Age of War (Part XXVII)

Jonis stared at the soldiers in disbelief, but her warrior instincts kicked in a second later and she found herself reaching for her sword. Huldane was even faster. In one smooth movement he had shrugged off his pack and cloak and swung his shield down onto his arm. A moment later the short, straight-bladed Talosi stabbing sword he carried was in his hand. She wondered how he must appear to the Atlasians – a pale-skinned barbarian warrior, like something stepping straight from the most ancient legends. They outnumbered them ten-to-one, but how many would Huldane bring down before he was finally stopped? She knew the soldiers were making the same calculation.

“You don’t want to do this, Tayne,” she said slowly. She held both of her hands up, in clear view.

“It’s not about what I want, Keeper. I have my orders.”

“Your orders are to kill us? Why?”

“I didn’t ask.”

Jonis thought she knew Tayne well enough to guess that she’d wanted to though. She could still see that hesitation in the other woman’s eyes. “Who gave you that order? Who wants us dead?”

“It came from my commander. Where he got it from is none of my business.”

“If you want to do this,” Huldane growled, “get it over with. You will see then how we fight in Talos.”

Tayne shifted her grip on her sword. “Look, I’m a member of the militia. I follow my orders. What can I do?”

“Make a decision, Tayne. You’re a captain, aren’t you? You’re a commanding officer: you’re not expected to just blindly follow orders. You’re supposed to use your initiative.”

“Not this time.” She took a step forward.

Jonis moved towards the door, still holding her hands up. “What are your orders, Tayne? Why kill us now?”

The captain licked her lips nervously. “I was told to do it if we found anything…significant…”

“Right. So it’s not just a storm defending this place?” She flicked a glance at Huldane, hoping he’d pick up on her insinuation.

“Keeper, I told you, this isn’t personal…”

“I wonder what the One-eyed God would make of this,” Huldane said suddenly, “the Greatfather is the Lord of Justice. He frowns on betrayal.”

“I don’t believe in your god, Talosi,” Tayne told him.

“He believes in you, captain. And this is the Heart of Winter: his own realm.”

“You’re just stalling. If you’re going to defend yourselves, do it now.” She signalled to her company.

“Wait!” Jonis yelled. She was backed right up against one of the columns by the door now. “I don’t know if the Talosi god is real, and I don’t know what’s happening here, but I know this: that storm came and went in the blink of an eye. If it rises again as quickly as that, how much chance do you think you have on this mountain?”

“There’s plenty of shelter,” Calas said, but she looked a little doubtful.

“Ruins. And night’s drawing in. And what about those tracks we found?”

Tayne pointed past Jonis with her sword. “We’ll go in there!”

Now time to roll the dice, as the Seventh might say. Jonis spun on the ball of her foot and slammed her fist into a seemingly innocuous stone just left of the doorframe. There was a low rumble and then a high-pitched whine. After a few tense seconds, the door began to slowly swing shut again and, moments later, thudded closed with a tone of grim finality. “You can’t go this way.” She held up her hand. “Only a Keeper can open it again. You can try, if you like, but chances are you’ll be going home with a bloody stump.”

“This doesn’t change anything…”

“Doesn’t it? You don’t want to kill me, Tayne. You don’t want to kill Huldane here either. I’ve fought by your side before. You’ve got no quarrel with me or him. And I bet you’re as curious about all this as I am. But, more to the point, if you kill me, you’ll be sealing your own fates. You won’t get off this mountain alive, Tayne, I’m certain of it.”

She was wavering, Jonis could see it in her eyes. The point of her sword swung between her and Huldane, and her soldiers seemed equally torn. No one wanted this; they were just orders from some distant authority. Jonis wondered who had given those orders too – some faceless bureaucrat who knew how dangerous this discovery could be and who moved against anyone trying to bring it to light? Or someone closer to home, someone involved in this war, someone with a personal grudge?

“You want to get back to Atlas, don’t you?” Jonis asked, leveraging her suspicions, “there’s a war going on out there, Tayne. Sister is fighting sister. You said you wanted to defend your home. Our home. And besides, in an age of civil war, can you even trust your orders? Who knows which side your commander is on? What if this is all a plan to undermine Atlantis?”

Tayne’s lips twisted and then, with a cry of exasperation, she shoved her sword back into her scabbard. “Fine! You win!”

Jonis relaxed, although Huldane remained poised for battle and didn’t drop his weapons. He was looking at the soldiers, probably trying to decide if this was some sort of trick. “All right,” she said, stepping forward again, hands still raised. Gradually, the Atlasians began to put away their weapons. “Are we done here?”

“We’re done,” Tayne said. “We’re done.”

“No stabbing us in the back?”

“I’m a captain in the Atlantian militia,” she snapped, “I don’t stab anyone in the back.”

“You’re right – you could’ve killed us any time you chose. But you didn’t. And I think you gave us warning because you knew I’d talk you out of it.”

“I didn’t want to kill you,” she admitted.

“I know. But someone did. When we’ve found whatever it was we came here to find, I’ll get to the bottom of that. For now, can we pick up where we left off?”

Tayne nodded and stepped back. The other soldiers shuffled in the snow, looking a little embarrassed about what had happened. Reluctantly, Huldane retrieved his gear, sheathed his sword and hooked his shield back onto his back. He kept his eyes on the militia though. Jonis returned to the door and repeated the motions on the lock a second time. Huldane leant towards her. “You cannot be serious about this, Keeper Jonis.”

“About what?” she whispered.

“They tried to kill us.”

“They were ordered to kill us. Big difference.”

“I do not trust them.”

“Who do you trust, Huldane?” She looked up at him. She didn’t even have to think as she manipulated the locking mechanism.

“Lady Aethlan. Commander Albrihn. Lieutenant Morrow, I suppose. And you,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

“What about the Empress?”

“I do not know the Empress.”

“But do you trust her?”

He shrugged. “She is the Empress. I have owed her my allegiance all my life.”

“In theory.”

He nodded. “In theory.”

“She has a good reason to want me dead.”

“Because of your relationship with Commander Albrihn?”

That made her smile. “Relationship is rather a grand word for it, but yes. Because of that.”

“You think she gave this order?”

“It’s one possibility I’m weighing up.” She finished with the door, and the mechanism within began to screech again as it started to open. She stepped backwards.

“Why would the Empress want me dead though?”

“I don’t know. Like I say, it’s just a possibility.”

“In either case,” he said, glancing over his shoulder, “we should leave these others outside. They were going to betray us.”

“They’ll die out here. That wasn’t just talk.”

“Well…”

“Come on, Huldane,” she said, “we need them. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without Calas and her bow, or without Elreth and his ridiculous stories to raise our spirits.”

“Maybe you are right.”

“Anyway – they’re the ones with the torches, and we’re going to need them going in there.” She pointed towards the yawning darkness of the corridor. “I have a feeling no one’s been down here in a long, long time.”

They made a rather awkward procession as they entered the corridor. As in Atlas, there were stairs leading downwards, though not as far as Jonis would have expected. She realised at that point, as she waved the flaming torch around her, illuminating the frosted walls, that while the basic layout was familiar to her, these were not the tunnels of her home. This complex was built into a mountainside, sloping up towards what she thought of as The Circle, which meant the levels would be necessarily different. Thus the familiarity she felt was tempered by an uncomfortable sense of alienation, as if hostile eyes looked out at her from a friendly face. She led them onwards, Huldane following close behind with a torch of his own and Tayne and her soldiers behind them, all looking distinctly uncomfortable in this strange environment. Jonis had to keep her wits about her. She couldn’t afford to lapse into nonchalance here – it was so tempting to let her feet guide her towards where her cell would be, following a path she’d walked a thousand times, but she wasn’t really there, no matter how much it seemed like it. For one thing, this version of her home hadn’t been properly maintained in centuries or longer. It was bitterly cold, despite the tons of rock that lay between them and the freezing air outside. The Cyclops stables in Atlas were well-ventilated by a system of hidden ducts of ancient design, and there was no reason to imagine it would be different here, but Jonis felt there must be another explanation for the icy chill. The walls should not be covered in a thin rime of frost that sparkled in the light like this, and their breath should not still steam, not with the body heat of more than twenty people now packed into a narrow corridor. Something was wrong.

The first surprise came as they turned a corner and came to a corridor that was partially collapsed. Stones littered the floor, and part of one wall was just a mess of rubble. Some groundwater had obviously seeped in from above the cave-in, but the flow was now frozen into a long, gleaming icicle that hung down from the curved ceiling. There was something more concerning though: in the ruins lay the shattered remains of a human skeleton. Jonis walked towards it slowly – this was the route they had to take – and then crouched down, holding her torch to get a better look. Tayne was by her side a moment later, and Huldane peered over their shoulders. Jonis sifted through the bones. “This fellow’s been here a long time,” she murmured. She kept her voice low – it seemed somehow profane to speak normally. The same sense of solemnity pervaded down here as in the buried streets above. At least now they knew it really was a tomb, at least of a sort.

“Not buried,” Tayne said. “This city wasn’t abandoned willingly.”

“No.”

“Perhaps an earthquake was their undoing,” Huldane suggested, “it would explain this destruction anyway.”

“Maybe.” Jonis wasn’t convinced though. She handed her torch to Tayne and then shifted some of the lumps of masonry from the skeleton, until it was revealed. There was something odd about it. She picked up a shattered leg bone and held it to the flickering orange light. “What do you make of this?”

Calas squinted at it. “It looks…deformed…”

It was indeed strangely elongated and bent. Jonis placed it back on the floor and then lifted the same bone from the other leg. This one seemed perfectly normal. She methodically examined the other remains, and they showed the same pattern of disfigurement, as if something had twisted and stretched this poor person’s body before he died. Now she came to the skull, and that was the most alarming thing of all. Superficially it was human, but it showed signs of the same weird distortions. There were odd bulges, and the cranium was flattened and sloped asymmetrically. The eye-sockets were pressed down, almost into narrow slits, and the whole face was thrust forward, the jaw horrendously misshapen into something that resembled a muzzle. The effect was enhanced by the jagged fangs that seemed to be growing out between ordinary human teeth. Jonis grimaced. “What caused this?”

“A birth defect?” Tayne said. “I’ve seen it happen before. But a child born like that…it would be kinder to have killed it, surely?”

“Maybe.” She turned the skull this way and that. The deformities looked odd. The bone was smooth, but there were fissures and layers, and she’d seen something similar before. “This wasn’t a birth defect,” she said, “this happened while he was alive. Look,” she placed a finger over one lumpen protrusion, “this looks like scarring. If you break a bone and it’s not set properly, it’ll grow like this. It’s almost as if his skull was being forced to adapt to some sort of injury.”

“Like he was tortured into some new shape,” Huldane said ominously, “and made to live with it.”

Tayne’s face had gone even paler than usual. “Who would do something like that? Who could do something like that?”

“I don’t know,” Jonis said, putting the warped skull back down, “but I’m hoping they’re as dead as this one.”

They carried on, through more ruinous corridors. Jonis began to worry that their way might be blocked by rubble, but she was increasingly preoccupied by the remains they found. There were many more bones, and all of them showed evidence of the same kind of deformities. There was little pattern to it, except that all showed signs of the characteristic facial swelling, jaws thrust forward, reshaped into some animalistic snout, and those ugly fangs erupting from their jaws. She tried not to think about what these benighted people must have looked like in life. Finally, as they reached a wider antechamber, they came upon a truly horrifying sight. In amongst the detritus of collapsed walls and columns were dozens of the mutant skeletons, all buried beneath stones or dashed against walls so that all that remained of them was fragments.

“I thought they were fleeing,” Tayne said, looking at the scene with wide eyes, “trying to get out of whatever destroyed this place. But they weren’t running out – they were running in.”

At the end of the chamber was a great stone bulwark; an immense slab of black marble in two pieces so that it formed a mighty door. There was nothing like this in Atlas. Jonis stared at it in consternation. Its surface was pitted with frost like everything else, but she could see the carvings on it: the runes she’d come to recognise now. “Those are Old Talosi, aren’t they, Huldane?”

“Aye,” he whispered. He too was transfixed by this sight.

They approached the doors warily. At their base were piles of fragmented bones, as if there had been some last, desperate scrabble to get through before the end. These misshapen folk had died here. There were long scratches, like claw-marks, on the surface of the door, dimly visible through layers of frost. Jonis looked over the etched runes. It would take an age to translate them all, but most prominent, indeed in the very centre, bisected by the join between the doors, was the one she’d come to recognise as symbolising Omega itself. The sigil of the One-eyed God.

“It really is the Heart of Winter,” Huldane said. He dropped to his knees and bowed his head.

Tayne looked around the chamber. “They were trying to get inside. Fleeing whatever was above ground. Poor things.”

“It looks that way.” Jonis’s gaze roved across the enormous doors. “We need to find a way through.”

“They tried that,” one of the soldiers said, aiming a kick at a skull. It clattered away with a gruesome noise and a kind of collective shudder passed through the party.

“There must be some way to…” She put her hand to the closest door. It was so cold she wanted to pull away immediately, but some unseen force made it impossible for her to do so, and then the door began to open with a sound like mountains cracking. She opened her mouth in astonishment as she stumbled backwards. Her hand was red and blistered.

“What did you do, Keeper?” Huldane asked her, rising and placing a large hand on her shoulder. “Look what the One-eyed God did to these ones who tried to invade his halls!”

His interpretation was different from the others’, she noticed. He saw this place as holy, while they most certainly saw it as cursed. For him, these tormented things were interlopers, not victims. His god was cruel, but Huldane’s respect for him was fervent enough regardless. As the door slowly opened, it revealed another chamber beyond, twin to this one, and likewise in a state of ruin. There were bones too, but not the same kind.

Jonis walked very slowly forward. She held her torch out before her. Lying on the ground by the doors were the bones of some immense creature. In form they were human, but grossly outsized. Here was a shoulder blade the size of a cartwheel, and a great forearm that looked more like a felled tree. The remains were fragmentary, heaped with fallen stones and rock, but the shape was recognisable. It was sprawled out, hands outstretched towards the doors. “Holding them shut,” she whispered softly. Her blistered hand forgotten, she walked through the chamber, taking in the bizarre sight of this body. The others followed her in tentatively, Huldane now taking up the rear, moving slowest of all.

“What is this?” Tayne asked.

“I don’t know.” Jonis looked at the skeleton. “It looks like…like a Cyclops.” No one had ever seen a dead Cyclops, as far as Jonis knew. They were immortal, and though not impervious to weaponry or disease, they were cared for so attentively that none had died for as long as any record had existed – whatever that meant now, she reminded herself. Nonetheless, the scale was familiar, though this beast would dwarf even Calam and Calad’s Cyclops. There was no skull, she noted. Unsurprising, since the shoulders of a Cyclops sprouted nothing but a hideous blossom of slimy tentacles with a gaping abyss at their heart. Although… “Help me move this,” she said, pointing to a good-sized bolder that was wedged against the other door, near where the head of the fallen monster would have been. There was rubble packed all around. She handed her torch to a soldier and stepped over the shattered ribcage that was large enough to imprison a grown man.

Huldane stared at her. “Keeper…”

“Come on,” she said, “give me a hand here.” She touched the boulder and then stopped. It was not stone. Experimentally, she rapped her knuckles against it and was rewarded with a hollow sound. She backed away. “What…?”

Huldane was shaking his head. From his vantage, he saw something different. “No,” he was saying, “no, no, no…” Over and over, as if he was refusing to believe what his eyes told him.

Jonis walked around the object she had taken for a boulder, and now saw what he saw. This skeleton had a skull after all, but it was even stranger than those of the creatures on the other side of the door. It was human enough at the bottom, with an ordinary jaw, cracked in places by the impact of the ceiling’s collapse, set with normal enough teeth. The cheekbones were prominent but not deformed, but above that all was strange, for the nasal bridge was split in twain above the opening, and sitting above that, in place of eye-sockets was a single enormous round fissure. A heavy brow lidded it, and then a narrow, peaked cranium rose behind that. This was the body of some kind of giant, with a single great eye set in the centre of its face. Jonis tried to say something, but her mouth had gone dry. She turned helplessly to Huldane, but he was still shaking his head, and now he began to back away. He was still transfixed by the skull with its hideous, singular eye-socket.

“It cannot be…it cannot be…”

“Huldane?” she asked croakily. “Do you know what this is?”

“It is…it is the Greatfather.” His torch dropped from his hands and rolled onto the floor where it guttered fitfully against the icy flagstones. “It is the One-eyed God. And he is dead.” He crumpled in on himself, like paper in flame, falling to his knees a second time and covering his face. Jonis knew there was nothing she could say. She held to no gods of her own, but she felt a kinship with this Talosi at that moment. Both their worlds had been thrown into chaos. Both had no idea what the future might hold now. And after all, if any age should be the one where gods met their deaths, it was this one.

 

 

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