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Wayne Kyle Spitzer
Dark World: An Epic Fantasy
Prologue | Hour of a Thousand Paths
Comes a Ferryman
I | Ceremony
II | Sun Engine
III / Caveam Cristallum
IV | View to a Kill
V | Dialogue
VI | Explosion
VII | Dravidian Before
VIII | Dream
IX | Aftermath
The Tempter and the Taker
I | Awakening
II | Crucible
III | Pursuit
IV | Threshold
V | New World
VI | Jamais Vu
VII | Valdus
VIII | Plato’s Cave
IX | Shadow Theatre
X | Escape
XI | Exorcism
The Pierced Veil
I | Confessions
II | Reunion
III | The Cage
IV | Thesea
V | Lying in Wait
VI | Descent
VII | Return
VIII | Treasure Cove
IX | Between Two Worlds
X | Dravidian’s Passion
XI | Mushroom Dream
XII | Luminis Sub Omne
XIII | Sthulhu
Black Hole, White Fountain
I | War
II | Sthulhu Returns
III | Betrayals
IV | Death is Come
V | Gondola
VI | Styx Flumen
VII | Dragger
VIII | Questions
IX | Cell Visit
X | Recollection
XI | The Polyhistor’s Tale
XII | Tale, Interrupted
XIII | Black Hole
To the End of Ursathrax
I | Poised to Strike
II | The Calling of the Cloud of Witnesses
III | The Fire-eater
IV | Chantilly
V | The Man of Branigan
VI | The Children
VII | The Widow
VIII | Pepperlung
IX | The Ferrymen
X | Dravidian No More
XI | White Fountain
XII | Attack
XIII | Confusion
XIV | Trapped
XV | Rosethorn
XVI | Sihadi
XVII | Convergence
XVIII | Into the Depths
XIX | Betrothed to the Blade
XX | Synergique Amore
XXI | The Revolutionary
XXII | Different Paths
XXIII | The Boar Eels
XXIV | Wrapped Around Him
XXV | Epilogue
Copyright © 1992, 2017, 2018 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. All Rights Reserved. Published by Hobb’s End Books, a division of ACME Sprockets & Visions. Cover designs Copyright © 2018 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. Please direct all inquiries to: HobbsEndBooks@yahoo.com
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this book is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
It was the first night of the Sacrificium, a night of sacrifice and death, a night when the black coins tendered in the Lottery would be tendered back. It was also the Hora Mille Semitis, the Hour of a Thousand paths—for that is the day the Sacrificium had fallen on this year—the hour when best friends might become enemies, when lovers of longstanding might betray oaths, the hour in which anything and everything was possible. And the alignment was felt: from the upper echelons of the capitol to the poorest quarters of the downriver provinces. For the message of Valdus’ rebellion had spread—whether it was a tract nailed to a door before quickly being torn down or a blast in the night that caused the power to fail in entire regions. It was a night for dreaming and for huddled collusions, for the breeze to course through rustling leaves, for long dead hearts to awaken and start pumping blood. The Sacrificium had once more come to Ursathrax, but so had the Hour of a Thousand Paths, and Valdus’ Revolution, and something else, something elusive but impossible to ignore, nebulous, but as real as the River Dire, which seemed to have stolen into the world on the wind itself.
The hooded and blinkered draft horse knew only the road before it. Of the alfalfa patches they had passed on the way to the ceremony it had shown no interest, although surely it had smelled the plants more acutely than any person. Even things that could have affected its very survival, such as the rawboned fox slinking through the willows along the River Dire, had garnered only a nervous whinny.
“Here we are, miss,” said Dr. Terazza, sounding far away even though he was sitting directly beside her. She’d been so focused on the horse that she hadn’t noticed they’d ground nearly to a halt.
She looked down through the porthole window of the buggy, past the edge of the coffin road and past the long, wide, descending steps (which were abutted on both sides with pews of onlookers, some of whom broke etiquette and turned to look at her). The sacrificial pier was there, ashen black amidst the fog, its dim lanterns maintaining an outline as it stretched away from land—so that when viewed from the road it resembled some Cyclopean, crescent-headed polearm, the tips of whose blade vanished into river smoke.
“Yes,” said Shekalane. “Here we are.” She stared at the pier vacantly. “The ride seemed shorter this time. Isn’t that odd.”
“It seemed short to me, too,” said Terazza.
She looked away from the pier to find him looking at her intently, but kindly. “Perhaps it was only the company,” she said, and smiled at him warmly. “Thank you, Sestus.”
“The honor has been all mine, Ms. Shekalane. It’s a shame it took these circumstances for neighbors to get to know one another. I’ll be sure to free Milkweed when you are well clear, and to look after her after, you have my word.”
She gripped the cushion wing and stood slowly, mounting the short step delicately before proceeding onto the long step and finally the cobblestones.
“Ms. Shekalane ...”
She turned to face him.
“Whatever the Lucitor has called you home for, may your passage be a safe one.”
She moved to respond but hesitated, finding herself drawn to the draft horse again, which snorted and hung its head. She lowered her makeshift veil. “Goodbye, Sestus.”
He tipped his hat to her and snapped the reins, causing the carriage to lurch forward, the horse’s hooves clattering against the stones as Shekalane stepped to the edge of the stairs.
“All rise and face the chosen,” said the rector, followed immediately by a tumult of shifting bodies and thudding woodwork as the congregation rose from their pews.
The sound and the sight of it startled her—but sobered her, too, especially when the wind moaned and a silence fell. There were so many—where had they all come from?
She scanned the faces haphazardly, her attention flitting from one to another. Unklung was there, as she’d known he would be, nearly unrecognizable without his straw hat, and wearing a formal sash across his chest instead of his mushroom bag (all those hours together traipsing dry creek bottoms and shady, overgrown grottos!). Silentina was there, despite their friendship having cooled since her involvement with Valdus. And, to speak of the devil, he was there also—no. No, she could see that she was mistaken. The man in the green cloak and cravat was not Valdus.
“We love you, Shekalane,” someone cried.
And another: “Hear! Let’s hear it for our most beautiful teacher!”
Someone started clapping tepidly—then another, and another, until virtually everyone had joined in, and Shekalane realized she was misting up, even smiling, in spite of herself. The scene somehow touched her beyond words.
“The Lucitor won’t have a jimmy to get up if you get your hands on ‘im,” someone shouted, and there was laughter.
“Not after what He’s put you through!” Cheers.
“Who said he had a jimmy?” More laughter—which became a tumult, which, fueled by the jugs of liquor being passed around as well as everyone’s pre-ceremony jitters dissipating into euphoria, became a crescendo, which quickly became boisterous and carried on too long and led Shekalane to search the crowd for Valdus yet find him nowhere.
And then a raven cawed and a red dot fell wavering upon the rector’s ample forehead, causing those nearest him to gasp and cower, and this, too, spread throughout the crowd, as the dot swung in great but diminishing circles—touching everyone, it seemed, as though it were branding them—until the great, black bird alighted on its special platform and cawed again, this time with finality, ruffling its feathers, folding its wings, and staring coolly out at them with its one real eye and its one cybernetic one—beside which a scarlet light shown piercingly.
The rector fidgeted, and a bottle shattered somewhere amidst the murmuring crowd.
“Ah—yes, well...” He adjusted his robes and patted his torso, searching for something on his person. At last he withdrew a scroll from an inner pocket and spread it open.
“Who stands with this woman to express the good wishes of her family and friends?”
Everyone said, “We do!”
The rector made the sign of the inverted cross—tapping his left hip then his right, then his chest. “Benedictus Lucidus. Shekalane of Jaskir, you may proceed to the edge of the River Dire, whose waters are the sweat and the blood, the, ah, urine and the semen, of the Lucitor Himself, and present yourself to his courier.”
The usual introductory notes sounded from the great and terrible organ which sat to one side of the pier, and Shekalane waited for the inevitable pause between those notes and the music proper to take her first step onto the long, maroon carpet. When the music started, its notes sounding somehow weaker and less substantial than usual, she couldn’t help but dwell on why the melody was different for different groups of people—men from women, children from adult, the aged from all. But she knew why in her heart. It was because the men were going to fight for the Lucitor, the children were going to be trained, the aged and the infirm were going to die, and the women—at least those among them that a man or even a god might find pleasing—were probably going to be raped. How particularly perverse it was then that, as Valdus once explained, the music used for women had once been used to accompany brides on the happiest day of their lives.
She glanced at the player as she proceeded and took note of old Harianna—her wispy white hair fluttering in the breeze, and her little nose just visible beneath the hood of her ceremonial robes. How many such ceremonies had the old woman played, Shekalane wondered, in the expanse of her eighty years? A draft horse whinnied from the vicinity of the carriage lot as if to whisper for her, Too many, Shekalane, including the ones for your son and your beloved Stachtyr, and now my back is curved and I see only the keys before me.
Shekalane scanned the crowds one final time for Valdus as she approached the pier, and not finding him, focused again on the pier itself. The sight of it did not torment her eye or fill her with dread as it once had, when she’d watched from these same steps as big Stachtyr disappeared into a cloud at its terminus. Nor did it seem to suck the very breath from her lungs as it had when little Sihadi was called. She had lost everything so long ago that her own selection in the Lottery was merely an anticlimax; she would miss the ragged children she tutored on Solstice-days, and she would miss the passions of Valdus—although he, too, however indirectly, had been taken from her by the Lottery years ago—but she would not miss the woman who had loved them, or the world in which they had lived. Seeing the children that one last time had been good enough for her—for she had specifically asked that they not be allowed at the ceremony. And as for Valdus, well, she now had her answer as to whether he had ever loved her or not. What he knew of love was reserved for his rebellion—his Quixotic quest to kill Asmodeus and to unseat the Lucitor—she was but a thing to draw strength from.
And what of you, Shekalane? Did you not share his passion for this at first? Was that not the very genesis of the affair? And would you not still be colluding with him intimately as well as strategically were the situation any different? Yes, but ... She shook her head. As with the children, their last encounter had been good enough. That had been a lovely night, the night they’d stolen away in Grintherp’s fishing boat to make stormy love beneath the Dire Borealis. Anything more, anything beyond his physical passion, any single thing expressed verbally or otherwise—would have merely disappointed. It always had.
No, at this point she wanted only to dash the cup of blood and sweat and tears to the ground. Black hole, white fountain, as she’d often expressed to her students. Death and rebirth. What was lost in this universe was lost; what was to come was not of this universe.
There was a commotion as she reached the bottom of the stairs and moved toward the altar—something that sent a ripple through the crowd and caused people to gasp and to express surprise. Shekalane turned to see a winged creature the size of her hand flying toward her erratically—an elfemale, its lithe, white form dancing bat-like through the hazy pools of light. It was Milkweed, and she was carrying something—something which, as the little creature fluttered wildly about her head, Shekalane recognized to be a tiny scroll.
But then the raven entered her frame of vision, cawing excitedly, and Milkweed dropped the thing to the carpet. The little elfemale darted away as the raven pursued, and what followed was an aeronautic dance above the transfixed crowd in which the ignudi tried to escape but was blocked at every turn by the raven. And seeing how distracted everyone was, Shekalane bent quickly and snatched up the parcel.
She turned it in her hands: the scroll was contained in an emerald ring which acted as a seal and bore Valdus’ standard, which glinted in the lantern-light. She swooned a little looking at it—this despite her feelings just a moment before. It touched her somehow beyond words; it was almost as though he were proposing to her—here, now, in her darkest of hours, when it seemed all the world had abandoned her, and with a rush of emotion she pulled the scroll out and put on the ring, then quickly opened the note.
It read: The emerald in this ring is a homing beacon, however its power source is limited. Activate it by pressing the emerald when you approach the Stygian Flowstones, or on my command (which will manifest as a vibration), whichever comes first. Stay alert. You will know what to do. Watch the gateways to the Forbidden Channels. Although he doesn’t know it yet, the ferryman is already dead. Power to the Revolution!
“Hear, hear,” shouted the rector as the airborne combatants vanished into the fog. He tapped his scepter several times. “Order, I say!”
She quickly stuffed the note into her patched, green shawl.
At last the congregation settled. The rector indicated that Shekalane should join him in standing within the great black circle sewn into the carpet, a circle which contained the Lucitor’s own standard—a giant, blood-red inverticus—which was made by connecting the dots of the inverted cross. She did so and he took her hand, then everyone bowed their heads.
“Our Lucitor Who art in His Mansion,” he began, which everyone repeated, including Shekalane. “Tremble we who come before you. Thy kingdom has come, thy will has been done, in the earth and not the heavens. Accept from us this night our blood and souls. And forgive not our wills, as we forgive not our willful. And lead us not to the tyranny of choice, but deliver us one and all down the River Dire. For Thine is the choice, and the predetermination, and the terminus, forever. Benedictus Lucidus.”
“Benedictus Lucidus,” everyone repeated.
“Do you have final words to say, Shekalane of Jaskir?”
She shook her head. She had already said her goodbyes.
He turned her hand palm-up and unfastened his knife sheath as Shekalane looked up at him through the frayed veil—her greenish-brown eyes steady but not without fear—then slid out the knife and laid its sharp edge across her palm.
Shekalane nodded once. Still, he hesitated—until the raven came cawing back and relighted on its upraised platform, its piercingly-lit third eye seeming to focus on him and its tiny beam cutting through the gloom to paint the back of his hand with a scarlet dot. Swifter and more assuredly than she might have thought him capable, he drew the blade across her flesh—then quickly cut his own, re-sheathing the knife and clasping her hand tightly in both of his.
He held like that for several seconds, squeezing so hard his hands shook, then gently placed his palm on her head and just as gently pushed, saying, “Down,” until she was on her knees before him.
“Lift your veil.”
She lifted the veil.
“Good. Now, Shekalane of Jaskir, do—”
A great foghorn sounded in the blackness out over the river, a blackness so complete it might have marked the border of the world, and both he and Shekalane jerked. The distraction with Milkweed had put them behind schedule; regardless, no one was ever prepared to hear that sound, not if they’d attended a thousand such ceremonies.
At last the rector continued: “... do you, ah, if accepted as a bride to our Lucitor, whose bile is the bath of all things tarnished, promise to, to ...”
Shekalane was looking up at him from her hand—which was bleeding profusely—as if to say: Is this how it’s supposed to be?
In his eagerness to please the raven’s camera, he had cut her too deep. He fumblingly withdrew a cloth from his robes and handed it to her, his fingers trembling, which she quickly used to make a crude tourniquet. Then, his thoughts flustered, he withdrew a small, black book from an inner pocket and opened it to the mark.
“Very well. So, ah, do you, Shekalane of Jaskir, ah, promise to share all that He has bestowed upon you, including but not limited to your youth, your beauty, and your skills as a courtesan, and to support Him in all endeavors, big and small?”
The foghorn sounded again, as terrifyingly as the first. And although she knew it emanated from an earthly source—a dragger, one of the great and terrible ships from which the ferrymen launched their gondolas and which transported them upriver after they’d delivered their charges—it didn’t sound earthly. She could only liken it to the sound a tuba made at its lowest note, but then that note changed to one that was slightly higher ... and lingered there, as though the universe itself were brooding over some alien and inscrutable purpose. As a tutor, of course, she knew there could be no such thing as sound in a vacuum. But if there were such a thing, perhaps in a place where all the laws of physics had been turned upside-down, she felt certain that the other-worldly horn was what a black hole itself would sound like.
She heard something pattering softly against the carpet and glanced up to see the rector gripping the book tightly within his wounded hand, trying to slow his own bleeding.
“I do,” she said.
“And will you, if it is decided otherwise, and so that others shall not want for space or bread, submit to death by our Lucitor, whose enzymes and proteins are the building blocks for all Ursathrax, and do so without hesitation or recourse—”
The foghorn sounded again, as if angrily impatient. The signaling torches needed to be lit, yet she knew it was expressly forbidden to do so before the vows were completed. She also knew, as the second note faded back into whatever haunted realm it had come from, that there would be no fourth sounding. The ferryman was already on his way.
The rector tried to hurry things along: “... and do it without recourse to violence?”
“I do,” said Shekalane, then quickly corrected herself: “I will.”
“Then I now pronounce you one with the Lucitor, and forever estranged from those who are not. And what the Lucitor has torn asunder, may no man reconcile.” He made the sign of the inverted cross, then raised his bloodied fingers, flicking them once, twice, a third time, spotting her face with maroon. “Rise and replace your veil.”
The crowd shouted: “Benedictus Lucidus!”
She stood but gave pause, for amidst the chorus were the voices of children. Her children, she realized, seated right there in the front. The entire class was there, including round, red-headed Alana and mute, feral Lat, who had come to them out of nowhere—simply washed ashore one day—like a piece of beautiful driftwood. He sat slightly apart from the others as he always had, and seemed truly lost, just completely and utterly alone.
Shekalane glanced at old, bespectacled Mabellisa, unsure whether to love her of hate her for ignoring her edict; had she known the children were there, she would have given last words! Especially to poor Lat, who had no friends or family but Shekalane herself—for she had always bonded best with singular and unique personages, be they children or adults.
The music began again—a simple, transitional overture—as the great, gas torches built into the pier and along the top of the wide steps burst into blue-red flame; until, finally, an enormous gong was pounded three times, ending the music, and, save for the crackling of the flames, an eerie silence fell over everything.
How long it lasted would have been impossible to say. But at great length the dipping of an oar was heard—indistinct but growing amidst all the night and fog—almost as if some invisible person were walking slowly but purposefully toward them over the water.
“All rise,” said the rector. And with a great shuffling and creaking of pews, all rose.
“Servant, you will face the courier.”
Shekalane turned to face the long, pitchfork-like pier and the impenetrable river fog beyond it, and made a deliberate attempt to tamp down her heart rate, which had quickened at the sound of the oar. I will not fear you, ferryman. Although I know you will wish me to. Although I have heard the stories. Although you will be drunk with your power over me and over others—I will not fear you.
She fingered the scroll hidden in her shawl. What did he mean, “You will know what to do?” Did she dare hope that Valdus might marshal all his resources in an attempt to rescue her? Even were that so, could such an effort do anything but fail? No one had ever escaped the Lottery— save by death itself.
A shape emerged from the fog, a mere phantom at first, a ghost. But as it approached the dock’s terminus it became more corporeal, so that she could just make out a hooded figure in a serpentine boat, which entered the circlet at the edge of the cloud bank and came to a stop with its starboard side facing them.
She swallowed as a nervous tremor went through the crowd, and the figure attached a hooked cable to an iron arm upon the pier before slowly turning to face them. She could just barely make out the bottom half of his face beneath the hood—although it wasn’t his true face at all but an oddly stoic-looking skull, which she knew to be a mask, and which knowledge she used to try to comfort herself. And she was partially successful; she had seen all this before, had she not? What could instill any new fear in a woman who had lost everything—first her husband, then her son, then a lover, and now herself and the friendships she had formed and her beloved school children and even her familiar, Milkweed, who was either dead or lost in the miasma?
She jumped as the raven cawed suddenly and leapt from its perch, batting its wings furiously before gliding the remaining distance to the ferryman and alighting upon his shoulder. He leaned against his oar with a strange kind of grace as a group of robed figures emerged from the crowd and began prodding her forward with their cruelly-configured pikes.
She pivoted suddenly and faced the crowd—more specifically, the children—Lat, in particular, and said, “I have something to say to my pupils!”
“Silence and speak not,” ordered the rector. “The time for last words has passed. Sentries!”
The sentries pressed forward, backing her onto the pier. The raven’s red eye gleamed.
“It is only this ...” She looked directly at Lat as the red dot of the raven’s camera fell wavering upon her hair and her shoulder, which she glanced over quickly to see the ferryman stirring behind her, abandoning his oar and placing a high, black boot on the bow. But he did not leave his boat.
“We spoke frequently of black holes and white fountains, did we not? Well, know then that though I go into a black hole now, I will re-emerge in a white fountain. As above, so below. Death is but rebirth! We will see each other again!”
One of the sentries reversed his polearm and shoved her hard with its butt, causing her to stumble backward as the barrier spikes rose quickly from the floor—separating them decisively—as well as along both sides of the pier. She stepped forward again almost instantly, gripping the bars and making direct eye contact with Lat; but he did not seem to acknowledge her, none of them did, and it occurred to her in a flash of horror that perhaps they had been drugged.
She allowed her hands to slide from the bars. It was over and done with, all of it. Everything she had ever known ... just gone.
She turned to face the ferryman. He just stared back at her stoically, as if in perfect stasis, as cold and serpentine as his boat. She began moving toward him slowly.
The music began playing again, causing her to look back at the departing crowd over her shoulder, and she saw Petrus, Paulus, and Magdalene in a pool of light next to Harianna, the two balding men strumming their citterns while blonde, beautiful Magdalene swayed and hummed. Petrus began singing, “He is now to be among you ...”
She saw, or thought she saw, the ferryman unhook something from his belt and cast it to the deck, after which a cloud of smoke bubbled up rapidly and completely obscured the landing platform. She paused hesitantly, but then continued walking, repeating to herself, I will not fear you, ferryman. Although I know you wish me to—I will not fear you.
She looked once more over her shoulder at the players and the crowds filing out—numbed almost comatose by the perverse contrast of it, the harmony of the music and the horror of what lay before her, until she entered the expanding cloud of smoke and all was lost in a swirling gray void.
She could not even be certain that she had cleared the corridor of spikes when she glimpsed a tall, indistinct figure standing amidst the smoke and the fog, a figure which had pushed back its hooded cloak and whose lanky but muscular form could now be discerned, especially his long arms, which were savagely sculpted as if from years of manual labor—one of which unhooked a thick handle from his belt and seemed to squeeze, causing a great, curved blade to flash out with the ringing of steel.
She stopped dead in her tracks, her heart starting to beat faster. Was this the truth of it? Was the Lottery and the pomp and circumstance surrounding it an even bigger sham than she had suspected? Is this what had become of her husband and her son? Had they simply walked into the gloom to be butchered like animals?
She took several tentative steps to her right, considering finding the edge of the platform and perhaps leaping into the water—but he merely countered her, striding confidently to stand before her and to prevent her from continuing any further. She froze again as she looked at his mask and into his eyes, the irises of which caught the light reflecting off his scythe and gleamed a sickly yellow. He stepped closer, calmly, in perfect control, and though she tried to tear her eyes from his impenetrable gaze, she found, at least momentarily, that she could not. Then she shrunk away in a rush of terror and hurried for the edge of the platform, which was just visible in the dissipating smoke, and he strode rapidly after her and blocked her yet again, but this time he gripped her wrist and wrenched her away, causing her to tumble to the boards in the direction from which she’d come.
She pushed herself up, her rich, brown hair having come undone and fallen over her face, and looked at him angrily, her heart pounding, all the pain and sense of loss smoldering now, but he only glared back at her intently, his own chest heaving, as though he might smite her with his weapon at any moment. Then her dark eyes flared and she launched at him in fury, colliding with him and beating on his chest with both her arms, again and again, until he hugged her savagely, preventing her from striking him any further, and scooped her up in his own arms. Immediately something fell to the boards, and Shekalane feared at first that it was Valdus’ ring, but it wasn’t—it was her tiny copy of The Chrysanthemum Cage, which she had used to inform her herself spiritually (as well as her students) since losing her son.
She saw the ferryman’s head jerk to look at it, his eyes wide behind the mask and seemingly rabid with fury—for it was expressly forbidden to bring anything but yourself to one’s coronation.
What happened next happened very quickly—as he carried her onto the boat and seated her on a cushioned bench, then slapped her in shackles, and finally stuffed a black hood over her head, at which point everything went dark and she nearly passed out, but was prevented from doing so by the muffled whinny of a draft horse somewhere on the shore.
The dispatch runner arrived almost breathless and leaned close to Valdus at the bow gunwale. “Enemy spotted—a ferryman and his charge. They’ve just passed the Stygian Flowstones.”
Valdus lifted his binoculars and peered upriver, saw a black speck just rounding the curvature of the great cavern wall. “Excellent, corporal. Lector, the sun engine...”
Lector looked up from his gauges and readouts and shook his head. “Still charging. The test burst drained more energy than we could have anticipated.”
“At slow charge—about an hour, at least.”
“Bloody hell ...” Valdus stood and paced the length of the machine. “And a fast charge?”
Lector and his assistant exchanged nervous glances. “As I said earlier, my lord, a fast charge could jeopardize the integrity of the containment field. And energized plasma is nothing to trifle—”
Valdus slapped on hand on his shoulder, his thumb touching his neck. It was a comradely but vaguely threatening gesture he used often. “How long, Lector?”
“I—it is difficult ...” He examined the complicated machinery. “About half that, if the hydrogen flasks seat properly. You must understand, my lord, that an incorrectly seated flask can cause the weapon to explode the instant it is fired.”
Valdus tightened his thumb on his neck. “I don’t speak the language of ancient machines, Lector. How long?”
“Gurn will help me with it. Perhaps ... one-quarter of an hour.”
“Fast charge it, then.” He looked at Gurn, who seemed suddenly frozen with terror. “I will be beside you. We shall share the risk, as we shall share the spoils of a free Ursathrax. The Revolution will not be won by prudence but by audacity.”
A deep voice boomed from the stern, where reflected water danced in the dark. “And no one is more audacious!”
Valdus smiled as General Hirth strode toward him across the foredeck, his armor clinking, his weapons jangling, and saluted them, then motioned for his superior to join him at the starboard gunwale, where they both stood facing the interior of the cave.
“Look at what your leadership has accomplished, my lord. And this but one of twenty such bunkers ...” They watched as a group of men rolled a giant spindle of steel blasting net along the dock, where many other such spindles were piled, and Valdus nodded approvingly, especially when he saw Fenris swing his lantern up to inspect the great door winches. The massive winches were vital to opening and closing the Cyclopean rock door which had been dressed to blend with the cliff face on the outside. “So many weeks spent blasting out this largest port yet ... I would hate to see all that work come to naught, sir.”
Valdus looked at him sidelong and arched an eyebrow. “You as well, Hirth? A man whom I once watched hijack a barge full of armed sailors by himself, and leave not a one of them standing?” He smiled rakishly. “You disappoint me, comrade.”
“My lord, it’s just that ...” Hirth turned and nodded at the sun engine. “Well, look at it.”
Valdus did so, casually. Certainly the ancient machine was intimidating—with its great, gunmetal-gray barrel and its tangles of white-orange hot coils and its exhaust vents like the gills of some monstrous fish and all its cooling ducts and exposed wiring and gauges and readouts—but he did not see it as, how had Hirth put it earlier? “A thing not of this earth.” He saw it only as a machine, no different, ultimately, than, say, the paddle wheel of a barge. But then, Shekalane had always said of him that for all his brilliance, there was a blind spot—a place within him where a poet might put words or a painter might put colors, but for him could only be filled with raw data. And what form that data took, she’d said, she couldn’t begin to conceptualize. The statement had stung him, even though she’d made it within the context of a compliment to his strategic abilities. It stung him still.
“All I know,” he said, pushing the memory from his mind, “is that Lector believes it capable of penetrating the shields of a ferryman’s gondola. Which is something we are about to test.”
Hirth gazed out over the water. “And the ferryman’s raven?”
“I leave that to your bowmen,” said Valdus.
“They’re passing beneath the orbis lunae, my lord.” —it was Crith, his second lieutenant.
“Indeed ...” Valdus strode back to the bow gunwale, where the lieutenant was propping himself up by his elbows and peering through binoculars at the River Dire. The man passed the scopes to Valdus, who snatched them eagerly and pressed the eyepieces to his face. “Let us see who our ferryman is transporting,” he said.
The gondola swam into focus as he worked the thumbscrew, but because they were positioned at a wide section of the River both the boat and the figures aboard remained small and difficult to assess. Still, the petite form seated on the center bench could have been Shekalane—he’d still received no word from the dispatch runner he’d sent to Jaskir—but it was more than likely another woman, or even a small man, from farther upriver, Tanerune, perhaps, or Litz. Otherwise, why would she not have activated the ring?
Lector stepped up beside him. “There remains the problem with the focusing ring, sir. If they are not sufficiently separated, the ferryman and his charge ...”
Valdus lowered the glasses, thinking. “Narrow it as best you can. And hurry. Time is of the essence.”
“If she is on that boat, it ... Plasma is not known for its neatness, my lord.”
Valdus began to speak but paused, then raised the binoculars again. “You have your orders.”
He watched the little boat, and as he did so, he reached down to his belt and triggered the signal for Shekalane to activate the ring. If she has it, he thought. For he did not know if his dispatch runner had been able to deliver it to Milkweed or not.
He adjusted the binoculars to focus on the great, iron door across the river, which he knew to be grated on the bottom to allow for the flow of water—one of the vetitum portas, the gateways to the Forbidden Channels. Such was the real reason for his insistence on killing a ferryman while the Lucitor’s actual soldiers posed the greater threat; for he knew also that the ferryman wore about their necks the key to those very gates—although he had spoken of it to no one, not even Hirth. The power to be gained from accessing those channels, which some believed might provide a back door to the Lucitor’s mansion itself, was simply too great to risk it falling into anyone’s hands but his own.
I will rescue you if I am able, my love. But the benefit of all Ursathrax must come first. Power to the Revolution.
For a time, there was only her heart beating and the suffocating blackness and the sound of her breaths, which came and went in harsh, ragged bursts, and she feared she might hyperventilate. The hood had the effect of magnifying her awareness of her surroundings, strangely, and thus her terror—the sound of the ferryman’s boots thudding against the boards and a sensation of rocking, the sound of something being placed beside her on the cushioned bench, the sound of iron clanking and water slapping against the sides of the boat. And yet there was something else, a vibration, a throbbing as she wrung her hands ...
How had he said to activate it? Press the emerald when you approach the Stygian Flowstones, or on my command, which will manifest as a vibration ...
Then the hood was snatched off and she gulped the air greedily—as her captor mounted his dais at the back of the gondola and took up his oar, which he used to shove them off. The raven, meanwhile, had taken roost on a tiny, upraised platform near him. Both were rimmed in dim light from the lantern swinging from the great spiral-like curl that was the boat’s stern—a lantern that flickered as the ferryman touched something on his elevated control pad and the air briefly became charged with static electricity, which Shekalane presumed was a result of the shields being activated.
At length the ferryman mumbled something, or perhaps she merely imagined it, and she jolted as her right shackle opened. And, while her left shackle did not—it did seem to loosen somewhat, so it at least no longer dug into her flesh or pressed against her wrist bones so painfully. Then something familiar caught her eye and she looked down to find her veil lying next to her on the crushed red velvet seat, next to which lay her book.
She breathed deeply, her heart rate slowing, as she tried to process what she was seeing. Was this a trick? Was he baiting her with the promise that he was somehow different, a different kind of ferryman, one who understood how terrified his charges must be and who had some measure of empathy—only so he could perform some cruel reversal later and crush her spirit completely?
She dared a glance in his direction and saw him place his oar in the forked bough at his knee and begin rowing them out toward the middle of the river. He did not look at her as he did this but rather gazed up and to the side—at a minor hole in the ceiling of Ursathrax left by a fallen stalactite, which still dribbled sparks—while pushing the oar in great, robust circles, and at a surprisingly rapid clip, even as locks of his long, dark-brown hair, the bulk of which was gathered in a gold band at the back of his neck (the skin of which was ashen blue) alighted on the breeze and fluttered behind him.
From this proximity and without all the smoke—although wisps of fog were everywhere—she could clearly see the slightly distended profile of his death mask, which appeared to be made of thin bronze beneath its chipped and cracked pigment (itself the greenish-blue pallor of the dead) and also a single steely eye, which was recessed amidst the blackened eyelet and whose yellow iris caught the light from the bow lantern and gleamed.
He was like an apparition, and there were at least three things in addition to his mask that she had difficulty looking away from. The first were his arms and shoulders, again, clearly visible now that he’d swept his cloak back, which were enormous for such a tall and otherwise lanky man— especially his dead-blue arms, which were so muscular and ropey and vascular and rough-hewn that he looked as though he had been performing hard labor since the day he was born, and one of which had been branded with the sign of the raven.
The second was his strange clothing and accouterments, nearly all of it black: the cloak with its broad hood and exquisite gold piping, the Mandarin-necked tunic whose collar had been embroidered, also in gold, with what could only be described as a phallus (but with a human skull where the scrotum would be), the rosary of fine bones, like chick bones, around his neck, the great, golden cross with an arrowhead at the bottom which glinted beneath his chest, as well as the leather cummerbund bearing all manner of tiny hooks and lanyards (some of which supported small black spheres which she recognized as being what he’d thrown to the pier to create the smoke-screen) and finally the thick, wide belt with its large, golden buckle and its attachment for the strange weapon which hung heavy at his hip (along with yet another pair of shackles).
It was that weapon that intrigued and terrified her the most, with its great blade that was the same size and shape of the scythe she used to cut down the overgrowth behind her cottage, and yet was forged, or so it seemed, of solid gold, yet a gold with alien highlights, of blue and pink and lapis lazuli. The blade was attached via a serpentine tang to a thick, bronze cylinder about a half-foot long, a cylinder veined with intricate, flowing threads of a strange, bluish alloy she had never before seen. She gathered there was more to the weapon than could be ascertained on first inspection, though why she thought this, she couldn’t say.
Perhaps it was the blood-red crystal, which was placed midway along the shaft as though it were a type of switch, and glowed from within with a kind of dark energy that filled her with unease, although, again, she would not have been able to explain why. Still, as much as she hated the Lucitor and his ferrymen—including this one, especially this one—she could not help but admire the economy and functionality of such a weapon, as the blade did not extend from the handle but rather lay parallel against it—until activated, that is, as it had been on the dock.
The ferryman turned to face her and she quickly looked away—as if an owl had suddenly focused on her in the dark. Now that they’d reached the trunk of the river, he had relaxed the intensity of his rowing to a more casual pace, and was allowing the current to do most the work. (She didn’t dare risk activating the ring now!) Instead she looked at the floorboards, and after a few moments, remembered the book lying next to her. She reached toward it habitually—but froze when the raven cawed loudly and its red beam fell upon the back of her hand.
A tense moment followed in which she looked from the ferryman to the raven then back again as her fingertips wavered over the golden cover. Then the ferryman motioned with his head, and the raven’s light swung away and switched off. She picked up the book slowly and placed it on her lap.
There was a brief gust of wind and all of Ursathrax seemed to moan, and as the sound echoed away down the great cavern she looked up at the Dire Borealis and marveled, as she often had, at its shimmering beauty.
Slowly, she opened the book, and the hologram popped up immediately, like a horizontal green quasar. The voice of Montair, the wise and venerated but little known author, began precisely where it had left off when she’d closed it, the quasar elongating and constricting as he spoke: “I have answered you in full—the crystal cage, the Caveam Cristallum, is you.”
The ferryman turned his head—but the shadows were such that it was impossible to determine if he was looking at her or not.
“At least insofar as you imagine yourself to be. And the world beyond its bars, or its columns, if you prefer, is pulchra illusio, a beautiful illusion. But while I have answered you in full, I have not questioned you in full. And my question to you is this: Would you step from your cage—”
The raven squawked harshly and she snapped the book closed. But while she had assumed the hologram had annoyed the creature, she could now see that wasn’t the case; rather, the black bird was poking its head this way and that as though it had heard something deep in the fog.
“Sthulhu,” said the ferryman. “Scout.” Oddly, his voice was not muffled by the mask but rather enriched and given gravitas by some technical means she could not understand.
Sthulhu launched himself into the gloom with a fracas of wings and they floated in silence for several moments. At last the ferryman said, quietly, as though he were speaking to himself, “‘Would you step from your cage if you knew the door was ajar?’”
“My lord, the charge is complete.”
Valdus looked up from his map table and smiled. “You see? And we are still here—with our limbs included. You worry too much, old friend. And the focusing of the beam?”
“I have adjusted the apex angles of the prisms so that the wave front should converge on the ferryman alone,” said Lector. “But I must warn you, sire. The plasma core is only marginally stable; should any single constant become variable once the weapon is fired ... the results could be catastrophic—especially if the shields of the gondola create a mirror effect.”
“There will be no mirror effect,” said Valdus. “Lieutenant Crith, how long until they are out of range?”
Crith ground his binoculars. “They are moving slower than anticipated, my lord, although at this distance it’s impossible to say why. Regardless, I’d estimate no more than five minutes.”
Valdus expressed his satisfaction by placing his hands on his hips and exhaling. “We’re ahead of schedule. You’ve done well, Lector.” He moved around to the chair built into the side of the sun engine. “I’ll sight the target myself. General Hirth, prepare your boarding party.”
“Be advised, my lord,” said Lector, “that I have not yet re-slaved the trigger mechanism to the sighting device ...”
“Then I trust you’ll trigger it from your control panel precisely on my word. Watch me closely.”
He settled into the chair and pressed his forehead against the sighting scope, activating the lead-measuring and rangefinder scales. “Everyone don your goggles. Men with no eyes make poor soldiers.”
He worked the controls of the turret until the tiny boat slid into view, then zoomed in as close as he could on the ferryman’s head, which remained hardly larger than an apple seed, before scanning right to the passenger.
Is it you, my elven-faced nursemaid and most preferred port of call? Why do you not activate? You should not assume I can see you, if that’s the case. But then you have always assumed me to be perfect and infallible, not so much a man but a slab of granite for you to push yourself against. If only you knew to what lengths I have gone to ensure the success of the revolution, the lengths I intend to go.
He re-focused on the ferryman. And you, Taker. Today I take from you. First, I will take your head clean from your body. And then I will take your gold-plated key ...
A raven called from somewhere in the gloom, and he pushed the thoughts from his mind. “Lieutenant Crith, see to it that Hirth has assigned archers to monitor the mists.” He ground his brow against the sighting scope. “If it flies, kill it.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Today, my friends, we make history once again. Long live the Revolution!” He narrowed the sights on the ferryman’s head. “Prepare to fire.”
Shekalane looked up