I am Jarnak, a scribe in the Libraries of the city of Rensare. I am a thin, unremarkable man, speaking always in quiet tones, and I try to avoid the company of others. My sleep is troubled; my health poor. I am a man of no stature or wealth, of no consequence. I walk through the halls of the Library like a shadow, as if I had no substance.
This was not always so.
I have laid down my story in this tome. I
work long hours for the Library, but I have worked over my journals in
my spare time to set into the stone vaults of the archives. I live out
my last days here. No one now will believe me; but if you contemplate
crossing the Serpent's Back you must read my account and heed my
My story begins when my father called me to the capitol city of Maristaple for an audience with the emperor. Although I was young, my noble background allowed me to rise to the high rank of Valek in a short period of time. I was a successful leader of men as was my father before me. It had been over a year since I last saw my father. When I met him in the city, I could tell that he approved of the man I had grown into. We went to the palace and awaited the emperor's convenience.
At last Emperor Gutwaigen was announced, and we met him in a huge chamber with a table in the center, so large that it looked like it had been built like a house in a clearing of trees. The Emperor was a tall and imposing man, but I could tell that he was not a warrior in the way that he moved, which was overly stiff and slow. His face seemed striking but his eyes were especially sharp, and looked as ruthless as I had heard he was.
We all made obeisance to him, and as I rose I saw that a fourth man and a guardsman had entered the chamber. The guard held a roll of cloth in his hands, clearly containing some other item underneath the material. I thought it looked suspiciously like a weapon but I could not see any part of it. The other man wore strange but expensive looking clothes of shiny cloth. He had a finely trimmed and oiled mustache and I would have mistaken him for a man of leisure but for his trim build. My father introduced him as the trader Hagar. Then my father told the Emperor that I was his son, Jarnak Salthor. Gutwaigen appraised me with his intimidating eyes but I did not waver, and at last he smiled and nodded at me.
"I've read reports of your duty within the Empire thus far, and they are satisfactory. You'll serve me as your father has done, without complaint and with great victories for the Empire." He said it as a statement and not a question.
"It is so, my Emperor," I agreed.
He laughed with my father then, in the way of older companions who laugh at the enthusiasm of younger men. We settled down at the giant table and the Emperor nodded to the trader.
"My Lord Salthor tells me that you have interesting news from the West."
"I do, my Emperor."
"Tell me of this news then, trader."
"I have traveled by sea to the land of the Karpols, beyond the Serpent's Back," he said, referring to the long range of mountains that had halted the Empire's progress to the West.
"While in their strange land, I learned many things, and taught many things in turn. We made many fine trades and our expedition was extremely profitable. But I have special news that Lord Salthor bade me to share with you."
"I understand," said Gutwaigen. "Continue, trader."
"It has long been understood by men of the West that the mountains of the Serpent's Back are impassable," he said. "It's only by way of the sea that we know of the other side of the world. But I spoke to a sage in the land of the Karpols, who spoke of passage across the mountains, in the times before the writings of their five holy books. I asked him what caravans take the route these days, and where the pass lies, but he said that men no longer traveled there. I put this out of my mind as an idle fable and did not think of it for several moons."
The Emperor nodded politely, bidding him to continue.
"Later in our travels, we came to a small village and we saw a small keep overlooking a fertile valley in the foothills of the Serpent's Back. I inquired as to why a keep had been made so far into the lands of the Karpol, and why it had been constructed on the far side of the valley instead of guarding the valley's entrance. The village holy man said that he did not know. He said the keep had been there always, and that an order of knights had lived there for ages gone by."
"Naturally I was intrigued by this, and I made my way up to the keep. The fortress was extremely ancient although it had been cared for. Men lived there sure enough, but there were no knights as we know them. They had some ancient artifacts of their order, suits of metal, shields, and weapons, but they were nothing but a band of farmers and monks. I asked these men about the unnatural placement of the keep. They all told me that their order was placed by an ancient Karpol king named Karkechana, to guard the mountain passes that led across the Wall of Heaven, as they call the Serpent's Back."
At this the Emperor grunted and stroked his hairless chin. I could see disbelief in his eyes, and I must admit that I also found it hard to credit the legends of some order of knights so ancient and degenerate that they were not even capable of combat anymore. But the trader clearly was not done, and he continued enthusiastically.
"Further, I found an old man who read to me passages from some of their books, which they rescribe as the pages grow yellow and brittle. He claimed the passages were rewritten flawlessly for thousands of years, and said the exact same things that the originals had. He read to me about a great war of seven years, and of a race of men who lived with the gods on the Wall of Heaven. He read of how the great king Karkechana had defeated these men and set the order as guards to make sure they would never return to plague the Karpols."
As the Emperor listened to this, his eyebrows bunched together, but he said nothing. I glanced at him from time to time as the story went on, and I could tell he was now fascinated by the tale.
"I thought the legends quite fanciful," continued Hagar, "and very interesting, but I was not overly concerned until the old sage completed his reading and I asked him some questions. First, I asked, 'Why did the armies of Karkechana not pursue these men to their homes in the mountains, and slay them?' 'Because the Gods of Heaven were too powerful for mortals', said the sage. He said that the Gods had equipped the men with magical weapons, and the men had become so proud that they believed they could rule the Karpols. When they were defeated despite their special gifts, they fled back to the Wall of Heaven to hide behind the protection of their Gods. Then, I asked, 'Where did the passes over the Wall of Heaven go?' Of course the sage told me that some went to heaven, and others to the far side of the wall."
And now the trader sat forward, and clearly was very excited. "And thirdly, when I asked the wise man, 'But what about the other side of the Wall of Heaven?' And he told me it led to a fantastic city of men on the other side of the world, which was called Raktan."
At this the Emperor actually gasped. My father smiled in triumph.
I was quite baffled by this, and did not know the import of this last part that the trader had spoken with such urgency. The name meant nothing to me. The trader continued hastily.
"Of course I was shocked to hear this, but the name was written clearly and the sage assured me that it had not changed over the centuries. I then set about the keep, looking over their artifacts carefully, and discovered exactly the proof I had sought."
He waved the guard over to the table, who placed the mysterious roll of cloth onto the table, and opened it. I could see that it contained a sword of somewhat archaic design, but finely made nonetheless. At first I was confused but then I realized that the sword was too familiar to have come from the other side of the world. It must have been a Rykaran or Jagartic sword from a time when men crossed the Serpent's Back into Karpol.
"As you may know, Karpol swords are all two handed, and in fact they prefer the war-axe, much as the northern tribes do. This is clearly a sword from this side of the Serpent's Back. Of course, I was tempted to immediately try the pass beyond the keep, but I quickly realized that my caravan was ill equipped for such an undertaking. Also, the sage said that men had attempted to travel the pass within his lifetime, and that none had ever returned. Men never come from the pass, and he assured me that the Gods of Heaven would slay any man from the flatlands who attempted to enter their domain, ever since the ancient war had raged."
The Emperor looked amazed for a moment but he recovered quickly and looked at my father.
"This man is to be trusted? I will not play a fool to tales of wonder from a madman!" His voice seemed threatening and I must admit I was a little nervous. I had always imagined myself dying in battle but never on the axeman's block, with my hands tied behind my back.
"His word is as good as mine," asserted my father without doubt in his voice. "He is the son of one of our finest sages in Rykar, and he has forged a reputation of his own separate from his father. He has brought us many Karpol treasures from his journeys, as well as this priceless knowledge."
"I would believe you if you told this tale," said the Emperor carefully. "And so I will believe this trader that you vouch for." Then the Emperor looked at me, and said, "Has your father told you of the city of Raktan?"
"No, my Emperor. I have never heard of such a city." The city must be far flung indeed, I thought, that I had never seen it on my father's maps. Oftentimes he would tell me of the campaigns in which the Empire had absorbed one nation or another, but no mention of such a city had never been made, I was sure.
"There is no reason you should know of it," said the Emperor. "No doubt you have studied the arts of war to great length, but this is a different matter. The city predates the Empire by some time. I know of Raktan. It is now only a ruin. Once it was a great city, nestled against the Serpent's Back." My father looked at me and added, "Legends I have read in the imperial library claim it was destroyed in an ancient war before times remembered."
"You have a plan of action in mind, Lord Salthor?" asked the Emperor.
"With your permission, my Emperor," began my father. "I would organize an imperial legion to discover this pass, and secure the route for the Empire. It may even be that the Empire's power may reach beyond the Serpent's Back."
"Our legions are not suited to mountaineering," Gutwaigen pointed out, but his voice was not firm or commanding.
"I would not think to-"
"Speak your mind," prompted the Emperor.
"As you know, I have recently campaigned in the North," Lord Salthor said rapidly. "We have equipment for extreme cold and men who understand what it means to fight in such conditions. We have broken the tribes to our will, and now have men available who are more suited to the task than the legions you command in other areas of the Empire."
The Emperor nodded. "I can see you have prepared for this, and I understand what you mean to suggest. I know you are a wise and capable man, and I will trust you to see to what needs to be done. You will have the imperial backing you need to accomplish your undertaking."
My father bowed his head graciously, and prepared to speak. The Emperor continued before he had the chance:
"I am sure you have a fine young noble in mind for this mission," he said, looking at me, "and in this I will also allow you to make whatever choices you deem best."
Now my father looked very serious, and said simply, "Thank you, my Emperor. We will not fail you."
"I have other matters to attend to now," said the Emperor, and he turned to leave. Then, as a thought struck him, he turned to me again. "Jarnak, in these matters you will find knowledge to be as powerful a weapon as your sword. You should consult with my sages on what is known of Raktan and its history. Especially you must search keenly for anything they might know about legends of war or travel beyond the Back. Good luck to you."
And that was the end of my first meeting with the Emperor.
The Emperor's sages at Maristaple were a snobbish lot who thought themselves above a young Valek such as myself. I ordered the scribes to draw up maps of the city of Raktan, as the archives showed it to exist in ancient times. The city was carved in the granite of the Back and so its ruins were still in existence. The maps were of little or no use, and only showed the general shape of the city.
The eleventh legion was called back from its exploits in the northern lands, and although many men had fulfilled their service and left to settle on new lands, or retired in the capitol, there were still many experienced men in the group. The legion would be left under-strength, since I was untried in leadership and no direct confrontation with the Karpols was expected until we had learned if an army could negotiate the pass. I told myself it would be better to have men who knew how to handle themselves in extreme weather without the burden of green recruits.
I met with my officers in the capitol, to organize the supplies we would need for the expedition.
My first officer was Yael, a hardened Rykaran soldier who had been experienced even before the campaign against the northern tribes. My other officers were Terlan and Karn, who had led cohorts of the legion in the recent war. Each of the three commanders had over two hundred men in their cohorts, all of which were veterans of the recent campaign. They told me that the old commander of the eleventh had retired in Rykar, after a successful career in the military. I encouraged them to talk frankly of the perils of cold weather. Although my homeland had its share of mountains, the climate there was somewhat warmer. With their help I obtained the best gear available for myself.
With the Emperor's authority at our disposal we were able to buy supplies for the men in less than a week. I bid farewell to my father and went to meet the legion outside of the capitol.
We traveled for two weeks to the West. I walked with the men and took practice with them, so that they would know that I was a competent field man, and that I respected them. The soldiers would not like a careless noble who did not care for their affairs. We fortified our camp at night, and at this there was the usual grumbling but I would not let their discipline flag even when safely within the inner lands of the Empire. At last the mountains of the Serpent's Back appeared, first appearing as a purple haze on the horizon, then materializing into towering peaks in the distance.
I had told the men of the task we undertook, and stories began to form in the men's minds and percolate back up to me. Yael was a very practical man, and he discounted the stories entirely. He had taken a bet with Karn that we would find a bandit camp in the mountains, and make short work of them. Karn thought that the Karpols were somehow behind the loss of the pass, if it existed. Of Terlan's opinion I knew nothing, but he related fanciful speculations to me from his men, including the ideas that ranged from the existence of a secret Karpol invasion force to the Gods themselves, sitting on their thrones on the mountain peaks.
My scouts talked with what few people lived in the farmlands, seeking a clear route to Raktan. In every instance they were warned away. We came to understand that the city was considered a place of evil, and there were many stories of men who had gone up to see the ruins that had never come back. Of course, we ignored these stories and aligned our course for the ruins. Two days later we arrived at the forgotten city, and the legion moved into the stone remnants.
The ruins extended a great distance. They were eerie stone platforms and buildings that covered the foothills at the edge of the Serpent's Back. The architecture was not familiar, and I could tell it was a city not of my civilization.
The gray green stones, although very solid, had worn considerably over the ages. If the dwellings were engraved, the images had worn away long ago. The buildings were closely set in a haphazard fashion that limited sight distance greatly. Echoes seemed to bounce everywhere, and it was hard to discern which direction sounds came from. I thought I heard the sound of flutes in the distance, but decided it was a trick of the wind.
We came to a large platform of stone with a massive structure on it, a pyramid of some sort with corridors carved into the sides and a hollow center. It was almost certainly a temple of some kind, but I decided whatever gods once lived here were long dead.
"We set up our camp here. See if there is any wood to be found for fires and barricades," I told Yael. "Get some ten man patrols out, and see if there is anyone here. I thought I heard something back there, for a moment."
"Yes sir," he acknowledged. "I thought I heard something too, but the sound carries wrong in this place."
I could tell that he didn't like the city. He set about dividing the men into work groups and patrols while I examined the ruins some more. Mostly I just wanted to keep the men sharp but I decided I shouldn't waste any opportunity I had while we were in the city. An idea struck me and I gave another order to a soldier that was nearby.
"Tell Yael that the men are to look for caved in entrances to anything that might be an underground chamber. We need to see if we can find any traces of maps or even carvings about the mountain passage."
"Yes, my lord!" exclaimed the officer, and dashed off after Yael.
The officers were well trained and highly disciplined. I had no trouble commanding the men, and they had accepted my authority fairly quickly. I knew that there would still be some reserve until I had led them through hard times, but I felt that I would earn their respect.
The only things that the patrols found were ancient symbols and some tools of stone. Paper, iron, and wood had long since fallen to dust, even in the few subterranean chambers that we did uncover. The city was simply too ancient; its secrets had died with it. I had to triple the guard that night since we could not find enough wood to build barricades.
I heard rumors the next day that the men had been exceptionally nervous, and everyone seemed to be eager to leave Raktan. I did not disagree, and so we promptly abandoned the camp and moved uphill towards the upper end of the valley. I set up a network of scouts to move ahead of our group to find the way. As I moved out of the ruins I looked down upon the city and tried to imagine it at its height. I decided it must have been almost as impressive in its own way as the capitol city of the Empire.
The first day I struggled to find my mountain legs, and the marching was hard despite our long travels from the capitol. I was reminded of the mountains of my home and the adventures I had undertaken there as a boy. The air grew cool but the work kept us warm. My second, Yael, came to me as we began the ascent.
"You see that sir? The mountainside," indicated Yael.
The way was perhaps thirty paces wide where my officer had pointed, and the mountain rose straight up in a cliff on the left side.
"What is it? Is there something dangerous?" I asked him.
"That is not natural. This path has been cleared out. The stone has been carved away to make this passage. That would have taken many men and a long time to accomplish. This route has been worked before, and at great expense."
I shook my head, looking at the cliffside. "How could this route have been forgotten, Yael? Men traveled this way regularly, long ago, when Raktan was still alive. The war must have been terrible for such a path to be completely lost from human memory."
"The ancestors of Karpol might have sacked the city of Raktan," admitted Yael. If they kept patrolling the route after that, no one could have gotten through. If you cannot use the route, knowing it is there is useless knowledge."
"You are actually starting to think Karn might be right?" I asked, smiling at him. The man only shrugged, so I added, "Well, my information indicates the Karpols don't patrol it anymore. But they said it was dangerous, so we need to keep the men alert. Probably just fables and wild tales, but we should be ready for anything."
"Yes sir," Yael agreed, and we moved on. I could tell that Yael was glad that I was slow to believe in tales about strange gods and ancient wars, but everything was starting to seem as if the old monk's stories had some truth at the core.
We traveled along the remains of an ancient road for four days. The air grew thin and cold, but our altitude did not seem to get dangerously high, as few men fell ill to mountain sickness. My scouts never had any trouble discerning the way, and we made much better progress than expected, since we did not have to investigate other branches of the pass. Once again I began to wonder at how such an obvious path could have been lost to men east of the Serpent's Back. Was it only the strangeness of Raktan and the legends that kept people away?
After this initial easy progress, at the end of the fourth day, my scouts did not return. I feared that they had met an opposing force in the tenuous passes and been slain. Of course I realized that there were other possibilities as well. An avalanche may have buried them, or that a ledge may have given way, blocking their passage back to us.
I could take no chances. We warned the men that an enemy may be near. It was too late to send out more scouts that day, and there was little or no wood with which to set up our usual barricades. To compensate for this we had to leave a larger number of men awake to guard the pass ahead. The men slept with their armor on and their weapons next to them.
The precautions turned out to be justified. That night, I awakened to the sounds of fighting. I grabbed a shield and a sword and burst out of my travel-tent, to see that fighting had broken out above the camp. Strange war cries tore through the darkness, and I ran forward to meet them, whoever they were. A combatant became visible before me, and I thrust to his chest with my sword. His spear knocked my blow aside and he countered with a kick, forcing me to sidestep. Clearly the man knew how to fight. I could see that he wore no armor under his black robes, but he was very light and agile. It did him no good however, since I attacked again and forced him to step back into two legion soldiers, who were wandering in the confusion, looking for the enemy.
The attacker was run through from behind, and I motioned for the men to follow my lead. I heard the bark of dogs and knew that my enemies were not all human. We quickly made our way through the darkness to the edge of the camp, where I found my night guards fighting more of the black robed men.
I joined the men in combat without a moment's hesitation. I traded sword strokes with one for a moment before overcoming him with a rush and a kick to his midsection. When the man fell back I finished him by thrusting my weapon through his vitals. Only then did I remember my more important role not as a combatant but as a commander and organizer of men in battle.
As I looked around I saw that I had been lucky. The intruders were as skilled as my veterans, but as more men responded to the noise of the fighting, the black robed men were overcome by numbers. The dogs had rushed savagely but were quickly dispatched by men with sword and shield. Soon we had men pouring around their flanks and we quickly rolled the enemy up and finished them. It happened so fast that I had no thoughts of capturing one. The mysterious attackers had asked for no quarter even in the last moments.
I saw as the engagement ended that the light of morning was only minutes away. The enemy had probably thought us to be only a small caravan or group of explorers.
"They must have seen the fire of the guards, and thought that was the entire band," Yael said. "They must have realized their mistake only as reinforcements appeared out of the dark."
"Sloppy work though, anyway. They should have surrounded the fire and waited for the men to sleep. Then they would have seen the rest of the encampment," Terl analyzed. "But instead they attacked immediately, assuming that the element of surprise would be enough to overcome our night watch."
"Yes, they were overconfident," I said. "Easy to be overconfident if you have been guarding a pass against random travelers and explorers for generations. Suddenly a light legion appears. Clearly they were not ready for this magnitude of an intrusion, whoever they were."
The sun appeared suddenly from behind distant peaks. Yael looked out at the battle site in the new light. He kicked a dead dog over to examine its harness.
"Karpol war-dogs," he said, looking down at the body.
"But these are not Karpols," Terlan interceded, "at least not like I have ever seen. Their skin is not dark, and these are not Karpol weapons."
"At least we have learned why the pass has not been rediscovered," I commented. "If the area is patrolled and trespassers killed, I can see why the legends speak against travelling to Raktan or beyond."
"If these are some kind of Karpol warriors," said Yael, "It could mean that the Karpols are planning a secret attack against the Empire. If they showed up in force from the Serpent's Back, we would be ill prepared to repel them."
I considered this danger, and decided to dispatch two runners with this news to the Emperor. If a superior force decimated us in the mountains, the Empire would never learn of the possible danger. I had just dispatched the men when one of the scouts approached me.
"My lord," he said, with obvious urgency.
"Yes, man, report."
"Some of the attackers escaped up the pass. I have seen their footprints heading back, three or four of them."
I did not know what we faced ahead, but this attack had been savage and the enemy did not know who they faced. I wanted to keep that advantage, and learning that men had escaped to warn others angered me. I saw Terlan and yelled at him.
"Get twenty men! We are going light and fast. We have to catch them, in case they are going to warn whoever is behind this."
I bolted forward towards the pass, grabbing only a light food pack as I passed it. The scout stared at me for a second and then bolted after me.
"My lord! The others will be ready-"
"Every second they get farther away," I told him. I ate up the ground in long strides. I knew this could make the difference in the success or failure of everything I had worked for. We had no idea what force was behind this blocking of the pass, and I was not about to allow my advantage of surprise to slip away. I could hear the ruckus behind me, as my officers realized that their lord was pursuing the enemy with only a scout beside him.
I must say now that I was an impetuous and immature leader. I knew I was a strong man and a good fighter, and this led me to participate much too directly in events. At the time, though, I believed in commanding from the front.
I discarded my mail and stripped down to a wool shirt and leather jerkin. The scout stayed at my left, indicating the footprints in the light layer of snow. Somehow Yael showed up on my right. I should have known he would not let me bolt forward on my own, and in some way I knew what I was doing was not for the Valek, yet I was determined to find these men and silence them at the least, if not interrogate them. I voiced the thought to my second.
"We should take one of them alive," I told him.
"Yes my lord," he said, breathing heavily from the exertion of our fast pace. He turned back and called back to the line of men struggling to catch up to us, "We need one or two alive, but make sure none of them escape this time!"
We suspended our conversation and for many minutes there was only the ice and snow and the sound of our breathing. Ironically, it was only now, as we set out in pursuit, that I realized the real beauty of the mountains surrounding us. The mountains of Rykar were humbled in comparison.
At last I could see them ahead. The black robed men must have thought they were not being pursued, because their pace was not extreme until one of them looked back and spotted us. They stared in shock for a moment but quickly recovered and redoubled their pace. The scout who had spotted the footprints had fallen behind, but another man in better shape had taken his place. He said nothing but followed me step for step, determined not to let his leader leave him behind. Yael stuck with us without complaint, although I could tell he was in pain as I was.
There were four of them, and they were looking back to examine their pursuers. I knew they were tired, but I doubted they could see the rest of the force behind us that we had outpaced. They talked amongst themselves as we narrowed the gap between us.
"Now, Yael," I gasped, "We will see if they decide to turn and face us with a minute of rest, rather than go on running."
"I know how to fight, my lord, but right now I can barely lift my arms," Yael said. "Pray, let us wait for a few more of the men."
"They are as tired as we are," I said, but I contemplated doing as he said. I had no idea how close the men were to help. But we could not risk losing them, or letting them find reinforcements.
Now we saw that there was a hesitation in the men we pursued, and I thought I could hear their voices for a moment. Then three of them turned around to face us, and the fourth continued onwards. I looked behind us and could see no one. I knew that there were men only a few minutes behind us, and so I drew my sword and reduced my speed.
Now I realized how right Yael was. My arm trembled to hold my sword. I was drenched in sweat and realized I would be in danger of freezing if I stopped for long.
"We're going to need a fire after this," I huffed, and I heard a guff of laughter from the scout.
I looked at the three that we faced, and I could see fear in their eyes. That decided it for me. I knew that Yael was a good swordsman, and I was confident in my own abilities to the extreme.
"If you get the chance, leave your man alive," I ordered, and set my mind to the combat. Yael was smart enough to see that he would not convince me to wait and rather than arguing he put his full attention on his opponent. The three of us joined combat with the enemy in a line.
The black robed man I faced watched me approach the last few feet and I could tell that he was thinking that he would have the advantage because he was slightly upslope of me. I decided I would change that first. The warrior attacked as I entered his range, swinging his weapon down onto my position, thinking to use his momentum against me. I blocked his blade with my own but did not resist his charge, instead sidestepping and allowing him to go off balance with the force of his attack. He regained his balance but now he had stumbled farther down the slope than he intended, and was even with me.
Now I took a great risk. I knew that my opponent was slightly put off by my move, and I trusted that he would not be ready to attack again immediately. Instead of guarding myself or attacking him back, I leapt to the side and slashed down on the calf of the man who had engaged my scout next to us. I hit my target easily, slashing completely through the tendon of the fighter, and then recovered just in time to deflect the attack of my own opponent.
The risk paid off handsomely since the scout was able to finish his crippled man in two or three exchanges, and we doubled up on my original enemy. He panicked at the end and we both ran him through.
We turned to Yael who was still battling his man, and I stuck my sword through the robes of his opponent from behind, sticking my sword into the meat of his thigh.
"Leave him for the others," I commanded. "We will deal with him later."
With that I took three desperate gasps for air, and staggered back along the trail of the fourth warrior.
I could hear Yael fall in behind me.
"My lord," huffed the Valek behind me, "Normally I would not speak to you so." There was a pause as Yael breathed. "But I know it is safe now, because you are going to kill yourself. We must wait for more men!"
"There is only one left. He must not be a strong fighter, or he would have been one of the ones who stayed," I told him. I did not care that he was speaking to me so harshly, since inside I knew that I was being a foolhardy leader. Nevertheless I could not let the man go. Too much was at stake.
I think that Yael would have kept arguing except that neither one of us had the breath for it. We kept after the last man for what seemed like a burning eternity to my lungs. If the man had pushed a rock down on me I think I would have welcomed it, but I could see that we were catching him.
The man faltered now, only paces away. I could hear my own breathing as if it were far away. At last the man in front of me collapsed onto the snow, and I slowed, trying to catch my breath. I suspected treachery, and I drew my dagger. I turned the man over with my foot with my dagger ready. When I turned him over I could see that he was dead.
I turned around to see Yael still behind me. He looked like he would die next. I knew then that I would never question the sense of duty in that man, who simply refused to fall behind his commander, whose life was his responsibility to protect. He had not had the benefit of growing up in highlands as I had, yet he had managed to keep pace with me out of sheer force of will.
We would have perished at that point if we had been alone. We were exhausted and covered in sweat, ready to freeze in the icy wind. Luckily the men under me knew what to do and they got to us quickly, following the saga of footprints. A new camp was established and we recovered, while Terlan and Karn were careful to prepare an ambush in case more of the strangers should come down the pass towards us.
The man I had wounded did not fare so well. I learned he bled out within minutes of our fight, and so once again we had no captives to answer our questions about the mountain warriors.
Once Yael and I were ready to march again, we set out new scouts and continued. Almost immediately, I noticed a slight change in my men. A more determined manner, and a sharper sense of discipline. The men had heard of my actions and they approved. I had won them over. They were completely in my hands, and I had their respect. Even though part of me considered my actions to be rash and unthinking, I basked in their adoration of me. I felt like I had never been more alive in my life, like I had found my element. I was now more determined than ever to succeed in this task, and earn the trust of my emperor as I had earned the trust of these men.
Two days later my scouts came back to me with exciting news: A green valley hidden in the mountains. I immediately asked about the keep, since I wanted to know if we had reached Karpol so quickly. My mind reeled to think that the nation could be so close, when Hagar had traveled for over a year to reach the land that was on the other side of the world. They did not know because the scouts had not yet searched through the valley. There were no signs of more patrols of the black robed men. The main body of the eleventh arrived at the valley, and it was a large, fertile area. Surely we were not over the Serpent's Back already? Mountains seemed to encase the valley in all directions.
Reports came back of a fortress of some sort, deep in the valley. At first I was sure this would be the keep that Hagar had mentioned, but my scout described a fortified temple whose location did not match that described by the trader. It was not guarding a pass of any kind, so it did not make sense that it was the Karpol monks.
The temple was constructed of rough brown stone. It had been built near the winding river that had cut into the mountains. The scout did not dare go too close for fear of giving away our presence in the valley, and for this I praised his judgement. I had fought hard to preserve my surprise arrival and I coveted it dearly.
I was uncertain how many supplies we could gain from the valley to sustain a siege, and so set in motion a plan that would allow us to seize the site in one bold stroke. Every hour we spent there increased our chances of being discovered.
I directed the men to construct makeshift ladders from small trees. The limbs were cut down to stubs that men could climb on, and what rope we had was prepared for use in climbing the walls. We traveled directly for the fortress. Since we had slain the entire force in the pass, I was almost certain there had been no warning of our intrusion. My hopes solidified as we approached the citadel without encountering any patrols. We arrived within striking distance with hours of light to spare, and I got my first personal look at the target.
The trees and foliage around the structure had not been cleared, and this alone spoke of the laxness of the defenses. We could not see any men on the wall except for an occasional passerby, who looked more like a scribe on business than any kind of organized guard. On the one hand I really did not know what we faced, but on the other I was sure we had the element of surprise. I was sobered by the thought that the men who attacked us in the pass probably used similar thinking before charging down on my watchmen.
I chose the bold alternative, and so I gave the order to attack. We descended upon the monastery without warning, and caught the strange men completely by surprise. I was ecstatic at my good fortune as I observed the first rush at the gates meet with success. I could hear the sounds of fighting inside as we rushed to join our comrades. Then the front portcullis came rushing down with a sound like thunder, and I could see our advance halted completely. There were still dozens of men inside fighting the guards, and I sent hasty orders to my cohort commanders to aid them.
The men trapped outside brought up their ladders and began to swarm onto the outer wall. The ranks of the defenders seemed pitifully few and they were unable to take full advantage of their fortified position. It only took minutes to resecure the gate and raise the portcullis, and I moved with the rest of the men into the keep.
We secured the walls and I began to examine the temple itself to find its entrances. The inner structure was a building of several stories, topped by three great domes that had been constructed with great skill. The architecture was somewhat strange to my eye but I had expected such, travelling to such a far land. The walls were carved with interlocking swirls of some kind. Vines, I decided, seeing what looked like leaves on the twisting lines carved into the rock. We found three entrances, and I ordered the men to break in and seize the structure.
The defender had not had time to properly bar the doors, and hundreds of legionnaires forced their way into the central structure. Yael and I were among the first wave to go in. There were a few sounds of fighting but mostly we seemed unopposed.
There was a large central corridor and numerous side passages leading off into the huge temple. Soldiers broke off to investigate the branches under the direction of Yael, who stuck with my group of men. I looked carefully at the world of these strangers, who made the walls inside the castle curve gracefully inward towards the ceilings, which were covered in the same strange twisting designs. They burned oil in sconces for light, and I saw all manner of strangely decorated chambers and alcoves.
Terlan sent a runner with news, and when the man found me he was quick to report.
"We have found some priests that seem to be their leaders. This is a temple of some kind, although to what god I have no idea," he told me.
"Lead the way, soldier," I ordered, and my entourage set off after him. The way was not far. We approached a set of open double doors. We walked in like true conquerors, men flanking me on either side. Seven figures attired in red and yellow robes stood uncertainly in a large ceremonial chamber of some kind, lit by flaming braziers. I could see that we were under one of the great domes, and the room was as large as any I had seen at the imperial palace. It was clear that they did not know what we intended, but they did not plan to resist. I saw that I still had my sword drawn, but I did not bother to put it back into the scabbard. Instead I simply looked at the acolytes, and spoke to them.
"I am Lord Salthor, Valek in the service of the Empire. I annex this valley in the name of Emperor Gutwaigen of Jagarta," I informed them. The priests seemed confused, but one of them began to speak to the others. I was startled to realize the voice was female, and I noticed that all of the leaders were women. The speaker stepped forward to address me.
"I have translated your words to them, Valek. We are the Areynaga. I am Muranaia, a humble servant of the Areyai, as we all are." She swept her arm back and indicated her fellow priestesses.
"They speak Karpol?" I demanded, trying to see their faces through the darkness of their cowls. I did not know what Karpols looked like, although I had heard stories that their faces were dark and compressed, with long drooping mustaches and beards. "No Valek. They speak only the mother language of the Areyai. A few of the Areynaga still speak the tongues of man, but only so that we may learn of what happens in the world below. Most of us do not care anything for the affairs of men."
"How many patrols do you have out guarding the passes?"
The leaders talked amongst themselves.
"If you lie to me, I will punish you when I discover your untruth," I warned the translator.
She merely nodded her head and answered, "We have another patrol of thirty men guarding the way to Karpol."
"How many days by foot to the lands of the Karpols?"
"It is less than a week, Valek." The woman looked at me. "I hope you are planning on moving through soon. You do not belong here, you and your men of the lowlands."
"You are part of the Empire now. Accept it," I told her. "We only serve the Areyai," she told me. There was no point in having a battle of words with the priestess. She would come to see in time that there was no other choice for her. Like my emperor, I would not convince her with my words, but with my actions.
But something bothered me about the temple. I addressed the Jargatic-speaking priestess.
"What is this room?"
"This is the inner sanctum, where we gather to give homage to the Areyai in formal ceremony," supplied the priestess.
"I see no images of your gods... what did you call them? The Areyai. No statues, no tapestries... do you not have any representations of them here?"
The woman only looked confused, and her gaze wandered the room. Her hand swept out, indicating the walls and the vines engraved there.
Karn laughed. "Perhaps they worship trees and plants, my Lord," he said.
I smiled back at him, and I was about to ask another question of the priestess when a soldier came in with news. "My lord," announced the man, who stood at attention. His sword was sheathed but I could see that blood had sprayed on his leg. "Report. Have we seized the entire citadel?" "Yes- ah, no sir. That is, we have everything except the tunnels below."
"Yes sir. They are tunnels, or cisterns maybe. They are very extensive-"
"Catacombs?" asked Yael.
"Yes, sir, that must be what they are. There's still some resistance down there, I think." The soldier blinked his eyes, bracing himself for my anger. But I was only concerned.
"Did we lose many men?"
"Only ten or twelve, sir."
"How many of the defenders made it down there? How far do the tunnels go?"
The soldier looked at me, seeming slightly on edge. "I do not know, sir," he said.
"You did go down there?"
"Yes sir, but the corridors branch in every direction. It is a maze down there, and I split my men up as many times as I dared, but-"
"All right, soldier. You did the wise thing. We'll go down there tomorrow and root out any resistance that is left. Post six men at each stair for now, so we have enough warning if they attack during the night. You know the drill, tell the men that they are to sleep ready for action tonight."
"You pick these men yourself. Remember that if the tunnels go out of the fortress, we could be attacked by patrols that know the secret ways in."
The man moved quickly away to carry out my orders. I was still exalted by the victory over this place, and these people. I was now almost certain that the pass existed, and that large forces could traverse it. Only the presence of this cult had kept the secret of the pass from being rediscovered. I wondered how many explorers had wandered into these mountains, only to be slaughtered. It was only an armed excursion like my legion that had any hope of re-opening the pass.
I needed to plan with Yael about the tunnels. If we didn't gain control of them it could be disastrous for us. I decided to finish my meeting with their religious leaders. I turned to speak to them.
"Life is going to change for you, as a new part of the Empire. If you accept our rule and cooperate, your children's children may be citizens of the Empire." I paused so that the translator could keep up.
"I am having my lieutenant here write up the rules under which you will live. I understand that you cannot read our language, but we will tell you what the rules are, and you will learn them soon enough. Do not attempt to resist my soldiers. As you have already seen, we are more than a match for you."
The priestess who spoke our language stood forward, and she shook her head, speaking calmly.
"The Areyai will want you to leave. You do not belong here."
"You are in no position to threaten me, priestess."
My voice had grown cold, and I looked at the foreigner with narrowed eyes. She merely shrugged, as if she did not want to argue, and said, "I will do nothing. But the Areyai will kill you if you disobey."
"Enough!" I shouted. I turned to the soldiers who had accompanied Yael and me into the shrine. "Keep these women under close guard. The men can have other women we find but not these priestesses. They are the leaders here- if there is an attack and it looks like they may make it to this room, you are to slay these women immediately, do you understand?"
I could tell the soldier in charge was completely ready to follow my orders. I hoped that we would not have to slay them. Senseless slaughter was not the Empire's way. It was especially unpleasant that their leaders were female, since usually only male hostages were taken. With that thought I realized that the men would want them. I took the legionnaire aside and spoke to him so that the priestesses could not hear.
"See that these priestesses are not raped," I ordered. "If there are other women they can have those, but these are the leaders."
"As you command," he responded.
Karn and I moved out of the worship chambers and into a large passageway. Another soldier met us and informed me that they had located a library of some kind that contained maps of the mountain passes. This excited me a great deal, so I decided I would have my talk with Yael over the maps. I sent word for Yael and Terlan to meet us there.
What we found in the library was stunning. A master craftsman had carved a base relief of the valley and the mountains surrounding it into a large table. The work had been painstakingly stained white and green to show the treeline and snowy peaks. The empire was visible on one side of the table, ending just inches after Raktan, which was a tiny bumpy gray spot on the map smaller than a man's fingernail. The Karpol lands started just near the edge of the other side, and I indicated to my officers the keep that Hagar had told us of. The citadel we now occupied was placed on the map, as well as some smaller villages or outposts of these people.
"We have accomplished the emperor's mission," I told them. "The pass exists, and we have a base from which to begin a campaign should he decide to spread the Empire beyond the Serpent's Back."
Yael looked at the keep at the border of Karpol. "And we know that the knights left by Karkechana are no match for us. Of course if we are expected to campaign against the Karpols, you will probably be given command of more legions."
"True. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First we must secure this valley and get word back to the emperor. Perhaps we should bring this table back to him. It is quite impressive..."
Yael looked at Karn and smiled. "These men are not Karpols. Perhaps you owe me something, Valek?"
Karn shook his head and laughed. "Nice try Yael, but these are no bandits. 'Just a few brigands hiding out in the mountains,' you said. That was our bet."
I slapped Yael on the back. "I'm afraid he is right there, soldier. This is a small nation unto itself. People with their own society and religion."
"Aye," Yael grudgingly agreed.
"The tunnels are our next problem," I announced. "Things are going well so far, and I don't want to risk this ruining it. We need to take the tunnels as soon as possible, so our control of the temple cannot be challenged."
"We will need plenty of light," Yael began. "There will have to be a reserve of soldiers in case they manage to get behind us in the tunnels. Also the men will have to be wary of attack from behind."
"There could be pits as well," said Terlan. "Traps. It depends on whether or not the tunnels were designed with this purpose in mind."
Karn shook his head. "I don't think we will have a problem. Remember how lax these men were- the growth wasn't even cleared away from the outer walls of the citadel. We just have a few men who escaped and are hiding down there is all. They are probably the cowards anyway, since they didn't stay and fight at the walls."
"All good points," I acknowledged. "But we'll have to proceed assuming the worst. Suppose there is a sizable force down there, say fifty men, and they have had half a day to prepare for us."
"We need interlocking shields or something," said Terlan. "They may have ranged weapons of some kind."
"I didn't see any bows in the entire place," I told him. "Just in case, though, we should take some tables-" I paused, indicating the map table, "That is, ordinary tables of course- and bring them down with us. On its side a good table makes a decent barricade, for the short term at least. We can barricade passages we don't take with a few men behind them. If we do encounter some bows we might use them for a charge as well."
"They don't really seem to use torches around here much but there are oil sconces throughout the temple," Yael said. "Even down below, but they are not lit. They should provide enough light if we bring some lanterns and oil with us."
I nodded. "What about the branching of the tunnels?" I asked them. "The man who led the soldiers down there before said that they split too many times for him to keep his men together."
"I think that we should keep a group in reserve like we talked about," Yael said. "Then, we make a mobile group that can guard itself front and back. We go in and map the tunnels out."
"That's a good idea," I agreed. "We'll come back every so often so we don't get too far away at first, at least not until we have some idea what we're dealing with. If we start making a map it may become clear which intersections are key, and then we can set up barricades at those spots to control the entire catacombs."
Terlan was thinking hard about what we had said. "If we do gain control of the passages, we could set a few men to searching through them for secret passageways. There may be ways in and out of the castle that we will need to know about."
"Alright. Tell your men what we intend. Tell them to keep their heads down there. We know there are more of us than them, even if a patrol slips back in from the outside. Get the tables and the lanterns together. We will go in after them tomorrow. I want you to each make a surprise inspection of the guards at the stairs and make whatever preparations you think necessary. I don't want any surprises while we are trying to sleep."
I sent my officers off. With the preparations being made, I realized how tired I was. I resolved to get some sleep and oversee cleaning out the tunnels the next day.
Once again my sleep was interrupted. I had left word to awaken me with any news, and my personal guard awakened me to reveal that three guards had died on the stairs. Their bodies were not found. I got back into my armor, which I had removed for the first time since chasing after the men in the pass.
Yael was up as well and he joined me to inspect the stair.
"How many of them were there?" I demanded of my guard.
"We don't know. The soldiers that were left say that it wasn't men that attacked at all. They are whimpering about some sort of monster," the soldier told me, lowering his voice.
I stared at the man in stunned silence. Then I blinked and recovered. "What kind of monster?"
"I don't know sir," the man said, obviously uncomfortable with not being able to answer my questions. "The men are confused. One of them won't even talk at all."
My brows came together in disbelief. These men, veterans of the campaigns against the northern tribes, completely broken? And telling tales of a monster?
I followed the soldier without further inquiries. He led us to a brightly lit chamber where three men were being examined by an old soldier who knew something of caring for wounds. The men were lying out on wooden benches, carved with more of the vines that seemed to dominate the decoration of the temple.
One of the men was curled into a fetal ball and I thought he was unconscious at first, but then I could see he was muttering to himself with his eyes closed. The other two men had their eyes open, and one of them met my gaze.
"What did it look like?" I demanded.
"Couldn't see it," the man mumbled. He looked at me like I was his executioner. "Couldn't see it. It killed the others..."
I grabbed the man by his jerkin and shook him.
"WHAT DID IT LOOK LIKE?" I yelled at him. The man just shook his head and whimpered like a child. I was seething at this point, but Yael got me back under control.
"It's no good sir," he told me. "I've seen'em like that before. He doesn't have it back together yet."
"Tentacles," said the other man. I turned to face him. "All I could see were its tentacles. They cut me," he said like a child, and put his hand on his thigh above a bloody bandage that had been put onto him.
The soldier who had cleaned the wounds stepped up to the bench.
"Somethin cut him, sair," said the old man. "Wasn't no sward. Looked like a shark bite, actually." He shrugged, seeing my look and knowing it was impossible. "All I'm sayin, is, it looked like a shark bite I saw once on the coast. I ain't sayin I think there's a shark down there, sair."
I looked at the soldier who had been wounded on the leg. "What were the tentacles attached to?" I asked him.
"Just a lot..." The man's voice faded and his eyes stared forward. "Tentacles..."
I stood back and tried to control my anger. The old man stepped away as well and said quietly, "He's gonna loose that leg."
"Yael come with me," I ordered. "I want a look at that stair now."
We walked down to one of the entrances to the catacombs to investigate the scene. We arrived to see twelve men on guard, talking amongst themselves. They fell quiet as I arrived.
"Havrik was in charge here," said Yael. "He was a good man. That's his helmet on the floor."
The blood seeped over all over the stone steps. The soldier's helmet was on the floor, sprayed with the blood. I saw a white fragment of bone on the floor. I picked it up and turned it over in my hand.
The sentry was looking at me, obviously worried.
"This isn't his bone," I said. "Look, it is a serrated spike or tooth of some kind. Did Havrek wear some sort of hunting trophy around his neck or something?"
"I don't think so, sir," a sentry said, looking at the fragment.
"I don't believe it," Yael declared. "It is some sort of trick. Some kind of scare tactic they are using against us. I think it was just ordinary men that attacked here, but I don't know how they managed to confuse the guards so. Perhaps some kind of gas?"
"That's possible," I said, thinking about the alchemist Darrigar and how he could make a man tell the truth with his strange mixtures. Perhaps the natives here knew of some herb that they could burn to make men see things. I had heard stories of such before; something to do with exotic plants that could give men visions. I sniffed the air but I could detect no odor.
"Leave the doors open to this room," I ordered. "I want fresh air to be able to come in here."
I looked down the stair and could see that there was light coming from burning oil fixtures at the bottom.
"Were those lanterns lit when they were on guard?" I asked one of the sentries.
"We always keep them lit so we can see if someone is down there," the man told me. "But when we came to see who was screaming... when we arrived to help, the sconces below were out."
"You didn't see anything?"
"The stairway was empty, except for the blood and the helmet. The men who survived had fled. We had to go searching for them."
"You think they fell asleep and let the sconces go out?"
The guard shook his head. "I don't think so, sir."
"I am sure they didn't," said Yael. "Terlan said he checked on them only an hour before, and they wouldn't dare fall asleep on such an important detail."
I looked around me at the men who were stationed at the stair. "Today we're going to go down there and repay whoever did this in kind," I said firmly. I could see some of the men nodding their heads in agreement. "They may have used some kind of gas to let them surprise the men, but we are going to make sure it doesn't happen again."
With that I turned from the blood and Yael and I walked back to my chambers.
"Something just doesn't make any sense," I told him. "These men aren't little children afraid of the dark. Why should some animal attack, even something they've never seen before, completely make them lose their wits?"
"I am not sure, sir," Yael said. "I agree with you, that the men should not be shook up so. But I am reminded of the story of when the army of Jargarta first invaded the Seolucian jungles. Apparently the men had never seen war elephants before, and an entire phalanx routed, thinking that the Seolucians were riding demons into battle."
I took Yael's possible explanation and mulled it over. I tried to think of what would happen if I had encountered some kind of a huge beast I had never seen before down at the stairwell.
"It might rattle me but I wouldn't go stark raving mad," I said. My second in command nodded but he had no reply. I dismissed Yael and returned to my bed. I lay there in the darkness for some time, thinking of the blood and the discarded helmet lying on the stairs. Since I failed to regain sleep so I resolved to begin preparations early. I donned my battle gear and went to find that Yael was already organizing his men.
There were two massive stone staircases that sank down into the bowels of the temple. The entrances to the catacombs were far apart, on opposite ends of the citadel. Yael went with Terlan and prepared a force to go down through the first entrance. Karn and I prepared to lead another group down the other staircase at the same time. We had arranged for various challenges and replies so that we could tell if we ran into each other.
I had assembled one group of fifty men to go down a short distance and establish barricades a short distance into the catacombs, and another group of fifty men to escort us as we mapped the passages. Several men had lanterns and many carried oil for the sconces that dotted the catacombs.
We had soldiers with large shields in front, and we had gathered about ten sturdy tables from the temple for use as barricades. I told Karn to wait until we had some of the barricades in place, and went down with the first group of men. The first thing I noticed was the dank smell of the confined corridors. Light did not seem to carry far in the tight passageways, which could only hold two men abreast at any given point. I had a moment of uncertainty, but quenched it immediately. I told myself the tunnels would be just as gloomy and inhospitable to the cowards hiding there as it would be to us.
There were many branches as the soldier had reported. I decided to deploy the tables in the way of five of the branches that were near the stair entrance. Some of the passageways seemed to slope downwards and I decided to block those off first. Once I had deployed the men in the first group into their defensive positions, I sent for Karn and my group.
We had lit the oil sconces in the area we occupied, and these gave out a feeble light that left me wanting. I kept envisioning an arrow or crossbow bolt materializing out of the darkness and killing me. If only we could see better... I was ready to get to work and conclude this unpleasant task.
We moved out in a long line of men, two per row. Each time we met a branch I sent two scouts down to the next turn or intersection and had them come back with a description for Karn, who began to draw the system of catacombs on the map. I tried to move the men in a circle around the stair but soon we found ourselves in a tunnel we were in did not have any branches that looped back. At first I was loathe to search far from the stair and we came back by the entrance frequently.
I became both relieved that we had not met resistance and at the same time disturbed at how large the system of tunnels was. The mapping process became more complicated when we tried a downward sloping tunnel and discovered that it went under a previously mapped area. The catacombs had more than one level.
We had moved down a particularly unusual straight stretch when a cool breeze began to blow into our faces.
"Ah, an exit perhaps," said Karn.
"That doesn't make any sense," I told him. "We are way underground here, in a valley. There is no cliff or canyon that the exit could open out of."
I did not hear Karn's reply, because the force of the wind suddenly increased drastically. The wind noise rose to a roar, and the oil sconces we had lit were blown out. We had two torches which would not go out even in the cold dank gale, but they flickered erratically in the strong wind.
"Shield the torches!" I commanded, yelling out to be heard.
The men had already thought of this, but the turbulence behind a raised shield still made the flames flicker rapidly, and the shields blocked the light. I was considering retreat to resolve this problem when the first screams began, from the front line some ten or twelve rows in front of me.
I drew my sword and tried to see forward. I could not tell what was happening. The soldier holding the foremost torch had dropped it and the light was blocked by interposing forms. The screams were very uncharacteristic of men in battle. I thought that maybe a steam vent had opened on us and the men were being scalded.
"Light more torches!" I commanded in the din of rising yells and screams. I could see now that men were fighting, using their swords and hacking away. In the wild imagination that sometimes accompanies such desperate times, I wondered if we had been attacked by a horde of rats or other vermin.
Everything degenerated into mass confusion. Karn stepped in front of me in the dim light, and handed me the map he had been drawing on. I heard him yell, "Sir, you must get back! We cannot lose you!"
"What are we fighting?" I demanded to Karn's back. I saw him shake his head and he moved forward into the darkness, shouting orders at the men. "Tell the men to retreat!" I yelled after him. I moved back towards a soldier holding a torch I saw flickering in the back. The men were trying to light three more torches in the confusion.
"Retreat!" I commanded.
The men looked confused. They did not know how to find their way. I held up the map in the feeble light but they did not see it.
"Follow me!" I told them as I passed, and they obeyed readily. None of us wanted to find out what was happening up front in complete darkness. Some part of me was bothered by the seeming cowardice of running back the way we came, but I was not completely without sense. Something was clearly very wrong, and the men up front were not making an accounting of themselves. It was wiser to save the men until they could be effective.
Even though we were now moving, men continued to fight in the rear. It slowly dawned on me in the ensuing flight that we were not running from some one, but some thing.
At least twice I thought I caught sight of tentacles in the dimness. It was difficult to see but the tentacles seemed to be almost translucent to the light. Men in the back tried to hack at the enemy but it seemed to have no effect. I didn't understand why the swords couldn't cut the thing's tentacles off. It seemed like dozens of armed men should be able to hack it to pieces, even in the dark.
It is not surprising that we took a wrong turn in our retreat. The light was poor and the map was a haphazard draft, that did not have all the angles right. Of all the things I blame myself for, I have forgiven myself that I could not follow the map back while men were dying only a few feet away from me.
We went at least twenty paces down the wrong corridor. I realized my mistake and started to go back to the last intersection.
"No!" yelled one of the men, seeing me turn around.
"We went the wrong way," I told him, indicating the map. "The entrance is this way. This way, I order you!"
One of the men simply bolted the wrong direction. The others were caught in an instant of conflict between their primeval fear of the monster that was hunting us and duty to their commander. In that instant I saw tentacles materialize out of the darkness and envelop our last torch-bearer.
There was a scream and the torch dropped to the floor. I ran back the way we had came, thinking of the mis-turn I had discovered.
The next minutes were a nightmare of feeling my way through the darkness. The only reassurance I had, ironically enough, was the sound of distant screams. They let me know that the thing was not near me as I stumbled along. I tried to remember the map I held, useless to me in the darkness, but in the end it was simply luck that I found my way back.
I saw the light of lit sconces ahead, and I could see guards cowering behind a table.
"How many came back before me? How many of my group?"
"Including you, sir, one score and two."
The soldier in charge of the barricades looked at me with wide eyes, obviously looking for an explanation of some kind. As I stood thinking of what to tell him, we heard a scream reverberate throughout the tunnels.
"There is some kind of animal, some kind of beast down here," I told him. There was no point in telling him lies that he could see through. "Somehow a strong wind can be generated in the tunnels to put the sconces out, so make sure the men have torches down here. Keep a torch lit at all times, and light more if a cold wind comes up," I ordered. I didn't tell him that our swords had done no good against the creature. I didn't tell him that the thing had tentacles that didn't seem real, that you could almost see through. How could I tell him that?
I wondered if I was mad, or if I had been drugged. I had not smelled anything except the dank wetness of the tunnels. I was shaking, but I expected that the fighting was more than enough for that.
We continued to hear the screams of the men who could not find their way in the darkness. Clearly the thing that had attacked us was still hunting them down.
I went up the stair to return to the inner sanctum. I told a guard to find Terlan and have him meet me there. I had not taken the Areynaga seriously until now, and I wanted to learn what I could about the hideous thing that had killed so many of my men.
The priestesses looked at me, and I was sure they could tell that something had happened. Perhaps they could hear the fighting from up here. I approached the translator I had talked with before.
"This Areyai you spoke of. Is it practically invisible, with many spiked tentacles?"
The priestess had a pained look on her face. "The gods of heaven have as many forms as the creatures of the forest. But what you describe is the Areyai who has remained with us."
"There's only one of these things?"
"Once there were many. Centuries ago. But the others have returned to heaven. Only one has remained to live with us," the priestess asserted. "You have displeased the Areyai. You do not belong here. If you leave now, it may spare you."
"Tell it to stop. Every time it does this I will kill more of you. Do you understand? I will kill five of your people for every man that dies like this. Then the thing will have no more worshippers left."
"We have no control over the gods," the priestess said. She did not seem alarmed by my threat.
"But you can speak with it?" I persisted.
"The Areyai speaks to us, informing us of its divine will. We obey. You would be wise to do the same."
I left the inner sanctum as furious as I always did, and sent for Yael and Terlan. We met in the map room as we had before and attempted to create a plan.
"We must destroy this thing. We control the walls of the citadel, the gate, and the upper levels. Right now the thing has stayed down below. I don't know if it will stay down there."
"Perhaps it hates daylight," suggested Terlan.
"We should set a trap for the thing," said Yael.
I considered this. "I am not sure, Yael. You have not seen what this thing is like. A lot of men were hacking at those tentacles, but I never saw one severed. The tentacles are hard to see, almost like shadows. And I never saw the body of the thing. I am not even sure we can hurt it."
"Oh we can hurt it," Yael said. "We just need to learn how. I wish we had brought pikes with us, but they are hard to wield in the mountains, and so heavy."
"You never saw the body, you said," Terlan commented. "Maybe that is its weak spot."
"I have no idea," I said. "Maybe the priestesses know, but they won't tell us, I am sure."
"We can torture them if we have to," Yael said. Before anyone could retort, he added, "It's unpleasant business but I would rather torture those women than see all my men die."
I had one idea, but it seemed pitifully fragile.
"We could use oil to fight it. When it attacks, we will throw the oil on it so we can see it. Maybe even light it on fire," I suggested.
"If we can see it we will at least have a chance to kill it," Terlan agreed. "Perhaps we could pour out a pool of oil and draw it in."
We decided that this was a decent plan and we refined it for a while before setting it in motion.
Yael and I set up two groups of men to ambush the creature, one at each stone stairway. A pool of oil was formed at the bottom of the stairs, which were slicked down in oil as well. With a great expenditure of effort we placed a large stone, more or less round, at the top of the stairs. The plan was to light the creature on fire, and perhaps injure it with the stone as well. The men at the entrance had plenty of torches that would not go out in a stiff wind, and we watched for the thing constantly.
My men were afraid of the thing, I could see it in their eyes as we waited at the stair. I decided that I would take a risk to shame them into being more resilient. I played up my impatience.
"Where is the accursed thing?" I said aloud, and walked past the men manning the stone, and down the stairs. The oil sconces at the bottom were lit, but there were no men at the bottom since it was a death trap. I walked carefully, minding the oil on the steps, and looked down the corridor from the bottom of the steps. After waiting for long enough to seem unconcerned, I walked back up to my men.
It seemed to work. They had to either decide I knew what I was doing or that I was insane. They seemed to decide I knew what was going on, perhaps because of the respect I had earned in the mountains. The men seemed to lose some nervousness, and they were ready to fight the thing again.
It is too bad that Yael did not think of the same trick, or perhaps he did and he was at the bottom of the stair when the thing attacked. I will never know. I heard the distant sounds of combat through the temple walls, and realized that the other stair must have engaged the monster.
"Let's go!" I barked and dashed off through the temple, men clamoring behind me. We bolted through the chambers and hallways as quickly as we could.
I arrived to a wall of smoke. I realized that with so much burning oil just breathing could be a challenge. A man staggered past me going in the other direction, coughing and wiping his eyes. I decided not to ask him what had happened but to see for myself. I moved into the stair room but I could only see a few feet in any direction. I advanced to the head of the stair and could see that the rock was no longer at the top. I couldn't see Yael anywhere.
A man screamed somewhere nearby. I watched through thick smoke as the man sliced with his sword, passing through a shadowy appendage with no visible effect. Then the tentacle wrapped around the man, and slices appeared on his body from the serrated bone ridges. In the instant of attack I could see the tentacle solidify completely and then fade away, as if it were sliding in and out of this world. Just for an instant, I thought I glimpsed a huge pulsing mass of flesh, a hideous, bulging thing that defied sane description. Then it disappeared and the smoke roiled through where it had been a second before.
I felt a surge of deep, primeval fear try to take hold of me. I almost fell into an abyss of panic, but some memory of my father, and my promise to him that I would never be afraid, kept me together. I managed to recover. Some of the men who had followed me started to fan out in the room, looking for an opponent.
We continued to search for it as the smoke cleared, but it had killed twelve men and then left. I think now that the men never had a chance. I saw the thing flicker and disappear, riding the edge of reality, and I can see how it must have happened:
When it attacked they lit the fire, and rolled the rock down the stair, but these things didn't even effect the creature. The fire could not burn what wasn't there, and the rock rolled through it as if through thin air. Then as the men searched for the thing in the smoke, it moved among them, killing them without fear of reprisal.
We never found Yael. I have no doubt that he faced the creature, sword in hand, and died.
I walked back to the inner sanctum of the temple, thinking of my dead second in command. When I looked at my men I could see that they were haunted by the screams of the men they had heard die. By now everyone had had a chance to talk about the first excursion into the catacombs; the rumors were getting worse. It would be hard to maintain discipline if I did not come up with some way of defeating the nebulous monster with the hideous tentacles that seemed to fade in and out of existence.
I was thinking of the tentacles and I came to the doors of the worship chamber. The doors were carved with the same pattern that dominated everywhere in the citadel, the chaotically intertwining rope vines. In an electric instant I realized that the temple had many images of the Areyai. The carved vines weren't vines at all, they were tentacles. In the halls, the towers, and the worship chambers. On the walls, the ceilings and the alcoves. Everywhere the tentacles. I had mistaken the serrated teeth of the monster's arms for mere leaves on a vine. The revelation made the hair on my neck stand up. This whole time, images of this foul creature had surrounded us and we had no idea, no more idea that we had of its presence here in the first place.
A sentry opened the door for me and I came into the chamber to see the priestesses that were my prisoners. The translator saw me and stepped forward.
"The Areyai has taken its time. But now it will come for you here in the upper levels of the temple," the priestess said. Her voice sounded like she was truly sad that these events had come to pass. I struck her across the face, and she staggered to her knees.
"If it attacks us again, I will kill you. Tell the others. I will kill you one at a time, until it stops killing us."
The priestess shook her head. "The Areyai cares nothing for our individual lives. It is we who worship the Areyai, not the other way around."
"TELL THEM!" I shouted. "Tell them if the beast strikes again, you will all die!" I didn't know it at the time, but it is clear to me now that I had become somewhat unhinged, and my perceptions warped.
I turned to the guards and said, "You heard what I told her. If the beast strikes again, we will kill them one at a time until it stops. If it doesn't stop, we will kill all of the Areynaga."
Terlan approached me and indicated he wanted to talk to me alone. We stepped outside and he spoke in quiet tones.
"We have lost the defenders of the east wall. I have investigated and it seems likely they have deserted. There were no signs of battle, no screams and there is no blood. I have one witness who said he observed the men leaving. He assumed they had the next round of duty cleaning the trees away from the citadel walls. It turns out it wasn't their turn."
"You have put new ones at the wall?"
"Yes, but we are beginning to thin out dangerously. Between those dead or watching the stairs, I barely have enough to man the wall in reasonable strength."
"The weather is good," I told him, "So have the men take their rest at the wall or the towers, instead of the inner buildings. They are soldiers, they can deal with this."
Terlan nodded. "I have left clear instructions at the gate not to let anyone outside. We have cleared away enough of the foliage from the walls for now."
Terlan and I heard a scream from somewhere in the temple. I moved back into the inner sanctum, with murder in my eyes.
"Tell it to stop!" I told the priestess.
"We cannot order the Areyai," the translator maintained.
"We'll find out," I said venomously, and gave the signal to kill the first priestess. The soldiers grabbed one of the women, who resisted at last, and one of them stabbed the woman through the chest, making a savage kill. Like me, he was desperate to get the Areynaga to cooperate.
We had only minutes for our hopes to grow that we had turned the thing back. Then a man's scream echoed again, telling us that their hideous god still hunted us.
The slaughter went on. The screams we produced with our grisly retributions drowned out the screams of the soldiers dying outside as the thing killed them. Blood pooled onto the floor of the inner sanctum as I knew it must be pooling around the bodies of my men slain by the monster. We killed the Areynaga one at a time in a mindless ritual, pretending to ourselves that we were striking back.
I looked into the eyes of the last priestess of the Areynaga, and I could see that she was not going to do anything. That she could not do anything, to stop the abomination that was slaying my men. I struck the woman down with my sword in a rage as the tentacles found another man somewhere in the citadel, his screams echoing into the inner sanctum. We had been deluding ourselves, acting in useless desperation.
The men broke. I looked down at the blood-covered priestess and snarled. I hacked her several times in insanity until I was certain she was dead. I tried to gather together some of the soldiers, but they no longer listened to me. In some situations you can order a man to his death, but this was different. Easier to order them to charge a fortress, or to stand fast before the horde, than to face a horror like this.
We scattered like so many mice before the thing that was killing us. I realized that I would die if I stayed alone and I ran with the others. I told myself that this was not the kind of cowardice my father had described. I was not facing men and steel. I was facing something that I could not fight. Was it cowardice to run from such a thing? Is it shameful for an unarmed man to run from a tiger? Is a mouse a coward if it runs from a snake? I do not know.
Once the rout had run out of steam, half a day's travel back down the valley, I could have regained control of the remnants of the legion, but I knew that I still could not order them back. The Emperor would never allow me to lead any operation again. I wandered back with the survivors in a daze. No one even bothered to fortify our camps or guard the fires.
I could see the damage done to the men with a single sweep of my eyes. For some it was the nervous twitching, a jumping at the slightest unfamiliar sound. In others it was worse, a hollow staring off into nothingness that signalled their minds were still off living the terrors they had gone through, or perhaps retreated into no thoughts at all.
What could I do now? I had never contemplated a failure so complete. How could I stand before the emperor and expect to live? How could I stand before my father and not be shamed? I tried to figure out an explanation, or a way to justify all my actions as heroic, but it was no use.
Instead I filtered back into the capitol with no plans of reporting anything to anyone. After two days in the city I heard that that my father had died, thrown from his horse days before. Strangely I felt nothing but relief, that he had not survived to see my disgrace. I left the city anonymously, with no direction.
Eventually I took up my work here in the libraries, taking advantage of one of the other aspects of my noble upbringing, the ability to read and write. That is how this tome came into being. It is the least I can do with the remainder of my life, to serve as a warning. I can only hope that if another campaign is mounted through the pass, these will not be considered the ravings of a madman. You must believe me. I know the truth: The gods sleep on the Wall of Heaven, and you would be wise not to disturb them.