Slowly the heavy double doors at the end of the dilapidated hallway swung open, revealing a great chamber beyond. The fine white marble floor was crisscrossed with elaborate patterns of colorful ceramic tiles, and resting on the heavy grey slabs of the walls were deep blue stones arching into a breathtaking ceiling. Dotted throughout the darkness above were tiny pinpoints of light, small sparkling gems scattered in a perfect imitation of the most prominent stars of the night sky. Along the walls hung rich tapestries while a fine red carpet lay spread to protect the floor from those who found themselves blessed by being able to enter the room.
Yet all of it showed the weight of the ages; the marble was slightly cracked, a few tiles were missing, the tapestries and carpet were slightly ragged, and numerous gemstone stars lay shattered on the floor after their fittings had corroded and let them loose. Through the empty sockets shone down tiny rays of sunlight, illuminating the chamber just enough to make the outlines of eight sculpted pillars flanking the carpet seem like menacing guardians.
As the doors finally came to a rest, the groans of protest emanating from the rusted hinges ceased and silence briefly reclaimed the ancient halls of the ruined complex.
A young man strode into the room with confident steps and an arrogant, almost condescending, air. His posture combined with the ghost of a smirk hiding on his lips to instill in those around him the impression of a smug, overconfident nobleman who felt himself surrounded by his inferiors. His eyes were hard, a look that was accentuated by the sharp icy blue of his irises, and his short-cropped hair was a clear white clashing with his lightly tanned skin and smooth features.
An elegant velvet coat dyed a light purple covered much of him, though its open front revealed a finely woven shirt of white silk, a pair of sturdy leather boots, and a pair of loose pants the same shade as the man’s coat. His motions stirred up a cloud of dust from the floor that sent him into a coughing fit and yet even as he arched his back and doubled over into a hunched position, his right hand was wrapped firmly around the shaft of an elegant cane. Though crafted from a smooth, black material it was the mercurial gem atop it that drew attention, seemingly made from a silvery liquid that shifted and moved even while keeping perfectly to a single shape.
“Are you sure about this?” The words were meant to be a mere whisper, but the design of the chamber amplified the voice enough for them to come out at normal speaking volume. “This place looks… dead.”
“The child has a point. We have seen Lost ruins with more life to them than this.” The man’s reply was smooth and calm, very different from the insecure voice to which it replied. Unlike the soft whisper that had preceded it, however, it remained at spoken volume, unaffected by the strange acoustics of the chamber.
Behind the man followed a young woman with long, light brown hair tied up in a ponytail and a soft face that up until a moment ago had held both fear and awe, but now broke into giggles at the sight of the prim and proper nobleman coughing a few steps ahead. Though she was the youngest of the group, her curvaceous figure effectively accentuated that while an adolescent she was closer to being an adult than a child.
Her clothes were far simpler and more practical than those of the nobleman, with plain brown leather for both pants and boots, and a deep blue shirt loosely fitted on her upper body. A well-made leather belt strapped around her waist held a couple of small pouches, but served mainly to support the sheath containing her light sword, its long and narrow blade clearly made for fencing.
Her melodious voice echoed throughout the hall in joyful laughter interrupted infrequently by her own coughing.
“Yes, Lor, I am certain” came a third voice. Normally it would barely be audible and even in these halls it was kept a quiet and weak whisper, seeming very much like a shadow of sound.
The speaker entered the chamber last, moving with an eerie grace despite a slumped posture. A well-worn open-fronted black robe lined with faded deep red fur was wrapped snugly around her slim body, and dragged slightly along the ground behind her. Her head was tilted forward with her eyes on the ground, placing the long tresses of her black hair as a curtain. Aside from hints of pale skin, a pair of weak and sad eyes was all that could be seen of her face despite her being tallest of the three.
“Quit laughing, child!” the man said sharply, his voice suddenly booming with authority gained from the acoustics of the chamber, before returning to his coughing.
Loriana, or Lor for short, snickered a little but managed to keep from laughing further as the dust settled and the coughing stopped. “My humblest apologies, Lord Sethian,” she said as she bowed with a flourish, overacting her jested apology just enough to annoy the man without offending him.
Sethian, the nobleman, scowled at her before he turned to survey the chamber more closely. Holding out his left hand he began drawing a few lines in the air with his fingers. As they moved a soft white mist traced behind his fingertips, allowing him to draw short-lived runes in the air. When he finished he held the hand out and soon a small sphere of silvery light formed above his open palm, bathing the chamber with its steady glow.
The full extent of the ravages of time now revealed themselves and the chamber was shown to be in a severe state of decay. Large chunks of the statuesque pillars had been worn away or fallen off, and the tapestries were torn and moth-eaten. Even the fine marble of the floor was severely cracked and most of the smaller tiles had gone missing.
“Loriana,” the black-robed woman spoke, gently wrapping her arms around the shorter woman’s waist from behind. Without lifting her head she gave a slight nod which indicated a dark alcove at the far side of the chamber, opposite the entrance they had come through.
Sobering up immediately, Loriana turned her attention to the darkness while Sethian strode further into the chamber. The alcove was quite large and in the gloom it looked more like a raised dais, its walls blending into the shadows and making the outline indistinct. A handful steps led up from the carpet to the floor of the dais, though the carpet flanked the stairs all the way to the wall.
Slowly a silhouette became visible in the light of Sethian’s orb, one that resembled a billowing cloud of opaque darkness in the gloom. As the nobleman approached, the mass of shadows became more distinct. It seemed made from some strange semi-transparent black mineral. Slowly more details started to take shape within: A vaguely humanoid shape lingered there with its arms held forth as if reaching for something.
“This place is not only dead, it is completely without value. The cloth would have had value were it in a state where it could survive being moved, that I admit, but the rest?” Sethian muttered as he paced over the floor, examining the tiles and marble. “The tiles are just regular stone, and the marble is too much trouble for the tiny profit. Had the statues been in proper shape, they would have been the only thing here really worth the effort to bring home and sell. Even magic has waned here.”
“Oh, I don’t know. What of that thing?” Loriana calmly interjected before Sethian continued his tirade, pointing at the statue. It seemed strangely humble for such a prominent position, set in a slightly raised alcove at the end of the carpet.
“Huh?” He muttered as he glanced at it briefly, then turned to look at it properly. “Well, now… That is an interesting piece.” He muttered as he hurried over to examine it up close, the moving light source sending a cascade of flashes throughout the dark cloud without providing even a hint of illumination within. As Sethian drew near the sculpture his orb of light dimmed, as if something was seeking to suppress its glow. At the same time a very faint glimmer of ‘stars’ appeared in a scattering of several hundred small pieces set in the walls of the alcove at the center of which the statue resided.
“First I thought this place had been built for giants or trolls or something else of above average proportions, but this piece… It is human-sized. Perfectly sculpted, almost as if someone has petrified vapor.” The nobleman mumbled to himself, his voice strangely muted and without echo as it spread through the chamber. “And this alcove…”
“Merala…” Loriana’s voice trembled slightly as she pressed herself hard against the woman behind her, her eyes darting to all the shady corners of the suddenly darkened room. “Something’s not right. I can feel it.”
“Hush…” Merala’s whisper was so weak, so quiet, so mournful, and yet somehow conveyed a quiet confidence. Merala always seemed so frail, but still Loriana felt herself relax in the knowledge that the woman was there. She always seemed to be in control. Merala turned her attention to the nobleman, raising her voice just enough to be sure he would hear her. “Sethian.”
“Hm?” The nobleman looked back at the pair, taking a few steps away from the sculpture to stand at the front of the alcove. “This place is magnificent! There is a tangible aura of magic in the air. It is as if this structure was designed to channel energy into that thing, but I cannot seem to figure out how energy is tapped from it.” His eyes blazed ravenously as his smirk widened into a grin. “Do you understand how much energy must be in there? Oh, of course not! Neither of you has any real magic. Suffice to say it could well contain a vast source of magical energy the likes of which no wizard has even dreamed of since the days of the Naerele.”
“Come.” Merala stated simply, for the first time lifting her head to gaze straight at him and locking the nobleman’s gaze. Her expression shifted from one of sorrowful longing to serious, something rare enough to make Sethian snap out of the dream his hunger for power had drawn him into. Combined with her suddenly firm voice it seemed to make him realize that something was not right. Just in time for his light to start blinking haphazardly.
“Sethian…” Loriana’s face grew pale and her eyes widened as if in terror, her body froze and her gaze locked at the sculpture behind the nobleman. He swiveled on his heels to see what had caused the girl to appear so fearful. Aside from the twinkling stars all around him, everything looked like it had a moment ago. The cloud around the figure was solid crystal, though hadn’t it been less transparent a moment ago? And why hadn’t he noticed those diamond eyes until just now?
Then complete darkness enveloped the chamber. Loriana could feel Merala pulling her back, or were they falling? A moment later the dark was pierced by a scream of pain so eerie that Loriana thought her soul was going to be shredded to pieces. Then silence.
Silence and darkness.