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Ryou fell on top of Darius, which spared him some of the bruises he'd have otherwise picked up. Darius grunted under Ryou’s weight, steadied him and then struggled to sit up, mouth already forming some pretty horrendous curses. But Ryou for his part could only stay frozen on hands and knees, legs tangled with Darius's.
“We...fell,” he croaked.
“Enlil enlightened you, did he?” Darius growled. “First we get attacked by fucking bird statues, then we get dropped-...where the hell are we anyway? Did you- Ryou?! What's the matter?! You’re as white as a corpse!”
A corpse would feel considerably better than Ryou did just this minute.
"I-...we-..." Ryou's body was distant, numb, it was somebody else who was swaying, face drained of blood and clammy with cold sweat. His hands gripped the loose soil in an effort to anchor himself, but it still felt as if he was several meters away from the sensation. “We went...very, very far. My head-...I feel like we fell forever.”
“It was only a small tumble. Three strides at most.”
“I know. That’s what makes it so bad.”
Darius made a puzzled noise, but didn’t ask, just held Ryou by the shoulders and waited.
Ryou took a few wobbly inhales, trying to force his mind past that horrible schism. His body knew their one-second misstep had been a meter, tops, while his inner sense insisted they'd fallen a distance measurable in thousands of kilometres, or possibly light years. He shuddered, fighting the surge of nausea attacking the bread and cheese he’d had back in his room shortly before mounting on his horse this morning.
“The others?” he grunted.
“Not here. Murdeen was right on our heels, but either he stopped in time or he ended up in Sura. I hope.”
“It was aiming at us.”
"Don't know. But it needed the edge. The edge of the circle, where non-space leads to space. There's a place of transition at that spot, and it feels like we slipped between the border and Assyria, and out into-...who knows. I think the crane statues were just a way of taking out the Passers, or to distract Andrap. He must have been following us since our departure, that’s the only way he could have shown up as fast as he did when we were bombarded. He saw this new attack coming, he told us to stop right before it happened. At least I think he did. Didn't he? Er, Darius...?"
Ryou realized he was giving conclusions for his benefit alone. Darius wasn’t even grunting an assent. Ryou glanced up at his lover to find the latter staring fixedly at their surroundings. So Ryou looked too.
A tall hill rose sharply nearby, as big as the hill supporting the entire city of Sura. It was entirely deserted and barren, other than the stairs. They zigged and zagged their steep way up the prominence in sets of uneven grey stone slabs, the only sign of anything manmade. There were no buildings anywhere, no barley or wheat planted in the plains at the foot of the hill, no signposts or roads. Only dust, sand, rock, clumps of dry vegetation without leaves, and here and there little outcroppings of complete and utter madness.
Ryou stared fixedly at a bush ten meters away that appeared to be burning. Though he was pretty sure it wasn't. There was something...organic about the way the 'fire' squirmed around the branches without any appearance of consuming them. It slithered as it crackled, dripping to the ground like phosphorus where it vanished in a puff of smoke.
Something moved at the periphery of Ryou's vision. He flinched- but it was not a statue of a crane, it was two rocks, one covered in ugly green lichen that looked virtually fossilized, tumbling over each other in mid-air. Five revolutions a minute, thought Ryou analytically. That was just about the only rational thing one could say about it.
Several stones on the hill before them were perched at angles that defied gravity. Very, very literally. In fact it was rapidly clear gravity had no say in their configuration whatsoever. Some of them were even floating. Ryou scrutinized the nearest, a rock the size of a car resting precariously on a stone the size of a bento box, which in turn stood on absolutely nothing a foot above the ground. There was a small tree atop of this assemblage, roots gnarled and twisting around the rock. Half of its branches were lifeless, the other half had melted like plastic, stretching and sagging towards the stone where they’d dripped off and coagulated into improbable wooden puddles.
Ryou tore his eyes away, and looked around more carefully. Like his first impression, the surroundings appeared almost normal until he concentrated on a particular stretch of it and then he would discern some surreal detail that should have immediately jumped out at him. Ten meters to their left was a rock as large as he was, yet as transparent as cheap glass; bubbles rose through it at a snail’s pace until they broke the surface in small craters which slowly filled in again. Almost at their feet, another stone, no more than fist-sized, rolled silently around in a circle, a deep groove in the sand a witness to the time it had been at its task.
Dust and grit hung in the air in odd patterns, unmoving, like dust devils petrified in the act of twisting their way around the maze of rocks. There were no animals in this surreal landscape, no birds, no insect, nothing. Even the gray, dusty grass looked fossilized, and Ryou found himself unable to believe it could actually grow. The sky above them was more animated, full of odd contrails and flashes of light always out of Ryou's direct line of sight.
Ryou managed to speak after clearing out his throat. "Are we back in the Broken Lands?"
"Dunno." Darius was still looking around slowly. "Did you do anything that might have transported us back there?"
"No, nothing at all."
"Then I doubt we're back in the Broken Lands, more's the pity." Darius tilted his head, his gaze traveling up the hill to its very top. He squinted. "What’s that up there? More rocks?"
Ryou looked up. "No, looks like a building. It could be ruins, but if so, they’re very big. I-" Then he made a strangled sound. His gaze had leapt up from what might be a man-made monticule and fastened on the sky above it.
"Ryou? What's wrong, what do you see?"
"What-..." Ryou could barely recognize his own voice. Even his ability to stay calm and analytical in all circumstances couldn’t handle this out of the gate. "What-...in the sky, what is that?"
"That's just a cloud. Never mind that, where are we? Do you have any idea?"
Ryou grabbed his shoulder and jabbed a finger at the sky. "Look."
"What? I told you, it's a-..."
Darius fell silent. Like Ryou, he must be tracing the object that looked like a dark cloud due to the way distance and atmosphere blurred it. But the human eye was better at grasping perspective and a feel for consistency than that. Those edges were too sharp to be a cloud, too smooth to be anything wispy. Ryou followed the shape with his eyes until it joined others, a solid body, and then his gaze swept out and out and out and down and across as far as the horizon to their right.
Look at the way the light catches the edges, said Ryou's brain, scrabbling to cling to ‘analytical’; it’s definitely not a cloud, it’s too opaque. Could it be dust? No, it's too solid, there's no drift to it anywhere, no...no billowing or ragged edges. But damn it, it's taking up half the horizon. If this is an object - it's not possible for something of that mass to be up there. If it's solid (oh yes, it's solid, Ryou's instincts informed him) then it must be in orbit or beyond, and that makes it...insanely big. The size of China. Probably bigger. How is it not falling into our gravity, or tearing the world apart with its mass alone...?
That question was hard enough to deal with, but it was considerably friendlier than anything else Ryou’s mind might dwell on, such as the fact that the thing did not actually look like a rock, or dust, or any celestial object rolled into a ball by gravity. Those massive projections, each considerably longer than the Japanese archipelago, looked a lot like trailing tentacles...
"Ashur protect us and grant us a clean death," Darius said under his breath.
"What is it?" Ryou whispered hoarsely. He felt crushed by the sheer magnitude of what his brain was telling him he was looking at.
"No idea, but that...That can only mean one thing. We are beyond the Outlands, beyond the Veil, in the land of death."
They knelt there side by side, unable to move, to even think of moving under that awful sky...And then, shocking in the silence, stones clattered behind them.
"Inder!" Darius spat out, twisting around and sword swinging up. It'd not been a swearword but an invocation, the battle cry for the very last battle.
And then this kid ran past them less than a stone's throw away.
Darius and Ryou stayed frozen to the spot in amazement. The boy was young, no more than ten, dressed in a knee-length linen skirt and a golden belt. An elaborate golden chestpiece hung from his neck and bounced against his chest in time with his leaps across the dusty terrain. His head was shaved, and bore khol markings or possibly tattoos of odd shapes. His sandals flashed golden as he leapt nimbly over rocks. He only stopped on the first step of the stairs where he glanced back over his shoulder at them with a grin full of teeth. Once he was sure they were looking at him, he ran up the stairs, taking the shallower ones two at a time and helping himself with his hands over the steeper sections.
There'd been no mistaking that look. The kid was beckoning them to follow.
"Ryou." Darius's eyes were following the kid's ascent up the stairs. "Can you get us out of here?"
Ryou looked around. There were lumps of eroded rocks around them in what might once have been a circle of stelae, one ice-age and some continental drift ago, but the ether here felt as dead as the topsoil. "I don't think so. I...I can try. I guess. If we really have to. I'm not sure what will happen, though."
They were silent. The kid was up thirty meters already.
"I guess we better see who lives in this godforsaken hell first," said Darius, sheathing his sword and getting to his feet. He gave the sky one last glare - Ryou thought it looked faintly challenging - and then he glanced down. "Can you stand?"
"Yes. I feel better."
"Will you be able to follow me and that mountain goat up the stairs?"
"I guess I'll have to," sighed Ryou, standing up, dusting himself off and doing his best to ignore the insanity of the countryside all around them.
Ryou made the mistake of glancing down three quarters of the way up, and had to sit down for a minute as a result.
"I don't like this place," Darius said as if drawing a matured and deliberate conclusion. He was looking down the stairs, however unadvisable that was.
"Yeah..." Ryou rubbed his itching eyes. It was so dry here. His skin felt like paper. He put his glasses back on and studiously kept his gaze on the horizon. Even the giant whatever in the sky was better than looking at the stairs...They'd been steep coming up but now, by some twist in this plane's geometry, they'd straightened out like an accordion so that five steps below from where Ryou sat, there was nothing but a cliff. This hadn't done Ryou's inner ear any good after its earlier shakeup. It also meant they had no choice but to continue up, or trust that this was some kind of illusion on par with the Broken Lands, finding out with one step whether the stairs were still there. It would be a rather final step if they were not.
"Look on the bright side," said Ryou.
"I think your Gift of Zaratusra must have lost its glue, because I could have sworn you just said you saw a bright side," growled his lover, looking down at him.
"There's so far a conspicuous absence of Furies and other monsters."
"Inder and Ashur, Ryou, don't bring bad luck down on us."
"Sorry," said Ryou not very repentantly.
"As for monstrosities, there's that." Darius jabbed a finger at the horizon.
"I believe that thing in the sky is not alive, because I cannot imagine that it is," Ryou replied calmly. "It would force me to question too many basic concepts of biology and physics. If by some insane chance it is, then we could not register on its perception unless it happened to have a microscope the size of Hokkaido on its person."
"Never mind. How far are we from the top?"
"Another two hundred strides, I’d say. Can you make it?"
"Yes, sorry, I just had to catch my breath."
Ryou got to his feet, ignoring the feeling that things were crawling just outside his perception. Darius had said he did not have that problem, but he did not have Ryou's extra senses either. Ryou rubbed his eyes for the tenth time. They ached under the confusion of signals, and felt gritty. There was no wind in this place. The sun shone, but brought no warmth to the grey rocks. Neither had it moved an iota across the sky it was nailed to, despite Ryou’s Seiko – still going strong, a tiny drop of modern efficiency and sanity – indicating they’d been climbing for an hour and ten minutes. In all this time, they had seen no sign of plant or animal life. What did that kid live on...? Darius had already put forth a couple of hypotheses as they made their way up the stairs; either the kid was a cannibal that fed off of stranded travelers, or he was not there at all, some kind of illusion cast by a siren to lure them to their unsuspecting deaths. Ryou doubted the latter theory. The kid had seemed pretty well-fed to give the first any credence. Ryou put his mind to this and other puzzles as he walked up the steps composedly, saving his strength and denying the urge to leap up them out of fear he'd feel that last one suddenly shift and straighten out beneath his feet.
By the time they reached the top, Ryou’s feet and calves were aching, a surefire sign if he’d needed one that this was not, unfortunately, some bizarre dream. Ryou breathed deeply a few times, bent and stretched his legs, then straightened to get a good look at the small plateau they’d reached and the building which dominated this entire landscape.
It was a ziggurat, two great square tiers set one atop the other, both with slanted walls and – oh great – yet more steps up a ramp cutting into them both. It rose up to the second tier which supported a pyramidal structure. The whole was built of the same grey stone as the landscape, and just as cheerful to behold. The entire top of the plateau around it was paved flat with stones cut in large geometric designs, like a map of an ornamental garden that was doomed to never grow.
The kid was nowhere in sight, but there was nowhere else to go, so the two them trudged across the flagstones towards the ramp up the building, and started climbing.
"Don't look back," Darius said grimly after a few steps. Ryou swallowed and did as he was told. Darius was walking right behind him and put a hand on Ryou's lower back to either steady him or keep him from turning.
They got to the top of the ramp and looked around. The stones beneath their feet were huge, the size of two cars each. They fitted without cement yet so seamlessly that Ryou was ready to believe they were watertight. There was no sign of decay to the building, which kept touching off sparks of surprise in Ryou’s mind; it was pristine enough that it could have been built yesterday, but it felt very, very old.
The top of the square was forty meters by forty. The pyramid rose at the center of it. A large entrance was cut into its side, closed by double doors of rusty red metal decorated with iron pictograms inset into geometrical panels. While Ryou watched, something that looked awfully like the same black iron as the pictograms slowly coiled through the grooves between panels like a snake leisurely navigating a maze, stretching and shrinking but always, Ryou noticed after several minutes of uneasy observation, always with one part of itself spanning both doors to lock them together.
"I don’t think we're supposed to go in through there," Ryou said weakly.
"The kid's over there," Darius said, concentrating on the practical. "More stairs. How are you doing?"
A ghost of a smile twisted the corner of Darius's mouth and was gone. Then he strode across the stone of the tier towards the side of the pyramidal structure. The kid was there, hands on his knees as he leaned forward to see if they would follow. He really had a very unpleasant grin on his face for such a young person.
The pyramid was thirty meters high, and did not rise continuously to its summit. Four fifths of the way up, it flattened to leave way to a structure of pillars and woven tapestries that supported a pyramidal wooden roof that topped off the point of the whole ziggurat. The wood of the roof was gilded with gold, the tapestries were as splendid as any in Sura's palace, a thick linen base so heavily embroidered with gold thread, silk and semi-precious stones that they looked as stiff as a board, hanging from golden ropes from the roof .The boy slipped beneath one of them. Darius did not hesitate; he drew his sword and followed. Ryou did so as well, absently wishing he had some kind of weapon other than his table knife. He didn't think it'd help with what they were about to face, but the psychological value should not be underestimated. A pity he'd dropped Periklan's walking stick when the transition from Mooncrest to this place had hit him.
For a heart-stopping moment, Ryou thought the space beyond the tapestries was full of monstrous creature. But they were only statues, Ryou realized, breathing again. Statues of shiny black stone depicting men and women with thick animal heads, each carrying a different and heavily stylized object. They were creepy enough until Ryou remembered the crane statues and had another cardiac moment.
The statues stayed where they were, unmoving, ringing the interior of the pavilion. They looked as solid and immobile as statues should. Ryou and Darius exchanged a glance, then moved forward through the rank of frozen sentries.
Two large braziers drifted trails of smoke across the space. From the scent, their purpose was the burning of incense rather than any illumination their smoldering embers could provide. Most of the light came from the inanimate sunshine falling through the open sides, chopped to pieces by the tapestries until it fell in unmoving shards of light and shadow on the mosaics of the floor. At the very center of the room was a high pyramidal dais of a dozen steps. The top was decorated with carved pillars and veils hanging limply for lack of a breeze; it looked like they'd petrified there waiting for one. The pillars and veils surrounded a low wide throne made of stone and ornamented with alabaster, gold, lapis lazuli, malachite and more. On the throne sat a man in a stiff, formal pose, an enameled red scepter in the shape of a hook crossed over his chest. He wore a pale mask with a bizarre cylindrical beard attached to the chin.
"Well fuck me," said Darius with vicious satisfaction. "So you cocksucking Imperials are behind this after all."
"Imperials?" Ryou looked from Darius to the figure on the throne. "Romans?"
"Oh yeah, that's a Roman high priest getup, I've seen it in conquered cities."
"Priest? It's a Priest of Aten?" Ryou remembered something Haaskoning had said, a crazy rumor of who had kidnapped Darius the first time around.
"You are mistaken."
The voice was a whisper, pleasant, cultured, like one of the better paid voice actors projecting through stereo. Ryou and Darius twisted around, because that voice seemed to have come from right behind them as well as in front. But there were only two people present, the boy sitting halfway up the steps to the throne and the man with the mask.
"We do not look like a Priest of Aten. It is the Atenites who look like us."
Wait. It wasn't a mask.
Ryou had been looking at him when the man spoke, though the voice still echoed from just about everywhere around the room (and Ryou had the uncanny feeling that this was not just due to odd acoustics). The man's mouth had moved. That was his face. Except for the beard which was jeweled and looked attached to his headdress by string, but the rest of his face...Ryou narrowed his eyes and then stepped forward to get a better look, ignoring Darius's hiss of caution. It did not matter, they were here, in this person's power; Ryou could feel it all around them like hands on his shoulders.
The face had the beauty of carved statues. It was as if this man - this priest? - had sculpted his own features into that semblance of beauty, smooth, unblemished, regular beyond anything nature could produce. The result was not beautiful to Ryou's eyes; it looked like a funerary mask made of real flesh. Ryou, obscurely repulsed, still moved forward until he was at a distance where he could look at the creature comfortably while not being crushed by the height of the dais and forced to crane his neck. Darius stopped at his side.
"Are you the ones who tried to kill Darius two months ago?" Ryou asked, just to get the ball rolling.
There was an odd pause. Ryou had noticed it the last time the man had spoken too. As if he had to remember how to move his lips in time with his words. And then he said, "Yes."
That was all. Straight and to the point, and no attempt to justify or excuse himself.
Darius snorted in humorless appreciation. "No need to be coy, huh? Okay, so you went to some lengths to strike at me again today. This is a bit beyond banishing me to the No Man's land though, and I have the feeling you made damn sure Ryou was brought here as well. So, who the hell are you and what do you want with us?"
This time it was the boy who piped up.
"We are the Eternal Priesthood," the boy recited. "We are the servants of the Old Gods. We are the serpent Alep in the shadow of Aten the False. We are the wings of Kemwer Horus as he rises. We are the scepter of Seth in the hands of the Kings of Old. We are the crook and flail of Kenti-Amentiu Osiris as he rules the West. We are the Ancient Ones, the Ones who Remember, and we are evermore the true masters of Ma'at, unlike those servile dogs of the Per Gathas. Cocksucking dogs," the boy added in a lower tone full of satisfaction. Ryou had the feeling this extemporization was inspired by Darius's earlier comment. So the boy was ten after all, that much was probably not an illusion.
"You're Egyptian?" Ryou asked, running all that through his mind and finding odd echoes of it from an old manga he'd read years ago, about mummy's curses and pyramids. "Horus and Osiris and all that, those are old Egyptian gods."
The boy, startled, looked quickly up at the man on the throne who of course did not betray any expression. Ryou wondered if the creature could.
"Egyptian?" Darius looked from the man on the throne to Ryou. "He looks a little bit like an Atenite, but I never heard of those deities before, and anyway the Egyptians are all dead."
There was an odd creak from around them. The tapestries swayed in a breeze that seemed to come from the center of the room.
"Tell us where you are from," the man said, leaning forward slightly.
"From Ezo," Ryou answered promptly.
"Liar," said the kid near the throne, teeth bared in a vicious grin.
A silence swept by like a dead breeze. "We have heard of the old land," said the whisper around them. "But it has been taken over by Allah in the same way Aten took over in the Outlands. We are not them. We are the Ancients. We are the only ones who Remember." The figure sat back again. His eyes were as fixed as stone, it was hard for Ryou to tell where he was looking.
"Fine. Now that that's all established, what do you want with us?" Darius asked abruptly.
The Ancient priest did not answer, it was the kid who said: "An offer. He wishes to make an offer to the magian. And we have a pact for you, Assyrian, since you know how to make such good friends."
A new silence reigned. These guys really knew their pauses, Ryou thought sarcastically. "So, what's your offer?" he was forced to ask before he and Darius gathered dust like the statues back there.
"You will be immortal."
"...What?" Ryou asked after trying to make sense of that.
"At our side, you will live forever," said the creature on his dais of stone. "Can those slaves of Zoroaster offer you that? They cannot. We are the only true priests of Ma'at, and Ma'at has seen to it that we have reign over all things. Join us, and become one with Ma'at."
"I don't know who Ma'at is, but Ryou is not interested," said Darius, tapping his sword against his palm.
"You will lose that dirty mortality like a cloak, and you will rise with us," said the Ancient, completely ignoring Darius. In fact Ryou wondered if the man had somehow persuaded himself he could not hear him; he'd acted as if Ryou was his only visitor from the start, it'd been the kid who'd addressed Darius each time. "You are already one of us, one who masters Ma'at. I can see your power shining at your brow like a star. Do not be a dog at the beckoning of a long-gone master."
"You want me to join your group," Ryou interpreted. He should have known. Powerful magians were just not left alone to wander around in peace, they were bound to be press ganged by one side or the other. "Who are you? I mean, beyond all the religious stuff."
Once more that pause. It was amazing how many subconscious cues the human mind picked up during a conversation. Ryou's instinct was telling him this did not feel like the pause of a man thinking, but of someone answering after the timelag of a long distance conversation.
Then the voice that seemed to come from both the figure and from an inch behind Ryou's ear said: "You belong with us, without a doubt. We too ask a lot of questions. But unlike the Per Gathas, we dare to find our answers. Once you've been through the Journey, your mind will pierce through the base matter that clouds you from Ma'at, from the fundamental order and truth of all Being. We can see your mind. It is bright and sharp with questions. Yes, you will like your new life, and your new name. We will choose it with great care. It will fit you better than that sack you call your skin."
Ryou decided right then and there that he did not like hearing this creature discuss any of his body parts.
"You will start the Journey out in Ma'at, of course. You will enjoy all the pleasures that the body can, without restriction, though I do not think you are one to seek those petty truths for very long. When you are ready, you will join us here, as One who Remembers, beneath the dreaded shadow of the Old Gods where you will live as one with their knowledge and know no fear."
"That sounds very interesting," Ryou lied. "Can you tell me more? Where are we exactly?"
Pause, then, "Join us."
"I'll need more information before I make up my mind, as well as some time to consider my decision. By the sound of it, this is not something to undertake lightly. How many of you Ancients are there? Are they all here? Is this place really outside of the Outlands?"
There was the sound like a creak of old wood breaking by inches, echoes piling up until Ryou realized, skin crawling, that the human-shaped thing on the throne was laughing.
"You have been talking to the Per Gathas. The pale shadow you call Haaskoning has made you his own pitiful offer. Did he promise you anything? Or did he simply say that he would give you all the time in the world to make up your mind to join them, while giving you many dreadful warnings of the dangers you were in if you used the gifts the Old Gods have given you, until he locked them up with chains of fear like a lotus that will never bloom."
Ryou found himself unable to retort, since that was certainly one way of seeing his conversation with Haaskoning.
“His words were poison, meant to paralyze and kill you slowly. What fears did those warnings breed? When will they hound you to his side? Make no mistake, he wants you too. He protected you from us very carefully, so that by the time you would join him willingly, you would not hear what we might have to offer. We tried to approach you by natural means, and then we tried those means given to us by the Old Gods, but his agents have ever been around you, in the heap of rocks they call a palace, in the roads and buildings, everywhere, watching you and your every move in secret. But the fool did not stop you from walking through the fractures of Ma’at. He sent one of his strongest soldiers to watch over you, but in that area, we are the stronger. We took you away from him, to this place where no lick-spittle of Zoroaster can ever reach. Now it is too late for Haaskoning. He should not have given you the illusion of choice, nor let you wander away from him without putting his mark on your Sheut. The loss of the curs of the Gathas is our gain. You can think about my offer. Here. You will not leave this land until you choose to join us. If you accept to undertake the Journey, you may leave as one of us. If not, we will find some use for you, or for your body.”
“What an offer,” Darius muttered sardonically.
"That's coercion," Ryou agreed. "Are you saying you'll force me to join you with threats and against my free will?"
“You cannot refuse,” said the Old one as if the notion had not even entered his mind. “Unlike the Per Gathas, we do not demand you sacrifice any allegiance you already have. You seem bound to Assyria. There could have been better choices, but if that is the land you have decided to favor with your presence and council, then it is a fortunate thing for that country of goat herders. They will benefit from this as well.”
Darius perked up. “Oh, is it my turn now? I can’t wait to find out what my deal is going to be.”
"You’re just hoping it’ll be as good as mine,” Ryou muttered, fatalistically sure now that they would not be able to talk or fight their way out of this situation. They were going to either have to accept whatever this man had in mind, and hope it could be undone later...or as Darius said, may Ashur grant them a clean death.
The Ancient priest fell silent, it was the kid who picked up the thread of the conversation as if reading from a prompt screen. “The interests of the Ancient Ones are linked with the group of barbarians who are deluded enough to call themselves an Empire.”
“Knew it,” Darius said under his breath.
“However, we would be pleased to have allies in the Oldest Countries. You are a powerful man in those lands, Lord Ghan. A dangerous man. You have new ideas." The kid said 'new' as if it were some kind of disease. "Not only did you oppose the Romans most successfully, but the ideas you have planted could become the seeds of resistance to the Empire when it once more spreads forth. Some of our brothers have taken upon themselves the task of preparing the Pariya region for our future dominance. They sought to have you destroyed as part of these preparations. Their failure turned into a fortune from the Old Gods. Now, instead of destroying you and your country, we offer to nurture this resistance under our guidance. When next the might of countries clash, Assyria will remain predominant. Roma Praetorium will have to negotiate a truce on your borders, allowing you your share of those weaker countries that will inevitably fall."
“I see.” Darius scratched his chin. “Hey, kid, what’s your name?”
The boy looked startled. “My name?”
“Yeah, I like to know who I’m dealing with. And what’s his name? I’m asking you since he doesn’t seem to want to sully his ears by pretending he can hear me.”
The look the boy shot the Old One was quick and wary. “His name cannot be spoken or heard by the profane.”
“Lovely. And you?”
Another quick look and hesitation. “I don’t have a name yet.”
“Oh. I guess I’ll just have to call you ‘Kid’ then,” said Darius with a smirk.
“You shall not,” the boy shot back with the scowl of a ten year old. “I am the servant of the Priest, I live in the shadow of one of the Old Gods. I know more than you would if you lived ten lifetimes. I’m not a kid.”
The kid flushed. “Hey-“
“-let me see if I understood this right. Stop me when I get it wrong, will you? Your boss and his friends are living off the Roman Empire like maggots off a dead tree. They were going to take me out when it looked like I was going to kick the Imperials back to their starting point, and maybe shape the Assyrian army to resist them better next time they come our way. But now you’ve decided that you can live off of two trees just as well as one, so you want Assyria to become the greatest power in the Pariya region and beyond with your help, and let you feast off the countries we subjugate like it sounds you’re feasting off the Romans and their provinces.”
“You’re forgetting the bit where I live in Assyria as one of these people, and get to do whatever I want with a country that is essentially considered my territory and exclusive playground,” Ryou added.
“Huh-uh, that too. What a deal. So, kid, did I get it right?”
The boy had gone terribly pale, and looked too frightened to answer or glance up at the throne, his black eyes fixed on Darius.
“So tell the Lord of Maggots up there to let us go so I can take his offer to my king, as it is not a decision I have the authority to make. King Leyam went to lengths to refuse that kind of arrangement from the Romans, but you know, maybe he’ll be interested this time. He can-”
The frozen alabaster hands twitched.
The boy jumped up from the steps, turning towards the Priest with a desperate, “No, wait- please-“
Darius blinked and his head jerked. His sword dropped with a clang as he staggered back, eyes wide.
“Darius? What’s wrong?!” Ryou had felt something confused move around them, it’d smelt of burnt umber and felt like a noose.
Darius fell to the ground as if his balance had completely disappeared. His eyes were wild, he was shoving at things Ryou could not see, and he flinched away when Ryou grabbed his shoulder as if the helping hand had burned him. He tried to catch himself- snatched his hands back with a cry of pain when they touched the mosaics and hunched over them, shaking.
“What did you do?!” Ryou shouted back at the Ancient.
“We gave him a gift to hasten both your decisions.” The malachite eyes were fixed like those of a statue. He didn’t even gloat. The boy had shrunk down on the steps again, seemingly smaller than before, biting his lip as he looked at the man writhing on the floor.
Darius was speaking...but Ryou suddenly realized he could not make out what he was saying, and not only because of the gasps of pain. It was as if each word was hacked up and stitched into another. Then Darius clenched his teeth stubbornly, eyes screwed shut, hands fisted at his ribs, his body flinching in agony at something that Ryou could not see.
“Your decision,” said the mask. “We offer you immortality and power, and we offer you this man’s life in addition. We warn you, many more heartbeats of this will be more than his mind can stand. If you do not want to get him back as a gibbering lunatic, you will do well to give us your answer now.”
Darius’s garbled words...that’s what clued Ryou in. He took his hand away, since his touch brought pain rather than comfort. Instead, he used his inner sense to ‘look’.
It was similar to the Gift of Zaratusra, a film existing right on the edge where Darius's mind touched the higher dimension. But unlike the gift, this ugly thing bolted onto Darius's perceptions was all wrong. Instead of decoding incoming signals, it was altering them so that everything came through jumbled- everything! With a squirm of panic, Ryou felt this interference going deeper than the Gift, and from the way Darius was reacting, it was not just words getting changed, every sensory input was getting scrambled and also amplified. Darius was in a world where everything he saw, heard, touched or smelled was being put through a blender and changed into something harmful. The mosaic of the floor could be cutting him like glass, his own hands burning him like hot coals, Ryou’s words howling like a storm...If sense deprivation could cause someone to crack after awhile, how much more damage could this horror do? It was- it was going to destroy his mind! Ryou had to- to-
Ryou could not say for sure what he did. His hands hovered uselessly over Darius’s shoulders. But on another plane, his inner sense reached out, touched, gripped the twisted alien thing overlaying his lover's mind and pulled, straightening it out.
Darius gasped and went limp. Ryou barely managed to catch him before he banged his head on the tiled floor. Ryou’s panic flared- but then Darius blinked and rubbed his eyes with a hand visibly shaking, and looked around as if things were making sense again.
Ryou's insides felt like they'd been turned to jelly by the succession of horror, adrenaline and then relief. And then horror again as he caught the sweep of a white linen robe at the periphery of his vision. He tensed and glanced up, to see the Priest standing over him and looking down at Darius, those artificial features like a mask even this close up. Ryou stared at the creature without comprehension for a scant second, his mind still in two different places. A part of him could not believe this creature could move, stuck here as he was at the center of this half-baked dimension. Stuck? Where had that mental picture come from...?
"How very interesting." Even this close, the whisper seemed to come from everywhere. "We have never seen anyone do that before."
Ryou edged himself between the priest and Darius, though he did not know what to do to stop the man from casting that spell again. Darius, still on the ground, reached out for the sword that had skittered some distance away. He glanced around for it and muttered, "Bugger." Ryou took his eyes off the Ancient for a moment. The statues of beast-men were no longer around the periphery of the room, but a whole lot closer. In fact one was looming right over them, though Ryou had not seen or heard it move.
"Did you do that on instinct?" asked the Ancient One. "Yes, it must be instinct. Unfortunate, maybe, but you could not know better, and you do not have the strength to do anything other than change it. But what an interesting configuration now. See?" he added, and Ryou had the obscure feeling the Old One was now talking to the boy, and somehow pointing something out. The boy stayed crouched on the stairs, staring at Darius with an unreadable expression on his young features.
"What did the ball-less arse say?" growled Darius, his eyes still on the statue of the cow-headed creature less than two meters away.
"I'm not sure," Ryou muttered. "It wasn't clear to me either."
"If it wasn't clear to you," said the Old One after that usual singular pause, "then it will be complete garbage to him."
Ryou looked at the flesh mask and then at Darius, who was inching away and giving the distance from the statue to his weapon a measuring look. He looked fine. "What do you mean? Why did you say unfortunate? I fixed-...whatever you did."
"Ryou, can you still understand what the freak is saying? I can't anymore," said Darius, getting slowly to his feet. "Sounds like he's talking backwards."
Ryou stayed on his knees, confounded, as understanding trickled through his mind like ice-cold water. No. Oh no. "You understand me, though. Right?" he asked tightly.
"Of course." Darius made discreet 'get up' gestures at Ryou, who scrambled to his feet and faced the Old One.
"What did you do?!" Ryou demanded.
"What did you do?" echoed the boy nastily form the stairs. "You changed it. I've never seen that before. I can't understand what he's saying either."
"What?" Darius looked at them. "What are you all saying?"
The malachite eyes were on Darius. "Fascinating. A servant who can only hear and speak to his master. We will have to remember that one. "
“Even we cannot, nor can any follower of the Gathas. Only you can. Your mind is now the key that has locked this cipher. You have the power, the intelligence and the ability, but you do not possess the knowledge. We have that knowledge. It looks like our association will begin more smoothly and more interestingly than predicted.”
Ryou let his senses brush what was in Darius's mind. How could it filter out all signals except those from Ryou alone? What the hell had he done?! That just didn't make sense, words were words, whoever spoke them. Unless - unless-...Ryou hadn't been speaking Japanese for months, he’d been using this meta-language that came with the Gift. He doubted it had a grammar or anything so mundane, it was too pure for that, like mathematical equations used to represent words. That meant that there might be some factor he was adding that was unique to himself, an identifier as distinctive as his tone of voice if speaking Japanese- forget it, it was all speculation. What mattered was fixing it. If he could...
Ryou tried to touch the alien layer in Darius's mind, perhaps get rid of it entirely. But he didn't have a clue where to start. He pried at it, but he had so little control over his powers, it was like trying to unglue molecules with his fingers. Ryou could feel the thin dead air rush in and out of his mouth as he panted in effort, but he couldn't get anywhere. The more he tried, the harder it got to even see it properly. Ryou stopped, afraid of making the situation worse. He looked helplessly at his lover. Darius was frowning in bewilderment.
Ryou pushed his glasses up, ran his fingers over his face - still human, and hopefully unreadable - and turned to face the Ancient. "What is this Journey you talked about, if I join you?"
"Ryou, no," hissed Darius.
"The Journey has started. Indeed, you have already traveled quite a way,” said the Old thing with fossilized humor. “Right now you are blinded by flesh. You do not perceive the difference between it and your five other selves. We will show you. You will learn to journey out with your Ba into the world of Ma'at and beyond, into the world of the Gods. Their servants stand guard at the entrance of their lands to kill those who walk the fields of wheat and honey without being of the chosen. But you will not fear them, for we will put our mark on your Sheut, and on your Ba you will bear a holy sign: the Symbol of Amun, of that which is hidden. It will shield you from the dangers of our journey beyond Ma'at. With knowledge, it will even allow you to control those minor deities that the Old Gods give us dominion over, such as the shadows behind you now. You will become one of us, beholden to us, and you will forget in time the world of your clay Ha."
The words didn't make much sense. Ryou listened to their meaning, to the echoes behind the whisper that suggested that this voice wasn't speaking in Japanese either, and that maybe some greater meaning could be captured directly from what Ryou was hearing. There were worrisome impressions in those echoes. These guardians...the Ancient priest meant creatures that stood at the limit between three dimensions and beyond. Maybe even creatures from those higher dimensions. Some of those, the more powerful or the strangest ones, were probably what these illuminated lunatics called their Old Gods. Others could actually be controlled, such as those animating the statues. These extra-planar creatures were only partly here, this homogeneous substance like rock was merely their protrusion into this world. Like clay packed into a mold of the maker's choosing, but clay with willpower, with the ability to move, and at the sculptor's beck and call it seemed. If all that wasn't enough to be unpalatable, Ryou had the feeling there was something else the Ancient was not telling him. It wasn't so much his Magian instincts as his common sense, which was considerably better honed.
"If I agree-" Ryou put up a hand to forestall Darius’s objections. "If I accept to join you, what means do you have to insure I follow your interests?"
"Once you've joined us, you will no longer ask that question," was the whisper behind his left ear. "We are beyond men. We are nearer the deities than we are to these barbarians. Our interests will naturally coincide."
'Naturally' my ass, thought Ryou. This bastard had mentioned earlier that Haaskoning had let Ryou wander around without his own 'mark on his Sheut'. Ryou was ready to bet that this mark was going to reinforce Ryou's decision as to which camp he belonged to. In this conflict between Ancients and Per Gathas, there would be no spies and no traitors...But at this point, the choice of action was stark.
Ryou looked at Darius. “I'm sorry.”
“No!” Darius snarled, grabbing Ryou by the arm as if to physically restrain him from this Journey.
“I didn't know what I was doing when I changed his spell on you. If I don't learn how to fix this, it seems you won't be able to understand anybody else.”
“I don't care!”
“I know, but...Darius, fighting this man is going to get us killed.”
Darius gave the Ancient One a vile look. “I can think of worse things.”
“So can I.”
Darius's eyes widened as he caught Ryou's meaning, as well as the flick of a glance towards the place through which they'd come in.
Without a second of hesitation, Darius hurled himself at the statue behind them, coming in low like the excellent wrestler he was. It was more a football type tackle than an attempt to fight the thing formally, though, and it bore more fruit. Ryou could feel the will animating the statue, he saw its hands leap out like clubs- but it wasn't quick enough to catch its balance on its stone legs, and Darius's shove at hip-height sent it crashing over backwards. Ryou shot past it without looking to see if it would break. Other statues moved up ahead, as clunky as robots, but they weren’t all that fast. There was a gap, and Ryou made for it with all the speed he could muster. Darius was a second behind him, the time to scoop up his weapon. Neither of them looked back at the Ancient one. That was not something one could fight physically. Mentally...Ryou was going to do his damned best, his mind rifling through everything he'd learned from 'Useages', yes, even those bloody useless cantrips, anything that would keep the Ancient One from attacking them from a direction they could not defend from.
They burst out into sunlight, tearing a tapestry off its ropes. Ryou was concentrating hard on anything that might attack them in the higher planes- a little too hard, he barreled right into a set of arms that closed around him like a trap. He shouted in shock. It was not the hardened stone arms of a statue. He caught a glimpse of a dog-like snout over his shoulder. His mind caught a glimpse of something even more grotesque.
Then Darius punched the creature in the face with the strength of a jackhammer. It went over backwards, taking Ryou with it. Ryou scrambled to his feet. Darius was in front of him now, sword swinging at another of the dog-faced creatures. They were clothed in white tunics, not as dirty as the one in Palis. These were well-kept slaves. But slaves nonetheless, with chains that went all the way into their heads.
The sword cut the creature down the chest as it leaped at Darius, and it fell with a scream that was as human as its warped features would allow. Ryou felt a distant urge to throw up as it watched the eyes that might have once been those of a woman's stare frantically around as it yammered. His mind set aside the horror for now, pooling all his resources into escaping.
"You know you will not get far that way," said the Ancient one.
Ryou's head whipped this way and that, before he spun around. The creature was still standing by the fallen statue of the cow-headed man, but that whisper came from right behind Ryou's ear.
"Just run," Darius growled, even though he must also have seen what Ryou had seen at the foot of the ziggurat.
They made their way down the stairs as fast as they could without killing themselves, but they could have taken their time. Nobody followed them. There was no need.
Darius stopped abruptly, throwing up his arm to catch Ryou and make sure he did not stumble headlong into nothingness.
The ziggurat and its paved esplanade were now, as far as the eye was concerned, floating in the sky. Ryou could see no ground down below. Neither could he see sun or clouds or anything. The sky was a pale blur with nothing but the titanic creature floating there like a beached moon.
"You cannot escape this place." The whisper had followed them. "This is my Kingdom beneath the eye of the Old God. Not the mightiest of the Per Gathas could come or go unless I gave them leave to."
"Shut up," muttered Ryou.
They stood side by side, panting, staring down into the void. Then Darius untied his scabbard from his belt, held it out over the edge of the masonry and dropped it. They watched it fall until it was too small to see anymore.
"If that's an illusion, it's a good one."
"If it's an illusion, then we are dead," Ryou said grimly.
"We're going to have to jump," said Ryou, and couldn't quite believe he'd said that even when the words hung in the dead air around him. "If the stairs are there, or the side of the mountain, we’ll fall down it and break our necks. If it's not a mirage...then we'll fall, and that will give me both some time and a spatial anomaly to work with. I might be able to get us back. Maybe. I think I need the jump, though, especially for this. I've always been in motion when I crossed to another plane before. But..." Ryou took a deep breath and released it, shoving up his glasses and looking away from the void and over to his lover. "Here's the facts. I have no idea if I can do it, or what I need to do. Even if I do have the time to figure it out before we hit anything, and I get us back, I can't guarantee we won't fall with the same velocity when we get back to Assyria. We might get back there and die from impact. And that’s assuming we get back at all, which is probably going to take a miracle."
"Take us back to my homeland," said Darius with deliberation, looking at the drop and then at Ryou. "Take us back, and if we die, they will bury us side by side like heroes and brothers, and it will always be a cleaner death than what awaits us here."
"Okay." Ryou looked down at the dizzying drop, then looked up again, clearing his throat that'd gone tight. "Darius, just so you know, he has knowledge that makes me look like a little baby, and he's persuaded that I can't do it."
"Yeah, well he might have a head full of lore, but he doesn't know either of us if he thought we'd accept that cockheaded offer he dragged us here to hear," Darius shot back. "If he doesn’t know you that well, he cannot say what you can or cannot do. What you're not going to do, however, is turn back and become that man's puppet in order to bargain for our safety. I will shove you off this thing and jump myself before you even think of it."
“Thanks,” Ryou said, a smile tugging at his features. “Well, since we’re down to holy intervention on the one hand and certain death on the other...as my countrymen would say, our fate hangs on the divine wind.”
“Sounds good. Let it carry us home.”
Darius's hand was in his own. Ryou squeezed it and stepped off of the edge.
Oh, look, another cliffhanger. Or possibly a cliffjumper, in this case. I'm going to be over there, smirking, if anyone's curious. Bye!