"The problem's not my cart! The problem's your fat ass!" Ausonia snapped.
The Heptastadion teemed. Shouting stevedores. Bellowing boatswains. Boisterous boys. Staggering sailors. The Heptastadion, a long causeway linking the mainland to Pharos island, was a rich, if noisy, source of clients.
Beyond all that tumult, the dawn was clean. Pink and tangerine tinged Alexandria's sky. Triremes -- oars shipped, sail spread -- rode the morning breeze into the white-flecked Mediterranean. The clean breeze scoured away the odor of dead fish.
In the shadow of the Atlantean ship's prow, Ausonia set to assembling her booth. From here she peddled her services. A childhood fascination with engineering had led her, naturally enough, into studying something more fundamental: daemonic magic. Communicate with the consciousness permeating the cosmos ... and who needed to understand why an arch worked? Ausonia had set herself a goal of, one day, being powerful. And strange.
At twenty-eight, hers was a mature beauty: statuesque, serene, regal. Large doe-like eyes illuminated her face, and a cascade of blue-black ringlets framed it. She wore a simple linen frock, belted with a crimson cord.
Her booth assembled, Ausonia threw a scrap of pale blue baize over the bench. She was now open --
Clang. Clang-clang. Whoosh. Clang! Plop.
Ausonia shot a fierce look towards the rock-throwing boys. "Again? Today? "
The biggest boy grinned. "Bugger Atlantis! Three times ... with feeling!" He threw hard.
A trio of togate patricians, alarmed by the hubbub, swerved away from Ausonia's booth. Irritated, she snapped, "Stop it!"
"Where's Thrax? He's a lot more fun than you are!" A fragment of pavement whizzed by the lad's ear.
"The brother works for Lady Penelope. Occasionally." A fusillade of rocks broke against the hull. "Please, stop it! You're killing my business!"
The boy shrugged. "Times are tough -- ow! Marcellus! That was too close!"
A decade ago Atlantis had defeated the Empire, looting from Rome Mauretania, Lusitania, and Hispania Ulterior. The Mediterranean was no longer Rome's private lagoon. Resentment -- and fear of the sea-going empire -- was now endemic.
"The war is over!" Ausonia cried. "They're not enemies. They're guests."
She should've known facts were not the appropriate tool to move a boy.
"Remember the tale of Baucis and Philemon, the old couple --"
Arm cocked for a throw, the boy rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, old coots who take in two grubby bums only to find -- shazam! --it's the traveling Zeus and Hermes show! Heard it, ignored it, flunked the final exam!"
Ausonia's eyes closed. Enochian words flowed silently through her mind. Enochian was one of the semi-extinct languages to which the daemons might respond. Willful, prideful, the daemons were corpuscles of thought permeating and manipulating the cosmos' atoms. Towards some magicians, the daemons acted capriciously ... but they liked Ausonia's concise, elegant thoughts.
Turning, Ausonia lifted her arms. Flames appeared, seeming to twine around each limb. She cupped in her palms the illusion of hooded, lambent cobras, outlined by flame. The boys shrieked and fled.
"Morons!" Ausonia breathed.
"That was kind of you."
Atop the gangway stood a man, tall and grim. His face was weather-beaten, his hair salt and pepper. He held himself erect as a proud king. His sea-blue robes, snapping in the stiff breeze, were decorated with white bull's heads. Poseidon, who used a bull as an emblem, was Atlantis' chief deity.
"Should've done it yesterday." Ausonia's fire-serpents vanished.
The Atlantean glared down the Heptastadion after the fleeing boys. "Rude creatures." Studying Ausonia, he stroked his beard. "So. A sorceress. A clairvoyant?"
"Would you come up?"
Ausonia climbed the gangway. The metal ship's clear deck lacked rowing benches. And crew.
"Let's go below."
Ausonia clattered down a companionway. Disconcertingly, the fore-and-aft passageway appeared so long it should have dwindled to a distant point. But laws of perspective did not obtain here. There was a sizzling tang in the air, like a thunderstorm. Still no crew.
"Not moving an inch."
The Atlantean waved his hand, and a large brass plate slid aside, revealing a rectangular door cut into the iron bulkhead.
The cabin's carpet was thick and dyed Tyrian purple. Glazed, brass-frame bookcases filled with codices lined the bulkheads. Ausonia, eyebrow raised, noted there were brass hatches on all four walls. Shouldn't that one be visible on the exterior hull?
"The table, please."
They sat. The circular table was a chessboard, but the sixty-four squares were arranged in four concentric rings around a central blank. The pieces were abstract shapes, cut from soapstone, and had no meaning for her.
"I am a Klarkash-ton. A title, not a name."
Ausonia essayed a grin. "What's your question, O Klarkash-ton?"
Grimness gave way to frustration. To anger. "Where in this accursed city are my charges? I have three youths in my care. Young Atlanteans of high estate. The boy, Rdaatru. The girl, Zloxa. The young woman, Heiitolanu."
"Missing! They were lured ..." The Klarkash-ton gathered himself. "Listen. When we moored, a man from the Great Library boarded. He tried to confiscate my books. Can you believe that?"
"Yes. It's not merely Alexandria's custom. It's law."
"No one confiscates Atlantean books! I laughed in his face and threw him off."
"There's the stem of your troubles right there."
"Aye. In retrospect, I perceive that." The Klarkash-ton sighed. "My charges, you see, are to study at Shambhala. In the east. We would've departed this evening. But. The librarians sent an emissary. Very obsequious. Bowing. Scraping. Apologetic. I was so foolish as to allow my charges to accept the dinner invitation." The Klarkash-ton rubbed the bridge of his nose. "They should've come aboard last night."
"I can locate them. I can't guarantee they're alive.
"Why would they be dead?" the Klarkash-ton cried.
"Never come between a librarian and a book."
The weather-beaten face became stormy. "If Alexandria has harmed them ... then Atlantis will wipe Alexandria off the face of the Earth."
Ausonia spoke quietly. "High estate indeed."
The Klarkash-ton slid a thick, square gold coin across the chessboard. "Your retainer. Find them alive, and ... a sorceress, eh? Well, since you're the opposite of a librarian, you may choose a book."
Heart in her throat, Ausonia inspected the codices. Titles in gold leaf decorated the leather bindings. Many titles were in the geometric Atlantean script. Others in hieratic and demotic glyphs, or Mesoamerican pictographs from the western side of the Atlantic, or icy futhark, or the serene and evocative ideograms of far Serica. A few were in Greek.
"This one, By Iamblichus Chalcidensis." Ausonia didn't hide her greed.
"Find them alive, and it's yours."
Cheerily, Thrax asked, "You gents wouldn't mind getting out of my way, would you?"
The rear guard shot a flinty look over his shoulder. "Ya mind shuttin' up, pretty boy?"
Thrax was handsome, blond, tall, square-jawed, wide-shouldered as a gladiator, and narrow-waisted -- but pretty? That verged on an insult. Or a proposition. Thrax could've taken on the flint-eyed bravo. And his five scruffy, dagger-armed companions. But why bother? Thrax's spirit was light. In a few minutes, he planned to be heckling yet another of Alexandria's preachers. Why spoil the mood?
"You gents keep doing what you're doing."
"Oh, aye, we will, Hyperborean."
"Hey! I'm a Macedonian!" Thrax's chest swelled. "My ancestor founded this city, you know."
"The great Alexander spawned no legit sprigs, so mind the bullshit, mate."
Whistling, Thrax trailed the gang up the narrow alley. It was a curious group. Three respectable youths -- a boy of fourteen, a girl of sixteen, a young lady of eighteen -- were surrounded by a thuggish bodyguard. White bull's heads spangled the youth's sea-blue robes. The way the youths behaved annoyed Thrax. Every few steps, the eldest girl froze, her face a rictus of terror. The middle child gazed slack jaw at the sky. The prodding of the bodyguard seemed to be the only factor motivating them.
Long before the alley debouched into the crowded square, Thrax's mouth began watering from the smell of savory cooking. A tall tower, at least ten floors high, gazed down. A crowd thronged the square. The rear guard took the whimpering fourteen-year old's elbow and steered him under a shop's awning. He looked at Thrax.
"Knock yourself out, mate."
"Thanks!" Thrax called. "You're a real peach!"
As the bravos herded the girls after the boy, Thrax plunged into the crowd, making for the tower's plinth. These were his people. Laborers, porters, bargemen, papyrus workers. Salt-of-the-earth types.
Suddenly Thrax frowned.
That can't be Assuriban. Just can't!
But he had to find out for sure. Thrax cut through the crowd like a trireme. The figure, a spindly ivory statue squatting on the plinth's brink, resembled one of Thrax's memories.
"Pardon me -- excuse me -- was that your foot? I'm so sorry -- helloooo, Clodia! So good to see you again! How have you been? A date? Sure! Still at the same place? Great! See you tomorrow! -- ma'am, would you move that goat, it's crapping everywhere -- hey, lad, move, dammit --"
The albino preacher's command was mushy because his lips were tattered, membranous ribbons. His nose was a black pit. A terrible, passionate fire blazed in his eyes.
Thrax, three rows back, waved. "Hey! Assuriban! Hey! Here! It's Thrax! Good to see you!"
Assuriban -- utterly hairless, his skin bone-white -- warned Thrax with a withering gaze. Thrax shrugged it off. Assuriban resumed his sermon.
"Recall Tantalus, who killed and cooked Pelops, his son, serving him up to the Gods. "
Thrax cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed: "With or without garum? Enquiring minds want to know."
Silence. Apparently, condiment-based jokes weren't appreciated.
"Recall Cronos, eater of his divine children. This city's sages tell us Cronus' is the outermost of the celestial spheres. Does this not tell you we ourselves, creations of his progeny, are trapped in his gullet?" Assuriban leaned forward. "Is not Cronos both Time and Fate?"
"Time, fate, and fat!"
Silence. Apparently, lard-based jokes weren't appreciated either.
Assuriban thundered: "Even Osiris' penis was eaten by a fish --"
"Yeah, a fish named Codpiece!"
Uh-oh. Ominous silence. Then angry whispers lacerated the air. Thrax rubbed his chin
"Huh. Well then. Guess I'll be leaving --"
Assuriban gestured. "Get rid of that smartass."
Hands seized Thrax by the biceps and hauled him away. Skidding on his heels through the crowd, he tossed a sloppy salute at Assuriban.
"No dick jokes. Got it. See you tomorrow!"
At the back of the crowd, they flung Thrax to the dust. He scrambled to his feet. The matter of Clodia, smooth as warm butter, called. But Thrax hesitated. The crowd's resentment seethed. Grumbling, he brushed himself off.
"You know," Thrax murmured to himself, "I've met some nice messiahs ... but never one who was an out-and-out asshole!"
"I'm sure you mean your remarks humorously. But we are serious students."
The speaker, even though his toga had no laticlave, stood like a man accustomed to power. The toga's fabric was choice, his Greek melodious, but, with his curled night-black beard and with bushels of hair confined by a white silk ribbon, he looked like a Mede.
"Our message is grim. But true. And, ultimately, liberating. Next time, young man, come here with ears able to hear and eyes able to see."
Surprisingly, the Mede now had charge of the three noble youths. Staring skywards, the boy wept, babbling foreign words. The two girls clutched each other. The Mede laid a hand on the middle girl's shoulder.
The odd parade cut around the crowd, climbed the stairs onto the plinth, then disappeared into the tower.
Thrax cupped his hands. "Hey! You folks got any objections to fart jokes -- hey!"
He ducked the thrown stone. By the gods, this congregation had the most tightly-cinched sphincters of any Thrax had ever taunted. In a huff he departed, making for the flat in Alexandria's Jewish Quarter he shared with his sister.
Thrax opened the apartment's door. Ausonia, eyes closed, sat cross-legged, fenced by a circle of flickering candles. A naked, pudgy woman with cloven feet capered around her.
Thrax grinned. "Kinky!"
The cloven-hoofed woman froze, her expression that of a respectable matron caught with the stable boy. "Who is that?"
Ausonia's eyes snapped open. She bit her lip. "It's, uh, it's, uh, a relative. The brother."
The naked woman stomped, striking sparks. "You told me you kicked him out!"
"Um. It was a euphemism -- "
"Bah! This was a feminine rite!" The woman leaped into the air, hovering. "Sweetie, you got all I'm willing to give. Tower. Square. Cellar." She whooshed forward, trailing sparks and shooting through the shutters as if they were insubstantial.
"What was that?" asked Thrax.
"A minor anemoi. Spirit of the air. A roving eye."
Ausonia pinched out the candles. "Thanks for screwing up my rite."
"That's what I live for." Thrax threw himself into a chair. "Sis, have I ever told you about my old friend Assuriban?"
"Sounds like something I'd ignore."
"Listen. This is interesting."
Thrax, at seventeen, had had enough of mother's rules, father's expectations, and an elder sister who referred to him as "the brother." He hired on with Guthric, a wealthy trader. Guthric had just returned from Serica with a trove of fine silk; the goal of this next trip, said Guthric, was to exchange these for Otangwa's diamonds. That meant a long, dangerous journey to Africa's southernmost tip.
"Be ready to fight," warned Guthric.
"No. Something haunts the sands south of the province. Something unearthly."
"The Sky-kings?" Thrax's eyes blazed.
"Not them. A cancer the Sky-kings brought ... left behind when they fled back to the stars."
"I can handle it." Thrax slapped the table. "Let's go!"
The caravan set out on a galley sailing south. Guthric's plan was to row upriver until the Nile divided into white and blue branches, then trek overland to Otangwa. Back then, the oarsmen were still technically slaves, since the Emperor's manumission decree hadn't yet taken effect. Guthric, who had an enlightened soul, nevertheless insisted they be treated as free men. Thrax heartily approved.
On the fateful day, a bronzed, bored Thrax lounged on the forecastle. The Nile was placid and deep. Wind-eroded sandstone ridges rose from the surrounding sands like the backs of giant lampreys. Suddenly, distant thunder rumbled, and Thrax wondered if a storm lurked below the horizon. Rocks clinked, then clink-clinked, then roared as they cascaded from the ridges. Thrax stood, amused.
"Thrax! Thrax! Here! Now!"
Thrax trotted down the catwalk between the rowing benches. The hortator's drum beat like a vast, throbbing heart.
Guthric's eyes were wide. "The cancer. It's here."
Muscles tense, Thrax's gaze raked the sands. He relished the immanence of danger.
Silent except for dripping water, the thing rose from the Nile off the starboard bow. A tentacle, Thrax thought, then changed that to a worm. The flabby body was yellowish-white, like a maggot. In that moment of shocked surprise, the horse-thick body swayed above the oarsmen. A fringe of eyestalks focused on its meal. A toothless, glistening maw yawned like a flower. It struck and rose, the legs of a half-engulfed oarsman kicking violently. The creature sucked the legs inside. It began sinking into the river.
"I got this!"
Thrax charged. He planted his gladius between his teeth before he dove.
Sunlight turned the silty river bile green. The river's surface layer was blood-warm but the deeper water chilly. The galley, skewing to starboard, blotted out the light, leaving Thrax in a green twilight. Feeling the turbulence of the creature's descent, he struck for the lightless depths.
Thrax's hand struck something. It had the pudding-like pliancy of a decomposing body. Muscular contractions rippled along it. Was the thing now curling for another attack and a second meal?
Where do I stab it?
The swallowed oarsman, drawn along by peristalsis, swelled the thing's body. Thrax felt the dull thrumming of the man's desperate punching and kicking. A chilly, unreal moment. It reminded him of those times he'd laid his palm on a gravid woman's belly and felt the life inside.
Poor guy. Digested alive.
Thrax dove after the moving bulge. In the green dimness, Thrax saw the warmish body retreating into a cave punched through the rocky river bottom. Drawing ahead of the swelling, he took his gladius from between his teeth. Lungs straining, he stabbed then slashed. Something acidic bubbled out, forcing him to shut his eyes. Even his skin tingled with pain. He thrust his hand through the wide gash into the creature's gullet.
Another hand grasped his.
Thrax kicked away, drawing the oarsman out of the belly of the beast. Current swirled as the thing thrashed in pain.
They broke the surface well off the galley's port side. Thrax hooked his arm around a thrown oar, holding the rescued man's head clear of the water. Which would arrive first? The galley or the creature? Thrax was still wondering when the galley's crew fished them out.
"See?" Thrax grinned at Guthric. "Told you I had it. It's dead. We're safe."
"I doubt it," said Guthric. "That was a ... a feeder. A forepaw. Part of a greater whole."
Thrax scoffed. "How big can it be?"
"If you believe the old Carthaginian lore, a cave network stretches under the desert from the Nile to the Atlantic. I think the cancer's grown to fill it ... and is beginning to bore new caves for itself. You wounded a small part of it. That's all."
Victorious, the smartass aspect of Thrax's personality was naturally in the ascendant. "What if I don't believe the Carthaginian lore --"
"Why?" It wasn't a voice, but a blubbery, mournful croak. "Why did you do it?"
The wiry oarsman was Syrian, and had been dark-skinned with black hair. Stomach acid had bleached his skin and dissolved all his hair. Scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, beard, chest, groin. Blood trickled from the open pit where his nose had been. Oozed from the wreckage of his lips. Dripped onto the deck from his half-dissolved genitals.
Thrax shrugged. "it's what I do."
"You arrogant shit. You stupid, stupid boy!" Hate and pain hissed through Assuriban's lips. " Warmth surrounded me! Life throbbed around me. I felt a beating, soaring heart! And the voices ... children, women, men ... all singing. I was loved ... part of a greater music ... don't you see? Death is wonderful! " Outrage blazed. "I'll kill you for saving my life!"
Rolling his eyes, Thrax twirled a finger beside his temple as he retreated. Guthric nodded agreement. This creature was nuts.
"And now Assuriban's a messiah." Thrax stretched in the chair. "So, sis, what do you think?"
Lips tight with irritation, Ausonia said, "I think you should convert. Get out of my life. Ruin his."
"Sis, I'm a heckler, not a believer." Thrax thumped his chest. "What a great accomplishment. I. Got thrown out." He folded his arms behind his head. "By Alexandria's newest messiah!"
Ausonia snapped. "Let me be the second person to throw you out! Go away! Now! I've got three Atlanteans to find --"
"Huh." Thrax's brow scrunched. "You know, there were three Atlanteans at --"
Ausonia, who'd been returning the candles to her work cabinet, whirled. "What? Where?"
"Um. In the square in front of Assuriban's tower -- oomph!"
Ausonia leaped, laying her finger on his lips like a sword.
"Tell me everything."
Quailing under her fierce curiosity, Thrax told her everything. As she listened, Ausonia climbed off her brother and began pacing. Ideas popped into her mind, dissolved, re-formed with new urgency.
"We've got to be cautious. There's no rational reason why both you and I should've been sucked into this. A god is involved here ... and, since he dragged you into this, probably a real dickhead of a god."
"So. The librarian kidnapped them. Sold them? To a new cult? But why?"
"Uh, sis." Thrax rapped his head. "Blond isn't just skin deep; it goes all the way to the pineal gland. Clue me in."
"My client wants his three charges back."
Ausonia beamed. "And here you are, an exploitable connection. Finally, you're useful."
"Um. What's in this for me?"
Ausonia fished a square gold coin from her frock.
"Neither you nor I have a dog in this fight. So. Let's be a liaison. I'm sure the Klarkash-ton is richer than Croesus. You tell this ... Assuriban? ... we can arrange a ransom."
Thrax stood. "Sure. After my chat with Clodia --"
"-- then -- and only then, Assuriban."
"Meet me on the Heptastadion. Sunset. Don't be late."
Assuriban's eyes sparkled like a dice player's calculating the odds of a favorable throw.
"Apology ..." The messiah paused. "... accepted."
Assuriban had received Thrax in an unfurnished room on the tower's first floor. Wearing only a scrap of cloth, Assuriban squatted on a coarse mat. Behind him, leaning against the wall, a curious circular painting depicted a set of pale rings, alternating white and pink, dwindling into the distance. The painted mandala seemed to squirm, an effect that made Thrax queasy.
"Thanks," said Thrax. "Moving on. There's this thing with the Atlanteans --"
"I don't want gold. I will trade soul for soul. You tell this Atlantean if he sends me three souls of equivalent splendor, I will release his charges."
"Um. Somehow I think that's going to be a problem."
"His problem. Not mine."
"Um. Let me take this to him --" Thrax began to pivot.
"Before you go, let's talk metaphysics."
Thrax stifled a groan. "Could you beat me to death with a mallet instead? It's quicker and less painful."
"Sorry. No mallet." Assuriban sighed. "We parted with such ill-feelings. But my feelings have changed. Let me tell you what happened to me."
Again, Thrax began to turn. "Sorry. No time. I've got to --"
Thrax, eyes hot, jaw set, faced the seated prophet.
Assuriban looked remorseful. "My apologies. I've grown accustomed to command. You're my guest and I've been a bad host. Some wine?"
Thrax grinned. "You're the best!"
Assuriban clapped. A boy appeared in a doorway. Instead of speaking, Assuriban stroked his throat then massaged his temples. When the boy returned, he set on the mat a tray with a carafe and two crude goblets.
"Pour for me, Thrax."
Thrax poured -- and froze, surprised when chunks plopped into Assuriban's goblet.
"A savory. Good with the wine. Fill my goblet. Then yours."
Thrax obeyed. Assuriban raised his goblet. His murmured prayer sounded like serpents slithering in a dark cave. Thrax was careful to let Assuriban drank first. Following suit, he chewed and swallowed the savories. An odd-tasting meet.
"Listen, my new friend. In my life, I've had two great revelations. The first you ruined ... but at least I learned to appreciate the fundamental oneness of existence."
"Isn't getting eaten alive kind of an extreme way of realizing that? Couldn't you just get drunk with your buddies?"
"I didn't set out to be eaten alive!" Irritation rippled across Assuriban's face, then was wiped away. "After I got back to Egypt -- if you see Guthric, tell him it's unkind to abandon a crippled, half-blind man -- I undertook religious learning. Eleusis. The Orphic mysteries, the cult of Isis, the rites of Cybele, Attis, Dionysus. None were right --"
"I dunno," said Thrax, feeling mellow. "Dionysus is a blast."
"A Magian steered me to my second revelation. He knew of a sect ... I won't name it. It exists on the far side of the Dead Sea. They taught me what is real, and they inspired me to found this temple." His ruined lips twisted, perhaps aping a smile, but the impression Assuriban gave was that of a lion slobbering over a carcass. "They've got it right."
"Um. Got what right?"
Curiosity twinkled in the messiah's eyes. "How do you feel?"
"I'm so pleased to hear that."
Bored? No. Numb. Thrax didn't like that at all. That damn painting summoned his gaze. It struck Thrax that it depicted what Assuriban must've seen after being swallowed. The mandala of rings infinitely stretching away was a gullet. He stared and stared until the silence throbbed with an omnipresent heartbeat.
"Um. Would you please ... turning that painting around?"
"I see it's kicked in," Assuriban's lips again twisted. "Aletheia. A potion of openness. Meat from an alien centipede. Quite toxic, but the leavings of the Sky-kings often are. The anti-toxin is dissolved in the wine. You and I now straddle the worlds of death and life. The material and the spiritual."
"Well, that's just peachy." Thrax's fist clenched -- but that took such an effort of will he realized violence was impossible.
"You've had a light dose." Assuriban lurched to his feet. "Consider yourself lucky. I badly miscalculated at the librarian's. The Atlanteans have been under aletheia's influence well over an entire day. Come."
"This is just revenge, right? Because I'm a smartass?"
Thrax didn't want to follow, but a numbing fogbank had interposed itself between his will and his body. Walking stiffly, slowly, he followed Assuriban out the tower's front door and onto the plinth. Not a soul could be seen in the square below. Neighboring buildings cut sharp shapes into the twilight sky.
"Look up. Tell me what you see."
Thrax reeled. What a deranged vision. A loathsome apparition arched from western horizon to eastern. Vast hanging folds, ghostly pale, seemed to be wafting the world down a twisting intestinal tunnel. Bulbous cilia flexed. Thrax felt like a tiny minnow trapped in a vast jellyfish, watching the blurry stars through drapes of gelatinous ectoplasm. Sparks, or fireflies, spiraled upwards from Alexandria as if released from a bonfire ... only to flare and die when they touched the sky-spanning thing. Thrax felt its predatory instincts -- titanic, immeasurable, insatiable -- battering his brain.
"What is it?" Thrax whispered.
"The harsh truth. A great enemy has devoured our cosmos." Assuriban rocked on his heels like a proud papa. "The task I've set my church? We are going to punch through that. Mysteries await! You -- and those Atlanteans -- are to be the start of that process." Assuriban chortled. "I love mixing theology and revenge! Now come. We're going downstairs."
When the gibbous moon peeped over the obsidian sea, Ausonia's distress was complete.
"The brother is never this late."
The Klarkash-ton's face became stony. "Pity." He looked to the towering Pharos lighthouse, all aglow. "I suppose that'll be the target of our opening bombardment."
That angered her. Sleeves fluttering, Ausonia swept down the Atlantean ship's gangway and plunged through Alexandria's evening. She knew Thrax would've returned with whatever answer Assuriban gave. Something had gone wrong.
Revelry swirled; she kept her mind apart from it. Lacking Thrax's skill with dagger, bow, or sword, magic was Ausonia's only weapon. She needed a calm mind to exercise it, but worry and fear swirled in her.
Thrax's directions hadn't been precise, but they got her within sight of the tower. She cut through a pedestrian alley and emerged in the desolate square. The tower glowed with torchlight and it was clear it was shut for the evening. Slanting moonlight cast long shadows across the square. The silence felt eerie; it was a total absorption of all vibration. She felt agitation in the pervading daemonic consciousness. Sorcery was responsible.
Her own consciousness preternaturally sensitive, she skulked cat-like past closed shops towards the tower. She'd break in. Somehow. And find out what was going on. And then ... do something.
Crossing the mouth of an alley between the tower's plinth and a block of hovels, Ausonia saw gentle flickering down there. With relief, she realized the light winked through the cracks of a cellar door.
Thank you, you violent-scented anemoi.
Ausonia knelt by the closed but unlocked door. Time for her own spell. Clearly, she should complement the silence with an equivalent visual stealthiness. She let run an old Enochian poem, sweeter than any lyre's melody, through her head. She held up her hand and saw that it flickered as if she skulked on the periphery of a candle's glow. The daemons were catching light, juggling it, then scattering it randomly. Perfect.
Heart in her mouth, Ausonia opened the door. Not a cellar but a hallway. She'd intended on ascending into the tower to look for Thrax but the landing just beyond the torch sat atop a set of stairs that corkscrewed down. She descended a terrifying distance into the limestone bedrock. The tenebrous dankness clung like cobwebs. Suddenly the dampening silence lifted.
Relief flooded Ausonia. That was Thrax, sounding whiny as if he'd just woken up with a hangover. Step by cautious step, she eased her way deeper, tensing for whatever would come.
"Why is this complicated?" The response was mushy. "Aletheia let you perceive our enemy. Obviously, only powerful magic can punch through it. Such spells are fueled by souls. Right, Archideme?"
A patrician voice responded. "Quite right, father."
"It will take decades -- centuries -- maybe millennia -- but we'll accumulate souls. The cancer in the Sahara will be my church's repository. When the time is ripe, we'll kill it. Invoke the spell and fuel it with the released souls. And liberate humanity from this prison of a cosmos."
"Isn't human sacrifice kind of ... extreme?" Thrax pleaded.
"In the general case, no. My church sacrifices lesser lives in return for a greater liberation. In your specific case? Perhaps I should be more compassionate ... but I've never had ethical qualms about culling the cosmos of smartasses."
Careful to be silent, Ausonia stepped into a landing. A long, torchlit barrel vault led towards a vast dome. Its ceiling was finished ashlar. Centered under the dome a vast well yawned. On the domes far side a tall pulpit, set into a recessed niche, loomed over a plain altar. A pale albino stick figure presided from the pulpit. A richly robe man perambulated amongst the four kneeling captives. Their hands and ankles were bound. The Atlanteans, resigned like a bound goat on a sacrificial altar, stared at the well. Murder blazed in Thrax's eye, belying his restrained intonation.
The robed man looked up at the albino. "Assuriban, it comes."
Sibilant slithering echoed out of the well. Something thudded in the depths. Dust trickled from the vault's roof. Ausonia, blood chilled, shivered.
Assuriban radiated rapture. "The instant it swallows you, you'll begin hearing voices. Oh, the singing of those who preceded! So sweet. It will ease your pain. Yes, when digestion begins, there will be pain. But it's brief."
The thudding and the nervous hissing grew louder.
"But don't fear! You are soldiers, sacrificed for the good of, well, not a nation, but something more -- humanity itself!!"
What am I going to do?
Ausonia's mind, so often seething with ideas, betrayed her with silence. Then time for plotting came to an end.
A pale, flexible limb hooked the well's edge, pulling up the rest of the starfish-shaped mass. It weighed at least as much as four elephants. The limb was merely one of five thick extensions, maggot-white tinged with pale yellow, protruding from a central nodule. With a frisson, Ausonia realized that an umbilicus, thick as a thigh, trailed into the well.
The abomination paused under the groin where vault intersected dome. One leg lifted. Eyestalks quested as if sensing a presence in the landing. Ausonia almost fled. The Mede murmured something, and the abomination responded by ponderously rotating. Using four extensions to walk, it lumbered towards the captives.
"Softness and warmth!" Assuriban cried. "And song!"
Ausonia ran her eyes along the groin's crisp edge. Yes, this might work. She plunged out of the landing and, to clear her mind, dropped her flickering spell. She ignored Thrax's relieved grin.
Assuriban leaned over the pulpit's rail. "None may profane the mystery! Archideme! Bid it take her first!"
The robed Mede whirled. A dagger flashed in his hand. He began a new chant. One maggoty limb froze, looming over Thrax. One by one the fat legs lifted, and again the beast turned, a bloated, overfed tarantula. The maw yawned, and Ausonia saw the quivering gullet slimy with acid. It crawled towards her.
"Um. Sis. Now's the time to run."
Yes, Thrax was right, but she held her ground. She was the lure and the trap. Her heart galloped, and the temptation to unleash the magic prematurely almost overwhelmed her. At least the Mede, focused on controlling the beast, was too absorbed to set in motion a disruptive counterspell.
Her timing was exquisite. When the beast's central nodule was almost under the groin, she let the Enochian words flow through her mind: More hyle to the keystone!
Hyle, matter's metaphysical substrate, was conserved. It could neither be created nor destroyed, merely moved. To effect her hylomorphic enlargement, the daemons had to fetch hyle from elsewhere. That took time. Heart in her mouth, eyes fixed on that drooling maw, Ausonia felt each passing moment like a pinprick on the back of her neck.
Sand and grit trickled onto the beast. The groin's keystone swelled, then split. Ausonia scrambled backward. The groin collapsed. Falling masonry pulped the beast's rear extensions. The remaining limbs flexed in agony. Trailing slime, the umbilicus whipped back into the pit.
"Archideme ... Archideme!"
Leading with the dagger, the Mede charged. Thrax was quicker. He burst backward, catching himself on his palms, and using them as a pivot swept his bound legs like a scythe. Arms flailing, the Mede tumbled head-over-heels into the well. The dagger skittered across the flagstones. Thrax's eyes flashed at Ausonia.
"Yo. Sis. Move it!"
Ausonia darted around the thing. This part of it was dying; no need to fear it. Nevertheless, she feared it profoundly. She seized the dagger and sliced Thrax's bonds. He bounded to his feet.
"Assuriban!" Thrax roared. "Let me show you what liberation means to me!"
But the albino had already fled. Thrax bounded up the altar, pulled himself onto the pulpit, and charged off. Ausonia began cutting the young Atlantean woman's bonds.
"Who -- who is that?"
"The brother. He's an idiot."
Ausonia had freed the others by the time Thrax reappeared atop the pulpit.
"Trapdoor. Give me that dagger --"
"Why don't we use the only escape route before he rouses the whole damn tower?"
Thrax jumped down, snatched the dagger, and led the charge up the spiral stairs. Ausonia shepherded the Atlanteans after him. Unopposed, the quintet burst into the alley. A hue and cry rang through the tower. Ausonia, breathless, pointed the Atlanteans towards the square. But Thrax lingered, shivering, eyes wild, brandishing the dagger at the black dome above.
"Move it, Thrax!"
"In the sky. What do you see?"
"I heard! Aletheia. Openness. It opens you to someone else. The question is ... who? If they're pushing a deranged faith, you're open to their madness. What do I see? What's always been there -- the damned stars!"
His ebullience should have returned. Either during the rush back to the Heptastadion or when the Klarkash-ton accepted the return of his charges. But it didn't, not even by the time they got back to their flat. He remained silent. With growing dread, Ausonia realized Thrax had begun to think for himself. The consequences, she feared, were unimaginable.
©December, 2017 Keith Peck
Keith Peck is a long-time fantasy and science fiction reader. He's worked as a computer hardware engineer, programmer, dairy lab technician, carwash manager, and McDonald's burger-flipper. He currently lives in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can reach him via email at email@example.com. This is his first published tale.