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Jun 01

A Beating Heart of Stone Part 3

The sun had begun to peak through gaps in the fortress wall as they finished their preparations. Tents were scattered around the courtyard in clumps around burnt out fires from the night before. The camp only housed a dozen or so people. Although when it came to mages that was a lot. There were entire cities with fewer mages in them than that one camp contained.

Carter had introduced the crew to the rest of the team the previous night, although none of them had seemed particularly impressed by the addition of a few more mages to the effort. Perhaps the disappearances had made them cynical toward the whole endeavor.

The Captain was rummaging through his pack, making a final check of their provisions.

“Torches?” Carter asked.

“Check.”

“Anti-poison charms?”

“Check.”

“Blankets?”

“Check.”

“Then those bags are good.”

“Are you sure you want to come with us,” Maria asked Carter. “Won’t the camp have problems without you?”

“I’m the head field researcher, and seeing as all the other field researchers are currently underground, I’m not exactly needed around here.”

It concerned the Captain how quickly Maria and Carter had taken to each other. They had spent most of the pervious day talking, sharing old stories, most of them about him. Around the campfire that night they had been merciless, telling every strange or humorous anecdote they could think of. By the time they retired their tents the Captain felt they remembered his life better than he did.

He preferred this to them hating each other, but the thought of his old confidant and his new confidant working together was more than a little worrying. Who knew what they could be plotting?

The Captain slid his pack on. “Why’s the Order’s suddenly interested in this place?”

“It isn’t sudden,” Carter said, inspecting his own bag. “We’ve wanted to investigate the area for a long time. The local tyrant, however, didn’t want us anywhere near it. Something about it bringing bad luck.”

“What happened to change his mind?”

“He died. Murdered by his son.” He slung the bag onto his back. “Who, by the way, fancies himself as a lover of history.”

The Captain had learned that King the men yesterday had referred to was really little more than a petty tyrant, who happened to be the son of a petty tyrant. The family had held the area for long enough to feel entitled to the name king and issued a death penalty to anyone who disagreed. Given a hundred years or so history would remember him as a great conqueror, having forgotten all the suffering that went into such a title.

Maria was checking her supply of healing ointments. “But why’s the Order interested in the first place?”

“Because they think the ruin might be Ancient.”

“Of course it’s ancient,” Adrian said from a nearby log. “It’s a ruin.”

“Not ancient, Ancient. As in the Ancients.”

Alexia sat apart from the group, polishing the end of her staff. Her head lifted at the mention of the Ancients. “You really think you’ve found one of their relics?”

“We’re about as certain as we can be without actually going in there. Which is why I’m coming with you.”

“But who are these Ancients?” Adrian asked.

“They’re the original inhabitants of the Astral,” the Captain said. “They lived in these worlds before humans did. Until they all died out.”

“What happened to them?”

Carter stifled a laugh. “I know people who would give half their Will to find that out. All we have are the relics they left behind.”

“Like Cal’Ulian.” Gehard said, not lifting his head from the blade he was shining,

Adrian seemed incredulous. “The Guardians’ Cal’Ulian?”

“The same,” the Captain said. “Their citadel’s built around the largest Ancient relic ever found.”

“Their transportation technology’s probably Ancient as well,” Alexia said, seemingly trying to be helpful. “But no one knows for sure since they don’t share it.”

Adrian, however, seemed to simply ignore her.

“What does the Order think,” Maria was asking Carter, “That the Old Empire built this ruin overtop of an Ancient one?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time it happened,” he said as he knelt next to another bag.

“Why do they think that?”

“Because this whole area, even this fortress, was built to protect the place. They wouldn’t put so much effort into something that wasn’t tremendously valuable. We’ve also found some inscriptions nearby making reference to ‘The Forbidden Golden Halls.'” He closed the bag and stood. “They’re all checked. We’re ready to go.”

“Finally.” Adrian leapt to his feet. “This was taking forever.” He grabbed his bag and began walking.

“Adrian.”

“Yes?”

“That’s the way to the latrine.”

Adrian turned on his heel and began marching back. “I knew that.”

“Of course you did.”

– –

The inside of the ruin was precisely what the Captain had come to expect. Walls of grey stone on both sides, fading into darkness beyond the blue white of his crystal-tipped torch. The place had the build of a temple corridor, evenly spaced columns set into the walls and an arched ceiling overhead. Everywhere there were murals of Old Empire script and patterns of circular runes.

The musty air hung heavy with the silence of ages. An ancient stillness it seemed sacrilege to break.

“Stop,” Carter said from behind him, voice hushed but urgent. He squeezed past the Captain and inspected a small groove running down in the wall.

“What is it?” the Captain asked softly.

“A trap.”

“What do we do?” Maria asked.

“Nothing,” Carter said, “It’s already been disenchanted.” He picked up a stone and tossed it over the line. Nothing happened. “They’ve already been here.”

They continued on, more cautious than before, the Captain scanning the surrounding tunnel for any sign of further danger. He noticed something glinting in the distance, growing brighter as they neared it. The glow was coming from behind a set of large stone doors. They stopped as Carter inspected the intricate mass of markings covering them.

“There was a seal on these doors, a powerful one, but it’s been broken.” He picked a piece of dark crystal off the ground. “By an Order enchantment breaker. That’s why light’s getting through.”

“They’ve been through here.”

“With some difficulty.” He placed his hand in the light filled gap between the doors and tried to pull it open.

“Wait,” Maria said, practically whispering. “Are you sure it’s safe?”

“Only one way to find out.”

The Captain joined him and together they slid the stone slab from its opening. He took a step back and looked at what lay beyond.

The torch slid from his hand.

Behind the door lay a shining hallway of brilliant yellow and blue. Concave walls of golden metal lead down out of sight, a band of azure symbols running along a groove in their center. The high ceiling was set with globes of crystal, their glow making the space feel like it was midday.

Never before had the Captain seen something so brilliant. “You were right,” he breathed, unable give voice to the words.

“About what?” Carter asked.

“It is Ancient.”

– –

Alexia walked down the tunnel without looking at it. She stood apart from the group, an invisible wall of mistrust separating them.

Her isolation had become intolerable. Even in this place, surrounded by splendor unlike anything she had ever seen, she could feel the weight of silence crushing her. If anything it made it worse. To know others were enjoying the beauty surrounding them only made her feel darker by contrast. It’s always in the brightest of times when one’s misery is most keenly felt.

She began moving purposefully through the group, making her way toward Adrian, who walked at its head.

It was time to end this, before things got any worse.

“Adrian,” she said in as friendly a tone as she could.

“Alexia,” he said, not so much as glancing at her.

“I wanted to say something.”

“Then say it.”

“There’s no need to be like that Adrian.”

“Really? From where I am there’s plenty of need.”

She fought the urge to become offensive. “It doesn’t matter.” Deep breath. “I came to apologize.”

“You think you can just say ‘sorry’ and it’ll undo everything you did?”

Alexia fought back her anger, forcing the words out. “I am asking you to forgive me.”

“Yeah? Go ask someone else.”

She couldn’t fight it anymore. “Look! I did what I did for a reason! I am sorry if I hurt you, but you have to understand that I had no choice!”

He met her gaze, the intensity of his anger startling Alexia. “That doesn’t change the fact that you did it. You could have Creation’s greatest reason. I don’t care.” He turned and walked away from her, leaving her stranded in her sorrow. The rest of the crew passing by without her noticing.

– –

The Captain placed his hand on Alexia’s shoulder, snapping her eyes back into focus. “Give it time. Adrian won’t be angry at you forever.”

She turned to him, visibly fighting tears. “Why did you let me back? If you knew this would happen, why did you let me back?”

The Captain knew he couldn’t answer that.

“This whole thing was a mistake. Next time we make port, I,” she looked to the ground, “I’m going to find passage back to Cail. I can’t do this anymore. Be hated like this anymore.”

“No,” he simply said.

She blinked in confusion, “What?”

“I won’t let you do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re better than that and you know it,” he said sharply. “What happened to that fire? That drive to continue on at all costs? What happened to Alexia?”

She didn’t answer.

“Enough of this weakness, it’s pathetic. It’s beneath you. Or have you really sunk that low?”

“Stop,” she choked on the word.

“So Adrian’s still angry at you! The Alexia I knew would never let something that trivial affect her.”

“Stop it,” she said, more loudly this time.

“No! I will not stop until you explain why you’ve given up so easily.”

“I said stop it!” she shouted. “Just stop talking! I don’t want to hear it!”

The Captain smiled. “Welcome back Alexia.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re angry.”

“Of course I’m angry!”

“Anger is better than despair. Courage is better than anger. You’re halfway there. Now keep going.”

He left Alexia, her mouth agape, and caught up with the rest of the crew further down the tunnel. By now they had spread out along the length of the passage, everyone taking it in at their own pace.

Maria caught him as he passed by. “Is she alright?”

“She will be.”

“I’m still not sure about her.”

“Right now, neither is she.”

“Let me guess, you’re going to tell me to give it time.”

“Actually, I was going to ask you to keep an eye on her.” Maria gave him a raised eyebrow. “She’s going to try to prove herself to us, which for her means doing something incredibly reckless.”

Maria seemed confused. “Why don’t you just tell her not to?”

“Because she needs to. To prove to herself she has a place here.”

“Then I’ll keep an eye on her.”

For a time the only sound was their feet along the metallic floor. The Captain listened and was relieved to hear Alexia’s footsteps echoing down the tunnel behind him.

“Thank you,” Maria said suddenly.

“For what?”

She smiled. “For asking me and not Stark.”

They not far below the tunnel leveled out, the slanted roof obscuring their view of what lay beyond.

“Captain,” Adrian called from the landing. “You’re going to want to see this.”

The Captain and Maria exchanged an intrigued glance before sprinting down the last of the incline.

Adrian was standing before a round doorway, an immense open space beyond.

The room made the tunnel they were in seem mundane by comparison. The great circular chamber was formed from the same yellow metal as the tunnel, its walls curving up to a ceiling of concentric circles that hung with the majesty of a mountaintop. At the far end, beneath a wall covered in bright runes, was a raised dias. An object unlike any the Captain had ever seen sat at its center. An orb of crystal the size of a man sat upon a great pedestal, smaller spheres of glassy blue and rune carved gold suspended in the air around it. The whole thing moved slowly with serene grace.

A grand staircase separated them from the room’s floor, great braziers of glowing stone lining its steps. A horde of diminutive creatures was spread out beneath them, in stark contrast to the surrounding splendor. Their forms were short and stocky, their skin grey and leathery, their heads bald with elongated ears.

“The All,” he heard Carter say. “What are those things?”

“Goblins,” the Captain replied. “Humans who were forced underground for centuries and devolved. They must have been in here since before the ruin up top was built.”

Gehard scowled, “I hate goblins.”

“No,” Adrian said. “You just love killing them.”

“Quiet everyone,” the Captain said. “Goblins have very good hearing.” He noticed Carter squinting at something at the room’s end. “What is it?”

“There’s a man standing on the dais, can you see him?”

The Captain drew his telescope and located the man. He wore the outfit of an Order archeologist, a metal band adorning his head, three orbs set its forehead. He looked as thought he hadn’t bathed or slept in weeks.

He handed Carter the telescope. “Is he one of yours?”

“Yes. His name is Mazanc, he’s a local we hired to help with the exploration.”

“Not a mage?”

“No.” He handed the telescope back. “Rather a clever man though.”

“What is he doing with all those goblins?” Maria asked.

The Captain studied Mazanc through the scope. “It looks like he’s talking to them.”

“And they’re listening?” Gehard asked, clearly not comfortable with the idea.

“They seem to be.”

“And the rest of the group isn’t with him?”

“No, he’s alone.”

“If only there was some way we could hear what he was saying,” Maria remarked.

“I could do that,” Alexia said from behind them. All eyes turned as she walked through the group. The Captain gave her a subtle nod as she passed.

“How?” Maria asked.

“I am good at more than just blowing things up.” She raised her hands to the open room, closing her eyes. The Captain could feel the subtle eddies of magic flowing from her.

“He’s giving a speech of some kind,” she said after a moment’s concentration. “I can’t tell what about, he keeps jumping around.” She paused, head turning slightly, “The things he says, they don’t make any sense. It’s like he’s having a conversation with himself. He keeps mentioning a king.”

“Carter, you know the man,” Maria said, “Any idea what he’s doing?”

“Unfortunately yes,” he said with uncharacteristic sobriety. “He’s gone mad. That sounds nothing like the Mazanc I knew.”

“What do you think happened to him?”

“I don’t know, I can’t think of anything that would phase Mazanc, let alone drive him to insanity. Is there still no sign of the others?”

“None,” The Captain said as he watched Mazanc give his deranged oration. The man’s head abruptly snapped upwards, his eyes locking onto the Captain’s despite the lens between them.

“He’s stopped talking,” Alexia said, “I don’t know why.”

“He knows we’re here.”

“Is that bad?” Adrian asked.

“That depends,” Carter said, “on whether he’s just delusional or violently delusional.”

Mazanc began speaking again, this time to them.

The Captain lowered his telescope, “What is he saying Alexia?”

She turned to him, a combination of shock and confusion holding her mouth open. “He’s sending us a formal dinner invitation.”

Next

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