After a long day of training the recruits, Celeste fell back into her cot, and rested her head on the straw pillow. To her left a sleeping Talos hummed in a light purr. She smiled, looking at her second oldest friend like a mother to a child. To think she and her brother had found this land, this hive of activity and magic. To think it’s been years since their fated arrival, and the discovery of the Archnotes.
The legends loved to fluff up the arrival of the twins, of Celeste and Caelum. But what now feels like some ancient tale seemed to miss some of the less…flattering details. Like how Caelum, in his lust for knowledge and adventure, stumbled into the King’s Quarry in search of a legendary treasure. How Celeste, with only their survival in mind, had to fight off over a dozen guardian beasts designed to protect the treasure. And how the King, more out of some ulterior motive than an act of kindness, welcomed the intruding pair in for tea and discussions of the hidden trove.
But that was the past, and now Celeste could focus on her current position in the kingdom of Halosin. Chief Guard and Adventurer of the King’s Shield. With her duties of training the initiates and venturing to new and unreclaimed Sectors, she hardly had time to see Caelum. Not that he could be pried from his Chief Researcher role in the Catacombs. He always came back with lightning singed hair, with that dopey smile that usually meant something dangerous happened.
She smiled at the image. Her brother was such an idiot. But her biggest supporter, and oldest friend. Since arriving here, they’ve made other friends and allies. But she couldn’t imagine a world without Caelum.
Talos squeaked, stretching his wings to resettle closer to her. She scratched under his chin and warmed as his bright eyes blinked with love. She knew her family had some connection to the ancient Dracloud clan, that only one blessed by their light could unite with the clan as a single unit. She didn’t know what this meant, but surely Caelum’s research might lead to something. Their past is one of the few things the two weren’t sure about, but that’s where the King and his resources might help.
A light glow from the corner of the room caught her attention. The Dawn shined in the flickering candlelight, and began glowing faintly. The Dawn, known in the texts as the Glystal Blade, passed to the Captain of the Guard for generations. A gift from the King, though she always wondered if it wasn’t to keep an eye on her and her brothers intentions. The blade was said to have been blessed by a sun deity, with the ability to bring light when the darkness was near, and to bring forth only the truth from those near it. Its glow meant only one thing.
Caelum swung open the door, hair still smoking and that lovable smirk spread across his face.
“Guess the studies were a success today?” Celeste straightened herself in her bed, shifting carefully to not disturb Talos, who gave Caelum a side glance before drifting back to sleep.
“You know it sis!” Caelum smiled, throwing a bag of scrolls and tomes onto his unmade cot. His glance went to the Dawn, still lightly glowing in a soft hum. “Still calling me a demon, eh?”
“You are though!” Celeste laughed, pointing at the still rising smoke from his hair. “Your worse than dad with that Dracloud enclave we found”. The memory echoed in the back of her mind. The last good memory of that journey. She shook it back into her mind and threw a cloth at her brother.
“Oh yeah!” Caelum caught the cloth, and quickly began smothering what might have been the beginning of a fire. “He couldn’t raise an eyebrow for a month after that! Not that…”. He stopped. Caelum was never good at being tactful, and seemed to have a mouth that never wanted to stop.
“So any actual leads toward the next set of Notes?” Celeste changed the subject, as Caelum throw himself onto his cot, the wood creaking slightly under the sudden weight.
“Not much… though we might have a Sector we’ll need the Shields to check out”. Caelum smirked toward her, knowing this would peak her interest.
Though normally true, todays exercises left Celeste drained. She still smiled softly to Caelum. “Well I bet Fumi will be giving me the news first thing, won’t he?”
“Yeah, that’s true.” Caelum took the hint and lay his head back. “Just giving you a hint… it’s supposed to be loaded with Atterbanes and apparently specters.”
“Oh boy, my favorites”. Celeste chuckled, thinking about the Deathforest excursion. The King loved sending her out on these missions. Not that she minded - she lived for the thrill of discovering new Sectors, and learning more about this land. Plus, more time away from Caelum meant less distractions to the Archnote research. “Can’t wait for that over breakfast”.
“Just don’t wake me when you leave.” Caelum warned, sleep swiftly falling upon him. “Tomorrow I plan on researching that faded Archnote, and need as much rest if I’m going to inevitably decipher it”. There was a sound of sleepy smugness wrapping his words.
Celeste rolled her eyes, but knew he wasn’t wrong. “I mean…” She began, but stopped as a light snore escaped the corner of the room where Caelum lay. She smiled. “Goodnight Brother.”
Celeste raised a hand and uttered a Charm for extinguishing. The candle light flickered out, leaving only the full glow of Dawn, extending the moonlight throughout the room. The pale glow was warm, almost comforting. Perfect for two strangers in a strange new land.
Celeste stretch a bit, and rolled back to the sleeping Talos. Tomorrow…felt like an eternity away. But then again, so did when they first came to Halosin. Well, it’ll be here soon enough, she thought, as she closed her eyes and embraced the night.
Ugh. It’s that dream again.
Caelum looked around as he saw what appeared to be himself, only smaller, younger. He and his doppelgänger were in a clearing, surrounded by what could only be described as petrified trees, bodies unshifting and cold in the light breeze creeping through the air. A stone pillar rose at the far end, looking over the two like a stern parent to a child.
Child…yes, that’s what this dream was about. Caelum looked down at the younger him, and reached out to touch him. But his vision caught sight of hands not his own reaching to touch the back of the young Caelum.
“Are you sure about this dad?” The young boy looked up, a slight tint of fear creeping from his normally excited voice. His body seemed unsure to follow forward, toward the looming monolith before them.
Dad….yes, I guess I’ve been cast as the role of Father for this performance. This relaxed Caelum slightly; of the three potential roles to play for this dream, his father’s was often the least detailed, and thus less painful to relive. And at least this role offered some proper lines.
“Of course son”, Caelum recalled, speaking his lines in the same low and heavy voice her remembered. “The stone I found is just up ahead. And we best get to it before your sister gets back from the village.” This didn’t surprise Caelum then, nor now. After all, he took after his father, and both of them were, as Celeste would say, ‘reckless geniuses’. Caelum always wore this as a special title, and never minded the comparison.
The dream rippled as the air began to vibrate. A low humming from the trees stopped the boy, but the man continued toward the pillar. The boy looked around, as the him continued to lowly rise from the earth, as if the dead were warning them away.
“It’s ok son.” Caelum repeated, knowing what came next. From this perspective, the dream would end abruptly, and much less detailed than from the other two viewpoints. The viewpoint of young Caelum wasn’t pretty, of course; the shifting of the hum to that wail had often followed Caelum to the waking world. And the other viewpoint…feeling that rush of excitement as the predator leapt onto its helpless young prey… Well, sometimes that excitement carried over to Caelum when he awoke. And that was troublesome.
The hum continued to rise as the breeze began to swirl around the two. The monolith, still a looming shadow in the distance, began to glow in the clouded sky. The shadow retreated from the pillar, as if made of fabric, being peeled off by the vibrations of the air. It uncoiled itself, almost appearing like a velvet black serpent, a wisp of menace around the stone.
The humming rose again, becoming louder, as the boy stepped back to leave. The unyielding trees barred the exit, as the air became stale, lifeless. “It’s ok son”, the boy heard the man say. The man turned and smiled that welcoming smile. The smile Caelum always loved and remembered. The smile that warmed him and made him feel safe.
It stopped the boy. Long enough for the shadow to strike. And the world was engulfed in a flash of fire.
Daylight. Only daylight. Caelum blinked awake, body still frozen with sleep. He stretched out, getting a feel for his surroundings. The room lay quiet, save for the few Blight chirps off in the distance. Celeste’s cot, across the room and underneath one of the two stone archway windows, lay empty, loose straw and dirt around the base. She might be the responsible one, Caelum smirked, but not the tidiest of us.
The Dawn was gone, which pleased Caelum slightly. A sword always glowing when he came into a room with it…just felt so unsettling, as if it was accusing him of some grand evil or crime. Though he couldn’t blame the blasted relic. If a charm of holy light from an actual deity said you were bad enough to need a warning, could it be that far off?
A quiet whisper filled his ears at the thought of the Dawn. A voice. The voice. The voice that lurked inside him since he was a child. A voice of cold indifference, without emotion or malice. A quiet voice, yet so loud that no other sound could drown out its whispering breath. The words it spoke were inaudible, a garbled mess of sound, like rain against a shield. But Caelum knew what it meant. He always had.
Caelum changed his thoughtS from the Dawn to its owner. Guess Celeste went out on her mission, thought Caelum. The change quieted the voice, so Caelum felt more at ease. Still though, she left without waking him up. He did ask this of her, but still, she knew he liked seeing her off. Even just to see her smile and hear her wish him luck.
“Ughhhh.” Caelum stretched aloud, raising his arms to the ceiling and lifting himself out of his cot. A change of clothes sat folded nearby, next to a bowl of water to clean his face with. Celeste might not be tidy, but she knew her twin well enough to know what he needed. Caelum appreciated this about his sister. She knew how to keep his chaotic mind in line. Especially keeping the voice in line.
As he washed off the soot from the previous day of research, Caelum remembered the dream. He lightly smiled to himself. Yes. At least this time I got to be Dad. His perspective, or what little Caelum knew about it, was the easiest to view from. After all, it was the one most likely to be false. No father would willingly bring their child to be…
The same rain against metal sound began to fill his ears as the voice woke up again. No.
Caelum changed outfits to a light blue shirt and his normal, somewhat baggy trousers. No, no father would. Especially not his father, Caelum resolved. He looked outside toward the grounds, and watched as a sapphire Blight graced the sky with its glistening form. No, not Dad, Caelum smiled. This was enough to push the voice, the dream, and the worry from Caelums mind. Though the creeping doubt would inevitably return, and so would the dream.
Caelum grabbed his bag from the side of the doorway, and opened to the hall. A smile leaped from the shadows of his features, as he faced a new day. A day of research. Of learning about the faded Archnote. Of learning about this amazing country and all its secrets. The voice inside him seemed to agree with this excitement, and so Caelum, without a worry in his mind, left toward the Vault.
“The cursed sentry tower of the Deathforest’s edge. The Ruins of Zerran…” Fumi had called the Sector. “Home of the many Shadow beasts and cruel whispers of death, where the dead cry out in harsh breaths.” Celeste shook her head and smirked. That Fumi is one of the most dramatic people she had met in this land. His words always rang with some high pitched worry, as though years of working in the Catacombs of the castle revealed the true horrors of the world.
“The Ruins are from an ancient time, when the old Dracloud tribe settled the Deathforest and needed a sentry to watch for enemies”. Fumi always went deep into the historic details of a Sector during the debrief. This didn’t bother Celeste; living with Caelum, this type of excitement was quite normal to listen to, and quite welcome to hear. “There have been reports of a horde of Atterbanes attacking travelers, and they seem to be powered by something…dark.” Fumi said this with a shiver, and continued with the important details.
Celeste understood the assignment - she and a group of the King’s elite soldiers, the legendary Shields, were to clear out the Atterbanes plaguing these ruins on the outskirts of the Deathforest, and determine if some ancient magic rests within to cause such powerful beasts. Celeste never looked away from a challenge, and this was no different. No matter how horrible Fumi described the threat.
Celeste smiled. Another boring day in the field, as Caelum poured over scrolls and books to decipher the mysteries of the kingdom and the Archnotes. Sure, she love the thrill of the adventure, and discovering new places was something she couldn’t help but get excited for. But an old ruin? Full of bugs? They’re really giving her busy work, no?
It can’t be helped, Celeste thought as she continued on her Stralon. The mane glistened silver as it’s two heads pointed toward the horizon. Cressedea’s form still rising into the sky. She heard a yawn come from the Shield to her left. It was early, she considered, but she felt fully refreshed from her hours of sleep the night before. Honestly, she could probably run ahead on her Stralon along this route and still have plenty of time to fight and clear the pests by the time they arrived. But better to keep morale up and stay with the soldiers. After all, it’s what a leader does, no?
Talos shrieked above, his scream increasing in tone as he dived from a cloud in the distance. A flock of what appeared to be Swallen Blights dispersed as the rocketing spear pierced their group. One Blight was not so lucky, as a black form appeared to struggle in the grasp of a white trail of smoke. A few moments later, Talos floated carefully down, resting his now bloodied claws on Celeste’s hat, dropping a feather in front of her face.
“You silly beast, you”, Celeste laughed, raising a hand and rubbing the dragons chin clean of the smeared remains. Talos let out a soft purr, as he closed his eyes and spread his wings outward, letting them warm in the crestrisen heat. She noticed one of the Shields, the man who yawned to her left, look over with a quizzical look.
“Curious about Talos here?” Celeste pet the resting dragon as the purrs continued. “He’s resting from doing some surveying, and getting some breakfast.” She chuckled as she lowered her hand back to the Stralon.
“It’s just…” the Shield began, considering the next words. This was… Ballunn, I think, thought Celeste. Though she was one of the King’s leading commanders and chief explorer, these members of the Shield were raised completely apart from the King’s general army. She only just met the six she traveled with today, and they her. Though both parties had been told of the exploits and achievements of the other previously.
“It’s just…where did you come by such a small beast?” This question seemed to be weighing in the minds of all the Shield members, looking from their Stralons and staring at Celeste, awaiting an answer. Ballunn looked at Celeste in anticipation, as though she would tell them all some grand escape from a Dracloud fortress or some gold filled cavern.
“Oh Talos?” Celeste considered, thinking back to their meeting. Sure, she could tell them the tale. But what fun was that? These Shield members were expecting something grand. So what if…
“Talos saw me eating a roasted Blight one day, swooped in, and I trapped him. He’s been with me ever since.” Celeste smirked, hiding a wide smile and laughter at the obvious lie.
Ballunn looked confused, as though he couldn’t comprehend such a basic explanation. He shrugged, and could only say “well he’s quite a cute little pet”, and went back to focus on the path ahead. The rest of the Shield seemed to accept the story, and continued gazing forward.
Celeste reached up and stroked Talos again. A simple story…truly that would be ideal. Not for the three of them, Celeste, Caelum, and Talos. The story of how Talos came into her life, how he saved her when she wished for a friend, how he seemed to spring forth from her, in her time of need, as though made from her…her soul?
Her soul….the thing she and Caelum came to this land to research. The value of one’s Soul, and what could be learned from it. Celeste wondered about Caelum. What was he up to right now?
A sound of a low male voice broke her concentration. “There!” Ballunn called out. “I see the tower ahead!” As they continued forward, a dark spire pierced the sky, as Cressedea blinded the travelers on their approach.
The Ruins of Zerran lay ahead.
When one is told to imagine a catacomb, they would envision a realm of the dead. A place, confined underground to the depths of the earth. A series of cramped hallways, lined with the departed forms and the empty shells of what once was. Sacred places, where the souls of the lost may finally rest.
The Catacombs, as Caelum and Celeste called them, are not this type of sacred place. Though still a series of hallways descending into the darkness of the kingdom, this descent branches off into various libraries and storage rooms, containing wealths of knowledge and research, artifacts and concoctions. These spaces are the organs of the Kingdom, supplying the safety and understanding to keep Halosin going. And the Catacombs are it’s brain stem, to keep the flow of information quick.
Caelum crossed the courtyard, late morning light glowing overhead. Ahead of him rose the eastern turret of the castle. The white brick exterior shine in the light, as the Blights above sang out in the calm of the day. A looming wooden door grew larger as Caelum approached, who was rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Ugh…” Caelum groaned, as the turret grew closer. “I guess I didn’t get enough sleep last night.” Caelum reached the door and pulled on the iron handle. As the wooden door creaked open, Caelum looked around the courtyard. Several members of the court were resting beneath a nearby Wethein tree, apparently talking and finishing a later breakfast. Or early lunch? Caelum couldn’t tell, as the food seemed mostly eaten.
Caelum walked in, eyes adjusting to the dimmer light of the inside of the turret. As the door closed behind him, the singing of the Blights faded, silencing once the door sealed behind him. Before Caelum stood a statue of the king, appearing to bless the visitor with a raised hand. It’s marble features appeared untouched by the ravages of time, protected from the elements by the vaulting tower around it.
A pair of stairs lay on either side of the statue. The left spiraling toward the top of the tower, leading to the daylight and the watchtower. Caelum turned and descended down the right stairway, leading down toward the base of the castle, and toward the entrance of the Catacombs.
The slits in the stone allowed the morning air and light to creep into the stairway, slightly blinding Caelum every few steps as his face passed an opening. The stone clicked softly beneath his feet, as he continued his descent lower and lower into the castle.
The journey was short enough, as he reached the main floor of the castle shortly after. However, rather than leaving through the sturdy wooden door at the base, Caelum raised his right hand and pressed it against the stone pillar the stairs spiraled around. The cold stone sat quietly as the palm pressed against them.
“Threshun Halosin Fruin Drast Thrixus” Caelum muttered, closing his eyes as if in prayer. He knew he didn’t need to do this, having uttered the pass phrase for months. But saying the phrase, speaking the language of the ancient people of Halosin, felt like he was honoring their memory. The words he spoke almost sang in his mind as they translated to what he could understand; ‘The Cradle of Halosin shall Thrive Beyond’.
The pillar shook slightly around Caelum’s palm, though the rest of the pillar remained still and unmoving. A ripple in the air emanated from his hand, expanding up his arm and extending to encapsulate his whole unmoving body. Surrounded by an invisible aura, Caelum cleared his mind, and breathed out slowly. Then, he vanished.
Caelum appeared again in a darker space; torch flames danced and flickered against the cool stone blocks, continuing forward in a straight line. Where the stairs were previously stood another stone pillar, reaching into the ceiling above. Caelum smiled to himself - he was in the Catacombs. The system of stone veins beneath the kingdom, built into the cliff as a fortress of knowledge and research. The place he knew his questions would be answered. His and Celeste’s.
Caelum started down the hallway, passing flickering torches and branching corridors as he walked. Down several of these he could hear voices speaking; some reciting passages of ancient tomes, some cataloging relics from a recent excavation. And the occasional complaint and groan as researchers were waiting for results to process, or just taking a well deserved break. Though down many others, silence echoed his footsteps back at him, as the stores artifacts and scrolls could not be heard, or the corridors ended at sealed doorways.
As he walked, Caelum mused over the progress the kingdom had managed, and the power behind the magic within these halls. From the ancient magic used to teleport the King’s trusted researchers into the Catacombs, to the specialized charms and supplies made to help the citizens with crop production, medical concerns, and even entertainment. Gone are the days of lost lives, empty stomachs, and wasteful violence. Truly this is a time of prosperity.
Yet…Caelum couldn’t help but wonder. The excursions Celeste had been going on, the recent raids on the outskirts of the kingdom, and the destruction of the Kindlemage guild. The recent issues appearing as quickly as they supposedly vanished. The King had increased security and issued a proclamation of strict magic restriction, particularly against Inferno elementals. Such discrimination might appear targeted, but when an entire group of skilled warriors is eliminated by their very own weapons…
Caelum shrugged. The King is beloved and his word is law. As long as he is maintaining the peace, he is less occupied keeping an eye on Caelum and Celeste. Though the recent excursions seemed to be the King’s attempt at distracting Celeste. Not like she could be. Caelum smiled at this. No, Celeste could not be so easily distracted.
The flickering stone face continued before Caelum as his soft steps echoed behind him. The slope had begun to descend and twist, leading him to the heart of the cliff. The air was cold as he continued, lost in his thoughts. Thoughts of Celeste, of the King, of his questions of his own soul. Thoughts swirling and branching, like the very tunnels he continued into.
Eventually, a door materialized ahead of Caelum, who had snapped out of it and looked to his right. A plaque, set into the stone and with two torches around it, read ‘The Vault’ in solid, bold letters. Caelum pressed against the wooden door before him, and pushed himself into the room.
The Bestiary of Halosin describes the species of creature commonly referred to as Atterbanes as “*Multi-limbed insectoid beings with numerous rows of teeth, highly muscular abdomen, and the ability to create and weave a highly adhesive thread-like substance from the ends of their limbs. Many species exist, and at various sizes, and there are stories of Atterbane with what can be described as an acidic and corrosive touch.*”
Celeste never worried about the strength of such creatures, nor the size or potential lethality of their secretions. After traveling this world for years with her brother, and of course her best friend Talos, both the common and deadly varieties were little more than a swing of a sword away from the ground. The worst were the more armored varieties, though this south she did not expect to see anything harder than the Dawn.
No. Celeste was not worried about nearly any aspect of these creatures. Except for the webs themselves. Such thin, glistening threads, the ghostly strings of a marionette that seem to appear in an instant, always managed to find Celeste and stick to her.
As the ruins grew larger before her and the rest of the group, the shine from Cressedea reflected off of the morning dew captured by the surrounding webbing. A light breeze swept from the area toward the group. Celeste shuddered - the webs seemed to be reaching toward her, their loosed ends appearing to grasp at her, hoping to connect and bind to her and never let go. Talos flew closer to her, letting out a low growl as he sensed Celeste’s fear.
“So these are the Ruins of Zerran.” Celeste stopped her Stralon and looked toward the ruined site. Behind her, the sound of heavy hooves stomping to a halt seemed to echo off of the cold, unchanging stone walls. The Shields looked around as she dropped off of her Stralon. She stroked its bristled mane as she walked forward, other hand wrapped tightly around the Dawn. She was aware of the mission, and aware of what made so much webbing.
“Yes, mame.” Ballunn was the first to speak as he descended from his mount. Ballunn approached Celeste, his steps against the loose stone were heavier than hers, seeming to echo across the area and fill the once quiet landscape with a light tap, tap. As he walked, Celeste noted the eeriness of the quiet buildings, noticing that not even a Blight could be heard in the nearby trees.
Ballunn was next to Celeste now, holding a map of the area. The paper appeared somewhat fresh, as if recently prepared by the Researchers in the Catacombs, which Celeste expected was true. New ruins and sites were constantly discovered across the kingdom, and the notes and original map from the Krows, the King’s Surveillance s squadron, were probably collected, analyzed, and condensed into the paper now being handed from Ballunn to her. As she shifted her gaze to its surface, her eyes were drawn immediately to the north arrow in the corner. A piercing dart pointed ahead of her, toward the spire in the distance. Wrapped around it was a Dracloud sketch, with wings spread and a trail of smoke wrapping symmetrically in the opposite direction. In the heart of the arrowhead was a large N, and below that, a tiny “C.T.”. She grinned at this - only Caelum would design a Talos-like guardian on a map, and then sign it with her and Talos’ initials. Thank you brother, Celeste thought as she finished scanning the map.
She pointed to a location on the map, appearing to be in the direction of the spire. “Is this where the Atterbanes were last seen?” She considered the facts of the mission, and it made the most sense. Atterbanes are notorious for building nests in high structures, using the altitude to extend their webbing to a larger area below. Surely the spire, being the highest point in Zerran, would be the optimal place for their nest.
A voice behind her spoke up, as it approached. “Actually, further into the ruins.” Celeste turned her head to see another Shield. Helphiss, was it? She knew this Shield is the Information Officer assigned to the group, who assisted the Researchers in gathering the reports and information for the mission. “And apparently not from any of the surrounding buildings.”
Celeste raised an eyebrow at this. Atterbane were known to populate all sorts of tight quarters, using the smaller spaces as areas of ambush and feeding. “So if not in the buildings, where?”
The Shield, who Celeste correctly remembered as Helphiss, touched the northwestern section of the map. Her finger, covered in a leather glove, pressed the paper softly, causing the surrounding ink building to fall into the open area. “According to the reports, travelers witnessed creatures and spirits entering this area here. The scouts reported that those was where a pond once stood, before being drained decades ago by a clan of Infernomancers”.
“Not a surprise.” Ballunn shrugged, reaching for his waterskin and taking a swig. Some water trickled down his armored chest as he drank from it. “These ruins have been abandoned for centuries. Perfect for practicing Charms away from the watching eyes of the Kingdom.”
This also didn’t surprise Celeste. This was how she and her brother practiced back in the day. Her father was known for his scouting capabilities, said to have had the eyes of a trained Blight and be able to spot points of magical interest from miles away. And when a spot was found, he brought the twins to them to train and discover what the spots may be hiding.
The thought of those days brought a smile to her face. Not one of joy, like how the doodle on the map did. But one of sorrow, as she remembered those more simple days. Before that one day. Before she returned with supplies from that fisherman’s village. Before their family splintered.
She looked up and pointed forward, toward the spire overlooking the ruins. It’s dark black facade seemed unnatural in the daylight, as if to oppose Cressedea’s blessings of warmth and light by remaining a looming shadow. “This tower here, the…” she glanced at the note on the map, “Watchtower of Zerran. Were there any reports on Atterbane activity from here?”
Helphiss looked up and then at Celeste. “None actually.”
“Are you sure?” Celeste never heard of an Atterbane who didn’t gravitate toward higher points in an area.
“See for yourself.” Helphiss extended a hand and pointed at a strand of web sticking to a nearby structure. “It looks like the webbing extends to many of the lower structures, but beyond that, does not extend to the higher ones. And.” Helphiss closed her eyes and uttered a Charm of Sight. When she opened her eyes again, the green of her eyes was replaced with a glinting silver, pointed toward the looming tower. “Particularly not from the Watchtower.”
Celeste looked up and squinted. Unlike her Shield companions, her eyesight was strong enough to not need a Charm to see clearly. And she looked in shock as she confirmed Helphiss’ observations - the webbing in the area did extend in mass from the lower structures and the surrounding ground, but thinned as the ruins extended toward the sky. And the Watchtower…that obsidian blade piercing the blue sky, stood untouched by the wisps of thread, no ghostly hands wrapping their sticky fingers to choke the outside of the tower. As if the threads dared not mar such a sacred spot.
“So the reports were from the pond?” Celeste reached behind her and pulled a copper colored dagger from its sheath. As the rest of the Shield stood and watched her, she cut at the webbing near them and let it fall to the ground. She reached out and grabbed the reins of her Stralon, and walked it over to the now cleared stone. She tied the creature carefully to the edifice, and turned to face the Shields with her. “So let’s make base camp here, and check the pond area.”
The rest of the Shield nodded, and began unpacking their Stralons and setting up a safe perimeter. Celeste smiled at this and turned back toward the Watchtower. The dark form continued to loom over them, as if disapproving of their intrusion. The smile faded as Celeste continued to stare ahead. As she stared, she closed her eyes and listened. The echos of the Shields unpacking faded away, as she focused toward the rest of Zerran before them. The quiet seemed to permeate the air, being carried gently by the light breeze continuing through the ruins.
Celeste opened her eyes as she felt Talos land on her arm with a light thud. She looked at him and saw him looking at her, concern on his tiny face. She gave him a light pet, and could feel his worry escaping from his face. “Me too, Talos. Something doesn’t feel right…”.
Celeste turned around to help in the unpacking, as Cressedea continued it’s arch through the clear blue sky.
As Cressedea lowered itself through the blue sky, the Shields completed setting up their camp and now stood at the foot of the pond. What was left of the pond, of course. Since the evaporation years ago, the barren bowl, nearly 30 meters in diameter, lay under Cressedea’s watchful eye, shimmering in the light from the thousands of threads scattered around the base. And, like the veins of some unholy creature, the threads seems to branch from the center of this depression, falling back to the earth through what appeared to be a hole in the center.
Celeste raised a hand to her forehead to block the daylight to get a better view. She could see Ballunn slashing at the webbing, with Talos flying behind and burning any loose webbing, the two clearing a path into the pond area. Beside her, Helphiss stared down at a map she was drafting, sketching pathways and notes on their current observations. Celeste couldn’t help but admire such attention to detail; it was a trait that Caelum has, and one that she couldn’t seem to properly grasp herself.
Behind her, Shren and Bree, the two remaining Shields and twins, observed the edges of the area, following the webbing as it stretched beyond the pond and throughout the ruins. The gentle breeze from earlier that day seemed to follow the group, as both hair and threads seemed to flutter and flow in its grasp, toward the center of the pond.
It was Bree who spoke first, taking a step toward Celeste and the pond. “Miss, I think there is something magical here.” Her voice, pitched with a light accent, seemed to be hiding a hint of embarrassment. Which isn’t out of the question, thought Celeste. Surely anyone suggesting such a thing in a world full of magic would expect a sarcastic response.
But Celeste understood her and nodded. “I noticed something was off when we arrived. The webbing is focusing on the lower levels of the buildings, and the reports”, Celeste turned toward the Watchtower and squinted in the light, “seemed to indicate the Atterbane are not only avoiding the structures themselves, but particularly the Watchtower. The ideal place for an Atterbane nest.”
Bree nodded and pointed a finger toward the webbing. “It was the wind that is off to me. Watch this.” She reached over a plucked a strand of her brothers hair. The crimson strand waved gently in the breeze, as Shren, surprised by the sudden attack, stepped back and let out an annoyed “Hey!”. Celeste hid a smile at this act of sibling affection. Bree shushed him, then turned toward the center of the pond.
Bree let the strand go into the breeze. The red hair, like a fiery dragon, swirled about and drifted toward the center of the pond, floating above a strand of web as if following it. As it vanished from sight, Bree looked back at Celeste. “The nearby leaves seem to direct toward the middle, as do the loose strands of webbing. Almost as if this pond is the focal point of the phenomenon.”
Celeste nodded again, and shifted her gaze toward Ballunn and Talos. They made good progress down the slope, though she could see Ballunn, unable to fly above the webbing, was covered with the loose fragments of the cut threads. “The fact the Atterbane, creatures of the forests, would be nesting under the ground…”. She paused to consider. What could cause these creatures to act so oddly. And furthermore…
“Helphiss, have you noticed any Atterbane remains? Like bodies of themselves or their prey?” Celeste had walked ahead of the group as the traveled through the ruins to the pond, and only saw the shining threads sticking to the cold stone surface, as the Watchtower looked above them. But with this much threading, surely skeletons of the victims, drained of their life, would be present. Instead, the only objects of death visible were the lifeless stones of what once was Zerran.
“No, and further more.” Helphiss looked up and pointed back toward the camp. “Since we came in, I’ve noticed the lack of anything organic. Well, anything but these webs.”
Celeste considered this and realized Helphiss was right; since leaving the path and entering Zerran, no surface held mold, no crevices hid flowers and fungi, and no colors seemed to exist except the grays and browns of the stones, and the white of the webs. “Any idea what that means?”
Helphiss shook her head. “This could mean two things.” She turned again toward the pond, looking down at the center, at the hole and retreating threads. “One, there’s a clan of Shadowkin in the area, using the remains for their charms and the Atterbane as puppets.”
This thought seemed to simple to Celeste. Shadowkin, the common term used to describe those in Halosin affiliated with the Shadow element, were often viewed in a negative, necromantic light. Of course many Shadowkin do practice their skills with the remains of the deceased, but Celeste knew many Shadowkin in the kingdom, including Shren himself, and knew such a stereotype couldn’t be the answer.
Shren must’ve thought this as well, as he chimed in with a laugh. “Oh, creepy crawlers and an ominous lack of bodies? Must be a Shadowkin.” He raised his arms over his head and uttered a wavering “Oooooh”. Bree punched her brothers shoulder, causing Shren to turn around and start “Oooooh”-ing toward her. As he approached, Shren grabbed a handful of webbing, and threw it at his sister. The sticky mess flew toward the armored leggings, but seemed to separate in the breeze and gently glide away, back toward the pond.
Helphiss sighed as the two fought, and turned back to Celeste. “Or two, there is something unnatural about the only structure not covered in Atterbane web.” At this, she pointed behind Celeste toward the Watchtower. “How this much webbing could exist and a structure is not covered….”.
Celeste had considered this, but it also felt like an obvious answer. The dark foreboding tower, cold and looming overhead? That was as cliche as it could be. Still, the distance from the pond would explain why the Atterbane had retreated, and why they webbing was not approaching the tower. Still…
Celeste’s thoughts were interrupted by a gruff voice behind her. “Whatever the case may be,” Ballunn yelled up as he raised his web coated blade above his head, “the mission is to discover the source of the Atterbane’s and eliminate the threat to the trade in these parts.” From above his head, Talos let out a small burst of flame, erupting the outstretched blade in embers as it cleansed the webbing off.
Shren smiled and put an arm around Helphiss. “He’s right, as usual.” Helphiss, blushing slightly, rolled her eyes in agreement. Though Celeste only recently met these Shield members, she understood the sarcasm toward Ballunn, and the affection between Shren and Helphiss. She did feel some loneliness, knowing she could never truly connect to her squad mates in such a meaningful manner, but this washed away as she heard Talos overhead, spiraling playfully around the now smoking sword.
Celeste, smiling lightly at Talos, stepped forward onto the cleared path by Ballunn and Talos. “Let’s clear out the nest first, and then we can investigate further. If this is Shadowkin activity, removing the Atterbane means removing a present threat.” This thought seemed reasonable to Celeste, and seemed to be reasonable to the rest of the Shields, who nodded and filed into a line behind Celeste. As the group descended into the pond to meet with Ballunn, the gentle breeze seemed to carry them forward, as if they were like the threads around them. Descending toward the dry and lonely drain of Zerran.
Written by Christopher Rentko