It began in ice.
Lieberman’s footfalls were whispery quiet as he descended the rickety wooden staircase. It was unnerving how the planks, embedded deep in the icy walls, didn’t make a single creak or a groan. He shivered, and drew the feeble torch loser to his body to absorb the fire’s warmth. The walls wept icy tears as he passed.
Downward. Ever downward. Through solid ice. The steps described a descending spiral, a widening gyre a hundred yards across at its broadest and three miles deep. And still sinking.
This deep down, the ice formed strata, telling the history of the world to anyone with a mind to see it. Here, the ice was black and rippling, like frozen obsidian; this bespoke an eon of ash and shadows. A full turn of the staircase below that, the ice was milky and white, as if it had been half-thawed even as it froze. And below that: translucent and clear as glass, so that one could glimpse, in the far off distances, things frozen within the ice. There, at the very edge of vision… had that immense and vaguely formed shape once been a living creature? Was that a single, lidless eye he saw? Lieberman shuddered.
Truly, Alaska was a G-d-forsaken land.
As he descended, the familiar sounds of busy machinery rose to greet them. The drills had been brought in along another, wider tunnel, but the heat they gave off made the ice too slick and treacherous to walk down, and so the staircase had been constructed, by hand, at an enormous expenditure of human effort.
The staircase ended, and he emerged into hell. Red light spilled over his face. The vast, icy cavern was a hundred yards across and half again as tall. The broad, neat hole in the center was unimaginably deep. Terrified men in leather aprons toiled over enormous, belching machinery. Thawed slush ran down the walls and melted, pouring endless rivulets into deep channels incised in the floor. Immediately, all the gooseflesh on Lieberman’s body turned to sweat, and he threw off his thick, woolen cloak.
Only one man in the cavern wasn’t perspiring.
The Mac Cain slumped in a rosewood throne, one sandaled foot resting on the edge of an ice dais. His hauberk of dented bronzed discs gleamed dully in the scarlet light. His ancient helm, with a crest in the shape of a kneeling dragon, was so crusted with verdigris that it was impossible to tell what metal it was. His spear was nine feet of fire-hardened ash. His hoplon lay at the thrones base, four feet wide and several inches thick; far too large to be lifted by a normal man. Beneath a brow like a thunderhead, his eyes glittered like chips of mica. Which they were. The Mac Cain’s thick limbs and veined skin gave the truth to his heritage; he was descended from the last of the Kobolt-kin, the strange, stony folk that burrowed beneath the Rocky Mountains and ate raw gemstones.
When he saw his old friend, saw the determination on his craggy face, Lieberman knew he had only one last chance to end this madness before it got out of hand. He drew close to the throne. “Is this truly wise?” With a gesture, he took in the whole of the cavern; the melting walls, the boiling machinery, and the spinning shaft of the still-descending drill.
The Mac Cain sighed. “No, old friend. But it may yet be necessary.”
“Surely not.” He licked his lips. “The prophecies warn—“
“The Prophecies be damned!” Mac Cain said, but it was a weary exclamation. Everything he did, every motion, every breath, spoke of bone-deep exhaustion. “I am done with your endless quoting from the prophecies. The prophecies say that I will take the Oval Throne, don’t they? Or so you told me, all those years ago, when we were both young and the task before us seemed oh-so-easy. Well, decades have passed, and I’ve grown tired of waiting.”
Lieberman spoke hesitantly. “The prophecies say that in the Time of Portents, in last years of the Ican calendar, the House of Red must hold sway over all fifty states, or doom will fall upon us all. You know this. It is why I came to you, leaving my rightful place in the House of Blue. But they never mention you by name, only by allegory. Perhaps another…”
“What other?” Mac Cain asked, with black joviality. “Who else has the sense and the strength to unite the feudal states? Who else can raise an army fit to match steel with your old friends and this new upstart? Huckabee? A senseless god-botherer who cares more for his pet Wulfgerat than for his people. Giulliani? Perhaps, if he would ever leave off this constant brooding over his fallen towers. Romney? Dangerously insane. Thompson? Is that old Dragon even still alive? No,” he said, with finality. “If it must be done, then I must do it. There is no other.”
“And yet…” Lieberman whispered. “This drilling… Man was not meant to dig so deep—“
There was a shriek as every machine in the cavern began to vent steam. The temperature of the room exploded; workers feinted, or were scaled by steam blasts, or had to be dragged clear of the machines before they were cooked alive. A deep crack ran along the dome of the ceiling. Only then did Lieberman realize that the relentless grinding sound – which he had come to take for granted – had been replaced by the mournful hum of steel under great stress.
“We’ve struck!” Mac Cain shouted. “Stop the drill!”
But some quick-thinking engineer had already done it. The great drill gave one final groan, sighed, and then began to rotate in the other direction. It rose, the joints of its smooth, shining length telescoping into one another. Each section was numbered according to depth, and, as Lieberman watched with bated breath, the numbers began to count backwards.
One hundred feet. Seventy five feet. Fifty feet. Forty. Thirty. Twenty.
There was light coming from the hole; a low, dark, pulsing radiance that mingled with the red emergency lights of stressed machinery to form a searing indigo.
“It comes,” the Mac Cain said flatly. He could have been talking about the weather.
The head of the drill emerged: it was absurdly small, given its mighty task. Diamonds glittered along its serrated edges, which had been formed from black, fathomless alloys of tungsten and Urü and depleted uranium. And a hand was gripping the end of it. A slender, feminine hand.
She rose, smiling. Her teeth were polished calcite. Her lips and fingernails were the color of rose petals and fresh blood. Her eyes were smoldering gypsum, and smoking anathema. She released the drill and dropped to the ground, and the ice steamed, melted, and fled before her burning touch. Every eye in the room was upon her, from the lowest axel-greaser to the glittering orbs of the Mac Cain himself. Some of the more superstitious machine-smiths fell to their knees and began chanting, praying to a multitude of gods.
“Adonai Eloheinu.” Liberman murmured. Much as he wanted to, he could not draw away. He felt her fully occupying his mind's eye, and the presence tore at his sanity. She was there, fully there, in a way that nothing else in the room could match. She was shining and bronzed and magnificent and terrible.
Mac Cain rose, and the effort of lifting his granite bulk seemed to tire him immensely. “My dear.” He crossed the floor to meet her. She smiled enigmatically, but said nothing. “Palin.” He took her hand, and the light in the cavern flickered and died.
Three miles above them, the arctic wolves began to howl.