“Sloan! Move yer fat arse, now!”
There could no longer be any doubt about the fact that Krens was absolutely mad. He was always mad at something in Sloan’s vast experience, but the current situation had not improved upon the stubborn dwelf’s disposition.
Though Sloan tried to move his legs faster, it was difficult to gain speed with his mighty girth getting in the way at every step. Moving forward with a protruding stomach was usually not a problem — just a matter of training, really — but when you were running through a forest it was a different kind of training you needed.
“I… Wait… Krens!” Sloan desperately tried to think up ways not to beg for a break and instead give a reasonable argument for ‘why they needed to stop’, even if he risked the wrath of a mad dwelf in the process. In the end, his clouded mind was unable to come up with anything more creative than, “I can’t go on… I need… A break!”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew it had been a mistake. Krens Boalder turned his own wide frame, revealing his roaring red beard and the fierce black eyes that, in comparison to his mangy, red hair, looked like the black spots of soot in a forest fire. The dwelf was by no means a giant, but neither was Sloan.
His own halfling heritage ensured him a small stature, as well as his enormous girth, which meant he barely managed the same eye-level as Krens. Of course, there was no way Sloan would ever look straight into Krens’ eyes. That would be utter suicide — especially right now. Instead he kept his eyes peeled on the ground beneath him, finding the undergrowth immensely fascinating.
“Ya want a break, now do ya…?” The dwelf huffed and sucked so much air into his frame he could have burst, “Do ya want to end up on a spit, like them roasted pigs ya like so much?! I’m sure Behmet would be more than happy to oblige!” Sloan winced. He had no desire to get caught, but neither had he ever been required to move this much in his life. Why did he ever leave his peaceful sanctuary in Al Mendor behind?
“Ju… Just let me catch my breath, Krens. Please!” The dwelf grumbled at him, but turned to survey their surroundings instead. If Sloan had not known better, he was sure Krens needed this break as much as he himself.
“We’re almost at the Heart of the Forest. Behmet cannot enter there, not without us or his little… pet. Just a little further and we be safe,” said Krens as he looked around, shaking his head so his long Elvan ears whirled around his thick head like branches caught in a storm.
It were these ears that ensured they could enter the inner sanctum of the Ammedian forest, his very bloodline that would save them. Sloan unconsciously pulled at his own ears, which were much smaller even if they had the distinctive edge of an elven-born. His own lineage was so diluted and removed from the grandeur of their ancestors that he might as well be a different species – was a different species.
“Do- do you think it was a good idea? Setting t-that thing free? I-I hear that they can curse you!” Sloan almost squealed — he had a habit of doing that. Behmet was dangerous, true, but what they had done was borderline blasphemous, survival or no.
“We did what we had to do, Sloan! Remember that!” Krens hissed and turned on his heels, closing the distance between them in a single step, “With it, Behmet can go wherever he wants, which is why he was going to dispose of us once we found the treasure!”
If there even is any.
There was no way that Sloan would say that out loud. It had been Krens’ idea to hire bodyguards on the journey, but of course the stingy dwelf had selected the cheapest he could find. When it turned out that Behmet and his goons knew exactly what Krens and Sloan were after, and that they had offered their services cheap only to get their hands on whatever lay here in the heart of the Ammedian forest, the halfling and the dwelf quickly decided to take their chances on their own.
It was sheer madness, of course. Neither of them had any survival training. They were barely equipped for a trek through a city, no less an ancient forest, and no weapons except Krens’ mostly ceremonial hand-ax. Their way back was covered by a band of bloodthirsty murderers who could cut them off at any time on their way back, and they had even released a dangerous being into the surrounding wilds. In short: they were screwed.
So why was Sloan here?
Honestly, he could barely remember how it all started. Before he could reminisce about the past though, Krens grabbed his arm and forced him back into the present. He was surprised when Krens did not shove him in the direction they had been going, but away from the small animal trail and into some heavy bushes nearby. “Wha—” Sloan began, but Krens immediately cut him off with a furious glare.
With pots and pans banging against each other in Sloan’s pack, the two made an attempt at stealth, until all was silent in the din of the forest. Just as Sloan was about to ask what — by the Old Ones, dammit — Krens was thinking, a hollow ‘thump’ made him go stiff as a board.
With moisture from the dirt beneath seeping into his torn clothes, Sloan watched in terror as a massive shadow moved close by. In between the huge heartwood, he could just vaguely see something reddish-brown pass through, glistening whenever the light from the Eyes of Ranneh reflected off the body at particular angles.
Sloan knew instinctively what this was. Oh, he had heard tales, of course, everyone had heard of what resided close to the Heart of the Forest, and why no one really went there, but it was first now that he was actually seeing the thing that he truly believed.
“Old Ones… ‘is the bloody King, tha’ is,” Sloan hissed, so excited that his old Al Mendor, gutter-slur reasserted itself in his speech. He was about to reach for his notebook to jot some observations down, when a thick, callused hand fell on his neck in a death-grip. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Sloan hesitantly met the gaze of his mad companion, and saw that the black spots of soot had suddenly gotten a hint of flame in them. Yes.. Perhaps it was best not to do research right now.
The King stopped, still some way off, but hardly at a safe distance. In fact, had it not been because Sloan had seen the beast move before, he would have sworn that it was just another tree or bush of the colorful forest now. Finally, though, the scales of the beast faded into the deep shadows once more; hollow ‘thumps’ indicating the direction in which it now headed.
With the danger passed, Sloan allowed himself let go of his backpack strap, which he unconsciously had held in a death-grip, and looked over at Krens. “We have to move,” hissed the dwelf, staring Sloan down with his intense gaze.
With a gulp, Sloan nodded and together they crawled out of their make-shift hiding spot, once more setting out down the trail. With his stomach bouncing up and down to the rhythm of his steps, and his backpack ringing loudly from the pots and pans strapped to it, Sloan continued his desperate fight for survival.
Half an hour later they were at the edge of the inner forest. A shimmering barrier marked the border into the sanctum of the ancient Elvan. Few ever ventured far into the Ammedian forest, not since the old Emporium vanished into thin air, and even back then it was unheard of for members of the lower races to make the trek.
Even if Krens had enough Elvan blood to get them past this barrier, it was still anyone’s guess whether he actually could get them through. “Incredible,” Sloan muttered as he stepped closer to the ancient construction, “To think our ancestors could do something like this with such limited resources…”
“Don’t think too hard on it,” said Krens as he too stepped closer, “compared to the power of mana, this is child’s play.”
“But don’t you see the complexity? The sophistication needed to power such a construction through nothing but lifeforce is simply staggering!” Sloan mumbled and reached for his notepad, adjusted his small spectacles and started scribbling notes on visible components of the barrier. “See this,” he said and pointed on a glowing symbol that rolled past, “That is Alegua, rune of the Almother. It is repeated several times throughout the pattern, almost as if in prayer!”
“So what? Elvans prayed to their gods; it is common knowledge.”
“It is also common knowledge that the old gods were never real,” added Sloan as he let his fingers slide through the air, following another distinctive rune’s curve, “Yet here is a construction made from pure lifeforce, in which the integral component is a prayer to a god that supposedly never existed. Don’t you find that a little bit strange?”
“What’s strange is how obsessed ye’re being about this rubbish!” Krens growled and reached out for the shimmering air with wary movements. The moment his finger touched the ephemeral material it seemed as if the whole construction was going to ignite and explode, turning the two half-way adventurers into piles of ash.
Only when the initial fizzle died down, did Krens and Sloan realize that they had been holding their breaths. Both blew out their spirit in relief, since they both knew this was the biggest unknown factor in their great adventure. Now, having overcome the most significant challenge, the ease with which Krens stepped through the glowing dome was anticlimactic.
Halfway through, Krens turned to the side and gestured to Sloan. “Yer turn. Go on.” Sloan’s heart sank instantly as the danger was still far from over. Without the significant Elvan heritage, he would have to rely on Krens’ diluted bloodline for admission into the most sacred of groves in all of Ammedia.
With cold sweat pouring forth from his already drenched skin, Sloan stepped forward and touched the barrier beside Krens with the very edge of his pinky finger — supposing that, should he lose it, this would be the finger he could probably do without.
However, it went through without a single spark or forceful rejection. Sloan breathed deeply, as if he was about to dive underwater, then jumped forward with closed eyes. After another step or two, he opened his eyes and found himself upon the other side of the magnificent barrier.
Gasping with wonder, he turned around just as Krens exited the barrier himself, and was immediately struck by the scene behind him. Unlike how it looked from the outside — as a collection of random symbols arrayed somewhat haphazardly — standing here Sloan could see the scope of his ancestor’s magnificence. It was a beautiful and seamless illusion of light, twisting the trees and earth on the other side into moving pictures of wondrous scenes from the deepest and oldest mythologies of Ammedia, before the Emporium took hold.
There, in the sky, the two yellow orbs above were connected by streamers of light, resulting in an image of a gentle face looking down upon Ammedia, such that the Eyes of Ranneh became actual eyes. Below, hugging the sea of greenery and forest with her wide arms stretching from horizon to horizon, the Almother calmly saw to her garden of life, complete with animals in all size and forms, birds, plants, and silica.
Between the warm eyes of the sun, and the green eden of the forest, grand forms soared through the skies with streamlined bodies and impossibly wide wings — Dragons, Sloan realized with amazement. There, in the murky depths of the undergrowth, he could just slightly see the dark twisted forms of the Demons, lurking beneath the forest and looking up with something akin to jealousy and… worship?
That strove against everything Sloan knew of the contemptible race of cave dwellers, even if he had never actually seen one in his life — that is, not a true one. He shuddered at a memory, before his eyes was caught by a scene unfolding itself in the middle of everything, as the pictures moved gently aside to reveal the new scene.
Long, thin and elegant creatures came out of the Almother’s embrace, dancing in between the leaves and bushes, spreading out and uniting with the nature around them. Some turned to the flowers, some to the animals, others to the trees, and some towards one another.
With a gasp, Sloan realized that these transcendent forms were his own ancestors: the beautiful and peaceful Elvans which had populated all of Ammedia before the coming of the Old Ones. Long bodies, elegant and petite frames that nonetheless were supposed to hold incredible stamina and strength. Long silvery or golden hair, always braided in distinct and intricate styles, and glowing eyes that reflected the same color of their hair — with moonblue skin covered only by the lightest of cloth.
These were the chosen of the Almother, according to myth, bred by her union with Raaneh, the Keeper of the Word. Sloan had never seen one before in real life, although he knew there were still a few about from scattered records and reports he had scoured through on occasion.
Few of them remained after the millennia of slavery the Old Ones had imposed upon them. Their natural ability to mate and propagate with all living things had been exploited to create the chaotic amalgam of races, subraces, chimeras, and noble lines now inhabiting the continent of Ammedia, while old wisdom and knowledge had been lost or suppressed beneath the yoke of the Emporium.
Without thinking, Sloan pulled out his notebook and began feverishly to jot down unintelligible notes down on the scrawny parchment, ripping several pricey pages to shreds in the process. He was halted abruptly, when he received a very hard tug on the collar of his tunic and was almost thrown to the ground by the force and surprise.
“Ya can damn well squiggle later, ya halfwit halfling!” Krens growled in that very dwarfish manner, reminding everyone that he was more a dwarf than he was ever an Elvan, despite the smudge of blood that allowed for his unreasonably long ears.
“This is an unbelievable discovery, Krens!” Insisted Sloan when he got back his balance and began hopping up and down excitedly, “I knew there were some eyewitness records of scenes like this, but to see it myself is simply… Dumbfounding! Don’t you see…?!”
“I see you standing there, looking at worthless pictures, while there are actual treasures to be found deeper in this forest!”
“These are priceless, Krens! Absolutely priceless! Truly, the ability of our ancestors is much too underestimated in academic circles! If I can just get a sketch of these, as well as some cursory notes for further study… The impact this would have on the interest in pre-Emporium studies is simply unimaginable!”
Krens narrowed his eyes dangerously, and Sloan started when it became obvious that he had been refuting the hotheaded dwelf straight in his face without thought of the repercussions.
“I mean, could we perha-“
“Can we sell these pictures?” Asked Krens, his voice in that subtle tone that suggested violence… a lot of violence.
“Mmm.. no? I mean, yes, of course! We just need to give accurate account and-“
“Can we,” repeated Krens with bared teeth and a gesture towards the illusion, “sell these pictures…?”
With a nod, Krens delivered a devastating knuckle to Sloans face, sending him feet above face into the ground. Sloan saw stars for a long while as he tried to regain his wits, and vaguely registered the dwelf’s reinforced boot hitting him hard in the side along with the furious outbursts of: “THEN… DON’T… WASTE… MY… TIME…”
By the time Sloan could get back up he was sore, miserable, and hurt to the point where he doubted he could keep going. Krens was, of course, fuming as he paced around, muttering furiously to himself in the dwarven language.
When he saw that Sloan was back up, Krens closed in like a viper, grabbing Sloan and pulling him close, saying, “Now, halfwit, we keep going until we reach the foot of the Plateau, and I will hear nothing more from you: no whining, no lagging behind, and NO DAMNABLE SKETCHES. Are we clear?”
Sloan nodded fervently, not wanting to get on Krens’ bad side again.
“Good… by the Old Ones I swear you are becoming more trouble that you’re worth…”
Sloan said nothing, erring on the side of caution this time. When Krens finally put him down, he followed along without another sound. Krens was not always like this, but between the betrayal of Behmet and the tantalizing promise of treasure, Krens had mentally dived deep into the well-documented dwarven greed, which so often caused his people to be despised and ostracized from the higher cultures of Ammedina.
Sulking and hurt, Sloan tried to convince himself that it was not really Krens’ fault; life threatening stress caused the dwelf to lose himself in the greed, relying upon it like a survival mechanism. He was merely unfortunate to find himself at the receiving end of the paranoia and mania following the dive into dwarven greed.
Behind them the Eyes of Ranneh reached the horizon, changing day into night faster than they would have liked. Krens noticed none of this, but single-mindedly continued towards his destination, guided by his map and a Seer — a small instrument that aligned itself with the north-south flow of lifeforce.
When Hriven — the blue moon heralding the darkest hour — reached it zenith, they were finally at a small clearing before a mighty cliff face. The conical rock formation rose from the earth like a great fist, as if a giant was slowly freeing itself from a shallow prison.
Here, finally, Krens halted and began settling in for the night without a word. Sloan followed his lead, putting his gear down and prepared food for them. He dared a fire, since they should be safe within the barrier from Behmet and his goons, although the wildlife was a different matter.
They had been lucky to avoid any serious predators so far, lucky indeed that the King had not set upon them, but a fire could both lure or frighten nearby animals. Still, he wanted — and needed — a hot meal, and Krens made no objections to the prospect. They both went to sleep sated and silent, without either of them trying to break the thick ice which had formed between them since their passing through the barrier.
The next morning they began climbing. The cliff face was steep, with few proper handholds.
According to the documents that had led Krens to believe there could be treasure here, this place had been some sort of reservation — a final holdout for the pursued and enslaved Elvans to live out their lives in peace within a restricted area. This cliff, or ‘the Plateau‘ as the documents named it, had been the last home of the primal Elvans, right up to, and after, the Old Ones vanished, leaving behind their flying cities without a trace of occupation.
As the Ravager Wars blew across Ammedia, after the total collapse of authority and order, this place had been assaulted more than once — usually by Elven lords who felt that their Elvan ancestors were but primitive savages before the sophisticated culture they had developed while serving the Emporium faithfully — but it had never been taken.
Without the power to fuel the magical war machines of the Emporium, no army could stand up to the deep and complex understanding that the Elvans had of lifeforce and its usage. Thus this place had been allowed to remain while the entire continent fell into wanton destruction and savagery. After five thousand years, however, the place was now abandoned by the former inhabitants, who had all finally decided to leave when the world around them settled down and peace returned to the lands.
In the chaos, the place was mostly forgotten. Occasionally revived through scholarship, a few cursory expeditions had been unable to reveal anything about the old fortress’ position. Krens himself had only stumbled upon the location by sheer coincidence, and, reading into the legend, he had convinced himself that there had to be ancient treasures hidden away here.
What had convinced him of this was a single passage in an old text, describing a conversation with one of the last Elvans to leave the place, saying, “By the grace of the Almother, we did keep our oaths – we say the pact is safe, now it will be forgotten.”
Whatever ‘it’ was, Krens was immediately obsessed by obtaining it, and — like the fool he was — Sloan had found himself blindly following the charismatic dwelf. When he thought about it, especially while hanging several feet above ground on a sheer cliff side, Sloan had no idea how it had ever come about.
A careless grasp at a loose edge almost sent him tumbling down to his probable death, but his hands and feet moved at their own accord, stabilizing him in time; a testament to the times he had spent dangling on the ladders of the grand library of Al Mendor. Krens looked down at him from above and mumbled a few curses, before continuing on and leaving Sloan behind.
Sloan gritted his teeth and steeled his resolve — he had wanted to come. His interest in the pre-Emporium age was close to an obsession, and he sneered at the academic attempts at reviving the magical arts of the Old Ones through shallow reinventions of lost technology. What they found here might give them a hint at how their ancestors had used lifeforce; the singular unique ability that had made the Elvans great, now a pedestrian art for commoners.
With reinvigorated purpose he followed Krens all the way up, until he reached a ledge at the entrance of a hollowed out space, no — a cavern, within the cliff face. Heaving himself up with the last bit of strength left to him, Sloan knelt and breathed heavy and hard for a few moments beside Krens, who was likewise exhausted.
Once recovered, they both stood up and peered into the darkness. “You think this is it?” Asked Sloan as he let his little pig-eyes adjust.
“Aye, I think it might just be…”
Retrieving their torches and lighting them, the two moved slowly into the narrow corridor. With eyes wide open they scoured their surroundings for any sign of valuables: gold, jewels, artworks, anything.
What they found was a whole lot of… rocks.
There were signs of habitation, of course: faded paint on the walls showed parts of scenes that must have held some significance to the Elvans, decayed piles of debris which might have been useful once, but not a single sparkle of worth among any of it now. Pathways opened up to the sides, but when they followed these, they ended up at other ledges at the cliff face.
Occasionally they found shafts that appeared to lead down below, but they were too narrow for either of them to fit into. Curious, Sloan grabbed a rock and threw it down one of the shafts, and then held his breath as he waited for the echo. For a long while they stood and waited when, just as Krens was about to bash Sloan’s head in for waisting their time, a slight ‘plop’ could be heard. Certain that such a drop would kill them, they did no further inspection of the shafts, and instead focused on getting deeper into the rock.
They hit the back-end of the last pathway and found nothing of use, not a single glitter or gleam. Furious, Krens threw down the torch in his hand and stomped on the slight flame as if it was to blame for his misfortune.
“Blasted, bloody, bleedin’ nothing!” Krens stomped so hard that dust was shaken loose from the cavern ceiling. Sloan fearfully looked up to see if the whole thing would collapse on them. Though nothing happened, as the dwelf kept stomping on the ground, Sloan noticed something slightly off about the the rocky wall blocking their progress.
While the rest of the cavern was somewhat responding to the angry stomps of the dwelf, the back wall did not move in the slightest. No dust or small rocks dislodged themselves from the ruckus, instead it seemed to slightly… shimmer?
He drew close and tried tapping the wall slightly, and was rewarded with his entire hand falling through the rock as if it touched nothing, and indeed it did not!
“It’s an Illusion, Krens, look!”
The Dwelf stopped its tirade and looked at Sloan with his bloodshot eyes, which immediately opened wide with realization and that vaunted greed. He jumped forward, ignoring caution, and leaped through the illusion before Sloan could go any further. With a nervous swallow, Sloan followed him through the blanket illusion, stepping into a new room. Here he found Krens already bowed down before the most auspicious item in the hidden cave: a seven foot long sarcophagus covered with intricate carvings.
There were other items lying about, but most of it was utility pottery long since broken down by disuse and decay, along with some ruined weaponry; a few broken bows, some rusted swords, and a single leaf-formed shield. The only thing that was more eye-catching than the sarcophagus was the blackened Elvan skeleton sitting besides it, as if in a guard position. The old Elvan had apparently died while keeping its charge safe.
Sloan approached the skeleton first, finding it held onto something which had once been a spear in one hand, and in the other was a tablet.
“Oi, Sloan, help me get the bloody lid off,” growled Krens from the side, when he saw that Sloan was not immediately storming to his aid. Sloan looked at the sarcophagus and furrowed his brow, since he knew of no record on the Elvan burying their dead in this form.
The rituals he knew of, spoke of cremating the body while preserving the heart in some sort of pottery. In fact very much like the pottery that surrounded them. This was clearly a place of the dead, and within this sanctum the sarcophagus stood out like a sore thumb.
“Wait a bit, Krens. Something is wrong about this,” said Sloan as he reached down to pick up the tablet. The dwelf ignored him with a snort and resumed his attempt at opening the sarcophagus. Blowing on the tablet, and with a few wipes, Sloan managed to make out some carvings into the surface — clearly Elvan writing. His ancient Elvan was a bit rusty, but he had practiced in anticipation for this eventuality. With slow intonations he began translating the message.
“I, Lenwinth, here record my adherence to the oath,” Sloan read out loud just as Krens managed to move the lid ever so slightly to the side. “For my people have left, believing that our task shall be fulfilled once this place is forgotten. But I do not speak promises in haste, and will not remove myself to enjoy the peace we were promised to our children. I will die on my vigil, standing by my Word to the last, keeping to Raaneh’s grace. To any and all intruders to this place of peace: beware -“
“By the Old Ones and their thick oily beards,” said Krens, stopping Sloan in his recitation with a low whistle. Even disturbed as he was by the cryptic message from a different time, Sloan could not resist looking down into the sarcophagus now completely open to the elements, revealing its contents to Sloan’s amazement.
“Is that… truly?” He croaked, unable to keep his voice in check.
“Yes it is, ya ugly, fat, halfwit Halfling… We’re rich alright.”
Sloan nodded slowly, then with a start returned to the slab, as if some force compelled him to finish the message as soon as possible.
Beware of opening doors that cannot be closed again.
With a gasp, Sloan dropped the slab, letting it fall onto the ground, and raised his hand to stop the dwelf from making a catastrophic mistake. “STOP!” He roared, much to Krens’ annoyance. The dwelf had reached down into the coffin to touch its contents with fervor, but now raised his arms in a careless shrug, saying, “What, by the Old Ones is wrong with ya?”
Sloan stood completely frozen on the spot, staring at Krens with disbelief and terror. Krens furrowed his brow as the halfling pointed a shaking finger towards Krens’ arms. Or rather: where Krens’ arm was supposed to be.
The hand he had reached into the coffin with was no longer affixed to the rest of him. Instead a bleeding stump was left; cut so cleanly at the elbow that the dwelf had no idea it was gone before he followed Sloan’s line of sight.
As the pain finally caught up with him, resolving in a scream of existential terror, Krens saw nothing of the two golden orbs rising up from the dark coffin behind him. Just as his scream reached its highest pitch yet, a dark spear crushed the back of his skull. It penetrated all the way through his head and out his mouth, killing him on the spot. Sloan stared transfixed at the scene, completely unable to move a single muscle. A dark figure unfurled itself from its resting place, lifting Krens’ corpse up as it did so.
“B-by the Old Ones…” Sloan whimpered, finally managing the monumental task of falling back on his arse with a useless ‘plop’. The figure closed in on him in another breath, staring down with those mythical golden eyes that seemed so immensely cold and indifferent. It was enough to make Sloan’s very soul shiver in the rigid atmosphere.
“P-please,” he gasped, backing away with all the futility he could muster, “Almother… please…”