Age of War (Part XXXIII)

“It’s called the Abyssal Howl, the Wind of Ruin, the Breath of Entropy.” Jonis stared into the flames as she sat huddled with the others in the great domed chamber. It was dark now, and freezing cold. Everything was covered in a rime of frost and they were all wrapped in several layers of furs. The inexplicable ceiling of ice still stretched over the damaged section of the dome, though now it dripped steadily and left puddles on the smashed flagstones beneath. They stayed well away from it. They were fewer now, and the bodies of their dead they’d placed off by one wall, covered in their cloaks. Their furs had been plundered for the living. The carcasses of the dogmen they’d heaped into the central pit, a gruesome task, but a necessary one. There was little left of the ones Jonis had killed with that black lightning, just twisted bones and scraps of bloody meat.

“That doesn’t explain what it was,” Tayne said. Her tone was accusatory, but none of them had much heart for an argument. It was dark, and they were unwilling to retreat from the scene of their struggle for survival. They didn’t even discuss it: no one was willing to go into a cramped room and risk being bottled in. Better to face them in the open, if they should come back.

“You’ve seen it before. At Priam.”

“Yes,” she said, “but that was from the Cyclops…”

Jonis could only shrug. “It was the same thing. I have no explanation.”

“But you said that you understood it,” Huldane said. He alone seemed at ease with the horror they’d experienced. Indeed, there seemed to be a fell light in his eyes, as if coming close to this dark power had woken up something within him. He was sharpening his sword. The surviving soldiers seemed to have somehow gravitated towards him. He’d fought like something from a legend earlier, and they too had found some forgotten spark reignited. The whole thing was profoundly unnerving.

“I’m beginning to,” Jonis said, tracing a finger through the frost on the floor. She drew symbols, jagged runes from her childhood. Talosi runes, she supposed, or something older. “When I slept last night, I had what I thought was a dream, although it was very vivid. I was here,” she held a hand up and looked around the vast, dark hall, “but surrounded by ghosts of my ancestors.”

“Your ancestors?” Tayne asked.

“Yes. They looked like me. Some even had the same tattoos.” She ran her finger down her face where her Keeper’s markings were. She barely felt the cold where she’d just been doodling in the frost. “They were carrying out some kind of ritual – and the result was something like what I did. Except they weren’t alone.”

Tayne frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Well…there were four of them. Like me. Around the pit there.” She almost didn’t want to glance over, as if the hyen-a-khan would suddenly lurch back into life if she did. “And in the centre was a…well…a Cyclops. But not a real one.”

“You mean it had an eye?” Huldane was looking at her with an odd smile playing across his face.

“Yes. A head and an eye, like the skeleton. For all I know it was the same creature. They…they channelled their power through him somehow, and he sent it up into the sky.”

Calas grunted as she shifted her weight. One of her hands was bandaged up and she now walked with a noticeable limp. “That doesn’t seem to explain much to me…”

“I think…I think my people were once…well…”

“Sorcerers,” Huldane said.

Tayne laughed, although there wasn’t much joy in the sound. It was bitter and hollow; the laugh of a woman who’d watched half her command get slaughtered like animals. “That’s ridiculous.”

Jonis was inclined to agree…and yet… “I don’t know what they were. But they had some kind of power, and some trace of it must be left in this place, somehow. It’s the same force that tried to keep us away and nearly blew us off the mountain.”

“Why didn’t we end up like them then?” Tayne asked, jerking her head towards the pit.

“Because of her,” Calas said. She regarded Jonis coldly. “This city knows you, doesn’t it? It’s why those big stone doors opened.”

“Maybe…”

“The storm would have killed us, but it stopped when it knew what you were.”

“It isn’t alive,” Jonis said.

“Why wouldn’t it be? It’s no stranger than anything else we’ve seen.”

“All right. Whatever the real explanation, I think you’re right. I have a connection with Omega. It was built, or at least inhabited, by my ancestors. By the ancestors of all the Keepers. We had Cyclopes then too, but they were different. Together, we wielded this…this elemental power…but for some reason we were driven out and our home destroyed.”

“So you think the Cyclops you saw is the same as the Cyclopes from Atlas? Something happened to change them?” Tayne sounded just as confused as the rest of them. They all looked to Jonis for the answers, but she wasn’t sure she had them, not really.

“Maybe.”

“This is the Heart of Winter,” Huldane said suddenly. “Our oldest stories speak of these things. Perhaps now is the time that Atlantians listen to the wisdom of the Talosi.” A day ago they’d have rolled their eyes and listened out of politeness alone, but now his words commanded the attention of the soldiers. They all looked at him with rapt attention, bordering on awe. Jonis continued to feel uncomfortable. She’d seen savagery before, and it didn’t impress her, though she liked Huldane. She wasn’t sure this path would lead him where he wished to go. “In Talos we teach that the Greatfather, the One-eyed God, is the mightiest god of all. Warrior, sage, wizard, pilgrim and king. He stole the world from the Forgotten Gods of the Afterdark and set humankind upon it to entertain him with their struggles. He visited upon his children horrors untold: the bite of winter, the claws of wolves, the axes of war. Upon being visited by the first of these, men froze and starved. Upon being visited by the second, they ran and bled. Upon being visited by the third, they suffered and died. Generation after generation they fought against the elemental power of the One-eyed God, until a great hero was born. He was Ragnar, the First King. First he made war his own by leading his people against all the other clans and taking great joy in the slaughter. Then, now lord of all the men, he led his people into the mountains. They used the skills they had learned in war to hunt the wolves. Most they drove off, but those they killed were skinned for their pelts. In this way, Ragnar’s folk survived the winter. They had conquered all of the One-eyed God’s challenges.”

“What’s the point of this, Huldane?” Jonis asked him. “It’s just a story…”

“The One-eyed God grew angry with Ragnar,” the Talosi continued, ignoring her, “he brought down dark lightning from the skies and smote the mountains.” He mimed with his fist. “Many died, but Ragnar defied the Greatfather and vowed to take vengeance for the blood that had been spilled. He stormed the fortress of the One-eyed God, the Heart of Winter, and with him marched the rival gods who were jealous of his power and all of his folk that remained, great heroes all. They attacked the keep, and entered it by strength and cunning. The One-eyed God was prepared though, and he unleashed his wolves. These were no ordinary wolves, but instead the great white hounds of winter, slavering beasts twice as large as a man and no less intelligent. A terrible battle was fought in the frozen halls of the fortress, until the floors ran red with blood and gore, and only Ragnar survived the carnage. He marched upon the throne room, axe in hand, intending to slay his god and end this first war once and for all. But no human warrior can stand against a god, and no god is more treacherous and canny than the Greatfather. As Ragnar entered the throne room, the greatest wolf of all, the monstrous Fenrik, leapt from the shadows. Fenrik was sired by the Greatfather himself with Eada, the Witch Queen of the Afterdark, before the world was made. He and Ragnar wrestled on the floor, back and forth, nothing more than two wild animals struggling for supremacy. Their battle shook the foundations of the world and near destroyed the Heart of Winter. The One-eyed God fled the destruction, but in leaving he cast one last evil enchantment that locked Ragnar and Fenrick in mortal combat for the rest of time, until they merged into one monstrous beast, forever at war with itself. In the violent cataclysm that followed, the world was shattered, and humankind thrown across the oceans to all the distant corners of creation. The land of the Greatfather was separated, adrift in the black oceans of the east, thought lost forever.”

He broke off, and there was an awed silence from everyone listening. No Atlasian had heard any story like that before – religion was an alien concept to them, but their imaginations had been fired. Jonis cleared her throat, breaking the spell. “So what does any of that have to do with all this, Huldane?”

His eyes sparkled in the firelight. “Keeper Jonis, you know the story of how the Talosi came to Atlantis.”

“Yes, you came from the mainlands around a thousand years ago.”

“Indeed. We are the descendants of Ragnar. We have returned to the Greatfather’s land. We wrested it from him and his servants, those benighted creatures that roamed the mountains. His witches he sent to barter with us, using trickery to dissuade us from taking our birth right. But we defeated them, and carved out our land. Grudgingly, the One-eyed God permitted us to stay, for humans had at last earned his respect.”

“Right…I still don’t see how…”

“This is the Heart of Winter,” a soldier named Hebbar said over her. He shot her a furious look as he spoke. “It must be. And those wolves, those dogmen, they must be the great hounds of winter.”

“I thought they were white.”

“I do not believe all of the story,” Huldane said with an indulgent smile, “much is lost in the retelling. How many ages have passed since those ancient battles? But there is a grain of truth, I believe. We have come to the palace of the Greatfather. We have looked upon his bones. Another cataclysm is about to claim the world; a new Afterdark is rising to reclaim that which was once created. New gods must rise in place of the old ones. This is an age of heroes!” He lifted his sword, and it gleamed orange in the dancing light.

“An age of war,” Jonis said grimly.

“Heroes are made in wars.”

“Heroes die in wars.”

“Are you not a warrior, Jonis?”

“No,” she said as she stood up, “I’m a Cyclops Keeper, just like the people that lived here all those years ago. And I intend to find out what happened to them and why.”

Tayne looked up at her. “Where should we start?”

We won’t be starting anywhere. This is something I have to do alone. I see that now. You’ll all go back to Atlas. I’ll stay here and explore the ruins. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch you up.”

Now Huldane rose. Ominously, his sword was still in his hand, though he didn’t appear to notice. “Jonis, this place is not yours alone. It belongs to all of us: we are all the children of the Greatfather.”

“I’m sorry, Huldane, but I don’t believe in your myths. You tell them well, and I respect your right to believe whatever you wish, but this is my quest, not yours.”

“You told me it was Aethlan’s quest too. These are Talosi runes we see all around us. Who is to say which of us has the right to ransack this city?”

“I have the right.” She was getting angry now and she clenched her fist. There was a subtle change in atmosphere as the group watched her warily – they believed she was much more dangerous than Huldane and his sword. Only the Talosi himself didn’t back down.

“I do not intend to debate this, Keeper…”

“Then don’t,” she snapped. “This is my place, not yours. You’d all have died if I hadn’t been here – several times, by my count. You wouldn’t have even gotten up the mountain without me. You might not even have seen the city. How could ruins like this have gone undiscovered for so long? Have you thought about that? The legend of Omega is well known enough to have attracted explorers and treasure hunters numbering in the hundreds over the years, but either they didn’t find it, or never returned. Yet we came here with barely a misstep. When did a Keeper ever do this before? Why would they have? It took a very particular set of coincidences to draw me here, to even get me to suspect there was something worth finding in these mountains.”

Huldane gave her that odd smile again. “And yet you doubt the existence of gods…”

She threw up her hands in despair. The nearest soldier flinched away instinctively. “Stay then for all I care.”

“She’s right, Huldane,” Tayne said. Everyone stared at her and her face started to colour. She coughed. “I mean it. Jonis brought us here. She got us inside, she opened the doors, and she killed the dogmen. She’s the heir to…something…”

“And I am the heir to Ragnar Wolfsbane!” Huldane shouted, pounding his fist against his chest.

“Maybe you are.” Tayne struggled to her feet and held out her hands to placate the towering warrior. “But we can’t stay here, can we? How long until more dogmen come back? We have to return to Atlas. There’s a war to fight.”

“The war is here,” Huldane said, pointing to the ground.

“No more war.” It was Calas who spoke, and now she too stood up. “Not here. There’s been enough killing.”

“Do none of you know the battlejoy?” Huldane demanded. “I thought Atlantians were brave!”

“Atlantians fight bravely when we must,” Tayne said, “but never more than that. There’s no joy in death.”

“We didn’t come here to kill,” Jonis told him, “we came here to find out the truth. Something happened here, but I believe only I can discover what it was. There is something in Omega that…speaks to me…and me alone.”

Huldane seemed to visibly deflate. “Perhaps you are right,” he admitted, “I…I have been lost for so long it seems…”

“We all need purpose,” she said gently, “I don’t think yours is here though. Glory awaits you far away. Talos will rise from the ashes. Aethlan needs you for that.”

“Aethlan…” he murmured. It was almost like he’d forgotten her.

“Are you sure you want us to go?” Tayne asked Jonis.

She nodded. “Sure. I need to be able to think. To lose myself in the memories of this city that I seem to carry with me. But I wouldn’t have gotten here without you. Without all of you.” She looked around at the soldiers, some of whom were now standing, others who still sat, shaken by the violence and the cold that they’d found here. “Thank you.”

“We’ll see you in Atlas,” Tayne said, “when the battle begins, I expect you there with the rest of us.”

“I don’t plan to see another city like this fall into ruin.”

“Good.” She looked up at the ceiling of ice. It was still dark, but there was a slight greying visible through the marbled surface. “Dawn will be here soon. We should get our things. We’ll leave supplies for a few days.”

“All right.” She wondered if she was doing the right thing. She just felt that she couldn’t do what she needed to do with all these others here. It was a distraction. She knew, if she just spent enough time here, it would yield its secrets. Atlas needed these soldiers more than Omega, that was for certain.

The militia began to file past. Huldane stood alone by the fire, looking into the flames. He glanced up and saw Jonis staring at him. When the others were out of earshot, he began to speak. “You are not the only one who has had dreams.”

“Oh?”

“I had not heard the story I told tonight since I was a boy. It is our oldest legend. But last night, I heard it again as I slept. More than that: I lived it. I was Ragnar himself, battling Fenrik.”

“This place is steeped in memory,” Jonis said, “but the human mind is a strange thing.”

“You do not think Ragnar existed.”

“Perhaps a man by that name did live once, long ago. Maybe he fought against a wolf or a Cyclops or I don’t know what. Stories change.”

“They do.” He looked at her. “I would not have harmed you, Keeper Jonis. I consider you a…a friend.”

“Thank you. I feel the same way.”

“Commander Albrihn cares for you too. He is a great man. And Morrow, Hasprit and the others…they are heroes.”

“I suppose they are.”

“If this is to be an age of such people,” he went on, speaking carefully, “it would be wrong for you not to be amongst us. At the end, I mean.”

“The end,” she echoed. “You mean if Saffrey attacks Atlas?”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps there is a greater battle to come.”

“I’m certain we’ll all be there. Rayke and Morrow and you and Hasprit and Aethlan. Us heroes. We’ve come this far together, right? I mean, more or less together anyway.”

“Yes. Yes you are right.” He seemed cheered by her words. “In the old stories, the heroes often come to blows with one another. Such things are usual for the mighty, for they each compete to outdo one another in their great deeds. But in the end, when it matters…”

“They stand together.”

He smiled. “Yes. I would not have harmed you,” he said again.

“I know.” And she believed him. Huldane would never hurt her. But what, she wondered as he stepped away into shadows, about this Ragnar Wolfsbane? Something had possessed Huldane during the fight against the hyen-a-khan, and now she knew she wasn’t the only one hearing voices from the ancient past here in this ruined city.

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