The Time Master Books.
The First Magus, who with his fellow sorcerers rules the mortal world in the
name of Chaos, is dying. A final rite at which his successor will be chosen
is to take place in the Marble Hall, and Savrinor, the castle historian, must
attend and chronicle the event for the archives. Savrinor is deeply uneasy.
He believes he knows who the next First Magus will be. And the fact that a
supernatural Warp storm has come sweeping out of the north like a herald only
adds to his disquiet as the procession to the Marble Hall begins…
No lamps shone in any of the castle's many windows now; shutters were closed
and all but those who walked with the procession had retired to their quarters
as tradition demanded. The Warp had passed, shrieking into oblivion, and the
cortège emerged from the entrance doors under the indifferent eyes of
the two moons which now hung in a silent sky.
The first herald of the procession was a cold, glowing green sphere hanging unsupported in the air, which moved slowly from the shadows of the entrance to hover in the courtyard. Following it came the magi, dressed in flowing robes, their forms ghastly and otherworldly under the eerie light. In their midst four bearers carried a litter draped with white hangings, on which lay a still figure. There was no sound: no chanting, no dirge, not even the shuffle of feet. The magi moved as noiselessly as ghosts, the shining ball of light guiding them as they advanced in slow and stately procession toward the stoa, a covered walkway of colonnaded pillars on the far side of the courtyard, and the door at the stoa's end through which they would carry the First Magus to his final earthly encounter.
Savrinor walked behind his masters. The route was familiar but the occasion not so; though he knew the form that tonight's ceremony would take, he did not know precisely what to expect and felt reluctant to speculate. He watched the shadows of the colonnade as they passed by, unconsciously counting the pillars; then the procession turned as it reached the door, and passed through it to begin the long, slow descent of the spiral stairs winding down into the foundations. At the foot of the stairs they passed through a great, vaulted room, dark and silent now, then another door gaped before them and they were on the last stage of their journey, along the sloping corridor that would bring them at last to the Marble Hall.
The Marble Hall, deep beneath the castle foundations, was a place of mist and deception. Its dimensions—if it could truly be said to have dimensions—were shrouded in an uneasy swirl of pastel light and shadow, while the floor from which it took its name was an intricate mosaic of every perceptible shade, a random pattern that drew the eye yet disturbed senses constrained by the limitations of humanity. Centuries ago, when the seven lords of Chaos spoke to the sleeping minds of the world's greatest artisans, inspired them with dreams of terror and glory and guided their hands to cut the massive foundation stones on which this ancient castle was built, the Marble Hall and with it the Chaos Gate had been created. The Gate was a link between this world and the realm of Chaos, which no man still cloaked with the trappings of mortality dared enter, and as the procession moved across the shimmering floor Savrinor felt the deep-rooted thrill of awe and fear that no amount of familiarity could ever erode. The Gate lay at what was believed to be the Hall's exact centre, and when closed it was marked by nothing more than a black circle in the mosaic pattern of the floor. Now, however, the mists about the circle were agitating, their pale colors shot through with dark and dangerous shades; as he took his appointed place Savrinor saw a wavering black column appear above the mosaic circle, flickering close to the limits of perception, and felt the pulse of the forces held but barely in check under his feet. Chaos was stirring.
The bier was lowered with reverential care to the floor of the Hall, before the Gate. The First Magus's eyes were open and aware, but if he recognized the faces that surrounded him, or the nature of what lay ahead, he gave no sign of it. Paralyzing weakness had overtaken him that morning together with the final loss of his powers of speech, and any last benisons he might have wished to grant to old friends would never now be uttered.
Savrinor watched the dying man, whilst seeming to keep his gaze focused on the floor. A good master, in his own way; vain and self-seeking, yes, but who wasn't in these times? Such faults, if faults they were, had their uses, as Savrinor knew very well. A good servant to the gods from whom he took his power? Perhaps; though that was not for any but the gods to say. Better, certainly, than the one who would come after him... At that thought Savrinor's gaze slid surreptitiously to the members of the small innermost coterie of magi who had taken up their positions at the head of the bier, and to one man in particular.
Vordegh. In late middle age now, but still retaining the strength and musculature of youth in his massive build, Black-haired, swarthily handsome, dark eyes calm as he regarded the Chaos Gate and waited with his peers. A sorcerer of rare skill, a demon master, ascetic, sadist... and another word came unbidden to Savrinor.
Savrinor efficiently quashed the thought. With Vordegh as First Magus he would do well not even to allow such concepts to enter his mind. From now on he must guard even his innermost thoughts with the utmost care. Whichever way the wind blew, there would still be room for him to maneuver, if he kept his wits about him.
A stirring in the group's midst alerted him and he looked up quickly. The dying man on his litter was trying to speak. Words were beyond his power now, but a guttural croaking issued from his withered throat, like the last cry of an old, sick raven. The other magi hastened to his side, and Vordegh leaned over the bier and took hold of the old man's hand as though to offer comfort or a last farewell. The First Magus's fingers fluttered feebly; he held something bright in his failing, arthritic grasp, and the artifact passed from his hand to Vordegh's before the arm fell back limply to his side.
Vordegh straightened, and a cold, proud smile touched his mouth. Then he raised his arm, and Savrinor saw the thin, metallic wand that the First Magus had placed in his palm. A chilly blue-white radiance spilled from the wand, bands of shadow moved slowly along its length, and Savrinor sucked in a quiet breath as he recognized it. The ultimate symbol of the power granted to the magi by the gods, and one whose use lay solely in the charge of the castle's undisputed master—the key to the Chaos Gate.
The First Magus had named his successor.
Vordegh turned to face the Gate and raised the key high above his head. As his arm reached its full extent the wand's white radiance changed suddenly and shockingly to black, and it began to pulse like an unstable, earthbound star. The shivering column of the Gate took up the rhythm of the pulse, until the two meshed in perfect, terrible synchrony.
The old man on the bier stirred again. A crazed smile split his seamed features, and a spark of fire lit up the failing eyes as, with many hands supporting him, he raised his head a few inches from its pillow. The pulsing black light intensified in a ferocious flare—and the column of darkness seemed to invert, twisting in on itself and opening like a gigantic eye as the Chaos Gate yawned wide.
Savrinor looked into the eye and through it, to a black road that arrowed from the Gate toward a horizon so vast that he bit his tongue in shock. He could never habituate himself to this; the vastness, the vertigo, the impossible, alien madness of the world that assailed his senses. Wild colors spun across dizzying spectra, shapes that defied comprehension shifted in constantly alternating patterns of gloom and livid brilliance, figures that were not quite tangible and held their form only for the space of a heartbeat moved like restless wraiths on the periphery of vision. And the Marble Hall vibrated with the anticipation of something titanic, that breached dimensions, approaching.
The magi were still again. Even the shrunken old man on the pallet had ceased his efforts and lay passive once more, waiting, only his eyes animated and eager. Then came a sound like measured footsteps or a lethargic heartbeat, felt in the marrow rather than heard. Tension became palpable; somewhere—it seemed to emanate from the vastness beyond the Gate, but that might have been deceptive—a low humming vibrated in the bones behind Savrinor's ears.
The Gate shuddered and for a moment seemed to collapse back in on itself. Then a massive flash of brilliance, scarlet shot with searing white, turned the Marble Hall briefly to an inferno of light and fire, blinding the watchers and forcing them to turn their heads aside. And when Savrinor, teeth clamped down on an involuntary oath, was able to look again, Chaos's emissary stood in the shadows of the portal.
The being, which was half again as tall as any of the magi, had the body of a man and the head of a scaly, gape-jawed reptile. Colossal wings rose from its shoulders, the flight feathers fashioned from white hot metal that spilled molten fragments about its feet. A phantasmic golden corona of flames burned around the figure; flanking it, two eyeless and monstrously distorted chimeras strained at their chains, snakes' tongues licking at the air, dogs' claws scraping and scrabbling for purchase on the mosaic. The emissary opened its jaws, and the stench of a charnel house made Savrinor's nostrils flare. He forced himself not to flinch from it—discourtesy would be dangerous—and watched as the being's eyes, which were a warm amber brown, calm and intelligent and beautiful, slowly scanned the gathering, their gaze resting at last on the now quiescent First Magus.
The silence was profound. Blood pounded in Savrinor's ears and he held his breath, not daring to move a muscle. The emissary gazed down at the pallet, then its unencumbered hand came up, and a finger, tipped with a curving claw the color of old bronze, pointed at the First Magus's heart.
The old man smiled, and in the smile was the joy and triumph of achievement. He reared up as though to meet and embrace the Chaos being. Then the chilling hiss of his death rattle echoed hollowly through the silent hall, and his empty husk fell back onto the bier.
Hastily following the lead of the magi, Savrinor dropped to one knee and traced the seven-rayed star over his own heart as a mark of respect for the First Magus's passing. Only Vordegh did not kneel or make the sign. He merely stood erect, unmoving, gazing steadily into the quiet eyes of the demon before him, and waiting. The emissary's reptilian head inclined once, and Vordegh held out his hand, displaying the darkly glowing wand on his palm. The claw reached out, plucked, and in the demon's grasp the wand turned white hot. The monstrous jaws gaped again in a parody of a smile. Then the emissary touched the tip of the wand to the exact center of Vordegh's forehead, and held it there.
Savrinor almost gagged on the reek of charring flesh, and some of the magi looked away. Vordegh, however, did not flinch. The tendons of his neck stood out like whipcord, but he stayed his ground, eyes staring straight ahead, though unfocused now with the strain of absorbing and withstanding the agony he must have felt. He would not recoil, he would not plead for cessation. The will of the man was unhuman, Savrinor thought with an inward shudder.
Suddenly it was over. The demon's arm fell to its side, and Savrinor saw the puckered stigma of a ferocious scar on Vordegh's brow; a scar that would never heal. Vordegh's gaze dropped—the only sign of relief that he would permit himself to show—and the emissary held out the wand, no longer blazing with heat, for the new First Magus to take. The two eyeless chimeras opened toothless mouths, shaking their chains, and the emissary stepped back a pace. Once more, though briefly, it scanned the assembly with something resembling cool speculation in its eyes. Then the molten wings rose high, clashed together, and with an enormous, silent concussion, the black eye of the Chaos Gate closed and the emissary was gone.
Through the silence of the darkest hours Savrinor sat at the table in his room, committing the night's events to parchment as his duty compelled. The window was heavily curtained, and the airlessness together with heat from the built-up fire made the chamber stifling. But Savrinor could not stop shivering. The feeling of bone-numbing cold in him was partly due to the effects of the narcotics he had been using since his return, but the real cause of his condition, and the reason why he had turned to his drugs in the first place, was the unpleasant and unnerving track of his own thoughts.
There had been something wrong with the ceremony. He had not dared to consider it at the time, but now the memory echoed in his mind like a recalled nightmare. On the surface everything had gone well enough. The old First Magus's soul had been gathered to the realm of Chaos and had made its last journey gladly, his successor had undergone trial and had not been found wanting. But there were anomalies. The emissary sent by the Chaos lords had been a demon of no great rank; Chaos was perverse, and its higher beings tended to favor less bizarre manifestations than their lower brethren. Though Savrinor had never been privileged to witness such an event, he had heard that the gods themselves took the form of ordinary men on the rare occasions when they deigned to make themselves known to their human servants. All well and good; the emissary had been of an order warranted by such an occasion as this. But there had been no shout of fanfares, no violent assault on the senses, none of the ceremonial that usually accompanied the arrival of the lesser demons. The emissary had not spoken a single word, had demanded no praises or psalms in its turn. And Vordegh's trial had been simplicity itself.
It didn't fit with the accepted pattern. Despite its erratic nature Chaos maintained a certain predictability in its dealings with the mortal world; without that stability its worshipers couldn't hope to function. And by those rules, such anomalies as Savrinor had witnessed tonight simply should not have existed. They suggested to his uneasy mind an ambivalence on the gods' part. But ambivalence toward what? The old First Magus? The new? Or something that, as yet, he couldn't even begin to guess at?
Savrinor shook sand over the last of his parchments. He had no time for false modesty and knew that his work tonight had excelled even his usual high standard. Every detail of the ceremonial was there, and woven in among the facts was a sober tribute to the wisdom and nobility of the late First Magus, carefully balanced by several subtle paragraphs in respectful but emphatic praise of his successor. Even Vordegh couldn't possibly find fault with this. And no one, Savrinor hoped and prayed, would ever know of the other document, the few brief but succinct notes in his own shorthand code that now lay secreted in an inner drawer, and that told a different story.
Feeling faintly queasy with the sense of having finally shed an unpleasant burden, Savrinor set the completed document aside. Fastidiously he turned down the cover of his bed, then moved to extinguish the lamp. A gaunt shape moved in the gloom beyond the light, and he started nervously before realizing that it was nothing more than his own shadow disturbed by a flicker within the lamp's chimney. Jinking at shadows… It was a trait he mocked in others, for twilight, literal or metaphorical, had always been his natural habitat. But suddenly he felt uneasy in its embrace. And the thoughts that had been troubling his mind were still there, and they still would not let him alone.
Forcing down the tension within him, Savrinor sought refuge in his bed, for once not troubling to shed his clothes. It would be dawn soon enough, and the new day would see a good many changes if he and his bones were any judge. Better to be ready at a moment's notice, in case of... what? He didn't know. Perhaps nothing; perhaps not. Like all of them, he would have to wait and see.
Again he reached out to extinguish the lamp, then let his hand fall away from it and instead left it burning, a small pool of brightness in the dim room. It was irrationally comforting, and there was no one else here to witness his small show of weakness.
Savrinor did not sleep that night.