A shudder ran the length of the Kraken as she docked, portside on against the quay. The helmsman hiccupped and nervously felt at the near-empty bottle of raquirri concealed within his jerkin. Shamul sighed resignedly and watched as the ropes were made secure, fore and aft.The galley was berthing at the outer edge of the main central island of wooden wharves from which a single groin led inward, a latticework of jetties projecting from its sides. These jetties became progressively smaller as the water became shallower, until finally they disappeared altogether amidst a jumble of bobbing fish-boats tied up alongside the main stone quay. All of this was encircled by the protective pincers of the harbor walls, barely visible through the cloak of mist that perpetually shrouded them.
Shamul and Abduul took the gangplank between them and slid it out towards the wharf. They then followed in close attendance as Azella disembarked. Just in front of them Jak and Ravenkar were welcomed ashore by a single red-robed priest, who, with disdainful formality, informed them that their presence was required immediately by the Shaman Ultima. The sweeping gesture of his right arm indicated that Azella would also be required and she looked nervously from one shaman to the other; she had been anticipating a rest and subsequent tour of the palace, certainly not an audience with the Black Sorcerer.
Ravenkar, as though reading her thoughts, drew her close and peered into her eyes. ‘You are Azella, daughter of Joel and Semira, heiress to their entire kingdom, and whether you do but know it, a match for anyone. You may find that the Shaman Ultima is not as intimidating as you think.’
‘And there again you may find that he is,’ murmured Jak under his breath, quickly adding, under Ravenkar’s dark stare, ‘but I’m sure even he would balk at upsetting our two seafaring friends here.’
Indeed the pair did provide an intimidating escort. Even as the group set off they were afforded a very accommodating amount of space by the retreating locals.
Abduul’s physical threat was more understated than his captain’s but perceptible nevertheless. He was as extrovert as Shamul was brooding, but in a dangerous way. There was nothing brash about his pronouncements but they always seemed designed to provoke, in contrast to Shamul whose words were few and designed to placate, if not always in a nice way. This extrovert nature was only ever tempered when he talked of his home town and although not ashamed of Kondaara, its inevitable association with the infamous island of Tarrak Kanga caused a certain reticence on his part when discussing his upbringing.
The contrasts did not end there: both had the weathered hue of men who had spent their lives afloat, but with Shamul it masked the paleness of the Khir origins that belied his name, whilst with Abduul it mellowed the striking darkness that characterized all from those burnt southern latitudes; Shamul smiled rarely and had a monolithic bearing to match, whereas Abduul’s flashing smile was constantly in evidence and complemented his lithe graceful movements.
Yet it was not just these characteristics that evinced their authority to the rapidly parting crowds on the quayside of Djebal Doron that afternoon; a case could also be made for the large curved swords that were slung nonchalantly over their backs, even if they were contained in dull oiled scabbards. Weapons were not generally permitted within the confines of that towering isle, unless in the possession of official delegates, but their tight-lipped guide had not as yet found an appropriate moment to broach the subject.
Although exhausted and somewhat apprehensive, Azella was soon distracted, such were the novelty and splendor of the scenes about her. The obscure origins of the city had been mirrored by the uncertain depths of the harbor waters. Their deep wine-red hue had only relented when they reached the smaller seine boats that preceded the steps up to the stone quays. To what impenetrable depths did those outer walls sink?
These disturbing thoughts continued to gnaw at her throughout their dockside excursion and were soon augmented by another sinister intrusion. How strange and ordered life seemed here on the quayside! The nervy precise bearing assumed by all and sundry, faces unwrinkled by a frown, uncracked by a smile. Yes, up in the aspiring surrounds of the Merchant’s Circle, but here amongst the salt-rimed facades and the market stalls?
Ostensibly, all seemed fine. The wooden boxes and crates gorged with flapping silver and white; the squawking scavengers, aggravatingly persistent to the casual onlooker but ignored by the fishermen; the taverns and the waterside inns; the gaudily striped canvasses shading trinkets and baubles, silks and velvets and foodstuffs galore. All were in place.
But missing were the yelling vendors and hawkers, faces contrite, and their bartering customers, mouths aghast. Absent was the good-natured banter of tavern-crawling citizens taking the long way home from their place of work. Lacking were the serene lined faces of retired fishermen, whose gazes might linger briefly on a red horizon, or a little longer perchance on the passing womenfolk, before falling for an apparent eternity on the vagaries of a checker board.
Azella was about to mention all of this but thought better of it as they began to wend their way out of the quayside and the cobbled street ahead began to slope upwards at an alarming rate.
As the quayside trailed in their wake and the long footslogging ascent began, Jak noticed that his mentor was scrutinizing their guide somewhat closely.
‘What is so fascinating about our imperious priest,’ he hissed vehemently at Ravenkar, ‘other than his gracious manners and his overly gregarious nature?’ Indeed the man had not uttered a single word to them since their strained meeting at the foot of the gangplank.
‘Your sharp eyes have failed to discern that his robes are not entirely red then?’ muttered Ravenkar. ‘Firstly, his habit is dark red and so he is of some standing within the Priesthood, probably of the Hierarch, which no doubt explains his reluctance to act as errand boy. Secondly, and a cause of some concern, the hood of his habit is gray.’
When Jak realized that Ravenkar had stopped talking, it dawned upon him that the nature of the priest’s garb was meant to convey something to him. And surprisingly, after labored contemplation, it did. The answer detached itself from the murky recesses of his memory and fluttered tantalizingly into the fringes of his uncertain recall, like a bat emerging from the depths of its shadowy lair into the half-light of a cave mouth.
The halting tread of their guide hinted that he had surmised correctly. The exasperated expression on Ravenkar’s face confirmed it.
‘I now fear this little detour is destined for an altogether depressing conclusion, my garrulous apprentice, so could you kindly refrain from further antagonizing our already inconvenienced friend?
‘Yes though,’ he continued, ‘a Diviner he surely is. In case your memory further troubles you, one of that self-important sect that probes at the barriers of time, future and past, for signs, omens if you like, so that they might manipulate the present. Of particular interest to them are the night sky and the paths that the stars follow; apparently they have charts in abundance that catalogue all the constellations and their cycles. Such charts have possibly even foretold the coming of this wretched comet, but it is not their charts that concern me.
‘Stories circulate, hearsay, call it what you will, of a chamber that was constructed wherein the night sky over Djebal Doron is displayed. The Diviners are invariably associated with this chamber; it is cited as the most powerful of their tools. However it is supposed to be very old, as old as the temple itself and so, by definition, very dangerous. The suspicion amongst our more learned brethren is that it does exist, but its secrets are not fully comprehended; accidents have occurred which the Hierarch would prefer to conceal, and so on and so forth.’
‘But priests are a talkative lot, are they not?’ laughed Jak, intrigued now. ‘So have my more learned brethren let slip anything else in connection with this alleged chamber?’
‘Only the following,’ said Ravenkar vaguely, his mind obviously focusing on some other matter. ‘The essence supposedly rises through this chamber and it is said that by utilizing a miniscule strand of the residual energy from the Stone to ignite it, the chamber becomes empowered. The patterns of the stars embedded in the roof can be encouraged to progress through their cycles to some predetermined point in the future, or, more intriguingly in the light of what I am about to say, to regress to some point in the near or distant pass. It is supposedly possible, for one with talent, namely a Shaman Ultima, to project an image into the roof of the chamber and dictate a time that it might be viewed by manipulating the star pattern to reflect the configuration it will assume at that specific time.’
Jak realized that his mouth was agape. ‘Stories circulate; hearsay; supposedly?’
Ravenkar shrugged. ‘There is much concerning Djebal Doron that even my vast intellect does not encompass. Perhaps, and this is what I fear, confirmation is at hand. Why else would a Diviner have been dispatched to act as our guide?’
‘Vast intellect indeed!’ exclaimed Azella, disturbed from her reverie. She had just latched onto the tail end of the conversation as yet another flight of steps deposited them at the lower periphery of the Merchant’s Circle, where cool breezes now provided them with some relief, funneling between whitewashed towers and high-walled haciendas. ‘Did that intellect happen to take in the eccentricities of the quayside perhaps?’
Blank stares encouraged her to go on.
‘I thought not. So you didn’t find it uncommonly quiet back there? You didn’t think that one of Isladoron’s premier ports should have exhibited, how shall I put it, a little more hustle and bustle?’
Her musings were rudely interrupted by their guide, now standing before an arched timber door. The door had an aura of antiquity about it that spilled out into the shrub-lined courtyard in which they now found themselves. It even insinuated itself into the whistling breezes beyond so that they sounded muted, distant.
‘And now you are to tread where few have gone before.’
Following on from this portentous statement, the Diviner grasped one of the two rusting iron rings that protruded from the portal and pulled gently. Its pockmarked façade swung out towards them, a grinding murmur being its sole protest, and only then did its knotted bulk become apparent. Beyond, a stone pathway was revealed; it loitered, flat at first, reveling in the unfamiliar sunlight that played across its surface, and then snaked vigorously upward, an interlaced canopy of ficus branches attendant upon its every move.
They progressed through in single file, each of them running their fingers over the gnarled surface. Ravenkar was the last. He paused to discern the ragged array of symbols that had been burnt into the top of the door and which mimicked its arched profile. Once, a single barbarous language had embraced the entire continent and he recognized its angular forms now; and their meaning. He did not let his face betray the foreboding he felt.
Twilight, and scarce a single ray of the setting sun penetrated the tight mesh of leaves beneath which they trudged, yet it was as though the path had retained the sparse energy from every tentative beam that had scored it throughout the day and was now expending it in the form of a dim but constant glow that permeated even the ragged carpet of spent leaves that littered its surface. The idle chatter of the ascent had long since abated as the still confines of the ancient route imposed their numbing will. Onward and upward they plodded with a growing resignation; that acceptance of their fate was tempered nevertheless by a festering dislike of the priest who led them.
It had now been obvious for some time that their meandering route was soon to reach an abrupt end, but even when it came, and they stood there basking in the fading gleam of the path’s mellow radiance, little was said. Only a half-hearted grumble from Shamul disturbed the pervasive melancholy. Before them was a wall. Like the door before it, the pall of old age clung to it and although the citadel was yet far above them, this was undoubtedly a component part of its foundations.
A supercilious smile flashed across the Diviner’s face as he produced a tiny sphere from within the folds of his habit. It was smaller even than the Drathkal and its surface was completely unadorned. As he placed it at the foot of the wall it began to rotate and flicker uncertainly, but soon a regular pulse of red light was emanating from it, and as it began to spin more quickly a strange phenomenon came to pass: the wall, its very substance, began to fade. It did not vanish entirely but rather was visible as an indistinct outline, an unsteady fabric, a conglomerate of shifting dots of color through which the priest now strolled. At the far side, a good ten paces away, he turned and beckoned them to follow.
And follow him they did, although not without some trepidation. Azella screwed her eyes shut, but it was Jak who was the worst affected, although he tried not to let it show. Even passing beneath Haan’s Wall had not prepared him for this.
Despite the unconventional nature of the portal they emerged unscathed, but pointedly refrained from showing any interest in their guide’s foray into the realm of illusion, not wishing to fuel his ego any further. They now found themselves standing on the bulbous end of the same stone pathway, reassuringly substantial, and from its elevated position they were able to see that they had been deposited within a dimly lit storeroom of theater-like proportions; players on a semi-circular stage.
Their audience glared up at them from the stalls with relative indifference; an assortment of stone gargoyles and metal dragons, the latter assuming a variety of postures but each, invariably, with a marble globe in its tenuous grasp. All surely destined to take up their allotted places on the buttresses, the ramparts or the walls of the citadel above when their elder brethren could no longer hold at bay the eroding passage of time. Indifferent or not, a multitude of eyes seemed to track the intruders as they made their way down a shallow ramp into the auditorium and both Abduul and Shamul were fingering their sword hilts whilst scarcely being aware of it.
It occurred to all of them as they walked that there did not seem to be any obvious place to effect an exit, other than back through their own clandestine portal. It was only as their eyes searched through the fitful light cast by the priest’s orb, now back in his possession, that something else became apparent; they were being scrutinized with crystalline intensity from the walls as well as the floor. Everywhere platforms jutted out into the theater and within their commodious bounds rank after rank of impassive faces stared down with disconcerting aloofness, flitting in and out of red-hued penumbra like a sculpted bestiary.
But in that uncertain half-light it was one pair of eyes that inexorably took precedence over all the others and cast its compelling spell upon them. The features that housed those eyes protruded obtrusively from the back wall, still distant, and were soft-edged and rounded and malignant. A lascivious tongue rolled out across the floor beckoning them from within a cavernous mouth framed by fleshy lips. A gargoyle of sorts, but not for the ramparts; yet what part did it have to play in this basement theater?
With unsure tread they approached, reluctant to disturb the beast’s contemplation, but the Diviner’s orb seemed to ignite a fire within each of its glazed obsidian eyes. They began to flicker fiercely, so much so that two swords were drawn with startling alacrity, the sweep of one ending but a hairsbreadth from the throat of the guide.
But in the interplay of shadows that had been cast was now revealed the deceit of the ancient architects. The beast they approached had a throat! So precipitously did this passage plunge that its presence had been masked almost until they had stumbled into the gaping mouth that preceded it. Jak was the first to see the hidden exit and he placed a restraining hand on Abduul’s sword arm. Abduul seemed of a mind to slit the man’s throat regardless, but slowly relented.
The man in the red robes pulled the gray hood about his head with a flourish, but his eyes betrayed him. Fear and anger lurked there as he assessed the two corsairs and for just a moment, fear prevailed. Arrogance dictated that anger would rise to the fore once again, but for now he kept it at bay. Naked aggression such as this was something that the Hierarch rarely had to contend with and with an indecisive sideways nod of the head he indicated that they were to follow him between the stone jaws. Without so much as a backward glance he stooped through.
‘Do you think our seafaring friend has further upset this testy guide?’ growled Jak, as they stood at the top of the passage appraising the difficulty of the descent awaiting them.
‘I’m very much afraid he has,’ said Ravenkar, ruefully stroking his beard and glancing reproachfully at Abduul. Whereupon Abduul simply displayed his most winsome smile and shrugged his shoulders. As the orb’s light disappeared down the passage however he could not resist being a little more demonstrative in his opinion of the Diviner, prompting Azella to turn away in mock embarrassment.
There was a hint of salt in the air as they descended, and then the susurrant roll of the sea assailed their ears, but far off as yet. This afforded them a welcome diversion for the passageway was unpleasant in a number of respects: rings of rock protruded at irregular intervals like hoops of bone or cartilage, no doubt strengthening their route but disconcertingly trachea-like; a slimy patina dogged their every step and invaded every handhold; the air surged past them at regular intervals as though the god of the sea, Varvak himself, was drawing breath. But downwards they continued, slipping and sliding, and even where steps had been hewn the going was scarcely easier, for there was no uniformity to them. And all the while the orb was their only light, a demented firefly going before them, initiating a baleful luminescence from the projecting hoops but casting a haphazard mix of oily light and darting shadows elsewhere.
They knew the passageway was coming to an end when another light appeared. At least this light was stable in location if not form, wavering in its intensity; it fluctuated with the ebb and flow of the sea, now evident as a guttural roar, then a fading whisper.
The tongue they stepped out onto was a mirror image of the one above, as was its fleshy-faced owner, but they had eyes only for the scene below where an annular mass of frothy water seethed about a thrusting core of rock. It was highlighted by prodigious beams of pale light, which punctured the rough cylinder of the outer wall as though a religious melodrama was being enacted beyond; rather it was the rays of Iambos finding their way down through a few eroded arteries in that encircling portion of Djebal Doron’s bedrock.
Then the floor of water surged up towards them and one by one the celestial beams were extinguished by chaotic spouts of water, themselves doused by the rising plateau; and darkness.
Over on the central mass torches guttered, the only points of light in that unnerving setting as the roar of displaced air rose up to engulf them, driven on by the mass of water.
Silence, then a cavernous exhalation and moonlight reasserting itself over the retreating water. Dumbstruck, they observed this rising and falling of the sea for several cycles before motion on a smaller scale caught their collective eye. So outrageous did it seem; a red-robed figure posed betwixt and between, urging them on to a similar fate, bothering not to conceal the smugness in his features.
Three or four times the figure faded into darkness, more for Ravenkar’s tired eyes, before, etched into that darkness, a web of spidery filaments materialized. With each falling and rising it appeared with more definition, spanning the chasm below with luminous grace, and they cursed the fullness of Iambos for without her radiant charms the phosphorescent strands of the bridge would surely have lingered more intensely in their vision. And each in their own way began to wonder at this construction, for it was beyond all recognizable parameters. Whereas “ancient” had bellowed out at them thus far on their short journey, now “alien” inserted itself insidiously into their observations.
Undeterred, even spurred on perhaps by the Diviner’s gloating face, Shamul took the first tentative step onto the crossing. Encouraged by the rigidity of the deck he affected a casual air as he grasped the horizontal railings above it, wondering now how they had failed to see the structure immediately. The reminder came as the waters plummeted downwards and once again the light of Iambos flooded the great cavern; his eyes widened and his clutching hands contracted violently as the entire support on which he stood faded from view. Grimly determined, he held his stance until darkness once more pointed out the way. He turned and gestured for Azella to follow, eyeing this time the substantial catenaries and their anchors high above in the roof of the cavern, committing them to memory. Azella summoned her courage, even evoking memories of her murdered mother to drive her on so that bitterness would sustain her. With lightness of foot she approached Shamul and clasped her hands partway around his waist. Henceforth she looked neither left nor right nor down, as the big man made his way across in faltering fashion.
The others followed in similar vein, each unable to progress unless that alien construction was visible beneath their feet. Progress was painfully slow and the torchlight that marked their journey’s end stubbornly refused to close with them. But finally they could discern a natural cantilever of rock reaching out to them from the nigh vertical face of the core; cut within its welcoming length was a shallow flight of stairs which each of them arrived at with all the grace of a man gasping for his last breath. Of their guide there was no sign, but the way forward seemed obvious. The stairs descended to a circular depression where a floor of polished granite awaited them. Its blackness was unremitting save for the glyphs within its surface. With a little more elegance they made their way down to stand upon its shining surface.
Two arched recesses were immediately apparent, one to the left and one to the right, each deep but not particularly imposing. Within one, two thin-stemmed trees grew; their bark was scabby and their leaves an insipid green as though most of the nutrients had been absorbed by the extensive root network, visible in part above ground, bulbous and vital. Between the stems, just below the point where the two trees had been encouraged to intertwine, a stone face beamed benevolently and offered, by way of two cupped hands, an elaborate pewter bowl. Within the other, two more trees, but prosperous this time, with silver bark and vibrant green foliage streaked with veins of copper. Around these two trees creepers snaked, fibrous and clinging. Again a pewter bowl was offered up.
Straight ahead, at the far side of the floor, was an altogether larger arched recess. The door within resembled the door at the start of their journey insofar as size and outline were concerned, but there, all similarities ended: this door was of iron and line upon line of rivets bulged from its uncompromising fascia; although the old language was again in evidence, its message was emblazoned upon the metal, molten tracery demanding to be read rather than skulking contentedly as a burnt afterthought.
They stood entranced before the door until Azella broke the spell.
‘The first door – it was the old language and translated as “Beyond lies the room”, I think.’ She smiled, pleased with herself. ‘But this, I have no idea.’
Ravenkar smiled back, impressed. ‘“Chamber” I fear would be a more accurate translation.’
‘And this door,’ blurted Jak, ‘I know this door!’
‘Yes, you do,’ replied Ravenkar, ‘and so do I. Or at least we know a door that is very similar, for we pass through it into the library at Tak Khiroba. Who would have thought it? Not so monstrous as this, not so imposing and merely of paneled alder.’
‘Of course!’ said Jak, casting aside his usual phlegmatic manner. ‘The script on the library door is of our language, Khîrrîsh, but it too is arched. Can it really be the same verse? Many of the words are here, in the old language. And the intricate scrollwork that surrounds the script; that is surely what captured my attention, for it is identical.’
‘The Eternal Serpent,’ whispered Abduul, surprising them all. ‘Worshipped still by my people.’
‘Worshipped by all when these words were inscribed,’ said Jak.
‘Yes,’ said Shamul, practical as ever, ‘but how do we enter? Do the words tell us?’
‘No,’ nodded Ravenkar, ‘they do not enlighten us with regard to the opening of the door, but the final two lines give us some idea of what lies beyond. Those two lines are not present in Tak Khiroba, although I believe the verse is almost identical. The whole reads thus:
A man is blown along
The cracked and pitted highways of his life,
Like dust, to the crossroads.
There, to be swept up by fickle morning winds
Into the sapphire void, to settle on the floating clouds, thence to dream.
To awaken to the storm, to tumble down to earth
In the cold reality of its rain, and scheme.
Drifting, shifting down his plotted road, past the midday glare.
And should his gods be willing, which they rarely are,
To rest in evening’s balmy light, at a place called home.
Enter now into the chamber, to dream, to scheme as you will.
Rest then may be your reward, but see that it is not eternal.’
‘A worthy translation, if a little flowery.’ The voice transfixed them all. Its scything clarity left them in no doubt as to the identity of the speaker.
‘Indeed,’ said Ravenkar, without missing a beat, ‘and Khîrrîsh is normally so harsh.’
Jak, caught somewhere between bowing and prostrating himself, nearly choked at his mentor’s audacity.
A harsh laugh cut across the floor. ‘Indeed, and so it is friend Ravenkar.’ The figure took in the scene and then continued. ‘But I see that none of you are versed in the correct protocol for greeting the Shaman Ultima.’ Again the harsh laugh and then slow measured tones. ‘Fear not my Khir friends for between us there will be no protocol.’
The sinister figure appeared to glide down the steps onto the floor before halting in their midst, merging with the granite, sprouting from it. The black mask fixed on Azella.
‘Let me look upon you, daughter of Joel and Semira.’
Two gloved hands reached out to her. Azella had thought she was past fear, that nothing could transcend the horrors of the last few days; she had been wrong. The tall reptilian-faced being before her paralyzed her every fiber. She breathed deeply and slowly as she had been taught, and concentrated on the minutiae, hoping to encompass the whole piece by small piece, praying that it would not overwhelm her.
The gloves, like the mask, were wafer thin, and yet were different to the mask. Fine lustrous bumps spread across their surfaces and Azella immediately thought of the great winged fish brought back on rare occasions by the fish-boats into Skîros, caught always by accident rather than design; but she could not be sure. The fingers were wrapped in spiraling filigree tapering to dull cones of metal at their ends; power shimmered there with an unctuous gleam. As she placed her trembling hands within those gloves, she prepared to confront the mask.
It was not necessary. A sense of well being permeated through her and a voice came to her. She no longer needed to concern herself about the mask.
‘You come to us a child Azella, but within stirs the woman. Nurture her, pander to her. You sway from grief to joy and back again, but no matter how far that pendulum swings, do not lose sight of her.
‘Already her sharp emotions have sensed what others have not. Fear has slipped into Djebal Doron, like a silent assassin. The beat of the great Stone wavers and psychic energies stir, energies that for long have been suppressed. They assail our people and our people are unprepared. Arrogance masks their fear and it serves them well for now. But a time approaches when it will be swept away and the assassin will strike.’
One of the gloved hands came up to briefly examine the choker about Azella’s neck and then, acknowledging the others again, Nûrgal continued. ‘And so the time has come my friends when we must establish the whys and the wherefores.’ Whereupon he spun on his heels to confront Ravenkar and Jak.
‘And so we arrive at the Iron Chamber!’
‘Know firstly that it is not iron, nor is it even steel. It is more resilient than both and defies all efforts to replicate it. It sits beyond that door, an implacable dome, reluctant to divulge its secrets. Your guide incidentally has already passed within its confines. Forgive his abrupt manner if you will, for he has much on his mind, as do his five brethren, also ensconced within.
‘Come, look at the floor on which you stand, for it is a representation of the floor over which the chamber’s dome lies; that floor is of the same metal and they merge seamlessly. The dark circle in the center of the diagram, that is the essence, naked and dangerous as it rises up through the Chamber towards the temple. Six channels radiate from it across the floor to six red circles at the periphery, which is where the Diviners sit in readiness. Even now they coax the essence from the central core so that it passes along the channels towards them, and, while it is yet a trickle, taint it with but the most meager morsels of delyrium; igniting it, in a manner of speaking, as it flows beyond into a perimeter channel. More and more is enticed along those channels until finally the entire core has been rerouted across the floor. When enough energy has been stored in the outer rim it begins to overflow and passes up the wall into the dome and thence up to the temple. It is a thin veneer initially but soon builds up into a highly charged lining. The Chamber has now become part of the main circuit and at that moment its dome, the city, the palace and the temple are apparently no more, and you are looking into the night sky above Djebal Doron.’
A grunt of satisfaction from Ravenkar appeared to go unnoticed as Nûrgal continued.
‘“We gather in its metal folds the future to foretell …” So begins the High Mantra of the Diviners. But now it is into the past that we must delve. The Chamber creaks and groans; something strives for release. Already we have had a glimpse of its content. It is old though, so very old. Never will we have taken the star patterns so far back as we do now.’
‘As we do now?’ questioned Ravenkar.
‘There are, as you might have surmised, three remaining circles on the diagram beneath you; an inner ring if you like,’ said Nûrgal. One is red, but the colors of the other two are inconstant. They change according to the angle from which they are viewed; as they do in the Chamber. The red circle is for a priest of the Hierarch. From there he engages the stars in the roof of iron and drives them forward on their allotted paths through time, so that charts can be consulted and prophecies engaged.
‘“From the changing circles, tales are sought and tales are told …” This from a far older mantra, for it is an arcane art that we have had to learn anew. It is a tortuous procedure not practiced in millennia and, to the chagrin of my fellow priests, one that involves outsiders. Hence its very nature precludes its utilization and has relegated it to, how shall I put it, hearsay?’
This brought a wry smile from Ravenkar who interrupted with a tentative question.
‘What we seek then, if I might surmise, is a tale worthy of the telling, from a time when the comet last graced our skies, when the Hierarch was less well established and perhaps when men and women of many backgrounds could perchance practice their own beliefs?’
Nûrgal perhaps smiled inwardly at this juncture.
‘Yes indeed. Four thousand years ago to be precise.’
‘So long,’ whispered Jak slowly, shocked finally into speech.
‘We started by pushing the mechanism forward, the simpler of the two procedures,’ Nûrgal pressed on. ‘Four millennia on and the comet appeared, whereupon we determined to regress through a similar timespan, a procedure fraught with difficulty. As this has been a neglected art, thus too have most of the tools been neglected; charts dating back even three millennia have by now begun to fade or rot, but on we went with the mechanism, deeper and deeper into skies of yesteryear, until finally, at the four millennia mark, there it was! We had confirmed the cycle. But before we could get underway once more and return to the present, images began to flood the Chamber; violent demonic images. A precursor I concluded, to something of great import, put there to attract our attention, to encourage us to investigate further. And so we did. Which brings me back, lest I forget, to the inner ring!’
‘Would it be Jak and myself that you require to complete it?’ asked Ravenkar guardedly.
‘Jak most certainly. I suspect he will be the key. Yourself as well, in the role of Guardian. That is how it was, as far as we can surmise. The Ultima, to fine-tune the mechanism, a Rogue and a Guardian. “Rogue” is a literal translation. You are a rare find Jak. Perhaps in earlier, less settled times there were more of your ilk. I had almost abandoned hope until that coming together at Typhon’s court. You tread frequently in the spirit world Jak and may not know it. Your shadow is heavy in that realm even without the aid at hand. You and those of your order in Khir explore the darker, more fickle traces of residual energy, dêlyrium, whereas we are intrigued by the stable red. But you Jak have the ability to harness both. Neither I nor your mentor can guide you in this, for it is, as the ancient texts imply, a “rogue” power; wild and unpredictable and spontaneous.’
Jak was now in a state of bewilderment but determined not to let it show. Years of studying Joel allowed him to mask his confusion and assume a calm exterior.
‘And what is the task of the Rogue?’ he asked, even conjuring up an element of enthusiasm.
‘In this instance, to locate the soul of an eminent predecessor of mine, one Arish-Tâ; Shaman Ultima at the time in question and I believe, the originator of the message we seek.’
‘And the task of the Guardian?’
‘I cannot be less than honest. Your mission may prove taxing and it may fall upon Ravenkar to guide you back.’
After a long silence, Ravenkar elected to speak, albeit in somewhat grave terms.
‘Of course we cannot refuse the Shaman Ultima, but I assume there is more to be revealed of this; the specifics of the search and the aid you mentioned perhaps?’
‘You are in agreement then, and for that I thank you,’ said Nûrgal. ‘Despite what you may think, it is not something that I would coerce you to do though I had intended to be somewhat “persistent” had you been less enthusiastic in your response.
‘But as you ask, let us then proceed to the heart of the matter, for the six will be well on their way by now. By prayers and mantra do they enter the outer spheres of the spirit world, but we will cross by another bridge. Come, let us examine the malaaba bush over there, that plant of ill-repute.’ So saying, he led them to one of the two side alcoves.
‘Here, within the crushed extract of these roots, lies our way. It will release us into the lighter realms as the sky at the dome’s zenith retreats through the ages. At the appointed time Jak will begin his search. I have no idea what he might encounter; specifically, how many priests utilized the Chamber those many years ago. However, one piece of knowledge has fallen into place, and it is this: since the inception of the Ultima line, each successive holder of that exalted position has been designated a sigil, the nature of which he guards obsessively. Arish-Tâ was only the twentieth of the line, but now the list has lengthened to almost two hundred. It has been one of my tasks, as it was for my predecessors, to memorize the sigil of every Ultima that has gone before. I have often wondered at this, and now I know. Rather than some lame bow to tradition it serves a much greater purpose. The sigil is, in effect, a seal or a signature if you would prefer, but its owner resides in the shifting sands of time.’ Nûrgal paused now before slowly raising his right fist.
‘Look now Jak, to the inside of my right palm.’
And what Jak saw, defined in white, was essentially a cross upon a circle, whereby the legs of the cross extended beyond the periphery of the circle; in the upper left quadrant, the extreme ends of the cross were connected by the quarter part of a larger circle.
‘Press your right palm against my own.’
There was a moment of incandescent pain and when Jak pulled his hand away the seal was now upon his own palm, except that the imprint was blood red and the quarter circle was in the upper right quadrant. Before he had any time to examine it in detail, Nûrgal was reaching for the pewter bowl that the stone hands in this particular alcove held in their grasp.
‘For you Ravenkar, two cubes only, and for your weightier apprentice, three I think will suffice, although it is not an exact science.
‘Your companions will accompany us beyond the door but not into the Chamber itself; there is a small platform just inside. One, Azella, will observe, and the others will guard.’
He studied Shamul and Abduul, as though for the first time. ‘My competent friends, I ask only this of you: that none shall pass, neither in nor out of the Chamber, and it is the latter that I fear more.’
So saying he handed the bowl first to Ravenkar and then to Jak, observing them carefully as they took the cubes of malaaba. Seemingly satisfied, he strode confidently to the great door and stood before it. Despite the lack of any obvious gesture or vocal command, the Serpent began to glide around its captive verse, as only reptiles can; with restrained menace. Upon completion of a full circle, the door swung noiselessly open.
Again they were assailed by that overwhelming pall of antiquity, billowing out to enfold them. They found themselves in a small vestibule, no more than a half-formed globule at the base of the dome. A mere three steps led down to the floor but the raised elevation was sufficient for them to observe it in its entirety.
The floor was about fifty paces across, but it was not like the glossy granite block that they had just abandoned. Instead it was muted and metallic, and runes littered its surface with extravagant abandon. These symbols of sorcery were not emphatic however, like the words emblazoned upon the door. Rather they languished there like hastily conceived scratch marks, listlessly reflecting the light from the rapidly diminishing core.
The Diviners were well advanced in their task for even as the eager eyes of that small company of outsiders focused on the fading column of essence, it flickered and died, leaving exposed six spokes of unrefined fuel coursing towards the perimeter. Once there it changed, although the seated priests performed no overt actions to bring about the transformation. Within its liquid confines was now a spiraling opalescent thread that sparkled and danced its way around the rim; and when that rim could no longer contain its vibrant flow, the energized liquid expanded effortlessly up the chamber wall into the dome above, as though gravity had been temporarily inverted.
At that moment the glistening sheen on its wall was the sole source of light within the chamber until, one by one and far above, the stars introduced themselves, and the entranced newcomers were basking in the glow of a twinkling firmament.
Azella gasped at the sheer beauty of it all, but then Nûrgal was gesturing for her to sit on the top step and awe was displaced by fear as she considered the ordeal that was about to confront her two companions.
The Ultima descended the three steps with Ravenkar and Jak in close attendance, and then paused to address them both as they set foot on the floor. Eerily, all was quiet apart from the rhythmic chanting of the Diviners, just visible around the periphery of the energy wheel.
‘The channels that confine the essence are narrow and deep, and it flows well below the surface of the floor, so you may tread where you will. Do not however approach the walls. Sit cross-legged at your allotted places and let the root do its worst. All nine of us will cross the divide tonight but we three of the inner ring will leave its nebulous barrier far behind, and your shade Jak, if I am right, will travel the farthest. The Diviners will scarce encroach at all; it is their task to observe, and of course to ease the way for whatever we might unearth.
‘Ingestion of the root bark is not a pleasant experience for your body; know this but do not let it concern you. It will provide your release and as its effects wear off, so you will be drawn back. Now, I suggest you take up your positions before you are compromised.’
Jak felt the Ultima’s tight grip upon his arms as he was guided a little further across the floor to stand upon a disc; it was about the diameter of a large shield and it was metallic, but unlike the surrounding floor. Its surface was strangely colorless and there were no runes scratched there. He sat down upon it without any encouragement, doubting that he could have taken many more steps regardless, for already he sensed the poison coursing through his body. His legs were heavy and the inertia was reaching upwards. Vertigo took hold of him and made him feel like retching. He allowed his upper body to fall forwards rather than sideways, and so managed to stay upright, but the vertigo was intense and the Chamber was starting to spin. Now his hearing was muffled and in desperation he craned his neck back and so it was that the stars caught his attention. The spinning stopped but his hearing had gone entirely and then everything at the periphery of his vision began to fade. There were only the stars. And they too began to change.
Each and every one began to traverse the sky, describing its own individual arc. Faster and faster they wove their mesmerizing tapestry as the years fell away, and all he could do, all he wanted to do, was watch; until at last the inevitable slowing began.
Sight and a diluted awareness were all he possessed. He could not even breathe although this did not bother him unduly. A liquid column spanned from the floor to the upper void of the dome, and about it hooded figures scurried with unlikely haste, not one acknowledging his presence. He found that he could not move, nor could he change the direction of his gaze, and so he simply watched events unfold; the multitude of figures was thinning and their motions were slowing. On occasion a studious glance was cast in his direction, but nothing more.
Less than a dozen robed priests now occupied the dome, still moving with unnatural swiftness, but only marginally so; and then six lines suddenly blurred across the Chamber floor and the central column dimmed appreciably, and was gone.
The gray eyes bored into his soul; thus was it different to the mask of Nûrgal, but different in no other way. This was the mask of a Shaman Ultima and Jak knew instinctively that this was Arish-Tâ.
Still the eyes dissected him, but then he realized, as they flickered uncertainly, that they were scrutinizing the space he occupied, and nothing more. Another robed figure appeared, but about it was an air of resignation. They could not see him.
Frustration began to gnaw at him. He did not want to suffer this ordeal again, but more than that, he knew the importance of this task. He would calm himself, breathe deeply, very deeply …
But he could not breathe and now it did bother him, and just for an instant, as helplessness threatened to engulf him, the sound of chanting came to him, but then was gone. But in that instant, exultation swept through him for both figures before him had taken a hurried step back.
He knew what he had to do but in those extraordinary circumstances it was difficult. Yet eventually he gave in to the fear, he let it surge through him and tap into something vital; the untamed force that Nûrgal had identified now began to galvanize him.
The gray eyes were before him again, and an open palm, bearing a symbol he recognized. He knew then that his shade had truly made the crossing and with excruciating slowness he began to raise his own palm.
The fear had passed through him and he was at peace. Sight had gone, only that internal awareness remained. But there was nothing to prick that awareness, only a distant voice calling his name. It was pleasant in this place, he was content.
The voice would not go away. It was loud now, insistent. It was not pleading though, it was demanding. Demanding forcefully that he open his eyes.
Sight. A face he knew from somewhere. He stared past the hooded figure to the stars above. They had started to move, ever so slightly. He closed his eyes again but could not return to that place of contentment.
He could almost sense his physical form drawing him back in, and again that voice, calling to him, familiar now. A sharp slap and Ravenkar peering down at him, a sea of faces behind.
‘I assume the violence was necessary,’ mumbled Jak with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. This was prompted not just by the actual slap but also the acute discomfort his body was registering after the slumped inactivity.
‘Aha, truly he has returned,’ said Ravenkar, smiling. ‘You did well Jak. We saw you raise your palm to his, but did you feel anything, anything at all? You had passed well beyond our scope at that stage. I could not grab you until you came down, till you were, how shall I put it, more substantial?’
Jak was stunned. ‘You mean nothing has happened? But I felt his palm. This cannot be!’
‘Alas it is so,’ said Nûrgal. ‘Perchance the timespan involved was simply too great.’ He clapped his hands as a sign to the Diviners to rise from their positions. ‘Nor can I ask you to return to that place.’
Azella knelt to put a comforting arm around Jak’s shoulder. He was now white and had started to tremble.
‘You did your best and more,’ she said, consoling him. ‘I was terrified just to be in this accursed place; to watch those stars spinning, to hear that chanting. I can’t begin to imagine the place that you have just ventured into.’
‘It appears that my best was not good enough,’ stammered Jak.
‘Can no one else hear it then?’ said Shamul, disbelief in his voice.
‘As I remarked on our way up here,’ said Abduul, ‘all wizards are cloth-eared. Perhaps if they lowered their hoods now and again?’
‘What are you two wittering on about?’ said Ravenkar, losing patience. ‘And kindly do not refer to me as a “wizard”!’
‘No,’ said Azella. ‘I hear it too!’
A sound had indeed crept into the Chamber, almost unnoticed. It skulked beneath eddying currents of air as though afraid to reveal itself. It was continuous and rhythmic, like the ebb and flow of the sea below them, but the pitch was higher, much higher.
Nûrgal hurriedly gestured toward the Diviners so that they resumed their positions and took up their mantra once more.
Now it was as if a great wave approached, rumbling from afar. As the Diviners increased the volume of their mantra it began to circle the Chamber. Was it searching?
No matter. It was upon them.
At Ravenkar’s urging, Shamul and Abduul grabbed a sagging Jak and hurriedly dragged him to the relative safety of the vestibule, with Azella in close attendance. All around them a cyclone raged, like a tormented cacophony of lost souls. The hoods of the Diviners were flung back; eyes bulged in distended sockets, foam-flecked mouths opened and closed as they desperately tried to maintain their chant. The dome itself began to flex ominously inwards and rivets fell like rain, but in the midst of the iron downpour stood Nûrgal, with arms thrust skyward like a demonic lizard, as though by force of will alone he could delay the impending collapse.
And he was not to be denied, for just when it seemed catastrophe must overwhelm them the downpour lessened to a drizzle and the swollen cloak of the Ultima began to flap uncertainly. By the time he had lowered his arms, single drops only were falling and their sounds echoed across the still of the Chamber.
As before the sound came from afar, but this time it was the haunting voice of a young girl, the lilting melody at once beauteous and mournful. It drifted down and played amongst them. Azella’s eyes filled with tears but sadness was preferable to fear and the melancholy brought relief. Thus it was with all who heard that voice; their spirits were uplifted, their weary senses restored.
The voice rose again and hovered above them. It was only when they looked up that they realized the polished stars and the night sky had gone; in their place were the dull cloudy skies of day. But morning hadn’t come early. These clouds were weary with age. Beneath them sat the girl, her song at an end. She smiled a smile of sorrow.
The scene had a dreamlike quality about it. The images were soft and blurred and distant; so very distant, but in time, not space. Black and grays and white only. A black figure now appeared. An arm went around the girl, comforting her. The figure turned and all who looked upon that scene reeled back, startled. For a moment it was as though Nûrgal strode purposefully towards them. But this was not Nûrgal. A mask filled the roof of the dome.
‘I AM ARISH-TÂ.’ The voice reverberated around the Chamber.
The mask remained poised above them and words poured down from a mouth that did not move; the gray eyes though were animated and expressive. The tone was somber, it was angry and it was sad. Many words were spoken, few of them fortunately of the old language. It was not yet of the common tongue that pervaded Khir and Djebal Doron, being harsher, more guttural, but there were enough similarities to make it reasonably coherent.
‘NO LONGER IS THE SKY AFLAME AND THE DREAD COMET RECEDES, BUT OUR BLOOD LINGERS HEAVY ON THE SHORES OF ISLADORON. WELCOME FRIENDS, WHOEVER YOU MAY BE, WHENEVER YOU MAY BE.
‘THIS MESSAGE I COMMIT TO THE IRON BONDS OF THE CHAMBER NOT KNOWING IF IT WILL EVER KNOW RELEASE, PRAYING IT WILL NOT NEED RELEASE.
‘DOES GORE ONCE MORE RISE AND INFLAME THE SKIES, ONLY TO SPIT BACK DOWN UPON YOU? DOES THE COMET APPROACH, BRANDISHING ITS MURDEROUS TAIL? IF SO FRIENDS, TAKE HEED!’
At this, the shaman stepped back, his figure began to recede and a structure loomed up behind him. Arish-Tâ stood on an ornate bridge gesturing upwards at the White Stairway and the temple above. Everything other than that looming pyramid was disconcertingly new and sparse. Granite blocks with a radiant sheen, rain trees around the pool mere saplings. Then the mask was dominating the view again.
‘DO YOU RECOGNIZE YOUR TEMPLE? ALREADY I FEEL THE BEAT OF ITS STRONG HEART RETURNING, A HEART OUR ENEMIES WOULD SEE CONSTRICTED, SMITTEN. BUT THEY SHALL NOT HAVE THEIR WISH FOR THE BLACK STONE HAS GONE AND THE WHITE BEATS ANEW. DO I TALK IN RIDDLES MY FRIENDS? ARE THESE THE INSANE RAMBLINGS OF A DEMENTED PRIEST? I WOULD HOPE NOT.
‘THE BLACK AND THE WHITE, THE OPAQUE AND THE TRANSPARENT. NOT EVIL SET AGAINST GOOD, NOT CONFLICT BUT HARMONY, SYMBIOSIS.
‘WE INHABIT A HARSH WORLD, A CRUEL WORLD, WHERE RAMPAGING STORMS POUND OUR PHYSICAL RAMPARTS AND PSYCHIC FLUCTUATIONS S EEK TO CONFOUND OUR MENTAL BARRIERS. THUS MUST IT HAVE BEEN FOR OUR FOREFATHERS WHEN, IN DESPERATION, THEY WERE DRAWN TO ISLADORON’S HEART – A HEART THAT HAD BEEN RENT ASUNDER, BUT FROM WHOSE SHATTERED ARTERIES LIQUID ENERGY GUSHED FORTH AS THOUGH FROM AN ETERNAL SPRING. SO MUST THEY HAVE TRIED TO CRUDELY FASHION THAT ENERGY TO THEIR BENEFIT, BURNING IT FOR HEAT AND LIGHT. AND SO MUST THEY HAVE SURELY FAILED BUT FOR THE INTERVENTION OF … LET US CALL THEM THE “AESNAGÄRK”, FOR THAT IS HOW THEY ARE NAMED IN THE OLDEST OF OUR TEXTS; LITERALLY, “THOSE WHO WANDER”. VAGUE REFERENCES YOU UNDERSTAND, ALLUDING TO HAIRLESS GODS OF BLEACHED ASPECT WHO ARRIVED WHEN ALL WAS COMING TO A BLEAK AND INEVITABLE END. YET THE REFERENCES, THOUGH SCANT, ARE UNIVERSAL: THE “CYSTERIX OF KHIR”, THE “CHRONICLES OF PAVALORN” AND EVEN THE OBSCURE “ZORAKIAN TEXTS”. TRAVELERS OF THE GREAT VOID I WOULD SPECULATE, FOR THEIR LEGACY WAS SOMETHING FAR BEYOND OUR UNDERSTANDING; A CRYSTALLINE MARVEL THAT DREW FORTH DELYRIUM, FOCUSED IT UPON THE ESSENCE AND CAST ITS REFINED ENERGY ABOUT US AS A PROTECTIVE AURA. I SUSPECT THEY ENCOURAGED US TO LOOK UPON THEM AS GODS, COUCHING THEMSELVES IN MYTH AND MAGIC, ENSCONCING THEIR MOST WONDROUS STONE WITHIN A FORM, A STRUCTURE, ALREADY PREVALENT THROUGHOUT ISLADORON, THAT REPRESENTED ALL THE RELIGIOUS CONVICTIONS OF OUR ANCESTORS. THUS WERE THEY ABLE TO INSERT THAT GLITTERING PHENOMENON INTO OUR MIDST WITH A MINIMUM OF IMPACT, AND SHROUDED IN RELIGIOUS FERVOR IT HAS MADE ITS WAY THROUGH THE CENTURIES. BUT LET ME NOT DIGRESS.’
A gleam now came into the eyes of Arish-Tâ as he anticipated the effect of his next statement.
‘YOU WILL BY NOW HAVE SURMISED FROM MY EARLIER WORDS THAT OURS WAS NOT THE ONLY STONE! ONE MORE WAS SET, FAR OUT BENEATH THE OUTER SEAS, WHERE ANOTHER RACE HAD GATHERED IN A FINAL ACT OF DEFIANCE. THEIR OUTPOURING, THEIR LIFEBLOOD, WAS SIMILAR IN EVERY WAY TO OUR OWN, BUT THE STONE SET THERE WAS NOT. IT WOULD SEEM THE AESNAGÄRK WERE UNABLE TO ABANDON ONE RACE IN FAVOR OF THE OTHER, AND LACKED A SECOND STONE. WHY? IT IS NOT RECORDED. BUT TO SOLVE THIS DILEMA THE SINGLE STONE THAT WOULD NORMALLY HAVE BEEN BESTOWED UPON ONE OF OUR RACES, WAS DIVIDED. TWO STONES WERE THUS PRODUCED, THE ONE TRANSPARENT AND THE OTHER OPAQUE. THE ONE WHITE AND THE OTHER BLACK.
‘THE STONES GO INWARD FOR THEIR POWER, NOT TO THOSE EPHEMERAL OUTER DIMENSIONS WE CALL THE SUPERNATURAL. THEY SEEK OUT INSTEAD THOSE CENTRAL REALMS WHERE ABUNDANT FIELDS HAVE BEEN SOWN WITH THE STUFF OF DELYRIUM. FIELDS WHERE THE PRIESTHOOD WOULD LIKE TO LINGER BUT WHERE THEY FEAR TO TREAD. OUR STONE WOULD APPEAR TO DISGORGE TRACES FROM THAT END OF THE SPECTRUM WHERE THE ENERGIES ARE LOW BUT STABLE; THE OPAQUE STONE, I WOULD CONTEND, DISGORGES MORE VOLATILE TRACES FROM THE OPPOSITE END.
‘WITHIN THE PROTECTIVE AURA OF THE BLACK OUR NEIGHBORS MUST HAVE FLOURISHED, FREE FROM THEIR OWN PSYCHIC TORMENTS; THOSE BANEFUL DEMONS THAT PREFER THE DARK, THAT SURFACE OCCASIONALLY IN OUR OWN MINDS WHEN WE ARE DROWSY AND AWARENESS HAS BEEN SUBMERGED BY DEEP SLEEP. DEMONS THAT BRING SUCH TERROR IT IS RECOGNIZED IMMEDIATELY AND SUPPRESSED.
‘NO MATTER. IT IS OF NO FURTHER CONSEQUENCE. FOR WITHIN THEIR MIDST SOMETHING TERRIBLE AROSE FROM THE BOWELS OF THE PLANET. IT ABUSED THEM AND USURPED THEM. WE CAN ONLY SPECULATE AS TO HOW NOBLE THEY ONCE WERE, BUT WE HAVE BEEN CONFRONTED DIRECTLY BY THAT WHICH THEY HAVE BECOME. THESE “EIDOLA” HAVE SCORNED THE GIFT THAT THE AESNAGÄRK SAW FIT TO PLACE IN THE DEEP SEAS AND THEY SEEK TO USE IT FOR SOME PURPOSE THAT ONLY THEY CAN ENVISAGE. THEIR INSATIABLE LUST CAUSED THEM TO PURSUE IT TO OUR VERY OWN SHORES.
‘FOR THEY KNOW NOW THAT WITH THE COMING OF THE COMET THE BLACK IS RELEASED FROM ITS PRISON AND THAT WITH NO RESTRAINT IN PLACE IT WILL MERGE AS ONE AGAIN WITH ITS OPPOSITE, AS IT DID OVER FOUR MILLENNIA AGO WHEN THEY ROSE UP AND SHATTERED ITS HOUSING. EVEN THEN THEY VIEWED THE ARRIVAL OF THE COMET AS AN OMEN; PERHAPS VIEWED THE RELATIVE FREEDOM OF ITS FLIGHT WITH JEALOUSY.
‘THIS TIME THEY WERE CAUGHT WITHIN THE PINCER OF OUR HARBOR WALLS AS THEY READIED THEMSELVES FOR THE FINAL ASSAULT. THEY ARE AN APPALLING, RELENTLESS FOE. THEY ARE CRAZED AND WITHOUT COMPASSION. THAT THEY DID NOT SUCCEED WAS ONLY BECAUSE THE BLACK WAS CAST BACK INTO ITS PRISON LEAVING THEM BLINDED AND PARALYZED IN THE RENEWED GLARE OF THE WHITE.’
A note of urgency crept into the shaman’s voice.
‘THERE IS SO MUCH TO TELL AND SO LITTLE TIME TO TELL IT. EVEN NOW YOU MAY FIND THE POWER OF THIS MESSAGE BEGINNING TO WANE. I WILL TRY TO BE YET MORE BRIEF.
‘AND NOW YOU MUST ACQUIRE A LEAP OF FAITH, SUCH AS I MYSELF HAVE HAD TO TAKE. FOR NOW I WILL SPEAK OF THE ARCHMAGE KUPRAKINDI AND OF HIS TOME THAT LIES WITHIN THE INFERNAL MAZE: THAT TELLS OF THE PRISON, THE ETERNAL POOL, THAT WAS CREATED SHOULD CATASTROPHE OCCUR, AND WHICH, LIKE ITS NAMESAKE THE SERPENT, FEEDS UPON ITSELF; THAT TELLS OF THE SENTIENT TIMBERED VESSEL THAT WILL TRANSPORT YOU THERE AND OF THE DESOLATE CASTLE BENEATH WHICH IT IS ANCHORED. ALL OF THIS AND MORE ARE WITHIN THE SO-CALLED “RHYME OF KUPRAKINDI”. “RHYME” ALAS IS THE NATURE OF THE BEAST AND BEAST IT SURELY IS. ONLY RAVEN LÔKAR HAD THE TENACITY FOR IT AND I WILL DWELL OFTEN UPON HIM BEFORE THIS TALE IS TOLD.
‘FROM KHAROS HE CAME, AN OUTSIDER TO THIS ISLAND AND THEREFORE SUSPECT. IS IT STILL THUS? I FEAR IT MAY BE ONE DILEMMA THAT KUPRAKINDI DID NOT FORESEE.
‘I BEFRIENDED HIM IMMEDIATELY. OUR INTERESTS AND OUR PASSIONS WERE THE SAME, BUT WHEREAS I, LIKE THE REST OF THE INCIPIENT HIERARCH, DABBLED WITH THE STABLE CRIMSON ENERGIES, HE PURSUED THE DICTATES OF HIS FOREFATHERS, DELVING YET FURTHER INTO THE MYSTERIES OF THE MORE UNCERTAIN ULTRA ENERGIES. TO DO THIS HE WOULD OFTEN HAVE TO ACCESS THE LORE CONCEALED IN HIS FAMILY VAULTS AT KHAROS AND FOR THAT WE CAN BE FOREVER GRATEFUL. FOR IT WAS THERE THAT HE HAD TO WRESTLE WITH SUCH AS IS PRESENTED BY THE DAMNABLE RHYME. SOUTHERN KHIR FLOURISHED IN A BYGONE ERA, DARE I SUGGEST WHEN KUPRAKINDI’S POWERS WERE AT THEIR PEAK? THE LIBRARIES THERE WERE UNPARALLELED; TEXTS EXISTED THAT COULD BE FOUND NOWHERE ELSE. ALL THAT ENDED THOUGH WHEN THOSE LANDS WERE BESET BY A MYSTERIOUS PLAGUE, BARELY HINTED AT IN OUR HISTORIES. THAT, I SUSPECT, WAS WHEN THE EIDOLA FIRST PURSUED THEIR BELOVED BAUBLE TO OUR SHORES, WHEN THE KNOWLEDGE THEY GLEANED ENABLED THEM TO PLOT THEIR LATEST INCURSION. BUT AGAIN, I DIGRESS.
‘OUR FRIENDSHIP REMAINED INTACT AS I PURSUED MY EXALTED PATH THROUGH THE HIERARCH AND HE SUFFERED THE BITTER SNIPINGS THAT INEVITABLY CAME HIS WAY AS AN OUTSIDER. IT WAS OUR INTEREST IN THE MAZE THAT SAW US THROUGH.
‘THREE GENERATIONS WERE ALL THAT SEPARATED US FROM OBLIVION, FOR THAT IS WHEN IT WAS TRIGGERED, SOME SEVENTY YEARS AGO, DURING CONSTRUCTION OF THE WHITE STAIRWAY. AN AIR SHAFT, OR SO IT WAS THOUGHT TO BE, WAS ENCOUNTERED. THE EARTH ABOUT IT WAS CLEARED, NO MEAN TASK GIVEN ITS DEPTH, UNTIL FINALLY, AT ITS BASE, A TUNNEL WAS FOUND LEADING FROM THE BASE OF THE DEAD WATERS INTO THE TEMPLE. AT LEAST THE ASSUMPTION WAS THAT IT WAS A TUNNEL, FOR IT PROVED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE TO PENETRATE THE NETWORK OF ENCHANTMENT THAT SURROUNDED IT. BUT EVEN AS ATTEMPTS WERE MADE TO FORCE A BREACH, SO DID THE PLINTH RISE FROM THE GROUND, BETWEEN THE MAROKONDA, AND SO DID LIGHT SUFFUSE THEIR ENIGMATIC EYES. THUS, WITHIN THE RAIN TREES, UNDER THE IMPARTIAL GAZE OF THE GREAT BIRDS, WAS REVEALED THE GATEWAY TO THE MAZE, APPEALING TO THE BOLD, THE CURIOUS AND THE GREEDY AS ONE. I HOPE THAT MENACING PORTAL IS ONE WITH WHICH YOU ARE YET FAMILIAR AND I WONDER EVEN NOW IF IT WAS OUR TIMID SCRATCHINGS THAT CAUSED IT TO BE REVEALED OR IF OTHER FORCES WERE AT WORK.
‘NO MATTER, THREE GENERATIONS OF FRUITLESS TAMPERING BEYOND THAT GATEWAY HAD NUMBED THE ALLURE OF THE MAZE TO ALL – ALL THAT IS EXCEPT RAVEN LÔKAR. WITH THE PASSING OF A FEW YEARS EVEN I HAD BEGUN TO TIRE, FOR I AM NOT ONE TO REJOICE IN FAILURE. BUT HIS INSISTENCE, NO MATTER HOW ILLOGICAL, THAT OUR WAY WOULD BE EASED BY THE IMMINENT APPROACH OF THE COMET, WAS INFECTIOUS.
‘SO IT WAS THAT ONE TERRIBLE NIGHT, AS BANSHEES WAILED AND STORMS RAGED, FOR WHEN BETTER TO DESCEND INTO A DARK AND HEINOUS TUNNEL, WE ALIGHTED FROM THE WINGS OF THE MAROKONDA TO FIND THAT NOTHING BARRED OUR WAY! DID WE BUT KNOW IT, THE VERY HEART OF DJEBAL DORON HAD CEASED TO BEAT AT THAT SUPREME MOMENT AND THE DISPARATE STRANDS OF DELYRIUM THAT DESCENDED FROM ITS PROCESSING MACHINATIONS, WHICH KUPRAKINDI HAD WOVEN INTO HIS MAZE, WERE NO MORE.
‘HOW WE RAN MY FRIENDS, UNFETTERED BY ITS HABITUAL CLUTCHING TORMENT OF RABID SPELLS. WE RAN THROUGH ITS LABYRINTHINE EXCESSES WITHOUT SPARING A THOUGHT TO THE CONSEQUENCES, UNTIL WE WERE AT ITS FINAL IMPEDIMENT, THE WELL, WHERE A SELECT FEW HAD INDEED PROGRESSED BEFORE, ONLY TO BE CONFRONTED, CONFOUNDED, AND DRIVEN BACK BY AN UNSTABLE MORASS OF PULVERIZING ENCHANTMENTS.
‘NOT SO THAT NIGHT FOR THEY TOO HAD GONE. AS WE ADVANCED OVER THE DREAR TWISTED WALKWAY THAT SPANS THE WELL, OUR PRIZE CAME EVER MORE INTO FOCUS: A BOOK WE HAD ONLY EVER VIEWED FROM AFAR. BUT THEN A DIAPHANOUS CURTAIN OF VIOLET, ALMOST AN ENERGY HAZE, BECAME APPARENT. KUPRAKINDI HAD ENSNARED FILAMENTS OF DARK ENERGY, DÊLYRIUM, THAT THE WHITE STONE CRANKS OUT ON BUT RARE OCCASION, AND MESHED THEM TOGETHER; HIGH FREQUENCY ENERGY THAT PROVIDED A SEEMINGLY INSURMOUNTABLE BARRIER. AND IT WAS THEN OF COURSE THAT WE HEARD FROM ABOVE AND BELOW A SOUND AKIN TO THE APPROACH OF A RUSHING TORRENT, WENDING ITS WAY INTO THE WELL WITH MURDEROUS RESOLVE.
‘I TURNED WITH THE INTENTION OF REPELLING THE ONRUSH OF MALICE THAT BORE DOWN UPON US, WHILST MY COMPANION SET ABOUT RECOVERING THE BOOK. IN MY ARROGANCE I LET OUT A CRY OF TRIUMPH AS THE ENCROACHING TORRENTS RETREATED WHENCE THEY HAD COME, ONLY TO TURN AND SEE RAVEN LÔKAR WITH THE BOOK IN HIS GRASP. IN BITTER TRUTH I COULD SCARCE HAVE IMPINGED EVEN SLIGHTLY UPON THAT WEAVE OF DEATH; IT HAD BEEN SO DESIGNED THAT ONCE THE PRIZE HAD BEEN TAKEN, THEN SO DID ITS HORRORS ABATE.
‘LET THIS BE EMPHASIZED BEFORE I CONTINUE. YOU MUST ENTER THE MAZE JUST BEFORE THE COMET IS SET TO DO ITS WORST, AND IF YOU WAIT, YOUR PATH WILL CLEAR AS THE BLACK RISES TOWARD THE SURFACE OF THE POOL THAT IS ITS PRISON. ALSO, ONE OF THE TWO WHO ENTERS MUST BE PROFICIENT IN THE WAYS OF DÊLYRIUM. THIS I FEAR IS WHERE YOU MAY FALTER IF THE POWER OF THE HIERARCH HAS CONSOLIDATED AND GROWN, BUT ON SUCH MATTERS I CANNOT DWELL.’
The shaman glared down now from the roof of the dome as though to add credence to the words he had just imparted. The image flickered and faded; and then returned, but the voice seemed more distant.
‘AND QUICKLY, TO THE RHYME ITSELF. EVERYTHING ABOUT IT IS COMPLEX: THE ANTIQUITY OF THE LANGUAGE; ITS STUTTERING METER; ITS OBSCURE REFERENCES. NATURALLY, IT WAS NOT TOO LONG BEFORE OUR JEALOUS CONTEMPORARIES BEGAN TO DISMISS IT AS GIBBERISH. BUT THE PROSE THAT WAS SO FORMIDABLE TO HIS PEERS TOOK ON SIGNIFICANCE FOR RAVEN LÔKAR, AND AS HE GRADUALLY CAME TO TERMS WITH THE AWKWARD VERSES AND TREBLE TALK, SO HIS FIXATION GREW. FIRST HE WOULD ATTEMPT TO PRINT OUT A LITERAL INTERPRETATION, THEN ABOVE, IN SPIDERY RED, HE WOULD CHARM FORTH THE TRUE MEANING.
‘THUS, AS TOLD BY KUPRAKINDI, SUPREME MAGE OF THE DARK AGE, AND TRANSLATED BY RAVEN LÔKAR, WAS REVEALED OUR COMING PLIGHT AND THE TERRIBLE VOYAGE THAT COULD PERCHANCE BE OUR ONLY SALVATION; EVERYTHING, LIKE THE RHYME ITSELF, RETAINED IN MYTH AND MAGIC SO THAT IT MIGHT FOREVER REMAIN CONCEALED FROM THE EIDOLA.
‘NEEDLESS TO RELATE, ALL OF THIS WAS HELD UP TO RIDICULE. APART FROM MYSELF, ONLY PRINCE ETHRÛLL AND HIS CLOSEST FRIENDS AND ALLIES AT COURT TOOK THE TRANSLATION SERIOUSLY. QUEEN KATELYN WAS DISTRAUGHT WHEN SHE LEARNED THAT HER SON WAS TO ACCOMPANY RAVEN LÔKAR ON HIS QUEST. ONLY I WAS PRESENT WHEN THOSE BRAVE FEW CAST OFF FOR DIADONNARA, THE BLACK STONE WITH THEM, SECRETED WITHIN THE ICY FOLDS OF THE CUCULLUS. AH YES, YES, YES, AND HERE, THROUGH DIRE NECESSITY, I MUST DIGRESS AGAIN.
‘THE CUCULLUS IS ALL THAT WILL SEPARATE THE TWO STONES. YOU MUST SUMMON IT FROM THE SOULLESS SPHERE IN WHICH IT LIES, AS OUTLINED IN THE RHYME, AND CAST IT OVER THE MERGED STONES, WHEREUPON IT WILL SECURE THE BLACK AND SUBDUE IT; THE WHITE WILL BEAT ANEW, BUT SEVERELY WEAKENED. AS TIME PASSES, THE ENERGY OF THE CUCULLUS IS ABSORBED BY THE BLACK AND THE POTENCY OF THE STONE BEGINS TO SEEP THROUGH THE SHIELD. THUS DOES THE AURA OF THE WHITE BEGIN TO DIMINISH AGAIN, DRAWING ITSELF IN AROUND DJEBAL DORON. WITH IT WILL COME THE EIDOLA, ASSUMING THE BLACK EVADES THEM STILL. ALAS MY FRIENDS, NOW THEY KNOW THE SCHEME OF THINGS AND LIKE A TIGHTENING NOOSE THEY WILL CLOSE ABOUT THE HEART OF ISLADORON, INTENT ON SHATTERING IT ASUNDER.
‘BUT LET US NOT DWELL ON THAT BLEAK SCENARIO, FOR UNLESS I AM SORELY MISTAKEN THEY DO NOT KNOW EVERYTHING AND THEY MOST CERTAINLY DO NOT KNOW WHITHER YOU MIGHT GO SHOULD YOU TAKE HEED OF THIS TALE. AND SO I RETURN TO RAVEN LÔKAR AND HIS CREW.
‘AS I HAVE SAID, IT WAS TO THE LIGHTHOUSE AT DIADONNARA THAT THEY MADE THEIR WAY, THEREIN TO FIND THEIR PATH, AS HAD BEEN INSTRUCTED BY THE RHYME; THE PATH THAT WOULD LEAD THEM EVENTUALLY TO THE BLEAK NORTHERN SHORES OF KHANJU AND CASTLE MÔGRODÔTH, THENCE ACROSS THE OUTER SEAS TO SEEK OUT THEIR WATERY GOAL.
‘AND THAT MY FRIENDS IS WHERE YOU TOO MUST GO!’
The sound of far off thunder caused the gray eyes to lift momentarily and then the whole scene blurred and was gone. Several long seconds passed and only the static of centuries played across the roof of the dome, but then the figure of Arish-Tâ slowly flickered into view one last time. It seemed he had retreated several paces and rain was now pounding down on his gaunt frame. The voice was world-weary and could barely be heard above the storm that now circled above him.
‘BEWARE! ETHRÛLL AND A FEW OF HIS CREW HAVE RETURNED; OF RAVEN LÔKAR THERE WAS NO SIGN. I FEAR WE SHALL NEVER LEARN OF THEIR JOURNEY, THEIR TRIUMPH, FOR THEIR MINDS HAVE BEEN TAKEN. ONLY ETHRÛLL REMAINS REMOTELY SANE BUT NO SENSE CAN BE EXTRACTED FROM HIM; HE RAVES CONSTANTLY OF THE “JUGGLER” AND HIS “FOUR SACRED SYMBOLS”. HE IS TO BE BANISHED FROM COURT AND WILL LIVE OUT THE REST OF HIS DAYS IN SKÎROS. I HAVE TRIED TO INTERCEDE ON HIS BEHALF BUT KATELYN IS AN UNFORGIVING MONARCH.
‘SOMETHING HAS OCCURRED THAT WAS NOT FORETOLD IN THE RHYME. I SENSE THE DARK ARTS OF KUPRAKINDI AT WORK, DRIVEN BY HIS OBSESSION FOR SECRECY.’
So saying, he raised his right arm in a beckoning gesture and the girl reappeared. As his arm went about her shoulder she resumed her lament and he spoke to them with grim finality.
‘I HAVE FOLLOWED THE FINAL DICTATES OF THE RHYME: IT LIES ONCE MORE WITHIN THE MAZE. ALSO AS INSTRUCTED, I HAVE PLACED A WARNING WITHIN THE IRON FOLDS. BUT THIS YOU KNOW ALREADY.
‘FAREWELL CHILDREN OF ISLADORON. I WISH YOU WELL.’
Arish-Tâ and the girl turned and walked slowly away, back into history. That mournful melody lingered awhile within the Chamber and then it too was gone.
The enigmatic figure stood before them, clasped hands atop his staff, an amused frown creasing his features. Despite the exaggerated midriff, he radiated power and authority. His dark hair was held back by an unadorned circlet, and fell to his shoulders; gone were the braids that had enhanced his beard but recently. Beneath his black fur-trimmed cloak a long tunic of chain mail sparkled, presented to him by the Clann, indeed similar to that favored by the Clann, but more resplendent; the sorcerous forgers of Robahar had tinkered with their masterpiece and outdone themselves, to produce a garment that was perhaps not quite as strong as the original but lighter and more regal, with its smattering of precious metals. One of his well-worn red leather boots tapped impatiently upon the granite floor. When he finally spoke, his voice reverberated around the circular depression that fronted the Iron Chamber.
‘Well, well, well. I see that my chief advisor has been entertaining our guests with his usual wit and grace. Nûrgal, you really are wasted as Shaman Ultima; I think a spell as Ambassador to the Royal Court would much better suit your talents. If all our visitors could be summarily poisoned and subjected to arcane mind-benumbing rituals, I’m sure our affairs would run just that more smoothly.
‘Forgive me my Khir friends, and you most of all Azella, daughter of Joel and Semira. What indeed must you think of me!? Know, in mitigation, that I did personally formulate and instruct a welcoming committee to greet you at the quayside and bring you, in no little comfort I might add, up to the palace; alas, all to no avail.’
The king was interrupted by a gruesome slurping sound that gave him pause for a moment. His leonine head swiveled around as though in search of the culprit and then he was focusing on his staff, a look of mock indignation on his face.
‘Ahem, yes, well it is not often that the symbol of my power stirs itself from its slumbers. I do believe I am being reprimanded. My sullen companion here does not dwell on niceties you understand.
‘So Azella, come, let me look at you. I imagine I no longer present such an intimidating figure after your exposure to the benevolent charms of my advisor. Something akin to a doting uncle perhaps?’
‘Not exactly, lord,’ said Azella, smiling, but failing to disguise her apprehension towards the king’s staff.
‘Ah, do not concern yourself with this drooling excuse for a walking stick. It only stirs itself when something of interest presents itself and I can assure you, in my court that is hardly ever.’
Typhon then surprised them all by taking both of Azella’s hands in his own and leaving his staff to fend for itself. Somehow it remained upright, but not without a slurp of protest.
‘And now Azella, princess of Khir, allow me to welcome you to my domain and express my grief at your loss. Your mother was much admired here in Djebal Doron. The queen was particularly distraught at the loss of such a great friend, as was she was similarly distraught with my chief advisor when she realized he had spirited you away!’ This with a sidelong glance at the Ultima who did not respond, familiar as he was with the king’s baiting.
‘This island shall be your haven in these troubled times. You shall stay with us until matters have resolved themselves …’
‘Alas, that may not be possible,’ said Nûrgal, in a tone that chilled Azella. ‘Forgive the interruption my lord, but no child of Joel’s lineage can be dismissed lightly. It was not just concern for her safety that prompted me to concur with your decision to bring her here. Her talents may be crucial to our survival. Even now I look at the adornment around her neck and wonder. If you would permit me, my lady?’
With that, the Ultima slowly extended his hand toward Azella’s neck and then, very tentatively, a finger towards the necklace.
Azella’s eyes narrowed as she glared at Jak, but then she felt a slithering sensation around her neck and blame was instantly set aside. Her whole body tensed and her breath came in shallow bursts.
The others could scarce believe their eyes as the petals on the necklace closed over the gemstone and it began to assume a completely different aspect. No jewel was visible, nor even a clasp, only a familiar serpentine form at play around her neck, feasting with relish upon its tail. As the gloved hand was lowered, the closed form of the flower was drawn from the snake’s mouth and the tiny gemstone was revealed again as the petals began to unfurl.
‘The Orakal seems to have found its way to you, my lady,’ said the Ultima, in a hushed voice. ‘It has been active I suspect, but is now dormant once more. We have much to learn about it and information is scant at best. Might I ask you how you came by it?’
‘I am to blame for that,’ said Jak.
‘Oh no, my rogue friend,’ said Nûrgal. ‘I seriously doubt if any blame can be attached to this. You must though tell me the tale of its finding.’
‘And that tale will have to be told later,’ said Typhon abruptly, ‘for now we will escort our guests to their chambers. I fear this young lady has undergone enough surprises for one day.
‘Gentlemen,’ he continued, addressing Shamul and Abduul for the first time, ‘you may retain your weapons for the duration of your stay. Joel has entrusted his daughter into your care and that is good enough recommendation for me. I shall inform the palace guard of my decision.
‘Oh yes, there is a palace guard,’ he said, in response to the bemused expressions that greeted this announcement. ‘It is just that they are not, how shall I say, obtrusive. But come; let us ascend to the queen’s winter quarters, still well within the depths of the palace, so not too far. She herself is presently residing in her garden quarters for the season; much more expansive you know. Even I am at a loss as to just how many quarters and servants she actually has access to. Such is her hideous aspect that few can bear to look upon her for an extended period of time, even if commanded to do so.’
Azella was laughing now as she accepted the king’s proffered arm. He continued to ramble on relentlessly as they walked. ‘Our offspring are currently encamped with her, which is fortunate, for they would only pester you, the boys especially. They too are exceedingly ugly …’