Authors: Christopher Rowley
The sun burned down on the heart of the continent, the ancient land of Padmasa, but there was no warmth in it. Instead a chill wind from the northwest sucked the heat out of the day, leaving the dun-brown hills and withered meadows of lichen as mute testimony to its power. This was a place ruled by winds. A glance at the fantastic shapes carved from the rock pinnacles could tell the traveler that in a second.
Sandstorms blew in from the west, snowstorms came from the north, and desiccating chinooks came down from the mountains to the south. Vegetation of any sort struggled to survive here, and yet this was the center of the greatest power in the world.
Coming over the pass at Kakalon, looking down into the widening valley, the magician Thrembode the New saw the mass of the Square clearly outlined on the dominating, central rise. The jarring straight lines and white stone informed the world that this was the work of men. The smooth-sided walls, two hundred feet high, frowned down like bluffs of pure adamant. The sight chilled the magician and awakened a deep foreboding. This was a place where only wild goats uould choose to live, and yet there stood the great slab, one
mile on each side, a single vast building thronged by more
than a million people, all of them servants of the power that ruled here.
The magician marveled to himself, for he knew that the Square, for all its majesty was but the anteroom to the Halls of Padmasa, which lay deep below, carved into the rock of the craton by an army of slaves, none of whom had survived the ordeal. Indeed, their very bones had been ground into the mortar holding together the stones.
Coming through the pass and into the valley brought Thrembode back into the full force of the wind, which tore at his clothing. He shivered as he fastened his coat all the way up and tightened the belt. It was always cold here, one reason the great ones liked it. The wind shrieked as it honed the rocks into bonelike shapes, eroding the world's flesh and exposing its very vertebrae.
Thrembode thought of the coming ordeal, and would've prayed to the gods if he thought it would give him strength. After what he'd seen through his service to the Masters, however, the magician could no longer believe in gods. Gods would have stopped the Masters, before they became veritable gods themselves. And no thing, no one, could stop them now.
His horse continued down the slope on the great road. Nine of these roads converged here, two hundred feet wide, all running perfectly straight across the valley and up to the Square. Caravans of camels and mules, bearing tribute from half the world to the buried city of the Masters, crowded these roads.
Thrembode approached the East Gate. A long line of slaves trudged ahead of him, Ourdhi men, chained at the neck, driven by the lash of burly imps in the black uniform of Padmasa. Slaves were necessary to every function within the strange city of the Square. It was, indeed, a city like no other in the history of the world Ryetelth, for it was city as ideological fact, with no natural reason for its existence in this cold desert.
On either side, before the gate, stretched row upon row of gibbets. Most were empty, but on a few set close to the road, rotting bodies swayed in the chill wind, a constant reminder that in Padmasa the punishment for most crimes was death. Drawn up by the gate was a regiment of savage-looking imps, armed with scimitars and shields. These imps had the heads of apes, squat manlike bodies and powerful legs. Lurking nearby, he knew, were teams of great, nine-foot-tall trolls, ready to back up the imps in moments if required.
Thrembode was waved through the great gate and into the teeming world of the Square where his pass was stamped as obsequious officials bowed. He was a magician, an Adept and a member of the inner hierarchy. Passed through the security screen, the magician went on down the central internal avenue of the Square.
Above the avenue, the roof rose two hundred feet high and the walls on either side were filled with windows. On the street were shops and storehouses. It was a bustling scene, filled with hundreds of thousands of busy workers, attending to countless menial and clerical tasks. They provided the support structure, even the very feeding, for the real city, which lurked below, far underground. Thrembode's business lay there, in the cold warrens of the Tetralobe.
In the heart of the Square was an empty space open to the sky. In the center were the statues of the Great Ones, the Five. Each was a hundred feet tall and sculpted as a giant of heroic build and noble visage. They dominated the space, ruling it just as they ruled everything in Padmasa.
At the corners of the open space were four distinct towers, each connected to the main structure at every floor by covered corridors that stuck out like ribs joined to a backbone. These were the staircases to the underground city.
Below, down many turns of these stairs, cut into solid rock, lay four distinct labyrinths of passages and caverns, with rooms beyond number. The four labyrinths or lobes were thrust out in a cross on the points of the compass. They were quite separate from one another except for the central hub where they met in the Nexus Halls. The stairs connected the Nexus Halls to the Square and the outside world.
This underground world was the Tetralobe, the heart of the empire of the Masters, an empire of fear, an empire that bestrode Ryetelth and threatened to overwhelm all opposition and bring the entire world under its dominion.
From this place went instructions to a dozen provinces of the power, including such vast fortresses as that of Axoxo in the White Bone Mountains. From here came and went an army of spies and their messengers. From here went messages for men of influence in every land, messages to win favor or demand it. One way or another, the Masters of Padmasa were able to reach any ruler's ear and command his attention.
Thrembode descended the red staircase and climbed down the two hundred steps to the Nexus Hall on the fourth level. His pass was checked by a team of specially bred imps with heads like those of weasels and black, beady, inhuman eyes. They examined him carefully with those eyes, but found nothing to concern them.
He was directed with curt gestures to the exit to the South Lobe, which housed the offices of the Intelligence Apparatus.
He was aware of a fierce scrutiny on all sides, and an underlying field of tension on the psychic plane. With a tremor he realized that his presence on the psychic plane had been noted by those who created the field, Mesomasters in the cells far below in the Deeps. To them he was but a small blip, a young node of powers, infinitesimal compared to the entities below themselves, but they had taken notice of him nonetheless and passed on the news to the greater minds below in the Deeps.
The Deeps, the very name brought an uncontrollable creep of the flesh, a raising of the hairs on his body. In those hidden sepulchres, under dim light, dwelt the Great Ones, and it was there you went if you were to be interviewed. It was an experience no man ever forgot.
On this occasion, however, Thrembode's first interview was with Administrator Gru-Dzek, a tall, hatchet-faced man with grey hair shaved to stubble. He wore the black robe of the Intelligence Apparatus, with purple fringe and a single slash of scarlet to denote rank.
Thrembode was shown a bare, uncomfortable chair, set before a massive desk. Administrator Gru-Dzek took out a scroll, unrolled it, and studied it for a long minute. Then he clapped his hands. The door opened and a mutilated slave, blinded, tongue removed, came in and set up a scribe's equipment at a small table in the corner.
Administrator Gru-Dzek looked up and fixed the magician with pale, unfriendly eyes. He cleared his throat.
"Magician Thrembode, this interview will be recorded in the official record. I must therefore note officially that you are under provisional sentence of termination."
"Termination?" said Thrembode, aghast.
"In the light of your several failures, it was deemed an advisable sentence."
"In Kadein, you allowed an entire network to be rolled up by the witches. In Marneri, you bungled a well-prepared assassination attempt. Our choice as heir for the Marneri throne was subsequently killed by the witches. To compound this disaster, you then led a war party of witches directly to Tummuz Orgmeen and allowed them to destroy the Doom there."
Thrembode felt his toes clutch at the soles of his boots.
"Led them? Allowed them," he sputtered. "This is a mistake. This is a grotesque rendering of events."
Administrator Gru-Dzek stared at him coolly.
"Is it not true that the Doom had ordered your arrest?"
"I did my best to warn the Doom, but it would not listen! It had grown contemptuous of all men by then."
"You criticize the fallen Doom?"
"It fell, didn't it? It was flawed."
The administrater's eyes widened. That was a bold statement for the record. It implied criticism of they who had made the Doom.
"In Ourdh last year, you were part of another disaster."
"I must protest. The witches created some sort of counter-stroke to the life-giving spell used to invigorate the mud men myrmidons. The Mesomaster Gog Zagozt was perhaps out of his depth in dealing with the witches. I tried to advise him, but he would not listen to me. Of course, I have had considerable experience with them."
"Yes, you have. Perhaps a little too much. You have been scheduled for a detailed inquisition. It must be determined whether they have addled you or turned you traitor."
Thrembode felt his face flush with fury.
"I can reliably inform you that they have not. There is no need for such an inquisition."
Administrator Gru-Dzek smiled thinly. "That is not for you to decide, Magician. I am sure you understand."
Thrembode shrugged, and offered a wan little smile.
"I will be happy to face the inquisition."
The administrater's smile cracked for a moment, then he recovered himself.
"Good. Now, as I was saying, this sentence of termination is provisional. You have an opportunity to keep it that way."
"I am so glad."
"You have a certain knowledge of the cities and the countryside of the Argonath."
"Yes, of course, I have lived in most of the nine cities."
"And so you have been chosen to accompany General Lukash on an expedition."
Thrembode's eyebrows rose. An expedition? With a general?
The administrater made a scarcely perceptible signal, and the door opened again. In came a squat, full-bellied man in the black and maroon military uniform of Padmasa, but bearing a white stripe on the shoulders. His face had the consistency of boiled leather.
Thrembode rose and saluted the general with his palm out, hand thrust out straight in front of him.
"General Lukash," said Administrater Gru-Dzek.
Lukash nodded, but did not return the salute. His features were utterly impassive, walled off within the leathery carapace.
They were all seated.
The administrater began to outline the mission ahead. As he spoke, Thrembode realized with a certain amount of awe that this time the Great Masters intended to throw their full strength against the upstart cities of the eastern coast. Nothing would be left, not one stone atop another, except for the gibbets and the pyramids of skulls.
It was Summer month in the land of Kenor, the time of flowers. The wild poppies were in bloom along the hedgerows and on the hillsides. A bumper crop of winter wheat had been harvested, and turnips, rye, oats, and barley were ripening in the fields. Fruit growers in every vale were ecstatic about the possibilities of the harvest. In fact, farmers all across Kenor were enjoying one of the best years in a century.
An atmosphere of celebration was evident throughout the province, from the cheerful singing in the fields to the unusually generous sacrifices placed on the altars in the temples to the Great Mother.
And thus, under blue skies and bright sunshine, people gathered from every quarter to the summer games, which this year were being hosted by the Marneri Second Legion at Fort Dalhousie.