The old temple was forlorn, a jumbled heap of weathered stone and overgrowth. Broken statues, their forms lost to time, ponderously guarded the front entrance like a pair of stubborn immortals. The entrance yawned open, dark and uninviting in the evening light, but Aster crossed the threshold without hesitation. His eyes quickly adjusted to the dimness, and the scattered charcoal and stained earth hinted that he was not the first to seek shelter within these walls.
He was far from the city states now, in wild lands on the edges of the Old Kingdom. The untamed wilderness was littered with ruins such as these, from abandoned towns to crumbling watchtowers. Aster supposed that this was once some kind of shrine. Even now the residue of some ancient energy lingered, seeping from the stone blocks with a voiceless sigh.
He unstrapped Fenarin, and leaned the tall blade against his shoulder. Instantly relief washed over his weary body, and sleep crept up on him. It was troubled, a feverish dance between wakefulness and darkness, filled with the shadows of forgotten times. Priests waved ornate jars of incense, swinging from long chains. A soft voice filled the air, chanting hymns in a language both familiar and yet unrecognisable.
Aster’s head lulled on his chest, and he slowly came to. He could still hear the chanting, although as his senses returned it began to fade, replaced by the chirp of crickets and the chatter of the other night denizens. Slowly he emerged into the pale splash of the full moon, the forest clearing bathed in its light.
He shivered at the cold, pulled his cloak tight about him. The canopy was not so thick, and Aster marked his passage with the stars. He could catch glimpses of the northern constellations through the leaves, Reginleif’s Spear, pointing the way to Valhalla, Agnarr’s Sword, the angry gods severed hand still attached. The Shield of Baldr, guarding the world from the dark beyond.
His destination could not be far. Another day, at most, if his old maps were correct, and they had not led him astray thus far. He patted the cylindrical container absent-mindedly, and the tightly rolled papyrus rattled inside.
So far, disappointment had dogged him. Each location had been marked with the runes of Aelfar ruins, and that had been what he’d found. Some were sprawling, many furlongs of fallen columns and half buried masonry, tangled with vines or covered in thick brush. Shards of pottery remained here and there, as well as cracked tiles and broken garden formations. Nothing that survived stood taller than Aster himself, save for the occasional doorway or pitched tower. And all of it was empty.
Day had swept over the land, and the forest thinned as it melted into the rocky slope of a great lagoon. The reflection of the mountains reached into the depths of the water, which rippled with the distant crash of a waterfall. Aster’s last destination lay there, half drowned, a collection of elegant sloping spires and mighty oaks, many of them swamped with water and rotted down to little more than stumps.
He sensed little from these ruins. The energy of the first folk, subtle and alien, was less than a whisper. The running water and mountain wind had stripped it bare, and there was no one in these parts to remember it. Aster wondered how many centuries had passed since someone had last walked this valley.
His descent into the valley lasted until the sun sank beyond the far horizon, casting the sky in dazzling amber and turning the lagoon a shimmering gold.
Oh to see this place in its day. He wandered amongst the ruins, the most well preserved that he had seen ,and ran a hand along the soft stone. It was cool to the touch. Some of the elegant script still remained, faded to illegibility, not that he could read it. Could anyone these days, save for the Old Man? Aster’s footsteps drew him to one final location. The mountain overlooking the lagoon, marked on the map as Aelfar Peak.
Through the misty veil surrounding it, the structure girdling its snowy pinnacle was just visible. A latticework of intersecting pillars, curving to form a great arched building. If there was anything amongst this settlement, it would be there.
With nightfall came the howls. The noise made Aster’s hairs stand on end. It was a curious thing, fear. It told you lies. Told you that your fears were bigger and more powerful than they really were. That you were alone, that you had not the capacity to face what was coming for you. Fear told Aster that there were a hundred of his enemies in the valley below, so close that he could feel the heat of their breath.
He knew that there couldn’t be more than a few dozen. He’d slain many on this ill-fated journey, and never been more than a few at a time. Any tension he had harboured over the weeks and months was slowly stripped away in the wake of those bloodcurdling cries, and the only thing in his mind now was the summit.
When he glanced back he could see their eyes in the darkness. Little pinpricks darting about below, swarming together in groups. He chose his route carefully, gloved hands taking purchase on the overhanging rocks. Whatever path had once led to the top had been eroded away by the passage of countless years.
The moon was bright, exposing him. Not that it mattered.. When these beasts caught your scent, they wouldn’t lose you. He wondered how long they had followed him, and if they had anticipated his movements. He supposed that they must have. He had left his trail in every first folk ruin north of Midhelm. If that wasn’t enough, the black blade strapped to his back would have done the trick. Its signature was a potent one, and the enemy was ever sensitive to it.
What had been a cold wind now became an icy gale, masking the sounds of his pursuers and rendering his cloak frozen in a permanent billow. His breath was muffled in his scarf, and the hot air was a small comfort on his cheeks. His boots slipped, kicking small rocks down the slope, their clatter muffled by the rush in his ears.
Burning muscles hauled him onto the summit. The peak was dominated by the structure sitting atop it, its grand form seeming to spring from the very mountain itself. The remains of an ancient path lead to the entrance, an arched portal flanked by a pair of antlered creatures. Aster positioned himself there, and waited.
The first of the hounds crested the summit soon after, its mangy fur thick with white sleet. That unnatural snarl pulled its jaw back, exposing a mouth full of dripping yellowed fangs. These beasts were nothing if not tenacious, driven as they were by an unknown desire. Aster could see it in those amber eyes. Whatever twisted spirit animated this creature, it was sick with hunger.
The cries of its kin reached his ears, an evil moan that was quickly joined by a dozen others. Aster watched them drag their scrawny, savage bodies over the rocks, uncanny glowing eyes fixated upon him. Once he would have balked at the gaze. He raised a hand over his shoulder, and the first of the hounds sprang forth in a spray of snow.
The black blade roared its dread voice down the mountainside, and not even the howling wind could drown out that dreadful wail. There was the slightest resistance, the sword biting into the open jaws of Aster’s assailant, gore exploding as the body was neatly halved. The top bounced off Aster’s shoulder, warm blood splashing on his dark tunic, entrails splattering at his feet.
Hesitation rippled through the pack, but they surged forward nonetheless, jaws agape. Fenarin broke both in a single sweep, blood and snow showering in a wide arc. For a moment, the snow seemed to hover in the wake of the blow.
The beasts were encircling him, but Aster gave them no quarter, and the brutal screech of each swing joined the crack of lightning that lit the mountaintop in pale flashes, granting light to the slaughter playing out by the tumbled pillars marked on the old maps as Aelfar Peak.
More joined their fallen brethren, skidding across the sodden ground in a frenzy, their minds blank with fear and hunger. What drove them on? Aster wondered. That something could be reduced to such base violence, to a mindless tool of another’s will. His teeth ground together, his blade swinging in broad arcs.
They came and they came. A dozen? A score? Aster wasn’t counting. His awareness was rimmed by ice, the rush of cold air in his lungs, the satisfying clang of steel on bone. The chase would end here, on this crumbling, blood strewn mountaintop. The rain poured.
The battle’s conclusion left him soaked and shivering, even as the heat rose from him in a thick cloud. He strode between a pair of weathered marble pillars, white stone unnaturally incandescent.
Aster slumped against one of them, and Fenarin clattered to the cold floor beside him, the ring of steel shrill in the closed chamber. He chuckled to himself then, a small rasping cackle that quickly turned into a full blown heaving of his belly. The strength drained from his limbs, and he looked down at his gloved hands. There were bite marks on the fabric, down the length of his arms and legs. His black cloak spread about him like a blanket, tattered and frayed.
Just how long had he spent on this hopeless journey? Poking about ruins looted down to the last shard of pottery an eon ago. What had he hoped to find? The Old Man was right.
A fool’s errand.
He ran a hand through a thickening beard. When he had left he could produce barely a whisker. His face felt thin, drawn out and gaunt. He pulled his hand away, felt the smear of blood already drying on his cheeks. Drowsiness swept over him, and he sunk into it eagerly.
How long he slept, he did not know. The raging elements had settled down outside, and he straddled the precipice between wakefulness and oblivion. He could hear talking, alien voices resonating within the chamber. He opened bleary eyes, saw five figures standing about the room. Aster slurred something, tried to stand.
‘Finally’, came a voice, deep and rumbling. It anchored Aster to the present, and he blinked away the fog. The dark figures had disappeared, their voices silenced. In their place stood a solitary shape, striding towards Aster with a rustle of clothes, footsteps echoing in the chamber.
Aster pulled himself to his feet, hefting Fenarin up and into its harness, the weight tugging at his shoulders.
‘I have come here every day for the past month’, said the Old Man, ‘awaiting your arrival.’ He gestured with a gloved hand. ‘Each of these is linked to a different Aelfar city.’ He pointed to the one furthest from him. ‘Of the four, this is the only one still functional.’
Aster pushed a strand of hair from his eyes. ‘How did you know I would be here?’
The Old Man raised an eyebrow. ‘I knew it was only a matter of time’, he said. ‘This is the furthest point on the map for your search.’
He was right. Aelfar Peak was to be his final destination. The ruins of the First Folk stretched no further west, and the uncharted north was no place to travel unaided and directionless. He had trudged and struggled and fought his way across these forgotten lands, and the Old Man had reached them in an instant. It was almost comical. At the very least, he had found the answer to his question.
The first folk were gone, and they were not coming back.
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