The next morning, Camon and Jorn awoke to virtually still air. It was crisp as they rose and prepared for the trek’s final portion to the elven outpost. After eating and getting their packs on, they set out back up to the ridge. When they got to the top, they could feel a chilling, but soft breeze, but cloud tops cloaked the lower land to both sides of the ridge. Likewise, they could not see the elven city perched on the shelf from the adjacent peak, only the spire that rose through the clouds as if it were a spear breaking through.
“This should make for an interesting descent into the town,” Jorn noted.
“It should clear out as the sun gets higher. It’ll make the rocks down there slick, so be careful.”
“Not to mention, harder to see.”
Camon started north along the ridge in a descent towards the elven outpost. After about a half-hour of descent, they went below the cloud top and out of the clear blue above. Even so, visibility was still decent enough that they could see several hundred feet ahead. Camon stuck to the ridge, then eventually ended when it faded into the conical shape that formed the spire of a peak above. Camon turned towards the east along the slope, which slowly became steeper, and eventually, a slope became more like a ledge with a sheer drop off to their right and a wall going up to the left. The ledge was slick with precipitation from the clouds, but Camon chose his footing carefully. The ledge sloped upwards along the mountain until eventually, they could see a staircase hewn out of the rockface’s side.
They got to the staircase and walked up to it, leaning into the wall to their left, as there was no railing to hold onto, and it was still a sheer drop off to their right. Once they got to the top, they came out onto a large, flat, circular portico about fifty feet in diameter with no rim or edges. They scanned the edge looking east and then turned back west and could now see the city buildings towering up as spires. Several narrow walkways converged on the portico.
Camon scanned the area intently, looking left and right. He then reached for his sword and took it out, “Something is not right here.”
“Do you suspect something?”
“I don’t know… Let me see.” He reached in his pocket and removed a stone, then hummed, holding his sword out towards the buildings and sweeping it back and forth. He did this for several seconds, then put his stones away.
“Strong patterns of magic. It’s a recipe for undead. We need to get up to the spire, but we must go through the city first and ascend it. Be vigilant.”
“Undead…great,” Jorn said. Jorn removed his sword from his back and fell in behind Camon, who proceeded towards one of the walkways leading out onto the portico. The walkways were hardly more than enough for people to walk two abreast, and even some of the side passages were narrower, only allowing a single person to pass.
“I take it elves are lean,” Jorn said.
“Leaner than humans for sure. They are generally tall and lanky, but I’ve never met a Sky Elf, though. And I’ve only seen elves from the southern realms from afar.”
Camon kept to the wide passages, choosing a generally western direction through the city. He glanced down every passageway and doorway that they passed looking for danger. None presented itself.
“Interesting,” Jorn said. “I hadn’t noticed it, but these buildings are not constructed from blocks or individual stones. They are all one solid piece, or at least that’s how they appear to be.”
“They were hewn out of the mountain, that’s why,” Camon said. “Elves don’t generally build anything, rather shape the environment to their needs. Some of the cities to the south are grown from plants. I’ve never seen one, but the illustrations of the cities in some of the books are incredible. I can only imagine what they look like in real life.”
“Hewn from the mountain? How?”
“Magic would be my guess.”
They continued through the town, and then came a wall, and Camon turned north along the wall. He then heard something behind him, and he turned and looked back. Behind Jorn, he saw a creature coming up fast, almost in complete silence. It had the arms and torso of a man, but the head of a snake. Instead of legs, its lower body was like a snake, and it carried the rest upright as it slithered on the ground. It was gray with scales covering everything except its eyes, which were bright green and slitted. It licked the air with its tongue as it pursued them.
“Run!” Camon yelled. Jorn didn’t ask why. He and Camon bolted down the passageway next to the wall. The creature was in close pursuit, although Camon and Jorn put distance between it and the pursuer. They came to a narrow staircase that went up the wall side, and Camon bound up it with Jorn following. The stairs emerged onto one of the terraces they had seen the day before. They did a complete u-turn going south along the edge of the terrace looking down.
The snake-like creature reached the stairs and attempted to climb them, but its body was too broad, and it simply fell off when it did. It tried many more times before giving up and pursued them along the base of the wall snapping up at them as they went along. Camon stopped and looked down at the creature as it pursued them.
“Look’s like we’re safe up here, but we’ll have to get past it once we come back down.”
“It doesn’t look like much of a threat now that I’m looking at it,” Jorn said. “We could take it with swords if we had to.”
Camon looked around, “Or we could just let gravity do the hard work.”
“What do you mean?”
“Create a small avalanche from up here and bury it alive.”
“How?” Jorn said.
Camon pointed to several loose boulders lying around on the terrace, “Stack some of those boulders and then pull one out from underneath, then watch the rocks fall. That thing doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. We’re probably the first prey it’s had in who knows how long.”
“Sounds too much like work,” Jorn commented.
“But it’s a safe bet, even if it fails.”
“You like to play it safe. There’s wisdom in that, for sure,” Jorn acknowledge. He bent down and picked up a stone and stacked it on the edge. Camon removed a rope from his pack and tied it around the stone, then they both went about gathering rocks. Each time they stacked a stone, the beast snapped up at them trying to almost leap at them. The leaping got more violent with each stone until it was almost an angry thrashing.
“He’s not liking this one bit, and has no idea what’s about to happen.”
“That’s a good thing, I guess,” Camon said.
When the stack was almost five feet tall, Camon wrapped the rope around the stones’ edge. “Give me a signal when it’s directly below the stack,” Camon said.
Jorn looked over the edge, and the creature snapped at him. He lured the creature underneath the stack of stones on the edge, then shouted, “Now!”
Camon yanked the rope, and the stone at the bottom moved. The tower teetered and then fell towards the edge and then broke loose with dozens of stones crashing down over the edge onto the beast. The beast hissed and spewed as the rocks pommeled it, then pinned it to the ground. When the rocks finally settled, the creature lay flopping, trying to free itself from under the rocks, but couldn’t. Eventually, it stopped moving altogether and lay down, and its eyes went milky and lifeless.
“That would have been a good fight,” Jorn said. “But I must admit, I liked this approach. It was inventive.”
“Not everything needs to be solved by a sword. But sometimes it falls to that.”
“Indeed,” Jorn said.
“Now comes the hard part.” Camon turned and looked skyward towards the peak. The clouds still hid it from view. “We have to climb.”
“We’ve been doing that for the last five days. What’s one more morning?”
“Good point,” Camon said. With that, they turned and started towards a staircase at the end of the terrace. They passed several of the holes, which up close were anywhere between four and six feet in diameter.
“If that is where the birds lived, then they must be huge,” Jorn commented.
“I’ve never seen one, but you’d be right.” They then started up the staircases. There were eight terraces in all, each with a staircase leading up to the next. Once they got passed the eighth terrace, the staircase wrapped around the outside of the spire going ever upwards. It had no handrail and was only a few feet wide. Camon was as cautious as ever because it was still slick from the moisture from the clouds. After about half an hour of climbing past the eighth terrace, they broke through the cloud top and felt as if they were ascending into heaven. The wind blew, but not heavily. The stairs kept going upwards around the spire as they climbed at least three-thousands stairs. When they reached the top, they were sweating and out of breath. They emerged onto a flat top at the very tip of the spire that was not more than fifteen feet across. At the west edge of the spire was a crystal monolith some twenty feet high off the platform’s surface that gleamed in the morning sun, casting a rainbow of colors on the platform. Camon and Jorn both circled the perimeter of the platform, looking out in every direction. They could see peaks of other mountains poking through the cloud top, but otherwise, it was blue sky forming a dome that met the clouds in every direction.
“Majestic isn’t it. I could’ve only dreamed of being somewhere like this,” Camon said.
“If there is a heaven, then this is probably not far from it,” Jorn said.
Camon laughed, “It’d be hard to get much closer short of flying.”
“Speaking of flying, how do you get the elves to show up here again?”
“By lighting up that crystal pillar there, but I’m not sure how to do it.” Camon walked over to the pillar and inspected it, looking up and down the structure for any indication of what might activate it. “My guess is some kind of magic, but exactly what is a mystery”
Jorn looked around on the platform brushing his feet along the service. He noticed that doing so removed a layer of residue, and he then went removing more of it. “Come here and look at this,” he said.
Camon came over and inspected the place where Jorn had removed the residue and then removed his cloak, got down on his hands and knees, and started scrubbing the surface. It revealed various inlays in the platform’s surface that formed a circle with larger inlays at the cardinal directions. The inlays had connecting lines between them, forming a pattern that Camon did not immediately recognize. He studied it for a moment, then offered an opinion, “If I had to guess, this is some kind of navigational chart based on the compass, and the lines represent course markers to set bearings. But I don’t see any relationship to the pillar.”
“If the pillar is a beacon, then isn’t it already pulsing with magic?” Jorn asked.
“It is, but it’s not something that I recognize. I’m not gifted in elven magic. My sword is about the closest thing I have to that.”
“I have no idea what I’m talking about, but would it be possible that the controls for this thing aren’t actually up here, rather somewhere else?” Jorn asked
“That’s not a bad question. Truth is, I don’t know. But…” he trailed off. “What if this compass isn’t for navigation, rather calibration or orientation?” Camon suggested.
“That would mean that the compass has something to do with the pillar then.”
“Exactly,” Camon said.
“But how do we turn it on?”
Camon started scrubbing the entire surface of the platform, and Jorn joined in. Outside of the circle of inlays, they found more inlays in the surface and an inscription. Camon looked at it, parsing it with his hands.
“It’s written in an ancient dialect, best I can tell. Prawadi would know what it says. But I think I get the gist of it. I think it is some kind of key that is used to calibrate this pillar. We’re still missing something, though. Look around for a hole of some kind in the surface,” Camon said.
They went around the platform. After not finding anything, Camon checked around the edge of the platform then found a small hole not much wider than his hand. He reached in and cleared away some debris, and then he felt a handle. He pulled on the handle, and he heard the sound of stones grinding together. He looked beneath him in the way, and several openings appeared in the spire, and then stone slabs slid out from the openings forming a staircase. Then another opening appeared at the bottom of the stairs, making a doorway.
“I’d say you found something,” Jorn said.
Camon went down the stairs, and Jorn followed. They entered the door, and it revealed a room where they could see the bottom of the crystal coming down from above and several other crystals forming up around its base. There was an array of levers to the right of the crystals, and Camon went over to them.
“The inscription above was referring to these levers to calibrate the pillar. It’s a function of the date and this particular outpost. Once these are aligned correctly, it is supposed to turn on. Elves use a solar calendar while ours is lunar, but the adjustment should be reasonably simple.” He went to his pack and removed a notebook and wrote in it. He then looked at the levers and then turned one of them clockwise. Camon and Jorn felt the entire mountain rumble in response. Camon looked at the remaining levers and tweaked them only slightly, and then the mountain rumbled again. The crystals at the bottom of the pillar began to glow. The pillar began pulsating with a dim light that increased in intensity and frequency. Camon then went out the door and climbed back around to the platform and looked at the pillar. It was pulsing now with an orb of light forming at the top of the pillar that, from their perspective, outshone the sun with blinding light.
“I think we’d better get down from here,” Camon suggested. “I don’t think it’s safe to be near that thing while it’s on. My guess is that this used to be a beacon used to mark the way for Sky Elves to find their way at night or in the fog like a lighthouse does for ships at sea. But we’re using it to summon a Sky Elf here.”
“It’s definitely bright enough,” Jorn commented.
They got their things and started to climb back down the stairs from the spire towards the city below, casting their eyes to the horizon to see what might come next.