Chapter One: Prologue
She moved purposefully through the murk of the world below. Her footfalls echoed one after the other, matching the steady drip-drip-drip of water from the ceiling above. A glowing sphere hovered just above her head, casting an eerie white glow over the walls of the narrow passageway.
Abruptly, she stopped. Blood and amber flitted left and right, blinking as they scanned the grey, uneven rock walls for any sign of an opening that would show more promise than the last few kilometres of suffocating tunnels and passageways. Alchema-infused relics, long buried in the ruins of the Old World, tugged faintly at her senses. She ignored them, uninterested, and kept moving.
Years ago she probably would have sought them out, but they were no longer worth the effort; there was only one thing she wanted down there in the depths of the world. Ogon's volcanic subterranean tunnels and long-empty lava tubes had yielded nothing of interest, and neither had the catacombs below Ydro, Vind, or Ard. Beneath Ecclesia was the last place it could be.
She had first heard of "it" some years prior to her tireless hunt across the globe. Old legends, stories passed down through the generations, and even Church scriptures – she had read them all, but none of them had offered anything other than conflicting information. Disgusted with the stupidity of the authors of such texts, and frustrated that she had wasted so much time, she had simply set out to search for the one thing she desired above all else by her own hand.
Finding an entrance to the forbidden world below had not been very difficult. She could almost smell the alchema from the ruins deep underground seeping up to the surface. The problem had been locating an entrance that remained unsealed and overlooked by the Church. But luck was on her side, and she had eventually come across one: a small, jagged opening hidden within a thin patch of forest. She had disappeared into it without delay. Ecclesia was not her favourite place.
As it had in all the other lands, chance played the biggest role in things once she was beneath the ground. All she could so was wander the caves and passages in the hopes that she would be able to sense the alchema radiating from that which she sought. If it was as strong as legend held it to be, then she would definitely know if she was near it. The only general direction she knew she needed to head in was down. That's where it would be: deeper than anyone had ever dared go.
She halted for a second time and stared at the wall beside her. The glowing sphere above her head increased in intensity, allowing her to see without squinting. Rough rock had given way to badly eroded cut stone and mortar, and the floor beneath had become much smoother – a sign that she had reached an area containing ruins of the Old World. Ruins meant that she was very deep, and very deep meant that her precious "it" was closer.
Her eyes darted around briefly before settling on a fist-sized rock on the floor of the tunnel. She reached up and took hold of the glowing sphere while something black and serpentine snaked through the shadows and hefted the rock into the air, banging it several times against the wall. A hollow echo greeted her ears. She hit it again for confirmation and then the rock was tossed aside.
There was no doubt a cavern on the other side of the wall, and a large one at that. With any luck it would allow her to travel even deeper into Subterra and even closer to her goal.
With an almost casual air, she raised a smooth-skinned arm and touched her hand to the wall. Almost instantly there was a violent pulse from the centre of her palm. The air seemed to blur, and a single ripple quaked along the wall. She stood back as the sharp crack of splitting stone filled the air and a portion of the wall collapsed outwards, sending up a cloud of dust and debris. The sound of bricks bouncing and sliding off into the distance echoed in through the brand-new opening. Satisfied, she stepped up to it and peered through as the sphere above her head bobbed out into the chamber beyond.
A cavern of truly staggering size greeted her eyes. It was vaguely circular in shape with a high, domed ceiling and steep embankment of rubble running around its circumference. The floor was relatively flat and home to a number of ancient, dilapidated stone buildings that had no doubt been lying in their cavernous tomb like so many others for close to a thousand years. Stalagmites had also claimed their fair share of space on the cavern floor and milled about in what had once been streets like silent townsfolk going about their daily business. Their shadows danced in the light of the sphere as they pushed on with their slow and inexorable upward climb to meet with their stalactite brethren reaching down from above.
She slid down the steep rubble embankment with the harsh sound of a rain of pebbles before hopping onto the cavern floor and halting her forward momentum. She idly noted that climbing back up would be difficult should she have to exit the same way she came in. Tucking that piece of information away, she proceeded to weave her way through the stone crowd of the buried town, her hard-soled boots clacked noisily on the cavern floor.
A loud crack suddenly tore out from underfoot, immediately halting her steady progression through the forgotten town. Her eyes snapped down in the direction the offending sound. It was the ribcage of some lost soul who had been buried with the rest of their little town. It had become wedged into a wide fissure in the cavern floor and she had had kicked it, shattering the ancient bones like old porcelain. Thinking nothing of it, she moved on, but then stopped.
The ground. There was something odd about the ground. She peered through the gloom, her sphere hovering just to the side of her face so that she could see, and saw that the fissure housing the ribcage wasn't alone. There were lots of fissures; some bigger, some smaller, and most of them connected via lateral cracks that made it seem like she was standing on a giant spider web.
The town. She moved quickly and carefully into the mess of ruined buildings, examining them in passing. They were falling apart, no doubt a result of the seismic upheaval that had left them in such a place so long ago, but the fissures had split through them as well, and in the same pattern as they had through the ground. The stalagmites were also unaffected; none of them had been knocked over, and many had begun forming over the edges of many of the fissures. The fissures had been created after the town had sunk, and the stalagmites had appeared after the fissures had split the ground.
Her lips curled back into a pleased smile which grew even wider when she noted that the ground was beginning to get increasingly uneven and fractured the closer she got to the centre of the town. She raised her glowing sphere and made it flare as she tilted her head back to get a better look at the ceiling.
The very centre of the cavern's domed ceiling had collapsed. A great mound of massive stone fragments and boulders lay piled in what had once been the town square, but not even the force of that amount of rubble falling would have been able to have ruptured the cavern floor so violently. Something else had done it – something that had hit the world's surface high above with such force that it had been driven down into the catacombs, through the cavern ceiling, and into the floor.
And it lay underneath pile of rock before her.
She could worm her way in; there were enough gaps. She approached the mound of stone, her spine shivering delightfully in anticipation of what she would find. And then, as she began to sidle in between two slabs of rock, a horrendous screech tore through the cavern. Her head whipped around and she pushed herself free, clicking her tongue irritably. It was a wonder she hadn't run into one sooner.
The sound of something scrabbling down the rubble slope that circled the cavern reached her ears. She sighed and leant against a particularly large stalactite while she waited for her pursuer to arrive. It would come the exact way that she had, following her scent. Most of the things that lived down in the dark had very poor eyes – if any at all. They usually moved around very quietly until they detected prey. When that happened, they ran whatever they were following down, making as much noise as possible in the process in order to make their quarry panic.
She had no reason to feel any alarm, though; she had fended them off countless times before in her sojourns through the world below. This one would be no different than the rest.
Another screech ripped through the air, and seconds later a large, misshapen creature almost twice her height came charging through a row of stalagmites. It was twelve feet of pallid, blotchy flesh sitting atop four spike-like legs that scraped and clacked against the ground. Two claw-like arms were held up in readiness to snare and lift its prey to feed with its gaping mouth. It was a phantom: what many considered to be the twisted, reanimated form of a soul that had been buried with the Old World.
She smirked as the phantom halted in front of her, testing the air with its slitted nostrils. Suddenly locking onto her, it charged with another ear-splitting screech. As it grew near, she traced a diagonal line through the air with her finger and brought her other hand up behind it, pushing her palm towards the oncoming creature. Almost instantly, an incandescent streak seared across the phantom's chest and burst with a spray of crimson blood into a long, diagonal gash. The phantom faltered in its charge and staggered off course, ploughing straight into the pile of broken stone where it began to writhe about and claw furiously at its gaping wound, squealing like a stuck pig.
It was time to kill two birds with one stone. She crouched down low and took off at a dead run with her arms thrust out behind her. When she was close enough, she whipped one hand around and held a finger up in front of her eye and then leapt at the creature's exposed back. She hit it solidly and wrapped one arm around its neck whilst bracing herself with her feet. The creature screeched and tried to buck her off, but her grip would not be broken. As quick as lighting, she traced a series of symbols on the phantom's shoulder. The air around her hand buzzed and the she sprang off the creature's back and landed on the ground with a small flourish. The phantom stumbled, its four legs wobbling pathetically, before it collapsed against the great pile of jumbled stone and boulders. It did not move.
Her lips creased up into a little smile and she snapped her fingers. The symbols drawn on the phantom's shoulder flared a brilliant shade of purple and then promptly erupted in a thunderous detonation. Stalactites broke away from the roof and rained down from above. A great plume of dust billowed out and shrouded the buried town in a thick cloud. And then, suddenly, it parted. She stood unharmed with the glowing sphere hanging above her head on that strange, serpentine object.
She coughed and clapped her hands over her clothing to rid it of dust. She had to admit that maybe she had gone a little overboard, especially considering the fact that she was underground, but the cavern was still intact and the rubble had been cleared. The impact site, and whatever it contained, awaited her.
She approached the centre and found herself looking at a hole about a metre wide and a metre deep. At the bottom was a section of rusted pipe. She stared at it, her right eye twitching as thoughts of weeks of wasted effort flooded her mind. A pipe? She had come all the way down into the catacombs just to find a pipe!? Her mouth opened to release a great stream of profanities, but they never came out. Something had caught her eye.
There was a hole in the pipe, and it had been cut. It was perfectly square and large enough for someone to fit through. Someone had been there after the town had sunk.
With her heart pounding, she hopped down through the hole and landed inside the rusted tube, her boots hitting the bottom of it with a resounding clang. She straightened up and looked from side to side. The pipe ran in two directions; which way should she go? She was about to base her decision entirely upon an eeny-meeny when her senses were suddenly blitzed.
It was alchema… strong alchema, and it was close.
She whirled in the direction she could sense it from and took off at a run with her sphere lighting the way. The blood pounded in her ears, drowning out the sound of her boots clacking against the metal underfoot. She kept running straight, her legs pushing faster and faster until, quite suddenly, a blinding light appeared ahead of her. She ground to an immediate halt and then pressed on with her eyes closed. Her sphere extinguished and she felt her way along with her hands until the touch of cold metal left her fingers. She opened her eyes and stifled a gasp.
The pipe had opened into a relatively narrow chamber with walls that stretched up to a ceiling lost in the darkness above. Everything was bathed in blue light – the walls, the floor, and she herself. And at the back of the chamber was the object responsible for it all: a huge blue sphere encased in still-functioning machinery.
Hundreds – perhaps thousands of gears, wheels, and sprockets turned and clicked in a harmonious song. Pipes and ducts ran here and there over the machine's surface, each one letting off an occasional jet of steam.
She approached the machine slowly and ran a hand over the cool, coppery metal, and was quite surprised to find that it still hummed with electricity – no, alchema! She could feel it coursing through its insides; flowing as blue light along grooves carved into the metal. It was unlike any alchema she had ever felt before – completely different to the four main elements and that which she herself used. It was powerful – very powerful.
As she continued to run her hand over the machine, her eye caught on something scratched into the metal. Scrawled by an unsteady hand, the words were jagged and ill-formed, but she was able to make out what is said.
Within this ark lays my final salvation. May it grant me but a small piece of forgiveness.
Salvation? Forgiveness? She gazed into the sphere and glimpsed a dark silhouette, and as she pressed her palms against the sphere's surface, a great shudder passed through her body.
She jerked back in a battle-ready stance. A voice? Her eyes flitted about the chamber. She was alone. Who was the 'ancient ally' of which the voice spoke?
…Here you stand in this fallen place…
There it was again! She turned back to the sphere as it began to hum and pulse with blue light. The inside was beginning to clear and she gazed in, hoping to make out what lay within. She let out a startled oath.
…It will be you…
At the sphere's core, curled into a tight ball, was a boy that could have been no older than seventeen years. He hung there, perfectly still, garbed in torn and tattered clothing.
… Who shall lead the lost child back from the world of the ruined.
The sphere flared incandescently as tiny arcs of blue energy began to crackle across its surface, spreading to the machinery around it. And then, loud and clear, she heard it: a slow heartbeat.
A second, louder than the first.
The third time it faltered, and then it started again. One beat, another, and then a third that wavered. The cycle continued, growing stronger, louder, and faster. The boy suddenly twitched, and the sphere split right down the middle with a loud crack. She hopped back with a startled exclamation. Again the boy moved and again the surface of the sphere split, releasing burning white light and hissing vapour from within. The cracks multiplied, zigzagging along until, with a great blast of steam, the sphere ruptured completely. Thousands of tiny blue pinpricks of light swarmed out and into the air. They danced and swirled wraith-like in the haze of steam that had filled the chamber, flickering like lighting in the depths of a storm cloud.
She squinted through the steam as it began to thin. She could feel the alchema from the machine begin to dissipate until she could barely sense it… but there was still some that remained. It radiated from the floor, from the boy. He lay there on his side with his torn and filthy clothing hanging from his frail body. A mass of dirty blonde hair partially obscured his face.
Chained diagonally to the boy's back was an enormous sword that looked to be made entirely of glass. Inside the sphere it had been invisible, stained blue by the light, but since coming out into the open it had taken on a faint golden hue. The double-edged blade was thick, at least an inch or so, and it looked to be at least six feet in length and almost two in width. Etched into the surface of the blade, running from hilt to tip in a seemingly random pattern, was a series of lines and circles almost runic in nature. The weapon's tip widened into a circle instead of coming into a typical point. The base, like the tip, was also circular. The hilt, wrapped in white cloth, added a further foot and a half to the weapon's overall length, and was flat instead of cylindrical.
The chain binding boy to sword was made of a dull platinum metal and it crisscrossed over his shoulders to keep the gigantic weapon in place. There was a shackle at each end of the chain; one around the boy's wrist and the other on the sword where the hilt met the blade, ultimately locking them together.
The weapon seemed like it would crush him, but the boy's chest rose and fell, sending little puffs of steam from his nostrils into the bitter air of the chamber. He shivered and his fingers curled and uncurled, brushing against the cold floor. A small groan escaped his throat and then his eyelids fluttered open. He was awake.