Sprigging lemongrass and lilac-veined irises filled the wind with a citrusy, sugared-violet concoction that lifted Rhemar’s spirits. He noticed the shrubs of spruce dancing as frequent breezes sifted through his linen threads and tendered fingers. The sun was nearing noon, yet the valley air was still mellow and vivifying. Scattered firths of cypress crooned as the land gradually came to a sloping incline in the distance, making his hike through billowing foothills stark and unencumbered.
Several hundred feet ahead, Rhemar could see the rudiment of a grooved path just beyond the next knoll, leading into the throng of the Garza Mountains. A thistle of juniper shrubs lay at the edge, waving their miniature needle-like leaves to bid Rhemar safe journeys and farewell. Once he entered the path, a stout peak cast its shadowy veil overhead, blocking his grandiose view of the acclivous plains. A gilded oatmeal sheen rolled over the grasslands and wild flowers, as they faded into the broadening distance.
Over the next couple of miles, Rhemar steadily clambered upwards, rising above the Silverhand Plateau and the tallest trees in the area. The thinning air slowed Rhemar’s progress; he was unaccustomed to the altitudes that few feathered avians dared to skim. As he led himself along narrow passes and sharp ridges, Rhemar began to see how difficult this trek would be. At any moment, he could lose footing and dive into an early, rocky grave.
After a span of five hours, the sun began its descent behind the horizon and twilight coruscated the heavens with star-burnt fuchsias, golden-lined peaches, and indigo pillowed clouds. Just as Rhemar reached a leveled summit, the sun fell past the skyline and left its warm hue radiating on the tips of distant peaks. Fatigued and famished, he took the next few moments to gain a snippet of respite. Dangling his legs over a sturdy edge, Rhemar took out his satchel and retrieved a half loaf, five dates, a slightly past ripe tomato, and his worn chestnut umber gourd corked with mineralized river water. As he shoveled rations down his gullet, his eyes drank in the vast sights dissolving in the waning lucence.
Rhemar finished his traveler’s dinner and grabbed for his satchel once more. This time, extracting a slender carved mahogany ferrule the length of his arm, fixing it on a brushed level site furthest from the summit’s edge. With a snap of his fingers, the wooden rod creaked, then crackled and sprung open synchronously in eight reverting directions, like a spider scampering across a window’s ledge. The chaotic knot of rods then hoisted themselves, realigning to form an A-frame shack. A wee tiny door, just big enough to crouch through, adorned the front face of this would-be shelter. Rhemar slouched his aching back, tucked his trodden knees tight with his breast, and burrowed into the self-assembled lodge that stood unwavering in the mountain breeze. He muttered words of warmth that embraced his numbing limbs and yielding chest, imparting bounties of heat as though he were near a crackling fire. His bones and tendons loosened and relaxed, easing him into a fathomless, mesmerizing slumber.
Twittering sunbeams threaded their way through the tent’s many facets, strobing across Rhemar’s sundrenched face and matted beard. Transient clouds stirring over the summit delivered frigid and sodden air, leaving a morning dew on the sparse wisps of grass and awaking mountain lilies. Rhemar emerged from his shelter and began to stretch; the hours of hiking and climbing left his muscles stiff and unresponsive. With three deep breaths, Rhemar opened his eyes wide, as if trying to see an entire panoramic mountaintop without craning his neck. Two leathery smacks on his cheeks and a flourish of his limbs invigorated him, as he began gathering his traveling gear. Another snap of his fingers, the wooden tent refolded itself into a taught singular rod and was parceled with the rest of his belongings. Rhemar chomped off a portion of an exceptionally tart apple as the pomaceous juice drizzled down his beard. He was unexpectedly chipper this morning and a noble simper garnished his wakening mien.
Over the next few hours, Rhemar advanced his way up hoary paths winding sinuously along the many horned peaks. He noticed an arched aisle ahead that seemed manmade and crept gingerly towards its entryway. Detailing the fine chiseled granite and worn foothold, Rhemar knew he was not the only man to pass through these parts. With no alternative other than climbing down several hundred feet and circumnavigating the stone hall, he inched his way through. Emerging from the other side, a boulder of pewtered sandstone dismantled from an above slope, crashing and dislodging several stones larger than a rowdy of oxen. The boulders cracked and splintered, fracturing into rubbled macadam as they clashed and thundered down the mountainside. Rhemar could not pacify his lurching heartbeat as it throbbed cyclically behind his pulsing eyes. He turned to see the archway full of fragmented slated spears and grated rocks the size of wagon wheels, effectively sealing off the exit.
“By the Creator and all his guardians, never has there been a more succinct escape from imminent doom,” Rhemar said. He rejoiced, clapping his hands as the mineraled wind swept the chasm, wafting fresh powdered rock upwards and into the distance. Figuring luck accompanied him this morning, he remained on the prescribed path and continued his journey.
Rhemar’s food rations were wearing thin, but the mountain’s rich soil was plentiful with wild herbs, tart berries, and savory mushrooms. There remained half a loaf, a handful of almonds, and a sprouting potato in his travel pack. He gathered miscellaneous herbs and mushrooms from a nearby ridge and water from a small pool. Rhemar retrieved a stone pot from his pack, used a whisper of fire to boil his water, and began concocting a serendipitous stew. Since he amassed a surplus of the alpine shrooms (far too many for a single pot of stew), he ate two of the larger caps and saved a half dozen for dinner. While chopping and preparing his mountainside survivors recipe, Rhemar became indescribably relaxed and his gaze widened. A lithe carmine hue tinted his vision as the bewildering crags cast their lofted shadows on the coy crevices below.
As periwinkle skies waded tides of white-capped clouds, a melodious twang tweeted from his swishing lips, filling the mountain alleys with flirtatious cajoleries and swaying swoons. He laughed merrily as the stew bubbled to perfection. Sipping its vivacious broth, Rhemar finished the sterling meal, tied up his pack and continued through the cradled valley.
Trekking merrily forward, the mountain bluffs gained in stature at an expeditive rate, outpacing any efforts to obtain an upgraded view. A suppressing whoa filtered into the evacuated valley and Rhemar noticed a lack of vegetation and clamor that normally supervened along the sierra spine. His tendons felt prickly and a thirst ripened his parched tongue.
Rhemar began to inspect the enclosing ridgeline, discovering that he was unequivocally surrounded by masoned gargantuan warriors. Long forgotten by man, their sacred duty of defending a verboten secret was intimidating, to say the least. Now cautiously aware, Rhemar ventured further along the graveled path. He approached a colossal slab of cinereal stone, where a temple occupied the mountain’s southern face. The carved façade was elegant and preserved, despite appearing thousands of years in dotage. Thrusting at his back, the wind propelled every step as he moved closer to the entry. Rhemar was certain, this was the forbidden labyrinth that Gerhaund groused about. Thinking of Lucan and his heinous tenue, Rhemar grinded his teeth and marched with full exaction into the temple.
The walls leading into the nave of this beguiling monolith revealed a deep passage stretching toward the mountain’s core. Impressed by the exact precision utilized to chisel the individual bricks, balconies, and pews, Rhemar wondered how long it took to construct a facility of this magnitude. Inspecting the hallowed hall with skewed attentions, he began incautiously marching down a mystifying corridor. He sensed a warmth emanating from the interior and noticed concurrent flickers of candlelight illuminating the rounding corners of his path. As the candled shine brightened, he could hear a low hum reverberating through the hall. Discovering he was not alone, Rhemar desisted his jaunt and stooped as low as the floor would permit.
Shifting his posture to ease a crouched position, Rhemar cast a silencing spell on his movements as not to alert any beast or predator of his intrusion. With his mind racing, Rhemar’s vision swayed, causing the walls to lose definition. Asserting that he was close to the degenerate Gerhaund praised, Rhemar hatched a scheme to execute the fiend. It had to be that massacring savage with the plastered, crackling grin; it had to be Lucan.
Lying in wait, Rhemar contemplated his options. Lucan’s power was overwhelming in comparison, and could only have gained in magnitude since their last encounter. Rhemar must be apt in every cord he strums, or he will surely meet an atrocious demise. His only fighting chance against the vicious blood mage is the element of surprise. Clearing his thoughts of doubt and apprehension, he devised an ambush for the odious miscreant.
Without an utterance, Rhemar focused on the demon energy churning within and drew a heaving breath. Exhaling, he unleashed a hoard of infinitesimal shadow-lain spiders that scurried about the corridor and up the stone walls. He darted a glance in the direction of the candlelight and the spiders began to march, advancing on their unsuspecting victim.
As his sinister spies crept out of sight, Rhemar gripped his right fist and muttered an incantation, “Iritus copulus, lectere montis.”
The words danced and entwined themselves with his Majin, forming an invisible shield that only a guardian could detect. This was all the protection Rhemar could muster while leaving enough Majin for the ineluctable crusade to come.
The corridor led to a dimly lit arching chamber residing on the west side of the mountain. Beeswax candles encircled the room with a simmering citron glow. At the center of the chamber, a shrouded figure dressed in ashen taupe robes knelt. As the mystery man prayed, thousands of vengeance-fueled arachnids descended from the chamber’s buttressed ceiling. Unaware of the incipient danger, the man continued to chant. With his arthropodous infantry in place, Rhemar lingered at the rim of the entrance, full intent on murder.
A curt nod from Rhemar and the spiders initiated their assault, sinking their venom soaked fangs into the oblivious man’s appendages, throat, and breast. The robed pilgrim spat out a curdling gasp, as he attempted to relinquish the onslaught of infectious chaws. Before Rhemar could pounce, the man spun voraciously and smacked his palms to the ground. A sudden burst of wind sent the spiders flailing in all directions. Rhemar was taken aback but quickly recovered, fixing his sights on the target.
“Ignis iecto flumen sede!” Rhemar said.
Six blazing orbs shot towards his opponent, scorching the floating spiders still tottering from the gust.
The man’s shrouded robe caught the bombardment, engulfing into flames. He cast the sintering threads to the floor and took stance for his next move, aligning his sights on the intrepid assailant. Rhemar’s vision blurred as he discovered a gnarled vestige of his sworn enemy, Lucan, turning to greet him with a wry grin.
Rhemar could not contain his fury, “Umbra spica, congessit amnis.”
Spewing the atramentous incantation and smacking the cobbled floor, a lurid shadow pooled around Lucan, tainting the loose air swirling about the chamber. Sable bolts of nefarious spikes sprang from the pool, lancing at the villainous sorcerer. Before they could pierce their target, the occultist charmer leapt several feet into the air, as the spikes tangled and tore at his remaining garbs. Causing an updraft, he twisted acrobatically and adjusted his form, diving head first into the throng of impaling javelins. The poised aerialist released a concentrated tornado from his thrusting palm, penetrating the bed of tendrilled claws. The splayed pool dissipated with a haughty plume in its wake as he landed curtly at its evacuated center.
The adrenaline surging through Rhemar heightened his senses. As the scene focused, he noticed the surroundings with unclouded clarity and detail. The prickling sensation bogging his movements subsided as Rhemar composed himself for the next barrage. At that moment, his looming victim shifted forms. He was no longer the contorted sinister villain that harbored Lucan’s deporting form.
A young lad with cinnabar locks and silver eyes stood, transfixed on Rhemar with wrath in his gaze. Rhemar halted his next spell and tried to speak in repentance when a howling tempest thrust him against an obstinate stone wall, departing the air from his lungs. Rhemar could only watch as the young man drew closer, composing himself for a kill-strike. Before the boy could launch another gust, the spider’s venom took affect and he toppled to the floor, seizing relentlessly.
Once Rhemar alleviated his collapsed airways, he started for the sprawled fledgling on the verge of cerebral hemorrhaging.
“Come forth evil, you shall not resist me,” Rhemar chanted in an exacting tone, “Dissolve your hatred and banish from this realm. I peer into the void and it trembles from my gaze.”
The tarred mucilage bubbled to the surface of the boy’s arms, chest, and neck, permeating his skin and dissolving in air. As the venom evaporated, the boy’s black veins returned a teal hue and vanished from sight, leaving him in shock and dismay. Rhemar spoke gently now, assuring the boy that harm has left their presence.
Rhemar checked the boy for any signs of the insidious poison, “I am not your enemy. I made you out a murderous swine and sprang this orchestra before confirming your identity. My sincerest condolences.”
Regaining composure, the boy sat upright and spat at Rhemar, “Who the hell are you?”
“Rhemar of…Kandem. I’m looking for the monster that destroyed my village. On my travels here, I ate a rather bountiful mushroom and found myself wondering these halls in disarray. You appeared to be him, so I attacked. Forgive my transgressions.”
The young man craned and stretched his neck, thinking for several moments. Taking an earnest breath, he paused to leer at Rhemar. “Had those spiders not disabled my abilities, I would have torn you to pieces. Cato’s the name, and that’s one hell of a mushroom.”
Rhemar and Cato regained their footing, dusted off their clothes, and faced a tiny window slot that sourced the room’s refreshed air.
“Dammit, I need to be more aware. Should have sensed those piss-ants twenty feet off. What kind of Majin was that?” Cato asked.
Rebuked with his actions, Rhemar replied, “They were not born of Majin ascendancy alone, but aided by demon influences.”
Cato shook his head with an approving nod, “That’s Incredible! Who knew someone with demon prowess stalked about these lands, lurking in the shadows. So, you managed to subjugate one of those vile bastards, eh? You must be one of the Ascended. Pleasure to meet your grit.”
Rhemar chimed on Cato’s words, “Ascended?”
“Yeah, you can cast Majin with ancient words and overcome demons at will. There are perhaps a handful of people in all Naz’ar that can sling Majin castings like that. You’re one of the Ascended, no doubt. And from Kandem, huh? You are peculiar, Mr. Rhemar,” Cato said.
Rhemar surmised his new acquaintance was speaking of the Immortal Flame and let the topic fade unanswered, as not to excite any further prying.
“Say, how did you get in here? You’re much too large to fit through that window. Are you able to change form as well?” Cato asked inquisitively.
Rhemar sighed, “I snuck in from that corri…dor,” his words trailing off as he turned toward the doorway, noticing it had vanished.
Nothing but finely chiseled sandstone bricks lined the chamber walls. Spinning abruptly to inspect the rest of the candle-lit room, he noticed a complete absence of entries, albeit the window too small for him to fit through.
“I’m not quite sure, my recollection remains hazy. Walking down a hall, I noticed the light from your candles and began scheming maliciously. How did you come to be here? I don’t suppose you flew through that minuscular window?” Rhemar asked sarcastically.
“Absolutely. It was the only way in I could find, but much larger at the time. After managing a daring leap through the lunette, the window shrank and locked me in. I’ve been here for about two days now.”
Rhemar snickered and let out a haughty laugh, “Two whole days! And you were just loafing around waiting for the walls to crumble? By the Creator, what’s your malfunction? Why lie in wait when you can hurl such gales of fury?”
“These walls are old but adamant; my wind cannot pierce through the fortified sediment. I’ve tried exasperatingly.”
As the two squabbled about their interim imprisonment, a low groan rumbled the chamber, reverberating through the walls and floor.
Rhemar was suddenly hushed by the trembling tone, “What was that?”
“That’s impossible…there’s no way…”
Cato’s voice faded as a stricken expression veiled his pale complexion. Rhemar shook the young shaman by his shoulders and demanded an explanation.
“You really have no idea where you stand in this world? We’re inside the remains of the last elemental titan, Gath’rah of the Stone. He’s supposed to have perished millennia ago,” Cato said.
“So, we’re trapped inside this labyrinth which is in reality, a giant stone monster? I’m not quite sure I follow.”
“You must be from Kandem. This “labyrinth” is a temple etched from the remains of Gath’rah and used as a sacred hallow for pilgrims traversing the Garza. That rumble we just witnessed didn’t come from some far away castle, it came from the mountain itself!” Cato exclaimed.
Another groan shook the ground, shaking stone dust from the ceiling and clouding the air around them. The stones lining the chamber walls began to shift, curling into themselves and revealing a new passageway leading deeper into the mountainous beast. Rhemar and Cato glanced hesitantly at each other and sprinted for the newfound exit, both eager to liberate their freedom before the doorway resealed.
The duo crossed the threshold, leaving behind Cato’s beeswax candles. As they settled into the less-finely chiseled foyer, the bricks framing the doorway unfolded and interlocked before Cato could retrieve his way-finding lanterns. Now standing in a dark pitch, Rhemar and Cato began shuffling down the unfamiliar corridor. They sensed a dark energy billowing through the hall; both Rhemar and Cato felt an ambivalent anxiety toiling in their guts as they inched their way deeper into the unknown.