I am standing upon the edge of a sheer promontory overlooking Helmouth, waiting for the black sun to lift above the edge of the world. I am waiting for a sign.
I have been waiting here twenty-three turns. Some would find such protracted expectancy tedious. They are not with me. I will hold this space as long as I am able. Waiting, I have sung my prayers, sat with my death, and from her drawn strength and perspective. She is without concern for moments past, or those to come.
Far beneath me, the basin valley is blanketed with the black breath of the Well at its heart. Random bursts of flame and unchained energies illuminate the boiling poisons from below.
The air presses and swirls around me, brushing my face, fanning my hair, filling my nostrils—sweet, without a trace of the taint driven on the scouring winds beneath my vantage. In this place, the gust precedes the rising. If a sign is to come this turn, it will be now at the black sun’s first glance over the nor’n edge.
The horizon blazes with a halo of purest white barely longer than it takes to tell of it. Shiric’s Fangs, towering in the distance, are set in stark relief against the featureless dark of the void by that single, brilliant flash. Even as the afterimage of those spires fades from my vision, a sliver of darkness blacker than the Night, peeks above the rim of the world.
At the touch of Gog’s power, ghostly hues coruscate among the edge lands. A wave of dancing colors floods across the surface of Hevn, and, as the wake passes through, the ground beneath my feet begins to show its own Color. Great Gog rises, a grand silhouette. I don my battledress, my weapons, my cloak, and my Face as the land around me radiates a deep crimson cast.
The Brethren and Guardians have seen the white aurora as well and I send a gesture across the distances separating us. Events precipitated hundreds of yarnn past speed now toward conclusion. I embrace the air beyond the precipice and drop into the cloud squirming against Helmouth’s walls.
A viscous wind sluices past me as I plummet in darkness. I am not afraid. The confrontation approaching summons me. There is an implacable peace flowing to me from my own discipline and precision. I feel the influence of my nee’m, The Lord Fayne, and encompassing that, the everywhere-presence of Source. Their power blends within me, coursing, resonating like a chord. I am the Fist of White Light, flung from my master’s hand into the heart of darkness. I am swift, bright death to his enemies.
Beneath the effluent of Helmouth’s engines, I alter my trajectory. Straight as a beam I hurl myself low across the blasted landscape toward the outer wall of the mighty kal’un surrounding the Well. Monolithic black ramparts loom ahead, their upper reaches cloaked in whorls of smog. Spaced at intervals along these faceless, carved cliffs are buttresses of dark metal, dully reflecting jets of flame and plumes of incandescent gas escaping from exhaust ports along their pitted spines. Each outflung structure terminates in a watchtower. I observe regimented activity in and around these outpost garrisons and upon the interconnecting roadways, but I am unconcerned with it. I am invisible – just another wraith in a land that spawns wraiths like bloodflies in a stagnant pool.
I could glide over top those lofty battlements and from there arrow straight to Helmouth’s heart, but ‘could’ already would have done so and did not. A Seal, an unlawful power set atop these fortifications, connects them to the void above the world. No living thing can cross that barrier. It has been tried.
Without slowing, I veer to parallel the wall at a distance. The Sor’n Gate is not far and if I am to breach the outer defense, that is where I will begin.
No alarm has yet been raised. My advance has been swift and direct. Alone, cloaked, and shielded, I must seem insignificant, a speck blown across a dark wasteland only to be dashed helplessly against the impregnable might of these colossal walls, if I am observed at all.
My boots settle into the dead soil of a low hillock of mostly heavy machine waste less than a chase from the Sor’n Gate. I stand among the fragments of a grove that once towered here, suffocated and shattered now.
Few of my Order have penetrated this far into The Enemy’s domain. No scout, no infiltrator has survived long enough to map its defenses. What is known has come from their efforts piecemeal and a few agents of The Enemy apprehended and put to the question, most often with little gained from the exchange. The Fayne’s far-seers apparently cannot see much here either. Even the Gifted do not attempt passage in this place after the first few who tried were lost, returned to us still lost, their taproots burned out.
I pause to observe and allow my symbiote to record the scene before me.
The Gate stands open outward by half from the palisade of the Outer Wall. It is composed of two solid slabs of smooth, unreflective material, preposterously large in comparison to any other kal’un’s gateway anywhere on Hevn. The means of their manufacture is beyond the scope of any known craft, except perhaps the secretive Methodists. This would be their work. I can only wonder what manner of creature or engine might be massive enough to require the use of such a portal.
Flanking the Gate on either side, stand a pair of sentinels carved of some dense black stone. Whether machined or shaped by uncommon means, I cannot determine, but each is a colossus, magnificent and grotesque, armor and scales and war faces from night-fever dreams. Each has been dressed out by untold ranks of artisans to an unexpected degree of detail.
A chase distant from the Gate in each direction, watchtowers thrust out onto the plain like flaming iron fists.
Behind the Gate, a mighty portcullis stands open only enough to issue a controlled stream of workers and vehicles in and out. Some of the vehicles are sleek, moving swiftly above the ground with obvious purpose, constructs of the Methodists as well, I have no doubt. Others are huge, lumbering machines. A convoy of them, laden with cargo, is heading ees-ward on the connecting highway with its accompaniment, armed and armored. I see also numerous gaunt, hollow-eyed humans crowded into carriers or walking in knots along a treacherous margin of this thoroughfare and intersection. Most of them are Grays. I note as well, striding unimpeded among the shuffling human foot-traffic, much larger, powerful figures in armor, the Moct’unguc-she’chah, those we call d’moni.
Visible behind the portcullis, layers of heavy industry are laced and interconnected by pipeline and conduit. Stacks belch fire and darkness. A precipitation of soot and particulate waste drifts everywhere within like a snow of shadows. The sounds of stone being ground to powder, screaming metal, and tormented lives issue from that portal.
A wide, turgid river winds across the ruined land this side of the Well. It springs pristine from the highlands of the Well basin’s nor’n rim. It falls into Helmouth and finds its way to the ground. It curves around Kal’un Shiir’n’s Outer Wall and past the bustling Nor’nees Gate, where it is bridged by a causeway. This much I know from my geographies and what has been gleaned. Steaming tributaries of waste vent from apertures along the base of the Outer Wall all along its sor’ward course to this dismal ditch. Here the river seems to ooze rather than flow between barren shores, a mottled pudding with phosphorescent eddies.
Drifts of caustic foam accumulate against desolate banks. Volatile elements combine beneath an undulating surface causing blisters to rise up and burst, disgorging a spew of sizzling, gelatinous venom and stains of brightly colored pus. A hidden current of some glowing goo surfaces, bursts into flame and folds under again, snuffed with a sibilant hiss. All along this serpentine midden, a fume rises. It swirls on a polluted breeze and settles as a haze in the lowlands. I am grateful I cannot smell this place.
Near my vantage point, the entire volume of the river funnels into a narrow chasm. The flood of chemical stew and slag cascades into the under-world in a maelstrom. A plume of corrosive vapors, ghosts of flame, and an endless guttural cry of despair mark its descent.
Arranged in a crude semi-hecs on the wasteland between the Gate and my place of concealment, a human settlement sprawls, bracketed by the guard towers and a questionable degree of separation from the river. It is a low, greasy-looking khenn. I note the patchwork of hives and hovels, the garish centers of social distraction, and the desperate, distorted beings huddled behind flimsy walls. I feel pity for them, and revulsion.
Movement on an unexpected scale steals my attention from the plight of these lives in the shadow of the Black Kal’un. I see the nature of it and my death is at my side, sharing with me this instant of disbelief.
Both of the gigantic monuments flanking the Gate have turned and are bending down, horrific heads cocked in an attitude of curiosity. Their gazes are fixed upon the hillock where I stand.
The left one straightens and lifts its head. Its mouth opens too wide, revealing rings of backward curving fangs. A wail splits air between us.
“Do you have a deathsong, Narregan?” my death asks.
“Begin singing it,” she says.
The giant to the right moves forward with an agility unimaginable in a thing so immense. One metal shod hoof crushes structures in the humans’ gate-khenn like grass. It shifts its weight and its right arm whips toward me. Attached to a ring in its fist is a cable and something the size of Gog itself is flailing down upon my hillock. I hear it tearing the air and feel the pressure of it as I am touched, turned out, and folded upon myself.
The sensation lasts but an instant. I feel the shockwave and hear the concussion of exploding terrain somewhere behind me. I turn to see a dark globe, bristling with spikes, buried in a crater where the hillock, my death, and I stood a moment before. A hail of rock and debris falls all around. I am untouched and realize these watchers may be able to detect my shield. I allow it to collapse, trusting my cloak and our position to obscure us.
‘You cannot always count on me to rescue you at the last instant, Warrior,’ Brin’s sending in the tap between us.
Brin. My Guardian. Each of the Brethren is bound to one. I am hers.
‘And yet, you continue to do so,’ I answer.
‘As do you, Warrior. I will stay with you now as closely as I can. Don’t move.’
The gatekeepers are on the hunt. The first, having sounded warning, now advances onto the plain with a square-bladed headsman’s cleaver in each hand, each one as long as nine of me. Razor edges whisper through the air as it pivots, scanning the terrain with too many glowing amber eyes.
The other gatekeeper drags its mace free, plowing a furrow through what might have been a market district of the gate-khenn. It squats nearly to the ground, then begins to creep forward on all fours, low, its scaly muzzle only a span or two from rooftops, oblivious to the panic and devastation beneath it. Its head sweeps back and forth, nostrils flared. It makes a noise in its throat like boulders grinding together. Its face turns upon us. It roars and levers itself up and its weapon with it, whipping it around its body in a tight, screaming arc that will surely sweep us away.
Energy streams from Brin’s hands, her bolt severing the whipcord from the ring in the monster’s fist. Unbalanced, the giant topples backward onto Gate-side traffic, already in complete disarray. Uncontrolled, the hammerstar hurtles toward a new target. The first gatekeeper flinches back as it blurs past, a miss, but the trailing cable delivers a brutal lash across its chest, flinging it back against the rampart. Brin’s arms are outstretched, full attention fixed on the projectile, redirecting its course, augmenting its velocity. It has begun to glow.
Armed with a metal ring in its fist and raging, the nearest sentinel lurches up and toward us. I form a phantom node and seat it deep between the behemoth’s eyes. It takes a halting step forward, reaching. I solidify the node and quadruple its size. The thing’s forehead splinters. The top of its head splits apart. Half of it falls away in pieces. The colossus contorts and falls upon the gate-khenn, limbs thrashing.
The defenders of the outer kal have mobilized with impressive speed. A squadron of d’monii have begun to issue from out the Gate with a rolling gunship. An airborne combat platform swarming with smaller attack craft has already launched toward the fracas from the nearest garrison tower to our left. Too late.
Brin’s wild missile bludgeons through the approaching air-craft and slams into the watchtower. The resulting fireball reaches the outskirts of the gate-khenn and everything still airborne within the blast radius joins a cloud of shrapnel and slag expanding outward behind a punishing shockwave. I pull Brin to me and hold her close, my shield and hers reinforcing each other until the pelting diminishes. Brin is small and supple, resonating with power, and I indulge a peculiar sensation of peace the moment affords.
‘There is our way in,’ she says, and we jink again, unfolding a lingering instant later in a fracture high up in the Outer Wall, above where the buttress and watchtower used to be.
Still wrapped in my arms, Brin lifts her Face to mine. ‘Did you like my fireworks?’
‘Extravagant. You are an artist.’
She nods in unselfconscious agreement.
The remaining gatekeeper, its stony flesh cracked and pocked, one arm shattered away below the elbow, stands howling with rage and frustration, turning slowly, looking for something to kill. Looking for me and Brin.
She hooks my cloak, pulling me deeper into the cleft, and we begin picking our way through the crumbling material, unstable both above and below. The organized defenders will rush to secure the much larger breach lower down. There the concentrated force of the detonation, fed by severed pipelines of who-knows-what kind of combustible exhausts from deeper within the kal produced a rupture gaping in the heretofore impenetrable Outer Barrier. Big enough to let a small army in.
The far end of the fissure is a tight squeeze. I let my shield drop once more. We are high above the ground level of the outer kal, a full two chain high by my estimate—at least six hundred spans—and fairly wedged into a hairline crack in the great battlement. An insignificant scratch it must seem compared to the yawning damage where a squadron of d’moni-spawned constructors and grunt soldiers is beginning to converge below, arraying themselves to guard the aperture until repairs can be affected. No doubt The Enemy himself has turned his attention to the disturbance on his kal’un’s sor’n boundary.
An air-car approaches from the direction of the black-walled inner kal. There, beyond a landscape of heavy production, I glimpse the pinnacle of a glass-smooth construct, a black needle poised to penetrate the writhing vortex cloud above it, dark lightning streaming at its tip.
I hear Brin’s footfall behind me and leathern wings slap air just ahead.
A dozen drack riders in close formation pass by, lightly armored, heavily armed. Each is mounted astride a flying atrocity—mostly teeth, talons, and spiked hide.
It is too early in the game to engage any of the massing companies, either on the ground or in the air as they flock to the carnage at the Sor’n Gate. The din and bustle of regimented d’monii gathering below is punctuated by handlers barking orders, a piercing, rapid-fire harangue. Any engagement at this point will surely draw the Black Nee’m’s most specific attention.
The last pair of riders pass. I form a node in a fracture above the opening and expand it. A weakened section of the wall several times my size breaks free and falls away down the sheer inner face. I fall with it as it plunges into the smoke haze, drifting free of it a moment before it thunders into the crowded avenue below. Another moment and the ensuing commotion is behind me.
I weave with deliberate speed through the smog and ashen snow, through a maze of infernal industry. I pass the boundary of a mine. Heavy machinery and workers of several varieties mill about the gaping mouths of shafts stabbed straight into the tortured land. The din is fierce. I veer to avoid the intense heat of the smelters. My shield would protect me, but I am reluctant to use it again.
Curious that I would think of re-activating the shield at this moment. I am not sure if I actually hear, or feel the wings beating at my back before the talons strike. My shield solidifies ahead of the blow that might have torn my spine out through my armor.
I allow myself to fall, as if damage has been done, on an arcing trajectory that carries me near the boundary of a processing facility. I hit the ground and roll onto my back. The drack is plunging to rip me apart. Its head is rimmed with spikes thrust forward, wide-open beak lined with razors, all four feet poised to rend, powerful toes splayed, each tipped with a scimitar. The beast’s rider is no threat at all. He is holding on for his life as his mount’s descent nears a bone-shattering conclusion.
I swing my weapon up and put a slug through the drak’s brisket. The hapless rider, saddle, and a fountain of giblets trace a new path to the ground as the thing’s carcass craters me into the ashen soil. Even shielded, it hurts. I pry myself out of the crushed mass and stand on uncooperative legs, covered in gore. I drop the shield for now, a precaution, and the pulpy mess sluices to the ground around me.
Brin looks amused at my unsteadiness and plucks an errant bit of entrail from my cloak. ‘No doubt the rider alerted his unit before his drack struck you down.’
Even as I realize she could have shifted me away from the force of the blow that rocked my bones, I can feel some of her power streaming to me. It makes my skin prickle, but the pain eases and I am grateful she did not interfere. My blood is up.
‘We must assume there is a squadron enroute.’ I point toward the dark spire. ‘Can you jink us there?’
‘Ee’eh. It’s warded. I could get us closer, but not inside.’
Just discernible in the distance I can see a tight knot of winged forms approaching.
‘We are flat-footed now and visible. We need to move.’
‘Wait.’ Brin resists my attempt to pull her forward with ease and points to the boiling black that is the sky in this land, back in the general direction of the Outer Wall.
The air-car I spied earlier is speeding in our direction. It seems on an intercept course with the oncoming air cavalry detachment. And us. Perfect.
Brin is silent for a moment, eyes fixed on the craft. Then she is gone and the air shudders where she was. I turn to the airborne harriers, closer now and fanning out to bracket me. I am without cover here. Cloaked, I know the riders cannot see me yet, but their chargers can. On signal, I see their weapons come up. They are close enough now to begin strafing. I would meet them in the air, but I must trust my guardian. Just a few moments more.
The air wrinkles beside me.
‘Make yourself small. It’s tight up there.’
I wrap my arms around my knees, chin to chest. My stomach seems suddenly to be connected to my ears and I am certain I can feel the soles of my bare feet behind my eyelids. Brin bends space between us and the air car, even as the ground around us begins to erupt.
~ ~ ►