A deep breath escaped Aedon as he reached the top of the stairs. He swore he’d been climbing for weeks, though he was sure it had been only a matter of hours—or it could have been days. It was hard to tell when it felt like the world around him changed at a moment’s notice.
He walked along a long and jagged pathway of misshaped stones and broken stairs that appeared to go on forever. As he looked behind him, the path seemed to twist and shift. Or did it? He was unsure of anything now. The area had been constructed to induce delirium, and under ordinary circumstances, he would have loved to learn about it. However, this place did not allow for ordinary circumstances, did it?
He had attempted to count the stairs when they had begun, but it was a pointless effort, as the steps seemed to tear away or become too large while he had climbed. One could not distinguish if it had been a step or a wall. He gripped the stone surfaces on either side of him. It was cold and coarse under his palms, which helped ground him in this strange, tight place—one that was also awe-inspiringly massive. He never liked small places. It caused bile to rise in his throat, and he would break into an icy sweat. That he thought he could feel the walls trying to swallow him did not help, as they seemed to twist and convulse below his palms.
But this was not the time to let claustrophobia get to him. No, he had to work his mind out of this, focus on what was at stake, and what waited for him at the top of the stairs. That was the destination that his years of wandering had sought. It was his, he would have it! Gods, he could go home soon.
The hallway shook once more; he reached out and his hands found purchase on the frame of a small dark doorway, his fingers gripping till his knuckles turned white and his nails cracked. When had he reached a doorway? Had he not just been standing in the stairwell trying to catch his breath? He tried not to think about it—besides, this place did not allow for rational thought. He had to do it and so he dragged himself through the corridor. Aedon saw nothing but darkness and a stone altar; or rather, he could not see it, but he could feel it. He could also feel something else near.
It had started out simple enough, the way those adventures he had read often began. Aedon paid people he’d stumbled upon in the tavern—a rough-looking sort; among them, a dainty archer and a wandering cleric, and a warrior that looked as though he was bred solely to crush things —to help him collect an artifact that was ancient, as far as he knew. Aside from the cleric’s general warning, none of them seemed to mind the idea. He was just another curious scholar; they were frequent after the war. He had not known how difficult or long the trip would be, as he had never been a man for travels, content to only do so when he heard the tale of another book he wished to add to his collection. Few places had books outside the towers, so it always excited him when he knew an item waited.
On one of his trips, to collect a tome from one of the few remaining collectors, an elderly man had informed him about a staff. Aedon had considered him a madman, until the man had given him a name; Nimrah. He knew tower clerics were told to avoid anything with that name, but such a thing could make any man twice as powerful. Well, it was too exceptional for a curious mage to avoid.
However, a slight issue had arisen during his travels: Aedon had grown fond of his traveling companions. The cleric and he had enough in common, though two decades separated them. The warrior was an amusing sort, though Aedon had the distinct impression that the man was not enamored of him. Perhaps it had to do with the archer? The dainty elf, Diem, and Aedon had quickly become close, as outcasts are wont to do. They had even shared a bedroll or an inn room when they were lucky enough to stop in a town. Aedon was almost sure that was why Marcus disliked him—not that much had happened after the first night. However, they had become accustomed to each other, and it was nice to spend time with someone who did not question why he was on his journey. In the end, it was nice to have a friend after years of seclusion and mockery from his peers.
Aedon had never been a likable child. He had been too pale, too tall, and too lanky to not be the butt of every mean child’s joke, and even some adults who would pat him on the head and tell him it would pass could be heard making comments about him. It had made him bitter, and as time passed, he lashed out at those around him, making the other children hate him even as he grew into a reasonable-looking man. That was all in the past now. He had friends; he would be free of these burdens soon, his travels would end.
Aedon suddenly halted at the steps of the altar. On top of it sat the staff. It was an unimaginative work, just sitting there, wood, oak maybe? No embellishments, few fine details other than a spiral of strange symbols, perhaps letters, that started at the top and circled down around the staff to its base, which has been capped to avoid wear as it was long enough to use as a walking stick. Just a wooden staff? That was what he traveled so far for? While it was true that nothing had said this most grand item was ornate, he had expected something more than a stick. No, that was not it. He could feel something emanating from it, from around it. He reached out with his right hand and placed it on the staff, slowly tightening his fingers around it.
The world went dark as he closed his fist around it.
Aedon slowly opened his eyes. His vision was cloudy with sleep. He blinked several times before squeezing his eyes as tightly as he could, waiting to see sparks light up behind his eyelids. Then he opened them as wide as his skin would allow.
No, it was not his eyes or his other senses; they all worked as they should have. He seemed to hover in a black inky obscurity. Could it be called darkness, blackness, or even emptiness? He was clad in his robes. He could feel the worn silk against his person. However, it seemed he had lost his shoes, but he had the staff in his hand. That was what really mattered in all this, that he had kept the staff; his staff. He repeated it in his mind until it became a mantra, filling his skull with a suddenly overwhelming peace, though one that was far from natural.
He tightened his fist on the staff so tightly, his palm ached. This was what he had searched for and it was finally in his grasp. He closed his eyes once more. He could rest now, it would be nice to rest. The last words, Aedon thought, sounded much like someone was whispering to him, as they had not formed in his own mind. But he was far too tired to consider this.
Aedon’s three companions scrambled up the last steps. Marcus, large and muscular, pushed his enormous form through the narrow doorway at the front of their trio, as always. He could often intimidate a man enough to end a fight before it even started. He had traveled far and wide to figure out how the world worked. He often displayed an amazing sense of humor, and was prone to cracking wise at his companions. Yet in that moment, they saw none of that laughter on his squared face, as every inch of his body was tense with anger, being ready to strike.
Behind him ran Diem, her elvish speed coming in handy, though she was of no use in close quarters with her bow, and had never been the strongest of her peers. She had, however, refused to be kept back, much to Marcus’s continuing anger. Aedon was her lover, yet he had rushed ahead of them with no word or comment. How he had made it up the hundreds of steps so quickly, she could not comprehend. So she charged ahead against Leighton’s suggestions. In his fifties, he was the oldest of the group, and while he was technically the same age as Diem, her naturally longer life did not leave her with the aching limbs that slowed him.
Leighton was breathing hard as he caught up to the elf and the angered warrior. His robes, normally an off-white shade, were now dingy from the dust and dirt of the climb. Oh yes, he was getting far too old to be doing this, racing about so suddenly up so many steps at such a breakneck pace; he had been lucky he had kept up at all. Diem could tell her friend was exhausted even deep in her concern for Aedon.
“You two stand back!” The cleric demanded, as he slammed his staff on the ground to gain the attention of his companions. It was an action he did regularly to keep the youths in line, but there was no sound. How bizarre, his voice had carried through. He knew this as he saw his colleagues come to a reluctant halt.
Why had Aedon not remained with them? Diem could not understand. He should have remained for her, at least. She was his, and he was hers. Or had he been using them, as Marcus had thought? Were her friend’s suspicions about her lover true? Was she simply lost in a childlike daydream? It was obvious now. She and Aedon had never been as close as she had believed.
“Aedon! Put the staff down!” But he seemed to hear nothing. Her knees grew weak and finally gave in. Between rushing up the tower steps and the sudden emotional realizations, the young elf could not deal with seeing her companion ignore her pleas. Sobs fell from her, but oddly enough, no sound slipped from her. It was as if the air had decided her pleas should not be heard. She was quickly lifted to her feet by what she assumed was Marcus, as she knew Leighton would not have been able to move her so easily.
The three watched in ever-growing confusion and dismay as Aedon slowly lifted off the ground, swaying above them atop the crude stone altar, as though a breeze blew against his feet, despite there being no wind—a strange occurrence for such a high location; they were outside, were they not?
Diem looked up. It was so dark, though they must have been outside; she did not remember entering anything. And she knew from when they arrived at the tower, that the top of the magnificent construction had been blown away years ago, leaving only winding steps and half remaining walls.
Leighton had mentioned in one of his stories the Goddess Nimrah going mad. Perhaps they should have heeded the tales. The odd scenery, or rather the fact she was only now noticing it, was frightening to her. She had never been at home in unnatural places, and this place was feeling more and more unnatural the longer they stayed.
“Look!” she heard Marcus say, and she heard the shuffling of Leighton’s feet and staff as he moved forward to examine what was happening. Aedon’s body was enveloped in darkness and then seemed to vanish completely from their sight. There was an uncomfortable feeling lingering in the air now, growing worse by the second, as if the surrounding area had decided they were no longer welcome. It pressed on her as if the thickening air could push her out of the tower itself.
“We need to go,” Leighton said in a tone that dared them to question his suggestion this time. Neither did, nor was Diem allowed on her own feet long enough to do otherwise.
Aedon did not know how long he had been hovering. It had been a slow descent—almost painfully so—that he had barely registered. He felt almost nothing, he realized, except for the rough silk of his old robes. Though, as his feet finally rested on the ground, he was almost relieved to feel something that helped him focus on himself. Solid ground. How long had it been? There seemed to be no wind, no sound. He looked up; it was dark still. Inky blackness. Was this to be his life now?
His brow furrowed as he turned his attention towards the stairs. He thought someone had called his name, but the stairs were no longer there. He was sure they had been. That was how he’d gotten here—or had he always been here? The only thing in the room with him was the altar. It was no longer empty though, and much more ornate than he had recalled. No, it must have been in his head, no one was there. His mind was so cloudy, it was likely just his imagination. Before, however, there was no throne at the top of the suddenly well formed and carpeted stairs.
His eyes moved up the stairs back to the throne. Was he going mad? Aedon was sure of it now. Yes, someone was seated on it. Something? It was hard to tell as it did not move in any way he would have expected a physical thing to move, but it did slowly writhe in place.
The mage mounted the few steps to the altar, but the steps seemed to grow, much as they had when he had ascended the tower earlier. As he reached the last step, he looked back, and they seemed perfectly normal. He had risen perhaps a whole of three feet? He rested his hands on the last step to catch his breath. The writhing thing finally moved towards him. It flew with a speed that Aedon could not comprehend—a speed matching that of a well-shot arrow—and it overtook him before he could even consider defending his worn and exhausted body.
“You are mine,” it hissed in his ear, and the world once more went black.