Even with the ghostform amulet I had acquired years ago, Ascalon City still scared the crap out of me. Unlike the Black Citadel, infiltrations had to be perfect—there was no margin for error. The talisman wouldn’t protect me from the ghosts’ suspicions, as my encounter with Ben Fiske’s phantom proved. Their hearing was not as developed as the charr’s—and I don’t know if they could even smell—but they could sense, to a small degree, the world around them. And if I was caught and the alarm was raised…
There was simply no way I would be able to leave the city alive. I couldn’t count on my mist escape spell to get me beyond the reaches of the ghosts; and unlike charr, once they homed in on a target, they could not be misdirected. I had one shot, and it would have to be perfect.
I had actually encountered ghosts quite often in my earlier trysts into Ascalon; the Foefire’s blast radius had extended far beyond the city proper and into the countryside. On my first run-in with my unfriendly ancestors, their blades passed through me nearly harmlessly, only giving me slight twinges and chills. In truth, I had expected the phantom weapons to be much worse; I heard that they directly assaulted the soul. Instead, I found that they barely affected me. With the magic of my bow behind me, the fight was easily won, and I moved onwards. Soon, however, I would discover that the angrier they became, the deeper their weapons would cut.
And they became very angry indeed the closer I came to Ascalon City.
When the blows began to draw my blood, I still refused to turn around. I wasn’t half as familiar with the terrain then, and had no amulet to aid me in avoiding the ghosts—so while I began the trip from my camp in Ashford in the early morning, by the time I reached the city, the sun had already set behind me.
The remaining echo of the Foefire stretched high above the city like a wan beacon, an image of the king’s sword Magdaer reaching towards the stars, and I easily found my way to the main entrance. The gates were by legend “impossibly guarded”, but I had assaulted them anyways. I had brought a lord’s ransom of explosives and tricks with me, and I was determined. I had left Ache behind, but my bow flashed like lightning in the night, and my will would not be denied. My assault was so completely unexpected, and so well executed, that I had done what dozens of warbands could not.
I breached the great gates to Ascalon City.
The ghosts’ mists were scattered all around me, the moon wasn’t too bright, and I had used a lot of gunpowder. It took me several long seconds to be able to see into the city proper.
Trying to count the ghosts would’ve been like counting grains of sand in the Crystal Desert.
I had fled, then, faster than I had ever run before, trusting that the ghosts wouldn’t follow me outside of their dead city. I was partially right—most of them remained behind, but a few gave chase. Beyond that, I had to fight once more the ghosts I had already slain; they had reformed behind me. I didn’t stop running until I was back on charr land, choosing the risk of dodging patrols over the specters behind me. I had come through unscathed, but the experience shook me to the core, and I vowed never again to return to the city.
And yet, here I was. Once more, I refused to risk Ache’s life, and she was waiting for me back at Ashford near the Foundation vault. I had come by at midday earlier, when the sun was at its highest and the ghosts were most inactive, and scavenged for guard armor. Worse than the copious rubble I had to clear, I’d excavated around many corpses that were unsettlingly untouched by time. Many were burned, many were skeletal fragments. Some were intact, but none had decayed or been picked at by scavengers.
Once I had my armor and a sword, I had used my amulet to blend in with the ghosts that began to appear more and more commonly as the sun dipped low. I left my telltale bow and gauntlet behind with Ache, and while I felt naked without them, I was afraid they would’ve alerted the phantoms to my presence immediately. I fled the city at once, returning to Ashford, and made sure the other steps in my plan were fully intact before I returned at sunrise the next day.
I took a deep breath as I stood in front of the main access, expecting to die just as fully as I had those three years ago. Taking care to ensure that my amulet was activated, bending light to make my flesh and bone appear entirely transparent, I donned the ancient Ascalonian helm and sprinted straight at those death-filled gates.
“Charr! There are charr coming!” I bellowed. “A warband on the horizon—more coming behind them! They’re assaulting the city. Charr!”
Slowly, achingly slow, the gates cracked just enough to let me through. I did everything I could not to bend over, panting, because everything I had seen of the ghosts told me that they didn’t tire. I gulped down air quickly and quietly, waiting.
I was completely surrounded by writhing masses of the dead, murmuring and restless at the prospect of battle and invaders after so long.
Still, they did not charge out onto the field. Their connection to their deaths in the city was too strong. “What’s your name, soldier?” I heard barked at me. I couldn’t make out the direction it came from, much less which ghost.
“Thomas. Thomas Arrton, sir, but—the charr!” I cried. What was taking so long?
“Watchmen. Do you see anything?” the voice sounded again.
I cursed my luck under my breath. Until an enemy was actually in front of them, the ghosts seemed sane. I had been counting on them to be more unstable then this. What was taking so long?!
“Soldier, I don’t know what you’re up to, but—”
And then it happened. I could hear it over the great distance, and I grinned, glad the great helm covered my face.
“Fire off in the distance, sir! Charr!”
“Invaders!” A roar went up around the ghosts, and they all sprang into motion. “To arms!”
My first bomb was far from the city, only meant to kick up dirt and gather their attention. My second, set in the archaic sewer system beneath the city, actually shook the gates.
“Charr!” the ghosts howled, surging forward. Despite their loathing to part with their resting places, a few actually spilled out past the city gates and into the fields. The rest pressed against their backs, eager to get as close as possible to the bloodshed.
Their desire to move closer and closer to the gates was so blinding that they didn’t question me slipping aside to let them take my place. I turned to the left, away from the Foefire’s pale light, and followed the map in my head to the royal archives.
If the Builder was anywhere, he would be there.
Careful to avoid stepping on the bones littering the streets whenever possible, I quickly made my way along one of the main streets. Behind me, periodically, explosions went off in the fields or rocked the ground from the sewers—although no charr were in sight, the phantoms would hopefully think themselves under attack at range. It was the only shot I had.
The archives were not actually connected to the royal quarters, luckily, and the doors were already blasted open by a long-past battle. I stepped over the rubble, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the cobweb-infested darkness, and started circling the room.
I had already reached the conclusion that Foundation, being somewhat anti-king in intent and secretive enough to build an impenetrable cellar, wouldn’t have stored any information in the archives themselves. However, the Builder had been a poet—and a daring man, from what the Ashford vault showed me—and I doubted the idea he’d be able to resist planting more information about Foundation in Adelbern’s own records.
As I paced back and forth, one thing stood out to me. There was an archaic, blocky sundial in the room—indoors. It was old, even before Adelbern’s time; and while this was an archive, it wasn’t a museum. It shouldn’t have been there.
I brushed the dust off of the front of it quickly and inhaled sharply. There was the falcon; Foundation’s mark.
I couldn’t believe it had been so easy this time. Then again, I knew what I was looking for, and that was always a bonus for a thief. “We will fly. We will be free,” I whispered, grinning in anticipation of the sundial sliding down to reveal a hidden room or chute. It was both tall and wide enough to fit a crouching man, and so I knew there would be plenty of space for a hidden passageway.
I had to stifle my laughter, genuine laughter, for fear of alerting the ghosts that something was amiss. “Oh, you bastard,” I said to the long-dead Builder, my respect for the man growing once more. He would be far too smart to use the same sequence on every obstacle, especially this closely under the king’s nose.
But, something told me, the password itself wouldn’t change—only the medium through which it was accepted. The Ashford vault had been covered from floor to ceiling in poetry; some I recognized and some I didn’t. I had drawn the conclusion that the Builder was the original author of them all; and while some had gone on to be recognized by his fellows, it was most likely after his death. He wouldn’t have ever put a now-famous children’s rhyme as the password if it had been as well-known in his day.
That meant the password was still “we will be free”. I just couldn’t speak it aloud.
I continued to brush dust off the sundial, working at it until it looked as good as new—‘new’ being only two hundred years old instead of two hundred and fifty. I began to run my finger absentmindedly along the ridges of the dial plate, and stopped to consider the tics marking the quarter hours. They weren’t directly at the edge of the plate; they were set closer to the pin than necessary to tell the time.
I withdrew some charcoal from my pocket and scratched the keyphrase underneath the hour tics.
The sundial shuddered and, instead of sliding to reveal a passageway, split into four sections along seams I hadn’t even begun to detect. A fifth piece of stone rose up out of the ground and unfolded, revealing a thin black case with a belt.
I popped the lid eagerly, trying to restrain my glee—and became crestfallen at the site of a broken, shattered longbow. Pure black and lacquered—apparently made more from metal than wood, surprisingly—it lay in three large pieces, with a quiver and a short, thin baton about three inches long beside it.
I sighed, picked up the thimble, and began absently turning it over in my hand. It was a beautiful bow, and considering its origin, it was likely worth a fortune despite its state of disrepair. As a treasure hunter, I should’ve been ecstatic at the site of it. But I had already made my own fortunes, and I had hoped…
I lost my depressing train of thought as I noticed light reflecting oddly off the baton. It didn’t shimmer off of the metal itself, but rather, whenever one end was rotated to face the dim light outside, it was amplified on the other end.
I looked at the bow’s platform and raised the baton to my eye, and found the image magnified. It wasn’t a simple piece of metal after all—it was the world’s smallest telescope. I looked back at the “snapped” bow and wondered if it was really broken after all.
I slammed the case shut and threw it over my back, securing the tie around me. I knew the explosions would stop soon, and I didn’t want to be caught in a city full of ghosts that had just been denied a fight. There had to be someplace else I could discover the identity of the Builder—because I wasn’t coming back here.
As I turned to leave, the amulet around my neck flickered and began to fade. My eyes widened as my skin began to turn opaque again, regaining some its color once more. I cursed myself as I realized the magical charge was fading.
I wasn’t planning on leaving through the main gate before, but now I wouldn’t even be able to go near it for fear of being caught. At least the sun was high in the sky, and it’d be unlikely I would run into any phantoms in the back streets—they would all be asleep or chasing imaginary charr.
Except, I realized as I stepped out of the archives, that the explosions had stopped.
The sunlight reflected off my amulet, which began to glow a little brighter and drained some of my opacity. Still, I froze, unsure of where to turn to slip out of the city. They would be hunting me, I was sure, and I had no time to leave it out in the light.
I had no more time to debate. Without bothering to think of a real strategy, I sprinted off into the closest alleyway that looked as if it was heading south.
I scratched Ache behind the ears, my head leaning against the wall behind me, and breathed a heavy sigh. The bow scabbard lay open in front of me, the pieces inviting me to unscramble their riddle, but I ignored them for the time being. I was still catching my breath.
I had escaped Ascalon simply by running until I found corpses that were unsettling new; perhaps only a few years old, and discovered a crack in the wall behind them. From there, I was home free.
Home. It would be nice to see home again. It had been too long since I had seen Divinity’s Reach. I dearly missed the Carnival.
I reached into a pocket of my traveling pack and withdrew a simple glass mirror. I whispered a word of command to it and waited as clouds rolled across its surface.
Somewhere, I knew the mirror’s twin was burning in a pocket. And still I waited.
“Caleb?” I finally heard. A face began to form out of the mists within the glass. At the sound of the voice, Ache’s ears perked up and she began purring at my side. I rubbed her neck to appease her.
“Katryn,” I said, relieved. “It’s good to see you.”
“You too,” she said, but she didn’t appear enthusiastic. She was sitting, with what appeared to be a giant leaf behind her head. “Caleb, I—”
“Listen. We haven’t talked in forever. Give me a moment of your time.”
“I can’t. Not right now. I’ll call the mirrors later, but I can’t now.” Her eyes darted towards something out of the mirror’s frame.
“Okay. This is important. It really is. I’ve gone through hell the past few days, and you should know what’s going on.” I smiled then, letting her know I was okay, but I meant it.
She ran a hand through her hair and nodded. “I swear, I’ll use the mirror. I’ll speak to you soon.” She whispered a word of magic and the mists moved back behind the glass.
I don’t know why I felt she should know about Foundation so strongly. Maybe it was as simple as the fact that I hadn’t really had anything to care about in three years, and the group piqued my interest. It was unfortunate that it was long extinct; I knew without a shadow of a doubt that, if I had been alive during its time, I would have joined the ranks.
I didn’t find the Builder, but I had liberated one of his toys. I leaned forward, my nimble fingers going forward to trace the outline of the metal bow.
It would keep me occupied for now, but next time I would not be denied.