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The Fifth Ring
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Karas Duren strode down the halls of his palace, passing servants and guards alike. The servants shrank back into the shadows, and the soldiers who lined the polished granite hallways kept their eyes straight ahead. If the king was in a bad mood, the less attention drawn to oneself, the better.
Duren moved with the energy of a much younger man, his body still hard and slender at the age of sixty. His hair was dark, almost black, and straight, with streaks of gray throughout, held at the back of his neck by a leather thong. He swept through a large rotunda, across a floor of white marble past the dusty portraits of his ancestors, then entered the new wing of his palace, still under construction after three years. A serving girl coming out of his wife's quarters was so surprised by the king's sudden appearance that she dropped the tray she was carrying. She immediately fell to her knees. Duren showed no reaction other than to turn a pair of dark, hooded eyes in her direction as he strode past. Two dour-faced soldiers stationed on either side of the entranceway snapped to attention when they saw him coming, smartly bringing their right arms across their chests in salute.
Duren descended a wide marble staircase to an elaborately tiled courtyard bordered by hedges more than twice the height of a man and so dense it was impossible to see through them. A squad of soldiers, one positioned every fifty feet around the perimeter of the garden, came to attention when they caught sight of him. At the far end of the courtyard, an opening cut into one of the hedges revealed two solid-looking wooden doors. They were recessed and easy to miss, unless one were looking straight at them. Without being asked, an officer with prominent angular features and a trim beard opened one of the doors and held it for the king. Duren stared at him for a second and gave the briefest of nods before walking through.
Beyond the doorway was a narrow corridor and a staircase lit by oil lamps. The stairs eventually led down to a much larger room, reinforced by numerous wooden beams and scaffolding. This was where the excavation had originally begun. At one end, a portion of the wall had been carefully removed to reveal a large octagonal column of clear crystal. The column rose from below the level of the floor and disappeared into the ceiling, eventually surfacing twenty feet aboveground, on the other side of the hedge. Initially, the crystal had been so covered with vines and earth that five men labored nearly a week to remove it all. Duren paused briefly, watching the spectrum of rainbow colors refracted by sunlight passing through it. They seemed to move with a life of their own on the opposite wall.
The stairs had been discovered shortly after construction for the new section of the palace had begun. Normally, the discovery of old ruins would not have elicited much excitement -- such events had happened before. But this time there was something different. The master builder duly reported finding the staircase to the king, along with the fact that it was made of neither stone nor wood, but seemed to be constructed of a metal no one had ever seen before. Duren had immediately recognized the find's significance. Thirty workers then spent three months clearing away all the rubble and debris. For his part, Duren regretted having to kill them all. Good workmen were notoriously hard to find.
They found the first room shortly after the staircase. Empty, containing neither furniture nor any artifacts, the only interesting thing about it was the crystal, which was revealed when part of the west wall collapsed. Karas Duren guessed that nobody had seen the place in more than three millennia.
Duren had found the second room, containing the remains of the old library, by accident. At first, most of the books with their archaic words made little sense to him, but little by little he began to decipher and understand them. They were written in the language of the Ancients. Translating the texts was painstaking and laborious. Though much of the information and references were oblique, he learned, to his amazement, that men once flew in machines and could move from place to place by virtue of their thoughts alone -- facts so staggering that they left him breathless.
Only a god can do such things, he thought.
The books told of the ancient war and the destruction that followed; of weapons that laid waste to whole areas of the planet. The weapons in particular fascinated him, and he was saddened to think such marvelous technology might be lost forever. But still .. one never knew. A lot of books, for instance, had survived. But late one evening while wandering through a largely undamaged section of the main library, Duren came upon a startling example of the technology he'd been reading about when he entered a side room he'd not yet explored. As he did, the entire room was bathed in a brilliant white light. It was unlike any light he had ever seen before or that an oil lamp could produce.
Duren instantly dropped to a crouch and drew his knife. Not moving a muscle, he waited, watching the shadows in the corners for any sign of an attack. The dazzling lights went off and the minutes ticked by and nothing happened. Alone in the dark, he called out, challenging whoever was in the room with him to show themselves, but no one answered. He listened carefully and could detect no sound other than the passage of air through the strange grill-like vents high in the corners of the room. Eventually he relaxed and stood up. When he did, the white lights came on once more. Not startled this time, Duren identified the source as coming from a series of long glass tubes in the ceiling high above him.