Copyright Jack Sutter 2018-2020
Chapter 5 “Harin’s Vault”
The party had gathered outside the house of the Wogs, who had at last assembled their accoutrements for the adventure ahead. They made for a wickedly eccentric appearance, tightly girded in studded coats of plate topped with helmets like broad brimmed steel hats (one painted yellow, one green, and the other red) beneath which the Wogs’ mule like ears drooped comically. Each wore a bulging pack on his back and a mixed assortment of tools and weapons dangling from their belts, and each carried a stout looking staff tipped with a nasty blade consisting of an ugly array of prongs, hooks and curved edges. Overall, they presented a comfortably ferocious impression which was some consolation to Lindsey in light of the unknown threats ahead of them.
The Bird began his usual procedure of tracing an outline into the ground, though the verdant grass clung to itself annoyingly well and it took a disgruntled shove from Ursilda to get the ragged square of sod to fall through the portal in the ground. One by one the adventurers dropped through. Ursilda was first, as no one wanted to be on the other side when she came tumbling out of the sky, which was just as well as the great She-Bear had some difficulty navigating the hole and became stuck halfway through, and it took the collective efforts of everyone else to shove her through the rest of the way.
Lindsey was the last to go. She sat down on the grass, swinging her legs into the hole, and prepared to jump.
A movement to the side caught her eye, and Lindsey twisted over to one side and looked.
It was nearing sunset by now. The deep green of the trees was turning to bright limes and cool olives as the leaves bathed in the passing gold of the fading rays, and the tiny road was turning into a river of brass in the final glory of the day.
And upon the road, standing at a bend not far away, was a large man in a homburg hat silhouetted against the brilliant light, watching her.
From the hole below her, Ursilda’s sonorous voice could be heard, still berating the Bird for not having made the hole big enough. Lindsey was debating whether to get up and confront the man or tell the others when Ursilda called up to her to stop dithering and dallying, and Lindsey was promptly yanked down the hole by an impatient iron paw. Upon landing Lindsey scrambled to her feet and spoke.
“Hey, before you pulled me down I saw someone up the road. He was watching us.”
“Pah! Neighbors. Those Rabbits are always being nosey.”
“It wasn’t a Rabbit, it was a man.”
“Yeah, and so am I. It looked like a man, anyway.”
The Bird clicked thoughtfully. “Might have been one of Gurth’s agents. Better close up right away.”
The Bird began fanning his wings at the fading hole above them, which then began to disappear a bit faster.
“If he is one of Gurth’s, he’ll be warning the others that we’re now here at Mount Vorn. There is little time to lose. Come, the vault is just ahead.”
The landscape about Mount Vorn was freakish and marvelous. It couldn’t have been very far from the home of the Wogs, no more a few tens of miles perhaps, for the sun was still only just above the horizon. It’s leisurely descent spread rays of brilliant gold across a landscape of wild stone pillars of variegated red bursting forth in every direction from a maze of meandering ruts and gullies, some clogged with mud and slag, others grown over with rich grasses. Above all was the great peak of the mountain itself, a visage of brooding serenity awash in the molten gold of sunset.
The Bird flew ahead and perched on a rock pillar, calling the others to follow him. And so they made their way.
The terrain was rough and tortuous, filled with jagged obstacles and dangerous slides and all manner of impediment. Here and there were the remains of mining implements; bits of wagons, scaffolding, and other flotsam sunk and settled with age, their iron rusted and wood bleached and splintered. The Wogs explained that this face of the mountain had not been actively mined for some time, the operation having mostly shifted to the opposite face many years ago. The wild landscape was the result of the mining techniques, which were to artificially erode the mountainside by cutting sluices into the earth and flooding them with fast moving water, or drilling narrow wells and filling them with water until the mounting pressure at last shattered the surrounding rock. Though the mountain was less bountiful these days, at its height the Wogs said that the operation produced over ten thousand Drixi pounds of lucrative tin every year.
The party was moving roughly laterally across the mountainside, climbing just slightly. Here and there a young tree could be found where the mining had been abandoned for longer. The sun had at last passed beyond the horizon, only a few embers remaining at the rim of the sky, and the world was drifting into twilight.
The trees were becoming more common and dense now as the followers of the Bird reached a place where no mining had been undertaken in many years. They had entered a rather dense copse when abruptly the way opened before them into a narrow passage of rock which plunged quickly below the level of the surrounding ground. It was a dry creek, cut by years of runoff through a long abandoned workman’s path. As they followed it Lindsey observed that it was descending downward into what appeared to be a large open area ahead.
It was a wide pit, sunk perhaps twenty feet or more below the surface of the ground and open to the sky, where a few stars could just now be seen. In its center there was a tremendous rock, as large as a small castle keep, standing by itself as if on public display. All around it the earth had been cleared away, and it’s surface was scarred and cratered, evidence of the vain efforts of generations of disappointed treasure hunters. The rock towered forbiddingly above the ground, it’s surface darkly mottled in a way very unlike the reddish rock everywhere else. And the sight of it filled Lindsey with dread.
The Bird settled on the ground before the great stone, and signaled the others to gather about him.
“Right, here we are! Behold Harin’s Vault!”
“It looks like a big rock to me.”
“That’s what it is. The vault is inside the rock.”
“And how are we to get inside?”
“Leave that to me. Joan, myself and Lindsey are to remain here to open the vault. Wogs, you know the area well and should conduct a patrol above the pit. Keep to the trees, lest you be seen. Ursilda will form a second patrol, her sense of smell will match…”
“Er, quite, match or exceed any effort by our adversaries to advance in stealth. Hae-jin, I want you to conceal yourself in the woods near the entrance to the dry creek we just came down and stand watch to alert Ursilda and the Wogs of any intruders coming by that route and to guard it with your life if needed. You do know how to make a nightjar’s call?”
“Oh dear. Well, I suppose you can just shout ‘Hoy!’ instead. Right, now, everyone off!”
The Wogs muttered some acute observations about taking orders from babbling birds, but clattered off nonetheless, their armor and equipment making a bit more noise than Lindsey felt especially comfortable with. Ursilda merely grunted and heaved off into the darkness.
Hae-jin met Lindsey’s eye for a moment. He then made a shallow bow and made his way back up the creek bed. The Wogs may have known the terrain and Ursilda may have been convinced of her own invincibility, but it was Hae-jin who inspired Lindsey with the most confidence. Somehow, she felt sure that he would give his life for another if such a thing proved necessary. Why she should think so she couldn’t rightly say at the moment, she just knew for herself that he was that kind of man. It was a small bit of comfort against the chilling darkness which she could feel beginning to creep up all around her..
She turned to confront the Bird.
“Well, now that we’re here and everyone else is gone, are you finally going to tell me what this is all about?”
“Oh yes, quite right! Down to business. Now, inside the vault there is quite a stupendous number of enormously valuable artifacts, but that’s not really all that important. Once you get it open you need only grab whatever you find handy. You see…..”
“Wait a minute! Once I open the vault?”
“Oh yes! Didn’t I explain that part already?”
“No, you did not.”
“Ah, yes, I suppose I didn’t. Er, well, perhaps Joan should explain.”
Lindsey turned a frustrated eye towards Joan, who met her gaze unflinchingly.
Joan held Lindsey’s gaze and spoke.
“Do you recall what I said about the curse which rests on my land? How it’s power is tied to the crimes of my people, and only through the atonement of those crimes can it ever be lifted?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
“Well, this object, Harin’s Vault, is sealed by a very powerful and primal sort of magic, and it can only be opened through a series of mystical rites which entail an offering of tremendous power: The sacrifice of a human life.”
“There’s no need for alarm. We have not brought you here to harm you.”
“Oh yeah? And just who do you think you’re going to sacrifice?”
“The Bird and I will not be participating in the sacrifice. Only you will.”
“Uh huh, that’s kind of what I figured. You’ve got just two seconds to tell me why I shouldn’t start running right now.”
“This is a bit difficult to explain, but let me start by assuring you that the sacrifice in question is not at all what you might think it is. It will entail a certain amount of discomfort, but in the end you shall come though it unharmed.”
“So I am going to be the sacrifice, huh? That’s what I figured. Goodbye!”
“Give us one more moment, Lindsey. This is precisely why I said the Bird should have explained things in advance.”
“You better explain things right now then, and do it real fast.”
“Alright, alright. Please be calm, and let me proceed. What we are asking is that you make a sacrifice of yourself on our behalf, by way of making an offering of your own life experiences. Your hardships, your sorrows, the dark feelings and evil memories you carry in your heart. The Bird read your heart the moment he saw you, and he perceived the burdens you carry inside you.”
“I’m not really all that burdened.”
“You may be more so than you think. The Bird saw it for himself, and he was convinced that you are greatly distressed. And for my own part, I am inclined to agree with him. I see in you a person whose heart is overwhelmed with an unbidden darkness. For a long while life has to you been unkind, and in many ways unjust. It is tempting to say that life owes you a debt for such years of undeserved suffering, but the reality is that life is by nature incapable of making good on the debts that it owes to the innocent. But you have the power within you to take control of these things for yourself, to transcend your own grief and direct it to a higher purpose. We need you to forsake the debt that life owes you, and offer it in exchange for the debts incurred by my people.”
“What Joan is trying to say”, interjected the Bird, “Is that what we need is a sort of proxy sacrifice. When the Good Folk sought a remedy for the plight of Joan’s people they peered deep into the black magic of the Curse of Gurth to uncover its secrets and learn the ways of its undoing. In this way they were able to discern the weaknesses of the spell, and with this knowledge they devised a formula by which the spell could be broken.
You see, the practice of black magic has a sort of cumulative effect. The more of it there is, the more potent it becomes and the more dire its effects. When Gurth proffered his dark arts to the people of Linster he did so with a purpose, drenching the land with evil magic so that when he at last laid his curse upon the kingdom he bound with it all the darkness which the people themselves had wrought for him.
To undo this sinister artifice, something is needed to purify land of the black magic which now impregnates it. In pondering this conundrum, The Good Folk concluded that the simplest means by which this could be done would be to disassociate the people of Linster from the deeds which they themselves had wrought. This could be achieved through the agency of a disinterested third party. This person could nominally assume the burden of the people’s responsibility, and then redress these deeds by virtue of her own personal tribulations. This could be manifested in a ritual of atonement, the completion of which would serve as a magical catalyst with which to strike the curse at its weakest point.
Harin’s Vault is not in itself of any particular importance to us. However, it requires a sacrifice in order to be opened, which serves as a suitable vehicle by which the ritual of atonement may be performed. What we need from you now, Lindsey, is for you to volunteer yourself to succumb for a brief moment to what might be called a spiritual death: To briefly relive every instance of sorrow and hardship in your life from the most trivial to the most tortuous as a substitute offering in reparation for deeds wrought by others. I’m afraid I can offer you no recompense for this service, for in order to work the sacrifice must be as pure as possible. This is why an alien such as yourself is ideally suited for the task. The magic would not work if Joan or any of her people were to do such a thing for themselves, for they would have tangibly benefited from it. In contrast, in your case once you return home to your own world you will have left all this behind, and will be as far removed from the fruits of your labor as possible. Indeed, save for ourselves, no one else may even know the full extent of your role in this if we are to have our best chance of success.
The act of opening the vault will constitute the material embodiment of the ritual itself. Once this is done, all that is required is to retrieve a sample of its contents (anything will do) and bring it back to Linster to serve as a visible sign that the ritual took place and a physical manifestation of its completion. This will be sufficient to break the Curse of Gurth and deprive him of his hold on the people of Linster. There are a few other details regarding the specifics of the ritual itself which Joan shall shall explain to you (the proper motions, recitations, and so forth). But what I have just described is the essence of the matter. It is your choice whether we proceed further.”
With that, the Bird fell silent.
Lindsey was silent for a moment, frozen in a sudden tangle of emotion deep within her heart.
And then, she gave her answer.