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the dark foundations
By Chris Walley
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC. Copyright © 2006 Chris Walley
All right reserved.
Chapter One Over four hundred light-years beyond Farholme, Sentius Lezaroth, Fleet-Captain of the Tenth Dominion Task Force and Margrave of Cam Nisua, scrutinized the main pilot's screen on his low-orbit lander as it entered the final moments of the descent. There was nothing for him to do-every aspect of its descent from the battleship Strallak Ravager through the turbulent atmosphere of Khalamaja had been handled by the planet's control center.
I hate remotely handled landings. I have no control over events. I feel vulnerable. And today, I don't even know where I'm going.
His screen showed the sprawling, dirty city of Khetelak, the planetary capital. Within moments the lander was heading toward a tiny landing pad high on the spire of what seemed to be the tallest building.
"We are landing, Admiral!" he called out, and braced himself.
The touchdown, however, was gentle. As soon as the lander was stable and all the other parameters looked normal, Lezaroth initiated the powerdown procedure. That much they allow me to do.
He adjusted his uniform and glanced at the only other occupant of the lander, Admiral Kalartha-Har.
Kalartha-Har, a bulky man with a worn, heavy face and thinning silver hair, stared out of a window, drumming his fingersagainst the seat.
He's nervous. Both of us are. But then, who wouldn't be when you're suddenly called to a meeting with our elusive and mysterious Lord-Emperor Nezhuala-a man I've never met. Few of us have.
"Sir, where are we, exactly?"
"We are, Margrave, on the summit of the Tower of Carenas at the citadel of Kal-na-Tanamuz. In short, we are at the heart of the Dominion." The admiral's deep voice seemed studiously neutral.
Lezaroth noted that the admiral addressed him by his title rather than by his rank. But then, as an unlanded commoner, he's probably more impressed than I am by my membership of a noble house.
Lezaroth gazed through the cockpit glass. The Final Emblem of the Dominion, the red loop of infinity on the blackness of space, flapped energetically from a flagpole at the far end of the platform. Hundreds of meters below, the sprawl of Khetelak stretched out in the red-hued late-evening sunlight, its deep alleys and towering slums hidden by steam and smoke. To his right, the crimson orb of Sarata was setting in dust clouds over a vast salt sea.
Lezaroth turned to the small mirror above the screen that allowed the pilot a view of the four passenger seats and checked his appearance once more. The model of a perfect Dominion warrior: a well-developed but not exaggerated musculature, the space-bronzed cheek with its small but striking scar, the broad line of significant medal ribbons, and three tiny golden rosettes on the shoulder to show I am of a high-level noble house.
A green light flashed.
"We can disembark now, sir."
The admiral unbuckled himself and climbed stiffly out of his seat. "My muscles seem to seize up on these flights," he moaned. "I'm showing my age."
The hatch door opened. Lezaroth was struck by a cold gust of gritty, dry wind that carried a hint of sulfur. But at least I can stand upright in it and frostbite isn't thirty seconds away.
At the foot of the ladder, the admiral gestured Lezaroth over to his side.
Aha. He wants to say something and this is the old trick. A cooling ship emits so many other signals that it's hard for any listening device to hear what anyone is saying.
"Some advice, Margrave," the admiral said in quick, low tones. "Remember that this isn't the officers' mess of some ship of the Tenth, a hundred light-years from Sarata. Guard your tongue in the presence of the lord-emperor and pray that he hasn't heard any of your treasonable grumbling."
Lezaroth said nothing. What you call treasonable grumbling, I call legitimate grievances. But yes, I do pray to the powers that he hasn't heard of them.
The admiral's tired gray eyes seemed to be full of an urgent warning. "You are talented, have a good battlefield record, and are a margrave of Cam Nisua. But none of these will help you in the slightest before His Highness if he thinks you're disloyal."
"Thank you, sir."
"The lord-emperor merits the greatest respect."
"I know, sir." He paused. "But why are we here?"
"Because he asked to see us. That's all we need to know. Obey, Margrave. It is our life's purpose to serve him."
Well, Admiral, you would say that. Your loyalty to Nezhuala has paid you well. You have a family and a house on Alhama.
A green holographic arrow appeared just above the ground.
"We'd better go," the admiral hissed. "Let me do the introductions. But careful. Especially here. And at sunset."
"Don't ask!" There was a nervous shake of the head. "There are rumors."
They walked forward, following a line of arrows toward an open hatchway.
Suddenly, Lezaroth had a feeling of alarm. Odd. I have no gifting in extraphysical matters and have no known occult powers; but I feel that something, somewhere ahead of us, is not safe. There is danger here.
Instinctively, Lezaroth toggled on the neuroswitch in his mind that operated his bio-augment systems. The colored biometric icons flashed on his field of view, showing no metabolic anomalies other than a slightly heightened pulse-nothing to indicate a biological reason for his unease.
He glanced at his comm systems. They were inactive; the Khetelak authorities hadn't allowed him to link up with the local net.
Upon reaching the hatchway, he toggled off the bio-augments. It was protocol to switch off all such systems in meetings with superior ranks.
His intuition of danger troubled him. I hate this. I feel trapped. I'm without weapons, armor, comm links, or military backup. It goes against everything I have learned in ten years of warfare. I am vulnerable here.
The hatchway revealed a steep, dark stairway. As Lezaroth and the admiral followed glowing arrows down the stairs, Lezaroth touched his chest, feeling beneath his uniform the talisman of Zahlman-Hoth, the god of soldiers. Great Zahlman, protect me. If I must fight today, give strength to my arm and resolve to my will. If I shed blood, may you drink and enjoy it.
Three flights down, a door slid open to reveal a large, gloomy hall. As he walked through the doorway, Lezaroth felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. It was a sure sign that he was in the presence of some sort of extraphysical phenomena. He looked around urgently, as tense as if he were on the battlefield, scanning for any danger and wishing again that he was armored and had weapons and backup.
The long, stone-floored hall had a high-vaulted ceiling and was full of strange, twisted statues towering twice and even three times a man's height. It was not a well-lit place and the figures cast odd shadows. In fact, the shadows dominated the room. The air was heavy and still and had an unpleasant odor.
"Fascinating," the admiral murmured. There was an edgy catch in his voice.
The statues were all totems or idols, but bigger and more impressive than the ones usually in temples. Some Lezaroth recognized. The nearest, an angular, vaguely birdlike figure with claws and jagged bill, was Naxhfulain, the god of plagues. Behind him, a stooping creature with long fangs and spidery fingers was Hamartos, the deity of miscarriage and infant death. But he had never seen so many large ones together.
The shadows caught his eye again. Did they shift or was it just his imagination?
They stood still gazing around. Lezaroth suddenly heard voices coming from somewhere, a whispering so quiet and high in pitch that it was on the very edges of audibility. As he listened, he could hear other elusive sounds: a low murmuring and a faint feverish chattering.
He felt alarmed. This is not just a museum. There is power and hostility here. A man who strayed into this place might easily not walk out alive.
Suddenly, the high-pitched whispering grew louder and more excited.
"He is here!" hissed the admiral.
Lezaroth looked to the far end of the hall. Between the lines of idols and their shadows, a slightly built man of medium height walked toward them. He had light brown hair and wore a long, dark jacket and matching trousers. Even at this distance Lezaroth was struck by the steady, authoritative way in which he walked. Things wait for this man, not he for them.
As the man came nearer, the shadows seemed to shift around him as he moved, giving the effect of light focusing on him as in a painting.
It has to be an illusion.
The noises-the whispers, murmurs, and chattering-seemed to grow louder.
A few steps away from them, the man stopped. Lezaroth noted a face that was almost entirely unremarkable apart from its extreme pallor and the dark gray, almost black, eyes that seemed to stare at him with an intensity that made him uncomfortable. There was a smooth smile on the anonymous and unblemished face.
I know that face. I have known it since childhood. It walks through my dreams. It had not changed since he first saw it on the posters that hung in every room in the nursery complex. How old is the lord-emperor really? He has openly wielded power for fifty years. But before that, we know little. Even now, when we easily live for two or more centuries, his immunity to age is remarkable.
The high, invisible whispering was suddenly cut short.
"Gentlemen, welcome," said Lord-Emperor Nezhuala. His voice was gentle, resonant, and utterly authoritative.
"My lord," Admiral Kalartha-Har said, and bowed swiftly and deeply.
"My lord," repeated Lezaroth the merest moment after him, and bowed in a similar manner.
The lord-emperor lifted his palms upward. His hands were covered by black gloves. "This is the great hall of Kal-na-Tanamuz-the repository of the figures of the powers."
Lezaroth was struck by the lord-emperor's conversational, even amiable tone, but warned himself again not to relax. That odd intuition of alarm was still fresh in his mind.
The admiral spoke. "Lord-Emperor, it is an honor to be received by you."
The lord-emperor made a gesture of welcome. "Admiral, it is nice to see you again. The family well? On Alhama, aren't they?"
"My lord, they are very well. And yes, it is Alhama." There was an odd hesitancy in the admiral's voice. "My lord, may I present to you Margrave Sentius Lezaroth, Fleet-Captain of the Glorious Tenth?" His words seemed hasty.
It is as if he wants to change the subject.
The lord-emperor extended a gloved hand and Lezaroth shook it. It was unresponsive, but he felt a faint sensation of energy.
"Captain, Margrave Lezaroth," Nezhuala began, "I am delighted to meet you. I followed your actions in the war. I know your background too. Cam Nisua is a world long loyal to me and the House of Lezaroth has always served the Freeborn well." He smiled. "I have read the commendations. You 'forcefully deployed Krallen,' 'skillfully ordered bombardments,' and 'personally donned armor and fought.'" The lord-emperor spoke in sharply truncated sentences. "Altogether splendid. The victory that we won at Tellzanur was achieved through your actions."
Lezaroth bowed. I could honor the dead here, but I won't. They are dead and I'm alive. "Thank you, my lord. It is my life's purpose to serve you. However many my days may be, they are all at your disposal."
They were clichés from regimental songs, but he needed something safe to say.
The lord-emperor looked at Lezaroth with that gaze of unnerving intensity.
This is a man with charisma, a man who can inspire others to sacrifice. Men will die for him and he knows it. He did not become the creator of the Dominion and the first lord-emperor for nothing.
There was something about this man that fascinated him. He tried to remember some of his many objections to the lord-emperor and found that they had somehow vanished. How odd.
"You are young for a margrave."
"My father died early. I had elder half-brothers, but they were killed in battle." I will not mention that two died in family feuds.
Nezhuala nodded. "I see. Now please, follow me. Both of you."
Nezhuala turned smoothly and walked down the hall, with the admiral and Lezaroth following at a diplomatic distance. The mysterious noises seemed to have started up again. As they walked, Lezaroth heard their feet echo oddly. Sounds seemed strange here, as if the air was somehow too thick.
The lord-emperor waved an arm at the figures. "Artists' representations of course. They look very different when you actually meet them."
He stopped suddenly and turned to Lezaroth. "Did you know that I talk to some of the powers?" His voice had a candid, almost naive tone that invited confidence.
"I had heard tales, my lord." More than tales. He recollected how, under torture, one renegade from Tellzanur had spat out that Nezhuala was a "witch king in league with demons." His security officer had killed the man there and then, but no one had bothered to deny the charge.
The lord-emperor's gaze seemed fixed on a carved form with holes for eyes. "It is my duty, Margrave. I do it for the Dominion. I see myself as the great intermediary-the man who stands between men and the One."
"My lord, in you we see the infinite."
Suddenly, Nezhuala tilted his head slightly as if listening to something. He nodded, as if agreeing, and whispered some inaudible words. Then he turned to Lezaroth. "Excuse me. Some of the lesser powers wanted to speak to me."
At a gap in the line of the totems the lord-emperor turned left and led the way through more shadowy figures into an open space. In the middle of the space was a weird, high-backed chair made, it seemed, out of many twisted, pale bones.
"Take the seat, Margrave."
Lezaroth, already tense, now found himself in a high state of alarm. But there was nothing to be gained by refusing, so he sat. The chair gave slightly under his weight. He was aware of a strange, unpleasant smell. A glance around showed ominous, dark stains on the floor slabs. Another glance showed that the statues all around were open-mouthed.
The alarm gave way to fear.
The admiral sat down on a stone bench not far away to his right. His hunched posture and pale, troubled face suggested a deep concern.
The lord-emperor stood before Lezaroth. "I need to talk to you, Margrave, about several things. But first ..." He made an odd fluid movement with his hands.
In an instant, Lezaroth found himself immobilized.
Don't panic! Analyze! But terror was not far away. A trick of extraphysical forces. He tried to move, but his leg, back, and arm muscles were frozen solid.
"Margrave, I do not waste words. I have followed your career very closely. More closely than you think. In fact, I know everything about you." The menace in the lord-emperor's words chilled Lezaroth, and his premonitions of danger seemed to be fully justified.
He said nothing, because he didn't know what would come out. He heard the voices again and heard anticipation in their whispers and murmurs. They are watching.
"Supporters tell me that you say things about me. I have recordings." Nezhuala twisted his fingers and a hologram appeared just in front of Lezaroth's face. He saw himself in the weapons bay of the Ravager speaking loudly.
"Why does His Highness"-there was scorn in the title-"make tactical military decisions? Why does he overrule the advice of his generals? Why are there random promotions and demotions? As if on a whim? Tell me, someone!"
Another clip appeared. Lezaroth saw himself with the chief engineer, in the forward hold this time. Oh no, not that conversation! Great Zahlman, protect me!
"I'll tell you why this doesn't work." There was anger in Lezaroth's voice as he pounded his fist on a nonfunctional munitions lifter. "It's because it's worn out. We need a new one. And why aren't we getting one? Because all our resources are used in building this monstrous Blade of Night-a structure that no one other than the lord-emperor and his attendant demons knows what it does. Five hundred kilometers long, the mass of a sizable asteroid, yet no known purpose. Give me patience!"
Excerpted from the dark foundations by Chris Walley Copyright © 2006 by Chris Walley. Excerpted by permission.
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