Numenera: Shadows of the Past
‘I hate flying,’ said Theron.
’It’s hundreds of miles from Orilla to Qi,’ said Tranavaros, his back turned and staring at the clouds outside the Highwind ‘s window. ’Flying was the fastest option.’
He was right. The airship was faster, and safer. Many bandits and beasts prowled the highways from Milave to Draolis, but after spending months drifting in the sky Theron was beginning to forget what colour grass was.
‘This Amber Pope must have great influence, to have so many at his beck and call.’
Tranavaros faced him, his pale eyes calm as the surface of still milk. At times, they looked so deep into Theron that he forgot they were made of synth and wire.
He wondered what they saw in him.
‘There are nine nations in the Steadfast,’ said Tranavaros. ‘Each wants supremacy over the other. The only reason they aren’t in open war is because their people believe in the High Father. He is the wind that sways the reeds. He brings order. Matters that disturb that order are a concern to us all.’
Theron stepped over to the window, looking out to the horizon where the dawn sky met the snaking Wyr River. ‘He has an entire army of guardians to be concerned with order. He wants you for someone to blame when it all comes crashing down.’
Beyond the river, the sprawling city of Qi came into view. Its spires reached out to claim the clouds themselves in the name of the Amber Pope.
‘Then I’d best not fail,’ said Tranavaros. ‘Whatever he asks of me.’
Never had Theron seen a city as dark and rigid as Qi. Its gridded streets sprawled outwards like a complex net, entangling its citizens in grand walkways and many-levelled plazas. Tall metal spires dominated the skyline, their suspended mooring platforms holding airships of countless sizes and shapes. Theron and Tranavaros shuffled through the masses, cutting across a six-sided plaza toward a walled citadel of grey marble. Heavy black doors inlaid with radiating blue synth barred entrance into the citadel’s courtyard, guarded by two watchmen wearing the brilliant plate armour and cyclops helms of the Aeon Guardians.
‘None may enter the Durkhal without the Seal of the Amber Pope,’ said the first. His helm’s single lens beamed a ghostly red. The eye looked hard at Theron’s right arm rested at his side, seeing it was not an arm at all, but a large serpent.
Once he would have concealed the limb with bandages, but not now. He’d been through too much to fear the prejudice of others.
’I’m a Seeker of the Order,’ said Tranavaros, ‘I was summoned by the High Father. Delaying me, delays him.’
‘Are you deaf?’ joined the second guardian. ‘No seal, no entry.’
‘You seekers are all the same,’ spat the first. ‘You think finding trinkets at the piss-end of the world makes you special, like your privy don’t stink of shit the same as ours.’
Theron’s left hand formed a fist, knuckles clicking in place. The guardians gripped their hilts, ready to unsheathe their blades in a blink.
‘Take a single step mutant,’ warned the first, ‘and I’ll cut that snake off your shoulder.’
‘Enough.’ Tranavaros swept forward, tapping the first guardian on the arm.
He vanished without a scream. The seeker looked to the second, daylight twinkling in the corner of his eyes.
The guardian stumbled back. ‘What did you do to him?’
‘Nothing I can’t do to you, if you don’t let us pass.’
The guardian unsheathed his blade, metal hissing against leather.
Theron’s fist crumpled the steel of his helm, shattering its lens. A plume of smoke rose from the broken eye as the man tumbled over. He looked to Tranavaros, the seeker busy rummaging through his robe. ‘That wasn’t very subtle.’
‘We don’t have time for subtle,’ he said, taking a circular metal seal out of his pocket. He approached the entrance and set the seal’s face into a hollowed imprint of identical design at the centre of the doors. Three metallic clanks rang out and the doors opened with a hiss of air.
Theron kneaded his eyebrows. ‘You had the seal the whole time?’
Tranavaros placed the device back in his robe. ‘I never said I didn’t.’
The vastness of the Durkhal courtyard consumed Theron. It was a paved sea of grey marble surrounded by stone palaces so monstrous they made him dizzy. The greatest of them was the Regia, the seat of the Amber Pope and monument to the previous worlds. Stories of its majesty travelled as far as Milave, yet Theron could not describe the way its shadow weighed on him, like a menacing spirit bound to the temple’s foundation.
He felt a cold sweat on his forehead.
‘We won’t be here long,’ said Tranavaros, reading his mind.
A tall woman dressed in an eloquent blue gown and encrusted with jewels swept across the courtyard to greet them, the gems in her circlet catching sunlight as she bowed. Theron recognised her scent of sweet spice and incense swimming in the air.
‘Iadace, Tranavaros Syr,’ she said. ‘I am Ourana, dean of the ecclesia in Durkhal.’
‘Wisdom be to you, Sister Ourana,’ said Tranavaros. ‘This is my comrade, Theron.’
The woman smiled. ’It’s refreshing to see one with the gift of mutation in these grey walls. I’ve come to escort you both to the High Father, if you’ll permit me.’
‘He wants to see me as well?’ said Theron.
‘Please, follow me.’ Ourana turned to the Regia, her gown flowing behind her.
We won’t be here long, huh? He thought.
They climbed a steep marble stair to reach the entrance of the Regia, a façade of grand archways with two stone doors flanked by a pair of obsidian cyclopes statues. The doors opened into an atrium lined with pillared walls and a mosaic ceiling of blue-coloured synth, depicting a great eye of a hundred thousand shards.
‘We call it the Iris of Calaval,’ said Ourana. ‘During the night of the full moon, when the celestial body reaches its zenith in the sky, its light will shine through the iris and project images of the world.’
Tranavaros wandered forward, ensnared by the mosaic’s complexity. ‘I was an acolyte when the eye showed a man with a crown being dismembered by a horde of abhumans,’ he said to no one in particular. ‘A month later, news reached Qi that the king of Malevich was killed by his grush slaves.’
‘Maybe the eye was teaching a lesson, and wanted you to pay attention,’ said Theron.
Ourana pressed forward. ’Let’s not delay or the High Father will have his own lessons for us.’
Theron didn’t doubt that.
Durranet VI looked nothing like Theron imagined. In his mind, the Amber Pope was a frail man drowning in gold-spun cloth with white hair poking out his ears. The man that stood before him in the Regia’s rotunda was strong and stern as iron, barely a year passed fifty. He wore no extravagant raiment, but plain purple vestments over a slim black robe.
Besides them and Tranavaros, the only occupants of the grand chamber were two Amber Guard who stood sentry at the entrance. He thought of the renegade pair he battled in Navarene and was reminded of the cracked ribs and bloody spit they left him — and the corpses they became.
If this lot ever wanted a fight, he’d be happy to make them pay the same price their brothers paid for their folly.
‘Bring her in,’ said Durranet to the guards. The sentries exited the chamber, closing the heavy bronze doors behind them with a loud doom. ‘Apologies for the intrigue; I’m a precautious man.’
‘We serve at your leisure, High Father,’ said Tranavaros.
Theron glared at the Amber Pope. ‘He serves at your leisure. I want to know why I’ve spent two weeks in a blimp to be here.’
It wasn’t a polite response, he knew, but when had the Amber Papacy ever been polite to him? The entire organisation hated him and people like him.
‘In good time,’ said Durranet.
The Amber Pope fixed his eyes on Tranavaros, their blue shade deep as cobalt. ’I’ve always admired your adherence, Tranavaros. I believe you’re a man of true faith, which is why I’ve summoned you. And others like you.’
The bronze doors roared open behind them.
Theron turned and frowned at the woman dressed in leathers.
‘You don’t look happy to see me,’ said Me’gan.
She crossed the chamber and stepped onto the back dais surmounted by three silver thrones and took the middle seat, draping her legs over the armrest like she owned the world. The last time Theron saw her was on the Vagabond Road walking to Charmonde, after he threw her off a stolen mount. Thirty shins she’d almost rode away with.
It had taken all his restraint to leave her teeth intact.
On the dais, a shadow stirred. A ball of flame flew from Tranavaros’s hand and ignited against an invisible shield. A cloaked man emerged from the darkness, his hand raised and emitting dull black light.
‘Rash as always, I see,’ said the Inquisitor.
It was Tranavaros’s turn to frown. ‘The matter must be grave,’ he said, ‘if you’re involved.’
Me’gan sniggered. ’You’ve been in the sky too long. Didn’t you hear? Queen Armalu is dead.’
Theron’s jaw clenched. If that were true it meant Heston was king.
He couldn’t think of anyone more dangerous in Navarene. Heston was a cunning man who won the war of succession by destroying the noble House Dufort. Nothing was an obstacle for his ambition, not even his daughter, Clara, who he married to some lord to gain support for his cause.
But why would the Order of Truth give two figs who sat in the Empiternal House?
’There’s something else,’ said Theron. ‘What haven’t you told us?’
Blue light engulfed Durranet’s hand and a metal sphere appeared in his open palm, etched with glowing marks. ‘It would be best to show you.’
Numenera made Theron uneasy. Their power was dubious at best and absolutely destructive at worst. He looked to Tranavaros, who assured him with a nod.
‘Alright,’ he said. ‘Show me.’
The sudden light was blinding. When it faded, Theron opened his eyes and saw he was in a black void with blue fire. Embers lifted and took shape, creating a ghost image of a grave king overseeing a rally of soldiers at the entrance of marble palace. A knight wearing the emblazoned armour of the Angulan Charter whispered war in his ear. The embers shifted to banners wavering in the wind before a city of echoes. Two heroes stood atop the battlements with raised swords, their blades bright as the sun. He shut his eyes against the light, its heat searing his face. Fire and smoke filled his lungs and he recalled the crimson star all that time ago when it pulsed in its heart chamber, burning its power deep into his flesh. He exhaled and braced against the flames.
He awoke in a small room of grey marble that smelt of woody incense. Daylight beamed through a high arched window where Tranavaros stood looking out into the courtyard.
‘How long have I been here?’ croaked Theron. His lips were parched and cracked.
‘Three days,’ said Tranavaros, facing him.
Theron threw himself out of bed.
He knew better than to trust an Aeon Priest wriggling in his head with devices he knew nothing of, setting his mind ablaze. The old man would regret it when they next met, that he promised…
…Tranavaros’s eyes traced over him with strange fascination.
In the light of the window, Theron felt the sun’s warmth on his cock.
‘Where the fuck’s my clothes!’
He ripped the sheets from the bed and covered his manhood.
‘The acolytes removed them to bathe you, ’ said Tranavaros. ’They were filthy, so they took them to be washed.’
He sank back to the bed. ‘Great.’
A stabbing pain shot through his head. The visions in the fire returned to him, burnt in his memories — clearer than they were — as if he witnessed the events himself.
It was madness, all of it.
’Heston’s declared war on Draolis,’ said Tranavaros. ‘The Aeon Guardians have gathered at Kordech to reinforce the border.’
Theron cradled his head in his hands, the pain sharp as a dagger.
’Navarene’s army was stopped at Shallamas, I saw it,’ he said. Two heroes stood atop the battlements with raised swords…
He looked up. ‘Maxxos and Bion command the garrison there. If they’ve turned against Heston, they’ll need help. Assuming your Amber Pope’s right.’
Tranavaros peered back at the window, trying to be anywhere else but where he was. It was clear now what Durranet wanted, why the Inquisitor was here.
’You’re not being sent to aid them,’ said Theron. It wasn’t a question.
Why would Durranet care about a lone town garrison that weren’t native to Draolis? Leaving the civil conflict to play out gave the papacy time to prepare its defences while Navarene weakened its position. No matter which force prevailed in Shallamas, the Amber Pope won.
All it would cost is hundreds of lives, including that of their friends.
’I’ve been ordered to Charmonde,’ said Tranavaros. ‘I won’t ask you to come with me, not this time.’
Theron looked at the shiny surface of the Seeker’s eyes, the sun’s fire burning within them.
’You’re going to kill Heston,’ said Theron.
Forgetting his nakedness, Theron rose and held out his hand. The Seeker paused, giving him a chance to withdraw.
And so Tranavaros took his hand.
’We’ll stop Heston,’ said Theron, ‘and then we’ll save our comrades together.’
‘Together,’ promised Tranavaros.