Footsteps echo down the corridor, as the light of a lone torch struggles mightly to stave off the encrouching darkness. Walking slowly across the damp, uneven floor of clay bricks, the torch bearer cannot help but stare at the rough tunnel. She has lost track of the hours, perhaps days, since she first entered this ancient ruin.
As she walks down the corridor, moving carefully as not to trip over the uneven floor, she wonders how long this place has rested beneath Caldor Isle. A drop of water falls onto her nose, prompting her to ponder whether or not she is even below Caldor anymore.
Her trained eye can instantly see that this place is very, very old. Easily, it dates back to the earliest ages of Lunar, possibly before the days of Dragonmaster Louie. The clay bricks are very rough, and are riddled with flaws and faults resulting from sloppy fabrication. The people who made this place were either very primitive, or they were in a very big hurry.
The walls are made of the same clay bricks, roughly stacked and unmortared. The only reason they still stand is that the elements do not reach below the surface of Caldor. The ceiling is bare rock, just out of the woman's reach. She cannot tell if the cavern was shaped by nature, by pickaxe, or by magic.
Silently, she thanks Althena once again for leaving the cavern mercifully free of monsters. Nothing other than the Goddess's direct interdiction could keep them from these long, winding tunnels. Such interdiction has certainly kept the more civilized peoples from ever finding the ruins.
The explorer has always suspected that Caldor must have some origins in antiquity. But she never suspected that a complex system of tunnels ran beneathe the island! It was purely by accident that she stumbled upon them while traveling in the mountains, searching for some signs of early Caldoran culture amidst the largely unexplored mountain range.
These ruins make her wonder how long people have truly lived on Caldor. According to the scholars of Vane, and every book on the subject in the great library, the island had been untouched by civilization until just a hundred and twenty years ago.
She winces a little at the thought of Vane, and squelches them immediately. No matter what they have said, the truth stands plainly around her. These ruins date back to the beginning of civilization; of that she is certain.
Walking onward, the explorer wonders exactly why this structure was made. What purpose could the early peoples have had for delving so far into Lunar? So far, there has been nothing to suggest that anyone had lived in these tunnels. Nor have there been any sort of writing or pictures to help her decipher what role the ruins may have played.
The corridor suddenly ends in a doorway. The explorer smiles, hoping to learn something about the people who built the ruins. Sadly, it offers he no hints, for the door was formed either by magic or by nature. There are no signs of human craftsmanship anywhere along its smooth surface.
Beyond the door is a massive chamber, cloaked in thick darkness. The explorer's torchlight reaches its limit without touching the walls, or the ceiling. Walking into the chamber, she loses sight of the entrance as it is enveloped in darkness. She also becomes keenly aware of the echoes of her footsteps reverberating off of the walls. Soon, the explorer sees something etched in the floor, something far more interesting than any door.
Set in the middle of the floor of roughly fit clay bricks is a mural carved from a single piece of stone. The images of the mural are hard to make out, as thick layer of dust covers them. She kneels before the relief and pulls out a brush from her backpack. As she begins to patiently brush away the grime, she reveals more lines and shapes that were buried under the aeons of dust.
It takes the explorer nearly half an hour to cleanse off most of the dust from the mural. Standing again, she studies it, trying to make sense of the carved lines. Overall, it seems to be a riot of interlocked geometric shapes. Two huge triangles cover the majority of the relief, their tips meeting in the center. Several squares have been carved over the two triangles, and a number of shapes have been interposed over those. Circles, arcs, ellipses, triangles, quadrilaterals, and more cover the slab of stone. Looking closely, she can make out what appears to be a chart of Lunar’s orbit around the Blue Star and the sun.
Studying the mural further, more diagrams begin to make themselves known. They are symbols of magic; sigils designed to retain enchantments. Some are familiar to the explorer, but most are entirely beyond her comprehension.
The explorer sighs, knowing that whatever the mural’s purpose, it is entirely beyond her. She has no talent in magic; it is as foreign to her as the lowest reaches of the deepest ocean trench. The woman sighs again in frustration, the knowledge that she will never be able to fully study her discovery crushing her.
"Is magic the only thing that you desire?" comes a resonant, powerful voice from every direction at once! The explorer cries out in terror and draws a dagger. Her breathing becomes rapid with panic, and she casts about in every direction, searching for the source of the voice. She tries to stretch her senses to the limit, hoping to detect the speaker. There are no sounds, no smells, nor any motions in the darkness. She drops her torch and slowly starts to reach for a mummified bat wing in her pocket, hoping the magic contained within it will teleport her away before things became worse.
"You won’t need to resort to such measures if you are willing to help me, Shanayne," the Voice booms again. It comes from all directions, like last time, startling the explorer so badly with its suddenness that she drops the bat wing.
"Leave me alone!" she cries, grasping her dagger with both hands, while wondering if she can risk picking up the wing or not. She then realizes that the voice just said her name.
"I did, Shanayne," the Voice says, answering her thoughts. "I know everything about you, my dear."
"How?!" Shanayne demands, starting to panic. She knows that the wing at her feet is her only chance, but her muscles refuse to respond to her thoughts.
"You mind is an open book, dear Shanayne," the Voice answers, almost purring, "I know your every thought, your every success and every failure. I am aware of your innermost wishes, and I am willing to grant them to you. I know that you desire to practice the art of magic, you all but screamed it in your thoughts a moment ago. This I can grant to you."
Shanayne pauses at the Voice’s promise. "Yes, dear Shanayne, I know you desire magic. You spent your childhood wanting nothing more than a chance to join the Magic Guild of Vane. You finally gained that chance two years ago, but you could not even control the simplest of magical energies.
"You tried with all you might, dear Shanayne. How many sleepless nights did you spend working to bend the forces of magic to your will? Yet those who gave but a fraction of your effort mastered sorcery, while you were left with nothing. You were eventually asked to leave, after your dream was crushed beyond repair; you were an embarassment to the Magic Guild. All that was left to you was the knowledge of history and archeology that you learned during your studies there, little more than a token for your suffering. All you had left was crawling through the ruins of ancient times, hoping to forget the ruins of your shattered dreams."
Terror no longer paralyzes Shanayne. Still, she does not flee. Her head bowed, tears well in the corner of her eyes. That Voice, that damnable Voice, had just laid her secret shame and her greatest failure before her. There was no sympathy or blame in that Voice, just cold truth. No one knew how badly her failure hurt her, no one but this apathetic presence that had just plundered every secret of her life and doesn’t care about her pain one bit. It had hit her with her failure in the most painful way it could. Not even the disdain of the Magic Guild hurt so much as the Voice's words...
"Who are you?" Shanayne asks weakly, "Why are you tormenting me like this?"
"I do not torment you, dear Shanayne," the voice replies, "I am revealing the truth to you. The truth is often painful, but it is not always absolute. I can grant you the power to use magic, dear Shanayne. Try to call forth light, and witness the truth of my words."
Unsure of what to do, Shanayne obeys. The mural, the flickering glow of the torch by her feet, the surrounding darkness and the smell of dust all fade way as she starts to concentrate. Alien words start to flow from Shanayne’s voice in a song as she concentrates on reaching out with her mind. Her instructors and tutors described the experience of spellcasting to her a thousand times, but Shanayne never knew what they were truly talking about until she felt it at that moment.
A kind of shock races through her body, sending an electric tingle through her every nerve ending! It catches her completely off guard, making her trip over the final words of the invocation. Sudden despair fills her as the electric tingle starts to leech away.
Shanayne opens her eyes, and immediately shuts them again as light shines into them! The light quickly fades to the brightness of a torch, allowing Shanayne to peer into the little sphere of illumination floating before her. It takes her moment to comprehend that the light was something she created, magic from her on words, her own actions! Finally, after so much effort and so much suffering, the forces of magic have at last responded to her will! Shanayne stares into the light, the vestiges of colors roiling within it entrancing her, while she savors the delicious remnants of magic within her body. She hardly notices when the Voice speaks to her again.
"This is the very least that I can bestow upon you, dear Shanayne. What you have done is nothing beside the wonders that I can grant. Do you desire more? Your years of work and suffering have yielded you a single spell. I can show you much more, magic that not even the greatest adept could learn within the time that you have studied. The euphoria you felt pales in comparison to what you can experience."
"Show me," Shanayne answers, daring to believe in her dream of being a sorceress once more.
The Voice does not answer as foreign words and gestures trickle into Shanayne’s mind. The newly awakened sorceress hardly thinks about them as she starts to weave her hands in the intricate gestures of the incantation and sing the alien words. Unlike the previous spell, there is no sudden shock of power. Instead, it collects like water dripping into a barrel. The energy slowly builds up within her body, gradually spreading its pleasant tingling to her each and every nerve.
Then, it continues to collect, intensifying from a pleasant tingle to a rapturous flame that exceeds every physical pleasure Shanayne has ever experienced! It is almost impossible for her to maintain enough concentration to finish the spell, until the alien syllables suddenly give way to a wordless song. Shanayne sings that melody with every ounce of her being, channeling every drop of ecstasy from energy coursing through her into a beautiful, passionate song that echoes throughout every corner of the chamber!
Then, the energy flows away, and Shanayne’s consciousness follows...
Pleasant warmth flows through her, giving Shanayne something to focus on. Pitch darkness surrounds her, but it is a pleasing kind of darkness. The gloom deprives her of any distractions from her other senses, allowing Shanayne to fully savor the last vestiges of magic flowing through her body. Slowly, memories of the spell she had cast return to her, allowing her to enjoy the afterglow all the better.
The spell was complex beyond anything she had seen or heard of. No records of such powerful magic exist in the Library of Vane, nor in any other book she had seen. Such a spell might be parallel to the legendary magicks that set Vane afloat in the distant past. The thought of casting such a spell sends a thrill down Shanayne’s spine.
Only then does she wonder what the spell’s effect may have been. Curious, Shanayne pushes herself off the floor. Her hand touches the burnt remains of the torch that she had carried into the chamber. She feels the charred end of it, and finds that it is cold. From this, Shanayne surmises that she must have been out for several hours. Her light spell must have faded soon after she blacked out. As she sits in the middle of the darkened chamber, she tries to figure out what to do next. She holds the torch in her hand, she realizes that she can actually see a very, very faint outline of it in the pitch darkness. Suspicious, she looks back, and sees that the mural is glowing with a faint white light; so weak that it is almost undetectable if she looks away.
Shanayne crawls over to the mural, and studies it. Every line softly emanates a weak glow, looking as though someone had painted white lines upon a black canvas. Shanayne softly traces a few of the lines with her finger, until she becomes aware of another presence in the chamber. It makes no sounds, nor can it be seen, but the newly awakened sorceress knows that it is there.
"Is it you?" Shanayne asks, realizing that she still has no idea who or what the Voice truly is.
"Yes," the Voice answers. It still seems to come from every direction at once, but it also seems as though it is focused before her. Shanayne is tempted to cast a light spell and see who or what the Voice truly is. She quickly dismisses the idea, not wanting to anger the one that gave her so great a gift, and could possibly reclaim it.
"Who are you?" The sorceress asks instead.
"It is not important for you to know who I am, dear Shanayne," the Voice answers, "It is enough that you be grateful for the gifts I have given you. In turn, I am most pleased with the service you have given me."
"What service?" Shanayne asks.
"You have freed me with you marvelous song, dear Shanayne," the Voice answers. "Your magic has shattered the bindings that held me since before the birth of your world. Now, I am ready to grant you an even greater boon."
The words and gestures of a new spell flood into Shanayne’s mind, a spell much simpler than the magicks she had worked earlier. She waits until knowledge of the entire spell comes to her this time, then casts it with little more than a second thought. White light gently overwhelms the sorceress’s vision, and she is overcome by a feeling of weightlessness...
The light fades away to reveal a world vastly different from the one that Shanayne was in a moment ago. The atmosphere presses in upon her from all directions like a lead weight, the air so thick she can feel it flood her lungs as she gasps in surprise! It takes her a moment to realize that she is underwater, and that she can breath normally despite her surroundings.
She hardly feels the cool water as anything more than a constant pressure around her; it is more like thick air than anything else. After realizing where she is and that the spell brought her here, Shanayne begins to look around. She stands in a vast chamber made of marble and blue crystal, on a landing at the bottom of the room. A stairway extends from the landing to a platform some distance above her. Weak sunlight filters in from above, giving wavy illumination to the huge chamber. A number of fish swim through the flooded chamber, some in schools, others alone. Silt covers a portion of the floor to Shanayne’s left and a mass of seaweed clings to it tenaciously.
The sorceress stands in awe of her surroundings, watching with wonder as school of blue-scaled fish the size of her little finger swim toward her, and seamlessly part to pass around her. A squid as long as her leg jets past about twenty feet above her. The sea life seems to be obvious to her presence, as if they hardly considered her noticeable, let alone a possible threat.
Shanayne notices something silvery lying in the seaweed. Curious, the sorceress swims over to the tangled fronds and gingerly reaches in to touch the mysterious silvery object, while hoping that no angry fish hide amongst the foliage. Her fingers caress the cool, metallic surface of the artifact, and Shanayne begins to pull it from the mud carefully. The object is somewhat heavy, but the sorceress frees it with no trouble.
Nearly three feet in length, most of the silvery artifact is covered with a thick layer of mud and seaweed roots. Still, there is no doubt that it is a sword. Shanayne reaches back into her pack for a brush, then stops and thinks for a moment. The sorceress chants a few quick words, and waves her hand over the blade. The mud and roots slide away easily, dissolving into nothing in the surrounding water.
The weapon, completely cleansed by Shanayne’s magic, shows no signs of rust or tarnish. It gleams like new in the weak light, giving the sorceress no clues whatsoever to its age. The silvery blade is etched with a number of runes, none of which holds any meaning that Shanayne can decipher. The crossguards split into three bars at each side of the hilt, giving a vaguely wing-like shape. The hilt and crossguards are lined with a number of amethysts, each shedding a nearly imperceptible glow. The weapon is superbly balanced, and feels light as a feather as the sorceress holds properly. A faint amethyst aura starts to glow around the weapon, becoming stronger with each second.
After examining it closely and failing to decipher anything about the blade, Shanayne tucks it away at the side of her pack, in a loop designed to hold a pickaxe. Then, she swims upward; the act reviving memories of her younger days spent playing in Meribia Harbor. She swims toward the platform after a moment of reveling in the sense of freedom she feels at leaving the ground below. The sea creatures dart out of her way as she approaches.
She sets down on the stairway, perhaps a few feet from the balcony. Walking up toward the platform, Shanayne is very surprised to find that the water pressure suddenly disappears as she steps onto it! It takes her a moment to realize that she just walked out of the water and into a pocket of air centered on the platform.
The platform is not very remarkable. It is shaped like a hexagon, about five feet to each side, and has a sort of pedestal or altar at the far end. The altar is a little below waist height, made of the purest white marble. Lightly engraved on the pedestal is a symbol that Shanayne does not recognize.
"Where am I?" She wonders aloud, voicing thoughts that have been with her since she appeared in the watery chamber.
"You are deep beneath the New Sea, dear Shanayne," answers the Voice from nowhere, not at all distorted by the water. "Surely you can guess where you stand now."
Shanayne looks around, trying to examine the chamber under all the lairs of lichens, seaweed, and indigenous life. She tries to figure out where all the marble and crystal came from and what purpose the structure might have served once. She notices a corridor leading away from the chamber, not too far from where she was standing earlier. Suddenly, the answer comes to her.
"It couldn’t be," she says to herself.
"But it is exactly that, dear Shanayne," the Voice answers. "You stand in the remains of the legendary fortress of Althena."
"But it was destroyed during Ghaleon’s betrayal," she counters, "nearly five hundred years ago!"
"Do you really think that the home of Althena would be so easily destroyed?’ the Voice replies, dripping with condescension. "It had drawn itself back together only a few months after it collapsed. It has rested beneath the waves since then. Now, approach the dais and witness why I have brought you here."
Shanayne steps forward and the pedestal flares with soft yellow light. An image resolves within it, that of an old woman. She is dressed in the clothes of a well-to-do peasant, their simple charm a sharp contrast to her strong face. The years rest firmly upon her, showing her advanced years clearly. The remnants of once-striking beauty cling to her, but youth left her some time ago. The translucent image regards Shanayne with a matronly gaze and a little smile, then speaks.
"Lucia, the Goddess Althena does not exist any longer in this world," the image says with a calm, powerful voice. "Let me explain so that you will understand. My task, as Althena, was to lead the humans and control the power of the Silver Star, so that one day, when the Blue Star was reborn, the humans could return, and we could begin anew. However, Lucia, I came to know that while I existed, the humans were not truly happy. They lacked a sense of self-reliance, a sense of pride in their accomplishments. They had become too dependent upon me.
"When I last came to this world in human form, something quite marvelous happened. I returned to this world, as I had many times previously. However, this time I was born into the form of a girl named Luna. As Luna, I grew and fell in love with a Dragonmaster, named Alex. It was to be my final rebirth."
The image starts to dissolve, and her voice fades, "You see, I chose to remain a human and surrender my immortality..." The words wane too low for Shanayne to hear, and the image disappears completely.
Shanayne falls into stunned silence, hardly able to think. She knew about the cycle of rebirth that the goddess went through every few centuries, but she never suspected that Althena might have elected to remain mortal! If Althena were truly gone, how would the people all over Lunar react when they learned of it? Could the peace between humans, beastmen, and the Vile Tribe last without a common faith to bind them together? Would people continue to lead moral lives without Althena to reward them for it with her love and guidance?
"Now you see the truth, dear Shanayne," the Voice echoes powerfully. "Althena is gone."
"Why have you shown me this?" Shanayne demands firmly, "Why have you brought me to this ruin? Nothing good can come of this!"
"That is true, dear Shanayne," the Voice replies. "This is why you will make sure that humanity shall never discover this ruin, that they never learn the truth. And to make sure that humans never learn that Althena has forsaken them, you shall replace her."
Replace... Althena?" Shanayne repeats dully.
"Yes, dear Shanayne," the voice answers, "You know as well as I that humans need the goddess to guide them. You have studied the history of Lunar. You know well the bloody wars that take place when faith begins to wane. You recall the betrayal of the Vile Trbe, and their expulsion to the Frontier. You know how the Heretic Wars of Dragonmaster Dyne's era began, before the Goddess was reborn.
"Already, you can feel tension returning to Lunar, can you not, dear Shanayne? You know all too well the destruction of Lyton by the Pao tribe. You have seen the unchecked crime and vices of Raculi. You have witnessed the boundless greed of Nota. You also know of Vane's decadence; that you should be all too familiar with, dear Shanayne. Can you deny that the East is slowly being sapped of its vitality, becoming a desert where there were once verdant plains?
"The world needs Althena. Faith in her ideals is waning. The people of Lunar have gone too long without the Goddess's loving guidance. They need her, lest they stray to far from the path of peace. But Althena is gone, dear Shanayne. Thus, you must take her place.
"It is a difficult task, but there are rewards, dear Shanayne. I shall grant you eternal youth and limitless power, both the rightful inheritance of a goddess. You shall be greater than any wizard in the history of Lunar, greater than any saint or any hero. Magicks far beyond the imagination of humanity shall be yours. Lunar itself shall be at your command. It would be within your power to forge a perfect world, dear Shanayne, to shape a flawless society where ignorance does not exist, where there is no poverty or needless suffering."
"How could you grant me such power?" Shanayne demands, "Who are you?"
"Who I am is not important, dear Shanayne," the Voice tells her, "Would you let such petty concerns keep you from achieving power beyond the grasp of the mightiest archwizard?"
"Who was Althena’s message intended for?" Shanayne inquires, hoping to make the voice reveal something of itself through other questions. "Who is Lucia?"
"Lucia is the greatest threat Lunar will ever face, dear Shanayne," the Voice answers, "She will someday come to Lunar from the Blue Star, and destroy all life in a vain attempt to defeat me. She stands against all life, all existence with her hateful passion to destroy me. She envies my power, and desires to destroy me to compensate for her own weakness. She is your enemy just as she is mine."
"Was it Lucia who sealed you away?" the sorceress asks, hoping to learn more of the Voice if she could not have its name.
"Yes, dear Shanayne," the Voice answers, "Long before humans dwelt upon Lunar, she surprised me and sealed me away. Althena managed to do the same to Lucia, and bind her to the Blue Star. She will return some day, to finish her work, destroying both Lunar and I in the same blow. It will be your duty to aid me in defeating her, if you accept the offer I make you. Not even Lucia the Destroyer will be able to stand before the power that I will grant to you. With my strength backing you, she will be nothing before you, dear Shanayne."
A thousand thoughts race though Shanayne’s mind as she considers the Voice’s offer. Uncertain if she can actually trust the mysterious and evasive entity, the sorceress’ first instinct is to refuse. Still, Shanayne cannot deny that it granted her fondest with to her. It granted her magic. It is willing to grant her more. Already, it has shown her things no other mortal has ever witnessed. It revealed to her the truth about Althena, it showed her a ruin that none but the fish have witnessed before. The Voice offers her the opportunity to shape the world into something better.
"I sense you are hesitant, dear Shanayne," the voice says, it's omnipresent booming tempered with concern.
"I want to know who you are," the newly-awakened sorceress answers. "I want to know more about you."
"Very well," answers the Voice. "I shall not tell you my name, for invoking it risks awakening the Destroyer and drawing her here to Lunar. But I shall tell you who I am, in gratitude for releasing my seal. You have no doubt heard the legends of humanity's origins on the Blue Star. These legends are very true. And I know this, for I once dwelt there at Althena's side, for I am her brother.
"Once, humanity thrived on the Blue Star, in a civilization to which nothing on Lunar can ever aspire. On the Blue star, there was no Frontier, no boundaries to the abundance of life. Then the Destroyer came. She bore anger in her heart toward the thriving abundance there. Lucia envied the living paradise that was the Blue Star, and desired only its destruction.
"And she succeeded, dear Shanayne, when she sealed me away. For I was responsible for that abundance, Althena and I. Our powers resonated and amplified each other, creating abundance far beyond what either of us could make alone. When Lucia sealed me away, she disrupted that resonance between Althena and I; the Blue Star began to wither and die. The Goddess had to use all of her power to seal Lucia away, further ravaging the beleaguered Blue Star. What was left in the wake of Lucia's sealing was a wasteland. Althena had no choice but to come to Lunar, and start anew."
"Why did Althena not free you?" Shanayne questions.
"Because Lucia's power and Althena's are too different." The voice answers, "Those drawing upon Althena's magic could not harm the seal. And no one who had touched Althena's magic could draw upon my own. Althena eventually gave up, and I was forgotten. It was purely a stroke of luck that you came, knowledgible in magic, yet untainted by Althena's power. Now Althena is gone, and you must take her place so that we may stand against Lucia together."
For a moment, Shanayne stands silent. "I will accept," she decides, "Lunar needs a Goddess..."
"Then the one known as Shanayne is dead," the Voice declares. "From this moment onward, you shall be known as the goddess Althena. However, the goddess requires a Dragonmaster. Draw forth the sword you found, and place it on the ground before you."
Althena does so, and gasps as the faint amethyst glow lingering from her touch is suddenly engulfed in a yellow nimbus! The nimbus expands; Althena steps away to avoid touching it. Soon it has expanded well over seven feet in diameter, and a silhouette appears in it. The shadow is in the shape of a man that stands well over a foot taller than Althena!
The shade remains motionless for a moment; then it steps forward. As it leaves the golden halo, the figure takes substance. He is dressed in black, with a matching cloak. Slender, almost unnaturally so, his skin is deathly pale; nearly as much as his white-gray hair. His ears are pointed, betraying some beastman heritage. Around his left eye are scales, bright purple in hue.
The man coolly examines his surroundings; his icy gaze taking in the fish swimming past him a mere yards away as if it were a common occurrence. Althena has seen this man before! Or rather, she has seen a picture of him before. It hangs in the library of Vane, gazing back those who look at it with that same cool gaze and a mysterious little smile.
"You're Ghaleon!" she exclaims, "You’re the Magic Emperor!" Her thoughts race as she stares at him. He is to be my Dragonmaster?! But why? Why would the Voice choose Ghaleon? Does it sympathize with the traitor who tried to steal Althena's power? Is this to be Ghaleon's redemption? Or did it simply choose Ghaleon to help me fight off Lucia? Certainly, the talents of one of the most powerfuil sorcerers to ever walk Lunar will be helpful in that regard.
"So," Ghaleon says, his voice naturally prone to sacasm. "You are the new Althena." The mocking laughter that follows this observation echoes throughout the entire chamber, chilling Shanayne to the depths of her soul