Read Ahriman: Gates of Ruin Online

Authors: John French

Tags: #Ciencia ficción

Ahriman: Gates of Ruin

Ahriman: Gates of Ruin

Ahriman: Gates of Ruin

John French

‘Do not pity those who are lost on the path. Pity those who reach its end, and see at last what they were seeking’

– Malcador the Sigillite,
Admonitions to the Solar Lords

I am a follower who followed his lord.

My lord was Ahriman, and I am Ctesias. These are the stories of my time in his service, laid down in words as I watch my life fade with the candle that lights these pages. I will die soon, and with me so much of the past will die. There are others that were there, at Ahriman’s side, in that lost age: Kiu, Sanakht, Gaumata, Gilgamos, and later Credus, Ignis and the rest. Some perhaps still live now, but how many remember how things were in that time between the fall of Amon and the search for the Athenaeum?

Time has a habit of burying lesser events under the weight of later calamity and triumph. The extraordinary seems diminished when compared to the momentous, but it is still important, it still has meaning. So it is that I choose now to write not of the grand and terrible endeavours which would come later, but of the steps which took us there. This is the story of one such step, of how Ahriman took us out of the Eye of Terror for the first time, on our first exodus from the hell that is our home.

The creature tried to raise its head from the altar. Silver chains clinked as it moved, and symbols on the altar glowed brighter. White candles burned with a steady green light at the edge of my sight, but they did nothing to banish the darkness of the chamber. The only true illumination was the cold glow of my staff, and the glow coming from within the chained creature.

I say creature, because that was what it was. The spite of the daemon had swallowed the flesh of the human that I had given it as a host. Its limbs had grown and bent with new joints. Black quills had sprouted from its back and shoulders, and the face was an explosion of fangs and red, lidless eyes. The skin stretched over its bones was transparent and the colour of amber. Within its body, organs floated like jellyfish and blood vessels were threads of red light. The man I had taken from the
’s machine decks remained only as a twitching pulse of soul light, shrinking as the imprisoned daemon ate it.

The creature strained against the chains for a second, and then flopped back onto the altar. It hissed at me, its face pulsing.

I sighed. It was the fourth daemon I had bound and put to the question, and so far each of them had proved as unhelpful as the last. It was not the most powerful daemon I could summon, but it was cunning and knowing. I had more, thousands more, all bound by their true names that I broke into fragments and kept in my memory. The shards of those names scratched at the edge of my thoughts, like insects in boxes. They wanted me to let them out.

If things did not start going better, some of them might get their wish
, I thought. How many more times would I have to go through this tedious cycle before Ahriman at last accepted that there was no way of finding what he sought.

Knowing him, I was not sure that we would ever reach that point. I was more likely to run out of human hosts, daemons to questions and patience long before he would admit defeat. He had given this task to me and to me alone. While he sat in his tower and cast his mind into the realm of dreams, I had to find a way to do the impossible. I had to find a way out of the Eye of Terror.

‘Give it to me,’ I said, and the moisture of my breath fell as a frost through the psychically charged air. ‘Give it to me and I will release you, and burn the memory of your true name from my mind.’

The creature hissed, and strained against the chains again.

‘Very well,’ I said, and closed my eyes for a few seconds. I was really very tired.

I moved away from the altar to where the shadows hid iron shelves worked into the chamber’s walls. My hand found the stone jar I was looking for, and my fingers tingled as I picked it up. My mind formed a series of words, and the pictograms on the jar’s surface lit with a molten glow. I let go of my staff and it began to rotate in place beside me. The jar’s lid came free in my hand. The smell of grave rot filled the air. I walked towards the creature on the altar. It had shrunk. The iron quills bristled from its flesh. Every one of its eyes fixed on the jar in my hand.

Daemons do not feel fear. They do not
anything that we might consider emotion. They
emotion. A daemon is hate, desire and rage all congealed into things that want nothing more than to burn the mortal world that created them. They don’t fear any more than a fish drowns. But rules and rivalries run through every mote of their existence, unbreakable and undeniable. And because of that nature there are things that even they cannot bear. There are things which, if they were mortal, we would say terrify them. I could banish the daemon. I could bind it for aeons, but both those were not threat enough. So instead I was going to give this daemon to another of its kind. I was going to let its essence be consumed by its antithesis. I was going to feed it to a daemon of decay.

‘I know my feelings on this are both irrelevant and incomprehensible to you, but I would really rather not do this.’

I stepped up to the altar and looked down at the creature. It was very still. For a second it almost seemed like a living thing.

‘I do not say that from pity. Just in case that was a point of confusion. It is more that while this will be as bad as such things can be for your kind, it will cost me as much to replace the resources that I am expending on this question.’ I reached into the jar. The thing which emerged between my fingers looked like a scorpion made of polished bone and dried sinew. Its legs shifted with a dull creak as it clung to my hand. ‘But needs must.’

The creature of the altar exploded upwards, screeching, limbs writhing, skin stretching. The chains snapped tight, and sigils flared on the altar. I muttered a word and dropped the thing of bone from my fingers. It grew as it fell, bone legs snapping out, sacks of yellow venoms swelling across its back. It landed on the creature. Scraps of flesh and skin sprayed up as it scrabbled into the creature’s torso. Oily black smoke poured into the air with overlapping cries of birds. The creature was juddering, its flesh crawling with blisters, its veins clotting to black rot.

‘Give it to me,’ I spat. The creature on the altar was shaking from side to side so fast that it was a chained blur. The click of bones and the hiss of venom beat in my ears as the scorpion dug deeper into the red meat. ‘Give me the way to find Antilline Abyss.’

‘Gates… of… Ruin…’
The words rose from the creature. I raised my hand over it and spoke a silent word. The thing of bone and decay went still inside the creature’s mangled torso.

‘The Gates of Ruin?’ I repeated softly.

‘All those who tread the path you seek only reach it through the Gates of Ruin.’

‘That is fascinating, and I thank you for the additional detail, but it does not suffice.’

I begin to murmur a fresh set of syllables, and the thing of bone squirms to life again.

‘The Gates of Ruin are the way you will find it!’
it howls. I pause and the bone thing clatters to stillness.

‘Explain, or I will let it drag you into the gardens of decay.’

‘What you call the Antilline Abyss is a hole threaded through our dominion, a tunnel through the tides of what you insist on calling the Eye of Terror. Its edges are bound by the scraps of souls caught in the tides. They scream. The Gates do not just mark its beginning. They call to those that can hear them.’ The creature on the altar smiled, and dozens of sets of lips peeled open across its body. Sharp white teeth gleamed at me. ‘The Gates of Ruin sing, and sing without end. If you hear them you will find what you seek.’

I looked at the creature for a second. Daemons are lies, and the one I had bound to answer to the altar was a princeling of tricksters. But I have had millennia of binding such beings and cutting away their ability to deceive. It is my art, and I would hazard that there are few who can rival me in its mastery.

‘Why do the Gates sing?’ I asked.

‘That I cannot answer,’
it said with a chuckle that dribbled black blood from its grinning mouths.
‘But I can give you the ears to hear their song

I do not answer for a long moment. You must understand that the Eye in which the warp and reality mingle is ringed by storms and currents. Ships that try to pass that border are likely to be ripped apart. There are ways through the storms. The greatest and most stable of these is the Cadian Gate, but the Imperium stands guard over that pass, and those not wishing to sacrifice vast armies cannot hope to go that way. That leaves the other, more dangerous, ways that are concealed by myth and lies. Ways like the Antilline Abyss.

I do not, and never have, seen the need of so many of our kind to return to the Imperium. We are lost and this hell is both our reward and our sanctuary. We are beasts of the Eye, and what can the realms outside it offer us but the taste of revenge? But Ahriman had commanded me to find a way, and I had agreed to serve his will. For a price, of course.

I nodded at last, and flicked my hand above the creature on the altar. The thing of bone and venom pulled from the rotting cavity it had made in the creature’s chest and flew to my hand. It shrank as it tumbled through the air, and curled into my palm when it landed. I slid it back into the jar.

‘Give me the means to hear the song of the Gates of Ruin,’ I said, ‘and I will free you, and give you back your name. You have my bond.’

The creature chuckled.

it said. Then its back arched and it began to shake. Muscles swelled and shrank along its torso, pulsing as one of its mouths opened. The chains snapped taut. A great gush of blood fountained from its mouth, and spattered down onto the altar and floor. Something hard hit the floor at my feet with a crack.

The creature collapsed to stillness. I bent down and picked up the object that lay in a pool of blood before me. It was a black sphere, or at least that is how it seemed until I lifted it to the light. I wiped the sticky film of blood from it and turned it in my fingers. A dim amethyst glow kindled in its centre, and from far away I heard voices singing, high and clear and sharp.

‘You have it,’
hissed the daemon.
‘Now honour your debt, sorcerer.’

With an effort I tucked the black sphere into a pouch at my waist. The song faded but still lingered on the edge of my hearing. I looked at the creature.

‘Be gone,’ I said, and brought my open hand down on the altar. A crack of thunder rolled through the chamber. The reek of burning hair and ozone flooded my mouth. The host creature flashed to cold cinders.

I shivered, suddenly more weary than I had been only moments before. I turned away from the altar and walked towards the chamber’s only door, picking my staff from the air as I went.

+Wake the Navigator, Astraeos,+ I sent, aiming the thought for where his mind lurked in the
’s high citadel.

+You have a course for the Abyss?+ came Astraeos’s reply, edged with blunt dislike.

+In a manner of speaking. I have a song for him to hear.+

‘You should not come in here,’ said Silvanus as I entered his chamber. The Navigator sat on the floor, a black velvet robe clutched around him. A mass of needle-tipped tubes hung from the ceiling above a couch moulded to the impression of a human body. Beads of viscous liquid hung from some of the dangling needles. I could smell the sweet traces of sedatives and nerve signal inhibitors evaporating into the air.

+Oh, should I not?+ I sent. The Navigator flinched at my sending. I almost laughed. His skin was white-grey and drawn over fine bones. A strip of black silk wound around his head. The fabric bulged slightly where it crossed his forehead. Beneath the silk and embroidered stars his third eye rolled in its socket so as not to look at me. His mind radiated discomfort in a heavy grey wave. He was feeling sick, partly because of the effects of waking from his drug coma, and partly because that was the way he felt most of the time. His name was Silvanus Yeshar, and he did not like being awake; he did not like being what he was.

‘You…’ he began to glance up at me, then hesitated and looked to where Astraeos stood. ‘Nothing,’ he said, at last and rubbed his palms over his eyes. Thin webs of skin spanned the gaps between some of the fingers.

+You don’t like us being here, do you?+ I sent. He glanced up at me, winced and looked down again, shaking his head. +You think this is your place, and that by coming here we give you bad dreams.+

‘Get out of my head!’

+I hate to say it, Silvanus, but your dreams have nothing to do with us being here.+ I bent down and peeled his fingers from his face so that his left eye peeked out at me. There were flecks of blood around the iris. +It is because you are damned, little man. Totally, and utterly
. Just like the rest of us.+

+Leave him,+ came Astraeos’s thought, hard and sharp. He flinched away from where he stood by the door.

+Interesting,+ I sent without looking around. +Have you added sentimentality to your catalogue of flaws, Astraeos? Or do you see this one as some sort of pet?+

I felt the brush of anger like a tongue of flames across my senses. Then it vanished. I looked around in time to see Astraeos take his hand from the sword at his waist. His mind shivered to hard stillness.

+Do what you came for,+ he sent, tight control vibrating through him.

+I am glad your restraint is well practised.+ I made myself grin at him. His anger gave me little pleasure, but sometimes a little is enough.

I looked back to the hunched form of Silvanus.

+I have something for you, Navigator. Something you need to hear.+

His lip trembled but I could feel anger surge in him, growing to blot out the fear.

‘Go and die somewhere,’ he hissed.

I laughed, and let go of his fingers.

+I like you Silvanus. I really do.+ Confusion rolled across his face and thoughts. +But I am afraid I need you to do something. It will not be pleasant. It will be a very long way from pleasant. But I have no choice. And neither do you.+

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