Collection: Ages of Youth
Chronicled by: Valhel
Thrashing, Pandora kicked down and wildly clawed her way to the surface of the pool. Breaching the water she tore away her helm with a violent gasp for air. For the next few moments Pandora only cared to regain her breath, then, though still shaken, found her way to the edge of the waters. Savoring the firm ground beneath her, Pandora lay for several minutes upon the stone floor. She could hear the whirl and hum of machinery about her, and the darkness of the stair was now a cavern lit by strange lanterns.
Rolling onto her elbows Pandora looked to see where the lantern lead, revealing a seemingly infinite hall carved into the rock. Every twenty feet there was a lamp and an archway that split a new path into the earth. Pandora knew the Watchers held a secret vault beneath the chapel, but she had only expected a small chamber with a handful of relics, but this was a labyrinth.
Picking herself up and collecting her helmet, Pandora cautiously proceeded down the hallway. The lamplight cast a fiery glow upon the white stone walls of the cave, though Pandora was sure it was anything but fire burning within these weird lanterns. The hallway appeared to be simultaneously natural and manmade in an odd marriage of artistic masonry and geological formation. Two could walk side by side down the passage with the ceiling of the cave just eight feet above the floor. Some of the arches that lead away from the hall were sealed with wooden doors bound with elaborate iron castings, others were left open revealing shadowy retreats from the vaporous fires of the lamps.
Between two of these dark passages was a small alcove lined with decaying shelves. Upon the shelving lay more books, similar to the one found in the chapel, scattered in an untidy fashion as if someone had been frantically flipping through the pages. Pandora examined the catalogues, discovering more entries of strange artifacts and odd lore.
One of the books near the top of the mess was opened to pages that recorded a fragmented history of the Mountain and the lands surrounding the chapel. The accounts jumped about, shifting between ancient and modern histories as if they occurred concurrently or affected one another. On she read, scrawls of text recalling bygone kings and mysterious devices unearthed by somewhat predictable tectonic activity, and then the tale wove again through history, but this time to the future.
There was a record of the final battle of Roanoak, an account of Petra and the Resistance, and last Halleaux. Disquieted by this discovery, Pandora paused to ponder the possible implications of the weird history. Someone else was at play here, spying on the timeways. Suddenly a voice silenced the stillness of the hallway.
"Most of our guests use the front door.' spoke a man stepping out from the shadow of an archway, 'But you are not a guest now, are you?"
The man wore a black cloak that reached down to his boots. On his head was a weathered tricorn, and over his eyes rested a blindfolded and tarnished gold mask.
Pandora stepped back and raised her hands away from the library, "I am not here to cause you anymore trouble, Desmond.' said Pandora, 'So...there is a front door?"
"Why, Pandora? Already looking for a way out?' scoffed the Watcher, 'You've only just got here."
Desmond drew a concealed boltshot from his cloak to stay Pandora's retreat.
"Desmond, I can explain everything. The plague, the shadows in the woods, everything. But there is something else going on, something is wrong."
Desmond studied Pandora's face for a few moments, reading the sincere concern in her eyes.
"Indeed!' said Desmond as he swept a journal up off the shelves and placed his weapon and the book into Pandora's hand, 'Something is very wrong."
Pandora began to open the book to read before Desmond took a lantern down off the wall, "No, no, read it later.' he motioned down a dark passage, 'This way."
Pandora followed but began to read anyways. Desmond lead her down shadowy corridors and damp halls sparsely lit by strange lights.
"You're here for the mirror, aren't you?" asked Demond.
"Yes,' replied Pandora as she split her focus between following the Watcher and reading the book, 'It says here that you had the mirror, that it was taken, where is it?"
"That's something we don't know,' shrugged Desmond as he spied around a corner before continuing, 'but something you know is that Petra, that pirate, has a piece of it."
"Petra's a little different now. And she no longer has the mirror shard."
Desmond stopped his march, "Is that so?"
"Yes, she believed I stole it."
"No! Something came over her though, something was wrong after that. So I came back here for answers."
"Hmm. Do you know where we are?" asked Desmond as he turned back to a slower pace down the dark hall.
"A secret trove of things you've managed to collect and keep hidden from your people?"
Desmond smiled, "Close. It's true that we've secured a number of...collectibles, but they are much more than that. And where we are is even more spectacular."
Desmond stopped at an unassuming stone archway and motioned for Pandora to enter with his lantern. Pandora did so.
Before her stood a wooden table with a familiar arrangement of items that stopped Pandora cold.
"Where we are, Pandora, is not exactly beneath the chapel. This is the Labyrinth, a wonder of all worlds.' Desmond brushed past the petrified Pandora and set his weird lantern upon the table, 'You heard the sounds of strange machines when you entered, no? You doubtless noticed the pool at the back door, how the vapor ever so gradually became water without your noticing."
Pandora could tolerate Desmond's teasing no longer, horrified she interjected, "What is this place, Desmond?"
Desmond attempted to disguise a smile, "We are where the world ended and then began again."
Feeling weak, Pandora knelt down but couldn't bear to break her state upon the items before her. Upon the table was a helm identical to Pandora's. The same inky blotches, the same scuffs and detailing. The only difference being a hole that had been blasted through the right faceplate of the mask.
"Where did you get this." quivered Pandora.
Desmond abandoned his arrogance.
"We got it from you, Pandora, that is your helmet. I was hoping you could tell me how it came into our possession."
"It must be a fabrication, a copy." stammered Pandora as she rose to her feet.
"No, Pandora. As I said, it is your helmet." spoke Desmond in a soft voice.
Pandora looked closer at the helm, blood had dried around the hole in the helm, and hairs the same as her own were still inside the dome.
"Three days ago.' replied Desmond to the unspoken question, 'That's when we found your body."
Pandora looked up again at Desmond, "Where did you find me?"
"That's what I was hoping you could fill in for me.' said Desmond, 'You see, where we found you is certainly not where you died. Pandora, someone entombed you here."
"Who?!" Pandora demanded.
"We don't know. Come with me, there's someone else you should speak with."
Desmond briskly exited the chamber and marched deeper into the maze of halls. Pandora soon followed but not before stealing one last glance upon the grim visage of her own demise.
"The machine you heard, we don't know what it is or what it was intended to do.' said Desmond, 'But we do have an idea of what it has done."
Desmond lead Pandora down darker and darker passages.
"Whatever the original intention of the thing, it brought an end to a godless civilization hundreds of years ago, hurtling humanity into a second dark age of science and of faith. The machine still runs, seemingly discharging and charging simultaneously, altering temporal and material energies. These hallways, they were a sort of bunker at one point, we assume to protect from whatever intended harm the machine was designed for. Instead the passages have become steeped in the properties of the machine."
"Makes sense." sighed Pandora.
"Do not scoff at one's mystery, Pandora, it only shows that the knowledge they treasure you have taken for granted.' shot Desmond as he leaned on a cellar door turning its handle, 'Furthermore, it's rude."
Inside was a well lit room furnished with more lanterns, book lined shelves, maps, chests and a table. Standing behind the table was a man garbed in green.
Pandora hesitantly greeted him, "Tsayad?"
The rugged hunter looked up from the map upon the table.
"Pandora.' nodded Tsayad, 'You still a villain?"
"That remains to be seen.' interrupted Desmond, 'This machine, Pandora, the halls, they did not always belong to the Watchers."
Pandora looked down at the map that Tsayad had been studying. It detailed the winding passages and vaults of the Labyrinth and suggested that the maze stretched within a familiar mountain range.
Pandora looked back up at Tsayad, the hunter that had once allied with her centuries ago near the end of the second dark age.
"How did you come to this place, Tsayad?" asked Pandora.
Tsayad glanced over to Desmond who gave an assenting nod.
"The front door." replied Tsayad.
Pandora glared at Desmond who offered his defense, "He's being truthful, there is an actual front door to this place!"
"So you are a Watcher, then, Tsayad, disguised as a Mountain hunter." stated Pandora.
"No, actually.' said Desmond, 'Tsayad is visiting us from his own time."
"I don't understand.' said Pandora furrowing her brow, 'The Watchers, let alone the clans of the Mountain, do not have time jump technology."
"This place is the secret.' said Desmond, 'The machine beneath the Mountain, this place, it is like a hole in time, loop that can be entered and left behind."
Desmond took a seat at the table before explaining further,
"My chapel in the woods, the clans that battled centuries ago, the Vaults of the Panlong, the desert from which you hail all share one geological attribute."
"A mountain." whispered Pandora.
"The Mountain.' affirmed Desmond, 'We sit beneath it, above a machine that has distorted time and space beneath the trees and snow. The Watchers, we've used this place as a way to travel between the ages in search of dangerous artifacts or entities that could be disastrous for future histories."
"Why didn't you prevent the disasters before the machine, then?' protested Pandora, 'What about the Authority, couldn't you stop them?"
"From what I understand,' said Tsayad, 'the Watchers do not intervene on timelines like you and Valjean have done. They're more concerned with...scarier problems."
Desmond leaned in over the map on the table, "Pandora, the Watchers keep things from leaving the Labyrinth. We prevent them from leaving their own times and corrupting another."
"Plague.' said Pandora, 'This is where I met Plague."
"Yes,' said Desmond, 'we were not even aware of his existence until Clandestine witnessed you two in the woods last year. Plague is an excellent example of a terrifying thing perforating time and space. Usually we an stop such things, but his corruption was more subtle than most."
"And the mirror? The black chest?"
"Artifacts stolen by Plague from our vaults."
Pandora mulled over the consequences of such a place. She concluded that whatever disruption caused by the machine must be preventing the Watchers from traveling to a time before the machine's creation, this too would explain the modern jump apparatus' inability to traverse that far. Looking over the map Pandora noted a stairway similar the one beneath the chapel that climbed out over the Mountain, but it was much more grand and pronounced.
"Where does the stair lead?" she asked pointing to the map.
"Other times.' said Tsayad, 'The front door, the gate to the vaults beneath the Mountain that the Panlong sealed so many years ago."
"And that's how you got here?"
"Yes, and also why Tsayad is here.' said Desmond, 'Pandora, these halls have not always belongs to the Panlong or to the Watchers. There have been other caretakers throughout the long ages in the dark, and some not as well intentioned as us."
Tsayad's face turned grim as he turned to face a broken chest upon the floor.
"One hundred years before the clans scattered over the Mountain there was a King.' he said staring into the splintered void, 'He reigned from halls beneath the Mountain for an unnatural lifespan. Seldom seen amount his subjects the tyrant demanded slaves and wealth from the people, only emerging from his halls to do battle or to condemn resistance to his domain. As his life stretched beyond that of three normal men it was said that death was his ally...until he was finally struck down."
"Someone, we suspect emerging from the anomaly within the vaults, assassinated the King." said Desmond.
"Even then,' Tsayad continued, 'with the King buried within his halls rumors spread that one day he would return as a herald of death again."
Pandora now sat at the table, "But the King was simply using the time disruption to prolong his life, no mystery there. Still doesn't answer why Tsayad is here."
Tsayad turned back toward the others, "After you and the Sentinel left us the clans have begun warring again. There is no peace anymore, camps lie smoldering upon the mountainside."
"They say the King has returned and has brought death with him.' Tsayad threw a dagger down upon the table, striking the mark entrance to the vaults with its blade, 'The clans seek to honor the dead King's return with death and in return gain his favor and rule."
"But the King is dead, there is no one to honor anymore." said Pandora lifting the dagger from the map.
The two men fell terribly quiet before Desmond spoke.
"Your helm, Pandora, your body was discovered three days ago laid to rest in the tomb of the King,' whispered Desmond, 'and the bones of the dead King were not to be found."
Pandora offered Tsayad his dagger, "What does this all mean?"
Desmond leaned back in his chair, "The halls of the Mountain have always been a peculiar place but recently there has been more trouble than the Watchers could handle alone. What with a long dead King being replaced by a deceased time traveler, the entire mirror and the helm of the King stolen, along with the disappearance of several other troubling artifacts, not to mention the turmoil erupting within the Clans and I'm sure other civilizations across time I dare say we could use your help, the both of you."
"Auric!' exclaimed Pandora, 'Auric betrayed me to Plague, he must be behind this."
"You betrayed us all to Plague, as I recall, Pandora. Auric's vengeance upon you hardly surprises me.' Desmond then looked down to his feet, 'However I would be most surprised to find his hand in all this as Clandestine discovered Auric on her way to give report on you.
Desmond looked up again, his mask incapable of hiding his grief, "You were not the first body found in this mystery, Pandora. Whatever deal he made with Plague to save his friends had apparently turned sour."
Pandora looked away regretful of her accusation, catching eyes with Tsayad who gave her an assuring nod.
Desmond regained his composure, "The Watchers are ill-equipped for this mystery, and there have been temporal disturbances in many ages. I ask that you two join us in solving this puzzle, and I fear that if we cannot then we will all meet a grim fate not unlike you, Pandora."
Desmond looked Tsayad and Pandora in the eye before continuing, "Petra and the Resistance, whatever has come over them must be dealt with another time. Tsayad I will ask that you return to the Mountain and ascertain the truth of this dead King."
Tsayad nodded, "I will find him and return his crown."
"I believe you.' spoke Desmond as he rose from the table, 'Pandora."
Pandora ignited the lights on her now dried helm in answer.
"Pandora, I will not pretend to know what fate awaits you. I cannot explain what we discovered in the tomb three days ago, and I ask you with great cautioning to help us."
"I will go." resolved Pandora.
"Employ your apparatus, travel to the early days of the Authority and the roots of the Resistance. I suspect that thieves have been plundering these vaults and I worry that somehow it will have a hand in shaping the Authority war machine. Whatever is behind the assault on this Mountain has many pieces in play."
Tsayad bowed and left the chamber to make his way up the great stairway to the vault doors of the Mountain.
Pandora placed her helm over her face and began to activate the jump apparatus.
"Why did you come back here?" asked Desmond.
Pandora continued powering up the apparatus, "The mirror, something, someone has changed Petra. She chose to spare me, I want to return the favor."
Desmond took up his lantern again and Pandora offered him his boltshot.
"Keep it. Someone who is between resurrections best be ready." insisted Desmond.
Pandora holstered the weapon and prepared to jump, "What do you hope I find out there?"
Desmond smiled, "Redemption."
A burst of blue sparks and white cracks of lightning blazed forth and Pandora leapt through the ages arriving seven years before the events of the first Halleaux.
It was sunrise there. Brilliant harsh rays beaming over the wastelands. Pandora watched the morning take flight as she thought about what Desmond had said. Redemption, is there forgiveness for so much pain? Could there be saving when one is not not entirely convinced they need redeeming?
Pandora reached into her coat pocket and removed an item that she clenched tightly in her hand, a pale and jagged piece of broken mirror.
To be continued...
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