Above the Clouds
[Search for the Air Crystal]
I ducked as another empty ale mug flew past my head. My stomach rumbled as I looked at my uneaten bowl of tunnel rat stew. The dwarves here in Omurtag were serious about three things: mining, drinking and storytelling. After a long day of the first they progressed to a long night of the next.
Months ago I'd met an old dwarven prospector, deep in the central mountain range. I might have been a tree for all the attention he paid to me, but say a few carefully dropped words and he would ramble for hours. His gems of wisdom were as few and far between as the nuggets of ore he was panning. But, over weeks of careful prompting I came away with the knowledge of a cautionary tale set in verse. True, it was in archaic Dwarvish so the rhyme and meter left something to be desired in translation. However, it was the first true hint I'd had that the legend of the elemental crystals was not just a human myth.
And so I ended up here, in a Dwarven clan hall in Omurtag, where bards were always welcome. I had done my duty and sung away the hours entertaining them long into the night. It was time to test my poem. I beat on the small lap drum in time to the lines.
For those who've seen have not lived to tell; nor those who've known shared any spell.
From aerie spire, to cavern deep, to bards recital in castle keep.
Pass lustful tales by word of mouth, of wondrous magic and majestic wealth.
Shrouded in myth and disbelief, yet still enticing every thief;
The crystal hoard, a foolish lure, seduces Dwarves with hearts impure.
And so they hunt their deep desire with zealousness all set afire;
Metaphorically, or not, for a dragon's seldom an inadequate shot.
So should you come upon a dragon, know they're quick of mind, of wing, of talon.
And should you last to realise, you'll see they're also smart and wise.
Keep temptation and curiosity at bay; don't try to steal her gems away.
Be polite, be kind and don't impel, or she'll see you to a fare-thee-well."
"And where did ye be hearing that young human?" said a greying dwarf to my right. "It's been many a year since these halls have heard that story."
I perked up in excitement.
"Although your pronunciation IS atrocious, 'course drunk as they are," he nodded towards masses along the great hall, "they could barely make out any tale you spin."
"You know the legend of the elemental crystals?" I asked.
"To be sure, the Dwarves have always known of such, but the only one we be interested in resides not in these mountains."
My heart sank to hear that I wasn't as close to my journey's end as I had thought. But there was hope! An actual mention of the crystals as real artifacts, not myth.
"If the Earth crystal resided in this here range it would have called to her people long since," he explained. "But in the old days, with that poem came the tale that the Guardians of Air protected a treasure high in the mountains, above the clouds."
I knew from experience that 'treasure' in Dwarvish was interchangeable with ore, gem, or...crystal. I gasped softly.
"In the heights above here lies a temple, those who built it long gone by the time Dwarves arose from the depths. From there, those of pure intent may climb the Guardian's pathway to the crystal. Lose the way but once and the crystal's guardians will pass judgement upon ye as unworthy," he cautioned. "I can take ye there if ye be so inclined." He laughed at his own joke.
We set out the next morning. For four sennights we trekked, gaining thousands of feet in elevation before my guide led me to the gateway of the mountain temple. Little remained to show where the building had once stood except some low, ragged walls and the large flagstone floor.
We huddled in the lee of the stones and there my guide and I fasted as required. Meditating in a more miserable, damper place I could not imagine. I confess, my mind kept wandering. What must be an awe inspiring view of the sheer mountains and deep valleys was obscured by the dense clouds. Sitting in that eerie cocoon, the only change was the strange and somewhat ominous calls of the wind through the rocky spires. I could see how tales of fantastical creatures had evolved. My tummy grumbled. I hope my companion thought it merely another unidentified noise of the mountains. I thanked the Goddess for my penchant for sticky buns. If I came back from this adventure I'ld be able to able to indulge guilt free for weeks, the way I was shedding pounds. Maybe this is why it took two days before a spirit appeared to us.
At first I wasn't sure I was seeing anything except another wisp of cloud across the flagstones. But the closer I studied it the more I realised this wisp was not drifting with the cloudbank. Out of this moment of enlightenment shaped a wraith-like form, white-on-white and easily lost. It floated towards the far edge of the shrine's courtyard where I thought a viewing platform led out over the side of the mountain. But there at the far side of the platform started a staircase of white, travelling up into the clouds. It came to me that if my will failed the path would crumble, disintegrating back into the ether from which it formed. And I would be falling, a long, long way.
I climbed a few steps then looked back and see the path was solid behind, tempting me to turn back. It was good to know if I made it to the crystal I would most likely be able to come down the same way I went up.
To my surprise my dwarven guide followed me out onto the stairs.
"If you find yon crystal mayhaps I'll go a wandering again and listen for the call of Earth."
Now I understand why he'd agreed to be my guide, although how you guide from behind did make me wonder.
We climbed and climbed and I started to worry we'd still be ascending as night fell. The monotony of climbing through a shroud of white began to wear. My cloak grew heavy with the weight of water from the clouds and my mind began to wander, again. It would be nice to feel the sunshine on my face and solid ground beneath my feet. Suddenly, as I started thinking these things, I stumbled. My foot passing clear through the stair in front of me, only to be saved by my other knee landing squarely on a patch of still-solid step. It was then the true danger of this journey struck home. As I looked ahead I could see places where the stairs were growing transparent, threatening to disappear and take me with them into the swirling clouds below.
The ferocious monsters of the Dwarves' story were nowhere to be seen. I believe them an old-wives tale to scare those faint of heart. Although, the amorphous nature of the stairway was quite scary enough on its own.
I was so concentrating on the staircase that I failed to notice the oppressive density of the cloudbank was lifting. Sunlight began to filter down as the clouds changed to light mist. And then between one step and the next we were above them. The pure blue sky stretching from horizon to horizon with only faint glimpses of the mountain peaks pushing through the blindingly white. The undulating roof of the clouds stretched out so densely that it felt I could step off the staircase and onto their floor. The lure of this illusion probably took the lives of many adventurers before me.
It was then I looked up.
There defying all the elements, or perhaps because of them, stood a crystal shrine. The sheer, clear form capturing the blues from the sky until it appeared to glow with inner light. There, hanging from the arches was a crystal bowl. And inside the bowl stood the Air Crystal, pure and clear of flaws, lit from above by sunlight through the transparent domed roof of the shrine.
I stepped onto the mosaic floor of the shrine and began to reach for the crystal. As I did I noticed my Dwarven guide had failed to join me.
The path behind appeared solid but he was nowhere to be seen. I knew then of a certainty that I would not be trading tales with him again. Perhaps one day others would go in search of his Earth crystal, and when they found it I would raise a mug of ale to his memory.
More pictures on my Flickr Album
Edited by Cara, 13 May 2012 - 05:52 PM.