Lan followed the priest for what seemed like miles. Would there be no end to these passageways? Feeling raw and vulnerable, she was at first reluctant to leave Fulcrom’s side, but he persuaded her that this mission with Ulryk was the lesser of the evils available.
A good night’s sleep had left her with stiff legs and aching muscles, but despite this she felt reasonably fit again. Part of her wanted to go out and find the people who caused her pain, but she had her instructions, and trusted Fulcrom’s intentions.
‘Ulryk,’ she said, after what must have been an hour, ‘where are we?’
He articulated his detailed explanations, most of which she didn’t understand, and she felt he might be trying to bore away her curiosity.
Several times on the route down, the priest stopped to assess a blocked doorway, whereupon he would chant in an esoteric language. She could not quite perceive what was happening, only that the blockage was no longer there.
Rooms trailed into a sequence of holes, which in turn led into an underground cavern. At this stage, they entered such complete darkness that she had no sense of where she was, what time had passed or how Ulryk could discern where they were going. Guided by his voice, she listened as, now and then, he softly informed her in some small detail of where they were, but none of it had any context. More to the point, she couldn’t see how she could help. She wanted to be doing something, anything, using her powers and skill and judgement, not shuffling her feet through the dark. But that was all she did, for hours.
Eventually, she watched in awe as the priest constructed a raft from stones by using only speech, and navigated them through the darkness.
Finally they approached the second city, the city under Villjamur, the city of the dead. From the exponential decay, it looked as if a disaster had struck, and the sky – if she could see it – was utterly black, with no stars or moon, nothing to denote there was anything but a void above them.
Ulryk explained to her the logistics of the place, who the people were, and what he had discovered so far.
‘How long have you spent down here?’ she asked him, as they walked along the crumbling streets. Shutters and doors opened as they passed, though she could see no figures beyond.
‘Time is different in this location, though I estimate it has been several days’ worth of work.’
‘And you’ve found nothing?’
Ulryk shook his head and sighed. ‘I have been searching for something that may or may not be called the “House of the Dead”, for that is how Frater Mercury referred to it. I once assumed this whole world was what he implied, but I have my suspicions that there are buildings down here that defy time and imagination.’
She could see, for the very first time, the exhaustion in his expression and the wariness in his eyes.
The dead were friendly enough, merely curious to see someone from the realm of the living. At first she was afraid to go anywhere near them, but she could see they meant no harm. The initial cluster of civilians faded to just a couple of Ulryk’s helpers.
They passed a plaza, where the dead roamed the streets in vague exploratory arcs. Whispers echoed towards her from all directions, as if the citizens were talking about them, but she couldn’t see them looking their way. They just went about their business – whatever business there was down here.
A young, attractive woman – with a remarkably similar appearance to Lan, though her face and hair were alarmingly pale and she had neck wounds marring her throat – wandered over to them with a determined look in her eye. ‘Priest,’ she called.
Ulryk turned to face her and listened earnestly to what she had to say. In a hushed, formal voice, she continued, ‘I’ve heard of your quest. You’re a friend of the investigator, Fulcrom, aren’t you?’
Ulryk’s face lit up, and Lan couldn’t help but be charmed by his determination. ‘Please, continue.’
‘You said “House of Dead” right? We suspect it could be a region that we ourselves can’t get to. It is dead to us, as we are to it. That’s what they say, but I wonder if it’s some way out of here for us, too.’
‘We may have found what we are looking for. What is your name, young lady?’ Ulryk asked.
‘Well, Adena, can you show us the way?’
After acquiring two torches, they passed along a huge, labyrinthine path that cut between rock faces. Lan noticed how, on the journey, the young woman barely acknowledged her, discussing the route and making eye contact with Ulryk only. She was so similar to Lan that it made her uneasy.
It could have been the better part of an hour before they arrived at the front of a temple. Half of it was constructed from brick, and the other half from the rock. It had a vast classical facade, with pillars hacked into a towering cliff and, set directly ahead at the top of a broad stone stairway, a simple square doorway, framed by pillars.
Adena paused at the bottom of the stairs, either unable or unwilling to go further.
Lan and Ulryk climbed the steps, waved their torches over the fine detail, examining the intricate stone carvings. If there was anywhere that should be the House of the Dead, this would be it: skulls and complete skeletons could be seen breaching the surface of the stone, as if bones were somehow imprisoned within geological structures. As they were the same colour as the rock, it was difficult to tell if they were stone or real.
Lan turned, casting light on the backs of the pillars, and jumped back: she was face to face with an angled skull, its mouth open, cobwebs covering its eyeholes.
‘Weird building,’ Lan said. ‘Do you want me to go first?’
She pushed aside the notion of the skeletons here – they could have represented anything, a ritual, a sacrifice. It did not mean she herself would be joining them.
Ulryk nodded and motioned for her to continue forward, but looked back as their guide called to them from the bottom of the stairs.
‘We ghosts have no knowledge of this place that can help you. I’ve seen kin go in there, never to return. This temple is part of the old city. No one knows anything about it. I’d . . . like to see more, though. It may bring me peace. May I come with you?’
‘Of course,’ Lan said, but Adena did not want to notice her.
‘May I?’ the girl asked again.
‘Yes, please,’ Ulryk replied.
‘Come on, Ulryk,’ Lan said. ‘I want to get back home. Let’s see if this book of yours is in here.’
Lan entered the doorway . . .
. . . and found herself in a woodland glade. What?
A moment later, Ulryk stumbled alongside her, followed by Adena, who seemed to possess more clarity now.
It was night, wherever they were, and thick trunks of trees extended as far as she could see. She could hear the sound of running water in the distance. All around the glade were rocks – no, remains of buildings – smothered with moss. Their torchlight caught the edges of beautiful heart-shaped leaves, and smooth trunks.
She turned round to see where they had come from, and the doorway was still there, without a frame, simply a presence in the air.
‘Where the hell are we?’ she whispered. ‘What is this place?’
Ulryk seemed delighted for some reason. ‘It . . . it looks precisely like a series of woodcuts I have observed in a primitive Jorsalir text. And also . . .’ He removed his copy of The Book of Transformations from his satchel and opened it to one of the pages. The drawings were crude, but one page showed a location undeniably similar to the one they were in.
‘A paradise,’ he mentioned, ‘of sorts.’
Lan scanned the page. ‘So we’re probably in the right place. But this book you’re looking for, it could be anywhere here. Does it say in your copy where the other might be?’
Ulryk shook his head and closed the book with a snap. ‘No, but I suggest we follow the river first, then we may have a clearer understanding.’
With the book tucked under Ulryk’s arm, they continued through thick grass towards the heady smell of the river, and soon located it, a column of slow-flowing water, which was around twenty paces wide. Further along the bank, strange lights were floating out of the vegetation before sinking back into the undergrowth. She wasn’t entirely sure, but there seemed to be other people watching them: pairs of eyes glittered from the other bank, fading in and out of her sight.
‘This place doesn’t seem like a paradise,’ Lan whispered. She tuned into her powers then, just to make sure she could tap them – and sure enough, whatever worked in Villjamur and the ghost city worked down here, too.
The girl, Adena, moved out towards the edge of the river and began to walk slowly down the bank, hitching her ragged dress above her knee while she descended into the water. She seemed to be cautious at first and then, when her feet were submerged, she looked up with a smile on her face.
‘I think . . . I think I can be free now. This is where the others must have come.’ Suddenly she glared at Lan – acknowledging her fully this time. ‘You’d better look after him,’ Adena said.
‘Who?’ Lan replied.
Adena turned away and plunged face-first into the water without a sound.
‘Ulryk, shouldn’t we help her?’ Lan asked, moving to the edge of the bank.
The priest scanned up and down the river, but there was no sign of the girl. ‘It seems there is no one left to assist. And I’m not entirely certain that this is water.’
Lan remained utterly confused. Could ghosts die or pass on elsewhere?
Lan and Ulryk continued along what certainly looked like running water for some time, heading towards its source, Lan constantly searching for visual markers to help them on the return journey. She did not want to be abandoned here, wherever it was.
‘This is useless, Ulryk,’ Lan muttered more than once.
In the dark canopy, she heard something rattling, shifting between the leaves. Vines began trailing down, slithering towards her. Skipping from side to side, out of their grasp, she urged Ulryk onwards. And eventually they reached another clearing, this one glowing as if moonlit, but she couldn’t see any of the moons in the sky. There was a macabre ambience to the place. Grass had been flattened in various directions, and in the centre of this wide clearing lay an object.
A book, in fact.
With his torch in one hand, Ulryk rushed forward to see if it was the other copy of The Book of Transformations, but beneath the surface of the grass something began to move, knocking Ulryk backwards. His torch fell to the grass, inert.
Lan dashed towards the priest and helped him to his feet; and, at the periphery of her vision, she saw movement coming from behind the trunks. Creatures began unfolding themselves from behind the trees, gleaming in the dull light, and bulbous things began bulging from beneath the surface of the bark. Not a sound was made as the strange wood constructs began presenting themselves, malicious-looking entities with serrated branches and blades, no two the same.
These things lunged towards them.
Lan could feel Ulryk shivering with fear beside her. ‘Use one of your fucking spells,’ she said, tuning into her powers and beginning to tread air as quickly as she could. She traversed the gaps between the tree-things, and on impact, she drove her heels down into the branches, snapping them, drawing their attention away from the priest.
Eventually the monotone of Ulryk’s chanting became loud.
The tree creatures began combusting, flames taking to the wood and leaves with brutal effect. Lan dropped back to where Ulryk stood chanting and forced a barrier around them both where the flames could not reach. Kneeling, she watched branches tumble to the forest floor, withering and crackling with heat, an alien wail rising from within – and from here it was obvious the woodland wasn’t quite real. The flames emitted a slight purple tinge; there were sparks spitting outwards, too.
A few moments later, once the flames had burned down, she released the forces surrounding them.
Foliage still smouldered, and Ulryk was panting.
‘Are you OK?’ she asked.
‘I have’, Ulryk observed, ‘felt better, but thank you.’ He was still shaking, and there was a burn mark across his robes.
‘There’s no logic to any of this,’ Lan said. ‘It doesn’t seem real. The weather doesn’t seem to exist, the forest seems to act abnormally. I could be in a dream for all I know.’
‘The same could be said for the world above.’
‘Don’t get meta with me. So, do you want your book then?’ Lan gestured to the tome that lay in the grass, untouched and unharmed.
Ulryk stood with a steady dignity and began hobbling towards the book. Something, though, didn’t seem right: half of the sky was black, half of it a distorted grey, and the forest canopy seemed to be . . . irregular. Instead of the natural curves and edges to the trees and leaves, things were comprised of hundreds of little squares, an abnormal, mosaic forest.
As soon as Ulryk lifted the book from the grass the world fell apart – quite literally. The squares multiplied, sweeping across the forest with a rush of wind, changing from dark browns and greens to the colour of rock, the images distorting.
They found themselves inside a large stone chamber: it had all happened so suddenly.
Ulryk turned around, gasping. He fumbled until the two books he was carrying were safely in his satchel, and then he hurriedly pointed to the hundreds of equations etched deep into the walls, whereupon he began to mouth things in a language she couldn’t quite recognize.
Confused, she turned her attention elsewhere. There was a square doorway, but nothing within the room itself, save for the numbers and letters and lines. Lan moved to the door and poked her head out, confirming that they were in the temple surrounded by skulls.
‘OK . . .’ Lan said, then back inside to Ulryk. ‘Hey, what the hell just happened?’
‘It was an artificial reality,’ Ulryk marvelled. ‘The lines on the wall, they’re a language that I’ve only seen in a few texts. If you look carefully, there are thousands of minute mirrors constructed within the brick. We passed through an artificial reality! You were quite right, Lan – it was a dream, more or less, but one created by Frater Mercury – who must have used his technology to store the book in a safe place.’
‘So only those who deciphered his code could understand where he had hidden it? So it left a connection to him, but one almost impossible to find.’
‘What happened to the ghost, Adena, if it wasn’t real?’
‘I’m here,’ a voice said.
The priest moved around the room trying to locate where the voice came from. ‘Adena?’ he said. ‘Speak again.’
‘I’m in the mirrors this side now. Look closer.’
Faintly, in a cluster of the small mirrors, a shape took form, broken up by the stonework behind, and it began to resemble the girl who had guided them here.
‘So many mysteries,’ the priest muttered. ‘So little time.’
‘I’m fine now,’ the ghost said. ‘There’s more, so much more on this side . . .’ And with that, the form faded, leaving the room in utter calm.
‘So now what?’ Lan asked.
‘I need to return to the surface, reflect upon the texts and compare them, then I must conduct the rituals.’ Ulryk paused for a moment, as if the weight of expectation dawned on him. ‘Then I suppose I must see about bringing Frater Mercury into our world. I am ashamed to admit that I have not thought much about the realities of this: merely finding the other book. For years I thought it did not exist. And now . . .’
‘Let’s get back,’ Lan said. ‘There’s plenty of time for speculation later.’