Deka handled the old tome with due care. Its brittle pages were prone to breaking--indeed, many were missing already--and with naught but a flickering candle to read by, it was all the more difficult to find what he was looking for.
The librarian did nothing to improve the situation; from time to time, he shuffled about in a nervous manner or muttered softly to himself. It was clear he regretted his ill-advised bet of yesterday, made under the influence of the drink (which he enjoyed a little too much for his own good). The look on the librarian’s face when the dice fell in Deka’s favor had in itself almost been worth the trip to this cesspit of a city.
Luckily, the librarian had not noticed Deka’s little flick of the wrist: just an innocent cantrip--a harmless trick to make sure that fortune should not thwart him.
“Are you quite done?”
Deka half-rose from his seat and looked back at the librarian. The fire and impatience in the man’s eyes melted before Deka’s towering stature and dark glance.
“Why?” Deka asked. “Do many of the Waymages visit the library at night?”
“Well, you never know who comes at night.” The librarian’s voice was a thread now, nearly a whisper, and trailed off as he turned to watch the hallway.
Deka smiled and returned to the tome. He leafed through its pages until he came upon the illustrations. Done in red ink (and for that all the more difficult to read) and lavishly decorated, they were akin to the other symbols Deka had read in the moldy, bug-infested tomes of the abandoned Etter-holds.
“Yes,” he said softly. His finger traced a symbol not unlike a cobweb, though each strand consisted not of a single line, but of a series of letters that none today could read. “The Thyra,” he whispered, “the Door. . .”
“Have you found what you came for?”
Deka did not respond; he was lost in the symbol. It was intricate, yet as ill-preserved as the rest of the work, and it was certainly part of the key to the Thyra. How long it must have lain here, in a damp and drafty room under the eyes of the Waymages--the very ones who claim to study the art of interdimensional travel.
The symbol spun in front of his eyes: the faint red ink of the occult glyphs--of which even the Etter knew not the meaning--began to glow. They grew until their light was as lifelike and strong as the candle’s flame. And as their light grew, Deka saw them more clearly.
Yes, it was a part of the puzzle; already he could match some of the mystic symbols to the other segments of the key that were known to him--and with so little effort! Perhaps this symbol would--
The librarian’s nudge was gentle, but hard enough to rouse Deka.
“Have you what you came for?” He asked again.
For a moment, Deka looked at him as if dazed. Then he smiled and spoke:
“Indeed, I have.”
Deka had procured the book by threatening to reveal the librarian’s actions to his masters. Now, he sat huddled in a dark corner of a dilapidated roadside inn, just outside the city walls. Thick smoke clung to the ceiling and half-concealed the ancient wooden beams and supports that should keep the decrepit building upright for perhaps another ten years.
The patrons were in no better shape: ruffians and panhandlers they were; rogues who had been denied access into the city and who would perhaps try their luck again on the morrow after the changing of the guard. They leered with red eyes from dirty faces, spoke little, and kept to their cheap swill.
It was the perfect place for Deka. He had pulled his cloak tight around himself and--despite his great size--sat well-concealed in the dark and out of everyone’s way. He studied the book with feverish intensity and ignored the tankard of cider and the wood trencher with victuals that the innkeeper had without a courteous word placed on his table.
The writings spoke of how, centuries ago, the Etter built the Thyra--the Door that led them from their dimension of flame and darkness to this world. To build it, the Etter had enslaved thousands, ranging from their own kind to the demons and devils that dwelled in the depths below them. It became a marvelous thing to behold, greater than the greatest palaces of kings and decorated with precious stones and unimaginably beautiful carvings.
The construction of the gateway took centuries. Generations of Etter slavers would come and go without seeing the completion of the grand project of their race. Yet their kind was ever hard-working and its leaders cared little for the fate of the individual, save their own.
When the immense structure was completed, the Etter sacrificed their slaves through a blasphemous ritual. Yet still they were not free, for the Etter mages laid claim to their eternal spirits as they died and held them even in life after death. And as the souls of the dead cried in outrage at their abuse at the hands of the Etter mages, they were imprisoned in the gateway they had built with their very own hands.
And so it came to pass that the Etter completed their great work: a doorway to other dimensions, powered by the souls of thousands, and they named it the Thyra. And when they activated it, it drew upon the energy of the spirits trapped within and with that power tore a bleeding, gaping hole through time and space.
Shortly after, the Etter sent their first scouts through, and it would not be long until their empire spanned not only their own world, but many other dimensions. How many, Deka could not tell. Perhaps ten, perhaps a hundred, perhaps more than he could count. But this world had been among them. And for a reason that no one knew today, the Etter had departed again and left naught in their wake but questions unanswered. . .
A loud bang roused Deka from his studies: the door to the inn had been flung open with force. And as the newcomers entered, Deka smiled, for fortune was kind to him. . .
Three travelers entered the roadside inn. First came a stout woman clad in a short, sleeveless tunic of mail. Though common in appearance, her face was stern. She had slung a painted round shield over her shoulder and a broad blade hung sheathed from her worn baldric. She surveyed the inn with the confidence of a commander of men, and then stepped forward.
Behind her came an Alp, no taller than a boy. He was white-eyed and white-haired: one of the Bergewose out of the mountains. Clad in light leather, he carried a dagger and a bow, and on his head wore a casque of crudely hammered iron. Warily, he looked about the inn with his white eyes before stepping forward.
Last came another woman adventurer. Unlike the other, her features were more refined and marred by fewer scars. She was clad in a fine tunic of cloth, presently caked with the dust and dirt of the road. Save for a quarterstaff, she was unarmed, but Deka knew from the symbols on the hems of her tunic that she was a Battlemage associated with the college in Trollby.
The eyes of the degenerate patrons of the inn followed the three as they made their way to the counter. Deka, too, watched them with interest, for now ignoring the tome that had kept him ensorcelled but a moment ago. In his mind, he took count of the coins in his purse and made some quick calculations. And as the weary adventurers sat down at one of the inn’s dirty tables, he made up his mind.
Slowly Deka rose from his seat and walked over to the table where the adventurers now sat talking softly over tankards of cheap cider. The she-mage was first to see him and hushed her fellows. They fell silent and turned to look at Deka as he stepped up to their table.
“Do you mind if I join you for a while?” Deka said.
The mail-clad warrior shrugged and moved over to make room on the wooden bench. Deka sat down next to her, although the bench was too low for him, and he had to stretch his legs so as not to have to pull his knees up to his chest.
When he had settled, he appraised the adventurers one by one, as they did him. Finally he spoke:
“I require the aid of a band of brave adventurers for hire. And methinks you are them.”
The she-mage looked at him warily. “For what?” She said.
“I seek keys,” Deka said. “Keys to a gateway of great magical power. Their locations I know, but I am fain only to proceed with an armed escort, for they lie in the wild lands.”
“That sounds like a perilous journey,” the she-mage said.
Deka laid a thick, fur-covered hand on the table. “And thus,” he said, “the rewards will be great.”
He lifted his hand slightly. The silver coins underneath shone in the candlelight, their glow matched only by the spark in the adventurers’ eyes. They exchanged quick glances and then leaned in towards him.
“Speak,” the she-mage said.
Deka smiled and began his tale. . .