In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
She smiled at her ancestor’s poetic conceit. Xanadu has long since been abandoned… More than a real place, it had become just another memory amongst the many her people were charged to preserve. As far as everyone knew –herself included– this place was all they had known for many generations.
(What amuses you, Child of Sand?)
(The references made by the poet to Xanadu, and its last ruler…)
(If the Matriarch were to hear you speak so irreverently of that most Sacred of places she would be extremely displeased)
(Apart from you, my friend, who would carry such a tale to her?)
(You are indeed an impertinent one, Child of Sand)
She smiled again, and gazed dreamily at the quiet stillness of the water. The Sea of Marid enclosed the City of Baal within its protective watery embrace. Enormous stalagmite pillars, taller than the city’s highest building, soared from the quiet waters to point upwards in fierce defiance of the huge stalactites that hung menacingly down from the cavern’s roof. If even one of them were to fall onto the city, it could cause unimaginable destruction. However, that was only a very vague thought, for in truth the natural halogenous crystal formations that grew on some of the stalactites provided the city with its light.
She turned and looked up at the soft light emitted by the glow flowers, as these incandescent crystals were called, that dotted the stalactites above her. She could hear the faint murmur of the subterranean waterways as they flowed from one lagoon into another… This isolated ledge was her thinking place, away from the noisy bustle of the city. She enjoyed its quiet solitude, mingled with the intermittent tinkling sound of drops as they slid off the massive stalactites. She had much to ponder upon…
(Child of Sand, you should confide your dreams to the Matriarch)
(I know, my friend, but this time they seem so trivial… I hesitate to trouble her)
(No dreams of yours has ever been considered trivial, Child of Sand)
Her dreams of late, rather than being disturbing, were a very strange mixture of the peculiar with the inconsequential. She couldn’t make any heads nor tails of them… To her great surprised, she blushed. ‘I cannot understand the possible significance of such an odd dream!’ For the first time in her life, her dreaming left her perplexed instead of troubled. She just didn’t know what to make of it…
Usually, her recurring dreams bothered her greatly for they were a presage of change, not always for the better. Because of them, the ban to the surface was lifted two years ago and once again, like in the days of old, her people had a small trading post at the very border of the desert … But the cost had been too high, and the benefits were as yet to be seen. All the experience had done was to confirm the notion that many already had: The surface was an extremely dangerous place. Best she never were to dream again. A futile hope.
The interdiction to the surface had existed long before her birth, upheld by at least two generations of Matriarchs. Of course, the path to the above was so arduous and dangerous that very few people ventured out. Therefore the ban had only affected a very minute portion of Baal: the Guild of Surface Traders. She thought it ironic that the only group that would’ve been rejoiced by the change were no longer in existence. According to the records of the era she’d accessed in the Grand Library of Zaouia, the guild had bitterly opposed the interdiction. They had even resorted to the extreme length of trying to incite the citizenry to revolt against it, but to their utter disappointment their attempts to rally the people were met with supreme indifference.
The truth of the matter was that the vast majority did not care, nor want to surface. Their lives revolved around Baal, and its three satellites: Agares, Zaouia, and Valefor. The waterways that interconnected all four were always busy with traffic. People associated the surface with danger, and wanted nothing to do with it. From what she could gather by reading the records, something terrible had hit the surface more than 80 years ago. The reverberations of it, had been felt all the way here, deep in the subterranean City of Baal. The Matriarch at the time had placed the interdiction to protect the people from some unknown threat. And for reasons unspecified in the public archives, the ban to the surface had remained until recently.
As far as she knew, only one person had ever broken the interdiction: Her birth father. He paid the price for his defiance. The Matriarch forbade him to return. The path home was forever barred to him …
(Ahansal Amazigh was a valiant man, but too proud and ambitious. Baal was too small a place for such a mortal. The desire in his heart to go beyond the limits of Zefirah Cavern was great, and he would spend many a days in the Grand Library reading the logs of the now defunct Guild of Surface Traders)
(For me, he’s as mythical as the lost Xanadu. He left when I was still in the womb. I was never told why he left, only that he did, and that he was bound by magic to never return…)
(Zoraida Alkhash-ka did what she had to in order to uphold the edict, Child of Sand. It was not an easy task for her, but not even the Matriarch’s Chosen One is above the laws of the Kashkabald People)
(No one should be, my friend. It is because of our laws that we have been able to survive here for more than one millennia after the long migratory trek from the surface)
(The surface your people left, Child of Sand, has since changed its geography many times over…)
(Call me selfish, if you will. I care not what the surface looks like! My life is here with my people… I don’t understand the Matriarch’s insistence that I learn to accept the surface!)
(Child of Sand, you are but young…)
Two years ago, she’d had the same dream for a whole month. She was surrounded by an neverending expanse of golden sand. Her eyes were blinded by the light emitted by a bright incandescent orb she knew to be the sun. Unlike the soothing light of glow flowers, the light in her dream burned her eyes and lit her skin aflame! She knew that the vast blue vault above her was the sky, and that it was infinite. Then the image would change and she would find herself standing in a strange area… so lush and green! She had felt a great longing to stay there and never move… Then it would change again to scenes of such carnage and devastation that for days she would refuse to sleep, just so she wouldn’t have to dream them again…
Finally, unable to withstand days of not sleeping, but finding her dreams to be unbearable when she did allow herself to do so, she had gone to the Matriarch for counselling. She would often do that. Hold off until she couldn’t bear it anymore. She remembered that after she finished recounting her dream, the Matriarch had looked at her gravely and decreed that it was time for her to leave Baal and go to the surface…
“You shall set out after the sounding of the waking Gongs. Yusuf shall be your guide. Iolanthe and Omar shall accompany you as well.”
“Am I being banished?” She was confused, and her voice echoed that confusion.
“No, my daughter, I believe the time has come to lift the interdiction. I’m sending you to scout the above. Yusuf is one of the few who still remembers the way upwards. The way was fraught with danger in the past, and it has become worse now. Omar and Iolanthe are very capable warriors. You shall be needing their support.”
The Matriarch stood up, and went to a long rectangular ornamental panel elaborately carved with the symbols of Baal and the Kashkabald People. At the touch of her fingertips, the panel disappeared to reveal an elegant looking halberd. The sharp blade gleamed even under the soft light of the glow flowers that dotted the high ceiling of the Matriarch’s chamber.
“Behold the Ashura, my child. This weapon was wielded by Onna, Erythraea’s daughter, and from her in direct succession mother to daughter, to us, her descendents.”
The Matriarch took the weapon from its holder and solemnly presented it to her, holding the pole horizontally with both hands.
“It is time for you to wield it.” Suddenly, the Matriarch’s solemn gaze turned sad, “You dreamt of your own destiny, my daughter. Now you must learn to fulfil it.”
Unable to bear her own thoughts, she stood up to gaze into the soothing waters of Marid…. The journey to the surface had cost them Yusuf’s life. Although they had been warned by the Matriarch, they had been overconfident of their own skill. No. She had been too overconfident!
(Child of Sand, you should not berate yourself. Yusuf understood the consequences of the choice he made. He was ready to greet the Great Beyond…)
(It was my fault! I was arrogant and overconfident!)
(Yusuf trusted your judgement, Child of Sand, to the very end)
(I betrayed that trust!)
(No. You honoured that trust by not taking the choice he made lightly)
(Why, Fravashir? Why?)
(The choice was very clear to Yusuf Roshd. He had completed his tasks. You had only began yours, Child of Sand)
Yusuf’s demise would be a deep sorrow she would carry to the end of her days… Not only had he been a beloved family retainer, but most importantly, a friend and her mentor. Now, even after two years, she bitterly mourned his passing. She wished the lessons she needed to learn were not so costly. Her dreams were dangerous…
(Yours is a gift of the gods, Child of Sand. In the long forgotten past, a gift such as yours would’ve been confined to the Oracular Altar where it could be amplified and perfected…)
(Forgive my lack of enthusiasm, my friend, but the idea of attaining divinity like my long gone ancestress holds absolutely no appeal to me…)
(To become one with the gods is a great honour, Child of Sand. You should not scoff at the notion)
(Please accept my apologies, friend, if I have offended you… But you should know better than anyone that not all mortals aspire godhood…)
(Child of Sand, Erythraea and the Necromancer Ormus defied the laws of mortals with their love, but not the will of the gods)
(I understand, my friend)
The voice belonged to her kinsman, and friend.
“The Matriarch has summoned you.”
“I’m on my way.”
§ ~ § ~ §
“No words exist that can best describe the mysterious City of Baal, the last refuge of the Kashkabald People. A seasoned traveller can traverse the entire length of the Desert that bear their name for an entire lifetime, and never find the way. In fact, the only path into Baal is not to look for it, but to get hopelessly lost in the unmitigated labyrinth of sand… Or so the ancient saying goes, ‘Thou cannot find Baal. It will find thee…’…”
“The flight from Astaroth was long and hard. In the end, the Lady chose to stay behind after sealing the secret stairway with the following caveat:
Impia Tortorum Longos Hic Turba Furores
Sanguinis Innocui, Non Satiata, Aluit
Child of my Flesh, Child of the Future, in time you will understand the heavy portend of this warning. These words are not to be taken lightly for they belong to the Order of Zaruthra. I, Ormus, know that one day you, my descendent, shall be reading this which I have written. With the same terrible certainty I know the Order or Zaruthra will also have prevailed and survived the Great Cataclysm. Perhaps in your time, their guise will have changed, but certainly not their manner. They are not to be trusted.”
“Please forgive this slight deviation from the narrative, but I beg you to take heed of my advice.”
“As I mentioned, after we sealed the secret stairway, my Lady decided to make her last stand by stalling our attackers in the Throne Room. She knew, like I did, that the complicated ritual performed on Lord Odin needed time to attain completion, but we ignored how much time. In truth, no mortal has ever attempted to become one of the Fravashirs, but it was the only way of preventing the Seal of Aleph from weakening. Astaroth might be no more, but with Lord Odin’s sacrifice, the power of Astaroth should guard the Aleph until the world is healed once again…”
“Nothing I said would make my Lady deviate from her resolve. Like the Lord Odin, she entrusted me with the care of the twins… To honour her, I took oath upon the blood of my ancestors that I would do whatever was needed to ensure that the children reach their destination: Dohletia had to be taken North; her brother, Ishtarius, to the South. The oath I made binds all those who carry my blood with the deepest magic to fulfil the promise.”
“The enemy was wily and full of malice, but the Lady Xioma came from a powerful lineage of blue magic casters. I had no doubt in my mind that she would buy us the time needed to escape the Castle. I will not dwell in the parting of the Lady and her children for it was very painful to behold, and my heart still feels heavy whenever I recall the scene… All I will say is that after she bade her children farewell, she looked me straight in the eye and smiled. I bowed to her deeply. We both knew that our next meeting would be taking place in the Great Beyond…”
Zuleima paused from reading Ormus’s account of his flight from Astaroth, and of his subsequent entry into Baal. If the Matriarch had hoped that her confusion and resistance to the surface would be cleared by reading this, she was lacking her usual foresight. If anything…she was even more confused now than before! She felt like a child again, being told over and over again that everything would be making more sense with time!…
She had been mystified when Omar contacted her, wondering on why the Matriarch would summon her… The midday gong had long been sounded, its echoes reverberating throughout Zefirah Cavern with the answering gongs from Valefor, Zaouia and Agares. Her meeting with the Matriarch was brief and to the point. In her hands, she now held the Book of Ormus, the legacy from her long time ancestor. A most unusual book. Nevertheless, having the book in her possession did not bother her as much as what the Matriarch had said when she’d given it to her…
“Zuleima, you must prepare yourself for the unforeseen. The Book of Ormus which had long been held in our possession has claimed you as its reader.”
“No, my daughter, in time you will understand the significance of my words…”
She closed the book. Golden eyes examined its plain brown cover pensively. It resembled the ancient texts on magic that the Matriarch kept in her private library. –Humph– This one was strangely thin… She turned it around to examine its back… very plain looking… and old –very old–. Much older than most books in the Matriarch’s keeping, except for the One. Another peculiarity, not even the Matriarch herself knew of the exact contents of the book, because it would not open for anyone, save for her, Zuleima. And she could not choose which page to read…rather the book chose the pages on her behalf. ‘The Book of Ormus is a most peculiar text…’ She passed her fingertips softly over the cover, and felt a slight tingle at the tips of her fingers… The tingle of an answering magic.
Abruptly, Zuleima stood up and placed the book on a nearby table. It was time for surface patrol. Even if she had all the time in the world, the book only allowed her to read certain excerpts, and no more. No matter how she leafed through it, or where she held it open, she would find herself reading the same passages… She went to the small arsenal where she kept her weapons, and grabbed the Ashura from its usual hook.
She prized the Ashura above all other things in her possession. During battle, the Ashura could be split into its two components: the Taira, a pole, and the Majapahit, a keris blade. She zipped up her overall and strapped Ashura in its usual place on her back. In her hands, she carried the mask that would protect her face from the desert’s devastating sandstorms…
(You did not tell the Matriarch of your latest dream, Child of Sand)
(No… but I’ve dreamt about him again… The stranger with hair the colour of sand, and eyes like the sky. Strange symbols mark the left side of his face… Somehow I sense a restless energy emanating from the very core of his being…)
(I counsel you to confide in the Matriarch. This same young man has been appearing in your dreams for over a fortnight, Child of Sand, you should not dismiss them out of hand)
(Very strange and unusual monsters have been found preying on our desert caravans to the Trading Post… I did not think it appropriate to mention to the Matriarch that I’ve been dreaming about a strange young man!)
(Ah! You are embarrassed, Child of Sand)
(We are mind-speaking and yet you think you can lie to me…)
(There are more important matters at hand)
(It is as you say…)
At the Gateway to the Sea of Marid…
Omar Roshd watched his cousin emerge from the Main Grotto archway with some amusement. As usual she was walking with her usual determined stride, calmly acknowledging with a brief nod in the head all the people that had gathered to greet her. No matter how much Zuleima disliked the comparison, many considered her to be the living image of the fabled Erythraea before she became a Sibyl.
The only image they had of the Sibyl was a very ancient carving located in Agares, and Zuleima’s resemblance to it was quite remarkable… However, barring the physical likeness, the acuity of Zuleima’s insight was…uncanny –for lack of a better word–, and her dreams… For the most part, they were normal, but the few that were not had to be taken very seriously for they were prophetic in nature. Or Zuleima’s hand-clasp… Omar recalled an incident quite a few years ago involving the Kazar of Valefor…
At the time he was feeling very proud, because he had earned the privilege of guarding the Matriarch. The youngest warrior to have earned the post. Zuleima herself was barely fifteen. She had been sulking because she had wanted that honour for herself, but the Matriarch had bade her to perform birth-daughter duties… Omar sniggered at the memory… Zuleima had been furious. She hated to wear the long ceremonial robes, and she disliked the Kazar of Valefor calling him an ‘unctuous toad’.
Naturally, as befitting the only birth-daughter of the Grand Matriarch of the Kashkabald People, Zuleima had been trained from the cradle to control her emotions. However, on that particular occasion, instead of uttering words of welcome after the ceremonial hand-clasp she had greeted that grand personage with a warning, ‘Beware of your penchant of collecting jewelled rings for it may cost you your dearly…’ Since that particular person’s fondness for jewelry was very well known, he had just laughed loudly and bowed deeply to both the Matriarch and Zuleima saying, ‘Great Matriarch! Your birth-child does you great credit for she had grown in beauty…’ With his carefully well-chosen words, he had completely dismissed his cousin’s counsel, and what was worse, by praising her looks, he had reduced Zuleima to a piece of pretty ornamentation.
Several weeks later, the Kazar almost died from poisoning. Granted, there were probably quite a few people in Valefor who could have done the deed, for that particular personage was not very popular…but the culprit was not a person. Rather the culprit was a very rare and beautiful jewelled ring that the Kazar had recently purchased from a very reputable dealer… It was rumoured to have belonged to one of Lord Odin’s most trustworthy retainers. In his eagerness to wear it, the Kazar had ignored the note that the dealer had tucked inside the box, warning the Kazar to be careful. It was a suicide ring. It had a hidden mechanism that when triggered would poison the wearer…
He interrupted the train of his thoughts to look at his cousin fondly, “Yes.”
“She was assigned to guard the Kazar of Agares.”
“And she doesn’t mind?”
He smiled at her incredulous gaze, “She’s a warrior. She’ll do what she’s told.”
Zuleima snorted at her cousin’s reply, and kept her thoughts to herself. They signalled their people, and started moving towards the light watercraft that would take them through the first leg of their long trek to the surface.
§ ~ § ~ §
…Concurrently, Surface, Ruins of Astaroth
Three armed figures are standing before the towering statue of a huge demon with widespread wings and deep red bejewelled eyes. One of them, a slender young woman holding a whip in her hand, says something to a tall young man wearing a hat, and starts towards what looks like an entrance, when she’s stopped abruptly by the other young man, a tall blonde holding a wicked looking gunblade. He seems very displeased, and is frowning down at the girl.
“…Seifer! What now?”
“Sniper-boy first… He’s got the nice shotgun, see?”
The girl grimaces and ignores the sniper’s snickering. She tries to shake off the blonde boy’s arm, but he won’t be budged. Using his gunblade, he signals the sniper to enter, he then grabs the girl’s arm and drags her inside with him. If glances could kill, the tall young man would be dead now. Soon, they too disappear inside…
§ ~ § ~ §