Halfway down a slope of the Middle Ptaerok were three men. They were in the process of their descent. Their only issue was of time and making it as far down the mountain before nightfall as possible. It was one of the lower peaks, but the clime nevertheless drew the cold. For this reason, the trio clad thick robes, and the pelts of Stolas boars.
“Kassem should only be a day or two longer now,” stated Darius. “And I’d wager three or four hours to the base.”
Darius had a hardy and muscled trunk, and a scarred face from years of combat and mountaineering. He had a thick red beard and mop of hair covering half of it, and his eyes were a soldier’s eyes, emblazoned hazel. He was of Valorum, a walled city-state carved out of the Scarin Mountains. Thus a Burr. Though he had never travelled further from the powerful fortress than the river running past it, he knew just more about navigating the southern lands than either of his two companions. With Darius were Etan, and Jakob.
Etan was from the far north. From deep in the Gaegek Jakob had said. A proper Ilyiot. His hair was black and his skin was permanently darkened from generations of his people bathing in the light of Devywar. He was mute due to the removal of his tongue. But he spoke with Jakob frequently through the use of hand signals which Darius had yet to learn. He was tall, and even more robust than Darius. Yet his eyes were blue, and kind, and always seemed to smile.
Jakob of Hylie was a Hawk. Though paler than Etan, every Hawk received more sunlight than a Burr. Jakob had long and wild brown hair, a scratchy beard, and green and tempestuous eyes. Though not nearly as burly as his companions, he was the most wise and resourceful.
And it was Jakob who united the three men in the first place. Were it not for him— his quick-thinking and interventions— neither Darius nor Etan would still be alive.
Jakob briefly glanced down the hill now as well. He reckoned it would take as long as Darius had estimated, and so nodded in agreement, “You’re probably right, Darius.”
Despite their time constraints, they were skirting between the outermost edge of a tarn and the overlook of a sheer drop. A confused Darius trailed behind Etan and Jakob; observing the two men who peered into the mere. Jakob was walking so close, and craning his neck so far over the water that he was danger of falling in.
“I think now, it’s safe to say that you can tell us both why we needed to climb this mountain at all. Or don’t you trust me yet?” asked Darius.
He smiled, and then Jakob replied, “I expect so.”
“Why then, Jakob? Whatever are you looking for in this tarn?”
“Beautiful isn’t it? A crystalline pool. The water is so pure it has healing properties. It’s unfortunate that someday the mountain will rock, and all of it will spill over the side.”
Darius repeated himself, “What are you looking for in this tarn?”
“Oh, well it’s quite the opposite actually. I’m looking for something in the mountain.”
“I don’t understand,” groaned Darius.
“Well, if this is Mount Aštal, then there should be a cave nearby its southern tarn…” but Jakob’s voice trailed off as if he were distracted.
“What cave?” Darius urged on. “And why are we looking for one? Surely we can climb the remaining way down before evening that we don’t require shelter?”
“Truly we can. And we could just as easily have gone around the mountain. But if we had, we would be unable to discover the cave.”
Darius begged half-heartedly, “Pray tell; what cave do you seek?”
“Our cave, our grotto actually, is Dahnd.”
“I’ve yet to see any caves here. Surprisingly.”
“You’re liable not to.”
Darius glared at Jakob, but his back was turned, so he pleaded again, “Then why bother?”
Jakob turned to Darius and grinned, “Why bother? Well if I remember correctly, the grotto is rumoured to contain the… amethysts of the diadem of Ophelia Junus.”
“Are they valuable?”
“Of course Darius. Have never you heard of Ophelia?”
Darius hadn’t. Though he wasn’t surprised. Jakob was far more learned in the myths and histories of Væum than anyone he had ever met. He replied with silence, so Jakob related an old tale to Darius and Etan.
“In the Cycle Rule, Ophelia was the Elmek of Massaid.” He paused for effect. “History tells us that during the Great Siege of Valorum she was killed on the battlefield alongside her lover Corvinus, the Master of Farrilum.”
“Ah, that name is familiar. Was he the great warrior, Corvinus Cerwail?” asked Darius recognising the name.
“The very same.”
“Then how did the stones of her crown make their way so far south of Valorum? How have I not heard of this?”
“Well during this time, the lords of Valorum—” Jakob was cut off as he was about to explain, when Etan swatted his shoulder. The mute then pointed out the site of their quarry.
Etan signed for confirmation, and Jakob nodded, “Aye, it may possibly be. It’s magnificent.”
Darius looked in the direction Etan motioned to, but he saw no grotto and couldn’t help but feel bewildered. And yet there was no doubt to Jakob’s certainty. Darius wondered aloud, “How can you see anything more than cliff?”
“In the Archives at Sagus, I came across a scroll,” said Jakob, “Inscribed therein was a text in Old Aeina. Translated it read thus: Downhill man may see egress ere aglow twilit clear. And thusly strewn, abreast the glace of the still-tarn Dahndemere.”
“I don’t understand. What does that mean?”
“The tarn, Darius. Look.” Jakob stretched out a hand.
Darius followed Jakob’s pointing finger now, and he peered into the water himself. At first he saw nothing but the plain reflection of the black mountain. But giving his eyes a moment to adjust, he soon saw what appeared to be a massive stone door. In the budding moonlight was shimmering obsidian under a rounded arch. And carved into the frame was a runic script. It too glowed but it was burning like mantle fire.
Yet as soon as Darius looked back up at the mountain, the cave entrance had disappeared and the cliff face had no shortage of lichens or mosses veiling it.
Still puzzled, Darius asked, “You said this was a grotto. Who made it?”
“In that regard I’m not quite certain. A few civilisations could have built this village late in the Cycle Umbra, but credit to the creation of the cave rightly belongs to the Fae.” Jakob explained.
“What village?” Darius inquired.
“Look around you, Darius. It may be reduced to rubble now, but ages ago, there was a village established here.”
Darius turned about and saw the remnants of a long abandoned world. Though they were crumbled, he could still see what remained of the walls of homes clung to the edge of the slope below him, or peeking out of the water. After toll of wind and weather, boulder and soil, the ancient hamlet was more than well-hidden.
Jakob continued, “Though if I had to guess, I’d say the people who lived here were the S’rāām. A mighty race. For a time they lived in peace with the Fae, which explains the proximity of the structures.”
Coming out of his awe, Darius challenged Jakob again by asking, “How then do we gain entry to the grotto?”
“Ah,” Jakob answered with a sinking voice, “Well that is the question. Had I more time in the archives, I may well have uncovered something more substantial.”
“In other words, you have no idea how to get inside?”
“Alas no,” admitted Jakob, but then he replied enthusiastically, “However, I did not come unprepared…”
Jakob snapped his fingers urgently, and on cue Etan stole the bag from his burly shoulders and laid it on the rocky ground. Very gingerly, Etan rolled out the equipment to be properly viewed. Jakob was far more reckless with the items as he looked each of them over; almost juggling them in his hands. This caused Etan’s eyes filled with worry, and Jakob chuckled, “Be not afraid, Etan,” and he signed as well to match his voice, “I’m not as clumsy as I make myself out to be.”
Among the collection of tools and provisions stored away were epic tomes, valuable rocks, gems and relics, and vials of potions. Everything varied from mundane to magic.
After taking a moment to handle every item that was in the leather pouch, Jakob eventually settled on a small bottle that fit into the palm of his hand. It was a shade darker than scarlet, and the glass was opaque so Darius couldn’t see inside. But whenever Jakob would lift it, it hummed or whistled. Whatever it was, Darius decided it was dangerous, for the cork was covered with cloth, and tied tightly with a thin gauge of serrated wire.
“What is that?” queried Darius.
“Our way in.”
Seeing Darius sigh at his answer, Jakob continued, “Relax, Darius. I’ll tell you. It’s an explosive weapon of my own design. I call it a bomb.”
“It sounds volatile.”
“Oh, it is. Or rather they are. In my travels north of the Tanil, I journeyed into the Fissures of Castix. The tribe I stayed with insisted that I not venture out at night. There there are creatures which swarm and devour anything in their path. Creatures which individually are no larger than the whites of my eyes, but travel in flocks even greater than the height of this mountain. Creatures, which can burrow into a granite wall or strip the flesh from a living soul within seconds.”
“What are they?”
“They are called Sangora Rax. Ravagers. The people who inhabit those canyons say: these primeval things were the blood of the first gods of Væum. Spilled upon their deaths in order to exile their berserk kin.”
“How then do you wield them?” asked an intrigued Darius, his inner-child seeping through. “How did you ever come to contain them? How have they not escaped?”
But Jakob turned sombre at the question, and without elaboration simply answered, “At great cost I acquired them…” He bowed his head in shame for several minutes. It became so quiet Darius could hear the howl of the wind above him, and a purring from the jar in Jakob’s hand.
Clearing his throat, Jakob carried on, “As for keeping them, I have to apply a lacquer of red ash to the glass shell. In this way the glass glows inside like fire. It seems to make them tame. Calm.”
“So how will those things help us open the door? Surely a battering ram is what we need?”
“Only if we had the rest of our lives to spare. A mortal weapon cannot break this door.” Jakob chuckled, “No. By the morning we need only hurl this at the cave entrance when the rays of Devywar will be shining down on us, to keep those creatures at bay.”
Darius sighed again, perturbed with Jakob and his eccentricity, and his inability to be more forthcoming. He removed his pack like the others, and took out his bedroll.
“But let us be vigilant. For the cliffs of the Ptaerok like so many others, are rampant with goblins,” warned Jakob. “Etan will take the first watch.”
Once the three of them found a suitable spot to retire, Etan stood guard as Jakob fell to sleep no doubt dreaming of the prize in the mountain. While Darius lay in his cot wondering if he should worry more about goblins or the ravagers.