The shaman was a gnarled old man with thin, bony shoulders and deep set, jet black eyes. He wore a robe and sash, one blue, the other red, the color intact still but the robe itself worn and tattered. He was sitting on a low stone bench, his legs folded beneath him.
Lars approached in a slow, deliberate fashion."I am looking for Tal, the shaman," he announced. The shaman neither stirred nor looked up. "I am Lars of Trondheim." Lars crossed both clenched fists over his chest in the traditional greeting. "I seek the shaman's counsel."
The shaman gestured with one hand, inviting Lars to sit. Lars cleared a space on the ground, sat down. He leaned forward, eager to solicit the shaman's help.
"Ignati have infested my village," Lars declared, his expression grim, his voice low pitched and urgent. "Even now, as we speak, they continue their assault. I am advised that, of all the shamans, Tal alone possesses the power to deflect this scourge." Lars had already noted the tiny tattoo on the shaman's left temple, a cluster of three stars surrounding the runic symbol for birth. It proved that his lineage was ancient, that his Order was austere and devout. It gave Lars hope.
"That is unwelcome news, indeed." The shaman shook his head. "Such infestations are rare. The ignati are a species whose time is past. They are a relic, a mirror into another age. How does it happen that your village should suffer such misfortune?"
Lars took a deep breath. He hoped that the judgment of the shaman would not be too harsh. "There is a vein of Orion stone running deep within the mountains of my province. It was protected and hidden as a sacred trust, down through many generations. Only recently a group of men, villagers like myself, broke faith and attempted to mine it. Their arrogance and their folly have plunged us all into the abyss."
The shaman nodded, caressed the tattoo on his temple. "What, then, do you wish of me?" he asked.
"Your assistance," Lars said. "I believe that you can thwart the ignati. That you can confront them and defeat them and drive them back to where they came. It is not too late to save the village."
"I can do no such thing," the shaman said.
"But . . ." Lars closed his eyes. He had hazarded all in coming here, had endured great suffering and deprivation. He could not fail in his mission. He must not fail. "All whom I consulted directed me to the shaman, Tal. They spoke with one voice. There was no other, no shaman, no warrior, no alchemist, who might face the ignati and whose power was equal to their own."
"Ah, that is another matter," the shaman said. The ghost of a smile touched his lips and was gone. "It is possible to challenge the ignati. It is, in rare instances, possible to check them. But there is no genuine triumph. What the ignati have touched will always bear the trace of the ignati. What the ignati have embraced will never, fully, be free of that embrace. It is in their nature that nothing they have come into contact with will ever again be the same."
"That may be so," Lars declared. "I do not profess to understand their ways. But I cannot abandon my family or my village. I cannot stand by and do nothing."
The shaman's eyes sparkled. "Few men would speak so boldly or with such fortitude. Few possess such resolution. I might, perhaps, be persuaded to help. But only if you have brought the tercept, the blood of the vein."
"I have." Lars stirred, felt in the folds of his robe for the leather pouch he carried. His hand closed upon it tightly. Now that the moment had arrived Lars felt a great reluctance to part with the stone. Even to reveal it to another was a great struggle. He opened the leather pouch with hands that shook. The shaman watched in silence. Finally Lars thrust the pouch into the shaman's hands, unable to withdraw the stone himself. Its hold upon him was too great.
The shaman shook the pouch and the Orion stone fell into his open palm. He held it up. A pure, flawless blue, like water under starlight, a thing of such beauty and perfection that Lars chest ached.
"Ha!" The shaman gave a snort of contempt. "A bauble. A child's plaything." He waved a hand over the stone and suddenly it was gone. The blood surged to Lars' face. He started to get to his feet and then, realizing his mistake, sat back down again. The stone reappeared in the shaman's hand.
"With this," the shaman said matter of factly, "you are rich beyond measure. You might live in comfort and luxury, know many women and drink the best of wines. With this also," the shaman turned the stone over so that it caught and held the light, "you might travel to where the ignati dwell. It offers you passage but no protection. And no guarantees." The shaman set the tercept down in the dirt and the color seemed to saturate the earth around it with blue. "You alone can decide."
Lars stared at the tercept, at the incredible, shimmering blue. "I have seen the power of the stone, the hold which it has upon men. All its beauty cannot mask its true nature. I would rather confront the ignati." Lars voice was harsh, rough edged, an act of will suppressing the wild desire that coursed through his veins.
"Very well," the shaman said. "I bear witness to your resolve. I will show you the way. But it is you who must act."
The shaman cupped the tercept with his hands and blew on it gently. A soft wind ruffled Lars hair. It gathered strength, shifted direction, darting back and forth, then slowly began to coalesce into an enormous vortex. The wind spun more and more rapidly, whipping around them in a fury but somehow leaving them untouched. The world outside the vortex began to lose coherence and form, to blend into a uniform tapestry of grey and brown.
The air became laced with motes of iridescent blue. Directly in front of Lars was a burning ember of incredible brilliance and he realized, with a pang of intense regret, that it was the Orion stone. Consumed in a searing, apocalyptic transformation. Then the world began to take form again. But not the world Lars had been born into and known. Not the world of men.
They stood amidst rolling dunes of what appeared to be sand, a thin wind blowing and a hot, stagnant odor of stone dust in the air. There were odd rock formations scattered across the landscape, sculpted by sand and wind, spires and domes, hummocks and hollow bores. The wind seemed to catch fissures within the rock creating a faint, eerie undertow of sound. And everywhere there was the color blue. Shades and tints and tones that Lars had not merely never seen before but had never imagined. As though the entire spectrum of color originated from a palette of blues. Lars could not detect any central source of light, no sun or stars. Rather light seemed a part of the atmosphere, integral and inseparable. It flowed at timed within the currents of the wind, streams and gusts of light.
"Where are we, shaman?" Lars said. He strove to keep his voice level and calm.
The shaman looked at Lars. "This is the dwelling place of the ignati. The realm which they inhabit."
"Yes, but . . . where is it? Where are we?"
"I don't know as I can answer that to your satisfaction." The shaman shook his head. "Remember the ignati are not defined by the same parameters as is man. You must not make the mistake of thinking so."
"Are we within the earth? Under the earth?" Lars had to have some sort of explanation.
"If you must define a location remember — the Orion stone is the origin of the ignati. They do not exist within the structure of the stone, as you would have it. Rather they are of the stone. Of its nature and of its essence. The two are constituent parts of a whole which is greater than them both."
Lars nodded, though without real understanding. The subtleties of the shaman's explanation did not clarify the matter. But the ways of shaman's were deep. Or so Lars had been taught to believe.
"That flow of light there, do you see it?" The shaman pointed to a current of light, within the light. A marked concentration that dipped and swirled but that was constant and defined, distinct from the rest. "Follow that and we will come upon a nest of ignati. The ignati bathe in it, draw strength and nourishment. Where the light pools and concentrates, there will ignati be found." The shaman strode in the direction of the light. Lars, after a moments hesitation, followed.
The light grew more concentrated as they followed its course, moving with gathering speed and intensity. Lars was becoming apprehensive as they drew nearer to the ignati. His quest had seemed a simple one at the outset. Find the ignati. Destroy them. But he did not know how to begin, did not know where their weakness lay. He was relying upon the shaman to guide him.
"Shaman, when we come to the nest, what do we do then? We have no weapons and no plan. We are but two and they are a multitude."
"Ah!" The shaman smiled. "I told you that there were no guarantees. None. The world that we are in does not follow the rules, the strictures, to which you are accustomed. You must set them aside, abandon them. Or remain blind and deaf."
The shaman stopped, bent down and grabbed a fistful of sand. "Watch carefully," he said. He flung the sand into the air. The minute particles seemed to drift in slow motion, shimmering and sparkling. They grew into hundreds of beautiful blue butterflies flitting about amidst the light, inscribing pale, diaphanous trails of color in the air behind them. Gradually they grew larger, changed shape and form, till they had morphed into hideous, gargoyle-like creatures with talons and scales and bony spikes. The furious beating of their wings drove Lars into a crouch, shielding himself with an upraised arm. Then, in an instant, they were caught in the wind, torn into tatters and were gone. Lars stood up, tendrils of thin, blue smoke drifting in the air around him.
"Always remember," the shaman advised him, " the world of the ignati does not correspond to the world of man. There are no elements shared in common, there are no correlations or parallels. Your perception, and that of the ignati, are separate, divergent, incommunicable." The shaman began to walk again, rapidly, pulled along by the surging tide of light. Lars struggled to keep pace with him.
"I do not see how this will help. If everything is an illusion how does that work to our advantage? We need concrete weapons, something with which to strike at the ignati physically."
"What have I been telling you — think!" The shaman's voice had become hoarse. His robes rippled around him, the light seemed somehow to have become infused within his flesh. "In our own world the ignati are hated and reviled. They are a plague. An infestation. They do not belong." The shaman began to shimmer like a mirage as they brested the crest of an immense dune. He swept an outstretched arm before him. "Here, it is different." A burning sphere of light lay at the base of the dune which they had surmounted, streams of light flowing into and washing over it. Within the light were flashes of gold and silver and the flicker of crimson wings. The nest of the ignati.
"This, then, is your enemy. This ancient species, this alien tribe. Wrongs have been committed by both sides, the balance between that which was and that which is was shattered. But consider, perhaps no one is at fault. Rather the breach that separates you lies within the limits of perception, within the compass of our understanding." The shaman had faded almost into nothingness. "I cannot sustain my form within this environment any longer. My power is not such that I can straddle two realms. I am rooted in the one and must abide there. I have done all that it is given me to do. It rests with you now to decide what is the proper course of action."
"Shaman, wait!" Lars reached out to grab the shaman but his hand closed upon a wisp of smoke. The shaman was gone.
Lars stared down at the nest of ignati. He saw a flutter of crimson wings and a graceful, gliding form skim near the surface of the light. Lars breath caught in his throat, it was a thing of such beauty. In his own world the ignati manifested themselves in insectoid form, hideous, swarming masses that brought horror and disease and suffering. But which image was the real one? Which reality was more genuine and true? Could both hold or must one take precedence? And this led, inevitably, to another question: Was his mission to exact revenge - or to seek reconciliation?