The cold wind slithered around me like a silk blanket. I struggled upward, following the barely visible path, dragging my numb, tired feet through the frigid snow. Wanting nothing more than to collapse and let the cold take me, but knowing I could not, I trudged forward. My blue lips quaked and shook as I painfully inhaled, and exhaled a thick white cloud of mist. Leaning on the trunk of an old, withered, dead tree, I finally let myself rest. Slowly and shakily, shivers pulsing through my body, I gripped the cold leather of my waterskin, and gulped down my remaining unfrozen water. It tasted like buffalo and steel, but drinking felt better than dying, so I let it trickle down the back of my throat.
The white of the early morning sky could hardly be distinguished from the snow coated mountain that I traversed, but after a few moments of searching, I saw the peak of the mountain. Near the top, the tip had been sheared off by some natural disaster, and so it became a small plateau. There resided my goal. I had come searching for and ancient dwarven city residing within the heart of Mt. Tsrken. No one searching for it had ever come back, so all that my small town knew of it came from rumors and ancient, derelict tomes hidden away in the dark, musty shelves of the village elders hall. Even then, my only knowledge of the city centered around the riches that it contained, and the supposed gargantuan automatons that guarded them. As I came to the realization that I would soon freeze to death without some warmth, I doubled my pace, and pulled my hood even farther down my pale face. Multiple times, I very nearly tripped and tumbled into the snow, but I kept moving, knowing that if I stopped for even a moment, I would not have the energy to continue my journey.
Finally, I stumbled to the plateau at the top of the mountain. A thick blanket of white covered everything in sight. I could barely think, but my slipping mind managed to hold on to the thought of warmth and riches beyond imagining. I began to exhaustedly claw through the snow, looking for any sign of a way in to the city beneath the snow. But I found nothing. In my broken state of mind, all that I could think of was panic. It took hold of me, it’s icy claws wrapping themselves around me, a pale demon beginning to consume me. I tried to fight back the onset of it, but I had no energy left within me at my disposal. This is the end, I thought to myself. The void began to free me from the coldness of the snow, but as it did so, I felt the ground move beneath my limp body. Outward it spiraled, taking my body with it, until I could hold on no longer. Sliding out from under me, the ground let me fall into the abyss below.
My reflexes took hold and I righted my body into a dive on the off chance that there was water to meet my at the end of my fall. Then there was warmth. Spreading through my bones, heating my mind, letting me think again. I felt water seeping into my clothes, dragging me down into the depths of whatever kind of body of water I was in. Swimming upwards, I slowly ascended, until I finally broke the surface of the water and inhaled deeply. I began to stroke through the water, my course set on the thin lip of stone at the edge of the pool. My limbs ached and shook from my trek up the mountain, but I finally reached the dry outcropping of rock. My fingers curled around the stone, and I heaved myself up onto it. It was all I could do not to fall asleep as I laid on the rock, my lungs shuddering as I drew in more air than I thought humanly possible.
I groaned. The numbness of the icy cold retreated, but a stabbing pain took its place. My whole body shuddered as I tried to sit up against the wall. It took everything that I had left not to slide back down the wall and just let myself fall asleep. But I couldn’t. Not only because I had a sneaking suspicion that I wouldn’t wake up, but also because I needed to get my bearings. When I looked around, all I could see around me were the tall, unbroken, curved walls of this place and the hole that had opened in the ground above me. Suddenly, the ground shook. I looked above me, and realized what was happening. “The gap is closing,” I said to myself in wonder. There had been tall tales and legends about the masterful dwarven architects and technicians, but I never believed them to be true. So as the doors closed above me, all I could do was stare at them, dumbfounded. As I sat in awe, a realization dawned upon me. There seemed to be no exits other than the one above me, and I knew that I had no chance at opening those two monolithic doors. I slowly realized that the place I now sat wasn’t a city filled with riches beyond imagining.
It was a prison
I shot up, a sudden burst of adrenaline coursing through my veins at my revelation. My eyes searched the walls a second time, frantic, but my panicked investigation yielded nothing. Finally, the doors shut with a resonating boom. What little light escaped through the cracks in the doors was soon quenched as snow fell and settled over the crevices. All of a sudden, it seemed like the sun god lyus had finally stopped his chariot for good, and that world had been plunged into eternal twilight. I quickly searched myself to see if I had something to make a fire with, but my clothes had soaked through, and all of my belongings had gotten drenched. But then, unexpectedly, a soft, warm light began to creep up the walls. It seemed to be originating from below me, so I crawled over to the edge of the stone I sat on and peered over the edge. As I looked over the lip of rock, I noticed that far below me, a glowing oblong shape floated far beneath the surface of the water, it’s lines blurred by the depth. I realized that the glowing shape must be the source of the light.
As I crawled back to the wall and sat back down, I felt small indentations in the wall behind me. Turning around, I realized that dwarven script was carved into the wall. It read, “Den som gaserar gjenom portalen pa fullmanendens natt skal flyke, men den som inke skall gatil frrnae.” Quickly, I pulled out my old, soggy translation book, and after 30 painstaking minutes of flipping around through the yellowish drenched pages, I figured out that when translated, the script meant, “He who passes through the portal on the night of the full moon shall escape, but he who does not shall perish.”
A rush of adrenaline shot through my veins, wrenching my eyes wide open. There’s a way out, I thought to myself. I felt the corners of my mouth curling up into a small grin. Soon enough, I was quietly giggling with glee. But then a thought pushed its way to the front of my mind that made my blood go cold. All of the joy drained out of my face, it’s place taken by dread. The giggles made their final echo through the high ceilinged chamber, and then there was dead silence. There was no way to know the shape of the moon. I tried to think back to the night before I had become trapped here, but I had no way of knowing what time it was currently, or if night had even fallen yet. I continued to think back, however, even if I could not know the time. But unfortunately, thoughts of the past brought back painful memories. I felt myself slipping into a memory, the past as welcoming as an old bed. But I felt that the bed would be one of nails.
I sat with Kiearen on one of the many wooden benches in her immense great room, the fire warming us. “Please, Kiearen. Do not do this,” I pleaded.
“I must, Benthor,” she replied. “My father wishes it so, and I must go.”
“But you could die!” I exclaimed in horror.
“I know. But I must go.”
Quickly, she kissed my, closing the space between our bodies for a fraction of a second. But then she was walking away. I knew that was the last time I would ever see her.
I felt another memory taking the place of its predecessor.
I sat on the front steps of my shack, which lie across the village’s only street from the chief's hall, which was where Kiearen had once lived. The rumbling of a carriage carried through the streets. My eyes found the carriage, which was painted all black. I stood up. The man driving the carriage hopped out of the vehicle and went to the back to retrieve its contents. He and one other man riding in the back pulled out a coffin. It was for a funeral procession. Unsteadily, I stood up. Hundreds of thoughts all clambered around in my head, screaming for attention. I forced myself to walk over to see who the procession was for. Surely, it can't be Kiearen, I thought to myself. My feet pulled me forward, towards the ornate wooden box that served as a final resting place for those who had departed for the sun god’s realm.
One of the men toting the coffin saw me make my approach. “What do you want?” He called out to me.
“Who has died?” I asked, continuing to make my approach.
“They said her name was Kiearen.”
I froze in my tracks. “Last name?”
I crumpled to the ground, my body unable to support me. It was all I could do not to let the great oncoming tide of misery and despair consume me. I had known that this was coming, but so soon? It had only been 21 dawns since she had left. Surely she could not have broken so quickly. The college of magecraft had a reputation for breaking one's mind and body, but usually, it took at least a month. What had they done to her? I pushed myself to my feet. My feet set themselves on a course for the chief's great hall, and I willingly followed them. They dragged me up the stairs, and I threw the door open, it’s crash reverberating through the hall. Rorik, the chief and Kiearan’s father, sat in a wooden armchair facing the fire in the center of the hall. I advanced on him, not bothering to shut the door. Privacy was a commodity not needed.
“Why did you send her there!?” I shouted at him.
“Son, I had to. It was the only way-”
“The only way for what!?” I screamed, cutting him off. “For her to die!?”
“No son, I would never want that. I only wished for her to become-”
“What, ‘become a great chieftain?’” I said in a mocking tone of voice.
Before he finished his sentence, I managed to pull myself out of the memory. For a while, I just sat there in silence. A single tear leaked out of my eye and rolled down my face. I dragged myself up the wall, pushing my weight against it to hold myself up. I understood now. Even if I died in the process of attempting to leave this prison, there would still be freedom. The freedom of death. My journey would finally come to a close, and I would finally pass on to the next life. I could see Kiearen once again. We could finally be together.
Stumbling forward, I flung myself into the lukewarm water, and began to paddle toward the glowing light in the center. My eyes, far beyond my control, began to shut themselves, but I continued to fight and pull myself toward the portal. I arms and legs slowly began to wrench themselves from my control, and soon, I was floating, and moving only with the momentum I had gained from the paddling.
Finally, I reached the portal. As my body made contact with it, a searing pain shot through my nerves, like a raging fire had set itself alight within me. I made no sound, however. The energy required to make any action or sound had completely deserted me. The portal had almost fully consumed me when I finally fell asleep.
I shivered. The searing pain was all but gone, and the water around me had seemingly turned into icy snow. I opened my eyes and saw the white sky of a blizzard. My hands grasped a nearby tree branch and using it, I pulled myself to my feet. I was still weak, but less so than before. With that, I began my trek home.