Men in shining armor looked down derisively from the battlements of Haan’s Wall. Every now and again an archer would loose a nonchalant arrow at the packed body of galleys below, never bothering to follow the flight and see where it might strike. Time and again, flaming metal projectiles would be launched at the wall, only to rebound harmlessly into the sea. All mere gestures. Eventually the Khâlian fleet, purple Skalian sails at its heart, retired and formed a loose arc about the fjord entrance, out of range of anything that could be deployed against them. The blockade of Skîros had begun.Despite the posturing, this had always been the inevitable outcome. Both forces were well aware of the fact that a large portion of the Khâlian army was presently disembarking far to the south and the blockade was to ensure freedom from harassment by the Khir fleet. It was also to ensure that supply lines would remain unmolested. And so the easterners had dropped anchor and readied themselves for a long stay, thoughts straying perchance to events transpiring behind the great wall. Their musings would not come close.
Sad-eyed people lined the narrow streets all the way back to the bridge. The lower reaches of the city were deserted and only the harsh cries of the gulls echoed along the quayside. As the funeral cortege plodded on its solemn way to the cemetery, the weather too was in mourning, as a low bank of ashen clouds shed its tears. Large white petals of agosynthia littered the route leaving a dignified argentine trail where they had been crushed underfoot. Even a single bloom was the worth of a day’s wages to the local fishermen, yet the trail was unbroken. It led to an unassuming plot on the edge of a much larger cemetery and here were more petals, delicate and pink this time, from the semicircular stand of cherry trees that marked its small boundary.
Joel welcomed the encircling arms of the blossoming trees as he followed Semira’s coffin to the vault within. He gleaned a small comfort as he stood before the door. There was a warmth and solidity to the close-grained cherrywood and as he read down through the list of elaborately carved names he knew that it wouldn’t be too long before his own would be added. Then he could lie in undisturbed peace next to his beloved wife.
Azella’s arm on his own brought him out of this brief succor and with trembling hand he turned the key and stepped back. Erekul, smoldering brand in hand, stooped under the low lintel and made his way tentatively down the narrow flight of steps into the bowels of the vault. As he lit the scented wax torches therein the bearers, six in number, stepped forward. All eyes were on them and the coffin that they bore, for these were men of the Clann: the legacy of Haan’s cadre, its traditions and methods handed down through the centuries. Rarely were they seen at all, let alone as they were now without their grotesque black-plumed helmets. An elite force, few in number, fearsome in reputation.
Tight fitting black cloaks covered thigh length jerkins of gleaming chain mail and black armored leggings extended down to the tops of their polished greaves. The decorative sabatons on their feet were worn solely for such occasions. In perfect unison they descended the steps, followed closely by Joel and Azella. In perfect unison they reemerged moments later, followed by Erekul.
It was some time before a tearful Azella reappeared, closing the door behind her. With a great deal of composure she crossed over to Erekul and together, with backs to the vault, they watched the great throng of people slowly dispersing down the hillside. The six of the Clann stood to attention, now reunited with their distinctive helmets, and waited while the warlord of Skîros grieved.
The hunched figure of Joel stood motionless before his wife’s resting place, framed in flickering torchlight. Only now did he release his tongue from the grip of his teeth and allow emotion to intrude. He had never expected to see this day and he allowed a great tide of grief to wash over him. Thoughts of their life together passed through his mind and he allowed the tears to flow.
It could have been an eternity before a voice called out to him from the murky recesses of the chamber. The voice did not bring fear; it did not even bring curiosity, for the sadness that had befallen him would not allow it. His eyes discerned the obscure outline of a man he had not seen in decades, but whom he recognized instantly: it was the Shaman Ultima. The image floated towards him. Whether real or hallucinatory, Joel remained undismayed.
‘Am I not to be left alone for even this short time with my sorrow?’
‘I must speak with you now Joel, before your sorrow subsides in the face of anger and thoughts of revenge cloud all reasoning,’ came the eerie reply.
‘Then you are too late, Ultima!’
‘Very well. The fate of this city and the people within it mean naught to me. But know that as you squabble with your enemies of old from the east, an enemy more ancient, the true aggressor in this affair, will come and smite you both; and then, as before, Djebal Doron will stand alone. And this time I fear, Djebal Doron will not prevail.’
Joel swallowed. He was at breaking point. He had taken his fill of subtle treacheries and had sworn to himself that his anger, and the anger of his people, would be translated into vengeful action. Yet, could he afford to doubt the enigmatic figure before him?
Nûrgal waited. He had contrived this callous approach to convince Joel of his sincerity, if indeed Joel’s mind could still be reached.
Joel stood there, his eyes bulging and his fists clenched.
‘You are telling me that the Khâlians are not responsible for this outrage?’
‘I would imagine that news of it has just reached them by now. But then I suspect that you know that. You are a wise man Joel, but not so wise that you can fool yourself forever. Your pain is dire and you feel the need to lash out. This I understand. But what of Erekul’s concerns? And what of the knife? I understand that the monastery at Tak Khiroba has a weapon of similar eccentric design. No Joel, only one question lingers for me. Why Semira and not Azella?’
Joel knelt now, next to Semira’s coffin, elbows on knees and hands steepled. A conflict raged within him. He did not want to have to think, only to grieve. And then to avenge.
More time passed.
‘What do you require of me, Ultima?’
Nûrgal’s image moved further into the dim light.
‘My thoughts have turned to Azella. Was she deliberately spared or did something deflect the hand of the assassin? You know already that even the sturdy walls of your keep cannot prevent harm befalling her. I would respectfully ask that you dispatch her immediately to Djebal Doron together with the two priests who accompanied your recent delegation; they could be of great assistance to me.
‘The army that has landed to the south; it must be delayed. I say “delayed” because I do not consider that you can defeat it without the vanguard of your army, namely the Clann. Yet the Clann’s involvement must be minimal. At the last they must be available for the greater conflict. Much may depend upon them.’
‘So you would ask me to sacrifice my army and in all likelihood, this very city? I think that you ask rather a lot, Nûrgal y Naimon! If circumstances were normal I would consider it sacrilege to question your words. But circumstances are not normal. Indeed I may be unhinged, even as we speak. So far unhinged in fact that I would ask you to provide some substance to your words.’
This time it was Nûrgal who paused. When he spoke, there was a resigned finality to his words.
‘I had hoped this would not be necessary, at least not yet. But I can see now that you must know. Prepare yourself, warlord of Skîros.’ The Ultima approached. ‘Look toward my face and gaze upon that which threatens us all!’
The eddying mists of morning still played about the corpses; battered, mutilated corpses that were strewn everywhere upon the blood-stained turf. A cloaked figure was surveying the scene, monstrous spear in hand. Slowly it turned and Joel reeled back. Before him a skeletal aberration stood, iridescent skin wrapped loosely about it, violet impassive eyes glowering forth. Within those eyes burned a terrible intelligence.
When the vision had faded, Nûrgal had gone. Joel’s startled eyes fell once more upon the coffin. Slowly he walked up to it and placed a gentle kiss upon it. Then he turned on his heel and strode out of the vault.
The smell of incense mingled with the stench of oily lamps, providing an odd sweet and sour combination to the atmosphere. Joel had insisted on the lamps, to provide the right ambience. He had a history of such idiosyncrasies and none of those present had argued or even commented. They could forgive him a great deal at the moment and if Joel wanted those lamps they would see to it that he had them. The only sign of displeasure was an occasional guttural cough.
As it happened, ambience was about all that the lamps did contribute for they did little to dispel the darkness from the small windowless room in which they hung, deep within the keep. They had been suspended from the low ceiling, one in each corner, but the opaque green crystal glass that covered them almost nullified the effect of the crudely fashioned lenses inside.
Dimly lit corners however were of little consequence. All eyes were focused on the circular tabletop in the center of the room which was amply illuminated by another oil lamp, this one shielded with plain glass. Maps were strewn everywhere: maps of antiquity with arcane descriptions and fanciful symbols, their vellum edges eroded with age; modern small-scale maps of high quality paper and penmanship showing the area to the south where the Khâlian forces had landed and the steppes beyond; large-scale maps covering the main approach down into Skîros and various areas around the Peaks of Skor; and many more.
Sweat glistened on Joel’s brow and although his face was as impassive as ever, his fidgeting fingers betrayed an uncharacteristic trace of nervousness. He had just listened to General Tarkal, backed up by Erekul, outline an ambitious plan that they had obviously hatched between them and was now having to face up to the resultant chaos that was erupting around the table. Even the normally reticent Soza was managing to get involved; although the man possessed no official rank in Joel’s forces his grasp of tactical situations was invaluable and his sparse commentaries were seldom ignored. Together with Ravenkar, he was Joel’s most trusted confidant.
In a deep gruff voice that in no way matched his fragile fastidious appearance, General Tarkal, with the aid of a lethal wooden pointer that he brandished with some relish, had been forthright and concise, as always.
‘At present, the Khâlian hordes will be trekking through the Kumbala Fen. As you are aware and as is intimated by the name, this is a great expanse of marshland formed at the estuary of the Kumbala. It is not an ideal place to establish a beachhead: the air there is oppressively humid and is rife with disease carrying insects; pathways are not clearly defined. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the nature of that coastline, it was probably their best option.
‘On emerging from that wilderness, both man and beast will be tired. They will require food and fresh water. The rolling steppes that stretch out before them will provide such nourishment, but only if ripe swaying cornfields remain unscorched, if bubbling springs do not yield poisoned waters. We are seeking the help of the Steppe Lords in this. Riders have already been dispatched to Kartha Nagal. The Tzarr will not be kindly disposed to an army marching through the South Steppe, nor indeed to an army with intentions on Skîros. Hopefully his light “keshik” units will hound the enemy all the way to the Nrulu Valley.’
The general had paused and looked pointedly about him, giving a chance for dissenting voices. There had been none. He had sipped some wine and then continued. ‘Having traversed the steppes, our enemies will enter a region of foothills which will inevitably channel them into the aforementioned Nrulu Valley and from this broad vantage point they will see the Peaks of Skor rearing above them. Also above them, but distinctly more accessible, they will see their initial goal, the Plateau of Kananaaltra, whose flat windswept reaches curve west and then north around the peaks like a crescent highway. Along this barren route they will tread until it finally meets with the pass at Mithra Sol, the only breach in our mountain fortress, from where, no doubt, they intend to sweep down upon us.’
Although all in that room were loathe to admit it, the invasion had caught them slightly unawares. The first act of aggression had been enacted against the Khâlians and with righteous indignation they had responded incisively, while Skîros had dithered in disbelieving calm behind her wall. Thus far General Tarkal had just stated the obvious. The immediate objective of their enemies was the Plateau of Kananaaltra upon which they intended to force the initial engagement. It now seemed as though they would achieve this goal, for the route of the defenders, up to Mithra Sol and around the plateau to the head of the Nrulu Valley, was long and circuitous.
Considering that he was such a small man General Tarkal’s capacity for alcohol was enormous, bestowing upon him an almost legendary status amongst the men he commanded. Thus it was that not a single soul in that assembly had raised so much as an eyebrow as he drained the glass of wine before him prior to continuing. ‘As I see it, our Khâlian friends really must not gain the plateau. As they make their ascent to it, along the upper reaches of the Nrulu Valley, so does everything fall under the shadow of the outer peaks; a bleak area riddled with a honeycomb of tunnels and passes which are permanently snowbound. For the Khâlians to go on and negotiate this terrain, despite the shorter option it provides, would be impossible. Yet could the Clann perchance take up the option? Could they pass in the opposite direction and take up position at the head of the valley, gaining me time to lead a force over Mithra Sol and around the plateau? This whilst General Ulan lands a third force at Kumbala Fen and cuts off any retreat!’
And so to the chaos, as dissenting voices, predominantly that of Soza, had been raised aplenty. But now, before General Tarkal could respond, Erekul was on his feet. ‘Gentlemen, let your anger fall on me. It is I who persuaded General Tarkal that this last feat, tasked to General Ulan, was possible, although in mitigation I did not betray the intimate knowledge with which I have been entrusted. I look now to our warlord for permission to do so.’
As well as looking nervous Joel now also looked distracted, disinterested even, and merely nodded, whereupon Erekul continued. ‘This knowledge of which I speak is, and always has been, privy to only three: Lord Joel as ruler of Skîros, myself as his captain, and Gregor as his gate-master. It provides the answer to the question that you all would ask and that I give voice to now: How, when we must pass only two boats abreast from Haan’s gate, can we hope to bypass the ring of the Khâlian fleet which clutches at our very throat?’ And now just the flicker of a smile passed across his lips. ‘For that you must acquaint yourselves with Haan’s perverted genius and know that where wall meets cliff at its southern end, there exists a second gate!’
Erekul stood back from the table to witness the full effect of that statement. To all who lived in Skîros the Wall was fundamental; as night followed day so did its shadow intervene upon their lives. They knew its every contour, its every stone. To be told such as this was tantamount to heresy. So great was the astonishment that Erekul was able to continue before another word had been uttered. ‘Yes indeed, another gate! A curtain wall of masonry hides it from view and behind is a channel that runs along the length of the wall and into the main central canal. Of course that particular junction is well concealed. In nearly two millennia, neither has it been used nor even detected. It is well that Gregor and his predecessors have maintained the concealment mechanism.’
‘And once the gate is revealed, Erekul, what then?’ Soza uttered this as though the existence of a secondary gate had been common knowledge.
‘It will have to be well organized. Once inside, the channel itself is narrow, such that only a single vessel can pass through. At the gate itself though, we can line up galleys three abreast, perhaps even four. I might add in passing, should events go against us, there are also additional barriers that can be lowered into place along that section although the gate-master is not quite so confident that these will still function without a little persuasion.’
‘So from an offensive perspective, would I be correct in saying that a combination of darkness and surprise could see us release a considerable force into the Strait before the Khâlians know it is upon them?’ Soza continued.
‘I would say a decisive force,’ Erekul replied. ‘After all, the Khâlians are only blockading the main gate, not the entire length of the wall, and their numbers will dwindle daily. An army such as has been landed at the Fen requires many supplies, hopefully the more so after the Tzarr’s cavalry have implemented their hit-and-run tactics.’
Now a new voice was added to the fray as General Ulan took to his feet. By no means as groomed as his fellow general in appearance, he was nevertheless held in similar regard. There was about him a confident world-weary look. His long gray hair was pulled back into a ponytail to reveal tired eyes of the same hue and a face that carried many a scar. This was not a man one would disobey lightly, nor indeed a man one would wish to engage in an argument. In clipped precise words that would have been more suited to Tarkal, he voiced his concerns. ‘Gentlemen, forgive me, but I am yet dwelling on the first of General Tarkal’s propositions, not the last. I do not for one moment question the prowess of our comrades in the Clann but have they been consulted as to the feasibility of their allotted task? I feel the word “bleak” is not an all-encompassing description of the road we ask them to travel.’
So saying, he fixed Tarkal and then Erekul with questioning stares and promptly sat down again.
It was a somewhat muted response from General Tarkal. ‘The leader of the Clann has in fact been consulted and, ah… well, he assures us that the task in hand is not beyond their capabilities.’
‘In that case, I think it is a perfectly splendid plan and propose that we vote upon it immediately,’ General Ulan responded, not bothering to stand this time. ‘Oh, and by way of passing, might I just enquire as to how it has been possible to conceal the existence of this “second gate” over such a prolonged period of time. Might I just profess my profound disappointment that such a feat should be possible. It is a slight on the garrulous reputation of our court, our army and our town!’
‘That, I think, is for me to answer,’ said Joel assertively, his hesitancy gone, at least momentarily. He sighed deeply as he stood. ‘It is a disturbing tale and one from which I take no pleasure in telling.
‘In the time of Haan it was simply referred to as the “South Section”. Workers came and workers went, but a very tight check was kept on all who worked at that particular location. They may not have disappeared immediately, that would have been too obvious, but believe me, disappear they inevitably did. Every laborer, every stonemason, every engineer: dispatched with characteristic Clann efficiency. Thereafter only a select number knew of the South Section and even as the wall neared completion the secret in its bowels was a fading memory. Soon, that select number had dwindled to three, and always thus has it been. As to the logic of it, perhaps as Erekul has already intimated, the ruthless twisted mind that was Haan’s foresaw such a day as this.
‘But now my friends,’ and he did not pause at this point, concerned perchance that his resolve might desert him, ‘we must vote on this most noble proposal that has been put before us.’ So saying, he looked to Soza who sat on his immediate left and thence his gaze went slowly around his assembled advisors. One by one they raised their right hand in assent until his gaze fell upon the final figure in the circle. Two hands remained implacably on the table but menacing eyes narrowed and a blunt bald head swiveled to look directly at Joel.
‘Ah, Krul, you know me better than most.’ Joel lapsed into silence and his eyes seemed to glaze over. The council waited expectantly and finally, when he spoke again, it was in slow measured terms. ‘As you know gentlemen, even should you give your unanimous support to a scheme, I still have the power to veto it. In this instance, I choose to do so.’
Erekul looked momentarily aghast but regained his composure in an instant. The others remained studiously impassive and waited for their lord to continue.
‘If the only threat we faced was from those wretches across the Strait then you would have my unqualified support. Such however is not the case. In this I have been persuaded by the Ultima himself. He has convinced me totally, and in this I will not be swayed! No more will I reveal at present.
‘The fleet will remain within the Wall. Krul, you will still make the journey through the mountains with your beloved Clann, but your task will be to delay the Khâlians until our forces have been mobilized and have made their way up to Mithra Sol and beyond. Alas, it will be upon the Plateau of Kananaaltra that the main engagement will be fought, where our enemies expect it. If the Clann can buy enough time to ensure the exact location will be of our choosing, so much the better. If they cannot, well so be it. When the Khâlians have gained the plateau, the Clann must retreat whence they came and observe. Once the main body of the enemy has passed along the plateau then Krul, you must lead your men back as best you can and reassemble in Skîros.’
Joel looked at Krul as though expecting some form of protest, but none was forthcoming. The leader of the Clann was studying a particular green and brown parchment on the tabletop. Despite the relative proximity of the Kananaaltra plateau, such was its remote location that few there were familiar with it. Krul was one of the few. His response was characteristically brief and to the point. ‘The maps of Kananaaltra will suffice. As for the route up there, the maps appear to be lacking. The Obakrag would be the obvious place for General Tarkal to make his stand. Only there does Kananaaltra narrow, but it is well past Mithra Sol; otherwise I fear the worst. I pray we can reach the head of the Nrulu before the Khâlians.’
‘As do I, Krul, as do I,’ murmured Joel.
Outside the council room, Ravenkar waited. As Joel emerged he laid his hand on the shaman’s shoulder, partly in greeting and partly for support. ‘Well, old friend, a parting of the ways is upon us once more. It is a difficult burden that I must charge you with; and your apprentice. Take care of my daughter, Ravenkar. I sense that as events unfold she will have a large part to play, although I wish it was otherwise. See that she treads carefully in Typhon’s court. And Shamul? I presume the rogue is now lounging about in Tolja?’
‘The ale in that area is particularly potent so I would say that your assumption is not an unreasonable one,’ said Ravenkar, smiling.
‘Give him my thanks, Ravenkar, both for that which has gone and that which is to come.’
The purple and black skies of dawn. Howling winds surged about the bridge. It quivered in response. Beneath the protective arch of the gatehouse, Ravenkar donned his rain cloak and pulled tight the knotted chord that secured the hood. He looked out at the sheets of rain lashing down onto the smooth paved surface that lead off into the darkness, whilst Jak whispered restraining words to the steed at his side. The great black beast appeared to understand the soothing sounds it heard, and became quiet. Its two companions, of even larger stature, were also eager to be off. These were Clann horses, bred on the North Steppe. They were of proud head and wild mane: there could be no finer horses in all the world.
Joel helped Azella up into the saddle, her gloved hands tiny gripping those enormous reins. Although she loved riding and was an extremely capable horsewoman, she was unused to such a beast as this. Her moist eyes peered down at her father.
‘Why the tears, child? At last you will grace the court of Typhon. Fear not, we shall be reunited soon, assuming you do not incur his wrath with that razor-edged tongue of yours!’ He kissed her outstretched hand and stepped back. Her words were lost in the wind as the three dark stallions charged recklessly across Arabella’s Arch and into the driving rain.
Sparks reared up from rounded cobbles and the sound of clattering hooves echoed through empty streets. The horses veered sharply from the main road that would have led them eventually up to Mithra Sol and instead sped in a long loop through the back streets of the town. Soon dwellings were left far behind and the predominating scents were of sodden grass, wet bark and damp leaves. Onwards and upwards they thundered, through the pines of the northern slopes and into the snow clad mountains. A peel of thunder heralded noon’s arrival and the skies retained their alien purple hue throughout the afternoon, as the horses trudged sure-footedly over the slushy pass that led to Tolja.
The pace quickened again. Down through sullen forests and across swollen streams. By the time woodland had given way to rugged heathland, dark fingers of evening sky were entwined with the purple. With riders exhausted and almost asleep in the saddle the black beasts charged remorselessly on, but it was not until midnight beckoned that they finally espied the lights of Tolja far below. Hurriedly, they slowed the horses down to a trot to more easily negotiate the curving road that clung to the side of the plunging cliff face. It was the only route in and out of the town, but they had still encountered no-one by the time stone and timber embraced them at its end. And now, as the harbor gradually emerged through the driving rain, with it came the all-pervading smell of the sea; a timely reminder of the dangerous voyage that awaited them.
Shamul paced across the floor of the Red Pilchard yet again, making towards the door. Only two of his crew remained, slumped over a table in one of the many dimly lit alcoves that adjoined the main room. The rest would have passed out either to the groans of the galley timbers or those of the more obliging womenfolk who frequented the harbor; despite the tales that would be circulating on the morrow, he suspected it would be the galley timbers that took precedence, given the amount of ale that had been consumed. He pushed open the door for the umpteenth time that night and peered expectantly down the street. As the curtain of rain parted briefly to reveal three magnificent horses, he knew that his precious cargo had arrived at last.
Ravenkar and Jak wearily dismounted as Shamul’s great hands encircled Azella’s waist and lowered her to the ground, like a child. An overawed stable boy led the horses away, a gold coin in his pocket and instructions to provide only the best for his charges; they would return the following day with Joel’s messenger.
The landlady of the Pilchard, a bustling busybody of a woman called Wanda, had prepared a table close to the fire and now fussed about them. The voluminous folds of her dress hid even her feet from view and such was the economy of her leg movement it was as though she trundled around them on wheels. The plates that she brought out were stocked with barbecued fish, leafy salads and the spicy cubed potatoes that were a speciality of the region. Mugs of mulled wine waited their turn, which was not long in coming. Azella, who had been on the verge of passing out, now had a new lease of life and began to engage in animated conversation with Wanda. Ravenkar and Jak on the other hand were not much interested in talking, or if they had been, were quite unable to do so, such were the prodigious amounts of food they were cramming into their mouths. Eventually Ravenkar attempted to strike up a conversation with Shamul, who was still pacing restlessly.
‘Is the Kraken concealed far up the fjord, Shamul?’
‘Neither is it concealed, nor is it far!’ came the laconic reply. ‘As a matter of fact, it is moored not a stone’s throw from the back door of this inn.’
‘Is that altogether wise?’ enquired Ravenkar, arched eyebrows betraying his surprise.
‘Why certainly it is wise, old one. Where better to tie up one’s boat than outside the best inn a town can provide?’
Ravenkar returned to his food.
It was nearing high tide. Shamul stood on the approach to the quayside, scowling at each member of the returning crew as they staggered reluctantly by him. With each passing moment his frown became more pronounced. A large crowd had gathered at the quay to watch the departure of the infamous galley. They were muttering excitedly and pointing as Azella, flanked by Ravenkar and Jak, wended her way through. She accepted the proffered arm of the giant before her and trod tentatively up the gangplank. As her sandaled feet met the black timbers of the deck, she knew security for the first time since her mother’s murder. She instinctively felt that she could trust this fierce man and his dubious crew. For a little while at least she had naught to fear, for who would dare attack this vessel?
The beginning of the voyage was pleasant enough, coasting down the long twisting fjord and winding through countless wooded spurs. Often these spurs narrowed the waters to little more than the width of the extended oars, accentuating the bulk of the galley. At such times the prospect of a successful passage would appear distinctly remote, but just when it seemed the oars must surely be shipped, so did the banks retreat again. Never though was there any doubt about the depth; the waters beneath absorbed the merest hint of a reflection into their still realm.
As the mouth of the fjord approached, the forbidding Kraken was put into clearer perspective as the banks became permanently divorced, their slopes steepened and the blanket of trees thinned out. Yet even here it dominated the scene, a savage black splinter working its way out into the strait.
Whilst keeping a careful lookout for errant purple sails to the south, they turned out of Tolfjord and made for the center of the strait, thence onto a northward heading. For a few hours at least, Shamul would risk detection and take maximum advantage of the southerly breeze that swept down the length of the great rift. He gave orders for the mainsail to be unfurled, and then the smaller forward sail, as they ran unashamedly before the wind.
To all except Azella the voyage was uneventful. Her pretence of a seasoned traveler was quickly discarded and she could only stare wide-eyed at the flanking cliffs as they reached up ever further. For long hours she watched, first from the port bow and over towards Isla Khir, then from the starboard bow, until the cliffs of Isla Khâl were shrouded in cloud. As she turned away from the bow and its invigorating spray, the steady motion of the galley swiftly lulled her into a sleepy torpor; the previous day’s exertions were also weighing heavily upon her and so she retired to her cabin below, comfortable despite the fact it was a hastily converted storeroom. She collapsed onto the bunk and fell into a deep sleep.
It was only as night approached that Azella finally stirred from her slumbers, prompted by the murmurings of the crew above deck. She dressed hastily and went up to see what was happening. She found that they had strayed back across to skirt the Khir coastline and she recalled Shamul’s intention to approach Djebal Doron from the west, thus reducing the likelihood of trouble. The mainsail amidships drove them forward at a steady rate but the forward sail had been furled.
Cloud had descended but she could still make out the focus of the crew’s attention. Two eerie shadows off the port beam, peering out at them from a small bay, following their progress. And was that wreckage wallowing in the bay? The crew had been very courteous thus far, obviously under orders to keep her at a respectful distance and so it was to Ravenkar that she looked initially for some explanation of the general clamor.
‘Young lady, had you perhaps enquired as to the comings and goings of our previous voyage, then would you know what has occurred here. Now, we have passed into the Inner Sea and as we begin to leave the cover of the cliffs, so will our passage get rougher. I suggest you return below deck and attempt to get some sleep.’ So saying, he patted her patronizingly on the head and resumed his conversation with Abduul. Azella took a deep breath, spun on her heel and tottered down to the stern deck where Jak and Shamul were obviously sharing a joke. She tugged sharply on Jak’s cloak and asked him what all the fuss was about.
‘Well, daughter of Joel, had you perhaps shown more interest in our last voyage through these waters and not been so preoccupied with the sights and sounds of Djebal Doron, then would your questioning be unnecessary.’ The pause that followed, accompanied by the malevolent spark in Azella’s eyes caused Jak to hastily review his response and thus it was that she became acquainted with the life and death struggle that had taken place before those watchful caves. By the time Jak had finished his tale her anger had gone.
For a long time she sat in her bunk, knees pulled up under her chin, and sobbed quietly to herself. By the time that sleep had once again reclaimed her, a transition had taken place. It would be the first of several in the coming months that would see her lapse into a permanent state of self pity and insanity, or would mold her with an icy resolve.
The air was damp and heavy when she awoke agian. The Kraken seemed motionless. Gone was the lilting roll, the sound of creaking timbers and the mainsail straining in a buffeting wind. She donned her hooded cloak and tip-toed, without quite knowing why, out of the cabin and up onto the deck. The sight that met her eyes caused her to stumble over the top step and sprawl headlong over the damp timbers. Even so, her gaze was held by the dense strands of mist that hurtled around the galley like a corkscrewing tornado. The border between sky and sea had simply vanished. To Azella, the revolving mists swept down past the guard rail on one side, looped beneath the hull and reemerged on the other side, before arcing mightily overhead. All in shattering silence.
A hand gripped the hood at the back of her neck and pulled her unceremoniously to her feet. Although the galley had in fact ceased its habitual rolling, the swirling vapors had a disorientating giddying effect. She clutched at the lanky figure next to her and was taken aback when her hands brushed against the icy coldness of a seaman’s shortened hauberk. A quick glance informed her that all the crew were similarly attired in their battle gear.
‘What tricks do the gods play upon us this night, Imrhad? Have we aroused Varvak’s anger?’ she whispered, but halfheartedly, beginning to think she was in some dreamscape.
‘It is dawn, girl,’ came the gruff reply, ‘and I do not believe in gods. Demons though, that is a different matter altogether. Now careful, lest you should suffer a more serious fall.’
Then, without warning, the entire vessel was bathed in a warming orange glow. All eyes were turned forward and were mesmerized by the circle that was the sun, directly before them. It was only the sun that could be discerned; of the sky or the sea, naught was visible. It waited there at the end of that curious spinning tube of mist, as though to bestow upon them an infernal conclusion to their voyage, but then it became apparent that the tube was widening and slowing. Its walls were moving inexorably away on either side towards the horizon, so that sea and sky were soon restored to their proper perspectives. Cold dark waters were revealed beneath lowering banks of swollen cloud and initially, with eyes still smarting from the brief appearance of the sun, no-one noticed the intrusion of elongated globules of white into the sullen pinks and grays above.
The coalescing occurred rapidly, as droplets converge on a pane of glass and merge to form a larger bead, until something akin to a small cyclone had developed directly ahead of them.
In the stern, Ravenkar eyed the phenomenon over the billowing mainsail and cast a nervous eye at Shamul.
‘Prepare yourself captain, for dêlyrium is abroad here!’
Even as he said the words, the sky was rent asunder and the cyclonic swirl began to pivot. As it attained the vertical it began to descend, gaining forward momentum all the while, until a great flaming disc of energy was bearing down upon them, white and frenzied.
Only the sea saved them from instant destruction as it slowed the disc’s spinning momentum. As the outer edge scored the wave-strewn surface and sent towering geysers of steam rearing skywards, writhing multicolored strands of crackling energy were revealed within. Small gouts of that energy now began to break off the slowing edge and come arcing towards them and it became obvious that the diminished speed had provided but a temporary reprieve. These clusters approached almost stealthily with a languid flaring grace and it was fortunate that they came at the Kraken from beyond her bow for had they straddled her amidships, her fate would have been sealed. Initially however they seared the surface only to either side of the defiant galley, leaving chaotic frothing trails in their wake, even if those trails did toss her around like a bobbing cork. It was though, only a matter of time.
When their luck finally ran out Azella, somehow, was still upright, her eyes fixed with resigned fascination upon their approaching doom. A bolt hit the prow head on, but there was no shattering or burning of wood: it simply passed through, leaving a gaping hole in its wake as it did next with the bottom spar and part of the mainsail; as it would have done with Azella had not Imrhad crashed into her, knocking her almost senseless onto the deck. Rudely awoken from her torpor, she turned to extricate herself from beneath the crumpled form of her savior, tentatively tugging at his inert form whilst carefully avoiding the shattered shards of his sword. If he was badly injured she did not want to disturb his position unduly, but as she rolled away his body seemed unnaturally light. Realization clubbed her into immobility and froze the scream in her throat.
Ravenkar took in the broken spar and the slumped remains of Imrhad beneath the mast. The disk approached now with relentless intent and as he reached into his tunic he vaguely wondered who, or what, could control the furious unpredictable manifestation of dêlyrium that approached.
In his hand had appeared an innocuous orb across whose limited surface area was scrawled an amazing array of glyphs. The orb comprised several segments that could be rotated relative to each other to realign those glyphs, and the shaman manipulated them now as he ran along the deck, abandoning even his precious staff.
‘Aft, all of you, and lie flat!’ he shouted, as he headed for the raised section of deck located directly behind the prow.
By the time he had hauled himself up onto the pitching timbers the little orb seemed unbearably heavy and it was with some relief that he set it down. One final adjustment and it began to spin, slowly at first then more rapidly, as it rose from the elevated deck to hover a hairsbreadth above it.
Shamul, his weight against the tiller, desperately trying to prevent his vessel from being swamped, watched with almost child-like fascination as Ravenkar hobbled back along the length of the main deck with a speed that belied his age. A manic gleam, such as can only intrude on the face of a true believer, warped his features as he pirouetted to observe his handiwork.
‘Now Shamul, you will witness fireworks the like of which you could scarcely imagine!’
‘You will hopefully excuse me, old one, if I do not get too excited at the prospect, but as you can see, I am rather preoccupied at the moment,’ replied Shamul, with more than a trace of sarcasm.
The rest of the crew, on hearing this dialogue, abandoned their cowering postures and began to look uncertainly over their shoulders, just as a low-pitched drone began to emanate from the little orb hovering at the prow. Everything other than the orb and the approaching disc of energy seemed ill-defined, insubstantial even, the more so as the drone rose to a high ear-piercing whine.
Static and spray filled the air. Plumes of steam preceded the parting waters as the disc hung poised to split the galley lengthways and send it to the bottom. But then a questing tendril reached out towards the orb and encircled it, or so it seemed. In the light of what happened next, it was surely the orb that had instigated matters. In an instant, before the disbelieving eyes of all on that boat, save for one, the disc began to unravel. So quickly was it drawn into the orb, a clap of displaced air accompanied its demise.
The lengthy silence that followed was broken by an unnerving cackle from Ravenkar. ‘My, oh my. Yes, yes, my, oh my!’
And with that he set off towards the prow again, staff in hand this time. His stilted gait slowed appreciably as he neared the mainmast and its broken spar. He stooped now, and removed his cloak to drape over Imrhad. He had no time to dwell on sentiment though for an ominous crunching of timbers now reverberated along the hull as the orb stopped spinning and plummeted onto the deck. With the curses of Shamul ringing in his ears Ravenkar found himself sliding down slick timbers as the Kraken began to go down by the bow. He managed to halt his rapid progress into the Inner Sea by somehow clutching at the orb with a despairing hand, just as the waters were beginning to lap over it, and with a dexterity that would have amazed his companions had they not been clinging onto the rising stern for dear life, managed to realign the glyphs. The orb promptly disappeared and he felt the bow heaving upwards beneath him.
Shamul decided not to abandon the tiller in case any more surprises awaited them. He sent Abduul forward instead to check that his old friend was still in the abode of the living. Jak, Azella and a goodly number of the crew went with him. They found a drenched old man bereft of his cloak and staff, staring intently at nothing. As they made towards him, he ushered them back impatiently. Even as he did so there was a whirring and a humming and a shimmering and a distortion of the air in the area he was examining, whereupon the diminutive sphere that had saved them reappeared.
‘And now I think it has been deposited whence it came,’ said Ravenkar smugly, reaching out to grasp the orb, whilst everyone else braced themselves against another traumatic tilting of the deck. As it nestled in his palm it began to assume a more solid form and for a fleeting moment the sun appeared, highlighting the glyphs on its surface, emphasizing their thoroughly alien nature.
‘Fear not,’ said the shaman, pulling himself to his feet as Abduul handed him his staff. ‘The weight of my little friend here varies with the setting of the glyphs, or to be more accurate, with the origin of the energy it is dealing with. Obviously whoever staged our little surprise today had the wherewithal to search inwards.’
It had not been difficult to track the galley, even within the aura of the Stone. The aura was faltering of course, but would still have been a formidable barrier to their intentions. The tiny bauble that had almost thwarted their plans originally had come to their aid in that respect. Tiny it might have been, but it had almost paralyzed Zakarcë when his presence had activated it. It did not seem to be a reservoir for the energy, or delyrium, as the land-dwellers called it, rather a conduit into the zone that spawned that energy, and it had led them onwards, like a minute beacon in their collective consciousness. Together as the Mass, they had invaded that same zone to tap its dense energy, only to then recoil, bemused, as the fruit of their labors had been unceremoniously returned whence it had been plundered.
Confusion. What manner of device could have done that? It cried out “Aesnagärk”, like their beloved Stone.
Reassessment. Their deathblow had been turned. Time to employ more subtle means. Illusion rather than confrontation. And quickly, for the little beacon was fast fading.
As if in response to a preordained signal, the sun had slipped from view again and as the galley strayed into the tendrils of another bank of fog, no one uttered a word. It was as if the crew were unwilling to bear testament to the events that had just unfolded and that by going into a communal denial they would not have to acknowledge something that had surpassed the scope of their wildest imaginings.
Thus they drifted and none could say how long. At least the fog seemed altogether more natural and they could hear the lapping of the water and see its glassy form beneath. Azella was tended to, as were the remains of Imrhad, a lonely introspective character by all accounts, unlike the rest of the crew. At least, it was said, he had no family to mourn him and yet to Azella that was small comfort; to die alone and unloved. She resolved to mourn for him and thus did Jak find her, kneeling next to Imrhad’s rough wooden casket. Shamul would not commit his crewman’s body to those murky depths just yet; rather he would wait until the air about them was clear and their location known.
Jak was pleased to see that Azella had stopped trembling. Indeed there was a semblance of inner calm to her. She took his hands in her own and squeezed gently. ‘I need to know, Jak. What was it that killed Imrhad, that nearly killed me? Was dêlyrium unleashed upon us today? Is that what we witnessed?’
‘Yes,’ answered Jak, ‘I do believe it was.’
‘And yet you are not sure,’ said Azella, offering a tentative smile.
‘Azella,’ continued Jak, ‘I told you earlier of the symbols I had witnessed in my dream and that Ravenkar had likened them to representations of the sacred artifacts of Chok Apûl, with which you have a passing acquaintance. What I did not mention was that one of those artifacts was in his possession; the tiny sphere that he cast before us was the Drathkal. He talked little of it initially, save to say that he had failed utterly to master its intricacies. However that was obviously not quite the whole story.’
Jak now squeezed Azella’s hands in return and peered straight into her eyes. ‘Azella, I know the memory is painful for you but cast your mind back to the knife, that wretched weapon that was used to murder your mother. We did not tell you at the time but its twin lies in Tak Khiroba; it served no purpose to tell you for that was all we knew. Prior to that it held no interest for us. It was merely one of the many curios that decorate the monastery walls. As we discussed which of our brethren might best enlighten us as to its origins, Ravenkar was also more forthcoming about the Drathkal.’ Jak looked up at this point as though unsure whether to go on, but Azella’s pleading look swayed him.
‘Daughter of Joel, I hesitate only to formulate my answer, for the explanation is far from simple. Language assumes a threadbare mantle in areas such as these and I am familiar with my mentor’s arcane terms of reference whereas you are not.’
‘Do not worry Jak,’ said Azella, encouragingly. ‘I am, for all that, familiar with his evasive manner and his way of answering every question except the one that I have asked him.’
‘Oh, are you indeed?’ Ravenkar now stood beside them, having appeared in that maddeningly elusive way that he had honed down to a fine art over the years.
‘Let me tell you young lady, even in the many texts of Tak Khiroba, few are the theories that address the substance of delyrium, and fewer still, the Drathkal. It seems in many ways that knowledge has faltered, for it is the older books that seem more relevant to these matters.
‘Now, come close, for in times such as these what I am about to tell you must, by necessity, remain known to but a few. I would implore you also to be most circumspect with that wagging tongue of yours.’
An admonishing finger and a furrowed brow were enough to quell Azella’s half-hearted protests. Her rumormongering had often landed her in trouble with Joel and she really couldn’t quite muster too much outrage at Ravenkar’s accusations. The finger was lowered.
‘I go back a long way into history now, perhaps nine or ten millennia, when a race known as the Duidarra graced our shores. Evidence of their existence is not substantial, but there is enough. We do not have any of their writings to examine directly but one or two of the older books that I mentioned have allegedly been transcribed from Duidarran texts. I, for one, have no reason to doubt this for those particular books are not written in the old tongue, rather a language that is more flowing and richer by far. I believe the old tongue to be a corruption of this language, the language of the Duidarra.’
‘And how is it that you alone are able to translate this language?’ said Azella, quizzically.
‘Ah, my skeptical one, to excel in one’s chosen profession it is often necessary to wander down eccentric paths in order to glean knowledge others do not possess.’
‘I take it by “eccentric” you actually mean “forbidden”? Forbidden since the time of Haan, in all probability?’ said Azella, affecting the air of a most supercilious inquisitor.
‘“Forbidden” is such a definite concept, my girl. Could we not agree on “forsaken”?’
‘Oh, so I have gone from a young lady to a girl in the passing of a few moments, then?’
‘Talking of paths, perhaps we could return to the original one?’ said Jak hastily, having had to endure such exchanges on an all too frequent basis.
‘Yes indeed, yes indeed,’ said Ravenkar, furiously tapping his staff on the deck. ‘Now, where was I? Ah yes, the Duidarran transcriptions, I think.
‘It is claimed there that many worlds exist side by side with one another, and that it is useful to consider this concept as analogous to a sphere, dense beyond all imaginings at its center, vague and ephemeral towards its surface. The multitude of layers that exist between each have a unique vibration, or frequency, to them and we are attuned to but one. How closely each of us is attuned dictates the direction of our life.
‘It is also claimed that when we sleep we can harmonize with different vibrations, that we stray outwards to more ethereal realms where we can give rein to our spiritual guise. Other states can be artificially induced whereby we are able to transcend those boundaries, but perhaps this is not the time to delve into such contentious areas.
‘Always though the direction is outwards. Consider now the alternative direction, namely inwards. Consider all those worlds of denser energies that lie in wait. Consider that special layer where those disparate competing entities we recognize as life, civilization, call it what you will, cease to exist and in their stead pure energy resides. That layer is the stuff of delyrium, Azella, and in true human fashion we plunder it when we can. To manipulate delyrium, that is the function of those we call sorcerers, from the zealots of the Hierarch to the priests of Tak Khiroba; to seek out its vibration, to harmonize with it, to utilize it.
‘And now, consider. What if this energy was to be wrenched from its domain and released into our own without any constraints?’
‘As it was today?’ said Azella tentatively. ‘But who would do such a thing? Who could do such a thing?’
‘These would appear to be the pertinent questions, would they not?’ muttered Ravenkar, a faraway look in his eyes.
‘And what of the Drathkal? Tell me more!’ Azella recognized the expression on Ravenkar’s face and knew that little more would be forthcoming. He did however indulge her a while longer.
‘The Drathkal is an enigma. It can be cast inwards or outwards with impunity; it can plunder energy or return it.’
‘It is then a very dangerous thing,’ said Azella.
‘Yes, that it most certainly is!’ Ravenkar boomed, slamming his staff onto the deck and startling both of his companions. Kneeling beside Azella he placed both hands on her shoulders and with great deliberation said, ‘I am pleased you have grasped that fact, young lady. Would you like to now view it close-at-hand?’
She nodded uncomfortably.
‘Now, here is sorcery of the highest order,’ said the shaman enthusiastically, ‘and I refer not just to its function. As I recall, it appeared in the monastery about ten years ago. Strange to relate, no one can elaborate on this to any great extent. I myself was attending to some mundane task in Skîros and did not turn my attention to the matter for several years. None of my brethren had found a use for it and most had ignored it.
‘Look at it. Look closely, for it is an uncertain object at the best of times, flickering as it is wont to do, across realms.’
Even as Azella looked, the object of her scrutiny did indeed flicker, before fading and then returning. An oily sheen glistened on its surface.
‘These glyphs that you see littered across it can be arranged into specific strings or spells that will bind it, none too securely I might add, to a specific location. Other glyphs seem to dictate its length of stay and consequently the amount of energy it gorges. It is these that I struggle with at present. Let me explain in a little more detail.
‘There are six equal segments here on the surface, circular segments that can each be rotated. These segments touch at twelve points and through these twelve points, three great circles can be ascribed that pass around the periphery of the orb.’
Ravenkar traced his finger twice around the perimeter of the Drathkal, from top to bottom to top, as he was holding it, the second outline perpendicular to the first; then a third trace, horizontally, around the orb’s equator.
‘When the segments are in alignment, three long strings of glyphs pass around these circles. It is these that dictate the comings and goings of this odd device.
‘You can probably understand more clearly if you observe one of the segments in greater detail. See how it has five glyphs, four around its perimeter at quarter points and a fifth at the center; this fifth is always the Duidarran symbol that equates to our “O”. Now, I can rotate the segment to four different settings. Think of it as rotating a cross if you prefer, each arm with three symbols, and each of those arms slotting into a larger whole as the segment is rotated into position: namely, one of the great circles.’
‘So each of the great circles passes across four of the six segments and so there are twelve symbols in each string,’ said Azella, pleased with herself.
‘Well yes, and then again no, but we will not go into that at the moment,’ said Ravenkar. ‘Suffice to say that there are rather a large number of combinations.
‘Now,’ he continued, ‘to cast the Drathkal outwards, where only the most ephemeral energies lie, that is not a problem, but neither is there much point to it, for it returns with naught. But to cast it inwards, my, oh my! There, as I think you have surmised Azella, there is where the danger lies.’
‘But did you not cast it there today?’ said Azella, studying the ancient object in Ravenkar’s palm.’
‘That was but a casual cast, to return that which was brought here. Until I master those spells that dictate the duration of its journey I must tread carefully within those distant domains, lest it returns with more energy than I can control. You must understand that a sorcerer will normally have but a smidgeon of such energy at his disposal. With this, everything changes.’
Ravenkar paused now, looking first at Azella and then at Jak. When he continued, his voice was but a hoarse whisper.
‘For all this, it is the matter of its unearthing that bothers me the most. How can such a powerful device as this just “appear”? Why do all in our brotherhood just assume that it was always there, gathering dust in the vaults? And why would it appear now, in such troubled times? Coincidence? I think not.’
And with that, Ravenkar was lost to them. Mumbling and scratching his head, he made his way back amidships to confer with Shamul who was overseeing the repair of the tattered mainsail.
The fog did not lift but remained, dense and persistent, until they were completely lost within its uncertain boundaries. Shamul guessed they had now been drifting for three days or even more and were well north of Djebal Doron. That in itself was a major concern for they should surely have foundered on the southern shores of Khanju by now, which meant possibly that the coastal currents had gripped them. All his instincts told him that they were heading west, and his instincts were inevitably sound.
The sea was mirror calm and they slid over its unruffled surface, sails furled, with only the most cursory pull of the oars. Two of the crew were positioned in the bow, squinting desperately through the murk, and another was taking intermittent soundings over the stern with a weighted line. Elsewhere eyes and ears strained desperately for sight or sound.
When it came they were virtually motionless and taking yet another sounding; the depth beneath the keel had been lessening at an alarming rate. It was Shamul who first raised the alarm and his command for silence quickly passed down the length of the galley. Sure enough, a faint noise could be heard by all off the starboard bow. It was a continuous hiss, like air escaping from a sealed vat, but so very faint. But then as it became louder a faltering cadence insinuated itself and one or two of that well traveled crew began to cast anxious glances at each other and Shamul, who knew that sound only too well, began to steer warily to port.
Yet still did the wind crank up its tormenting volume for wind it surely was, piping its haunting tune through the villainous banks of fog. As they watched the swirling response, hope stirred at last in their weary bones, for without a doubt, delicate rays of light had begun to penetrate the suffocating blanket and as Shamul continued to veer to port, so did the fog continue to lift until there, directly off their bow, was the fabled lighthouse of Diadonnara.
Where the Inner Sea swept up against the Winding Strait, a now seldom used exit to the Outer Seas, the southern coastline of Khanju had broken up in spectacular fashion. Legend had it that in the early days of navigating these northern waters it had been possible to enter the strait beneath a rock bridge which angled into the cliff face like the horizontal arm of a flying buttress. Indeed, such was the multitude of uncharted shoals across the mouth of the strait that it was actually the preferred entrance. Already at that time the lighthouse had stood for millennia upon a precarious column of rock at the extreme edge of the bridge, as a warning to seafarers. The legend told that when the spark of life that had kindled the race of its creators was finally snuffed out, and the civilization of Khanju disappeared into myth, the light had somehow remained burning, albeit diminished. And when the bridge had collapsed, it had survived, aloof to the surrounding chaos, in complete isolation atop its sheer pinnacle.
But the intervening stretch of water had ceased to be a viable entry into the strait and presented a vindictive boulder strewn field amongst which the surf pounded and the currents churned and the wind blew a melody that few forgot.
Shamul pulled again on the steering oar and the Kraken, responsive as ever, came about completely to loiter on the fringes of the mist, lighthouse now in its wake. A collective sigh of relief passed down the ranks of the crew, for at last they had their bearings. They could retreat from the strait and anchor in the lea of coastal Khanju while the damnable mist played itself out.
And yet the big man was uneasy in the extreme, tugging nervously at the ring on his left ear. He asked Abduul to take over at the helm and made for the bow where he continued to prowl uncertainly, scrutinizing the sea and the sky and the prevailing wind.
‘What ails you Yellow Eyes? Surely you do not grieve over a chance lost? Even you would struggle to pilot us through that graveyard,’ said Ravenkar, somewhat puzzled at this turn of events, and now on edge again.
‘But listen, shaman. Do not the rocks still scream in expectation of our demise when we should have left their lament far behind? And the current too, why does it not slacken? I was so sure that we were drifting to the west. So sure that the Highlands would be before us, poking through the mist. I was expecting the damnable lighthouse off our stern, not our bow!’
Ravenkar’s eyes narrowed and he cocked his head to one side. He maintained this position for a frustrating length of time but then his wiry old frame spun around and with a beckoning wave he summoned Jak. The younger man sensed his urgency and said not a word.
‘Steady yourself on the prow here Jak, and do try not to fall through that rather large hole. Then cast a glance back at the lighthouse if you would. Your eyes are stronger than mine and I would like you to invoke your “sight” if you will, and quickly,’ said Ravenkar to his puzzled student.
So Jak did as he had been bidden and contrary to all his training, tried to do it swiftly. It was a technique whereby he merged with his surroundings, with current and wind, with surf and sound; whereby he relaxed totally and allowed his inner self to suppress his outer senses. But to do this he required focus and to establish focus he required time. Time that was not available.
A short diagonal strut was attached to the deck by a pair of brass fixings, to provide additional support to the prow in heavy seas. It ran up into the back of the prow, where it was fixed in similar fashion; there had been two before the energy bolt’s unerring passage. Jak now hooked one leg around the strut with his foot wedged up against the prow and leaned slightly over so that nearly all his weight was centered on the other leg, his left leg. Borrowing a short dagger from Shamul, he then proceeded to draw the blade across his left forearm. The cut was deeper than he had intended, such was the sharpness of the blade, but the resultant pain was all that mattered; focus was everything. He took a last glance down at the sea, allowed himself to sway in harmony with the pitch, the roll, the heave of the galley and then peered back along the length of the vessel, slowly bringing one hand up to cover his left eye.
Nothing mattered now except the pain. He allowed himself to be drawn towards it, like a filing to a magnet, and through his right eye focused with unremitting concentration on the receding lighthouse and the pinnacle on which it sat.
Shamul looked on as Jak went through this ritual and signaled that the galley should remain on course. His sight told him that this was the correct course even though all his other senses raged at him, told him to bring the galley around. Yet with implacable intent he ploughed on into the fog. Jak had to have his chance. Even as he thought it, the younger shaman came back to life, like a stirring mannequin, and calmly turned to confront him.
It was the second that Jak actually slipped into a trance that everything went awry. It was the light itself that went first, its piercing beam gradually dissipating. The structure itself then began to shimmer and evaporate and then was gone. He saw a tranquil sea in their wake and, as he turned his head, a mist-shrouded stretch of pumice cliffs that marked the coast of Khanju, off their starboard bow. He did not need to turn his head any further to identify the looming pinnacle of rock that lay in wait. He could sense its ponderous presence. ‘It is a deception, Shamul! Someone, somehow, has manipulated the image but even as I examine it, so it begins to fade. You must bring us about if you can!’
Shamul sprang off down the deck barking out instructions to Abduul whilst bellowing out an order for the port oarsmen to back up their oars. The black galley slewed around and it wasn’t until this moment that all on board realized the strength of the current which gripped them. Desperately they maneuvered the Kraken around and pulled in unison, now towards the image of lighthouse, which seemed to surge forward through the murk. The heads of the crew turned to look wistfully at their captain and pathfinder. The returning scowl set their thoughts to rowing.
As they worked their way free from the current’s grasp the galley swept forward. From his position astern, Shamul now had to view the lighthouse above the yard of the mainmast. The immense rock wall that loomed up did not avail him of the squall of driving rain that had suddenly sprung up. He regarded the lustrous oyster-white structure far above, marveling as to how it could cling to that precipice with such nonchalance. It would have been more in place on the low layer of silky cloud that hovered just above, rather than poised so delicately over that harsh black face.
The crew continued to row, teeth clenched and expressions grim. What would be, would be. Shamul’s eyes swept up the pearly tower to the dome at its top, his neck craning further and further back until it could strain no more; then down to the deck where all about was blue and black, green and gray, whipped into a frenzy by foaming white and the wind and the rocks sang and rain pounded down upon him.
Only a pair of yellow eyes stared ahead. They widened as everything vanished before them until only a beckoning wall of rock remained. And then a calm sea. And the Highlands beyond.
The mists over the black galley lifted and the Eidola cursed as the Stone reaffirmed its influence.
The whirlpool had only just retained its glittering captive. Naphtha, boulders and red rain spurted down from the sky and allied themselves to the rampant surf that crashed over white walls and scoured at the enchanted spiral. The object imprisoned had almost been spat forth from that bloodied frothing mouth, yet once again, as circling momentum had been restored over the chaotic waters, it had been forced back down.
Imrhad’s enwrapped remains sank into the peaceful copper seas to the east of Cape Diadonnara, just off the low pumice cliffs of Khanju, mirrored in the moist eyes of Azella.
The Kraken headed back out, away from the mouth of the Winding Strait and thence to deeper water. Apart from the shifting shoals at its mouth, the strait itself was notorious for its treacherous shallows, unpredictable currents and the miscellany of obstructions it presented around each tortuous bend, not least of which was the assortment of maritime wreckage. Eager to put it behind them, Shamul steered southeast into the Inner Sea on a heading that would take them directly to Djebal Doron, still almost two days sailing away. The spongy coastline off the port beam had been contorted into a series of bleached guises in much the same manner as clouds are shaped to a receptive eye on a windy day. Figures that are brought into being by the imagination of the onlooker: hunched old men with bony gnarled faces; warriors on burnished steeds; fairies on pock-marked toadstools. All were there. As the weathered profiles receded, identities became confused and merged until new, even grander forms were molded. Rugged castles in snow-clad hills reached upwards and the faces of heathen gods scanned the sea before them.