This is not meant to be a memoir. Yet, I must share some things about myself.
A few friends of merit have noted that I am in fact reaching the evening of life, and despite the incidental rudeness, I consider prudent their advice to compose a trove of missives directing the well-inclined on how to account for this, my humble “vault” of the history of Terminus - and a few things beyond.
I have always begrudged the names draped over this office, for I consider myself not of repute, renown or even regard. I was never meant to wear armor and I was never meant to hold a title. Yet I have stood accused as a thief, blasphemer, usurper and general malfeasant in several courts and one tribunal (though in most cases I was fortunately acquitted, and in one, rescued). More than once I’ve been approached by unprincipled men with offers to elevate my status by “simply” recording events more or less favorably. (To wit, Festus of High Brace is a fraud, at least in this day. In years past I esteemed him a companion in the archival devotion and a friend outside of it. Sadly, like too many he has heard the clink of gold preferable to the rustle of pages and spins his myths for a deplorable profit. I say this only to bid the reader warning if he or she should seek to combine our respective collections - and also to shame him). To this end I hardly allow myself to take any patronage, for I am a normal man and fear even genuine kindness could unduly lighten the weight of truth, dulling my discernment. My life has oft been under threat, more so by “nobility” and less often by pilferers, yet I cannot permit misdeed effect my labor any more than generosity.
Setback is a ritual that attends true discovery, it seems. I've had two shops burned to the stones in the ground. Four chests stolen, though one was entirely filled with dung-rubbed rocks and another rigged with an ingenious trap of inflammatory sapwood and pitch (at considerable price with considerable result). I have been hexed, cursed, haunted, hunted, whipped, expelled, excommunicated, imprisoned and briefly enslaved. Yet, Terminus has always granted I linger in her company and it is my fervent belief that some sovereign presence desires the guarding of all these precious things - indeed, I believe myself preserved for this purpose.
So what is my name, or rather - who am I? A fond, departed friend once called me “a loomer of legends”, which is bright, but quite unrepeatable. “The Loomer” rings like false gold, which is the worst kind. And though there are many hails from the array of tribes, clans, kingdoms and so forth to which I gladly reply, none so fit the role as much the man. And that is why I meekly take the office of Keeper - though just as quickly pray it endures beyond my keeping. For when I am finally deposited amongst the dead, this world will still require remembering. Thus I write it all down and supplicate that One may send another companion to unquiet my study. One who is truly lit with the same zeal, inclined to sacrifice in favor of this most necessary stewardship. Yet such persons are rarer than any precious stone, rune or spell...
Thus, until I die
What Are the Keepings of Castigue?
"The Keepings of Castigue...
These conspicuous little letters have cost me more danger than an entire shelf of books on High Summoning, or even three volumes listing every known Dragon on Terminus.
...and I almost returned them, didn't I? To their owner, a descendant of the young Narian's line - so gravely sought was this collection in the first months... Thankfully I relented and now regard the gift with dear fondness, and mutual benefit.
Thus I named them after Narian and I reread the words of Castigue and Kaolyen Greyborne often, more than most of the writings I've accumulated. Their kinship was emblematic of what denizens of Terminus desperately required during the Deicide War. And though unfinished, their devotion to deciphering the Dragon Accord upheld a brotherly humility, which is lacking in the present.
I glean true friendship from these resilient pages and the insight they lend is matchless.
...I feel afraid - and in awe... such a quiet marvel that peers into a time in Terminus' history that is sadly under-documented."
The Keepings of Castigue I - "On the Dragon Accord"
My colleague and my friend.
At your request, this is our most current translation of the document we have named “The Dragon Accord”. While I must stress this is a fallible and incomplete effort, we feel an accurate, yet disquieting picture is emerging…
The accord precludes even your race’s arrival. This is perhaps a narrow revelation to you, or none at all. Yet it bears our attention, as distant drums hail the approach of battle. To such depths we were given exceptional aid by the Dwarves of Khadassa - that is... at first. They shared a number of parchments, maps and drawings which gave us the initial footholds into the Dragon tongue's nuances. Without these pieces we would be sifting tomes amiss, or worse, brazenly incorrect. However, this connection has since been severed - I fear the growing conflict may have reached them sooner than they anticipated.
The Myr have been largely unreachable. Quite unobservable, in fact. How they can suffer to dwell so close to the Ogres is a mystery. Even so, I am doubtful they would contribute. We had planned an expedition to the east once the snow thaws. Our aim was to reach the tribes of Ginto - I am referring to The Remnant. It is a dimming hope - our most recent reports of their settlements are nearly 3 years old, and they seem a reclusive order focused on the realms even farther east. I am convinced they would illumine much if we could but lay the writings before them. I doubt we will have such opportunity, however.
Lastly, it is not without some measure of internal conflict that I confide these writings to you. A critical few in authority over me would prefer all such information remain hidden within our halls. Still, I have chosen to neglect their approval. I am certain their agenda is not all selfish, but stems from a deeper, acquired concern. I know this document has attracted much interest... gravely so. We have lost some very astute men and women, more gifted than myself, to tragic events I’d prefer to see as chance. Keener minds have suggested intent. Their efforts live on in the translations we've gained, but their deaths guard my every conscious movement across this page. I caution you respectfully, but sincerely, to delegate this research carefully.
Always keep watch over yourself. Though buried in my studies, I am quite aware of the chaos growing in nearly every corner of this planet. Much of Terminus trembles around us; I know you feel it sharper than myself. If this tiding finds you at all, let it find you well. I covet the insight of your discernments.
I depart now for the Dwarven realm of Khadassa. I have come by few reliable charts or maps and must pass through lands of unknown threat. You know this, and were kind to offer me Elven escort. If there is a chance of regaining Dwarven aid in this effort, it is worth the risk for me to go - but we are candid fellows. Should I my journey fail or the Dwarves lend us nothing, it falls to you - if you cannot unlock the Dragon tongue, I fear this document will open to no one.
Your fellow in this pursuit,
Narian Castigue, 473 I.H.
Narian’s note: My final discovery before departing was to conclude that this seems to be written in Drak’Elrin, a “deeper” and more obscure dragon tongue than Drak’Fane. It is possible this may be a higher language. Certainly it has contributed greatly to our trouble in translating further.
To Rok’Nhilthamos, the Dragon King
of the line of Rok’Tsuntyensire, the First Dragon King
The Keepings of Castigue II - "A Higher Tongue"
The hidden path by which some information in this world travels has confirmed your presence amongst the Dwarves - I am put at ease. Give Khadassa my sincere regards; I have neglected that frozen land for too long.
Regarding these writings, I am surprised you were able to name the distinction of Drak’Elrin and Drak’Fane. Yet, what you must further understand is that Drak‘Elrin is not merely an elevated dialect of the Dragon-tongue. While Drak’Fane is their common language and Drak’Seun the language of the Reignborn (those princes of the Dragon King), Drak’Elrin is of a different order entirely.
Over centuries of study since arriving on Terminus, the Elves have learned that Drak’Elrin is the Signet-tongue of the Dragon King himself. It is a fortified speech, overburdened with enchantment. We are not sure whether it is ever spoken aloud, but it is often called upon for reasons such as this. Simply: this is a language of unparalleled arcane encryption. Alas, our knowledge goes no further. Even this understanding was informed only by the inscriptions on the weathered boundary pillars that once marked each Reignborn’s land, though that was long ago.
Returning to the matter of this Dragon Accord, I trust you have labored greatly in your translation efforts, using the most talented scribes at your disposal. Yet I confess the copy you sent was...imprecise - therefore, I must assume the document you have is not the original. However, to my surprise these scribal errors proved serendipitously kind, for reasons that may not lead us down the path we had hoped for - at least not directly.
Whatever is contained in this Dragon Accord must be of inestimable value - surely it speaks of agendas beyond our perception. The lengths to which it is guarded by the ancient power of Drak’Elrin is staggering, with a grip far tighter than I could anticipate. My intrigue has been roused, and greatly so.
In isolated efforts, with the help of our highest thaumaturge, I initially labored over the transcription you sent me to find the errors. As I began to correct them, the delights and maddenings of the true Accord became manifest. Our first engagement left us toiling feverishly to keep the document intact at all, as it immediately transfigured into a tiny ball - heavy as a block of iron, though condensed smaller than a minor jewel. Laboring into the night, we were able to return the document to its proper form.
Because of this unsettling event, I set about making a number of additional copies of the parchment. Yet I found such a bizarre turn had been played again: even as I wrote the copies, if there existed more than two beside each other--the first inscription vanished entirely. To my misfortune, I was only able to ascertain this after much wasted effort and nearly a score of dry, blank pages.
As I considered these things, it struck me:
So powerful is this Drak’Elrin magic that a mere copy of its symbols would conjure the full protective might of the original document, wherever it rests on the planet...
I quickly turned to experiments of that sort, transfixed by what I might learn:
When I carved some of the symbols on a strip of dry oak, it would not burn. Not at first. Though engulfed in flames, I retrieved it twice without incident. However, after a brief time of this my etchings vanished. Why? I cannot say, but afterwards the strip caught instantly.
When written upon fresh parchment, I could submerge the document in water, mud, acrid poisons (from distance), and other similar liquid sorts--and yet the parchment remained unsoaked, nor stained or the least bit marred. Not even a drop drew up into the paper. This resilience faded again when the ink vanished.
Recently we held our Feast of Arms. Before the Archer’s Trial, I wrote only two symbols from the Accord to the backside of one of the targets - thin, clean strokes. True to form, when the arrows flew into this target they glanced to every angle, but never pierced. Fortunately, the ink faded before the target was inspected by curious officials.
I became indulgent, nearly infatuated with these tests, as each confirmation seemed like a finger lain upon the true Accord. In my youth, I would have loved these mysteries far more than their answers, and I would have been no use to you. Graciously, I have lived long enough to know myself...
My friend, I confess the Dwarves may not aid you in this effort. In truth, I know they cannot. We are at a stalemate that will not be won by accumulating delicate scraps of translated parchments, deciphering runes, unearthing entire tomes or appealing to sages. It is not a matter of more research. It is not even a matter of magic, Narian.
It is a matter of not being a Dragon.
My words sound final, as they should. However, I hope my response may somehow open another door, not expose a bridgeless chasm.
Respond as you are able. I will be making the journey to the Remnant in your stead, though I have reasons beyond the Accord to seek them out...
Upon my return, I must relocate closer to our city. My presence in council will be too necessary, as there are rumors of conflicts that may threaten every region, race and realm. I am not certain of enough yet, but know this: the door by which you are free to exhaust yourself in this pursuit is closing.
Kaolyen Greyborne, 474 I.H.
The Keepings of Castigue III - "A Night of Five Voices"
Forgive my words if they are scattered and my ink if it smears, for I have just received an education in haste, and whether I am barely alive or wholly safe, the distance I have traveled from harm is yet to grant me any rest.
I should say ‘we’ have traveled. Alas -- permit me tell the whole tale...
Your last reply was appreciated, though certainly hard to accept. I poured over every line in increasing misery. Even amidst these halls of the Oldassan Citadel of Khadassa, with its sheer and resplendent achievements of effort and design glowing like an endless dawn, your conclusions left me agitated and joyless.
My first resolve was to search every connection I had made among the Dwarves for some insight into our new dilemma. This was selfish of course and madly so. It garnered me nothing and after one such exchange with an elder Dwarf (named Oldurn, I believe), I swung my fist in anger at a stone statue. Pitying my whimpers, he turned back to me and loosed a soft but clear suggestion…
“Perhaps, Narian, you should stop asking Dwarves about the language of Dragons.”
Watching him trudge slowly away down the open hall, my heart sparked and I bore a wild idea. I ran to my room, bathed, wrapped my injured hand (which still aches in this frigid air) and prepared to find my own way to - yes, it sounds utterly foolish now, but - a Dragon.
By providence this desire was ruined with the next morning’s wind, driving sheets of thick snow past the windows of my bedchamber. This Citadel is breathtaking, Kaolyen, and I was forced to consider the strong winter it was protecting me from. Such a wilderness lay off Khadassa’s border and I knew no way upon it, through it, or the way to anything like a Dragon. I began to question my resolve, even my sensibilities. Foolishness crept over me in a way I'd felt as a boy when first presented with true men of war, and realizing my wooden sword was too dull to split anything but the air...
...I was a child when first I glimpsed a Dragon. I had a fascination with the birds of Terminus, and the wooded plains around Havensong are heartily populated with them. I was perched within one such grove when a shadow fell over me, indeed the entire grove was eclipsed by a fleeting darkness. Higher than the misty clouds that hover around the Roans the beast flew, circling twice that I observed. A simple, soundless grey Dragon, sailing on the wind streams that flow through the skies. This titan, massive yet unspectacular among the host of Dragonkind, gliding like the smallest gull. My eyes chased after it and though I ran furiously, my gaze fell breathless as it coursed east in slow, easy beats, until I could see it no longer....
The morning I woke to this winter, after scolding myself for entertaining such an idea the night before, I sank into malaise and something like sadness. I refused food, fresh garments and all but mead. (This was not just indulgence. The Oldassan Dwarves brew it with something else than honey. Strong, but not sour, and hot - like drinking flame at first, but ending with a chill.) Days went by, how many I'm no longer certain, for they all rolled like wobbly spheres between my feet and the stone floor. Weakly I passed over them, usually into my bed.
I had such strange dreams in those evenings, often waking in sweaty panic. Yet in the midst of one peaceful night I was shaken awake by a hooded figure, seemingly Dwarven, with a voice I did not recognize.
“Get up, quickly. There are warm coverings on the other side of your bed. Put them on, all of them, and with great haste.”
I felt no need to object, so certain was this voice and so uncertain was I that this wasn't another near-lucid dream. The garments were dense and heavy and next to a glowing fire they made me unbearably warm. The one who woke me returned in moments, chiding me again to rush with my boots and uncomfortably offering to help, which I refused.
We exited to the hall and then down a corridor or two. Soon we were in places unfamiliar to me, which opened to depths of the Citadel I could not have imagined.
Just as I felt the need to speak my first words of the evening, my guide (I was nearly certain he was Dwarven now, due to his stature) stopped before a seamless stone wall and abruptly grabbed my wrist.
“When I depart and you can no longer see me, push. Right...here.” The Dwarf pressed my hand on a perfectly nondescript spot on the towering slab as if it were clearly marked.
“When I am departed, understand?” I nodded at this. “Good.” The Dwarf paused, studying me for a length I felt nearly unkind, probably noting my profuse sweating. At length he spoke, “I don't want to know what you're after, but this will be a lifetime of firsts, Human.”
He paused again, huffed, then turned away muttering a handful of indiscernible phrases, leaving me in near total darkness and my hand held fast against the stone. Thus I waited, yawning, and when I could no longer see him, I pushed.
-- -- -- -- -- --
A six-sided sliver of the stone gave, though I needed both hands to push. Once this piece slid in up to my elbow, an entire six-sided door pushed in as well, appearing out of the seamless rock. Astonished, I slipped through to a descending hall with orbs of light tethered to each wall in volleyed array. Frigid air whistled around me from the unseen below and I regarded the clothing provisions very well. The hidden door then sealed up behind me. Turning quickly, I placed a hand on the frozen stone and lingered there for a moment, letting my fingers run across the grooves and smooth places. With no alternative, I turned back to the hidden hall, stepping down the stonecut steps for what seemed like a quarter of an hour.
Near the end of my descent, an unexpected noise began to infiltrate the stillness. It was quite alarming when I recognized it, but unmistakable: the sound coastal waves make when they lap against rock. I was reminded of the line from the sailor’s hymn I’d often heard within the tavern of Ru’lun, “The Tides! A song which never sleeps.” And in that moment, I too no longer craved sleep, for in the midst of night my mind was beginning to dawn. As I exited the final step onto a thin waif of a mooring, I saw a vast stretch of sea with hazy fog upon it and a thin coast beyond. Under the flint-struck stars, the harmony was a buffer to the biting cold.
There also was a boat, not much greater than a common dingy. It was watched over by a very large, oddly placed statue... with a hooded cloak obscuring its face --
“Good evening, Narian of Havensong.”
A hooded statue that was now speaking, of course -- to me.
“Excuse me?” I exclaimed, and did so while nearly falling back into the water. “I - I, beg your forgiveness, sir. Sir?”
I thought I heard a chuckle in reply.
Unhindered by my surprise and seemingly very much expecting me, he motioned to the boat.
“Time must not be misused, young Castigue.”
“Of course,” I replied, and carefully obliged. His voice was deep and rich, even when soft, almost as though it was rising up from a vast cavern or carried through a magnificent cathedral before leaving his mouth, never losing its fullness.
The boat was sturdier than I expected. It felt natural to take a seat in the bow and I watched the towering figure enter gracefully at the stern. I noted what I assumed to be a rather wide hilt or handle lift his outer cloak as he sat, just behind his left shoulder.
We set off on the easy waves. Though it drew no notice at the time, I am still not certain how exactly the craft ferried, for neither of us rowed. There were no oars or sails and yet we sped along well. My stoic companion held the head of a steering paddle under his right forearm, which kept us on a precise line toward the shore, now becoming more clear in the distance. I began to feel cold from lack of movement.
The breaking waves foretold of nearing land and I could now discern another figure, cloaked and motionless, standing upon the snow-covered shore. As we made land, I considered the final words of the Dwarf who woke me and how easily I had acquiesced. I was now in a new realm, in the pit of night, in the company of two unknown companions who I could not say one name between and certainly not their purpose. My introspection was broken as the one on the shore raised his head to acknowledge us. Beneath his hood were three distinct, ember-like lights, bright and perhaps burning. They were set in a triangular pattern - two must have been eyes, I thought. When he spoke, his voice had the most delicate echo of itself, a resonance that was almost imperceptible --
“When you emphasized the clandestine nature of tonight’s events, Khazas" he began, "I thought surely you would swim instead of risk a boat.”
I was sure the name must have been spoken in error.
“If your people hear of their King adventuring in the middle of the night...well, that wouldn't do.”
This I keep to your confidence, Kaolyen. As we stepped onto the shore, I found myself in stride with the High Mortal of the Oldassan Dwarves, the one they dearly refer to as Father and yet fear with perfect respect. His might and discernment were emblazoned in the souls of every Dwarf I had encountered, so great was the sacrifice of his yielded immortality. This was my ferryman... Khazas, “The Refuge”? At that moment I stumbled completely in the thick snow, nearly tumbling back into the icy water while taking far too long to regain my balance.
Mercifully, Khazas' full-throated laugh took attention off of my flailing about, and the well-timed commentary from our newest companion at my expense kept the Dwarf King’s laughter steady for several moments.
“Rel-Cirin, you simmer speech like a master chef.” But when his laughter abated, a soberness fell on both of them. I wondered if those would be the only laughs we’d share on this journey.
“Narian of Havensong, this is Rel-Cirin of Su’Roa, the isle of the Archai.” Rel-Cirin lowered his hood completely and I noticed it was of a peculiar, almost mineral-like fabric, with light scrawls all over, yet it rested like cloth on his broad shoulders. Strands of his hair were white, hued as the snows beneath our feet. Of the three burning spots, two were indeed his eyes, yet they shimmered in the way of a jewel. The third burning was centered in the midst of his forehead, and the thinnest veins of glowing heat traced organically over his face, drawing from his mouth and eyes.
“Welcome, Narian.” He donned the hood, and started to lead us. “My people will hear of your name and of this night, I believe.” Khazas cleared his throat. “Of course, not for some time.”
The two of us followed him into the snow lands. I tell you very little of this portion of the journey, as it was miserable to endure and truthfully I don’t recall much. I know we trekked for some time, more than once I thought I had been asleep even as we walked. It seemed as if the darkness of the night were enhanced, as there was a gloom and shadow that hung in the air. It was bitterly cold and the land itself was frost-chapped. In the midst of these surroundings, the mere strides of my two companions, wedded with whatever mystical empowerments enhanced their bodies, transformed me once again into the child with sticks for weapons, and I could not understand why I was there. For all those hours I could barely discern our direction. At length, I drew the courage to stammer a question across my frigid lips.
“Where, k-uh...King -- or, Rel-Cirin? ...Where might we all, the three of us… where are we traversing to?” Both of them slowed their pace a bit.
“We are going to find your answers, Narian,” Khazas replied. I whispered the statement back to myself, slowly realizing what was meant. “We are skirting the Tenebrous Tundra, the great buffer between us and The Kingdom Underneath, and doing so at night for --”
"-- the what?” I cut in. “Oh. Forgive me. It’s just that this is certainly not the tundra we travelled through on our way to Khadassa. What is Tenebrous? And what kingdom could possibly exist out here?”
The heavy crunch of ice crystals lent a tense tempo to the wait. Rel-Cirin’s voice hung in the air, like the ribbons of the dim auroras in the sky above us. “You have need of a king, Human. But you may not have all the king’s secrets.”
After this we hiked in silence for an hour perhaps. As we walked, suddenly out of the endless mirk there appeared a towering silhouette before us. As I peered more carefully, I could see an array of them continuing into the distance; whether of ice or stone or gold, so bizarrely dark were they I could not tell. Khazas’ voice broke the quiet.
“How long will this take?”
Rel-Cirin didn't turn. “Moments, as I stated.” He lead us onto an icy sheet, as if a frozen river had formed a winding path among these looming cliffs. The Dwarf King continued, “And how long will we have?”
“That, I cannot as easily say,” Rel-Cirin replied as he motioned us to a stop. Before us was a sheer, uncut face of relatively tall cliffs. I could almost hear the Archai smile, his rocky arms lowering the simple but majestic hood. Yet as I watched Rel-Cirin approach the base of the tower-like stone, I noticed an unnatural element upon the rock’s surface.
Beneath the high moon, the gloomy air around us seemed to thin as glimmers of light fanned out across the raw stone, like an explosion frozen in time. Rising higher than even Khazas, this burst forth in two beautiful wings, made of nothing but subtle, metallic contrasts in the stone. A weave, painstaking and intricate, etched in a way that whispered of mastery -- at once strikingly bold and yet soft and hidden. I have seen nothing like it on all of Terminus.
Khazas cleared his throat and quite literally slid me behind himself. For in my study I failed to observe Rel-Cirin’s hunched posture, his cloak off and draped at his side. The thin ember lines that traced across his face were cut in deep red and orange veins over his bare, dark-muscled back. It was a vibrant contrast to the delicate flakes of snow falling and evaporating in his growing heat. He emitted a low rumble, like a volcano building pressure.
As I peered from beneath Khazas’ raiment, it appeared as if the Archai’s hands were sunken into the rock. The glints in the cliff side began to glow. In moments every last metal flake was alive, transformed into a glorious and scintillating shimmer. Then the radiant glints began to race within the stone itself. They flew like grains of sand before an approaching storm, but in perfect concert. Their collective sound was a score of sizzles.
When at last the bright symphony concluded, I gasped at what it wrought. In a tremor I turned my back to Khazas, but I heard the High Mortal exhale and regarded again the company I was in. I thought of you, Kaolyen, and of our research. Even the epoch of our peoples, most having lost the desire to know why we have all been tethered here to Terminus and displaced from our own respective worlds and realms. I have not lost that desire, nor I think have you.
I stood there, amidst the fading lights smoldering around the heavy-breathed Archai, discerning the image now visible in the still-smoking stone: an insidious, winged Dragon.
“Tel’Nharssis. The Snow Dragon.”
If Khazas’ tone was even a fraction less enthused, the sight would've fainted me. Still, he left me in shivers and strode to the cliff wall, soundlessly pulling his mythical great hammer from his back. With one effortless blow he crashed the hammer’s head against the stone, eliciting a sharp ring that bounded off the cliff corridors all around us. A passageway opened in response, flinging wide from the impact.
“Utterly overzealous, King.” Rel-Cirin was putting on his cloak, the water around his feet turning back to ice as it cooled along with his body. It was then I noticed the obsidian blade stuck in the earth. He retrieved it and with a twirl of artistic routine sheathed it at his waist, bent at angle.
“Merely a knock, general. You are kind to unlock this old gate.” Khazas quickly scanned the cutting cliff tops all around us. Silence did not seem to allay his focus. “How long do we have?”
“An hour, perhaps.” Rel-Cirin nodded at Khazas’ hammer. “Be certain to return with your ‘knocker’.” Then, a line I found most curious -- “The Ill Watcher has seen all of this.”
Khazas produced a staff from beneath his cloak. “Of that, I was certain.” The staff looked like a simple stick in his hand. He struck it against the rock and the end ignited. His eyes turned to me, and he handed it with fingertips into my open, quivering palm. Then he knelt low, hunching before me yet still much taller.
“I warn you now of him we shall soon see, Narian.” His eyes pulled me into his own, overcoming the rising winds that whipped at my face. “No matter how he regards you, his concern is only for himself. Do not forget it.” I nodded, vigorously. He turned to Rel-Cirin and whispered, “A moment”, then disappeared into the cave.
Alone, I stepped toward the Archai. “Is this the only way in?" I grazed the handle of the opposing door, fingertips sensing the heat.
“No,” Rel-Cirin replied. “But it is for us.”
“Ah, I see. Well, will this Dragon be... cross when we find it? Coming so late and unannounced?”
“The Snow Dragon is nocturnal.” He placed a hand on my shoulder. “And he already knows you are here.” His words again hovered over me.
"Right," I covered. "The ‘watcher’ and all that." I began a chuckle out of uneasiness really, but his countenance remained as rigid as his skin.
Khazas emerged from the passage and beckoned I follow. At this Rel-Cirin turned his back to the opening and the Dwarf King and I departed into the dark.
-- -- -- -- -- --
Despite the torch (or because of it) I kept close to Khazas inside the cave, realizing quickly that the light was for me, as he seemed to have no need for it. For the first time in our journey I heard the scrape of armor beneath his outer coat and my throat tightened. The whole place seemed narrow, even for a human - how the large High Mortal maneuvered was a testament to his dexterity. Every step was either frozen or wet. The passages were given to a constant inhalation of breezes, piped in from unseen cracks in the mountain crust. I assured myself this was the reason for the often unsettling noises coming up through the myriad of dark passages and tunnels we passed by.
Khazas’ pace felt like a leash around my waist. He could speak and climb without strain to his voice.
“You carry this reputed document with you now, I assume? Tragic to have come all this way just for our health.”
I must have held silent in surprise a bit too long, for Khazas’ voice softened. “Narian, if you have spoken to a single good Dwarf, you have spoken to me.”
“I do, sir.” My reply was comparably labored.
Yes, Kaolyen, from the time I received your “precise” copy of the accord, I had spent most of every day with it tied around my body, scrolled up in the crook of my back, the twine cinched just below my chest - even as I slept. It was still nestled this way against my spine as we worked through the tunnel, and Khazas inquired no further.
And so our journey went. The terrain rarely helpful, but almost never a hindrance. The passage wound, jutted, reversed upon itself and ceased entirely at times. But in those dead ends some intrepid explorer had carved out and buttressed an opening, seemingly ages before our ascent.
“You know your way well,” I commented. “It would fatigue my mind to recall anything in this place.”
“I know the way because I do not rely on my mind,” he replied.
I permitted silence resume. Though I could not know it, the travel was nearly complete.
Our arrival at the summit was sudden. The thick walls rolled back and our perspective widened immediately. Winds curled like waves beneath a deep ocean squall, whistling and thrumming in from beyond our sight.
The elevation was imperceptible in the snow gusts, but I could sense the height. Before us was a limitless black that was too dense for the torch to pierce. Though in the moments when the winds ebbed, the moonlight cast over the outline of a ruined structure, something like an abandoned altar. Pillars cracked and toppled, the dead holy elements bearing a crosshatch of deep scars.
Out from this blinding tempest of wind, snow and torchlight, we were hailed before I could see any sight of what greeted us.
“What draws the Mountain Shaper up to my meager roost -- alone?”
The sound of the voice still resonates in my mind, alive and clear. Like claws over smooth stones, its words dragged into my ear, clicking melodically. Yet they settled like a cart full of ash, dumped all at once and creating their own wake. The cavern roof behind us amplified the speech with the wind and I felt surrounded by an invisible giant, keeping itself hidden behind the cloak of night and snow. Though in moments I could see an ethereal glow of blue-green flash as lightning within a thunderhead.
“Was the fire sprite not bold enough to join you? Piteous. Or surely a few Dwarves would have relished the chance to journey with their Father, bringing home tales to pass down through their lines? Unless… you needed to keep this from them, O King?”
If Khazas was amused in the slightest, he suffocated it. “Perhaps you ought step into the light, for you have miscounted the number before you.”
This triggered the beast to good effect. Two swirls of wind opened suddenly before us, parting the snows like curtains and knocking me to the ground. And through the open veil, the Dragon Tel'Nharssis walked toward us, down the steps of the dilapidated altar.
“I have missed nothing, Khazas." Tel'Nharssis covered his displeasure. "Expound upon your purpose, or depart.”
I dare say Tel’Nharssis paraded before us, a mix of indifference and display. The ground barely recoiled as he moved, each thick leg fully supported by the fingers of the claw. Elegant and dreadful. The whitish lower hide bore an inverted crown of spines, which made the fluidity of his body control organic majesty. His upper skin melded into ash grays and near blacks. In the moon-mixed torchlight, it gleamed as though once polished, or liquid thawed and then frozen again.
His wings bent up at an angle when closed, in a way I've only seen in the great swans that gather inside the inner courtyard of Havensong's Honor Gardens. When open, these flying arms seemed oversized. Long and thin, but otherwise beyond compare, for I have never seen another created feature like the wings of a Dragon.
In his neck was the mesmerizing blue-green light, pulsing softly with his voice. Along his throat the spines grew in size and keenness. They appeared to be made of clouded ice, and I assume the beast sharpened them himself, for they looked more like the blades of a dagger than spikes on a serpent. These also ran along his backbone and disappeared behind the crest of his skull, lessening in number but growing in size. I counted eight or nine, a few with tips broken off. They stood like upright icicles, wide and angled back, giving Tel’Nharssis a natural sleekness. This recalled the image upon the Archai door, and I thought it admirably accurate yet incomparable to the reality.
His nose was not long, but bore a fitting like a shield upon the tip that was rough and iridescent. The salivary expulsions from his nostrils and mouth crusted or froze, I could not tell in the dimness.
As Tel’Nharssis dropped his body and laid down, he let the mountain tremble beneath his weight, signaling disregard. His posture echoed the boredom. In kind, Khazas leand against a hulking boulder as though it were a common chair.
“We have use of your language,” the High Mortal began. “Rather, one of them in particular.”
Tel’Nharssis did not even look at us. “Go on,” he managed.
Khazas nodded at me with his eyes. I shook my head far too vigorously in acknowledgement.
“We are confounded by the Dragon tongue Drak’Elrin, good sir, er -- good Dragon, sir.” I fear my head was still nodding. “We desperately seek your counsel for guidance and illumination.” Quiet moments passed and I felt my nerve holding like the breath in my lungs.
“What am I asked to do, Khazas?” I thought the Dragon almost confused, yet he continued otherwise. “To unwrap the majesty of Drak’Elrin -- for this one?” His laughter rang through my bones. “To mine the depths of Rok’Tsuntyensire’s reign? Unfurl Rok’Mydrozphael’s twisted impartation or expound upon Syn’Vhaerulythe’s fanatical opus -- like a common school teacher before a class of children?” His cackle bellowed around us.
I withered before his amusement. Yet however unwise, I felt a burn to reply:
“I am no child, Tel’Nharssis. I am Narian Castigue, a Human historian of Havensong, and am working with the Elven Council member Kaolyen Greyborne. I have a manuscript which speaks of the great Dragon King, Rok’Nhilthamos. It is to this end we had hope that—”
At this the beast stirred. His tail swing over our heads as his feet stamped upon the ruins and his claws dug deeply into the ice. His lungs drunk in air and heated it, thrusting back out instantly in short, dry puffs. So strong were these gusts they caught the cold atmosphere and formed man-sized whirlwinds that flashed forward and quickly dissipated. “This thing around my feet discourages me of you, Khazas. It causes me reflection upon the inconvenience of our pact and reminds me of my impatient stomach.”
Khazas remained in place. He had not moved once from the boulder. “You have not heard the substance of his request, Dragon.” The Dragon was disquieted, beginning to pace with rage frothing in his throat.
“I will tolerate one more assent, Khazas. See that you regard the arrogance of this Human, or any creature or being that would beg for insight into the transcendence of Dragonkind!” His voice melded with fierce winds and pushed me back in my stance. The light of blue frost in his neck kindled in flickers.
As I have since recalled this moment, running it through my heart and mind, I am convinced that had I been alone I would have fled, or tried to flee. Yet Khazas looked upon me as he did at the foot of the cavern, and in some small corner of my heart I felt safe. Thus I swallowed dryly and explained…
“The parchment we have - or, I have - appears to be a copy of an ancient agreement. We have been calling it ‘The Dragon Accord’ and believe it to explain something of why our peoples have come to inhabit Terminus…”
My words did trail off, for during my speech Tel’Nharssis had utterly transformed before us. It was all happening within his eyes, which for the very first time regarded my own, squinting in the whips of wind and torchlight. The Dragon suddenly appeared so singularly regal. And at once I became aware of just how old this planet is, that even the legendary High Mortal beside me was preceded by Dragonkind.
“Tell me of this Accord, dear Human.”
Here the fog deepened and in a moment I felt Tel’Nharssis’ wing dip between Khazas and I, slipping me slowly away from the Dwarf King. It was effortless and by design. Tel’Nharssis’ tone lessened, lifted, warmed and began again before I responded.
“My, but you have come a long way... surely this incessant cold is wearing you thin. Perhaps I should tender you a fire, for how can two creatures discuss anything of true importance when so much is required of one.” Gently he blew over a large bowl that had been hidden beneath the snows. Whatever element therein caught instantly. The flame was blue and not too hot, bathing the walls of rock in kind. The Dragon drew his tail under his jaw like a scarf and rested it down quite fully at my level. Were it not for his overly hospitable tone, I should have screamed.
“Now, brave Narian. Have you this document, fully intact? I should like to give it my rapt attention and read it for myself.”
Before I could hint at a response, an enormous hammer fell before my face, severing the cordial air between Tel’Nharssus and myself.
“We are finished here, Narian,” Khazas rumbled.
In what I can only describe as a moment of black, primal terror, I watched as the Dragon leapt up on its hind legs, unfurling its wings with a deep, shrieking roar.
“No one decides for me, Dwarf!”
Khazas threw me to the side, almost tossing me into the cave hole we had first exited from. Despite the Dragon’s raging, his own posture was tranquil, alarmingly so if not for his size and presence.
“There is no supposition upon your sovereignty, Tel’Nharssis,” Khazas spun the massive hammer in his hands with a short, blurred twist before bringing it up to rest against his shoulder. “Nor should there be upon mine.”
The crouched Dragon fused his eyes upon the Dwarven King, constraining his breath to violent bursts.
“You entreat me with ploys of insignificance, doubting my discernment. This night has been a predictable Dwarven snare.”
“That is not the truth,” Khazas offered.
“The truth is as I see it.” Tel’Nharssis’ eye flashed on me and held my gaze. “And so shall it be in the eyes of every last Rhy'Vulrene upon Nhystyrrok. Every Watcher, Ender, Protector, Devourer and even the Reignborn themselves shall cover the sky and ground like the all-consuming breath of the Dragon King. When word goes forth that an inquisitive, ignorant human has his wretched fingers clutched around even a copy of Rok’Nhilthamos’ signet-tongue, the empire of his people will be turned to ash and bone to retrieve it.”
His tongue sloshed in thick, dripping saliva within the carriage of his teeth. His eyes returned to Khazas. “And thus shall it be visited upon every race who availed him in this ignominious pursuit.”
I confess this tirade reduced me to quivering and I knelt against the passage wall in ardent supplication. With closed eyes I merely waited for either of these great beings to loose the first strike. Yet the contrary came swiftly.
“Oh? You shall raise alarm amongst the Dragons?” Khazas’ ease remained invincible. “Tell me, Tel’Nharssis, have you regained your place among them?” At this riposte, the beast winced and something inside him heeled, briefly.
“And further, I wonder if they will perceive the quality of your intentions this night as favorably as we have.”
Whatever knowledge Khazas spoke from, the effect of these words wore heavily on the Dragon. Tel’Nharssis said nothing for a moment. Then with a sudden heaviness, drew back up the frosted steps of his disrepaired dwelling.
“Depart, Dwarf. While I still harbor restraint.”
Khazas lowered his head slightly to acknowledge. He slid back the hammer to its hold, and pulled his cloak back over the crown of his head. In a moment it all seemed to be finished.
Yet in one last outreach, Khazas turned in reconciliation. “It was never my intention to address you so, Tel’Nharssis. I shall not boast of it.”
Fury woke again, manifesting in a terrifying blaze from the mouth of the serpent. “Enough!” he roared. In turn we committed ourselves to a swift journey back down the stone passage, and the Dragon’s final words chased after us.
“Never again will I permit your miserable kind to trespass my lands, Dwarf. May the coming plague swallow you whole!”
I ran at dangerous speed down the caves, but never hesitated. Soon we found ourselves at the foot of the cliffs, once more in sight of the night and snow. I burst through the doorway, gasping for breath though my lungs burned from the cold. I was just permitting myself to feel safe.
Then I noticd the blood, everywhere. Pools of old blood and one fresh river flowing to me, but the stench was vile and unlike the sticky, metallic scent of a slaughterhouse. I looked up aghast and saw Rel-Cirin, his face to the cliffs with the obsidian sword on his shoulder, dripping wet.
He was silent until Khazas exited, then cleaned and sheathed his weapon, confessing, “We have no more time.”
As I stood I saw the bodies. Three of them, split open in various ways and one severed cleanly in half. These creatures looked human, but yet strangely withered. Like all water had been drained out of their corpse. Their armor was light, weapons heinous yet sleek. Their arms and legs bore wrappings of wet cloth. Disregarding the dead entirely, Khazas was looking to the cliffs as he strode past me.
“The Ill Watcher,” he whispered.
Standing before the wide disk of the moon was a silhouette. Even high upon the cliffs, he appeared a menacing version of these assailants at our feet. Yet about him emanated a distortion, like that of extreme heat. It made the moon itself seem to shake. His arms were folded and he stared down at us, unflinching.
In his face burned two eyes of black flame, but with a tainted, greenish hue – indeed giving the color of a pale, ill appearance. He spoke a word that started like a whisper, but ended in a scream –
After a few seconds of observation, he turned away and disappeared over the cliffs. The moon regained its composure.
“He is prodding us,” Rel-Cirin commented, just then letting his gaze slip back down to us. “They are not ready for war. Not on our lands.”
“No,” Khazas replied. “But neither, I fear, are we.”
At this we departed, out from under the shadow of the watching eyes in the cliffs. Back to the snows, the boat and Khadassa. Of that journey I have informed no one but you, Kaolyen. And of Khazas I permit myself to give but only the most discreet, knowing glances -- though he has not been seen in Khadassa for nearly a week, as I’m told. What these events mean for our quest I am not certain. Though, I am all the more convinced it is vital in every regard and commit to you its continued safekeeping.
Be warned and encouraged, friend.
Narian, 474 I.H.