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Aug 17

A Beating Heart of Stone Part 9

Maria looked up in time to see a section of the roof dislodge and tumble toward them. She stepped away to avoid being crushed, but the force of the impact knocked her to the ground. Another piece of ceiling rushed toward her. Maria raised a shield to deflect it, but the hit rattled her all the same.

She cautiously got to her feet and surveyed the room. The first impact had scattered their group and now each person was fighting to stay alive. All around her pieces of the ages old structure were crumbling, even the floor was beginning to undulate. She looked to the door they had arrived through and saw it now opened onto a stretch of blackness.

If the ruin really was alive, then it clearly wanted them dead.

Maria saw the Captain narrowly avoid being crushed by a falling sheet of metal, only to lose his balance when the floor beneath him bucked. A spear of crystal came lose from above and plunged towards him. She leapt to intercept it, hastily forcing a shield into existence above him. The spear shattered into glittering shards moments before the fatal impact.

Maria ducked under the film of light. “Are you alright?”

“Yes.”

She noticed his empty hand. “Where’s the crown?”

“It rolled away.”

Maria felt her heart shudder as Adrian narrowly avoided a boulder sized lightorb.

“How much longer do you think we can keep this up?”

“Not long.”

“Have a plan?”

“Working on one,” she saw him glance towards the exit, then scowl.

“If we get everyone under a shield?” she said, “it would buy us some time.”

“How long could you maintain that?”

“Not long, but it’s something,” she scanned the debris-filled floor. “Gehard’s closest.”

The Captain nodded. “Go, I’ll be behind you.”

Maria let the barrier dissipate and sprinted towards Gehard, carefully stepping through the maze of jagged metal and broken crystal. She stepped out of the way of a piece of falling debris, but nearly lost her footing when an indent opened in the floor. She conjured a shield over the gap and slid across, continuing on over the uneven ground.

“Shield,” the Captain said from behind her.

She turned and raised a hand, gritting her teeth as she projected the wall of force out from herself. A slab of gold metal hit it and rolled off.

They reached Gehard and Maria raised a barrier around them, granting a momentary respite from the chaos surrounding them. The mages apparently had a similar idea as they now shielded Adrian and themselves under a dome of glassy light.

Maria looked over the surreal vista of destruction that sprawled around her. The reverberating noise and scattering dust suddenly seemed distant, muted, not real. It was as though a dream were collapsing.

But it all had a purpose, and a clear one at that. The ruin destroyed itself to destroy them. Everything that fell or moved did so with malicious intent.

Maria steadied herself as the ground shifted under her feet. She knew they could only last for so long when an entire building was trying to kill them. Already she was beginning to feel herself tire.

“I have to say,” the Captain said, “this is a new one, even for me.”

Maria forced a weak smile, “me too.”

“Plenty of things have tried to kill me,” Gehard added, “but never an entire building.”

“Wait,” the Captain said. “Where’s Alexia?”

Maria looked around the broken chamber. She found Alexia standing amid a mass of twisted metal. More specifically, she found Alexia holding a band of twisted metal.

The crown.

“Alexia, don’t put that on,” the Captain shouted.

“I’m going to stop this,” Alexia shouted back.

“Don’t do this!”

“I’m going to prove you can trust me!”

Maria watched helplessly as Alexia slid the crown onto her head.

Her scream could be heard even above the din that surrounded them.

Maria abandoned the shield and ran. She worked her way around or over the worst of the wreckage, but barely noticed herself doing so. Her only thought was to get the crown from Alexia. A piece of the ceiling fell towards her but she batted it aside with a barrier.

She reached the pyromancer and tore the crown from her head, ending her bone chilling scream. Alexia collapsed into her arms.

Maria did her best to heal Alexia, but she would need much more attention than could be given when the world was falling apart.

But she was alive.

She saw the Captain working his way towards her. A rain of debris was assaulting the mage’s dome, but they held it. The ceiling now resembled a cratered moon more than a cathedral.

Such anger, she thought. To destroy itself like this. Why should the ruin care whether we live or die? There isn’t anything we can do to it.

Then it struck her and the world snapped into focus.

She thrust Alexia into the Captain’s arms. “Get her to the barrier,” she said over the bedlam.

“What are you doing?”

“Just trust me.”

Maria left him and waded through the chaos, battling a near continuous onslaught of falling metal.

She sprinted up the cracked steps and placed her hand on the great orb.

I know why you’re doing this. I want to help.

The world fell away.

– –

A presence confronted Maria within her mind. Something impossibly ancient and inconceivably vast, yet filled with an anger unlike any she had ever known.

I understand, she thought. The goblins are like children to you. You’re trying to protect them.

There was a pause, then images began flashing through her mind, swiftly, one after the other. They were memories, but she knew they were not hers. They were Mazanc’s.

In one a battle was being fought across rain soaked plains, men were cutting each other down without thought. In another a prisoner was whipped before a crowd of onlookers, one of them dressed as a king and seated on a throne. The next was of a woman being skewered by a passing band of knights. More atrocities came, but the message was clear:

The people from above bring only death with them.

But she felt something else within the entity, a deeper, more basic sensation.

Fear.

You’re afraid they’ll destroy you and your children.

More images came, these from long ago. They showed the ruin as a place of learning, meant to shelter and care for the gifted of times long past. There were memories of people who were not people living in the bright halls, the ruin providing for them all they needed. She saw that they once called it Cyzrac, ‘The Living Place.’

But then the images changed and the halls were abandoned. What had once been a temple of knowledge was left unused and forgotten.

What happened to them?

No answer came.

Instead there was another image, of humans this time. They were sickly thin and wrapped in furs covered with snow. Maria could see the amazement in their eyes as they entered the room. She felt a tremendous compassion that was not her own. A succession of thoughts showed them slowly change from human to goblin, but the intense emotion that accompanied each image didn’t change.

You took them in, protected them, like you did the Ancients. They gave you purpose again.

Then another image came, this one of the mages. They examined the chamber with curiosity, until one of them found the crown. He put it on and Maria could feel his lust for power. She could feel the contempt he had for the goblins.

Why didn’t you stop him?

The answer came not in images but in knowledge. The ruin was powerless to resist the commands of whoever wore the crown. It had tried to object, but had not predicted the effect its objections would have on the human. As he was driven mad the ruin became more and more desperate for release.

And Alexia?

She saw an image of the crown being crushed by a piece of falling metal, the three orbs adorning it shattering into pieces.

More images came. She saw how the ruin had guided the mages to its core, hoping they would free it. She saw how it had asked the juvenile to lead Gehard to the mages so they could work together. She saw how it had helped Carter find and reunite their group.

Finally she saw herself, the rest of the crew by her side, fighting their way through a line of goblins.

We didn’t want to harm you or your children. We just want to leave.

It showed her an image of Gehard cutting down a goblin, a gleeful grin on his face.

Except for him. Please, you must listen to me. If we don’t return the people above will only send in more. They’ll keep coming unless you let us leave and tell them to stop.

Fragmented thoughts came to her, seemingly culled from a dozen different minds.

How . . . Trust . . . You . . . ?

Look into my mind. I was a mother once. I know what it’s like to lose someone you love. I won’t let you or your children to suffer like I did.

She felt the presence within her thoughts grow, then recede.

If . . . Allow . . . Life . . .

I will make sure your children are safe. You have my word.

The presence retreated more, until it was only a distant echo.

. . . Gratitude . . .

– –

Maria blinked as time seemed to restart around her.

The frantic motion that filled the chamber only a moment before was replaced by a surreal calm. Everything stood still. Only the wreckage-strewn floor gave any indication of the panic that had filled the space.

The mages tentatively lowered their shield, stunned by the sudden stillness.

They all watched her as she descended the steps.

“Maria,” the Captain breathed, “what did you do?”

She watched as pieces of the ceiling began lifting themselves from the floor.

“What any mother would have done.”

– –

“Let me see if I have this right,” Carter said as they made their way back to the surface. “You’re saying the ruin was trying to kill us to protect the goblins?”

“Except they’re not just goblins to it,” Maria said, trying to convey the intensity of what the ruin had shown her. “It thinks of them as its children. It cares more for them than it does itself.”

She could practically feel Gehard preparing one of his sarcastic comments, but a stern glance silenced him. He closed his mouth and continued carrying Alexia in silence.

“Which is why we can’t tell anyone about this,” she continued, sensing growing apprehension from the mages. “It’s the only way to keep them safe.”

“We can’t do that,” Menlas said. “The local lord is going to expect a report.”

“Not to mention the Order,” Exas said.

“You have to,” Maria pleaded. “If people on the surface find out about this place, they’ll destroy it. We can’t let that happen.” She could see the mages were still unmoved.

How can I make them see?

She turned to Carter, hoping their friendship would lend weight to her words. “Please Carter, for me. For everything we’ve been through. Don’t let human stupidity destroy this place.”

Before he had a chance to respond the tunnel shifted. There was a sudden jerk, then the sensation of moving at great speed.

“I thought the ruin wasn’t trying to kill us anymore,” Adrian said.

“It’s not.”

There was an uneasy deceleration before the tunnel came to a stop. A room opened up before them that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“I think it’s trying to show us something.”

The chamber was full of goblins. They watched with large eyes as Maria and the crew entered.

Along the walls were small structures and tents pieced together from scraps of material. A trickle of smoke rose from one, along with the faint scent of meat cooking. An elaborate fountain filled the far end of the space, fed by a column of water from the ceiling.

A juvenile ran past Maria’s feet, chased by two others. Nearby an elderly goblin sat on the remains of a crate, an infant cradled in its arms.

“Dear All,” Carter muttered. “It’s a town.”

Maria caught Carter’s gaze. Will you protect them now?

She saw the line of his mouth tighten, then an almost imperceptible nod.

– –

Carter waited for the crowd to quiet, then continued. He was standing before the gathered mass of Order archeologists, in the middle of the ruined castle’s courtyard. “Mazanc was caught in the cave in and died, while the rest of the exploration team was trapped. We spent a day digging them out before returning to the surface.”

An early morning birdcall rang out above the crumbling walls of their camp, drawing some eyes to the sky while others remained fixed in anticipation.

“What else was down there?” one of the Order officials asked, voicing the question Carter was sure everyone assembled wanted answered. He might as well have asked ‘Was it Ancient?’

“We found little,” he said, reciting words he had practiced since they emerged from the tunnels two nights earlier. “The ruins were from the Old Empire, there was no sign of Ancient involvement.”

Carter looked over the collection of fallen faces and disappointed expressions, saddened that it fell to him to break their hearts. He saw Maria standing behind the crowd, a large pack strapped to her back. The Captain and his crew were leaving for their ship, this time carrying official documents of immunity.

“Are you sure?” someone asked. “Should we send in another team?”

Maria met Carter’s stare from across the courtyard, the weight of the past few days contained within her eyes.

“Yes,” Carter said as Maria turned and left. “I’m sure.”

– –

The stone was cold beneath Carter’s hand, but alive with possibilities. The things they could learn from the ruin were unfathomable. First hand accounts of the Ancients, technology beyond anything conceived of by man or otherkind, keys to the great mysteries of history. But Maria had been right. As much as it pained him to pass up so much knowledge, the destruction it would bring pained him more.

The goblins didn’t deserve to be caught in the petty power struggles of this world.

Carter took one last look down the hall of gold and blue. The place had been as much a hell as it had a paradise, but he knew he would miss it all the same.

Perhaps in time we will be worthy.

“Are you ready,” he asked Menlas, who stood in the darkness by his side.

“No,” she whispered.

“Me neither.”

He raised his hands toward the ceiling. Together they sent lines of light slicing down the tunnel. For a moment the old stone was lit in all its glory, before the walls crumbled and the ceiling became a cascade of rock.

Carter watched as the last glint of gold was blocked by falling earth.

And then the darkness was silent.

“Come on,” he said after a time. “We don’t want them to notice we’re gone.”

Carter turned his back on the place, knowing he would never again see it.

He hoped as he walked that its residents were better for his visit, because he wasn’t sure if he was.

– –

The Captain watched as Gloria tried to fit a steaming platter of sauteed vegetables between two others.

“You’ve outdone yourself this time,” he said, unable to believe so much food had actually fit on his ship.

“I’ve been bored,” she said, taking a step back and scrutinizing the spread. “There’s not much to do around here when you’re all off lost somewhere.”

“That’s why I left Stark to keep you company.”

Two wolf eyes glared at him from across the table.

“Incase you hadn’t noticed,” Gloria whispered loudly, “he’s not the most talkative of people.”

“Perhaps we should begin eating before the food cools,” Stark said calmly.

“Just one more minute, someone hasn’t sat down yet.”

He turned to the doorway, where Alexia stood.

“You’re awake.”

She nodded weakly. “That’s some healing magic you have,” she said, her voice slightly hoarse.

“I try,” Maria said. “How do you feel?”

“I have Creation’s worse headache, but besides that I’m fine.”

“Then sit down so we can eat,” Gehard said impatiently.

The Captain watched her to take the chair he had saved for her, waiting for Gloria to pour her a drink before speaking. “A toast,” he said, raising his glass. “To Alexia. For nearly getting herself killed twice in one exploration.”

He saw Maria smile, Gehard shrug, and even Adrian grudgingly raise his glass.

“To Alexia,” he said, watching her try not to look embarrassed.

“To Alexia,” she crew echoed.

They touched their glasses and drank, glad to finally be home.

– –

Alexia sat, idly watching the bright mists dance around her feet.

The Astral had always seemed a calm place to her. It flowed and moved in its own time, with its own rhythms, unaffected by churning emotions that drove so much else of life. The vast spaces had a way of putting one’s own problems in perspective, a visible reminder that the world was much older and much larger than anything human. Perhaps her perspective would change when she saw one of the storms the Captain said swept across it, but for now the Astral was a place of utmost peace.

This was why, when faced with the need for solitude, she had climbed down to the ledge that ran along the back of the ship. Where it was just her and infinity.

Or so she had thought.

“You know,” the Captain’s said from the deck above her, “that ledge wasn’t meant for people to sit on.” He climbed over the railing and sat next to her. “We wouldn’t want you to fall in.”

“I just needed to think.”

“I can understand that.”

He leaned back against the hull, seemingly intent on letting have her silence. For a while Alexia watched the colour around them play across his face.

“I don’t get it,” she said.

“Get what?”

“How did she do it? How did Maria stop the ruin like that?”

“Because she knows something we don’t.”

“What’s that?”

“That compassion is the highest form of courage.”

Alexia waited for a time, then voiced the real cause of her concern. “Why did you let me come back? And I want the real reason this time, not the ones you’ve been telling people.”

She saw something move within his gold eyes, an uncharacteristic flicker of regret. “I saw something in you, in your eyes, that night on the docks. The realization that you want more from life than what everyone else settles for. That you can be more than you’ve been. I know that look, because I’ve seen it in every person on this crew. And I couldn’t bear the thought that I’d let that spark die because I said no.”

Alexia leaned her head back against the hull, allowing what he’d said to sink in.

“I have something for you,” the Captain said after a time. He pulled a small object on a chain out of his coat and held it out. It was a pendant on a gold chain, a large blue gem set at its center.

“What is it?”

“It’s an Order translation stone. Wear it next to your skin, and it will allow you to converse in any language.”

Alexia took the pendant and put it on. “Was this the real reason you agreed to help Carter? In exchange for this?”

“You should get some rest,” the Captain said. “You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Alexia went to respond, but he was gone, leaving her alone again with the mists and her thoughts.

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