Yud, First Rotation, 5099
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Chronicle of Ulak the Drifter

Annotated by Shahrazad Keret

Yud, First Rotation, 5099

When I first came to the Sacred Library of Idhai, many centuries ago, I heard of a place within its walls that all but the highest scholars of the Empire were barred from entering, a place that held all the dark, uncomfortable secrets the Immortal Empire kept from its own citizens. These were the Archives, a place where the Temple of Knowledge had seen fit to entomb all knowledge deemed too dangerous or blasphemous for the common folk.

Of course, this made said place quite tempting for an explorer like me. Curious, I walked the Library’s halls and corridors, intent on finding the entrance to this vault of forbidden knowledge, a mission in which I promptly succeeded, for the Archives are not hard to find. Rather, the challenge resides on entering the place. Access to the Archives is impeded by a door as tall as the ceiling itself, its silver surface adorned by hundreds of protection sigils carved into the most intricate patterns I have ever seen. I would later learn this to be the Great Door of Luran,1 a work born of the most advanced alchemy ever known to the Empire. A squad of Museai2 Archivists, their magic wands and staffs ready at their side, mount guard before this titanic door, their watchful eyes following anyone who dared approach.

I asked the chief librarian if there was any way that I could be allowed to cross this great umbral into the unknown, but she simply laughed and politely denied me access.

“The Archives are the most dangerous part of the Sacred Library,” said the chief librarian. “Within its halls lie tomes and volumes with secrets that could shatter Midgard at its foundation. One must never forget that, despite our dedication to the spreading of knowledge, some things are better left unmolested. This has been the doctrine of the Temple of Knowledge ever since its founding: we must not allow our hubris to be our fall.3 The Sacred Library, as the right hand of the Temple and the Empire, must abide by those teachings. Thus, only those who are prepared to know may have access to the secrets of the Archives.”

Many more times would I walk past the Great Door of Luran and wonder at the secrets contained beyond its silver surface. I read whatever books I could find on the subject and learned much over the course of time. My research showed me that the Archives are protected by an unbelievable number of charms, hexes and curses that could turn any intruders to ash in mere seconds. On top of this, an advanced security grid lines every single step of the way, its thousand cameras and sensors poised to alert the Library's android guards of any undesired guests. The Sacred Library, I had discovered, held a complex deathtrap within its walls. There was little hope I would ever see its secrets.

For these reasons, I was elated to learn that, after centuries of Drifting through Midgard, I would at last be allowed to enter the Archives. At last, mine was the privilege of seeing one of the most secure and secretive places in the entire Universe.

I arrived early in the morning, when the sun had barely grazed the horizon with its light. Jhutla waited for me in the Library's vestibule. The moment I saw her, I knew something to be amiss. Her expression was harsh, sharp, far sterner than usual.

"Welcome back, damik Ulak," said the chief librarian. "Please follow me. We have not much time before the Library is flooded with patrons. The Archives wait for us."

My concern with the chief librarian's somber disposition quickly subsided as we made our way to the Archives' entrance. Now, I would love to detail everything about how we walked to the Archives or give even the slightest hint of how the chief librarian and the Archivists opened the Great Door of Luran, but Jhutla imposed a geas over me that prevents me from revealing such information. Perhaps it is for the best. What I can say, nonetheless, is that the legends are true: the Archives are protected unlike any other place of knowledge I have ever seen, truly a vault of forbidden knowledge.

I tried thanking the chief librarian for trusting me enough to grant me access to the Archives, but she stopped me before I had said a single word. Her tone was still harsh, but I could tell she was not angry, merely concerned.

"Do not thank me yet, Ulak the Drifter,” she said dryly. “Not until you have met him. Once you two have spoken, once you are aware of the price you must pay… then you may choose between looking elsewhere for your answers or accepting his fee."

Beyond the Great Door of Luran was an immense flight of stairs that descended far into the darkness of the planet's underground. Though I am no stranger to this kind of environment, having visited many ancient temples and places of arcane knowledge, a vague feeling of unease began lingering in my mind. The walls that lined the stairs had started off as polished stone but became harsher and more rustic as I descended further into the earth, as if the Archives were the lair of an elder creature, rather than a vault.

“Go down until you have reached the bottom,” said the chief librarian. “I will wait here for your return. May the gods guide your judgement, Ulak the Drifter.”

I solemnly bowed my head to her and turned towards the stairway. The Great Door of Luran closed behind me heavily, and I was left alone, with only the ceiling’s soft illumination to guide my steps.

I proceeded in silence, almost fearful that emitting the slightest noise could invoke the curses that I knew to be engraved on those cold stone walls. As I descended deeper into the earth, I perceived faint lights and flashes in the corner of my eye, vanishing too quickly for me clearly picture them. A clear reminder that I was being watched, I thought.

My steps continued for a long time, or at least that is how I perceived it,4 until at last I reached the bottom of the stairway. The sight was breathtaking.

I was at the entrance of an immense chamber, its ceiling so tall that a sky giant5 could have stood upright in it. Rows upon rows of books and scrolls dominated shelves as large as houses, giving shape to a citadel of forbidden knowledge. Like with the stairway, the ceiling was the chamber’s light source, providing enough illumination for reading. As I stepped into the Archives, I could almost feel the texts whispering, calling upon the curious to behold their secrets. The Archives were an ancient, treacherous beast, and I had just stepped into its belly.

Nearly gasping at these sights, I treaded between the ominous shelves, black as the cold depths of space, until I reached a small square space amidst the maze of books. Naked save for a few chairs and sofas, the square was surrounded by four lumbering golems who, despite being seemingly absent-minded, would undoubtedly crush any transgressors beneath their clay fists.

Seated on these chairs were two figures, draped head to toe in the darkest shade of black. They turned their heads towards me, giving me a clear look at their features.

The first figure was as tall as I was, its form wrapped in a long black cloak and hood. Their face was covered by an exquisite silver mask whose craftsmanship I immediately recognized to be Nicholas Flamel’s.6 A pair of fiery emerald eyes watched from behind this visage, burning with power. I realized that I stood before Lord Mortis, Imperial Archmage and the Empire’s former ruler. I was about to bow as is appropriate when facing someone of his stature, but the former Emperor stopped me.

“Welcome, Ulak Un’Lij Nar. No, no. No need for such formalities, Drifter,” he said, surprising me, for few know my name in my native language. He sat on the chair as if it were a throne, tall and proud, his form throwing a long shadow on the floor. “Though it is customary for my friend’s people to shake hands when making a new… acquaintance.”

I looked towards the other figure, who remained still next to Lord Mortis, reading from a large, black grimoire inscribed with silver glyphs and symbols. My eyes fixed on his face, and I cautiously observed his features.

The figure was a young human male, his frame short and thin, a stark contrast against Lord Mortis’ immense stature. His skin was pale and yellowish, like bone bleached by the sun, his head crowned by short, wavy black hair. His face was one of sunken cheeks, his sharp jawline ending on a well-formed chin. His lips were curved in an uneven angle, half-grinning, half-scowling. However, none of these features struck me as much as his eyes. Dark, bottomless orbs observed me from the depths of their cavernous cavities, flanked by sharp, prominent cheekbones.

As he stood up to greet me, he stared at me intently, and I felt a cold that was not in my body, but in my aura, in my very soul. That man, draped head to toe in black, was a servant of Death.

“I present to you Anibal Žalost, one of the most brilliant necromancers that the Imperial Academy of Higher Arcana has ever produced," said Lord Mortis. "Young Žalost, this is Ulak the Drifter, who, as you know, is a scholar with the flares of an adventurer.”

The necromancer bowed his head slightly, without taking his eyes off me. His expression betrayed a certain curiosity, as if he were looking at a new specimen or a rare book.

I heeded Lord Mortis’ words. In typical human fashion, I extended my upper right hand to greet him. The young man, without letting go of his grimoire, stood up gracefully and returned the gesture. His hand felt bony and delicate, but its grip was strong, rigid.

“A pleasure, Ulak the Drifter,” said Žalost. He strongly marked his words yet uttered them as little more than a murmur.

“I am afraid I had young Žalost eavesdrop on your conversation with the chief librarian, a masterful use of his powers of Shadow-Step,”7 said Lord Mortis. “Do forgive us for intruding in such an unpolite manner, but I believe the offer we have for you will more than compensate for our rudeness.”

“Proposition?” I finally asked, still dazed by the fact that I had just met Archmage Mortis. “Jhutla did mention she had… enlisted someone’s help, but I did not think it would be yours, Archmage. By the way she said it, I almost thought it would be the help of someone… unsavory.”

Lord Mortis and Anibal glanced at each other. For a moment, I feared I had offended them, but, to my surprise, they roared with an unnerving laughter which echoed through the Archives’ halls.

“Hades bless that woman!” quipped Lord Mortis. He turned to me and shrugged. “Oh, she is quite displeased with our being here. I fear chief librarian Jhutla has never been fond of necromancers and warlocks8… or of any dark magician, for that matter. Even I do not seem to inspire her any trust, and I used to rule this Empire!”

The Archmage paced towards the golems, his hands gently caressing the bookshelves they guarded. He almost looked nostalgic, a tiny speck of warmth in his voice as he spoke.

“If she only remembered every now and then that it was I who ordered the construction of these Archives and the sealing of this knowledge within. I think she agrees with me that some things are just not suitable for public consumption. Speaking of which, Anibal, would you be so kind to put the Necronomicon back on its shelf? I would be surprised if you had not already memorized every incantation and ritual in that unholy book.”

The young human nodded, then placed the grimoire he had been reading in a shelf next to him. I doubt that book is the most dangerous piece of information kept in that dark citadel.

“But I did not bring you here to listen to my remembrances, or to peruse the words of mad Arabs,” continued the Archmage. “No. You are here because you have something I want, and I have something you need: the information and the resources to make your voyage to Amvat possible. I am willing to finance this… expedition of yours, in exchange for that which you possess."

“Archmage,” I said, “I am but a humble Drifter, a man of few material goods. I will gladly take any help you can provide me with, but I fear I have nothing to offer but my experiences as an adventurer and my skills as a Chronicler. What could I possibly possess that you desire?”

“Precisely that, Ulak the Drifter,” said Lord Mortis. “You are an explorer, a traveler from beyond our little dimension. You are experienced in the face of danger, and you have traversed the most hostile of environments through your travels. Please do not try to deceive me. I have had eyes on you ever since you first stepped into the Immortal Empire, and they have reached the same conclusion that I have: you are not from this realm. In fact, you are not from any realm my Empire knows of.9 But I know where you are from. I know what you are. And that, dear friend, makes you quite valuable to us."

I felt a vague sense of unease as Lord Mortis said these words, as if he meant to tell me that every single event that had placed me before him had been carefully planned and executed. Truly, despite no longer being Emperor, the Archmage still held great sway and power over the Immortal Empire.

"Drifter," said the Archmage, "allow me to explain. I am in need of an expert in surviving hostile environments, someone capable of efficiently communicating with… primitive societies. I need you to lead the way for a small… expedition of sorts. In exchange, I will give you the means of reaching the world you seek… and the information you require to survive on it."

“Lord Mortis,” I said, “while I am grateful for your kind offer, I fear I may be of no help to you. I am a Drifter, a Wanderer. I go wherever the wind takes me, wherever fate sees fit. I do not follow orders; I do not make plans; I do not chart maps: I merely Drift.”

“And yet you have gone through so much effort to see every point of interest in Midgard,” responded Lord Mortis. “I understand your concern, Drifter, but I assure you, you will be free to Wander as you please. Like I said, I only need you to act as a guide of sorts, to lead the way and use your skills as a natural polyglot. Anibal will be the one digging around, and I guarantee you that he will not interfere with your Wandering.”

“Anibal?” I asked. “Are you requesting that he accompany me on my voyage?”

“Of course! He is to be my eyes and ears out there; you are merely to guide him, to lend him your expertise traversing such hostile environments and cultures, if there are any to be seen. I know you are used to travelling alone, but I assure you he will not be a burden. Quite the contrary: he may save your life if danger arises, which it probably will.”

Žalost bowed courteously. I could tell praise from Lord Mortis meant much to him. Doubt grew in my mind while I observed him. He was so young and small, even for his species, and had every look upon him that he had never faced dangers so great as the ones that awaited us on Amvat. Could there be more to this young man, more than just the sheltered scholar that stood before me?

Lord Mortis seemed to notice my reservation regarding his protégé. He glanced at the necromancer, but Žalost remained silent, as if he had heard nothing of our discussion.

“Worry not, Drifter,” said the Archmage. “I have trained Anibal myself; I can testify to his skills and aptitudes. And besides, you need someone like him to acquire the information you seek. Have you wondered why you cannot find any reliable testimonies of what Amvat hides? Well, that is because all who have obtained a view of it are dead. And who better to communicate with the departed that one who has spent his entire life studying the teachings of the Gods Below? Now, let us proceed to your… briefing. Anibal, if you please…”

Anibal Žalost snapped his fingers and a book materialized out of thin air next to him, its leather cover as red as fresh blood. It was old and dusty, with mold scattered through its pages. It levitated towards Lord Mortis, who grabbed it and opened it before me.

“The yeti10 and naga from Shangri-La speak of a book that holds the history of a tragedy, a calamity of multiversal proportions, a disaster so great that it extinguishes entire civilizations like a flood puts out a candle,” said the Archmage, flipping the pages with great care. “This calamity is heralded, they say, by a dream that plagues the minds of the great thinkers and makers of the Tree of Life, a nightmare that spreads like a sickness through the Dreamlands.”

I could notice a tinge of dread in the Archmage’s voice. I wondered what this thing could be that so scared a being as old and powerful as Lord Mortis, and whether or not I should be scared as well.

“Ever since I began dreaming, since I received that vision, I have searched for the book that holds the answers to this mystery. I spent ages perusing the Wanderers’ Library, with little success. For years I searched through my domains, from Fata Morgana to the jungles of the Yeren, Atlantis and Themiscyra, Eurtec and Three Portlands, Mars and New Hy-Brasil. I even reached beyond the frontiers of my Empire, sending envoys to the Emerald Hegemony and the Solar Dominion in hopes they could provide what I so desperately sought after. I sacrificed much time and men on this search, but at long last I was successful.”

The Archmage stopped at a page adorned with an illustration so vivid it might as well have been a photograph. He placed it on my hands and pointed at the image with his gloved hand.

“Behold the Book of Idolaters,” said Lord Mortis. “Here are related the tales of the destruction that came to the great city of Tevak and the death that spawned from that destruction.”

I looked at the image displayed before me, eyes curious after what I had just heard. It was true: the illustration was of a great city that spread to the ends of the horizon, its towers and temples glistening under the unmerciful sun that scourged the surrounding desert.

The accompanying text was in a language I had seen only once before, on an ancient vase being sold at Utterly Bazaar. Now I knew where this strange language came from.11 The text called the illustration “Tevak, the Gleaming City,” and announced the following:

Here was Tevak, city of cities, gem of the Uhmar. May her oblivion be a warning.

I inspected the image, confused. This was the first time I had heard of a place such as Tevak, though I have visited many desert settlements through my journeys. What any of these things meant for my quest or how they were linked to Amvat was beyond me, as were Lord Mortis’ plans.

“You must be dazed by now,” said Lord Mortis as if he knew my thoughts. “Patience, I implore you. You see, Ulak the Drifter, this is the first recorded occurrence of the calamity I dreamt of, the first in a long series of great civilizations throughout the Multiverse being wiped out overnight. I have reason to believe that the key to stopping this great catastrophe from starting anew lies here, in the ruins of Tevak.”

“And you believe these ruins to be on Amvat?” I asked. Slowly, I was beginning to understand Lord Mortis’ true intent.

“Indeed,” said the Archmage, pointing at the book. “You see, I have scoured every single Imperial planet with a desert resembling the one in my dreams, trying in vain to find these ruins. However, it did not occur to me that perhaps this world, this desert, lies outside of the Empire’s domain, perhaps somewhere unexplored, somewhere where my power cannot reach. There are places beyond even the best clairvoyant’s third sight, friend.”

"Lord Mortis, what certainty do you have about this… this city having been on Amvat?" I interjected. "What guarantee do you have that your quest will be successful?"

"The same as you, friend," shrugged Lord Mortis. "What certainty do you have that Amvat is anything more than just a barren rock, devoid of all life and civilization? None. What guarantee do you have that you will actually find something worthy of your Chronicle? None. And without the information I can provide you with, you will be going in blind, ignorant of the dangers that lurk on that world. I ask you this, Ulak the Drifter: What guarantee do you have that you will make it out alive without my help?"

I gasped at what sounded like a threat, as if Lord Mortis was giving me his word that he would do everything in his power to see me fail. However, I quickly realized that he would need not do such thing: I am well beyond my prime, a fact that almost made me give up on my intent of visiting Amvat. I at least needed to understand what dangers I might face, to know that the quest would be worth the risk. Without the information Lord Mortis promised, what hope was there that I would survive my journey into the unknown? All I needed to do in order to see my hopes truncated was to deny the Archmage.

"I do not mean to offend you, Drifter," said the Archmage. "It just so happens that our interests have… coincided. You wish to explore the mysteries of a world unknown to the Universe, and I wish to prevent much death and suffering. Surely you cannot remain a bystander while catastrophe hangs over the heads of the innocent. Do this for me, Ulak, and I will procure you the information and resources you need for your voyage. Do this for me, and I will ensure your safe departure from that hostile world."

Before I could answer, the Archmage stood up and walked towards one of the Archives’ darkened corridors, Žalost following close behind. They turned their heads to me, their eyes fixed on mine.

“This is our offer to you, Ulak the Drifter. A small sacrifice to make, but one I am sure you will think much about. I know relinquishing your travelling alone sounds like a harrowing ordeal, but would you not do anything for the sake of discovery? Should you accept our proposal, we will wait for you tomorrow at the Obsidian Cathedral at first light. Be there on time. The dead may yet grow quite impatient, I am afraid.”

And with that, they left me alone with the low rumbling of the golems. Silence reigned, but my mind was anything but quiet. I would surely think much on the subject, but the answer to Lord Mortis’ offer seemed quite obvious even then: if I wanted to visit Amvat, I would have to help him on his quest for the answers he so desperately sought.

Tomorrow I shall present myself before the Obsidian Cathedral. Tomorrow I step into the empire of Death.

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