Amaya’s parents’ house was filled with friends and family for the holidays. Most of the celebrants had gone to bed, but a stalwart few occupied the den near the fireplace. Amaya plopped on the couch next to her father Tajic and offered him some cookies she’d pilfered from the kitchen. He smiled and accepted one, ruffling his daughter’s hair. Nova was seated next to her mother Selene, who smiled politely and took a sip of tea. Nasti and Chendrea, fingers laced, rounded out the last of the partygoers.
Tajic cleared his throat and exchanged glances with Selene and Chendrea. “I don’t think we’ll have a better opportunity…” he said.
Selene’s gaze fell to her hands, and Chendrea’s smile turned a little brittle. “I suppose you’re right,” the wizard said.
“What’s this now?” said Nova, trying to catch her mother’s eye.
Selene sighed and reluctantly began to speak. “With the year you three have had, we assume you’re aware that the Dragon’s Tear comet will be in the sky in a couple of months. And that Mount Titania will open.”
Nasti’s tail twitched, thinking back to things she’d heard from the Ebon Cabal. “Sure, we’d heard something about that,” she said cautiously.
“We don’t expect we can stop you entering if you get your minds set on it,” Tajic said. “But we thought we’d try to warn you off anyway.”
“Oh?” Amaya said.
“Yes,” Chendrea said. “They say no one who enters the mountain ever comes back, and that’s mostly true.” She paused, her frown deepening so much that Nasti squeezed her hand gently. “The thing is, my companions and I went into the mountain two cycles ago. I survived, taken captive for nearly three decades.”
“Oh, gods,” Nova said. “I had no idea.”
“Neither did I,” Nasti said, poleaxed.
“How did you escape?” Amaya asked.
“I didn’t,” Chendrea said. “During the last cycle, I was rescued.” She looked up at Amaya and Nova. “By your grandfather.”
The younger women exchanged a look. “Grandpa Nigel? Is THAT where he disappeared to?” Amaya said.
“Hey, yeah. You’ve never really talked about that much,” Nova said, looking at her mother.
Selene sighed. “I don’t like to talk about it. I still blame myself for … well, most of it.”
“You shouldn’t,” Tajic said, but there was doubt and a little pain in his tone.
“You’re kind to say so, but considering how everything worked out…” Selene winced when she saw Chendrea squirm a little. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“As the only one who benefited from the outcome, I…” the white-haired half-elf trailed off.
Seeing the cousins exchanging confused glances, Tajic said, “We’re getting side-tracked. We agreed they need to know.”
Chendrea nodded to Selene. The human woman sighed and said, “You’re right. I’ll tell it.”
“The last time Firestorm Peak opened, twenty-seven years ago, Nigel asked me to predict the outcome of an excursion into the mountain. I hadn’t been his daughter-in-law very long, and I very much wanted to impress him. I read the stars and saw great danger but potential gain.
“Nigel was a conjurer and quite adventurous despite his age. He entered Firestorm Peak with his companions. A short distance into the mountain, they encountered a duergar stronghold, which apparently they decided to assault. During the chaos, they freed Chendrea and pointed her toward the exit.”
Selene looked over at Nova. “When Nigel did not return, your father blamed me for not emphasizing the danger in my prediction. I … no longer recall whether my desire to please led me to downplay the former and emphasize the latter, so maybe he was right to think so.” Tajic’s expression was conflicted as she said this.
“Anyway, a year or two passed before Chendrea managed to track the family down to offer her condolences. Well-meaning though it was, it sent my husband on another depressive spiral. I held onto him as long as I could, but…”
“He made his own choices,” Tajic said. “Just like my father did.” He sounded like he might be trying to convince himself.
“Is … is this why he left?” Nova asked.
Selene nodded mutely. “Yes.”
“And you took us in, anyway,” Nova said to Tajic.
“You’re family,” Tajic said, his voice rough with emotion. Amaya squeezed her father’s hand, and Nasti’s heart clenched at the simple truth of her uncle’s devotion to caring for His People.
After a moment, Chendrea said, “We don’t understand exactly what Nigel was after within the mountain, but it wasn’t simple riches.”
“Right,” Tajic said. “I recently found what appears to be a journal fragment tucked into one of his old books.” He supplied a torn piece of parchment and handed it to Amaya, who laid it on the table for her cousins to examine. The date on the page predated Nigel’s disappearance by two weeks. It read:
“…tracked the energies all the way to the northern Valley, according to the map I procured from the cartographer’s guild. Not much detail is apparent from studying the map, which is focused around the base of a mountain named Firestorm Peak, which itself is the first of a series of peaks and mountainous features extending towards the north.
My studies indicate that the flux of magical and particle radiations emanate from within the ominously named mountain; this is definitely the place described in the scrolls I recently unearthed. What’s troubling is that the cyclical nature of the radiations indicates that the Vast Gate was still focused when it was abandoned by the Elders so long ago. What gives me more cause to worry are the localized contradictions in reality itself which arise whenever this cycle reaches its apex … although I have spent the last twenty years of my life researching this location, it is possible that I have misled myself about the true dangers of the forces which I have sought to understand. I fear that I may be forced to use the three Crystal Components I have so laboriously gathered from Elder Elven ruins to end a threat which none are yet aware of, save myself. My friends of old shall be my companions on this journey of discovery and danger. Derek Warcaller, Wellfast Brightblade, and Quaren Ael Drim will be ecstatic to learn…”
“Any theories?” Nasti asked her paramour.
“I’m afraid conjuration was never a strong suit,” Chendrea said. “I’m not sure what to make of this or Nigel’s references to Elder Elves unless that simply refers to those that lived before Earthfall. If so, this is very old magic indeed.”
“I appreciate you telling us all of this,” Nova said.
“Despite- no, because of our concern for you, we felt we had to,” Selene said.
“Do you really think we will need to do anything about it?” Amaya asked.
“We aren’t sure,” Tajic conceded. “Better to share what we know and fear so that you may better prepare yourselves, just in case.”
Chendrea looked down. “I suspect that the Valley’s troubles in the last five years are related to the energies Nigel describes. I think when the Firestorm Peak opens this time, things will get a lot worse. And the only way to stop it may lie in the heart of the mountain.”