The knock came quiet and apologetic, but it only took a second for his man of the bedchamber to reach the door. The glow of candlelight outside split the darkness of the room. The only sounds were his wife’s soft moan of annoyance as she rolled over away from the light and the quick whispers of one servant to another.
“Don’t you know what time it is? How dare you disturb Their Majesties at such an hour?”
The reply was too soft to hear, but the tone was quick and anxious. Orrus knew the implication: Right now. Something’s happened.
He swung out of bed, scowling as the chill air of the chamber caressed his bare skin. “Dress me quickly now, Benj, and get the fire stoked. Let’s not keep the day waiting.”
Three minutes later he stalked into his council room and met the grave gaze of Edmond Flank, his closest adviser. “Well, what is it then?” It was too early to drag matters out.
“Your Majesty, your spy has returned. From Bleskar Bog.” Spy. Singular spy. Yet he’d sent three together to find the so-called Eshkhal.
“Bring him in.”
Flank nodded at the guard by the door, who disappeared into the hallway. A moment later he returned, trailed by a filthy, weary-looking man. The man bowed stiffly to the both of them.
“Is that you under all that grime, Arik?” Orrus hardly recognized his own spy.
“Your Majesty,” Arik replied. His limpid eyes sizzled with energy, two beacons of blue amongst the dirt.
“Sit, sit,” Orrus said. Arik murmured his thanks and carefully lowered himself into a chair, leaving dirty handprints on the polished wood.
The wheels in Orrus’s mind began turning. He hadn’t expected any results from the ridiculous mission to find Eshkhal. Yet that archivist had suggested Eshkhal might house anything under the sun, even some sort of a magical weapon. Best to control exactly who was privy to whatever information Arik was about to divulge.
Orrus looked to the guard. “Wait outside. Admit no one.” The guard bowed and exited.
“What news?” Orrus asked, shifting forward in his seat. “Where are Coslo and Jame?”
Arik’s voice was a grating rattle. “Gone. We found the place, far north of the main crossing ways, and there they perished.” The end of his sentence came out in a wheeze, and he dissolved into a coughing fit.
“Perished how? And what is this illness of yours?” Orrus reached unconsciously for his handkerchief. He could not afford to get sick with no heir yet born.
The man waved his hand to reassure his sovereign, even as he tried to catch his breath. At last the cough settled and he spoke in a low croak. “It’s no catchable illness, Sire. The bog… It burns.”
“Burns?!” Orrus cried, and Edmond Flank’s eyes widened.
“Yes, it burns fast and I reckon deep. The peat underground is all ablaze, and the fires make their way west toward our border. Rain cannot douse it, as it smolders in the earth. Perhaps the fires have already reached Fenlick… It’s been a week now since I was there.” Only a week! Orrus would almost have believed Arik if he’d claimed to have flown back instead of rode. His mind flailed from one thought to the next. How could such a thing have happened? Would Fenlick itself be set aflame by these fires deep within the earth? And gods above, did the flames move eastward to Corim as well?
Arik continued. “The sky—” He drew a steadying breath. “As the Mirish guide and I traveled back, the sky turned dark with smoke and ash. It filled our lungs and set us coughing fierce. Most of the beasts flew south ahead of us—helped speed our return. Only good part of the whole gods-damned journey.” He laughed, or rather gave his best, rattling impression of a laugh. “Still, our progress back to Fenlick was slow. It’s a miracle we made it back alive at all. The bogman had to deviate from many of the usual pathways… They were so choked with smoke we could hardly see five steps ahead. At first we thought we’d somehow gotten turned around and headed into the Gray Swamp. It was surely a relief when we found our bearings.”
Flank unrolled a map onto the table. “Can you point out where you think you found Eshkhal, approximately? We need to know whether these fires burn east towards the enemy.” The area on the map forming Bleskar Bog was marked with only a few, vague features. The Mirish were a friendly people, but they kept the secrets of their territory close.
Arik squinted at the map for a long moment. Finally he tapped one spot with a shaking finger. “Here, if I had to guess.”
Orrus turned to Flank. “When we’re done with this interview, find out immediately if anyone knows whether any peat stores run east from there towards Corim.” Only the gods knew what the Corimians would think about a terrible fire raging underground. With luck they’d think it a natural disaster only…
“Yes, Sire,” Flank replied, his expression solemn.
Orrus faced Arik again. “And what exactly caused this conflagration? What is Eshkhal, and what does it contain?” His eyes bored into the spy’s own, whose gaze faltered. Ah. So this, too, would be bad news.
The spy drew a shaking breath and began his story, pausing at frequent intervals to cough. “At the start of our journey, our guide told us the Mirish had their own stories of a palace far to the north, ruled by a ghost king and his subjects. The tale went that any mortal soul who stepped foot into the palace died immediately and found themselves an eternal shade, bound to serve the cruel ghost king. The bogman said it was a fairy story, told to their little ones to keep them from wandering off the known paths.” He shrugged. “It was our only clue, so we followed it. We thought perhaps over the years some real place had informed this fairy story.
“For several weeks we wandered aimlessly in the northern part of the bog. Our supplies were running low and we were contemplating turning back when we noticed a spot of black on the horizon. When we drew nearer, we saw a great hall crafted of black stone, surrounded on all sides by wilderness.”
Orrus waited on tenterhooks for Arik to continue, but the spy instead sighed and reached for his pocket. He drew forth a small, grubby wooden box, wrapped tightly with twine to prevent any chance of it opening. Orrus shuddered as the spy sliced through the twine with a pocketknife, then removed the box’s lid. He knew what came next, of course. This was the fifth time he had ever been presented with a greater murkhound’s mucal orb, and the experience never got more pleasant.
Inside the box was a gray sphere, the size of a large glass children’s marble. Blurred images too hazy to make out swam beneath its greasy, semi-translucent surface, and a potent, bile-like smell stung Orrus’s nostrils.
“Sire,” Arik said, presenting the box to him. Orrus tried to hide his disgust, but he couldn’t keep his nose from wrinkling as he plucked the mucal orb from the box. Just like the other orbs, it was moist and slimy, like the skin of a frog. He steeled himself and, doing his best not to gag, opened his mouth and popped the orb onto his tongue.
It took a moment for the mucal orb to dissolve, and in those few seconds Orrus swore he felt the jelly-like surface of the orb wriggle, like there was something slithering within. And some people pay good money for this experience, he thought wonderingly as his stomach churned. One more intolerable second crawled by, and at last the orb turned to bitter liquid and the council room melted away.
His view resolved into a wide expanse of land. He could see far into the distance, as there were no trees or hills, just open bog, with tall shrubs peppering the landscape here and there. The ground was marshy underfoot, and insects screamed in his ears. Though Orrus had never been there himself, it was obvious where he was—Bleskar.
“Ugh!” Orrus, or rather Orrus seeing through Arik’s eyes, swore and shook his head, then felt a hearty clap on his back.
“Need a burpin’?” Orrus-as-Arik felt his head turn, and he met the smirk of a tall, muscled man with sandy hair—Jame. Beside him stood a leaner man in his mid-years, dressed in furs and leathers. His skin was tanned and scored with wrinkles; this must be their Mirish guide.
Jame popped a mucal orb of his own into his mouth, shook his head like a dog shaking off water, then grinned. “Gets easier the eighth time or so—that’s my experience.”
“Eight times?! Gods this is only my second.” Arik cursed again.
Jame laughed heartily. “Only one of those was for the boss, mind you. When we get back to Haplyr I’ll introduce you to a man I know. He’ll sell you an orb of any kinda girl you can imagine. Last one I bought was with this blonde, tits you wouldn’t believe.”
Boss—that would be himself, Orrus realized. They were guarding their language to keep the bogman from knowing they were on a mission for the king.
“How much you pay?” This question came from the left, and Arik turned to see another man, just as built as Jame—the third spy, Coslo.
“Too much for you!” came Jame’s quick reply. “How many years we all been going to the Winking Wench, and I still ain’t never seen you buy a round!” All three spies laughed before the bogman cut in.
“You all ready?”
“You in a rush?” Jame asked, his voice harder now.
The bogman raised his eyebrows. “Me? Never. Just reminding a seasoned orb-eater like yourself that they don’t always last long. You’d best be going.”
Orrus felt Arik nod his head. Gods, how he hated using mucal orbs. Trapped in someone else’s skull, unable to do so much as blink—it was beyond his comprehension how anyone could enjoy this.
“He’s right, Jame,” he felt Arik say. “Let’s get on with it.”
And Arik swung around to face the ebony-black hall behind them, towering over the bog. The stone shone in the sunlight, as if newly hewn and polished. The edifice’s looming mass, so unexpected and out of place amongst the wild landscape, reminded Orrus of a cancerous growth, sprung forth from some hidden pocket of evil deep in the ground.
This was Eshkhal? Grand Lady Osna, the ancient queen, had fled from the capital to this place?
He’d never seen anything like it. Gods, who could have built this leering, lurking structure? The Corimians? There were myriad stories of the ways in which the people of the Carved Kingdom used architecture and design for their magic gathering. Colossal temples with impossibly arched roofs and spires soaring high into the sky. Entire mountains carved into swooping whorls and needle-shaped peaks. Strange, architectural geometries that hurt the eyes to look at, sucking magic out of the earth for the Corimians to use as they wished. It was the reason people had nicknamed Corim the Carved Kingdom; the Corimians had molded every square inch of their land to their liking, then turned their focus toward other realms.
Yet something in Orrus’s gut told him this was something else.
The Mirish had their own stories of a palace far to the north, ruled by a ghost king and his subjects.
The three spies made their approach, with the bogman leading the way, guiding them every so often on where or where not to step. Arik kept his gaze fixed on Eshkhal as best he could, no doubt aware he would be sharing this experience with his king when he returned. The hall, menacing as it was, looked completely abandoned, though it seemed in perfect upkeep. A flight of steps led up to the open entrance; there was no door. The noon sun directly overhead did nothing to illuminate the shadowed interior.
“I’ll wait for you here, lads,” the guide said, and Orrus-as-Arik jumped. He was nervous. “I’ll give you ‘til sundown and not one minute more, then I’m heading out. I’ll camp south. This place isn’t right.”
“And it’s not Corimian?” Coslo asked. “You’re sure?”
The bogman gave a vehement nod. “I’ve been all the way over to Liacri three times. No, this is something else. Don’t know what you’re messing with, but I’ll have no part of it.”
With these encouraging words, the three men mounted the steps. Jame took the lead, Arik right behind him and Coslo bringing up the rear. Reaching the top of the steps, Jame stopped short, and Orrus saw why a half second later; unlike the open and spacious halls of legend, a corridor ran horizontal to the entrance. With slow, padding steps, the three men crossed the threshold and entered Eshkhal, every movement measured and cautious as if the fabled ghost king might materialize at any moment.
But no apparition appeared, nor were there any ghostly howls. In fact, the silence in the corridor felt a bit deadened, and even the sound of the insects outside seemed muted.
Arik looked left and right. The same sight met Orrus’s eyes each way: walls, floors, and ceilings all carved from the same black stone, without a single window or door. Golden, raw gems the size of a fist studded the walls every few steps, letting off a pulsing yellow light that was only a small help in driving back the darkness. Both directions slipped around a corner.
Arik bent down and swiped a finger along the floor. “No dust.”
“Nor any on the steps outside,” Coslo said, a tremble in his deep voice betraying his nerves.
Arik straightened and approached the nearest gem, squinting as he examined it. “What are these? Some kind of amber?”
“We’ll ask the bogman when we leave,” Jame said as he peered down the leftward corridor, then looked toward the right one. “Left or right, I can’t see a difference,” he said, drawing his sword. “Blades out, lads. ‘Right’s right,’ my granny was always wont to say, so let’s go that way, and take it real slow. Keep an eye on the rear, Cos.”
With Jame again in the lead, they progressed down the rightward path until they reached the corner. Orrus steeled himself as Arik followed Jame around the bend, fearing the worst.
Yet the spies were met with a hallway identical to the first—smooth black walls, golden gems, their nervous breaths the only sound. The end of this corridor, too, slipped around a corner.
“What is this place?” Arik muttered as he trailed Jame down the hall.
“Push on, lads,” Jame said softly, his voice full of fake heartiness.
The next corner bore the same result, and the next, and the next… Orrus’s sense of dread ratcheted up with every turn. Shouldn’t they have returned to the entrance by now? The edifice they had seen outside was massive, but it couldn’t possibly house this many hallways.
It was like they were stuck in a magical mousetrap. He was starting to lose track of time…
“How long until we turn back?” Coslo asked as they approached yet another corner. The spies’ pace had grown bolder by this point. “We only have until sunset.”
“Just a few more—” Jame began, then broke off. He was staring around the corner, and Orrus saw him adjust his grip on his sword.
Arik followed him around the bend.
Another empty hallway—but this time a golden light beamed forth from behind the corridor’s inevitable turn. It shone with the same light as the strange gems lighting their path, but it was much brighter, almost dazzling.
“There we go,” Jame whispered, his expression eager. “Keep real careful, lads.” Still taking point, he led them down the corridor. Orrus felt Arik’s breath grow shallow.
Jame rounded the bend, one hand shielding his eyes against the glare.
The light condensed into radiant, writhing tendrils tipped with clawed hands. The hands flew towards Jame, and he howled as they latching onto all four of his limbs. Orrus registered a burning scent; the spy’s skin had sprung burns and boils wherever the hands touched him.
Arik sliced at one of the hands with his sword, but with a terrible hiss his sword passed straight through the tendril of light. He goggled at the sword; the part of the metal that had touched the light had turned molten, half the blade dropping uselessly to the floor.
“Back!” he roared at Coslo, and they fled. From behind them, Jame’s piercing wails swiftly became mere whimpers before ceasing altogether.
The two spies charged down the corridor back into the darkness, though light licked at the corner of Arik’s vision. It was chasing them, seeking to burn them alive.
And now the golden gems embedded in the walls began to convulse and squirm. They popped from their sockets and slithered down the walls until they were shining, quivering puddles on the floor. Arik dodged and jumped around each pool, pulse hammering in his ears.
A curse split the air; Coslo had stumbled, accidentally treading in the honeyed liquid. It was holding his foot fast, like sap traps an insect, then began to bubble up his leg, encasing him in gold.
“Leave me!” he shouted at Arik, who responded with an incoherent cry before barreling past Coslo.
Arik ran and ran and ran, until his whole body burned with exhaustion. How close behind were those terrible hands? He turned a corner and at last daylight lay ahead.
The entrance. Orrus felt tears prick Arik’s eyes as he sped towards the light, its brilliance pure, real, honest.
And as Arik jumped from Eshkhal back into the outside world, there came a sudden, rushing pressure in the air. Orrus heard a loud pop, and then Arik’s vision was filled with a blinding, sparkling white, replaced with black a second later. He had lost consciousness.
Orrus screamed at the spy to awaken—or rather he tried to scream, but possessed no mouth to do so. All he could do was wait anxiously in the dark of Arik’s unconsciousness. The seconds ticked by…
A hard slap jolted Arik awake. Eshkhal’s stone steps were digging into his back. Everything hurt.
“WHERE ARE THE OTHER TWO?!” The bogman shouted in his face, his eyes wide and panicked.
“Gone…” Arik whispered. Orrus tasted the distinct tang of blood. “They’re both gone…”
There was an uncomprehending silence, then the bogman raised his head and looked behind him toward the bog. “It’s burning. Gods, what have you done? One second it was fine, and then—”
“Later,” Arik growled, pushing himself up from the steps. Smoke was in the air…
And then Orrus’s view darkened, and he felt the mucal orb reforming in his mouth.
He fluttered his eyes open, never so happy to see his familiar council room, and spat the orb out onto the desk. Its gray surface had blackened, the orb spent. Once a memory had been imprinted on the orb, they could only ever be viewed once.
“Sire?” Flank peered at him, looking concerned, but Orrus turned to the spy.
“And then what?”
Arik sighed. “We made our way back to Fenlick. You saw what happened in Eshkhal. The hall was trying to keep us there, and when it couldn’t it turned all of Bleskar Bog against us.”
Flank cleared his throat. “Sire, he told me all while you were viewing the orb. Not the same as living it, I’m sure, but I understand the situation.” He turned to the spy. “You are absolutely certain your two companions perished?”
“Before my own two eyes I saw Eshkhal do its best to swallow us three whole. Yes, they are gone from this world.”
“And you have no knowledge of what lay beyond that golden corridor?”
“No, sir.” He bowed his head.
Flank’s eyes narrowed. “Your Mirish guide—did you…?”
The spy nodded. “Yes, sir. I dispatched of him when we drew close enough to Fenlick that I could go alone. My fear was the people there linking the disaster to a royally-sanctioned mission and causing problems with their loyalty to the crown.” Orrus closed his eyes, thinking. Bertio Fellgate, the Mirish leader, would not be happy about the disappearance of another one of his runners, but he would either think the runner had succumbed to some bog monster or suspect the Corimians as the culprit.
Flank nodded. “Good man. With luck, people will think… well, I don’t know what they’ll think, but they won’t cast their anger toward Haplyr.”
Orrus drew a breath. “And the Mirish? Did you hear any news of their… settlement…?” The Mirish did not allow any outsiders into their home in Bleskar Bog. In fact, the Mirish settlement was not even marked on the map spread across the table, as no Hygotian knew its true location.
Arik sighed. “When I left Fenlick, Mirish refugees were flooding the city. Their home must be uninhabitable. Tensions are high, as you can imagine. The Fenlick people are friendly with the Mirish, but everyone was on edge.”
Orrus drummed his fingers on the table. He itched to do something to make things right. “We’ll send supplies to lessen the burden of the refugees… And let us assign a few more spies to go with the wagons so we can get a truer sense of the current situation in the east.”
Flank inclined his head. “Yes, Sire.”
Orrus dismissed the spy, and then he sat together with Flank in utter silence.
“Would that I had dismissed that archivist as a day-dreaming fool,” he said at last.
Flank nodded, but still did not speak. Orrus had never seen his top adviser so reticent. “The fire must die down sometime,” Flank said at last. “It will run out of fuel, and then we can forget this Eshkhal, hall of nightmares. And whatever secrets Eshkhal may house, we can leave that discovery to future generations.”
The speech was well-intentioned, but words were still words in the end. Deep within his bones, Orrus sensed that for some time Hygot had been walking on an edge, an edge they had not even known to exist. Now, with one slip, they tumbled into a yawning, unfathomable darkness.