It had been several hours and the sheriff could no longer afford to wait. The reinforcements he had requested were no where to be seen, and the villagers were becoming more and more agitated by his inaction.
Tensions were high, and understandably so. While only a handful of individuals had actually seen the ball of fire fall out of the sky, nearly everyone had felt the impact and heard the explosion. Some of the older villagers, who had been around during the Troll invasions, were proclaiming that the war had been renewed and were getting particularly biting with their comments towards the sheriff. Regardless of all that, the sheriff himself wanted answers and was done with the delays.
The deputy was already waiting outside the village when the sheriff rode up beside him.
“Still no word from Yurgintown?”
“No. Let the slobs rot, I’m done wasting time.”
“And if it's the Trolls?”
The sheriff’s grin beamed in the afternoon sun. It had been years since he’d crossed swords with a Troll, and a strange part of him thirsted for it. “Then I’ll be able to collect more tusks for my collection.”
Riding down the eastern road was treacherous at times. Fortunately, the fog from the morning had passed and visibility was high. As they neared where witnesses claimed they saw the trail of fire in the sky, they left the road and leapt directly into the brush. After a few hours more of riding, they could see smoke rising into the air ahead of them.
“Stay alert; we may be in the thick of it soon.”
Minutes later they arrived at a short hill with trees around its base. All leaves were missing; boughs and branches were scattered everywhere.
“I bet we’ll find what we came to see just over that hill,” whispered the deputy as he glanced about the ground.
“Aye, tie up the horses. We’ll scout from the top.”
As the deputy dismounted to do as he was told, the sheriff sprang off his horse and unsheathed his sword. Unsure of what he’d see on the other side, he crawled up the hill on his stomach, sliding along the grass like an uncoordinated snake. The deputy found a sturdy tree and was securing their steeds when he heard the sheriff gasp from the top of the hill. Charging up the slope on all fours, the deputy fell to the sheriff’s side and was as equally astonished at what he saw. A massive crater spread out before them, smoking and burning in several places, with a gaping, misshapen hole at its center.
“What the hell happened here?” the deputy whispered.
“Whatever fell out of the sky must have caused this when it hit the ground. Its probably in that hole there.”
“Should we take a closer look?”
The crater walls were steep. They would need rope to keep from falling to their deaths.
“We don’t have the gear to do it safely.”
“Damn,” the deputy cursed, clearly eager to explore.
A horn blast, obnoxiously long and unsettling in pitch, broke the air. Towards the east was a cloud of dust edging ever closer to the crater.
“Shit,” swore the Sheriff “Fucking Trolls can’t keep to themselves.”
“We could make short work of at least 50 of the tossers.”
“Aye, but there’s no cover. Their archers would pick us off before we even got close.”
“Maybe there won’t be any archers.”
“They always bring archers.”
Indeed, as the Trolls came into view, the sheriff and deputy counted at least a dozen archers, the rest being sword bearers and shamans. Each was riding atop battle panthers or armored rams, beasts the sheriff hadn’t seen in decades. As the scouting party arrived, it fanned out along the rim of the crater, but stopped well short of the hill where the sheriff and deputy watched anxiously. None of the savages moved or dismounted until one of the shamans, particularly larger than the rest, stepped down from his ram a few feet away from the crater’s edge.
The shaman’s staff was elaborately decorated with all manner of ornamentation. Crimson robes hung from his sinewy green skin, and though he walked with a limp, his outward fragility seemed only to mask an inner strength. Trolls respected power and power alone, and given the deference being paid to the shaman, he was clearly not one to underestimate.
“A great power fell here from the sky,” the shaman shouted, pointing into the crater.
“I want it. Bring it to me now!”
Without hesitation, a handful of the Trolls jumped into the crater. Some scurried on hands and feet. Others seemed to be tumbling on purpose. In seconds they were at the hole, staring into its depths.
“What should we do,” whispered the deputy, shaking with anticipation.
“Unless you want to lose your fucking head, we do nothing.”
“But they’ll get the loot!”
“What loot? We have no clue what’s in there. Besides, as long as it can’t be used against us, let them have it. I’m only staying to see what it is.”
The deputy sighed in frustration, obviously unhappy.
The Trolls were just beginning to disappear into the hole when an unexpected gale overtook the hill and the crater below. As the deep moan of the wind grew louder, it was joined by a steady, constant beat. A massive shadow appeared over the crater, and the shaman released a guttural howl after he looked up to see what was fast approaching. All of his underlings returned to his side in a hurry and the Trolls retreated back several feet just as a winged beast, overwhelming gigantic in scale, landed next to the crater.
Glistening scales of yellow gold nearly blinded everyone as they tried to take in the sight of the creature. Distracted beyond reasonable thought, the sheriff found himself rising to his feet.
“Sir, get down,” the deputy growled, trying but failing to keep his voice down.
“By the gods,” the sheriff muttered, dumbfounded. “Its a dragon….”
“Trolls of the mountain,” the beast began in a voice the sheriff could feel in his chest. “Begone from this place. Do not return here again.”
“Who are you to command me, dragon?” the shaman snarled, trying hard not to show weakness in front of his followers.
“I existed before you, and I will exist long after you have returned to dust. I shaped the mountains you call home, and I can bring them down if you continue to defy me. I am the Ancient One, and I will be obeyed.”
The lesser Trolls howled and hollered in fear and darted away, leaving the shaman behind. He waited a few more seconds as a display of bravery, then followed after them.
“And as for you,” continued the dragon as it spun its massive head and neck around to face the sheriff and deputy. “Return to your village, and ensure that no one comes anywhere near this crater.”
The deputy was frozen in fear and awe, but the sheriff was able to muster enough courage to speak. “Forgive my curiosity, Ancient One, but what happened here?”
The golden dragon’s head came even closer than before. “Nothing within the purview of mortal minds, little sheriff. But fear not; no harm will come to any child of Torion so long as my word is heeded. Go now, and do not return unless I will it so.”
The sheriff bowed his head in acquiescence while walking backwards, and lifted the deputy off the ground as he did so. Racing down the hill, the two untied their horses and charged away, slapping the flanks of the horses to spur them onward.
“What the hell are we going to tell the villagers?” the Deputy shouted as they raced home.
“Are you kidding?” the sheriff questioned backed, his voice full of wonder and his mind racing with the thrill of adventure. “I just spoke to the Ancient One. I’m telling every damn person I see what happened.”
“I’m here Blesséd Mother, Gracious Father. There is a strange feeling about this place.”
“Examine it closely, Elkar. We must know for certain what fell to our world.”
Elkar the Ancient One scanned every inch of the crater. He found remnants of Bergen’s cart, and noticed the ridges and troughs dug into the crater walls where the cart and horse and Bergen himself and fallen into the center. Craning his massive neck, the golden dragon peered into the hole. Nothing escaped his gaze; nevertheless, he wanted a closer look. With a single thought, his draconic form evaporated into glowing orbs of light flitting in the air like a flock of hummingbirds. Floating gracefully down the crater walls and into the hole, he descended to the bottom, stopping just above the still pool. The cave was empty and dark. The glow of his spirit and a few beams of sunlight from above provided the only illumination. Dread hung in the air as thick as carrion birds on a fresh corpse. But there was also the faintest sense of light and serenity. When Elkar attempted to access the temporal memory of the space, he received affirmation that something was indeed wrong.
“The temporal memory of this cave has been tampered with. I cannot perceive what happened here.”
“Is it safe?”
Elkar outstretched his mind upon the land, and felt nothing. “Whatever was here is here no longer. But how can that be? How can something remain hidden from us on our own world?”
“I do not know, dear child, but return to the surface so we may speak a moment.”
Elkar did as he was told and returned to the sunlight above. Once more at the rim of the crater, he took on his preferred form and rested his massive body on the ground. In front of him appeared a disturbance in the air, like the shimmering of water. From the shimmering stepped forward a lady of blue, her hair and arms moving like the undulation of waves.
“Blesséd Mother guide me. What must I do?”
“You must find that which was here.”
“What is it?”
“I do not know.”
Elkar looked away. There were questions he wanted to ask, but chose not to.
“You know more than you let on,” said the Blesséd Mother. “Tell me what is on your mind, Elkar.”
“Once you told me that we were unique; that we were the only Serai to exist alongside a mortal world in the way that we do. I may not know exactly what happened here, but I know this was not a naturally occurring event. What fell here was beyond the physical realm. What fell here was a Serai.”
The outward appearance of Harmony, Blesséd Mother of Elkar and the world of Torion, did not change. Nevertheless, Elkar could sense a mingling of shock and turmoil inside her.
“Your insight is impressive, though I should expect no less from my child. Yes, it was a Serai that fell here.”
For a brief moment, the undulation of Harmony ceased, and she became still like the eye of a great storm. “There is much we have not told you, though I can sense that you have known that for some time.”
Elkar nodded in agreement. “Yes, Blesséd Mother. My curiosity about the Realm of the Living and our place in it has been quenchless. Recognizing hesitation on your part to share more with me, I long ago resolved to learn all that I could on my own.” Looking to the sky, he closed his eyes, retreating into his memories. “I have felt the echo of other Serai from across the stars. Visions of divine powers have graced my thoughts. But in all this time, nothing has ever stuck so close to home as whatever fell here. And as for that, I find myself vexed. Why would a Serai fall so haphazardly? Why not descend gracefully, or simply appear among us?”
Harmony listened and did not speak. Even when Elkar finished, she waited before responding. He could see that she was choosing her words carefully.
“I understand your hunger for knowledge. That hunger is an innate part of what it means to be Serai. But the how and why are not important, at least not presently.”
“I disagree. Knowing why it fell may be the key to finding it.”
The Blessed Mother’s countenance changed from a calm sea to a raging torrent. “Harken to me, child of mine. Understanding what happened here must be secondary to the task I now set before you. You must determine where our visitor has gone, and you must do so with all possible haste. I don’t know what will happen when you find it; if it will attempt to sway your mind or strike out against you. But it matters not. Once found, you will summon us so that we can address it directly and know its purpose here. We have labored for too long to keep our world hidden from prying eyes and we will not allow all that we have done to be unraveled.”
Elkar was less stunned by his mother’s outburst than he was by her choice of words. He had long suspected that his parents were actively shielding Torion from outsiders, but this was the first time either one of them had acknowledged it. “Are the rest of our people unlike us? Your words suggest that we have something to fear.”
Harmony did not respond immediately, for in her anger she had revealed more than she meant. Again Elkar sensed a disturbance inside her, as if she were torn between her love for him and some unspoken need to keep him in the dark. “First you must find our mysterious guest,” she said finally. “We will tell you more about the history of our people only after this task is done.”
“You will not aid me in the search?”
“No. Your father and I have other tasks to attend to. This is yours, Elkar. I trust you will see it done.”
After over a hundred thousand years, Elkar had never question his parents about their reticence. For a moment, he considered challenging their authority and demanding to know more. Instead he chose to remain patient. “Of course,” he replied reluctantly.The Blesséd Mother vanished from sight, leaving Elkar the Ancient One alone. He tried one last time to summon forth the memory of the crater from the sea of time. He received only marred silence. Unsure of where to even begin his hunt, he lifted into the sky and departed for the first place he could think of.