Treacherous darkness, a fell creature stalking the shadows. Then at last, light.
The quiet shushing of the waves was the only noise other than my footsteps as I walked along the darkened marble slabs that ran along the shore. I couldn't see my bloody footprints trailing behind me, but I knew it would be able to smell them. Hopefully it was territory-bound and wouldn't leave the cavern. I didn't know. I'd never encountered a manticore before.
Just another foul creature spawned of the darkness that spread across the land. No-one knew why the Awakening happened, a wave of power slamming across the world, bringing forth the latent magic that lay dormant in all things. My grandmother said it was the Gods' last hope for humanity, a last chance for peace. Prosperity. Happiness.
As far as I was concerned, their last hope had failed.
The stone walkway was unexpected, this deep in the Arvina dungeon. The sea too, come to think of it. I should be deep underground by now. Perhaps it was an underground lake?
A roar echoed behind me. Close, but was it far enough? I could only hope.
Staggering on, I started to come across signs of other living things. Or, to be more accurate, once living things. Piles of bones littered the ground, some of them scorched or marred with deep gouges from teeth and claws. A great skeleton lay across the path, ribs like the pillars of a cathedral, its spine vaulted high above my head. Horns, black threaded through with glowing blue veins, rose out of the darkness before me. A great skull, empty eyes filled with shadows, teeth like knives. I edged past it cautiously.
The water lapped against the stone, reflecting the glittering stars above. I wondered about those for a while, stars far from the open sky, but put them down to overflow magic from the artefact. The Waken.
No-one knew where the Waken came from, or who had made it. If it was naturally formed, it was supernatural. Everybody knew it was what had caused the Awakening, flooding the land with power, but no-one knew why. The tunnels leading to its resting place, which had been safe when the expedition went down and odd when they came back up, promptly metamorphosed into a twisting, changing labyrinth, filled with shadows, danger and... creatures.
Far off, the sound of claws slithering on stone sounded behind me. It echoed off the water, bounced back from unseen rocky walls until it was coming from all around me. Not territory-bound, then. Oh.
Ahead of me, the stars appeared to have pooled on the ground. As I shuffled closer, lightheaded from blood loss, my side burning where life leaked from me in a crimson stream, the stars lifted back into the air with a faint scratching of tiny wings. Bugs, tiny glowing insects which shed a warm golden light from their entire bodies. They whirred up into the air to join their brethren, a stream of light into the heavens.
And left behind a corpse.
It was pretty old; probably human, although with what else roamed the earth these days that was more of a guess than I liked. The skin was grey and glossy, covered with some kind of mucus, and I avoided its terrified, staring eyes. There was no smell of rotting meat, although glistening guts peeked through skin and clothes.
I glanced back at the path; my footsteps, far back, were beginning to glow with a gentle gold light.
I had to keep moving.
Water splashing rhythmically to one side, the scrape of claws behind me, and at last a glow ahead of me. The black stone of the waterside path began to be broken with thin glowing lines, a bright pale blue, the colour of magic. At first barely as thick as sewing thread, they grew and thickened as I moved forwards, becoming more numerous as I approached the Waken. I was struck by the sudden notion of tree roots, spreading out into the soil, into the world in a fine, unseen web, sucking life and goodness from everything they touched. All to fuel a selfish desire for growth.
I gritted my teeth, and unhooked the hammer from my belt. I didn't dare look back now, in case the shadows behind me were not just shadows.
The Waken had been described to me as a gem, set in gold and silver filigree. It glowed with an ethereal light, which pulsed brighter when approached by people with magic hidden in them. It mimicked the heartbeat, the pounding pulse in their ears, and sent shards of light dancing over the water. As I approached, the light remained steady, a dim blue aura reflecting off the water, absorbed by the stones of the floor.
It floated a few feet off the ground, barely as large as my clenched fist. Threads of light wound their way from it, feeding into a glowing pool of pure magic energy directly below it. All the magic in the world came from this single glowing bit of rock.
Heavy in my hand, the sledgehammer was plain, honest steel, no magic at all. Fitting, for me.
I felt the hot and heavy breath on the back of my neck as I swung the hammer. Crystal and light shattered into a million gleaming shards as a sharp pain stabbed into my spine, as though the pieces were driving into my very bones, into my soul.
I fell heavily and lay in the sudden darkness, struggling to breath. I could hear the beast moving in the shadows; a stumble, a thud as it fell. For a moment, I could see my goal, see everything. The glimmering, gleaming cities crumbling to dust, machines failing as their magic ran out. People crying, screaming, running. Wizards in their high towers watching as their world collapsed, as their power drained away. For a moment, I saw the stars themselves reach out for me from the heavens.
This story was originally published in Issue III of the Silver Stork Magazine in 2019.