Age of War (Part XXXIV)

A crisp white layer of fresh-fallen snow covered the mountainside and the skeletal ruins that clung to it. It hid the decay and desolation, so Jonis felt like she was in a strange forest of glittering ice towers. The sky was clear and blue. It was much colder than she remembered. She stood outside the same door they’d entered by, hugging her furs closely to her body as she shivered, watching the line of dark shapes dwindling as they walked away. She could just make out Huldane, taller and broader than the rest, with his bloody shield still strapped to his back. The rest were anonymous cloaked figures, tiny against the towering white walls of Omega, the lost city. She was alone here now. Alone to face whatever truths about her past she could uncover. Why had she been so insistent on this? She didn’t know the answer to that, except that it had felt very important that this be hers, and hers alone. No matter what fanciful stories Huldane might tell around the fire, it was she who was the heir to whatever people once lived here, and she who seemingly possessed some fragment of their mysterious power. What could it all mean? What had happened here? She looked up at the pale sky. The air was as clear as glass, but brittle as ice. A cold snap, she told herself, and yet she knew it had begun yesterday, when the black lightning had flown from her fingertips and turned those dogmen inside out. It had sucked the warmth away, as if clouds had rushed in to cover the sun at her command. The phenomenon was not unknown – sometimes, when a Cyclops unleashed its eldritch vortex of destruction, Keepers reported something similar. A chill in the air: a darkness descending. It was little more than a curiosity, but now as Jonis stepped back into the entrance to the underground complex, she mused on its possible meaning. Ice and cold were gradually becoming facts of life for Atlantis. She’d seen the great white sheet that covered the ocean to the north, and she understood the danger it presented. Tonnes upon tonnes of grinding, chewing ice, freezing and thawing over and over, turning cities and mountains into dust. That was the future of her homeland, unless she could find some way to prevent it, and as she traced a finger in the frost that sparkled anew on the walls, she pondered the possible connections between this ancient cataclysm and the one that now loomed before them.

She re-entered The Circle and took in its splendour once more. Now she was by herself, if seemed very much larger. The precarious ceiling of ice was still in place, though she could hear creaks and groans as it started to melt. She didn’t want to be in this chamber when it came crashing down. Fortunately, she thought she’d probably learned all she could from this place. There were other parts of this city to explore. She turned away, sparing a glance only for the hasty graves of the soldiers who had been killed. They’d heaped rubble on their bodies, making nine small cairns in a neat row beneath a damaged fresco showing the mysterious twin queens of Omega in their thrones. No one had felt right giving a proper eulogy. Tayne had just spoken briefly, giving their names and ranks and adding the traditional soldier’s lament at the end. Jonis could still hear her words, echoing around the chamber as the grey dawn light had filtered through the snow and ice over the dome. “They died in service to their Empress, for the betterment of Atlantis and all its children, far from home. May they find their way back.”

“May they find their way back,” they’d all repeated, even Huldane, who must surely have his own observances to his brutal god. Now it was all silent, save for the continuous drip-drip of water from the ceiling. Jonis had her supplies in her pack already. There was nothing left to see here. She walked down the steps and back into the tunnels.

She knew where she had to go next, although she wasn’t absolutely certain of the way, particularly as these passages were just subtly different enough from the ones in Atlas to leave her disorientated. Before, she’d had guides, but now she was alone. She carried aloft a burning torch, but the light it cast was dim and unsteady. She began to regret sending the others away, but then as she chanced upon an intersection that looked hauntingly familiar, she dismissed the cowardly thought. She was a Cyclops Keeper. This was her city by rights, and she would not be lost and scared in its depths. She continued with more confidence now, casting her mind back to the strange night she’d walked this way – or its equivalent in her home – with Calam and Calad. In comparison to this, that felt like an exciting adventure, something closer to a childish prank than a transgression made with the ostensible aim of saving the world. It was all real now though. This is where her path had brought her. As she turned a corner and entered a wide, black chamber, she thought she heard a voice, just a ghostly whisper near her ear. She whirled, waving the torch around. “Hello?” she called out, voice sounding high and reedy. She was certain someone had spoken – she heard the words, just a faint murmur on the edge of hearing. ‘All paths visible…’ it had said, or so it seemed. Silence greeted her hesitant enquiry but she wandered around the chamber again, trying to methodically search every corner. She didn’t like being in an unfamiliar open space like this. She hastened out through the opposite doorway and back into the more comfortable corridors, where she only had in front and behind to worry about. She heard no more mysterious whispers, and began to feel more sure of herself again. She knew precisely where she was now – the entrance she sought should be just down the next passage. She bounded up a set of shallow steps, turned a corner and then skidded to a halt. She’d been expecting a short stretch of tunnel leading to a kind of stepped dais in front of a wide door, but she remembered that this wasn’t Atlas, and it wasn’t her home. She sought the Archive, or its counterpart, but here it wasn’t a pit bored into the ground – it was a tower rising from the mountainside. Unwittingly she’d been moving not through an underground labyrinth, but had walked right out from a shoulder of the mountain, where a crumbling building of the same black stone as everything else in Omega jutted out. The Archive itself was a slender pinnacle perhaps two-hundred strides distant, and connecting the rest of the complex to it was a bridge, but not of any kind Jonis had seen before.

She stood, as if on a balcony, flanked by broken carvings now so caked in ice and snow that their original form was impossible to determine. The edge was protected by jagged balustrades, except for a space in the middle, directly in front of her, from which the bridge sprouted, like a thing grown rather than built. It was a narrow black arc of unbroken stone that rose gently in the middle and then dropped down to meet a similar portico at the top of the Archive. Nothing at all supported it underneath and, as she risked a glance over one of the balustrades, she saw it was a very long way down to a surface of unforgiving rocks and ice. The balustrades continued along the edge of the bridge, but time and the elements had not been kind of them, and mostly they’d crumbled and collapsed, leaving long stretches where there was nothing between a walker and the terrifying drop to certain death. The surface of the bridge was also covered in ice and snow like everything else – Jonis wouldn’t have felt safe on it even with something to hold onto. She licked her lips. Just looking at the bridge made her feel dizzy. It was vaguely abhorrent; a sinuous, natural shape wrought in stone. She had the image of a living serpent of blocky black masonry emerging from just in front of her and hurling itself headlong into the tower opposite, there to remain, fixed for eternity. She couldn’t imagine any other way it might have been built.

“You’re not some superstitious Talosi,” she said aloud, holding out her hands to steady herself even before she’d got on the perilous bridge. “They were every bit as unnerved by the Atlantian architecture around them. That’s all this is: an artefact of a people with knowledge you don’t yet possess. Nothing supernatural about it.” It didn’t help much. She placed one foot on the bridge and was immediately overtaken by nausea. It was the same sensation she’d had back in The Circle when they’d first arrived. She steeled herself and tried not to look down as she took another step forward. The world seemed to spin around her, but whether it was the odd effect of this place or vertigo from her precarious position, she couldn’t tell. She pushed it all away and kept walking, holding onto a balustrade when it was there, proceeding in a low crouch or even a crawl when it wasn’t. Her hands were soon numb. She’d forgotten the wind too, which buffeted her from both sides. This was the side of the mountain, and the edge of the city: to her right was nothing but heaped peaks capped with glimmering new snow. Jonis wished she was in a position to enjoy the view, but now as she reached the centre of the bridge’s parabola, the roiling in her head and stomach became almost overwhelming. She shut her eyes and held on tightly. That didn’t help: quite the reverse. Her head was filled with strange images. She saw a long line of robed figures on this very bridge, walking solemnly along while the mountains shook and rattled around them. At their head was an old woman with her hood pulled back: she had Keeper tattoos, but over both eyes. There was a roar all around her, the awful sound of worlds colliding as the Breath of Entropy was let loose. Jonis’s eyes snapped open and, for a moment, she thought she saw another storm of black lightning descending. She tried to scramble to her feet, lost her footing on the slippery surface and then fell backwards. There was no balustrade here, and as she landed she rolled onto her stomach. She stuck out a hand instinctively to find the floor, but grasped helplessly at empty air. She was lying half off the bridge and she could see her torch falling, its flickering light disappearing to a pinprick before it was lost in the rocks below. With aching slowness, she edged back onto the bridge, planting her hands down firmly beneath her. She lay there for a long while, just getting her breath back, and then stood up carefully and resumed her course, even more tentatively than before.

Finally, after what felt like hours, she arrived on the other side. She collapsed before the door and pressed herself up against the wall, savouring the solidity of the stonework. When she shut her eyes, the same visions came back, so she forced her eyelids open and stared at the black wall with its rime of frost until her heart rate went back to normal. Then she picked herself up and surveyed her situation. She now stood on a narrow ledge set against the curved edge of the tower. She was very high up, but compared to the centre of the bridge she felt like she was on solid ground. The air was as crisp as before, but she felt hot and bothered from the exertion of the crossing and longed to shrug out of her furs. She resisted temptation though and instead slung off her pack and knelt down to find another torch and flint to light it. It was ablaze in no time and she lifted it over her head before examining the door. Unlike the one in Atlas, this wasn’t a crude thing of wood and iron, but one of the great smooth stone doors that seemed to be the rule in Omega. Unlike the others, this one bore no carvings of any kind. Indeed its very blankness seemed to wrench the eye just as the bridge had. There was something disturbing about the architecture here, such that even though she felt a kinship with whoever built it, there was also a sense of alienation. “Humans didn’t do all this,” she whispered to herself as she ran a hand across the door’s slick surface. But, whatever its provenance, it began to open at her touch, just like the others.

The two thick stone doors swung inwards, and Jonis stepped between them before they’d even finished moving, into the darkness beyond. Now everything was very familiar indeed. She stood on a landing, with steps leading off to her right, circling down around the interior of the tower. It was just like the Archive in Atlas. Except, when she waved her torch around, all the shelves she could see were bare. She looked down into the pit and blinked at the way the light played across the darkness. It was almost reflective…

She began to climb down the stairs, and before she’d gotten far, she understood what was going on. A little way ahead of her, the steps stopped abruptly, seemingly disappearing into thin air. She approached, torch held out, and sighed at what she found. Before her was a sheet of ice that filled the whole tower, swallowing up the stairs. It was smooth and flat, and when she bent down and held out the flame, she could see it was a beautiful transparent blue. Through it she could make out the blurry shapes of books on the shelves below. She had no doubt that it went all the way to the bottom too – an enormous pillar of perfectly frozen ice, hundreds of strides tall. To achieve this, her ancestors would have had to somehow pump gallons upon gallons of water into here (while preserving the books, she noted) and then freeze it all instantaneously. Even that awkward method, the only one she could imagine, was mind-boggling. They’d surely done it some other way, using whatever power they had. Jonis knelt on the ice, ignoring the cold through her breeches and peered down helplessly at the knowledge that was forever transfixed and out of reach to her. She held the flame of the torch close, thinking that maybe she could melt through it, but how long would that take? And besides, it would destroy all the books, wouldn’t it?

“Fuck.” She said under her breath. She drove a fist into the ice. It was completely unyielding. Not so much as a hairline crack.

“All paths visible…”

She started. That was unmistakable. A low, sonorous voice, just behind her. She turned and looked up the stairs, but there was no one there. The door above her was still open, letting in feeble light from outside. She was alone.

“Who are you?” she shouted.

The sound reverberated in the cylindrical space, and its echoes brought strange sounds back. Some seemed to form words she could understand. “All paths visible…” she heard again, “…in dark.”

“Dark? What?”

Her own voice reflecting back, but warped and changed somehow. “All paths are visible in the dark.” Just a low, breathy murmur.

“What does that mean?”

But it had stopped now, and her echoes were normal. She shivered, only partly from the cold. Who was speaking to her, and what were they trying to say? Something tickled at the back of her mind. She’d heard that phrase somewhere before, hadn’t she? But where? And then she remembered and, in an instant, knew exactly where she should have gone for answers.

*

The stale, foetid air was instantly familiar. Despite the short time Jonis had spent down here back in Atlas, it had wormed its way into her soul somehow: a darkness that never left her. At first it was much the same, with the long, narrow staircase leading down, down, down into the deeps. The little cells, the cramped tunnels of unworked stone, but upon reaching the first large chamber, she realised that, once again, the version in Atlas was but a pale imitation of this place. She raised her torch, trying to get an idea of the scale of the space she stood in, but it was useless. Towering pillars, each as large as a stronghold’s keep, hewn from living rock, disappeared into the darkness. Row after row of them, all identical, all carved with angular runes, all untouched by the ravages of time. This was the heart of the mountain, the vaults beneath Omega, just like those beneath Atlas, but a magnitude more awesome. She passed through the chamber and into the winding labyrinth of roughly-carved tunnels, following a route she didn’t even realise she remembered. She came to an intersection, a fork in the road, and remembered when she was here last. In Atlas, that was. She was becoming disorientated again. It felt like something was pressing against her head, and it wasn’t just the oppressive weight of the mountain above her. The whispers had followed her all the way here too, the breathy voice, always saying those same words. She’d stopped feeling fear now. She was driven by a will she didn’t fully comprehend.

The space opened up around her. It was truly colossal. Far larger than its equivalent in Atlas, the place she’d called the Throne Room because its scale and its rows of pillars reminded her of the Empress’s throne room above ground. She almost laughed at the idea of giving such a comparatively poky cavern a title as grand as that. This was a Throne Room, but not for an Empress, or any mortal ruler: this was the Throne Room of the Gods. Something crunched beneath her feet. She looked down and lowered the torch. Bones. There was a layer of bones covering the floor like a sediment. She should have been repulsed, or terrified, or something. Instead she felt a sense of numb acceptance. She sifted through the detritus with the toe of her boot. They were human. Here was a skull, shattered but recognisable, and some fragments of ribcage. If these were all from people, how many had died down here, and why?

She carried on walking over the bones, not knowing where she was heading, but nonetheless certain of her path. More skulls, reflecting her torchlight, but they looked odd. She’d seen this before: the remains at the gate where they’d found the Cyclops’s skeleton. The bones were now showing signs of those same deformities, albeit not to the same extent. Slight distending of crania, sunken jaws and elongated snouts. The further she walked, the worse they became. Jagged canines protruding at unnatural angles from mandibles where they’d forced their way past ordinary teeth. Some of the bones were small – children – and they all showed the same bizarre mutations. And then Jonis saw it. She stopped and stared at a skull propped atop a heap of other bones, all bent and misshapen. This was even more familiar. Here, the deformities had finally coalesced, reaching some sort of equilibrium. She bent down and stared at it. In shape it was lupine, with a sleek muzzle and strong, powerful jaws with regular canines. But the cranium was large and bulbous and the brow was disturbingly human. She could imagine how this creature would have looked in life, how it would have seemed as much wolf as man. What a fearsome predator it would have been. How she would have instinctively despised it for its seemingly hybrid nature. But it wasn’t a hybrid.

“They came from us,” she said to the darkness, “and it happened here. The hyen-a-khan were human once.”

There was more. She looked up and saw that one of the great columns loomed over her. Sitting propped against it was a towering, heavily-built skeleton. It was a Cyclops, but half of its huge skull had apparently collapsed into a twisted mass of bone, formed into coiled tendrils. Its mouth was open, as if it was screaming in agony, and its single eye was lost amidst its deformities. It had died somewhere in the process of transforming – from the creature she’d seen in her vision, to the one she’d known and understood all her life. She waved the torch around and saw there were more of them. Dozens…hundreds…all somewhere in the midst of this disturbing transformation. This wasn’t a throne room at all: it was a mass grave.

“What did we do?” she breathed.

“All paths are visible in the dark,” a voice said in her ear, horribly close, “I can tell you.” Her torch went out.

 

 

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