The Black Tower rose high into the night sky, and against the inky dusk of the primordial dark it was darker still. Limned in starlight, it was of such obsidian blackness that its stately silhouette appeared a slash on the ebon flesh of night, a wound revealing the even darker, infinite void that ever lurks within and beyond it. And yet, despite this omnipresent and imposing figure, the peoples of the ancient City of Bast had all but forgotten its conspicuous existence. It did not concern them, and therefore, they did not concern themselves with it: their lives were separate and distant from its meaning – or so they believed. I often ponder the implication of this indifference, but quickly am I made aware of its familiarity, for deeply familiar it is.
These peoples – men, women, and children of every living race that has carved out an existence in this strange and timeless realm – are not the first, nor will they be the last, to parade across the urban sprawl likes ants over the undulating dunes. The dark basaltic walls of Bast have housed the husks of many an ancient man – and other, even older beings – and the threads of time that run like warp and weft stretch forward and backward across and abroad this patchwork of space, often all at once; in my dream-fugue, I run blind fingers across this tapestry, feeling little and losing more, but in that way, snatch glimpses of a story that is at once past, present, and future. But the dense mists of time envelope the even more ancient tower, whose coal-black walls fairly radiate with a distant and forgotten energy as it climbs to the stars like a lighthouse broadcasting this rocky cosmic shore to empyrean travelers, pioneers of fantastic technologies inconceivable to our own narrow ken. Its place in the arras of time is missing, edges raw and split, threads dangling in empty space. There is more to this edifice than I know – than I am able to know, and I am unsatisfied in my helpless ignorance, a mere observer of anomalies still undreamed by the men of our world. But to see it… ah, to see it: a fortune and a curse, and I may yet suffer a madness beyond eternity at the entry-less feet of its black walls for what I have observed. Oh, what I have – and what have I – observed!
Perched atop the Black Tower was a solitary room, forever opened and exposed to the elements, yet unaffected by sun or rain, wind or weathering. Thick black columns supported a geodesic dome of singular magnificence, carved with a skill now lost – or perhaps yet to be gained – from an immense, glittering stone of crystal-clear transparency. Its surface was crisscrossed with wrought iron shapes, intersecting and overlapping, depicting a strange and complex celestial scene through which a sect of mysterious men – long known in this land simply as Astronomers – deciphered the future from the language of the stars. It is in this place that two men stood in silence: one wizened with age, the other lean like a graying wolf; one cloaked in the rich blue robes of the Astronomers of Bast, the other in the plain black kaftan of the outland tribes. The men eyed each other carefully in this juncture of anxious quietude. The Astronomer studied the other’s lean, hawkish features intently: his face an inscrutable mask of dark, sun-baked flesh; his single eye a black pool of sunless water, deep and impenetrable; his body wiry yet powerful, rangy and steely like a coiled spring, ever-tense with explosive energy. The wolfish man returned the studious gaze coolly, his eye piercing and probing in a way that unsettled the old man.
“You alone can achieve this task,” Spoke the old man, finally breaking the tense stillness.
“Such was my suspicion,” the outlander replied, a cool smirk curving across his thin lips. “Else an Astronomer would never deign to ask the aid of a man like myself.”
“Indeed.” A touch of bitterness edged his wavering voice, emboldening the outlander, and he seized on the sentiment.
“And yet, this thing you ask of me… you are not convinced that it can be accomplished?”
“If any man can accomplish it, it is you.”
The outlander absently inspected the front and back of his weathered hands, exaggerating his air of casual disinterest. “Indeed,” he echoed. “Such things are beyond dispute. The fact remains, however, that mayhap no man can. It is said she sees that which is unseen. That she bears a third eye,” and he held a hand in the shape of a circle to his forehead. “And through it sees into men’s souls, and beyond.”
The old man, his nerves on a knife’s edge, fought the compulsion to tear at his beard, instead wringing his gnarled hands beneath the silk folds of his robe; and though hidden they were, it was as blood in the air for the desert-wolf: the scent of fear – its attendant reek of salt and adrenaline – was thick in the free night air. He pressed on.
“It is well known throughout the land that the Astronomers of Bast are an ambitious association, given to scheming and conspiring, weaving plots like spiders weave threads in the night. What assurance have I that my order is not to be entangled in one such a web?”
“Because you are already bound, though your bonds are not of our making. Here I offer you an opportunity to free yourself – and your order – from them.”
He smiled, bemused – as he often was – and his lightness of spirit under such precarious circumstances both angered and unnerved the Astronomer.
“Please,” The man gestured broadly before him. “Go on.”
“The Queen acts on her own plot, long planned, to purge again her court. The dissent has grown too rank, and she has been loathe to ignore it all these cycles. There exists no other action for the likes of us – we are each and all men of numbered hours, should your task prove impossible.”
“Speak for yourself, Astronomer. I am an outlander; I have no part in your petty politics.”
“Do not act as if you and your people have not been victims of the Queen’s furies. Outlanders, perhaps, but very much a threat to her reign nonetheless, for your people – just as mine – possess The Gift.”
The man hissed with exasperation. “And yet, through this Gift, my order has seen nothing of the conspiracy you assure me is to come.”
At this, the Astronomer smiled, though the expression looked alien to his grave and timeworn face, and the man silently cursed his miscalculation.
“Do not bluff me, outlander. I know that your people’s Gift is limited only to that which makes you such effective killers.”
The outlander laughed earnestly, though his casual mien riled the Astronomer all the same. He turned his back to the old man and stared into the endless black of the night sky, rough hands resting on the smooth stone rail separating the two men from the abyss. At this moment, drinking in the cool night air and the icy scintillant stars, was he for the first time aware of the nature of this tower: there existed not a joint about the entire structure. The railings melted seamlessly into ornate balustrades supporting them, which in turn grew from the black stone floor like an appendage. This sable citadel seemed to be one solid, contiguous mass of rock, though the notion – and its attendant implications – defied the man’s understanding of the very fabric of his reality. He returned his gaze to the robed man, observing at once the ease with which he fit the scene, like a tree in the forest, or a boulder on the mountain. A wizard, perhaps, but of a singular kind the likes of which existed no where else in this world. There was no whimsy about him, only grim sobriety, and the flicker of light that lurks behind the eyes of every living man was instead a black fire that burned with the heat of a thousand black suns.
“It is true – my powers of precognition are constrained to where the blade will strike or the blow will land, but it is not such a limitation as you might expect. Indeed, I am not alone in my limitations.“
The Astronomer raised an eyebrow inquisitively.
“Quite. Would you agree that the flow of time is like that of a river?”
The old man nodded his agreement apprehensively, unsure of the point to be made.
“Then you will understand when I say that you are like a man standing at the cliff’s edge, watching the river of time wind and wend far below. You see, from this lofty vantage, it rush from its headwaters, fed by melting ice from the frozen mountains, across its rocky bed, and into its delta and to the great, wide ocean beyond. And you believe that this is all the river is.”
He paused and searched the astronomer’s face, and a tigerish smile crept across his lips before continuing.
“But I am immersed in this river: I know its currents, its rapids, its falls. I am engulfed by its waters, and feel the terrible, deadly power that courses through its icy body. I see rocks that would dash me to a bloody pulp, eddies that would drag me to a watery grave, feel the frigid chill that would turn my muscles to stone. Though I may not see around the river’s bend, with great clarity do I see what is before me. You may see to the ocean, Astronomer, but the ocean it not all there is to see.”
The old man’s face was unchanged – immotile and undecipherable – but his eyes flared, impatient with the insolence of the assassin who indulged his self-importance at the feet of a brotherhood as old as Bast itself.
“Enough of this,” he snapped intolerantly. “Do you accept the task before you?”
The man’s smile had spread into a wholly amused snarl, animated with a cat-like casual cruelty.
“I know not – do I accept?”
“Black Gods take your soul, man! I have not the patience for your games. Is it death that you fear?”
“I fear very little, and death I fear not at all – it is unbecoming a man of my trade.” He sighed, and his smile faded as he took several soundless steps to lean against a black column. He craned his neck upward, eye tracing the alien geometry that framed the glittering stars in so many cryptic conformations. “In truth, I too tire of this exchange, so allow my bluntness: What does the future hold?”
The astronomer joined the man in gazing through the crystal dome, clasping his hands behind his back in a thoughtful pose.
“For all living memory, no man not of the Astronomers has stared through this lens. It is important that you understand the peculiar situation in which we find ourselves.”
The man flashed a small, bitter smile, his singular eye still fixed on the black sky beyond.
“Shall I take that to mean that you know as well as I the outcome – that is, not at all?”
The Astronomer nodded silently, his grey beard bobbing with each slow affirmation.
“The business of divination is one of irreducible complexity. Part science, part art, yet simultaneously neither: A series of secrets passed down, an amalgam of words – many ancient, their meaning long lost – and motions, smoke and elixir, blood and bones, stars and leaves. But this,” he said, gesturing reverently with two hands to the crystal dome above their heads. “This represents an advancement so exceptional that it can hardly be considered the same phenomenon. With the discovery of this technology, our eyes were opened wide to the presence of matter that still defies our comprehension today. For this reason, it has remained hidden, the secret of its existence closely guarded by the walls-within-walls of this city. This element is in itself a foundational part of the fabric of our universe, and those beyond: The very material with which the tapestry is woven.
“And I tell you this with the solemn hope that such power may persist beyond me and my kin. Such power as resides in this black obelisk would be consumed entirely by the Queen, should it fall under her control; for she, too, possesses an artifact of equal dynamism that, were not this element in constant conflict with itself – for reasons that even today defy our most diligent attempts to fathom – it would reveal to her this plot as it has unwound so many threads of her demise. In short, it is our only defense against her vast and ever-growing prescience, for indeed it would seem there exists a power greater than that of future-seeing: the ability to conceal it from those who would otherwise witness. For this reason, we are unable to discern her plot, and she ours, in spite of the foreknowledge that we both possess. We must resort to the cunning of old: the cloak and the dagger, as it were.
“I say, man, the hours wane – by design, little time has been left for error or detection, for her spies are as numerous as grains of sand on the Dunes of Erathor. What would you do? Unseat the tyrant ever lapping up your borders – for you know too well of the raids she commands against your desert-kin – or stand idly by as she snatches from the Astronomers – from the people – a power of magnitude absolute? The choice is yours alone.”
A weird light shimmered over the grim countenance of the outland man, casting black shadows across the scars that seamed his weathered flesh. He grinned, his face a beastly mask devoid of malice or mirth, and his thin lips revealed a snarl like a dog loosed to the hunt.
“I shall slay for you the Savage Queen.”