Charlotte can see a light ahead. The tunnel twists and turns, the light growing lighter with each turn.
She emerges at the top of a vast cavern, lit by a golden-hued light whose source she can’t discern. The cavern is filled with people, floating unsupported in the air, frozen in moments of action. They are wearing clothes of all eras and purposes, from 20th century soldiers’ uniforms to ancient farmers’ smocks. Unlike the severe tactical garb of the police and Rook forces on the surface, the clothing here is richly detailed, vividly colored, and marked by celestial symbolism. Charlotte has seen similar garb on her way to the site, and infers that these are more examples of Albanian clothing.
She recognizes, immediately and instinctively, that this scene isn’t real or physical. This is a spiritual projection, available to her due to her unique nature. But what is it?
Taking a chance, she steps off the path’s end, into the air of the cavern. As expected, she hangs as motionless as anyone else here. She wills herself to descend, and finds herself doing so. She takes the time to study the individual figures around her.
While there are plenty of civilians, Charlotte notes that they’re always paired with soldiers. The tableau includes plenty of soldiers fighting each other as well. She recognizes Roman uniforms and weapons, but many of the others are a mystery to her. Perhaps a historian could shed light on the specifics.
Once in awhile, she can see the faintest hint of motion. A soldier, turning their head centimeters per minute in recognition of her presence. A shield moving to block an oncoming spear. They are ghosts, not merely images, but they’re trapped in this spiritual spiderweb. Or they’ve been swallowed, by something called the Illyrian Maw.
Charlotte touches down at the bottom of the cavern, tiptoes first, heels a moment later. The one constant she saw was that more recent conflicts were “up top”. Descending into the cavern was like traveling back through the history of war. Here, for example, people dressed like priests were in the midst of being stabbed through the gut by an angry mob of men. Some are already on the ground, while others are kneeling, or propping themselves up with their hands.
As Charlotte approaches, one of the priests turns his bearded head - significantly faster than the others. He seems fully aware, unlike everyone else here. Despite the blood on his robe, and the drops of it staining his lips, he smiles weakly as he looks up. “Magus. I recognize you.”
“We’ve never met,” Charlotte says.
“Not you personally. Your role. I am also a servant of something greater.” The priest coughs weakly. “Hah. We can never be simply ourselves, can we.”
“I suppose not.” Charlotte smiles uncertainly, and kneels down next to the man. “Can you tell me what’s going on here?”
The man looks down at himself, still being impaled by a sword. “Ah. Well, I don’t think you mean this. This is merely the end of my mortal life. Macedonian barbary. I think you mean this.” His eyes flicker upward, indicating the cavern and its tableau.
“Just so, yes.”
The priest coughs again. Drops of blood stain his beard. “My doing. An old power is chained here, hungry. I opened, I suppose, a funnel to feed it. Violence, and the violent - and the victims, unfortunately.”
The priest sighs. “The foolishness of patriotism. The pride of those who feel wise with age. You have seen the lands above? Beautiful. So, so beautiful. The art and architecture we’ve made to honor it. The thriving life we’ve brought into it. This land is a paradise, and its people are a blessing. I wanted…” He coughs again. “I wanted to protect my world. Safeguard it against attack. Give the violent something to fear.”
Charlotte nods. “I’ve known people who took awful steps to protect the country they loved. But it didn’t stop, did it.”
The priest manages half a grin through bloodied lips. “Well I did say our land was a paradise, didn’t I. The desire to hold paradise in your hand, live there yourself, well… it outweighed my most frightening protections. As you can see, people kept coming. Wars kept happening.” He looks upward again. “As you can see, when they came here, they were taken. I did not get the eternal peace I wished for. But Apollonia is safe.”
“I’m from another country. I don’t know enough of your history to judge your success. I will say that there are ruins here, but I also saw a complete and intact monastery. And there are people on the surface who are very keen on keeping those things intact.”
“I see.” The priest’s smile of satisfaction is faint, but it is there. “Well. That is something.”
While the ghost has been talking, Charlotte has been studying the wound in the world. It did originate on the surface, but was somehow metaphysically dragged beneath the surface by the Maw. She can sense its presence, mystically see its definition, permeating the Maw. She can’t get to it without interacting with this force. And she doesn’t have the Concordance Trio or Excalibur on hand to muster the energy for closing. On the other hand…
She returns her attention to the Illyrian priest. “There is a wound in the world, left here by someone else who wanted to protect what they loved. Nevertheless it is a danger. I need to close it. Your Maw has partially consumed it. But the Maw also has enough power to close it. It will mean the end of your defense.”
The priest coughs blood convulsively, and frowns. “I cannot… I cannot permit that. What will protect Apollonia? The temple - the land - don’t they deserve to be kept safe?”
“They do.” Charlotte feels menace. She feels the power of the Maw marshalling around her, perhaps slowly sensing the threat to its existence. She needs to work faster. “As you said, wars kept happening. But I met people on the surface. A hero called the Fighting Falcon. And armed keepers of the peace, from a group that was distrusted but is still doing their duty to your beautiful country. They distrust each other, but they’re cooperating. That’s why I’m able to be here. And they’re both here to stop an outside attacker from hurting your temple. They’re prepared to fight. But they’re trying to use the authority of the law first. Do you understand? They have a peaceful way to protect Apollonia. Please. Trust them, and the other people of Albania.”
The priest casts his eyes upwards, as though looking past the cavern. Perhaps he can, Charlotte muses, but does not know. “These outsiders you’re fighting… I don’t suppose they’re Macedonians?” he asks with a quirky smile and a glance at the man still stabbing him through the gut.
“I don’t believe so,” confesses Charlotte.
“Shame. Still… The temple has defenders, you say? Even after all this time?”
Charlotte nods. “I don’t think it was the Maw that made it so, sir. I think the love you had for your country has been passed down over the generations. I think your dedication must have inspired others, and their offspring.”
The priest nods thoughtfully at that. “I… I had a daughter. When she fell down these caves once, I went to get her. I showed her the hidden temple here, told her stories, taught her everything. Her curiosity was a hunger, I thought I’d better feed it before she came here to dine again and hurt herself. Filled her head with all the tales I had! And she had the gall to marry a miller. Hah!” He wheezes a bit, damps down his energy. “Very well, Magus. I will use the Maw’s name, free its shackles, and in that moment you will have your power.”
“Thank you, sir.” Charlotte feels a great relief. There might be other ways to proceed, but this is the best she can imagine.
The priest raises his voice and shouts a name. Charlotte can feel the Maw pulsating, wriggling, stretching, turning. It’s free. It’s vulnerable. She raises her staff–