Quiet pen-scratch by lamplight, that was the goblin’s comfort. She sat on the edge of a stone obelisk etched with Post-Exodus Sarmadi cuneiform, bare feet dangling against the stone words, feeling their ancient meaning rubbing against her skin. Her campsite was nearby, fire nearly embers around a pair of potatoes - a forgotten, quickly carbonized meal. She had only stepped away for a moment to enter the day’s findings in her journal, only a moment with her paper and quill. Xenon’s green nose wrinkled at the dense odor of burning starch. It was not entirely unpleasant, perhaps she could still eat when her hungry journal was satisfied.
The second chamber is a marvel! I am eager to press on further into the site, especially after my frustration with the Pass Wall [R1]. The early worshippers of Nasirah seemed to be even more zealous than their current-day descendents and their determination to make that damnable puzzle nigh unsolvable was obvious in every part of its construction. The concave face of each activation stone, the obscuring of each glyph with sand-pitch, the Sarmadi koh blades that erupt upon each incorrect sequence. Tsk! It’s as if they didn’t want me to enter. As I’m sure the nearby tribes of the Sarmad would agree, fortunate that I chose the lull in this region’s seasonal migration.
But the week was well-spent, even when I ran short of healing salve for the knife-cuts on my fingers. All the tedium and irritation swept away as soon as that damnable block of stone -clicked- and swung slowly into a recess, scattering hundreds of years worth of silicon and mica in its wake. I collected samples as per standard procedure, but so far it is of little note. Average AR score for this location and period, no sign of anything really shiny. But when I stepped into the second ch--
Xenon looked up, not quite sure why. The potatoes were not getting more burned, that was certain. Had she heard a noise? She looked up and down the two rows of obelisks, next to the fallen one she sat upon. She gave a long look at the oval shaped opening to the site. When all that came back to her flat-shaved ears was the vague hiss of night wind on sand, she went back to her quill.
--amber, I was astonished to discover an overwhelming source of AR. The chamber is divided into six alcoves of equal size, circular, 4 foot radius. They radiate like spokes around a low depression in the center, the largest part of the chamber. The central depression is a prayer-wheel, consistent with Sarmadi priests of the period. The cuneiform text is a very early form of their ‘Way of Fire’ canto, matching some similar rubbings I read in Pice. [dated 108 VA]
But back to the AR readings! I didn’t even need my dowse-stones, the tertiary signs were impossible to miss. Two of the six alcoves were glowing, easily discernable by the naked eye. One with a long bier, the other had a series of sealed urns. The other four were cold and dark, preliminary conclusion:natural arcane erosion. The--
Her head jerked up again. She hadn’t heard a sound, more like the space where a sound should be. Like the swing of a pendulum on a tall clock, the empty breath before the certain ‘tock’. Keeping one avocado-green finger on the page, Xenon diffidently closed the journal and tucked the quill behind her ear. She craned her neck systematically across the obelisks and her crude campsite. Nothing moved, still the same whisper of the wind across the sand. The site was in a low depression between larger dunes, so it was shielded from the worst of the wind. Her free hand moved slowly to the hilt of the dagger strapped to her calf. The Sarmadi sands were a place of peril - the law-tribes, fire serpents, skull wolves, the Shuddering Behemoth Balustrade. Even cautious travelers could find an unremarkable death.
Xenon was a very cautious traveler. The dagger slid free from it’s oiled sheath without a whisper. She tucked her journal away into the wide pocket stitched inside her square-cape. Ears and eyes still straining, gauging every shadow she reached to shutter the light on her lantern.
The lantern gave a loud crash as she knocked it spinning off the stone obelisk. Xenon hissed in frustration and did her best to roll off the back of the obelisk to take cover, but her feet lost purchase as she swiveled around, resulting in an ungainly flop into the sand. She pushed her dark hair out of her face with exasperation and pulled herself up to peer over the stone.
“Yes, I am just that graceful!” she yelled in challenge. “Vicious with a blade! And I..I..spilled ink all over myself.”
The deep red ceramic inkpot had gotten tangled in her cape in her hasty movement and now the ink was quickly staining the front of her white tunic. Xenon sighed. No desert beast or mustachioed fiend had leaped out of the dark to accost her, so while her disarray was provoked by only her own apprehension at least it had gone unobserved. The desert wind blew again, then slacked, and Xenon heard the empty sound again.
It was coming from the entrance to the site. The stone oval waited like a black eye, open and fixed.
The goblin picked up her lantern. It still burned, though it had earned a new dent near the top. It sounds almost like something moving, like a massive door swinging. All I’m hearing is the air moving, it was drowned out by the wind. The inkpot she sat back on top of the obelisk, she would collect it later. Xenon hurried to her tent and swung her tool-case over her shoulder. She noticed absently that the potatoes were nothing but cinders as she hurried toward the entrance to the site. Something moving! A hidden chamber? Something activated? Some goblin’s eyes glow when excited or angry, Xenon was not of that ilk but her eyes did turn from their customary black to a mute periwinkle.
The site was built by Sarmadi zealots not long after the schism from their homeland of Al-Hazaar. The cuneiform, the way they had beveled the edges of each stone, the facing of the entrance due south - all markers of their shared heritage with their fiend-loving brethren. In later centuries they would break from many of these lingering cultural vestiges as new practices were developed. This was why Xenon had travelled so far for this expedition, for a chance to learn about the early Sarmadi, while they still burned in the crucible of their exodus, letting the ‘impurities’ of the Empty Island burn away. It was a moment of change, of crisis, the turning of the stone when stories change. She had always been fascinated by these, the before and after and the tiny, tiny decisions that spun the world off into strange new directions. The Sarmadi had left their island far to the south and come to this unforgiving desert and began anew. And not soon after, they had built this place. It was made of stone and desert-glass, but for her it was made of answers and stories.
Xenon stepped through the dark portal, dented lantern held high. A new story was already whispering in the darkness, the strange sound of something swinging through the air. The first chamber revealed nothing out of the ordinary, but she surveyed it carefully all the same. Only the mute stones of a Sarmadi way-site met her eyes, already catalogued earlier in her journal. The movement-sound was growing slightly clearer, her ears pricked and guided her towards the puzzle-door and the second chamber.
She had to kneel to enter the second chamber, the tunnel became only a few feet high. Her lantern was no longer needed as the chamber was bathed in a brilliant yellow radiation. Xenon wanted to update her journal, this chamber had been completely without sources of illumination earlier - that’s how she’d spotted the faint spectral display of the Arcane Resonance the two unspoiled alcoves had given off. But now the light in the room was nearing the sun at midday. The source of the illumination was obvious and astonishing. In the center of the prayer-wheel a metal circle had appeared, bright silver and gleaming, as wide as the span of her arms. The stone walls of the chamber surrounding were unmarked, as were the floors - it was as if the circle had appeared out of thin air. It was hovering a foot off the floor, and slowly rotating. The gentle press of air against the tunnel opening had created the movement-sound that had brought her this far.
Xenon pulled free her journal, eyes wide, fingers jittery as they pulled the quill from behind her ear. She had left the inkwell behind, so without taking her eyes off the spinning circle she dabbed the quill into the still wet ink on her chest. Flipping open to a clean page in her journal, she began to sketch. The goblin had no idea where this object had appeared from, but she was determined to record as much information as possible in case it decided to disappear. Are those dwarven runes on the sides? Or early Gilean? Dammit, is it spinning faster? Hold still!
She shook her head and settled her eyes. She had unconsciously started craning her neck to follow the circle’s rotation. It’s clearly the source of this light, but I can’t make out an origin point. Magical illumination? A fair wind was picking up as the circle began spin faster and faster. In a few moments the circle was spinning so fast that it appeared a sphere to Xenon’s eyes. Her quill flew, but she nearly dropped it when the first word appeared on the sphere’s exterior.
It wasn’t really a word. It was a letter. Or rather, a number. It was the number zero. Xenon’s quill stuttered as she copied it into her journal.
The sphere (or rapidly spinning circle) seemed to be making small gaps in its surface, allowing the brighter light within to shine through. It looks like a zero, tall oval with slash, Common rendering. Don’t assume, could be some other symbol. She gasped reflexively when the sphere went blank for a moment, then blew the air out slowly as it began to flash a series of new characters. Cold brain, girl. Get it down exact and accurate. Don’t try to read or decipher, just copy!
Xenon risked a quick glance at her paper. She was unconsciously putting periods when the sphere went blank in between characters. I’ll clean that up later. It will serve for now.
YOU ARE NOT OF ZERO.
YOU ARE NOT AUTHORIZED.
Is it talking to me?!? She forced her eyes to stay focused and her quill to keep moving, pausing only to dredge up more ink from her tunic.
REPORT REQUIRED. NO APPROVED USER IS PRESENT. LIMITED REPORT WILL BE MADE.
TRAJECTORY ADJUSTMENT SUCCESSFUL. MISSION COMPLETED OUTSIDE DURATION PARAMETER. SHAME RETURNS. 10.10.7171
The yellow light in the room and the center of the sphere began to darken to orange, then red. The temperature in the room and the speed of the rotation did not change, but Xenon took an unconscious step back all the same.
YOU ARE NOT OF ZERO.
YOU ARE NOT AUTHORIZED.
YOU WILL BURN.
ZERO WILL AWAKEN.
ZERO WILL RISE AS SHAME FALLS.
NOTHING MORE REAL THAN THE CHAINS YOU FORGE.
Xenon blinked and realized that the sphere was no longer pausing, the strange message was complete. Also the spin of the strange device was growing more and more erratic, the sphere seeming to wobble and bob as if trying to escape. The goblin looked down at the last line she had written.
“Oh. Oh! That can’t be…”
With a sudden wrenching kinetic force, the steel circle tore itself apart. Xenon threw herself flat on the floor, bits of twisted metal whipping through the space she had just occupied. She covered her head, keeping her journal safe beneath her body.
The yellow light quickly faded from the room, only a dim, mottled green illumination coming from the bits of broken metal provided any visibility. That and her beleaguered lantern, sitting calmly at her feet, completely untouched by the arcane event. Xenon took a long look - the exploding sphere had wreaked havoc with her site. One of the AR-laden alcoves was completely demolished, the other had a single spear of bent metal buried into the long bier. From the shattered pots, the ones she had been planning to carefully transport and open with great time and care, brittle bones spilled out across the floor. What little resonance they still had, completely despoiled and overwritten by the massive discharge of the circle. Her entire excavation was ruined. Months of planning and no little expense completely exploded in a matter of moments. Xenon grinned feverishly and laughed with excitement as she pushed herself up. She had no idea what she had just witnessed. She had no idea what it meant. The magical prowess required to create such a device was on the level of master enchanters in Valeria or the sublime technology of the Precursors.
“What the hell was that?” the goblin said out loud, almost chortling with nervous energy. “What the hell was that?”
She didn’t know. It was an amazing feeling. The best feeling: the light that burned in her lantern, the light spilling onto the pages of her soul’s journal. Xenon picked up her actual lantern and held it close so she could read the sphere’s message. Or Node, I suppose. That’s what it called itself.
The first part was gibberish as far as she could discern. The text is in the Common style, which is curious. That dates the device after the Vardeman Accords. The Node seemed to have completed some sort of task and was attempting to report back. The task itself didn’t sound like anything she had ever researched in the history of Tel, Eridia, or any of the other continents. Ominous, though. Definitely ominous. What is ‘SHAME’? Where did it go? Where is it falling from?
Xenon reached over to a piece of the bent metal, it’s arcane light beginning to dim. It was lighter than she expected, a foot and a half section of it weighed less than her lantern. There seemed to be a pattern, but the green light faded leaving it a mystery for now. She tucked it under her arm and made a few more notes in her journal.
The site is ruined but I’m onto something much bigger and stranger. Plenty of physical specimens, but very little to start my investigation. Only a name. Or a number?
She drew the number large, with the careful slash from shoulder to hip.
“What the heck is Zero?” Xenon asked the gathering dark.