(As per this, though this work is far longer than 1,000 words. But even if you don't read this piece, you should check out all the photos because they are stunning).
It had been a journey of three moons.
Three moons that witnessed their passing; leering down at them balefully with trickster god smiles.
Three moons long in the search of their prey, scouring the lands and traversing the seas.
Three moons it had been since the City of Spires.
Three moons spent walking the dark path of vengeance.
Three. Damned. Moons.
As the moon waxed crescent a fourth time, they came to stand before the edge of a crater.
It was a monstrous thing, dominating the landscape to the east and the west as far as the eye could see and north until the broken land kissed the uncaring sky.
At the crater’s epicentre, forlorn and dead amongst the dust and desolation, stood the stone forest.
Ghost silent and grey, it spread out before them, a mass of crumbling stone columns, blackened and blasted, reaching up to rake at the sky with serrated claws of basalt and obsidian.
The tallest spires were lost in black clouds that gathered unnaturally over the devastation, casting ominous shadows that stretched down upon the visitors like accusing, pointing fingers.
The three hunters came to a halt before the impressive vista, awed into silence by the impossibility of what lay before them.
And then one of them swore.
His name was Vashtek. A shortish man, garbed in the leathers of the guild made, Vashtek was as indelicate and as quick to anger as he was skilled with a blade.
An angry red scar dominated the side of his face, giving him an eternal scowl that he liked just fine.
Crouching down at the lip of the caldera, he spat his frustration and cursed yet again, kicking stones angrily that flew violently out into open space.
The second man sighed the sigh of a man forced to yet again endure the tantrum of a particularly ill-behaved child.
Despite the blood, sweat and dirt the two men had shared over their peculiar journey, he was as different from Vashtek as day was from night.
Standing proud in the armour of the protectorate to which he belonged, Malorsh was forced to echo the sentiment - if not the vulgarity - of the other man’s words.
‘He does have a point.’
This he spoke to the last of the odd trio.
The figure, black robed and cowled, said nothing.
This wasn’t unusual. In fact, the figure had rarely spoken during their sojourn together, volunteering only the briefest of rasping whispers when matters of navigation, cultural or linguistic comprehension were required.
For three months the figure had accompanied the pair, guiding them to their quarry. They respected and feared him in equal measure, and well-judged was it that they did, for his name was Baas and he was magi.
Baas drew back his hood, revealing a pale face framed by raven black hair. He stared at them with an ageless quality that Vashtek and Malorsh found unsettling. Eventually, he spoke.
‘He is here. Come.’
And with that the mage simply faded from sight, reappearing a moment later below them with a soft snap of eldritch power which was barely visible in the darkness.
With much caution the two remaining men edged their way down to the crater floor, crab walking their way carefully along painfully sharp grooves that had been cut into the crater’s edge by centuries of rain and wind.
It was a difficult descent, with many missteps and near falls. Vashtek led the way, his keen eyesight and nimble footwork making the effort look far easier than it was. Malorsh found the going harder, burdened as he was by armour and shield.
They met the mage upon reaching the crater floor, their moods blackened further, if such a thing was possible, by the experience.
For not the first time in their travels, Vashtek’s thoughts turned to revenge.
‘For makin’ me go through that, I’ll take ‘is fingers first. Bleach ‘em dry of skin and flesh t’make me a set of bettin’ bones.’
Vashtek gestured with his dagger as he spoke, vividly describing the dissection stroke by vicious stroke.
Malorsh grunted in disgust, also not for the first time.
The former turned on the latter, glaring in anger, daring him to disagree.
‘Oh yes, is that it, good sir? Too noble to hurt ‘im what did you over as much as me an’ mine?’
Malorsh glared at the thief, cold disdain writ plain upon his handsome features.
‘You are nought but a fool and a criminal. I most certainly would not act in the way you describe, for it is barbaric and would only serve to engender retaliation.’
Vashtek snorted as they continued through the heavy silence of the broken peaks around them, but chose to hold his tongue. Where once a retort would have come quick in the sunlight, here in the shadowy depths of this place, he felt cowed.
Not that he would ever admit to such to the likes of Malorsh.
Undaunted, the knight continued.
‘The only just revenge is one that sets you as the better man. That is what I would do. That is what I will do. I will stand before him and he will see that I have risen above his actions.’
Vashtek grunted a laugh, ‘And then you’ll ‘ave his heart out, right?’
Malorsh ignored the question and continued in silence, as he was wont to do during times like this.
Deprived of a target for his ire, Vashtek turned to Baas.
‘And you, mage? What would you do in our place?’
Again, Baas took his time in responding, but when he did it was with the typically inscrutable tone that had been his way since they’d first met his so many months ago.
‘I would not do anything in your place, for I am not in your place. I am merely your guide.’
Again Vashtek snorted, albeit more quietly than before. The three fell into an uncomfortable silence that was – surprisingly- broken minutes later by the magi himself.
‘It is a fitting irony that we have come here.’
Vashtek and Malorsh were taken aback, for this was the first time the wizard had volunteered anything other than imperious directions since he had offered his services to the two.
‘Do you know the history of this place? What the people call the… ‘Stone Forest’?’
Neither responded, but Baas continued anyway.
‘You people have forgotten. But we have not. I have not.’
He spoke the last three words with a finality so cold it made Vashtek shiver.
‘This place…this forest was once a city. A city amongst cities.’
Baas gestured with an almost skeletal arm to the towers of stone that surrounded them.
‘Many centuries ago this place was known in an ancient tongue you will not know as Zhan’dhul.’
‘Zhan’dhul. A place of many splendours; filled with countless libraries of unmeasurable knowledge; supplied by a surplus of resources; inhabited by a people noble and just.’
Malorsh watched as the mage clenched bony fists around his staff as he spoke.
‘Naturally, Zhan’dhul attracted a great many enemies.’
‘One of these enemies, driven by their greed and their envy, took it upon themselves to take what was not theirs.’
Baas shuffled through the grit that suffocated the crater floor, his eyes fixed upon somewhere else entirely as he spoke.
‘The enemy struck at night, their many disadvantages in skill and knowledge compensated by surprise and savagery.’
Of a sudden, the mage came to a stop in what appeared to be a large clearing.
‘And yet the people of Zhan’dul were able to throw back the initial assault, forcing a stalemate between the two that became a siege that lasted many years.’
Vashtek and Malorsh said nothing, intrigued by the mage’s words.
‘The leaders of Zhan’dhul beseeched the enemy to negotiate, for they were a peaceful people at heart and even in such dire circumstances wished to avoid further bloodshed.’
‘But, as their people began to starve, they were forced to fight.’
‘Over many days the Zhan’dulian forces clashed with the enemy, eventually throwing the invaders back to their homeland in disarray - but at what cost!’
The mage, his fervour seemingly spent, dropped his voice to a whisper.
‘Thousands had been slaughtered and in the weeks that followed, many, even in that enlightened place, cried their thirst for vengeance.’
Malorsh nodded faintly in sympathy, if not agreement, as the mage continued.
‘But the leaders of Zhan’dule were wise and persuasive. They argued the way to defeat the enemy in the long run, to obtain true retribution for their deeds, would be to rebuild the city that had been destroyed, to make it better, to prosper in a way that the enemy never could.’
‘To act as if the enemy were insignificant. An irrelevance.’
The mage turned to the two with a bitter smile.
‘And that is exactly what they did.’
‘For their part, driven back to the mountains they were forced to call home with their tails between their legs, the enemy licked their wounds and plotted. Thinking of little else, they watched from afar as the great city rebuilt itself, their anger burning; their spite growing.’
‘Decades passed. Decades spent forsaking all else to that which might help them destroy the city that had embarrassed them so. Decades spent studying black magicks; spent making pacts with infernal beings.’
‘And thus, when the time came, the enemy unleashed its collective might again, this time upon the skies above Zhand’ule, transforming the clouds to brimstone and fire, melting and breaking the beautiful spires that had once been celebrated throughout the lands.’
‘They killed the city and all that lived within her out of jealousy and spite.’
Baas, his voice now barely audible, whispered one last sentence.
‘This – this forest of stone,’ he said grimacing at the words, ‘is all that remains of that place.’
Vashtek laughed a laugh of no humour, ‘What fools.’
Malorsh’s face was pale, obviously affected by the mage’s tale.
‘Who...who could commit such horror, such genocide? Who was responsible for this?’
Baas turned to face the knight, his eyes cold and unblinking.
The silence that followed was long and heavy, broken only by the keening wail of a stinging wind that had risen suddenly.
‘You mean the Conclave’, Malorsh whispered.
‘Yes.’ Baas replied simply.
‘Though we were not known by such an illustrious title in that age.’
Malorsh persisted, afraid of the mage yet inflamed by the injustice of what he was hearing.
At first Malorsh thought the mage had not heard the question, or perhaps was ignoring it, his gaze seemingly fixed upon the upper reaches of the spire they had come to stand before.
Malorsh made to ask again, but the mage’s attention snapped back to the present, answering suddenly.
‘Because we were fools.’
Baas drew a long whispery sigh as his confession came to an end.
‘In any event, we are here.’
Vashtek’s head whipped around to look at the mage, whatever thoughts he’d been having vanishing at the words.
Baas stared at the Vashtek, his black eyes boring through the rogue.
‘Your prey. He hides there.’
The mage pointed with a bony finger to the very top of the broken spire they stood before.
Vashtek, a man of little patience at the best of times, turned with a snarl and leapt towards a jagged opening that gaped wide in the side of the massive slab of rock that rose before them.
The knight, his thoughtful eyes still upon the mage, turned less quickly but then hurried upon hearing the other man’s screamed oaths.
Baas stared after them, as motionless and as silent as the monuments to death that surrounded him.
It took the two men several minutes to reach the apex of the broken spire. At one point they almost came to blows, so determined were they to reach their target first.
Eventually, the broken stairway upon which they climbed opened out onto a plateau of stone, decorated only by a chaotic mix of detritus and rubble. At the far end from where they stood, wind gusted in from a large opening that breached the exterior wall.
It was impossible to tell what the place might once have been.
As the two men stepped forward, there was a gasp of surprise that emanated from the far end of landing upon which they stalked.
Vashtek spotted it first, a figure with its back to them, skulking in the shadows.
Perhaps it was the fright, or the wind, or even just the unlucky touch of fate’s hand.
As the figure turned in surprise, it stepped poorly, a ragged boot coming down on loose rock at an odd angle that made it stumble backwards.
The man, this poor avatar of vengeance denied that the two had sought out to all exclusion for months, windmilled his arms frantically before falling backwards and away, disappearing over the edge of the not-tower with an unarticulated cry.
‘No!’ cried Malorsh and Vashtek in union, rushing forward.
There was heartbeat’s passing before they heard the wet smack of the body hitting the crater floor below.
Slowly, dazedly, the two made their way back to the spire entrance, stumbling out into the sunlight and a most unusual sight.
There stood Baas and, of all unimaginable possibilities, he was laughing.
It was a mirthless thing, cold and wicked.
Malorsh, ever the more courageous of the two, stuttered a question.
‘What…what is it, magi? Why do you laugh?’
Vashtek, emboldened at the knight’s words, spoke as he stabbed futilely at the ruined remains before them.
‘Did you do this, mage? Did you make him fall?’
The mage’s laughter died as suddenly as it began, a single skeletal finger dismissing the accusation with unspoken power that could not be denied.
Baas spoke, gesturing at both, his voice laden with derision.
‘You, rogue, with your impotent fury. You, knight, with your empty righteousness.’
‘To see you both deprived of your vengeance after all this time…so completely and utterly.’
‘It amuses me.’
Vashtek stepped forward, his hand upon the hilt of his short sword. Malorsh, his pride insulted, drew long sword and shield.
This only made the mage laugh harder.
‘Come, now. Our journey is at its end. Let us return home.’
The magi traced a phantom pattern in the air with his fingers, muttering incomprehensible words under his breath as he did so.
As the rune faded, a blue-white shard of opaque brilliance as tall as a man formed behind him.
The mage gestured to it with one arm, beckoning.
‘What magic is this, Baas? Malorsh questioned, suspicion lacing his words.
‘It is a portal. It will return us to the city.’
‘What?’ Vashtek barked. ‘All this time you could have simply magicked us here?’
The smile faded from the mage’s lips, his demeanour growing cold.
‘Yes. I could have. And easily so.’
He began to circle the pair, like a predatory animal hunting, or perhaps a god.
‘But then you would not have learned that which you needed to learn.’
‘And what lesson is that?’ Malorsh said, his rage growing petulant.
Baas came to a halt before them, judging them with his ancient eyes.
‘That the path of vengeance – no matter its form - is long and twisted and ultimately pointless.’
The pair made to interject, but the mage cut them off with a savage gesture.
‘Blind fools. Do you not understand anything that you have been taught here?’
‘For years the men of the guild and the protectorates have fought their so called claims upon the city in blood and death.’
‘We, we who truly control the City of Spires, have deigned to allow your petty rivalries while they remained of little consequence.’
‘But now, now they verge on becoming open hostility and threaten to destabilise the equilibrium we have worked so hard to achieve.’
Baas nodded slightly at the broken corpse.
‘The man you sought here – he who was traitor to both and loyal to none - was nothing but the first step upon the path to further escalation.’
‘And that is something we will not allow.’
Baas began to pace again, his anger visible, his voice dropping to a deadly whisper.
‘For your sakes, look again upon the devastation of this place and learn the true nature of revenge’.
‘Learn the lesson of the stone forest. Learn it well!’
And then he spoke once more.
One final time, words echoing throughout the ages.
‘For if you do not...’
The mage’s voice faded away, the threat unspoken, his face once again becoming the mask.
Baas stood motionless at the foot of the broken spire long after the Vashtek and Malorsh had stepped through the portal.
He looked over the devastation that surrounded him, his face devoid of any emotion.
Finally, he turned and stepped through the portal, the ethereal passage imploding shut with a quiet snap of energy as he passed through.
As the magic faded, the mage’s final words danced upon the wind before falling silent forever.
But there was no one else to hear them.