Monday, November 27, 2006

Antaria: What Lies Beneath

(Author's Note: This piece is chronologically preceded by the works "Amalthea" and "Of Memories Beyond".)

she said to herself. My name is Amalthea, and I'm a dungeoneer.

She had to admit that that sounded wrong. She wasn't sure if "dungeoneer" was an actual word, but she could think of no other way to describe her habit of exploring the dark and abandoned places of the local environment.

Thorngarde Keep wasn't just one of those dark and abandoned places, of course. Thorngarde was a... dungeoneer's dungeon, if there ever was one. It was a centuries-old fortress, depopulated by time and embraced by decay. Amalthea had read that it once stood on a major crossroads of the land, and had therefore been designed by some enterprising Allandrian warlord to repel invaders. When the borders moved, however, the kingdoms concluded that Thorngarde's strategic value was sorely misplaced... and thus it now stood alone, a moldering monument to conflicts best forgotten.

Despite having most of its rooms stripped of valuables and furnishings, rumors persisted that Thorngarde Keep still held a few more treasures of note. One of those stories, an ale-fed tale about how an entire vault of gold crowns had been inadvertently left behind by the Keep's last occupants, still proved popular enough to draw the occasional... dungeoneer to the place.

This was not to say that Amalthea was after the money; the Metrian Guild provided her with everything that she needed, after all. She only wanted to see if such stories were actually true.

She inched one foot forward, cautiously reaching towards a subtle indentation on the floor beyond. Flagstones, she realized, were more a compromise than anything else: On the one hand, they covered stone passageways in a clean and even manner. On the other hand, they made obvious covers for traps.

She touched one corner of the raised flagstone with her toes, heard a clicking sound, and immediately scrambled back behind a small pile of debris. Just as she did, a small area of the ceiling opened... only to cough up nothing more than two inches of dust and plaster.

Amalthea waited. A few seconds later, a frayed length of rope emerged from the opening in the ceiling and swung forlornly towards the floor. It looked as though it had been part of some lethal diversion at one point in time; whether or not it had been successful in its task would probably never be known.

That was the problem with the Keep being a popular destination for... for... dungeoneers (she was starting to hate that word): Sooner or later, someone was bound to have triggered the last trap. Someone was bound to have searched the last room. Someone was bound to have carried off the last bit of gold, or brass, or iron... or even tallow, when it came to that.

It did mean that she was free to move about, though. Part of the fun in poking around old ruins lay in finding things that weren't supposed to be there.


Kharandon Greybane's robes chafed. They always chafed against the black-hewn rock of the Galenic Academies. It was as though the circumstances were always trying to make him feel as uncomfortable as possible.

The Academies, like many other high-ranking Lorend institutions, were built on the foundations of the once-proud Obsidian Palaces. Centuries ago, the Palaces were the center of what historians termed "The Obsidian Empire" -- a massive state that spanned the whole of Antaria from the northern seas to the southern deserts.

Some four hundred years previously, something happened that reduced the so-called Obsidian Empire to mere remnants strewn across the continental landscape. No one knew exactly what that "something" was, and Kharandon's historians tended to go all to pieces just arguing over it. But the lost empire's ruins were more than adequate for habitation, and the Galenics had just naturally settled in. Virtually every citizen of Lorendheim had done the same.

Kharandon pushed himself away from the wall and straightened into a standing position. This was not how he had expected to spend his afternoon.

A few feet away from him, a radiant young woman engaged in animated conversation with one of the young paladins. Satine Whitestone was a few years younger than Kharandon, her features unmarked by the cares or worries of leadership. Her youth made her instantly popular among the newer generations, whereas the traditionalist elders were impressed by both her honesty and potential.

Kharandon did not consider himself to be a part of either group, however. As far as he was concerned, she needed far more improvement if she was to lead the Galenics effectively.

He cleared his throat at her. It was a very obvious gesture, but one that she conveniently chose to ignore.

"We expect great things from you, Sir Dannik," Satine said.

The young paladin gave her a florid bow. "I shall fulfill them to the best of my ability," he answered.

If Kharandon thought that the Galenic grandmaster was ready to move on, however, then he was sorely mistaken. Satine gave her fellow conversationalist a faint smile. "Tell me," she asked, "how is Lady Sylia?"

The paladin's calm demeanor turned bright red at her question. "Well, ah..."

"Have you met her parents yet?"

Dannik opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again in embarrassment. From the cleric's viewpoint, the young man was doing his best impression of a fish out of water. Kharandon was beyond all sense of amusement by this point, however.

He cleared his throat again. This gesture was much louder than his first attempt, and this time -- almost mercifully -- Satine Whitestone decided to give in.

"We shall speak later, Sir Dannik," she told the embarrassed young man.

"Y... yes, Lady Satine," Dannik said, almost relieved that their conversation was coming to an end.


The wall looked funny, Amalthea concluded. If there was anything vaguely interesting about funny-looking walls, it lay in how many of them would suddenly open up and surprise people with what they had inside.

Amalthea had seen quite a few secret passages before. The building that housed the Metrian Guild, for example, held six or seven of the silly things. Atharus, of course, was the sort of person who believed that secret passages were made secret for good reason, and thus prohibited Amalthea from exploring anything that the Guild wanted to hide. Amalthea, on the other hand, was the sort of person who could be trusted to do something if you had told her -- in very explicit terms -- precisely not to do it.

She probed some of the cracks in the nearby foundations. No wall would stick out as badly as it did without actually harboring something inside. There was bound to be a switch somewhere.

Her efforts were rewarded a few minutes later; A brick on one of the lower layers pushed itself in, under the weight of her staff. She stepped back at the sound of grinding stone, and within moments the entire section of wall had moved aside for her.

The corridor beyond was dry and dusty, lit only by the occasional shaft of light. Some of the cobwebs surmounting it had been broken, and it was obvious that someone had already passed through the place. From the unbroken layer of dust on the floor, however, Amalthea concluded that they had not been back for some time.

She smiled. This was a good sign -- she was walking into some of the less-explored areas of the Keep.

Heedless of her own safety, she stepped into the new corridor, listening with grim satisfaction as the stone wall automatically closed behind her.


If Satine was impatient with Kharandon, she gave no indication of such a thing. It happened to be one of her better qualities.

"I humbly apologize for my impertinence, Lady Satine," Kharandon told her, hoping that this would smooth things over in a satisfactory manner.

"Kharandon," Satine said.

"Yes, my lady?"

"It's not very polite to offer an apology when you don't mean it," she said, smiling at him.

He stared at her expression for a moment, wondering what sort of game she was playing. She was either being genuinely nice, or deliberately making him regret what he had just said. Whatever the case, Kharandon Greybane immediately backed down.

"Well said, my lady."

Satine continued smiling. "Sir Dannik is a very accomplished young man, is he not?"

Kharandon answered her as though his thoughts had turned distant. "Yes... I suppose so."

"What do you think of him, Kharandon?"

The cleric and advisor thought for a while. "He is young," he said, "and naive. He has the resources to solve the land's problems at his feet, yet he believes that he can yet stand back and wait for the world to resolve itself."

Satine's expression turned to disapproval. "That's very... judgemental of you, Kharandon."

"It's also an honest opinion, my lady," Kharandon said, noting that such a description could also apply to his present company.

"Surely you were young once."

"For about two seconds, I fear," Kharandon laughed.

"Besides," Satine added, "Sir Dannik is a man in love."

"Is he, now? I hardly noticed."

Satine smiled this time. "The healers gossip like fishwives sometimes. I take it that you have met the object of his affection?"

"Lady Sylia?" Kharandon asked. "Of course. She's not a very exceptional student, but she should graduate with the rest of her colleagues later this year."

"I mean, what's she like as a person, Kharandon? I'm hardly interested in her academic performance."

"I... well, I honestly haven't met her personally, my lady."

Satine sighed in exasperation. "You could make an effort, Lord Kharandon. Human beings are little more than figures who walk and talk, you know."

"I'll see about that," Kharandon said, waving her words away with a single gesture.


As much as she liked secret passages, Amalthea knew exactly where the limits of her patience were. Whoever designed Thorngarde Keep, on the other hand, must have lapsed into one-track thinking at some point.

She had to admit that the secret passage within the secret passage was a creative touch. In addition, the presence of a third entrance hidden within the second reflected a very unique mind. However, by the time she went through the fourth and fifth ones, walked down the concealed flight of stairs, found the sixth hidden entrance, descended below the stone trapdoor and opened the seventh and eighth walls, she was ready to collapse and throw up.

Her only consolation was the fact that the cobwebs and dust had gotten much thicker with each passage she navigated. She was walking around in the deepest recesses of the Keep now, in places that people had probably not even known about, much less explored. Still, she hadn't found anything worth a copper crown.

She turned the corner and stopped short at a massive stone wall. It was clearly a dead end, and Amalthea hated dead ends. There was also the possibility that it housed yet another secret passage that led deeper into the Keep's foundations... although now Amalthea hated that, too.

Strangely enough, there was a rusted, cobwebbed iron level set into the stone wall. Amalthea glared at it as though it had personally offended her; The architect obviously decided to stop trying at this point.

"All right," Amalthea said, rubbing her hands together, "Let's see where the door opens now."

She tucked into the lever and gave it a good hard pull. In retrospect, she should have wondered why it moved so easily when it should have clearly rusted in place.

The floor dropped open. Amalthea suddenly found herself kicking at dead air, mere moments before she fell into the gaping hole beyond.

Her form disappeared into the darkness of the Keep's cellars. And for the entire duration of her journey to the floor below, all that she did was unleash a stream of foul epithets against the dungeon that had deceived her so well.

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