PREVIEW OF MACHIVARIUS POINT
Brec, self-lashed to a half empty wine barrel, watched as ragged golden sails pitched, dipped out of view once more, and were finally gone.
The chill sea was brutal. He hated the wet. One long campaign had taken him across the endless peat bogs of Kos Moor and Dunn Fell, themselves rutted like an earthen ocean. There the perpetual rainfall had almost driven the mercenary mad, but the sea revealed a new truth: Its waters were far crueller than rain could ever be.
He felt he should be at home upon the sea - in some obscure way it reached out to him. Yet it engendered a troubling sense of loss, so he granted it only his hatred.
The night was spent in churning isolated darkness. Distant calls from other survivors occasionally punctuated the monotony. In time they waned, and eventually ceased altogether.
Now the sun bobbed at the zenith of its low winter arc, suggesting warmth, but offering none. The abrasive hemp lashing of the inadequate raft chaffed swollen white fingers. His body dangled obsolete beneath the waves, the moronic rhythm of which - peak after trough after peak - lulled Brec into a stupor.
His mind lurched, drunk on fractured memories.
A tribe of Mercenaries called the Umbriani chanced upon the Village at the foot of Wealdenhead Tor. Breeden, a chaotic huddle along the banks of the river Florth, had been a yolk to Brec, and all he had ever known. The Wulf-shanked mercenary Chieftain noticed Brec’s stature, the steady gaze of his cool green eyes. He compelled the boy to undertake a succession of tasks - which were completed with a belligerent ease. An understanding was reached with his parents. Wine was consumed. Tears shed.
The following morning the Umbriani were back on the march, their numbers swollen by one. Brec watched sunlight strike the summit of Wealdenhead Tor, bathing it in flame as he left.
Clinging to his makeshift raft, he could not, before then, recall having thought about his parents a moment beyond that day.
Gingerly he opened salt-stung eyes, blinking against the light, but there remained nothing but sea and sky. No lonely jutting spur of a rock, nor loom of distant islands. Not even the sharp, coasting outline or fluting caw of a Ghull.
The cold seemed to burn now, engulfing him in waves of feverish heat that suggested other memories.
Back in the Suusa Desert. Back in that breath robbing swelter.
Back in the Patthylyon campaign, fighting for his life.
Cut off from the bulk of the Umbriani, he had bulwarked himself and his men in a fissure of scorched earth. For five fraught days they kept the red-eyed Maasoom at bay, but were, themselves, trapped. A thick, craggy wall was painstakingly erected, rough steps hewn, and on the sixth day they broke free of the defile and rejoined the relieved mercenaries – finally shifting the balance to their advantage.
That evening they gorged themselves on triple rations, accompanied by the severed heads of two hundred braves mounted on an arc of wooden staves.
Brec could no longer distinguish day from night.
Vaguely he hoped a Trillon, or some other oceanic predator, might take him - honour him with one last battle. The kind of heroic ideal for death he had been raised to approve of.
It would have been an ill-made match.
The thuggish slap, the monotonous swell and retreat of waves, continued to lull and confuse his senses. The inescapable cold awoke another memory in which he shuddered, half buried under dank, snow-beaten bracken.
The Umbriani had been decimated. Brec and a handful of others – the remnants of three hundred - had escaped into the vast, largely uncharted gloom of the Tollos Forrest. There a huge Kaddn had chanced upon his hiding place. It had reared, startled, falling on him like a landslide, its serrated tusks gouging chunks out of him, its four red eyes wide and wild.
It took him months to recover his strength - he remained terrifyingly scarred - but he had crafted a fine cloak out of that Kaddn’s thick white-furred hide, and for many years it contributed greatly to his legend.
(He imagined the bedraggled thing now, spiralling down into unknowable depths - a belated resting-place. The waterlogged skin had threatened to drag him with it, but he had managed to cut it free.
No other man would claim it as a trophy at least, and he contented himself with that.)
Time had seen his reputation grow and precede him – he almost smiled at the recollection. He had become a famed mercenary, sometime bodyguard, and, if work was scarce, assassin. He balked at the thought of this last, preferring open notoriety - the fearful appraisals the Kaddn-skin mantle drew - to fugitive deeds.
It was also true that in near global travels Brec had seldom looked far for a soft bed, a willing fuck. His large cock (though not the legend it was purported to be) and surprising tenderness perpetuated an entirely different fame. Yet such trysts had been little more than sport, or relief. He felt nothing for the women who writhed in his rugged embrace, vainly hoping to add his name to their own, his legend to their meagre histories. There was a gap within him - he knew it, but not why - and though he couldn’t remember it, he knew that the gap had a name.
Darkness subsided, giving way to a throbbing golden-red beyond his eyelids.
Brec, half-open mouth invaded by swirling tumultuous brine, groped his way urgently toward wakefulness. Supporting himself upon shaky elbows, he hauled in a long, shuddering breath. Puked, violently, in the shallow seawater, numb fingers curling in sand.
And yet - land!
He cut himself free of the barrel, made his way up the beach on unsteady legs he felt did not belong to him. The sky was cloudless. Only a faint bite in the wind suggested winter. He was, he supposed, on one of the many volcanic islands that huddled conspiratorially a days sailing west of Corthallia. The nearest dry land beyond these was in Hulffennland, where they had been bound, a month’s journey northward. He would build a raft - there was plenty of vine and wood - and head back to the Isthmus of Corthallia. It should take no more than three days, he calculated.
By that evening he had located a source of fresh water and butchered a fat and fearless Plattofowl he found foraging in scrub. He built a small fire and was soon dining on the tough, rich meat of the flightless bird. The stars glittered above and upon the tranquil mirror of the sea, and the greasy carcass of the Plattofowl filled the air with a sweet oily scent.
The following morning he awoke feeling much more his usual self. It was in sitting up, opening his eyes, that he discovered how wrong that initial perception had been.
Where once the sea swelled there now stretched an ocean of ochre sand. Behind him too the landscape had inexplicably altered. The verdant undergrowth and giant palms of the previous day had been transplanted with a wall more impressive in scale than any other he had seen. Worst of all - to his mind at least - he was naked. Weapon-less.
Brec had always been decisive, capable of making the most of unusual, or unexpected situations. Unable to rationalise his disconcerting circumstances, he chose to accept them. He walked alongside the featureless construction in the cool of its ominous shadow, waiting for reason to makes itself clear. Either he had stumbled there delirious in the night, or he still dangled from a barrel, close to death in the open sea.
Day wore on. Soon a too-high and exacting sun beat unmercifully down upon his broad umber shoulders. He could take that. His skin had almost turned to leather over many years of stoic service and often self-induced hardship. Nevertheless, by midday the magnitude of his situation was unsettling him, as there had been no window, door, or opening of any kind within the inscrutable expanse of the wall. Bitterly he surmised that had he somehow walked there during the night then he must have come from the other direction – half a day’s walk had not returned him to the sea after all. At best, he could hope to be back at the sea’s edge by nightfall. At worst, the dawn should see him there. With this in mind, and armed with his usual dogged resolve, Brec turned around and retraced his route with scarcely a break in pace.
There had been cause for wonder in his life, Brec recalled, tracing the immense curve into the shimmering distance with his eyes. He had once hunted alongside the dusky-skinned Ostrider-men who had two toes on each foot and ran like the Patthylyon-wind. They had laughed as he tried to keep pace with his huge, unwieldy frame. But they had also grown to respect him when, at the end of each day, he arrived - often hours later - having tracked them through the heat and dust.
Another occasion he had discovered a fellow Umbriani warrior; an Ottwhan outcast named Farro, half dead in the Kythruu Forest having been brutalised by some unknown beast. Brec stood vigil by Farro’s side that night, waiting for his Manna to ascend into the Ottwhan After-Where. Yet in the morning he watched, awed, as Farro threw back his cloak and stood, whole again in his bloodied rags.
Two nights later he witnessed another spectacle: Awoken by howls, Brec discovered that Farro had grown a whole shin-length in height. His nails had blackened, thickened and curved into claws, and he turned his bright, sorrowful eyes on Brec, bayed like a wounded Hund, and bounded off into the pitch weave of the night forest.
But the wall was something else entirely.
All through the cool night he marched, and yet, in the broad morning shadow of the wall, he found himself still no closer to either sea or sign of life.
Then the last wonder Brec would ever witness occurred:
Fatigued, he had sought to rest himself against the wall to consider his predicament, and in doing so discovered there was nothing substantial there. He simply fell through it, landing not on sand, but on soft, deep grass peppered with a bright efflorescence of tiny meadow flora. He could not help but laugh, as for some reason he had not once thought to touch the wall in his long night’s journey - a subtle etherwork, no doubt!
Reaching into the hide satchel at his hip, he found his gilt butterwine horn and removed the finely crafted gold and leather bung. He raised the vessel up to his parched lips and, grateful, took a deep slug of the smooth liquor. He closed his eyes, savouring rich tannins, berry and pepper flavours exploding across an expert palate. He felt amazing. Opening his eyes again he glanced down, smiling as he replaced the ornate lid of the drinking horn. It was with a shock that he realised his hands were not his own.
Casting the vessel aside Brec sprang quickly to his feet, gawping at the utterly alien, hauntingly familiar clothing he found himself wearing. It was not only the garments that were strange to him; it was his whole self; body and mind. He took out the small oval mirror, which he somehow knew was nestling amongst other trinkets in the hip satchel, and gazed into it. It was a relief that at least the face that looked back, though less broad, was recognizably his own. The same cold green eyes still blazed beneath a strong, straight brow. But the wild golden mane was gone, shorn to the skin, little more than a shadow. The nose swept unbroken and equine, and he wore a short, sculpted chin-beard and fine silver loops through both ears. Most striking of all was the thin scar that crossed his forehead in a diagonal line until it cut through his left brow, reversed back on itself, sliced through his lips until it terminated right of his chin. He touched it gently, wondering how he had received such a wound. Why he could not remember it.
He was glad to discover a long slender blade sheathed in an elegant scabbard at his left hip. The tough black leather jerkin and leggings were of exceptional quality, and his right arm was sheathed in remarkably crafted silver plate armour that appeared to mimic the working of his muscles and danced with glowing cyan slithers - alchemical flares from precious inlaid minerals.
“Shit.” He whispered. “I forgot. Again.”
The city of Tantrix-Alumnae glowed like a caged aurora. It nestled comfortably in the foothills of the Ornisbach, and myriad lights illuminated the low clouds above with a faint golden radiance.
Brec's name, he now remembered, here, upon this world - this planet Arddn - was Hergal Ban Egan, and he felt unbidden tears dampen his eyes as he gazed down upon the city. Tantrix-Alumnae was a favourite amongst his many homes. Not the largest of Aetuland cities, nor the most ostentatious, he thought it the most beautiful - though from where he stood it promised little of any virtue; The city wall was rutted, inelegant, rising out of the ancient landscape like a shear crag, three hundred and fifty spans high. It curved away from him in both directions, a coarse arc to oval the city; and an imposing casing for what lay within. Black smoke rose in slowly burgeoning gouts from vents and chimneys, like giant spectral fungi. It spread out across the sky, lending a purple hue to the failing twilight.
Hergal was starting to feel extremely fatigued after the initial exhilaration of his return. It was always the way. But he could not allow himself the luxury of sleep. His fast fading memories, gathered over half a lifetime as the man called Brec, had to be sifted through. Important elements had to be firmly secured in his mind if the experience was to have any purpose at all. And he had to be careful how he managed his newly emergent memories of Arddn - dancing between twin sets to create a new whole.
He felt giddy with relief and confusion.
Between Tantrix-Alumnae’s great outer-wall, and the first of several lesser inner-walls, there ran Pontifrax’s Parade; a wide panoply of cloistered shops, free houses and opiate spas. “The Sayer’s Alms”, an old, unselfconsciously decadent haunt in the western reaches of the Parade, was one of the first places upon Arddn he could clearly recall. A good place to review his situation, he judged.
At Methen’s gate he sought out a Guardsman, barely noticing the desperate crush of people. They petitioned for access with official looking documents, earnest desperation, or bribery. A very few might slip unobtrusively through in the midst of the melee, but most would fail. The amassed fortunes of the Island’s wealthiest citizens had been proffered for property within Tantrix-Alumnae’s walls, to little avail. It was a proud city burgeoning with a host that could often recount their generational heritage back over a thousand years. They would give up their birthright only at the very last, clinging to their meagrely apportioned acreage as though it offered physical sustenance.
Hergal reached inside his hip satchel for a certain artefact: A silver ring, too large to wear, upon which was mounted a chunk of amber containing an ugly prehistoric beetle. It was priceless, and singled him out as a Lordt. There were no more than twenty of these rings in the city. Other noblemen would bear a similarly priceless broach, clasp or buckle - all decorated with a lump of amber within which some ancient creature had met a sticky end. He presented the ring to a Guardsman who hastily dismounted his shaven and heavily armoured Rafasi, removed his iridescent blue crested helm and bowed.
He escorted Hergal swiftly through the mob, clearing a brief passage with his powerful mount. The desperate hoard begged Hergal to help them, grabbed at him, pleaded - but he was soon through to Pontifrax’s Parade where the crowds thinned and the guardsman bid him good day.
Once inside the city Hergal could more clearly recall its geography, as old familiarities awoke his long-slumbering memories. Concentric circular terraced parades echoed the outermost ring - like ripples in a pool - Peribold Walk, with its many-collared guesthouses and ancient elms. Ardinax Street, with its ostentatious Banker’s-Guild Hall, imposing granite facades. Penn and Willow Street crowded with a cacophony of artisans. Merchants and craftsmen competing for attention with brightly collared awnings, inventively manufactured signs. Finally, running up against the city’s immense central inner-wall, there ran Duhn Ring, home to silk merchants, silver-smithies and other purveyors in the excesses of success. This vast wall was supported by five hundred and ninety-two flying buttresses. It reached vertiginous heights, five hundred spans and more. Light danced off the tough ground surface in faint swirls of azure and rose pearlescence. Within them lay the Old Town, the city proper. Here dwelt the descendants of the city’s forefathers in archaic marble-veneered houses perched precariously on the top of Skaff Hill. None of the confusing rat-runs between the houses were named, though collectively they were known as the Flacks. No one could remember why. A final flint-cobbled wall ringed a small fortress and the tall Ornish temple at the city’s apex.
Striding along the gentle curved walkway of Pontifrax’s Parade, Hergal glanced up at the snow-capped peaks of the Ornisbach, often called the “Aetuland Spine”. A pale and unappreciable mass, it loomed above Skaff Hill like some colossal fallen deity. These were the mountains that cut the island of Orn into two halves, neatly dividing Sutzeria, in the north, from Aetuland, in the south.
“Sutzeria.” He thought to himself. “What’s going on up there now?”
A large, simply carved sign in stained Cherry-wood spanned Pontifrax’s Parade and announced “The Sayer’s Alms” to would-be patrons. The Inn had been built by the giant race of the Ornish many centuries earlier. It had once been a grain mill and warehouse and was massive when compared to the surrounding buildings - standing a third again as high, despite its being likewise constructed over three floors. A fresh coat of Mantis-green paint glistened on the ten-span oaken doors. The window-boxes overflowed with a cascade of vermilion and peach Porthalia, filling the air with their sharp sweet scent.
Inside, to Hergal’s relief, the inn appeared mostly unchanged, though the plump Landlady was - not surprisingly - unfamiliar to him. Granite juts punctured the cream walls, which in turn supported a cross of broad oaken beams. These bore the weight of a complex wheel-like wooden structure, which splayed outwards from the center in elaborate curves, forming a platform upon which the upper floors now rested - all that remained of the original Ornish machinery.
“The Sayer’s Alms” entertained a cosmopolitan host. A large breasted merchantess, with a sardonic bent to her forked smile, threw Hergal an inviting glance. He nodded in her direction, his clear eyes fixing on hers momentarily. A faint smile danced fleetingly across his lips, but he had other things to deal with before allowing such distractions to develop. Three local musicians pelted out a familiar shanty in the smaller adjoining bar - to hearty applause. The main bar was peopled with nobles, mercenaries, merchants and soldiers in the employ of city. They traded banter like blades. Others, practitioners of the Old Arts - alchemists, Fakkirs, philosophers and such - huddled at tables, arguing in hushed tones. Reconstituting abstractions and theorems in new, exciting variations. A palpable divide had grown between them and the nobles, it seemed. But the city’s traditions were holding. Any bar room brawls would have seen the perpetrators cast out of Tantrix-Alumnae indefinitely, and that was more than either the nobles or alchemists were prepared to risk. Disagreements could be dealt with outside in the courtyard if it came to it. There was a designated square for violent confrontations at all of Tantrix Alumnae’s inns, but losers faced possible exile and the squares had become more symbolic than anything else.
A Soul-less Ornish mercenary towered gloomily in a dim corner, his tattoos charting his downfall. He appeared to be looking for someone, his tragic violet eyes briefly settling upon Hergal before restlessly flitting on.
Hergal settled himself in a hermit-stall opposite the crackling central fire, and ordered a long ale and a Merchant’s Platter. As Brec, beer - not wine - had been his drink of choice, and that part of him still fought for dominance. He was finding it hard to come to terms with the plain reality of the situation: He did not, as Brec, truly exist anymore. For thirty-nine years he had been that other man: The powerful mercenary in the bearskin, famed across three continents! Hergal looked at his manicured fingers with distaste. They were the hands of a poet, not the hard-come-by hands of a warrior. He was a highly accomplished swordsman, he recalled, but he had grown accustomed to Brec’s thuggish barbarism. He mourned the loss of a life more simple.
The platter and the flames warmed him. He rediscovered the carved soapstone pipe, it’s ornate mahogany stem inlaid with a silver thread, the pouch of aromatic Tobbach. He began to relax.
“No. It’s never easy.” He said to himself, like a mantra. “Try and remember that the next time.”
It took monumental self-discipline for Hergal to regard the larger sweep of recent events with a dispassionate eye. What had been going on in Aetuland since he had been away? He was back again, but what - if anything - had been learnt in this protracted foray? What had he achieved in undertaking it?
He waved over to the barmaid, who’s name, he had discovered, was Mola. It was early, and his taste for expensive butterwine was returning.
Tunny Mal-Tuboly swung his booted feet up onto a stool, belched, and closed his eyes, luxuriating in the warm afterglow of a faux-traditional “Hero’s Portion” and three so-called “Rafasi-bladders” of Nettle ‘n Grudd wine.
“Not bad.” He muttered contentedly. “Not bloody bad at all.”
“Mal-Tuboly? May we speak?”
Tunny stumbled, cursing, half to his feet, hand fumbling at an empty scabbard – there being no weapons permitted in “the Sayer’s Alms”.
The Ornish Soul-less pulled back the stool, which had, moments earlier, supported Tunny’s feet, and carefully sat down, so that he met the now standing man eye to eye. Tunny was a stocky ball of improbable muscle beneath a sloven's fat. Black coils spilled around his shoulders and were, along with two dark, sparkling eyes rimmed with curling black lashes, his only claim to beauty. A vast beard hid the remainder of his podgy face.
“Great Orn, man! Can’t a fellow drink in peace?” He spluttered, red faced.
“I did not wish to startle you, Mal-Tuboly. May we speak?” The voice, as with all the giant Ornish, had the quality of sounding like many in unison. At little more than a whisper it commanded regard. Tunny scrutinized the enormous tattooed figure, perched precariously on the seemingly diminutive stool, with wary eyes.
“You’re not from Thurford are you?” He paused. “You know, what happened in “The Fine Prospect” last night, well, it wasn’t really my fault old chap…”
The mercenary looked confused.
“No? Well, then. Good. Good. A sticky matter, best forgotten. No harm done.”
The Soul-less giant gathered his brow, looking troubled. He stared down at his own huge hands, spreading them palms up as if he were looking for answers there, then abruptly balled them into two minutely shuddering clubbed fists. He raised his magnificent, shaven head; met Tunny’s eyes again - who calmed, suddenly filled with compassion. He was, if nothing else, a man of empathy. It was, in part, what made him so endearing. Here sat an Ornish Soul-less - a son of that rare, ancient and most sacred race. The legendary offspring of Orn, the god who gave his name to the island within which Aetuland and Sutzeria nestled restlessly: Tunny also perceived a profound sorrow in the giant, and that reached out to him, instantly snuffing any misgivings.
“Right o.” He said. “All right. Please. Go ahead.”
The Soul-less looked over toward the window, beyond which - though they could not see it - lay the Ornisbach, and beyond that, Sutzeria.
He returned his gaze to Tunny.
“My name is Iutzparthi-Llud Pellaquial, though most know me as Pellaq. I am, as you see, an Ornish Soul-less, and a mercenary. I have been told you are well connected, Mal-Tuboly. That you might know where to find a man. I also have an offer you yourself might be interested in.”
Tunny peered intently into his companion’s troubled eyes.
“An offer, eh? And what might that be, old chap?”
“I do not wish to go into all the details now. It is a fragile matter. However, the man I wish to talk to is a soldier; one Woebeg Ban Egan.”
Tunny’s eyes narrowed. “I may have heard of the fellow. Then again... It would help if I knew your particular interest. It might help me, shall we say, narrow it down a bit?”
Pellaq stroked his bald pate with a vast left hand. “Regarding Ban Egan; his skills as a fighting man are well-known. We seek warriors. The finest. You‘ve a certain fame yourself, Mal-Tuboly. There’s hefty payment on offer. Ornish gold.”
Tunny was a master of the blade, though cursed with a rogue streak of cowardice. Too wilful to be a soldier, he found himself a wandering sword-for-hire. His nature suited only the briefest of loyalties. His bold declarations of honour, love or fealty were noisome and expansive, but they were sickly, and prone to wither. He was a romantic, a dreamer, hoping to find something great in the world, something worthy of his life - his death. The heartiest of companions, however, he enjoyed a peculiar kind of fame throughout Orn. His gift was to be beloved of most who met him - and a kind of small magic there was in that.
Tunny nodded his fat round head gently.
“Sounds interesting. I’ll need to know more, of course, but give me a couple of days, all right old chap? I’ll see what I can come up with.”
I’m shaking and I can’t see properly, and there’s a monologue running in my head, falling through my head, that’s taking my mind off the pain. I think I’ve lost my left arm but I can’t be sure, there’s no time to look, no time to stop the blood that must be pouring, gushing. I’m screaming like Thotlan, and the blade that writes the Karnaghk in the air should be a two-hander, but she sings beautifully all the same. Bloody vapour trails her passing, clotting my nose, I breath through a grin; a grim grin. And the faces are (scared/angry/mad/sad) all exactly the same, the same face, cut in two, in half, like fruit, an opening, so slowly, like a red bloom, in a cheek, an eye. Small explosions of crimson, bursts of salty metallic blood-sweat-tears. Clawing pleading hands. I’m laughing because it’s the best they’ve got, the very best. And it’s not enough because I’m nearly there and they can’t stop me. They can’t stop me. And the last ones run as I open their friend/brother/comrade neck to groin, shoulder to hip, wide open, like a flower, a big bright flower opening, red, facing the sun, opening up to the sun.
And I’m out, I’m out, and I’m laughing/crying blood sweat tears…
Hergal awoke to sodden sheets and an unfamiliar ceiling. A young noblewoman whom he did not immediately recognize stroked his forehead gently, mewing. He felt a knot of distaste writhe in his guts. Not physically unattractive, the girl was yet blemished by a smug, patronizing air that hung about her like old sweat. She pouted in a manner that only contrived to intensify Hergal’s sudden distrust, eyes too full of questions. He bemoaned his lack of better judgment the previous evening having consumed far too much alcohol.
“Leave.” He whispered.
“Are you all right? You were dreaming...”
“I was dreaming, yes. Now I am awake. Please, do as I ask, and leave. Preferably quietly.”
Any pretence at liking Hergal fled in a cold instant from the girl’s face. She stood, abruptly, wearing her nudity like a challenge, breasts jutting below a similarly jutting chin.
“So, what then, you’re just going to kick me out? Did I do something wrong - or was I just a fuck after all?”
Hergal did nothing to hide the frost in his eyes. “Look, please, just go away. My head hurts, and I don’t care in the slightest who you are. I have no idea what I said to you last night, or how we came to be here – sorry if that bothers you. Regardless, I need to be alone. Right now. Or do I owe you money?”
The furious girl scooped up clothes strewn in ribbons and bunches across the floor. “How dare you! You’re definitely not the gentleman I thought I met last night! Fuck you!”
“That” said Hergal “is certainly true enough.”
Later, emerging from a modest guesthouse on Peribold Walk, Hergal pondered the dream. It caused him to rub subconsciously at his left arm beneath the elbow. He still sweated lightly.
“So, you are back to bother me some more, eh?” He reflected gravely. “Nuddfegh-Ho.”
Barachal Tush, the Sayer, found Tantrix-Alumnae much changed. Whilst Sayers had always induced a little fear in the human citizens of the city, and distrust in the Ornish, the outright disgust he now encountered on the streets verged on the alarming. His golden robes were spattered with globules of spit. Inn doors were noisily barred shut at his passing as word sped up the streets that a Sayer was amongst them. It grieved him enormously. He took it all as a sign that the Tells were right. That what he had gleaned in the Echoes-To-Be was coming to pass.
He knitted his gold and black furred brow into furrows. He was here at least. And those he sought - those whose futures would impact on that of the planet Arddn, on that of the very universe they all dwelt within - they were here also. Now. With the fate of uncountable lives resting heavily on his shoulders, such dark murderous looks as Tantrix-Alumnae’s ignorant populace cast him were of little consequence. He continued his troubled search through the streets, and, to the extent he was able, paid them little heed.
“A word, if you please sir!” A young male voice barked suddenly, at Hergal’s left. To his right another older man appeared, and Hergal was aware of at least two more people behind him.
“I’m in a hurry,” growled Hergal. “Speak as we walk, if you must.”
“If you are obliging, Munger-lover, and allow us to escort you out through the Lion Gate, you will come to no harm. There have been changes in Tantrix-Alumnae since you disappeared. Your kind, my Lordt Warloq, is no longer welcome in Tantrix-Alumnae.”
Hergal, frowning, turned to the younger man - a city noble by his dress and bearing, quite at odds with the accompanying thug.
“So, then, what have we here?” He said. “You know, clearly, that I am a Lordt of Tantrix-Alumnae – though not by my ring I would guess. I would normally expect better manners from someone of your evident standing, but then you’re right, I have been away for a while. Things change. Tell me then, how is it you know this? And why exactly is it you choose to address me as a “Munger-lover” and a “Warloq”?”
The youth wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I’ve spent some hours this morning, shall we say, researching you, Lordt Ban Egan. And, do tell: Where have you been for so long, and yet not aged a day? We, here, know of your kind. But these are modern times. Our times. As I see, you still favour the fashions of the Ornish. Quaint. It was a look my father embraced in his youth. My generation chooses not to look to the past. Indeed we would rid the city of all the dark and dangerous ways it once embraced. Warloqery, all Munger associated trickery, are practices we are committed to purging from these lands. The Ornish themselves are not above our scrutiny, sacred or otherwise. Let the shit-eating Nefarean scum be ruled by the fear of magic and it’s like! We won’t be so easily cowed. You see; we’re armed with new knowledge, the surety that the world does not barter in dreams. This is a harsh, solid reality we live in, and we will defend the honesty of that with our lives. We say the practitioners of our enemies’ dark arts are themselves our enemies. And we watch all those who return here; have eyes in many places. In sleep you damned yourself…”
Hergal burst open the older man’s left eye with a ringed finger, then ducked as a thin blade sliced through the air above his head. He rolled lightly on the cobbled street and was up again. Spinning around, sword now free of sheath, he carved a blur of intricate patterns in the air. The young noble was shocked to find fine slits opening across his forehead and both cheeks, weeping red rivulets.
“A man’s dreams are his own, and not subject to the laws of this world, let alone this city.” Said Hergal, a frost in his eyes, as he peripherally noticed his carnal companion of the previous evening fearfully backing her way through the gathering crowd with a hand over her mouth. Her eyes were wide with shock, and she pointed at him but could utter nothing. He cursed her silently.
“I suggest you get your friend here some medical assistance.” He hissed. “And I certainly hope you’re paying him well enough, poor sod. Now then, I have been friend to Tantrix-Alumnae for longer than you can guess, and may it always be so. As for my whereabouts these last how-many years - that is none of your bloody business. But I tell you: It was spent in service of this city, and this island, Orn. My age is my own concern - but as you see; I take care of myself.”
“Fuck you, Warloq! We’ll get rid of your kind soon enough! We’ll put you all to the fucking Torch...”
Hergal’s blade flashed again above the bridge of the noble’s nose, pricking him. He stared along the blade’s length, meeting the man eye to eye.
“I don’t know you - not yet. But, if I were you, I would get out of the city. You have no idea who you’re messing with. I don’t forget faces, and yours has some - let’s say - distinctive features now. I’ll enjoy finding out who you are, what games you play here. And I’ll relish hunting you down. Rest assured, your own ignorance will be your downfall. Now piss off, boy. I’m bored of this.”
The man glared at Hergal, crimson blazing in his cosseted blood-streaked cheeks. A hand hovered uncertainly above his still sheathed rapier. He seemed to be deciding on what his rejoinder might be - but then he grunted abruptly, gestured that the two others attend the injured man, and shouldered his way belligerently through the gathered onlookers dabbing a handkerchief at his bleeding face.
Hergal kept his sword poised and steady until they had all departed, then sheathed it in the manner of a larger, rougher man - Brec’s legacy. Bile burned his throat. A slight tremor danced up his spine, bristling the hairs on the back of his neck. Blood throbbed up around his temples.
Turning brusquely, Hergal marched to the next throughfare into Ardinax Street, where he puked against a wall. A short while after that he refreshed himself with a drink from one of the many spas, cleaning his bloodied hand and splashing his face in the naturally warm mineral water. Then he walked shakily on, via Penn and Willow Street and Duhn Ring, arriving eventually at the Raven Gate - the only way into the Old Town.
Pellafinn was four hundred and thirty-six years old. A High-Order Ornumnae priest, he had a vast wealth at his disposal, and he was well informed as to events in Sutzeria and Aetuland. He learnt what he could about movements, plots and power plays abroad on the continent - in Nefaria, Ypo-Polaria, the former Free Nochentia, and further west, Kushna and Urodochi – via free agents in his employ. Almost every nation had, over generations, been crushed by the Nefars in their grand sweeping raids southward. Aetuland would not remain free of their menace forever he feared.
“Pellafinn, you old bastard.” croaked Hergal, as matter-of-factly as he could manage.
The Ornish priest raised himself up to his full seven spans - short for the Ornish - and turned, a little unsoundly, to face Hergal, standing framed in the enormous study doorway. Pellafinn regarded his student intently for perhaps the thousandth time, squinting myopic eyes, before customarily shaking his head. For many years - a hundred? More? - he had not much liked the man. He found Hergal’s cold green eyes too full of secrets. His manner somewhat overbearing, arrogant. Above all, he had hated Hergal’s vanity. However, too many decades and common causes had created a unique bond between them. Hergal, as far as Pellafinn was able to judge, was only a little less than seventy years younger than he, and time had eroded those sharper edges, as experience, in many forms, had heightened his regard for the other man. There was so little to marvel at in this age, and yet Hergal was a genuine wonder, a throwback to a time when magic had been commonplace. He intrigued the old priest. Tantalized him with his metamorphic, world-striding energies.
Perhaps a little vanity was understandable in such a being after all.
As for Hergal, the old Ornish priest was not only frustratingly recondite, but always caused him to feel mildly nauseous. (This was certainly exacerbated by Hergal’s current condition.) Pellafinn was distressing in appearance, pallid and cadaverous. An abomination of that beautiful, blessed race. His sickly-yellow bones glowed dully beneath his parchment skin, and his blood, in its weak coursing through aged broken veins, was faintly palpable. The priest’s eyes were ruddy brown in the whites, and his pupils exactly matched the colour. They bulged, chameleon-like, from their hollows above sallow, sunken cheeks. Underneath an impressively long, crooked nose, a thin, blue lipped and under-bitten mouth chewed continuously on Tobbach, the reason for his blackened teeth. And lower, that strange double cleft chin, faintly trembling. The pronounced “Ponti’s Pear”, jiggling distractingly in his sinuous throat. Completing the horror was the deeply etched tattoo that covered the lower half of his bald head in swirls and dots and zigzag lines. No amount of finery in his dress could conceal his physical shortcomings. The fastidiously polished black leather jerkin just enhanced the look of entropic consumption in his arms. The satin pantaloons - also black but finely decorated with ornate, symbolic patterns woven in golden thread - the high, fur-lined buckled boots, all contrived to create an image more of terror than splendour. Hergal could hardly believe he had grown to love this hideous old man as though he was his own father.
“Lordt Hergal Ban Egan no less! Come in, come in.” said Pellafinn with an ironic crooked smile. Hergal found himself startled and immediately drawn to Pellafinn’s mellifluous voice, which somehow he always managed to forget about.
“You’ve been gone from us for seventeen of our Arddn years! Well now. Have you recovered anything of use? Um? Were you many years in that other place?”
Predictably, Pellafinn had wasted no time on pleasantries. Hergal smiled, but when he spoke, it was with an air of sadness, even waste.
“Seventeen years you say? Bloody hell. I suppose I should expect things to change, but I never remember. I’m never prepared for that. Ah, Pellafinn, you remain my only constant! What little I did learn, though, may have scant use this time. I’ve brought nothing, nothing at all back with me - except maybe a fraction more knowledge of land warfare, and a perception of what it is like to be a rougher man of cruder intellect! I do know that the Great Powers continue to fade. On the planet I’ve returned from there were few ether-works, less even than here. Indeed, having forgotten completely my true self - I was born into the body of an infant - in thirty-nine or so years abroad the greatest marvel I encountered was a wall! It appears the Kiazmus is hidden in this guise, and in another layer of deception was rendered as an uninhabited island. Great energies were clearly tapped there once, but time has stolen such skills from its natives. And yet again, as always, I stumbled across it: The Kiazmus. Drawn to it, and so back to here, in some way I can’t even begin to understand. But I never get lost!”
Turning his back on the Hergal, Pellafinn cast his filmy eyes over yet more intricate charts.
“The paranatural energies continue to fade, yes. I’ve gleaned it.”
Hergal fought the rising urge to throttle the old priest for his apparent lack of empathy - a half a lifetime in another world! But it was his way.
“So.” He asked eventually, with studious calm. “What’s going on in Sutzeria? Is it still free?”
“Ah. Indeed.” Replied the priest, not turning around. “Of course. The memory thing. You have some catching up to do!”
“Perhaps you wouldn’t mind filling in some gaps? Tantrix-Alumnae certainly has a fresh - edge to it.”
Pellafinn carefully placed his precious charts in the wide shallow drawer of his plan chest and turned around to face Hergal at last.
“Since your departure, Hergal, there was - let me see - five years of peace, before the Nefars again crossed the Sutzerean Straights. Hundreds of thousands of them. They sailed their Dragships up the river Rae, to Duhn. And, again, the city fell - Ornish designed siege engines, I’m sorry to say, and extremely efficient they are too. There are too many Soul-less Ornish mercenaries these days. Too many. It bruises the soul. So, the new walls succeeded only in delaying the agony. As we witnessed, another pointless tax raised for another pointless wall, bringing about another pointless famine in Duhn’s poorer quarters, and utterly failing to bring any new element of defence to Duhn what so ever. Do we learn from history, Hergal? Do we though? It’s the old-mans-rant, I know, but still. The army went east after that - as usual. Through the Forrest of Duhn, and on, parallel with the Ornisbach - the Aetuland spine. Within two weeks they arrived at Shea Pass, marched south to Da Derga’s Heights...”
“I know that name. Da Derga’s Heights.”
The small giant’s eyebrows arched, eyes bulging, incredulous, below. “As you should, even with limited memory! You recall the Brookbane’s Sutzerean fortress? Surely you must?”
Hergal looked up at Pellafinn with an empty, tired expression.
“Just indulge me, you old bastard. I’m still struggling with the reality of just being back here!”
“Hm. Well.” The priest shook his large ugly head, collecting his thoughts. “Da Derga’s Heights stand in the eastern-most reaches of the Ornisbach, right on the Aetuland/Sutzeria boarder. It is, as I’m sure you will soon remember, an architectural achievement that remains unrivalled upon Arddn. There is no structure more famed - and you have been there, in and out of my company, on more than one occasion...”
“I know the name, I just can’t... the memory - my memory – it’s all messed up. You know how it is, Pellafinn! Indulge me!”
“One would not necessarily think it wise to go out drinking having recently journeyed between worlds, Hergal. I’ve said this before…”
Hergal waved a hand weakly and frowned.
“Now that bit I haven’t forgotten! Enough bloody lectures Pellafinn! You’re not my father – oh gods, I hope you’re not my father! Just help me out a little here.”
“Hm. Well, let’s see. Let’s see. You remember the Brookbane dynasty?”
Hergal shook his head slowly.
“Great Orn! What then, my goodly Lordt Hergal Ban Egan, do you recall of Arddn? I can hardly tell you what you don’t know if I don’t know what you do!””
“I take your point. Let me think. Alright, this is Tantrix-Alumnae...”
The priest looked hard at Hergal, quite still for a moment, until it became clear he was not going to say any more. “Am I to congratulate you on this remarkable feat of memory? Really now. And is there anything - else?”
“Orn’s bollocks, Priest! I’m still two men! Two men! And only one sore head!” Hergal gathered his brow. “So, what I do know - what I know about where we are - is: We are in the heart of Aetuland, the southern half of the island, Orn. We’re separated from the north, Sutzeria, by mountains, the Aetuland Spine - as I believe we in the south like to call, uh, that lot, out there.” Hergal gestured through the window vaguely. “I was thinking about it last night. Thinking about Sutzeria. What might be going on there? As for names, history – it’s all confusion. The Empire of the Nefareans lies to the... west - I remember that - and it constitutes most of the continental mainland. And Duhn - Duhn is Sutzeria’s largest city, on the norwestern tip of the island...”
“Good. Then at least you should have understood what I have told you so far!” The old giant sighed and resumed his story in the manner of one naturally malcontent. “This is all of immediate relevance to you, so listen carefully! I won’t be happy if I have to tell it twice. Time is of a premium right now, Hergal, especially to old men like me. So. Lordt Thral ban Duhn Ne Brookbane - the rightful and last true ascendant of Da Derga’s Heights - was a Sutzerean Warlordt by bloodline, but a well-known Aetulander in his heart. He married, as has been the custom of centuries, a noblewoman from Aetuland. In his case, she was the Lady Pesheval Nar-Bo Tertrigal Ban Hapfthoven Ne Belorvelian-Alumnae...”
“And how the fuck am I supposed to remember that, Pellafinn?”
“He met and, fortuitously enough, fell in love with The Lady Pesheval while studying here, at the Ornish temple in Tantrix-Alumnae. You drank in his company on a couple of occasions! I’d say you were close acquaintances for a while - so you really ought to remember it!” Hergal frowned, rubbed his eyes. “The courtship was brief, intense, and mutual I was told - by you as it happens. All concerned parties were content with the arrangement, and the union was compacted within a half year of their first encounter. They enjoyed three blissful years together before the Lady Pesheval became Munger-stricken and died over two agonizing months. Brookbane was heartbroken, and a certain wildness was noted in him thereafter. He remained, non-the-less, a fine Lordt to those that served or worked alongside him. Fair, generous to guest and friend - if a little dour when drunk. When Aetuland came under threat again it was he who organised and assembled the massive army that gathered up there - the largest this land has ever hosted. He had put forth his argument at the Lordt’s Council, reasoning that the plunging walls of the fortress had never been breached. That if Aetuland could be defended, then it would be best defended there: At Da Derga’s Heights. Needless to say, the Lordts did not take much persuading. History was on the side of Da Derga’s after all, and for once they listened to such wisdom as the ages proffered.
“The ensuing battle, now laughably referred to as the ‘Battle of Da Derga’ (though Orn knows how many battles have been fought there!) lasted nearly three weeks before Lordt Brookbane splintered the Nefars with the assault that subsequently made him famous. The demoralized Nefars retreated, and Brookbane continued to harry them all the way back down the pass, until, tragically, a flaming arrow blinded him. A good man he may well have been, but Brookbane was also a vain man.” Pellafinn shot a pointed look at Hergal who was massaging his temples with the tips of his fingers, eyes shut. The giant sighed. “Something I fear all you so-called Lordts have in common - and that includes even you unlanded Lordts! So, then - accustomed to power, shattered by personal tragedy - I would guess Brookbane was unable to adapt to, let alone accept, his blindness. Whatever the truth of it, he abandoned his responsibilities, leaving rivals to fight over Lordtsway of Da Derga's Heights.
“Twelve years on and there has been another uneasy peace, between Aetuland and the again Nefar-occupied Sutzeria. Da Derga’s Heights remains the only unoccupied Sutzerean stronghold.”
“Never-the-less,” Pellafinn leaned slightly forward, his voice dropping. There was a conspiratorial glint in the muddy eyes that Hergal had, he realised, greatly missed. “I have been hearing tails, Hergal.” The clawed hands, with skin like oiled papyru stretched over waxen bone, writhed in excitable knots around each other.
“There is a legend growing up around some Nefarean Warlordt – and a gemstone. This man has won the favour of the Emperor, and now holds sway over the Nefars abroad in our lands. He operates from Duhn. Machivarius Point to be more precise. It is said that the man is a Warloq. That he can invoke the power of the Munger, the Undead God, through a gemstone. Moreover, it is rumoured that he plans a new campaign to conquer Aetuland. They’re calling this man ‘The Wayfarer.’”
Much had happened since Hergal had left. He met the giant’s eyes with his own. “What can we do about – all this? Where do we stand?”
“You’d do well to ask what I am already doing about it! You may be surprised to know that plans have been put in motion to steal the gemstone from this ‘Wayfarer’, if it - and he – truly exist. Let me ask you something: As one of the Ornish I would forfeit my soul should I perpetrate any act of violence. Is it therefore imperilled, do you think, by the act of my hiring mercenaries?”
Baalor Dark-eye, The Wayfarer, fell to his knees - fearful, expectant.
The prospect of again channelling energies long thought lost chilled him. He shuddered. This was the new nature of his life. Sweat gathered in the livid holes that once housed his eyes. He reached forward with an unsteady but strong hand. Felt the edge of the ebony shrine. His stomach lurched - but he mastered it. He unhooked the elegant gold latch, lifting open the lid. His fingers brushed against the padded silk that lined it - a deep vermilion, had he been able to see - and fumbled around inside, until they found, and closed upon, a smooth gemstone the size of an eyeball. It was mounted within an intricate golden mesh, suspended from a thick white-gold chain. It felt warm.
Fervid, he fastened it around his neck and forced the gemstone into his right eye socket - rupturing delicate flesh and causing pain, and blood to flow.
The gem’s paranatural energy surged out of it into bone and nerve - downwards, and then back, upward, coiling round and slicing through his spine. It exploded within his skull, bursting out through ruined sockets, around the edge of the stone, bilious green flame bathing the darkened room in a sickly light that imparted one of the things he most craved: