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It was raining again.
Jayrden tugged on the reins and brought his horse to a halt at the top of the small rise. Dripping, he stood up as high as he could in the stirrups to survey the land around him. As far as his eyes could see through the drizzle and haze, there was nothing but rolling hills covered in evergreen trees and the old road he was traveling. Occasionally a hill stood a little taller than the others, exposing a bald, rocky peak above the tree line. It seemed to Jayrden that these hills did so in protest of mediocrity. The thought made him smile for a moment, in spite of the rain.
He speculated that it was about two o’clock in the afternoon, though the thin cloud cover that stretched from horizon to horizon hid the sun’s true position from perception. “Five days,” he mumbled to himself. “I can’t believe I agreed to this.”
Normally the trip would have been taken in late spring or early summer, when the weather was a bit more favorable, but things were not well at home. His father, who would have normally been leading this trip, had fallen ill with the same sickness that had taken many of the men in the village over the past couple of moon cycles. All were still recovering, according to the village healer, but most of the community didn’t have much hope. It was a strange sickness, and although the symptoms were easily treated, a complete cure seemed to elude the healer. Nevertheless, she insisted that those infected were recovering. “They just need some more sleep” she’d say. But it was the sleep that was the problem…
The community healer was a young woman named Kayriss. She was quite good at her craft, especially given her age. Truth be known, no one was sure exactly how old she was, but she didn’t bear the gray hair and wrinkles of the typically-aged, well-seasoned healer. Thus, one was left to draw one of two conclusions: either she was young, and quite talented, or she was a very old healer who was so good she could reverse the effects of aging. Most people believed the first conclusion, though there were those in the community among the elderly that held out for the second. Regardless, there was little doubt in the community with respect to her abilities. There was very little, it seemed, that she didn’t know about the various illnesses and injuries that came and went in everyday life.
When Jayrden’s father took ill, the healer had asked Jayrden to pay her a visit. “I need some help” she confided.
“But what can I do?” Jayrden replied, “I don’t know the art.”
The healer smiled. “You don’t have to. What I need is someone to go to Vi’Kyda.”
“ Vi’Kyda? That’s five days away. Why do you need someone to go to Vi’Kyda?”
“Not someone, Jayrden, you. I need you to take this letter to a colleague of mine.” The healer handed Jayrden a small, sealed envelope. Jayrden asked what the letter was about, but the healer just shook her head. “Not now” she said. “Perhaps when you return. Wait for a response. She’ll most likely give you a small parcel containing herbs and medicine.”
“Alright,” Jayrden agreed reluctantly, “I’ll just tell Kyr to get packed and we’ll be on our way.”
“No. You need to go alone.”
“Alone!? Are you insane?! For heaven’s sake why?” Jayrden’s voice held more than just a little irritation at this point. “Five days through the Aryssian forest alone?”
“You’re the only one I can trust.”
“Look, Jayrden,” the healer sighed in exasperation as she sat down onto a stool. “There’s something about this illness that’s… I don’t know. It’s not normal. I think something – or someone – in the community may be causing it. I need you to deliver that letter without alerting anyone else to its existence. Everyone knows that your father normally makes a trip to Vi’Kyda about this time of year. They won’t think anything of it if you go in your father’s stead.”
“Like I said, you’re the only one I trust.”
And that was it. Jayrden made his preparations as though he were just taking the trip in his father’s stead. He had gone to Vi’Kyda with his father several times when he was younger, so he wasn’t ignorant of the journey that lay ahead or what it would take. But the trip had never been taken quite this early in the season; they usually waited for a bit longer to allow the weather to get warmer. And his father had always been there to lead the trip. Jayrden tried to tell himself that there was nothing special about this trip, but he was nervous anyway.
The trip had started out fairly well: bright sun, fair wind, and songbirds. But now, three days out, the weather was less than comfortable. Much less. The temperature was typical for the planting season, as were the rains. It just wasn’t any fun to travel in. Wishing he wasn’t so miserable, Jayrden plopped himself back down into the saddle and gently nudged his heels into the sides of his horse. With a bit of a jerk, they were off again. He pulled his leather coat tighter around himself in an effort to ward off the dampness, but the effort was futile. He was already soaked through.
* * * * *
“Dad, who made this road?”
The question was innocent enough, considering it was coming from a boy in his 6th year.
“I don’t know son. Why?”
“They didn’t do a very good job.”
The potter chuckled. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, it’s all lumpy. And there’s big rocks in the middle of it.”
The potter thought about the boy’s comment as they continued down the old, worn road. His observations were correct. The road was far from flat, with wagon wheel ruts, potholes, and the like. It now more closely resembled a trail than a road, but a road it was, and the only road that went to Vi’Kyda. He did find it somewhat peculiar, though, that most of the rocks along (and sometimes in) the road were cubical in shape, and very nearly the same size. “Who did make this road?” he wondered.
“I’m sure at one time it was a nice road,” he told the boy. “But that was probably long, long ago.”
“How long ago?”
With a bit of a sigh, the merchant tried to appease the boy. “I don’t know, Jayrden. But there have been people living here for a very long time; longer than anybody can remember. Hundreds of years, maybe.”
“Oh.” There was a considerable pause before the boy spoke again. “Dad?”
“How much is hundreds?”
* * * * *
Jayrden tugged the brim of his hat further down in front of his face, watching the nearly constant stream of water coming off the brim and plummeting to the muddy road below. The horse’s hooves had long since quit making a nice clippity-clop sound that he found relaxing on trips like this. Now all there was was the splashing and slurping of the mud, and there was nothing soothing about that.
It was the lightning that finally convinced Jayrden it was time to look for a place to get out of the elements. It was still early to be calling it a day, but he didn’t like being out in lightning. He wasn’t afraid of it; he just didn’t like how random and disorganized it was. He also didn’t like the thunder that came afterward. There wasn’t a song in the sound like there was with a babbling brook or the wind in the trees. Just a big “boom”. Some of the community elders held the belief that there was a great power at work in lightning, but it was a belief that was considered fantasy by others. Great power or otherwise, Jayrden would just as soon stay as far away from it as he could.
As he searched for some kind of refuge, he tried to recall what his father had taught him about being out in lightning and rain. “You don’t want to be caught in the bottom of a ravine” he said. “You may be swept away by a flash-flood. But at the same time, you don’t want to be on the mountain top, either, or you’ll get hit by lightning. So’s best to keep to someplace in between.”
Jayrden surveyed his surroundings. Nothing but rolling hills covered in trees came to view. He sighted along the tree line on the hill to his right. About 200 strides away was an outcropping of rock jutting out of the side of one of the taller hills. Pulling on the reigns, Jayrden steered the reluctant horse towards what he hoped would be some relief from the rain. The going wasn’t as easy as he had hoped. Loose rock that had fallen from the side of the hill over time made the footing loose and slippery. Jayrden finally had to dismount and lead the horse for the last bit for fear of the horse losing its footing and becoming injured.
The outcropping was bigger than it looked from the road. Jayrden could stand upright underneath it, and there was a fairly good-sized spot of dry ground on which he could lay his bedroll. He’d have to curl up a bit to keep his feet from poking out into the rain, but he was glad of it nevertheless. He unlashed his saddlebags and bedroll from the horse, then removed the saddle and bridle and set them all aside under the outcropping.
The horse would have to make do in the trees. Jayrden retrieved a length of rope from one of his saddlebags and secured one end of it around the horse’s neck. Taking his hatchet with him, Jayrden proceeded to lead the horse to the nearest stand of trees, where there was a small patch of grass on which it could feed, and carefully tied off the tether to a strong, low-slung branch. He then acquired some dry timber from the lower branches of another nearby tree. As he prepared to walk back to the outcropping, he took one last look at his horse and mumbled something of a prayer that the poor creature wouldn’t get hit by the lightning.
Back under the outcropping, he removed his hat and began trying to start a fire. It would be nice to be warm again. His clothes had stopped being warm after about 15 minutes of rain, and that had been well before lunch. He didn’t think he’d ever get dry, but at least the fire would help. He carefully slivered some of the wood and stacked it in the form of a cone around some tinder he had obtained from his tinderbox.
The sound startled Jayrden so badly that he jumped, dropping his flint into the dirt. Looking up, he peered out at the forest from his makeshift shelter. He was acutely aware that the lightning was not far away, and it was most certainly too close for his comfort. He listened as the thunder rumbled off into the distance, the chaos fading with it as it went. As he listened, something about the sound seemed not quite right. It was different. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but the sound was… wrong. He listened more intently, struggling to hear what he couldn’t. After a while, he turned back to his fire making.
Jayrden wasn’t as startled this time. He managed to catch the flash of the lightning out of the corner of his eye. It had struck about a quarter mile away, in a small cove formed by the natural curvature of the hill line. It was odd, he thought, that the lightning would hit in the cove instead of the top of the hills forming it. He had been told that lightning usually hit the tallest thing around. The hills were much, much taller than the trees in the area of the cove, and yet the lightning had essentially ignored them. Yes, it was indeed very odd, but that was only part of it.
It was the thunder that really held his attention: it hummed. The first strike had left his ears sharply attuned to the sounds of his surroundings. Even long after the thunder had dissipated, they had strained to figure out why the sound seemed wrong. This time he knew. As the thunder rolled off into the distance, a distinct humming could be heard accompanying it. The hum rolled off as well, but not like it was getting further away. Strangely, it was more like a note plucked on a harp: it faded gradually but continued to come from the same place. As the thunder moved, rolling off into the distance, the hum continued to emanate from the same source: the cove.
Even from where he was, Jayrden had to strain to hear it. The thunder almost drowned it out completely. “What is that?” he wondered. He felt drawn to it, as though it were calling for him. His mind raced with the struggle between wanting to run away from the lightning and wanting to know what that sound was. He found himself staring at the cove in anticipation, almost wanting the lightning to hit again. His heart raced. His head pounded.
The hum was louder this time. In fact, it seemed to be getting louder with each strike. Jayrden could now make out multiple tones in the hum, like more than one string being plucked at the same time on a harp. Its harmony stood in stark contrast to the lightning and thunder that surrounded it. The sound caused Jayrden’s mind to conjure up the image of a struggling hero, surmounted with impossible odds. Valiantly the hero fought, supported by an inner light. He was the kind of hero, and possessed the kind of courage, only told of in children’s tales…
The strike stirred Jayrden from his trance. He had become so mesmerized with the sound that he couldn’t recall how long his mind had been elsewhere. It could have been seconds or hours since the last strike. He really didn’t know. He shook his head and tried to bring himself back to reality.
Surprising himself, he stood and took a step towards the cove. His eyes struggled to pierce the rain and haze between him and the cove. His mind was racing, struggling with whether to satisfy his curiosity or stay in the safety of his shelter. His heart pounded harder as something in the back of his mind seemed to quietly prod “You must see. You must know.” But every logical thought in his mind was pulling at him to stay. Torn, he just stared at the cove. “What’s there?” he wondered. “Who…”
Jayrden set off. In fact, he was several steps on his way before he even realized he had left his little outcropping of rock. Again, he couldn’t have told how long he had been staring at the cove since the last strike. Ignoring anything holding him back, he jogged slowly towards the cove, keeping to the side of the hill as much as he could. The rain frustrated him as it got in his eyes, disrupting his view of the cove. With the back of his hand, he wiped his hair out of his eyes and realized that he had left without his hat. “Too late now,” he thought, and he continued on at a quickened pace.
It didn’t take nearly as long as he had thought it would. Heart pounding, he slowed to a walk as he approached the cove. During his approach, the cove had appeared just as forested as any other part of the area surrounding it. As he got closer, however, it became apparent that at least part of the cove was devoid of trees. Wanting to get a better look, he carefully crept up behind a tall pine at the edge of the void as though he were sneaking up on somebody, and peered into the treeless heart of the cove.
The cove in general was much larger than it had looked from a distance. It was surrounded on three sides by cliffs that were nearly sheer, and unnaturally smooth. There was a constant, consistent arc to the whole hollow. At the foot of the cliffs stood a narrow belt of trees, perhaps twenty feet wide, that surrounded the heart of the cove and connected with the rest of the forest on the open side.
In the midst of the cove stood an enormous circular stone structure. Several large stone pillars rested atop a stone floor that was slightly higher than the ground surrounding it. Slabs of stone rested atop each pair of pillars and spanned across the gap between them, forming a ring of crude archways, for lack of a better description. In all, the monument was probably some 300 feet across at the center. All that separated Jayrden from the structure was a grassy slope, which rose upward toward and surrounded the structure. It was about forty or fifty feet wide.
Completely unprepared, Jayrden was thrown to the ground, burying his face into his arm to hide his eyes and covering his ears with his hands. He hadn’t been looking directly at the old structure when it hit, luckily. Again he had just caught a glimpse of the flash out of the corner of his eye. The lightning struck right in the middle of the structure, it seemed, but since Jayrden wasn’t looking directly at the point, he couldn’t be sure. His head hurt. The memory of the strike was still vivid, and his mind was swimming with details.
The hum, if it could still be called that, was beautiful, albeit loud, and it was definitely coming from the center of the cove. This close to the focal point of the strike it was more like a ring than a hum. No, that wasn’t quite right either. When the strike hit, a terrible cacophony of notes had been released, filling the air with a hideous noise. As the various notes faded out, they did so unevenly. Some notes lingered longer than others, yielding a beautiful harmony of perfectly matched notes towards the trailing end of it all. Chaos changing to harmony.
And the light… what had it done? There was the flash, and then… It rippled. Blue. Flowing out…
Jayrden shook his head. It was no use. Try as he might, the details of his overloaded senses couldn’t be pieced together. At least not without seeing the lightning hit again. Who in their right mind would want to subject themselves to that again, though? Was he in his right mind? “Why am I here?” he mumbled to himself.
Shaking his head as he stood, Jayrden knew he had to get a better look. He didn’t want to. He had to. He could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears, and he wanted to run. But something seemed to pull him toward the structure, in spite of his desires to move away from it. “You must see. You must know”, it whispered. “I CAN’T!”, he screamed to the open air, as if someone had demanded something of him that he couldn’t do. Sounds were muffled, as his ears still had not quite recovered from the blast, but he staggered on regardless. He glanced accusingly at the sky as he left the shroud of trees and proceeded towards whatever fate awaited him. Almost incoherently, he muttered “I must be mad”.
Details gradually unfolded as he approached the monument. While still a short distance away from the monument, Jayrden could tell that inside the ring of pillars, the floor of the structure dropped down. It was impossible to tell just how far, at least from where he was currently at. He’d have to get closer to tell more.
As he stepped up onto the floor of the monument, he noticed that the stone the structure was made with looked very old. The surface of any given piece within view bore the pocking and pitting that came with weather and age. Joints that would once have been quite tight were wider now on their exposed edge than they once would have been. Corners and sharp edges that should have been crisp and straight, were rounded over and dulled. Patches of lichen could be seen here and there, mostly on the stones nearest the outer edge of the structure.
While the pillars and capstones were quite plain, the floor of the structure was carved with intricate decorations, some resembling writing, and others resembling simple patterns or art. The entire floor was covered with them. The general flow of the patterns was outward from the center of the monument, like rays coming off the sun. Other than that, the only consistency that Jayrden noticed was the presence of a circle about two feet in diameter carved underneath each archway, inside which there were no carvings whatsoever. Although he couldn’t really see all of the archways, he somehow knew there was a circle under each one of them.
Jayrden walked toward the sunken center of the structure, stopping at the edge and peering down to the floor below. The drop was sheer, and nearly twenty feet in height, as best he could tell. The lower floor was carved with patterns and designs just like the upper floor, but it also dipped down slightly towards the center, like a shallow bowl. Connecting the two floors were stairways, symmetrically placed around the monument. The stairs curved to follow the wall, or the drop-off from the upper floor, around the center of the monument.
At the focal point of the entire structure was a large pillar, carved with the same intricate details that the floors bore. The pillar rose to be about equal in height with the upper floor, tapering slightly as it rose. Near the top, the pillar split into four great fingers, which diverged outward to retain a translucent blue sphere, and then merged back together atop the sphere. At the apex of the monolith stood a long needle, stabbing toward the sky. It appeared to be made of metal, but it was nearly white in color.
Jayrden’s full attention was focused on the top of the pillar, primarily on the sphere. Its core glowed slightly with a light that appeared veined. It was not at all unlike staring at a bush barren of leaves. As he squinted, Jayrden could tell that the light in the core was pulsing slowly, as though it were alive and breathing.
“Shield your eyes!” The voice came from nowhere, but Jayrden reacted as directed without thinking. Just as he raised his arm to obey, another lightning strike hit. CRACK! Hum… Jayrden staggered back and dropped to his knees, keeping his arm in front of his face, but the sound was deafening. He covered one ear with his free hand and tried to bury his other ear into his shoulder. It helped, a little. He could feel the hum vibrating in the floor, resonating the whole of the structure.
As he peered out underneath his arm, he could clearly see the base of the pillar and the floor. When the strike hit, the patterns carved into the floor glowed blue. The effect seemed to flow, starting toward the top of the pillar and proceeding down the pillar and outward through the floor. A ripple of light, it passed right through the cracks and crevices of the floor beneath him, leaving them glowing eerily. As it passed, a wave of… something… went right through Jayrden. It felt like nothing he had ever encountered before. The sensation couldn’t necessarily be qualified as feeling good or bad, but it was most certainly penetrating. As the ripple of light faded, it did so unevenly. Some patterns and places dimmed before others, like water soaking into the ground after a rain storm.
It was at this time, with Jayrden peering out from under his arm, that something caught his attention. At the base of the pillar there were a series of carvings set apart from their surrounding carvings by a large rectangular border. The light faded more slowly in this area than anywhere else in the monument, as far as he could tell, but that wasn’t what he found intriguing. Most of the carvings in that area appeared to be some form of writing; writing which was surrounding a carving of a hand.
“It is time. You must know…” Suddenly, Jayrden became aware that he was no longer in control of himself. It was as if he had stepped out of his body and began watching himself from someone else’s perspective. He could, however, still feel everything going on, so he knew he was still in his body, if that made any sense. He watched as he began walking toward a nearby set of stairs, preparing to traverse down towards the center of the monument. His mind raced, screaming in objection, but it was to no avail. His feet just kept moving forward, down the stairs one at a time.
He realized that there were two distinct voices in his head, each speaking from a different perspective. He recognized his own, of course, but it was hoarse with protest. He did take some comfort in the fact that at least he recognized his own voice. “If I still know my own voice, I guess I can’t be totally insane,” he thought.
The other voice calmly assured him, “You must know. We have waited so long… It is time”. It was very persuasive, that voice, and his feet just kept moving. “Who are you, and what must I know?” he wondered. The other voice didn’t respond.
The surrealistic process seemed to go on forever. As if in a dream, he watched himself be led down the stairs and towards the pillar that marked the center of the monument. As he stepped out onto the lower floor, having reached the bottom of the stairs, he could feel a low, methodical thrumming with his feet. It reminded Jayrden a bit of a heartbeat.
At length, he arrived at the pillar. He looked at the inscriptions he had seen from the upper level, the writing set in the rectangle with the hand, and he understood. He didn’t know how, but he understood. He looked down as his right hand, acting seemingly of its own accord, reached out toward the carvings. His palm was down, his fingers extended. He watched as his hand placed itself in the carving of the hand, and he thought “A perfect fit”.
“Deya ka! Deya ka!” The screaming came from his left, towards the upper level where he had been only moments before. He forced himself to turn his head toward the direction of the sound. Someone, or something, was standing on the upper level, frantically waving. “Who could that be?” Jayrden wondered, “And what are they yelling about?” Even as he thought this, the person began running towards the stairs, yelling as they went. “Deya kerim! Ka! Mi deya ka!”
Jayrden watched, never moving, as the other person ran down the stairs, rounding at the bottom and starting toward him. Suddenly, the whole ruin was illuminated with bright white light. Jayrden could plainly see the person, or creature, that had been yelling at him. He was frozen there in space, in mid-stride, reaching towards Jayrden as though he were trying to save him from something. The position he was in should have sent him stumbling to the earth, but he remained where he was in spite of simple physics. His eyes were fixed on Jayrden, frozen in a look of fear or perhaps desperation.
Jayrden forced his gaze back toward the upper level and was a bit startled to see others, all looking down at him with a look of horror in their eyes. All were still, as if they were frozen. Each one stood underneath one of the archways.
Then Jayrden glanced up, toward the top of the pillar. To his astonishment, lightning was striking the needle at the top. That is to say, lightning had struck the needle and seemed to have gotten stuck. It, too, was unmoving. No flicker, no flashing, nothing. Just a big, jagged scar of light traced from the sky to the needle. It just sat there, as if time itself had completely stopped. Jayrden glanced back down, not comprehending, just as the flood came.
Sights, sounds, smells, feelings, thoughts… all poured directly into his mind at a pace much faster than his own senses would be capable of. He saw, heard, and felt such things as he had never experienced in his life. Entire lives passed before his eyes like characters in a story. Raw comprehension seemed to be thrust upon him, for he understood things he had never before considered. Faster, and faster the perceptions came, until he felt as though his mind were being torn apart. He began to sway under the stress of the river flowing directly into his head, pounding at him. He opened his mouth to scream, but the deluge of information just kept coming. Pounding, throbbing, overloading his senses…
His knees gave way…
and he began to fall…
as everything faded into blackness…