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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Twenty-Two - The Elven Legacy)

Colin Frayn
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The jubilant celebration of the slaves was short lived, as the clatter of skeleton warriors grew ever louder outside the mining cavern. Back in the passage, the skeletons heard the rousing cheer and began to speed up to a jog. Carek could hear them coming, their bony feet crashing across the rocky passage floor. He called out to the slaves "As many of you as have strength, break from your chains and join the fight!"

The slaves gathered rocks and pickaxes, and began to chisel away at the strong bonds that had held them for so long. The dwarfs took the keys from the dead orcs, and began to unlock as many of the chains as they could. Athena hacked at the metal with her sword, freeing several of the tired but thankful workers. The rattling from the passage grew louder, eventually rising to a chaotic din as the skeletons burst through the dilapidated wooden door, charging into the cavern. The workers drew their pickaxes and charged. Randor and the dwarfs followed the first wave of slaves, backed up by several dozen more, driven with fury at their evil captors. The two sides collided, brave workers hacking ferociously with their rusted tools. Skeleton swords swung viciously, slicing into the un-armoured attackers, but still the assault continued.

Now the dwarfs had arrived to the battle, and their axes began to smash a hole through the skeleton ranks. Many skeletons were slain, though a dozen workmen lay dead or dying on the floor. Tarok ran over to help as well as he could, attempting to heal the fallen warriors whilst throwing a barrage of explosive spells into the skeleton horde. The evil creatures began to flee back up the mine passage, pursued by the victorious slaves, their minds filled with a lust for revenge.

Randor and the dwarfs followed the slaves, together with Athena, but Carek and Tarok stayed in the cavern. They were both running between the fallen warriors, offering as much help as they could muster. Tarok wanted to help the slaves to heal, but knew that he had to conserve his energy for a final battle with Rakrath. It was a difficult decision. By saving one life now, he might jeopardise the entire mission. He bandaged as many wounds as he could with scraps of clothing, eventually reaching a badly wounded elf, his arm pierced with a skeleton sword.

"Allow me to help," Tarok began. The wounded soldier winced with pain as Tarok tied his tattered shirt around the wound. He was met with a smile of such extraordinary gratitude that he felt a great warmth filling his heart. "My friend, you have no idea what you have done for us this day." The elf spoke with a calm, warm voice, somehow masking his obvious discomfort. He was clearly malnourished, and suffering badly from a great many years of hard labour in this damp, dark cavern, but yet retained much of his former nobility and grace.

Tarok spoke again, "What are you all digging for down here? I see the crystals in the rock, but you don't collect them. What are you searching for?"

The elf shook his head in despair, and then took a deep breath, "For a treasure far greater than jewels." Tarok raised an eyebrow. The brave worker continued, "The crystals are not valuable; they were created by the great magic down here. There was once a mighty battle between the elves of the deep caverns, and Rakrath the necromancer. This was hundreds of years ago. The elves were all either killed or enslaved. I am one of the few who remain."

Tarok knew that elves lived for a great deal of time, but this man was claiming to have lived for hundreds of years. Tarok bowed his head. The thought of one year in such a terrible place was too much to bear, but the terror of a century or longer seemed like the worst kind of torture imaginable.

The elf resumed his story, "the only one who remained to challenge Rakrath was the great elven mage, Eldoran. He possessed the famous crystal of power, the Tharin stone. As he saw the battle going against him, Eldoran split the stone into two parts so that the necromancer could not obtain it. Eldoran gave one half to his son, who tried to escape with it to hide it out of Rakrath's grasp, but he was killed somewhere along the way. His body was lost, presumed covered when Rakrath ordered the passages to be destroyed. The other half is still buried with Eldoran, wherever that might be."

"Rakrath had all the entrances to the elven city destroyed, and Eldoran was buried alive along with it. The mage was weak, his powers greatly drained by a fierce battle of magic. Eldoran started the stronger, but his power was already stretched too far, helping his forces in battle. Sadly he did not manage to avoid the slaughter."

Even over the centuries, the story still brought much emotion to the mind of the storyteller. The elf drew in a deep breath, wiping his eye with a muddy hand, drying off a solitary tear.

"Of course, this was a very long time ago, and Rakrath has increased in power even more since then. Now he seeks the Tharin stone again so that his power might be complete. We have been digging here in this place, and in other caverns throughout this accursed mountain, for many years, under pain of death or worse if we refuse."

"Only a few weeks ago, Rakrath found half of the crystal along with the remains of Eldoran's son. Even that increased his power substantially. Now he searches for the other half. Then, his power will be truly unmatchable, and no-one will be able to confront him and live."

Tarok gulped. Was this the foe that he himself was going to face in battle? A sorcerer so great that even the most powerful elven mage of the kingdom could not defeat him. If so then their quest was futile. Tarok could never stand against such a strong adversary. He would be snapped in two like a twig under foot. Rakrath could slay more powerful wizards than Tarok without lifting a finger.

After a short pause, Tarok spoke. "Does Rakrath ever come down to these levels?"

"Not for many years. I think he stays in the upper halls mostly now."

Tarok smiled. "Then there may be some sort of clue that the orcs have missed."

"I don't think so, they are very meticulous about the search. They wouldn't miss anything."

"I don't mean a physical clue. The crystal is obviously some sort of powerful magic source. Magic items possess magical auras. Although I cannot sense it, if you tell me what the crystal looks like I can use one of my spells to help find it. Besides, a great battle of magic would have left magical scars within the rock. I might just be able to identify them, with a bit of luck."

The elf's eyes lit up brightly. The crystal was perhaps the only way the group could ever hope to defeat Rakrath. They were going to have to find it first, and quickly.

As they were discussing the crystal, a great commotion came from the passage and the slaves charged back in, lead by Randor and the dwarfs. Randor reported back, "All the skeletons have been killed. We counted about sixty dead. We think some may have taken the other passage at the fork so we caused a cave in at the entrance and trap them in there. We don't believe any escaped to tell Rakrath."

One of the slaves walked up to them. He was a tall man, perhaps almost as tall as Tarok, but considerably more sturdily built. He was human and looked to be quite young, though his complexion had suffered from a great deal of time in these caves. He reached out his bruised, tired hand, and congratulated his liberators, "Thank you, my friends, you have freed us from a living nightmare."

Tarok smiled, "Not at all. We appreciate your help."

The warrior continued, "Rakrath lives and his personal bodyguard of soldiers still protect him. How do you intend to get us out of this place alive?"

It was a good question, and no one really knew the answer.

The man spoke again, "I apologise, I should introduce myself. My name is Tygard."

He shook hands with the group, then continued to speak, "I was a warrior a few years ago, but I am afraid my body has not well survived this underground life." He looked rather strong, but was also badly bruised from the savage treatment he had received at the hands of the orcs. A couple of cut marks on his chest showed a near miss from a skeleton's sword.

"The man that they killed a few minutes ago over there," Tygard pointed to the corpse in the corner, "he was just a tired worker who had done nothing wrong but had run out of strength and could no longer work. Rakrath has no mercy for those who try to disobey him, or are too weak to be of any help."

"Every month or two we are joined by a new group of slaves, taken from villages around the peaks. I myself was taken almost five years ago, beaten and dragged here through the freeing cold without a shelter. I was forced to work down these mines, chained to the very rock we are trying to remove. Every time a new group of slaves arrives, those who are left wonder who will be the first to go. The weak are occasionally executed, but sometimes dragged off alive to see the necromancer. We can only guess at the foul tortures he has prepared for them. You have truly saved our lives, my friends."

Tarok laughed, "We are not home yet, Tygard. We have a great deal of danger ahead. It might yet prove too fierce for some of these brave people."

Tygard shook his head. "On the contrary, there is not a man here who would not gladly give up his life fighting Rakrath's minions to avoid just another day in this foul cavern. Death in battle would be an escape from this place, and one that many of us would greatly embrace."

"Then let us at least tip the odds slightly more in our favour, shall we?"

Randor raised an eyebrow, and approached the wizard. "And just how do you propose to do that, young Tarok?"

Tarok had a plan, and told the slaves what he was going to try to do. He was going to try to locate the second piece of the Tharin stone using his magic. With that stone, they knew that Rakrath would grow even stronger, and that he would approach one step closer to unstoppable power. However, if they could find it first, and somehow unlock its powers, it might be the only chance they had.

Tarok sat down cross-legged and closed his eyes. He began chanting softly, and his forehead slowly began to glow. The crowd gasped as a great beam of light suddenly shot from his head. The slaves looked away, but Tarok was still concentrating. The beam gradually scanned across the walls, seeming to intensify at one corner of the cavern, before vanishing once more. Tarok opened his eyes, and stopped concentrating. "I sense magic over in the corner. I could not tell if it was the crystal. If there had been a great magical battle there then it is indeed possible that the rocks themselves are tainted." Carek and Athena ran over to the corner and searched around. They found nothing immediately obvious, but called over as many workers as they could find to begin digging. Tarok sat to one side, resting his powers ready for the battle ahead.

The slaves all made their way over to the corner with their pickaxes, and started hacking at the rock. Previously they had worked as slowly as possible to delay Rakrath from finding the stone. Now, they were striking the rock with all their might. As one worker tired, he would fall back and rest as another took his place. They continued for several hours digging away at the ever receding rock face. Finally, one section began to give way and collapsed backwards into the darkness. Tarok rushed over, calling for the workers to stop.

The wizard pulled away a few loose rocks, and peered into the darkness, causing his hand to glow brightly with a magical radiance. Behind the crumbling rock face was a narrow passage disappearing into the darkness behind the cavern's walls. Tarok stepped back, and allowed the workers to clear the rubble to reveal the passage opening. He closed his eyes for a moment, once more concentrating on the passageway before him. Tarok turned to his friends with a broad smile. "There's no doubt about it. This is the route to the Tharin stone."

Tarok went first and shined his lantern ahead. The passage was heavily damaged, having been filled in crudely by its goblin inhabitants. The progress was slow, but after an hour or so, they reached a turn in the passage about fifty yards from the entrance, where it veered left. The air was stale down here, and the floor of the passage was littered with the bones and remains of numerous soldiers, both goblin and elf. Rats had long since scattered those bones from their original resting place, and Tarok took care to sweep them aside as he strode forwards into the darkness. The roof had collapsed in several places, and the workers were forced to clear away several more blockages before the group could progress.

After another fifty yards, and an hour of excavation later, this second section of passageway finished in a dead end at a face of solid rock. Hoisting their pickaxes, the workers began to hack at the end of the passage, but to no avail. Tarok told them to spread out along the walls and they started digging at the rock all along the length of the passage, right the way back to the cavern. Somewhere here there had to be another tunnel leading off into the depths.

After ten minutes, one of the slaves gave a yell. His pickaxe had gone straight through the wall. The rocks were quickly cleared, and the group peered in. There was another passage leading parallel to the original one. It was slightly larger, and surprisingly different in design. Carek decided to lead this time, and he held his lantern aloft so that he could see down in the darkness beyond. When the dust had subsided, he could see that this passage continued for at least fifty yards without any turning, and only minimal blockages along the way. He walked forward, careful to avoid the sharp rocks protruding precariously from the ceiling above.

This second passage was of much better construction than the first, and was far more neatly built. Tygard guessed that the elves and Rakrath's army must have tunnelled toward each other until the passages met. "Elven workmanship is obviously a great deal superior to that of Rakrath's mindless horde," he added, unsurprised. Finding this second tunnel meant that they were nearing the elven city. Somewhere in the distance lay a place untouched by living hands for centuries. They didn't know what they would find, and dreaded many of the possibilities.

Carek continued forwards, cautiously brushing aside the cobwebs as he progressed through the dimly lit passage. After a few more steps, the beam of his lantern no longer struck solid walls ahead. The passage was beginning to open out into a cavern. Carek approached the opening, his hands shaking in trepidation.

Reaching out, Carek ran his hand along the side of the passageway, following the neatly hewn rock until it finished abruptly and the passage widened into a small hall. Ten yards further on, this hall lead to an enormous flight of stone steps, leading down beyond the range of his dim lantern, and out of sight. He edged forward, accompanied by Tarok, Athena and Randor. A number of elves shuffled forward to the front of the group, talking excitedly to each other in their own tongue. This was a place they had not seen for centuries, and the memories were beginning to return.

They were standing at the base of the most enormous cavern that they had ever seen. They could not see very far into it, despite the ambient glow of the cavern walls, but it felt immense. Tarok immediately knew what to do, and conjured a ball of light to float ahead of them into the darkness beyond. He averted his eyes as the bright globe drifted into the distance, and then turned to pour more of his energy into the floating light. Soon the cavern walls had begun to glow with some sort of illuminating magic, casting new rays of light down onto a vast cavern below them, which had laid in darkness for centuries. The group gasped as they surveyed the awesome scene before them.

They guessed the cavern to be perhaps a mile long and wide and at least five hundred feet high. Somehow, it was lit by a curious magical radiance, which seemed to emanate from the very rock itself, presumably remnants of an ancient elven magic. Stalactites and stalagmites dotted the ceiling and floor, and the glistening of crystals was even more intense than ever before. They stopped for a few minutes simply to gaze at the splendour of the place.

In the centre of the cavern stood a great blue tower, surrounded by many more small buildings, their bright colours had faded away to dull browns and blacks, but the beauty of the workmanship was still as breathtaking as ever. The pointed roofs of the houses dotted like needles throughout the cavern, and through the centre the most poignant sight of all, the remnants of a stream, once vibrant with life, now faded away to a dried bank of mud. Around the stone steps lay the bones of hundreds of elven soldiers, and perhaps thousands of goblins, all slain in one colossal battle.

They could but imagine what the city was once like. Only a few of the elven workmen could remember it and few cared to even talk about it in Rakrath's caverns, but now they happily recounted tales of the splendour of the place, the marvellous buildings, the people, the sound of music at every corner, and the crystal clear stream that supplied the city with its water. They had given up all hope of ever finding this place again, and now could hardly believe, after so many centuries, that they had once more returned to the place of their birth. The immortal elven city, which was once their home, now lifted their spirits, inspiring them once more with a faint glimmer of hope, even amidst the chilling remains of the battle which had claimed the lives of so many of their dearest friends.

The elves told of how the city came to fall as Rakrath's hordes broke through into their tunnel system. The battle was fought furiously by both sides but the elven losses were too great and they were forced to surrender to a life of misery, hunger and slavery under Rakrath's command. They spent centuries enlarging his tunnel system, mining for all sorts of minerals and then finally searching for this place, and the Tharin stone. The tale was one of great pity, but the elves seemed to dwell on the happy memories for a while. They knew as soon as Rakrath had ordered them to search for the stone, that the end was close. Their wisdom, along with the nearly forgotten elven legends, told them that it was all to be fulfilled here, in this place of such astounding beauty.

The dwarfs under Randor set off to explore the city. A few of the elves went along to help guide them through it. Tarok could sense magic even greater than before, and it was coming from the tower, which stood in the pride of place at the centre of the city. One of the elves explained, "The tower is where Eldoran and the town guardian lived. The guardian was killed in the battle as well. The stone, if it is still in the city, will be there. Eldoran made sure that it was safe from intruders so you won't be able to get in easily. His magic was very strong indeed." Sadly, not strong enough for the valiant elven people who once lived around him.

Carek ran to catch up with the dwarfs and found them inside the city walls, walking towards the tower. As they approached through the deserted streets, the mighty walls loomed powerfully above them; a symbol of what was once great. It still stood as a pillar of goodness amidst a town destroyed by evil. Yet more bones lined the streets, brittle and fragile now after so many years of undisturbed rest.

Randor approached the great door to the tower of Eldoran. It was locked securely, and a quick scan of the base didn't provide any other obvious routes in. Tarok joined them a few moments later from a different direction. He had been exploring a different area of the town, and was muttering to himself, "Quite extraordinary! Exquisite!" He had never seen anything quite like it before, and he wasn't alone.

The door had been magically sealed, and Tarok couldn't open it; the magic was far too powerful for his meagre incantations. Tarok felt sure that there was something in the tower worth exploring, but it looked like Eldoran had managed to protect it rather well. Tarok searched round the base of the tower once more, and then glanced up the side of the walls, looking for another way in. Several stories up he spotted a solitary window, protected with rusting iron bars. Tarok stood back and looked up towards the dusty glass.

After a few moments' deliberation, the young wizard spoke. "Our only hope is to somehow climb up the side of the tower with a rope, and break in through one of the upper windows."

"You'll never grapple up there!" Randor was not impressed by Tarok's plan.

"Let's see, shall we?" replied the wizard.

It was too high to throw a grappling hook, but Tarok had other plans. The dwarfs securely tied together two lengths or rope, and fastened a grappling hook onto the end. They placed the finished apparatus on the floor beside the tower and turned to the wizard. Tarok summoned a surge of magical energy, and channelled it into the heavy iron hook, lifting it up into the air, and climbing steadily higher. The watching dwarfs gasped as Tarok willed the heavy iron hook ever higher, until eventually it reached the level of the window. Tarok lifted his hands, and then punched through the air with great force. The hook flew towards the glass, smashing through and into the room beyond, finally securing itself firmly around the window bars as the rope fell back. Tarok grinned, and even Randor seemed impressed.

"A clever display, young Tarok," began the aging dwarf. "Now I suppose you expect us to climb up, do you?" Tarok nodded.

"I can see no other way in. Unless you have any better ideas, I believe this might be our only option."

One of the nimbler dwarfs climbed up the rope, and managed to pull the rusty metal bars from the window using his hammer, and a bit of dwarven ingenuity. Securing himself to the window ledge, he hurled the hook inside, and managed to get it caught around a particular heavy wooden cupboard. He clambered in, through the window and out of sight, locking the hook firmly in place inside the room, and then calling down to his accomplices below. "Come on up. The rope is secure!"

The other few dwarfs who had come to watch now began to clamber up the rope and into the room inside, hastily beginning to explore the place. Carek followed, and then Athena and Tarok. The climb up was frightening. The fall was a very long way onto the hard stone floor below, and the rope was rubbing rather precariously on the sharp, rocky side of the tower. How terrible it would be to fight through Rakrath's caves undefeated only to be killed in such a place by one's own mistakes. They grasped the rope yet more firmly and continued upwards.

Tarok was last to make it up, his arms not quite so well suited to such intense physical exertions. He almost fell off as a bat flew past his head shortly beneath the window. The crowd below gasped as the wizard nearly let go of the rope in shock, firmly grasping it once more and hauling himself back up.

The tower room was empty except for a few tables and cobwebs covering a curious selection of old bottles. There was a large iron door in the far wall, which they opened with great difficulty, and filed through.

Outside the door was a great flight of steps, which circled higher and higher into the top of the tower. A couple of dwarfs headed downwards, and the rest of the group began the long climb up, holding tightly onto the banister. The stairway was clearly very old, but they had faith in elven workmanship. The banister, however, was made of wood, and largely eaten away by woodworm. Eldoran had left a hole in the middle of the stairway so that they could peer down to the bottom of the steps far below. It was quite a terrifying sight, even for those such as Tarok who claimed to have no fear of heights. Certainly the flimsy, rotten banister did not help. He thought back to Doragon. What would the halfling have made of this?

The steps seemed never-ending, and it felt like an eternity before they eventually reached the top, exhausted. In front of them stood a large wooden door with several runes engraved into it, seemingly warning the group about something inside. Carek walked forward towards the door, but Tarok called him quickly back. "These runes glow with bright magic. Stand back whilst I try to decipher them."

Tarok searched through his spell book, trying to discover the meaning of the strange symbols. Eventually he found the page, and began to read aloud the translations as he came across them in his own writing. "This first one guards against evil. At least I think so. The writing is rather old, and it appears to have changed slightly. Let me find the others." Tarok flipped over another page, and then ran his finger down a list of arcane symbols. "The second wards against demons and the like. I'm not sure why Eldoran thought that was necessary." Carek, for one, didn't particularly want to find out. "The third guards against those who have intent to steal or destroy." Tarok pondered that for a moment. "I wonder if that includes us? I'd better find out."

Tarok began to chant some ancient words, reading aloud from a page of his book. Suddenly, his finger lit up with a pale yellow light. Tarok reached out and touched the rune, which began to glow a bright red.

After a few moments, Tarok's face began to contort, as if in pain. The dwarfs ran to help him out, but the wizard gestured them back. Instead, they watched on as Tarok squirmed in apparent agony for several moments, helpless. Suddenly he released his grip, his finger stopped glowing and he stepped back with a shock.

Carek ran up to his wizard friend. "Tarok! Are you alright?"

Tarok nodded. "The rune is angry. It thinks that we are here to steal from Eldoran. I spoke to it, and managed to convince it that we were in need of the crystal to protect us from Rakrath. On the mention of the necromancer's name, it immediately allowed us to pass. I presume it sensed no evil intent within us."

Tarok reached out a hand and grasped the door knob. It was warm. He turned it gently and the door opened before him. Peering cautiously inside, the wizard walked through and into the room beyond. The rest of the group still hadn't managed to understand quite what he had said. Randor questioned Tarok's sanity, "Talking to runes? He's mad! What have we got ourselves into here?"

Carek had learned to leave his wizard friend well alone when dealing with magic. If there was any doubt, Tarok usually knew best.

The room was not large, but it seemed to contain so many books and potions that they could barely believe their eyes. At each of the four walls there was an opening leading out onto a balcony overlooking the city. The view was marvellous, so spectacular in fact that they immediately forgot the matter at hand. Tarok felt it his duty to remind them. He was already looking through Eldoran's books, every so often muttering "quite fascinating," or "truly marvellous." He had found some very interesting reading and began to place several of the more useful books into his backpack before he remembered the rune on the door, which had already begun to glow with more angry colours.

Tarok carefully replaced his finds, not particularly wanting to be punished, especially by a creation of Eldoran's that would certainly be far more powerful than any magic that he himself could conjure. Besides, this was almost a sacred place to the elves, and disturbing it would be tantamount to sacrilege. In addition, most of the books were at least partly written in elven script, a language that Tarok had not yet had the opportunity to learn.

Meanwhile, the dwarfs were searching around the room. Fyarn turned over a few cupboards that were strewn on the floor, trying to tidy up a bit. There was a long wooden board, which seemed rather out of place amongst the stone blocks surrounding it. "Hey, look at this," he called out, trying to prize up the board with his axe. A coupe more dwarfs lent a hand, and Carek and Athena joined in. Eventually, they managed to lever the board up, and swung it open on an old, rusty set of hinges. It was some kind of door, leading into a chamber below.

The door itself was actually rather light, which surprised them all as it was made of thick oak. Tarok led the way down a short flight of stone steps, peering down into the secret room below. He held out a lantern before him, gasping at the sight. The room was ornate, covered with all manner of carvings and statues. To the far side, partially shrouded by shadow, stood a large marble slab. On top of this was a pure white sheet, covering up what looked like a body underneath.

Tarok stepped out into the room, scanning carefully for traps. He walked over towards the slab, and reached out a hand towards the sheet. He turned to his friends. They had all stayed back at the entrance, hardly daring to venture inside. Tarok took a deep breath and slowly lifted the sheet, his heart pounding. There lay the body of an ancient elf, pale and lifeless, his white beard reaching to his waist. He was wearing the most intricate robes that Tarok had ever seen, seemingly untouched by time. The body lay in a perfect state of preservation, his eyes gently closed as if in slumber. He seemed so peaceful, so serene. Clearly, there was much potent magic woven around this body, and they all knew exactly who the old man was. His hands were folded across his chest. In his left was a polished oaken staff, adorned with bright gems and golden runes. In his right, he grasped a glistening jewel. It was the second half of the crystal of Tharin! At last, they had found Eldoran.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 22 - The Elven Legacy © Colin Frayn

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