Age of War (Part XXVI)

The mountain was high – perhaps the highest in the range they’d seen so far – but its slope was shallow, and the only impediment to their progress was the weather, which seemed to worsen as they climbed out of the valley and made their way towards the half-buried city. Jonis’s hood was pulled forward and she kept her head down against the wind that seemed to get stronger the higher they traipsed. Huldane was almost bent double, scrambling across the rocks with both hands except when he reached back to check on his shield, which was constantly being lifted by the strong gusts. They forged onwards, but now there were flakes of snow in the air and the wind rose to a gale. They almost had to crawl to retain their balance.

“We have to go back!” Huldane called out, and she could barely hear him.

“It’ll be no easier at the bottom,” she shouted back. She tried to turn her face skyward, to see whether there was any sign of the weather abating, but the sky was almost black. Where had this storm come from?

“Do you hear that?” Tayne was crouched on a lump of black stone, her palms flattened against it, shoulders hunched.

“Hear what?”

“The wind! It sounds…strange…”

Jonis listened closely, but couldn’t make out anything beyond the rush of air. It was getting worse too. Now the snow was flying in all directions and, peering up through the darkness further up the mountain, she could see it wasn’t falling from the sky, but was being blown down from the drifts around the ruins. Ice crystals glanced off her cheeks and stung her eyes and she tugged on her hood again. “We’re carrying on!” she yelled to the others.

Slowly, they resumed their journey, fighting against the strange wind, which howled more ferociously with each step they took. Jonis could no longer keep her head up and she had to climb on blindly, trusting that there would be some shelter amongst the remains of the city. She turned to relay this to the rest. “I think we should be able to…” A blast of wind hit her from behind with an impact like a fist in the small of her back. She cried out as she lost her footing and went skittering down the slope. The wind caught on her coat and, for a moment, she was lifted up and had a vision of herself careening through the air, to be dashed to pieces on the rocks below. She reached out, and Huldane was there, snatching her from the storm’s embrace and dragging her back to earth. She let him hold her for a moment as they lay there, flat against the mountainside.

“It is not safe here,” he said.

“Where did this come from?” She extricated herself and crawled sideways. She turned onto her back, trying to take stock of their situation. She couldn’t see a thing now. Only the huddled shapes of the soldiers on the mountain were visible through the snow and the darkness that was now as black as night.

“The herdsman said…” Huldane began, but just then there was a scream and they both watched in horror as one of the soldiers was ripped from the rock face and hurled into the abyss. In seconds, he was gone from view. Shouts came from the others, and they began to stand.

“Stay down!” she bellowed.

“Do as she says!” It was Tayne, who was now just a few strides from them. She’d worked her way across. “What is this, Keeper?”

“How should I know?”

“You brought us here!”

“But I didn’t know this would happen…whatever it is…”

“This is not an ordinary storm,” Huldane said darkly.

“What do you mean?”

“Listen,” Tayne said, “there are voices!”

“Voices?”

“In the wind! Howls and screams!”

Jonis looked upwards again, and tried to hear what the captain was talking about. There was something strangely familiar about the sound of this tempest. It was like the rending of creation, as if the world itself was being torn apart at the seams. There was an eldritch light in the air too, like the darkness had a weird luminescence of its own. And then it hit her, where she’d seen this before, albeit on a much smaller scale. She pulled her hood back, trying to hear better and confirm her suspicions, but as she did the wind immediately began to die down. Within a few heartbeats, the howling had stopped and the air cleared, the consuming blackness becoming ordinary steel-grey clouds, and the snow tumbled gently to earth. She blinked and stared around her. Huldane slumped down, relaxing his grip on the rocks. Tayne breathed a sigh of relief. The other soldiers further down looked around in confusion. Two jumped up and began to climb downwards, looking for their lost comrade.

“You, stop!” Tayne shouted, and they drew up and looked back at their commander sheepishly. She pulled herself upright. “Athel is gone. We saw him fall. I won’t risk more lives searching for his body.” She pointed up the mountain. “We have to get to shelter in case another storm like that hits.”

“I agree.” Jonis struggled to her feet and wiped the snow off her cloak. Instinctively her hand went to her hood, but then she thought better of it and let it fall. She looked upwards. The city was exactly where it had been, its bleak skeletal towers rising from the snow. She frowned. Had it been trying to protect itself somehow? Is that why no one had found this before? There was no way to know, not at this stage. Perhaps the ruins would yield answers, though she couldn’t imagine what they might be.

They kept on, now more warily, all glancing at the sky now and then in case the clouds should gather again and bring down further ruin upon them. Eventually they entered the ruins, following the broad swathe of a snowbound thoroughfare, on either side of which rose fragmented buildings. They were all wrought in black stone, quite unlike the mountains that surrounded them. Their surfaces were covered in ice and their purposes were impossible to discern now – they simply stood as dark monuments to the unknown builders of this place. Jonis stared around her at the foreboding ruins. Again, an odd sense of familiarity tickled the back of her mind. There was something about the architecture, about the angular shapes and jagged crenellations atop the crumbling walls that tugged at her memory, but she couldn’t place it.

“What are we looking for?” Huldane asked her.

She thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

“But you will know it when you see it?”

She turned and looked at him. He gave her a small smile. It was the first time she’d heard him joke about anything. He was such a serious fellow, but he’d picked an odd time to change his ways. The city was spread out, with wide streets between the remaining buildings. Of course, it was hard to see the extent of it as they walked on hard-packed snow and there was no telling how deep it was. There could be even more buildings buried beneath their feet.

“No one’s been here for a long time,” Tayne said. In contrast to the roaring of the mysterious wind, it was now deathly silent, and it felt as if they walked through a mausoleum.

Huldane grunted. “Not surprising, if they all meet with that storm.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Jonis said, “it was just a storm. Hardly the first we’ve encountered.”

“Not the first, but certainly the worst.” Tayne’s voice was tight. She’d lost one of her soldiers, blown away like a leaf on the breeze. No way for a soldier to die, and she knew it.

“It was just a storm,” she repeated, “nothing strange about it.”

“The herdsman warned us about a black wind yesterday,” Huldane reminded her.

“That’s just some local superstition. It’s a coincidence.”

“This place is haunted.” His voice was insistent.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

“We will see.” He wasn’t going to be deterred. For him, this was some sort of religious pilgrimage. It had become clear during their journey here that he was looking for this Heart of Winter, where he thought he would find the seat of his god. Jonis had had quite enough of the cruel and capricious One-eyed God of the Talosi in his homeland. If this was his city, somehow, she wanted no part of it. But she did feel there was some ancient connection there – she just hadn’t worked out quite what it was yet.

“A whole city, with no sign of life.” Tayne was looking up at the crooked towers and half-collapsed curtain walls that reached up into the grey sky. There were menhirs and obelisks too, all of the same black stone, all oddly twisted and spiky. Even if this wasn’t where Huldane’s god resided, it was certainly in keeping with his demeanour as she understood it.

She was wrong about it being lifeless though. Jonis pointed to a side street between two towers that curved inwards, from decay or perhaps design, so they resembled a pair of jagged tusks or fangs. There were tracks visible there. “What left those do you think?”

They made their way over to them, Calas now leading the way. She squatted down beside the tracks. “These are very recent. They must have been caught in the storm and sheltered here.”

Jonis peered at the markings in the snow. They were scuffed and chaotic, as if there had been a great many animals all in one place, jostling restlessly around one another. That made sense, if they were panicked by the sudden change in the weather. “Looks like wolves,” she said, nodding towards one mostly intact paw-print.

Calas shook her head. “No. Too big.”

“Maybe the wolves are bigger here,” Tayne suggested. “It is the mountains after all.”

Calas peered down the street, where more buildings rose from the snow. Great drifts were piled up against walls, spilling through open windows. There were hundreds of hiding places. “Whatever they were,” the sergeant said, straightening, “they’re gone now.”

“We’ll make sure we set a strong watch when we make camp,” Tayne said.

Jonis look at her askance. “Wolves wouldn’t attack such a large group of humans.”

“I told you they’re not wolves,” Calas said shortly.

“Then what are they?”

“I don’t know.”

“We set a watch of at least two at all times.” Tayne’s tone brooked no argument.

“Fine.” Jonis led them back out onto the main road. She was filled with doubt all of a sudden as she looked up and down the mountain. She’d brought them to this place, and it had seemed a simple enough undertaking until that storm that had lost them a soldier, Athel, about whom she knew barely anything. He was just a brown Atlasian face peering out from under a hood in her memory. So now they’d found this place – Omega, if that’s where this really was – they looked to her for guidance. What had she really been hoping to find? Where did she expect to find it? Her gaze was drawn upwards, to the large domed structure that was built nearest the peak. It was an imposing edifice: black and immense. In fact it was larger than it had appeared from a distance now that she had some context for the ruins that surrounded it. “I think we should go there,” she told them, “it looks like some sort of palace.”

“Makes sense,” Huldane said.

They set off again, still remaining wary, but their pace was quicker as the slope began to even out slightly. The packed snow was slippery underfoot, but they all wore good boots and had learned well enough to watch their footing. The dome loomed up ahead of them, dwarfing everything close by. Jonis had to crane her neck up to take it all in. She was no stranger to impressive constructions, but it was hard to imagine how – or why – people would have built something so huge in these mountains. This wasn’t the rude dwelling of a local lordling: it was the equal of anything in Atlas, and the stone must have been quarried leagues away, for they’d seen nothing so completely black in their trek through the Titans. It must have taken an incredible effort, both physically and organisationally, to build it. Surely within would be some clue to the mystery that had brought her so far.

They approached the walls and she stepped closer almost tentatively. They were angled away from her, rising up perhaps fifty strides or more to the domed roof. The whole building was constructed from identical blocks of slick black stone, covered with frost, tightly fitted without visible mortar. She ran a hand across the cold surface and flinched away. It was even colder than she’d expected it to be and her flesh tingled. But the wall had been smooth, even over the gaps between the stones. It was exceptionally well made.

“Who’d live in a palace like this?” Tayne asked.

As astonishing an achievement as it was, Jonis had to admit it was an unlovely structure. There were no windows, at least on this side, no balconies or any sign of decoration at all. From all appearances, it was nothing more than a vast circular space enclosed by walls. For all she knew, it might be a grain silo. “I think we should find a way in,” she said, “there must be a gate somewhere.” She turned to her right and began to walk, followed by Huldane. Tayne split off half the remaining soldiers and sent them after her, while she took the rest and went left.

Jonis again had an odd sensation of familiarity, as if she’d been here before, or at least somewhere very similar. Something niggled away, something about the shape of the walls, the size of the collapsed dome, the neatness of the gargantuan blockwork. It was a strange feeling. They carried on, following the walls closely. Nothing else was built close by so there was a clear space surrounding the whole building. But still it remained unchanged: just blank, black walls staring down at them. They walked all the way around, going uphill slightly as they rounded the leeward side and, a few minutes later, Tayne and the rest of the party came into view.

“Nothing,” the captain relayed when they met, opposite where they’d begun on the far side.

“Who builds a palace without a door?” Calas asked. “Bloody waste of time.”

“Perhaps it is not a palace,” Huldane hazarded, “but some sort of prison.”

Jonis frowned. “A prison? For what?”

“I do not know. I can think of nothing else an unbroken circular wall might be used for. A prison, or pen. A stable. I do not know.”

“Stable…” Jonis murmured.

“Maybe the door’s just buried,” a soldier suggested. She was a young woman named Giln.

“No, the snow isn’t deep here,” Tayne said, “you can see the stones there.”

Jonis was still looking up at the walls in consternation. A stable? A pen? A pit… She took a step backwards and then cocked her head. It came to her in a flash. No wonder she hadn’t seen it before – it was like having to turn her brain inside-out! “It’s the Circle,” she said.

“Circle?” Tayne followed her gaze, but of course that provided her no clue.

Huldane looked confused too. “What circle?”

“Back home. In the Cyclops Stables. The Circle is at the heart of the complex.” They were all still staring at her in incomprehension. She remembered how little ordinary Atlasians knew about her people. “In the catacombs where the Cyclopes are housed,” she explained, “where the Keepers live and work, there is a large chamber at the centre known as the Circle. It’s a sort of…well…a courtyard or parade ground, built like a kind of arena I suppose. There are steps down to the circular pit in the centre, a walkway all around the edge, and the walls are angled inwards.” She gestured. “Like the walls here.”

“And is there a dome?” Tayne asked.

“Yes. A big one. Like the one here.” She looked up again. That was an arresting thought. The dome above the Circle was impressive, but she’d always assumed it was simply dug out of the rock and fashioned to resemble something more artificial. What if it was actually free-standing? What a marvel that would be. The Circle might be just like this from the outside, in the secret darkness of inaccessible caverns that surrounded her home. It was an odd sensation, to see something so familiar in such a different way.

Tayne still seemed unconvinced. “You’re saying this is a Cyclops pit?”

“No, the Circle isn’t…I mean, yes, sort of.”

“Whatever it is,” Huldane pointed out, “it does not help us to find a way in.”

“You can only get into the Circle from below,” Jonis said, “I mean, in Atlas. There are staircases that bring you onto the walkway, but from the surrounding tunnels.”

“But that’s underground,” Tayne said, “this is above ground.”

“Most of it is…” She was trying to think. She looked around, trying to get her bearings. What if this was home? She started walking back around to the other side, ignoring the questions the others threw at her as she sped up. When she could see the rest of the city again, she closed her eyes and began to trace her finger through the air. The Circle was at the centre of the complex, with tunnels radiating outwards. The quarters were here, the kitchens just over there, the upper pits just a little way around. She tried to visualise it, imagining how it corresponded to the street plan above, something she’d never even considered before. If this was Atlas, not Omega or wherever this really was, how would she get to the Circle? The closest entrance was near the Silk Market at the Silver Plaza, one of dozens of doors that led down into the secret vaults below even the deepest sewers. In Atlas they were clearly marked, but this was another place, and covered in perhaps centuries of undisturbed snowfall besides. She opened her eyes, pointing north-west. Just where her finger rested was the stark shape of a half-collapsed tower. “There,” she said.

“What?” Tayne was looking where she was pointing, but she had no idea what Jonis was talking about.

“The way in.”

“What? How?”

Ignoring her again, she hastened off towards the tower, always trying to keep it in view as she passed through the silent white streets. It all made sense now. This was a city, but it wasn’t a city like Atlas. Or, rather, not the Atlas the others knew. This was her Atlas, the Atlas that lay beneath the ordinary streets, but here it wasn’t buried. This was her home, the Cyclops stables, but built above ground. These towers suddenly revealed their meaning to her, just as the domed building had. She just hadn’t been looking at it the right way. Here, in a tall turret honeycombed with small cells, she saw a mirror image of one of the cell complexes in which Keepers were housed. In Atlas, it was many interlocking levels of tiny rooms that she thought of as delved into the earth. Here, it climbed towards the skies instead, but the basic structure was the same. And there, in the distance, a monolithic tower, taller than the rest, blank and cylindrical. The Archive. Or an Archive, anyway. She’d need to find a way into that for certain. She reached the base of the building she’d focused on. The snowdrifts were high here, and there was no sign of an entrance. The tower itself was a squat mass of criss-crossing stone beams and columns. It had no obvious use, but then it was almost completely ruined. One wall leaned alarmingly inwards.

“Jonis, what’s going on?” Tayne demanded as she, Huldane and the soldiers trudged up behind her.

“The way in is under there,” she said, pointing to the snow beneath her feet.

“Are you certain?”

“Yes.” She wasn’t, really, but everything else fitted. In Atlas, this was one of the doors into the stables. Why repeat the rest of the layout and not that aspect? Or was her home in fact a copy of this place…

Tayne sighed. “All right. Everyone get out your shovels. You too, Talosi. Those shoulders of yours must be good for something.”

Jonis helped too, although she lacked the strength of the soldiers and Huldane as they dug down into the snow. She considered herself a capable warrior and knew she was physically strong, but she didn’t have the muscles for drudge work like this. Soldiers, and she supposed the Talosi militia too such as it was, were trained to erect earthworks though, throwing up ditches and rough parapets in hours. In a surprisingly short time, they’d demolished much of the snowdrift, revealing at the base of the building the familiar column-flanked portico. Above the slab-like door was a carving of a Cyclops – not a real one, but a version from a child’s story, a grotesque but oddly endearing imp with a single eye in his forehead. She knew this design too – it was identical to the one above the corresponding entrance in Atlas. This Cyclops was grinning broadly, and was juggling balls as if he were a court jester. It was bizarre and, in this place, did little to improve the strange sense of unease she felt.

Huldane gaped at it. “That is…”

“A Cyclops,” Tayne finished.

“No. It is the Greatfather. The One-eyed God.”

“Does he juggle?” Jonis asked him.

“No, but…”

Jonis walked gingerly towards the door. The soldiers, leaning on their shovels and sweating in their thick cloaks despite the cold air that caused their breath to mist, stood aside. She placed her hand on the door. It felt normal. What had she expected? There was a metal cylinder built into the hardened black oak at about waist height. It was filled with snow, and she carefully dug it out with one hand before placing the other inside. She felt the familiar clusters of levers and rings, untouched by age, and licked her lips. Each door was different: each had its own sequence, like a complex code. Only the Keepers knew them, and the unique method for unlocking each was taught to them from infancy. She knew exactly how this one should work – at least, how it should work in Atlas. Because, despite the identical pediment, and the Circle and the cells and the Archive and everything else, this wasn’t Atlas. This was not a door she’d ever used before, and there was no reason for it to be opened the same way. Failure to move the devices in the cylinder in just the right way would cause them to tighten, constrict around her flesh and then twist and rip. She would be irreparably maimed. It was a very brutal way of guarding against outsiders. Was she an outsider? No, she was a Keeper. And she knew that this city, hidden in the mountains, secret for a thousand years or more, was built by her people. She had to find out why.

“Keeper Jonis?” Huldane called out, “is everything all right?”

“Yes. Just give me a moment.” She took a deep breath, steeled herself, and began to manipulate the mechanism. Gears and levers ground and whined somewhere deep within as long-dormant machinery was forced into life. Jonis winced at the squeal of grinding metal, but then, as her hand followed a pattern of movements as instinctive to her as breath entering and leaving her body, she felt it yield. She snapped the last wheel into place, removed her hand, and the door began to open very slowly. She stood back and watched, as the deep darkness of the forgotten city revealed itself beyond the ominous portal. No one had been here for a long, long time. And now, at last, the truth would be revealed.

She turned to Tayne and smiled. “We did it!”

“Yes,” the captain said. She looked conflicted, but then drew her sword. “I’m sorry, Keeper.” Behind her, her soldiers unsheathed their own weapons and advanced on her and Huldane.

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