Monthly Archives: June 2015


Victavious and Amra

Victavious and Amra

Tavious When I met Amra it was a springtime chance encounter in one of the outlying provinces of the Grey Empire, the prosperous albeit hardworking township of Anspach; a place situated near the Schwartzwald border but still wholly contained within the Reichlands of the Old Grey Empire. The antiquated township houses roughly 5000 souls, and it lies crouched picturesquely in the lap of hills which lie to the north and upon the bank of the River Bogen.

But first I suffered our chance encounter with another, and only after having nearly split my crown as the result of a spill I’d taken from a most unruly nag. I had myself been on the move at the time, and I was still trying to place as much distance as possible between myself and those ruins that nearly had been the death of me; as such, I was still very much out of sorts having very nearly lost any derisory grasp I might have had on reality at that time, and by that I refer to reality as I understood it prior to my descent within that antiquarian abyss, but as much of what I had held sacrosanct had been proven false and I had yet to comprehend my own mind’s expansion I had taken to wallowing in despair with the realization that the world and the place I held in it had been dreadfully diminished by what the ruins had revealed to me. With all that had occurred within those newly discovered ruins, and more specifically my encounter with the gem, my perceptions had been expanded and some might even suggest that they had been warped, and to this day I can profess that my sense of time, the transgress of days, has indeed seemed distorted. Whether or not this is due to my own confusion or some enigmatic manipulation of time and space by the gem I cannot say, but I perceive it as if my every move were somehow larger and less within my control, as if I am walking forward but moving subtly sideways at the same time. In truth these thoughts still weigh heavily on my mind, but I have at least come to terms with it even as I struggle with my expanded comprehension, but then I was still quite a bit more fractured, and lacking focus until the nag I had borrowed threw me from my saddle.

At that moment, I was the unfortunately quarry of pursuit; I was being chased by advisors of one imperious Count Gumbert, the man for whom Castle Gumbertburg is named. To my way of thinking Count Gumbert is an odd man, seldom seen in public and prone to displays of what some would call erratic behavior and other would call outright bizarre. As it were, his men were giving chase which ultimately caused my skittish mount to buck while I were trying to cross beneath a low-hanging, but full-heavy bough which did at such time strike the crown of my head and cause me to lose consciousness. I awoke sometime later, no less than four hours by my best reckoning when I found myself a guest of the Count.

Master Smith of AnspachMy eyes opened to the proud green and yellow shield of Anspach, quadrants spread about a circle in alternating colors, each section marked appropriately top to bottom bell, antler, grain and flower, and then I saw not the Count but his advisor, Master Smith, or to be more accurate, the mask which hid his face. Master Smith is reputed to be a strange and terrible man known to wear an obscene plum colored hood and cape over a mask of iron that he uses to conceal his face. And on those occasions when the servitors of said advisor are very well beyond hearing, ’tis also whispered that the advisor’s face is so horribly scarred and ugly that those who chance upon him are much better off for the mask that he wears. As I woke, the advisor had begun questioning me incessantly, and I tried to explain that even before my fall I had already been addled and so the fullness of my recollections might at best be expected to be highly questionable and as such were likely to be very much in doubt; a fact which quickly drew the Master Smith’s ire and his sternest disapproval. He seemed to believe that I might be lying, and he seemed to believe that I might know a particular elf maiden by name of Amra and of whom he mentioned in passing might be a priestess of Freya. Needless to say while admitting nothing I acknowledged outwardly that I was certain that he had been right all along after I came to understand that the he correctly or not meant to hold me responsible for such information. As I understood it, my choices were either to admit everything I knew about the girl or to be dispatched immediately to the Count’s private asylum. Jokingly I acknowledge that it might not have been my finest moment, or even the wisest choice, but I offered up my own vague description: “Oh you mean that girl, Amra, a fair-haired elf, slight of form, who was more than easy on the eyes” … For so aren’t all elven maidens I thought to myself, without saying as much … By such deception I convinced my jailor that he should release me immediately so I might find Amra for him; a thing to which he agreed with the caveat that I must be accompanied by some of his men. Of course, I objected for all the good it did me, and in the end I was freed albeit with a small company of the advisor’s enforcers.

And so it was that I began to lead these strange gents through the backstreets of that town hither to unknown to me, Anspach. As we travelled together I began to regale my keepers with a fictional account about a guileful collection of miscreants known to me only as ‘The Hood’ of whom the members were spoken of only in the quietest whispers, and who, for better or worse, were by my best guess likely to sheltering our quarry …

Before I go on let me digress for a moment in regards the strangeness of the Master Smith’s men; it was not only the nature of their service that was unusual, but also the docile vacated way they followed the advisor’s every whim, and also in the weird way they had been marked. Each bore the same unique brand upon their foreheads; I might call it a wizard’s mark but in truth I hadn’t seen it before though I imagine would recognize it now if I were to see their like again. These men were made up of a combination of elves and dwarves; an uncommon collection in and of itself, but due to their inherent lack of curiosity evidenced by the dullness of their empty gazes it was clear my tale was having little effect, and it had failed to hold the ruffians attention for very long. Too soon they insisted that I deliver their prey immediately making another means of distraction a sudden necessity.

At that time I found myself at the head of a table within the worthy establishment appropriately called ‘The Wealthy Devil’ and while this place was not overly crowded, there was a smattering of regulars, the earthy folk of Anspach, and one of these was a young man I now call my friend, this being Quinth, but at that time I didn’t know him. Also up until that moment I hadn’t realized the nature of my most basic power, but I found it triggered, perhaps due to the combination of the boy’s openness and the desperate seriousness of my plight, but for whatever reason Quinth was quickly able to pick-up upon my earnest desperation as I discreetly panned the tavern searching for the means of my escape. Up until that moment I had never been able to reach directly into anyone’s mind, but there in the tavern I suddenly found that I could communicate all I needed to say to Quinth with just a glance and the firm press of my willful intention. Quinth, having never met me still readily agreed, all in silence, to give me aid. Perhaps it was because like me, he was no friend of Master Smith or maybe it was due to some other personal reason as of yet unbeknownst to me, regardless of why, he moved positioning himself between me of the door. Then it came upon me to risk pressing my new found ability even further, and by force of will alone I used my telepathy to implant a vision of unimaginable horror, a reflection of one of my recollections from my own descent, into the empty mind of my company’s leader. He reacted immediately wetting himself and quickly withdrew from my presence; as the eyes of his fellows followed his progress I ran. They reacted immediately giving chase, but I already had a step upon them, and that lead was made wider by the use of Quinth’s well-placed shoulder, thus I made my way out of the tavern ahead of my pursuers and used my lead to lose my attendants in the bustle of the town’s activity.

AmraAfterwards I began my own earnest search for Amra thinking I owed her fair warning in that her own plight had proved useful as the means of my escape, and in due time I was successful; I found her plying her altruism upon a distracted drunkard who had toddled over behind a rotting, fell-smelling box of soured vegetables within one of Anspach’s alleyways. The drunkard was a simple victim of his own excess, yet she had found him there in one of the poorest of Anspach’s locals. As I watched she placed one hand on the drunkard’s broken arm and one on a heart shaped necklace about her neck. I heard her pray to the gods for mercy for this man and for him to find love in the arms of his family instead of the demon bottle as she healed him. It was a wonder to watch as the bones knit back together beneath her healing touch.

Having found her I called out using the elf maiden’s name in hopeful anticipation that its hearing might confirm my success, and Amra rose turning towards me as I crossed through the alley. Without hesitation she reached out to me extending her pretty hand, even as I saw what I thought to be a hint of disappointment in blush of her cheeks. I imagined that she had been expecting someone other than I, but no matter for I was thrilled in that I had found her, and regardless she was generous enough not to recoil as she first saw me, a thing I would have been expected from a less enlightened soul. Her generous reaction caused me pause, as I thought to myself that such a woman should never be troubled by one so noisome as the Count’s advisor; especially given all that I had discovered about the miscreant’s fell purposes as I searched for Amra. During my search I had discovered that the advisor had meant to turn over my maiden over to the nefarious purposes of the Count himself, but I could not discern that man’s true purpose in seeking the girl, though I overheard rumors that he might have found fault with Amra’s predilection of offering unsolicited aid to scallywags such as the drunkard and myself, and I did confirm Master Smith’s stated complaint in writs that I had found posted throughout Anspach while I search for her. These writs stated she had been performing unlicensed marriages without the Count’s given acquiescence; a practice forbidden because it forestalled the Count’s established system; one in which he reserved the right of first conquest for himself or for his favored surrogates. A practice by which they rationalized the violation of a maiden’s chastity on her first night of matrimony … a repugnant practice even in the eyes of one such as I; moreover I believe this nebulous Count meant to bed the young priestess himself. Finding Amra I implored her to follow me at once lest she caught up in their tangle of defilement. Thankfully Amra heard and took my warning to heart, and despite some initial reservation, agreed to follow me out Anspach. I like to imagine that she was as taken by me as I myself had been enchanted by her. She was on that day not unlike a ray of sunshine upon that otherwise dreary day, a thing unchanged to this day for that is her true nature.

After the events of that day I took to hiding in the outskirts of Anspach, but I stayed close thinking that I should track down the boy who had helped me, he being Quinth; it is enough to say that ever since that day I have found myself enthralled by the young elven lass Amra, and of whom it turns out I had been right along, for she is fair-haired and slight of form, and more than easy on the eyes.

Victavious, the Ruins, & the Stone

Victavious, the Ruins, & the Stone

TaviousBefore I start, I admit, I cannot with any certainty convince either you or even myself, that I am not mad, and you would not be the first to question my sanity, nor I think the last. And I acknowledge my own strangeness, even considering that we are all amnesiacs in the least and some of us are worse, even far worse than that.

I trace the origins of my mental fatigue to the night I drew nigh some nameless ruin; upon sight I knew it was accursed. I had been traveling across a parched, dry valley under the light of the moon, and I was already an exile due to my questionable heredity and my appearance and hence I was quite literally outcast. For this reason and more I was alone I had left the port city of the Harbor of Grace in Bretonia moving through and beyond the wild brambles of the marshlands, and I had already worked my way over the jagged hills that surround them. I was afar from any civilized place when I first saw the ruins protruding uncannily above the newly cracked surface of an otherwise dry and parched plain. My reason for leaving and the new revelation of the ruins was the same; a recent trembling of the earth had given rise to concerns among the more superstitious folk of Bretonia, leaving them anxious to find a scapegoat upon whom to focus and vent their ignorant accusations. Given both my diabolic nature and my outward appearance I was the perfect choice, and so I opted to leave their company in a hurry rather than to press my luck staying where I wasn’t welcome. I think it likely my ruins had been exposed by these same trembling’s. I found them there, on the far side of the hills in the middle of an otherwise desolate plain that locals shunned for reasons unknown to me. The ruins stood out before me like the skeleton of some long lost people the earth was only now suddenly anxious to expunge. They stood out, rejected like the unhallowed portions of a forgotten corpse left protruding from an ill-made grave. Fear spoke to me from those exposed, age-worn stones which I saw projecting there, hoary survivors of the deluge which still to this day drowned the wetlands south and west of me, but along with my initial repulsion, the exposed ruins also fascinated me, bidding me to continue with taunts of their hidden secrets, secrets long lost, and covered beneath the earth of this place. Silently I imagined to myself that no one living had even been witness to what was now before me, and so I could not bring myself to turn away having stumbled upon this one chance to explore a place where no one living had ever seen and fewer yet would even dare to approach.

I am no hero, and to be honest, I have fewer worries than most with no one to answer to but myself. Even like now, I was a foreigner, a traveler with no real home, and a more encumbered, wiser man would likely have turned away, but without these concerns I rejected any worry I felt and determined to explore the ruins, and so began my descent not only into that dark crease in the earth, the gulf where the ruin lied having been revealed by recent days of upheaval, but also my descent in that which you perceive as my inane madness.

Sparse RuinsAt first the ruins were sparse and unrepresentative of the majority, that which yet remained hidden deeper, crumbling and inarticulate beneath the ground. There were some low walls mostly hidden by the dirt, all newly exposed; they were partially covered with drying mud, the remnant of moisture previous trapped far beneath the surface were it had remained hidden for uncounted centuries from a time when the wasteland had been a part of the fertile plain before the first stones of the still living cities of the Hell Hound had been laid. I reasoned that the ruins must be ancient, from a forgotten age, an age that came before the first bricks of Bretonia had ever been baked for even now I know of no legends so old or sage so studious to give my ruins a name, or any sure knowledge of any people who claim to have lived there, but I have heard told among whispers around campfires and muttered about by sages that these lands were cursed long ago and it is said that is why they are so shunned, even when those who are now living can’t tell anyone why. I didn’t know it at the time, but these same ruins were to be the place that I first dreamed of those things I have been loathed to describe to you or to any other, and to which this couplet implies:

“That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons death may die.”

I should have known there was good reason to shun this forbidding land, the same good reason so few before or after me had bothered to test my story, and as I’ve described, I was alone, and so only I saw it. That is why neither you nor any other knows what I know or bears the burden which I alone carry. You will find no one else who can confirm my tale, nor will you find anyone else who is tormented by visions such as me. Even now, I have only offer you the merest hints regarding my nightmares, and you should really count yourself lucky. It was what I found within the ruins that gave rise to my fearful delirium; a thing, or things you should be thankful that you haven’t seen things of a sort that you can never unsee. I am not by nature a fearful man, neither am I driven to frequent squeamish flights of needless fancy, or bouts of exaggerated imagination; it is not these sort of terrors that cause me shivers in the night. It is only that I know a deeper, darker truth; things of the type I believe now based on your responses, might truly be left best unspoken. And so my friends I ask you, now while the choice is still yours, should I go on?

Part II

QuinthQuinth half-feinting disinterest answers saying, “You’ve already started, and nothing you’ve said has been so very frightening yet. You might as well tell us so we can be done with this.”

“I will continue, but understand the point of this is not to scare you for this is no fireside tale. There will be no dark elf with a hooked hand sneaking up behind you to open your throat. This is not a tale of random physical horror; the fearful thing about that which I am speaking are the grim ramifications of these things of which I speak. There are things that exist, older than your gods, darker and more forbidding than demons or devils, more twisted than any fairytale; things that exist beyond any of this, and they don’t care about you or your beliefs or plans. They exist beyond us, be they patient or sleeping, and yet at least I can no longer deny their existence, for all around us I have seen their handiwork. And now you tell me you would understand the source of my distress, and because you are my friend, so shall I tell you. Whether you will be thankful or not, I do not know.”

Since my adventure in the ruins I have not slept fully or wholly through a single night without at a measure of at least some restive shivers, of a type caused by visions, too horribly and overwhelming to ignore, and so while I, yes … am of devilish stock myself, still at most times now I find myself dreading the approach night while most others welcome the sweet release of the dreams that come with each night’s embrace. For me that is the worst time, the time my defenses are at their lowest; it is then that they most often chose to come for me but I will tell you more of that later.

As it was I had come upon the ruins and as I did they were ghastly still; they were still caught within their own unending, uninterrupted sleep. I found myself suddenly chilled as I neared, my way was lit by the pale rays of the moon, but it was cold, even considering the warmth of the surrounding plain. And as I climbed down amidst the ruins I soon forgot any fleeting feeling of triumph at having found this place as I began to reconsider my present course. Quickly I determined it would be better to wait for the coming dawn before proceeded further, and so, I ended up waiting several hours, till the West grew grey and the stars faded, and the grey transformed into rosy colored light, edged with gold, but then I heard a deep moan and saw a stirring deep among the exposed stonework, a blasted brown cloud of dirt, erupting from the ruins even as the sky above me was clear; then the cloud was gone as if it was drawn, sucked downward by the rent in surface of the ground marked by the ruins.

Ancient wreckageThe pull of the wind was significant, so much so that it could not be ignored; it was as if it the ground was breathing, sucking down one last desperate breath, a hidden titan buried in the endless depths below. I crouched low shivering in the cold morning air where I was stationed, just below the gutted earth having already begun my descent during night. The press of the wind passed quickly, well before the blazing edge of the sun dared show itself above the crevice peering in brightly lighting my way, but at that time when the winds stopped, upon its termination I fancied that I heard the faintest grating sound just before the ground shook once more violently; the wind vanished with a trailing whisper of almost musical yet sinisterly piping from somewhere deeper in the remote depths of the fissure, but the sound faded quickly and when all was silent I proceeded, but my goal had changed. I was no longer anxious to delve deeper; my inclination was to search out an escape from the cleft. My instinct had finally kicked in informing me that I should be on my way and far from this place, but in my rush I only managed to lose my footing and so I found myself sliding swiftly down a steep incline.

This fall was beyond my control, rather than stopping I was gaining speed, sinking deeper still, falling for an interminable period of time until I finally stopped at a depth unknown to me. I was both shocked and relived to find myself still alive as debris rained down about me. I clenched my teeth, for long moments huddled in the dark, pressing myself to the nearest dark wall, as the ancient wreckage continued to fall from above both behind and to either side of me, and when it did I imagined I was hearing another undertone, the insuppressible sound of the horrid piping. After the debris finally settled I found I was trembling uncontrollably, but then still kneeling I realized the piping was gone and I found that by focusing on labored breaths, quieting them and allowing time for my diabolic eyes to adjust to the darkness I was soon able to calm myself for in dark places of the world my eyes have always served me well, and looking about a pathway was revealed.

With my eyes adjusted I found that the ruins had opened up before me exposing the base of shapeless foundations, but I couldn’t find any carvings or inscriptions to tell me anything about the men that had built this place, if men they were, who built this hidden place so long ago. The very antiquity of the spot seemed somehow unwholesome. I longed to find any sign that might provide clues to what had come here before me. Being a tiefling, things of either a diabolic or demoniac nature held for me no great dread, and certainly much less so than either might for a gentler soul, yet in this place I had already begun to perceive that there were things worse and more horrible than anything I had previously imagined; yes, and even things older and more terrible than anything within either Hel or the Endless Abyss offered. There I found myself within that structure wherein I found there were certain proportions and dimensions that I did not like. I took an accounting of my gear, noting much of it had been lost during my fall, and so I had very few tools with which to work, and so I was forced to dig myself free by hand making my progress slow, and after I finally extricated myself I still could find nothing of any significance, and by that I mean nothing that might help me escape.

Hours passed and I had begun to wander, but even so I found no egress; nowhere from which I might ascend from the depths to which I’d fallen. Soon I became thirsty, but discovered that I had also lost my cache of water; with my throat already dry and parched, I quickly tired, and long before I was ready to stop.

The sun had quickly worked its way past the alternate edge of the cleft, and as it passed the ruins were once again cloaked in the deepening shadows of the afternoon which only added to my difficulties, and all but ending any hope I had of a quick or easy escape. It was thus that night and the moon eventually found me, and with them came a sudden crash, the doomsday chime of metal on stone and with it the sudden rush of a chill harsh wind, strange enigmatic and more powerful than ever before.

My concern quickly turned to a gnawing fear that began to tighten within my core, coiling like a living thing. Having surrendered any hope of escape, I sought whatever shelter I could find and closed my eyes tight as the mournful press when the piping began, that damnable alien sound rising up from the open, depths of nether blackness; rising with the wind, a violent, purposeful blast belching savagely and frigidly from that abominable gulf from whence the obscene whistling came. The very sound of it threatened my sanity trapped as I was within the smothering dark of the ruins. I have never been a believer in prayer, but I if I had been, I would have pleaded for the sweet release of unconsciousness; instead I steeled myself against the cold, pressing into the old grey stones certain in knowledge that there was still a world above me lit by the bright light of moon hanging in the sky somewhere far above me, and that under that moon the night was clear and unmolested even while in the depths I was being tormented by the unnatural storm.

NightgauntsAncient PyramidsEventually, I did fall asleep, but I was worse for it, because my dreams had become polluted, just as they have been every night since. I was greeted by a legion of black rubbery things, horned, and slender. The phantasms fell upon me lifting me easily out of the crypt in to which I’d fallen, and they carried me over ghastly landscape dressed in visions of a time before man; they carried me retracing my path, flying over the hills and past the marshes. These things that had me bore a vaguely human shape, but they had diabolic, with membranous wings, clawed hands and barbed tails, all of which seemed familiar enough, but worst of all this was their faces, for where they should be they had none; I was carried aloft in their obscene clutch, a grip that both titillated and stung my flesh horribly; it caused my shoulders to burn like acid oozing in an open wound. The monstrous journey carried me over the grey world as it had existed before time was counted, and it was a place drawn deep from Nightmare’s well. All the while the servants of the night were deathly silent and heedless of my cries … Below me I bore witness to the land of Yig, and of the primitive lizard-folk and the serpent-people they worshipped. Yet somehow I also knew that my own ruins where not at any time theirs, but rather the ruins were older still, and feared as much by the fell folk toiling below me as the same land was now shunned by the people of my own day.

Then with a sudden start I awakened just at dawn from my pageant of horrible visions, my ears ringing as from some forgotten metallic peal. I was thankful in that the wind was gone, and that I did not hear piping. I saw the sun was again peering redly above me and as I took note of the marked quietness of moment. Tentatively I rose, finding myself weakened, and even thirstier than before, and for the first time I thought I might die of drought before anything else; seeking to avoid such a fate, I braced myself and renewed my quest to find any available egress from my brooding ruins.

Again I found my hope dwindling as the ruins swelled around me; they were like an ogre trying to drape itself with an overly small coverlet; everywhere I looked they expanded. Vainly I searched for a clear path, and at what I guessed to be noon I rested. In the afternoon I continued spending more time retracing my earlier steps and taking time to study the walls. I had begun to begrudgingly acknowledge the greatness of the ruins for they had once been mighty indeed, and wondered anew at the engineers who had designed them. I tried to picture the ruins in all the splendor of their age, but I could not in truth imagine it struggling as I was with the growing sense that I was doomed and fated to die amid these grey carven stones. For a moment then I almost gave up when I discovered a place where the bedrock descended starkly forming a low cliff, there upon the cliff was I saw the first traces of the primeval people who had lived here hewn crudely upon the face of the cliff above and below the unmistakable facades of several small, squat rock entrances whose interiors might yet preserve answers to the mysteries of the ruins and or the means of my escape. Unfortunately, the harsh winds of this place had long ago effaced the carvings to such a degree that I could not in fact make any sense of that which had been left so without much delay I made for the nearest opening hoping to drive deeper for the answers I was seeking.

Carefully, I started working my was down to the openings, the first of these I found had a very low ceiling, and a dirt-choked aperture, it having been the entrance nearest to me as I descended, but the entrance was so clogged I had to clear the egress as best I could using only my dagger and having done so I crawled through relying on only my darkvision to reveal whatever mysteries it might hold. When I was fully inside I found that it opened up massively, having the appearance of a low wide temple, and for the first time I beheld plain signs of the former occupants whom had lived, and likely worshipped there back in a time when the plains above were fertile. Soon I found what looked like a primitive altar surrounded by pillars and niches, but the entire chamber was curiously low, and given the limits of my vision I couldn’t make out any of the sculptures or frescoes, but I did find many singular stones clearly shaped into unrecognizable symbols by determined and skillful if primitive craftsmanship. The lowness of the chiseled chamber was very strange, for I could only hardly kneel upright and the area was so large that I could not take it all in at once and so I had to move searching the chamber in sections, hunching over, checking each section, one corner at time. Uncharacteristically I found myself shuddering, and not due to the temperature which for the moment was comfortable enough, but rather due to a lingering air present within the room an aura that suggested forgotten rites of a terrible revolting and inexplicable nature that caused me wonder as to what manner of men could have put such a temple to use. After I had seen all that the place contained, I crawled out again, still anxious, even drier … my tongue heavy and parched, my head aching, and yet with my hope renewed even as I grew dizzy and faint.

Outside the night had approached, a thing no longer which was given my location easily discernable to me, somehow my curiosity was peaking and had grown stronger than my fear, I was tired, desperately thirsty, but still restless; I decided to continue with task at hand, presently focused on finding more of the vague stones and symbols, hoping that they might provide some means of deliverance, but instead searching a second chamber I found another broad low ceiling, but this new chamber ended in a narrow passage crowded with more obscure and cryptic shrines. About these shrines I was prying when the noisome moaning began anew and a cold wind started to blow breaking the stillness of the air; given its direction and aspect that source of the wind was suddenly clear that being a narrow tunnel on the far side of this very chamber. Just the thought of which was enough to cause my heart to skip a beat making me fearful to follow its source, but knowing what I must do, I dropped to my hands and knees and I began crawling like a frightened beast as quickly as I could down the narrow low passage hoping to pass entirely though it before the wind came in force.

I would not have entered had I any choice, not against the terrific force of the icy wind, but where I was I had no cover were and instinct had taken over driving me forward, and somehow I had known I would have only that one chance to cross. I knew if I hesitated in anyway, I would have been undone, and I would have never been able to pass. The passage was infinitely dark. I clawed madly at the ancient stones; their rough surface tore at my clothing as I scuttled through crab-like. The air beginning to move faster as it sighed uncannily, and then I heard the telling crash of metal on stone and immediately the wind struck me head-on like a hammer and I began to slide backward as the harsh icy wind furiously ripped through my hair; my heart was racing in my chest, my breathing became labored, and too shallow, leaving me breathless as I scurried. Maybe it was because my body had already been starved of moisture, or maybe it was some aftereffect of thickening blood circulating in my veins, but I began imagining terrible phantasms of delirium such that any other man might suffer in such a descent as deprived of moisture as I. It seemed the narrow passage had slanted downward steeply into the infinite darkness; I was losing track of time and distance, lost in the frigid press of the winds that had begun to drive me backwards; the same winds that had been powerful enough to wear away at the stonework defacing the frescos.

I knew I needed to find cover, in the dark I began shuffling, side-to-side, creeping hither and thither randomly searching at narrow passage’s walls. I found the passage to be lined with cases that felt like petrified wood with glass fronts. It felt strange to imagine such things as polished wood and glass in such abundance in a place like this; I shuddered at the implications. The cases were apparently ranged along each side of the passage at regular intervals, and they were oblong and horizontal, hideously shaped like coffins in design and size. When I tried to move two or three for further examination, I found that they were firmly fastened and far too heavy for me to move, sheltered as they were within sleeves of heavy thick stone, and thankfully I found there was just enough space in-between the cases for me to squeeze myself in taking a modicum of cover from the biting wind; tucked within one such niche my consciousness quickly fled as I heard a voice whispering evil counsel, soothing my damnable insentience with a rhythmical promise that it repeated over and over until I yielded to its embrace:

Slumber, watcher, till the spheres,
Six and twenty thousand years
Have revolved, for my return:
From this spot where now I yearn;
Other stars anon shall rise
To the axis of the skies;
Stars that soothe and stars that bless
With a sweet forgetfulness:
Only when this round is over
Shall I emerge to disturb thy door.

Vainly I struggled in my sleep until suddenly I was awakened by a crash, and in my mind’s eye I saw a heavy circular trapdoor, sealed shut, banded by metal bands, and this vision filled me completely with an inexplicable sense of peril. Seeking to connect the strange words with some lore regarding the trapdoor my head rang out, heavy and reeling, drooped to my chest, and when next I looked up my eyes had found some method of defeating the ruins endless reservoir of darkness. At first I asked myself if I was still dreaming. Taking further measure of my surroundings with indescribable emotion I realized that I could see. Whether by my imagination or by real sight I couldn’t be certain; but there came a gradual glow ahead, and all at once I saw the dim outlines of the narrow corridor and the cases, they were revealed by some here before unknown subterranean phosphorescence. For a little while all was exactly as I had imagined it, since the glow was very faint; but as I mechanically fell out of the niche I’d occupied, enough begin a new struggle as I renewed my stumbles, I crawled slowly ahead seeking after the source of stronger light and I came to realize that my previous fancy had been but a feeble attempt to comprehend my surroundings. The hall was in fact not the relic of crudity as I had imagined, but rather a monument of the most magnificent and exotic art I had ever encountered. Rich, vivid, and daringly fantastic designs and pictures formed a continuous scheme of mural paintings whose lines and colors were beyond my ability to describe. The cases were of a strange golden wood, with fronts of exquisite glass, and containing the mummified forms of creatures outreaching the grotesqueness the most chaotic dreams I had ever imagined.

MonstrositiesTo convey any idea of these monstrosities is difficult, but they were of reptile kind, with body lines similar yet different from our lizardmen suggesting sometimes the crocodile and other times the serpent, but in all cases at least more or less like a man; their fore-legs bore delicate and evident dexterity like human hands and fingers. But strangest of all were their heads and bodies, which presented a contour violating any known principles or patterns. To nothing I know can such things be well compared, in one flash I thought of comparisons as varied as the cat, a frog or other mythic beasts, along with the human portions. Some had horns and others were almost noseless or with alligator-like jaws, and still others I would place outside any known category. In my delirium I debated for a time on the reality of the mummies, half suspecting as I’ve said prior that I might still be sleeping; but in my pain I came to believe that I must be both alive and awake. To crown their grotesqueness, most of the mummies were gorgeously enrobed in the costliest of fabrics, and lavishly laden with ornaments of gold, jewels, and unknown shining metals.

The importance of these crawling creatures must have been vast, for their history had been captured within the designs of the frescoed walls and ceiling and done with such matchless skill to describe the cities and gardens which they had fashioned to suit their dimensions. The artwork seemed to be allegorical, demonstrative of their progress through the time in which these creatures had thrived. These creatures, I said to myself, had been the men of their day. Holding this view, I could trace roughly the epic of their metropolis, a place that existed, ruling the world before you or I had ever been imagined.

I saw their triumphs and their defeats leading to a terrible fight against a thing that had come from the night sky above and during this final battle they had turned against each other in the most vicious and horrible ways imaginable; in ways no sane person would dare consider. It was as if they were an allegory for me now, these grotesque reptiles – were driven to chisel their way down though the rocks in some ingenious manner necessitated by the chaos of their world above, digging deep beneath the surface whereof their prophets had told them to go. It was all vividly weird and realistic, and its connection with the awesome descent I had made was unmistakable. I even imagined that I could even recognize the passages I had crossed in their murals.

I continued creeping slowly along the corridor following the brighter light I saw later stages of the painted epic – the race whose souls shrank from quitting scenes of their bodies; these marvelous engineers fall into abject barbarism and the most primitive acts of cannibalism, but never ceasing their fell worship of their dark elder gods, gods that seemed not to care in the slightest of their plight. Many of things described were peculiar and inexplicable. Their civilization, which had at one time included a written alphabet, had seemed to have risen to a higher order immeasurably more advanced than that of all modern civilizations with many of the glyphs and symbols I recognized from my earlier examination of the symbols, or perhaps even from the most ancient writing have seen elsewhere but have never truly comprehended, and maybe other wiser sages, or perhaps the elves could say otherwise, but for me at least their writings seemed flawless, amazing and beyond anything I had even seen, yet there also seemed to be curious omissions. I could, for example, find no pictures to represent deaths or funeral customs, save such as were related to wars, violence, and plagues; and I wondered at the reticence shown concerning natural death. It was as though an ideal of immortality had been fostered as some cheering illusion among the people of that time.

DecadenceAs I drew nearer to the end of the passage the painted scenes began to contrast with their early extravagance in line with the peoples fall and the growing spread of their ruin. They had hewn their way through stone and the world above them had been abandoned, the valley was deserted as they began their slow descent in their artistic anticlimax. The paintings became less skillful, and much more bizarre than even the wildest of the earlier scenes. They seemed to record a slow decadence of the ancient stock, coupled with a growing ferocity toward the outside world from which had driven them underground. The forms of the people – always shown as advance reptilian stock – appeared to be gradually wasting away, though their bodies suffer some corruption in measure with the spirit of the once proud people as they were consumed by the very ruins they had designed. And in a final scene their emaciated priests, displayed as primitive reptiles in ornate robes, with little to distinguish them from the lizardmen we just fought, cursed the upper air and all who breathed it; and one terrible final scene shewed a primitive-looking man of a type with which we are all familiar, in which they tore him to pieces, a sacrificing him to their fell elder gods.

Lost in this all had been my weakness, but it came back upon me threefold as the pageant of the mural history ended and I approached very closely to the end of the low-ceiled passage, just as I became aware of another opening ahead of me. I paused again reconsidering the skill of those who had built this place, perhaps even surpassing the skill of dwarves edifices of exorbitant grandeur which at least to my way of thinking had never matched the centricity of this place to those for whom it had been designed, or within which had been demonstrated the artistry located with these ruin’s frescos especially considering the uncounted aeons that the ruins had lied dormant beneath the earth. Then I recalled the horrific wind, this time in its absence, noticing that it had once again blown out after I had fallen faint and ill for lack of water, and suddenly I felt again as dry as the crypt bound mummies I’d passed.

Trembling, and still stumbling, I made for the tight exit from the passage, but my body defied me, and involuntarily I dropped down on all fours, my body quivering. I, a tiefling, a wanderer, a haunter of far, ancient, and forbidding places, could not at that moment bring myself to step forward. I beheld the low arch, beyond it the phosphorescence spread lighting the chamber beyond more clearly than the passage wherein I lied, and the chamber beyond was clearly more expansive, but at present my mind was whirling with mad thoughts, and with the words of the warning from my recent nightmare until finally I could take it no more and by the greatest act of my will forced first one hand forward with as much care as I could muster, and then the other, followed by a leg and so on, and thus in silence I advanced.

As I crawled through the opening, I cried aloud in transcendent amazement at what lay beyond; for instead of another brighter chamber there was only an illimitable void of uniform radiance, such one might fancy when gazing into a sea of sunlit mist. Behind me was the passage had been so cramped and dark that I could barely see or stand upright, it compared starkly to this new wide, rounded chamber of infinite, blinding subterranean effulgence, so bright was it that until that moment that I entered I had failed to see the great brazen gate affixed to the center of the wall on the opposite side of the chamber from the point I had entered, nor had I seen the trapdoor set askew by the earth’s recent heaving’s, the trapdoor waiting in the center of the chamber’s floor.

Any ability I had to track time had been lost to my delirium and so I had no comprehension of the length of time that had past while I had examined the murals. For me time had quite ceased to exist. Then suddenly there came another burst of the same acute fear which had intermittently seized me ever since I first found the ruins. Again it was no physical horror, not the terror I had felt crawling through the dark in that cramped corridor of dead reptiles, but rather the horror of the obscure, the indirect voice of my dream, that thing almost heard, an indistinct calling, a thing converging upon the trapdoor that somehow I knew had been built never to be opened for it was sealed down not only with metal bands attesting to its special peril, but also by a mystic seal, an elder sign I did not recognize. I felt it mocking me, challenging me to open it that it might blast my soul asunder. Even given this fell-portent and my dilapidated condition; perhaps as the last act of a devil’s arrogance or my own regrettable ignorance, I found it in myself to ask might that door be the key to my escape.

I had, by this time, surrendered that world above me; it was lost to me, for even if I had known the way out neither my body or what was left of my mind were in any condition to make the ascent; I knew both were at that moment failing. I was miles below the surface of the world I knew encapsulated within another world of eerie light and mist, but then, with a start my ruminations ceased as my circumstance again came into sudden and clear focus; frightfully issuing through the brazen gate I became conscious of an increasing draft of cold air, and at the same time the still greater shock in the form of a definite sound – the first which broke the utter silence of chamber. It was a deep, low moaning together with hint of a distant melodious piping; together these sounds along with the cold breeze filled me with almost lethal dread.

As my knees buckled I sank prone to the stone floor, my mind was also aflame; it was as if my death-like exhaustion chose that moment to overtake me. My strength ebbing, I scrambled for the trapdoor. As I reached the door I know I glared upon the ancient sigil or glyph etched upon it, but I was blinded by pain and I was beyond caring. I grabbed the door’s recessed handle and pulled at as I stood, pulled with all my might. To my surprise the door opened easily, it was as if it wanted to be opened. Extending down passed the trapdoor sank a dark abyss revealed as a series of steep steps – small numerous steps lit near the entrance for a few feet by the glowing vapors, but beyond the glow everything was still concealed in complete darkness. I commenced to climb cautiously down the steep passage, feet first, as though on a ladder. As I descended into the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemonic lore but nothing I had ever read or studied had prepared me for that which I was encountering or offered any hint as the purpose of the glyph which I had ignored.

The GemstoneI was trembling as I thought about the countless ages through which the trapdoor had kept its silent vigil here deep in the depths below the deserted ruin. I was crossing into ancientness so unknowable that it would never be counted or measured. In the chamber above the sounds had grown louder, they were reverberating such that I could feel it through the stonework as much as hear it. I didn’t realize at the time that I had already pinched my eyes shut against it as if by doing so might help me ignore it which of course was ridiculous in the inky blackness of my pit, but people do foolish things when they are scared. I don’t know how far I descended, but the pit was deep and the way was difficult, almost impossible given the weakness of my body; eventually I lost my grip and I fell; I was buffeted by the stone step and I imagined again that I was about to die, but sooner than I expected I crashed upon a solid bottom and I realized that my eyes had been shut, after the shock of my landing forced them open.

I found myself standing on the bottom of a seamless black vault about sixty feet square, wherein rose a curiously angled stone pillar some four feet in height and two in average diameter stood; it was covered on each side with bizarre, crudely incised, and wholly unrecognizable hieroglyphs. Upon this pillar rested a metal box of peculiarly asymmetrical form; its hinged lid was already thrown back and the glow of something inside the box was lighting the chamber. I stood and approached, limping feebly as I did so. I could see that the interior of the box held what looked to be an egg-sized crystal, the thing that was the source of the chamber’s illumination. When I was close enough, as if I were in a daze, I reached down and grabbed the gemstone to which a curious pageantry began to play in my mind. I saw processions of robed, hooded figures whose outlines were inhuman, and looked on endless leagues of desert lined with carved, sky-reaching monoliths. I saw towers and walls in nighted depths under the sea, and vortices of space where wisps of black mist floated before thin shimmering’s of cold purple haze of a great nebula. And beyond all else I glimpsed an infinite gulf of darkness, where solid and semi-solid forms were known only by their windy stirrings, and cloudy patterns of force seemed to superimpose order on chaos and hold forth a key to all the paradoxes and arcana of the worlds both known and unknown.

Then all at once the spell was broken by the introduction of a sudden gnawing, indeterminate panic fear with the sound of a thunderous clang above. Almost instantly I was beset by thousands of new terrors and apprehensions, things not born of my imagination, but those issued by the malignancy of the blast above. Quickly I awoke from my stupor, the last fancy of which had been an internal comparison in which I had placed myself in the position of the only human image I had seen in the frightful murals located in the ruins above such that I was the man who was being torn to pieces by the nameless reptilian race that was depicted there with me within the chamber came the fiendish claws of the swirling currents, they were there in the wind, abiding with endless vindictive rage. I realized at that moment I had taken the gem in hand and I was holding it out before me, and for the first time I noticed that it had been set upon a base of metal, the fabrication of some unknown alloy; the base circular at the top immediately beneath the base of the stone, but below that it ended in a sharpened, pointed, two and half inch dagger-like base which up until that moment had been concealed by the fabric the gem had rested upon in the box.

Unconsciously I had already angled the sharpened base at the center of my chest, and I think I screamed frantically at my end, but I was very nearly mad and if I did my cries were lost in the hell-born babel of the howling wind-born wraiths that had effortlessly descended down into the pit. I was backing away in the face of their approach, shrinking away from that murderous torrent, with gem in hand I could finally see them, see them in all their horrendous fury within that rushing wind – cacodaemoniacal – their voices filled with the heinous pent-up viciousness born of a desolate eternity. Presently their voices, while still chaotic before me, seemed to my beating brain forcing it to give them some articulate form as they circled around me in that swirling wind, and in that moment I recognized them; I knew them for what they were, the unnumbered aeon-dead kept there leagues below the dawn-lit world of men. I heard their ghastly cursing, in the snarl of these strange-tongued fiends, and with my eyes-wide open I saw them outlines within the luminous mist drawn from the abyss, I saw that which I could not see elsewhere – a nightmare horde of rushing half-human reptiles; distorted by hate, grotesquely panoplied, half transparent spirits of the race there was no way I might mistake – the crawling reptile-things of the world before man. And heedless of the consequence I thrust the pointy end of the gem’s base into my chest and the clear crystal took on a crimsoned hue as I mouthed these words reflexively:

“That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons death may die.”

Sleight of Hand ManThe world around me went silent, the wind died away; I was plunged into a pool of darkness, and then I rose out of earth’s bowels; behind me there one final note, the great brazen door clanging shut with a deafening peal of metallic, sweet music whose reverberations swelled out from the ruins joining me for a moment in the darkness. My shoulders were burning under the pressure of the nightgaunt’s claws lifting me into the air and then I fell once more into darkness and as I did for the first time I felt his eyes upon me; he was coming, coming out of the deep inner desert. The strange dark One, and as he approached wild beasts followed him, licking at his hand as he answered:

Slumber, watcher, till the spheres,
Six and twenty thousand years
Have revolved, for my return:
From this spot where now I burn;
Other stars anon shall rise
To the axis of the skies;
Stars that soothe and stars that bless
With a sweet forgetfulness:
And now my wait is all but done
And now with your death the end’s begun.

After the crash of the gate, after my fall through the ebony dark, and beyond the shrieking of the things which had not been men, I felt a tempestuous wind blowing, chilling me; I opened my eyes staring in the face of the morning breeze which was coming out of the East. I was crouched upon an ancient slab of stone which had been surrendered by the underworld in the wake of the earth’s recent writhing. It was morning, and I was awake. Absently I reached for my waterskin and drank greedily, admittedly too fast, cold water in good measure poured overflowed from my mouth and spilled upon me; somehow I had escaped. Addressing myself, it seemed I was whole, though my clothing was ripped and torn including a small hole in the center of my chest and I was not alone, and I fear I shall never be alone again.