An immense rumbling yanked me from my slumber. I bolted upright, my gauntlet ready to defend me, but no attack came. I blinked through bleary eyes and noticed Ache was already awake, standing protectively over me and growling. She was staring in the direction of Ascalon City, although it couldn’t be seen from our position in an old basement.
I gently moved her away from me and clambered up the steps, doing my best not to sway from tiredness. I had likely only slept for two or three hours. I gained the top of the cracked wooden stairs and looked out into the county’s rolling plains, expecting to see an army of charr or a procession of ghosts in the field. There was nothing out of the ordinary.
Eventually, my gaze drifted to the skyline above and beyond, and my eyes widened in pure disbelief at what I saw. A giant white krait—a snake-beast with a human torso and arms—was writhing in the city, towering above all ramparts and bastions, unimaginably huge.
I leapt down the steps and wildly grabbed for the bow scabbard at Ache’s side, opening it to retrieve the miniature scope that had accompanied it. I ran back up the steps, with the panther accompanying me this time, and raised the piece to my eye. It magnified my sight one hundredfold, and I gasped aloud as I realized it wasn’t a krait in the city.
It was some form of golem. It was comprised of what had to be thousands upon thousands of bones. Even more surprising, a blue column of mists—ghosts, the scope showed me—were crawling up and around it, going for its head. And it was attacking—it was attacking—
I couldn’t see! I gnashed my teeth in anger and strained my eyes to see the krait’s target. To my surprise, the telescope automatically adjusted to my gaze, zooming in further than I had thought possible.
The krait was attacking King Adelbern himself. While I didn’t know the sovereign by sight, it couldn’t be any other—wearing regal armor, wielding a flaming sword, standing atop the city’s highest remaining tower.
I willed the scope to pull back, and the image zoomed out so that I could see both the construct and the king. Even as I looked on, the thin blue line of ghosts had nearly reached the head of the golem. It tipped forward, and at first I thought it was falling—but no, it was purposefully collapsing itself directly on top of Adelbern.
The assault seemed like it would never end, as section after section of the krait folded onto the ghost king. White residue filled the city so thickly it appeared to be heavy mist in the night. I waited for the dust to clear. And waited. And waited.
When it finally did fade, the scope showed me the truth within the city walls. Adelbern was nowhere in sight.
There wasn’t a single ghost in sight in the entirety of Ascalon City.
I left the scope in the case and slid it into its hiding place beneath the wrecked floorboards. “Come, Ache! Come!” I whooped, running as quickly as I could towards it. I wouldn’t get another opportunity like this, I was sure. My two previous promises to avoid the ghost town meant less than nothing; they were a fool’s vow. This was my ultimate chance, my last chance, to discover the identity of the Builder from the city he had operated within.
Except that I had no idea where to look.
The thought didn’t slow me down any. I was meant to discover the Builder’s identity. I was meant to discover all that Foundation had stood for. I was meant to…
To what? To bring it into the modern day?
I temporarily slowed my gait. I had no information suggesting they had been wiped out. That was a thought for another day.
The Builder would have fought against the Dragons were he alive today, I was sure. I had been able to read deep into the man, from his poetry to his manifesto to the way he hid Foundation’s tracks—things that others must have seen before, but perhaps never all at once. I understood him innately; I flattered myself that it was the working of two similar minds.
I had assumed the Builder would place his records below those of the city archive. I had been wrong, but the setback was far from crushing. I simply hadn’t tried to get inside his head; I had made the easy assumption. But now I understood the error, and that only helped to define this shadowy figure.
So I didn’t doubt my belief that the poet’s own personal library would still be inside the city, tauntingly close to the king he saw as close-minded. It would have to be a lyrically fitting location, as well; the Builder would accept nothing less.
“Over the lake and beyond the trees,
We will fly like wind to sea.
To my heart and to my soul,
To the end you’re mine to hold.
I will keep you safe with me,
We will fly. We will be free.”
… fly like wind to sea.
… over the lake.
… beyond the trees.
The Builder was obsessed with nature. It was not the first of his poems to mention water; most often the oceans, but ponds and rivers as well. He would have left his records where water, air and land all met. Though it had now run dry, the county’s lake had been allowed to run into a reservoir within the city.
I tied a cloth around my head and entered the city. The map in my head was sufficient enough to guide me through the wreckage of the streets once more. There was no longer a crunch beneath my feet as I ran along the hollow buildings; the golem had removed all the individual bones in my path, replacing them with a thick coating of dust. I wasn’t sure which I preferred—the crack of accidentally defiling one of my predecessors, or silently being entirely unable to avoid stepping on an amalgam of ancestors.
I remembered once more the feeling of bones crunching underneath my boots. Yes, the dust was by far an improvement—mostly. At my side, Ache sneezed horrendously, and I tried not to wince.
I reached the old lakefront, and the answer was directly in front of me—clear as day. There remained a tall tree on the reservoir front; dead from dehydration and petrified, but otherwise untouched by the Searing and the intervening years. It was massive—or would have been, had it been allowed to grow for the full two-hundred-and-sixty years. To this day, crystalized as it was, the tree remained straight and tall.
“It’s here,” a voice said clearly to me. I wondered vaguely if the Builder’s ghost was talking to me, but I heard no whispers. I wondered if it was divine inspiration, but didn’t truly care. Either my instincts would be correct or they weren’t.
In my rush to reach the city, I had forgotten my pick and shovel in the ruins of the Abbey. I activated my gauntlet and, with a click of the tongue to indicate Achelois should back off, simply plunged the magical arm into the ground at the base of the tree. I didn’t dig far, but only scooped the top layer of dirt off first into a pile at my side. I didn’t want to risk damaging the records by stabbing my hand directly through them in my haste.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
I began to gently dig outwards, broadening the furrows instead of excavating deeper. I dug all the way around the tree, making sure the ditch was of consistent depth approximately five or six feet deep.
Elation surged in my chest. Though I couldn’t see what I had discovered, I tapped my hand down again, listening closely. The sound was muffled by the layers of dirt, but it was surely a metallic reverberation. I increased my pace, at first expecting to find another small tube or chest appear before me and yield its secrets. Instead, the process took much longer than I was hoping. I excavated so much dirt and found only unyielding black iron, I began to think I had stumbled on another of Foundation’s underground vaults.
A dozen more minutes revealed the truth. It was a coffin.
Despite being cast from metal, the casket was surprisingly light as I lifted it to the surface. Emblazoned on the lid was the raven symbol I had come to recognize, and I knew that whoever was inside had ties to Foundation. This contained the answers I was looking for.
I went to lift the lid, and found that there were no clasps or openings—the coffin was one seamless piece. Impressed, I activated the flame gout on my gauntlet and carefully began to cut through the edges.
I removed the top piece of the coffin and stared at the withered form inside. There wasn’t anything unusual about it, beyond the small black chest clutched in a skeletal grasp. Was I looking upon the Builder himself?
I reached for the strongbox in its hands, and as my fingers closed around it, I felt a shiver run down my spine. I barely had time to close my eyes before ice and black smoke filled the air, an explosion launching me onto my back and scattering the bones within the coffin. I groaned and rolled onto my side, curling into a ball until the pain reduced to a dull ache.
I put my feet back under me, checking to make sure I wasn’t seriously injured. I recognized the spell as necromantic in nature—ironic. I wondered how powerful the mark must have been when it was cast 250 years ago.
I was wary as I went to grasp the box again, not at all sure it hadn’t been trapped twice, but I wasn’t about to fire an arrow into a coffin to check. With my rotten luck, I’d break the box, or summon a demon, or find myself triggering something equally devastating.
There wasn’t a second mark. As I held the box up to my face, turning it over several times, I could hear the rustling of papers inside. Unlike the coffin, it had a lid, and it wasn’t locked. The Builder apparently trusted whoever could both open the casket and survive the trap.
I opened the cover. Inside was an iron dagger, a long-dead flower, and one weathered scroll. The scroll was both wax-sealed and bound by limp string; easily broken, I unrolled the paper. It was in Old Ascalonian, and it took me a few moments to remember how to read the text. The lettering was perfect—there was no imprint from where a quill scratched away at the paper. I didn’t know how such a thing was possible, but the writing called to me louder than my curiosity.
Death is inexorable. The scythe cannot be stopped, only slowed. I know this with every fibre of my being.
And yet… perhaps… death can be tricked.
For if you are reading this, I know that I am dead. And yet that veil does not prevent my words from reaching you. Perhaps my soul is not as far gone as my empty body would have you believe.
In the end, it matters not. Where I am—and where you are—mean little. The greater truths escape us in this life, no matter the path we trek. There is no meaning in the details.
We could not broker peace with the charr. Fire rained down on Ascalon and our foundation wasn’t strong enough to withstand it. And so we pledged ourselves to a mad king to protect those innocents who would not flee across the Shiverpeaks.
What a foolish decision on our part.
At least I know my Emily is safe. The scythe will not touch her yet.
I know that, if you are reading this, my tomb has been breached. I do not know who you are, to desecrate my resting place, but I cannot find anger at your transgressions.
I made enough of my own.
I do not know what you expected to find in an old necromancer’s coffin. A tome of unimaginable power—a magic staff—untold treasures.
I have none of these things.
I do have the dagger that nearly found the ribs of a hollow king.
Trust not the highest peak of the mountain, for it is capped with lies and separates itself from the base from which it has grown. Trust always the foundation.
I breathed out a sigh and rocked back on my heels. I had his name. Kaenes.
I withdrew the dagger, knowing it was more than it seemed. No king would allow himself to roam without magical barriers raised by court magicians. It would have to be powerfully enchanted to hope to pierce Adelbern’s lungs, and while the magic must have faded over the last few centuries, it would be useful.
Especially considering Jameson’s ward still existed after all this time.
I replaced the dagger and scroll and closed the box, dropping it into my pack. I carefully closed the lid to Jameson’s tomb, igniting my gauntlet once again and holding it near the seams to char it closed. I laid it back underground as gently as I could under the circumstances and, with a few powerful sweeps of my arm, replaced the dirt over it.
It didn’t look pretty. It was clear something had torn the ground up, but it didn’t exactly look like someone had come by with a shovel particularly for this area. It would have to do. I turned to leave, sprinting through the streets in my haste to leave the city for the final time. I didn’t want to be caught inside the walls when the ghosts finally reformed.
I slowed when I heard raised voices coming from Ascalon’s main square. My brow furrowed in confusion—it wasn’t the screech of a ghost, and there was no blue mist about the city yet. The city was mine for raiding—I didn’t realize anyone else had been here in years. Curiosity claimed the better half of me, and I crept along the dusty streets towards the sound.
I peered around the corner of a decrepit stone wall, only allowing my left eye to see out into the open. I inhaled sharply, and darted back behind my cover.
Sylvari. Sylvari and charr. Flame Legion. In Ascalon City.
My breathing came faster than I would like, and I didn’t know why. I peered back out around the corner—and saw a female sylvari staring straight at me. She was garbed head-to-toe in black.
Without pause, I grasped the amulet around my neck and my body melted away into mist. Bolts of dark, green energy flowed through me, draining my energy despite my magical defenses. I fled as quickly as I could, and I didn’t stop running for miles after the enchantment had ended.
I returned to Ashford, falling to my hands and knees and gasping for breath and sweat dripping into the floorboards. Ache pushed up against me, trying to comfort me, and knocked me entirely over. It took many minutes before I had regained the ability to breathe normally.
I knew what this meant… for me, at least. I was done here. I would move to the base of the Shiverpeaks and wait for Sanford, the merchant who came to pick up my wares every few months. I would ride back to Lion’s Arch with him.
It was time to return home.