Guardian of the Sanctum

UP: Europa

   Grint delicately unravelled the worn parchment, and stared at the map it portrayed. Drawn in days of old, it was rough and lacked perspective, but contained the vital clues needed for a man of his knowledge to decipher. Something similar did not exist in all of Britannia, at least not to his knowledge...

Days spent translating ancient texts had stifled Grint’s keen mind, and finally curiosity had gotten the better of him. His seniors would be furious, he thought to himself, as he held his lantern closer to the parchment.

* * *

Grint had received a scroll from a local fisherman, picked up by his nets as they ploughed along seabeds in shallow waters. The scroll was remarkably well preserved, its bindings intact, and the clear and precise runic symbols displayed along them gave rise to much speculation as to its age. Although definitely ancient, the time-period could not be determined, as Grint had never seen such language before. Delicately he had unwrapped the scroll, but little did he know that this would signal the beginning of a journey, and indeed, an obsession.

Day after day he scanned through documents, trying to find the vital clue he needed. It was often the way, days would pass with not a single word translated, until just one word allows the rest to fall into place, and the secrets of the text are revealed. This scroll was different, he simply couldn’t make progress.

Grint wiped his brow as the rain swept down outside, it was a hot, uncomfortably humid Summer evening. It had been almost a month of frustrating work, and here he was sitting in his tiny chamber, huddled over the scroll as he had been every night.

A single raindrop trickled from the narrow window above him, and hit the parchment with a dull thud. He delicately gathered the scroll and held it as close to a nearby candle as he dared, praying that no damage had been done. It was then that he had made a startling discovery…

As he held the parchment to the light, he could see more words, barely visible to the naked eye, hidden beneath its surface. Grint carefully peeled one edge, to find that there was in fact two documents, sealed together through time. Something as small and insignificant as a raindrop had given rise to this discovery, Grint smiled at the irony as he meticulously separated the pages.

Beneath the first document was a map, made up not of lines and ink, but constructed with words and symbols. A large dragon’s head was drawn in the centre, drawn with such exquisite detail that its eyes almost stared out of the page, watching Glint as he diligently looked over it. A single word appeared more than most, and he smiled as the realisation dawned, this was the dragon’s name, Al’Cedra.

Grint was no stranger to tales of adventure, he would often spend his evenings away from his books and studies, frequenting his local tavern, The Barnacle. Word spreads quickly through Britannia, and he had heard many a tale of Al’Cedra before.

Every month she would call forth citizens to rise to her challenge, and only the bravest and most wise would be granted entrance to her lair. Here she would riddle, and riddle well she did, only the most keen of mind would ever succeed. Grint had himself once journeyed overseas in pursuit of this dream, hoping to return victorious from her challenge, but alas it was never to be.

This word unlocked the secret of the text, and before long Grint had made a complete translation of those words that were still decipherable.

“Lest wars once waged, teach us nothing,
Lest souls now lost, be forgotten,
Here she will stay, the guardian of the Sanctum,
Here she shalt remain, keeper of the Sanctum,
Protector of knowledge.”

The words troubled him. It seemed Al’Cedra’s lair was not her own, she was a guardian of some kind. Perhaps her famous challenges were indeed part of this mystery, perhaps she was seeking someone to replace her, fearing her time had come. Grint smiled, he was letting his imagination run wild again, he must not draw such conclusions upon mere speculation.

He laid a piece of fine parchment over the map, and went over the words with ink, before hurriedly folding it under his arm and heading off towards the nearby docks.

People oft underestimate the wisdom of sailors, and their knowledge of Britannia. It did not take Grint long in the local tavern to find somebody who knew what the map portrayed.

“That’s the coastline north of Yew” Blurted the man, his thick stubby finger pinning the parchment down.

“Thank... thee... milord...” Grint uttered in astonishment, as he slid a few gold pieces across the oaken table toward him.

The old man looked up to thank him, but Grint was already gone.

* * *

Yew was but a few days trek from his home in Minoc, but a journey which no man should set off for unprepared, for his travels would take him through both swamp and forest, along shadowy paths fraught with danger. Grint set off in the early hours the following morning, the sun casting little light as it rose beyond the distant mountains.

He was barely middle aged and still in good health, and made good progress as the cobbled roads slowly broke down to seldom trodden dirt tracks. The swamp road was trouble-free, he was alert for signs of crocodiles or other beasts that haunt the area, and kept a careful eye for signs of bandits, who often use this treacherous way to plunder cargo from trader’s wagons as they journey between towns. Lonely travellers were often victims of savage murder, dying for the few gold-pieces in their possession.

Tales of murder and highwaymen were never far from his mind as Grint trod onwards, gazing at the distant coastline to the south, the peaks and spires of Cove scarcely visible in the afternoon haze.

* * *

The late evening light slowly faded, the sky was dark except for a thin red glow behind the mountains, illuminating them in all their majesty. Grint had made good progress, and he knew his destination was close. He felt almost drawn towards the small island that appeared before him, scarcely visible in the sea-mist that rose above tranquil waters. Grasping his cumbersome backpack in both hands, he held it high over his head as he waded to the small isle. There he found it, partially concealed under a few dried leaves, the portal to her lair. Slinging the backpack to the ground, he calmly stepped upon the sunken platform, and closed his eyes.

The air around him crackled softly, and he felt a magical breeze flow past him. The crackling faded, as did the smell of the sea, giving way to a musty scent. Grint slowly opened his eyes, and was greeted not by the scene he had expected, he was plunged into darkness, within what appeared to be an ancient tunnel carved through rock. He could make out a faint light-source some distance ahead of him, and so onwards he crept, slowly and silently.

The light grew stronger, and he peered around a slight bend in the tunnel, not quite knowing what sight would greet him. Grints eyes which had become accustomed to the darkness stung as his gaze fell upon the light-source, four huge braziers arranged in each corner of a huge stone platform, carved in days of old. Beyond this mighty stage, Grint could see the ominous form of a mighty dragon, but strangely he was not afraid, for he felt this was his calling…

The braziers hissed and crackled as they burned brightly, illuminating the majestic cavern at the heart of Al’Cedra’s lair. The air became warm, and a subtle green light cast strange shadows on the cold cavern walls. The fires began hissing violently, and the flames grew higher, seeming to dance menacingly as they too began to change from a glowing white, to a dark green.

“ Be strong, my children, be strong”. Al’Cedra unfurled her mighty wings and gathered her young close by, concealing them from the horrors that were to come.

The air itself crackled, cold as ice, as the mighty dragon and her kindred fought for breath. From out of the darkness came a cackling laughter, laughter so loud that it shook the very stone Al’Cedra stood upon. Cracks began forming in the cavern walls, oozing forth pungent water from the bowels of the earth.

“Out of the shadows beyond, he comes. This is my fight. You must find a new home... away from the eyes of man”.

The young drakes growled, but Al’Cedra had spoken. Crawling from beneath her wings, they leapt into flight.

Grint span around, still undetected in the shadows, and rushed back through the darkness along the tunnel he had arrived from. He tripped and stumbled, but onwards he fled, until the darkness gave way to soft moonlight, and again the smell of the sea surrounded him. He stopped still, breathing deeply, he was back on the small island.

Grint knew he would not return to Al’Cedra’s lair, and he knew something was terribly wrong. His heart sank, for he knew not what fate awaited the might dragon. The knowledge contained within those ancient walls, kept concealed for so many ages from the eyes of man, may have fallen into the wrong hands. He did not know what had happened nor why, his expedition had given rise to more questions than answers. He knew the dragons had fled from a force of unimaginable power, and it was to become his personal mission to discover answers to the questions that flooded through his mind.

The hope that one day dragons would once again guard the sacred and mysterious chamber kept his tired legs from failing, as he began the long trek home.

But they would never return.

Nocsaal had come.

From the Town Cryer - The Journal of Ultima Online