I left before dawn, determined to find the Warden, wrapping my hands with strips torn from my cloak and carrying with me only a short-bladed knife and a leather flask of water. The sun found me struggling on the underside of an overhang in the rock. Handholds had been plentiful enough at the base but as soon as I hit the greater shelves the going became slow and much more perilous. I did my best not to look down at the forest, failing more often than I would like to record here, and finally managed to pull myself high enough to get a knee firmly lodged in a small crag. From then I heaved myself atop the overhang and clearly saw the cave up above for the first time.
Before me rose a nearly smooth wall of rock, defaced only by a long, smooth crack that ran down the center of it. A stream, perhaps my stream, must have run down the face of this wall and carved a crevice over the centuries. I considered this rift in the rock for a time and then, driving my fists into it, began to climb. It was slow going but effective. I cannot say how long I took in my ascent but by the time I shakily pulled myself onto the cave ledge, lungs burning and muscles boiling, the sun had passed well beyond its zenith.
As I lay there trying to catch my breath, I noticed that there were runes carved around the cave like nothing like I had ever seen or studied at the university. They had been blackened, almost as if they had been burnt into the rock, and were rendered with an artisan’s precision. The mouth of the cave was tall, a gaping wound in the face of the mountain, and beyond the entrance was only darkness.
I had forgotten to bring any source of light with me but recognized the quartz just inside the cave walls and fashioned a crude torch from the sleeves of my shirt. I struck the blade across the flint and a moment later I had in my hand a few minutes of light. I set off into the cave with a determined stride, although I could not help but notice that the cave had truly been the wrong word to describe it: I was in a finely-carved hallway of rock, as well done as any of the architecture back at the university. How such a thing came to be inside of a mountain was a question I hadn’t the time to consider. I made my way deeper into the darkness. The torch was burning low before I came upon a second portal, much like the entrance way, bordered by a set of new runes. They bore the same precise quality I had seen before but these were different. A different message perhaps? I did not know and had little time left so I strode ahead into a smaller chamber. This is when I first heard him speak, his voice low and pleasing but…something was amiss in it. I could not seem him, not at first anyway, but heard him clearly enough. I halted in my tracks.
“You have come to see The Warden.”
What was I to say? In the haste to find The Warden I had thought little about how to frame my request to him.
“A scholar from the university,” he finished.
It was dark in the room, how could he know this? I raised the guttering torch about my head though I did not dare take a step further into the room. The chamber floor was smooth with a ceiling much lower than the hallway’s. I could not see anything else.
“How-“ I began.
“The insignia on your flask.” Again, something wrong in the voice. Something I could not place.
“And why,” he went on “have you come to see The Warden?” Still no sign of the man. How to begin? I took a deep breath.
“There has been an attack on a village. Many have been slaughtered, or captured. There is nothing we can do but watch them die and now we fear for our own lives. Geor, the owner of an Inn to the west, bade me to seek out the Warden and request help.”
The Warden, if it was he, was silent for a time before speaking, still cloaked in darkness, the torch mere embers by now.
“You would have me protect you from men?”
The answer seemed simple but I hesitated to answer. His question weighed more heavily upon me than my exams at the university.
His reply was immediate.
“This I will not do, for it is a problem born of you and it is yours to resolve.” His voice was still mellow but this time, I heard it: beneath the pleasurable tone of the voice was a… whirring sound that I could not place.
“Please,” I suddenly began and was, just as suddenly, unsure of how to proceed. “Please, I saw them slaughter a village of people. They are animals, they are less than men. They are apart from us, they are not of us.”
“Nevertheless I shall not save you.”
“You have not seen them! You have not seen them cut an old man’s throat with a blade that looks like a row of teeth, or watched his lifeblood spill into the dirt. Or heard the screams or smelt their bodies burning in the remains of their homes. You have not. You must help us. If you are able I demand that you must.” The Warden was silent. The room was pitch black.
“Tell me about the blade.”
“It was long, with barbs along the edge of the blade and pulsed with a strange energy. It was different from blades I had seen before.” I waited a moment before asking my own question: “Why?”
“This is of interest. This was not anticipated.”
And suddenly light was spilling into the room. I first thought that he must have opened a window or lit some sort of chemical flame for the light was brilliantly bright and was right in front of me. And then it dimmed again and I saw before me the shape of a man with a glowing sphere held out in his hand. But this was like no man I had ever seen. He was tall, well over six measures by my estimation and, curiously, there was metal, a good deal of it, driven into his face and chest and hands. But his eyes were kind and, as I grew accustomed to the light, I saw in his other hand he held a large tome.
“I am The Warden and I welcome you here.”