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УТВЕРЖДАЮ. The heroes among us, they are the true slaves

 

Ishual

The heroes among us, they are the true slaves. Thrust against the limits of mortality, they alone feel the bite of their shackles. So they rage. So they fight.

We only have as much freedom as we have slack in our chains. Only those who dare nothing are truly free.

– Suortagal, Epimeditations

Late Summer, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Kuniuri

They flee through the forests and valleys of what was once Kuniuri, more exposed, more fugitive, than at any time in their tumultuous lives. A week passes before the skinnies find them.

Nights of madness follow.

She finds it strange the way they simply appear out of otherwise idyllic forests. Sranc. Famished mobs of them. They are like a nocturnal cancer, poisonous for not belonging. The Wizard explains their manufacture, how in ages lost the Inchoroi used the Tekne to pervert the Bios of the Nonmen. "They coveted the world," he says, "so they fashioned a race that would spare it, creatures that would hunt their foes only, consuming the low things of the earth otherwise."

The fugitive couple cleaves to the sun as much as possible during the days, but they are often attacked regardless. The old Wizard wants to walk above the mayhem, but she refuses to abandon her two Chorae. So each night they search for high places where they can huddle behind his Wards.

It is always the same. The old Wizard bids her to crouch at his side, to take care that she not let her Chorae stray too close to the circuit of his sorcerous defences. And he sings his mad-muttering song, assails their howling rush with wicked lights. They do not stop. They never stop, not even when the smoke of their burning bodies pillars the sky. They throw themselves at the glowing curves, shrieking and wheezing and hacking. Crude axes, hammers, and swords. Loose strips of iron for armour. Gibbering chieftains decked in what totems and heirlooms the brutes recognize. And their deranged faces, indistinguishable from the porcelain perfection of Nil'giccas when expressionless, crazed with seams and wrinkles otherwise, enough to make Sarl seem a smooth-cheeked youth in comparison.

The Wizard lets the abominations gather, until all is threshing madness about them-until it seems the two of them occupy a glowing bubble in Hell. Then, while Mimara hugs the earth, he cuts them down with glittering Compasses of Noshainrau. The slaughter is magnificent and appalling. And yet still they come, night after night, their dog phalluses prodding their dog bellies.

The rare nights when they fail to appear, she dreams of them, night terrors that give voice to the screams she denies herself while awake.

Food is scarce, so much so they sometimes sob for the rare deer the Wizard is able to take down. Once, on the reeded verge of a marsh, he fells a massive, hoary old creature he calls a musk-ox. The smell alone would have made her gag were she still a child of the brothel, let alone the Andiamine Heights. Yet they fall upon the carcass like starving dogs. The mosquitoes are so bad the Wizard raises Wards against them.

Sleep is the rarest of luxuries. They double their ration of Qirri, then double it yet again. She comes to appreciate the subtlety of tyranny, the way it lurches into stark prominence in times of scarcity and withdraws into invisibility in times of plenty. She manages to forget her old misgivings. For all the Wizard's power, they would be dead a hundred times were it not for the Qirri and the illicit strength that is its gift…

Were it not for Nil'giccas.

She whispers prayers for him sometimes, Cleric, even though she knows his soul is irrevocably lost to Hell. There is no harm in prayers.

He screams somewhere, she thinks. His shade.

The attacks begin to abate when the Demua Mountains first serrate the curtains of mist across the horizon. The Wizard's ancient Map makes no sense whatsoever to her eyes. Scroll-work frames the interior, the pale residue of paints that had once illuminated the thing but had long since moulted. Achamian tells her how the ancient Kuniuri, like all peoples, observed customs of representation peculiar to them and them alone. The Map, he says, counts mountains, uses them as markers to find Ishual.

"What do you expect to find?"

"Honeycakes and beer!" he snaps.

The testiness of his old manner is quick to return whenever she raises questions that recall the mad proportions of his gambit. After all the death and toil, the possibility that they will find nothing remains-a fact the old Wizard is loathe to consider.

But she has learned how to weather his moods, just as he has learned how to master hers. They no longer fall into spirals of senseless retribution-at least not as frequently.

"Akka… Come now."

"The truth of Kellhus! I've told you this a hundred times, Mimara-more!"

She glares at him.

Achamian collects himself with a long-drawn breath. "One cannot raise walls against what has been forgotten," he says, reciting a proverb she has heard before. "And nothing is so forgotten as Ishual. For two thousand years it has survived-in the very shadow of Golgotterath, no less!"

She watches him the way she always watches him when he annoys her with the vehemence of his claims. Never, it seems to her, has she known a man more desperate to be believed. She looks down to her belly, which she holds in two palms, murmurs, "Your father can be a fool sometimes…"

" Think, Mimara," he says, balling his fists about his exasperation. As much as he hates discussing Ishual, he despises recalling his paternity more. "The Dunyain sent one son into the wild. One son, and within twenty years he commands all the Three Seas! We are here to remember -nothing more, nothing less. Remember and if need be, raise walls."

"Against the Aspect-Emperor."

"Against the Truth."

Days of peace follow. The mountains pile into prominence on the horizon. They remind her, curiously enough, of the Meneanor Sea in winter, with dark waves arrayed in chaotic ranks, white-capped and cloven. After spending several watches examining the Map and staring across the range, the Wizard decides they have come too far south, so they strike north across the Demua's gullied foundations.

She wonders at her burgeoning pregnancy. In the brothel pregnancy was nothing less than a horrific affliction-suffering for those forced to abort, heartbreak for those who carried to term, since invariably the infant would be taken. What little she knows she has gleaned from her mother when she carried the twins. But where the Empress had continually huffed and complained, Mimara's swollen womb seems little more than a flimsy satchel, she carries it so easily.

The Qirri again, she realizes. She avoids all thought of what the ash might be doing to her child.

She weeps the night she feels the first series of kicks, such is her relief. The old Wizard refuses to place his palm on her belly, and she flies into a fury, a madness unlike any she has suffered. She shouts and throws stones until he finally accedes. Of course the babe has ceased moving.

They happen upon a clutch of deer, and Achamian fells four of them before they can sprint into wooded obscurity. They feast. Then, in preparation for their eventual trek into the mountains, she skins the animals using the ensorcelled knife she found in the Coffers. "Chipmunk," she calls it. The work horrifies her, more for its ease than its bloodiness. She thought she would need to sharpen the blade, its edge felt so rounded, but the Wizard bade her to use it regardless. "Mihtrulic knives possess otherworldly edges," he tells her. "And they cut only according to your desire." He is right about the knife, but it disturbs her, peeling deer like rotted pears.

Draped in furs, they work their way into the mountainous footings. Since they know nothing of treating pelts, the skins rot even as they warm them. After two days of the Wizard gingerly rolling and unrolling the parchment and peering this way and that-including, alarmingly, behind them-he finally becomes excited, begins muttering, "Yes! Yes!" He raises two fingers to the south, gripes at her until she spies two peaks to the immediate south. "There!" he says. "That mighty ramp of snow climbing between them…"

A glacier. The first she has ever seen.

"The Gate of Ishual."

The horns return that nightfall-a chorus of them, communicating from different points across the forests below. "Mobbing…" Mimara gasps, remembering the madness of the Mop.

They continue fleeing through the dark, relying on the Qirri to carry them. They follow high ridges, running at a ramshackle trot. The stars astound her for their strewn brilliance. The Wizard tries to show her a constellation of ancient fame-the "Flail," he calls it-but she cannot pick out its principals. "Only in my Dreams have I seen it so high in the sky," he says. "Only as Seswatha." They skid down ravines and trip across gorges. They scramble until their fingers bleed. At last they find themselves staggering across sloping moraine, the glacier rearing enormous blue beneath a flaring Nail of Heaven.

They come across a river, which they follow until it breaks into a braid of white blasting streams. The glacier looms ever higher. The Sranc horns, when they blare, always sound incrementally closer.

Their breaths begin piling before them.

They gain the ice just as the sun broaches the low eastern horizon. The ice fields flash into kaleidoscopic life, blues sheeted with white and gold. For all the beauty, the crossing is arduous. Mimara quickly loses count of her falls. But at last they gain the glacier proper. Twice, they cross chasms with inner faces that gleam like mantlets of knives before plunging into blackness. They skirt blue-rimmed pits that rumble with hidden waters. They need only glance over their shoulder to see the Sranc-hundreds upon hundreds, thousands-filtering like some kind of plague across the icefields. The two climb and climb, race across fields of powdered snow, until their legs cease burning and simply become numb, until their hearts hammer like trinkets of tin.

The skinnies gain more icy ground, a horde numerous enough to darken the glacier's midriff. The Wizard and the woman can hear their shrieks, the raw edges of malice cawing through hooping delight. "Just run!" Achamian barks. "Let their howls be your goad!" But she finds herself turning whenever her flight affords her an opportunity and involuntarily clutching her belly through her golden hauberk.

Finally the two of them clamber onto slopes of drifted snow-ground they can trust beneath them-and the Wizard finally turns to face the surging masses. The Gnosis flashes pale in the high snow glare, cutting into the disordered rush immediately below them. The Sranc scatter, spread themselves too wide for the Wizard to strike en masse. War-parties dash out to either side, climbing so as to descend on them from above. Again and again, the Wizard sends light scything into the ring closing upon them, but the skinnies are too many, and they come from too many directions. For the first time, she senses the pin-prick absences of Chorae among them. She cries out a warning to the Wizard, but he already seems to know. Echoes carom across high and hanging places…

A cohort of hundreds closes upon them from the east. But just as the Wizard turns to them, they fall in a slumping sheet, all of them in unison, vanishing into tumbling explosions of snow and ice. The two fugitives watch slack-jawed. The shrieks and howls of the others climb to pitch, then dissolve into a world-engulfing roar.

Avalanche.

Thunder. Rags of blue darkness blowing across the sun. Blackness.

They are buried, but somehow able to move. The Wizard mutters, and the light of his eyes and mouth reveal a sphere of blue and white about his Wards: untold sums of snow, melting about the glowing curves, forming runnels of water. He raises his hands and a line strikes out, eerie for its geometrical perfection. It pierces the snow like tissue. Water flushes down. Steam blasts and sputters without release. A hole opens about the line, which the former Schoolman begins waving in wider and wider circles. Soon sunlight shines through the upward rush of steam.

Water rises about their boots, climbs to their shins.

The Wizard abandons the line, begins throwing Odaini Concussion Cants into the breach above them. Snow booms outward, sparkles as it heaves beneath high sunlight. They are uncovered, thanks to the Wizard's damnation.

Wet and numb and shivering, they climb back to the surface.

White light and the absolute absence of smell. There is no sign whatsoever of the Sranc.

She is crazed for exhaustion-she knows this-but never has she felt quite so sane. Other mountains loom about them, isolate heights rendered fellows for the gaping emptiness that surrounds them. She can even see the white smoke of the wind blowing across them, as if they were nothing more than winter drifts heaped to the stature of clouds. At last she understands why men look up when they call out to the Heavens, even though the Outside lies nowhere and everywhere relative to the World.

The human heart possesses its own direction.

They continue their arduous trek, labouring across plains stepped in blank desolation. Two specks beneath peaks that spiral in the sunlight.

The final, wind-sickled crest draws down with every laborious step, revealing the world beyond in creeping stages. The white-cloaked heights of the far mountains give way to snowless pitches, then to monstrous slopes mossed in pine forests. At last the two of them stand side by side on the glacial summit, sucking air that never seems to nourish, gazing out across the basin of an enormous green-and-black valley.

And they see it clutching the roots of the nearest peak to their left…

Ishual. The home of the Dunyain. The birthplace of Anasurimbor Kellhus.

At long last, Ishual… The sum of so much toil and suffering.

Its once grand bastions overturned. Its curtain walls struck to their foundations.

Another dead place.

 

 

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