Chapter 3: Tollen’s Gate
It was dusk in the Afterland of Hydrargyrum; the grey rocky landscape was draped in a soft, sulphurous mist. Standing at the foot of the Gate of Tollen; a massive circular stone set into the side of the mountain, was a female Blood ascendant. There was a chill in the air. El-on-ah raised the hood of her thick black cloak, though it barely covered her long scarlet red hair which streamed out from its sides in tight, unruly ringlets.
With her were two young native male Bloods. They were also dressed in the traditional black robes and dragon skin belts of the Bloods, though only El-on-ah’s gown was adorned with the pewter Ouroboros pin of an Ascendant Alchemist.
The three of them were huddled around what appeared to be a scruffy, long-haired, grey rat. None of them seemed at all surprised when the rat abruptly vaporised and transformed into a strange four-legged beast. Its new body was long and thin with silver grey scales and two tiny purple wings. The animal had a thin, barbed, tail and its head resembled that of a small goat, with two horns, long grey whiskers and a tufted beard.
It was a Pukis, a small dragon-like creature, known for its unshakable loyalty in serving its master. Usually, within minutes of a Pukis hatching, it will imprint on the first individual it sees and will serve that person and that person alone, for the rest of its days. Pukis, known to be amazingly artful, quick and dexterous, have the reputation of being remarkably skilled thieves.
“Puk, did you get it? Could you get far enough inside?” El-on-ah put out a black gloved hand and placed it beneath the dragon’s hairy chin. “Puk, drop it,” she said.
The animal responded with a series of hiccoughing belches, producing a stream of smoke-filled bubbles, spurts of flame and fiery sparks. Finally, one enormous flaming belch propelled a small teardrop shaped glass bottle into the woman’s gloved hand. For a second, she regarded it with astonishment.
“Puk, you got it! Good Pukis... very, very, very good Pukis!” She ruffled the hair behind its ears as she held up the bottle to inspect the silver liquid it contained.
“My Lady!” said a curly haired young Blood. “You have the silver mercurium! I can’t believe it, now we really can do this!”
Tu-nek-ta was small for a Blood and so appeared younger than his years. The ease at which he became excited added to this impression.
“It is not as simple as that Tu-nek-ta,” said El-on-ah frowning, “there is a good deal more to this charm than the mercurium. I will need to use all of my skills as an Alchemist to the full, and I am not sure that I have the potentia.” She bit her lip. “Vaporisation is not challenging in itself, but controlling the process of solidification without an ascension cubicula…. Well, it has never been attempted before, except for my few experiments with rats, and most of those did not end well.”
“I refuse to listen to your doubts Lady El-on-ah,” said the other male Blood.
Che-vah-ra was a rakish young man with attractive angular features, his wavy hair tightly cropped and his eyes heavy lidded and thickly lashed. The sharpness of his words was somewhat ameliorated by his slanted smile and the look of admiration in his steely black eyes.
“You know you are our one hope,” he said. “The Ophites have no other Alchemists. If you do not do this El-on-ah, then Lord Ka will never be returned to us.”
Che’s tall frame bent close to her, his lips brushed her ear as his voice softened.
“He bequeathed you his charm because he knew you, Lord Ka knew that you would find a way to obtain the mercurium. Now you have everything you need to cast the spell. You will succeed El-on-ah, it is written, and it is time.”
He looked past her, his pensive eyes drawn to the mountainous horizon.
“Anyway,” he said with resignation, “now, you have no choice.”
“Why? What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.
He placed a hand on her shoulder, looking into her eyes with a long, unwavering gaze.
“I received word from our friends in Aurum; a female Whyte ascended this dawn.”
“You lie!” El-on-ah spat out the words, pushing his hand away. “The Whytes are extinct. They have no vapours to ascend, Lord Ka saw to that. The prophecy of Eldwyn is flawed….” She said scowling at him, “and what makes you think you have the right to address me by name?”
Ignoring her anger, he leant closer to her and with a sardonic smile he gently fondled one of the scarlet ringlets that had escaped the cover of her hood.
“I did not hear you complaining when I addressed you so last evening... my Lady,” He said, lifting one eyebrow, his eyes glinting impishly.
El-on-ah flushed. “You take liberties Che-vah-ra,” she glowered at him, her voice dropping to a soft purr. “I bid you take care; the last native to forget his place, now has nothing but a scar where once were his lips.”
She smiled as his expression fell, “Oh and now, I am told, he eats through a straw.”
Tu-nek-ta, who had been a reluctant witness of their exchange, interrupted.
“My Lady, Che-vah-ra, speaks the truth,” he said, nervously coming to the aid of his friend. “We received three separate apis messages this morning, and all reported the same, the ascension of a female Whyte. The Sooth has named her Rose… after the Rhodium four. It appears that the Aurum scholars believe her to be ascended from the coalesced vapours of the four.”
“Impossible!” said El-on-ah, the colour draining from her face. “Fractionated vapours from separate ascendants cannot coalesce into a single immortal” She floundered, shaking her head, her eyes widening. “No, it cannot be possible; if this were to be true then... ”
“That,” said Che-vah-ra nodding slowly and pointing at El-on-ah’s face and its developing expression of horror, “ is why we have to act now! If we wait, we may forever lose this opportunity and Lord Ka will merely remain a long-treasured fragment of our history.”
El-on-ah glanced pensively at the glass phial in her hand. She turned back to the others, her black eyes blazing with renewed determination.
“We leave for Rhodium tonight. Puk, you will bring my large occultus to me, now!”
The small creature bowed its head in acknowledgement, extended its two small wings and took effortlessly to the sky.
“Tu-nek-ta, I need you to go to my laboratorium, collect a spare robe, my vapour flask and a syphon. You will bring it to the Rhodium border cabin at the top of the Hydra Pass. I will meet you there at noon, one week from today. Do not be late.”
“And me, my Lady?” asked Che-vah-ra. “What do you bid of me?”
“For you Che-vah-ra?” she said with a faint smile, as she carefully placed the phial of mercurium into her small leather occultus. “For you, I have a significant undertaking. You are to arrange for the elimination of this, this aberration, this... Rose of the Whyte, and preferably before her full potentia emerges. Then join us at the Hydra pass.”
Che-vah-ra’s brow creased into a deep frown. “But my lady, the security at the Oratory is extremely tight, and now…. well…. they will almost certainly have increased it. I don’t see how…”
El-on-ah held up her gloved hand, quieting his protest “You will find a way. Use the Aureus circle; they have assassins and spies close to the Oratory, do they not?”
“Yes my lady, but the Aureus Ophites, they are not to be trusted, did you, not only yesterday liken them to a nest of vipers?”
“I did, and they are, but we have little choice. Either the Whyte is returned to vapour immediately, or everything we have worked for is lost. You have to find a way to succeed because if you do not, and I am successful. Then you could find yourself facing the wrath of Lord Ka himself.”
Che-vah-ra opened his mouth to reply but appearing to think better of it, he bowed his head curtly and turned to leave.
“Che, have you forgotten something?” said El-on-ah
“I’m sorry; by your leave, my Lady?”
“No, not that,” she said, motioning to the rat-sized hole at the base of the gate. “You’ve forgotten to seal the tunnel.”
The Pukis had burned out a small channel just below the Gate. It was through here that he was able to enter Erebus to obtain the precious mercurium, without opening the gate and, more importantly, without releasing the Djinn.
Che and Tu-nek-ta struggled to lift the small, dense, galena stone slab with which they intended to cover the hole. Eventually, with much huffing and puffing, they managed to manoeuvre it awkwardly into position.
“Good,” said El-on-ah, inspecting the stability of their work with a kick of her boot. “I would hate you two to be the Bloods responsible for releasing the Djinn. We are not quite ready for that yet.”
She removed her right glove and placed her palm down at the centre of the Galena stone.
“Ferrumino!” she said, casting the sealing spell.
The dragon’s eye on her potens ring flared a fiery red, its hot pulsating light enveloping the stone and causing its veins of leaden ore to melt and bubble. The liquid metal flowed to the edges of the slab where it cooled and solidified, sealing the stone into place beneath the gate.
“Our work here is done,” she said, putting on her glove and pulling her cloak tightly around her slim form. “Go now. You know what you have to do.”
Che put his fingers into his mouth and whistled loudly. Three horses cantered out of the mist to join them. El-on-ah grabbed the reins of her black stallion, swinging herself up effortlessly into the saddle. When they were mounted, they nodded a silent farewell to each other and left, each of them taking a different path down the mountainside.
An eerie silence remained as they left the gate and soon the dark crept in and smothered the mist.
A faint snapping sound broke the silence. Tiny fractures appeared in the Galena stone. Quickly they multiplied, spreading to the edge of the rock until, with a deafening crack, it exploded with such force that it split the gate itself. A large fissure opened at the bottom of the gate and from its centre emerged a deep, ominous rumble which became increasingly louder, like the sound of an approaching storm. Then the stone gate began to shake. A small tremor rapidly grew into a violent quaking, which, with a thunderous crack, ruptured the stone gate into two. Each half rolled slowly apart to reveal a deep black hole below a billowing cloud of acrid yellow smoke. The entrance to Erebus was open.
As the smoke drifted out and began to thin, a dark form moved within it. The creature stepped out from the smoke and into the night air. Like a man, but not a man; its body made of fyre, and yet not fyre - as ice is made of water, but is not water. His face was a grotesque, lipless skull, thinly covered with scaly red skin. He opened his two nostrils, simple holes in the centre of his face, and he sniffed at the damp night air.
Phlegon stood with an air of majesty in front of the gate, his long black hair carried in the light breeze and flowing out behind him like death’s shadow.
Two piercing dark eyes looked out over the moonlit, mountainous panorama of Hydrargyrum. Then, he lifted his head to the sky, opened his jaws and let out a cry, a cry that liberated ten thousand years of pain. It was a cry that would strike fear into every inhabitant of the Afterlands. It was the call of the Djinn.