Cadmus Craven's Rug - Part Four
On the outer edge of the Rose Galaxy, amidst the slow chaos of a cosmic collision, a green orb hung, battered yet triumphant. And on the surface of this planet, on a barren rock that rose above churning black waters, the High Priesthood of the Thrival held prisoner the source of all life in the cosmos.
At the heart of an ancient temple the Green-Ray was housed; enthroned like a queen at the centre of the crystal orb that had grown about her. Within a vast system of tunnels and chambers a state of alarm was in force, her immune system working to neutralise the things that had breached her outer crust.
In her intermediate zones, she waylaid them with visions, worked to lay obstacles in their path. In the wild, formative zone that was her mantle, her defences took the form of giant set-pieces; raging battles in which squadrons of her servitors assaulted the intruders in wave after wave.
So far only a bare handful of the intruders had penetrated to her inner sanctum. And though she fought with all the primal fury of nature, she could not seem to dislodge these Archmagi who now threatened to overwhelm her last line of defence. Feeling her situation grow desperate, the Green-Ray had been forced to resort to drastic measures.
In a quiet chamber on the edge of her crust the thing that wore the guise of Adamantus Craven came steadily forwards as Cadmus backed away before it. From its lantern-jawed chin and the scars that criss-crossed its face, to the high leather boots it wore and the easy, commanding voice it spoke with, it was his father in every respect.
Its steely eyes glittered as it thrust out a hand towards him.
“All right, son – on your feet. There's not much time.”
But the Green-Ray, distracted as she was, had underestimated her mark; before her puppet could utter another word, Cadmus had leapt up with a roar to hurl a screeching force-beam at the thing.
But the replica was exact; dodging lightly aside, the Adamantus-thing threw a force-beam of its own to intercept the attack-
The two beams met with a terrific CRACK! A ball of roiling energies formed between them as power surged against power. Cadmus gave a snarl; the thing that wore his father's face only smiled, easily holding his attack at bay.
“Less emotion, more focus, Cadmus.” It spoke easily. “The rings operate by means of directed willpower-”
“SHUT UP!” Cadmus roared, his whole body trembling with effort. “YOU'RE... NOT... MY... FATHER!”
His attack was doubled, tripled. The mass of energies hurtled towards Lord Adamantus. The thing's eyes widened in surprise. It caught the force of Cadmus' attack, was pushed back several feet. It grit its teeth; began slowly to turn Cadmus' attack back upon him-
For a moment the forces were in balance, hanging between the straining combatants. Then the Adamantus-thing spoke a single word:
There was a flash of light; Cadmus' eyes widened in horror. The force-beam struck home and he was thrown off his feet to land in a heap against the far wall.
For long moments the chamber was quiet but for the sounds of Cadmus' groans. Then the Green-Ray's puppet stepped forwards.
“I didn't know you had so much fight in you.” It grunted, breathing heavily. “Are you hurt?”
Cadmus recoiled from the out-thrust hand.
“Get away from me!”
He rose painfully to his feet. Drawing back from the thing, he moved warily into the centre of the chamber.
“No more tricks!” he bellowed aloud. “My Lady! If you want to talk to me then we'll talk! But not like this! Not him!”
“Cadmus, I know this is hard-”
“Shut up!” He snapped, glaring at the thing. “This is sick! You're not him! You're just an illusion conjured up to torment me!”
Lord Adamantus drew his hands behind his back, his eyebrows furrowed. He was as Cadmus remembered him most distinctly: not the iron-haired, careworn Adamantus of his later years, but the firm, clean-lined man of Cadmus' childhood, still athletic and filled with vital energy.
“I am not myself exactly.” Lord Adamantus spoke quietly. “Adamantus Craven's bones lie within the crypt you had built for him. But I'm no mindless puppet either. She found me within your memories, brought me here to act as her messenger. Now. I know we've had our differences, but-”
“Save it.” Cadmus grunted, massaging his temples. “You're her chosen messenger? Fine. We'll stick to that. What's the message?”
Lord Adamantus pulled a face, his eyes focused on something Cadmus could not see.
“I don't understand it completely,” He said. “She drops the information into my mind as she sees fit. Ah-! Zephyr is still the Ipsissimus then? Hm. It appears she and Haldern Sylverne are locked in some sort of power struggle. They both strive to steal the Green-Ray for themselves. The entirety of the second order are here, trying to force their way through to her innermost sanctum. Ah-” He squinted as though straining to catch a far-off noise. “Kung, Prince Caye and Karst have fought their way through the mantle to her core and have almost breached her last defences. Some of the others aren't far behind. The Green-Ray wishes to escape them. To escape this temple. The Thrival bound her here against her will several centuries ago, have kept her for their pet ever since, though they have forgotten the true nature of the relationship. She wishes only to be free. She seeks your aid in this. You are the least corrupt of the intruders – she sees that you simply wish to be free of the League's games and have your rug and miniature planet restored- Wait, what? Seriously? That's all you care about-?”
Cadmus made an impatient motion; Adamantus restrained himself with difficulty and continued through gritted teeth:
“She judges that your interests are aligned and she therefore proposes an alliance. You will snatch her vessel from under the League's nose and free her from enslavement. In return, she will help you deal with your enemies and return to your comfortable life back on Earth. What do you say?”
Cadmus considered, carefully examining his father's pained expression.
“If she can't fight off the League by herself, then how's she going to help me deal with Sylverne?”
“Her power is limited by the restraints the Thrival placed upon her. Once free, she will be more than capable of dealing with him.”
“Yeah? And how do I know she isn't making the same offer to every League-member in this place?”
Adamantus grimaced as the Green-Ray's response dropped into his mind.
“You're the only one simple-minded enough to be trusted. But she can't help you unless you help her first, and time grows short. What's your answer?”
Cadmus turned away, his face screwed up in thought.
“It's not just Sylverne. Adrammelech also plans an unpleasant fate for me. What of that? And what about my rug?”
Adamantus made an irritated gesture.
“Yes, yes!” He said distractedly. “She knows what has happened between the League and Adrammelech and will assist you in bringing all to a conclusion. The rug and the planet will be also restored. She offers this in exchange for her freedom. What do you say?”
“Yeah, all right then.” Cadmus replied after a moment's consideration. “I'm in.”
“Excellent. Then follow me!”
On the far side of the room, where previously there had been only solid crystal, a breach had now appeared; a jagged-edge tunnel winding away towards the orb's centre. As his father ducked within, Cadmus noticed that the ants had reappeared, their trail wending away into the depths. Inside, the tunnel was long, straight and low, its thick, translucent walls giving the impression of a glacier-cut fissure. Like a caver Cadmus groped his way forwards, moving gingerly to avoid crushing the ants that coated every surface.
“What is this? Where are we going?” He shouted after his father's retreating form.
“We have to reach the core before Kung and the others break through.” Came the echoed reply. “She's making a route for us, but we need to be quick.”
Cadmus hurried onwards, his skin crawling as the ants flowed around him, instinctively making way for his hands and feet. On all sides the tunnel closed in, tight and claustrophobic. As they advanced deeper into the orb, he began to catch glimpses of movement refracted through the translucent crystal: flashes of colour and the suggestion of human shadows.
The tunnel curved sharply downwards and to the left. After a moment, the wall to his right grew thin and Cadmus was able to make out the lines of a high-ceilinged chamber, a human form struggling madly at its centre while black forms darted around it. An instant later came flashes of blue light, the sound of a voice raised in anger and fear.
“One of your colleagues.” Adamantus said crisply as Cadmus drew close behind him. “She traps them with illusions and distractions.”
“Poor bastards.” Cadmus whispered to himself.
They crawled on like spelunkers through a bizarre ice-cavern, the ants flowing in a red tide all around them. On all sides came the sound of voices, variously raging, screaming and crying. Several times they passed close upon the chambers, witnessed disturbing scenes. Several times Cadmus heard the familiar voices of his fellow Neophytes.
Rounding a corner, he came suddenly upon a bizarre vision playing out on the other side of a thinly frosted wall. There he saw Axel Xolotl, a Thaumaturge of the Yucatan, strung up on webs by creatures in the shape of humanoid spiders.
“Great goddess have mercy!” The Neophyte screamed, reaching desperately for the power-stick dangling just beyond his reach. “I swear by my fingerbones, I did not know this was your temple! No- I! Please, no-! NOOOOO!”
The Neophyte's words dissolved into frenzied screaming. Cadmus turned away with a shudder.
“Christ. Sylverne really screwed us on this one.” He muttered. “How come their visions are so much worse than mine?”
“Their intentions are worse than yours; they have ignored her warnings and they press upon her inner sanctum.” Adamantus replied. “You are lucky she did not consider you a threat. Her wrath is a thing of terror. You know the saying – hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Well, the Green-Ray is the eternal woman. She reminds me of my Lady Cassandra. Or rather, I suppose, Cassandra was made in her image.”
Cadmus went quiet at this, his thoughts turned inwards.
“She showed me your battle on Mount Shasta. Your entire career, in fact – the conquest of America, Lady Cassandra and my brothers, my mother and I... all of it. Why? Why did she show me that instead of spiders and scorpions?”
“You would have preferred spiders?”
Cadmus was silent at this, his brow clouded in reflection.
“Yes.” He replied quietly. “Yes, I would have preferred that.”
His father nodded curtly.
“She showed you yourself, or more precisely, your understanding of yourself. You saw your life compared to mine. Compared to that of your brothers. Evidently you did not enjoy the contrast.”
“Why did she show me that? What was the point?”
“She was exploring you, evaluating you. Trying to teach you something, perhaps. Tell me, Cadmus, are you happy?”
Cadmus shook his head, caught off guard by the question.
“Why would you ask me that? I have lands, wealth and power. I have all the booze I could ever drink. I have the power-rings. The planet Miniscula as my plaything.”
His father's expression was unreadable as he looked back over his shoulder.
“That isn't an answer, Cadmus.”
Cadmus felt his face darken.
“No!” He snapped. “No – I'm not happy! I didn't want to be the one to carry your name – your godforsaken empire! All this bullshit with the League. All the nonsense you thrust upon me. I didn't want any of it! Titus, Rasmus, Idris – it should have been them. They should have lived, taken over your affairs. But instead they died fighting your wars and I was left to carry the burden! No, I'm not happy! I would much rather have my freedom!”
He found himself breathing heavily. They paused to regard each other, each face hard and wary.
“And what would you do with freedom, Cadmus?” His father asked quietly after long moments had passed. “What would you do differently?”
Cadmus could say nothing to this.
Lord Adamantus turned away. They crawled on in silence, Cadmus' pulse thundering in his temples.
“Would you drink less? Work hard to achieve all your ambitions?” His father's voice came easily after a moment. “Would you make a name for yourself? Make the world a better place?”
Cadmus swallowed, his cheeks burning.
“She just wanted to punish me then?” He heard himself ask, his voice hard and brittle. “Add insult to injury?”
His father did not look round.
“She offers no judgements, Cadmus. Only cautions. Hers is a fourfold nature, you see. First she showed you your errors. Then she showed you your weaknesses. Then came your misconceptions, and finally-”
“Finally,” Cadmus cut him off, “she sends a ghost to give me some life coaching? Yeah – no thanks. I'd rather have the spiders. Adamantus Craven is dead and you're an unconvincing copy. So you can spare me the sermonising. I help your mistress, she helps me. Everything else is irrelevant. Eyes front, old man. I'm tired of your chatter.”
His father was silent for long moments. Finally he gave a hollow laugh.
“As you wish, Lord Craven.”
They crawled on in silence for several minutes, the ants rustling about their wrists and ankles. Before them the shaft curved steeply downwards. The sounds of shouting and cursing fell away and the quality of the light changed – deepened into a pulsing emerald glow once more. Suddenly, the air was thick with tension. Waves of power and emotion seemed to pulse through Cadmus' head with every heartbeat.
Quite suddenly, Adamantus paused, turned to meet his gaze. Before them the tunnel ended in a translucent wall, the suggestion of shapes moving just beyond it.
“We're almost through.” Adamantus said. “A final chamber stands between us and the mantle. But it's a large one and we don't have time to go around. We're going to have to go through.”
“Good.” Cadmus spoke softly. “I'll take apart whatever stands in my way. Lead on, ghost.”
Adamantus gazed warily at him, gave a slight nod.
“Very well then.” He said softly. “Follow me.”
He turned away; before them the light pulsed, brighter than anything Cadmus had yet seen. The wall shuddered once like the flesh a living thing. Then, quite suddenly, it gave way to reveal-
Stars, hanging against the canvas of a dark sky. Before them, a red horizon, tinged with the first streaks of dawn. Above was the moon, large and blue, reddening as it descended towards the ocean.
Cadmus stepped forwards, dizzy and reeling, to find himself upon a dawnlighted strand. Upon the horizon the sun's orb was mounting. It was towards this sight that the beach's lone figure was facing: a tall, solitary figure, a single rose held to his nose as he gazed out to sea. His back was turned to Cadmus and his father where they stood a little ways back in the dunes. Cadmus shook himself. He grasped a handful of sand, let it run through his fingers as he gazed about in disbelief.
“It seems so real...” He murmured. “But I don't understand. This isn't like the other visions.”
“That's because this isn't a vision, Cadmus.” His father replied softly, gazing out to sea. “It's a memory.”
Cadmus turned to examine the man at the shore's edge: a tall, solid figure, garbed in robes of velvet and silk brocade; blue and gold, the clothes spoke of wealth and power.
The man turned as though in response to these thoughts, smiled up at them. His features were soft, handsome and sensitive, his flowing black hair tied back in a neat top-knot. Cadmus squinted in confusion.
“I don't recognise him... who is he? And why are we in his memory?”
“Not his memory.” came Adamantus' soft reply.
Before them, the man bowed.
“A dawn meeting, at the place of the wild sea-roses?” He said. “Ah, my sweet wife! How well you know me!”
“Aye, my emperor,” Came a voice from behind them. “I knew you wouldn't be able to resist.”
“Emperor-?” Cadmus muttered as he turned. He knew the voice before he saw her, her features grave by the light of the rising sun. There she stood, recognisable in spite of her youth, framed atop a dune in robes of scarlet-grey: the Empress Jian Jishei, all the hard beauty of a serpent clothed in human form.
The emperor stepped forwards, a blue sea-rose clutched gently in hand.
“Come my love! Come watch the sun rise with me! Then we may speak and dream of our joy! The celebrations and public feasts! The jugglers and exotic animals! Oh, my sweet empress! I am so happy, I can barely speak-!”
On the dune, Jian made no move but to rest her hand calmly against her stomach.
“I think not, oh husband dearest.” She answered crisply. “For you have already given me all I need to rule.”
In response to these words, soldiers stepped silently forth from the dunes behind her.
The emperor shrank backwards, his face frozen in disbelief.
“I... what are you doing?”
“I believe it's called a 'coup', dear husband.” The Empress replied blandly as the firing squad took up their positions. “Your clumsiness and stupidity have mired the middle kingdom for too long. It's time for a change.”
She raised her hand, a dark gnomon against the dunes.
“You can't... you mustn't... Jian this is madness!”
“Madness? My dear, this is politics.”
Her hand fell. A roar of gunfire ecoed amidst the dunes. There was a horrible gurgling – the sounds of velvet flailing against wet sand. Then all was quiet.
“Jesus Christ.” Cadmus breathed.
Then came a whirling, roaring confusion. It was as though a great tide had gone out in an instant; the ground beneath their feet remained firm while a blur of shape and colour rolled past in a maelstrom. Cadmus and Adamantus blinked alike. They found themselves suddenly upon a rooftop, a city of walls and arches stretching before them. In the distance was the heaving tiers and bulbous domes of a royal palace, wreathed in the smoke that rose around it. Through the streets and over the city a dreadful clamour roared. The sounds of rage and terror bellowed from a million throats.
Cadmus shook his head dizzily. In the city below, crowds surged to the sounds of hastily-arranged marching bands, red banners held above their heads. Across the street, Cadmus could see letters graffitied in red paint across the front of a building:
“DEATH TO THE USURPER.”
“Ah, shit.” Said Cadmus.
“We're in her memories.” Adamantus murmured. “I don't recognise her though. Who is she?”
“The Empress Jian Jishei, ruler of the middle kingdom.” Cadmus sighed. “One of the most brutal tyrants the world has ever known.”
The scene shifted again; with a stomach-churning lurch the pair were thrown forwards to find themselves in a bleak, high-vaulted room. Antique brickwork showed in sharp relief by the harsh light of the room's single lamp; the room was quiet but for a tense murmur, empty but for the knot of courtiers, doctors and nurses crowded about a low cot. Without warning, the air was rent by a sudden, blood-curdling scream.
Cadmus staggered, cast wildly around the room; the crowd parted for an instant and he caught a glimpse of the empress' features, painfully contorted in the throes of labour.
“Ugh. Not something I wanted to see.” He muttered under his breath.
He turned – found his father behind him, leaning against a wall. The older man looked up, his face grey with nausea.
“What is this?” Cadmus hissed. “What's happening?”
“She's being distracted, forced to relive her memories over in a loop.” Adamantus groaned. “The Green-Ray seeks to keep her subdued, hold her in place.”
“Okay.” Cadmus replied dubiously, looking over to where the stricken empress screamed and struggled. “So how do we get out?”
Upon the cot, the empress struggled and groaned, her eyes rolling in an ecstasy of pain. She gripped the forearm of the nearest courtier, drew the frightened girl closer-
“Have the people been informed?” She hissed.
“Ma'am...” Came the whispered reply.
“And?” Jian hissed angrily. “Have the riots ceased?”
“My Empress, I... I cannot say...” The girl squeaked, desperately trying to pull free. But the Empress' grip was like iron.
“They're still rioting, Your Majesty. They say they will not bow to the child of a usurper-”
“Bastards!” The Empress roared as a contraction tore through her. “They will bow to their true-born lord – they will bow to the Dowager Empress whether they will it or not! Argh! Doctor! The foreceps! He is coming now-!”
Her words degenerated into screams and grunts, her face purpled, teeth bared horribly, eyes rolled back; no longer an empress, but only a tortured animal. The courtiers shrank back while the doctors and nurses surged madly about the cot.
Against the far wall Cadmus and his father huddled.
“Making her relive childbirth... this is heavy.” Cadmus whispered. “Well? What do we do?”
“Sit tight, wait until the end of the loop.” Adamantus returned. “The Green-Ray will make us an exit before looping her back to the beginning. Now keep your voice down-”
“Can't we just knock her out and have done with it?”
“No!” Adamantus hissed. “It's too risky. If she realises she's under attack, it could break the spell. We need to keep our distance, let it play out. The Green-Ray will give us an exit-”
But there was something horribly fascinating in the scene playing out before them, and Cadmus could not restrain himself. He stepped forwards as the empress' screaming reached a crescendo-
“What are you doing?” Adamantus hissed, catching at his sleeve.
“It's fine,” Cadmus breathed distractedly, “I don't think she can see us...”
Something was wrong. The empress' scream had found no counterpart. Instead, silence had fallen. A silence of terror. A silence of disbelief and dread, falling like the rays of the setting sun over every person in the room.
Upon the cot, the empress raised herself weakly.
“My son...” She croaked in a voice as weary as time itself. “Let me hold my son.”
But the doctor could only stand silently, staring down at the grey and purpled thing in his arms.
“Ah.” Said the empress, falling back with a sob. “Ah, my child. My poor, sweet child. God forgive me!”
The scene shifted forwards in time once more.
Cadmus was thrown off his feet by the force of the change; he found himself cursing upon the flagstones of the palace throne-room, Adamantus at his side-
“Quiet!” His father urged. “You're going to blow the whole thing!”
Cadmus said nothing. They were at the edge of the rostrum on which the imperial throne resided. Here, surrounded on all sides by the jade-armoured sentinels of the imperial guard, the Empress Jian sat, fiercely regal in spite of the wasted aspect her cares had laid upon her. From outside, the sounds of violent conflict resounded: the roar of artillery and the distant screams of men. As the empress glared down at the figure before her, the entire palace trembled, a hail of mortar-dust cascading from the ceiling.
The empress ignored it. Within the dark orbs of her eyes was held the fate of the man who stood before her.
“You can do it then?” She asked softly. “The force of the Individuality – the Logos – you can bind it, bring it within my command?”
“Your Majesty. In theory, yes.” The figure responded with an awkward bow. “But you must know, my empress, that to bring down the Individuality into this world – to be exposed to its awful power – this is an inversion of the natural order. Such an act would not be without consequences-”
“There are no alternatives.” She snapped. “Death or sorcery. These are my options, and I do not intend to die. What of you, wizard? Will you undertake the working willingly? Or must I kill you too?”
The man bowed, although his face betrayed naught but calm condescension.
“You needn't threaten, my empress. I made my choice long ago. I am going to die in any case. Better to die with the knowledge of Unity seared into my soul than to die in ignorance at the hands of your enemies.”
“Cadmus-” His father whispered urgently. “We're too close! Come away-”
“I need to see this.” Cadmus replied softly, pulling away from his father's clutches. “I need to understand-”
The scene changed abruptly, jumping forwards in time. Still the Lords Craven stood in the throne room, now dark and empty but for the radiance that sprang from its centre.
In his magic circle the wizard gasped and panted, eyes wide as he gazed at the thing he had summoned.
Before the throne stood the Empress, a sword in hand, icily dignified in spite of her nudity. Blood stained her royal hand – dripped down onto the glyph at her feet. She opened her mouth uncertainly.
“It is bound? You command it?”
Before them, the source of the chamber's light was hunched in the summoning circle that held it: an enormous human figure, naked but for the wings that enfolded it, its perfectly golden eyes raised to stare into those of the empress.
“Punishment.” It said. The words were in an unfamiliar language. And yet their meaning burned into the minds of all present.
“It is yourself, majesty.” The wizard gasped, his fingers trembling upon the lamp he held. “It is yourself on a higher arc – a creature of the Unity-”
“Then it will unify with me.” The empress replied.
The wizard shook his head abruptly.
“No. You must not ask this. An Individuality absorbs its Personality, not the other way around.”
“You will make it happen or you will die.”
“My empress, It is not within my power to refuse you.” The wizard said softly. “ I have bound the creature – it must grant any request you make. But understand, my empress, that this being is your soul – your higher self. If you bind it to this earthly realm, you will be trapped here for all eternity, unable to die, unable to return to the higher realms, a cursed existence-”
“Do not do this.” The Archangel spoke quietly. “Do not harm yourself.”
But the empress only smiled a twisted smile.
“I was born to rule, and rule I shall. Creature, I command you! You will become one with me, grant me all the powers of your being!”
The Archangel lowered its eyes.
“As you wish, my child.”
There was an explosion of light and force that threw them all off their feet. The creature glowed brightly for an instant, its wings unfurling as it rose-
Then, in a burst of purple and gold, its great outline winked out of existence. The Empress began to scream. The sword clattered to the ground, its bearer bent double as she clutched her head in her hands, white light blazing from her eyelids. For long seconds she screamed, the sounds torn from her throat in hoarse sobs. Then, quite abruptly, she staggered backwards to slump upon the throne. For long moments all was ringing silence. As the wizard rose unsteadily to his feet, the empress looked up with eyes that held the cosmos within them.
“The building of the earth by the Hecatoncheires. The war in heaven and the birth of Venus. The fall of Atlantis and the long exile that followed. Stalingrad. The nano-wars. My god. I remember all of it. I was there. A thousand lifetimes. Life unending. And now-”
The light faded from her eyes as she held her hands up before them.
“And now I am complete. Stop.” She added abruptly, seeing the wizard bend towards the lamp he had dropped.
The wizard froze, a look of fear passing across his features.
“Your majesty, I-”
“Silence. Pick it up. Now rise.”
The wizard jerked upright, the lamp clutched awkwardly in hand.
“Good.” The empress said, with the barest trace of a smile. “The power of the Logos lives within me. It appears you have delivered on your promise, wizard. Now – beat yourself to death.”
The wizard's face was grey, his eyes a miasma of despair. Still, the hand that grasped the lamp was firm. As the increasingly wet sounds of metal on bone resounded throughout the room, Cadmus shrank back to where his father awaited.
“Christ.” He gasped, trying not to vomit. “I knew she was ruthless, but this-”
Adamantus gestured angrily. But it was too late. By some quirk of the dream, the cadence of Cadmus' voice had reached the empress. Wrinkling her nose, she turned from the pulped nightmare twitching on the flagstones to gaze directly at Lord Adamantus Craven.
“You there.” She spoke slowly. “Clear away the body and bring me my robes. I will address the mob, strangle this revolution in its cradle.”
Cadmus was frozen where he stood, his mouth opening and closing silently. With an angry hiss Adamantus stepped to where the body lay and, taking the the thing by its legs, began to haul it towards the door. His heart in his mouth, Cadmus edged likewise from the throne, taking care to remain in the shadows. His father was halfway to the door when the empress called out:
“Wait! I recall giving strict instructions for privacy.” She pulled herself upright, her face a mask of tired confusion as Adamantus stood frozen before the door. “I don't remember you entering the throne-room. In fact, I don't remember ever seeing you before. What's happening? Come here.”
Slowly Adamantus turned and approached the throne. The empress was slumped, transfixed by exhaustion, yet force radiated from every line of her attenuated features. An eye opened as Lord Craven approached, rolled indifferently over him.
“Halt.” She spoke heavily. “You will answer truthfully – who are you and why do you come here?”
Adamantus could not restrain himself.
“I am Lord Adamantus Craven, summoned from death for the purpose of guiding my son to the Green-Ray's core.”
“A nonsensical answer. And yet, you speak the truth.” The empress roused herself, her expression twisting as though some whispered suggestion were plucking at her mind. “The Green-Ray. Yes – I remember the name. But what is it? And how did you come here?”
Adamantus opened his mouth to reply; in that instant Cadmus recovered his wits. Bringing a finger to the ruby power-ring, he sent forth a ray of stunning force. But his aim was poor; trying awkwardly not to hit his father, his ray caught the empress only a glancing blow. She reeled like a punch-drunk boxer, her head lolling onto her chest-
“Get down!” Shouted Cadmus, coming forwards with hands outstretched.
But he was too slow. As Adamantus dropped awkwardly to the ground, as Cadmus' aim wavered, the empress' eyes flickered-
Cadmus felt his legs bound, his finger held from the ruby power-ring as though by magnetic force. He saw his father's grim expression, the slight shake of his head and despair coursed through him. There was just one option left.
The empress' mouth opened:
Cadmus' finger went instead to the malachite power-ring. Gravity was repelled. Before the empress could get the fatal words out, he'd launched himself up and through the throne-room's high stained glass window, crashing out into the night.
Shards of glass filled the air. For a instant the city skyline tumbled before him, lit a garish red by the flames of war. He soared through the air, storm-tossed and dizzy. The sounds of battle hit his ears: the rumble and roar of artillery, the rasp of machine gun fire and screams of torment as bloody struggle tore through the city streets. Then he was spinning uncontrollably, buffeted by the high-winds of the chinese plateau and he fought hard to master the forces of the power-ring as he plummeted towards the ground. Down he arced, spinning like a cork from a champagne bottle towards the darkened streets below. At the last second he regained control, cursing as an battletorn street flew up to meet him-
The malachite ring gave a pulse, checked his descent just enough. CRASH! He landed in a heap on an exposed upper-storey. He groaned, winded but unhurt. From the street below came the tell-tale flicker of firelight, the rattle of gunfire-
“Urgh.” Cadmus groaned, broken glass falling from him as he rose unsteadily. “This is a fucking realistic memory.”
He staggered towards the remains of a wall, looked out over the street. Shattered brickwork and boarded-up windows greeted his eyes. The unpaved road was a nightmare of rubble and artillery craters, dead bodies strewn among piles of brickwork and tangled razor-wire. At one end of the street a rag-tag group was huddled behind burned-out cars, firing desperately at the armoured vehicle approaching along the street, a squad of uniformed soldiers following carefully behind; as Cadmus watched, the rebels made their last, desperate move. A boy, barely into his teens, handed up a primitive grenade-launcher to a woman in torn khakis. She held it low to the roof of the car, took careful aim as the APC's gunner hailed a storm of bullets around her. There was a frothing roar; a blaze of orange. The rocket-grenade flew, faster than the eyes could follow to crash into the APC's front-end. But the projectile was caught in the protective grille that enmeshed the vehicle's cockpit and it exploded a second later, leaving the car scorched but undamaged. With a yell the rebels grabbed their meagre equipment, began a disorderly retreat. The APC surged forwards. From behind, the soldiers fanned out to send their bullets raking the rebel position, tearing screams and gurgles from the dying as they fell amidst the wreckage-
A surge of anger awoke in Cadmus' breast. With a pulse of the malachite ring he flew down to alight upon the APC's upper deck, kicking viciously at the top gunner as he came down. The man fell, crashing with a yell down into the vehicle's depths; all around the soldiers were turning, bringing their weapons to bear-
“They're not real.” Cadmus grunted to himself as his finger found the emerald power-ring.
A wall of nuclear force exploded outwards, flash-cooking the the imperial troops in an instant. Most fell dead instantly. Some, partially protected by cover, took only a half-dose and fell to the ground, gurgling horribly as their insides turned to jelly. The surface of the APC throbbed alarmingly; Cadmus rose aloft just as its stuff hit boiling point. Glowing fiercely, its substance ran like quicksilver, entombing the screaming men within as it slowly collapsed in on itself.
Then it was over. The rebels looked about in disbelief. The street was silent but for the ticking and creaking of cooling metal. Above the squat remains of the APC hung Cadmus, appearing in the uniform of a Kadmonite officer like an apparition from some dark corner of hell.
He descended slowly to the ground, his expression calculated to preserve the solemnity of the occasion.
As the rebel commander stepped forwards wordlessly to meet him, he narrowed his eyes.
“Take me to your leader.” He spoke with the barest trace of a smile.
The rebel commander made no reply. As she saluted awkwardly, Cadmus saw that her other hand was clamped to the throat wound that prevented her from speaking.
“Of course.” He whispered, his eyes sparkling as he stemmed the bleeding with a pulse of the ruby power-ring. “Of course.”
The situation was simple, so far as Cadmus could see. He and his father were trapped in a distorted memory. It was not real and – so Cadmus supposed – could not therefore harm them, though their senses may disagree. There was but one danger: that Jian Jishei would wrest the truth from his father and so break free from the Green-Ray's deception. Cadmus would prevent this from happening. He would see the empress trapped in her own nightmare.
The rebel council had made their headquarters in a network of abandoned tunnels beneath a sports stadium. Presumably Jian Jishei had inspected it after the rebellion had been crushed, for the memory was richly textured. Staff officers and infantry commanders pored over charts laid on on rickety tables by lamplight. Pennants made from bedsheets hung from every surface, dyed crimson red, black fists hastily daubed across their surface. Below them a convincingly detailed array of rubble littered the floor: spent bullet-casings, cigar-butts and lumps of pulverised masonry. It was obvious the Empress had visited this place on her victory tour. But this time things were different. This time there would be no victory tour.
The rebel leadership awaited him beneath the building's sole electrical light, standing before a hastily-arranged operations room.
Cadmus smiled as the light caught the glimmering stones of his power-rings.
“You will be victorious this time.” He spoke carelessly. “Because this time you have me. Let us assume that you had a means of breaching the palace defences, of getting your men inside. What would you do with such an opportunity?”
The general in command looked strangely at him from beneath tufted eyebrows.
“What in god's name are you talking about?”
Cadmus only smiled.
Hours later, in a bunker some distance beneath the imperial palace, the empress Jian Jishei leaned over the wracked features of Lord Adamantus Craven and spoke:
“Your bravery exceeds all expectations. But you are weakening now and will soon disclose your secrets.”
Their faces, lit by the room's harsh neon lights, presented an interesting contrast. Both wore the haggard look of the long-suffering. Both spoke of resolve and a wolfish brutality. But where the Empress' features were pale and clean-lined, the Lord Craven's were blackened by the torture he'd endured. And yet, as the dim noises of battle grew nearer, as a trickle of mortar-dust cascaded from the ceiling in response to a far-off explosion, it was the wracked features of Lord Craven that wore the look of victory. The empress gave a snort of derision, though her eyes betrayed mounting panic.
“Craven, craven, craven.” She murmured. “The sounds have become a torment to me. It is a name I am familiar with. And yet, I feel a veil drawn across my mind, the memories obscured by some agency I cannot name. To learn who you are would be my salvation. This I know. Do you think I will relinquish you when your rescuers arrive? I would rather see you dead. For it is you who tortures me. Now, for the final time: what is the Green-Ray and how did you come to my throne-room?”
Adamantus grunted as the command laid hold of him. It moved through every fibre of his being, compelling him to speech. But though it cost him unimaginable pain, he fought with all he had to keep his mouth clamped tightly shut. As he writhed and grimaced, the empress stepped back with a frown and gestured to the soldiers who stood on all sides.
“He needs only his tongue and his wits. The rest is disposable.”
As the rifle butts rose and fell, while Adamantus Craven bellowed his rage and pain, the empress stepped over to the khakied radio-operator seated in the corner.
“Well?” She hissed, eyeing the youth's ashen features with disdain. “What's happening up there? That last one was damned close!”
“Ma'am, I've heard nothing from sectors four, five and six for some time. Sector seven is surrounded, taking heavy casualties. It's only a matter of time now. I urge you to take the tunnel, Your Majesty. We must flee the city, get away! The coastal provinces remain loyal, I am sure of it-”
“Coward! Punish yourself at once!” She hissed, adding to herself in softer tones while the sobbing corporal beat his head against the wall: “I must know what the Green-Ray is. It's the key to this whole thing. There is more at work here than a simple rebellion, I am sure of it! This is witchery. If only I could remember-”
At the table, Lord Adamantus gave a final roar as his shoulder was wrenched from its socket.
“No more!” He gasped between broken teeth a moment later. “I'll talk, I swear-!”
The empress wheeled, came eagerly forwards even as a tremor shook the room. Beneath flickering lights she bent her face close to the prisoner's.
“Well? Speak truthfully!”
“The.. the Green-Ray...” He murmured. “Toys with you as a cat toys with a mouse...”
“What is it?” She screamed, seizing his face in one hand and snatching up the pliers. “You will tell me! Now!”
“She is...” He whispered, his eyes gleaming with triumph. “She is your captor, just as I am yours...”
At that moment, the sounds of crackling came from somewhere in the bunker. The empress turned with a snarl. On the far side of the bunker, the thick iron-door that stood between them and the upper levels was under attack. A reddish point had appeared; as they watched it blazed white, began to crackle with sparks before beginning a slow descent.
The soldiers formed up around it, rifles trembling in their hands as the seconds counted down to their doom. The empress was a screaming gorgon; Adamantus' roars beat a tattoo to the sounds of searing metal as she did her merciless work upon him.
“Tell me!” She screamed as the white line reached its mid-point. “Tell me what will free me from this prison!”
Adamantus did not need to restrain himself any longer. With a broken-jawed smile he gazed up at the furious empress. Then he spoke but two words:
It was at that moment that the ceiling exploded.
Rubble cascaded down, bouncing from the walls to knock soldiers aside like skittles. Mortar-dust filled the air, blinding the eye and choking the lungs. Chaos reigned everywhere.
Only the centre of the room, around the table on which Lord Adamantus lay, remained free from danger, seemingly protected by a force-field.
Above, the dust-shroud was clearing to reveal a single figure hanging against the light.
“Hello, Dad.” Cadmus said as he descended. “Sorry to keep you waiting. You were surprisingly hard to find.”
The empress rose to her feet, tried to speak the words of command that would save her. But her lungs were choked with dust and her mouth drooled uncontrollably. All she could do was to seize the pistol that lay close at hand and put it to Adamantus Craven's head-
“Stop!” She managed in between choking gasps.
“All right.” Said Cadmus.
The emerald ring was hard to control. Under normal circumstance, Cadmus would not risk using it. But these were not normal circumstances. This was simply a memory. The pistol was much smaller than the APC. It reached its boiling point almost instantly.
The empress' screams were deafening. She writhed on the floor, purple-faced, seeming on the edge of a seizure as the thing that had been a pistol melted the very flesh from her bones. She should have lost consciousness. But the Green-Ray did not allow it. For long moments Cadmus stood above her, his expression impassive. Then, with a simple gesture, he caused a metal rod to enter her screaming mouth and, bending itself around the back of her skull, form a tightly fitting gag.
“There.” He said as the bunker door fell inwards and the rebels began to enter the room. “That takes care of that. Christ!” He exclaimed as he saw his father's ruined face. “You look terrible! What did she do to you?”
The answer to this was self-evident. Adamantus' features were grotesquely swollen, his body a shattered ruin. But even as Cadmus gently undid the restraints that bound his arms and legs, a strange transformation overcame the older man. Wounds that had appeared grievous a moment ago were fading, the swollen nightmare of the man's face growing smooth and clean-lined once more.
“Fuck's sake, Cadmus!” Lord Adamantus managed, his teeth showing whole once more as he struggled to an elbow. “You took long enough about it!”
“Yeah, well – not easy navigating someone else's memories.” Cadmus replied, saluting the rebel officer who now approached. “Here she is then, colonel. As promised.” He prodding the sobbing form at his feet. “The traitor empress. All yours. No – he's fine. Now, if you could give us a bit of privacy...”
The rebel troops came forwards to drag away the groaning empress while the colonel phoned in news of the victory over the radio-operator's dust-shrouded corpse. So went the costs of war. The colonel, a postal worker before the rebellion, was now a highly decorated field commander, assured honours and a position of power in the new order that was to come. But this was but a distorted memory given temporary life by the Green Ray. In reality, it was the radio-operator who'd retired to an easy life in the provinces while the colonel's bones lay unmarked and unmourned, bulldozed into a mass grave.
So went the costs of war.
As the troops filed out of the bunker, Cadmus turned once more to his father.
“Doesn't look like the wait did you any harm. Anyway. I'm here now, and we're free to go our way. That's what counts, right?”
“I felt it all.” Adamantus growled, glaring up at him. “Everything that damned she-wolf inflicted on me. I had to hold out for hours, writhing in pain the whole time... even so, she came damned close to realising the truth. Maybe too close. I don't know how much longer the Green-Ray can keep her asleep now...”
“You always were a tough old bastard.” Cadmus replied absently, his eyes roving the bunker. Then, his gaze softening somewhat, he added: “But I did my best to get here as quickly as I could.”
“Aye. With an army at your back, too. I wasn't expecting that.” His father replied evenly, rising from the table. “Maybe you do have some of me in you after all. Not,” he added, catching Cadmus' eye, “that bringing an army was necessary. You could have sorted this a lot faster using the power-rings alone.”
“Yeah? I thought you'd appreciate a little military flair.” Cadmus said carelessly, looking away again. “I needed the distraction they caused anyway. I'm not so good with the old power-rings.”
“No. You aren't. But still. Thank you.”
A moment's silence passed between them; an awkward silence, filled with unspoken words.
“Well it was either this or remain trapped in Jian's memories for all eternity.” Cadmus said lightly. “Shall we?”
On the far wall, one of the cracks in the masonry had began to glow with an emerald light. As the Lords Craven watched, the crack grew wider, began to pulse with a high energy.
“Aye.” Said Adamantus, stepping quickly forwards. “We need to move. I don't know how time works in these memories, but it's clear we've been here too long. We've got to get to the core. Fast.”
Before them, the crack pulsated with a brilliant emerald light. As its light fell across Cadmus' hand he felt his skin tingle with all the potentiality of life. Primordial force: thrilling, seductive and not a little dangerous. It impressed upon him an idea of oneness. It impressed upon him a sense of dissolution.
Cadmus felt himself shiver. But still he followed his father to the thing's very edge.
“Aye,” Adamantus spoke again, regarding him with a strange look. “We go to the core. But first we must cross the valley of death. First we must weather the storm of her unconscious mind. Come, Cadmus. We must cross the mantle.”
“Lead on.” Was Cadmus' response.
Together they turned to face the light. It pulsed but once. And then they were gone.