The Arch Mage nodded. “To suggest the Vault is sentient changes matters. All these decades being blissfully unaware, discussing openly in secret when a new entity is potentially listening to all.”
“There is no calamity greater than lavish desires There is no greater guilt than discontentment And there is no greater disaster than greed.”Lao-Tzu
“Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.”Arthur M. Schlesinger
This is another short story for this months
Dragon Stone: The Emerald
The lake rested inside a vast crater carved in the roots of a mountain after some long-forgotten ice age sent a glacier advancing over the edge of the cliff tops grinding rock into dust at the foot of an ancient waterfall. The frost giants were long gone, and water fell freely in foaming cascades edged with green lichen and moss into the pool below. A thunderous tumult sent ripples far out into the distance. The wizard stood at the edge of a tree line that once furnished the hills in green but now stood in remembrance, skeletal and dead. Petrified and planted in ash with branches bending gnarled fingers to snag unwary travellers.
The water looked cold and foreboding—home to unseen leviathans or worse. The latter seemed more likely. Something was unsettling about the blue-black hue and silence that drifted over the landscape; both land and water were sealed in time after an age of war, leaving death and ghosts to haunt the desolation. Where water met land, nothing lived. The mud was black and treacherous; even the clouds above swirled in anger, forming faces twisted in anguish and glaring ever downwards. He knew unspeakable things lived here. The Dökkálfar had said as much; travel swiftly, avoiding the deeps; for those of the underworld now dwell in the graves of the past.
He would not cross the lake.
The mountain was impassable, and the journey to the left would take many days.
Seek the path beyond the veil.
Seers and oracles, he rested on his staff, exhaling deeply. Why not just say there is an old way beyond the waterfall? Or was that too obvious? Time will tell. He could reach the edge and make camp before nightfall.
The way was bleak, and the old path was barely visible between stands of old wood. In times past, it was clear and edged in green ferns with branches looping overhead rich in greens and pink blossom in spring. He remembered this from the vision gifted by the Oracle way back at the Dragon Stones. Through the child’s eyes, he had come to greet the foot of the mountain where the water ended its fall from above. There the gift had ceased, and it was down to him to choose what followed next. The reality was not offered in the dream, though. The landscape was much different to that.
Here it was, a ghost of the past, with angry skies looking on in dismay and the Gods that watched overall. It was said they hurled lightning and thunderous rainstorms for half a year after the last dragon fell to wash away the shame of the alliance of Dökkálfar and Men of the North. Forever after would, the lands remain in decay, with the forest marking the edge of life until penitence was paid when life would be restored to the wastelands.
His staff kicked up dust and ash wherever it fell on approaching the falls. Dusk was upon the shadow of the mountain, and beyond, the sun began to ebb, leaving the clouds to brood at the onset of night. There were no stars to see here, no howl of the living beast or rustle of leaf in the wind. No trout topping for an afternoon hatch or hawk hovering looking for voles or mice. The wind blew through, intense, cold, and unforgiving. With it came sounds that belonged in the forest wall where revenants held sway that did not countenance the living to pass. In the distance, something crashed into the water. Behind, he felt things watching and awakening as day became night.
The dead and foul creatures of the underworld rise as the sun sleeps. He remembered the words spoken by Xalordryn as his eyes locked onto the dragon stone. Pray your wards are strong and fire breathes at the threshold of your refuge.
As the light began to fade, it seemed the trees leaned ever closer, dipping their dead branches and attempting to ensnare those that passed below. The wizard’s breath began to fog as the cold crept from the lake and bled into his bones. Moving swiftly, he reached the foot of the rock face and turned toward the base of the watery cascade. Hewn into the stone was a weathered set of steps almost invisible unless eyes were looking. Lichen encrusted and spattered with moisture and spray from the descending torrent. Easy to miss and easier to slip and tumble downwards to be sucked into the deeps at the base of the cliff.
For a moment, he paused, wondering how many unfortunates lay hidden in the depths, how much steel and bone rested in the mud watched over by whatever vile beasts now swam beneath the foam. Above, a rock dislodged, and he heard it tumbling downwards, vying against the tumult of water. Close but not destined to end his days this time. A timely reminder that reflecting on the past was not a luxury he could afford right now. Descending the stairs, the gloom thickened as they wound back and beyond the water curtain into a hollow chamber that looked back at him like some dark empty eye socket.
He paused before entering, waiting to see if his eyes could adjust. They didn’t, and more vacating energy was spent in a conjurer’s flame. One on his staff and one cast upwards to illuminate what it could of the chamber. The reveal was as expected. A reflection of the curse laid to the land outside, except it was dank and foul smelling here. He suspected underworld creatures like orcs might use it as a waystation.
Except the Dökkálfar claimed guardianship of the under earth here. Not that they seemed eager to describe what lay beyond the falls.
He made camp. The trail had eaten his reserves, and he needed respite. Food was low, as was his water skin. If this chasm continued without light, he would join the bones of those he expected to find on his journey. A fire would be welcome but might attract other things as he slept. It was too risky, so he extinguished the conjured light and slept in the darkness.
His dreams were disturbing. An emerald dragon ridden by the girl. She called to him. It was she he was seeking. The oracle whose stone he carried. Lore said these things were impossible. Each rider needed a stone, and she had none. Yet she rode as an Elder of old, but without the Emerald, what did that make her? Oracle whispered on the winds in his mind.
He started, awakened by movement. He remembered something he’d forgotten, no wards and fire at the threshold of steps. Despite the warning, he may well have just dug his own grave. If so, he must cast the stone into the falls before death takes him.
Glancing toward the steps descending from the water cascade were two glowing lights. His first thoughts were the forest wights, somehow navigating the wastelands while he was in the under dark with the Dökkálfar. The fire was the advice not taken, unwise in retrospect. He was cut off from the pool. The stone was to be cast before death. If just one, he could use a conjurors fire. If one were many, then even that would fail. He could remain in the darkness where there was a chance he might go undiscovered. If not, indecision would mean the end regardless.
The lights drew nearer. He could hear something tasting the air and low-level vibration. Instinct said it was solitary, perhaps a scout. It left two options, remain in the darkness hoping it would pass by or act. Neither looked promising.
It was then he realised the dragon’s eye was vibrating. Beneath his cloak, a faint green light took the edge off the cavern’s shadows. The creature stopped and snarled before turning to track the change in light. Reflex saw his hand cover the stone. It was warm. Never had the seers told him this one was active.
“Dead, the stone died when its wyvern collapsed bleeding from a thousand arrows steeped in poison.”
He’d read their statement before leaving with Devlin, five of the Elite and a cortège of Kings Ward. All had perished in the Barrow Woods. But the stone. His hand now resonated with its pulse. He drew it out, bewitched by its power.
The wight was moving again, an ethereal blade drawn, but uncertainty made it falter. The wizard had exposed the green eye and held it up, staring into it. The other side was looking at it. Hissing, it edged forward. The eye held its gaze. In it came visions of fire breathers—mighty wyverns cruising on the winds turning land into deserts. The blade edge dulled from its blue luminescence; with it, the wight was consumed in green fire.
The wizard fell back against a rock. The dragon’s eye was still in his hand. As he looked, it fell silent, and the glow faded, turning the chamber back into emptiness. His heart trembled as he realised his vision of the Emerald was true. The seers were wrong. Some had fled, and he owned a stone that was not dead, hiding, yes, but not destroyed. This belonged to the girl, the oracle.
There was something else, too, a presence alert trying to extract information. He knew the origins. It was from the Vault but at the wrong time and world. He knew chronomancy and that his presence here was covert. A lone wolf abandoned by the flock with no way back. It was why he needed the oracle.
He touched the dragon’s eye again, but nothing. It was stone cold. That amused him and brought him back into the present. He brought light to his staff and walked to where the wight fell. Dust on the floor, the eye did this, but how and why? What magic activated it?
Silence in the dark, his eyes adjusting to the gloom. Despite the illumination, the cavern’s size stretched beyond his scope to view. Going back up the winding stairs was no longer an option. Where there was one wight, chances were there were more. The landscape after dark was not a hostile domain. To them, at least, different by day, but that was a long way off.
That meant another exit. He scanned the ground for tracks or evidence indicating a path. Nothing, suggesting this place had lain empty for millennia. His staff projected light upwards and failed to find the ceiling. For that matter, the walls were distant. He touched the stone again and considered that this could have housed a beast once. One that used the waterfall as an entrance that shielded the outside and made defence easy. The road in, he knew, was treacherous. The steps could have been cast to allow Elder Mage access. Wyvern and stone bearer. A thought that stirred him. The majesty of time and how it could hollow out civilisations in the blink of an eye, leaving ghosts to haunt was.
That would mean this cavern was mined out deliberately. It also suggested another route out, one guarded by traps. He found an edge close to where he rested. This he followed, holding the staff ahead to provide light by which his eyes could search. Runes were everywhere. None that he understood.
After hours of scrabbling at the rock, he found another staircase. He shone his light down and was greeted by more darkness and stagnant air. He found nothing that led upwards, so, as before, he saw two choices. To go down, or face wights by climbing out. He chose down.
The steps were as above. Old and well-trodden by a past civilisation. Centre treads are worn and eroded by centuries of use. So much of the wall was smooth as ancient hands guided the passage down. He felt humbled. How long since any outsider walked these steps? Time passed with an end nowhere in sight. The stairs winding and descending. Every few yards, rust trails etched the walls. One still had a bracket attached. Relics of sconces. He hoisted his staff, and the light revealed soot gathered around holes that would have drawn smoke up and away. Such engineering by a race that fell from the world, leading to another dark age and emerging from that to begin again. History said at each turn, the losses outweighed the gains. What he had witnessed so far proved that was true.
The descent ended in rock. No door or passage steps were hewn into the granite.
The dragon’s eye grew warm against his chest. Drawing it out, he saw a green vortex deep in the core. He could smell ozone, so he turned his gaze upwards. The rockface was no longer solid but shimmering. Cautiously he moved a hand to confirm his vision. The edges were solid, moving inwards; he touched empty space. A space that refused to let go. Both it and the stone pulled him forward.
The wizard ceased trying to resist as old words filled his memory.
“Once activated, an Elder Portal will draw the user in; if you wish to remain where you are, do not open one under any circumstances. By the time you detect ozone, it is too late. Furthermore, it is unwise, at this time, to even consider trying. These relics are thousands of years old. Leave well alone if you do not wish to reappear in a rockface or deep ocean.” Lecture on Thaumaturgical Archaeology