Decan 29, Year 427, Storm Age - Hieropolis
"May the ancient trinity bless and protect their devoted servant. May the ancient trinity reveal their will through the Living Ra. MayIsis, Osiris and Horus live on in the deeds of their devoted servant."
Since childhood, the simple prayer had warmed his loyal heart. As a young scribe new to the Royal Court, and later an experienced bureaucrat burdened with matters of state, his hand had often been silently steadied by prayer. The Vizier's faith in the divine mission of Hieropolis was unshakeable. Surely divine will was evident in Shalmeneser's rise to power. Surely he would be remembered favourably for his part, however small, in the rebirth of civilisation.
Yet the court, city and world moved to more than one will. The Living Ra had other advisers. And - as the Living Ra's most trusted servant had discovered long ago - the world, city and court sometimes lacked the will to carry out the divine plan.
Torchlight flickered on damp rough walls deep beneath the barracks of the Horus Guard. Behind bars, loyal soldiers waited. So did a test of faith.
"Light of the Hawk upon you." The soldier turned the key in the lock and held open the gate. "Prisoner won't eat. Just sits there."
"Light of the Hawk within you," Shalmeneser returned. So far from the sun, sandals and a scribe's tunic failed to ward off the pressing chill. He gripped his gilded staff of office, willing himself not to shiver. There could be no appearance of weakness now.
The soldier locked the gate behind the Vizier and resumed his post. A second soldier led the Vizier down the subdued tunnel. Barred cells silently howled their emptiness. The ghost of a mad prince, hidden away down here a century ago, still roamed these catacombs freely. Those assigned to guard here were tested not only for their loyalty but the firmness of their sanity. More than one had succumbed to the whispers of secrets no living man could possibly know.
"Here." The soldier stopped and raised a torch.
Shalmeneser peered through the bars. He could not see where the huddled form ended and the mound of rags began. From the description he had been given of the prisoner, Shalmeneser was uneasy about satisfying his curiosity in this matter. Yet this burden fell to him.
"Tell me what you know." Tones as hard as the surrounding rock walls were called for. The situation, despite his assurances to the Living Ra, was no longer entirely under his control. "Tell me now."
A minute passed. Perhaps the creature was dead. It surely was not native to the world of Aura. Possibly the energy currents of the Aura Flow were unable to sustain its life pattern. If it were dead, the body would have to be disposed of - regardless of how instructive a dissection might prove to be.
If it were dead, answers would be denied him.
The creature stirred. "Cold. Dark. Not home. Dying."
It rasped and wheezed and shuddered. "They promised life. They said, 'serve and live.' Many dying."
"Dying here? Were you brought here by the Cult of Darkness, to serve in their army? If you tell me what you know-"
"You know nothing. Darkness take you."
"You are not dark?"
"Not your darkness."
Shalmeneser stared into the shadowed cell. What did it mean, not his darkness? When it had been found, he had thought it to be from the demon army gathered in the desert three years ago. A Demon Prince had sought dominion over this world. The army of the Demon Prince had been composed of deranged cultists and degenerate tribes. It had also included strange creatures not reported in any bestiary - stranger even than might have been produced by an Aura Storm. Perhaps they had been summoned from the Demon Prince's realm.
The army had been defeated and scattered by champions of light. Among their magical armaments had been Atenhotep's Diamond. Trapped within this gem had been the souls of hundreds of the legendary wizard's enemies. Reports of the battle and its survivors were confusing, to say the least. One such survivor was an elf of unknown tribe, who claimed to be a dwarf whose soul had become trapped in the gem when the aforesaid champions retrieved it from Atenhotep's Tower.
Shalmeneser steadied himself with prayer. "Did you serve Malthorious and White Marna when they cast down the Demon Prince?" Had he made a terrible mistake?
The creature was silent. It remained silent.
Heart chilled by misgiving, Shalmeneser turned and left. Whatever the poor soul had been, he would attend the funeral. The gods had a plan for the world of Aura; there was a place for everyone in the afterlife. Even for a Vizier who overstepped his power.
The Living Ra had declared war upon the forces of darkness. The Living Ra had believed his trusted Vizier's report that the creature had been executed as a demon spy. The Vizier's career would come to a sudden and unpleasant end if The Living Ra suspected anything.
"May the ancient trinity bless and protect their devoted servant." Before the next sunset, Shalmeneser's operatives would be investigating reports of unusual creatures. Something outside the normal experience of the world was occurring. The Vizier felt suddenly old and incapable. Yet deal with it he must.