Chapter 6 – A Ghost from the Past
Kathri made her way back through the library and exited, back out into the semi-wilds of the Old City. There had been the temptation to explore the library and even read through some of the works stored there, but she had no idea where to start. Nor, she suspected, would the Mages be welcoming of her using the opportunity to research up on old ruins and tombs that might still hold valuable treasures for her to recover. As for asking for assistance in locating appropriate books would raise too many question. There was forwardness and then there was foolishness, and that fitted into the latter category.
She stood outside the entrance to the library and looked about her, catching a glimpse of a few other buildings through the trees.
It is doubtful I would be welcome at any of them, she told herself, Esarrio’s warning still fresh in her mind. Ignoring them, she headed back through the forest along the path, making instead for the great Debate Hall. Even if she could not enter it, it was still worth a look at from the outside.
“You there!” The voice that cut through the air had such superior, condescending tones to it that it set Kathri at edge against the speaker even before she turned around.
Coming towards her along a path that curved around north of the library was Lord Safhala, accompanied by two of his guards. While neither of them still had their weapons, the scimitar was still sheathed at Lord Safhala’s side.
One rule for the powerful and one for the rest of us. I should not be surprised by that.
The two guards had the hoods of their cloaks pulled up over their helmets so that the faceplates were shaded in the gloom of them, barely seen. Despite their cloaks that shrouded their features, or perhaps heightened by it, they radiated a menace that caused Kathri to almost shiver. There was no obvious signs from them that would have caused alarm, and yet still she felt it, perhaps almost at a subconscious level picking up clues in their posture and intent.
She turned from them to the rapidly approaching Lord Safhala. At a distance his face had seemed plain, and up close that changed little, but his eyes and especially his expressions were a different matter. They screamed to Kathri of danger, one barely concealed. About him, his carriage and his demeanour, she could read an arrogance and a conceit that went far beyond that of a normal person. He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was superior to all others in all things, and he made no attempt to hide that.
Be careful with this one, Kathri, she warned herself. He is dangerous.
She had run across one or two others of alike persuasion to him in the past, men who had such an absolute certainty of their convictions that they could justify any actions in the pursuit of their goals. They considered any that stood against them as not just wrong but evil, and thus whatever was done to them was justified for they deserved all that happened to them. As a result, they were the type to be as far away from as possible, but failing that, men to be extremely cautious around. Safhala might not go that far, yet the air around him left Kathri with the impression that it would not take much for him to do so. It was best to play it safe and so she put on an unassuming, almost submissive face, one that did not challenge.
“Yes, my lord?” When she spoke, it was with the voice of one from the New City, not quite from The Ditch but close by to it, typically of servants Ciosala over.
“Do you work here?”
“I am afraid not, my lord. I am merely visiting on behalf of my master.”
A look both vexed and disappointed crossed Safhala’s face, accompanied by a brief nod of his head, almost curt in its brevity. “I see. At least you have manners, which is more than many I could speak of. What is your name?”
“Kathri, my lord.”
Safhala had been half in the act of turning, even as he asked the question, as if the answer had been unimportant and he had simply been going through some rote expected act of courtesy, but he paused as she answered and looked back at Kathri. His eyes bored in on her, scrutinising her in greater detail whereas before he had barely paid her any attention. Kathri had the distinct impression that in some manner she was being judged, weighed up and measured, much as a prized horse was by a potential buyer. She had to repress the urge to shudder at it, for the mere act of it made her feel uncomfortable. “Do you know who I am?” Safhala asked.
“Yes, my lord. You are Lord Safhala hal Hamardi, the King of Siagosa’s adviser to the Magister of the Mages.”
A self important smile appeared on Safahala’s face. “Yes. You do appear well informed for one who is just a visitor to the place.”
A number of different answers to the question flickered through Kathri’s mind. Before she could decide on one that would cause the least trouble, a woman in the pale blue livery of one who worked in the Old City came hurrying along the path from the west, one with long wavy blonde hair.
Kathri’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of her and it was all she could to do to keep her face composed. Even so, a certain paleness touched her golden skin. To her relief, it appeared that Safhala was no longer paying attention to her, instead looking at the newcomer with a half irritated expression. It gave Kathri a moment to order her thoughts, to try and come to grips with what she had seen.
The arrival was of a ghost, or one who should have been. Voadia was dead a number of years, executed by the Mages, and yet there she stood before Kathri, flesh and blood still. Voadia cast a quick glance aside to Kathri and gave a barely perceptible shake of her head.
“If you would excuse the intrusion, my lord,” Voadia said in respectful tones, the like of which Kathri had never heard from her before, “But the Magister was hoping that you would have a moment to speak to him on a matter of most grave importance.”
“Very well,” Safhala replied, all consideration of Kathri gone, her presence dismissed from his mind. “Lead on.”
Kathri watched the group depart, headed west towards the Debate Hall, Voadia with her hands tucked into the long, voluminous sleeves of her tunic and her head cast down at a respectful angle, Safhala sauntering and the two guards trailing after with their peculiar stiff limbed march.
She could feel her heart beating faster and a chill swept up her spine, one that almost had her quivering. The whole encounter had left her unsettled, yet even more curious.
It can’t be, and yet it is. How is she still alive? I must talk with her.
Letting the others move on ahead of her until they were only part glimpsed through the trees, she began to walk in the same direction they were, keeping them just in sight. One of the guards stopped and turned about, looking back towards her and studying her. For just a hint of a moment, a ray of sunlight fell on him through the canopy of the trees as a wind swayed the branches apart, opening a gap for it. It that moment the gloom of the hood was reduced and she thought she caught a flicker of movement pass across the faceplate, almost as if its expression had changed.
Just a trick of the light, she told herself, trying to dismiss the notion. Even so, she slowed her walk, allowing the others to draw further away. After a moment the guard turned back around and rejoined the rest of the group.
The trees ahead of her began to thin and the looming Debate Hall continued to grow the closer she came to it, the sheer size of it growing more impressive with each passing moment. She had to crane back her head to look up at the heights of the dome even before she reached the base of it. The whole edifice drew in the eye, almost warping the view of the surrounding area so that only it could be seen, all else reduced to minor background details.
Perhaps the Mages in some way enchanted it, she wondered. Some magic built into the fabric of it that makes it seem even more impressive than it is, if that is even possible.
The walls beneath the domes atop the roof supported a series of friezes, of men and beasts, their details rather hard to make out from the ground despite their size. Writhing dragons could be seen, and firebirds, some engaged in conversation with men, others in combat. There were other creatures as well, from fits of imagination, parts from one animal merged with others, or even with men.
She came at last to the base of the stairs that led up into the building, a large paved courtyard spreading out before it, with many paths leading in from all parts of the Old City. The stairs were broad and large, taking up most of the frontage of the building, and each one spaced so that it would take at least three steps to reach the next.
If the height matched the width then it would require us to be giants to climb it.
Clambering up to them she came to the top where columns of a colossal size supported the roof and the domes above. Even if she her arms spread out to their fullest extent, they were still not as wide as each column. The enclosed building itself was set back from the columns, so that a roofed walkway ran around the outside of it. Further in she could see a vast set of doors, covered in beaten bronze, reportedly the largest doors in the world. On the door was the image of a man, holding a scroll in one hand and a key in the other, a tall, proud man with a trimmed beard and long robes.
It must take some doing to open those things.
In front of the door stood a body of guards, of twenty spearmen and twenty musketeers, commanded by two officers. The officers wore the same black brigadine as the men but over it they wore long red cloaks. On their heads rested broad black hats into the bands of which were thrust crimson feathers. They carried at their sides the facacia, a sword in the same style as the hiasta knives.
By the time that she reached the top, Safhala had been there long enough to be announced to the guards. One of the officers gave a command and two of the guards moved to the doors. With a spear still in one hand, they pushed against the doors, sending them swinging steadily, and silently, open. Voadia led Safhala and his guards inside and the doors swung shut behind them.
Kathri stopped at the top of the stairs and waited. She had no reason to enter, and nor did she expect she would be allowed even if she could think of an excuse to do so.
She instead turned her attention back to the building, inspecting it in greater detail. On occasions the guards looked in her direction but none made a move towards her. Birds flew among the columns, some alighting on the roof above, or on the friezes where nests could be made out. The details of the columns were more elaborate now that she was up close. From a distance they appeared carved in a series of ridges and depression, but the ridges were in fact carved to be appeared like a rope ladder, such as found as rigging on a ship, that climbed upwards, and on which men ascended, while the depressions were a series of waves as seen through the rigging, in which fish swam and leapt. What exactly the seas and sailing ships had to do with the Mages, beyond their close association with the merchant prince traders, Kathri could not figure out, but the effect was rather impressive to view.
So engrossed was she in the study of the details of the columns, of inspecting each individual carved man, each different than the next, that she missed Voadia emerging from out the building. The taller, blonde haired woman walked towards the steps, barely pausing as she went by, just enough to allow her to speak aside to Kathri. “Walk with me,” she said in little more than a whisper.
Kathri turned and hurried to catch up to, and keep up with, Voadia’s stride, her mind buzzing with questions that she needed answers for, starting with how the woman was still alive.
Voadia led the way a short distance to one of the small lakes that dotted the Old City, one ringed with many rushes that swayed in a gentle breeze. Graceful willows grew along the banks on most sides of the lake, their branches dipping down to kiss the surface of the water. Dragonflies darted about to and fro across the water, while water fowl swam upon it, on occasions to duck down under the surface to forage for food. A stone bench, sheltered beneath some of the larger willows, looked out across the lake.
Voadia turned and smiled, catching up Kathri in a fierce embrace. “I see that they have brought you in too, finally. It is good to see you again my old friend.”
Kathri froze in the act of the embrace for half a moment before she returned it. She still half expected not to feel flesh beneath her hands. “I thought you were dead, Voadia.”
“That was the idea.”
“What idea? What is going on here? All this time you were alive and you never let anyone know.”
Voadia released the embrace and pulled back, giving Kathri a curious look, closely studying her, brow furrowed, emotions flickering and changing across her face.
She is actually surprised, Kathri realised.
“You really don’t know? You being here, I thought that meant for certain that they had captured you.”
“I am not sure what actually happened to me,” Kathri admitted. “If I was taken prisoner then I have been given unusual freedom.”
“You are within the Old City. It is is hard to get out without the Mages being aware of it. It is not as much freedom as you think.”
“Voadia, what happened to you? How is it you are still alive?”
“Let us sit,” Voadia said, gesturing to the stone bench. She took a seat upon it and Kathri joined her. She stared out ahead across the waters of the small lake, trying to compose herself. There were few that could read her, not in the manner she could read others. Voadia was one though, a familiarity bred over the years they had worked alongside each other.
“I was taken by the Mages, as you know,” Voadia started to say, her voice soft and curiously without the rancour that Kathri expected. “I was dragged here and brought before the Mages in the Debate Hall, there to stand trail, charged with grave robbing, disturbing the peace of the dead and endangering the safety of the lands.”
“You weren’t born in the Conclave Kingdoms, nor were a citizen of its lands. How could they even justify that?
“I did point that out to them,” Voadia replied, and then shrugged her shoulders. “The Mages feel that they are beyond petty nations and that they serve a higher purpose, that of the safety of all people, regardless of where they live. At least on the surface that is. The truth is a little more complicated,” she added wryly.
“It ever is,” Kathri said. She watched as a duck came into and on the lake, wings ruffling the waters as it set down. “I was told similar, just today, of the Mage’s reasons.”
“They may even be right,” Voadia admitted. “Since coming here, I have seen things, heard things that have made me reconsider much of what I had believed and thought I knew.”
“It was announced that you had been executed,” Kathri said. “Given that you seem not to have been, did the Mages lie about that, and why?”
“I was just coming to that. Patience, my old friend. After the trial, which was little more than a show, and the announcement of my fate, I was taken away and brought before a few of the Mages, this time in private. The Magister was not among them, but their were a number of senior Mages, including the Warden who oversees the security of the Mages and the Old City. They offered me a choice. Either I could accept the verdict and go to my death, or I could work for them.” She laughed, shaking her head as she did. “It wasn’t much of a choice, even with the conditions that they attached to it. I could not leave the Old City, except when they said so. I could not attempt to contact any of my former friends. As far as they were to know, I was to be dead. And I could not attempt to escape, for if I did so then it would forfeit the arrangement.”
Much of it still made little sense to Kathri. “Why go to such lengths?”
“There is a lot of politics amongst the Mages. There are some who value the talents of those like us, and they have done deals, to take us out of the game and to have our services available to them. For all their talk of grave robbing and disturbing the rest of the dead, they do plenty of it themselves, and for that they need experts, or at least expendable assets, such as us. There are a few others our kind here, Kathri. You’d be surprised on who. When we aren’t out on missions for them, grave robbing, they have us work in the Inner City, doing whatever they require. From time to time some find it all too chafing and soul crushing, and they attempt to escape. So far none have succeeded.” She turned to look at Kathri, giving her another long look. “If you aren’t here under the same circumstances as I, what exactly are you doing here?”
“I am working with Archivist Essario Bellasi, or at least I think I am. It is a little confusing. I wasn’t given much choice in the matter, but I wasn’t arrested.” Though Esarrio had warned her about not talking with anyone, Voadia she knew and trusted with her life. Even so, the wary aspect of her nature kept her from giving the full story. It had been years since they had last met and people could change.
A wry chuckle came from Voadia. She leant forward on her knees, gazing on the lake again. “Choice is not something that the Mages are used to offering. Is Braethir still with him?”
“Be very wary around him. He is dangerous.”
“I did get that impression from him, yet he seems pleasant enough.”
A wistful smile touched Voadia’s face. “He is, and he is smarter than he looks as well. But the man is a killer. It was he that captured me. Came into our camp, took down three of my men without blinking before we could even react and then had that magekiller aimed at my head, telling me to surrender or he would take me down where I stood. And he would have too, I am sure. I have to admit to never having been so frightened in my life, staring into those cold grey eyes. It was then that Archivist Bellasi appeared. Or maybe he had been there the whole time but I hadn’t noticed given my attention was focused on Braethir. The Archivist gave me one of those choices but really no choice option that the Mages are so good at; I could die right there or then, or I could return with him to Ciosala to see what fate had in store for me.” Voadia sat back up again, brushing aside a lock of hair that had fallen across her face. “I was in no hurry to die.” The expression on her face changed, from one of reflection to a happier one. “Now, tell me, what have you been up to since we parted? I hear rumours here and there, but nothing that is confirmed.”
Kathri glanced around, to see if anyone was around that could hear her. Even though she could see no one, she lowered her voice none the less. “I found him, Voadia.”
Voadia’s eyes widened a touch. “You did? The map was correct then?”
“It was just where we thought it would be.”
“What was it like,” Voadia asked, unable to mask the eagerness in her voice.
“Everything you could imagine and more,” Kathri told her. “It was the find of a lifetime, though one that I will not benefit from now. There have been complications, namely Archivist Bellasi. I only manage to get out with one item. Two,” she corrected herself, remembering the scroll still tucked away in its case. “I no longer have the first, the one of real value, and meanwhile there is a Guardian on the loose within the tomb and earth tremors in the region.”
“If you did get a chance to be free of this place, are you planning on returning?”
“I would like to,” Kathri told Voadia, “But others know of it now, and the location. The Digarans who live in the area, they saved me, and I felt obliged to them for that. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea, but what is done is done.”
“What of Archivist Bellasi?”
“He knows that I found it, but not the exact location.”
A genuinely amused laugh came from Voadia. “I bet that he wasn’t too thrilled to be beaten out to the discover of it, given the amount of time that he spent searching for it.”
“Braethir seemed to imply that.”
“He even had me help him out from time to time.”
“You didn’t tell him about the map?” Kathri asked.
“Not knowing that you had it,” Voadia replied with a shake of her head, “And not after the work we had already put into the finding of the tomb.” She sighed and rose from the bench. “I must be returning to my duties before I am missed. It has been good to finally see you again, Kathri, and let you know that I was still alive.”
Kathri returned to her feet as well. “I can scarce believe it. All this time and you were here. Are we able to meet up again or do the rules prevent that? There is still much catching up to do.”
“I am not too certain, but for once let us forget about the rules.”
“We are good at that,” Kathri stated, giving a faint smile.
“Used to be at least. This place is generally quiet and frowns on rule breaking. We should meet here again tomorrow, at the mid day, if you can make it.”
“I will try. If I can’t, I will endeavour in some manner to get you a message.”
Previous Part Next Part
If you have enjoyed, please vote for Echo of the Ages over at Top Web Fiction.