The Aterland Chronicles

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Chapter 7: Sublimation

The air smelled like winter at the top of the Hydra Pass, it was so cold that it bit into El-on-ah’s skin like thousands of icy teeth and burned her airway as she breathed it in. Light snow was falling, intermittently now, though it had snowed heavily the previous day and there was a deep covering on the ground. To the North of the pass, less than a mile away as the hawk flies, was the great Ice wall that marked the narrow border between the Afterlands of Rhodium and Hydrargyrum.

El-on-ah paced backwards and forwards outside the derelict, wooden border cabin. The snow no longer crunched beneath her feet, it had been so compacted by her pacing, that Puk now repeatedly slipped on it as he tried, unsuccessfully, to keep up with her. Periodically she turned so quickly that she found herself stepping on the little Pukis, who would flap his tiny wings in a frantic attempt to get out from under her feet.

“Where have they got to?” The irritation in her voice was apparent. “They should have been here by now. If we are to reach the Ice temple before dawn, we need to leave within the hour.”

The Ice Temple at Enisfrae was a majestic and iconic building, constructed almost entirely out of ice. It was less than a days ride once inside the wall, but the terrain was treacherous. The Hydra pass lay between two mountain ranges, the Ice Mountains of Rhodium to the North, and to the South, the Mountains of Fyre, which were situated within the Hydrargyrum border region. It had been in this inhospitable valley of fyre and ice, where the final battles of the Dragon Wars had raged.

The land still bore the scars of this war, frozen in time, in stone, and in ice. The long petrified bodies of the Ophite rebels struck down by Eldwyn the Whyte’s powerful enchantment, marked the route like grotesque milestones along the way. The temple, initially taken by Lord Ka at the start of the war, became his last stronghold. It was from there he had attempted his final, and ultimately fatal, assault on Rhodium.

El-on-ah turned at the sound of snow muffled horses’ hooves, approaching from the south. The two Bloods approached, galloping at speed and far too fast for the conditions. As they pulled up, Tu-nek-ta’s mount’s rear legs slid under him as the horse struggled to stay upright.

“My Lady, we apologise for our tardiness,” Che-vah-ra said breathlessly, as he swung out of his saddle and approached her on foot. “I bring crucial and terrible news from Cynnabar.”

El-on-ah’s enquiring eyes held a glint of menace as she waited for him to explain. Hesitantly and with apparent reluctance, he went on.

“I fear, my Lady, that we may be the cause of a terrible catastrophe.” He could not keep the fear from his voice as it fell to a deathly whisper. “The Djinn of Erebus… are free…”

The expression of shock and horror on El-on-ah’s face was followed swiftly by a look of guilt and confusion.

“How?” she said, “It can’t be us. We sealed the tunnel under the gate, and the seal on Tollen’s Gate remained intact.”

“On our way back we went to see if we could discover what had happened,” said Che. “It looked like Puk’s tunnel had undermined the gate, causing it to subside and then to crack. Ultimately this must have forced the gate from its seal.”

The pukis hung his head and backed away into the hut.

“The Djinn are walking the streets of the capital as we speak.” Said Che, his eyes steadily holding hers, “I saw them myself El-on-ah, hundreds of Djinn and they have an army of Afreet; ten thousand strong. Most of the population fled to the west, using the cover of the mountains to cross into Ferrum without being seen. A few tried to go east into Aurum, but there is no cover that way, either over land or across the loch and I don’t think any of them made it. It seems that few people took the north route past the gate, as we did, which is why I suspect, we were able to escape with our lives.”

Stunned, El-oh-na’s eyes widened. What she knew of Afreet terrified her. They were enormous winged Djinn, creatures of fyre with speed and strength beyond imagination, there was no escaping them. Mortal natives could do them no harm and even ascendants had difficulty in limiting the destruction they bring.

El-on-ah remained silent for some time, lost in her thoughts. Che shuffled uncomfortably on his feet, trying to keep himself warm and waiting for the explosion he was sure would soon occur. When she broke the silence, however, El-on-ah’s voice was unnervingly subdued.

“They will make slaves of the natives and assimilate the ascendants.” Her voice betrayed her dismay.

“We have but one option.” She said, looking north towards Rhodium’s Ice Mountains. “Only Lord Ka can help us now. We have to bring him back. If we cannot, then the people of the Afterlands will be doomed to an eternity of enslavement…. or worse.”

El-on-ah strode purposefully towards the hut and grabbed her mount from its tether. Picking up her occultus, she glanced inside.

Traditionally an occultus is used to carry an Alchemist’s potions, herbs and equipment and this small leather pouch rarely left her side.

Checking again that the glass phial of mercurium was safely stored inside, she turned and looked up, confident that her servants had followed behind her.

“Tu-nek-ta, did you bring the rest of the equipment?”

“Here My Lady” he motioned to the two saddle bags. “Vapour flask, and syphon.”

“Che, have you news about the other matter?”

Che-vah-ra’s face lengthened, his expression darkening “It will be done, before noon tomorrow.”

“Aureus Ophites?” she asked, frowning.

“Yes, my Lady” then noticing her look of discontent. “Is that not what you intended?”

“It is” she sounded hesitant, “ but if we are unsuccessful in our attempt to resurrect Lord Ka, then the fulfilment of Eldwyn’s prophecy may be our only hope. We may yet have need of this young Whyte. Where are the nearest skeps? Have I time to rescind the order?”

“The closest Blood apis are in Treymaneor, My Lady,” said Che-vah-ra, as he re-mounted his silver mare. “At least three days ride in these conditions, and we would have to pass the gate again, so would risk being captured. We could go through the pass and cross into Ferrum. Geldholm is the closest town, but it’s still a day’s ride and in the opposite direction to Enisfrae.”

She looked up at him frowning, her jaw tightened as she pulled on her gloves.

“Then we must ensure that not only do we attempt the resurrection,” she said, “but we are successful. Ka is our only hope now.”

Grasping the reins of her black stallion, she pulled him around and effortlessly swung herself up into the saddle.

“Enisfrae” she shouted as she dug her heels into her horse’s flanks and galloped recklessly down the steep mountain path towards the great Ice Wall, the others following closely behind.

After riding hard throughout the night, it was approaching dawn when they entered the city of Enisfrae. It was so cold that each exhaled breath sparkled as it froze in the air, instantly transforming into a cloud of tiny ice crystals. They had slowed their exhausted horses to a steady walk. Now, the hollow thud of their hooves was all that broke the silence, a silence which was as suffocating as the freezing mist itself. Nervously they watched the eerie, petrified bodies of Ophites as they rode past them. Each of them was secretly afraid that these once living statues would suddenly awaken from their thousand-year slumber, and challenge their rite of passage.

El-on-ah pulled her thick cloak around herself and the little Pukis. She had never felt so cold. Up ahead, the five spires of the Ice temple came into view above the mist. The building was elevated, resting on a four-sided pyramid structure with stepped sides and a flat top. They tethered their horses to a post at the foot of the pyramid, leaving Puk behind to mind them. Then they began to climb the steps of the pyramid, on its south side.

At the top of the pyramid, in front of the great Ice Temple and looking out over the city like a divine effigy, was Ka’s petrified body. The sight of him standing there unchanged for over a thousand years, took El-on-ah’s breath away. His right arm was outstretched, pointing towards the snow-covered horizon, and his lips were frozen in mid-incantation. He looked terrifyingly magnificent.

El-on-ah realised now, why native Ophites made regular pilgrimages to this place from childhood. Parents brought their children here to see the great Lord Ka. They told stories of his exploits, told them how one day he would return to free the Afterlands from tyranny and to unify their people under one great and powerful leader. Later as adults, they would come alone, as pilgrims or to ask Ka for his magical protection and they would leave an adder stone, in tribute or in payment, at his feet.

There were thousands of these glassy stones, all of them pierced by a hole at their centre. They had been formed naturally by the elements as the stone was taken on its ancient geographical journey carried by the movement of the fyre, wind, earth, water and ice.

One of them caught El-on-ah’s eye. The stone was flattened, oval in shape and of a size that could just be contained within her clenched fist. Faintly luminous, it emitted a soft green glimmer, which reminded El-on-ah of the glow worms that used to dance outside her window on summer evenings. The stones diffuse radiance, together with its hole being slightly off centre, gave the stone appearance of a crescent moon. On impulse, she picked it up and slipped it into a pocket inside her occultus. Then she took out the phial of mercurium, another containing a mixture of iodine and arsenic, and a small round boiling flask.

“Tu-nek-ta,” she said, “pass me the vapour flask.”

El-on-ah took the cone-shaped, flat-bottomed container from him and placed it down on a large stone at Ka’s feet. Removing its stopper she motioned to them to move backwards.

“You’re standing too close,” she said, “If this works, the amount of energy contained in the vacuum bubble will be immense.”

Then, shrugging her shoulders, she added “On the other hand ignore what I just said. If the bubble collapses, it won’t matter where we’re standing.”

The two Bloods looked at each other nervously. Che glanced back to El-on-ah.

“You do know what you are doing?” he said.

She shot him a withering look.

Che grimaced, expecting El-on-ah further response to his apparent lack of confidence in her abilities, to be both swift and violent, but she seemed to ignore his transgression, and her reply was distant and uncharacteristically measured.

“I know theoretically that sublimation is possible,” she said, biting her lip, “but no one has ever attempted the sublimation of an ascendant before. So, to be honest, I cannot predict the outcome with any certainty” she gave a stoic shrug, “but conjecture is immaterial. We have no choice.”

Che and Tu-nek-ta glanced anxiously at each other and then simultaneously moved backwards into the shelter of the temple’s entrance pillars, where they watched the rest of the proceedings.

El-on-ah found a large flat adder stone with a hole in its centre. The hole was of a size that enabled the round bottomed boiling glass to fit it snugly enough to stand upright.

After brushing some of the snow away, she put the stone on the ground, about a foot from the vapour flask. Then she placed her potens ringed hand down, palm flattened, on top of the rock.

Incendium,” she said, casting the fyre spell.

The dragon’s eye stone in her ring emitted a blood red glow. Rapidly the fiery pulsating light expanded, engulfing the adder stone until, within seconds, the stone was glowing white hot, swiftly melting the snow and ice around it. Steam rose from the ground and rivulets of water began streaming down the steps of the pyramid.

El-on-ah emptied the Iodine mixture and phial of mercurium into the boiling tube, swirling the flask until the indigo coloured mixture had the colour and consistency of molten silver. Slotting the flask into the ring of hot stone, she hurried away to the shelter of the temple. Turning back towards Ka, she raised her potens hand and spoke the sublimation incantation three times.

Mercurium vacuum, et salem, niti. Educam vapourem nostri Ka. Mercurium vacuum, et salem, niti. Educam vapourem nostri Ka. Mercurium vacuum, et salem, niti. Educam vapourem nostri Ka…”

On the third speaking, a stream of fiery red energy coursed from her ring. A vast, transparent, silver bubble grew up around Ka, and, as if the bubble were the centre of a powerful vortex, a great force began pulling everything around them towards its core. Small rocks, leaves, snow, icicles, and everything not firmly attached to the ground, was pulled into the bubble.

El-on-ah and the two Bloods formed a chain around one of the carved pillars, gripping tightly onto each other’s hands. They struggled to remain upright as their legs were lifted up and pulled towards the vortex. A blinding white light filled the transparent glass-like sphere, as Lord Ka’s stony form rapidly sublimed, transforming from solid into vapour and finally a glowing yellow fog at its centre.

Eventually, the bubble began to contract, imploding into the vortex of swirling golden mist, spiralling down into the mouth of the vapour flask at its centre. As the last wisp of vapour descended into the phial, the force suddenly diminished, the air stilled and the bubble was no more. El-on-ah slipped on her gloves, ran forward and quickly placed the flask’s stopper firmly into place.

Che and Tu-nek-ta still grasping each other’s hands they gazed unblinkingly into other’s faces, laughed with relief and anxious excitement. They rushed over to join her.

El-on-ah stood for a while staring in disbelief at the flask in her hands.

“I did it?” she said at last.

“You sure did,” said Che, beaming, “you little beau...” he coughed nervously as if to clear his throat. “I’m sorry my Lady. I forget myself, but that was truly amazing.”

El-on-ah’s expression remained troubled.

“We are not done yet, Che,” she said, biting her lip apprehensively. “This is merely the beginning. It’s one thing to acquire the vapour, but another to induce deposition without ascension, which, in case you are wondering, has also never been attempted successfully before. We do not even know if the ascension chambers are intact, let alone functioning. If they are not, then we will have no choice but to go into the Ascension Basilica in Aureus and attempt to complete Ka’s reincarnation there. I am sure that I do not have to tell you how incredibly difficult that would be, particularly given the short amount of time that we have.”

As she moved, her robe seemed to catch on something, she gave it a pull. Looking down, she saw Puk tugging at her cloak and pointing eagerly at an archway to the side of the main entrance of the temple.

“Puk,” she said, “I told you to stay with the horses!”

Puk disregarded her chastisement and went on chattering excitedly. Pukis have a simple language comprised of a limited vocabulary of high-frequency clicking and whistling sounds. El-on-ah understood him completely, and she knew enough not to ignore him when he was this adamant.

“Puk wants us to follow him,” she said.

He led them through the side entrance of the temple into a small ante-chamber. Inside the room, ice walls had been ornately carved with snow rose brambles that entwined around each pillar and then fanned out to cover the walls and ceilings of the chamber. Its beauty took El-on-ah’s breath away. It was hard to believe that the war had been fought here, over a thousand years ago. The sculptures were immaculate; they could have been carved yesterday. Everything looked perfect; the blue ice, the crisp lines of each detail of the carving. Even the sculpted ice benches were draped with luxurious snow bear pelts that were as fresh as the day they were laid down.

It was as if the people of Rhodium had never left at all, but had merely stepped out and could return at any moment. Then everything would go back to the way it had been thousands of years before.

Puk trotted into the adjoining hall, pointing and hiccoughing excitedly. His hiccoughs producing bubbles filled with flaming gas, which floated upwards in the cold air until they popped with a hiss as they hit the ornate ice ceiling. He scurried to the centre of the room where he stood looking very pleased with himself, next to four ascension cubiculas which had been fashioned from ice and shaped into the petals of a giant snow rose.

El-on-ah had hoped that they would still be here. Thousands of years ago, each of the Afterlands had brought forth their own ascendants. The Ascension buildings of Ferrum and Hydrargyrum had been destroyed in the war. Only the Aurum Basilica and this temple had survived. Since then, as no Whytes had survived the war, there had been no ascensions, and so the building had been left unused; a monument to an extinct cast. El-on-ah had gambled that it would remain undamaged and functional. She walked around the cubiculas.

“They look intact,” she said, excitement rising in her voice. “We’ll use the prima cubicula. Tu-nek-ta I will need the syphon.”

“Will it work?” he asked, pulling the syphon from its case. “I mean, with this not being a real ascension.”

El-on-ah grabbed the syphon from him and attempted to fix it onto the top of the vapour flask. It was a tricky task. She knew that she had to ensure that it was securely attached, and also prevent any of the vapours from escaping during the process. Ignoring his question, El-on-ah remained focussed intently on her task. Finally, when she was satisfied that everything was securely attached, she unscrewed the cubicula’s input valve.

“I will have the answer to your question very shortly Tu-nek-ta. This is ancient technology, even the Custodians have little idea how it operates. Most believe that it is the vapours presence alone, within each cubiculum, which triggers the process of deposition. No one has been able to test this theory before now. ”

Standing back for a second, she checked that the valve was opening and that there were no apparent leaks.

“One thing is for sure, though,” she said, “whether we are successful or not, today is a day that history has been made. Let us hope that Ka’s sublimation is not the only success we will be celebrating.”

When the valve was fully open El-on-ah lifted the vapour flask and, crouching down beside the open valve, she secured the end of syphon tube between her fingers. Checking that no vapour had entered it prematurely, she raised it to her lips and gently sucked on the end of the pipe.

The mist flowed steadily into the hose. Before it reached her lips, she removed the end of the tube from her mouth and placed it into the cubicula’s open valve, securing the valve seal into position around it.

The scent of sulphur filled the air as Ka’s acrid yellow vapours flowed into the cubicula. Instantly and as she had hoped, the ascension cubicula sprang into life and began to circulate and sort the vapour. Within seconds, deposition began and minutes later a tall, male human form, could be clearly distinguished from within the swirling cloud.

El-on-ah glanced up at the two open-mouthed, wide-eyed Bloods at her side.

“Che, fetch the robes from my horse for Lord Ka … quickly!”

As Che staggered, racing urgently from the chamber, two piercing black eyes watched him intently from within the cubicula.

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