A new day.
The sun casts its light over the land, holding the promise of scorching heat once the last of the night’s chill has been banished. The sand glitters as it catches that light, throwing it back at odd angles.
Dunes stretch out as far as the eye can see in every direction except one. In that distance lies the Mountain. It stands there as it has always stood there. As it probably will always stand there. Its top is cloven in two as though some long-ago giant buried his battle axe in its peak.
There is something different about it today. Not its appearance. Not even the occasional strange star that seems to shoot from its peak. That continues as it always has.
Nothing has changed. And yet, there is something oddly attractive about it today. Compelling, even. The mountain calls attention to itself until looking away becomes a chore instead of a simple movement.
It is closer now by a few steps. To the right stand two markers topped by faded red streamers. Another on the left remains bare. A field of the strange markers stretches into the distance. The morbid idea that the field is a graveyard springs to mind, but if the People have ever used anything like these gray stones to show the final resting place of their dead it was during a time long passed out of living memory.
By a broken wall swirl several strange creatures made of a shimmering red cloth. They circle a glowing white letter like small fish circling a bit of metal that has caught the sun. The glyph gives off a faint warmth. Simply being near it is pleasantly energizing. As though flight is no longer a child’s dream, but a sudden possibility. It feels… alive.
The glow-cloth creatures are attracted to singing. It’s not surprising. They are obviously creatures of magic and songs have long been used in the casting thereof. The tales of the People, the old ones from the time of the Ancients, speak of creatures such as these. Songs were used to call them and it is said that they would bestow life itself upon those they encountered.
The buildings that appeared to be ruined from a distance are far more impressive close up. The combined temples that once kept this small section of the world isolated have done much to keep the relentless sand from overwhelming what remains.
A cylindrical structure stands mostly intact in the middle. In the top rests a grate through which more of the cloth creatures can be seen. A bright song activates the mechanics to free them and they obligingly point the way to an old statue from the time of the Ancients. It was long thought that the story stones had been lost to time. That they were a myth from a culture far more advanced than anything that has been seen in this age. Another chirruped song quickens the magic resting in the statue.
The old bridge must have been a wonder when it was first built. Even now, ruined as it is, it remains an impressive feat of architecture. More ruins of other bridges stretch into the distance on either side. It somehow enhances the awe instead of diminishing it. The shifting sands are a joy to run across and the near constant winds are perfect for sliding down billowing dunes.
Scattered around the base of the pillars that once supported the old bridge are a multitude of metal boxes. Some lie by themselves in the shifting sand. More are lined up end to end as if they were once, somehow, connected. Several have odd, faded red ribbons streaming from them. When approached, the ribbons glimmer briefly before returning to the bright color they must have possessed when new.
The swarms of newly-freed ribbon fish combine to finish the bridge. The red trails leading from ground to bridge-piece to cliff-side glow when approached and dip gently under the pressure of concentrated magic.
Vast sands stretch into the distance, endless except for the mountain on the far side. Bright song near another metal box frees a friendly creature made of the same magic-saturated cloth as those before, though this one is several times larger. It begins a swift game of tag where no one seems to be definitively ‘it’ with pauses at other boxes along the way to free more of its friends for playing. The path they travel crisscrosses through gleaming sand and over tall dunes, but – inevitably – turns back towards the mountain.
Eventually, the horizon blurs with a thick fog of sand that moves heavily through the air. Ever restless, it creates an unsettling atmosphere. Hiding in its midst stands a tower that has remained in much better shape than its cousins in the more open areas of desert. It is impossible to tell if this is a result of the dense sand that clings to every breath, blocking the harsh sun; the machinery that lies just out of sight in the gloom, whose ominous thudding heralds its inescapable presence; or some other reason entirely.
The first time the faces come into view is startling. Their shape is reminiscent of the poisonous vipers sometimes found buried under the sand. The glow flashes in time with the tower’s mechanic heartbeat and brings an intense desire to be anywhere else. The sight of creatures trapped inside cages belied by their decorative bars only increases the feeling.
But the strong and growing stronger pull of the Mountain provides enough prompting to continue the journey upwards. The terrible suspicion that those constantly friendly creatures are being used somehow to power the machine is the final straw. The Ancient builders of the great desert ruins begin to feel less and less benign.
Sliding through the desert on a near constant downhill is pure exhilaration. The cloth creatures lead a merry chase across a long downhill slope with only one stop-over to free another swarm of the small fish-like creatures. Various bits of rock and what used to be walls now lend themselves as impromptu ramps, granting brief moments of joyous flight.
The sun is setting now. It casts a golden aura over the land causing the world to look as though it has been drawn from Ali-Baba’s own cave. The result is…breathtaking.
A final drop in the landscape steals air from gasping lungs for an entirely different reason. It levels out right before a final bit of broken wall stretches out over a dark abyss. The last rays of the fading sun cause the sand at the bottom of the pit to glimmer faintly. The pervasive dimness is almost frightening after the fierce beauty of a moment ago. The sudden absence of the creatures that have been constant companions for much of this journey does nothing to decrease this feeling.
The underground caverns are sporadically lit by the cold light of the moon. The intermittent swarms of fish creatures do nothing to ease the sudden loneness.
The seaweed forest is peaceful. Logic states that there are several swarms of the fish inhabiting the kelp strands formed from more of the red cloth and metal tubes that are scattered across the landscape and another of the larger creatures chirping at the other end of the room. The feeling that there is not another being in existence – that there never has been, never will be – has nothing to do with logic, however, and will not be put off by such flimsy defenses.
More rooms, with increasingly large strands of kelp trailing them from unseen floor towards a hole studded ceiling, are passed through. Jellyfish soon appear. They float serenely atop the monstrous lengths of cloth.
A flickering face belonging to one of the serpents from the desert mechanism greets travelers that have passed through the seaweed. The room beyond it is filled with more such faces, these with bodies attached to them. The only reason fear can be pushed back enough to dare venturing past those silent sentinels is the darkened faces. Whole or not, these metal monsters are not activated.
One of the friendly creatures from before chirps an invitation to the other end of the room, but caution warns against traveling the long corridor down its middle. This decision proves wise one heart stopping rush of adrenaline later when the lone serpent standing guard in the middle of the room suddenly bursts into life, consuming the creature in a single gulp.
Fear of the sort that skitters up and down spines and leaves a chill like the desert’s night now permeates the journey. Every serpentine statue is eyed with suspicion. Hope that no more will wake flutters nervously, lifting the heart to reside in the back of the throat. Dread that another will pools heavily and drags that beating organ back down towards the stomach. The sporadic sightings of serpents flying primeval patrols through the corridors do nothing to ease the terror.
A close call, gotten through only by luck and quick feet, and a shortened scarf lead to the realization that the war machines will eat anything with magic, not just the glow-cloth creatures. A terrible suspicion on the fates of the former masters of these serpentine machines creeps through the back of conscious thought. The pain of being forcibly torn from the magic is soul-shredding, but survivable. And the mountain’s call is undiminished.
The next hallway is guarded by, not one, but two serpents, their combined patrol making it impossible to slip by unnoticed. Not trying is not an option but for one long moment it looks as though the journey’s end will come in the mouth of a metal snake. Then the glyphs on the other side of the room are approaching and now they’re here and the room is suddenly lit by a barrier, signaling that it is alright to breathe again.
The next room is dominated by a towering column reaching up the middle towards the distant ceiling. The entire room appears to be an archive of some sort, the books typical of such a facility replaced by story-images carved into the stone of the very walls. They light up when approached and each picture triggers a flood of light thick and dense enough to swim in.
The images invoke a feeling of dèja-vu and it is a startling realization that the entire room is dedicated to the depiction of one very familiar journey. How many have taken this journey before? Did the Ancients who built these ruins once make this journey? Did they foresee that someone would one day follow their path? These questions and more fly almost too fast to be registered in conscious thought; doomed to remain unanswered.
All such things disappear at the sight of a majestic, glow-cloth dragon swimming out into the room.
The light finally reaches the top of the column and the ceiling is suddenly illuminated with the story of a journey just past and one yet to be taken. The realization that this room was built as a final resting point is as chilling as the snow surrounding the door leading outside.
Cold. So cold.
Even the inherent warmth of magic that dwells in any who use it cannot hold back the chill forever. The solid snow is punctuated with the dead and dying bodies of cloth creatures from where they have fallen. A glance upward grants the occasional sight of them traveling towards the mountain.
Clothes that were made for desert travel are soon caked with ice and snow. The wind is bitterly strong. Punishing and brutal. The only way to avoid its teeth is to take shelter behind whatever is available when it blows.
Gravestones soon begin appearing again. It is impossible to not wonder if their number will increase by one before the day is out. The long metal corpses of mechanical serpents once again liter the ground as their still living counterparts fly uncaring over their snow covered dead.
The cold is overpowering enough to freeze magic. It becomes harder and harder to walk as the biting winds lock joints and slow reflexes.
The sky is now filled with a swarm of cloth creatures making the slow pilgrimage to a now nearly obscured mountain.
More ruins. More wind.
At last there is only a single snow covered field left to cross. The mountain is closer than ever and looms almost overhead. There are no obstacles other than the grave-markers thrusting up from the snow, but neither is there any shelter from the wind. It blows constantly, cold enough to suck the life from the very bones of any creature foolish enough to be out in it, and changes direction without warning or reason. The thunder-snow overhead only adds to its strength.
It grows harder and harder to walk as the temperature, impossibly, drops further.
The mountain seems to only get farther away and the clouds are quickly obscuring what is left to be seen.
The wind is gone, but so is the mountain.
So cold. Tired. Can’t…
The sensation of floating.
A surge of power, blessedly warm, from the six white cloaked figures that have served as guides along the journey. The power builds almost to the point of pain before releasing into the sky, through the eye of the storm. Flying has never felt like this before. More of the war serpents appear at the edges of the storm, but they hold no terror. Not when the light at the end of the tunnel is growing closer and closer.
Finally above the storm. There is still snow, but its soft almost warmth is a stark contrast to the punishing cold of below. The mountain no longer stands at an aloof distance. It almost lies close enough to touch.
Creatures of all kinds soar joyously through the air and they swarm to aid a traveler on the last leg of a long journey.
Tall red gates are lit by taller beams of light. More of the liquid light as a stream of jellyfish winds its way further upwards. A final gate and a sparking flow of light lead to the top of the mountain; the base of the cleft.
The magic leaves yet again, but this time it merely bids a fond farewell, as though looking forward to a future reunion. Light, warm and soft as down, flows through the air and the ground is covered in something that has equal chance of being shining snow or finely powdered white sand.
So warm… like coming home.
A new day.