The ruined castle stood at the edge of the glade, bathed in bars of red-gold sunlight. A smile crept across Tirha’s face as she stepped out from the thicket. The field between her and the structure was littered with mossy pillars of grey stone covered in glyphs. The temptation to break into a run and reach the castle pulled at her, but she composed herself. There was no competition here. She could take her time, and there was much to investigate right in front of her. Stepping away from the tree-line, she approached the first of the obelisks and took her sketchbook from her pouch.
“Magnificent,” she breathed as she squatted down and scraped the moss with her thumbnail to reveal the ancient engravings in the grooves. “Captain Calias!” she called over her shoulder. “You and your crew can take a rest. I will call you when I’m ready to enter the castle.” She didn’t hear her guard’s reply, already preoccupied by sketching out the patterns on the stone before her. It was remarkably easy to make out the markings, despite the years that had clearly worn at the stone. “Fascinating,” she whispered as she copied the markings.
Tirha looked up when a shadow was cast over her page. Captain Calias was a tall, stocky man, with shaggy black hair only partially contained by a leather cord, and a dashing, roguish beard. Looking at him, she couldn’t help but smile at his hard, brown eyes as they gave off an autumnal glow in the dusky light of the glade.
“I told you to take a break,” she chided playfully, rising slowly to her feet. She smoothed out her skirts and leaned flirtatiously back into the guard. He smelled of charcoal and soap.
Calias snorted, puffing air into her hair. “This entire job has been one long break, Professor.”
Tirha laughed and returned to her sketchbook. “I’m sorry I don’t go around chasing dragons these days.”
“I think I’m alright with this,” he said. He chuckled warmly in her ear and placed his hands on her arms gingerly. His scarred and calloused hands were warm against her skin. “So, what does your rock say?”
“It’s fascinating! See this script here? That’s clearly Jurielish –Second Empire script –”
“Clearly,” Calias sarcastically agreed.
“—but it references the Goddess Rings!”
The captain hesitated and looked skyward at the red-gold band that spanned the sky the sky from the northwest to the southeast. “Did… did the people of the Second Empire not look at the sky?”
Oh, the man is hopeless, Tirha thought to herself. “Don’t be silly,” she said, slapping ineffectually at his dull grey breastplate. “The rings didn’t form until near the fall of the Third Empire.”
“But this script suggests either an isolated culture that kept the old ways for thousands of years, or the existence of augers that far exceed –” she trailed off when she saw suffering smile on his face and the lack of any notable recognition. “Fine, fine,” she said, snapping her book shut. “Gather your people if you’re bored. I’ve been itching to get in that castle for months, now.”
“It’s a wonder you didn’t drop everything and rush the gate like an invading army.”
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.”
It didn’t take long for Calias to gather his mercenaries; the Lyceum regarded this expedition as a waste of time and resources, and since she refused to let any of the other professors share in her glory, they only endorsed six guards. Truly, she wouldn’t have brought any of them along if they hadn’t insisted she have some protection along the road. While she was glad for Calias and his team for the company –especially Calias himself, and his strong hands –she didn’t much care to sharing the discovery
The company followed Tirha to the fallen wall of moss-laden basalt, two of the guards pulling a cart across the glade behind her. Beyond the broken gate was a mostly barren courtyard, save for a solitary tree with bark like bleached bone and autumn leaves clinging to its skeletal branches. Directly across from the gate, set into the stone of a low, weather-worn cliff face, was a dilapidated awning that framed a door made of deep red crystal-wood. As they drew nearer, it became clear the door was splintered and swinging in the wind.
One of the mercenaries, a young man with sand colored hair, stepped out of formation and stepped protectively in front of Tirha.
“Is there a problem, Tam?” asked Calias.
“Aye, captain,” the young man responded. He knelt and traced a finger along crease lines along the splinters. “These splinters aren’t eroded, and this damage is consistent with a hammer blow.”
Calias gave Tirha a sidelong look, and the professor merely shrugged. “It’s crystal-wood,” she said. “Crystal-wood can resist erosion better than any other, and this door is protected from the elements. Besides, it took me six years of digging to piece together the clues to find this place. I’m sure we’re the only ones here.” The young mercenary seemed slightly mollified, relaxed slightly and fell back into line. Tirha was relieved. She didn’t need paranoid swordsmen jumping at shadows while she worked.
The broken door was a small, humble thing for a royal family. Only the splintered material hinted at the wealth and status of those who once sought their final refuge in this place. Beyond the threshold, the light cast by the sun didn’t taper and fade, but rather cut off suddenly into darkness blacker than pitch.
Tam reached into his pack and extracted a torch, passing it to Tirha. She nodded graciously and readied the light, and two of the guards used it to light their own. The gentle glow of the flame replaced the oppressive darkness with a merely gloomy one. The antechamber of the ruined palace was narrow –more of a corridor than anything –and lined with old banners, which had faded over centuries of neglect. Ancient books and scrolls formed dust-ridden piles on tables in alcoves along the walls.
Passing the torch back to Tam, Tirha made her way to the nearest collection of tomes and found one of the books was already open. Its text was faded, and its vellum pages were brittle under her fingertips, but not nearly so faded or as brittle as she would have expected from the years of exposure, and she was able to read the out-turned pages. Without taking the time for a proper translation, she was still able to recognize a few works of the script, something about a prophecy. She reached into a belt pouch, extracting a vile of translucent, red liquid and two tiny brushes, like those used for painting.
“Professor?” Calias asked nervously while Tirha applied the preserving agent to the book.
“Yes, captain?” she asked, only somewhat paying attention.
“We only have one cart to bring back to the Lyceum,” he reminded her. “You might want to look around and decide what you really want to bring. You came for something… specific, right?”
Tirha pursed her lips and sneered, thinking about the cart they had left in the glade. She looked at the pile of books in front of her. Disappointment welled up in front of her as visions of the untold hours she wanted to spend recording and translating the texts disappeared from her mind’s eye. But the captain was right, she had priorities.
“Very well,” she moped. “I’ll just do this one book, then we’ll look around.” She swept the dust off the vellum and the leather cover with delicate flicks of one of the small painter’s tools before applying the preservative onto the clean one. With a slow, practiced hand she applied the red liquid to the pages, spreading each brushstroke until it was gossamer-thin and pink before reapplying the substance. She wasn’t sure how long it took, and her guards were patient and disciplined enough not to rush her, so she took her time to make sure it was done properly. After the pages, she reinforced the leather spine and closed the book gingerly as possible.
She put the book gingerly in a special case in her pack. Turning, Tirha found her entire guard contingent had clustered closer to her, as if to protect her from any nefarious tapestries. She scowled and waved them off until they gave her sufficient breathing room. Without a word to any of them, she moved on down the chamber. As she walked, she observed the faded tapestries, wondering what the dust covered heraldry once represented.
At the end of the chamber, bathed in the light of the torches, was a set of crystal-wood double doors swaying slowly on their broken hinges. There had been a door barricade on the other side, which was naught but splinters, now.
Calias stepped in front of Tirha protectively. He had his hand affixed to the sword on his belt.
“Is there a problem, captain?” Tirha asked.
“This door was opened recently,” the guard said flatly.
Tirha was about to ask how he could be sure of that when the gravity of his words struck her. “Someone else is here?” she asked instead, unable to keep the anger entirely from her voice. “This is my site, dammit! No one is supposed to know about…” she trailed off, biting her lip.
“Calm down, professor,” Calias said, in a not-particularly calming tone. “They might not be here for the same reason. They may not even still be here.”
“So, you think it’s just looters,” she said disdainfully.
“Could be,” said Calias, as if not registering her tone. He waved two of his crew mates over –a middle aged woman with a severe face and a slightly younger man with no particularly remarkable features aside from an uncannily clean face – and snapped orders at them. “Ren, Vander, scout ahead. See if whoever did this is still lurking around.”
“Sir,” they acknowledged simultaneously before taking up another pair of torches and lighting them on Tam’s. They ducked between the broken doors and after a few steps, the light vanished from sight. Tirha gritted her teeth in frustration, wondering at whomever might have gotten in her way. She wasn’t sure whether she would be more annoyed by looters or other academics ruining her find, but either way, she was seething.
Taking a deep breath, Tirha led the remaining guards into the next room. After the narrow entry chamber, the new room was vast, with a ceiling high enough the torches couldn’t illuminate it. There was deteriorated, purple rug that ran from the door and up a dais to the opposite wall, and another that ran perpendicular to it through the middle of the room.
Vander and Ren were at opposite ends of the second carpet, investigating the closed doors on each side. Tirha led the rest straight across to the dais, upon which sat a dilapidated, ivory throne knocked over on its side. Behind the throne was a stairwell that would have been completely hidden from view if the magnanimous seat had been in place.
The guards took up positions in front and behind of Tirha as they made their way down the stairs. From the first step, the temperature plummeted, and the professor was grateful for the torches in such proximity. The stairs went down what felt like two stories in a tight-walled spiral before they reached an empty room about the size of her office back in the Lyceum. The opposite wall was inset with three, nested rings of stone at its center, each laden with carved images of stars and the lesser moons. Above the rings a depiction of Delis, the Great Moon, which had been deified during the tenure of the Second Empire.
The arrangement was wrong, however.
“Nothing here,” Calias said. “Must have been a safe room, or else whatever treasure was here was moved.”
Tirha pursed her lips, staring at the wall carving. After a moment’s deliberation, she said, “No.” She pointed at the rings, “It’s a vault.”
Calias stepped up and put his ear to the stone and slapped at it. Primitive man, Tirha thought. After a moment, he did so again. “So, how does it open?”
“Those rings. It was common for royalty to utilize puzzle locks during the Classic Imperial eras. Traditionally, only the royal family would know the proper pattern, but this looks like a star chart. I just need to figure out which constellation they might have chosen and turn those rings to match it.” She opened her satchel and began riffling through her papers.
“It’s the Warlord,” Calias said, without any hesitation in his voice.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The constellation,” the guard explained. “It’s the warlord. Delis is only directly overhead in the middle of summer, and the Twins are arranged on opposite sides of this same ring, so…” He pushed on the stone rings, and after a grunt of exertion, the stones began to rotate with a rumbling groan and surprisingly loud scraping that made Tirha wince. When the captain stopped, there was a loud snap-click and a section of the wall began to swing outward, slowly, scraping along the floor as it did so.
This isn’t a vault, Tirha realized. It’s a crypt. Sarcophagi lined the walls, a dozen in total. Curled up in the corner was a bundle of tattered velvet. The professor stepped into the chamber and examined the cloth, discovering it was a cape wrapped firmly around a shriveled, skeletal corpse that wore a bronze crown and what might have once been a fine tunic. A prince, perhaps? Whoever it had been, they had died doubled over and wrapped up on themselves, likely freezing or starving to death in the crypt. She wondered if he had been trapped inside by someone, or if he had chosen to hide from something in the crypt.
Something was glowing faintly in the corpse’s hand. Tirha opened the brittle, sinewy fingers with almost disturbing ease, revealing a gleam that might have been a jewel. She pried it out from the dead man’s clutches and was awestruck. On one side, it seemed to be metal, perfectly reflective, as though it had just been polished, fashioned into the shape of an eye. Flipping it over, it was entirely transparent, like glass, with an iridescent tint around the edges.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed. There was a pulsing, like a heartbeat, between her fingertips. “So beautiful.” This was, without doubt, what she had come to find. She was sure of it. She thumbed the pattern of the eye on the metal side while staring through the glass side.
A series of loud thuds broke here reverie. She clutched the eye tight between her fingers and held it to her chest protectively. Between her mercenaries and the stairwell was a massive wall of muscle shaped like a man that towered over the guards. It wasn’t that he was large that made Tirha’s legs tremble. It was that he was impossibly large. Pitiless, bare white eyes reflected the torchlight over a snarling face loomed over the party. The monster carried a massive, broad axe with an elongated blade that fanned out into a crescent. The edge was smeared with fresh blood.
“Run,” Calias whispered to Tirha in the moment before he charged at the pillar of pure muscle, sword in hand. The captain swung his blade up at the monster, but he didn’t reach him before the massive axe moved with impossible speed. There was a gut churning crunch as the monstrosity struck the captain with the broadside of his mighty weapon and sent him flying straight into the wall. He crumpled to the floor like a sack of potatoes, blood splattered around him. The nearest mercenary, a young woman named Kel, lunged at the attacker with a short sword, but was knocked aside by the haft of the axe.
A guard emerged from the stairwell –Vander, Tirha recognized through the cloud of terror fogging her mind –and swung and stabbed the behemoth in the ribs. With an inhuman noise that vaguely resembled a grunt of pain, the bestial man fell to one knee that boomed like thunder against the stone.
The order Calias had given her finally broke through the mire of her understanding, and she hitched her skirt with her free hand, still clutching the eye to her breast with the other. When she reached the stairs, she had to make her way in pitch darkness. She could hear the clamoring of swords and armor below, she heard the monster bellowing, Tam cursing, scattered screams and yelling, all growing distant as she tripped and scrambled her way up the stairs. Her heartbeat, her ragged breathing, and her clumsy ascension up the stairwell all eventually drowned out the sounds of the guards.
At least, she thought they had.
She knew the truth as soon as she heard the drum like thuds below. Her people were dead. And the killer was coming for her. She tore her skirt on a misstep but was able to course correct and fear had her moving faster. She heard the monster growing closer when she reached the top. Scrambling around the fallen throne, she all but leaped down the dais and made a run for the door. Through the double-doors, across the entry chamber she could see the outside world. Night had fallen, but the moons were bright. She lifted her skirts higher and ran as hard and fast as her legs would carry her. She was half way through the entry hall when she heard something crash hard behind her.
She staggered and nearly fell several times along that chamber, and again as she ran through the moonlit clearing, but she held ground. When she reached the tree line, she dared a look back to see her pursuer in the field. He was charging, fast as a raptor despite his girth.
Clutching the eye tight in her hand, she fled into the forest.