Soren limped from the library, Maya in tow, as he opened the atlas given to him by Arakim and looked through some of the notes. His Mikri was a little rusty, so it would take him some time to interpret, but he had plenty of time given that he needed to wait for his leg to heal.
“So, when are we going to the temple?” Maya asked. She was almost as interested in Soren’s adventures as Aryia – perhaps more interested in the adventures themselves than Aryia was. It made sense that a child – or, woman, rather – of her life would want to do the dangerous things.
A person of poverty, Soren reasoned, wouldn’t want as the wealthy do, seeking everything they can get their over-privileged hands on. And it would only make sense that someone who’d suffered as she did would do anything but work to ensure that no one should suffer the same fate.
For Soren, it only made sense that those with little would want little. His crew, who had only the backs of their mates and what little gold they charged, wanted for nothing. If only the world worked that way.
He stowed the book into the satchel that hung on his shoulder – found among the ship’s wreckage – before looking to the road ahead and making his way to Aryia’s shack. “We aren’t going anywhere. I’m going back to Aryia’s to heal and read up on this temple and the surrounding land, and you are going back home.”
“I know I don’t look it, sir, but I’m not a girl,” Maya protested, crossing her arms, “I’m a grown woman. Maybe older than you.”
“Mm.” Soren turned down the road toward Aryia’s, quickening his pace and forcing Maya to jog in order to keep up.
“I can help, you know.” It was an awkward jog – too fast for her to possibly walk, but too slow for her to jog properly. “I can fit into spaces you can’t.”
“Yes, and if I need you, I’ll come get you, but I’m not putting you in unnecessary danger.”
As they turned down another path, Aryia’s shack came into view.
“But I’m not afraid of danger!” Maya attempted walking for a brief moment before returning to the awkward jog. “I can handle myself, you know!”
As Soren reached the shack’s front door, he turned to face the girl. “Go home, Maya. If- if I need you. I will let you come with me. But we’ll see.”
Soren turned and entered the home, wishing there was a door he could shut behind him as Maya followed him, dropping into one of the chairs at the table.
Aryia entered through the back door that led into the garden. She glanced at Soren, suppressing a smile, before muttering flatly, “Good, you’re alive.”
Soren sat in one of the chairs himself. He took off his boots, revealing his ripped breeches underneath. His leg was covered in bandages with blood outlining where the creature had bitten him.
Aryia immediately dropped her facade of disinterest as she rushed over and started trying to take the bandages from his leg.
Soren swatted her hand away.
“Leave them, it’s better for the wounds to heal.” He picked up the loaf of bread that was sitting on the table, ripping off a piece and taking a bite. “My captain appeared to me. Told me that the real job of the crew was here.”
Aryia sat down in the chair, taking a piece of bread as well. “What is it?”
Soren stopped chewing as he stared into space pensively. “No idea.”
Aryia and Maya exchanged glances.
“How are you to know what to do then?”
Soren set his piece of bread down as he swallowed. “He said that I’ll know what the job is when the time comes to complete it. But my first clue is to find someone called ‘the Dreamer’. From what I can gather, a myth from giants that used to live on the island.”
“The Dreamer?” Aryia asked, sitting up straight in her chair. “My father mentioned it once. When he first arrived, the Raven said that no one could leave the island except if the Dreamer allowed it. What happened when you tried to leave?”
“Suddenly, I was in water – there was no light, except” – he reached up and grabbed the charm that hung from his neck – “I think the Watcher was protecting me. I was attacked, by a fish, I suspect. Deep in the ocean.” He shook his head. “I swum back toward the island, best I could, and suddenly I was on the surface of the water again. I don’t think this is an island in the Sea of Stones – at least not on its surface.”
Maya ground her teeth. “You mean to tell me we’re on the ocean floor?”
Soren’s face grew stern as he looked the girl in the eye before nodding slowly. “Precisely. I think the Dreamer is the only way out because you need to be transported to the surface to escape. There’s no other way. The question is: who’s the Dreamer, and what does he have to do with my crew’s final job?”
The trio speculated for nearly an hour before Maya became bored with the conversation and left. At that point, Soren decided to lie down and let himself heal, only getting out of bed when supper was ready.
Soren spent the next two weeks healing and translating the atlas. Slowly, the language came back to him. On the morning he intended to go to the temple he gathered up supplies from the shed before making his way to Otto’s.
“I’m going to an ancient temple – got any ‘inventions’ that could help me out?” he asked to the seemingly empty building.
Otto suddenly appeared behind his counter, rubbing his hands together gleefully, baring his perfectly straight, white teeth. “Yes, yes, I believe so, my dearest Soren. Come along, come along.”
Otto led him down an aisle of the store to a pile of small leather pouches, picking one up in his hand.
“I call this a ‘fireball.'” He handed it to Soren, who turned it in his hand.
Besides the small pouch that made up the majority of the device, where an opening would be consisted of a small iron band, fastened to hold it shut around a wick, roughly the length of his thumb. It smelled faintly of sulfur and charcoal.
“It’s an explosive charge, you see. The leather pouch there is stuffed with gunpowder – the stuff you use to fire your cannons – and that there is a fuse of the same sort. You simply light the fuse, set the charge, and BOOM!” Otto jumped into a star shape, with his feet double shoulder-width apart and his hands high in the air. He stared at the ceiling for a moment before looking back to Soren. “Everything in a ten-foot radius is burnt toast. Perfect for dealing with wild animals and orks, or getting into places you’re not supposed to be – when stealth is unnecessary, of course.”
Soren nodded slowly, investigating the fireball before handing it back to the inventor. “I’ll take ten.”
Otto grabbed a paper bag from right next to the stand and placed ten fireballs into it, before snapping his fingers. He held one finger in the air as his eyes widened. “You know what you need now? Something to light it with!”
Otto scurried over to another stand, where there were several small flasks, made of glass and topped with metal. “I call these ‘lighters.'” He picked one up and handed it to Soren.
It was comprised of a small rectangular vial, topped with a piece of metal that had a small wheel and a lever on it.
“I call it that, see, because it lights things.” Otto gave a sinister grin. “On fire.”
Soren looked closely at the vial. It was filled with a dark liquid.
“The wheel there is made of steel and in the cap is a piece of flint,” Otto explained, “so, when you spin the wheel, it ignites. The little lever there opens a small valve that lets the fumes from the oil inside escape, ever-so-slowly, producing a flame. You can use this to light the fireballs – among other things, of course.”
Soren attempted spinning the wheel a few times, producing a spark, then pushed the lever. Nothing happened.
“You must be quick,” Otto instructed, taking the lighter from his hands. He quickly flicked the wheel and pressed the lever in rapid succession, causing a small candle flame to appear. He handed it back to Soren.
Soren imitated the action, creating a flame himself. “It’s like magic.”
“Not magic,” Otto corrected, “invention.”
“I suppose I’ll take it,” Soren replied, handing it back to Otto, who placed it into the paper bag with the fireballs. “Anything else for me?”
Otto stood up straight, peering over the stands he had set up throughout the store before shaking his head. “Not for now, no. Perhaps in the future, my dear Soren. Shall we?” The inventor motioned toward the front of the store, where the two returned and Soren paid for the items. Otto gave him a complimentary pouch specifically for the bombs before ushering him out of the store.
Then, Soren made his way out of town, toward the temple.
As he pushed through the undergrowth, a stone structure came into view. It looked like it could have been a mausoleum, with a large stone archway big enough for a giant. In front of the entrance was a massive statue of a snake, its hooded head reaching almost to the top of the archway, and its tail wrapping around it several times. The rattle it had was nearly as big as Soren.
As Soren approached the entrance, he heard a faint hiss at his feet. A small snake coiled loosely around his ankle and stared up at him. He paid it no mind as he looked through the archway, which led to a staircase leading underground. He took the lantern he’d fastened to his belt, lit it, and began his descent.
The snake slowly followed behind him. It almost seemed curious, like a small child.
The stairs seemed to go down for a long time before it finally opened into a larger chamber. The air was dry, and his lantern wavered for a moment as a wind that smelled like bad breath blew through the chamber.
The chamber itself was certainly larger than most of the shacks in Ortus. The flagstones that made up the floor seemed, for the most part, to be perfectly intact, and the ground was cleaned spotless. Statues lined the walls – giants, with single eyes that made up most of their heads and horns that grew like crowns. Most of the depictions of giants that Soren had seen in the past had two eyes, and looked much more human than these. There were two doors – one straight ahead of him, as the large as the entry way into the temple, and the other hidden in a corner, larger than a door for men, but too small for a giant to fit through.
As he stood, investigating the room, the snake that had followed him down slithered beside him, still staring at him.
He smiled at the snake – for what it was, it was quite adorable.
Soren elected to go through the side door, which led into a bed chamber. On the one wall was a bed with tattered rags dangling from the four posts and a moldy mattress, upon which a skeleton laid. A small table sat next to the bed with several rusted objects that looked like they were used in ceremonies millenia ago.
On the other side of the room was a dresser, with a smashed mirror on top of it and a strange instrument sitting on top – Soren wasn’t sure what it was supposed to look like, but it didn’t appear to be damaged or anything. As far as he could tell, it was in pristine condition. The fact that Arakim hadn’t taken it to his library surprised Soren. That said, he didn’t seem to have any sort of artifacts there – only books about them.
Soren decided to take the instrument, which was a ceramic tube with seemingly random undulations and curves. One end opened widely like a trumpet while the other was rounded, with a small hole that Soren assumed was for blowing into.
As he blew into it, it sounded like a woman vocalizing, holding a single note at just the right pitch. As he did so, the snake that had been following him perked up. He could have sworn it smiled. When he stopped, the snake put its head back on the ground before slithering up his leg and coming to rest on his shoulder.
Soren put the instrument in his bag before heading back out into the entry chamber.
As he stepped through the door, he heard a faint clattering, like bone against bone. Supposing it was just bones falling off the bed simply as a result of time passing, he kept walking and investigated the walls further. Much of the inscriptions were lost, as the stone had worn or grown. But in one place in particular, a full inscription remained. He recognized it from his days in his family’s noble house to be the written language of giants, but it had been so long, he’d no idea what any of it meant. Perhaps it was the inscription Arakim had copied down.
He turned around to continue further in the temple to find himself face to face with the empty eyes of a skeleton – save for a faint glowing darkness within them.
The skeleton from the bed chamber stared at him for a moment before lunging forward. Soren had failed to notice its hands weren’t human when he studied it before – the creature he looked at now was no man, but a wight. The skeleton of a man joined with the bones of other creatures, set by the ancients to act as guardians. Possible only to kill by ‘cutting its bone from its joint.’ An improbable task if ever there was one. The art to create them had been lost, but the fear of them remained.
Soren just barely managed to leap out of the way of its sharp claws – likely that of a bear or dire wolf from the looks of it – before drawing his blade. He set his lantern on the ground to give him light while he dodged around the beast he now faced.
The legends behind the creature had never described their speed. This one moved with an almost supernatural speed – though time seemed to slow in the moments before it hit him as the necklace that hung around Soren’s neck glowed. He swung at the monstrosity again and again, knocking its bones to the floor only for its bones to roll their way across the floor and back to its body.
Then, he felt a sharp nip and heard a whisper in his ear – a whisper mixed with the hissing of a snake, spoken in a tongue which Soren heard only once before. On the day Ishmere died.
The old captain had shouted at the dragon and the dragon shouted back. Soren hadn’t understood a word at the time. But he understood exactly what was being spoken now, even if he couldn’t put it into words.
He returned the sword to its sheath and took the charm of Imya in his hand, slipping the necklace over his head. He waited for the wight to lunge at him one last time before stepping, just enough to dodge its claws, and pressing the icon into its forehead. The symbol glowed – shone – as if the sun was there in the room with them. It burned into Soren’s hand as the wight let out a foul shriek, the darkness in its eyes turned to light.
From its eyes outward, the thing turned to dust and fell to the floor. Then, another wind that smelled like foul breath swept through the room, taking the dust up and out of the temple.
Soren hoped – prayed – the danger was over as he returned the necklace to its proper place. His hand was now branded with the symbol of Imya.
Then, the noise began. A rattle that filled him with dread as the snake on his shoulder cowered. He looked around to find the source, determining it must have come from the door ahead. As he searched, he also noticed something else that was peculiar. He could read the writing on the wall.
As it slithers, so it lie
Its skin shall never let it die
And that upon which back it shake
Only then its will you break
Soren took in a nervous gulp as he waited. One snake, not quite so large as the statue outside, but certainly large enough to swallow a man whole slithered into the room. Followed by another. Followed by another dozen or two. They slithered toward Soren cautiously as he cautiously backed away. A few snapped and hissed as they drew ever closer. It sounded as if they were speaking, though there were too many voices at once to discern any sort of meaning.
Then, Soren remembered the instrument. As he reached into his bag and began pulling it out, one of the snakes leapt at him, narrowly missing his face. He quickly brought it to his mouth and blew. Immediately, the snakes calmed. He stopped playing as he took a breath and the snakes became hostile again.
He continued playing and, as they became docile, he hatched a plan.
He grabbed the snake that had leapt behind him and tossed it near the rest. He swept them all up around each other and took one of Otto’s fireballs into his hand. Then, the whisper in his ear spoke again.
He returned the fireball to its pouch and stopped playing.
“Why do you attack me?”
The snakes hostility remained, though they became less aggressive.
The snake that first entered the room reared up, bringing its face as close to Soren’s as possible before speaking in Shelezar.
“It is because you seek to destroy us.”
Soren furrowed his brow. “How so?”
“You seek to wake the Dreamer?”
“Then you seek the destruction of all we know.”
Soren glanced to the snake on his shoulder, still eyeing him curiously.
“Why does waking the Dreamer spell the destruction of everything?”
The snake returned to the ground and slithered further into the temple, the rest of the snakes in tow – save for the one on Soren’s shoulder.
Soren picked up his lantern and followed.
The door lead to a hall. Lining the walls were murals, displaying fighting and wars. Acts of violence, between the beings depicted in the entry hall’s statues and beasts of the earth – snakes, birds, wolves, spiders, bats, and many more.
At the end of the hall was a wall. It was cracked in various places. Soren stepped up to it and ran his hand along the edge. There was a seam with the wall. When he turned around, the group of larger snakes that had led him into the hall were gone. The only snake that remained with him was the one that sat on his shoulder.
He drew his sword and tapped the pommel on the wall. It was hollow on the other side. He pulled a fireball from the pouch once more and took the lighter into his hand. After the fuse was lit, he set it at the base of the wall and ran. As he made it halfway to the entryway it exploded. When he turned around, the weak wall had been replaced with a doorway.
He stepped through the door to a chamber even larger than the entryway, with a vaulted ceiling, and walls covered in more murals and more faded inscriptions. And in the center was a snake, even larger than the statue outside, curled up and sleeping. Hopefully
Soren took a few steps into the room when he heard a voice sound from it.
“You dare to enter my domain?” The snake hadn’t moved.
Soren stopped in his tracks and stared at the snake. When he heard nothing more, he began walking again. Soon, he was interrupted.
“You dare to break my door down, that the inventor so kindly made for me? You dare to attempt to murder my children?”
Soren slowed his breathing as much as he could as the snake’s eyes opened.
It slithered in a circle, raising its head high in the air and extending its hood.
“Why are you here, you son of Man?”
Soren placed his hand on the hilt of his sword as he answered, “I search for the Dreamer. I have been told by my captain to find him.”
“And who might your captain be?”
“A man named Delmore,” Soren replied, tightening his grip on the sword.
“And who told your captain to command you as such?”
“The Watcher, Imya.”
“I see.” The snake flicked its tongue, tasting the air. “The Watcher is no friend of the Dreamer. But the Watcher is also no friend of Naga!”
At that, the snake lurched forward.
Soren leapt out of the way, pulling his sword from the sheath and swinging at the snake. The blade contacted its scales, deflecting off with a spark, as Soren fell onto his side.
The snake turned and coiled up again, preparing for another jump and bearing its fangs – dripping with venom.
Soren jumped to his feet and waited for the snake to lunge again. As it came close he swung his sword, catching it right in the corner of its mouth and knocking its head to the side. It was uncut – like Soren had just hit it with a large club.
Soren began darting around it, hitting it wherever he could, to no avail. He leapt and dove around it, sometimes forced to jump over its body to get out of the way of its strike. No matter how many times he hit it, the blade always bounced off. Then its rattle sounded.
The sound echoed in Soren’s ears as he recalled the writing on the wall. And that upon which back it shake/Only then its will you break.
“The rattle,” Soren muttered under his breath as the snake coiled itself into a circle once more.
The snake seemed to notice his eyes focus on its rattle as it brought its tail around behind it. He would have to get past its head.
He returned his sword to his sheath and unfastened his belt, dropping it on the floor. He took the satchel from his shoulder as well. He would need to move fast and unhindered. The snake on his shoulder slithered off, resting on his things.
The giant snake waited.
The only thing he left on him was his clothes, and the knife strapped to his leg.
He ran, as quickly as he could, his eyes on his goal.
The snake launched forward, straight at his torso.
Just before the snake caught him in its jaws, Soren dropped to the ground. He slid, right under the snake’s head, and took the knife in his hand.
He jumped up, and clambered up the snake’s uncoiling body – jumped for the rattle, and sunk the dagger into it. It met some resistance at first, but the moment the bone-like substance was pierced, it gave way.
Soren tumbled to the ground as the giant snake let out a loud shriek, writhing on the ground. Then, it froze.
Soren stood as the snake, its head in the air, mouth wide-open as it stared at the ceiling, began to darken. It was like it was being burned from the inside, changing to charcoal, then ash. It crumbled into a massive pile on the floor. One final time, a wind swept through the room, this time smelling of a sweet Spring breeze. Its ashes were carried out the door, leaving an odd trinket behind.
A small, red crystal, encased in a golden amulet without a chain. He picked it up and put it in the pocket on his breeches before gathering up his things and standing before the grand mural that decorated the far wall of the room.
It showed a massive battle, not unlike those in the hallway. But this one showed, instead of the creatures that were shown in the battle outside, twisted shadows, like a pale imitation of nature. And there were many giants, not just the one-eyed, horned ones.
An inscription was carved into the wall below it, fragmented by the wear of time. It was the language of the writing before, and Soren understood it just as well.
In days dark, shadow ruled, untested
When good never woke and evil never rested
Man suffered much, by they that enslave
And found their comfort in only the grave
Then giants arose from rock and stone
And took the shadows from their throne
They freed our people, our cage asunder
And sent the shadows deep down under
So now the mighty Dreamer sleeps
Atop the mountain, Slumberkeep