A loud boom woke everyone from sleep early enough that even false dawn was a few hours away. The concussive force was enough to cause even the trees and ground beneath them to rumble. Riven reached for her bastard sword which was lying beside her and was already in a defensive position before anyone else crept from their sleeping bags. Cithanthalas's she-wolf nudged the ranger's hand in order to roust him to readiness.
"What's going on? Are we under attack?" Riven spoke to the others but before anyone could answer Beebee came rushing back to the campsite since it had been her turn to watch and had been out patrolling.
"I don't see anything. It's hard to pinpoint where but whatever happened the sound came from far away." Beebee reported.
"I'll give you two guesses as to where." Santrista said but didn't wait for an answer. She shifted in the form of a great grey owl and immediately took wing into the sky.
Whatever happened caused a small pocket of low-pressure air and wiped out the natural updrafts on this side of the mountain which made gaining the altitude she needed more difficult than she first expected, at least the initial turbulence had passed. Once she got up high enough she noticed a large dust cloud where the fortress should have been thanks to her impressive night vision which confirmed her suspicions. Santrista resisted the urge to go back down to tell the others and instead stayed so that she could take in a complete picture of what happened. It looked like there was a localized rock avalanche as part of the mountainside had collapsed partly on the fortress and it was too difficult to say what would have caused it to happen. She needed to get a closer look because the area could still be a death trap, they would have to approach this carefully.
Finally, she decided to fly back down to report to the others who were anxiously waiting. She shifted back to her base form and told them everything she had seen.
"So, now the issue is how are we going to approach this." Santrista stated.
"Approach what? As I see it our problem has been solved for us." It was Riven that had spoken.
"That's cold. Have you forgotten why we are even out here?" Cithanthalas reminded her. "Those prisoners could still be there. This is a perfect distraction to set up a rescue mission."
"I'm still of the mind that Searin has moved the prisoners to a different location after you escaped ." Riven retorted back with a steely tone in her voice.
"Whether the prisoners are there or not is irrelevant; that place is our only lead." Santrista used cold logic to reason this situation out before it got out of hand.
"Fine." Riven sighed and conceded the point.
"Alright, here is what I got. The area could still be extremely dangerous so I don't want to force anyone to go." Santrista looked at the four young men that had accompanied them this whole way. "You have done more than enough, I suggest you all take the horses and head back to Willowbrook to tell them what happened. Tell them that we are not giving up looking for the captives, and to organize a proper rescue party. We will be the first to respond." The men nodded their agreement and started to gather supplies and pack for the journey back home. Santrista couldn't blame them for wanting to leave at this point. "Unfortunately there are only two horses so you will have to double up which will cut down on your speed but that can't be helped."
Santrista then turned to the rest of the group. "I will fly ahead and stage the area as best I can for your arrival. The preparations I did last night should help in this situation at least. It will take at least the better part of half a day for you to hustle there by foot especially since you'll be ascending most of the way, and I can do it in about two hours. Given the thickness of the dust cloud I doubt I will be able to fly the entire way there, but I still have the best chance to get there the quickest and I'm the best suited to navigate inside it without getting lost. Cithanthalas, you will need to make sure that everyone stays on course and doesn't get lost when you reach it. The preparations I have made will make sure the gate will pose no problem for you when you arrive. So, does that sound good to everyone then? I just wish I could transform into a form that is large enough to carry someone else. Flying is very tricky to master, believe me."
"I will go with you." Caelan stepped forward. "People's lives are in danger and they could use my help. I will fly with you."
"You can DO that?" Beebee exclaimed. She remembered that he said he could transform, but fly? That was never something that he had mentioned.
"Yes, but I can't support anyone else. Ah... Anyways! I need to gather some supplies before we head out," Caelan rubbed his cheek in a bashful manner with downcast eyes. This was the last thing he thought that he would be self-conscious about but, well... Here he was. It only took a few moments to gather some trail rations and as many extra skins of water as both he and Santrista could carry. If they came across a lot of wounded people they were going to need them. "Can everyone turn around and close their eyes? We haven't time to waste, this is an emergency."
The other complied and Caelan harnessed his inner true self. Blue ethereal wings tipped in silver sprouted from his back. Beebee was the only one to catch the slightest glimpse of it through her fingers as she peeked around her shoulder before Caelan wasted no time and took to the sky. Santrista wasn't far behind him as the duo left the rest of the group behind for now.
Caelan and Santrista pushed themselves but the closer they got the lower the visibility became. Caelan didn't have night vision like Santrista did in her Owl form so he had to let her lead the way. Even that became unreliable as the dust cloud got much thicker, still, they pressed on. Caelan began to notice the strangest thing as they flew. The temperature was actually starting to get colder and noticeably so. The sun was just starting to rise so he wondered how long it would last, it definitely felt unnatural to him. He hoped that he wouldn't regret not bringing his cloak with him.
True to Santrista's words, eventually the thick dust got so bad that he and Santrista were forced to land and travel the rest of the way by foot. Caelan was embarrassed by the fact that he had traveled this area twice before just yesterday and still would've gotten lost within ten minutes without Santrista's guidance.
Caelan's thoughts began to put him more and more on edge the further they went. He began jumping and every noise that broke the stillness of the early morning hours be it an animal call, or a rock displaced by the event tumbling down somewhere nearby out of sight. Caelan took out his fidget box and began toying with it to help ease his anxiety. Chastising himself he was embarrassed by the display of cowardice he was displaying. Santrista seemed sympathetic to his situation and reached out to touch his arm in a comforting manner. Her features normally fixed with cold logic softened with human compassion.
"Relax.." Her voice reached out to him. His eyes stared at her slender hand on his arm then rose to meet her gaze. She gave him a warm smile which helped to put him a little at ease. "It's only natural to feel what you are feeling. I'll be with you to protect you no matter what is out there. It's just a little further now."
Just as they started to walk forward again a cry cut through the air. It was noticeably human which caused the duo to run toward the direction from which it had come. Shortly after the gate of the fortress appeared before them, which was not being guarded and way too quiet. It was like the dust from the environment sucked away all sound. It was an extremely isolating experience.
It appeared this is where most of the damage from the rockslide had occurred. Santrista stepped up and began to dig through her satchel and grabbed some reagents. Caelan noticed that they were the same bones and clay. The very same items that he had helped her to collect yesterday. The bones had the druidic symbol for earth carved into them.
"I'm going to summon an earth spirit to help us clear the way. Stand back." Santrista began to mold the clay around the bones making a vaguely humanoid form that would act as the link for the spirit she was going to summon. She knelt and placed the palm of her hands on the ground on either side of the figure and began to channel the power into the earth. Slowly the ground began to move as if it were a living creature and enveloped the fetish that Santrista had created. The sod covered the rocks like skin and the rocks were the creature's skeleton giving it form. As the creature rose from the earth it elevated Santrista along with it until it had fully formed and she was standing on its shoulder. The creature was easily as large as the gate of the fortress looming before them.
Caelan's blue eyes widened in awe at the sight. It was as if she was imbuing life into inorganic matter. He was so entranced that he almost forgot to create space between himself and the earth golem. The creature soon began to smash its stony fists against the gate and break it down so the others that would be arriving later would have access to the interior of the fortress without trouble. The act was so violent the ground shook and chunks of sod flew from the creature with each swing. It only took a few more blows before the gate was reduced to splinters. It began to clear away the debris to accommodate its huge size as it moved forward, only then were they free to proceed.
It had been difficult to see from the outside but now they had a true sense of the devastation that had been caused. Most of the entire area was completely buried in a rock avalanche. The golem easily began clearing a path through that mess as well and to Caelan's horror many people had been crushed to death beneath large boulders either from the mountain itself or from the buildings they attempted to take shelter in.
"Sweet mercy of the Goddess, please let us find at least one person alive." Caelan whispered to himself. He felt that if they were able to find and save just one person there was some hope left. It seemed the area was stable and there had yet to be any aftershocks.
"Help me." Santrista was the first to hear the subtle voice of a female nearby.
"We're here and we hear you. Speak and we will find you!" Santrista continued to survey the area from on top of the elemental.
"Over here." The voice continued to speak and led them to a building that was half collapsed in.
The golem cleared the way as carefully as possible and both Caelan and Santrista were surprised. Sedira was revealed holding a severely broken and unconscious Searin.
"Please help him. He's still alive." The woman's face had been stained by tears. She looked injured herself. Cuts and bruises were prevalent on her face and her once beautiful dress had been half torn to shreds.
"Stay there. I'll come to you." Caelan climbed inside and crouched beside Searin and Sedira. He noticed that her hands were covered with blood.
"I'm not as injured as he is, help him first." She pleaded. Her long dark hair that had been so meticulously taken care of was now dirty and disheveled along with the rest of her appearance. She seemed like a totally different person from who she had just met the day before.
"I will." Caelan looked down at Sedira's badly injured brother and pursed his lips together. This wasn't going to be fun. Caelan connected to that place deep within himself where his bond with others dwelt. He placed his hands on the critically injured Searin and began to use his powers to heal him. Everything started out well but more and more they felt that something was going terribly wrong. It was as if Searin was drawing more and more from him and Caelan couldn't stop it. Panic set in as soon as he realized what was happening. Caelan had never tried to heal anyone this close to death before, and while Searin was getting healed, it was also bringing Caelan closer to death in return. Caelan wanted to stop it, but it was like he had opened the floodgates and it wouldn't stop until the process had fully completed.
Caelan was taken to his limit and pushed over the edge. He fell into an unconscious state much like Searin still was. The last sound he remembered hearing was Santrista calling out his name in an anxious manner.
The next thing he knew he awoke in a field full of stalks of purple flowers around a meter tall. He rubbed his head and wondered where this place was. It didn't look familiar to him at all and he had never seen this kind of flower before.
"So it's you." A familiar voice echoed which caused Caelan to turn around and find that Searin was there with him.
"Where are we? Did we die?" Caelan looked around but the reality around them was clouded with a thick mist that looked like the dust cloud.
"No. You saved my life, you know. I'm grateful for that and I won't forget it." The tone of Searin's voice was totally sincere. He reached out a hand to help Caelan stand up. "I know these flowers extremely well, they are called Aconitum where I come from but they are known by another common name too, Wolf's bane. They represent death because they are extremely poisonous. I think we're within my mind. This is always how I imagined my psyche to look like; a place where memories go to die. No, we didn't die, but I was dead for a moment before you healed me and that was when we were brought here. Caelan, I saw what death was like."
"What did you see?" Caelan questioned Searin further.
"I saw nothing. There was no afterlife waiting." Searin answered. "I guess I should have expected something like that. What was the universe, reality, and existence before I was born? It was nothing to me then and so it will be when I am gone."
This was yet another example of his healing power bringing about an act of destruction. He killed a belief inside of Searin that would change his outlook and how he would interact with the world around him.
"Searin, you have to tell me what happened at the fortress. Part of the mountain collapsed and slid down to bury half of the fortress." Caelan was expecting a detailed answer.
"What happened involved my plan to change the world." Searin crouched and delicately touched the petals of one of the flowers. "We already went over this before, but I guess everything has changed since then. A decade of my life spent planning for this exact moment and all it amounted to was ruin.
"Look, this is a gross oversimplification of the years of research I have conducted, but after your group left I was forced to push my plans. So I moved most of the people we captured farther away to a secluded area away from the ruins long before you even arrived. The reason I kidnap people is that within everyone there is some small essence of the Goddess, I suppose you might call it a soul. You see the Goddess was once immortal, but she gave up a large part of her divinity to create life and the world we live in. Those that I kidnap are taken to a secret room within the fortress where Sedira and other magic-users I employ make use of their magic to siphon the residual energy of the Goddess that resides in everyone.
"The Goddess was originally not of this reality. She was brought into this universe before anything else existed by a Singularity that," Searin started to explain."Some called the World Tree."
"That still doesn't explain why you came here. What's so important about these ruins?" Caelan asked. Searin appreciated the pertinent question as it showed intelligence which he respected.
"You're right. I came here because this was the closest place I could find where the barrier between realities was weakest. You see these ruins are actually part of another world that the Goddess tried to create but it was doomed to fail before it had even been created," Searin took a deep breath. "I grow annoyed at this. Dumping all this exposition is not my style. We are in my mind, so I will show you everything."
Searin did just that and began to show Caelan images of his experiment within a deep and secret chamber within the fortress. The power from the souls of dead prisoners he had kidnapped all funneled to a single point by Sedira's magic. Caelan saw reality begin to critically collapse on itself. The veracity of the situation shook him to the core of his being.
"By the light of the Goddess," Caelan whispered with an unsteady tone in his voice. "You succeeded."
"Caelan! Caelan!" The young healer was shaken from the mind of Searin and brought back. His eyes fluttered open to see that Santrista was kneeling over him with a worried expression on her delicate elven features. "Good, you're awake. What happened? One moment you were healing Searin and the next you collapsed."
"I-I think there is something wrong with my power. I was healing him but I was pulled into his mind." Caelan explained everything that had happened. He also noticed that Searin was still unconscious but looked in much better shape. Sedira was tending to him at the moment.
"Sedira, I saw it. What you were doing, and what was released." Caelan pulled himself up to a sitting position. "Searin was only able to show me a flash of it from his recollection. It had no form. I just couldn't figure it out but something escaped. I don't know what it is, but I know it's dangerous. It's something that's not supposed to be here."
"You're right," Sedira didn't take her eyes off of Searin whose head was lying in her lap. Her fingers lightly brushed a strand of hair from his face. "We don't know what it was, but it is what caused the mountain to collapse. Once it had been released it broke free from the chamber and blasted the cliffs above the ruins with such force. I have no idea where it went after that. I assume it could be anywhere. Just looking at it was enough to make me feel madness creep into my mind."
"I have no idea what we are going to do about such a creature but I'm starting to believe it's the cause for the decrease in temperature in the area," Caelan admitted. "I also think we should continue the rescue and see if we can find anyone else still alive. At least the prisoners should be safe. Searin did have them moved after all, but I don't know where exactly."
"I'll let you know where they are before you leave. Here, you will need this." She reached for a chain around her neck. The chain had a key attached to it which she pulled from between her breasts. She handed it over to Santrista which the druid accepted.
"I don't know how much I have left in me but I can heal you too if you want." Caelan offered earnestly.
"I look worse than I am. Don't worry about me. Besides, your friend has already given me some willow bark to help with the pain and a couple of waterskins." Sedira showed Caelan a pouch full of ground bark as proof. "I'll try to make some tea from it. She told me that would work best."
"That's good. Glad to hear it." Caelan conceded then looked at Santrista as if she had all the answers and his look wasn't lost on her.
"We can continue the search for survivors but I'm not holding out much hope. Our duty shouldn't be to the dead right now but I would still like to have a pit dug for all the bodies." Santrista pointed out.
"A mass grave? Is that really necessary? I'll like to give them all a proper burial." Caelan voiced his dissatisfaction with the idea.
"It's the most efficient use of our time and resources." Santrista replied with cold, hard logic just as she always did.
"I can't argue with that, because we also need to get the prisoners free too." Caelan then turned to Sedira and continued. "You said you would tell us where they are so just take me to them. Also, we'll have to salvage whatever supplies we can. Horses would be useful since we had to give ours away."
"I won't leave Searin alone. Forgive me if I don't completely trust you not to harm him when you get the chance." Sedira responded. "As for horses, you will need to check the stable to see if any survived."
"You really think that we would try to kill him after I just saved his life?" Caelan stared at her with a look that was devoid of any emotion.
"Yes, that is true. I still will not leave him though. At this point I consider us to be your prisoners." She stated dismissively. "You don't understand what we've been through or what he means to me."
"Fine, just tell me then and I will go." Caelan retorted.
"I don't know if it's a good idea to go out there alone with that creature on the loose. I'll go with you to find the prisoners and then we can salvage what supplies we can. The earth spirit can start to dig the pit and guard Sedira and Searin." Santrista offered up yet another solid plan.
"Alright." Caelan agreed and stared out into the dusty sky that even the light of the morning sun was having trouble piercing. Caelan noticed that the sky was growing darker, not brighter, perhaps the weather was starting to turn overcast which usually meant it was going to rain. Perhaps that would help clear the dust from the air at least. The sharpness of how cold it was rapidly becoming had him shivering and he hoped that Beebee, Riven, and Cithanthalas were going to be okay. He really wished that they were here right now, Caelan was starting to feel that the group was much stronger together than they were apart. They were going to need them if they encountered whatever it was that was out there lurking.
"I don't know if it was a good idea to leave Sedira behind like that." Caelan mentioned as he followed Santrista along a narrow mountain pass where Sedira said the prisoners would be found locked in a cell within a cave. "I hope she didn't lie to us and is just leading us on a wild goose chase."
"She'll still be there when we get back if that's what you're really worried about. The golem has a low level of intelligence that allows it to act independently. I gave it a command to guard her before we left. Let's just hope it doesn't end up burying her along with the other dead bodies while we're gone. It's not great about multi-tasking. You need to stop being so pessimistic. I'm supposed to be the cunning and cynical one. You're supposed to be the one that believes in the goodness of others. I thought our roles were clear." Santrista scoffed in her ubiquitous know-it-all manner. Caelan knew better though, she was someone that didn't take herself seriously at all despite how she acted. It looked like Santrista was doing a good job of seeing through him too.
"Someone has to keep me honest and true to myself." Caelan replied. "I just wish that it was me."
"Looks like there is some rough terrain ahead. The rock-slide didn't do too much damage here at least." Santrista said and began to climb over a pile of broken stone. Caelan didn't want to think about how powerful the creature had to be in order to do something like this. "Judging from what Sedira said we should be close. At least it didn't take us long, so we should be back in half an hour."
"Thank you for not prying into what happened to me when I healed Searin, but I think it's important that we talk about it." Caelan knew that Santrista avoided talking about it to help spar him. Sometimes he found it difficult to try and form his thoughts into words and communicate effectively with others. He often felt judged and stressed when offering his opinions thanks to an overabundance of emotional sensitivity. "Searin told me things about the Goddess and the world. I... want to know if they are true. Was there another world created by the Goddess that was destroyed? If anyone knows anything about that it would be you, right? The only thing "
Santrista remained silent a moment as she continued to walk down the trail, "I think you overestimate my relationship with Illysandra. What I know of her is that she chooses to keep herself mostly isolated from everyone."
"How strange. I guess that will just be a mystery that will remain unresolved." Caelan just shook his head in defeat.
The two picked up the pace and started a brisk jog. They needed to reach the prisoners as quickly as possible. Despite their haste, the duo cautiously approached the entrance to the cave when they found it. Once they were confident that no traps waited for them Santrista and Caelan ventured inside. They heard the whisper of voices before they saw the cell.
"Hold on, we will have you free in a moment." Caelan immediately rushed forward. "Is everyone alright?"
"Thank you." There was only a small group of five people within the cell. "What's going on? Early in the morning we were startled awake by what sounded like the end of the world out there."
"Yes, there is a lot to talk about. Come on. We'll fill you in on the way out of here." Santrista used Sedira's key to open the lock. It was going to break her heart telling Cithanthalas that his sister was not among the captives.