Port Jericho, 10, 000 ft above the Aeryth Ocean, Year of the Jade Bull, 2365 CE
Not long after Terren and Zeke moved in, we decided to begin making use of the root cellar. We opened it to air out for a few days, and removed what little debris was down there. The little cellar was soon stuffed with all manner of supplies, neatly organised on the shelves. After we opened it back up, the feelings I had of being watched intensified. I didn’t say anything about it to Terren or Zeke though. I was a trained soldier. I shouldn’t be afraid of what was likely nothing more than my imagination. I did find it interesting that both of my housemates instinctively avoided the crawlspace area at the back of the cellar.
Weeks passed, and I became increasingly edgy. I hated going into the cellar. The feelings were always worse there, and I wondered if it had anything to do with the crawlspace. One day, out of curiosity, I decided to see if the others were having any of the same feelings. As we shared supper on a rare night we were all three home, I casually mentioned that there were times I felt a little uncomfortable in the house, especially in the basement.
“Me too!” Zeke piped . “Like someone is watching, and they don’t like me.”
Terren had snorted at our conversation. Turns out, at least then, he was like Dame Eliza. He hadn’t noticeably felt anything odd in the house. Zeke seemed relieved though. We shared a secret, one that would draw us closer as time went on. I’d had a little brother once. He would have been Zeke’s age….if he’d survived the plague. He was the age I’d been when I joined the army. Sometimes I wondered what I, and my brother, would have been if the sickness hadn’t taken my family from me. I wondered, too, what my family would think if they could see where I’d ended up.
You might be wondering that yourselves. When I left the Ne Rameridean army after my contracted time was up, I knew I didn’t want to stay in Ne Rameridea. Fighting was all I knew then, the only skill I had to offer, so I came to a place well-known for its fighters. Jericho’s Hunter and mercenary guilds were world-renowned. The city was still considered a place for misfits, thieves, and assassins, but ever since they had gained a proper Patron several centuries ago things had changed.
Port Jericho was now one of the safest cities on De Sikkari. They…we….know our livelihoods rely upon our honour. The lawlessness was gone. Lord Loki had seen to that after he had claimed the city. No one knew where the Great One had come from, but he considered himself a misfit as well, and had claimed the city as his own. He’d stopped the Argosians from razing the city with one of their great airships, forging a pact of mutual benefit with the Patron of the Argosian Technomancers. The pact still lasted to this day.
So….turned out from the military and not wishing to stay in my home country, I’d come to Jericho to make my fortune. And I was. Just not the way I had anticipated. Yet I found I enjoyed my life here immensely, despite the phantom watcher in the walls of my home.
Two months after we reopened the root cellar I came home one afternoon to be greeted by a very nervous Zeke and several of his friends. Two were apprenticed to the East Ward mining coalition. The miners were contracted to Port Jericho itself, and they worked the mage metal mines beneath the floating city. Interesting stuff, mage metal. It regenerated. Different metals take longer or shorter amounts of time to regenerate, and East Ward drew several kinds from the mines, from common narryllym which took mere weeks, to the dark blue tryllym, which takes more than 10 years to regenerate.
I digress… Zeke’s mining apprentices had urged him to explore the crawlspace. Silly me… I should have known. Passageways, tunnels, those things are to the miners what shiny baubles are to magpies.
“Look what we found, Arlyn! What do you think it is?” Farrell, the oldest of the boys, piped up excitedly as Zeke passed the object over to me. And what an odd object it was. It was a wickedly curved claw half again as long as my hand, with a button of zarconite affixed to the knuckle end by a stout band of serrasllym. The dark blue mage metal was dulled, its surface almost tarnished looking, which they just don’t do. Also embedded in the band of serrasllym were three long dark brown feathers, less like those of a bird, yet not quite like those of a feathered dragon, that hid two flexible serrasllym rings beneath them.
I had no idea what it was, but to touch it made me feel decidedly sick, as if it were tainted with sadness and fear and a deep and abiding blood hunger. I confiscated the artefact and chastised the boys for digging around in the crawlspace. They grumbled and complained, but promised not to go back into it. I sent the boys on their way and Zeke and I returned to the root cellar to close up the crawlspace. The smell emanating from the shadowed depths was no longer just the musty smell of long years being stirred up. No, it smelled a little like chokka feathers and old blood, tinged by an acrid odor I couldn’t quite place. Zeke had the grace to look sheepish as we closed up the door. I had big plans to bring a keylock down later, to lock up the room good and proper so it wouldn’t be a temptation to the boys in the future. I had been a boy myself, once. I knew full well that sooner or later my admonishment would pale in the face of curiosity and they would try to go in again. Better to just nip that right off. As I closed it up, I thought I heard a sibilant hissing from far back in the crawlspace, almost like laughter. When questioned, Zeke said he hadn’t heard anything, so I was willing to shrug it off as my imagination.
I had debated throwing the artefact back into the crawlspace before putting the keylock in place, but in the end, I didn’t. I was a little curious as to what it might be. I should have thrown it in. I should have torched it… or thrown it from the Rim Wall, that it might sink into the ocean depths. In the end, I did none of those things. I kept it, fool that I was. I wondered what animal the feathers and claw had come from. My limited research turned up nothing, and the artefact found a home on a bookshelf in the study. Terren eventually took an inordinate interest in it. It was he who discovered that the rings were to affix the thing over two of one’s fingers, settling the claw between the fingers and turning it into a fearsome weapon. Weeks passed, and Terren’s obsession grew stronger. He took to carrying the claw with him, keeping it close, and scoffed when Zeke and I both said that it might be a bad idea.
During those weeks, Terren began to change. He began to spend more and more time locked inside his room. He withdrew into himself, and became snappish. His work didn’t falter though. Within the walls of the Cinder Vault, he was still his same jovial self. It was almost like night and day, the change between his personality.
Those weren’t the only changes during those weeks. The feelings I had of being watched grew stronger, and the force felt far more malevolent. I began to hear scratchings in the walls everywhere. No matter what room I went into, if I were alone, sooner or later, I would hear the scratching and on occasion I would also hear the same sibilant hissing that I had that day Zeke and I had closed up the crawlspace.
Our young apprentice was having his own troubles. He took to staying with me when we were both home. He refused to go into the house alone. He’d stay at the Vault until he knew one of us was home. Turns out, he was hearing the scratching and the hissing too. Terren still didn’t, lucky him.
I also began to have bouts of paralysis in the middle of the night. I’d wake filled with a suffocating fear that froze me in place and left me whimpering. During these times my room would be filled with scratchings and hisses, the sound of which seemed pleased by my fear. I ignored it as best I could. By the light of day it seemed silly and I knew better than to tell Terren. He would only scoff.
When Zeke came to me one day, describing the same events happening to him, I moved him into my room. It seemed to work at staving off any further occurrences of waking frozen in fear. For the first week or so, we even had sound sleep. Then the dreams started. Dreams of running in a dark field, the moons and great bulk of Del Mon obscured by thick clouds. We were being chased by some unseen force, evidenced only by eerie shrieks and trills in the night, and a driving fear that kept us running. Invariably we would wake drenched in cold sweat.
Terren thought we were both a little crazy, and that I was encouraging Zeke’s fear. He had yet to feel phantom eyes following him around the house, yet to hear the scratching and hissing from behind the walls, yet to wake from nightmares. However, as bad as things seemed then, they were tame compared to what was to come.