When Arada’s landing skids carefully touched down on its mark, Con Arr gathered his things and moved to the ship’s door. He expected to be greeted by an honor guard or at least the base’s military commander, either of which would be appropriate for the arrival of a visiting officer of his rank. Instead, as the door quietly slid open, the first thing he saw was the emaciated figure of First Prime Kaboorg.
Con Arr’s stomach turned. I’ve seen dead men who looked better.
Of course, Kaboorg had the appearance of a dead man because, in reality, he was a dead man. Just like all of Sha’ad’s Circle Knights, Kaboorg paid a great price for his power. His life. In a bloody ritual, each Knight swears their allegiance to the universal creature of evil -- Ashara - - and is put to death. Their soul is captured during its escape from the body and linked with Sha’ad’s, who becomes their Spirit Master. Once the soul fully succumbs to Sha’ad’s will, it reoccupies the body. Physically dead they feel no pain, need no rest, and are virtually invincible. The key to all of this, however, is the spiritual link with Sha’ad. As a Knight, the body becomes nothing more than an empty shell manipulated by a living spirit creature, which, in turn, is manipulated by Sha’ad. Without the link they could not sustain their body nor wield such power, because whether it be of the body or of the mind they are still mortal beings incapable of magic. Their powers are Sha’ad’s. They are merely extensions of him, fingers of his hands, conduits through which his sorcery flows.
“You’re late, General,” said Kaboorg, his eyes blinking almost constantly as his head twitched every few seconds. It was an irritating side effect of his body’s physical condition that plagued every Knight, some more than others and Kaboorg clearly the most. He was the first of the Knights, and so his body showed the effects much more than the others.
“We were delayed by storm in Naji,” answered Con Arr, trying hard to appear confident. “We left as soon as possible.”
“Very well. Come with me. He is waiting.”
When they reached the far end of the hanger they entered a voice-activated lift. “Main level,” ordered Kaboorg.
The door closed and the lift began to rise.
After just a few seconds, Con Arr noticed a most disagreeable odor overwhelming the limited air supply within the small box. He quickly recognized it as one he had smelled on many battlefields. The rancid smell of death. He was already uncomfortable being in such a confined space with what his mind kept referring to as the corpse. The smell only made it worse. He kept watching the numbers above the doorway click away as they passed level after level: 67 - 68 - 69 - 70.
He hoped conversation would make it pass more quickly. “So Kaboorg, how is Lord Sha’ad today?”
The corpse seemed annoyed. “He is well, though disappointed.”
“Yes, I…I can imagine he would be.”
83 - 84 - 85. The smell was unavoidable now. “This is quite an impressive installation. How much longer before it’s complete?”
No answer. More stench. He was holding his breath. 92 - 93 - ML. Finally!
The door slid open, and Con Arr discreetly gulped for air. They were outside now, walking into a large open courtyard covered with roughly hewn sand-colored tiles that looked as if they had come straight from the rocks of the mountain. The immense size of the area seemed to emphasize its emptiness at the moment, as there were only a few soldiers guarding a handful of slaves walking about and working on the finishing touches of what would soon be a Grand Court for Sha’ad’s declarations. Dozens of statues -- of Sha’ad, of course -- were scattered in an orderly fashion throughout the yard, and it was surrounded on all sides by a huge, 100-foot tall outer wall -- again, the same color as the mountain itself, giving the appearance from a distance that this entire complex was actually part of the mountain. And on top of the wall, Con Arr could see several more laser and air defense batteries, constantly scanning the skies for intruders.
Con Arr followed Kaboorg toward a large door made of solid gold, twenty-feet high with ten wide steps leading up to it, and on each side stood matching carved figures of what could only be described as a beast. He was so mesmerized by the size of the door he almost forgot to look up to see to what it was attached. But the foreboding shadow at his feet caught his attention and his eyes slowly moved up from the door and followed the stonewall of the structure. Higher and higher his eyes went, his head tilting back to the limits of balance, 300-feet in all, until he could see the top of the main tower of Castle Sha’ad.
“Incredible,” he mumbled, still staring upward as he walked. He felt small and insignificant, exactly the intent of its architecture.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” responded Kaboorg, smiling admirably at the self-pleasing monument to his Master. “Molded straight from the mountain by the power of our great Master.”
As they neared the steps they were stopped by a Circle Knight hurrying toward them. “First Prime, Lord Master Sha’ad has retired to his sanctum. He asks that you and the General meet him there. He is…anxious.”
Con Arr had, momentarily, forgotten why he had been brought to Taverass, but that slight pause reminded him.
At the top of the steps, Kaboorg placed the palm of his anorexic hand against an eight-inch glass circle on the wall. The circle glowed green and a yellow line passed from bottom to top, scanning the surface of his hand. Finished, the whole screen blinked twice, the magnetic locks released, and the air escaping made a high-pitched sound as the door slowly swung open. Two-feet thick and perfectly balanced, it moved smoothly on its pivot, yet it still took some time to open wide enough for the rotund Con Arr to squeeze through.
Not again, he complained to himself as more stagnant dead air filled his nostrils. They moved across a smooth black floor, and after fifty-yards they started up a spiraling staircase that wound its way up to what had to be the large main tower he had seen outside. The higher they climbed the more labored Con Arr’s breathing became, the air growing thinner with each step to where it was almost insufficient in density to fill his greedy, overburdened lungs. The smell didn’t help any, either, forcing him to breath more through his mouth than his nose, and even though it was fairly cool, he was sweating.
He couldn’t help but notice, though, that Kaboorg suffered none of these troubles. Granted, Con Arr carried a lot of unnecessary weight on his frame, but Kaboorg -- he looks as if a good strong wind could knock him flat on his back. Yet because of his power as a Knight he charged up the steps well ahead of Con Arr, moving with the grace of an athlete.
At the top was a small round chamber the approximate size of the tower itself, perhaps only ninety-feet in diameter. To their left the wall that surrounded them began as stone with no windows or ornamentation, and then further to the right it changed from stone to what looked like glass and curved its way back around to the steps where Con Arr stood, panting.
“We will wait here,” said Kaboorg.
Con Arr looked around, then walked over and looked more closely at the glass. Strange, he thought. He couldn’t see himself. He waved his hand in front of it, but there was no reflection. He gave it a timid touch with one finger and a shimmering ripple spread across the surface. But he was even more puzzled by what he saw on the other side: a room, dark, with no visible walls or ceiling and endless dimensions in all directions.
He quickly recalled the details of his visual inspection made while still on board the Arada. If this is the tower, there’s no attached structure to it at any point: just a cylinder.
As he looked deeper he noticed an eerie mist hugging closely to what he could only presume was the floor. In the distance he saw a large, flat altar carved from some sort of well-used metal, shiny in some places, dull in others, and as he focused his eyes upon it he was sure he could see some red. Suspended on edge in mid air above it was a thick metal ring – copper in color -- at least twenty-feet in diameter and two feet thick all around, and through it he saw a black obelisk rising far above the altar. Its edges were jagged, but its smooth face glimmered like a mirror, and on it, fashioned from the same metal as the ring, was the symbol of the Naborn Empire – a stylized outline of a dragon’s head within a circle, with flame-like features.
Spread out in a circle around the altar in perfectly tidy rows were dozens – no, hundreds - - of tall glass tubes stretching high into the air and out of sight. All but one was empty, their bottoms hovering six feet above the mist. But the one directly in front of the altar was down, its bottom submerged in the fog, and kneeling within it, hands stretched out in front and flat against the ground, his head resting between them, was Lord Sha’ad.
* * *
Con Arr turned toward Kaboorg. “I don’t understand. Did I miss something outside? This room…it can’t be here. It’s impossible.”
“Impossible for men like you, perhaps, but not for our great and mighty Master. Lord Sha’ad wields the powers of the universe as easily as you move your fingers.”
“What is this place?”
“Sha’ad’s sanctuary; the place to which we all retire for meditation. But it’s not a physical place, as you would understand it. It is the realm of the spiritual -- another dimension, if you will -- and this wall separates it from the temporal world in which you exist.”
“Incredible, two worlds separated by a sheet of glass.”
Kaboorg moved in front of Con Arr and closer to the glass. “In a way. You see, in there physical abilities account for nothing. You cannot disguise your inner truth, and it’s what lies in your soul which is accentuated and which determines whether or not you can exist. Or, I should say…survive.”
Just then the tube in which Sha’ad meditated rose, and when it stopped his body jerked. He stood, stepped out from under the cylinder and walked slowly toward the glass wall.
Con Arr was sure Kaboorg could hear his heart thumping against his ribs. He stood straight, sucked in his gut as best he could and fidgeted with his uniform.
When Sha’ad reached the wall a single pane of glass -- or whatever it was -- sparkled, then vanished. As he stepped through, some of the mist followed him, but as soon as the glass reappeared it dissipated instantly.
Con Arr snapped to attention and saluted, and then remained stiffly in that position while Sha’ad moved methodically around him, examining every rotund inch. It was an uncomfortable few moments for the General. He wondered if he should say something, but he thought it best to let Sha’ad speak first. That took a while, though, as Sha’ad knew it made the General nervous, and the longer the silence lasted the redder Con Arr’s face became.
After several minutes, he could take it no longer. His legs were seizing up on him. He felt almost faint. He had to say something. “My Lord…”
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