. Jak, at Shamul’s request, was returning to the tiller with a flagon of water. Even as he offered it, an insidious grin split the captain’s face from unadorned lobe on one side to earring on the other; his disconcerting eyes were ablaze. Another bellowed command ensued and as they turned to port their speed dropped appreciably as the oars lay fallow in the water. All faces were turned to the stern. Jak’s still wore his smile but his jaws were clenched and his muscles taut. The captain was indeed intent on following the dictates of his dice.
Could he cope with this madness? As the great cliffs came ever closer Jak also wondered briefly how his vows would fare in the approaching situation. He would soon find out. Unless of course Ravenkar decided to employ his more iniquitous talents and undo centuries of unwavering commitment from their shamanic order at one fell swoop. The frenzied sound of drumbeats drifted across the waves, returning his wandering thoughts to harsh reality; the Skalians had vengeance on their minds.
They could not hope to evade the rapidly closing snare and escape into open waters, yet that much had been evident from the start. They were heading shoreward and the pace had picked up again. The three Skalian boats were now roughly parallel with each other and directly astern. Their sails were down and their oarsmen were rapidly closing the gap. Warriors clustered at the prows, their white bone armor an insipid pink in the unnatural light. Was Shamul really going to dash them into the cliffs? The pitiless gray rock of those colossal walls offered no haven.
But even as Jak thought it, he knew he was mistaken. It was the surf that alerted him, or rather the lack of it. Chaotic white foam stretched along the coast in either direction, but there, directly before their bow, was a short stretch of clear water. It was uncanny how nature had wrought her trick, but ahead was most definitely a small bay; it was just that the cliffs that embraced it had been aligned and weathered so as to match perfectly the outer cliffs. When viewed from the seaward side it was as if a single unbroken face swept down the coastline. It soon became obvious however that those inner cliffs were just as steep, just as forbidding, and offered absolutely no prospect of escape. Why then had they come to this drear place?
They entered the bay making overly fast headway and Shamul immediately ordered the oars to be backed up. It was all Jak could do to tear his eyes away from the pursuing galleys and risk a quick look at his surroundings, for arrows were already falling, with derisive chants following hard in their wake. The drumbeats were already beginning to echo around them.
Something seemed familiar, terribly familiar. His head began to spin.
There was a heavy swell in the bay and as the waters began to sink, two fissures appeared in the otherwise featureless cliff wall off the bow. As the waters sank yet further, the fissures widened into cavernous black openings, surveying with contempt the scene before them. Dizziness almost overwhelmed him. He saw Ravenkar reach out to support him; too late. He was on his knees and gulping desperately for air. Unsteadily, he got back to his feet, leaning now on his mentor. His mind was oddly detached as he turned.
The three enemy vessels were still line abreast after Shamul’s careful maneuverings and thus none escaped. As they swept into the ominous bay all three bows dipped simultaneously. Drumbeats ceased and were replaced by the splintering of timbers and the screams of dying men.
As Shamul brought them about Jak risked a look over the side. The water at the back of the bay was deep but as they approached the entrance the depths rose up to meet them and even in that dark bloodied water he could see them; ranks of jutting tusk-like rocks just below the surface. Only their shallow draft had saved them. How had Shamul known of this place?
Many had gone straight under, dragged down by the weight of their armor. Of those left, the majority had been instantly torn to pieces on the jagged reef below. The few who had survived that terrible mauling could only stare helplessly up at the sleek galley passing through their midst; stare up at a huge man with blazing eyes. Too late did they recognize their foe.
The galley sped with easy grace through the choppy waters of the Great Strait. The same gnawing chill was still in the air, but now it felt that much harsher. None of the crew had derived any pleasure in leaving their stricken foes floundering in the deadly shallows of that nameless bay but there had been few options. To slow their own vessel would have been suicidal; they would simply have been swamped, and in all likelihood, overpowered. And so they had left the Skalians to their fate.
They had ventured as far as they dared from the coast to avoid the rapidly lengthening shadows of evening and retain some semblance of warmth. An icy gray blanket was just rolling over them as a line of green flares came into view, far down the coastline. The flares marked the entrance to Skorfjord. The entrance to the fjord was also its narrowest point and across that entrance someone had decided to build a wall.
It was as though the cliffs to either side had been pulled across and forged together, had been chiseled and honed to form an impenetrable curtain; as though the surrounding mountains would erode before this stark monument relented before nature. This was Haan’s Wall, and its immense intimidating bulk loomed up before them now.
As they approached, Jak finally recounted his dream, his premonition, to Ravenkar.
‘Always listen to your mother, Jak,’ said his mentor, smiling and wagging an admonishing finger. ‘Try not to repress this talent, but to embrace it instead. Your mind has become disciplined in the time that you have been with us, but a malaise is descending upon us all. It comes with the comet. I fear this will happen again and when it does, be sure to analyze it in the minutest detail. Try to analyze all your dreams, although they will not always be predictive; nor will they always fall so close to the event. Immerse yourself in their vibrancy and confront their terrors. It is a talent, although you may not think of it as such. There is a possibility that the Ultima recognized this talent within you. I do not know.
‘The meaning of a dream is not always easy to divine. You have never been to that cove and yet you dreamt of it, and in such detail. According to Shamul, it is well known amongst certain practitioners of his profession. Your father was a fisherman and may have looked upon it at some time. Or even his father or his father before him. It is documented that such images can be passed down through the generations.’
‘And what of the chest?’
‘As for the chest, that is another matter entirely. I have no knowledge of such a chest. I do think though that we should mention it during our impending “interrogation”, as you like to call it. Nûrgal may know of it.
‘I can however throw a little light on the four symbols that you saw on the casing. Those symbols represent the four sacred artifacts of Chok Apûl which disappeared millennia ago. I know this because one of them resurfaced and has been in our possession at Tak Khiroba. It is the Drathkal; an anonymous little thing really, considering the legends surrounding those items. I say its name quietly and I will refrain completely from naming the others. That is for another time, when events perchance have unfolded further. As to their purpose, that too must wait, although it is not as though I am well versed in the subject. Even the Drathkal has me confounded and it is not for want of trying. I have scrutinized that damnable thing until my eyes could no longer focus and still have I barely touched upon its secrets!’
‘And should three swords have bared their blades? Must I wait for an answer to that also?’ Jak managed to keep the emotion from his voice, but it was not without a struggle.
‘No, my boy. To that you deserve an answer. But I will first ask a question. Why, do you suppose, such a premonition came upon you when it did? I have talked of a “malaise”, but let us be specific.
‘Alas, I am at a loss,’ said Jak, after careful consideration.
‘And can you not guess why I hesitated when Shamul gave his third option?’
‘Again, I am at a loss,’ answered Jak, thoroughly bewildered.
‘Why, dêlyrium was abroad, of course.’ Ravenkar’s smile was wide. ‘Surely you did not doubt me?’
Way up above, the flares cast an uneasy alliance with the retreating rays of sunset, silhouetting the towers in which they burned. The guards on the battlements stared down suspiciously at the galley as it emerged from the gloom beneath, then as its identity became apparent the gate-master was informed. Soon the deep resonant notes of the entrance gong were booming forth from the mouth of Haan, whose armor-garbed effigy straddled the face of the gate. An abrupt reply issued forth from the drum aboard the galley. There then followed a complex exchange of notes known only to gate-master and drum-master, which varied from vessel to vessel, from day to day. These codes could not be readily imparted to the uninitiated and the profession of drum-master was a specialized one; each vessel had their own and this vessel was no exception. The drum-master here was the only seaman not of Shamul’s crew.
At last came the dull grinding sound of giant cogs beginning to turn and ponderously, almost grudgingly, the outer gate began to rise.
As Skîros had expanded, so it had cut back into the steep thickly wooded slopes that flanked the inland reaches of the fjord. The resultant rubble, not being suitable for building material, was simply dumped in the narrow entrance and this, together with the gradually descending cliff walls, was to form the basis of the great wall. Its construction was initiated by one of the city’s earlier chieftain-kings and took the form of a low earth barrage. In those barbarous times Skîros was easy prey for the marauding bands of barbarians that plagued all coastline settlements, irrespective of creed or culture. With its host of wooden dwellings it was particularly vulnerable and suffered a constant cycle of growth, prosperity, inferno. With the barrage however the attacks became less frequent and gradually a sustained flourishing community was established.
The next threat to Skîros came from within. Haan: a man who craved power and was destined for legend. A man who nurtured around him an elite cadre, a vanguard of followers, still considered by many to be the most efficient and ruthless collection of killers in Isladoron’s tempestuous history.
Yet at the outset, few of Haan’s opponents were butchered out of hand. Some were bought off or blackmailed but even recourse to those tactics was seldom required; such was the man’s presence, such was his ability to convince others of his sincerity and righteousness that few amongst those others remained skeptical, still fewer cynical.
The Khir priesthood were completely taken in by his masquerade. He elicited their unqualified support and a valuable asset it proved to be. They saw it as a perfect opportunity to enlighten the less fortunate with their doctrine. Thus the deep-rooted but hitherto introverted religious beliefs of the Khir people were brought to the fore and were the vehicle whereby Haan enlisted their support, so essential initially. The priests actually came to believe in the grandiose concepts and tempting illusions that they set before the people and, almost unnoticed, the tyrant’s control seeped into the bloodstream of Khir, like a slow acting venom. Without quite realizing how it happened the populace found themselves hailing a new leader and Haan’s jihad was underway.
His mastery in the art of war was total, his corps irresistible, thus success came easily; so easily that it seemed right was indeed on his side. It was with sanctimonious piety that those who had no desire to be enlightened were subjugated. Those same unfortunates were then transported to Skîros and put to work on the wall; Haan’s Wall. And there they would die in their thousands.
The wall was to be his eternal monument and as it grew so too did his perception of it; it would come to mirror the growth of his ego. As its shadow fell over Skorfjord so too did Haan’s shadow begin to fall over all of Isladoron.
Where a more prudent general would have consolidated, Haan pressed on relentlessly and so his horde thrived. It was not long before all of civilized Khir fell before him and the coastline of Khâl swiftly followed. But as the barbaric multitude seethed and festered and gathered itself for the plunge into the rich southern plains, their leader’s covetous eyes were to turn in a different direction, beyond the Great Strait and across the Inner Sea, coming to rest on that exotic land of Khanju and its legendary riches. So it was that even as the Shungrung Plains were shuddering beneath the thundering assault of his screaming cavalry, Haan himself, together with his cadre, was heading north.
Legend said that one fateful day those on Djebal Doron awoke to find their island encircled by black sails, all bearing the dread emblem of Haan: the ringed red serpent. What was Haan’s reasoning? That much was never documented. Suffice to say that his fleet could most assuredly have passed to either side and continued on its way to Khanju unhindered. Did his power have to be absolute? Was he irked by that lofty air of superiority assumed by all who ventured forth from that city and was it tacitly accepted, even by those close to hand, that those denizens were the real masters of Isladoron? Whatever the reason, an ultimatum was summarily delivered by Haan in person, whereupon he retired to his flagship to await a reply. Three days he had given them.
But somehow pressure radiated outwards rather than inwards. Unease began to spread through the waiting crews; it was insidious at first, seemingly prompted by the thickening of the misty mantle from which the island seemed to sprout.
It was on the third morning that Haan’s body was discovered; all the evidence suggested that he had died in his sleep, his face a mask of peaceful contentment. His followers knew better. Unease rapidly transcended into panic and for the first time they knew fear. The head of the beast had been removed and so the body began to unravel; the inspiration and the terror that bound it together were gone and the carefully nurtured religious illusions went with them. The priesthood of Khir were to slink back to their mountain retreats and reexamine their ancient vows. The reticent ways that they now displayed were a legacy of that time.
The fleet came about and did not pause in its flight until that terrible place was far behind. It dispersed on its passage down the Great Strait and so it was that only a small core of vessels remained to negotiate the approaches to Skorfjord; to find that the tyrant’s wall had finally been completed.
The galley, sails now furled, was guided gently into the torch-lit complex of quays that awaited it and with grim inevitability the gate grated behind them. As Jak watched it descend a numbing pall of claustrophobia came down with it. Watching that slot of evening light being slowly eclipsed was like observing a coffin lid being lowered into position. He tried to dispel such thoughts immediately but knew he would never relish passing through here, with that enormous weight of masonry poised overhead.
They passed down the central channel, coasting gracefully over slick black water, and Jak began to relax as the arched brick roof sloped ever upwards, finally disappearing into shadow as they neared the inner gate. This gate was in fact two gates which slid apart into recesses cast into the main body of the wall. They formed a much larger access than the outer gate but despite that were still exceptionally sturdy, although their stout timbers could never afford the same protection as the laminated metallic colossus that faced onto the strait. Jak found himself comparing the beautiful painted scenes before him with the dull metallic gleam of that outer gate. Through a yellowing patina of age he was viewing a city such as he had never seen before, where birds soared lazily on outstretched wing around fluted columns and windswept spires. It was an arresting and slightly surreal scene. Was it those languid birds? Was it the blurring of the details that so accentuated their wingspans? He squinted and tried to focus through the spluttering torchlight, but the forms remained maddeningly elusive. Why had he never noticed this before? And it was then that it struck him.
A red sliver of fading sunset cut the ancient city in twain as the gates were dragged apart and as the familiar sight of the fjord unfolded so an appreciation of the unfamiliar finally surfaced. He had never seen that painting before; he had never seen the inner gates closed before! It was a gesture of aggression and was reserved only for times of war, or so he had been told. The inner gate would be opened only when the outer gate had descended. As he shook off the reverie that had settled upon him, he also noticed the number of guards patrolling the bordering quays and sensed the pervading urgency.
Jak’s relief was marked by a blossoming of warm breath into the chill evening air as they cleared the wall and glided out onto the still silent waters of the fjord, pursuing the tantalizing red orb reflected on the surface. It was still well beyond their reach when the wooden jaws of Skîros closed about them.
The lights of the city stretched far up the northern hillside to their right in stark contrast to the more severe face on their southern flank which on occasion plunged almost vertically into the depths. Innumerable wharves reached out to greet them, but they continued leisurely on their way until the slopes on their left became more amenable and swept around before them to form the familiar terraced hub of the city.
Curiously, the wharves petered out here and the stone quayside from which they emerged continued round in a lazy uninterrupted curve. It was topped by a picturesque promenade thronging with people at this early evening hour. But even at that distance Jak could sense a certain agitation in their movements which were thrown into flickering relief as a lamplighter ignited the elevated braziers that punctuated the promenade at regular intervals.
All of this was cut off abruptly from his gaze by a monolithic cylinder of stone that rose from the bed of the fjord like an upthrust arm; a comparison that was given yet more credence by the circular parapet and battlements that topped it off like a clenched fist.
These were the imposing lines of Joel’s Keep, named not after its present occupier but one of his early predecessors. Its labyrinthine innards were distributed over fully ten stories so that whenever the early morning sun began its ascent it would cast a tortuous shadow over the dockland area of the town, the more so as only a narrow expanse of water separated it from the arc of the main quayside. Despite this, no access was offered at that level. Old tales alluded to a network of tunnels beneath the bay but from a practical standpoint the only way into the keep from the landward side was directly below parapet level; it was here that an unassuming portal overlooked the most elegant of bridges, whose single arch transcended not only the water beneath but also the bustle of everyday life in the fishing and commercial quarters, to link the keep directly with the more subdued uphill districts and thereby the main highway in and out of the city. It was referred to as “Arabella’s Arch” after the feisty wife of the earlier Joel, who had eventually succeeded him under distinctly dubious circumstances.
The only other access projected out into the fjord; a steep flight of steps descended to a long wharf against which several large war galleys were presently anchored. It was towards this wharf that the royal galley now turned.
Only two figures were there to acknowledge the homecoming, in line with the secretive nature of the voyage; the captain of Joel’s guard, Erekul, and Princess Azella, only child of Joel and Semira. The one, tall and distant, the other, short and engaging. Azella was not supposed to be there but Ereluk had known better than to argue. She had come primarily to welcome Jak and of course the mentor she shared with him, Ravenkar, but secretly she had hoped to glimpse the infamous Shamul. As it was however, she caught no more than a bellowing shadow in the deepening gloom as the two Khir priests disembarked and made their way towards her.
As Ravenkar’s apprentice it had been inevitable that Jak should encounter Azella, and their relationship was one of warm affection, protocol not allowing it to progress beyond that. Joel’s dislike for protocol was well documented but that attitude did not extend towards his daughter; nevertheless he had a high regard for Jak whom he had known virtually since Ravenkar had taken him under his wing. Jak, for his part, was now well acquainted with the royal sphere and took it all within his phlegmatic stride. Respect had to be earned, king or no king, warlord or not, and he would earn it in his own steady way.
A brief hug and then Jak was looking down into ice-green eyes that stared back at him, unblinking; a wicked smile accompanied the stare.
‘Well, noble sorcerer, what glorious gift have you brought back from the enchanted isle to gain favor with your future empress?’
‘No longer destined to be merely a queen then?’ laughed Jak, his hands closing about her neck and shaking it in mock anger. ‘As always, never a thought about the hardships of our voyage!’
‘None at all,’ joked Azella as she pulled his hands away and they linked arms. ‘Now then, tell me of Djebal Doron. I can barely remember when I last graced its giddy heights. Tell me of the women and their fashions, of the market places and the food. Tell me of Typhon and Alanna; regale me with the dark deeds of the Ultima.’
About her neck was now a choker of beaten metal so fine she knew not that it was even there. At its front, seven petals confined a tiny glinting diamond; the same glint that had mesmerized Jak from afar and had almost persuaded him to claim it as his own.
Jak was pleased with his purchase and his sleight of hand. Thoughts of his premonition were swiftly receding as he began to recount the delights of Djebal Doron to the eager ears of Azella. Ravenkar meanwhile had swept past them and was now in animated discussion with Ambassador Soza as they made their way up the winding steps.
Only the wary figure of Erekul remained at the bottom, watching his charges, listening to their receding conversations. His hand played idly over the hilt of his sword as his head turned in the other direction and the faint sounds of Shamul’s crew came to him from the far end of the wharf. Unease had settled upon him, its clammy threads almost tangible.
Erekul had an instinct for danger and he always took heed of it; indeed it usually left him with little choice, as was the case now. It was more than the heightened awareness of a warrior going into battle. He had often thought it just the opposite. Dullness would impose itself and giddiness would threaten to overcome him; it was as though the filter of his conscious thought was being removed and he could no longer sift through the mass of subliminal information that his mind was exposed to. He could no longer function in the normal way. He would suffer a fleeting panic as he was overwhelmed, but then a different filter would emerge and everything about him would slow; inanimate objects would lose their clarity and could become almost transparent but whereas living images would also blur, they would burn with increased vitality in his mind’s new eye.
For one disconcerting second the planks beneath him had faded but then the sensation was gone and normality had returned. He continued to stare all about him. Never had a warning come and gone so quickly. But where could the danger lie? He realized his sword was drawn and it was with great deliberation that he sheathed it again and stood there, listening, observing. The sun had slipped behind the jagged Peaks of Skor by the time he made his way up the steps and into the keep.
A gluttonous fire crackled over the rough stone hearth, blitzing sparks in all directions. A central oval table, fortunately just out of range of the aggressive ash, was replete with food and drink, hastily set out, but sumptuous nonetheless: two green glazed earthenware platters overflowing with a rich chicken stew, laced with brown rice and bright yellow peppers, garnished with olives and leaves of hara dhania; complementary yellow platters submerged in crabmeat spiced with garlic and pungent adrak, ringed with green chillies. Smaller red dishes piled high with flatbreads or full with simmering accompaniments: green beans with coconut, potatoes with khas khas, aubergine with yogurt and many more.
At one end of this table sat Joel, at the other Semira, his wife. Both were in merry mood. Semira because Joel was, and Joel because he had just emptied a bottle of fine Askalpur wine. As the company entered, he stood up to extend a welcoming hand, staggered, and sat down again. His slight form did not present an imposing figure, slouched as it was in an enormous chair that had been procured from the main banqueting hall. But as enemies could well testify, it was more prudent to pay closer attention to the piercing gray eyes, which took in everything, and the creased parchment face, which betrayed nothing; which treated surprise, disappointment, elation and sorrow as one and the same; which absorbed them and dispersed them, with a minimum of fuss, into its wrinkled folds. A tinge of red presently outlined those piercing gray eyes.
‘Surely the mighty warlord of Skîros is not drunk?’ remarked Azella, feigning indignation.
‘So you would mock me, would you daughter? I will have that waspish tongue of yours removed one of these days. And where might I ask, did you come by that bauble about your neck? The state finances would be far healthier were it not for you and your mother!’
Azella’s hands went up to her neck in surprise. Semira’s followed suit to caress the single pearl that hung about her own neck, staring quizzically at her husband as she did so; it was in fact her sole adornment. Joel pressed on regardless.
‘You appreciate of course that we will need every last copper when the fleet of Skal comes knocking upon our door!’
‘It is though a rather large door,’ murmured Semira, to everyone’s general amusement. Joel’s scowl did little to dampen her captivating smile.
This banter confirmed Jak’s suspicions and explained the extra activity beneath the wall. It also seemed to explain Joel’s desire to indulge himself in the cuisine of southern Khâl; it might be some time before supplies could be replenished. The lack of surprise on the faces of Ravenkar and Soza further told him that Erekul must have already informed them that war with Skal, and by implication Khâl, was imminent.
The enemies of old were demanding retribution for the disappearance of their fish-boat fleet and Jak surmised that they had been intent on this action regardless of the outcome of events at Djebal Doron; regardless of any protestations of innocence from Joel.
The planned celebration was slightly muted at first but the abundance of Askalpur wine had soon eased everyone into a more relaxed frame of mind and with the exit of Ambassador Soza, Joel’s good mood became infectious. Soza was a very valuable and respected member of Joel’s inner sanctum but was not a man who could ever be accused of behaving with reckless abandon. Over the next few hours a succession of people wandered in and out of the impromptu gathering, some invited, others not. Such was the nature of Joel’s court. None of the guests however slipped past the intense scrutiny of Erekul and his guards.
Thus did the evening slip by, an informal affair spent in much merriment and feasting. Indeed, why not? They were invulnerable as long as they cared to remain behind the impregnable bastion that was Haan’s Wall.
The servants had doused the torches long ago. Only the waning light of the fire lingered. The smoke-scented atmosphere had added to the stupefying effect of the drink: Joel was slumped forward over the table at one end, Semira was lying back in her plushly padded seat at the other, wrapped in a huge shawl; Azella had curled up in front of the hearth, Jak’s coat wrapped loosely about her; Jak was in a corner of the room, slumped on the bare wooden floor, the task of arranging three large cushions into a comfortable position having proved to be beyond him; Ravenkar sat cross-legged in another corner, dozing. He had retired there at a relatively early stage in the proceedings, claiming fatigue from the journey. His pipe however lay suspiciously at his side. He had refused all protestations from Erekul to the effect that a bed might in fact be more comfortable than a section of bare floor.
All were at peace.
A faint ripple stirred at the bow of the royal galley as something detached itself from the hull. It passed unobserved to the base of the keep wall. Two skeletal hands reached out and clasped at the bare stone. A guard’s head turned briefly at the faint sound of splashing water. He idly looked out over the battlements but could not make out the warped black cloak of skin that clung to the wall.
Sunken violet eyes peered upward from an oversized skull bereft of hair or flesh, possessing instead only an iridescent layer of scarred tissue; the misshapen frame that supported it was clothed likewise. It moved up the wall in a series of swift jerks. The quick staccato motion complemented its appalling appearance.
It hung, poised, at the top of the wall; waiting.
Faint steps now! Stamping of cold feet. The guard stopped, leant against his spear and blew into cupped hands. He stared instinctively up at the night sky as yet more heavenly debris flamed across its dark fabric, then casually down through the adjacent crenel into the murk beneath. Yellow fangs had sunk into his throat almost before his sight had registered the nacreous patchwork skull leering back at him. Again, the economic snatching movement, this time to prevent the spear clattering to the ground. Together with the guard it was dragged into the shadows.
The creature continued on its way, more slowly now, more purposeful. Its bony feet rasped against the stone floors. At the slightest sound it crouched menacingly within its cloak and so remained unnoticed, undetected. Down twisting stairways it passed, wraithlike, deeper and deeper into the heart of the keep, until it chanced upon a long arched corridor.
A faint trace of smoke disturbed its sensitive nostrils. At the midpoint of the passage, to the left, was an opening. Next to it a sentry was leaning back into the recess formed by the door column and the wall; his head nodded uncertainly. The black shape crept surely along the wall, then stopped abruptly. The sentry was shaking his head vigorously. He looked directly into the bright torchlight above the lintel in an effort to shake off his torpor and then took a few paces forward and shook his head again. Too late did he see the distorted shadow on the wall before him, springing up to engulf his own. A muted gargle was the only warning he could give before his neck snapped and he was lowered silently to the ground.
The five slumbering occupants of the hall were unaware of the deadly glowing figure that lurked in the doorway, a savage barbed knife in its bony clutch. It crossed silently to the large central table and looked searchingly about. Emaciated lips were drawn back to allow a low prolonged hiss to pass between. There, before the hearth, lay its quarry. Yet the creature paused. About the sleeping figure was a mantle, a vague disturbing shroud that it wondered at. No matter. In one silent bound it was there, knife poised and ready to strike. It allowed itself a moment of exultation, allowed itself to savor what was to come; the removal of life from the form below.
And then Azella turned over. The creature suppressed a scream as a pale red radiance assaulted its eyes. It staggered desperately back, fighting paralysis, as the searing ray of light seemed to seek it out.
Azella settled back and the pain was gone. Violet eyes bore down into her. It dared not approach again, for fear she should stir once more. Robbed of its prey, its eyes turned elsewhere. It sensed power all around. But not here; this one would suffice.
Thus were Semira’s last moments terrible indeed. As slimy fingers fell upon her mouth to suppress any cry she might make, she awoke and saw the grinning monstrosity. It jabbed the blade deep into her heart, then with sadistic malice, transfixed her to the chair.
Early morning, cold and damp. Erekul was not quite fast enough. As he had sprung over the slumped form of the sentry, whiplash sword drawn and ready to mete out steely death, he had awakened Joel. Though his eyes were bleary and his wits not yet about him, the old warlord would never forget the pleading face of his wife, exposed to him for an instant before the cloak of his captain had concealed it from him.
Tears of disbelief had welled in Joel’s eyes by the time he reached the slumped form of his wife. With one arm he steadied himself against Erekul, with the other he stretched out, trembling, towards the covering cloak and pulled it back. Erekul had closed Semira’s eyes and attempted to knead the flesh of her face, but as if to torment him, the rictus was already returning. It was of no consequence. All that Joel would ever see would be the helpless bulbous eyes and that creased convulsed face.
New tears now welled in his eyes; grief had displaced disbelief. Despite this his words came in measured tones. ‘Cordon off this area, Erekul. Close the main gate and ensure that not a single person leaves this keep. Check with the watch and ascertain if anyone departed during the night. After that, everyone within the confines of these walls will be questioned. I will have this Skalian assassin!’
Erekul was taking heed of the words but his thoughts were elsewhere; with the dead guard on the battlements and with the fleeting glimpse of danger that had passed his way on the wharf.
Ravenkar and Jak also heard the words but had eyes only for the knife.
Azella did not hear the words. Rage and despair battled within her to gain the upper hand.
At that moment, a small fish-boat passed through the outer gate of Haan’s Wall and had anyone on board been staring intently downwards into the water, they might have seen a dark shape detach itself from the hull and glide swiftly away, southwards.
Just before noon the same fish-boat returned to report that a vast fleet had been sighted approaching from the east, heading directly towards Skîros. As if on cue, as the sun reached its zenith, a line of purple sails broached the horizon.