Author Topic: Chapter 69  (Read 113 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 69
« on: April 11, 2022, 11:36:24 PM »
Chapter 69

As Aron slowly woke up, he gradually became aware of the crackling sound of an open flame. He could faintly smell the smoke, and could feel something tickling at his nose and mouth. He opened his eyes, but could see very little. Apparently he was lying on his stomach on something springy but hard underneath. He turned, propping himself up on one arm.

He was lying on some kind of stone shelf covered with moss. The torch was about ten spans away, in the middle of what looked like an empty, pitch-black room. The walls were rough-cut stone, suggesting a cave or cavern. “Where am I?” He wondered aloud. The last thing he remembered was taking a stroll through the garden on his estate. He vaguely recalled hearing a noise, but then he’d woken up here. Wherever here was.

“Good morning, Lord Mason,” a woman’s voice said from the other side of the torch. It was followed by footsteps on the stone floor. He couldn’t make out her face in the flickering light, but something in her stance was familiar.

Aron slid off the shelf and walked commandingly towards her. “Whoever you are, you’ve made a grave mistake by bringing me here. I suggest you release me immediately, and I might argue for leniency when the Council is deciding your punishment.”

She gave him a mirthless smile. “Oh, you’re not going anywhere, my lord. This,” she spread her arms to indicate the whole area, “is your new home.”

Aron was old, well past his prime, but he still considered knocking her out and trying to find the exit to this place on his own. That idea faded as he looked at her face more closely. “Wait, I recognize you! You’re one of the heretic’s associates. Velya, isn’t it?”

She nodded curtly. “I’m glad you remember. If you know who I am, then I’m sure you remember my brother Sabra.” She gestured again, and a huge figure stepped into the torchlight. Aron’s heart froze in his chest, and he backed away instinctively. It was the giant! The Deathwatch Monster was here!

Images of the Monster’s recent crimes flashed through his head one after another. The people who this creature had dismembered or cut asunder with his massive sword. Entire squads of soldiers had tried to kill him, and had either been slaughtered themselves, or been unable to even catch a glimpse of their quarry. At the same time, images from his own past rose to match them. For so long he’d denied the possibility entirely. This creature was just that: a demon sent by the Shemra to torment the city. It had nothing to do with him.

He took a deep breath, and tried to regain a little authority. “You’re both in a lot of trouble, you know. Letting me go is the only chance you have now. I can see to it that the Council doesn’t execute you for this kidnapping.”

Velya chuckled, and exchanged a glance with the Monster. “You don’t seem to understand the situation, ‘my lord’”, she said condescendingly, and pulled the torch out of its sconce. “The Council is completely irrelevant now. They have problems of their own, and even if they do send someone looking for you, they’ll never find you. As I said, this is your home now.”

Aron took another look around, now that he was closer to the light. It was definitely an underground cave. The walls were solid stone from the looks of things, and he saw a wide variety of different plants, from cacti on one side to several different kinds of moss and fungi on the other. There were no doors or windows.

“Why are you doing this?” He demanded harshly. “Is this some kind of message you’re sending to the Council? Some twisted scheme you and the heretic cooked up?”

“This is your punishment for your many crimes, Lord Mason,” she replied evenly. “For the servants you’ve abused, the soldiers you ordered to their deaths, and all the innocent lives you’ve ruined. But most of all, this is for the son you left to die!”

Aron’s breath caught at that, and his eyes flicked over to the Monster briefly. “I’m aware of the rumors concerning my past, young lady,” he said carefully, “but that’s all they are: rumors. I would never abandon a child of mine to die like that, ever. I realize you and the heretic will do or say anything to overthrow the Council, but I thought you’d be smarter than to put stock in myths and legends.”

“Oh, the story about the Deathwatch Monster is real enough,” she said, moving forward implacably as he backed away. “Your own household staff admitted to it months ago. They told me how your late wife gave birth to a misshapen child. They told me how you couldn’t bear to even look at him, and chose to kill him rather than bear the shame of raising a child who was just a little different. I suppose I’m grateful that you were too much of a coward to do it yourself.” She reached out to the giant beside her. “Say hello to your son, Aron,” she added bitingly.

The Monster leaned in, gnarled, twisted features and all. Aron backed away, right into the wall, as the creature stared at him curiously.

“I found him only a few hours after you abandoned him,” Velya went on conversationally as the giant sniffed at him and poked him a few times, before leaning back. “I raised him as best I could, and we’ve been brother and sister ever since. When I heard the full story about the Deathwatch Monster, I decided that I had to meet you someday, and repay you for your hospitality in kind. Now that the Council has been weakened, we were finally able to get ahold of you.”

“And prepare this… cell for me?” Aron asked scornfully, regaining a bit of poise now that the Monster had backed off again.

“Oh, no. This was the cell meant for the Lord Ascendant himself. Since he won’t be needing it, Arico agreed to let me use it instead. You should feel honored, now that I think of it. Not many people get sent to prison and end up with royal accommodations.” She beckoned him over to one side of the large room. Aron refused to move at first, but the Monster gave a loud growl, and he reluctantly headed in that direction.

“The cavern is sealed tight, but you won’t run out of air or anything,” she said with a sadistic tone. “These plants will keep you from suffocating after we’re gone. These mounds of moss are edible, and will grow back fast enough for you not to starve, either. The cacti on the far wall will gather the Waters for you to drink. Some of these plants even produce their own light, so you won’t be blind down here.”

As the horrifying truth of what she was saying started to sink in, Velya continued, speaking contemplatively. “You know at first I thought you were lucky. I wanted to just kill you, for what you tried to do to my brother. He insisted that we keep you alive, because he was curious about what made you into such a monster. He’ll be dropping by from time to time to ask you about that, by the way,” she added with a smile.

“Anyway, now that I think about it, this is a much more fitting punishment for you. No servants to order about, no soldiers to send after your enemies, and no wives to torment. The only things you have down here are basic sustenance… and time.”

At that, she jammed the torch into the dirt, extinguishing it in an instant. Aron’s eyes took a few moments to adjust to the dim glow along the walls, but when they did, he realized he was all alone.

-.-

Arico and his manservant were gone only an hour or so, but he seemed happier when they got back. Jaas gave him a curious look, but he only shook his head. “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you some other time, but first, there’s someplace I need to take you. Will they be all right alone?” He looked over at the staircase, and then into the dining room where Veles was playing a game of stones with Tarith.

“I think so,” Jaas said after a moment, following his gaze. “If something happens to us, though… Tarith is the only navigator among them, and he has nowhere to go! You’ll need to keep us both safe, for their sakes at least.”

Arico nodded, and extended an arm towards her. “It won’t be a problem. It won’t be dangerous where we’re going.”

Jaas updated the boys, including telling them to get something to eat if they were delayed beyond an hour, and then gripped Arico’s arm in preparation. With her help, he pushed the door open a crack, peeked around quickly, and then they were both in the threads.

As usual Arico looked like the same tiny bird while in here. However his image had been updated slightly. The tips of both wings had been clipped, now that she had a chance to examine him more closely. Since thread-images were subconscious, he probably wasn’t even aware that his missing hands had been translated to how he looked in here. Jaas decided it was probably better that way.

Wherever they were going, it was taking a bit longer than usual. That meant their destination was someplace seldom visited. At least by Arico. When he finally opened a window and pulled them both out, Jaas was bombarded by light and color. Reds, oranges, greens, yellows, blues—all of it. It took her a few moments to recognize the source for what it was.

They were standing in front of the ruins of the old Crystal Palace. The former seat of power not just for the city, but for the entirety of the Vasiri empire. The sun was shining low, about two hours from sunset, but its rays were passing through the rubble, resulting in a mesmerizing kaleidoscopic effect. Lem would have loved it. He’d always found art fascinating, especially compositions with lots of bright colors. Jaas had heard that most pescah had a similar appreciation.

Arico led her to the left, and down to a series of bushes which had grown up among the ruins. Cleverly concealed behind one of the plant clusters… was a tunnel entrance. “Light your torch,” Arico instructed quietly.

With practiced ease, Jaas wrapped and lit her torch, wondering why he was being so quiet. He seemed certain the palace ruins would be safe, so perhaps he was showing respect or reverence to the men and women who had once lived here. As if emboldened by the torch’s sudden glare, Arico pushed aside the bushes and led the way down into the tunnel. He stopped almost immediately and waited for her.

Jaas could see why as soon as she made it down there next to him. The underground room wasn’t large, but it was covered in script. The floor was marble, polished but dirty from all this time untouched. Flowing lines of writing covered both walls to the left and right, and extended onto the far wall as well. The script converged in the middle of it, at what was obviously a door.

“This is impressive,” she said softly as well, moving the torch to get a better look. “The architecture is Vasiri, and the workmanship is beautiful. I didn’t know there was anyone in the city who built in this style anymore.”

“There aren’t,” Arico responded after a moment. “This room existed before the Threading. It was dug out by the Vasiri themselves.”

That made sense, given what she was seeing on the walls here. “This script is partly in old Vasiri dialects, but it’s also mixed in with Uatoni.” She paused, and looked back at him. “How did you find this place? You once told me that people only come here every once in a while, to dig through the crystal ruins in search of a prophecy or two. It would take days of searching, maybe even weeks, to even stumble on this place!”

Arico gave an abbreviated smile. “I had a leg up, actually. The Hauld’s collection of books included a description of the Vault room here. I didn’t know exactly where it was, though. While I was a captive, I was given access to some rare volumes inside the Library in Penntu patch. There was a map there with this location,” he looked around, apparently sharing her awe at what they were seeing.

“The First Council found out about this room and did a thorough study. They tried to translate the writing and open the door, but none of them could make any headway. There just wasn’t enough Uatoni writing left in the city after the Threading for anyone to be able to read what’s in here. I thought you might want a crack at it, though.”

“You thought right,” Jaas admitted, crossing the room to get a better look at the door. It was elaborate, with what looked like iron braces inlaid with gold and silver. The writing circled the door, in a beautiful pattern that seemed familiar somehow. “Why didn’t they try to force the door? It’s probably one of the first things they considered,” she said over her shoulder as she traced the inlays with her fingers. There didn’t seem to be any damage at all.

“They didn’t want to risk it,” Arico answered from the other side of the room. “The First Council believed this was a vault of some kind, holding the riches of the ancient Vasiri emperors. It was pretty common for Vasiri to rig their vaults to destroy any valuables if the doorway is breached. According to the passages I read, they had scholars in here for years, once upon a time. Eventually they just gave up. Those bushes outside weren’t planted—they grew up over time after people stopped coming in here.”

Jaas set her jaw. A puzzle, then? Perhaps a security measure, to keep thieves from getting in? Gingerly, she spread out her hands on the wall, and felt some of the script jiggle a little. Focusing on that area, she pressed on the symbol, and it pushed into the wall just slightly. When she let go, the symbol pushed its way back out, lining up with the others again.

She let out a noise of triumph, attracting Arico over to where she was staring. “It’s a combination, Arico! Some of these letters can be pushed in, see? If I’m right, there are others all around this room. We just need to find them, and then figure out which order to press them.”

She looked around, trying to ignore just how difficult that might be. “This vault isn’t like the Crystal Palace at all, though,” she thought out loud. “I doubt they used any rituals to reinforce this place. They wouldn’t need any, not if this place stayed a secret from everyone except the emperors, and a few of their servants.”

“My thoughts as well,” Arico agreed, running his stumps over the wall as she did the same with her fingers. Some of the symbols were easier to find than others. Jaas suspected the First Council and the scholars they’d brought in here had discovered them all, and then tried various combinations over time. Some of these ‘buttons’ showed signs of wear and tear.

It took a few more minutes, but together they were able to identify over two dozen individual buttons. Jaas felt a sinking feeling in her gut. “If it is a combination, there could be any number of possibilities to try. We don’t even know if we need to press all of them, or how many times.”

Once again she had that sense of familiarity, and tried to place it. Something about this room… That was it! She’d never seen this room before, but she had studied it. Back during her classes in Vasiri history.

“It’s not a puzzle,” she breathed softly, and Arico gave her a curious look. “It’s a joke!”

Jaas hurried back to the room’s entrance, and studied the ceiling closely. She brushed aside some dirt, but still couldn’t see it. “Could you… very carefully thread away some of this dirt please?” She asked after a moment. “I can’t clear it by hand, and I doubt you have the right tools back in the safe house.”

Arico still looked confused, but he nodded obligingly and slowly reached up to the top of the entrance. He swept his arm side to side, dislodging layer after layer. “There! That’s what I needed!” Jaas exclaimed. It took a little more effort, but soon she was able to see the inscription hidden there as well.

Jaas leaned back, smiling. “I know who built this room,” she said confidently, now that her hunch had been proven correct. “His name was Anjohl A’havras. I studied his work back at the Academy. He was an imperial architect who worked for the Vasiri when this city was first being built. From the notes I read, he had an… interesting sense of humor. He would design rooms like this, with elaborate puzzle locks in place to frustrate thieves, but none of those puzzles were solvable. Instead, he left a button like this one-” she pressed the recently exposed symbol hard- “as a joke. And an insult, to anyone who spent days or weeks trying to find the right combination.”

In response, there was a loud grinding noise of metal upon stone. The double doors shifted, slowly opening as the hidden machinery behind the walls pushed them and turned them. Arico shook his head slowly. “Three hundred years of our best and brightest trying and eventually giving up, and you open the vault door inside five minutes. The First Council would be turning over in their graves.”

Jaas scooped up the torch and approached the opening. “This is no vault,” she said slowly, now that she could see it more clearly. It was a passage. Stairs descending into the darkness… and the sound of flowing water somewhere deep below.

She exchanged a look with Arico. He was smiling slightly, clearly aware what she wanted to do next. “The last time I went into darkness like this, it brought me here. A lot of people suffered because I showed up here in Patchwork,” she said musingly.

“A lot of people are better off because you’re here too, though,” Arico answered slowly. “Still, if you had it to do over again, I think you would. You call yourself a magician, a scientist, a scholar—but in your heart, you’re an explorer. Question is, do you want company this time around?” He extended an arm towards her.

For a moment Jaas didn’t know how to respond. Then she smiled, took his arm, and stepped through the threshold.

« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 02:36:54 AM by Daen »