Paragon Ablaze – Chapter 3: Descent into Dheukorro
We descended for what felt like days. How long? I couldn’t say for sure. We traveled for what felt like an eternity through dirt and stone. Long treks through narrow caverns and seemingly endless chasms. Sleeping when we could. Eating when we had to. It was clear from the premade tunnels and the carved runes on the walls that others had made this…pilgrimage before.
At first, my mentor was slowed by the injury that I’d given to her leg. It was the only reason I could keep up. But after the second day, she was unbothered by her wound. As we moved farther and deeper, I began to see a change in the thane. She seemed emboldened. I could hardly see in the gloom beyond the torchlight, but my mentor…she seemed to know the way. Her steps were measured, her stride strong, as if she were being compelled or pulled by something.
Why did I follow her? I don’t know…perhaps I felt I owed her. Perhaps I was curious as to what was below. Part of me was calling me to go back up and that part got bigger with each day spent down there.
All I know is that when she asked me to follow her farther, I had to. And from that moment onwards, we traveled deeper. Always deeper.
The thane embraced the dark, cold space of the tunnel whist I clung to the torchlight and the walls. As the days past my mentor told me more about herself. That she had once been a gifted warrior who had been close to becoming her hold’s warlord, its Raegh. She told me that she was blessed by the element of fire, which had granted her exceptional endurance. She said that our ancestors had granted her the ability to fight without getting tired. Having seen that feat up-close, I could not deny her of this belief.
So strong was her endurance that she could spar with her entire regiment without breaking a sweat. Her strength did not go unnoticed either. The countless had earned her significant Aghm. At its height, she had the attention of her entire clan and was promoted to thane. She was well on her way to becoming the Raegh when she was approached by a group of old dweghom draped in robes — from the waist down of course.
For weeks, she had undergone a test of sorts by the Tempered of her clan. At the test’s conclusion, they gave her a choice: to give up battle and undergo study with them or return to the hold and continue fighting. She chose the latter. She said that nothing could stop her pursuit of Aghm. She said she knew that I could understand this.
In time, she said she regretted that decision. She told me that she should have heeded their advice because the stone began to take hold of her. It began as the army she commanded fought against a smaller hold. One small, tired heave at the end of a long day of fighting. Then a slight ache in her side as she killed a challenger on the battlefield. Another time, her body froze up and her side felt like rock. Soon enough, she came to realize that her body could not move like it once did. It was around the time of this realization that she had the chance to become Raegh.
See, her hold had no Raegh. No one had reached the Aghm necessary. Instead, the Mnemancers were in charge until the time came that one dweghom could claim the title of Raegh. Those old dweghom with the supposed keys to the entire memory bank of our ancestors. So full of themselves that they would just drop in on you and suddenly fill you with terrible memories of the days when your people were slaves, when they initiated a brutal rebellion, days filled with flame and the bloodshed of your dwarven kin. She said it irked her that the men who gave her nightmares were in charge of her hold. Then, those same Mneumancers had determined that she had reached the Aghm necessary to claim the title of Raegh, but they also told her that she did not share that distinction alone. Supposedly, she shared the equivalent amount of Aghm alongside another thane who had recently come back from a long battle. That thane had challenged her before the Mneumancers could make their decree and so my mentor was forced to defend herself once again.
The battle went long as the two clashed. It went too long. My mentor told me that she began to feel herself becoming frustrated with the rigor setting into her body. Alas, she failed to attain the title and ceded it to the one who claimed more Aghm for his defeat of her. That was right before she had come to my hold. Before my clansmen had lost their battle, my previous mentors had lost their lives, and I had met my first defeat.
Perhaps it was the warm nostalgia of her story or the weariness of travel, but sleep overtook me before I could thank her properly.
For weeks now, different members of my old clan would appear to me in my dreams only for them to be cut down and rise again to ridicule me. Their torment would differ depending on the dream, but they would end all the same: a whisper calling for Aghm.
I awoke to my mentor still by my side.
“You were dreaming, Ujvala.”
It had been the first in a long time that she had even used my name. It was strange to hear. Especially when she had refused to even tell me her own.
“I-I’m up now. I can go. I’m ready to continue the descent.” I began to rise but she grabbed my arm.
“Dream more.” She said. “Cling to dreams of clansmen now. Before they turn to nightmares of beasts crashing upon your battered shield.”
Could you understand my confusion? How could she know what I was dreaming about? How she could hope to know what I would dream next…was a different matter altogether.
She allowed me some more rest before we continued deeper. This time, I was the one who felt changed. There were times where I would hear the din of battle in the distance then I would turn a bend and it would be gone. The chitter of insects would elude my torchlight but sometimes I’d catch the glimpse of some malformed creature. I wondered what sort of beasts lurked in the darkness beneath the holds.
My thane-mentor ceased to respond to any of my questions. She had a singular focus, and she was quickly beginning to leave me behind. There were several times where I would lose track of her. Not that I was afraid of losing her in the linear tunnel, but I would be surprised when she would suddenly come back into the light of my torch. You see, she didn’t need a torch anymore. We traveled like that for days, our food and water rations almost empty. I didn’t even see my mentor eat anymore. She seemed different. As if she only needed this descent, this Dheukorro, as her sustenance.