I sat at the base of a large tree with my knees pulled up to my chest and my arms wrapped tightly around them. I could hear the voices of Xukkuth and Zeyphite talking only a few feet away and yet I couldn’t see them. There was a wall of thick fog surrounding us, making it hard to see just about anything. I thought back to why we were here, waiting for the others to arrive in this cold fog. The letter I received from Halcyon a few days ago was folded neatly into my pouch. I pulled it out, carefully opened it and read again, for maybe the hundredth time.
Sad times are upon us. The rebirth and sudden enervation of the great elder Nature spirit which you witnessed nearly three months ago was more complicated than we allowed you to know. I am sorry that we held back so long before telling you, but I needed to be sure before telling you- and now I am.
The Circle is dying.
We are each linked to that elder Nature spirit, and its death has resulted in our death as well. We have but weeks left to live, Ember. And like a forest fire burns even the tallest trees so that new life may sprout, so, it seems, will we crumble into death in the hopes that new druidic power might rise one day. We would ask that you be with us, at the end. I ask you, as my friend, to come with us to the Crypt one last time so that we might plant the seeds of the next age. Our secret, my sister, is that we were not the first Circle. With the aid of you and your companions, neither we will we be the last.
With eternal friendship,
I felt the tears well up in my eyes again and I quickly folded up the parchment and placed it back into my pouch. I couldn’t let anyone else see that I was upset. Adventurers didn’t cry. We didn’t allow others to see that we were weak. And I had a task to do. I wasn’t going to let those I cared about, my friends, my mentor, die because of my actions this last summer. I had to try. I had to. And that was why I was here. The Crypt of the Elevens! A crypt full of treasure, mystery, and danger. It only opened once a year on the eleventh day of the eleventh month and only remained open until the eleventh hour. However, this year was special. It was the year 211…11/11/11! I didn’t know how it would change the crypt all I knew was that it would. Something big was going to happen down there. I could only hope that it would be for the better.
“Ember, are you still there?” came Xukkuth’s voice.
“You’re making me nervous. Get over here.”
I smiled and shook my head, standing up with a grunt as the chill in the air made my muscles tense up. I walked the few feet to where my friends were standing so that they could see me. It was easy to tell who was who, even if there was the thick fog. Xukkuth d’Barra was the Xeleque, or dark elf, with night black skin and red eyes who wore the flamboyant hat and cloak. He was the leader of the former Red Band of Chaos, the mercenary guild I joined when I first became an adventurer, and the current Legionnaire of Falconguard in Terath. He was one of my closest friends and trusted allies. I would often go to him for advice whenever I needed it and he was always willing to give it. Although there were times when he could be more annoying then helpful.
“When do you think the others will show up,” asked Zeyphite.
“Hopefully soon. It’s almost time,” I replied.
Zeyphite was another member of the Red Band and a skilled swordsman. He was an Elentari, a race of warrior elves, and used to be one of Xukkuth’s most hated rivals. Now he and the dark elf were the best of comrades and were always watching each other’s backs. Zeyphite trained in the battle school in Ethlinspire, the capital of Il’lithoria, where he learned the ways of the warrior. I, too, came from Il’lithoria, but I “hailed” from the wild forests, not the city. But that’s a story for another time. And so the three of us waited patiently for the others to arrive. The air around us remained as dense as ever and I started to wonder if it would ever lighten up. As the day began to fade away into the night, the chill in the air worsened and I had to light a small fire spell to keep warm. But at long last, more adventures came.
The first to appear were Orthia and The Nameless One, or Nameless as we fondly called her. Both were humans and both were very powerful. Nameless was my oldest friend and the one who “tamed” me. She taught me how to read and write, how to behave in formal occasions, and how to use my magic. I rushed forward and embraced her in a warm hug. I could see that the walk in the fog had freaked her out, much like it had for me.
“It’s good to see you again. Your travels were safe, I assume?” I asked, pulling her away to look at her.
She was just as beautiful as always with her long, blonde hair and green eyes. She was channeling a spell just in case anything jumped out of the fog to attack us. Nameless was a spiritualist, one who studied the bond of life and death. She was also an amazing spell caster and wonderful healer. Of course, just like her class, she was just as powerful with necromancy as she was with mystic. However, due to the fact that it was dangerous, not to mention illegal in many countries, she only used necromancy in dire situations.
She smiled at me and gave me a small kiss on the forehead, her way of greeting me and confirming my questions. “We had a bit of goblin problems, but Orthia made quick work of them,” she said.
The human gypsy (or gypsy-to-be, but I really can’t be sure) had become a dear friend to me ever since she joined our group about a year ago. She was also incredibly powerful. I gazed at her quiver of arrows and her amazing magic bow. I had seen several goblins burst into nothing but dust from just one of those arrows. It made me happy she was on my side. Orthia was one of the first tinkers I had the pleasure of knowing, which is odd because I have been adventuring for quite some time now. I couldn’t think of a single thing she didn’t have on her person. Around her waist, a belt full of useful items such as lock picks, tinkers tools, salves, and many…many bombs. She certainly had it all. Orthia giggled and was about to say something, but was cut off by approaching voices. I prepared a fire spell, but I noticed that Orthia did not seem worried. The voices sounded strange and yet, oddly familiar.
“I told you this was the right way. I can hear them up this way.”
Three unfamiliar humans appeared out of the fog and walked towards us. There were two men and a woman, all dressed in bright colors and all talking in that strange, accent only gypsies spoke with. Well, most gypsies. Orthia and Faigan never spoke like that…and I was glad. After a long while, it could get rather annoying. The female, wore a sword on her hip and a large, round shield on her back. She had long, wavy brown hair and dark brown eyes. Her two males companies walked behind her, laughing about something that I must have missed. The elder of the two was tall with a black bandana on his head and green eyes. He had a long pole arm clenched tightly in his right hand and was channeling a spell in the other. And then there was the younger. I saw a small dagger in a sheath at his hip, but no other weapons. However, I could see a powerful spell channeling in both of his hands and I knew he must have been the spell caster of this group. He had short, dirty blond hair and a fuzzy beard. His dark eyes glowed with both mystery and humor as he and his friends walked up to us.
“I told you, Sonya, I told you this was the right way,” the young male said to the female.
“Yuri, I swear if you don’t shut Vlad up I’m going to punch him in the stomach,” Sonya said to the elder male.
“Ah, new adventures I see. Well met, friends,” Xukkuth said as he walked up and greeted the new comers. I stayed back, preferring to keep my distance until I was sure these people were friends and not foe. That was usually how it went with this group. Most would keep quiet and allow those who are a bit more commanding and charismatic to greet. Xukkuth was one of those people and I let him do it. As he broke the ice with the gypsies, two others walked through the fog and joined our group. Both were human. Faigan, another gypsy and older brother to Orthia (though I didn’t think by blood). He was one of the few veteran adventures still traveling with us today and a good comrade. He wore black leather armor and two swords at his belt. He had dark hair than was cut at his shoulders and held in a messy ponytail. His dark eyes scanned at the faces around him until he saw Orthia, Nameless, and myself.
He smiled and walked over to us. “Ladies, have I ever told you how beautiful you all are and how happy it makes me to see you all here on this night.”
Six pairs of eyes rolled at once at Faigan’s greeting. Ever the charmer he was. I shook my head, hugged him and allowed him to greet the other two girls. The other human he had been walking with was Dr. Liam Sawyer, an old army medic from the land of Terath. He was also new to this group, however, that did not mean that he was new to his practice. I know a great deal about healing with the help of my magic and a few salves and potions. But Dr. Sawyer could heal circles around me when it came to medicine! I had watched him bandage someone so fast I literally blinked my eye and the job was done. He was also able to make Raise Dead Salves faster than anyone I have ever seen, though he usually asked for an arm and a leg for them. And for good reason! The skills he uses to make such a useful item takes a lot out of the coin purse. He was older looking with graying brown hair and blue eyes. He always wore a long, black coat and a red scarf. I couldn’t remember ever seeing him without that scarf which often had me wondering if there was more to it then he would ever let on. I shrugged that thought away knowing that it was none of my business. If it was something I needed to know then one day it would be told to me. I walked away from the gathering as it looked like the last adventurer arrived. A stranger human who Yuri called by the name of Vale. He wore a simple white tunic and black pants. He had dark hair and eyes and only carried a simple mace. Other than that, I didn’t care much to get to know him until I knew it would be safe too.
“Ember!” came a sudden voice from behind me. I couldn’t stop the small scream that left my mouth the moment I realize who the voice belonged to. I turned to see Torgon, another Elentari warrior, standing way to close to me with a huge smile on his face.
“Torgon, you jerk!” I said, slapping his chain mail covered chest. Scaring me had been a game he and Talon loved to play with me ever since summer of last year. While they enjoyed it I couldn’t say I was a big fan. At the thought of Talon, I small frown formed on my face. He had been a friend…but, again, that was a story for another time.
“Every time, Ember. Come on, you make it too easy,” Torgon said.
“I’m not exactly trying to make anything easy,” I said before reaching up and giving the Elentari a hug around his neck before he walked away to greet the newcomers.
After a few more minutes it looked as if all those who were going to enter the crypt were here at last. They all talked amongst themselves and greeted each other warmly. I was in no mood to be warm and fuzzy right now. I still remembered why we were all here in the first place and it was no time to be cordial. I was only a few feet away from Nameless and the others, but the fog was thick and making it hard to see more then that far away. So, it was no surprise really when I felt the blunt axe strike my arm none to gently. I cried out in pain as the small goblin laughed wickedly in it’s annoying voice. I could hear more of them in the distance, but I didn’t wait to find out just how many there were.
“Goblins!” I yelled as I raced back to the others. My arm was bleeding a bit, but other than that I wasn’t badly injured. I heard the familiar hiss of steel sliding out of leather as weapons were drawn.
“About time something happened. I was getting bored,” Faigan said, rushing past me to cut down the little monster who had hit me. I found Nameless and Dr. Sawyer standing beside one another, both with a relaxed look on their face. I slowed my pace as I reached them, realizing I wasn’t in any danger, and pulled a bit of dust out of my bag. I began to channel a spell just in case…
“They are blinking!” came Zeyphite’s voice.
At once, Nameless, Dr. Sawyer, and myself stood back to back with our weapons and spells facing outwards. I grew my claws out, a technique only druids like myself could do, and prepared myself for the attack that was sure to come. And it did. There came a loud ‘pop’ and a goblin appeared out of nowhere right in front of me. I growled and slashed at the ugly little creature while Dr. Sawyer shot it with his crossbow. A second bolt entered the goblin’s heart and it fell to the ground dead. I hated goblins, but blinking goblins were the worst. They had the ability to disappear and reappear into this plain of existence at will. I heard the others fighting only a little ways off and it sounded like they were having fun. Adventurers; killing goblins and seeking treasure was our job and we loved every bit of it. The voices of the goblins sound fainter then before and I knew that soon there would be none left.
I sheathed my claws and pulled out some magic dust, channeling an elemental spell just in case a stray goblin came to attack me. I walked away from Nameless and the doctor to stand beneath a tree with my back resting against the trunk. I remained silent, knowing that the goblins would most likely pass me by and waited for something else to happen. I didn’t have to wait long.
“It’s good to see you again, Ember,” came a voice from within the fog.
I gasped and turned to see a dark figure walking towards me. A fire spell began to channel in my hand but the moment the tall human with an eye patch over his left eye walked out of the mist I stopped and smiled. “Ignatius.”
The ex-pirate, now member of the Circle, tried to return my smile as I walked forward to greet him but it seemed to falter. I felt my own smile fade as I remembered why we were here in the first place. I opened my mouth to say something, anything but nothing came out and I closed my mouth again. There was a moment of awkward silence between us as we each tried to figure our next words. It turns out Ignatius was able to find his voice faster than me.
“I am glad you and your friends were able to come. Halcyon said you would. We could really use your help.”
I didn’t seem to have a hard time talking when he brought up my mentor’s name. “How is Halcyon? Where is he now? Is he alright?”
Ignatius chuckled, “Easy there, Ember. As far as I know he is just fine. The other members of the Circle are inside the Crypt now, preparing it for the next generation.”
“I’m not going to let it happen,” I said quite suddenly.
This seemed to take him by surprise and he stared at me but before anything more could be said Xukkuth appeared from the fog behind the human. “Oh, Xukkuth, Ignatius is here,” I said, happy to be free from the stern wizard’s gaze.
Xukkuth smiled, his teeth shining brightly against his dark skin, and extended his hand out to Ignatius, “Ah, well met my friend. How have you been?”
The human’s attention was taken from me and I took this opportunity to get away while the two men talked amongst themselves. I walked back towards Nameless and Orthia who were talking about the hidden treasures within the Crypt and withdrew into myself. I told Ignatius that I would not let him or the others down and I was determined to keep that promise. I only had to figure out how. I didn’t mention my plans to Nameless as I was sure she would worry. The others didn’t seem to share the same feelings I had for the Circle and though I knew they would help them, were they willing to give their lives? I didn’t think so. Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t realize that Ignatius and Xukkuth had finished their talk and was now calling for our small band to follow him to the entrance of the Crypt.
“Ember, come on,” Nameless said.
I followed behind her as we all listened to the warnings Ignatius had for us. “My friends, I would like to thank you all for coming. Many of you know what lies inside the Crypt but I can see several new faces so please allow me to explain why you are here and what must be done. As I said on the public boards, we are dying. We have but a few days left to live.” He spoke these words so calmly that it made my heart sink into my feet. So than they had come to terms with their fate. Too bad I had yet to see the situation through their eyes. “We have to get the Crypt ready for the next generation of wizards and druids. From what we know there is something on the third level that is preventing us from accomplishing our task. This is why we need your help. The Crypt normally closes at eleven o’clock but we are going to use our powers to keep it open until you have destroyed whatever it is that is blocking our powers within the Crypt, as such we will be unable to help you with the fight that is sure to come.
“There are a few things you must be aware of,” he continued, his eyes naturally falling on the group of gypsies. “We ask that you do not disturb the graves located within. Even in death, the members of the Circle can be powerful and I cannot say what will happen to you should you even touch the grave stones. As most of you remember from your visit last year there are very powerful magic items located deep within the Crypt. If you find these items feel free to use as much of their powers as you want while you are inside but do not leave with them. Their power is dangerous to use outside of the Crypt and we do not want anyone to die because they are greedy. If you do find one of these magic items, please be sure to bring it to a member of the Circle before you leave.” Someone within the group snorted and Ignatius turned to glare with his one good eye at us.
“I give you this warning only once. Do not take the magic items out of the Crypt.” When he was sure his point was made clear the human turned on his heels and kept walking through the dense fog towards our destination. “Any other items you find within you can keep as you see fit. There are many powerful flowers that contain some of the magic that we use. If you find any of these, use them as they will aid you.”
“Oh yes, I remember those! If anyone sees a large purple flower that sparkles like a Fey getting a suntan give it to me,” Faigan called from the back of the group.
On we walked, deeper into the mysterious forests of Il’lithoria, until at long last we came to a large cave. It looked like it had risen from the ground as the fresh mud and vines that clung to the rocky surface seemed out of place. This was it! The Crypt of the Elevens. There was a buzz of excitement in the air as our group began to talk with one another about the treasures they were sure to find within. Nameless looked at me with hopeful eyes and a soft smile on her face, “Do you think Broheme will be in there?”
“I know he is. We’ll just have to find him. I’m sure he’s missed you,” I replied, putting a hand on her shoulder.
The Witness, or Broheme as we called him, was a little doll that had travelled with us during the Drake Wars of Lairroth. He was one of the most powerful magic items I have even had the pleasure of knowing and while I didn’t like him at first, eventually I came around and began to trust the little guy. He had gotten us out of many sticky situations before and our group owed him a lot. But with the end of the Drake Wars came the end of our time with Broheme. From the Crypt he came and to the Crypt he had to return and our visit last year was the last we had seen of him. Nameless had been the Lorekeeper, the one who was entrusted with the care of the doll and she had been so proud of that title. I knew she missed the little guy more than anyone and it would be good to see him again.
“Alright, everyone, the time has come. Follow me,” Ignatius called from the head of our band. We followed behind him silently and as my foot crossed the threshold of the cave I could feel a wave of magic wash over me, much of it druidic in nature. It brought me comfort, though I was sure I was the only one. As the only druid in the group it was safe to say I was the only one who even noticed. The entrance tunnel lead us down into the very bowls of the earth itself and the walls were lite with torches that hummed with slight everlasting magic.
“Ignatius, you said we were going to the third level, right. How long will it take us to get there?” Xukkuth asked.
“Not long. At the end of this tunnel actually. We have told the Crypt where we want you to go. It will take us there in no time.”
“What a strange place this is. What do you think of it, Vlad?” Yuri asked his younger companion.
“I can’t say that I have even been in a place like this before, and we haven’t even seen what’s inside yet! The air is just brimming with magic.”
So then I wasn’t the only one who noticed the current of magical energy flowing all around us. The rest of the trip down the long hallway was silent but the hum of our excitement was still there and after a few minutes we reached the base of the tunnel to a wide opening. The next room we walked into was huge! I could barely see the other end of the room as the light from the torches along the wall kept much of the room hidden in shadow and the dome shaped ceiling was lost from sight. There were six large, stone slabs located in seemingly random locations throughout the room each of which with different carvings etched in careful detail. Looking at the closest one, I could see that the beautiful shapes and figures had a slight glimmer and I knew at once that these stones were not made by the hands of man.
“This is where I’ll be leaving you. Some of the other members of the Circle are further inside. I will be going back outside to help Lord Bear, Kyra, and Ambrose keep the Crypt open. But before I depart I must mention one final thing. You will come across many doors that will have a barrier preventing you from moving forward or from gaining access to treasure and magic items. To open these doors you will need a number of small, crystal keys. Where you can find these keys, I can’t really say, but keep an eye out for them. You’ll know them when you see them.” Ignatius said as he stood at the tunnel entrance, his one good eye looked at each person before landing on me. “And now I must go. I will see you again soon. Good luck, friends,” Than he turned on his heels and disappeared from sight leaving the small group of adventures alone in the huge, dome shaped cave.
“Well, let’s see what we have here,” Dr. Sawyer said as he and Nameless walked towards one of the stone pillars.
“Sonya, come take a look at this one,” Yuri called from one of the pictures. “It looks just like your mom.”
The shield-maiden let out a growl and marched over to her companion to give him a nasty swat on the head while the others laughed at the joke. I couldn’t help but smile as I walked away from the others with Torgon not too far behind me to get a better view of the room. Each pillar had a small torch on it so the beautiful pictures could be seen and it looked like the same carving was on both sides of the slab. They were identical copies and I was certain they were made by powerful ritual magic. As I walked past I noticed that each slab had a different picture on its surface. The one to my right had a village on fire, another had a deep canyon. Suddenly, there was an odd, yet familiar, pull of nature magic that seemed to call to me and before I knew it my feet had dragged me to one of the pillars.
“Ember, what is it? What’s wrong?” Torgon asked.
“Hmm? Oh sorry, it’s okay. I just feel like this stone is…calling me.”
We stood below a carving of a beautiful, lush forest with a stream running down the right side. A pack of wolves ran through the trees with their tongues lolling and fur waving in the wind. The detail of the picture was simply amazing and I as I stared at it I couldn’t help but feel I was standing with those wolves in the forest. A sense of peace and calm washed over me and I felt all of my worries fade away. I heard Torgon chuckle behind me and mention something about hugging a tree, but I ignored him and simply smiled. As a druid things like this always seemed to happen to me and many of my friends had gotten used to it. Torgon walked away from the stone of wolves to one close by with a picture of a tidal wave crashing on an ocean shore and I moved away from the nature slab to stand by Xukkuth and Orthia.
“Oh no,” I heard the Xeleque say as I approached.
“What’s up?” Orthia said.
“That,” he said simply, pointing one of his swords towards the darker end of the chamber. It seemed that Xukkuth’s warning had drawn the attention of one or two others and they gathered around us. I made it a point to stand behind Zeyphite and Torgon as they carried shields I could easily hide behind. Both were front line fighters and I was a healer and an elemental caster, it was best to let them do most of the fighting.
“Xukkuth, what is -” Vale started to say but was cut off when Faigan shushed him. In the darkness the sound of heavy footsteps echoed as something large slowly started making its way towards us. Finally, the creature emerged from the shadows and I felt my heart sink.
“It’s the golem!” Xukkuth hollered.
The gigantic, humanoid creature lumbered towards us before pausing for a moment to echo Xukkuth’s yell with a deafening shout of its own. It stood about eight feet tall and had a body made of stone and granite. Its eyes glowed with the same hateful, red gleam as they had last year when we entered the Crypt. The golem was the guardian to the entrance of the Crypt and always challenged those who came within to test their skills. It seemed like this year would be no different. I gazed around the room to make a note of where everyone was. As a healer I needed to be certain that I was within close range to the fighters so I could quickly get them up and back into the fight should they fall. Xukkuth and Faigan stood side by side with their weapons drawn while Torgon, Vale and Zeyphite stood in front of me with their swords and shields raised. Orthia, Dr. Sawyer, and Nameless were back by the group of gypsies with arrow and spells ready. It seemed that everyone was ready as the first of many battles began. Orthia locked the golem in her sights and fired.
The arrow flew past my head and bounced off the golem’s rock hard flesh. It must have taken some damage because the once slow beast let out another thundering roar and charged towards us with its iron fists held high. Wisely, I took a few steps back as the golem crashed into Torgon and Zeyphite’s shields. The force of the blow caused the two Elentari to slide across the floor a few inches but they held fast and stood their ground.
“Watch out for its charge,” Xukkuth cried as he rushed forward.
“No, you think,” came Faigan’s sarcastic reply.
The fighters circled the huge being and began to strike at it while dodging its punches. I watched as Vlad, one of the gypsies, take a nasty blow to the shoulder that sent him sprawling to the ground. But before I could get to him he jumped up and threw a spell at the creature that seemed to suck the light from the room a bit. It hit the golem and it cried out in pain as the full force of the spell sucked a small amount of life from it. It didn’t seem like many people notice the attack but I did. Necromancy! I was sure to make a mental note of this to tell Xukkuth later. But for now I focused on the golem. Swords flashed this way and that as they chipped tiny bits of the golem’s flesh but it just wasn’t enough. I tried some of my own elemental spells, small bolts of lightning or shards of ice, but it hardly had an effect as the golem kept attacking.
Suddenly, Yuri landed a powerful strike and the golem let out yet another roar as it targeted the gypsy and charged, bowling any over who stood in its way. The quick footed human took off as fast as his legs would carry him as Sonya called after him. Seeking shelter behind on of the carved stone slabs, Yuri slid to safety just as the golem went to attack. And that is when things got a bit strange. The golem collided with the pillar and was sucked into the picture. An image of the golem appeared on the stone pillar with the picture of the village on fire. I looked at it, just as confused as the others were and walked carefully towards it.
“Yuri!” Sonya called. She rushed forward just as Yuri poked his head out from the other side.
“What just happened?” he asked.
It seemed no one could answer. We used this moment to catch our breath and heal those who were wounded. I noticed that Vale had a black eye and a broken jaw and I quickly rushed to his side and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I summon Nature to Healer’s Touch,” I whispered the incant and closed my eyes to focus the white light up to the wound. It took about thirty seconds for the jaw to fix itself and the bruised eye to clear up and with a nod of thanks Vale was back to fighting strength. Just in time too.
“Look,” Nameless said, “something is happening to it.”
Every eye returned to the picture as we witnessed something that could change this fight in our favor. The fire that had been engulfing the houses moved like little fire sprits. They jumped and danced around the picture and seemed to be attacking the golem as their bright, flaming bodies bounced of its rock hard skin. It tried to bat them off but it was a feeble attempt as it was just too slow and with a loud crack the creature’s flesh broke away just a bit. For some reason the little fire sprites were doing more damage to the golem inside the picture than our blades and spells had been doing out here. Of course, no one was complaining but it was still an odd sight to see. Weakened, the golem fell to one knee and it was apparent that the flames were growing bored with their new punching bag. It was time to move to large prey and that is when yet another unexpected event took place. With a bounding leap the flames launched themselves from the stone carving and landed in the cavern, their light illuminating the area in an orange glow.
“Oh, goodie,” I heard Faigan say as the fire sprite charged at us.
“Faigan, your swords,” I called. He placed his weapons in front of me and I gathered a bit of spell dust and enchanted the blades with an ice spell. When I had finished they were coated in a thick sheet of ice that would be sure to inflict more damage to the fires. With a wink Faigan leaped back into the fray as his sword joined the many that were already flying. I took my place behind Sonya and Torgon and did my best to heal what minor wounds the two shield fighters were taking while I threw smaller water spells at the flames. No one noticed the stray sprite that had managed to sneak its way behind us and in the confusion it let forth an unrelenting fire spell that landed square on my back. I was glad my Arcane Armor took most of the damaged but it didn’t stop the fire from burning my flesh and I couldn’t hold back the small cry of pain that escaped my lips. Torgon turned and landed a fatal blow to the sprite and in a burst of embers it faded away.
There wasn’t any time for thanks. Just as the last flame was extinguished the stone slab that trapped the golem began to shimmer. Then with a flash it burst from the village and assaulted us once again. However it was apparent that its movements and attacks were even slower than before but that only meant that it would take less smacks from our useless weapons to send it into a rage. In the heat of the moment I could easily forget the pain from the burn on my back and forgot to heal myself. I walked forward with the others to circle the golem. But it seemed like no matter how hard they struck, the fighter’s weapons just weren’t doing enough damage.
“Draw it towards the pillars. That’s the only way to beat it!” Dr. Sawyer called.
It was clear that everyone understood how to beat the golem now and with that knowledge the fight continued. One of the fighters would attack the beast, it would give chase, and then eventually it would crash into a picture. Just like before, the stones would come to life and send the inhabitants to attack the intruder only for them to burst from the slab to attack us. Water sprites came from the ocean carving and earth ones from the canyon. Each time the golem came back from the world of the pictures it was that much weaker and that much angrier. The battle was taking all of our energy and after about fifteen minutes or so I could see everyone growing fatigued. We couldn’t keep this up much longer before someone was going to pass through the Circle of Life.
“Ember, look out!” Xukkuth cried.
I wasn’t paying attention to the fight when I let my last fire spell fly. It must have hit the creature because its red eyes had focused on me and it crashed its way to me. I panicked and ran towards the closest stone slab but I wasn’t fast enough. With a mighty blow the golem hit me hard enough on the back of the head to send be sliding a few feet past the pillar. I remembered seeing it sucked into the carving before the pain from my skull caused my vision to blur than fade to black. Of course, before I had time to even fall into blissful unconsciousness the pain suddenly disappeared and my eyes snapped open to see Nameless sitting over me with a healing spell channeling in her hand.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Yep, I’m fine,” I replied as I stood up. We walked back to the picture and I noticed for the first time which one it had been. The forest with a pack of wolves. I chuckled at the irony of it and stood by Xukkuth.
“Need any healing?” I asked.
“A bit if you can spare it.”
I nodded and placed my hand on his shoulder to perform the Healer’s Touch spell. While I waited for the healing to charge I gazed up at the picture and noticed the natural magic I had felt before was gone. The giant was down on one knee and try as he might he could not stop the ruthless attacks coming from the wolves. For the first time, I could make out the snarls and howls of the animals within the carving though I doubted anyone else could. They barred their fangs and launched themselves one after the other at the golem until it fell to the ground as yet another crack formed on the already heavily cracked body. But it didn’t seem to be finished. Not yet.
Just like the other pictures, the wolves bound free from their stone prison and landed in front of us. Now I knew everyone could hear their growls as they creped slowly closer, sizing us up. I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat as I realized I was going to have to fight the foolish beasts. As an Earthwalker and a druid, I was my sworn duty to protect nature and all her children. But as I had learned from Halcyon, there were times when I had no choice but to kill those that would seek to do harm to the ones I love.
“Form up!” Faigan called.
As his voice echoed through the cavern the wolves barked and darted forward. I grew my claws out and prepared for the attack but it never came. Two of the wolves dodged around me at the last minute, avoiding me completely. For a moment, I stood confused as the viscous animals attacked my friends. I hated it, but I had no choice! A single tear fell down my cheek as I rushed to help. My claws ripped through wolf flesh and my spells singed their fur. The small pack stood little chance against us and soon they were defeated. As if on cue, the golem made his last stand and burst from the picture in a bright flash. The battle was finally won as Vale gave the final blow with this sword and like a landslide the golem crumbled and fell to the ground with a mighty groan.
I let a sigh free as I sunk to the floor panting heavily. I hadn’t realized that I had been running all over the place trying to keep out of the golem’s path. As the adrenaline began to fade, the pain in my back reminded me that I had been injured and I was sure others had too. I quickly healed my own wound before standing up and calling out. “Who needs healing?”
“I do,” Zeyphite announced.
I noticed he had a nasty gash on his forehead and leg so rather than wait for my Healer’s Touch to slowly mend the wounds I simply summoned a strong Mystic spell and watched as the cuts quickly healed themselves. He thanked me and moved away to allow someone else to be healed.
“Someone search that thing,” Dr. Sawyer said while he worked on fixing Sonya.
“Already on it,” Orthia said. She moved the rubble around until a small glimmer caught her eye. “It had a key.” She held up a long, crystal gem that seemed to sparkle in the firelight of the cavern.
“Good to hear. Remember only one key to one person. You hold on to it for now Orthia until we find a door it belongs to,” Xukkuth said.
“I think I saw a door on the eastern wall. I noticed it while we were running for our lives from that thing,” Sonya said. “Maybe this key will fit that door.”
“I already saw the tunnel leading deeper into the Crypt on the other side of the cavern. It didn’t look like it had a barrier so it’s safe to say we won’t need a key to move forward,” said Dr. Sawyer.
“Well then, why not take a look at this door while we take a bit of a rest. Lead the way, Sonya,” said Orthia.
Excitedly, the band of gypsies along with a few others rushed towards a door that had been hidden in shadows on the eastern wall. I also made my way towards it and noticed that not only was there a barrier on the door, but what looked like a riddle carved in the stone beside it. I put my hands up and moved away from the group who had gathered at the door. I was no good at riddles and there was no point in me staying there. Instead, I made my way back to the stone pillar that had once housed the pack of wolves but now stood as an empty forest. Why was there such a strong sense of natural energy coming from this pillar? It was comforting to me and I sat down beside it as I gave myself a short rest while the others worked on the door.
“Ember,” came a small whisper.
My head snapped up in surprise. No one was around me though I knew that voice did not come from the group. No, this voice had come from the very earth itself. I felt my heart beat faster as I stood up, hoping that I was not imagining things out of desperation. Once again, the pull of natural energy pulsed from the slab behind me and I noticed that the image had changed. The forest was healthier and much more alive than it had been before and a wave of peace washed over me as I continue to gaze at it.
“Ember,” the voice said again.
This time it was stronger and louder than a whisper and I knew at once who it belonged to. I placed my hand on the stone and at once felt a rush of nature magic. It was so strong I gasped in shock but kept my hand where it was. The wind blew the trees and the grass and leaves began to swirl around and soon a humanoid figure made of leaves and bramble stood in the center of the picture. I smiled and bowed my head in respect to the Wilderkin, a powerful nature spirit and a dear friend.
“Child, I have heard your call and have come to help and guide you,” the Wilderkin said in a gentle voice.
I felt a huge wave of relief wash over me. A few days before coming to the Crypt I had called to the Wilderkin for aid after receiving Halcyon’s letter. Having gotten no reply, I began to feel all was lost and I could not save my friends. Yet here he was, staring at me with caring eyes.
“Thank you,” I said, choking up as tears welled up in my eyes.
“What’s going on over here?” said a voice.
I turned to see Torgon, Sonya, and Yuri standing behind me. I had no idea how long they had been there, but I blushed with embarrassment anyways. I could see that the two humans were staring at the pillar in confusion whereas Torgon knew what was going on.
“Ember…” he said, the careful warning in his tone. Over the past year, I had begun to see the Elentari warrior as a close friend. Little did I know that I had become like a little sister to him.
“What is that thing, Ember?” Sonya said, pointing her sword at the carving of the Wilderkin.
Unconsciously, I stood in front of her sword as if to protect the nature spirit. “It is the Wilderkin. I would ask that you please show a bit of respect. What happened with the riddle?”
Sonya gave me a small glare but sheathed her weapon and shrugged, “We solved it and opened the door. There was some treasure inside, but that was about it.”
“Ember,” the Wilderkin began and I returned my attention back to the image while Torgon took a step closer to me. “What you have to understand about what you are asking is that much will be asked of you and a difficult choice will have to be made. There is also the chance that you might fail, even if you do all that is required. Are you prepared for that?”
My blood ran cold at the mention of failure. I was all too familiar with the bitter pain of failure, something the Wilderkin knew only too well. But this time would be different! I would not fail, not when the lives of those I held dear were at stake. I looked up with a new sense of determination and nodded. I saw the Wilderkin smile, reach a hand out towards mine, and pull me into the picture.