We took a break in the late morning, letting the horse graze and get some water, while we refreshed ourselves as well. I sat on the back of the wagon, studying the maps Bob had given me and Liz was off scouting. We hadn’t seen a gnoll, but that didn’t mean we were safe. This entire region was a very dangerous place, even if the roads tended to be safer than the wild lands.
The road around Black Crescent lake was well travelled due to the proximity of Far Spire Keep. I had no real knowledge of the keep other than to assume it was one of our old, abandoned ones. I have to tell you, whoever architected those keeps did an extraordinary job. The fact that any of them were still standing, much less under regular use, astounded me. Seventy-Thousand years since the nine and sixty kingdoms fell. How many years before the fall were those towers built. And did they mark the edges of the kingdom? I always understood that our keep, Father, at the very end of the swamp, was the last. Granted it was more than twice the size of one of the keeps I’d discovered on the road. Even with one of the towers collapsing, you could tuck the Hallowed Fortress inside our keep and have enough room for a couple of the keeps from my trek. The more I saw of the world, the more questions flood my mind.
Nothing to do at this point but make for Far Spire. If nothing else, it will get me closer to the heart of the mystery. I rolled up the maps and tucked them into my pack, only to discover a small, linen wrapped package tucked in the bottom. I had not let this pack out of my company since Bob helped me pack it, but I had spent some of that time unconscious.
I set the package on my lap and untied the deep blue ribbon. Then I lay aside the edges of the linen and found inside three small carved tablets, and a letter written in an elaborate script. It was from Nebuchadnezzar.
I implore your patience and your forgiveness for the pain my people have brought upon the world. We are a fearful race, with delusions of grandeur far beyond our means. As I attempted to explain to our late king, my uncle, we are too easily manipulated by those who have the things we seek most: gold, power, and respect.
Unfortunately we confuse pandering for respect and are willing to commit any atrocity in search for power and gold. Funny that we are limited in our opulence, so even with our treasury so full of gold and gems that we could not open the bottom door, we were not content.
I found these three tablets among my uncle’s private collection and upon touching each, the Bountiful One spoke to me, each time the same word. “Merric.” I have dreamed of the ancient gods, thought to spend the entirety of my life haunted by the tales of the original altar our ancestors found in this place. What you call the Hallowed Fortress, mine call Journey’s End for it marked the first place our people found to be safe. Always we had been a harried folk, hunted and abused by other powerful beings. There are some who speculate that we were raised from this very swamp by dire magicks and the foul meddling of wizards. But myth does not feed the young, as my brood mother taught me.
I was always a pampered child, favorite of my uncle the king, gifted with strange insights and even more startling powers that would manifest at the most inconvenient times. I bade my uncle to eschew the honeyed words of Leviathus when he first appeared promising power and gold beyond our imaginations. His first failure, of course, was to underestimate the greed of our people. Each season we demanded more, and each season Leviathus went home with a pittance of his true desire. There are places within these halls that we protect with our lives, but I know you have been to the holiest of chambers. Only three have ventured into the ancient temple of the Bountiful One. Only three in all the years we have called these ruins our princely kingdom. For you see, when our ancient ones came upon the abandoned altar they did what our people have always done, sacrifice something dear to a power more omnipotent than our own.
Not that they had a clear idea exactly what connecting our very lives to a god abandoned for millennia upon millennia had in store for us. Of the three who entered that chamber since the first of my fathers and mothers all three perished. The first, a mighty warrior cut the rope used to lower him into the chamber and was never heard from again.
The second, a wily scout, agile and stealthy enough to steal the shadowed cloak from death himself. He went down with death’s cloak, invisible to the world and when he climbed back up the rope, the cloak had been shredded and his body was covered with pustules. The disease he died from killed everyone who saw him and hundreds of others besides. Only those who had been away from the keep were spared. If not for bravery exhibited by one stalwart young woman, the grand niece of the renowned scout, we would have returned to our nomadic ways.
This young woman, Aerfin Blackspot, studied arcane rites, seeking wisdom from beings beyond our ken. She was what your people call a wizard. After a fortnight, she agreed to enter Journey’s End and walked the halls for three days, neither sleeping nor fleeing. At the end of the three days she returned with the crown that had graced her king and assured the people that the plague had subsided. Then she handed the crown to her brother, a mighty warrior who became one of our greatest and most honorable kings. Unfortunately for the world, his sons were terrors, but that is another tale. This young woman then gave away all of her possessions but for a small satchel of food and her walking stick, and left Journey’s End vowing to seek out he who would right the world. She left a poem on the wall of the king’s chamber, written in his cooling blood. I put it down here for you, in case it has meaning.
Bells rang as the High King fell
The nine and sixty followed
Prince’s blood ran through the streets
the gentry burned in their beds
The man in white stepped forth
Demons rose in his wake
Sons and daughters slew their kin
Driven by a jealous fool
Chaos spread, sanity fled
As villages fed the flames
The man in white looked on
Millions died in envy’s wake
Fanatics burned the temples down
Zealots stalked the godly few
The pure were put to the blade
In the name of love most spurned
The man in white grew strong
Blood debt crippled the gods
Seven escaped the night of blades
Led by she who loved the Fool
In her grew the holy spark
an acolyte ascended
The man in white knew fear
Hope is rooted in love
Seven fled from keep to keep
Finding succor on the road
Paranoia broke the pact
and the world fell into night
The Man in White rejoiced
Hubris ends the golden age
These words stand today in the old king’s chambers, but those have been sealed for generations. Only I have entered those rooms in memory.
The third and final individual to enter the holiest of chambers since the night of blades was you, friend Merric.
And from that venture you brought forth a bauble which speaks to me in the voice of a god. What other miracles follow in your wake? What secrets haunt your dreams?
The stones were carvings of three scenes: A tableau of speckled stars upon a velvet sky, nothing more; three glyphs upon a door — open hand, burning eye, broken sword; and lastly a broken orb on a field of fire.
I would need to study these more, I think, to garner any true meaning. I folded the linens over the carved tablets and replaced them in my pack. The letter I kept out for Liz to read when we made camp. These I tucked inside my robes. I checked on Kithri whose chest rose and fell with breath. Small blessings. I just wish I could revive her.