The Settlement of Arima lay nestled in the eastern foothills of the Pindos Mountains. It was a quiet place, with a rarely used maglev line linking it to its nearest neighbour. It’s people were dedicated to recreating the simple lifestyles of the goat herder, the presser of olive oil, the cheese maker and the vintner. As all their food needs were met by the Bio Generators they possessed, these activities were conducted on a scale designed to have minimal impact on the existing environment. And so, for generations, the people of Arima had lived in quiet seclusion until the day the maglev brought them a visitor.
The maglevs solitary passenger stepped onto the platform. He was tall and swathed in dark coloured robes. Pausing on the platform, he lowered his hood to reveal swarthy skin and aquiline features. He surveyed the small Settlement before him, before casting his eye further to the surrounding rocky countryside. The man took a deep breath, and then exhaled slowly.
‘Ah, the great smell of corruption. How welcoming.’
Glancing about, his eyes fastened on a young man driving a small herd of a dozen or so goats in his direction. With a few long steps he placed himself in the path of the oncoming herder. As the goats noticed the dark man, the skidded to an abrupt halt and bunched together tightly, refusing to move. The herder glanced up and made eye contact with the dark man, whose sinister orbs held no evidence of pity or compassion. The herder tried to look away and discovered he couldn’t, the dark man held his gaze and then spoke.
‘Where is she, little man?’
‘I – I do – don’t know who you mean.’ The dark man smiled coldly.
‘Of course you do. I’m talking about the cave dweller, the one this Settlement provides sustenance for. Don’t make me ask you again.’
The herder was silent. With a ‘tsk’ the dark man strode forward, the goats melting out of his path. With impossible speed, the dark man grabbed the herder by the neck and broke it with a casual twist. To his heightened perceptions, he could see a faint glow emanating from the body. Again he took an vast, deep breath. A faintly glowing cloud exited the herders body and was swallowed by the dark man.
‘Mmm, can’t beat the tang of fear and a fresh lie. Now, cave dweller, you’ve been hiding here long enough.’
The dark skinned man raised his hood and set off through the settlement towards the mountains. Nobody in the Settlement noticed his passing, though there was much confusion over the broken body of the young herder.
* * *
‘So, everybody clear, so far?’ Nemhain looked expectantly at the other three. Macha and Lyssa nodded their assent. Cailte however looked troubled.
‘I have a question.’
‘I thought you might. Go on then.’
‘Why do you need me? Compared to you, I’m so out of my league I’m not even sure we’re playing the same game.’
‘We’ll need you near the end of the journey, at the key point really. I can only protect Heru a part of the way, it will be up to you to insure he completes the journey.’
‘So we’re going to this Mount Tahat?’
‘That’s right, anything else? No? Good. Cailte, take us to this underground maglev of yours, it seems a very convenient way of getting to where we need to be.’
‘I thought you’d know where the entrances were.’
‘You’d be amazed at how little interest I have in the activities of you people. If the line hadn’t been crossed, I certainly wouldn’t be standing here talking to you.’
‘Charming. Okay then, follow me.’ Cailte marched off towards Rheinfelden, followed in turn by Nemhain, Macha and finally by Lyssa, engrossed in a hundred conversations only she could hear.
* * *
He lay, as he had for thousands of years, across a large flat rock in a cavern lit by a large flickering fire which had burned for as long as he had been here. He was bound in great bands of silver chain, which permitted him no movement and caused him to burn in discomfort every time a link touched his skin.
‘Well look at you,’ the dark man said conversationally, ‘how are you enjoying your eternity of imprisonment?’
The bound form snarled something incomprehensible.
‘Now then, use your words. Is that any way to greet your liberator?’
The dark man gestured with his left hand and the bound form floated smoothly from the surface of the rock and flipped so that the two men faced each other over the fire. The dark man noted the discrepancy between the bound mans’ form and the shadow he cast. Behind was a roiling mass of long serpentine necks, with snapping draconic heads.
‘You wish your freedom, yes?’
‘Free me, Devourer, I will serve you loyally.’
‘I didn’t get to where I am by believing the statements of the likes of you. You would do nothing of the kind. Fortunately I have an incentive for you. You will be delighted to discover that Echidna is still alive. I will arrange for you to be reunited. Once you have done a little task for me. Does this seem a fair trade to you?’
‘Oh, the usual terms and conditions. The utter destruction of Echidna and yourself back chained up here if you fail or betray me in any way. Oh yes and I’ll throw in a silver spike rammed through your head as well. Do we have a deal?
Overhead, the mountain suddenly shook violently and a great rumble emanated from the bowels of the earth.
‘We have a deal.’
* * *
The subterranean maglev came to a smooth halt and floated next to the platform. A Life Engineer waited impatiently nearby. As the door slid back, he Engineer began speaking.
‘Cailte, you’re supposed to-‘ He stared in amazement at the small figure of Lyssa as she came out the door. Raising his wrist communicator, he paused, finding the small woman staring into his eyes. He felt her tear through his mind, shredding through the layers of his conciousness. Then he saw her true face. He shrieked and clawed at his eyes, showering the platfom with blood as he fell.
As the maglev pulled away; Cailte looked at Nemhain and Macha, one eyebrow raised.
‘Aren’t you glad she’s on our side?’ said red eyed Macha.
‘What did she do?’
‘You really don’t want to know,’ said Nemhain, ‘she’s going to cause a great deal of confusion to cover her activity. Now, this is why I wanted Eris, she’s much more subtle. No one would even remember her being there. Unfortunately, no one is going to forget Lyssa. Also, I think Eris might be a bit more discerning about who she affected. Still, you can’t have everything.’
In all, it took them eight hours and two line changes to arrive in the vicinity of Mount Tahat. The night was illuminated by a full moon and a myriad of twinkling stars. Before them was the towering mountain, with small lights flickering up and down it’s height. Cailte scrutinised the movements of the lights.
‘A lot of activity there. Seems we’re expected.’
‘Hopefully.’ agreed Macha. Cailte looked at her curiously.
‘You know the stories, right? That at the top of this mountain, there’s a pyramid that Seleem had constructed.’
‘I’ve seen holo vid footage of it.’
‘Those in the know, are aware that we can’t enter it and none of you lot have ever found a way in. Great source of mystery and so on.’
‘Okay, with you so far.’
‘Those people we’re working against know two things. They know that one of us is carrying Seleem and that they have a bodyguard for the portion of the journey when our powers become worthless. It’s generally accepted that none of us can get too close to the pyramid and that only Heru can open it. I will lead the way and you will follow at a discrete distance, avoiding the guardians.’
‘Won’t it be obvious you’re merely a feint when they see you’re on your own?’
Nemhain smiled approvingly. ‘That’s why we’re waiting for the final member of our expedition, he will complete the illusion.’
‘Who is it?’
‘That would be me.’ Cailte had heard no one approach, Nemhain and Macha seemed unsurprised by the newcomer’s arrival. Cailte’s eyes adjusted and he took in the tall dark haired man with fair skin and glacial blue eyes.
‘Setanta?’ said Cailte disbelievingly.
The man smiled grimly. ‘I gave up the rights to that name a long time ago, my bondsman.’
‘CuChulainn! Where have you been? There’s been no record of you for centuries.’
‘As indeed there has been no record of yourself,’ CuChulainn tapped his wrist mounted projectile thrower, ‘no doubt for similar reasons.’
‘If you two are finished,’ said Nemhain,’ its about time we got this show on the road.’
‘Agreed,’ said CuChulainn, handing a small bundle to Cailte, ‘a few bits and pieces I thought you might need. Weapons and drugs.’
Cailte nodded and solemnly shook hands with his friend.
‘Come then, Hound of Chulan,’ said Macha, a fierce glow in her eyes, ‘its time to pay back some of the favours you owe.’
* * *
Lyssa strolled through the Life Engineer complex confidently, leaving behind her a trail of technologists in what appeared to be catatonic states. To begin with, as she entered the complex, she had taken delight in carefully breaking the minds of everyone she encountered. It had then occured to her that this was a terrible waste and so she had begun collecting them instead. Through conversing with her new ‘friends’ she new exactly where she was going and what she would find there. Lyssa was enormously happy at the prospect. So much so, that when a Mechanic stepped from a concealed door behind her and shot her repeatedly in the back, she offered a measured response. Her clothing completely burned away in the fireball which had engulfed her, but other wise unharmed, Lyssa carefully removed the Mechanics mind and placed it with her other friends.
It took Lyssa another half hour to each her destination. In that time her good humour had passed and she had savagely ripped apart the last few Mechanics who had tried to stop her. As she walked, bruises faded and gashes knitted over then vanished. Security doors slid into place as Lyssa closed on the Warden’s Chamber. Impatiently, she extended her open left hand, staring at the outer door. Closing her fist, the door crumpled and with a gesture was ripped free and cast aside. She immediately repeated the motion with her right hand, destroying the central door and in a fit of rage sent a raw psychic blast at the inner door. It spun into the room, crashing into a control bank.
Entering the room, Lyssa found it to be much larger than she had anticipated. It was easily a hundred metres long and filled with an array of Bio Computers and easily two hundred Life Engineer telepaths. The majority were wired in to the Bio Computers and had been isolated from the psychic shock wave accompanying her entrance. Thirty of them were less fortunate and lay or sat with blood pouring from their ears and noses. Lyssa steeped quickly forward and grabbed the nearest implant wire and concentrated. The Bio Computer it was attached to exploded violently, as did its neighbour, sending a chain reaction round the room. The air was thick with smoke and the cries of the telepaths. Ignoring the incapacitated Life Engineers, Lyssa went to one of the observation screens and passed her hand in front of it. The screen sprang to life and Lyssa caught her breath in amazement. Below, there were tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of bodies each laid out on its own slab. The bodies were all implanted with connections to an array of Bio Computers and other technology Lyssa was unfamiliar with. Zooming the screen in, she could see that some of the bodies were beginning to move fitfully, while the rest were corpse still. She carefully manipulated the viewer until she found who she was looking for. To her delight, they were beginning to move.
* * *
Nemhain turned to Cailte in the darkness. ‘I’m going to give Heru control now, the transition might take a few minutes.’
‘Shouldn’t you wait ’till we’re a bit closer?’
‘No, the way I see it, there must be a secret way in. For all I know we could be just a few feet away, now, how annoyed would you be if you had climbed all that mountain only to have Heru tell you the entrance is at the bottom?’
‘That would be deeply irritating.’
‘Precisely. Now time for your medicine, don’t stop taking those drugs until Heru is in one of his clones. We need you at your best.’
Cailte nodded and absently began popping colourful capsules into his mouth. Nemhain closed her eyes. Abruptly, she went stiff as a board and then fell backwards. She maintained the rigid posture as she thumped into the ground. Cailte prodded her prone form with his toe.
Nemhains’ eyes sprang open and darted about wildly.
Nemhain sat up. ‘Yes, that’s right. And you are Cailte, yes?’
‘Okay then, introductions over. Do you want to tell me how you get into the pyramid?’
Cailte stared at him. ‘The one at the top of this mountain.’
‘Why do you want in there?’
‘Are you trying to be funny?’
Nemhain smiled. ‘Sorry. You can’t get into the pyramid, it doesn’t have an inside. Completely solid, you understand.’
‘Look, it’s quite straightforward. This is not my lab, it’s just to draw attention away from the real lab. The real lab is in a place that the Illumined cannot visit. The only problem with that is that they know I have a lab in a place they can’t get to. So to prevent them following me everywhere, I allowed word to leak out of this mountain top pyramid. No one can get inside, so it fooled those who needed to be fooled.’
‘So where are we going?’
‘We are going to the High Watchtower, my friend.’
‘And where is that?’
‘At the centre of the world, where the Illumined cannot follow us.’
* * *