Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy
As the boat crunched across the beach Friend rose and stepped past Timozel and out of the boat. “As this trusty boat has carried us through the treacherous waters of the Iskruel Ocean, then I am sure your feet will carry you safely across these shores.”
Magic again, Timozel thought. Although he had been taught from birth by the Seneschal to loathe all manner of enchantments, Timozel was slowly coming to the understanding that perhaps the enchantments of the Forbidden could only be broken through similar magic; perhaps his visions were proof enough of that. He stepped carefully onto the ice-bound shoreline and found his booted feet gripped as surely as Friend had said they would. Well, whatever magic Friend had wrought to bring him to this remote spot seemed mild and harmless enough. Perhaps magic was only evil when used by the Forbidden and their spawn.
For some time they walked up the canyon, the ground rising and the walls narrowing as they proceeded. Timozel’s breath came in short, sharp puffs that frosted heavily in the icy air. For the first time he noticed how cold it was and pulled his cloak closer about him. Friend’s cloak billowed out as he strode several paces in front of Timozel, seemingly unconcerned by the cold. His features must be fully exposed as that cloak blows back, Timozel thought, and he tried to increase his pace so that he could catch the man and see his face.
But just as Timozel came within a pace of Friend, the ground rose sharply before them, and Timozel had to slow his pace and use both hands to steady himself as they climbed. The sky almost completely disappeared as the ice walls closed in; within minutes Timozel found that he was climbing almost vertically through a narrow icy chasm. Above him, Friend’s boots sent a constant torrent of small rocks and slivers of ice cascading into his face and Timozel would have cursed, had he the breath.
Irritatingly, Friend whistled a silly ditty. Where does he find the breath? Timozel wondered as one of his hands slipped from its hold and he almost lost his footing. His heart pounded and Timozel felt sweat trickle down his face – he would die on the ice-covered rocks below if he fell down this chasm now. He gritted his teeth. If Friend could climb so effortlessly, then so could he.
As if he could feel Timozel’s increased efforts, Friend called down reassurance. “Almost there, Timozel. Just a few more minutes.”
That’s what you said hours ago in the boat, Timozel thought.
The Dark Man laughed merrily. “Time means little to me, Timozel. But see, I have reached the top of this ice-pit.”
Even as he spoke Friend’s boots disappeared over the welcome lip of the cliff, and the next moment Timozel grasped the man’s hand and let him pull him out of the chasm.
“See?” Friend cried. “The Ice Fortress!”
Timozel blinked and looked about him, narrowing his eyes. The sky was clear and the sunlight almost blinding as it glittered across the snow. They were standing on a flat, snow-covered plateau that stretched north and eastwards from the ice cliffs bordering the Iskruel Ocean for what seemed like eternity.
“The Ice Fortress,” Friend said again, pointing.
Perhaps half a league away to the east stood the Ice Fortress. It was constructed of jagged sheets of sheer ice that rose like perpendicular daggers towards the sky. It was massive, and Timozel guessed that it was twice the height and girth of the Tower of the Seneschal as it sat on the shores of the Grail Lake.
It was also very, very beautiful.
Shifting colours of mauve and pink shone as the sun struck the ice walls and reflected off on wildly divergent tangents.
“Beautiful,” he whispered. “Beautiful.”
“Of course!” Friend said, taking Timozel’s arm and pulling him forward. “Of course. Did I not say that you would find Gorgrael worthy of your service? Could anyone as dark and as desperate as the Destroyer of the Forbidden’s Prophecy live amid such beauty? No! Come.”
The Ice Fortress was as beautiful inside as it was from the outside. There were none of the horrid writhing shapes beyond the corridor’s ice walls that Timozel remembered from his nightmares and visions. All was calm, all was bright.
The corridor wound through the heart of the Ice Fortress, gentle pink light reflecting from unseen lamps. Gorgrael has done well, the Dark Man thought, very well indeed. He glanced at Timozel, who was walking steadily forward with a glazed expression on his face.
But that changed when they rounded a corner and Timozel found himself walking down the same stretch of corridor that he’d walked in his nightmares. He recognised it because there at the very end was the massive wooden door that his treacherous hand had knocked upon to summon Gorgrael.
“Timozel, my man,” the Dark Man said, his hand firm and reassuring on Timozel’s shoulder. “What you dreamed was Forbidden-corrupted, not the truth. No-one is more upset that you have been frightened than Gorgrael himself.”
“Truly?” Timozel asked, desperate to believe Friend’s explanation.
“Truly,” the Dark Man soothed, wrapping Timozel’s mind so tightly in enchantments that the man stood no chance of discerning truth from lies. “Very, very truly. Now, shall we go on?”
Gorgrael stood in the centre of the room and extended his claws as the door opened and the Dear Man and Timozel stepped through. The man’s face was pinched and white, despite the Dark Man’s enchanted reassurances, and horror rippled across his features as he saw Gorgrael.
How could something this repulsive – so horribly malformed – be anything but an aberration?
In his nightmares, and in his enchanted vision when he had been forced to mortgage his soul to Gorgrael, Timozel had been brutally treated by the Destroyer.
But now the horror stepped forward, opening its taloned hands in welcome, dipping its tusked head almost in embarrassment that Timozel should find its form displeasing, spreading its wings behind it in unconscious imitation of the Icarii manner of abasement, and almost swallowing its over-large tongue in an effort to twist its mouth in as close an imitation of a smile as it could get.
Timozel came close to fainting, and actually swayed slightly on his feet, but Friend grasped his elbow. “Steady, steady,” he whispered. “Take courage. Think of this as a test. Do you have the courage to do what is needed to win both Achar and Faraday their freedom?”
“Yes,” Timozel muttered. “Yes, I have the courage,” and he straightened his back and squared his shoulders. “I have the courage,” he said in a stronger voice.
“Timozel,” Gorgrael said, and Timozel jumped slightly at the power and strength in Gorgrael’s voice. He stared unflinching into the creature’s silver eyes.
“Timozel, are you my man?”
“Do you fight to destroy the Forbidden?”
Gorgrael almost snarled. Who was this stripling to question him? But he felt the Dark Man’s eyes on him, and he remembered their plan. “It is my name,” he said in as soft a voice as he could manage. “The Destroyer. I live to destroy the Forbidden, the hateful Icarii and Avar.”
“Will you free Achar?”
“I will drive the Forbidden from the land, yes.”
Gorgrael would free Achar. Timozel only heard what he wanted to hear. He cleared his throat and spoke in a slightly stronger voice. “Do you seek to destroy Axis?”
Now Gorgrael could not help a small hiss and he flexed his clawed hands. “I will shred him!”
Timozel smiled, and for the first time he seemed comfortable. “Good. Will you free Faraday?”
Gorgrael smiled with an equal degree of chill. Faraday. Axis’ Lover. The key to his destruction, and a woman Gorgrael had come to desire almost as much as he desired Axis’ death.
“Will you help me free her, Timozel? Will you help me rescue Faraday?”
“Yes, yes and yes thrice over, Great Lord,” he said. “You are all that Friend said you were.” He paused. “My soul is yours.”
Fool! Gorgrael thought. Your soul was mine from the moment Faraday broke your vows of Championship. But he ducked his head and simpered anyway. Time enough in the future for Timozel to realise exactly how deeply Gorgrael’s claws were hooked into his soul.
“Then let us cement the bargain,” Gorgrael whispered.
The Dark Man hurriedly stepped out of the way.
In the wink of an eye Gorgrael scurried the distance between himself and Timozel, his dreadful clawed hands and taloned wings extended. He was so quick that Timozel could not have moved, even had he wanted to.
All he had time for was a quick breath of surprise, a widening of the eyes, then Gorgrael was upon him.
With lightning-quick movements, Gorgrael shredded the clothes from Timozel’s upper body, then knifed razor sharp claws deep into Timozel’s chest.
Timozel opened his mouth to scream, but the pain was so great all that escaped his mouth was a harsh gurgle.
Gorgrael twisted his claws in deeper, then pulled Timozel next to him, their faces close in a frightful parody of a lover’s embrace.