Raised from the desert dust five centuries before, the Hall of Might filled even the mightiest of men with trepidation. The High-Spiritual of Altrisia was no exception. He vomited his last meal over the steps before entering within, despite his best intentions. The brooding guards clutching spears and military standards threw cold shadows across his heart as he walked the angular corridors, his footfalls echoing away to the roof. He noticed things he usually missed: a defaced bust of Vuzar the Terrible; a guard with a great hound on a chain; a dried bloodstain marking the stone floor.
At last Gazaric passed under the Arch of Might, above which the standards of Ictriz, Vorlon, Methwin and Lothwan were carved in sombre splendour. His heartbeat quickened as he saw the High-Speaker on his distant throne, the mightiest man on earth. What remained of Gazaric’s confidence diminished with each advancing step, as if unseen demons devoured his spirit.
Five axes hung high on the wall behind Lord Zircal, their great blades interlocked on a roundel of lacquered cedarwood. The tyrant Vuzar had made the five tribes of Altrisia present these weapons after the third revolt against his rule, as proofs of eternal fealty.
Zircal wore a black leather jerkin and black breeches secured with a broad belt studded with polished garnets. He gripped the Thyrsus of Dawn in his gloved right hand. A thin gold circlet enclosed his cropped black hair and a jewelled elk – ancient symbol of the Irsun tribe – glittered over his heart. For all his pomp, an aura of despond hung about him. He raised his eyes, hard and sharp as knapped flint.
‘All night I dreamt of my skin rotting as I lay dead in the earth,’ he said. ‘I dreamt of maggots devouring my eyes. I dreamt of my bones crumbling to dust. I dreamt of mountains piling high on my resting place, erasing all trace of my existence. And though it was only a dream, it was also truth; for death awaits us all.’
Gazaric said nothing.
Zircal’s keen grey eyes transfixed him like spears. ‘What of your duel with Death, High-Spiritual? I feel his shadow on me.’
Gazaric paled, his neck muscles stiffening with sudden stress. ‘The Halls of Fire grow daily,’ he said glumly. ‘Yet still the Death Shock intervenes, shattering the Mind-Web when our bodies die.’
Zircal shook his head. ‘That is no good to me, High-Spiritual. The rasp of Death’s black zalcar troubles my every moment. His long cold laugh torments my dreams. He is the one foe I cannot defeat. You must do that for me.’
‘We are trying, High-Speaker.’
Gazaric frowned. If some individual could be found whose identity endured the Death Shock, that trait might be bred into future generations. But nothing in these days could save Zircal from death, or any other man. Oblivion or the Endless Forest awaited everyone, as the gods had decreed.
‘There is one coming that might be of help,’ he stammered.
Zircal shifted on his throne, eyes kindling with excitement. ‘Who is this person?’
‘A Sirval, Lord.’
‘They come from the Sirval tribe? The renegades who dwell beyond the Great Water?’
‘The same, lord. They have strange gifts, too.’
The High-Speaker stroked his chin with gloved fingers. ‘Such as?’
‘Some have trained their minds to endure the Death Shock, lord. Temporary death is part of their star-gazing ritual. They are my great hope.’
‘I see,’ said Zircal. ‘Be about it, High-Spiritual.’
Zerala had already forgotten her perilous journey across the Great Water. The Five Tribes had never departed these lands between Dark Sea and the Waters of Peace and their capital Alzara was the nexus of Altrisian power on the Earth. And she was the first of her people to travel here in centuries.