The Oirat reached the entrance of the underground city of Heese by late afternoon two days later. Here, the Ujugar cliffs were not as sheer; they draped down from the imposing heights of Ondur Dobu like sprawled and groping fingers of stone. As it approached its confluence with the Dalda, the swift current of the Okin River yielded to shallow, burbling channels spread among frost-crusted islands of sparse witch-grass and graveled ground. As the waning, golden glow of the sun seeped among the sloping mountainsides, they could see the entry ahead of them, and the entire party drew to an awestruck halt.
"Tengeriin boshig," Toghrul whispered, drawing the blade of his hand to his brow to shield his marveling gaze from the glare.
"There it is, oyotona. Do you see?" Aigiarn said to Temu, her voice soft and breathless with wonder. "It is Heese, just like Rhyden promised."
Rhyden might have promised them Heese, and he might have had memories of the place seared into his mind, but even these had not prepared him for the actual sight of the Abhacan city. He had been to Iarnrod, the enormous royal city of Tirurnua, enough times to fairly well find his way along its streets blindfolded, but he had never seen anything like this. Iarnrod was built to be a fortress city-state--like all Abhacan cities constructed after the fourth or fifth dynasty. The influx of men and their tenacious efforts to claim lands from the Abhacan had forced the diminutive race to retreat beneath their mountains, to use their cities as fortified sanctuaries against the continuous threat of invasion.
Such fortifications had come to Heese, but the city had been built long before this, during a renaissance period in Abhacan architecture Rhyden had never even heard about. To enter Iarnrod, visitors had to pass through long, treacherous ravines carved among mountain peaks, and then through massive, nigh-impenetrable iron doors. Rhyden knew from the gazriin ezen's memories that beyond the threshold they now rode toward, a similar iron barrier had been constructed. However, Heese had once been a nexus for culture and activity in Tirgeimhreadh; it had welcomed visitors from all races with opened arms. Rather than the cold and uninviting entrance of Iarnrod, Heese had been graced with a magnificent threshold, a place that reminded guests of the might of the people who had once called the city home, and yet drew them inside, likely as enthralled as the Oirat now stood.
Six broad stairs, hewn from the granite of the cliff base led up to a portico framed by a colonnade of six towering columns, each at least twenty feet high. The roof of the portico sloped upward along the mountainside; an entablature carved out of the cliff itself. A huge archway of stone more than thirty feet across crowned the top, flanked by two massive pillars hewn in relief. The entire magnificent structure was adorned with relief sculptures and inscriptions, intricate and elaborate renditions of Abhacan runes and mythological characters, kings and armies, triumphant battles and the splendor the Abhacans had enjoyed in their daily lives.
A solitary doorway, fifteen feet tall, stood in the center of the portico's far wall. There was nothing but darkness beyond; the door crossed into a tunnel that led toward the belly of the mountain.
"Mathair Maith," Rhyden breathed. Good Mother. "It is incredible!"
Towering above the portico, perched against the slopes of the Ujugar was a dragon, an enormous, hulking sculpture chiseled out of the mountainside. It stood twice again as tall as the threshold, with its broad wings draped back against the cliffs, its immense, crested head turned eastward, away from the glow of the waning sun. This colossal sentry had been meticulously, magnificently hewn from the granite, and nearly seemed lifelike in its stunning grace and detail. As the fading light of the sun spilled upon the dragon's form, it seemed aglow, bathed in gold, and Temu gasped softly.
"It is Ag'iamon," he whispered, looking at Yeb, his eyes bright and wide with excitement. "Look, Yeb--it is Ag'iamon!"
"It would seem we are in the right place, then," Yeb said, his own eyes round with wonder as he looked at the dragon.
While the dragon was likely carved at a much later date--probably millennia--after the threshold itself, time and the elements had taken their tolls upon both of the granite structures. As the Oirat reined their bergelmirs toward the structure, they could see tumbled piles of debris littering the ground and riverbanks where the cliff slopes had yielded and crumbled. They had found evidence of other such landslides all along their passage through the Qotoyor Berke ravine. Four days earlier, they had discovered skeletal remains among the debris of one such old avalanche. They had found signs all through the route of the party of Oirat Yesugei had dispatched with Inalchuk years earlier: old, abandoned campsites, with charred marks in the graveled riverbank still apparent enough to mark where fires had been built, small tools, needles or food packets fallen and forgotten from Oirat bogcus. Of this party, only Inalchuk had survived to return to the Nuqut and with the discovery of the sun-bleached skulls and battered bones, it seemed they had learned the fates of those who had traveled with him.
At Heese, the broad foundation of the stairs had cracked in places, dark tendrils riving the stone. The bases of the columns, and the tapered edges of the dragon's extremities along its wingtips, crest and snout were all were visibly worn and eroded. Many of the relief panels framing the walls were indecipherable from millennia of wind, rain and snow. Water had seeped into miniscule cracks in the stone, and countless winters had seen it turn to ice, crumbling the granite. Despite this abuse, the entrance remained glorious and the granite glowed as if infused with gold as the last rays of sun fell upon it.
"The baga'han built all of this?" Temu asked.
"A long, long time ago they did, yes, Temu," Yeb said, nodding.
"I do not understand," Temu said, puzzled. "Rhyden said they are little, short like me. Why would they build something so big if they were so small?"
Yeb smiled at him. "Small does not necessarily mean weak, Temu," he said. "Perhaps the baga'han meant only to remind others of this."
Juchin made a harrumphing noise in his throat as he frowned, shifting his weight in his saddle, aggravated by their delay. He had dispatched four Kelet riders behind them shortly after they had found Jobin Dunster along the banks of the Okin. The sentries had rejoined them that morning to report more than two hundred Khahl Minghan warriors rode less than five hours behind them. Despite these superior numbers, the Khahl seemed to be making no great effort to quicken their pace, or close the distance with the Oirat any further.
"They want to follow us all of the way to the lair," Aigiarn had said, her brows drawn angrily. She had spat against the ground. "They might have burned marks into Targutai's breast to fool their people, but they know they cannot fool the Tengri gods--or the dragons. They need Temu to open the lair."
Every moment the Oirat wasted lingering idle and awestruck was another that could be used to elude the encroaching Khahl, and Juchin knew it. He loped his bergelmir ahead of the group, drawing it to a skittering halt at the bottom of the staircase. He swung his leg around the weasel's saddle and dropped to the ground, tromping up the stairs.
"We are not the first to arrive," he said grimly, nodding toward the colonnade. There were small, bundled forms lying among the debris and crumbled stone on the risers. Juchin genuflected beside one and reached down, lifting the crusted, dry-rotted corner of a wool blanket in his hand. He looked at Aigiarn. "More I'uitan children," he said. He glanced around at the stairs and terrace, rising to his feet. "At least twenty of them here, just like Rhyden said the map described."
His feet cross over a sacred threshold, Aigiarn remembered Rhyden reciting to her. "Secret door into Beneath," she whispered aloud, stricken. "Where the bodies of children keep watch and seven stars bear mute witness to His passage."
Juchin looked up at her, his hand planted on the pommel of his scimitar. "The ground here in unstable," he said. "Golomto has stirred in her sleep, and mountains have tumbled." He glanced at Rhyden. "Come with me. You and I will go together. Take me to this gate inside. We will see if it is safe to pass. Mukhali, you as well, and you, Alchi--both of you with me."
Two of the Uru'ut Kelet swung themselves down from their saddles, the heavy soles of their gutal stomping loudly against the ground. Aigiarn hooked her hand against the pommel ridge of her saddle and hopped from her bergelmir as well. "I am going with you."
Juchin raised his brow at her. "My Khanum," he said. "It is not--"
"--open to debate, Juchin," Aigiarn finished for him, marching up the stairs. "I am going with you. Jelmei, light some torches. You are with me. Toghrul, keep with Temu until we get back."
Toghrul and Juchin exchanged quick looks, but neither man offered Aigiarn any further protest. They both knew better.
Rhyden glanced at Jobin as he dismounted his bergelmir. The crewman's eyes were still enormous; he had not recovered yet from his initial shock of seeing the enormous Abhacan threshold. He blinked at Rhyden as though emerging from a dream.
"That ... that is a bloody dragon," he said softly. "A bloody damn dragon carved out of the rot damn mountainside."
Rhyden smiled. "Yes, it is."
"Are they really that big?" Jobin asked.
"I think they are a bit smaller than that," Rhyden said. "That one was probably carved so large to be sure the Oirat would see it when they came."
Jobin shook his head, whistling. "They would have to be bloody blind to miss it."
"Stay in the saddle," Rhyden told him. "You will be safe here."
"Here?" Jobin blinked again, this time at the bergelmir. "All by myself on this thing?"
"It is called a bergelmir," Rhyden said. "She is fairly well like a horse once you get accustomed to her."
"I ... I was never one much for horses," Jobin said. "What do I do if it moves?"
Rhyden smiled at him. "She will not go anywhere," he said, and he patted his palm against the bergelmir's shoulder, drawing a quiet little grumble from the weasel. "Do not worry for that."
The six of them climbed the stairs together, all of them tilting their heads back as the ceiling of the portico drooped its heavy shadow upon them. Up close, the sprawling threshold seemed all the more immense. Rhyden walked slowly toward the opened door, his eyes widening as he studied the runic inscriptions engraved in the stone doorway. He could read the characters, but not through any knowledge on his part. He could read them because the Abhacan mage had been able to and as Rhyden realized what they were, he drew to a stumbling, breathless halt.
"What is it?" Aigiarn asked. She held a burning torch aloft in one hand, keeping the other curled at the ready around her scimitar hilt. When Rhyden stopped, she did likewise, following his gaze with her own.
"These ... hoah, these are second dynasty," Rhyden said softly, stepping toward the wall. He brushed his fingertips against the inscribed runes, his face softening with wonder. "Aigiarn, no one has written these characters in nearly ten thousand years."
"What do they say?" Juchin asked. "Can you read them?"
"I can now," Rhyden murmured, following the line of rune characters with his eyes as they arced around the doorframe. "It says, Blessed and welcome is he whose feet cross this threshold in friendship, for all of the splendors in all of the world have been drawn by these waters, nurtured by these slopes. Yet woe to he who would mark this passage as foe, for the might of the white-currents and the indomitable strength of stone ever lie, too, in the Beneath."
He blinked, astounded by the ease with which the translation came to his mind and tongue. Had he only just weeks earlier struggled for days at a time to decipher even a single line of eighth dynastic rune writings into the common tongue? He doubted there was an Abhacan scholar in the whole of Iarnrod who could have read the inscription before him--in ten seconds, as he had done, or ten thousand years. The primitive characters he was looking at had not been seen or comprehended as language by any living being in nearly ten millennia.
Juchin harrumphed again, hoisting his torch high and brushing past Rhyden as he stepped across the threshold. "Sain bainuu to you, too, dead baga'han," he muttered in greeting, his voice reverberating quietly against the high, arched ceilings of stone in the tunnel beyond.
The two Uru'ut Kelet followed him, though Toghrul's soldier, Jelmei hung back, waiting for Aigiarn. She touched Rhyden's sleeve, offering a slight tug to attract his enchanted gaze.
"Do you know what they would give to see this in Iarnrod?" he asked her. "What they would do to know the things that are in my head now, a part of me? I know things that their ancestors had even forgotten. I can read this, Aigiarn."
She smiled at him. It had been too long since she had seen that spark of child-like wonder in his eyes; since they had lost the map to the white-waters of the Urlug, and since his assault by the gazriin ezen, it had all but faded from him. She had seen the sorrow and shock in his eyes two days earlier, when he had learned of his friend, Aedhir's death, and had nearly lost any hope of ever seeing such eager amazement within him again.
He realized her fond attention and color stoked in his cheeks, just as it would every time she had interrupted his efforts in translating the map, snapping him from his reveries. "Hoah, well," he said, stepping back from the wall. "Another time, maybe."
They crossed the threshold and followed Juchin and the Uru'ut down the vaulted corridor. In Rhyden's mind, through the gazriin ezen's memories, he could see that the floor had once been adorned with a bright mosaic of intricately arranged, multicolored tiles. Thousands of years' worth of dirt, dust and gravel had made its way through the doorway, obliterating any trace of the pattern beneath a thick layer of compacted grime. The walls had once been decorated with painted relief panels that had stretched from floor to ceiling but the fresco paints had long since faded and worn away, leaving behind only the dim outlines of the carvings they had once covered, draped in dancing shadows by the light of their torches.