Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Gate of Gondwyn

“Gondwyn was a seat of the ancient Dragon-lords in the third Act, when Men were just starting to explore the world, the power of the Elves was reaching its apex, and the Dwarves, Orcs, Gnolls and other burrowing-races were expanding their dominions through the mountains.  The immortal spider Herchuck was spinning webs in the peaks of the Mantua mountains, and the smith of undetermined ancestry was forging the Frostblades, swords that drew on power from crystals harvested from the coldest places on the earth to bring that bone-shattering chill to a length of metal that could be wielded by any hand.  Eventually, Jake, a Dragon-lord’s third-born son would take up a Frostblade and carve himself a new demesne, whose creation would usher in the fourth Act, but there is a lot more history to tell before we get that far.”
Mojo sighed.  He’d heard Hamfries’s stories of the creation of the world and the many Acts it contained many times before.  Hamfries had been his nurse when he was a child and he could remember the mildewed smell of the nursery, the clammy touch of the blankets, and Hamfries’ steady, droning voice as he explained how the Dragon-lords had risen in the second Act, dominated the world until Act 6 when the Orc-mage Buntrone had banished the dragons at the cost of the lives of every female Orc.  By that point though, the short-lived, fast-reproducing Gnolls were overrunning everything, which meant that the next three Acts were primarily taken up with the attempts of all the other races to stamp them out, or at least confine them to somewhere with insufficient resources for them to breed.  Act 10 was probably his favourite, when the Dwarf-lords used the crystals they’d extracted from the Frostblades to herd an entire generation of Gnolls into Herchuck’s webs.  Act 11 just gave him nightmares as Herchuck, sated for the first time since the beginning of the world, gave birth to millions of giant spiders.
“Why are you telling us this?” Mahaven’s voice was whiny and shrill, and entirely fitting for a Shattenalf, one of the many fragmented races of Elves that had survived the Sundering of the Elves in Act 33.  He was rake-thin, albino-pale, and had a faint luminance in the dark that he claimed was residual radiance from the days of Elven glory.  Mojo knew for a fact though that it was a side-effect of the dried-fungus that the Shattenalfen ate as their primary food.  “Who cares about the Dragon-lords?  They lived Acts and Acts ago.”
“Because,” said Hamfries, “we are camped here at the Gate of Gondwyn.”  Hamfries was short and round and reminded Mojo of a pig, not least because of his name.  He was also pink, mostly hairless, and prone to getting sunburned.  Not, reflected Mojo, that there was much chance of seeing enough sun for that up here at the Gate of Gondwyn.
Around them high cliffs of black basalt towered up.  Straggly trees clung here and there to the edges of the cliffs, but the number of waterfalls that cascaded over the edges tended to keep the cliffs clean and sheer.  The water that fed them was melt-water from the Gondwyn glacier that stretched over two hundred miles north and, despite the melt-water, appeared to be growing slowly.  They were camped on a tongue of land that rose up from the plains at the bottom and was surrounded on all sides by the Sea of Gondwyn, which was freshwater and maintained entirely by the waterfalls they could see and hear around them.  The steady roar of white-noise meant that they’d had to be extra vigilant for their entire journey, for the usual noises of bird-song and animal movements was drowned out.
Ahead of them, visible now but probably not reachable for another day’s hard marching, was the Gate itself.  Originally a natural feature, two gigantic black opal pillars rose up over a thousand feet and supported a lintel of granite.  Somewhere in Act 16 or 17 – Mojo wasn’t entirely sure and didn’t want to ask Hamfries lest he set him off again – the resurgent Dragon-lords (now riding giant spiders that they’d learned how to tame) had constructed stairs inside on the towers and then built an entire town on top of the granite ridge.  This had become the Gate of Gondwyn, with the city itself being built two days spider-trek further inside.  Travellers, and indeed armies, approaching Gondwyn had no choice but to pass through the Gate, and the people dwelling atop it could drop whatever they liked on them.  It was a highly effective defensive strategy, and Gondwyn still stood even now, which made it the oldest city in the whole of the Earth.
Mahaven snorted, a strange, high-pitched sound that sounded almost like a whistle.  “It’s Gondwyn,” he said.  “It’s not like we’ve found lost Galahaven.  Now there would be a prize worth claiming!”
“Galahaven was destroyed, not lost,” said Hamfries, just a little testily.  “In Act 20, when the Elves attempted to lay siege to–“
“Nah nah nah nah nah nah!” shouted Mahaven.  “I can’t hear you!”
“Hush!”  Mojo felt compelled to speak at last, and his whisper carried across both voices.  “You’ll wake Bulrug.”
All three of them looked at their fourth companion, the dwarven mage Bulrug.  He was sleeping on his back, his mouth open and his beard matted and tangled.  He was wrapped in his cloak, which was the blue-and-silver of the weather-mages, but there was a red-and-black stole around his shoulders that was supposed only to be worn by the necromancers.  They’d not seen him do any magic so far on this journey, but they had seen him viciously and brutally slay every thing they’d encountered that wasn’t clearly surrendering or begging for mercy.  He was a veteran of the Sporeonic War, and Mojo suspected that he was suffering from Gulf Battle syndrome.  The Gulf Battle was officially the last battle of the war, and both sides had launched magical attacks of staggering power and atrocity.  Being caught anywhere near the battle had caused physical and psychological effects that continued to manifest years later, often to the detriment of the people who knew the victims.
“Yeah ok,” said Mahaven more quietly now.  “Let’s not wake him up until it’s time to move on.”

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