-- by Anonymous
The device in his hand purred like a small brass animal and twitched ever so slightly to the soutwest. Against the horizon he barely recognised the blackened remains of a stone structure. It was getting late and the sky was almost dark by now.
He carefully wrapped the indicator in a handkerchief and slipped it back into his pocket. It took him almost twenty years before he found an engineer skilled enough to follow his blueprints. To be sure, the gnomes had asked an arm and a leg for the job, but it was a masterpiece. All the spheres aligned perfectly and spun around the tiny central chaos orb without the slightest resistance. He could never hope to construct anything this precise himself.
When he first discovered the nodes, he learnt how to create indicators which led him first to the energy ones and then, with increasing accuracy, to power and age nodes. For lack of a better word, he called them maps, but each of them was in fact a set of magical cyphers which could be aligned to reveal a node's location. They were nothing like the device he carried now. He knew when he created a map for a renewement node that he had come to the end of his powers, that it was the best he could ever manage on his own. That was when he started searching for aid.
The Magi Council made it clear early on that they found his theories ridiculous, and he wasn't even surprised. They were never comfortable with new, inspired ideas. But it meant he could not expect any help from their side. Pity. The huge resources the Council controlled would have been invaluable in his research.
He'd haggled with jewellers and clocksmiths in faraway cities and spent his family fortune on devices that did not work. He consulted runemasters and sought advice with priests of the mysterious Order of the Serpent to improve his understanding. According to their beliefs, the nodes were energy points on the World Serpent's gigantic body, intersections where its life power slowed down and accumulated. For all he knew, they could have been right. Following their advice definitely helped him refine the position and shape of the cyphers engraved into each sphere.
As his blueprints grew more and more intricate, his hopes of finding a craftsman able to construct the device started sinking. Then fate intervened. He got caught in a sudden thunderstorm as he was flying over the lower slopes of a volcano, in the middle of nowhere. Cursing, he was forced to land and squeeze himself into a narrow canyon, water dripping from his drenched hair and robe. A cave descended deeper into the mountain, and he found himself inside a gnomish mine. Their chieftain and taskmaster was a friendly, practical man who let him dry his clothes by a fire and drink a hearthy dose of mulled root wine. Grateful for the hospitality, he brewed him a few ounces of rat poison on the spot. The mine was suffering from a severe rat infestation, and the chieftain would have bought more, but did not have much to offer in return. Or so it seemed.
The moment they showed him their smithy, he knew he had finally found it. He had found a place where his dream could come true. The gnomish engineer was an artist, a genius. They quickly struck a deal. For a basilisk egg and a freshly born promethean, the engineer promised to execute his designs. That was over a year ago. The egg and the creature were not easy to find, nor were they cheap. Most dealers in exotic animals refused to even consider obtaining them for him. Too dangerous, they said. Possibly illegal. But he was determined and eventually he did succeed.
Overjoyed, the gnomes released the whelp into the tunnels where it immediately started feeding on rats, and placed the egg near a furnace to let it hatch. And they held to their end of the bargain. He left the mine later that morning with the device in his possession. Shivering from the evening cold, he wrapped his cloak tightly around his shoulders and set out towards the dark shape looming on the horizon.
As he drew nearer, he recognised ruined walls and broken columns. Twice, he checked the indicator, but it kept pointing straight to the structure, which now could be clearly identified as some sort of temple, long abandoned and ruined. He quickened his pace. It had been a long day, first flying straight south from the mine and then, as the need for more precise navigation became apparent, slowly plodding through the unfamiliar landscape on foot.
He climbed a gentle slope and once again pulled out the device. It wriggled in his hand and hummed with nervous energy, as if echoing his own excitement. The cyphers took a while to align and stabilise, and the indicator tugged at his fingers with considerable force now. There was no doubt about it, he was almost feeling the pull himself. With a glance towards the temple's darkened archway, he began descending the last half a mile.
He was walking more slowly now that he had come to the end of his chase, feeling relaxed, even light-headed. For a moment, he mused whether the priests of an ancient civilisation sensed the node's location, whether it was its energy that made them erect a temple to some unknown god here. He felt a tinge of regret as he realised he was about to consume that energy, robbing the place of its sacred purpose.
Of course, he knew that the node would reappear in a different place after a while. The earth, or the Serpent, would regenerate. But it seemed that some protective mechanism prevented the nodes from appearing in the same location once they'd been drained. He shrugged, as if trying to banish an unsettling feeling of guilt.
Above the doorway his gaze met with a pair of stone eyes, watching him quietly from the eroded remains of a half-human face. The nose was missing, but the features seemed feminine. So it was a goddess, he thought. Behind the arch, where the roof used to be, stars shone brightly against an inky sky.
With a hardly audible apology, he sneaked under the portal and into the dim interior. A piece of rubble clattered against his boot. The device in his pocket was vibrating with frantical speed now. Just a few more steps...
A gust of wind ruffled his hair, and a low moan reverberated through the ruins like the breath of a giant animal. His pulse quickened and he could feel his heart rising into his throat. Then the universe spun. His body turned inside out, collapsed on itself, wringing his innards, sucking his lifeforce, forcing out a desperate, deafening scream.
The sound hung suspended in the air for an eternity. Other than that, there was nothing.
There was no corpse, no trace of his existence. He looked around, not understanding what had happened. Something went terribly wrong, that much was obvious. If he had been killed, the universe would have resurrected him. He wasn't dead. And he was most certainly not alive. Was he a ghost? But how could an immortal being become a ghost?
Years passed, decades, centuries. He discovered that he could slowly regain his form if he fed on remains of the souls of other creatures. But he also came to realise that it would take another eternity if he should rely on dying rats.
Then, one day, he had a visitor. An adventurer coming to loot the temple crypt. This was an opportunity not to be missed, and his mind was racing. Should he beg? Plead? Follow him and scavenge any soul remains? No, there was still something that he could sell in exchange of souls... He could make node maps. Careful not to startle the treasure hunter, he approached him.
"Would you like to buy a map, sir?"