[Outskirts of Degnialt, Degnialt; Year 12245 DE]
Alone, Rianix emerged from the cockpit and surveyed the surrounding darkness. He gazed across the chasm and could see not a modicum of activity on the bluff’s edge or in the windows of buildings burrowed into the massive stalactites. If spied even at such a distance, for the chasm spanned at least three hundred feet, Rianix would not have hoped for anonymity. He stood imperiously six-foot-eight, a gaunt giant with a thinning half-halo of dark hair and a vulture face, a perennial crease of a frown and seemingly pupil-less dark eyes too far apart, as if to assist in omniscience of his periphery.
The gambling house too was ominously silent, no torchlight or fluorescence emanated through the windows anyways opaque with grime and dust and powdered debris. Upon his intrusion, however, two shadows greeted him wordlessly, expectantly, and led Rianix through a brief maze of hallways finally to a torchlit antechamber. The claustrophobia-inducing room was adorned with iron candelabra against peeling madras wallpaper, and two figures were seated at a rectangular table boasting a humble tablecloth whose patterns were frayed into obfuscation, but nonetheless lustrously polished silver platters of food covered the entirety of the table and the scents savory and herby, aromatic sensations rare in Degnialt, experiences which belonged exclusively to the most elite of the emiracy’s bourgeoisie. The figures at the table resembled that of a man and a woman.
The man was immediately recognizable, that broad if surprisingly short stature and bronzen face, military-fashioned dark hair and trimmed beard contouring a rotund jawline. Lord Bylath looked at Rianix with a jovial smile and wordlessly gestured at the table’s offerings. The woman, by contrast, gave no indication she aware of his entrance. She was hunchbacked and shrouded in a russet cloak. In fact she was not clearly a woman at all, obscured, and Rianix only guessed so out of some instinctive disdain and by her lack of acknowledging him.
The man stood. “Your Supreme Emir-elect, my name is Desigovani Bylath—”
Rianix interjected quietly, curtly. “This I am aware, my lord. The Cyruseen king, purveyor of blasphemies, conspirator of treacheries, the Most Viral of radicals, all this is spoken of you. The destructor of Degnialt, though you would put forth that Degnialt itself seeks its own destruction. You are known.” All this he intoned casually as he seated himself.
Desigovani roared with laughter. He gestured spastically to the woman. “Yes! Pirje, the man dispenses with waste, he does not feign ignorance, suffer needlessness. Populist! And I should take credit for solidifying an issue which was at the core of your championed campaign,” he appended seriously, and to Rianix it revealed stark depth beneath a façade of gaiety. Desigovani pressed on, “for can there exist in this age of militancy a more severe issue than the indiscriminate annihilation of Degnialt by religious extremists? Goddess. Loqis’ flailing to combat us? Ettard, most voters believe earnestly you will take the fight to absolute measures, that you alone possess the strength to eradicate the Cyruseen bombers. Your rhetoric wouldn’t have led me to that conclusion. Of your intents. Others don’t think so either. Others believe you are more inclined to initiate a dialogue with the radicals.
“The Cyruseen belong to that second camp.”
Sitting down, Desigovani cast a swishing gesture at the guardsmen. “My man of the people, here are Olegario n’Efraim and Franzer Mugil. Our brothers. Olegario graduated cum laude at the Universidetmoriam zi Rafiori, then since he has headed our order’s biotechnical operations and research. Franzer you might chance recall from his days among Loqis’ original cabinet of generals.”
“The Battle of Vanzerworf,” Rianix recalled, acknowledging Mugil, though he was nauseated to realize how connected these criminals were in the highest stratospheres of Degnialt. “You likely rescued Loqis’ office countless times those early years. No one could understand your sudden resignation.” To his unease, the former general scarcely reacted, never meeting his gaze. The accomplished general and scientist pair remained in the guise of guardsmen.
Lord Bylath finally indicated the woman to his right and bowed his head. “And most high of all, our Pirje Nietzchev, albeit of no relation to the King of Milapf. She is my most trusted advisor and confidante, and is perhaps chiefly responsible for the great advances the Cyruseen have made these last several decades.” Pirje turned to Desigovani so that her expression was hidden from Rianix.
Disregarding this last introduction, Rianix’s interest was fixated instead on the sage, earthen aromas nebulous over the spread of food and teas, but he ignored his slight appetite. The Emir-elect was wiser than to partake of the terrorists’ offerings. The lord Bylath across him dined generously in his pauses. The woman showed restraint, saying and doing nothing.
“A tenet of my campaign was justice for va’Nohr, and I accused Loqis of having responsibility for the man’s disappearance,” Rianix said stonily. “My detractors believed my accusation was a cynic attempt to discredit Loqis, but I genuinely believed he must have had the motive and will to usurp the Emiracy. I wholeheartedly believed it,” he emphasized gravely. “But you wrote me, and I would not have considered coming here if not for your letter, my lord. You claimed Loqis was entirely innocent of va’Nohr’s vanishing. So I ask you now, if I was wrong, then what happened to him?”
“va’Nohr truly disappeared of his own accord,” the woman spoke for the first time. Rianix stared at her a moment, unbelieving.
“That is a lie. An absurd lie, woman.” When the shadowy crone merely shrugged, Rianix angrily continued, “And revelatory that I have wasted my time with this trip, if your letter only served to taunt me with truths you do not possess or divulge. Games,” he would have snarled, except for decades immersed in Degnialt politics having reduced Rianix to being incapable of human expression. “Games played with the legacy of Degnialt’s greatest Emir of modern times.”
The woman smiled, conceivably, for the corners of her mouth twitched more than they could be said to have moved. “Calm. We are not playing games with you. Sincerely, the famed warlord-Emir was gripped, without explanation seemingly, with a dire urgency to flee. Raw terror void of source cowed the legendarily bold man.”
Rianix was silently incensed and increasingly convinced of the pointlessness of having come. “Why, do you suppose?”
“Velthi awoke,” the lord Bylath spoke absently.
“What?” Rianix demanded, baffled. The lord’s answer registered as nonsense.
“Internal, metaphysical activity served as the catalyst for the old Emir’s flight… ironically it could be called, this awakening which alerted va’Nohr to the existence of particular predators simultaneously provided the avenue for his capture — the science of that would be difficult to explain, and extraneous,” and Lord Bylath jerked his head as if to dismiss his own roundabout thoughts, he harrumphed and regarded Rianix with renewed consideration. “Well, and this is the delicate thing attempting to delve into the metaphysical aspect of va’Nohr with you, Ettard.”
“The Cyruseen engaged va’Nohr only after his disappearance,” the woman said impatiently.
“If I am to believe that,” Rianix said, vastly irritated, “explain better.”
“Necessarily for a moment, we must discuss his soul,” Bylath almost seemed apologetic saying. The woman appeared to stifle an irksome gesture.
“His soul,” Rianix drawled, managing a sneer.
“To begin,” and Desigovani seemed to consider his next words. “You might say m’Leus va’Nohr’s age-wracked body was host to two souls, his own wretched thing and that of a spirit so old there aren’t even echoing whispers of forgotten mythologies to give it a name. Or you could say there was only one soul, that spirit reincarnated in its thousand-thousandth cycle. That soul essentially the incarnation of hermitage, for it would not repeatedly exist if it could so choose. Pitifully undying thing. What is incontrovertible is something that was dormant awoke inside tired old va’Nohr and spurred him to flee his captors he had the psychic forbearance to realize were pursuing him. That was us. So you see, we interfered not in his flight from the Emiracy but in the pursuit that followed. And our interrogation of m’Leus confirmed to us exactly what this woefully misunderstood church’s centuries of research and prophecies concluded — the malignant, bubonic goddess trapped and tortured and torturing souls in the churning black void of the abyssmos—”
“No — thank you, my lord, I’m familiar with that idea your brethren hold,” Rianix interrupted. His tone was passably courteous but possessed of finality. “Who performed the interrogation?”
Desigovani smiled genially, which crinkled his leathery visage. “My own daughter, Euné. She was a disciple of our teachings since her infancy, so you will attribute that to her zealotry and precision in performing crucial duties. Though rather, it is the absolute truth to our scientific perspective of the world that has cultivated her, who is strictly objective in her reasoning and, I say with such pride that even I can only fail to articulate its vastness, is prodigal in her talent.
“Naturally you are familiar with Cyruseen doctrine, Ettard. The intellectual public of Degnialt, is, in general, cognizant of the motivations behind so-called ‘terroristic activity’ wrought by our order. Regardless, allow me to leave you with a better-informed presentation of the urgency of our cause. At the very least, you can appreciate the merit of knowing our perspective.”
Rianix infinitesimally inclined his head but said nothing. Behind him, the guardsmen n’Efraim and Mugil remained statuesque either side of the door, apparently composed but nevertheless pervasive in the air of the room was the certainty that the Emir-elect would leave only once dialogue was concluded to Desi Bylath’s satisfaction.
“Eons ago, humanity flourished in a world radiant with light. Our ancestral race was created by the hand of God and worshipped him in the beginning. But even in heaven, humans are invariably inclined to decadence and ambivalence towards their spiritual well-being. God — Cyros — and you will say to me, how can we know with certainty this god’s name? Of course we cannot. In 11414 the Führer Caigniaxes decreed this forgotten deity’s name Cyros, allegedly discovered in stone Apocrypha, so we name him now. To the point, in that age, Cyros could not forgive His human creations for spiting Him, and He could not forgive the goddess Inuz, the sister, for leading humanity into the spiral of self-destruction. So in His wrath, humanity was cast down into the underworld of Cefux, or rather beneath the underworld, into the virulent abyssmos which now Inuz ruled and converted into the Hell she always envisioned for her dominion. A place of unendurable agony, a spherical ocean of boiling blackwater.
“As an appendix to this, there were fragments of the first humans who never wavered in their faith to Cyros, but in any case they were not spared from cataclysmic exile into Inuz’ torturous realm. They were however the only remnants of humanity with strength enough to lead the escape to the Cefuxian crust. Across inexorable millennia these Knights commanded the construction of the Ladder of Éaz from the depths of the black ocean. When the Ladder touched the ceiling (and we know this occurred in present-day Xin Lés, incidentally), humanity at last began rebuilding civilizations and spread across Cefux, forgetting their original home in heaven.
“Where the Ladder of Éaz is today… destroyed, fallen back into the depths of the abyssmos by the actions of the reincarnated Knight Velthi, who feared the goddess Inuz’ pursuit of humanity to the Cefuxian crust. In fact this action consumed the spirit thereafter with guilt and fear to transcend all future lifetimes, its only qualities, whatever courage Velthi must doubtless have possessed in her ancient origins.
“Millennia later, the human race has forgotten Inuz. And yet, the dark goddess has not forgotten us. The voidflares illuminate the entire Cefuxian world with frequency we have not witnessed in all human history. Mere weeks pass in between major surges, behemoth waves of raw energy scathing closer to the Cefuxian crust than ever experienced. At once natural phenomena from the unstable core of our world and a supernatural metaphor for the goddess’s unbinding rage.” Desigovani finally clasped his hands before him and paused to let the gravity of his soliloquy linger.
The woman slowly drew back her cowl. Her features revealed at last, a centenarian’s wrinkled and shriveled visage, she pointed directly at Rianix, which unnerved him inexplicably more than anything had. “Through whatever lens you view the void’s storms,” Pirje Nietzchev intoned, “the Cyruseen methodology should seem clear now. Naught but heaven can provide refuge from this doom.”
With this ultimatum, however, Rianix’s momentarily unguarded anxiety dissolved, and he functioned as though he had not heard or digested anything just said, immediately seizing the conclusion of Desi’s speech to ask his own question.
“m’Leus is deceased now by your hand, I presume. Are you interested in Iam Loqis?”
Desigovani snorted. “Not remotely. A pointlessly ineffectual man whose capabilities only extended to prolonging his pointlessly ineffectual terms of office. He was only your concern, and now that you are victoriously Emir-elect, my friend, Loqis can benignly return to whatever niche of obscurity he came from. You are our interest, and not in anyway similar to m’Leus but because I hope you will be willing to work with us. I daresay your condescending to come here in the first place confirms to me a working relationship is imminent.”
Rianix stared at Desigovani for a long moment, blankly expressive, saying nothing. Desi, far from being discomfited, smiled to himself as he poured nutmeg crème on the uneaten hors d’oeuvres and transferred them to his plate.
“Respectfully, I’ll take my leave,” he said finally, and neither guardsman moved to deny Rianix as he approached the door. On the threshold, he added, “You’ll have me followed from this place. A prudent measure, and there is no misunderstanding of why, though there’s no need, Lord Bylath,” and he pivoted slightly, movement the candelabra silhouetting his towering frame exaggerated, as he met Desigovani’s gaze a last time. “I despise the resurgence of cultism in Degnialt in recent years. Sects of the ignorant, frightened masses. It’s conceivable… your order operates on an elevated plane, but of intellect or lunacy, though, who can say…
“I have yet to assume office. I commit to nothing presently, for or against. But we will meet again.”
After a pregnant moment following the Emir-elect’s departure, nevertheless, Desigovani motioned to Franzer Mugil, who instantly followed the trail. Then Desigovani mused, chuckling. “Could it be politic fossilization or the man’s indomitable height, of all things… to not know his own son is our brother-at-arms. That revelation is inevitable, though, none of us have sworn Fox to secrecy. Nor should he be. Let the child teach the father for once.”
Pirje shook her head. “Rianix is a conservative in all things save ambition. Earthy, crystallized, skeptic. Not naturally prone to ideologies, least of all those with the yellows of myths. This was poorly done. The wrong route taken.
“Admittedly, his sincere reverence for va’Nohr is an interesting surprise. I believed it to be the bromides of campaigning, rallying, but possibly he now resents us for va’Nohr’s death.”
“If he believes that,” Desigovani countered.
“Rianix is still not similar to va’Nohr. He is a pragmatist and an opportunist, I am certain, and if he dismisses this all as religiosity there is the simple reality that it is far more advantageous for him to partner with us than to oppose us.”
Desigovani smiled. “Regrettable Loqis couldn’t understand. It’s as I said, I have no cares whether he lives out his last years or not. I have expressly absolved myself of his fate. We have brothers with more interest, however.”
“No matter,” Pirje agreed, but without levity she continued, “Desi. The atom-splicing rays, we are progressively clearing away structures in Degnialt so excavation can proceed. Very soon. But we can’t determine which deposits are accessible at meaningful depths. Logistically. Blasting the Emiracy into ruins won’t yield us that knowledge. Blasting those ruins into fine dust! Ettard is essential. But the science will win him, not ominous proselytizing.” Pirje paused to sip the Milapf-imported pu’er. Her hands trembled as she beckoned the tea’s aroma with her hands, hands that quavered and joints that ached with the rheumatism of advanced age, but eyes that contemplated and fixed on inscrutable depths. “Crystal mesælium. Nowhere in the entirety of Cefux, embedded for miles and miles in the earth ceiling in all the world over, is it found in deposits smaller than the size of cathedrals. Except in the Degnialt ceiling, where it is sparse and at largest the dimensions of a boar’s head. A crystalline metal that bonds with no known substance chemically, electrically or through subatomic forces, has no melting point even if it falls into the boiling ocean beneath us all. The flawless material for encapsulating all humanity in Cefux, the veins running through the earthen cage. But not in the heavens above Degnialt. The cork of the world.”
“This is known,” Desigovani granted. “Mesælium liquefies when it would be expected to freeze, though, and then can never be made to harden again. And, you are doubtless already aware, it is as inactive in that state as before. When we breach the heavens, we will discover a frigid ocean, I fear.”
“Better than the hellfire the whole of Cefux will be not long after,” Pirje reminded him. “The goddess Inuz readies her wrathful warfront in the broiling void for mere months more. Then doom arrives. This is known. Empirically. But call it a geophysical reckoning. Your neophytes will continue to hungrily fanaticize the Armageddon and its leviathan figures and fulfill their roles. Ettard will not so be swayed. A practical man, not a religious one.”
Desigovani leaned back in his chair, arms stretched lazily. “I don’t wonder how my Euné matured into the woman she is now under your tutelage. You continually have important lessons for even myself.” His wide grin made even the powerfully squat, fifty-year old man look outlandishly boyish, but his sincerity was unmistakable, so Pirje nodded.