large hall. Wooden panels cover the walls, adorned with burnt-in silhouettes of various creatures in regular intervals. There are no windows in this room, but a large chandelier and several glowing orbs on the walls are ensuring it is well-lit. The room is dominated by a large oak-wood desk that has been set on a raised platform. Nine chairs have been set on one side of that desk, all of them occupied by magi that exude an aura of importance. They face a simple chair and table that stand in the middle of the room, looking tiny against the looming table on its pedestal. The chair is empty, however, as the one who has come before the gathering of magi neither has need of it nor could use it comfortably. While he has the upper body of a man, his lower body ends in a snake-like tail more than twenty feet in length and covered in blue scales . His white hair falls openly over his bare shoulders, the beads weaved into its ends tinkling softly whenever he moves his head. He has placed a staff on the table in front of him, a wizard’s staff that has been snapped into two halves, and he is now looking up at the nine magi, the most influential and powerful of their kind in the Keep. His eyes move over them all one after the other, then they settle on the one in the middle, Archmage Thane, who presides over this gathering.
"My name is Markandeya Das, of the nimnagAsuta tribe. I have followed the river to its source. I have bested the manticore in combat. I have braved the catacombs of bhUchAya and returned. I have slain seven foes in defense of my village. I have sired two clutches for the continuation of my tribe." His introduction complete, he pauses for a moment. His voice is loud and firm, his tone could almost be called arrogant were he human. In one of his kind, however, it is to be expected. The Naga are an independent people, bowing to no man be he king or magi, and to be addressed as an equal by one is more than one could ask for in most circumstances. Thane and his council are well aware of this and thus take no offense, patiently waiting for Markandeya to continue.
"I was companion to the magi Alandru Snowstrider. I have come before this council today to tell about the journey he undertook, the things he discovered, and the reason why he will never again return to this place. Will you hear my story?" Thane nods gravely, and the Naga begins his tale.
Alandru strolled through one of the gardens of the Keep. The weak sun of early spring was barely warming the air and ground, but after the cold of winter, he was enjoying it anyway. Not that he minded cold; his fair complexion made it quite obvious that he hailed from the nomadic tribes of the Arkene, and for those people, the word cold had a whole different meaning. As he walked down the graveled path, he whistled the tune of a common folk song; he missed quite a few notes, but he didn’t let that spoil his mood. Pausing to watch a bird trying to pull something from the still half-frozen ground, he didn’t notice the figure nearing him until it was almost upon him and hailed him with a loud "you," its finger outstretched and pointing at him. "Me?" he asked somewhat bemused, as he looked up. Standing a few feet away was a portly woman with a round face who wouldn’t have looked out of place behind the counter of a bakery. Her robes, colored in deep green, were embroidered with tangled vines on the chest, proclaiming her a member of the herbalist guild. "Yes, you," she said. "I’ve been looking for you!"
"Pardon, but do I know you?" Alandru asked. "My apologies, but I do not remember meeting you before, and..." he trailed off as she approached him in a firm stride, gripping his shoulder and looking intensely into his eyes.
"You will go underground,
where the caves are enclosed.
The shadow will wake;
the pattern will break.
Legend will come to life."
With a small sigh, the woman stepped back, adding in a softer voice: "This I foretell."
Alandru took a quick step back, warily watching the strange woman. "That was certainly interesting," he said, uneasily adjusting his robes. "Would you mind telling me what it was all about?"
With a sigh, the woman sat down on a nearby boulder. "I’m sorry for this. My name is Anita, and I’m one of those with the rare talent of a seer." For a moment, Alandru grimaced sceptically, but even though Anita couldn’t have missed it, she didn’t comment on it. "When the foretelling comes over me, I have to do what it makes me do. It can be.. inconvenient at times, but it cannot be helped."
The magi considered her for a moment. "So let’s assume for a moment you really did foretell my future; what am I supposed to do now? What did those lines mean?"
Anita shook her head wearily. "I do not pretend to know what my predictions mean. Neither would I dare suggest a course of action. The caves I talked about are the Caves of Nareau, that much I am certain of." She raised her hand to forestall his question. "Do not ask how I know. I cannot answer that, as I don’t know myself. There is one more thing I know, though." She gave a trilling whistle, and with a rustle, a slender shape separated from the branches of a nearby tree. Iridescent pearly scales glistened in the morning sun as the Quetzalcoatl glided toward them, elegantly landing on the ground between the two magi. "This is Ulamyth," Anita explained. "She has to be with you, or things will go badly. If there is the slightest bit of belief in what I said inside you, don’t let her out of your sight."
Scratching his chin, Alandru regarded the winged snake. "I’ll admit to be somewhat hesitant to believe that you just told me my future, even as cryptic as your words were. But I promise I will consider them with all wisdom before I decide what to do. But now I think I better leave. Have a nice rest of your day." He walked off down the path, glancing behind at Ulamyth who slithered after him, but not commenting on it.
The morning sun weakly illuminated the camp site. Alandru wrapped his cloak tighter around his shoulders as he stoked the fire, trying to create a little warmth against the cold mountain air. When the flames started up, he looked at the coiled form of his companion who was just waking up, moving a bit sluggishly in the cold. "Good morning!" he said cheerfully, giving the Naga a smile he knew would not be returned. Markandeya gave him an acknowledging nod. "You’re probably starting to wish you didn’t come with me," Alandru said. "Your people are not well accustomed to the cold, after all."
The Naga’s face didn’t show anything as he replied. "My people can endure hardship. We are strong. I have endured cold at your Keep and I will endure cold here. It is all the same." Alandru smiled as he looked into the fire, having expected an answer like that. "It’s strange; I do not believe in foretelling, and yet I am here because of a cryptic message. But the question is, would I be here if there hadn’t been a prophecy? And if a foretelling causes the events it foretold, is it really prophecy or something else?" He looked at Markandeya’s expressionless face and chuckled. "Sorry, just idle philosophy without answers. We should better get moving, the Caves of Nareau are not much farther from here."
He rose and started to pack their things, sparing a glance at Ulamyth who was watching him from a branch of the tree she had coiled around during the night. "You too," he told her. "She said things would go badly without you, so you better come with us." The Quetzalcoatl gave a screech and flapped her wings as if in response, then took flight. Alandru watched her soaring above them for a moment, then proceeded to break camp.
Two days later, the companions had entered the caves through one of the numerous openings that dotted the southern Alasre Mountains. They were moving down a tunnel, the entrance long behind them so the only illumination they had was the torch Alandru was carrying in his right hand. He used the staff in his left hand to support himself on the rough ground while Markandeya slithered comfortably behind him, far less bothered by the uneven floor thanks to his serpentine lower half. Ulamyth glided above them on the small air currents flowing through the caves, aided by the occasional wing flap. It was quiet in the tunnel, except for the clattering of the staff on the floor and the almost inaudible rasp of the Naga’s scales over the rock.
Alandru gave a startled twitch when Markandeya’s voice suddenly broke the silence. "Do you have a destination in mind, Alandru Snowstrider? Or will we walk through these caverns at random until we run out of supplies?"
The magi’s eyes wandered up to the Quetzalcoatl. "I’ve been wondering that myself; I almost think we have our guide with us, she just hasn’t found the way yet."
"You really think..." The Naga broke off as the Quetzalcoatl suddenly gave a screech, then shot forward straight like an arrow, far faster than the former languished pace.
"Does that answer your question?" Alandru called over his shoulder as he started to jog after her. "Come on, we mustn’t lose her!"
A bit later, he stumbled into a larger cavern after Ulamyth, who rose up and circled above, barely within the glow of the torch. The magi leaned against the wall to catch his breath; he had just recovered and was about to step further into the room when Markandeya came slithering through the entrance. "You are a fool, Alandru Snowstrider!" he proclaimed. "Running off like that without thinking of marking your way. How were you intending to return through those twisting tunnels you just ran through without sparing a glance for your surroundings?"
The magi opened his mouth, closed it again then chuckled. "You’re right, my friend. That was quite careless of me. I’m lucky to have you with me, am I not? But if you’re done scolding me, perhaps we should see what Ulamyth has found for us?" Not waiting for the Naga’s reply, he raised his torch high and walked deeper into the cavern.
"Well, would you look at this," he exlaimed as he approached the far side of the cave. "This is certainly not a natural formation." Holding the torch closer, the magi examined a part of the wall, perhaps ten feet in diameter, that seemed to be made of hexagonal stones fitted tightly together. "There’s hardly a seam," he murmured, stooping to investigate closer and running a hand over the stones to feel the crags. "It seems like someone walled off a passage here. I wonder what is behind it. Perhaps..." He thrust the torch back at Markandeya, who had come up behind him. "Hold the light steady. This stone seems to be loose."
The magi reached for his dagger and worked it into the crag between two stones, carefully trying to pull one of them out. After a few minutes of silent work, the stone fell out of the hole and into his hand. Alandru held it up triumphantly for a moment, then grimaced at the rank smell wafting from the opening he had created. "Now let’s see if I can widen..." he started, when suddenly the wall in front of him exploded, throwing him back several yards with the force of the blow. He landed on his back, his vision momentarily blackening from the pain of the impact. Groaning, he raised his head, looking to where Markandeya was slowly backing away from a shadowy figure that was moving out of the now open passage. Alandru tried to focus on the shape, but his eyes just seemed to slip off the thing without being able to discern a definite form, like a shadow in diffuse light. A very solid and threatening shadow, the way it was advancing toward the Naga, who was raising his spear defensively.
As the shadow closed in, Markandeya thrust at it, only to find his spear swatted away effortlessly and clattering to the floor several yards away. He slithered back, barely avoiding a lunge by the figure while Alandru climbed back to his feet, wincing from the pain in his back. "Use the torch!" he shouted at the Naga. "It can be hurt by fire!" Markandeya brought the flame around and indeed the thing backed away. Pressing his advantage, he drove it back with broad sweeps, carefully watching for counterstrikes. Alandru sprinted toward a large boulder near the entrance to the cave the creature had come out of. "Get it back inside," he told Markandeya. "We need to lock it in!" Murmuring a few words, he put his hand on the boulder and was rewarded by a brief pink glow as his spell settled on it.
Meanwhile, Markandeya had driven the shadowy form back toward the opening. He lunged forward, thrusting his torch against it and the creature fell back into the shadow of the cavern, turning almost invisible against the blackness. At the same time, Alandru rammed his staff into a crack between the boulder and the floor and leaned on it with all his might. The staff bent dangerously, but then the boulder moved and started to roll, settling into the opening with a loud crunch. Panting from the effort, the magi stooped to pick something up from the floor, then called to Markandeya. "Come on! We need to get out of here! The spell will hold it for a while, but not forever!" He turned toward the corridor they had entered through, the Naga right on his heels, only pausing to pick up his spear.
The little fire barely spent any warmth to the two figures and the Quetzalcoatl huddling close to it, but the magi and his companion couldn’t carry much fuel on their journey and the caves didn’t provide much, either. Still, it was enough to light a bit of the small cavern they had chosen as their resting place after they had fled from the shadowy creature. After sharing a meager meal from their supplies, Markandeya turned toward Alandru. "What was that thing? I have never seen or even heard of anything like it."
The magi gave a small, mirthless laugh. "A creature of an older time; ancient, powerful and deadly. And I released it." He pulled something out of his cloak and handed it to the Naga. "This is part of the wall we broke. See the markings?" He pointed to several lines on the stone that looked like they had been chiseled in. "These are part of a magic circle, a spell designed to keep it trapped in that cave. When I removed the stone from the wall, I broke the circle and allowed it to escape." He looked at the questioning face of his companion and continued. "Let me elaborate. These... things were here, thousands of years before humans existed. There were never many, but they are the enemy of all life. A long time ago, the first magi joined forces and sought them all, fighting them, imprisoning them. Many gave their lives, but in the end they succeeded. The world is a better place for it."
"Why did they not kill them?" the Naga asked. "It sounds like that would have served everyone better."
Alandru shook his head. "They cannot be killed. Not that we know of, at least. There are things that can hurt them, like fire, lightning, certain spells. But destroying one has never been done, to my knowledge. This one was weak from its long imprisonment, I gather, or a simple torch would not have sufficed to keep it in check. We were lucky it didn’t have time to grow stronger."
The Naga’s eyes wandered to the staff lying at Alandru’s side. "In that case, we were also lucky you were able to hold the creature long enough for us to escape. If your staff had broken before that boulder moved..."
Alandru gave a small smile and picked up his staff, running a hand along it almost gently. "Actually, that wasn’t luck." He held the staff up. "This is a true wizard’s staff, handed down from master to pupil over many generations. It holds various spells, and one of them makes sure it can never break, as long as it is held by a true magi. There was no danger of it breaking while I was alive." He let it sink again. "It won’t help me against that creature, though. I guess our only hope is to make haste back to the Keep and return with a force large enough to force it into a new prison."
"So you would leave those who live in these caverns to the mercy of that creature, while you run for help, wouldn’t you, magi?" A strange voice suddenly resounded in the cave. In the blink of an eye, Markandeya raised up from his formerly relaxed coils, his spear in his hand as he looked around for the owner of the voice. Alandru sprang to his feet as well, reaching for a torch to light on their small fire. Only Ulamyth seemed unconcerned, staying coiled up on the ground. The companions heard wings flapping as something descended from the roof, revealing itself as a crystalwing of a purplish hue as it came into the light. "Put down your weapons," it said, the voice coming from its maw strangely high-pitched. "I am not your enemy."
"Well, I’ll be..." Alandru exclaimed, lowering the still unlit torch. "I heard tales of some of the younger magi meeting talking crystalwings, but I wasn’t sure whether to believe them. I guess they were not as exaggerated as I believed them to be." He watched the crystalwing curiously as it landed by the fire. "Are you the only one of your kind or are there more? Is there any lore on how you came to be? I’d dearly like to know, and I could name at least a dozen scholars in the Keep who’d kill for this information."
"Quite inquisitive you are," the crystalwing responded, its face twisting into a sneer. "Perhaps we should get to the more pressing matters at hand before we exchange life histories."
Alandru lowered his eyes guiltily. "You’re referring to the creature I inadvertently freed. I promise, I’ll gather as many magi from the Keep as I can and..."
The crystalwing interrupted him with an angry screech. "How many inhabitants of these caves do you think will be killed by the time you deign to return? It is your mess, magi, fix it yourself!"
Alandru raised his hands helplessly. "You don’t understand; imprisoning this creature is beyond the power of any single magi, no matter how powerful he might be. Facing it alone will mean my death and help no one. I need to get the aid of those who have experience with these matters, or nothing will be accomplished."
The crystalwing stepped closer to Alandru, staring at him intently. "I have the means, if you are willing to stay and fix your mistake, magi. What say you?"
It was dark in the cave that Alandru and Markandeya were waiting in, their torches kept unlit so as not to announce their presence prematurely. Only the gems that rimmed the hole in the middle of the floor shed some light, weakly illuminating the area with a dark pink glow. Throwing a suspicious glance at the colorful shapes gliding slowly above them, the Naga moved nearer, speaking in a low voice: "Is this a wise decision, Alandru Snowstrider? Can we trust these talking crystalwings? And even if we can, do you really think this plan of theirs will work? They are not magi."
"They have nothing to gain from betraying us. This creature is their enemy as much as ours and I believe they know that. As for whether this will work..." The magi’s gaze wandered over the glowing gemstones. "I cannot say. I do think we have a chance, but it is a high risk."
He looked back to Markandeya. "If it doesn’t work, one of us has to get back to the Keep. The council must know of what happened here, and if we fail, they have to send an expedition to try and contain what I freed. If things look like they’re going badly, you have to make sure word reaches them." Alandru grabbed the Naga’s shoulder and looked him into the eyes. "Promise me this, my friend. Don’t die here. Bringing help will be more important than anything else. Do you understand?"
Markandeya looked as if he was about to reply, but then he just nodded once and turned away, patiently watching one of the entrances to the cavern.
It wasn’t much later when one of the shapes above the two companions glided down and alighted near Alandru. He was barely recognizable in the dim light, but the magi still knew it was the crystalwing he had met first, even though he knew he wasn’t the only one of his kind able to talk. All of those flying above were like him, and he suspected there were still more in the depths of these caves.
"They are coming," the creature, who had refused to give a name so far, told the magi. "They will be here very soon. Be prepared, we cannot afford this plan to fail."
Not waiting for an answer, he took wing again, and Alandru quickly noticed that the crystalwings started to congregate toward one of the passages that led into the cave. Two shapes flitted through that opening, quickly gaining altitude as they left the narrow corridor. The mage narrowed his eyes as he realized the third crystalwing that should have been with this group was missing; instead, a dark shape followed them soundlessly. With the darkness in the room, it should have been impossible to tell, but somehow the blackness of the cave seemed to deepen as tendrils crept inside, one of them snapping after the fleeing crystalwings and narrowly missing them. Other crystalwings dived down, distracting the thing and drawing it further into the room, while Markandeya and Alandru sneaked toward it along the walls on opposite sides of the cave. One of the crystalwings was swatted out of the air by a sweeping tendril, and Alandru winced at the sickening crunch it made as it hit the floor, sure it would not get up again, but he also noticed that the shadowy creature had come close to the hole in the floor.
His and Markandeya’s gaze met and they nodded to each other. Sparks flew from the magi’s hand as he used his magic to light both his and the Naga’s torch, the fire flaring brightly as they rushed forward to thrust the fire against their opponent. The thing backed away until it was standing right at the rim of the hole, but it moved no further, the tendrils flailing toward Alandru who desperately dived out of the way. Markandeya wielded his torch against the creature again and it spun around, one tendril knocking the torch out of his hand and into the hole. A second tendril whipped toward him, and Alandru’s eyes widened in horror as he saw that his friend would not be fast enough to get out of its way.
Suddenly, a bright light of multiple hues flared up, blinding Alandru for a moment. When he could open his eyes again, he saw several of the crystalwings had formed a line, the gems on their bodies glaring with an inner light as they advanced toward the creature. The thing shrunk back from the light, receding further until it was right at the rim of the hole. Alandru jumped forward, hitting it hard with the torch, then retreating a few steps as the creature slid down into the hole. He turned around with a relieved sigh, when something grabbed his leg and pulled him down. With a gasp of shock, the magi dropped his torch and tried to get a grip on something, but couldn’t get a hold as he was drawn toward the hole. He saw Markandeya slithering toward him, blood dripping from his shoulder where the creature had grazed him before it had flinched back from the light, but the Naga was still too far away. His fingers scraped over the ground but he knew he would not be able to hold on when the creature dragged him down, and he was just about to give up the struggle when he felt a brief burning sensation at his leg and the pull was gone. Turning around and quickly scrambling back from the hole, he saw Ulamyth, his dropped torch in her jaws, hovering where she had burned the creature to make it loosen its grip. The burned member was just sliding down into the hole and out of sight, and the moment it was gone, beams of light emanated from the gems placed around it, extending, and multiplying until they formed a tight lattice across the opening, like a grate radiating in pink.
The Crystalwings landed around the companions as Markandeya reached Alandru and helped him to his feet. The one they had talked to before stepped forward and regarded them with an unreadable gaze. "The plan worked; the creature has been incarcerated again. You are close to redeeming yourself, magi. But there is one thing left to do. Follow me!" It turned toward a corridor, and as the companions hurried to catch up, the other crystalwings gathered around their fallen comrade to mourn. A strange keening rose from their throats, and it followed the magi and a Naga for a long time as they descended even deeper into the caves.
It was hard to judge time and distance in the perpetual darkness of the caves, but from how far their torches had burned down, it had to be several hours since Alandru and Markandeya had left the site of the fight. Markandeya had tried to start a conversation once, but Alandru had hushed him and walked on, deep in thought. Now he raised his head as they entered a large cave. He raised his torch higher to get a better view, stepping toward the large platform the crystalwing had landed beside. He gave it a thoughtful look, taking in the four large, slightly curved pillars that were forming a square on the platform, then turned toward the crystalwing.
"I think I am beginning to understand," he said slowly. "When you said I should stay to fix my mistake, you were not just referring to what we did back there, were you?" He faced the platform again, letting his eyes wander up one of the pillars. "I suspect there is a kernel of truth to the legend of the forgotten race; and this..." he made a gesture encompassing the platform, "is what the legend is based on."
The crystalwing tilted his head. "Quite perceptive of you. Yes, what you think is true. Here is where my kind originated."
"Alandru Snowstrider," Markandeya interrupted, moving closer to them. "You are not intending to do what I think you do, I hope?"
The magi turned around, giving his friend an apologetic smile. "I’m afraid I do. I will not be returning to the Keep after all. Instead I will become one of them." He pointed at the crystalwing. "Someone has to watch over the prison we created. And who should do it if not the one who is at fault in the whole matter?" He turned and walked up the few stone steps that led up to the platform.
The Naga slithered closer. "What of your duties in the Keep? You are a magi, you have responsibilities. And correct me if I’m wrong, but this does not sound like a choice that can be reversed. Shouldn’t you think about this first, make sure you are certain of your decision?"
Alandru turned around at the top of the stairs, smiling down at the Naga. "I’m sorry my friend, but I have made up my mind. My decision is final." He held his staff in both hands in front of him, then suddenly brought it down onto his knee. With a resounding crack, seemingly louder than it should have been in a hall this size, it broke in the middle. Alandru looked at the two unequal halves, almost wistfully, then let them drop and clatter down the stairs. "See? I have already ceased to be a magi. There is no turning back for me."
He slowly walked between the four pillars until he reached the center, and as he did, Ulamyth glided down out of the darkness and coiled around his shoulders. He placed a hand on her head as he closed his eyes, waiting calmly and patiently. Symbols began to glow and pulse on the pillars, symbols that looked like writing in a strange language. They grew brighter and brighter, until the human and Quetzalcoatl were no longer visible. Markandeya watched as long as he could, with his arms crossed in front of his chest, but as the brightness reached its peak, he had to close his eyes and look away. When the light died down, Alandru was gone. In his stead, there stood a crystalwing of pale color, the gems adorning its body the same deep pink hue as the stones that had been used to create the prison. It slouched forward, walking to the edge of the platform and looking down at the Naga. When it started to speak, the voice was unmistakably Alandru’s, even though there was now a strange undertone in it.
"You have been a good friend, Markandeya. I thank you for coming with me, even though none of us knew what was waiting for us. I bid you farewell now, and I ask a last favor. Please return to the Keep and tell the council of what transpired here. No one should repeat my mistake."
The Naga bowed his head in consent. "I will do as you ask. They shall hear the tale of Alandru Snowstrider!" The crystalwing smiled. "Thank you, my friend. Farewell, now!" With a screech, reminiscent of Ulamyth, the former magi took flight, quickly vanishing into the darkness above.
His tale finished, the Naga falls silent, his stoic gaze wandering from one member of the council to another. For a long moment, none of them speak, then Thane clears his throat. "I thank you, Markandeya Das of the nimnagAsuta tribe. It is an important tale you brought us, and one that requires much contemplation. Is there anything we can give you in return for the friendship you gave one of the Keep?"
The Naga gazes at the archmage, his features unreadable. "There is nothing I desire, from you or anyone else in the Keep. I will be returning to Raza now. There is nothing left for me here. Thank you for the offer, though."
Thane nods. "I bid you farewell, then, and a safe journey."
The Naga turns toward the door, but before he leaves, he looks at Thane once more. "I trust Alandru’s story will not be forgotten. I would hate to hear his sacrifice was in vain."
Not waiting for an answer, he slithers out of the door, and so he misses the single word the archmage whispers: "Never!"