Jermyn entered the library and was shocked to see the slave girl. She sat beside Valdemar, her hands demurely in her lap.
“It’s wonderful,” the magus said. “Ilyra has unlocked the fifth gate!”
“I thought we agreed that she would only be used to clear the way,” Jermyn said, fighting the bile rising in his throat.
“And she has,” Valdemar said gleefully. “Only two gates remain. Two! Soon the secrets of the Forgotten Ones shall be ours!”
“Then I shall prepare at once,” Jermyn said. And with a bow, he left.
The fifth gate! How long had he searched for the key in his dreams? And now to have the achievement stolen from him by this half-breed. He despised her and all of her kind. He hated the shape of her eyes, the color of her hair, the sheen of her skin. But most of all, he hated that she had done something that he could not.
Valdemar had unlocked the first three gates when he was Jermyn’s age. It had nearly broken him. Jermyn had been brought to the Secret Brotherhood when an acolyte of Valdemar had discovered the youth’s ability to travel in dreams. It was a rare gift found in only one of a million souls.
In Valdemar’s days, they had used drugs to enter the dream realms, walking the shining paths between the worlds and using the incantations and formulas to torture the creatures who dwelt there to reveal their secrets. Sometimes they drugged the slaves, like Ilyra, to explore dangerous and untrodden paths. Never had one achieved so great a prize.
It had taken Jermyn nearly a year to unlock the fourth gate, and he had felt certain that the final seal of the fifth was in his grasp. He could recall most of the symbols in his mind and had inscribed them countless times in his notes. Had he been too cautious? Too complacent? He knew that the slightest mistrace of a symbol or inaccurate pronunciation of a profane word could trap him in the dream world forever or weaken him as it had Valdemar. And yet the mongrel girl had stumbled through somehow whole and unscathed.
Some believed that Ilyra’s race had descended from the Forgotten Ones and had once known their secrets before descending into barbarism. When the first men came to the continent, had they not found the first mentions of the Forgotten Ones and their symbols among their ruins? And was it not the Secret Brotherhood that had advanced that knowledge and mapped the realms of the dimensions in their quest for ultimate truth?
That night, in his dreams, Jermyn passed through the fifth gate. Beyond the gate lay the same realm of shapes and shadows that stood and leaned as if governed by some strange geometry. Above hung an inky sky dotted by strange constellations unknown to man. As he traveled the landscape, he spotted a figure in the distance. Ilyra! Never had he actually encountered her in the dream world. He sped across the landscape in his mind, time and distance stretching and folding to his will like cloth.
Just before he was upon her, Jermyn spotted something. In a reflection of stars in a still crimson pool, a symbol danced. He recognized it as once as the missing shape of the key to the sixth gate. Now he would have his triumph. Crossing to the gate, he scribed the symbol and spoke the words of power laid down long ago. Before him, the gate swung open and he entered.
He woke abruptly, bewildered at having been ripped from the dream world into consciousness. He rushed to Valdemar’s chamber and shook him awake.
“At last!” the old scholar cried. “Tomorrow we will know all. Rest now, and do not dream. Save your strength for the final journey.”
Jermyn slept the remainder of the night, and as requested, did not dream. The next day as he poured over the volumes accounting the path to the seventh gate, he hatched a cunning plan. Believing that Ilyra possessed some uncanny skill that always placed her ahead of him, he would use a forbidden incantation to steal the key from her no matter the cost.
The next night he crossed through the sixth gate and passed into an angular plane of amethystine beauty. As he glided across the crystal landscape, he spotted Ilyra beside the seventh gate. Horror seized him as he feared she might have already found the key. He descended on her with all of the might of his will but was stopped by an unseen force.
“You think me a slave, a simpleton, but you are wrong,” Ilyra said. “I am sorceress supreme, daughter of a long line of daughters tasked with a sacred duty.”
“What duty?” Jermyn spat, infuriated by her insolence.
“You are not the first to seek the secrets of the ancients,” she said. “Those whom you call the Forgotten Ones but whose names we know and are themselves shadows of their true names now lost to the fathomless eons.”
“You lie!” Jermyn cried. “I have dedicated my life to the study of the Forgotten Ones. I have sacrificed. Suffered.”
“Yes,” she said. “Countless men have broken their minds to understand what we have always known. In your infant wanderings, you have come perilously close to unleashing the unspeakable. That we cannot allow.”
“It is too late!” Jermyn laughed. “We have all but the last key which I shall now rip from your whorish flesh!” He struggled madly, but still he could not move.
“The keys are nothing,” Ilyra said. “Symbols woven around the true powers that bind the gates. In dreams within dreams unremembered I placed them for you to find. Your arrogance and will would have revealed them in time. In this way, we could watch your progress. Guide your journey. But here it ends.”
“No!” Jermyn cried. “I gave my soul to find the keys. They are mine!”
“Your soul is forfeit,” Ilyra said. “It cannot return.”
“If you wake and I do not, Valdemar will kill you!” Jermyn threatened.
“No,” she said. “I will remain here, binding myself to this final gate as I free my sister and ancestor bound here now. Tonight the merest tendril, a wisp of the Forgotten Ones’ presence shall enter the dreams of Valdemar and those who follow him, slaying them in their sleep. And so shall die the menace of the men of this age.”
Jermyn struggled to free himself but he was helpless against Ilyra’s power.
“Behold now that which you have sought. The face of the Forgotten Ones.” She raised her hands and cried out in words he had never heard before:
Ia! Ia! Zi azag!
Ia! Ia! Zi azkak!
Ia! Ia! Kutulu zi kur!
The image of a woman appeared before Jermyn, not unlike Ilya in form. She regarded him with a pitiless gaze and then rose into the nameless stars above in a pillar of blinding light.
The seventh gate trembled and split. An abyssal wind howled around Jermyn piercing his soul. For an instant, he experienced an ecstasy few men would ever know. The secrets of the Forgotten Ones flooded into his mind severing the fragile bonds of his humanity.
Then he screamed, a scream that echoed through time and space, past and future. He felt his soul and mind tear from his being, fluttering for a fraction of a moment, and then dissolving into atoms in the endless void.