TOUCH OF ETERNITY

A SANTHARIAN MYSTERY TALE

 
Touch of Eternity   
  Click on the book's name to view the Table of Contents
  Click on the author's name to view the Author's Index
  19 pages (Download is available Download text)

Introduction. The following rather unlikely tale was related to us by a young bedraggled fellow who one day showed up in a tavern of Ch'ka'rish, a small village on the Santharian isle of Churican. His story describes the journey he took with a no less venturous companion to the notorious Aeyshwyn's Mire, where he hoped to gain wealth and fame by discovering immeasurable treasures. Now, did he find all those things, I hear you ask? Well, keep in mind that the heart of this vast marshland in the center of the island is allegedly haunted, and the saying goes that it harbours an ancient wizard's tower which has been defying the ages for millennia. Strange phenomena are regularly reported from those living nearby, treasure hunters who sought their luck in the past have disappeared in droves, and of those few who returned some refuse to answer questions to this day or were apparently driven mad by what they encountered deep in the swamps. Beware, adventurers, beware! "Let the Gods choose their own heroes! As those that reach out for the stars themselves are doomed," the Erpheronians use to say. So then, courageous readers, let's hear what lurks there in the mire and what it has to offer. And maybe, just maybe, it brings a hero, or a fool, a tad closer to nothing less than... immortality.

 

y name is Myrem, and I might be a fool as well. But I'm not one of those that tell a Sinkel's tale. I know what I've seen, and every single one of the Twelve be my witness. All I can ask from you is to believe what I'm going to tell you. If you doubt it, it is your choice to prove me wrong. But be warned, and listen carefully to my tale first to learn the price you'd have to pay. Many a fool has stumbled laughing into what turned out to be the wide open maw of his doom.


See, I'm just a baker's son from Milkengrad. Don't blame me for trying to be something else. Then again it all wasn't my idea to go treasure hunting out there on Churican, I can assure you. It was Albricht's, and Albricht read a lot of books on the matter. Besides, my blessed father always used to say: There must be a grain of truth in every lie. Thus I thought: Maybe there are even more grains to be found the more you hear about certain things, and who says that grain doesn't sometimes translate to gold? Especially when such rumours deal with what's happening over there in those Churican swamps. I was intrigued, I admit. I desperately wanted to know. I thought there must be something out there, if not gold, then fame and fortune, and so thought Albricht. Someone needs to dig up something. Truth or treasure, one of those. At least that was our reasoning.
 

So this is what we've heard: That Aeyshwyn's Mire is notorious, that it's cursed and God forsaken, that the Churicans themselves shun it like the plague. For one because they think that a bog like this tarnishes their beautiful land, their beloved island full of green hills that stretch far and wide like waves. Besides, they all seem convinced that only something unnatural could have caused the mire to even exist in the midst of all that beauty, something related to dark, accursed magic that doesn't fit to the straight Erpheronian way of thinking. That's why the people must have dreamt up something: That a wizard once lived where now lies that ugly swamp. A rich one it must have been, for he built a gigantic tower to overlook the lands, so they say. In his obsession to create who-knows-what he commissioned traders to get him the most rare and precious reagents from far away continents. Rumour has it he collected artifacts and powerful scrolls and only a selected few were allowed to enter his domain and deliver to him all he ever wished for. What exactly happened to him nobody could tell us, only that he was never heard of again at some point and that adventurers who travelled the swamps got lost there as if swallowed by some unknown evil. Ha, fancy tale, sounds familar, I bet. Same old hogwash we thought.

Well, it was late Sleeping Dreameress when we finally got there ourselves. The summer sun was still burning hot down on us as we reached the place that is so shrouded in legend - Aeyshwyn's Mire. Vast stretches of sheer endless water greeted us from afar forming a gigantic, mud covered lake, interspersed with a multitude of smaller isles harbouring huge trees, yealm and life reeds growing all over the place. Making steady progress was quite a feat. Thanks to a fisher who lives at the far end of the southern marshlands we got a boat though for our journey, and with it we chose the most promising waterpath to travel north as rapidly as the swamp allowed. It took us about a day and half a night to reach the heart of it, to get there where the unknown was awaiting. What more can I say? Only that it began then Ė that, what never should have happened at all.

It was the morning of the third day, I remember. We had spent the night covered in blankets in our tiny boat in what looked like a secure isle's bay. Tucked away under a group of willows and redwoods the night was rather hot and thus unpleasant, but otherwise it was without incidents, and so we finally set out again.

Soon afterwards we saw something in the distance. It was moving closer, coming downstream towards us. Early morning mist was creeping over the water, but while the mysterious object was difficult to spot at first, it became clearer and clearer the nearer we got.

It was a boat. While it was clearly approaching, it was still quite a distance away, but eventually my eyes caught figures, rowing back in the direction we had been coming from. Other treasure hunters maybe, I thought to myself, but whether they had been successful or not, they were clearly in a hurry to get out.

I wasn't sure whether Albricht and I should address them, but it looked that they had no intention either. As if they hadn't noticed us at all, their boat was going straight past! Bewildered my eyes followed their path. They must have seen us!

"Ho, travellers!" I shouted out. I quit rowing and waved with my hat. "Where are you going? What are you running from?" The wafts of mist tore apart for a moment, revealing a single stranger sitting in the boat, but he didn't bother much about our greetings. The man was rowing incessantly, he didn't even look over to us.

Finally there was a reaction from the other boat, at a point when the mist already engulfed it: "Turn around, I beg you!" the shout came back, though there was no slow-down of oar strokes to be perceived. The stranger's voice was clearly trembling. It sounded scared and insecure, but the message it bore left no doubts. "Turn around before it's too late!" it repeated. But within moments the passing boat slipped into the fog and with its disappearance the last spoken words slowly drowned in the distance: "Turn around! Leave this place..."

Only the two of us remained, puzzled. I found myself still hunched over the side of the boat, eyes fixed on the spot in the haze where that fleeting apparition had just gone by and from where not another sound could be heard. As if the cryptic stranger had never been there in the first place. I turned around and looked at my companion.

"What is it with him?" I wanted to know, questions all over my face.

"Who cares? It's none of our business." Albricht just sat there, shrugged and went on rowing. "But apparently it's just a pack of lies that nobody dares to enter these parts."

In a way I think, the warning of the stranger had quite the opposite effect from the one he intended: It only strengthened our resolve to continue on, and so we did. It's odd, but true, now that I think of it, and my hair stands on end when I do.

However, this encounter was not the only mystery we experienced as we got closer to the core of the swamp. The further we travelled, the eerier the place became. In the middle of the day a greyness, followed by twilight, then a dreary darkness quickly descended upon us. The air was still hot and humid, but in a way everything was filled with a mix of otherwordly aura that slowly bled through the despair and hopelessness of the swamp. The darker it got, the more the water seemed to glitter and gleam bizarrely, almost as if we were moving through a dream, and sometimes I imagined that I might awake every moment. But I didn't. The wafts of mist got thicker and thicker, slowing us down. There was always a fear that we might hit land or driftwood and make acquaintance with the mud first hand.

At some point in the distance we began to see wisps dancing. You know wisps? Those floating balls of light? But they are harmless beings as far as I know, well, and they gathered around us, swirling and twirling to and fro. First they appeared right ahead, then suddenly they were behind us and finally on all sides, as if forming a circle. Maybe they were building a trap I thought, and I contemplated whether a sword might have any effect on magical beings like those. You know, just in case they were in fact evil, despite all the common belief that tells us otherwise. What are the Erpheronians thinking, I mused: How can a swordís steel ever beat magic like this? Then again, maybe the wisps just wanted to watch us. After all they didn't get closer and stayed where they were, adding merely a solemn touch to our adventure into no man's land.

A bang, an all-embracing light, then heavy rain.

We were still too immersed in taking in the astonishingly odd scenery, so that the loud rolling thunder brutally jolted us out of our quiet fascination. The heavy downpour came sudden and entirely unexpected. Before long we were soaking wet, pulled our hats over the ears, but it didn't help much - well, and we prayed of course that the worst would soon be over. From time to time flashes of lightning bathed the swamp in blinding white for an instance or two, then the storm plunged us back into utter darkness.


However, more than just the weather had changed. There was something different about the circling wisps far off. When lightning struck and a flash painted everything in bright light the wisps seemed to disappear completely for a few moments - but once darkness reigned again they were very much alive, circling, swirling. Another flash of light, another one - and the same thing happened over and over again. I still stared at the wisps when I felt Albricht's elbow hit my side.

"There... Can you see it?" he whispered and pointed somewhere into the darkness.

I followed his finger with my eyes, assuming he spoke about the weirdly behaving wisps as well, but all I could make out was a small island with a couple of trees. In front of it lay a giant redwood, brought down by the elements, halfway submerged by the swamp waters. It didn't strike me as anything special, so I shrugged it off at first. But then lightning flashed our surroundings again.

And I spotted it: For the blink of an eye a building stood there right in front of us. No, not just a building, it was a whole palace! More than a dozen of bulbous spires were towering above the swamp, a huge gate stretched over the centerpiece of a massive wall, lots of banners were blowing in the wind hanging from the windows... And the redwood in front of it at which I had just looked... - was gone!

Taken aback by the unexpected sight I nearly caused our boat to capsize. Slipping from the oar I was holding the boat began rocking heavily. Desperately I grabbed the boatís side.

"It's... it's..." My eyes were still taking it all in. "It's a whole town..." I finally shouted as I noticed further man made structures in the background.

I looked left and right, and there were buildings everywhere. A market place, an inn, a small turret... Then darkness again, several long moments... Only to be followed once more by repeated flashes of lightning. With them the whole outline of the city came into view, strike by strike...

There! I saw a rider entering the main gate, guards walking on the battlements with torches ablaze, a carriage travelling over a hill to the east. I was sure hat hill hadn't been there before... Moment for moment this intangible sight was revealed to us only to be buried again and again by night. Wherever it came from, whatever it represented, illusion or reality, dream or vision, my eyes were awestruck again and again and just couldn't let go of these fleeting images. My heart raced wildly, spurred by the irregular pulse of the storm and its unlikely revelations.

Until that loud, violent, bloodcurdling double-bang.

The bang that brought an abrupt end to rain, lightning and the darkness that had engulfed us. It was as if a titan had hit a skywide drum, with the echo reverberating throughout the swamp sending jittering waves over the thick greenish-brown waters. The sound's force was so enormous and present that we had to hold on to our tiny boat.

But then, in the blink of an eye, when the echos of the bang had trailed off, it was all over. Everything fell silent. The turbulence that had gripped the world around us had come to a standstill.

We found ourselves sitting in our boat, drifting somewhere in the middle of the notorious Aeyshwyn's Mire - two adventurers, first teased, then surprised, shocked and confused by circumstances they failed to understand. It was as if everything had come apart at the seams, but only as long as to be able to marvel at it and question our perception.

Looking out over the waters again now everything was pretty much the same as before. The swamp was steamy, muddy, uninviting as ever. The sky had turned back to grey and wafts of mist began to retake their territory by moving across the bog. And right ahead was that small island Albricht had just pointed at: A fallen giant redwood lay in front of it, but there was no sign of a palace anymore, no streets, flags, hills or carriages, and most certainly no town.

I looked at Albricht and Albricht looked at me.

"What do you make of it?" I inquired.

"I don't know," Albricht said. "But we came to find out, didn't we?" His eyes glowed with expectation.

I was quiet for a moment, thinking about the phenomenona, then my thoughts drifted off to the stranger we had seen before. He probably had made it even further into the swamp, seen other things - who knows? But it looked like he was forced to turn around and get away as fast as he could. "Leave this place!" I heard his warning still ringing in my ears. In the face of what we had witnessed, his words sounded more and more like a deadly threat.

Yet I said nothing. Maybe it was because the sound of Albricht's oar dipping into the water had already broken the silence. A moment later we both continued rowing towards our fate. "Leave this place..." My mind however wouldn't let it go.

We didn't row for long. At some point the swamp came to a sudden end. Or so it seemed, as either we had come across a huge isle, or somehow we had completely crossed the whole mire, which however was highly unlikely, to say the least. An entire strip of land lay just ahead of us, with a clearly visible path that led up to a hill climbing high above the haze that covered ground and water. Believe it or not, there was even a makeshift dock at the water's edge right there, awaiting us!

It was then that I had another sensation I couldn't explain. You know, for a moment it was as if I saw a boat moored already on that dock, I was very sure about it. But when we got there, it was gone. See, I put the blame on the fog and the tricks it keeps playing to the eye, and when I kept doubting that it was the fog I said to myself that it must be my clouded state of mind that made me see things.

Well, be it as it may, Albricht was bent on climbing that hill and see what was on the other side and we didn't lose time. I just wordlessly packed my things as Albricht did and we continued on foot, following the path that lay ahead.

When we arrived at the top of the hill the evening sun had already begun to descend behind our backs, and while we had kept the mist behind, greyness now had utterly reconquered the sky. High grasses and bushes were swaying in the wind on the way up, and the occasional trees on our wayside turned into a whole forest the higher we got. But once on top, there was no view to enjoy as we had hoped, rather the trail wound through dense thicket with no apparent end in sight, and the further we got, the more darkness took over.

Along with the darkness came disillusion and weariness. We travelled on for a while, but eventually we stopped and decided to rest in order to continue in the morning fresh and renewed. A campfire was quickly put together, our rations plundered. Then we both succumbed to our exhaustion, too tired to even think about all that had transpired during this eventful day.

"Myrem! Get up! Myrem!"

When I opened my eyes it was still pitch-black around me, only the campfire was ablaze spreading warmth. I recognized Albricht shaking me vehemently, eventually completely tearing me out of my sleep. His tone was urgent and demanding.

I quickly grabbed the dagger I had hidden under my coat close by. A moment later I was on my knees, ready to strike.

But Albricht just tried to keep me quiet. "Hush..." he commanded. "Don't move!" He pushed me away a bit from the fire, then motioned towards something in the distance. "Look! Do you see it?"

My eyes still only slowly adjusted to the darkness, but luckily the night had a full moon, which shed some light on our surroundings.

Indeed, Albricht was right. There was something: Another light source was right ahead. It was difficult to judge under the cover of the night, but it appeared to be no less than a hundred peds away, partly obstructed by trees, but bright as day. It was no wisp, of that I was sure immediately, as it was no orb and didn't move around, it looked more like...

"A campfire!" Albricht threw out what I'd been thinking. "Someone's out there."

I nodded in agreement. "What do we do now? Especially in the middle of the night..."

"Who knows who it is..." Albricht said. "They might be bandits, or treasure hunters like ourselves, and not keen on having company at all. We better be careful."

"What if..." I began, but then something happened that made me stop instantly.

The spot at which we had been staring, the campfire - at least that's what we supposed it to be - suddenly vanished without a trace.

"Quick, quick... We have to put ours out too. Come, toss some earth over it!" Albricht said. He dug up some dirt with his bare hands and doused the still glowing logs with it. I joined in and soon we had our fire entirely buried. Night took over again, barely illuminated by the moonshine from above.

"You think they have seen us?" I asked. "Maybe they got rid of their fire because they've seen ours?"

"I don't know. How would I?" I couldn't see Albricht's expression, but the tone in his voice confirmed that he was as worried as I was.

We kept quiet for a while, listening intently. A fierce wind was blowing, but at first that's all there was to notice - aside from Albricht's breath becoming heavier, that is. Then tere was a sound in the distance, maybe of people moving...

"That's them... They probably spotted our fire," Albricht whispered and I heard him rummaging in his backpack - he was looking for a weapon to confront possible attackers. Once he had found one, he ordered me to grab our stuff. "We need to move away from here. In the night they won't see us... They might be heading towards us right now."

Sweat dripped from my brow as we left the campfire as quietly as we possibly could. While it was difficult to move in the darkness, we were also cloaked by it. We managed somehow to get quite a bit away from our starting point, but I wasn't too sure whether we actually moved away from our possible opponents or even involuntarily got closer.

"By the Twelve!" Albricht suddenly exclaimed, grabbing my hand and pulling me back, so that I tumbled and fell. I cursed and feared that the others might have overheard the commotion, but then I realised what Albricht had seen.

Right in front of us, out of nowhere, a gigantic canyon opened its maw into nothingness. Every further step would have been our sure demise.

We lay there for a few moments unmovingly on what we now knew was a precipice. Wild thoughts were racing through my head. Our pursuers might have come closer by now, weapons drawn, a clear goal in mind. I shuddered.

"Where are they?" I whispered to Albricht. "Where should we head now?"

"They must be on the other side," Albricht answered calmly. "Over that canyon."

"What? You sure?"

He motioned me to follow him, and we kept moving on our knees carefully along the edge of the precipice, step by step in the half-dark, until we made a startling discovery: No less than a few peds away a rope bridge led over the canyon. It was quite an unsteady affair as far as we could make out. The creaking and groaning of the ropes holding the boards was clearly audible when the wind shook the whole construction, but otherwise the bridge seemed to be intact.

As if this wasnít enough, my heart missed a beat when we made another observation: Something flared up out of nowhere, a new source of light. It was way ahead of us, then I saw it flicker and it began to slowly move towards us. I also heard something that sounded like a muffled shout.

"They've lit a torch!" I exclaimed.

"Yes..." Albricht agreed. "And they are on the other side of that bridge. If they try to come across we'll be waiting for them right here. We have the advantage now, Myrem... Quick, we have to move - now!"

Thus we brought us in position at the end of the bridge and watched things proceed, hiding behind the bushes with bated breath.

The bridge shook. I felt it with my own hand I had laid on the rope railing. Someone had stepped onto the bridge! Its creaking and groaning became more intense, the flickering of the torch that at first had seemed to be still quite a distance away, drew nearer and nearer. I gripped the dagger in my hand even tighter and bit my lip in tense anticipation. The wind already carried the smell of the torch's burning resin over to us. Only a few moments until we would confront them...

A flash, a yell, a fierce gust of wind.

Lightning ripped the night. It came out of nowhere, its fine illuminated cracks spreading like veins from one end of the sky to the other. For a moment everything was bathed in white again: the precipice, the rope bridge, figures in the middle of it, even... gigantic ruins... Yes, there were ruins that emerged out of the night on the other side of the canyon, several long fingers of broken walls reaching out against the elements in a stance of defiance...

But it was all over once the flash faded, gone as suddenly as it had appeared. Peace and quiet settled, only the creaking and groaning of the bridge still kept us company.

There was no light to be seen anymore from the bridge.

"The wind must have blown out their torches!" I suggested. "Let's make sure and wait for now..."

But we waited and waited, and no torch was being rekindled. The silence, only disturbed by the howling of the wind and the uncomfortable sounds of the bridge, turned eerier.

"I'm going," Albricht suddenly said resolutely and stood up. He grabbed his backpack and pulled a torch from it.

"But... They will see you!" I objected.

"There's nobody there anymore, isn't it obvious?" Albricht answered. "Let's face it: They must have fallen off the bridge. They're gone." The howling of the wind - a song of death?

"You can't be sure! And what if it is true... If you cross the bridge the same might happen to you! Who knows whether it's safe at all!"

"Then let's see," Albricht said and entered the bridge without further ado.

"You're mad!" I shouted, but he went anyway.

At first I watched Albricht and his flickering torch depart with unease. Apparently the bridge was robust enough to support him and allowed him to proceed fast. But the further he progressed the more I found myself in the dark when his torch moved further and further away.

"Don't tarry, coward! Come!" I heard Albricht's command. He had stopped and waited on me now to catch up.

Frankly, I didn't have much choice. We were in this together, and we needed to stay together to stand a chance. Reluctantly I obeyed and followed his example by climbing onto the rope bridge.

To my surprise the bridge, especially its rope railing, felt tight and strong and made me feel secure. The logs below held our weight with ease and while the wind shook the construction every now and then, I stayed confident. And maybe, just maybe, it helped that the night kept us us from seeing down the whole depth of the canyon. We just kept on moving, step by step. Nevertheless a silent prayer was on my lips when I caught uo to my companion.

"See? Nobody there anymore!" Albricht said as we were halfway through. The torchlight showed that the rest of the bridge was clear. I breathed a sigh of relief, but only to be violently interrupted...

A sudden gust of wind knocked me off my feet. Caught unaware I tumbled and fell.

"Albricht!!" I screamed in deadly terror, grabbed whatever rope of the bridge I could hold onto.

I hit the logs hard, but quickly pulled myself up.

"I told you!" I yelled against the wind. "I told you!" But the wind swallowed my words that not even I could hear them.

There was another lightning, a flash that brought the gigantic ruins up ahead back from nothingness into plain view. The silhouettes of the broken building appeared closer than ever before. The closer they seemed, the more menacing they became. The stone structure which had looked like fingers reaching out before almost looked like a claw now. A claw that beckoned us.

Our torch had gone out, darkness settled, but also the wind had ceased.

"Stay calm!" I heard Albricht's voice. Thanks to the Twelve he was still there. Judging by the sounds he was busy again with his backpack. A moment later he had managed to light the torch anew.

"Quick!" he yelled and pushed ahead.

I followed as fast as I could.

And that was it, fortunately. We reached the end of the bridge without further incidents. We both dropped into the grass instantly, breathing rapidly, overwhelmed by the pure joy that we had made it. The sky stayed dark and the wind was nothing more than a breeze now, just like before. But the fact that we might have barely escaped with our lives was soon forgotten. There was a simple reason for that.

"Did you see the tower?" Albricht asked excitedly.

I nodded. Yes, a tower. That's what I must have seen, I was sure of it now. And at the same time goosebumps spread all over my body in anticipation of what we might find there.

"This is not an illusion like those other things, it's right there!"

"Yes, I see it..." My eyes were following Albricht's swaying of his torch. It revealed remnants of columns to our left and right and barely recognizable overgrown stairs just a few steps away leading up. Not too far away in the distance I could make out a column that was still standing, clearly as part of an entire wall, supporting a partly ruined structure: Yes, the tower!

"We've arrived!" Albricht proclaimed, putting into words what we both sensed. We both felt elated - we've reached the end of our journey...

Albricht got up first. Torch in hand he moved straight on towards the ruins.

Something felt strange, though. The broken columns we found lying around us didnít seem to follow a recognizable path. Rather they lay haphazardly here and there, dispersed, as if catapulted in all directions by force. Huge pieces of the tower's once proud battlements now formed block-shaped grassy hills, quite a bit away from the main structure itself. When we approached the tower we saw that even the walls had large, irregular holes in them. The entire building literally looked torn apart.

Once we arrived at the main ruins there were no stairs to be found, no portal anymore, no rooms left inside. Only rubble surrounded the building's perimeter and parts of still erect walls that pointed skywards. After a climb over a pile of debris we could at least see what was inside the torn walls, waiting for us within what once had been a tower...

It was an odd image: At the center of the tower's ring seven throne-like stone chairs were placed in a semi-circle with the moonlight shining on it idyllicly. The stone chairs were facing us like monuments of times past, surrounded by a couple of cold braziers. Strangely enough the area around the chairs was empty, seemingly untouched by the destruction.

"Let's go down there!" Albricht didn't hesitate an instant and slid down the rubble on the other side.

I for my part looked for a safer passage to descend the debris. As I did, I caught something out of the corner of my eye: a glimmer, an unusual sparkle. Curious and in hopes that I might have already discovered something of value I stooped and tried to uncover it.

I found myself looking at my own reflection. What I had picked up was just a piece of broken mirror. Nothing unusual to find among these ruins, or so I thought, but as I wanted to move on, the figure in the mirror suddenly stirred. Then so did I. I recoiled in shock as if I'd seen a ghost, tripped, lost my balance and fell backwards.

Then everything changed. There was a roaring thunder, the earth trembled, a blinding light.

When I looked up I was lying next to Albricht's feet. Everything around me was brightly illuminated and I smelled oil and incense burning. I realized that all the braziers had been lit as if by magic, and they threw their dancing light on the stone chairs next to them.

"Dust yourself off, and be polite, Myrem!" I heard Albricht say as he extended a hand to me so that I could up. "We've got company!" He was grinning all over his face.

I looked around to see what he meant, but there was nobody there. Finally I understood and I was overcome by hair-raising unease:
 

A Skeleton

View picture in full size Image description. In each of the seven chairs sat a skeleton... Picture drawn by Max.

A skeleton was sitting in the stone chair next to me, another one in the adjacent one, and so on all the way through. Each of the seven chairs was occupied with fleshless bones, some of them held their skulls in mockery in their hands or struck poses, as if they were macabre string puppets and someone had had some fun with them.

Albricht laughed out aloud, glancing at the braziers. "Looks like the place has still some magic tricks to offer..." Then he sat on the armrest on one of the chairs. "But nothing to fear from those fellows here anymore! Dead as stone, I fear..." he declared. "This one however... This one got something on it..."

He bent over the skeleton on the central chair and pointed at a large ring around one of the bone fingers.

"Excuse me, my friend, but I'll have to relieve you of this one..." Albricht said and pulled the ring from the bone. "You know, this is just what a treasure hunter needs... Gold... The first step to fame and glory!"

"Indeed it is... visitor!"

A deep, hollow, bone-chilling voice suddenly crept out of nowhere, and it rang loud and menacingly through the ruins of the fallen tower. It echoed again and again, and with it the earth began to tremble and the sky to rumble.

The skeleton's bony arm suddenly darted out and seized Albricht's wrist with a firm grip - and then the dead bones began to transform...

Thunder was rolling. Waves of lightning flashed the scene.

With each of the flashes the skeleton changed, once turning transparent, then solid again, constantly it was shifting, and at some point it was no recognizable skeleton anymore. Yet instead of advancing its decay the flashes seemed to reverse the process. The brittle bones were more and more replaced by a rotted carcass all the while holding on to Albricht, who stared unmovingly at the chair, as if petrified.

Lightning struck, again and again and again.

With it all our surroundings changed for the time of the flashes: I found myself in a study, the tower around me appeared intact once again, complete with fireplace and tomes piling up on a desk. A crystal ball was sitting on it, fog swirled around a basin from which it emanated and an amulet placed near it was glowing, constantly pulsating. But this was only one image I could clearly pick out, and there were many more. Visions succeeded each other so quickly that they came and went, often faster than I could perceive them. But with the visions everything changed: The study, the furniture, the books, everything.

Only when the lightnings paused everything else was subdued for moments. Briefly the present reality resurfaced with Albricht and the skeleton surrounded by the chairs. But the image soon drowned again in another series of flashes.

Lightning struck, again and again and again.

I saw people and strange creatures walking, stomping, an imp flying, someone conjuring up a bright light, a bright light that grew and grew until it engulfed its creator and swept away the study as if it were a mere illusion.

Thunder was rolling incessantly. Lightnings followed without interruption.

Weird images kept on appearing in quick succession, but their constant flow now showed a study that had turned into ruins. Strangers were climbing over the debris, coming and disappearing, and eventually it all led up to that last image: Those seven chairs emerging out of nothingness to find their places. They ended up just where we had found them when we had entered ther towerís ruins. I saw each of them being occupied with a skeleton one after the other, but all the while Albricht was already standing transfixed at the central chair. He was still being held in a tight grip as the only constant in midst of an ever changing whirlpool of images.

Thunder and lightning, then a trusted figure entered the visions. I cried out, but in vain: There was the image of Albricht himself now, who came down the ruins to join his own image which was already standing there, right in front of me...

I yelled in pain and confusion.

The thunder stopped rolling. Lightning ceased. There was a final, loud, violent, bloodcurdling bang.

As if awakened from a dream I found myself still amidst the ruins, a speechless observer, staring at Albricht and the chair in front of him. A young man was sitting there now, no less than twenty cycles maybe. He was clad in bedraggled clothing, but all flesh and bones, and he was very much alive. A broad smile danced over his lips as he let go of Albrichtís wrist.

Once released, Albricht backed off instantly.

"Who are you? What is happening here?" The ring he had pulled from the strangerís finger dropped with a jingle to the floor and disappeared in a crack.

The man sitting in the chair broke out in uncontrollable laughter. Indeed, he was no more than a youth!

"What is it with you?" Albricht demanded and pulled out his sword.

"Ah, wouldnít we all want to know?" the strangerís amusement faded, but it appeared that it was more from annoyance than from being threatened. "Please be welcome to my humble abode, the kingís castle so to speak! His majesty, the royal wife, our court magician and the jester all gathered here in personal union greet you. It is our distinguished honour to receive you, oh distinguished hero on your quest for immortal fame, and an even larger one to grant you your so desired wish." He stood up, bowed and took his seat again.

"Youíre talking in riddles," Albricht said. "Make yourself clear or Iíll drive my steel through you!"

"Hmmm... I see where youíre coming from. But there wouldnít be much of a point in doing that, really," the stranger answered. "Unless for entertainment purposes of course. The jester in us rejoices!

You see Ė thereís something you might have noticed already, but in case not - Iím happy to remind you: Iím quite dead already. Or not, depending on how you look at it, I give you that. Right now you seem to look at it the other way or you wouldnít make such an awfully foolish remark. But rest assured: Youíve already killed me, and Iím quite thankful for that. Blessed be thy soul, dear adventurer, Iím indeed eternally grateful that youíve finally arrived." Once again he stood up, just to bow briefly.

"All I hear is hogwash, stranger. Wizard, king or jester, it doesnít matter to me. Explain yourself or Iíll let my weapon make your ramblings come true!"

"Very well, my dear impatient saviour, I guess you have earned the right to know," the youth sighed. He got up. "Excuse me, but Iím not used to talking - only to myself, and quite often I have an idea what Iím going to say anyway. But so be it, letís hear some truth then before I have to abdicate..."

"Actually..." he began while picking up a skull from a chair next to him. "Actually, I was just an adventurer like you, believe it or not. A young fellow in his prime. Lured to this place by the grand stories they tell about it.

Say... how precisely did you describe it when you grabbed that ring? 'The first step to fame and glory!' wasn't it? Ah, I might appear dead sometimes, but my hearing is still good. Ha, 'fame and glory'... That sounded like myself... A long, long time ago. Maybe two centuries or so, but how would I know?"

He made a gesture with his hand and as he did so, the sky reacted with a muted rambling. I had kept my distance from the stranger until then and as I noticed that he somehow could control the skies I backed off even more.

"I found a man here in these ruins," he continued. "Maybe it was even this one." He presented us the skull he had just picked up. "I didnít understand a thing he was saying to me back then, all I remember is that he told me that he was about to die. And for some weird reason he had accepted it already. But well, he couldnít be helped anyway, and so he indeed died a short while after I had found him.

I didnít bother that much, really. Who cares for dead adventurers in the middle of nowhere? Treasure was on my mind, and so I took everything I could find and headed off. But if it only were that easy." The lighter tone in his voice had completely ceased now. It was almost as if another man was speaking. "I was doomed."

Albricht had lowered his weapon in the meantime. "What do you mean?" he asked. "Two centuries ago? Doomed? How? Why?"

"Ah, I had seen strange things happening when I entered this place. I was afraid but brave and ready to give my life Ė either itís death or glory for me and nothing in between. Or so I thought. Life and death, what a bittersweet relation..." He sighed again. "I gather youíve seen strange things happening here in the swamps too, haven't you?"

"Well, yes, so we did," Albricht replied. "Thunder and lightning. Wisps. Towns appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing again. And the whole spectacle youíve arranged for us here, whatever itís supposed to be."

"I... Iíve seen my reflection move just before I actually did in a piece of looking glass over there..." I added. "What is happening here?"

The stranger grinned.

"Is the mirror enchanted?" I asked. "An artifact of the famous wizard who once lived here? You arenít that wizard, arenít you?"

The stranger shook his head. "No, as I said, I was an adventurer like you. And itís not the mirror, it is the place that is cursed." He picked up a shard of mirror lying on the floor close-by, looked into it and turned his back to us, so that we could see what he saw.

To my horror the shard didnít reflect me at all this time and the strangerís hair was snow-white in it. Wrinkles covered his entire face.

"You see? It has begun.... I wonít last long anymore now..." With these words he threw the mirror to the floor where it shattered to pieces.

The stranger turned around, and while his face was still young now that I looked at it I noticed that it had clearly aged by years in the meantime.

"Iíve been doomed, my friends, since that fateful day. I cannot leave these swamps anymore. Every time I try, I wake up again here in this tower or what still remains of it, in this very chair. I wake up as if stirred from a bad dream, but it is not a dream. This happened for years over years over years. Again and again and again."

"But..." I interjected. "How could you possibly live that long?"

The stranger looked around. "Iíve had time to find out," he then said. "I dug up books, notes, even a diary that magician wrote who once had built this tower. And Iíve learned to live with the gift I had gained." He sighed, looking forlornly into the skullís lifeless eye sockets. "One thing I know for sure: The wizardís goal was immortality, to live forever, nothing less, and he tried to move heaven and earth to make it happen. Eventually he cast that ultimate spell he had been working on for years, here in this tower.

But the spell ripped not only the tower asunder, it also ripped through the whole swamps, creating an unholy perversion of existence itself. He was standing in its very center, and everything around him was being sucked into the maelstrom that stopped and reversed the flow of time as we know it, only to make his selfish ambition real. Ah yes, fame and glory, fame and glory..."

He coughed and paused, then moved to his chair to sit down again. Thunder accompanied every of his steps.

Another lightning struck and I saw a skeleton for a moment instead of the stranger in front of me, but in the next instance he was still standing there, alive. His hair had turned grey however in the meantime and he had difficulties to walk.

"My limbs are frail already, but I will continue as long as I can..." he went on. "Suffice to say, the wizard had succeeded in his quest. He had done the impossible and had tricked Queprurís sickle. But in doing so, he had destroyed his connection to the world as he knew it, and himself. As he was dead and alive at the same time, and the world he now lived in, was a world transcending time and space, bereft of what we know as becoming and passing, thriving and decaying, living and dying.

It is that world you now have entered... That world where you see past and future as if it all happens right now, that, my friends, is Aeyshwyn's Mire."

The stranger coughed once more. He leaned back and closed his eyes, in a way he resembled the skeletons sitting next to him already. His cheeks appeared cavernous now, more and more wrinkles had formed around his forehead.

"Here, inside the ruins of the tower you are at the birthplace of this abomination, its core and heart. However, it is a horrid world made only for one. Around it, everything else revolves, feeds the one in its center. Everything else has to die. Everything else has to die," he repeated.

At first I couldnít say a word, seeing that the person who had been a youth just a while ago had turned into an old man, and he kept deteriorating with every word he spoke.

"But..." I finally managed to say. "But I still donít understand... What happened to the wizard? And why are you dying?"

The strangerís gaze was almost lifeless. Then he pointed to the first skeleton in the semi-circle of chairs: "The wizard sits right there. He is dead a long time now. As far as I can tell he lived for ages, but he eventually must have realized that the price he had paid for his immortality was not what he had bargained for. And he finally found a way to escape his fate."

Albricht and I gazed at the bones on the first chair. In a strange way they seemed to be in peace now. "What about those other skeletons?" Albricht wanted to know.

"These..." the stranger continued with a hoarse voice, "...are his successors. Fools first, then kings of the ruins. One after the other. All of them have traded a life for immortality." After a long pause he added: "And so have I."

The last words the stranger had uttered were nothing more than breaths formed into words. His hair was snow-white by now and through the skin on his head bones were now clearly shining through.

"Go now..." he whispered. "This is a place of death. Anyone except the doomed one will die within hours and youíve stayed far too long here already. You might still make it. Remember, time is not what it is supposed to be here. But thanks to the Twelve the time for me has finally arrived..." With a last effort he lifted his head towards us. "Fare well, and... forgive me..."

A loud, violent, bloodcurdling bang sealed the strangerís last words - and his life.

The sky was ablaze with lightning one more time. The earth shook vehemently and a strong wind instantly doused the fires in the braziers. Quiet settled again. The moonlight retook its reign and shone down idyllicly on the seven throne-like stone chairs in front of us - seven chairs with seven skeletons on them.

I was unable to move for a while, hesitating. Everything in front of us seemed unchanged since we had arrived, and yet it all was different: the stone chairs, the skeletons, the ruins, the moonlight, even we did, now that the stranger had revealed to us that we were in mortal danger if we only decided to stay.

"Maybe he is right... we probably should go," Albricht finally produced. "You've heard him. We better hurry." He climbed back over what was still left of the crumbled tower, not even bothering about the ring he had initially tried to wrestle from the skeleton.

I followed wordlessly, but once when we were outside of the towerís perimeter I wondered aloud: "We don't search for some treasure before we leave?"

"Do you choose treasure over life?" Albricht retorted sternly. "It's your choice."

"You think he spoke the truth?"

"What reason would he have to lie?"

"I donít know... - But did you understand everything he was saying? Why was he thanking us when he awoke? Why did he die now when he claimed that he had lived for centuries? And how did the wizard die in the first place? That madman's story is still full of riddles!"

Albricht was quiet, but he appeared tense. Lost in thought he just stared in the distance. Then his eyes caught something and he pointed somewhere. "Myrem... Look!"

I turned around and noticed a light source quite a distance away. It could have been a campfire, probably on the other side of the canyon, but I wasn't quite sure.

"More adventurers? Can it be?" I heard myself ask in disbelief, shaking my head. "And they told us back in the village that not a soul dares to venture in this area nowadays!"

"Myrem..." Albricht suddenly said. "Those braziers in the tower ruins... Do you think one could see them from over the cayon if they were lit?"

"What...?" I looked dumbfounded, surprised by the unexpectedness of his question. "Why would you want to know? You donít intend to signal them, do you?"

"No, I wouldnít," Albricht answered, but instead of explaining he just went on. "But would you recognize the braziers from over the bridge as such? Or could they be taken for a campfire?"
"I... I suppose that could be. Itís pretty far off anyway. We canít clearly see whatís over there, so why should they see whatís over here? But why in the Thirteenthís unspeakable name is this of any importance at all?" I demanded and the tone in my voice got more irritated. "What should we do now? How could we ever make it back without running into these guys over there?"

"Ha!" Albricht exclaimed, his eyes still fixed on the other side of the canyon.

"What...?" I tried to locate the light source again, but couldnít anymore. Suddenly it was gone. Apparently its disappearance was what Albricht wanted to point out.

"Looks familiar, right?"

Before I could reply Albricht had pulled a torch out of his backpack. He lit it and headed towards the bridge undeterred. As so often in the passed days, I hesitated.

"Albricht!" I shouted, but he was already gone. I observed his flickering torch moving on to the bridge. Albricht crossed it with a fast pace, oblivious of possible enemies ahead. I found myself running after him, if only not be left behind...

A flash, a yell, a fierce gust of wind.

Lightning ripped the night. It came out of nowhere, its fine illuminated cracks spreading like veins from one end of the sky to the other. For a moment everything was bathed in white again: the precipice, the rope bridge, Albricht in the middle of it, figures on the other side... Yes, there were also figures over there, I could make them out now, two men... Two man were cowering at the end of the bridge.

But it was all over once the flash faded, gone as suddenly as it had appeared. Peace and quiet settled, only the creaking and groaning of the bridge kept us company.

Albricht was still there, on the bridge, illuminated by the moonlight. He was standing somewhere halfway through, holding on to the rope railing, even though his torch didnít bear a flame anymore. He must have seen the strangers on the other side, just as I did, but nevertheless he rekindled the torch instantly and moved on unflinchingly towards them.

Eventually he reached the other side.

Nothing happened.

I had drawn my dagger already a while ago, but only now I dared to proceed.

Whatever I might have expected, it didn't happened.

"Where are they hiding?" I wanted to know as soon as I arrived at the other side.

"We must hurry, Myrem... Itís just like the stranger said! Canít you see?" Albricht spoke calmly, but when I looked at his face in the torchlight it seemed changed all of a sudden, pale and serene, as if struck by an undeniable truth. "Havenít you listened to the stranger? Didnít he tell us that we will die if we donít head out now? That this wizardly fool dabbled with the Godsí creation, that we only exist on borrowed time in these swamps? Time is not anymore what it is supposed to be here, Myrem... - Just open your eyes!"

Everything dawned on me then. I remembered my own image in the mirror shard stirring before I did... There was that snow-white hair reflection of the stranger when he looked into it... Both were fragments of what was supposed to happen... And then there was the bridge that we had crossed now twice, lured and guided by a light that eventually led us over the canyon, only to find out that nobody was waiting on the other side.

"The stranger spoke the truth," Albricht said. "Myrem, we must have seen things from two different sides here at the canyon - it's just not the two sides we expected... All the time we've been fooling ourselves, because we're part of a gigantic warped looking glass, just as you've seen it in the tower."

I nodded. "The thunder, the lightnings, it must all be part of the magic that is at work. The swamp draws from us, uses us as pawns to mislead us. And if we can't trust time anymore... then we cannot be sure of anything."

"We have to go," Albricht concluded and led the way.

While we were weary and tired we didn't tarry and moved on quickly. Albricht lit the way down the hill we had come up only hours ago, and soon the makeshift dock came in sight with our boat still moored there.

The journey back was long and arduous. It must have lasted hours upon hours, but while I was at the brink of exhaustion more than once, Albricht seemed to have found new strengths I hadn't noticed before in him. We made several rests, but unrelentingly kept pushing the oars on and on as soon as we could manage to continue, if only for another while.

Our long forgotten companion, the mist, returned, its wafts creeping eerily over the waters like ghostly apparitions who had gathered to accompany us.

Once lightning struck nearby I felt enormous relief somehow. Silhouettes of buildings began flared up once more over the horizon the way we had seen them when we had moved closer to the swamp's inner core. Now it was almost as if saying good-bye to them. I sensed that we were moving away from the heart of the swamp, away from the uncertainty of its curse, that the swamp's magic was still there, but with each oar stroke it more and more lost its grip.

The flashes continued for a while in the pattern we had already gotten used to, then everything turned quiet. Wisps emerged as if by command, the silent, constantly moving observers gathering in the distance, never interferring, but now they almost appeared like dancing balloons celebrating our escape. Twilight eventually replaced the darkness, until the day itself returned in its dreary greyness, and the wisps simply faded away. There we were, in misty, but calm waters and even some trees began to look familiar.

"We've made it, Albricht," I declared triumphantly, already noticing a glimpse of sunlight breaking through the clouds. "We're out of the swamps!"

"Not yet, Myrem, still a distance to go..." Albricht's lips barely moved. Weak and beaten he let go of the oars for a moment and sank back on his seat. His whole body was marked by the strain he had been under for hours, then his eyes rolled back and he just lay there unmovingly.

"Albricht!" Worried I got up and squatted next to my exhausted friend.

"Stay away!" He suddenly hissed agitatedly and pulled himself up without my help. "Continue rowing! Don't you stop!"

"Keep calm, Albricht! Keep calm!" I backed off and obeyed his order, but I barely recognized him anymore at this point.

Eyes wide open he stared at me like he had never seen my face before and I was about to rob him. His furrowed brow, the grinded teeth, the grim determination in his look made it clear that he wasn't joking. A shiver took hold of his body and made him sink back again.

"Just a bit further," he whispered clearly in pain. "Soon it will all be over, trust me. Then you're safe, Myrem. Then you're finally safe," he repeated and nodded to himself in satisfaction.

"We'll both be safe, Albricht," I answered and kept on rowing the boat alone. "Hold on!"

"I won't be, Myrem." My long time companion looked up, his eyes were empty. "I'm sorry, but you'll have to head home alone. Forgive me that I dragged you into this, it was all my fault. But I'll get you out safely, even if it's the last thing I do."

"You're talking nonsense. You almost sound like the madman from the tower," I said. "Quit it and let me finish this. Just hold on, you're not dying!"

Albricht's glassy stare almost made him look like a statue, but he still was able to speak: "No, I'm not dying now, Myrem, quite the contrary. Believe me, this is not my time and place. I know exactly when I'll die, many, many years from now. I know it with every beat of my heart, just like I know the swamp, this cursed swamp, which has become a part of me, and I of it. This... is now... my home."

"What are you talking about, Albricht?" I could hardly conceal my horror.

"'I've realized the wizard's secret, Myrem... Do you want to know why the wizard died? Why this madman in the tower died?" Albricht made an effort to pull himself up, but failed. Again he gestured not to move any closer. "Don't approach me, Myrem, just listen: There's just one person that is the focus of the dark magical power at work in the swamp... One person only... If that person wants to be relieved another one has to take that place... Another one who has to be condemned... Has to trade immortality for death..."

"But... How..." I struggled for words. "Why... do you know all this?"

"Myrem," Albricht whispered faintly. "Myrem... I've been chosen... He... touched... me..."

At that very moment I heard an unmistakable sound. It was the sound of a pair of oars hitting the water nearby.

"Ho, travellers!" I heard someone shouting out.

I looked up irritated. The rowing stopped and from the wafts of mist emerged a boat in the distance with someone waving his hat in my direction.

"Where are you going? What are you running from?" he continued shouting and I almost petrified on the spot when I recognized the face of the waving boatman. I averted my eyes, kept on rowing.

"Turn around, I beg you!" I shouted back, trembling. "Turn around before it's too late! Turn around! Leave this place..."

But already at the moment I uttered the words, I knew that they would be in vain. All the time the boat was still in sight I kept on pushing the oars incessantly, as if running away from something. But it was even too late for that now. It would always be too late.

One last time I looked up and caught a brief glance of Albricht. There he was, rowing on the stern side of that other boat, that boat, which I now saw heading towards its inevitable doom.

Then I turned back to the seat in front of me. It was empty.
 


Return to the Ghost Stories Book
Click on the book's name to view the Table of Contents
or the
Click here to view the Author's Index
 

 Date of last edit 12th Turning Star 1673 a.S.

Ghost story written by by Artimidor Federkiel View Profile