Beasts only show the white of their eye in terror. Men show it always.
–Gottagga, The Book of Chalk
For I have seen the virtuous in Hell and the wicked in Heaven. And I swear to you, brother, the scream you hear in the one and the sigh you hear in the other sound the same.
1119, Year-of-the-Tusk, the North Shore of the Neleöst Sea.
Like many great and dangerous Men, Shaeönanra was despised for many things, his penchant for mongering spies not the least of them. The rules that bound the Norsirai were unforgiving in those days. Trysë, the Holy Mother of Cities, was little more than a village huddling behind ruined walls of stone. The God-Kings of Imperial Umerau stared blindly from overthrown stone, moss-covered and almost forgotten. The Cond ruled the cities of the River Aumris, an empire they called the Great All, and few people were so proud or so headstrong. They divided the Ground between the Feal and the Wirg–the weak and the glorious. They adhered to a simplicity that was at once a fanaticism. And they judged the way all Men were prone to judge in those Far Antique days, without patience or mercy.
Shaeönanra, for his part, celebrated the Cond hatred of spying. What did it matter if they declared him Feal, so long as he knew their secrets? He knew what stout the All-King drank, and what slave decanted it for him. He knew what was bellowed in counsel and whispered across pillows.
Most importantly, he knew what was plotted.
So he stood waiting before the gate of his cyclopean tower, Nogaral, staring southward across the heaving leagues of the Neleöst Sea, knowing that soon–very soon–a light would stride across the moonlit waters.
To the west lay the River Sursa, whose rusty waters bloomed far into the Sea during day. Beyond it, the wastes of Agongorea plaited the horizon, chapped and cracked like untanned leather. Low mountains knotted the north and east, domes of bald granite rising from forested slopes: the hunchbacked Urokkas.
Nogaral stood upon the westernmost summit, Iros, a mountain that was a mass grave. Little more than ramp of blunt granite, it climbed from the River toward the Sea, where it ended in scarped confusion. Ruins made gums and teeth of its heights, structures obliterated in an age that Men could not recollect for ignorance and savagery. Nogaral was both squat and rotund, resembling a monstrous byre more than a proper tower. Only the grand, central chamber could boast any architectural splendour. Otherwise it was cramped and labyrinthine, the lower levels pillared as densely as a forest, the upper levels celled like a hive.
The construction of the tower had caused an uproar in Sauglish two centuries previous. The Sohonc, in particular, had objected, seeing in it the designs of their old rival, Cet’ingira. Even then they had suspected. But suspicions were not enough to sway an All-King who had grown to prize the Mangaecca and their disdain of scruple.
Nogaral, they named it, the ‘High Round.’
“They are called the Barricades,” the Nonman says. “The Artisan himself fashioned them.“
The Man gazes in wonder at the configurations of nimil and light. “So that none might enter…” he murmurs.
Cet’ingira lowers his porcelain face in assent. “So that none might enter.”
Shaeönanra almost stumbles, so dazzling is the sunlight across the immense curvatures of gold, so deep is the pitch of the surrounding fall. The Nonman steadies him with a firm hand.
“This was what my master sought? To tear down the Barricades?”
“And his masters before him,” the Nonman replies. “For more than two hundred years.”
He studies the mad Nonmen. “And what lies within?”
The black eyes did not waver. “The truth my brothers could not bear.”
At last he glimpsed it, a point like a failing star.
Shaeönanra stood immobile. The Wind came from the north, answering the Sea’s long inhalation. It made lunacy of his hair and braids, slapped his robes with a snared thrush’s fury. The distant light blinked through it, a white glitter from across the black back of the Sea, vanishing and reappearing as faraway rollers plucked the nocturnal line of the horizon.
The Wind howled about the tower, made moaning flutes of the surrounding ruin. And it comforted Shaeönanra even as its violence forced him to lean against his toes: always at his back, always rushing south, across the Sea and over the Painted Cities, into the eyes of his witless enemies.
The distant spark became more constant, gathered both luminosity and portent as it crept above the blind line of the Neleost. Clouds like scrapes formed a skein across the starry vault. The star the Nonmen called Imburil cast his shadow over the cobble before him, and Shaeönanra considered the wildness of his windblown outline. The Wind and the Nail, Shaeönanra thought in elation. Both would be at his back.
This had been an old habit of his, identifying and assessing omens, born of days when he still walked paths that the Gods could reckon. Had he not known who was about to darken his threshold, he would have cursed himself for a fool for indulging it.
The light gathered brightness all out of proportion to its approach, and despite the Stain, Shaeönanra found himself wondering at its brilliance. Then finally he saw him… Little more than a region of blackness at first, a shadowy glimpse behind the luminous corona. Then more substantial… more human.
The Sohonc Archideme walked the low sky, holding high the Diurnal, the famed Day Lantern, a fan of mirrors that reflected the Sun even in the deepest night. The glare climbed as he neared, and Shaeönanra watched the great oblong of illumination–impossible daylight–slip across the stony expanses, reaching out toward Nogaral. It seemed miraculous, the weightlessness of light, the way whole fields of detail and swinging shadows could be dandled in the thin-fingered hands of a man. The Day Lantern scrolled over the rising slopes, then at last caught Nogaral’s western curve, where it paused as though fixed. And from night, Shaeönanra found himself staring into day–the pitch and scrawl of ruin, the black mortices sketching the stones of the tower’s ponderous wall, the knots of scrub and hanging weed. For the first time he saw how shadows were simply pieces of night.
And even though he knew as profoundly–as fanatically–as only a member of the Holy Consult could know, he found himself wondering how it had come to this…
Shaeönanra could not but marvel. The Sun! The Sun itself raised in the hands of a Man.
Squinting, he could see him, Titirga, his outline gilded in the manner of those peering into a bright outside from the recesses of a dark room. The great Hero-Mage come to deliver his ultimatum. The legendary Archidemu Sohoncu, the Glorious Pupil, perhaps the most powerful sorcerer the Ground had ever known.
At last Titirga saw him below, and the Diurnal answered his sudden attention. Shaeönanra could no more look at the man than he could look into the sun. He raised his arms like a slave in summer fields, and for the first time he witnessed the magic of the Diurnal from the inside. Blue skies had been pulled across the void of night. His skin pricked with the promise of sunburn. It was a sight so miraculous as to almost blot the Stain, the premonition of deceit that marred all things sorcerous.
He watched the false sun set in the false sky, then stop, low and bloody as sunset, throwing shadows outward along lines the Nonmen could describe in arithmetic. Titirga had set the Day Lantern down, he realized. The Hero-Mage would deny the advantages that night bestows upon cunning…
The shadow of the walking Archideme reached Shaeönanra long before the man.
“The Diurnal,” Titirga called, still a silhouette in the sun’s cauldron. “Emilidis gave it to me.”
“Archideme,” Shaeönanra said in numb greeting.
“Shaeönanra,” Titirga replied, coming to a stop mere paces from him. He was tall, broad of shoulder. He wore a Pircondi cloak over his black woolen robes, two wolfskins sewn together, so that the tailings of the face fluttered side-by-side below his groin. His hair was white spun with the odd memory of gold. It matched his physique, holding something of its cascading form even in the Wind. But it was his high blunt face that commanded attention: shallow of nose, thick of brow and cheek.
And of course the bronzed skull of an infant child braided into his beard–his famed totem.
“Archideme,” Shaeönanra repeated, offering the ritual repetition, at once a rebuke and reprieve: to refer to equals by name before formal greetings was an affront among the Umeri. Had the Archidemu Sohoncu at last adopted the crude ways of the Cond?
“You look pale” Titirga said. “It is good that I bring sunlight.”
“You Mangaecca,” the Hero-Mage continued, “always thinking the Wisdom is a mushroom. The Ground is so broad, and yet you and your brothers insist on digging deep.”
A sour look.
“Nogaral greets you… Archideme.”
Titirga walked about him as if pacing the high corner of a circle. He carried himself as only a master of the Sohonc, the Learned School, could: erect in the manner of nimble, sound-sleeping men, relaxed in the way of high clan-nobility. He gestured to the marmoreal wreckage about them, the stumps of pillars struck in arrested daylight.
“The ruins of Viri.”
“The very same,” Shaeönanra replied.
“A lesson,” Titirga said, “to those who would dig too deep.”
Shaeönanra sighed conspicuously. “To what do I owe the honour of this visit?” he asked, gesturing for Titirga to enter his vast abode.
“Whispers,” Titirga responded, drawing his gaze about him before stepping into the shadow of Nogaral’s gate. He was making an inventory, Shaeönanra knew, of all the Wards coiled within the stonework about him.
Nothing that could threaten him–certainly.
Casting a final glance at the impossible dusk, Shaeönanra strode forward, baring his back the way the laws of hospitality demanded. He fairly cracked his teeth for apprehension.
He passed beneath the enormous lintel, into the warmth of plastered walls. The Wind’s roar was pinched into a chalky whistle. A step ahead of the Hero-Mage, Shaeönanra walked on a bolt of sunlight so bright that, for the first several paces, the braziers were filled with wavering invisibility for fire.
“Whispers brought you here?”
“Aye,” the man said from behind. “They say that you have found something.”
Had he not known Titirga, Shaeönanra would have thought him a rank fool, coming here like this, alone. But he knew Titirga’s might, and more importantly, he knew the way the man used hectoring boldness to magnify that might. To come here like this was to say he could arrive at any time…
And that he possessed no fear.
Shaeönanra paused and turned, regarded his old rival. The man had a warrior’s face, chipped from fearless bone, everything blunt in the way of shields. “What does it matter what we find?” he said. “The Ark is a riddle without solution.”
The first hard moment passed between them.
“Who,” the Archidemu Sohoncu replied, “can say which riddles can or cannot be solved beforehand?”
He gazes past the mad Nonman, to the second Horn, vast and golden, its phallic curve canted over the mountainous ruin of the Occlusion.
“None possessed my cunning.”
Cet’ingira lowers his chin to his chest.
“We shall see.”
“Come,” Shaeönanra said. “Loose your gaze. See. You will understand what I mean.”
He resumed leading Titirga down the main reception hall, ‘winding the small,’ as the Nonmen put it, affecting careless questions about the affairs of the All. “Do they still riot in Sauglish?”
“The Library is secure,” the Sohonc Insinger said in clipped dismissal. “And yet, I see Nogaral is all but abandoned…” he added in an airy, peering-around-corners tone. “Just as they say.”
The Archideme of the Mangaecca resisted looking back, knowing the Hero-Mage smiled.
At last they outran the final vestiges of the Day Lantern. Their shadows now jumped in counterpoint, sweeping like spiders’ legs as they approached and passed each of the corridor’s flaming braziers.
“Your spies, Shaeönanra.”
The Archidemu Mangaeccu managed to stifle his laughter. They walked the remainder of the corridor in silence. Despite his worry, Shaeönanra had occasion to feel shame for the mean and brutish nature of his abode, for in spite everything, he had been raised an Umeri of the Long-bones, the same as Titirga. He knew the askance judgements, the summary ease of the man’s condemnation: Only dogs dwelt in kennels.
But what did it matter, this false home, when their true abode would drop any mortal to his knees? The Ark. They could stack a hundred Libraries within it… A thousand!
At last they entered the broad circle of the Asinna, the expansive hub of Nogaral. A great rug woven of brushed white grasses softened both the floor and the gloom. Bronze tripods glowered golden, casting yellow petals across the weave. Tablet racks fashioned of black ash loomed about the chamber’s circumference. Shaeönanra stifled a grin of duping glee, knowing that a stylus had never touched any of them.
He walked toward the lone attendant–a near-naked Scintian slave–who awaited them with refreshment near the centre. He paused and turned when he realized that Titirga had failed to follow him.
“There is someone beneath me,” the Hero-Mage said scowling. “Someone deeply Stained.”
Shaeönanra paused… nodded. “A precaution, nothing more. It is of no consequence.”
Wrath flashed in Titirga’s eyes. “Nevertheless, there remains someone beneath me. Someone hooded in our shared sin.”
They gazed at each other with the flat hostility of lizards. Shaeönanra found himself shirking first, if only to hasten the pantomime–or so he reassured himself. Even still, he could feel the prickle of stink beneath his robes. The ache of expectation in his throat.
“Must I take precautions of my own?” Titirga asked, his voice as mild as blades in water.
The Archidemu Mangaeccu made as if his throat required clearing. “I apologize. He will withdraw.”
This earned a heartbeat of avid scrutiny.
“No. I would like to hold him in my eye.”
Again, Shaeönanra found himself wilting before the Hero-Mage’s glare, exactly (it seemed to him) as he would have in the old days. Paramount among the many worries that had plagued this mad gambit was the fear that he could no longer be the Feal that Titirga would expect him to be, now that death had become his sole horror…
Now that he had seen.
“Very well,” Shaeönanra conceded, bowing in the shallow, cursive way of the Umeri. He turned to the attendant. “Summon our…” He paused as if at the humour of the word Onkhis had delivered to him. “Our guest.”
His terror plain, the young slave scampered into the gloom of the nearest hallway. Shaeönanra resumed suffering Titirga’s onerous regard…
And contempt, as it turned out.
“They speak of you often in Umerau and Sauglish,” Titirga said, his manner sinister for being so bland. “They say you have the eyes of a serpent…”
Shaeönanra smiled. Vanity had been a well-known flaw of his, yes. He had preened in the days before…
“No. Just a dog. No different than other Men.”
What a child he had been.
They call it the Threshold, a narrow phalange of iron set high upon the Upright Horn, the hanging porch of the Barricades, which the Ishroi of old had raised about the uppermost sanctum of their wicked foe. You can see the Nonman there as much as not, sitting on the edge, where the air is too thin for fat men to breathe, waiting for souls more ordered than his own to tear down the Barricades.
“What the Artisan has wrought…” Shaeönanra says to him.
“Does not seem possible.”
The Archidemu Mangaeccu nods.
“Yes… But only if you look at it as something to be forced.”
Tears well in the Nonman’s eyes. “What are you saying?”
“Some doors need not be broken.”
The attendant reappeared, pale, eyes anxious unto rolling. A raggish shadow lurched beyond the threshold behind him, a movement that would have been limping were it not balanced leg for leg. At the last instant Shaeönanra turned to watch the mighty Titirga’s face…
He saw the famed eyes slacken, dull–even weary in the manner of wise men grasping the inevitability of horrific futures. How many years of concerned watching? How many months of labourious council, fretting this very possibility…
An odour of sweat and fish insinuated the chamber.
They stood thus, motionless. Something fluid had entered the breathing silence of the room. A fluttering of mucous and membrane.
Even though nothing was said, Shaeönanra could see it plain in the Hero-Mage’s look.
True. The dread rumours were true.
The Archidemu Mangaeccu turned to the newcomer as much to conceal his smile as to bask in the glory of his foul image. For he had literally wept upon finding him and his brother, wept for joy, knowing that the two could decipher the horror of what they had seen.
The creature stood naked, as was his want, his wings folded into wicked hooks about either side of his great skull, which would have been cumbersome, had it not curved into a crest, narrow and deep, like an oyster set on end. A proportionate face hung from the fore, loutish with the absence of expression, nostrils drawn into shining gashes, sockets plugged with lobes of bare white meat. A second face filled the mouth, sheathing a second skull fused within the crocodilian jaws of the greater. Second eyes regarded the Hero-Mage with leering expectation. Second lips grinned about teeth like nails…
The light cast by the tripods slicked the creature in lines of luminous white, yellow and crimson, but otherwise, the intestinal translucence of its skin rendered it devoid of colour–the pallor of things drawn from the depths. Though he stood no more than half again as tall as man, he seemed enormous: for the wings, for the fiendish stoop, for the webbing of stone-dense muscle…
And Shaeönanra could feel the tugging glamour, the promise of surrender within irresistible limbs. He could feel his own ardour rise, an answering will to be taken… ravished!
Aurang… a fabled Inchoroi… A creature out of legend and childhood terror.
“He bears the Stain as deeply as any Quya…” Shaeönanra heard Titirga say from behind him. The Mangaeccan Archideme turned from his infatuation to face his hated foe.
“Is this why you await me thus?” the Hero-Mage said. He bent his head in a curious, almost Cunuroi way, as if some rage to kill bent him from within. “Do you think that combined you could rival me?”
And Shaeönanra knew that this was no ploy, that Titirga would, without a breath of hesitation, deliver his impossible fury to his tower. He had heard the tales–the whole Ground had heard the tales. Titirga Mithalara, they called him–the Giver of Mercy!–ironic renown for his ruthless extermination of his foes. He was certainly the most powerful Insinger ever born. And if what Cet’ingira said was true, the most powerful, period. No living Quya had the purity of his Recitations. Even his Stain was different, somehow muted, as if he could cut the Inward without scarring it. Even now, simply regarding him, his distinction literally glared from his image, a strange, sideways rinsing of the Stain.
The vital difference. The threat.
They said he had been blind as a child, that Noshainrau himself had found him begging in the streets. They said he went mad while Canting. They said his words seized things that should not be seized.
Shaeönanra gestured to the attendant to dispense the sere. The fool almost fumbled the vessels for terror.
“Rival you?” he replied under cover of this trivial distraction. “The Ground is at peace. The Scintya are pacified. The All-King watches from Umerau.” He turned with a bronze vessel that Titirga waved away.
“Aurang is my guest,” he said, sipping the burning liquor.
The Hero-Mage did not shout or rave. He did not need to, so grating was the resolve of his voice.
“It is Inchoroi.”
The man spat the name with its clipped, Nonman inflection, the hatred of his teachers cracking his voice. Inchoroi. For the first time, he let slip his Umeri face–the one that would claim all judgment for itself, such was the gulf that divided the Feal from the Wirg–and beseeched his rival Archideme.
Think. No word was so raw with ancient assumption.
The Archidemu Mangaeccu simply regarded his Sohonc counterpart, the way one might regard a fool brother who has yet again spoken foolishly. Something scarcely perceptible hardened the man’s stance and manner.
“I will not implore you a second time, old friend.”
Finally. A genuine threat. Shaeönanra pursed his lips against the tickle of his thin mustache, sighed as if in profound resignation. He glanced at the black coin of sere swinging in the bottom of his appropriated cup, downed it with a gasp.
How could the man know? Even with his rumoured Grace. There was no going back, no undoing what had been done, no unseeing. Shaeönanra had committed unspeakable… nay, unthinkable… acts. They all had. Debaucheries. Desecrations of self and other. Shrieks for cries of passion. Blood for grease. Mere recollection set his skin afire, such was the orgiastic ecstasy. He had exalted in the trackless void, the hole where good and evil had once been.
And he had resolved. Resolved most of all, for he had seen.
He watches the true sun rise above the horizon’s crown, low and bloody as sunset, throwing shadows outward along lines the Nonmen could describe in arithmetic. He can sense Cet’ingira’s desperation, so he prolongs the reverie, pretending to wonder at the fragments of darkness scoring the broken landscape below.
Then he turns to the Barricades, examines its fractal complexities.
He begins to sing…
His voice slips the point of vocalization, drops outward in every direction, until all of Creation sings with him. Between his hands, a needle of raw incandescence twists into existence, shines with a brilliance undimmed by the glare of dawn.
Shaeönanra turns to the great Nonman Quya. “Do you see, old friend?”
Cet’ingira stands gazing, parsed by the sun into silken light and dolphin shadow. A vulture rides a great arc in the blue emptiness behind him, ragged and black. More and more, the scavengers have taken to circling the Horns.
“The Barricades,” he continues. “They fold… intervals. Somehow Emilidis found a way to pinch emptiness into angles. This was why no dispensation of sheer force could batter them down… In a sense, everything you and my predecessors threw at it simply… missed.”
The black eyes pierce him. “And what is this?”
“A Mathesis Pin… A derivative of an ancient Entelechy Theorem. It whittles force down to an arithmetical point–pricks where all else bludgeons…”
Wonder dawns in the ancient gaze. “A force that does not occupy space… cannot be redirected in space.”
“Yes,” Shaeönanra says. “My gift to you.”
He could feel it all the time, what he had seen, feel it like worms in his bones, rotting him, making him less substantial than what he was, a tingling fog, a meaty flex. Horror now thumbed the edges of his every sensation.
The image of his Damnation.
“Who are you to condemn?” Shaeönanra cried in the mock way of too-learned Men. “The Schools have no stake in Nonman wars.”
This much was true. The Siqu were loathe to speak of the War–even Cet’ingira, who had led the Mangaecca to the Ark and the revelation of the Xir’kirimakra. Their feud with the Inchoroi was theirs and theirs alone, so much so they denied their Mannish pupils all but the most elliptical knowledge of it.
But Titirga frowned as if at a tiresome juvenile. “Who are you to decide our stake?”
Shaeönanra stood blinking, cursing. “How?” he cried, holding an arm out to the hoary majesty of Aurang. “How can you fools not see how small this makes us?”
“Plainly,” Titirga replied, frowning at the creature’s groin.
“Fool! The stakes of everything have been rewritten! Everything!”
At long last fury clenched Titirga’s brow.
“What was sane before we knew of the Ark remains sane now! Shaeönanra! This thing is… is obscene!”
Why could they not see? They were every bit as damned as he–damned! What overriding reason could there be? What possible logic could annul Eternity?
“The sky, Titirga! Think! The sky is an endless void. Each star is another Sun, like our own, and Grounds spin about them–whole Grounds hanging like motes in the Great Void!”
He was not simply offering them salvation, he was showing them sanity!
“Other Grounds?” Titirga cried with a derisive bark, and why not? when the Ground was by definition the basis of everything. It was just as Aurax had said. Truth becomes ignorance when Men make gods of Deceit.
“I know how this sounds,” Shaeönanra said. “But what of the Ark? The Inchoroi? They prove the existence of other Grounds, do they not? Grounds like our own!”
“Noooo…” the glistening Inchoroi rasped, speaking an archaic intonation of Ihrimsu, his inhuman voice falling like a flake of ice upon sweaty skin. He had stepped into Shaeönanra’s blind flank and now loomed over him, his frame a sleek motley, like fish skinned and sutured together. “Not like your own.”
The Hero-Mage fairly gaped at the creature.
“It speaks to me.”
“This Ground …” Aurang continued, oblivious to his transgression. “This Ground is the one Promised. Salvation lies within your grasp. Salvation in this life…“
“Other Voices must commend yours before you speak,” Shaeönanra said to the creature, trusting the savagery of his backward glance to serve as warning.
But Aurang continued his shining scrutiny of Titirga. A transgression that Shaeönanra found unnerving.
“Do you not fear damnation?“
A careful look from the Hero-Mage.
“The Nonmen…” he said evenly. “They have taught us how to hide our Voices. How to bypass the Outside, find Oblivion.”
Eyes like bladders of ink, each reflecting the tripods across their shining curve. The fluting of gill-tissues along the neck. “You worship the spaces between the Gods…”
A rasp like the screams of faraway children tangled in the wind. Inchoroi laughter. “You are already damned. All of you are already damned.“
“So say you.”
A deep chested rumble. Popping mucous. “So says the Inverse Fire.”
A flush of horror. Shaeönanra tensed against the sudden loosening in his bowel, not quite believing that the Inchoroi had dared name it aloud. Xir’kirimakra. The Inverse Fire. For a heartbeat he found his Voice divided between mere fear and what mattered. What? Did Aurang seek to seduce the Sohonc Archideme? Could he not see that Titirga was not one to suffer rivals, that Shaeönanra himself would be doomed were he to embrace their Holy Consult?
But these were vain questions. They fell away as quickly as Onkhis offered them up, so flimsy were the concerns that moved them. All that mattered, the Ground’s only consequential thing, was what he had seen…
Experience shredded into a thousand strings, each clawed and burned and burned, sucked like bottomless bones. Agony. Anguish. Horror. Lament. Shame… Shrieking-thrashing-screaming through the throat of his every memory, innumerable and one, groaning-choking-vomiting, his every particle a unique agony, a bereavement, a weeping-howling-scratching out eyes that grew and grew to witness anew, while burning-blistering-breaking–
It defeated the tongue, the intellect, what he had seen. Nevertheless it was in him, every moment in him, if not at the centre of his care then beneath, a hole that endlessly gnawed at his gut…
A terror, so profound, so abiding–and, yes, pure–that all other fears guttered into nothingness for lack of air. A terror that was a gift… such was the peace and certainty that followed upon it.
They had conjectured, the Mangaecca. They had experimented. They had taken captives and inflicted every possible agony simultaneously all in the name of some flimsy purchase, some scant knowledge of Hell. Drawing toenails, while crushing genitals, while setting afire, while murdering children, raping wives, strangling mothers, blinding fathers… They had visited lunatic misery on innocents, and they had found themselves utterly impervious, immune to the least remorse. Some of them had even laughed.
What was earthly anguish compared what awaited them? Singular. Ephemeral. Little more than a bauble laid upon the monumental steps of the wretchedness to come. They were deluded fools, the Schoolmen of the Sohonc. Every one of them lived making belief–even more, making witless and numb–when it came to their Voices. It was sorcery they coveted, the lure of the power–such potency! The Voice had a way of walling off the future when power was at hand.
All Men wailed. All Men burned all the time. They need only die to realize it.
“So that is the source of your madness,” Titirga said. “The Inverse Fire.”
Shaeönanra closed his eyes against a shudder. “So you know of it…” he said on a long intake of breath.
“Nil’giccas told me. Yes.”
“He told you of the Three? The Three who entered the Golden Court of Sil during the Scourging of the Ark.”
“Upon the Upright Horn… Yes.”
“So you know what happened.”
A draft whisked through the chamber, the kind that washes over a floor of cloistered air in a flood. The golden infant skull braided into the Hero-Mage’s beard seemed to laugh for the to and fro sway of the fires potted upon the bronze tripods. It struck Shaeönanra that Titirga had stood absolutely motionless ever since setting foot in the Asinna. He seemed hewn of heavy oak as it was, but standing as he did, glaring from Man to Inchoroi to Man again, he almost seemed a thing of stone. Indestructible.
“Min-Uroikas had fallen,” the Hero-Mage replied. “The Ishroi laboured in vain to destroy the Ark, as did the Quya. They knew of the Golden Court, the Inver–”
“From Nin-janjin,” Shaeönanra found himself interrupting. Why? Why did they insist on repeating its name? A thing need not be named to be spoken of…
“Yes… From Nin-janjin,” Titirga repeated, something not quite identifiable sparking in his eyes. “And because they knew, Nil’giccas chose the Three to enter it. Two Ishroi, renowned for their valour–Misariccas and Runidil–and one Quya…” He paused as though to set his teeth against his hatred. “Cet’ingira.”
Shaeönanra found himself turning to the Inchoroi, cackling, crying, “He knows!” in a voice too maniacal to be his own. “He knows!”
“I know only what Nil’giccas told me. That Misariccas and Runidil returned shrieking–”
Yes. Shaeönanra had also shrieked… for a time. And wept.
“–and that Cet’ingira counselled his King to have them killed.”
A barking laugh. “And did he tell you why?”
A moment of fierce scrutiny.
“Because they could not be trusted. Because they had been ensorceled… Possessed.”
“No!” Shaeönanra heard himself cry. “No!” Could this be him, wagging his head like a fly-maddened ox, gesticulating like an old hag at funeral? “Because they had seen the Truth!“
Titirga gazed with undisguised distaste. “Such is the form of all possession. You know as mu–”
“Nooo!” Shaeönanra cried. “Nil’giccas lied to you! What else could he do? Think! Think of the war they had just won–think of the toll! The Nonmen had sacrificed everything, their wives, their daughters, to triumph over the Inchoroi. And now they discover that all along the Truth belonged to their foe?”
The Archidemu Mangaeccu began berating himself even before he finished, such was the unmanly violence of his expression. He had to recollect himself… Recall! He had to own what happened here, not for the sake of Men–for none would ever know–but for the sake of his immortal Voice.
“Nil’giccas lied to his Ishroi,” he continued, speaking on a long drawn breath, “just as he deceived you. He lied because he had to!“
Titirga stood watching him, his fulsome lips hanging open in hesitation. And Shaeönanra rejoiced, knowing even the mighty Hero-Mage had his doubts. That the Mangaecca could be seduced was no surprise, for they had always placed knowledge before honour. But Cet’ingira? The most famed of the Siqu? For that matter, how could any Nonman enter into pact with Inchoroi?
Shaeönanra cackled, feeling a new deliberation sop the wildness from his bones.
“Horrifying, isn’t it? Titirga. Hero of Umerau. Disciple of Noshainrau. To think that everything you have believed, you have believed for naught. A whole life expended, toiling, condemning, murdering, all in the name of misapprehension!”
The gaze of an old and undefeated chieftain.
“What has become of you, old friend.”
Shaeönanra had expected many things from this visit, but never that it would become so quaint.
“Yes,” he said on a sigh. “You did know me before. You knew many of us. You knew how fractious we were, how given to mercenary pursuits, all the Mannish flaws that you Sohonc used to evidence your superiority. You remember when gold was all that you needed to induce treason…”
He raised a hectoring fist, one Royal Umeri to another. “And now you hear the whispers… the rumours…” He drew his hand out to embellish the sarcasm. “Your torturers shake, so deep they must reach!”
He had stepped forward as he spoke, coming to a halt directly before the Hero-Mage and his legendary wrath. Something in the man’s height and proportion made him think of the Nonmen heros, and how they never ceased growing.
“Possessed, you tell yourselves. Possessed! We are different because we are no longer ourselves. You counsel the All-King to crack our Seal, destroy us and all we have toiled to achieve. Our Voices are polluted, unclean!” He threw his back in Feal laughter, cackled with spite and glee. “So tell me , if we are possessed, who is our new owner?”
“The Tekne,” the Archidemu Sohoncu said with grim confidence. “The Mangaecca have been enslaved. You have been enslaved.”
Shaeönanra blinked. Of course the fool was unmoved. Of course he had his reasons. No matter. This was indulgence, arguing like this, availing reason.
He warred with his expression–something between a grimace and a grin.”Yes… But who is our new master?”
A peculiar weariness haunted Titirga as he shook his maned head: one not so much of as for.
Feal, something whispered from his gaze.
“A lunatic God… perhaps. The Hells that you think you see. Something… Something adulterate, foul. Something that craves feasting, that hungers with an intensity that can bend the very Ground.”
Aurang had stood silent during this time, gazing down at the two bickering men. After the intimacies they had shared, it seemed Shaeönanra could sense the pulse of his passion. Lust in the lazy tumescence of his member. Impatience in the incline of his shield-long head. Hatred in the flicker of membranes…
“Does that not trouble you?” the Hero-Mage pressed. “That you have but one eye!”
Tedious. Tedious. Tedious.
“Why, Titirga?” Shaeönanra implored. ”Why have you come here?” He shook his head, arguing with the floor. “Did you hope to show me my folly?” And it all seemed a pantomime, this incontinence of voice and expression. For beneath, he knew exactly what he needed to do. He could feel it, the certainty of snakes coiled in the darkness, the confidence of things that neither run nor sleep.”There’s no folly in what I do, I assure you. I know. I have seen!” He jerked his face back, squinting and scowling. “What are your reasons compared to this? Your guesses? Your rumours of a dead age?”
“But what, Shaeönanra? What is it you have seen? Your damnation or your goad?”
“Did you hope to strike a bargain?” Shaeönanra exclaimed, spinning to face the Hero-Mage. “Or did you come here to cow me, to strut and boast and discourse, thinking that the throat of my design might choke on the bone of your glorious presence?”
The Hero-Mage had stalked him in a curious, distanced way, careful to move at tangents that would keep him facing both of his antagonists, Mannish and Inchoroi. His manner, which had seemed lazy with arrogance but moment earlier, had become wary, expectant.
“Titirga… Did you come here to kill?”
For the first time the man surprised him.
“Of course I did.”
Six days Cet’ingira, the most-famed of the Siqu, the Most-feared-and-hated, stands upon the High Threshold, the arcane bass of his voice climbing from the pores of all that could be seen, his arms outstretched, a myriad of Mathesis Pins drawn into a circle of sparking white before him, a disc of needles, endlessly pricking the fractal intricacies of the Barricades.
And Shaeönanra, the Balancer’s son who had risen to become Archidemu Mangaeccu, Master of the Cunning School, felt a different fear hiss through the anxious hum of his schemes. He retreated as if in disgust, took four steps, stealing himself against the impulse to cringe–because at any instant, any heartbeat he could find himself cut or bludgeoned or blasted from this world and–
“Kill me?” he heard himself say, his tone far from manly.
The Hero-Mage laughed his famed laugh, the one that had inspired so many lays. With his beard and wolf-skin cloak, he looked both savage and indomitable, every bit as elemental as the legends painted him. With his Stain, drawn and tinctured in a manner no Man or Nonman had ever seen, he seemed outrageous with power.
“No, my friend,” he said, letting his gaze stray to the Inchoroi, hulking and inhuman. “I have come to kill this… obscenity.”
A new Age was dawning. Since the First Father, Men had always spoken to command the Ground. Since the Shamans, they had called and Reality had answered, a brother, a deceiver, an assassin. But there was another way, one without the treacherous hooks of meaning, one built up out of the granules of existence, the way termites raise their multiform wattle. A power that could be crafted and shaped, that could be applied to its own proliferation, and so accelerate, radiating out across the span of need and desire. A power that could uproot cities and hurl them across the Void.
Mechanism. Only mechanism could save their Voices.
“Perhaps it is fitting,” Titirga said to the glistening Inchoroi, advancing a step. “Perhaps this is your Doom, to die here on the grave of Viri.”
“Shaeönanra,” Aurang finally said. “I tire of this.”
“Patience, my brother,” the Mangaeccan Archideme replied, drawing the Inchoroi back by the forearm, pressing him to the perimeter of the grand room.
It would happen soon.
“Brother?” the Hero-Mage cried, his voice cracked with what seemed genuine dismay, pained incredulity. “You call this monstrosity brother?”
Only now was it dawning on the fool, the intimacy of their pact, the truth of their Holy Consult. Only now, Shaeönanra realized, could he see how profoundly Damnation had conjoined them.
Man. Nonman. Inchoroi.
Six days. Until his voice dwindled to a rasp. Until blood fell from his nose, tracing the branches of his grimace. Six days singing.
Titirga strode toward him, to the centre of the Asinna, the point where all the glittering fires overlapped. Shaeönanra resisted the urge to raise his arms in warding. He understood why the bards called him the Bull in their songs. The way he lowered his face to glare through his brows. How he puffed out his chest, huffed fury through his flared nose. How he trembled for rage…
Titirga was the very embodiment of the Wirg, a true Long-boned Son of Umerau. He used all the tools the Gods had bequeathed him, including his famed stature. He always came close… eventually… always loomed, carrying the stink of the garlic they so prized in Sauglish.
Vanity. Nothing makes Men more predictable.
“You will answer for this, Shaeönanra!”
The Archidemu Mangaeccu turned his back on the Hero-Mage for a third and final time. He glanced at Aurang, who fairly hunched over his famished loins–an Inchoroi battle stance.
“You! Will! Face! Me! Feal!”
He nodded to the black shining eyes.
“Face me!” Titirga thundered, his voice booming so raw that spiders seemed to scuttle across Shaeönanra’s spine and back. “Need I show you the fact of your Damnation!”
A sorcerous word sizzled across the corners of everything. Aurang’s eyes flared crimson.
“Face me or di–!”
A crack of wood and stone, beam and joist. Shaeönanra whirled just in time to see it happen: the floor dropping, the brushed rug sucked down, folding into ravines about the falling Hero-Mage, the tripods tipping outward, fires bursting into sparks, the whole slipping into the plummet, a great white iris dropping into deeper stages of gloom–
Shaeönanra finds the Nonman thus, sprawled unconscious before the Barricades–or what remains of them. He kneels at his side, lays fingers on his cheek. Warm. He looks to the shattered portal, to the hanging plates, the mangle of the Stain. His immobility shocks him as much as his terror shames. He has always been proud with power, Shaeönanra, knowing that even the Quya wonder at his subtlety. But now he is simply a Man, a lowly mortal, and he can smell his own stink taint the aura of burning.
The true sun is rising behind him.
The shadow of the Threshold arcs across the soaring cylinder of gold. He sees his frail silhouette hunched atop it. And he watches it descend, as inexorable as the rising dawn, sinking into the maw of the broken Barricades.
He shivers uncontrollably.
Only when the sun has drawn even to his height, when the first light draws his outline into the blackness within, does he stand upon the spine of his own shadow.
How? How could mere knowledge command such horror?
He will see for himself.
The whole centre of the chamber, gone.
It was not for nothing the Mangaecca had come here. It was not for nothing they had raised Nogaral upon the ruins of ancient Viri. Intent on plundering the dead Mansion, they took the vast pit they had discovered–the Viritic Well–as the axle of their construction. And so unknowingly created the one trap that could destroy the famed Titirga.
A great dank rose from the blackness, the stench of a mountain rotted with hollows. In ancient times the Well had sounded Viri, a city as magisterial as Ishterebinth, and deep, struck to the Ground’s very root. Shaeönanra teetered for a moment, his senses unbalanced by the cavernous absence before and below. He steadied himself, then leaned to better cast his spit after his foe.
“Tikhhus pir yelmor graum nihal!” he cried, the ancient curse of his forefathers.
He glimpsed a white twinkle sparking far below, a tube of surrounding stone. A sorcerous mutter climbed from the bottomless reek…
He blinked in disbelief.
“Quickly,” the nude Inchoroi cried, a noise like a dog’s cough.
He walks into the golden gloom, squinting, staring. Dust puffs about his feet, particles blooming in the intrusive brilliance of the sun, then vanishing into the flanking darkness. He peers… notices a different luminance wavering across the interior, more fluid and sultry, webbed as though refracted through waters…
Cants of Concussion. So the Man and the Inchoroi began, blasting the circular lip, striking great fractures into the grain of the rock, so that the Well’s mouth sloughed into its throat, a rumbling, clacking torrent. They pulled down the rooves of the Asinna, baring the deceit that was high blue sky. They stepped into the sunlight…
The Inchoroi beat his great scabbed wings, rising high upon the relentless Wind, spiralling like a vulture about a failing beast; the Man stood upon the earth’s phantom, hanging. Their skulls were as chalices of arcane light. Their disparate voices seemed thrown from the horizon’s farthest corners, the mutter of petulant Gods. And the light of the Diurnal bathed them, so they seemed to glow in the way of things held high in the sun’s declining light. Their own shadows halved them, so that from certain angles they seemed naught but the rims of who they once were.
Quyan sorceries inscribed the empty spaces. Structure collapsed into the after-image of searing geometries. Aurang husked the tower from without as he sailed in broad circles, slowing into a climb when turning to the Wind, then swooping about in a descending arc. The Diurnal’s arcane sun warmed cloth, pinched skin. Shaeönanra gouged the tower from within, hanging above the cratered Asinna, his hair and garment lashed into fins and ribbons. Sections of wall pitched into blackness, roared against the throat of the Well. Furnishings glittered like tossed torches, scraped and skidded, trailing clouds of orange sparks before blackness encompassed them.
Together they pulled down Nogaral, the High Round, raised it into a heap over the mouth of the Well.
He hears it, a faraway wind, the groan of impossible multitudes–the collective shriek. His lungs become as stone. Horror makes pins of his skin. And he feels it, the burning vaults above, the smoldering glimpses...
Shaeönanra raises his eyes.
At last they paused to regard their labour, the Inchoroi alighting upon the same spectral floor that bore Shaeönanra. Crimson sunlight bathed the southern ramps, inking the numberless crevices across the wrack and ruin. And they rejoiced, Man and Inchoroi…
They had no inkling of the greater violence their sorcery had unleashed.
The sky cracked. Iros shuddered. The impossible sun tipped and stumbled. Plumes of ejecta exploded from points along the mountain’s perimeter, scarcely visible for the Diurnal’s encompassing glare. The mound that had been Nogaral shrugged then slumped into its contradiction. It was as if a dome of cloth had been pressed into a dimple. Summit became basin. Illumination became shadow. The mountain had been rotten with Viri, its innumerable ways fractured by the cataclysmic impact of the Ark thousands of years before. The underworld mansion imploded, collapsed inward and downward, tier upon tier, hall upon hall, undone by this final indignity. This last outrage.
The Man and the Inchoroi toppled with it. Though suspended, they remained bound to the earth, and as with all drastic changes of circumstance, the meaning of their sorcery ceased to be. Only Aurang’s wings saved them. The Inchoroi seized the Man from kicking emptiness, bore him up beyond the Diurnal blue into the truth that was cold and night.
They set foot upon the depression’s edge. The Day Lantern painted a dishevelled landscape, drawing their shadows into the darkness of the great concavity below. The earth still shivered, resounded with hidden percussions, knocking dust into smoky halos about the debris.
Shaeönanra laughed in the crazed, marvelling way of children who find their destruction multiplied beyond belief. Once again, he succumbed to the sacrilege of Fate, he who walked ways invisible to the Gods. He exulted at this Sign, rejoiced that his hated foe would have a pit and not a barrow to memorialize his fall. And as the echos trailed into cavernous thunder, he began singing, as a true Long-boned Son of Umerau should,
Your pride lies shattered with your shield,
Your wrath curls bleeding upon the field,
Now you linger in my shade weeping,
Mourning an honour that is my keeping,
Praying for children who are mine to enslave,
Beseeching lovers who are mine to deprave.
So the Archidemu Mangaeccu intoned: a paean for his vanquished enemy, a lament that was at once a psalm to his own glory–and the might of their Holy Consult.
For nothing mattered apart from what they had seen. Nothing.
They coupled on the smoking slopes, Man and Inchoroi, their silhouettes entangled, arching against a skewed, perpetually setting sun. They grunted for wonder, wheezed with ecstasy. They gazed in delirium, cried out across the great bowl of ruin, over flames arrayed in descending echelons, like teeth growing out a shark’s throat.
And daylight Stained everything, a false pocket of sun in the night.
The infinite night.
1 – As the Norsirai called them. The Nonmen called them the Vir’holotoi, the “Wards-of-Viri.”
2 – The Blessed Falling, when the Flesh-Angels first descended from the Void.
3 – ‘The Newborn.’ The star that Men call the Nail of Heaven.
4 – The Artisan. The Siqu founder of the School of Contrivers, the Mihtrulic.
5 – Founded by Gin’yursis, Holy Siqu, in the time of Nincama-Telesser (574-668).
6 – This was a tumultuous time in the history of the Cond Empire, when Scintya depredations forced the All-King, the much maligned Aulyanau Cawa-Imvullar (c.1091-1124), to levy punitive taxes upon the All.
7 – Derived from the Ancient Umeri term for ‘sorcerer,’ derived in turn from ancient shamanistic Hulwa Ilruga, ‘the Bottomless Inward.’
8 – A kind of whiskey smoked in peat.
9 – Untrue, insofar as Aulyanau Cawa-Imvullar (c.1091-1124) was forced to pay the White Norsirai tribes of the Scintya tribute, the amount of which was never disclosed, but apparently substantial enough to cripple Cond Umerau over time.
10 – The Sohonc, which was by far the largest of the Tutelage Schools, could boast only some fifty sorcerers of rank. The Mangaecca, it could be assumed, possessed no more than thirty.
11 – Treasurer.
12 – An indirect reference to the fact that Viri was destroyed by the falling of the Ark, which is to say, by the Inchoroi.
13 – “So death denies you your lesson.”