The ornate craft approached even as they descended the winding stairway. Its color was difficult to discern in the flickering light, its tiny form less so. A high sinuous prow scythed through the placid waters of the lake before coming to an abrupt halt, allowing the flat stern to ascribe a lazy arc around it and nestle with perfect precision against the bottom stair.
The lake was not wide, even if it did occupy the entire cavern floor, but it was with some trepidation that the four men now boarded the ferry and began the final stage of their journey. Under less trying circumstances any one of them might have idly glanced around at the slowly receding stairway, or stared up with mild curiosity towards the domed roof, exposed only fitfully by random bursts of light from the depths below. But not so here. All eyes were nervously drawn to the grim structure at the center of the lake, focusing on the shimmering patina of enchantment that played upon its stark cylindrical walls and encircled its capstone far above. Here lay the source of their anxiety. Anxiety bordering on fear.
The craft soon began to slow and as it did so, the most imposing of the four men arose: this was the Ultima, their leader and head of their order. With great deliberation he raised his right arm and held it aloft, partly to steady himself in the shallow hull, but more in acknowledgement of a metallic disc that had appeared before them and towards which they were headed. It was embedded into the curved wall of the structure, and upon its surface was the imprint of a hand. As the distance closed, a symbol appeared upon the palm of the imprint and it was as though its lines were scored with liquid gold. The symbol was not constant and as it changed, so did its lines flow into one another until, it seemed, a continuous transformation was underway.
The Ultima’s hand was almost within touching distance of the disc before the fluctuations came to an end. The symbol now apparent shone forth with unwavering intensity. Within the light that emanated from it, a similar symbol could be discerned upon the Ultima’s palm, a mirror image in fact, etched into the skin. The clear pigment daubed upon its outline, that normally concealed it from prying eyes, shone clear and white in the glow of its twin.
An elemental grinding could be heard as stone gears engaged. There was a stirring of dust and then joints appeared, where before there had been none. The section of the wall before the Ultima, and the disc upon it, receded into shadow, revealing a narrow stone passage in their wake. He stood impassively as the air about him was sucked into the opening and his cloak struggled for release. But even as that air settled and his cloak ceased to flap, an odious stench began to permeate down from the concealed innards of the structure.
As befitted his position as leader of the Hierarch, the ancient priesthood to which this select group belonged, the Ultima’s face was concealed by a mask. Its wafer-thin metal was of strange and delicate design, but not so delicate that any expression could sully its gaunt features. As he stepped into the passageway those features were suddenly illuminated by a cold unnatural light that permeated the very stone about him. His three companions followed closely behind, stooped and fearful.
Abruptly, the passage turned and they found themselves ascending a steep and winding stair. Their footfalls left no sound as they were absorbed into the dense stonework all around and each man now knew that the sparse texts relating to this shunned place had not lied. Here was a place built to last. A keep of metal and solid stone, into which burrowed a single stair leading to a single chamber.
They had been forewarned, but the stairway was unimpressed. Almost imperceptibly its sinuous ascent began to loosen their grip on reality; it was difficult to believe that such endless spiral musings could be contained within a structure of finite height. But on and on they pressed with commendable resolve, even as it was leeched from them with every arduous step. It was only when utter exhaustion threatened that respite finally beckoned.
They did not pause as they entered the chamber. They did however take the time to light the makeshift brands they had brought with them, for darkness had descended upon them, snuffing out the gelid light that had led them there. The resinous flames did little more than provide a wavering cocoon around them but nevertheless served to highlight the object that had lured them to such a desolate outpost. There, at their midst, upon an unremarkable stone dais, lay an ornate sarcophagus.
The Ultima took up a position at the foot of the sarcophagus, whilst two of his red-cloaked acolytes shuffled warily to its sides. The third came to stand at its head and it was this third man that spoke now, even as he placed a thick black candle before him, on the dais.
‘Are we truly intent on awakening this creature then, Ultima?’
‘Côh-Hrista, we have not undertaken such a journey to fail now, at the last. Within this sealed casket lies the architect of our order, the final one to whom all knowledge was passed. It is because of his birthright and vile knowledge gleaned from his depraved wanderings that he lies here still, and does not grace Pandemon’s dark shores.’
‘Can those shores be less welcoming than this dread tower?’ came the faltering reply.
‘I trust that we shall not find out this day.’ The Ultima’s voice reverberated around the still chamber, its echoes seeming to mock his assertion. ‘Now come, all of you, let us be about our task. Drak Vorsa, the candle if you would! Yours too, Zal Tzeno.’
Four black candles burned with feverish intensity as the Ultima produced a faded leather book from the folds of his cloak and began to recite words long unspoken from its pages. For a while it seemed as though those words were uttered in vain but then gradually a twisted skein of smoke began to envelop the casket. Within that smoke the casket walls appeared to dissolve and the outline of a figure slowly emerged. The figure was in a state of repose and was featureless, for about it had been wrapped a continuous strip of metal leaf and upon that strip had been engraved glyphs of curious form.
And now the Ultima took something else from his cloak, this time with an attitude that was almost reverential. It shimmered and shifted in his palm, its protean form insubstantial at best, but as he placed it within the vortex of swirling smoke and incantations so did it begin to assume greater definition.
The four who watched knew, if they hadn’t already known, that here was a thing unutterably alien. As it hovered there its unstable form did not just assume solidity, but went beyond, to such an extent that all about it soon became vague and uncertain. Its writhing malevolence glinted in their startled eyes as it sought after their souls and surely would it have gorged itself but for the calm intervention of the Ultima.
The words that emerged from his mouth were not uttered with any degree of urgency, nor were they imbued with desperate invective. They were words from an arcane language, a language of baffling complexity given its age, but though they were spoken calmly and with assurance, they were nevertheless despicable words of tainted power.
‘I command thee amulet to seek out the first sigil and return the soul that is imprisoned within thy bounds to its rightful owner! Let him return and reclaim his rightful place amongst us. Let thy guardianship be at an end. I invoke this command solely by the language that I speak, knowing that its words bind thee.’
For a moment nothing happened, but then the object of his attentions began to rotate and as it did so the final traces of smoke were swept away until there, before the four men, couched in the utmost clarity, was indeed an amulet. The crystalline sheen of its many facets made it difficult to identify a definite color but that was not uppermost in the numbed minds of those that watched. All of them, even the Ultima, were unnerved by its independent motion, its apparent sentience; allied to this were the distinctly perceptible palpitations that accompanied that motion, hinting that here they were observing the ruminations of something organic and not merely witnessing the preordained progression of a lifeless stone.
The pulsing amulet appeared to hover for an age and yet it was surely no more than a few heartbeats before it settled upon the metal leaf. Immediately it began to dim as its energy was dissipated into the strip and, one after another, those curious glyphs upon the strip were illuminated in rapid succession, until a fiery envelope blazed around the figure that lay there.
And then the fire went out.
All four men took an involuntary step back as the shrouded figure tensed. The metal that had bound it clung to it yet, but was little more than crumpled foil. Beneath, the flesh was shriveled, barely intact, but seemed to flourish with each passing moment. By the time its back arched and it arose to look about, even the pallid hue of the skin had disappeared.
With infinite patience, it took in each priest in turn, even Côh-Hrista who stood trembling behind. And yet its eyes never opened. Then, with unnatural swiftness, it snatched at the amulet and held it aloft. There was an excruciating parched inhalation before a voice emerged. It was sickeningly sweet and oozed forth like nectar from an overripe fruit, but at least the language that emerged was their own, barring a few archaic intonations.
‘How long has it been, acolyte? Even as I was betrayed, so did I know that this day would come.’ And now the eyes were open, staring with cold contempt at the Ultima.
To his credit the Ultima did not flinch, but stared back with equal resolve. His voice, to the alarm of his companions, conveyed not reverence, but loathing.
‘Kastorcellex, here you have lain, undisturbed, for almost five centuries. It was because of you that our order was created, the order of the Hierarch, to ensure that none such as yourself should ever again rise to power. I am no acolyte, I am Shaman Ultima, leader of that order, and I say to you now, Betrayer of Souls, Master of Chaos – whatever epithet you might care to assume, this is not the day for which you have yearned! That dark day lies yet far into the future when the enchantments that bind you here have run their course. Would that they could have been eternal but it seems that the universe gives even the most evil of its progeny a second chance.’
‘Hah! What do I care of the universe and its desires?’ Again that lilting sweetness. ‘Let us be forthright, priest. It is simply that the Hierarch does not have the power to shackle me until the end of days. Even as we speak I sense decay gnawing at the feeble bonds that hold me. Now, out with it! What is it that you require of me?’
‘Those “feeble” bonds will hold you for many a year to come. Millennia will have passed before your tread once again sullies our lands and by then it is my distinct hope that those who follow in my path will have found a way to counter the evil that succors you, that shields you.’
‘And yet here you are.’ The one known as Kastorcellex did not embellish the statement. He merely tried to smile. The resultant rictus that spread across his shriveled face was terrible to behold.
‘Yes, here I am. And I have a proposition for you.’
The rictus widened, but no reply was forthcoming. The Ultima continued.
‘I suspect that you always knew of the Mnemnar and the fate that befell them. Indeed, perhaps you calculate even now. Has the comet passed?’
‘Do not presume to play games with me, priest!’ All pretense of civility had passed. The words emerged as a prolonged hiss. ‘The very fact that you should mention it betrays the answer. How is it that you survived? That is the real question.’
‘It is a long game that you play, corpse. You submitted to your shackles far too readily. Did you perchance hope that those who usurped the Mnemnar would account for us in similar fashion? Did you perchance hope that when your bonds had finally decayed you might emerge reborn into a world that had forgotten your legacy? A long game, I say again corpse, and a dangerous one, like my own, for I am here to deal you an advantage. My aim is to perpetuate the seed of our forefathers so that it might flourish and see off this abomination that threatens . . .’
A shrill laugh interrupted the Ultima. It reverberated around the chamber and would surely have undermined the very sanity of lesser men. ‘I think not, for it is the “Eidola” of which you speak. An ancient evil whose appetites and depravities can only be appreciated by one such as myself. Unfortunate, is it not, that they should find their way here? Of course, they will prevail. Do not, for a single moment, think that it could be otherwise.’
‘Yet this time they did not. Ponder on that, corpse. Something was unearthed at the last. A book. More than that I will not say. The timing of its appearance and the sorcery that guarded it were designed to thwart even the most skilled of occult practitioners – dare I say, practitioners such as yourself. The Eidola were mentioned within its pages, together with their patience, which would seem to be infinite. They seek out something and our destruction is a mere by-product. They will try again during the comet’s next cycle, for that is when our protection is nullified and we are at our weakest. It is of that time that I would speak to you now.’
‘Yes, yes.’ The hissing had returned, but was still languid, untroubled. ‘And what would you have me do, minion? A warning perhaps, for those yet to come?’
For the first time the Ultima faltered, if only for an instant. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I see that you are quick to grasp the situation.’
‘My intellect far exceeds your own, priest, and that of any of your craven followers. Do not forget this fact. You would leave a warning, but a warning that must survive a span of four thousand years. But how to accomplish such a task?’ The rictus slowly spread once more across the parchment features. ‘Why of course! Where else, but within the bounds of the Iron Chamber. I begin to enjoy this game.’
‘I am in awe of your deductions, corpse.’
‘Sarcasm will avail you naught, priest. Nor will it conceal your intentions, which now lie naked before me. You would set a warning within the Chamber, but alas, you know not how. For that you require one who yet knows the ways of the Duidarra. One to whom all knowledge was handed down. One such as myself.’
The Ultima’s reply was couched in cold fury. ‘“One” indeed would be the salient word, corpse, given that you butchered all others who were entrusted with such knowledge.’
‘Yes, yes, and for such a minor infraction I lie here now.’ Kastorcellex would surely have raised a crumbling hand to stifle a yawn had he been able, but the rictus had assumed control for the moment. ‘Let us not linger in the past, priest, for it is the future you seek to secure. You need knowledge that I alone possess, but what is it that you offer in return? Let me see – I do not know the nature of this benefactor, this book merchant, yet I see that his writings have prolonged your fate. But for how long? Will your wretched descendants see out the next cycle should they be warned? An interesting question. Let us answer that question in the affirmative. What then, in the light of such an outcome, would you be able to put before me?’
‘Who is to know what might happen over a span of four thousand years, corpse? Perhaps one might arise who can banish forever from our realm this dread amulet in which your soul resides. Perhaps another might arise, who, like yourself, may take the view that privileged information is not to be shared? Who is to know with any certainty?’
‘So it is anonymity that you would offer me, priest. Do I surmise correctly? Are you in a position to make such an offer?
‘I can see to it that this place is shunned. It is hardly accessible even now, but I will have all references to it removed from our texts and from our maps. The fort beneath which you lie is too big to conceal, but I can place a glamor about its inner walls, wherein the entrance to this drear place lies. All above will fall into disrepair and the land about it will decay, although, of course, the mechanisms that hold you here will continue to function.’
‘Not enough, priest,’ came the rasping reply, ‘but then you already know that, do you not?’
‘My word then would not be deemed sufficient?’
Kastorcellex did not deign to reply and the silence that prevailed seemed more suited to that mournful chamber than any animated interplay of words. Outwardly, the Ultima appeared at peace with the world, but the very quietude that reigned suggested otherwise and when he finally spoke the words emerged reluctantly. They were strained, flat and rehearsed, for he had known this moment would come. They were also accompanied by gasps of dismay from his three colleagues, although they knew better than to intervene.
‘If I was to place this amulet within your care, would that then allay your suspicions? As you are undoubtedly aware, with the passing of each Ultima this wretched stone is passed on to the next for safe keeping. With it passes not only the tale of your demise but also the danger that yet lingers within these subterranean shores. Should that tradition come to an end so too will your infamy trail off into obscurity’
Still Kastorcellex said nothing.
‘You know too well, corpse, of the sacrifice that I do make. With this amulet you may access other realms, although mercifully, your physical manifestation will remain dormant. Within this realm too you may stray, but not far, for the binding forces that hold you will call you back. Upon that fateful day they fade, so hopefully may our descendants, should they have survived, be better suited to cope with your evil machinations.’
And still Kastorcellex said nothing. The flame of each black candle guttered, and was gone. Silence insinuated itself once more, its only companion the strained breathing of four men. Even the brands they bore burned with quiet solemnity and it was only when they too began to exhibit flickering signs of distress that the corpse’s head tilted ever so slightly to one side.
‘Come hither, priest. Let me tell you of the Iron Chamber.’