"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN <===
The city of Guardpeak is like the chicken and the egg. Which one came first? The caverns below, or the city above?
That line I wrote at the very beginning of this tale. I really should give an answer. It’s easy. Neither was first. The beginning was the focal point of the battlelines. The beginning were the magepriests, in the first millenium after the Elven Flood. Deersrun Hill is nothing but a sequence of oh so many settlements built on top of each other, until the first were forgotten.
This place was first.
There you have it. This is my tale. Does it have a happy ending?
Oh, kind reader, how I wish you could tell me. How I wish you could answer me in any way.
But I am sitting here, chewing on the end of my quill, dipping it now and again into the inkwell on that desk I have found on the second floor of the mansion – quite well maintained, surprisingly, it had been covered with a tarpaulin, and I managed to liquify the ink rather easily. Oh, yes, my sentence. I keep forgetting that, don’t I? Forgive me, I may still be just a young man – mind you, no more than two months have passed by since the preceding tale. (Or has it been more? Not much more, at any rate. Perhaps even less, I can’t tell.)
No, I digress. I no longer have a definite trail to follow, no more memories to pick at. And my friends are getting restless, they’re about to head back up for the surface, to their hometown of Guardpeak. It’s taken them this long to recover from their injuries. Except for Scraps, he…
That good drummer. He’s fashioned some makeshift drums for himself, from tree trunks and some burlap we’ve found in the mansion, as well as some bells and whistles. Scraps is really good with music. He’s given us joy, and I’d have been the last person to believe that something as primitive as his set of instruments could have created enchanting music. Valanda and I danced to it, and then she pushed me aside with a laugh, inviting Red and then Bluff into her arms to dance. I sat next to Scraps, looking at him in the merry confusion a young lover has so often.
Young lover? Oh, you wonder about my looks, perhaps. I am still that over-muscled wanna-be hero from that skewered reality, sans my armor. Where did it disappear to? I don’t know, except for the breastplate. It’s right next to me, in this room on the second floor, and there is a certain lizard squirrel complaining regularly to me that I disturb his slumber, or that I snatch a nut from his lair for a snack. (Guilty, by the way.) The rest… I have no idea. The ways of the gods are not for us mortals to understand.
Valanda is young now. She has no need of the glamor anymore, and if I read Red’s expression right, she’s even more beautiful than she had been in her true youth.
But I was talking about Scraps. Oh, Scraps. His real name is Hallyondas Durvish. Not a bad name, that, but I suspect I’ll always think about him as Scraps. He doesn’t mind.
Scraps won’t be going along with the others. He can’t. Remember that the black light splattered over him, and that he was beating at the droplets as if they were flames? The black light got into him. It poisoned him.
Where Valanda and I are young – and I suspect our bodies will stay that way for quite some time to come – Scraps is aging. If you see him now, he might be a man on the verge of his sixtieth birthday. A week from now, he’ll seem eighty. If he lives that long. It’s taking him such an effort to beat his drums, play another merry song, lose himself in the music for a little time, before remembering the fate in store for him.
He doesn’t know but I have dug a place for his bier. Where I will burn his body and speak the Leaves and Wreaths. It is a special place, up on the ledge surrounding the valley with the mansion inside. It is where Torrindas died. Two of my friends will be together, their ashes conjoined, while their souls will enjoy the world beyond and the warmth of the gods.
My friends. Can you imagine the import these words have to me? I haven’t known any of these folks for a long time, yet they are a part of my life. As I have become a part of theirs. All of them. The ones who are still with me, and also the ones who have gone.
They are my friends. I don’t want to see them go. Even though I know they will find their way back to the surface. Of course. They won’t get lost in the caverns, the way Wharfrat had. I mentioned the labyrinth of caverns before, haven’t I? Where you can think you’re heading upwards, yet actually you’re moving deeper and deeper. Yes, that’s how Wharfrat wound up down here. He’d tried to get back up, and suddenly he was in this world, where he could be snatched by the Jengchan priest.
I know that’s how it happened. Just a piece of information popped into my mind, and I have no idea where it’s come from.
Ah, that doesn’t matter. As I said, it won’t happen to Red and Bluff. Valanda and I will forge passageways for them – easy passages, with steps, so they can quickly get back up to the levels that are used to store barrels of wine. Once they have taken those passages, we will destroy them. Quake them. Drop the ceilings down. Block any of the ways down here.
There are many more, by the way. This subterranean realm is incredibly big. I can feel it in my bones, and yet I can’t quite grasp it. As a matter of fact, my knowledge of this place is fading at the edge. I think that I can feel the edge, but I’m not sure.
Anyway, Valanda and I are busy collapsing entrances everywhere. I don’t think we’re missing any. Maybe at the edge, maybe… Oh, I don’t know. There’ll be so much time to make sure, and my time is running out. Red is getting impatient, he wants to leave, and he’s only waiting for me to finish these pages. Ah, Red, my friend, you can wait one hour longer, can’t you? You have been walking about with that contained anger for two days already, not saying a word, but I can see in your face that you want to get back home. To see your child.
To see if Grapes, Weathervane and Theralas made it back safe. I told you that I cannot sense their lives anywhere within Deersrun Hill, but that doesn’t make you feel better. I can understand. Should you read these pages, Red, I hope you find them safe and sound. Even Grapes. By now you know how I feel about him. He’s your nephew, and you love him as an uncle should.
But, Red, I really hope that you and your child will take over the vinery. Maybe I’m betraying Carter’s memory, but I honestly don’t like Grapes.
Valanda is here. She scowls at me, reminds me that I have to finish. She is right, of course.
My lovely Valanda. In a few moments, when my quill has finished scratching across the paper, I will get up, fold her in my arms and kiss her.
In a few moments.
Kind reader, you are wondering why I am so sore. Is it that I will never see the sky again? That I will never leave this mansion, this focal point, for more than a few days, just walking through this realm below ground? After all, my body should be the envy of any male human; and I have Valanda here, my love. The woman whom I would love and caress no matter how destitute her body might become.
No, my friend out there, that is not the problem.
The problem is that ancient power. It is a part of me, a part of Valanda. We can wield it, together, after a fashion. But it is gnawing at us. Conjuring up dreams, telling us about opportunities to do more than just stick around here. A way to get back to the surface, to achieve glory, to… prove our might, our superiority.
I want to do that. I want to go up there, fling away any opposing force, establish my own realm, and expand it onwards. That would be easy. Oh, yes, so very easy. Can you imagine how it would feel to have this power part of you? That temptation, fed by that very power?
Can you imagine me standing over your broken, charred body, laughing at your pain?
I fear that I can, and part of me would like that.
No, this is no threat. This is my own fear speaking. I don’t want to do that. I want to rest in your memory as kind Ahnfredas Bluekeg, the son of Hernaldas the shoemaker. That is the memorial I want, not that of a conqueror who has surrendered his soul to darkness.
I will keep the faith in my lord, in the gods.
I will fight the darkness. So will Valanda.
Once my friends are gone, we will be alone. For decades, for centuries, perhaps. I have the feeling we might live for a long time yet.
For a long time, we will stand watch over the ancient power. And over ourselves.
Pray for us, kind friend, that we will be strong. Every little bit helps.
Bluekeg, priest of Decirius,
T H E E N D