by Gregory Bierly
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Gregory Bierly and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press. Original art by Rachel Patterson.
And last, emperor, understand the price of your dominion, of your mastery of my sea, knowledge of its secret currents and the hidden way of its storms. If a daughter and heir to your kingdom is born, I shall claim her when she has lived a score of years, at the mid-summer. On that eve, when the hour is darkest, she shall enter my temple and I shall draw her to my breast. If she pleases me, I will claim her into the priesthood of my seas. There she shall remain as my vessel for all time.
— The Covenant of Shaphesh, IV-II
The room fell silent. One of the mid-wives muffled a sob with a quivering hand. Smoke drifted upward from a fire laid on the stone floor where blood-soaked towels now smoldered.
For a birthing chamber, the furnishings were lavish. Silver forceps and knives and brass bowls, forged by royal artisans, were lined neatly on tables covered in finest linen. The furniture, even the queen’s bed and the chairs of the observers, was carved of richly-hued red and purple woods. Exotic birds and mammals from the southern jungles chattered in golden cages.
But the scene was grave.
The mid-wives conferred in quiet tones, and then began to slowly file from the room. Only one remained behind, an ancient woman with kind eyes, but a face so severe that it might have never smiled. Her eyes drew upon the small bundle of blankets that lay near the bed, where rested the broken body of the queen.
A child stirred there, flailing tiny hands against the shadows of the room. The infant’s skin was still wet from birth, but its eyes shone clear. It made no sound, and looked about, watchful and calm.
The old woman lifted the baby, held it, and gently drew aside the blanket from its head. Matted red hair, curled and long, tumbled out from beneath the cover. The baby’s eyes studied the face of the woman intensely, searched for warmth. Then, as that old face gave none, the child mimicked it in sadness, and finally, with tears.
Outside the blue throne tower, in the streets below, word had already begun to spread of omens. A daughter of emperor Thaphsis Amryth X had been born, but with a crown of demon hair, unlike any seen in Jadh for a thousand years. And, most terribly, the child’s coming had slain its mother, Rhen Magna, the empire’s beloved and enigmatic queen.
The emperor’s five daughters were called Fhilith, Sengua, Cyrne, Dhelina, and Naome. Each was the cold and noble image of her father, and they grew to be women of power and striking beauty in his royal house, pale-limbed and graceful, with piercing eyes of nephrite jade.
Fhilith, the eldest and the rightful heir, was stern and sober, and lived weary under the burden of her birthright. Her second-born sister, Sengua, added to this burden immeasurably. Sengua’s soul was twisted and she delighted in cruelty and intrigue. She fully intended to rule Jadh and connived toward that goal incessantly.
Pensive Cyrne spoke very little and mostly observed the perpetual struggle between her older sisters. She was thoroughly devoted to beautiful Dhelina, her twin, who loved books and songs above all things.
But Naome, the last, was different, a wild and lovely creature who alone recalled her mother’s warmth and humor, as though she had stolen it away from her at birth. She was the emperor’s fury, and his joy. The brilliant fire of her hair flashed among the black tresses of the court, as she debated her sisters and the scholars of Jadh. The princess grew tall and masterful, of lore, of weapons, and of mischief. It was said that she was the only daughter of the emperor who ever laughed in the palace. Although Thaphsis loved her best, his subjects thought her fey and unruly.
And so there was much trepidation along the coast on the Midsummer Eve of the Northern Sun, as the sun set behind the Temple of Shaphesh. Twenty years had passed since the death of Rhen Magna, and Naome was at last to be offered up to Jadh’s goddess and patron, as the covenant commanded, and as had all daughters of nobility before her. Green lanterns shone from the fortress walls, and dread hung like mist in anticipation of the ritual.
The entire fleet of war galleons had been maneuvered into the harbor below the sea wall, fully ten-score vessels. Beacon fires burned from each deck in bronze bowls, such that the harbor was a fantastic bed of glowing embers. The city watched, and trembled.
Thaphsis sat despondent as Naome came to him. She wore her blue silk tunic inlaid with white and turquoise stars, the robe that announced her as a princess of Jadh. She stepped lightly before his throne and he thought her beautiful, with the weary, doom-ridden love that a father feels for his youngest daughter.
“My daughter is prepared for her communion with our patron?” he sighed.
“I am, my father.” Her voice was a loving contralto. “Perhaps my father is concerned that our patron is not prepared to commune with me?”
He smiled. “Our sea mistress has watched you from the moment of your traumatic birth. She has seen you grow into the flower you have become, a child of fire and laughter. I do not worry for mighty Shaphesh. Nor do I share the worries of my foolish subjects, even your gray sisters, who fear that you have given offense in the temple with your free spirit. I know you hear their talk. They worry that our patron is easily insulted, by your laughter, and by footsteps in her sanctuary. What do you think, daughter?”
Naome considered this. “Maybe they are right. I am your daughter, but it is no secret that I do not serve Shaphesh, or other gods. I observe the rituals, but I do not take them into my heart.”
“They are wrong about you,” Thaphsis said. “Our people do not see you clearly, as I do. You are a whirlwind on the sand. Not like your sisters. They are solemn and would no doubt rule Jadh with great strength. Yet they are sad, like a winter sea. Like their father.”
He rose and held her shoulders tenderly in hands that had wrung the life from usurper lords. “I am afraid that this covenant will ruin you, Naome. You are so perfect now; I cannot bear the thought of you transformed or stolen from me, even by a god. You are the last of your mother, and the last of my heart.”
“And you are my heart, father,” she said. “I will not disappoint you. And I will do no more to nurture palace intrigue. I will meet our patron, and then I will return to you, unchosen and unchanged, as did my sisters.”
“You may return,” he said, wistful, “but you will be changed. I have always feared that the sea gods would take special interest in you, above all others. As have I.”
At this, Naome smiled and said nothing. She kissed her father and bade him farewell. She then departed the hall to find the high priestess, Lamsahtu, who awaited her in the vestibule.
Gods, Naome thought, as her footsteps echoed off the high ceiling. There are no gods.
Naome had lived her entire life in the palaces of superstitious Jadh, which was hated and feared, and rightly. The coastal cities of the west and south all paid tribute to her father, or found themselves enslaved. While the landscape of the coast was of bleached rock and blue sea, the palaces and plazas of Jadh were fashioned from stones and jewels stolen or imported from afar. The towers and parapets that rose in the city center were built with blue-green granite from the mountains of Lindar, lapis mined from Jhorkûn, and fine rosewood and cedar from the southern jungles of Sipphar and Tol-Azun.
The city’s protective limestone ramparts sprawled toward the open sea, guarded by a massive iron sea gate against invasion and siege. The eastern frontier of Jadh was also well-protected. The hills there rose sharply from the sea and became a forbidding range of mountains, the Drakkys that loomed in perpetual mist. Beyond that, the scorched wastes of the Namarian desert. These defenses had repelled all usurpers.
But the secret of power lay with mastery of the sea.
Naome had seen the Jadhan galleons surge across the deep with the boom of power beneath their prows, riding currents unknown to other nations, avoiding sudden storms that smashed the fleets of her foes. She had watched as kings of the coast knelt before her father’s throne, in homage and terror. It was widely whispered that the emperor had forged his kingdom upon a pact with a demon, and that his own children were the price.
But Naome did not believe in demons or gods. To her, the dominion of Jadh came from knowledge, of her geography and the physics of wind and waves. As for gods – and the endless tomes of their history and power that lay coiled around the heart of Jadhan culture – they were always absent.
As her sisters each turned twenty, and returned, one by one, from their ritual presentation to the goddess, Shaphesh, she searched their faces for a sign of transformation, and found none. Afterward, she thought they did not seem touched by power, but only women, weary and resigned. Perhaps they, too, were disappointed.
So as the priestess Lamsahtu undressed her with palsied hands and left her standing naked in the sanctuary, Naome did not tremble with anticipation of the supernatural. She closed her eyes as the acolytes perfumed her limbs with scented water. She imagined herself on a great wooden sailing ship of old, standing on its masthead as the sun smoldered beyond the horizon. As the acolytes clothed her in clean, white robes, she swayed in a wind that pressed the canvas sail below her.
And when she finally knelt on the mat of polished rushes, breathing the gauzy smoke of burning phlox, she knew nothing but a dark sea without borders.
Naome, princess of the Jadhan Empire, lay prostrate on a circle of smooth travertine beneath a mantle of stars. No roof covered her from the night and the sea wind sifted her red hair in careless fingers. Waves whispered and broke against the cliffs below. She was completely alone, atop the highest observatory of the temple, as the ritual specified.
From below, the entire city watched the tower. All knew that the youngest daughter of Thaphsis lay atop the temple, awaiting Shaphesh. Many worried that the child would disturb the city’s ancient agreement with its patron. No one breathed a doubt, however, for fear of the emperor’s deadly reprisal.
Alone in the high night, Naome drifted in and out of consciousness. Her slender white body quivered, but she was not aware of it. As she gave herself over to the drug that sang in her veins, she began to have a strange, chilling dream.
She dreamt she was being painted.
In her dream, she could not see the painters, or their work, but she could feel the brush strokes. She lay in a cove beneath the sea, where water lapped softly at pink and tangerine corals. Muffled, murmuring sounds soothed her. She did not open her eyes, but she could feel sea creatures swimming and creeping randomly across her body, inking phosphorescent trails and lines. Her small feet rested in a warm pool of clean salt water. Her hair was damp, strewn with kelp and sand. Something watched her across a great void, with huge intensity and interest; its thoughts mused like the rumble of thunder at sea.
Then, in the midst of this placid, watery realm, she was snatched away.
Her foot touched a cold place in the deep, as though she had stepped through a thermocline. She was no longer in the cradle of the sea, but rushing along in icy blackness. Then she was falling with speed, toward a great alien pyramid that swam upward to her in the clouds. Three moons hung overhead, leering onto the scene with spectral pallor. She fell onto her own image, a princess chained to a stone table, across a gulf of worlds from the temple in Jadh.
Naome became afraid.
The brushes continued their work, cold and damp on her abdomen. They painted, now vigorous broad strokes, now pesky, busy with fine detail, in circular motions about her navel. And yet the feeling was not sensual.
Behind the dream drifted a low singing. The melody was strange and hard to follow. It meandered and changed its theme, veering ever more discordant. It was not a pleasant music.
As the dream went on, Naome began to imagine a painting of immense complexity. Chains of inked lines and slashes spun off from her, spilled outward chaotically, encircled her. All about her, emanating from her and the alien pyramid, were angles and shapes, figures that moved and twisted. She wept softly as she dreamed.
As she imagined the awful canvas, a pain began, a great heat from her hips to her breasts. The pain was not unbearable, but it washed away all other sensations. She knew, even within the stupor of the phlox, that something about her had been changed, forever. Something had been taken from her, or given her, that could not be undone.
And as she slept in fever, the people of Jadh watched a raft of seething clouds move in from the sea and enclose the tower. The waves became a tempest against the fjord and a squall rolled into the city, extinguishing all its beacons and lanterns. Jadh smoked in the night and its emperor sat on his throne in darkness.
Dawn peered through the eastern mountains. Thaphsis roused himself, red-eyed and aged, and stared at the gray sea. A white line of foam formed, dissolved, took new shape several leagues out from the shore, where the true depths of the ocean began. He thought the waters there looked indifferent and dangerous.
He quickly summoned his four elder daughters, who were ushered to the throne room on litters by the palace slaves. Gravely, he motioned for his children to sit about the throne. The priestess Lamsahtu and the litter-bearers then ascended the stair to retrieve Naome from the high shrine. The old emperor sat with his face plunged into his hands, and waited.
Yet as Naome returned to the city from her night atop the tower, she did not rest languid upon the shoulders of slaves. She walked easily before them, spurning the litter of her nobility and the efforts of Lamsahtu and the terrified servants to return her to it. Her sisters gasped at the audacity of her approach.
“Father. Beloved sisters. I have come from the temple. Behold,” she declared, as she pirouetted before them whimsically, “I am unchanged.”
Her sisters groaned at her disregard for the sacred. “Have a care, sister,” hissed Cyrne, as though the sound of her voice might summon a demon out of the floor.
“Yes,” agreed Fhilith, the eldest, exasperated. “You mustn’t mock that which sustains our people.”
Naome replied with complete sincerity. “Oh, I do not mock, my sisters. Look. The covenant has left me free.”
Sengua smiled darkly. “You have never been free, last of my sisters. Your very birth was the disease that killed my mother, and you have always lived furthest from the throne. Our people love you not. Nor I, who will one day rule over you. Now it seems that our patron has rejected you also.”
Thaphsis pounded his fist and opened his mouth to speak, but Fhilith leaped to her feet. “You will not rule, Sengua, for I am the first born and successor. You are only a schemer. As for Naome, she was born of tragedy, but it was not of her making.”
“As you say,” Sengua replied sardonically.
Lamsahtu frowned. “The fifth daughter of my lord has always been an anomaly in this house. I am troubled. Despite the tumult of this ritual, the child is unchanged. Never before has a squall seized the sanctuary during the offering. Surely this is a sign of the physical presence of our patron.
“And the black phlox,” whispered Dhelina. “The fever of the drug does not leave so quickly. I was unable to walk for many days after my own ritual.”
Lamsahtu turned to the emperor. “My lord, I must examine her.”
Thaphsis rose from his throne. “Peace, children.” He gestured to Lamsahtu. “Most devoted priestess. Shaphesh creates a different pact with each daughter of Jadh. Perhaps Naome has made her covenant with mirth, which suits her playful heart.”
“But father, “ protested Cyrne, “Dhelina speaks truly. The fever of the drug is not so easily overcome. Each of my sisters was in a state of ecstasy for three days and nights. We have all seen that Naome is strong, but such resistance challenges the divine!”
“Perhaps I am divine,” replied Naome, quietly. Her jade eyes flashed. “Is that not the purpose of this ritual? Can you not imagine me as the vessel of Shaphesh?”
All listeners recoiled at the name of the goddess, spoken so brazenly. Fhilith cried, “Naome!”
Sengua narrowed her eyes at her youngest sister. “Silly witch. You are such a simple creature.”
Thaphsis raised his hand to stifle the rising tide of argument and jealousy. “I have heard enough, seen enough of this rivalry. And do not speak so quickly of rule and succession. None shall rule, cold daughters. Do not press my death so quickly to fruition.”
He settled back onto the throne. “Now hear me. Naome, you will spend this day without hindrance from anyone, least of all these vipers of your own nest. You are a child of my empire and will be respected as such.
“At sunset, however, you will go with Lamsahtu into the temple library. As our laws make clear, none may question the ritual of our patron. But, for my sake, I will permit Lamsahtu to investigate the well-being of my fifth daughter.”
Lamsahtu nodded. With a curtsey to all, Naome left the throne room and danced into the pale morning. Despite the typical potency of the phlox, she felt rested and warm. The harbor caught the low sun and glinted like a sheet of tiny jewels.
The shipmaster was directing the war galleons in a complex maneuver as they maintained their ritual positions in the channel. As he looked up, the sunlight christened Naome and he hailed her with a bow. A shout rose from the decks of a hundred ships as the men recognized her fiery hair, tossed in the sea breeze upon the wall. Slaves fell in obeisance as they saw her.
Naome then entered a locked, ivory-clad door in the parapet and slipped away by tunnels known only to the emperor’s bodyguard. She made her way along a secret, winding alley, past an elaborate diamond-shaped facade, down to a low stair where the sea tossed in shadow. There she paused in a hidden alcove that was still wet from the night tide.
She released the tether of her ritual robe and felt the garment drift to her ankles. With eyes closed, she welcomed the brisk draft of the salt wind on her naked skin. Then she dove into the sea, and sank into its warmth.
Beneath the waves, she stroked just above the sloping shelf of the bottom. Dim shapes played over her, shadows of ripples twisted and made queer in the gloom. A lonely, familiar silence settled about her. Paddling smoothly, she followed the limestone shelf downward. The daughter of the sea empire swam fluidly, without effort.
She dove ever deeper, away from the city and the burden of the ritual. As she crossed the threshold into chill waters, she paused, suspended in the soft rumble of depths. There, in a pocket of cold below the seawall, the shadow of her dream returned.
Her thoughts fell upon half-seen shapes, ominous melodies intoned just beyond the horizon of memory. As her breath gave out and she began to kick toward the surface, her unease mounted slowly, stealthily. The dream of the previous night lingered and now it returned.
Suddenly she wanted to leave the water. The sea seemed full of scabrous things, kelp and crabs that brushed her and clung to her hair and legs, and she swam to be rid of them.
Panic slipped over her, and she no longer moved easily. There were serpents now, great black eels, oily ribbons winding between her knees and ankles, grazing her feet with needle teeth. She cried out and strangled on seawater. Had she swum so deeply?
Naome was unable to gain the surface, as though a great weight towed her back into the depths. Her lungs turned black and ragged. As she prepared dimly to drink death where no one would ever know, her head suddenly broke the surface. She flailed for the wall, scraping her arm on the wicked ledge. Sobbing for air, she pulled herself onto the stair, leaving a smear of bright blood.
She huddled in the warmth of the robe. The sting of her pulsing wound was a good thing, a true sensation. Gooseflesh stirred on her body, as though demons stroked her with their fingertips from some outer abyss.
It was only in that moment that the princess looked down, and saw something.
A tapestry of angular lines and symbols bristled across her white stomach, like the badly-sewn stitches of a horrible wound. The markings formed an alien script, written into her flesh from just below her small breasts to the breadth of her hips. She stared for a moment in mute horror and then fled the stair.
The high priestess Lamsahtu’s old face was conflicted with worry and excitement. She was surrounded by books, dust-covered tomes written by priests and magicians who now lay silent in the watery sepulchers below Jadh. These books spoke of every spirit known to the sea dynasty, and all the spells used to conjure or ward against them. The priestess was fixated on one particular grimoire, bound in brittle green leather with metal fasteners, which lay open directly in front of her.
The ancient lettering on those pages was the same as that on the belly of the girl, who sat beside the priestess, withdrawn, gazing absently at a tapestry on the wall.
“Well, you wear a rune, child, a magical spell. As I suspected, its lettering is written in a dialect of the far north. Through your studies of foreign lands, you may know this province as Akkish of the Three Moons, a frozen place of mountains and ice. A haunted country, where demons walk the forests in search of souls.
“Someone, or some thing, from Akkish has perverted the ritual of Shaphesh.”
Naome’s face was streaked with tears and her arm was wrapped in a dressing. The skin of her stomach burned from a vain attempt to scrub the markings away.
Fire snapped in the library’s hearth and threw weird shapes into the high shadows of the chamber. Yellow light from the flames made the tapestries about the chamber livid and transformed Naome’s rune into gleaming slivers of bronze. As her skin fell into shadow, the rune dissolved back into a tangle of black lines, thin and spidery. Something about the angles of the letters was wrong, agitated, and profoundly ugly.
Naome’s eyes were bleak. The rune was otherworldly and it lay there on her flesh. She traced the markings with her finger, but could find no change in the skin’s texture across the writing. It was part of her.
Lamsahtu continued, distantly. “A strange thing. These letters that decorate you, they haven’t been written for millennia. They are from an old, lost tongue, called the mhazzol-hrem, used only by the northern arch-magi for conjuring devils. Oh, such an old language.” She trailed off, as though she tasted something exceedingly bitter.
Naome rose and drew her tunic about her closely, concealing the lines of the rune. Her hair caught and brandished firelight.
“What’s to be done, priestess? You know I don’t believe these things, mages and fiends. Whatever the cause, can’t this writing be removed?”
Lamsahtu shook her head resignedly. “It matters not that you fail to believe. These marks tend to be most permanent, although I must admit I have never seen one affixed to flesh. As you say, there may be certain means to destroy a rune. But they are dangerous. The effort often destroys that to which the rune is attached.
“What worries me most is the motive of the author. By what means did this magician reach out to you, and why?”
Naome was shaken, but her skepticism lingered. “You know I have doubted our gods. Long have I looked for them, without answer. But if there is a sea god, what can it mean to be such a thing, if its ritual can be challenged, or corrupted? Who but another god could accomplish this? There is some irony here, priestess.”
Lamsahtu sniffed. “Gods craft entire worlds from irony. If you had ever heeded your instruction as a princess of Jadh, placed a bit of faith in it, you would not find this so hard to accept. But regardless of ironies, your question is fair. Who indeed could challenge Shaphesh? I will give the matter all my attention as you sleep tonight. However, I cannot keep the seriousness of this from you: What the writer has begun on your body is none other than a summoning spell, a doorway for the dark demons of the Gulf.”
Naome shook her head slowly. She didn’t believe the priestess’ explanation, but she was deeply disturbed. And the writing was still there, each time she opened her eyes.
Lamsahtu sat silent for a moment. “My child, there may be one redeeming point. The summoning door on your body is incomplete, missing key elements. In fact, I don’t think it will function presently, so the danger has been averted, for the moment.
“And there is this. I have no idea what interrupted this spell, but I can only imagine that it was you, Naome. In some way, you have thwarted the will of the caster, by exerting power from within yourself. That gives me cause for hope.
“You should rest, child. The drug of the ritual and the trauma of this day have worn on you. Sleep now, girl, it is late.”
Naome lay awake in her bedchamber, staring at the rough-hewn beams of the low ceiling. As she listened to the steady purr of the sea below, her hands traced the rune’s shape absently. By starlight, the lines of the incantation were glistening tentacles that sprawled across her belly.
In the temple library, the priestess Lamsahtu pored over scrolls dealing with the blackest secrets of civilizations. She scanned pages describing the convergence of worlds, many of them shadowy and terrifying, and how to shape doorways that would connect these spheres and allow their inhabitants to move from one to the other. The more she read, the more she became convinced that Naome, perhaps Jadh itself, was in peril.
Although she was a priestess, Lamsahtu loved the fifth daughter fiercely. It was she that had pulled Naome from her dying mother and held her aloft above the city. It had been she that had guarded Naome all her life from jealous rivals and cunning courtiers and assassins.
Lamsahtu realized that this time her craft would not suffice; she was no match for the author of those sinister marks that branded Naome. Few of the great magi who wrote spells in the mhazzol-hrem yet lived, and those few were rumored to be thousands of years old. And though she dared not think it, only one of those dread sorcerers was said to still hold dominion in the northlands.
His name persisted only in whisper, or the dreams of devils: Morthraxas the Ill-conceiver, who dwelled in the obelisk at the pinnacle of the world.
Why had his eye turned toward Jadh, two hundred score leagues to the south, where it had fallen upon the youngest daughter of Thaphsis? Lamsahtu could not guess, but the possibility of that terrible mind fixated on the sea temple and its young princess blanketed her in terror.
And then a thought came, unbidden.
He will come for her.
Somewhere in a dark chamber above a cold wasteland enshrouded in clouds, a figure knelt before an open text. His body was decrepit, but his eyes gleamed with hunger as he searched the pages for understanding. A single brand, guttering in a brass receptacle, cast a spectral dance across the man’s face.
The moldering book lay open on a circular stone floor. Its yellowed pages swam with arcane letters and signs that had fallen out of use for generations of kings. The man who read the text had taken care to guard the chamber with wards and symbols of power, for the pages of this book were a murky glass that could be peered through, where horrible shapes writhed just below the surface.
Presently, a primal rumble began to emanate from the book and its reader stiffened slightly. Beneath the words, across some frost-torn abyss, a particularly frightening shape stirred and began to rise from its sleep.
Naome woke to a strange hissing sound. As she drifted up from sleep, she realized she was hearing an argument, whispered vehemently. She dressed quietly and stole down the corridor toward the sound, pressing close to the wall so as not to cast long shadows. She passed the chambers where her sisters slept, and where Sengua dreamt her evil dreams of pride and dominion.
The voices at the end of the corridor were muffled and agitated, and came from behind the great jade door of the throne room.
“A thousand plagues fall upon you, priestess! My mind will come apart if you continue to speak. What you are saying is madness, madness! It is the same madness that drives young women to your sullen priesthood of the sea.” Thaphsis was beside himself.
“My emperor, your daughters have ever ascended the temple at your command, to maintain your dominion of our coast.” Lamsahtu spoke in controlled tones, indignant. “You have chosen to uphold the religion of your Jadhan forebears, most righteously, and it has kept us in the bosom of our patron, the jewel nearest her heart.”
“We all hold a jewel nearest our heart,“ he answered coldly. “Now will you tell me that mine has been tainted by some vile magic, some spell writ by the sea demon? Perhaps I choose to uphold this ritual no longer!”
“Good emperor, she came from the ritual with markings on her body, as I have said. During her state, an outside force gained control of the ritual, to use Naome for its own designs.”
Thaphsis groaned and struck his forehead with his fists. “What outside force?” he growled.
“I cannot be certain, but I suspect it to be a sorcerer of the far north, owing to the language and the rune’s design.”
“And why does he violate my daughter with his wretched interest? Surely there must be objects of magical power more potent than a girl on the temple spire?”
“It may be unhappy chance,” Lamsahtu suggested. “Perhaps the movement of Shaphesh gained his attention. Yet, it may be the girl. I am fairly certain that she broke the spell herself, before its purpose had been achieved. That is a good, to be sure. Naome’s soul may be a beacon of power. I do not know. But I worry, my lord, for us all.”
The emperor pulled at his beard and whispered hoarsely. “You fear that the hand that wrought this sorcerous mischief is not finished with my daughter. You think he will come, to take her?”
Lamsahtu stared directly into the king’s eyes. Her voice was leaden. “It may be Morthraxas, my lord.”
Thaphsis was horrified. “Not the ice sorcerer, the one called Ill-conceiver? Who burned the city of Sipphar with magical fire?”
“Morthraxas has burned many cities, and many princes, as have you, my lord. But he has lain in his hold for hundreds of years. I would not have believed it to be him, save for the script that was used on the girl. If he has decided to possess her, he may send an army –“
“Oh stop it, be silent! The entire fleet of Jadh will oppose him. There is no force of men that he could muster to seize the princess from this fortress. By my command, all would give their lives to protect the fifth daughter. But might you be wrong, priestess? Never has a daughter of Jadh been marked during the ritual.”
“My emperor, if Morthraxas has fashioned her for some purpose, I must do everything in my power to remove the rune. The empire itself–“
Naome did not listen further. She ran swiftly on bare feet back to her bedchamber. Inside, she pulled on a pair of knee-high ship boots and a gray cloak. She then crossed the cedar floor without a sound and unfastened the scabbard of a great sword, her most treasured possession, from where it hung on the wall.
She withdrew the weapon from its scabbard and inspected it. Its broad blade hummed softly in the still and gleamed like a deadly mirror. She gave the hilt a half-turn, felt its light balance on her fingertips.
Gifted in homage by a potentate of Tol-Azun, the sword befit an emperor; the craft of its make was masterful. Upon its silver hilt, a four-headed sea dragon with emerald eyes gleamed menacingly. The handle was wrapped in lapis lazuli and chased with silver. A huge blue topaz, which alone would have fetched a small kingdom, was affixed to the pommel.
She slid the sword back into its sheath. Tossing a few final items into her bedroll, she left the door ajar and slipped away down the halls of the palace.
The night above Jadh was pregnant with stars, a million glittering baubles strewn across the sultry dark. The sea tossed silver and restive on a fresh wind.
Naome made her way in the shadows and encountered no one. A half-score war galleons lay in the bay with lamps lit, but no one saw the pale girl who dashed down the ramps and stairs toward the hidden ledge below.
At last, breathless, she reached a cove where water gurgled noisily in and out of a small portal to the sea. There she stepped aboard a single-masted skiff that was tethered to a grommet set into the cave wall. She freed the boat from its mooring and sculled smoothly toward open water.
The sea lapped the walls of the fjord with some tumult at that hour, and so the light splash of her oars was not heard. Below the very noses of the most feared ships of the western coast, the princess guided her small boat out of the channel and the open sea gate, and into deep water. When she had cleared the last of the watch lanterns, she hoisted the sail of the skiff, feeding canvas to a night breeze that swept toward the sea. Warm winds caught the sail with a slap, and boat and pilot surged away from the cliffs.
Naome did not know to where she sailed. She thought only to be free of the talk and dread of sorcery for a while, and was relieved as the wall of Jadh grew distant behind her. She decided to sail northward, keeping the coast in sight, until she could put to shore on a hidden beach and make a better plan. She navigated by the half-light of the breakers.
Pink dawn was on the Drakkys mountains when Naome saw the first of the flying creatures. It came from the northeast and passed low above the trees of the shore, flapping great leathery wings. It paid her no notice, but flew on with speed along the curve of the coastline, toward Jadh.
She had little chance to wonder if this was some trick of the light, or her eyes which lacked sleep, when suddenly the sky was filled with the thump of fell wings. The grotesque creatures were some sort of winged baboon, but not like any ape seen on earth. Each baboon was as large as a horse, and great ram horns curled down from the crown of their massive foreheads. From their sinewy backs sprang more horns of various shapes, which sprouted between massive bat-like wings. Savage yellow fangs overhung the jaws of these demons, and their bearded faces wore frightening shades of green, purple and gold. The baboons flew with stupid purpose, ignoring one another and Naome’s boat as they rushed toward Jadh.
It was the most terrifying vision Naome had ever beheld. Nausea overcame her as she wondered if these hellspawn were searching for her. Thousands of baboon demons croaked overhead and Naome began to sense her doom, and that of Jadh, which she knew lay at the end of their mindless journey.
The last of the croaking horrors disappeared into the south and Naome was alone on the sea again. She trembled and wept, and then reversed the course of the skiff, paddling hard behind the sail. She knew that she would be late, far too late to give warning or defense to her father and sisters. A demon host was coming to Jadh, and it was her fault entirely. She cursed her irreverence, her lack of belief in gods, even her birth. Now her father would lose all that was left to him.
As she fought the surf, her lean white muscles burning at the oars, a voice rose to her ears. It came as the rushing noise of water sucked back through the teeth of a coral reef.
“Naome Amryth, Priestess of the Sea. Hearken!”
Naome listened, wide-eyed.
Then the water beneath her boat became an emerald light and a face of terrible, feminine beauty materialized, with eyes as cold as remote suns. Voluptuous tentacles writhed and turned the water. Naome shrank into the hull of her boat and made no reply.
“Do not fear me priestess. I am Shaphesh and I am perilous. But you I have blessed.”
“I am not a priestess,“ Naome offered meekly. “I am the daughter of Jadh, only. I do not seek your blessing. I do not deserve it.”
The beautiful face did not smile, but the rushing sound of its voice intoned slight amusement. “It matters not. I have blessed you, for you are my most beloved, my most devoted follower. You are truly a daughter of my seas.
“Listen now, my priestess. My communion with you was incomplete, and thus I am unable to protect you fully. Know this: You are pursued, and you shall be caught. Your spirit will be tested by powers. Your life will become a succession of dangers and woe, but you may yet prevail.
“It was my intention to make of you a ward of my sea. Regrettably, my intention has been twisted by a potent hand. Be ware, but do not be frightened. Spirits will use your rune to enter our world, and they will revere you, as it will be through you that they gain passage. Yet because of them, you will wreak much harm, and you will labor hard. You must accept and master your rune, to be free of it. I cannot guide you to this path; you must discover it for yourself.
“Hold to that which has made you my beloved. Your gifts: your laughter, your intellect, your swordplay; all will serve you, as you have served me, if unwittingly.”
“Where must I go, mistress?” Naome pleaded. “How may I right this?”
The eyes of Shaphesh remained cold, but her voice was edged with tenderness. “You will be carried by the currents of your fate, for a time. When again you are in possession of your destiny, every action you take will right the wrongs of this world.
“Now I must take my leave of this surface realm. I will observe you priestess, and aid you, when I may. In parting, I leave you two small tokens.
“First, your weapon has come to you from the sea, unnamed, but it was not always thus. It was recovered by the shaman of Tol-Azun, but its make is from an ancient civilization, the Na-Dhogûn, long forgotten. This weapon is called Lathandrûn, the Tidesword, forged a thousand years before your ancestors came to the beaches below the Drakkys. By my authority, its edge may never be blunted, or broken, and you will not be parted from it.
“And second, I give you two pearls from my deepest fathoms. Use them only in your most dire need. They have strange powers, many that are unknown even to me, and some that may be awakened only by you. They may summon my aid, but only on the sea.”
Naome received the pearls from a silvery tentacle and grasped them tightly in her fist. “How am I to use them — ?” she began.
But the emerald light began to fade beneath the boat and the beautiful face grew dim. “Be well, my priestess. You and I shall meet again. Know this: You are empress of Jadh now.”
The strange light waned and Shaphesh departed the surface world as the sun crossed the mountains of the east. As if in response, a vast croaking slowly festered in the southern sky, now grown queerly orange, and dozens of huge baboon demons descended on nightmare wings toward the princess.
A wild stench followed the torrent of beating wings downward as four baboon demons fell upon Naome. Their thick, strong fingers swarmed to capture her. As she was enveloped in hairy arms and yellow teeth, Naome tugged the Na- Dhogûn broadsword free and hacked the head from one of her attackers. Its corpse rolled into the sea with dark fluid jetting from the mangled stump. Two other demons immediately swept down and seized her limbs so tightly that they fell numb.
Naome was then borne aloft with savage strength amid a chorus of croaking voices. As the grim band hurtled upward, she looked upon the gray-green waters receding below, and toward Jadh.
The city was leagues distant and fading in the south, but she could tell that it burned. The throne tower, with its spire of blue granite, smoked against the orange sky. The Temple of Shaphesh was also ablaze. Centuries of Jadhan art and literature burned there, feeding the roar of greedy flames. Perhaps the sea mistress would wreak revenge on these strange reavers, but Naome would not see it.
As the demon host and their pale captive flew ever higher, she could see that ships smoked in the harbor, dozens of the war galleons. Naome thought then that the line of Amryth would end, save for her own life, which wavered in a wilderland of terror. She thought of her mother, lying in her sepulchre beneath a ruined and abandoned city. Tears were wrung from her by the sweep of cold air, but she did not weep.
Later the demons began to sing a weird, gibbering song and she lost consciousness, but her fist clung to Lathandrûn with ferocity.
When Naome again awoke, she was far above a snow-wasted landscape. The air was frigid and revived her quickly. Despite the cold, she sweated from the feverish heat of the demon that held her.
The flying apes had plunged into a deep night; stars twinkled in the heavens and the light of three small moons twisted the forest of pines below into rows of jagged teeth. Ahead, in the remote distance, the sky danced with green light, as though eldritch lightning pricked the void.
Naome guessed that these demons flew with some unnatural wind. By magical means they had already come to the frozen land of Akkish, whose bitter coasts lay beyond the reach of any ship of men.
The wingbeats of the great baboons changed pitch now, slower in cadence, and the chorus of croaking grew loud and agitated. Ahead, a clot of black mountains thrust from the expanse of ice. In its center, a spike rose in the moonlight, a pyramid of obsidian. Naome had seen such a tower in her dreams and watched it approach helplessly.
The demon that carried her croaked suddenly, as though it remembered something, and closed its huge hand over her face. She fainted into the arms of dread.
Naome had long since ceased to despair; her fear and loss had been unmoored by exhaustion and she was bereft of even them in the icy skies above Akkish. Now she lay, numb, on a dirty mat in an enclosure where light hardly penetrated. She had no way to tell how long she had been imprisoned. It might have been hours or days.
Her prison was crude; a room with stone floor and walls in which she could lie down but not stand. One side of the room was open to a void, a huge vertical corridor that extended above and below her cell. Firelight shone vaguely from somewhere above the gulf, and she could see that it was too wide to leap across.
She crawled to the edge of the floor and peered over.
Her stomach went weak. An abyss plunged away from her into vertiginous depths. The shaft was cylindrical, perhaps forty feet across. Other open cells dotted the sheer walls above and below her, staggered such that no one faced directly across the well from another. In the very center of the shaft hung a giant steel chain that gleamed with oil.
There could be no escape from such a place.
With a moan, she settled back onto one elbow and tasted her predicament. Her clothing had not been taken from her and the sea cloak gave some warmth in the cell. The great broad sword was gone, probably lost during her faint at the arrival.
You will not be parted from it, Naome thought with black mirth. Not until captured by devil apes.
She slipped her hand into one of the pockets of the cloak and fingered two cool orbs: the pearls. Perhaps her captors, who had handled her so fiercely, bruising her wrists and ankles to their bones, cared little for the sparkle of gems or gold.
“Who are you, maiden?”
A man’s voice came from above her and directly across the gulf.
Naome listened, to the movement of fetid air, and the dismal drip of water, and then said, “Who speaks?”
“I speak,” came the answer. “And I asked you, who are you? Are you some trinket or bauble for our magnanimous host? Or are you perhaps a concubine for his demons?”
A shadow shifted in the cell opposite and above her own.
Naome spoke to the void. “I’m a trinket to no one. Nor am I seeking conversation, unless it involves being free of this place.”
The voice considered this. “Yes, I suppose you might know a bit about freedom, wouldn’t you? From your accent, I understand you to be a westerner, perhaps a preening sea lord’s brat. A daughter of Baal-zhon, or is it Jadh? Your people stole the freedom of scores of thousands as they collected slaves along the coasts of the southern sea. Perhaps this a fitting vengeance on you, a long rest here in the sorcerer’s keep, contemplating the misdeeds of your people.”
Naome was surprised at the hostility of this sermon, but was in no mood to be lectured to. “You would not speak so boldly, I think, were you on a sailing vessel in the west. Maybe enslavement would best suit such a courteous rogue as yourself.”
“Oh, I’ll know no slaver’s shackle, my sweet trinket. I’ve slain better men than your lord for small wages indeed, even as they slept. I’ve killed more men than you have known.”
“Well, sir villain,” Naome replied, “You must admit you have come close to the slave shackle in this dungeon. And may I guess, owing to your accent and your profession as that of assassin, that you hail from the lands east of the cold desert? Perhaps Notir and her decadent ruin? How comes such an expert at the livelihood of taking life to this end, caged in a well?”
A bleak chuckle passed across the gulf. “Fair enough, my trinket. How to this end, indeed? Of course, I might return the question. How does a woman of the mighty sea empire become so much stolen property, locked in the obelisk of the ice?”
Naome sighed and said softly, “It doesn’t matter. I am here, and the empire is so much flotsam.”
She heard a shuffling from the other cell. Presently, a dusky face materialized in the thin light from the shaft. The man’s features, once no doubt handsome, assumed a fierce countenance, scarred and peppered with a disheveled beard. His eyes fixed upon her keenly.
“You already think me rude,” he said with mild amusement. “And I admit, you are correct. I am Notirin, and an assassin. I have been captured only weeks, I think.”
“What misfortune brought you here?” Naome asked.
“Difficult to say. I suspect I was caught in the midst of a quarrel between sorcerers.
“I had been commissioned by the magician, Su-Mharna, to remove a certain prince that vexed him — not to worry for your kin, this prince was of a city on the northeastern coast. And I was commissioned well. Anyway, I had only just infiltrated the keep of this potentate and slain his tower guard, when our icy host, apparently Su-Mharna’s rival in some matter, invested several of his shadowy minions against me.
“I fled them into a great forest, and actually thought I’d lost them. Imagine, a common assassin, well, not so common actually, but still, up against the hordes of nightmare. Needless to mention, I was captured at a riverside camp, and brought here.
“And here I have languished, without explanation or visitor. Once per day, or at least I assume that often, a bit of bread and water is lowered by yonder chain. They keep me alive for some rich torment, I think.
“And what about you, maiden? By what method were you summoned to this dungeon? You were deposited opposite me about two days ago, although I cannot be sure of the time.”
Naome shuddered and breathed out slowly. “I was carried here, by winged creatures. I have no idea why I was captured.” She had an idea actually, but her mind continued to keep it distant.
“What errand had brought you so deep into the north country in the first place?” The Notirin’s eyes glinted with interest.
“I wasn’t in the north country. I was stolen from the ocean near Jadh.”
The assassin was stunned and sat, dumbfounded, for a moment.
“You were captured, and then flown thousands of leagues? How do you still live? The ice, the cold?” His eyes narrowed. “Someone wanted you to live, wanted you, very badly. Who are you, my young friend? Who, that the mighty Morthraxas would reach across the world to acquire you?”
In the quiet gloom of their mutual confinement, Naome could think of no reason not to answer. “I am a princess of the Jadhan empire. The youngest daughter of Thaphsis Amryth. Perhaps you could ransom me, if only you could free us from these cells.”
The Notirin laughed. “An excellent notion, your highness, and one I may consider, should we find ourselves in different circumstances. The house Amryth, indeed. Well, I must compliment you on your courage. Such conditions as these must not appeal to your noble sensibilities. You must be a strong girl.”
Naome smiled wanly. “I am not like my sisters. They would make fearsome leaders, but I doubt they could withstand this indignity.” She paused and her voice grew distant. “The empire may be lost. You would be pleased, sir Notirin. Devil apes descended on it by thousands, and the sea citadel smoked as I was taken.”
“I could never be pleased by the work of wizards.” The Notirin spat the words. “Jadh is mighty, much feared and often called cruel, but it is ruled by men, and women, and not horrors from some other world. I am not a man inclined to pity, but I feel sadness for you, torn from your home. I think now that you are no trinket. In fact, someone must have thought you a rare jewel.”
They both jumped as the great chain in the center of shaft began to tremble and then to rise with a terrific metallic clank.
“Perhaps they only bring food,” the Notirin whispered hoarsely.
They watched as a dim glow of fire below grew brighter, then tangible, then to a pinpoint of light in the murk. The pinpoint rose slowly and Naome realized that the depths of the tower must be awesome indeed. The massive chain rattled on ponderously and they could see a disk-shaped platform with a rail, about a third of the well’s diameter, rising toward them. Two figures stood on the platform, which was lit with a ring of lanterns.
Finally the platform drew near, slowed and then stopped at the level of Naome’s cell. The figures became huge and brutish, with eyes strangely oversized and liquid black. Their flesh was greasy smoke, and they shimmered as though they were slightly out of focus. One of them extended a wooden ramp across with a crash, bridging the gulf between the rim of the iron disk and the edge of her cell. The platform groaned and swayed slightly. Her escorts waited in silence.
Naome’s trapped soul turned to hoarfrost. Reluctantly, she crawled onto the ramp and began to inch across toward the platform. The gulf yawned below, threatening to swallow her into the gorge of the earth. She closed her eyes tightly and continued to creep across.
When she had nearly reached the platform, one of the shadowy giants seized her by the nape of the neck and hauled her aboard. As it grabbed her, she caught a feral smell of rot and disease. The hand that seized her (if a hand it was) was amazingly, frighteningly strong and cold as a dead thing; she knew resistance without a weapon or advantage would mean injury or worse.
Promptly, the ramp was withdrawn and the platform began to ascend again with a shudder. As it passed the Notirin’s cell, Naome saw his eyes following her with intensity. Her guards regarded him with indifference as they passed, and then he was lost in the darkness below.
The platform finally halted its jerky ascent. The diameter of the vertical corridor had narrowed steadily as they journeyed upward, until it became the precise size of the platform. Then the disk sealed the hole perfectly and Naome and her guards stepped off into a vast cyclopean courtyard. One of her escorts seized her by the elbows and threw her onto the floor.
As Naome crouched, shaking, and surveyed her surroundings, the round platform began to slowly descend again into the dungeon. Its great oiled chain, which disappeared upward into the shadows of the vaulted ceiling, was powered by some unseen mechanism. Naome felt an icy finger press her shoulder and she rose and stepped forward into the hall. Her guard stalked behind her with hushed malice.
The ceiling arched dimly overhead, several hundred feet above the level of the court. The hall was lined with fantastical pillars, huge columns of stone that towered like tree trunks in crude rows, a walkway for giants. The space was lit by hundreds of torches in iron receptacles. Pale flickers from these brands etched shadows across immense wall hangings, carvings and tapestries, some a hundred feet across, — that depicted mythical and historical events of great import.
As Naome passed through the courtyard, she noted hanging representations of the cities of the world. Barbaric Jhorkûn with its white-skinned reavers and shamans. Arcane Baal-zhon, where powdered eunuchs carried humans to sacrifice on the ziggurats. Lonely Lindar in the northern mountains, where it was said men flew in great machines. Countless others.
And here was Jadh, with its sea walls and towers. Only this was an older Jadh, twenty score years ago, when Emperor Polylephis II ruled the world. His great dragon galleon was there, sewn into brocades of silk and beads, and there alongside him was Shaphesh, with tentacles coiled protectively about the coast.
Further along the courtyard was a sculpture of the cosmic battle between the Six of the Gulf, ferocious demon-gods from the outer spheres, and the first rune priests of men, who awakened the demons by accident, but then imprisoned them behind a barrier between worlds. All Jadhan students learned this cautionary tale, as a metaphor for the double-edged blade of the human intellect; delve deeply, but carefully. They also learned that the world was not made for men and good deeds, but for darkness and torment. Only through vigilance could the forces of malignancy be kept at bay.
The faces of the demons looked particularly fearsome in the wandering light of the torches, and Naome felt a thrill of fright at the realism with which they had been depicted. Each of the Six was there: Soggot, the Keeper of the Well; Hhaborym, the Unbearable; Sekhmet and Ghank, the Profane Twins; E’erzhag of the Flesh; and Adhramelech, who was the worst and could not be slain.
A stab of cold from behind dropped Naome to her knees. She glanced back balefully at her escort, and then stood and proceeded across a field of stone mosaics. Two milky pearls clicked together secretly in her pocket.
The ceiling of the courtyard dropped down and then the roar of rushing water drowned out all sounds. Naome and her captors emerged onto an arching bridge over a river that shouted below in a torrent. The bridge was a baroque iron structure with rails at shoulder height. It was narrow and rattled as they crossed single file over a span of about fifty feet. On the far side of the chamber they exited into a triangular room painted in elaborate symbols, one on each block of the floor and walls.
Naome’s stomach began to creep into her mouth as she recognized the script on the stones as the same writing on her belly. What was it that Lamsahtu had called it ? — the mhazzol-hrem. Goosebumps prickled along the nape of her neck.
She stepped through a doorway and came face to face with Morthraxas the Ill-conceiver.
The decrepit sorcerer dismissed her escort with an effete gesture of his hands. The figures seemed to shrink in stature as he did this and they melted away, plainly relieved to depart his presence. Morthraxas stood tall, nearly eight feet, and was grotesquely lean. His arms and long fingers were pallid and skeletal, and were swallowed within the voluminous sleeves of his velvet black robe and train. The sorcerer’s face was saturnine and bald. As Naome reacted to the sight of him, his lips drew back in a grin and he clapped his hands together with a flourish.
“Ah, my royal visitor,” he demurred in a voice etched with humor and false assurance. “I am delighted you have seen fit to join me. This room is an improvement on your earlier accommodation, yes?”
This statement was true, although Naome recoiled from the power of the sorcerer’s voice. This room was triangular also, but much larger in area and height than the previous one. A huge fire burned in a pit in the center and rolling lines of smoke vented through a natural draw in the ceiling. Despite its cavernous space, it was decorated with only a few pieces of furniture: two small couches, a large table atop a dais, a brazier and a small washbasin. The wall to the right of the doorway was covered over entirely with stone shelving, on which were literally thousands of manuscripts and vellum rolls. Glass globes of various sizes and colors, filled with murky liquid, hung from the shelves like ornaments. The largest of these, a jet black orb the size of a fist, was fastened to a straight wooden staff that leaned against the table.
Those are souls, Naome thought. She gaped at the sorcerer, her weariness and fatigue from numerous terrors having taken their toll.
“What is your need with me, wizard? I have suffered much at your hands, so you may spare me false courtesy. You have stolen me from my people and destroyed much that I loved. Tell me what you want of me, and then be done with it!” Her voice sounded thin and frightened in the great chamber.
The sorcerer smiled pleasantly. “Oh, an impetuous child. I wondered, one must wonder, when the correspondence is at such a distance. I could see you, and sensed your worth, but only now can I truly sample your mind. How marvelous. You are quite precious to me, you may trust in that.”
Although Morthraxas towered over Naome, he circled her with something like caution, observing her with great interest. But the princess turned to face her captor and made bold answer.
“You must realize, wizard, that I do not share your enthusiasm. Our correspondence has been one-sided and I have been at the disadvantage. And you are mistaken, if you think I will provide value to you, in ransom or tribute. My city was ruined in the attack of your evil messengers. My father, — my family.” Her voice broke, but only slightly. “There may be none left in the empire that can pay ransom for my return.”
Morthraxas nodded his head gently in agreement, maintaining a pleased demeanor. He regarded Naome thoughtfully, as an artisan might his unfinished masterwork. “My lovely creature, you are correct in some of this. Of course your father, and your sisters, have been burned with your decadent city.”
Naome drew a trembling breath and dug her fingernails into her cheeks, fighting a torrent of emotion.
The sorcerer frowned in apparent concern. “Don’t worry for them, they met a fitting end. As did your gallant fleet of ships, sent smoking to the sea bottom. It was unfortunate that they had all been gathered for your ceremony!
“I am sure that you valued these things, these people, for your sentimental reasons, but let me assure you: Had you have seen the ages of the world turn, the passing of millennia, as I have, you would realize the only thing of any lasting value from Jadh has been collected and is now safely in my grasp.” Morthraxas lowered his eyelids, almost reverently. “And that is you, my young empress. I conjured the army of winged apes at enormous personal cost. Perhaps my conjuring was overwrought, with grave consequence for your pitiable empire. It is of small concern now.”
Naome watched the sorcerer as he crossed the floor to the washbasin. With his back to her, he stooped and meticulously rinsed his hands.
“And now, my young creature, I will demonstrate your worth to me, and how you will serve as the vehicle of my power.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but was silenced powerfully by a torrent of mist that swept up around her. With surreal speed, four shapes oozed from the mist and seized her. They bore her away toward the dais, hurling her onto the stone table at its summit. Her red hair spilled slowly across the stone beneath her neck. She lost consciousness for a moment. When she swam up from the daze, she found that she had been fastened to the table with iron rings and bolts.
Morthraxas ascended the steps toward her, rising like a mountain in a dark dream. His face, backlit by flames, flickered with conflicted emotions. He trembled slightly.
“You are the bearer of my rune, young empress. You see, it was easy to find you. When you entered the ritual of your people, your soul lit up across the void like a red fountain of fire. I flew toward it, and there it was that I discovered the handiwork of your Shaphesh, the sea-witch.” He spat the name as though it revolted him.
“I then set upon her spell with my own hand. Only I hold the knowledge to accomplish this, to turn the work of a sea demon against its purpose.
“However,” he continued, tracing his bony finger almost lovingly across her check and then down her neck to the shoulder, “I was interrupted. I felt you slip away, as though you resisted my advance.” Morthraxas exhaled with resignation at the thought. “At that time, I could not recover you. But here, well, here you can resist me no longer. And I intend to finish the device that I have begun.”
Naome was not prepared to reason with the sorcerer; she could scarcely comprehend what had befallen her. “What is it that you want?” she whispered. “What can I possibly provide that your magic cannot wrest from the kingdoms of the world?”
Morthraxas tore her cloak, revealing the mhazzol-hrem rune. His eyes narrowed. “Power,” he breathed. “Young fool, you are a thing of power. And when my rune on your body is complete, I will be a master of demon slaves from the Gulf. You, my dear, will be the door through which they are ushered, born into bondage to me. All kingdoms, all worlds, shall grovel then.”
The sorcerer left her to examine several steel instruments that glowed red-hot nearby in a brazier. When he was satisfied with their condition, he gathered his brushes and a vial of ink and returned, leaning over her. His velvet robe quivered.
Then, as in the dream, Naome felt the unwanted sensation of a cold brush, painting new lines of permanence onto her stomach. The ink stank and burned her eyes as he stirred and adjusted the vial. Small whimpers rose and fell behind her clenched teeth.
“The rune is nearly complete,” the sorcerer hissed. “I almost regret that this last row of symbols must be writ upon your flesh with flame. A pity, to further defile the body of such a lovely vessel.”
But strangely, as the sorcerer moved again toward the brazier and its smoking instruments that would soon be laid across her bare skin, Naome did not think of his menacing words, or the rune, or the icy leagues separating her from her lost empire.
She thought only of two cold orbs, deep in the pocket of her cloak. Those orbs, the pearls of Shaphesh, seemed strikingly large and distinct. Although her hands were bound in iron, she seemed to feel their cool texture on her palm. They were perfect globes, too large to be pearls really, and of flawless smoothness.
Morthraxas murmured an incantation, his voice nearly sad, and lifted his burning metal pen. He bent over the princess and the smell of hot iron and sulfur rent the air.
But to Naome, the sorcerer had become ethereal and his mutterings were vague background sound. The pearls loomed like titans, suspended above her in space, their surfaces alive with shifting color. They became twin worlds, and they thrummed with energy.
Morthraxas spoke. “I will now complete the script, and draw forth from this body -–““
The pearls grew, pulsed, –
“ – the spawn of the Gulf, your children –“
— shimmered, humming and crackling —
The sorcerer paused, the burning pen sputtering in his trembling hand. A new sound, a dim grinding sound. Vibrating in the deeps of the tower.
— opening, something was opening–
“What? What is happening? Fool, what have you done?!”
Then Naome’s voice, disembodied, inside herself: “COME.”
— a breach in the ceiling of the room, in the sky, the stars, behind which shone an appalling dark. Two terrible white orbs.
Something was coming —
“How can – NO! The rune is incomplete! You cannot, must not do this!”
The sorcerer stumbled, scattering his brushes and instruments.
Her voice again, without sound, but with smooth, unrestrained strength: “COME, I BID YOU, INTO THIS REALM.”
The white orbs became malefic eyes. Then something black rose up, and swelled and grew, casting a shadow of radiant dark. The black shape filled the chamber and grew and bloated, until the moons of the northlands were plunged into a nether eclipse.
Naome screamed on the table, but the sound was joined and then swallowed by an unearthly bellow, a basso shout that shattered stone and smote the trees in the valley below the obelisk. The sorcerer became a thin purple shadow beneath the gigantic shape that vomited darkness. He fled, shrieking, into some wizard hole, pursued by the roaring colossus.
Naome sat up, dazed, her iron bonds shattered. The air was strong with dust and brimstone. Her eyes searched the tables and coffers of the room, the bundles of scrolls and vials, and then she saw it: the naked blade of Lathandrûn, resting upon a shelf. She rose swiftly and snatched the weapon up, clutching its cold against her breast. With a glance behind her, she dashed from the room.
Chaos mounted in the corridors as she passed through the triangular room, then the bridge and the roar of its river. Fearsome scuttling swelled about her as she entered the cyclopean courtyard. She thought wildly of escape, but another idea kept surfacing, unbidden and unrelenting.
The assassin. She must free the assassin from his imprisonment.
Naome turned toward the well, sword clenched in her fist, as though that were her solitary purpose.
And there, where the courtyard met the stone platform, she found the minions of Morthraxas. Faceless, their gray shapes writhed in the misery of their enslavement and they groaned and heaved as one mass to block her exit from the chamber.
From somewhere the princess found her contralto voice and it rang off the massive stone relief. “My quarrel is not with you. Your master’s magic has failed, or will soon enough, and you with it. Do not hinder me or I will destroy you. I am an aggrieved woman.”
The shapes hesitated and the rumor of their doubt passed across the chamber like the shadow of a fast-moving cloud. But some of Morthraxas’ sorcery remained, and the horde gathered itself and began to advance upon her.
Naome raised the sword of Na-Dhogûn and swung it with all her remaining strength at her assailants. Those smitten groaned like the damned souls that they were and fell into a jumble of torn limbs and ash. The princess was beset by them on all sides, and she slashed ferociously and sidestepped the ruin of their bodies, attempting to cleave a path to the well. Lathandrûn made a horrid song of snapping and grinding; its blade was indeed keen and it dismembered those slaves of the sorcerer that it touched.
But though the princess fought bravely, her fury and anguish were quickly spent, and she became surrounded by writhing phantom bodies. Slowly they tightened their circle. As they laid cold hands upon her, she closed her eyes and let her sword fall. Her mind drifted to warm, salty seas, thousands of leagues and years hence. She thought briefly of Shaphesh, the strange alien patron of her lost city.
Suddenly a shriek rose from a distant corridor, followed by a scream like metal being torn violently.
The sorcerer’s hold over this place is broken, she thought dimly.
As if in response, the remnant of his dark servants released her and began to fall back, uncertain now, and to fade. As they lost corporal form, they bled away, swept like ashes on an icy wind back to the Gulf that had spawned them.
Naome gained the entrance to the well.
She stalked toward the platform of the pit and struggled briefly to move its chain. Unable to even budge the mechanism, she smote it in frustration with Lathandrûn, showering the stone with sparks. Then she paused, lowered her sword, and turned slowly back toward the sorcerer’s chamber.
From within her, again, came the commanding voice.
“RETURN, DARK SPIRIT. AID ME NOW!”
The passage behind her trembled with the approach of a shape that devoured light.
The assassin called Scipian Vojadis waited in complete dark. A tremendous shudder had torn the tower and all the tiny flames below had been extinguished. Heavy dust, or smoke, hung in the air. He could feel it when he breathed, but he could see nothing.
The princess had been gone only a short time, hours or less, but the Notirin assassin had thought of her keenly in that time. His last image of her, as she was stolen away, was a flash of green, a flicker of fire that caught defiance in her eyes.
Perhaps she had met her end now, somewhere above his dungeon. He could not love her – he had known her not at all , and that was not the way of assassins, but he found that he wanted to know her fate more than he cared for life.
And now here was a disturbance, a terrible rumbling, descending the shaft. News of her, and probably death. He would have risen to greet it, but he could not stand beneath the low ceiling of the cell.
But what descended the shaft was neither news nor death.
The rumble grew to a raging shout that tore stone and shook the roots of the tower. Behind it, the unworldly bellow of some beast roared out, again and again. And the dark burgeoned until Vojadis felt as though he had been sewn into a sack and buried at the base of a mountain.
A white angel rode the coming dark, a solitary star in the firmament. The angel drew nearer, nearer, and became a woman in a gray cloak. Her eyes were cold and her face was pale and severe. She drew back her hood and copper hair broke from beneath it like a sunrise on fields. Below and around her, darkness and terror roiled. To look on her and the huge moon eyes of that which accompanied her was madness.
Vojadis recoiled from the onslaught of evil that swarmed about the princess, but he moved, dreamlike, when she beckoned him. He crawled from his cell, directly toward the abyss, and did not fall. At Naome’s gesture, he climbed next to her upon the back of a creature of unfathomable size and felt its impossible might beneath him. The monster was a colossus of wings and heat and hair and it rose swiftly in the shaft, bearing them both toward the upper courtyard.
Naome did not smile, but pressed her hand firmly and reassuringly over the assassin’s. He noted dazedly that her other hand clasped the pommel of a great sword, swamped in blood to the hilt. The eyes of a sea dragon on its guard glinted at him as they rose from the tower on the back of a monster. They tore through the roof of the obelisk and penetrated the icy night of Akkish.
Together they rode that hurtling shadow from the Gulf – the assassin from the east and the empress – toward the south.
Some time later, Naome stood next to the Notirin for the first time and he thought her tall for a western woman. Her mouth was hard, but her eyes warmed as dawn colored the Namarian desert. Vojadis rubbed his bearded cheeks and pushed away the nightmare of the long frozen ride on the shoulders of hell.
“What of the sorcerer?” he asked.
The face of the empress was steel. “Fled. Gone. Not slain, I think.”
The assassin absorbed her words, nodded.
Naome looked up at him and her eyes were arresting. “I suppose you will fear me now.”
Vojadis smiled slightly. “Fear you? You leave me little choice, empress. You have rescued me, and shown me things I cannot explain, for which I want no explanation. That hellspawn, that we rode out of the north lands. It obeyed you, I believe. As though you were its master. I must fear that.”
He squinted as the sun lifted above the dunes. “I know nothing about you.”
“I know nothing either,” she answered, “but one thing.
“That which fashioned our escape, that creature of the Gulf, was Hhaborym, called Unbearable. One of the Six from legend. I don’t even know how I know this. I don’t even believe in demons. But somehow I summoned him, and controlled him. Now I’ve released him into this world.
“All of this has something to do with some sort of magic cast on my body, but it was me. I chose to exert the power.”
“I believe that. I watched you. And I watched that, that thing claw its way from the tower through living stone. It feared you, and that frightens me most of all.”
Naome nodded. The wind hissed softly across the upper mesas and dunes of Namar. As the sun climbed, the sands transformed, gliding from soft purple to warmer shades of amber and orange. Soon all would be harsh and glare.
“Your demon brought us out of Akkish, to the southern edge of the great forest, to Namar. Where will you go now, empress?”
Naome frowned at the desert. “I have no home, not for hundreds of leagues. I am empress of nothing. I am no one. And now I have unleashed one the oldest foes of men into the world.”
She turned to him. “Where does the wind blow, assassin?”
“For me, it blows toward Notir,” he said quietly.
They descended the ridge into the great desert of Namar, toward the corrupt lands of Notir. And for a while, the rune of the mhazzol-hrem slept uneasy on her belly.
He was recently awarded that university’s President’s Medal for Exemplary Teaching and Scholarship. Although he has written numerous papers for climatology and environmental science journals, and studies winter storms of the Midwest for a living, this is his first published work of fiction.
He draws creative inspiration from many sources, but especially the dark fantasy and weird fiction of Michael Moorcock, Robert Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft. He lives in his office, and also in a house on the edge of the prairie in western Indiana with his wife, daughters, dog and cats.