“Between two worlds life hovers like a star, twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.”
“The vales were mankind’s first homes. Protected from the elements and capable of growing crops, each vale is still occupied by a human or Adar city. In these places, life thrives, and it does so in ways wholly foreign to the rest of the world.”
-From A History of Civilization
Gnaeus allowed his spell to dissipate with a sigh. Otga’s devouring maw, now what should he do? The core was gone. The room looked barren now, with sections of the wall stripped away to remove the statues, chair, and spell emblems. There was only one object that the core had left behind. It was the statue of himself examining a smaller Gnaeus even as that smaller self examined the core. However, it contained a new addition, a large copy of the core behind and above the larger statue of himself.
He had found the original statue amusing at the time. It seemed a simple ridiculous repetition caused by the core imitating what it saw. The statues had been exceptional in detail, even if they were rough stone, but other than some traps there had been no creativity; each copied something that the core had actually seen him do. He was less amused now. There had been signs the dungeon was something more, but he had been so sure that he had restricted everything the dungeon could do. Especially since the dungeon never attacked him directly. Who ever heard of a dungeon with enough self control not to lash out at someone so near its core? If it was capable of acting as much as it did it should have used it to attempt an assault long ago. And anyway, he had known that the core was something new and special, so he had just disregarded any anomalies.
He was sure the core had left behind the statue on purpose. He did not know what it really meant though. A taunt, that even as it was studied by Gnaeus, he had missed the fact that it was already completely aware and studied him back? Perhaps it had left it as a gift? This was the only one that he had laughed at after all. Or was it something else, from a mind that might be completely alien? Gnaeus shook his head, too many possibilities. He didn’t even know if it had been self aware from the beginning, or if its learning skill had accelerated its progress beyond all reason. He had pulled in a blank soul from some other place. Had it been more than it seemed?
He pulled a lump of folerth out and examined the bright silvery metal. He frowned at the extremely expensive metal before putting it away; getting more would be a pain. Well… it’s not like he needed to contain a dungeon core anymore. No doubt he would need to make more emblems in the near future, but he could take his time with those.
He felt briefly the aura that had been left drifting in the room. Somehow the dungeon core had shed much of its aura and left it behind. He had secured it with a spell, surprised at how far the aura had gone into the back wall. The aura had started to drift down into the earth by the time he secured it in place. Already he could feel differences in the aura. It was less controlled, raw, with flickers of pure mana sparking across it. He would study this later, for now he would check his precautions.
His staff made soft clicking echoes against the stone as he walked away from his former containment room. Gnaeus tried to not think about the core being free under a major city. He would have been happy living in the middle of nowhere, but the guild would have objected. It did not matter that the city had not been attacked for centuries; law and tradition were not to be trifled with. The guildmaster, Matonasucus, had been reluctant to build a lab for Gnaeus at first, citing the impracticability of the expense. Of course, Matonasucus had happily arranged for the facility to be built as soon as Gnaeus had mentioned the possibility of getting back into guild politics out of boredom. So predictable.
The plain stone shifted to tiled blue and cream marble on the walls. The rugs on the floor cushioned the sound, even as light enchantments hung in the air beneath an intricately painted ceiling. Gnaeus rolled his eyes for the thousandth time as he transitioned to the overstated opulence. The guildmaster’s subtle revenge involved telling the architects, workers, and stone shapers the dwelling had to match Gnaeus’s status. Or maybe Matonasucus thought the opulence was an appropriate bribe to keep him away from politics? Considering how much Matonasucus liked his own indulgences it was hard to tell.
He sighed. Even as he had come to check on the core this morning his spell has stayed quiescent, assuring him that everything was as it should be. He laughed. It was hard to imagine a situation further from fine. His laughter was short lived and faded with a hard edge. He kept walking through the useless opulence until he reached the central core of his subterranean home.
It was one of the few rooms he had taken the trouble to insist be plain. The center of the room was a grey stone platform raised to waist height. On the walls six spell emblems of folerth gathered mana. Each had a silver line of folerth connecting to the neighboring emblems and a line set into the wall, then the floor, that finally terminated at each of the six mana batteries set into the platform. His central shield was centered here. An intricate emblem created a three layered shield. One layer protected this central room, another covered every room except the dungeon core room, and a final shield. It was meant to be a last defense, to ensure that no matter what happened the dungeon would be contained. It had failed.
The dungeon core should simply have not been able to fit through the shield. The dungeon core. Was that even the right term anymore? Certainly it was more than merely that. Some of the ancient dungeons were self aware, and Gnaeus was not even supposed to know that much. The Adar he accidentally learned it from had sworn him to silence once he realized Gnaeus knew. Other than spell emblems, dungeons were Gnaeus’ specialty.
And neither specialty had been enough to contain this new dungeon he had infused with a human soul. And not just any human soul either… No he had needed to summon one from… somewhere else. Any human soul on this world refused to join with a core. Their abilities, their own nature, were already set. Even a new born child was incompatible. He had needed a truly blank slate. Gnaeus assumed he had managed to get a human soul with no knowledge or self of any kind. Maybe he had. He had assumed that was why the dungeon, while fast to develop, seemed mostly normal. Right up until it disappeared.
His face twisted into a scowl as he looked at his shield emblem. Ever piece of it said it was functioning perfectly. Useless. He turned on his heel and moved away, his staff clacking on stone with each step.
He walked to the stairs leading up to the surface. How long had it been since he had been out of this place, months? At the least. He wondered if Thaw had come yet, it should have, but some years it came late. He turned aside from the stairs and went to his bed chamber. There he changed into simple white robes. No doubt Matonasucus would be annoyed if he saw him, but Gnaeus was beyond caring. Had been for years.
His feet led him back to the stairs and he climbed up. He was far below the city here, and the interminable climb gave room for his thoughts.
He had wanted to make a true impact on the world. That was what this was all about. He had read the histories, seen the ancient tomes, and he knew. Civilizations had risen before, and they all fell. He was considered exceptional, but he expected his society to also fall in the end. It was a cycle, anyone could see it if they read and studied hard enough. And no one knew exactly why. The scholars did not talk much about it, and the ruling class ignored it. Gnaeus had been less sanguine.
How many decades was it now since he had felt that discontent? Three, no it was almost four now. Even then he had been considered special. So he had used his wealth and talents to leverage a meeting with the best Seer in the world. As was true of all Seers that was all she was called. Her name had been forgotten to the past even as she looked to the future. He would never forget what she told him however.
He had explained the problem to her and she had simply nodded. Apparently her sight of the future foresaw this. She could see the cycles, and how all the different threads of fate could be woven. That was the most important thing, why people came to see a Seer in the first place. The future was not fixed. It was a tapestry what was still being woven and a single thread moved in the right place could change all that was to come.
And so he had asked her how to break the cycle. She told him she had been asked this question before. For most, if they had a way, it was too tenuous a possibility for her to see. A few she had given answers. And to him she had given one possibility, and a warning. If he gave a dungeon core a human soul he would break the cycle for the world, but it could end with either growth, or destruction.
He had thought it an impossible task many times over the past decades. He had cursed himself for a fool, railed against fate, and always, in the end, returned to his quest. Was this what was meant to happen? Was this the way the cycle broke? He had no answer. He had assumed that the knowledge he gained from the dungeon would let him break the cycle. At the least he assumed the knowledge would be a help to some future hero. Perhaps that was hubris; it was the new dungeon core itself that would determine the future now.
He was roused from his thoughts as he reached the top of the stairs. He paused for a moment, his breathing slightly labored, and then opened the door.
The guild house was much as it always was. Young servants and apprentices scurried hither and thither for their masters. And everywhere was sound. It washed over him as he walked the corridors. The warm babble of indistinct voices echoed off every wall. He had been alone too long. For all that he still worried his breath came surer, and his stride more lively. He made his way to the exit and stepped out.
The sun, Shurum, was high in its arc, and the day was biting cold. Snow lay a few feet high in any shadowed place. It was not Thaw yet, it was late. A slight distance from the sun he could see the faintly glowing ring of the maw, Otga. Soon Otga would excite her husband Shurum to passion, and Thaw would come.
The ageless valley that sheltered Allalus was shrouded in snow. Few traveled in Freeze, though the roads would still carry merchants on their endless runs between cities, and adventurers would be tramping back and forth to the closest dungeon. As the sun glinted off the snow he reflected that all seemed as it always had.
Gnaeus’ eyes were drawn to the north. There lay the most spectacular sight of the whole city. A waterfall and a cliff. Of course it was not just any waterfall, it was the waterfall, Plucia. A cascade of water that fell down a mile high cliff of granite year round. Now in late Freeze the water was thin, but it was also magnificent. Water had frozen as it ran down the cliff into thousands of fantastical icicles and floes, and the light of morning and evening would light the whole edifice like a torch. The Frozen Flame, it was called, sacred to the followers of Otga, and it was reserved for just before and after her courting dance started.
Even now the glinting of the light in the water and ice was majestic, but Gnaeus found his eyes once more drawn to the heavens. Otga and Shurum what had he wrought, and will it be creation… or destruction?
With heavy steps Gnaeus turned and began to make his way towards Otga’s temple. More than ever in his whole life Gnaeus hoped the the lady of fire, darkness, and chaos heard his prayers. Finally he reached the temple, the walls gleaming with crimson and black. He made his way to the altar and made a brief, but heartfelt prayer.
“Otga, have mercy on us all.”