Trees roared and moaned in the gathering winds that swept the valley, swaying drunkenly. Limbs and boughs cracked thunderously in the strain of the worsening storm. The weather was rapidly turning foul from a day that had always seemed on the edge of bad weather
Below, in the deep cleft between the high rocky mountainous foothills, a narrow curving strip of water ran alongside the steeply wooded sides. The dull-grey surface was flecked in puckered white by the whirling winds that whipped it into frenzied motion.
The storm was brewing and the leaden sky promised weather that had been missing all summer. Now the nights were drawing in, and winter was at last ready to take its grip back across the land.
Tomar walked the narrow and perilous rock-strewn path in the overhanging shadows of the tree line moving as far as he dared above the shores of the lakes. Here he could count on some shelter from the trees, even if at the risk of wolverine attacks, though these were mercifully rare.
For an old man pushing on nearly fifty, he could still make light work of the hazards. Indeed, his crooked age-worn staff served as little more than an accustomed comfort to his time-gnarled hand.
Long white wisps of a beard, several seasons old and thinning with age, tussled free of the old man's dark blue hooded velvet cloak and flitted playfully across his face. They forced him to occasionally stop to wipe his vision clear so he could see the path ahead.
He gazed on back down the valley in the direction from which he had come. He noted the rising swell on the lake, and how it was now racing across the narrow pebble shore, justifying his reluctance to use that route as an easier way. Soon there would be rains, he thought. The blackening sky above brought the promise that those rains would be heavy; he would have to hurry if he wished to make it to Palladin before the weather worsened much more.
Agile and in good health for fifty he was. But being caught out in the rains at this time of year was not the wisest of moves for an old man who wished to remain that way! Leaning on his staff, Tomar looked back up the valley, towards the shifting banks of mist rolling down from the mountains of the far-off Geldar forests.
It wasn't a great distance left to go now; Palladin hid in the cool comforts of that mist, rising stark and proud only in times of good weather from this vantage point. He couldn't see the graceful pink towers yet, but he knew they were there. He had travelled this route time and time again and knew the familiar palace to not be far now.
A lone raindrop splattered unexpectedly onto his old wrinkled exposed hand, sending water fragments scattering along the shaft of his staff. Glancing up at the now heavier and darker sky, he realised he had stood resting for long enough. The weather was cycling into the valley faster than anticipated. Soon the rains would arrive, hard, and he would be caught out in them if he did not hurry.
He quickly began picking his footing along the stony path. Around him, each rock was rapidly turning a darker and shinier grey as droplets pattered through the thin forest foliage.
The endless random drumming filled his ears with the frantic sound from the rains. Ahead, the pink sandstone turrets and spires rose from the mists that had enveloped the forest. Already his velvet robe was dark and heavy with moisture and trickles of water scattered steadily from it in rhythm to his walking.
Silently, he cursed himself for wasting so much time in the lower reaches of the valley. He could feel the cold fingers of dampness penetrating down to the tunic beneath; this was not a good state for a man of his advancing years.
Then the heavens finally opened completely, letting loose their most mightiest of torrents and drowning out with them Tomar's last hopes of remaining remotely dry. He quickly reached the towering wooden gates set into the pink spiral towers of the gatehouse through the gathering puddles, stumbling as fast as he dared on the stony path.
Unfurling a wet and wrinkled hand, he summoned up his remaining strength. He reached for the stately looking, if a little tarnished, brass knocker in the shape of a gargoyle's head and heaved it back as far as its weight would allow before letting it fall with a crash against the dampening wood of the door.
The sound echoed harshly, dying away only slowly in the hidden void that lay beyond the door.
Impatiently he waited, his weary mind dragging the seconds out as he wished he could quickly get inside and get warmed in front of an open fire. It was infuriating to be stood here in the rains waiting for signs of life from within.
He was just debating with himself whether to reach for the knocker again when the sound of footsteps echoed closer from beyond the rivet studded oak. Abruptly they stopped, leaving Tomar wondering if he might have imagined them in his haste. His thoughts were arrested as the narrow wicket gate adjacent to the gargoyle's head eased open, releasing a wave of warm incense-laced air from the room beyond. Surely this was an invitation to get out from the grasp of the weather and into the dry; it was an invitation he took.
Shielding the top of his hand to guard against the risk of hitting the low frame, Tomar gratefully ducked through out of the cold into the smoky warmth of the gatehouse.
The darkened room beyond the gate had a friendly heat in its air. Tomar slipped down the damp hood of the cloak and rubbed the driven moisture from his face as he waited for his unaccustomed eyes to grow used to the darkness.
The wicket gate thumped closed behind him, shutting out the steady patter of rain in the forest to nothing more than a distant muffled hum. In the gloom, the figure of a short man moved from the gate, silhouetted in the flickering torchlight.
Though Tomar's eyes were not yet fully adjusted to make the figure out fully, its rugged features were plain enough to him - a Geldnine dwarf. A fierce warrior race, well known throughout the galaxy for their immense loyalty and devotion to duty.
Aardnaar was a distant planet too far off the beaten way to normally find such a creature, let alone here in the royal palace. Idly Tomar wondered the dwarf's reasons for being here. But there was little time; the short man led him off towards the high council chamber without uttering a word.
They passed through an intricate maze of winding passageways and rooms. A newcomer might have found the palace a mysterious and foreboding place, easy to become hopelessly lost in.
But Tomar was no stranger to the palace. Time and time again he had been here on business over the long years of many seasons past. It was almost longer than he could remember to when he had first walked these corridors in awe. He had been just twelve, fresh from the villages beyond the forests, eager to learn the trade of his Father who had been an advisor to the high Priest's guild. It had been a long time ago indeed, a time before many could now recall when the Priest's guild had been powerful and prosperous. It had been a time when Palladin had been alive with people, each busy in their work.
Now the whole planet of Aardnaar was slumped into the slippery slope of decay. It no longer had the thriving economy to support its once great armies that had dwindled to nothing in too short a space of time.
Most of the guild's buildings in the cities had been sold to pay long overdue debts, and the money had flowed away like water. Palladin had somehow survived as the sole remnant of what had been a greater time.
Tomar's mind wandered back from his hazy daydreaming to the dwarf-warrior leading him. He began to mull over just why the high Priest Jono might be now in the habit of hiring off-worlders to work in the royal palace. He scrutinised the creature's features, taking in every contour and every curve, analysing every move.
The dwarf's old gnarled face carried many scars of battles past, making Tomar wonder which parts of the galaxy the warrior had fought in. Moving quick and with great certainty in the poorly illuminated corridors, it was clear that the little man knew his way well around Palladin. Obviously he had been working for the high Priest for some time now.
They turned a corner, to be confronted by the ages old black timber doors that led directly into the throne chambers. From underneath the doors there wavered the flickering light of several slow-burning torches, reflecting on the smoothness of the stone flooring worn to the texture of glass by the passing of much time and many feet.
The dwarf took out an old worn hilt, and tapped the doors once with it to acknowledge their presence to the room that lay beyond. Without waiting for any sort of a reply, he slipped the hilter away back under the folds of his cloak and heaved his weight against the wood to open the doors and let them both through into the room beyond.
The narrow lift platform creaked and groaned as it eased its way up into the lasting darkness. Orb master Kiiki paid no more than a cursory glance into the gloom where the snaking ropes, worn smooth by decades of tallow application, snaked into the receding gloom chased by the feeble torch light.
His mind rolled in the thoughts that had become so pressing to him over the more recent years. Those thoughts which concerned the rise to power of the High Lords, self-proclaimed Emperors of a million worlds and conqueror of all which lay before them lay foremost in his mind. To be summoned like this to such a force would strike fear into the very depths of any creature’s heart.
Orb master Kiiki had been called to the exalted chambers many, many times. Now even he felt the nerves rising in his throat, ready for the presence of the High Lords.
With a creak and a groan the swaying platform was arrested in its ascent, and a pang of fear ran along Kiiki’s spine. It was not because he feared the aged ropes might part company with the platform structure at any second and send him crashing to annihilation far below. But because he knew the journey was at an end and that he must face his destiny within the High Lords’ chamber.
Stepping gingerly over the edge of the dusty woodwork he eased himself onto the narrow ledge carved high up on what would have appeared to anyone who did not know any wiser a shear rock face. Here there was just enough room to crouch in the tiny niche, to wait for the platform to resume its climb to the next level where it would arrive empty.
For a few seconds more, this time would be his, to spend in worry. They couldn’t take that away from him. But they would always try.
A twang of hemp straining under a mounting load in the semi-gloom signalled the minions above had began to work the treadmill once more. They believed the pause was part of the ritual. To them it was the few seconds when the High Lords would take their people to the other dimension where only the Gods could sustain life, and could turn a man’s body to dry grey ash in the flicker of a heart beat if they so chose.
They could believe all the rubbish they could ever be fed, Kiiki thought as he watched the platform move on up at last, because it was all lies. It had all been dreamt up by a succession of power-mongers to control the people - a heist of the entire culture.
For eight thousand years no-one had dared to challenge the lies, so the house of cards had continued to hold.
The platform and the security it might have offered were gone, though the creaking would continue for some time. Fumbling under his robes he brought out an old tinderbox and a torch faggot. Within moments the sparks from the flint and steel flared the torch enough for him to see his way by.
A tunnel opened up into the heart of the solid stone just below the tiny niche. Hand and footholds carved into the rock gave a way down, smoothed and blackened by the passage of a great many feet over the centuries. All of the hierarchy knew the way that lay ahead, and most would visit many times.
Every visit would begin with the apprehension.
He let the torch rest on the dusty floor of the niche and it cast a shaky, flickering light as he felt with his feet for purchase.
The fall down the shaft, if his grip went for any reason, was more than a hundred feet with nothing to arrest his descent except the hard unforgiving rock of the mountain at the bottom. Whilst it was possible for one of the hierarchy through the ages to have slipped and fallen, he had never heard of such a scenario. More than likely, the two priests who guarded the ways into the lower catacombs were sworn to remove all evidence, so that the record books would never show.
As far as the luckless individual could be assured, the story would be told that the High-Lords had taken their soul from this world for deeds unmentionable. An accident would become an excuse to bury bad news with a convenient scapegoat. It would be an unceremonious end as no more than a defamatory footnote in the scrolls.
The tunnel was just big enough for a man to walk in upright. Kiiki retrieved his torch and cautiously set out into the gloom, counting every twist and turn and comparing it to the mental map which he had been made to learn to perfection long ago in the days of his training.
The maze had a great many blind corners, and a great many hidden turns. Whilst from any direction it only looked like there was a single passageway laid out into the darkness in front, things were rarely what they seemed. Each member of the hierarchy had their own unique way through; no two used the same route.
Even so, there were more than a hundred thousand different ways in the dank tunnels ensuring that those not authorised here would never find their ways through, or back out to be able to tell their tales. So the stories went, many centuries previous when the maze was only just two thousand years old a new trainee had discovered a skeleton on his first trip through. His route had never been used before since the construction, so they said. The body had not been identified, although it was certain it had been there for more than a generation.
The maze had worked and claimed its first victim.
Kiiki’s footsteps echoed hollow and empty in the tunnels of the hand-carved labyrinth as he moved by feel alone to reach his ultimate destination. Although he still carried the torch, it was for comfort only that he needed its light. In the unlikely event that it burnt away to nothing before he emerged at the other end, he could navigate his way through by touch and feel and nothing else. That was the way they had all been taught.
Finally another light, far brighter and stronger, beckoned from ahead, reflecting off the worn grains of sandstone on the walls. At the side of the tunnel, surrounded by soot and long dead embers, a tarnished metal frame set into the wall provided him with a place to put the warm faggot. He tried to ignore the two faggots that were already there; evidence of those who had not fared well in front of the High Lords before?
Then with his fears suppressed in the rigours of all his training that coursed deep through his mind, he stepped out into the light, ready to face anything that might come.