Orb Sceptre Throne: Book Excerpt

Created with Sketch.

Did we not look out together upon the dark waters of the lake
And behold there the constellations
Of both hemispheres at once?
—Love Songs of the Cinnamon Wastes

That day of discovery began as any other. He arose before the dawn and saw to his toilet, aware that the toothless hag he kept as camp cook was already up, boiling water for the morning tea and mealy porridge. He checked in on the tent of the two guards that he’d hired simply because he thought he ought to have someone around to watch the camp. Both men were asleep; that didn’t strike him as proper guard procedure, but it was the Twins’ own luck he’d found anyone willing to work at all for the poor wages he could offer.

‘Tea’s on,’ he said, and let the flap fall closed.

He kicked awake his two assistants, who lay in the sands next to the dead campfire. These were sullen youths whom he paid a few copper slivers a month to see to the lifting and hauling. Like the ancient, they were of the older tribal stock out of the surrounding steppes, the Gadrobi; no citified Daru would waste his time out here in the old burial hills south of the great metropolis of Darujhistan. None but he, Ebbin, who alone among all the Learned Brethren of the Philosophical Society (of whom he was charter member) remained convinced that there yet lurked far more to be found among these pot-hunted and pit-riddled vaults and tombs.

Sipping the weak tea, he studied the brightening sky: clear; the wind: anaemic at best. Good weather for another day’s exploration. He waved the youths away from the fire where they huddled warming their skinny shanks, then pointed to the distant scaffolding. The two guards drank their tea and continued their interminable arguing. Ebbin knew that at the end of the day he’d come back to camp to find them still gnawing on the same old bones from the first day he’d hired them. He supposed it took all kinds.

The lads dragged themselves down the hill to station themselves next to a wide barrel winch. Ebbin knelt at the stone-lipped well, opened the old bronze padlock, pulled free the iron chains, and heaved aside the leaves of the wood cover. What was revealed appeared nothing more than one of the many ancient wells that dotted this region, once a Gadrobi settlement.

But what might he find down at the bottom of this otherwise unremarkable well? Oh, but what he could find! Beginning some generations ago, a relative warming and drying period in the region’s weather had resulted in a drain on the local water reserves and a subsequent fall in the waterline. A lowering of nearly a man’s full height. And what has lain submerged, hidden, for thousands of years may be revealed! The subtlest of arcane hints and annotated asides in obscure sources had led him step by incremental step to this series of wells. As yet, all had proved unremarkable. Dead ends year after year in his research.

But perhaps this one. Perhaps this time all my work—vindicated!

He swung his legs out over the darkness, ran a hand over the lip’s curved inner surface. Not for the first time did he marvel at these ancient artisans; the chiselled stone so smooth! The opening as near to a perfect circle as he could discern. How inferior and shabby contemporary construction now, with its eye to mere cost rather than the regal course of posterity!

He yanked down the board seat and wrapped an arm round its rope. After checking his bag of equipment, the lantern, oil, hammer, chisel and such, he waved a curt command to the youths. The winch screeched shrill and piercing as they let out slack and Ebbin swung out over the void.

The descent was eerily silent but for the occasional jangling of the bells attached to the rope—his means of announcing his intent to ascend, and calling the worthless youths back to the well from the shade to which they would always slink off during the heat of the day. He jerked the rope for a pause while he lit his lantern. This accomplished, he signalled for a continued slow playing out of the rope.

It was during these murky silent descents, as if he were submerging himself, that doubts most vividly assailed him. What if the evidence were here, yet hidden from his eyes? He brought the lantern closer to his face while he studied the passing stones for any sign of structural elements. As before, he saw no hint of variation among the slime and dried algae scum.

Failure again. And yet this one had seemed to fit the clues perfectly

Below, the surface of the water glimmered like night. Ebbin moved to shift the lantern to reach for the rope, but his fingers brushed the burning hot bronze and he yelped, dropping the light. It fell for an instant then was snuffed out. A distant splash reached him. He sat in the dark cursing his clumsiness and sucking his fingers.

Then weak shimmerings wavered before his vision. He squinted, dismissed the phenomenon as the stars one can see before one’s eyes in the night. But the lustrous flickerings persisted. His eyes widened in the utter dark. Might these not be the remnants of Warren magics? Wards, and seals, and such?

And does not their very presence confirm the correlative supposition that follows?

Ebbin gaped, fingers forgotten. His grimed sweaty skin prickled with the sensation of… discovery.

Yet could these not be admonitions against meddling? Was it not whispered that it was from these very burial fields that the ancient Tyrant Raest returned (if indeed he had that night not so long ago, which was dismissed by many, and remains an incident completely undreamed of to most)?

He squeezed his hands to warm them in the cool of the well and made an effort to thrust aside such atavistic shrinking from shadows. Superstition! He was a scholar! He had no time for such mummery. True, the Warrens and their manipulation were real, but the efficacious power itself was not evil, not consciously malevolent. It was merely a natural force to be reckoned with, such as weight, or the life-essence.

Ebbin steadied himself in the cold damp dark and tentatively, almost reverently, reached out. His fingertips brushed cool eroded stone. He felt about for a sign of any opening and something brushed his fingertips—a curved edge. Luminescence flared then, limpid and fitful, and it seemed to him now that he must be mistaken, for no tunnel could exist in the depths of this thoroughly explored well: it was only the deceptive irregularities in the stone that had fooled him. He should abandon this wasted effort and signal the lads to pull him up.

Then his feet in their worn goatskin shoes suddenly plunged into frigid water and the shock made him flinch, almost tipping him from his narrow perch. He frantically signalled a halt.

The grip he kept on the lip of the curved wall steadied him. And it seemed to him that the tunnel had always been here, undiscovered and patient, as if awaiting him. He wiped a sleeve across his clammy face, swallowed his relief. He sat for a time immobile. His breath echoed in the enclosed space, harsh and quick.

I may have done it! Found what all others said did not even exist! Here may be the tomb of the greatest, and last, of the Tyrant Kings of Darujhistan.

And I can’t see a damned thing. He shook the rope to signal retrieval. Please, gods, please … let there be another lantern somewhere in camp!