THE WOMAN WITH HOLES IN HER HEAD
In which Mareeh enters the maze beneath Ashiri,
within which she touches the consciousness of the soft machine
in the presence of the minds of the Omphalos
The Guard picks his nose with exaggerated care, concentrating on something just beyond the farthest reach of his probing finger. He sees the woman, his eyes igniting dimly with thoughts of possible interrogation and later, even intimate body-searches. He leers and ambles towards her with deliberate menace.
Mareeh watches him come. He’s Zhyrmidan. A low division of mean intelligence and brutal disposition. His leer remains fixed until he’s bare paces from her, until he can interpret the device on her blouse, and then his expression freezes. He grunts. His eyes fanning to left and right, looking for escape. “You, uh, need assistance? Directions?”
She smiles. “From you? I think not.”
“Have to make certain. Particularly now. Y’understand?”
He lumbers back across the catacombs that echo only to his embarrassed footfall. Beyond him, framed by the low arches he invigilates, Mareeh can see a shuffling twilight in which more insectile Guards with serrated Prayerblades urge long tailbacks of people into some form of nervous discipline. She watches them growling stragglers into line and all impatience into quiescence, prising open each closed fist in case it should conceal a weapon. Through the extraordinary hush comes the pacing of thousands of feet, people filing along aisles marked out by low service trenches where sculptures stand or lean or lie in pieces. While the Terminals that are the object of their milling pilgrimage, lie in a nest of individual pools of light, not resting but waiting with infinite patience to dispense advice on the acquisition of a second auxiliary husband, a planned trade merger on the knife-edge of legality, or the likelihood of a generous legacy should a parent’s illness prove fatal.
She takes one last amused glance, and goes deeper. Long sloping corridors, chill, with traces of metal and the scent of formaldehyde. Walls of red granite and black diorite, with the blue of labradorite crystals gleaming like splinters of luminous ice. And behind the walls, a sense of vast, dormant, but invisible power. The Ashirian Omphalos.
The Zhyrmidan doesn’t quite understand what had just taken place. But then again, he couldn’t be expected to. His intellect makes him more suited to tasks no more mentally demanding than the digital exploration of his nostrils. Mareeh grins at the delicious absurdity of the image. But what is more worrying to her is that she doesn’t really understand the situation herself. She’s under the personal protection of War Chao. Which means that, although imprisoned by addiction in Ashiri’s Nonogan Fortress, she has the right of near undreamed-of access within its walls. Far more authorisation than is required to intimidate a Zhyrmidan. But why she’d been given that protection she’s unable to remember. There are holes in her past. She must have friends behind these walls. Friends whose physical appearance and motivation she can’t even dimly comprehend.
A footfall behind her. She pauses. Half turning with the wary swiftness of a threatened animal.
She passes through a grotto of bronze sarcophagi. A reliquary in a deep underworld. A cold well of ancient evils that to the best of her knowledge extends on down to the world’s very core. The greatest human-built structure in all history housing something that is more than just a sum of its original human components, something deathless, amorphous, unfathomably strange and unimaginably powerful. Here the steady pulse of exhaling ventilation wheezes like breath. As if she moves through the fossilised - but still respirating lungs of a god. Which, in a sense, she is. Behind these walls, above this low damp ceiling, lies the perpetual lightning of the Omphalos thousand-cortex complex.
She’s walked some twelve minutes when she comes to the alcove she seeks. Not that she previously knew it was here, which is why she’s walked so long and so directionlessly. But here is a set of Terminals she’s not used before. Probably it doesn’t matter which Terminals you input to anyway, but she can’t take the chance. She has to cover all possibilities.
There are no other human sounds, but the uneasy feeling that she’s being shadowed persists.
There are three Terminals in low-level blue light. Two of them unoccupied, the third filled with the loose skeletal remains of its last user, a woman, the hood still attached like a skull-cap of frost. Its leer reminds her unpleasantly of the Zhyrmidan.
Mareeh had been born into an antique tyranny set in an indifferent plain on a worn-out world. In Ashiri, with its massive towers hanging above the city in a limitless sky that also envelopes three more major worlds and numerous minor ones. And here lies the Omphalos, the soft machine which monitors it all. She has only the vaguest idea of what the concept means. A blurry image of a dimensionless series of disembodied brains - white snail-like coils of cerebrum suspended in a null-gravity vacuum-cage, interconnected by a maze of microfine circuitry cross-referencing each brain-cell to every other brain-cell. An impossible vision - she knows, one that corresponds only in its most sketchy details to the enormous complexity of its reality. But one adequate for the most part for the needs of the Cluster’s teemingly vast population. Like them she knows that the Omphalos is not infallible, but that its error-probability is calculated so low as to be negligible.
Without allowing time for thought she slides into the nearest Terminal, leaving one cradle vacant between her and the skeleton. She - the dead woman, must have gone through this same sequence of actions, extracting the cowl, smoothing its organic curve into place over the head, and ... waiting. Contact at this depth can scramble your sanity. Or sensory overload you to death. Leave you like her. Mareeh has always known that, each time she’s sought contact, moving through the deep-zone levels and sub-levels seeking more and more obscure Terminals. She’s always known the chance exists. But she’s been given rights of access. She has friends on the other side of that thermally insulated granite and diorite wall.
The chill of the Terminal cradle creeps through her gown, real and tactile against her buttocks. Like the cold of absolute zero seeping along the wiring itself from beyond the vacuum-cage walls. A precursor, an advance warning of the voltage to come? The torrent of madness that can deluge her into insanity? Or death? But no. That is inconceivable.
She’d been picked up in derelict land adjacent to the Calyx University ground by Chao’s Drhazilsk Troopers immediately prior to the Domain’s final assault on the insurrectionists. She’d been put through the terrors of brain-filtration at out-Terminals like every other suspect. Calluum winds up dead. Tenghiz Mkhadrioni vanishes. Ansor A-Hylca in the labour squads at the Machine Relics excavations...
... and she’d been addicted and given Chao’s protection, luxurious rooms in his Manse, two rejuvenations... and these rights of access. That much she knows. But there is more. There are gaps in her memory that no amount of systematic reconstruction can fill. War Chao finds her sexually attractive, sure. He even half-believes she’s switched sides and has ditched her revolutionary pretensions. But that’s not enough. No matter how infatuated Chao is he’ll never betray his duties to the Last Empire.
No. It’s the Omphalos. It’s discovered something within her. Something significant. Something she doesn’t even know about herself. That’s why she is alive and relatively free. That’s why she’s here now, preparing for access, tensed for contact, cool perspiration pearling along her thighs, nails biting blood-deep into the palms of her hands. An almost sexual anticipation. Dread. Fear. A more complete laying-open, a fuller nakedness than she’s ever experienced with a human lover. A deep moist emptiness waiting to be filled.
Terror... and then butterflies...
A DUEL OF SHADOWS IN
THE WORLDS BEYOND TIME’S EDGE
Mysterious incidents occur in the Marshes of Time,
and new acquaintances are made
For Taad and A-Hylca, days cease to have literal meaning.
Simultaneously a crimson trimaran Skyship nudges free of Leviathan, and War Chao’s journey into the heart of madness begins.
A woman with holes in her memory crosses the Nonogon of Worlds between immense statues towards contact with the Ashirian Omphalos.
In the towers of a Deadland city the Elector of Luna conjures visions of the Earth Cluster, then destroys it as soon, it must be destroyed.
The barge of Laars Trinkus sets out for the Marsian city of Xanthus. He scrats his long fingers in irritably jerky movements through his hair, its creeping shades of grey only emphasising the acceleration of time. The urgency to do. While he is still capable.
While beneath the lunar crust a vast and amorphous being awaits the end of all time. Sensing its nearing.
--- 2 ---
Time laps about Taad and A-Hylca in bewildering configurations. They walk an ice-scape of shrieking glaciers, frost forests, and deep drifting snow, strange creatures howling, circling them ghost-white against whiteness. They emerge through a bridge of elms and cypresses towards a small village on stilts cut through by an elegantly spanned mill-race. People move in festive procession, in the guise of pierrots and jesters, flowers and ribbons in their hair, foaming tankards in their hands. It’s only as Taad and A-Hylca draw near, crossing rutted pathways warping in and out like a lurching dance, that they notice the fine particles of blood borne on the breeze. And then the row of mutilated corpses impaled upside-down on tree-high aluminium spikes. It’s only then they realise the cause for celebration.
Then they are sliding into a desert, its agoraphobic emptiness unbroken to the compass-drawn rim of the sky, except for a single tower so high it seems to have so end. Then a plain of seamless glass ignited by moonlight from horizon to horizon. Then a war fought by insectoid machines emitting flickering lances of white fire. Then weather-beaten marshes whipped by frail whisperings of wind. Then a field of bright shining mist which hangs thickly immobile in the air. And as they walk through it they carve out precise corridors in the shape of their silhouettes, which stay - as if frozen, for long moments. Taad leaves a broad, solid corridor. A-Hylca a thinner, more angular corridor.
But they walk without a clear idea of direction, geographies reforming continually, knowing only that to tarry overlong in any one sector means to be trapped in it inescapably. They talk sporadically, usually personal histories, as if by their reiteration they make known worlds closer.
“I spend my childhood in the Casa A-Hylca of Ashiri, in the Mercantile demimonde of that foul corrupt Imperial monstrosity. An only child. My father a member of the Saffron Cabal, a merchant with many other devious connections in trade and commerce. So I know cumin, coriander, fenugreek, nigella, sesame, cassia bark, star anise, the reds of paprika, the deep blush of red hot dried chillies, saffron from the stigmas of crocus, and so much more. But while my father lavishes the best education, he has little affection or time for his progeny.” The contemplative exploration of A-Hylca’s tongue reaches the space left by a missing tooth, upper right, sixth molar back. As it always does when he thinks back to his childhood. “So instead, as a rehearsal to inheriting the benefits and responsibilities of his organisation... I leave the Casa, and I travel. Can you imagine that Warren-Brood?”
“You know I can’t, so why ask?”
“Ah, but do you have any conception what it’s like to be a child and move nomadically through the great cities of Venus located on their islands in blue-grey oceans of silica? Through Marsian metropoli that are nodes on the broad canal network spanning red deserts of oxidised metals. Beautiful Martian canals with evocative names like Gebon-Hiddekel, Cantabras, Agathadaemon, Genges, Nectar, Nilokeras, Draco or Jamuna. I remember their ornate barges riding their own reflections, water-taxi’s scudding on the tree-lined channels like giant bugs. Coloured sails standing like the raised wings of gaudy birds. I remember how at dusk the canals gleam with phosphorescent plankton, barges cleaving their neon tides like dragons. All the things you’ve never even dared dream, Taad, I’d seen before I’d grown the first whisker of puberty.
“I spend time in the twin cities of Tor-Por and Mons Arcadia constructed of four-hundred anthill levels apiece, built into the Vallis Marineris canyon rifts. They are cities of innumerable lives. And I see it all, but do you know, all I feel is isolation and loneliness in that sprawling urban mass. I’ve roamed the nine dominions and nine-hundred-and-nine-nine administrative subdivisions, through the collectives, nations, syndicates, peoples, hordes, castes, races and species divisions populating the four worlds of the Domain, become familiar with the Saffron trade routes, connections and distribution deltas. But what I remember most strongly are cities sunk in filthy darkness and social fragmentation. I was chafing in a civilisation I was already beginning to consider obsolete.”
He pauses. Uncertain how to continue. There are things he’s not yet willing to divulge. “I fight with my family. Fight my father. They expel me, and suddenly I’m drifting across the hundred-thousand-k gap separating the incandescent discs of planets in endlessly thrumming Skyships. Their beauty made even more poignant for my now viewing them alone. For their becoming symbols of rootlessness. Picture it - I’m a child full of yearnings, my dreams always strange and dark, populated with monsters and fearful knowledge. But instead, I’m enduring drab seasons at Universities of different denominations and philosophical disciplines, beneath the green jade spires of Dvoravia, Corintha, Dolmen, Tier-Guanno, and Olympus Roi. Yet with academia, comes the exciting camaraderie and intrigue of dissent.
“I fall in with a clique of intensely serious, secretive people, dark complexioned raggedly unshaven men and bohemian long-haired women crashed out in a squat in the Ashirian slum area just beyond the Calyx University grounds. There are books on shelves made of planks of wood spaced by bricks, spiral splash-colour prints and posters on the wall, the smell of incense and subtle drugs. We use low battered couches and mattresses on the floor, shared at whim while conversations continue, whispering in doorless rooms adjoining. Dialogue by the light of perfumed candles making eyes glow with feverish intoxication. The seductive blasphemies and multitude factions of subversion binding us into an audacious society of those who belong. The inner circle, Calluum - who leads by dialectical argument. Tenghiz Mkhadrioni, so stern and austere. And Mareeh Karhindyal... ah, Mareeh, who leads by more intimate attractions. Can you conceive the volatile concoction of sex, politics, and passionate belief jostling for attention in my head? No, you poor Warren-Dweller, you can have no idea just how contagious is that sense of burning purpose and urgency, or how that surrogate family belongingness assuages my sense of isolation. Faces come and go, but there are other continuities to provide threads of purpose, from shared anger and outrage, into subversion aimed at the whole mythological artifice of Domain power...”
“What do you mean ‘Ha’?”
“I mean that you say I’m incapable of understanding. But I understand well enough. Perhaps I understand better than you do. You’ve seen things I’ve never seen, done things I’ve never done, but you, by your own admission, have always been alone, and resented it. Whereas I’ve had - as my birthright, that one thing you’ve wanted and always been denied. The sense of belonging. The sense of being a part of something greater than yourself. I can smell the need on you. I’m right. Aren’t I?”
“There are worse things than being alone. Being here with you, for example.”
“And how can you pit your rabble of dissidents against the accumulated wisdom of forty-eight thousand years of civilisation? How dare you decide what is true and what is a false ‘mythological artifice’, unless - and I’m right, admit it, unless by doing so you’re striving to prove your loyalty to this surrogate family?”
“I despise violence, Taad. I despise murder. But I despise tyranny even more. And... oh yes, you’ve told me all about the wonders of the ‘belongingness’ of your Nonocastrian Collective. Remind me, Taad. This is the kind of belongingness that blithely allows eight domes to get on with their work, blithely ignoring the fact that the ninth is being torn apart by Troopers, is it not?”
“It wasn’t like that. You deliberately misrepresent it.”
“Well then Taad, please please try and assimilate something of what I’m saying. I expend my eloquence that you might learn from the breadth of my experience. Through that experience I achieved a state of political maturity from which you can benefit, vicariously. But only if you pay attention. The exhilarating, liberating and terrible perceptions I fought to acquire are all that is of value in these tyrannously oppressed worlds. In those long midnight discussions in cold garret rooms, or debates in furtive meeting places, you learn you must doubt everything. Even your own doubts. Question everything. Especially your own questions. Until we knew that the rigid religious observances welding the tribes of the Last Empire into a coherent unit are a sham.
“But then came the daylight horror of prowling potential targets, and the beautiful nausea of the detonations which follow. Sure, I confess I endured those sudden chills of panicky fear that engulf you when you’re least prepared for them, but they were only symptoms telling me I was more alive than I’d been at any other time in my life.” A long pause. “Do you know what it’s like to be responsible for the death of a species homo sapien? Have you ever killed?”
“You know I have. Cumaryll.”
“Yes. Of course. So you know how it freezes you. It is a void. Bottomless. But we kill. And we connect with the main resistance cells on Ceres and Mars, and gain strength and wider contacts after years of frustration, betrayal, and deaths. All of it firming our revolutionary zeal. There are other incidents too... those I daren’t yet confess to you. Things hard and cruel, even in memory. But there’s always music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air. It’s such an intoxication... until it all has to end. And end so brutally. As that long summer decays into autumn, after one particular act of terrorism, they crush our insurrection. There are Ironclads, Skyships and Throndups. So many of them. Underground leaders murdered in precise retaliation. Calluum dead. Tenghiz disappears. Mareeh sells out to the authorities, with all the personal confusion of betrayal that entails... and, I should have expected my own arrest. I should have foreseen it. But the emotional shock of detention is so massive. At first it’s as though I feel myself to be immune. It can’t happen. Not to me. As though intensity of feeling and rightness is enough. But it isn’t enough. So I wind up... here.”
Taad trades memories. His wife - Solleen, killed by the Drhazilsk in the fire-storm. Watching its brutality in a helpless rage that still haunts and torments. But the significance of her loss can’t be considered as separate from his amputation from Nonocastria. The two go together. Can’t be considered apart. Just as he and the Warren have no independent meaning when one is prised from the other. Beyond its iron and lucite shell, nothing is real. A mist in which time - and values, shift in and out of definition, blurring and rippling like distorted reflections in a deep and malignant well. The obfuscations hinting at talismen of pure evil, the terrifyingly monstrous shapes of tyrants and Waterlords all the more menacing for their imprecision. There can be no real direction other than that which leads home...
“Look, up there!” They crouch on a small mangrove islet in dense everglades, grey-green vines hanging thickly like twisting veins. And something far above them is slow-crawling between sky-islands, edging across a break in the canopy of lurid foliage. It’s Taad who first identifies it as a Skyship. It’s a long way off, drifting soundlessly, airscrews revolving unhurriedly, a crimson trimaran craft with its system of navigational sails and splayed landing skids spread like the wings and legs of an obese moth. In an awed silence they watch its progress, but it’s not until the watery light flares the triskele of the Spirit Domain across its central, largest helium bladder that A-Hylca can guess at its significance. “Is it looking for us?”
The older man shakes his head derisively, blinking like an agitated anxious bird. “They regard convicts who escape into the Time Marshes as dead. No, it’s either drifted in here and is as lost as we are... or else... I don’t know, I can’t imagine.”
“The rarest of admissions from you, A-Hylca!”
By common consent they follow it as best they can. Wading perilously deep through oozing fens of constricting slime that sucks and won’t let go. A mud that moves, alive with parasites and other foul organisms. They skirt islands of unearthly plants with tubular roots squat and turquoise-blue. Islands populated with fleshy fungii, the musk of mushroom odour haunting them with hallucinatory visions. Then the Skyship is a faint speck above the horizon and they emerge onto ribbed mudflats gleaming silver in misted nightfall.
Taad is unsure of their motives for pursuing the skyfarers, and frightened of what the craft represents. Perhaps A-Hylca harbours some hare-brained scheme of boarding the galleon to escape the Marshes? Or perhaps it’s just the lure of something familiar - even if it’s something hated and feared, in so much strangeness? Either way, for lack of alternative, he follows pragmatically. They make better progress as night thickens about them, but haven’t glimpsed the Skyship for several hours and begin to think it lost when a secondary landscape separates.
They’re entering another nightfall, one that’s frozen as brittle as crystal. This time they’re moving through a quiet city of dilapidated mudbrick keeps where shadows sidle and single-storey hovels of mossy stone are stilled as they collapse in upon themselves. Diseased people gather, at first in two’s and three’s, peering from the dark toothless mouths of doorways. There’s a pervasive stink of excrement, and naked cadaverous children play on street intersections, tapping out rhythms on what look chillingly like human bones. An emaciated woman beckons in quick nervous gestures. Striving to attract their attention with the travesty of a smile. A slow-motion smirk. She’s dressed in a loin-cloth, stomach drawn tight over ribs which show through like the ridges in a wicker basket, her hair streaked green with plant dye. Sensing ambush and probable cannibalism they ignore her and hurry on.
The tangled streets populate alarmingly as soon as they’ve passed. Pursuers lope low after them from shadow to shadow, never clearly visible behind the ash and the rubble, but forming an eerily silent and growing wake. The stench of putrefaction gets stronger, sicker, seeping out of the darkness.
An up-hill slope punctuated with unhealthy gorse insinuating up out of what had once been paving slabs. It takes them through areas of even greater desolation, the buildings blackening into little more than cross-hatch patterns of open scars. Looking back through garbage and decay Taad discerns figures in slit-eyed wooden masks, horned with tusks and antlers, decorated with jaw-bones and the white gleam of mismatched teeth. Others wear body-paint or the polished ivory skulls of animals slatted with ochre and auburn dye, tasselled with feathers.
And behind them, yet taller figures, inhumanly tall, two metres or more, and featurelessly black. A negativity leached from night, sucking the very light from the air. At first they are Lhyrill from the excavations, and Taad snags his breath with something between fear, relief, and guilt at being caught in the act of misdemeanour. He can turn and surrender to them... can’t he? Apologise for causing them such inconvenience. There’ll be disciplinary action, sure, but then a return to the reassuring predictability of the Machine Relics Mineshaft... but they aren’t Lhyrill.
Taad and A-Hylca mount the incline with increasing haste. Blurred glimpses of crouching men race between the stone keeps abreast of - and then ahead of them, moving swiftly to cut off their escape. The rabble seem to be herded by the masked hunters, and they, thinks Taad, are co-ordinated by the black giants. The escapees stumble and curse in the darkness. Taad slams down hard, spinning on the ligature, brought up tight. “Curse you Taad, you’re always too far ahead or too far behind.”
The soundless pursuers flit in shades of blackness. The giants towering above them. “They’re not men” he mutters. “They’re the dead. The Sentinels of Wolvorta-Hgadin.” I can’t run more. I can’t run. Escape is not possible. They are death. They are the dead.
A-Hylca jerks their connection vindictively. “You fumblewit. You flatulence, that’s the superstition of fools.”
Yet once planted, the terrible image is impossible to dislodge. Taad lunges upwards, all logic frozen in pure and mindless panic, and they lurch up over the street’s brow and down the incline beyond. Ahead of them the decrepit city shelves away into a vast dark pall of ocean, he can see towers, stairwells and monumental tombs a few metres below a crystal tide that lies featureless to a solid wall of mountains at the horizon. Mars is clear and glaringly bright, its dome eclipsing half the sky. Its immense flat luminosity of ochrous reds and deep oranges exactly divided into two perfect quarters by a single slender black tower. Water wriggles with its reflections.
The scrunch of pursuit comes from behind them.
At first the sea-scape presents a uniform appearance. It’s only later that individual detail clarifies into wedges of watery shadow, growing architectural proportion and blind glassless windows. Charred fascias spidering with crawls of parasitic ivy. Taad recognises it all from his first glimpse of the Time Marshes. Inexorably he charts a visual path through the flooded city, drawn at last against his will to the neatly tiered ramparts of the autodrome, an austere gateway he can eclipse with his index finger, almost dreading what he’ll see there...
For a long second the giant Marsian planetrise sparks luminous ripples that ice it all to absolute clarity - ocean, mountains, partially submerged city... the tower subdividing the sky is incredibly tall, a monument at the water’s edge, no, a pillar - a white column. An ivory obelisque, every part of its surface patterned with screaming gargoyles as if an eternity of horror and pain has been compressed down to create the fantastic structure...
... illuminated ripples lap about the flooded ferrocrete autodrome too, and in their light Taad can clearly see two human figures - himself and A-Hylca!, ankles linked by a thin white hair of pseudo-flesh, framed in the arch.
His skin crawls. He feels oddly drunk, disconnected from his senses. His throat on fire with breath that seems to belong to someone else. The sharp rills of pain from his ankle come peripherally, one step removed, through a veneer of impersonal deadness. He’s shivering with fear, tensed on the edge of some bottomless well of insanity and it’s almost tempting to let go and submerge in it.
A-Hylca drags him away sharply left, stumbling and barking his knees on hard screes of grit. The sea shivers like a mirage, unsure of its grip on reality. On the city ridge behind them figures are etched against the sky, some in short kilts, most of them naked, antlers branching upwards in inverted lightning, barbed spears decorated with spines and cross-bars, and all the while, behind them, the towering giants, the messengers of death.
Taad rips his eyes from the pursuers, certain that A-Hylca’s mad dash will take them into the sea. But the sea has gone. The ivory obelisque has gone. Mars has gone too... and instead they race through groves of trees laid in artificial die-straight rows, branches dripping swirls of yellow-brown foliage and hung low with the weight of fruit. Small inquisitive animal snouts protrude between variegated leaves, white lemurs with limpid pink eyes.
They keep to the undergrowth through a snow of leaves until guttural speech drifts from the shadows. A leaf floats to land lightly on Taad’s head, and stays there trapped neatly in his tonsure. He brushes irritably across his scalp to dislodge it, but it refuses to be dislodged. Instead, its claws begin penetrating his skin, and it crawls slowly down towards his face on stubby webbed feet! Something deep inside him snaps. The mad shadows of the trees seem suddenly alive with stalking Sentinels, wooden masks, beribboned animal skulls and ebon giants. The insect-like creature he’d mistaken for a leaf sinks needles through raw scalp towards his cerebral cortex. He bolts, hitting a screen of foliage at a run, bursting abruptly through the barrier of spindly elm and briar. On the far side an immediate near-vertical landslip falls some three metres, dropping to a dry track of beaten earth.
And there, in deep conversation, are three machine-like Drhazilsks.
Instinctively A-Hylca hunkers back into concealment as the heavier man cannons on, the two intentions conflicting ludicrously. The momentarily ignored ligature rips taut, grabbing feet abruptly from beneath them. A-Hylca collapses, wildly flailing into thorny briar tendrils. He digs his heels truculently deep into the spongy turf, with the dirt disintegrating, stones, grass and soil exploding in a cascade down the drop. Angry yells. Taad’s terrified momentum drives them into a comical head-over-heels spin, slithering and cursing over the brink and down the drop bruised and shaken, to be brought up short by the hard cracking mud of the path. For a moment nothing connects. Taad lurches to his feet, facing the Drhazilsks. Their carapaces a deep blood-crimson. But deliberately anonymous, their ornate lizard-head helmets with vizored-down goggles mirroring his quizzical stare in equally blank incomprehension.
A-Hylca grovels on hands and knees, forehead grazed and dirty, breathing through clenched teeth. Already they’re priming handbows. A tall, rangy man with the hard look of a South Viridilander, hands lean and sinewy, shoves himself forward, handbow levelling. His helm, thick jowls of intricately engraved scales centring on the predator’s fangs, are frozen in permanent menace. “Don’t move, don’t even breathe. I shoot faster than you can blink. Just give me the opportunity to prove it.”
Selected for strength and stature, then synaptically and neurally implanted to enhance reaction speeds, trained, drilled and disciplined to a razor’s edge, and rigidly indoctrinated in Domain loyalty, they are lethal - and terrifyingly efficient. Even their armour is semi-organic. It has its own survival imperative. The third Drhazilsk is an Officer. But there’s another who stands beside them, watching with an impenetrable expression of confused amusement. His robe a startle of colour. What at first seem to be luminous tattoo’s shift and squirm beneath the skin of his arms and chest, but on a second - more attentive glance, they become merely the interplay of light and shadow on his impressive musculature.
A-Hylca’s ankle bleeds from bruises and freshly gouged sores, icicles of pain trembling up his leg from the wounds. His head throbs with the humiliation of defeat. “We almost had it,” he groans, slurring words through blood and phlegm. “We’ve come so far, achieved so much, but you had to throw it all away, you... you FARMER !”
“Threw what away? We got nowhere. And I can’t die here. I can’t. The potassiums and sulphates that make up my body belong to the Warren, and must be returned there. To die elsewhere is theft. It’s just unthinkable.”
“Hold, Ivaksho” from the Officer. Reluctantly the Trooper holds his position, as the Officer turns. “You keep the oddest company, A-Hylca, and persistently crop up in the strangest places.”
His eyes horizontal at the Officer in absurd defiance, countering - he hopes, the prison fatigue and undignified posture. Something snags in his mind. “You... War Chao... lick-spittle of tyranny. I remember you. I know you from the barricades of Ashiri. Seems you’ve acquired some extra regalia since then.”
Taad shifts his baffled attention to War Chao. A man of A-Hylca’s age, with a precisely groomed beard of iron-grey stubble, and an exact military demeanour. His crimson uniform elegantly embellished with gold trim and polished copper buttons, cape hanging voluminously low, to his hand-tooled black leather knee-boots. The distinctive ornamentation of his Prayerblade clasp betraying it as an original. One of the scarlet series acid-etched by the renowned Tseusk Tseutchsk, craft-master blade-shaper of Meldilarn three centuries before. The possession of a man of some importance.
“And Mareeh,” A-Hylca hisses through his teeth. “Does she do for you all those delightful things she used to do so exquisitely for me?”
Chao laughs. “A-Hylca, you never grew up. You just got older. I thought time in the Colony would have cured you of your adolescent games. Obviously I was wrong.” But the words come too rehearsed and hasty, like they’ve barbed an open nerve.
“My will is free, Chao. You can’t enslave that. But you - you’re imprisoned and damned forever by the vile corruption you serve.”
Ivaksho growls menacingly and smashes the butt of his handbow brutally down onto A-Hylca’s temple, and as he sprawls he brings the weapon up level with A-Hylca’s head. Silence roars and pounds at Taad’s temples. He feels sick... then the tall stranger, inactive so far, seems to realise what’s going on, and moves to interpose himself between Drhazilsks and intended victims, broad hands above his head. “No killing here,” his tones strangely accented.
The Trooper hesitates. “This issue is no concern of yours. It falls under Domain jurisdiction,” from War Chao.
“No deaths. Or our hospitality ends. There’ll be a truce while you are our guests. What murderous games you play outside is your own business.”
“The Mine-rats should die” snarls Ivaksho inflexible.
But Chao, obviously angered, holds him back. Then indicates to his men to lower their weapons. “A truce,” he concedes, “for now.”
Ivaksho spits vehemently.
The stranger turns to the two escapees smiling broadly. What have again become his subcutaneous tattoo’s writhe and link hypnotically. And together the disparate group start down the track which descends into a sheltered valley beneath the slopes of majestic snow-furred mountains. Taad glances nervously over his shoulder at intervals, expecting at every turn to see Ebon Sentinels bursting from concealment, seeing slit-eyed masks decorated with jaw-bones and antlers in each movement of foliage. But instead the serried rows of autumn trees ahead give way, at length, to what looks like a calm but oddly silvered lake. Somewhere, dawn is breaking. Taad feels it melting his terror. They’ve crossed over some further barrier and the hunters are lost in the refocussing vortex of time.