Jack Meridew was lost in thought as he walked through the maze of streets. Qu'raysh was a very exotic world... the air was filled by the scents of strange spices, and the sight and sound of the thousands of people gathered here made the bazaar seem more alive and dynamic even than the markets in Zehazel. This was not merely a place of trade, but the social centre of the city. It seemed that during daylight hours everybody came to the bazaar... everyone.
The light blazed from the white robes and turbans that most people wore: it seemed the best way to protect oneself from the terrible, blast-furnace heat. And above it all rose the palace: a vast construction of glittering marble, with its many domed towers shining in the morning sun. Officially the Sultan ruled from the security of the palace, but everybody Jack had discussed the matter with seemed to accept that the Vizier really held power. The Sultan had not been seen in public for decades.
The expedition had been less than successful so far. Jack had set off on his own early in the trip, but had been unable to locate his companions since. Following the trail of rumors, it seemed that they had been imprisoned by the Khurats, the primitive tribal people that the expedition had first encountered, and had been taken in chains to these, the lands of the Omar. Nor had Jack's own quest proven successful: there was no trace on this world of anywhere like Zehazel, or any of the places that Kavan Hypher had described.
A glint of metal caught his eye: looking carefully in that direction from under the shade of his headcloth, he perceived a group of four guards heading in his direction in an unmistakably purposeful manner. Like all the warriors he had seen on Qu'raysh, they wore no armour: anyone who tried to do so would probably collapse from heatstroke within minutes. These guards, however, clearly did not need to.
Jack turned his attention to a nearby stall. There might be a faint chance of being overlooked... and in the event that they were not looking for him it was probably best to avoid drawing attention to oneself. The effort was somewhat wasted, however, as he felt their presence looming behind him.
"Jack Meridew?" one said, half asking, half stating. The name sounded strange when spoken by someone used to the Qu'rayshi language, doubly so when the voice was that deep and booming.
"Yes?" Jack said cautiously. It seemed best to go along with them for the moment, though it was rather worrying that anyone knew his name.
"The Grand Vizier, Orhan Ismafan, invites you to an audience at the palace at your earliest convenience," recited the guard, although he gave the distinct impression that Jack's earliest convenience was Right Now, whether he liked it or not. Jack paused to formulate a suitably Qu'rayshi reply.
"I would be honoured to accept this invitation, and will be delighted to attend as soon as the noble Vizier has the time to receive such an unworthy individual as myself," he said after a moment. The guards formed up around him in a sort of escort: whether he was a prisoner or a guest seemed to be up to him. Peaceful co-operation still seemed the best policy...
The palace was easily as impressive inside as it was outside. Everything seemed to be built on a completely different scale to the world outside: Jack was led through vast halls and chambers that a giant could live in quite comfortably. Everything was built of the same white marble, and the air was strangely cool and dry... it was a sharp contrast to the oppressive heat of the world outside.
Presently he was led to a slightly less grandiose area, presumably where people actually lived and worked. They came to a form of antechamber, with a pair of great double doors at one end. Two of the guards proceeded through the doors, carefully closing them behind them, while the rest remained watching their charge. Jack sat down carefully upon one of the elaborate couches, and waited. All was still and calm here, so he was quite surprised when he felt a light touch upon his shoulder.
"Wha-?" Jack began, starting to turn around.
"Be at peace," came a soft whisper from behind him. "Clear your mind."
"Who are you?" Jack whispered back.
"I am Khalil," said the voice. "I will help you."
"Why? Why me? What do I need protecting from?" Jack had a nasty feeling that the situation was completely escaping his control.
"No time for questions now. Take this. Be careful, Orhan Ismafan is very powerful." The unseen man held out a ring. The hand itself was that of an ordinary Qu'rayshi man, and bore a ring on each finger. Jack hesitantly took the ring.
"Why me? What's going on?"
"I knew you would come in time," whispered Khalil. "You have much of your father in you, Jack ibn-Isaac."
This was too much. Jack stood sharply and spun around, to see only a blank marble wall. There was not even a window through which the mysterious Khalil could have departed.
Looking around, Jack observed that the guards seemed to only be concerned with his own sudden move. He might almost have imagined it... but for the ring he still held. It was a kind of red gold, with a strange design instead of a stone, picked out in silver. It was based on two interlocking triangles, a design Jack could not place precisely but felt sure he recognised. he could not feel any magic on it at all.
The double doors opened slowly, and the guards assumed positions on each side. Looking round, Jack surreptitiously put on the ring: then on a hunch he turned it round, so the design faced his palm. Somehow he felt that the Grand Vizier should not see it...
The room Jack was led into was definitely on the small side by palace standards: you could probably hold only a small banquet there, and the ceiling was a mere thirty feet high. On this occasion it contained a single table with a chair at each end, laid for some sort of light meal. There were several guards standing impassively along the walls, and at the far end of the room there stood a man who could only be the Grand Vizier.
He was dark skinned like all the Qu'rayshi, perhaps a little taller than average, but not greatly so. His black moustache and beard were neatly trimmed, and his bearing seemed very graceful and noble... his robes and turban were black as well, with very little decoration, as if he was deliberately trying to appear mysterious. Suddenly Jack thought that he wouldn't look at all out of place in Zehazel...
"Ah, the noble and enigmatic traveller! I welcome you, sir, to my humble domain," said the Vizier enthusiastically. He had a voice like silk, that carried marvellously despite its depth.
"I am greatly honoured to be invited here," Jack replied carefully. The Qu'aryshi habit of never using one short word where ten long words would do was a little difficult to keep up with, but at least it made you think about what you were going to say in advance. "Indeed I cannot imagine how a humble ship's doctor such as myself should come to be invited by name into the presence of such a great man."
"Ah, Doctor Meridew, you are more important than you realise," said the Vizier as he gestured to one of the chairs. "Please be seated, that we might discuss your fascinating travels."
Jack sat down a little cautiously. This cannot possibly be good, he thought. If he is going to try to trap me somehow then there is no better time. Something in the drink, maybe, or the food? I can't refuse everything with all these guards around, and he just might be genuine. All I can do is make sure that I don't take anything he doesn't take...
"So let us begin, good Doctor," said the Vizier. "Do enlighten me as to what manner of fortune brings you to this unworthy city."
"I am in search of my companions," replied Jack after a moment. "I have not seen them for many days, and I fear that some terrible misfortune may have overtaken them." For the moment it seemed best to stick to the truth, if not the whole truth.
"Your companions would be travellers like yourself? Ah, yes... I fear that we see very few individuals from such a far land as yourself: those we do see are, I fear, somewhat prone to attracting attention." He paused for a moment as a servant poured out the two drinks - from the same carafe, Jack noted. "I can inform you that there were some such individuals here but three days ago. I regret, however, that they have gone."
"Indeed so. They were here in the palace and in good health, until they were spirited away by the personal guards of Under Vizier Bayezid. I am deeply saddened to confess that I have no knowledge of current whereabouts either of your companions or of the Under Vizier himself." He sipped his drink.
So, mused Jack, he is probably doing the very same thing as I. I do not doubt that everything he just said was completely true... Still, he has drunk, so that might at least be safe.
"This news is indeed distressing," he said, raising his glass. "It seems that my quest must continue, although I am inspired to learn that so much is known of myself and my companions in this land. I can barely contain my curiosity on the matter..."
The Vizier smiled faintly, and rose to the bait at least a little.
"Your name has travelled far, Doctor Meridew... perhaps even as far as that of your honoured father!" By now, Jack was not completely surprised by this. He sipped the drink carefully: it was fruit juice with water and sugar, a concoction very popular among the Qu'rayshi.
"It seems that my father travelled widely," he said after a while. It seemed a little weak, but he felt somewhat off guard.
"Indeed so! I was fascinated to hear his accounts of his travels." Jack suddenly felt a little cold.
"Did he tell you of his home?" he asked, trying to keep the stress out of his voice.
"I was greatly enlightened by his visit..." The Vizier was assuming an attitude of increasing confidence, and after a moment Jack realised that his head was starting to spin. He stood sharply, sending the chair clattering behind him.
"What are you doing?" he demanded a little sluggishly, although it actually seemed pretty obvious now. The guards stepped forward to catch him as he fell, and the Grand Vizier just stood and smiled.
The ritual began. Orhan Ismafan strode about the dark room surveying his preparations, the burning braziers and torches casting eerie shadows on the black marble walls as he walked. He nodded approval at his six robed acolytes, chanting sonorously in a strange harmony with the low roaring of the wind outside. All was ready.
He took a long curved dagger and a shallow golden bowl from the stone pedestal to one side of the room, and stalked over to where the limp and unconscious body of Jack Meridew hung limply from his chains. The Vizier took the doctor's left hand, undoing the manacle that bound it, and began to chant himself. The chant went on as he carefully cut his captive's wrist straight across and drained some of his blood into the little golden bowl.
This the sorceror carried wlth great reverence towards the centre of the room. There there was a fire. It was set in a stone pit, fueled by individually carved coals, and it burned a deep red, not orange like any earthly fire.
The chanting began to reach a crescendo, the massed voices sounding almost like a choir with the precisely pitched notes. Ismafan spoke again, invoking his powers, and cast the blood into the fire.
There a shape began to form: a dark shape, formed from the blood and the fire and the shadow. A human shape, though vague and indistinct. Then there appeared strands of fiery ectoplasm, strands which became strips, which coiled about the human shape to form clothing, and shoes, and a medical bag, just as the features of the creature rippled and shifted to assume their new form.
The ritual ceased. The red fire went out as the acolytes lowered their hooded heads... and Orhan Ismafan, composed for the moment in his success, raised his gaze. As his eyes met his creation, he began to laugh... as did the new creature, the double of Jack Meridew, physically perfect in every detail.
Jack awoke with a start. He felt very drained, hungry and thirsty, and he was chained to the wall of a very dark room. This situation was to be expected, he supposed. He had not really expected to wake up at all, but now that he had, it was not altogether astonishing to find oneself imprisoned. Most dungeons he had been in had been rather damper than this one, but even that was not terribly surprising. After a moment, however, a voice spoke quietly from the darkness.
"Jack ibn-Isaac, are you well?"
"I feel a little cold and light headed: I believe I am suffering from mild anaemia. There is a certain amount of pain in my left wrist, and the headache is probably a lingering effect of the drug. Otherwise, I feel quite well. Khalil, it that you?"
"Yes, it is I. I must humbly apologise for my failure to protect you, Jack ibn-Isaac. Orhan Ismafan is too powerful for me to oppose."
"There is no need to apologise. I suspect that there was nothing to be done... perhaps there are more possibilities now," Jack pondered. The first duty of a prisoner is to escape... "I don't suppose that I could prevail upon you to assist me now?"
"It is my duty and my pleasure to do so, Jack ibn-Isaac," said Khalil, and Jack sensed a spell ripple across the room. The locks on his chains duly opened, and he carefully stood, rubbing his wounded wrist thoughtfully. The room was still too dark to see Khalil.
"Thank you, I am greatly in your debt," he said. "I am curious as to how I acquired this injury..."
"Orhan Ismafan inflicted it upon you. He has used his blood sorcery to bind your image onto one of his demons."
Now that could only bode badly. Jack's suspicions became very nearly certain...
"I do not know. But that is the reason you are still alive. Were you to die, his servant could not retain your image."
"Hmm. He probably should have kept me comatose as well."
"He did," stated Khalil, with perhaps just a tiny trace of satisfaction showing in his voice.
"I see. Again, thank you," said Jack. "I do not suppose that you know a secret way out of this cell? I imagine you must have got in by such means..."
"Such a thing will not be necessary. Perhaps you might follow me?" There was a quiet sound of footsteps moving across the room. Jack padded after them as stealthily as he could. A short way ahead of him he heard a faint clanking sound, probably a lock opening, and a solid stone door before him opened just a little, at last letting light into the cell.
The cell was surprisingly clean, but not otherwise unusual. It was still too bright to see outside, but Jack could see a dark silhouette, presumably Khalil, as he crept towards the door. When he followed his companion through it, he had to blink a few times as his eyes adjusted to the light: then he blinked again, in mild surprise.
There were guards out here, which might not have been unusual in itself, but they were all standing guard and quite awake. They just didn't seem to notice the two escapees in their midst. And Khalil... Khalil looked like a tramp. A boy, perhaps twenty, with bare feet and old baggy trousers, a simple vest and a slightly dirty turban. But when he turned around, Jack saw, shining in blue in the middle of his forehead, the same symbol that had been on the ring he had given him. Suddenly Jack remembered what it was.
"Quietly please, you must follow me," whispered the boy, and headed off along the corridor. Jack followed, a little hesitantly, and thinking hard.
Jack mused as he followed Khalil through the catacombs beneath the Sultan's palace. A thought had just come to him: the Omar had a culture where all the proper names had meaning. Zehazel did not, it could not - the people there came from too many different worlds. The magic of the city let the people there understand each other, for the most part anyway: the vast majority of people did not even notice the magic. But it was very important to the Domain of Gulliver: it was a spell that anyone who had been to Zehazel carried with them for a while after leaving, but Gulliver sailors trained themselves to use it and power it themselves. An experienced traveller could understand more languages, appear more natural to the people he met, read languages similar to his own, and even learn to suppress the effect to avoid detection. It was one of Jack's particular talents, but the spell was known to fail on some languages, and could sometimes be deceptive: and Jack realised that he had made a little mistake.
'Who are you?' he had asked. 'I am Khalil'... thinking back on what he had actually heard, he now remembered that 'khalil' was the Omar word for 'friend'. But he had been expecting to hear a name, so his mind had heard a name. What had been said might equally have been 'I am a friend'... the words were the same, so who could say? Jack felt more and more that he knew far too little about his new companion.
The sound of a gong interrupted his speculations. He instinctively pressed himself against the wall next to a large marble pillar: sure enough, sounds of activity were beginning to echo through the palace.
"Khalil!" he whispered. "I imagine that my absence has been noticed? Will your magic still protect us?"
"I regret your supposition is correct, Jack ibn-Isaac. My spell will only deceive those without cause to question it. To those with a purpose to seek us out, we will be plainly visible."
Now that we are in a crisis situation, would a simple 'no' not have done? Even so, Jack was finding the Omar turn of phrase infectious.
"I see. Then let us conceal ourselves whilst we may." He crept to the nearest doorway and pushed it open just a little.
It was a side entrance to the very room where he had met the Grand Vizier. The dishes and glasses had been removed, but the table was still laden with food, and more importantly, there was not a single person in the whole room.
He ushered Khalil inside, then followed him in, carefully pushing the door closed behind them. Then, as quietly as he could, he began to prowl about the long chamber, looking for anything that might be of value. Khalil stood rather dejectedly in one corner.
"I am sorry, Jack ibn-Isaac. I have failed to adequately protect you or the City of Dreams."
"Please do not apologise, Khalil, there is no need," said Jack, filing the 'City of Dreams' comment away for future reference. "I must say that your assistance has been invaluable."
Jack had come to inspecting the table. The carafe of sherbet was still there: at least, it looked the same. It was doubtful as to whether it was the one that had been used to drug him: the ice looked fresh, and even if the carafe kept its contents magically cold, that effect would be hard to produce. Whether this one was drugged as well was harder to guess. He picked up the carafe, and it did not seem magical: the stopper, however, was. Sniffing the contents was uninformative, and he was disinclined to taste it... but the magic stopper intrigued him. He replaced it and very carefully, acting on a hunch, upended the carafe.
The stopper remained in place. Now that, he thought, was practical. He put the carafe in his bag: if it were laced with sleeping potion, it might be useful.
"We must think of some way to make our escape, or at least delay our capture," he speculated.
"Now that the guards are alerted to your newfound liberty, they will undoubtedly have taken precautions to prevent your egress from the palace."
"Then we shall have to find somewhere to hide until they lose their enthusiasm for the search. Let us see what we can find."
The search appeared to be moving up the levels of the palace, and Jack found himself leading Khalil further and further up the building. His optimism was being seriously tested when he looked around a corner to find himself only a few feet away from a particularly burly guard. He ducked back around the corner as quietly as possible.
"Khalil," he whispered quietly, "Is your spell still working?"
"It is, Jack ibn-Isaac, though I am no longer able to guarantee its effectiveness in concealing you from your enemies."
"Thank you." He peered back around the corner. There were four guards, standing at attention at the end of a wide corridor leading to a pair of very ornate doors.
"What is around that corner?" he asked.
"Those are the Sultan's private chambers. Nobody is allowed to enter except the Sultan's personal guard and the Grand Vizier."
"Of course... So maybe that is the last place they will look for us. Will your spell allow us to pass by those guards? They do not seem to be particularly interested in us."
Khalil hesitated rather longer than Jack would have liked.
"It might," he admitted at last. After so long listening to the Omarians' elaborate speech, Jack found such a simple statement particularly disturbing.
"Very well," he said, and stepped into the corridor.
With considerable trepidation, Jack walked down the corridor. Though only some forty feet long, it seemed to take forever to traverse it. He kept having to resist the urge to break into a run: he rather suspected that if he did anything out of the ordinary the four huge guards would come to their senses and... well, it would be bad. So he forced himself to walk, not too fast, not too slowly, not too loudly and not too stealthily, down the short hallway that now seemed several miles long at least.
After an age or more he reached the doors. Would the guards notice when he opened one? Would they notice him if he just stood here looking shifty? Could he afford to take that chance? Without any hesitation, he hoped, he pushed lightly at one of the doors.
It silently opened a little way. The guards did not appear to notice. He stepped through, maintaining his calm exterior just a little longer, and turned to push the door closed again...
Then he realised that he had completely lost track of Khalil.
He had been following him down the corridor, hadn't he? Jack realised that he hadn't really noticed, so distracted had he been by trying to remain calm. He peered out into the corridor: all was still, the guards still stood to attention, but there was no sign of his companion. What could he do now? Walk back down the corridor to look for him?
"Jack ibn-Isaac, is something troubling you?" came the soft voice from behind him.
Jack took just a few moments to recover his composure, but he gingerly pushed the great door shut before he breathed again.
"Khalil," he said quietly, "please don't ever do that again..." He took a moment to catch his breath, then surveyed their new refuge.
As Jack had expected, the room was spacious and overly elaborately furnished, with huge pepperpot shaped windows. There were heaps of expensive cushions all around, evidently wherever some crazed interior designer had felt there was a gap in the overall opulence, and great over-use of silk drapes and curtains almost obscured the two sets of doors to the right and the alcove to the left. They also gave the slight impression that the viewer was standing in an extremely expensive tent rather than a stone building.
The alcove turned out to contain a pedestal, perhaps three feet high, with a golden statue on the top. It was some sort of cat, perhaps a tiger, sitting up straight and perfect in just the way that actual tigers would never do. It also did not seem particularly impressive, which in itself did not fit in well with the rest of the room.
He crossed the room to the doors. Choosing a pair at random, he gently pushed them open and came into another room, apparently a sort of private audience chamber. It was much more spartan than the antechamber, with only about half the wall space covered with drapes, but it too had a slightly incongruous tiger statue. It also contained an ornate throne-like chair, in which sat a man.
He looked about fifty, overweight and bearded, and wore shining white robes and a jewelled turban. Presumably he was the Sultan. He seemed quite oblivious to his unannounced visitors, and when Jack could see his face, he felt a slightly disturbing flicker of recognition. He had heard of a situation like this one before.
The Sultan sat in his throne, peacefully and soundlessly asleep, as he had been for many years...
"Khalil, is this the Sultan?" asked Jack.
"It is not, Jack ibn-Isaac. This creature is a simulacrum, like the one that Orhan Ismafan created of yourself."
"Then the real Sultan is alive somewhere? Why? The Grand Vizier still needs him?"
"If he were dead, the laws of the Caliphate would ensure the appointment of a successor, whom the Grand Vizier might find it more difficult to control. Under the current circumstances, the Caliphate has no proof of his misdeeds."
"Surely a thorough investigation would bring some to light?"
"You may be correct, Jack ibn-Isaac. But the Caliph is a spiritual ruler only. The Sultans are the secular rulers who must enforce the laws of the Caliphate, and Orhan Ismafan has taken steps to ensure that the other Sultans have nothing to gain by bringing him down."
So, then, perhaps it was just a coincidence. Even so, he refrained from remarking upon a system that allowed such a state of affairs - the situation of Zehazel, also with an ever sleeping Emperor, perhaps left even more to be desired.
"You must have been watching him for some time..."
"I have endeavoured to play my part as best I can."
"As best you could... yes. Who are you, Khalil? Who are you really?"
"Who am I?" Khalil looked a little shifty.
"Your appearance belies your nature, Khalil. You have considerable magical powers to be able to conceal us from these guards for so long, and to be able to enter these rooms and the cell I was in by magic alone: not to mention the fact that you appear to have the Seal of Solomon tattooed onto your forehead. Did you meet my father?"
"Yes," said Khalil simply.
"Then it must have been a long time ago. My father Isaac died twenty years ago, and I don't remember him ever leaving the city in my lifetime." Isaac Meridew had been a Gethsemane healer of some repute: Jack could barely remember him ever even leaving the domain. "That means that if he did come here it must have been at least thirty five years ago by Zehazel time. Either time passes much more slowly here than in Zehazel, which would certainly have been noted on the chart, or you, Khalil, are a great deal older than you appear to be."
"I did not intend to cause you any offence, Jack ibn-Isaac," said Khalil cautiously. "I am truly saddened to hear this news of the tragic demise of your honourable father."
"I understand that. But I would appreciate an explanation for all this."
"Very well." Khalil sighed deeply in resignation. "For my part... I am what is called on Qu'raysh a djinn. We are magical beings, created of smokeless fire in the deep desert."
"I see. I have heard of djinni on many worlds, but descriptions of them vary greatly. Sometimes they are described as powerful spirits, sometimes more like demi-gods."
"And so it is, Jack ibn-Isaac. I am among the weakest of my kind: many a human mage is more powerful than I. But the great djinni, who dwell in the depths of the burning desert, where men have never walked... they are perilous indeed."
"So how did you meet my father?"
"He is my master, Jack ibn-Isaac. I am bound unto his service."
"Even after his death?"
"I must fulfil my duty," replied Khalil with great solemnity. Jack paused in thought for a moment.
"What is your duty?" he asked quietly.
"I am sworn to protect Zehazel of the five spires, the City of Dreams. I am sworn to protect my master and his companions, and I am sworn to protect any who come to this world from another."
"To protect Zehazel..." Much as he did not wish to say it, Jack was not altogether impressed with Khalil's success in this regard. Though his record in protecting travellers from other worlds was so far exemplary, Jack felt sure that the Grand Vizier was attempting some plan against Zehazel itself, some plan that involved a copy of him, and Khalil should really have stopped that at all costs. Protecting Zehazel was supposed to be his first duty, after all, and he seemed to have messed that one up. Unless... unless he did not actually know how to do it?
"Khalil..." Jack began. "You don't actually know where Zehazel is, do you?"
"I do not, Jack ibn-Isaac. My master informed me that this information was the most closely guarded secret in all the worlds."
"Perhaps it should be. But... is it possible that Orhan Ismafan could find it by tracing his demon across the astral void?"
An expression of profound dismay crept across Khalil's face.
"It may be. I do not understand such magic myself."
"Then I shall have to find him somehow. You say he has gone? Where has he gone?"
"Into the desert," said Khalil dejectedly. "He is meeting his army."
"Very well. One last question. What do you know about my father?"
"Perhaps less than you hope, Jack ibn-Isaac. This alone it was given me to know. I was bound to the service of the greater good by the great fakir, who came to this world in holy pilgrimage fifty-seven years ago, Isaac Meridew ibn-Arithon al-Zehazel, of the beni-Mordecai."
"Mordecai?" Jack exclaimed in astonishment. "Did you say Mordecai?"
"Are you well, Jack ibn-Isaac? Is something amiss?"
"Mordecai... are you sure?"
"I know only what I am told, Jack ibn-Isaac."
"I'm sorry, Khalil, it's just... this doesn't make any sense at all. What else? What about this ring, did this belong to my father?"
"Yes, Jack ibn-Isaac. The Seal of Solomon is a powerful ward in this world. Even the great djinni can be bound by it."
"That may indeed be useful." Jack leaned on a pillar and strove to clear his head. "I must find a way to stop Orhan Ismafan. You say you cannot confront him?"
"That is so. I regret that he is too powerful for me to face."
"There may be another possibility. How quickly can you travel?"
"By myself, I can travel a thousand leagues in a day. But I cannot bring you with me, Jack ibn-Isaac."
"That does not matter. It may be that the Symbole Jaune has not yet sailed: you must try to find the ship or my companions and warn them of the simulacrum, and not to sail unless they know it is destroyed."
"Yes, Jack ibn-Isaac," said Khalil hesitantly.
"Can you find a secret way out of this room? I think there is one, from the dimensions and these tiger statues, but I could not find the opening mechanism."
Khalil gazed about the room, apparently staring into the distance, then walked purposefully to one of the statue alcoves and through the back wall. A moment later the wall slid aside to reveal a narrow stairway walled with very dark stone.
"There was a physical switch on the inside. The statue is a magical artefact that will only open the door for a specific individual."
"Thank you. Will this passage lead outside?"
"It may do. It was protected by a similar spell to my own. I could not sense it until I knew to look. But what will you do, Jack ibn-Isaac? Orhan Ismafan is very powerful, and you cannot defeat the Million Swords alone."
"I don't know yet," said Jack, "but I have to try. Good luck, Khalil." He stepped into the secret passage and slid the door closed.
"Good luck, Jack ibn-Isaac," said Khalil softly as he faded from sight.
The Symbole Jaune had returned to Zehazel late at night, guided to its anchorage by a harbour pilot. He said that the crew seemed in good spirits, though Captain Benediktsson, by contrast, appeared less than content. Doctor Jack Meridew, the ship's surgeon, had been seriously unwell during the entire return voyage: he had become separated from the expedition on the first day on Qu'raysh, and had stumbled back to the ship's boat nearly a week later, badly injured and slightly delirious. Upon the ship's return to port he had been taken ashore and carried to his home, where he was tended by his wife and a healer brought from the Gardens of Gethsemane.
Samedi Trismegistus seemed happy with the voyage, having consulted at length with the renowned alchemist Al-Nastir. He seemed to regard the alchemist's tower being besieged by an army of lizardmen for nearly the entire duration of their visit to be only a minor inconvenience.
He disembarked at dawn, largely due to a certain amount of paperwork regarding the possible classification of a newly created mercury elemental as 'a potentially dangerous magical artefact', and whether it should be allowed to be unloaded. Ultimately, since it was provably the work and property of the head of the Domain of Daedalus, there was little question of it actually being restricted, especially as it gave the Harbour Authority somebody else to blame if it caused any damage.
After more than three hundred years of enterprising Gulliver bringing unbelievably dangerous magical artefacts into Zehazel at the rate of four or five a month, the articles of the domain had become somewhat pragmatic about this sort of thing, and now seemed to be written with the primary goal of keeping the domain itself out of trouble.
Thus, captains were officially required to advise and consult the Harbour Authority before bringing anything into the city, or indeed taking anything away. Most suspect objects were duly impounded, leading most captains to ignore this rule, at least with items smaller than huge animated masses of liquid metal. But the Harbour Authority did not really mind this, as if anything happened, they could deny responsibility, blame the captain, and apply the appropriate 'penalty'. Gulliver 'disciplinary procedures' were not often actually conducted, but when they were the offender was considered lucky to escape with his life, let alone his ship.
It later became clear, through the rumourmill at the Port of Call, that other than getting Samedi Trismegistus in contact with the man he wished to meet, very little had been achieved. It seemed that the landing party had, rather than trading and talking with the natives, had actually been captured almost immediately by an unexpectedly large and ferocious tribe of local nomads and had spent the ensuing days being blown like chaff from one perilous escapade to another and had found very little time to do any actual investigation at all.
Still, it made for some nice tales, for some people anyway, and the existence of an army named 'The Million Swords' had indeed been confirmed. Sadly, however, nothing else in the world connected with Kavan Hypher's tale, and the whole thing now seemed to make less sense than ever.
Captain Benediktsson classified the expedition as 'a successful failure'. The Harbour Authority classified it as 'concluded with minor loss', added some discreet footnotes to the Captain's records, and some entries to the Qu'raysh charts and descriptions regarding the wisdom of not underestimating the capabilities of apparently primitive cultures and the virtues of maintaining a non-threatening posture whilst conducting trade negotiations. The Harbourmaster classified the expedition as 'unresolved', pending developments in the recovery or otherwise of the ship's surgeon. And that, it seemed, was that.
For Elizabeth Meridew, however, things were only just beginning. She sat by her husband's bedside all the following day, looking on with concern as the young Gethsemane physician examined him, and eventually declared there to be nothing more that could be done, save to wait for him to recover. So she waited and hoped, and felt overwhelmed by relief when, in the early evening, Jack's eyes flickered blearily open.
"Where am I?" he mumbled.
"You're home, my darling," she replied reassuringly. "Everything's going to be alright."
"Elizabeth... I love you..." he said softly as their eyes met. And at that moment, Elizabeth felt her relief fall away, replaced by something quite different, cold and chilling. Somehow she knew that this, whatever it was, was not her husband at all.
"You just rest, Jack," she said as convincingly as she could. "I'll be back in just a moment." With that she stood, forcing herself to remain calm, and padded out of the room, closing the door gently behind her. Much more quickly, but still fairly quietly, she took her cloak and crept out of the house.
The familiar street outside felt a little reassuring. Where could she go now? Who could help? Ernest? No, Daedalus was too far away, and her brother had never been much use in a crisis, if one were perfectly honest. Jack's friend, the Harbourmaster? Undoubtedly better... pulling her cloak around her, she hurried off towards the harbour.
The Ernest in question was rather preoccupied by other matters. When the apprentice came looking for him, it took at least five minutes to attract his attention.
"What? Sorry?" said Ernest in some confusion.
"I have to tell you that Master Samedi Trismegistus has returned," shouted the apprentice. "Professor Lonergan? Where are you?"
"Hmm?" Ernest Lonergan peered out from behind the huge brick sphere that dominated his lab.
"I have to tell you that -"
"Oh, yeah, right. Whatever. Give me a hand with this, will you? Now you're here? Huh?"
The apprentice reluctantly approached the assembly of gears and levers that Ernest was indicating.
"Thanks, right, now when I say, you wind that handle clockwise until I say stop," said the Professor, putting on some extremely heavy gloves and goggles.
"Erm, yes sir..."
"Right, go for it!"
The apprentice took this as his signal, and started winding. As he did so, the huge sphere of stone began to rotate slowly. Presently a little hole drilled into the sphere came into view.
"Okay, hold it a second!" Ernest placed a set of stepladders by the sphere and climbed up with a very long metal handle. He slotted this into the hole, gave it a couple of turns, and nearly fell off the ladder as vast quantities of steam suddenly jetted out of the side of the sphere.
"Whoa! Ugh! No, haha, everything's fine!" When the steam cleared, a cylindrical section of the sphere about a foot and a half across had unscrewed a little way from the sphere.
"Okay, start winding that handle again!" As the sphere started moving again, Lonergan rolled some sort of tilted trolley up to it. He fixed it to the floor with some heavy metal pins, and the winding assembly came to a stop.
"Right, stand clear for a moment..." Ernest took a crowbar, fitted it into a groove in the end of the projecting cylinder of rock, and gave it a strong twist. The cylinder slid onto the waiting trolley, perhaps six feet of it, about the radius of the sphere: and resting against the end of it was a white ceramic globe just a foot and a half across.
The apprentice looked at it doubtfully. Without further ado, Ernest took a sledgehammer and smashed the little globe.
It was a shell, perhaps an inch thick: but the inside was coated with a thin layer of little blue crystals.
"There! Isn't that great?" Lonergan scraped a few crystals off the shell with a spatula. The apprentice looked rather doubtful.
"Professor Lonergan... I don't mean to sound foolish, but... it looks like Copper Sulphate."
Ernest Lonergan smiled conspiratorially and cupped his hand over the spatula.
"Glow in the dark Copper Sulphate?" Now, he looked a little disappointed.
"I'm sorry, Professor... what is it?" Ernest clearly was waiting to be asked.
"Magic," he said, trying to sound impressive.
"So just what do you intend to do about this 'Just Union', Harbourmaster?" demanded Bowles, third officer of the Eagle. Jeremiah Hansen sighed.
"I will keep track of the situation and await further developments," he said simply.
"That is all, for the moment. The Articles of the Domain of Gulliver are quite clear enough, Bowles. Perhaps you should read them again. I'm sure your Captain has."
"I still say that this is out of hand already. You can't run a ship as a democracy!"
"You certainly can't. That is why the Articles clearly define the Captain as having absolute authority on board any ship at sea."
"Then why won't you do anything?"
"Remember, Mister Bowles, that the Domain of Gulliver is itself a union of sailors, and not a military organisation. We will protect the rights of our members: no Gulliver is required to sign up to any ship's company against his will. If his Captain is excessively brutal, he can leave the ship at the end of his contract. But whilst his contract is in effect, the Captain's authority must be absolute. We cannot allow the Articles to be used as an excuse for or an incitement to mutiny. So you see, Bowles, the 'Just Union' doesn't mean a total end to discipline."
"That doesn't stop the men being difficult."
"Then perhaps you have something to learn about good leadership," said Hansen meaningfully. "Think about it."
Bowles looked like he was thinking rather more about continuing the argument, but Hansen's gaze suggested that the interview was over. He left a little sheepishly, and Hansen returned to his chair behind the desk. Some people, he thought, had a lot to learn...
"Harbourmaster?" said the secretary from the outer office. "Elizabeth Meridew to see you..."
"Right, send her in." Hansen stood again, largely out of habit, as she entered. Where he came from, even an Admiral stood in the presence of a lady.
"Mrs Meridew, a pleasure to see you again. How can I help you?"
"It's Jack, sir... you know that he was unwell when he came back from Qu'raysh?"
"Yes..." Hansen had a feeling that he was not going to like this.
"Well, sir, I know this is going to sound a little strange, but, well... it's not him."
"It's not him?"
"Whatever came back from Qu'arysh... it's not my husband. I can't explain it, I just know."
Hansen's brow furrowed. Elizabeth Meridew wasn't known to be particularly magically inclined: she probably knew a little magic, most people did. She was a Gulliver as well, though a cartographer and a librarian rather than a sailor. If something had changed about Jack Meridew, then Samedi Trismegistus or Captain Benediktsson should have noticed... except for the fact that Jack and Elizabeth had been married ten years, wheras Benediktsson had merely heard of Meridew before arranging the voyage, and Trismegistus had probably never even met the man before they had sailed.
"I believe you," he said confidently. The relief was evident on Elizabeth's face. "Doughty!"
"Sir?" the steward inquired from the office doorway.
"Assemble a team of ten men, well armed," ordered the Harbourmaster. "Five minutes, please."
"Aye sir," responded Doughty, and he hurried away.
"What will you do?" asked Elizabeth.
"We must capture whatever it is that has taken your husband's place," said Hansen seriously, "if we are to determine the whereabouts of the real Jack Meridew..."
The army of a Million Swords was not difficult to find. Having successfully (though with some difficulty) retrieved the camel upon which he had entered the city, he had made his way into the desert. There a few discreet enquiries of the travellers and nomads had revealed the approximate location of the camp. Officially the place was a secret, but men and material had been making for the spot from all over the land for several days: Jack guessed that the Grand Vizier had ordered the muster as soon as he had heard of travellers from another world. Considering that the army was charged with preserving the security of the entire continent, he might even have learned of their arrival by magical means months in advance: stranger things had happened.
As it was, despite its rudimentary attempts at secrecy, an army of several hundred thousand warriors with all their baggage and supplies was completely impossible to hide.
Jack was no strategist, but he supposed that the sheer logistics of the operation must be absolutely mind boggling. The amount of supplies required to feed that many men must be enormous: how Orhan Ismafan planned to get them to Zehazel Jack could not guess. Moving bulk cargoes into the city was a difficult trick even for the Gulliver, especially with processed goods or manufactured items. Their weapons and equipment alone loaded onto a ship would normally tether the vessel to Qu'raysh as securely as if it were anchoured to the rock. The magics for making it possible to transport such a cargo across the void had taken decades to research and were certainly not common knowledge, even in the domain of Gulliver. The Grand Vizier could not possibly know them. Could he?
As night was falling, Jack came to the top of the rise that concealed the camp, and saw for the first time the Army of the Million Swords. It was a mighty expanse: men gathered into ordered camps, with the camels for their baggage, porters and retainers with supplies, food, water, tents, and the light of torches stretching into the gathering gloom. It was impossible to guess their numbers: Jack had always doubted that their numbers would amount to a full million, and there must be some of the army still charged with keeping the peace on Qu'raysh. But the army arrayed before him had to number several thousand at least. It was like looking down upon a town rather than an army. Zehazel was populated by perhaps a million souls: many of them must be Tatterdemalion. How many Antioch and Palatine were there? Perhaps a thousand, at most? He really had no idea. But if an army such as this were to descend upon the city without warning...
It was impossible to say precisely what would happen, but there was sure to be terrible destruction. There were some truly formidable warriors in the city, surely better than any here, but would they be enough? How many men could Lord Albrecht Fleischer or Sir Guillome defeat before they were taken down? Twenty? A hundred? A thousand? They might have to... Then there was Orhan Ismafan. He was clearly very powerful, but was he more so than the great archmagi of Zehazel? Jack had no way to tell.
He had to find some way of interfering with this plan. Dismounting, he donned the hooded desert cloak he had brought to stop himself looking too distinctive. Then, looking around for opportunities, he proceeded into the great camp.
After two hours of wandering through the camp, things were becoming a little more clear. There was a great cleared space in the centre of the camp, where a number of figures in black hooded robes were lighting braziers, smoothing out the sand, arranging coloured stones into great circular patterns, and generally setting up some sort of great magical ritual. That was it, then: the Grand Vizier had devised a ritual for travelling the void, and was planning to move his army to Zehazel by sheer brute force. It would require a great deal of power, but the ritual was clearly designed to be conducted by many people: and that was where the plan began.
Jack made his way towards the central area, until he found a tent that seemed to function as a robing room for the acolytes, and crept inside under one side. Clearly this was not a time for violence, and he was hardly a warrior in any case. But he still had his medical bag, and a chloroform pad was easily arranged. There he awaited his opportunity...
The acolyte's black robe seemed tremendously awkward. Jack had never got the hang of these things: he always felt they were just about to tangle in his legs, or get caught on branches or doors, or blow into his face. Yet the 'mysterious black cloak' remained extremely popular in Zehazel: he often wondered how the regular wearers managed to cope with the infernal garments.
Even so, he did his best to appear relaxed as he walked towards the ritual circle, roughly in the middle of a solemn procession of eleven real acolytes. Their reverent silence seemed something of a blessing, as Jack was willfully suppressing the Gift of Tongues in order to avoid detection. If anybody had spoken to him, Jack probably would not have understood a single word.
The acolytes took up positions around the circle, and Jack fitted in as best he could. Orhan Ismafan strode from the darkness, his face strangely shadowed in the orange light of the torches, and he raised his hands to the sky.
A wind began to rise from out of nowhere. Already the desert night was rather cold, and the breeze brought an additional chill. Before long it was much more than a breeze, however, and became a kind of cyclone encircling the entire camp, snuffing out some of the furthest torch flames. The air was much more still here in the eye, but the wind beyond roared with a decidedly unearthly sound.
Orhan Ismafan spoke a single word in Omarian, presumably a signal to begin the ritual, and lowered his hands. The chanting began.
As the power built and spread, Jack freed the Gift of Tongues and listened carefully. Most magical languages were not translated by the magic of Zehazel, but after a little careful tuning of the spell Jack was able to make out most of the words to this one. He decided he had no time to refine the effect further, and trying his best to match his words into the ritual about him, he began his own spell.
The world began to change. The stars became obscured: the clear desert sky became totally black as the starlight was drowned out by a new light. This seemed to come from beyond the storm: a yellow - orange light, a little like the desert sand at noon, a little more like fire. The ground became covered with a thin grey mist, dust or smoke or blown sand. Finally, out in the wall of sand, wind and fire, Jack began to make out shapes and movement. Djinni... great djinni, storms of wind and flame themselves, each twenty feet high at least, creating and directing the immense sandstorm. There must have been dozens of them.
Jack fought to retain his concentration. He was hardly a sorceror, what magic he knew was restricted almost entirely to the fields of communication and healing. But he did know some theory, and he was a void navigator. He could feel that they were leaving Qu'raysh, lifted bodily through the void, and he knew enough about riding the mists to interfere with the spell that carried them. Or so he hoped. He could not possibly break a spell this strong, but whilst he was here in the circle, as part of the casting ritual itself, he might be able to twist it a little, or make it unstable. The incredible power the acolytes were using to move the army was also his to shape.
So he whispered his spell as the acolytes sang their own, following their gestures but only allowing them to give him access to the greater spell, and worked away steadily at his task. And as he did so, his father's ring, marked with the symbol of magic and warding, glowed with power in his cupped hand.
At last the ritual drew to a close. The last note of the chant faded, drawn away into the roar of the wind, and the acolytes and Vizier alike cast their faces downward.
Jack held his breath. There was still enough magic ambient to mask the Gift of Tongues, he thought... and besides, his head was still spinning a little too much from the effort of casting to will it down at the moment.
A crash of thunder boomed through the storm, and lightning split the sky. That was definitely not part of the original spell - perhaps Jack's meddling had been effective after all.
Orhan Ismafan certainly gave it his attention. His head snapped back up at the sound, and he glared about his acolytes with an expression that burned with rage, hatred and grim determination. It was but a moment before his gaze settled on Jack with a look that was trying very hard to kill.
"You!" he roared in fury, and Jack felt that it was time to leave. He seized the great outer cloak of one of his neighbours and pulled it firmly over the man's head before he had had time to recover from his surprise, delivered an unskilled but enthusiastic right hook to the man on his other side and bolted without waiting to see the results.
The Grand Vizier was shouting something, probably some variant of 'Stop that man!' translated into Omarian as a twenty five word epic. Jack didn't bother to listen, the general intent was clear enough. He was far more worried about being struck down by blasts of magic as he fled: he rather hoped that after the ritual the sorceror was too weak to attempt such a thing.
The army was beginning to stir as he ran through it. For the moment, he was running only just about as fast as the orders to stop him were travelling, but though his slight head start was diminishing, a new effect had begun that was neatly adding to the confusion.
At intervals of a hundred feet or so, thin lines of fire began to trace themselves out upon the ground under the mist. More appeared, then more, then thin curtains of sand, wind and fire erupted from them into the sky. The pocket of reality that was carrying them through the void was falling apart: the army would still arrive, most of it anyway, but in small groups, perhaps over several days. They would be disorganised and most of them leaderless... perhaps there was a chance, now.
It did little to improve Jack's predicament, though. He had no particular idea where he was going, and the decision was rather made for him when he reached the edge of the camp. The sandstorm raged before him, and in it a greater djinn, a tower of wind and fire the size of a house, with two pools of orange flame like eyes. Jack ran towards it, mind racing, and as it turned it's gaze upon him he turned the Seal of Solomon ring on his finger and almost punched the air before him, presenting the seal as forcefully as he could.
A shockwave blasted through the creature like a wave through water. The djinni was only stunned for a moment, but it gave Jack the time to dodge around it. Just barely...
This was probably a terrible idea, but there seemed to be little choice. If he made it through the storm, there was to way to tell where he would arrive. Maybe Zehazel. Probably Qu'raysh. But he might come out anywhere in all the worlds where there happened to be a sandstorm. Here I go again...
Jack threw the cloak over his face to shield his eyes from the sand, and jumped into the storm.
"It's all clear, sir," reported Styles. "No sign of anyone at the Meridew house, I'd say he's gone, sir."
"I see. Thank you," replied Hansen. The three marines who had secured the house had been as stealthy as they could be whilst still covering each other, but judging by the door being open when they had arrived, the impostor must have realised that he had been discovered and made good his escape before they had arrived.
He gave a ragged sigh. The night breeze blowing from the harbour was cold, and at this time of night the little street was all but deserted. His old injury was sending a stabbing pain like an icicle through his heart. He looked at his pocket watch, more out of habit than from actually needing it to tell the time. Half past three... he felt very old and tired, but there was work to be done.
"Styles," he said, "take word to Vermiform. Tell them to watch for Jack Meridew of the Domain of Gulliver. He is to be considered dangerous, but he must be captured and detained. He must be captured alive if possible." Elizabeth looked very solemn and serious. Hansen, too, did not completely trust them not to just kill him anyway, but he could not afford to let sentiment interfere with duty. "If the real Jack Meridew returns, we shall have to hope that he finds us first..."
Hansen's voice tailed off, and he seemed distracted.
"Harbourmaster?" prompted Elizabeth.
"Can you feel that?" Before anyone could ask what it was they were supposed to be feeling, Hansen strode off distractedly towards the docks. The others followed behind, rather bemused, until Hansen stopped at the quayside and gazed out to sea as if in a trance.
"There's a storm coming," he announced cryptically.
"Of a sort..." None of these people were true Navigators, Hansen knew. Even a powerful archmage would not be able to sense this... at least, not in this way. The effects could probably be predicted by divinational magic, but to feel the flow of the astral void instinctively was a talent possessed only by Gulliver navigators, maybe a few of the Gethsemane, maybe some mystics from the worlds beyond. A Taoist monk could feel it, but they were all but unknown in Zehazel. And only a true Gulliver Navigator would know what it meant.
"It's coming to the city. Something huge, something destructive... it's like a storm, or a tidal wave. It's coming from..."
From where? The sun was still well below the horizon, this long before dawn, but Hansen could feel the warm current of power from it just as if it was high in the sky. It was coming from there, from the Sphere of Fire. A chain of cause and effect was forming in his mind. "From... Qu'raysh?"
"The Million Swords," Doughty stated gravely.
"Yes... it has to be. Styles, Aldroyd, Matthews. Notify the leaders of the other Domains: the Million Swords are coming. They will arrive in..." Hansen closed his eyes for a second, "...about three hours, so around dawn. Gatekeeper, Antioch, Palatine and Vermiform first, then the rest. And no loose tongues, mind. Don't go telling everyone you meet, that will only cause panic."
"Are we to tell them about Mister Meridew as well, sir?" asked Styles.
"Yes, if they will listen. It may be connected." There was a brief chorus of 'Aye aye, sir's and the three marines jogged away.
"Doughty, mobilise the harbour defences. Finch, alert the Captains. Advise them to attend to their ships. Mrs Meridew -"
"I must warn my brother, sir," insisted Elizabeth. Hansen considered for only a brief moment.
"Very well, but quickly. Then come straight back here. That's an order. It won't be safe in the city. Clayton, escort Mrs Meridew. Keep her safe, understand?"
"Aye aye, sir."
"The rest of you, come with me." Hansen flinched slightly as the pain gripped him once more. It lasted only a moment, but it was a sign of this new crisis. He would have to be careful. Hiding his discomfort as best he could, he strode away towards the harbour buildings.
By the break of day the mild sea breeze had become a minor gale. The howling wind was very strong in the open plains outside the city, and as the first rays of dawn fell upon Zehazel, they brought something else with them.
The wind formed twisting cyclones, sandstorms in fact, thirty, forty, fifty feet across, mostly out in the fields, but often wherever there was such a space. They lasted only minutes, and then vanished as quickly as they came, but they left what they had carried to the city in their wake. Sometimes it was camels, bundles of supplies, or dazed Qu'rayshi civilians who formed the baggage train of the army that had come at last to the City of Five Spires. But most of the storms carried warriors, and often great desert djinni as well.
First only a few cyclones appeared. Then a dozen... then a hundred... and the Sorceror who ruled over them would arrive in due time.
The storm was breaking.
-~= Finis =~-