Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2002.
Tiaan had been carrying the dead child for the best part of a day before she realised that something was following her. She was being hunted through an abandoned city.
She scanned her surroundings, but nothing moved in that vast chamber. An oval ceiling, carved from the solid heart of Mount Tirthrax, arched high above. Caverns ran off in five directions, though none were lit. She was somewhere inside Tirthrax, the Aachim’s most magnificent city, though she had no idea where.
Her life lay in ruins. Tiaan had trekked halfway across Lauralin to save Minis, her lover-to-be, but he had cast her aside. The Aachim people had callously taken advantage of her soft heart, but in saving them she had betrayed her world. And little orphan Haani, her adopted sister, was dead — killed by an Aachim javelard in a terrible, senseless accident.
Laying Haani on the dusty floor, Tiaan sat beside her, but felt so weak she had to lie down. Her whole body was trembling. In the distance a walkway of wires and crystal spiralled through floor and roof. She had climbed several like it in her dismal trudge through the empty city. Each time she encountered a stair, Tiaan had gone up. There was no reason for it; her feet had just taken her that way.
Haani’s cheek was waxy pale; her striking, lime-green hair had gone limp. The clothes she had dressed in so carefully were filthy. Feeling a tear welling in one eye, Tiaan ground it away with her fist. If she allowed that, she might never stop.
First she would find a suitable place to lay the child to rest. Somewhere pleasant, by a window, if there was one in this accursed city. Then she would lie beside Haani and they would sleep together, forever.
A noise roused Tiaan; a footstep on one of the crystal treads of the stair. Had the invading Aachim come back to finish her and seize the amplimet, the magical crystal that had allowed her to open a gate from here to Aachan? Let them have it. She never wanted to see it again. Though Tiaan had left the amplimet behind, she felt no withdrawal. She had felt nothing since the gate opened.
Tip-toeing across to the hole through which the stair passed, she peered over the rim. Far below, she saw the top of a man’s head. Further down on the looping staircase, no more than crystalline treads strung on taut wires, crouched a woman with a black band over her eyes. She had a small, pale face and hair like colourless silk. Her arms were wrapped around the side wires of the stair.
The man went down to her. It was Nish from the manufactory! Cryl-Nish Hlar, her enemy. Tiaan had once rejected his advances and he had never forgiven her. He must know about the gate and the Aachim. If he caught her, it would mean a death sentence.
Tiaan pulled back from the edge, out of sight. How had he found her here, hundreds of leagues from the manufactory? It did not seem possible, yet here he was. The manufactory must be determined to get her back.
Haani’s body lay like a rag on the dusty floor, as cold as the glacier that had broken through the side of the mountain when the gate opened. Her hair was now covered in feathery frost. Tiaan picked the child up and for the first time felt the weight. She was so tired.
She looked around despairingly. Far off to her right Tiaan spied another stair, this one a ribbon of metal swirling up to what, in the dimness, appeared to be a landing. She slogged across to it, and up a dozen steps before grinding to a stop.
She forced her foot up one step, then another, but halfway to the landing her strength and courage failed. Why should she go on? Nothing mattered any more. Why not plunge off the stair, the child in her arms, and put an end to it? Their bones would lie together in the empty city for as long as it endured.
Sagging on the treads, Tiaan stared sightlessly through the supporting meshes. Such a handsome man Minis had seemed when he called her from across the void; and so lost; and in such pain. His world, Aachan, was being torn apart by volcanic eruptions. She had trekked halfway across the continent of Lauralin to save him; risked her life to make the gate. She had done it all for him.
But he came with a host of Aachim in thousands of constructs, mighty engines of war — the greatest army ever assembled on Santhenar. The rustic battle clankers built by human manufactories could never match such sleek, deadly machines. The Aachim must have been preparing for war long before Minis sent out his call. They had used her, betrayed her, and she had betrayed her world. Now she was paying for it.
‘She went that way, Nish!’ A high, colourless voice that echoed in the great room.
Tiaan scrambled to her feet and the stair rocked as she took up her burden. Every step hurt. Three-quarters of the way to the top she looked down. Nish was running straight for the base of her stair. Letting out an involuntary gasp, Tiaan climbed harder. The triumph in his eyes, his crowing over her downfall, would be unbearable.
Finally, when she could not go another step, Tiaan reached the top. Glowing spheres lit, pointers that would not allow her to hide. She was in an empty chamber with seven sides of unequal length. Aachim designs were often asymmetric. Small archways led through each side, though all the passages were dark. To one side of the centre was the most extraordinary set of stairs Tiaan had ever laid eyes on.
Five separate staircases arose from a slab of polished crystal one step high. Each stair spun out and up in irregular whorls, carving arcs through the air before looping back to the centre, coiling about the others and exploding out again. It was a ludicrous extravaganza, architecture for the sheer delight in it. The stairways were built of shining metal and faceted crystal, each different, and at the top they spiralled up into darkness.
It mattered not where they went; Tiaan could not have climbed them even if a nylatl had been at her heels. She did not think of laying down her burden. ‘I will never leave you,’ she had promised the dying child.
Below, Tiaan could hear Nish’s feet on the treads, his gasping breath. It was inconceivable that anyone could have found her here, but somehow he had. Why? She had been a fine artisan, the best in the manufactory, but not so brilliant that they would chase her halfway across the world. It had to be the amplimet: the strange, glowing crystal that had allowed her to reach across the void to Minis in the first place.
She became aware, deep down, of faint stirrings. Not withdrawal, just an indefinable longing for the crystal. She had been parted from it too long. Tiaan put the feelings out of mind. If Nish wanted the amplimet, let him have it. It had been the cause of all her troubles. Dear Joeyn, the old miner who had been her first and closest friend, had died getting it for her.
The footsteps came closer. Taking up Haani, Tiaan staggered into the archway directly opposite. Spheres lit up, revealing a stone passage that curved away into darkness.
On she trudged, along a passage that seemed to have been curving forever. Tirthrax was unfathomable. It was as if she was inside an exuberant work of art, built solely for the pleasure of mastering its materials.
Her mouth was powder dry. She had not had a drink since opening the gate, a day and a night ago. Another passage slashed across the first and she turned left into it, but some twenty or thirty paces along the passage ended in native rock. Or did it? As she headed back, from the corner of her eye the rock seemed to shift sideways into a cavity darker than black itself. She turned towards it, thinking it might be a place to hide. The blackness went back to rock.
Tiaan reached out with her free hand. Rock, unquestionably, but again as she moved her head came that flash of blackness like a tunnel extending into the mountain. The moment she looked directly at it, it changed back into wall.
She turned her head back and forth. Blackness, wall, blackness, wall. Could she get through? There was an enchantment here and since Nish had no talent for the Art he probably could not follow.
Tiaan touched the crystal hanging on a chain around hr neck — just an ordinary hedron —thinking it might help her to see more clearly. The rock vanished and a black tunnel opened up before her. She edged inside.
After several minutes, the blackness gave way to a faint glow which had no particular form, but quivered gently. It felt more like a soap bubble, but gave before her, sliding wetly over her fingers.
Any refuge was better than none. Tiaan pushed into the clinging stuff, its resistance broke and she was through. It was even colder here, and so dark that she could see nothing but the shimmering edges of a second bubble, a cube with curved faces that contained within it another, smaller cube, and inside that another, and another, and another. The hair stirred on her head. Infinity blocked her way — infinity and nothingness. This was a forbidden place.
She spun around but behind her now felt like rock, even when she touched her hedron. Tiaan moved toward the cubic bubble. Its walls began to wobble, and so did the inner cubes, vibrating faster and faster until she could no longer see them.
Shifting Haani on her shoulder, Tiaan lowered her head and pushed at the bubble. The wall parted, but inside was like the previous one, though smaller. Her head touched the upper face of the cube, which was freezing. The nested cubes extended to an infinity that frightened her.
Since there was no way back, Tiaan pushed through the wall of the next cube. The first breath burned her lungs. With the next, she felt frost forming in her nostrils. She tried to back out but the wall resisted her. Panicking, she kicked the face of the cube in front of her. It was much more solid — more like flexible glass than bubble — and her sandal bounced off.
Steadying Haani, Tiaan lifted the hedron over her head. At once she saw the coloured energy patterns of the field swirling around her like a psychedelic tornado. She drew power into the hedron and reached out. As her fingers touched the wall, it thinned, so she scored the crystal across and back. The bubble vanished with a faint tinkle and a blast of freezing air. One by one, the other cubes popped until the tunnel lay open before her. Unfortunately it was also open behind. The illusory barrier had disappeared.
Some distance along, she emerged in an open cavern of rough-hewn stone shaped like a cone standing on its base. It was strikingly different from the rest of Tirthrax, where the stone had been carefully polished and intricately decorated. The rock here looked deliberately unfinished.
The cavern was dimly lit by something circular, high on one wall. Her eyes adjusted. It was a shaft that ran up through the mountain at a steep angle. Icicles hung from its lower lip and the light was daylight, deep blue as if filtered through ice. It must be morning outside.
Moving on, she passed through a blue corona like illuminated mist, though more solid. She distinctly felt its resistance. It was one of a series of concentric coloured rings lit by the light from the upper shaft. Each ring was a deeper hue than the one surrounding it. A circle of indigo, almost black, filled the centre. She pushed through the rings and almost fell into another shaft, a continuation of the first.
Laying Haani beside it, in the pool of blue light, she peered down. The shaft was a smooth bore through the rock, its sides as polished as glass. She could not tell how far it went, though wisps of dark mist coiled lazily around the walls, and in the depths it had the look of a frozen whirlpool. She wondered what it would look like if it unfroze. Taking up a chip fallen from the ceiling, she dropped it in. It clicked off the sides a couple of times, she heard nothing for thirty or forty heartbeats, and at last a frosty tinkle. The shaft was deep. It would do.
The sounds came echoing back in reverse order: the tinkle and a long time later the clicks, greatly magnified. The last click thundered out, whirling the coloured rings about, and silence fell once more.
The child looked to be sleeping but her little chest was sunken, the broken ribs driven into her lungs by the blow from the javelard. A smear of blood tinged her lower lip. Tiaan wiped it off, smoothing the pale hair with her fingers.
Taking Haani in her arms, she sat beside the shaft, rocking. A tear trickled down one cheek. Little Haani had been the happiest of children, living a carefree life with her mother and aunts by the lake, until Tiaan came. Until the nylatl — a creature of mad savagery, gorged itself on Haani’s mother and aunts. The awful memories went round and round.
‘There she is!’
Nish’s cry of triumph reverberated from the tunnel. Tiaan was still cradling Haani and before she could move, he threw himself at her.
Haani fell beside the shaft. Nish forced Tiaan’s arm up behind her back so hard that she cried out. She kicked with her heel, striking him on the shin. He yelped but did not let go. As she tried to pull free, one foot went over and a pain sheared through her guts at the thought of falling. No, dying was all she had left. Tiaan threw herself into the bore.
Nish landed hard on his knees and cried out. She made no noise, nor tried to save herself, as she swung on his arm. He was a small man, not much taller than her. He could hardly hold her for long.
Her wrist slipped. ‘Let me go, Nish.’ Tiaan forced herself to speak calmly. ‘I want to die.’
Nish’s hard fingers bit into her wrist. ‘I’m sure you do!’ Perspiration beaded on his eyebrows, freezing even as she watched. ‘You’ve betrayed your friends, your family, your manufactory and your world. I won’t let you die.’
‘Please, no,’ she begged.
‘I’m taking you back — for justice!’
‘Revenge,’ she gasped. ‘That’s all you care about.’
‘Whatever!’ He strained with all his strength.
Terror seized Tiaan. She could imagine the nightmare trip back to the manufactory, Nish tormenting her all the way. She would be paraded before her thousand former workmates, and down in her home town of Tiksi in front of her vindicated mother. After a public trial she would face a drawn-out execution, a gruesome and grisly spectacle by some method officially prescribed for the artisan she had once been. All would be lovingly recorded in the Histories. A hired teller would turn it into a cautionary tale, that the whole world know of her crime and its punishment. The Council of Scrutators required everyone to know their justice, and fear it.
Thrashing her legs, Tiaan tried to make him drop her. Terror twisted his face as he was dragged closer to the edge. One knee slipped over. She would never have expected such desperate courage from Nish. Why didn’t he let her go?
‘Ullii,’ he gasped. ‘Help!’
The tiny woman flitted back and forth like a butterfly, her colourless hair streaming out behind her. She caught at Nish’s arm, let out a piercing squeal and disappeared again.
‘Ullii!’ he bellowed. ‘For pity’s sake. I’m going to die!’ He was on the brink now, so precariously balanced that a child could have pushed him over.
Ullii danced back, plucked at his arm then let go. Her mouth was wide open. She still wore the mask over her eyes.
‘Help me!’ he screamed, his terror reverberating off the rough stone walls.
Lightning quick, Ullii darted forward, caught him by the belt and heaved. They swayed on the edge. It was touch and go whether they might all fall, then, with a mighty wrench, Nish had Tiaan up and over to safety. He collapsed beside Ullii.
Tiaan scrambled to her feet. He threw out an arm but she wove to one side and, letting out a cry of anguish at leaving Haani behind, fled into the darkness.
‘Stop her, Ullii,’ Nish wailed, but Ullii did not move.
Tiaan wept as she ran, for abandoning Haani, but she had to. Nish would never give in. She ran on, nowhere in particular. All directions led to the same end.
She kept going for as long as she could. Always she took the central way, if there was one. Whenever she came to a stair, and she encountered many, Tiaan climbed it. Finally she could run no further. Her legs felt as if they were cooking in their own juices. She slowed to a walk, to a slack-kneed stumble. Her tongue felt like a leather strap.
She must be high in the city now. Tiaan felt dizzy and her head was throbbing. She could not seem to draw enough breath. After crawling to the top of that stair, she pushed herself onto the next floor and collapsed. Her limbs felt like glue. The outfit she had chosen for Minis was reduced to filthy, bloodstained rags. She lay her head on the floor, looking sideways at the top of the stair, awaiting her fate.
It was not long in coming. Nish walked like a man in the last throes of exhaustion. Thump-clump, thump-clump, he came. His round head appeared, capped with dark curls that clung to his skull; his spotty, unhandsome face; his strong shoulders. His jaw was set, his mouth compressed into a scar, but when he saw her lying there he gave a wolfish grin.
‘Oh, Tiaan, how I’m going to enjoy your trial.’
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