Wurú’s Path was an Exquisite Corpse style of writing composed by several authors that took turns with several characters over a period of an adventure. The subject matter was limited to just being Tékumel in scope, but each writer had great leeway in what was written. There are some deliberately chaotic sequences (this is, after all, about followers of Wurú) and were written from the different perspectives of the characters along a shared timeline. It is dark, disturbing and above all an homage to Professor Barker who inspired us all.
Ground Rules for “The Exquisite Corpse”
Tsodlán is from a wealthy high clan from a high lineage.
Zágar is from a very low clan of questionable lineage.
Both are young, devout male worshippers of Wurú.
The venue is modern Tsolyánu after the fall of Emperor Dhich’uné.
Temple and clan protocols and motivations were observed as much as possible.
Chaos has no true rules; of course this is a rule itself.
Once a writer has attributed something to the character the next writer used it in their section or not. We tried to make the story flow smoothly to not contradict the previous entries, unless we found some clever mechanism to explain it.
I assigned the episodes based on a rotating schedule. I wrote the introductory passage.
Ron Heintz wrote the first episode with Tsodlán.
Malcolm Heath wrote the first episode for Zágar.
Calithena wrote the next episode for whichever one got back first.
We tried to have at most a two-day turnaround. They were supposed to be short, distinct periods of events and actions.
We remembered to have fun with the story.
Tsodlán hiBurúsa of the Dark Moon clan and Zágar hiGurúna of the Nighted Tower clan lay sweating in their quarters. Serving as priests at the temple of Wurú in Púrdimal they had just completed their exhausting nightly maze training when they received the summons.
At midnight they dutifully appeared before the portal of the Chamber of Unforeseen Inevitability deep below the great temple. Both of them were clothed in their sect’s traditional purple robes, black hoods and timuél dress weapons. Following the silent opening of the great doors they entered and obeised themselves on the cold ink-coloured marble tile. Before falling to the floor Tsodlán saw with great trepidation that the Master of the Chamber tonight was the one called the Elucidator of the Sable Path. His dark assignments were known to be terrifying and often fatal to the recipient.
"You have done well my students." the Master thinly praised, "Tonight you shall prove your devotion to our Lord."
"Choose your fate and begin your journey of serving to prepare this world for the coming Chaos." He pointed to an ancient, heavily carved chest in front of him with an inlay bordered opening on the top.
Tsodlán, being of higher birth, chose first and reached confidently into the shadowy box, grasped a rounded object and pulled it out. He looked down and examined the palm-sized cabochon of amethyst with Wurú’s ophidian head carved into the dome and the number seven, representative of Hrü'ü, engraved into the flat back.
Zágar then reached in and pulled out a matching stone made from black jet. His trembling hands were moist with fear.
The Elucidator then silently directed them to steps leading down through a tunnel out of the chamber. After traveling in the dim glow from the walls for what seemed an eternity they spied a torch mounted in the wall separating two passages that led even deeper. One of the entrances was surfaced in purple stone, the other in black. The two priests paused at the juncture, wished the other honor and glory, and descended into their respective destinies.
Zágar paused only momentarily to watch Tsodlán step confidently into his side of the maze, if maze indeed this was. "It will be a relief to be alone, without his overwhelming arrogance", thought Zágar as he examined the walls of his corridor. Whenever the two were paired for maze learning, Tsodlán rushed on without taking the time to assess the situation, without a care for the shifting patterns of the maze and test! Tsodlán was wont to question his bravery at times like this, a pattern that Zágar found infuriating.
Zágar knew all things here in the temple were tests, just as each step from his lowly upbringing marked his advancement in the temple. Was he not already a 3rd circle ritual celebrant? One could hardly be thought a coward after the initiation ceremony for that position!
The corridor was unlit, and what little he could see of the walls and floors by the light of the torch beside him seemed smooth and totally without decoration. "Night, cast in stone" though Zágar.
He took a deep breath, used his free hand to hitch up his robes (and surreptitiously dried it on the purple cloth), and moved slowly into the darkness.
Zágar moved slowly into darkness. Tsodlán wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence outside the temple, he thought. He is smooth of tongue, highborn, well-connected, handsome. An image of Tsodlán’s fine, hawkish face and laughing eyes made Zágar burn with anger at his own great nose and sunken cheeks.
But Zágar was the stronger sorcerer.
He had one other advantage over Tsodlán as well: no high- or low-born Tsolyáni could match the preparation for the mazes Zágar had received as a child of the Nighted Tower. His uncle Nebússa knew the undercities of Púrdimal and its necropolis as a drí-ant knows its hill, and Zágar had learned much under his tutelage.
The jet-black cabochon glittered dark in Zágar’s palm as he pressed on, measuring each pace with deliberation. The shifting currents in the air told him that he had come now to an intersection. A soft breeze on his left, open stillness on his right. As he conjured a light he heard Nebússa voice, admonishing him with his child-name: "Watch your left, Tsáhlikh."
Half-whimsically he turned, his eyes adjusting to the werelight, just in time to dodge the blur streaking past him. His ankle turned as he crashed leftward to the wall, and Wurú’s talisman danced from his hand, skittering across the floor. The blur, a dismal, unworldly thing vaguely ivory in color, lurched left and right just past Zágar’s prone legs. Then it sped off in the direction it had come, into the rightward stillness Zágar had sensed in the dark.
His ankle shot fire up his spine as he stood, but Zágar’s only thought was for the cabochon. Ignoring the ramshackle stone path to his right and the narrow, whispering black stair on his left, he hobbled madly ahead. Twenty feet down, his original path came to a dead end. The snake-headed stone lay before him, still glittering, against the abrupt black wall rising at the corridor’s end.
"I have you." he thought, clasping the stone in his hand. He then sat down and massaged his ankle for a few seconds. Odd, he was not known for being clumsy. That his ankle should turn, there, and the stone randomly find its way between both of the paths which seemed to lay in wait for him...
His eyes narrowed slightly and then he began to feel the surface of the wall, against which the stone had come to rest.
Yes. Here, and here
A section of the stone wall slowly fell back, forming a path, upon which he could walk. He started, then, as he saw what lay within.
There was a gap, a chasm that ran some three man-lengths to the other end of this chamber. On the other side there seemed to be some oddments set upon low tables, but he could not see them, because of that which blocked his way, upon the narrow bridge over darkness.
A woman stood before him. She was clothed in thésun-gauze and had unnaturally pale skin. Her hair was full and black and her eyes were a deep brown. Her curves were somewhat more ample than was fashionable and the wrap of her gauzy garments more suited a follower of Dlamélish, accentuating, hiding and promising. Her feet bore no sandals.
"Welcome, Zágar." Her voice was honeyed and beautiful to hear. It put Zágar instantly on his guard. "You have done well, listening to the ways of Wurú and discovering this path. There are rewards for you, after a test of your faithfulness and resolve. I am one of your rewards. Come, embrace me."
Zágar cast an eye dubiously upon the arm’s length breadth of the bridge. While playing at the "beast with two backs", with this apparition of beauty, would be agreeable, indeed, the results might give new meaning to the word "having a tumble".
"You of Beauty and Imperceptible Power," he said, smiling and punning a new pronoun, "while I could not have wished for more desirable a prize, do you not think that the far side would be more comfortable?"
"You may not go there, until you have dealt with me."
"Who, then, are you?"
"I am she who has always been here, who will always stand here, unless you move me. I am eternal, unchanging, and I am yours. Come, accept me."
Zágar moved forward, reaching for the woman. Unchanging? Always here?
His hands caught hold of her delicate shoulders-and her shoved her violently sideways, off the bridge.
A long, fading laugh hung on the air, as she vanished into the black depths.
Zágar rubbed his hands together. He had touched her for but a second, yet his palms were freezing-cold.
Presuming that he had passed his test of faithfulness to Wurú’s path, (of opposition to Stability) for that surely is what "she" had represented, Zágar cautiously made his way to the end of the chamber, to examine what lay there. As he approached, he could see another two passages, leading off that side.
The alcove before the two passages held a low basalt table. Zágar sat down under the torchlight to examine the items placed on top. The first object was a timuél, the infamous Fang of Chaos. He pulled the blade out of the scabbard and saw the telltale dark stain of venom along its edge. He was now qualified to wear the poisoned wyrm instead of the plaything used only for show!
The second item was a jar with a black, slightly liquid material inside. He examined the vessel and read the Engsvanyáli word "skin" on the side. Tentatively he put two fingers into the viscous mixture. Upon touching the thin paste it began to crawl up his hand and then his arm. He thought of screaming, but then quietly accepted his fate as the purplish black covered his entire body. After the transformation he examined his palm. In the darkness he could barely see its outline, the colouring made him almost undetectable.
In a small open box he found a loincloth of a dark ebon weave. He removed his robes and put it on. The camouflage was complete.
The final item was a sealed black glass vial with the words "Devourer of Metal" on an attached bit of paper. He removed the tag, put the vial, timuél and black cabochon into comfortable positions and took the passage to the right for no other reason than it led up.
Naked, with skin made black as the endless void beyond Hrü'ü’s planet Zirúna, Zágar padded stealthily along his new path. His senses were alive in the darkness now, every scrap of his legacy from the Nighted Tower reincarnating him as inky silence. He clutched a makeshift satchel in his left hand, cut from his old robes and containing the jar, vial, and timuél, and held the carved jet snakestone in his right.
The corridor he was traveling presently leveled off, and the sigils on the walls told him that this part of the underworld dated from an earlier part of Tsolyánu’s first millennium. Strange, tiny crypts and slender corridors slanted off on either side, but he pressed forward. Cool drafts began to come to him, as if he were near the threshold of some broad chasm. Then, unmistakably, he heard voices in the silence, and a purpling of the blackness told him that distant lights were drawing nearer.
With a catlike leap Zágar sprang into one of the crypts at his side. It was a simple indentation in the wall, opening a little in back, where some ancient, forgotten skeleton had rested nigh on two thousand years. Its sleep would of necessity be interrupted now. Zágar pressed his way to the more open space at the rear, feeling mouldering ribs turn to dust under his calves as he squirmed into place. Head between his knees, he watched and waited.
The voices gradually became audible. "Is this not the realm of great and despicable Sárku, and the Black Angel of the Putrescent Hand? What do we here?"
A second voice, full of a grim, calm strength Zágar could not help but compare it favorably with Tsodlán’s cocky self-assurance, though it came from an enemy answered in reply. "Masters Sárku and Durritlámish have little to do with what transpires here tonight, I pray. Before Tuléng’s caress returns to the lands above, a decisive move will have been made in a different struggle, between our ancient lord Qón and the many-legged serpent with whom he has warred since the Time of Darkness and before." Peering through his dim and narrow opening at the approaching illumination, Zágar saw two dog-faced shartoyál of Qón stride into view, maces of more than symbolic potency swinging at their sides. The one in front was tall and powerful, built like a Kuruthuni. It was he who possessed the voice of command; the other, wheedling, continued the conversation from behind.
"Hrúgashkoi Qorúma spoke to you of a vision! `The keys of the ancient gate are found; tonight the serpent brings forth doom '" They were past Zágar’s field of vision now; he thought he heard a quick tsst from the larger one, enjoining his fellow to silence.
Zágar considered. Surely these men had to do with his mission here tonight. To kill one in silence and darkness would be child’s play with his poisoned timuél, but with two, and the second so large
But Zágar trusted the darkness and the glamour on his skin to conceal him in the underworld. Waiting but ten heartbeats, he slid from his hiding-place in the ancient crypt, and followed the receding footsteps of the priests of Qón.
"So, then," Tsodlán continued, looking at the attentive features of the student-acolytes in the Chamber of Enlightenment, "what, then, is the apparent weakness of our path, as offered so often by debaters who follow the gods of Stability?"
There was a nervous tremor amongst the Kengyél, but Tsodlán smiled at them, thinly. "Come, now, is our faith not stronger than this? He, that cannot admit of a challenge, finds himself unprepared for it." Chársun, one of the brighter and more courageous acolytes, cleared his throat and ventured, "Ah. That if both we and the followers of Hrü'ü, follow Ultimate Change, then nothing will be accomplished, because our efforts will negate each other?"
Tsodlán indicated mild approbation, to encourage the others to be more forthcoming. "And therein lies the obvious flaw and weakness of the followers of Stability. They are so incapable of understanding things beyond the wallowing comfort of their own perspective, that they misconstrue the very essence of our nature. And, what is that? Who can tell me, what is Change?" Nítra responded immediately. Tsodlán smiled, as he thought of this one. Clever, ambitious and good-looking. She would be taken on by one of the senior priests before long. More was the pity; he might find being the patron of such a one very rewarding, if her remarks last evening had been any indication. There was the problem of her lineage line, however, though her Clan was quite acceptable. "Change is life. It is the process of moving from one step to the next."
"A good beginning. Let us take it further, however. Was does the word ’stable' mean? Unchanging, lasting, inert. We expect ’stable' things to remain the same, to be predictable. Many would also say that stability implies trustworthiness, conservativism, adherence to form and order and precedence. Now, these last few things are the pillars of our Tsolyáni society. They cannot be criticized, can they?"
He was warming to his discourse, and the students seemed intent, wondering how daring he might become. For all he knew, one of these "acolytes" could actually be in the employ of a senior, checking on orthodoxy. The black robes of Ksárul were not the only ones that practiced such deceptions. He built this tiny side-thought into his lecture, seamlessly. "Whereas our hallmark is unpredictability. To that some would add a number of unsavoury descriptions. But those are born out of fear and ignorance." He paused, for dramatic effect. "We are the hope of the Empire, and of the Tsolyáni people. There is a difference between change and randomness. There is a difference between change and simple, pure and primordial chaos. Change includes the ability to adapt, to grow, to conquer. Look to the minions of Drá the Uncaring, for the ultimate expression of Stability!" There were appreciative chuckles from the students. Tsodlán noted the length of the incense stick, which had been lit at the beginning of his talk, and brought this exposition to a summation. "Stability may also be equated with stagnation. It is the force, the fire of Change, that allows us to draw upon the wisdom of antiquity and of the Ancients and express them in new, ever- changing ways, to the glory of our gods and the Petal Throne. As Nítra so eloquently put it--" The glitter in the young woman’s eyes told him that that foray would bear fruit-- "-- change is the process. Without process, there is nothing. Our drive, our ability to succeed, to create; all these are the products of Change. It falls to we who follow Wurú, to be the foremost soldiers in the war against the morass of Stability, to be the most forceful advocates of holy and lán change." He allowed the murmurs and snaps of appreciation for a moment, then continued, to some barely-stifle groans, "I have a list of readings for you, from the Kusijáktosa..." It was later, the evening, and Tsodlán marched confidently into the testing-maze. He chided himself for once more taking pleasure in Zágar’s disapproving gaze, as that one deliberated his method and path. What point in overplanning? Tsodlán was confident that his knowledge and intuition would see him through, as it had before. He did not despise Zágar, as the other seemed to think. He just felt that overlong deliberation was not appropriate to a follower of Wurú. Moreover, he had a rather special intuition about this particular 'test'. He was of an appropriate status and rank for contact, by some of the societies that operated within the Temple, and he had noted certain subtle signs that made him think that there might just be some occupants awaiting him-- or them?-- in the Maze. If so, there would be an offer, perhaps a test. And, if things went well, he might just allow himself the amusement and excitement of further discourse of change with Kengyél Nitra, later in the night...
After choosing his stone Tsodlán strode down the passageway with confidence. Remembrance of the many traps that he had encountered in previous excursions kept his guard up. This time, the usual twists and turns did not occur. This concerned him more than anything else. Could this simplicity be a trap in itself?
The floor was the only thing that changed. From polished tile, to rough hewn blocks and finally to an ancient tile mosaic before a bronze door. The mosaic depicted an ancient temple rivalry. Across half of outside edge of the circle was the Many-Legged Serpent of Doom, opposite to that was the Stylized Mace of Qón. What was most interesting was the strange figure and unknown symbols that was centered between the two of them. Who could they be fighting over? Tsodlán noted the symbols for future research.
He checked the door thoroughly and satisfied that no traps were set, he pulled on the great handle. With a deep creaking of the hinges the door opened. The bright light from the torches temporarily blinded him. The dark figures standing before him let him get his bearings in the new room.
"Welcome young priest." the one closest to him said in a deeply accented voice. "Please follow us to the feast."
As the group proceeded downward Tsodlán began to observe his fellow travelers. Their skin was grayish and their facial features under their hoods appeared to be not quite human. He suspected them to be Hehegánu. The temple dealt with these underpeople on certain occasions, but he had never seen one, let alone been invited to eat with them.
During the darkest part of the journey they would surround him and keep him from walking into unseen objects. The passage eventually widened and emptied out into a large domed room filled with these beings. He was accompanied to a seat at one of the tables and with no ceremony the eating began. He was served a meal of items that he could not identify. Their textures and tastes at time revolted him and at other times were quite pleasing. It was best to not be concerned about the origin of these delicacies.
The feasting ended with a large empty ceremonial cup presented to him. He was invited to join a particular group in an adjacent room. The headman had taken his place on a dais and was being fed cut pieces of a putrescent black melon. The others in the room began to chant in an unintelligible language. The eater appeared to go into a trance and swayed to the music that came from behind some screens. The chanting became more rhythmic and suddenly the leader stood and began to walk around. He was grabbed by several of the attendants and held still while he relieved himself. His urine was collected into a ewer and after he was finished, he was released to continue his walking.
His attendants began to pour out fractions from the ewer to the rest of the participants who quickly drank their share. Tsodlán now realized the purpose of his empty cup. He graciously received his portion and looked down into the disturbingly dark liquid. As he quaffed the unpleasant drink his senses intensified. He could see new colors and shapes in the dark spaces beyond the fires around him. He stood up and walked through the camp looking at the grey creatures and their surroundings.
Tsodlán wandered out into the main hall. The large group that they had left behind crowded towards him and followed Tsodlán’s chaotic path around the village extending small wooden bowls. When Tsodlán would stop and urinate, the stream was caught in the containers and then ingested by the lucky participant who then joined in the revelation.
The visions of a shadowy voyage began. He learned of small dark secrets, of paths through the underworld, of unseen deaths.
He awoke in a featureless cylindrical room. His newfound senses noticed a door in the ceiling and another one in the smooth wall. His journey continued.
Tsodlán’s eyes blinked open into endless gray. Supine he lay on the thrumming floor, staring upward, watching the edges of the world grow quite arbitrary. The cylindrical room he dreamed in was featureless and without exit in four directions, but there were others. Shadowy ethereal beings like bumbling Aqpú fluttered beyond its walls, showing him the way to its gates. A door here, one there; the one meant for him was in the ceiling.
With less effort than it had ever taken him, Tsodlán levitated his body, still lying flat, towards the circular portal. Aeriality was no longer an effort; a smile played across his lips. He motioned with his hand as to a slave, and the round gate in the ceiling drew aside. He continued to rise, through the circular door and out of the cylinder, into a vast cavern of chalky desolation.
Languorously he settled to his feet to take in his new surroundings. The ceiling was high, fifty or more dháiba above his head. Spires of a whitish mineral, some neat and carved, others jagged like stalagmites, stretched up from the ground and down from the ceiling, in a few cases covering the entire distance in between. An eerie silence dwelt over the catacomb of spires. Neither sight nor sound came to him; aside from the pillars of chalk only a timid zephyr, with a scent vaguely reminiscent of the flesh-devouring Shédra, told him that anything other than endless intermittent white yet dwelt in the underworld.
He felt a twisting in his palm, and he looked down to see the amethyst cabochon grow brilliant with indigo light. Dazzling it played across the columns of white about him, transforming the aspect of this new world he had entered. Wurú’s purple would now show him what truly was; the chalky spires took on the aspect of pale forgotten shadows, lying at a great distance from the place Tsodlán now stood.
The six tiny eyes of his talisman turned infinitesimally in his hand, and Tsodlán followed the path marked out by their gaze. Cautiously he moved forward among the spires, seeking out the ancient mystery behind the quarrel between Qón and his master, Wurú, who appears where evil dwells.
Tsodlán slowly maneuvered between the spires until he came upon a richly carved column that reached from the floor of the cavern to the ceiling. He went to the base and proceeded upward. The carvings told a story in images of the ancient struggle between Wurú and Qón. The attacks of the forces of Change against the bastions of Stability and the eternal back and forth victories of both sides were spiral cut around the cylinder. At the cap the carving was incomplete as a story awaiting an ending.
Using his newfound sight he could see an underwriting beneath the carvings. This was where the true information was hidden from the ungifted viewer. He received knowledge of hidden passages beneath the city of Thráya from which a sliver of chaos could launch a terrible blow onto the mother temple of Qón. He realized that this acquired lore was very dangerous to him, for something learned cannot be unlearned.
As Tsodlán continued his quest for the enlightenment of instability (and, so it occurred to him, the instability of enlightenment), a shadow detached itself from the dark, corridor wall and, unbeknownst to him, moved with great silence towards his back.
As it came within arm’s length, he turned and his eyes narrowed. He allowed the energies, which had been building within him, to subside.
"I am impressed," commented Zágar, quietly. "I had thought that this skin made me well-nigh invisible."
"It did," murmured Tsodlán. "However, despite the visions, powers and knowledge with which I have been favoured, I am not so stupid as to wander these underworlds, without occasionally preparing spells of alarm and protection. I find that my reservoirs do not drain very quickly, this night. You have been busy."
Zágar nodded, held up two fingers for silence and led Tsodlán to the niche that he had been occupying for some minutes.
"Ahead of us," he whispered, "are two minions of Qón. They seem to have some mission; moreover I overheard them say that some time of import was at hand, something concerning our Lord of Purple Mysteries. They rest for a few moments, up ahead, in the next chamber-- or they look for something. I had though to kill them, waylay them."
Tsodlán looked at Zágar. "It would seem that our Lord, our Temple, your choices, or all three, have chosen a very active service for you. My own maze-travels have led me to secret knowledge, regarding a blow that might be made against the forces of Stability-- and especially those of Qón. I do not doubt but that what you overheard and what I learned, are intertwined. But simple slaughter may not be the best course. Let us determine what they are about. It may be that we will be led to our own goal by them, or better fitted to seek it out, in any event, once we have observed."
"Do not imply me a fool. I was already acting as the shadow within their shadows. Their lives would not have ended, before I knew what they were doing. How came you here? I saw a momentary deepening of the darkness, against that wall. A secret door?"
"Not precisely. When I was done with the cavern of secrets, I was able to make use of a portal that-- ssst!"
The warning had been unnecessary. Zágar, too, had heard the signs of renewed movement. A scraping and a rustling sound issued from the next room. Zágar indicated by signs that he would scout ahead. Tsodlán nodded, in acknowledgement. It would seem that their roles had been defined by their testing, tonight.
Zágar moved onward ahead of Tsodlán. Rounding the corner, he felt a long, dusty corridor yawning ahead of him, growing ever more ancient with rot and crumbling stone along its downward slope. As he tried to take its measure in the long dark, a light flickered at the far end. There the priests of Qón were revealed before a strange gateway.
The portal appeared to have been carved from some ancient and desiccated substance the pale yellow color of ancient bone. Fumbling with an ancient ring of keys, the smaller priest’s hands shook as the larger man looked back the way they had come. Zágar sprang back; Tsodlán, who had just arrived at the corner, halted in his path. A long silence ensued. Neither Zágar nor Tsodlán moved, not even their brows. Zágar’s hand flickered; was it time to release his poisoned stiletto from its imprisonment? Not a sound came to answer his question.
Finally a scratching susurration, echoing eerily in the dark like the muted vomiting of some forgotten abomination of stone, issued forth from the key’s turning. A fetid chill engulfed Tsodlán and Zágar almost immediately, even at their great distance from the portal. Inching forward, both of the dark serpent’s minions peered around the corner.
Zágar observed the tall priest thrust his glowing mace-head forward into some unimaginably ancient complex, its walls a chalky black the color of mildewed ebony. He felt his dark cabochon grow cold as ice in his left hand, and he shivered with anticipation, his body grown electric in Wurú’s service.
Tsodlán saw all this as well, and heard more. Though the priests spoke in the most skilled of whispers, he their words floated effortlessly up to his own ears. It was the smaller one talking now. "If Wurú’s priests did not come this way, as the elder priest suspected they would, it must be one of the other two entries."
"Who knows how many entries there truly are, Zelésh? If there are three, why not one other? There is no escaping it; if we do not find them here at the perimeter, we must proceed inward, all the way to the Caged Purple." This last clause was delivered with a tincture of jocular sadism, and it had its effect: the smaller priest shivered in his bones. The big man continued: "You secure us within this entrance; I will walk the path and examine the others..."
Tsodlán started out of his reverie at a rap to his knuckles. The corridor was full around him with light of lambent amethyst, radiated from his own ophidian carving. Zágar, rendered a pair of shadows in the sudden light, pointed insistently at Tsodlán’s talisman. Tsodlán tucked it within his shirt to smother it and cleared his throat, pointing down the corridor at the small priest trying to close the gate from within.
"Go, Zágar! Now we have come to the next leg of tonight’s path! The timuél is for yon Zelésh, to end his life in the service of the Ancient One of Pleasures. It is yours for the taking. Do your murder for the glory of Lord Wurú!"
Zelésh made a basic mistake. It would be his last. As the small priest had been securing the door, he paused when he heard the light, quick footfalls in the corridor. He looked out and the last vision he saw was the disembodied white of Zágar’s eyes and the teeth of a broad smile as a blade bit into his neck. The poison immediately constricted his windpipe and the follower of Qón died a quiet, sad death.
Zágar reached down next to the body and took hold of the brightly glowing mace and cast it away. The nearness of it allowed his darkened form to be seen as the two magics battled each other for dominance. He then took station just outside of the threshold and waited.
Tsodlán moved down the path after the glow dimmed inside of the doorway. He had enjoyed seeing the look of on the victim’s face as it changed from curiosity to great fear when chaos came upon him. The job was cleanly done. He only regretted that he was not the one who delivered the deathblow. He nodded appreciatively to Zágar as he reached the entrance. He sensed no presence coming from the path taken by the tall priest. He motioned for them to move inside and they completed closing the portal.
The two priests of Wurú moved quietly down the corridor, Zágar leading. The unfortunate and recently departed Zelésh’s companion was further within, apparently checking on the security of other entrances to these chambers. It seemed that they were part of a place of significance to the followers of Qón, surely that which Tsodlán’s spires and Zágar’s eavesdropping had intimated. Ironically, in trying to secure them, they had given entrance to their adversaries.
Tsodlán was cautious in his optimism. The other Qónite was seemingly the stronger; also, he knew that there were followers of Wurú about. Finally, he was on his own territory.
If it came to a conflict-- and that seemed likely-- Tsodlán hoped to have Zágar launch himself at the other, while Tsodlán protected him with his magics. Heretofore, the lower-status priest had exhibited signs of strength, in certain forms of magic, but Tsodlán was now confident that he would prove the superior sorcerer. Zágar’s path seemed to lie with the Indigo Givers of Surcease.
The two neared an intersection. The inky assassin froze for a moment, in the lead, and then slid back to Tsodlán.
"He comes back from another entrance," Zágar murmured.
"Be ready to kill, if need be," came the whispered reply. "I will essay a deception. It would be better if he led us further in, lest we must brave all the defenses ourselves." Tsodlán reached into the Planes Beyond and gathered energies in through the Skin Between.
As the older priest of Qón approached the intersection, it seemed to him that he had seen his partner Zelésh come to it, make a sign of approbation, and continue further down the inward-pointing corridor. Curious, he turned right at the intersection and continued inward himself.
The priests of Wurú followed. Zágar relied upon his Shadow Skin and skills; Tsodlán had wrapped himself in a spell that rendered him invisible in anything short of direct sunlight. Thus, each hidden in his own way, followed the Qón priest deeper into the structure. The Qón priest was happily guiding them through the maze! What an ironic turn, thought Tsodlán, the priests of the God of Mazes being led by their enemy!
Far from simply leading them inside, the priest of Qón was apparently performing some sort of ritual action as well. Periodically, he would stop, touch a stone, say a prayer, move a concealed level, and move on. There were many doors, some of which he opened, some he closed and bolted. The priest of Wurú grew confused, and began to lose track of the turnings and openings.
Tsodlán, with his heightened magical senses, began to grow impatient, but didn’t sense the correct action to take. His shadowy companion, however, seemed as patient as a Zrné, stalking prey. His concentration was so intense that despite the concealment Zágar operated under, Tsodlán could sense him as clearly as if he were in a well lit room.
Finally, Tsodlán could not resist whispering to Zágar, and the priest of Qón once again stopped and manipulated a door (this time a small one, set at about head level). "Oh silent one, what actions does this priest perform?" he hissed at where he sensed Zágar was standing.
"He is opening the ways, to let the light in, I think. It is what keeps the Purple One trapped here." came the whispered reply. "Now be quiet. I must keep track of the openings."
In the blink of an eye, the big priest of Qón disappeared. Zágar whistled low and both men began preparing spells, but neither the dogface nor any other entity emerged upon which to vent their crackling energy. With a start Zágar realized that the enchanted steel of his poisoned timuél would have shorted his own conjuring in any case. Cursing inwardly, he turned and noted Tsodlán’s far-seeing, placid concentration. Scant hours ago this one’s focus was as nothing next to his own; yet now he saw clearly that the many planes would reveal their secrets to Tsodlán’s penetrating gaze as the tetél-blossoms opened their petals in springtime. Contemplating his own inky blackness and lethal sting, bile rose in Zágar’s throat. Is this how it was ever to be? The nobleman as the perceptive leader, his worthless self a mere cat’s-paw? In Wurú’s name alone was Zágar able to stifle a sudden, brutal urge to cut Tsodlán’s neck ear to ear, savoring the black congelation of his blood by the blade’s dread venom. His face turned down in dark and angry humiliation. Tsodlán, emerged from his reverie, clapped Zágar’s shoulder and motioned to the strange closed portal.
Cautiously the pair stepped forward to examine the small, head-level doorway, which had shut behind the priest as quickly as it had opened, if indeed it had ever opened at all. Four concentric circles were carved into its square face. The outer one consisted of highly stylized, posturing serpents, some with many legs, all with their faces pointed poisonously inward. They were searching for some way past a second circle of vigilant, six-legged hounds, stoutly facing left and right, legs locked together to prevent their enemies' passage. The third was a simple line, as was the fourth; the stone within the third circle was bare, but the innermost had been deftly crosshatched in a sinister pattern of inhuman geometry, and seemed almost to scintillate in the darkness.
Tsodlán saw that this last was the key, and began meditating on the proper rite of passage. The inner circle’s cryptic topology seemed to beckon into heretofore unknown dimensions, and his hlákme and pedhétl wandered more and more deeply within, losing themselves in its twisting intricacy. So intent upon the pattern was he that he did not hear Zágar whirl to face their adversary, re-emerged from some unknown place and time; nor did he note the darker scratching against his balétl of an ancient serpentine force locked underneath the world, longing for its freedom.
A canine mask glowered in malevolent amusement at frozen Tsodlán and crouching Zágar from under its white-gold cowl. Even as Zágar’s eyes probed for a leap that would take him past the priest’s huge mace, Qón’s servant reached out to depress a hidden stud on the far side of the passage. A wrenching noise of metal on metal made the whole corridor shudder, as some ancient mechanism ground into action. The floor under the Wurú’s priests yawned open. "Huróth take you!" cried the priest. The Servants of Gloom fell free, bodies bouncing from one hard, stony ledge to another, down into a distant darkness.
As the timuél flew from his hand, Zágar immediately regretted its loss. He did not see it strike the target as he tumbled into the void. He rolled several times until he hit hard on a flat surface. Looking around he saw nothing in the pitch black.
A clanking noise caused him to look up. A brilliant radiance was coming down towards him quickly and erratically. Could this be the Guardian’s servant coming to finish what his priest began? He put his hands up in a protective mode and waited for his end. The glowing mace came smashing into his forearms with great force. After picking himself up once more Zágar stood and rubbed his arms and stared at the weapon. A smile slowly spread across his face. He knew that the follower of Qón would never have dropped this unless the thrown dagger had hit him. Wurú’s tooth had found its mark and the dark Lord had blessed him with a replacement in the form of this profane weapon.
Reaching down and picking up the lighted bludgeon he could now see that he was at the edge of an overhang. Turning to the cliff face behind him he could see a small tunnel at his feet. He always hated such crawls. He called out to his fellow Traveler of the Path and heard a reply from farther below.
Tsodlán nursed the sharp pain in his left hand. He suspected that it was broken, or at least badly sprained. Spell gesturing would be dangerous until it healed. His head was also hurting and he assumed that it was blood flowing down his brow. With his new senses he could see that they had fallen into what looked like a natural near vertical shaft that traveled deep into the earth. He shuddered to think what denizens existed below.
The noise above attracted his attention. As he looked up and across the channel he saw Zágar being hit, and then recover from the blow. Afterward they discussed their situation and agreed that they must go their separate ways since there was no means for them join up. Perhaps, this was part of their testing by the Great Lord. Zágar was to face his fear of small, enclosed spaces and he was to face the dangers below. As Tsodlán reached for footholds on the downward facing slope he hoped his injuries would not slow him from his next encounter with the worshippers of the dog faced god.
Ghurú hiKemuel rested his head against the crumbling brick wall of the Outer Catacomb of the Imprisoned One of Púrdimal. A stream of profane and sibilant curses emanated quietly from his lips. Listening to the blasphemies pour forth from his own mouth in a state of detachment, his mind ranged back his days as Kási in the Legion of Defense against Evil, where such oaths were more common than among his new brethren in Qón’s temple. He ran his hand abstractly across his smoothly healed chest, which had been laid open by a poisoned timuél only moments before. To cast the spells of Alleviation and Healing he had had to drop his mace, freeing up both hands for the work. Now the blessed and potent weapon was down in the pit with his enemies.
Ghurú took stock. Zelésh was surely dead. He himself was alone and unarmed in a dangerous catacomb older than éngsvan hlá Gánga. Further, he had depleted himself substantially of magical energy unlocking the outer wardings of the place, and now with the spells of healing his pedhétl was still more sorely exercised. In this state it was expected that he should foil two mad and dangerous young priests of Wurú, keep the Imprisoned One behind his gates, reseal the wards, and be back above ground before Tuléng rose. Far below, at the root of Púrdimal’s Tsuru'úm, the Mouth of the World sighed.
Qón’s priest gave a grunt and let the powerful muscles of his upper thighs carry him to his feet. There was work to be done. He glanced at the open pit, but that way was too dangerous; instead his fingers searched out another hidden slide in the wall, and a portal opened upon an old bronze ladder, mounted to stones that were older still.
As he climbed downward, he sang a quiet atonal hymn to the Ancient One of Pleasures, gleaned from a Salarvyáni redaction of the Bednálljan which itself claimed to derive from a manuscript of the Three States of the Triangle, and so on, back into the ancient trembling eternity in which even the skeins of deities ebb and flow. His Lord was a survivor. Let the priests of Hnálla and Vimúhla prate as they liked; not all of Pavár’s pantheon first appeared to the Dragon Warriors.
With casual grace, Ghurú sprang from the ladder into a corridor of bone-white cobbles lit eerily by a pinkish phosphorescent fungus. Nearly as tall as a few N’lüss and more muscular than many, Qón’s devoted servant made the tricky leap look simple indeed. Now he would proceed methodically downward, checking the egresses from the ancient pit one after another, until both of Chaos' servants were eliminated. The Caretaker of the Gates of Hell would not be thwarted tonight.
At the second observation platform he heard the black-skinned priest who threw the timuél, tapping cautiously against the wall of the corridor below with Ghurú’s mace. The passage below was a dead end, but the servant of Chaos had correctly deduced that a secret exit must be concealed somewhere behind the masonry. Ghurú watched him with a twinge of sadness; but there was no help for the matter. He called out in the quietest and most mystical voice he could manage. "Across the corridor and to your left." The priest’s black head snapped back towards him, but Ghurú had already moved back to the wall, resting his hand against yet another of the countless hidden studs built into the walls to protect against intruders. Then he waited. The blackskin looked left and right, tapped elsewhere, sat on his haunches and made a light to visually investigate the ground Ghurú had pointed out to him. Ghurú waited patiently; by providing no more stimuli he could ensure that the priest would eventually move to the indicated wall. Finally, after ten minutes or more spent exhausting every other possibility, Wurú’s minion again glanced over his shoulder, and then moved across the corridor and to his left.
Ghurú pressed the stud.
Zágar’s death was abrupt and exceedingly painful. Ancient bronze spears, soaked with verdigris, lacerated his body from both walls and the floor. The ancient green metal pierced and ripped his skin everywhere, running him through in a dozen or more places. From the magic-blackened body red blood foamed forth, corrupted by the decaying bronze. Zágar twitched; he shook himself on the spears with a titanic effort of will; his eyes rolled upward; his last breath emptied ragged from his lungs. Then a vomit of blood and bile poured from his mouth, and he sagged maniquin-like onto the shafts of the spears.
As he felt his life’s blood leave his quivering body, Zágar fervently prayed to his Master for the honor to continue on with his duties. As his chusétl began to extinguish it was abruptly projected into a shadowy place where it resumed its slumber, thus paving the way for the Spirit Soul to follow. As his balétl began to shed its identity and travel to the Ultimate Dark of Hrü'ü, it turned and followed the Shadow Self into the black carved receptacle now being held in his palm.
Zágar’s senses had changed. His previous physical form no longer limited him. He was aware of his surroundings even as the follower of Qón approached his now lifeless body. He realized that he had been given one last opportunity to strike at his foes before he journeyed beyond this existence.
Ghurú climbed down five dháiba from the observation platform and conjured a werelight. Zágar’s eyes stared vacantly into his. The priest of Qón reclaimed his mace from the ground; then he noticed something else something black near the corpse. His hand closed around it. An ophidian cabochon of jet, with six carven eyes, seemed to watch him from his palm.
As he gazed at it wonderingly, his mind came loose from his body again, and he felt the entire catacomb quake slightly from below. He quickly placed his trophy into a pocket. He felt a searing grey-white energy, capable of bleaching Tékumel’s very bones, aimed at the very heart of the complex. A new force sought the Imprisoned One’s release; and suddenly the matter of the remaining servitor of Wurú seemed of trifling consequence indeed.
The priests of the One Other were here.
Tsodlán’s Way Continues
Tsodlán felt the rumbling as he reached the bottom of the shaft. He quickly entered the passageway to the left to avoid any falling rock. His heightened senses allowed him to pass freely through this black gloom. The glowing fungus that was prevalent in most of the earlier tunnels was disturbingly missing from this area.
He came to the end and faced a wall containing a large incised circle with a dot centered in it. He could perceive a hidden layer, but it would not come into focus. He turned suddenly as he felt a slight movement in the air. Standing in front of him was a small lizard-like creature with a spiny back and many eyes. It combed its black fur and grinned (?) at him with its long, toothy mouth.
"You have done well, young priest." It intoned and reached forward and through the shirt to touch Tsodlán on the breast. Pain shot through his body as a shadow grew from the point of the creature’s claw and covered Tsodlán’s torso. In his mind he heard, "Know my name of Usunggáhla! Khomóyi is demanded with this gift of Avoidance." And then it was gone.
Tsodlán’s mind was racing. The demon’s glyph appeared to his eyes as a dark glow of ever-changing patterns across his chest. He stood up and faced the carved wall. He reached forward, touched the centered dot and witnessed the sculpted section retract into the stone revealing the next step along his path to glory.
Nursing his injured hand, Tsodlán stepped forward through the open portal. Ebon glinting coruscated across his chest as Usunggáhla’s blessing settled into his skin. As Tsolyáni went, Tsodlán had ever been an egoist, going so far in his private moments as to doubt whether a person’s five selves were really not one in the last analysis. But now that he had received Lord Wurú’s first initiation into eldritch mystery, he saw that this vain doctrine of his pampered youth was foolishness. As his eyes watched pieces of reality fall away into the corners, and he felt his chusétl dance in and out of his chest, he knew that whatever his balétl indeed was, it was no more than another fragment of an endlessly changing and infinitely variable whole. For the sorcerer, who plays dice with his shifting selves, the pedhétl was the aspect which held it all together; but Tsodlán began to suspect now that even this burning fire of personal force was but an abstraction, a pastiche of darker, more elemental aspects within.
Somewhere in all this metaphysical speculation it came to him that, wherever he was, Zágar was no longer connected to his body.
The maze in which Tsodlán now wandered was drawn in chalky lines on an ancient gray floor. The cavern was everywhere open to the old sight of his eyes, but in the new dimensions he could now see a more intricate catacomb could hardly be imagined. A dark, antlered head with a Ssú’s peeling flesh regarded him from two different directions, each well to the left of up. Westward physically, but on an entirely different path in the true maze, a group of eleven somber priests in heavy robes marked by the circled dot made their way across the enigmatic plain as well. Tsodlán smiled at them, unafraid. Each could see the other, but the straight line between them in the three visible dimensions was a road of a thousand suicides. Each would have to make their own way across to the Tomb of the Chained One, with such senses and powers as they could apply to the task.
Just then Tsodlán caught his first glimpse of his goal: far in the distance, the cavern was spiked through with a towering metal cylinder, an artifact of the ancients. The cylinder was suspended across a deep and conical chasm, a tributary tunnel of wind producing a haunting bass whisper from the breezes of the Mouth of the World. Only hours ago a younger Tsodlán would have felt the need to rush, to arrive at the cylinder before the plodding priests of the One Other. But stepping casually around a four-eyed insectal face peering at him from just to the right of below, hardly working to elude the snap of its jelly-dripping mandibles, he knew that there was no need. The confrontation would be joined, and the One in Chains would be chained no longer; Qón would be thwarted, and the servants of the One Other would find that in this skein they could not control the ancient and unknowable entity. Thus would chaos explode below Púrdimal, and thus would Master Wurú’s cosmic shrieking, his laughter of joy in the service of the Outer Dark, be heard across the underworlds.
The chalk outlines were sometimes difficult to follow. Still, considering the untold years that had passed since they were first laid down they were in good shape. When the lines crossed and several choices were presented, a deeper understanding of the mysteries was required. A small glyph here, a sound there, even smells were clues. Fortunately his gifted sight allowed him to avoid the traps that would destroy those blinded by impatience.
At one of these points he stopped and saw that both directions led to the horned creature that he had seen at the beginning. He took the path to the left and walked up to the parchment fleshed being and stood before it just out of claws reach. He noticed that the being had similar markings on its torso as those given to him by the demon. The creature obviously noticed the same markings. Both appeared to be calculating whether this meant that the gifts would cancel each other out, or possibly negate each other’s existence. Tsodlán sat down and motioned for the creature to do the same. Its eyes warily surveyed the human and decided that parlay was an acceptable action.
After several frustrating attempts at language it became obvious that oral communication was not feasible. Tsodlán slowly took out the cabochon from his pocket and showed it. The creature slowly reached back with its double-jointed limbs into a sack on top of its thorax and took out a similarly coloured stone in the shape of an insect’s head with six eyes. Perhaps they were on the same mission from similar Masters. Tsodlán decided that a quick decision was necessary to beat the One Other’s priests to the goal. He motioned to himself and then to the creature and then down the path that he wanted to go.
The creature looked down the path and put back his stone. He slowly got up, looking at Tsodlán and stepped back so that they both had room to travel side by side. Together they started down this new path as potential allies, although neither let the other behind them.
Tsodlán and the antlered demon trod their path side by side, cautiously making their way towards a square alabastrine tower rising from the chalky plain before them. Columns of yellow gold and pure white marble were set along the three upper floors of each of its smooth, ancient sides. At the tower’s base were four portals of clear crystal, set into giant, graven canine mouths whose teeth rose in a terrifying arc around the dully-glittering doorways.
Looking back, the pair saw the chanting procession of the One Other, singing their dissonant and atonal hymns, still behind them, walking somberly with their strange lanterns held aloft towards the mouth to the left of their own. If the two groups met at all, they would meet within. Then the flickering impingements of a thousand adjacent dimensions vanished from the eyes of Tsodlán and his ssú-like companion, and they stood before the mouth of Qón, seeking what lay beyond.
Tsodlán stepped forward, but his companion raised an arm like dripping necrotic parchment to hold him back. Reaching into a pouch hanging at his side, he pulled forth a handful of steel shavings and cast them into the portal’s haze.
The effect was explosive. The steel ignited the shimmering spells of warding, and the presence of metal created a feedback that blinded Tsodlán and the demon with its intensity. The brilliant discharge flashed across the plain, and did not go unnoticed by the servants of the pariah gods. Yet the portal and spells alike held, so old and potent were the enchantments that the ancient priests of Qón had laid upon them.
Now it was the demon’s turn to hesitate, and Tsodlán’s to find a solution. He knew no spell that could open such a portal, and his new sight saw no path around it; but those who had sent him on this mission were wise. He had taken but one gift from the temple above, and so it must be the key. Confidently, he produced the amethyst talisman of Wurú from his belt, and by motions enjoined his companion to do the same.
A creaking, musty sound, the whispering of some desolate tomb, filled the air, and Tsodlán started. But it came from his new companion: the demon was singing. The words were beyond Tsodlán’s comprehension; and yet somehow it stirred in his soul the chord of one of his master’s most ancient songs of praise. With difficulty at first, Tsodlán recalled the phrases of the Engsvanyáli recension of the "Ode to the Violet Mandibles of Darkness," and joyously joined his fellow missionary in proclaiming the truth of their faith before the stolid, square tower of Belkhánu’s mastiff.
The two cabochons glittered darkly, and the hazy golden light within the canine mouths tinted amethyst. The crystal door within itself gradually caught the color, and soon all within the great dog’s mouth around the portal was overcome with a deep purple hue. The gloomy light of chaos staked out a path into the tower. The many-legged serpent of gloom had showed them a way into the heart of Qón’s realm, where they would let the One in Chains loose upon Púrdimal, gloriously enacting one humble portion of the world’s eternal rupture and rebirth in Master Hrü'ü’s endless cataclysm.
Crawling around in the mazes under the city did not prepare him for walking across this endless plain. He was also not supplied for such a long journey. It seemed that days had passed. His companion seemed amenable to stopping and resting at regular intervals, but Tsodlán thought that it could probably travel faster without him. Since he had no provisions the creature had offered some food to him, but the smell indicated that it was not healthy for humans to consume.
Water was another problem. The creature did not use any. Perhaps the noisome food provided all of the moisture it needed. He took a chance at drinking from one of the nearby streams. He didn’t have much of a choice. If it was his fate to die in this lonely place, then so be it. The stream not only held potable water, it seemed to heal his wounded arm. Unfortunately he had no container to take some of this liquid with him. He judged the distance to the far off tower to maybe another half-day’s walk. He should be able to make it after a good sleep.
His dreams came quickly. The knowledge that he gained from the column and the senses that he had been granted began to guide him to new possibilities. He awoke suddenly with an epiphany. Quickly he took out the purple stone that the Master had given him at the beginning of this mission. He gazed deeply into the carved senary of ophidian eyes and gained the knowledge of casting Amphoria. He continued to gaze deeper and learned the secret of The Grey Hand. Both of these spells required the use of this magical bauble and then only once for each spell. Even then it would drain him of all of his power. He must choose the timing of their employment carefully.
Fully rested they continued down the path towards the edifice. He saw a large human sitting front of the gates. Could this be his opponent priest from the underground?
Across the expanding glyph he saw a party begin to step into this final battlefield and begin to prepare themselves. His companion became very agitated at the sight of these individuals. As soon as it and Tsodlán crossed the symbol’s boundaries the creature began to run in great bounding leaps towards them. The fight was on.
The One Other
away along the tree of time from hlikku bey su serving an other one one other lord of secret places greatest sober slinking trickster imprisoned ksarul mighty ksarul might have saved them sleeping stupid under blue glass since dormoron plain now just a race reallocate into nullity dissipation the end foolish plane incidental cut off she has eaten but she will not eat the other one’s nullity the mad one the one of fears serve another underbelly master of negation without whom with whom not i was there hirkane one piece ours every emperor even trakonel burning cur simulacrum of hlakme chusetl swimming gallery of shadows far endlessly far beneath old metropolis bey su hlikku sweating gyrating squat aborigines hum atonal panegyrics mad one nmedz one other erasing priests speak not tongue spears of bone ancient secrets one in chains ours limping servitor other one rattling ancient cage key is mine weapon from hlikku pit smoky cauldron of ruin ancient glimmering metal steams icy spirits of nullity end the end foolish wuru serpent’s ends not served in collaboration arrogance serves another one in chains strides the earth again dissipation gas cauldron melts mind mad one free blinding stability prankish change tekumel tilts towards concluding days downward path realm of ancient grey plain not yet eaten dog god old tower keeps one in chains in chains purple amphoria wuru eating up endless grey abysmal floor birds one other he serves they serve even qon’s stupid priest serves one other purpose release destructuration of plain plane return of tekumel to nullity not stomach of pale bone the other end spears pointed primal madness cauldron smoking a few old rituals suffice one in chains chained no more
Tsodlán and his new companion made their way carefully towards the tower, cabochons glittering darkly against the endless grey of their surroundings. Undulating ovoids of fluorescent purple rose from the rolling seas of mist about them, falling into uncertain trains on their side. Tsodlán felt the bubbles as personifications of his god, as the dimmest, distant reaches of semi-sentience in the incomprehensibly transfinite consciousness of Lord Wurú. Or perhaps it was Master Hrü'ü’s being itself he sensed in them, and the role of his lord was merely to gather it forth for application
The pair stepped onto the plain at the same moment as the servitors of the One Other. Tsodlán knew not what his strange, parchment-skinned companion heard in the nauseating ululations of their music, but much of his own considerable willpower was spend in shutting out the suppurating atonality of their chant. One of their party was a Tsolyáni, with the hawkish facial structure of the nobler families of Béy Sü; the rest were squat and horrid, like the indigenes of Yán Kór, but with a vastly disturbing angularity in their gait, a pronounced and unsettling slouch in their posture, and a sickly cast to their skin. One of these embraced a great urn manufactured of some strange ceramic, obviously ancient but apparently impervious to the ravages of time. A roiling whitish mist seemed to crawl in places over this vessel’s lip, pseudopods of smog tasting at the uncertain ether of the lonely plane.
Looking ahead, Tsodlán adjudged his opponent, the tautly muscled priest of Qón posed in the protective center of a Glyph of Present Defense and how was it that a minor sorcerer such as he had gained not only the perception but also the lore of his master’s masters? Could the urine-drinking rites of the Hehegánu alone possibly produce such an effect? Noting the incandescent yellow-white blaze of the dog-face’s mace, Tsodlán held up a hand to his antlered demon-compatriot and called out to the Tsolyáni priest of the One Other.
"Ohé! Our parties have common cause for now. Let us adjoin our forces to overcome this wretched servant of the Tlomitlányal, and release the One in Chains from his overlong slumber. Then we can wrangle among ourselves over the spoils, if need be."
The priest from Béy Sü folded his hands across the dotted circle upon his robe in the manner of a corpse, and something sparkling in his eyes suggested that the nod he gave implied agreement. But the half-dozen Hlíkkuyani warriors accompanying him, apparently heedless of their colloquy, demurred. Their chanting cracked to an insane pitch, and their bone-tipped shortspears flew into their hands, glittering like stars in an empty void as they drew power from the strange land about them. Tsodlán saw the first priest give what looked like a faint shrug and turn away from them all, concentrating instead on the urn carried by the eighth member of their procession, a servitor of that Mad One who is worshipped in the forbidden city of Yán Kór. Its vapors boiled over the edge of the pot and churned, languidly in aspect but not in pace, over the naked plain of rock below the tower towards Ghurú.
Their otherworldly hymns replaced by screams of battle-lust, the cachinnating spearmen of Hlíkku raced towards Tsodlán and the demon, faceless plaques swinging from their necks before them by leathern thongs. Wurú’s servants raised their cabochons, marshalling the plasms of violet amorphia that had joined them from the seas of this grey world, in preparation for the first clash of this battle.
From within his protective emblem, Ghurú waited, mouthing prayers soundlessly as he studied the battle unfolding before him. What protective spells he knew had been cast; together with the unknown defensive enchantments of the glyph they would have to suffice. He clutched the great mace of his god and awaited the column of pustulant smoke rapidly engaging his position.
The smoke twisted itself into a great trunk, sprouting tentacles that began to blindly search around for a target. It seemed that the summoned fiend could not fully form in this plane, but it still posed a great risk. Ghurú aimed his dímlalukh at its center and pressed the stud. The blazing white light leapt from the end and bored into the target. The resulting explosion as the gaseous creature ignited would have done the Vimúhla fire performers in the market proud. As the pressure wave washed over the arena Ghurú was almost knocked out of his protective symbols. He stood back up and observed the resulting scene.
Tsodlán had ordered the small bits of floating chaos towards the onrushing hoard. As the amphoria hit the first assailant he could see light through its body as the conjured void consumed the fleshy tissue and bone as it passed through the upper body. Its spear clattered to the ground as it realized that it was no longer completely whole. The flesh of Wurú was to take another two of the onrushing worshippers of the Mad One before they engaged his towering companion.
The antlered compatriot confronted the three remaining attackers with its bare appendages. The first foe was stripped of its spear and was lifted high into the air and impaled onto the weapon of the following onrusher. The second attacker, now weaponless, lunged at its opponent. This action distracted its target long enough so that the third of its party was able to plunge its bone barb deep into the thorax. The protective markings on the body of the ally of Wurú could not deflect both attacks. In its death throes the horned one snapped the neck of the one it was grappling with and then plunged its claw into the chest of the third antagonist. Together they fell to the ground staring at each other defiantly.
The hawk-faced priest of The One Other picked himself up after the explosion and ordered the cauldron-bearer to send out another of the denizens. Perhaps this one would be able to continue the fight. As the stunted servant began the summoning a stray piece of amphoria found the vessel and punctured through its walls releasing the foul liquid onto the soil. The followers of the One looked on impotently as the priest of Qón let loose with a second discharge of energy. The blast ignited the fluid sending flying fragments of the cauldron to shred their bodies as they prayed for intervention that would never come.
Tsodlán was thrown back off of his feet. As he recovered he could feel the blood pouring from his nose and ears from the overpressure of the second detonation. He grasped the cabochon of his god and focused his mind on casting the Gray Hand as he struggled to walk toward his lone remaining opponent with his arm outstretched.
Ghurú shifted forward in time as soon as he fired his weapon. The shockwave had passed when he returned to the present. The staggering priest of the Serpent of Doom was heading toward him. Ghurú raised his mace and fired. The beam hit the cleric full in the chest and began to merge with the demon-gifted tattoos. The markings began to fade as Ghurú fire thrice more on the advancing figure. Finally there were no more defensive emblems as he prepared to fire for the last time.
Zágar had observed the events unfold around him from deep inside of his hiding place within the amethyst stone foolishly carried by the priest of stability. As the disciple of Qón was about to deliver the final strike Zágar struck out in his shadow form and enveloped the glowing mace. His dark nature nullified the great power within the bludgeon. He reveled in the look of confusion the wielder’s face.
Tsodlán reached out and touched the devotee of Qón as he felt his skull crush under the blow from the enemy’s dímlalukh. In his last seconds of life he felt his selves separate and begin the transformation into the cabochon that he held. Zágar retreated back into his stone as he sensed the death of his brother in chaos. They remained there, hibernating, until they were again called into the glorious service of their dark master.
Ghurú had swung his now inert weapon with as much force as he had remaining. The popping sound that the dark priest’s head made as it cracked open was satisfying. Even as he felt his body turn into irretrievable ash from the Gray Hand he knew that had successfully defended the tower from these unworthy looters. He understood that another would take his duties in this existence and that he would now take his place in the paradise of Teretáne. On his final journey he was honored by being personally guided by the Aspect Malán. They had an enjoyable discussion along the way.
The battlefield returned to its original size as the leather wings of the scavengers beat into position for their next meal. A low howl could be heard coming from the tower, as The One in Chains was frustrated once again. With great fury he consumed the spirits of the followers of the Mad One as they tried to take flight from the barren plane. Their nourishment made him stronger. He only had to wait for more to come to this place before he could make his escape and take his revenge.
Káshi yet hung in Tékumel’s sky as Tuléng crossed the horizon, flaming dimly over old Púrdimal. Deep underground, the savants of the Hehegánu slumbered in uncertain delight. Kengyél Nitra slept in an alcove not far from the Chamber of Unforeseen Inevitability, for the time blissfully ignorant that her anticipated liaison with Shártokoi Tsodlán would never take place. Walking past in the company of a balding servant of Hrü'ü, the Elucidator of the Sable Path smiled behind his mask at her pouting lips and wine-dark hair. He would inquire into her records tomorrow; if they showed promise, he suspected that she would make a fitting protégé indeed.
"I fail to understand," Drónu hiKángolel was saying, "how this underground carnage, this spectacular waste of lives without apparent consequence, has served our purpose in any way. The One in Chains is still entombed - perhaps a good thing, since the Pandects of Apodeictic Calamity are quite unclear on whether that great demon serves Wurú or the One Other! - Two of your most talented young priests are dead, and the gift of the Hehegánu is effectively lost to us as well. Many goings-on, but what beneficial change has accrued to us?"
The Elucidator remained silent for a moment as he weighed a response to Otlúkoi Drónu’s question. Better not to confirm that the One in Chains served the One Other. Wurú’s priests sometimes disagreed with those of their master over the appropriateness of marshalling the pariah gods in the service of Change. But he owed him an accounting, for the draught of enchanted urine gifted to Tsodlán by the underpeople had been a favor owed to Master Hrü'ü.
Finally he spoke. "First, the One in Chains has been strengthened by this, and we have shown the priesthood of Qón that we are capable of penetrating their defenses."
Drónu’s fat features contracted around his skull. "What use is this? They will merely redouble their protections. Better to strike all at once with success!"
The Elucidator shrugged his ambivalence between these interpretations. "Second, we have seen - our travelers between the worlds have seen - different possible futures. Many of them involved the warrior-priest Ghurú working great deeds for Qón and Belkhánu, and the rest of their flaccid, static cohorts among the Tlomitlányal. By securing his elimination, we ensure that those timelines are not the ones which matter to us."
The Otlúkoi of Hrü'ü nodded more thoughtfully at this. "Interesting. So we sacrifice two whites for a token we think likely to become a green."
"Perhaps even a black, if the Purple Crawlers of the Infinite Tree perceive truly. And we strengthen our hidden ally in anticipation of his release. And, of course, we have learned a great deal concerning Púrdimal’s Tsuru'úm, much of which was unknown to us previously." The Elucidator produced a stretched parchment embossed with richly parti-coloured ink diagrams. "This is a copy of our new map, including the hidden places of the Temple of Qón."
Drónu chortled. "I trust you haven’t held the locations of too many secret alcoves back for your own private use? Good." He examined the parchment approvingly. "This is something indeed. I suppose the rest can be given a proper accounting. After all, there are others in our temples besides Tsodlán to whom the Perceptions of the Planes have been granted; and as you say, the pair of young priests, for all their budding talent, were just whites on the verge of becoming blues. It would seem then that we could consider this matter at an end."
Across the city, watching the rays of the rising sun play off the stately, chalky yellow columns and ancient tessellated floor of her bedroom, Njáshterakoi Lelái saluted Tuléng and the departed balétl of Ghurú with a bottle of másh. Her disciple had done his duty well.
Stroking the hair of a fetching young female acolyte lying sated across her sleeping-mat, she contemplated the next move in the game.