Project #2 – Prologue: Dark Depths

Project #2 – Here’s the first chunk of my second project. This is the prologue in its entirety! The rest of story features a female protagonist called Tarkleigh, whom I’ll introduce in the first act soon.

***

The ice was just moments away from its departure, but the way the ice viewed time was irrelevant. If history was to be believed, a moment could be a day, a week, or ten centuries. The Ice Age had happened so many generations ago, the frosty landscape had been accepted and metered into history for as long as history had existed. Texts spoke of a time long ago; so long ago many living today could barely comprehend that period in time. It was a dangerous time, rife with decay and annihilation, yet fruitful in worship and zealous ire. He had been told, as his predecessor had been told, that this new time would come. Hundreds before him had been taught of this stage in time, reminded to pass down the knowledge that the Dark Depths was once a great body of water. Regardless of its current state, it had always been a dangerous part of the geography – only a fool would brave the waters in anything less than the double layering of animal skin and fur, and more poignantly, atop the breast of a great vessel. Only one had braved these depths and lived, still living, after all this time after time had begun. He was here to welcome the return of their ancient herald, for the time had come, the ice was waning in thickness and strength, and the survivor of centuries past would rise from its troubling slumber.

He had no boat – it would have been all but impossible to travel this distance on anything but foot; there had been no body of water for some hundreds of miles. Instead he had been sent with a party of his fellow cultists, each of them laden with supplies and spares of everything. They had no intention of letting this opportunity pass them by, and they were all made aware that this would be a one-way trip for all but one. Even he may not make it back. They had started as a party of seventeen, each carrying enough food for just a few days, most of which was meant for the chosen member destined to outlive them in the frozen wastes. They carried extra furs, shoes, even water skins; there was nothing to burn to melt ice for the final few hundred miles of their journey. Their sacks were filled with small amounts of fruit to keep their strength for the first few leagues, and then topped off with masses of salted dried meat. It was their duty not to consume beyond their need, but merely carry the one man’s burden until they could sacrifice no more than their life.

They ranged wildly in age and stature – their cult was neither popular nor particularly populated with avid workers in these modern times. A good two thirds of the living members were a scratch above fifty years of age, and the only reason they had anyone younger was down to the sheer luck that a mad woman might happen upon one of their madmen in a drunken bout. The sons and daughters were encouraged and enticed into the religion with grand promises and spectacular prophecies. Unfortunately, most of them had the sense to leave once they reached a respectable age, or adolescent impatience pushed them to distance themselves from the group of doomsayers. Thousands of years ago they had been a well-known and highly infamous group, worshipping an otherworldly force that had wrought destruction upon the land like an apocalyptic event – one many would never come to face for thousands of years. This cult, they were less than a shadow of their former self, old and aching, mocked and shunned at every moment.

The first in the party had died earlier than expected. He was old, and despite being reminded to consume lightly to extend his service, he had taken it upon himself to defy orders. His zealotry had led him to starvation, and it was now up to the rest to prolong their service a few extra days. They had considered sharing his load between them, in order that the sole survivor of their group might reach his goal unabated, but they chose instead to stick to the plan. They would find the strength somehow. The second had passed even more slowly, almost decaying as he walked in the wake of winter. They had all vowed to press on, regardless of each other’s condition. If one fell, there would not be enough time to mourn. Instead they would press on, their sacrifice remembered by the leaders back in the religious court. He had slumped into a pile of skin and bones, but the wind was so cold and the goal was so distant, none of them had turned their heads to check. It wasn’t until a few days later that they had done a head count and discovered the loss of one more. He had lasted as long as they could have hoped, but still they were a few days’ worth of supplies short. On they went. They would find the strength somehow.

Three through to seven had pushed on longer than expected. They each nibbled away at the remaining unspoiled fruit before it all became useless, and it afforded them a few extra days of a painful cold existence. They each knew their fate, and had requested that the group continue on while they sat and accepted their eventual end in solitude. It felt easier that way. While this had increased their timetable by some stretch, it wasn’t long before more disaster struck. Eight had gone mad with hunger and thirst, and beat nine to death with a now frozen salted ham. He had licked the hot blood off of the meat in a delirious rage. The remainder of the party had thought to set upon him, wrestle the meat from him and put him into his snowy grave before he could do more damage to their cause. His age and frailty had got the better of him, and just seconds after attempting to grind his bloody remaining teeth into the now spoiled meat, he suddenly fell into a seizure on the floor. They had all looked on and watched in indifference as he twitched and flailed. His saliva was flowing about his face, now smudging bloody meaty remains into his nose and mouth as he rolled around. They had stared at this for a few minutes before his body gave up the struggle and came to a sudden slump. One of them trudged over, pulled the ham from his cold bloodless hands, and walked on. The madness of one had potentially cost the lives of the remaining few. They would find the strength somehow.

The final eight continued on, with the occasional grumblings as to the fate of the young chap, number seventeen. Their goal had grown tedious, and for the most part they had discounted the idea that he might make it in their current predicament. Several times they had considered splitting the rations between them and chancing their way home. Bizarrely they had all come to the settlement to continue on as the weeks passed, though their resentment had grown as their faith diminished. Number ten had tried to strangle seventeen in his sleep – sixteen had defended him by breaking both the man’s arms. Ten continued on, carrying his burden for a number of days before succumbing to infection and delirium. He opted to take a different direction, and they saw as he walked into a white emptiness, removed his pack, his boots and then unfurling his clothes. His figure disappeared into the emptiness while the rest marched on at a much slower pace than they had begun. They could not find the strength.

The following weeks were hell, but persistent if nothing else. The wastes had swallowed them up one by one, and they assured each other they had passed the supposed halfway point. Fifteen and sixteen were the only ones left accompanying their destined brother, though they did little to build a rapport. Over the weeks the conversation had grown futile, and for the past few days not a single word was shared between them. Both of them watched with bloodshot frozen eyelids as they passed food and water over to their successor, winced as his lips smacked open and closed. He washed every mouthful down with a healthy swig of water as if there were no limit on their supplies. Fifteen had privately suggested to sixteen that he should take over the responsibility of finishing the journey. After all, he had had to bear the most on this journey, and he wasn’t much older than the one the cult leaders had chosen. Sixteen responded in silence, instead allowing the constant hum of the cold wind to emphasise his empty response. That night seventeen had awoken to the sound of snapping bone, but instead of standing to defend himself, squeezed into a foetal position and simply prayed his ex-comrade would leave him be. The footsteps thumped over the solid ice toward him, dropped a heavy sack of supplies, and dropped to the ground in a great wheeze.

“We’re behind on carrying bodies. You must take two sacks with you when I pass. You must find the strength.” Sixteen murmured, before promptly succumbing to exhaustion.

That morning sixteen and seventeen awoke, carrying the load of three men between them. Sixteen hadn’t eaten or drank a drop in days, as per his vow. Seventeen had offered him scraps on several occasions, but the man refused, devout in his promise. It was at this stage that seventeen had begun to consider his role in this seemingly irrelevant quest. Each time they sat for respite, he simply sat in wonder, questioning the purpose of his role. He was set to survive these men for a purpose nobody had ever actually explained. They had reached the enormous body of water – that much was obvious. The thin, icy floor below them moaned and groaned on occasion, and it had taken a dark tone of colour. It was almost as if the miles of ocean below them emanated dark light that penetrated through the few feet of ice that was left. The darkness below scratched at his brain, and on several occasions he felt like he could hear somebody calling him. Sixteen had grown weary, ever conscious of seventeen’s behaviour. This man that was supposed to finish the final journey was now shifting his gaze back and forth as if watching phantoms dance across the ice-wastes. It was no longer sixteen’s concern however. He had not woken up the following morning. Seventeen knew his charge. He must find the strength.

He had prized the fur and food from sixteen’s already frozen corpse, now opting to eat while on the move. He no longer felt the need to check for those whom the voices belonged to, he knew she was leaking into his mind. He knew he was close; the ice grew thinner. As the days passed, his load lightened. Despite this his feet grew ever more destroyed by fatigue. He had once attempted to change his boots, only to find his scabs and skin had healed themselves onto the inner lining. He tossed away the spares, knowing he may not need them. His coat hung over his skeleton, now half the weight he was when they started the journey. Every time one of his limbs brushed against his body, he could hear the knocking of bone like that of large marbles, bouncing off of one another in a defiant fashion. The ground grew darker, and before him he saw a great empty crescent surrounded by dark looming mountains. He had travelled the breadth of the Dark Depths, and he was now near the end. Near her. The Beginning was close now. She was giving him the strength.

He knew he could make it to the crescent within the day, she would tinker and pick at his brain; urge his wasted limbs on to greet her. He wandered particularly slowly that day, not just out of exhaustion, but out of pure fear of death. The ice was barely a foot thick at this stage, and cracks formed as movement beneath it disturbed the gentle balance. Every time he looked beneath the surface, all he saw was darkness. Every so often, just for a split second, it felt as though there was some movement. At one stage he was almost sure he could see a thousand eyes staring back at him, representing one of the many tones of her voice that leaked through his brain. As he drew closer to the end, he could hear a sudden enormous creak ahead of him. The huge plate of ice lifted a few centimetres and then relaxed, almost as if exhaling. He had miraculously arrived at his destination, and had almost run the risk of being too late.

He tossed off his sack of scrap food, untied his water skin and threw it to one side; he would likely never need it after this. He removed his gloves, and then leaned over with an almighty sigh of aching muscles. He dug out a tattered book from the pack and slipped open the cover. As he considered the first page, the ice rose once more, this time many feet, causing the large sheet to fracture into a dozen pieces. Barely keeping his balance, he began to read from the text: his cult’s mission, a greeting to her, begging for her blessing and return to wreak destruction upon Dominaria. As several of the ice plates began to topple in another rise, titanic black lumps like that of a hundred whales eased their way to the surface. She was pulling herself above water, out of the deep sleep that had been the last Ice Age. She had slumbered beneath the Dark Depths for hundreds if not thousands of generations, and now the ice’s time was at its end, she would return to her purpose. More and more of the mountainous creature protruded from the ocean, knocking seventeen to his feet. The more of her titanic presence he saw, the louder he read and shouted, for he thought the more he shouted, the quicker she would rise.

She was the strength.

Marit Lage had awoken.

***

(Dun dun duuuuuuuun)

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