It was a much smaller group that finally reached the cave, hidden deep within the Black Wastes. The archaeologist had known it would be dangerous. They all had. Losing half the members of the expedition before even reaching their destination was a significant setback, but the cost would be well worth it, for what they hoped to find.
The Thaumaturgic University of Lenore had organized the expedition, and spared no expense on supplies or recruitment. Thirty people had set out, almost all of them thaumaturges. Sorcerers, mostly, but also witches with carefully chosen familiars, powerful diviners to keep them from getting lost, and a handful of cross-species half-breeds with useful skills. They even had a Grandmaster-level healer.
The expedition had been fully outfitted with spell-charged battle artifacts and enchanted armor, and a full set of potions and components for spellcasting. Each member had been given a dozen high-potency beast cores to power their spells.
It had cost a fortune. The archaeologist had thought the University was going overboard. Thirty powerful thaumaturges with all the resources they could ask for would be enough to take out a nest of dragons. Maybe even a sky-kraken.
But he had underestimated the dangers of the Black Wastes.
Magical beasts had taken a handful. They had expected beasts, of course, but the Black Wastes was home to monstrosities even the archaeologist had never heard of. Mutations, most likely.
More of their number had died to the environment. From poison-gas swamps, to quicksand deserts, to craggy, crumbling peaks, their surroundings shifted with unnatural abruptness and complete randomness. Even the plant life tried to kill them. What little managed to grow was warped and deadly to consume.
But it was the lingering effect of ancient, corrupted magic that was most deadly. They all wore protective artifacts, they carried ward stones to anchor the spell drawn around their huddled campsite each night, and they had even brought along a shaman to help appease whatever spirits might reach through the veil to the mortal world. It wasn't enough.
The paranoia had started first, and then the nightmares, and finally, the hallucinations.
One of their two remaining diviners had killed himself when a spell went wrong.
Two men on watch had wandered off sometime in the night, leaving the camp unguarded, not even leaving any tracks behind.
The archaeologist knew the only remaining half-breed had been having thoughts of murdering him in his sleep. He could read it in her too-big eyes.
And so, when the last diviner pointed out the entrance to the cave, protected and concealed by a failing ward, he felt a pathetic, shivering relief.
There had been an earthquake, or some other natural disaster, that damaged the foundational ward-stones of this ancient site. It was exactly this that had allowed the University to divine the cave's general location, a boon without which the expedition would have been unsuccessful, like the many others that had failed over the previous hundreds of years.
Myrddin’s hermitage was a thing of legend and fantasy, a kind of holy grail to an archaeologist like himself. The legendary sorcerer had retreated here in his later years, disappearing from civilization for decades at a time to focus on his work, but until now, its location had been nothing more than rumor and pieced-together speculation.
The damaged wards came down easily, and the archaeologist and two others entered the cave, leaving the rest of the expedition to guard the entrance. They were the first to enter the hermitage since Myrddin himself. When they returned to the University, every one of them would be famous beyond their wildest dreams.
With effort, they opened the glyph-carved, iron doorway, and the archaeologist held his breath as he shone light into the expansive, dark room within. It had been carved out of the stone of the mountain itself. He stepped in slowly, his footsteps stirring up long-settled dust. The movement revealed the Circle of a spell array carved into the floor. Along one wall were stone shelves filled with books, some so ancient they seemed as if they would collapse into dust with a touch. Another wall displayed spell components, most decomposed to the point of uselessness.
But his attention was on the large desk in the middle of the room. Almost tiptoeing for fear of disturbing the relics all around him, the archaeologist moved toward it.
Atop it was a book. It lay open, with the handwriting stopping halfway down the page, abruptly, as if it had been interrupted. It was surrounded by loose sheets of parchment that held the faint remnants of drawings and diagrams, faded to the point of illegibility. Two bowls sat across from the book, one filled with beast cores of all different colors and sizes, enough potential energy for even the most powerful spells, and one with what seemed to be pure celerium Conduits, each half the size of his fist.
He leaned closer to the desk, ignoring the two bowls despite the wealth they contained, and peered at the ink scribbled across the book’s open page.
The writing was profoundly incomprehensible—encrypted with a spell—but still perfectly preserved. Of course Myrddin would have placed preservative spells on his research grimoire!
Wild glee rose up in the archaeologist, so heady it almost made him dizzy. He laughed aloud, the sound echoing off the stone walls with a hint of hysteria.
The book, and the research within, would be the answer to their country’s—maybe even their world’s—problems. All they needed to do was get it back to the University in Gilbratha and decrypt it.