When word of an untouched, ancient tomb was discovered, many adventurers traveled to the ruins to seek fame and fortune. It came to be known as the Immortal Vault. Some will say the name refers to the reputation gained by those who returned - or failed to - pursuing untold riches and artifacts. Others will say the moniker was given to convey how long the underground complex had sat untouched, like a capsule to a time before Hrothic records began. Still others will say that the word was uttered by a survivor of the vault. Frothing with madness and covered in blood, the survivor swore that his crew had found unspeakable treasure, but something had found them in the darkness, too..
While at the Rude Horse today, Keveth and I overheard some mercenaries discussing a newly discovered ruin. I am sure their claims of rooms filled with gold so high one could drown are exaggerated, but Keveth perked right up and began to quiz them. He knew I would have to relent when the mercenaries spoke of new species of flora and fauna found in the cave. I did not see it, but I know him well enough to picture the glimmer in his eyes when that tidbit was offered up. Though I tried to remind him that I have not finished cataloguing the Twilight plants (which have only started to grow and make up the entire reason we came to North Harbevale in the first place) he knew just where to nudge to appeal to my mission and, as always, I caved without much resistance. Thus it is already arranged that tomorrow, we will be catching a carriage east to Stormhead and then looking for passage to Wus'Shuyeswis harbor.
We arrived in Stormhead just in time to find a room at this battered, harborside hostel in the waning light. It is getting darker sooner and sooner and it will not be long before the Longest Night is upon us. At this stage (about a third gone) one can not make out the shape of Selene against Angelica during the day. At night, however, Selene's presence is oppressive and immense, spanning much of the sky and blotting out the stars. It is no wonder that our elders speak about it with such awe. I was not yet born when the last Night came but my grandparents told me about wondrous, glowing plants that sprouted in Selene's shadow like landborne stars. About the great feast my village had enjoyed and the lifelong friends they had made in the darkness. I am grateful to be able to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event in my prime and that I might be the first to record a great many species that are rumored to appear only when the sun is fully eclipsed. Perhaps I shall call the collection The Compendium Botanica of Twilight Species with Phytographic Illustration, but Keveth says I should name it The Bashful Bud if I want a chance of anyone reading it.
I was not prepared for the hustle and bustle of the harbor when I awoke this morning. Ships were near to bursting with supplies and passengers all bound for the vault! I heard from my parents how poor the growing season has been the last few years and I am not alone in the fear that many will not see the dawn at the end of Longest Night, yet absolute frenzy has gripped the known, civilized world, and many hold hope that the vault's gifts will also reveal a way to survive. Reports abound of rooms filled with ancient coinage, of chests bursting with gems and jewelry, of luminous, subterranean fruits that taste of honey and summer wine. My mind is alight with possibility at what we will find there, and I will chronicle everything! Against all odds we were able to secure passage on The Pride of Hatia but I cannot help but feel a bit of shame as to the method. When it appeared that we would not be able to find a ship for weeks, Keveth had the "brilliant idea" of passing me off as an actuary for the duke, tasked with recording the treasures of the vault. While not entirely a lie, as I do intend to record everything I can, I am not a government clerk. I hope that we are not discovered during the days-long journey, as being stuck on a boat with angry folks can only end badly.
It is a relief to be on land and feel free to write in my journal once again. After setting to paper my last entry, I feared for its discovery and, so, hid my journal during the voyage. We arrived in Wus'Shuyeswis and I am surprised at how efficiently the city is run, even if I cannot tell one Waerd from another! Our ship was unloaded with uncanny speed and it seems that there are now daily caravans in and out of the city handling traffic to the vault. While Keveth was sleeping off a week of seasickness, I met a team of Hrothi chroniclers who were kind enough to let me look over their notes while we chatted. One of their number had come from the ruins to meet them and she carried fascinating sketches of extensive stairways and hallways chiseled into the rock. She was adamant the architecture was not Hrothic and surmised that the antechamber might have been built in the second age! I insisted we travel with the caravan, which promises to be a slow but safe way to travel, but find I am getting anxious to look upon these wonders with my own eyes. Just think! By this time next month, I will be up to my ears in discovery. I just hope that there is still enough light in the day to appreciate the outer ruins by the time we arrive.
As luck would have it, we stopped for the evening in a town I have been wanting to visit because it is home to The Last Oasis. Now that I see it, the name is quite fitting as the tavern sits on the shore of a lake and there is naught to see from horizon to horizon except the caravans of the previous and following day from our own. The jewel of the settlement, there is no end to the legends the patrons have about its storied history. The locals tell of secret passages in the cellar and I wonder if the workmenn who made the tavern are the same who built the vault to which we are heading. That would be ludicrous, I suppose, as the tavern - for all its longevity - could not have been built in the second age. Yet it is an interesting supposition that descendants of those builders might have thrived for many millennia and spread their construction knowledge to the ancestral Waerd. I will make some sketches of the stonework and compare it with what I see at the ruins. Keveth, ever helpful to my calling, told me it was his sacred duty to sample the tavern's wares so he could report back to me with a proper citation. He was true to his word. Even as I write this, he is still singing (if you can call it that) propped up on his mug on the table across from me. It will be a poor morning for him, I suspect, and I shall have to hear his vows to never do that again, again.
Dear Armélus, I was not singing into my drink. Also your journal is boring! -Keveth
We arrived at the site of the ruins today and were met with black stares. Throughout the sprawling camp I saw many improvised locks, freshly turned patches of soil where items were obviously buried, and guards at nearly every tent and pavilion. Now that Selene is a looming presence even in the light of day (being more than halfway to eclipse) moods are shifting for the worse, but the sentiment I am seeing here seems to stem from mistrust. It is a stark departure from the breezy cajoling at the Last Oasis. As well, these are not the dignified attendees of the Sedecim who are disciplined to look past tribe or creed and serve the greater good. No, these are mercenaries and gangs, tomb raiders and cutthroat merchants. Keveth recommended that we spend a few days on the periphery of the encampment and make some "friends" before we enter the vault. Even though we travel light and can bring all our supplies with us, he says it will be good to be seen as inoffensive. I got his subtler meaning too: to have a few less people keen to "quell the competition". I trust his judgement in this as he has saved my hide more than a few times.
A fight broke out near the tomb's entrance today and three were killed in the fracas. We learned that this has been occurring every few days, though not usually lethal. We met a To'reshian merchant named Tzîsot Quarrerlins who has been here for nearly two months and was very helpful in giving us the lay of the land, so to speak. The parts that have been explored so far, he says, are broken into floors and ells that wind down and out in uncertain pattern. Each area seemed meant for a different purpose and to be self-sustaining, which implies that the vault was actually lived in at one time! The areas that have been explored have been nicknamed the Armory, the Monument, the Tomb, and the Theater due to what was initially found there. In fact, an entire vernacular has sprung up around this affair and folk "raid" the vault and "stash" their "loot". We were told that, in the first couple weeks, raiders would proudly announce their findings but, after a few suspicious deaths, people have taken to deception and often claim to have found nothing. However, Tzîsot said that those who exit the vault are rarely able to keep their treasures a secret, as many groups have hawk-eyed informants watching at all times of the day or night.
Word around camp is that a king arrived the other day, but has been incognito. It was some kingdom I had not heard of but Keveth nodded knowingly at the mention. I wonder what he is doing here, but I wonder more at the things I have now seen straight from the vault! This evening, Keveth's reputation saw he and I invited to sup with Fahwne and Fawkq Nearelawß, the famed sister and brother adventuring duo. Well, to be honest, after meeting them, it seems more that she chaperones Fawkq's capricious gallivanting. She did not speak much, and I sense a deep wound in her that has nothing to do with the scar on her face. I would love to speak to her more and, perhaps, learn a thing or two from so renowned an alchemist! They were gracious hosts and I got to try one of the sparkling starberries that they excavated from the Tomb. It was sweet and airy, practically melting in my mouth! They are preparing to head back in tomorrow and invited us to join them. I think Keveth was going to pass, but he stared at me for a few long minutes and then agreed. As is often the case, he did not share with me his line of thinking.
We are camping at the Monument tonight, a kind of obelisk or pillar that juts up from the center of a square room with sloped sides. The monument itself appears to be obsidian and is impossibly smooth for such a brittle material. Almost as though it were formed in a cast. Already the unlit underground complex has disoriented my sense of direction and time of day. The Nearelawß crew has a Hrothi scout named Erdùs, thank the Virtues, so we have made good time and avoided most of the traps that have clearly spelled the demise of other explorers. I heard whimpering coming from a pit but the scout said our ropes would not reach them so we passed without stopping. How horrible to die alone in the darkness! They are shutting off the lanterns now I must cut this short.
We made it to the Tomb and it is a sight to behold! The light emitted by the plants that grow throughout this sector set a cheerful mood and many have been found to be edible. Because of the bounty, we have no need to use up rations and can, therefore, go deeper without fear of our food stores running out. It appears that the plants were cultivated underground in chambers off the main hall and I have set to sketching as many as I can in their natural state before we move on. I have brought several containers to store any clippings I take but, as usual, I would prefer to leave them where they are. This is their natural environment and it seems a cruel thing to pluck them from their home and force them to survive elsewhere. We have come across several other parties getting here and it has frequently been tense. Luckily, our party is armed and we have been able to stave off the predations of others merely by appearance. In the more remote and darker places, I fear that we will not be able to avoid a fight. Keveth and I are doing our own watch rotation separate from the Nearelawß crew. He says they seem nice but greed can change a person and he does not want us to be so naive.
It is possible that it is still Neera, but I have lost all sense of time without the rising and setting of Angelica. I will continue my nightly journal entries based instead on when we camp "for the night". Fawkq has led us to the place where they had made it previously, a narrow stairwell past the Tomb that has yet to be explored. The secret door that hid the landing from view made such a noise when it was slid open that it could wake the dead. Keveth was worried, of course, that the sound would alert other vault raiders and we would have to fight off the competition. It seems this hidden panel was missed by all the previous explorers. It was only found by accident on their last venture because they had spilled a cup of water and Fahwne had noticed the dripping sound as the water ran under the wall and down the stairs. It is sharply spiraled down but there is a warm breeze so it may be open to the air somewhere beyond, but I can not imagine to where. With all the twists and turns, I do not consider myself a reliable source of our depth or heading, so perhaps we are closer to the surface than I think. We will be heading down the staircase after we rest. At last, my chance to be the first to gaze upon things that no mann has seen for thousands of years!
The warm breeze's origin has been discovered: an exposed lava flow in a small crack at the edge of the large chamber we came to at the bottom of the stairs. We are alone down here, having taken care to remove any sign of our previous camp and the hidden door's mechanism. The chamber has many rooms and corridors leading from it which are all sealed. We have managed to break through into one so far to reveal a plain, stone sarcophagus. The room is otherwise empty save for the ghost ivy, as I have chosen to call it, that winds through this entire section of the ruin. To call it a ruin seems a stretch as the area beyond the hidden stairs is pristine and clear of debris. The chiseled walls are smooth and straight, embellished with reliefs that seem to depict the worship and deeds of ancient beings. Perhaps kings and queens of yore. Perhaps a primitive pantheon of gods. The themes most closely resemble To'reshian carvings but there is not enough light to study them well enough.
We broke through one of the corridors and came upon another large chamber. It is round with an altar at its center and thrones carved into the walls; each one unique and inlaid with jewels! Despite my enthusiasm to go and wonder at the treasure, Keveth wisely held me back. He acted aloof and his eyes bid me do the same while the Fawkq's team set to work wresting gems free and stashing them in hidden pockets, false-bottom boxes, and even inside pieces of bread or cheese. A fight erupted between Erdùs and Geva after he accused her of swiping some of his stones and she took offense. We will need to head back to the surface to get Erdùs to a proper healer but I did my best to bandage his cuts. I am concerned for the wound under his armpit for Geva's short dagger may have punctured his lung. He can't seem to catch his breath and he is coughing up blood, but he says he is fine. Fahwne has agreed to go with Keveth and I to take Erdùs to the surface, but Fawkq and the others insisted on staying. I am anxious to return and delve deeper, but possibly more so to be subject to the scrutiny when exiting.
Erdùs is dead and we are lost. We have found a small alcove with some ghost ivy; enough for me to write by at last. Every time I think we are near the surface, that daylight will be around the next bend, my hopes are dashed by another staircase or another corridor. Keveth has taken to scouting ahead and then returning for Fahwne and I once he thinks he has found all the traps. It is slow-going and we have nearly run out of lamp oil. I am exhausted and wonder if the darkness - the endless, abyssal darkness - is turning me mad. I have heard whispered voices. I have seen shadowed figures against the blackness. I have felt cold breath on my neck. Or perhaps I am simply delirious. I long to see the sky and feel the sun on my face. If my estimation is right, there is still time to make it out before the sun is hidden entirely from view and Longest Night truly begins. What I would give to bask in Angelica's light...
We are saved! We made it! My timekeeping was off by a full day, but we are once again above the surface. I laid in the waxing sunlight until dusk just happy to be alive. Fawkq and the others got back before us and arranged a search party. Apparently we were one wrong turn for days. They even found Erdùs's body and are sending a letter back to his wife on tomorrow's caravan, along with his effects and a few loaves of bread and cheese. Already Keveth and the Nearelawß's are planning the next descent and were thoughtful enough to reserve some of their take for us. Perhaps they are trustworthy. I spoke to Tzîsot again, who mentioned that his Janoan crews have be bringing back stories of a creature in the depths but no one has laid eyes on it. He believes they are just a new deception, just to scare off the fainthearted and craven and keep more of the spoils to proper bold and courageous explorers. I did not have the courage to tell him my own accounts. I was obviously stir crazy at being underground for so long. Still, as I reflect on my sketches, the trip has been a worthy one and I still look forward to the new discoveries that await.
(section torn out)
It is the Last Day. To call it a day is verging on absurd as the sliver of light visible at midday was little more than a shimmer; as though the sun shone prismatic through beads of dew on Selene's hem. No one entered the vault today but, instead, were struck silent and still by the paralyzing understanding of what the next year will hold. Undulating shadows and crescent sunbeams cast an undulant shroud over the landscape. My mood is odd: awe and dread in equal portions. In all the excitement over the vault and its wonders, we may have been foolhardy in abandoning preparations for the Night. Yet there is food and shelter in the vault that sustains its raiders and, perhaps, will ease the burden on all our homes. Likewise, we are not there with our loved ones to weather the coming chill. Already frost sparkles on the leaves, weighs down our tents, and makes our breath visible. Tzîsot says it will soon snow. The moment when Angelica, at last, drifted silently into obscurity was bittersweet, for I saw Angelica's Tear for just a moment, shining in the corona as though she, herself, were heartbroken to leave us. Now, all is dark and I fear the shadow that has been cast is not merely physical, but darkens our souls as well.
I have begun to see that shadowed figure again and hear the whispered voices even outside, though Keveth has said that I am probably just still exhausted from our last venture into the vault. I cannot deny the logic for I find that whenever my mind begins to think back to what happened on our second descent, to that room, my heart starts pounding and I must distract myself or I feel I will... Well, I do not wish to think on it. It is too soon. Fahwne has been a welcome distraction and she has proved to be a patient instructor once I got past her chilly demeanor. We have even experimented with some of the newly discovered plants and, while the mulled starberry concoction did not provide any effects like the nightsight buds did, it proved to be a comforting toddy for these frosty days.