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Grunli walked down the ancient trail arm in arm with his grandfather. His brothers and sisters had shunned the activity long ago, but he enjoyed the time he got to spend with the old man. As they made the daily trek to the crumbling old ruin, his grandfather would regale him with all the ancient myths and legends of their people. It was a fascinating look into the superstitions and culture of generations long past, plus he enjoyed the sound of his Grandpa’s voice. Almost nobody believed in the Old Ways anymore. Modern science and technology had taken residence in the imaginations of the people and forced out such simple beliefs.
The old sagas were fanciful stories of primeval beings born of the night and giving laws, agriculture, and technology. Now, with the recent invention of the Steam Engine by the Engineer’s Guild, his people were entering into a fascinating new modern age. Just five years ago they had discovered how to generate and harness Electricity for lighting using water wheels. If you were lucky, you could even see one of the new lighter-than-air sky ships as it carried passengers from city to city. Progress and abundance were promised with every new discovery.
Yet, there was something captivating, and maybe even a little magical, about slowing down and taking the time to walk the beaten old path. The deep antiquity of the daily tradition infused a mysterious kind of meaning into it. For over three thousand years his people, and his family in particular, had performed the rituals of the Ou’ardayeen, the Ancient Ones. His grandfather was the last of an unbroken line of priests reaching all the way back to the construction of the temple.
“What are you thinking about in that sharp mind of yours, Grunli? You have been quiet the whole time and we are almost half way there.”
His head jerked a little as he glanced over to see his grandfather looking at him. Even though he was old, his eyes were as lively and sharp as when he was a young man.
“Oh, nothing really. I was just thinking of how much I enjoy walking the trail with you every day and hearing the old stories.”
The old man patted Grunli’s arm and said, “Yes, not many left to tell them these days. Maybe just me.”
They walked a few more steps before he continued, “The belief in the Ancient Ones is like this trail we walk. Back in my youth, it was a broad, and easy. Many trod it to honor the Old Ways. Now, the trail is nearly overgrown, and roots tangle my old feet if I go it alone. But, in spite of all that, the trail remains. It will remain, as long as someone is there to walk it. It is important we never lose the path.”
As if the old man planned it, and he probably did, they both stepped over a vine-like root crossing the trail.
“Grandpa, I have been accepted into the Technological Institute in Brodenia. I will be leaving next month.”
The old man stopped walking for a moment and looked at Grunli. For just a moment, he saw a vapor of sadness and regret cross the old man’s face, before it was replaced by a warm smile.
The elderly priest shook his arm and beamed, “That’s wonderful my boy, simply wonderful! You have been studying to get in for what, two years now?”
“Two and a half, yes. It is a great opportunity.”
“Indeed it is. I am very proud of you. And your parents, may they rest peacefully in the Ancient’s Embrace, would have been too. I am sure you will make a very fine engineer.”
He appreciated his grandfather’s words, but despite his optimism Grunli knew he had wounded the old man. Ever since his parents died in the accident, the family had grown apart. It was obvious that none of his siblings wanted to take on the mantle of being a Priest of the Old Ways. All it meant was a paltry stipend from the government covering the barest of essentials, and a commitment to a mythology becoming more irrelevant with each passing day.
“I’m sorry, Grandfather. I know you were hoping I would take your place as the priest one day. I just don’t think that is the life I want for myself.”
He felt the old man squeeze his arm tightly as he said, “There’s nothing you need to apologize for. It’s a new world out there, an exciting world. There is little a daily walk to an old pile of stones and reciting ancient incantations can do to compare with that. If you could humor an old man though, there is something I should show you at the temple today.”
“Sure, Grandpa. Of course.”
The path opened up and they saw the ancient building. It was a large pyramid made of huge grey cut masonry blocks set in a courtyard of stone. The jungle would have overtaken many of the old buildings but for Grandfather. There were neither intrusive vines crawling up the side of the structure, nor upstart weeds growing in the cracks of the pavers. The man had spent a lifetime carefully tending the area, and it was a testament to the seriousness with which he took his task as priest and caretaker.
As they entered the dark foyer, Grunli walked to a shelf and retrieved an oil lamp. Lighting it, they proceeded down the dark hallways to the central chamber.
He always liked this part. It felt like he was traveling back in time to descent into the dark interior. When he was younger, he thought if he strained hard enough he could hear the echoes of the ancient chants and rituals that once honored this place. Beautiful murals adorned the walls, still as vibrant as the day they were painted thanks to their never seeing the face of the sun.
Vivid images showing the digging of irrigation canals, the construction of buildings, and the formation of government were masterfully portrayed. As the visitor traveled down the hallway it told a story to them. Subtle textures in the walls made the images seem to move as the unsteady light of the lamp passed by.
When they reached the end of the hallway, above the door was the image of the Ou’ardayen. It had strange, long limbs and was surrounded by a pantheon of other celestial beings depicted in stylized animal motifs. In all the murals, the Ancient Ones were always represented as smaller than the rest, even than one of his own people.
He stood staring at the image and said, “It’s strange. I never thought about it before, but the Ancient Ones are always portrayed as being small. They are almost diminutive compared to the other divine beings, and even smaller than us. That doesn’t make much sense. I would think the artists would have portrayed them stronger, and larger.”
“Good!” his grandfather replied, “You see the lesson in it?”
Turning his head away from the image he said, “I’m afraid I don’t, Grandpa.”
Gesturing broadly at the hallway paintings the priest said, “These things were not done through strength of arm, but of mind. The Ancient Ones were not conquerors; they were teachers, instructing us in how to live better. They were powerful, to be sure, but that is not what made them mighty.”
Grunli nodded slightly and said, “You’ve told the story so many times I know it by heart. In the Before Times, famine, disease, and war plagued the land. Then, servants of the darkness came and enslaved the world. After uncounted centuries of captivity, our tears and cries went unanswered and we stopped asking. Hope was lost, until one night a new star was born to die in the constellation of the Huntress, Harlana. From the night sky came the Ou’ardayeen. They fell upon our enslavers and banished them from our lands. They then gave us the gifts of civilization and promised never to abandon us to the darkness again.”
His grandfather walked in front of him and faced him with a smile. The angle of the light highlighted his wrinkles and suddenly the old priest looked tired, and worn.
“You have learned the old truths well, my grandson. These words weren’t made for the dusty tomes of old libraries, to sit awaiting rediscovery by some future scholar so they might one day see the sun again. They were spoken in the beginning, and spoken they have remained since the beginning. At least I can go to my grave knowing these ancient truths have found a home in a living, breathing mind and heart.”
At this, the old man sat heavily on one of the stone benches, “Could you do me a favor?”
“Of course, what is it?”
Gesturing around the room, he said, “My knee has been acting up with the weather lately. Do you think you could perform the ritual today?”
Grunli was stunned. His grandfather had never asked him to do it before, despite years of sitting to the side on that very bench and watching.
“Are you sure? Isn’t that against the rules or something?”
At this the old man straightened up and said, “Oh, you may be right. Let me see if it is okay with the other priests.”
He looked to his left and then to his right asking, “Does anyone have a problem with my grandson performing the ritual today? If so, speak up.”
He waited for a moment, putting a hand to his ear and straining toward the darkness.
He lowered his hand and said, “Well, it looks like they aren’t answering. I’m pretty sure it’s because they’re all dead.”
He broke into a broad smile and started laughing. Grunli joined him and they filled the ancient hall with a rare sound in the dark and hallowed chamber.
When they were done, Grandfather waved a hand at the boy and said, “You have seen it so many times I bet you could do it blindfolded.”
Grunli, still recovering from the laughter, said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“Care to make a wager on it?”
Grunli quirked his head to the side and asked, “A wager? What do you have to wager with? No offense Grandpa, but your stipend doesn’t even cover new sandals every season.”
The old priest leaned forward and said, “If you are able to do the ritual blindfolded, I will show you a part of the temple you have never seen before.”
He was skeptical at that offer. He had been to this temple every day with the old man for years. He was positive there was nowhere he hadn’t seen.
“Come on, there’s no such place. I know every square inch of this place and you know as much.”
Grandfather’s eyes sparkled now as he said, “I stand by my bet. Take it or leave it.”
The idea of seeing something new in the temple intrigued him, and he said, “Yeah, you have a bet.”
“Good, come over here then and let’s get started.”
They two of them moved over to the entry doorway, and the Priest took off the sash from around his waist and tied it around the head of the younger man.
“There you go,” Grandfather said, “No peeking now or the bet is off.”
Grunli felt a small thrill of excitement as he began.
From his position in the entry doorway, he took twelve steps forward and reached out his left hand to touch the Pillar of Self.
He solemnly recited the words of the ritual in the Ancient Tongue, “The knowledge of self begins the journey.”
He turned to his right and took three steps forward and placed his right hand on the Table of Light.
“May the Light of The Ancients guide my way.”
He took six steps backward, and spun to face the opposite direction to touch the Pedestal of Sight.
“With eyes unclouded, I see all things.”
Sidestepping to the left, he placed both hands on the Altar of War.
“To battle the darkness that threatens life.”
Taking three steps back and turning to the right, he put his right hand on the Podium of the Promise.
“With the help of the Ancients, shall I overcome all evil.”
He waited for a moment, and after a handful of seconds his grandfather began clapping.
“Well done! Well done indeed my boy!”
He reached up and took the blindfold off.
His grandfather walked over to him without any hint of pain in his knee and said, “Now, I have a debt to pay.”
The old priest guided him to one of the antechambers off the main hall. It was a map room he had been in countless times before. On the floor was a miniature representation of the main hall, down to the tiniest detail.
“Uh, Grandpa, I have been in here before.”
Smiling at him, the priest said, “Do you know the name of this room?”
“Yeah, it has the name inscribed above the doorway. This is the Keyless Gate.”
The priest smiled at him and said, “It gladdens my heart to know you remember what I taught you about the Old Tongue. What do you think it means?”
“Honestly, I always thought it was some kind of metaphor or something.”
He paused for a moment then continued, “My main memory of this place was when I was playing as a little boy in here and I broke the miniatures. I always appreciated you for fixing it and not telling mom and dad.”
Surprise shone clearly on Grandfather’s face as he asked, “What are you talking about?”
“You don’t remember? A whole bunch of them got pushed into the floor.”
“Not in the least, what are you talking-“
They were interrupted by a distant booming sound that echoed through the halls. They exchanged a glance and Grandfather said, “I think we need to see what that was. I will show you the rest tomorrow.”
Together they made their way out of the ancient structure and were soon back on the path.
Grunli asked as he assisted the older man, “Do you think one of the sky ships exploded?”
Looking aloft, Grandfather said, “No, what we heard was more like thunder, but the sky is clear today.”
They made their way toward the ancient stone house. The huge standing stone in the front of the house greeted them through the trees. It had carved into it the symbol of the Ou’ardayeen. It was nearly as old as the temple, and the house was apparently built not long after.
The structure was terribly out of date by modern standards. Even to the casual observer, however, the marks of improvements and renovations done over the ages could be seen. It was in a horrible state of disrepair; its only positive attributes were the high ceilings and exquisite antique stained glass windows. That didn’t really make up for the drawbacks, however.
About sixty years ago, the former High Priest, Grunli’s Great-grandfather, began a renovation project but ran out of money due to reductions in government support. The resulting repairs left many poorly patched, and very drafty, holes in the walls. Some of the larger ones you could even see daylight through. Grunli had promised himself he would make sure they were boarded up better before he left for the Institute.
There was a series of three more of the deep booming noises and when he went outside to investigate, he saw strange clouds in the sky. They went on for miles, and were as straight as an arrow. He had never seen anything like it before.
As he was wondering over them, a blast of wind nearly took him off his feet. He shut his eyes against the blowing dust and vegetation and pushed his hands tight against his ears. Despite his efforts, the sound was painfully loud.
He cracked his eyes open and through blurred vision saw a massive shadow descending out of the sky toward him. He struggled to his feet and began taking unsteady steps toward the door. As he reached it, his grandfather ushered him in and closed the door.
Even inside, they both had to shout to be heard.
Grandfather asked, “What did you see? What is happening?”
“Three clouds in the sky, straight, and extending nearly to the horizon.”
Grunli was taken aback at his grandpa’s reaction. He went pale, eyes opened wide, and nearly fell backward. If the dining table hadn’t been there to catch him he would have fallen.
“What is it Grandpa? What’s going on?”
The old man didn’t answer, but turned stiffly and walked over to a cabinet. It was the one that held the most ancient scrolls of their faith. Shaking, he withdrew a key he wore around his neck and attempted to fit it into the lock. Seeing he was unable, Grunli moved close and folded his hands around his grandfather’s and gently helped him open it. With trembling hands, the old man hastily examined and discarded scroll after scroll. The priceless texts started making pile on the floor as he searched.
About half of the scrolls were discarded when the rumbling sound outside stopped.
Grunli started moving to the door to take a look outside when Grandfather spat, “Wait! It’s not safe!”
He retreated back to stand next to his grandfather and asked, “What has you so scared Grandpa?”
He got no answer until the priest found the scroll he was so desperately searching for. It looked older than the others, if such a thing were possible. Taking it to the table, the old clergyman began tracing his finger on the page and reading words in a strange tongue barely over a whisper.
Suddenly stopping, he exclaimed, “Here! Here it is! ‘The Servants of Darkness descended on the earth. Their voices boomed like thunder and their passing rent the skies like a mighty beast.’”
The old man looked at Grunli and immediately the younger man understood: the ancient evil had returned.
“You must hide my boy, you are not safe. They will know I am a servant of the Ancient Ones, even now they are at the door.”
“What?”
“Here, hide here,” the old man said, pulling one of the looser wooden patches away from its place. Behind it was a half finished walkway to a long abandoned extension to the house.
“But what about you? There’s room for both of us, you can hide too.”
“Obey me now, my child. I am old, and no threat to them. If they find me maybe they will not search the house.”
Grunli protested and took his grandfather’s arm, “How can you know?”
The old man gently took his grandson’s hand off his arm and said, “Grunli, my wonderful boy, it has to be you. I am too old. Summoning the Ancients takes a knowledge of the Old Ways, and a member of our bloodline. That’s why it has always been passed from parent to child within our family. You and I are all that’s left, don’t you see? You alone of your generation have the tools to do what must be done. The mantle now passes to you.”
“But I don’t know how to do that. It has to be you. You are the High Priest. Your whole life you have been training for this.”
“No, my boy, my whole life I spent passing on my knowledge to someone worthy. I spent it preparing you. I am old and full of years. If my time has come, it will rest on you to save our people.”
With that, he pushed Grunli into the hollow and replaced the patch. There were strange whining noises outside followed by the sound of heavy footsteps on metal.
Moving to the opposite side of the room, Grandfather looked at the front door and spoke, “So much to tell you but so little time. In the Keyless Gate, you must push the symbols in the same order as-“
The door exploded inward showering the room with splinters. The shockwave from the burst threw Grandfather against the wal.. What Grunli saw next caused his blood to run cold.
There in the doorway was a creature standing head and shoulders above the tallest of his own people, and twice as wide. Muscles rippled under its skin as it stepped cautiously into the room. It had a thin coat of flat fur covering its whole body, rectangular ears high on its head, and a long, toothy snout. Perhaps most unsettling were its eyes. They were intelligent, and predatory. It wore some kind of metal armor, and carried an axe in one hand and what looked like some sort of firearm in the other. Seeing the old priest, it focused its attention on him.
Grunli was barely able to make out the speech of the creature. He recognized it as the Ancient Tongue, but its grammar and pronunciation were different than his grandfather taught him.
“Abomination of stone, outside you have. Old symbol of enemy. Where is enemy?”
Grandfather pushed off the wall and with an air of nobility Grunli had never seen from him answered in the Old Tongue, “I am the High Priest of the Ou’ardayeen. I serve the Old Ways. Go, return to the darkness, if you value your lives. If you remain, you will face destruction at the hands of the Mighty Ones.”
At the mention of the Ou’ardayeen, the creatures pointed ears flattened against its head and it darted cautious looks around the room.
It replied, “Tell me, you will, or death I will give you.”
Seeing its reaction to the words, Grandfather’s expression became resolved and he said, “The Ou’ardayeen taught us to use words of peace. Such words are our solution to conquer our strife. To defeat the Servants of Darkness, the sword is the key.”
A deep rumbling growl came from the creature and in one swift motion it stepped forward and slashed its axe through the last priest of the Old Ways. Grunli barely held back a cry as he watched the monster take something precious from him.
The creature leaned over the broken body of his Grandpa, and said, “Not words or sword can us defeat, old foolish one.”
Sorrow, anger, and terror all fought to gain control of him. Ultimately, terror won.
There, standing before him in the flesh, was one of the myths from the Before Times. When it began searching around the room, a fear older than antiquity, an echo of the forgotten horror born from centuries of slavery cried out for him to run away as fast as he could and never look back.
He waited, barely able to breathe as the monstrous hulk prowled around the room. It examined the holy artifacts collected there with the care of a barbarian. Pottery from ancient times was examined briefly then carelessly tossed aside to shatter on the intricate rugs covering the stone floor.
Eventually it was satisfied, or bored, enough to leave. Grunli heard the heavy footsteps on metal again, and soon the terrible rumble began. Dust and vegetation blew into the house through the shattered door. In less than a minute, the roar faded, and the wind subsided.
He never remembered how long he sat in that little hole, almost too scared to breathe. He was lost and outside of time. All he remembered later were the sounds of screaming and crying faintly filtered through the jungle, and the occasional deep rumble of an explosion.
When his senses returned, it was dark outside and the night chill was seeping into him. Slowly, he pushed the boards away and stepped into the room. There, on the floor, was the body of the man that raised him. Moonlight filtered through the stained glass and gently washed over him with pale motes of color. It was almost as if the sky itself wished to honor this fallen priest.
Grandfather’s face, even in death, held a noble and resolved expression. Grunli’s heart broke when he saw his Grandpa’s open eyes held none of the spark of life that burned so brightly in them just hours before. The sense of loss was crushing, and for a few long minutes all he could do was stand there under its weight. When he was able to move again, he reached down and closed the old man’s eyes and whispered the Prayer of the Departed over him. When he was finished, he reverently reached over and pulled one of the rugs over the body.
Then, he cried.
He cried deeply and bitterly, and when he was done, he stood and walked out of the door and made his way to the Temple Path.
Though it was dark, he needed no lamp. The moonlight filtering through the canopy above and his familiarity with the path meant his foot never faltered. When he reached the Temple, it was bathed in moonlight. The dark grey stones had lost the comfortable familiarity they possessed in sunlight. Now, the Temple looked like an alien, dangerous place.
He walked across the courtyard and into the entry foyer. Moving to the shelf with the lamp, he retrieved it and felt around for the sparker. He found it, and began trying to light the lamp. In the flashes of the sparks, he saw the wick had burned out. Shaking the lamp gently, he found there was also no oil left. He realized that in their haste to leave, neither of them had extinguished it.
They kept a little pair of scissors and a small bottle of lamp oil on the shelf and within moments he had located both. It was awkward in the dark to trim the wick and refill the lamp, but eventually he was walking down the ancient hallway, light in hand.
The murals held a new significance for him, as he saw them now not as myth or legend, but history. He recognized in the dark shadows of the depictions of the Before Times the forms of creatures he had now seen with his own eyes. As he hurried to the Main Hall, he wondered how many other truths were told in plain sight for any who had the eyes to see them.
The ominous sense of foreboding that struck him outside melted away as the lamp illuminated the familiar interior. Passing through the Main Hall to the antechambers, he soon stood facing the miniatures in the Keyless Gate room.
He remembered the last words his Grandfather spoke to him. He had been thinking of this since he left the house and he had an idea of what to do.
Reaching down, he pushed the tiny Pillar of Self down, and it slid into the floor. Next he moved his hand to push down on the Table of Light. Following the ritual, he pressed each of the pieces down and when he finished with the Podium of Promise, there was a loud clicking noise, followed by a loud, “Thunk” from the back wall. He picked up the lamp and moved to take a closer look.
There, he saw some of the stones were protruding out from the wall. Feeling around the edge, he found a groove carved into the side. Gripping the groove, he pulled and a section of the stone wall swung open to reveal a hidden passage beyond. How many times had he been in this room and had no idea what mysteries lay just steps away?
His thoughts were interrupted by an unfortunately familiar sound. The deep rumbling he had heard before was being filtered and echoed through the halls of the Temple.
He ran back to the entrance as fast as he could. Concerned about betraying his position, he shielded the lamp light with his hand as he moved toward the entrance to the Temple. About half way through the first tunnel with the mural, he placed the lamp on the ground and used the flicker of light to guide him the rest of the way.
When he arrived, he hid his body inside the doorway and leaned his head out to the side to get a good look at the cause of the noise. There, in the courtyard, was one of the great sky ships of the Servants of Darkness. It stood on three great legs, and large pods on its sides glowed with blue fire as the wind it produced scoured the stone.
The fire and sound died away, and a ramp opened from the bottom. Heavy footsteps banged against the metal as six of the Evil Ones he had seen before descended. In front of them, they harshly pushed one of his own people down the ramp.
“This, this is the place,” he stammered, pointing to the Temple.
The creatures spoke in the Ancient Tongue, “Speak sense, or death we will give.”
Realizing his mistake, the man again gestured at the Temple and said perhaps the only word from ancient times most people still knew, “Ou’ardayeen.”
The creatures looked at the temple, then began slowly and cautiously walking past the man toward the entrance.
The man dropped to his knees and his words were barely audible to Grunli, “Oh thank the Old Ones, they are going to let me live.”
As they walked, the last of the monsters to pass by casually reached out one of the strange firearms toward the man and a ball of what looked like green electricity leapt from the device. When it hit him, he screamed and writhed as green sparks danced over his body. When they faded, he fell to the side and made no more sound.
The creatures began making a strange, rhythmic sound. He soon realized it was laughter. He stood, peering, shocked at the casual way these creatures extinguished life.
As he was fighting revulsion, he was blinded by a brilliant beam of light. He closed his eyes and pulled his head back out of sight and blinked.
“Saw something, perhaps,” he heard one of the creatures say, “Cautious we walk.”
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He hit the mural pieces and the lamp bounced out of his hand. It tumbled through the air, spilling the oil as it went, landing in the hallway on the other side of the door. The lamp rolled to a rest, barely touching the wick’s flame to the flammable liquid now covering a large area of the floor. The pool caught fire with a quiet, “Fwoompf,” and the room lit up with more light than it had possibly ever known.
He knew that was going to act like a beacon drawing them straight to him. If anyone were in the Main Hall looking down toward the path to the antechambers, it would be impossible to miss. When they got here, the pool of fire would point them directly into the mysterious hallway.
As he quickly stood up, he heard a loud click under him and looked down. The miniature pieces were returning to their positions. He heard the soft grating of stone and saw the door starting to close. Doing his best to avoid the pool of fire, he edged his way past the door just before it closed. He jumped over what remained of the pool of oil and retrieved the lamp. It would still burn for a little while, but he had minutes at most. After that, he would be alone in the dark with no knowledge of how to get out, if that were even still possible.
He made his way down the corridor and after a few steps the path began descending down. He followed it, and after one or two minutes it opened up to a huge room. His little circle of light faded to black after a few paces, and was unable to reach the far walls. Turning to look back at the entrance, he saw a large frieze on one of the wall to his left, and rough cut stone on the right.
Raising the lamp, he moved toward the carvings and saw it was a retelling of the story from the hallway at the beginning of the temple. As he followed along the wall, he saw it included more details of the story than he was familiar with. Also, the artistic style was more basic, and there were many deep shadows his tiny light could not penetrate.
Continuing, he saw the familiar tale of the Before Times, and the Servants of Darkness. He reached the corner of the room, and it turned squarely to the left. The story continued on that wall and he proceeded. He reached the next two corners and guessed he was in a large square room.
As he was moving along the wall opposite the doorway, he heard a loud banging sound echo faintly behind him. The Evil Ones had reached the Keyless Gate.
A fresh sense of resolve entered him and he moved faster across the wall, looking for a way out. The mural continued, and in this version spent much more time on the battle between the Ancient Ones and the Servants of Darkness. The battle raged across the wall until he got to a scene of armor-clad Ou’ardayeen plunging a sword into the heart of the last enemy.
More clangs echoed through the ancient structure as the monsters behind him tried to break down the door.
After the construction of the Temple, the wall went to the uncut stone. It didn’t make sense. Why would they stop the story there? Hurrying, he jogged until he reached another corner. That was the fourth corner, could there be only one entrance and exit to this room?
He made his way through the dark and was soon standing in front of the entry again. From here, the clanging noise was mixed with the sound of stone chunks falling on hard stone. They had broken through. The banging noise stopped and was replaced with scraping, clawing noises followed by more chunks of stone on floor.
Having searched all the walls to no avail, he thought there must be something in the room. Maybe there was a stairway?
Positioning himself at the door, he walked directly into the darkness, holding the lamp high. After a score of steps, he saw something glint in the dark ahead of him. Picking up his pace, he moved quickly forward.
Out of the darkness, the skeletal face of an Evil One emerged. Startled, he stopped and fell backwards onto the ground. Recovering his wits, he cautiously stepped forward and saw it wasn’t just the head, but an entire skeleton of one of the monsters. Protruding from its breastbone was something metallic. Stepping forward, he saw it was a sword. He had never seen metal like this before. The blade showed no signs of age, and shone like pure Silver.
He brought the light closer, and saw the blade penetrated all the way through the body and lodged in the spine of the beast. There was something familiar about the pose it was in.
Turning to the left, he nearly ran through the darkness and soon found himself in front of the carvings depicting the last enemy slain by the Ancient Ones. The position of the creature depicted on the wall matched the one on display in the center of the room. It must have been the same one.
Looking up at the mural he thought, What am I supposed to do now? If only Grandpa had been able to tell me the rest.
The painful memory of his grandfather’s last moments replayed in his mind, and a fresh wave of grief washed through him. He remembered the feeling of helplessness as they spoke in the Ancient Tongue. He thought about the old man’s final words, and how he said that the sword would defeat the Dark Ones.
Is that it? Does the sword have some special power?
He reached up and took hold of the hilt and slid it out of the skeleton. It came out easily and even cut through some of the bone with little more than its own weight.
As soon as it was free, the bones quivered and clattered to the ground. The sound echoed through the room. As it faded, he heard shouting coming from the hallway.
Holding up the lamp in one hand and the sword in the other, he turned to face the doorway and waited. He considered putting out the lamp so he could ambush them, but realized their lights were so powerful it wouldn’t make a difference. Plus, he was sure the flame would go out soon.
As he stood in tiny circle of light, he kept thinking about his Grandfather. He saw in his mind that final strike, the spray of blood, and then later those eyes devoid of life.
Grandfather, if only you had enough time to tell me what to do next.
He tried to push everything out of his mind, and focus on his Grandfather’s final words.
“To defeat the Servants of Darkness, the sword is the key.”
His eyes went wide as he realized his Grandfather did tell him.
He ran through the darkness to the battle scene. Holding the dwindling light up close to the carvings, he saw a thin hole in the chest of the last Dark One. Carefully, he placed the tip of the sword in. It fit perfectly. He pushed it into the wall.
When it reached the hilt, there was a sound like the chiming of a small ornamental church bell and the carved rock cracked. The wall shook, and what turned out to be a thin layer of rock and fell away from the wall to reveal massive metal doors. They began to swing open toward him and he took a few steps back. Dust filled the air and set him to coughing.
When it settled, he uncertainly stepped through the cloud into the doorway. Inside, dark metallic and glass surfaces reflected his tiny flame. Truly, this was something out of the ancient legends. Looking in, he felt something familiar about the place, though he knew that was impossible. Nobody had seen this place since the construction of the Temple.
Slowly, the light dwindled. He looked down at the lamp and saw the flame shrink until it vanished, leaving only red motes of smoldering wick in the darkness.
Then, he understood. Grandfather had even prepared him for this.
From his position in the doorway, he took twelve steps forward and reached out his left hand. He felt the cool smooth surface of glass, as he whispered in the Ancient Tongue, “The knowledge of self begins the journey.”
The panel lit up, and above his hand it showed a glowing outline of one of his people.
He turned to his right and took three steps forward and placed his right hand on a Table.
“May the Light of The Ancients guide my way.”
The room lit up with the radiance of the sun at mid day, dispelling the oppressive blackness. He immediately noticed there, in the center of the room, was a metallic statue of one of the Ou’ardayeen.
He took six steps backward, and spun to face the opposite direction and reached out a hand to touch another glass surface.
“With eyes unclouded, I see all things.”
The panel lit up and in the center of the room, hanging in the air like a cloud, appeared a large glowing blue sphere. It had shapes on it, and he recognized part of it as his homeland.
Sidestepping to the left, he leaned the sword against the table and placed both hands on it.
“To battle the darkness that threatens life.”
Around the sphere and on its surface, numerous red lights blinked to life.
He retrieved the sword and took three steps back and, turning to the right, he put his right hand on the final glass panel.
“With the help of the Ancients, shall I overcome all evil.”
The statue shimmered, and a slight ripple passed over it. Starting from the head and moving down, the metal surface turned to fine dust and began falling away to reveal the armored figure.
When the outer metallic shell was gone, the being it revealed dropped to a knee and Grunli could tell it was breathing heavily.
In his best Old Tongue he said, “I and my people are in danger. The Servants of the Darkness are close outside. Can you help us?”
The being slowly lifted its head to look at him. It had a glass visor over its face and even without seeing its eyes he knew it was studying him. Suddenly aware of what kind of presence he was in, the thought of not offending it came to mind. He dropped down to his knees and bowed low with his face to the ground.
“Forgive me. I mean no offense Mighty One. Please forgive any lack of formality.”
He heard the Ou’ardayeen walk slowly toward him. It reached down and took the sword with one hand, and his arm with the other, drawing both upward. It slid the sword into a sheath across its back. With its now free hand, it opened its visor and Grunli got a good look at it for the first time.
Dark brown skin and eyes looked back at him from inside the helmet.
“Don’t bow to me,” it said, “I am your friend, not your master.”
A noise outside made the Ancient look over Grunli’s shoulder.
It looked at him and he said, “The Evil Ones are here.”
The Ou’ardayeen’s eyes narrowed and it walked past him and drew its sword. Turning, Grunli saw it walk out into the darkness. Beams of light shone around the room and then focused on one spot. All he could see was multiple shadows of the Ancient being cast across the floor of the room as all the lights were aimed at it.
In a moment, the shadow was gone and a primal cry of fear and rage erupted from the Servants of Darkness. One by one, the beams of light shook, then projected at odd angles as the monsters holding them were slain. The sound of their strange weapons fire erupted and he saw some of the bolts speed across the room and impact the far walls and ceiling. The sound of shearing metal mixed with wet, splashing sounds echoed through the hall, soon to be overshadowed by agonized screams of pain.
Then, it all stopped. Grunli didn’t know what to do, so he just stood there. The sound of footsteps approached out of the darkness, and the Ancient stepped into the room. Hints of blood sprayed on its armor were all that indicated the carnage recently wrought.
It walked to Grunli and said, “You and your people will be safe again soon.”
“Truly, the legends of the Ou’ardayeen’s power were all true,” the young man exclaimed.
Turning to face him, the Ancient stared for a long moment.
Finally, it spoke, “What are the Ou’ardayeen?”
Pointing, the young man said, “You. You are the Ou’ardayeen.”
It cocked its head to one side and said, “My species is human, I don’t-
It paused then continued, “Oh, I understand.”
Grunli looked at it, confused, “What?”
“You’re saying it wrong. It’s pronounced, ‘The Guardian.’”
submitted by Salishaz to HFY

5

[OC][UWDFF Alcubierre] Part 68-69

Beginning | Previous
The First Armada entered outer Earth orbit.
Joan felt a weight lift from her shoulders. Removing the Earth's most potent line of defense had been a necessity, but leaving the cradle of Humanity lightly guarded had made her uneasy. The Second Armada had been recalled from its position watching over Humanity's colonies on Mars and Titan, but it boasted considerably less military strength and agility than the First did. The Third Armada was still afield, safeguarding mining interests in the Asteroid Belt against the ever present risk of pirate attack. Now that the First had returned, the Second was already redeploying back to Mars. Joan had exchanged a few pleasantries with their Fleet Admiral on their way out.
Their present position also made live communication a significantly more effective experience, and one Ambassador Mandela was clearly eager to engage in. Amahle had spent the majority of their counterburn in agitated pacing behind Joan, her hands clasped behind her back and her eyes on the floor in front of her. Joan imagined she was rehearsing what she would say to Damian and the Security Council, though Joan expected that the facts would speak louder than any clever assembly of verbiage. Still, there were no guarantees in matters such as these. Joan could not deny that her decisions had significantly complicated the situation, though she felt she had made the best decisions possible with the information and resources at her disposal.
In fact, she had reviewed the events at Halcyon a dozen times during their journey toward Earth, carefully pulling apart the situation with the benefit of time and hindsight. While the branching possibilities of any different decision were impossible to project with any real clarity, she had identified a few cases where there had been an opportunity to make a tactically superior decision -- either by reaching a conclusion on a course of action faster or by applying more military weight to the decisions she had made.
However, even after careful scrutiny, she believed the key decisions that had been the fulcrum of the encounter had been made correctly. She was not perfect, and securing the desired outcomes had come at considerable cost, but she was content to be judged by the facts as they stood. Clearly there would be some differences in opinion, not just with Amahle, but also likely with those participating in the inquiry, including some of her fellow officers among the United World Defense Force. The entirety of the mission would no doubt be fed into various simulation machines and dissembled down to the nanosecond to search for errors.
So be it.
There were other matters to attend to and she would not spend valuable time pondering outcomes she could not control. There would be an inquiry, she would be judged and then the world would continue turning.
Work on the Alcubierre's retrofit continued to progress at a surprising rate, considering the scope of the undertaking. Joan had long since learned to not underestimate Chief Science Officer Jack Griggs, but she was rapidly arriving at the same opinion of Chief Engineering Officer Idara Adeyemi. Both had exemplary backgrounds and accomplishments and were clearly capable of adaption, but the wholesale overhaul of a ship while it was being towed at relativistic speeds was still impressive. The Alcubierre would require some Earth-side materials before the retrofit could be completed and the new worm drive tested, but there was reason to believe this outcome could be arrived at in days rather than weeks.
Kai had seemed pained at even this relatively paltry delay. The need to reach this Cerebella dominated their conversations, and Joan could not ignore the red flags that evoked within her. By and large, she still recognized the man during their discussions, but changes were evident.
He was too erudite. Too serious. Too logical.
Under other circumstances, she would welcome the changes. Joan was decidedly less enthusiastic when these alterations were the product of alien interference in the gray matter of one her most senior officers. She had hesitated to permit his return to duty in any capacity, and had only agreed after placing a variety of restrictions on his access to personnel and information. She had also temporarily revoked all of his command codes. Even still, she was very aware of the risks being run. Were it not for Jack and Idara's careful oversight on the project and repeated assurances that everything was as it purported to be, Kai would have never set foot aboard the Alcubierre.
This Evangi...presence, was not the only alien to be concerned with. The newly formed XiZ Collective now sought to formalize its alliance with Humanity. It was a welcome development, but introduced any number of ancillary questions, foremost of which was how best to ensure continued access to their projected wormhole technology while preserving and protecting Earth. Amahle had coordinated with Jack briefly on an initial parlay, but the substance of any diplomatic arrangement would fall upon Damian in his capacity of Secretary General. There were too many considerations that would require the assent of the Security Council for Amahle to make any durable promises.
A comm lit up, requesting access to both her and Amahle.
Think of the devil and he shall appear. Damian.
Joan accepted the comm and swiped a hand, pushing the visual feed to the central view. Amahle had already halted her pacing and had come over toward where Joan sat. A moment later, Damian's face filled the screen, his shaved head shining above cool blue eyes and a generous but well maintain salt-and-pepper beard. In the background sat the twenty-seven representatives of the Security Council, one from each of semi-autonomous states that made up the United World.
"Fleet Admiral, Ambassador, so nice to see you again," Damian said, his low baritone rumbling about the room.
Both Joan and Amahle nodded and replied in unison. "Secretary."
"Before we dig in, let's get a few of the basics out of the way. Fleet Admiral Orléans, can you certify that the First Armada has returned to Earth's outer orbit and its ships are moving to their garrison positions?"
"Yes, Secretary. There will be some gaps to fill by the Second Armada due to losses in the recent action. Unfortunately, we did not have a suitable dreadcarrier class replacement for the UWDFF Oppenheimer within the First Armada and have been forced to reassign the UWDFF Sun Tzu from the Second Armada, leaving it under-strength."
"And I am to understand that both of you have rendered your final report and status updates with respect to your missions, yes?"
Both nodded, "Yes, Secretary."
"There are no additional addenda, amendments or other alterations you wish to make?"
"I am satisfied with what has been submitted," Joan said.
Amahle replied at the same time, stating much the same.
Damian's brow furrowed, his gaze piercing through the screen and into both of them. "You have read each other's reports?"
Agreement again.
"There appears to be a great deal of overlap in facts, which is good." He paused now, giving them a searching look. "But very little overlap in conclusion, which is less than desirable."
Indeed, Joan had read Amahle's report. Joan considered it a fair representation of the facts and felt the conclusions drawn were reasonable if one occupied Amahle's mindset. Amahle could not be expected to suddenly embrace the necessity for aggressive action after spending so much of her life dedicated to finding ways to avoid that outcome. Amahle would have traded the fate of the First Armada for an incrementally better chance of a worse outcome only because she so fervently believed in the possibility of peace. Joan very much wished for a world that reflected Amahle's wishes rather than Joan's reality. Alas, it was not to be.
Amahle took a step forward now, her posture rigid, arms straight at her sides. "Secretary, I believe grievous harm has--"
She was cut off by Damian's raised hand. "Ambassador, I will not pretend that I am at ease with what has transpired. As I have told both of you, there will be a full inquiry into the matter. However," His raised hand swept back toward the assembled representatives, "we have arrived at the conclusion that such an inquiry be delayed until the present crisis is passed."
"Secretary, that would be a mistake, Halcyon cannot be swept under the rug. It needs--"
Damian cleared his throat and Amahle faltered. "Ambassador, your concerns are noted. I can personally assure you that nothing will be swept under the rug, but this hardly seems like the time for internal divisions. You have disagreements with the actions the Fleet Admiral has undertaken on behalf of Humanity. There will be an inquiry, but we can ill afford a protracted distraction given the urgency of the situation. We face an unknown threat beyond our borders. We have multiple alien species within reach of Earth, one of which is currently inhabiting the mind of a senior officer of our defense fleet. We are being introduced to exotic science beyond our comprehension and we are being asked to respond to all of these simultaneously."
Joan knew what would come next. Amahle was a keen enough observer to know as well. Joan could almost feel the fuming steam rise off the woman beside her.
"For the time being, the Fleet Admiral will attend to her duties and you will attend to yours. Both of you are uniquely situated and knowledgeable and the United World cannot spare either of your talents for the time being." He turned slightly again, his gaze sweeping across the representatives seated around the circular table behind him. "This is the unanimous conclusion of the Security Council. Both of you were selected for a reason: you are the best at what you do. I would like you to put aside your differences and conduct yourself according to the will of the United World."
Amahle was speechless.
Joan still possessed that ability and made use of it. "Yes, Secretary, of course. We are receipt of the attachment to the comm request. Am I correct in assuming these will provide our orders and priorities?"
Damian's attention was still on Amahle when he spoke. "That's correct. The first order of business will be the establishment of an alliance with the XiZ collective." He frowned, "Sizz? Ichzzz? Is there a correct pronunciation there? Well, never mind. I am in agreement with your report, Admiral, that we should make haste in cementing our political arrangement with these aliens as soon as practicable. Not only is access to their means of transportation of immediate value, there is the simple matter of not wanting an entity we do not have an understanding with floating in our homeworld's orbit."
"They are reliant upon our power, they are unlikely to pose--"
It was Joan's turn to be cut off by Damian's raised hand. "I'm aware, Admiral, but the point stands. I have provided the parameters of an acceptable arrangement in your instructions. I ask that you assist the Ambassador in negotiations, recognizing that any proposed agreement will be subjected to the final approval of the Security Council. If there is reason to believe my involvement will be of use, then do let me know. Ideally, a satisfactory outcome can be reached without my time as it is likely to be best used Earthside in marshaling resources."
Amahle still had not spoken.
Joan spoke for the both of them, "Understood, Secretary. I expect we can handle this matter."
"I'll need to hear it from you as well, Ambassador. Otherwise, I'll need to call in someone else, which would be unfortunate for everyone involved."
Amahale licked her lips. When she spoke, her words were slow and deliberate. "You can't expect me to work with her, she's responsible for this entire mess."
Damian tensed, but then his hard stare softened, "Amahle, I sent you to try and accomplish the impossible. I sent Joan to protect our interests in case the impossible wasn't achievable. You two disagree on what was achievable and what actions should have been undertaken when, but there is no way to fully resolve this ambiguity. There were too many unknowns then." He leaned forward toward the camera, his face blotting out the Security Council behind him. "And there are too many unknowns now. I am giving you a chance to impact the outcome for the positive. The Admiral will be present in the things to come, and the question you need to answer is this: Are we better off with you there as well?"
Amahle cast a sidelong glance at Joan, who regarded her flatly in return. Finally, she nodded, "Very well, Secretary, I will do as you ask and lead the effort with the XiZ Collective."
"Good, Ambassador, that is a considerable relief." Damian turned to Joan now, "The shipyards have received the requisition order for the Alcubierre retrofit and they will be provided, but we will still need to address the matter of the Cerebella."
Joan inclined her head slightly, "We are in agreement there. Regardless of whether we will permit an attempt to contact the Cerebella, I saw little downside into acquiring the knowledge offered by the Evangi."
"What do you make of this...Neeria?"
"It is difficult to say. I have made a habit of speaking to Admiral Levinson throughout the journey to Earth, and I have reviewed the audited logs gathered as well."
Damian flicked a hand and the view screen split in half. A new image appeared, showing Kai's vitals, brain scan and a section dedicated to personality profile. The personality profile was visualized as a series of bars, each representing a dimension of personality composition. Kai's bars were shifting back and forth, bouncing between four different positions, each representing a different point where the personality assessment test had occurred. The first three tests, administered upon his enlistment in the United States Space Force, his application to the officer's corps, and his ascension to senior ranks were remarkably similar.
The fourth was different.
The core drivers remained the same, but additional traits were rising in prevalence. It was more than what might be expected by the transition from young to old, inexperienced to seasoned. It was a reshaping of the ardent, bold maverick into something more...cautious? No, that was not the right word.
Balanced?
No. Not right either.
Sophisticated.
Yes. Sophisticated.
"You've seen this then?" Damian asked.
"I have," Joan replied.
"What do you make of it? That's a lot of delta."
Joan agreed. "Yes."
"Is it still Kai?"
"I'm not sure how much our diagnostic capabilities will help us here. It's an entirely novel situation. Much of Kai is present during our conversations, but there are more layers now. He perceives more. Understands more. Is more aware and responsive to the inputs around him. You'll need to speak to him for yourself and come to your own determination," Joan said.
"Is he a puppet?"
"I have no way of making that determination. I have no way of ascertaining where Kai ends and Neeria begins and I can only guess at the nature of their relationship. Kai says it is a partnership, but I see little reason to accept that explanation at face value beyond the cooperation Neeria has provided to date. Of course, that cooperation is in service of her goal of reaching the leader of her kind."
Amahle shifted from one foot to the other and then spoke. "I am less familiar with Admiral Levinson than either of you, but it is worth noting that Neeria's present situation, which I can only guess is not ideal for her, is due to her persistent efforts to assist the Admiral."
Joan turned toward Amahle, "All of that could be a ruse, implanted into Kai's memory or conjured up through some other means we do not comprehend.""
"Perhaps, but some facts are irrefutable. Neeria has been deprived of her body. She has provided us with knowledge and insight into the nature of the Combine. To my understanding, she has yet to say anything that might be construed as even potentially misleading. All correct?"
"All correct," Joan said.
"I am not advocating for blind faith, but I am also counseling against automatic mistrust." She took a steadying breath. "If we are to work together, Joan, there must be some opportunity to place faith in our counterparties. An alliance cannot be forged without a degree of belief in the good intentions of the of the other side. Speaking in more pragmatic terms, Humanity has few friends in a large galaxy filled with potential enemies. The XiZ have already proven their willingness to sacrifice on our behalf. We should acknowledge that and respect it. I would argue the same for Neeria."
"Well stated, Ambassador," Damian said. "I agree. In the past, we had no option but to rely upon ourselves, and that was just barely enough. If there is an olive branch to be had, we must grasp it, whether offered by a...space jellyfish or a mind-presence." Damian clearly was having some difficulty coming to terms with the strange nature of the galaxy as it stood now, but his intent was clear.
"Then we are to provide Neeria with the Alcubierre and a means of reaching her Cerebella?" Joan asked.
"Perhaps. I suppose it'll depend on what we get in return." Damian smiled now, "That's why the United World has the two of you. Don't let us down."
Joan and Amahle shared another look. "Yes, Secretary," they said, once again in unison.
"I knew we could count on you," Damian said.
The screen went blank.
The Admiral's Bridge was silent for a few moments, save for the standard ambient whirring and beeping. Amahle spoke first. "I take lead on this."
"Of course, so long as our interests are secured." Joan replied.
Amahle turned and walked away.
Next
submitted by PerilousPlatypus to HFY