The buzzing of insects. The damp smell of mildew and the fragrances of swamp plants. There weren’t even animal tracks to follow and no landmarks to navigate with. Every now and then the glimpse of a slithering snake, poisonous no doubt.
“It’s been three days, with no change. How do you know where we’re going?”, Elisa asked in weary voice.
“It’s less damp here than in last two hours, let’s eat”, Olazábal noted.
Neshilim turned to face the others, palming sweat and mosquitoes from his bald forehead.
“No. In four hours we’ll be at the entrance. This is my land, how could I not know it? If the heretics as far away as my dreams tell me, we might arrive too late.” he said with strong conviction.
“…but it’s been almost a day since our last proper meal. I’m starving.”, Olazábal pleaded
“Stop whining and march faster, we have no time to lose!”, Neshilim snapped pacing ever faster.
This was going to be yet another long, tiring night, Elisa concluded to herself and unwrapped another yellow-green striped elven candy, adding pleasant fragrances of lemon and mint to the natural odors of the swamp.
A bloody red sunrise over flat the swamp land reveals barely noticeable mounds a kilometer eastward.
“How the hell could you know those mounds would be here? In the middle of a moonless night?”, a dead tired Niffil barked from the depths of his robe.
“At least he got us here… and it didn’t rain”, Olazábal tried to find more positive tone for the discussion.
Neshilim continued, showing no signs of noticing the discussion.
Grumbling ceased for a moment. The land was actually less wet and muddy and every step toward the mounds made it more solid.
Neshilim walked with eyes closed, clearly concentrating on something else. After couple of minutes, Neshilim opened his eyes, looked at his teammates and curtly nodded to the North, back to the swamp: ”The entrance is there.”
He didn’t wait for complaints or comments, but changed his heading northward. He seemed to follow a path, which no one was able to really see – but could be felt. A step too much to the right and the soil was soft and sodden, as Olazábal noticed. This was a well hidden path.
Ten minutes of marching in silence while the sun slowly crawled to the sky, only to reveal yet another storm front closing in from North. All of a sudden Neshilim stopped and signed that everyone should crouch and be silent. With a question in their faces, everyone followed. Elisa’s keen eyes noticed why Neshilim was interested in this unremarkable looking plain – underneath the layers of moss, mildew and lichen there were square stones, obviously man-made and some of those stones had rune markings.
“I know those runes. They are no human runes, let alone cultist runes.”, Elisa whispered.
Even Neshilim looked Elisa attentively, dozens of mosquitoes surrounded them as they didn’t move.
“These runes are old dwarven runes from eons back.”, she continued in a mentoring voice.
“No way, I know my language, elf!”, Olazábal spat.
“Sure you do, master dwarf.”, Elisa said with a wry smile “These are the runes of your ancestors from the times when neither humans… nor elves lived in these areas. Some very old powers dwell here – or at least did live here. Upon your return, visit the Library and learn your history. Don’t do it now, I implore. We have mission, this is no sight seeing trip.”
“Bah, you always claim to know better…” “Oh, but I do! I always do.”
“Stop it.”, came the calm and close to emotionless voice of Bastian. “Elisa is mostly right. We can’t squabble like children. None of us alone has the abilities to undertake what we set out to do. It takes everyone’s efforts. Now, Neshilim and ladies, please help me to raise THAT stone.”, he continued with the impudence of the general he once was and pointed a single stone slab he had uncovered from moss and lichen.
The stone had a single rune engraved, it was one by two paces and looked thick. Not an easy piece to move.
“Simma, you stand in watch. Questions, soldier?”
Simma shook his head, indicating that he knew very well what to do. He took a couple of careful steps away, revealing that the stone-worked area was actually far larger than they thought.
Just as Niffil thought that he had gotten the easy task, Bastian raised his head and gazed at him: ”Good sir, do not think for a moment that you’d be left out from the fun. Get stripped. You’re going in just as soon as stone is moved.”
“Stripped?” “Yes.” “Yes, sir…”
And then Bastian took one of the shorter sides of the slab, his huge hands barely able fit in the narrow gap between the stones. With an inhale, he exerted his massive biceps and the slab moved an inch or two.
“Get a sword or something. Make it fast, ladies.”, Bastian exhaled. It was clear that slab would fall at any moment.
Elisa took Bastian’s own sword from the scabbard and placed it between the rock and hard place just as Bastian’s endurance came to a limit – the stone came down snapping the sword in two pieces as if it was made out of dry wood. Astonishment, anger, sadness and other strong emotions were clearly visible in their faces, but before anyone else could react, Neshilim said in his steady voice: ”Fellows, do not make fools of yourselves in this once-holy-place. Hasten we must, sure, but let’s not be stupid. We must open the correct stone, not every stone. Tactics beat pure strength nine out of ten times.”
“… and those are stone pieces. My powers are specially for stone.”, added Olazábal, mouth still full of an apple he had summoned from somewhere.
“What? Wrong stone? What about me?”, asked the butt-naked Niffil a couple of paces behind the group.
“Get dressed, lad. It will be raining in 10 minutes and there are hundreds of stones. We need to find the one with a rune like this”, Neshilim said, drawing a rune in the moss with his dagger.