Age of War (Part XXVIII)

The party was silent as they continued deeper into the subterranean complex. They had finally hauled Huldane up to his feet after a few minutes, but the expression on his face made his desolation clear. Jonis fell back to the rear of the group where he staggered along in some kind of daze. “That wasn’t your god, Huldane.” She’d told him this several times now. It didn’t seem to make much difference.

“You do not understand,” he said numbly.

It was true: Atlantis had abandoned religious observances in the dim past. There still remained the odd vestige of the ancient superstition in speech and so forth – an Atlantian might talk of the gods or the fates in an offhand fashion and, amongst those inclined to think about such things, there was an understanding that certainly gods of some kind did exist, but the idea of beings that resembled humans and which took a personal interest in their business was considered absurd in all but the most backwater regions. But that didn’t change anything for Huldane, whose faith, as bizarre as it seemed to Jonis, was strong enough to be shaken by what they’d found. “Even so…”

“I have lost all that I am, Keeper Jonis,” he said suddenly. The soldiers closest to them looked over their shoulders at them, and she gestured for them to go on as Huldane leant against the wall and bowed his head.

“That’s not true. It was just a skeleton. It was strange, yes, but it wasn’t the remains of a god.”

“It is not just that. It is everything. My home is in ruins, my liege-lady a stranger in an unfamiliar city and now…” He shook his head bleakly.

She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Huldane, you’re more than those things. You’re a warrior. You’re loyal, and honourable. You led Aethlan to safety.”

“You saved her, not me.”

“Well…”

He snorted a laugh. “You see? What do I have to offer the world? My sword?”

“There is a war going on.”

“But Atlas has no shortage of soldiers. What use is a man from a far-off land who fights as a savage?”

“I think we could use a little savagery, Huldane. And you’re not just a sword. You’re a leader. A champion. If it comes to it, I’d want you by my side. And I know Aethlan would too. She depends on you.”

“Indeed. And now I am here, in the ruins of the Greatfather’s feast-hall, while she is alone and unprotected.”

Jonis rubbed his shoulder as reassuringly as she could manage. She was uncomfortable with this sort of thing. “She asked you to come with me, didn’t she? You’re carrying out her wishes.”

“She did not know what she asked.”

“Yes she did. Without her, I’d still be in the deepest, darkest pit in Atlas. She was the one who discovered that something was amiss with Atlantian history. This is her quest too. Whatever you discover here, it’s for her. You have a duty to report back to your liege, don’t you?”

“Of course…”

“Well then. Maybe that was your god back there. Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know what a god’s skeleton looks like. But if it is, Aethlan prays to your Greatfather do, doesn’t she? She deserves to know the truth of this place, whatever it might be. Maybe you’ve lost your faith in your place in the world, or in the One-eyed God, but have you lost your faith in her?”

He looked up, and his eyes gleamed fiercely in the torchlight. “Never.”

“Exactly. And this is important, you know that, right? For Atlantis. For the world.”

“I do know, Keeper Jonis.”

“Good. Because I need you. I talked Tayne out of doing something crazy at the door before, but if it comes to it, I can’t fight them on my own.”

“One more sword would hardly make a difference against twenty foes…”

“I’d rather be with it than without it though. Especially if you’re the one wielding it. I know this isn’t easy, but I need you to keep your wits about you, Huldane. I need your instincts and your strength. Talos may be gone, but if your people are to have a future, you and Aethlan are the key to it.”

He looked at her strangely. “How so?”

“Come on,” she smiled, “you know the two of you are going to get married someday. And you’ll be the lord and lady of a reforged Talos.” She’d never even thought about that idea before, but as she said it, she knew it would be so. It was if she was seized by some power of prophecy all of a sudden.

 

Huldane’s fair cheeks had turned red and he looked away almost shyly. It tickled her to see such a large, bearded man act like that, and her sile widened. “Perhaps,” he admitted, “all things are possible.”

“That’s the spirit. Now come on – we still don’t know what’s going on here.” She turned away from him to carry on up the corridor, but as she did she heard a shout echoing along the narrow passage. There was a set of steps ahead, and they’d been travelling steadily uphill for some time now. Jonis waved her torch and started forward. “Tayne? What’s happening?”

The captain’s voice came floating back again. “Keeper!”

“What is it? Tayne?” She hurried up the steps, Huldane following closely behind. She could hear the sound of him drawing his sword.

“This could be a trap,” he warned.

“I don’t think so.” She went around the corner, and then she found the militia all crowded against a dead end. Tayne was at the front, holding her torch aloft. Before them was a slab of black marble, just like the gates at which they’d found the giant skeleton.

“We can’t go any further,” Tayne said, holding a hand out to the stone barrier. Like the other gates, it was covered in runes, and frost crystals glittered in the light.

“Oh…”

“Is there another way around?” Giln asked. “There were a lot of other passages.”

Jonis thought about it. “Yes. And I could probably find it, but there’s no reason to think there aren’t more doors like this.”

“We can’t open it,” Tayne told her as she shouldered to the front of the group, “we tried.”

“The last one moved as soon as I touched it. I didn’t even have to push.”

“This one is different then. Perhaps it’s locked.”

Calas frowned. “Why wouldn’t those big gates back there have been locked? That big fellow with the one eye was holding it shut to stop those…whatever they were…getting in. It must have taken more than a touch to open then, at least.”

“Who knows in this place?” Tayne sighed. “I don’t want to make camp here in these corridors – if something comes for us, we’re going to be trapped. That big building – The Circle, did you call it? – would be better.”

“I agree,” Jonis said, “but it may have been sealed off somehow.” She looked at the solid block of stone before them. The rune of Omega was prominent again. She was beginning to hate the sight of it. In a futile gesture, she gave it a shove. Again, she snatched her hand away. The cold was excruciating. Why hadn’t they warned her? But that was forgotten immediately as, with a low creaking noise, the door began to swing smoothly inwards.

“How did you do that?” Calas asked wonderingly.

“I didn’t do anything. I must have touched a hidden panel or something.” She shook her blistered hand and winced. “Remind me to put my gloves on next time…”

Beyond the door was something she hadn’t expected though: light. She blinked and stepped through, followed closely by Tayne and the others. They ducked below a low arch and then Jonis could only stare around in awe. She was in The Circle, except it was different. If the dark corridors had been a stranger’s gaze from behind a friend’s face, this was a friend bedecked for the Night of Masks, in ribbons and jewels. The basic shape was the same. Here were the walls, leaning inwards, and a great gallery around the edge of the vast chamber. In the centre, concentric circles stepped downwards towards a wide circular space. But where The Circle in her home was austere, black and jagged, illuminated only by torches that left much of the enormous room in darkness, this was flooded with bright light. That was because of the domed roof which was not stone, but glass. Stone vaulting soared through the air, suspended by some means she couldn’t imagine, making an intricate network like a spider’s web in which were suspended curved panes of thick glass. The whole roof was covered with snow, so only white showed through, but much of it had collapsed, letting pale light in. Even without that, if there was no snow it would still be bright in here during the day. And it was fortunate that it was, for the walls were covered in friezes and murals, and the alcoves contained statues and sculptures. Everything was faded with age, stained with dirty streaks of meltwater, and slowly crumbling into ruin. The half of the chamber exposed to the outside world was in the sorriest state of all: flagstones and decoration alike had been smashed by chunks of the roof. Lengths of curved and fluted stone, like the ribs of an enormous warship, lay in pieces everywhere. There were chunks of glass too, thick and opaque. There were snowdrifts banked up against the walls, and a deep layer covered the bottom of the pit. But for all the decay, it was magnificent.

“Is there one of these underneath Atlas?” Calas asked.

“Not exactly.” Jonis began to walk around, trying to take everything in. The nearest carvings on the wall depicted figures in gorgeous detail. Some of the features were broken or worn away, but they were recognisable as humans, or something very like them. Two women stood on what seemed to be a battlefield. Phalanxes of pikemen squared off against one another, and engines hurled stones into the air. But for their archaic armour, it could have been a scene from the modern era. The two women looked alike, and each bore a curved, barbed sword that reminded Jonis of her own weapon. One wielded it in the left hand, and one in the right. And she could just make out the carved tattoos on their faces – they were Keepers.

“Anyone you know?” Tayne said as she stepped up beside her.

“No. They really aren’t.”

She continued around the edge of the room. The way the walls sloped inwards made each scene depicted loom over them grandly, but also it ensured that the vast figures depicted appeared in proportion when viewed from ground level. It was an ingenious design. The images were all different – some showed wars like the first one, others feasts or celebrations, or even just moments from everyday life. The one constant was the two women. Jonis began to get the impression that they weren’t the same two women in each frieze. There were subtle differences in dress or hairstyle that seemed to imply the scenes were showing events from different ages. “Who are they?” she asked of no one in particular as she stood before a detailed fresco that showed them seated on a pair of matching black thrones while around them soldiers and courtiers paid them obeisance, bowing deeply. They each wore a crown.

“Queens,” Huldane said simply.

She turned to him. “Queens?”

He shrugged. “They wear crowns and sit in thrones. They seem to be queens.”

Jonis looked back along the wall. They’d only walked around a fraction of the chamber. “Two queens. Sisters?”

“Twins,” Tayne said.

“Twins…over and over. Ruling…” She shook her head. It made no sense. Queens with Keeper tattoos? Why, and when? She carried on, until they came to the first of the high alcoves. The opening was a pointed arch, decorated with sinuous symbols that might have been some alternate form of the script she thought of as Old Talosi. That was a minor distraction though beside the statue that stood proudly within the alcove. Like all the decoration, it was dirty and slowly crumbling. Ice had rent wide fissures across it and much of the detail was smoothed away. Nonetheless, there was no mistaking what it represented. It was a giant warrior, in white marble, albeit much-discoloured now, bedecked in suitably imposing armour. A breastplate, sculpted to resemble musculature in an antique style, guards on his shoulders, shins and forearms and a skirt made up of strips carved in such a way that they were clearly flexible – leather? – but he was otherwise naked. His bare feet had thick, splayed toes. One hand rested lightly on the shaft of a huge spear while his other was raised, palm facing outwards, like an incongruous gesture of peace. A beard with tight horizontal curls spilled across his upper chest, but could not disguise the Omega rune on his breastplate. He was smiling almost warmly, but it did little to soften his most arresting feature – the single huge eye in the centre of his forehead. He was bald, with the same high cranium as the giant skull they’d found. Indeed, he was built on much the same scale as that ancient defender.

Tayne gaped at the towering statue. “That’s…a Cyclops…”

Jonis was at a loss for words. Finally, she managed to recover enough to hazard an explanation. “In the stables…in Atlas…there are carvings like this. I mean…not so big. But, Cyclopes like this. It’s a…a…convention, you know? In artistic works, this is how Cyclopes are depicted.”

“Are they so different in reality?” Huldane asked.

Tayne had already paled at the memory of what she’d seen the last time they’d met. “Very,” Jonis said. “This is like a…fairy tale version of a Cyclops.”

“So why is it given such a grand place in this hall?”

“That’s a good question.” She turned around slowly to take in the rest of the chamber. Across from them were other alcoves, and she could make out similarly gargantuan occupants in each. She could guess that they too were these one-eyed giants, just like all the wall carvings showed the two strange sisters, or a dynasty of them at any rate.

“The bones we found belonged to one of these creatures, didn’t they?” Tayne said softly.

“I suppose they must have.”

“The world is full of wonders,” she went on, “and maybe I could think that these giants were just another one of them – a lost race from ancient times, with no connected to real Cyclopes…”

“Right. Except…”

“Except those women have tattoos like yours, Keeper. And only you could get past that door.”

“I didn’t do anything…”

“Not knowingly.”

Jonis’s legs felt shaky. She was trying to piece together a puzzle here, but she hadn’t realised it was her own history. All the coincidences she’d encountered in Talos, the mystery of the Archive and its truncated records of the past, Aethlan’s discovery of the same curious dead-end in the Chamber of Memory…it all paled in comparison to this. Keeper Queens and story book Cyclopes in a lost city in the heart of the mountains, wearing Talosi runes…

She didn’t even notice that she’d fallen. She just blinked and Huldane was cradling her head while Tayne looked down at her with a concerned expression on her face. “You’ve pushed yourself too hard.” Her voice sound muffled, far away.

“What?”

“Dusk is falling. We’ve been climbing mountains and exploring ruins all day. We haven’t stopped for food.”

“Yes…” she held a hand to her head. “You’re right. I just feel…” It was like she was underwater. Her head felt strangely heavy and her vision was blurred. “We should…we should camp…”

“Agreed. But I’ve changed my mind about staying here. There’s not enough shelter.”

“Do you want to go back to the corridors?” Huldane asked.

Tayne grimaced. “I don’t think so. Is there somewhere more defensible we could use?”

“Help me up,” Jonis said. Huldane did as she asked, handling her with surprising gentleness. She leant on him for support, but then felt her strength starting to return. She took a deep breath. “The Matriarch’s quarters are just off from The Circle. I mean…at home anyway.”

“The Matriarch is your leader, right?”

“Yes.”

“Sounds good. Show us the way.”

They had to walk a little way further, past more bizarre images and statues that Jonis now did her best to ignore. She still walked a little unsteadily, but it was getting better. At last they came to the arch and short flight of stairs that led down to the chambers she sought. Thankfully there was no stone blocking the way now. There were the remains of hinges and some scraps of wood on the floor where an ordinary door had once stood, but beyond was exactly what she’d expected to find. She led the way in.

“I thought it’d be…bigger.” Calas said as she looked around.

Jonis too was somewhat taken aback. This was exactly like the Matriarch’s chambers in Atlas, but it seemed much more cramped. Much of the space was taken up by a few heavy wooden trunks against one wall, and the doorway to an adjoining room showed them more boxes and crates. This wasn’t the grand suite of the woman who ruled her society: it was a store cupboard. “I wonder what’s in these crates?” she asked absently.

“Let’s find out.” Calas lifted the butt of her spear and brought it down on one of the rusted locks. It gave way easily and she lifted the lid with a grunt of exertion. They all crowded around curiously.

“Armour and weapons,” a soldier called Farden said.

He was right. There were stacks of breastplates, all in the same style they’d seen on the friezes, all marked with the Omega symbol. The swords were the same design as her own. They’d been perfectly preserved in the heavy trunk over the centuries, and Huldane turned one of the breastplates over in his hands. It looked to be made of bronze, but on the edges she could see that was just a layer for decorative purposes – beneath was shining steel.

“They’re supposed to resemble something older,” she guessed.

Tayne frowned. “Why?”

“I don’t know. Obviously whoever lived here had a lot of regard for the past, to judge by all those statues and things back up there.” Just thinking about them made her feel woozy again.

Tayne tossed a sword back into the trunk. “Well, this is probably a good place to set up camp. I doubt there’ll be much forage around here so it’s going to be hardtack and cured goat tonight. Tomorrow we’ll need to make some sort of plan.”

“Plan, yes.” Jonis felt another wave of nausea come over her and she pressed herself against the wall. “We need to…to figure out what’s…what’s going on…” Her eyelids fluttered.

“Are you all right?” Tayne asked. Her voice sounded strange again.

“I…I need to sleep…” She sank down to the flagstones and closed her eyes. After that, all was darkness.

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