In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
- Kubla Khan (Coleridge)
Chapter Five: Tidings and Visions
By Ian Johnson.
The whole city of Gamir That Had Been Darke was virtually empty. Nobility, militia and common citizens all lined the cliffs that overlooked the choppy Lencian Gulf, every one of them dressed in mourning purple. At the feet of this frowning face of rock, on a beach carpeted by pebbles and seashells, was the Imperial Family of the Lencian Empire along with their personal retinues. Standing closest to the water before the crowd of his household was Pelador Peladron I, Emperor of the Western Lands, High King of the Far Shores, and Overlord of the Northern Reaches. He was far, far older than his years, his face lined, his hair white, his shoulders stooped with sorrow - a scarecrow in regal rags. The water lapped at his feet.
Before the Emperor there was a boat, griffin-prowed and griffin-winged, its edges gilt, bedecked with pearl and sapphire. On either side of the boat, where the oars should have been, there were two burning torches.
The boat had one occupant only - Arcadia, his daughter, dead, her body half-drowned in a rainbow of rose petals filling the small craft to its brim.
The Emperor looked up. The Sun had reached the margin of the sea. It was time. Behind him, in the city of Gamir That Had Been Darke, away down the cliffs, a bell tolled in confirmation. In that moment, as decreed, a great wailing arose from the populace on the cliffs, and flowers were cast down in their thousands onto the beach, onto the shoulders of mighty House Peladron. The Emperor's household began to sing a lament for the dead Arcadia.
Pelador set his hands to the stern and began to push the small craft outwards and into the sea, tears in his eyes. Eventually he had gone out far enough, and the vessel was borne by the waves westwards; towards the place where the Sun went down in brilliant fire; towards Kai and Ishir and the Plane of Light.
Unnoticed among the crowd on the cliffs above, the Helghast grinned.
. . .The Far South of the world. . .
Fire arced through the night and Shadaki burned in the morning.
See how the boat floats upon the swells. See how the petals rustle like the memory of a park in the summer of childhood. See how the garland comes loose in her hair. See how the greater waves blast upwards like beasts on the wild hunt, slamming into the underside of the craft. See how Arcadia flies, dead, like a doll from an upended cot and strikes the sea and sinks out of sight. The sea cries salt tears.
Alyss glided ahead of the Kai Lords through ruined Iridathon. Storm Raven looked around him, peering down quiet streets and wearily eyeing empty windows. But what for? There was nothing here but bodies caught in the middle of movement, people who'd been buried under the ash years past and petrified into statues. They would not prevent their passage.
The whole place looks as if it's just had a layer of skin taken off it, he thought. Everything was eroded near unrecognisable. A statue that had been the masterpiece of its sculptor stood in the middle of a square, now as basic as a stick-man.
Then they had reached their destination: the feet of the three towers that had crowned Iridathon's ash-hill tomb. They were headed for the building at the foot of the highest spire, which Alyss told them was called the Sűli Tower.
"The house below with the saggy roof's where the king lived in the summer," she said. "We'll find Shan inside."
"And who is Shan?" asked Lone Wolf.
"The One Who is Man and Woman and Neither," Alyss replied cryptically.
"The demon you told us about?"
"You'll make no friends with that attitude, young man."
They passed through the large doorway of the manse, impressive even in its marmoreal dereliction, turning through corridors and hallways and ascending stairways until at last they reached the room that Storm Raven had seen in his dream.
Shan watches the Kai follow Alyss into the room and we watch with her. Immediately, we realise that we are not looking at one room, but at three - one in the Past, one in the Present and one in the Future. That is a loose way of putting it, but it is as near as we may come to understanding her view of Time. The Past: the building in which herself and her guests are is variously not there at all (there is first the Void, then the Gods, then the blackness and the stars, then the fire of the world, then the sea and the lands, then desert. Then mire, then forest, then the city, and desolation; there are hundreds of species present in the panorama, including the hall's former inhabitants). Then the city is made, only for Vashna to destroy it at the height of its prosperity. There are hundreds of years where all that she can see is the ash that burst in through the windows, as if she's been interred in the soil with only the soil for a view. Then the Present: the Kai and their guide have come a few footsteps nearer. Then events are rushing ahead, and the threads of the Future are spreading outwards, linking, breaking, destroying one another - the Future is uncertain and never fixed.
The planes commingle before her eyes, revolve, extend, retract. . .A large portion of her unconscious mind is occupied with the business of concentration; concentration upon making sense of this flow, putting it into a recognisable order so that she stays fixed in the Present. A slip of the mind would send her crashing down into laughing raw-throated madness.
And here come the Kai. They assemble at the far end of the table from her and she acknowledges each of them with a slight nod of the head. As she does, each one bows: none of them say a word. Her eyes rest a moment upon Storm Raven and her mind is nearly tipped over the edge as visions of the Future swarm in myriad form before her inward eye. Dizziness envelops her for a moment and she rests a hand upon the table, attempting to make the gesture look casual.
'Welcome to Man Theryn,' she says, her voices melodious but halting; her mind is moving from one time to another, and concentration on one thing comes to her with difficulty. They are surprised at the behaviour, and it doesn't matter that they mask that surprise well: she's already foreseen it. 'I am Shan. Shan a'Shellé. I will prepare you food. What would please you?'
'Don't trouble yourself, Shan; I'll do it for you.'
Ah. So Alyss is here.
Shan looks in the direction that the voice came from. It's hard for her to look straight at Alyss. She flickers in and out of Shan's vision as though she doesn't really exist in the confines of Time at all. Shan, overcome again by dizziness, sits herself down in the high chair, the movements of her limbs dreamlike. She forgets about the Kai and Alyss: Magnamund narrows down to the chair and her palm against her forehead and the dark behind her eyelids.
Concerned, the Kai Lords watched their host with varying degrees of bafflement on their faces. The woman - for so she appeared - who was their host sat motionless and breathing gently. Alyss motioned for them to be seated and they obeyed, settling themselves down in the less important chairs of the long table.
Storm Raven wet his lips. The chairs they sat in were made of crystal.
"Are you unwell, my Lady?" he asked.
Shan stirred not.
It was, to be sure, a face that was, in its own way, something out of an idyll. The skin was, now that he looked, an extremely pale shade of jade, as though the tones of the city had imprinted their mark upon her indelibly during her long rest here in the ashes. In contrast to the skin, her mouth - neither thin nor full, lying somewhere in between - was a flushed shade of wine-purple. Her hair was black like a jaguar's coat and seemed to be a multiplicity of styles - ringleted here, straight there, severely pulled back, plaited. . .and he noticed what seemed like frost in it, dotted randomly yet artistically amongst the locks. His eye followed the certain line of her jaw up to her left ear (where her hair was drawn back), from which hung an earring that was a Chai dragon entwining itself bonelessly around a teardrop emerald.
With hands folded upon the table, he returned his attention to her lips and her eyes. Her mouth twitched and her eyelids clenched. She was in pain, and he hated the thought of it.
"The heavens rebel against the thought," he whispered to himself. Sun Star and Lone Wolf exchanged a glance. Lone Wolf started to reach out a hand to stir Storm Raven from his study of the luminous being at the head of the long table in this, the hallowed and jade embastioned fastness of the petrified ancients, this tomb, this hallowed place of the Mysteries. . .But Sun Star raised his eyebrow, and Lone Wolf halted.
For Storm Raven, though he knew it not, though his study of Shan was purely artistic, his world had started to revolve around a different Sun and, the symbols of authority upon which his inner world stood were beginning to crumble. He breathed, and wondered why the air should seem so much cleaner. At any rate, it startled him from his contemplation. Blushing, he shot a nervous glance at the Grand Masters four seats down, who seemed to be busy admiring the cracked and faded painting on the roof overhead. It depicted a sunset welkin populated by the winged Neboran, that forgotten race who had inhabited lands not too far north of here. The moment Storm Raven lifted his head to immerse himself in the artistry, the two Grand Masters returned their eyes to one another - slowly, so as not to catch the Mentora's attention.
Is this calamity? signed Sun Star with his fingers.
It's certainly going to be a headache, Lone Wolf signed back.
"Ah! Gwynian," said the red-haired young wizard. "Glad that you could make it."
"And I," said Gwynian as he entered Yal's quarters, "am pleased to have this opportunity to return to Toran, and in such auspicious circumstances. How goes the voting? And where is your apprentice?"
"The voting is practically unanimous. Caladingron is almost certainly going to be raised to Guild Defendant in Guildmaster Banedon's absence. And Ganri, the pest, is on leave to go get some rest in the gardens."
"Still found no means of reversing the effects of that miscast spell of his, eh?" asked Gwynian, settling himself down in an antique chair.
"None." Yal sat down on a tall stool beside the window, through which a rich sunlight flooded, and lit up his pipe. He took a luxuriant - for such he termed the harsh sensation - breath in, held it for a moment, then released the curling blue smoke from nose and mouth both. "There is," he said, "no means of reversing the spell, because up until that point we didn't even know that the spell existed. I'm stuck in his body and he's stuck in mine. I've at least four more decades of life ahead of me now and he's lucky if he has one." He sighed. "For all that he's often clumsy and overly-suspicious, it isn't fair - it's too cruel a joke on the part of Chance. I've had my time. And him - how much of the world has he seen? No, it isn't fair at all." And he drifted off into contemplation, leaning on his wrist, drinking up the vista of rambling Baroque wonder that was Toran.
"Is there no distrust of Caladingron?" asked Gwynian, breaking the silence. "I'd have imagined that his Lencian ancestry would have unsettled some people. You're taking a monumental risk by giving him supreme governance of the Guild."
"As much Ganri suggested not too long ago."
"If Caladingron is working in the interests of Emperor Pelador Peladron, then he could attempt to take Sommerlund from within in the name of the Lencian Empire. He was, you recall, trained in the left-hand path in Lencia to begin with - and still nobody knows why he left to come here not three years ago. And one does not have to practice the right-hand path to do ill. What does it all mean, I wonder?"
"War," answered Yal. "What else does it ever mean but war? But, what can we do? If we call for a recast of the votes, we'll be shouted down. Caladingron is loved too dearly by the Guild and, I can't say anything to fault him myself. It's probably just suspicion. He's from outside, and the outside wants in - we both of us know how the tale goes."
"Aye. It's a tale that's been told too many times - you'd think that the world would be sick of hearing it. Recall the tale of the Chai Emperor that made his minstrel sing his favourite song so many times the minstrel and the Emperor both died for lack of sustenance?"
"Yes - we'd do well to remember it. We cannot flourish on the same old songs - and there are only so many dances to be made from one tune." He made circles in the air with his pipe, creating a loop of smoke - then, while it was still visible in the air, superimposed over it an 8 lying on its side. It made its point well enough. "I heard a philosopher say in the Great Square when I was young - when I was originally young, that is - that we make our greatest technological advances in times of war."
"Sometimes, in some ways - but those advances are, alas, usually only further our capacity for killing, and killing in greater numbers. But-" Gwynian sat back and folded his hands in his lap "-what good are we doing? All that we are doing is preaching to the converted - each other, one a genuinely old man, the other with the body of a youth and the mind of an old man: as such, a mind not made for action. Isn't there anybody young willing to stand up and shake their fists at the gods?"
Yal blinked. "What - all of them?"
"All of them, regardless of what Plane of Existence they dwell upon."
Yal chuckled. "Cautious, old fellow - the walls of all Guilds have ears, and I don't want to see a friend tried for heresy."
"Am I being heretical? - But what are we without our gods?"
"Well, nothing, of course."
"No. We are ourselves."
The two sat in uneasy silence for a while.
"Where have you been, by the way?" asked Yal at last. "It seems that you've been gone for such a long time - well over. . .why, six whole years, no less! What have you been up to?"
"I have been in Shadaki, minding other people's business. Grey Star was very well and sends his regards to the Guild. I discovered a Helghast in his court, would you believe, though what it was doing there I never did find out. What? Yal, my friend, what is it?"
The redheaded man was looking at Gwynian with disbelief. "You have not heard? Shadaki has fallen to raiders from the central continent - and from the sea. The Free Alliance is in disarray and it's not even certain whether Grey Star lives or not."
"By Ishir! The news must have overtaken me. I came north by ship and we weighed anchor few times, were blown off course many, and I, locked up with my charts, spoke little with the crew."
"Did not your charts warn you of the calamity?"
Gwynian shook his head. "Not potent enough - nor was any of the primitive stuff in Shadaki itself. Only the Opicentre in Varetta's Hall of Learning is strong enough to give me a clear insight into the future. Mere ink, parchment and starlight only sufficed to tell me that Evil was afoot, but nothing specific - no whos, no wheres, nothing. So. . .' Gwynian said into his beard. 'So. Shadaki has fallen, and the Wizard-Regent is presumed missing, possibly dead.' He looked up at Yal. 'Who precisely has the city fallen to - and you say the rest of Shadakine besieged also?'
Yal shook his head. 'Rumour has it that the dead rose from the sea; that creatures from the Lands beneath the Divide butchered the priests; that a king on a red horse came flying out of a black cloud and cut down the Wizard-Regent in the Temple of the Shianti.' Yal shrugged. 'Most of which I doubt. Rumours proliferate. There is very little fact, saving that the city of Shadaki is fallen. And that it has not been reoccupied. All of the stories have these in common: Shadaki has been razed to the ground; the reavers came from both sea and land; nobody knows where the Wizard-Regent is. Those three facts alone are certain. And, yes, the Free Alliance is sundered by war.'
Gwynian frowned. So did Yal.
'What?' the redheaded wizard asked.
Gwynian blew out a breath. 'That Helghast at the Wizard-Regent's court. I disposed of it. But. . .' The astrologist leaned back in his chair and watched the sun bleed upon the garden without. 'There may be others.'
'Everywhere.' Gwynian leaned forwards, feeling very, very old. 'Even the shadows in the corners seem to be taking on a life of their own these days. It's becoming every bit as bad as when Gnaag sat the Master-throne in Helgedad. I sense tragedy in the air. We said that this is war coming; I think it is something larger and more brutal. There are the Kai, of course: a handful of lives to save a billion, billion, billion souls from calamity.'
Yal grinned. 'Don't be so grim, old star-watcher! It only took one of them to trample everything west of the Durncrags beneath his booted feet, no?'
'Lone Wolf won't live forever.'
'But perhaps he'll live long enough?'
Gwynian stood and began to pace restlessly. 'Everything has seemed so promising hasn't it, since the Darklords were vanquished? The threats that have come by since - water off a duck's back. There have been the usual feuds, alliances made and broken and the rise of empires, and children have died crying in the streets: but all of that is by Nature. It's nothing to do with the Darken King imposing his will upon Magnamund. What has changed, Yal; what has changed to make it all go wrong?'
But Yal sat silent. He had no answers to his friend's questions.
It became plain, at one point halfway through their meal, that Shan had fallen asleep. Alyss bade them not disturb her, instead gliding over to the sleeping woman and lifting her gently from the high seat and with surprising ease. The three Kai Lords silently watched as she bent, seemingly to place the woman on the bare floor, when a luxuriant bed appeared from nowhere. Alyss lay Shan down on the soft silk, and tucked her in as carefully as she would a child.
"I suggest the rest of you do your best with your bedrolls," she said quietly over her shoulder. "I'll watch over you all while you sleep."
Dreaming. . .
. . .No, wait - look!
His consciousness had descended through a lightless funnel and sped at an incomprehensible rate across a blur of seemingly infinite landscape. But he was slowing down now, approaching something. He was becoming aware of another presence now, something that infested the air like the reek of the slaughterhouse. He took in the area around him and found himself to be gliding slowly along the banks of a wide river, the rushes a-sway in the passage of the wind and the short grass both green and yellow in the half-sunlight.
On the horizon, there was a storm. He found himself being propelled inexorably towards it. Downwind now there travelled the charnel reek, stronger this time: he was headed for its source. Away from the wide river his consciousness now went, up into a small range of bracken-covered mountains. Through passes and down valleys he travelled, over bogs and herder's paths from early human history, until at last he came upon a cave. . .and pulled back, sickened by the stench that wafted forth from it.
He was in there - the Darken King, the Adversary. Crouching in the shadows, still shy of the sunlight, a silhouette - a ghost of his true stature. Sleeping, dreaming the dreams of fell gods in the blackness, gathering strength and awaiting the time when he might set forth into the world again. Naar - waited.
And then he was elsewhere once more. This time he stood upon a ridge looking out across a landscape half-lushness and half-fallowness. Amidst the fallowgrounds there stood the skeleton of a city, its be-minereted towers blackened with ashes, the lower buildings broken into rubble. All that remained of the wall in some places was a groove in the earth. A pall hung over the ruins, stark against the clear blue sky.
"Shadaki - all that remains," he heard Shan say. "The capital and the nearby holdings are fallen, victims of the dead from the sea. Razed to the ground in a night, and tormented for day upon day since. They have made the stones themselves bleed. This is another threat that encroaches upon us. Naar draws them to him, though he does not know it - in his sleep, he remembers the fleets of Url Nayn that served under Agarash, and so calls them that sailed under the Gornost Banner forth from their rest and back to war. Others shall come forth to serve him in due course. And what will there be left, when all is finished? Worlds and stars, the blackness of space, the thrones of gods and the souls of the immortal - all these things shall fall away. There shall only be Naar. And, solitary, a thing of misery, he shall in the end consume even himself. Then there will be nothing. Life shall never rise again."
"But why are you showing me this? Lone Wolf, not I-"
"-Because, little Raven, you must grow, must armour your heart - must learn to stand alone. There may come a time when there are none to stand by you, and I fear the reality of that future more than any other. You must be prepared for that eventuality!"
The image blurred once more. . .
And there it stood - the Darken King's destination. The foundations were already laid down - and they stretched for mile upon mile, for acre after acre. Here and there amidst the jutting half-finished constructs, there upthrust buildings complete - temples and small palaces, divided by rivers of molten lava to which the alien black stone was utterly impervious. And there were smithies where a thousand hammers smote, and armouries where weapons and armour were laid out in massy ranks, and pyres and kitchens, charnel pits and breeding pens - this was a stronghold preparing for war on a scale never before conceived in the material world. And all across the structure there swarmed the Spawn. All of the Darklands were here assembled. And from the Kelderwastes and the Sadi Desert - from arctic Kalte and the marshy Danarg - he could sense their approach: the Agarashi were returning to their fatherland. And there, in the centre of the impossibly large superstructure, where the Kraan and the Zlanbeast clouded the furnace sky - beside the gaping chasm where the old stronghold had stood, spitting hellfire high into the ashy air - it could not be!
The great chest rose and fell noisily and the leathery wings shivered upon the flanks of the scaly beast. Its breath sawed hotly through its cavernous nostrils, and the flames that escaped from its snout lit up the cracked and scarred dead earth before it. As he looked upon it, he felt the years stretching away behind him. The fortress seemed to dissolve before his eyes and the rock to return to the magma from which it had come: only the dragon remained constant - the dragon and the gods. He was viewing the world from a distance, seeing it from the outside, a picture in a frame. These, then, were their most perilous foes, their greatest allies.
"Breathe not a word of any of this to anyone," said Shan. "I am the source of the dreams you have been having: I am your guide in places that Alyss may not trespass upon. The people of Magnamund shall learn about all of this by their own means, through their own senses - through word-of-mouth. Alyss spoke true. The final war is coming. Just now, it is being prepared. Consider the assault of the dead on the Far South and the collapse of Shadaki but a precursor, as it is uncoordinated - the Dark King in his present state knows not the things he draws to himself. Yet. But when the war is finally and truly underway - when Naaros opens its gates and pours out its creatures into the world - all eyes in Aon will be focused upon Magnamund. Magnamund will become the hub of Existence."
I will henceforth, once every five chapters, be including this "Summarium", or summary, of events in the tale to date. This is, in fact, as much to remind the writer of what has unfolded as it is for the reader! Those with photographic memories may wish to skip this section.
The year is MS 5095, from the making of the Moonstone, and twenty-five years have elapsed since the demise of the Darklords at the hands of Lone Wolf, and much has transpired since. Lencia and Slovia have expanded outwards into empires (the Lencian Empire and the Holy Slovian Reich, respectfully), the one dominating most of western Northern Magnamund, the other large portions of the Stornlands and environs. The unconquered nations are knee-deep in treaties and conspiracy as the threat of these two superpowers looms above them.
In Sommerlund, King Ulnar V has died leaving behind a daughter, Regan mentioned in passing. She is now joint monarch over both Sommerlund and Durenor with King Fairlak, the son of Alin (also deceased). The two nations are now generally considered to be one. Thus a small empire-in-all-but-name - the Alliance of the Sun - has been born in the Lastlands also.
More recently, the Lorestones have literally vanished into thin air and Guildmaster Banedon has been possessed by the Crown of Naar (uncovered by himself and the Herbalish in the Darklands) and is fleeing southwards - unpursued, for who may forestall a god? Before he fled, the unconscious Banedon spoke a series of what appear to be prophesies, which are recorded in the Guildmaster Scrolls.
Lone Wolf has been advised by Kai in a vision to seek out the ruins of Cynx. Alyss reappears and intervenes, telling him instead to go into a pre-Darklord ruin in the Darklands and seek out its occupant, one Shan, who will presumably play a larger role in events to come. It transpires that Shan is the source of the visions being experienced by a Magnakai traveling with Lone Wolf, one Storm Raven.
Alyss recounts the history of the Crown of Naar and reveals that the Last Battle for Magnamund is close at hand.
The time for portents has passed: the action proper must now begin.