The silence is overwhelming.
It seems to press in from every side, inescapably pressing in, coming closer and closer and closer and closer.
This cavern, once so full of the sound of stifled breathing now lies abandoned, empty, cold and dark, except for me.
Except for me?
Well, that's the question isn't it?
Am I alone?
If I am I wonder if there is any point in me writing any more, any point me not just ending it all right here right now.
I will not. I cannot. I refuse to let my thoughts go back to that dark, dark place. For if there is no-one else out there, then I have no hope and all is lost. But if there is one, just one other person who may stumble upon this journal. If I am not the last to read this; then my labour of the last I-don't-know-how-many-days will all have been worth it and I can die … happy?
Not after all that I have done, all that I have failed to do, all that still needs doing.
But maybe, just maybe, if you are reading this (and you are not me) then perhaps I can be redeemed, even if in no significant way.
My redemption though, is not the key point here. In all truth, I now realise that it matters not at all. So I won't dwell on it.
The person who matters most now, is you.
For if someone isn't told, if someone isn't informed, equipped and armed with this knowledge, then there is little hope for what remains of our civilisation.
Where to start then?
Certainly not the beginning. I am not sure if I can face what that would entail nor if I know truly where all of this began. I will have to leave the beginning to you and maybe as you puzzle through these documents you will be able to make a better sense of it all than I have.
You see, we have (had I should say) no record of when The Darkness started to creep back across our land, because no-one, save a very small number believed it was coming. The light of civilisation had burnt bright in the three kingdoms for nigh on three centuries and few could conceive that it was even possible for it to be extinguished. This is not to say there wasn't tension between the three.
In fact the further The Darkness encroached the greater the tensions grew. The problem was, that no-one acknowledged those tensions as even existing.
The great Nordic kingdom of Lyctus had been overtly hostile for many generations while, the desert Kingdom of Diotima had been striving, in their great wisdom, to make peace with them for just as long. But it was in the lands of Kalindoia that the true power lay, found in wealth and riches; earned from playing Lyctus and Diotima off against each other and by supplying them with the means to do so. At a price.
However, all of this striving for power among the kingdoms had, as long as anyone could remember been little more than a game between their elites and nothing more. So when it began to escalate, to get out of control, to become something altogether more serious, few realised or sought to find the danger. A danger that was destroying the kingdoms from within, as well as threatening them from without.
In truth, it took someone who was far outside of the kingdoms to notice the problems brewing, the dark things stirring beneath the tranquil waters of that age, this age, my age.
And even then, she was too late.
Even as a diplomat with great power and influence in Proixis, there was never much Ami could have done against the power that came from the Land of Knil.
And ultimately, as you well know if you are still living, she failed. The old order has passed away, and outside of this cavern, chaos now reigns.
I get ahead of myself.
If you read on you should discover all of this and more in your own time. It is no longer my role to set down in stone the events of the past for all and sundry. I forfeited the right to do that when I … when I … when I … when I …
I apologise. I began to think on that subject again and the old shadows started to fill my mind once more. I should start this document again, but I have neither the resources nor the time to do so.
My role, (for that is what I was attempting to lay out for you) is one of an archiver, not a historian. I do not hope to analyse or shape the following documents for you, only to present them so that you may understand all that transpired. To this end I have arranged them in semi-chronological order, but beyond that they have not been tampered with.
Please, I BEG of you, read them, study them and come to your own conclusions from them. For while the conclusions of our age proved useless, maybe yours, coupled with hindsight, may do some good. And perhaps, just perhaps, armed with this knowledge you will be better prepared for the next onslaught of The Darkness. And it is coming, but in knowing its nature you will be better equipped to fight it than we ever were.
Behind me, very faintly for now, I can hear the sound of, something.
The silence has been broken.
They are coming for me now.
It is coming for me now.
From every crack and quarter the sound of creatures approaching is building and I know now that my time is short.
That I will not survive this next encounter seems obvious to me, but oddly enough, I am fine with this.
After all, my work is now complete and I have nothing left to hold on for.
Let the enemy come!
Let the insanity overwhelm me once more!
After all, within this document lies a hope. A hope for the future. A hope that while we have lost everything, you may yet survive.
I have not been redeemed. But you may yet be.
Here ends the journal of Rhoek. First Archiver, Chief Archaeologist to the nobles of Diotima and betrayer of all.
My silken green ambassador's robe was itchy, per usual.
It had always been unbearably itchy, as all silk clothes were to me, but I could not tear it off until I was completely finished with this meeting.
My fellow ambassadors were sitting across from me, arguing about some missing goods that each thought the other had stolen. Hamelec wore a bright blue cloak and Markus wore red. Each colour signified the ambassador's kingdom and more importantly, temper. Markus was from Lyctus and so would get very red in the face when he did not get his way. Hamelec was from Kalindoia and was very quiet, except when Markus angered him. I, Ami, was from the grand kingdom of Diotima.
Since Proixis was the only city that usually didn't choose sides in war it was the only place that Lyctus, Kalindoia and Diotima had finally agreed on sending their ambassadors. Lyctus could be blamed for this - it had a reputation for violence, preying on the weaker villages and cities around it and treating its subjects with disdain and harshness. Kalindoia, on the other hand, had an equally potent reputation for fuelling Lyctus's conquests and wars with armour and weapons. I had decided to become the ambassador for Diotima before I had realized what a tedious and idiotic job it was. I had wanted to change the Kingdoms to make them more peaceful, but instead I learned that all ambassadors do is accuse the other kingdoms of treachery.
When the meeting was finally over, I respectfully waited until Markus and Hamelec exited the magnificent Relations Room and then followed them out. Proixis was truly magnificent. There were huge colossal buildings everywhere, made out of the finest marble. The towering columns that held the massive roofs of the palace up had remarkable renditions of the three legendary heroes; Kalin, Diot and Ly, engraved on their surfaces.
I had heard that the three founders of The Three Kingdoms had once been great friends and companions, but all friendly ties between the kingdoms that they had jointly founded had, by now, all but disappeared.
I left Markus and Hamelec and strolled sedately away from them down the long hallways that made up the palace. However, as soon as I had gotten out of sight of my fellow ambassadors, I sprinted down a passage off to the right of the main one and eventually into my private quarters.
I wanted to get this stupid robe off.
As I stripped down I glanced into the mirror that hung on the wall. There was a long scar that ran from midway up my side all the way down to below my hips. That was from my adventuring days. A creeper … it …
I pushed away the memories and dressed in some more comfortable clothes, exited my room; not wanting to remember that day.
I decided to amble round Proixis and my first stop was to get a newspaper from a local vendor.
As I unfolded and opened the paper, a small article on the side caught my eye. It read like this:
Archaeological Team Missing
A team of archaeologists went missing on Sunday two days after setting out to find the ancient ruins of one of The Heroes' houses. The last time the team was heard from was on Sunday morning when they reported to their co-workers in Diotima that they had found something important. Authorities have rallied a search party and promised to commission a search for them by 10:00 today.
A missing team of archaeologists? That was odd, I thought. They
probably just got off track with their explorations. Needless to
say, the authorities would find them, sure enough. Still …
I decided to take a stroll around the nearby Sanctuary of Diot to clear my head of all of the baggage that was weighing it down. Little did any commoner know, but The Three Kingdoms were probably on the brink of a catastrophic war and I was one of the three people in charge of making sure that didn't happen. Also, there was this disappearance to think about and many memories that were haunting me with their horror and vividness.
I stopped in mid-pace and looked into the crystal clear waters of the Diot fountain in the middle of the garden. If I didn't serve my kingdom well, I would probably be put in the history books as some kind of fiend.
With these matters still jostling for my attention, I quickly walked away from the fountain and continued my stroll. The matter of the disappearance of the archaeologists was quite interesting to me (solving it could improve my public standing) and because the Diotima Science Academy always took great care to keep track of their own that were in the field I knew just the person to go and get answers from.
Rhenus was the military advisor to Falthazar, King of Diotima. If anyone did knew where the archaeologists were, he did, or at least if they had found any clues that the newspaper didn't have. Even though the military and the ambassadors didn't usually get along, Rhenus would have to tell me the information one way or another. I was our king's most trusted advisor.
As I entered the city's barracks, I received menacing glares from every angle getting the general impression that I was not welcome there. No one could do anything to me, of course, but the feeling was very disconcerting. When I found him in his office I tapped Rhenus on the shoulder. He turned around with a sigh and glare of his own.
"What do you want?"
"Information. About the missing archaeologists." I answered with a smile.
Rhenus sighed again. "I knew you would ask me about that. You always try to get involved in matters that are simply not your business. Look. We're doing everything we can for them and you sticking your nose into this isn't going to help."
"That's not what I asked. I want information." I repeated. "Where do you think they are and why did they go missing?"
Rhenus leaned against his desk and said simply, "We don't know. I don't know. Nobody knows."
"Ah." I said. "Find out."
And with that, exasperated, I walked out of his stupid barracks.
His incompetence revolted me.
There are days when you hate your job, others when you just hate
your life. Today, I felt both.
So, there has been all this hubbub about missing archaeologists around these parts and sure enough, all the crazy reporters come out to ask just about every question they can pull out of the sky and package it as 'ground breaking' journalism. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know every little detail and make believe that they were changing the world. People go missing. Stuff happens. There's no use in being up in arms just because a few people go missing. Maybe I'm just cynical though.
Worse, ever since these archaeologists vanished rumours have been passed around about an alleged 'super weapon' and a number of people in this city have been on edge. Our nation has never been the most likeable place and any crazy talk about a weapon won't fix that. If people start throwing in the idea of some sort of conspiracy then this is going to turn into one big melting pot of chaos.
I'm sure this is nothing more than a coincidence. Then again, being as old and pissed off as I am on a daily basis, I generally see people panicking and put it down to them over reacting. I guess that's what happens when you've been Lyctus' Chief of Security for … more years than I care to remember. I'm too old for all this drama. "Triad, we have some people causing trouble in the lobby", "Triad, someone keeps shouting anti-government slogans through a megaphone", "Triad, someone knocked my coffee out of my hand." "Could you deal with it?" "Could you deal with this guy?" "I don't want to see this person here again, understood?"
Sure … sure. I'll just stop doing everything else like taking a leak or having my lunch and come and deal with your problems for you, while you prance back up to your office in the clouds. Hey, I know, why don't I bake you a cake and release some butterflies into your precious sanctuary for you? Some of these people don't know they're born.
You know, it doesn't even matter that I damn near snapped my spine in that riot three summers ago. Or dislocated my knee last week trying to stop someone from rushing the ambassador. Did I fall down, even with a dislocated knee? Hell no, I punched that sonuvagun in the chest and threw him out. Would Mr. Ambassador have done the same? Well, considering that he'd probably cry about a strong gust of wind blowing grit into his eyes, I'm going to say no to that.
Today was one of those days where the next person to get in my way was going to have my size 15 boot up their ass.
So, I'm on my rounds, checking the doors and locks; because who else would? I stumble upon this guy, really ugly looking creature. Looked to be about 150 lbs soaking wet while wearing a suit of armour … if that. Anyway, he had his beady eyes glaring through the window around back and he looked a little startled to see a 6 foot 8 wall walk by in front of him. He pulled himself together and began to walk off. I opened the door and shouted after him, but all I got was a reply in a foreign language. Probably lost on his way to the nearest burger restaurant. I closed the door and went back to my rounds.
Fifteen minutes later I noticed him walking through the front door of the embassy. I eye-balled him from afar to see what he was up to. He was walking with a purpose. Much more weighty than when I first saw him. By the way he walked, I knew he wasn't just some foreign tourist. It was unmistakable. His wide gait suggested he was some kind of military trained guy. Maybe some sort of authority figure.
Hey, what can I say? What I lack in people skills I make up for in observation.
So, I make a beeline for him. He notices me and suddenly becomes the shy, smiley tourist again. I'm not falling for that one twice.
I approach him and ask him what his intentions are here. He starts to babble in some dead language, but sounds about as convincing as I would in that situation. To clarify, I'm not all that great with English, never mind any other language. I saw right through him. This guy was here trying to pretend he was someone he was not. I have no idea why, but I could just sense it. The years of experience on this job and dealing with a variety of suspicious characters really set my alarm bells ringing. I stopped his drivel and cut to the chase.
"Sir, who are you and what do you want here?"
He stuttered and tried to go back to his diatribe. I wouldn't let that happen.
"Sir, I'm not going to ask you again. You're giving me reason to believe that you're here to cause trouble. What are your intentions here."
I made sure he saw me put my hand on my gun and he blurted out, clear as day.
"I was wondering if you could point me towards an official who could give me some information."
I raised an eyebrow to him and his clear grasp of the English language. I chuckled to myself for a second. What the hell is with this guy? He attracts attention by trying his hardest not to. He looked like he was some sort of errand boy. Basic training. Someone sent him for some specific information.
"What information would that be?"
He rooted into his pocket for a shred of newspaper. The headline was something about the missing archaeologists. I noticed a bracelet slide down his arm a little. Traditional. Leather braided, with a distinctive gem on it. I remember seeing one like it on my daughter's wrist when she came back from Diotima. My eyes snapped back to him coldly. What wasn't he telling me? Why was he being so secretive?
"We don't know. We don't have any information, certainly none that we can divulge at this moment in time." At this point, that statement was like breathing to me. Just rolled off the tongue and into the ears of 'Johnny Reporter' standing in front of me. He looked at me, searchingly. I looked back with a stony expression. He looked at the floor, while his hand reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of money.
"I was sent by someone who is very interested in what happened. He's willing to pay handsomely for any information."
"You're going to leave, sir. I'm afraid whoever sent you is going to be disappointed."
I turn to lead him out, as he sighs. I pass many people looking at us, worried. I shake my head at them and they seem to go back to their own business. This whole story about missing archaeologists has people paranoid and things just seem to get tense with little or no warning. I don't know why they can't just see that this is just like any other day. Hell, I've had hundreds of them like this. I have no reason to suspect that this one will become anything more.
While the previous chapters have been extracts from the
journals of Ami and Triad respectively, what follows is the
transcript of an interview, the recording of which I discovered
in the remains of Lyctus National Security Centre. Unfortunately,
the record disc was damaged in places and whilst I have attempted
to restore it and guess in part at the conversation that played
out, much was lost; I never being particularly skilled in regards
to technology. --R--
Lyctus Chief of Security (LCS): I am required by law to inform you that the following interview will be recorded for use by the prosecution IF your case comes to court. However, the likelihood of that occurring is slim because IF I feel there is enough evidence to commit you to either a status of 'guilt' or 'non-guilt' I, Triad, am authorised by the sovereign state of Lyctus, as its Chief of Security, to act as both judge and jury, in which case this recording will be retained as justification for my actions.
Do you, the suspect, understand these terms …
Suspect (S): No comment.
LCS: … because if you do not understand you are either an idiot or a lunatic, both of whom qualify for rather long periods of imprisonment here in Lyctus. Now, sir, do you understand?
LCS: Good. For the benefit of the recording, the time is fifteen-hundred-hours of the date April 22nd in the year 317PH. The interview proper begins now.
S: (Interrupting) I will not stand for this, I demand my immediate release.
LCS: Of course you do. Now let me paint you a little picture of just why you can't be released from here just yet. Yesterday, at eleven-hundred-hours, as I was double checking the security measures for the Lyctus embassy in Proixis, I glimpsed you loitering outside a window on the ground level of the north facing side of the embassy …
S: I demand that …
LCS: (Cutting them off) You will get your chance to speak soon enough. I then encountered you entering the lobby of said embassy where, after attempting to deceive me through pretending to speak a foreign and from what my colleagues have told me, dead language, you offered me a bribe to provide you with classified information.
S: I am a …
LCS: (Cutting in again) I don't care if you're the Queen of Sheeba's pet cat, you will get your chance to speak later, not now. After the offer of a bribe I felt obliged to escort you off the premises BUT as soon as I turned my back you flung yourself back towards the embassy doors. Further, even when you failed to get even half way across the lobby floor due to the actions of myself and my sprightly young colleagues you insisted on resisting arrest and (there is a rustling of paper as he presumably looks down and adjusts his notes) nutted two of the attending junior officers and landed a punch on myself. The real question though, is why. Why would you go through all this trouble?
S: (Disdain clearly emanating in their voice) You paint a poor picture, I think you'll find that I also broke your nose. What? Too embarrassed to admit it on the tape?
LCS: Why? Why, why, why? Why, why, why, why, why? Very clever. Very biting. Oh my. I am so scared of the big bad journalist sitting in front of me.
S: (There is a stifled laugh of indignation that seems to have come from the suspect)
LCS: I thought so. You're one of them. You know why I think you attempted to break into our embassy? Hmn? It's because of those damned missing archaeologists. You thought you'd swan over to Proixis from Diotima, I see from that surprised look on your face that you'd thought I hadn't guessed by now where you're from, but your bracelet gave you away. Furthermore, once you arrived there what did you want to do? A bit of investigative journalism? Pah! You're all the same. Worse, I bet you're one of the really nutty ones who believe that Lyctus is testing some kind of super weapon on isolated pockets of people and that's why all the disappearances have been happening recently. Well let me tell you something, hotshot, WE DON'T BLOODY KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON EITHER! We are more scared than anyone else in fact because, we are the ones WHO ARE SUPPOSED TO KNOW. And guess who is going to lose their job if they don't find out soon and so had to trek all the way over that worthless backwater Proixis to try and find out some information, only to get sent all the way back here to interview the first potential threat to security our embassy has had in years?
GO ON GUESS!
So. You arrive in Proixis. You swap your clothes for a set of the cheapest leather armour you can find. You pad yourself out to look considerably larger and more threatening than you actually are, and then you head over to the nearest official looking building you can see. Well I have new for you, sunshine, this isn't ground breaking journalism you're trying to pull, it is loitering with intent, breaking and entering, impeding an official of Lyctus in the execution of his duties and ASSULT AND BATTERY. And as you can probably guess, I'm not, shall we say, favourably inclined, towards you and the rest of your kind at this moment in time, so I would encourage you to think very carefully about what comes out of your mouth next. I would LOVE to have reason to find you a nice comfy cell to occupy for the next hundred years, do not give me an excuse to locate one.
S: (In a rather condescending tone of voice) Are. You. Going. To. Let. Me. Speak?
LCS: Why you, I … (inaudible spluttering follows)
S: Be. Quiet.
S: My name is Ami. As you should know I am the ambassador for Diotima. I was under the impression that I had diplomatic immunity and the right to enter any embassy of The Three Kingdoms, no matter what my clothing. And for your records, underneath this armour, I am a woman, not a man.
LCS: (Clearing throat) Right then. I believe this interview is over. You are obviously lying to me and so impersonating an official will have to be added to your list of crimes against myself and the state. I shall now escort you to your cell where you will spend the night.
S: But … I …
LCS: This interview, is over.
The remains of the record from here on in are in a much greater state of disrepair. While up until now I have been able to fill in the gaps, after this point the record shows signs of tampering. However those parts which were salvageable have been recorded below. They are, however, mostly guesswork and assumptions. --R--
LCS: They've all gone now, it's safe to talk.
LCS: My colleagues who were listening in.
S: Oh, thank you. So … you believe me?
S: But, then why would you ..?
LCS: Release you? I haven't. I'm still here aren't I? And you are still handcuffed.
S: I suppose so. Why though, why not just lock me up?
LCS: Because. Because I believe you are involved in the recent disappearances. Because you seem to know how to look after yourself. Because I want to get away from all the pansy faced officials breathing down my neck here at headquarters. And, because I believe I can use you to further my own ends.
S: Further your own ends? YOU SICK …
S: … seeing as you put it like that I guess I have no choice. But only because I think I can use you too. I am who I claim to be whether you believe me or not.
LCS: I wouldn't have it any other way.
S: Where do we start?
LCS: I was thinking about the site where those archaeologists vanished.
S: One of The Three Heroes' houses?
LCS: The relic just beyond the Forsaken Lands.
S: Your superiors won't allow this, especially if there is a conspiracy of some kind,
LCS: Conspiracy, PAH! That's not what they will care about. It'll be the months when I won't be there to sort out the mystery of 'the water cooler cup thief' for them that'll really cause some panic.
S: So they will care?
LCS: Yes, but they don't have to know, I won't tell them if you won't.
S: You do realise that that recording device is still on in your pocket?
LSC: OH …
S: It's definitely broken?
LCS: I think so, I can always wipe it later if its not.
S: Good. Then we leave tonight.
LCS: (Clears throat) I think you'll find that while you're still the one in the 'cuffs I will be giving the orders around here. But yes. As you say. Tonight.
So, the Ambassador of Diotima and I had quite the chat.
Interesting, not too confrontational compared to other
conversations I've had. I will give the gal one thing though,
she's got a fire inside her. I can only imagine what she'd be
like to work under.
We talked a lot, on and off the record, trying to piece together the bits of information we had available to us regarding these disappearances. As we talked, it started to become more and more surreal, with all the talk of a mysterious relic. I almost feel like one of the archaeologists myself right now, with us aspiring to head off to the Land of Knil. Even saying that name … Land of Knil … it takes me right back to when I was a kid. So many stories thrown around about this place and the three legendary adventurers who crossed it. Sure, when you're a kid, you believe any fantastic stories that are passed around, but trying to find out what happened to these people seems to bring it a little closer to home. The dutiful man in me is urging me to find out what happened to those civilians, but that young kid in me, no matter how quiet he is now, still makes me wonder which of the stories about that place are true.
Currently, I'm scribbling this in my tattered notebook as I sit in my car waiting for 'Lady Ambassador'. She's just as keen as I am to get to the bottom of this story. I think that the second I can find the rational and real story behind this thing, I can move on. Just …
We were looking through what we have. What very little we have, that is. Sure, you can't go far with unusual reports of seismic activity across and beyond the Forsaken Lands, combined with hearsay, lofty aspersions and general sensationalism that comes hand in hand with any mysterious disappearance … but when I find unattended documents and overhear conversations from some of the big wigs at work … it makes me think.
The documents are quite a story.
Unattended at the front desk of the embassy. The front desk! An intern, apparently, given too many jobs and making too many mistakes. The only thing is, if I hadn't noticed this little mistake, then it would have turned into an exceedingly large mistake. The nature of my job forbids me from even mentioning the details of what I saw in that document. In fact, I'm certain that I really wasn't supposed to see what I saw. But I did.
See, I was watching the intern, and I saw him struggle with a pile of folders, swaying from side to side a little. In my somewhat twisted sense of humour, I was half expecting the guy to fall over onto his back and send an explosion of paper into the air. Fortunately for him, he managed to rest them on the reception desk for a breather. What he failed to do was pick up that last folder when his little rest had ended. Exit intern, cue folder falling to the floor, enter Chief of Security to make the save.
The file fell to the floor, and out came documents, a couple photographs and a file note. I sighed, and made my way over to it before anyone else could pick it up. God knows what would happen if a member of the public got a hold of some sensitive data and started publishing it as and where they wished. I think the whole fiasco over the expenses of the Ambassadorial staff some years ago was quite enough of a drama.
So, there I go in my half hobble, half jog way of moving, making my way across the lobby to clean up someone else's mess yet again. Luckily it wasn't too busy that day, so there were no instances of chasing papers between the legs of some of the busy bodies that pass through here. That was at least a saving grace. My knees won't allow me to side-wind people in order to catch 13 pages of some inane bureaucratic chatter.
Normally, I never notice anything when I'm picking up documents; it's drummed into you that if you're ever faced with picking up sensitive data, you force yourself to zone out what's on the pages, "because confidential means confidential". Something in this one caught my eye, though. Sketches. Drawings.
These were quite elaborate looking. Exploded views of … something that looked a little bit like a jet engine. I only caught a glimpse before I realised what I was doing. I straightened the documents back into order and put the file note back on top. It was such a weird situation where I knew I shouldn't pay any heed to what was in the folder, but sometimes your eye darts to a little bit of it, and suddenly you can't help yourself. I saw an anagram in the file note. E … S … something. The only thing I got after that were the words experimental and seismic. I dunno, these people have all sorts of jargon, maybe it was something completely unrelated. But it makes you think. Seismic activity in the Land of Knil and Ami … er … Lady Ambassador talking about a conspiracy theories and missing citizens.
That's what brings me here. We agreed to set out to search for these people ourselves. A real Sherlock Holmes adventure with perhaps two of the most mismatched people you can imagine.
Can't lose focus on the task at hand. Find the people, return them home. That's it. No flight of fancy. There's always a rational explanation. I refuse to get all dewy-eyed towards these fleeting notions of super weapons. No one in Proixis would stand for something so extreme and potentially damaging …
… would they? …
No. No, of course not. Come on Triad, why do you even have to ask that?
Oh, here she is. Time to find those people and get them home. I'm going to need a lot of coffee to get through this experience …
Triad looked quite odd when I climbed in his car, dripping from
the torrential rain that was now pouring down outside. I closed
the door against the night and the rain and began to adjust my
seat for the journey ahead.
"I didn't think you would return, to be honest."
I turned to Triad and gave him a look that I hoped said, "What do you take me for?" In reality though this comment stung, walking backing into my office in Proixis I had had the sudden urge to phone Rhenus and get him to sort this whole mess out for me. However, as the image of his self satisfied little smirk at my failure to figure this out for myself flashed across my mind, I realised that this would have been too much to bear.
"Here. If nothing else, this should convince you I am who I say I am."
I handed him a file of papers that had my name and picture on it.
Triad's face got very pale all of the sudden.
"I … well … you see …"
It seemed he recognised the official seal of Diotima at the top of every page, as well as the list of powers that accompanied my job. I let him stammer a bit before saying, "Oh, don't worry about it. I'm as intrigued about this whole disappearance thing as you are. Not only did I get those papers, but I also sneaked out this."
Cool as ice I held up a leather-bound book.
"This, is the only known encyclopedia of the Land of Knil. Said to have been compiled mere years after The Three Heroes return from their first expedition by the first few members of the Diotima Science Academy based on interviews with those three themselves. It was confiscated by our secret service a few years back, or so I'm told. Only officials ranked with first and second class access codes can get anywhere near it. Good job I qualify!" I concluded and flashed him a satisfied smile.
Typically, he wasn't watching. Didn't even seem interested. In the time it had taken for me to explain about the book he had started the engine and was already a good distance towards the city outskirts. Eyes on the road he hardly blinked in surprise at the appearance of the book.
"Good to know your lot are keeping as many secrets as ours then" he growled under his breath.
My feathers ruffled I shut up, seething. His kingdom, Lyctus, was renowned for its brutal regime and he had the audacity to compare it to the great democratic beacon that was Diotima? We elect our kings for Diot's sake, while in Lyctus they are ruled by a tyrant. If any of my fellow ambassadors ever even suggested such a thing I would have had them … I stopped myself. It was pointless even following that line of thought through. Triad wasn't an ambassador (thank Kalin) - I shouldn't treat him like one. If anything he was more like Rhenus; only with a spine.
Despondent at the thought of being stuck in close quarters with someone military for a good while, I eventually turned back to the book in my hands. The first few pages were maps of the known borders to the Land of Knil that touched The Three Kingdoms, with records of the interviews that they were based on of conducted by academy members. Unfortunately for us the parchment was old and in some places faded. Worse, The Three Kingdom's borders had changed a lot in the last three hundred years. But the last map before the book proper started was different. There was something odd about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It was of a region unfamiliar to me. Labelled as "South-East, Land of Knil, figure 7c" it showed a fairly nondescript desert area, nothing strange there. Looking at it though, I was still convinced that I was missing something.
Triad spoke, I hadn't realised, but he must have been glancing over periodically to get a look at the book.
"I heard the archaeological team went to the south-east Forsaken Lands area. I wonder what they were after."
His eyes were still on the road, how had he managed to read an entire line of text on the page without me noticing?
"Even I don't have a clue. Could just be a company vacation for all the information that got passed onto me about it."
Triad nodded, and then, without warning slammed on the brakes. As he did so the car spun on the soaked road stopping heavily on the opposite side, now facing back the way we had come. I barely managed to suppress a yelp, but retained my self composure right until I glanced out the window. There, mere centimetres away from where the car had stopped, was one of the many chasms that dotted the landscape outside the kingdoms. From where I was sitting I couldn't see the bottom.
About to berate Triad for his idiotic driving he cut me off.
"Wait … what is this?"
He jabbed at a dark grey area on the map that was somehow still in my lap, but his eyes were darting around, peering back down the road in the direction we had come from, a road, which now I got a proper look at, must have ceased to be a road in the classical sense a while back, and was now more of a mud track.
"Could just be a cave." I responded trying to spot what he was looking for.
Triad shook his head, still distracted.
"Caves aren't usually recorded on desert maps. The sand is prone to move around and frequently bury them under dunes. So, once again, what is this?"
"No idea. There's one way we could find out though. Go to the desert. Maybe it's the house."
Triad, apparently satisfied that there was nothing outside, took the book off me, snapped it shut and for the first time since our 'interview' looked at me.
"We can't go over there by ourselves. Unprepared without armour or weapons - we'd be slaughtered like a couple of pigs in a butcher's shop."
I raised an eyebrow at him.
"Oh come on, that's a bit of an exaggeration isn't it? Sure we could die of dehydration, starvation or even snake bite, but 'slaughtered'? Really? What kind of drama queens do Lyctus employ as their security chiefs nowadays?"
Triad rifled through the book for a while before he discovered the page he was looking for - an index of creatures sighted in the Land of Knil.
"Don't forget where we are headed. The myths about that place are bad enough to give anyone the jitters. Monsters, yes monsters" he clarified seeing the disbelieving look on my face. "Have been rumoured to stalk those lands since time immemorial. Even if we never see them within the city limits. I remember stories of those lands from when I was younger, of zombies, living skeletons and worse. But even if the stories are false, which I'm not convinced of, just look at this index: 'Giant Arachnids' and 'Wolves' are hardly something that we should go up against unprepared."
I rolled my eyes.
"You should get out more. You seemed so rational back in the kingdoms, what on earth has changed you."
"The same thing that caused me to stop the car" he replied. "I saw, something, silhouetted at the edge of the road. Coupled with the fact that we entered the Land of Knil a while back and that this, thing, whatever it was, appeared to be lurching, I figured it might be best to play it safe."
The temperature in the car seemed to drop several degrees.
"You saw what? Why didn't you tell …" my rebuke was cut off by a tapping noise against the side of the car.
We both froze.
The tapping stopped.
The only sound was that of the rain driving against the roof.
"Maybe it's …"
A groaning was heard from outside as the tapping resumed again.
Triad reached for the gun at his belt.
The noises stopped.
Then we waited some more.
Tentatively I whispered, "I think we are …" and a figure jumped up in front of the car and onto the bonnet.
Rhoek swore and physically jumped, bashing himself against the car's side. Cursing he clasped his side, winded.
I, I'm ashamed to say, simply screamed.
It was then that the figure on the bonnet leaned closer to the windscreen to get a good look into the vehicle and … began to laugh. Recovering my senses a little I peered right back out at the figure and to my amazement recognised the face. It was not someone I was glad to see.
I had met Snaen a while back and had not enjoyed the experience.
Snaen was what you would call a jock: overconfident, buff, and a lady killer. A few years ago, when I was still a newly appointed diplomatic assistant, myself and much of the rest of the diplomatic staff had been sent to Kalindoia. We were to procure several newly discovered artefacts for display in government buildings. Not the most altruistic of tasks I've ever been set, but one vital to maintaining face in front of Lyctus during the upcoming peace talks. Being the new girl, the rest of the staff thought it would really funny to give me a list of leads to follow with a single name on it:
'Snaen - explorer".
Thinking nothing of the fact that my list was the only one with one name on it I had gone to the address specified. I rang the doorbell to his apartment, dreading whether I would be able to negotiate properly with the only person on my list, but excited too, for my first proper assignment. He came to the door presently and opened it.
He was dressed in nothing but a towel.
He was practically naked.
I looked pointedly at his face taking great care not to look anywhere else and instead of turning tail and fleeing I recited the words I had been preparing on the way over there.
"Good morning, Mr, ah, Snaen. I am from the, err, government of Diotima and would like to officially request a favour from you?"
He leaned against the door frame, barely holding up the towel, and smirked. "No problem darling."
I noticed that he was looking me up and down. "I … uh … no. Not that kind of favour. A job related favour really."
"Oh." Snaen sighed as he stood up straight. "Got any ID? Yes, sure, that looks about right. Come right in."
I followed him as he strolled inside. Needless to say, everything was out of order. It looked like he had recently thrown a party in his apartment; probably in fact the case. There were cups all over the place, chairs upside down, and … an object that looked like a … never mind.
He seemed to not care about the clutter, and led me to the kitchen. He levelled two chairs and sat in one, gesturing to the other. "Now, what can I do for you?"
He was still undressed.
As I situated myself on the chair. Staring very intently at some of the more interesting stains on his table I answered his question. "I … I mean … Diotima would like to request from you, for a tidy sum of course, or donation, erm, item 22b on this list" I rummaged in my briefcase for the piece of paper, and handed pushed it across the table to him. "A blaze rod."
Snaen leaned back in his chair, letting his towel slip almost too far.
"Alright. Awesome. Q2000 and it is yours …"
Feeling like the meeting had concluded I stood up.
"… Although, I did trek half way across the known world to find an intact Dungeon of the Ancients with one left in it."
Reluctantly I sat down again.
"But, I guess I could give it to you. In exchange for dinner."
Needless to say I never got that blaze rod off him and all he got from me was a rather painful lump on the side of his head.
That had been years ago though, and I had counted my blessings that I had never encountered him again since. What he was doing in the middle of the Land of Knil choosing to terrorise us at that point, I had not a clue. If he had gotten off the bonnet and stopped laughing at our expressions any later than he did though, I am almost certain Triad would have shot him.
Either that, or I would have made sure that he had another sizeable lump on the side of his head.
So this kid's with us now. Snaen. Really cocky guy. Spent the
best part of our walk to this cave talking about himself. I was
thrilled to listen to him tell me how many women he'd been with
in the past five months. I also really liked when he showed me
his 'agility' by jumping across a stream.
It was a stream that I could step over.
It might be my jealous fifty-plus year old body, or it could be a little bit of envy, but there was a part of me that wished I had just continued driving past him … or perhaps over him. Regardless, he's here now. Maybe he'll calm do-
OK, I had to cut that last line short a little bit to add this in. I've just spent the best part of the last fifteen minutes trying to get Snaen's foot out of a crack in a wall. This kid is a danger to himself. I'm amazed that he's managed to survive in this place for as long as he says he has, given how accident prone he is.
The main thing I need to write about in this entry is just how … strange … surreal … maybe a little intimidating it is to walk along in the fabled Land of Knil. It's a lot more beautiful than they tell you in the stories, but it still has that really uncomfortable silence. It's calm, but not at the same time. It's as if there's always this bubbling undercurrent of tension. I don't know if it's me, but I just get a little unsettled. We walked for at least two miles today. I had to halt a few times on account of my knee, and it got harder and harder to look at that smirk on Snaen's face every time I had to stop and stretch. I'd like to see him carry around my frame with one good knee. I can say what I want about the kid, but I will give him one thing - he's handy. He knows wildlife and stuff. We'll be walking along, see something scuttle along the floor, and look at Snaen's reaction to see what we have to do. If he keeps walking, it's harmless. If he starts to run … well, you can bet your ass we're running too.
He punched a tree to get an apple before. Punched it. I was a little impressed, until I saw him trying to hold back tears. I guess I have something to smirk at him for now, huh?
the Land of Knil has some strange weather. One minute it can be as clear as clear can be, and the next, downpours of rain without a moment's notice. And it's strange, because the clouds don't really go grey. You can never really see the rain coming. Must be to do with the atmosphere or something.
Hey, I'm not a weatherman, that's the best you'll get from me.
We came up to a cave. Because, according to Snaen, it's a good idea to sit in a dark cave at night with Ly-knows-what crawling around on the floor. I'm not scared, and I'm not afraid to punch a spider, but I'd rather not sleep in a litter tray of a monster. Call me picky, but that's just the way I am. Well, I guess as long as it isn't out in the open with whatever the hell walks this land, it'll do. This thing is still the creepiest place I've slept in. Every now and then we'll hear dripping water, the wind, a little scuffling in the distance. You know, nothing to be too worried about. Then … there was something else. Sounds … somewhere. I couldn't pin-point where, it seemed to move all the time. Ami was sure that she'd heard it close to us for a moment. I tried to reassure her that it was probably just a snake, but apparently that didn't comfort her much. And that's not the worst of it.
The smell … it was like … burning. And rotten flesh. Burning rotten flesh. I don't even know if that's the right way to explain it. It's so … unique. Unlike anything I've ever experienced before. I asked Snaen if it was something he'd ever come across. He giggled. I don't even want to know why. But finally, when he decided to be useful, he told me that he'd never experienced that kind of smell before. He asked if I needed to go to the 'little boy's room'. Then he told me to 'chill out'.
Anyway, we had to move away from it, which meant us trailing around in the dark with one torch between us. It felt like we couldn't escape. Very overpowering. And it clung to our clothes like nothing I've ever known.
That's it for me for tonight. I need to sleep off this knee thing.
Just woke up. Don't know what time it is, I'm guessing early hours. The sound came back. It was closer than before.
I don't know what it was, or where it is now, but I know it's there somewhere. I can feel it just … stalking us. I really hope I don't need to shoot a cannibal or something.
We ran. It was the only thing we thought of. I had my stuff all packed in my back ready to go, but Snaen … he left his bag. He's adamant about going back. I've tried talking him down. No good.
I felt I needed to document this right now. Could prove handy. The sound was the same that we had heard before. The smell … whatever this thing was, it was at least part of what the smell was. I can't even form proper sentences right now. I'm still a little bit startled.
In all my years, I've never felt as powerless as I did in that brief moment. It seemed to just radiate fear. And just … I don't know. I just felt that the creature was … evil. The anger from it.
I'm going to keep trying to calm Snaen down so he doesn't get himself killed in some silly act of heroism. Get us all into some good shelter.
This is just crazy.
Far too much to deal with early in the morning.
5th May, in the 317th year, Post Heroes.
There is something decidedly odd about our next expedition. For instance, the Diotima Science Academy has always stayed completely separate from the government (it being a capitalist democracy which has always been more than happy to let us stew in our own juices). However, this latest commission has, without a doubt, come from someone very high up in government. We deduced this from the intricacy and pompousness of their personal crest which all of the expeditionary documents are sealed with. And another thing! The expedition, seemingly a routine sweep of the Land of Knil for one of The Three Heroes ancient houses, is being lead by Rhoek of all people!
Normally this would comfort me, Rhoek being by far the most able archaeologist of any of us, but there is some aspect of his character that is distinctly different since he came back from goodness knows where. I can't place my finger on what though. I don't know, maybe he was funnier, more friendly, with a demeanour less like a depressed corpse before he went away. Not that I'm one to judge - I am by far the most pessimistic of anyone on this team, as Caert is all too quick to point out.
Still, I am also determined to keep this journal for as long as this expedition smells a bit fishy. If I have to sue the government for wasting academy time and sending us on a wild goose chase with a depressed and mentally unsound leader, then I am going to need some evidence.
17th May, in the 317th year, Post Heroes.
Two days ago, after a mere ten days of preparation, the expedition set off. This is absolutely outrageous. Usually I would require at least, and that is the very least mind you, a month to properly research and write a preliminary paper on the historical context of the site we were planning on visiting. This would be as well as a full analysis and write up of the kinds of artefacts we previously encountered on the site. I will not stand for this kind of half cocked historiography and bad scientific method.
Worse, Rhoek (who would normally be the foremost advocate of good practice) was the one who allowed us to be sent out early; merely announcing in a morose, rather flat voice, that "the client's request was rather urgent."
"Rather urgent!?! So is my research you damned pup," I would like to have replied, but of course was not brave enough to do so. Even under normal circumstances I would not answer Rhoek back, despite him being at least twenty years younger than my modest fifty three. He has always intimidated me through his sheer brilliance and now … now, to tell you the truth, I am a little scared of the chap.
Still, at least he has kept us busy enough for the last two days with all the usual expeditionary activities: updating maps of the landscape as we go, noting down any unusual or interesting creatures we find, ect. As we are on foot this has taken a little longer than usual, but we get so much more reliable results down at ground level that it is definitely worth what we have lost in time.
25th May, in the 317th year, Post Heroes.
Oh Heroes above, this is all wrong. The expedition, the site we are after and Rhoek, especially Rhoek. They are all wrong.
Two nights ago I woke up in the early hours of the morning and needed to leave my tent to answer a call of nature. As I lifted up the flap of the tent to leave I froze. There in the middle of our camp stood a figure, arms outstretched, head tilted back to the dark sky a soft moan leaving his mouth. In my sleep deprived state I thought I was seeing one of the fabled monsters of the Forsaken Lands and shot backwards into my tent. As I slowly came to my senses and woke up slightly more, I gained enough courage to take a peek outside again. This time I recognised the figure. It was Rhoek, and for the first time since he had returned to the academy, he was smiling. It wasn't the smile of a happy man though. No, rather it was the contorted smile of the torturer who enjoys his job. It was then that I realised that what I had initially taken for groaning was him laughing grotesquely to himself. Not knowing what to make of this I resolved to back slowly into my tent once more and alert the others in the morning. Someone like Caert or Warl would know what to do.
As I edged slowly into my tent I accidentally hit my foot on one of the tent pegs, making the tiniest little "snick" sound. Instantly the figure whipped round and as fast as I could I pulled the tent flap closed and retreated the centre of the tent, as far away from any of the walls as I could possibly get. For, as Rhoek turned around, I swear I caught a glimpse of his eyes … and they were glowing red.
Not a sound could be heard from outside, but you can bet I did not get a wink of sleep that night.
The day after (which is yesterday now), I decided to do some poking around. Try and come up with some evidence before mustering up enough courage to force a confrontation. As this journal well proves, I like to have some decent material before I make any kind of accusation. It was whilst snooping around our some supplies that I discovered the full extent of Rhoek's madness. The boxes, which contained all of our surveying and experimental equipment, were (and still are) as good as empty. I say as good as, because despite the fact that I remember personally packing a significant amount of equipment into them, they are now mostly full of rocks! More worrying still is that we only have enough food to get us to our proposed dig site and no where near enough to get us back again, never mind staying around on the dig for a couple of days.
After another sleepless night I have decided to force Rhoek to come clean in front of all the others this morning, that is to say, in a couple of minutes time. I don't know what he will do with me, by The Three Heroes I'm scared, but between us all we should be able to subdue him.
26th May, in the 317th year, Post Heroes.
The weather defeated me. No sooner had I finished packing up my tent and preparing to speak out against Rhoek than a storm hit. As the rain blew in and showed no sign of abating we followed the suggestion of Caert who was gesticulating towards the mouth of a cave about halfway up the nearest hillside, her voice unable to be heard over the sound of the storm. Once we were all inside Rhoek, looking very pleased about something, took the lead, claiming that we would be safer further in. His reasoning (for once) appeared sound. It seemed like we walked for miles underground, trying to find a safe spot to camp and wait out the storm. Not that I know which way is out any more, but the others seem confident enough.
After what seemed to be a several hours of hiking we set up camp in a small round area where the tunnels open up a bit before coming to a dead end. Well, almost a dead end anyway. At the back of the cave there is a crack in the wall, just about the size of a small man, from within which comes, sporadically, a faint hissing sound. At first I thought there might be some kind of gas being released that might endanger us, but approaching the crack there is no sign of any breeze coming through. Best not to think about it I suppose.
27th May, in the 317th year, Post Heroes.
All the others are dead.
He killed them.
And he laughed as he did it.
One by one we all dropped off to sleep, I being one of the last as I seemed to have lost my blanket on our extensive trip through the tunnels. The next thing I knew there was screaming all around me. Opening my eyes I saw Rhoek with an ancient bow that he must have kept hidden in his pack.
"Over by the wall old man" he hissed at me and I hobbled over to the wall where the others were already gathered.
"You" he gestured at Caert. The poor girl was obviously terrified and began again to scream as Rhoek grabbed her arm, chuckling quietly at her fear. With a cry Warl jumped at Rhoek only to be hit round the head with the bow and sent flying across the cave.
"Shame" Rhoek smiled. "I had really hoped you would be one for heroics old man. I could have killed you then." He pul