Age of War (Part LVIII)

The snows came soon after. It should have been spring, and even by the standards of Atlantis’s current climate, the weather should have been milder. Instead, a blizzard of ferocious intensity descended on the city of Atlas and lasted for two full days. When it at last abated, everything was covered in a blanket of purest white. It was as if the sins of the previous weeks had been expunged, for all signs of death and ruin were hidden. As the population emerged from the tunnels of the Cyclops stables into the startling brightness of their new world, there was a strange sense of calm, as if the layer of new fallen snow muffled all sound. Gradually, life restarted.

The Enclave was a place of haunting beauty in those days. The delicate white buildings blended into the snow so it was as if they grew directly from the ground. It reminded Aethlan of her home; Talos was beset by this kind of weather for three months of the year, at least in better times. She walked slowly through the wide, freezing halls of the palace, the skirt of her white robe swishing against the marble flagstones. She wore no jewels or any other symbol of rank and her clothes were cut simply. Her hair she braided in a traditional style of her homeland. She knew the colours did nothing to flatter her pale skin, but that was hardly the point. Even so far from the familiar, there were still traditions to observe. She passed through a high arch and onto a stepped terrace that led down to a garden, currently completely covered with snow. There was a trail of footsteps leading to a small stone table, at which a lone figure sat. In contrast to Aethlan, she was dressed wholly in black, matching the banners that flapped from the towers and walls all across the city. Aethlan made her way down the terrace and ploughed through the calf-deep snowdrifts to join her counterpart. The Empress looked up at her as she approached and a look of confusion crossed her beautiful face. Aethlan could guess why. “In Talos,” she explained, “the colour of mourning is white.” She took a seat opposite the other woman at the table.

“The whole city shares your grief then, it seems,” the Empress said softly.

Aethlan nodded. She often got lost in the palace, even now, but she knew this place: when she’d been here last, Lord Valcon, the traitor who’d stabbed her, had taught her about the game of queens on the board built into this table. She was surprised to see another game set out now. The Empress scrutinised it, but her eyes still had the same faraway look that Aethlan recognised from looking at her own reflection these past days.

“Who are you playing against?” she asked.

“No one,” the Empress said, “in fact, it’s not even me playing.” At Aethlan’s curious look she produced a folded sheet of parchment and passed it over to her. “This was found on Saffrey’s body, tucked into the inside of his jacket.”

Aethlan opened it up and read over the words. It was a letter, written with some affection, to Saffrey. Towards the end, it described what was evidently a queens move, and in another hand – Saffrey’s, most likely – was scrawled a rough diagram of the board in the space at the bottom. “He was playing a game by correspondence?”

“So it seems. It must have been going on for years.”

Aethlan studied the board. “So this is his game?”

“Yes. It seems it was the only thing he truly cared about. Even as he planned this campaign, even as he…as he…” her voice failed and she looked away, eyes bright with tears. After a moment she cleared her throat, composed herself and turned back to Aethlan. “This was with him, at the end,” she said, “it was that important to him. I was curious.”

“Who was his opponent?”

“No one I’ve ever heard of.”

Aethlan read the letter again. It felt intrusive, so intimate was the tone. The name at the bottom was a woman’s. “A lover?” she hazarded.

“He was only interested in men. At least, that’s what everyone thought. But there’s so much we didn’t know about him, it turns out.” She held out her hands. “I suppose, now, it hardly matters.”

“Yes. It is done, now.” Aethlan put the letter aside. The board meant little to her – she only had a basic understanding of the how the pieces moved, from her innuendo-laden tutorial from Valcon – and no feeling at all for the emergent strategies that must make it such a compelling pastime. What did interest her was the story behind it though. She knew, now, what Jonis had found in Omega. She knew the story of the twin queens, and the Cyclopes, and what had been lost a thousand years ago. She felt an odd stirring of pride, too, that the Talosi were not the outsiders they’d always felt they were: they had as much right to be Atlantians as the people of Atlas, Hades, Hyperion or any of the other Provinces. The mythology that many here had dismissed as superstition had the same root as this game. It was the dim memory of real events; a forgotten cataclysm of the ancient past. Forgotten no longer.

“Two queens,” the Empress mused.

Aethlan looked up at her. “Empress?”

“I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing I am. With the revelations of your Keeper friend…it puts Atlantis in a new light.”

The story of Omega wasn’t yet common knowledge, but it probably would be soon enough. The Keepers were sending a full expedition to Omega, to uncover more of the lost history of their people. Debates on what to do with the Cyclopes themselves were still raging. Aethlan didn’t envy Jonis being in the centre of that maelstrom. But perhaps it would provide a distraction from the grief.

“Two queens,” she said again, “I wonder…”

“Empress?”

“Our civilisation was founded by two queens. One survived: Olympia, the progenitor of my house. Since then, Atlantis has fallen into decay. I wonder who we were before. I wonder what we might have achieved.”

“We can never know that, I suppose…”

“No. The past is lost. The future is all that remains at stake.” She fixed Aethlan with her bright gaze. Like her, her eyes were red and puffy, and she looked tired. Still beautiful, but her skin was oddly waxy and grey, and her hair seemed lifeless. “It occurs to me we have much in common, you and I.”

Aethlan swallowed. “Perhaps…in some ways…”

The Empress picked up the queen piece closest to her – black – and rolled it between her hands. “Both of us, rulers of our respective lands. Both now widowed…”

“I…we were never married…” The pain in the core of her being throbbed anew as she thought of Huldane. She’d been told how he’d died, what he’d done, how he’d fought the barbarian monster from the mainlands and finally given their friends the opportunity to destroy him, and avenge those that had died at his hands. He was a hero. They planned to build a statue.

“In your hearts though, you were.”

She shook her head. “We were going to be. We finally admitted it to one another. The last time I saw him…” She could feel a sob welling up, and placed her hand against the cold stone of the table to control it. She breathed rhythmically, seeking inner calm.

“You said it then?”

“Empress?”

“You said you were married? To one another?”

“I suppose…”

“In Atlantis, that is enough.”

“I know…but…”

The Empress took her hand, suddenly. “When you first came here and we spoke together, I called you sister. Do you remember?”

“I do,” she nodded.

“It was a lie.”

“Oh…”

“I thought to use you for some political advantage. I thought you were a rustic yokel, a simple, half-savage Talosi princess, easy to influence. I’ve discovered I was wrong. You have strength, Aethlan, and courage, and nobility. I’ve heard of your actions in the hospital.”

“People were suffering,” she said weakly.

The Empress released her hand. “I admire you, Aethlan.”

She was surprised. “You do?”

“Yes. You are…of your people. And now you are of Atlas too.”

“I am of Atlantis. I know that now. I do not feel like an outsider any longer, for many reasons.”

“You share our grief.”

Aethlan smiled slightly. “In Talos, they say that men who have shed blood together are brothers. For women, it is grief that unites them. Women who have mourned together are sisters.”

“I see the logic of that. Aethlan: I know Atlantis, I was raised in the politics of this place, and I know how to rule and how to govern. But I was raised for an age that no longer exists. I had hoped…once…that my husband would be by my side, that he would do the things I could not and fill in the gaps in my person, as I would for him in turn. I think, unconsciously, I spent my entire life assuming that that’s how it would be when I came to the throne. I couldn’t imagine a future without him.”

Aethlan remained silent. The Empress didn’t know the truth, and never would. She was almost grateful for the way things had turned out; now, her memories of her husband could never be tainted by the awful knowledge.

“I can’t do this alone, Aethlan,” she continued, “Atlas has been shattered by this war. Bodies still lie unburied in the streets, and homes are nothing more than ash. The countryside is awash with deserters of Saffrey’s army turned bandit, and all this as we face starvation and disease in unprecedented scales. How can anyone hope to preside over a prosperous realm in such circumstances? What hope is there for peace and joy again?”

“I do not know, Empress.”

“Neither do I, and it pains me to ask you to shoulder this burden with me…”

Aethlan looked up. “What? I do not understand…”

“Two queens,” the Empress said, picking up the black queen again, “it seems fitting, no?”

On Aethlan’s side of the board was the matching piece – this one in white. “What are you suggesting?”

“I don’t know exactly. I need advisors I can trust. They’re few and far between now. Things are going to be difficult. You’ve ruled in Talos, a place where your every move was watched and studied for signs of weakness.”

“True enough,” she admitted.

“You have abilities I lack and, I daresay, I have some you lack. But together, we may stand a chance.”

“You wish me to…rule Atlantis with you?”

“The details we can work out later. For now, I need you to help me. I need someone by my side who is honourable and true. You must be a queen again, Lady Aethlan.”

She didn’t know what to say. Impulsively, she picked up the white queen and looked at it. It was just a worn marble piece, a simple shape with no features that made it especially regal save the indented top that resembled a crown. Just a symbol. But, sometimes, symbols were important too. “I want to help Atlas,” she said, “the people are suffering. I think I can be of use.” She put the queen back down where she’d found it. “I do not know about the rest. So much has changed recently…”

“Of course.” The Empress sighed and looked out across the snowy garden. “What’s to become of us, I wonder?”

“Empress?”

“Please, call me Vion. And all I mean is…I don’t know…” She rubbed her forehead. “I’m so tired. So tired of all this. My father is hardly buried, and already the land has been ravaged by war. What will they say of my rule in ages to come? How will I be remembered?”

“As the Daughter of Atlas.”

“Hm. Fitting. That’s what they’re calling him, you know. I mean, not that, but Son of Atlas. I don’t know where it came from, but I hear it. They’ll remember him.”

“We all will,” Aethlan said quietly. She still burned with grief for Huldane, but there was also a ragged wound for Rayke Albrihn as well, the man who had tried to defend her home city, and who had led this battle here in Atlas. He’d been a friend. Now he was dead, like so many others. It was hard to believe; there had been something seemingly immortal about him. It was, she supposed, the Imperial blood that flowed through his veins.

“I didn’t even see him,” Vion whispered. When Aethlan said nothing, she looked back at her. “I went to the hospital; demanded to see his body. That Head Chirurgeon…what’s her name?”

“Lady Chanes.”

“Yes. She wouldn’t let me see him. She said no good would come of looking beneath the shroud.”

“She said the same to me. About Huldane, I mean.”

“My own husband.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “Snatched away. He gave his life for this city, for Atlantis. Will we see his like again?”

Aethlan had no reply to her question. But she knew that the same glory was in Vion as well and that, in time, she would be remembered as a hero of equal or greater stature as her late husband. She’d help her to achieve that, she realised. Two queens. Such an odd thought, but these were strange times.

“A day will come,” Aethlan said, “when this grief is just a dull ache; a part of us that we each hardly notice any more. We will not forget them, these men who died to save this city, but nor will we mourn them as if their lives were lost without purpose. They both chose to make the sacrifices they did, and we who survive them have a duty to honour that, and to uphold that which is just and good in this world in their names. They died for Atlantis and so Atlantis must survive. We will not allow them to have passed from this world in vain. That would be the worst tragedy of all.”

Vion said nothing, and the two women sat in thoughtful silence in the still garden. A gust of wind blew across the hilltop and caught at the black banners. They snapped on their poles, reaching inland, to the east and north, where the Titans began to rise from the plains of Atlas, stretching and yearning for something out beyond sight.

A league distant, that same breeze stirred the cloak of a hunched figure riding a horse up a rocky slope that overlooked those plains. The city of Atlas was a squat, brooding shape in the distance, separating the white land from the grey sea. Behind the rider was a cart loaded with a few barrels and boxes, pulled along by an aging but sturdy draft horse. By contrast, the rider’s mount was clearly a superior animal; a gleaming black stallion with a strong will, but whose temper was easily assuaged by its master’s firm hand on the reins. He drew up just before the path turned around the edge of the mountain and looked back at Atlas. The driver stopped the cart a few strides behind him. She was a woman who was also hooded and cloaked, but some of her pale face could be seen peeking out from underneath, following her companion’s gaze back to the city. “We’ll be back,” she assured him.

“I can’t ever go back.” He had a brown, scarred face, and wore an eyepatch. If anyone asked his name, he’d tell them it was Hasprit. His way of honouring a fallen comrade whom he would never now have the freedom to openly mourn. He sat stiffly in the saddle, and she could see how he winced whenever the horse’s movements put pressure on his injured abdomen.

“One day, Rayke,” Jonis said.

He shook his head firmly. “No. Better they think I’m dead.”

“If you say so.” She was done having this debate with him. It made her sad, though she understood the necessity of this course. “So where now? You still haven’t told me what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Albrihn looked around. “Someone has to fix this.” It was clear what he meant.

“I don’t know if they can, Rayke. Now we know what the cause of this endless winter is, it doesn’t seem like something we’ll be able to reverse.”

“We have to try. There are still secrets left to uncover. One of them may hold the key.”

“Perhaps,” she acknowledged, “but where are we going?”

“North,” he said, “far from here.”

“All right then.”

They went on, following the trail into the mountains, now turning out of sight of Atlas, the Great City by the Sea. Albrihn looked back just once more, over his shoulder. All was clam: the smoke from the burning slums had been extinguished by the blizzard, and even the remnants of Saffrey’s camp had been swallowed up by the snow. His home was at peace now. The danger was gone. Feeling oddly satisfied, he returned his attention to the road and, with a grimace as his stitches pulled, he urged the horse into a canter. North. That was all that mattered now: at long last, his life was simple. He was, in his way, at peace.

*

He had pulled himself from the rubble before the snowstorm enveloped the entire landscape. He barely remembered it now. His thoughts were clouded and confused. He knew he’d been trapped, stuck underneath a heavy beam, unable to move his arms, and that he was lacerated by dozens of wounds. He’d felt his lifeblood seeping out of him, and he knew he was doomed to die in an unmarked tomb of broken stone and wood, while his enemies still lived and fought. He’d raged impotently for – how long? Days? Weeks? – he had no way to know. He’d lost so much blood he was surely descending into the madness that comes before death. But there was something else; some other force that seemed to grant him a strange vitality that coursed through his veins in place of blood. As his mind began to lose its grip on reality, he could feel himself growing perversely stronger with each passing night until, in a fit of delirium, he had heaved free of the beam, hurling it to one side with a bestial roar of anguish and fury. Then he had stumbled out into the night, shouldering his way through the wreckage of this building. The snow had begun soon after.

He had wandered for days, fighting through the impenetrable blizzard, certain that each time he stumbled to the ground he would never rise again. And yet that inexplicable force drove him onwards, pushing him up to his feet again each time and pulling him further and further east, away from Atlas, towards the mountains. Why? He didn’t know. Even when he was lucid enough to wonder at it, he was still powerless to change the course of his wandering. It was as if some mighty lodestone dragged him towards it.

On the fourth day, when he fell to his hands and knees, halfway up a ragged slope of broken rock, layered with snow and ice, he didn’t get up. He continued his mysterious trek, but now he no longer walked as a man, but crawled on all fours as a beast. He felt his body change, but was unable to articulate it. His mind became fogged with rage and hunger. What had begun at first as a desperate crawl now turned into a sure, comfortable gait, and then into an easy stride and, at last, a loping run that carried him deeper into the mountains. His body convulsed and changed, rippling with power. His teeth began to grow sharp and deadly: all the better for tearing apart the mountain goat he found on the morning of the fifth day. He rent it to pieces with fingers that had now become heavy, black claws and satiated himself on the raw, bloody meat. That night, a fat full moon rose in the sky, and he, Jatharik, climbed to the top of a mountain and let out a bellowing howl that reverberated across the black peaks of the Titans.

Not so very far away, that monstrous cry was heard by ears which, alone in the world, could interpret it. They listened, and wondered what creature it was that hunted so close by, all save one. Kaarak the Twisted heard, and understood, and privately exulted. He was a shaman. When he was whelped, the Darkness had tainted him too strongly, and it was clear he would never survive. He was given to the shamans, to do with him what they could, as a whelp so heavily touched by his people’s ancestral power might well learn an aptitude for the fell sorceries of that evil order. That had certainly proved to be the case with Kaarak. None could surpass him. And though his mutations left him small, shrivelled and impotent, his command of the Darkness meant that all grew to fear and respect his strength. Only he, mightiest of all shamans, could have led his people so far. Only he, whose eye saw furthest of all, knew that by returning here, to the island that they had for so long held in awe and terror, would they at last achieve their destiny. It had taken time, but eventually all the great packs had come together as one, and they had migrated en masse, back to the place where the Darkness still dwelt: that which granted them life and also, ironically, a slow and terrible death. This was to be their time. The Age of Wolves had come. The howl told him that, and so he took up a perch on a high mound of shattered rock, and waited.

The whelps and the bitches who skulked on the outer edges of the camp saw him first, and they fled from him instinctively, heads down and grovelling in the snow as he passed. Then the beta males toiling to make weapons and prepare food observed his progress. They could not afford to run, lest their status be reduced still further, but they cringed away from the sight of him and averted their eyes, concentrating intently on their menial tasks. At the heart of the camp where the alphas. Most had the good sense to spot an apex predator and steer clear, but a few of the younger ones stepped up to challenge the newcomer. The first of these he decapitated with one swipe of his claws, and the second he ripped to shreds with his fangs. The rest slunk back into the shadows. And now the beast came before Kaarak. The shaman looked down upon him and was pleased. The Darkness coursed through this one. His great, white-furred body was distended with it, and his eyes shone with an unnatural green light. He stopped when he felt Kaarak’s gaze upon him, perhaps sensing he’d found what had been tugging at him.

Kaarak’s malformed jaw pulled up into a semblance of a smile. Then he spoke in the growling, snarling tongue of his people to those alphas who were gathered around. “Behold!” he roared, his hoarse voice amplified by the Darkness he conjured, “he has come amongst us, just as I foretold!”

The oldest prophecies spoke of him; of the champion who would guide them to their ultimate fate, and Kaark had been certain he was the one chosen to usher in this new era by guiding him. As the howling began, the creature dragged itself upright and balanced precariously on two legs. His form was still rippling with the Darkness, but it would soon stabilise, and then he would surely be the greatest of their number.

“Behold!” he screamed again, “he is here! The Manborn is come! Our hour is nigh!”

Now the howls were deafening. The Manborn, the creature spawned not of their flesh but of a human, as their ancestors were a thousand years ago, stood in their midst, looking around. A pink tongue hung from his mouth and then, as the frenzied power of the assembled beasts reached its crescendo, he joined his voice to theirs, and the sound was like thunder across the mountains. Kaarak the Twisted had mobilised his entire nation in coming to Atlantis. Now, in that hidden valley, a thousand thousand hyen-a-khan gave themselves over to the hunt to end all hunts. It was coming soon: the Age of Man would fall into the abyss and in its place, an Age of Wolves, Winter, War and Woe. Soon, it would begin.

 

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