angel kobe, known as jaysu, returned to her homeland more upset and confused than ever, both about herself and about the way the world should be.
So many dead. So much evil. The very existence of it, the depth of it, was upsetting to her. She could feel it, at that extreme, just being in proximity to the representatives, the diplomats and soldiers, who served it back in that Zone place.
And that gill monster—the Kalindan they called Core— she could hardly bear to be close to the creature. Though it was less evil than an enormous, cold emptiness. It was like flying over a great bottomless pit and working to keep from being sucked into it, then falling, falling, falling forever in the cold and dark. Only in the triangular, leathery winged ones, the Ochoans, had there been a real sense of the soul. But the urge to violence and the sense of vengeance threatened to consume even them.
It was a strange sensation to look inside others and interpret what she was seeing. She knew that to cure the darkness that ate at the souls of the living was a priestess’s main job, but to see it so starkly, so organically and effortlessly, and in every race—that was something new.
Their tools were the ancient tools of an ecclesiastical society: counseling, prayer, fasting, penances. None of them could simply reach inside and change what they sensed by an act of conscious will. But she could, and it frightened her. Gods might have such power, but not mortals. Certainly mortals should not, and more certainly not her.
She had spent much of her time by herself in the volcanic beauty of Ambora’s wild places, praying, reflecting, to reason it out. She hoped for a sign from Heaven that this was something she should use—or something she should fear and avoid.
The isolation hadn’t helped. It had accelerated the continuing changes going on inside her. Priestesses did not fly; although they had those wonderful white wings, they were decorative. The muscles were inadequate to use them properly, and their bones were thickened, almost solid like the men’s. Her own snow-white wings were enormous, far larger than any priestess’s wings. The feathers had a lushness about them she’d not seen in any others.
There had been a period after she’d drunk the potions, faced the Grand High Priestess, and accepted her vocation, that she’d lost strength and her flying ability. She’d begun to feel progressively heavier; but no more.
Now, standing atop Mount Umajah—its great black, steaming caldera stretched out below her as a demonstration of the power of the gods—she stretched and spread those huge wings. Almost as if on cue, a brisk, cool wind swept across the vast pit below, striking her unexpectedly and causing her to lose her footing. She fell forward into the caldera perhaps a kilometer or more below her. The wings spread, and she flew!
She flew, not as the warriors flew, with the speed and nimbleness of the huntress; no, not like them. Instead she soared, majestically, rising up almost without effort, the great wings barely beating every few minutes in response to a change.
This was not supposed to be, but it was the most wonderful thing of all.
It was a sign. It was the sign she’d been waiting for. The gods would not allow a priestess to soar so close to Heaven if this were some evil being worked!
Jaysu began a leisurely turn and took a tour of Ambora. When she flew, it wasn’t an ordeal to see much of the country. The wind was with her, and great distances could be covered easily.
She rose up high, and watched the warriors of many clans swarm and play and hunt below. She did not envy them, but she did take in some of their joy. She also could sense their astonishment when they looked up and saw the strange figure hovering far above them in the highest currents. Curiously, while they were all puzzled at the sight of her, not a single one of them rose to see just who or what she was or how she was able to do this. Some began to do it, then suddenly lost interest.
She wasn’t sure, but she suspected it was partly because of her. She already knew she had some power over other minds— which was how she’d remained solitary while she figured things out. These were powers only gods were wise enough to have. Why had they given so much of that power to someone like her?
The others at that meeting at Zone had said she was from where they’d come from, another world or worlds somewhere off in the heavens. Her memories had been left behind, but not her soul. How could that be? The girl they described had been a low-ranking priestess of a church she could not remember or understand. Even those who had told her who and what she’d supposedly been were at a loss to explain who and what she was becoming.
That was the most frightening idea of all. The idea that it wasn’t over, that something was still changing her at an increasingly rapid pace. Changing into—what? What more could she become? And to what end?
Still, to discover that she could fly again was the one bit of wonderful news. There was no feeling quite like flying— soaring across the vast landscape, feeling and seeing the wind currents, floating along lazily in thermals that carried her almost like the caressing hands of motherly goddesses. It was so easy, not like walking or running along the ground. Up here, gravity was no enemy.
She hadn’t realized until this miraculous grand tour how beautiful Ambora was. A peninsular hex, surrounded on four sides by the ocean and on the western two by the continental landmass. Ambora’s high volcanic peaks, sheer cliffs, and dynamic if colorful landscape was in stark contrast to the apparent emptiness of the sea or the dark, gray-shrouded lands of the western region. She had no idea what might live there, nor what they could do. The truth was, she’d had little curiosity about them then or now—particularly after having seen so many of the monstrous races that lurked beyond Ambora when she’d been to that gathering place they called Zone. Slimy, dark things that crawled from the sea, serpentlike things that crawled on their bellies in the dust, leathery flying things that were half lizard and half bird with the worst of each, and all the others—no beauty, no grace. Yes, they had souls of the same sort as the Amborans, but they seemed disinterested in exploring the only part of them worth looking at.
Flying around the border of Ambora, she could see that it was virtually walled in. The walls weren’t of stone or mud or wood, of course; but to one who could see thermals and sense minor fluctuations in local magnetic fields, they seemed like walls. Cold, rising up to heaven, straighter than anything in nature, dulling vision beyond and shimmering like air above a rushing lava flow. She had no desire to fly through one, even though she instinctively understood that it was possible. What might it be like on the other side? Even in Zone she had felt heavy in one office, light in another, freezing cold and wet in yet another, and nearly boiling in the one next to that. If that kind of variation was to be found there, presumably for the comfort of the other races, then what might it be like just over that boundary? Suddenly too cold, or with the air too thin—or might she drop like a stone when suddenly weighing far more?
And yet there was a very little trade with those who lived beyond the walls. It was precisely because they were so different that they had things Ambora could use but could not make, and for which they would accept Amboran surplus foods and certain minerals. She thought they were probably desperate for what was natural and pure and true. She could see in one of them, across that eerie border, the lights that had no fire and things moving far too fast for nature. The other was one of the in-betweens, but there was belching smoke rising up from their own coastal area, fouling their air.
It did not occur to her that those neighbors found a land smelling of sulfides and belching liquid rock and gases from below the earth as unpleasant and obnoxious as she found theirs. She was growing in power, but not in wisdom. It was something Core had understood but she did not. When one sees herself and her kind as the standard of perfection against which all else is measured, it is impossible to have perspective.
She kept high and to herself during her grand tour, using it as a meditative experience as much as a learning one. She fasted during the whole of it, taking just a small bit of water each evening, and avoided all others until she felt cleansed, renewed, and ready to return.
She wanted to go home to assume the duties of High Priestess and to minister to and serve the Grand Falcon clan. She was beginning to understand that events were not taking the course she might devoutly wish. If the gods wished her to serve in some different way, she could hardly avoid their will.
There were other sensations she was getting—in the air, in the ground, in the water. They seemed as coldly powerful as the gill creature, Core, only more pervasive. They were everywhere, and it scared her. Forces she could not understand, pulses . . .
Numbers . . .
It was as if the whole land, the whole world, was related to numbers. The strings were far too complex for her to follow, and far too pervasive for her to take in, but she was aware that they formed patterns that wound in and out and through every particle of matter and energy.
The geometry of the gods. It was the universe. It was the rules by which the universe worked. It was what continually stabilized it—and everything within it.
An impossibly complex series came to her. It did not pass out, but instead went through to the very core of her material being.
She settled back on the side of a cliff and closed her eyes, trying to see this personal part with senses other than her sight. She gave up trying to decipher the patterns. Instead she tried to follow them mentally back down to the earth below, and through it, to its origin.
She followed it down, down, through layers of rock and what the rock sat upon, through depths of alien substance that could not be comprehended or sorted, down, down, to a center, a monstrous center, a cold, calculating, horrendous First Source, a Cause with no soul at its center but containing the souls beyond number . . .
She screamed in horror and passed out from the shock. It was more than she could handle, more than she could understand. Worst of all, it had sensed she was there. It had recognized just who and what she was, and it hadn’t cared one whit . . .
A test of faith, she told herself. It must be a test of faith. I do not want this burden, but I am only a slave, the property of the gods. It is their will that I must accept.
Security Ministry, Chalidang
barely moving in the deep ocean waters, they stared at the screen.
Colonel General Sochiz of Cromlin appeared cocky and arrogant as he left his embassy and made his way through crowds toward the Well Gate. He pushed aside anybody who did not yield and ignored the stares. He did not care what anybody thought of him, and his great claws could cut steel rods if he was so inclined.
Josich would be so proud of him! The way they had looked as he had spoken! The way they had simply melted away as he strode off the platform, through the hall and out. That was fear, fear of power, and it felt most excellent.
When it was clear who he was, the others along the route gave way. No one, not even those who were larger and looked meaner than he, impeded his triumphal march.
He turned the corner and saw the utter blackness of the Gate directly ahead, its hexagonal shape unmistakable. He was almost to it when he suddenly realized that for this last, short stretch there was nobody in the corridor.
He stopped, suspicious. This was the way assassins worked. Well, let them come! Let them see he was not afraid of them!
A noise caused him to turn to the wall to his right, perhaps five meters in front of the Gate. It had no shape at first, but then took on a humanoid form that seemed to extrude right out of the wall. It looked like nothing he’d seen—almost like a moving idol from some primitive tribe. It was made completely of dull, rough, granitelike stone—a cartoonish, idiotic, and simplified face carved into it. Only the eyes said it was something more—the burning fire-orange eyes in the tranquil water—and the fact that it walked to him.
“Who are you who would block me?” the Cromlin general shouted. Both forward claws went up; one snatched at the creature while the tail reared up and the syringelike point at the end struck the head of the creature.
And broke off.
The creature reached up with a stony hand. It held the claw immobile, then grabbed the other. As the pain of losing the stinger hit the Cromlin’s body, the creature ripped off the right claw and discarded it.
“You know my name,” the creature said, in a tone that could only mean it had a translator. “Let it be the last thing you or any of your brothers hear.”
“What name?” the creature screamed. “Who are you?”
“Jeremiah Wong Kincaid,” came the reply, just before the second claw was ripped away. The stone right hand of the idol-like creature punched through the face of the Cromlin right between the protruding eyes and extended antennae, and kept going all the way into the brain.
It was a slow and messy way to die.
Just before stepping off into the Well Gate, Kincaid—if that was who it truly was—paused, turned, and located the monitoring camera. “Each of you in turn,” he said in a tone all the more chilling for being so matter of fact, so cool and emotionless. “Josich, I could kill you at my pleasure, but that would be meaningless. I want you to see how I get the others, one by one, so that you live some time in abject fear. It is still not enough, but it will have to do. Monitor, see that the Chalidang get a copy of this, won’t you?” And with that the creature vanished into the hex-shaped blackness.
Colonel General Mochida, Chief of State Security for the government of Chalidang, turned slowly in the water. His two huge yet oddly humanlike brown eyes protruded slightly from each side of his rigid-looking but surprisingly soft and pliant nautiluslike spiral shell. He looked at his subordinates. “Any luck yet on tracing the race?”
“No, sir. It almost has to be some northern race distorted somewhat in the southern biospheres. There are some races who can do that sort of thing among those in the South, but they don’t look like that, and a couple that come close to that appearance but have no abilities to hide or extrude. In fact, none are water breathers.”
“Idiot!” Mochida snapped. “The appearance was obviously distorted, probably by some sort of disrupter shield. As to the North—even if we assume that for some reason we don’t already know all of them as well as we know ourselves— at least in terms of the computer database, it’s never happened. No carbon-based life pattern has ever been recast here as a northerner. No, he is playing some sort of trick on us, and we will have to find out what he is doing and counter it quickly. I want him in pieces! Pieces! I don’t want any of the Empress’s old family or associates, let alone Her Majesty, losing any sleep over this, understand?”
The others waved their tentacles in a manner approximating a Chalidang nod, but it seemed perfunctory and Mochida felt it.
“Perhaps I do not make myself clear,” he added. “For every victim from this point on, one of you will die—a random choice. I want this bastard and I want him now!”
That put the fear of the gods into them! Not that they fully understood what fear was. Too many failures, and it would be Colonel General Mochida who would have to explain failure directly to the Empress.
“Enough of this,” Mochida said abruptly, shifting gears. “We need to know how many pieces of our puzzle remain to be located.”
This was something they felt more comfortable discussing.
“There are eight pieces, General. Three are already in our possession,” one of the commanders told him. “Two more are probably attainable without military action. The two that are going to prove difficult are to the east—one in very secure circumstances in the eastern ocean, the other an object of apparent religious veneration on the far eastern continent. The last piece, I fear, we still have not located.”
“We must find it! If we can secure it and the others, then the rewards and power that await us will be as wondrous as the punishment for failure will be terrible. All the others were from here and to the east; I see no reason why the last piece should not be within the same region. There must be records, something, damn it! It was less than three hundred years ago that it was disassembled and scattered! All the others had some kind of record, some kind of trail.”
“But most believe that the Straight Gate is only a legend!” one general protested. “It is difficult even to get taken seriously. Of necessity we must keep everyone outside our inner circles believing that it is a mere childish fable. If the others should ever get the idea that it is for real, then a coalition far greater than the one we now face would be turned against us, just as it was in the days of Jaz Hadun!”
“Subtlety is not the strong point of our race,” Mochida admitted. “Still, treachery is, and that takes a great deal of talent and care. Let us concentrate on getting the other pieces as we search for this one. Do we at least know what it looks like?”
“Thanks to the drawings of the Empress of the other side, we have a reasonable idea,” one of the staff officers replied. “There are only two sections—the religious relic and the highly secured piece—that we do not at least have a description of. That means it must be one of these two pieces, since the others are accounted for.”
A tentacle swept over a hidden sensor. The top of a highly polished table, which was apparently made from gleaming coral, suddenly lit up. Another tap on a hidden control panel, and a design appeared as if etched into the table. It was actually a projection, but it looked real.
The design of the full Straight Gate was exotic, even though the interior was in the unsurprising shape of a hexagon with slightly rounded points. Around it was an ornate frame seemingly carved from some sort of ivory. It sat straight upright on a magnificent stylized carved base. There was no power supply; it didn’t need one. The remote needed only to be on a world where once the Ancient Ones had lived and which still had an active Well Gate. It drew its power from that, while the one on the Well World side could draw its power from any Zone Gate. The controls themselves, like those in the viewing table, were hidden and obscure. Only one who knew where they were and what they did, and who could operate them as a Chalidanger might, could use them properly.
The colonel at the viewer controls tapped out another code, and the drawing of the Gate changed, reflecting the eight segments that composed it.
“They were afraid to destroy it because of the potential problems for power leakage and disruption,” the colonel commented. “They had no knowledge of how it worked and had no one who could tell them. Jaz Hadun had taken everyone, including the designers, with him, and he’d left no known operator’s manual, as it were. They broke it up into the eight segments from which it had been built—feeling safe enough to do that—and gave one segment to each of the eight in their alliance to safeguard both from us and from each other. To discourage others from trying to build something similar, they agreed that it would be referred to only as a mythical device, a legend, one that went with their victory but wasn’t a part of the reality. If Jaz Hadun was not dead or in some sort of eternal limbo, then they felt this would prevent him and his party from ever returning, save through the Well Gate, where they could be dealt with. You can see how it broke down in the Empress’s sketch here.”
It was straightforward. The eight segments were assembled by some sort of magnetic system into the whole, but were easily twisted apart when the power was off.
Two segments were outlined—one a piece from the lower left side of the hexagonal opening’s border, the other the top part of the base. “These are the two that are missing or are unaccounted for. What is not reflected here is the size of the thing. It’s not huge, but the eight of us could probably swim through it at once, in a two-four-two formation.”
That would make the upper base roughly four to five meters across its long side, and the missing side segment would be about a meter and a half, perhaps two.
Mochida’s beak clicked like a telegraph, a nervous habit when he was in deep thought. Finally he said, “I very much hope that our missing segment is part of the base. It will be much easier to recognize it than that side framing, which could be virtually anywhere and in anything. That makes finding out our secured segment that much more important.”
“Well, yes, sir,” the subordinate responded nervously, “but isn’t that what the previous campaign was all about? Sanafe is a nontech hex in the middle of nowhere. Without Ochoa as a base, how can we hope to get in there with sufficient force and resources to find, or force them to find, what we require?”
“Well, if at first you do not succeed, try a different plan,” Mochida told them. “The planning department has decided that if we can not use Ochoa, we must try a different route. Their Highnesses are quite keen on shifting to an alternate target for several obvious reasons, the least of which is the two small islands. You all know that we have a deep score to settle with Kalinda.”
“Yes, but high-tech defense against a high-tech attack is risky. They need only hold. That is an ancient lesson learned long ago on the Well World.”
“Yes, it is more complex, which is why Ochoa was the preferred route,” Mochida admitted. “Still, it is possible. If the air-breather allies can establish themselves in Bludarch, Kalinda is a far easier target. We are already working with some allies there. Their government is weak and corrupt, their society fat, lazy, complacent. With an adequate supply base and simple chain, and the understanding that this time they will not be dealing with the limited Quacksans or lock-step Jirminins, but with the best soldiers of Chalidang—I believe it is a very attainable goal.”