I have the sensation of falling. My descent is roughly the width of my outstretched hand, but I plop with a graceless, reflexive jolt into a resilient surface. It was a moving target, after all.
I am in the rear seating area, just behind the pilot. Next to me is a startled t’sunguc, a Gray human. He is a stick figure, attired in the standard black and tan uniform of those in The Enemy’s employ. No insignia. An observer. He has a narrow, hairless head with a nose like an axe set between tiny, close-set black eyes. These are presently wide with surprise. The creature’s mouth is a lipless slash, partly open as if about to utter a command or warning. His head jerks to observe Brin in the front next to the pilot. One of her hands is pressed against the pilot’s head, the other might be in his lap. The observer swallows hard and turns back to consider me. His eyes are narrowed, filled with hatred.
My Face is featureless, so by way of clarification, I raise my weapon and cause the barrel to flare open as it telescopes toward his head, enough he can glimpse and feel the core of fury within. No heavy projectile for this one. I would not wish to blow out the side of our misappropriated transport. There are more finely controlled energies at my disposal. I am rewarded with a cringe and a satisfying ripple of fear across his disagreeable features.
“Rather than paint your quadrant of this fine craft with you, Observer, consider this. You may yet live to see the next turn. I have no pressing desire to end you, but know that if you betray our presence before we can beg an audience with your nee’m, no force on Hevn, not even he who owns you, can stop this one,” I indicate Brin with a nod, “from taking you to the edge of the world and hurl you screaming into the Night.”
The gash under his nose opens again, but slack this time.
Brin, finished with the pilot, swivels her seat to face the man. He recoils. I flair the last muzzle segment with a sharp, deliberate clack. His attention divided, she clasps the sides of his head and I snub my weapon.
In every life, moments arrive that test one’s spirit. These moments are the culmination of choices made in this direction or in that connection, but always come down to an instant, that shard of chance, in which every subsequent outcome pivots on a decision made balanced on the edge a blade. There is no preparation for such an instant, there is only the willingness to act with complete commitment and trust in one’s own ability.
Faith is a word. I think it is meant to suggest the clarity of perception one obtains by acting in just such a way and, over time, the certainty that no matter the result of the act, live or die, the act itself is in harmony with the intent and flow of Source; it is, in that moment, pure and potent.
My body relaxes as the air-car whispers its way into the inner kal. My mind reminds me how vulnerable we are here and wants to dart to every possibility of failure. What if…? Will we be immobilized by dark forces before either of us can react or simply be struck from the turbid sky by black lightning?
I am aware of this wheel in my surface-mind spinning itself aimlessly. It is natural and I give it no weight. My heart is light. My choice is made, and I shall flow with it until the next choice presents itself.
No dark lightning reaches out to consume us. No phalanx of defenders rushes to surround our craft as it settles into its berth. More than half of the dozen bays are occupied by similar craft, but for the moment, the dock is without activity. Brin waits apart by the moored air-car with the pilot and the observer and I approach the bay’s threshold.
Above, the canopy billows and coils like a bowl of snayks, illuminated at intervals by vented flame from below and energies raging within. It is like the river at the Sor’n Gate, but inverted. Yet, against all reason, the air here is clear and without turbulence. I risk one step out onto that sheer calm to see just beyond the dock’s verge what none of the Brethren have ever seen.
It is so close that, were there sufficient light, I might see my reflection in its mirror-perfect surface, but it is darker than black, as if carved from Gog’s own matter. The central spire of Kal’un Shiir’n rises without blemish, seam, or portal from its prodigious circular base to a needle point. It pierces the festering sky and, around it, chained lightning seems not to radiate, but to gather. The Black Lord’s stronghold. His throne. His prison.
I comprehend the implications of the scene. Shiric’s spire is built directly atop the Black Well and all the incomprehensible power of that elemental mystery is channeled and concentrated, coursing through it. To Him. Shiric Mael’efac Lecudis. The Oldest Enemy.
I motion to my guardian and she approaches. She steps out onto the air beside me and takes in the majestic abomination that is The Enemy’s keep. I see that she too understands and she steps back into the dock.
‘Master, do you see this?‘ my silent sending.
‘Ha’eh, my Fist. I see it.‘ My Lord Fayne’s whisper is velvet thunder in the back of my head. ‘Press on. I have provided a distraction for him. Nine of the Brethren and their Gifted have breached the Nor’nees Gate and cut a path toward the inner kal. They and fifty more await your sign.‘
There is nothing more to say, or see.
A distant patter resolves into the sound of running feet in the access corridor to the rear of the dock. Brin briefly palms the forehead of each of the hostages and climbs into our moored craft with the pilot. Shiric’s man and I stride unhurriedly toward the access alcove.
A clutch of humans in black and tan rush into the dock with undisciplined disregard for the possibility that a real adversary may be close enough to dispatch all of them. By their attire I make them five pilots and an equal number of observers, like my hatchet-faced companion of the moment. They barely notice us in their haste to launch themselves into the melee my mighty Brothers have brought to their front door.
Hunched, slump-shouldered, head bowed, eyes down, hair spilling over my face, I shuffle along ahead of the observer. His eyes are dull and his jaw slack, but he walks with convincing deliberation, ‘guiding’ me along the margin of a high, wide, and brightly lit passageway with the pilot’s blaster pressed into my back.
The light-bending properties of my cloak would only aid in bringing attention to our already curious tableau. Instead, it presents a mottled Gray appearance. It looks filthy and drapes around me with a sodden heaviness. I have removed my Face, an obvious giveaway, and have resolved to breathe little; the air here is fierce. I am just another victim shambling toward the Pit. The wavering portal at the end of this corridor seems very far away.
There are a few humans, Blacks mostly, a few Grays, traveling these intersecting ways. Those few appear to be functionaries, studiously oblivious to us.
As we approach the crossing of another major way, a growing clamor from the leftmost course prompts me to stop. My captor blunders into my back and rebounds, but keeps his feet under him. A cadence of boots and shod hooves and a rhythmic clap of armor and weapons reverberate in these broad halls as two tightly regimented cadres of Black d’moni cross our path just ahead. I keep my head down.
The moct’unguc code has been seeded into every Color, where they spawn in modest numbers and great variety. The characteristics of the species, even their general appearance, may be vastly different from one Color to the next and, as with people, their individual natures depend on environment as much as their genetic bias. What they all seem to have in common is a predisposition to despise and, whenever practical to do so, kill the t’sunguc. In High Speech, it means “the lesser”, humans. Whether they be neutrals from the Gray lands or Color-born, humans have nothing in common with d’monii beyond a general physiological similarity and mutual abhorrence. These moccs spawned in the Black lands are berserkers bred only for combat. Here are forty-eight of them.
Both squads charge past at double-time and, if any notice us, we are of no consequence.
As if in counterpoint, a raggedy gaggle of troccs comes lumbering behind them, driven by d’moni handlers. The knuckle-dragging Troct’unguc-she’chah are huge, the smallest of them head and shoulders above their overseers. From their pin heads to their powerful legs and enormous feet, they look like walking pyramids. Dim-witted and pugnacious, what they lack in intelligence they more than make up for in physical strength, resilience, and a near-mindless appetite for violence. Only judicious applications of bribery and torment keep them in rudimentary check. This herd stampedes past without noticeable organization, but their handlers keep them moving forward and that is, apparently, enough. All are heavily outfitted. Some carry what amount to artillery slung over sloping shoulders, others lug, swing, or drag along personal armaments. All wear cobbled-together pieces of black and tan armor and they gallop past with a blissfully stupid expression on their malformed, idiot faces.
I hate these creatures at an instinctive level. For an instant I struggle against the ridiculous urge to draw my weapon and go to work on this mob, but it passes with the last of them pounding out of sight, no doubt to bolster the inner kal’s defense.
I am about to congratulate myself on the success of my camouflage when the last of the troccs’ handlers, a hulking Red, halts in the middle of the crossroads glaring at the two of us with ferocious orange eyes. A symbol tattooed beneath her left eye marks her as an officer.
On cue, my captor stiff-arms me from behind using the blaster as a prod and I manage to stumble forward convincingly. Our goal is only a cast away. Together we step out into the crossroad and past the d’moni captain. She clamps a scaly hand on the shoulder of Shiric’s agent, speaking in a strident language I know all too well. I maintain a submissive posture. I believe she is poised for me to give myself away. I also know that in moments, the fog will lift from my hostage’s mind and I still require him to open the portal.
I look up, just a sidelong glance, enough for her to see my face, see what I am. She stops barking at the observer and looks confused, then alarmed, probably by the node I formed inside her throat. She jolts, releasing the observer, and powerful, spastic hands reach out. One grasps my cloak, the other, her throat. I put my Face back on. Recognition and disbelief collide in her eyes and she arches to deliver a crushing blow that never falls. I leave her crumpled against the nearest wall where she will be found by the next passer-by, unmarked.
The observer is beginning to shake and mumble. I grab him by his twig of an arm and hustle him the remaining distance to the portal at the end of the hall. He does not resist.
The exchange with the Red captain, brief as it was, has brought my captive’s consciousness closer to the surface and, with it, a foggy notion that he may have done something to displease the Black Lord. Fear is a terrible motivator, and he is far less afraid of me than he is of his nee’m. He fights me now for control of his mind and body so desperately, in fact, that blood is seeping from his nostrils and urine is streaming down the front of his uniform trousers. Without Brin’s talents, I will lose this fight.
I feel almost sorry for this wretched little man, an insignificant one among a legion of Shiric’s sharp little ears and beady little eyes to listen and observe, cruel lipless mouths to report or convey orders, all valuable only because they can do what Shiric himself cannot. They can leave this place. The price for that freedom is, of course, they must return. My charge is now struggling to fulfill that imperative.
Circumstances have evolved to separate me from Brin. I cannot complete my mission without her. Once this portal closes behind me, it is sealed, and she will not be able to reach me. Nor, without her, will I be able to open a new portal for the Brethren inside the tower. Entrapped alone inside the power conduit of the Helmouth Well with The Enemy and his marshals arrayed against me is not exactly how I would choose my song to end. Although, it would make a stirring song, would it not?
We stand together, Shiric’s creature and I, inside this numinous gateway bridging the space between where we were and where we are going, as if they were separate realities. I feel sorry for him, but I need the portal to remain open just a little longer. His body contorts with the violence of the struggle within. Long, boney fingers of one hand tangle in a kind of knot that resolves itself into a gesture, a pass, and bloody too-thin lips open to speak the Word that matches the symbol he has made in air. I solidify a node inside his mouth large enough to wrench his jaw open. He raises the blaster and triggers it. Nothing happens. I take it away from him.
For many in the human lands, the measurement of the passage of time is important. There are several methods devised to accomplish this, all employing some arbitrary context to define incremental cycles. Nearly all, however, are based upon the one unchanging sequence: the transit of the black sun across the Night above and below the world. While advanced cultures throughout the Colors have found more complex measurements useful, the Brethren have always preferred natural rhythms as points of temporal reference. Heartbeat, breath, internal tempo in accord with the cadences of the world each lend themselves to synchronicity with it. Silent knowledge follows. These were some of my earliest lessons.
One slow breath in and out. Tension flows with it from the body into nothing. Eyes close, muscles relax.
Another long breath. Weapon fills my hand. Shield raises.
And another. Air swirls beside me as Brin blinks in. The gag in my hostage’s mouth dissolves into nothing and he chokes out the Word. The portal closes there and opens here.
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.
The unnatural doorway melts open and the hapless observer crumples to the floor.
The portal foyer is a broad semi-hecs chamber, large enough to accommodate all of the squads I saw pass by on my way here. At once. Or something much larger.
We are not alone. Three moccs in black and tan, a team in place to monitor and, ostensibly, guard the portal, seem unprepared for our arrival. The first and closest to me may have seen what hit him. The other two, at opposite segments of the room’s arc, shake off their disbelief and open up with weird, organic-looking weapons, but I am already in the air. They train their weapons upward to track me. Brin looses two bolts and the skirmish is over.
She reaches out to me as I touch down and our hands twine in a Sign. We speak the separate Words our nee’m spoke to us. A ring of White energy leaps outward, expanding unimpeded by material or ward, across and beyond the boundaries of Helmouth even unto the Edge where the Night must surely be torn by its passage. Such is The Fayne’s authority. The way is open and the sign is given.
At each end of the portal foyer, where the sentries had been posted, vaulted archways remain standing, mostly, as the only points of egress. Beyond is a pitch-dark, cavernous space. My enhancements allow little beyond shadow shapes and much movement. A cry rises, taken up by an unseen host. A low thunder of feet, hooves, wheels, clattering armor and weapons precedes a stream of troccs rushing us from each of the arches, howling, brandishing an impressive array of slashing and pummeling implements. Projectiles ping off my shield, some of them heavy enough to feel. None of them even close to a drak carcass in freefall.
I open the throat of my weapon and a beam of white fury carves a tunnel through the troop pounding in from the left, lighting up the space beyond. I see the scale of the place. It is enormous and teeming with The Enemy’s minions. I allow an extra beat or two to sweep the beam through some of them before it cuts off. The rest of the archway collapses.
The herd charging in from the other direction has begun to bunch up as I turn their flanking column to ashen mist. Their d’moni handlers, cursing and prodding, are attempting to get the brutes to fan out. They see me snub my weapon to my hip and open my arms to them and they are swift to seize the moment. Their charges launch at us again.
A hail of projectiles presses me back and I shape a node as large as I am able, making it a gyre. I send it hard into a surging wave of gibbering meat. A satisfying amount of blundering and sprawling occurs before the gyre implodes with an innocuous thud.
Air screams into the sudden emptiness and the brutes give voice to an unfamiliar instant of panic. Brin and I hold our ground until the vortex subsides. Weapons, armor, flesh and bone are homogenized into an amorphous wad of metal and gristle simmering in a shallow pit. It is not large, maybe only a dozen were drawn into the gyre’s heart. A good number more on the extremity are down. The remainder of the mob is disorganized, some fleeing over top of their handlers.
Farther back from the actual event, blistering profanity and threats, both dire and plausible, begin to stir enthusiasm for mayhem once again. Any mayhem. It is their nature. The handlers are overrun as the Brethren and their Guardians together have followed our beacon through the breach we’ve made and begin pouring into the fray. They fan outward through the remaining troccs and their d’moni guard, through the vestibule’s outer wall, and into the tower’s defenses beyond. Swon jinks in with Orlah beside her. He shoulders into me. Behind his own Face, he is grinning like a maniac.
“Just like you to leave little for us to do,” he shouts over the mounting clamor.
No blood-chilling battle-cry or clarion blare is raised to herald their arrival and wither the defenders’ resolve. The Faceless are silent and final. Yet so, the low, pulsing concussion of heavy projectile weapons, the crack and fizzle of energy cannon, and a brisant hail of bolts are punctuated by the thrum of implosion vortices, as some of my brothers have learned the gyre’s shaping as well.
I can hear them all singing. The Sisters too. I hear them in the tap. And into the tap I tell them, ‘These are all low fruit. Shiric’s marshals have not yet joined and, by The Fayne’s grace, we are here to greet them. Bring it down.’
Orlah punches my chest as Swon charges into him and they are gone in a shimmer. Unlike my brother, Swon is the thinker and, just like my own guardian, she knows how to deploy him to greatest effect.
I blow out the alcove ceiling and Brin and I glide through into the chamber above.
It is dark, cluttered with inanimate shapes and, for the moment, we are unopposed. We hug to the curve of the outer wall where it joins the next level above, Brin feeling her way without haste, searching for something our nee’m assured us would be here. Somewhere.
Reverberations from the battle spreading through the halls below precede eruptions into this level. Blazes and multiple flashes give us enough to see the tell-tales of the tween we are seeking. Brin heads toward it and I follow, covering behind.
A susurration at the edge of my awareness gains volume and dimension. It sounds like a rasping, in-drawn breath by some behemoth, one like the first gatekeeper, only more profound and… agonizing. It seems to be coming from everywhere. Coincident with this great inhalation, comes a riot of panicked cries below us and the clamor of hundreds of feet and hooves scattering, retreating in all directions. Complete disarray.
It feels as though all sound has been sucked away from us.
A screaming thunderclap roar, a raw wail of rage and horror and inhuman suffering breaks upon us like a sustained explosion, pitched to draw blood. There is, in it, the concussive force of Hav’k pounding a Churn-side seawall and the mind-numbing cacophony of a chaos storm. I am disconcerted to find myself on the floor.
My head feels split open and I do not know if it is blood or tears streaming inside my Face. Something is moving among the Brethren stunned or damaged by their proximity to that deadly siren. The tap does not filter their last instants of terror and fury as they are consumed by what they never saw. Shiric’s marshals have come to fight us.
Brin drags me upright and up into the tween. I let her haul me long enough to shake out the blur in my vision. The motion awakens a throbbing in my head and my body is beginning to respond to being pummeled into the soil not that long ago. I have no time for pain. We continue upward through darkened spaces, haste and caution in equal measure. The harrowing voice rises up again, but a distant agony this time, curtailed by a muted rumble of explosions. The battle has bought us time.
Brin turns to me in the air and pulls me to a stop, signing a warning. The way continues upward, but it is warded. I would not have seen that.
Our feet touch down in a high chamber only as broad as the Judgement Arena at High Seat. A large glowb hangs suspended a cast away, providing the sole illumination. The room’s circumference and the pitch of its tapering walls indicate we must be very near the apex of the spire. Outside these walls, wild energy scours the glassy surface, a subliminal thunder. Shiric’s sanctum must be above us.
No defenders wait to engage us, but the space is not empty. A scattering of worktables, their surfaces strewn with engines and objects I cannot identify, commands the area near us. Beyond them, a pillar of darkness pierces the center of the chamber.
Brin is scanning the surroundings, feeling for the intangible pressure of violent intention. She leans in, touches her Face to mine and, in that place behind my senses, I hear her. ‘I need a minnit to renew.’
Each of her expenditures have a cost and she has expended much. Even inside this keep with its Seals and wards, the flow of Source cannot be cut off. She leans her back against the wall and slides into a squat.
I snub my weapon and put my back to the wall, easing down beside her. Arms across her knees cradling her head, she does not look up. I remove my Face. The air is hot with a biting, metallic edge. It will not do to take it in deeply, nor for long. I wipe the congealing blood from my face.
In my pouch I have a draught that will restore vitality for a time. I am sure Brin has her own, but I offer to share mine with her and she accepts it. Without hesitation she removes her Face, wipes blood from her mouth, drains half the flask, and hands it back. She replaces her Face and lays her head back in her arms.
I swallow half the remaining liquid and, donning my Face again, stand to investigate The Enemy’s workshop. The thing I seek is near; I can feel it. I don’t know why.
“Let me know if anything comes to kill us,” she breathes to the floor.