The Eyeless Wind - First Chapters
The Eyeless Wind
Book One of the Pure Angst Trilogy
CHAPTER ONE “The Red Equinox”
At the centre of the Sethron city, hundreds of feet higher than the surrounding rooftops, a sea of densely packed rooftops, chimneys and gables, rose a gradually tapering spire - the pinnacle of an enormous semi-circular edifice built to inspire awe. Its long facade of palaster-flanked windows, onyx statues lining the base, faced a vast plaza like some primeval titan sitting in judgment on an innumerable congregation. This was the Central Temple of the True Faith, the only surviving religion of the Sethrons and the entire citizenry was gathered together, excitement and apprehension running through the crowd as a voice from on high cried:
“Fire the angst stones!”
Cavernous trap-doors were unhinged at intervals along the temple roof, around the base of the great pinnacle, and red-glowing rocks tumbled down from conduits carved to resembled Gashins with tongues unfurled. It brought the beasts to life for the Sethrons and a exhating sigh rose to meet the projecting angst. The city lay under cover of darkness save for the Red Moon, a mere sliver in the western sky. The stones fell into giant vats in the conclave, cracking thunderously and loosing tall mushrooms of fire. Ornamental bows were lifted by sentinel archers between the people and the temple, flaming arrows describing an impressive arc - a hundred in flight together - striking the angst-filled vats and making the stones ignite with a boom. Mountains of fire erupted simultaneously before a wall of believers many leagues long. The lower storeys of the Central Temple and the upturned heads of the people were alike reflected candescent in the sudden blaze. The congregation cried its delight, waving and undulating like red-shadows across ripe cornfields, all torchlight overborne by the flare of orange-red effulgence. Faces turned to the pinnacle of the temple in expectant adoration.
“Let the Sunburst rise for the Grand Priest!”
The assembled masses threw up their arms, cries of hope, anticipation and vitality thronged palpably and quarter of a million hands spread their fingers in the sunburst gesture. All eyes were on a balcony hundreds of feet above the ground, a platform part-encircling the temple spire. Peaks of angstlight reached the spire’s crown and illuminated the balcony, wreathing its strange luminescence like spirits gathering about the skirts of the Grand Priest’s stage; and the people knew it was all to pay homage to the Equinox.
As the mood of the worshippers reached a fever pitch, a figure emerged onto the balcony and all could see him surveying his domain. Yammering and howling broke from thousands of lips, Sethron zealots unable to contain their ecstasy. The figure stood tall and from his very being exuded an intense light of his own: blood-red like the angst but brighter, sharper, richer than mere stone. This was the Grand Priest of the Sethrons. He was flanked some paces back by the inner circle of high priests but they, mere city-folk, were little more than silhouettes beside the Grand Priest. As if by signal the crowds fell silent, reverence stilling their tongues in readiness for the ceremony to come.
“Prostrate Yourselves, o Sethrons, before the Equinox of the Red Moon!”
As one the crowd of men and women, Sethron, Gashinite and Ulfin, fell to its knees. Kindled faces enraptured by such close proximity to their immortal leader, waited for benediction.
“Glory and Eternal Life for the Grand Priest!”
Trumpets and flutes and dulcimers struck forth from the temple ramparts, great explosions fulminated from the vats of angstfire and the people of the city were on their knees, noising a prayer with such collective vigour it shook the foundations of the priestly citadel.
The Grand Priest held out his great fist, extending his fingers slowly in answer to the sunburst greeting. Each of his fingertips sparkled with eight-colour iridescence, angst red and ineffable octarine brighter than the rest; a red indeed in perfect symbiosis with the Red Moon. The colours scintillated as the light described parabola through the night air, chasing streamers over the adoring crowd and spiralling off about the city, stark contrast to the coal-black sky. The Sethrons beheld the play of the lights for as long as their eyes could bear the strain but within minutes all were turned away, so intense was the brilliance.
A deeper, more thrilling voice spoke now; and all heard. “The Grand Priest bestows the Blessing of the Eight Colours on His Beloved People and greets His Brother, the Red Moon, at this Auspicious Equinox.” It was the words of the Grand Priest himself, a voice that possessed at once the richness of centuries and the veiled potency of an immortal soul. The Grand Priest was no ordinary Sethron. He stood seven feet in height, eyes aglow. His face, though lined with early middle age, had not changed in almost two hundred years.
Wild genuflexions swept through the crowd as fervent Sethrons competed - as was their wont - in extravagant piety. The Grand Priest, implacable, let his hand fall and the light-blessing emanations ceased. Hooded priests emerged from doorways along the base of the temple, some carrying instruments, others chanting, and a hymn was raised to the Red Moon and its Sethron vassals. The Grand Priest retired silently leaving his high priests to take the ceremonial reigns; ritual and rite by turn directed from up on high, dutifully enacted by the thousands below. The mood began to change with the end of the Grand Priest’s blessing, euphoria having been brought to a pitch unknown to unluckier folk whose worship demanded faith - where the people of the Sethron capital knew proof: their leader was no less than a God himself, said many - as revelry in bliss seized the collective imagination. The Sethrons danced and sang that night with all their hearts.
Little Inambo’s eyes glimmered like sunken pearls, his dirt-smudged face thrown into relief now and then by reflections from the flickering torches protruding overhead, thrust into eaves and roof-thatch to light the streets for the thronging crowds drawn in by the Central Temple and the Red Equinox revel. Inambo kept well-hidden - an easy feat for the youngster in a spartan city more bent on war than beautifying their capital; tumbledown nooks and untended crannies abound. The Sethrons pay little heed to the young at the best of times and given a rare chance to celebrate, none of the tramping passers-by noticed the boy flitting from place to place in their wake. Buxom, horse-fleshed women, hair stacked in the fashion of the Sethron matriarchs, high and teetering with every turn of their ample hips, gave way to the fervent feelings aroused by the Grand Priest and twirled and whooped just like the menfolk. Cries in the air sometimes found melody, baritone soldiers and alto wives and mothers. All were converging on the Temple’s plaza, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Grand Priest himself.
Inambo felt no such allure. Long before the thickening crowds reached the Temple, he had peeled off and flitted back home. Presently he was crouching on all fours beneath the low beams exposed to the alleyway at the back of his father’s forge. The crunch of passing feet was unabated and late-comers scurried not to miss the start.
Inambo hated the ceremonies and most of all the bi-annual Equinox revel. His best friend, a sunflower-faced scamp called Lampwick, had been crushed to death by unknowing ecstatic crowds two years ago while they had ventured close to the congregation and been caught by a sudden thousand-strong mob, carried by its own momentum from the open plaza into the narrow streets. Fighting and panic had terrified them both but nobody noticed and they had been separated, Inambo somehow crawling into a gutter overhang. He had found Lampwick’s body some hours later, flattened against the churned muddy ground. His bones had been crushed, Inambo remembered, and there was blood but Lampwick’s face was eerily placid. It had made everything worse.
Lampwick's body had been fed to the forges, true so the Sethron tradition. Inambo had crept into the smithy to watch the ritual. He remembered the white- hot flames taking hold of Lampwick's body, burning from the inside of his skull out through the eye sockets; a horrifying, mesmeric and diabolic revelation.
Inambo flitted away from the epicentre of the festival crowds, wending overhung alleyways towards the outer reaches of the Sethron capital. His way was unmolested, the citizens were occupied elsewhere, and quickly the sounds of merriment died away. He clambered up a rain-sluice onto the flat sun-baked peripheral dwellings of the city, leaping from roof to roof with a feline agility. He looked back, towards the great temple, thrusting above the city towards its proud, unassailable crown. Lights bobbed, congealed and separated, wound about the squares and stairways that surrounded the temple. A node of bright red shone from the highest balcony, barely discernible, and Inambo shuddered. He turned away, shinning up a latticework, thirty feet onto the outer rampart of the city's battlements.
The boy ran his hands along the rough-hewn stonework, tracing the arrow slits, caressing the levers attached to mighty oil cauldrons that might be pulled to fill the enveloping moat with burning liquids. The trappings of warfare, echoes of distant battles heard in the brash footfalls of Sethron armies that passed regularly the gates of the capital, thrilled Inambo and he fell to dreaming of the faraway lands. He searched the horizons over the battlements but the praires were caked in darkness, broken only occasionally by a speckle of village lamps, lit to an unusual fervour by their own smaller celebrations of the Equinox. Inambo wondered at the unvarying landscape about his home, the river valley that stretched beyond the limits of his eyes. He imagined the scene in the high moontide, fully lit, tedious plains and farmland, fodder for the city, trails of traders lined at the gateway to tout their wares.
The Red Moon, a concave eclipse against the western horizon, was readying to undergo its springtime shift. Of the two great celestial Gods that watched the Sethron firmament, the Red Moon was Inambo's favourite. One of his earliest memories was the play of the soldier army his father had fashioned for him in amongst the red shadows of their rock-strewn yard. The mock-up battles that he had waged mere months after learning to walk were always accompanied by the sentient regard of the Red Moon. The Moon occupied a full quarter of the western sky and its penumbra was but a single arced seam across its surface, the narrowest ebb. The moons reminded Inambo of the slow execution of the blinking of eyes and the Red Moon was almost closed. The Equinox signalled the opening of the divine eye, weeks of growth in the extent of its colouration and its luminosity. A season hence, three months in days, the Red Moon would reach its lustreful heights and blaze a ruby brilliance onto the land, searing the landscape and the city.
To the east, in perfect counterbalance, was the Silver Moon. At the time of the Red Equinox, the Silver Moon was in a reductive phase, waning to a near- invisibility, a thin crescent of the silver-blue rippling about its surfaces. Its dullness excited Inambo; it heralded the darkness time that lasted for a month every few seasons. The Silver Moon would recede to its own most lustreless point some weeks after its sister's and then would begin afresh the chase towards a blazing phosphorescence that would fill and consume the heavens. Inambo loved the darkness times, the hiding times, the days of torches and mysterious faces and tales by the fireside. Southward and Northward, uncharted beyond a few hundred leagues of the Sethron capital, were vast tracts of moonless sky. Northward was only blackness, impenetrable and unforgiving. To the South, oft hidden by the collision of moonlights, the firmament was cast about with thousands of stars. The stars shifted position, season to season. They were the free souls, the Sethron worthy, emancipated from their earthbound toil, liberated to dance the Empyrion Tango between the Moons. Inambo followed the plight of stars here and there, countless firefly dots busy about their distant missions. His eyes grew dry and mournful, filled with wonder for the world.
The bellow of a guardian patrolling the upper battlements finally shook Inambo's gaze free and sent him galloping back across the platforms gesturing obscenities. He retraced his steps, finding a ladder to descend back into the city sprawl and run for home.
The Grand Priest had returned to greet his people and he looked down from the stone-carved balcony to address the crowd. Their noises subsided to a respectful undertone. The Grand Priest's voice worked through his words with unquestionable authority.
"People of the city; Sethrons, Gashins and Ulfins. This, as many equinoxes before it, is a day of great celebration and congratulation. You have worked well and you much deserve the praise and blessings of the Gods. These I bring to you, as their only messenger. The chase for Paradise and the immortal Pure Angst is well met by you, the chosen people."
"This coming year will be one of harsh effort. We face enemies on all of our borders, disbelievers and dissenters who seek to hoard the artifacts that we are sworn to collect. This will not deter us. You are strong, my people. You will work and battle without quarter and the Sethron way will prevail. Already we have achieved much in but three generations. I am pleased. Hear me! Your efforts have pleased me."
"Yet there is more to be done. This year shall be our greatest yet. Our triumphs shall be unparalleled. I look forward and, no less, I expect the next Red Equinox to be one of even greater significance. Thus I charge you, my people, my beloved, my trusting many; celebrate for the night. And be ready, once merriment is over, to push harder, sterner, further and more resolutely than ever before! My soldiery, begin your assembly. Call to arms, call to arms."
Esteban, the Grand Priest of the Sethrons, left the podium to his underlings and retired to his private chambers. He always initiated the Equinox ceremonies, overlaid ninety years ago onto existing rituals as a means of galvanising the superstitious Sethrons, but the Grand Priest disliked the pomp of the event. He would rather have left his people to their own wild release but experience had proven his presence an essential inclusion, a balm for their interceding suffering, a catalyst for renewed vigour about the tasks he dictated. He needed the Sethrons, their purpose, their organisation, their busy hands; they were his foot- soldiers in the quest for the Pure Angst and thus he suffered to head their religion. He drew a thick, damask curtain across the archway that separated his private library from the inner audience chamber, retreating onto a cushioned divan with a languid disaffection. Strains of applauding crowds and the boom of his minions reciting their ritual speeches snaked about his head incessantly, the sheer sound visible as serpentine lines wending about his chamber. Esteban swatted at the confusion of snakes angrily, breaking their integrity and scattering the noises into the corners of the room.
"Thus, another of the years of this Time that can be felt is impressed on my wearied, doldrum bones," Esteban sighed, closing his eyes and shifting against his pillows. He clenched his fists in an attempt to push resolve into his frame. "And yet it is not over. A hundred of these years, bending against my weak back, dogging my tread, and I am not yet done. Angst. Pure Angst! You elusive stones, the ichor of my Origin, whence do you hide? Ah, that, that is my fire. The only purpose for this ill-fated Exile. To return!"
Esteban raised himself, eyes redoubling their glow. He cast his face upwards, against the ornate carvings that craftsmen had chiselled into the ceiling to honour him. "I will Return! Do you hear?" he hissed. He did not wish to raise his true voice, for to do so would shake the foundations of his temple and thunder above the heads of the flimsy beings that honoured him without. But his hiss resonated nonetheless, howling through the airs about the Sethron capital, sending his people into paroxysm, their worshipful cries pitched to a frenzy.
The Grand Priest hauled his leaden carcass from the divan and drew his eyes across his bookcases, the collected writings of not only the Sethrons over the ages, but also the conquered cities and peoples that bordered his stronghold. The battles of conquest, in the name of the Pure Angst, had raged for almost a century, since his seizure of the reigns of government. Esteban cared little for the perils of war, bent on the quest for wrestling away the Pure Angst, for retrieving the disparate fragments that littered the land, stored away in strongholds about the continent. He moved across to a central table. The chamber was unlit but Esteban's eyes shone with their own lustre and he needed no external light to see. Upon the central table was a relief map of the known continent, markings for conquered cities and natural features. Esteban noted the edges of his domain, those cities a touch beyond the periphery of Sethron hegemony. He was preparing his armies to strike beyond these boundaries, ever searching, and he fell to reflection, fingers caressing the tips of the high, unassailable mountain that ringed the northernmost reaches of the charted land.
[THE GRAND PRIEST'S MAP]
While the working cityfolk indulged in their celebration the Sethron military was undergoing a review. In the large enclosures of the northern quarter of the city the thousands-strong army was called to order: row upon row of Sethron, armour-clad soldiery, trackers, archers; grim-faced Gashins weighed down by thick platemail stood alongside slender Ulfins, the spies, scouts and messengers. All were well-disciplined, schooled in Sethron morality and purpose. Their faces were immobile, sentinels on the training grounds. Captains reported to their Marshalls and the Marshalls led representatives of the priesthood, red-purple robes amongst the sombre armours and camouflages, on inspection rounds. The priests were pleased and confident, the Marshalls swelled with pride, the soldiery remained statuesque and ready. Flares of light from occasional fires, spillages onto the wooden roofs of housing about the city, reflected in the unblinking pupils of the attendant soldiers. Indistinct cries, pleasure and pain, surprise and merrymaking, eddied about the city. The soldiery, regarding the civilians as necessary cogs in the machine, endured their indiscipline stoically. They were loyal, each and every one, on a personal level to the Grand Priest; he was their deity, their leader, and their guiding light.
The solemnity of the military review was interrupted by the frantic arrival of a newcomer, a dislodged Sethron, flailing and ragged. He arrived on the training grounds with shouts of alarm, screaming warnings in a panicked tongue that twisted his words to incomprehensible sounds. It was a tracker from the Thakrian front. One of the Captains recognised the young man.
"Munalula, third legion... Munalula! What has happened to you? Where is your party?"
"We were slaughtered! THEY ARE COMING, THEY ARE COMING!"
"Calm yourself. The Thakrians are defeated, did you not know? We have prevailed. You have no concerns. The field was won! Come to me," commanded the Captain, striding from his legion to engage the bedraggled tracker.
Murmurs of uncertainty were spreading through the rank and file. The Sethrons had met with resistance in the expansion of their boundaries but they had not known defeat. The mighty ramparts of their capital had risen unmolested, unabated, dauntless. Their cities had known no invasion for centuries; since long before living memory.
The tracker screamed, struggling against the Captain's authoritative hands. "We were attacked, slaughtered before my eyes. Nothing to be done. No power like that. Harsh, eyeless, evil... cruel... my friends... to the north. Too many to count... THEY'RE COMING!"
"Be quiet, Inambo!" his lithe, gentle sister chastised him. She was sweeping the hearth of their modest living quarters. "How these ashes disturb me."
Inambo, awake later than usual because of the ongoing celebrations, was kneeling at their window watching the street. Most of the cityfolk had made their way to the temple quarter and only dribs and drabs were left; the lame, the paralytically drunk, the stupid. Inambo hooted a taunt at some wayward vagrant teetering about in the street and the man responded by toppling into the gutters, swiping at the air angrily.
"You shouldn't be cleaning. It just gets dirty again. Come and look at this silly man, Inonge. He's fighting with his cloak. He thinks its attacking him!" Inambo replied, giggling.
"Leave the poor soul be."
"Come and look. Stop sweeping!"
Inonge continued to swish her broom about the floor, chasing the ash and dirt into corners. It had been one of tasks since their mother's death many years ago. Inambo, frustrated, hopped down from the sill and ran to his sister. He grasped her hand and dragged her reluctantly to watch. The sot was disentangling himself from the clothing-monster that had grappled him to the ground and his features were obscured. The crackle of explosive angstworks and distant melodies worked their way through the outlier quarters of the city. The drunkard righted himself, drawing back his hood and staring towards the windowsill by which Inambo and his sister rested.
"It's father," Inonge sighed. Inambo turned away. "Inambo?"
The boy slunk onto his bedding. Inonge slid in beside him, watching the stilted rise and fall of his back for a time. Inambo flipped over suddenly, facing her with keen, determined eyes.
"We don't have to be slaves."
"Slaves, Inambo... what slavery?"
"Working for the city, all day, all night. People used to live longer lives. I read about it. I did, don't look like that!"
"Oh, my brother... reading again? What purpose does that serve, this spread of mistruths. Why believe that? It is not alive. It cannot breathe. It does not have life."
"You don't understand. Let me teach you, Inonge! Please... then you'll see."
It was Inonge's turn to twist away, to dodge her brother's intent regard. Their conversation was interrupted by the clattering return of their father. He fell over their theshhold and crawled slowly, on his belly, the few yards between door and bedding area. Inambo ignored him, furious and miserable at his father's foolishness but Inonge stole across, a little later, and covered her father with blankets.
A small band of Sethrons and Gashins had become detached from their vanguard. The ebb and flow of the recent battle with the Thakrians had separated the group of six. They had ran the gauntlet of the Thakrian periphery, hoping to retreat in a wide loop around their enemies to rejoin the main thrust of the Sethron offensive. The terrain had proven difficult, the northern reaches of the walled Thakrian capital rose quickly to foothills and thence into craggy ridges, hundred foot chasms twisting into treacherous canyons. Beyond, leagues north, the foothills rose to touch the feet of the wide mountain range that marked the limits of Sethron intelligence. Caught between the Thakrians, camped about the hills and surrounding their capital, and the dangerous hills, the displaced group opted to strike onto higher ground. The waning of the Red Moon was a week away, the curve of its luminosity had retracted to a partially opened slit. It rested in the southwestern sky and threw out a weak, inadequate light. A turbid dullness enshrouded the foothills, covering their retreat and rendering progress slow and unsteady.
"Idiot!" the tallest Gashin growled. "Some tracker you are Munalula... why is the redlight so weak here?"
"Shush, shush, I'm trying to see," returned the maligned Sethron tracker, a slender young man clad in a light surcoat, unarmoured, squinting across the horizon.
"I'm almost blind here!" another Gashin rumbled, cursing under his breath. His metallic mail chinked with every heavy footfall.
"Be quieter... step lighter, for Esteban's sake."
Mention of the Grand Priest by name hushed the party and the Gashins tried, as best their bulky frames could manage, to tread carefully. They scrambled along, ever rising, dislodging scree and sending rocks tumbling into canyons. The tracker was nervous, tentative and the clattering rocks sent him hopping from foot to foot agitatedly.
"We're not alone here. Listen!" he whispered.
Two of his fellow Sethrons withdrew long-handled axes from their belts. "Do you hear?"
The group arrested its movement, chains and weapons were brought to rest. They listened intently. The Gashins, less sensitive to the play of the air, heard nothing, but the Sethrons discerned a distant but unmistakable ruffling; too random to be a natural, recurring feature.
"What is it, Munalula? Birds?"
Munalala cocked his head thoughtfully. "Too large to be birds. Hear the scraping? But where can it be coming from... I see nothing."
The ruffling grew louder, leathery wings beating against air and sinew and the Gashins drew out their weapons expectantly. The group arranged themselves in defensive formation, a ring of tensed bodies, Gashin towering protectively over Sethron, poised to meet the winged approach.
"I'd rather have faced the Thakrians than this... Moons know what lives in these damnable canyons."
The Sethrons and the Gashins have long nurtured a close battleground relationship. The Sethrons, more agile, smaller in stature, faster to disseminate senses are the ideal companions to a Gashin strongarm. The Gashins are a fiercely loyal breed, long dispensed of the trivia of convoluted morality, paired down to fundamentals. The Gashins refer to their code as 'Roots'. Gashin and Sethron groups grow symbiotic to such an extent that enemies, in their own recounting of tales from the field, have told of many-headed, many-limbed beasts, single, mighty entities impossible to best. Munalula, the tracker, was ensconsed at the centre of the group, protected selflessly by his companions; the trackers did not often engage in melee.
Munalula watched and listened through the contracting bodies, sensing their trepidation. Words of support, pledged before every battle, circulated around him and weapons clanked against one another.
The sounds of the hammering wings grew louder, multifarous, spreading about the waiting tangle of Sethrons and Gashins. They could see nothing. Anticipation overcame one of the Sethrons and he unloaded a challenge to the darkness. "What is it!"
His words proved catalytic. Rising from the unseen depths of the surrounding canyons, simultaneously cresting in terrifying unison, the encroaching beasts were revealed. Hundreds upon hundreds of black, jagged shadows launched themselves onto the rocky shelf. Their teeth glistened, sharp and malevolent, maws pinched to slits, devillish purpose and their movements, wings fanned, beaten with bat-like agility, bespoke a murderous desperation. They had no eyes.
"What are they?" a Sethron murmured. "Not Thakrians. Not anything I have ever seen..."
The Gashins met the assault first, double-handed swords swiping at air and wing, slicing against the first wave of creatures. Screeches, frenzied and bloodthirsty, rang out from the hilltops and the largest Gashin fell; teeth and claws had rent through his exposed neck, tearing through his skin and gouting blood.
The battle, if indeed its brevity could warrant that title, did not last for more than five minutes. The Sethrons and the remaining Gashin were no match for their assailants. The black-winged creatures tore mercilessly at their prey, ripping through their armour as if it were paper. There are few horrors akin to the chaos of panicked, brutal death in the darkness. Munalala, surrounded and protected by his companions, watched wide-eyed their fear, their flashing eyes riven with fatal foreknowledge, searing pains and final moments. The second Gashin, overcome by razor-sharp claws gouging at his neck, managed to convey, in a second of contact, a look of such dignity that Munalala was driven to scream, to rage against their besiegers. But before he could act, the Gashin toppled backwards and crunched him against the gravelly ground. The bodies of his friends were likewise fallen, stacked pyre-like above him. Breathing was difficult but Munala struggled to remain quiet, listening. Bodies, now corpses above him, juddered against the last vestiges of attack, final stabbings to ensure the dead are dead. Then the screeching that had resounded throughout the short exchange fell away. Wings cracked, sinews stretched and Munalula heard conversation, high- pitched whines that rose and fell as words. The hollow screams debated in ghastly wails; whatever had attacked them was sentient. Munalula shut his eyes and prayed silently for his life.
In the lightless lands nobody cared about the moons or the stars or the brightness of the flame. There was no warmth about which to cluster, to nurture compassion or fondness. There were no families, no brethren, no artistic or aesthetic beauty. But, wreathed in the lost annals of a continent not yet drifted to book-learning and permanent record, the North is not without life. Beasts walk the endless valleys and clamber blind the mountain tracks, ever in search of sustenance. Odours are rife, sounds magnified to hyperbolic resonance.
Order can be a terrible Master and the North had long known only chaos, ineffectual, self-destructive cycles of life and death unseen and unknown. But Order came in the guise of a brooding sapience; an intelligence that resides among the peaks of the greatest mountains, alone, wanting and needing no-one. The deliquesce of its mind, housed in a form cobbled together for convenience, hewn from rock and hardened flesh, was felt throughout the North. The beasts heard its call and came to heed its direction; the mandate of Order.
Esteban was spared a moment's anxiety by a bustling in his audience chamber. Well tutored in the duties that he himself had invented, he swept out of his private rooms, cowing the assembly that awaited him to immediate silence. His priests, clothed in dyed-red cowls that concealed their features completely, bowed their heads uniformly as their master entered. Standing between the two most senior priests was a tall, strident woman. She was unfettered, unclothed and had planted her firm, flexed thighs firmly apart, readying her heaving breast to face her duty. Her eyes were cast down.
"Great Lord, we present the sacrifice for your inspection."
Esteban made cursory perusal of the girl and motioned for his minions to depart. They withdrew onto the outer balconies, to address the crowds and drive the ceremony towards pinnacle-point of the impending sacrificial burning.
"Are you ready to fulfil your duty?" Esteban said. His voice, though soft, filled every inch of the chamber.
"I was born ready," the girl returned.
The Grand Priest smiled mirthlessly. "You see this as your destiny?"
"It is as I've been taught."
"You believe all the teachings?"
"Why?" asked Esteban. His eyes were trained on the girl, surveying her features.
She was smooth-faced, evenly featured with long braided hair. Her pose bore a notion of pride that interested the Grand Priest.
"Because of you, Great Lord."
"Me? What have I to do with your teachings? I have never noticed you before in my wanderings about this city."
The girl raised her eyes to see the Grand Priest for the first time. "You are the proof, Great Lord. None can doubt your powers and your might."
Esteban shrugged off the reference to his supernatural import. "And you are happy to die, to end your little life long before you have begun to wither?"
"To cast away my mortal body in the name of the Moon Gods is not death but life eternal. What greater gift?"
"Do I read pity in your eyes? The pity of the dead, for those doomed to live?"
The girl shivered at the Grand Priest's penetrative eye. It vindicated her faith in his omniscience. "It is my weakness, Great Lord. To pity those less fortunate than me. Yet they all serve, in their own way."
"And yours is to die?"
"Yes, Great Lord."
"For me?" Esteban pressed. "Yes, Great Lord."
The Grand Priest stroked at his chin briefly perplexed. The sacrificial aspect of the equinox rituals had always disturbed him but his fondness for the individual lives of his charges rarely grew to personal intervention. His cause overmatched their ephemeral lives; he had no cure for their mortality, after all. But something about the sacrifices always excited his curiosity - accidents of intelligence in the short-lived, damp squibb mortals was an unresolved issue. To salve a conscience that seldom troubled him, Esteban would always offer a choice; an opportunity to escape the sacrificial fate. In ninety years not a single virgin had chosen to live.
"I do not wish it," he stated. "Hear me, my subject. Hear your Great Lord. Say instead that I have changed my mind. That you are to be spared."
The girl grew incredulous, edging on chagrin. "To be spared... the fulfilment of every hope and every day of my life? I do not fear to die."
"If you kill yourself, you will be no more. No more, I tell you. Silly mortal, you know nothing... what do any of you know? I could teach you, though and then you could decide with the veils cast from your eyes."
She did not comprehend him. "Teach me, Great Lord?"
"The truth," Esteban continued. "What an offer! Does the Sethron know the offer she has exacted from her Lord, this fine equinox hour? Of course she does not. She sees me with the look of an innocent, but an innocent ready for the slaughter. My lamb, let me give you choice... what do you say?"
"What truth, Lord?"
"The truth that all of your kind receive from their Lord."
"I am ready," replied the girl. She steeled herself to meet a spiritual lesson and her bearing grew intent.
"My sweet woman, I am no Great Lord. I am not the representative you think. My only claim to lead your people is self-centred, that I am more powerful than you or your brethren. But this religion? It is a sham. A fakery."
"Your people work for me, worship me, follow me, but I am not as I appear to be. I drive your little race to do my bidding, to toil for my ceaseless quest. You do not need to know the true quest, but it is not for the benefit of your burdened race."
"Here is the choice I offer you, if your mind is open to it. Your sacrifice is not necessary for my plans... thus I am not wholly callous. I could protect you, conceal you or whisk you away. Save one soul. The rest, necessity. You, superfluous. You do not need to cast your life away. Hear me..."
"I am fallen from the Red Moon. Cast out for my crimes against my will. Why do you shake to hear the secret of your so-called God? I am not your Grand Priest, I am your Grand Exile. What bitter irony that you who worship in me the face of the Red Moon should by all rights despise me, pursue me... for I was deigned its enemy and made, by force, its refugee."
The girl raised her head, eyes moist and thoughtful.
"What, have you nothing more to say?"
She did not reply. Her mind was wrestling for understanding.
Esteban laughed. "You do not hear me... you do not believe me. Barbed irony afresh; the words of God are to be doubted. Small wonder our religion grips so tightly if its precepts flex to meet your perverted reality. I am duplicitous."
Suddenly the virgin's posture, inching towards a slouch, rose erect and resolved. "You test me!" she cried.
Esteban rolled his eyes. "Oh?"
"Great Lord, you try to sew doubt in this weak mind. You test me. Your words, so sharp and wrong yet logical. To test me, of course. The virgin must prove so in mind as well as body. Am I right?" The girl's voice was shrill with need.
"You are wrong," he returned.
Esteban's denial, perversely, had the opposite effect. The girl became almost languid in her certainty. For her, there was no debate and no need for any further test.
"I must fulfil my duty. The test is as was spoken. I was forewarned yet still surprised. My resolve is returning."
"Think on, think more."
"I am the virgin sacrifice," she intoned.
Esteban walked across his chamber to the girl. He laid his hand on her breast, drooping it down her midriff and onto her thighs. She shuddered visibly but for the Grand Priest the deed was devoid of sexual undertone.
"Your eyes are not seeing," he said. "Your thighs are tense. You are perspiring. What is this ecstasy that you feel? Submission? Subversion?"
The rubicon had arrived for the girl and she spoke as if in proclamation. "Great Lord, I trust only in you. In your true meaning that shines through every word meant to test me. Great Lord, I love you. I have always loved you. I shall look for you among the stars."
Armed with the zeal of a lifelong, life-trained commitment to the glorious duty of her position, a transcendent role that had been duly tested by the Grand Priest and whose testing she had overcome, the virgin strode onto the balcony of her own accord. Whooping rang out from the crowds the moment she stepped into the open, lending the virgin's purpose a divine accord. She seized the ceremonial knife from the aged hands of the senior priest and, baring her breast for all of the assembled masses to see, she sliced an implacable curve down the centre of her chest. Her self-control, numbed to the pain by ecstatic fulfilment, was unshaken as the blood gushed down her front, staining her legs, pooling about her feet. In the seconds before collapsing, she was heard to cry an abortive but resonant epitaph.
"I give myself unto you, to be joined with..."
The priests, from their lofty vantage point, adopted a more sombre posture. The virgin was raised on high, the crowds held their breath, the priests intoned a mantra of cleansing, of renewal, of rebirth. The woman's spent body was thrown forward, arcing through the air and clattering into the gigantic receptacle filled with burning stones. The flames flared greedily to consume the new, easily- devoured fuel.
The crowds whooped and hollered and jigged, frenzied by the act, caught in the delightful abandon of mobbish furore. Their faith delighted them. Bugles flourished and music was struck up, instruments appeared in skilled hands and a hundred disparate melodies began, battling for supremacy in the ears and feet of the whirling, fervid hordes. The priests stood erect, a line of red atop the great temple, overseeing the orgiastic performance below, content beneath their masks of duties well-exercised.
Esteban stood in his highest tower, the enclosed observatory that formed the tip of the great temple spire. The city spread itself at his feet, far below, lanterns dotting the streets and people dispersing to their homes for rest and recovery. The Grand Priest's eyesight was perfect, nightvision second nature, and he watched the dizzy revellers returning to their houses. He saw his armies carrying out the last of their roll-calls and a twinge of pity surprised his equanimity.
"Pity? Ah, me... pity for the Sethron girls. Fie. There is no sense in such emotion, it is unwanted. What difference do some years make... death is inevitable. They are not unhappy, they are not in pain. Why pity these beings?"
Esteban seldom personalised the Sethrons, treating them as short-lived pets, directing them about his quest. He rarely interacted with his vassals in anything other than ritualised capacity, aloof and locked into his own purpose. Yet there was a perversion about the virgin's certainty, a misdirection of intellect rather than blind devotion.
"I have been bound to this form for too long, I'm being pulled down from my task. My task must not be weathered! Pity is useless to me. Companionship... is that the root of my unease? What care I for that, here, in this forsaken world... A century passes in the blinking of an eye, a hundred equinox. What is this yearning? What is this... compunction?"
The High Priest focussed on the interwoven streets of his city and noticed a little shape wending through the shadows, climbing onto a roof, leaping across an exposed alleyway. The shape stopped, appeared to turn, to notice the observatory. It was Inambo, abroad and active. The boy paused, considered, and then vanished down a drainage pipe into a building. Esteban turned his eyes to the moon, a gash of crimson. His veins burned for return, to drink again at the unending, cyclic fountains of pure, unadulterated life - the well-springs of his birthplace: The Red Moon. The equinox had passed and, discernible only to the supernatural eye of the Grand Priest, the Red Moon's thin illumination had begun to wax.
CHAPTER TWO: “Song and Dance”
The clank-clank of misaimed hammering woke Inambo from a deep slumber. He turned over to see his father pitching and yawing before the lit forge. The old smith was trying to hammer out a horseshoe but his coordination had fallen to disarray and he kept missing, bashing it instead to misshapen caricature. Lack of success was frustrating him and he had begun to curse loudly.
"Son-and-daughter-of-a-whore! Wake up!" he bawled at his children.
Inonge was first to collect herself. Dutifully, she came forward from their bedding alcove.
"Bring me soup," their father slurred. He aimed his hammer again and brought it down against the metal. Inambo sat up, watching the forgeside performance.
Inonge poured soup from the kettle and padded across the room, holding it out in front of her. Her father snatched up the bowl, spilling liquid and thrusting it to his lips. He supped and promptly purpled, spitting it out furiously.
"Boiling hot. Are you trying to poison me?! Burn me?"
He had found an excuse to vent his rage. Inonge, frozen on the spot, received a startling slap across the face that sent her sprawling into Inambo's corner. Inambo wrapped a protective arm about his sister's shoulders.
"I've got quotas, you idiot children. And she's trying to cripple me for the day. Quotas! Fifty of these mother-fuckers by the evening, army requisition. You know what they will do to us if they're not through? Not just rationing... beatings. Look at my back!"
The children soughed despondently. Their father turned his brawny back to them, for the hundredth time in the past years, lit by the flickering forgelight. An ugly welt ran sideways along its length; the indelible mark of the cat-o-nine-tails.
"This is your fault. Two children, and my quota is upped, need more food. Damn you both. Boy, come here. Bring me more soup. Damn you, bring it to me."
Inambo looked at his father, daggers drawn in his eyes, hate curling his lip. Inonge, swaying from the concussion of the strike, suddenly shrugged off her brother's arm. She stared about her, lighting on the doorway and, like a beaten animal, slunk towards it in a daze.
"Inonge!" Inambo called after her but the girl had no other thought than escape. Her senses regathered and humiliation boiled over to anger. She bolted into the street. Inambo ran to the doorway but his sister had vanished into the thronging crowds that milled in the street beyond. He scanned inscrutable faces but she was nowhere to be seen. A dozen divergent alleyways gaped uselessly within his field of vision. He about-faced and shook his fist.
"I wish I could kill you," Inambo said. "Father or not... I wish I could kill you for what you do."
Inambo's father stretched out his hammer. "Do what you can, Ulfin-scum."
"I am NOT an Ulfin!"
"Your mother had their blood. You're a runt, a flower, a worthless Ulfin. Trust me that much..."
The insult and lingering thought of Inonge stung Inambo to fruitless action. He hurled himself towards his father but tripped over the unfurled bedding and skidded into the anvil, banging his head against its corner. His father stepped smartly around the obstruction and aimed a kick at his boy's chest. Inambo took the blow and received another for good measure. He was too winded to speak and crawled instead towards their door, hiding his tearful face.
"Run away too. That's right, both of you run away... how much better my life would be then?" his father moaned.
"I will, I will run away. You watch me... we will!" Inambo returned, crying.
"You are a murderer. You deserve nothing more from me, nothing I tell you. Get out of my sight!" his father screamed, brandishing his tongs.
The accusation, spoken without hint of falsehood, startled Inambo. "But why?" he asked, softly.
"Your mother. My wife... if it wasn't for you..." his father's eyes flashed again and he hurled the red-hot tongs in Inambo's direction.
The throw was fortunately awry and the tongs fell onto Inonge's bedding, setting the matting alight. Smoke belched from the corner of the room and Inambo's father set to cursing, fumbling about for a bucket of water. Inambo, blinded and spluttering, lurched for the exit and fell into the street.
Inambo opened his eyes and was immediately beset by a fit of coughing as his lungs cleared the smokey residue. A girl's face was framed against the deep red moonlight. She was dressed in rags.
"Are you dead?" she inquired.
Inambo shuffled back and shook his head. "'course not."
"You looked dead a minute ago."
The girl was carrying a basket filled with dried, pressed flowers. Her hair was dirty and knotted and her dress hung about her emaciated form in tatters, more holes than fabric. The colours had long since washed away. Inambo was sheltered by an overhang, a window-sill in a street near his home.
"How'd I get here?"
"I pulled you. You were going to get trampled to death by soldiers. They're moving... listen."
Trumpets sounded nearby in proof of the girl's story. The organised stomp of trained boots resounded in the alleyways.
"What's your name?" Inambo asked.
"Want a flower?"
"What kind is it?"
"Here," the girl replied. She fetched a long-stemmed dried flower from her basket and handed it, at arms length, to Inambo. The boy took the gift with a nod.
Inambo began to stagger to his feet, losing his footing once or twice on the way but finally righting himself and breathing heavily. A few desultory coughs hacked the remaining soot from his lungs.
"What's your name?" he asked again, but the words fell away. The beggar girl had slipped away. Memories gushed back, rage at his father, anguish at the accusations and worry for his sister...
A quintet of Ulfin musicians were playing ditties for the amusement of the Grand Priest in his music chamber. Priests and generals waited in the wings for their Master to finish, hearing nothing of the melodies. Esteban sat forward, watching the twined sounds criss-crossing a chasing dance about his chamber, nodding whenever the quintet struck a particularly effective point in their composition. He saw the music with eyes as well as ears and the Ulfins played diligently, unknowing of the Grand Priest's innersight.
Before Esteban's chair three opposing strands, melodious themes, met in intricate symbiosis before his eyes. He laughed suddenly and reached forward, taking hold of the musical strands and swinging them about his head. To the ears of his gathered officials it appeared that the music changed pitch abruptly, discordantly, but Esteban was in playful mood.
The Ulfins continued manfully, bemused by the strangeness of their instrumentalism. The Grand Priest took to his feet and watched as new music coalesced before him. He guided the Ulfin offerings with his hands, moulding the sheer tendrils into an astral humaniform. He caressed arms into being and looped them about his own, proceeding to dance with his creation.
The Ulfins played, feeding the apparition that was invisible to all but Esteban, and the Grand Priest amused himself, dancing with the thin-air for a time.
But then it was enough. The Grand Priest stopped and waved his hands impatiently. His astral companion dispersed and the music creaked, fragmented and broke off. The Ulfin instruments, played still with deft perfection, produced only deadened breaths. The players, bewildered, ceased their toil and were dismissed.
Esteban turned to motion for his entourage to step forward, seating himself again. An unsatisfied reflection was etched on his features but he soon banished his frowns and beckoned to his Generals. Priests wheeled forward a table and maps were spread out. Generals bowed obsequiously, fingers poised to begin.
"Thakria is fallen. We have secured this region of the north but Callitrax defies us. This way are mountains. Nothing there. Westward we are secure, the Red Moon is our ally," the generals' eyes twinkled pointedly.
"Speak faster," said Esteban, curtly.
The generals hastened. "The southern perimeter is secure. We have thousands stationed along the border. We can push there, if you wish it, and leave Callitrax under siege or take it. Then forge east. East is the limits of our intelligence but we have spies. Words here and there."
"What words? I can sense much to the east, many many living beings," Esteban remarked. "Many cities and much Angst."
"They are uniting fast. They have heard of us. We have discovered a group, a trained soldiery called the Alabaster Knights. They are not like the others we have faced. We advise caution."
"What threat from the south?"
"Nothing to speak of, Lord."
"Mountains. Empty mountains. What could pass there?"
Esteban reclined and thought. The Generals and Priests tilted to hear his decision.
"Take Callitrax. Who are these Alabaster Knights to my Sethrons? We will face them, then. Crush Callitrax and bring me their Angst."
"We must reinforce, Lord."
"Then do so," Esteban said. "You have men ready?"
The Grand Priest furrowed his brow. "I have conceived of troubles northward though I see nothing living, not yet. Post look-outs and send Ulfins into the mountains."
"They will not get far in that terrain," warned the Generals.
"Do it nonetheless."
"Then it is decided. Simple. Crush Callitrax, sack them and thence eastward. Do I hear objections?"
"No, Lord," the Priests and the generals chorused.
Esteban waved off his underlings and they scuttled away out of his chamber, readjusting their composure and puffing out their chests once away from their Master's omniscient sight. The Grand Priest considered calling for his musicians again but the prospect depressed him suddenly. The sluggishness of the military expansion was tedious and he fell to leafing through some of the tomes in his library, the collective writings of earlier generations of Sethron sages; knowledge fallen to disuse by the present Sethron military state.
Inambo had decided to return home to look for his sister. There could be no better place to begin and if he should fail to find her there, he would scour the streets. He wanted to plot escape with her, running away together.
The boy hoisted himself up a drainage pipe and leapt across interceding rooftops; he was only a few streets from his father's forge. He came within sight of home, skimming across a rough-cut slate roof cut with sunken breakages when, while passing over one of the pits in the roof integrity, he spotted a figure curled up beneath him. The man had contorted himself into the gap opened by the fallen tiles and the ceiling below; a cunning hiding place.
As Inambo passed over a hand shot out and grabbed at his ankle. The boy was too agile to be caught and withdrew his leg adeptly.
"Get off!" he cried.
"Ssshhhhhhhhhhhhh!" the bundle within hissed.
"Why'd you try to grab me?"
The bundle shuffled about and a wan Sethron face emerged, eyes wide as moons. His face was unshaven, caked with muddied blood. It was Munalula, the tracker. He brushed back his hair self-consciously.
"I'm off!" Inambo exclaimed as the strange man stuttered to reply.
"Wait..." Munalula croaked.
Inambo's natural compassion caused him to look back over his shoulder. "Yes?" "I'm hungry..."
"So am I!"
"No... I mean, starving."
The tracker lifted his ragged shirt and showed Inambo, despite the inadequate light of crimson shadows cast by the moon against the fallen tiles, his malnourished, stretched belly. "Please..."
"Save me," breathed Munalula, weakly.
"I said I'll try!" returned Inambo and he bounded purposefully onward. Leaping across the rooftops was replenishing his inate vigour and he started to feel stronger. Plans of rescue and escape began to crystallise in his imagination.
Inonge stumbled through alleyway after alleyway, ignoring the main thoroughfares, trying to minimise contact with the citizenry. The Sethron city was, during the daytimes, an ever-flowing river of bustle, movements of workers, soldiery and goods about their endless occupations. Inonge hugged to the natural nooks and crannies of the buildings, orbiting her neighbourhood assiduously. Her dress was torn, tails hanging about her leathery feet. A dirge was playing frustratingly in her mind and thoughts framed with difficulty. She was furious at her father, earnest for her brother and angry at her impotence.
"I'm as-good-as fully grown. I should be able to do something. It can't go on, Inambo and I... but where, where can we go? What would mother have done in my place? How I wish I could still hear her voice... Where to go? To the villages? Away from the city. But the net is so wide and no-one escapes the roll call. We might starve or be attacked by wild animals or vagrants. Then what? I'm not going back to HIM, I'm not! Must get a grip on myself, distance myself then go back. Fetch Inambo. Together we can figure it out. Oh, Inambo, I love you... Moons protect you. I can't go back just yet, I'm shaking. I need to get calm..."
Inonge stopped and laid her hands on a hitching post, gripping the worn wooden slats to steady her resolve. Possible futures arranged themselves in her mind, vying for attention, demanding thought and planning. She yearned for news about Inambo and, to that end, set to steadying her nerves for a return homeward. Cityfolk milled along, pushing against her in their haste, ignorant of her discomfort. A reddish glare, the Moons one quarter opened, suffused the city and lent a heaviness to the still, moist air. Inonge's breathing settled and she released the hitching post.
A detachment of front-line soldiers, Gashins and Sethrons mostly, were taking a short-cut through the minor streets on their way to the gates. They were joshing one another about joining the detachments in the north. The army was afforded the most freedom and privileges of any Sethron citizens and this gave them a confidence, a superiority over the general serf.
Inonge backed away instinctively, squeezing herself against a wall to avoid brushing against the passing troops. Their armour clanked and rattled, odours of perspiration washed over her and she sensed danger; a threat inherent in those accustomed to violence and bloodshed. She shut her eyes and prayed for their departure.
"What do we have here, o my brothers," a rough-edged voice rasped. "She's a beautiful one, ain't she?"
"Why's she got her eyes closed?"
"Doesn't want to see us."
"Couldn't resist us. She'd have to give herself to us. Rip off that thin dress, right off... what a body."
"Come 'ere, darlin'," the first voice demanded. An arm was hooked about Inonge's waist and she was thrust forward. She opened her eyes to find herself surrounded by lustful, mischevious eyes. She had been grabbed by a pale-skinned swarthy Sethron. She did not have the strength to resist him.
"Get off me," said Inonge, firmly.
"What's wrong?" asked the soldier, a picture of innocence. "Don't you like me?" He puckered his lips crudely and his companions laughed.
"Bring 'er along," rumbled a Gashin with a wink.
"Sure. We're allowed. Fun for all the lads. It's a long journey to Callitrax, ain't it?" "You'd like that, wouldn't you? Like a bit of rough... you've had a few in your time, haven't you? 'neath that prissy dress."
Inonge found herself ensconced, pressed against by bodies against whom she could do nothing. She tried to scream out but the soldiers were confident enough to allow her to empty her lungs. Nobody listened to her. She shot plaintive glances at passers-by but they knew better than to interfere; the Sethron army were a class of their own.
Inonge was taken along helplessly, joining with a larger retinue of mixed troops marching out of the city, under the gate sentinels and onto the northward road beyond. Tears welled in her eyes but she barred their fall. The soldiers fell to singing, a thousand voices raised in unison as they trooped north and Inonge walked, stumbling now and then, amid a sea of armour-plated brutes, swept away inexorably from the Sethron capital.
"Inambo," she whispered. "My beloved brother..."
From over the brow of the highlands, but few leagues north of the edge of Sethron influence, in the regions mapped as 'impassable' by the Grand Priest's generals, the grasslands that marked the transition from mountains to hills were stirred by an enormous movement. Heedless of the waxing Red Moon and unknowing of the early touches of the White Moon, a myriad of shapes were brushing across the landscape, pouring from the holes and caves and canyons of the mountains. They were collecting over the hillsides, covering them like a vast, undulating sable shroud. Their numbers exceeded fifty thousand and, here and there, a talon or razorblade tooth would catch a glint of moonlight and sparkle malevolently. Haggard, eyeless faces were hitched beneath cowls as the force clawed its way south. Many had wings folded away, dormant for the migration.
These tortured beings of twisted sinews were galvanised to a single purpose by a power that had enslaved their wills, a sentience that had overmatched the disparate entities that infested the mountains and turned them South. As the Sethron's northern army moved to face the combined defences of Callitrax and the refugees from the Thakrian rout, the collective known in the mind's of the few that have survived contact as the Eyeless Wind sludged over the hills, suffocating the grass as they crossed. A hamlet, a tiny knot of huts ringing a totem of warding, suddenly found itself covered by the Wind. The terrified realisation of the handful of inhabitants, a moment's terror, was soon doused and the hamlet was devoured, no bones left to tell tales of their demise.
Inambo slid deftly down the cracked guttering of the coopers immediately opposite his family's forge. He flitted quietly across the street, dodging a passing cart teetering with cabbages, and positioned himself beneath the forge's main window. Slowly, he raised himself to peep inside, wary not to be seen by his father but anxious for his sister.
"Get yer filthy hands off-of me!" Inambo's father was barking.
"You'll come quietly or we'll strap you down. Don't think we won't. The Law is the Law," returned the measured tones of a soldier.
Inambo peered into the forge and saw his father planted firmly between two Gashin strong-arms, being addressed by a well-groomed Sethron law enforcement official. Inambo recognised the plush purple sash he wore across his chest; the authority of the Priesthood.
"What 'av I done? What! I do my job as well as anybody," Inambo's father protested. The Gashins closed ranks about him, laying heavy hands on his shoulders. "Tell me my crime."
"Violation of the family: son and daughter. It's been reported and you'll stand trial. Come along now."
Inambo's father was a paper tiger and his anger at the impending arrest evaporated at the mention of his family misdeeds. Instead, he flopped into the role of penitent and slumped against one of the stoic Gashins.
"Ungrateful children, all I've done... one slip, maybe just one slip... what is a man to do... surely you can overlook it this once?" he whined.
"Bring him along. Quickly," commanded the Sethron policeman.
The Gashins, one on each side, picked up Inambo's father and hoisted him out across his threshold and into the street. Inambo, avoiding notice, crouched into an alcove, concealing himself in shadows as the party passed. His father's face was upturned against the implacable Gashins, brows beatled and mumbled please pouring from his lips. Inambo turned away wanly and waited for the group to disappear into side-streets on their way to the gaol.
Inambo entered the forge on his tip-toes, an age-old habit that had become second nature and looked about the interior. Smithing tools had been dropped about the brick base of the forge-fire, fallen from his father's panicked hands when the soldiers arrived, no doubt. His bedding was furled in a corner and Inonge's was beside it. The bedding was wet and blackened from doused flames. "Inonge!" he cried.
"They're gone. Inonge, you can come out now!"
Angst-stones crackled from within the forge and a mocking cry, the shouts of hawkers from the street outside, was the only reply to Inambo's continued cry.
"I'll wait right here. She'll come back before long, for definite," Inambo said to himself, unravelling a clean mat to sit down on. The floor was unswept, dust from the recent fire strewn in disturbed swirls everywhere and Inambo struck up a lewd song under his breath.
'The sky is a woman, Speckled with stars, It laid the Red Moon, Covered in Blood!
It laid the White Moon, Covered in Come!
Tra-la-la-la laaaaa Tra-la-la-la liiiii!'
As if in reply to Inambo's litany the ashes began a secret dance of their own, lifting their speckling embers in a fretting wave a few inches from the ground. Inambo was too engrossed in waiting for his sister and singing his song to notice.
Before the yawning entrance doors of the Central Temple in the square that had been, a few weeks hence, filled to bursting with revelling Sethrons, the Priesthood sat in long lines. They were arranged like a red, sentinel robed jury to flank a paved mosaic that led from the centre of the square to the temple gates. The mosaic depicted the four stages of the criminal; scenes of capture, judgement, repentance and punishment. At the end of the mosaic sat the Grand Priest on a carved ebony throne.
The Grand Priest reclined lugubriously, cupping his head in his hands and watching the stream of errant Sethrons, Gashins and Ulfins herded about by soldiery ready for judgement. A few hundred citizens had gathered about the edges of the square to watch proceedings but most of the population were occupied about their professions. It was considered an omen of ill-fortune to bear witness to the fate of their misfortunate fellows.
One by one the prisoners were separated from their detachment and ushered along the mosaic lane, unsteady and nervous. The prisoner would follow the line of watching priests and eventually come to rest at the centre of a tiled eye, to await judgement and make final pleas for mercy. The eyeball, a representation of the Grand Priest's omniscient wisdom, was rimmed with red flames, an intimidating focus that few prisoners were able to weather.
"The Ulfin known as Threfty Baldwhistle from the village of Maggiore!" proclaimed the Captain of the Guards. "Crime is continued theft and denial of charges!"
A ragged Ulfin inched reluctantly down the mosaic-corridor, dodging the looks of the Priests. He stopped on the eyeball, head bowed, torso hunched, waiting.
The Priest nearest Esteban's throne rose and began to question the accused. The bedraggled Ulfin stuttered his replies, too scared to frame coherent sentences. The Priest became impatient and turned sententiously to Esteban.
"We judge him guilty and unredeemable. This is a third offence. We submit him for termination," the Priest pronounced. The Priesthood had little time for habitual dissenters and heads turned on the Grand Priest with an edge of expectation. The Ulfin understood the implications and threw up his eyes to face the Grand Priest.
Esteban blinked softy. The Ulfin's expression changed from helpless anxiety to a contorted terror. He turned this way and that, searching for a direction in which to run.
The Grand Priest curled his fingers and ran his thumb along the edges of his fingernails. When his fist opened again a blood-coloured sphere was resting therein, thrumming malevolently. The Ulfin's thin haunches flexed, poised to leap but the Grand Priest tossed out the sphere. No sooner had the Ulfin taken his first step than the sphere had found its target. It struck the Ulfin and exploded, like a net, about his skin. For a moment it appeared that the Ulfin had been subsumed into a luminescent red mould, with only his frantic eyes still visible, a fleeting but overwhelming pain etched in the wild dilation of his pupils. Then the mould contracted with a sickening but brief crunch and the Ulfin was compacted to the size of the original sphere.
The sphere, Ulfin remains locked within, hung suspended in the air for a few seconds before abruptly losing its integrity and collapsing onto the mosaic eye in a sloppy, congealed slime. Thralls emerged from behind the Priests to clear away the detritus in preparation for the next prisoner.
The threadbare crowds grew silently thinner after the first judgement, no words spoken between them, all sharing the same thoughts and fears. The ritual of Judgement continued and, one by one, prisoners were brought before the Grand Priest, assessed by the Priesthood and submitted for punishment. Some were subjected to the Ulfin's fate, others were treated more leniently and escaped with lighter injuries. Esteban, for his own part, carried out his role of executioner with a lacklustre spirit that belied his deeds but the Priests thrilled to their Master's power.
Three hours of prisoners were trying his patience, however, and the Priests, sensing their Master's mood began to hurry through the lists. After a while only one prisoner remained in the enclosure and he was, at last, sent on the long walk down the mosaic to stand in the eye and meet his destiny. It was Inambo's father. The aged smith was limp and wearied. He struggled to the eyeball and fell to his knees, splayed out across the centre of the iris.
"Forgive me!" he begged.
The Priests, more conscientious of their Master's impatience than their duty to justice, had no time for the man's niggardly behaviour.
"You are accused of molestation against your children, and the destruction of a family," the Priest resounded, speaking quickly.
"I beg for mercy!" Inambo's father cried out.
Thinking it the easiest course, the Priest decided to finish the Ritual of Judgement with a flourish and thus proclaimed. "Guilty. Unredeemable. We submit him for termination."
At the mention of 'termination' a shrill voice cried out from the remnants of the assembled crowds.
It was Inambo. He had crept into the crowds to watch proceedings in the hope of catching up with his father. He had grown impatient waiting for Inonge and concern, despite his father's past outbursts, had driven him to sympathy. The poor man was befuddled by the attention of so many illustrious figures, the impossible gravity of events had ruined his self-control. He wobbled about, staining his clothing and wringing his hands.
Esteban blinked again, curling his fingers and conjuring another sphere. Inambo ran across the square, ducking under the outstretched arms of the guards assigned to maintain the distance between crowds and Priests.
"Leave my father be!" Inambo screamed.
The Grand Priest cared not about the intrusion and the sphere grew apace in his hand. Guards scattered to intersect Inambo but the boy wove about them, leaving them grasping at air. He was yards away from the closest Priest, the man responsible for judging the termination, when Esteban released the sphere. It lifted, featherlight, into the air and drifted casually towards his father.
"Aiieeeeeeeeeeeee!" sang Inambo, tones shattering the equanimity of the Priesthood and causing them to clutch their ears in pain.
Esteban turned in surprise and noticed the sound that had escaped Inambo's lips, a sound that had transformed in the Grand Priest's sensitive eyes into a real manifestation; a rampant, furious dragonhead that snapped at the deadly sphere and cracked it between its razor-sharp teeth. The sphere shattered, bursting sparks and moonbeams about the square, a second's explosion of Red Moon effulgence.
The Grand Priest rose from his throne and in a voice that shook the very foundations of the Sethron city spoke out. "Who are you?"
The Priesthood threw themselves, as one, to the ground, prostrating before the angry words of their Master. Inambo, meanwhile, shocked by the luminescent shattering of the sphere, was wrestled off his feet by a sudden encroachment of guards. They held his arms and muffled his mouth, holding him aloft as an offering to the Grand Priest. Inambo struggled ineffectually against their grasp.
"Release his voice," the Grand Priest commanded.
Hands were withdrawn from Inambo's mouth. The boy was brought before the throne, held fast, guards averting their eyes from the Grand Priest's glare.
"Please, please!" Inambo struck up, "Spare my father, please! I forgive him for what he has done to me. I'm his son."
Esteban considered and a smile passed across his lips. "One condition," he boomed.
"I'll do anything," Inambo assured him.
"Come to me."
Inambo's body became poker-stiff within the hold of the guards. Emotion fell from his face. "I'm not afraid of dying."
"Deal, then?" Esteban asked.
"Release the boy's father! End of the ritual. I will now retire!" Esteban commanded.
The Priests slunk back onto their chairs. Guards found their way about Inambo's father to haul him away. The man, spitting furiously, called cracked-voice thanks to the Grand Priest and his minions. He was led to the edge of the square and released with a push, doddering off into the bowels of the city.
Back at the throne, the Grand Priest had risen to his feet and descended. He stood by Inambo and let fall a hand. "Take hold," he said.
Inambo, steeled to die, frowned uncertainly.
"Take hold, or perhaps you WILL die here," the Grand Priest chuckled.
Inambo pressed his hand into the Grand Priest's inviolate grip. The twosome turned from the gathering of officials and soldiery and padded slowly towards the entrance of the Temple. Inambo glanced back once and marvelled at the disconcerted incomprehension that had spread through the assembly.
Callitrax, the northernmost town in the Sethron sphere of influence, at the very edge of their proposed empire, was resisting bravely against the siege. Refugees from fallen Thakria had swollen the numbers of the defenders and the mighty walls were manned by a ring of brawny, resolute soldiers. Archers were interspersed with catapults and the Sethron army found itself peppered with arrows and random missiles as it prepared its siege engines. The Sethrons resisted doggedly and slowly breached the gorse-covered ditch that served the town as a moat.
Sethron drummers rang out a call to arms and effort and a hundred armoured Gashins hauled forth a battering ram of immense proportions. Ulfins rang out their own response to the defending archers, causing the defenders to duck behind the ramparts and leave the Gashin's an unmolested window of opportunity. The battering ram was dragged across the earthy moat-bridge and faced off against Callitrax's wrought-iron portcullis and gateway beyond.
The Sethron drums boomed time and time again. Ladders and ropes were thrown up against the walls and doughty Ulfins slipped up to engage the wall guards, stalling the defenders while the larger Sethron troops followed up. Stormclouds had barged across the sky and a deluge threatened. Cries were thrown up from the Sethron ranks as the battering ram collided with the portcullis, obliterating it in a single strike.
The Gashins pressed on to the interior gates and began to hammer the ram, again and again, against the reinforced wood. The gate groaned and heaved but could not resist. It cracked and caved inwards. Callitrax's soldiery swarmed out through the gaps in the gate to engage the invaders but the Gashins met their arrival with a howl of expectation. The defending armies quickly broke against the Gashin and Sethron hordes.
Sethron buglers trumpetted a flourish of impending victory and encouragement to its vanguard. Callitrax quailed but fought on bravely, men, women and children hurling themselves at the Sethrons. It availed them not. The Sethron and Ulfins cleared across the walls and occupied the highest vantages points about the town while the Gashins rammed their superiority on ground level. In a matter of hours the town was forced to its knees, ragamuffin remnants of its proud armies prostrated on the ground, submitted to the Sethron rout.
The town's keep was sacked and a handful of Pure Angst stones, glowing resplendently, were wrestled from the deepest recesses of its treasury. An armoured dispatch with the Pure Angst was sent south immediately to bring news and the booty to the Priesthood while the main Sethron army remained to plunder the town and refill their wineskins and bellies. When the thunderstorm finally broke and Callitrax's blood-stained streets washed away into the gutters, the Sethrons were entrenched in their celebrations, sky-high on confidence. They cared not at all that a handful of Callitrax citizens escaped across the burnt remains of their surrounding farmlands, fleeing east to bring news of Sethron ruthlessness to the towns and cities that yet lay outside the confines of the Empire.
"Let them run. It matters not!" laughed the Sethron marshalls, perceiving their invulnerability. "Bring on the entertainment! Tonight, we drink the nectar of victory. Tomorrow, we prepare fresh conquest!"
While the Sethrons rested and celebrated, the black sea of mindless, blind harpies rolled onward. Its pace was slow, inexorable, patient as a glacier. The beings that constituted the Eyeless Wind were guided from afar and did not see, as they crossed the final hills, the distant rise of broken Callitrax, the fires of its watchtowers and flaring lamps of its turret windows. The Wind, like an insidious oil-slick, moved along towards the recently besieged city. The Sethron commanders laughed, revelled and amused themselves. The Eyeless Wind continued its approach. The surrounding lands were devoid of life and the handful of Sethron look-outs posted about the city walls noticed nothing save inconsequential variances in the reddish reflection of the lately burned farmlands. The Wind's approach was anonymous and unmolested.
Further north, league upon league, beyond the reach of any earthbound force, rose the tallest of the continent's mountains. The mountain, a proud summit encircled by worshipping peaks had never, in its eons of existence, perceived the touch of moonlight. No stars graced the far north, no gentle red or white moonlight penetrated its deathly wastes. Covering this highest of mountains, consuming it from base to jagged crown, was a colourless, lightless soot; an effluent that had heaped itself solely upon the emperor of these matchless ramparts. Somewhere within the formless morass a movement was felt, a thought, a ripple of sentience, a deeper darkness against an empty backdrop. At the very apex, the highest coalescion of the sides, the mountain's tip, where the blackness converged, the ripple travelled upwards with sickening self- containment. It reached the summit but continued, moulding itself from the void, forming a tangible shape, a stolen image; the blackness gathered itself, atop the greatest of mountain ranges, into a hand. Slowly, but with increasing confidence, the hand flexed itself, felt out its newly awoken existence. Then it solidified, shocked to purpose and clenched, in a instant that rumbled a quake whose after-effects were felt thousands of miles distant. The summit-hand of the black mountain closed into a fist.