Vel, Second Rotation, 5099
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Chronicle of Ulak the Drifter

Annotated by Shahrazad Keret

Vel, Second Rotation, 5099

Today was spent in a mostly uneventful fashion. I rested, gazed through my room's window, surfed the network, and read some of the books provided to me by my caretakers.1

At dusk, however, an android servant knocked at my door and informed me that Lord Mortis had invited me to dine with him. As the robot escorted me to the top of the Obsidian Cathedral, I wondered whether the former Emperor intended to accost me over the contents of my Chronicle; though I had not written much about my discomfort and distrust over Lord Mortis' intentions, the Archmage must undoubtedly know of my concerns with his intruding and imposing on me despite him offering to facilitate my journey to Amvat. Would he again attempt to intimidate me, coerce me into doing his bidding?

The answer soon became clear: the Archmage waited not poised like an ominous shadow, but seated at the head of an ornate, elegant table set for two. Compared to how he had portrayed himself at the Sacred Library's Archives and at the Cathedral's morgue, Lord Mortis seemed almost carefree, his form relaxed yet still gallant; I could almost tell he was smiling beneath his silver mask.

"Welcome, Ulak Un'Lij Nar," he said, standing from his seat. "I believe I owe you an apology for these last few days. It has been, to say the least, ungentlemanly of me to intrude in your business and impose my own agenda on you. For this, I am sorry, as am I for the unpleasant experience you have had with the Lords of Xibalbá and their Emissary. I hope you will forgive me, so that we might part, if not as friends, as fellow elders of the Cosmos."

"I— I am not sure what you mean, Archmage," I managed to say, stunned both by the unexpected apology and the sincerity with which it was spoken. Could this be an attempt to lure me further down his maze of agendas, a way to make me lower my guard? How could I be sure? An apology from the the likes of Lord Mortis was, undoubtedly, something few beings ever got. Though part of me wanted to flee, paranoia stiffening my steps, could I deny the once Emperor of the greatest civilization on Midgard a chance to make amends?

"Please, Ulak, I know when I have wronged someone. Come, I implore you," Lord Mortis continued, motioning at the table, its silverware sparkling as Vok slowly descended beyond the horizon. "Let us talk over food and drink. If there is something I have learned over eons, it is that a full belly always clears the mind and softens the heart. Perhaps by the time our meal is over, you will have found it in yourself to forgive my transgression."

There I had my answer, though another question arose in my mind as I sat.

"Will young Žalost be joining us?" I asked, noticing the necromancer's absence. "I was hoping to express my gratitude to him; risking his life, his soul for the sake of this journey is something I could have never asked of him. All I can do now is give him my thanks."

"You might soon have to thank him for more than that," Lord Mortis said slyly. "Anibal is, shall we say, securing your passage offworld. A shame, really, that he will miss dinner."

"How so?" I asked, puzzled. "I had assumed that had already been arranged…"

"Amvat is very far away, farther than any commercial transportation system would take you. Besides, the other members of the Galactic Triumvirate would not take kindly to an Imperial vessel entering the buffer zone without a very good reason. Not even rescue operations are clear without significant paperwork, Drifter, as you probably know thanks to your interaction with the ghost of Miguel Guerra."

Then, how…? the question answered itself before it was even spoken. Outlaws, of course. It could not be more obvious: our entire operation was clandestine, our venturing beyond the frontiers of the Empire known only to those who would not speak of it. Who better to carry passengers past the dangers of wild space than people like the one whose memories I had seen a few days ago?

"I assure you there is nothing to be concerned about," Lord Mortis reassured me. "Anibal knows his way around more… distasteful types. Whoever he picks for the job will be much more efficient than our unfortunate informant. After all, who does not want to be handsomely compensated by the Immortal Empire? And besides, something tells me this would not be the first time you find yourself in the company of pirates."

"Indeed, it would not," I admitted.2 "You have my thanks, Lord Mortis; I trust that you and your pupil know what is best for our journey. However, I cannot help but wonder, how does a man as young as Anibal possess such knowledge of the Empire's underbelly?"

"A truly driven man will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals," the former Emperor shrugged. "Let us not dwell too much on it for now. The night is long; there is much to talk about."

Before I could reply, one of Lord Mortis' android servants began filling our cups with a golden, sparkling liquid that smelled and tasted of honey.

"Elven mead," Lord Mortis said, holding up his cup. "A token of friendship between the Empire and the Fair Peoples, as it is now between you and me. Shall we toast?"

"What to, Archmage?"

"The success of your journey, of course; and to the completion of our quests."

A smile to crawled upon my face, my arm lifting my cup along with my spirits. Against all expectations, I was going to Amvat. To my success, indeed.

We conversed as our food was served, as we moved from one dish to the next, the displeasures of days past buried by a myriad of flavors and aromas. The evening faded into night as we discussed politics, literature and travel. I learned of Lord Mortis' passions and interests, his experiments and projects, his travelling and enjoyment of the Empire he had built. It was only fair, he said to me, that he spent as much time getting to know his people as he had spent integrating them into his domains.

Lord Mortis asked as much as he could during our chat. He wished to know all about me, about my people and culture, about the Chronicle I wrote and the experiences spread across its pages, and I indulged him. By the end of my recollection of my most significant journeys, he asked if I would be willing to allow what volumes I had written through the ages to be translated, and I agreed on the condition he share them with the Empire rather than lock them away in the Archives.

"Of course. Chief Librarian Jhutla will be elated to finally have a copy of your work for the Sacred Library," the Archmage conceded.

The thought crossed my mind that I must give Jhutla an appropiate goodbye; I do not know when, if ever, I will return to the Immortal Empire, and there might not be another opportunity to thank her for all she has done for my travels through Midgard.

Our meal continued, every new dish more savory than the one preceding it. We had a thick, strongly-flavored broth made from an animal called yak; a sumptuous salad prepared with peppers, olives and cheese, served with hummus and pita; an entire tray of exotic mollusks and fish (all served cold); and a wild boar braised to perfection. As we ate, I could not help but notice that these foods, along with the wines and other drinks served during our dinner, were all of Terran origin, some of which I had tasted before: I had warmed my freezing bones with the traditional yeti stew during my cruising of the Himalayas; eaten of the olives grown on Thermodon by the Amazons; gorged myself on the sea creatures endemic to Atlantis; and feasted on the boars and deer struck down by a triumphant Wild Hunt.3

As the androids served us dessert, an ample variety of small tarts and pies, I inquired the Archmage about his choice of foods, to which he responded:

"Reading a few passages of your Chronicle gave me the idea that you might be fond of Terran ingredients."

"I am very fond of Terran cuisine, yes," I admitted. "I was beginning to miss it; the last time I tasted hummus was right before that unfortunate incident back on Sounion."

"I believe you are very fond of Earth," the Archmage retorted, laughing. It was odd, yet strangely pleasing, seeing him this way. "Who can blame you? It is a remarkable planet, filled with remarkable sights."

"And remarkable peoples, Lord Mortis. I do not believe I have ever seen a planet so diverse: humans, elves, fairies, merpeople, dwarfs, dragons, goblins… how one keeps a world filled with so many different cultures and species from tearing itself asunder, I do not know. What I do know is that their resilience is admirable, and they must surely be a great addition to the Empire."

"Indeed they are. Mankind in particular proved something special. My Empire has watched them since before they devised their first flying machines; their struggles, their failings. They seemed so ready to strike at each other, so willing to extinguish themselves in blood and nuclear radiation. I even considered sabotaging their space programs, lest they reached and made war against the people of Barsoom."4

"Is that what makes them special?" I asked. "That they succeeded against all odds?"

"In a way, yes," the former Emperor responded. "Mankind is but one in a long list of civilizations at odds with itself and the world around it. They were so fearful, so vulnerable, that they turned to hatred of all things strange, even amongst themselves. They built institutions, commanded legions to capture or destroy that which they thought abnormal, to hide the truth of their world: that they were not alone in the Universe, let alone their own planet, and that they were most definitely not the strongest or smartest beings on Creation. Had they gone extinct by their own hand, would anyone have been surprised? The true triumph of humanity, Ulak the Drifter, was making peace with itself and with others."

Of course, I thought. I had spent a century walking the Earth, and seen mankind's achievements and triumphs, but I had also learned of the dark past behind them: the wars, the hatred, the devastation of their own planet and its resources, the suppression of magic and wonder. I had to agree with the Archmage; the survival of Homo sapiens sapiens was beyond miraculous.

"And yet, here they are…" I said, echoing what undoubtedly must have crossed the Archmage's mind time and time again. "It must be difficult managing for such a large empire; its peoples are so distinct that one cannot help but think what would happen if they feared and mistrusted each other."

"That is why the Empire exists, Ulak: to promote peace and cooperation, to offer safety and prosperity. It is an Emperor's duty to care for his people and strive for their wellbeing, no matter the cost; that is our mission. I know it better than anyone; leadership is not a privilege, but a burden."

"Did it become too much?" I ventured, for I knew I risked offending my host. "Is it that why you abdicated your throne?"

Lord Mortis stared at me intently, his flaming green eyes fixed upon mine, and laughed.

"Ah, the question many hold but fear asking," he said. "You must understand that I am old; older than the Empire, older than most life. Since the Age of Tribulation5 the Empire grew and thrived under my watch, expanded over eons to cover galaxy after galaxy. I have seen it all, Ulak, the best and the worst civilization can offer. I have waged war and preserved peace, uplifted countless worlds and brought ruin to others; I have done much good, yes, but I have also done unspeakable things… all in the name of my people. But now… now I believe I have done all I could do for them from the throne; the time came for me to find a different way to serve the Empire I once ruled, and I accepted it with all the grace I could fashion."

"Then why not stay at the new Emperor's side?" I asked, remembering what I knew of the current ruler of the Immortal Empire. "Your daughter was still very young when she took the throne. She could have used your guidance, your counsel. Truly, you could have continued serving your Empire by whispering your wisdom in her ear."

"Aelita has ruled for only three-hundred years, yes, but she has done so both astutely and benevolently, like I taught her to," the Archmage shrugged. "She knows that a ruler's time, no matter how long, is finite; that has been my counsel for her. One day, she too will know war and suffering, and when that day comes, she will come to recognize the burden, the sacrifices of an Emperor. One day, Ulak, she too will understand that one cannot be a good Emperor and of good conscience."

A tense pause followed, broken only by the androids clearing our table and pouring us another drink. At that moment, no longer did I think about the intimadation to which the Archmage had subjected me; the man behind the silver mask, the man with who I now dined, had done far worse things than making vague threats. This was still Lord Mortis' Empire, and he would defend it at any and all costs, with or without a crown. However, I could not help wonder… the outcome of the Krolovar Invasion, the horrors committed in the name of peace and order, the moral cost of exterminating the Krolovar had it all proved too much for the Archmage? Perhaps he, like all good leaders, had found it impossible to hold a crown drenched in blood.

"You did what you had to, Archmage," I cautiously said. "You should not blame yourself for making hard choices; sometimes, there is no other way."

"No other way, indeed. That is why I have imposed on you, Ulak, though it pains me to have been so discourteous. The fate of the Empire, the fate of the Universe, might rest on your path, a path that perhaps you do not know you walk, but one towards which you are nevertheless heading as we speak."

"And your apprentice, Archmage? Does he know the path you have put him on, or is he too a victim of fate?"

Lord Mortis seemed pensive as he answered.

"Anibal's path is… difficult to discern. He is ambitious, yes, and driven. Had I not commanded him to, he would have insisted on joining you regardless. I know nothing that can stop him once he has set his mind towards a goal; nothing but himself."

"That tattoo on his back… What is its purpose?"

"Power," the Archmage answered. "It is the greatest mark of his will to overcome, the scars of sacrifice in the pursuit of knowledge… and the might that comes with it. I only hope his ambition does not cloud his judgement; else, this journey could prove to be his undoing."

"What do you mean?" I asked, puzzled. "Are you afraid he will not survive? Lord Mortis, you have only ever spoken praise for your pupil and his skills. Why then—"

"Do not misunderstand me, Ulak," Lord Mortis cut me off. "Anibal's talents are not in question; he is a prodigy, indeed, a magician unmatched in both raw power and mastery of the mystic. That is why he, and he alone, is to carry out my designs on Amvat. But he is also young, reckless… and arrogant. You have already seen what his flaws can entail: you were there two nights ago, after all."

"I— Ghebara said you meant to test Anibal," I said, recalling the death priest's words. "He failed, did he not?"

"You saw how he froze, how his will cracked," Lord Mortis answered. "Understand, Ulak, that this was not a test of skill, but of character. Anibal was never meant to take on the full wrath of the Lords of Xibalbá; not alone, at least. He was meant to recognize how outmatched he was, how foolish it was to risk everyone's souls for a speck of knowledge. Instead, he let his hubris overcome him, and compromised far more than your quest."

The Archmage's tone had turned bitter, like a father disappointed in his child.

"You were never in any danger," he continued, apologetically. "Had anything gone truly wrong, Ghebara would have intervened and stopped the ritual. Still, it is rather fortunate that you stepped up when you did; our quests could have both been extinguished before they even began."

"I only meant to help Anibal."

"The first of many times you will depend on each other," Lord Mortis said. "So it shall be, if you are to survive this ordeal. Cooperate; trust; learn from each other. Who knows? Perhaps, Ulak the Drifter, by the time this journey ends, Anibal will have learned from you what I have failed to teach him."

"What could I possibly teach your apprentice that he does not already know?"

Lord Mortis stood from his seat, his towering figure fusing with the starry sky. I could tell our time was at an end.

"If Anibal is to accomplish his mission, if he is to fulfill his quest, then he must learn that there are things against which not even he can stand alone. You both must. Rest well tonight, friend, for tomorrow your journey begins. Heed my words. Else, Amvat will consume you, body and soul. Good night, Ulak the Drifter. May our paths cross again."

With that, the Archmage stepped into shadow and vanished into the night. Once again I was left alone, alone with my thoughts and my preoccupations.

Tomorrow my path becomes clear; tomorrow my quest begins. But is this journey still my own, or has it become much more?

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