Think first, mortal.
And you, long-lived.
~ Excerpt from a recording of Guardian and Peacekeeper on Xen III
It was hot and Taranis shifted in bed for a cooler region.
Outside cicada wings whispered despite darkness, bedfellows of humidity. His pillow was damp; he cursed and flung the sheet aside. Padding naked to the console, he punched buttons to circulate the air faster. Thank the gods for this world’s technology. It was close to religion here. The need for rest drove him back to bed. The heat wave of the last week had already taken too much from him. He tossed for a time in fitful snatches of sleep, the kind where images came and went randomly and one thought one was awake and dreaming simultaneously. When he lurched upright as an apparition materialised in the corner of his bedchamber, he at first believed he was dreaming or hoped it was a hallucination. It was not either; sweat trickling between his shoulder blades revealed he was awake.
“Get dressed, Guardian.”
Taranis shifted, attempting to get into position for a lunge at his sword. The blade lay on cold tiles on the other side of the bed.
“Steel cannot harm a nigromant,” the voice said as if reading his intentions. “If you need test my words, do so. I am not leaving until you comply.”
“Gods, I must be dreaming,” Taranis muttered.
No reaction came from the insubstantial form.
A nigromant was an apparition, an ethereal messenger from the mind of a tangible being, and able to traverse great distances in an instant. A nifty trick if the source needed to share something from afar or needed to do so without risk.
Which was it? Was the source afar or was it afraid of direct confrontation?
“What do you want?” Taranis demanded.
“You are to accompany me.”
“And where are we going?”
“Infinity sent you?” Taranis almost laughed. The dara-witch was slippery, but he did not think her clever enough for this kind of ruse.
“I am commanded by the Arcana.”
He lost the power of speech then, and the ability to think coherently. What roiled in his mind was the meeting with Infinity on Mir 4 two weeks ago. He went because she threatened to poison Mir’s water sources. She spoke of the Arcana and a rift, and he laughed in her face. As he left, she swore she would prove their existence and here this creature was.
Power of speech returned. “I do not believe you.”
“I am able to force compliance, Guardian. I suggest you choose the easier path.”
Unable to think about why, he believed this apparition was exactly what it claimed to be. He felt it in icy shivers over clammy skin. He swallowed dryly. “Are you going to kill me?”
A hiss of a laugh. “You would be dead now. No, I am your means to proof.”
“The Arcana are real. The dara-witch Infinity found us and we have agreed to be the leverage she requires. If you desire to save Valaris from annihilation, come with me. You will be returned to your bed after.”
Heat wave; cold skin. The night was not what it was when he set the air to circulate faster. Taranis rose and dressed, retrieved his sword from the floor and strapped it on. If he returned to his bed, he would not be sleeping in it too soon.
“I am ready,” he whispered, and prayed to all the gods in the universe to watch over him.
They came from varied places.
The Sagorin were the nomads. The Siric arose from their latest homeworld, old by most calendars and far from the gathering place. The mighty Eagles winged in from various roosts, tailed by the nimble Falcons. The Centuar materialized within the gathering in the blink of an eye. Finally, there were the delicate Sylmer.
A gathering-call was felt within and could not be denied.
The Dome was a magical cathedral, with soaring marble pillars reaching heavenward to commune with the stars, pure white with silvery tracings, intermittently sparking, a reminder of the life within the stone. It was warm to the touch, releasing the slightest shock, a pleasant sensation. Living rock - many would discount the notion.
There were fourteen pillars exactly spaced about the perimeter of the circular interior and together they formed the sacred ogives. It was through these vaulted arches that each set entered, each having a doorway.
There were fourteen magical doorways and six were employed in answer of summons.
The ceiling of the Dome was similarly segmented, creating the illusion that the vaulted arches met overhead without support. Being of magic, any support was illusion. The mosaics overhead were of incredible variety and hue, and depicted stylised scenes beautiful and grotesque.
There were winged creatures soaring over mountain peaks of emerald, violet, tangerine and sapphire. There were water scenes with sleek, silvery beings half-leaping, half-diving. There were battle scenes, with humanoids astride four-legged, winged creatures. Darker images of beings black, mud, scarlet, and plutonium green, animalistic, fanged and wading through rivers of bleached bones, sat alongside the beauty.
At the previous gathering they decided to remove the darker images, no one having the need to remember the battles depicted, but as nobody entered the Dome since, the work remained undone.
There were sixty in the Dome, a round figure by accident, death and time, not design.
They sat on mottled stone benches tiered in concentric circles about a raised dais in the centre of an unblemished white floor. This was the Gatherers’ Circle set within the protective magic of the Dome.
They communicated via spoken word, generally the common tongue. The Eagles and Falcons employed mindspeak, and often relayed messages over vast distances, a talent valuable when secrecy was imperative. It was a ploy rarely accessed, for they preferred transparency of action, speech and sorcery, not the backhanded methods of concealment and dark corners.
Seen as gods, they did not regard themselves in this way. They were guardians and protectors of those unable to shelter their own and recover from terrible calamity. They were in a unique position to offer assistance. Relief workers, defenders of the weak, upholders of the universal laws and sentries against evil; they were the Immortal Guardians.
It had been a thousand years since the last formal gathering. The signs and rumours formed a jigsaw of unnamed evil and this gathering bespoke new urgency. The time was at hand to confront it.
The participants settled down restlessly on the stone benches and waited.
They did not wait long.
Taranis appeared in the seventh ogive.
He marched down the aisle between the benches and into the Gatherers’ Circle; he was their leader and sent the call.
Being human, he was unique among them. Millennia ago he met the right conditions and learned the secrets to attaining longevity. Immortality brought him eventually to the Guardians and they admitted him to their ranks and took him along to their infrequent gatherings, where they swiftly realized he was an excellent sorcerer with a powerful mind.
Then came the time he earned his own doorway and became their leader.
Three thousand years ago, the Guardians did battle with Drasso and Infinity. It was a terrible, annihilating, inexorable war with victory always out of reach. All human worlds were initially on Drasso’s extermination list, with the Guardians fighting him on each one. After wreaking a great deal of havoc and causing immense devastation, he focused his voracious gaze on one world as his ultimate prize.
Drasso was on the road to victory when the Guardians intervened, and Taranis was eminently suited to strategy on a human world. Drasso was defeated, his army driven away, his mother Infinity swearing eternal revenge. It was a prolonged war and a hard one to fight. All Guardians bore scars.
After, Taranis was chosen leader, the decision unanimous. In the aftermath it was to him humans looked.
Valarians called them Deities. Having witnessed their power they could equate them only to super beings - gods. They proclaimed Taranis as Lord of the Deities, something he was powerless to change.
Among humans and particularly Valarians, that was his destiny, and his name is revered as holy and unassailable to this day.
Taranis strode to the dais.
He disdained clothes of any purpose other than functionality and was thus casually clad in plain black breeches tucked into leather boots and a blue linen shirt. His hair, thick and dark, teased the collar.
Taranis stepped up and laid his sword and scabbard down, and surveyed the gathered. Grey eyes crinkled in a greeting smile.
He knew all present were able to perform the tasks he had for them this occasion, but today was a day of choices. Potentially, it could get heated before calm reigned.
They would all step forward to offer hands, minds and lives, and he could select only four.
His eyes warmed when he noticed individuals catch his gaze deliberately. At one time or another each was a teacher to him. Each taught him well, each was a friend. The wheel turned, and today he was the teacher. He thought his ability to lead stemmed from his uniqueness and singularity, for they were multiple units and could argue hard before unanimous decision.
The dais was waist height, a semi-circular pedestal of white marble, and appeared an extension of the floor, both refuted and emphasized when Taranis moved to encompass everyone in initial welcome; it moved with him no matter which way he faced - that proved it was separate - but it also created the illusion that the entire circle moved.
Set into the stone atop the pedestal were four symbols in ever-changing colour, there to recognize the speaker. If one dimmed, it subtly alerted the gathered to possible subterfuge, thereby giving them time to take action.
One light was for Knowledge, one for Communion, one for Sorcery and the last was the light of Recognition. In the long history of the Dome it had never muted, yet each participant was trained to check status. There were glamours that could be employed to dupe a friend and although no glamour would get past the ogives, it paid to be cautious.
Taranis drew breath. This would not be simple, but it was time to get down to the matter at hand.
“My friends, it is good to see you looking well and rested. Forgive my haste; I have much to tell you and time is of the essence. For years we have marked the signs of approaching confrontation and where able we upset and delayed it, for we did not know the source. None of this is new, but the source is now unequivocally confirmed and the time of confrontation has arrived.” He paused to study them, and added, “I imagine it will come as no great surprise that the source is Infinity.”
Rustling sounded among the listeners, but it soon settled, for proof was due.
Taranis went on. “A short while ago a messenger delivered an ultimatum. Infinity has altered the nature of her strategy.” He paused to inhale as if searching for strength. “Infinity has an alliance with a terrible host, and that alliance is the reason we cannot afford to ignore her.”
They would not like what he said next, and would not immediately credit his revelation as truth. They would not think him a liar - they would think Infinity the deceiver.
Taranis put his hands on the console alongside the lights and studied the frowning concentration on most faces. The silence in the Gatherers’ Circle was absolute.
“We may have to deal with the primordial beings of Arcana.”
A simple statement, the words belying the emotion it engendered in him. The gathered were no different.
There was bedlam in the Dome as the Guardians erupted. Agitation, certainly. Disbelief, naturally. There were traces of fear amid loud denials. Fear he expected, as he could not refute initial disbelief, and he was not offended. He would not deliver a statement of this import lightly, not even to jest in times of peace.
Nobody used the term ‘Arcana’ in vain. Wings unfurled to beat the air and hooves stamped.
“Settle down!” Taranis shouted over the din. A million questions hurtled across the floor and he could not hope to answer one before a million more drowned him out. It had to be step-by-step or no one would learn anything. “Sit down! Allow me to continue and it will be made clear!”
The Sagorin drew together as if the mere mention of the Arcana could bring the threat to immediacy; the Siric shuffled their wings but did not sit - they stalked the upper tier and nothing, he knew, would induce them to stillness unless it was their choice. He did not bother to try; a Siric was stubborn.
Eagles and Falcons perched calmly at random, drawing comfort from their agility. The glorious Centuar moved unobtrusively to take up position near the shy and nervous Sylmer, who had erupted wordlessly, staring at their more voluble colleagues before staring fearfully at each other.
After a few moments of re-established silence, Taranis went on.
“For longer than I have been an Immortal the Arcana have been legend. Each of you at one time or another whispered a tale of these mythical fallen beings and although I believed it only a tale, as you did in the telling, I was wary of this frightening legend, as you were and continue to be.”
He scrutinized their intent faces, particularly the Sylmer, his gaze lingering on one, and was satisfied with their reaction. They were prepared to accept the unexpected.
“What are the Arcana?” he said into the silence. “Legend has it they were beings so evil they were banished into permanent exile in another dimension. They could no longer reach back and touch those they hounded for so long, except in the tales left behind.” He peered into the tiers attempting to encompass the gathered in one fierce gaze. “I now have cause to validate a legend.”
“Pardon?” a Siric growled, ceasing his pacing to glare down into the Circle. Declan, the questioner, as ever.
Taranis shook a finger at him. “Hold, I am not done.” Declan resumed pacing and Taranis gave a grim smile. “Are we able to comprehend what the Arcana were? Were they real, were they once here, or were they visitors at one time? Even the darklings we do know cannot credit the Arcana as more than legend. Unfortunately Infinity read more into a myth and she set out to find them, and did.”
“What?” “Where?” and “Why?” were flung into the vaulted space, the latter being most frequent.
His voice rose over the din. “We know Infinity, ever seeking advantage! Three thousand years she has been patient, biding her time until she discovered something to ensure victory. We have wondered, have we not, and therein lies the ‘why’, my friends.”
The Siric ceased pacing and the atmosphere altered. It was electrified; minds engaged in a different manner. The brightness of the Dome’s interior seemed to darken, the dais lights shining like beacons.
“If the Arcana could not reach back, maybe someone could reach out; create a doorway, a Rift large enough to facilitate a meeting of discovery. Infinity did all that.” Taranis grimaced, resting his palms on the dais. “I met her on Mir4 and denied her scheme. The dara-witch played with me, preying on our fears, using an ancient tale to lend her trickery credence.”
“What changed your mind?” Declan asked.
Taranis leaned against the pedestal. “The Arcana changed my mind. They sent a messenger.”
“Wait,” Declan said with one hand aloft. He glanced at his colleagues, receiving nods. “The Arcana did this?”
Dead silence in the Dome.
“Yes, the beings of myth sent a nigromant directly into my bedchamber.”
“Goddess,” a Sylmer murmured.
Taranis’ gaze flicked to the four Sylmer; it was unusual for any of the three men to say anything, and a prayer, a blessing, a curse, was even stranger.
“This was last night, and at first I thought I was dreaming … be still! Let me finish! Do you know what scared me most? Not that I began to believe it was no hoax, but that they knew where I was.”
He drew breath and looked down at the lights. Nobody knew where he lived; he preferred it that way.
An explosive breath left Declan’s lips. Like the others, he did not know where Taranis called home and, like his Dome leader, he knew, in finding it, the Arcana proved mastery. “What did it want of you?” he asked.
The others were content to let him ask the questions; Declan had a way of sniffing hidden nuances out. Declan would one day prove very worthy of his race.
“It was sent to prove a legend, simply put, and it would do so by presenting me to the Arcana.”
This time the Sagorin leader breathed out a cross between oath and prayer.
“Indeed,” Taranis agreed. “The apparition transported me to a Rift between realities, proving there is another dimension …”
“There are theories, Taranis.”
“Yes, thank you, Llettynn, but theory proved boggles the mind.”
“Did you meet them?” Declan asked.
“What I saw was a brief glimpse of chaos such as we have only imagined in our nightmares,” Taranis replied. “Whether that Chaos was the Arcana, I am not sure, but I certainly discovered the effect they can have on empty space and shudder to think what they could achieve with not so empty regions. I was escorted partly through the Rift and there I found Infinity dancing in glee and beyond her was pure Chaos.”
Taranis stopped there and placed his hands on the symbols for Knowledge and Communion.
“I shall share my experience directly, for I have not the words.”
He pressed down and sent out images directly to the receptive minds of his companions. It was a form of mindspeak, only greater and more honest; the console did not lie or soften, and anything it sent out was irrefutable.
A hiss of shock filled the Dome and on its heels gasps of horror. Then there was quiet, the breathless silence that could be truly unnerving.
The Rift. A ragged tear against the blackness of space. Glimpses of undulating grey matter through the jagged gaps.
A cursed Rift! An actual portal between two dimensions. And if the Rift was greater than theory, what then of a terrifying legend? The images spun on, vision narrowing to a jagged triangle of roiling grey cloud, expanding again as they passed beyond their known reality.
Chaos was a kind word.
Chaos was an impenetrable smog, cloying, dense doom, persistently on the move, coming, going, reeling, spinning, agitating as if it were alive and greedy, hungry, cannibalistic, needy, with half-seen inhuman, un-humanoid shapes that flitted and taunted, reached out, tried to touch … if it touched you died you knew this felt this did not like this … unremitting sickly glow lightning sparked and did nothing to dispel the thickening gloom, instead it terrified as if the lightning were a living entity in symbiosis with the life in the smog and the life that was the smog.
Vapid chameleon eyes, sickly yellow eyes, cold snake eyes danced and challenged one after the other, coming closer, too close. Reptilian scales unlike any known reptile flashed unmade in the lightning, much the worse for only seeing part of the whole. Fangs as long as a man’s arm, dripping saliva the colour of pewter, as thick as mercury … and as dangerous, death would be agonisingly slow. Snatches of sight, too little to make sense of. Chaos. Chaos that could destroy worlds.
“Enough?” Taranis’ voice sounded distant, as if he were far from them, abandoning them to Chaos, and the Guardians had to will those images aside.
As if awakening from a trance or death’s long sleep, the Guardians emerged one after the other, with the more impressionable Sylmer coming out last, and glanced at each other to confirm they had seen what was shown them, needing the confirmation to prove they were not alone, were not insane.
Eyes slid away as the strange quiet stretched and intensified.