Letter #5: The Descent, the Trove, and the Guardians Within
Forgive me if my hand seems shaky or my sentence odd, unfinished, or in anyways strange. Many occurrences of the aberrant, freakish, and even esoteric have happened. A delve into such chasmic depths has left me shaken. I cannot say for my other companions – I’m sure more hardened by their experiences.
We left the barracks of the Barachial Annex – which you know we have been ‘employed’ by – after a breakfast and made our way to Zandor Rem, the foreman of this expansive excavation. It was at this meeting with Mister Rem that we learned – to our excitement – that we had been promoted to investigate and survey the second dig site; the most recent of the two to have been discovered. This, to our joy, meant that little was known about this area and thus easy prey for our own personal machinations – the ones that we had aligned with Drazael, Hassildril, and Milmore Glass. However, Rem had more knowledge that would become vital to our exploration.
Firstly, that those mages who had ambushed us the day before were hired by the Leppers of Nort – a rival, no doubt, to the Barachial Envoy and their search for items of the rare and arcane. We were told that, were they to attack again, we would smell some foul or putrid odour penetrate the air. This shall come into play soon.
Secondly, that those who had investigated the second dig site had not returned. Naturally this was to give us warning of what was to come, as well as – I assume – an inferred suggestion that we should perhaps find out what happened to these missing explorers. Yet, the foreboding details Rem had imparted upon us took me back to one of elven philosopher Samael Stardusts’ works I had read not long before my father’s death: A Philosophical Guide to Existence and Existentialism.
In the work, Stardust referred to those that had come before, and the dark secrets they had uncovered which – no doubt – lead to their fall, hence why elves and mortals dominate the realm. The main quote that stuck with me though was his parting line on the chapter: “Delve too deep and you won’t sleep.” Maria, I dare say we delved too deep, for now I fear my slumber is troubled by a face I cannot render from my mind.
Lest I waste too much page and ink, I shall cease my digression. We were granted a new supervisor and protector, Hamir. A wizard of the human lineage whose head was covered in tattooed runes when it was not covered by his hood. Hamir was very standoffish and not a conversationalist, but I dare say it was fun having Adrik mock me for my limited human abilities only for Hamir to take offense and the dwarf needed to backtrack, lest he fall out of favour with those very same mages who employ his personage.
We ventured on cart and with Hamir through the tunnel that drove under the Palatial District where Brixton and Leith had discovered that secret doorway. Adrik had issues with his oxen; I think this was his attempt at the distraction we had decided on before – for, even before we knew of Hamir, we knew that a delay in a wagon through the tunnel could arouse suspicion – yet sadly, his oxen were too dedicated to their master to even feign failure.
As we ominously clopped past the entrance, desperately seeking some refuge from our movement, I remembered that little factoid on the Leppers – those who had attacked us earlier in these same tunnels and their foretelling stench – and messed with some olfactory senses. I caused some small phosphorus smelling miasma to infest the air, and pointed it out innocently to the highly alert mage.
Hamir demanded we halt, fearing another ambush, and sent Brixton to investigate. Brixton did so, and naturally did so to the secret door that we have discovered yesterday. Luckily, Hamir caught not onto my little ploy, nor did the steady headed Adrik – who, in all his ease of mind and soul, merely took it for a particularly heavy flatus from the oxen – yet I believe Leith had his suspicions. Brixton, having done his sweep – or I at least hope, for we have not yet debriefed from what he saw – returned and by then the smell had dissipated. He carried on cautiously but, obviously, with no further harassment from “potential” ambushers.
We arrived at the site and entered, Leith granting Hamir light with a spell centred on the tip of the mage’s staff, and myself by conjuring a lamp and by the same hand that had created the smell, created a spark to light the wick. We ventured into a ruined corridor, those who could see and stealth in front, those not so included further back.
Happening upon a decent but not extensively wide cavern opening underfoot, Brixton prepared some rope, to which Leith’s spectral hand tied it off at the end we were seeking to reach, thus making our leaps over much easier.
As we gained ground, we found ourselves under an archway that led into a dark abyss before us. The bend reached high above, Adrik – the giant expert – made out that it made some mention to a vizier. In literal history and literature that is one who advises a king or ruler, but I feel like I have heard that term more recently used to described some other position or title, but my mind fails to remember and so must not be so.
A scuttling noise was then heard in the darkness. Above us descended a fat and white spider, speckled in blue, with bulging eyes and thick fangs dripping with slick mucus; and in the same instant in which we saw it, it vanished, only to hear behind us a scream from Hamir. We turned to out flank and saw his veins turn dark, his skin pale, as behind him, piercing his scalp with its malignant pincers, the spider injected its venom into flesh, before vanishing once more to a high vantage point.
Adrik and I rushed forward, seeking to heal or just save Hamir. In his standardly brave decision making, Adrik drained from Hamir’s body the venom that coursed through him. In some miraculous chance of fate, he had acted fast enough to do so for Hamir’s benefit, and as a dwarf, took little heed to what small pain it inflicted upon him, if any.
Brixton and Leith had been loosing arrows and spells at the abominable monstrosity. I tried to hit it with my own spells but they fell short due to my inability to see beyond the glow of my lantern, which the creature was cleverly hiding from. Leith landed the kill shot, bursting it into pieces with his bolt of fire, yet covering a good portion of us is juice. While the consensus was that the juice was unnecessary and easily averted, Leith’s shot was nonetheless well aimed and well landed, thus deserved our praise for such a well-place bolt to finish that fowl creature off.
We queried whether to turn back as a member had been brought to his knees or continue. It was decided that Brixton would rush back to whence we started, inform the guards of what we had found thus far, and then return back to us whilst we took a short rest.
As I sat, wondering if this was such a good idea, I happened to remember some more Samael Stardust – this expedition seems to have unlocked a vault of philosophy I have not read since before the Crucible of Fire. Stardust, in an opening forward to one of his smaller volumes said this of hubris and confidence: “Never let success get to your head and never let failure get to your heart.” Once Brixton arrived, heaving and gasping for air, I felt my spirits lifted yet my caution heightened, for Stardust did not become a Chronicler of Xhadorian Values for naught.
We came into a cavernous hall whose walls had great holes where massive bulbs of white had been inserted within. This was the ossuary, a mausoleum of tombs for the dead giants, and the great buds of white were their skulls. Whilst Leith climbed over the skulls ecstatic at the find, the rest of us investigated the droppings upon the floor to discern what over creatures had come through here. With our combined heads we figured they did in fact belong to other spider, either of equal size to the vanishing one that bit Hamir or even larger.
Adrik was making some poor joke about combining the exploded pieces of spider we left behind with faecal matter and each of us taking command of an appendage or two in some farcical manner of a “vaudevillian crap spider” when we heard voices in the dark and the scuttling of legs; not too dissimilar from that of the disappearing spider, but definitely in a greater number.
We all hid Hamir and myself snuffing our light, sacrificing our ability to see for our ability to hide. The others, I’m sure, felt at no disadvantage in their own abilities due to their innate vision in darkness. I listened in on their conversation – the two voices as they passed us – via a spell I cast whilst I could still see. They mentioned that a “she” would not stop talking and that they weren’t sure whether they should “feed her or fill her mouth with tar” due to her “nonstop talking”.
I could not see this, but was informed once they had moved on, that they were two drow – pale elves that dwelled deep underground, dealing in slaves and worshipping spiders. It made sense then that they were mounted atop the rear of two great widows, much larger than the single pale one that nearly killed Hamir, and on these arachnid’s backs were cages, each carrying a figure.
Once they passed, they discussed whether we should sally forth with them or turn back? We took a small vote as to what we do; and while it was decided we were not use to anyone – or even ourselves – dead, nor was any of the information if we were to be captured along with these two poor, unfortunate souls; I was reminded of critique Stardust made on the allegories of Phelix Xhador: “the majority is not always right”.
Yet it was not this that I think turned us against our own vote, but what Brixton found in a short matter of time post this following conversation. He offered to follow, keeping his distance, and report back. We gave him a whistle – which Adrik could have used in the tunnel when we were set upon by the Leppers’ mages to act as an alarum for aid – so that, if we needed to run, he could indicate to us at a good distance; for if he were discovered, what good would keeping quiet do when being chased down by four foes, two of whom, no doubt, held poison in their fangs more potent than the ones that plunged into Hamir.
Brixton, the master of stealth and shadows that he is, ever willing to risk life and limb for those who need it, discovered that in those cages was a small child and in the other a woman – who the drow were undoubtedly complaining about before – none of whom looked like they belonged to the Envoy and so were either independent contractors – like ourselves – or were captured elsewhere for other reasons.
But low, Brixton, along the way to following them, came across a mighty sight, and thusly beckoned us to follow once the spiders and their riders had continued further on.
The sight, once we had reached it, was truly stupendous. A sight and so a discovery so awe-inspiring that Hamir commented that this was “a historic moment in our lives”, and I must agree with him there, for even my pessimism and dulled view of life seemed to brighten and weep with wonder at this find.
It was a great ship, a vessel built assuredly for those of the giant’s proportions. Much of the ship’s boards and “meat” had rotted away, but the bones of the mighty spectacle remained; like the carcass of some great leviathan left to rot without the pickings of vultures or buzzards to clean its insides. It sat somewhat collapsed, with chests gleaming in the slight light that was cast down from the ceiling, small gaps of light coming through like beams of moonlight through an overcast sky.
The hull was shallow, like that of a longboat, so that – in its practical use – it could: be lifted by the rowers and carried across land, so that it was not bound to the sea and phobic of the earth; easily be beached and then set off again; be turned upon its side for shelter; and navigate in shallow waters, as well as double ended so that – should it need reversing – there would be as little resistance in its retreat as there would be advancing forward.
A single mast reached high into the cavern’s atmosphere; the tattered remains of a once-furled sail hung in moth-ridden strips. It lay in a stagnant water, with no evident or clear way of exit nor entrance. In this same space we beheld a mural of a singular moon!
Yes, Maria, not the scattered remnants that generations have gazed up at and grieved for the loss, but the wholly and collective structure of a sole moon; it’s architecture more evident in its completed and singular form. This in itself dated this ossuary’s age.
Theory amongst our group is that this was some ceremonial ship where the dead’s riches or loved ones’ offerings were interned; most likely belonging to a collection of storm giants, as they do favour the sea.
Adrik found some pillar or headstone that, in giant, read “here lies the vizier” before the rest was hidden by the ground in which it had half sunken into. I stayed back for a while, unsure of the drow and their mounts’ location, when I heard Brixton begin to worriedly speak to Leith. There was an avalanche of gold – this enough I figured was dangerous in itself, unsteady foundation and loose footing and all – but as I watched, through the low light that penetrated this tomb, I saw rise from the golden sea of coins and riches, a skeletal serpent-like being. It turned its glare upon my closer compatriots and attacked.
Brixton loosened his arrows. Adrik swung with his warhammer. Leith magically gleamed an insight into the creature’s defences and weaknesses whilst Hamir and I covered with our fire bolts. The serpent seemed to do something to Adrik, touching him with its skinless nose, then spoke, in a deep rumbling voice – without need for breath nor tongue nor lips – “FREEZE” yet Adrik stood his ground, unfrozen, able to strike at it once more. Leith, Hamir, and I damage it with some quite palpable hits, “down the marrow” as Supreme Chancellor Fu’Unklaab Midnight once noted of a night against something similar in the Tales of Sidarhael and Beyond.
It was with a great and well-notched arrow that Brixton is able to fell the beast as whatever magical or unnatural phenomena that held it together abandoned it, leaving it to fall to pieces; large pieces of vertebrae and ribs scattering amongst the glimmering gold pieces.
It was here that our group hardened our resolve to go after the drow, as someone put well enough, that it would be “more hands to carry the gold”.
Yet, this lost ship, the ancient mural of a moon lost to time, and this strange and forgotten guardian, reminded me of another entry by that scholarly bard Midnight; “in the deep dark lost caves…the missing sometimes find the lost” and made me wonder, whether we are the missing or the lost?
We scavenged the wealth before is, to see if there was anything of immediate worth we could take, mainly to aid in our rescue of the drow-taken, yet Adrik seemed more than happy to laden his pack with gold coins – the size of shields! These were the same coin type we found the day before, with a picture of some giant’s head on the side and giant runes called an Annam-strike, for the giant’s head depicted is supposed to belong to that of Annam, the all father of giants.
Leith and Brixton came across a belt and a hammer respectively. The belt was massive and, given to the giant expert among us, Adrik took it in his hands and read the inscription aloud. “With Annam’s strength!” he bellowed, and the belt shrunk to fit his stature. And I must say, that when we placed the belt upon his waste, he did seem to look more muscular and energetic in his strength.
Brixton’s hammer could only be lifted out by Adrik, who Brixton then gifted it to as it naturally befitted his benefit more than anyone else’s, claiming Adrik should have something “big and mean”.
I however, found some arcane tome. O Gods, how I wish I did not find it.
It was roughly the size of a dining table with a great padlock. Brixton tried to pick the lock, but doing so sent a great blast of force that injured myself and Brixton, sending us flying backwards. Brixton attempted another go and yet it had the same effect – except it was solely he in the radius of the blast. The magic of obviously some ancient Ostorian magic that has been lost to time, and a ward on the lock was making shockwaves harm anyone who tried to open it incorrectly. It was safer to let someone of more arcane knowledge and influence open the lock.
But the two powerful bursts had shaken the coins concealing it’s cover off, cascading into piles, and revealing the binding.
My hand shakes as I recount this. I do not know what I still see it in the dark, like a blinding light seared into my retinas, except it is like a void of darkness that it seems to etch itself into my sight with. I face of a giant, yet twisted, as if some abyssal creature had taken the giant’s face and wrenched its features beyond that of kindness and compassions, only able to comprehend anger and hunger and rage.
A book bound in the flesh of another sapient being. That in itself was repulsive enough, yet the book didn’t seem to lose any sense of sapience or sentience, for its eyes flickered open and gazed at Brixton and myself.
I felt my very soul become bare to the gaze of this creature. My own features twisted and hardened, fearing the fate it suffered, fearing the pain that simple gaze might do to me, I turned my back. The rasping of my voice, the ringing in my ears, and the scratching in the throat made it clear to me that I had screamed upon seeing this book, or this book seeing me. I have not screamed since I was a child.
Could it actually see me? Of course it could, for I felt it peer into my very being and expose my darkest confessions to myself. Could it breathe? Could it smell? Could it talk? Could it scream like it had made me scream? If it did, it decided not to, for it made no sound. I made a sketch; though I know not why I subjected myself to imprint it so vividly not only into my notes but also into my mind!
I will not subject you to such a sight. I hope that this volume may be one of the few items here that remain lost to time. Yet I feel an agonising curiosity creep over my thoughts as to what is within…
I will leave this here. My brain is pounding, and there is still so much more to talk about. There is still so much to learn. There is much to see. That book holds secrets. Secrets untouched by any mortal for thousands of years. If I could read it, even just glimpse at something in there, then maybe…
My best regards to you, Maria dearest,
Baron Edryn Styewell Krillinovich Montkoff