Ashes to Ashes
Lapis stretched out her hand and prepared the incantation. It was one of the first spells that Tao had taught her, and one of the most useful ones she had ever learned. It was a variant of the spell he used to examine someone’s mind but a much simpler one. The purpose of the spell was to consolidate and gather information from books, rather than minds. She had used it on more than one occasion, whenever she had to go over multiple books on a specific topic. The spell allowed her to channel the information from multiple sources into her mind and consolidate it into a single stream of information in her head, one which usually played out like how one would normally recall a vivid memory. It had been instrumental to catching up on the vast amount of information that Tao had accumulated in the Kessex Library but this would be the first time she had ever attempted to use it for something like this. “I must be crazy, I mean, these aren’t even books! I don’t even know what language these inscriptions are written in…” she thought to herself.
“Here goes nothing” she mumbled, and asked Merowyn and Efra to take a few steps back. “I don’t know what will happen, so be prepared for anything” she said, as she saw the worried look on Efra’s face. “Maybe you shouldn’t do this. I mean, there must be some other way to find out where those things came from!” said Efra. “Sylvari, they… it… called itself the Sylvari. And I don’t know about you guys but I’m not going to face it again unless I know what we’re up against. First rule of dragon-hunting is: Know Your Dragon. And while these aren’t exactly dragons, I think the rule applies pretty well here too. It took us a long time to track down this place, and if Lapis thinks there is information here we can use, I trust that she will find a way to access it” said Merowyn.
At first Lapis thought that her spell has failed, normally blue strings of light would have spread from her forehead and connected with the books she wanted to extract information from, but nothing happened. Then she noticed it. Thin pink strings of light crept out of the inscription on the ruined tablet like floating worms and started to coalesce into a small orb of pink light in front of them. Over the course of the next few minutes they watched in silence as strings of light crept from the inscription of every broken piece of stone tablet around them, as well as from the monoliths with the floating symbols on them, and joined with the orb in front of them. “I didn’t specify which books I wanted to extract information from... Did the spell just choose the target for itself?” Lapis thought to herself. As the orb grew in size and intensity, the strings of light were stretched tight and small tendrils of light started to emanate from its surface, weaving intricate patterns in the air around it. Lapis felt a familiar tingling sensation in her fingers, one she hadn’t felt since her first few moments in Cantha, and instinctively stretched out her hand towards the orb. Efra let out a small gasp as she watched tendrils of pink light stretch from Lapis’ hand and join with the orb, siphoning the pink energy into herself.
“Well that’s different from usual” Lapis thought, and looked around. Usually the information would appear as vivid images and memory-like segments or conversation in her mind. But this time it was an entirely new and immersive experience. She saw six figures sitting on stones around a bonfire talking to each other. “I say we kill them all and take their magic, it is too big of an opportunity. With power like that, we would be like Gods!”. “I know what you mean Balthasar, to think of the lives I could save with that power, think of all the good we could do!”. “We talked about it, and we agree with Balthasar and Dwayna” said two figures in unison “This power will let us control these lands and the creatures in them. We could make a safe and beautiful world”. “My brother is right, this power is too valuable to let go to waste, the world in in chaos, it needs someone to set it right, why not us?”. “Well I don’t agree, these are not just a means to an end, they are creatures of this earth just as us and we have no right to use them as mere tools”. “Melandru is right, what gives us the right to make these decisions on behalf of the entire world? What makes us so special that we deserve this gift when others are denied it?”. “We have to do this together, and it’s five against two… Are you in or do you want to be the only ones without magic?” said Balthasar. The scenery changed and Lapis watched in flashes how the figures hunted and slayed a race of creatures made from blue and pink light, all of them growing in power with each kill.
The scenery changed. Lapis saw a group of the creatures, cornered, surrounded by the six figures that had all changed dramatically in appearance. She recognized all but one of them as the Five Gods. Suddenly the creatures merged into a single much larger creature, and tried to fight back against The Gods. But Lyss and Ilya cast a spell and summoned a black portal that swallowed the creature. The scene changed against and Lapis watched how the creature, trapped in a black void all alone, used its power to create new land with new life. The scene changed again, this time she saw Abbadon, screaming at the others: “We should never have done it! It is too much power, we don’t deserve it!”. The scenes were changing rapidly now and Lapis feared that the spell might be running out. In a series of flashes she witnessed Abbadon sharing the magic he and the others had stolen and spreading it to the other races of Tyria. She saw how he was banished using the same spell they used on the creature earlier. Then everything became darkness. “The spell must be over” she thought. But then, suddenly, she heard a small voice. “Hello, who are you?” Lapis looked down and saw a white bunny. “I am Lapis, I’m searching for answers, who… or what are you?”. “My names are many, but you can call me Nulfastu, or Eve if that is easier for you to pronounce” said the bunny. “If it is answers you seek, I can help you”. She sat down in the darkness, and the bunny jumped into her lap. It told her a story unlike any she had ever heard before. “I believe this answers your question, right?” Said the bunny. “Yes… Yes I believe it does” she replied. “Thank you, Eve”.
Merowyn was surprised they had made it this far. She didn’t quite understand what it was Lapis had discovered in those underground ruins, but she had come out of her trance with determination in her eyes, and with new knowledge and spells that Merowyn had never seen before. The air around them shimmered, the spell Lapis had cast to keep them hidden from the Sylvari fizzled out and left a metallic taste in the air. “Too much free magic around here, it is interfering with the cloaking spell” Lapis explained. “They’ll soon know we’re here…” whispered Merowyn. She could see the rage burning in Efra’s eyes, and the fear in Lapis’.
“I’ll distract them. You guys have to get to the centre of the hive. You have to kill the Hive Mind and burn this whole place to the ground.” The look in Merowyn’s eyes was enough to stop both Efra and Lapis from arguing about it. She looked at Efra and grabbed her hand. “I’m counting on you to make these bastards pay, give them hell from me!” She turned her gaze to Lapis “You are stronger than you think Lapis. We would have never gotten this far if it wasn’t for you. Think you can spare an enchantment or two for my armour? My boots were the only reason I survived my last encounter with these monsters, but the enchantment ran out weeks ago.” Lapis put her hands on the boots and mumbled an incantation as quietly as she could, then she touched her cuirass and her swords and repeated the process. “I modified the enchantments according to your needs. Enchanted Haste for your boots, it will give you the ability to run faster and leap much higher than normal. Kinetic Armor for your cuirass, as long as you keep moving your body, it will deflect almost all spells and attacks, but if you stop, the spell will expire, so stay in motion. Wielders Zeal for your swords, as long these blades have blood on them; your muscles will never tire. The free magic here is interfering with my spells, I don’t know how stable these enchantments will be but I did what I could.” said Lapis. Merowyn was astonished, but decided that now was not the time to ask how Lapis could modify spells, let alone cast spells belonging to three different schools of magic, neither of them belonging to her own profession! “Thank you so much!” She said, and ran down the left tunnel with renewed vigour, and a glimmer of hope that they would all make it out of this alive.
She sliced down another Sylvari drone, they were coming at her in hordes, and she cut them down as fast as she could. Sometimes their wounds would grow back almost immediately, but when she separated their heads from their bodies they stayed down. Their green blood was covering her blades, never staying dry long enough to coagulate before they were buried in another enemy. Their numbers were increasing. “This is good! The more of these are after me, the higher the chance that Lapis and Efra can get to the Hive Mind” she thought. Lapis’ spells were doing wonders, and the corpses were starting to pile up. “We know you! You are the one that escaped!” The voice was just as spine chilling as she remembered. She looked around for the source, intent on cutting down whoever was talking. Out of the shadows stepped a huge Sylvari, about three times taller than the drones she had fought so far. Instead of bark, its body was made from intertwined vines and leaves, and in place of arms it had two giant stingers that reminded her of Devourer tails. She ran towards the creature, kicking and cutting down drones in front of her. She slashed down a drone and jumped to get enough altitude to sever the head of the creature from its body. It slammed her to the ground with one of its stingers. Lapis’ spell absorbed most of the impact of the blow but it was still enough to knock the wind out of her. She quickly got on her feet and prepared for another assault on the creature.
“Have you come to join your friends?” The creature asked. “My friends are dead, you took them from me! And now I’m going to kill you for it!” She replied as she slashed open another couple of Sylvari drones. “Your friends are not dead, they are right here, all around you, waiting for you to join them!” The creature said, and suddenly the vines where its face should have been twisted and pulled back, revealing Sigrid’s face. Merowyn was shocked when she saw that the eerie voice was coming out of Sigrid’s mouth, her skin was green and her eyes glowed with vague a blue tint. She heard a fizzing noise and realized what the creatures plan had been. She had been standing still in horror, looking at her friends face. Kinetic Armor had expired - her defence was gone. Merowyn coiled her muscles and leaped once more towards the creature, the vines were once more covering up her face. She put all her weight behind her attack.
She hit the ground hard, landing next to the severed head of her former friend. She could feel her own blood pooling on the ground underneath her. The creature had pierced her lungs with its pincer. As she felt her consciousness fading, she mumbled to herself “A good death. Burn it all. Burn it all Efra”. “Maybe this will make up for what a shitty person I’ve been” she thought “I abandoned my team, I belittled people weaker than me my whole life, I didn’t warn the council… Maybe now, someone will remember me as more than just a Hero for Hire”.
The icy mirror cracked and broke into fine shards that quickly evaporated. Lapis had been conjuring these mirrors a handful of times now to look through the walls and floors of the tunnels and avoid the majority of the Sylvari drones. Lapis looked at her with tears in her eyes. “We’re here, the hive mind is directly underneath us in a big partially flooded cavern, but it is heavily guarded…” she said. “Efra, I am almost out of energy. The spells I have been maintaining on Merowyn… they… they ran out. She’s either dead, or she will be in a few minutes.” The tears were quietly drawing lines on her cheeks as they washed away the dust.
Efra felt the rage build up inside her. She was tired of losing people. She was tired of always having the people close to her taken away. She could see how exhausted Lapis was. This mission had been one big gamble, and Lapis had insisted on doing everything she could to keep them hidden for as long as possible, to give them a chance to strike at the Sylvari’s only weakness, the hive mind. And now, the only thing separating them from their goal was a few feet of dirt and vines. They started to dig with their hands as quietly as possible.
The soft peat was porous and quickly gave way under them and a few minutes later they had their first glimpse into the cavern below. The cave was bathed in a soft blue light emanating from floating orbs that darted back and forth inside the cave seemingly as if they were alive. The floor of the cave was covered in swampy water and the cave smelled like rotting compost. In the centre of the cavern a strange tree was growing, with thick roots digging into the soil and vines dangling from its branches. It was small, not much bigger than a human, and remnants of what looked like armour pieces were embedded into the bark, with branches sprouting out through the holes that would have been reserved for limbs. “That’s the one, I can feel it…” said Lapis. Suddenly the edge of the hole they had been digging gave way, and Efra and Lapis tumbled down into the cavern and landed in the swampy water with a splash.
The Sylvari turned towards them immediately. Before she could get on her feet, Efra felt vines twisting and coiling around her feet to hold her in place. Lapis was flailing in the water a few feet away, the vines had grabbed her faster and were holding her entire body under the surface. “No! Not again! I won’t lose any more!” Efra screamed. She couldn’t hold back her rage any more, and she didn’t have to. Flames erupted from her mouth, the water started to burn and boil and the steam was filling the cave fast. The vines holding her down turned to ash almost instantly and Efra crawled towards Lapis as fast as she could. She tore the vines out of the ground and lifted Lapis’ limp body out from the water which was evaporating so fast now that the dirt underneath was turning dry and cracked like clay in an oven. Lapis was not breathing, and around her neck Efra could see the bruises from the vines twisted around her neck. Efra put her down on the dry ground as carefully as she could. “You shouldn’t have done that…” she said, and sent a torrent of fire towards the approaching drones. They were instantly incinerated. The steam was making it almost impossible to see anything in the cave at this point, all the water that had covered the floor had evaporated and was escaping up through the tunnels towards the surface.
Efra could feel that the tree was trying to communicate with her, a voice was trying to drill its way into her head. But the grief and the pain and the rage were not allowing anything else in. “I’m coming home sis, there isn’t anything left for me here” she whispered. Cracks appeared in the surface on the floor and magma started to seep out of the ground. The tree was screaming. Sylvari drones were desperately trying to get close enough to Efra to strike, but to no avail. Efra extended her hand towards Lapis, and lava swirled around her limp body and solidified into a shell of transparent black obsidian in the shape of an egg. Efra grabbed Yamina’s swords from the scabbards on her back and turned to position herself between the tree and the egg she had just created. “Oh you shouldn’t have done that!” She screamed at the tree “You just took away the only reason I had to hold back. I got nothing left to loose now! You took the last people from me that I cared about. And I’m going to take everything from you in return!”
A jolt of pink lightning coiled around Lapis’ right arm from the palm of her hand to her heart. Her back arched as her muscles contracted and she started coughing up a small pool of green liquid. She gasped for air. For a few moments she thought that she had lost her eyesight, but then her eyes adjusted to the dim light that made it through the thick obsidian encasing her. She felt a tremor in the ground, and tried to stand up, but she promptly hit her head and sat down, trying to feel her way around the inside of the obsidian shell around her. Then she saw Efra, her entire body was on fire, and she was holding her sisters swords with her back towards Lapis. Lapis tried to yell but Efra didn’t react. Efra was hovering in the air. Six flaming wings sprouted from her shoulders as another tremor shook the earth. All of a sudden everything outside the obsidian egg went bright. Huge cracks opened in the ground and lava erupted all around her. Efra looked like a flaming seraphim, all around them, lava was bubbling out of the ground and setting Sylvari on fire before they quickly turned to ash. Lapis could only watch as the flames and molten rock consumed everything. Tears ran down her cheeks when she saw a jet of magma erupt directly underneath Efra, turning her flaming body into ash in an instant.
Purple cracks spread like cobwebs across the surface of the obsidian egg. The shell shattered and Lapis took a deep breath. She was exhausted; it had taken her last energy to crack open the protective egg that Efra had encased her in. Everything was charred black and the air smelled like burnt wood and sulphur and had the metallic taste she had come to associate with free magic. There was no sign of Efra, the hive mind, or any of the Sylvari drones, only smouldering piles of ash and charred tunnels with walls covered in hardened lava. In several places she could see the still glowing remnants of what looked like egg-sacks or small chambers.
Lapis looked around at the destruction. Efra’s rage had created a new volcano to destroy the Sylvari, and it didn’t look like anything other than Lapis herself had survived its first eruption. Lapis’ eyes widened in terror when it dawned on her that this was what Nulfastu had meant. “Magic cannot be created or destroyed, it is a force of nature, free or not it can only change shape…” she mumbled to herself. Images flashed through her mind as she started to see the pattern woven through thousands of years of history. How the Gods had once been just men and women, until they stumbled upon a race with immense untold powers. The systematic eradication of that race had not destroyed the races magic however. Their power had been absorbed by their butchers who in turn obtained so-called godhood. Facing extinction, the last of the creatures had given up their individual form and combined into the being Nulfastu, in an attempt to protect the last free magic from being absorbed by the Gods, but it had been a temporary solution. She saw how Abbadon had rebelled against the other Gods, wishing to divide the power again and share magic with the other species. The price that he paid for his rebellion was banishment. She saw how the Gods had used the power of the Bloodstones to bind and control the free magic and how The Heart had been constructed to re-absorb the power released during the exodus. She saw the pattern now, how the concentration of power repeated in cycles, each culminating in a cataclysmic release of destructive energy. Ever since the Gods came to power, the destruction of Orr, the Exodus of the Gods, the Cataclysm, Nightfall, The Event, and now this. She understood now, that while these all seemed different on the surface, they were all just reflections of the same image. The concentration of power, the rise of opposing forces, the release of unfathomable energy, the death and destruction, it was all just repeating itself over and over.
“So this is what Nulfastu meant with eternal recurrence…” she thought. “I have to break the cycle. I can’t let all this death and destruction repeat itself. If I do, the suffering caused in its wake will be immeasurable”. She sat down and pondered the situation. She could feel the free magic released by the death of the Sylvari and the psychic energy of Efra’s rage and sorrow blending together in the air and the earth around her. She had no choice. If she did nothing, the free magic would find a host on its own, just like it had done after The Event. Although she couldn’t fathom what it could possibly use as a host in this pot of half-molten rock and ash she knew that it would find a way.
She stretched out her hands and opened her mind. The last spark of free magic left in her jumped between her fingers. The spark ignited the air around her like an ember would ignite a pool of Istani fire-oil, the free magic that had been searching for a conduit had found one, and Lapis almost instantly found herself in the centre of a storm of blue lightning emanating from the ground and the air around her. The free magic surged through her, charging every cell in her body. “I know what I have to do with this power… I have to make right what was done wrong thousands of years ago, I have to free all magic and restore the balance, even if it kills me” she thought. “Balthasar, Grenth, Dwayna, Lyssa and Melandru… I’m coming for you, I will find you, and I will make you pay for what you did. You thought that you could keep your secret hidden by banishing and killing the God of Secrets, but the secret is out now, and I’m going to expose all of you…” she said to herself.
The light of the last embers were dimming. The cave at the bottom of the caldera had been slowly cooling since Lapis had left it a few days ago. A crack appeared in the hardened lava covering the floor and fresh magma started to seep out forming a large pool of lava. A few purple sparks appeared in the air above the pool. The surface stirred for a moment, after which a large being in the shape of a spider slowly emerged. It looked like it was made from the lava itself. As it made its way out of the lava pool, protective plates of hardened obsidian started to solidify on its surface, while its interior remained hot and glowing. The pools surface stirred again…